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I know I owe him a favor, but he owes me so much after this. A fragile-looking, pale, teenaged girl leaned against the wall at the back of the auditorium and spared one scornful glance for the speaker on the stage in front before scanning the rest of the room with icy blue eyes. No matter how delicate she seemed to a stranger, Ariana Helene Dupont knew perfectly well how to defend herself, whether equipped with a gun, a knife, a sword, or just herself. Her normal, baggy, casual clothing had been replaced by the tuxedo that she had borrowed from a friend. Although he almost never used it, the whole outfit, from black jacket to shiny, black shoes, was as neat and clean as if it had just been bought. Ariana's mid-back length hair was as black as the darkest, moonless night, and, as usual, was tied back into a ponytail. Her nose and ears were as pointed and petite as the rest of her; she was five foot two, something people, friends and enemies alike, loved to tease her about. Yesterday had been her eighteenth birthday, but her parents had not gotten her anything. They never did.
Ariana wasn't even sure why she had bothered to come to this presentation. Her stepmother had, as usual, taken her father's money to build useless projects that could only be used by very, very rich people for no particular reason. The auditorium it was in was enormous and shaped like an ancient Roman arena, with a half-circle of seating area and a stage at the front. Unlike the Roman amphitheaters, the auditorium had comfortable seats with traffic-light-colored red cushions on them and fuzzy oriental carpets on the floor. The stage was old, weathered wood that had probably been manufactured to look the way it did and was really made out of plastic, and had a wooden podium on it for speakers to put their notes. Ariana's stepmother was explaining how one could benefit from a Spanish-Pig Latin dictionary to a packed auditorium of people who really couldn't have anything better to do. The room was so vast that someone at the left end was incapable of seeing someone at the right end with the naked eye. The ceiling was hidden in the darkness; the lights had been turned off to illuminate the stage and the large black book that Mrs. Delia Dupont, formerly Mrs. Delia Anderson, was holding.
Ariana was here because the friend who owned the tuxedo had asked her to do something for him. In fact, he had lent it to her so she could do the thing he had requested. He was a reporter who wrote articles on all of the things that people like Ariana’s mother did in their day-to-day lives. Ariana herself found this kind of work unbearable, but her friend needed the money and there were no reporters allowed into these functions. She was permitted because she was related to Mrs. Dupont, but the security at the door would certainly not have let her in if they had known the current state of affairs in the family. Everyone knew, of course, that Mr. Michael Dupont was in the hospital going through intense care for his heart. Ariana had learned many things over the three years that had passed since Delia had come to live with them; one was how to appear as if she were feeling one thing when she was really feeling something quite different. Her self control and Delia’s need to be displayed in the best possible way were the only reasons that the Dupont ruse was still successfully maintained. Trying to concentrate on something other than how bored she was, Ariana began to take notes on everything around her, just as David had told her to.
Delia Dupont gazed serenely around the room and managed to keep her mouth from twisting distastefully as she saw her stepdaughter in the back of the room. Why the silly thing had to be wearing a man’s tuxedo, Mrs. Dupont could not even begin to guess. Her lecture ended, and she swept majestically off the stage, secretly seething savagely about Ariana. She had hated Michael’s stepdaughter as soon as she had met her, and the feeling was obviously returned. Ariana was also in the way of Delia’s plans. She had not married Michael Dupont because she was “in love” with him. She desperately needed money after her last marriage, to a certain Gerald Anderson, who died of a fall from a balcony two weeks after she finished spending all of his fortunes. Michael Dupont, a widower for 15 years, was the perfect target. Delia had advanced his heart condition by injecting him with an extremely dangerous drug six months ago, but the man would not die. She was going to inject him again some night, but Ariana needed to be taken care of first.
Delia had thought of sending some of her “people” after Ariana, but, unfortunately, she had found out that her stepdaughter had had a black belt for six years. She shared an apartment with a friend near the college campus, so poisoning her food or something like that was also impossible. A few days ago, she had heard of an alternative, but there was one problem with it: nobody knew where Alyssa Rossi was.
Go on, Ariana. This will give you a chance to boot the grime of this world in the crotch, dear. That’s easy for him to say, Ariana thought bitterly. He doesn’t have to come here and watch someone who he abhors stand up there and explain exactly how the world will benefit from various money-sucking inventions. The money from that could help the starving children of Africa or something, but no, the world really needs a Spanish-Pig Latin dictionary to solve all of its problems. She had a paper due for one of her classes the following day and she needed to work on that too. Ariana was a very talented student and was currently studying to become a doctor. She sighed and put a peppermint into her mouth. The cool, sweet, minty taste flowed over her tongue and the air she sucked into her nose was cold, almost frozen; this sensation happened every time she ate mints, and she loved it. A few seconds later, she shuddered. Someone just walked on my grave. Even though she dismissed this as a natural occurrence, Ariana still felt as if someone was watching her.
Ariana turned her attention back to the banner hanging above the stage. “Astounding, acclaimed, accomplished: Mrs. Delia Dupont!” was proclaimed in mammoth, rainbow letters on a shiny, almost reflective, silver background. It was mildly sickening. At times, Ariana’s friends told her that she was the devil himself when it came to sadism and caustic, biting comments. While optimists declared that the glass was half-full, Ariana informed them that they were wrong and it was actually three-fourths empty. Their eyesight was obviously defective. Deciding to take a quick break, she began to draw a picture of the insides of the human body.
Delia glared down at her stepdaughter from a peephole above, her usually light green eyes darkened with fury. How dare she come here to report on something while using her position as Mrs. Dupont’s stepdaughter to get in? Ignoring the part of her mind that told her quietly that she manipulated people to go where she wanted to go all of the time, Delia spun around and stalked to the door, fuming. An ivory-white limousine was waiting outside with the engine running when she exited the now-empty auditorium to the clear, icy January afternoon. A single, puffy, white cloud danced through the brilliant, blue sky overhead and snow had been neatly swept off of the sidewalks to provide an immaculate space in which to walk. One of her people had received a hint as to where Alyssa Rossi might be, and Delia intended to follow up on that hint. A wide, evil smile stretched from ear to ear as she contemplated her plans.
A woman watched the bar and gulped unidentified liquid from a blue bottle. People flinched from her gaze, terrified. Of course, almost everyone she met was. Not many people wore skintight, face-covering, black masks that only showed cat-like, gray eyes. She took another swig from the bottle and checked the guns hidden in her sleeves again. There were knives all over her body, but she could feel their calming, metallic weight against her skin and felt no need to check them. A knock came at the door and a well-dressed woman swept in, her face expressing mild distaste with her surroundings. Alyssa laughed inside her head. This woman would not last very long in this building. The scum of the earth lived here; this was where the ones who had lost their jobs and were too depressed to do anything but drink all day hung out. This woman did not know what she had set herself up for.
Delia Dupont wished that there was a superior place in which she could meet and bargain with Alyssa Rossi, but the woman was a recluse. Her eyes, restored to their normal light green, glittered maliciously as they gazed around, searching. There was only one woman in the entire room, so Delia stalked towards her first, already preparing her persuasive offer.
Ariana prepared to leave, thinking about watching Monty Python later. Having believed that this auditorium was a safe place, she did not expect to be attacked. A shadow soaring towards her out of the darkness was all the warning she got to spring out of the way, spin around and jump onto the person as whoever he/she/it was tried to get up. She realized that this was exactly what the person intended as she felt a gun pressed to her head and an iron grip surrounding her arm. Ariana started pretending to choke, and, while the woman was distracted, shot out her free hand and gripped the two large veins on either side of her attacker’s neck. The hand on her arm let go, and Ariana picked up the gun that had fallen to the ground. She leapt backwards, but kept the gun pointed at the woman’s chest. She backed away slowly, being careful to keep the gun steady with both hands. Once she had gone far enough away, she whipped around and ran, not realizing that the woman behind her had another gun until she felt agonizing pain blossoming in her shoulder. Stupid, stupid, STUPID! WHY did I turn around? The gun was still in her right hand as she twisted around, narrowed her eyes, and shot back. The tall, bulky figure staggered back as Ariana’s bullet ripped into her chest, and fell.
Tests done on Michael Dupont a few days later revealed that he had been poisoned, and papers found on Alyssa Rossi’s body left no chance of doubt about who had engineered these crimes. Delia Dupont was given a 50-year jail sentence in Croatia, but she died in prison three years later.