martes, 24 de julio de 2018

SLADE 11

4

Isabel strode through the doors of Queen Consolidated, wearing a deep red skirt suit, flanked by two members of her Stellmoor International acquisition team. The last time she had stepped foot in the building was over a decade ago, when Walter Steele had cast her aside unceremoniously, like so much trash, and Bobby and his security detail had forcibly removed her.
She didn’t expect to see Steele—he had cut ties with the company after his divorce from Moira. Bobby, however, was where she had last seen him, checking identification at the front desk, the years having done little more than add gray to his hair and pounds to his gut.
“Can I help you?” he asked.
“That depends, Bobby,” she answered. “Are you going to ask me to ‘stay put’ again?”
Bobby furrowed his brow, eyes squinting.
“Do I know you?”
“I told you the Queens would regret what they did to me,” she said. “Today I make good on that promise.”
Recognition began to dawn as Isabel and her team began to push past the security turnstile.
“Isabel! You’re Stellmoor International?”
“While you still have a job, Bobby, tell Mr. Queen that Ms. Rochev is on her way up.” She headed off toward the elevators, the click of her heels echoing in the hall.
* * *
As Isabel walked into the penthouse suite, memories came flooding back to her. Talking into the early morning with Robert, their bodies intertwined, plans made for a future he had lacked the spine to keep. He had always told her he liked her in red. She figured it was appropriate that she wore the color today, to mark the moment she began her takeover of his beloved company. She continued on toward the office that used to belong to Robert Queen, but was now occupied by his son.
Felicity Smoak intercepted her in the waiting area. Isabel looked the blonde woman up and down, taking in her blue form-fitting dress, leg exposed from lower thigh down. She wore glasses, as if the prop could somehow lend her legitimacy. Another hot-to-trot “assistant.”
Like father, like son, she thought.
How could this woman be responsible for the vigilante’s tech?
“Ms. Rochev? Hi, I’m Felicity Smoak, I’m with Oliver—not with with, just his assistant… not that there’s anything wrong with the secretarial arts but—” She paused, then said, “Can I interest you all in a bagel? We have some delicious schmeer.”
“My only interest is in talking to Oliver Queen,” Isabel said. “Where is he?”
“He’s running just a wee bit late. You know, traffic. If you’ll follow me to the conference room, I’m sure he won’t be much longer. And like I said, bagels!”
Isabel paused before she and her team followed Felicity down the hall, taking one last look at Robert’s old office. Soon, she would claim it as her own.
* * *
Normally, Isabel would have found Oliver’s tardiness surprising. Robert was always incredibly punctual. Then again, she knew his son was no businessman.
Finally he arrived, flanked by his African-American bodyguard, John Diggle, and Smoak. She hadn’t seen him since he had been a drunken teenager. Now he was older, she was struck by the echo of Robert’s features in his face and build, tiny time capsules locked away in his DNA.
Rising up from the table, Isabel extended her hand, introducing herself to Robert Queen’s progeny.
“Isabel Rochev.”
“Oliver Queen,” he said as he shook her hand. “Sorry I’m late.”
The feel of his touch on her skin sent her backward to her first encounter with Robert, meeting him in the hallway by happenstance. She shook off the memory. She wouldn’t allow nostalgia to derail her plan. She steeled herself, falling back on the one trait that allowed her to survive—her ruthlessness.
“Late for this meeting,” she said, “or a career in business?”
“I didn’t realize hostile takeovers were filled with so much hostility.”
“Not at all. I’m actually in quite a good mood.”
She and Queen both took their seats at the table, ready to get to work. Felicity joined them, taking the seat across from Isabel.
“Really,” Queen continued, challenging her. “So destroying companies agrees with you?”
“Winning agrees with me.” Isabel stared him down across the table, confidently pushing his buttons.
“You haven’t won yet.”
Isabel paused, fighting off a smile. The son was as naïve as he was handsome.
“Since you majored in dropping out of college, let me put this in terms that are easy for you to understand.” She saw that her insult had landed, and continued with matter-of-fact detachment, “You control forty-five percent of Queen Consolidated stock. I control forty-five percent, leaving ten percent outstanding—but, in two days the board will release the final ten percent.”
“And I’ll buy it before you do.”
“With what money?” she said, struck by his utter cluelessness. “I doubt your trust fund is that large, and no angel investor will go near the company that built the machine that destroyed half the city.”
Queen opened his mouth to respond, but said nothing.
“Companies rise and fall, Mr. Queen,” she said before he could find his tongue. “Your company has fallen.”
Abruptly a commotion erupted outside the office, and cut through the room’s silence. Without warning, the Copycat Hoods—the men hired by Sebastian Blood—burst through the conference room doors, semi-automatic rifles and shotguns locked and loaded. Queen stood up, muscles tensing on instinct.
“Oliver Queen!” one of Hoods said through a voice modulator. “You’ve failed this city.”
Though Isabel knew who these men were, the interruption was unexpected. This wasn’t part of the plan. She kept her eyes focused on Queen, wondering if she was about to see the vigilante emerge. He surveyed the scene, then locked eyes with Smoak. He seemed to be fighting the impulse to engage, the struggle slowing him to stagnancy, freezing him.
One of the Hoods pumped his shotgun, ready to fire, but in one swift movement Diggle removed his Glock and beat him to the trigger.
“Get down!” he said, laying down cover fire. Isabel, her instincts honed by her training with Slade, saw the conflict coming and retreated under the desk a split second before Queen and Smoak. As bullets passed overhead, she met Queen’s eye, surprised to find him so slow to react.
This was the feared vigilante?
A deer caught in headlights?
Diggle’s bullets found purchase in the Hood’s Kevlar vest, sending him sprawling backward. The other two returned fire with their rifles, shattering glass and shredding Smoak’s precious bagels. Though Diggle was doing his best to fend them off, their firepower was overwhelming.
“Fall back!” he yelled to Queen, snapping him out of his indecision. “Oliver, go! Go, go, go, go!”
Queen grabbed Isabel, ushering her through the room’s rear exit before turning back toward the conflict. Safely behind cover, she watched as bullets shattered the glass door. Then Queen emerged with Felicity in tow, bullets nipping at their heels. He ran toward the exterior window, grabbed a chain from the blinds and crashed through the glass, escaping the gunfire.
Isabel heard the gunmen turn and run off, their prey having escaped, the SCPD likely on the way. Then she brushed fragments of glass off of her dress and surveyed the damage to the building. The first broken pieces of a company she planned to dismantle in forty-eight short hours. When it came time to kill the business Robert Queen had spent his life building, she would not share Oliver’s reluctance to take action.
* * *
Two days later, Isabel was seated in the Queen Consolidated conference room again, and there was no longer any sign of the carnage that had occurred. She wore her black dress, feeling the color appropriate for the occasion. This was a funeral for Robert Queen’s company.
Oliver Queen stared pensively out the window, his back turned to her. She knew what he had been through the past two days. The Copycat Hoods, after failing to kill Oliver, decided to go after a more vulnerable target—his sister, Thea. They had kidnapped her, and to rescue her Queen had been forced to resume his activities as the vigilante. Yet despite the direct threat to the life of his kin, he had still refused to kill, choosing instead to deliver the Hoods unharmed to the authorities.
If he lacked his killer instinct as the vigilante, how could he ever hope to harness it now, in the moment he needed it most? Without it, he had no hope of defeating her, and saving his father’s company.
It’s like shooting fish in a barrel, she thought, and despite her impending victory, she found it somehow hollow. Unsatisfying. Enough of that, she told herself. It was time to deliver the finishing blow.
“You can’t win this,” she announced. “I now own fifty percent of the stock. By tomorrow, I’ll have what I need control your company. Any attempt to fight me will lead to litigation and leave you penniless. And trust me, poverty isn’t as glamorous as Charles Dickens made it look.”
Finally, Queen turned and approached her.
“What if I found someone to invest new equity capital?”
“A white knight?” she said. “With all due respect, your last name is now associated with mass murder. Even you don’t have that good a friend.”
“You’re right,” Oliver responded. Then he gave her the subtlest of smirks. “I have family.”
Isabel heard the conference room doors open behind her. She turned, and was shocked to see Walter Steele enter, followed by Felicity Smoak. The sight of him sent her back in time to the moment when she learned that her internship with Queen Consolidated—and her relationship with Robert—was over. The sensation was enough to send her reeling.
She rose slowly from her chair.
“Mr. Steele,” she said, trying to regain her composure. He nodded to her, clearly recognizing her as the young girl he had cast aside many years ago. “It was my understanding that you had resigned as CEO.”
“I did,” he acknowledged. “I’m now Chief Financial Officer of Starling National Bank.” He walked past her, joining Oliver at the head of the table. “And my institution has committed rescue financing to Mr. Queen. We bought up the remaining shares of Queen Consolidated when they were released this morning.”
“Now I know I majored in dropping out,” Queen said, driving the dagger home, “but I’m pretty sure that makes us partners going forward. So I guess we will be seeing a lot of each other.”
Despite the turn of events, Isabel felt herself struck by the young man’s demeanor—so different than it had been before. Again, she was reminded of his father. Perhaps she had dismissed her enemy too quickly. She wouldn’t make that mistake again.
“You aren’t at all what people say about you,” she said.
“Most people fail to see the real me.”
She regarded him, swallowing her anger. He may have won the battle, but she would not relinquish the war. The company would be hers. Then she gave the exit signal to her team from Stellmoor, and exited the room.
* * *
Back at Slade’s penthouse office, all the anger Isabel had kept bottled up in the conference room came pouring out. She paced as Slade, calmly sitting behind his desk, allowed her to vent.
“I don’t lose,” she said. “Do you know why? Because I control all the variables. I told you the company wasn’t yet fully vulnerable. You forced me to attack too soon.”
“I promised you the company,” Slade replied. “The timeframe was open for interpretation.”
“I was supposed to take Queen Consolidated from Oliver Queen, not partner with him.”
“Yes, but now you’re in position to hurt him far more than a simple takeover could.”
The comment piqued Isabel’s curiosity. Calming slightly, she took a seat.
“How do you mean?” she asked.
“A blow delivered in stealth cuts more deeply than one foreseen and defended. You now have a unique opportunity to work alongside our enemy, earning his trust and learning his weaknesses.”
“His trust?” she said. “I just tried to take his company. The man hates me.”
“Give it time. I expect Oliver’s nighttime activities and familial responsibilities to stress him beyond measure. When they do, hate will be a luxury he cannot afford. He will have no choice but to rely on you.” He leaned forward and peered at her. “Let him.”
“Fine.” Isabel nodded, acquiescing to the new plan. Then she asked a question that had been bothering her since the attack by the Copycat Hoods. “Speaking of Oliver’s nighttime activities, I thought you said the vigilante was a killer? I’ve seen nothing so far to suggest that.”
“It appears he’s trying another way,” Slade observed. “Guilt over the death of the Merlyn boy, no doubt—but rest assured, Ms. Rochev, there is indeed a killer inside of Oliver, and I aim to bring it out.”

5

The crowd of protesters outside Glades Memorial had grown to nearly forty. The men and women from the neighborhood were angry, fed up with being ignored by the city in the aftermath of the earthquake. They held signs, hoping to make their voices known.
SAVE THE GLADES!
REMEMBER THE 503!
BLOOD FOR MAYOR!
Sebastian Blood stood near the throng, conducting an interview with a group of local news reporters. He had organized the protest to raise awareness about the theft of the hospital’s medical supplies. More such incidents had occurred, and as of yet the SCPD had done little to stymie the thieves. A young man named Roy Harper had intervened in one such incident, and had been arrested for his efforts.
The thefts continued. Without the supplies, the hospital was dangerously close to shutting down.
The protest yielded the added benefit of getting Sebastian publicity in advance of his mayoral campaign. Though he hadn’t officially announced his intention to run for office—it was still too soon after Altman’s death—establishing himself as a leader would smooth the way for a full-blown campaign. Especially if his protest led to official action by the police.
“This city is failing on all counts,” he said to the reporter, his anger simmering. “We cannot stand by while the doctors on the other side of those doors are working with the bare minimum of resources, simply because the police department sees us as a lost cause. Meanwhile, thieves are seeking to make a quick buck off the misery of the Glades.”
In the midst of his impassioned speech, he looked up and, to his surprise, found Starling City’s most famous spoiled brat watching from the back of the crowd. Oliver Queen was a long, long way from his pampered confines. Already running hot from his speech, Sebastian decided to single out the rich kid and give him a proper Glades welcome.
“Oliver Queen, isn’t it?” he said, turning the attention of the protesters and reporters. Queen looked caught, feeling the eyes of the crowd and lights of the cameras on him.
“Alderman,” he said.
“What brings you to Glades Memorial, Mr. Queen? I assume someone of your means can afford the best medical treatment money can buy. And I can assure you, you’re not going to find that here.”
“And that’s wrong, Alderman Blood,” Queen responded. “The people of the Glades have suffered too much not to have access to basic medical services.”
Sebastian felt his anger grow. The audacity of this man, born of privilege, speaking as if he knew the plight of the Glades. He bore down on Queen, striding over and bringing the crowd with him.
“Well, that’s very compassionate of you to say,” he said, “although I wonder where your family’s concern for its fellow citizens was when they ordered the construction of the earthquake machine that killed 503 people.”
The mention of the Undertaking and its victims began to incite the crowd. They grew louder, their anger palpable. They began to chant.
“Five-Oh-Three! Five-Oh-Three!”
“Ladies and gentlemen, ladies and gentlemen, please!” Sebastian made a halfhearted attempt to calm the crowd. Though Diggle, sensing trouble, was trying to lead his boss away, for some reason Queen hung back for a moment. He moved closer to Sebastian, as if he had something to say.
“I will be doing everything in my power to atone for my family’s culpability in this tragedy,” he said, and he sounded earnest. Yet Sebastian wouldn’t be swayed.
“I’m sure the people of the Glades will sleep better knowing that…” he replied, his intensity building, “…if they still had a place to sleep. If their homes hadn’t crumbled around them. If their stores and their businesses hadn’t been condemned.” His words enraged the crowd. They shouted at Oliver as he fled back to the car, Diggle leading the way.
“You did this to us!”
“Go back to your mansion, rich boy!”
Caught up in the moment, Sebastian joined them.
“Spare us your mercy visits, Queen!” He watched as the crowd followed Queen and Diggle to their car, surrounding it as they quickly entered. “You’ve done enough to this city already!”
As Queen’s car started up and made its way through the throng, one of the protesters took the end of his placard and smashed it through the passenger-side window. The sound of the glass shattering brought Sebastian back to reality. Violence wasn’t his intention.
He would have to be more careful once his mayoral candidacy was official—yet as far as the car window went, he felt little remorse. It was a reminder of the plight his Glades brethren faced daily. One that wouldn’t be easy to fix.
* * *
Just a few days later, Sebastian paced the anteroom outside Oliver Queen’s office at Queen Consolidated. The last time he had waited outside this door, the office had belonged to Walter Steele. He had been so nervous, waiting for his big meeting with Walter and Moira Queen. He had also been so naïve, thinking people like them could ever really care about the Glades. All the neighborhood was to them was a prop upon which to hang fake empathy, their promises to improve the area nothing more than bluster.
Finally, through the glass, he saw Queen approach, his assistant at his heels. Queen had requested the meeting, voicing the intent to make amends after the incident outside Glades Memorial. The request had piqued Sebastian’s curiosity. After being publically ridiculed, most in Queen’s position would have placed as much space between them as possible. He wondered what the Queen heir had to say.
“Alderman,” Queen said, holding the door open for him to pass through. “Thank you for coming.” He extended his hand.
“Mr. Queen.” Sebastian ignored the gesture, instead walking past him into the office, to the floor-to-ceiling windows and the panoramic view of Starling City. “This is some view,” he commented. “How small the rest of us must look from up here.” He waited until the blonde assistant had left, then turned to face his host, with no intention of making the encounter easy.
“I was surprised when you said you wanted to meet,” he said.
“Not as surprised as I was when you turned a frenzied mob on me,” Queen replied as he took a seat on his couch, gesturing for Sebastian to sit.
“Oh, that shouldn’t have been too surprising.” Sebastian settled into the chair across from him. “My constituents hold a lot of anger toward your family.”
“They have a right to,” Queen admitted. “My mother was involved in something… unspeakable. But I’m my own man, and I’m not your enemy.”
“You’re not a friend—to me, or the people of the Glades.”
“I am hoping to prove otherwise.” Queen began to pull out his checkbook.
“Mr. Queen,” Sebastian said quickly, becoming annoyed. He leaned forward in his chair. “Not every problem can be solved by money. Real change will never happen until your elitist friends realize that it’s morally unacceptable to allow thousands of their fellow citizens to live right down the street, but in a third world.”
“Then let’s show them,” Queen responded without hesitation. Sebastian sat back, surprised. “I’ll host a benefit. Invite some of my ‘elitist friends,’ and then you and I can help them see what needs to be done.”
“People seeing you,” Sebastian said, leaning back on the couch, contemplating the possibilities. “Seeing you stand up, the CEO of Queen Consolidated, taking responsibility and being this cause’s public face. That would make a difference.” His brow furrowed as he tried to grasp the concept.
Queen stood, buttoning his suit jacket.
“Then let’s make a difference.” Again, he extended his hand.
Sebastian regarded the man who stood before him. Was this merely a publicity stunt, a way to get back into the city’s good graces? Regardless, having the Queen name backing his cause couldn’t hurt. In fact, it could be quite beneficial for his impending mayoral campaign.
Swayed, he stood and took Queen’s hand in his.
“Listen. I am truly sorry for what happened outside that hospital,” he said. “Sometimes my emotions get the better of me.”
Queen nodded, accepting the gesture.
Sebastian exited the office and began to head back to the Glades. He thought that the rich kid seemed sincere. A year ago, Sebastian might have even given him the benefit of the doubt, but he knew about the promises made by the rich. They were fragile and easily broken. Why would Queen’s promises be any different from those made by his mother?
No, I won’t be fooled, he thought.
* * *
Sebastian Blood snatched a glass of champagne from a passing waiter’s service tray and took an eager sip. He looked around at the men and women gathered for the Glades Memorial benefit—all members of the Starling City elite, their day-to-day existence so far removed from the plight of the Glades. Dressed in clothes costing a week’s worth of medical supplies, they engaged each other in breezy small talk, fake laughing, and glad-handing the night away while waiting for Oliver Queen to show his face.
Just as when he was elected alderman, Sebastian felt out of place. He hated playing into the dog and pony show, though he knew it was a necessary evil. Yet until Slade Wilson came through on his promise, until the army had been built and the mayorship given to him, he would have to grit this out. He walked through the transformed Queen Consolidated space, shaking hands and introducing himself, his smile the fakest of them all.
Until he saw Laurel Lance wandering around the space, stunning in her sleek black dress. He knew of her through his work with the city. She was an up-and-coming member of the district attorney’s office, having joined after her non-profit law firm was lost during the Undertaking. He had seen her picture before, but in person, her beauty was breathtaking. He felt a genuine smile forming, the dumbfounded expression of a boy seeing something he might like to play with, if lucky enough to be given permission. The champagne giving him courage enough, he called after her as she passed by.
“You look like a woman who’s looking for someone.”
She turned and he smiled at her, turning on the charm. She regarded him for a moment, then continued walking, scanning the crowd. Sebastian followed.
“A friend of mine,” she said. “He’s throwing this benefit.”
“Ah, Oliver Queen.” He fell into step as she slowed. “I didn’t realize you were friends.”
“Very old friends.” She stopped finally, squaring him up, her manner turning somewhat cold. “So you can imagine how I feel about you putting him in the crosshairs of public opinion, Alderman.”
“For what it’s worth, I’ve apologized to Mister… Oliver… for my rhetorical excesses. In fact, it’s that détente which brings us all here tonight.”
She relaxed a bit, and a look of surprise flitted across her features.
“So where is Oliver?” she said.
“That’s exactly the question I’m asking myself.”
“He’s been known to arrive late to events before. I’m sure he’s on his way.”
“Well, at least I’m in good company while we wait.” He smiled at her again, raising his glass to toast. Lance paused momentarily before finally giving in to a smile, clinking his glass. It seemed to him as if a spark passed between them.
* * *
Looking out over the city, Sebastian could see the part of the Glades leveled by the earthquake. Though Laurel Lance’s presence had distracted him momentarily, whatever attraction was at play was extinguished by that sobering image. He glanced at his watch, calculating that Queen was over an hour late and counting. Clearly, the man shared his mother’s propensity for failing to make good on his word.
Decision made, Blood began to move toward the podium, Lance at his heels.
“It doesn’t seem Mr. Queen is going to honor us with his presence this evening,” he said to her.
“So where are you going?”
“To address his guests.” He turned to face her. “It’s time they realize what kind of man their host is.”
“You’re just going to crucify him in the media again?” she said, anger appearing in her tone.
“Crucifixion has such a bad reputation,” Sebastian said earnestly. “But the Romans used it to punish people who acted against the public good.”
Lance tried to convince him to stop, but Sebastian ignored her and stepped to the podium.
“Ladies and gentlemen?” he said, tapping the microphone, grabbing the crowd’s attention. They stopped their conversations and clapped politely in response. “Thank you, but you should hold your applause for Oliver Queen. This evening’s event was his brainchild. As such, you could be forgiven for wondering why Mr. Queen isn’t with us tonight.”
He looked out on all the wealthy he so despised. Then he left the podium, rounding to the middle of the room, unbuttoning his restrictive suit jacket. He spoke to them as he had the protesters outside Glades Memorial, cameras flashing from the gathered media.
“And the answer, I’m afraid, is painfully apparent. He doesn’t care. I told Mr. Queen that this city’s problems cannot be solved with his money, and that he needed to stand up and be counted as someone who cares. So where is he now? I don’t know where Oliver Queen is. All I know is that he isn’t here. This city is dying. And it needs someone to stand up and breathe new hope into it. Tonight, it is painfully obvious that that person is not Oliver Queen.”
The speech was met with stunned silence. Sebastian regarded Lance with a look, feeling a momentary twinge of regret, then made his way through the crowd, glad that he had painted Oliver Queen in his true light—as a liar, a man of big talk but little action.
If anyone was going to save the Glades, it would be Sebastian Blood.
* * *
“Oliver Queen finds himself in the hot seat once more, at least in the eyes of City Alderman Sebastian Blood.”
In their penthouse office on the outskirts of downtown, Slade Wilson and Isabel Rochev watched a news report on the failed Glades Memorial benefit. Blood had continued to eviscerate Oliver in the press, stopping outside the venue to give an interview to Channel 52. A chyron across the bottom of the screen read, BLOOD TRUMPS QUEEN.
“Oliver Queen’s failure to show up at his own benefit shouldn’t surprise anyone,” Sebastian said to the reporter. “He’s no different than the rest of the Starling City elite, who have failed to show up when it comes to ending the suffering of those left devastated in the Glades.” He then looked directly into the camera, speaking to the city with a mayoral air. “Oliver Queen is not a friend to the people of this city.”
Isabel smiled. The cost of transforming Queen Consolidated into a venue worthy of a black-tie benefit wasn’t beneficial to her company’s bottom line. She had resisted when Slade asked her to allow it to happen.
Now she understood.
“This is why, isn’t it?”
“He does look quite mayoral, doesn’t he?” Slade responded. “It seems that Mr. Blood’s political influence grows, as well.”
Then BREAKING NEWS crossed the screen. The anchor, Bethany Snow, read from a report as China White’s picture appeared in the upper left corner of the screen.
“After a prolonged pursuit, police have arrested Chien Na Wei, a high-ranking member of the local Chinese Triad, which was responsible for the recent hijackings of pharmaceuticals bound for Glades Memorial. Representatives praised the efforts of the SCPD in saving the hospital from being shut down…”
Slade leaned back in his chair, mulling the news. China White was a trained assassin, one who would choose death over incarceration. He had expected Oliver to oblige, needed to release the killer within him to stop her. Apparently, the kid honestly believed he could save his city without taking a life. The problem with choosing a more honorable path, however, was that it was far more difficult than quickly slitting an enemy’s throat.
Isabel regarded him with a smirk.
“Capture is odd behavior, coming from a killer.”
“Oliver’s trying to make amends for past bloodshed, by refusing to shed more,” Slade responded. “Forcing him to break that vow is just another way I can make him suffer.”
“What about Ms. White? Can we trust her not to talk?”
“All she’ll say is that a man in a mask gave her money and asked her to steal,” Slade said. “The more important point tonight is that the SCPD received credit for the arrest—not the vigilante.”
“Judging from what my sources in the D.A.’s office have said, Laurel Lance is responsible for that. She’s apparently made it her mission to bring the vigilante to justice.”
“His former lover, unknowingly leading the crusade against him,” Slade noted, relishing the thought. “Oh, the irony.”
“Doubly so, actually. She was also seen flirting a bit with our mayor-to-be.”
“That could prove beneficial.”
Isabel nodded. “What now?” she asked.
“Time to turn up the heat on our CEO.” Slade leaned forward in his chair. “Oliver will likely want to redouble his efforts to rehabilitate his image. This time, if he tries to use his family’s business as a prop, stop him.”

6

Isabel grabbed a drink at the bar, taking in the sight of the gathered business emissaries as they ate and drank Queen Consolidated funds. She had arranged the fundraising event at Queen Mansion ostensibly to raise investment money for the company. In reality, she was applying pressure on Oliver, stretching him thin between his duties as CEO and vigilante.
She sipped her vodka soda, wondering what new excuse her business partner would come up with tonight when he finally showed. Reading between the lines of his assistant Felicity’s feeble explanations, she assumed he was out chasing down leads on the latest epidemic to befall the Glades. A local ganglord had been flooding the neighborhood with military-grade assault weapons, transforming the streets into a war zone. She didn’t understand why Queen—and Sebastian Blood too, for that matter—could be so obsessed with that downtrodden neighborhood. If it were up to her, she’d just as soon let the neighborhood perish. Malcolm Merlyn had been right. Much better to simply level it and rebuild anew.
She spotted Blood across the room, glad-handing his way through the crowd. She had to give the man credit. For as much as he despised these people, he did know how to fake a smile with the best of them. No wonder he was a politician. She watched as he made his way closer to Laurel Lance, sneaking glances in her direction even while shaking hands with the mogul from Gregio Inc. It seemed the reports were true; their mayor-to-be was indeed smitten with the A.D.A. Judging from the glances he received in return, the feeling was mutual.
“He’s here.” Isabel looked up to see Felicity approaching, Oliver entering behind her. He looked a bit haggard, though he did a good job of hiding it.
“Sorry I’m late,” he said.
“This party is to attract investors for your failing company,” Isabel said without preamble. She enjoyed twisting the knife, making him feel guilty for his absence. “Being fashionably late might do well for the club circuit, but it doesn’t inspire confidence in Wall Street… is that blood on your face?”
She had spotted some splatter on his cheek, pointing it out to make him squirm, while doing her best to hide her enjoyment. Felicity jumped into action, fumbling her way through more flimsy excuses.
“Don’t worry, it’s not his blood,” she said, before realizing her error. “I mean, of course it’s his blood. Why would he have someone else’s blood on his face? Who taught you to shave, mister?” And then she pulled him away, extracting him from the situation before any additional damage could be done, and disappeared into the crowd.
Isabel took a sip of her drink, relishing how badly they were floundering. She had barely begun to turn up the pressure.
* * *
Sebastian nodded politely, half-listening to the businessman’s argument for deregulation while he eyed Laurel across the room. Fortunately Mr. Young’s cell phone started ringing, and he excused himself to answer. Never had Sebastian been so grateful for such a rude gesture. It allowed him an escape, yet when he looked up, Laurel had disappeared. As he started to move through the party in search of her, he heard a voice behind him.
“You look like a man who’s looking for someone.”
He turned to see her standing there, a nearly empty champagne glass in her hand. She was, as usual, stunning, her sleek black dress exposing the soft curve of her shoulder. He grinned, remembering his line from the Glades benefit.
“I would say I’m looking for a friend, but after the way I attacked him on TV, I doubt very much that Mr. Queen considers me one.”
“Sounds like we’re in the same boat.” Laurel finished her drink then swapped her empty glass for a full one. “I’m sure you’ve heard that I’m second chairing his mother’s murder trial?”
Blood nodded, grabbing a drink and raising it.
“To us, the Queen family pariahs.”
Laurel clinked his glass, enjoying the gallows humor. As gorgeous as she was, Sebastian saw weariness beneath the beauty. In addition to seeking the death penalty for Moira Queen, she herself had recently been the victim of a heinous crime. He softened, deciding to carefully broach the subject.
“I also heard about your run-in with that serial killer, the Dollmaker,” he said. “You’re lucky he didn’t add you to his list of victims. I was going to ask if you were okay, but I figure you’re pretty tired of that question by now.”
“You have no idea.”
“It’s pretty obvious you’re doing just fine.”
“All thanks to the vigilante, believe it or not.” She took a long sip of her drink.
“I’m inclined to say not, what with you leading the task force against him.”
“Trust me, I’ve been wondering about his motives,” she replied. “It would have been easy for him to let me die, thus removing a thorn in his side.” Her brow wrinkled at the thought.
“Some of my constituents have begun to view the vigilante as a savior of sorts.” Sebastian said it as if it left a bad taste in his mouth.
“Well, he may have rescued me,” she said, “but he’s no savior. He’s just a man hiding behind a mask, and he deserves to be brought to justice.”
“I certainly hope so,” he said, picturing his own mask. “Speaking of justice, mind if we talk a little shop?”
“Not at all.”
“Are you guys any closer to figuring out how that fellow they call the Mayor is smuggling his guns into the Glades? My district is a war zone right now.”
“We’re trying, but as you know, it’s a bit like the Wild West out there.”
Sebastian was about to respond when he saw Oliver Queen walk past, in conversation with his blonde assistant. He overheard a piece of their conversation.
“Not this time,” Oliver said. “Tonight it was guns.”
“What a coincidence,” Sebastian said, raising his voice and interjecting himself into their conversation. “We were just talking about guns.” He found it amusing, the idea of Queen discussing firearms. A rich kid, discussing issues at a remove from the reality. As if he had ever faced the barrel of a gun.
As if he had ever pointed one, with the intent to kill.
“Hey, Oliver,” Laurel said, and he thought he saw a flash of embarrassment cross her face. He instantly sensed the tension between them.
“Hello, Laurel,” Queen replied quickly.
“What’s your interest in guns, Mr. Queen?” Sebastian asked.
“Never touch them myself.”
What a surprise, Sebastian mused. “The gun violence in the Glades has reached epidemic proportions,” he said aloud.
“Which is why the D.A.’s office has committed to ending gun violence,” Laurel said.
“Well, I’m sure the police are doing whatever they can,” Queen said dryly, “to catch whoever’s bringing the weapons into the city.”
Sebastian traded a look with Laurel, who looked away out of embarrassment.
“Did I say something funny?” Oliver asked.
“They know who’s been arming the gangs, Oliver,” Laurel said. “The Mayor.”
“I thought the Hood copycats killed the mayor.”
“Not the actual mayor,” Sebastian said derisively. “A local ganglord who calls himself the Mayor. Thinks he’s the man to save our city.”
“But that position has already been filled, hasn’t it?” Laurel said, goading him a bit. Sebastian laughed, enjoying the implication.
His reputation was growing.
“This Mayor has only one goal—” he told Oliver, “—to create chaos, so he can rule the Glades with the barrel of a gun.”
He watched Queen processing the weight of this revelation.
“How about we change the subject?” Sebastian said, letting him off the hook. “Mr. Queen looks bored. I imagine the only gun violence he sees is when he’s skeet-shooting off his yacht.”
Queen smiled at the jab, and Sebastian looked upon the man with a mixture of contempt and pity. It seemed as if the rich playboy genuinely cared for his city, and it was unfortunate that his affluence kept him removed so far from reality. Though he would try, Oliver Queen would never understand the city’s problems.
Not like Sebastian.
* * *
The following day, Oliver surprised Sebastian by calling him and asking to meet at Queen Consolidated that afternoon. All he said was that he wanted to continue their conversation from the night before. Sebastian agreed.
Thus he was waiting in the conference room when Isabel Rochev entered, closing the door behind her.
“Ms. Rochev,” Sebastian said with faux formality. “So pleased to finally make your acquaintance.”
“Do you know why Mr. Queen is meeting with you today?” she asked.
“I’d guess it’s to make another attempt at appeasing his guilty conscience,” he replied. “Though I do find it odd that Oliver Queen, of all people, is offering me help with the Glades, while you and Mr. Wilson sit idly by in your penthouse.”
Isabel bristled slightly. “There are larger issues in play. You know that. So you would do best to be patient—and watch your tongue.”
“That sounds like a threat.”
“If it is, it does not come from me.” Isabel let that land, and Sebastian chewed on the implication. Then she changed the subject. “What’s the status of the mirakuru testing?”
“Things have been… difficult, since the Mayor turned the Glades into a war zone. Like I said, some help would be nice.”
“Then perhaps you’ll get it from Laurel Lance. I saw you two looking quite comfortable together last night.”
“You’re spying on me now?”
“Slade would like you to pursue that relationship.”
“Why?”
“It can’t hurt having the ear of an A.D.A. More importantly, getting closer to her will hurt the vigilante.”
Sebastian darkened. “And why should I care about him?”
“Because, Mr. Blood, right now—even as Starling City’s public enemy number one—the vigilante’s influence is still greater than yours.”
He seethed silently for a moment, and was about to respond when through the glass he saw Oliver Queen finally arrive. He pushed his way through the closed door.
“Mr. Blood. I see you’ve met Miss Rochev. She’s my—”
“Superior,” she said.
“Partner,” Queen said.
“On paper.”
“Is that why you asked me to come down here, Mr. Queen?” Sebastian asked. “To mediate your job title?”
“You and I have gotten off on the wrong foot… repeatedly,” Queen began.
“That seems to be your metahuman power,” Sebastian commented with a laugh.
Letting that slide, Queen continued. “I was inspired by what you said the other night, about gun violence in the Glades,” he recalled. “And I had an idea that might help.”
“Really? Another party at your stately manor?”
“No,” Queen said. “I want to sponsor a ‘cash for guns’ event. I give you the money, and you get your constituents to lay down their arms. Everybody wins.”
“Especially you,” Sebastian suggested. “Trying to repair your family’s tainted name by ridding the Glades of guns.”
“You just get the money, Mr. Blood. I don’t want my family’s name involved.”
“Mr. Queen,” Isabel said, “may I have a word with you?” She shot Sebastian a look, indicating that it was time to end his meeting.
“Let me think it over,” Sebastian said, then he stood and exited.
* * *
Once they had the room to themselves, Isabel moved to shut Oliver down.
“We are not sponsoring that event,” she said.
“Yes, I know,” he said. “I am.”
“With what money? Your investment party cost QC fifty grand, and no one invested a dime. I will not continue to authorize corporate funds, just so you can keep pretending that you are the CEO.”
“Fine,” Oliver said. “I’ll pay for it myself.”
Isabel laughed. “Maybe you haven’t noticed, but your personal trust fund isn’t exactly what it used to be, and this company isn’t either. As much as I would love to make this city safer, my first obligation is to Queen Consolidated. And yours is, too.”
She turned and exited the conference room, leaving Oliver to ponder his predicament. He had no idea that this was only the beginning.
* * *
Sebastian agreed to the “Cash For Guns” event, but only on the condition that Queen stay out of the spotlight. This function was to be about the Glades and only the Glades. To his surprise, Queen followed through and agreed to the conditions they’d established.
For Sebastian, it was a chance to show his constituents that true leadership took place in daylight, not under a hood in the middle of the night. Tents were set up in a central Glades location, on the cracked concrete of an abandoned lot beneath the freeway overpass. Buyers were instructed to offer top dollar in exchange for the guns, no questions asked.
Foot traffic was brisk and steady from the opening moment, Queen’s money providing incentive enough for residents to give up their arms in the name of creating a safe community. Police stood watch at the perimeter, squad cars positioned nearby.
As Sebastian made his way through the assembled crowd, shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries, he spotted Oliver Queen’s sister, Thea, standing with the young man who had attempted to stop one of the thefts from Glades Memorial. Moments later, and much to his surprise, he saw Oliver Queen himself on the event’s fringe, taking in the proceedings rather pensively. He was dressed down, and attempting to blend in with the crowd.
So his habit of breaking promises continues, Sebastian mused, frowning. At least he’s consistent. He approached the playboy, snapping him out of his thoughtful stare. “You don’t show up when you say you will, and when you promise not to, here you are.”
“Is it going well?” Queen asked.
“Last check, we’ve taken in over two hundred guns in only three hours.” The good news did nothing to change Queen’s expression. “Try not to look so happy about it.”
“I’ve got a lot on my mind, Alderman.”
Sebastian could sense that he was genuinely troubled. Buoyed by the success of the event so far and feeling charitable, he offered a sympathetic ear.
“After all, my job is to help people with their problems.”
Queen turned to face him. He hesitated for a moment.
“Two people that are very important to me are having a tough time. Sisters, actually, and neither one of them is making it very easy for me to help them.”
“Sooner or later, we all go through a crucible,” Sebastian suggested. “I’m guessing yours was that island.” Queen nodded, and he continued. “Most believe there are two types of people who go into a crucible—the ones who grow stronger from the experience, and the ones who die. But there’s a third type. The ones who learn to love the fire. They choose to stay in their crucible because it’s easier to embrace the pain when it’s all you know.”
Queen didn’t reply, but Sebastian saw that his words had resonated. Despite their different upbringings, the look in his eye indicated he understood pain the same way Sebastian did. Perhaps there was a depth within the playboy he had overlooked.
“That’s why I’m on the clock,” he explained. “To help this city before the people get used to living like this.”
“Living isn’t for the weak,” Queen offered. “An old friend of mine once told me that.”
“That’s a wise friend.”
The two men regarded each other with newfound respect, when the screech of tires broke the moment. It was followed by the sound of automatic gunfire, sending the crowd of people into screaming panic. Sebastian and Oliver watched as the ganglord the Mayor arrived atop an armored pickup truck, flanked by men armed with assault rifles pointed up into the air. As people scattered, the truck crashed through wooden police barricades, smashing them to pieces. Then it squealed to a stop at the lot’s center.
The police drew their guns, pointing them at the gang leader, but the Mayor simply stared them down, unfazed. As the officers struggled with what to do next, he addressed the crowd.
“Listen up, people,” he shouted. “This is your mayor speaking. Now I don’t recall this here event being sanctioned. What happens in the Glades only happens if I allow it.”
Incensed, Sebastian walked out from behind cover.
“You’re not the leader of this community!” He summoned every bit of his mayoral presence, realizing this was the moment he had been waiting for—the opportunity to confront the man who had the audacity to take his title. “You don’t speak for these people!”
“And neither do you. Not anymore.” The Mayor pointed two fingers at Sebastian, a gesture for his men to open fire. In doing so he marked the Alderman for death.
But Sebastian wasn’t ready to die. His ego and rage had blinded him to the fact that he had exposed himself, making him an easy target. Now he was staring down the barrels of two semi-automatic rifles.
The gang members opened fire.
At the same time, Oliver dove, managing to pull him to safety behind a police cruiser. Pandemonium erupted as the officers opened fire, exchanging bullets with the gang. Having made his statement, the Mayor ordered the men to retreat. The truck screeched away, leaving chaos in its wake.
Sebastian watched in shock as Oliver took off to check on the crowd. The man he had always assumed would be his enemy had just saved his life.
* * *
The next day, Sebastian was on his way to Queen Consolidated when Officer Daily called him with an update. The night before, the Mayor, now identified as Xavier Reed, had been apprehended by the SCPD—or so the official story claimed. As with China White and the hospital supply thefts, many gave credit to the vigilante. Citizens of the Glades, in particular, were worshipping him like a hero, going so far as to give him a name.
The Arrow.
Sebastian had fumed over the news. It seemed as if the vigilante’s influence was growing lockstep with his own. Perhaps Isabel Rochev was right. “The Arrow” was a problem that needed to be addressed. Yet that would be a concern for another day.
The Mayor needed to pay for the chaos he had inflicted upon the Glades. It was time to show him what fear looked like.
“Reed’s arraignment will be this afternoon,” Daily said. “He’ll be most vulnerable after the proceedings, during his transfer back to lockup.”
“And you’re sure this can be done quietly?”
“He’ll just be another inmate, fallen through the cracks. Trust me, Brother Blood, no one’s going to miss this scum. He’ll be yours to do with as you please.”
“Good,” Blood replied, a thrill passing through him at the prospect. “We’ll see if Mr. Reed possesses strength enough to survive.”
“There’s another development you should be aware of,” Daily continued. “I pulled over Laurel Lance last night, for driving under the influence.” The news came as a surprise. He knew Laurel was under stress, but never would have pegged her for a substance abuser. She had admitted that her father was a recovering alcoholic. Perhaps she shared more with him than Sebastian had thought.
“You didn’t arrest her, did you?”
“No. I turned her over to Officer Lance instead.”
“Good work, Brother Daily.”
* * *
He arrived at Queen Consolidated to find Oliver standing at his desk, the mid-morning sun shining brightly through the windows.
“I guess it’s true what they say,” Sebastian commented. “One man can change the world.”
“I’ll leave changing the world to you, Alderman,” Oliver countered.
“I’m only still in the world because of you, Mr. Queen. Thank you.” He extended his hand.
“I was just acting on instinct,” Oliver said, taking his hand.
“It wasn’t instinct,” Sebastian said. “It was strength.”
Oliver smiled. “I see the signs and the graffiti. ‘Blood for Mayor.’” The mention elicited a smile from Sebastian. “Now that your crooked counterpart is in jail,” he added, “maybe you should run.”
“There is more than one way to save a city,” Sebastian replied, not yet ready to admit publically that he intended to run. But when that day arrived, having Oliver’s support behind him would make the process all the easier. For now, however, there were other matters to which he needed to attend.
* * *
Later that night, deep beneath the Glades, the Church of Blood watched as the mirakuru ravaged Xavier Reed’s body. Like the victims before him, he wailed to the heavens, straining against his restraints before falling silent, blood seeping from his eyes like tears. The men stood by, emotionless witnesses to the execution, the horror now old hat.
Brother Blood removed his skull mask as Dr. Langford and Clinton Hogue dragged away Reed’s body, his heels scraping on the sewer’s wet concrete. Blood then turned to Officer Daily.
“Bring me another.”
“Yes, Brother Blood.”
As Daily headed off to fetch another test subject and the Technician prepared another syringe with the mirakuru, Blood was left alone with Cyrus Gold. He approached.
“May I speak?”
“Of course, Brother Cyrus,” Blood said. “You know I value your counsel.”
“You said the serum was a test of strength.”
“That’s right.”
“Then let me take the mirakuru.”
“No,” Blood said firmly. “You’re my closest advisor, and my friend. I won’t risk it.”
“There is no risk,” Cyrus said, his chest swelling with conviction. “The men we take are weak because they lack faith, both in our cause and in themselves. I do not.”
“You’ve seen what the serum does, the damage that results. Their torture doesn’t faze me, not any longer, but yours… I couldn’t subject you to that.”
“The earthquake took my congregation and my church,” Cyrus insisted. “There’s no torture I haven’t already endured.”
“You’re asking me for death.”
“No,” Cyrus said. “I’m asking to be reborn.”
Blood regarded his loyal acolyte, saw his passion and certitude.
“If none of our remaining crop of applicants survives, I will grant your request.” As the rest of the cult returned with another unwilling victim—this one named Max Stanton—Cyrus nodded to his leader. Turning to depart, Blood nodded back, trying to share his brother’s faith.

7

Slade drove Isabel backward with an onslaught of strikes, his training sword cutting the air in sharp diagonals and thrusts. The attack didn’t harry her, however. She expertly parried his attack with her own sword, drawing his momentum right as she spun left, landing a glancing blow to the shoulder. Chest heaving, she paused for a second.
Slade was impressed. His pupil was improving.
But still, she was just a pupil.
Using her momentary hesitation to his advantage, he advanced, taking her by surprise, cutting swathes through the air left and right, rattling her sword as she just managed to block. Then he grabbed her weapon from her, holding it to her throat.
“Don’t stop to bask in a victory you do not yet possess.”
“Point taken,” she said.
Slade stepped away, tossed her sword back to her, and they continued their sparring, circling each other. Once again she was on guard.
“What can you tell me about Oliver’s team?” he said, swinging his weapon down onto hers. She blocked it and backpedaled into open space.
“Still only two,” she said. “Diggle is his protection, Smoak the brains, though it’s clear she has feelings for him.” She spun, dropping low, trying to swipe Slade’s legs. He jumped, avoiding her attempt. “Nothing you didn’t already know.”
“Does Oliver return those feelings?”
“Doubtful.” They circled each other again. “Didn’t think you’d be so interested in his love life, to be honest.”
He leapt forward, an overhead blow driving her backward.
“I’m interested in making him suffer.”
Isabel hurled forth a flurry of strikes in response, all of which Slade parried. Then he disarmed her again, sending Isabel to her knees. She smacked the mat, frustrated.
“Good,” he said. “Remember that anger.” He tossed the sword back to her. “What else?”
“Oliver is trying to use the company jet to go to Russia, of all places,” she said, still gasping. “I don’t know his aim, but I’ll keep him grounded.”
“No. Don’t stop it,” Slade said, ignoring the surprise in her expression. “Go with him. Use the change of scenery to your advantage. Build his trust. It’ll be all the harder for him to resist your guidance later.”
Isabel nodded. She rose to standing, flexing a kink from her shoulder.
“What about the centrifuge?” he asked. “Does it seem capable?” The Applied Sciences Division had built a prototype, a state-of-the-art, high-capacity centrifuge intended for the mass production of vaccines. It would be perfect for replicating the mirakuru in quantities great enough to serve his plans.
“More than capable,” she said, “but considering the company’s precarious financial state, I can’t run it on a lark. I need a reason.”
“Not to worry,” Slade said. “By the time you get back from Russia, that reason will be more than clear.” He then motioned toward her sword. “Ready?”
She nodded, and they began to spar again.
* * *
The community center at Zandia Orphanage was a bustle of activity. The kids were happy and rambunctious, enjoying a bundle of new toys given to them by Sebastian Blood. He had made a surprise visit, one of the few stops he made these days that served no publicity purpose. There would be plenty of time for that later—for now, his time at the orphanage was his to enjoy.
He watched as they lost themselves in play, remembering when he had run these halls. Some of the children were working on crafts at a nearby table, and he drifted over. One of the kids, a little boy no older than seven, was busy at work with crayons. He had drawn a big black box, a crudely rendered building of sorts, with stick figures of people in it. There were scrawls of red and orange, representative of fire.
“What are you drawing there?” Sebastian asked.
“That’s the school. It’s on fire after the earthquake.”
“Did that happen to you?” The little boy nodded as he picked up a green crayon and started to scribble. “I’m sorry, son. I’m trying to make sure that never happens to you again.”
“It’s okay, I’m not afraid,” the boy said. “He’ll save us.”
“Who?”
“The Arrow.”
Blood looked at the scribble, now a stick figure in green, bow and arrow in hand. He scowled.
“You think he’s a hero?”
“My brother Lunar says he saved the hospital and stopped the guns.”
“You shouldn’t believe everything your brother tells you.”
Sebastian rubbed the boy’s head and walked over to a wall, staring at the photo of him and Father Trigon, celebrating his graduation from high school, both optimistic about the future. Trigon had told Sebastian that, of all his pupils, he was special. It was his destiny to change the Glades for the better, and then the city would follow. Though he was on the verge of running for mayor, it was hard not to be disappointed. He would have thought he’d accomplished more by now, but his influence came second to that of a man in a hood.
He hated that damn vigilante.
Then he heard a voice behind him, familiar in its menace.
“A lovely picture, Mr. Blood.”
Sebastian turned to find Slade standing behind him, impeccably dressed in his suit. The sight immediately put him on edge. He scanned the room for witnesses and he moved closer, dropping his voice.
“I thought you were trying to keep a low profile.”
“You fear the claims of children?”
“You’d be surprised what they’re capable of,” Sebastian said, thinking. “There’s staff here, as well.”
“All I am is a businessman,” Slade said, “looking to make a sizable donation.” He held his hands wide.
Sebastian led Slade to an empty corridor outside of the play area.
“I would have met you back at the penthouse,” he said, still angry.
“And miss an opportunity to see your humble beginnings?” Slade’s smile was cold, calculating, sending a shiver down Sebastian’s spine. “And besides, I’m in need of your services.” He handed the alderman a slip of paper—it had a name and an address on it. “He’s a man of extravagance, but his style is one that will be useful.”
Blood recognized the name.
“Isn’t he locked away in Iron Heights?”
Slade shook his head. “In addition to ravaging your city, the earthquake also set loose a number of inmates from the prison. It’s the gift that keeps giving.”
“This man was responsible for flooding my district with drugs,” Sebastian said, condemnation in his tone.
“Truly a pity,” Slade replied, doing his best to affect a reasonable facsimile of sympathy. It wasn’t working. “But I intend to direct his talents… elsewhere.”
“Where?”
“Downtown Starling.” Slade gave a slight smile. “I want the city’s most affluent to feel the same fear the Glades experienced.”
“What about the Arrow?”
“He is of no concern of yours.”
“If you haven’t noticed, he’s becoming a hero to my constituents. His influence is growing, and could pose a direct threat to my candidacy.”
“Unless you expect his name to appear on a ballot,” Slade said with some amusement, “I highly doubt you have anything to worry about.”
“Worry isn’t a problem. Inaction is.”
“Who says we’re being inactive?” Slade peered at him. “As I promised you at the beginning, you will be mayor.” With that he turned and walked down the hall, disappearing out a side door and into the fading afternoon sun. Sebastian didn’t share Slade’s confidence, however.
The vigilante was a problem, one that demanded a solution.
* * *
Brother Blood, his skull mask terrifying in the moonlight, found the dilapidated motel on the outskirts of the city. Degenerates—men and women both—wandered between rooms like zombies. They paid him no mind. Their eyes were fixated on things he could not see as they mumbled incoherently to themselves, the language of minds driven insane.
He found room 327, and pushed through the door. A man and woman were slumped on the stained carpet, each chained to a bedpost. Like the denizens outside, they were too wrapped up in their own hallucinations to notice him. All around the room, tacked to the walls, there were scrawled pictures similar in style to that of the boy at the orphanage. The Arrow, crudely rendered in pen and pencil, but in each of these drawings he was suffering a horrific death.
A man emerged through a side door, holding a syringe. His hair was close cropped, though wild at the top, and there was a tinge of madness in his eye. He was happy to see Blood.
“Such a wonderful face!” the man known as Count Vertigo exclaimed. “And just when I thought there was no real honesty in the world. Be still my heart. Please, make yourself at home.” Then he walked over to the chained man and woman and plunged the syringe into their arms, one after the other.
Almost immediately their bodies tensed up and their eyes grew wide, peering intently at visions apparent only to them. Moments passed, and then they foamed at the mouth, going into spasms. Finally they fell silent. The Count nudged them, but they were entirely unresponsive.
“What a shame,” he said, shrugging and taking a seat on the bed. “I was so hoping for a double date. Oh well.” He turned to Blood. “Now, what brings you here, to my humble abode?”
“Putting you back in business,” Blood replied, his voice muffled by the mask, “and creating havoc in the streets.”
“Ah, work,” the Count said. “I’m not sure about that. You see, I’m quite happy with my life of unemployment. Time to do as I please, with whom I please. To give this up, I need incentive.”
“You will have unlimited resources with which to build your lab and network.”
The Count lay back on the bed, arms outstretched.
“Boring,” he said with an exaggerated yawn.
“Once your Vertigo drug is ready,” Blood continued, “everyone in the downtown area will receive a free sample—in particular, a… test case, shall we say, in the district attorney’s office.”
The Count propped himself up on an elbow.
“Better.”
“I’ve saved the best for last, though.” Blood walked over to the drawings pinned to the wall, and pulled one down. “Then I want you to kill the Arrow,” he said, slowly ripping the picture in two.
Bingo!” the Count exclaimed. “I knew you saw the real me.”
“Hate is insufficient to describe what we both feel toward the vigilante,” Blood continued. “He tortured you with your own concoction, locked you away, put an end to everything that gave your life meaning.” He glanced around, fully aware of the irony in his words.

“Then why let me have all the fun?” Vertigo responded. “Revenge is a delicious drug in its own right—why not share it?”

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