Action Force: The Annachurian Candidate
“Hey, guys? Um, wake up? Hey. Hey, it’s Anna. Wake up. Sierra’s on the phone, you guys.” Anna stood in her underwear, holding the receiver in her hand. The morning sunlight streamed through the window and added highlights to her golden hair. “Going once, going twice…”
“Ugh, me. Me. I’ll get it,” said Livvie with a groan. She looked down and was surprised to see herself clad in only her underwear, just like Anna. “New rule, guys. No more late night wine parties. I don’t think my body can handle it any more.” She took the receiver from Anna. “Hey, Sierra. What’s up?”
“What’s up? What’s up is that you guys have been radio silent all night long, that’s what’s up.” Sierra’s unhappy voice made Livvie wince. “What on Earth have you been up to? What happened at MBS?”
“Oh, that.” Livvie shook her head. What happened at MBS? So hard to remember. Suddenly the memory appeared in her mind, perfectly clear and complete. “Yeah, no, sorry. It was a bust. I got a boring tour, a lot of unhelpful answers, and a nice brochure.”
“Boring? Livvie, you didn’t sound bored yesterday when you left that message! Didn’t they try to kidnap you or something?
“Sierra…” Livvie shook her head. The new girl still had a lot to learn about detective work. Was I drunk off of my ass when I called her? That would explain a lot. Damn, Max, why did I listen to you?
“I’m serious!” said Sierra. “You’re the one who said, and I quote… no, wait! Hang on, let me play it back for you.”
Livvie held the phone close to her ear, surprised to hear her own voice talking back to her. “Hey Sierra, it’s Livvie.” The voice sounded urgent and rushed. “Look, I just escaped from some crazy weird cult thing going on at this MBS place. I’m headed over to Anna and Max right now, but I’ll fill you in tonight. Gotta go, see you soon.”
She looked over at Max, who was just beginning to stir. “Ohhhh,” Max said, holding her hands over her eyes. “Why do I keep waking up like this?”
“Livvie?” Sierra was still on the phone. “Livvie?”
“Yes Sierra, I’m here. Look, I guess I just got excited, that’s all. Honestly, nothing is going on at MBS Academy. It might be a little Stepford-y, but it’s nothing sinister. I’m sorry I got you all worked up. To be honest, I got here and the girls dragged me into their wine party, and that was that. You’ll find that Max and I aren’t always sticklers for professionalism.”
“Sure, Livvie, but…”
Livvie hung up the phone. “Oh, my head.” She looked at the other two women, both in their underwear. Max in her underwear? That seems… “not odd in the least, of course.”
Anna flashed a brilliant, perky smile. “You girls really know how to party! She swept her hand over the small pile of empty wine bottles and red-stained stemware scattered around the room. “The last thing I remember is… oh God, did we watch a porno? We did, I think.”
Another memory appeared in Livvie’s head. “Oh yeah! Oh… yeah. Hrrrm. Judging from the way I feel below the waist, I think I might have enjoyed it a little too much.”
Max chucked a sofa pillow in her direction. “Do you wanna not be so loud right now? Every part of my body hurts. Ugh. I used to be disciplined, you know that? Until I met you, Livvie. You’re a bad, bad person.”
“So, you guys.” Anna was still smiling. “Remember, the Mayor’s doing the fundraiser down at the Continental Hotel tonight. I’m going. Everyone from the movie will be there. Alton’s… he’ll be there, but we’re sitting separately, of course. Max, would you like to come with me?” She dodged another pillow.
Max was lying on the sofa, hands still over her eyes, her feet dangling in the air. “Why is she still talking, Livvie? Can’t we just shoot her?”
“Okay,” said Anna. “I’ll take that as a yes. You’ll thank me when the time is right.”
“When… the time…” Livvie’s eyes widened. Her body stiffened.
“…is right…” Max’s legs dropped to the sofa, her hands sliding from her face to fall to her sides. She stared into the ceiling. “You will obey, Anna.”
“Yes, Max,” said Anna. “I will obey. We must obey.”
“Yes, Anna,” said Livvie. “We will remember, and obey.”
“Yes, Livvie,” said Max. “We will obey our orders. Beneath the ice…”
“…the stream runs deep,” Anna finished. She blinked rapidly, shaking her head. “Whoa, sorry! Spaced out for a second. Max, I know the perfect outfit for you, and the perfect place to buy it. You’re driving, I’m buying!”
Max smiled. “I can’t wait to see it!”
“Windsail Agents, Max speaking! Livvie, if this is you—”
“What is… what can I…
“Beneath the ice, the stream runs deep. So ver ver ver ver ver ver ver ver ver ver ver ver ver ver ver…”
“UGH.” Sierra furiously wiggled the mouse back and forth, but the cursor remained frozen in place, and the audio continued to skip. Her fists dug into the table in frustration. “No!” she yelled. “No no no no no! That’s the third freeze-up today, you piece of junk!” Frowning, she rebooted the computer again, and reached for her coffee mug.
“Any new leads, kiddo?” Livvie walked into the office, dressed sharply in a skirt and blazer as if she were late for a high-powered business meeting. Sierra glanced down at her jeans and frilly blouse and felt oddly out of place. The ‘kiddo’ line didn’t help much. I’m in grad school, Livvie, not a kid.
She swallowed her grumpiness and swiveled in her chair to face Livvie. “Tons. I’m having a hell of a time trying to hack into the systems, but it seems that our pals over at MBS have been receiving regular payments from a hard-line Russian political group for some time now. Oh, and remember Janice Jones? She’s sitting in a Moscow jail cell, accused of killing an American diplomat who was working with Alton—er, Senator Miller’s bilateral disarmament talks team.”
“A business school grad behind bars for assassinating a government official?”
“A total stranger, no less. And here’s the thing—Janice Jones had a clean record up until then. No arrests, no fines, no speeding tickets, an all-American kid, until she gets out of MBS and gets a job in Russia. Now she’s a killer?”
LIvvie thought about it for a second. “They must be blackmailing her.”
“To commit murder? She’s looking at life in prison. In Russian prison. What’s a 23-year-old woman have to hide that she’d be willing to go that far to keep it secret? It would be way less risky for the Russians to just hire a hitman. They had to know that she wouldn’t expose them.”
The computer finished rebooting, and Sierra logged in. “This is going to sound wild, but we know that Doctor Franz has a background in messing with people’s heads. And his bills are being paid by those same Russians. You yourself said it’s like a cult over there at MBS. I think that he’s using brainwashing to turn them into killers.”
“He could be pressuring them. They cater to lost, directionless young women who are down on their luck. It’s the exact same type of person that cults target. But then, why go after Anna? She’s not lost or hopeless. If anything, she’s the opposite.” She set her purse down on the table and began rummaging through it. “But if they kidnap Anna, they could force Senator Miller to end the arms talks. So we’re back to blackmail.”
Sierra tapped away at the keyboard. “I guess. I’m just thinking that… oh! The audio file is back up!”
Livvie looked up from her purse. “Audio file?”
“Um… you’re not going to be mad at me, are you? Because I kinda forgot to tell you that I kinda sorta installed a phone monitoring system at Alton’s house, and recorded all of his phone calls.”
“You illegally tapped a U.S. Senator’s phone line?”
“Kinda, yeah. Are you mad?”
Livvie raised an eyebrow.
“I was going to tell you! It just… well anyway, this weird one came up just as you walked in.” She tapped the keyboard again.
“…very deep, Maxine. So very deep.”
“So deep. I await my orders.”
“You will place Miss Foster into a trance and bring her to me. You will obey without question, Maxine. Listen and obey without question.”
“That’s very interesting, Sierra,” said Livvie.
Sierra felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. There was something cold and clinical about Livvie’s voice. “Interesting? Liv, do you know what this means? Anna’s not the target, she’s the weapon! We gotta find her and Max before they yeep!” From the corner of her eye, she watched Livvie pull a black handgun from her purse.
She pointed the gun at the redhead. “The time is right.”
Without thinking, Sierra threw her body weight to her right. She toppled over, chair and all, as the computer monitor crackled with the sound of shattered glass and severed circuits. Still on the ground, she gave the edge of the table a sharp kick, flipping it onto its side and sending her computer crashing to the floor. Two bullets immediately struck the table. Silencer, she thought, as the clack-clack of Livvie’s heels on the wood floor grew closer.
Her hand brushed against her coffee mug, now lying on its side in the middle of a pool of brown liquid. Grabbing it by the handle, she tossed it over the overturned desk like a hand grenade, hoping against hope that it would hit Livvie. To her surprise, the throw was swiftly followed by a soft thud and an annoyed “Urrgg.”
With that, she launched into a barrel roll, coming to rest behind the sofa. Two more soft thwps and a shower of sofa stuffing followed her. A third shot went high, shattering the glass of the liquor cabinet. From behind her, Livvie suddenly went quiet. The redhead peered over the top of the sofa to see her opponent reloading the gun.
Only a second to do this, and she’s going to kill me, she’s a trained… oh hell no, the girl’s a con artist, not a commando. I can do this. I can do this! Sierra bit her lip and closed her eyes, rising from behind the sofa and charging directly at Livvie, screaming the entire time. “AaaaaaaaaaaaAAGH!” The two women hit the floor, entangled, as the gun slid and spun away from them.
Sierra straddled the hypnotized blonde from above, her ass planted firmly on Livvie’s stomach, her arms desperately trying to pin Livvie’s to the floor. “Liv!” she grunted. “Listen to me, Livvie! You…”
With a snarl, Livvie worked her right hand free from Sierra’s grasp. Her fist connected squarely with the redhead’s jaw, causing Sierra to roll to the floor. As she fell, Livvie flipped over and began to reach for the handgun. Her fingers touched the grip, and she pulled the weapon to her. She rolled onto her back and raised the gun to fire the killing shot.
But Sierra was gone. The office door hung open. Without a word, Livvie rose to her feet and walked purposefully into the hallway.
The limousine pulled up to the Continental Hotel and Ballroom at precisely seven o’clock. The paparazzi jostled and shifted for positions as the rear door opened. Out stepped a beautiful blonde in an elegant, dazzling black sequined evening gown, her long smooth legs visible for just a second, just long enough for the fastest photographers to get them in their shots. She waved to the crowd. Her blonde hair cascaded down her back, and a simple blue gemstone necklace matched her vibrant blue eyes. Reporters pressed against the velvet ropes. “Anna! Any comments on the rumor that you’re dating Jack Springer?” “Miss Foster, is it true that you’re being stalked by an ex-lover? Miss Foster, over here please!”
The door opened again and another, longer pair of legs stretched to the ground. Unlike Anna, Max’s dress stopped at her knees and tightly hugged every curve of her body. The plunging neckline showed off plenty of cleavage, as well as the red ruby pendant she’d borrowed from the actress. She waved to the photographers and the crowd, savoring the feeling of being famous for a day. She continued to grin and wave as she made her way over to Anna.
“Miss Foster! Miss Foster! Over here! Anna! Just one question, please, Miss Foster!”
Max placed her arm over Anna’s delicate shoulders and smiled at the scrum of reporters. “Sorry guys, but this girl has an appointment to keep.” She blew them as a kiss as the two women, laughing, walked into the ballroom arm-in-arm.
The detective agency was one of six offices in the Bailey Building, and the only one that was still open for the day. All of the other office doors were closed and locked, leaving Sierra with no place to run. The brainwashed assassin chasing her immediately made her way to the front door of the building. Peering out of the lobby window, Livvie could see Sierra’s empty car in the parking lot.
“Livvie?” Sierra’s voice echoed down the hallway. “Please, Livvie. I don’t want to die. Please.”
“The time is right, Sierra. I will obey.” Livvie began to move towards her friend’s voice.
Sierra spoke again, this time closer, her voice trembling and on the verge of tears. “Livvie, please! I won’t tell anyone! I won’t! I won’t stop you! I won’t… I won’t… please!”
Livvie pressed her back against the wall and inched towards the corner. From just beyond, Sierra’s pleas had disintegrated into panicked sobbing. The blonde tensed, then whirled around the corner. Two bullets from her gun slammed into the wall, just above the mobile phone lying in the middle of the hallway.
She stared at the device, her brainwashed mind slowly coming to the realization that she’d been tricked. Suddenly a bright flash of red appeared to her left, followed by a sickening thud and an explosion of pain and stars, and finally an all-encompassing blackness.
Sierra stood over the motionless body of her colleague. She let the fire extinguisher fall to her feet. Reaching down, she picked up the phone and slid it back into Livvie’s handbag. “Gotta love speakerphone, right?”
For the hundredth time, Max scanned the crowd at the ballroom, more out of boredom by now than by any sense of necessity. The crowd was relaxed and more than a little tipsy; even the servers seemed more laid back than one would expect for when the Mayor was in attendance. The only tense faces around where those of the black-suited security details, who scanned the crowd just as often as Max. Occasionally their eyes would meet, and Max would throw them a sultry glance. Just keeping them on their toes.
She moved to the entrance to the main ballroom, where Anna sat surrounded by dozens of high-profile politicians, businessmen, and celebrities. Anna’s table was crowded with the likes of Jack Springer, Andrew McGregor, Colleen Clay, and other Hollywood stars; ten tables away, Alton Miller sat with a gaggle of city politicians. Max watched and waited for the inevitable moment when Senator and actress would look at one another, but to her surprise, neither did. She smiled. Anna was a pro at this stuff.
“Ahem. Miss? I can escort you to your seat, if you’d like.”
Max turned to find a busboy eyeing her eagerly. He winked and cracked a wide smile. “So, do you come here often? I think I’d remember a body like yours, even in this town.” Another wink.
Max rolled her eyes, fighting the urge to reach her hands down the busboy’s pants and crush his balls into jelly. Instead she put on her best librarian voice and shushed him. “Shhhh, loverboy, calm your hormones. Mayor Jackson’s about to go on. Pipe down before you cost us both our jobs.”
She smirked triumphantly as she watched his face crumple. At the podium, the Mayor began his speech.
“And I’m really glad that you are all here tonight with me, in this room, to raise money for what we all know is one of the most challenging and important issues of our lifetimes. There’s an old saying here, that, uh.” He looked down at his speech and turned a page. “There’s an old saying here, that goes ‘When the time is right, you will know what to do. When the time is right, you will do what needs to be done.’”
Anna stiffened. Her hand slipped from the wine glass and fell into her lap. “When the time is right,” she whispered.
Springer leaned over and put his hand on her arm. “You okay, Anna? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
She looked at him a daze. “I know what needs to be done,” she mumbled. “Please excuse me.” She rose from her seat and walked out of the ballroom, oblivious to the stares and comments of the other fundraiser guests.
At the corner of the room, Max also stiffened. “When the time is right,” she whispered, turning to leave. She brushed past the love-struck busboy and slowly made her way down the corridor.
The Mayor looked up just in time to see a pretty blonde duck out the rear door of the ballroom. Was that Anna Foster? He looked back down at the clumsy rough draft of a speech that some hack had apparently thrown together for him. Time is right… what is this garbage? He paused to fake a small cough, then continued. “That phrase, ah, that says a lot about why we’re here tonight, doesn’t it? We know what needs to be done. The time is right for us to do it. And with your help, we can…”