A lion does not concern himself with the opinion of sheep. — Tywin Lannister
Special to L. Neil Smith’s The Libertarian Enterprise
Hotel Romero, Fort Collins, Colorado.
From Monster by Helena d'Argento
Coming soon to Amazon
In the penthouse suite of a seven-story adobe-style hotel on I-25, just off the Mulberry exit, sat a man made in New York. His name, Gianpaolo Romero, sat on a small triangular prism of hand-carved oak across the desk; beneath it were the words "Owner, Operator, Complaints Department."
The office was spacious enough, bare walls of coral trimmed with sage surrounding the desk; across from its sole occupant were two leather armchairs, in the far corner was a tall brown metal filing cabinet, and behind the man was a window, beside which sat a shelf upon which sat an automated single-cup coffee maker and a rack of pods of coffee grounds.
Gianpaolo was a large man, broad enough to fill a doorway, though only five-ten; his dark, curly hair, still wet from a late-evening shower, was loosely combed back from his severe widow's peak, and his amber eyes were narrowed as he stared at the dim screen of an ancient brick of a laptop computer on the desk before him.
In his left hand burned a half-finished menthol cigarette, and his right hand hovered awkwardly over the laptop's keyboard to manipulate the tiny mouse nub at its center. His coffee sat at the computer's side, losing heat to the autumn night outside the open window as he lifted the cigarette to his lips and opened the F: drive, lifting an earbud to stick it in his ear.
The folder contained a number of screencaps-- the likes of which he'd already seen, thank you very much-- but he hadn't yet chanced the original video. Gritting his teeth, he double-clicked the file, which played a few seconds of darkness; softly, a man began to speak in his ear, and he turned up the volume, picking up a pen to write the narrator's words.
"I-- okay. Uh, this is... it's Lorenzo. And... and I guess... I don't know what else to say about this."
As the man drew in an audibly shaky breath, the camera panned to the side, and a bleary laptop screen came into view.
"G-God damn it. This is Jake's laptop, Jake Salviati. He's... I thought he was my friend."
The shot finally focused on the screen, and the double-click of a mouse caused one of the desktop icons to darken, the cursor spinning in eager anticipation as the object opened.
The icon itself was a small blue triangle, its bottom right-hand corner disconnected, the line spiraling to form a second, smaller triangle within the first; the words beneath it read "Global Project," and as the main menu shimmered into view, the narrator sighed.
The Global Project application was friendly-looking, if childlike; the same blue logo, sitting at skewed angles on a green field, served as a bullet for the various titles: "videos!"; "chat!"; "games!"; "calendar!"; and finally something called "Peter and Princess Anna."
The onscreen cursor, however, went to the bottom right-hand corner of the menu, to a hidden button which caused a new logo-- this one an abstract butterfly-- to shimmer into view, spin, and then open a password dialogue.
"Okay. So I know Jake's password because... well, to be honest, it's his fucking HitFlix password. Praise the Lord for sending us useful idiots."
He typed the fifteen-character password carefully and the main menu faded away to be replaced with a photo album, largely pink and beige.
Gianpaolo squinted, leaning in to examine the filenames, blurry as they were, but they scrolled out of view, and Lorenzo cleared his throat softly in his earbud, the mouse wheel ratcheting in the background.
"This, uh... this is porn. Literally, all of this. Um... but I've gotta warn you, it's... well, it's not just porn."
He scrolled down a bit further, to a row on the second page, which autoloaded before him and shrank out of focus for a moment before returning to clarity. "These are kids," he whispered into the camera's microphone, circling a group of a few photos with the cursor. "There are animals on here, too."
Gianpaolo grimaced, pausing the video, and took a drag on his cigarette. Lorenzo had told him he'd gotten involved in some serious shit, but this was more than he'd bargained for. And the folder, which Lorenzo had saved off-network on his work computer, in a password-protected hard drive partition, contained only ten minutes of video. According to a small, fuzzy counter at the top, there were thousands of pages in the album.
"God damn it."
With a resigned sigh, he resumed the video and took a drink of his coffee, watching the cursor zoom upward to circle a second group of images.
"And I... w-well, Jake fell asleep with this thing open. So I thought I'd... yeah."
Without warning, Lorenzo double-clicked on one of the images, and a small player screen popped up, showing a still image of a young girl, her belly swollen in late pregnancy, who lay on an altar of some sort, her thin and distorted body naked and pale with cold.
"And then," Lorenzo hissed, "there's shit like this."
A small blue "play" button popped up at the image's center, and Lorenzo clicked on it.
It wasn't a video, but instead a .gif-- the girl, probably no older than fourteen, lolled lazily in relative darkness as she was placed on the flat stone surface, her body illuminated by firelight.
As the clip went on, Gianpaolo began to realize it was a time-lapse. The girl fell still, drugged, and a number of persons in black robes shackled her small feet at the ankles into smoothed stone panels raised by iron poles from the altar, her knees held apart as by an obstetrician's stirrups, then her arms were restrained at her sides by her biceps and wrists.
The robed individuals did their work and scurried off the screen in artificial haste, and then returned as the girl came to, frightened and slowly gaining the executive function to attempt escape; suddenly the room was lit by a torch, which approached the altar, casting the terrified girl into blinding light for a moment until it was dropped at the base, igniting what he could now clearly identify as a pile of straw.
In a horrid moment, the flames grew and grew, and the girl screamed silently, her body restrained loosely enough to writhe, as she watched the fire engulf her.
By the end of the clip, she was dead on the table, her skin burnt and blistered.
"I... I told you it was fucked up," Lorenzo said softly from off-camera. "Senseless. Hideous. I... y-yeah."
Gianpaolo grunted, pausing the video again, and lifted his hand to drag on his cigarette, but discovered it had burnt out.
His stomach churned within him. For years, he'd known this kind of thing was happening, but he'd never seen for himself the bizarre rites and rituals of which he'd heard so many whispers.
He only wished he'd never have to see it again.
"Gianpaolo? Are you coming to bed?"
The big man started, discarding his spent cigarette in the ashtray on the desk, and looked up at the young woman in the doorway.
Andy Beaumont-Romero, a fit five-five, stood with her hip thrown out and a hand on her own swollen belly, a gentle smile in her blue-grey eyes as she watched her husband. She was youthful and pretty, a filigreed cameo pendant dangling between her breasts at the neckline of her half-open cotton pajama top; the soft jersey knit of her pale pink pajama pants clung to her thighs and the curve of her backside, and her long raven hair was braided into a crown atop her head.
Gianpaolo tried to give her a smile, half-hidden behind a sip of coffee. "Soon, babe. I promise."
Andy frowned, approaching the desk to sit in one of the two leather recliners opposite him. "Are you alright?"
He shrugged, indicating the laptop as he leaned back in his chair. "It's... well, baby, it's frankly a little grisly. I dunno how much you wanna know." He spoke with a thick Bronx accent, his voice deep and calm, but there was something of a tremor in it as he opened the desk drawer above his lap, fishing around in it. "That fella we sent off to Italy, he made a video this summer. Creepy shit."
Curious, Andy drew herself back to her feet to peer at the computer's screen, but Gianpaolo sat up, throwing up a massive hand to cover the still frame of the naked girl on the table.
"Gianpaolo," she admonished, nudging his hand away, "I'm not sensitive. You look troubled."
He frowned, meeting her eyes. "Yeah, alright. Maybe so. But it's nasty, an' you don't gotta see it. I'd rather look at you, anyway."
She rolled her eyes, and finally, with a grimace, he removed his hand from the screen to give her a glimpse of the still. "There's a play button," she noted. "Did you watch it?"
"Yeah," he grunted, glad to note that said button obscured the girl's pregnant belly. "It's... it's a ritual sacrifice. A burning."
With a heavy sigh, she returned to her seat, her brow furrowed in discomfort. "I see. That's unpleasant."
"You're tellin' me," Gianpaolo huffed. "Anyway, I'm up waitin' for this fella Giorgio to come an' take a look at this shit. He's takin' care of some business for me."
She rested an elbow on the desk, her eyes downcast as she cradled her chin in her hand. "Gianpaolo," she said softly, then hesitated, reaching out to pick up the framed photo on his desk. "What kind of business do you have with the kind of people who burn people alive?"
He frowned, watching her; the picture in her hands was older than she was, showing him and his several cousins on the beach many years before, a cluster of young boys and a few girls in a tangle of limbs atop the black volcanic sand of the Sicilian coast.
"Honey, it's a long story. But I assure you, the business I'm doin' ain't with anyone of the sort." He minimized the video player and pulled up one of the screenshots, turning the computer toward her. "This is one of the guys that tried to kill Lorenzo. Stabbed his brother to death."
She glanced over at the screen and caught an eyeful of the image: a nervous-looking blond man sat on a couch at some high-falutin function, a girl of six or seven on his lap. With a wave of horror, she noted that the man's hand was positioned on her inner thigh, his fingers well up her skirt.
"I...." She drew in a slow breath, closing the laptop and looking up into her husband's eyes. "Where did you get this? You know it's illegal to even have this stuff? What if someone gets into the network?"
He nodded, scratching the back of his neck. "That computer's almost twenty years old, babe. It don't even know what WiFi is. Never been, nor gonna be, on the network."
Making a face, she set the frame down on the desk. "If you say so. It gives me the willies."
"I do say so. I don't like it any more'n you do, neither. Hope you know that already." Gianpaolo spun his chair round to look out the window, pushing the filmy inner curtain aside, and grunted in satisfaction. "Giorgio's car is here," he noted.
"Giorgio," she repeated. "Is he a friend of yours, then?"
Gianpaolo shrugged, turning back to look at her. "Guess you could say that. A fellow traveler, more like." As he watched, she settled back in the chair opposite him, a delicately-sculpted eyebrow raised at him, and he frowned. "What? What is it?"
She pulled at the rolled hem of her top as she mouthed her lower lip, still a bit burgundy from the day's lipstick. "Is he a friend of yours, Gianpaolo, or is he the enemy of your enemy?"
With a soft chuckle, Gianpaolo picked up his coffee cup. "We're at war, sweetheart. To be honest with you, there's little practical difference at this point."
For a moment, she was quiet, her brow furrowed in concern; finally she opened her mouth to speak again, but the words were stolen from her lips when suddenly, a long, pale hand shot up past the windowsill and grasped at its molded inner edge.
"G-Gianpaolo," Andy stammered, pointing at the window, and he started, pivoting his chair to look where she'd indicated.
By the time he'd turned back to her, she was out of her seat, withdrawing from the window; he laughed a little, getting to his feet, and went to her side. "It's alright, babe. It's just like him," he said, giving her a squeeze before crossing back to the other side of the desk. "Get inside, you madman; you're soakin' wet."
Slowly he clambered into the room, and Andy watched him with a puzzled frown: she'd never seen anyone quite like him, very tall and rail-thin, his face unlined with the age belied by his silver hair and grey eyebrows; he wore a brown hoodie with a peculiar dark stain on its front, and he stopped with his back to the window to wring the rainwater out of his ponytail, which reached past the seat of his pale blue jeans.
Gianpaolo sighed at him. "We have a front door."
"I get around in my own way," he replied nonchalantly. "Gianpaolo, it's always a pleasure; is this your lovely wife?"
With a chuckle, Gianpaolo lay a hand on her waist and extended the other to shake. "Yeah. Giorgio, this is Andy."
"She's young," Giorgio observed-- she couldn't have been more than nineteen or twenty. Gianpaolo hesitated for a moment, a frown flitting across his face, before Giorgio smiled, reaching out to shake the other man's hand. "Then again, amico mio, so are you."
He spoke smoothly, confidently, in a low and unaccented voice; he was sort of handsome, aloof and at ease, and she found it disarming, so she smiled up at the strange man and shook his hand. "That's what I always tell him. Giorgio, it's a pleasure." She turned back to her husband and smoothed his hair, leaning up to kiss him on the cheek. "Don't stay up too late, sweetheart."
She breezed out of the room, taking with her the smell of vanilla and ginger; Giorgio chuckled, watching her, and took a seat on the edge of Gianpaolo's big antique desk. Gianpaolo just sighed, slumping into his rolling chair, and reopened the laptop.
"Alright, Giorgio-- let's get to business," he said as the computer woke from its hibernation. "I found some shit on Francesco de' Pazzi an' Prosecutor Whitmore. Now, I warn you, they're pretty dark."
Giorgio gave him a little crooked smile, and Gianpaolo saw the sharp points of his canine teeth resting against his lower lip. "Whatever it is, Gianpaolo, I assure you I've seen darker."
Gianpaolo lifted his brows, a tiny laugh escaping him. "'Kay, pal. Trash can's under the desk." He turned the laptop toward Giorgio, and there before him, in a screengrab from Lorenzo's video, was Prosecutor Whitmore, holding aloft the heart of a large animal that lay dead on an altar in front of him; he wore robes of black silk that hung large off of his slim shoulders and a tall pointed hat atop his short head, beneath which his thin white hair was visible.
He tapped the arrow key and the next screenshot popped up: some actor from TV with his arm buried to the elbow in a live pig's rectum.
With a grimace, Giorgio turned the laptop away. "You've called me here to see this degeneracy? Jesus, Gianpaolo, I thought you had information--"
"This is information," Gianpaolo replied testily, skipping to the photo of the blond man and the little girl. "It's nasty, but it came off-a Lorenzo's computer, which I believe--"
"Good God, is that Francesco de' Pazzi?" Giorgio asked with a frown, turning the laptop back to take a closer look. "And why is it such awful quality?"
Gianpaolo grunted at him. "Yeah. That's him. Dunno who the girl is." He folded his arms over his chest. "Look, Lorenzo found this thing on his buddy's Salviati's laptop-- it's called the Global Project. You know anything about it?" he asked, and Giorgio shook his head, so he opened the screenshot of the menu. "Videos, chat, games--"
"Peter and Princess Anna," Giorgio read, his baritone voice softening a little as he scratched the back of his neck. "What does that mean?"
Shrugging, Gianpaolo reached out to pick up his coffee cup. "I dunno. Doesn't sound familiar. Do you think--"
"It does to me." Giorgio tilted his head, his eyes narrowed as he examined the rest of the menu. "You know, Gianpaolo, I've seen these shapes before. The odd triangles. Do you know what they mean?"
"I mean...." Gianpaolo leaned to the side, peering down the hallway, and noted the closed bedroom door, then settled back in his chair to light another cigarette. "The FBI declassified 'em years ago, but I knew it before then. Coded symbols for perverts. But here's the thing. That symbol, it don't correspond to the shit in those screencaps."
Giorgio regarded him for a moment, one eyebrow arched in mild surprise. "Indeed. I suppose I hadn't considered that. Have these come from the 'videos' section, then?"
Gianpaolo shook his head, skipping to the next frame: the little butterfly in the corner, slightly blurry in mid-spin. "A password-protected section. I'm gonna work on gettin' all this shit laid out for you, an' a transcript of Lorenzo's narration as well. But I wanna know what all this other shit is."
For a moment, Giorgio was quiet, his long fingers wrapped around the edge of Gianpaolo's antique oak desk. "Senti, Gianpaolo... I could probably find you a copy."
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