Agent Orange: The Power-Play.


Chapter 1: The Daughter Returns.


The motorcyclist melded in with the shadows of the night, becoming nothing more than a silent wraith speeding down a road made visible by the bright stars in the deep mauve sky, towards a destination that seemed so elusive, buried in the secretive mists of a happier past. Then, this island had seemed magical, the sort of island where a princess might live. Now, to the motorcyclist, it felt cold. The tropical night was warm and pleasant, but the rows of mansions had long since lost their luster. Now, they loomed like dark castles guarded by foul beasts and reigned over by hidden lords. A place of opulence and fear.

Neither quality could be used to describe the motorcyclist. She had been summoned here, to this expensive Caribbean retreat of the wealthy, by an old friend. He had sounded desperate and defeated, so unlike his normal confident exterior, that worry had immediately settled into the rider's gut, and she had hired a pilot an hour after hanging up the phone. She had arrived on the little isle, named by its grateful residents Isla del Cielo, the Island of Heaven, by four o'clock in the afternoon.

And now, as the hour turned to nine o'clock, the motorcyclist pulled to the side of the one-lane road, stopping beside a high brick wall that encircled the property that was her destination. She reached up and pulled the motorcycle helmet from her head, letting her black hair fall nearly to her shoulders.

Savanna Venom gazed up at the massive iron gate that sealed off the drive from the rest of the island, and she dismounted from her new Kawasaki ZX-6R. It was as black as her riding gear, the only source of color on her being several green stripes on her jacket. Otherwise, she might as well have been a ghost among the shadows of the moonless night.

She had bought the bike shortly after escaping from America to Switzerland, where she collected most of her backup funds stored in a reputable bank there. And then, eluding the police, she had made her way southeast, to Italy, where she had been staying in relative seclusion for the past three months. Hiding wasn't hard, so long as you did nothing to arouse your hunters' senses, and Savanna was an expert at keeping a low profile. She stayed in a tiny hamlet and rented a slightly ramshackle house at the edge of town.

She had been deciding what do next, with both the law enforcement agencies of the world and SKULL, the international terrorist organization, all gunning for her, dead or alive, when the call had come in from a friend she hadn't seen in years. She had been surprised, especially that someone had managed to find her, but she had come out to this small island right away.

And now here she was. Her heart hammered nervously as she stood, watching the gate as though waiting for some divine sign. Memories came back, unwanted and with no warning, of bright, warm days spent as a girl at this large villa. She had been an orphan all her life, and no one had wanted anything to do with the troublesome waif, but Señor Ricardo Alvarez had seen something others had overlooked in the young girl.

Savanna took a deep breath, trying to calm her anxious heart, and stepped up to the gate. There was an intercom set into the brick at the side of the gate, and as she reached out to use it, the gate swung open with a gentle clank. Savanna glanced up sharply, her eyes drawn to a small, boxy security camera above the intercom. She smiled a little nervously and began her trek up the gravel drive to the large villa that sat on a hill overlooking the sweeping blue waters of the Caribbean.

The villa was huge and looked just as majestic as when Savanna had last seen it. All three stories looked in perfect order from the outside, cared for as meticulously as possible. And surrounding the main house was a beautiful garden, with bright tropical flowers now asleep for the night, and curving walkways of white stone that angled around trees and hand-carved wood benches. She remembered when the garden had been planted, when only two or three bushes and trees dotted the wide front lawn. A lifetime ago now....

Savanna felt the urge to drag her heels and try to delay the inevitable. She was afraid of seeing Señor Alvarez again. The last time she had laid eyes on him, she had still been a girl, and it had been several years before she had killed her first man and went down the dark, bloody path her life had taken. She was afraid, she supposed, that she had let him down. Going from the innocent she had been, to the person she was now, with a trail of death and pain in her wake, was not something she was proud of.

But she made it to the steps at the front of the villa, and the old doors swung open slowly, almost for dramatic effect. And there, in the lighted entryway, stood a stooped old man. It was Ricardo Alvarez, though Savanna barely stifled an exclamation upon seeing him; gone was the tall, proud man she had known, and in his place was this hunched old man with a small walking stick in his right hand.

"Savanna," he said at once, and she was unable to hide her smile at hearing his voice. It hadn't changed much in the intervening years, and its strong baritone still held a deep power and firm assurance, though it had roughened some at the edges. "It is so good to see you again." He smiled, slightly strained, and gestured for her to follow him inside.

"It is a pleasure to see you again as well, Señor Alvarez." Savanna spoke fluently in Spanish but Alvarez waved an irritated hand.

"Please," he said, switching smoothly to English. "Not so formal." He led the way into his well-appointed villa, and as he moved into the light on the house, Savanna noticed her initial estimation of him was off. He had aged, yes, but there was still much of the old Alvarez left. His shoulders may have slumped now, and his tanned face may have been lined from old age, but he still had a sharpness to his brown eyes, and his hand, gnarled as it was, gripped the head of his walking stick with a strength and tautness that belied the passage of time. His hair had turned a stately gray from its previous darkness, with a small amount of silvery white at the temples, like a dusting of glimmering snow. When he smiled, it felt as though Savanna was still a little girl, and it made her both uncomfortable and somehow pleased.

Alvarez was silent as they passed deeper into his home, until they came to a vast living room, crowded with paintings, rugs, and furniture in several tasteful styles that managed to compliment each other and accent a room filled with personality. Savanna had spent many rainy days inside this room, playing board games with Alvarez's son, Emilio, and watching the rain lash down from the wide balcony windows that overlooked the Caribbean. It had been a little emptier back then, Alvarez and his son adding to the room as the years had passed. Each object was a memory, she knew, and each was special for some reason.

A Renoir on the wall had been purchased as a gift to his late wife soon after he took control of the research and development firm he had worked at for all his life. The glass coffee table with the smooth curves of red running through it had been there for years now, even though a vicious crack marred its surface. Emilio had been playing around, jumping on the sofa, and had slipped and hit his head. Alvarez kept the table there as a reminder that his son had nearly been taken from him and to cherish each moment they had together. And of course there was the small, sparse looking geranium in a plain, faded pink pot. Savanna had never met her, but Maria Alvarez had loved flowers, and the first plant she had brought into their new home had been a geranium, as Ricardo often recalled, and he kept the tradition going by never letting a day pass without a geranium in that old pink pot.

Memories...that's what this room was. It brought a new meaning to 'living room'. All life, past and present, was celebrated here.

"Please, sit down," Alvarez gestured to a sofa and chair, leaving the room through a side door and returning quickly with a bottle of wine and two crystal goblets. "Some of Spain's finest," he said with a wan smile, holding up the bottle for her examination. "I hope you will join me for a drop."

"Of course," Savanna sat and let the old man pour for them. He took a seat across from her and she took a single sip of the wine. It was hearty, with a surprisingly delicate hue and a warmth that relaxed her ever so slightly.

Alvarez gazed into his wine, seemingly distraught over something and unsure how to broach the subject. Savanna waited patiently, unsure if she should attempt to break through to him or let him reach her in his own time. Finally, he looked up. "I have done stupid things in my life," he said bluntly, his eyes distant as he seemed to look back at his past.

"Not nearly as stupid as me," Savanna said, partially under her breath. His hearing was still strong, he blinked and came back to the present.

"Ah, my dear Savanna, we each have made our beds with the devil watching. I have heard of some of your unsavory exploits," Savanna dropped her own gaze and drank more of the wine. Alvarez smiled faintly, his expression not cold, but not warm either. "Do not be ashamed. I cannot pass judgment, for I too have dealt with those demons in human form. I sold my soul to SKULL long before you did."

Savanna's head snapped up in surprise. She couldn't believe what she was hearing; kindly old Ricardo Alvarez, involved with the cruel and violent terrorist organization that had been her former employer? It seemed impossible. "What do you mean?" she asked cautiously, wondering if she really wanted to hear.

Alvarez sighed and set his wine goblet aside. "I was a foolish young man, who married the love of his life without a penny to his name. I was worried that I would be unable to provide for Maria and her son Emilio; I was only a small research assistant at the time, and money was not easy to come by. A man saw my potential and approached me, offering a considerable amount of money in exchange for information involving a few of my side projects. I eagerly divulged whatever I could." The disgust was evident in Alvarez's voice. "What harm could it cause? I thought.

"My research was innocent, but they perverted it into something else—something ugly." He looked up at Savanna with haunted eyes. "This was before they called themselves SKULL. They were dangerous men, and I am sure a part of me knew that, but refused to speak up, for fear that the money would be taken from me and my family would be forced back into our tiny, impoverished apartment. So for years I gave them little things, small bits of my research, some of my own personal projects, whatever they asked. And soon I was moving up in the chain of command at the company. It was all so sudden, like a whirlwind sweeping me away, I can barely remember any of that year.

"All I do know for certain is that when the president of the company died, after a long battle with cancer, he left, in his will, the entire company to me." Alvarez smiled bitterly for a moment. "Lawyers tried to contest the will with legal loopholes, and I am sure they would have won, but for a reason then unknown to myself, they suddenly stopped hounding me and allowed the company to fall into my lap. If I had been thinking more clearly, maybe I would have realized that these men I had so foolishly helped had now put me in a greater position to aid them, removing the obstacles from my path as easily as one removes dirt from under one's fingernails."

Alvarez became silent, his features clouded by his guilt at what he had done. Savanna set her own goblet aside and leaned forward, laying a gentle hand on his forearm. "You only wanted to do what was best for your family. You wanted to provide for them. You made a bad decision, but not for bad reasons." Alvarez looked up slowly and couldn't help but smile a little at Savanna.

"Ah my dear, I remember there was a time when I had to comfort you in your sorrows, and now it seems our roles are reversed." Alvarez nodded and sat back in his chair. "Yes, I did what I thought was best for Maria and Emilio, but as the years went on, I began to realize what evil these men were doing. Finally, I could not delude myself any longer. I told them I would not give them anything more."

Savanna frowned sharply. "And they let you?" SKULL was nearly fanatical about not letting the people under its control escape, for any reason. If you tried, you were dead. When it had been learned that Savanna was still alive, SKULL had reissued a death warrant for her, and now trained killers hunted her wherever she went. No, once SKULL got their claws into you, escape was impossible.

"Yes," Alvarez said slowly, almost sadly. "I should have known it would not be so easy. For years, I have enjoyed my life. Maria was taken from me a long time ago, but my son—and that is what he is, though he may not share my blood—Emilio has stayed by my side ever since." Maria had been pregnant with Emilio when she had moved to Spain from Italy, shortly before meeting Ricardo. She couldn't be certain of who his father was, but in the end it didn't matter; Alvarez took the boy in as his own, and Savanna had no doubt at all that he loved him like his own son. "I have been happy here, doing a little work with the company, even though I am officially retired, and spending my waning years doing things I love."

He was silent again. "Until..." Savanna prodded.

"Until they came back for me," he said with a tired sigh.

"SKULL?"

"Yes," Alvarez ran a hand over his eyes. "Two weeks ago, I was contacted by one of their agents in the Caribbean. They wanted something I had developed."

"What was it?" Savanna asked.

"A small power source I created, using a combination of nuclear fission and solar electricity. It is not large, as I said," he spread his hands apart to about the size of a cantaloupe, "but it has enough energy to power an entire city block for twenty years before it will finally die."

Savanna's eyes grew dark and grim as she listened. "Nuclear fission? Something heavy in radiation that SKULL could use for a bomb?"

"No, no," Alvarez hastened to assure her. "It has less nuclear capabilities than a microwave oven. It is highly experimental, but before I even began work on it, I was determined not to allow it to become a weapon of any sort. I developed it as a favor for a friend in Antarctica who needed a source of easy and effective power for his research."

"And SKULL wanted it for what purposes?" Savanna shook her head in confusion. "The only sort of power SKULL's concerned with can be bought at the end of a gun."

"I have no idea," Alvarez shook his head sadly. "But they apparently tried to take it from my friend without realizing how unstable it still was. I had him keep it submerged in water at all times, as even the slightest unwanted motion could have catastrophic effects. They did not know this...and now my friend is dead."

"But you said it wasn't nuclear enough to make a bomb out of..." Savanna began and trailed off as Alvarez raised a hand to forestall her.

"It is not, but it is still dangerous, and I can only presume that one of the men sent to claim it was not careful enough. The explosion was not large, but it utterly destroyed the device."

"And so now they've decided to come straight to the source, for whatever reason they may have." Savanna finished, feeling angry. Those murderous fiends wouldn't care who was hurt or how many lives were lost to achieve their goal, and one old man certainly would not be able to stop them.

"Yes, but I still believed I was smarter than them. I had no written documentation on the development of the device. It was all in here," Alvarez tapped the side of his head. "And so what could they do? Torture me? Kill me? I am an old man who has lived a very full and blessed life." His eyes were hard as he looked past Savanna to the wall behind her. "I wouldn't help these bastards create any more death." He smiled wryly and lifted his walking stick. "They tried anyway, and put a bullet into this knee. I told them nothing," he said, his chin lifting in stubborn defiance. "But..." and his head fell, his voice dropping to a whisper as he continued. "...they found another way to get my secrets."

Savanna was uncomprehending for a moment, and then her eyes widened and her hand gripped the arm of the sofa with such force that she nearly tore through the fabric. "Emilio?" she asked in a voice no louder than his. He nodded mournfully. "Those sons of bitches," Savanna growled bitterly.

"You know my dear boy," Alvarez said slowly, "he is not always the fastest with his mind; not stupid, no, but I knew he would never take over the company from me. And that never bothered me, not even the tiniest. He is a kind, gentle boy, and..." Alvarez had to control himself for a moment as emotion nearly overcame him. "...and he was learning to tend bar at this nice club in town. A good, clean place. I was so proud of him." He chuckled, unable to keep the tears from sliding down his lined face. "He was even talking about owning his own nightclub someday." His expression quickly grew hard again. "And now, to force my hand in aiding them, SKULL has kidnapped him."

Savanna closed her eyes for a long moment. "And this is why you called me?"

"When my old housekeeper called me and told me that her sister had seen a woman matching your description in that little town in Italy, I could not believe it. We had thought you were dead, both of us, and now, learning you are alive just when everything seems set to fail me...." Alvarez took a deep breath. "Do you believe in fate, Savanna?"

"Not especially," Savanna said truthfully. She didn't want to believe that all of her life had been planned out in advance, or that some higher power was causing things to happen for specific reasons. Maybe the thought was some comfort to certain people when they had lost all hope and life seemed as bleak as it could be, but Savanna knew where each one of her mistakes had been, and she knew that every time she suffered because of her actions, it was her own doing that had caused it and no one else could accept the blame.

"Well, I believe some kind of providence allowed me to know that you were alive at this time. God or not, you must admit that it is a strange coincidence." Alvarez lifted his wine goblet again and drained it in a single swallow. "And I was hoping that you would be able to help me get my son back safely."

Savanna was silent for nearly a minute, staring beyond Alvarez to the warm night sky outside the window. She knew that she had no choice, not really. Even though a small part of her was afraid of death or of losing the precious freedom she had only recently recovered, she knew that to do nothing was impossible. Ricardo Alvarez and his son had been the closest thing she'd had to family, and to let SKULL destroy them both was unacceptable.

"I'll get him back," Savanna said. "No matter what it takes, I'll get Emilio back."

Alvarez looked relieved. "I hate asking this of you, but I don't know who else I could turn to. No one I know has ever pushed back at those fiends, and having the authorities become involved would be a disaster that would surely end in tragedy. They've already had him for two days now...."

Savanna stood. "I'll do everything in my power to get Emilio home safe."

Alvarez joined her, rising painfully to his feet. "If there is anything I can do to help, just ask and it will be done."

Savanna nodded. "I'll need the name of the local SKULL agent who contacted you, a secure phone number where I can reach you at any hour, and then I'll need you to sit tight and try to keep calm, okay?"

"Yes, yes," Alvarez limped over to a desk, where he dragged a small notepad over and began scribbling down information with a stubby pencil. "I only know the SKULL man's first name, I'm sorry."

"Whatever you've got, I'll take. I can use whatever advantage I can get."

"They...they told me they would get in touch with me again in three days time. If I do not give them what they ask for, they have promised to begin by cutting off his hands and sending them to me." He handed the paper with Savanna's requested information over, the hand holding it shaking in uncontrollably spasms. "I can't let that happen, Savanna." His face was stricken and pale, his sharp eyes clouded with a deeper fear than any human should have to endure.

"It won't come to that," Savanna said, taking the paper from him and holding his trembling hand in both of hers. "I'm making you a promise too, and I promise that nothing will happen to Emilio. I won't let them hurt him." She met his eyes unblinkingly, and her confident exterior helped to ease his fears, even though her guts were a churning mess of nervous horrors. She knew that SKULL would stay true to their word, and that only gave her three days to find and rescue Emilio Alvarez, but she couldn't let Ricardo see her own unease. Because, while SKULL would keep its promise, so would she, and she wouldn't let them turn her into a liar. She was many things, but never a liar.

She gave Alvarez a warm hug, trying her best to instill a measure of assurance from her body to his, and then turned and headed for the door. Something caught her eyes on the way there and she paused, almost stumbling in mid-step.

"Savanna," Alvarez called, not noticing her hesitation. "I never had the chance to say..." he stopped, seemed to reconsider, and then pressed on regardless. "What I mean is, I always had a son, but there have been times when I felt like I had a daughter as well."

Savanna tried to blink away the sudden rush of tears that threatened to overtake her. She couldn't turn back to face him. "I'll be back soon, with Emilio." She started walking again, her eyes going once more to the object hanging on the wall beside a wide, gold-trimmed mirror. It was a watercolor painting of a beach done by someone obviously unskilled in the art of painting; ugly, with unflattering colors and no sense of perspective, lighting, or ambiance, it should have had no place among the Renoir and Picasso sharing its wall, and yet it seemed to hold a place of prominence.

Savanna remembered when she had painted it. So many years ago. Ricardo had tried to teach her how to properly paint, and she had tried to learn, but had only managed the one picture before circumstances ended her lessons. She had been so proud of it at the time....

To see it hanging in that room, the room where the Alvarez family's most cherished memories resided, was nearly too much. Savanna knew that what she had promised Ricardo Alvarez was not going to be easy to fulfill, but she also knew that there was no way she could not try.

The only way she would fail would be if she was dead. And as she returned to her motorcycle, she wondered if the evil, bloody road she had traveled was finally coming to swallow her whole. Everyone had to pay for the dark deeds they had done, and she only hoped that Emilio wouldn't have to pay the tab alongside her. She couldn't let another innocent life suffer because of her.