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Howard stared mutely at the miniature figure on the ground, the man who until a moment ago had been taller than himself. Oblivious to the ecstatic cheer of success from the nearby Stephen, Howard Taylor felt only pity at the sight.
He'd done it again, he thought to himself. Once more, despite swearing an oath to avoid doing so, he'd lifted that accursed collapser and used it on another human being.
So far, he'd used it only three times on actual people. The first time was out of malice, against a woman he thought deserved that fate. The second was out of kindness, to save the life of someone with no other hope of survival. Now, the third time...well, the third time was for revenge.
He could still remember what was going through his mind when he reached reflexively for the collapser back in Rio. He was walking back from the market, passing an alley near a seedy little hotel that was known to cater to criminal elements in the city. Howard avoided that area at night as a matter of course, but on this particular day he'd shopped a bit too long, and now the sun was setting. Then he heard the scream from high above, and looked up to see a human shape come tumbling out of a distant window near the roof.
He reacted instinctively, without a thought, knowing nothing of the victim. Man or female, honest or criminal, black or white...he had no idea. All he saw was a person in trouble. Whoever that was would die if they hit the ground, and the only way to save them was with the device in Howard's hand. He lifted it, fired...and just as swiftly caught the fluttering doll-like figure in his open palm. To this day he still didn't know how he managed to pull that off without dropping or damaging the fragile collapser. The whole maneuver reminded him of younger days, at the park, doing a water balloon toss...except the water balloon was a human being, falling from thirteen stories up, and he had to catch her one-handed.
After that, he realized what he'd done. He'd used the collapser again...and he hated himself for it. But Teresa proved to be a welcome addition to his life. She accepted her new size almost immediately, choosing to believe Howard was the Almighty, and she was now in Heaven, serving His will for all eternity. He was content to let her hold on to that untruth, for it simplified the process and helped keep his mind on the task at hand. He always knew what would happen to her eventually, after all. She'd be back to normal one day, and get a second chance at life. And in the end, he made that happen.
This time, he didn't know what he was going to do. He hadn't thought that far ahead. All he wanted was revenge against Leonard Oliver, the cruel and heartless man who'd killed Kayla Robertson and imprisoned Stephen Matthews. There was no way Howard was going to let Leonard get away with that, and the collapser was the only way to ensure he didn't.
Only now, looking down at the tiny man Stephen was even now lifting carefully and sliding into the cage they'd bought earlier in the day, Howard wasn't so sure about revenge any more. He should've felt a measure of justifiable satisfaction, but instead, all he felt was pity.
The same pity he felt for Kayla Robertson, when he realized at last she was a human being, with hopes and dreams and a life he'd brought to a crashing halt that terrible day he pointed the collapser at her in the park.
He shook his head, trying to push away the feelings of remorse that threatened to swallow him up. Kayla was gone, and he had to accept that. Things were different now. He could restore Leonard at any time. He intended to do just that as soon as the man was punished sufficiently for his crimes. Then Howard would disappear again. Maybe he'd even take that job, and accept the amnesty Jerome Koranski promised him. Maybe then that would be the end of it at last.
"You all right, Howard?" asked Stephen as he inspected the cage, making sure Leonard wouldn't be able to escape when he woke up. The door had a snap-down clasp, the sort that couldn't be opened simply by lifting it with outstretched arms. Maybe if Len had a six-inch length of pipe or something, he could pull it off, but that wasn't going to happen. The inside of the cage was empty, save for the sleeping man sprawled out on the floor.
"I'm fine, I guess," replied Howard. "I just didn't expect to ever use the collapser like that again. Too many painful memories."
"Well, at least it's over now," said Stephen, even though he knew otherwise. "Just one more thing to do."
"Yeah." Howard nodded and started walking towards the house. "Let's go see if we can't find that other collapser."
Renee was getting anxious, sitting there amidst the bowl of wooden fruit. Where were Len and Howard? What was going on out there? What was so important it couldn't wait until she was normal sized again?
She thought about climbing out, but there was something, the faintest hint of suspicion in the back of her trained policewoman's brain, that warned against it. Maybe something else was going on. As much as she hoped it wasn't, there was always that chance. Months of keeping on her guard, whenever she and Len went out, made her somewhat overcautious. Better that than make some terrible mistake and get caught.
Finally, after what seemed like forever, she heard footsteps coming up the porch. She sat up and peered out through a gap between the wooden fruit. The door opened and Howard entered, saying something about the collapser, and why it couldn't be allowed to fall into the wrong hands. So very true, Renee thought. That thing was a menace. If Len didn't need it to supply his guests with miniaturized food and water, he probably would've smashed it long ago.
Howard entered, and then another man came in. Renee froze, automatically dropping down lower in the bowl. That wasn't Len, it was someone else! Who else would be here, though? Who would Howard bring, unless...?
Then she realized who it was. His clothes were new, and he'd shaved and cut his hair, but there was no mistaking the accursed face of Stephen Matthews. And now, to make matters worse, he was normal sized!
Then she saw the cage dangling from his hand, and her blood ran cold. She hunkered down as best she could, staying out of sight, tears running down her face as she realized Len, her Len, was Stephen's latest victim.
Since the others left, Kayla had busied herself trying to find a way out of the ventilation duct. Unfortunately, every grating she came to was securely screwed in. There was no way she could muster the strength to twist those bolts from the inside. All she could do was watch the living room, apparently.
She knew she should probably hurry downstairs, to wait for Howard to come down there with Len, but still she hesitated. Something about this still wasn't right. The paranoid side of her insisted she should still stay hidden. If nothing else, Len would surely restore Renee first. Once Kayla saw that happen, maybe then she'd be satisfied.
Or maybe not. The more she thought about it, the more paranoid she became.
She knew now why Len went through that elaborate line of questioning before. There was only one reason why he'd learn of Howard's return earlier in the day and not come straight here. Len as much as admitted it a few minutes ago--he wanted to keep Renee as she was. Maybe he still had some ulterior motive in mind. Maybe he was going to take the restorer, use it on Renee and keep the rest of them as pets.
That was ridiculous, of course, and yet she stayed in place, watching through the grating by the doorway, waiting to see what would happen.
A few minutes later, Howard came in, and then someone else followed. Kayla felt a chill. She couldn't see the man, but those weren't the shoes Len was wearing before, so it wasn't him at all. Then she heard the newcomer speak, and her whole body went numb.
There was no mistaking that voice. She still had nightmares about that deep, menacing tone bellowing down from high above. To hear it now was like a dagger to her heart.
The voice of Stephen Matthews!
Then she saw the cage, and Len's unconscious form. All feeling left her, and she very nearly fainted right then and there.
"Howard, you goddamn idiot!" she screamed out loud, voice echoing like thunder off the metal walls, but of course he didn't hear.
Downstairs, Mary finished another lap and pulled up to the edge of the pool, resting for a bit. Sometimes she wished the pool was larger, so she didn't have to turn around as much, but she could hardly complain. Having a swimming pool at all was something of a luxury. She didn't even know how Howard managed to fit such a thing in the top of an ordinary table, anyway.
He really was a genius, much as she hated to admit it.
Taking a sip from the ice-cold drink waiting nearby, she perked up her ears and listened as the door upstairs slammed shut. Someone coming back in, she thought. Good, maybe she'd find out what was going on up there pretty soon. She was starting to get a bit impatient.
If only I'd climbed up there with Kayla, she thought to herself, and shook her head. No way that was ever going to happen!
Grinning at the very impossibility of such a thought, she plunged back into the water and began another round of laps.
"Okay," said Stephen, "I guess the hunt is on. I wonder where he hid it this time?"
"You were the one who was here," said Howard, looking around at the sparsely decorated living room. "What hiding places did he have?"
"Nothing I could get to, down there at floor level," his friend replied. "I'll check up here behind these books. You try the upstairs cabinets in the kitchen. I saw him reach up over the refrigerator once, so you might find it there."
Howard nodded and walked through the dining room, glancing on top of the nearby china cabinet as he did so. He didn't see the little face hunkered down in the shadowy bowl on the table he passed by. The tiny figure hiding there was paralyzed with fear. The idea never occurred to Renee to try to shout a warning to Howard. Had she done so, what happened next might've turned out differently.
As soon as Howard was out of sight, Stephen rushed over to the shelf adjoining the television and pushed the books up top out of the way. He knew exactly where the collapser was hidden, after all. Once the fragile was at last secure in his trembling hands, he quickly inspected the controls, making sure everything was exactly the way he remembered it. Satisfied, he gripped it securely, an evil grin sweeping over his face.
His whole body felt invigorated, and his heart was pounding. He had the power now. He'd beaten the odds, taken advantage of his opportunities, and seized victory when it presented itself. Now he could finally do what he'd been dreaming of for all these many long and dreary months.
He stepped into the dining room. Howard was on his tiptoes, looking through the upper cabinets. "Nothing here," he said without glancing away. "Any luck?"
"Yeah, I should think so," said Stephen with a smile, struggling to hold back his elation. "Have a look."
Howard dropped back on his heels and turned. He was standing in the kitchen hallway, fully exposed, with nowhere to hide. He was a sitting duck. "Ah, you found it, good," he said, smiling. "Now let me have it, and..."
He must've seen the look on Stephen's face. Or maybe it was the way Stef was holding the device's handle so firmly, with the lens pointed directly at Howard's chest. Either way, the former scientist's eyebrows went up and a look of pained horror crossed his pudgy face.
"You...you aren't going to give it to me, are you?" he asked softly after a moment.
"No, I'm not," Stephen replied matter-of-factly. "You always were a fool, Howard. You always thought the best of me. Sorry to disappoint you."
Howard gave a slow and fatalistic nod. For a moment it seemed as if he understood. As if, perhaps, he knew in the back of his mind that this might happen, but just hadn't wanted to believe it until now.
"Down you go," said Stephen, and with that he pulled the trigger.
Stephen's grin of triumph instantly transformed into a shocked expression of disbelief. "What the hell?" he blurted in surprise, pulling the trigger again, but with the same result.
He turned the weapon and fired it at the toaster oven nearby. There was a satisfying pop and the device was suddenly one-sixteenth its normal size. Instantly Stephen swung the collapser around, pointed it at Howard, and pulled the trigger one more time, but once again, there was no response. The device simply failed to work.
"I should've listened to that little inner voice," Howard muttered, almost to himself, making no attempt to run or hide. His shoulders were slumped and he looked absolutely crushed. "I should've known. Everything you told me was a lie, wasn't it, Stef? You told me what you needed me to hear, so you could get what you wanted. So you could get your hands on that thing."
"What's going on?" complained Stephen. "Why the hell won't you shrink, god damn it!"
"Safety protocols," Howard explained with a shrug, as if the answer should've been intuitively obvious. "Can't have myself getting accidently miniaturized during some experiment, now can I? It won't work on me, Stephen. I programmed it not to accept me as a target. You'll have to subdue me some other way. Damn, it's a shame I didn't bring the other collapser inside, but that's what I get for trusting my old friend. We were friends once, Stephen. You remember that, don't you?"
"Shut up! Just shut the hell up!"
"Or what? You'll kill me? Is that what you're going to do now, Stephen, now that you can't just shrink me down? How many other people have you done it to? How many did you use that thing on before Leonard Oliver caught you and put a stop to it?"
"SHUT UP!" roared Stephen. All at once he lost control, charging Howard, who must've known he stood no chance. The little man put up no resistance. He seemed already defeated, lacking any energy to fight. He barely even uttered a cry of pain as Stephen slammed into him, knocking him flat on his back, and then landed a single gut-wrenching punch to his stomach.
Howard coughed and gasped for air. The wind was completely knocked out of him, and all he could do was wheeze. Stephen stood over the poor man, repeatedly clenching and unclenching his fists, slowly cooling his rage. "I'm not going to kill you, Howard," he said, eyes blazing. "I'm going to do far worse than that. I'm going to make you watch as you see what your handiwork has caused."
"D-do what you want to me," he gasped, "b-but don't hurt anyone else. Please, Stephen, they aren't toys. They're human beings, and so are you. If you were ever my friend, even for a little while, please...please, just let them go."
For a long and bitter moment, Stephen Matthews hesitated. He remembered, in that instant, his life before all this. A pleasant afternoon at the golf course, a Sunday at the football stadium, a day at work with Howard as they bitched in secret about the latest demand from the Ice Queen Kayla Robertson. A laugh, a smile, a few faded memories long past.
Those were better times, but they were gone.
For that briefest of seconds, Stephen had a chance to turn aside from the path he'd chosen. To do the right thing, hand over the collapser, and run while he still had the opportunity. To leave it all behind, find a new place to start again, where people didn't keep their enemies locked up in tiny houses in their basement. For that one brief shining moment, Stephen saw that future, and then, just as quickly, he threw it all away.
"Not a chance, Howard," he hissed through clenched teeth. "I've got the power now, and I'm going to keep it. Now if I can't shrink you down, I'll just have to subdue you some other way. There's got to be some rope around here somewhere."
In the vent, Kayla saw some of that exchange, and heard the rest of it. Her body felt numb and she kept shivering uncontrollably, despite the even temperature.
Stephen was normal sized again, she thought miserably. What a nightmare! The only thing keeping her from breaking down completely was that she was, at least for the moment, safe in the air ducts. The only person that knew she was here was...
She was still downstairs, in the Estate! And, Kayla realized immediately, Mary was still unaware that anything was going on. There was still a chance she could be saved, if only Kayla could get to one of the panic rooms before Stephen got down there.
Without another moment of hesitation, she turned and ran.
In the fruit basket on the table, Renee choked back sobs. She knew she couldn't afford to make any noise. That horrible Stephen Matthews was only a couple of feet away, busily tying the hapless Howard to one of the dining room chairs. The little man didn't even try to resist. The look on his face was one of total hopelessness.
Much as she felt, Renee considered. Everything was falling apart around her. Stephen was in control, Len was in a cage, and Howard, the man who'd promised to fix everything, was now a prisoner. Any minute now, Stephen would march downstairs to collect the other two women, who had no idea any of this was going on. What would he do with them, once he had them in his clutches again?
Worst of all, Renee was going to have a ringside seat. She couldn't just hide and not listen to whatever was about to happen, unless...
She nodded to herself. That just might work. She was going to have to take a chance, though. The sort of risk she never dared to take, not once since she came to be this way. Even so, it was her only shot.
Outside, Stephen finished tying up his prisoner, adding a few extra, complex knots just for good measure. As soon as the much smaller man was safely secured, Stef dug the restoration device out of Howard's pocket. Holding it up, he studied it at length. Such a simple looking thing, and so fragile...it would be so easy to simply smash it to bits, trapping all his enemies at their present size. Yet the memory of his own months spent at the same scale was still fresh in his mind. There was always a chance that he might find himself miniaturized again, no matter how distasteful the possibility.
Besides which, he thought to himself, once he'd conditioned Kayla again, and the all-too-willing Mary, he could always enlarge them--properly restrained, of course--and enjoy something a little more physical. As much as he liked playing with his little toys, conventional sex with Mary was just as satisfying, if not more so. He often wondered what it would be like with Kayla, too, although he doubted it would be worth the risk. She might just turn on him at the wrong moment. Mary, though...no, Mary would never do that. She'd lose control of herself, just like she always did, and when it was all over, it was back to doll size for her.
After a while, she'd probably thank him, and then beg for more...
Smiling at the possibilities, Stephen placed the CFR up on top of the refrigerator, far out of reach of anyone. Even if someone small could get to it, there was no way they could aim it without knocking it onto the distant floor, and that would be the end of that. Besides, let them try. It would make them all the easier to capture.
Grinning, Stephen turned back to his prisoner. "I'm surprised at you, Howard," he said with a gloating tone. "I would've thought you'd at least struggle a bit. You could've made that much more difficult for me."
"What's the point?" sighed the defeated ex-scientist. "I was never a match for you, Stef. Not before, and certainly not now."
"That's true." Stephen nodded. "You know what I think? I think you're just biding your time, saving your strength. Well, it's not going to work, you know. You're not getting out of this one."
"What are you going to do, Stephen? I can't believe you'd just kill me. Not in cold blood. If you think I'm going to try to escape, or fight you, so you can satisfy what's left of your conscience by calling it self-defense, you're quite mistaken."
"Actually," Stef replied with a grin, "I'm not going to keep you long. In fact, there's no real reason to stick around this place any more. I'll let you go eventually. First, though, you're going to get a ringside seat for the little show I'm planning. Maybe if you want I'll let you join in."
"I can't believe you," sighed Howard. "You used to be a good man, Stephen. What happened to you?"
"You gave me a gift," he answered, still grinning in satisfaction, "and I made the most of it. Now stick around a bit. I've got a few little friends I'd like you to meet."
Mary finished her set and took a long drink from the glass nearby. Stretching, she contemplated another few laps, then decided against it. She'd been in the pool so long her fingers were starting to wrinkle.
She stepped out of the water and dried herself off, noting with a nod that the stack of towels was getting low. Time to toss the dirty ones in the laundry, along with maybe a few other things. Sometimes she wished Len could just take all their hampers at once and dump the whole mess of clothes in the normal-sized washer, but that just wouldn't work. Only miniaturized water cleaned miniaturized fabric, after all.
Not that she minded a few chores. Len took care of most of the hard work with those giant fingers of his. The least she could do was pitch in where she had to.
She was reaching for the hamper when she heard the faint voice yelling from somewhere in the distance. Pausing, she struggled to pick out the words. Who was it, anyway, and why were they shouting from so far away? Had she left the TV on, or...?
The voice was Kayla's, Mary realized suddenly. "What?" she yelled, looking up at the glass roof, even though she couldn't see anything beyond it. "I can't hear you!"
"Stephen!" came the first word she recognized. "Howard captured...coming down...panic room...PANIC ROOM!"
Mary dropped the stack of towels at once, suddenly numb with fear. She didn't make out the rest of what was said, but those last two words could only mean one thing. Something very bad was happening up there, and unless she wanted to be part of it, she had get to safety right away.
There was no time to change clothes, or put on shoes, or do anything else at all. Mary didn't pause or hesitate, but dashed across the courtyard, towards the cycling track and the distant exit beyond.
Stephen's initial thought was to shout something insulting at the tiny women in their glass-covered Estate as he approached, but he decided against it at the last minute. There was no reason to give them any time at all to prepare for his arrival.
He walked down the stairs slowly, giddy with excitement. In moments, he'd have those little bitches in his hands again, right where he wanted them! He'd dreamed of this moment for months, and now, all his patience was going to pay off.
He stepped in front of the glass case and looked inside. They would have no way to know he was there, he thought in satisfaction. They'd be lounging around the pool or watching television, or something equally mindless, and he could enjoy the sight of them one last time before reaching in to haul them away. He could enjoy their very last moments of freedom.
Except they weren't there. He searched around, checking all the places he knew they liked to go, and there was no sign of them at all. What the hell was going on?
Could they hear what was happening upstairs? He doubted that very much, unless they had amplifiers of some kind. From his cage under the stairs, Stephen couldn't hear anything up top except the occasional muffled footstep. So where could they possibly be? The panic rooms, maybe...?
He stepped around the table, hoping that wasn't the case, because they'd be that much harder to get a hold of. That's when he spotted the barest hint of motion coming from near the floor. There was a thread there, tied to a post on the tabletop. He knew it well, for that was the means by which Mary would exit the Estate on her way to visit him, in one of her many late-night forays. In fact, right now she was descending that very rope, looking more than a little panicked as she slipped towards the floor, dressed in nothing but a sky-blue string bikini that covered almost nothing.
Stephen grinned and moved closer to get a better look. Tiny Mary was so intent on flight she hadn't noticed his presence yet. He waited, enjoying the view and her hopeless desperation, until she got all the way to the floor. Then, in the instant she let go of the rope and started to run, his fingers clasped around her, lifting her into the air like she weighed nothing at all.
Her pathetic little screams were music to his ears.
From the crack in the ceiling, Kayla cursed. So close! Mary was only about a foot away from the little cavity along the floorboard that led into the panic room below. If only the refuge had been closer...but Len built it in the only place he could, the only spot along the wall with any chance to protect his tiny guests from capture, should someone who knew of their existence break into the building while he was away.
Not that it would matter now. Stephen probably knew those rooms were there. He could obviously move around the building pretty much at will. If he thought Renee or herself was hiding in there, he could get them out. A crowbar would take care of it easily enough.
Kayla quickly ascended back into the ventilation duct. The more she thought about Stephen's escape, the more she cursed herself. How did he get himself loose from that neck chain? Probably the same way she got out of the building, back when she was his prisoner--persistence, and lack of any safeguards. No, they had all become very complacent, hadn't they? They liked to put him out of their minds. Well, everyone but Mary, anyway.
At least Kayla couldn't hear those screams anymore as she moved back upstairs as quickly as she could. Mary's wails were those of abject despair. Stephen was going to have his way with her again, no doubt, and this time she probably wouldn't enjoy it nearly as much.
Or maybe she would. Kayla frowned at the thought, but forced herself to at least consider it. When Stephen first kidnapped Mary, he tortured her with sexual pleasure, and she came very close to breaking. In fact, she probably did break, but hadn't quite realized it at the time. It hadn't taken very long, either. He'd surely do the same thing again. How long would it be before Mary was his willing slave?
And what about the others? The last time Kayla saw Renee, she was up on the table near where Howard was now tied up. If she had any brains at all, she'd be trying to climb down to the floor right about now, while Stephen was still downstairs.
Renee listened to Stephen's footsteps heading down into the basement. For a few more moments, she hesitated, making sure he didn't come right back up again. Then she looked out through the gap in the wooden fruit at the giant form of Howard Taylor.
Ever since she'd been miniaturized, Renee had lived in fear of being seen by anyone other than Leonard. There had been close calls, but no one ever spotted her. Now she was going to step out there, right in front of another giant, and she didn't want to do it, even though she knew, intellectually, that she had no other choice.
Gritting her teeth, she pushed her way out from the gap between two fruits and clambered out of the bowl. At first, Howard didn't seem to see her. Then his eyes went wide as she gave a weak and pitiful little wave.
"Nice to see you again, Howard," she called out, moving closer so he could hear. She had to force herself to take every step, shuddering with nervousness and trepidation. "You don't recognize me, do you? We met briefly, way back when. I'm Detective Renee Allen."
"Oh, my God," mumbled the giant. "You were Leonard's partner! What happened to you? Did Stephen do this to you?"
"Yes," she replied sadly. "And to another woman, who you're going to meet soon. I don't have much time. Pretty soon he'll figure out I'm not down there and start hunting for me. I need to get down to the floor and hide. Can I...can I climb down on you?"
"Yes, of course," he replied at once, "but you have to do something for me once you get down there."
Renee stepped closer, looking down at his gigantic body and the ropes wrapped all around, binding him tightly to the chair. "I can't possibly get you free," she replied, shaking her head. "There's not enough time."
"No, not that. Don't waste time trying to untie those knots. I'm perfectly fine right here." Howard shifted uncomfortably, but didn't complain about his bonds. "Listen to me very carefully. I want you to let him see you--"
"What?" Renee was aghast. "You can't be serious! Let him spot me, so he can grab me, and...no! It's not happening! Do you have any idea what he's capable of?"
"I can guess, but you have to trust me," insisted Howard urgently. "After he sees you, you have to--oh, damn, I don't have time to explain! Just go, quickly! He's coming back upstairs!"
Renee glanced over her shoulder in fear. The sound of approaching footsteps was unmistakable. There was no time to be subtle or cautious about climbing down Howard's chest. Steeling herself, she took two steps back, then charged forward, leaped out into the air, and landed directly in his lap.
Stephen pounded into view a moment later, fist still wrapped tightly around the struggling Mary. With an air of triumph he sauntered back into the kitchen, put his hand on the table, and dumped her out. The tiny woman rolled to a stop, curled up into a ball, and quivered, weeping softly.
"This," said Stephen with a smile, "is Mary Blaisdale. Mary, meet Howard Taylor, your would-be savior. Ha ha ha!"
Mary lifted her head slowly. Howard's face was there, big as a blimp, with glasses that looked two feet thick. His eyes regarded her with sadness and his face was drawn and pale.
"So this is one of your victims," he said slowly. "This is one of the people you chose to turn into a toy."
"Yes, all thanks to you," replied Stephen, still grinning. "You left me the collapser, so I figured, why not use it? Especially when Mary here decided to try to bring me up on sexual harassment charges at work. Charges that were completely false, and fabricated by herself to smear my good name."
"Right, your good name," scoffed Howard sarcastically. "As if you really needed an excuse."
"No, it's true!" protested Stephen. "Stand up, Mary, so Howard can get a better look at you. Then tell him the truth. Tell him what you did."
She got to her feet, wiping her eyes. Stephen thought she looked quite fetching in that little blue bikini of hers, all the more so because she was in his power once again, and quite obviously knew it. The barely-there outfit had to make her feel even more exposed, reinforcing her helplessness, as if she really need any further help in that regard.
"I-it's true," she admitted in a quiet voice. "I did bring charges against him."
"And?" insisted Stephen, poking at her with a finger. "Tell him the rest of it."
"I-I set the whole thing up," she mumbled weakly. "I wanted to get him fired. He was a terrible manager, and no one would see that, so I had to find another way." Then she suddenly turned to him, her expression turning to one of anger, and pointed a tiny finger towards Stephen's face. "You deserved it!" she screamed. "You deserved that and much, much worse! What you did to me is proof of that!"
Stephen roared with laughter. "Oh, Mary, I love it when you're mad!" He plucked her off the table, oblivious to her screams of protest, and held her up to his face. "You and I are going to have so much fun together. Aren't we, Mary? You know you like it when I hold you down, and tease you just like this."
He shifted her in his grip, so his thumb and forefinger had her by the waist. His other hand came over, and his fingers gripped her left thigh, squeezing and sliding slowly upward. "Stop it, Stephen!" she yelled, kicking with her other leg, beating at his thumb, fighting with all her might and accomplishing nothing at all. "Stop it, damn you! God damn you to Hell!"
He continued to fondle her, licking his lips, searching for the right spots to prod, for it had been some time since he'd held her quite like this. Mary's screams of protest soon changed to wails of another type altogether. "She really does like this," commented Stephen, grinning at the horrified captive sitting in the chair. "Don't you, Mary? Go on, admit it. You know you like this more than anything in the world."
"No...no! Stephen, stop--!"
"Stop? You don't really want me to stop, do you? Not when I can do this right here. Or maybe this. Or this."
"Oh, God, no!" Mary howled. "Please, don't...Stephen, please...oh...God...yes, yes, YES...!"
She spasmed and collapsed, sagging in his grip. Stephen laughed for several seconds, stroking her hair as an afterthought. "You see, Howard? It's so easy, with someone as malleable as Mary. I can make her do anything I want, like a puppet on a string."
"You're horrible," hissed Howard, shaking his head slowly. "Absolutely horrible. I can't believe you, Stephen. I just can't believe you."
"Oh, don't be like that, you hypocrite!" snapped Stephen, cupping Mary in his hand. She was crying now, curled up in a fetal position, and he didn't seem to care at all. "You were the one who started this! You shrunk Kayla Robertson, don't forget!"
"I never did anything like that to her!" Howard argued back. "Not once! I thought about it, sure. I fantasized about it. But I never...I never did anything like that!"
Stephen laughed and laughed. "Oh, my God! You're even more of a loser than I thought! You had her in the palm of your hand, and you didn't even act on it? You couldn't even do something that simple? Wow, Howard, I thought you were a wimp before, but this really takes the cake!"
"She's not a toy, Stephen! She's a human being!"
"Not like this she isn't." Stephen lifted Mary up, holding her out for Howard to see. The fight had left her now, and she just dangled limply in his grip, tears flowing freely down her face. "Don't you see, Howard? You gave me the power, my friend, and I really do appreciate it. Now, let me demonstrate what that power can do. You see, Mary's my little puppet now. She'll do whatever I ask, because she knows if she doesn't, I can hurt her very much. Or, worse, if she's really bad, I won't play with her any more. You want me to play with you again, don't you, Mary? Don't you?"
She didn't do anything for a moment, and then, with a sad little sigh, Mary nodded weakly.
"Good! There, you see, Howard? This little toy likes to be played with. Likes it a lot. Now, tell me where she is, Mary. Go on, tell me. If you do, I'll make it much, much better next time."
"Tell you where who is?" Mary all but whispered, looking up at him with eyes filled with utter hopelessness.
"Who else?" he replied, as if she should already know the answer. "Kayla Robertson. Tell me where Kayla is, Mary. Tell me where she is right now!"
On the floor, behind Howard's feet, Renee listened in horror to the events transpiring on the table high above. That could be me, she thought, trembling all over. If I'd been caught...that could be me getting tortured up there.
Let him see me. That's what Howard wanted her to do. What then? There was something else, something more he wanted to say, but now it was too late. Why would he want her to give herself away? As soon as Stephen saw her, he'd snatch her up, and then...
Renee shut her eyes. She didn't want to think about what would happen next. Her worst nightmares would come true.
She could remember the things Kayla told her, in those first few days after the rescue and Renee's horrifying change of size. The horrors he visited on his unfortunate captive, all to break Kayla's will and make her his personal slave. Had things continued, she probably would've lost her mind forever. He would do that to Kayla again, Renee knew, and to her as well. Just as he was doing to Mary right now.
Renee couldn't stay where she was, on the floor behind Howard's gigantic shoes. She knew that much. Eventually, he'd spot her. The best way to help anyone right now was to get Len out of that cage, and to do that she had to get out of this room. Actually reaching the cage would come later, when Stephen eventually moved out of sight.
She quickly maneuvered along the edge of the dining room, keeping the tabletop in between her and Stephen's face. His feet and legs were right there, massively huge, capable of crushing her in an instant, if he shifted in his chair. Even today, months after being miniaturized, she still wasn't used to the sheer immenseness of everything. Perhaps that was because, up until now, she'd always had Leonard there to ease the shock.
Now...now he was over there, in that cage, the same size as herself. She'd wanted to be his size for quite some time, but not like this. No, not like this at all. If only they could be normal again...
She came to the edge of the floorboard, to a spot where she'd have to momentarily step into the open, and hesitated. Stephen was questioning Mary again, so his attention was elsewhere. She had to hope she could move without him noticing.
Holding her breath, she darted around the corner, half expecting his giant form to leap from the chair and snatch her up. That didn't happen, though. He hadn't seen her. She was safe, at least for now.
Hurriedly, Renee ran across the living room, angling for the distant couch. Once behind that, she knew she'd be safe from being accidentally spotted. The cage wasn't far away, either. Keeping an eye over her shoulder, she made sure she stayed out of Stephen's sight. If he noticed her now, even the couch wouldn't protect her. He'd just lift it up and pluck her off the floor.
She made it, slipping into the shadow against the wall. That's when the heard another sound, a piping voice from not so far away. "Over here!" came the words. "Renee! Over here!"
She turned to look, and there, through the wall-mounted heater grating, was the urgently waving form of Kayla.
In the wall, Kayla watched as Renee came closer and closer, finally passing the vent without noticing her. Kayla kept on waving and calling out until finally Renee picked up on the sound. Damn, weren't police officers supposed to have sharper senses, or something? Apparently not.
"Good, you got away," Kayla yelled, now that she'd finally been spotted. "Stay there, in the shadows, so he can't see you. We can talk safely from here. Our voices won't carry that far, obviously."
"What are you doing in there?" demanded Renee.
"I get bored a lot," replied Kayla, rolling her eyes at the ridiculous question, "and I like to climb around. That doesn't matter now. We have to get you hidden somewhere better. See if you can loosen this screw, so you can get back here with me. He'll never get us out of these air ducts."
Renee tried, but the bolt was firmly set. "I have a question," she asked worriedly, in between futile twists and tugs. "Howard told me to let myself get spotted. Why would he do that?"
"He said that? Why?" wondered Kayla immediately. "I have no idea. Unless he's working with Stephen...but that doesn't make sense. I'm pretty sure they weren't acting earlier. Besides, why go through all that elaborate song and dance if they were working together?"
"I'm not sure," replied Renee, "but he told me to let Stephen see me. He wanted to say something else, but there wasn't time."
"Maybe he has a bomb under his jacket," Kayla suggested with a shrug. "and wants to use it when Stephen's looking for you. I wouldn't put it past him. God, he's such an idiot! I should've known he'd screw this up. Any luck?"
"No, it won't budge," complained Renee.
"Okay, then, see if you can find a coin or something. There's a couch right here--there's always pennies under a couch."
"Are you serious? It's filthy down there!"
Kayla stared at her. "Are you fucking kidding me? Our lives are on the line and you're whining about getting dirty? God, you're pathetic! I thought you were a cop, for God's sake!"
Renee took a step back, taken by surprise by the sudden outburst. "If that's the way you're going to be..." she began.
"Okay, maybe that was a bit harsh," Kayla hurriedly added by way of apology, "but look, you really don't want him catching you, do you?"
"No, you're right." Renee looked down at the dark opening underneath the sofa, which she could see was filled with dust and cobwebs. "I'm sorry, Kayla. I forget sometimes what you went through. It's been so easy for me, and now...I'm just not used to this."
"Time for a crash course!" Kayla insisted. "Now hurry, before he stops screwing around with Mary and gets around to looking for us!"
For the first time since being caught by surprise by Stephen's betrayal, Howard's expression turned hopeful. He wasn't sure, until that moment, how much of his former friend's story had been lies. All of it, apparently, and at least one part of that was welcome news.
"Yes, Howard, she's alive. Damn, you really have a thing for her, don't you? I thought you were going to bust out crying when I fed you that line earlier."
"I made her a promise," replied Howard ruefully. "I told her I'd be back. I thought I'd failed her."
"Well, you did, in the end," said Stephen. "Of course, now she thinks she can just hide from me down there, probably in one of those silly panic rooms of theirs. Which one is it, Mary? Go on, you can tell me. Tell me where she is, and I'll make you scream like you never screamed before."
Mary tried to curl up in his hand, to push herself into the deepest part of his palm, but he didn't allow it. Instead, he spread her out, face down, arms and legs wide open, and started to run his fingertip up and down her back. "Come on, Mary. You know you want to tell me. You know how much you like this. Where is Kayla, Mary?"
"I...I don't know..." the tiny woman wailed. "Please, Stephen...don't..."
"Yes, Mary. Tell me. I know you know where she is."
His touch was relentless. He rubbed her slowly and deliberately, up and down her back, around her legs, across her pert little derriere. He knew from experience where to touch her, where she liked to be poked and where she liked to be squeezed, and with each special spot she found, she moaned in accursed ecstasy.
"No...I won't...betray..." Mary gasped in protest. Nearby, Howard tried to shut his eyes, but couldn't. His gaze was fixed on Stephen, filled with disgust and disappointment, and no small amount of horror at what he was seeing.
"You forget, Mary, I know what you like. I know you all too well. How much you like it when I do this. And this." Her sudden cries made him smile with satisfaction, and he slowly worked his fingers around her thighs, which spread apart even further of their own accord. Yes, she couldn't resist, he thought. So helpless before me. Just like Kayla will be, when I finally get my hands on her.
She started to rock back and forth in his palm, little fingers digging into the thick skin around his thumb. Her cries grew ever louder and higher in pitch. "Ohhhhh...omigod...oh, please, Stephen, harder, harder...please...!"
Stephen chuckled. He loved it when she begged. Such a perfect little toy. How he'd missed this!
"Where is Kayla?" he repeated. "Just tell me, Mary, and I'll give you what you want. Tell me. Tell me now!"
"Ohgodohgodohgod...no...don't stop...right there! There! Stephen, please! Omigod please Stephen please please please ohgodohgod Stephen ohgod she climbed the walls ohgodohgod Stephen please she went into the ceiling...!"
That was what he needed to hear. Stephen grinned and squeezed downward with his fingertip, driving it up between Mary's wildly thrusting legs, and she squealed for several seconds until he thought her voice might break.
Across the table, with a heavy heart, Howard Taylor hung his head in shame.
"There, you see, Howard? My pretty little font of information. You should see some of the things she'll do, just to buy another session like that. Truly amazing, really, when you think about it."
Howard didn't say anything. All he did was glare. There seemed to be little point in arguing with Stephen any more. He was going to do whatever he wanted, and nothing Howard could say would stop that from happening.
"Aww, poor little thing's all tired out," chuckled Stephen, absently rubbing Mary's back for a moment. She didn't react, but just lay there, panting and gasping, covered in sweat, not even able to cry any more. The look on her miniature face was of utter and total surrender. Howard doubted she could even stand.
The worst part about that whole scene was the way Mary responded. She liked being treated that way--she enjoyed being tortured with sex. Howard could tell. He didn't know anything about Mary Blaisdale, but he knew sexual ecstasy when he heard it. Despite what Stephen might think about him, he was no stranger to lovemaking. Somewhat predictably, an analytical sort like Howard was took an intellectual approach to the process, always planning and calculating the ideal sensual experience based on the personality of his partner. He may not be attractive to look at, but he had a lot to offer a woman, if she could get past his nerdy exterior.
Mary, despite her situation, clearly enjoyed what was just done to her. Stephen had obviously done that to her many times, for the easy way he brought her to the edge, and held her there until she spilled her little guts, could only come from experience. Howard could tell, also, that she hadn't really wanted to answer. She tried to resist, but it was impossible, at least for her. Everyone had their breaking points, and Stephen clearly found Mary's long ago.
"Now, then," Stef went on as if nothing untoward had happened, "now that we know where Kayla ran off to, I'm going to go see if I can find her. I suppose I should look for Renee, too. You remember her, right, Howard? Detective Renee Allen, partner of our old friend over there? Yep, I shrunk her too, although I have to admit, that one wasn't planned. She just picked the wrong time to step into the collapser beam."
"There's no end to this, is there?" demanded Howard, giving no visual clue to the fact that he'd already seen the miniature Renee. "How many more, Stephen? How many more have you enslaved?"
"Those were the only two," he admitted with a shrug, "not counting Kayla, of course. Anyway, I'm not so worried about Renee, actually. She has no idea what she's doing. She was tiny for six months and I bet never once did she really find out what it was like. She's in a panic room for sure. Anyway, I can flush her out easily enough, as soon as Len's awake. She'll come running when I threaten him, I assure you. Kayla, though...well, I'm going to go have a look, not that I expect to find her, but that's not the only thing I'm going to do. Until then, Mary, you can wait in the cage."
"No, please, not a cage," muttered the tiny woman in his hand, looking up at him with pleading eyes. "No, Stephen, please! I'll do anything you want. Anything."
"I know you will, my dear. I know you will." He carried her over to the middle of the floor and kneeled down, opening up the cage door with an easy flip of the lever. "Off you go, now. Go on, go. I'll be back to play with you later."
She didn't resist as he pushed her off his hand with a finger, collapsing onto the floor next to Leonard, who was still unconscious. She couldn't even look at him, instead just turning away and hurrying to a corner, where she sank to the floor and folded up into a ball.
"Don't be so sad," said Stephen. "You know you always wanted this, Mary. You always wanted it to be this way again. That's why you kept coming to me, all those times. You wanted it to be like before, you just couldn't say it. You couldn't admit it. Now think of all the fun we'll have. I'll be back soon, don't you fear."
He stroked her hair one time, then pulled his arm back out of the cage. "Oh, yeah, one other thing," he told her. "You morons didn't bother to lock me in, you know. I could get out of that old thing downstairs so easily it was like child's play. Me, though, you see, I came prepared. When Howard and I were out shopping this afternoon, I made sure I got one of these."
He reached into his pocket and withdrew a small object, which he attached very deliberately to the front door of her new prison. Mary glanced over at it, shuddering, and the very last glimmer of hope faded from her soul.
It was a padlock.
Nearby, Renee was cowering in the shadows behind the sofa, trying to wipe away the clingy cobwebs that seemed to be stuck to every millimeter of her tiny body. Leaning against the wall was a tarnished dime, the only coin she managed to find in all that crawling around. She felt filthy and disgusted, even more so as she cleared away a clump of sticky webs and found the dried husk of some unidentified insect trapped in there. What else did she touch under that couch...?
She knew she shouldn't be so squeamish. When she was normal, she worked all manner of cases, some of which were very gory. That was bearable, though. She'd been trained for that. Crawling in the gunk beneath a couch, at only four inches high, was something else again.
She had to do it, though. She could hear the distant sound of Stephen's words as he tortured Mary, in a way that made her skin crawl more than any dead bug ever could. He could make poor Mary tell him anything he wanted to know. Sooner or later, she'd tell him everything, including the fact that Leonard brought his tiny girlfriend upstairs after he got home. Then the search would be on, and if Renee couldn't get somewhere safe by then, she'd be as good as caught.
Finally, Stephen got finished at the cage and tromped away. To Renee's relief, he headed down the stairs, the footsteps disappearing into the depths of the house. Off to hunt for Kayla, obviously, but she wasn't there. She was in the wall, where Renee hoped to be very soon.
She hurried out of the shadow with the dime, jamming it quickly into the bolt and twisting as best she could. The coin was as big around as a pie plate and, at least to her, very thick and unwieldy. Plus, it only barely fit in the slot, with a curved edge instead of the flat one a screwdriver would've presented. The harder she tried, the more it slipped and missed.
"Come on, push it in there," insisted Kayla impatiently from behind the grate. "Hold it in, and then turn! Here, let me try holding it." Helpfully, she shoved her arms through as far as she could, gripping the edges of the dime and hanging on. That made things easier, but still, the bolt refused to budge.
"It's probably rusted in," complained Renee after finally losing her grip again. "We have to try something else."
"There's another grating over that way," said Kayla, "but that one's in the open. You'll have to run when he comes back up. If that happens, slide the dime in here. I can give it back to you after."
"Got it," said Renee, hefting the coin up over her shoulder. "See you over there in a sec."
Stephen stomped his way down the stairs as loudly as he could. He could've been a lot quieter, of course, if he chose to, but he wanted them to know exactly where he was.
He'd seen enough James Bond movies to know that bad things happened when the villain left the hero alone, where he could pull off some miraculous escape. Stephen had no intention of making the same mistake, but he wanted them to think he did. He already knew he had no chance whatsoever of finding Kayla down here. He thought, perhaps, that he might have a shot at coaxing Renee out, not that he cared about her all that much. She would be more like an appetizer, with Mary the dessert and Kayla the main course.
"Come out, Kayla!" he yelled loudly, making sure they'd hear him upstairs. "I know you're in the ceiling! You always did like to climb, didn't you? Now come out of there before I do something rash!"
He stomped around, banging on the walls, making a little noise so they knew he was doing something down here. As he did, he moved over to the edge of the table that housed the Estate, where he'd watched Kayla climb on a couple of different occasions. He knew she could get up into the ceiling, although he didn't really know where she went once she got there. All her forays were at night, probably because she didn't want the others knowing she was doing it. That made things easier for him, so he could roam around at will during the day.
They really had quite a system, didn't they? Everyone had their secrets. Stephen could move freely, Kayla scaled the walls, Mary had her forbidden flings, Len wanted to keep his girlfriend tiny, and Renee...well, she had some kind of secret, Stephen was sure of that. Something he'd figure out eventually.
He stood on tiptoes, examining the shelves, and saw the lengths of thread dangling there. So, that was how she moved so easily! Another thread dangled out of a slight crack in the drop ceiling. She was so industrious, Stephen thought. Something he would have to break her of. Or, at least, make sure he could prevent.
Stepping up onto the table so he could push up on the flat section of ceiling, Stephen peered inside. Little footsteps in the dust led over to screened-off ventilation duct. Len didn't need to reach up there to figure out she had a way to pass through that, too. That meant she could be anywhere in the house, somewhere in the vents. Yep, there'd be no finding her, unless of course he starved her out.
He glanced down at the sprawling Estate stretching out before him. Despite all the miniaturized furniture, he knew the place took a lot of work to put together. The electricity, and cable, and plumbing, all were marvels of careful design work. Even the pool and skating rink were masterfully crafted. Stephen would be sorry to see it go.
That was what he had to do, of course. He would remove this thing, or destroy it, along with all the food and water, the supplies little Kayla needed to survive. Then all he had to do was wait. Kayla would come to him eventually. Her will to live was too strong. She would come, because to do otherwise would be to just give up, and Kayla Robertson would never just surrender. Even when he broke her--even then, somehow, she still never quite gave up.
She was Kayla Robertson, and she could handle anything. He heard her say that many times, back when he was conditioning her. She would mutter it under her breath, like some kind of mantra, as if it kept her going. She was probably saying it right now. Somewhere in these walls, he felt sure that's exactly what she was doing.
That's enough time, Stephen thought, lowering the drop ceiling back down. They would've forgotten about him by now. They would assume he'd come tromping back up the stairs in failure, yelling around for Kayla to come out. That's what they expected him to do, but he did something else entirely.
Instead, he took off his shoes, so he was clad only in his stocking feet. Then, sticking to the side of the stairs, where they'd be less likely to squeak, he slowly tiptoed up. He knew by heart which step produced the loudest noise, the one in the center with the least structural support. He skipped that one, carefully and deliberately reaching the ground floor without the barest sound.
He expected, as he looked around the corner, to see Kayla climbing up on Howard, trying with all her might to remove the knots that bound him to the chair. Stephen was very careful, though, to tie so many she couldn't possibly undo them all in any length of time. Perhaps she'd try to undo a few for now, and get the rest later, but he knew she'd try. She wouldn't be able to resist the opportunity.
And so, as he peered into the room, that's where his gaze first moved. All he saw at first was Howard, head bowed in silence, eyes shut as if meditating. Then another motion caught his eye, over on the other side of the living room, against the floorboard. His eyes widened as he realized what it was he was seeing.
That wasn't Kayla at all. It was Renee, of all people, with a coin in her hand, trying desperately to pry open the grating so she could escape into the walls!
He grinned. She was completely exposed like that. There were no pieces of furniture to hide behind. She was his!
He stood and stomped across the floor, abandoning all pretense of stealth. Renee spun about, saw him, dropped the coin, and screamed. She never even got to take a step before his fingers wrapped around her, hauling her squealing into the air.
"Two down," laughed Stephen, looking down at the tiny, struggling policewoman, "one to go!"
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