When Bass comes onto the scene, he can’t help but stare at Charlie, agog. Seeing her stand there with a boot on the man’s chest and a shotgun trained on him, for a moment, Bass sees her as the strong woman he’s always known. And, when she looks at him, he sees life in her eyes, a little sparkle of triumph.
Then, he sees her arms shaking, the gun rattling in her grip. The triumph in her gaze gives way to terror, and her voice warbles when she says to him, “I want answers.”
He wants to promise them to her, that she’ll learn all that she needs to know. But, the man under her boot just laughs. “Ah, so Charlotte found her fight again. Very cute. Did you forget? I own you.”
Miles rages forward, and with a swift kick to the head, the man goes quiet, knocked unconscious. A sob escapes Charlie’s lips as her arms drop, the gun still in her grip. Bass rushes towards her, catching her under her arms as she staggers backwards away from the man. “I got you.”
She rights herself and steps out of Bass’ arms, turning to face him. She doesn’t say anything. They both know what needs to be done, but neither one wants to say it.
Olly, still there and looking a little dazed, turns his attention to Bass. “What’s going to happen to him?”
“Go back inside,” Bass tells him. “Don’t come back out until I tell you to.”
The boy gazes past him, at Miles who is checking the pulse of the unconscious man. “Are you going to kill him?”
Bass’ stare doesn’t waver. Charlie glances at him because, he knows, she knows the answer and wants to see if he tells Olly the truth. “Yes.”
Olly only nods before scurrying back towards his house.
Bass turns to Charlie, who wipes at her eyes with one hand, the other still holding the shotgun. His hands come to rest on her upper arms. “Are you okay?”
She starts to nod but stops. “Yes,” she says firmly. “I’m okay.”
Her voice sounds so damn good to him. All he wants to do is sweep her into his arms and hold her to him, make her keep talking. But, there’s work to be done.
He lets her go and goes to Miles’ side. They stare down at the man. Bass had expected to recognize him, to somehow know who he was. Or maybe he expected him to look like a monster. But, he doesn’t. He looks like an average man, and not one that Bass recognizes. “Do you recognize him?”
Miles shakes his head. “No. I have no idea who he is.”
Bass nods. “Let’s find out.”
Together, they hoist the unconscious man over the fence into the next yard. Silently, they climb over and pick the man up, strung between them. As Charlie climbs over to join them, Bass looks back at her. “You should go inside with Olly.”
She shakes her head. “No. I need to be part of this.”
He can’t fault her that. He just tilts his head in indication for her to follow.
Miles and Bass don’t need words to know where they’re going. They drag the man around the house to the cellar. Charlie hurries forward and pulls the door open, standing aside to let them go in. She takes a moment to grab the lantern and light it before she comes in after them.
They settle him into the corner and secure the shackles around his wrists and ankles. They step back, watching the man as if he’s a bomb ready to go off. Charlie sets the small table back up, placing the lantern there and laying the shotgun next to it.
Miles glances over at Bass. “What’s the plan here?”
Bass holds his hand out to Charlie, who takes it and comes to stand by his side. “We get answers. Any way we can.”
Miles nods his agreement, but Charlie slips her hand from his. “You’re talking about torture,” she says stiffly.
“Seems only fair,” Miles says, rubbing his jaw.
She frowns at Bass. “You can’t.”
He meets her eyes, strong and steady. “Like hell I can’t.”
She moves into him, hands cupping his face. “You don’t have to become him again.”
His hands rest on her hips, her still-too-thin hips. “I’m doing what I need to. He can’t get away with this.”
Her face turns pleading. “Just kill him. I don’t need all the answers, I know enough. Don’t… do this.”
He runs a hand over her hair. “I appreciate you trying to save my soul, Charlie, but it’s already long gone.”
Miles comes up behind her and lays his hands on her shoulders. “Just let us handle this.”
She shrugs off his hands and slides out from between the two of them. She looks from one to the other. “I’m not going anywhere.” She stalks towards the stairs and takes a seat.
“We wouldn’t ask you to,” Miles tells her.
Bass isn’t so sure. Doing what needs to be done is one thing, letting the girl he loves watch as he tortures a man is another. The General is there, tapping at the back of his mind, ready to emerge. How can he do what needs to be done and stay grounded at the same time?
He catches Charlie in his sights and realizes that she’s in her head again. Her gaze trained on the floor, her hands limp in her lap.
“You can’t keep me here forever!” Charlie screams as the masked man enters the cellar. “And, you’re deluded if you think you can break him. He won’t play into your hands.”
The man chuckles quietly. “You think so highly of him. Don’t you know about the monster that lurks just below the surface?”
“Better than most.” She sticks her chin out, defiant. “You can’t scare me away from him.”
The man strides across the room in three long steps, kneeling in front of her and clutching her face with one hand. “I don’t plan to. Cling to him, cry out for him, scream for him, if you must, but know that he’s not coming for you. That he’ll never find you.”
She shakes her head out of his grasp. “You underestimate him.”
“And you underestimate me,” he says sharply. “You have no idea how long I’ve been planning this, Charlotte. You have no idea what exactly I’m capable of.”
“You’re just a cowardly fuck who won’t face his real opponent,” she hisses at him. “Instead, you go for someone who is smaller, not as well trained. You want to torment him so bad, but you can’t even stand face to face because you know he’s more of man than you’ll ever be.”
His face turns dark at her words, and he gets to his feet. With even and unhurried steps, he goes back to the small table. He retrieves something from underneath before facing her again. He moves back toward her slowly and crouches in front of her. She can see what he has now: a can of kerosene and a box of matches. He reaches for her, rucking up her tank top until it’s over her head and caught on her arms. She struggles and fights, but she can’t move her arms enough to stop him. “You’re right. I’ll never be a better man than him.” He splashes kerosene onto her chest, and her struggles become stronger. A match flickers to life in his hands. “But I’ll always be a better monster.” With a flick of the wrist, the match makes contact with Charlie’s skin. The kerosene ignites and flames erupt.
There are no words for the terrible screams that come from Charlie’s mouth.
When Charlie starts screaming, Bass is instantly by her side. He grips her shoulders. “Charlie!” He shakes her a bit. “Charlie!”
The scream dies as she comes back to reality, and she falls against his chest. Her hands go to her own chest, right over her sternum. “It still burns.”
Bass looks over his shoulder at Miles, who’s looking at them with concern. “We can make it stop,” Miles tells her.
Bass is pretty sure that what they’re about to do won’t fix Charlie’s state of mind, but it’s a calming thought. “He said you’d never find me,” she says to him.
He hugs her tightly. “He was wrong.”
A groggy laugh comes from the corner of the room. “Was I?”
They all turn to look at the bound man. “If my simpleton friend hadn’t let her go,” he continues, “would you have ever seen her again?” He shrugs. “Maybe when I dumped her body on your doorstep.”
Miles is across the room before Bass can blink, his fist making solid contact with the man’s face. “Shut your fucking mouth.”
The man simply spits out a little blood and smiles, his teeth red. “Am I still in your head, Charlotte? Whispering all of your fears and doubts into your ear?”
The sound of that man calling her by his name for her makes Bass’ blood boil. Miles lands another punch.
Charlie is shaking in Bass’ arms, and as much as he wants to sit there and comfort her, he needs to be in on the action. He lets her go and stands, going across the room. “You don’t get to speak to her.”
“Or you’ll do what, Mr. President? Kill me?” He laughs, cold and joyless. “Let’s not pretend. We all know I’m not walking out of here.”
“Then it’s up to you how you die,” Miles growls. “We can make it quick and painless or…” he looks over to the wall of weapons and back again, “we can put you through hell. I know which I’d prefer.”
The man’s eyes slide past Miles and Bass to Charlie again. “Is that what you want, Charlotte? To sit here and watch as they do to me what I did to you?”
Charlie covers her ears and rocks a little in her seat.
This time, it’s Bass’ fist that connects with the man’s face. “I said you don’t get to speak to her.”
The man ignores him. “Do you want to see them become the Butcher of Baltimore and the Scourge of Scranton all over again? The fearsome generals of the Monroe Republic?”
“Get out of my head!” Charlie launches herself off the steps, hurtling toward the man. Bass catches her by the waist, and she struggles against him, her hands trying to claw at the man. “You sick son of a bitch! You don’t get to own me anymore!” Bass’ arms tighten around her, but she doesn’t stop trying to get loose. “Why did you do this to me?”
The man just grins like the Cheshire Cat. “Like I told you before, it was never about you. I didn’t do this to you, I was merely an instrument. We both know who’s responsible.”
Bass remembers the journal entries, and his stomach drops. He holds the struggling Charlie to him as he says, “I did nothing. I don’t even know who you are.”
“Of course you don’t,” the man says. “The great President Monroe never knew those that he stepped on.”
Charlie goes still in Bass’ arms, the fight gone, and she slides out of his grasp to sit on the floor at his feet. Tears are running down her cheeks. “Just tell me the truth.”
“The truth?” He pauses and tilts his head to the side. “Truth is, Charlotte, that you’ve put your trust in a murderer. He’s killed so many innocent people that the blood on his hands will never wash away. The truth is that the man you care about is the worst kind of monster. I should know, we’re of the same breed.”
Rage is rolling off of Miles in waves, and he silently stalks to the wall of weapons. He plucks a pair of short bladed clippers and a long dagger from the wall and stalks over to the man. Bass meets his gaze, and with silent understanding, Miles tosses him the dagger. Miles turns back to the man, takes hold of a pinky finger and slides the blades of the clippers around the base, ready to snap them shut at any moment. Bass follows suit and takes his place on the man’s other side. “Give us a real fucking answer,” Miles growls, “or I start removing things.”
The man looks up at Miles, a knowing smile on his face. “Do you remember the birthday bombing, General Matheson?” He sighs. “I don’t suppose you do. Head injuries are funny that way.”
Apparently, this doesn’t qualify as a real answer, and with barely any effort, Miles snaps the clippers shut, severing the man’s finger. The detached digit falls to the floor, blood spilling after it. The man’s screams are horrific, inhuman. Not one of them flinches at the sound.
Miles raises his voice. “Now,” he preps the bloody clippers around the man’s ring finger, “are you going to tell us what we want to know? Or do we need to remove another finger?”
The man’s breathing is erratic as he stammers out, “Go to hell.”
Bass presses the tip of the dagger to the man’s cheek, pushing in and slowly dragging it up to his forehead. Blood blooms from the cut and begins to drip down his face and chin. “Answer him.”
Holding his head up has become an effort for the man, all of his energy used by trying to fight the pain. “You don’t deserve answers.”
Without hesitation, Miles closes the clippers again, snapping off the man’s finger. His screams bounce off the walls and die off, turning to pained whimpers. “Tell me why you did this.” Miles positions the clippers around the middle finger.
The man gives him a dopey smile. “It’s killing you that you don’t know, isn’t it?”
Bass roughly grabs onto the man’s ear, and with ease and precision, slices it off his head. The screams are brutal, ragged and raw. “You can make this stop.”
There’s a long pause this time before the man says softly, “The- the bombing. The man responsible…”
Miles glances over at Bass. “You killed him, didn’t you?”
Bass clenches his jaw and nods. It’s not something he likes to think about. Killing that man and his family had been the start of the breakdown between him and Miles. Miles had told him that himself.
The man is shaking now, probably from shock. “Not just him. You killed his family. His wife, Stacy. His daughters, Lucy and Amelia. His son, Jackson.” He shakes his head. “Amelia was only six years old.”
The weight of the names is heavy on Bass. This man knew these people. The picture is starting to become clearer.
“The man,” their captive continues, “was named Alex, and he was my brother.”
The world feels tilted off its axis. Bass’ head is swirling with this new information. That heinous deed, something he’d done in a demented act of love for his brother, caused all of this? Something that happened… How many years has it been? Near a decade, if Bass’ memory serves him correctly. That’s the only thing he can think of. How long it’s been. “Why now? Why not come after me before?”
The man’s face is deathly pale, but he’s still acting like he has the upper hand. “I spent years watching you, waiting. Waiting until you loved someone more than you loved Miles Matheson.”
Bass watches Miles’ gaze turn to Charlie who’s still sitting on the floor a few feet back. She’s staring at the man with interest.
“I saw you two that night, as I waited for my friend to capture you,” the man says directly to her. “That really was some kiss. Amazing that you can even dare to touch him.”
“You took me away from him,” she accuses.
Despite the pain and the blood loss, he smiles at her. “Monroe’s little angel of death. Killer of Patriots. I always knew breaking you would be fun.” His eyes flick up to Bass. “She begged for her death once. Did she tell you that? Not to me, of course, but to my friend. I was listening on the other side of the door. She asked him to kill her so she wouldn’t go through any more pain. ‘Please, please,’ she said. ‘Just kill me.’ It was something quite pathetic.”
Bass sends a look to Miles, who doesn’t need any instructions to snip off the man’s finger. Anguished screams echo off the walls. Charlie scrambles to her feet and brushes past Bass. Neither of them pays any attention until she says, “Move.” They turn and see her holding the shotgun. “I’m going to end this.”
Bass steps back to let her through as Miles steps away from the man. She points the gun at the man’s chest. “Beg me for it.”
His face is devoid of all color, and his entire body is shaking so bad he can barely keep his head lifted. “Never.”
“Let me make this clear,” she says sharply. “Either I kill you now, or I let them take their time. You think this is bad? Just wait. They’ll torture you relentlessly, until you can’t even remember your name. So.” She cocks the shotgun. “Beg.”
He’s on the brink of unconsciousness, nearly passing out from the pain. “Kill me. Please, kill me.”
The second the words are out of his mouth, Charlie pulls the trigger. Buckshot tears up his chest, and his head drops limply to his chest, the life gone from him.
Once he’s dead, Charlie drops to the cellar floor, gun clattering against the stone. Sobs wrack her body, her palms pressed to the cold floor. Bass crouches down beside her, a hand soothing down her back. “It’s okay, Charlie. He’s gone now.”
Miles kneels down on her other side. “You did good, kid.”
Bass knows that this, facing her abuser, couldn’t have been easy. Killing him quickly had been an act of mercy, mercy that he didn’t deserve.
“It’s over,” Bass tells her, but he wonders if it will ever really be over for her.