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Rita

The Great Zaganza furrows his brow, stretches out one hand and says “Nothing’s jumping out at me,” and then something does. It gives an impression of mostly teeth.

Rita tackles him hard as Sandra pivots in, hammering the thing down with one arm. It bounds up, snarling, high-pitched. Rita throws Zaganza aside and scrambles for her holster, too slow–

Zip. Zip. Mary’s silencer jerks twice; it hits the floor with a wet thud.

“Corticophore,” she says. “Smells psychoactivity. Guess you’re the real deal, Z.”

Zaganza’s cheek twitches. He’s very pale. Rita has difficulty getting an exact count of the creature’s mouths.

Rita

Rita’s vaguely aware that she’s dreaming. The Cold Man is in her dream, and he’s sitting at a table with other men. There’s something wrong with them: a flickering in peripheral vision, a cruel and articulated menace, hint of beetle-wing sheen.

The Cold Man removes his hat. His head has shrunken and withered, and his eyes are darkly enormous. “I am jessed and hooded,” he tells her, and somehow this makes a terrible sense. “They have made of me a dog to hunt.”

A deep gasp of cold air, and her hand is on the Glock before she knows she’s awake.

Rita

The Cold Man has a severe, chattering stutter, something she didn’t expect from somebody with his curriculum mortis. Thirty-two professional icings, fewer than sixty bullets.

“N-ni-n-nice to mee-m-m-meet y-you,” he finally manages after bowing to Rita, hand in glove. “H-h-h-hear you d-do-d-do ex-ce-ek-excel-e-excel–”

“Charmed,” she’d said, but now, watching by remote, she’s not so forgiving. “He’s just walking in!” she says urgently. “There’s temp-variance alarms everywhere, dogs, who knows –”

Sandra leans over and taps the infrared. Impossibly, he disappears in a wash of blue.

“Why’d you think we called him that?” she asks, amused. “Because he talks funny?”

Lou

His hat’s a Borsalino, silk-trimmed, just like on TV. He dons it smoothly.

“Yes,” he says. His voice is different, though: clipped, calm, professional. “It was necessary to temporarily achieve a measure of protection against agencies desperate to conceal their existence. Fame served admirably.”

She hesitates. He smiles.

“Your skills will prove invaluable, Ms. Fairfields, in completing my squad.” He gestures, and three of the most dangerous women on earth step forward. “Rita: Tina, Sandra, Mary. You see,” and there’s a ghost of a laugh there, “those who joked about Numbers One through Four were more right than they knew.”

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