Description: "Some of the most feared creatures are the most misunderstood."
A girl with dark brown eyes took a deep breath and stepped into the crisp, cold air. A slight smile touched her face as she looked at the blanket of snow. The fresh fallen snow had covered everything in sight, leaving everything pristine and pure. She pulled her green cowl over her long, green ombré ponytail.
When she stepped out into the snow, it went halfway up her black leather boots. She looked at the snow-covered roads and realized she would have to walk to work. She made it to the shoveled pathway and started her trek towards town. As she walked, the kids playing on their front lawns stopped and stared. She didn’t pay them much attention and kept walking. She stopped for a second when she saw one small child hiding behind the snowman in his front yard. The girl walked over to the snowman. The boy’s face went pale, but he didn’t move.
The girl looked at the perfect snowman and noticed it was missing a scarf. She removed the one wrapped around her neck and placed it on the snowman. Then she turned sharply on her heels and continued walking. A touch of amusement crept across her face as she imagined the boy’s reaction.
The girl made it to the city and went into a graffitied building. Passing several men who stopped what they were doing and watched as she went by. She walked to her office with her head held high. When she reached the top tier, she took off her black leather jacket and cowl, tossing them on a coat rack. She sat down on a black office chair behind a big desk.
“Miss Leila, are you ready for your first meeting?” Her assistant, who went by the name Vlad, asked.
“Of course,” she said, smiling, “Mr. Klyde, right?” Mr. Klyde was a relatively straightforward client, but he was also one of her first, so she always took care of his meetings rather than giving his case to one of her interns.
“No ma’am. We had a situation come up that was a little more pressing.”
The smile was wiped off her face in an instant. “What happened?”
“There have been some recent issues with 263 we were hoping you could assist with.”
Leila opened her computer, typed in the number, and pulled the intern’s profile. She skimmed the information present: Valence Quinn, one of the more recent members. As she quickly read through the reports, she noticed some considerable discrepancies between his accounts and the results being shown. It wasn’t too surprising for a new intern, but it could also lead to leaks. It needed to be addressed, but she didn’t understand why she needed to be the one to address this, though. “I don’t understand what the issue is. He should meet with a senior intern and get more training.”
“There have also been some concerns from other agents regarding some 263’s behavior. We were hoping you could get a better feel on the situation and determine if we are dealing with a mole.”
Leila nodded. “Fine, bring him in.”
As she waited, she checked her reflection in her pocket mirror. Each hair fell perfectly in place as if they were scared to disobey her wishes. Her roots were black and slowly faded into an emerald. Her green eyeshadow shimmered on her eyelids complimented by black eyeliner, given off a bold and intimidating look. She smiled smugly, revealing the four “fangs,” which resulted from her naturally pointy cuspids. Growing up, she faced endless teasing about being a vampire or a snake, but eventually, she embraced it. At 14, she tried the emo vampire vibe for a bit but then decided to change to a viper vibe a year later, and it stuck. Leila slowly built her reputation as The Viper.
The office door opened, and she put away her mirror. She looked up and met the eye of a timid-looking intern.
“Come in. Please, sit down.” Leila said, gesturing to the small chairs in front of her. The intern moved to sit down, and as he did, Leila watched him. Behind his initial timid appearance, she noticed confidence and determination in his eyes.
“Valance, right?” She asked, smiling sweetly.
“Yes,” the intern nodded.
She rubbed her tongue against one of her “fangs.” “You know who I am, right?”
“So then you know I run a tight ship around here, right?”
He nodded again.
“Okay, good, because for a second there I thought you didn’t know who you were working for.” She said, laughing slightly. “My question though is if you know who I am and how I run my… business, why is your work not meeting my expectations.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t know what you are talking about.” He said quietly. Although he was quiet, he didn’t seem nervous. Instead, he appeared rather brazen.
Leila scoffed, slightly annoyed at his lack of respect when addressing her and his obliviousness to the issue. “You see, Valance, there have been discrepancies between your reports and results. You say in your reports that you are doing everything perfectly, yet your results are sub-par. There are two explanations: either you are lying, or you are cheating me.”
“I’m sorry; I still don’t know what you are talking about. Maybe there is a problem with your system.” He said. This time he met her eyes with pure confrontation and rebellion.
Her eyes narrowed. “Fine, have it your way.” Leila stood up and walked out the door. Vlad, who stood outside the door, looked at her inquiringly.
“You know what to do,” She said. Vlad grabbed a box and went into the room. Leila stood by the door and listened to the slight commotion, followed by a cry of pain. Then there was silence. The door opened, and Vlad walked out again, nodding to her.
“I’ll take Vespera,” Leila said, grabbing the box from him. “You can have Oswald deal with the body.”
She walked to a room filled with glass aquariums. In each one a different snake resided. Each aquarium had a small tag with the snake’s name, species, aggression level, and venom potency.
Leila opened the empty aquarium at the end of the room. Then Leila opened the box and quickly grabbed the Saw-Scaled Viper coiled inside. The viper rubbed its scales together, producing a raspy, warning sound.
“Oh, I know, baby.” Leila cooed as she firmly held the snake and she set her in the glass prison. Leila shut the cage. She went to a storage closet and grabbed a small box of live centipedes to give her. Leila emptied the box into her cage and watched as the snake caught and devoured her prey.
Leila then walked back to her room. Her next visitor, a distinguished older woman of about 65, sat on one of the small chairs waiting for her.
“Hello Mrs. Kerr. How can I help you today?”
“Well, I was kind of hoping to change my name.” Mrs. Kerr said, smiling slyly. “I am getting kind of tired of being Mrs. Kerr.”
Leila smiled and nodded, “I think we can arrange that. How exactly would you like to go about your name change?”
“My new husband has gotten somewhat drab. I want to liven things up a little, but there’s no way to get a divorce without losing his fortune. So I thought maybe you could help.”
Leila nodded, catching what the lady was implying. Leila pulled out her price sheet for assassinations. “Okay, you know our standard prices. There might be add-ons depending on the degree of stealth and skill involved. Do you have any specific things you would like to request?”
Mrs. Kerr paused for a minute. “I need to ensure it can’t be traced back to me. After three husbands dying from mysterious causes, there might be some suspicion. Could you frame someone?”
“Definitely, anyone off the top of your head who would be a good suspect to frame?” Leila asked, typing a few notes into her computer.
“He has been having some disagreements with his business partner, Mr. Larry O’Neal.”
Leila quickly looked him up, and her face lit up. “Perfect, he has a shady past with how he got into power and also is an avid martial artist. It will be easy enough to frame him convincingly. A lot of the work depends on how well you can act.”
Mrs. Kerr nodded. “Sounds great.”
“As always a down-payment for $10,000, then the end price will depend on execution and any complications that may arise. Right now I am predicting it will be about $1 million.”
Mrs. Kerr pulled out a checkbook and started writing a check.
“So sorry, but we are cash only. You can give the money to Charlotte at our office on Main Street. Look for the shop Just Sweets and ask for her by name. She is almost always there, but if she isn’t hanging on the money until you’re able to connect with her. Oh, and make sure you try the pineapple upside down mini Bundt cakes. They are literally to die for.”
“Sounds marvelous.” Mrs. Kerr said, putting away the checkbook.
“Great. Also, I’m sure this won’t be a problem, but I want to remind you that if you don’t pay or try to report us, you will pay. We will find you, and you will die.” Leila said, laughing slightly. Her eyes made her statement exceedingly clear. She had worked for years to master it, the look that says, “Cross me, I dare you.”
“Amazing, thank you!” Leila said, warming back up and reaching across the table to shake Mrs. Kerr’s hand. “Vlad will show you out and you will be hearing from me or one of my interns soon.”
“Thank you, my dear.” She said, grabbing her clutch and standing up.
After she left, Leila texted Charlotte to let her know what to expect a payment and then sent the case info to an intern skilled in martial arts. As she finished, a reminder popped up that it was her day to do a field mission. Leila smiled and quickly went to the bathroom to change into her operation outfit. Black leggings and a green scaled tank top, complete with green leather boots and a black leather jacket.
She got in a black convertible parked in the back of the building and drove to a local bank. When she walked in, it was pretty dead, which ruined her ability for flair but also made her job easier.
“Let’s make this easy,” She said, putting an empty bag on the teller’s desk and smiling sweetly.
Immediately the teller’s eyes widened. He started mumbling incomprehensibly. A lady came up quickly.
“Hi, I’m the manager. Can I help you?” She asked, smiling nervously.
“Oh, I would like to make a withdrawal,” Leila said, smiling coldly.
“Okay, if you give your card number…” the manager started.
Leila rolled her eyes and pulled out a gun. “Please, just fill the bag with money.”
The manager’s face paled, and she grabbed the bag. While Leila awaited her return, the doors opened with a bang.
“You’re never going to stop are you?” A guy around her age said with blond hair and blue eyes. He held a gun pointed at the unfazed Leila.
“It’s simple physics, Aero, what is in motion, stays in motion. So I think I am perfectly well doing what I am doing. That is until someone stops me and I mean face it, you can’t stop me.” Leila said, rolling her eyes at her only real opponent. He had been tracking Leila for years, trying to stop her. He was one of the first ones to officially dub her The Viper. “Do you want to know why?”
“Why?” He asked, not lowering his gun.
“Because unlike me you are “by the books.” And according to the books you can’t stop until you catch me red-handed or have actual proof. There is no way you can catch me and as of right now, you don’t have any proof because you don’t have any hard evidence, and all your witnesses are too scared to testify against me.” Leila gave him an overly sympathetic look. “By the way, I love the mole you sent me. It made for an interesting morning.”
She watched his face pale slightly and smiled, satisfied at his reaction.
“You underestimate me, Viper.” He said, rather hot-headedly. “Also, I think you’re forgetting about the security cameras. This whole robbery is being caught on camera.”
“What has happened to all the other video footage from the past?” Leila asked.
He let out a curse as he realized what she was implying. She always planned her heist when the systems were rebooting or had one of her interns wipe the systems after she left the scene.
Leila laughed, but then she heard a clamor in one corner of the bank. She turned for a second and pointed her gun toward the noise. She quickly realized it was just a frightened worker dropping something and turned back to Aero.
Leila realized that when her back was turned, Aero had gathered his resolve and was preparing to pull the trigger. Leila ducked instinctively right as Aero pulled the trigger. The gun went off and the bullet went straight over Leila’s head. She heard someone gasp in pain. Aero’s eyes widened significantly looking past Leila. She turned slowly to see the teller she had first talked to sinking to the ground.
Leila saw the blood soaking his chest and immediately felt sick. She ran over to him and felt his pulse. It was there but extremely weak. She pulled out her phone to call 911 but quickly realized there wasn’t time, so she dialed her personal doctor. He answered right away, and Leila sent him the coordinates. Then she turned to the man. “Don’t worry, sir. You’re going to be okay.”
The man nodded, and his eyes started to glaze.
Leila felt her heart racing through her chest and felt heat radiating through her body. She tossed off her jacket and focused on the man. “Stay with me, sir, a little longer,” she murmured.
“Why are you doing this?” Leila heard a voice behind her say, and she remembered Aero.
“Doing what?” She asked, not looking up.
“Acting like you care and pretending like you’re actually going to help.” He said, like the question was obvious.
“I’m not going to let an innocent bystander die because of me.” Leila said, glancing at him for a second.
“What about my officer you killed this morning?” Aero, asked obviously perplexed. He had never seen this side of his opponent before.
“That was different. He knew what the risks were and I gave him a way out. If he would have admitted he was a mole, I could have simply wiped his memory and let him go. Anyways, I didn’t kill him and I didn’t witness his death.”
“Wait, have you actually ever killed anyone then?” Aero asked, sounding intrigued.
Leila bit her lip before quietly admitting the truth, “No, Vlad has always taken care of that part. I was just a thief, but everyone assumed I was a killer, so I became one.”
Leila saw a van come speeding around the corner and a team of people running out headed by Dr. Oswald through the glass on the door. Leila stood back, and Dr. Oswald knelt beside the man with his team. Once Leila saw he had handled the situation, she walked outside. She went to the van where they were preparing for the patient.
“Hey Lizzie, anything I can help with?” She asked a young girl of about 17.
The girl looked up and smiled. “No, I think we got it.”
“Okay, how is Valance doing?” Leila asked, fidgeting with the end of her hair.
“He’s responding to the antidote well. Once he fully recovers, we’ll perform the memory wipe and set him up in his new life.”
“Stellar and we created the “death” file, right.” Leila clarified. If they messed up on the death file, infecting him with venom would have been in vain, as it was only used to get a believable death file on paper.
Lizzie nodded. “Complete with pictures of the body, the wound, medical documentation of the death, and ashes from palm leaves.”
“Make sure you send that over to the FBI. It might discourage them from meddling any time soon.”
The bank doors opened, and Dr. Oswald and his team carried the man out on a stretcher. They loaded the patient into the car.
“He’ll be okay. I will send you an update tomorrow morning, though.” The doctor said to Leila before getting into the car.
Leila nodded and stood back so they could get the patient settled.
“Hey officer! We could use an escort.” Lizzie said to Aero who had walked out with Dr. Oswald. He now stood to the side, uncertain of what to do next.
Aero groaned as he looked between the van and Leila, who smiled amusedly at his dilemma. Aero found himself stuck between arresting the infamous viper and helping someone he accidentally shot on duty.
“Any way you won’t rob the bank while I’m gone?” Aero said, wearily looking at Leila.
“Don’t count on it.” She said, laughing slightly.
“I hate you.” He said, tossing her the jacket she left in the bank and starting to walk to his car.
“Don’t worry, the feeling’s mutual,” She said, smiling as she caught the jacket and put it on.
Aero got in his car and turned on the sirens. Leila helped the team get situated and shut the doors of the van.
Leila watched them leave the parking lot before going into the bank. The manager stood in the middle of the bank shaking and holding the bag. Leila grabbed it from her and slipped out of the back of the building.
She got in her car and drove back to her office. Leila gave the money to Vlad and collapsed in her chair. She logged her mission report and then changed into the clothes she came in with.
“Miss Leila, would you like me to request a car to take you home,” Vlad asked as she started walking out. He looked at her worriedly.
“I’m okay, thanks,” Leila said, smiling. He reminded her she was still The Viper and couldn’t let her tiredness show. She lifted her head and continued walking down to the bottom floor. There were fewer people, but they all stopped to watch her leave.
Leila walked all the way home. The snow had been cleared from the roads, and many of the yards were filled with footprints, snow angels, and snowmen. She smiled when she passed the snowman rocking her scarf.
She finally made it to her house. Immediately when she opened the front door, a little girl and German shepherd barreled into her.
“Hey there, Solana.” Leila said, picking the girl up and hugging her tightly.
“Did she behave today?” Leila asked the elderly lady who walked into the room after hearing the commotion.
“Yes, she was wonderful, as always. I offered to let her go play in the snow with her other kids, but she decided to wait for you.”
Leila laughed, but she felt a tinge of guilt. She knew Solana didn’t have many friends because of the rumors surrounding Leila. That reminded Leila that she still needed to change. She turned to Mrs. Yelone, Solana’s nanny, “Do you mind watching her for a second more so I can get changed?”
“Of course, I always love seeing your outfits. They are so intricate every time. What is the name of the band you’re in again?” Mrs. Yelone asked.
“The Vipers.” Leila said, setting the girl down.
“Right, you play the electric guitar right.”
Leila nodded. Even though she wasn’t in a band, she did play the electric guitar. It also made for a convincing cover, explaining her weird hours and clothing choices.
“Well, definitely go get changed and I will keep an eye on Solana.” Mrs. Yelone reassured Leila.
“Thank you!” Leila said before running up the stairs to her bathroom. She took off her wig and unraveled her blonde hair. She then took out her contact and wiped away the excessive makeup. Leila put on her brow-cline glasses and changed into jeans and a purple sweatshirt. She looked in the mirror and smiled at her more normal appearance. After Solana was born, Leila decided to make her bold viper look more temporary, allowing her casual appearance to return to her natural look.
Leila came back down the stairs and said goodbye to Mrs. Yelone. Then she asked Solana, “So what do you want to do tonight?”
“Play in the snow!” Solana shouted excitedly. “I want to build the biggest snowman ever!”
Leila laughed. “That sounds like a plan.”
She started to get their snow clothes when the doorbell rang, and Silvia, their German shepherd, started barking.
“That is probably tonight’s dinner,” she said. Leila always ordered dinners ahead of time through Doordash as she often didn’t have time to cook.
Leila knelt down, and Solana jumped on her back. Leila stood up and walked to the door. She grabbed Silvia by the collar and opened the door smiling, but as soon as she realized who it was, her heart dropped, and her smile wavered slightly.
Aero stood at her door, and Leila realized her two worlds risked colliding for the first time.
Aero seemed almost as shocked as she was. “Oh… uh… I’m so sorry. I think I have the wrong house,” He started to say, flustered. He checked his phone and the address on her door. “You don’t happen to know someone who goes by the name Viper do you?”
Leila repressed the urge to laugh; did he seriously think her name was Viper? She kept her face straight, though. Pressing her lips together, she replied, “No, we don’t. I’m sorry.”
Leila started to close the door when Solana piped up, “My mommy is in a band called The Vipers.”
Aero put a hand on the door to prevent it from closing and looked at Leila more intently, studying her. She bit her lip slightly, hoping he wouldn’t recognize her, but this action gave her away as she revealed her pointy cuspids.
“Wait, you aren’t…” he started, and Leila held her breath. “No way. It is you!”
Leila sighed. “You should probably come in.” She walked to the living room, sat Solana on the couch, and turned on” Rise of the Guardians.” “I’m going to make some hot cocoa and popcorn. Stay here, okay, Solana.”
“What about playing in the snow?” Solana whined.
“We’ll play after the movie.” Leila promised, throwing a blanket over her and kissing the top of her head.
Leila then walked into the kitchen. Aero stood up from petting Silvia and followed Leila.
“How did you figure out where I live?” Leila asked, turning to him.
“I put a tracker in your jacket.” Aero said, slightly absentmindedly, as he tried to put all the pieces together, “Okay, I’m sorry; I am really confused right now. You have a kid?”
“That’s your question?” Leila asked, raising an eyebrow. Out of the million questions Aero wanted to know about her daughter.
“I have a lot of questions, but yes I guess that is my first question.”
Leila laughed. “Yes, I have a kid.” She said, starting to make hot cocoa on the stovetop for Solana.
“So are you married?” Aero asked, picking up a picture of Leila and Solana sitting on the counter.
Leila bit her lip, slightly amused at his train of thought. “No, I got pregnant when I was sixteen. Her dad was out of the picture by the time I found out I was pregnant and honestly I doubt he would have cared if he knew. I didn’t have a good support system so I didn’t make the best decisions. I dropped out of school and tried to get a job. When I couldn’t do that, I started stealing things to provide for myself. Because of my style, I quickly earned a reputation. When Vlad discovered me he took me under his wing and mentored me. I quickly created an empire and became the queen. Now I am where I am today. Any questions?”
“Lots of questions, but I guess the big one is why? I mean you obviously love your daughter and right now she thinks you are in a band. What happens when she gets old enough to realize you are actually a criminal? Do you want to risk losing her? If I was in your place I would be terrified.”
Leila paused. She expected this conversation to take a different route and now wasn’t sure how to answer Aero’s questions. “Do you think I really want to be a criminal? In the beginning, yes, I chose this path, but now I would give anything to do something different. At this point, I am in too deep and it is how I support her. I can’t change now.” Leila said, stirring the pot. She also moved over to start the coffee pot. “Would you like coffee or hot cocoa or anything?”
“I’ll take a coffee. You aren’t going to put any poison or venom in it right?”
Leila laughed, but when she glanced at him, she saw he was serious. “Do you seriously think I would keep poison in my house when I have a six-year-old who will get into anything and everything?”
“I don’t know up until this point I always kind of assumed you lived in a cave full of venoms and poisons. This is an adjustment for my brain.” He laughed. “Her name is Solana right?”
Leila nodded and met his eyes, “Sunshine, because even on my darkest day, she is my ray of sunshine.”
He smiled, looking at her. His eyes had a softness to them Leila hadn’t seen before. She realized he was slowly figuring out she was not the villain he assumed she was. “Don’t you have family or anyone to help you?”
“I grew up in the foster system. I never knew my parents,” Leila shrugged and returned to the coffee pot, “No one else stuck around long enough.”
“You know if you want I can help you get out. I can probably get you a job somewhere that could really use your talents. Maybe I could even get you a job with me at the FBI. Then you can tell your daughter you are a super cool spy heroine.”
Leila laughed. “You’re joking right?”
“I’m not. You have a powerful pull to you that might allow you to pull more criminals over to our side if you join us. You also know how the crime system works which will allow you to tear it down easier.”
“I think you’re forgetting that you have agents missing because of me. You really think the FBI would take me.”
“According to what you told me earlier today, you have never actually killed anyone. Anyway regardless of that, all that matters is that you are making an effort to change. They probably wouldn’t take you right away, but if I really pulled for you and you showed a major shift, it is possible.”
Leila paused for a moment. She never considered doing anything other than being a crime queen. How could she change now? Did she even want to change?
“Momma, can I have marshmallows with my hot cocoa?” Solana asked, coming into the room and trailing her blanket behind her. Her eyes peered up at Leila, full of innocence and trust. Leila felt a lump in her throat, and her eyes started to water slightly.
Leila fixated her eyes on the now boiling hot chocolate on the stove, her head racing with questions. Would Solana still look at Leila the same way if she knew what her mom was doing, or would Solana look at her like the manager at the bank did, full of fear and hate? Was that a risk Leila was willing to take?
“Mama?” Solana asked, her voice quivering slightly.
“Yes, Solana, I will make sure to put in extra marshmallows,” Leila said, forcing a smile on her face.
“Yay!” Solana said, hugging her mom before returning to her movie.
After she left Leila glanced up at the ceiling conflicted.
“Look, Viper, it’s either this or jail. You forgot to erase the footage from today and we got the evidence we need to convict you. I came here to arrest you. Now knowing your situation, I don’t want to be forced to do that, but I will have to if you don’t work with me.”
She turned and gazed at him wide-eyed. She saw him fingering a pair of handcuffs.
“Okay,” she said, taking a deep breath.
He smiled and nodded. “Don’t worry we will set up a plan to ease you into it and make sure you and Solana are safe. We can also get a plan in place if anyone else wants to come over with you. You won’t regret it, Viper.”
She nodded and smiled at him. “It’s Leila.”