The Inescapable Nightmare of Scarlet City

“Kill him.”

Diane lays in her bed with the covers pulled up to her face. She stares at the corner of her darkened room, wide-eyed and petrified. There, she sees the silhouette of a little girl in the shadows. A tiny, inhuman voice emanates from where she appears.

“Do it. Kill John Scarlet. You promised you would.”

Diane hyperventilates as she stares at the girl, unsure of what to do, afraid to move or breathe. After a few moments, the girl blends into the shadows surrounding her and disappears.

“It’s Cassandra,” she says to herself, whispering. “The little girl I found at the rail yard after her mother hired me to track her down. She made me promise to do anything she wanted. I said I would, but I didn’t know she’d want me to kill someone, let alone John Scarlet himself. I’m not a murderer, no matter how much John Scarlet deserves to die.”

Diane begins feeling deeply tired despite the terror she just experienced. Her eyes become heavy and she can’t keep them open. She slips into a restless, dreamless sleep.

Diane awakens, shooting her eyes open with a sharp intake of breath. Pale grey sunlight shines in through her bedroom window, illuminating the corner where she’d seen the girl. There’s nothing there now except old woodwork.

She feels a sharp pain arcing across her temples. She dry-heaves, and for a moment she thinks she can smell the color purple. Then, she looks around, wondering what woke her up.

She hears an insistent pounding. It sounds like it’s coming from the front door to her office down the hall. She oozes her way out of bed already dressed, having slept in her clothes from the day before. As she swings her legs over the side, she knocks over several empty liquor bottles sitting on the floor. Then she stumbles down the hallway, opens the door to her office at the end, and steps inside.

Empty, junky filing cabinets line the stucco walls beside her old wooden desk. Hung up behind the desk are several framed newspaper cutouts. One has a picture of her in which she’s much younger and wearing a police uniform. Its headline says, “Rising Star Police Officer Promoted.” Another cutout has a picture of her leading a man wearing handcuffs into a jail cell. That one’s headline says, “Big Drug Bust for City’s Top Cop.” Glancing at them, she finds herself drifting back to her memories of the Cataclysm.

She remembers sitting in her office in the Kansas City Police Department, reading a case file. She looks up from the file as a peculiar violet light shines in through the window. It fills the room with an otherworldly glow. Perplexed, she walks over to the window and sees a huge purple cube floating in the sky.

The cube appears to be folding in upon itself over and over again as spheres of energy pulse out from the center of it. Each pulse creates the sound of an explosion and makes the building shake. Diane watches, awestruck, until the cube folds up completely and disappears a few moments later.

When it does, the fluorescent lights inside her office turn off by themselves. Her computer shuts off as well. She goes over to the light switch and flips it up and down, but nothing happens. She walks over to her computer and presses the power button several times, but it doesn’t turn back on. She picks up the office phone sitting on her desk and finds that it’s dead; no busy signal, no dial tone, nothing. She pulls her smart phone out of her pocket and sees that it no longer works.

Stepping out of her office, she sees that the lights are off in the hallway and all throughout the rest of the space. Her colleague, Sgt. Maria Martinez, walks toward her with a perplexed look upon her face. Diane opens her mouth to ask her what’s going on. But at that moment, they hear a loud bang, and then events unfold in a jarring blur.

People with assault rifles wearing black military-style uniforms invade the police station. They take it over in less than a minute, subduing everyone at gunpoint. Then they confiscate the officers’ guns and raid the armory. They load the weapons into black-painted military trucks outside. The invaders then separate the physically strongest individuals from the weakest. They restrain the strong ones with plastic handcuffs and force them into the trucks as well.

Diane sees one of the intruders open one of the vehicles’ hoods to reveal a brass boiler underneath it. He pours water inside the boiler, and a cloud of hissing steam rises from it as he closes the hood. “Steam-powered engines…” she says to herself. Then they depart, leaving Diane and the remaining officers behind in a state of shock, confusion, and despair.

The same scenario unfolds everywhere all over the city. The black-clad mercenaries attack without warning, dominating the city in less than a day. Everything electronic stops working completely after the cube appears in the sky. People begin referring to the event as the “Cataclysm.” It’s the dawn of a new, oppressive Stone Age.

John Scarlet, the leader of the mysterious army, declares himself mayor of the newly founded “Scarlet City.” Those who try to leave face public execution. Many people die attempting to escape; shot to death, hanged, and even burned alive as a public spectacle. The army starts calling itself the Scarlet City Military Police. The oppressed citizens refer to them derisively as “scamps.”

Under his despotic rule, Scarlet forces citizens into new social roles. This includes forcing the strongest members of the population to join the scamps. Lucky citizens receive jobs like what they’d had before the Cataclysm. Unlucky ones must perform tasks they don’t want but can still handle. The unluckiest become Scarlet’s personal chattel, or, they’re simply killed for being useless.

Scarlet separates the city into sections or “neighborhoods.” Each works as its own self-contained village that citizens must have special permission to enter or leave. He also constructs a water system based on ancient Roman aqueducts. However, the city soon falls into ruin with cracked roads, deteriorating buildings, and horrendous blight.

Someone pounds on Diane’s office door once more, snapping her back to the present moment. She hurries over and opens it. She’s surprised and horrified to see a scamp standing there with a particularly unpleasant look on her face.

The black-clad soldier towers over her, dwarfing her in both height and girth. An assault rifle hangs from a strap slung over her shoulder. Diane glances at the black metal nametag on her uniform. It says, “Loreno” in dark silver etching.

Loreno stomps into the office, pushing Diane aside. The mountainous woman sniffs the air in disgust as she looks around for a moment. “It smells like a saloon that only sells cheap gin in here,” she says. Then, she glares at Diane menacingly. “Are you Neighborhood Delta Nine Zero Consulting Detective Diane Schmidt?” she says.

Diane’s eyes grow wide as she gulps and nods her head in in quick, small movements.

“Detective Schmidt, you have been improperly referring cases to the Scarlet City Military Police. You are only to refer cases to us that rise to the level of a Class D Offense or above. However, the last three cases you sent us were no more than Level 4 Misdeeds at best. If you continue this pattern, we’ll charge you with Nuisance and Obstruction. The punishment is a mandatory reeducation period and then permanent reassignment.”

A chill starts at the top of Diane’s spine and runs all the way down her back. Her stomach turns to lead. She knows that “mandatory reeducation” means physical torture. “Permanent reassignment” means something far worse.

Diane’s stands frozen in place like cornered prey. Loreno, smirking, holds out her hand and says, “Give me your detective badge. Now.”

Diane doesn’t move at first, and Loreno snaps her fingers impatiently. Diane jumps, then timidly scoots over to her desk. Once there, she pulls the top drawer open and lets out a small gasp. Stuffed inside are rectangular pieces of paper. Scribbled upon each in big, black block letters are the words, “You promised.”

Diane slams the drawer shut, crying out involuntarily. Loreno sees this and furrows her brow. “What’s wrong? Do you have your badge or not?”

“Y-yes… I h-have it,” Diane says, stammering.

“Well?” Loreno says, putting her hand on her hip. “Give it to me.”

“O-ok,” Diane says, but she doesn’t move, her joints feel like they’re rusted stuck.

“You’re acting strange,” Loreno says, narrowing her eyes.

The scamp moves closer to where Diane stands behind her desk. Diane looks up at her, trembling, then glances down at the drawer involuntarily. Loreno notices, then looks down at the drawer and says, “What’s in there?”

“Nothing!” Diane says. Her mind flashes back to a memory of the last time the scamps caught someone with a piece of paper. It was a small scrap that must’ve come from a notebook. It fell out of Jim Thompson’s pocket as he walked past a patrol of scamps on the street. One noticed and they arrested him immediately.

One of Scarlet’s first new rules was to outlaw writing utensils and media including paper. The purpose was to undermine the formation a resistance by stymying mass communication. He sent his burn squads through the city to destroy every shred of paper they could find. Possession of any amount became a crime punishable by a horrific death.

Diane recalls Jim shrieking in desperation as they hauled him away, saying “I didn’t know it was there! I didn’t know! I didn’t know!” The scamps hung his charred corpse in the neighborhood square the next day.

“Nothing?” Loreno says, giving Diane a hard, bug-eyed stare. Then, she looks at the drawer, reaches down, and slides it open. All the pieces of paper are gone. The only things inside are a half-empty bottle of gin and Diane’s beat up old detective badge.

The scamp scoffs and says, “Like it wasn’t already obvious that you’re a total lush. Oh well, that’s not illegal. But you still shouldn’t send us your cases just because you’re too drunk to handle them.”

Loreno picks Diane’s badge up out of the drawer. Then she reaches into her uniform’s pants pocket and takes out a crude hole punch tool. She uses it to punch a hole into the badge’s thin metal next to one that was already there.

“Looks like this is your second infraction,” Loreno says, holding the badge out for Diane to take. “That means you’re out of warnings. One more problem and your whole life will change in ways nobody wants.”

Diane gulps and nods once more as her fingers close around the badge. Loreno scoffs again, then slams the drawer closed. Diane jumps at the noise, shaking. The scamp then turns and marches out of the office without another word, slamming the door behind her.

Diane collapses into her desk chair and bursts into tears. She opens her drawer again, going for the bottle of gin. But this time, she finds it stuffed with even more papers than before. Frantically, she grabs a couple handfuls and hurries over to the bathroom door on the other side of the office. She kicks it open, then drops the papers into the toilet and flushes it. She watches with a look of concern as they swirl around the toilet bowl and go down the pipe. Once they’re gone, she goes back for the rest.

She lets out a tortured groan as she opens her desk drawer again, finding it stuffed with even more pieces of paper. Her hands shake as she starts gathering them up.

She drops the second pile into the toilet and flushes it, but this time it clogs. The papers gather into a grey, gooey mush at the bottom of the bowl, choking off the water. She begins weeping, saying “no, no, no,” as tears stream down her face.

She glances up at the bathroom mirror and sees Cassandra standing behind her in the reflection. Two naked, androgynous, adult-sized mannequins stand outside the bathroom doorway. They stare at Diane with their blank, featureless faces.

Startled, Diane turns around and sees nothing there except the open doorway. She takes a step toward it, but then something hits her on the cheek, hard. In the reflection, as she steps toward the door, one of the mannequins lifts its arm and strikes her in the face. She cries out and turns back around to face the mirror. When she looks into it once more, she sees the strange trio still standing there.

“You promised,” Cassandra says.

Diane blinks. The mannequins disappear and then reappear in the reflection with one in front of her and the other behind. She yelps as the one in front lifts its hand up to her neck and starts strangling her. The one behind her reaches up and digs its hard, plastic fingertips into the flesh on top of her scalp, pulling as if to tear it off.

“Why won’t you kill him?” Cassandra says, “Why?”

The one mannequin’s hand tightens around Diane’s throat as the other’s fingers dig deeper into her skin. “Because I’m not a murderer,” she says, choking, “and I’m not your slave!”

The mannequins disappear. Diane collapses onto the tile floor, wheezing. Cassandra stands over her with her hands on her hips.

“You’re right,” the little girl says. “You’re not my slave. Nor will you be a murderer when you kill him. A killer, yes. But a murderer, no.”

“What’s the difference?” Diane says, struggling to catch her breath.

“Murder is unjust, but killing, not necessarily; not when the subject needs killing.”

Diane scoffs and shakes her head. “Look, even if I wanted to kill him, it would be impossible. It’s John Scarlet. I wouldn’t even be able to get near him.”

“You let me worry about that. All I need is for you to want him dead and be willing to make it happen when the time comes.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ll show you,” Cassandra says. Then, she reaches up into the air and snaps her fingers. She disappears, the lights go out, and the bathroom door slams shut. Diane looks around, unsure of what to do next. She reaches up to the sink and starts pulling herself back up onto her feet.

A monstrous roar comes from somewhere nearby, rattling the walls. Diane stumbles back down onto the floor. She lays completely still, listening hard with a look of caution upon her face.

After waiting several moments, she stands up and flips the light switch. The lights remain off, but a strange, faint luminescence appears with no discernible source. She then notices a magazine sitting on the back of the toilet.

She stares at it in wonder. It has been years and years since she last saw a magazine. How did it get here?

The periodical is open to a page with a large image in the middle and some text beneath it. More curious than afraid, she picks it up. It looks and feels brand new. Its slick, shiny pages are cool in Diane’s hands.

She sees that the image is of a train car filled with people. She recognizes the Kansas City skyline in the background. “This must be from when the city installed the streetcar system,” she says. “That was almost 20 years ago. Right before the Cataclysm.”

Smiling people stand all around and inside of the train car. Looking closer, Diane realizes that many of the people are mannequins. Some are wearing the same clothing as the ones she saw with Cassandra in the rail yard. “The city must’ve been too cheap to hire real actors for their ads. I guess they thought no one would notice.”

It dawns on her that Cassandra’s train car in the rail yard and the one in the ad are the same. They share the same features; the same windows, the same wheels, and the same overall appearance.

Several lines of text appear beneath the image. At first, they seem to consist of normal letters. But when Diane tries to read them, the characters jumble together into an illegible mess.

Another low, deep, roar rumbles from somewhere nearby. It seems to be coming from behind the mirror. Diane looks at it and sees in her reflection that she no longer has any facial features. Her face is like that of a mannequin. She tries to scream but can’t because she has no mouth.

A giant, insectoid pincer smashes through the mirror. Dripping with ichor, it swipes at her neck. She throws her body backward and slams against the wall, narrowly avoiding it. Sliding down to the floor, she stares in horror as more appendages smash through the mirror. All are like long, hideous arms with dark purple skin covered in greenish slime. Each has a deformed, animal-like paw, claw, or pincer at the end.

The mirror shatters, revealing a dark space behind it. Reflective shards cover the sink and fall to the floor. The appendages bend at their malformed joints and press against the bathroom wall, pulling a creature’s body inside. But before she can see what it is, Diane turns and runs out of the bathroom. Instead of being back inside her office, she finds herself standing on a street corner.

She looks around in awe and confusion at the streetlights shining overhead in the nighttime sky. Buildings with lit windows line the clean, undirtied streets. The words “Mercy Seat Tattoo” appear in bright red neon lights above a storefront across the way. She hears a strange, yet familiar noise and realizes it’s the sound of a car engine. Looking over, she sees a sedan making its way down the road, the light from its headlights beaming across the concrete. A large, oddly angled glass building looms a block away, lit up from inside. She recognizes it as the printing center of the old Kansas City Star newspaper. It later became the scamps’ headquarters after the Cataclysm.

Diane shakes her head as she gazes all around. “This can’t be real,” she says. “Kansas City hasn’t looked like this since before the Cataclysm, before it became Scarlet City. There’s no way I could’ve traveled back in time. I must be dreaming.”

She hears a commotion coming from the alley behind the tattoo shop. It sounds like a woman crying out and men shouting. Instinctively, she moves to investigate.

Skulking down the alleyway, she arrives at a small courtyard between the buildings. There, she sees a hooligan pointing a knife at a young man and woman. The woman is very pregnant.

The mugger glances over his shoulder in Diane’s direction and she ducks behind a dumpster. After a couple moments, she peeks around the corner and recognizes him as a much younger John Scarlet. Severe acne covers his sneering face. There are heavy bags under his dark eyes. He appears bitter, resentful, and mean.

Scarlet demands the woman’s purse and the man’s wallet. They fearfully comply, shaking as they hold their belongings out to him. He grabs their things with one hand, then casually stabs the young man in the stomach. The young man cries out, covering the wound with his hands as he collapses to the ground. Blood soaks through his shirt and gushes out between his fingers.

The young woman screeches and begins weeping hysterically. Scarlet ignores her, pulling the cash out of the purse and then the wallet. He pockets the money, drops the items, then turns and strides away. After a few paces, he stops, thinks for a moment, then turns around and approaches the woman with his knife raised.

She screams as she squeezes her eyes shut and looks away, putting her arms up in an attempt at self-defense. He grabs one of her arms and then stabs her in her pregnant stomach. The blade makes a sick popping sound as it pierces her flesh once, twice, and then a third time. Blood and amniotic fluid spray out of the wounds as she falls to the ground, her cries dying down into low, soft moans.

The young man watches helplessly, gurgling in protest as blood spurts out of his mouth. He desperately tries sitting up but then falls back down, grimacing. He manages to roll over to the fallen woman and covers her with one arm. He holds her as their chests rise and fall together, more and more slowly. Finally, they both stop moving.

Scarlet watches as the life fades from their eyes and they expire. Then, with a joyful, boyish smile on his face, he picks up a discarded newspaper from the ground. Grinning, he uses it to wipe the blood off his hands and knife, then throws the soiled paper into a dumpster. Diane can almost hear him congratulating himself.

She watches as he walks away from their bodies and down the alley towards the entrance to another building. Above it is a pink and green neon sign that says, “Totally Nude Temptations.”

“He used those people like an ATM for lap dance money,” she says, hissing, her face twisted with hatred. “Then he killed the whole family for no reason. He’s a monster!”

A knife appears in her hand. She hears Cassandra’s voice whisper into her ear, “Do the right thing.”

Diane realizes she could sneak up behind Scarlet before he exits the alley. Then she could slit his throat, stab him in the back, or even challenge him to a fight head-on. A part of her wants to attack him more than anything else. She hesitates as she struggles to make her choice about what to do next.

Finally, she throws the knife down and says, “No, I’m not a murderer. He may not deserve to live, but I have no right to kill him, either. This situation calls for justice, not vengeance. I have to do what’s right, not merely what will make me feel better. Either way, those poor people are dead, and nothing can bring them back.” She spies a police car driving by and starts running towards it, waving her arms and calling out, “Officer! Officer!”

The police car stops abruptly, and then its lights and engine cut off. At the same time, the streetlights and all the lights from all the buildings around turn off as well. In an instant, the whole area falls dark and silent as if someone through a blanket over it.

Diane stops in her tracks and looks around, confused. Scarlet also stops and stands completely still near the mouth of alleyway. He’s a barely visible silhouette among the shadows.

His body starts convulsing and he doubles over, choking and gasping. Then he jerks upright and screams as gigantic, animal-like appendages burst out of his body. Gore sprays everywhere, splattering all over the alley. A shadowy beast with a dark, amorphous mass for a body emerges from inside him. It rends his flesh like a torn t-shirt as Diane stares up at it in fear and disbelief.

The beast grows until it resembles a black hole floating in the sky, absorbing all light around it. Horrific, slimy limbs sprout from all over it, whipping around and writhing nauseatingly. She turns to run, but a pair of the beast’s pincers clamp down on her ankle. She stumbles into a pile of trash bags.

She turns over and sees the beast looming above her. It lets out a thundering roar as Diane gazes into the inky abyss of its dark form. She shuts her eyes, waiting for it to dismember her.

Nothing happens.

Diane opens her eyes and realizes she’s sitting in a leather chair at an oblong wooden table inside a conference room. Buzzing fluorescent lights illuminate the grey-walled room from overhead. A closed door with a pronounced wood grain pattern stands in the corner next to a fern.

John Scarlet sits at the table beside her. He’s older than he was in the alley, though still much younger than how Diane remembers him. He wears a pinstriped business suit with a bright, gaudy tie. Acne scars cover his pock-marked face. His eyes are even darker than they were before.

An eager-looking woman who’s also wearing a suit sits across from him. Beside her sits a sulky, frowning teenage girl in a t-shirt and jeans. None of them acknowledge Diane’s presence or seem to notice she’s there. Laid out on the table between them are several important-looking documents. There are also what appear to be blueprints and schematic designs for some kind of machine.

Scarlet grins as he slides a document toward the woman while holding out a fancy silver pen. “Do the right thing, Charlene,” he says. “Sign the contract and let’s both become rich.”

“Don’t do it, mom,” the teenager says. “He’s going to change everything about who we are.” Charlene gives her an annoyed, anxious look and says, “Quiet, Stacey.” She takes the pen from Scarlet and starts to sign the document, but then hesitates.

“What’s the matter?” Scarlet says. He makes wild, exaggerated gestures and facial expressions as he speaks. “You have no reason to be nervous. Your company’s energy storage technology will revolutionize the market. Hell, it’ll change the world!

“No other product on the planet can absorb electricity through the air and then store it forever. The energy efficiencies your technology will create will be enormous, and the profits will be, too! All you need is a little capital to reach the global marketplace. I can help you with that if you’ll just sign on the dotted line.”

Charlene looks at him with a mix of hope and desperation. Then, over her daughter’s repeated protests, she signs the contract.

“Good,” he says, with an approving, predatory smile. “Good.”

The lights go out and everything falls silent. Diane sits there in the darkness, waiting, unsure of what comes next. The lights turn back on and she’s sees that she’s still sitting in the same chair inside the same conference room. Scarlet and Charlene are still there as well, standing across from each other at the table. But this time, they’re wearing different suits than they were before. Stacey is gone.

Charlene leans over the bare tabletop as if she’s ready to pounce. She points an accusatory finger at Scarlet, who has his arms crossed and his chin up in defiance. Upon his face is the same sneer he wore when he attacked the young couple in the alley.

“I don’t know what the hell you think you’re doing with my intellectual property, Mr. Scarlet,” Charlene says. “But there’s no reason why my technology would need the ability to absorb all the electricity in an entire city. I refuse to work with you any further, contract or no contract!” She slams her first down to make her point. Scarlet looks at her and scoffs.

Our intellectual property,” he says, correcting her. “And our technology.” Then, he says in a condescending tone, “You don’t know what you don’t know, Charlene. But I know something you don’t.”

He pulls his phone out of his pocket, dials a number and puts it on speaker. Diane watches as he holds the phone up with the same boyish smile on his face as the one she saw before.

“Mom?” comes Stacey’s weak, wounded voice through the speaker. “Mom, please help me. Some men took me. They say they’re going to hurt me if you don’t do what he wants.”

Tears flood Charlene’s eyes as she says, “Hold on, baby! I won’t let anything happen to you, I… I –”

Scarlet ends the call and puts the phone back in his pocket, grinning.

Diane feels her hatred for John Scarlet start to overflow. She always hated the man, but now she wants nothing more than to end his life in the most violent way possible.

“Wait,” says a calming voice inside her mind. “This isn’t really happening. None of this is. These are all just dreams, illusions created by Cassandra. She wants me, no, needs me to want to kill John Scarlet. Otherwise, I’d be her slave, forced to do her bidding like one of her mannequins, and she knows I’d never accept that.

“What if none of this ever even happened? Yes, John Scarlet is a horrible human being, but I don’t really know anything about his past. These scenarios tell me nothing other than what Cassandra wants me to believe.”

As Diane finishes her last thought, Scarlet’s eyes narrow. Then he turns his head and looks straight at her. “What the hell do you think you’re doing here?” he says.

His sudden reaction to her presence stuns her. She looks and sees Charlene staring at her as well with fear and desperation in her eyes. Diane hears Cassandra’s voice whisper into her ear, “The longer you wait to do the right thing, the harder it becomes.”

Scarlet reaches into his suit coat, takes out a pistol, and points it at Diane. As he’s about to pull the trigger, a monstrous claw crashes down through the ceiling. It grabs his arm, and then yanks him up through the ceiling tile. Another claw crashes down from above, grabs Charlene, and pulls her up as well.

Diane hears wet grinding and crunching sounds from above as they both scream in agony before falling silent. Chunks of blood, bones, and meat fall back through the ceiling holes the claws created. They accumulate on the floor into piles of gore. Shadows swirl around the piles, and for a moment, they resemble broken mannequin parts.

The lights go out, though an ambient light from an unknown source remains. Moments pass in silence, and Diane looks up at the holes with a look of terror upon her face. She presses herself against the wall and starts edging toward the exit.

The shadowy beast crashes down through the ceiling. Its shapeless mass smashes the table, sending debris flying everywhere. Diane covers her face with her arm to protect her eyes.

The beast lets out a deafening roar that pounds on Diane’s eardrums. She presses her hands against her ears and squeezes her eyes shut. Then she slides down against the wall, curling up into a ball. The creature continues to roar, louder and louder, until the room starts to shake. Diane’s eyes bulge out of her head, and pain shoots across her skull as her cheeks suck into her face. She feels immense pressure as if her head is about to explode.

Then, silence. The pain disappears. Diane lays there, trembling, with her eyes tightly shut.

A scream pierces the air. Diane’s opens her eyes and looks around in confusion. She’s back inside her bedroom, curled up in bed.

She starts to sit up and hears another scream. It sounds like it came from her office. She jumps out of bed, rushes down the hall, and bursts through the office door.

There, she finds Stacey, tied to the desk chair in the middle of the room. Loops of thick rope bind her arms to the arm rests. Scarlet stands in front of her, looking more twisted and corrupt than ever before. He waves a knife around in Stacey’s face with a sadistic smile. Diane recognizes it as the one he used to murder the couple in the alley.

Stacey turns her head and looks at Diane. Her expression is of abject terror, sorrow, and helplessness. Scarlet glances over at Diane with disinterest, then looks back at Stacey.

“Your mother’s dead,” he says. “I killed her with this knife. Now, I’m going use it to kill you. But first, I’m going to torture you.”

“No!” Stacey says, struggling to escape. She looks back at Diane once more with a pleading expression. “Please, help me!” she says. Scarlet lets out a peal of hideous, evil laughter as he waves the knife closer and closer to Stacey’s face.

Diane feels the weight of a gun in her hand. She looks down and sees she’s holding a pistol. It’s the same one Scarlet had in the conference room. Rage boils over inside her mind, so harsh and so pure she can’t control it. “I don’t care if this is real or not,” she says. “If Cassandra wants me to shoot this bastard so this nightmare can end, then so be it. I’m tired of fighting.”

She raises the gun and points it at Scarlet. He looks at her with surprise and incomprehension.

“What?” he says.

Diane pulls the trigger and the gun fires. The bullet pierces Scarlet’s forehead and explodes out the back of his skull. He drops the knife as his body crumples to the floor.

Diane blinks. She’s no longer inside her office. She now stands upon an outdoor stage, surrounded by scamps holding automatic rifles. A huge crowd of people in front of the stage lets out a massive, collective gasp. Everyone stares at her with the same look of surprise that was on Scarlet’s face a moment ago.

Looking down, she sees Scarlet’s body on the stage in front of a podium. He lies face up with a bullet wound in his forehead. Blood slowly drips from it. A large, red stain like wine slowly expands out from underneath his head. His wrinkled face and white, thinning hair show he’s the same age as Diane remembers him to be in reality.

She looks at the gun in her hand. A thin trail of smoke wafts out from the barrel. She notices that she’s no longer wearing the same clothes as before. Instead, she’s wearing a scamp uniform. The nametag says, “Loreno.”

She drops the weapon and sinks to her knees. “This is real,” she says in disbelief. “Cassandra tricked me. She convinced me to kill John Scarlet, which I chose to do willingly because I wanted to. It’s not an illusion. It’s real.”

No one says anything for several moments. Then, one of the scamps cries out, “She killed John Scarlet! Arrest her! Arrest her now!”

The crowd erupts into chaos as the scamps surround her, blocking any means of escape. Diane looks up at their scowling, bewildered faces. Somewhere, in the back of her mind, the shadowy beast roars in triumph.