Bernard Leopold Stewart VII was not a man accustomed to caring for children.
Bernard hailed from a long line of fine butlers and stewards. His ancestors served lords and ladies, even kings. From the top of his perfectly combed almost-white hair to his pressed white shirt to the tips of his polished black shoes, every part of him spoke to his refinement, his sacred calling.
Those shining black shoes now tapped a steady rhythm along the dank stone of an underground passageway, lit occasionally with recessed lighting. Before him, he pushed a cart carrying an enormous tank of water, where a gray, toothy creature bumped the glass with its hideous snout.
Bernard’s family claimed another distinction. They didn’t serve just anyone.
They served villains.
Bernard pushed the cart into the massive open cavern where he’d had the men install a 50,000-gallon tank last week. The temperature-controlled salt water waited.
He had called in favors. It took three villains with oceanic superpowers to fill this tank in the desert. But when he saw the tank on sale on the black market, he couldn’t pass up the deal. Not when he knew its potential.
He rolled the cart to the side of the tank. The 150-gallon aquarium looked tiny next to its much larger counterpart. A tiny animal destined for a big world.
But it would grow into that world. It had to.
A small voice made him turn.
The girl peered around the entrance to the cavern, long dark hair falling over her face. Her all-black clothes were too short, the black cape too long for her, as if she had gone through the closets of the mansion built into the caves and pulled out anything that might cloak her in darkness, make her invisible. The too-big mask that covered half of her face made his chest squeeze in a strange way. She hadn’t taken off her “disguise” in two weeks.
He would have to fix that. No ward of his should look so disheveled.
The girl stepped into the cavern, little knives clutched in her pale hands. She was so small for ten. Had he been that small? He couldn’t remember. “Miss Victoria.”
She tucked the knives in her belt and cocked her head. “Why did you tell me to meet you here?”
He stepped back from the little tank. “I have acquired a…companion I wish for you to meet.”
Her tentative footsteps were nearly soundless. She would make a good assassin someday, perhaps. Though if she took after her parents, she would want to be something much flashier.
The way she clung to a knife as she approached, it occurred to him that perhaps she should have been given a doll, or a stuffed animal. Did children her age want such things?
He had no idea. He’d never had any intention to have children. He certainly had never paid this one much mind.
She crouched next to the tank and pressed a tentative hand to the glass. Her brow knit. “What is he?”
“The creature is a shark.”
She traced its motions with a finger. “What kind of shark? He looks kind of…strange.”
“I am unsure, Miss Victoria. The creature was a result of genetic testing that did not run according to plan.”
She tapped the glass lightly, and the shark bumped it with its strange, deformed nose. The nose curled downward, almost in a hook. A truly repulsive creature.
“He’s cute.” She looked back up at him. “Can I pet him?”
He hesitated. “You must snatch your hand out quickly if he attempts to bite you.”
She nodded and slipped her fingers into the tank.
The baby shark shied away, backing into a corner. She wiggled her fingers slightly, but when the shark didn’t move, she removed her hand and sighed.
“The creature is frightened,” Bernard explained. “The larger sharks tried to consume it, like they did its parents. But it alone survived, and I brought it here.”
In truth, Bernard knew nothing of the deformed fish’s parentage, or its relations with other sharks. The scientist who had botched the genetic experiment had been intending to exterminate the creature, but when Bernard saw the shark, it sparked an idea. An idea that required a bit of fabrication.
“It alone survived,” the girl whispered. She bit her lip and looked at the much larger tank, her eyes widening. “He’s so small. Is that for him?”
“Indeed. He will grow into it.” Bernard gazed at the child as she looked back down at the shark. “He may not look it now, but he was born from ferocious stock, and one day he, too, will be something to fear.” Despite his misgivings, he removed a glove and placed a hand in the water. The shark rushed upward, jaws snapping. Bernard yanked his hand away. “And even now, though little, he has teeth.”
Something in the girl’s face softened. Her mouth curved in what was almost a smile. She reached into the tank, and instead of biting, the shark nudged its head beneath her hand.
“I’ll help you, little buddy,” she said. “We’ll get used to that big tank together.”
She looked up at Bernard, a true smile blossoming on her face. It changed her entire appearance. Her green eyes sparkled, and for a moment she looked like the child Bernard had watched sitting in her mother’s lap or shrieking with delight as her father tossed her into the air.
His chest tightened at how much she looked like each of them. The villains he had sworn himself to serve. Who had, for some strange, inexplicable reason, not only seen fit to leave him as the steward of their estate until their daughter came of age, but also as the steward of the daughter herself.
She took his hand and grinned mischievously. “You know what I’m going to name him?”
“What is that, Miss Victoria?”
“Gonzo.” She turned and patted the shark’s head. “You are a beautiful boy, Gonzo. I’m going to teach you to be the best attack shark ever.”
His lips twitched. He had served three generations of her family faithfully as they terrorized the world. But he had a feeling he might just enjoy this fourth generation the most.
“Come, Vortex. Let us unleash this terror upon its new home.”