000 – September 30th

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Entirely Presenting You is a superhero web serial in the modern supernatural genre, with elements of action, and occasionally horror and psychological drama. It is currently scheduled to update weekly, 12 a.m. CST on Saturdays.

Also, know that this story will be dark, and will not stray from themes including, but not limited to, graphic violence and language. Effort will be made to take such subjects as seriously as they deserve to be, but potentially queasy readers should be wary, regardless. But most importantly, this was written for fun, and hopefully readers will have some fun along the way.

For a more in-depth explanation on what this web serial is, check the About page. For even more, why not check out this trailer? Or this one? Or perhaps this one?

A girl’s story will be presented in its entirety. And it begins on the night of September 30th. If you are able, enjoy.

040 – You Left Me Hanging

Previous

I wanted nothing more than to have the biggest sleep of all time, but things had a way of taking me past the breaking point, then hammering away the remaining shards.

I was so tired that I could barely remember my name. It started with… a letter of the alphabet, I knew that much. More than one syllable, for sure. But, why was I thinking there was more than one word to it?

Stop, you’re letting yourself drift. Just a little more.

What was a little more, after there was nothing left? Past the bottom of the barrel?

Again, drifting.

I left the supermarket, bags in tow. Not much I needed, just stuff I could use to cover myself up. That, and more water.

I arrived back at the taxi, parked in wait. I got inside, sitting behind the driver’s seat, head down.

“Where to now, boss?” the driver asked.

Prying open a bottle while I tried to remember. Wasn’t even an hour ago, but it already seemed like someone else’s distant past. A story someone had told me, rather than experiencing it for myself.

I sipped, and some clarity came back to me. Refreshing.

“East Stephenville, Irving Street. There’s a warehouse, there, but you can drop me off a block ahead, or whatever.”

I took a breath. “And…”

“And?”

“That should be it.”

The driver accepted that. She had better, this was probably her most profitable night in years.

“Sure thing.”

She put the vehicle into drive, then proceeded to take us out of the parking lot.

Time to get my thoughts in order, time to rest, however brief.

I was instructed to make my way over to that warehouse, the order coming from James Gomez, apparently. Why there, though? Was Thomas really being held there? Did it really have to come full circle, like this? I wanted nothing more than to be done with this, but I was just as afraid to see what I’d find, when I got there.

What would I even find there? Thomas, or just his body? The other two? What did D’Angelo mean, by listing their names and telling me who Solace was? Nothing was piecing together, no sense was being made.

Only one way to figure it out.

While thinking, or at least trying, I started to fumble around with the things I had bought, shuffling them around, moving them. I had to make a stop before I moved to my final destination to get them. Second-rate, compared to what I had before, but that was a loss I begrudgingly had to take.

I liked that costume, it was cool. It was still new. I didn’t even get to wear it enough times to really settle into it, to make it feel like a second skin. And now some criminal was knocked out, wearing those threads. I wondered how long that facade would last.

I did have my pants though, I had that going for me. Oh, and my gloves.

Not much, but still.

After I finished moving things around, I set everything beside me. My new backpack. Single strap.

“Are you going to kill me?”

I shifted my head, rubbing my forehead against the back of the driver’s seat. I frowned.

The driver spoke. She hadn’t said anything when we were on route to the club, or to the supermarket.

She spoke, asking something… odd.

It threw me off.

I made a sound. “Huh?”

“After I drop you off… are you going to kill me? Because I’m a loose end? Because I think I know who you are.”

I made a noise. Somewhere between a groan and a grunt, but the emotion behind it was clear. Ticked off.

She had me figured out?

My eyes stayed down.

“Who do you think I am?” I asked, lapsing into that habit of lowering the pitch of my voice, even though I had no mask on.

“The Bluemoon.”

Shit.

It probably wouldn’t have taken much for her to piece it together. If she hadn’t by now, I might have actually been worried.

“Am I right?” she asked.

If I held back my tongue, my silence would say more than words could.

I answered.

“The Bluemoon was arrested back at the club. He set a fire to the place, but got stuck inside. There are plenty of eye-witnesses to attest to that.”

Probably. I hadn’t stuck around to see what they did with the decoy, whether or not it had been reported, already.

“As for me,” I continued, “I’m no one.”

The taxi stopped at a light. Nothing heard but the rumbling of the engine, a lone siren far off, somewhere.

She took that as an opportunity to speak again, more coldly than I would have expected.

“So, are you still going to? Kill me, that is?”

She doesn’t believe me?

I started, “I’m not-”

“Hey, if you say you’re not, then you’re not, I’m not up to fighting you on that. But you’re still a shady motherfucker. Excuse the language.”

Shady? Wasn’t she the shady one, for even asking in such a calm manner?

“So, I wanted to ask again, is this my last ride, or no?”

Images flashed. Thoughts formed. I let them linger in my mind.

A moment passed, then I had the realization that it did. I spent too long staying silent.

“Did you see my face?” I asked, then I realized again that I shouldn’t have asked that particular question. It insinuated things, made implications. Set conditions, even if they weren’t actually there.

I am too tired.

“You’ve had your head down every second you’ve been in my taxi,” the driver said. “Of course I haven’t.”

“Then, there you go,” I said. “I’m not going to… kill you.”

I heard a heavy breath get let out. The light must have changed, because the taxi started up again, going forward.

“It was never a consideration,” I had to hastily add, “I don’t do that.”

I wanted to leave it at that. No use in trying to explain myself to a stranger.

However…

Maybe talking would do me some good, keep me alert.

“Why would you even ask that?” I questioned.

The driver turned the wheel, then straightened it.

“A lot of people come by to sit in that back row, a lot of places they want to go. Not all of them have the most kind-hearted intentions when they get to their destinations. And not all of them aren’t so kind as to let an end stay loose, so to speak.”

“Have you been threatened before?”

“I’ve been lucky,” she said. Talking around the question, it seemed. “Some of my co-workers haven’t. I just thought my number was up.”

I had to go for another sip of water. Then, one more.

“Don’t worry about me,” I said, after I nearly finished the whole bottle. “I’m not as… ill-intentioned.”

“That’s a relief,” she said, but she certainly didn’t sound relieved.

A low grumble. I clutched my stomach, closing my eyes. A grim reminder.

Intense irritability, anxiety, the restlessness. Everything would be eleven.

I had to keep talking, to put my focus elsewhere.

“Is it so bad that you had to even ask me?”

“Bad? I don’t have much of a reference point, I’ve lived here all my life. I can tell you it’s always been like this.”

Always?

“It’s a matter of getting used to,” she said. “If you think about it, there are people in other parts of the world, living in way worse conditions. I’m lucky I can make a living driving other people around.”

“Even if some of them aren’t so kind-hearted?” I ventured.

There was a moment where she didn’t answer right away. Maybe a gesture, though I couldn’t see it.

“Kind-hearted or not, they have money to pay.”

I reacted, but I couldn’t even get a read on myself.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Uh, it’s Claire.” She took another turn, then decelerated.

We stopped.

“And here we are,” Claire said, “A block away, or whatever, just like you asked.”

I was much faster to get out of the taxi, this time. I took everything with me, my new bag strapped across my back, new clothes in my hands. I had left the payment for the entire ride on the console beside her seat.

The door shut.

“Thank you, Claire,” I said. I did a half-turn away from the vehicle, to better obscure my face. It was dark, here, but anything helped.

“By the by, you don’t have to worry about me, too,” Claire said, “I won’t tell anyone about… this.”

A smile almost formed across my lips. It nearly creeped me out.

“Of course not, Claire, you have nothing to say to anyone about any of this. I’m a ghost. Better off forgotten. I have money to pay, right? It should be easy.”

Morality wasn’t black or white. It was green.

I breathed.

“But, Claire, I’ll remember you. I know your name, I know the number stamped on the outside of your taxi. For any reason, any at all, I can find you.”

I stopped there, not offering any more. I figured that was enough.

“Alright,” Claire said, “Have a good rest of your night.”

She drove off, leaving me to stand alone. Nothing here but the sound of crickets.

I walked.

It had been dark my whole time out, but here? This was a different kind of dark. A sort of absence.

No one on the streets, and the lights were out in the buildings. Streetlights flickered, cracks webbed across the pavement and cement. A place neglected, as if people collectively decided that this neighborhood wasn’t worth it. This place wasn’t even that unique in that regard, spots like this were patched across the whole city. I saw them in my run around and time as Blank Face, my eyes were already open to them, but they had been opened wider, since.

Like a disease that ravaged a body, shutting down parts, limbs, organs, until the entire system was taken over.

Taken over by the gangs.

And what was I, in all of this? The antivirus? Then, what was Solace, a developed resistance?

Dammit, I ended up setting myself up, too.

No one here meant there was no one to see me. I slipped on my mask. A ski mask, something considerably less conspicuous than my previous choices. There was a slight musty smell to it as it went over my nose. I fitted on a pair of goggles to better cover my eyes. A subtle tinge in my vision, but nothing that would hinder me. I could see in the dark just fine.

Next came the grey hoodie. A little baggy, but beggars couldn’t be choosers. I supposed I couldn’t escape the hooded look, after all.

The last piece was my gloves, the only other carry-over from my old costume.

Pieced together off the cuff, but this new costume would have to do. It had to.

I tightened the strap crossing my chest one more time, as I started to see the police cars. I was approaching the warehouse.

It looked exactly as I had left it, not too long ago. It didn’t stir any pleasant memories in me, just panic, the frenzy of it all. I almost saw my old self running out of the warehouse, frantic, trying to save Maria and Eduardo.

I blinked. The image changed. A cop, running from the building, meeting with another cop at their car. From a distance, I could see them exchange a few words, before heading into the car. It pulled out of the lot, and I tensed. I was told to come here, but I wasn’t sure how welcomed I’d be when I arrived.

The car sped the other way, no lights, no siren. I remained tense.

There were only two other cars parked out front, not much in the way of a force. No other cops outside. Were the rest in there? Did I have to be wary about them, too?

Well, I wasn’t about to go through the front door. That wasn’t what on-the-run vigilantes do.

I stayed low, circling around the perimeter. I traced the old path I took to get in there, going along the side of the building, looking for the window I entered through the first time.

I moved faster this time, more comfortably, despite the growing aches. I hopped up to reach the height of the window, and snuck in, climbing up the metal racks. Again.

Déjà vu.

But I actually remembered to bring gloves, this time.

Again, I kept a steady and consistent pace, while still trying to keep myself hidden. Less hesitation in my steps, this time. I moved with purpose.

I made it to the central hallway.

Like last time, I wasn’t alone. There were others here. Cops, and a woman, sitting, with hands behind her back. Two others were on the ground, hands cuffed.

A single metal folding chair, atop sheets of newspapers, laid out. Blood dripped from the seat, down the legs, soaking the paper.

I squinted, my pulse quickening.

I immediately went down, my landing echoing in the space.

My hands were up before the police could turn and react and pull out their guns.

“It’s me,” I said, “It’s Blank Face, I mean, the Bluemoon.”

You have to believe me.

“Um, I can try and do a flip if you want me to,” I added.

“That’s not necessary.”

A man stepped away from a group of cops, towards me. The reason why I was here.

“Speak of the devil,” he said. “Though, dressed differently than I remember.”

“James Gomez,” I said, putting my hands down. “Can’t say I’m not surprised.”

“I can say the same thing, myself,” Gomez said. “We just picked up whispers of your arrest at the Panorama, which was why I gave the order to move in. No point in waiting for someone who might not show up.”

“It was a distraction, but, who knows how long it’ll hold, if at all.” I set to rest my hands at my sides. “How did you find this place? How did you find me?”

Gomez lowered his head, and his voice, a fraction. “After word spread about you and Sumeet, the men back at base jumped at the chance to get a piece of you. For my part, I stayed behind, and I was able to trace the signal you were talking about. Hadn’t seen that floor in months.”

“I’ve been out here, nearly getting myself killed to get that info, when all I could’ve done was wait for you to take an elevator. I’m so touched you found it within yourself to actually help me,” I said.

He nodded. “Happy to hear it. As for getting that info to you, you pretty much signaled where you were and what you were doing.”

“The fire at the club,” I said.

“Exactly. I wasn’t sure if you’d manage to make it, but I thought you deserved to know. After that I tried to gather up as many men I could trust as possible. Not as many as I would’ve liked. Or hoped. But we’ll have to make do.”

“Beggars can’t be choosers,” I said.

“You get the idea.” Gomez turned, but he kept going, “Follow me.”

I followed, catching the glances of the other officers. It felt odd, for once they weren’t trying to get at me.

They still stared, though, like I was a circus animal. I met the eyes of a certain cop, and he looked the other way. But something told me he went right back to gawking as I passed.

“Back to work, people,” Gomez said, addressing his men. He seemed to notice, too. “We need everything stored and catalogued, make sure it matches with what we have back home!”

I didn’t express my gratitude out loud. I changed the subject, instead.

“You said you were able to follow the signal, meaning that it came from here?”

“It did, but I’ll tell you right now, Thomas isn’t here.”

My heart dropped.

My mind immediately went to the chair here in the main corridor.

I avoided bringing it up, asking about it. I was afraid I’d be right.

“What is here, then?” I asked instead.

“We’re in the process of that, right now.”

We stopped in front of the woman. She moved her head, I couldn’t get a good look at her face.

Gomez made a gesture, and a nearby cop moved to action, putting a hand under her armpit and forcing her to her feet. Rough.

“Meet Linda Day,” Gomez said, “Business tycoon, CEO of a sizable moving company, breast cancer charity sponsor.”

I looked at her. She had the appearance of someone who was attractive when they were in high school or college, but time, and whatever stress they subjected themselves to, took their toll on the body. Lines etched across her cheeks and forehead, and she still looked relatively young. Excess weight hung off her neck, I could imagine the flab that was underneath her sleeves and waistband.

However, she wasn’t exactly dressed like someone who was abducted from her home in the middle of the night. She had on a nice looking black coat, brown dress pants. She had on makeup.

More importantly, she’s alive.

“You clean up nicely for a hostage,” I commented. I turned to Gomez. “What is this?”

Gomez folded his arms. “I’ll give you the long and short of it. We searched the place, and came across these three, tending to some leftover equipment. Wasn’t hard, they didn’t see us coming, so they didn’t put up much of a fight.”

“Nice, so you’re competent when you want to be, that’s good to know.”

Gomez didn’t comment on that.

But, another word, a certain word stuck out to me.

“Anyways, ‘we?’” I asked.

Gomez audibly huffed. “Yeah. Apparently, she’s a part of what I like to now call the ‘Solace Conspiracy.’ She’s been helping out in preparing for Solace’s next move.”

I felt life and color leave my body. My main objective was to find – if not save – Thomas, but I had Edgar Brown and Linda Day in mind, too. I hadn’t… expected this to be a possibility.

“What’s she doing here?” I asked. I shook my head, and faced Linda, instead. “What are you doing here?”

She lifted her face, looking back at me. She grimaced. “Doing what we can to get you out of the picture.”

It brought back to mind what D’Angelo had told me about who Solace supposedly was. He listed off the names of the hostages. Thomas as well.

Is this what he meant?

Shocked wasn’t the right word. Something stronger was needed. I was almost impressed that things could go this wrong, this incorrect.

Their deaths were faked?

“It’s the same with Edgar Brown,” Gomez said, “Day tells us that he’s been participating in setting up other plans that Solace has. We don’t know the extent of it, though, if he’s a key player or just another pawn.”

“Where’s he? Did you find him here?”

“Right now she says he’s staying in a motel a few miles away from here. She was poised to sleep in the room beside his. Just had some men go see if she’s telling the truth.”

My jaw would have hit the floor, if it was physically possible.

You’re shitting me.

I had been running myself ragged to find where these people had been taken, only to discover that two of them had a part in this, a role to play. They were at the party, they were invited by Kristin, they were acquainted with the Thompsons.

Hands on shoulders. A flip. Linda Day was thrown up the height of the metal racks before crashing back down.

I screamed.

“Blank Face! Everyone back away!”

Gomez shouted out orders. I heard activity from the other cops.

I bent down, and picked her up again. I pushed her up against the rack, pressing so the metal pinched her back.

She wriggled, but she couldn’t worm away from me. I had her.

But I was too mad to form words in my head, to spit them in her face. Questions. Things were blurring. Giving in to something more basic.

A hand on my shoulder.

I twisted my head.

Gomez.

“Put her down, Blank Face. We have time to get information, to figure out what we need to do. No one knows we’re here, and no one knows you’re here. As it stands, we have an upper hand. Let her go.”

“What about Thomas, is he involved? Was he a part of this all along?”

Have I been lied to this whole time?

Gomez, slowly, shook his head. “I know the guy, and… something tells me you know him, too. This isn’t like him, I don’t think he’d agree to play ball, or even want to mastermind this. Something else is going on here. You’ll… just have to trust me on this.”

I thought, considered, and I knew he was right. Didn’t make sense for Thomas to be involved with Solace, it didn’t add up.

My grip loosened a bit. Just a bit.

I heard him out, and I understood, but I still had to find it within me to take the proper action.

It took everything I had to let her go. Linda fell back to the ground, slumping over.

“Come with me,” Gomez said to me. “Get Day on her feet, have her follow,” he said to someone else.

Gomez took me down a corridor, towards a set of large wooden boxes. The tops were pried off, crowbars at the base of them. A familiar sight.

“What’s this?” I asked, but the answer was provided as we got closer. I didn’t like the answer.

Guns. A whole lot of them. Stacked and lined up neatly together. Pistols, rifles, shotguns, stuff I didn’t know the exact names of, stuff in smaller boxes that led me to use my imagination.

And that was only the first box.

Others were taken out from the bottom shelf and opened by the cops. They were going back and forth, looking inside and tapping on tablets and devices, shouting out numbers, arbitrary to me.

I’d seen these boxes before.

“Oh my god,” I said, though breathless. “Please tell me this isn’t…”

“It is,” Gomez said, matter-of-factly. “These are the same weapons The Chariot had smuggled in months ago. You prevented these from getting around and being used, if I remember correctly.”

One of my first nights out as Blank Face. Thomas said I had prevented a gang war from breaking out by having these weapons be turned in.

But now, they’re back. Just like Benny.

“I thought these things were taken care of,” I asked, “What are they still doing here?”

“They were taken care of, contraband found by us gets confiscated and is stored in our facilities. It should have been impossible for these to get on the streets.”

“Yet here we are,” I said. “You’re telling me all these weapons circled back here?”

That nothing I do matters in the long run?

“Not all of them,” someone else said. Another cop. He came up to Gomez to hand him a paper. “This looks like a lot, but this isn’t even half of what got taken out from inventory. We just checked, sir.”

“Thanks, Campbell,” Gomez said.

“But, sir, there is some bad news. Some things aren’t accounted for. Of the missing weapons, the ones found here only account for about a fourth.”

“Meaning this isn’t their only base, just a stopping point,” Gomez concluded. “The weapons are elsewhere. Thank you, again.”

Gomez dismissed him with a nod.

“Great, just fantastic,” I said, “Just one gun is too much. Now all these things are back, out here to be used.”

Another complication in this sick game.

“Try to find some silver lining, or you’ll be blinded by too much negativity. We’ve taken back these weapons, I’ll just have to do a better job of making sure these stay where they belong.”

“You better,” I said, fighting back the irritation that nothing I did had any lasting impact. The impatience that I needed to be doing more, yet we were still standing here, talking.

“If you really think you can trust these men, we’ll have to leave this as is,” I said. “I want to find Thomas. Where is he, what did they do to him?”

Gomez nodded in agreement, he had to ignore my slight against the police. We both turned to look back at Linda Day. She stood, though hunched, propped up by another police officer.

“Here’s the part where you talk some more,” Gomez said to her, “And make it fast. I don’t have the power to control my friend, here.”

Friend? Some odd hours ago you refused to actively help me.

I said nothing.

“What’s the plan? Where’s Thomas?” Gomez asked.

Linda brought her eyes up, glaring at us from behind strands of hair that fell into her face.

“First thing in the morning, the mayor will be making a speech in front of city hall, about Solace and the Bluemoon. He’s been heavily criticized for his silence on the issue. With Thomas Thompson gone, his hand has been forced to say something. They’ll be his first public comments about the matter, many will be there.”

“And then?” Gomez asked.

“A riot, the biggest one yet, they’ll take over and spread more fear about the Bluemoon. And the one to lead the charge… will be Thomas Thompson.”

A cold sweat swept over me. The mention of his name in this scheme.

I tried to say something, ask a question of my own, but I found myself speechless.

Gomez, for his part, was much more collected. “People are afraid enough, why orchestrate a riot that big?”

“I don’t know, believe me, that’s just what I overheard.”

“From who?”

“From the group that took me, they all had masks, I didn’t see their faces.”

“Where’s Thomas!?”

I yelled out the question, losing myself for a moment. The words carried across the entire warehouse. I saw people stop what they were doing. Brief.

“He was here, but they took him, I swear I don’t know where. When they explained it to him, he refused, so Styx strapped him to a chair and…”

Linda stopped there.

A chair, the chair I passed earlier. Styx. Whatever it was, it was better left unsaid.

Thomas sat in that chair.

I lunged at the woman.

We both went down, and I pushed her into the ground. I shook her, wild.

“You bitch, you let that happen to him! You threw him away!”

Sounds coming from her were nearing shrieks, reaching higher pitches when she probably realized she would not be getting away. Her hands were behind her, bound. She was mine to hurt.

Mine to consume.

I, myself, was much less loud. I shook her, then threw her back down. Her hair flew everywhere across her face.

I released my grip, and I raised my hands, aiming for her throat next-

I felt hands wrap around my hands, my arms. Trying to hold me back?

Useless.

The attempt was unexpected, my arms continuing downward without regard for who was holding them. Two people fell beside me, falling flat. Cops.

Mechanical clicks. Orders barked. I realized where I was, what I was doing.

I took a breath.

Raising my hands, I slowly returned to my feet. Linda stayed on her back, crying in between gasps.

I’m so tired. Of this, of everything.

“Sorry,” I said, not really meaning it, but I needed to calm the others down. “Didn’t mean to go that far.”

“Guns down, everyone.”

Gomez stood ahead of me, waving his hands. “Last thing we want is a shootout with all this stuff here.”

The men complied, not questioning him. Their hard stares remained, though some returned to what they were doing.

Gomez turned to me again, but he didn’t lower his head or his voice. “I understand that you’ve had a long night, and you’re young, so I’ll let that slide. But, do something like that again, and I’m not stopping my men. You’re still wanted.”

I nodded, putting my hands to my side. The emotions didn’t go away, just pushed to the side, locked up.

Everything’s been flipped on its head. Turned upside down.

Fuck.

Gomez rolled his shoulders back, and addressed his men one more time. “Everyone, listen up! We know the situation, so we know that we’re on our own. This has to stay between us, or we lose our advantage. We get what we can out of Linda Day, and then we plan accordingly. By the time the sun rises today, this will all be over.”

Previous

039 – Trial by Phlegethon

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Every sign was pointing to me to call it a night. The sun had about five more hours before it was up, so I was working against the clock. I had the cops biting at my heels with every step, and having to take on an Italian mob without so much as a draft of a plan…

To change gears and go home, regroup, start over, it started to seem like the better of every option.

Except, in the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t.

I only had information on where D’Angelo would be tonight, and, did I really want to try my hand at this when the body count might have potentially doubled?

I think not.

The truck continued rolling, taking another street. Sounds of sirens filled the air, alongside incoming, consecutive slices of wind.

A tarp, here. I lifted it, and slipped under, using it for cover.

The wind-sound got louder, peaking as it passed overhead. Then, it grew distant.

I sighed.

Helicopters.

As if things weren’t hard enough.

Shit, Solace managed to get everyone in a frenzy.

And that was what I hated about this from the beginning. Who was at the bottom of this Solace thing?

Solace was hardly a concrete thing, an enemy made of air, I would reach out and just get nothing. I couldn’t even attribute a gender. And yet, Solace was capable of so much that it baffled me. How could I ever stack up against… it? Was there even a way to get ahead?

I sat in thought – and in wait – scratching my arm, and thumbing out shards of glass that littered my arms, shoulders, and neck. Some even got stuck in my hair. The wounds closed as soon as they were completely free of foreign objects, as though my body knew when to do so. It’d never stop freaking me out, watching the cuts treat themselves, the skin moving, the flesh touching back together, mending with a strange warmth, the red line thinning, then disappearing.

Quite the trip, it was.

But, holes in fabric didn’t heal. My shirt was left in tatters, ripped and torn on the sleeves and back. And blood already out of my body didn’t go back in. Small, messy stripes of red streaked across the skin on my forearms, smearing also onto my sleeves.

Might as well have painted a target on my back.

I took my mask off, again. I did appreciate Thomas’s gesture in giving me this gas mask, but it was proving to be a bit of a hassle, having to work the straps and making sure everything fit before I could make a move. I wouldn’t deny it being an improvement from my old mask in entire measures, but this night had proved that there were some flaws in its function as part of my superhero identity.

Mainly, it was hard to drink blood with this thing on.

And fuck, did I need it.

My body was already going through some of the symptoms, and I shook just thinking about them. The aches, the fever, the paranoia. I wasn’t me when it started to get bad, and it was like there was something else, trying to get out. It had to be caged by blood.

I wouldn’t last if I didn’t address this tonight. I had to find a way to squeeze it in my schedule, among everything else that needed to be done.

The mask fell into my lap as I got it off. I did my hair one more time, and pulled at my temples, where the mask had kept rubbing until I was nearing a headache.

The loud sounds didn’t help, either.

The activity outside the tarp hadn’t lessened since I hid inside. Blaring sirens, people shouting, cars speeding and horns honking. It went without saying, I was hesitant to stick my head out.

I got this far without another incident, was I in the clear? Wished I knew for sure.

I opened my backpack.

I had packed for this night as if I was going on a field trip. Water bottles, cash, an extra shirt, a hat. I was originally planning on changing after I was through with tonight, but everything ended up out of my control.

Under the tarp, I changed into the extra shirt, while forgoing the hat. Some time passed since I landed in here, I should be well out of the area the cops originally blocked off. Now, it’d be a crapshoot as to my current whereabouts.

Use that to my benefit.

Brakes squeaking, I heard the truck come to a stop. And so did my heart. A light? No other sound clued me into a police car that might have stopped us. But it wouldn’t take much longer to be found, here. Police would extend their search once they’ve exhausted all their options on the block they… blocked off, and they were on high alert.

Had to move, evade. Yet, had to exercise caution, too.

Gradually, I lifted the tarp, pulling it over my head, wary of another helicopter, or even a wandering eye. Neither, but I was still on edge. I shot a glance upward, and the buildings loomed. The truck had taken me deeper into the city.

I was in the Eye, now. Uncharted territory.

I had never spent a substantial amount of time in the area. There was never a reason to, anything my mom and I needed was a drive elsewhere, like a nearby supermarket, or an outlet mall. We had no business spending time in the inner city.

But, it couldn’t that bad, right?

It has a nickname, I told myself, Of course it’s gonna be that bad.

Dammit.

I peeked ahead. Some amount of cars were ahead of me, but the truck was stopped at a light. Red and blue lights hadn’t tinged the scenery here, so I was free of any pursuers. For now.

I crawled out of the tarp, slowly, carefully. My mask had gone back into my backpack, my parka still stuffed in there. Cash and phone in my pockets. I stayed low, crouching, waiting to see if an opportune time would come, so I could make a move.

The truck started, and I had to place my hands down to keep my balance. I shuffled back, stepping over the tarp, and I lifted my head to steal another peek to the sidewalk.

Buildings gave way to a metal fence, with paths and greenery behind it. Tall trees. The fence then turned into a gate, wide open. It was a park. But not just any park, I actually knew of this place.

The Peace Phoenix Plaza.

That might work.

I moved fast. I hopped over the wall of the trailer and touched ground, onto the street. A brisk walk took me through the gates, entering the park.

Head down, don’t look at anybody.

Orange lights illuminated the cement walkway. Civilians were here, too, of course. Some out for a late night jog, others here for a leisurely stroll. How many were on the run?

Not me, I’m just a regular girl.

I passed a fountain, the design traditional, yet impressive. I passed a statue and a number of modern art installments I didn’t quite get. It would’ve been a nice walk, barring circumstances.

I picked up the pace.

A police car zoomed down the next street I arrived at, after I crossed the park. A motorcycle followed. I never wanted to see either kind of vehicle again, for the rest of my life.

Here, though, was a line of taxis, waiting for anyone who’d take them. Being such a popular park, plenty of buses and taxis would stop by. I approached the first one I saw.

Casting my head down, I opened the door, and slid into the back row.

“Where to?” the driver asked. A woman.

I didn’t answer her right away. I propped my back against the door on the other side, leaning down, my legs resting across the seat. Hiding my face.

“Panorama,” I said, “The club downtown.”

“I know where it is.”

The taxi moved, getting back onto the street.

“Actually, I don’t plan on being there for too long. Would you mind waiting for me, somewhere? I can pay extra.”

“Sure, no problem,” she said back, casually. But she had no idea this was biggest problem anybody would ever have.

The taxi had stopped four minutes ago. The radio blared a pop tune, but it was already noise to me, now.

I hadn’t moved.

“We’re here,” the lady said, a touch annoyed, but keeping her patience. “A street over from the club, like you asked.”

I still hadn’t moved, but I was clutching my backpack tighter.

“Do you want me to stay right here?” she asked, “I can keep the blinkers on.”

“No,” I said, “No. Do you mind… waiting somewhere else? Out of sight?”

She gave me a look. “You want me to hide? I won’t front, but this is starting to sound like some shady shit.”

I clenched my jaw. Could I just tell her never mind?

“If this is too weird or too uncomfortable for you, I…”

“Honey, I’ve been at this for eight years now, my job is to take who sits in the back anywhere they need to go. Ask ten drivers, eight of them will tell you they’ve taken someonesomewhere, to do something. The other two are still new.”

I was at a loss on how to respond. I wasn’t like those guys she was probably talking about. Not exactly. But I couldn’t articulate that without sounding like I was in denial. I had my reasons, my justifications.

Or, was this city just that fucked up?

She then waved me off, like she was shooing me away. “Go, do your thing, I’ll be over in the space between the liquor store and the health clinic, about another block down.”

I looked down the direction she was talking about. That couldn’t be too hard to find.

“Okay,” was all I had to say.

Not another word was said. I got out of the taxi, and we went off in different directions. The taxi went down the street, I crossed it, finding my way to the club, the thumping music swelling in volume as I closed in.

Panorama.

The club wasn’t what I expected it to look like in my head. Sleek and black, unlike the brick that constituted the buildings beside it. Multiple stories, the tallest structure here. Pointed at the top, resembling something like an obelisk. Neon spotlights danced across the surface of the glass, lighting up the logo and name of the club. I felt the music pulse through me with every beat, even from across the street.

A line of people stretched from the door to the end of the street, turning the corner. Bouncers at the door, their arms crossed. The line wasn’t moving, and I saw people still walking to get in line.

How am I supposed to get in?

I wasn’t twenty-one, I didn’t even look eighteen. No one in their right mind would let me walk through the front door as I was. Backpack on, sweaty, and I wasn’t quite dressed for clubbing. Getting in line wasn’t a viable option, especially since I was pressed for time.

I had the whole taxi ride to think of a way to get in, but I wasn’t able to come up with anything. And after taking a look at the actual building, my options seemed to be even more limited.

Had to think on my feet. I walked while continuing to think of something.

Could I sneak in? Unlikely. I probably wouldn’t be able to get far before I was seen, and I didn’t know the layout inside enough to successfully find D’Angelo without getting caught. I still didn’t know his face, so waiting for him outside for an ambush wasn’t the smartest idea, too.

Dammit, nothing I do will be a good idea.

A direct approach? A way to smoke him out?

Possibly, but with the police still on the lookout for me, it would be like I was asking to be caught up with them again, and there was no guarantee that I’d make a ‘successful’ escape, this time. High risk, for a potentially little reward.

Decisions, decisions.

I found myself heading towards the line, anyways. So many people, clumped into their own groups, chatting among one another. Some were smoking, several already had drinks in their hands.

I ended up wandering towards the back of the line. I couldn’t help it, but I was having trouble coming up with a plan ahead of time. Usually, I could play it by ear pretty well, but in this case, I was also playing with fire. Take too many risks, and I was bound to mess up somewhere.

Perhaps it was just a matter of making the mess ups manageable. Like a controlled flame.

Nothing came to me. No spark of inspiration.

A group of girls beat me to where the line stopped, though I didn’t really have any intention of getting in line. Skimpily-clad, heavy makeup, smelling of perfume and other substances. I was envious.

They were talking about something, one of them pulling out a pack of cigarettes, a lighter following as a single stick was put to rest in between her lips.

Something flashed before my eyes. Something burned within me. Something terrible.

That anger, again. That frustration.

I held my breath.

I turned as I walked passed her, like I was reacting to my name being called from behind. My backpack hit her elbow.

“Oh!”

Everything fell, the contents of her box spilling out onto the sidewalk, including her lighter.

“I am so sorry,” I said, in an attempt to mean it.

She shot me a glance before she smacked her lips. “Watch where you’re going, okay?”

She crouched to pick her stuff up. I crouched, too, though faster. I closed my eyes, briefly, bracing myself.

My head knocked into hers.

“Ah!”

She gasped, confused, but distracted. I quickly opened my eyes, my hand moving faster.

“Oh my gosh,” I said, getting up, “I didn’t mean that, I’m so sorry.”

Her friends went to consult the girl I knocked into. She was slower to get back on her feet, massaging her forehead as she was helped up.

“I said ‘watch it,’ bitch,” she said, obviously irritated.

I raised my hands, palms open, facing them. “And I said I’m sorry. I thought I heard my name, and… I’ll just be on my way.”

“Yeah, go,” one of her friends said.

I nodded, and did as I told. I left, having to walk by more people, as the line had already gotten longer since that minor altercation.

My hands were in my pocket. It was hard to keep a neutral expression, but I had to keep my smug satisfaction to myself. There were other things to deal with, and I needed to be focused.

I reached what was now the end of the line, but I wasn’t planning on loitering around, anymore. I dipped into yet another alley.

A look back to make sure no one was watching, then I ducked behind a dumpster, changing once again into my costume.

One of the benefits of having a costume that went over my clothes as supposed to under. It was easy to get in and out of them.

There. I was all set. I walked under where metal stairs spiraled up the side of the building, and I hopped up. I checked over everything on my person again as I went up, and up.

I guess we’re doing it like this, then.

I broke into a run as soon as I reached the roof, but it wasn’t as smooth as I would’ve liked. The rooftops downtown were more cluttered than ones I had begun to be used to, with more stuff in my way. Vents, air conditioning units, metal railings. It made for a stilted path, having to go up and down more frequently, climbing over things more than I was jumping over them. Awkward and slow. I would have taken to the edge, but I’d chance a plunge back to the street below, and being seen more easily. Better to be hidden for the moment.

The music got louder again as I was approaching the club. I climbed over the last ventilation shaft before making it to the end of my run. The club was the next building over.

Panorama had a glass ceiling, and it wasn’t tinted. Dimly lit, but lights flashed enough for me to get a decent look. One big room, with two other floors or levels that overlooked the dance floor. People were partying at the very bottom, drinking and having a good time. Neon strobe lights. Multiple girls, multiple guys, grinding on one another. That was barely dancing.

I was suddenly aware of how below me those people were.

And I could see where the club got its name.

Along the farthest wall from the front door was a large, curved screen, made of many small light bulbs. Graphics of silhouetted girls dancing, the images tall enough to reach the second level. The wall was large, panoramic. A DJ was performing right in front of it. If this place had a main stage, that was it.

There wasn’t as many people as I anticipated, at least, it wasn’t as packed. I had heard of a tactic like that being used in trendy clubs, controlling the flow of people coming inside so it would appear more busy to those outside. But, the amount of people inside was still significant, still a considerable challenge.

No obvious signs of any Italian mobsters. Though, it wasn’t like I knew what to look for.

I decided to trace the side of the building, walking along the edge. The club was big enough to warrant having to take a look around, first.

The back half of the building was a more private, loft-like area. Open air, no windows. I had mistaken it for its own establishment at first, but upon a second look, I could tell they were connected. A set of double doors in the wall between the two area linked them together. A pool, a bar, people lounging about rather than raving. More girls than guys, there, and a big difference in dress, too. The girls were wearing bathing suits, most of the men standing around were in suits. That looked more promising.

I took another look, and noticed a particular table by the pool. Two men sat across each other, a brief case between them. It was hard to discern due to the distance, but I was positive one of them was Asian. The other… had to be white. They looked important enough that I could make an educated enough guess as to who one of them were.

It would have been nice to have binoculars, but that’d be another thing to store in my backpack. All I could do at this distance was guess.

A movement. A man leaned over to the Asian man sitting at the table, then movements.

The Asian man bursted out of his chair, pointing at the other male. His mouth went wide as he spoke. Yelling? The other men on his side of the table assumed positions as well. Firm, on guard. Some had their hands around their hips.

That doesn’t look good.

If a shootout happened here, it would ruin everything. My chances of getting more information, my chances of finding Thomas. I needed to diffuse the situation, somehow.

How, though? Could I just drop into the loft? Then the man I had guessed as D’Angelo would be surrounded by guards. Even the Asian man’s entourage would be included in that, by proxy of wanting to protect themselves and their boss. And they’d all be targeting me. I couldn’t run fast enough to swoop past all of them and take D’Angelo someplace else. I wasn’t faster than their collective trigger fingers.

Some of the girls in the pool had noticed what was about to go down, too, and tore out of the pool, running through the double doors, despite their being out of dress code. Only one way out of the loft?

Something roundabout, then.

I ran back toward my earlier position, where I was overlooking the main dance floor. Appalling, awful, downright stupid.

But what else could I come up with in little to no time?

Had to play it by ear.

I took a moment to steel myself. It was a necessity.

I closed my eyes, breathing in, then out.

I took to the air. High as my legs would allow.

Up, then down.

Please break easily please break easily please break easily

The soles of my feet collided with the glass. It wasn’t easy, but it did break.

I fell through the glass panel, shards scattering around me. The sound of shattering glass and bass-heavy music filled my ears.

The fall wasn’t too bad, I only aimed for the third level, where there was the least amount of people. Not too bad, but the landing was nothing graceful.

My legs took the brunt of the impact, and I folded like a chair when I crashed. More fractures peppered my feet, legs, and hip.

Again, no time to wallow in the pain. I fought through it like an insane person.

The bones mended as I found my way onto my feet. My costume was heavy-duty enough to prevent glass from getting into my skin this time.

People around, but no one else was hurt. They were just staring, some already running. Good. Keep… moving.

My first steps were of me waddling to the edge of the floor, overlooking the dance floor. The music kept playing, people kept dancing. I clutched the railing, and had to take another deep breath.

Again.

I dropped down the next two levels.

I hit the dance floor. I wasn’t feeling my most festive.

Bones healed again as I pushed my way through the crowd, most getting out of the way on their own once they realized who I was. I pushed until I reached the bar, and I hopped over.

More partygoers here than security, I noticed. Or were they all on that loft.

Time to bring them all down here.

I grabbed bottles in both hands, and tossed them toward the stage, hitting the huge screen. The DJ ran away, abandoning his equipment. The music still continued.

The bottles broke, emptying its contents onto the screen’s bulbs and stage. The display went black where the bulbs had been broken.

The bartender tried to stop me. I brought him down with a gentle push of my foot. To his chest.

More bottles, more broken bulbs. I threw hard and fast.

Another bottle down, and I figured that was enough. My hand went into my pocket. I held the lighter that I stole from that girl.

I tossed it onto the stage.

Sparks flew. A fire rose. The blaze grew.

That got people moving.

I’m most definitely going to Hell for this.

I didn’t want to think too much about it, or psychoanalyze what fucked up part of my brain though this was the best idea. I probably wouldn’t like the answer.

The flames bounced across the stage, the screen catchingfire where the liquor had soaked it, growing from there. It was spreading faster than I would have liked, tongues of heat were already licking the second level.

Not exactly a controlled fire.

I stepped back onto the dance floor, nearly slipping. The sprinklers had turned on, but they weren’t strong enough. The fire was likely to continue unless firefighters came onto the scene.

Firefighters, and cops.

People were evacuating, taking stairs alongside the walls, connecting the different levels. Also good. The fire was relatively fast, but they would have to be faster. I couldn’t help them, there. Hopefully, there were fire exits here that I didn’t know about, and they were being used.

But there was only one way down, from the loft.

I jumped back up to the third level.

I mounted myself over the railing, and I saw that the flames were starting to reach here, too. Women were shrill as they ran past me. Men in suits followed, and I blocked their path.

I saw the Asian man, and his other partner at the table. I had smoked them out.

They all charged. And so did I.

If they had guns, they wouldn’t be firing them, not here, not now, not anymore. Dark plumes of smoke started to pollute the upper levels, too, limiting visibility. All this, I could use to my advantage.

The first guy was easy to fight off. I flipped him over my head, tossing him away, towards the stairs. I wasn’t here to incapacitate. I had my knife with me, but I couldn’t use something that would impede anyone’s progress out of here.

The next guy went just as easily. I ducked, getting under his swing, then performed the same move.

I hoped they had the presence of mind to run away instead of coming back to fight me. Flight, instead of fight.

A force on my backpack, and I was sent down. A kick from behind.

I threw my hands out in front of me, stopping myself from a bad fall. I caught myself, then used that momentum to propel myself forward, creating distance. I turned to face my new attacker.

A woman, this time, also in a suit. Like the ones with the Asian man. Her features were similar.

She had a bottle in her hand. There were standing tables scattered throughout the club. People had abandoned their beer and wine bottles.

She ran, ready to strike. I was ready to defend myself, and protect her.

The smoke was getting worse, it was like stepping into a fog when I moved to dodge. I was standing beside her. A chop to her back, and that was it for her.

There were still some left, but most finally wised up. They were running.

Including the man I was sure was D’Angelo.

I moved to his shape, taking him by the collar. I twisted my hand around, and he was complied, the fight leaving his body.

The heat was more than overwhelming, the smoke dizzying. I had a gas mask on, but it mostly served a visual purpose. I wondered if my healing applied to my lungs.

I took the both of us over to a table first, and I grabbed a bottle, turning real quick to throw it down onto the pit, to the dance floor. The music had cut out, and the sounds of deafening, crackling destruction took over instead, as the fire continued to eat the Panorama.

I coughed, heavy.

Everyone would be abandoning the building by now. I had to let the Asian man go, he wasn’t who I needed.

I maneuvered us back the way they came, through the double doors, opening automatically. We were on the loft. The air got a little clearer as we got outside, but smoke was following us out the door.

I fumbled with him until he was in front of me. I shoved him into the ground, but I dropped with him. I had him pinned, straddled.

Had to shout, if I wanted to be heard over the flames, the crumbling building. “D’Angelo!”

With one word, I knew I was right. “You,” he said back. “The deal was going well, before the Japanese caught wind of your attack on my men. Suddenly got scared that they were next. Guess they were right.”

“Benny asked your cop, Jeffery Robinson, to do a job for Solace. Where did he take Thomas Thompson?”

D’Angelo somehow found it within himself to grin. “Oh, that? I have to say, you are a lot warmer than I expected you to be.”

I growled.

I took a hand off him, just one, and patted my leg for a pocket. I flipped out a knife out of my thigh, and it went right into his.

This time, I meant it. This was no accident.

I made him scream.

Bloodcurdling, yet I felt nothing. Shouldn’t I? Like, remorse?

No, another thing. Fuel.

“God damn you,” I yelled, “Give me an answer!” I pulled the knife out of him. Blood trailed between the knife and his leg.

He continued his screaming, “Aaagh can damn me all you want! I’m not saying a fucking thing!”

“Where next, huh?” I roared, “You’re not going anywhere until you give me something!”

“The…” he breathed, “Same spot. Still itches, there.”

I growled, again. I angled the knife differently, but I hit the same general area. It formed a ‘V.’

Screaming.

“Where did he take Thomas? Who is Solace?”

A long pause, D’Angelo tearing up from his wounds. “As if I know, and as if I’d tell you if I did know. Benny wanted to borrow him for however long she wanted, as long as he’s back in one piece. For… now, he’s leased out, out of my hands.”

“What does Benny have to do with this? Who is Solace?”

He heaved in between some words. “Does it truly matter to you? It… sounds like you don’t want justice, you want revenge, just like her… probably. You’re not stopping petty crimes anymore, getting into our business. You’ve made it personal, you’re… hunting us, trying to get payback. That’s straight out of our playbook, Blank Face, you’re a natural at this.”

I took the knife out again, and he winced. “No!”

Over the noise, the fire and collapse, sirens blared, and wind chopped. A helicopter soared into view, putting us both in a harsh light.

Blank Face, step away from the man! I repeat, step away from the man!

Blank Face?

“Looks like your time is up,” D’Angelo said, shaking his head, almost laughing. “You may have extraordinary powers, but that’s not real power. And you want to know who Solace is? I’ll… give you that. It’s Edgar Brown, Linda… Day. Thomas… Thompson.”

The fire swelled behind me, and within me, and I felt the heat. I had to stand, and put a foot on his leg. He screamed, again.

“Tell Mister I’ll be coming for him, too.”

D’Angelo breathed, exasperated. “That’ll… be fun.”

I put more weight onto his leg. His pain amplified.

Everyone needs to stop fucking with me.

I then faced the helicopter. I saw more of the light than the chopper itself. It was so bright.

Blank Face, step away from the man!

I backed up a step. I noticed that they didn’t threaten to fire.

How was I supposed to get out of this one? I had a few thoughts, but they weren’t exactly clean getaways. That was impossible, by this point.

I was surrounded, forces had time to gather and mobilize, from police, SWAT, even firefighters. No getting lucky this go-around.

I thought some more.

Run to the helicopter, take it over? Crash it somewhere and escape in the confusion?

What was I thinking?

How many more people needed to be hurt before this was over?

Was this what superheroes do? Abducting and assaulting police officers, committing arson, among God knows what else? They called me a terrorist, but I had another word for myself…

Say it, become it.

Fuck me.

Is this what Alexis would do?

The man in the helicopter ordered me again.

Blank Face! This is a message from Chief of Police James Gomez!

I straightened my neck. What?

You are to go to the warehouse on Irving Street! I repeat, the warehouse on Irving Street!

The warehouse on Irving Street. That was where I first took on El Carruaje. Where it all began.

And where it all would end.

Do you understand?

I put my knife away, then I raised my hands above my head, as if I was to surrender. But not now.

I turned, and ran back into the fire.

Hot hot hot.

My costume was flame retardant, but not fireproof. I’d go up in smoke if I was in here for too long.

Everything was falling apart. The fire had consumed the entire building. Only blotches of flooring were untouched by now. I played the most messed up game of hopscotch, ever.

Every breath, I inhaled smoke, black scorched lungs. I felt like I was melting. Meeeeelting.

Something caught my attention.

Someone was still in here, downed.

The woman from before, in the suit. She was face down, a bottle near her outstretched hand. If it ignited now…

Leaving her behind was out of the question.

I ran to her, smacking my arms were the fire brushed against them.

Holy shit, holy shit.

I grabbed her, carrying her. One arm under her legs, the other supporting her back. I kept a move on.

Didn’t bother with the stairs. I went over the railing, descending into the flames.

Back on the bottom floor. Firefighters hadn’t gotten in here, yet, but the floor wasn’t entirely taken over by fire.

I took the worst of it, and she just rolled out of my arms. Might as well have fallen on a bed.

Shit, shit.

Bones felt like they were taking longer to come together.

Don’t think… Don’t think about that now.

I worked without thinking. She might already have burns I wasn’t seeing, or was aware of. She probably had trouble breathing, too.

I took this costume off for the last time. Mask, parka, backpack. The mask and parka was for her. The backpack met its fate in the fire. Knife and cash and phone stayed in my pockets. Gloves were stuffed in there, too.

My eyes immediately started to water. It really was hot in here. Was the woman even alive, still?

She was limp, I had to move her myself in order to get her in the gear. I slipped her arms into the sleeves, zipped up the front. Fitting and tightening the mask turned into a pretty sloppy job, but it just had to do. The sprinklers were still on, water splashing into the inside of the jacket, flushing the mask.

My breathing got worse the longer I stayed in here, the fumes getting… to my head. No mask, no filter, every little bit had helped. Now, no more.

I… heard…

I heard more noise just as I was finishing up. She was the spitting image of me…

Well, Blank Face.

The woman wasn’t that much taller than me, her build was similar. This might have worked out, after all.

I was certain they didn’t get a good look at me during the apartment escape, but if this would help in throwing them off, I’d be willing to give it a shot. Some time, bought back.

I stood and fled for the front doors right as the firefighters came in. Mist flew into my face. I fell into one of their arms. I wanted to scream, but nothing came out. The sound of powerful hoses hummed in turn as I was being carried out.

The last of my reserves. The last of everything I was.

I was brought out onto the street. Some people put their hands on me as I was set down. Paramedics. I was put among a group of those who were inside, now being tended to.

“Is that the last of them? Are you injured?”

What question was I supposed to answer?

“Everyone’s accounted for,” someone answered. “Only one left in there is… her.”

“No way. Miss, are you injured?”

A call for me, I had to get that. I shook my head.

“Thirsty,” I said, faint.

Plastic was put into my hands. A water bottle. Something heavy was put on top of my shoulders. A blanket.

“Take this, and take a seat on the sidewalk across the street. Someone else will be with you and make sure you’re all good and all clear. If not, we can take you to a hospital.”

Slow, not really understanding, I nodded. Dizzy.

One step at a time, I walked. I was rendered unable to do two things at once. When I went where I was told, I took a sip of my water.

A little bit of strength returned, but not a lot. My head was still clouded.

Had to get out of here.

Like my body moved on its own.

I lumbered through a crowd of people. Women huddled together, shaking. Men sitting, heads in their hands.

The crowd was big, I noticed, as I walked. Divided by survivors, and the onlookers. Divided by a line of yellow tape.

I crouched under the yellow tape, dropping the blanket. I pushed past legs and knees to get out of mass of bodies.

Soon, I was free. I continued, drinking water. All of the effort and energy I had left went to walking straight, not drawing attention as I navigated my way back to a space between a liquor store and a health clinic.

People didn’t give a crap about those they passed on a sidewalk, I supposed.

I collapsed into the back row of a taxi.

“Whoa, welcome back,” a lady said. “Where to, now?”

My mouth was so, so dry. I forced out a single word.

“Drive.”

Previous

038 – …And Justice for None

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The police officer squirmed under my grip, but he didn’t resist. He should know not to. His feet were two stories above the ground. It probably wouldn’t kill him. Probably.

Sumeet only sniveled, still shaken by the sudden abduction. I had to repeat myself.

“You’re going to tell me everything you know, you don’t exactly have the right to remain silent, here.”

Being here, in this position? It wasn’t going to win me any favors in the public eye. Hardly relevant, now.

He opened his mouth, letting his jaw hang, gasping for breath.

In my opinion, he was being overdramatic.

I opened my hands, then closed them. He fell for an instant.

Sumeet cried out, the most he vocalized since I nabbed him. His breathing turned coarser.

“You better say something soon,” I said, my teeth grinding together, “Or next time, it’ll be a much longer fall.”

Finally, he conceded. He put his hands on my wrists, as if he could use them for further support.

“The hell you want from me?”

I had him.

“Your friend, Jeffery, was the cop that was last seen with Thomas before his disappearance. Where is he!”

He did what he could to answer clearly. Though, the fear of being dropped more than twenty feet crept into his voice.

“I don’t know! I don’t know where he is!”

“Where can I find him?”

“No one’s been able to contact him since yesterday! He’s not even at his home!”

I squinted behind my mask. I brought him in closer, lowering him just a tad. The movement should have upped his pulse even more.

“It’s, it’s the truth!”

“Give me something usable,” I said, demanding, “And do it fast, my arms are starting to get tired.”

“Okay… okay.” He was breathing out the words more than he was saying them.

I asked again, “Where the fuck did Jeffery take Thomas Thompson?”

“All, all I know is that Jeff was tapped to handle a big job by our boss as a favor to someone else. He wouldn’t say anything about it, he didn’t want to talk about it, but it was something he didn’t have a say in. They wanted him to make up for some old shit, so the boss had to give him up, but I had no idea it had to do with-”

I shook him, getting him to zip it. Couldn’t have him rambling when time was such a huge factor. Couldn’t afford to waste a second.

“Let’s keep it simple, back it up a bit. Who are you really working for? Who’s your boss?”

Sumeet’s lower lip trembled.

“Whatever you’re afraid your boss will do,” I said, “I promise I’ll deliver onto you something far more severe. Answer me.”

He coughed it up.

“D’Angelo… dammit!”

I thought the same thing, too. I didn’t know who that was.

“What does he run?” I had to ask the question in a way that didn’t completely show my ignorance. I still had all the cards in this situation, but I had no reason to tip my hand, however slight.

“He, he runs a subset of a mob from New York. An Italian family. Pushes some drugs, but mostly hires out enforcers for the big clubs. The cops that work with him… we’re just asked to keep a blind eye, whenever we can. That’s it.”

“Except that’s not it,” I said, “Jeffery was tapped to do more than that. Why is D’Angelo involving cops? Is he Solace?”

Eyes wild, Sumeet was looking in every direction. I raised him an inch higher, despite my arms already starting to ache.

Focus,” I ordered.

“Shit, I don’t know! It doesn’t sound like him, it’s not his style. But… fuck, how would I know?”

Dammit, I thought. This guy was turning out to be more useless than anything else. Why did Gomez hand him over to me?

Another route. Ask him something else.

“That ‘someone else’ then, who are they? Who gave Jeffery that job?”

He clutched my wrists, tighter.

The mask distorted my words, I yelled to make them clear. “Tell me!”

“Benny! It’s Benny!”

My heart skipped a beat.

Benny.

I was right, but it didn’t make me feel any better. I felt like shit, really, especially since I knew a person who had a hand in this.

But what the hell was Benny doing? Why?

I continued my questioning. “Benny, of El Carruaje? I thought she was in jail.”

“She was supposed to be brought in, but she never ended up on a record. I wasn’t in charge of that, though, I don’t have the exact details there.”

No exact details, but the broad strokes were a start.

“Her gang, didn’t it get dissolved?” I asked.

Sumeet explained through chattering teeth. “It got split up among her second-in-command, and they’re fighting over what used to be The Chariot’s territory. Even some other crews are trying to muscle in.”

That sounds awfully similar to something I heard before, I thought. But, it didn’t seem relevant, it didn’t seem like it connected. Wouldn’t Benny want to be more concerned over that than this?

I had to squeeze every last detail I could out of this man.

“Why did Benny contact the Italians? Where is she?”

“I don’t know, that’s all I know, honest! I’m, I’m telling you the truth! Everything between D’Angelo and her, I heard through Jeffery. If you wanna know, you’d have to ask him.”

I wanted to strangle this guy, right then and there.

It felt like I was running in circles. The same questions, the same answers, over and over. Who, what, where? Why? All I got that was substantial was Benny, but that was just a confirmation, nothing more.

How was I going to find Thomas at this rate?

Thomas… No, another route.

Another circle to run.

“Then, where can I find him? D’Angelo? You have to at least know that.”

Sumeet grunted, his legs swaying. He adjusted his hold on my arms.

“Can you please just let me go?”

“Not until you tell me.”

“For fucking sake, please, my girlfriend’s gonna-”

Tell me!” I growled out the words. It probably didn’t sound very intimidating, considering my voice wasn’t deep at all, but the emotion carried.

Sumeet finally answered, sounding out of breath. “Hey, okay, I know where he’s going to be, tonight. Panorama, a club in the Eye, on West Ninth. He’s overlooking a deal, there.”

The Eye. Where the criminal and gang activity was at its most deep. That didn’t make things any easier.

“There,” Sumeet said, “I’ve told you everything I know, can you please set me down?” His eyes grew big, then he hurried out, “On the roof.”

I so wanted to do that, to let him go and move on with my night, and find Thomas, alive or not. But something still nagged at me, bothered me. So many details to consider and parse through, it was too complicated. I wasn’t sure if I was done or if I still had something to ask.

I just want someone to tell me what to do.

I stayed there, holding him.

One more. I’d ask one final question, and move on.

I recalled what Gomez told me, before he went back inside. Before he ran away.

“Who is Mister?”

I asked him that question.

He was moving, struggling before, but Sumeet went stiff at the mention. I could almost feel him go cold. It was in his eyes, too.

Horror.

His eyes met mine, from behind the mask. I held him up, my arms burning, my throat almost about to.

Sumeet’s face lost all color, his grip on my wrist even stronger, knuckles white. He bit his lip, almost to the point that he might draw blood.

All from a name?

I tried again. “Who is-”

Kicking, screaming. Sumeet tried to fight me.

He started thrashing, twisting and doing what he could to get me to let go. His legs were longer than mine, so his kicks would occasionally connect, hitting me square in the chest.

“No! Let me, let me go!”

Caught by surprise, I had to make a split-second action.

My balance was more than compromised, my arms losing their hold. The only way to salvage this was to fall back, and use one hard pull to toss him over him head.

Little time to come up with anything else.

I placed a foot back, and shifted my weight to my shoulders. I let myself fall.

But Sumeet got the better of me.

He twisted in a way that brought my arms together, and he swung a foot, knocking my elbow. My strength finally gave out, and I opened my hands.

As I fell back to the roof, Sumeet plunged into the alley below him. My back hit the concrete way sooner than his did.

I could hear it from up top. Thump.

I scrambled back up to my feet, looking over the edge. My heart skipped another beat.

Sumeet was on his stomach, limbs sprawled around him. He wasn’t moving.

Fuck, fuck, fuck. Fuck.

I hopped down, bracing for the impact. There was no fire escape, here.

I landed next to him, crouching. He still hadn’t moved.

All this over a name?

Hesitant, but I put a hand on his back. I didn’t press, I just touched.

He groaned.

Still breathing, though barely. I was equal parts relieved and confused. And scared.

Who was this Mister guy that Sumeet was willing to do this? He’d rather die than explain what he was. Was this what Gomez wanted to show me? How bad things actually were? What was the point?

The point can wait, I have to get this guy to a hospital.

How was I supposed to go about this? He looked too hurt to move, but my best guess was that he needed to be on his back. Could I do that without causing any more pain?

It brought to mind my own abilities, my healing. Something I hadn’t realized I had taken for granted.

I nearly jumped out of my skin when I heard someone in the near distance.

“That’s where I heard it! It’s him, the Bluemoon!”

I looked up. A pair. A woman, the other a cop.

The cop already had one hand on a gun, the other hand on his radio.

Ugh.

I was out before I heard him call it in, scaling over a fence that divided the alley. I leapt, reaching halfway up a building, I caught a foothold from a windowsill, then pushed myself up the rest of the way.

I took to another building, another roof, just to be careful. It was taller, floors higher than the others. I searched for the next available path, but I came up short. The line of buildings ended here, unless I wanted to leap across the street. At the risk of being seen again, though?

Sirens started to blare, and they weren’t distant.

Nope.

I went right to putting my backpack in front of me, removing my mask and parka as I walked across the roof, to the door. I put on a hat, and tucked in my black long sleeves.

I cursed at myself.

The cop saw me, that was enough to get the word out that The Bluemoon was active, tonight. They’d be hunting me, now, much like how I was on the hunt for Thomas.

The rooftops were no longer a means for travel, not if I wanted to get to D’Angelo unannounced.

Which reminds me…

I don’t know what D’Angelo looks like.

Shit.

Keeping my thoughts straight during interrogations were never my strong suit, apparently. Couldn’t search for it on my phone because, well, my phone sucked. And was it even a face I could look up? Damn. Another detour.

I approached the door. Unlocked, thankfully.

Hurrying, I descended the stairs, entering the building. I moved away some hair, some strands stuck to my face. Running and jumping around could really make a girl perspire.

I came into a hallway. Wooden doors down both long walls, a metal door at the other end. An apartment building, it looked like, and it wasn’t broken down and emptied out. The fluorescent lights above were on, and I heard signs of activity.

And they were getting louder, coming to a head at the end of the hallway, another stairwell. My exit, essentially.

The door bursted open, and police spilled forth. Body armor, riot gear. Shields.

Oh fuuuuu…

Without telling myself to, I put my head down and stuck close the the wall, an attempt to make myself smaller, less noticeable. It probably had the opposite effect, though.

“Check every hall, every floor!” one of them barked. “Put a squad on the roof!”

There was a shout of assent, followed by a flood of steps coming my way. People.

Fuuuuuck.

They mobilized quickly.

The only way I could be any closer to the wall was if I was paint. But, I wasn’t. Men ran past me, shoulders hitting me from just how many of them were here.

Too many, and they were going the other way. I couldn’t move.

Keep my head down, don’t move, just wait until-

A hand grabbed my arm.

My head jolted up.

A police officer, dressed in a standard uniform.

“You. You see anything?” He had to be loud to be audible over the commotion behind us.

My mind was blank. My mouth opened, my tongue dry.

“I don’t…” I said, but I trailed off. “No.”

“You don’t know?”

“Ah, I mean, I didn’t see anything.”

“What are you doing here? You live here?”

Questions, and how was I to answer?

I tried nudging my arm, but he wouldn’t give. His look was getting more harsh with every second.

Give him the truth.

“I don’t live here,” I answered, “I was looking for a friend?”

Why did I say it like that?

“I was looking for a friend,” I said, correcting myself, more flatly this time.

The officer’s look hadn’t changed, not really. His grip on me remained.

“What floor is your friend on?” he asked, “I can escort you there, personally. It’s better that you’re inside, anyway.”

If he was calling my bluffs or not, I couldn’t say for sure. I had to roll with it, either way.

“Actually, I was thinking about leaving. It’s late… and things look pretty heated at the moment.”

I looked past the officer. The hall had thinned out, but there were still some cops, here. Mostly in standard wear.

He nodded, then said, “I still think you should be seen out, can’t have you getting lost in here.”

I nodded back.

He released me, then turned, motioning to follow. Very, very, carefully, I did.

“You can call me Officer Maxwell, by the way.”

I didn’t offer a name, I just kept forward.

Act natural, they don’t suspect you. They don’t.

I had to keep telling myself that, it made the next step easier to make.

I fixed up my hair some more as we walked, trying to get more of it in my face.

We got to the other side, turning a corner to pass the stairwell. An elevator, nearby.

“You three.” Officer Maxwell pointed to three others dressed like him, standing around. “Come with me.”

“Yes sir,” one of them said, but they all approached.

Um… why?

This was starting to become… something, but I couldn’t exactly turn and go the other way. Well, I could, but then I’d be in another situation, entirely. It’d look like I was trying to avoid them.

Well, I was, but I wasn’t supposed to look that part.

We all moved to the elevator, Officer Maxwell being the one to press the button to go down. We waited for the door to open. I watched the numbers light up, one by one, creeping towards the number ten.

It took longer than I would have expected.

A ring, then the elevator opened up. We filed inside.

We took to our own spots, but I felt like I was standing out. In more ways than one.

Each cop had their own corner, Officer Maxwell in the front-right corner, by the buttons. And I stood in the middle.

It was cramped, it could probably hold one more person, but we wouldn’t be thrilled about it. There wasn’t any music in here.

Officer Maxwell pressed the button. Ground floor.

The door slid closed. Mechanics shifted, loud, and then the elevator moved. This thing was old.

Nine.

“It’s a bit late to be out on a day like this,” Officer Maxwell said. “Don’t you have school tomorrow?”

You’re not in a position to question my life choices. I didn’t say that, though.

“That’s why I was going to meet my friend, and share my notes with them. They missed a few days.”

“Oh? Aren’t you a good friend.”

I blinked, hair in my eyes. I found it hard to breathe.

Please shut the fuck up.

I checked the number above the doors. Eight.

How?

“Anything?” one of the other cops said.

“Not that I heard,” Officer Maxwell said, “They’ll say something.”

I thought he was talking to me at first.

Officer Maxwell huffed through his nose. “They’ll have to, and soon. The whole block’s been closed off, we’ll hear something.”

The whole block?

I went stiff. Good thing I wasn’t moving. I looked again.

Eight.

Why were we barely moving?

This thing was so slow.

“Um, what’s going on?” I asked. I wanted to slap myself for asking, but I needed to know what the deal was, outside these four walls. How bad it was, really.

Officer Maxwell answered. “Looking for the terrorist known as ‘The Bluemoon,’ unmask them, all to stop another terrorist known as ‘Solace.’”

A cop behind me remarked, “All these names, you’d think we’re in a comic book.”

“Nope, it’s the real deal, people are dying, and they don’t come back like in the comics.”

“You read comics, sir?”

“When I was younger.”

Seven-

God, just hurry it up.

“I thought the verdict was still out on The Bluemoon, didn’t he stop some robberies here and there? We just need ‘em to stop the other guy.”

The cop to my front-left asked that. Someone who gave my actions the benefit of the doubt?

“Far as I care, they’re a terrorist,” Officer Maxwell said. “Inciting riots, disrupting the peace, paving the way for another pyscho? Yeah, that’s enough terror caused to earn that label.”

A chill ran through me. I needed to get out of this elevator, no, this building. This block.

“Don’t forget downing one of our own,” another cop said. “Just now.”

Down? As in dead, or just out?

I stayed tight-lipped.

Officer Maxwell scratched the side of his chin. “I won’t forget that, and I won’t forgive it. But, it did tip us off The Bluemoon’s activities, and I was getting afraid that it wouldn’t show.”

It’s like they forgot I was here.

I was frozen solid. They had no idea The Bluemoon was under their nose, this whole time.

I looked at what floor we were on, again. Five.

Still not good enough. Still not fast enough.

“Speaking of… what was the physical description in the report, again?” a cop behind me asked.

Officer Maxwell answered. “White mask, blue jacket… a backpack.”

The cops in front of me, Officer Maxwell, their eyes fell on me. I didn’t even need eyes in the back of my head to know that the cops behind me were like that, too.

My eyes went down. No wall to stick close to, here.

But I certainly felt small.

“That’s a big backpack,” Officer Maxwell intoned. “Filled with notes, I take it?”

I put all my effort into keeping myself standing, and speaking.

“A lot of books,” I said, more softly than I wanted.

“Do you mind if I see for myself? I don’t have a kid, so I’ve been wondering what you young folk are studying, nowadays.”

I could’ve sworn they were inching closer, Officer Maxwell’s arms brushed against me when he crossed them. Every hair on my body was standing.

Couldn’t move, couldn’t back away. And the fucking elevator doors wouldn’t open, yet.

Three.

I was scared, putting it into simple terms.

“Don’t you need a warrant to search anything?” I asked. I figured the attempt was feeble, but I had to try.

“Probable cause,” Officer Maxwell said aptly.

He inched closer, close enough that I could’ve threatened harassment.

Buy time, there’s still one more floor left.

“I’m not very comfortable with you guys going through my stuff,” I said. I wanted to bring my arms up and hold onto the straps of my bag, but they were too close. “It’s a personal thing.”

“You know, normally, I’d be willing to leave it at that, especially if you lived here, except, you don’t live here, and I found you close to the roof as soon as the search party got up there. And, this is just a hunch, but I’d be willing to bet that you don’t have a single friend anywhere in this building. Tell me, is my cause not probable?”

Everything Gomez said came to me, what I saw of Sumeet was seared in my mind.

I couldn’t let myself fall into that. Let myself go with them.

“I… um…” I drew out my words, trying to come up with something to say. My heart, going a mile a minute. It might explode, soon.

Everything elevated to a high pitch.

Rather, a high ring.

A ring, and the elevator doors opened. I immediately moved to get out.

“I have to go,” I rushed out, slurring words.

Everyone else moved at once.

“Excuse-”

The cop to my front-left reached for my arm, seizing it for a moment.

But only for a moment.

I was a ball of bubbling panic before, and now that bubble was bursting.

I flipped my hand, grabbing his forearm, then spun. The cop went off his feet, and he was sent into the others. They all toppled over.

With my now free hand, I slapped the button to close the elevator door. I hopped out as the door began to shut.

Officer Maxwell was shouting at the top of his lungs, from the bottom of the pile of bodies. “Get that girl! She’s the Blue-”

The door shut before he could finish. I could hear him, but he was muffled, now.

I kicked, and the doors bent in. That’d keep them.

I spun back to face the hall, and I realized that they weren’t the ones to worry over.

It looked like a service hallway, nothing but a long corridor that led outside, but there were still obstacles in my way.

A handful of policemen – count that, nine – about half of them wearing body armor and riot gear. All facing me.

Adrenaline sprinting through my body. I kept my head down, my hat blocking my eyes, and pushed my hands into my pants pocket. I walked.

And they did, too.

“Get down!” they ordered, shouting.

I didn’t listen. I kept on.

“Put your hands on your head, and get down!” They started getting into formation, lined up, huddled together, three by three. The ones in riot gear were up in front. They started banging on their clear, polycarbonate shields with hard plastic batons.

This really is not good.

They advanced, picking up speed with every footstep. I had to return in kind.

I took my hands back out of my pocket.

The ceiling wasn’t high enough for me to get much leverage. I did what I could.

I hopped, pushing off the wall, closer to where it met the ceiling. Not to get over them all, but to land in the middle.

The first two went down easy as I landed on them.

I got up quick, taking advantage of catching them unaware.

Three were behind me, still trying to wheel around. My attention went to the ones that were still facing me.

I lurched forward, driving my hands outward. My palms pressed into two cops in the back line.

I pushed.

They flew, one landed on the floor, then slid a distance. The other hit the wall before coming back down.

Didn’t want to throw a punch, when I was so unsure of my upper limits. No one here should be unable to walk away because of a hole in their chest.

Four down, five still standing.

I drew back in, crouching, shifting my weight to focus on the next one.

In a sense, I was cornered, my front and left were blocked by the cops. Not a lot of leg room.

The last cop from the back row ran, swinging. I backed up as much as I could, pressing my arms close.

His shoulder slammed into me, and I felt myself lift off the ground, my back slammed against the wall.

But, I pulled my legs towards me, and I pushed, again.

We both fell, but he was sent towards to another cop, one with armor. The force of impact sent them both down. Hopefully, they stayed there.

But now, I was down, too, and the rest didn’t waste that chance.

They laid it out on me, kicking, thwacking with their batons. They were the ones with armor, they were the ones with weapons. They were the ones with training. Even with my powers, they knew how to keep a person down.

I held my arms against my head, but it was a futile defense. Bones fractured with every hit, then mended, then fractured again.

I could feel it. Every break, every bone coming back together.

I didn’t have an arm to swing, no leg to kick with. I had no limb that I could use to keep them away.

You have to use your whole body.

As they continued their volley, and I pulled my legs in again, trying to sit up and squat. I did what I could.

Then, I jumped. I jumped like I was crossing over a street, or getting halfway up a building.

I jumped.

They were all above me, and the force I used in my legs – tremendous force – hit all of them.

It wasn’t pretty, my limbs were thrown about, smacking into masks and plastic. The one directly above had the worst of it, the back of my neck and shoulders smacked against his face and upper body, and he flew up with me. My back hit the ceiling, breaking a light, and I promptly returned, crashing into the remaining two.

Nine… nine down.

But it wasn’t enough to keep all of them down.

Fighting myself, and the urge to rest and sleep forever, I crawled off the pile of cops, and struggled to my feet. As I rose, I gathered as many of their batons I could.

I didn’t have time to test my body and let every ache and sore get to me. Move.

I ran to the other end of the hall, the front, the entrance, my exit. Bright lights grew stronger, I could barely see. Sirens, could barely hear.

Thought so, they weren’t going to let me walk out the front door.

I placed the batons between the handles of the door. It wouldn’t hold, but it’d buy me some time.

I turned and ran again, back down the hall, hopping over the police, most of whom were stirring now.

Beside the elevator was the stairwell, I rushed in and took my backpack back out.

Not a lot of time at all to change, to put my hat back in and replace it with my costume. No time for the parka, it was too stuffed in there. I grabbed the gas mask, and zipped the bag, and then I worked putting the mask back on, taking stairs three at a time, winding up the steps.

The door to the second floor had burst open before I got to it, more of the search party coming in. As soon as my hands got free, I put one on the railing beside me and vaulted on top of it. I hopped to avoid the next set of steps, and cops, and continued upward.

I went up to the third floor, opening the door by pushing it with my shoulder.

A person flew back by the impact of the door, my strength breaking the hinges. It was something of a domino effect, others falling down as he fell into them.

A few hops took me across the hall. Others were still standing, but I shouldn’t be wasting time and energy on them.

I should be using my time and energy to get out.

My breathing was heavy, nearly grunting out every bit of air. A rush.

The nearest door, it led into an apartment.

Of course I had qualms about this, but desperate times…

I kicked the door. I felt my knee nearly give out.

But it was the door that broke, instead.

I stepped in.

Two girls were screaming on the couch as I barged into the living room, trying get my bearings of the layout of the apartment.

Where’s the window?

There. In the kitchen. Above the sink.

I ran to it.

It was dark out, but I would’ve seen a building on the other side if there was one. There wasn’t.

A street, then?

I had literally no other choice.

I ran to it.

I hopped over the sink, then crashed through the window. Shattered glass and pain came with me as I fell.

No sound escaped my lips. I was spent.

A loud, metallic bang. More pain. All-encompassing, spiking, pain.

I kept down, my hair bristling at incoming wind.

Wind?

I was stopped, but I was still moving.

Shaking my head, I had to get my bearings, again.

I pushed myself up, using what little strength I had left.

On top of an eighteen-wheeler, inside a dump trailer. Moving.

The edge of the whole block, I think. The truck’s being rerouted.

Was this luck? No, luck wouldn’t have put me deep into this shit to begin with. It probably wouldn’t take the cops long to find me again, not if they would be using helicopters. I’d have to be on the move again, soon.

But this stunt did give me some time to breathe again, and pick some glass out of my arm.

This was turning out to be a wild goose chase, for everyone involved. And each step of this chase branched away from the original goal. The goal wasn’t even trying to stop Solace, now, I just wanted Thomas back. And I couldn’t even do that yet, I had to find someone else. And I couldn’t even do that because I still needed to get the cops off my trail. If that was even possible, now.

And…

And even if I could do that…

I still had to take on yet another gang, in one of the most dangerous parts of the city, with everyone against me, in some shape or form. All on my own. I had serious doubts about how well this was going to go.

This was exactly the kind of situation I wanted to avoided, when I started this with Thomas.

Previous

037 – Vicious Circle

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I pushed and pushed Solace’s announcement out of my head. Oh, I tried. I didn’t see it. I didn’t hear it. It didn’t happen. I did everything in my power to block it out of my head.

Block it out, block it out.

But, if I could, then why would I be crying, hiccuping?

Okay, Alexis, let’s try to get ourselves together, then. Let’s try to think straight.

How the fuck was I supposed to get myself to do that?

Nothing was making sense, nothing was connecting. Thomas? Solace spoke about him when he hijacked a TV station’s signal again. Said his name. Thomas, right? My Thomas? Both first and last names were used. Thomas Thompson. His name was uttered by Solace, filtered through their digital hiss.

And it spelled disaster.

I wracked my brain some more, clutching the mask even tighter. The mask he gave me.

Now, things were starting to connect, but I still couldn’t make sense of it. I didn’t know why. I didn’t know how.

Dead.

Thomas was dead. Dead. He wasn’t here anymore. He wasn’t available. He couldn’t help. He wasn’t an option.

I kept telling myself that, yet I couldn’t bring myself to believe it. I was too shocked. Too rocked to my core. I felt like I was coming apart, the whole world crashing around me at the most minute level. As if the fundamentals of what made this world tick were changing, shifting, and I was forced to get my bearings and recontextualize everything, again. This was as bad than that night, when I got hit by that truck, and watched my body pull itself together… after I drank blood. It broke any logical convention I was aware of, yet it happened, and I had to wrap my brain around it, and accept this.

But I can’t accept this.

I can’t.

How could he do this? How could this happen? Before we could do anything decisive. Before we could strike back. Before we could meet and properly plan.

I coughed, and it was a punch to the chest. Hurt, pain. But that was a good thing, it brought me back to the here and now. It helped center me.

In the gloom, down, curled in a ball. I put effort into regulating my breathing. Slow, didn’t know how long I took, but I took my time.

Time to center myself.

I almost let myself be mad at him, for abandoning me at such a critical time. For abandoning me here and now.

But I didn’t.

I still had a sense of self-awareness to not place any fault on Thomas. Something had happened. Something bad. Something out of either of Thomas’s or my control.

And it was up to me to figure it out.

I put everything back the way I found it. Mask, bag, boxes, and clothes on top of that.

I had very little strength left in my legs. I crawled out of the dark closet, back into my dark room. I didn’t need the light.

Getting onto my bed was embarrassingly difficult, mostly because I was making it hard on myself. I labored, I crawled, I pulled on the sheets until I sat at the foot of the bed, hair falling around my face.

I was so lost.

Lost at what to do, lost at where to start. An eerie quiet, I could hear my ears ringing. A clock ticking, my mom talking behind the wall to the living room. I let more time slip by without thinking much of anything.

The passing time brought attention to how thirsty I was, now. That breakfast really did a number on me.

A knock. At my door. Limp, a soft push that pressed the door against the frame. My mom.

“Can I open the door?” she asked.

I pushed my hair away from my face, hastily cleaning myself up.

“Sure.”

She opened, and from just one look, I could tell that she was taking this as bad as me. We looked about the same.

Terrible.

She flipped a switch by the doorframe. I winced.

“How are you feeling?” she asked. She stayed by the door.

With everything that was running through my head, all I had for her was a measly shrug.

She lifted a hand, and I saw she was holding a phone.

“I have Kristin right here, I wanted us to go over to their house, but she wanted us to stay here.”

Kristin. Katy. Right. How could I be so selfish? Thomas was a husband and a father. Someone else’s dad. He had a role in other people’s lives. Not just mine. And they were more important roles, too. How could I let myself forget?

“How’s Katy?” I asked, though, I probably already knew. Worse than me.

“I can’t say, Kristin says she has locked herself up in her room.”

Her too?

“Can I talk to her?” I wanted to know how she was doing, above all else.

My mom had no expression I could put to a word or two. Just… a sense of struggling. She entered my room, and handed me the phone. She brushed my cheek with the back of her hand, and I felt a bit of moisture wipe against her skin and the bottom of my eye. I thought I had gotten that.

Without another word, my mom left, closing the door behind her.

I put the phone up to my ear.

“Hello?”

“Shiori?” It was Kristin.

“It’s Alexis.”

“Oh, hi.”

The phone wasn’t the best, so it was hard to tell if her voice was actually hoarse, or if it was the fuzzy sound quality.

“I’m so sorry about…” I stopped. Sorry about what? That I was part of the reason why Thomas was gone? How could I say that now?

I left that sentence hanging.

“Did you want to talk to Katy?” Kristin ignored my condolences, or maybe she refused to acknowledge it, wasn’t ready to accept it. I know I wasn’t.

“Yes please.”

Moments ticked away, there was distorted sounds on the other end, but nothing I could make out. I sat in the dark, waiting.

“Alexis?”

Muffled, indistinct.

“Katy?”

“Sorry, Alexis, but she’s locked her door, and she can really be stubborn when she wants to be…”

I had guessed so, but it pained me all the same. She was taking it worse than me.

“That’s fine,” I said. “She needs space, I understand that. There’s no offense taken, there.”

“I do think she needs someone to talk to, though,” Kristin said. “You know how she can be, and…”

There was a pause, and it wasn’t brief.

“Maybe text her? Or try calling her on her cell?”

Not bad ideas, but I was beginning to second-guess talking to Katy. I didn’t trust myself enough to talk or think straight.

“I can text her,” I said, “And I can look after her during school, tomorrow. You can count on me.”

I tacked that last part at the end, but I had doubts about that. Was I someone who could be counted on?

“Thank you, Alexis,” Kristin said. “I’ll talk to you and your mom soon.”

Kristin hung up right after. I set the phone beside me. The ticking clock came back to my attention.

I couldn’t talk to Katy, and she wouldn’t talk to anyone. Yet, even with only her mother to exchange some words with, I wasn’t as down as I was right when I heard the news… on the news. Still down, but not totally and completely out. This was, in no small way, a step back, but if I could even get an inkling of where to go from here, I’d turn that next step to a leap, then a bound.

Text…

My cellphone was on my desk. I could start with writing out a draft to send to Katy, at least.

I moved to go get it, dragging my feet.

The phone felt heavier in my hand as I started typing.

I stared at the letter ‘H.’

‘Hey,’ ‘hi,’ ‘hello,’ ‘how are you holding up?’

Shit, I didn’t know where to start. I had known Katy longer than I didn’t, but this was uncharted territory. Anything I say could hurt more than it helped. I didn’t want that on my plate, didn’t need a bigger rift to form between me and Katy. Maybe she did need some space? I wasn’t about to take that away from her.

I put the phone down. The news just broke out, the wound was at its most raw. If anything, it could wait until later tonight.

Fuck…

I was standing over my desk. Going back to bed now would mean that I wouldn’t get up until tomorrow afternoon. Principal Kirk’s offer was looking a lot more enticing, now.

I just didn’t want to be alone, in my head, drowned in my thoughts. There had to be something I could do. Anything, a simple step forward, and I’d try and turn that into progress.

As if on instinct, I reached down to a drawer to the side of my desk. It was old, rickety, and it jammed easily. Some people would give up after a single tug, most would be afraid they’d break it after another, harder tug. It was hard to open, sure, but it wasn’t impossible, you just needed to know how to work it, and it required some strength.

I wiggled the handle, feeling for the inner-workings, then pulling when I was sure I got it.

The drawer slid open.

There wasn’t much in here, two notebooks stacked on top of each other, my knife tucked beside that. Extra batteries were piled here, too. But that wasn’t what I was going for. I removed the two notebooks.

The pager was waiting for me. The one Thomas had provided when we first started this thing.

My eyes widened.

I had just wanted to look at the pager, as another memento of Thomas and Hleuco, but something caught my eye.

A light, beeping and beeping.

A light that would only be on if I had received a message.

I snatched it out immediately, the notebooks and knife and other miscellaneous items falling in its place.

I was having trouble trying to make out the words, my hands were shaking, and my eyes were getting watery, again.

But, I read it.

‘Go to Gomez.’

I had to rub my eyes in order to believe whatever the fuck I was reading was indeed real.

A message… from Thomas?

This can’t be right.

But what other conclusion was there?

Thomas was the only one who had access to this thing, he was the only one who knew the number this pager was connected to. He sent out a message? When?

I checked the pager again, this time reading the time that was stamped by the message. My skin began to prickle from sweat.

It was around the same time as Solace’s new announcement.

This can’t be fucking right.

Now things were making even less sense. What the fuck was this supposed to mean? Thomas was alive? Alive?

There might be a chance he was. Thinking it over, none of Solace’s victims were ever confirmed dead. No bodies were found, and all we had to go on was Solace’s word. Could this have all been one big bluff?

I inspected the pager again, spinning it around in my hand.

There was no keyboard, I couldn’t send a message back. Could I just use my phone?

Cool it, Alexis.

I forced myself to take a step back. Physically, and my thinking process.

There was a message, here. Instructions. But was it from Thomas?

This could have meant any number of things. The last thing I wanted to be right now was cynical, but what I was looking at could be too good to be true.

It could be a trap.

Would that be feasible? Unfortunately, it might be. The only thing I knew for a fact was that Thomas was missing. If he was okay, I wouldn’t be the first person he’d contact. He’d let his family know, first and foremost, and we probably wouldn’t be in this situation. Meaning, something else was at play, here. He needed me.

Or someone who had access to his phone and knew this number wanted me. Wanted Blank Face.

Solace?

The message itself was vague, too. Too vague. Go to Gomez? To do what? Coordinate with him, in place of Hleuco? Would he be willing to cooperate, even, considering how fucking terrible the past seventy-two hours have been? I wouldn’t bet on it.

And why not just message me with a location? Wouldn’t that have been more straightforward?

Too many questions…

But I didn’t have any other leads.

This was the closest thing I had to making any headway. If this really was Thomas sending out an S.O.S., then I was on the right track. If not… then I had to keep on my toes, not catch myself slip. Exercise extreme caution.

I dropped the pager beside my phone, and I dropped myself onto my bed.

It’s up to me, now. Solace is forcing my hand.

Might not be the worst idea to pay Gomez a visit, he was a good friend of Thomas, after all. Having him on my side of the court would net me a huge plus. And, I had some choice words to give him about his subordinates.

The countdown had started over. Twenty-four more hours. Solace would be announcing three more names by then. Three more victims.

Now was the time for action, I thought, I just have to not make Solace read my name by the end of this.

It bugged me, just how at ease I felt with my mask on again.

Was I already that used to it?

I adjusted the straps behind my head, making it fit snugly.

The hood then went over my head, to finish the look.

I was even wearing the pants that Thomas provided me, when he gave me the updated costume. I was complete.

If I had to list one thing I was missing, it was probably my own way to and from downtown. Couldn’t keep taking buses forever.

Already, I was missing what I would have liked to dub the ‘Hleuco mobile.’

It was late, but I had little doubt that James Gomez was still in. From what I had heard from Thomas, Gomez was among the few friends he had in the Stephenville Police Department. If he was anything like us, Gomez would take as many late nights as needed to beat Solace. He would want to beat the bad guy just as much as we did.

Also, I could see him from the window.

The building wasn’t hard to get close to. Situated in a cluster, between other buildings, I managed to maneuver up and across roofs and gaps to get a good position to watch. Gomez was sitting in his office, at his desk, either writing or taking phone calls. His back was to the window, he didn’t see me climb up the fire escape to approach him, and I knew to be quiet. I was unnoticed.

Time to get at it.

I opened a side zipper of my backpack, and drew a marker, popped the cap off the top. I wrote in large letters, all caps, right to left, backwards. I had to do it slowly, so the marker wouldn’t squeak on the glass. I put back the marker, then reread the message, mirrored from my perspective.

ROOF COME ALONE.’

I tapped the window, then scaled the rest of the fire escape. Metal rattled with every step, but it wasn’t enough noise to draw attention from anyone else. I reached the roof in a few breaths.

I moved to get atop the roof access door, perched above the cement enclosure. I waited. Tense.

I wasn’t used to doing these types of things on my own.

Unsurprisingly, the door didn’t open until my legs were aching. Gomez took his time.

The stress of the job, and just aging in general, had gotten to this man. Balding, his hair more grey than black. He had a brown overcoat over his suit, but his physique still showed. Not fat, but he looked like the type of person to call himself ‘big boned.’ Even from the back of his head, I could see the ends of his mustache curl down.

He walked forward, looking around, probably puzzled. No one came with him, it seemed, the door was able to close without being interrupted by another person.

I dropped as soon as the door was shut, announcing my presence. Gomez turned.

“Chief James Gomez,” I said as I faced him, blocking his way back. “I believe a formal introduction has been long overdue.”

I looked for a reaction, any reaction, so I could judge how this meeting would go. He didn’t provide one. Nothing discernible.

“One word,” Gomez said.

I didn’t move, respond, or provide a reaction, myself. I simply kept waiting.

“One word, one press of a button, and I finally have you, and I can finally wipe my hands of this mess,” he said.

I noted his use of the singular. He had a personal stake in this, too.

I kept still.

“But,” Gomez said, “If you’re here, it must be really good, so I’m willing to hear what you have to say.”

“You don’t suspect I’m here for anything… not really good?” I asked. Probably a dumb question, but I wanted to be clear on where we were standing, in terms of this conversation.

“As I said, one word, one press of a button, and you’re done. And if you were here for something more nefarious, you would have done so, already. But I don’t think that’s your style.”

“My style?”

Gomez nodded. “Somewhere in that messed-up head of yours, you actually think you’re the good guy, right? The hero?”

My feelings were mixed. On some level, he understood, he got what we were trying to do, but he was also belittling me. Even with all my strength, my power, he was still taking me for some kind of fool.

“You can put it like that,” I said. “I’m here about Solace, and Thomas.”

That garnered the biggest reaction out of Gomez so far. He squared his shoulders, and inched forward, to me.

“Thomas, huh? That’s the name that brings you to me, after all this time? I was right, this is good.”

I couldn’t get a good reading of this guy. He probably wasn’t corrupt, or on the take, but he seemed to be getting some kind entertainment out of this. Like this was one big game.

Could I trust him? Could I let him in on what was going on between me and Thomas? Or was this a trap all along? A way to get at the both of us?

When in doubt, Blank Face, exercise extreme caution.

“Solace already went too far with Edgar Brown, but I can’t do this by myself. I’ll need your help, your assistance, your resources.”

“And you wanted to come to me? I’m flattered.”

Dammit, old man. Work with me, here.

“People out there have a high regard for you,” I said, “Can’t see why, myself.”

Somehow, he chuckled. “People, huh? Alright, I’ll drop the pretense. It’s been a long night, and it’s about to be even longer, now. What is it you want from me, Bluemoon?”

“It’s Blank Face, actually,” I said, “But never mind that. I… received, Solace’s message earlier tonight, but I have reason to believe that the victims haven’t been killed. There’s a possibility that they might still be alive, and we can save them.”

Gomez wasn’t particularly moved by that chance.

I had to move the conversation along. Get the basics, first.

“Before that, do we even know anything about Solace? Who he, or she, or they are? How they’re even managing anything they’ve been doing?”

Gomez brushed his mustache once. “Nothing concrete.”

You’re kidding.

“Then, something abstract? What do you know about Benny? Of El Carruaje infamy.”

Gomez brushed his mustache again. “Ah, the no-name you took down in your first viral video? How is she relevant?”

“She may have something to do with all of this, with Solace. But, it’s funny, last time I saw her, I left her with your men.”

Gomez was back to being unreadable.

“It’s an interesting theory, I’ll give you that, but no, I never got a record of her arrest. I always assumed she died on the way to the hospital. If I remember correctly, you did assault her with a deadly weapon.”

I held back. Both myself and my tongue.

“How did Edgar Brown go missing?” I asked instead. I needed something I could use. Anything.

For his part, Gomez managed to answer that. “A group, no more than five people, broke into his home, and they took him. They seemed to know the layout of the house, the placement of my men. They slipped away, like it was nothing.”

His jaw clenched at that last word.

That can count as concrete, you know.

I pressed on. “And Linda Day?”

“The details on that are still coming in, or rather, they haven’t come to me. But yes, it’s a similar situation. She was taken from her home.”

“None of them were killed in their own homes? Their bodies haven’t been found?”

“No to both,” Gomez said.

Then there’s a chance they’re alive.

“What about Thomas?” I asked, “I think we know that he wasn’t taken from his home.”

He raised an eyebrow. “And how do you know that?”

“People,” I said. “It’s easier if we just leave it at that.”

Gomez went silent for a time, before saying, “So you know what I know, congratulations. What else do you want, Blank Face?”

I had thought long and hard about what I wanted, and how I was going to get it.

I asked for it.

“So, you have to believe me when I say I know that Thomas’s phone was used at the same time as Solace’s announcement earlier tonight. You must know it personally. I want you to trace it, and tell me where it was last used.”

This was the key, this was what Thomas wanted me to put into place. I was to go get Gomez, and take down Solace together, the entire police force in tow.

But, Gomez had no words to say, no expression to make. He was just there.

“You seem to have a lot of faith in me,” he said, “And a lot of it is unfounded. I can’t get access to that.”

I couldn’t feel my eyes straining from widening. “How could you not have access? Are you fucking inept?”

“You clearly don’t know how things work around here.”

I almost laughed. “I think I know exactly how things are, here. You’re on someone’s payroll, or some shit like that. You motherfucker.”

He wasn’t defending himself. He just stood, his hands now in his pockets.

This wasn’t going well in any stretch of the imagination. Panicking. I started to grab at any branch that could provide me leverage, any path that could still mean forward.

That, or I was about to seriously hurt Gomez.

I demanded, “An officer named Jeffery was the last person to be with Thomas before his disappearance. If nothing else, I want Jeffery.”

Gomez lowered his head.

“You want one of my men? To do what?”

“One way or another, he’s involved in Thomas’s disappearance, maybe even the others. I just want to have a talk with him. Because if I can find where they took him, I might be able-”

I heard the door knob turn, behind me. My whole body moved without thinking, jumping and flipping back behind the roof door enclosure.

A sudden burst of adrenaline.

The door swung open.

“Chief, what’re you doing out here?”

Another person. Fuck.

“I’m out here for a smoke,” Gomez answered.

“You don’t have anything on you.”

“I’m about to have a smoke.”

An audible sigh.

“Well, when you’re done with your smoke, Barry wants you.”

“Another meeting? I’m starting to feel like a prisoner in my own building.”

“It is what it is.” I heard a footstep. “That was it for me, so…”

“Um, any word from Jeffery, yet?”

A lump in my throat.

I crouched.

“Jeffery?”

“Jeffery Robinson,” Gomez clarified.

“He hasn’t called in.”

“Isn’t that a problem? He was assigned to Thomas.”

“I know that, I’ll get a guy on it.”

Didn’t sit well with me, how dismissive the other cop sounded.

“Also, could you bring Sumeet up here? There’s something I’d like to discuss with him.”

Sumeet?

“Uh, sure, Chief, I’ll give him the word.”

The other cop left, and the door closed.

“You can come back out, now,” Gomez said.

Cautiously, I did, reemerging from the shadow. I went around the door, standing in front of Gomez, again.

“You think I don’t know what goes on in my own police force?” Gomez asked. “It runs deep, it’s systematic. Keep an eye out for someone, and they won’t try and find a reason to gouge out yours. The only way to survive out here is not have any ties with anyone, or they will find it, and they will cut it. The gangs will stomp out anything that tries to upset their little world, their order of things. I may be the chief of police, here, but that doesn’t put me in a position of power. That was one of things Thomas was wanting to fix, when he finally became DA.”

I thought back to Thomas, whenever I saw him in the past week. His anger, his frustration, his weariness. He had said something of regrets. Was this what he was trying to fighting this whole time? This… system?

“So you really can’t help?” I asked. “Even if you wanted to?”

“I’m saying I can’t help you directly, or I’m dead.”

“Thomas is dead! Isn’t he your friend?”

Shit, I raised my voice.

But how could I not be angry? How could this man let his hands be tied?

I knew I was being irritable, irrational, but the anger came, anyways.

Gomez nodded, as if he understood where I was coming from.

“Thomas is a very good friend, and I’m already helping you, more than you probably deserve.”

“What?”

In short, I was confused.

“I’m helping you with every second I don’t call in about you standing on this roof. Honestly, it’d be easier if I did, and maybe this bullshit can stop for just a day. But, I’ll give you this one chance, because it looks like Thomas has given you one, already.”

I didn’t know what to say. That was what he called a chance?

“Sumeet is coming up here soon, he runs with Jeffery. He might know something, but I’m not planning on being around when you have your talk with him.”

Gomez walked, then passed me to get to the door. His back was to me.

“That’s all I can offer you,” he said. “That’s all I have.”

I had to instruct myself to unclench my fists. “It’s a start,” I said.

His hand on the door, now. “Still want handouts? I give you any more, and someone like Mister might pick up on what I’m doing.”

Mister. Something about that name seemed familiar, but it was very foggy.

“Who’s Mister?”

Gomez’s expression changed.

“You really don’t know anything? There, that’s my last freebie. Ask at your own discretion, but unless you know with an absolute certainty that he has a part in this, that’s not a fight you want, even with your fancy hopping around.”

“Who is he?”

He left, ignoring me, his exit unceremonious. I was left alone on the roof.

I gathered my thoughts as I returned to wait above the door.

That did not go how I wanted it to.

Nothing on Benny, nothing about Thomas and the other victims, and the last cop Thomas was with was missing. All I had to go on was Gomez’s lack of cooperation – which was somehow a form of cooperation – Sumeet, and the name ‘Mister.’ How did any of this fit?

So many questions, and I had nothing but frustration.

It didn’t help that this might all be a trap. A setup.

My blood boiled.

I waited, and kept low. I touched a pocket by my thigh, where I kept my knife.

The door cracked open, a man in a cop uniform came running out.

“Chief, sorry I’m late! What was it you wanted?”

Sumeet.

I dropped, hitting the roof running.

It was like a tackle, my shoulder ramming into his stomach when he turned, but I kept going. Until I got to the end of the roof. I leapt, carrying him all the way. The night kept us relatively obscured as I traversed the roofs.

He wasn’t screaming, probably from how hard I hit him with the initial hit. Keeping a hold on him as I ran and jumped wasn’t difficult, I hugged his torso with enough strength to crack some bones, but not break him in half.

I crossed streets, alleys, until I was comfortable with the distance I managed. I let go of him as I landed on another roof, his body crumpling.

I didn’t give him a break. Not a break of that kind. I grabbed him by the collar, dragging him until I had him over the edge, his feet dangling.

Anger moving me, frustration flowing. I needed something to direct it to.

He was light, and I was strong. Holding him was like holding a doll.

“Sumeet,” I said, seething, pushing the words through my teeth. “You’re going to tell me everything.”

Previous                                                                                               Next

036 – On One’s Own

epy arc 6 rest

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Physically, mentally, emotionally spent. I was at the end of my rope. And the rope was on fire.

I was burned-out.

I didn’t get the gift of sleep. I was on the floor, unmoving, eyes to the ceiling, my mind running, until daylight started slipping through the windows. Everyone woke up before the alarm, and I woke up with them. Or got up, rather. Though, I couldn’t imagine anyone else getting a wink, not after what happened last night.

Judge Edgar Brown. I had never heard of the name before, but he was at that party, he was targeted, and now he was dead. Didn’t know anything about him, what he was like, his hobbies, what his kids were like, what he liked to do with his family. But he was a person, the center of his own world and universe, and we failed in stopping the destruction of that world. Gone. No more. Dead.

The guilt slowed my steps down the stairs, until I was falling behind.

I failed to think about anything else, but I kept trying. I lumbered into the kitchen, joining everyone for breakfast.

My mom was already up, helping Kristin prepare the food. Kristin herself was on the phone, talking while cooking bacon. The smell wasn’t appetizing.

“I won’t apologize this time, Sumeet, what’s keeping him? Don’t give me that! He can’t spare a second just to say a word? Where’s Jeffery?”

Dang, Kristin was going in on that Sumeet guy.

I grabbed a seat at the table, Katy and Maria on the other end. The dog was outside.

“What’s that all about?” I asked as I rubbed in one eye. Crust stuck to my hand when I moved it away. Ew.

Katy explained, “Dad hasn’t back home yet from last night, so she’s been freaking out. I don’t think she went up to her room.”

“She’s been down here all night?”

“Seems that way.” Katy fixed her disheveled hair, tying it up. It flew apart at the ends.

“I’m worried too, but this isn’t the first time my dad’s pulled all-nighters, they’ve even ramped up in the last month or so. He can get pretty absorbed with his work when he wants to. There were times when I didn’t see him for a couple of days.”

She put her fork in her mouth, but there was no food, there. She was biting on the metal.

Maria picked up her own spoon, then put it down. “It might be the norm for you guys, but considering what’s been going down, you can’t blame your mom.”

Katy set her fork to the side. “I’m not, and I won’t.”

Now I was beginning to worry.

Thomas wasn’t the type to go a length of time without informing someone of his activities. During our outings, he demanded updates from me, and I could expect the same from him. It was a mutual respect that I appreciated, coming from the one person who saw Blank Face as something other than a monstrosity. It meant a lot to me, and it wasn’t a notion I expressed to him as often as I would have liked to.

So, if Thomas isn’t even contacting his wife…

I put myself in check. Couldn’t be thinking that way, or I’d come apart, completely.

“Maybe he’s just asleep at his desk, or stuck in some absurdly long meeting,” I said, “We’ll probably see him tonight.”

It felt like I said that mostly for my own sake.

“We better,” Katy said, with no energy.

I watched my friends as they picked at their utensils, spinning them around. We never had a sleepover with the three of us before, but I always thought it would have been fun. We’d sit and chat over boys, watch a movie, maybe get into the stereotypical pillow fight, for kicks. Maybe even try and squeeze a game of chess out of Katy and her strange chessboard.

We did some of those things, but…

I never expected it to be like this, under these circumstances.

“Don’t talk with that tone,” my mom said, coming to the table. She set down different dishes for us to eat. “Not that you are rude, but it’s discouraging.”

“Sorry then,” Katy said.

“Don’t apologize, just eat.” My mom then went to putting food on all of our plates. Eggs, bacon, and an extra helping of rice for me. I was so out of it that I didn’t even protest.

Though I should have.

Kristin stepped out of the kitchen, continuing to rant on the phone. I had no one to bail me out from my breakfast. Not even Solace.

The food looked delicious, though, I couldn’t say much for the taste.

The bacon glistened in oil and juice, the eggs a bright golden color. The rice was steaming, fluffy. To think, my mouth would have watered at the sight of it, maybe over two months ago.

And the smell coming from the food did the opposite of reinvigorating me. It drained, leaving me even less willing to face the rest of the day.

And it served as a reminder that I was becoming thirsty, again.

I tried not to show it on my face. I tried not to act. It was like walking on eggshells, letting any tells slip now would be a certain and complete disaster. Had to stay calm, had to maintain my composure.

I pushed my plate away.

“Maria, do you want like, half of my food?” I asked. “I’m not too hungry.”

Maria’s look was telling. She would have rather had me eat. But, she still agreed to take a load off of my shoulders, reaching across the table for my food. “This is only because I want to eat food your mom made.”

Maria took some food, then took some more.

“Maria, that’s more than half,” Katy said.

Maria glowered at Katy. “Look, Ms. Barnett looks like she’s a good cook, okay? Can I live?”

“But my mom helped cook, too…”

She took until there was about enough for three big spoonfuls. She wasn’t about to make things easy.

How delightful.

My mom went over the sink, moving on to washing pots and pans. “You eat, Alexis, you need energy. But hurry, we will be late if we don’t leave soon. I will be taking you all today.”

Ah, that’s right, I thought, We still have school.

The food was like a void, and it was staring right back at me. Three bites. If I ate this, it’d help in quelling some of the worries my mom and my friends had. It wouldn’t be by much, but it was something.

And that was all I needed for now.

Especially after ‘promising’ to tell my friends everything, after Solace was defeated.

I gathered some food with my spoon. A little bit of everything. Rice, bacon, egg. I knew a day like this would come.

I swallowed, before food even entered my mouth.

It was considered rude, but I placed my left elbow on table, resting my head in my hand. I situated myself away from everyone, facing downward. Discreet.

With my right hand, I took the first bite.

For Edgar Brown… rest in peace.

The rice and egg had the consistency of mud, the bacon was like cardboard.

Harder to chew, harder still to swallow.

But I did, and it burned.

I almost gagged.

I gathered the second bite, the spoon much heavier, now.

I put it in my mouth, like I was force-feeding myself. Well, I was.

For Thomas, Hleuco. Together, we can take Solace down.

Leftover rice was starting to cling to the insides of my mouth, as if I had eaten dirt, and bits of soil were stuck. The egg tasted rotten, somehow reminding me of a skunk. Dead, on the side of the road, decaying and smelly. The smell, condensed to a taste.

I almost threw up, right then and there.

I took a minute to stop myself from trembling. From shaking.

The third and final spoonful. The most daunting one of all.

And for myself. I wish it would all end, already.

I went right into it, sliding it between my lips.

If my arm wasn’t propping my head up, I would have slammed my chin onto the edge of the table, passing out.

I couldn’t describe this one. It made my mind go blank, hurting me on every front. Physically, emotionally, mentally.

It was just fucking awful.

Every bit of me was screaming to run. My mind going cloudy. Chewed, then swallowed, doing all that I could to keep it down.

The next part was critical to everything. I had to get up, and leave.

But, could I?

I powered through it, had no choice but to. Dropped the spoon, stood, then shuffled along the perimeter of the kitchen. My hand ran along the counter and wall for balance.

I tried to enunciate as clearly as possible.

“Imma try shower…”

Tried.’

Only my mom responded, Katy and Maria were eating their own food, Maria even going for seconds. “Collect your clothes and sleeping bag, I can get them later when I come back.”

I nodded once, sluggishly, then I left. I didn’t move any faster up the steps, or into the bathroom.

I stripped, entered the shower, and let the water run.

In the gloom, all alone, I had the freedom to let everything out.

Katy, Maria, and I all met back at the kitchen, cleaned up and ready to go. I had my backpack, Katy had a purse, and Maria had nothing at all.

Kristin and my mom were sitting at the table.

“I cannot believe this,” Kristin said. She had hung up the phone. “All I want is to talk to him.”

My mom consoled her. “He’ll be back, Kristin. He’s passionate about his work, and we have to do our part too.”

Kristin nodded, sleepily.

“And you also need rest. We don’t want Thomas coming back and you’re not awake to greet him, do we?”

Kristin nodded sleepily, again. She snacked on a piece of bacon while she talked. “No, we don’t. Speaking of which, will you and Alexis be spending the night with us again?”

My mom glanced at me, and I tilted my head towards the front door.

“I appreciate the offer for us to intrude for another night, but I think it is best for us to start staying at our apartment. We can’t be here forever, and I do not want to be a burden.”

“You two are anything but a burden,” Kristin said. “You’re welcome anytime, and you can stay for as long as you need. If you want, you and Alexis can move in and live with us. Maria is also welcome.”

My mom gave her a look. “That’s not reasonable. I still have work, and we can’t leave the apartment unattended for too long.”

“Same here,” Maria said. “Don’t wanna overstay my welcome.”

Kristin responded with a weak smile. “That was my poor attempt at a joke. You go do what you have to, Shiori, Maria. I can arrange for an officer to come by and check on you guys every now and then, if you’d like.”

My mom offered a similar expression. “I will be sure to let you know.” She turned to the three of us. “Let’s get going.”

Kristin dropped the other strip of bacon she was about to eat. “Shiori, let me take them. You’ve already taken credit for cooking breakfast.”

That made my mom give her a sterner look. “No, you stay here, eat, and then you sleep. If I come back and you’re still up, I will put you down myself.”

Maria whispered to us, “Damn, your mom is giving orders to your mom.”

“Mom, let Shiori take us,” Katy said, out loud. “We’ll really be late if we don’t leave now, and Mom? I have a feeling Shiori might make good on her word.”

Kristin sat back, and started chewing on bacon again. “Not might, will. Go, I’ll take a nap.”

My mom accepted that, then left the kitchen, then the house. The rest of us had to hurry to catch up, or she’d somehow leave us behind. We all managed to hop into my mom’s blue van in time.

The drive to school was rather uneventful. I would have liked for some meaningless chatting to come and pass the time, but no one offered up anything to start with. Solace must have been weighing on everybody’s mind.

My mom drove us up to the front of the school, and we filed out as soon as she stopped.

“Thanks for the ride, Ms. Barnett,” Maria said. “You’re the best.”

My mom made a small gesture. “I will be back here when school ends. Alexis, I get your stuff together, and we go back home after I drop off Maria and Katy.”

I needed a second to realize she was talking to me. Still out of sorts.

“That’s cool,” I said, mildly. In truth, I was itching to be back home. I wanted to have easy access to my Blank Face things again.

“Bye,” my mom then said, and she went off.

The three of us moved as a group, entering the school. Loud as ever, with kids bustling and hurrying to their classes. Some gave us looks. I knew that had some effect on Katy and Maria.

But, there was no time to relax, we had to start our day.

Before we could go our separate ways, we were approached by a woman.

“Katy Thompson, Maria Gonzalez, and Alexis Barnett?” She listed us off, wording it like a question.

Cautiously, we nodded.

“Good morning, you three,” she then said, as kindly as one could.

“Good morning,” Katy said back. She had delegated herself to speak for us. I was cool with it.

“Principal Kirk would like to see you.”

The woman’s name escaped me, but I was not unfamiliar with her. She was one of ladies who ran the front office. A secretary.

“Right now?”

“It won’t take too much of your time, you’ll be done before your first class ends.”

Maria interjected, “Are we in trouble already? We just got to school.”

The woman didn’t take it as very funny, answering her directly. “I assure you, you’re not in trouble. All three of you, please come follow me.”

The three of us exchanged some looks, but there wasn’t really much of a choice in the matter.

We followed her towards the front office.

The number of students out in the hall were thinning, giving us room to walk without bumping arms.

I caught sight of Harrian from across the hall.

He didn’t notice me, and I only noticed him because of how hard he was trying to not be noticed. Decked in all black, head down, hands in his pockets, and if he was any faster, he’d get called out by a teacher. He seemed to be in a hurry.

Harrian turned my way, but he still didn’t see me. I got a better look at his face. Haggard. He was skinny, but I could tell that he hadn’t been eating, even from a distance. Shadows were cast on his eyes and cheeks, and his mouth hung open, like he didn’t have enough energy to lift his jaw. He looked weak.

He didn’t come any closer. His eyes went wide, then he spun on his heels, returning the way he came.

Okay… that happened.

If I wasn’t so out of it myself, and if I wasn’t headed to the principal’s office, I would have let myself be more curious as to what that was about. But, from my handful of interactions with him, he was always a bit odd, and I did have my own business to take care of, as both Alexis and Blank Face. Harrian would have to be a lower priority.

Still following the woman, we went around a corner, going towards a side entrance of the front office. The hallway was nearly empty, now.

“Coming up behind you!”

“Let me get that for you, ladies.”

Eric and Evan. Right before the woman hold put her hand on the knob, the duo passed us and opened the door.

“What are you two doing here?” Katy asked as we continued inside. Faculty and some students were here, busy with differents tasks and errands. A lively atmosphere. We passed the front counter, heading into the faculty area.

“Student aide,” Eric answered, “Printing papers, stacking papers, filing those papers, and sometimes, go around school to give people pink slips. They don’t seem to like those.”

“Sounds fun.”

“It’s a blast,” Evan said.

“You two are involuntary student aides,” the woman added, “Don’t act like you want to do this.”

“Aw, come on, Mrs. K.” Eric slouched his shoulders and hunched forward, but he still towered over all of us. “We’re liking it now, promise!”

Evan nodded along, agreeing with Eric.

“What are you in for?” I asked.

“It’s either that or detention,” Eric said. He didn’t offer any more, but he didn’t sound too bummed over it, either.

“This way,” the woman said, going another way in the office, down a smaller hallway where the principal and assistant principal’s offices were.

“It’s nothing, but I can explain some other time,” Eric said.

“I don’t really care,” Katy said, straightforward. Normally, she’d play along with their fooling around, but she wasn’t having it, this time. “Like how we have our own thing.”

“Fair.” Eric started going in the opposite direction, another hall. “We’re this way, got more papers to print.”

“Then stack, then file,” Evan said.

“Yup, and it is fun, Mrs. K!” Eric’s voiced boomed across the halls, but ‘Mrs. K’ didn’t respond. She was standing, hands resting behind her back, facing us. In front of Principal Kirk’s office.

We split up without a proper ‘see you later,’ the boys going to do menial work, and us girls going to do… another thing. I still didn’t know what this was about.

Mrs. K waited until all three of us entered the office before closing the door. She didn’t come in with us.

It wasn’t my first time coming in here. At least I wasn’t alone, this time.

Principal Kirk’s office was like any other principal’s office. Neat and tidy, muted colors, with a few personal touches to make it his own. Namely, a picture frame of his family, and a Van Halen record on his wall. Signed.

The principal himself was typing at his computer. Average looking, he looked nice in a suit, but he wasn’t Thomas. For someone his age, he sure didn’t show the signs of his number. His hair was still chestnut brown, neatly combed back. He had circular framed glasses, but they didn’t look old-fashioned on him. Stylish, in fact.

He stopped what he was doing when he heard Katy pull at the first chair.

“Ah yes, here y’all are, feel free to take a seat,” he motioned to the chairs in front of his desk.

He was prepared for us to come. Three chairs were set, normally there would be only two. Two of the chairs were supposed to be here, they kept in line with the general aesthetics of the room. Wooden, with cushions on the seat. The third chair was clearly pulled from another room. A metal folding chair. It didn’t match with anything in here.

Katy and Maria took the cushioned seats. I settled for the metal folding chair, dropping my backpack beside me.

“How are you all today?” he asked, sounding chipper. It bothered me, or maybe that was a testament to how fucked up I was, mentally and emotionally. It was coloring how I perceived others.

“We’re trying,” Katy said, answering for us again. It wasn’t even much of an answer. We were just… trying.

Trying to do what?

“It’s better than not giving up,” he replied, his tone still the same. I couldn’t argue with him, there.

Principal Kirk came across as the kind of guy who would have been popular when he was in high school, he had that air, that charisma, about him. Maybe he was even a captain of the football team. Though, looking at it another way, it was like he never left high school.

He closed the monitor of his computer, then he gave us his full attention, resting his elbows on the desk, putting his hands together.

“I’ll try to make this snappy, and let you go about your day. Now, from your parents, I’ve heard about the… ordeal, that y’all are going through, and it truly tears me apart that you girls have to go through something of this magnitude.”

I didn’t need to see my friends’ faces to confirm for myself, I could already guess what they were thinking.

Nothing but empty words.

“But,” Principal Kirk said, as if to counter my line of thinking, “Luckily for me, I don’t have just my condolences to give.”

I blinked, the extent of how much energy I was willing to spend. I fought back a yawn.

“I haven’t run this through your parents yet, but I’ve spoken with your teachers, and they’ve all agreed to let you continue your courses from home.”

Katy fixed her seat, briefly lifting herself up so she could scoot her chair forward. She was curious.

“You’ll have to elaborate,” she said.

“The school has a duty and responsibility to provide a safe environment for our students to feel comfortable in. However, given that this is a… special circumstance, we, the school, are willing to overlook your attendance on campus for as long as you need.”

“You’re saying we don’t have to come to school?” Maria asked.

If you feel safer spending the day in the comfort of your own home, the school will not penalize you for doing so. Of course, you will still have schoolwork. The school will email you the lessons, notes, assignments, and reviews for all of your classes, put together by your different teachers. It’ll be in one big file. You complete it from home, send it back, and your teachers will grade it.”

“What about tests or quizzes? Don’t we have to come to school to take those?”

“We will accommodate you on that as well. It’s up to your teachers, but they might change the format, making it multiple choice, or depending on how well you do on your assignments, they might forgo tests, entirely.”

Maria fell back into her chair. Obviously, she was into this.

“Of course, this is all up to you,” the principal said, “Well, it does require your parents’ consent, but this is your decision. Whatever you feel is best for you, we’ll go with that. Want to go home? No problem. Want to come to school? More power to you. This is all about what makes you comfortable.”

The effort Principal Kirk was putting in to get that idea through our heads was admirable. He wanted us to be taken care of, he wanted us to feel safe. Did it suck that the Solace situation had gotten so out of hand that it was affecting the school administration? Sure, but they were trying, and doing their part, too. It might have been a small gesture, but it was going a long way. A small light in an ever-consuming darkness.

“Do we have to make that decision now?” Katy asked.

Principal Kirk shook his head. “Not now, not this instance, though you can, if you’ve come to a decision already. Just let me know anytime, and I’ll make the necessary preparations. All I ask for now is to talk to your parents about this, and give this some serious thought.”

It was an alluring option, I wouldn’t lie. Time away from school could be a big help, it meant time away elsewhere. Mom would be out of the apartment, and I would be free to-

“I’m in.”

We all turned to Maria.

“You’ve already made your decision, Maria?” Principal Kirk said. “You don’t need to discuss this with your father?”

“He won’t mind. It might actually be better. Yeah, I’m sure.”

The principal nodded. “Understood, stick around after we’re done here, and I’ll get things going for you.” He then faced me and Katy. “I don’t suppose either of you have already decided?”

Katy spoke first. “I really appreciate the offer, I do, but I’ll decline. I can tough it out here, at school.”

So Katy decided to stay? Does this have something to do with Thomas talking about not folding to pressure? Tougher stuff?

Principal Kirk sat back, his hand still together, resting on his lap. “I’ll respect that decision, too. We do have extra officers on campus for some added security. I can promise you, you are as safe here as you are in your own home.”

His eyes then went to me. It was my turn.

I want to discuss this with Thomas, too. See if we can’t meet or plan during normal school hours. Maybe even some Blank Face action in the afternoon.

I put my finger to my chin. My eyes went elsewhere.

“I’ll have to talk with my mom about this. She’d want to be in the know before I make a decision.”

Principal Kirk accepted that, too. “That’s just as fine with me. And remember, this is an option that will always be available to you. Katy, if you happen to change your mind, I’ll be more than willing to move in that direction. And Alexis, just let me know either way, after you’ve spoken with your mom.”

“Will do,” I said, “Thank you, though, you didn’t have to go that far.”

“Oh, we do. It wouldn’t be right if we stood here and did nothing. Like I mentioned, it’s our duty and responsibility.”

Duty and responsibility. The words repeated and looped in my head. Somehow, it was reassuring.

Principal Kirk changed his position, tapping a key on his keyboard. His computer woke up.

“I know it’s not a lot of fun for me to have called you down here and talk about boring tests and quizzes, but it is important. Is there anything else you’d like to say to me? Any questions?”

The three of us exchanged looks again. I got the general impression that we were just about done, here.

“I think we’re good,” Katy said, speaking for all of us. “Thanks again.”

“Then that settles it,” Principal Kirk said, getting back onto his computer. “Hope to hear from you soon, and I hope this situation gets resolved as fast as possible, as safely as possible. Maria, stay right there, and we’ll get started. You’ll need to bring back a permission slip for your father to sign.”

“Guess I can’t leave with you,” Maria said to me and Katy. “See you later?”

“Yeah, see yah,” Katy said.

“We’ll text you when we’re out of school,” I said. We got up, taking our stuff with us.

“Oh, Katy, tell your dad the school has his back,” Principal Kirk said.

“Sure,” Katy said, “I’ll let him know as soon as I see him.”

I kept to myself for that one.

Katy and I left the principal’s office, Principal Kirk and Maria getting right to work. We took the same path back of the office, and we were back in the hallways of the school. We didn’t run into Eric and Evan on the way.

The hall was empty. Not even a kid walking around with a hall pass. Somewhere in between going to the front office and conversing with Eric and Evan, the bell rang, but I never heard it.

“Maria’s really gonna stay at home?” I asked. We moved to the front of the school. My locker was on the other side of the building.

“I don’t fault her for that,” Katy said, “Deep down, I think she’s the most freaked out by the whole thing.”

I agreed with her by saying, “I don’t fault her, either.”

“And you?” Katy asked.

“Me?”

“Are you going to end up taking Principal Kirk’s offer?”

Not even deep down, I was definitely considering it. “It depends on what my mom has to say about it. She’ll probably want me to keep coming to school, but I might be able to convince her if I really wanted to.”

“Do you really want to?”

Again, she asked me. She really wanted a direct answer.

“I do. It’d be nice if I could. It’s just that, if my mom says no, that’ll be the final word.”

Katy nodded, slow. It almost looked like she was shaking her head, too.

“Bye, Alexis.”

And that was the final word between us for that morning. We split to go to our classes, located at different ends of the building.

On my way, I stopped to take a sip at a nearby water fountain. The sips turned to gulps, as I was spending more time there than I should.

I tried getting myself back into the mind of being just a student, to being just Alexis, but other things were too prominent, too heavy.

I wish things could go back to the way they were.

I remembered when all I had to deal with were due dates and test grades. And now, I was handling deadlines of the most literal kind.

Because, in less than twenty-four hours, if nothing happened, we would be going through the same thing all over again.

No, no no no, no no no no no no no.

No.

This was the same thing all over again.

I staggered into the closet. My mom left me alone, letting me retreat into my room.

I clawed through piles of clothes and boxes. Bits of dust had settled in my absence.

Ripping open the bag, I found the mask. I yanked it out, hugging it close.

I collapsed to the floor, I curled up into a ball.

My chest was pounding, my heart was sinking.

My whole body, my very being, felt like it was on fire.

The end of my rope.

Solace came back, on the TV, posturing like he or she always did. They listed off more names, and they rattled in my head, echoing and echoing and echoing and echoing.

I wasn’t able to do anything. Not in time. Even if it was just another pair of eyes, it was enough to keep me locked up in my apartment. Like a bird in a cage.

I couldn’t cry, couldn’t tear up. I shook, I trembled.

Please, no.

A wide range of emotions, that I wasn’t sure what to call it. Anger? Horror? Panic? Dismay? It was everything, all at once, until it wrapped back around and became nothing.

A certain sadness.

The names Solace said…

Edgar Brown… Linda Day…

Thomas Thompson.

Previous                                                                                               Next

Interlude – Thomas

Previous                                                                                               Next

Peru – Sixteen years before present

The waves slid across the sand, white foam bubbling in its wake.

Thomas let the cool waters run across his feet.

Sunlight beat down on his face. Bright, hot. He was going to get a sunburn if he stayed like that for another minute.

I can’t remember the last time I was this happy.

A hand gently landed on his shoulder. Warm, comforting. Inviting. It was a touch he wasn’t quite used to, not yet, but at the same time, he didn’t want to lose that spark. That electricity. It was all so new to him.

Even with plenty of space on the beach, he still sidestepped to let his girlfriend stand beside him. They held hands.

They watched the waves come to them, then away.

They watched, then watched some more.

This was a moment, and they were in it.

“Already trying to go out and get cigarettes?” Kristin asked.

Thomas kept his eyes on the water. He smiled.

“You know I don’t smoke.”

“That doesn’t exactly answer my question.”

“I’m not going anywhere. Not now, not ever.”

“Is that so?”

“One hundred percent.”

Kristin bumped her shoulder against Thomas, only getting right above his elbow. She interlocked their fingers.

“Big words. Only time will tell.”

They were big words, but Thomas was up for it, up for the challenge. If not just to surprise himself, but Kristin especially. Scary? It was terrifying, down to the bone. Commitment was heavier than anything even Atlas could carry.

Thomas closed his eyes, seeing red from how bright it was out here. When he opened them again, he was staring right at Kristin.

At Kristin, and at her.

“Are we crazy for this?” Thomas asked, though he already knew what Kristin would say.

She kept her eyes to the ocean.

“We are crazy, and we get crazier with every passing day. Every passing month. We are long past the point of takebacks.”

A door closed, but Thomas didn’t think of it in that way.

“Good, good. I wouldn’t want to.”

She made a sound. A hum. Barely audible over the waves.

“You keep talking like that, I’ll start to think the opposite.”

Thomas put his hands behind his head, stretching. “What would it take to convince you, then?” He gulped. “A ring?”

Kristin made a face. A playful shock.

So cute.

“Slow your horses there, cowboy.” Kristin then shook her head. “But who am I to talk?” Delicately, she pressed her hand against her stomach. Through her shirt, a noticeable bump.

“Another day then?” Thomas suggested.

“Another day.” Kristin agreed.

He left it at that, satisfied.

Amongst the waves, Thomas watched her listlessly.

He didn’t know how many minutes passed when she finally noticed him.

She blushed.

“Stop.”

“Stop what?”

“Stop being such a loser.”

“If I’m a loser, then what does that make you?”

Kristin puffed out her chest.

“A winner. I’m the one who scored.”

Thomas almost snorted. What kind of logic was that?

“You certainly think highly of yourself,” Thomas said.

“I do. Get used to it, or you’ll be in for rough ride.”

Thomas rubbed his cheek with his free hand. “But, rough rides can be good.”

Kristin bumped him again, this time harder, more force.

He swayed one way, then back.

“Am I going to have to get used to that, too?”

“Keep getting smart with me, you just might.”

Chuckling, Thomas let go of her hand, and put his arm around her. He brought her close, tight, before falling to his side, bringing her with him.

She let out a high, shrill squeak as they dropped, water splashing around them.

Kristin was in the water, Thomas on top of her. Both wet.

“And you’re going to have to get used to that,” Thomas said. He couldn’t come up with a better comeback.

“Don’t do that!” Kristin said, scolding him. Salt water splattered from her lips to his face. “This isn’t some dumb movie where you can just do that!”

Smooth, Thomas. But Thomas was sure that a small part of her appreciated that kind of gesture.

I think.

Maybe it was a very small part of her that appreciated it.

“Now I’m wet,” Kristin said, complaining about the obvious. She propped herself up to get the water out of her hair. She groaned.

“That reminds me, Spacey wanted you back at the headquarters in ten minutes. You’re due an extra shift.”

Thomas grinned, almost vulpine. “He should know by now that if he sends you, we’re both going to be late.”

“Don’t joke about this. I can tell his patience with you is thinning.”

Thomas thoughts went to the boss, though he didn’t want them to. “I suppose I can’t fault him for feeling that way. A six-month volunteering program and I just… fooled around for most of it. Really, you did this to me.”

“Excuse me?”

“Yes, distracting me with your feminine ways.”

“I don’t think so, buddy. You don’t get to be absolved from this.”

“Oh, so I’m just a buddy to you?” Thomas asked. He mouthed various positions, moves, references. “Do you give those out to all your buddies like party favors?”

Kristin pouted. “Don’t be so base. I only do that for pals.”

Thomas frowned. “When you talk like that, it’s hard to tell if you’re serious or not.”

“Then don’t change the subject. And get off of me.”

Before he let her go, Thomas kissed the top of her head, then he moved, letting her free. Though, neither of them moved to leave the beach. They stayed, sitting in the water.

“I thought we were leaving now,” Thomas said.

“Yeah, but it did take a long time to find you, and it’s so damn hot. I think Spacey can wait while we cool ourselves off.”

Thomas didn’t object to that. They still had some weeks left of the program left, he’d pick up the slack then.

And, more time alone with Kristin was never a bad thing.

Never.

I’m so glad I met you.

“What do you want to talk about?” Thomas asked her, already lost in her eyes.

“We don’t have to talk about anything,” Kristin said, twisting her hair, getting water out. “We can just sit here.”

“We can, and while I agree that nothing’s more pure and beautiful than these silent, unspeakable memories, I like to talk.”

“That you do.”

Thomas took her hand, submerging it into the water between them. She leaned on him.

“I thought of a name.”

“You have?”

“Couldn’t help it. It’s a girl, right?”

“Right you are.”

“Since it’s a girl…”

“Wait, let me guess.”

He paused, tilting his head. Waiting.

“It’s Katy, isn’t it?”

He smile widened. “You are good.”

“Get used to it,” she said, melodically.

He could feel himself falling for her even more. Deeper and deeper.

“Can you guess why?” he asked.

“I’m not a mind reader. I may think highly of myself, but you’ll need to have more realistic expectations of me.”

“Ah, that’s no fun.” Thomas squeezed her hand. “I picked ‘Katy because, it’s like the ‘K’ from ‘Kristin,’ and the ‘T’ from my name. Also, ‘K.T.’ would be her initials, as well.”

His explanation hung in the salty air. A breeze cooling them.

Kristin didn’t offer up a response. She just snickered.

That snicker grew into a heartier laugh.

“Oh my god, you are such a loser!”

Dumbfounded, stupefied, and dismayed. Thomas hadn’t expected that response.

“Hey, if you hate it, you can just say so!”

In between her fits of laughter, Kristin tried to get words out. Her body was shaking.

“No, I don’t hate it… I love it.”

He felt like he was being thrown for a loop. “You what?”

“I said I love it.”

“Do you actually?”

Yes,” she said, now stern. “I had my own ideas for names, but I adore that reasoning. I really want to use it.”

Thomas sat back, shocked that he could even be more satisfied. Katy. The name rang in his ears like a bell. Clear and bright. Like the sky above him. Endless possibilities. But there would be two constants in his future, now. He felt unstoppable.

“Katy.” He said it out loud, to make the idea solidify even more in his mind. He was going to be a father.

“My folks are going to love you,” he said.

“Of course they will. I’m me.” She pressed more of her weight onto him, leaning on him more. Relying on him more.

He couldn’t stop smiling like a big dumb stupid idiot.

“I love you,” he said to her, for the hundredth time.

“I know,” she said to him, for the hundredth time.

Stephenville – Ten years from present

Thomas stood tall, firm. Confident. And he exuded that confidence because he knew. He had all the facts, the statements, and the jury would be eating out of his hand once he was fully through with him. This wasn’t going to end well for the other guy. Or the other guy’s other guy.

It wouldn’t be easy, but Thomas would have been disappointed if it was.

The homestretch.

He was going to have some fun.

“Good morning,” Thomas said, apt. He stayed at the podium. Weren’t supposed to move around and make a show of things like in shows or movies. These proceedings were usually slow, laborious. A lot of patience, waiting, and listening. For the audience, anyway. For Thomas, he might as well be skydiving.

“Morning,” the witness said back, with no life at all. She was in a suit of her own, drab colors, sitting at the stand. Her hair was tied, but it was done poorly, strands sticking out. There was a microphone situated in front of her, but she was sitting away from it. She didn’t look like she wanted to be there.

Who did?

Thomas started.

“Ms. Jessica Quinn, how long have you been the CEO of Tate and Mono Construction?

“Seven years, give or take.”

“So, relatively new at the job?”

“Relatively, yes.”

“Thank you, ma’am. Just double-checking for myself, I apologize that I’ll have to continue like this for a few more questions. Feel free to relax while I gather my thoughts.”

Jessica didn’t relax. Thomas continued with his questioning.

“Okay, Ms. Quinn, you spearheaded the construction projects in King District, am I correct?”

“Yes.”

“For how long, and what were the projects, exactly?”

“Different housing projects, apartments, homes, offices. My men loaded stuff, dumped stuff, put the hammer to the nail. The whole shtick. And about six months.”

She answered the questions, just not in the right order.

I see.

“And thank you for giving me the whole shtick. Now, as well all know, the reason why you are called up there today is because your ‘whole shtick’ hasn’t gone through the usual procedure, disturbing many residents and businesses, and some of those resident and business happen to be our clients.”

Thomas tapped his fingers on the podium.

“They filed a complaint to you, and not much has been done in the wake of that. Now, here we are.”

Quinn didn’t react to anything Thomas was saying. And he was loving it.

“Ms. Quinn, what was King District like, before Tate and Mono came to do its business?”

“Decent.”

“Decent? Do you mind expanding on that?”

“I can’t explain it, it was just decent. That’s not too hard to grasp.”

“I’ll need a proper answer if only to get a better picture of the situation.”

“Fine, it was fucking Candy Land.”

Some in the audience behind him found that humorous. Thomas, not so much.

“Permission to treat the witness as hostile?”

Judge Edgar Brown hardly gave it a thought. “Granted.”

Thomas kept questioning, but now he could ask leading questions. “Streets were clean, people were friendly, a little rough, but what neighborhood doesn’t have an issue or two? Would you say that’s an accurate description of King District, Ms. Quinn?”

She yawned. “Yeah.”

He glanced at Phillips, Quinn’s lawyer, who was biting the end of his pen.

Cool it, Thomas. Don’t get too excited.

“And what was King District like during Tate and Mono’s time in the area?”

She didn’t say.

“Streets weren’t as clean, the people were hesitant to go outside, rougher overall. Would that be accurate to your experience there?”

“I guess.”

Thomas nodded. “One particular bad apple started making roots around that time, right? The Path, a branch of a Japanese mafia group. The Yakuza. Their men have been causing quite the ruckus in the district since Tate and Mono started their construction, with reports that the Path’s men have been coming and going through buildings your company were responsible for, is that correct?”

“Objection,” Phillips said, “That’s speculation.”

“All the evidence is here, sir,” Thomas pointed to his stack of papers at the folder, “Numerous arrests close to these buildings, drugs, weapons found nearby. This is all written down and documented stuff, and this is more than just some noise complaints. I thought you knew this, Phillips?”

“Alright Thomas, enough,” Judge Brown said. “Do you have a point?”

“One I’m eager to make.”

With little enthusiasm, the judge said, “Overruled.”

Thomas tapped his fingers again, faster. “Ms. Quinn, among noise complaints, have these other more, serious grievances have been brought to your attention?”

Thomas could see her neck glisten under the fluorescent lights. Sweat?

“Keep in mind that you are under oath, Ms. Quinn,” Thomas said, reminding her.

“They have,” she answered.

“And what has been done about it?”

“We never encountered any issue with any outside party or the like, and our construction sites were clean of any illicit materials or contraband.”

“So, nothing?”

“Nothing.”

“Thank you, Ms. Quinn. To switch gears here, you’re still a small company, relatively speaking. This is a big project you’ve undertaken, who’s employed you for these buildings?”

A noted lapse.

“Ishida Hitoshi,” she answered.

“That’s a big name, a big name for a big company overseas.”

Quinn didn’t comment or respond.

And now, the clincher.

“That’s also I name I recognize as part of a big controversy in Japan, with rumors that he has very strong connections with the Yazuka, and-”

“Objection, this is hearsay!”

Phillips leaped out of his chair, furious. “That has nothing to do with this case.”

“I think it has everything to do with this case,” Thomas argued. “If those connections are true, it lines up with what we’re hearing about the buildings Tate-”

Judge Brown stopped them. “Both of you, here.”

They both approached the table. Thomas was ready for what was to come, what could come.

The judge leaned closer, whispering, “Thomas, what are you trying to pull?”

“I’m simply raising an important detail that should be relevant in this case. If Ishida Hitoshi is in league with the Yakuza, people should be looking into what the hell he’s doing in Stephenville.”

If,” Phillips nearly spat the word. “If that’s true, but any claims about that here are unsubstantiated, you have no evidence, and it’s not relevant, and you didn’t submit any of this. You’re making a mockery of this court and this case.”

“It is relevant, Phillips. The writing’s on the wall, yet no one is willing to read it, and I’m left wondering, why? And if you want evidence, look to the countless victims that have been coming forward in the last three years. Also, I can bet you Randolf and his boys can find a connecting thread if they decided to show some initiative. The only one making a mockery of this court is that woman on the stand.”

“Shut it, Thomas,” Judge Brown said. “I’ll be the one to decide if there’s any mockery here. Thomas, let’s say this is looked into, and what you’re saying is true, then this whole case turns into something else entirely, and you are out of here. Is that what you want?”

Thomas was beaming on the inside, but he couldn’t show it, not here. “Criminal activity is a factor here, and I want that recognized. I’ll throw the Hail Mary, someone else can score the touchdown.”

Phillips was fuming. “This is unnecessary.”

Judge Brown wasn’t looking pleased with Thomas. “You better know what you’re doing, or this is it for you. Go back.”

They left the judge. Thomas did know what he was doing, because that probably was it for him.

Stephenville – A week after Loving v. Tate and Mono Construction

“Thomas.”

A man stood next to him, holding a beer. James Gomez. Shorter than Thomas, more stout, but with more muscle than him. A head full of hair, a thick mustache. Both were in fashionable, yet casual wear.

“Thanks for coming,” Thomas said.

“Thanks for… inviting me.” James had to duck when a ball flew too close to his head. He was more concerned over not spilling a drop than he was about the kid who threw said ball. “I’m not a huge fan of children’s birthday parties, though.”

“I invited you, you knew what this was, and you showed up, regardless.”

“At this point, I’ll take anything to get out of the office.”

“Even to arrest me for malpractice?” Thomas asked. “A two-for-one deal? I give you a beer, and you give me handcuffs.”

“No, I wouldn’t do that, but I should. That was a dumb stunt you pulled back there. I heard about it through the grapevine.”

“My bosses are breathing down my neck, drowning me in mindless work. Death threats, many of which are written in Japanese. An earful from the wife, which was the worst of it.”

“God damn,” James said, his voice lowered. There were kids around. “You gonna be okay? With your wife and kid, you have to look out for them, too.”

“It’s nothing but big talk on the gang’s part. They do anything, it’ll implicate them, and then the Path is done for. They’ll keep their distance.

“You sound rather confident about that.”

“I have to be. I’ll admit, it was dumb, but it’ll be worth it soon enough?”

Thomas said it like it was a question.

“I can’t give any details,” James said, “But we’ve traced the money. You were onto something.”

Thomas let himself show the emotion inside him. Gratification. He was beaming.

“But why’d you have to go about it that way?” James asked. “You could have just sent in a tip, or better yet, tell me.”

“Tips are too slow. You’re good, James, but your position isn’t. You’re still new, like me. You don’t have the pull to launch an entire investigation. I saw the circumstances, saw my chance, and I took it. Putting it out like that really got things moving, didn’t it?”

“At the cost of your credibility and reputation?”

“If you’re good at what you do, you can get credibility back, and I’m great. And my reputation is with the people.”

“Why be a corporate lawyer then? If that’s the way you think, you’d be better off in the DA’s office.”

Thomas watched the kids play.

“Big companies mean big money, and big money means more for the little guy. I’ll come down, when the time’s right.”

“When? When I’m police chief?”

Thomas nudged him. “Probably.”

“Whoa there, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”

“Why not? Dream big, do bigger. You’ll be the new police chief, and I’ll be the new district attorney. Together, we’ll rule Stephenville as…”

“Friends?” James ventured.

“I was going to go with pals.”

James didn’t get it, taking a swig of his drink, instead.

“Could be interesting,” James said.

“Could be real,” Thomas said, correcting him. “This city means a lot to me, you know that more than anyone else. It kills me every time someone asks why I haven’t left yet, why I haven’t packed up and moved. I want them to see what I see in it. It’s not perfect, but I can help, I know I can.”

James drank some more, then said, “Real powerful words there, pal, but don’t beat yourself up over it. You’re not a hero, you can’t put all that weight on your shoulders.”

Thomas agreed, “You’re right, I can’t. I’ll need people. People like-”

“Daddy!”

Katy came running to him, her face twisted up, and she was wailing.

“Yes sweetie?” He had to crouch to meet her at eye level. The way she was acting, it was unbecoming of her pretty pink dress. He had to get to the bottom of this, pronto.

“Alexis took my gun and she keeps shooting me but I told her to stop but she keeps doing it and I’m-”

“Hey hey, hey there.” Thomas had to rub her back, calm her down. She was hiccupping.

“I’ll have a talk with her, I’m sure she’s just gotten too excited again. She doesn’t mean anything by it.”

Katy was shaking her head, rubbing her cheeks with fists.

“I wanna get her back, I wanna get that gun back.”

Where do kids come up with this stuff?

Thomas massaged her again. “That’s not what I’m trying to instill in you. Go get some cake, and you’re making up with Alexis. No one gets that toy gun until this party’s over. Understand?”

She hiccuped. “Understood.”

“That’s my girl.” He let her run off to get cake, and he stood, his back hurting a little.

“Kids these days,” James said.

“You’re telling me,” Thomas said. “Sorry about this, James.”

“Go do your thing, I’ll go have another one of these, and I should be up to hear about Kristin’s summer in India one more time.”

“Make sure she mentions the story about the”

“The Yamarāja. I know, I know.”

He shook hands with James, then excused himself.

Stephenville – Three weeks from present

“Car chase going into Williamson Avenue. It’s red, and the only one going that fast. Police might lose it if this goes for any longer. What do you think about lending a helping hand?”

I’m thinking I’m done with the warm ups. Time for some real action.

Hleuco grinned to himself. He liked it whenever Blank Face showed some enthusiasm, even if it was behind a layer of playful arrogance. It meant that she was getting something out of this. And it meant that she wasn’t completely doom and gloom.

He shifted in his seat, moving away from the complicated connected system of scanners and laptops, to the wheel in front of him. The van started.

With the different channels yelping into his ear, he got out of the parking garage, and drove.

The equipment was outdated, but it was functional, and it served a purpose. Gifts from Gomez. Whenever new stuff came in, the old stuff had to be taken out to make room. And James knew how much he liked antique trinkets.

The van was old, too. Unmarked, bought with cash, kept away in a location disclosed only to Blank Face. He knew the city, the ins and outs. Learned from the best, and the worst, when it came to hiding things. It was a bitch to have to walk to every night he needed to use it, but its purpose was well worth a little pain in his legs.

His foot was heavier on the gas pedal than usual, and not because he was too sore to lift it up more. He needed to keep up with the car, and keep up with Blank Face, so he could be in a good position to pick her up and make a getaway. It was imperative that they kept things as simple as possible, as clean as possible. They weren’t attempting to save the world, they were just attempting to make it nicer. Even if by a margin.

And the girl has school tomorrow, can’t let her be out too late.

“Update, please,” Hleuco asked.

Can’t see it yet, but I do see the cars tailing it. Fuck me, they’re fast.

Please don’t say ‘fuck me,’ Hleuco thought.

“Can you get to it?”

Yeah, if it would turn to the right, I could intercept it from up top.

Hleuco kept an ear out for anything interesting. Anything new.

He relayed what he was hearing.

“Police are setting up a blockade, it can’t make a right anymore.”

Fuck me.

Hleuco shook his head as he drove, knowing she couldn’t see him.

Shut up.

“They’re attempting to trap the car on Williamson. They’re mobilizing faster than I thought.”

What does that mean for me?

“Seems to me they might actually have this one under control now. I’m impressed.”

Great. So all I did tonight was just get some exercise?

“Don’t sell yourself short. Mrs. Azikiwe wouldn’t be sleeping soundly right now if you hadn’t gotten her cat out of that tree.”

I won’t stop selling myself short.

Hleuco took the comment in stride. He sped down the street he was on, still mindful of the speed limit, other cars, and lights. It’d slow him down in getting to Blank Face, but she could make up for that with her own speed and mobility.

The fact that she even had that type of speed and mobility…

He was still having trouble wrapping his head around it. Blank Face had powers, strength beyond compare. No one had seen anything like it, ever. The world was still reeling from the revelation, what it meant, what was to come. How, and why.

It was a day that wouldn’t ever fade over time. It had become something of a pop culture lexicon. A meme, as the kids put it. ‘Where were you when the first superhuman made themselves known?’

Hleuco, Thomas knew. He was in his office, watching the whole thing unfold. Watching the potential.

A hero, here, in Stephenville of all places.

And he was able to work with her on this. On being an actual hero. Providing guidance. He would have felt privileged about the partnership, if the sheer coincidence didn’t shake him to his core.

With something so big, they had to take small steps. That meant limiting her shifts to more manageable times throughout the week, picking and choosing what petty crimes she’d handle, and monitoring police activity so they wouldn’t be in her hair as much. All to help instill the idea that her great power should be married with a greater sense of duty.

To better steer her in that direction, establishing rules was important.

Exercise extreme caution. Avoid overextending power for oneself or unto others.

Constant communication is necessary. Updates should be regularly provided and orders must be promptly followed.

Anything else was common sense.

He thought those rules were simple enough when he came up with them, but establishing them early was crucial. This had never been done before, there was no precedent. Blank Face was strong, and by her own admittance, already stabbed someone. Accident or not, that needed to be curbed, avoided in the future. He worried that she might want to escalate if things weren’t in check.

Which was why he also invested in precautions. He prayed he never had to use them.

There were many kinds in Stephenville. Those who were good, those who weren’t so, and those who turned and became lost. He only wanted Blank Face to be the former.

Thomas didn’t want another one in that last category. Not again.

Hey, Hleuco, you still thirsty for an update?

Her voice brought his conscious attention back to the road. He clicked the left turn signal, then turned.

“Always.”

I’m on Williamson now, but the car keeps tearing through blockades.

He tuned his ear to the police broadcasts. She was right.

“The car’s modified?”

It’s going fast as fuck, everyone’s jumping out of the way since it’s just plowing through everything. Cars and vans. I think the front’s been reinforced.

“Where are you right now?”

I’m ahead of everyone, so I’m seeing it all, it’s just…

A pause.

Fuck!

“What’s wrong?”

It broke through the last blockade. A… a bus is coming from the left at an intersection. A school bus.

“At this hour?”

Anyone could be in there! Shit, at this rate they’re going to collide.

Again, a pause.

I’m going.

Hleuco almost stomped on the breaks, but there were others around him. He had to keep driving.

“That’s a big no, Blank Face. You’re going to come back here right now.”

And let people die? I can stop the car, there’s still time.

Hleuco threw caution to the wind, listening to the police and getting a better sense of where to go.

He stomped on the gas.

“Blank Face, if you’re even thinking about it-”

I don’t have time to argue. I’ll update you in a bit.

He passed up a car, crossing a red light. The city flew past him.

“Blank Face!”

He kept driving, and the police kept blabbering on. He punched the button to shut them up. He only wanted to hear Blank Face.

But there was no one on the other end.

Fuck me, Hleuco thought.

With another turn, he was close as he could get to Williamson Avenue. The police blockades worked both ways. He drove down a street that ran parallel.

Sweat dripped down the steering wheel. His heart beat so hard it hurt.

The machines beside him whirred, the van’s tires rolling down the concrete. A screaming sound.

Silent.

He drove.

Quiet.

Still no answer.

It was maddening.

Hleuco started slowing down.

Not another one…

Not another regret.

He moved a finger to turn on the police-

Hleuco? I’m at-

Hleuco went to a full and complete stop. The van and everything inside it rocked. Cars honked as they passed.

He ran his hand through his hair, nearly pulling strands out from the root. He was so happy he was mad.

“Repeat that, Blank Face?”

I’m at an alley over on Baxton, by a pharmacy. Is it a good pick-up spot?

That was a block down, secluded enough. It worked.

“It works,” Hleuco said slowly, “Stay there, don’t move. Be there soon.”

I hear you.

Now you hear me, he thought. But he drove to get her.

His chest wouldn’t ease up.

Before he got to the spot, he reached back to the seats behind him. He put on his mask as he went. A memento from his time in Europe.

He needed an identity too, some gesture to make Blank Face feel less alone in her role as a hero. Hleuco. From the name haliaeetus leucocephalus. The bald eagle.

He needed a mask, too. She couldn’t see his face as it was now. Not now.

The door slid open. Blank Face stepped in. They left.

“I’m back,” she said. It was good to hear her voice without the mechanical filter. That was what he wanted to hear.

“Count your blessings,” he said, “You’re lucky you made it out of that okay. But don’t push that luck.”

“I’m with you on that.” She was breathing hard, panting. Whatever she did took everything out of her. “My arms are killing me.”

How strong are you, Alexis?

The van rolled on, and Thomas was ready to call it a night.

Present

He checked to see if he had everything on him. He did. Wallet, phone, keys.

Thomas got into the car, Jeffery closing the door for him.

The vehicle pulled out of the driveway, and they went.

Jeffery was usually more talkative, but he was mute, now. Thomas wasn’t that lively, either.

Solace got Edgar. He’s dead.

He was at his wit’s end, but he was too sick of everything to exert effort for a reaction.

He just sat.

Solace got Edgar, and he was dead. Because Blank Face and Hleuco pushed too hard, pushed the gangs too far, too fast, and Solace was born from their desperation. He thought he calculated it right, he thought they were disrupting just enough that it would not come to this.

Thomas was cognizant of the fact it would have been an uphill battle. Public opinion of Blank Face was plummeting, and they hadn’t yet reestablished her name as being Blank Face.

Uphill, but he didn’t expect it to become this steep.

No, these criminals are superstitious, cowardly. Especially in the face of an actual threat. I should have taken that into more consideration.

His thoughts poured over every detail, every bit of information in the past forty-eight hours. What connected, what made sense, what was a legitimate clue?

Thomas made a fist with each hand.

He had to give it up to Solace, they were thorough. Nothing came up when they investigated the event staff, and of course nothing came up when they went to Kristin. The only lead was the apartment they traced the signal back to. Nothing but bricks and wood.

Except a message to Blank Face.

Blank Face – Alexis – was positive the message was directed to her, by the leader of El Carruaje, a now-defunct gang, and Blank Face’s first foe. When she informed him of this, he tried to inquire about the woman who ran that gang, Benny. Her record, whether or not she was actually incarcerated.

Of course, everyone was scrambling over Solace. Of course, they were too busy to look into a small fry.

Thomas wasn’t the district attorney, not yet. He could only do so much as he was. No one answered to him, they would only consider what he had to say.

After forty-eight hours, all any of them could do was try and prevent this. But it didn’t work.

Lost in his thoughts, Thomas caught a glimpse of an intersection as they passed it. The sign.

Gomez’s office isn’t this way.

“Jeffery, are we meeting with Gomez elsewhere?” Thomas asked.

Jeffery kept driving.

“Jeffery? I-”

The officer whipped his arm back, pointing a gun to Thomas.

Thomas backed up as far as he could, which was hardly at all. His hands went up.

“Just, just be quiet, or I’ll shoot. Not another word. And if you do anything else except sit there and keep those hands up, I’ll shoot.”

Thomas didn’t try him. Jeffery’s finger was already on the trigger. Thomas put his hands above his head.

Behind the car, a resounding, deep grumble rocked Thomas’s ears. He would have liked to turn and investigate, but there was no need to set off Jeffery.

Looking wasn’t even needed. He could see from the rear view mirror, and that distinct tone of that sound.

It was Styx’s bike. Styx was here.

So this was how…

And he considered Jeffery a pal, too.

He was fucked.

Previous                                                                                               Next

Interlude – Isabella

Previous                                                                                               Next

“You’re positive you didn’t forget anything?” The man eyed her carefully. She felt like she was being judged for a crime, waiting for a verdict.

In a way, she was. She wasn’t supposed to be here.

“Just myself,” Isabella answered.

The man, the driver, didn’t avert his hard gaze.

“The trip is eight hours, are you sure you’re going to be okay without any anything to bring? Not to mention, you have to purchase a ticket online.”

Isabella stared up at the driver, and he stared her down. He was more like a pig than a man, overweight, large nose, balding. Not the most friendly appearance.

Her chances of getting on the bus weren’t looking good.

She knew she had to start making haste. She already made the call, so she’d be finished if she stuck around for whatever the aftermath would turn out to be. Like a fire under her butt.

She had to go.

‘No one will ask any questions if you can cough up enough dough.

The words of that lady, Wendy, came to her. The lady that saved her.

No use trying nothing.

She reached into her back pocket, and took out a small brick of cash. It was but one of four. The most amount of money she’d ever seen in her entire life. She flipped through it, pulling out two fifty dollar bills.

Isabella stuck out her hand, holding one hundred dollars.

“Is this enough for a ticket?”

The man’s eyes softened to those of wonder, then confusion. Then, a glint in his eyes.

He didn’t take too long to think it over, however. He moved his head.

“You sit in the back, and you don’t make a sound,” he said. Isabella took that as a sort of warning.

Wordlessly, Isabella got on the bus, taking the few steps to reach the driver. Smoothly, she slipped him the money, and he accepted it with a nod.

Gringos must really be easy to pay off.

Isabella moved down the bus.

The bus wasn’t full, she had her pick if the driver hadn’t given her stipulations. But, it wasn’t empty, there were people here she probably could not pay off.

A man in his late fifties, wearing a suit, talking on a phone. A teenage girl, fiddling with her phone. A boy with his mother, both already napping. There was another girl here, too, closer to her age, but she actually had luggage to bring. The rest started to blend together, the features starting to look too familiar. Unless they were famous, Americans all looked the same to her.

No one paid her any mind as she passed by, going down the aisle to get to the very back. The seats here were unoccupied, and she was able to make herself comfortable, lifting up the armrest in the middle so she could rest her legs.

The bus started, thrumming with life, then drove off.

Isabella leaned her head against the window beside her, watching the city pass.

At least I got a view this time.

She had barely just started getting used to things in Stephenville, and already she had to relocate. It was sudden, too, and now she was going to step foot in a new city, empty-handed. Again.

Well, she did have nine hundred dollars to her name this time.

Though, maybe she would have better chances if she moved elsewhere. The gang and cartel situation here was only marginally better than the one back home, but Stephenville still had way too much baggage attached, and it wasn’t very friendly to outsiders. Southern hospitality was as foreign a concept as she was.

All that, she learned in a week of being here.

Part of her did wish she could stay longer, though. She wanted to see the local celebrity one more time. La luna azul.

Isabella’s stomach grumbled. She massaged her shoulder.

Relocating might have been a good idea, but it was one she hadn’t planned for. That ‘Wendy’ practically pushed it on her. Nine hundred dollars might pull her through the next week, but there were so many other things to worry about. Like, where would she stay? What were the gangs like there? The cops? How would she make money? She was underage, no official papers on her. Illegal, in multiple senses of the word. Not many places would want to take her in, or they might get in trouble, too. Maybe an orphanage?

See, how am I to survive without a gang? They can provide for me, kind of.

The word ‘orphanage’ struck her again.

Her chest welled up. She probably was one by now, if she wasn’t already. It was why she had to flee, they were going to come for her next, and string her up. Isabella had given up hope on seeing her parents ever again, before any of this began. A harsh reality.

Isabella closed her eyes. There were no more tears to shed.

A lot to handle, more than she was reasonably capable of. But, it would have to come later. In eight hours, approximately. She’d deal, then. She would have to. Or she’d never survive.

For eight hours, she would rest. She needed it. To make the most of an unexpected, and shitty, situation.

The bus stopped.

Isabella half-opened her eyes.

That was fast.

She heard the other passengers. Whispers, questions. They weren’t in the know.

Meaning we’re not supposed to stop.

Other voices came into the mix. Outside, yelling, barking orders. Coming from her side of the bus. She checked the window.

She quickly ducked under her seat, cursing under her breath.

Lawrence.

He, and a small crew of his Ghosts, were circling around the bus. Tapping at the windows, tapping at the door. Searching, looking for something. Isabella could only think of one thing they’d want.

Me.

She cursed under her breath again. She made the call like Wendy asked, and told the operator on the other end everything the Ghosts were doing. The skirmishes for territorial expansion, the attempts to get their own slice of the drug trade, the screwed up initiation games for the newbies. And which studio apartment Lawrence was running the whole thing in. She told them everything. Everything she knew. And, through one way or another, Lawrence found out. Fuck.

From what she had seen from the window, she was barely out of the downtown area. Still in the city. Double fuck.

And she saw that the majority of the Ghosts had guns. Triple fuck.

Surrounded. Trapped. Isabella was the fish in this particular barrel. Even so, her mind still went to ways she could make it out of here. As alive as possible.

There was a restroom in the back, but they’d definitely check there, and that would make her a sitting duck, and another analogy. The emergency exit above also wouldn’t do, not with all the Ghosts still ‘haunting’ the area around the bus. The window beside her wouldn’t open, the most it could do was let a little air in. And there was still there issue of multiple hostiles outside. And their cars.

She was stuck here, through and through.

Quadruple fuck.

And with being stuck, it was better to be hidden than to escape and be instantly caught. Luck was all she had.

She stayed put.

If this was a setup by Wendy… she was gonna be pissed.

The yelling and knocking then ended, only because the door was opened.

Footsteps rushed in.

“Thank you, sir.” Isabella heard Lawrence thank someone, probably the driver. No brainer. If Isabella could convince the driver with some cash, there was nothing that said that Lawrence couldn’t.

Pudrete en el infierno.

She tried pressing herself closer to the floor, shimmying under the seats. Sticky, all around icky. Not a pleasant experience. And, while she was small, the space was smaller. Not much in the way of cover.

Isabella held her breath.

“What’s the meaning of this?” Finally, a passenger spoke up. Probably the old man.

“A not-so-routine inspection,” Lawrence responded, “But we won’t take too much of your time. We know you all have places you need to be, and you still have a long trip ahead of you. Ah, the door, please.”

The door closed, squeaking as it shut. Isabella cursed for a fifth time.

Lawrence continued with his orders. “Check every person, every row. Be thorough. We ain’t letting that bitch get away.”

She could hear them get to work, walking down the aisle and harassing the other passengers. Zippers were opened up, things dropping to the floor. Isabella wasn’t that small.

They’re taking advantage of those poor folk, all because of

“Yo!”

Isabella moved her head, shifting her gaze.

Someone also dropped to the floor, a row over. Facing Isabella. A leather jacket, light jeans, a choker. Short brown hair. Deep blue, almost indigo eyes, and something about them carried a feeling of mischief, not concerned in the slightest. Gringo.

The other girl her age.

She whispered, but excitedly, like she was sharing a secret she wasn’t supposed to, but telling someone was more fun.

“Mind if I steal from you? I’m lucky I made it here before he opened the door, or I woulda been a goner. Man, can’t go three steps without running into some trouble, am I right or am I right?”

Isabella blinked. Who…

The girl nodded fast. “Another good idea. We’ll communicate using nonverbal cues instead. Smart. Let’s do that.” She flashed a toothy grin, though a front tooth was missing.

Isabella blinked twice more.

The girl whispered again, already breaking her own rule. “Roger roger. Can’t be back here forever, since they’re about to find us. Mind if you follow my lead? I can take it from here. Oh, I wanna apologize now for the trouble. The Ghosts wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for me.”

… ¿Qué haces?

Isabella blinked one more time. For good measure.

Things just took a weird turn.

The Ghosts were after her? This girl? But that didn’t seem right at all.

What did she do?

The footsteps were nearing them, louder, sounding like a stampede. More than one person, more than just Lawrence. To Isabella, she was as good as caught, maybe even dead. This was very much it.

I shoulda taken the money and went back to Lawrence in the first place.

Isabella was about to curse for the sixth time, but she looked over to the girl hiding with her. The girl’s face hadn’t changed. Her toothy grin stayed.

She winked.

The girl then flipped onto her back. Isabella couldn’t see what she was doing, but she could hear it. A prolonged hiss.

It became louder, almost becoming something like a warning. The gang members noticed, asking about it.

Louder, then louder again.

It came to a crescendo.

“Now!”

The girl got out from her hiding spot. Isabella saw her feet. She was standing.

She jumped back.

Everything exploded.

One big bang, followed by crackling and popping. Also very loud. Screams, cries. Even Isabella shrieked. A bomb had definitely went off, and that girl was involved in a way.

Bomb. Girl. Loud. Ringing.

Pull.

Isabella was being pulled.

Forced onto her feet, moving towards where the blasts were coming from. Too disoriented to resist.

“Push them forward, not down!” the girl called out, making herself known. “Make it snappy.”

Isabella followed, but she didn’t follow. She lagged behind as the girl let her go and worked, pushing the Ghosts, backing them up. Few tried to fight back, but they were in the midst of the explosions, stunned, susceptible to being pushed around. They stumbled backwards, the girl moving them like cattle.

Only one other Ghost was unaffected.

“I’ll skin you for that!” Lawrence bellowed, though quieter from Isabella’s ears. “And for last time!”

“You need better hobbies, L-Boy!” the girl said back.

Lawrence started getting ready for his move. His counter.

“You’re up next!” the girl ordered, as she pressed on more bodies. “Get that last guy!”

Isabella woke right up. “I, I can’t do that! And he has a gun!” She hushed herself on that last word, as if she was trying not to remind Lawrence of the weapon in his hand.

“You’ll be fine!”

Is this girl freaking insane?

“Just go! I’ll back you up!” She sounded serious this time.

Reluctant, Isabella sprang to life.

She never considered herself to be agile, but she could move when the situation called for it. She could run. She hopped, pulling herself above the seats by the overhead bars. Putting her feet on the seats, she maneuvered over everyone.

“Get down! One more!”

The girl yelled.

Isabella dropped down, putting herself between the girl and the Ghosts, and Lawrence. He was a good three feet away.

She saw it fall in front of his face. Red cylinders, attached by a string, hissing. She’d played with those before, back in Mexico.

Firecrackers.

She didn’t see them go off.

It was loud, if not louder than before. But she was ready for it this time, she had turned and covered her ears. It crackled, popped.

Lawrence, however, wasn’t as prepared.

As soon as she was certain the firecrackers were done, she spun, then rushed to Lawrence. Isabella knew she wouldn’t be stronger than him, but the element of surprise was well in her favor.

Her shoulder rammed into his side. His ribs.

He cried out. More pain than she had expected. Sensitive? A previous injury?

As if severe burns weren’t sufficient.

Lawrence buckled, but Isabella held onto him so he wouldn’t fall. By the hair, she dragged him toward the front of the bus. He didn’t fight back.

They got to the front, and Isabella turned and kicked, and Lawrence tumbled down the steps. The top of his head hit the door.

Oh Dios mío that felt so good.

She looked at the driver, and he was drenched in sweat, bug-eyed. She wanted to hit him, too.

“Incoming!”

The girl joined Isabella, bringing the remaining Ghosts with her.

“Out of the chair, fatso!” the girl said.

Isabella took the initiative, putting her hands on the driver, pulling him up. Despite his heavy weight, he was out of his seat with ease.

“Move!”

The girl pushed past Isabella and grabbed the driver by the collar. She threw him down the same steps, atop a pile of sore bodies. The driver, the various Ghosts, then Lawrence.

Surprising strength.

We actually beat him…

“Nice!” The girl lifted a hand, and on instinct, Isabella gave her a high-five. “We’re on the same wavelength after all.”

“Ha, maybe.”

“But next comes the really really really fun part. Keep an eye on the Ghosts, and try to calm the other peeps.”

She fell into the driver’s seat, and started moving stuff around, like she knew what she was doing.

Isabella questioned her. “Exactly what-”

The bus sped off.

Isabella grabbed for a metal bar, preventing a fall. The other passengers jerked forward.

“What is she doing?” one of them asked. The woman, the mother. She tried standing, but the bus did a sharp left, then righting itself. The ride was bumpy.

“Just stay seated, everything is fine!” It wasn’t true, but it was the only thing Isabella had to say.

Things just took another, actual weird turn.

What is she doing?

Gripping the bar, holding on for dear life, Isabella shouted her question at the girl.

“What’s the deal?”

“I’m taking us out of here.”

“Do you even have a license?”

“I’m not old enough for one, you dummy.”

Some of the others in the bus caught that. They raised their voices, protesting.

“Stop the bus! Stop the bus!”

“Why is a little girl driving?”

“Jesus, please, someone else take the wheel!”

The bus swerved, harshly getting on another street.

“Pipe down!” the girl shouted. “I’m not taking us super duper far!”

“Then where?” Isabella asked. The whole bus was shaking from the speeds they were reaching.

The girl paused, eyes on the road. She took a right, and a deep breath.

“Hmm… oh, how about a little window shopping?”

“What-”

The bus veered again, but the girl didn’t correct the vehicle. Instead, it stopped very suddenly.

It crashed.

The opposite of slow motion. Everything happened so fast.

Glass crashing together. Metal and tires screeching. Deafening. A hard jolt, everything thrown forward. Violent. Too fast and too sudden to truly process. It just happened.

Isabella was standing when it just happened.

The abrupt stop made her ragdoll, and it was a rough fall to the floor, glass landing on and around her.

Blunt force and sharp stings. Pain of every variety, surpassing any known threshold. Inconceivable.

Isabella didn’t feel like moving. Couldn’t even twitch a muscle.

Couldn’t even question if she was still alive.

But it wasn’t her call to make.

“Dang, you’re still alive.”

Heard that voice before. Recently.

“People will be coming soon. Cops, more Ghosts. Can you stand?”

I can barely think.

“No go, huh? Here, I’ll help. I’d say we should take our time, but we can’t afford the luxury.”

Isabella felt hands on her, and she gasped. The stings. The pain. Intensified.

“Oof, okay. Looks like we’re gonna do this the hard way. Don’t hate me too much for this.”

The hands came upon her again, and grabbed. The pain reached newer and newer heights, and Isabella let herself block out what followed.

By blacking out.

Waking up was a long, nebulous process. She didn’t come to, not immediately. Instead, it was a long stretch of soft breathing, followed by the realization that she was indeed alive, and awake.

And with that realization finally becoming clear in her mind, Isabella opened her eyes.

Nowhere she knew. An old brick factory, somewhere. Was this still Stephenville? Streaks of dawn spilled through the cracks in the walls and ceilings. How long had it been?

Right. Lawrence. The bus crash. The girl. Help.

Even the stuff with Wendy. That felt like another lifetime. Was that all really the same night?

Oddly enough, it didn’t feel like this was the first time her brain had run this particular lap.

Isabella nearly did so herself, but her whole body seemed to scream in pain. Though, it was like a dull knife, now. Still hurt, but a bit of the edge had been taken off.

Standing was a great ordeal, but she had to do it. She was on her feet… after a minute.

No one. Nothing. Isabella was alone.

She checked her body. So very sore. Nothing broken, but scratches all over. It hurt. Small cuts across her arms and legs and face. And one really painful one on her forehead. From the way the skin was pulled, she could tell it was stitched up.

She was wearing a leather jacket, she didn’t have one before. Her shirt underneath, when she checked it, was more blood than white.

Oddly enough, she didn’t feel shocked about what she saw.

Lawrence. The bus crash. The girl. Wendy.

Piecing things together was hard, nearly impossible. She was worried that she was completely abandoned. It might have been quiet and calm in here, but she didn’t know what dangers might be lurking right outside, ready to screw her over once she stepped outside. She wasn’t sure what her first move should be.

Her stomach grumbled.

Maybe I should start with some food, first.

She started to leave, but she stepped on something. It was soft. Squishy. She stopped, and checked.

A teddy bear?

She picked it up, the pain coming back. She fought through it, because there was another thing there that caught her attention.

A note was attached, tied to the bear’s hand by a red string.

She undid the string, then opened up the note. She noticed how pretty the handwriting was.

Isabella read it.

To whatever your name is… sorry that I forgot to ask!

You can call me D, like Deep Throat, get it?

Isabella didn’t get it. Perhaps it was a reference of some kind.

She kept reading.

Anyways, sorry again for the whole bus thing, I was actually on my way out of the city to wait for things to cool down. I know I cause too much trouble for my own good okay, I just get bored sometimes!

So it was her fault that Lawrence came? Isabella still couldn’t believe it, her 9-1-1 call had to play a part, somehow.

Any-anyways, I crashed the bus into some clothing store to get the Ghosts off our trail. But nobody got hurt! Well, except you, Lawrence and those Ghosts, and the driver. I didn’t have time to check on the passengers so…

‘D’ drew a face. A sad face.

You were bleeding pretty badly, but thankfully there was nothing serious. I didn’t have time to bring my stuff, but I did my very best to patch you up. A cut on your forehead was the worst of it. And you were pretty responsive while I worked on you, so that’s good! Whew! Other than that, you’re all golden. Just don’t bathe with any lemons!

Isabella didn’t find that very funny. Everything stung.

So yeah, sorry about everything. I wanted to help you because you’re cute, and being a Ghost doesn’t fit you to be honest. You can keep the jacket as a gift, my way of making it up to you. Hope you dig it, it was originally Styx’s, if you know who that is.

She did. How did she get a jacket from him? Who was this anomaly?

And… cute? And she knew Isabella was a gang member?

Like Isabella needed another reason to think this girl was something else.

Well, the jacket’s not uncomfortable, Isabella thought. She’d might as well hold on to it.

Okay, now here’s the sucky part. I know this is going to sound bad, but I still need to lay low in another zip code for the time being, and I left all my stuff and money on the bus…

¿Qué?

Alrighty, this is goodbye! I don’t know if you’ll be staying in Wanderland, but I’ll definitely be back. If you’re ever in the area, come chase me down. Let’s play again sometime!

¿Qué? ¿Qué?

Love, D.’ She drew a smiley face.

Isabella immediately jammed her hands into her pockets, dropping the bear. Front pockets, then back pockets. Nothing. Empty. Nada.

That bitch…

She robbed me.

Isabella swore for the sixth and seventh time.

Quintuple fuck.

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