Eddie continued to plead with the men, perhaps to keep them stalled. It worked out for me, since I was still trying to prepare myself.
“Qué haces? Leave her out of this!”
“She’s been a bitch to my boys, too. Leading us on, Jordan’s hand got broken because of her, from what I’ve heard. So yeah, I don’t think I’ll be leaving her out of anything.”
There was so much I didn’t know, so much I had to deal with, right now. Why were these guys here? What were they trying to get out of Eddie? Why did Maria need to be involved with this?
I held the mask in my hands.
This mask, I had found it at a store selling party goods. To be more specific, Maria found it, and showed it to me, telling me how creepy it looked. It was.
It was blank. A white face, holes for the eyes. A simple, plastic mask meant for a costume party, not to legitimately conceal my identity. The way it seemed to look back at me was unsettling, in an uncanny valley sort of sense. I ended up getting it, mostly because I thought I could use for Halloween this year.
Not today, not now.
I put it on.
My breaths were hot and heavy. Loud, too, since there was no hole for the mouth, just indentations where my lips could fit in to. My breathing filled my ears, and I was worried someone could hear me. I tried to calm myself, slow down, but it didn’t really work.
“Maria, how about you get to the car?” Eddie asked, his voice shaking as much as I was.
“Hell no, I ain’t letting these shitheads fuck with me, or you. Not anymore.”
I silently admonished her. What? Maria, now is not the time to be tough!
Eddie spoke for the both of us. “Maria, please!”
“Or you can come with us,” another one of the men said, “You’re gettin’ a ride either way.”
I took a peek out through the window, looking as Maria stomped her foot and crossed her arms. I knew she was stubborn, but this was a whole new level.
I thought back to what Katy said. Idiot.
I sifted through my sports bag some more. I put on my old blue windbreaker, and put the hood up. Next was a pair of grey joggers, which I put over the shorts I was already wearing.
What was left in the bag were the things that were supposed to be in there. My uniform and towels.
The tension in the air, I could cut through it like butter. Things were about to escalate in a way that benefited no present parties, actually present or otherwise. I adjusted my mask, stroking the flimsy string that wrapped around my head.
The man Eddie referred to as ‘Lawrence’ laughed. But there was nothing funny about this. “Guess that’s how you wanna do it.” He started advancing towards them.
What do I do? I was all dressed up, but I had no plan of action. I was here, but now what?
Without realizing it, I put my hands on the car.
I nearly shrieked in surprise at the sudden car alarm.
A few of from that gang did yell, and Eddie, too. “Maria, run!”
I took that as my cue, as well.
I dashed out of my hiding spot, leaving everything else behind.
Move fast, catch them off guard. The car alarm was still going off, so all eyes were on me as I moved.
Five people, excluding Eddie and Maria. Maria finally got around to doing the sensible thing, and was running away. Three of them were already reaching for their waistbands. If that meant that they had weapons, I couldn’t give them that chance. I went for them first.
Animals. I had try and think of these guys as animals. Like rabbits. They were going to hurt Maria.
Oh, and Eddie, too.
But, I couldn’t just go all out. I didn’t even want to know what ‘all out’ meant for someone like me. I had to also be careful.
The middle ground was something I’d have to discover on my own.
I ran up to the closest guy, a man in an oversized shirt. I placed my hand on his chest, and pushed him back. He stumbled, and ditched his effort in getting a weapon. I continued his momentum with a kick to the groin. He groaned and fell, hard.
The second man already whipped out a knife. I felt my blood quicken even more.
He struck first, thrusting at me with a jab. But I had time to process his movements, and I had the chance to grab at his wrist with my free hand.
With my other hand, I-
“Agh!” I shouted.
I was pulled back, enough to let go of the man I was engaged with. My arms were restricted, and something pressed against my lower back. I couldn’t move.
Fuck, shit, fuck!
The guy in the red polo, Lawrence, stood right in front of me. With a gun pointed to my face.
“Who in the fuck are you?” He had to bellowed over the car alarm, spit flying out of his mouth.
I didn’t bother to answer. I squinted as I stared him down. Though I was curious if he could see that through my mask.
“I thought I asked you something!”
Again, I didn’t answer.
It was me, Lawrence, and the three men who held me in place. One man on each side, seizing an arm, and another behind me, the metallic clicking confirming to me that it was indeed a gun.
Because of course it’s another fucking gun.
Eddie stood not too far from Lawrence. Maria was well away from the scene. At least I had that going for me.
The only other concession made on my side was that I had taken out at least one guy. He was writhing on the ground, hands on his crotch.
My body was being yanked between fight or flight, but the gun pressed against my back kept me glued to the spot. Coursing with adrenaline, my energy instead went to my thoughts, the incessant car alarm simulating what was going on in my head. What could I do, what could I say, that could get me out of this? Right now, all I had was a disappointing nothing. And just because I had good healing, that didn’t mean I was willing to risk a bullet searing through my insides before I did heal. Until a viable, bright idea would miraculously descend upon me, I stood still.
I wanted to kick myself until I broke my leg, healed, and do it again. I should’ve brought my knife.
Lawrence interrupted my mental sprint. “Don’t wanna talk? Don’t make me skin you.”
I was in Lawrence’s – and his gun’s – sights, and me keeping quiet wasn’t easing him up any. He looked to the guy to my right, who had a hold of my right arm, and said something in Spanish. My B-minus wasn’t enough to know exactly what he said, but I heard the word máscara, and I doubted he was talking about taking the time to dolly themselves up right now.
The man beside me grunted in response, and took one hand off my arm. I knew he was about to reach for my mask.
This really was not going my way.
“Wait!” I shouted, my voice carrying over the car alarm.
The guy going for my face stopped, or must have, since my mask wasn’t removed yet, after some time. Lawrence faced me again, and straightened out his arm to me, holding his gun.
“The hell you want?”
I did my best to speaking calmly, hoping my mask would muffle the shakiness in my voice. “I just wanted to say, probably not a good idea to shoot that gun.” The silent, tough act wasn’t doing me any favors, so I tried something different.
I scoffed, even though I was in no position to do so. “Are you an idiot? We’re standing in the middle of a parking garage, filled with cars, and a car alarm that won’t shut up. And you’re about fire a gun? It’s like you’re asking to get caught, literally red-handed.”
“Yeah? I think my finger and our feet are fast enough. Like right-”
“Whoa whoa, wait! Wait!” My knees went weak, but the two men’s grip on me was firm. I didn’t fall. Couldn’t.
Lawrence sounded a step past irritated. “What?”
“You’re holding your gun funny. Arm’s too straight. You’ll hurt yourself with the recoil.”
“You an instructor? You came here to lecture me on gun safety?” He was sneering, but he fixed his arm as he talked.
Don’t let him get back on task of shooting me. Keep talking.
But what could I say? Jokes? Stuff like that didn’t come to me naturally, and that would probably get me killed even faster. No jokes.
Doesn’t even have to make sense. Say something!
I thought back to the conversation earlier, when Lawrence interrupted Maria and Eddie, picking out any details I could recall.
“The boss. He, he sent me. Just in case.”
Lawrence tilted his head. “In case of what?”
“In case you fucked up, which you clearly are right now, since I had to come onto the scene.”
“Nice try. What’s the boss’s name?”
“He’s gonna be pretty mad when he hears about this. You can’t just do a simple thing? An easy task? A straightforward chore?”
“You didn’t answer the question!”
I don’t need to make sense, I just need to waste your time.
“So, yeah. Can you tell your boys to get off me? I don’t need this, the bossman’s gonna be pissed. Eddie, you told them, right? That I’m here to help you out.”
Eddie made a face and mouthed a word. ‘What?’
Lawrence laughed. Too hard and too sudden to be genuine. Almost immediately, he stopped and spoke, too quickly for me to get another word in. “You know what? Fuck it, it’s too obvious you lying. I’m done with you now, bitch.”
My whole body tensed, probably popping a vein in the process. “Hold-”
A scream, loud and over the blaring car alarm. Eddie crouched, and lunged into Lawrence’s hip, knocking him over before he had a chance to react.
This was the best chance I was ever going to get.
With all my strength, I swung my right arm forward, throwing off the guy holding me. I underestimated my strength, since he let go and was flung away. I thought he’d crash into Lawrence and Eddie, but they were rolling on the ground, fighting over the gun. He flew through the windshield of a car instead, and another car alarm went off. The lopsided rhythm and the differing pitches only made things more hectic.
I wasted no time on the guy constricting my left arm, doubly so, since I still had a gun behind me to deal with. Moving my hand so I had a hold on his arm, I spun around. If he was the hour hand of a clock, he’d have moved from the nine position to the six position, clockwise. He slammed into the man behind me, knocking his gun away. I effectively moved fast enough to catch them both off guard. They slid a distance away, grunting in pain when they stopped. I hoped that was enough to keep them down. To be safe, I went and kicked the gun, sliding it under a car farther down the parking garage.
Lawrence and Eddie were still going at it, but Lawrence was getting the upper hand. He was on top, wrestling the gun out of Eddie’s hands. One good yank might have been enough to turn the favor to Lawrence, and I knew I wasn’t the only one who didn’t want that.
They weren’t too far, but I broke into a run. I headed for Lawrence, and prepared to kick, like running to kick a soccer ball. I hit him in the ribs. I felt something give way to my foot, then snapping. He howled in pain, and crumpled over to his side. That should be enough for him.
If they were moaning and groaning over their injuries, the two car alarms were too loud for me to hear them. None of them looked like they were in any position to be a threat again, so it seemed like I was in the clear. I fixed the string that held my mask in place, and adjusted my hood.
As I was doing that, Eddie was getting to his feet, taking apart Lawrence’s gun and tossing the pieces away. He was taking deep breaths, like a huge weight was finally taken off his chest, and he wanted to test his breathing.
I could sympathize. That was too close of a call, and my head was pounding from the adrenaline.
I really wanted to let this go, be done with this situation. But I couldn’t walk away, I wasn’t done here, yet.
I looked at Eddie. This was the guy who put Maria in this position. And for some reason, at the risk of her own life, she was willing to stand up for him. This guy. I couldn’t see why.
Noticing me, he started to say something to me, but between my pounding head and the two alarms, it just looked like he was mouthing to me again. If he wanted to talk, I’d have to move us to a better spot. The alarms might attract others, too.
Using too much force than I intended, I grabbed Eddie by the collar. He started to scream, struggle, but one easy lift off of his feet was enough to make him comply. With my hands still on him, I moved us to the side of the parking garage.
We were high up enough that I could see the roof of a building across an alley. It wasn’t that low a drop, but from my vantage point, it still looked terrifying. By myself, I was confident I could make that gap. Carrying another, though…
I propped a foot on the short wall that normally separated cars and a bad fall. I took a hand off of Eddie, just one, and pointed a finger at him.
“Wanna live?” I asked, “Hold tight.”
Eddie went from confusion, to sheer terror, to thrashing to get away from me. All in the span of a few seconds. But I proved to be too strong, and he couldn’t escape. To secure him better, I wrapped an arm around his torso, and twisted the fabric where I had him by the collar. In that time, Eddie probably had an opportunity to get out of my grasp and run away, but the implicit threat that came come standing so close to the edge made him compliant.
I leapt out of the building, with Eddie by my side.
A one-second drop at most, but Eddie wailing did not let up the entire time, blasting my ear with a deafening cry. On top of the wind rushing past, it was definitely loud.
Carrying Eddie came with the disadvantage of not being properly balanced when I landed. I hit the roof funny, Eddie weight forced me down, and I fell on top of him. I rolled off of him as soon as I realized where I was.
He was on his back, coughing, not trying to get on his own two feet. I had no issues on that front, but getting here wasn’t as hard on me as it was on him. To be fair.
I grabbed him yet again, and picked him right back up. I ignored his cries of protest, his yelling in Spanish.
“Ah! Aaaah!” he kept going.
Man, you will not shut up.
“Yo! Heh-low-oh?” I sang, drawing out the word.
“What are you doing?!”
“No, it’s more like what you’ll do for me. You’re going to tell me the backstory for everything that just happened, now.”
“Fuck, no, I mean, what the fuck are you doing?”
I brought him closer, slightly. “I don’t follow.”
“That’s it? You just want information? Even if you weren’t holding me like this, I’m still stuck on a roof with you! You have complete control of the situation! There, there’s no need to threaten me like this!”
Behind my mask, I looked like I just got slapped in the face. I felt dumb.
“Oh,” I muttered.
I let him go. He immediately collapsed onto his knees, heaving for air.
Why did I keep defaulting to some kind of tough guy act? It wasn’t doing me any favors. This thin, plastic mask was making me scary.
I stood over him, watching as he composed himself. He didn’t stand this time, though, he only sat, his head in his hands.
I gave him another minute to settle.
He spoke up, weakly. “I took a chance on you, because you said something about helping me out. But, shit. Did the boss really send you?”
“You should know by now that nothing I said back there was true. I was only trying to buy some time. You actually helped me out.”
Though I hate to say it.
He gave me a look. Bewildered? Like everything that just happened as finally settling in. “I guess, one some level, I thought so. But, who are you? What the hell are you? I’ve seen some crazy shit, but not that, people don’t move like that. What’s your deal?”
I still really don’t know. “Don’t worry about that,” I said.
“And what’s with the mask? You a superhero? An actual superhero with actual superpowers?”
Superhero? Superpowers? That was one way to look at it, maybe. And, while that was how I got this idea, I didn’t feel like a hero, and calling these new changes to my body as superpowers was sugarcoating it somehow. It didn’t sit well with me.
“Uh, I’m no superhero. I just happened to swing by.”
“Why’d you intervene, then?”
“Wait a second, wasn’t I supposed to be the one asking the questions? We’re getting off topic.”
Eddie put his head down, almost defeated.
“Alright, I told you enough. Now it’s my turn. That little conversation you just had with, Lawrence, was it? Give me the details.”
Eddie sighed. “Sorry to ask another question, but why?”
I ignored his inability to follow simple directions, and instead thought about Maria. “Let’s just say I’m tired of innocent people getting caught up in stuff that they don’t need to be caught up in.”
“Huh, in a weird way, you’re kinder than I thought.”
I don’t mean you, asshole.
But all I said was a tough, “We’re off topic. Again.”
He nodded while massaging his head, like he was rubbing a magic eight ball for answers. “Okay, um, what do you want?”
I started simple. “Who’s that Lawrence guy? Why was he coming after you?”
He ran his fingers through his hair. “Lawrence is part of El Carruaje. The right hand man of the boss, or at least he wants to be.”
“And you’re a member, too, aren’t you?”
He looked up, at me. Right in the eyes. “Yeah, but that’s the thing. I’m trying to get out.”
I didn’t expect him to say that.
“But as you saw, ain’t that easy. El Carruaje isn’t one of the bigger gangs in the city, but lately, they’ve been working to remedy that, and start performing operations deeper in the Eye. I wasn’t about to take part in that… expansion. It’s not why I joined.”
“Then why did you join?” I questioned him.
Eddie touched his chin, and looked away. “I was new to the area when I joined. It’s one of those situations where you have to know someone in order to survive. They were my ‘someone.’ It was also easy money, but that’s another story.”
I hated to ask, but I had to know. “And the girl? Is she also part of the gang?”
“My girlfriend? Like, yeah.”
My stomach dropped. Eddie really was Maria’s boyfriend, and she really was a member of a cartel.
“Why did she join? Did she tell you?”
He gave his answer some thought. More than I expected him to. “No, she hadn’t told me. We met through another, um, co-worker.”
Typical. Thanks, Maria. I had to move to another question take my mind off those confirmations for now.
“And you want to leave? But you can’t, because that would be some form of betrayal?”
“Pretty much. And with what the boss has been planning, and with how small we are, it’s an all hands on deck type of thing. I think, I know they know about my doubts, and they’re trying to beat the loyalty back into me.”
“And that just makes you want to leave even more?”
Eddie didn’t say anything, but it wasn’t difficult to gather what his answer would be.
After a little while, he uttered, under his breath, “I don’t know the exact details, but the boss is planning something. Something big. Whatever that means, I just know I can’t have Maria be in that sort of danger, I just can’t.”
Something big. I didn’t like the sound of that.
I looked at the man. Maybe man wasn’t the right word, he only looked to be a few years older than me. Disheveled, tired, but most of all, genuine. He seemed to mean what he said, that he wanted to leave. There was a hint of hope, there.
I asked my last question. “Is this girlfriend of yours, Maria, is she willing to leave with you?”
“I think so, yes.”
“Hmph,” I grunted. I straightened myself, then walked closer to Eddie. He stiffened.
“Do you have a plan? About how you’re going to ditch that gang?”
Eddie shifted where he sat. “Not really, no.”
“Then, I’ll help.”
He snapped his head back up, staring right at me, mouth agape. “What?”
“I said that I’d help you out, didn’t I?” I said. “I don’t have much of a plan either,” I clarified, “But I want to help you two leave that shit behind. If you’re serious about this, that is.”
“I am,” he said, serious, calm.
“Good,” I replied. I hastily asked another question. “Do you have an email? Any way I can contact you without having to meet in person?”
“Yeah, sure.” He told me the proper information, and I committed it to memory.
It certainly didn’t escape me, how much I was interfering with Maria’s life without her knowing, but there had to be some justification, here. Maria’s life was threatened, on multiple occasions, within days of each other. This couldn’t continue. Even if this, too, was dangerous, the alternative would be even more so.
This was for Maria.
But, this guy here? I still couldn’t shake off my anger at him, for attracting this type of risk towards Maria. Hell, I was starting to get mad at Maria, too, for even being a part of this at all. But she wasn’t here right now. Now that I thought about it, I didn’t know where she ran off to.
I turned, my back to him, and walked to the edge of the roof, facing the parking garage. Was it just in my head, or were the car alarms still going off? No, it was definitely both.
“Where are you going?” Eddie questioned me.
“Have to go back. That girl is still up there, and there are still five assholes there, too. Down for the count, sure, but they’re still around. I’ll go check on the girl, make sure she’s alright, and I’ll keep an eye on her until you get back. Then you go and take her somewhere safe, wherever that means to you. I’ll contact you later.”
And my bags are still up there, I thought, I hope nobody came across it.
Eddie didn’t say anything in response.
“Hurry,” I said. “I’m sure you can find your way down from the roof.”
“You’re leaving me here? Just like this?”
There was an irritation within me, poking at me every time he spoke. I couldn’t explain why, and I knew that it was completely irrational, but I felt it, despite myself. A feeling like I wanted to get back at him for something. Like he wronged me, personally.
“You weren’t a fan of dropping down here, right? You can find your own way down.”
“And what if I can’t?”
“Your problem, not mine.”
Eddie grunted, and if my back wasn’t to him, I would’ve imagined him flipping me off.
My body tensed, getting ready. “Just hurry before anyone else comes.”
“Dammit, stop, one last thing!” Eddie hurriedly slurred, stopping me before I could jump. “We should use some kind of code word, so that I know that it’s you when you contact me.”
“Wouldn’t me contacting you be enough?”
“Let’s not take any chances. Give me something. Like, for example, a name. Yeah, what in the world do I even call you?”
A name? I didn’t think that far ahead, and now I was put on the spot. I just thought of the first thing that came to me. I thought of my mask.
“Blank… Face…” I answered, with a lack of certainty, before leaping back up to the fifth floor with a hard push of my legs.