“Don’t touch that!” Katy smacked Maria’s hand before she could move a piece. Maria pulled back, and massaged the back of her hand.
“Damn, it’s just a chess piece.”
“I said don’t touch that.”
My eyes moved back to my magazine. I flipped through some pages without reading it.
Thomas and Kristin wanted us together when the forty-eight hours were up. I couldn’t think of a more mindless way to pass the time.
But what choice did I have? Sneaking out and gathering more intel would be impossible, my mom would want to keep an eye on me all night.
At the very least, I could keep tabs on everyone that was close to me. My mom, Maria, the Thompsons. They wouldn’t slip from my grasp. Solace wouldn’t get to them.
Despite the certainty, there was still a palpable tension, an anticipation, that wouldn’t go away. Not until this was resolved, if that was even possible.
I tried not thinking about it. Tried.
Because we only had about an hour left.
“Can’t you listen for once in your life? Step away from the board.”
Uh-oh. Katy was pissed.
“Holy shit, I’m just sitting here.”
“You’re near it, and you’re driving me up the wall because of it. Just, here. Come here.”
I heard a shuffling. I closed the magazine, and tossed it beside me, on Katy’s bed. I watched Katy forcefully move Maria away from a coffee table in the middle of the her room. A chessboard placed on top.
That chessboard had always been something of an oddity. Some pieces were missing, for one, and the pieces that were on the board were placed on seemingly random squares. A white queen had no business being near a black pawn, especially since the rest of the white pieces were placed properly. The white king was nowhere to be found, and the only the black king remained of the black pieces, backed into a corner. Nothing about it was right.
But that wasn’t exactly why the chessboard was so odd to me. It was because I couldn’t count on one hand how many times I’d seen that chessboard set up properly, because that never once was the case. I couldn’t even lift a finger.
Every time I came over, the board was set up differently. Previously missing pieces returned, then others were gone, placed randomly across the board.
“God, ow, let go.” Maria winced under Katy’s hard grip.
“It’s better if you don’t ask,” I said. “She’ll never tell you. She’s anal about that for whatever reason.”
“You don’t say.”
The pair only stopped when Katy moved Maria far enough from the chessboard, far enough so that Katy could be comfortable. Her room was large enough to warrant walking for a time with no interruptions. Almost as big as my room.
“Here, you sit by my bed and you stay,” Katy ordered.
“Am I a dog, now? Am I going to be sharing my meals with Annie?”
“It means you’re going to be staying outside if you don’t get your act together. My room, my rules.”
Maria breathed out loud, then folded her arms, but she sat. The added tension didn’t last long, though, Maria picked up the magazine I had put down, and flipped through it herself.
For a short while, we kept to ourselves. Katy sat at her computer, Maria with her magazine, and I responded to the few texts I received in the past thirty minutes. Nothing important, but it helped in taking my mind off things, if only for a little bit. I had gotten used to having to tap multiple times to get different letters and characters, and I was almost as fast as being on a regular smartphone. If just for myself, I’d chalk it up as something to be proud of.
Three girls, lounging around in pajamas, relaxing the night away. The scene would have been comfy, if it weren’t for the waiting, waiting for whether the news we’d be getting was good… or terrible.
I wondered how the others were managing. The others at the dinner party. Were they pretending like everything was fine, or were they afraid?
I couldn’t recall the last time I prayed for another person, and meant it, but I set my phone down, and lied down on the bed. I clasped my hands together, interlocking my fingers, and rested them on my stomach. I stared at the familiar ceiling.
I prayed. I prayed, hard.
“Let’s do something,” Maria said.
Katy didn’t respond. Neither did I.
“Hey, I’m bored,” Maria said.
“It’s hard to want to entertain ourselves under this kind of stress,” I said, still looking up.
“But we shouldn’t just sit here and do nothing. At least I shouldn’t. I’ll end up dying from waiting.”
“Quit it,” Katy said. I heard the clicking and clacking of a mouse and keyboard. “I don’t want to hear anything like that.”
“Fine, fine, but my point remains, I’m bored.”
I sat up, legs crossed, and Katy clicked one more time before turning.
“Did you have anything in mind?” Katy asked.
With all seriousness, Maria answered.
“I am so done with you.”
Katy went back to her computer. I snorted, trying to contain my laughter.
“I’m kidding, kidding! God, you people can’t take a joke.”
“I need worthier jokes,” Katy said. “Step your game up if you want to entertain me.”
Maria scoffed, flipping the bird to the back of Katy’s head.
In her own little way, Maria was trying to make us feel better. And in a strange way, it was working.
Katy typed out a string of characters, ending with loud slap of a key. Guessing from the rhythm and sound, she was typing out a web address.
She spun in her chair, her elbow resting on her desk, her fingers pushing her hair up.
“What do you guys think?”
“About what?” I asked.
“Do you think Solace is really going to make good on their threat, tonight?”
“I see how it is,” Maria said. “When I mention it, I get berated, but it’s fine if you bring it up.”
“You were making light of things, I’m being real here.”
“You are so-”
“Cool it, ladies,” I said. Had to break them up somewhere, or someone would end up saying something they’d regret, and no one needed that one their plate. “Now’s not the time to be getting into it.”
Katy sank more into her chair, and Maria climbed up into the bed next to me. The waiting was taking its toll on them, I knew, and things were about to either end in sweet relief, or continue to tumble down.
I knew, because I was feeling the exact same way.
It was only a matter of minutes.
“I want to ask again, if I may?” Katy asked, looking to Maria, as if her permission was necessary.
Maria cut through her question, going right into answering it, instead. “I shouldn’t have a reason to think that Solace will. You know what your dad said, there was no evidence of any guest list being leaked out, and everyone who is on the list has to report to a nearby cop, every hour on the hour, until this thing is over, and so far nothing’s happened. We even have cops sitting outside the house right now.”
“Nothing’s happened because there’s still some time left. And there were over two hundred people at the party, not including staff. That’s a lot of variables, and with the police force as spread as thin as it is, there are no guarantees.”
“Katy, everyone’s still present and accounted for, trying to get at someone now would be asking for failure. And it’ll be the same in like… forty-eight minutes.”
Katy didn’t move a muscle. She wasn’t being convinced by Maria’s attempts to soothe her worries.
I chimed in.
“I totally get how you’re feeling, Katy,” I said, “But you’re just going to have to put some faith in your dad and the police, they’re doing the best they can, under the circumstances.”
And so am I.
“And remember what he said the day before yesterday? Giving us forty-eight hours turned out to be a big help, and we had the time to plan, to be prepared. The likelihood of something happening has significantly decreased. It has to.”
Katy’s face was scrunched up.
“Uh, you know what I mean.”
She clicked her tongue, twirling her hair. “You’re right, everyone’s working their ass off. I’m just running in circles by this point. It just sucks, being completely helpless. As if there was anything I could even do.”
“Yeah, just leave it to the big boys,” Maria said. “They got this.”
Katy raised her chin by a fraction.
They better. I shared that sentiment.
I sympathized with Katy, or maybe I even empathized with her, too. The stress of the past two days, dealing with pressures at school, and then this. Feeling helpless, unable to do anything, at this hour. Even with what I had discovered last night, not a lot of progress was made with that revelation.
Solace was Benny.
She had to be.
It was her message I found at that apartment, it was her old territory that the apartment was in. That had to be a message for me. It had to be her, or she had to be involved with Solace in some way. It made less sense if she wasn’t. The question left, then, was how.
I relayed my findings to Thomas as soon as I could, but I hadn’t had a chance to get back with him to see what had been done, or what the new game plan should be in general. Despite having to spend the night under his roof for the second night in a row, I couldn’t get a hold of him for a detailed discussion. I might be able to sneak one in later tonight, once everyone was asleep. I was certain that he wanted to talk with me, too.
If there was a way to ask Maria about Benny, without outing myself…
No news was not good news, in this case. The police might be able to prevent a death tonight, but Solace was still out there, and the threat extended until I revealed myself as The Bluemoon, or until we put a stop to it. Tomorrow, and the next day, were as crucial as this moment.
No, more crucial.
“Agh.” Maria made an odd noise, before putting her head on my lap. She coughed, thoughtfully covering her mouth.
“Looks like The Bluemoon’s not going to take off its mask,” Maria said.
I winced, turning away.
“How selfish. If it’s trying so hard to be a hero, wouldn’t giving in save more lives?”
The thought made me bite my tongue.
That was one way of saving everyone, but it’d be my last. I still wanted, needed, to prove myself as a superhero, and giving up would be shooting myself and everyone I care for in the foot. Besides, I’d be letting Thomas down.
We’d been over this already.
“The Bluemoon could be working on their own plot to find and catch Solace,” I said, “Independent of the police or proper authorities.”
“Pfft, good luck then, because we’re all gonna need it.”
I knew this was her being sour, biting, but it still left me with a bad taste in my mouth. It reminded me that luck probably had a big part to play in this, and having to leave something this big to chance was scary. Really scary. As if I needed any more reminders.
News flash. I didn’t.
Katy returned to her computer. She put on a song, a hazy, atmospheric hip-hop track. It played in the background.
Nothing to do except sit here and wait. And the wait was killing me. Us.
Maria moved her head, and I felt her hair brush against my leg. She looked right up at me.
“You’ve really gotten super skinny.”
A chill ran through me. Deep. Cold.
We’re not getting into that now, are we?
“About that,” Katy whipped back around, and the song was paused, and time seemed to pause with it.
“Let’s talk about that for a little.”
“I’m game,” Maria said. She sat upright, and stared at me intently. “Sorry, Lexi, but you don’t get a say.”
Blindsided. Should have seen this coming. Should have been more careful.
Alarms were ringing in my head. Red. I was on alert.
“This doesn’t seem like a good time…” I started, doing all I could to come up with a way out of this, a way to move to another topic.
“It’s a great time for it actually,” Katy said. She held her hands up, a placating gestures, like she didn’t mean any harm. “There’s not a lot I want out of you, not right now. Think of this as a mini-pseudo-intervention. Some planning, but I think it’s good if we can get into this now, if only for a small exchange.”
The look in her eyes, she wouldn’t be so easily swayed this time around. She wanted a talk, and Maria was going to be her backup.
There’s no running away from this, is there?
And as if a switch was flipped inside me, an odd sort of peace swelled within me. Like a train, or a truck, was about to hit me, and all I could do was accept it.
I gave Katy a look of my own. Tranquil. A certain ease.
The biggest lie I ever gave to my best friend.
That was how I saw it.
“What is it you want from me?” I asked.
She watched my expression change. Briefly, Katy struggled with her words, almost flummoxed.
“One, one question. All I ask of you, for now, is to answer one question.”
“I can manage that,” I said, knowing that it was very possible that I might not manage that. But the façade remained.
Katy cleared her throat.
“Have you been eating? Like, at all?”
Technically, you just asked two questions, but okay.
That was a question on everyone’s minds, I knew, and I couldn’t leave it unaddressed forever. I knew they wouldn’t. To pretend like I’d never be called out on it would be foolish. Especially since I already had, but I couldn’t worm my way out of this one.
And I wasn’t exactly planning to. Not this time.
As calmly as I did before, I gave Katy an answer.
Katy shifted her gaze. She didn’t look satisfied. Maria wasn’t exactly pleased, either.
I sighed, trying not to shiver.
“Look, I know you guys have been concerned for me, and you have every right to be so, because… because things haven’t been really good for me, lately. I’ve been dealing with a lot of shit that I’ll still not comfortable talking about. And that’s not including all of this stuff with Solace. It’s… overwhelming, and I know it’s selfish of me to say that since everyone’s going through their own stuff, they have their own problems…”
I trailed off. I was losing focus on what I meant to say.
I tried one more time.
“I feel like my head’s going to be a lot… clearer, once Solace is no longer a thing that’s in our lives. I’ll feel better, then. So, once that happens… I’ll tell you everything. I promise.”
I looked into Maria’s eyes, then Katy’s, as though I meant every word I said.
My heart kept pounding.
Katy nodded, saying, “I’ll hold you to that.”
“Me too,” Maria said.
With some relief, I replied, “Good.”
We sat in silence.
There was a knock on Katy’s door. It opened.
It was my mom.
“Everyone come down. It is almost time.”
We all nodded, then we moved as a group. Downstairs.
I was in the back, feeling like I just did ten-mile sprint.
I had no intention of telling them the truth. But, just for a while, I bought myself some time. Time to think, plan, and sell Katy and Maria different story. A believable one. Until then, they wouldn’t bother me about it, they wouldn’t push. They’d back off, leaving me to handle Solace. With Hleuco.
Maybe I’d change my mind once all was settled with Solace, but…
We’ll see when I get there.
At a bare minimum, my friends deserved something.
We went to the living room, Thomas and Kristin were standing in front of the TV, watching closely to a news broadcast. The broadcast had the courtesy of having a graphic of a giant timer play out behind the newscaster.
“Almost here,” Thomas said, his eyes not breaking away from the screen. He looked restless, but he also looked like he needed a full week’s rest. His dark eyebags were just one testament to that. Worse for wear, on all fronts. He still had on his suit, loose and hanging off his body.
The countdown continued.
There was only a minute left.
“… and with no appearance of The Bluemoon, will the terrorist known as Solace strike once the timer concludes? The whole city is watching with bated breath.”
The seconds were ticking down. Everyone was stiff. Thomas held his wife’s hand, tight. Katy was by his side. I was with my mom, her arm over my shoulder.
Maria was by herself. I pulled her in to bring her closer.
This was it. The moment of truth.
I almost wasn’t ready.
But time waits for no man.
Zero. The timer behind the newscaster went to zero.
And there was nothing.
None of us moved.
“And it seems that we are now five minutes past, and nothing has occurred, which is of course a good thing,” the reporter said. “We are now waiting on reports from SPD about the current situation.”
“Ah hell yeah!”
We all immediately relaxed. Katy hugged her parents, and my mom patted my shoulder.
We did it, we actually did it.
Everything fell into place, and it worked.
I almost forgot that we still had to catch Solace, I was so relieved.
I looked to Thomas, and he was already looking at me. We shared a smile. We had this. This.
Let’s enjoy this moment, this victory. Tomorrow, we can–
“We’ve just received a report from police that judge Edgar Brown is not accounted for and is likely to be considered missing. The report comes-”
“Damn!” Thomas hissed the word. He slammed a fist at the sofa. The trepidation and fear came back, except multiplied, greater.
I watched, deeply hoping that this was a grand prank, and we were being played the entire time. I’d settle for total humiliation than the alternative, which was a death of a human being.
Please, let this be a prank.
We were back to watching the TV, unable to look away.
“Now we’re hearing that local stations are receiving-”
The picture cut.
It was replaced with static, and a single word, in an old-style font.
“Good evening, to the so-called hero known as The Bluemoon.”
The voice was distorted.
“The forty-eight hours I allotted you have now run out, and you have failed to reveal yourself and remove your mask. And now, others will pay the price, all due to your choice.”
The sound was filtered with high and low pitches, and I couldn’t discern the gender. It grated, since that could have been the real Solace speaking, but I couldn’t get anything out of it, couldn’t make it out. So close, so far.
“And one, already, has paid that price. Edgar Brown was a father to three, a devoted husband for fifteen years, a man of good virtue. Of course, he was also a pillar of this corrupt city, one of the very few left. Now, a few good men must mourn the loss of a great one.”
I was breathless.
“But that matters not to you, does it, hero? You believe yourself to be above the law, attacking downtrodden, troubled citizens, and forcing your twisted brand of justice unto others. Edgar Brown’s death must be something of a convenience, isn’t it? As the pillars fall, something new can be built to replace them. Something of your own sick design.”
I had to force myself, to remind myself, to breathe.
“If so, I propose a change. Come this time tomorrow, if you have not complied, I will kill two people, then three the following day, and so forth. Perhaps this is enough to spur a change of heart within you?”
My fingernails dug into the inside of my palms. My jaws clenched together, grinding. A leap past furious.
I took a glance at Thomas. He was still, not doing much of anything.
“I’m looking forward to seeing you tomorrow. Until then…”
The screen cut back to the news. The newscaster was sitting there, confused as the rest of us, but we weren’t paying attention, anymore.
“You have got to be kidding me!” Maria’s voice neared a shriek at the end. Kristin was massaging her forehead, and Katy had to take a seat. My mom followed, sitting elsewhere.
More knocks. At the front door, this time, and more like bangs. Thomas went to get it.
Everyone else was busy coping. I needed to talk to Thomas. Still needed to, and even more, now.
I followed him to the door.
He opened it.
“Jeffery,” he said.
One of the officers who was assigned to watch over the house.
“Gomez wants to see you. It’s important, obviously.”
Thomas took a look back, and noticed me. He looked lost at what to do.
I didn’t move. Or I couldn’t?
He went back to Jeffery.
“My family… Gomez needs me now?”
“He’s just calling for you. Can’t say for sure how long it’ll take, what I can say is that I can escort you there and back. We’ve got Percy and Sumeet if you really want to be careful.”
“Thomas? What is it?”
The rest came to the front door. Kristin passed me and moved a step behind Thomas.
“Gomez is asking for me. Probably to strategize about Solace, now that they’ve changed the game.”
“You can’t go now, you don’t know what’s going to happen, we need you here. I need you here.”
Thomas paused, then started putting on his shoes, retying his tie. He hugged his wife.
“Honey, hon, it’ll be okay. Jeffery’s escorting me both ways, so you know I’ll be safe. I’ll come up with a better plan, and I’ll put an end to this. I promise. And I promise I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
He gave her a kiss.
Katy pushed through everyone for a hug.
Thomas kissed the top of her head.
“Love you both, I’m sorry it ended up like this. See you soon.”
He hugged Katy one more time, then went outside, following Jeffery.
I called out.
He turned, while still moving forward. We shared a look. Determination. At that moment, I wasn’t Alexis, and he wasn’t Thomas.
I was Blank Face, and him Hleuco.
And we weren’t going to let this stand.
A mutual determination.
“Bye,” Thomas said.
That was good for now. It was confirmation that he wanted to talk and plan with me, after Gomez, and all the more that we shouldn’t give up.
We weren’t giving up.
That was a promise.
Thomas nodded, like he was actually seconding my thoughts, and he went off, to the cars and cops. Safe hands.
Kristin closed the door, then we backtracked to the living room. It was as though the wind was knocked out of all of them. No one was feeling very talkative.
“It’ll be okay,” I said, though I couldn’t muster a lot of conviction. “It’ll be okay.”
No one responded. It was disheartening. I looked at my hands, and they were shaking, despite me.
Who was I trying to convince?