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.
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.
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.
She opened, and from just one look, I could tell that she was taking this as bad as me. We looked about the same.
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.”
“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.
“Shiori?” It was Kristin.
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.
Moments ticked away, there was distorted sounds on the other end, but nothing I could make out. I sat in the dark, waiting.
“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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
“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.
“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.”
“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.”
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.
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?”
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.”