*Start from the right-most comic, reading from right to left, then from top to bottom. Click them to see a larger version. Enjoy!
Papa was mad again today.
Mama ushered Bernadette into the closet, then shut it behind her.
They both knew the drill, it was a lot like an earthquake. Find cover, stay low, keep your head down, and pray that it would end sooner rather than later.
They’d been through very many earthquakes.
Sometimes, they weren’t so bad. Just tremors, and they wouldn’t last long. Other times, not so much.
And sometimes, there were aftershocks.
Papa yelled, but Bernadette couldn’t understand it. A loud crash followed, the breaking of glass. Bernadette threw herself into the corner of the closet, pulling her legs to her chest. Boxes carefully stacked were knocked around her as she moved with haste.
From there, she heard Mama rush back out into the hall, trying to talk to Papa. It wouldn’t work, it never did.
But it was part of the drill.
Mama’s shouting crashed against Papa’s, and sounded like when the dogs barked at night. Her high shrieking and Papa’s low roar, Bernadette put her hands to her ears. It barely helped.
More yelling, more sounds of fighting. More glass breaking, more shelves falling over. Just… more.
Bernadette forced her eyes shut, the tears welling up again. She tried to retreat somewhere in her head, think of something happy. A fond memory. Waking up early to help out Papa on the ranch, gathering eggs from the chickens, cleaning some of the equipment. Mama preparing dinner after they were done, eating together at the table.
Mama’s terrible jokes, the fact that Papa laughed anyway.
It didn’t work.
I hate this.
She hated that it happened, she hated that it kept happening. She hated that it was allowed to happen. Just because Papa was friends with Pedro, he had the money and power to get away with whatever he wanted. The ability. She knew that much. Papa was but a simple rancher, and she felt pride in being the daughter of a rancher, but that wouldn’t be enough to live in the house they had. There needed to be more, and that more had to come from somewhere.
Take, take, take.
The nice house, the cars, the wine… the girls, Papa was allowed to take whatever he wanted. Papa could afford to be as good and as bad as he wanted. She hated it. It wasn’t fair. Papa wasn’t playing by any rules, so there were never any consequences.
Papa was cheating, and Bernadette hated it.
Another crash, and Mama’s yelp followed. It went quiet for a second.
Then Papa yelled again.
This time, she could understand it.
He was calling for her.
“Bernadette!” he roared. “Come clean up your mother!”
Her pulse was speeding until it might go flat, but she had to stay still. She sat in the dark, curled up even tighter, heart in her throat. Shaking.
“Bernadette!” he called again, much angrier, now. It startled her, she jumped.
Her arm bumped into a stack of boxes beside her, knocking some over.
She started to sweat.
She didn’t hear him call out again, just the footfall and booming that followed.
Stick to the drill, the drill.
She looked around, in the dark, looking for anything she could use.
Not sticking to the drill.
He was coming closer, faster.
She uncurled herself, and shifted around in the gloom.
Her hands touched something metal.
Her fingers wrapped around it, feeling the metal, the weight of it. She gripped it, her fingers finding their place on the weapon.
She tried to gulp, but found her throat dry.
The closest door flew open.
Bernadette let out a shriek, despite herself, and threw her hands out in front of her.
She had a brief second to face her father.
Shadows fell over his face, hiding his eyes. Her dread and horror warped her image of him even further. A wild look to his eyes, bloodshot, like he was hunting for something. His hair wasn’t long, but it was unruly, unkempt, standing up in places. His teeth bared. Sharp.
She kept shaking.
Papa had gotten down on his knees, arm reached into the closet to grab her. He stopped though, when his eyes fell on what was in her hands.
He smirked, and it freaked her out, just from how wrong it was.
His hands moved fast, seizing Bernadette by her shirt, dragging her out of the closet.
She shrieked again as she was tossed out, her fingers squeezing together.
Nothing fired, despite that.
Bernadette would have stopped to consider why, if it weren’t for her being hurled out of her parents’ room and into the hall. Her attention was elsewhere.
Light flooded into her eyes when she was taken out of her room, a temporary blindness. She was on the floor, finding it hard to get herself to stand.
Fingers grabbed at her hair, twisting, then pulled, and Bernadette was dragged out of the hall. She couldn’t find her footing, Papa kept his hand by his hip, and she couldn’t raise her head any higher without her hair being pulled at even more. Dragged.
Instant regret. She berated herself for not keeping to the drill. For not keeping her head down.
She screamed again as her head was whipped in another direction, her body then coming with. It wasn’t a clean fall. Strands of hair had wrapped themselves around Papa’s fingers, going taut, yanking her head back, before being ripped of her scalp and letting her continue down. It added to the pain.
She landed on her shoulder.
She had to blink a few times to make sense of what she was seeing. The kitchen. She was on the floor, the cold tiles. She pushed herself up.
Her head pounded from being yanked around. Her heart pounded faster when she saw the blood.
Not her own.
It wasn’t a lot, but the fact that there was any at all, the wrongness of it. The smeared line, the red handprint, it resembled an upside-down exclamation point.
She glanced in different directions, peeking into another hall on the other side, the living room at another end, the glass door to the patio that led out into the dark. No one. She didn’t see Mama.
Bernadette looked at her hands. It wasn’t there.
A smack to the back of her head announced Papa’s reentry into the kitchen. She went down, hard.
“You wanna kill me, is that it? After everything I’ve done for you? After… after everything I gave you?”
She could smell his breath from here. Alcohol.
Bernadette had to reorient herself, but the yelling and the hurt and the questions threw her mind and focus in every direction.
A clack sounded off by her ear, and she flinched. But no pain came after.
She moved her head again, and saw the gun. The gun she had taken from the closet, hidden under boxes and boxes of stuff.
“There, found the bullets for you. Do you want to kill me, huh?”
Papa was yelling enough to hurt his voice, a harsh rasp scraping out the end of his words. Like he was screaming just to scream.
Bernadette turned to see him. Papa. He was standing over her, towering, blocking light. She tried backing away, and found that she could. He’d let her.
No fair. Flexing power over those much weaker. Playing with them. That’s cheating.
As though her hand moved on its own, she grabbed for the gun at her side. Much heavier. She fumbled with it, then set it between her legs.
She felt like she was about to wet herself.
She looked back at Papa, and he had his arms raised, leaving himself open. Making himself open.
“Do it, I dare you, let’s see how you are without me.”
Tears rolled down her cheeks. She wanted someone, anyone else. Mama, one of the maids, even one of Papa’s girls. She couldn’t do this on her own, by herself. She needed someone.
The gun was heavier in her hands, like it was crushing her fingers.
“Do it!” Papa bellowed.
No use. The gun wouldn’t budge. Even if she wanted to. And, being pushed this far, this fast, a large part of her did want to.
And that frightened Bernadette.
She heard Papa draw in yet another breath, to yell again. Bernadette braced herself.
A crash. Then more.
People stormed into the room.
They took over. One of them went right to Bernadette’s father, and struck him hard on the chest. He went down easy.
More people, more than the kitchen should reasonably fit. Some had guns trained on Papa.
The noise and shouting ratcheted up to another level.
Bernadette needed some more time to get a sense of what was happening.
Many of them. All men. Most were in regular clothes. Baggy jeans, white T-shirts, a sombrero or hat. Others wore more protective gear. Vests, armor, masks.
The sudden intrusion and activity only gave her more questions, more things to wrap her head around, but she was far too disoriented.
The group of men weren’t in any formation, but they moved, the group splitting down the middle.
Bernadette saw the patio door slide open.
A man stepped into the kitchen.
Just from the posture, how everyone moved out of the way for him, Bernadette knew this was a man who had power.
His hair looked recently cut, combed, and had a certain style to it. No beard or mustache. Young, for sure, maybe a decade younger than Papa. He wore a faded pink shirt, buttoned up, and khaki pants. A complete contrast to the other men here, even Papa. As if he wanted to make himself known, to stand out.
Bernadette just sat there, trying to take everything in.
The man walked down the length of the path his men – she assumed it was his men – set for him, and stopped halfway. He turned, looking down at her Papa. Papa was sitting, cross-legged, looking back up at the man. Other men all around him had guns trained in his direction.
“Who the fuck are you?” Papa asked.
“Your new boss.”
The man had answered, and his Spanish was smooth, condescending. To the point that Bernadette almost forgot where she was, what just happened, and felt insulted, herself. Someone talking to Papa like that?
Bernadette had to stop herself from going down that line of thinking. Focus on now.
“What happened to my old boss, then?”
A single word, and it sent chills through her whole body. Bernadette was young, but she wasn’t ignorant. She’d only seen Pedro on a few occasions, when he came to visit, and Papa would take him out to the ranch to talk. Bernadette wasn’t allowed to go outside during those times.
She had seen the dots, and made the connections. She knew who Pedro really was, and what that meant for their growing town.
Hearing that single word, for Bernadette, changed everything.
“You’re lying,” Papa said.
“We have his head, along with the heads of those who stayed by his side. Enrique?”
That mention of a name, and Papa put his head down.
The way the man broke the news, his nonchalant manner of speaking, it made Bernadette wish he was lying.
The man made a gesture, and his men made Papa return to his feet. The man put his hand on Papa’s cheek, stroking his face.
“This city is mine, now, and so is La Rueda. It’s mine for me to steer. I was going around to Pedro’s constituents, and letting them know of the change in management… only to find this.”
The man spared a quick glance at Bernadette. She froze.
He faced Papa again. “I don’t know about Pedro, but I refuse to let swine freely bathe in their own shit and mud. Women and children? I will not tolerate those in power abusing those who do not have the power to fight back.”
He then turned his head, looking back outside. “Take him out.”
Three words, vague. The man’s workers took Papa, grabbing him, much like how Papa had grabbed Bernadette. Papa yelled, trying to fight back, but he was too drunk, out of sorts, and outnumbered to retake any freedom.
Bernadette watched as Papa was escorted out of the kitchen. She opened her mouth, but no sound came out. Maybe if she said something, he could stay, and he might not be taken out.
Bernadette closed her mouth.
The man turned yet again, this time facing her. He continued down the length of the kitchen, stopping right at her feet.
“Put the gun down, mija.”
She just realized that she still had it in her hands. She stared at it. The tingling numbness came from the gun that weighed her hands down. Even with this in her hands, she couldn’t do anything. She couldn’t protect Mama, or herself.
She opened her hands, and the gun fell to the side.
The man crouched, meeting Bernadette at eye level.
His eyes. Something about his eyes…
“What’s your name?” he asked, soft. Nearing a whisper.
A sense of shame came upon her after saying that name. She didn’t know where it came from, or why.
The man nodded, as if he was sympathizing with her at some level.
“Hello, Bernadette. I’m Fransico, but you can call me Paco. May I call you ‘Benny?’”
She didn’t have any particular objections to that. She did a gesture, a nod and a shrug at the same time.
“Gracias. Tell me, Benny, do you love your papa?”
The question struck her as funny. Like, bad joke funny. Of course she liked Papa, he played with her, gave her toys and phones, games, he’d let her help sometimes with the chickens.
But then she thought about the bad times. The drills. The here and now.
Not his fault, Papa just gets that way sometimes. Maybe… Mama and I just have to watch what we say and do.
Like? Maybe. Love…
She decided to answer how she felt right there, right now.
“No,” she breathed. It hurt to admit.
“Gracias. No need to worry, Benny. I won’t hurt you or your mama, like he did. I’m here, now, and I will protect you. Your mama is fine, okay? I protected her already. She’s right outside, would you like to go see her?”
The girl nodded. She did want to see Mama.
“Gracias. Let’s get you up.” Paco snapped his fingers. “Roland?”
Someone approached, a boy, in the white shirt and jeans. He didn’t look much older than her, maybe mid-teens, while she wouldn’t be there for a while.
He held out his hand for her.
She wasn’t sure if she could trust Paco completely, whether or not he’d actually protect her and Mama in the future. But she was tired, confused, scared. She wanted something to believe in.
And she didn’t believe in herself. Not Bernadette.
Benny took the helping hand.
The sun beat down.
“Move,” Benny ordered, and they did.
Roland led the men out of the van, and onto the dirt road. They walked in a line, without a word of resistance. To do so now would be useless. Foolish, even. It might cost them their lives.
Three men, all blindfolded, walking with caution. Roland had them stop before another group, another black van.
Benny followed, but walked past them to meet with the head of that group. A man, bald, tall. The men behind him had guns. Semi-automatics. None were pointed, but the message was clear.
She stood firm.
“You wanted them, here they are,” Benny said.
“Why the blindfolds,” the man, Javier, asked.
“Where’s El Tunante?” he then asked. Grovely.
“He’s attending to another matter. I assure you that your deal was handled with the best of hands. My own.”
His expression changed from flat to another. Uncertainty.
“I harbor doubts about that,” Javier said.
“Is it because I’m a woman?” Benny questioned.
“It is because you are a child. I feel personally insulted that El Tunante would skirt this responsibility and hand it off to someone so… small.”
Benny let herself grin. “ You wanted these men out of prison, and El Tunante was willing to go a more direct way to go about it. I preferred for something cleaner.”
“We made a deal of our own with the warden. We capture and bring in three other, probably more terrible scumbags, they’ll be willing to make an exchange. Along with a little cash to make it run more smoothly, everybody gets what they want. The public gets the real bad guys off the streets, the prisons get a little pocket cash along with some new goods, and you get your sons back.”
Javier’s face switched back to unreadable, again.
He signaled, and the men behind him moved, taking hold of the blindfolded men, and escorting them to Javier’s van.
“And you’ll still hold up your end of the bargain?” Benny asked.
“I’m a man of my word, child, of course I will. I’ve already made the proper arrangements. El Tunante is allowed to take over the property and territory I have in the States. It’s his now.”
“Hm, I only wish him luck.”
Javier spun on his heels, and returned to his van. Benny and Roland did the same.
They went into the back seats, sitting next to each other.
The driver prepared to turn them around.
“Good job, Benny,” Paco said, sitting in the passenger seat. “I’m very proud of you.”
The windows in the van were tinted black.
Benny released all of the tension in her body, going limp in her seat. “Oh my god, I thought I was going to die.”
“You weren’t going to die,” Roland said, “I would have had your back.”
“Duh, don’t be silly.”
Benny smiled a bit. ‘Silly’ was a silly word.
Paco interjected. “As did I, Benny. Your way might have asked for more trouble on our end, but it worked out. No one got hurt, and you did it fair. Again, very proud.”
“Stop, you’re going to make me blush and stuff.”
All three of them laughed.
“So it’s settled, then?” Paco asked, after the levity died down a tad. “We have it?”
“He confirmed it. His territory is ours, now. We just have to go through the necessary channels, make sure the Americans are aware of the new tenants coming in.”
“Yes. It’s not much, but it’s a start, and we need all we can get if I want this empire to spread. If you can make it there, then you’re the real deal.”
Paco paused. The van rocked from the uneven surface of the road.
“That’s why I want you, Benny, to oversee the new American branch.”
Tension quickly returned to her body.
“Yes, you. The rules are different in America, they operate under a different code. I’m too set in my ways to try and bend to them, and I have too much to keep tabs on here in Mexico. You, on the other hand, you’re willing to take other approaches, less bloody ones, even ways that would greatly benefit other partners, whereas I might look for something decidedly one-sided. That sort of thinking will benefit us in the States, give us a good reputation, and help us expand fast and clean.”
Benny still couldn’t fathom it. Her, a leader of her own gang, representing El Tunante? Real authority and power, exercised by her vision? It was a dream she never thought would actually be realized.
“Why me?” Benny question. “Why not Roland, he’s your nephew!”
“Roland will be accompanying you, along with some others. They’ll be your eyes and ears. But I’m not asking Roland, I’m asking you.”
She looked at him, and Roland. He looked back, happy for her.
Stop being so good-looking.
It was something she’d only noticed in recent years, but Roland’s boyish features were really giving way to a more chiseled, masculine look. He could’ve modeled if he wasn’t working for a cartel.
Which made it even more weird, because they’d been through enough for her to think of him as an older brother.
Benny asked, “Are you okay with this, Roland?”
“Yeah, I am. I’d prefer it, honestly. You’ve always been more of the planner, and I don’t mind getting my hands dirty every now and then. That part of the job doesn’t quite suit you.”
A small flash of a painful memory. Benny pushed it aside.
Paco interjected. “See, even Roland approves, as do I. He believes in you almost as much as I do. So, what do you say?”
Benny sat back, looking out the window, the trees as they passed.
She considered it.
“You really sprung this on me, no idea that was in the cards.”
Her gaze then shifted to meet Paco’s, who turned back in his seat to face her.
Paco and Roland beamed.
“I’ll go to Stephenville.”
Paco and Roland, even the driver, cheered for Benny.
Who the hell are you?
Benny stared at the creature, and the creature stared back. Its body was blue, but the edges of its body were like smoke. Not an outline, but rather a suggestion. The edges seemed to eat away at the light around it, until it was wrapped in a sort of darkness, distorting the image even further.
And its face. Very human, but so wrong. Featureless, white as the moon, its expression blank. It unsettled her, it was uncanny. Its eyes piercing her with a look. Like it wanted something, a desire. A sort of lust.
The creature stood there, twisted and warped. And Benny was powerless to do anything.
No fair, no fair.
The creature spoke, though its lips didn’t move. The voice was strangely high.
“Shoot me instead.”
Benny tilted her head.
“Shoot me instead. Leave them alone.”
Benny had to rattle her mind to find the context. Staring at the creature, trying to figure it out, made her lose connections to other things.
“How do you know I won’t just shoot you first, then kill him and his girl?”
She spoke as if on autopilot.
“Then fine, you can do that. As long as you shoot me first, then we have a deal.”
Something off about that, that concession. Benny had the power, here, not that thing. Why?
“Sounds like a trap,” Benny said.
“Not a trap. Like you said, I don’t have a legitimate threat against you, not with me standing here, with only a knife. And it wouldn’t be fair if I went unpunished. I was a part of Eduardo’s scheme, I deserve a bullet.”
Benny knew the creature was lying. It was taunting her, it had something up its sleeve. Playing her for a fool.
You’re not even supposed to be here.
“What are you?” Benny questioned, trying to mask her irritation.
The creature didn’t offer anything.
An ugly pause. And it stirred an even uglier memory within Benny. Papa.
Benny was sweating bullets. Darkness was creeping in from everywhere, and in her most base senses, she knew this was it. Over. Either she would die right here, or she would suffer something far worse. All because of this thing, this creature. It had to come in and ruin everything.
And it just stared, with those eyes.
Die die die die.
“Only because I want you to shut up,” Benny finally said, “You have your wish. I’ll kill you first.”
She lifted her hand, and found a gun there. The same gun she should have shot Papa with.
Benny didn’t get to pull the trigger.
The creature moved in a flash, disappearing from her sight. Before she could react, she folded in, getting slammed in the stomach.
A blunt force, but it also tore through her. Like being hit by a bullet the size of a volleyball, with a knife attached at the end.
Something went through her, sliding through muscle and meat. It electrified.
The creature’s claw? It vanished, and attacked. It was hiding something.
No fair no fair no fair.
Benny was down, and she felt a cold come in with the darkness. It didn’t take long for her eyes to feel heavy.
The last image in her mind before she opened her eyes again was being back in the closet.
She startled herself awake.
White ceiling. A touch too bright. A constant, regular beep. An eerie quiet.
She inspected herself. In a bed, scratchy pillows and blankets, tubes in her arms, tubes in her nose.
Benny shifted to sit herself up, but a harsh sting rushed through her body, and she had to stop. She exhaled, slow, sitting back down.
“Don’t move too much.”
Her eyes roved towards the direction of the voice. A sight for sore eyes.
He didn’t have his suit jacket, but he was wearing the same clothes from the last time she saw him. Presentable, but not good.
He stood by the window, close to the bed and the beeping machines. Some natural light was allowed in, but it was overpowered by the artificial lights from above.
“Doctor says you can’t move too much, not so soon. Might tear your whole stomach open.”
Smiling, he then added, “So much for kids.”
A joke, obviously, but he didn’t sell it very well.
“How long have I been in here?” Benny asked.
“About a day, you were out of it for the whole time. Sleeping.”
It didn’t feel like sleep. There was lucidity to her rest, her brain running while her body didn’t. Memories looped, trying to parse and figure things out, until the images rotted over time, bastardized memories becoming nightmares.
Maybe she was out for all whole day, but she got no benefit from it.
“Is it bad?” Benny asked. Had to rip off the bandaid sooner than later, metaphorically speaking.
“Huh? No, what I said before? I was kidding.” Roland appeared a bit red at that.
“I know, don’t be silly. Is it bad?”
“Um, no. Nothing vital was damaged. Just don’t do anything strenuous for a month or two, and you should be good.”
“Good. My next question, then. Which hospital is this?”
That particular question shut Roland up. His eyes shifted elsewhere.
“You’re in our hospital, Benny.”
Another voice. Benny’s neck creaked when she turned.
A woman, standing at the edge of the hospital bed, hands behind her back. Gringo. She was dressed professionally, all black, Benny would have pinned her for a lawyer. Her blonde hair was up, tied into a bun. Prim and proper.
“And you are?” Benny asked.
The woman fixed her glasses.
“Mrs. Carter, I do believe I’m a few years your senior.”
Benny squinted. She didn’t look it, but there was no point in thinking otherwise.
She had to go along with it.
“Okay, Mrs. Carter, I can only assume you’re here for something, and not because you want to wish me a speedy recovery. Which you haven’t yet, by the way.”
Benny felt an impulse to dig into her a little. To not keep herself in too low of spirits.
“You assume correctly, and I do wish you well, Benny.”
Mrs. Carter put her arms in front of her, and Benny saw the tablet she was holding. She tapped at it, swiping, before addressing Benny again.
“I’m here to give you some, um, news,” Mrs. Carter said.
“Good news, or bad news?”
A grin formed across Mrs. Carter’s lips.
Benny didn’t like the sound of that.
A short pause. A prompt, in and of itself, for Mrs. Carter to continue.
“I’ll give things to you as it is, and you can determine which is which. You see, I represent Mister, and-”
If Benny’s stomach wasn’t cut, it would have dropped.
She kept her lips shut.
“- he regrets to inform you that The Chariot’s presence in the city is over.”
That is certainly not good news.
“What do you mean by that?” Benny asked. She eyed Roland, and he didn’t seem thrown off in any meaningful way. Just still.
Was he already filled in?
Mrs. Carter answered, “Meaning you’ve accrued one too many strikes too fast, and Mister isn’t very pleased with you. There’s a delicate balance that has to be maintained, between all the different groups we have stationed in Stephenville. We can’t exactly tolerate you smuggling so many weapons into the city.”
Benny went still. The weapons Paco had delivered to her, to spur her into making biggers moves, to become a larger presence in Stephenville. And Benny was well aware of the underlying feeling behind the gesture.
Paco had trusted her in this, over his own nephew. She was supposed to make headway in the South, and build upon the empire Paco had created. It was supposed to be growth, not only for the cartel, but for her as well.
Years passed, and not much was gained in terms of expansion.
She thought about the people she attracted, the first batch of members that she had join just so she could get a footing in the city. Kids, teenagers. Stoners who were more interested in a quick fix than getting any work done, wannabes who were looking to indulge in ultimately empty power trips. Not that she expected much out of them, but it would have been nice to see some cream rise from that crop.
But, no. All the good guys had already found their place in the other gangs, and Paco was growing impatient. Then he sent his message, in the way of some firepower.
If you couldn’t get yourself through the door, break it down.
But Mrs. Carter, who represented Mister, found out about the weapons, and their plan.
“What happened to them?” Benny asked. “My guns?”
“They’ve been seized by the police. By our police, so we’ll be keeping an eye on them, and to keep the media’s nose out of this.”
“You’re- He’s taking them, why?”
“It’s for your own good, keeping this quiet means less people know about what you were trying to pull, meaning less people are pointing guns in your direction. And, it puts us in a better position to give you our terms.”
Benny and Roland repeated that word at the same time.
“Yes,” Mrs. Carter said, tapping more on her tablet. “As far as you’re concerned, you’re blackballed, now. You and yours no longer have any hold in the territory we let you take. The word’s already out. It’s officially open season there, now, up for grabs to anyone who can hold it. It’s not the most prime location, so Mister’s willing to accept whatever the fallout ends up being.”
All that work, the deals, the close calls, down the drain. All because some bad luck.
And that creature.
“We’ve already had a discussion with El Tunante, and gave him our side of the story, and a warning for breaking the rules. He’s not happy, obviously, and I think he’ll be less happy if he sees you again soon.”
She didn’t know what a ‘warning’ entailed…
If it weren’t for the cut in her stomach, she would have leaped out of her bed and strangled that bitch right there.
“You’re lying,” Benny said.
“Sure, call him up, or you can cross the border and see him yourself. Just keep in mind that everything that The Chariot claimed will be compromised. Your territory, your money, your product, your weapons. It must have been a large investment to come here and do business, and to lose all of that… It’s a shame that I can’t see your face when El Tunante beheads you for your failures.”
Benny lost herself. She screeched, getting up from her bed, reaching out for Mrs. Carter’s throat, cut in her stomach be damned. Roland had to pin her down, pressing her shoulders.
The beeping hastened.
“How dare you say that! You don’t know shit, you fly!”
Mrs. Carter remained there, unfazed. It infuriated.
Benny spat out more curses, in Spanish, before the pain got the better of her, and she had to back down. With a push, Roland put her back in bed.
She was breathing hard, scowling from both her cut and the insinuation that Paco would have her killed for this.
Paco wouldn’t be like that, would he?
Mrs. Carter put her hands back behind her.
“I tried detailing it as much as I could, but you’re effectively out of the picture, Benny. As you are, in that bed, you don’t have anyone to turn to. Which brings me to why I’m here…”
“Finally,” Benny muttered, while still full of spite.
“Yes, the terms. Under these circumstances, this is an offense that is punishable by death, but Mister is willing to make an exception.
Benny and Roland exchanged looks.
“Exception?” Benny repeated.
“In exchange for you… not dying, you work for him.”
“Excuse me, what?”
“Well, not like how I work for him, but as some extra for some work, when the time is right.”
“Why me? Is Mister more short-staffed than I thought?”
“Of course not, but you, and your connections and assets, can be of use to him.”
“What connections and assets? You made it quite clear that everything I built up here is gone.”
Everything, in about a day. All because of that.
Mrs. Carter shook her head. “I think I made it quite clear that it will happen, it hasn’t happened yet. It’s only been a day. Your crew that you brought with you across the border, will they still follow you, after all of this?”
Her thoughts went to her crew. The select few that she could trust, handpicked by Paco. Samuel, Sofia, Christian… Roland. The best El Carruaje had to offer.
More people she let down.
She looked at Roland. He nodded, slowly.
She looked at Mrs. Carter. “They will follow.”
“Swell. I suggest gathering them, along with any resources you can pick back up, before it gets lost in the fire. All that will be needed for when you’re needed. And when that time comes, we might even allow you access to your gifts from El Tunante, again. An added bonus.”
Benny was bewildered by offer. Changing hands to Mister? Getting the weapons back?
“Why? What’s Mister planning?”
“That’s not for me to tell you,” Mrs. Carter said. “Actually, I don’t even know myself. But, knowing him as long as I do, I can guess he’s doing the same thing you should be doing, gathering up resources.”
“I’m just a resource to him, then? Maybe even expendable?”
“And if I refuse?”
Mrs. Carter gestured, facing Roland. “We should still have plenty of unoccupied rooms, here. Shall I see to it that you get your own… accommodations?”
Roland glared, lips pressed to a line.
“You’re not leaving me with much of a choice,” Benny said, scowling again. “Putting power over those in a much weaker position.”
“Isn’t that how power works? I’m not hearing a ‘no.’”
Benny stared daggers at the woman. She’d very much like to stab daggers into her.
“I’ll accept those terms.”
Mrs. Carter smiled, seemingly genuine. “Fantastic. Then, my work here is done.”
She started to turn, heading out.
“Wait,” Benny said, “When will Mister be calling?”
“We’ll call you when we call you. Just be prepared. Like I said, I do wish you a speedy recovery.”
“Wait,” Benny said again, before she could turn again. “Just a few more. The officer who handcuffed me, who was it?”
Mrs. Carter made a face. “I don’t see how that pertains to this.”
“I remember how I got here. I wasn’t taken here in an ambulance, I was handcuffed and stuffed in the back of their shitty car. Who was it?”
Mrs. Carter made another face, still not getting why it mattered. “I can look into it.”
“And lastly. That creature…”
“That fucking thing that stabbed me and ruined me and sent me here! Who is that, one of yours? A saboteur?”
Mrs. Carter fixed her glasses.
“The world doesn’t know what that ‘thing’ is. If it chooses to be a problem, we will respond accordingly. Now goodbye.”
She threw that last bit in before Benny could find another reason to keep her. Better for it, Benny had wanted her gone, already.
The door shut behind Mrs. Carter, and it was just Roland and Benny.
A constant beeping.
“Would Paco…” Benny started.
Roland finished, “Would Paco kill you over this? You know him as well as I do.”
“That woman could lying about how angry mi tío really is, to make you feel more cornered to taking her deal.”
Benny fell into her bed, sinking her head into the pillow. Scratchy.
“Games, great. More cheating.”
“I can call him, see for ourselves.”
“You can if you want but… I can’t face him, not like this.”
The cut wasn’t lethal, but the shame that came with losing everything…
“Now what?” Roland asked. He sat back in a chair by the bed.
Benny moved her head so she could see him. She took out her hand, hanging it over the side of the bed. Roland took it.
“We’re resources, now, Roland, and as much as I hate to follow that bitch’s advice, we need to get the others. And whatever scraps are left of El Carruaje.”
“Shouldn’t be hard. I’ll get right on it.”
Benny had to fight the urge to cry. “I’m sorry I dragged you into this.”
Roland put his other hand on hers.
“For you, anything. It’s the same for the others, too.”
A tear finally rolled down.
“Anything? If there’s anything I want, it’s revenge.”
Benny stepped through the door, amid the cries and confusion.
Everyone was in place.
The apartment was dingier than she expected, but she’d seen worse conditions. Lived through worse.
It was more a hub than it was a place to live. Tables lined up against walls, computers on every one. Posters damn near covering every square inch. Bands she’d never heard of, movies she hadn’t had the chance to watch yet. A big television in one corner, a game system with controllers and wires sticking out of it. Action figures of cartoon characters lined up on any available surface.
A teenager’s haven. And Benny and crew just intruded upon it. Computer monitors were knocked over, a poster was torn where someone had their back on it, and the television was broken. The figures were strewn about on the floor, disorderly, like their human counterparts.
No problem. We go in, see if they have anything. Probably not.
If they do…
Benny walked over to Sofia, who had a boy down on his back, gun trained on him. She stood over him.
Benny had a pencil skirt on, but if the boy was more concerned over that, then he wasn’t in enough danger.
Benny looked down at him.
“The Bluemoon Club, am I correct?” she asked.
The boy was shaking, hair falling into his eyes. Trembling.
“Y- yeah, we are, we are.”
She had seen the flyers, the website itself when she would scour the internet for more information about that pest. The Bluemoon Fan Club, they called themselves, and it was almost an affront to her senses.
They were among the ‘other,’ the fanatics who were fascinated with the existence of a superhero, rather than terrified of someone who defied all previous logic. They posted ridiculous content on every social media feed, usually of humorless, low quality pictures the Bluemoon’s mask on cats, or pictures of themselves in places where the Bluemoon was last sighted. They’d engage with others online, defending the hero’s actions no matter what it was. A kind of idol worship Benny thought was only designated to pop stars and other celebrities.
Different strokes, different folks.
She still didn’t like it.
One way they would try for more attention was to ‘sell’ what sliver of information they had for more ‘follows.’ A thousand follows and they’d share what brand jacket the Bluemoon wore. A thousand more, and they’d post an exclusive picture that a member managed to snag. The fanfare was enraging enough, but the fact that there were people out there that ate it up?
It ate at her.
“I have some questions I’d like to ask you. Answer them, and you can live to post shit for another day.”
The boy nodded fast.
I can’t believe I’m about to ask this.
“At one hundred thousand follows, your club claimed you’d share something personal about the Bluemoon. Something no one else knows. You’re only at forty thousand, but I’m here to collect that information, now.”
“I don’t know that, and we’ve deleted that tweet since.”
The boy’s voice was quivering.
“You deleted it, why?” Benny asked. “Because it was true, and you didn’t want to compromise the person behind the mask, if you reached that number?”
The boy went mute.
“Is it true?”
She gestured to Sofia. “Make it quick.”
Sofia readied her gun. Click.
Multiple teenagers cried out.
Benny caught one sentence, in that.
She faced the source.
“What was that?”
A girl, hands up, her back against a wall. Samuel had her. Her hair was odd. Purple, and it moved whenever she breathed.
“It’s true, please don’t hurt him!”
The boy on the floor called out, “Steph, don’t!”
“She was going to kill you, Robby!”
Benny crossed the room, going to Samuel and ‘Steph.’
“Tell me what it is, and I promise that no one here, Robby or whoever, gets hurt.”
The girl’s face changed across many different expressions. Wincing, biting her lip, her tongue, closing her eyes.
Finally, she gave up, spilling it. “The… Bluemoon, she’s a girl. Asian. Vietnamese, Chinese, I’m not sure. She-”
The girl stopped herself, biting her tongue again. Perhaps for a reason.
“Is there more?” Benny intoned.
The girl tried to keep still. More trembling.
“Sofia,” Benny said, not taking her eyes of Steph.
“Stephenville High School!”
It was as if air was sucked out of the whole room.
Something. Finally, something.
Benny was elated, but she had to hide it for now.
“And how do you know that?” Benny asked.
The girl answered in between takes of crying. “I’ve… seen her up close. She was pretending, but I knew it was her. We’d seen her before, before she had a mask. She… was wearing a jacket that day, it had the school’s mascot on it. Please, I have friends that go to that school, I-”
Benny slapped her to shut her up. She shut down.
Benny looked right at Samuel.
They’d failed at city hall. A mishap during an altercation, and the bomb that lawyer wore went off. The plan wasn’t seen all the way through. Benny failed.
Styx was the one to tell her, after the fact. She was done, officially. Taken off the Solace project. Her blackballed status remained. Others would be going after her, now. After her and her crew. She didn’t have Mister’s deal to protect them, not anymore.
And she wasn’t the only one to suffer for their loss. Roland was in the hospital, this time, his arm shattered in four different places.
No choice but to run back to Mexico, to Paco. Tail between her legs.
But, before they left, Benny wanted to leave a parting gift to the hero that made her lose all that made her Benny.
“You know,” Benny told Samuel, “I never got to swing by and see Maria. How about we pay her a visit, too?”
The sun pierced through broken windows, visible rays coming down onto the rotunda.
I’m still up. I’m still doing this.
Too exhausted, I wasn’t registering the swarm of people here as people, merely obstacles. Getting in my way, preventing me from moving forward. At this rate, I’d be stuck. At this rate, I’d lose them.
I’d lose him.
I continued to press onward, shoving more people out of the way. Sound and noise stacked upon one another, the shouting and the ruckus of things breaking and shattering filled what was essentially a huge echo chamber. It disoriented, threw me off course, whenever my focus momentarily slipped.
A man turned, facing me directly. Me. He wanted to impede my progress.
I swung my hand, despite the little space allowed. It was cramped.
The back of my hand struck his cheek, and he flew, spinning into more people behind him. His tumbling down led to a chain reaction, clearing a path for me.
I took it, before the sea of people could swallow up the space again, like waves after an impact.
The blasts and crashes, it buzzed in my head, and I could hardly hear my own thoughts. Not that I needed them, I was being driven by only one goal, by a singular objective I needed to complete. Everything I was doing went towards that goal’s fulfilment.
Go go go go go go get get get get get get.
Another person. Another thing in my goddamn way.
My foot moved without a conscious thought controlling it. I hit her square in the chest.
She got sent back, delivered elsewhere. More followed, more of a path made.
I was in a crowd of many. I almost blended in. Too much was going on for any one person to pay any attention to one small, masked girl among a large number of others. A needle in a haystack. I could work without largely being noticed.
I continued on, stepping over bodies and debris, trying not to get my foot caught on anything, trying not to get slowed down. Though, I couldn’t do the first without compromising the second.
More pushing, more pulling. The masses pushed, and I had to push back.
An endless fight.
Finally, finally, I made it out of the crowd. There were still many here, but they were in scattered clumps, groups fighting amongst themselves. Here, I had room to move without bumping into anyone, or anything else.
So I moved.
I went to where I saw them last, heading into the large corridor on the east wing. The noise didn’t lessen since leaving the rotunda. Instead, it seemed to get worse, the sound more free to travel throughout the more empty space.
I shook my head, then immediately regretted it. Dizzy. Hurt.
I looked again, trying to find them.
Fuck, no, fuck.
I tried again, checking around.
A group, moving up the large marbled stairs that zig-zagged to the next floor. The second floor. I lost visual when they went up high enough for the ceiling to block my view.
I moved, as swiftly as my weary legs would take me.
I took the stairs by three, before I almost tripped. My hand reached for the wooden railing for support.
Hasty, so hasty.
Could jump all the way, skip the first flight of stairs and middle landing entirely, and work my way up the second flight instead. But I was so fucking heavy. Exhausted. Tapping into empty reserves. A shell of a person, moving only with the purpose that was last in its mind before the mind had shut down completely.
A zombie, in a very scarily real sense.
I took the stairs a step at a time, sometimes two, when I felt daring enough. I turned when I reached the middle landing, then turned, taking the stairs as painfully slow as before. I moved someone out of the way, where they were resting their back on the railing, juice flowing from their sides.
Juice, red, red juice, yes.
No. Him first.
I want him first.
Finally, finally, I completed my trek, and ascended the stairs. I was on the second floor, in another large, grand hall.
Here, there was much less in the way of obstacles, but the sound was only marginally dampened. The hall led back to the center of the building, the rotunda. The chaotic cacophony carried here, too. I couldn’t escape it.
Left, right, I looked both ways.
Not that way, back to the rotunda, that way.
Down the hall, into a room.
I saw them move.
The door closed before I got to it. Big. Two, three times my size. It looked heavy.
I pressed, arms straining, and the door opened, swinging.
Six in here. Five, excluding him. The one I wanted so bad it was killing me.
They all turned to the door. To me.
All of them had some kind of blunt instrument in their hand, looking like they were more than ready to strike, and they did.
They ran at me.
Still up, still doing this.
I got into a crouch, ready to jump.
Get over their heads, change up our placement on the field, make things easier on me–
My legs had another idea.
Instead of tense, potential energy ready to turn and propel me upward, I continued, and fell down onto my knees.
On my knees.
Oh no no no no no.
My chin depressed into the space between my collarbone, I was leaning forward. I had pretty much spent all that I had, all that I was.
Body failing me, betraying me.
I was completely open.
The first hit struck home, a club to my temple.
My ear touched my shoulder.
I went one way, having to catch myself by throwing my hands to the floor.
I shifted, crawling, but I could not get away from the next hit.
A swift kick to the stomach.
I choked, and my body contorted, falling onto my back.
Everything was going wrong so fast, I barely had the time to process what was happening.
Mind running slow, body not moving how and when I wanted it to.
It was an attack on all fronts. Externally, internally.
Another person took their turn, striking. I lifted an arm to block my face.
The knife went through me like I was butter. Hot, through cold.
Piercing. The pain shot through my body, jolting my brain awake. I saw the blade stick out through my arm, through the sleeve, crimson soaking the fabric.
My breath was cut short, reduced to fits and starts, and I was twitching, trying to get away. But I was pinned, my limbs felt like jelly from the shock of it all.
With me being stunned, the others took that as an opportunity to continue their assault, hitting and clubbing me, giving it all they had. The knife stayed in my arm, the owner of it having stepped back to give the others more room. I would have turned into a bloody mess, had it not been for my healing, but I did have my limits. And I was about to meet them.
Not healing fast enough.
Never drank blood, instead losing it. I was seeing stars, losing my sense of self.
Lost in a sort of black emptiness.
Hit. Pain. Hurt. Cut.
I was meat, being tenderized. Served up.
A hand grabbed for my face, balling itself into a fist. My goggles and ski mask were starting to come with it as it pulled away.
Can’t let that happen.
Both of my hands went in front of my face, gripping the arm that had my mask by the wrist. I gripped as hard as I still could, then twisted.
Bones cracked, then shifted out of place.
A cry. It should have been close, but it sounded farther off.
I felt hands come off of me, a momentary lapse of inactivity where I wasn’t being hit or attacked. I was blinded, my mask and goggles scrunched up over my eyes, but I used that as my chance to find my way to my feet.
I still had their arm in my grasp, I wouldn’t let go.
Anger, and but a blip of energy left to express it.
I spun, their body flailing around me, and I released them at the top of my turn. The pained cries of others, the crashing of flesh onto wood. I must have thrown hard enough to slam a number of them back.
Over the crying, I heard an exchange, but I missed the first part of it.
“Why is it beeping?”
“I thought we were supposed-”
“Fuck, everyone get out! We’re leaving him!”
“Benny! You waste the time to do it now, you’ll be blown sky-fucking-high. Let’s go.”
Squeaks of sneakers on marble, then steps on carpet, then nothing.
My back hit a wall behind me, and I pushed my legs to prop myself up, getting myself to stand. I fixed my mask and goggles with my right hand as I did so.
My vision was blurry, but it was better than nothing. I could make out the room.
Wider than it was tall, it was like an office space that had been cleared out for future use. It had a regal look to it, that matched the marble and Roman architecture of the rest of the building. The only light in here was natural, coming in from the windows on one side of the room.
I glanced across the floor. My eyes fell upon a vest, sliding across the floor, and the man who threw it.
Jacket was off, tossed behind him. He was by the corner on the opposite end, fallen over.
I looked back at the vest. The beeping vest.
My body moved before I could make sense of it all. Before the danger actually settled in. Like something else has taken over.
I threw everything I had into one last sprint. One last go. One last chance to get something right.
Everything blurred together. A whirlwind of heat and sound.
I crossed the room as everything fell apart.
One hour ago
I had to lift a goggle lens away from my eye if I wanted to rub at it. I wanted to, but the police officers squished beside me prevented me from taking that course of action.
I sat in the back of a police van, rubbing shoulders with others stuffed in here. Stuffed, because I couldn’t move, couldn’t rest. Tilt my head either way, I’d end up resting my head on an officer’s arm. Lean forward, I’d bump into James Gomez.
Considering everything that had happened in the past few hours… this was really awkward. Super awkward.
The van was stuck in traffic. We weren’t even close enough to be considered close, but long stretches of cars kept us from moving an inch. Honking horns blared randomly, sometimes in spurts, other times all at once into one huge wall of sound. Even if I had the room to rest my head and sleep, the sound kept me up.
It had been like this for at least for an hour and a half. Progress hadn’t been good.
I was becoming twitchy, despite my weariness. We were supposed to have the upper hand, but we weren’t moving fast enough to make any use of it, and that advantage was slipping away with every passing second.
It grated, and it must have been the same for Gomez, too.
I could tell because I saw it.
He had kept checking his wristwatch to the point that I had lost count, and opened his phone just as many times. Irritated.
He shook his head.
“You, you, and you,” he said, pointing to a select few, including the two officers beside me. But not me. “We won’t make it in time like this. I want eyes on the field. Get out and run.”
They followed his order without so much of a ‘yes sir,’ opening the metal doors to make it out of the van. I turned away from the opening to better obscure myself, hide my visage.
I did notice how the light changed, through the front window. The sun was rising.
They closed the doors behind them, and I was left alone with Gomez, and one other police officer, sitting to Gomez’s right.
That didn’t make things any less awkward.
The van inched some, the most progress we’d made in minutes.
Gomez handled most of the questioning, but there wasn’t anything else we got out of Linda Day that was terribly useful. She was a lackey, apparently forced to pay some kind of debt. A debt that was big enough to warrant faking her death. Either way, her circumstances weren’t helpful to us stopping the planned riot on city hall.
Gomez then ordered his men to be split up into groups. One to keep an eye on Linda and the other two henchmen, and the weapons they stole back from police. Another would have to keep tabs on Edgar Brown. The final group had to go to city hall… just to see what could be done, if anything. We were stretched thin, by that point. At most, it would have to be damage control.
I was included in that final group.
I sat in thought, trying to come up with a way to foil Solace’s plan that didn’t involve total anarchy, given how stacked things were against us. Nothing.
A feeling like I was falling, my whole body jolted. I jumped in my seat.
I had drifted too far forward without realizing it.
Gomez and the other cop both looked at me.
“Tired?” he asked.
I nodded, sleepily.
“I’ve been at this all night, I had hoped that this would be over by now. Guess not.”
“Almost there, almost.”
I would have agreed, except this whole ordeal wouldn’t just magically fix itself overnight. Even if we got Thomas back, Solace was still a very real threat that still needed to be taken head on. Even this was a distraction, a detour, towards the real goal.
I made some sort of gesture.
Gomez cleared his throat before saying, “Law enforcement officers have a sworn duty to protect and serve their citizens, that means a lot of late nights, early mornings. That’s something one should expect, going into this, and it’s something one gets trained for. You… you weren’t trained for this, were you? You didn’t expect this?”
I put my head back, glancing away.
“No, I wasn’t. If anything, it’s more like I was thrown into the ocean without having ever learned how to swim. And the ocean’s on fire. And full of sharks. And my hands were tied behind my back.”
“Your analogy lost it’s focus at the end there, but I see what you mean. I think. You’re new to your… powers?”
“More than you know. I’m not an alien, or a super… whatever. I’m…”
I trailed off.
“I’m just very unlucky.”
A glance back, and I saw Gomez on his phone again, typing away.
“Well, you’re young, younger than anyone would realistically guess, I’m surprised you even managed to manage,” he said, eyes still on his screen, “I wonder how well I’d hold up, if I were in your shoes.”
I would have rolled my eyes, if my eyes didn’t feel so hot, as though they were overheated. Why was I talking to him, why was I engaging? It didn’t seem to fit with what had happened not too long ago, when I was berating him for not jumping at the gun to cooperate.
I wanted to distract myself some more, pass the time. At least, I had to keep myself mentally pacing.
But my only option was to keep talking with Gomez.
“Any updates?” I asked. I sounded like Hleuco, there.
He continued typing on his phone, and a slight frown formed on his lips. “They’ll let me know when they get there, give it a minute.”
“That’s why I suggested to go down there myself, by rooftop. I could find a bird’s eye view of things, see how things are, and I can direct you guys from there.”
Gomez grunted, and it was prolonged, as though he was actually irritated by my suggestion.
“It’s too risky, and there are a lot of eyes at city hall already. Granted, those eyes aren’t mine, but we know the situation enough that throwing you in there would be like throwing a bull in a china shop.”
“I can hide,” I said, “I’m not even wearing my usual costume.”
He eyed me. “Somehow I doubt your ability to be inconspicuous. You heard Linda Day, people have been camped out there, waiting for the mayor to come out and speak. And, considering how fast word gets out nowadays, more must be coming out in droves to see what’s going to happen. Reporters, bloggers, activists, actual protesters, the morbidly curious…”
He tapped his foot, before adding, “By itself, that’s enough cause for concern. A riot might very well break out on its own, and that’s before considering both you and Solace. I don’t want fuel to the fire.”
“You don’t trust me,” I said.
“I don’t know you, but I suppose that does extend to me not trusting you completely. You’ll have to understand that I’m coming at this from a police officer’s point of view. There’s still a lot we don’t know about you, both in your true nature and your true intentions. The less of a factor you yourself play, the better.”
I gritted my teeth. Being benched, at such a crucial hour? Hell no. I didn’t spend the whole night tearing the city apart to find Thomas, just to hand it off to others. Why was I brought along, if I’d end up being stuck in here?
I tried balling my hands into fists, but I found there was some missing strength, there, too much effort for such a weak grip. I looked at Gomez head on, asking him something I probably should have made clear before I got into a van full of policemen.
“So you are going to arrest me, after all this. Is that why you want me out of the way, keep me close so I don’t escape?”
Gomez traded a quick look with the cop sitting next to him. Campbell, now that I tried to put effort in remembering his name.
“Right now, we’re aligned by mutual interests, but there’s a fine line, here. I will tolerate you being here, so long as you don’t give me a reason to change my mind. But, right here, right now? I’m more concerned about damage control, and getting Thomas back.”
I took note of that word, ‘tolerate.’ I kept that in mind.
I turned to Campbell, curious about his thoughts, too.
“And you? Do you agree with him?”
He looked at me straight in the eye. Or the goggles.
“If the Chief is willing to go along with it, then I’m in no position to complain. I can’t speak for my colleagues, but I’d like to think they’re of the same mind.”
I huffed through my nose, and I felt it heat up my face.
“Speaking for myself, though,” Campbell said, “There were times where you’ve been there to help, and we weren’t, or you’ve provided assistance at a critical moment. I was there when you stopped that car with your bare hands. That was impressive.”
An immense pressure pressed on my arms. The sensation came back to me. A memory.
“Um, thanks, I guess,” I said.
“But I’m just speaking for myself,” Campbell reiterated. “Maybe the others feel the same way, or they despise you all the same, but they trust in the Chief’s judgement enough to, like he said, tolerate you being here, without handcuffs.”
“You know, if I can stop a speeding car with my bare hands, handcuffs won’t be enough to keep me down.”
Gomez put his phone away. “I suppose, if you really wanted to, you could get away quite easily. How far you’d go, that’s a different matter, entirely.”
An uneasy feeling stirred inside me. A rocky truce between me and the police, that only existed in the now. How things would play out in the near future, was unclear.
It might help to make a good impression, in the meantime.
The van inched once more. I was scared that we wouldn’t make it in time.
“Do we, or, you, not have any allies that can help us there?” I asked, switching topics. “Police that are already stationed at city hall?”
“If anyone’s already stationed there, that means they’re there on someone else’s orders, not mine. It might be fine if I show my face, but I have to be careful not to tip anyone off about what we know.”
“You’re the police chief, are you really that powerless?”
Campbell looked over at Gomez, but Gomez had his eyes on me. They held something deeper than disappointment.
“I have authority over my men, don’t get me wrong. I can tell them where to go and what to do when they get there. Generally speaking. But, quite a number of them are in the pocket of someone else, for any number of reasons. And for some of them, reasons I can’t fault them for. So, under normal circumstances, they’ll listen, and they’ll entertain me, but I know where their loyalties lie.”
I almost had a sense of pity for Gomez. What did it mean to be at the top, when you weren’t allowed to exercise the power that came with that position? I could imagine someone becoming jaded over time, as the frustration gave way to a reluctant acceptance.
“I’m… sorry,” I decided to say. That last word was especially difficult. I wasn’t sure I meant it, it just felt right to say. “I called you inept… and a motherfucker.”
Gomez chuckled at that, surprising me. “Oh, that? I already forgot about that.”
“She called you that, sir?” the officer beside him asked.
Gomez shrugged, “It’s nothing. I’ve been called far worse things by good friends of mine. But let’s not concern ourselves with something so trivial, let’s focus on getting Thomas back.”
That, we could all agree on. If only the traffic would let us through.
The van moved along again, but not by inches, this time. It was slow, but we were moving.
“Looks like traffic’s being directed away from city hall now,” Gomez explained. “That should speed things along.”
“Are we going to make in time?” I asked.
“We might miss the first part of the mayor’s speech, but we’ll get there.”
I grumbled, but I was unable to do anything about it. I just sat, and waited for the van to take us there.
Fifteen minutes ago
They benched me, after all.
Gomez and Campbell – even the driver – hopped out of the van as soon as we arrived at city hall, disappearing into the crowd of people. There was a scary amount of people here.
I looked out from the front windshield of the van.
City Hall. The building was big, expansive. Modeled after the U.S. Capitol building, sans the giant dome that topped it off. White, with columns across the front, stairs leading up to it. A symbol of democracy.
I had been here once before, on a school field trip back in elementary school. It was big then, and it seemed even bigger now, especially with all the people here.
So many people.
The van was parked right past the large front gates that served as the official entrance to the premises. Past the gates was a field that was about the size of a football field, if not bigger. It was more like a park, though, with pathways for a stroll and trees to have a picnic under the shade. Not a bad place to do some sightseeing, and enjoy the weather.
However, right now, there was so many people I could hardly find a patch of green, just heads, other vans, picket signs, raised fists. It was as if a popular rapper decided to hold a concert here.
And the sheer volume, from the chanting to the cheering, to the random person shouting their own manifesto, I only made out a few words from Mayor Scott, who was standing at the head of the crowd, above them on a makeshift stage, in front of city hall. Pretty much a dot, from here.
He spoke into some mics attached to a podium.
“Blank Face, and this terrorist… not be tolerated… justice will be…”
I can’t understand what he’s trying to say.
I grabbed the walkie-talkie by my side, the only consolation Gomez lent me. I spoke into it.
“What’s the deal?” I asked, “Did you find him yet?”
Now I’m the guy in the van.
The device produced a burst of static before I heard Gomez.
“Nothing yet. I’m approaching the stage, trying to get close to the mayor, but I’m not seeing anything on my way there. There’s too many people, and a lot of them are dressed like you, by the way.”
“I can see that from here. Guess I wouldn’t be much help here, either. It’s like the whole ‘needle in a haystack’ thing.”
“Or maybe a ‘haystack in a pile of needles.’ I’ll keep my eyes peeled. The others will, too.”
“Yeah,” I said, and I left it at that. Powerless.
I was getting twitchy. I was here, but Thomas was nowhere to be found. So close, but he was constantly yanked from my fingertips. I wanted to get him so bad.
I went back to watching the mayor, trying to catch every other word, watching whether that dot or that dot was suspicious or not. My vision was swimming, from both the difficulty of it, and simply exhaustion and overwork taking its toll.
The mayor continued.
“We will see to it that-”
A dot moved across the stage. To the podium.
The mayor’s speech was interrupted. He was thrown to the floor.
Cries of surprise swelled over the crowd like a wave, starting from the front, and coming all the way back here.
I gripped the walkie-talkie.
Someone else was at the podium. Someone new. They were far away, but I saw the outline of a blue hood over their heads. Two other dots stood behind them.
They spoke, and they were somehow much more audible than the mayor.
“This is Thomas Thompson, District Attorney-elect for the city of Stephenville, and I stand in support of Solace.”
Another wave of surprise. I felt it, too.
There he is.
I immediately went to the walkie-talkie. “Are you getting this?”
Thomas was the middle of his speech. I turned my eyes to him, again.
“In just a short amount of… time, the villain known as The Bluemoon has terrorized the good people of Stephenville, including me and my family. I had to turn myself to Solace in order to protect those that I love, and go into… hiding. But, it wouldn’t have been for long, because I want this city to be rid of this evil, and the only way to get back our sense of comfort in these… hard times, is to side with Solace!”
I pressed the button on the walkie-talkie, but my throat was dry.
Nothing he was saying made sense, none of it. He had to have been coerced into saying these things, like that guy back at the dinner party. The real Solace had to be speaking through him, spouting nonsense.
But, even if that were true, hearing Thomas say those things…
It cut, and it cut deep.
I need to stop him.
“Solace is not the enemy, rather our liberat-”
Someone interrupted Thomas, crossing the stage and slamming into him.
The panic was bubbling, now, and I saw it boiling throughout the crowd that was gathered here.
Then, a pop.
And all hell broke loose.
The crowd expanded out into every direction, as if to get as far away from the building as possible. But another group within that crowd made their play, too.
One out of every ten in the crowd were dressed like me, like Blank Face. Blue hoods, white masks. Some were carrying signs, others were clumped together, but they all dropped what they were doing to add to the chaos. The anarchy of it all.
They shoved into others, preventing them from getting away easily. Fights broke out, panic spreading like fire. A crush of people ran past the van, trying to go through the gates behind me.
I turned, and the walkie-talkie finally buzzed.
“Blank Face, this is Gomez! I tried to tackle Thomas but… agh!”
“What’s going on now?”
“There’s a group with him, and they got away, taking him along. They’re fleeing into the building, and rioters are going in with them. I can’t follow anymore.”
“The mayor’s hurt, I have to stay with him, keep him secure. And, I’m in no condition to give them chase. But you can.”
I was drowsy as fuck, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me.
“I’m on it!” I said, and I tossed the walkie-talkie behind me. Needed both hands for this one.
I opened the back doors of the van.
The first thing I saw was that the gates were closed, people rattling them. They weren’t closed before.
Shit, I had to leave that behind, couldn’t help there. How were we supposed to control this damage?
Need to get to Thomas.
I stepped out of the the van, and was immediately flushed into the horde of masses. Not people, obstacles.
Barely budge, barely move, I had no agency here.
The city hall was a whole football field away. How was I supposed to get there in time?
I had to fight my way through.
The dust settled after the rubble.
The vest had exploded. Exploded. With far more force and energy than I would have ever realistically expected. I wasn’t a soldier, I hadn’t grown up in a war-torn area of the world. This was never something I had to anticipate. The shock, the sound, the impact, it rocked my very soul.
And the floor.
The explosion tore the floor to pieces, as if there was an anger to it, and it was lashing out at everything it came into contact with. Which was mostly everything in this wide room. I was instantly enveloped in heat, then smoke, before the floor broke from under me. I reached in front of me, feeling fabric, the weight behind it.
I pulled him toward me as we were tumbling down.
Glass, rock, wood. Everything had moved, the impacting tossing us every which way. It added to the disorientation, the dizziness of it all. I spun, and my head continued to spin. I tried with all my might to keep straight, to keep Thomas close. And, as everything crumbled and broke all around us, to not get him crushed.
I’d dropped before from far higher heights, but this was a whole other level. This was a fall, a descent. We were on the second floor, and we were headed to the first.
Thrashed around, like I was a rag in a dryer. It didn’t last, but it felt like forever.
The dust settled after the rubble.
Everything ached. Everything hurt.
I coughed, but found that my chest and back wouldn’t expand properly to let out any air. I sputtered, instead. My fast and short breathing heated up my mask, my face. Stuffy.
Down on my hands and knees. I felt like I was sinking into the earth.
Dark, cloudy, could barely see. Ears ringing.
An immense weight sat on me, threatening to crush me flat if I gave in to the pressure. Couldn’t, wouldn’t.
With the dust, hysteria also settled in.
“H- help, help! Somebody help! There, there are p- people down here! We’re trapped here! Please someone come get us! Help! We’re down here! He-”
I coughed, again. Harder to get my breath this time. Wheezing. My arms shook, and that was enough for the rock that had me pinned to find more purchase, pushing me down. A rumble of other rocks shifting. I had to straighten my arms again, and sharp pang reminded me of the knife that was still in my arm.
Okay, no screaming, or we’ll be even more stuck down here.
Couldn’t let this fucking boulder crush me, wouldn’t.
Because Thomas was right under me, on his back, in between my arms.
In the gloom, I could make out his features. He’d seen better days.
Soot and dirt smeared his forehead, down to his right cheek. His hair was messy, sticking up in some places, reddened in others. A gash that traced his left temple to his nose, bad enough that he couldn’t open his left eye. Blood colored the left side of his face.
Whatever Styx had done to him, it didn’t include his face. That was hardly a relief, for my part.
Alive, but barely. But I had him.
I just had to find a way to get us out.
“Thomas,” I said. It was a struggle to say anything, but I wanted to say something to Thomas. I finally had him. After everything I’d been through, I had him.
“Are you hurt?” I asked.
He moved his head side to side, painfully slow.
It was obvious he was hurt, I could see it, I could infer, thinking back to the bloodied chair I saw back at the warehouse.
You don’t have to lie to me, Thomas.
“Kept you waiting, huh?” I asked instead.
Somehow, or perhaps miraculously, Thomas found it within himself to smile. It was weak, and I could tell it strained him, but he smiled.
“Took you long enough,” he said, nearing a whisper. “The wait was killing me.”
Despite everything, I cracked a smile too, though just as weak.
“I got your message,” I whispered, “But… But…”
“How? It was a precautionary measure. I figured Solace would be coming for me the moment he made himself known at the dinner party.”
He took a second to breathe. Several.
“Your pager. I had a text queued, timed to whenever Solace’s timers would reach zero. If I was okay, I could simply set it back twenty-four hours. If not…”
“I get the message,” I said.
“Precisely. If something were to happen to me, I wouldn’t be able to send you where I was exactly, or where I would be taken. They ended up taking my phone, anyway. My best bet was to send you to James, and you could work with him.”
I winced, my back… just my back. It fucking hurt.
“Sorry to break it to you,” I said, “But Gomez wasn’t willing to play along at first. He was harder to bring on board than I would’ve liked, but even then…”
His expression changed, disappointment.
Shame on Gomez, his best friend, or shame on me, the supposed superhero? Shame that we couldn’t work together sooner to find him? Or maybe shame on himself, for having not seen this coming?
I was projecting, had to put my priorities elsewhere. Like keeping myself up.
The boulder was getting heavier with every second. Losing strength, strength that I needed, strength that I required.
I still managed to tell him more. “I was turning this city upside-down to try and find you. You have no idea what my night was like.”
Another frail smile from Thomas.
I couldn’t keep it up anymore, I frowned.
“I can’t hold on for much longer,” I said, in between short breaths. “I’m losing it… This thing is fucking heavy.”
“You’re doing great, Alexis.”
Alexis. That was it, right, my name? Hearing it made me feel better. By a small, almost negligible margin, but better.
“I think I can hear people,” Thomas said, “Checking over the debris.”
“Really?” I tried to hear, but it was impossible for me, now. It was as if my heart was in my head, pounding in my skull. Nothing but an intrusive, arrhythmic pounding.
“Really. I’d hate to put even more pressure on you, but if you can get this thing off…”
I shut my eyes, the beginnings of tears wetting the corners of my eyes.
“I can’t, I can’t, it’s taking everything I have just to stay in this pose. It’s too heavy.”
“You have to try, Alexis, believe in yourself, for once.”
The air in here was thinning, I couldn’t repeat myself.
I shut my eyes, tighter, and tensed all the muscles in my body. I tried to push, to find my way to my feet, to get this chunk of rubble off of me.
No. There was nothing there. It wouldn’t budge. I wouldn’t budge.
The attempt left my arms wobbling for a second, and the rock pushed on me even more. Thomas shuddered, but it wasn’t like he could go anywhere. I did what I could to straighten my arms again, to stop its progress in squashing us. It stopped, but I was closer to Thomas, now, my arms straining two-fold.
I gasped for air that wasn’t there. That was enough to show Thomas that it was hopeless.
I was burnt out, completely empty. Impossible, to do this on my own, with the resources I had available, with the resources I had within me. I needed something more, I needed more than I what I was.
Thomas met my eyes, and I stared back. I was so close to saving him, yet it had to be like this.
This isn’t fair, the world isn’t fair.
Thomas whispered softly. Barely audible, drowned out by the pounding in my head.
“My blood, Alexis, drink my blood.”
My own blood ran cold.
“I’m giving you my blood to drink, Alexis, use it. Anything to get you back on your feet.”
I flinched, a particular jagged edge driving into the back of my shoulder. The rock pushed down on me again, pushing me closer to Thomas’s face.
He shifted, bringing his arms up. I could see the effort it took, how much it hurt him to do so.
He pulled up on my mask, freeing my lips, my nose. He was uncomfortably close.
“Do it, it’s okay,” he said. “In fact, consider it an explicit order.”
“I… can’t,” I said back, “It’s too…”
I trailed off.
“This is a matter of life… and death, Alexis, we can’t let something like that stop us now.”
I grimaced at the thought of it, but the desperation in me told me he was right. I might be able to get some strength back to get this thing off of me, but even then, I’d never pushed myself that hard before.
Thomas hacked out a cough, and spurts of blood flew from his mouth.
“Alexis, we need to get out of here. You… know, I managed to get some stuff on Solace. You were right about Benny, but she’s nothing but a hired gun, not unlike Edgar, and Linda. And Styx…”
He coughed again.
“I want to share my… notes, with you. You need to get us out of here.”
Impossible, it was impossible.
I blinked more tears away, the water collecting at the bottom of my goggles.
“Please, Alexis, it’s okay,” Thomas said, soft. “The search party might go away soon. If you can at least move the rock, you can get their attention, and they might find help on their end.”
My arms, my entire body, twitched from the weight of the burden. I nodded once.
“Take off my goggles,” I said.
I had my eyes closed when he did so, setting them above my eyebrows. I put my thoughts elsewhere, to the other times I drank blood. Blood from Thomas’s cut finger, blood spilled onto Styx’s bike, blood from when I stabbed Benny…
Blood from that rabbit.
Animal, I had to think of this like taking from a mere animal.
“Okay,” I said, defeated, “Okay.”
I opened my eyes, and saw Thomas working on unbuttoning his shirt, exposing his collar, the skin underneath.
Oh, right. How else was I to do this? Lick the wounds on his face? Not enough blood, there, to get anything substantial, I could tell by some twisted instinct. I had to go a more direct way.
“I’ve never really done it that way, before,” I said. The situation was too grave to be embarrassed at the wording.
“Let’s set a rule first,” Thomas said, leaning his head one way, until his forehead pressed against rock. “I’ll lift myself to you as much as I can, so you don’t have to lean down any more. I’ll have to determine when you’ve had enough, and, if and when we get to that point, I’ll pat you on the back. Do you understand?”
I nodded again.
“It’s going to hurt,” I said. I was sure it would.
“I can deal, let’s do this. Good luck.”
Thomas pushed himself up, and I felt his body heat get hotter as it approached my lips. My breathing got even heavier, as I realized what I was about to do.
I opened my mouth. My lips pressed against the top of his shoulder, then my teeth. My tongue tasted of sweat.
I closed my eyes.
I bit down.
I expected a resistance, where the skin would be hard to pierce. And there was… at first. It was a lot like biting an apple. A small instance of difficulty, putting more effort than what was probably needed, then juice spilled forth.
And it did.
Thomas drew in a quick breath. I felt muscles briefly tighten around my teeth.
It seemed easier than it should have been, biting him, and getting him to bleed. I didn’t think on that now, I only drank.
Drinking only brought attention to just how thirsty I was, how drained I was of sustenance. How I deprived myself of such a delectable flavor.
It was good. So good that I couldn’t think.
Tasting it again, I was at a loss of words, other than ‘sweet.’ It summed it up perfectly. Short, sweet, to the point.
I swallowed, and it reinvigorated. A surge that washed over me, leaving me with more power than I had felt in years.
With every gulp, I felt like I was gaining something. Yet, at the same time, I was giving up an essential part of myself in exchange.
It took me a while before I came back to my senses.
A smack, a slap against my neck. I made a sound in response.
“I think that’s… more than enough,” Thomas said, weaker than ever. “I feel like I’m about to faint.”
I made another sound. Had I gone too far? Would I have even stopped, if I wasn’t prompted?
Dangerous, nearly lost myself there.
I pulled away from Thomas, a trail of blood still linking my lower lip and his marks, dotted in red. A clear imprint of teeth was left behind.
Thomas fixed his shirt back into place, hiding it. He moved his arm, wiping my chin with his sleeve.
I didn’t thank him, I didn’t waste any more time.
I just fought my way back to my feet.
It was like there was a second wind under me, I could move without being completely hindered. I pushed up, by my back, and the rubble gave way.
It was still massive, and that jutted edge pressed more into my shoulder blade, but I was making progress.
The aches and pangs came back and stronger, screaming at my body to stop, to give up. I screamed in return.
I kept pushing, and the rubble was being lifted higher. I was almost about to think that I’d make it. That it was feasible. Escape.
The rubble was high enough that I was able to finally change positions. I shifted my feet so my soles were flat on the ground, and I was crouched. My hands no longer had to work to keep me up, and I pressed them against the rubble. My forearm that had the knife flared up in pain as I lifted.
I was working to a standing position, now, and to get this off of me.
For me, for Thomas. For Mom. For Katy, for Kristin. For Maria. Even for Gomez.
Heavy, my muscles stiffening, but I was still getting somewhere. Getting to my feet.
I heard the distant falling of other rocks. Rubble that was stacked on top of the one that had me pinned. It had added to the weight, but with excess sliding off, it was becoming much easier, now.
I howled, and I pushed.
More pain meant more progress, and I was on fire.
I was standing, but I was hunched over, and light was rushing in between slits and cracks. I was able to hear what Thomas was talking about earlier, the search party. They were here, and I had their attention.
One more, Alexis, just one more, and we’re out of here.
One more solid push, and I’d get this thing off of me, and out of my life.
I mustered everything I had into one last effort. One last throw.
Everything went white. I was yelling, but I didn’t hear it. I was pushing, but my body didn’t feel it. I just did.
And then it was over.
When I came to, I was standing, and huge chunks of rubble were being flipped over, falling around behind me.
I was free. I felt like I was about to float away.
There was a moment of stillness, like even the world itself couldn’t believe what just transpired. Even I couldn’t believe it.
I stared at Thomas, and he stared back, eyes wide, mouth open.
Stunned as I was.
His mouth moved, but it was lost on me. I tilted my head, then turned.
The ceiling was completely gone, having collapsed into the room below. The explosion also left behind a huge, gaping hole in the wall, light pouring in. People were coming up the pile of rock and rubble, by way of the hole. Paramedics.
A few circled around me and Thomas. They went right to taking care of Thomas.
One of them faced me, his mouth moved. I didn’t quite understand, but it had something to do with my arms.
I looked at them. The knife, through my sleeve and my arm.
I shook my head once. I pulled the knife out, and tossed it away. My arm went right to taking care of itself, but my sleeve covered up the process.
Other paramedics were here, forming a larger circle around us. We were standing in a pile of debris, the footing uneven. I’d be taking up space if I stayed here, loitering around. I had to leave Thomas to the professionals. I didn’t need to be looked after.
I began to take the path of least resistance, where I could step without risking a tumble all the down. If I fell, I probably wouldn’t get up again.
Slow, cumbersome, but I managed, and I ended up essentially coming back the way I came. I stood in the wide and tall corridor, in one of the wings of city hall.
Arms by my side, stiff, and I had a slouch. I was more zombie than human, right now.
I want to sleep so bad.
Others were in the hall with me, mostly police. Some began to approach when they noticed me.
If I tried to run, I’d most likely fall over, and that’d be the end of it. I stayed put, readying myself for yet another fight, prepared to bite back, if I had to.
One other cop, originally standing by himself, jogged to intercept the incoming cops. He stopped them, waved his arms. Talking with his hands?
Then, the incoming cops turned around, and went elsewhere. The single cop approached, in their stead. I didn’t relax.
“I won’t lie, you saved my ass, up there. That was truly something.” He then drew out a long breath. “He should be in good hands, now.”
His voice, his face. I was familiar with it, I was supposed to recognize it, but I had trouble connecting the dots. Maybe it was the bloodied nose, mucking everything up.
It took a minute.
His face changed.
“You okay, do you need to be checked out?”
His name is James Gomez, he’s the police chief of the Stephenville Police Department. Thomas’s friend.
“James Gomez,” I said, like I was learning to read for the first time.
“I can’t see your face, but I know when someone’s out of it. Do you need to be checked out?”
No, you’re fine.
“No, I’m fine,” I said.
“Are you sure?”
Yes, you are.
“Yes, I am,” I said.
Gomez checked behind him before asking, “Can you walk?”
I nodded, and took a step. Gomez accepted that as an answer, and proceeded to lead the way, heading to the stairs.
“Things are still pretty bad,” Gomez said, as we went down. “Dozens injured, including the mayor, but thankfully no casualties. Yet, maybe. There’s still spurts of fighting here and there, but when the explosion happened, everyone cleared out of the building in an instant. Little did I know that you and Thomas were down there. Guess I was lucky to come, anyway.”
I had to hold onto the wooden railing to keep my balance. I was much slower going down, Gomez had to accommodate for me.
My throat wasn’t dry, but I had no energy to waste on words. I’d only speak when I really had to.
Gomez continued, “If things weren’t already bad, this happens. A massive explosion in a government building. I think the only thing that was bigger in recent memory was, well, you. I bet Solace didn’t see this coming.”
We turned, and continued down. The whole area was a stark contrast from before. Only our footsteps made any sound as we descended, and there wasn’t another soul on the lower floor.
“But, it’s not all bad,” Gomez said. “We prevented Solace from fully accomplishing whatever it is they had planned, and we got Thomas back. We didn’t net a win, but at least Solace suffered a loss.”
A win, a loss? There was a massive explosion in a government building. That was bad, no matter how you slice it. Solace played with fire, there, and maybe it was supposed to be a bluff, but it ended with everyone else getting burned. He’d pay for that, and I’d see to it, myself.
After I get some sleep.
“This way,” Gomez said, turning another way. “And pick up the pace.”
I did my best to follow as he led me behind the flight of stairs. A metal door was situated underneath. He opened it.
“Hurry,” he said, going through it. I was a step behind.
More stairs, leading down. The space was small, made of stone, lit by bulbs hanging above us. The stairs spiraled.
The explosion still had me in shock, I still hadn’t really processed anything that happened after it.
At the end of the stairs was another metal door, and Gomez pushed through. We both stepped into a lower level of the building. It looked to be like a underground bunker of sorts, a tunnel.
“Where are we?” I asked.
“Underground tunnels connecting different facilities, even offices that are located under city hall. Secret, but not really, this one in particular funnels to a kind of mini-mall, full of gift shops and knick-knacks, shit like that.”
Gomez walked again, and I followed.
“And?” I asked.
“Don’t make me admit that I’m invariably helping you slip away,” he said.
“After the explosion, we set up a perimeter around the entire building. No one gets in or out. But the mall wasn’t included in that perimeter, it wasn’t considered. And it’s still early in the morning. Other than some shopkeepers opening up, no one’s going to be there.”
“You’re escorting me out?”
“I’m not going to go that far, I’m just showing you the way.”
I wasn’t about to question him if he was handing me an escape route on a silver platter. I walked.
We continued until we reached what seemed to be the end of the corridor. Larger metal doors, and I felt a draft coming from under it.
Gomez took a step back, gesturing towards the door. “The mall’s that way, and you can go from there. Wash your face, or get a fresh set of clothes if you can. Once you’re out those doors, you’re on your own again. Get caught, that’s on you.”
He then reached to his side, and whipped out a gun. He pointed it at me. He clicked it.
I tried raising my hands, but they were lifeless, by this point.
If I had to, though, I might be able to take him…
“Mind explaining this?” I asked.
“I found you, tried to take you in by myself for the credit,” Gomez said. “To get some more clout and pull in my own force again. But you fought, you got away.”
“Is that the story you’re going to tell others?”
“It’s the story I’m going to tell myself. Blank Face, or the Bluemoon, didn’t technically make an appearance at city hall, did she?”
“Call me crazy, but I do want to believe you can do more good out there than locked up. No matter what Solace says. Or, maybe I just don’t want Solace to get their way. Ha, I guess I am crazy.”
There was a compliment in there, somewhere, but I was too out of it to want to look for it.
I’d rather give him less of a reason to change his mind.
“Do you want some good? Thomas said that he has some dirt on Solace, it might be useful. Can you see what you get from him, and actually use that info?”
Gomez nodded once, slowly.
“Don’t make me regret this.”
I would’ve smiled, but my face hurt.
“Regret what? I fought you, I got away.”
Gomez didn’t drop his gun, but he moved it to the side, pointing to the door.
A mutual understanding.
Without a word, I turned to the door, and stepped through it. A cold air met me, and I moved on to my next goal. Getting the fuck home.
I sat in a chair in the corner, curled in a ball.
Through squinted eyes, I watched everyone as they handled the news.
Kristin had her arms around Katy, and they were both still bawling. Maria was sitting two chairs down, leaning forward, hands around her stomach. My mom was standing, an island of her own, quietly taking everything in, too. She must have been a wreck, as well.
I didn’t make it home in time. My mom had gotten the call while arriving at work, but turned right around to pick me up. But I wasn’t there yet. She found me crossing the parking lot, dressed in clothes she hadn’t seen before. I gave a weak explanation, that I decided to skip school and go for a walk. Even I wouldn’t believe me, if I was in my mom’s shoes.
Didn’t matter. She ushered me in the van, and she drove. I’d be in trouble another time.
Gomez called Kristen, and Kristen called my mom. I texted Maria.
They found Thomas. He was in critical condition, but he was hospitalized, now, and he was being worked on. We all rushed to the hospital he was at.
We sat in the waiting area, doing the only thing one could do in such a place. It had only been an hour, but I suspected we’d be here for many more.
Even here, I had to wear a mask. I had to lie to my mom about where I was, I had to pretend I was hearing about Thomas for the first time, I had to act like an ‘Alexis’ that never played a part in this. But that concept, that identity, had been gone for quite a while.
Again, another mask.
Everyone was absorbed in their own emotions, a mix of relief and fear. And I was wrapped up in that, too, but I was too exhausted to express anything.
We have him, I thought to myself, These are tears of happiness. Solace can wait, just for now. God, let me have this, let me revel in the comfort of that.
I let my eyes close. Leave it to being in a hospital, where I was allowed to rest in peace.
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?
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…”
“That should be it.”
The driver accepted that. She had better, this was probably her most profitable night in years.
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.
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.
“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.
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.”
“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.
“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.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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 the group that took me, they all had masks, I didn’t see their faces.”
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?
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 someone… somewhere, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.’
“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!”
“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.
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.
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 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.