I repeated the word, still trying to process what I was seeing.
This girl was the one driving the van. Her. Someone this young.
Drifting around corners, racing down streets like a professional. Like a madman, honestly.
I kept staring at her, but it was becoming more and more implausible.
She was short, young, definitely not the legal age to even hold a permit. Short, brown bob cut, disheveled from the van’s sudden stop. Pale skin, indigo eyes. A white sweater with a bomber jacket on top, three sizes too big. The jacket matched with her skirt, leather and black. Black boots. The choker around her neck threw me for even more of a loop.
For a getaway driver, she was pretty well coordinated.
But that was neither here nor there.
Just her being here raised so many questions.
I regained enough of my senses to ask the most pressing one.
“Where are your parents?”
The girl made a face, as if the most reasonable question to ask was instead the most stupid.
“Mind if I lie to you? I’m not up for giving you a proper explanation. I’d rather make it up.”
Flabbergasted couldn’t even begin to describe it.
This was it, right? Thomas’s van? I couldn’t have done this whole chase across the city just to find some stuffed animals… and her. Did I have it right, or was this some elaborate prank?
I had enough sense to ask something else, instead.
“Where’d you find this van? Did you get it back at the factory?”
“What if I did?”
She had a subtle lisp, I noticed. Probably from that missing tooth. She whistled when she talked.
But she still sounded like a child. High-pitched and grating. It annoyed.
She really was just a kid.
I gave her a pointed look.
“It’s not good to take things that aren’t yours, kid. Didn’t your parents ever teach you any common sense?”
She made another face, complete with that sneer from before. “They taught me plenty, thank you very much.”
I noted the past tense, but I didn’t comment.
A honk, and I moved my head. Claire’s taxi was approaching, coming up beside me.
She brought down her window.
She didn’t sound very happy.
“Claire,” I said, but I didn’t know how to go about handling her. My mind was preoccupied with another matter, and my body was doing its own thing.
I was sore, and my healing wasn’t done doing its rounds. Bones creaked as they joined together, a strange, welcoming numbness soothed me into a better condition.
My clothes didn’t have the same ability, however. My windbreaker weathered a few rips in some places, and I was a few steps away from becoming soleless.
Your shoes, you mean.
“One second,” was all I could tell Claire. For the moment.
I looked back at the girl.
“I’m not through with you, but we have to take this somewhere else. Can’t have cops interrupting us. Do you have any place we can go?”
Using her sleeve, the girl wiped the bottom of her lip.
“There’s a place,” she said.
“Good, because you’re taking us there, now. And don’t try anything funny.”
I backed up to close the driver’s side door, and turned to address Claire.
“My taxi’s-” she started, but I spoke over her..
“I’m really sorry about… this, but she’s going to have to take precedence,” I said. “We’re heading somewhere else to have a proper discussion.”
“Don’t know, but you’re free to come along. And after I’m through with her, we can figure something out, between the two of us. Sound okay to you?”
Claire put the taxi in reverse, presumably to get a better look at the girl.
“Yo!” the girl said.
Then, Claire gave me a pointed look.
“Yeah. It’s… strangely complicated.”
Claire shook her head.
“Whatever. I’m coming.”
I nodded. “Alright. See you in a bit.”
I was in a hurry, now, moving back to the van, sliding the passenger door open. More stuffed bears fell out onto the street.
“Hey, I need those!” the girl whined. “And what are you doing?”
I picked up the bears, throwing them back inside. I closed the door.
“I’m making sure you don’t cause any more trouble,” I said. “Go.”
This place was a shithole.
The building smelled of must, and it was warm. The recent rain seeped into cracks and holes, dripping from the ceiling and soaking the tiled floor, making the air sticky. Moist. It would be very easy to slip and fall into one of the many bags of trash or litter accumulating the different floors.
This place was an apartment complex. People lived here.
The girl led the way, taking us into one of the apartments. Based on the numbers of the doors around us, this was apartment 414, but the ‘1’ was scratched out, the grooves in the door making a ‘0’ instead.
“I’m back,” the girl called out, as all of us filtered inside. No one answered.
The lights were already on, but they were low, not running on full capacity. Everything was cast in a burnt orange hue.
Looking around, the apartment might as well have been ransacked. Nothing of even potentially sentimental value was anywhere to be found. Just boxes, stacked together and kept out of the way. There was a single bedroom, kitchen, and bathroom, and only a couch here in the living room. The doors were closed, I could only imagine what was being hidden behind those doors, considering how seedy this place was.
The air was humid in here, too, the smell masked only by an air freshener plugged in the corner. It smelled of lavender.
Cracks in the wall, the floor creaking with every step. Smaller, secluded holes in corners that suggested other, four-legged tenants.
This girl lived here, didn’t she?
No shit, but it was still a hard pill to swallow. Who would subject themselves to these living conditions?
“Welcome to my humble abode,” the girl said, falling into the couch, by a bundle of blankets. The bundle squirmed.
“Humble doesn’t even begin to put it into words,” I said.
“Well, originally, it was gonna be renovated and cleaned up, you know, gentrification, but the tenants had something to say about that. With the help of some local gangs, they drove out the company in charge, and the city hasn’t really cared to do anything about it, after the fact. Of course, they scared off everyone whose job it was to clean this dump, and it’s been running itself into the ground ever since. Eating itself alive.”
“And you chose to live here?”
The girl shrugged. “I dunno, I needed a quick and easy place to crash. I just came back into the city.”
“You mean you’re by yourself? Alone?”
Claire got a word in before I could. But she was speaking for the both of us, there.
“I’m not alone, I’ve got Macy.”
A hard tug, and the girl threw the blanket off the couch, revealing a woman laying there, curled up. She wasn’t moving, but she was breathing, looking more unconscious than asleep.
Claire, for her part, took several steps back.
“Ah, damn, I told you to lay off the stuff already,” the girl said, leaning over Macy and swatting at her hand. “One more hit like that and you’re donezo.”
Macy reacted, twitching, yet delayed. Her hands opened, and a needle slipped between her fingers, onto the floor.
Claire took another step back.
“Is that…” she started to ask.
“Huh? Oh, nah, she was already here when I moved in, but I don’t think she’s noticed.”
“Wait, hold on.”
I had to stop Claire, or we’d end up going nowhere. I lifted my hands, a signal to move to a different topic.
“I came up with a whole list of questions to ask on the way here, just so I can get it down all at once, and not forget anything. This might be pressing by itself, but there are more important things I want to get to.”
While I was talking, the girl was pulling the blanket over Macy again, fixing it so her face wasn’t obscured. When she finished, she fell back into the couch.
“Sure, ask away. You did catch me, after all, so I guess you deserve a prize.”
From behind my mask, I gave her a pointed look. Even though her biological parents weren’t seemingly around, she was in desperate need of some serious guidance, and counseling.
“First off, a name.”
“You first, O’ Masked One.”
I bit my lip.
I was in need of some blood, soon. I could drain her dry right here, and no one would miss her.
I looked at Claire, but she averted her eyes. Looking at her made me realize it was the first time I’d ever had a clear view of her.
Shoulder length hair, red, tied back. White shirt and jeans. Pushing thirty, if not there already. The creases in her forehead aged her.
She would have been pretty, in another, less stressful life.
My eyes went back to the girl.
“You know who I am, or who I used to be.”
The girl crossed her arms.
I tapped my side, making sure my knife was still there.
She grinned, showing the gap in the upper row of her teeth.
“How super, the hero in the flesh. Emphasis on super.” She then eyed me. Up, then down.
“Not gonna lie, I thought you were a boy.”
I nearly rolled my eyes. She would have seen if I did that.
“I thought the same thing, too.”
I saw Claire, hands in her pockets. She sounded guilty.
I fixed my hood, setting it more evenly on my head. “Sorry for not choosing something more revealing, or skin-tight. I went for something neutral, people made their assumptions and I didn’t feel the need to correct them. Truth be told, it’s probably been a more effective disguise than any mask I’ve worn.”
But that disguise is gone now. Benny blew it wide open. Now everyone knows that the Bluemoon is a girl, of some Asian ethnicity.
I felt the anger flow within, continuing to shift me. Like magma, under plates of earth.
“That doesn’t matter, not anymore. I’m not here as the Bluemoon, and I’m not quite sure if I’m even here as a hero.”
The girl spoke. “That surprisingly keeps us at square one. I’ll call you ‘Bluemoon,’ easier that way.”
I was more than a touch annoyed, but not enough to make a big fuss over it.
“That’s fine, I suppose,” I said. “But now it’s your turn.”
“Right. Okay, if we’re going by code names, then you can call me ‘D.’”
“Like the letter. D as in ‘deepthroat.’”
Again, I tapped my side.
The girl, Dee – no, D – laughed, the sort of laugh that was unrestrained, uncaring of public decency.
Full of surprises, she was.
D settled down, and cleared her throat.
“Alright, what else you got?” she asked.
Now she was the one asking questions.
I decided to roll with it.
“The van. You stole it from that factory, did you not?”
“That’s a pretty strong word, but sure. I needed a way around, and I happened upon it. If it’s any consolation, I’ve been good about parking it there whenever I’m done with it, and I gas it up every time.”
“Barely a consolation,” I commented. “But the van isn’t my main priority, actually, though it is useful. There was equipment in there I was looking for. Police scanners, radios, laptops. I didn’t see any of it when I rode with you here.”
“Oh, all that junk? I needed the space, and some cash, so I pawned it.”
I crossed the living room.
I grabbed her at the collar, and threw her onto the wall behind her. I kept her up there.
Claire yelped at how sudden I was.
“You fucking didn’t,” I said, my patience with her having thinned away to nothingness. Young, old, it didn’t matter. I’d break them if they deserved it.
D hardly reacted or panicked. Her arms stayed by her sides. Her vulpine sneer returned.
“I fucking did. I saw an opportunity, and I took it. I was short on cash when I came back, and anything helps when trying to get back on your feet, yeah? Can’t blame me for trying to feed myself a little.”
I made a sound, nearing a growl, and I dropped her. D fell onto the couch, landing on top of Macy. I walked back to where I had been standing before.
I was seething. Barely restrained.
All that work, that whole rabbit chase, and it led to nothing. I was still empty-handed. Nothing to show for all that effort.
I tired of this, spinning my wheels and going nowhere. I craved progress, even more than I craved blood.
I tried looking around for Hleuco, but then I realized he hadn’t come in with us. I would have imagined him wanting to come through the window, but the ones here were boarded up. Unless he didn’t want to show himself if I moved my head elsewhere, I was by myself.
Standing still, I gave myself a moment to cool off, shifting my weight from foot to foot.
D propped herself up, pushing away from Macy, settling back onto the couch. She looked at Claire.
“Props to you, by the way,” she said, as she tugged at her choker.
“That’s some serious driving you did, good job.”
“Seriously, it was really badass, like-”
We all looked at Claire, who had begun to make an ‘X’ with her arms.
“Look, girls, I’m just a cab driver. I purposely put myself in the dark about this stuff so I can try and sleep at night while making some decent money for my own girls. I don’t know why the literal actual superhero is looking for police scanner shit, and I don’t know why you… are whoever you are. My taxi got fucked in that chase, and my shift ends in an hour. How am I supposed to explain that to my real boss when I take it back in?”
D grumbled, getting up from the couch, towards one of the stacks of boxes. She moved them, opening one from the middle of the stack.
She pulled out a teddy bear. And a sizable stack of cash.
Across the room, she tossed them to Claire. She caught them both.
“Do you know Patrick, over at Pecan? The Ferryman.”
Claire answered, holding the bear out in front of her. It didn’t look particularly dirty.
“I’ve passed there a few times,” she answered.
“Give that bear to him, and tell him I send my regards. He should give you a good enough patch-up job. Nothing crazy, but it’ll do. The cash should be enough to cover your ‘detour’ for the night.”
Claire held the bear away from her even more. “Is there something in here?”
“Unless you’re a customer yourself, then nope.”
Hearing that, Claire’s entire body language changed. She let her arms fall beside her, still holding the bear, and money.
“Appreciate it,” she said. The sarcasm was laid on thick.
She looked to me, and my head had cleared up some more. I was ready to get back into this conversation.
“Yeah?” I said.
“I have to leave now if I want to get everything back in working order and clock out on time. If I hurry, I can drop you off somewhere, but it’d have to be along the way.”
Taking a breath, I placed a hand on my hip.
“You can go, I still have unfinished business here. I’ll manage getting back.”
I wasn’t expecting this night to go down the way it was going, considering I was expecting Gomez to be my go-to option, but with D being here, I wanted to get a grip on what she was about.
Claire nodded, curt. “If that’s okay with you, then I’ll be going. And if you ever need a lift in the future, boss, you have my number. I promise I won’t run the meter.”
Not surprised, but pleased.
“That means a lot, Claire, thank you. Again, sorry about the-”
She stopped me with a gesture, lifting the bear. Then, she went to leave the apartment.
The door closed with a heavy clunk, and it was just me and the girl. D.
Well, there was Macy, but she wasn’t so much here as she was… there.
I turned, facing D again. She had returned to the couch, her legs crossed, with an expectant expression.
This fucking girl…
No, she was more like a character.
“And I’m not done with you,” I told her.
“I’d be disappointed if you were.”
“Those scanners would have been really helpful. The police have got eyes and ears everywhere, and I’d-”
“Puh-lease,” she said, interjecting. “That old junk’s worthless, they can’t pick up even half the channels the cops use nowadays, and what they can pick up, the signal’s shoddy at best. They’re outdated, even paperweights make fun of them. If you want something better than that, I’m your girl. I can out-scan any pleb-tier gadget that Señor Gomez has.”
I took a step to her.
“Wait, ‘Gomez?’ As in James Gomez, Chief of Police?”
D snapped her fingers. “Yeah yeah, him.”
“You know him?”
She glanced to the corner of the couch. “I’ve had some run-ins with him, in the past.”
Another surprise. It was getting harder to keep up.
“Do you know where I can get another scanner?” I asked.
D grumbled, and then her hands went into her lap.
“Scanner this, scanner that, blah blah blah. What do you even want to do with those things, anyway? They’re not even very fun to play with. If you want a toy so bad I’ve got a spare tablet I picked up-”
“Because I’m looking for someone.”
She stopped for a second, and then looked very interested. Curious.
I sighed. No harm in telling her.
“Benny, from The Chariot.”
D lifted an eyebrow.
“Oof, if I had dollar for every time I heard that name.”
I approached her again, at a pace that was inhuman. D reacted, putting her feet up on the couch, pressing her back to the wall.
Even Macy stirred.
“Don’t tell me you know her, too,” I said. “You know where she is?”
I was cornering her, throwing her off. I had enough of her attitude. Too smug for her own good, and for her age.
I put my foot on the couch, raising my head to look at her. I questioned her again. “Do you know where she is?”
D brought up her hands, her palms facing me. “Whoa whoa, I’m not saying that at all! I just meant I’ve heard people mentioning her ever since I came back. Like with Gomez, I’ve run into her and her gang, but they were still nobodies last time I checked. Now? It’s like she’s the hottest thing on the block. It’s strange.”
“It’s not strange. Everyone’s after Benny, and I have to beat them to it. She’s in hiding, biding her time until she can leave the city. But I’m not going to let her have that chance, she’s not getting out of this alive.”
The expression on D’s face changed, taking in everything. The corners of her mouth folded upward.
“Oh ho? I like the sound of that.”
She shifted, standing on a couch cushion, her hands on her hips. She leaned towards me, seeing me at eye level.
“I was afraid that you were going to turn out to be boring. But you’re already bringing the party to me. I’m in.”
The hell is she rambling about?
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“I mean exactly that. I want to help. Wait, not want, I will help you.”
I frowned, but my mask’s expression was blank.
“You? You’re going to help me?”
Her smile widened.
“Of course. I know these streets like the back of my hand. Other kids my age couldn’t even walk down the street without their heads in their phones, telling them where to go.”
“That’s not the part I’m questioning,” I said.
D restated her point, “You don’t have to worry about me. I’ll be your eyes and ears, even your personal bodyguard, if it has to come to that.”
I huffed, a light scoff. “Highly doubt it’ll get to that point.”
D rolled her eyes. “Fine, but I’m still a good piece to have on the board. You could stand to have me by your side.”
“Hm, and what piece would you be, should I decide to put you on this metaphorical board?”
I saw careful thought cross D’s face, taking her time.
After some deliberation, she answered.
Speaking for myself, I’d never played chess. And, gathering from what connections and memories I decided to take, neither had Alexis.
But that wasn’t the main focal point, here. Was this girl actually going to be of any use? She seemed to be pretty knowledgeable about Stephenville and its underground, and she probably knew more than I ever did. My ventures into that world usually took place in the night, and I had a clean bed to come home to. This girl lived in that world. It was the ugly reality she faced each and every day.
And she faced it with a smug, irritating sneer.
Oddly inspiring, I had to admit.
But there was another point to consider.
“How do I know that I can trust you?”
I decided to ask, rather than speculate in my own head.
D seemed to be taken aback, stumbling on the couch. She straightened herself, and her back.
“Of, of course you can trust me. I mean it when I say I will help you. It’s just a matter of whether or not you want it.”
Talking around my question. She wasn’t being entirely convincing.
“Alright, how about this? Why should I let you help me?”
“Because you don’t have any leads, and you don’t have a lot of time. I can get you both. You wear a mask, and that tells me that you have some other life you need to attend to. Me? I’m out there, all day, every day, by myself, and no one bats an eye. I’m free to do whatever. During the day, I can ask around, discreetly, and see what I can come up with. And that saves you time to properly prepare, and you can do the whole superhero schtick, and give the bad guys exactly what they deserve.”
I saw into her eyes, and I knew she meant every word. She was being serious.
It was a look I’d seen before. But exactly when or where or who was unclear. Vague, like a foggy memory, getting more distorted the more I tried to reconnect. It wasn’t worth the resulting headache.
Maybe she really would be of use? My options were limited, no thanks to her, but she did have a point about accessibility. I was still chained to the name of ‘Alexis,’ and someone like Gomez was chained in a similar way, by the law, as perverted as it was. Even Claire had other responsibilities, I couldn’t expect her to be at my constant beck and call. D didn’t seem to be tied by those restrictions. As she put it, she was free to do whatever.
‘D’ for ‘different,’ I suppose.
By and large, an extra pair of eyes and ears wasn’t a bad idea. It just had to be her eyes and ears, though.
If she ever proves to be an issue, we can dispose of her easily. A resource for blood.
Even I had my reservations about that idea.
I broke eye contact with her, and gave her some space. She got down from the couch.
“Here’s what we’ll do,” I told her. “You’re… an anomaly, but in the grand scheme of everything, so am I. I’m willing to give us a shot, if you’re really as good as you think you are.”
D clasped her hands together, doing a small hop in celebration. “Yes! This is going to be so fun!”
“But,” I said, cutting her short. I let the word hang. “If you give me a reason to doubt you, for even just a second, I will kill you.”
I didn’t mean that last part, but it was over-the-top enough to drive the point home.
D didn’t seem very bothered by that threat. “Looks like I’ve got my work cut out for me. Double fun!”
I heard a soft rumble, and D patted her jacket, then slipped her hand into a pocket. She took out a cell phone. It looked new, better than any phone I, or Alexis, had ever owned.
“And will you look at that, great timing. Hey, do you have anywhere else you need to be right now? Or better yet, when does your whole superhero shift end?”
I thought about Shiori, sleeping in the smaller of the two bedrooms in the apartment. Come morning, she’d wake up, get ready for work, then leave without ever checking on me or my room. She gave Alexis her space in the mornings, something I was more than happy to capitalize on.
“It ends when I get my hands on Benny,” I replied. “Why?”
“Because, I was originally on my way to park your van and call it a night, though you kinda got in the way of that. But, I did have a job I was saving until morning, might as well take care of it now, since I still have the van with me. So my real question is, do you want to come along?”
“Why should I?”
“If it all goes well, we might have a clear lead on Benny. Instead of asking you to trust me, I’ll prove it.”
I watched as the little girl puffed out her chest, even though there wasn’t anything to puff out. It would have been endearing, if it hadn’t come from her.
A piece on the board, begging to be played. I just hoped it was the right move.