Back to square one.
But I had no clear path to getting there, though.
Up ahead? No way. Behind me? Again, no way.
Left, the giant hole leading outside? Maybe, but I’d be even more out in the open.
No way in hell was I going right.
I only had a few seconds before bullets would start flying, and I’d be torn to shreds. Had to make a decision, a path to take. A direction to go.
The bullets flew before the thought could fully take hold. I went with that draft of an idea.
The blast affected the walls, ceiling, and floor. A decent-sized hole was taken out from the floor, right by my hands.
I dove for it.
Hot, piercing. Tearing through me.
The deafening noise, the sudden darkness, it debilitated, and I lost control of my movements. The hole wasn’t neatly formed. I bumped and broke through wiring and pipes and other material. I got stuck partway through, but my weight ended up breaking through the rest of the stuff.
I fell, and collapsed onto another floor, the lower level. The gunfire above was hardly dampened.
I scrambled to find my way to my feet, but a searing pain kept me down. I fell again, flat on my face.
I’d been shot.
I felt it in my shoulder and hip. A clean shot through my right shoulder, a messier one through my side. A bullet was stuck in my left hip, and it flared in pain when I tried to stand. I couldn’t move properly.
Hot, hot. Bullets were flying, flaming bits of metal. It was fucking hot.
With my good arm, I touched my face, the back of my head. No wound there. I felt some relief, but not much. I was still injured.
Operating on half-thoughts, responding to certain and immediate stimuli. Pain, move. Safety, find.
I felt around for my knife, and found it among a small collection of wires, drywall, and other bits of metal. I balled my hand around the handle and crawled to get moving, in case someone tried to shoot at me through the ceiling. Pulling with my good arm, dragging my legs behind me.
Maneuvering was slow, but my shoulder started healing enough that I could use it. I hauled my arm out in front me, testing it. Heavy, tight around the shoulder itself. It’d be another minute until I had full functionality.
My hip, however, was glacial in its healing. I still couldn’t stand, or even move my foot or wiggle my toes. How bad was the hit? How far in was that bullet?
Wincing, I crawled to the nearest cubicle. Another office space, but it seemed like I was alone. If anyone else was here, they didn’t announce themselves after I crashed through the ceiling.
Had to hide for now, recuperate. Had to figure out what to do with my hip. The bullet was lodged in there, preventing my healing from fully doing its job. I’d have to get it out, somehow.
I placed myself under the desk of a cubicle, pulling my one good leg towards me, and letting the other leg rest, flat on the floor. With my back against the surface of the cubicle, I allowed myself a moment to breathe.
I could barely breathe.
The best I could manage were short, quick huffs. Like a snake had coiled around my chest, constricting me. I didn’t even get shot in the chest. But my body felt as though it was seizing.
My ears were ringing, my head and heart were pounding. My lungs were getting less air with every breath I tried to take.
And my thoughts couldn’t tear themselves away from that bullet that nearly went through my head.
It echoed. Loud. So loud that it discombobulated. I was losing track of who I was, where I was, and what I was originally trying to do.
It echoed. Why? That bullet never even touched me, yet I was freaking out, my body just barely under my own control.
And why now? I’d experienced loud sounds, and I had a wandering memory that informed me that I’d been at shot before. I couldn’t make sense of this, or anything else.
I shut my eyes tight, drawing my arms and my only usable leg as close as possible. Voices were shouting in my head, muffled as murmurs, but amplified to a painful degree. Screaming, shouting. Classroom. It reminded me of the classroom. The bodies, the sweet fragrance they produced. The blood.
I couldn’t function like this. I still had the bullet in my hip, I still had to get it out. But I had little control over my mind and my body. Couldn’t function.
No, this couldn’t be me. Something else. I had to section it off, then discard it. This wasn’t me.
“You’re right, this isn’t you.”
Among the sea of voices fighting for my attention, one in particular stole my attention.
It was my own.
Cautious, I squinted into the gloom. I saw something move.
A solid as mist, but there was a general form to it. I could make out an outline.
Humanoid, but stretched out in places. Arms, legs. Hooded, covering the eyes, but two distinct, black lines dripped down snow-white cheeks, leaking from where I’d expect the eyes to be. A darker spot of black was seeped onto the top of hood, and its head lolled one way, as if the neck couldn’t support the head properly. Limping, lumbering forward. To me.
Between the dark it passed through, and passed through it, I saw dark streaks of blue.
I stopped breathing.
The figure lurched, stopping right at my foot. I wanted to pull that leg back, but it wouldn’t budge.
It stood there, staring at me.
“Look at you,” it said.
I tried backing away, but the wall of the cubicle stopped me.
“This is what I meant by getting more purchase, a stronger foothold. You keep relying on me, and in turn, my roots dig a little deeper. And in time, you know where that leads.”
I shuddered, and sucked a sliver of air between my teeth. It was the most I managed.
“Get… out of my head,” I said, exhaling the words.
Compartmentalizing helped, I felt my body starting to relax, the convulsions less intense, but it also lead to this.
I sectioned it off, but it became harder to discard.
Something about its stiff, stilted posture changed. A twitch. A response to what I had said.
“Funny, whose head do you think you’re in?”
The convulsions came back, even stronger now. Harsher. My head felt like it was about to split down to the skull.
No more air in my lungs, but I yelled at the top of them.
The figure took a step closer, but I was done being here.
Still yelling, I took my knife, and plunged into my side. My hip, where I had been shot.
I started digging.
I poked around the wound, hitting flesh, blood, and bone. I flicked the blade out, and all three splattered out. I stabbed myself again. The pain was almost too much to bear.
But I carried on.
I was an inch away from blacking out, but I hit something, softer than bone but harder than muscle, the blade was pushed away. The wound flared up with an even more intense heat, and I could feel the different parts of my hip move around. Flesh, blood, bone. I wasn’t in a good enough position to see it for myself, but something was happening, there.
Before it closed up, the wound spat out any and all foreign objects, and I could move both legs again.
I brought both legs in, and then I kicked.
I pressed myself off the floor, pushing my back more into the wall behind me. It gave way, snapping away from the other cubicle walls, and I fell along with it.
I had a way out, though, the ability to make distance. I flipped onto my stomach, and rushed to my feet.
Eyes wet, I tried blinking, but it made everything worse. Dark, blurry. I hurried away from the figure, but I was stumbling, knees weak.
I was frantic.
“Get away from me! Get out of my head!”
I bumped into a wall. A real wall or the side of a cubicle, I wasn’t sure. I couldn’t see very well, and I was screaming to get my head in order, and to keep moving. Trying to find sense in the nonsensical.
I was wholly concentrated on the concept of forward.
“I am V! I am holdfast and set in stone! And on this blank slate I swear I will carve out my own name! I will prove myself, and I will take what’s mine!”
My words carried an edge to them, sharp at the ends. I screamed my throat raw.
“You had your chance, and you failed! Now it’s my turn, and I will accomplish what you could not, and then some!”
I heard a group rush onto the floor from two different ends, their shouts joining my own. I made haste, but I had to bring my shoulder against a wall, using it to guide me forward.
I didn’t turn back, couldn’t waste the time and energy. Too slow. They were there, and the figure was there, too.
“This body is mine, this mind is mine! I am in control, I wear the crown! Just try and take it from me!”
I had to keep screaming, or else I’d lose my sense of purpose and direction. Risk be damned.
I heard the bullets fly, and I ducked my head on instinct. Leaning on the wall, I started running.
“I reject your memories, and I reject your connections! I refuse to let them tie me down! I am not Alexis Barnett!”
The ends of my statements were drowned out by the bullets storming the room. I was running to the other side of the space, another wall, lined with windows. The bullets soared overhead, and one broke a pane of glass ahead of me. I threw my shoulder into the opening, into the jagged edges.
Glass rained as pieces around me as I fell.
Two, three, how many stories it was, I slammed into pavement, and hard.
But, the crash did help in reorienting me, somewhat. More bones broke in some places, and definite bruises, but the healing now worked to get myself centered and present. Aware. I was coming to.
The ringing in my ears subsided as I worked myself to my feet.
“A sign, V, gimme a sign you’re here.”
A voice came through the haze of my mind, helping me get back on track to what was happening right now. Helping me focus.
The earpiece. I still had it on.
“D,” I said, clearer than I had anticipated. I expected something more rough.
“There you are. You scared me, thought I lost you for a second.”
“I’m here,” I said, looking around. “I’m mostly here.”
“Good, because I need you. Where are you right now?”
I checked around.
I was in an alley by the side of the building. Long, but I could see what was going on at both ends.
Red lights flashed at a consistent pattern, some blue appearing at regular intervals. Ambulances and cop cars. Gunfire still rang out, but it was contained in the building I had just jumped out of. Through the window.
I’ve been doing that a lot, lately.
I tested my thoughts, and they were my own. Checking again, I didn’t see the figure. It wasn’t here.
But that did not mean it would stay like that.
“I’m in an alley, right outside the FSM base. F…”
“F-Six,” D offered.
“Are you hurt, can you move?”
Did that concern come from a genuine place, or did she want to see this plan through?
“Got shot at, got hit, but I’m fine now. I can move.”
“Ah right, you’ve got that going for you.”
Palms flat on the ground, I brought myself up, getting on my feet once again. More shouting, from both ends of the alley.
Police. Must have heard when I crashed through the window.
I scanned up and down the alley, and bolted one way.
It forced me to run towards one group of cops, but the alley branched off in another direction. I made a hard left.
A chain-link fence. Almost three times my height.
I leapt over it, pressing my foot against the side of a building for more leverage, my hands on the top of the fence to smooth the process along.
I didn’t lose any speed as I touched ground.
“I’m on the move again,” I said. Even though I was making a break for it, I got the words out. Clear.
“Wish I could say the same for myself. Traffic’s got super crazy, everything’s backed up. Still at F-Four. You mentioned being mostly here, you know where we’re headed, right?”
Running, staying on the move, it helped make my mind run, too.
The plan. The fires. The Ghosts. D. Lawrence. Benny. E-One.
“E-One, where Lawrence said he had Benny.”
“Do we know any more than that?”
“Sadly, no. Lawrence isn’t responding.”
That was a problem, and a lack of communication made this all the more suspect. Were we being led to a trap?
What, exactly, was waiting for us, back at E-One?
The alley branched off again, and I took the turn. The fence was enough to hold off my pursuers, buying me time. I was farther away from the FSM base, too, which meant less in the way of obstacles.
I ran faster.
“What do you think?” I asked. “Any ideas?”
“Um, if Benny’s back at E-One, then the restaurant would be my first guess. Casa Martinez.”
The Ghost’s base.
“I should have just stayed back if I knew she’d show up there,” I said.
“Hindsight’s silly like that. At least we have a lead on Benny, now. We just need to get over there.”
“Should we meet up?” I asked, thinking up other ideas, plans.
“Nah,” D said. “We can communicate just as well, being separated. Chances are, you’ll get there faster than I will. Let’s meet at the restaurant.”
“I was thinking the same thing. I’ll try to find one of Lawrence’s crew, maybe I can get some info from them.”
“Yeah, I like that. I bet you’ll still beat me there.”
“It’s a start. Okay, see you-”
I saw it, at the end of the alley.
I ran the other way.
I found a fire escape I had passed earlier, and jumped to reach it. The first rung of the ladder was about ten feet high. I made it to the first level of the stairwell.
A squad of police appeared around the corner, running into this alley. Another group of them?
I ran up the stairwell, twisting and turning, higher and higher. Those cops probably had a visual on me, but I was already putting more distance between us.
They might have seen me, but they wouldn’t know it was me. The Bluemoon. I wasn’t dressed right, and aside from getting over the fence and reaching the stairwell, I wasn’t being obvious with my powers. From their perspective, it could be explained with some decent parkour.
What I was more worried about was that thing. The figure.
I was fine until it blocked my way.
I made it to the top of the stairwell, then, to the roof of the building. The last remaining wisps of smoke rose from three rooftops over. Still in F-Six. The border to E-Six was right there.
A single helicopter floated in place, high above the FSM building. Its attention was there, it wouldn’t notice me unless I made myself known.
Seeing the smoke as my marker, I knew which direction to go, how to get back to E-One. A straight line.
“You have to stop doing that.”
D was talking into my ear the whole time.
I stepped forward, getting ready to run some more.
“Sorry, I, I got distracted. Had to go another way.”
“Stop getting distracted, then. I get thrown out of the loop when that happens. Hate that.”
“I promise I’m here.”
Through my earpiece, I picked up the smallest of hums.
If this was a race, and E-One the finish line, I used D’s words as my mark to start. I sprinted to the edge of the building, and leapt across the street.
I wasn’t the only one soaring through the air.
I was being followed.
Being airborne, I had caught but a glimpse of the street beneath me. The activity was dying down, now being contained by the cops and other forces. People were tending those who were downed and managed to get back up, and others were gathering the ones who weren’t ever going to get back up again.
People were dead, down there. All due to a plan I had enacted. If there was any consolation to be found, it would be in the success of this mission.
But, in one corner of my vision, a blue figure moved to intercept me. As soon as my feet found a solid surface to cover, I dashed ahead. On the grid, I was going down the E column, there wasn’t a damn thing that had the power to stop me.
I was running across another rooftop, but the figure blocked my way, on the other side. I didn’t slow, stop, hesitate, or falter in any way.
“Move,” I said, “You are not getting another warning.”
The figure twitched, then bent its long limbs. It jumped, arms outstretched, reaching for me.
I sped up.
It would have hit me, brought me down to my knees, and I’d have another episode, one I’d might not make it back from. It didn’t hit me.
Hleuco swooped from up above, grabbing the figure by his talons. A hard push with his wings, and he flew to the clouds.
Clearer in mind, I was allowed a safe passage forward. I continued.
I knew they were visions, phantoms born from stress and trauma, but that didn’t make them any less real. They gave as much as they threatened to take away. Between it all, it was a struggle to find a balance.
I knew now, though, what would have to be broken away. Sectioned off.
I came to the end of a roof, and a street. Something down there grabbed my attention. Something real.
Two cars were stopped at a light, even though it was green. Both cars had their driver and passenger side doors opened.
People were huddled at the back, away from the cars. From here, I counted six total. Two of them were on the ground, being beaten by the other four.
Of the two cars, I recognized the farthest one.
It was the one that was being loaded up at the front of the restaurant. The people being beaten, they were Ghosts.
I dropped from the roof, getting on the sidewalk. Didn’t take many steps to make it to the car.
I wasn’t exactly concentrating on making this clean, just fast. One flew forward, slamming into the trunk of the car. One hit the curb, a mouthful of concrete. They dropped wooden bats as they were incapacitated.
No bullshit, no dancing around. I needed progress.
Two down, before anyone could really take notice.
The remaining two finally did, though, but I saw it in their eyes. Fear. They knew better than to stick around. To even try.
I didn’t even have to use my knife.
However, I wasn’t here to loiter. I went to the least injured of the two, a man, and moved him on his back. I lifted his head, keeping him elevated.
Blood ran from his left ear to his chin. His eyes swollen shut. His lower lip was split at a corner, more blood flowing out. Anything resembling humanity had been beaten out of him.
If he was the least injured of the two, it said a lot about the other guy.
“Jonathan,” I said, surprised I could even recognize him in this state. “Nod if you can hear me.”
“Nod if you can talk.”
He didn’t nod.
“Who did this?” I asked. “FSM?”
“Alright, you don’t have to worry about them anymore,” I said. “But I need your help. I just heard from Lawrence that Benny’s back at E-One, maybe even at Casa Martinez. Do you happen to know anything about that?”
He didn’t move.
I asked him again. “Jonathan, you have to stay alert. This helps you as much as it helps me. Do you know-”
He started shaking his head.
“-anything regarding Lawrence and Benny,” I finished. He kept shaking his head, but more languid, now.
Nothing. Even he didn’t have a clue. No use.
The light up ahead changed from red to green, and the rumblings of an engine approached.
To my side, a motorcycle came to a stop. I looked at the rider.
Not a cop. The design of the bike, the uniform, it didn’t fit.
White, long brown hair tied back. Large, muscular frame, barely held back by the black leather jacket he was wearing. On his neck was a tattoo of a skull breathing fire. It even got over his Adam’s apple.
Like his jacket, the bike was black, too. I had little to no knowledge about cars and motorcycles and the like, but it looked more modified than anything I was familiar with. Its tailpipe was bellowing out exhaust, the metal of its engine was exposed, winding around the frame of the bike, heavy but thrumming with power. Life. It looked more alive than anything mechanical. Bestial.
I had a feeling I knew who the rider of this monster answered to.
“Are you going to stop me?” I asked the ferryman. “Is he?”
The ferryman smiled. It freaked me out.
He raised a hand, a finger pointing at me. Almost accusatory. With his index finger out, his lifted his hand again, along with the middle finger.
He gave me the victory symbol.
“Peace,” he said, as though he was correcting me. He was still smiling.
Interesting. I saw it as victory. I still did.
I wasn’t certain if this was another fight, but the ferryman answered that question for me. Never dropping that wide smile, he put both hands on the handlebars of his bike.
He drove away.
He and the growling of the bike’s engine faded into the distance, and I lost sight of him as he got around a corner.
That… was an odd encounter. I couldn’t make heads or tails of what that was supposed to mean, if there was any meaning at all.
I had other priorities, though. Lawrence and Benny.
The other Ghost stirred, sitting up, head in their hands. He was moving of his own power. Seemed like I was wrong about who was in better shape.
“You,” I said, “Take care of Jonathan.”
He glanced my way, and gave me a weak nod. Moving him slowly, I handed Jonathan over to his fellow Ghost.
I jumped back up to my feet.
“Hey D,” I said into the earpiece. I was already walking.
“I want to say I’m not, but it’s gonna be another while.”
I caught her up. “I found Jonathan, he’s in a rough shape, no thanks to the FSM. He’s safe now, but he doesn’t know anything about E-One. I’m not liking the sound of anything of this, so I might just go on ahead.”
“I’m cool with that. I’ll be right behind you.”
“And,” I started.
I considered bringing up the ferryman, how he saw me, maybe even recognized me, but I decided not to bring it up. It wasn’t irrelevant, but it didn’t directly pertain to this matter, and it would only slow us down if I brought it up now.
And, that vibe he gave off… It wasn’t one that made me fear that all was lost.
She knew that feeling, all too well, and she was usually right about it.
By proxy, I knew that feeling, too.
“Never mind,” I said. “I’m heading back.”
My legs carrying me far, I was back on the roofs, an eye out for any other helicopters.
Anticipation, worry. I was filled to the brim with both feelings. If Lawrence was telling the truth, I was about to see Benny again. But there was also the chance that I was being led into danger, and everything I had worked so hard for might fall like dust between my fingers.
Casa Martinez. The building loomed from across the street. It wasn’t even that tall, made up of only the restaurant and a few office levels, but the feeling was palpable. Anticipation, worry.
The majority of the action that consumed East Stephenville was taking place in the middle of the ‘grid,’ with less people and activity the farther away I got. It even reached the point that I could walk the last two blocks with little trouble. I passed the occasional person, but my head was down, my hood was up, and my mask looked too much like an actual face in the gloom that no one would give me a second glance.
And here it was. The Ghost’s base. She had to be in there.
No one was outside, around the building, gang members or civilians or otherwise. No one to clue me in on what the situation was inside.
No hooded figure, and no Hleuco. Just me.
Even with no one around, I still looked both ways when I crossed the street.
“Going in,” I told D. “Taking the front door approach. Whatever goes down, I’ll try to manage until you get here. You have insurance?”
“It’s all here. Hopefully it won’t come to that, and you can handle this without me. Still, I’m… almost there. Don’t have too much fun without me!”
“Can’t say I will,” I said. I tested the front door to the restaurant, and found it unlocked. Even though the cardboard sign attached to the door said ‘closed,’ even though the whole building was dark.
I drew a long inhale as the door opened, and I drew out a long exhale as the door closed behind me.
Empty in here, too. Wooden chairs were put up on the tables, another signal that the establishment was done for the night. It was a Mexican restaurant, so the walls were a deep red, with green Christmas lights affixed around ornate plates, placed on the walls for display. In the middle of the area was a fountain, completely dry, and made of plaster.
I walked past the tables and chairs, and went to the kitchen. Light crept from the sliver of an opening.
I stepped through the door.
I blinked, having not been in a well-lit room since early evening. It was well past midnight, now.
Here they are.
This was where everyone had gathered.
Not many Ghosts, not many potential allies. Though, I wasn’t counting on them to have my back. We were only working together because of circumstance and convenience.
The rest were all new faces. Actually, no, that wasn’t true, I remembered some of them as I walked more into the kitchen. I couldn’t place any names, but I’d definitely seen them before.
They were part of Benny’s crew.
I arrived at the table at the far back of the kitchen, where we had our meetings, and where we hashed out this plan. My heart raced.
She was sitting at the end of the table, facing me. For someone supposed to be in hiding, she looked ready for a night out on the town. Hair neatly tied, makeup on, bright red lipstick. She had on a gold blazer with a white dress shirt under that. The table prevented me from seeing what she wore at the waist and below.
Shame. I wanted to get a good look at her. Take her image in full. Savor it, before I tore it down.
Standing behind her, to her right, was a man in suit. Tall, he looked strong. If I didn’t have powers, I would never think of messing with him.
Standing behind her, to her left, was Lawrence.
That basically confirmed my suspicions.
All eyes were on me. Benny and her crew had let me walk in, seemingly unsure of who I was. It wouldn’t take long before they’d find out, and it would all go to shit from there.
Everyone was armed.
“Lawrence,” I said. I had to pace out my words, to not let my swirl of emotions show. It was hard. “I came by for an explanation.”
“And you’ll get one, soon enough,” he said. He gestured to Benny. Her back was straight, she was prim and proper. “I believe you two have met?”
“Not formally, no, but that mask is big red flag. Lawrence, what is this?”
Her words were careful, unsure of this development of me being here. The man in the suit caught on, too, his shoulders becoming more square. Tense.
“It’s your end, Benny. I’m not sorry, but this was over the moment you walked in.”
I had to stifle a laugh. She had no idea about any of this. She played herself.
Sorry, D. Looks like we’re having fun without you.
Benny’s face turned sour. She brought her hands together, resting on the table.
“You’re throwing away a good thing, Lawrence, by doing this. It’s a good deal.”
I was impressed that she still sounded measured, given this turn of events.
“What deal?” I asked. “Still looking for context, here.”
“Right,” Lawrence said. “I came back here to stock up on supplies, and I found them all here. Benny caught on pretty quick, that the Ghosts were involved, and she showed up to make a deal.”
“Wearing different colors isn’t enough to hide you,” Benny said, with a more vacant look to her eyes now. “I know your faces.”
Lawrence continued, ignoring Benny, ignoring her crew that had us outnumbered. “The deal was, if I assure her a safe passage across the border, she’d give me a position with the cartel she works with. La Rueda.”
“And what happens to the rest of the Ghosts?” I asked, keeping an eye on Benny and her surrounding crew. Having flipped the script on her was amusing in a cathartic way, but tensions were boiling here, and it wouldn’t take much for things to explode.
“I can pick who comes with me, and the rest fend for themselves. I get to work with a real boss, and I’m free from all the shit that’s keeping me down in this city. A fresh start, and a seat at a table.”
“A seat at the kitchen table,” I repeated. Partially repeated. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be the table in Stephenville.”
“Correct, it’s a more lucrative market there, too. But…”
Then, Lawrence pulled a gun from his jacket, and pointed it to Benny.
“You can take your fuckin’ deal and burn.”
Everyone jumped out of their skin. Even me.
Guns everywhere, pointed mostly to Lawrence and me. The man in the suit had his trained on Lawrence. I knew there were some behind me that I couldn’t see.
We were outnumbered, and we were outgunned. If one of us even coughed in a way that offended Benny, we were done for.
“Now you know where I stand,” Lawrence said, unwavering. “V, my apologies for not giving you a better heads up. Didn’t have a lot of time to myself when I encountered her.”
He tilted his head one way, showing that he didn’t have his earpiece. Only I knew what to look for in that gesture, what he meant.
“Apologies accepted,” I said, slowly. I tilted my head as well, trying to imbue my own meaning into it, hoping he’d pick it up.
That Benny was mine, and it was part of our deal.
He didn’t move, simply keeping his gun straight.
Benny, for her part, was letting a deep rage boil beneath her skin. She remained composed, though, her fingers still intertwined.
“Why…” she whispered, but we heard her. Her head was lowered, eyes staring into the table, as if they burn holes into the surface.
“I learned it from you, señorita,” Lawrence said. “You don’t abandon family.”
“Lawrence, Lawrence, have you forgotten that I was included in that, too?”
“Was,” he said, firm. “Was.”
Benny tried to smile, but it didn’t hold. “How unfair. Not fair. You want me dead, is that right? After everything I’ve done for you? After… after everything I gave you?”
“You left us first, Benny, now the table’s turned.” Lawrence said. “It’s just how it works.”
She slammed her hands down onto the table.
“I didn’t have a choice!”
She screamed, but I caught a bit of legitimate sadness, in Benny’s tone.
“Benny,” I said, and she looked at me. Skin pale, her makeup was starting to run, crumbling at the corners of her eyes. “In terms of numbers, you may have us beat in here, in the kitchen, but out there? It’s another story. The Ghosts have you guys swarmed, and if you try anything, everyone’s going to come knocking. You don’t want that.”
“Ah,” Benny said, her eyes wider. Her crumbling makeup turned to streaks. “It’s you, the source of all my misery. The Bluemoon, Blank Face, or V, according to Lawrence. How have you been? I tried visiting you, did you get my message?”
Did she not hear me? Or was she already losing it?
“I did get your message,” I answered. “I’m here to return the favor. There’s really only one way this could go. If I’m the source of all your misery, then I’m here to put you out of it.”
I added, “Come quietly, and no one from your crew has to die.”
It started small, growing, then became raucous. Laughter. Throughout the kitchen, Benny’s crew roared in laughter.
“What empty threat is that?” Benny said, in between laughing fits. She was starting to sound wild, unhinged. “You have no leg to stand on here! I have at least two guns on each of you pathetic Ghosts. You think I’m just going to walk out of here with you, to my death?”
“Yes,” I said, completely serious.
The laughter grew again.
Benny was practically screeching now. “I let you walk in here, I’m letting you stand there and live! I didn’t get you at the school, but I have you, now. Congratulations, Lawrence, you brought her to me and exposed yourself as the traitor you are. How do you think the other gangs will feel about you aligning yourself with a superhero?”
“They won’t know,” Lawrence responded, cool. “Wasn’t part of the plan.”
“Was this part of your grand plan? What did you expect to have happen, inviting her and having her waltz in here? How do you see yourself getting out of this?”
Lawrence glanced my way, and shrugged. “Shot in the dark.”
Benny snarled a word in Spanish. I figured that was it, and the bullets would just go…
But everyone stayed in place. The tension bubbling.
Benny was in control, her crew at her beck and call, but she was slipping, mentally. Was she too occupied with talking to us to realize that she could kill us with a single word?
A small voice. Not in my head, but my ear. I ignored it.
Lawrence was still looking at me. “Can’t do everything myself. I was hoping for something crazy. Insane?”
I spread my arms, and more guns cocked from behind.
“Crazy and insane,” I said. “I think I have something worth serving up.”
“Don’t try me,” Benny tested.
That small voice filled my earpiece again.
“I’m working on it! Jeez, just one more, ugh, screw this!”
My hoodie was over my head. Benny didn’t know about the earpiece, that I was trying to keep a certain someone updated.
A certain crazy and insane little girl.
There was a hissing, coming from above, but I couldn’t exactly place it. Prolonged.
The others started to notice, asking each other about it. Benny took a glance up, too.
“Grab cover! Get away from the side door!”
The side door. There was only one, about five feet away. In the middle of the wall closest to me.
The hiss started getting louder and louder, and it was clear that it was about to reach a crescendo. Everyone was on their heels.
Lawrence looked at me, and I nodded. With my hands raised, I signaled towards Benny. We both moved before anyone had the sense that they should be moving, too. Grabbing cover.
Hindsight’s silly like that.
The side door swung open.
“Bang!” I heard, from both the earpiece and from right outside the door.
And then everything went to hell.