We pulled up to the spot, parked, and proceeded to get everything out of the van. We didn’t linger or dawdle.
I pushed through the double doors, holding one open for the others. People inside saw me, saw us, and moved to help. All without me saying a word.
That’s almost as sweet as blood itself.
The Redhouse. What was once the headquarters for a small, local loading company was now our unofficially official base of operations.
The company was long gone, now, but that didn’t mean that we were there to stay. We couldn’t afford to plant our roots here. It was too far from the city, too far away from the action. It took thirty minutes just to get to Casa Martinez, give or take the traffic. My damn apartment was in a better location than this base. If we wanted to get any headway as a gang, we actually had to be in the city to do it.
The place just wasn’t prime real estate. We had space for cars, vans, weapons, drugs, money, people, but it wasn’t the best place for all that stuff to be stored. We were out in the open, in the middle of nowhere. I saw more tumbleweeds here than anything that had life, flora and fauna.
Should the cops, or a rival group find out where we were laying our heads, that would only ever lead to disaster. Keeping one eye open helped, but the Ghosts weren’t exactly held in high regard in the eyes of the other gangs, even with Benny out of the picture. We were still weak, underestimated.
I just didn’t want us to be sitting ducks, here.
I stepped aside as more came to help, getting the door for me and taking some of the bags that Reggie, Tone, and Sarah were carrying. There wasn’t a lot to get out of the van, but the people here were bored, itching to do something. They jumped at the chance to be active.
I let them.
“Where’s Lawrence?” I asked. I wasn’t directing that question to anyone in particular, rather I threw it out there.
“He’s in the back, there, in the office.”
I couldn’t catch whoever answered, everyone was too busy working or trying to help. None of them were looking directly at me.
I glanced from across the lobby, where a hall led to the offices, closets, and emergency exit. The ceiling above was made of glass, and it was late in the afternoon, now. The space was tinted an orange hue.
“Thanks,” I said.
No one responded, still preoccupied with Reggie and the rest. It was as if I was invisible. And I knew that wasn’t a power I had.
The gathering of workers shifted from one door to the other, crossing the lobby to get the warehouse storage facility, where the trucks would have parked to load and unload if this place was actually being used for its intended purpose.
Tone broke away from the moving group, standing by my side, back on the wall. Sarah was right behind him. Beside us was a large, brown pot. No plant inside.
The Redhouse was temporary, and we had to treat it as such.
“Reggie’s getting them to put the money and dope where they belong,” Tone said, “But he wanted to thank you for coming along. Probably would have gone to shit if you hadn’t been there.”
“I’m sure you could have handled it without me,” I said. “I just… streamlined the process.”
Sarah crossed her arms. “We would have gotten fucked without you. So yeah, thank you, really, from all three of us.”
I shrugged, avoiding her gaze. “Don’t flatter me.”
“I’ll flatter you all day long, Voss, you can’t stop me.”
“Alright, quit it,” I said, looking back at them. I couldn’t help but crack a smile, even if it was a small one.
“Gross, Sarah,” Tone said. He was making a face, turning his nose up, like he had just smelled something rotten.
She jabbed him in the ribs, and he folded, leaning more into the wall for support. He didn’t see that coming.
“That’s what you get, asshole!”
Between them, they shared a laugh. It was probably routine for them, that bit. The laughter was infectious, and, despite my best attempts, my grin widened into a chuckle. I joined in with them.
I felt tension leave my body. My shoulders relaxed, my head felt clearer.
I hadn’t realized how damn stiff I was, up until now. Gunfire, fighting off a dog, then a gang, threatening kids… That weighed on the mind, affected the body.
I was still carrying some of that residual stress, subconsciously holding on to it as if I was waiting for something else to happen, another crisis to deal with. Being here, laughing and smiling, even with random strangers, somehow made that stress slowly erode away. It couldn’t completely disappear, there was always a chance that something would happen, a crisis, but to momentarily disregard all of that…
It did a lot for the mind.
I kept laughing, staying in the moment. Bit by bit, piece by piece, I was feeling less weary.
A small, cursory glance to the other Ghosts as they worked. It was like a kick to the chest.
I caught one of the Ghosts staring at us, then another.
Not at us. At me.
Eyebrows raised, head tilted. But they didn’t look curious, they looked disgusted.
Like they had just smelled something rotten.
It was enough to get me to stop. I dropped my smile, looked away, averting their stares.
A brief moment, but that pressure came back. I stiffened.
“I… gotta go,” I said, turning. “I’m going to find Lawrence.”
I pulled the gun out from my coat, careful to stay lowkey about it. I handed it to Sarah, who took it without saying a word.
“Give this back to Reggie, and I’ll leave the van to you guys.”
“Okay, Voss,” Sarah said. They had stopped laughing, but their grins remained. “See you later.”
I waved, then walked, crossing the lobby, trying to make my back straight.
Probably for the best, now’s not the time to relax.
I didn’t have to go to down the hall to find Lawrence. He found me, meeting me halfway.
He had gotten a change of clothes since the last time I saw him, earlier today. Swapped out his light jacket with something thicker, warmer. There was a tendency for it to get colder during the later hours, so he had probably prepared himself for that. The collar of his dress shirt underneath was folded over the collar of his sweater. He looked more prepared to give a lecture than lead a gang.
“Hey,” I said.
“Hey,” he said back. “I heard movement, saw it. got worried.”
“It’s the good kind of movement. I come bearing gifts.”
Wait, I already used that line, already.
Shoot. I needed to get back on track. Focus.
“So, I’m guessing it went well?” Lawrence asked.
“It did. We got the money back, and some drugs to resell if we need to. And we’re not in a position to be giving out shitty deals. Not anymore.”
“You’re right. Good job. But…”
He eyed me, from my head to my boots. I shifted my weight from one foot to the other. I was about to say something before Lawrence beat me to it.
“Did you get glasses?”
“Oh,” I said. I adjusted them, remembering I still had them on. “Yeah, bought them after the meeting.”
He looked like he was about to say more, but he commented on something else, instead. “What happened to your arm?”
I looked at my hand I used to adjust my glasses, then to the sleeve that covered my arm. Torn, strips of cloth hanging down, threads stuck together by sweat and slobber.
Man, I’m running out of clean clothes.
“Oh,” I said, rolling my sleeves up, to the forearms. “There was a… thing, with a dog, earlier. Don’t want to get into it.”
“It was a big dog, okay?”
Lawrence brought his hands up.
“Hey, sure, I believe you.”
“Anyways,” I said, exhaling out the word. “Can we move this back to your office? There’s something I want to talk about.”
Lawrence reacted, a twitch of the neck, as if he was hesitant about the idea.
His words reflected that ounce of uncertainty.
“We can, yeah, sure.”
He lead the way back to the hall. I followed him into his office, leaving the rest of the Ghosts to go do their own thing. I could have taken one of the extra rooms for myself, have an office of my own, but I’d rather wait until we found a better place. It gave me a reason to work harder. I wanted to earn that office.
We entered, and I closed the door behind us.
Posters, posters everywhere. Pin-ups of models, posing alongside, or on top of, expensive-looking sports cars.
A terrible way to wash a vehicle, I thought.
There were other posters, considerably less risque, but they were few and far between. Horses, cacti, eagles. The land around the Redhouse was pretty much a grass and hills, so it fit, in a way.
“I’d take these down, but they were here before we moved in,” Lawrence said, taking a seat at his desk. A laptop sat open, facing him. “It feels weird to get rid of them now.”
“Sure, that’s why you won’t throw them away,” I said. I grabbed a stool by the door, moving it closer to Lawrence’s desk. I sat. “And not so you can sit around pretty girls all day.”
“That’s not, I wouldn’t-”
“It’s fine,” I said. “I don’t really care.”
He coughed again, then clearing his throat. He leaned over, trying to reach for one of the posters beside him, but his fingers were a few inches shy. His attempt was futile, and he reclined back into his seat.
A certain silence crept in. There wasn’t any electricity running through the building, the only source of light came from the window behind Lawrence. I could barely make out his features and expressions as he sat there, facing me.
Then, it had dawned on me that this was the first time I had ever been alone in a room with Lawrence.
I wasn’t sure how to start.
We spoke over each other.
I gestured. “You go first.”
“Okay,” Lawrence said. “I was just going to say, also, I wasn’t expecting to see you again today, since we already had the meeting. Part of me was afraid that D might be with you. Doesn’t seem like it, though.”
“She’s not. I’ve actually been trying to contact her, but she hasn’t responded. Have you heard from her, recently?”
“Me? I haven’t, I try not to have her on my mind as much as possible. That means not texting her unless I absolutely have to.”
I frowned slightly. “You really have a bone to pick with her.”
Lawrence grunted, scoffed. He pushed away from his desk. He rested one foot on his knee, and leaned back into his chair.
“Can you blame me? She’s been a pain in my ass for as long as I’ve been in the game. She’d always try to pull something. At first, they were just stupid pranks, harmless enough. I’d reach for a blunt and it’s gone, or I’d wake up with some… thing, on my face.”
“Why the hell were you letting her get so close to you, then?”
“I don’t, she finds me. It’s like I have a target on my back. I didn’t ask for this, I didn’t ask for her.”
“But, those particular pranks you mentioned don’t sound too bad,” I said.
“You didn’t let me finish. At first, they were harmless. Later, she kicked it into high gear. Back when I was in El Carruaje, at the end of every month, Benny’s crew would do rounds to take a cut from whatever we earned from dealing. Guess who came up short, from time to time?”
“You did,” I ventured.
“Yeah, me. And any product I was selling got lost in the mix, too. Back then, I wanted to prove myself to those guys, to Benny, but D kept cutting me down every time.”
“That,” I started, but I wasn’t sure what to say. I closed my mouth.
“There’s other shit, too, but I try not to think on it. Let’s just say, the one time I actually find an opportunity to get back at her for all the shit she’s pulled… she crashes a fucking bus on me.”
“She crashed a…”
I was at a loss for words.
Lawrence rubbed at something on his cheek. I noticed a mark. Faint, but I noticed it. A scar. I recalled the first time I saw him, he had a bandage there.
D had put that there?
Lawrence continued, his tone more serious. Grave. “She dragged innocent people into that, and I’m not even sure if everyone made it out alright. Fuck, I barely did. I was out of commission for a minute, and just when I’m starting to walk on my own two feet again, I see her, and you.”
I didn’t have anything to say.
There was also the fact that he had gotten shot, a consequence from being involved with a scheme D came up with. I wasn’t sure if that counted, but I wasn’t going to bring it up.
“Well, she’s helped since then,” I said, trying to find something to say about her. “Helping out around here, doing recon and surveillance on some other, smaller gangs, being the person in the chair. If it wasn’t for her, the Ghosts would be long gone, and I wouldn’t have found Benny.”
Lawrence moved around in his chair. The light behind him made it hard to see what expression he had.
“I’ll give you that she has her use, and that she promised to be good, and she’s largely kept to that, but you have to understand where I’m coming from. That girl, D, she’s a wild card, through and through. She just gives me these weird vibes.”
“Like, when I look at her, and there’s that light in her eyes, and she gives me that fucking smile… I just know that she’s not taking any of this seriously. It’s all just a game to her, and people are just pieces for her to move. I’ll admit to being biased, but I’m waiting for the day when the wool gets pulled away from my eyes, and I see just how bad I was being played with, the entire time.”
I sat there, completely still.
But I couldn’t just leave that alone.
“I think I do understand where you’re coming from, Lawrence, but there’s definitely a bias, there, and I don’t think you’re giving her a fair shot at this. I know she’s not like any other kid, but she still is one, and she deserves that chance.”
A long, exaggerated sigh came out of Lawrence. As if his very soul was being deflated.
“Yeah,” he said, sounding tired. “Maybe.”
Another stretch of silence entered the room, more pronounced with its presence. There would usually be the hum of machinery or people working in the background. We didn’t even have that. Even the lights seemed more dim, now.
“Sorry,” Lawrence said, then he sighed again. “I didn’t mean to go on a whole tangent, I wasn’t trying to ramble.”
“It’s okay, I don’t mind rambling, so long as you get some good points in there.”
Lawrence leaned forward, pressing a button on his laptop. A soft light illuminated him. “What was it you wanted to talk about?”
Right. We were finally wrapping around to what I originally wanted to discuss.
“I think I have an idea on how to get some forward momentum for the Ghosts.”
“Is that so?”
I nodded. “It came to me after I took care of our recent business. Tell me, do we have any gangs, or anyone, that owes us anything?”
Lawrence rubbed the side of his chin, scratching his neck. “There’s a few, some random kids, definitely some gangs we made deals with, deals they’re taking advantage of.”
I leaned, slouching a bit. “It’s not good to let these people walk all over you.”
He scowled, like he had taken it personally. “We were in a bad place, we still are. We have to do what we can in order to stay afloat.”
“And now,” I said, “There’s a way to not just keep our heads above water by paddling, and we can actually get to swimming.”
“Let me guess,” Lawrence said. “You want to pay these people a visit?”
“It’s not the most complicated idea, I admit, but we should try and keep things simple. For now, anyways.”
“And it’s better than nothing,” Lawrence said.
I straightened my back. “Better than nothing.”
Simple moves, to get us in a better position. Then, we can start setting up the more complex plays.
“How’d you want to go about this?” Lawrence asked.
I had thought about it, drafting plans in my head on the drive back here.
“Give me a list of everyone that owes us, from gangs to individuals. D and I will sort them by which ones are easier to hit, moving up from there. Then I go, and, you know, pay these people a visit, using your words.”
“Are you bringing anyone along with you on these visits, like Sarah or Reggie?”
“I thinking that it’ll just be me and D, with her in the chair, using my own words.”
Lawrence moved to rest his arms on his desk. He looked at me, as though he was expecting me to continue.
He knew there was more to my idea.
“I hit them, I hit them hard, and I hit them from the dark. Scare them, shake them so they run off and warn others. Word spreads about a mysterious figure, taking out gang members in a single strike, foiling other plans they might have had. And then the rest of you quietly swoop in, take what they owe us, and then some. Territories, assets. A little bit at a time, but we can build something from that, brick by brick. Eventually, we obtain enough assets to be self-sustainable, and we can move from there.”
“And when you hit them,” Lawrence said, “Are you going to be wearing a mask?”
He’s thinking along the same lines.
“I will,” I said. “On the field, we act like we’re operating separately. From an outside perspective, there shouldn’t be a connection between you, the me with the mask, and the gangs we’re targeting. I’ll still be careful to not leave a trail, though.”
“So, I give you a list of targets, and you give me an opening for the Ghosts to slip right in.”
“Precisely,” I said. “But, about the Ghosts…”
“This is just a suggestion, but how about we change the name?”
“The name is soiled, people don’t take the Ghosts seriously. I know it, you know it. That’s why people think they can take advantage of your shit deals in the first place.”
“I thought that was why you and D came on board in the first place,” Lawrence said, more firm. “To clean that dirt off that name.”
“And that’s what I’m doing, but it’s easier if you start all over from a blank slate. Consider this, a new gang comes out of nowhere, taking hold in places other gangs got ran out of, growing stronger and larger by the day. No one knows where they came from, and, in their confusion and added distraction by yours truly, the gang continues to expand.”
I summed it up with my final point. “Keep the old name, you attract old enemies and grudges. Start fresh, and no one knows what to make of you. And by the time they figure it out, you’re in a position to keep them at a distance, afraid to get any closer.”
I added, “Believe me, a name change can do some good.”
Lawrence closed his eyes, long enough that I almost thought he had fallen asleep.
He opened his eyes, staring me down.
“Did you and D come up with this?”
“Just me, I’ll have to ask her what she thinks. But, I have a feeling she’ll be on board with it.”
“Of course she will be. It’s a crazy plan, and she’s fucked up in the head.”
I ignored that last part. “It’s a crazy plan, but it can work, and it’s better than nothing. What do you think?”
He took his time to answer.
“I think it’s crazy. But, I think it can work, too.”
I relaxed a bit, glad to hear that he was up to the idea.
“And about the name, I’ve never been too attached to it, so I’m down to hear any suggestions. If anything, you’ll have a harder time convincing them.”
He angled his head, looking past me. At the door, leading back to the other Ghosts.
“Them?” I asked.
“They’re still adjusting to the all the changes. Like you, and D.”
“It’s been a month. We had a New Year’s party.”
“Even then, it’s not like they suddenly forgot about the type of shit D pulled, or your previous occupation, even if you’re trying to distance yourself from that. You’re worried about old enemies and grudges? Well, once upon a time, they were your enemies, and they still hold a bit of a grudge from back then.”
I thought back to the look I had received from several of the Ghosts, when I was with Sarah and Tone. That look of distaste, repugnance.
On the whole, they still hadn’t accepted me.
Lawrence and the Ghosts. They had agreed to work together when I suggested it, but we were after a common enemy. Benny. It was easier to rally to take down someone rather than cooperate on something more nebulous. Like progress. With Benny gone, the goal was farther away, and those grudges sat closer to home.
It was another obstacle.
“If I bring in results, they’ll come around,” I said, mostly for myself to hear. “The three I brought with me today seemed to like me okay.”
“Those three?” Lawrence said, referring to Reggie, Tone, and Sarah.
“They even gave me a nickname. Voss.”
“Voss? Can’t say I get it.”
“It’s a play on-”
“Yeah, I know, I’m just saying. But, Reggie and them? They’re just nice people in general. The rest are just people, for better and worse. They’re normal.”
My expression must have revealed something, with Lawrence adding, “I wouldn’t worry about it too much. If I’m willing to work alongside you and D, of all people, that’ll be good enough for them. And don’t worry about them potentially double-crossing you. They won’t cross you, and they definitely won’t cross me. They’re not stupid.”
“That’s reassuring,” I said.
“It’s true. Just don’t completely fuck up, and we’ll be in good shape. Okay?”
Lawrence exhaled, then he got out of his chair, closing his laptop. He picked it up.
“Alright, go ahead with your plan. I’ll get you that list. I’m looking forward to the results.”
I remembered what D had said about Lawrence, that he’d do anything in order to take a step forward.
Then, this was it, for him. That step forward. And he was ready to take it.
I got out of my seat, pushing the stool to the side using my foot.
“Let’s get out of here,” Lawrence said. “It’s getting late, and I’m not about to stick around when it gets dark. It gets creepy in here.”
“Sure,” I said. I opened the door for him, and we headed out together.
The lobby was largely cleared out by the time we returned, tinted a deeper orange after some time had passed. Most of them probably left after a day of not having much to do, figuring they could do nothing, elsewhere. I didn’t see Reggie or Tone or Sarah, or the van we arrived in. Did they park it somewhere? Were they around?
I hoped so. I’d need a ride.
Close by the counter, two Ghosts were arguing. On occasion, they looked over to something over the counter, but I couldn’t catch it from this angle.
Lawrence and I both approached.
“There is no way she stopped it with her bare hands!”
“And I’m telling you she did.”
“I believe it.”
“You weren’t there that night, but you should have seen it, for real. Ask others who were there, they’ll tell you.”
“Man, y’all should have taken pics.”
“It wasn’t the time for that.”
“What’s this about?” Lawrence asked. They all stopped talking, and turned. Including D.
“D?” I questioned, looking across the counter. She was sitting on a rolling chair, on her knees, elbows propped on the countertop.
“Bonsoir. Oh, nice glasses. They’re cute.”
“Uh, thanks,” I said.
“Alright, what’s this all about?” Lawrence asked again, stern.
The shorter of the two Ghosts answered. A teenager, several years older than me.
I really need to learn all of your names.
“She came in, Boss, just now.”
“At this hour?”
D explained. “I got Wendy’s texts, so I came over.”
“Did you?” I asked. I pulled out my phone, checking for any new messages. None.
“Whoa, what’s with your sleeve?” D asked.
“If you had come by earlier, you would’ve gotten that story.”
“It wasn’t a very detailed story,” Lawrence commented.
I gave him a look.
I drew my attention back to D, and there was a longing in her eyes, like she was a puppy I had denied treats to.
I shook my head.
When it finally hit her that I wouldn’t budge, she glowered.
“Sorry I’m late then, I was caught in some stuff.”
I felt something stir within me.
“What kind of stuff?” I asked.
Again, that stir.
“Hey, I have a life outside of this, you know. I’ve got other business.”
I wasn’t trying to, but I left a gap in the conversation, where I should have responded, but I didn’t.
As much as I was satisfied with how my talk with Lawrence went, what he had to say about D brought back feelings I thought I had packed away already.
Not suspicion, but a second guess.
“Next time, at least text me that you read the message,” I said. “And tell me if you’re sending people my way. We’re lucky that it worked out in the end, but don’t spring them on me like that. It’s not fair on me, and it’s not fair on them.”
D actually looked remorseful.
“I can do that,” she said.
I almost laughed.
I felt like a parent, constantly reminding their child of what they should or should not be doing.
I wasn’t going to do this, I wasn’t going to be like that. Paranoia towards the enemy was one thing, but paranoia towards partners would tear me, us, apart.
Had to keep my head on straight. Focus.
“Anyways,” I said, “It’s actually good timing that you’re here. There’s something I pitched to Lawrence that you’re going to want to hear.”
“Neat, I like pitches. They’re like little idea seeds.”
“Then you’ll love this one,” Lawrence said. He turned to the other two Ghosts. He said something in Spanish, and they responded. He gestured, and they each took a step away from the counter, about to leave.
Before they went, I caught their eyes, the looks our way. My way.
Similar to the other Ghosts from before. Wary.
The shorter one seemed like he had something to say, with the way he kept glancing at me, but he kept it zipped.
It seemed like Reggie, Tone, and Sarah were the exceptions to that rule.
Another thing to deal with.
Then, they left, and it was only us three. The leaders of this gang.
“I’ll be heading out, too,” Lawrence said.
“You are?” I asked.
“I’ve heard it already, so you tell D and get things sorted out with her. And, I’ve got a stack of movies I’ve been meaning to marathon. I need a break, yo.”
“No problem,” I said. “Enjoy your movies.”
“No shit I will. Text me when you’re both ready, so we can coordinate all of this, together. And, Wendy?”
“I, um, never mind.”
He turned, scratching his chin, covering his face with his hand. The cheek that had the small scar.
Alright, I thought.
“Don’t hide your feelings, Lawrence,” D said. “Speak your heart!”
“Fuck off,” Lawrence said, but didn’t sound that mad. “Catch you later.”
He left, walking at a pace a notch or two below jogging.
I turned back to D. “What’s that about?”
“He’s just being dramatic,” she replied, still watching him as went through the doors. “But that’s what I like about him.”
“You like him?”
“Not like that,” she said, hurried. “I like his reactions when I tease him. He’s dramatic.”
“I wouldn’t call that him being dramatic, per se.” I put the word ‘dramatic’ in air quotes. “Anyone would be a bit paranoid after what you’ve put them through.”
“Apparently, you crashed a bus on him.”
That was a story I just had to know.
D pushed away from the counter, falling into her seat. She rolled back a foot or so.
“I said I was sorry.”
She didn’t add to that. Too bad.
“Sorry’s not going to cut it,” I said.
“What, you want me to say sorry again? Last time, I had to lock the both of us in that room, and I wouldn’t let him out until he accepted my apology.”
D pointed behind her. A storage closet.
I huffed air out of my nose. I tapped my fingers on the countertop.
“That doesn’t help any. You know, just, don’t say anything. Just do. Promise you’ll behave, and you’ll do right by him. Actions do speak louder than words.”
“I already made that promise, geez. He still gets to kill me if I step out of line. And technically, it’s still like that with you, too.”
I was astounded that she could bring that up so casually.
“Right. So don’t give him any reminders. Or me, for that matter.”
“Shoot, everyone’s been getting on my back today. I can’t catch a break.”
She giggled to herself.
I brought my hands together, intertwining my fingers. I had a point I needed to get to, and I kept getting distracted by all of these changes in all of these conversations.
“Well, if you’re interested, I have an idea that will help us get in everyone’s good graces.”
“What, your pitch?”
D reached forward, pulling herself closer. She propped her knees back on the seat, pushing herself up with her arms to look at me, eye level.
Close, she studied me.
“From the looks of it,” she said. “It sounds like it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Was that shown on my face? Could she actually read me that easily?
“I’m thinking it will be,” I said.