061 – Two Two One-Two

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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 lead 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.

“Ah, shit!”

“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.”

“A dog?”

“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.”

Lawrence coughed.

“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.

“Um-”

“I-”

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.”

“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 continued.

“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…”

“What?”

“This is just a suggestion, but how about we change the name?”

“Change it?”

“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?”

“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.”

“Me too.”

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 do?”

“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.

“Personal stuff.”

Again, that stir.

“Like?”

“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.”

“Idea what?”

“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.

Or not.

“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?”

“Hm?”

“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.”

“I suppose.”

“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.

She groused.

“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.”

D smiled.

“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?”

“My 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?

Oh well.

“I’m thinking it will be,” I said.

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060 – Hardcore Hustle

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The rottweiler yanked, almost pulling me down into the grass. One more good yank would have.

Fuck, this dog really wanted to tear me to shreds.

My hands were getting covered in dirt, in slobber, as the dog started gnawing at my elbow and the upper part of my forearm. Half my arm was inside the dog’s mouth. He’d gotten enough of a hold of me that he wanted to try and enjoy his catch.

Any pull or tug I tried was answered by a pull or tug of his own. And it wasn’t a wild, feral snap of the neck, it was strategic, purposeful. He knew how to pin a human and keep them down, and he wanted me to stay down. Maybe I was crazy, my head rushing with too much adrenaline, but I could feel hatred coming from the dog. Animosity. If such a thing was even possible.

He was good, I had to give him that. Couldn’t call him a good boy, exactly.

If I was any other person, I’d end up stripped down to the bone. Chewed up and spat out.

If.

I was hesitant about using my strength on this dog, but that initial delay stemmed from me not wanting to hurt an animal, even if it was tearing at my skin and muscle.

But, there was a line between preservation and cruelty, and I didn’t intend to cross it.

I shifted, regaining more of my balance. I pulled my hands out of the dirt, planting my feet down, firm.

With my good hand, the one that wasn’t caught in the jaws of an enraged rottweiler, I searched for a collar on its neck. I found it, grabbing a hold.

I caught a glimpse of a tag. Max.

The dog fought me all the way, jerking my arm, snarling while he did it. A mean look in his eye. He wasn’t one to be messed with.

But neither was I.

I yanked, pulling the dog up, lifting him off his four feet. I twisted, spinning is both around.

He was still along for the ride, hanging on by my skin, his teeth.

I dug my heels into the ground, trying to swing him off. Still nothing. He was persistent. I almost wanted to commend him for it.

Had to go with another approach. I brought a foot back, and leaned, making myself lose my center of gravity. I started to fall backwards, bringing the dog with me.

Before I hit dirt again, I spun around one more time, but I was closer to the fence, now, too close to make a full rotation.

The dog slammed right into the wooden fence.

“Sorry Max!” I yelled at the same time.

I heard a whimper, and the dog let go. He fell into the dirt, and I was already running before he could get up again. I hopped over the fence on the other side, into another backyard.

No dog here. No Arturo, either. No such luck.

Dammit.

How’d he get the jump on us? I tried to think of where he was in the house, and where he was going now.

We were too focused on that shirtless guy, we didn’t notice him. Where’d he come from?

From behind, maybe? He was close to the door that led to the backyard. The hall. The hall I was supposed to check. There was another door, another room, that I didn’t get to comb through.

Dammit.

It didn’t matter, though, it wasn’t exactly relevant. What mattered was finding him, getting him back.

He wasn’t in this backyard, he wasn’t around. I had to keep moving.

I ran, crossing the length of the yard, in the direction of the house.

Being on ground level wasn’t going to help, I’d need a better view.

I got closer to the house, and took to the air. My feet hit the roof at an angle. It wasn’t nice and flat like the buildings I was used to. There was an incline, and the roof was rickety at best. I had to put effort into not slipping and falling over and off the house.

It led to heavy footsteps as I ran across the roof. If someone was home, there was no doubt that they heard me.

I climbed up higher up the roof as I moved, getting as much height as possible. The buildings here weren’t very tall. I had to make do.

I found the street below, and I looked around, trying to find Arturo. It wasn’t the best vantage point, but I had a clear look from one end of the road to the other. He might have gotten a head start, but he was only human, with human capabilities and limitations. He couldn’t have gotten far.

I turned- There.

Found him.

A boy, running across the street, going from one sidewalk to the next. Black shirt, denim shorts. He looked a lot like the dot that I saw vaulting over the fence, earlier.

And he was in a hurry, his legs blurred from under him. Fast, even by normal standards.

If I didn’t have powers, he’d be home free, with me getting chewed up by the dog. Right now, he probably thought he was in the clear.

He’s about to be proven very, very wrong.

I patted my hand on my coat, then I reached behind my back. My arm was already healed, I was able to move it fine.

I pulled out my gun.

No.

He was too far, and I wasn’t confident in my aim. I’d miss, and the shot would ring out, alerting everyone that something was going down. I shouldn’t blow this out of proportion.

I hopped down, landing into the front lawn of the house, and continued on with my chase.

He was reaching the corner, about to turn, but I was quickly gaining on him. It wouldn’t be long until I was right on him.

Almost there-

A screech, carried through the air. Tires.

A convertible tore through the road, the one Arturo would end up on if he made that corner. Another screech, and it halted right at the stop sign where to two roads met.

The top was down, and I saw the heads of others in the car, looking on at both of us.

They each yelled, gesturing, calling out to Arturo to run faster, to hurry.

Friends?

Dammit.

I was fast, I was catching up, but he was closer to the car than I was to him. He’d hop into the car, and this chase would continue. I couldn’t let this drag on any more. It had already gotten bad enough.

Still running, I pointed with my gun, aiming it.

No, I had to tell myself.

I shifted my hold on the gun, so my fingers were around the muzzle, instead.

The safety was still on, I hadn’t touched it.

I pulled my arm back, the gun above my head.

I ran some more, until I was a tad closer.

I threw the gun.

It hit Arturo right in the back, between the shoulder blades. He collapsed five feet before the corner, by the curb.

Lucky shot.

I finally caught up to him, standing over him as he groaned, moving to get on his back.

I reached down to collect my gun. I aimed it at his head.

“Arturo?” I asked.

He mumbled, sounding hurt. But it wasn’t an answer.

“Are you Arturo?” I asked again. I put a foot on his chest.

He coughed, and stammered. “Yes, yes!”

“I’ve got-” I started, but I was interrupted by a gang of voices. I looked up.

People were hopping out of the convertible, approaching me and Arturo. Some weren’t holding anything, instead flashing signs at me as they got closer. Others had more direct, recognizable means to intimidate.

Guns.

They closed in, circling around, closing off potential means of escape. Shouting while they did it.

“Back the fuck up bitch!”

“Fuck you think you doing?”

“Better step back or I’m poppin’ your ass!”

They were barking at me to move, but they weren’t giving me much room. I stood my ground. I stood over Arturo.

A gang, in multiple meanings of the word. A group of people, all aligned within the same organization. And they were all ganging up on me.

“May I help you?” I asked, not looking at anyone of them in particular. I tried gauging the numbers. About four people directly in front, with maybe two more behind me. I couldn’t turn to be sure, or else I’d be showing my back to them, giving more people an opening.

That convertible held a lot of people.

One of them redirected my question back at me. “May we help you?”

“Just having a friendly discussion with Arturo, here.” I looked back at the people I did have an eye on. “And I was hoping to keep it that discussion private, as well.”

“Fuck that,” one of them said. Tall, Latino, wearing a similiar black shirt as Arturo. He had a gun. “You wanna talk to him, you gotta do it with us around. You got a fuckin’ problem with that?”

I shook my head. “I don’t, but you might.”

“Fuck you say?”

“Nothing, forget it.” I looked down at Arturo. “Let’s talk, your boyfriend gave me the okay.”

The guy I was just talking to shouted, curse word included, but I didn’t catch what he said.

“Get-” Arturo coughed, “Get your foot off me.”

I got my foot off him.

Grunting, groaning, he moved to a better position, but he stayed low. He crawled over to the curb, and sat there. He faced me, squinting, the sun in his eyes.

“You don’t look like a Ghost,” he said.

“Then why does it look like you’ve just seen one?” I asked. “You’re sweating, breathing hard, all the color has been drained from your face. You’re whiter than me, and I’m not even white.”

“That’s…” Arturo breathed in.

“A lie,” he said, breathing out.

I spread my arms, as if to prove my point.

“What, what the fuck do you want from me?” Arturo asked.

“You already know,” I said. “I want what’s due to my gang.”

“You can’t have it.”

Someone else answered, coming from behind.

I turned my shoulders partially to address them.

“I wasn’t asking you,” I said. “This is between me and him.”

“You fuck with him, you fuck with all of us.”

“Nice line, but it’s really not your business.”

I heard steps, and I turned back. They were trying to get closer.

I moved my arm, gun pointing towards Arturo. They stopped, but they had guns as well, and they weren’t afraid to show them off.

The guy in the black shirt mouthed off again. “You think that’s gonna stop us?”

He waved his gun. A pistol, bigger than mine, the barrel longer.

I answered. “If you have a brain, yes.”

Before they got worked up again, I added, “Look, this doesn’t concern anyone of you. Just me, just Arturo. Once we get this sorted out, I’m gone, and you all can go compare gun sizes with each other.”

They did not take that well.

“Bitch, fuck you!”

Half of them rushed me.

My first instinct was to kick Arturo. The bottom of my foot met his chin, and he went right to the ground. As he fell, he crashed into two of his friends, tripping them over.

I got out of the way, letting them fall to the cement, but that left me with little room to move. I bumped into someone from behind.

I swung my hand, turning with the motion. I struck someone across the face with my elbow. He was too close for me to whip him with my pistol.

He went down, though, and my arm continued its arc. I clipped someone else, and he was far enough that I did hit him with my gun this time. The first guy I got absorbed some of the impact, but I still had enough momentum to land a solid strike.

He dropped, right after the first guy. Their heads knocked together as they hit the curb.

Arms grabbed me, going around my sides, hard. A bear hug.

It wasn’t enough to restrain me. I dropped to my knees, bringing my attempted captor down with me. Without warning, I sprung up, sending us at least seven or eight feet above the ground.

The cries of shock and confusion were faint as we left the earth, getting louder as we returned.

We crash-landed.

I rolled while in the air, making whoever held me cushion our return to terra firma, and he released me as his arms went limp, falling to his side. I quickly rolled off of him, getting back on my feet.

Then-

Small, subtle, but there. A weight, shifting on my face.

My glasses.

All this running, jumping, fighting, it was making me sweat. My bangs were stuck to my forehead, my shirt stuck to my back, and my glasses were sliding off the bridge of my nose.

It felt off, having something… there. Present. At the edge of my attention, incessant until resolved.

I have to fix my glasses.

It wasn’t actually that big of a deal, but the edges of the frames were blocking my vision. A blurry, indistinct line. Pestering, annoying.

My move to make vertical distance between me and the gang seemed to have worked. They were taken aback, and they needed a second to refocus and get back on the offensive.

I took that as my opportunity fix my glasses. And to make a run for it.

I ran towards the corner of the sidewalk, pivoting as I went over the curb. I was facing them, moving back, still making distance.

The ones I hadn’t dealt with started giving chase, the others right behind them, bouncing back up again.

Dogs. They were dogs. I could put them down. It would be so easy.

But… no. What good would that do?

None, I thought.

I raised my hands, dropping my gun. It clattered at my feet. It gave them a brief pause, some running into each other.

I spoke before they broke into a run again.

“I don’t want trouble, I just want Arturo. And his money.”

“Bitch-”

My hands fell to my back, searching. My fingers brushed up on cold metal. I grabbed hold of it, tight.

It was hard to gauge my own strength, sometimes, but I was confident I could pull this off.

I pulled the metal rod out of the dirt.

I brought the rod forward, putting it between me and them. It shut them up.

The stop sign. I held it at the end that had been embedded in the ground, like a sword, letting the red octagonal shape face my attackers.

I let the sign speak for me.

A pause, and it lasted. They had no idea how to process what they were seeing.

“This doesn’t have to get any worse,” I said. “But if you take one more step, it will. It’s up to you.”

They stared, their expressions mixed. Shock, awe, confusion, maybe even fear. I had made a play, a power move they had never seen before, and it stunned them. It gave me an opening to work with.

I addressed them all with a warning.

“You decide how you want this to play out. You can either get back in that car and leave, or I break each and every one of you, until you can’t even move a finger. Your choice.”

They didn’t move, and I hoped they didn’t dare to. The message was clear, stamped on the sign I waved lightly in front of them.

I watched as they put their weapons down.

Defeated, they backed away, looking at Arturo.

“Art-”

“Nope,” I said, calling out. “He stays, all of you leave.”

They turned as a collective, staring back at me.

“If you leave now,” I said, “He gets to walk back to you. Go on, save his life.

They were glaring, now, but they listened. They walked, passing me, going to their car. I turned, watching them as they climbed into their ride, glancing at me and Arturo. I heard the engine of the car, and they left.

I lost sight of them, and put my attention back to Arturo. He was sitting on the curb, massaging his elbow, rubbing his shoulder.

I walked over to him, still holding the stop sign.

“Finally, some time to ourselves,” I said, looking down at him. “You’ve got a lot to answer for.”

Arturo craned his neck to see me, sun still in his eyes.

“I don’t know you, but I sure as hell know you ain’t a Ghost.”

He didn’t directly respond to what I had said, and I wasn’t going to directly respond to that.

I stabbed into the street with the stop sign. The metal rod pierced the cement, digging and leaving small cracks. I pushed it until the sign itself was near my head, height-wise.

I readjusted my glasses.

Arturo looked like he had jumped out of his skin.

“Get up,” I told him. “I’m going to get my gun, and I’m escorting you back to the house. Move.”

We both moved, Arturo standing up, and me turning back to grab my gun. I returned to Arturo, and I was pleased to see that he hadn’t run away.

I put a hand on his shoulder, firm, with the gun pressed against his lower back. I gave him a light push, and we walked.

The gun’s safety was on the entire time.

The walk was long, uneventful, but that wasn’t a bad thing. It took time, going the long way around, but it beat running into any more dogs or Arturo’s friends. We got back to the house without any hassle.

And it looks like it’s all clear.

No hassle there, too.

I saw that the van was still parked, Sarah standing close the vehicle. She noticed me, tapped on the driver side window, and ran over.

“Voss, you’re okay!”

“Of course,” I said. I lifted my arm, showing her where my sleeve had gotten torn and ripped by Max. Blood and dirt had soaked into the cloth.

I saw Sarah’s mouth about to drop, about to say something. I stopped her.

“Like you said, I’m okay. Ran into a bit of a snag, but it was nothing I couldn’t handle.”

Arturo muttered something under his breath.

I glanced to Sarah. “Take him?”

Sarah nodded, and I let Arturo go, handing him off to Sarah. She pushed him, following me as I went to the van. I put my gun back as we approached.

The driver side window was rolled down, and I saw Reggie. Tone was across from him.

“I’m back,” I said. “And I come bearing gifts.”

“That makes things easier.” His face said it all. He looked relieved to see me. “We were about to dip and see if we could find him by riding low around the streets. Sarah begged me to wait five more minutes-”

“And then another five minutes,” Tone interjected.

“-in case you came back. Good thing you did.”

“Good thing,” I repeated. “You didn’t dip just to avoid any cops? A gun was fired in there, people might come poking their heads around.”

“Pigs drag their feet when they come around these parts. No one calls because they don’t want to get locked up with the perps.”

Tone summed it up for me. “Basically, don’t be a snitch.”

“Right,” Reggie said.

I understood, giving him a nod. “Let’s head back inside, I’ve got Arturo, and he’s been gracious enough to help us find his, our, money.”

“I like the sound of that, Voss.”

Reggie and Tone got out of the van, falling in step with me as I turned to go through the gate, and back into the house.

It was still thick with sweat and perfume, and I tried holding my breath as much as possible. I made it about as far as the living room, and stale air filled my lungs.

I found the shirtless guy, the one that tried to distract us from Arturo. He was tied up, arms and legs, sitting by a coffee table. Bound by coils and coils of extension cables.

He was sitting on the floor, but he looked wound up, uncomfortable. His eyes were half-open and downcast. He wasn’t looking at any of us.

“He wouldn’t talk, to the point that I’m almost thinking he can’t talk,” Tone said. “The most we could do was restrain him and get him out of the way.”

I winced. “Was I too hard on him?”

“Nah. He’ll live.”

That wasn’t exactly what I asked, but I left it there. If he actually had anything meaningful to say, we’d have gotten it out of him already.

Sarah nudged Arturo, putting him in front of me.

I looked at Arturo. Young, but he wasn’t a kid. He wasn’t that much older than me, but his expression added a few more years. He was trying to act tough.

“We have you, now,” I said. “There’s nowhere to go. Best give the money to us, and we’ll be on our way.”

A tough act, but it didn’t hold. Arturo dropped his head, his shoulders.

“Follow me.”

He turned to go, and we went with him. He took us down the hall, the hall I had checked before Sarah and the others found that shirtless guy.

Arturo passed the door I had went through, going instead to the door at the end of the hall.

Of course.

He opened the door, and we all filed in.

The room was small, smaller than the room I had searched. More of a guest room than a master bedroom. There was a bed taking up half the space, and a TV on the floor. Wires for a controller and an old game system extended out from the literal box that was the television. Anachronistic.

“We checked here, but we didn’t find nothing,” Reggie said.

“You didn’t check hard enough,” Arturo responded. He tugged at his arm, getting Sarah to let go.

“May I?” he asked me.

I nodded.

He moved to one corner of the room, and bent down to pull at the carpeted floor. There was some resistance, but he managed to peel the carpet away. He stood, holding it, and walked backwards. The carpet gave way to reveal a trap door underneath.

“Shit,” was all Reggie had to say.

“Doesn’t matter,” Arturo said. “Even if you found it, you’d still need the key.”

He pointed to the padlock, securing the latch. It was small, and the carpet was thick enough that it wouldn’t be felt if stepped over.

“Where’s the key?” I asked.

Arturo moved his finger, pointing to the TV.

“You put it… in that fucking thing?”

“It worked,” Arturo said.

“Whatever. You have any tools?”

“In the garage, right by the door.”

I signaled with one hand. “Reggie, Tone, go into the garage, grab what you can use to pry open the thing, and then get that door open. Sarah, move Arturo here and keep him still. I’ll keep watch.”

They answered in unison. “Yes Voss!”

Everyone split up, going to complete their different tasks. I watched over them as they moved in and out of the room, back and forth and around to get things done. I would have offered to help, but I wanted to indulge in my authority over my crew, even if it was just a little bit. It helped solidify my status in the gang, to maintain my aura of authority. I spoke, and they listened.

I could get used to this.

Reggie and Tone came back with the right tools, and worked together to unplug the different wires from the game system and wall, picking up the TV after they finished. They placed the TV on the bed, and, using a screwdriver, opened up a plate from the bottom.

Tone reached inside.

“Found it.”

He pulled out a small key, with a small plush figure attached by a chain. Some cartoon character I didn’t recognize. Big eyes, colorful hair.

“Open it up,” I said.

Tone took the key and walked over to the corner where Arturo had pulled the carpet. Reggie helped peel it back, letting Tone use both hands to get the door open.

The key went inside the padlock, and turned. A perfect fit.

Tone threw the lock aside, and pushed the door open, Reggie stepping to the side. The door fell back, leaning on the bed and keeping the carpet folded down as well.

“See anything?” I asked.

“I see a lot of things,” Tone said. “Come look.”

I took my back off the wall, wanting to take a look for myself. Everyone except Sarah and Arturo took a peek in the hole.

“Nice,” I said.

Stacks of cash, a lot of them. Granted, most of them were single bills, but there was enough here to make someone very happy if all of this suddenly fell in their lap. One thousand, at least.

It wasn’t just cash, either.

“Looks like they hadn’t gone through all the dope, yet,” Reggie said. “There’s a good amount to take back and sell again if we need to.”

“I don’t disagree,” I said. “Let’s take all of it. Find some bags in the other rooms, empty that out, and we’re gone. Sarah?”

“Yes?”

“You help, I’ve got Arturo.”

She nodded, taking her hands off him, pushing him to me. I grabbed the back of his shirt, twisting the cloth in my hand, and pressed him to move.

We got out of the room, then the hall, leaving them to do their work. I brought Arturo into the living room. His shirtless friend was as still as the couch or the table he leaned on. Part of the interior.

I kicked Arturo in the back of the leg, and he fell, dropping to his knees. I walked around him, until I was facing him.

“Money and drugs, that’s useful, valuable, but do you know what’s even better?”

Arturo didn’t offer up a guess.

“It’s information,” I said, filling in the blank. “I want to know what gang you represent, who your boss is, and anything else you can come up with. Nothing’s irrelevant.”

“I don’t know shit. I’m a nobody.”

“That’s where you’re wrong. You’re not a nobody, Arturo, you’re a pawn, and pawns play very important roles. They scout things out, assess the situation on the field, and report back to those in charge. If anything, they know more than the ones up top.”

“They’re also the most easily disposable, they can replaced.”

“Sure, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t useless. So come on, give me what you’ve got.”

I could see him go through the motions. Resistance, then resignation. He sulked.

“We don’t have a name, we just hold up turf in this part of the hood, getting into scraps whenever others try to muscle in, or get too cocky. Our boss, Hanley, he just calls the shots, tells us how to take certain deals.”

“So he’s the one that told you to short us on the deal?”

Arturo tensed, then dropped his head.

“Yes,” he said.

“Where can I find him?” I asked.

Again, he tensed, but he brought his head back up.

He began to plead.

“Please don’t! They, they’re all I got now, I don’t have no one else! They’ll kill me if they find out about this, he’ll kill me!”

I reached back for my gun, and held it out, making it clear that it was there, and that he could see it.

“That isn’t necessary,” Arturo said.

“It isn’t, but it really sets the tone, doesn’t it? You take one out, and it very suddenly escalates the situation. Suddenly, it’s serious. You know not to mess around, or someone, maybe you, can get hurt. Don’t even need to fire it, by itself, it speaks loudly enough. That’s interesting, don’t you think, that kind of power.”

“But,” I said, “I don’t have much experience with guns, I’ve never really used them. I’d much prefer a knife. It’s closer, more direct. With guns, you can put a sort of distance between you and the other guy, and put all the blame on a single bullet. With a knife? It moves under your own power, you dictate where that blade goes. Whatever happens, you’re there to see it, and you have to own that. Shame I don’t have mine with me.”

Arturo’s eyes widened by a fraction.

Again, I asked him my question, “Where can I find him?”

“There’s… a bar, three blocks south of here, right by the neighborhood. Nelly’s. There’s a diner there, too, right next to it. We’re friends with the owners, so we hang there a lot.”

That reminded me of the deal we had with Mrs. Martinez and her restaurant.

I aimed my gun, placing it under his chin.

I looked at him. He froze.

I reassured him.

“No, I’m not going to kill you. That’d do me no good. I want you to live, so you can go back to your friends, to Hanley, and tell them all about what happened, so they can go and tell others. The Ghosts? That’s just the beginning. There’s a new gang on the streets, and we’re out for blood.”

I brought the gun to his lips, pressing it into his teeth. His reflexes forced him to part his lips open, slightly, and I used that to push the gun farther down his throat.

He started choking.

“Tell them, tell everyone. Please?”

Struggling, twitching, but he nodded.

I pulled the gun out, and he coughed and gagged. I kicked him to the side so he wouldn’t spit on my boots.

Sarah came out of the hallway just as I was finishing up.

“We’re good to go, Voss.”

“Thank you. Pack it all in the van. Do you know where Lawrence is?”

“Yeah, why?”

“Let’s go and show him what we got, I think he’d like to see this.”

“I think so, too,” Sarah said, agreeing.

I left the living room, leaving Sarah with Arturo. We got what we came here for, and wheels were turning in my head. I got out of the house, passed the gate, and waited with my back against the van, ready for the wheels to turn there, too.

Previous                                                                                               Next

059 – Ends to the Means

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One thing I quickly missed was the convenience of a normal, daily life. I had taken for granted how easy it was to go with the flow. To go to school, hang out with friends, go to practice, then go back home to eat, sleep, then do it all over again. It was a structure, monotonous in its design, but familiar, and even necessary. As a whole, people needed structure, it kept them focused, it kept them busy.

And I had a lot of time on my hands.

But that was not to say that I was not busy. I had to get a proper plan together for the Ghosts, to get them out of a rut and to start thriving. This wasn’t going to work if we stagnated for too long, letting some unknown, unexpected force roll over us. No, these first few, formative weeks were critical for the group moving forward, and I needed to be at the head of that momentum, taking charge.

A lot of time, and I was spending it by going shopping.

I was in the Realm, the higher end mall closer to the upper districts of the city. There was a sizable crowd moving through the mall, even though it was a weekday, and a school day at that. People were checking out stores, trying on clothes, walking around with smoothies in hands.

It was all so normal.

Being here, it wasn’t for anything recreational, but I needed a few things to help better ease myself into my new life as Wendy. And a better headspace meant a clearer focus. That was important.

D had dropped me off. I asked if she wanted to join me, but she declined. Apparently, she wasn’t supposed to be showing her face around here. She left before I could ask for a better explanation.

But, I did have her number. I could call her when I was ready.

I checked my phone.

A new phone. A smart phone, with no buttons, Wi-Fi access, and it didn’t flip. D helped me get one through the more unofficial markets, but it was functional, untraceable, and a hell of a lot better than my old one. It actually felt nice to have a good phone. It made me feel connected, my only line to the normal world I had left behind.

I looked at the time on the display. Half past one. I-

The stream of people shifted, and I almost bumped into someone. I turned just in time to avoid them, but I put pressure on my phone.

When the crowd thinned somewhat, and I got more room, I checked it again. It was fine, but I could easily imagine this thing getting crushed in my hand, or falling out of my grasp. I’d need something to protect it.

I’d need a case for this thing.

Without really thinking about where I was going, I wandered into a store.

Immediately, my eyes were barraged by a sharp, bright color. Pink. Everything was pink.

Pink shirts, pink bags, pink bras. All pink everything.

Where the hell was I?

I walked over to a stack of shirts, and flipped the logo over. The font was strange, it could either be read as ‘Flash’ or ‘Fresh.’

Seemed gaudy. Who would actually want to go here?

Whatever, maybe they have something worthwhile.

I decided to look around.

The place was larger than I expected. For a boutique with a cutesy aesthetic, the amount of space was almost aggressive. Not a single square inch was wasted. Racks were lined up with long, flowing dresses and tight jeans. Jackets, shirts and sweaters were stacked in shelves that covered a whole wall. Necklaces, bracelets, anklets, jewelry were showcased around every corner.

And pink, pink, pink.

Perhaps in another life, this would have been my paradise. Now, though, among all the dazzling, ritzy pieces, I felt stranded.

I passed a table near a corner by the display window, and I stopped. Something caught my eye.

Glasses.

Frames of different shapes, sizes, and color were on display. Not all of them were pink. Most were, but not all. And one in particular stood out to me.

Circular, metal frames. Gold. The lenses were big, not comically so, but they were stylish.

And they were different enough from everything else in here.

I picked it up. I found a mirror right by the table. I tried them on.

Silly.

I wasn’t used to seeing my face with glasses, I never had a need for them before. My eyesight was always fine.

It was probably just me, but it sat awkwardly on the bridge of my nose, like I was wearing a prop for a costume, instead. Or a disguise. It didn’t feel right.

I kept staring at myself, tilting my head one way.

Benny had described me as looking thinner, paler than she imagined. I could see that.

My cheekbones were more pronounced, and I had small bags under my eyes. I hadn’t been eating, and I hadn’t been sleeping much either. There wasn’t a lot of color in my cheeks or nose, too, even though the cold should have dashed a bit of red on there. White as a ghost, and I supposed the expression fit.

Physically, however, I felt good. Strong. Who else could stop a moving truck and feel fine afterward?

My hair had changed as well, but that was conscious choice. The sides and back were cut shorter, letting the top stay a few inches longer, brushing just past the tops of my ears and eyebrows. A bob, with an undercut, but I made sure to still look like a girl. I wasn’t going to give up that part of my look.

I also had it dyed, too. It was a lighter brown, now, instead of the darker color it naturally had. It took some time getting used to, but I’d grown to like it.

The mirror was long, to show off entire outfits. I took a step back.

My clothes were also different. Different from what Alexis would have normally picked out. A black leather coat, with a white sweater under that. Black skinny jeans, with black boots to match. I probably went too far trying to get away from the usual inclinations, but styles evolved over time. I could find something in the middle.

I posed, hands on my hip, trying to see how I looked with these glasses, whether or not it complimented my outfit.

I think it does. I think.

I certainly didn’t look like Alexis. I doubted anyone would mistake me as her, if they saw me now.

My reflection continued to stare back at me, and started to worry it might blink, twitch, or otherwise move on its own.

I walked away from the mirror.

But, in my last glances, the glasses didn’t look that bad. I could probably get used to it.

I-

I stopped before I bumped into someone. Their reaction was a touch more delayed, though, and they hit me instead.

I reached and caught them before they tumbled backwards.

“Oh!”

One of the employees. She had to be, going from the nametag. Julie. She was wearing a fuzzy red sweater, white jeans. Even her hair was red. She didn’t seem out of place, here.

She was also tall. If I didn’t have the kind of strength I had, we would have both fallen over when I tried to catch her. Instead, I was standing upright, and she was too, firm in my grip.

“You okay?” I asked, letting her go. “Sorry about that.”

The girl shook her head. “It was my bad. Anyways, can, can I help you with anything?”

I was about to give her the standard response, that I was ‘just looking,’ but I remembered that I did come in here with a goal in mind.

I removed the glasses. “I was looking for a phone case, but, can I check the price on this?”

Julie took the glasses from me. “Sure, follow me. We have cases at the front if you want to look there, too.”

“Great.”

I followed her to the front counter. There was a line, but Julie brought me right up ahead. The counter was long, and the line was being handled by another employee. None of the ladies in wait seemed to pay me any mind.

Or, if they did, I didn’t care.

Julie tapped away at the computer on the counter. There wasn’t a tag on the glasses, so she’d have to look up the price herself.

“It comes out to… one fifty.”

I blinked.

“As in, one dollar and fifty cents?”

She looked at me like I was insane.

“One hundred and fifty dollars,” she reiterated, saying it slow.

“I see,” I said back, just as slow.

“Is that going to be alright?” she asked.

Well, no, it wasn’t, but I couldn’t tell her that.

I reached into my coat pocket, taking out my wallet. I took a look inside.

“Do you take cash?” I asked, eyes still on my wallet.

“We can,” she said, slow. But, it wasn’t an insult this time. She was being cautious.

“Cash it is,” I said, taking out two bills. Her eyes glimmered the closer I brought them to her.

Two hundred dollars.

She took the cash, wordless, then opened the register.

“Oh, and this too.”

By the register was a small rack of phone cases. One was leather, with a cover that sat on top of the screen. I picked it out from the rack, and flipped over the cover. On the other side were slots where I could put in credit cards or licenses. I wasn’t going to carry purses around, so I could benefit having some extra pockets.

I took the case, and handed it to Julie.

“Um, okay,” she said, ringing that up too. “Anything else?”

“I think I’m good,” I said.

“Then that comes out to… your two hundred should do it.”

“Sweet.”

She put the bills in the register, with no change to return to me. She took out a bag from under the counter, opening it.

“The frames come with a case, do you want me to put them in there, or do you want to wear them now?”

“Uh, you can put it in the case.”

Julie nodded, and put them in the bag, along with the phone case. She handed the bag over, and gave me a smile.

“Thank you, and come again,” she said.

Now she’s nice.

“Will do,” I lied.

I put my wallet back in my pocket, and stepped away from the counter.

Bag in hand, I left the store. My feelings were mixed as I fell back into the stream of people. Happy that I had gotten something, sad that I had to spend a lot of money. It left me with butterflies in my stomach.

Had to get used to that. I was living on my own, now. No adult supervision. I had to make my own decisions, and live up to the consequences.

It wouldn’t be easy, but it would be well worth it.

I walked around the mall, checking what else was here. The Realm was the heart of fashion in the city, with everything from streetwear to fancy, casual to formal. All trendy. Serious cash was needed in order to get anything out of a visit here, but there was value to just looking around.

Putting pieces together, mixing and matching different clothes. Putting a costume together, in my head.

I looked at windbreakers, heavier ponchos with hoods on them. Denim and cargo pants. Even army surplus clothing. Anything that could last, that could handle the wear and tear.

Looking around, I picked together a decent draft of a costume from different pieces, from different stores. Decent quality stuff, which meant that I couldn’t afford it, even with the pocket change I still had from Hleuco, from the days as Blank Face. If I wanted that costume, I’d have to work for it. I typed the different pieces into a memo on my phone. A wishlist.

Couldn’t find a mask, though. That might come last.

I pulled myself away from the constant, moving mass of people, and found a large leather seat. Someone was already sitting, but there was enough room. I took a seat at the other end, taking a break.

I took out my new phone case from the bag, and put it on my phone. A perfect fit. I took out the case for my glasses next. Nervous, but still willing, I decided to try them on again. I fixed its placement on my face by looking through my phone’s front-facing camera.

I kept blinking, even though they weren’t prescription lenses. I set my phone down, trying to do some people watching, well aware of the weight on my nose and ears.

Mostly people in their twenties, strolling around without a care in the world. There were a few people who deviated from the average age, though. Teens who were probably skipping classes to be here, and adults in suits, more focused on their phones than what was in their immediate surroundings. Busy, even on a weekday.

I saw parents, moms, walking with their kids, too young to be in school yet. I saw teens, walking and laughing together, wide smiles on their faces.

It gave me a moment to think.

Did I miss it? The answer was more complicated than a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ I missed the idea of it, having time to go off and enjoy myself. Being with others, not worrying about pressing issues and stresses. To take my mind of stuff that mattered. Peace. It sounded nice.

Did I miss Shiori, or Katy and Maria? Coach Tilly, and the rest of the team? Again, complicated. I did not, and could not, feel any sort of connection towards them. I couldn’t claim that, it wasn’t mine, and it wasn’t me. Maybe it was callous, but I felt like I was suffocating when I was around them. I was better off without them, and they were better off without Wendy.

Still, I wouldn’t mind having some quiet time in the middle of everything. Sitting down, relaxing, watching others go through the flow of their own lives. Peaceful.

But, my only option for people to hang out with was D… I’d have to work on that.

A lot of time, and not much structure. I’d have to find something to do during my days off.

Boss.”

A shadow fell across my face. I had to look up.

A person.

Three, actually. A guy was standing in front of me, blocking the light, with another guy to his left, and a girl to his right. They each had their own fashion style, the guy directly ahead had baggier clothes than the two beside him, but they all matched in their colors. Black and white.

And from the greeting alone, the singular word, I knew who they were.

They’re with me.

I looked at the guy in front, to the other guy, then the girl. “Um, Reggie, right? And Tony and Sarah?”

The guy in front nodded. “Reggie it is, boss.”

“Pardon me, boss, but it’s ‘Tone,’ actually,” the guy beside him said. “One syllable, no ‘Y.’”

“But you got my name right, boss,” Sarah said. She looked happy to hear that I was correct.

“Two for three isn’t bad,” I said. “But, am I hearing that right? You guys are saying ‘boss’ funny.”

The three of them exchanged looks with each other.

Reggie explained. “It’s ‘Voss,’ with a ‘V.’ We thought it fit.”

I nodded, taking that in.

“It kind of does, actually,” I said. “It has a ring to it. Has it caught on with the others?”

“Not yet, but hopefully it does.”

“I hope so, too. Wait, does that make D, ‘Doss?”’

Reggie made a pained expression. “Thinking of her as above us is a harder pill to swallow.”

“Well, get used to it.”

I said it as an order.

D and I were here for the long run, and if that didn’t get it through their heads now, we’d have trouble later down the line. Couldn’t afford that, at a time like this.

Reggie nodded. “Yes ma’am.”

“That’s what I like to hear. Now, what’s up?”

Sarah answered that one. “D asked us to come look for you, make sure you were okay.”

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

She shrugged. “Just to be careful? It’s actually convenient for us, since we kinda need you on something.”

I lifted an eyebrow. “On what?”

Tone filled me in. “Couple of assholes are trying to short us on a deal. They paid half for a regular amount of dope, and they’d pay us the rest later.”

I frowned. “I don’t remember hearing about this. What kind of deal is that?”

“It was before the merger,” Reggie said. “Before you and D. We were really hurting for cash at that time, and being desperate leads to dumb deals.”

“Now,  we have some legs to stand on,” Tone said, “And some real muscle on those legs.”

“Terrible metaphor there, Tone,” Sarah said.

“Fuck off. Anyway, Voss, we were wondering if you could come with us, help knock a few heads together.”

I took a glance to my side. The person who I shared the seat with was gone.

I looked back at the trio. “Is it something that really needs my attention?”

“Maybe. Word isn’t exactly out about our new management, and those assholes might think they can still fuck with us.”

I felt my glasses fall on my face. I fixed it with a finger. Another thing to get used to.

“Hm, what about Lawrence and D? Have you told them about this?”

“Lawrence is handling other business, and he’s still injured. And D… is just a girl.”

“I’m a girl,” I said. “Sarah’s a girl.”

“D’s a kid. I don’t want to involve them in case things get hairy. And you have…”

Reggie waved a hand over me.

“Powers, and shit.”

I nodded.

There wasn’t much to think about. These people needed someone to lead them, and I was the only one available to fill that role.

I stepped up.

“A way to show people that we’re not to be messed with, and that things are different, now. You know what, I like it. Take me with you.”

All three of them nodded, satisfied.

They led the way, with me following behind. We moved as a group.

As we left the mall, Sarah slowed, until she was by my side.

“Voss, I like your glasses,” she whispered. She smiled as she said it.

I was made aware of them again, and I pushed them back up.

“Thanks,” I said, flustered.

We got to the house in about an hour.

An hour too long, I thought.

Not that I didn’t enjoy the ride here, but I didn’t know these people, even if they were my people, and there was a dynamic between them that I wasn’t accustomed to, yet. I was the one in charge. Was I supposed to make small talk, get to know them? Or was I supposed stay quiet, keep an air of authority and power?

In an odd way, my indecision towards an answer gave me one, regardless. I was silent the whole trip.

Tone parked the van, the signal for everyone else to step out. Reggie moved around the van, opening the door on my side. He extended a hand to help me down. I took it.

I checked around.

We weren’t in the suburbs. I knew that for sure.

The hood, past Eastside, away from the city. Wasn’t much here beside chain-link fences and shoes tied on telephone lines. The glamor of The Realm was nowhere to be found here.

Lawrence knew where I was. I texted him the details, and he gave me the okay to handle it on my own. I tried to update D on the situation, but I didn’t hear back from her. She was usually good about responding quickly. I couldn’t help but worry.

It was middle of the afternoon, not too cold, but it was dusty, the wind kicking up dirt that got into my eyes, fudging up my glasses.

I resisted the urge to rub my eyes as I asked, “So, this is it?”

“Yes,” Reggie said.

“How many are we dealing with here?”

“Dunno. I do know that this is where he is. Arturo. Latino kid, short. I can point him out better when I see him.”

“Alright. You sure they’re in there?”

“Very sure, I know these fools. Ain’t got better shit to do.”

We approached the fence, and the gate that should let us in. Should, since the lock was wrapped in barbed wire.

“They don’t really want visitors,” I commented.

“They don’t want us,” Sarah said.

“Right.”

“Do we gotta hop the fence?” Tone asked. He was tall, taller than me, and the fence was around his chest. Relative to me, the fence reached my chin. We could hop it…

“Not necessary,” I said, putting my hands on the wire. My palms were immediately pricked and cut. Sharp.

“Voss-” Reggie started, but was interrupted as I pulled, the wire coming apart. The gate came free, swinging open.

“Holy shit,” Sarah said. “You okay?” She took my hands after I dropped the wire.

“I’m fine,” I said, looking away from her. My eyes were on my palms. Small lines of red, bits of blood. No cuts.

“The fuck?”

“You just have to know where to hold it,” I said. “Come on, let’s move.”

I took the lead this time, my crew falling behind me. We approached the door, or the screen door in front of the real door, rather.

“Need a gun, Voss?” Reggie asked.

That question made me come to a sudden realization. I was walking into this unarmed.

Didn’t have my knife, didn’t have my mask. I might not need the latter, but it helped, and having a knife always gave me a bit of security. I wasn’t expecting my day to end up here, doing this.

Mistake number one.

“Why not?” I said, turning around. Reggie’s hand was out, holding a pistol, the grip facing me. I grabbed it. It was heavy in my hand.

I have no clue how to use this thing, I thought.

I hadn’t gotten around to learning. It couldn’t have been that hard, aiming and pulling a trigger, but of course there was more to it than that. Handling the recoil, the sound, being aware of the safety. The consequence that would arise if it gets fired. Taking a life.

I had a weapon, but I didn’t know how to use it, and I didn’t want to use it.

Mistake number two.

I knew enough to check if the safety was on, though. It was. I put the gun down, holding it by my side.

We were at the door, now. No lock on the screen door. I opened it.

I paused, briefly.

Should I knock? Announce myself? Should I ask them what to do, here?

Fuck. I was still new to this kind of thing. I didn’t know how to proceed.

“No need for pleasantries, Voss,” Reggie told me. “We already gave them their warning.”

Fair enough.

I started with the doorknob. Didn’t open.

By force, then.

I had never done this before, but it couldn’t be that hard. I had the strength.

I lifted my foot, positioning it by the doorknob, the lock.

I kicked.

The door flew open, almost torn away from its hinges. The bang as it hit the wall was violent.

“Shit!” Sarah cried out in shock.

I turned back to face them, and gave them a nod. They fell silent, and responded in turn.

We moved in.

The house looked like it hadn’t been taken care of in years. It looked like it hadn’t been lived in. Dust, cobwebs, dirt and grime. The interior had the feel of a sepia-tone photo.

To our right was a dining room, a table set. Signs of life. The table was probably set from the night before, though, dirty plates and utensils were left there to sit, a fly zipping between forks and spoons.

We passed the kitchen. I signaled with my hand, and I heard a shuffling from behind. I checked, and saw Tone move in there. The rest of us continued into the living room.

Nothing, no one. The place wasn’t in the best condition, with torn furniture and dusty coffee tables. The room smelled of sweat and smoke and cheap perfume, as if whoever tried to freshen up the place didn’t think of cracking open a window.

All the furniture was pointed to the TV, which was the nicest and cleanest object in here. Not a speck of dust was on the screen.

Someone sits on that couch, someone watches television. Someone lives in this house.

“Arturo!” I called out. “It’s the Ghosts, time to pay up!”

Behind me, Reggie and Sarah spread out, taking more of the living room. I walked over by the coffee table at the center, gun still at my side. Reggie, Sarah, and Tone had their guns raised, ready for action.

We got into position, and in the time we moved, I didn’t a response. I tried again.

“The Ghosts have appreciated your continued patronage, Arturo, enough so that we offered you a nice deal when we weren’t at our best. You betrayed that trust, so we’ve come to collect!”

No response. Either no one was home, or they thought they could short the Ghosts a second time.

Not this time.

“Tone,” I said, “Anything in the kitchen?”

“No Voss!”

I didn’t need to ask Reggie or Sarah, I was in the living room with them. I saw for myself.

I called out more orders.

“Spread out some more, check the rooms, call out if you run into anything. Be careful.”

We all moved, taking to different hallways, different rooms. I went towards the back door, to the yard. Beside it, there was a hall that went left. I headed down the hall.

It certainly felt strange, being the one to lead, having to take point, especially with strangers. I was working with them, but I didn’t know them. Would they have my back if the situation went south? For my part, I’d do what I could.

So many things that I needed to get used to.

I stayed focused on the task at hand. Two doors in the hall, one to my left, and one at the very end. Both closed. I slowly went over to the closest door.

I put my free hand on the doorknob, the other went behind my back.

I decided to put the gun away, stuffing it in the waistband of my pants.

If the situation fell apart, I didn’t want one hand full with a tool that I wasn’t confident in using. I was more comfortable without it. I was fast, and I was strong. A gun meant trouble, and that went both ways. At least I’d have better control of myself if I wasn’t holding one.

I twisted the knob, then let go. The door opened on its own.

I stepped inside when the gap in the door widened.

The master bedroom. The bed wasn’t made, and one blanket was in a heap on the floor. Too small for a person to hide under, though, I didn’t even bother to check. A tray was by a pillow in the middle of the bed, smeared with something red, but mostly white.

Someone lived here, and they used drugs. Arturo had definitely been in this house.

But, damn, my place was nicer than this.

It smelled worse than the living room, like something had died and they tried to cover up the smell with candles and, again, perfume.

The smell of something had died… or someone. I’d rather not consider the latter.

I checked the closet, under the bed, the bathroom. If something – or someone – had died in here, I didn’t see it.

Empty, again.

Taking another look, I-

“Fuck you, move!”

“Down on the ground, asshole!”

“Drop your gun!”

I ran out of the room.

Living room, commotion. Shouting. So loud that I needed a few seconds to take in the scene as I entered it.

Everyone was yelling, guns pointed. I’d been in this situation too many times.

Reggie, Tone, and Sarah were screaming at a man, who was walking at a measured pace, hands above his head. He was in sweatpants, no shirt. If this was Arturo, he didn’t look like how Reggie described him.

I walked over to him. Sarah kicked him from behind, and he dropped to his knees, hands still up.

“House cleaning,” I said.

He wasn’t in the best position, but he still found it within himself to scowl at me.

“Who even is you?”

“The Ghosts,” I said, speaking for all of us. “We’re ready for a haunt.”

“Fuck you, where’s Lawrence?”

“Lawrence isn’t here. Right now, you answer to me.”

“Bullshit.”

“Hey, I’m telling you now, so don’t be surprised later.” I looked to Reggie. “This him?”

He shook his head. “One of his friends.”

“Could have started with that, Reggie.”

“Sorry Voss.”

“Never mind.” I turned my attention back to the man. “Where’s Arturo? We just want to have a talk with him.”

He didn’t answer, instead staring at me with a scowl.

“The tough act isn’t gonna save you here,” I told him.

Again, no response. He just stared.

After what felt like a minute, he opened his mouth.

“It might not,” he said with a sneer, “But it’ll sure fucking help him.”

“Wha-”

“Behind-”

Whoever tried to warn me didn’t get to finish, or I didn’t get to hear it. The attempt was swallowed up by something larger, louder.

A gunshot.

Everyone hit the floor. I dropped down, crouching, head swimming from the noise. I was not a fan of loud.

I had to gather myself, get back to what was happening now. It took a second.

I didn’t get hit. No, it wasn’t that bad.

I checked the others.

They were all moving, didn’t seem injured. But they were in a bind.

The man had gotten to his feet, and was scrambling to get away. Tone tried to stop him, but he was too close to use his gun, and the man kept swinging. He backed up, almost tripping over a table behind him. The man moved closer.

Before Tone could get socked in the jaw, Sarah jumped forward in an attempt to tackle the man. But, he didn’t see her coming, and was already drawing his arm back. His elbow hit her right in the cheek, below the eye.

I moved before things could get worse.

He wasn’t wearing a shirt, my hands touching sweat and skin as gripped his neck. I squeezed just enough to feel something get crushed.

He seized, curling up. He fell back, and I let him go. He wasn’t going to be an issue anytime soon.

I brushed my hands on my pants.

“Shit, is everyone okay?” I asked. “Sarah?”

She answered, slurred, while rubbing her cheek. “I’m okay, but shit, he got me real good.”

“No gun,” I observed, looking at the man’s hands. “Who fired?”

“Not us!” Reggie said, already moving. “Him!”

I followed his line of sight. The door to the backyard was ajar, and I saw a small dot of a person running, then going over a fence. Wood. The only fence I’d seen that wasn’t chain-linked. Of course it was.

“That’s Arturo!” Reggie shouted, “We can still-”

“No!”

I took two steps, and I already passed Reggie, beating him to the door. I barked out more orders.

“Check that guy, make sure he doesn’t die on us! Check the rest of the house too, see if you can’t find the cash! I’ll meet with you guys later!”

“We can’t stay here though! We-”

“Then I’ll find you!”

“But-”

“I will find you!”

Then I was gone, out the door, crossing the yard. They’d listen. They had to.

In the few seconds I saw him, Arturo had trouble getting over the fence. It was taller than him. Than me.

I got over it easy, a single hop.

I landed, my heels immediately being snapped at.

A dog. Rottweiler. Fuck.

I had to swing my foot forward to avoid getting bit. The dog was right at my heel. I stumbled, then tumbled.

I threw my hands forward, into the grass, to stop myself from falling completely.

The dog didn’t get my leg, but my arm, instead.

The sleeves of a coat and sweater weren’t enough to protect against the wild gnashing of teeth.

The dog bit, and it bit hard. I felt teeth dig into my arm, breaking skin, then bone.

“Fuck!”

On impulse, I looked around, piecing together more information.

The dog was huge, heavy, and kept me pinned down, bent over in an awkward position. I could see length of chain following behind him. It was broken. Did Arturo break it? Was it already broken? How did he manage to slip past the dog? Or did he catch the dog unaware, escape, leaving the dog ready to catch someone else?

None of those questions mattered.

The dog’s head thrashed, whipping my arm around. Shit. He was angry, growling as he tried to rip my arm off. Like he wasn’t operating on an instinct to simply attack. It felt more deliberate, like he had every intention to harm me.

I was stuck, I was hurt, and I was losing Arturo. Not the best way this could go.

This was supposed to be a simple shakedown, now we could possibly lose our ground if I let Arturo get away.

Not being aware enough of my surroundings, letting Arturo and his friend distract us. My third mistake. And I couldn’t afford another one.

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Omake.03 (Bonus)

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*These are to be read right to left, then from top to bottom. Click them to see a larger version. Enjoy!

4koma interlude 3 part 1

4koma interlude 3 part 2

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058 – Rotting Cores

epy arc 9 name

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There was an hour before noon, and I was just about ready to get going.

Christmas came and went, and the ball was dropped on New Year’s with only the bare minimum of festivities. A party was held, but it was nothing fancy. We were all busy moving things around, getting settled, and easing into the recent administrative shakeups. It was work, but it was work that everyone wanted to get done.

And there was still much more work that we needed to get to.

Police, arriving on scene after neighbors called nine-one-one, found Eliza Waller dead in her home. She was pregnant at the time.

The TV buzzed in the background as I went around, a towel around my shoulders.

This has been the fourth in a string of escalated murders that have taken place in the suburban communities around Stephenville, and is believed to be related to the riots that continue to plague the city.

I opened a drawer, picking through the few shirts I had left. I already didn’t have much to choose from, but I wanted to avoid wearing the same thing twice in a row. I picked up the last clean shirt left, while keeping a mental note to do the laundry sometime soon.

Starting from the Halloween Riots back in October of last year, to the riot and bombing of City Hall in November, to these attacks that target those from the Asian-American community, it has certainly been a tumultuous few months for the people of Stephenville.

I had only taken a few seconds to flip through the handful of channels I had available, but I still ended up on this news broadcast. I could go change it, but it was more effort than it was worth.

It was just a guy monologuing, but his words and tone rubbed me the wrong way. Smarmy. He didn’t sound genuine. He wasn’t talking to his audience, he was pandering to them.

And it’s actually easy to point to the very person that started this twisted chain of events. That’s right, the Bluemoon.

I turned towards the TV, even though it was in another room. I was dressed, wearing a white shirt and black pants, but I’d need at least another layer before I stepped outside.

But, it was warm enough in the apartment, so I was fine for the moment. I left my towel on the metal frame at the foot of my bed, then walked out to the living room. I brushed some hair away, feeling it. My hair was still a bit damp, but it was also much shorter than it had ever been. It’d dry pretty fast.

“-has yet to make any official public appearance or statement about who she is or what she’s trying to accomplish. Can the Bluemoon be trusted? From what we’ve seen, and from all the collateral damage she’s caused, the answer must be a hard ‘no.’ The Bluemoon has taken no responsibility for all the destruction, and we’re left to pick up the pieces.

‘She?’ Right. The attack at the school did blow that out into the open, but that was an unsubstantiated claim by a band of terrorists. At best, it was just a rumor. It didn’t stop people from rioting against those that looked like me, however, nor did it stop this guy from running with the idea that the Bluemoon was, in fact, a girl.

Well, he was right, but he didn’t know that.

And, what was with that bit of about picking up the pieces? If I remembered correctly, this guy was based in New York.

Give me a break.

The guy continued to ramble.

Where does this lead for the city, and what does this mean for the country as a whole? Vigilantism is sweeping the nation as naïve, deluded kids play dress-up and imitate the Bluemoon, harassing good citizens and interrupting the due process of law. It’s all a game to them, and it trivializes the traditional, American values we all hold so dear.

A game? Maybe he had a point, there. But we had our reasons. It wasn’t for entertaining ourselves, it was just easier to strategize, to plan, when thinking along those lines. Moving pieces in place, waiting for the opportune time to strike, learning how to bend the rules… and trying to be the top dog in the end. The winner.

A lot of it was logistics, preparations, actual work. None of it was fun, in the traditional sense.

I was standing in front of the TV, watching this young, admittedly handsome guy babble on about the old me. It was weird, watching everything that had happened turn into talking points for this guy’s noon talk show. Filtered, watered down. Didn’t seem real, coming from his mouth.

But it was real, his monologue was a result of what Alexis, I, we, had done.

And I was about to give him more things to talk about.

-is a biology professor and researcher from the University of Texas at Austin, and James Gomez, the Chief of Police for the Stephenville Police Department. Gentlemen, good-

A knock on the door. Then several. A rhythm.

There wasn’t a set code, but I already knew who it was, just from that.

I went to the door, keeping the TV on.

“You’re early this time,” I told D.

She was dressed for the weather. A large, poofy jacket, with the sleeves going past her hands, and the fleece on the collar brushing her cheeks. Her skirt inched out from the bottom of her jacket, with black tights and shoes to complete the look.

With a stuffed teddy bear she was hugging, she looked rather comfy.

“Hi Wendy,” she said, giving me her usual smile. “Just making up for last time.”

“Consider it made up. Come in.”

I stepped back to give her room, closing the door as she let herself in. We walked to the TV, D taking a small detour to drop off the bear on a counter that separated the kitchen from the living room. The bear was with her new family, all sitting together, as if to keep warm.

It was just a small, nothing joke I made after the second time she visited, after I moved in, but she seemed intent on keeping it going. The collection grew. At least they were made of fluff, through and through.

There was only one couch facing the TV, and D threw herself onto the cushions. She was small enough for me to sit without her shoes touching me. I stayed at one end of the couch, though, watching her.

Speaking of…

“If you’re gonna lie down like that, you better take your shoes off.”

D unzipped her jacket, and started fanning herself. “Aw, you’re being strict about your new place. I’m happy.”

I crossed my arms. “I just don’t want you making a mess so soon. Next time, just keep your shoes at the door. I’ll get some slippers for you, later.”

Another thing on the list. Like doing the laundry.

“Alright, alright,” D said. She leaned over to reach her feet, undoing her shoelaces. She dropped her shoes onto the floor once she removed them.

As she went back down, she looked at the TV.

“This guy? You can do better than that.”

This guy was still rambling, but he had guests this time. Gomez was one of them. I was shocked to see that he agreed to appear on the show.

No, Mr. Gomez, I’ll tell you what she is. She is a parasite, feeding off of the blood, sweat, and hard work that your-”

I stopped paying attention to what he, they, had to say. They wouldn’t have anything new to offer.

“I just happened on it,” I said. “I wasn’t really listening.”

“All these people do is just simple fearmongering. Making little old ladies clutch their purses even tighter. You want a real scare? Go up against a real journalist.”

“Or don’t,” D quickly added. “Not worth it.”

“Noted,” I said. I started looking around for the remote.

“At least Uncle J still looks okay,” D said. She made a face, then moved around on the couch. The channel flipped.

She reached underneath where she was sitting, between her and the seat. She pulled out the remote.

“Oh. That was… up there.”

She set the remote down, by her shoes. I didn’t have a coffee table to place anything, yet.

The channel got switched to some cartoon. Nothing I was personally familiar with. D started watching as she talked.

“How’s the place treating you so far? You like it?”

The place. My new apartment. It sat on the border of Eastside, a good distance from all the trouble brewing over there. It was about the same size as the old one, but living by myself gave me more room to stretch my legs.

One bedroom, one bathroom. A kitchen and living room that had shared the same space. It had a modern feel to it, if not utilitarian, with the muted color schemes of the walls and floors. There was a window on the far wall to let in some light, breaking up the monotony. But, beside some sun, there wasn’t much on the walls. Not yet. I had just moved in.

But, it was all mine. This was my apartment. The walls were larger, the ceilings higher, I had room, here. Freedom.

“I like it,” I said.

There was a pause, like I was supposed to say more, but I didn’t.

“But?” D asked.

But.

“There’s no real ‘but’ to it, I’m just still getting used to the idea that the place is mine. My own room, my own bed, my own apartment. I never really felt like myself, back in that old place.”

“Still?” D questioned.

I know, but it was always her place, not mine, I thought.

“Here, I have freedom,” I said, reiterating that point to myself. “And yeah, it’s liberating, but it’s also more than I’m used to. I don’t know what to do with it.”

“You could try sprucing up the place,” D said, eyes still on the screen. “Put a painting up somewhere. Maybe another bear will do you some good.”

“I’m fine with the bears,” I said, giving her another reminder. Another reminder that she’d ignore. “But that’s the thing, I don’t even know what kind of painting I’d want. If I want something abstract, or a realistic painting of an apple, or whatever.”

“Apples can be good, they keep doctors away.”

I took it in stride. “How about an abstract painting of an apple?”

“There you go!” She moved around again, putting her hands behind her head, facing me. “But stuff like that costs money, which we’re all a little short on. A chunk of what the gang’s making is helping to let you sleep here, and keeping these lights running. As much as I get it, and as much as I want you to start doing some real decorating… it can wait.”

I sighed. “Yeah, it can.”

“But, how about you?” D asked, putting an emphasis on that last word. “How are you holding up?”

That question could be potentially loaded.

“What happens if I say I’m not?” I asked.

“Then you would be giving me a real scare, seriously.”

“Just kidding,” I said, probably faster than I intended. “That’s not what I meant. I’m holding up fine, considering I threw away the entirety of my previous life. Still wrapping my head around this being the new normal.”

“It’ll take some getting used to, for sure. You’ll feel better once you start personalizing your space, and if you’re ever feeling down, you have them, and more importantly, you have me.”

D grinned again, showing teeth, her eyes closed.

I have D, right. Doubt the others are willing to lend a shoulder to cry on, though.

I wasn’t sure where I stood with D. Not entirely. Friends? Probably wouldn’t go that far. I’d gotten more familiar with her over the past month, with her coming over at pretty regularly, maybe three to four times a week. Never asked her to, she kept inviting herself, but I couldn’t bring myself to turn down her company. At worst, she bugged me like any little kid would. At best, I appreciated her being around.

Maybe we weren’t exactly best friends yet, but I saved her life, and she saved mine. That was more than most friends ever did for each other.

There was, however, a part of her that creeped me out, which was a weird thing to admit out loud. She was just a little girl. On principle, she was harmless. But looking at it that way was too simple. She wasn’t just a little girl, she was D. The person who stole and drove Hleuco’s van, who led me to the Ghosts, and helped bring Benny and The Chariot to their knees. All with some firecrackers and a tablet. That was reason enough to be wary of her.

I was just lucky she was on my side.

“Noted,” I said again.

D had gone back to staring at the TV, flipping through the channels herself. I didn’t have much, and with each consecutive cycle, D was looking more and more bored.

“How’d you do it?” I asked.

“Do what?” she said, listless, eyes still on the screen.

We still had time before we had to go. And D was a curious little thing.

“How old were you when you struck out on your own?” I asked. “What’s your… I dunno, your origin story?”

D scratched the underside of the chin. “Origin story? Am I a superhero now, too?”

“You are pretty super,” I said. I couldn’t help it.

I swore I saw her blush.

“Thank you,” she said, her expression cheeky. She actually sounded like a kid, there.

Worth.

“Wait, no,” I said. “I’m talking about how you got into all of this stuff in the first place. How you… ended up here, doing this?”

D dropped that childlike demeanor she had just before. Neutral, blank.

And that freaked me out.

“I know,” I said. “I’ve asked this before.”

“And I think I did a pretty good job dancing around it the first time,” she said. “I’ve got a similar routine lined up, now, if you want to hear it.”

I didn’t quite catch it then, but I certainly did now. That was definitely her tell. Acting hyper self-aware about herself in order to avoid the subject, especially if that subject was her. Maybe it was her way of being cute, or maybe it was a feint to get me off track from another thing. I couldn’t put it past D.

Maybe she knew that I knew.

But that’s the thing, isn’t it? All these head games…

“Sore spot?” I asked, as if to test things.

D’s eyes hardened, her jaw set. Didn’t seem like it should be menacing, coming from her, but it did. I felt it.

Probably shouldn’t get her so pissed off before we headed out.

“The sorest,” D replied, hard.

Too late. She was pissed.

I spread my arms. “Okay, fine, I promise I won’t ask anymore, unless you decide to bring it up first. Everyone’s different. I shared my story, or at least the more relevant parts, but that doesn’t mean you have to tell me yours. But I just want to know how you deal.”

“Deal?” she asked.

“Like, when you first started out, how did you handle being on your own? Were you always on your own?”

I couldn’t read D’s expression anymore. If she was still upset, or just down.

D answered with a shrug. A second passed. And then another second passed, and I knew I wasn’t getting much else out of her.

I decided to drop the subject. We didn’t need this, not right now.

“Sorry, I know I keep pushing it, but that’s because I do like you, D, and you’ve been a big help, especially when I was trying to find Benny. And, since we’ll be working together for the foreseeable future, I’d like to know the girl who’ll have my back. Us ladies have to stick together, you know.”

D looked at me, blinking.

“You like me?”

My hands went to my hips, and I gave her a stern look.

“It was a rocky road, getting there, you did steal my van.”

“I was borrowing it.”

“Same difference.”

She also nearly drove that same van off a parking garage, but I decided not to bring that up.

D breathed, relaxing just a bit. “It’s not like I don’t get where you’re coming from. I like you, too, and there are things I’d like to tell you about, it’s just…”

“Not now?”

D nodded. “Not now. But that doesn’t mean never. I promise.”

“I’m holding you to that, then.”

“I’m okay with that,” D said, shrugging. “And hey, maybe we can even be more than friends, later down the road.”

She said that part with a wink.

It was involuntary, but I felt my cheeks warm up. And it wasn’t the air conditioning.

“What does, what?” I asked.

“Anyways, going back to your main point, you just take it a day at a time, figure out what you want to do, what you need to do, and how to do it. And it’s important to learn what you like, finding hobbies outside of all the other stuff. For me, it just so happens that I like all this stuff, so everyday is like being on the playground.”

She completely ignored me. But she also gave me what I asked for in the first place. I’d let it slide.

“Taking it a day at a time… seems obvious, it’s a good reminder. Thanks.”

“You got it,” D said, grabbing for the remote. She turned off the TV.

“We should probably get going,” she said, getting up from the couch.

“Is it time already?” I asked. I realized I didn’t have my watch on. I thought to where I placed it last. On the drawer, facing the bed. My sweater and coat were ready in the closet, along with my mask. The old, painted-over Blank Face one. Not ideal, but it would have to do for the time being.

“We’ll be early, which normally for me is a big no, but they’ll appreciate the gesture. A show of faith.”

“Good point. Let’s go.”

We got to moving, but in different directions. D went to the kitchen counter, and I went back to my room.

“You still don’t have anything in here!” D yelled out. She was talking about my refrigerator.

I was putting on my sweater, then grabbing for my jacket as I answered. “I told you I don’t have much use for it!”

“I got it for me! You need to start putting some snacks in here, like ice cream! Or cake! Or ice cream cake!”

“Next time, or just bring food yourself so you can keep it in there!”

I heard a noise. A guttural, but childlike moan.

I crouched in front of a box in the corner of the closet. Heavy, made of hard plastic, with different locks and latches on it. I took my time getting through them all.

The last latch cracked open, and I was face to face with my mask. Nothing else was in there.

Temporary.

I closed the box. I wouldn’t bring it. A show of faith.

I grabbed the rest of my things. Wallet, watch, and phone. I stepped out of my room, and met up with D by the counter.

“Ready?” I asked.

“Sure. Let’s make a stop along the way, I am starved.”

“Won’t that take time?”

D grinned.

“It will. Looks like we won’t be early, anymore. We’ll just be… on time.”

Busy. People pushing past each other, orders getting yelled. Clanking metal and fires sizzling. A flavorful aroma that attacked my senses. A sort of frenetic energy, that, if I wasn’t an active participant, I’d feel like I was in the way. A bother.

I wasn’t an active participant. Not in that regard, anyways.

Probably wasn’t the best idea to hold a meeting in a kitchen during peak hours.

It was me, D, and Lawrence. We were in Casa Martinez, sitting at the table in the far back of the kitchen. Workers, cooks, and waiters and other staff were darting around to get things done. Put food on the table of waiting, hungry customers. They all worked smoothly, too, moving like a well-oiled machine. Mrs. Martinez ran a tight ship, around here.

Which made me feel even more in the way, even more like a bother. We had made quite a mess, back during our standoff against The Chariot. The vents got fucked, bullet holes and casings littered the floor, and that was on top of Lawrence bleeding all over the place. Mrs. Martinez wasn’t happy when she came back the next morning.

If we wanted to keep using her restaurant as a place to meet, she brought down some new rules on our heads. No activities after hours, and no meetings when she couldn’t keep an eye on us. We’d been effectively grounded.

Lawrence had a plate out in front of him, taking the occasional bite of a beef enchilada, topped with some chili con carne. D was finishing up some leftover fries from the trip here.

I didn’t have anything for myself.

“You sure you’re good?” Lawrence asked, glancing at the empty space in front of me.

“I am,” I said. “I ate before I left, she didn’t.”

“I hafd-” D started, but she coughed.

“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” I told her.

She took a sip of her drink, and wiped her mouth with a napkin. Then she finally got out what she meant to say.

“I had a light breakfast.”

“Eat more for breakfast then. You’re still growing.”

Lawrence looked at me and D. “The hell was that?”

“Nothing,” I said. “Let’s get started.”

Lawrence put down his fork, nodding. “Well, there’s good news and bad news.”

“That’s your starting bit?” D asked.

“Shut up.” He grumbled. “Now it feels awkward to ask which one you want first.”

“Let’s go with the good news,” I said. “No reason not to.”

“Okay, well, the good news is that we’re still up and running. What we got out of Benny is enough to keep us going for a bit longer.”

“So we have time to figure out our next move?”

“Exactly. The dust has settled over East Stephenville, mostly. We blew up half the neighboring gang’s bases, and sparked whatever tensions were going on between them. There’s still some quarrels that flare up here and there, but one cop car comes by, and everyone disperses. A lot of attention is on the city, now more than ever. People are trying to behave themselves. Trying.”

“And no one’s starting to suspect us?”

Lawrence shook his head. “It’s been some time, and nothing’s come up, so I don’t think it’ll be an issue, anymore. It helps that you dropped Benny off to a third party.”

“It helps that D dropped her off,” I said. “I can’t take credit for that part.”

“Done on neutral ground, taking turns,” D said. “We moved her there, left for thirty minutes, and when I came back, the cash was in her place. Clean, no questions asked.”

My thoughts wandered to Benny. I wondered where she was now, if she was even still alive. I wondered who exactly picked her up.

The less I know, the better.

It was easier to think that way.

“And the bad news?” I asked.

“The bad news,” Lawrence said, “Is the good news, looking at it from a different perspective. We’re still up and running, we’ve got money, but its not going to last forever. And we can’t keep taking from old, forgotten staches and selling at a discount. That’s not good business.”

“You don’t have anyone to supply us with stuff? Our own manufacturer?”

“If I did, I wouldn’t have been in this situation to begin with. I wouldn’t have had to go to D for weight, and I wouldn’t have needed to accept your offer to work together.”

“Okay, so we just find one.”

Lawrence grumbled again. “If it was that easy… you know where I’m going with this.”

Ah!” D had taken another swig of her drink. “Think about it this way. Stephenville is like a port city for gangs, mobs, and cartels. They send a group of their own to set up shop in the city, and act as representatives. Diplomats, if it comes down to it. And in turn, those gangs, mobs, and cartels act as sponsors, providing money, supplies, and reputation. And depending on who’s your sponsor…”

“It comes with some real good perks,” I said.

“Yup, and if you have a really good sponsor, you get a seat at the table, and a legitimate word in how things get run.”

“That’s quite the system,” I said. “How does something like that even get started?”

D and Lawrence shared a look.

“Mister,” D said.

Mister.

At that metaphorical table, he would be sitting at the head. The man on top, above everyone else. A spider, really, at the center of the web, sensitive to any pull or tug on its many threads, aware of any bug that happened to get trapped inside.

That, was how Benny put it, when I asked her.

There wasn’t much else known about him. His name, his face, his identity, they all drew up blanks. From what I’d heard, and from reactions I got whenever he was brought up gave credence to the fact that he was real…

He seemed more like a boogeyman than the lynchpin of the city.

But, if we were going to do this, and Mister was real, and at the center of it all, we couldn’t get caught in those webs.

Had to play it smart. Had to be… whatever ate spiders.

“Getting back on track,” I said, “Is it even viable, getting a sponsor?”

Lawrence cut into his enchilada, taking a bite. He spoke while he ate, but he didn’t sound stuffed. “Honestly, I don’t think so. Sponsors aren’t generous enough to support two gangs, and they’re not looking to adopt, either.”

“What about The Chariot? Who was their sponsor, again?”

Lawrence laughed, or rather he scoffed. “El Tunante, leader of La Rueda. Yeah, don’t think so. Aside from the fact that we’re too far removed from them, do you think El Tunante is going to want to support the nobodies that sold out his best representative, and threatened his nephew to do it?”

“Nope,” I said.

“That bridge has long been burned. Unless we get very lucky with someone else, it’s not happening.”

“Damn,” I said. “There has to be something we can do. Not every gang has a sponsor though, right?”

“Lots operate the more traditional way, sure, but they’re all small fries.”

D said that as she ate a small fry.

“Then we can muscle in on some of the smaller of those fries,” I ventured. “Get whoever makes for them… make for us, instead.”

Lawrence set his fork down, looking right at me. “You have to understand, we are the smallest fry in the city. We may have gotten some green thanks to Benny, but comparatively, that still puts us in the yellow. If we make too-big a move, and it doesn’t work…”

He snapped his fingers.

“We’re snuffed out, just like that.”

“But we’re not in the red, though,” I said. “You have me. And we have some of the weapons that The Chariot were secretly staching.”

“A crate of high-end pistols, and half a crate of some nice rifles,” D said. “We got four big boys left, too. But let’s save those for a bad day. Or a really good one.”

I gestured towards D. “See? It’s something.”

Lawrence turned, flagging down a passing waiter. He lifted his glass, and the waiter understood.

He turned back to me.

“Look, um, Wendy-”

“It’s V, this time, we’re on the clock.”

“Fuck, that’s confusing. Anyway, V, I appreciate you still trying to help us, I do, but…”

“But what?”

“But why?” he asked. “I didn’t get a chance ask earlier, since I was on my ass, recovering, but why throw yourself into all this shit? You’re young, you have powers. Shit, without that, you still have your whole life ahead of you. Why commit to this?”

The kitchen worked, the sounds of people and metal crashing together. It was hard to gather my thoughts for a question like that, in a place like this.

But I had to try.

“Because I tried normal, I tried regular. It didn’t work. It’s like trying to fit a square into a circle hole. It won’t fit, and if you try to force it, things break. With this, I know what I’m getting into, I know where I fit. Perhaps, in a past life, I wasn’t built for this, wasn’t made for this. But I am, now. I have talents that make me valuable. I’m capable. And now that I can put my focus onto this full-time, I can actually make progress. Move forward.”

It was a long, rambling answer, but Lawrence seemed to accept it. He sat back, and the waiter came by to refill his drink. The waiter left, and Lawrence managed to down half his glass before speaking again.

“I guess I can live with that. It’s just, it’s going to have to take some getting used to, working with both the heartless bitch that made my life a living hell, and the ex-hero who got me into this mess to begin with.”

D covered her face with a napkin. “You flatter me too much, Lawrence.”

“Shut it,” he said.

“We worked well together, when it came down to it,” I said. “I think we even managed to surprise each other.”

I received nods from the two.

But it was true, I was surprised. Pleasantly surprised, at that. D managed to prove her usefulness, setting up the plan to smoke out Benny, and saving us when I was cornered by Benny in this very kitchen. Lawrence, too, proved himself as well. Back when we started this, when we were just a coalition, I had thought of Lawrence and his Ghosts as pawns. Now, I knew that Lawrence was more capable than that. He kept Benny in place, buying me time to get back to the restaurant, and turned the tables by tricking her. With all our history, our baggage with each other, we managed to make it work.

And that was worth acknowledging.

“So, I think we can do this,” I said. “We can pull it off.”

“I fuckin’ hope so,” Lawrence said. “Shit, getting Benny was supposed to make things easier.”

“It’s never going to be easy,” D said. “But that’s what makes it fun.”

“Fun?” Lawrence questioned. “Fuck, I’m fucked, aren’t I?”

I intervened. “Let’s call it a day, for now, before D stresses you out too much. You’re still recovering. We know what the problems are, and we have time to think about some solutions. Things are settled down. It’s peace, relatively. Let’s take advantage of that.”

“Sure thing,” D said, balling up her paper bags and napkins, getting ready to toss them away.

“Fine. I do have to get back to my Ghosts, anyway. I just don’t like walking away here without a clear plan in mind.”

“We’ll figure it out,” I said, more just for him, so he could take it easy.

It seemed like I got the last word in for the meeting. We got up from the table, thanked Mrs. Martinez and her staff for the meal and hospitality, and we split up from there. Lawrence went through the front door, while D and I took the back exit.

“Do you think Lawrence will take it easy?” I asked, walking to the van. Not the van D stole after she trashed Hleuco’s, but rather it was Hleuco’s. Lawrence got his men to patch it up, repair some parts, refurbish it, and gave it back, as thanks for D taking care of him after he got wounded. But, he didn’t want us to mention it, or he’d string us up. “You know him better than I do.”

“He’s not the kind of guy that likes to stand still. It’s why he was willing to go to me when he was running out of options. It’s why he ended up agreeing with your initial idea to work together. He’ll do anything to take a step forward.”

“Not a bad mentality, but that can easily lead to trouble.”

“Don’t you worry about that,” D said. Again, she winked. “I can keep an eye on him.”

We reached the van, and took our respective sides. D got in the driver’s seat, and I rode shotgun.

I had to warn D. “Careful. At best, he’s tolerating you being around.”

“He’s tolerating us.”

“Like I said, don’t give him a reason to immediately drop you. I need you on this.”

D started up the van, humming to life. Good as new.

“Aw, would you miss me?”

“I would,” I said, without skipping a beat.

D backed out, leaving the parking lot, getting onto the street. Eastside seemed to have bounced back from our shakeup pretty well. People were strolling on the sidewalks, traffic was moving along at a decent pace. It was as if nothing had ever happened.

“Want me to drop you off back at your place?” D asked.

I thought about it.

“No, sun’s still up. I’ll take advantage of this time, too.”

“That’s what I like to hear. Just tell me where.”

I looked at the side view mirror as we turned, Casa Martinez in the back. The restaurant disappeared as we rounded the corner.

As far as territory went, that was the extent of it. There was so much that needed to get done.

A lot of work, running a gang.

Bonus                                                                                               Next