Interlude – James

Previous                                                                     Bonus

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 officers lay down their lives for every day. She throws a wrench in your efforts, undermining the whole system you have in place. And how do you claim to know what Blank Face’s true motives are? Have you spoken to Blank Face? Are you in regular contact with her?

“I have never had any contact with Blank Face, nor do I claim to know her true motives. I am merely providing my comments on the issue, as I was asked to do when I was invited to your show.”

So you believe that Blank Face is providing a service to your city? Because, and correct me if I’m wrong, but if Blank Face is the hero you claim she is, then why have large-scale riots and displays of civil unrest increased by sixty percent since she’s showed up, why have assaults against Asian Americans skyrocketed by seventy percent since she’s showed up, and why has her presence introduced a new wave of themed vigilante and gang activity, as well as her being challenged by terrorists whose capabilities are unprecedented, and, need I remind you, are still at large? And, those statistics are only representative of what is happening in Stephenville, it’s about half, spread throughout the rest of the country. What do you have to say about that?

“I say that’s a lot to throw at me. Again, Jim, I don’t claim to know what’s in her heart. She’s here, she’s fighting criminals and gang members. As the police chief, and as a citizen, I oppose of her methods and vigilantism, but Blank Face has attempted to stop evil when she encounters it. I do believe that says something. But, whether or not her attempts have proved to be of any benefit… that’s a whole other debate.”

You’re right, that’s a debate for another time, and I hope I can have that with you very soon. Sorry gentlemen, there’s still so much to talk about, like the state of Stephenville in the face of these continuing and escalating issues, and the fact that the last public sight of Blank Face was almost two months ago, but my time is running out. Dr. Paltro, I apologize for losing you at the end, there.

“It’s no problem.

Alright. It was good having you two come on the show. Thanks again.

“Thank you, Jim.”

The camera feed was cut off. James started blinking at the bright blue screen.

“Ah, fuck,” James muttered, reaching for his collar. He removed the tape and microphone, wrapping the wire around his fingers. He placed the coil on the table in front of him, and got up to stretch.

Bones creaked and joints popped.

“Ah fuck,” James said. He was getting older.

It was something he avoided thinking about, he didn’t want to admit it to himself. But he felt it, as he went about his day to day. That much harder to get up, that much harder to move around. The aches in the morning, the soreness as he crawled back into bed. He wasn’t that old, but he was getting up there in years. The work, pressures, the stress… it all piled together, and that combined weight was starting to slow him down.

I wonder if he ever felt like this.

No. That was another thing he wanted to avoid thinking about, as much as possible. But it proved to be a significant challenge, even in this brief moment of being calm and quiet and alone. If left to wander, his mind wouldn’t, couldn’t stop from going in that direction. The wound was still too fresh, still too deep, not want to dwell on it.

But he knew he couldn’t, he had to distract himself, keep his mind busy. Later hours in the office, longer hours in meetings. Meaning more work, more pressure, more stress.

James stalked over to the door, turning the knob, pushing it open. He waited.

Campbell stepped inside.

“Did it go well?” Campbell asked, stepping past James to collect the camera, and turn of the television.

Young, caucasian. Well-built and tall. Reliable. Still held onto the belief that there was good in this world, and that it would somehow prevail, in the end.

James wasn’t so jaded as to call it stupid, no, he admired the fact that people like Campbell were around. That people were still willing to try to leave this world a better place than they found it.

James tried. Now, it wasn’t so much to try and save the world, but just save what little of his own world he had left. Hold it close, hold it tight.

Even then, it’s as if everything’s slipping away.

His mind was wandering again.

James finally answered. “As well as it could have.”

“My condolences,” Campbell said.

“I don’t know why I keep agreeing to these whenever I get invited. I make an ass out of myself every time.”

“Maybe you have something you want to say.”

“Ha. You have a job, Campbell, you don’t have to kiss my ass.”

Campbell flinched. “Sorry, Chief.”

It was like flicking a dog on the head. It was just wrong.

“Come on,” James said, “Let’s go.”

“Right behind you,” Campbell replied, having finished wrapping up the wires, turning off the camera, and placing it back into the bag. He picked it up, and zipped it closed.

Together, they left the conference room.

The halls weren’t bustling, leaving James and Campbell plenty of room to walk side by side. Everyone was either out on patrol or at their desks, working all the same. It wasn’t busy, but it wasn’t lifeless. It was just another day at the Stephenville Police Station.

Even with the chaos and turmoil going on in the city, just beyond this building, the atmosphere seemed lax. People were working, but there wasn’t any sense of urgency. It was wartime, to be dramatic, yet everyone seemed content on laying back, only getting up when they were prodded hard enough. James wanted nothing more than to kick them in the ass and get them moving, but he knew better. Or rather, he just knew. He had no power to exert over his own men.

The halls were clean. James hated that. It meant that the janitors and cleaning ladies had the time to clean thoroughly, that his men weren’t running the place ragged.

There should be more being done, here. People should be tearing their hair out, trying to set this city straight. People should be working together, hand in hand, to rebuild what was broken and creating sturdier foundations.

Someone should be doing… something.

“Campbell,” James said, needing another distraction.

“Yes, sir?”

“How long have you been on the force, now?”

“How long? It’s been, wow, five years already? Certainly doesn’t feel like it.”

“Time flies when you’re having fun. You… you’re not from around here, right?”

“I’m not. I moved here while I was still in highschool.”

“And that was, what, five years ago?”

Campbell laughed.

“It was ten years ago, sir.”

“Color me shocked.”

“But, actually, I still call Chicago my home. Sorry, Chief.”

“No need to apologize.”

“Not that I don’t care about this city, I was just saying that-”

James interrupted him, reassuring him. “I know what you mean, son.”

They walked down the halls, passing by other conference rooms, offices, broom closets. They were in the administrative section of the old building, located on the third floor. The Stephenville police department had two separate buildings, a smaller, newer facility, and the larger, historical main base.The newer building, nicknamed ‘the Pupil’ by those who had the privilege to be able to work there.

The Pupil housed the high-tech labs, with state-of-the-art equipment for forensics and other data analyses, and keeping the higher-grade firearms for emergency use only. He’d seen a lot of those arms be used in recent weeks.

Nice, clean, innovative. A bastion of hope for the city. James had to hear it all through the grapevine.

The building was finished five years ago, and he had yet to take a step inside.

He was there, though, at the grand opening. Cameras pointed at him, smiling that wide, fake smile while holding that stupid, oversized pair of scissors. He cut the ribbon, everyone poured in, and James stayed back and watched.

The memory was still clear in his mind. The meeting, on a trail under the southern bridge at the Peace Phoenix Plaza. The dead of night. Styx had informed him that the Pupil was constructed, in large part, thanks to dummy corporations that Mister owned. The tech was legit, the facility was functional, but all of it was to stay out of James’ reach. He was not granted permission or jurisdiction over the equipment within.

“Looks like you’re blinded,” Styx had told him, before he cracked a wild grin, and chuckled. The sound perturbed, and it only served to cement that moment in James’ mind even more.

Again, wandering.

James scratched his face, running his fingers through his hair, using more force than he needed. To keep him here, instead of being lost in his thoughts for hundredth time that morning.

“Campbell,” James said, finding himself reaching for another distraction, even though he recognized that continuously relying on Campbell for that was probably not the best of ideas. He didn’t work at a high school, but rumors did form, and they would spread.

“Um, yes sir?”

“What’s your take-”

James closed his mouth as they went around a corner, running into another pair of officers. They all exchanged greetings as they moved to pass each other, and James waited until he was certain they were out of earshot before he tried again.

“What’s your take on Blank Face?”

“Blank Face?”

James noted Campbell’s hesitation.

“You can speak your mind around me, son, it’s alright.”

“It’s not that sir, it’s just…”

That hesitation again.

“It’s just what?”

“I’m not sure what to think, it’s all so complicated, maybe even needlessly so.”

“That’s not a bad answer, see, it is complicated. How about this, then. You’ve met her, right?”

“Yes, I did. Back at the warehouse while we were looking for Mr. Thompson, and Solace, and I sat with you and her on the way to city hall.”

Even just hearing his surname, it was like a punch to the gut. Dealing hadn’t gotten any easier.

“So… I, then, what was your first impression of her?”

Campbell took his sweet time in formulating an answer.

“I think, and this is going off a very brief, very hectic interaction from months ago… I have the impression that she was tired.”

“We were all tired back then, Campbell, that was a hectic time. Hell, it still is hectic, and I’m still tired.”

“I know, I just can’t find the right word for it. Maybe exhausted, drained? I didn’t see her face, of course, but I can read body language okay. From what I can remember, she’s young, isn’t she?”

“Just a kid,” James ventured. It was something the media or the public had only picked up in recent weeks. Nothing more than a theory – a rumor – that had spread to be accepted as fact. From the mad ramblings of a domestic terrorist, during one of the most heinous attacks on American soil, at the newest peak of paranoia over the Bluemoon, it was no wonder that people grabbed onto the loudest unsubstantiated claim they had. Even if it wasn’t confirmed, even if it acting on that impulse to believe was unwise and dangerous

People were desperate, and people had stakes to burn. Everyone was looking for even the tiniest flicker to set their hate ablaze.

Granted, James and Campbell knew the truth, but the people didn’t. They just wanted a witch to hunt.

“Just a kid,” Campbell repeated, as if he couldn’t believe it, himself. “Yeah, the way she was standing, how she held herself. I’d hate to assume, but it reminds me of what I’ve seen before.”

“Before?”

“My mother. She… how do I put it? She was a hard worker. She had grown up poor, so she forced herself to work to the bone for her family. It paid off, in a sense. The company recognized her, rewarded her accordingly, and she kept working hard to impress them even more. Always pushing herself, she was.”

“And the twist was?” James asked.

“I’m not sure if you can call it a twist, nothing surprising happened. Looking back, it was almost unavoidable. Something must have snapped, or the wrong set of wires was crossed, but she took her work ethic and made it… not ethical. It turned into an addiction, working herself so hard that she became bone. How files were organized were more important than if anything was in her stomach, or if she was getting enough sleep, or if she saw her husband and two sons for more than ten hours a week. And then… the three of us moved here.”

Campbell’s voice was just a bit tight.

“You don’t have to get too deep into it, if you feel uncomfortable,” James said. “We’ve veered off the main topic, anyway.”

Campbell shook his head.

“It’s not that, I was trying to get to my point. What I mean to say is, I’ve seen that. The restlessness, even when exhausted, making you twitchy, making you lash out at when the slightest thing goes wrong.”

James remembered back to that time in the warehouse, when they encountered Linda Day. Twice, Blank Face had assaulted her, at the slightest provocations. Would Blank Face had killed her, if he wasn’t in the way? James couldn’t say for sure.

Campbell had continued while James was pondering. “-when they’re at the frayed ends of sanity. That’s never healthy. She, my mother, subjected herself to all that stress, and she let it consume her. Multiply that stress by ten, a hundred fold, and put that on a kid, and a kid like her…”

“Something’s bound to snap,” James said, finishing the thought.

“And considering that we haven’t seen her in so long, it’s weird, I actually feel a little concerned for her, and not in the obvious, ‘super-powerful-vigilante-has-gone-missing’ kind of way.”

He coughed, the camera bag shaking a little.

“You know what I’m trying to say, sir?”

“I know,” James said.

James had a thought he wanted to share with Campbell, but they had gotten to the elevators. James pressed the button for the both of them. Different floors, but the same direction. Up.

Campbell spoke as they waited for the elevator. “But hey, it could just be me not remembering things right, and my mind ended up going there. I’d bet money that I’m wrong.”

“No,” James replied, eyes forward. “It’s not a bad assumption. If anything, it’s food for thought.”

“Yeah, food for thought.”

As if it was responding that point as well, the elevator dinged, the doors sliding open. They went inside, James pressing the appropriate buttons, and the doors closed.

They stood in silence as the elevator worked itself up. James listened to the hum of the machines, the cables and gears, focusing the small bumps as the three thousand pound metal box was being pulled up.

A ding.

The doors slid open. It was Campbell’s floor.

“Thank you again for letting me set up the meeting for you,” Campbell said as he walked out.

“I’m no good with all that stuff, and you’re the only one I can trust.”

“Honor to hear that.”

The door closed before James could get another word in. The elevator continued.

The workings of the interior felt farther away.

That last thing he had said to Campbell, how sad was it, for that to actually be the case?

An exaggeration, but there was some truth to that. Campbell was there with him when he traced the signal that led them to the warehouse. He watched the door while James worked. And he was there, helping James assemble the crew he needed to get a leg up against Solace. Of the crew that James knew he could work with, Campbell was the one he knew he could trust.

And in a building full of people who were supposed to be his men, his officers, that feeling was like finding a drop of water in the desert.

A ding.

James got out of the elevator.

His body moved on its own, he knew his floor better than anyone ever would. And he had better, no one spent as much time on this floor as much as James did.

He passed someone in the hall. Detective Harvey. Forest’s man.

Harvey smiled, and James tried to smile back. He picked up the pace back to his office.

James’ office. He had always wanted a space on an upper floor, with a window that faced the city. There was a sort of dignity to it that appealed to the six year old James during job day. Back then, he knew what he wanted.

What he got was a bit of a compromise. He got that office space high up, but the window faced an alley, a brick building was all he could see out that window.

Well, that, and another more peculiar thing.

Two scraps of paper were taped to the wall, with an arrow drawn in marker pointing from one to the other. The marks were on the other side of the glass. James hadn’t bothered to erase them. Somewhere within him, he was wanting to put up another scrap of paper.

Others had seen it, but no one had made mention of it. Either they thought that was just another quirk of the police chief, or, more likely, they just didn’t care.

James walked through the stacks of boxes, full of files of cases and other investigations and potential leads. So many files that he had to empty out his bookshelf and start stacking files using that. Some stacks went up to his chest in height. Getting past it all was cumbersome, there were simply a lot of boxes.

He finally made it to his desk on the other side of the room. He slumped into his chair, righted himself some, and booted up his computer.

As he waited, he looked around.

Not that he had less stuff in his office, now, it was just that all of his stuff had been replaced by files and boxes. Photos and trinkets, precious mementos and superficial awards. All moved out for files and boxes. Even his desk, there was a pile of names and cases that took up all the real-estate, and then some. Things he could actually work on, and need legitimate attention by the police.

A serial murderer who had used the Halloween Riots as cover for his killings. Patrick Goldstein, a convicted felony who fled into the city to join one of the many growing gangs. No one wanted him, so now he was stuck, and the police had to find him. Solace, but he had stopped getting regular updates about that.

A missing persons case. There were so many as it stood, but James was asked to put it on the top of his desk. A personal favor.

Blank Face. The official order to bring down the vigilante. Her stack was the tallest in the room. The amount of offenses they stuck on her was almost comical.

Work, pressure, stress. His own office was no longer a haven for him.

Sitting here, he already wanted to go up to the roof and have a smoke. Funny, he had already quit smoking. But all this work, pressure, and stress, it brought him right back.

What would have six year old James thought, should he see this? Disappointment? Would he cry?

Pathetic.

The computer finished waking up. James moved the mouse to click and check through his emails.

Several. A dozen, to be exact. But one caught his eye.

John Cruz. The new district attorney.

It was a proposal about a new bill that he was going to support, and was suggesting that James back the bill, too. Nothing concrete was put to paper yet, but it would use-

James stopped reading.

He looked away from the computer screen, wanting to shut down the computer, wanting to throw the whole thing out the window.

The wording, the formality of it, that James saw it as callous. An offense that James took personally.

Fuck you, John. You shit-drinking, piss-eating bastard. I don’t know how you eat piss, but I’m sure the devil would love to get creative when he meets you. Fuck. You.

Finding a distraction, his eyes went to a portrait, instead.

It was the only memento that kept its rightful place on his desk.

Three people. No, four. James almost didn’t see little Katy there, wrapped up in a bundle, held by Kristin.

Beside him was-

He had to look away again. Not his mind’s eye, this time, it was more direct.

But he kept it there, James never removed the portrait. He needed it there.

But he lost the will to even look at that, too.

James got out of his seat, and went to the window.

Nothing but a brick wall. All he could see. A block to his vision.

He almost laughed.

“We were supposed to do this together,” James said, his words reaching no one. “I got here first, waiting for you to catch up. Now you’ve left me hanging. Was this your plan all along, to set me up as part of a big joke?”

No answer, but James wasn’t expecting one.

James stared at the brick wall in front of him. He got so far, but he was never even close. The whole time, he was impeded by something that he had no control over, and he had learned that lesson way too late.

He stared at nothing, and got nothing.

It wasn’t always like this.

It was James’ job to keep the peace.

Red and blue lights illuminated his face and back as he stood, arms spread out. The colors enveloped, giving him more of a presence. He tried using that to his advantage.

“Stay back people! Please stay behind the tape!”

The people listened, backing up some, giving those closer to the tape and James more room to breathe.

James grinned to himself.

Good job, me.

The scene was still fresh, the last gun shot still ringing in his ears. The last time he had checked, the last time he took a glance behind him, the scene still wasn’t pretty.

James didn’t even want to see it in full. So why would all of these people gather to take a look?

Vultures. I bet they don’t even see them as human. Just another spectacle to indulge themselves in.

For their sakes, and for his, he tried to push them back even more.

“I’m gonna have to ask y’all to back up one more time! One big step back, please!”

His portion of the crowd listened again, but they weren’t backing up as much as he would have liked.

He opened his mouth to shout again.

“Everyone, please back-”

“James, James!”

He heard his name getting called. Not from behind, but in front. Someone in the crowd.

James saw as people were moving out of the way. Had he not asked for more room, there probably would have been more objections, more shouting at the people squeezing through. There wasn’t, though, which James liked. The people here were behaved.

The last line of defense broke, and James saw who the offenders were.

“Thomas,” James said.

Thomas Thompson smirked upon hearing his name.

It was well past any reasonable hour, but Thomas was still clean and proper, looking like the lawyer he was. Dressed in a fitting, expensive looking grey suit, his hair combed back, with the only sign of disheveledness was how wild the strands were at the ends. He needed a haircut, that was for sure.

He walked with a swagger, like he didn’t just know what the next move was, but the one after that, and so on. Like it was all part of a grand plan, and all Thomas had to do was go through the motions of that plan, and everything would fall into place.

Some would have called that arrogance, but James recognized it as Thomas just being that damn confident.

“Why am I not surprised?” James asked as Thomas approached. Thomas stopped right at the tape, and Gomez had to take a step to close in the distance.

“Because you’re looking for something to do, my friend,” Thomas answered. “And I’ve got just the thing.”

“Or, man,” Thomas then said, correcting himself.

He gestured to the man standing beside him. Younger, just a hair shorter than Thomas. White, though the features in his eyes and jaw suggested that he might be part Hispanic. Dressed similarly. Though, unlike Thomas, he had a bag strapped around one shoulder, and had a cup of coffee in one hand. Another lawyer, if James had to guess.

He was dressed the part, but he looked new to the job. His top buttons of his shirt were undone, the tie loosened. His dark brown hair was much more of a mess. He wasn’t used to the late nights, not yet.

“Hello there,” James said, going first. He extended a hand.

The man took it, shaking it. Firm.

“John Cruz,” the man said.

“James Gomez.”

“John’s still paying his dues, cutting his teeth as a public defender. He’s the guy you get if you can’t afford a guy.”

“I’m cheap, but I’m good,” John said, rolling with it.

“You have a sense of humor,” James said.

“Helps with the late nights.”

“Alright then. But, what brings you two here?”

James asked them both, but the question was mostly directed to Thomas. If he was here, James knew he wanted something.

“I wanted to say hi, give an old friend some coffee to get through the warm night.”

Thomas nudged John with an elbow, and John lifted the cup to James.

“You didn’t even have the decency to give it to me yourself,” James said, berating his friend. He took the coffee anyway, letting the cup warm his hands.

“I’m showing John the ropes, how to establish a good rapport with other good guys. But we don’t need the formalities, do we James? We’re closer than that.”

“We may be, but I still like coffee.” He took a sip. “Skipping formalities can taste bitter, sometimes.”

Thomas laughed. “Does it, now?”

“It does. Alright, I know what you’re here for.”

James turned, and raised his free hand. He flagged another cop over.

“Mind if you handle this?” James asked, “I need a coffee break.”

The cop nodded, understanding what a ‘coffee break’ really meant.

They swapped places, and James signaled for Thomas and John to step over the tape.

Now the objections and shouting came forth. The trio walked away as the cop who had taken James’ place yelled over the crowd’s complaints.

They moved over to the middle of the street, closer to the actual ‘scene.’ There were more cars and people now, cops and gangbangers alike. People were giving statements, people were being taken away. Everyone was too busy to care about a rookie cop and some no name lawyers.

“Did the chief say anything about this?” Thomas asked.

“Nothing we haven’t seen before,” James replied.

They got close, but they couldn’t get too close. James pulled them to the side, standing beside one of the many cop cars on the street. Out of the way, but they still had a visual of what was going on.

“So, what’s going on?” John asked. He was looking at something just past James. There was only one thing here that would have grabbed his attention. James didn’t need to see for himself.

Several blue tarps, laid out in different places across the street, with red stains pooling out from underneath, spilling onto the road. The cops that were closer had to watch their footing as they maneuvered around the area.

A fresh crime scene.

James answered. “Two new gangs on the scene, trying to establish presence in their neighborhood.”

“I think they did too good of a job, if you ask me,” John said.

“Yes,” James said. He couldn’t bear to look, which was why he offered to take care of the perimeter, instead.

The thought of taking another sip of coffee wasn’t so appetizing, anymore.

“John,” Thomas said, “If it stuck out to you like that, why do you think that is? Use your brain.”

“It’s much more than just establishing presence. These two new gangs, even if they’re rivals, it shouldn’t have gotten this bad, this soon. Am I right, assuming that?”

“Sense of humor, and you’re smart? I can see why you brought him along, Thomas.”

Thomas nodded, looking proud of himself.

James addressed John directly. “Yes, you’re thinking in the right direction. Those two gangs are actually two broken halves of an older group.”

Thomas thought aloud. “If we’re in this neighborhood, opposite of Eastside… The Koninkryk?”

James nodded. “They’re split in the Thunders and Royals, now. We have both leaders in custody. So John, they’re not just rivals, they’re brothers.”

“Oh, shit,” John said. “So it runs deep.”

“Apparently so. I heard a bit of it during the initial ‘questioning.’”

James used his free hand to make air quotes around the word ‘questioning.’

“It was more like they were screaming their heads off at each other while we restrained them, and we ended up getting some info in the doing. Something about a girl named Lucy?”

“All over a girl,” Thomas commented. “Fleets of ships and armies were sent out over them.”

“Not like that, I don’t know how to describe it, but it didn’t come across that way. Maybe this Lucy was their mom or aunt or something?”

“All this, over a mom?” John asked, eyes still trained to the work being done behind James.

“You don’t mess with people’s mommas,” Thomas said.

“Sorry I don’t have much to tell you,” James said. “I left before I could get any of the juicier details. I… I guess I’m still not used to seeing so much blood.”

“It’s no problem, James,” Thomas said. “You’re doing what you can, out here. I admire that.”

“And even if I did have anything, this is still an active crime scene. I shouldn’t be telling you two shit. So no buttering me up, it won’t work.”

James handed the cup back to John. Thomas intercepted it.

“Another lesson for you,” Thomas said. “Not everyone’s receptive to the coffee trick. Personalize it, find out what they like ahead of time. I’ll give you a hint for James, for next time. It starts with ‘box of,’ and ends with ‘Partagás.’”

“Hey, that’s top secret,” James said. “And potentially above his pay grade.”

“I’ll manage,” John responded, “For next time.”

John fixed his shoulder bag, gripping the strap. “Actually, you think I can get a closer look? I want to know more about what’s happening, maybe see if I can get those juicer details.”

“Stay low, and stay out of the way,” Thomas told him. “Don’t talk to anyone unless you know for sure you’re going to get a real answer. Listen. And here.”

Thomas gave the coffee back to John.

“Someone might like that.”

John took the coffee, and went off, passing Thomas and James to get a closer look at the scene.

“I sipped that, you know. John knows.”

“They don’t.”

Between the two friends, they shared a small chuckle.

“So,” Thomas said, after they cooled a bit. “What do you think of him?”

“Him? John?”

“Yes, of course John, who else?”

“He’s decent, I suppose. Curious, doing his best to learn. A couple minutes and a cup of coffee doesn’t really give me much to work with.”

“I know, but I wanted to hear what your initial thoughts were, however small.”

“Why?”

“I’m thinking of having him join us, as part of our team of pals.”

James paused, and then he sighed.

“Thomas,” he said.

“Just hear me out, and I know I’m jumping the gun by bringing it up now-”

“Jumping the gun? This is running up to the factory that makes the guns.”

“I know. I’m just saying he has potential, and I wouldn’t want him to waste it because we didn’t steer him in the right direction. Our direction.”

“You really see something in him?”

Thomas shrugged. “I might.”

“That’s a strong foundation to build from.”

Thomas leaned back, rolling his shoulders. “I met John at a cafe I frequent about three weeks ago, usually I take my breaks there, drinking coffee, reading up on the news. That’s actually where I got that coffee.”

He pointed in John’s general direction.

“Cafe Sharktooth. It’s trendy, but I highly recommend it.”

Thomas met James in the eye.

“But I digress,” Thomas said.

“But you digress,” James echoed.

“Right. I met him there, working on a case, getting really into it. Like, really into it. So into it that I went over to talk to him. It was another one of his public defense cases, but he was getting deep into the files of the case, making sure he got everything straight. We exchanged cards, and when I see him the next day, he already knew everything about me. I mean, not everything, but he did his research. I knows what I’m after, and what I want for this city. So, we got more acquainted, and I offered to help him out on that case, unofficially, providing insight where I could. His questions were good, too. He wasn’t asking just for tips on procedures, but about the culture. What the gangs are like, how each one operated, and how to use the defendant’s circumstance with the case’s relevant gang to appeal to the jury.”

“Doesn’t sound like you, Thomas. You want to save this city, and you’re helping a guy get off?”

Thomas raised a finger. “Ah, but if you looked at the case, you would have known something was up. I saw it immediately, and John was able to catch it, too. Turns out, they found him innocent, and Miles Turner can drive another day.”

“Turner? Of Turner’s Moving Company?”

“The very same.”

“Hm, not too shabby, then. Though, one would argue you should check more closely if you’re carrying four hundred kilograms of cocaine in your truck halfway across the country.”

“James, please, we already worked so hard to win that argument, I’m tired just thinking about doing it again.”

James grinned. “I’ll spare you, this one time.”

“Thanks, pal.”

“But,” James said, crossing his arms, “I’ve give you this, that John of yours is legit fellow, and that he’s smart, and he wants to learn more about this culture so he can better fight against that. He’s an angel, I get that.”

“But you still object to him.”

James shook his head. “I’m objecting to you.”

The expression on Thomas’ face had changed, but it was too hard to read, being in the dark. His jaw was set, his stare penetrated.

James had to explain himself.

“Before you start blowing steam out your ears, just know I’m still one hundred percent behind our plan, I really am. You kick ass all the way up to being the district attorney, and my dumb ass will somehow become the new chief of police.”

“And we work together in tandem to clean the streets,” Thomas said. “For good.”

“Yes, and I’m still there for that, I want that. But…”

James struggled to find the words.

Thomas questioned him. “What are you so concerned about?”

“But, you shouldn’t try to recruit anyone into this holy war of yours. Between us, we know what the stakes are, the risks we’ll run into along the way. Don’t bring anyone into this, and for god’s sake, don’t groom them into being the ideal pawn. People aren’t just assets, Thomas, and if you’re seriously considering going in that direction, I’m not going to follow you.”

Thomas threw his hands into his pockets. He didn’t answer for some time.

When he did, he said, “Don’t call it a holy war, and especially don’t call it grooming.”

“I’m exaggerating for effect. I know you’re not actually that radical, Thomas, otherwise you’d be taking more extreme, more stupid measures right now.”

“Like wearing a mask, and punching criminals in the face?”

“Like that,” James said, to bring another percentage point of levity into their conversation. “Like that exactly.”

“Wouldn’t that be nice, though? It’d certainly relieve some of tension on my mind. Playing the long game takes its toll.”

“Keep it in your fantasies. Last thing I want to do is detain you for something stupid.”

“I will, I will.”

James had a point he wanted to get to, a point he felt like Thomas needed to hear. A point he should have heard sooner.

He got to the point.

“I’m only telling this to you because you have a tendency to want to see yourself in others, so you want to raise them to your level. Not everyone can handle that kind of pressure, not everyone can reach the same heights as you, and certainly not everyone will be as committed to this as you. Except for, you know, me.”

“Alright, I understand. We’ll keep this between us. I’d still like to keep in touch with John in case he becomes useful in the future, but, as far as our plan goes…”

“We keep it between us.”

James gave Thomas a hand, and they shook on it. For the second time, the first was when James heard the initial pitch.

“Or,” Thomas said, as he let go, “Maybe you’re just saying that because you’re jealous?”

“Jealous?”

“You don’t want another man coming in between our sacred union.”

Everyone around was busy, but James still checked his surrounding.

“God damn, man, there are people here, with ears. And you have a wife and a kid.”

“Come on, man, love is love. Now give me a hug, you fool.”

“Get away from me!”

“Thomas, James.”

Jogging to them, John returned before the bantering could go any further. James noticed that he didn’t have the cup.

“Welcome back. Learn anything?”

John nodded. “I learned that all this escalated from a game with dice and cash. I learned the names of the two leaders, Darius and Marcus Jackson, EZ and Krown of the Thunders and Royals, respectively. Their feud is over a woman, and it is their mother, or rather, over whose mother is the real one.”

“What does that even mean,” James commented.

“Their father was out of the picture, so they were raised by a single mother. They have something of a deep reverence for her, so the brothers constantly argued over who would take care of her when she got old. But, for whatever reason, she never got a chance to grow old. Things kind of went out of hand from there.”

“That’s one fucked up family dynamic,” James said.

“And, that’s not all,” John said. It was dark, and yet his face practically beaming as he said, “They’re not even worried about incarceration. The whole ‘knows a guy who owes a guy a favor’ scenario, and they’re hooked up with some lawyers who can get them back on the street in a week, no hassle.”

James and Thomas didn’t say anything.

“What?” John questioned, looking at the both of them. “It’s something I should know about, isn’t it? Shouldn’t we look into it?”

“There’s nothing to look into,” James said, shaking his head. “They’re set, now.”

“Now what does that even mean?”

“It means they have connections with game lawyers, or lawyers in the pocket of one of the gangs at the table. The big boys. If you can afford their services, then you have nothing to worry about. Ever.”

James added, “You could kill a man in the middle of the business district in broad daylight, and those damn lawyers would find a way to spin it, and sell that the other guy deserved it.”

“Then why aren’t we doing something about it? Expose them, or something?”

James looked at Thomas, and Thomas was looking down at his shoes.

We are, it’s just further down the long game.

“Don’t poke at beasts you’re not prepared to slay,” Thomas said, eyes still low. “That’s your next lesson. Those lawyers demand exuberant prices, and it’s not always money. Shaking them up is shaking up who they represent, and we can’t afford to bring that on our heads. Not while we’re still so small.”

James knew that Thomas hated that. Being small.

“Exuberant prices, huh? Wow, I just thought this seedy shit went deep, I didn’t know it went up, too.”

James didn’t like the look on John’s face.

Thomas spoke, as if to derail whatever train of thought John was on. “Anyone worth their honest salt ends up getting a call like that, at some point in their career. A promotion, if you will. It’s not worth it, I guarantee it. You’ll never get exactly what you’re after.”

Thomas had never sounded so sure in his life.

James wondered if they would ever get what they were after.

He sat for about ten minutes before he got out of his car. He walked up the driveway, up a few steps, and approached the front door.

This never gets any easier.

James knocked on the door. Two heavy, slow knocks. He didn’t wait very long.

“Kristin,” James said as the door opened.

Kristin smiled, though it was a weary, forced one. Out of good manners than anything genuine.

James didn’t blame her.

She didn’t look like she had somewhere to go, but she had touched up some. An oversized sweater, with black pants and slippers on her feet. Her hair was tied up, but it wasn’t combed. She had applied some makeup around her eyes and cheeks. Not for him, and not for anyone else but her. That was just the kind of person Kristin was. If she looked good, she felt good. And here, she wasn’t feeling terrible.

The sweater, James noticed, was of Thomas’ alma mater.

“May I-” James started.

“Please,” Kristin said.

She let him in, and James entered into the Thompson household. He wasn’t dressed in his uniform, and he didn’t take his police car to get here. He wore a polo shirt, a coat, and pair of slacks, and he took his old, beat up sedan. He wasn’t here for business, it was personal.

James took a glance around as he followed Kristin down the main hall. She hadn’t taken down any of the picture frames hanging on the wall. He could only focus on the edges of the frames themselves, the actual pictures were too much of a reminder of what was missing. Not just the man himself, but the role he filled in the house. Husband, father. Best friend.

If it was hard for him, then he couldn’t imagine what it was like for Kristin, having to live with constant reminders all day, every day. And she chose to keep those reminders up, no matter how much they might have hurt.

Maybe the pain of remembering is better than the release of forgetting.

“How’ve you been?” James asked, hoping Kristin would provide the distraction he so desperately needed.

“Been better, but I haven’t had a bad day for at least a week. That has to count for something.”

He was his best friend, but James was able to get more acquainted with Kristin over the years. James first met her back when they arrived together at the airport, after the volunteering program. He first met Kristin and Katy that day. It was quite the surprise. James was only expecting to carry one person’s bags.

From then, to now, James had grown to consider Kristin a good friend. They had developed their own connection outside of the common thread that they first met with. Now, even with that thread cut, James was still willing to reach out and support her, support a friend.

“You’re doing way better than me, then,” James said.

He heard a dry laugh come from Kristin.

“I try.”

They went by the kitchen. Annie, the dog, had smelled and heard him, and was by the gate on the other side. She saw him, and got excited. Too excited, instead of barking, she kept huffing, instead.

“Hi Annie,” James said, giving her a pat on the head, and then he walked on by.

Kristin brought him into the living room. Sitting on the couch, was someone he had seen before, but he couldn’t quite place his finger on where, or why.

Kristin ended up filling in the blanks for him.

“James, this is Shiori.”

Shiori. The name sort of helped.

She was sitting down, her feet up on the couch, legs pulled close to her body. On the table in front of her was a cup of tea.

She… did not look as well as Kristin did. She looked over at the mention of her name, and James could see it on her face. Exhaustion. Wrecked. Her clothes were dark and baggy, and she looked like she had just woken up, her eyes and cheeks a little puffy, her messy hair pushed back by a headband. Her eyes were red, wet at the corners. She’d been crying, and she’d been crying for a long time.

James had to approach this carefully.

“Hello, Shiori,” James said, measured. “I’m James.”

Shiori only offered a nod. She remained silent, remained sitting.

“She was at the service for Thomas. She sang.”

Then it clicked. He remembered that.

“Oh, that’s right. You have a lovely voice, Shiori.”

Again, Shiori only nodded.

James felt an awkward silence about to settle in.

Kristin spoke, recognizing it as well. “Did you want anything, James? I got tea for Shiori, but maybe you want some coffee?”

“Coffee would be great, thanks.”

“I’ll be right back.”

Kristin left to go into the kitchen, leaving James with Shiori. Not that he particularly minded, but he had to approach her with the utmost care and sincerity.

Slow, he moved over to the couch, finding a seat, but making sure to keep a respectable distance. He stayed on the edge of the cushion.

“It’s a good thing I was able to run into you again,” James said. “I meant to compliment you for your singing at… the service, but I must have lost you while the crowd was moving back outside. I’m glad I was able to get another chance to tell you.”

Shiori didn’t move or verbalize a response. She only nodded.

Was she ill? Did she lose her voice?

It was obvious that there was something wrong. Chances were good that it wasn’t his business to ask, and he wasn’t about to try and touch upon something still raw. He had to be sensitive.

James took out his phone from his pocket, and browsed the internet. He didn’t hear much outside of the work being done in the kitchen, Annie still huffing, and the occasional sniffle by Shiori.

She only moved to reach for a box of tissues by her cup of tea. She took a few, and used them to rub her eyes. She crumpled them, and placed them by her side, away from James.

Shiori wasn’t even watching TV. It was off, the black screen facing them both. There was nothing to distract her from whatever was on her mind. She was just sitting there, being like that.

How does she do it? James wondered.

Before James could try to think of an answer, he heard a voice from the kitchen.

“James, can you help me in here?”

James got up without any protest or objection.

“If you’ll excuse me, I’ll be right back,” he said to Shiori. He got the typical response.

Maybe it was rude, insensitive, but he hurried to the kitchen.

James stepped over the gate and into the path of a dog. Annie really was excited to see him.

“Down, Annie, down!”

The dog listened to her owner, stopping in her tracks, and sitting.

“Now go to your bed.”

Annie whined, but went to her bed. She spun twice before sitting back down.

“Sorry, Annie, maybe next time,” James said.

The dog was getting older, but she still had those puppy eyes. It was hard to resist.

But, he had to. He turned to Kristin, who was standing by the sink, holding a mug of coffee. James saw the other mug beside her on the counter. Black.

“What’s up?” he asked.

Kristin whispered, very deliberate. “How does she look to you?”

James matched her in volume. “She as in Shiori?”

Kristin nodded.

James shrugged.

“Quiet, reserved. Maybe shy, but she didn’t seem to have a problem performing to a crowd.”

It was obvious she was going through something, but James wasn’t going to mention it outright. It was a shared understanding.

“Shiori’s been staying with us for the past two weeks,” Kristin explained. “We’ve been taking of her, looking after her, making sure she’s okay. It was my idea, and she was hesitant at first, but she came around. I’m glad she did.”

“Okay, then that explains why I didn’t see her the last time I was here. This is a new thing?”

“It is. I invited her over after her daughter-”

Kristin’s voice cracked. She looked away, putting a hand close to an eye. A preemptive measure, in case her makeup started running.

James was an experienced enough cop to piece things together.

“She’s Alexis Barnett’s mom,” James said.

Kristin had to nod to confirm it. She cleared her throat before she could speak again.

“I’m not going to go into the details, you already have them.”

“I do,” James said. “It’s still on my desk.”

“Is there anything you can tell her? Anything at all?”

James felt his heart drop.

“I’m sorry, Kristin, but I don’t really have anything worth telling. It’s been more than difficult, with all of the shit that’s been happening in Stephenville, and it all keeps piling on. You should see my office.”

“You don’t have anything,” Kristin said. She sounded so disappointed.

James felt his heart drop even lower.

“Do you know how many reports I get about violence against Asian Americans in the past month? Dozens, if not hundreds, every day. You know the situation with me and my men, but we do legit work on stuff like that. But we’re being spread way too thin. If our attention is in one place, then something else happens and we’re too late to respond to that. Stuff falls through the cracks, or we can’t give everything the proper attention it deserves.”

Kristin snapped. “Dammit, this deserves attention, James! Shiori deserves attention, and Alexis deserves attention. This is close to me, and I want it to be close to you. You have to, you know, fucking do something!”

She managed to hush herself halfway through her outburst, but the anger was still there, the frustration. It came out so easy. That was something he liked to say to James every now and then. The only thing free in life was frustration.

“I did do something,” James said. “I followed up. I asked around, I went back to the restaurant on multiple occasions. No one could give me anything concrete. It all happened so fast, or they were firing at the crowd. There was a single bullet hole in the ceiling. Everyone’s stories conflict with one another. Even your daughter’s.”

Kristin was shaking the whole time, rubbing her arms together, as if the temperature had dipped below zero.

“I wish I had something, I really, truly do. But I gave it the best shot I could, with the resources I have available and most amount of focus I could put into it at this time… and I still…”

James couldn’t bear to say it. That he did everything he could and he still failed.

He didn’t even have the time to meet with Shiori when the kidnapping first happened. He had been called away to three other active scenes, with three successful arrests. He actually made progress, that day.

But not with this. He still failed.

“I can’t have that,” Kristin said, low. “I can’t accept that answer. I want Shiori to have her daughter back, James. Shit, I want Alexis back. She was taken, not killed. She has to be somewhere.”

“I know that,” James said. “But it did happen so fast, at the worst possible time. I’m so, so sorry.”

It’s like they knew what they were doing. Everyone’s preoccupied with the riots and the assaults and Blank Face, and they took advantage of our scattered attention.

“If this was any other time, I promise you we’d have her back by now,” James said, meaning it. “It’s just-”

“It’s the worst possible time.”

Kristin didn’t say anything for a while. She wasn’t just his best friend’s wife, she was his friend, and he had let her down.

“I was hoping you had something,” Kristin whispered, eyes down. “An update, a lead, anything. Something to give to Shiori so she could have hope. She doesn’t even have that, right now.”

Kristin hiccuped.

“Because, you know, he… Thomas is gone, but I’m not alone in this house. Katy’s here, and hell, I have you. But Shiori? She sits in her apartment, alone, being constantly reminded of what’s missing. That’s not good, for the mind, body, or soul. When I went over to invite her, she had lost so much weight that I thought she needed an IV drip instead of actual food.”

“That bad?”

“I’m exaggerating, but it is bad. She needs to be here, so she can be reminded that there are people around that love her and want to see her back on her feet, with Alexis in her arms and in her home. And I was praying that you had something to lift her spirits up.”

Every word Kristin said was like a kick to James’ own spirit. He did what he could, but he still came up short, disappointing Kristin, Shiori, himself… and him. What would he think, if he were around? Would he have thought of him as pathetic, too?

Maybe.

“I’m out of apologies, and excuses,” James said. “There’s not much I can do after that. I can’t tell Shiori anything if I have nothing, that’ll only make it worse for her.”

“Okay,” Kristin said.

“How long were you expecting to have her stay here?”

“As long as she needs, I don’t care. I’ll pay for her apartment if I have to.”

“I don’t recommend going that far, but do help her to get back on her feet. I’d say your doing a great job now. You told me she wasn’t eating when you invited her over, but I didn’t see a sign of malnutrition on her face. That’s good. You’re making her eat.”

Kristin stayed quiet.

“It’s great that you’re willing to take care of her, too,” James said. “Keeping yourself busy, helping others in the face of your own loss. I admire that.”

She looked up, meeting James in the eye.

“You lost him, too.”

There were no words to respond to that. He opened his arms, and gave Kristin a hug. Kristin accepted the gesture.

They stayed like that for a second longer. A hug between good friends.

When they broke, James said, “Here’s what I’ll do. I’ll go through everything again, and I mean everything, and give this another shot. I’ll come by if I have any updates, and you work on helping Shiori, and yourself. You have family, you know. You need to be there for them, too.”

“Shiori is family, and you are, too. You take care of yourself, too.”

“I am, by doing this. Even when I’m overworked, I need more work.”

More distractions.

“I’m sorry for being hard on you,” Kristin said.

“I deserve it,” James said. “I’m not doing good enough by you. And you’re a good person, one of the few I know left.”

“Thank you, James. Can I ask you for one more favor?”

“Anything.”

“Can you check on Katy?”

“She’s here?”

“Upstairs, in her room. Just knock. I’m sure she’d appreciate you swinging by.”

“Hope so, but of course.”

James didn’t leave right away. Kristin moved to step out of the kitchen, putting a hand on James’ arm as she left. James gave himself a break to drink his coffee.

Bitter.

He finished his coffee, placing the mug in the sink, and left the kitchen. From across the hall, he saw Kristin and Shiori.

They were on the couch. Shiori hadn’t budged since he left, and Kristin was sitting closer to her than he had been. The TV was on this time, judging from the angle Kristin held her head at, she was looking at something. Shiori, however, had her head down, silent.

If James had the power to save everyone, he’d do it in a heartbeat. But he didn’t, and he was still given that task. And it had broke him down years ago, back when the police chief at the time offered James the position, back when he took it, and back when the chief took him out to meet with the gangs that ran the city. Mrs. Carter, who was there to represent Mister.

Styx was there, too.

They told him he would have no real power at all. That all he had to do was play the part of a competent chief, while making sure the real checks and balances were in place. He was blocked before he ever had a chance to start.

His best friend was disappointed then, furious, frustrated. And he had used that frustration to go even harder with his campaigning, and it led to him finding Blank Face… leading to everything else.

James went up the stairs before his thoughts could beat him down any more. He still felt like he was being beat down, though, the aches were making themselves known as he moved. He hated that.

It was easy to find Katy’s room. He’d been up there before, when he was asked to babysit her during her kindergarten and elementary school years.

He knocked.

Katy wasn’t the one who got the door.

A girl, a teenager. Hispanic. Her hair was colored a lighter brown, and she was wearing a coat. It looked trendy.

“Hello,” James said.

“Hello,” the girl repeated.

Then, as if it was a delayed reaction, he remembered.

“Oh, you’re… Maria, am I right?”

“I am,” Maria said.

No mention of what she was doing here, or where Katy was. James recalled her being this flat during the questioning of what happened at the restaurant. She answered properly and honestly, but James recognized a innate distrust for police when he saw it.

“I,” James started, but he was interrupted by another voice.

“Uncle James, you can come in.”

That voice, he knew. Maria stepped to the side, and James took about three steps into the room. He was still close to the door.

The room hadn’t changed much since he last saw it. Then again, all girls’ rooms looked the same to him. An inherent girliness, that he didn’t quite understand.

Katy. She was sitting on the floor, by the coffee table in the middle of the room, phone in one hand, and a chess piece in another. Like Maria, she was also dressed for the outside.

James examined the board. There were more black pieces in play, but the white ones that were left were the tough ones, that could do more than just move up one square. The way the pieces were situated suggested that the white side was on the offensive, with black pawns in place to block the path of the white queen. But, it didn’t seem like the white pieces were after the opponent’s king. They were all being directed to another, specific piece.

“Did the rules change since I last played?” James asked. “I don’t recall taking out the queen being the way to win.”

“I’m just figuring something out,” Katy answered. With the chess piece she was holding, she flicked away a black piece, and placed that instead. A white bishop, four diagonal spaces away, with a direct path to the black queen.

As Katy took a picture of the board on her phone, she asked, “What brings you in, Uncle James?”

‘Uncle James’ answered. “Just checking in on everyone, like usual. I see that Shiori’s staying with you guys.”

“Yeah, it’s been fun.”

Her tone was so dry, he wasn’t used to that. If Katy hadn’t inherited her father and mother’s intelligence, her charisma would have brought her straight to the cheerleading captain position. But, life had other plans for her.

And that spark of life, he didn’t see it in her, and he didn’t hear it, either. She still looked down.

Still coping, dealing, with the greatest loss in her life, only for another, equally difficult loss to strike when she was at her lowest. Her father, and her best friend. James understood exactly how that could suck the air out of someone.

“Any good news?”

It was Maria that asked. She was standing over Katy, now, looking at James.

“None, I’m sorry. I already got it from your mom, Katy, but I deserve to get it again.”

“No, I can imagine my mom made you suffer through that for the both of us.”

James couldn’t tell if there was anger behind her words, lashing out at him.

“She did,” he said.

“I saw you on TV,” Katy said. “The other day.”

“Did you now? What’d you think?”

“Terrible. I don’t know why they keep inviting you.”

“I can count the number of times I’ve been on with one hand. It’s not like I get practice for that stuff.”

“Not that. I’m saying you should have been harder on Blank Face. Fuck Blank Face.”

Maria made a face, cringing at what Katy had said.

James wasn’t going to get into it, now. That wasn’t what he came up for.

“Okay, I’m just going to make this short, so you can go back to your game.”

“It’s not a game,” Katy said.

“Okay, I just wanted to see you all again. I’ll see you later, Katy, and it was nice seeing you again, Maria.”

“Come back when you have good news,” Maria said.

That was definitely the atmosphere, James could feel it thick in the air. He wasn’t wanted.

“Bye,” he said quietly, turning to leave. He reached for the door-

“Leave the door open.”

James turned back again. Katy’s focus was still on the board, rearranging the pieces, putting them back in their starting positions.

“We’ll be heading out after you,” Katy said, still moving pieces around. “So leave the door open.”

“Heading out?” James asked.

“Yes.”

That was all James got in regards to an answer. He recalled seeing another car out on the driveway. A teal Honda. Probably Maria’s.

“I’ll leave the door open. Bye, ladies.”

He got no response as he left the room, and went down the stairs. He felt the aches again.

He ran into Kristin as he reached the final step.

“How were they?” she asked.

“Didn’t want to give me the time of day, but they’re still young, going through things most adults can’t handle. If they need space, I’ll give it to them.”

Kristin’s expression seemed like she was expecting that answer. The girls had been like that for some time, now.

James couldn’t blame them for that.

“Are you leaving now?” Kristin asked.

“I think I will. Thank you again for the coffee.”

“Anytime.”

Kristin gave him a quick hug before he left the house. It was a gesture that showed that he was always welcome to come back and visit.

But, by the next time, he had better have fucking something to show.

The air was thick with a pungent smell. James almost tripped over himself, something sliding out from under him.

So many bullet holes, so many bullet casings, so many bullets.

James took one, slow walk around the perimeter, trying to take it all in. It was hard. Decades on the force, and he had the gall to assume that he had seen it all. Apparently, he hadn’t seen shit.

Morning, early morning. So early the sun hadn’t considered getting up yet. The basketball court in a neighborhood on the west side. Neutral territory between the Thunders and the Royals.

Nothing neutral about it now.

Chunks of concrete were torn out of the ground, debris thrown haphazardly across the court. Bullets were stuck in the ground, embedded in both the grass and dirt around the court and the court itself. Even the backboards were riddled by bullets, there were more holes than metal. It was like an actual warzone.

Around the court and the surrounding perimeter, everyone was working to collect as much info as possible, and clean up as much as possible. Wherever James looked, there was someone picking up bullets and casings to put into a bag, someone helping the injured into an ambulance, or someone trying to fix where the tall fence around the court had fallen over. Parts of the fence were torn and crushed, like it was trampled on by a stampede of elephants.

That was a good way to put it, in terms of animals. What had happened here, happened between animals. A raw, deep force that craved violence and rage. It had consumed the hearts of the people, and they didn’t see each other as people, anymore. Not as their fellow man, not as brothers. Humans couldn’t have done this, it had to have been some other cause.

Right?

James watched his step, careful to not slip again. There were too many things here that could catch him off guard. Debris, bullet casings, pools of blood. He kept a flashlight at his feet, to keep an eye on what was directly ahead. Normally, there would have been fixtures that lit up the court, but the power was out around the spot. It hadn’t come back on, yet.

Campbell followed him as he tried to get a sense of the whole situation.

“They’re going to want me on TV to talk about this, aren’t they?” James asked.

“Media’s starting to come in, but they’ve actually been a bit slow in getting here. Journalists aren’t used to coming down here.”

“That’s because they don’t have a reason to. They’ve gotten every story they could possibly get out of places like this. They squeezed it dry, and left it to rot in the sun. They’re only back now because, as it turns out, there’s still a little bit of juice left to sell.”

“Well, the perimeter’s about two blocks around the court. They’re not getting in here.”

“Let’s push it back another block, just to be safe, before the first few shoe-stringers get here.”

“Roger that, chief.”

Campbell reached for a walkie-talkie to relay the Chief’s words to the others. All around James, he heard the cries of affirmation, and the action afterward. Neither of the gangs had any relevance to the ones that had teeth in James’ police force, so James got to be the leading authority. Right now, for now, James’ men were his. They listened and reported to him, and they had no other bosses to answer to.

If only it was like that the whole time. His best friend would have loved that for sure.

James stopped his walk around the area, and headed straight to the middle. The middle of the court.

There was a shout, somewhere in the far back. “Power’s coming back!”

Small cheers sounded throughout, immediately hushed when the lights switched on, shining a harsh light on everything.

James squinted. For more than one reason.

He saw the edges of it before, but not a full view. This… This was harsh.

There were two bodies. Cut up, beaten, and bruised. Reduced to a bloody pulp, their bodies defiled and tampered with. The result was something less than human.

They were completely naked, cut skin touching the hard and cold concrete. They were situated, placed in a specific way, moved after whatever happened to them… happened. James noted the streaks of blood beside them, how they were dragged and then set to achieve the intended effect.

Arms and legs together, their feet meeting at a point. One body was on one side of the court, the other body was on the opposite side. What looked like larger brush strokes of blood were marked beside their appendages to make it read better.

It looked like a giant red ‘V.’

The men? The leaders of the relevant gangs. Darius and Marcus Jackson.

“God, who could’ve-”

Campbell stopped, or rather the scene was too visceral that he lost the words. He turned on a heel, so it was to his side, and he was facing James, instead.

“How can you even look, sir?”

“Part of the job,” James answered. He was looking at it, head on. Others were, too, collecting photographs and getting vitals on the bodies. A man bent down to get a pulse from Darius, another checked for signs of breathing on Marcus.

“But, even if you put it like that, this is just too much.”

“My job is to face the ugliest of humanity, and do what I can to put a stop to it. Clearly, humans are capable of much more ugliness than I ever thought, but the job stays the same.”

Campbell turned again, putting his back to the scene.

“I don’t know which is worse. This, or the school.”

“The school, unfortunately.” James looked at the medical staff working on EZ and Krown. They both gave him a thumbs up. A miracle.

“At least no one died, here,” James added.

“Sure, but we have dozens injured and two critically injured, and plenty aren’t going to walk away from this with all their limbs attached. Fuck, some literally will not be able to walk away.”

“Yeah.”

“I can’t look at this, I have to go.”

Campbell started to walk away from the scene. James couldn’t help but feel let down at Campbell’s weakened resolve. Everyone had a breaking point, and it seemed that this one was his.

James addressed the men in front of him.

“You have your pictures, so scoop these two up and get them into a hospital. Yesterday. And I want every gangbanger present to be accounted for, you know what that means.”

His men sprung to action, and James left them to work.

He caught up with Campbell as they left the court.

“What does that even accomplish?” Campbell questioned. He walked away, but his thoughts were still fixated on that. “Who would do something like that?”

“Either it’s a message,” James said, “Or a cruel joke. Either way, we’ll get to the bottom of it.”

They walked into the grass, James feeling the metal of the bullets and casings under his shoes, but they were walking on dirt, easier to step through bumpier terrain, here. James wasn’t afraid of slipping and making an ass of himself, needing Campbell to help him back up. He could do without an embarrassment.

James saw a tree by a concrete trail that would have led into an intact basketball court. The trunk was splintered and split open by bullets.

James saw someone approach, running out of the dark.

“James Gomez?”

He didn’t stop walking.

“James Gomez?”

He kept going.

“James!”

Not once did James break his stride.

A woman fell in step with him. Brown hair, thick rimmed glasses, beige coat and black tights. She looked like she was in her thirties, now. Time really did pass.

I really am getting old.

James didn’t want to admit that.

“I wanted to ask you some questions, James,” Natalie asked. “Actually, I don’t have anything to ask you, I have the answers, I just wanted some confirmation.”

Natalie Beckham. She was one of the top writers of the Stephenville Impact, the city’s number one news organization. Was. She had covered the local crime scene, back in the day, but the last time James had seen her around was almost seven years ago. He heard something about her moving to New York.

For whatever reason, she was back, now, and that only meant more complications.

James saw the cup in her hand. He wasn’t interested.

He didn’t entertain her. He just kept walking, Campbell on his right, Natalie on his left.

“I caught some of the gang members here as they tried to recount the events. The Thunders and the Royals had previously been operating in good faith in regards to a pact, but after too many incidents between the two groups, came here to settle the score. Is this true?”

James didn’t answer.

“And I heard that, right before the initial confrontation, there was a starting gunshot in the distance. Would you know that to be true?”

James didn’t answer.

“After that, was when the power began to cut out. In the dark, I’ve got multiple reports and a mysterious figure, cloaked in red, attacking members from both gangs. Could you confirm this?”

Red? Not blue?

James didn’t answer.

“Both gangs stopped their fighting and tried to go after this figure instead, but it was only striking in the dark, and they only had brief glimpses about its location during the seconds the power did come on. It was as though someone was toying with them.”

James and Campbell kept walking.

“When it was somehow established that this figure had gotten to both gang leaders, and when it proved fruitless to land a hit on this figure without shooting or stabbing someone else, everyone who could run, did.”

That was a decent summary of the events, but James wasn’t about to confirm that with her.

“Now, this part’s off the record since I don’t really like to speculate, I prefer facts, but given the recent activity in Stephenville, but do you believe this mysterious, cloaked figure could be related to the vigilante known as the Bluemoon?”

“Natalie,” James said.

“Finally, some life from the old man.”

“You’re not supposed to be here. The perimeter extends more than two blocks.”

“You think that’s going to stop someone like me?”

She had a point.

“No, but I am going to just leave you with a warning. I don’t want to see you around here again, and I’m done with questions.”

“I’m sad to hear that, James, you used to be so helpful before. What happened?”

That question, he would answer.

“I got old.”

He gestured to Campbell, and Campbell went over to Natalie’s side. He whisked her away, with her offering very little protest.

At least she could honor him on that. Natalie knew that she had what she needed, she just needed confirmation, for formalities.

What a good little journalist.

James continued until he reached the lot, seeing all of the men perform their proper duties. He’d probably give the whole area one more sweep, to see if he had missed anything.

Maybe get some info on this cloaked figure, as well.

His phone rang. He stopped.

James fished it out of his pocket, bringing it to his ear.

“Gomez,” he said, answering it.

Art studio, top floor. Eastern window facing the court. Come alone. Someone wants to see you.

He recognized the voice. It was that of a little girl.

Her?

“D,” James said, hard. “What the fuck do you have to do with this?”

The call ended.

James thrusted a hand in his pocket, putting his phone back. He hurried.

He was already facing the east, if this art studio had a clear view of the court, then it would be on the street just across from the court.

She said to come alone. Would he? Was it another trap, or one of D’s pranks?

Couldn’t be. Either D started getting bored of the same old tricks, and started escalating on her own – a dangerous notion – or she was a part of something else. Something bigger.

Did he need backup?

James slipped past some tape and his men. Everyone was too preoccupied to notice their chief pass them by.

He needed backup, but he had learned that particular lesson when he started this job. Bringing others in situations like this, when expressed not to, would only ever lead to disaster. James wouldn’t sacrifice good men like that.

If it was just him, just his life at stake, he was fine with that.

James found the art building, and checked the front door. It was unlocked.

Turning his flashlight on, he found the staircase on the side of the first floor. There were elevators, but James would rather take the stairs. At least to prove he still had a body he could use.

As he ascended, James made sure he had all of the essentials. Walkie-talkie, phone, and gun.

Check, check, and check.

James reached the fourth floor.

Art supplies, paint cans, canvases hanging on the wall. James wasn’t sure what he was expecting, perhaps another clue or body, but nothing here immediately stood out to him.

He saw the window. Light crept through the glass, lighting up a square shape on the floor of the art studio. He began to approach.

Slowly, carefully. James pulled his gun out, ready to fire. He kept his head low as he got closer to the glass. Last thing he wanted was to get sniped through a window.

James got in place. For long, agonizing seconds, he scoped out the scene below.

People working, collecting data from the basketball court and surrounding grass, helping victims into ambulances to send them off to the hospital, cleaning up wherever they could.

At the court itself, James saw that Darius and Marcus Jackson had been moved, but the blood remained. The broad strokes, and another pool that James didn’t notice before. A period. It was a message.

V.

“Thoughts?”

A voice from behind. James recognized it.

He turned around, his gun prepared.

From the shadows, a figure emerged.

A hood covered their head, but where the moonlight touched their face, James could only see the lower half, the mouth and chin. Everything from the nose up was covered. Flecks of blood dotted the figure’s mouth.

The rest of the figure’s shape was hard to make out. He couldn’t see its arms, the material draped over their body in such a way that it was difficult to make sense of it. They were wearing some sort of cloak or long robe, made of a flowy but heavy material.

From top to bottom, the cloak was red. The only other colors on the figure were the black shadows masking their face, the black pants they wore, and the snowy white skin of their mouth and chin.

A ghost, or a phantom, covered in blood. Or perhaps the Devil himself. Either way, James felt like he was being haunted. Cursed.

The only thing that was familiar about this figure was its voice.

“Blank Face?” he asked.

The figure twitched, as if offended by the suggestion.

“I wrote it out there for you to see,” the figure answered.

“V, then.”

“Yes.”

“But you were the vigilante known as Blank Face, am I correct?”

There was a pause.

“I was, unfortunately. Those days are behind all of us, now.”

James wasn’t sure what that was supposed to mean.

He asked.

“When you said you were rebranding, I wasn’t expecting this.” James put his arms to his side, including his gun. “Not exactly coming across as heroic with this new image. It’s a little too macabre.”

Another pause.

V spoke. “I’m only meeting with you now to give you a brief update on where things stand. This is probably the last time we’ll ever speak, like this.”

You ignored my comment.

James let that be.

“And you’re sure of that,” he said.

“I am.”

“Fine then, continue.”

“The Thunders and the Royals are out of the picture, now. I gathered them all here, and made a show of their leaders. While I had the majority of their numbers distracted, I had all of their assets and territories and cash seized. There are survivors, and they’ll probably want to retaliate, but they’ll find that they have nothing to go back to. It’s all been snatched out from under them.”

“That’s quite the workload for one person.”

“It certainly wasn’t easy.”

“I’m more inclined to believe that you had help. The call I got earlier, and with her reputation… Are you telling me a new gang is already moving in?”

The idea of that little girl working with a gang… It almost made James shiver. Before, she had always been something of a free agent, working by herself, enacting her own whims. Her irreverence for any structure or systems actually prevented her from being a legitimate threat. If she was content with being independent, she was actually easier to handle.

But to focus that destruction, aiming it with purpose? And throwing Blank Face – V – into the fold? James had already seen the results, out there on the court. It would be devastating.

“I’m telling you to stay away,” V said. “Let the dust settle where it does. You can clean up here, but after that, you’re done. I don’t want to see you in this territory again.”

He’d heard those words before, or something to that effect. Being ordered by the leader of a cartel or gang, by the enemy.

“You’re telling me what to do?”

“Yes, I am. You’re used to that sort of thing, aren’t you, being the puppet that you are.”

James was stunned.

Something must have snapped, in that mind of hers. She was but a child, just a kid.

“What the hell happened? Last time we met, you were asking me to help you find Benny.”

“And you refused, and I found her anyways. You’re useless, Gomez.”

“Then the fires on Eastside, that was you?”

A pause.

Ignored again.

“V,” James said. “Blank Face-”

V twitched.

“When you first came to my window, and we met on that roof, and you were asking me about finding Thomas, I knew then that you were the one he was working with. You see, Thomas never told me about his activities with you, but I knew him like a brother. He saw something in you, and he wanted to cultivate that. Shape you, despite himself. Part it was stress relief, since our plans weren’t going the way he wanted.”

V didn’t respond.

“So, I just want to ask you a few more questions, before you go, and I officially consider you as the enemy. Do you think Thomas would be proud of what you’ve become? What does ‘V’ stand for, to you? Vengeance, vendetta, villainy?”

V stood there, her head pointed to James. He couldn’t see her eyes, so he could only guess that she was staring at him.

For the third time, V ignored his questions.

“Don’t get in my way, or if you do, get a new office. You don’t want a third visit from me.”

With that final line, drawn in the sand, V took a step back, returning into the shadows.

James ran after her.

“Blank Face!”

He reached for his gun and flashlight. He pointed both around the room.

Nothing, no one, nowhere. V was gone.

“Shit!”

James turned back, going to the window. He watched the scene again, looking at the red letter that faced him, taunted him. ‘V’ was out there, free, and he was the one confined to these walls.

A cycle, revenge was. A vicious circle that turned good people desperate and cruel. Thomas had become desperate, and Blank Face had become cruel.

The number of good people in this city was getting smaller by the day.

James knew, now. It had always been like this, and they were doomed to fail from the start. And now, he was all alone, with nothing to show for his efforts.

Previous                                                                     Bonus

064 – The Illest Villains

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The wait was excruciating.

Time seemed to stretch as Phil stared down at us, keeping us still, keeping us waiting.

If D had a reason for doing this, it had better be a very good one.

People were looking, watching our standstill. We were in a store, during the middle of the day. Peak hours, for a business like this. People were leaving, entering, noticing us as they went about their day. More eyes on us, more eyes on me and D.

Not the best way to go about scouting an area. Not exactly.

We couldn’t stay like this forever. Someone had to budge, to give in to the other.

And it wasn’t going to be us.

“The faster you hear us out, the faster we can be out of your store and out of your hair,” I said. That was my small push, to get the ball rolling.

Phil spoke, for the first time in what felt like an hour.

“Or, I have you taken out of here, by force. Jay and Ricky, they ain’t the only ones in here. I can make this real easy if I want it to.”

“The only thing you’ll be making this is, is… not… easy, bleh.”

D stuck out her tongue and spat, as if a bug had gotten in her mouth.

“Almost,” I said to D.

She shook her head, and tried again.

“You’re not making anything easier if you call for backup, you’ll be making a mess. Trust me.”

“Are you threatening me in my own establishment?”

“I’m not, but I am telling you how it will go down, if you take it there.”

Phil’s gaze hardened.

I couldn’t exactly defend or justify D, there. She was only giving him more reasons to be done with us, testing his patience until it whittled away to nothing. She seemed to have a talent for that.

I had to do something to mediate this.

“Phil, look,” I said, “Let’s not ‘make this’ into anything. We want to talk, and you want us out of the way. Help us, and you’ll be helping yourself, too.”

He didn’t react or acknowledge me, and I began to wonder if he was just that stubborn.

“Come with me.”

I heard him, and I saw him walk away, but it almost didn’t register in my head. We were so frozen in that moment for so long that I couldn’t comprehend that something happened.

And now I had to catch up.

D was already following him by the time I moved a foot. I looked over to the checkout counter as I walked. I saw the boy working, still bagging up D’s snacks. He noticed me, and I made a gesture, to stack our stuff on the side, somewhere. He nodded along, understanding what I meant.

Which left me free to go after D and Phil.

He led us to the back of the store, through a set of doors by the produce section. The sooner we were out of sight, the better, it seemed.

As we followed, I looked at D, and she noticed. She shrugged.

We needed information, and this man seemed to be in the know.

And the power of knowing was a very good power to have.

But, something about this rubbed me the wrong way.

Not with Phil, not exactly, but with D.

I had caught on to what D was doing, why she ran off, pretending to have lost her wallet. I just wished she had told me about it.

I told her that I hated being in the dark about things, and she still went off to enact her own plan, leaving me behind. Even if she didn’t need me to help, even if she just wanted to stay still and just watch…

I would have at least been in the know, but, in that moment, I didn’t know. I was powerless.

That bothered me.

Phil coughed, and it sounded harsh, rasp. It brought me back to the present. Where we were, what we were doing.

I took a breath.

Did it really matter, though? I had my qualms, but I knew better than to get worked up over it now, especially after what happened at the basketball court. D was trying to make a move on my behalf, our behalf. D took a risk, nearly starting a gun fight in a store, all to draw out this old man. She thought it was worth it, she had her reasons.

And I was willing to back her up on it.

Wasn’t worth getting worked up over, wasn’t worth bringing it up with her afterwards. There were more important matters at hand.

I kept walking.

Through doors and corridors, past crates and employees, we got closer to where stuff was stocked, stuff that wasn’t ready to be displayed out front. Like frozen meat, and vegetables, and snacks.

We got close, but that was as far as we were taken in that direction. Phil took a corner down another way, and we had to follow.

He was a step ahead of us, walking fast for someone his age. It was as if we weren’t even here. If we somehow had fallen behind, or had gotten lost, I doubted that he would have noticed or cared.

He walked until he reached a room, probably used for staff meetings. The blinds on the other side of the window were up, obstructing my view inside, and the door was closed.

Fishing out a set of keys from his pocket, Phil got the door opened. He didn’t say anything as he entered, not until we came in, ourselves.

“Take a seat, we can continue this in here.”

He flipped a switch by the door, turning on the lights. A small, round table was placed in the middle of the room.

We each took our own seat, Phil having left the blinds up.

“Continue what, exactly?” I asked. I had my own ideas about where this would go, but I wanted to make it clear. If he was trying to lure us into some sort of trap… I was ready to swing.

I had my knife, I had my strength, and I had learned my lesson. I wasn’t going to be played twice in one day.

“Our compromise. I’ve gotten you out of the way, but you’re still in my store. So, you can tell me exactly what it is you want, but I don’t necessarily have to be of any assistance, in that regard.”

“I think that’s a fair deal,” I said. I turned to D. “Right?”

“Sure,” she said, nonchalant.

Phil then added, “Oh, and my name’s Fillmore, with a ‘F.’ You don’t get to shorten it.”

“Alright, Fillmore, thanks for doing this much, at least.”

“Don’t thank me so soon,” Fillmore said. “I still haven’t heard you out, yet.”

“Fair,” I said again. “I’m Wendy, by the way, and this… little lady, is D.”

Fillmore blinked. The expression on his face, it was as if he didn’t believe those were our real names.

“Pretty name,” he then commented, though I wasn’t sure which name he was referring to.

D wasn’t about to shy away from taking the credit, however.

“Thank you,” she said, smiling.

“I’ll leave this to you, then, D,” I said. I decided that I’d concede the rest of the discussion to her. Not to be passive, I’d steer the talk along, rein D in if and when she needed it, and try to keep things civil. But, I trusted that she knew what she was after, that she knew what we needed, to get the job done.

“Cool cool cool,” D said, in quick succession. “So first off, Mr. Phil, I wanted to ask, just to confirm, that you’ve been around here for a long time. Is that true?”

“Damn near forty years.”

“Dang near forty years, right,” D repeated. “So, obviously, you know a lot about what’s been going on?”

“My ear’s close to the streets, yeah.”

“Then, you have to know about the gangs in the area.”

Fillmore tapped his finger on the table. “Get right to it. You’re asking about the Thunders and the Royals.”

“Well, will you look at that, you are no fool.”

Fillmore’s expression changed with a twitch. It was easy to read.

Already, I felt like I had to step in. Could she not go until her next breath before she ticked someone off?

Her style, her way of doing her. That kind of quirk was… an acquired taste, I’d admit, and not everyone had the patience to want to be acquainted.

“D,” I said, testing, warning.

She leaned forward, placing her elbows on the table, putting her hands together. Linking her fingers, she rested her chin there.

Anywho,” D said, “Let’s get right to it, then. I want to know what’s up with the Thunders and the Royals. We just came back from a… encounter, with them, and we learned that there’s a pact between the two gangs now. And, much like yourself, I like to think that I know a lot about these streets, too, so hearing about that was a pretty big shock to me. So, what’s up with that?”

Fillmore breathed, drawing it out to a long sigh.

“That’s what you want?”

“That’s it.”

“Of all the things you could be learning, like math, or why the sky’s blue, or quantum physics, and that’s what you want to know?”

“Math’s easy, it’s blue thanks to Rayleigh scattering, and I can learn that whenever I’m at the library. I can’t learn about this in a book.”

Why, though?” he questioned. He sounded genuinely confused as to why we cared so much about this.

“Like I mentioned, I pride myself on my knowledge about what goes on in this city. In order to do whatever I want, I have to know what everyone else is doing, and why. Keeping a pulse on the world around you is key to survival. And, it’s just fun for me.”

He closed his eyes, keeping them shut.

“I don’t suppose you’ll be using this knowledge for anything good?”

“My point is, it’s still not ‘good’ out there, even now. They have their pact, but it’s clear that doesn’t equate to any real peace. You saw it, didn’t you? It wasn’t hard. Tempers are still there, just below the surface, and it doesn’t take much to bring them right back up again. What if something happens, and you weren’t there to stop it? What if it was over something bigger than a cereal box?”

“And you’re saying you can do something about them? That you have a solution?”

“Definitely. You leave them and that alone, maybe you’ll have a month or two of relative calm, maybe. But something will happen, it always does, and then they both get snuffed out, burning down everything with them. But, if my colleague and I can do something about it, maybe we can lessen that damage, if only a little.”

Fillmore opened his eyes.

“You’re still talking damage,” he said. “Destroying them.”

“Are you really ‘destroying’ anything whenever you rid your house of dusts and pests? I like to think of it more as a controlled fire, to go back to the burning metaphor from earlier. We can mitigate the flames, not make them stretch as far and as wide, and, as an added bonus, we cast out the blanket and sit on it so no other sparks come up.”

I spoke. “You kind of lost the metaphor at the end there, D.”

“I did, but you know what I’m getting at, right, Mr. Phil?”

“I do,” Fillmore said.

Fillmore scratched his chin, closing his eyes again. He was silent for a time. That was about the extent he’d hear us out, it seemed. Now, it was up to him, whether we were done here or not.

Again, the wait…

It was excruciating.

Slow, he opened his eyes again.

“I do know what you’re getting at. Whatever I tell you about those two gangs, you’re going to use as leverage to take them out, and you move into their territory. My neighborhood. Is that right?”

“Just about,” D said, admitting it right then and there.

A bold move, and not one I agreed with. I would have stepped in to say something as the mediator, but D had already ran her mouth. The damage was already done.

“Then,” Fillmore said, and I held my breath. “I’ll tell you what I know, but I don’t promise to have all the exact details.”

I lifted an eyebrow.

“You’re telling… us.”

That last word came out funny, I wasn’t sure if I should have intoned it as a question or as a flat statement. I didn’t want to force my curiosity and have him rethink his decision, but I did want to know where he was coming from.

Fillmore sighed, with a distinct rasp as he finished.

“Always the same, ain’t nothing changed. It would be arrogant to believe that it didn’t apply to me.”

He gave himself a moment to pause, bringing his hands close, dropping them into his lap.

“It’s not as if I can stop y’all from poking your noses around here. I’m nothing but a withered, old man, filled with regret. Even if I refused, you’ll probably still get what you’re looking for. Might as well get it from a primary source.”

I felt like I needed to offer some sort of response.

“You’re not… withered.”

Good job, Wendy.

Fillmore met my eyes, and I saw just how tired he was.

“And you two, at least you’re upfront about your villainy. We don’t even know each other, and you’re already being real with me. Those two, EZ and Krown? I haven’t seen those boys in years, they send their crew here if they want something. That ain’t real, that’s pathetic.

“Years?” I asked. “Were you close?”

Fillmore shook his head, all he had to offer as a response.

D fixed her posture, putting her hands flat on the surface of the table.

“Get right to it, already!”

I glared at D. We were so close, and if D were to fuck it up now…

I, I don’t know, I’ll have to ground her, or something.

D returned a look at me, sticking her tongue out.

“Please?” she added, looking back to Fillmore.

He answered, sounding even more resigned.

“I’ll take you back, way back. Just promise me one thing?”

“What is it?” I asked.

“Go easy on them.”

It had gotten colder as we returned outside.

We left through the side door, taking us back into the alley where we first met Fillmore. A fitting metaphor, that. To avoid being out in the open, taking the less direct route. Staying in the shadows.

Sneaky? Sure. Underhanded. Probably. Villainous?

I’d keep the jury out on that.

We kept moving, cutting through the other side of the alley, putting the store to our backs. Fillmore still had work to do, and so did we.

I walked, my arms already straining. D made me carry the bulk of the plastic bags. She bought a lot of fucking snacks.

I had enhanced strength, and I was ready to drop these at the van.

D, however, had a sort of spring to her step as she paced ahead of me, humming along the way. Not any melody I knew, but she was out of tune.

“Excited?” I asked.

“I just can’t hide it,” D said, off-pitch. “I’m so ready to stuff your fridge, and my face.”

That’s what you’re excited about?”

“Heck yeah, I hate that you don’t have anything whenever I come over, and I hate that you don’t buy stuff yourself.”

“That’s because I don’t need anything, so I would only be getting stuff for you.”

“Exactly!”

“You’re unbelievable,” I said. “And I don’t think you ever asked permission to use my fridge.”

“What do you mean? You said I could.”

“When?”

“Yesterday. You told me to bring my own food to keep in there.”

Did I?

“I have no recollection of anything before our meeting with Lawrence yesterday. These past two days have been such a blur to me.”

“I know right? These gangs can wait, I want to watch a movie, eat some delicious tiramisu gelato tonight.”

“And where do you expect to be doing such a thing?”

“Where else? Your place, of course.”

“Oh no, you don’t,” I said. “We still have a lot of prep work to do.”

“But we don’t have to rush,” D said. “We can take our time.”

“I’m not disagreeing with you, I’m just saying you should hold off until we’re done. Save it as a reward for yourself, you could stand to learn a thing or two about moderation.”

“That doesn’t sound very exciting.”

“Learn,” I said.

“I’ll try,” she said, but I knew better than to believe her.

Maybe I’ll have to hide some of her snacks, keep it out of reach.

It was a thought, but a passing one. There were more important matters to think over.

Like Fillmore, and what he had to say about the Thunders and the Royals. EZ and Krown. The story between those two brothers.

It almost made me reconsider.

I observed our surroundings as we continued our walk. The later hour was accompanied by a subtle shade of orange that blanketed the streets and buildings. A certain familiarity, that wasn’t there before.

We crossed the street, moving from Barton to King Boulevard. We walked past Tita Lorene’s laundromat, then the deserted Wellport construction site, turned into a makeshift skate park.

The street corners had a history to them, their names had a meaning and reason. The graffiti and tags told their own stories, a mark left behind by someone who was once there.

The small crosses in smaller patches of grass. The flowers growing in the cracks in the ground. The smeared outline of chalk, the young boy that passed us on the sidewalk, headphones on, minding his own business. Everyone, and everything, had a story to tell.

This town was full of stories.

And that included EZ and Krown. Fillmore.

Not that I was already connected to this place on a deeper level. It was more like the feeling I had when I first checked out what ended up becoming my new apartment. Looking around, getting the feel of it. What it would be like to move in and live there. Getting used to the idea of calling it home.

There’s going to be a lot to take care of once we take over.

I spoke. “This really is going to be a lot of work, isn’t it?”

“That’s what I’m saying. I could use a gelato break.”

“No, not that. Leading the Ghosts, this neighborhood, our plan. I knew it was going to be tall order, but being here, in the thick of it? It really puts into perspective how big this project really is. It makes me wonder how far we’ll go.”

“Don’t ever wonder what’s ahead, just dive right into it. It’s more exciting like that.”

“Is it?”

“Oh, absolutely, you’ll never know where you end up, or what you run into along the way.”

“I’ll never fail to be amazed by your spontaneous approach to things,” I said, trying to be sarcastic.

“I’m going take that as a compliment,” D said, bouncing as we moved.

Maybe it was a compliment, it certainly was a trait I could admire. For my part, I preferred to be meticulous, to plan ahead of time, and have complete control of the finer details. To have real power.

Sweeter than any blood I had ever tasted.

Soon, I thought. Soon.

Reconnaissance. It wasn’t as fun a job as it sounded.

I sat in the van, waiting. Waiting for something, anything to happen.

I yawned.

D had slept over after dropping off her snacks at my place, stuffing my fridge and pantry with food. She wasn’t allowed to touch them, yet, not until we were done with the job. I was adamant about that.

She threw a fit, but she eventually came around. I never set a hard rule against using the TV, so I let her flip through channels while I sat next to her, browsing the internet, trying to get more info on the Thunders and the Royals, and their neighborhood. D left to get some Chinese food, came back, and fell asleep on the couch after eating, TV still on. I hadn’t gotten up the entire time.

Now, it was a new day, and break time was over.

I yawned again.

If I had it my way, I wouldn’t be sitting here, right now. But D explained that she had to work alone, for this one, small part. She had the experience, she knew what to look for. Having another person tag along would only slow her down.

I agreed to step back for this one, small part. D had a good reason, and she actually told me, this time. All without me saying anything about it. I was willing to comply.

But, there had to be a better way to spend my time than sitting in the parking lot of an arcade.

Not fun at all.

I’ve been here for an hour. When’s-

From the across the lot, the doors opened.

D was already pretty small, but from a distance she was miniscule. It was almost cute.

She hurried as she returned to the van, head down, not bothering to check for any moving cars, or wandering eyes.

The driver’s side door opened, and she hopped in.

“How was it?” I asked, ready to get right down to business.

D gave a short nod. “Mr. Phil’s info was legit. They’re in there.”

“Both of them?”

D nodded again. “Not EZ or Known, but members of both gangs are in there. They’re bowling.”

“There’s a bowling alley in there?”

“Yeah, and it’s big. We should go sometime, with Lawrence.”

“Next time,” I said, bringing her back to the task at hand.

“Anyways, come on. I just came back so I can get you.”

She opened the door again, getting out.

I got out of the van, too.

“Where we headed?” I asked, joining D. We were walking back to the arcade. Electric Palace was the original name, apparently, but the giant sign across the front of the building was missing the first ‘A.’ So it was just Electric Place, now. A little less grand.

“Around the back. Side route.”

“What did you see in there? Anything interesting?”

“I saw lot of things in there, and one very interesting thing.”

“Like?”

“The Thunders and Royals split themselves down the middle of the bowling alley, a lot like what we saw at the basketball court. But I know how to keep a low profile, they didn’t notice me. According to Mr. Phil, before their attempt to make amends, the gangs took turns hanging out at this spot. If the Thunders were in, then the Royals wouldn’t go anywhere near here, and vice versa.”

“So this is a new development?”

“Oh yeah, and you can feel it in the air, too, now that we know to look for it. They’re just barely tolerating one another.”

“Without either of their bosses, it might be harder to behave themselves.”

“Let’s hope so. Here.”

D brought me around the back of the building. A door. No one else was in sight.

“Sneaking through the back?” I asked.

“Sneaking through the back,” D said.

“Do we have to worry about getting caught?”

“Don’t think so. Service wasn’t great while I was inside. I’d be surprised if anyone cared to come back here on a regular basis.”

D moved, heading for the door.

“Why?” I asked. “What’s back here?”

D didn’t have to answer, I saw it for myself.

Machinery. Long, winding rods of metal. Large, heavy gears. Whirring, spinning things.

Loud. Lots of moving parts, hitting together. Clanging, rattling.

There was a lot to make sense of, all at once, I wasn’t sure if I could.

“Where are we?” I asked, as D closed the door. I had to raise my voice to be heard.

“This is what the back of a bowling alley looks like,” D said, voice raised.

Standing space was small, but long. To our right were the machines, autonomous, running as if each block of wires and gears and rods had a life of their own. To our left was a space to sidle along the wall, probably for mechanics to go and inspect the different parts of the system.

It felt like we were in the belly of a mechanical beast.

D led the way, putting her back to the wall, moving down the long hall. I was right behind her.

She explained more as we continued.

“These are the machines that spit the bowling balls back out, and reset the pins. It’s all done from back here.”

From the sound alone, that was easy enough to gauge. I could hear it echo down the hall. Pins being struck, bowling balls falling into the pit just past the lanes. But we were so close. I felt like I was about to get hit, every time a bang went off.

D kept sildling down, and I had to keep up.

“I kept a close eye on the gangs, the Royals especially. One of them, Darren, has his own special bowling ball that he always uses. Never goes bowling without it.”

“So?” I asked.

“So, we’re going to take it. We just passed by the lane the Thunders are using, lane fifteen. We take Darren’s ball, and we drop it into the other gang’s lane. Hilarity ensues.”

“You are literally a little devil.”

“Been a while since I heard that. Usually I get called much worse things.”

“Like what?”

“Ask Lawrence,” D said, grinning.

We advanced farther down the wall, until I started to get used to the sounds pins and the mechanical clacking, until I was no longer worried about getting my hair caught in what looked like spinning metal death traps.

“Here,” D said, stepping away from the wall, into another space between two blocks of giant machines, where those metaphorical mechanics would stand to do their work. I copied her, being mindful of the limited space. I wanted to avoid bumping into her, and having one of us fall.

Each block of machines were labeled by a number on top. Following D’s gaze, she was looking at a block labeled two. Lane two.

And the Thunders were all the way back at lane thirteen. Fuck.

“What a lovely device,” D said, seemingly admiring the mechanism. “Hasn’t aged very well though.”

“What am I even looking at?” I asked.

D started pointing. “There’s the pinwheel, and that’s the checkerboard. Pins go into that thing to fall into there, and gets collected and sent back up to the turret.”

“Got it,” I said. I didn’t get any of it.

“But we’re not here for pins, we’re here for balls.”

“Phrasing,” I said.

D moved in between block two and block three, squeezing through. Cautious, I peeked my head in to get a better look.

“See this conveyor belt?” D gestured to a metal rod, angled so that it pointed up to the ceiling. Parallel to that was a rubber conveyor belt, moving and spinning at its own, fast pace.

“I see it.”

“Those belts pick up the bowling balls and send them over the top, there, like that.”

D put a pause in her explanation, since I could see it for myself.

A ball had come through, getting picked up by the assembly of metal and rubber. The ball was accelerated up to the top, close to the ceiling, before going over a ramp and out of sight.

“Gravity sends it back to the players on the other end,” D said, explaining the rest.

D squeezed herself free, and I backed up to give her the room.

“So why am I being shown this?”

“Well, your job is to take out the ball before it goes over the ramp.”

“You want me to do it?”

“The ball goes too fast for me to grab, it’ll crush my fingers. But you have the strength to pluck it out. And if you mess up, I mean, you’ll heal.”

“We can’t turn off these machines?”

“And risk someone knowing we’re back here? Or having the Royals be suspicious before their ball goes missing? No way.”

I really wanted to protest her idea more, but she had a point. And I was itching for something to do, today.

But, at the risk of crushing my fingers?

Even with enhanced healing, I’d rather not have that happen to me.

But, I relented.

“Ugh, fine.”

D cheered me on as I slipped between the machines. If it was a tight fit for her, then I was about to be a claustrophobe. It was cramped.

I squeezed into position, finding myself in front of the whirring conveyor belt. Loud, dangerous. Not where I thought I would be, today.

A ball went through. Red, zipping up and over the metal ramp.

Fast.

“Hey wait!” I shouted. “What does the ball even look like?”

“Blue with gold engravings! You can’t miss it!”

I inhaled, but I held my breath. Blue with gold engravings. That damn ball had better come soon. I needed to be out of here, now.

Black. Red. Orange. Red. Purple. Green. Green. Black. Yellow.

I was losing my breath, and my patience.

Where the fuck is-

Right at the very bottom of the belt. Blue, a hint of gold.

Fast, but my hands had to be faster.

I breathed in as I threw my hands out.

A weight hit my fingers, my palms.

I pulled out.

Pluck.

“Ah!” I shouted.

“Yes!” D shouted. “Yes!”

I looked up. I was holding the ball above my head, arms outstretched. A sixteen pound ball. Blue with gold engravings.

I didn’t waste another second. I shuffled out of the space, D taking the ball out of my hands as I got myself free.

“I’ll take it from here,” she said. “Good job, Wendy.”

“Don’t,” I started. I was panting, tired. “No, you know what? I did do a good job.”

“That’s the spirit.”

We returned to the wall, hugging it as we went back down the way we came. D stopped at the thirteenth block to drop the ball off.

She returned, and we continued with our extraction. Looking at the numbers, there were twenty lanes in total. We passed the twentieth block, and made it to the door with no problems.

As the door closed behind us, over the machines and pins, I could have sworn I heard an argument break out.

The moon was out, and so was I.

We had taken the next day off, just to pace ourselves, but it was right back to work come nighttime. I didn’t mind the odd hours, it was why I uprooted my life in the first place. I had the freedom to schedule myself as needed. I could focus on the job, and nothing else. No room for superfluous things.

Unlike most people, I didn’t have a structure, and I could use that to my advantage.

No costume, but I was covered up. Balaclava, goggles, turtle neck with a jacket on top, gloves, jeans and boots with ankle-length socks. All black. Not a single inch of skin was showing.

I felt a thrill, starting from my head, racing to my toes as I wiggled them over the roof’s edge, adjusting my footing. It never got old.

I watched the people below.

Three people. One Thunder, two Royals. Taking part in some sort of exchange.

What they were doing, exactly, hardly mattered. It was what happened after that counted.

I waited as they went about their business. They stood around, talking for a while. I couldn’t catch what they were saying. I was too high up.

I had been following the Thunder since he left his base, a small tattoo parlor south of the basketball court. Fillmore spared no detail, however small.

Tailing him was easy. Stay back, stay quiet, and stay high. From all my time crossing rooftops, I had learned a thing or two. I learned how to gauge my strength, my speed. I learned how to make the jumps, to maximize distance without tripping up and losing momentum later. And, I also learned that people hardly ever looked up.

People, as a species, were limited in their spatial awareness. They knew to check what was directly ahead of them, and they knew to check their backs. Even their sides, they knew to keep in mind. But directly above? That was a blind spot I could occupy and exploit.

I didn’t have invisibility as a power, but this was a functionally close second.

From above, I watched.

There, movement. The two Royals walked away, leaving the Thunder by himself. He stayed behind, moving over to a wall on the other side. His hands were brought together, moving to his lips. Between his fingers, a small orange glow was produced, illuminating his face for a short time.

The glow lessened, and he brought a hand down to his pocket. On occasion, he drew his other hand away from his face, puffing out a winding trail of smoke.

He had no idea I was here, that I had my eyes on him.

This was but a sample of the control I wanted, the power. That upper hand.

My toes were positioned past the end of the roof. It only took the slightest lean forward to tip me off the edge.

I descended.

It didn’t even matter, that I landed right in front of him, that he had a brief glimpse of me. I was already moving, rushing him.

No knife this time. It wasn’t necessary.

I struck at his neck, palm open. I slapped him hard into the ground.

He barely saw me coming.

His body went down first, then the blunt he had in mouth.

I stepped on it as I leaned over the Thunder, flipping him over on his back. My other foot pressed into his chest. I searched his person. He was still reeling from the first strike, stunned. He couldn’t move or yell as I worked.

I emptied out his pockets. Gun, knife. A plastic baggie, white powder inside. A small tin container. I put it to my ear, shaking it. Filled with something. Weed, most likely.

I threw everything to the side. Not what I was after.

Found it.

Stacks of money, bound by rubber bands. Two, three stacks. He had more money than he did drugs.

Supplier, then.

“We’re taking our money back,” I said, trying to make my voice low, deeper than it really was. I was putting on an act, and I had to sell it, as much as possible.

The Thunder groaned, strained by the hurt and weight I was putting on him.

I had to make myself louder, in order to make the message clear.

“Oh yeah, and this is for trying to steal our shit back at the bowling alley.”

“We… never…”

He tried to get some words out of his own.

I struck him again, this time in the ribs. I heard a crack. He wheezed.

“Don’t fuck with us.”

He winced, trying to speak again.

“We-”

I struck him again.

“Don’t fuck with us.”

I stuffed the money in my pockets, keeping my foot on him, squeezing out any air he tried to draw in. I was quick, I couldn’t take too long, here.

I patted my sides, making sure I had gotten everything. I straightened myself, taking my foot off him. He didn’t have a stack of cash left.

“Don’t fuck with the Royals,” I said, and then I left him there. Down, hurting.

No dramatic exits was needed. I simply walked out of the alleyway, pulling the balaclava off my head, removing my goggles in one motion. I stuffed them into a pocket inside my coat, fixing my hair as I continued at a hurried pace.

It was late, and it was dark. No one saw me leave.

I walked for some time. If I had to divide the neighborhood by gang territory, I was deep in with the Thunders. And I needed to get over to the Royals, their territory.

South to north. It was easy to remember how it was divided. Using the basketball court as a point of reference, the side of the court that pointed south was claimed by the Thunders, and the northern half was claimed by the Royals. Simple as that.

And for us, we wanted to own the whole damn court. And we’d pick and choose who got to play.

That, on a grander scale.

Small steps, first.

I was deep in my thoughts as I crossed the street. The court was a block down, so I knew I was entering another territory, now.

It was almost overwhelming, how much work went into the gangs and mobs and cartels that ran this city. All the politics, the heated tempers. The alliances, the systems to keep it all in place. In Stephenville, crime was systemic. It was a structure that needed to be maintained in order for this city to run properly.

Which showed how deep the roots had gotten.

Being a hero meant fighting the system, fighting the established normal. It would be harder to fight it from the outside, pretty much impossible. It was misguided.

Better, to fight from the shadows, a less direct route.

But doing so made it much easier to slip.

Just have to be careful.

I watched my step as I crossed again, heading towards a restaurant. It was after hours, the restaurant was closed.

I met D in front of the building.

“How’d it go?” D asked as I approached. Her breath was visible as she spoke.

“Went well.” I tapped a pocket. “Some more change for the piggy bank.”

“Awesome.”

“How about you? I’m guessing no one caught you.”

“Nope. All clean. Wanna take a look?”

“Sure.”

D led me around the building, to the side. Not an alley, this time, there was just a field of dirt and mud. Bits of grass and weeds sprouted up, here and there. But it was otherwise desolate.

Nothing of interest. What D had to show me was on the wall.

Caught by the moonlight, a graffiti drawing of a robot. It was about as tall as D, and was detailed with colorful wires and light bulbs. Blocky, maybe a bit amateurish, but it was recognizable.

“You can’t draw with a pencil, but you can do graffiti pretty well?” I questioned.

“Quiet. It helps when I’m going off a reference.”

She held up her phone, flipping through pictures.

Robots, similar in design and style.

“Took these while snooping around the Thunder side of the neighborhood. From what I gathered, newbies have to come up with their own unique tag to represent the gang, while expressing their own individuality. It’s a neat exercise, if I do say so myself.”

“So, robots, going with the thunder or electricity theme?”

“Just about. Lil’ Nathan’s going to have some explaining to do when the Royals finds this, and these.”

D lifted her other hand, shaking a can of paint.

“Is that Nathan’s?”

“He really should keep an eye on his belongings. Like, they were right there.”

She tossed the can, and it landed at the base of the wall. There were other cans, other colors.

“And check this out.”

D pointed to the robot’s chest. In blocky letters was the word ‘LUCY.’ Bold, in all caps.

“Nice touch,” I said. “Fillmore’s going to hate that we’re using that.”

“Shh…” D responded, pressing her finger to her lips. She kept doing it, even as we left the scene, until her hiss escalated into a childish cackle.

“Here, and here. Oh, here’s good too. And maybe here, for good measure.”

“Don’t get too carried away now,” I said.

Sitting on the floor, working, getting in the way of others. We didn’t even have a table to set our stuff on.

We were in the Redhouse, early afternoon. Two days after our last visit to the neighborhood.

D had laid out a map of the area. A large, printed, detailed map. It had the street names and names of establishments. They were official labels, though, D and I had to fill in the blanks.

“We could hit this place, too,” D said, drawing yet another circle on the map. She was using crayon. Red.

“We don’t need to go overboard,” I said, having to remind her again.

“I’m just putting down some options. We don’t have to do all of these.”

She paused, smiling.

“It’d be fun, though,” she said.

I looked over the map as she kept drawing. We crossed out some labels, replacing them with the more locally recognized names. Fill Market was one, replacing it with ‘Philly’s.’ We circled key locations that were important to each gang. Bases, popular hangout spots, like the bowling alley. We also drew circles over places that weren’t officially labeled, but were important all the same. The basketball court was one, the skate park was another. Places like that were marked all over the map. And D kept adding on to it.

“Any particular reason why you circled three different sandwich shops?” I asked. “I haven’t heard of these places. Are they relevant?”

“Just saw them now. Those are, um, for me.”

“D,” I said.

“I’m using a different color, see? So I can distinguish them!”

She circled them again for emphasis, using a purple crayon. But her lines were thick, and she had kept drawing and writing all over the map. It was getting harder and harder to read.

“You just had lunch, how are you already thinking about food?”

“I just don’t want to forget, okay? I want to check them out after we’re all done. You’re not letting me eat my snacks, so I’m going crazy thinking about food.”

“Hold out for a little longer, we’re almost there.”

D whined, but I knew that she was overacting. She tossed her crayon to the side, and it knocked into the other crayons she had taken out. They scattered.

They didn’t go far, but they spread out across the lobby of the Redhouse. I was well aware of the other Ghosts standing around, with nothing else to do.

It was D’s idea to sketch out a plan here, and I understood her reasoning. The Ghosts, as a whole, were still wary of us, so we needed to show that we were working towards the benefit of the gang, working with them in mind.

But, sitting like this, on the floor with crayons, it looked like we were just playing around instead.

I got up to go after the crayons, leaving D to color in peace. I could sort through labels and circles later.

It was… awkward, having to go around and collect them while others watched. As if I was too old to be chasing after crayons. We were getting work done, but it probably didn’t seem like that to them.

Working with D, trying to prove myself to the Ghosts, all thanks to an old reputation from a past life. It sucked, to say the least. But, if it was necessary to facilitate progress, then so be it. Best to assuage their worries now, while we were still getting started.

I just hoped we could convince them that we were the real deal, and soon.

I followed the path of one of the last crayons. It had stopped right at someone’s foot. I dreaded having to look up.

But I did anyways.

“Oh,” I said. “Hey.”

It was Lawrence. Standing over me, wearing a shirt with a collar, with a blazer on top. Black dress pants completed the look. It was form fitting, and upon closer inspection, made me realize that he did, in fact, work out.

“Hey,” he said, as I picked up the crayon, rushing to stand up. “What are you doing?”

I found that I needed a moment before I could answer. I had moved too fast in getting back up. My glasses were crooked.

I fixed them, and managed a single word. “Trying.”

“How’s your plan going?”

That was easy to answer. I looked back, and saw D. She was flat on her stomach, legs kicking, still coloring and drawing. She looked completely absorbed in what she was doing.

“It’s going great,” I said, looking back at Lawrence. “Everything’s moving along smoothly. There was a bit of a hiccup right at the beginning, but there hasn’t been any issues since. We’re in the final stages right now. If all goes well, then it should inspire some confidence, moving forward.”

“No pressure, then. Which gang?”

“Two, actually. The Thunders and the Royals.”

“Those assholes? Just wait long enough, and they’ll take each other out.”

“That’s what we originally thought, too, but apparently they’ve been trying to work things out. They’re pretty much best friends, now.”

Lawrence’s brow creased. “That’s worrying.”

“I’m kidding. Yes, they have a pact, but it’s still complicated between them. It’s more just a united front against an enemy they can see.”

I spread my arms and added,  “And they won’t see us coming.”

He nodded. “How devious. D is rubbing off on you already.”

Was she? I had hoped it would have been the other way around, instead.

“I’ll have to take that as a compliment,” I said.

He nodded again, looking past me.

“How’s she doing? I only ask because I want to be in the loop about things, and that includes being the loop about her.”

I turned again to get a glance at D. Still engrossed with her coloring.

I wasn’t sure if Lawrence was genuinely concerned about D’s well-being, or if his paranoia was getting the better of him.

In a way, though, I understood where he was coming from.

“She’s doing fine,” I answered. “She’s been really engaged throughout this whole thing, and she really wants to do a good job. I’ve been letting her go loose with her pranks, and… well, it’s been something, alright. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like she wants you all to like her.”

Lawrence made a face.

“I don’t know why, but the prospect of that feels very harrowing to me.”

“She’s trying, Lawrence, and liking should be a two-way street. She wants to be on our side, and I want her to be here, too. We shouldn’t push her away. The last thing we need is a D that’s pissed, with that anger being directed at us.”

Lawrence waved a hand, cringing. “Yeah, I get it. But please never talk about angrily pissing D’s again.”

“What?” I questioned, but then I got what he meant. I felt flustered. “Ew, no, what? No.”

“But alright, fine, I see what you’re getting at, and I’ll give it a shot, too. Is there anything you need?”

“Oh, I think we have it covered,” I said.

“You sure? I’m not doubting you guys, but maybe we can provide some extra manpower? With the full force of the Ghosts behind you, we can knock the Thunders and Royals flat on their ass.”

I shook my head. “That won’t be necessary. I want to keep this a small operation. As much as possible, anyways.”

“How about cash? Anything you need ordered? Like a gun or knife, or some costume parts? No one owes me any favors, but maybe I can call around and-”

“Lawrence, I appreciate the gesture, but we want to be able to bring something to the table, just the two of us. We can’t exactly prove ourselves if we get help from the Ghosts. And about money and costume, we picked up some loose change while working this job. It’s covered.”

“Fine, I can back off about the costume, but I still think you could do with some extra hands on deck. I’ll bring it up to Reggie and Tone. Sarah, too. See if they want to give you the assist.”

I was about to object, but I didn’t want to fight Lawrence on this. A two-way street, and he was trying to meet me halfway.

And, it was those three, and they were cool. I was willing to compromise if it meant working with them again.

“Sure,” I said. “Thanks Lawrence.”

“You don’t have to thank me, it feels weird.”

“Get used to it,” I said, giving him a smile.

Okay, it does feel weird.

Lawrence took a step, checking his wrist. He was wearing a watch. It looked expensive.

“I’ve have to go, got some rounds to do.”

“Go,” I said. “We’ll get us a win. Bet on it.”

“I will. Good luck.”

Then, he left, crossing the lobby, giving out the occasional order to the Ghosts he passed. They moved in response, finally having something to do.

I saw his exchange with D as he approached her. She stopped what she was doing and craned her neck to look at him. She smiled, giving him an enthusiastic wave. He responded with a curt nod, but he waved back, before taking his leave through the double doors.

I went back to D and the map, having picked up the remaining crayons. I could barely see the actual map underneath, now.

“You got carried away,” I said.

“I did.”

I paused.

“Yeah, a little help isn’t going to hurt.”

The ride was smooth, the van speeding along. There was some light, easygoing music that helped ease some of my anxieties.

It was night again. About a week had passed since we met Fillmore.

Five of us in the van. D was driving, and I was in the back, sitting with Reggie, Tone, and Sarah.

Everyone, me excluded, was decked out in all black. D wore her usual style, while the others were more appropriately covered. I was in costume.

“Nervous, Voss?” Sarah asked. She was sitting closest to me.

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t,” I answered. “But it’s nothing to worry about.”

“It’s okay. Even Olympic athletes get nervous.”

“This is a little more life-or-death than any sport I know.”

Tone interjected. “So what was it you did again? You did what with a bowling ball?”

“That’s not even the best one,” D said, taking a peek at us through the rear-view mirror. “V, you should tell them about the hot dog one!”

“Hot dog one?”

“Oh god.” I started shaking my head. “It was such a mess. I’ve never seen that much ketchup cover a wall before. It was like someone died in there.”

“Whoa, what? You have to tell me.”

“Wait,” D said. “We’re coming up to the spot. Get ready, V.”

“Sorry, Tone,” I said, apologetic. “Seems as if it’s going to have to wait.”

He jabbed a finger at me.

“You owe me a story after this. It better be good.”

“It’s a damn good story, you’ll like it.”

Satisfied, he leaned back into his seat. Reggie muttered something to him, and he chuckled as a response.

“Looks like you’re up,” Sarah said.

“Looks like,” I said.

I checked to make sure I had everything. Costume was on, bag underneath, earpiece in. I had my knife, extra ammunition. Not that I had any real intention to use it, or for things to do so far that I needed another clip, but Sarah wouldn’t let me out of the van unless I had it on me.

Another compromise.

I threw the hood over my head, fixing it so it stayed in place, properly covering my face. I adjusted my mask, feeling leather as my gloves brushed against my cheeks. I played with the heavy fabric so it flowed better around my sides.

Just about ready.

“Here,” Sarah said, giving me the final piece. A handgun. Forty caliber. Standard-issue pistol given to police.

“Thank you,” I said, taking it. She didn’t pull her hands away after giving it to me. Instead, took my hands into hers, giving a soft shake.

“Hit them hard, but stay safe.”

“I can’t do one without forgoing the other.”

“Try,” she told me.

I pulled away.

“I’ll try.”

“Almost there!” D announced.

I gave myself a moment to compose myself. A week ago, I faced up against EZ and Krown for the first time, and they won. It wasn’t exactly fair and square, but they beat me. Now? It was my turn to return the favor.

For the past week, we had been striking from the shadows, using the dark to our advantage. From small pranks, to sabotaging big deals, setting them up against each other, even with a pact. All to sow seeds of doubt, which would grow into distrust at the worst yet most critical of times. Would one come to the aid of the other, when their shaky bond had been drilled and needled until it was reduced to a single, thin thread?

We’re about to find out.

For the past seven days, we struck at what was important to the Thunders and the Royals. Their belongings, their territories, their pride, even their wallets. Now, the next strike was going to be the last.

We were going to strike their hearts.

“Now!” D yelled.

Sarah got the door, I hopped out.

The wind and cold whipped in my ears. The van didn’t slow, but my momentum was maintained.

It was in the distance. The basketball court. A group was gathered within.

I sprinted past tagged buildings, small crosses. Streets I knew the nicknames of, places I was familiar with.

A town full of stories. And I would be bringing about the end for so many of them.

Time to tear off the bandage. Make them bleed.

I ran straight, raised my arm, and I fired my gun.

Previous                                                                                               Next

063 – Strange Ways

Previous                                                                                               Next

I wasn’t ready to go back to the van, to run away and admit defeat. I wasn’t ready to admit that to myself.

I crossed the street, purposely avoiding to turn and head back to where we had parked. I continued straight, walking into an alleyway between a barber shop and a produce market.

I turned on my heels, and turned back, pacing up and down the alley. Couldn’t stop moving, couldn’t cool off.

Fuming.

“Wendy.”

Humiliated wouldn’t even begin to describe this feeling. I was toyed with, made a fool, strung along, all as a part of their scheme. I had no idea or hint that I was being set up.

Anger. That was the most direct and apt description. The most present emotion. The one that was closest to the surface and ran the most deep. I was angry. Angry at them, angry at myself.

“Wendy.”

I tried, I tried to think back to the events that had just transpired, trying to find any tell or slip in their words or actions that could have clued me in to what they were doing. I tried. But the more I tried, the more my anger muddled with my recollection of what just happened. The details were fuzzy, the images were swirling, and an intense desire to see and taste red fueled my mind to want-

Wendy!”

I wheeled around.

“What?” I asked, eyes wide, voice strained.

D was staring at me, her expression was of obvious concern. Eyebrows furrowed, lip curled slightly, hands down in front of her skirt, fingers entwined.

“You’ve got to-”

She stopped, reconsidering.

“I was going to tell you to calm down, but that would only make you more mad.”

I opened my mouth, about to yell or say something, but I reconsidered. In a roundabout way, D was telling me to calm down, but the oblique way she went about doing it gave me an extra second to put more thought into what she was saying, and where my focus should be.

I calmed down.

“I’m not mad,” I said, sounding anything but. My shoulders were still square, my breathing heavy, my eyes darting between D and the recycling bin she was standing next to.

D spoke, her voice flat. “Way to convince me, Wendy.”

I made a guttural sound, somewhere between a grunt and a groan. I forced myself to stand straighter, rolling my shoulders, taking in deeper, more relaxing breaths.

I started pacing again.

“Sorry. It’s just, fuck, I wasn’t expecting that. At all.”

“I understand that, and it surprised me, too, but you can’t let it get to you like this.”

“I’m trying,” I said, knowing that I wasn’t trying hard enough. I failed then, and I was failing now.

“Try harder.”

“I…”

I closed my mouth.

I tried harder.

My glasses, I felt them slipping more down my nose. I took them off, and noticed how heated, how sweaty, I had gotten. I rolled up a sleeve, and rubbed the bridge of my nose with my arm.

I put my glasses back on, fixing them in place. When I could focus on my vision again, I checked for D. I couldn’t find her.

“D?” I asked, calling out. There was a slight echo.

“Still here.”

I turned around.

There she was. She’d hadn’t moved or budged. I must have started pacing without me realizing.

“Better?” she asked.

I shrugged. “Not better, but I’m dealing.”

D raised an eyebrow.

“I will try to deal with it.”

“That’s better,” D said.

I gave myself a second to breathe. Trying, like I promised.

I ran my fingers through my hair, putting both hands into my jacket pocket after I was done. I breathed, using it as an exercise to relax.

D was still staring at me, and I was able to stare back, without my emotions pulling my attention away.

“I’m back,” I said.

“Good to have you,” D responded, nodding. “Now we can properly talk about this, and figure out where we go from here.”

I nodded back. “I just, I feel like an idiot, for not seeing that coming. I walked right into their little game, and I didn’t even make it hard for them. I didn’t trip them up, I didn’t force them to take another approach. I just… walked.”

Another branch in the conversation, another detour. I was ranting.

But, D didn’t respond, verbal or otherwise. She was just letting me talk. Vent.

If she was going to let me continue, I’d continue.

“I hate not being in control. I hate not knowing, being in the dark. I hate being blind. I-”

I was running out of things to say, and I didn’t want to keep repeating myself.

That underlying feeling was still there, though. That anger, directed out and back towards me. That hatred.

I shut my mouth, conceding to D. Getting it all out was one thing, but I wasn’t going to waste her time with a therapy session.

D took a careful step closer, fingers still together. She was smiling, but it wasn’t that knowing, sly sneer that was I so used to. It was apologetic. It was sympathetic.

It was strange.

“I hate it too,” she said. “Knowing means having control, and there’s so many ways you can play with that. And, and I’m speaking for myself, but not having that control means I’m back to being just another kid. And that sucks.”

I chuckled a bit. “It does.”

“It really sucks.”

“Okay,” I said. I pulled a hand it out my pocket, fixing my glasses one more time. “Now I’m back. Let’s talk about this, properly.”

D smiled. “Let’s.”

“The Thunders and the Royals. Whatever beef they had, it’s gone now, it’s settled. And they have a pact to stick together against any potential threat.”

“Like us.”

“Potentially. You picked those two since you thought you could twist that against them.”

“That’s the knowing I was talking about, and that’s how I wanted to play them. This new bit, however, is just that. It’s news to me.”

This was review, but I needed it. To get another look at the details to better understand a situation, it would help in getting my mind in the proper place.

And now that I had a better understanding, I knew what had to be done.

“I still want to do this,” I said.

D looked surprised to hear that.

“You do?”

I gave her a singular, slow, measured nod.

“EZ and Krown. I still want to take them down. I think it can be done, I won’t turn this into a complete loss.”

“I’m not saying it’s impossible, or this is a lost cause, but it has gotten more difficult. More… complicated.”

“This was never going to be easy,” I said.

D’s smile changed to one I was more familiar with. “Easy would be boring.”

I removed my hands from my pockets, and I folded my arms.

D spoke as I got my thoughts together. “If this revelation is as new and as sudden as I think it is, then I don’t believe for a second that they’re all buddy-buddy. You just don’t forget the past, people aren’t wired like that. Whatever happened between them still happened. And if we can find out what drove those two brothers apart, we can drill at that, needle that bond to a breaking point.”

“And the fallout from that…” I said.

I tried to imagine it.

“It might be even bigger than if they hadn’t made up at all,” D said. “Have you ever torn off a bandage or splint before a wound healed up completely?”

“No.”

“Well, it sucks.”

“I can’t exactly relate to that, not anymore, but I see what you mean. It’ll be harder, but driving them apart now sends a much bigger message to even more people.”

“A bigger splash,” D said. “And we can ride that wave out much farther.”

The idea of EZ and Krown, in all of their assuredness, to kick them while they thought they had all of the cards…

It satiated a different thirst that I had.

“I really, really like that idea. Okay, let’s do it. Let’s tear that bandage off.”

D’s grin grew wider, exaggerated. “Heck yes.”

Between those two gangs, those two brothers, there was a wound. Time healed all, but it was a stretch to assume that everything was smoothed over. If this beef ran as deep as D suggested, then some resentment had to be there. Even if it was residual, even if it was just below the surface.

We would expose that wound to the open air, throw some acid into it, if we had to. This wasn’t just about their debt with the Ghosts, anymore. I wanted to see that wound burn.

“So,” I said, meeting D’s eyes again, “We’re not going anywhere just yet. We’ve got some more scouting to do.”

D threw her hands up, bouncing on her feet. She was cheering.

“Yeah! Operation Storm the Castle is back on!”

Might as well keep her entertained, I thought.

As D jumped in glee, shouting for joy, I barely heard the sound of metal scraping on concrete. I turned back to locate the source of the noise.

A door, from the produce market’s side of the alley. A man had stepped outside, a trash bag in hand.

He took notice of us, and we took notice of him.

A black man, tall, well past fifty, judging from the grey in his beard and the creases in his features. He wore a flat brim hat, with a buttoned long sleeve and sweater vest on top. Black jeans with boots to match.

I couldn’t parse his expression. He looked too stoic.

He had stopped to notice us, but he continued on his way, walking to a nearby garbage bin to dispose of his trash.

“Storefront’s over there, ladies,” he said as he approached the bin. His voice was deep, but smooth, as if he was announcing something on the radio.

“We were just chatting,” I said, “We’ll be out of here soon.”

“You better, I don’t like young kids hanging around places like this.”

“Why’s that?”

“Mean’s trouble. Kids like you should be in school, not in these streets and alleys.”

I looked at D, her hands still in the air. I gestured, and she brought them down.

“You don’t have to worry about us,” I told him. “We’re not up to any trouble, sir.”

The man tossed the trash bag into the bin, landing with an audible thud.

“I’ve heard that a thousand times,” he said. “I’d die of shock if you meant it.”

“What, you don’t believe me?” I asked.

He brushed his hands against his jeans, walking over to us. Approaching.

“I believe what I’ve seen and heard, being out in this motherfucker for damn near forty years. It’s always been the same, ain’t nothing changed. It’s a cycle. You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t up to no good. So don’t act like you’re anything special, and don’t think I’m some fool. I’m no fool.”

“Your choice in fashion says otherwise,” D said.

I gave D a hard look, willing her to shut up. She shrugged, but she seemed to get the message.

To the man, I raised a hand at him, placating. “She didn’t mean that.”

The man shot me a hard look in return. “Don’t you dare speak for another person without their explicit consent. Who do you think you are?”

I didn’t provide an answer. I wasn’t sure what answer would be appropriate.

The man seemed to accept the lack of an answer, and looked past me to D, instead.

“Little lady, is that what you really think?”

The man asked D directly.

D hardly flinched or hesitated. “I do.”

The man turned his attention back to me, and paused, as if to establish that a point had been made.

He spread his arms.

“My apologies, then,” I said.

“Good,” he said, and then he turned to go. “Now run along. Whatever trouble it is you find yourself in, I better not hear about it on the news.”

Then, he was gone, having went through the door that led into the produce market.

An odd encounter, but I was used to those. Nothing new.

Again, I turned to face D, and she looked like she had something on her mind.

I voiced my thoughts out loud. “What’s up?”

She shook her head once. “It’s nothing.”

“Nothing’s ever nothing with you. What is it?”

“It is nothing,” she said, stern, offset by her childish tone. “Now come on, no point in sticking around here.”

“Right,” I said, and we started moving to get out of the alley. I was feeling better as we left than when I stormed in here. “Do you know of any good places to start scouting?”

“Maybe,” D said. “But first, I want to go into the market.”

I looked, and I saw the entrance to the building we were standing next to. Fill Market, it was called. The glass storefront was protected by metal bars, making it hard to get a look inside Labels advertising alcohol and lottery tickets were slapped onto the windows. There was another sign, a warning about something, but the metal bars made it hard to read.

The automatic doors shuddered as they made way for us, and we stepped inside.

“What, you want to do some shopping?” I asked. “Do you even have a refrigerator to fill?”

“I have your refrigerator to fill, but no, I also want to get a look around.”

“Why, what do they have here?”

D answered. “Information. This way.”

She picked up a basket by the door, and we went deeper into the store. The place mostly had produce, vegetables and fruits, but D passed by all of it to get to the more processed stuff. We entered one aisle, filled with cans. Canned meat, canned vegetables, canned soup.

“What kind of info could you possibly get here?” I asked.

D explained as she took cans out from the shelves. “For communities like this, markets, barber shops, basketball courts, they’re deep in the heart of things. If you want to be in the know, here is where you want to take a look around.”

I glanced around as we left the aisle. Cans behind us, yogurt and milk and juice ahead of us, bags of chips and cereal and oatmeal in other aisles as we passed them. It looked like any other store. Maybe it wasn’t the tidiest of places, I saw one too many wet floor signs, and mismatched stock belonging to shelves two or three aisles down, but it was a market. Nothing too special or notable.

The few employees – and even shoppers  – we passed seemed to be more interested in us than we were in them. Watching as we walked, glances lasting longer than what was normally acceptable. Passing so many people in public, the occasional bit of eye contact was unavoidable. It happened, sometimes, and that was that. Here, though? The gazes were held.

I noticed what some of the shoppers were wearing, the colors. Mostly blues and whites. It crossed my mind, to be nervous, but it wasn’t as if word had already spread about us in the area. We were given a warning, but there a give to that, and we would capitalize on it, while we still could.

It didn’t bother me, the stares. I’d prefer to blend in, but there was nothing, or no one, to be afraid of. It was simply a reminder, that D and I were in the minority, here. We weren’t from around these parts.

D led us into another aisle, a snack aisle. D started picking through the ones she wanted.

“You can’t eat any of these, right?” she asked. Gummy worms, chocolate bars, cookies, powdered donuts. D wasn’t being particularly fussy with her snacks.

“Nope. Literally impossible.”

“Dang. That makes me so so sad.” She grabbed for a bag of marshmallows, and continued-

D paused, and leaned over to grab another bag, putting in the basket.

“I should get double the snacks, so I can eat on your behalf.”

“I’ll appreciate it.”

We stalked further down, D taking more and more snacks. At this rate, she would clear out the entire aisle.

“So, how does that even work?” D asked, dropping in a box of brownies. And then another. “You have your little, um… thing, you get your powers, hurray, but how do you even come to that kind of conclusion. That, hey, I’m done eating burgers and fries, I’m on a strictly liquid diet now, and what I’m drinking is pretty, um, raw.”

Answering that properly meant sorting through memories and events that I’d rather not touch upon. For various reasons. It had taken so much effort just to store them away in the back of my mind, recalling them now would be like tearing off a bandage on a wound that wasn’t quite gone yet. And I wasn’t about to do that to myself.

“It… it’s a hard thing to process, harder still to quench that thirst. It takes over your life, consuming you as much as you try to consume anything else.”

Not much of an answer, but that was all I was willing to give up.

“I can’t believe you tried to balance that out with being a hero,” D said, taking my non-answer in stride. “Sounds a little misguided. Uh, in my opinion.”

I took that in stride. “I’m not offended, it was misguided. It was stupid, trying to fit into a shape that wouldn’t hold. At least, now, I don’t have to worry about being a hero anymore. I don’t need that balance, and what I’m after is actually in conjunction with my powers. There’s no more of that seemingly cosmic pushback, and that means a lot less stress on my mind.”

D dropped three boxes of granola bars, and a cereal box. There was no sign of stopping.

“Then, it’s good that you found yourself,” D said. “And I’m like, amazed that you managed to keep your liquid diet thing under wraps from the rest of the world.”

“I’m amazed, too,” I said. “And let’s keep it that way. Who knows if that’s a card we’ll need to keep up our sleeves.”

“Yup, I’m all about not showing my hand. Here.”

D finally, finally, left the snack aisle, and walked us over to the other end of the store. It got chillier as we approached.

Ice cream, and lots of it. Different flavors, different colors. I saw D’s eyes light up as she perused her choices.

“Now hold it,” I said, “I thought we were here for info, not to fulfill your surprisingly sweet sweet tooth.”

“And we will get info, but this is important, too. I don’t want to come over to your apartment and not find any snacks there. We’re getting multiple things done, here.”

“I guess, if that’s how you want to go about it. But, lay off the sugar, you’re going to rot the rest of your teeth off.”

“Wouldn’t that be cool?” D asked, reaching for what was already her third pint of gelato.

“Do not over do it,” I said, serious.

D gave me a scowl, but she relented, putting the gelato back. Instead of letting the door close on its own, she gave it a push, slamming it with more strength than needed, and walked off at a faster pace.

I had to put forth effort to catch up, as she rounded a corner, heading to the front of the market. We passed by more shoppers and employees, D’s rushing getting their attention even more.

“D,” I said. “Slow down.”

“I thought you wanted to get info, right? Faster I pay for these, faster we can get to that.”

“Yeah, but-”

“What?” she asked, her voice sharp.

“Wow,” I said, but I mouthed the word to myself, and D didn’t catch me, either, her eyes still forward.

Was she mad?

I supposed, on some level, I could understand if she was. Kids craved freedom to do whatever, whenever. And, on most occasions, kids were restricted by rules laid down by parents or other institutions, and were only allowed certain opportunities throughout the day to express that freedom, like recess or playing outside, after school hours. And for D’s part, she had gotten rid of those restrictions a long time ago.

Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Every waking moment was like recess for her.

For the brief time that I had known D, she was running around freely, with no one to tell her what to do, or otherwise discipline her. Even a bit of that discipline, she wasn’t accustomed to, and now she was ticked off.

Tough shit.

We were leading a gang, now, and as leaders, it was our responsibility to bring our people up to a higher position. And that required structure, rules and discipline. D agreed to work with me on this, to bring the Ghosts where I wanted to take them, so she’d have to suck it up and accept that as part of the job.

I need to have the upper hand, and D needs to have her freedom. Take that away, and we flip out. We all have our sour spots.

It was something to keep in mind.

D walked, and I was right behind her, both of us staying silent. I’d let her fume, be mad, and she needed to learn how to work with that, too. I knew that I still had to, as well.

We arrived at the checkout line. Even with the store being busy, there were only two lanes active out of the ten that were potentially available. There were lines at both.

We got into closest lane, lane seven.

“Here,” D said, passing me the basket. I took it without protest, she was still in her mood.

The handle fell into my grip, and I felt my muscles harden.

It was heavy, even for someone with my strength. How many snacks did she stuff in here?

I adjusted my hold, and got used to the weight. The line started moving, and we moved in accordance.

“So, did you manage to catch anything?” I asked. I figured we were done here, but other than the various different gang members, there wasn’t much I could piece together. D, however, might have seen something different.

“Yeah, I caught some delicious snacks.”

We moved up some more.

She was still in her feelings? Alright, fine. I left her alone.

As the line moved along, the registers beeping and the employees working, D on occasion kept peeking out ahead. Enough times that I knew she was trying to look for something specific.

“Oh darn!” she then said, startling me and the people around us.

“What?” I asked as she turned my way. She looked panicked.

She brought her voice low as she said, “I forgot my wallet.”

“You forgot it? Where is it?”

“I promise I had it with me when we walked in here, I felt it in my pocket as we left the apartment!”

“Where’d you last feel it?”

“In my pocket!”

She showed me her pockets, lifting the sides of her jacket. A pocket on each side, with zippers, and both were zipped open.

I had to ask her. “Were your pockets zipped like that when we left?”

No, I had them zipped closed, like how they should be. I think, I’m sure.”

I lifted up the basket, carrying it in my arms. All the different boxes and bags of snacks were there. So many that the outline curved outward.

D sifted through the basket, picking between the boxes and bags and cartons, as though she had dropped her wallet in there, somehow.

We were getting close to the register.

“I have some cash,” I said, “But it might not be enough to cover all of this. You’ll have to put some of it-”

“D!”

D took a step away from the basket, her back bumping into the woman ahead of us. She slightly turned to see who it was.

“I’ll find it, it’s around somewhere, let me go retrace my steps!”

Let,’ as in requesting permission, but D ran off before I could say anything about it.

“Wait!” I called out, but D was already too far ahead, disappearing in the line of people and baskets and carts. I was about to chase after her, but I remembered that I still had the basket.

Or did she leave me with it?

Oh darn was right.

The line moved along, and it was my turn to start unloading stuff onto the checkout counter. D’s snacks began to overtake the rest of the counter, as the conveyor belt rolled out other people’s groceries. Then, as the counter started spilling out snacks to the other side, the counter was still full of snacks, and there was still more to go.

Crap.

A lot of snacks, a lot of money, and D hadn’t come back yet. The van was a few blocks away, and If she was retracing her steps…

Was she going to go back to the basketball court? To EZ and Krown? Was she reckless enough to show her face around there again, and so soon?

I knew what the answer was, and my stomach churned.

A boy, a teen looking a year or two older, worked the cash register, scanning the boxes and bags, his expression changing from flat to surprised to concerned at all the food coming his way.

“That’s a lot of snacks,” he commented, glancing at me.

“Girl’s gotta eat,” I said.

“You having a party or something?”

“Uh, it’s something,” I answered.

“Oh, if it was a party, I would have asked what’s up.”

I tilted my head one way. “What’s up?”

“You know, have me and some pals roll up to your crib, maybe we can do a little something.”

I tilted my head the other way. “A little something what?”

The boy set his jaw straight, but he didn’t respond, focusing on scanning all the food.

He was almost done, and D wasn’t back yet, and I didn’t have enough cash to pay for all of this.

D better not have left me here to-

“Hey, hey, where the fuck do you think you’re going?”

“Fuck, yo, let go of me!”

The yelling got my attention, and from the looks of the boy, and everyone else in line, I wasn’t the only one.

It was one of Royals and one of the Thunders I had seen before, while walking around the store. They were by the automatic doors, the doors clacking as they shifted from open to trying to close, as the two were standing in the way of the sensors.

A paper bag was at their feet, torn and spilling out its contents of cans and vegetables. The Royal held the Thunder’s wrist, fighting to keep the Thunder in place. Pushing and pulling.

“You took my cereal, man!” the Royal yelled.

“I didn’t take shit!” the Thunder yelled back.

“Then what’s in your bag? Why do I see that in your bag?”

“I didn’t put that shit in there! Look, you already have a fucking- That’s my box!”

“It ain’t mine, you swapped them!”

“Why the fuck would I-”

The Royal tugged, bringing the Thunder more inside, away from the doors. The door were finally able to close.

“Get in here bitch!”

“Man, fuck you, I don’t give a shit about you, I don’t give a shit about your crew, and I don’t give a shit about your fucking cereal!”

“Just admit that you ain’t got no money, and you have to steal from a real man to get what you want.”

It was as if the very air had changed. The atmosphere.

“Say that again?” the Thunder questioned.

“Use your ears, bitch, and if you got a brain, use that too.”

The Thunder reached under his shirt, and I saw the light catch his hand when he drew it out again.

Again in one day, I felt my heart skip a beat.

“Want to take this to the streets?”

“If you want to bleed out there, then absolutely.”

I moved a foot, prepared to step in and do… something, but I saw others move in ahead of me.

D, and another man.

“Hold it cowboy!”

D ran through the open doors and around the two men, and grabbed the Thunder by the collar, kicking him behind the knee. He fell, and she found his arm and twisted it, forcing him to let go of the gun. It hit the floor, landing among the other groceries, and the cereal box.

The man rushed the Royal, grabbing him by the shoulders. The Royal wasn’t reaching for a gun, but there was no way he could, now.

“Jay!” the man shouted, “Get your shit together!”

The deep, but still smooth voice. I recognized him as the man from earlier, in the alley.

“Phil, I-”

“Quit it, Jay, quit it. You want to be a real man? Grab your shit and walk away. Settle this peacefully, please. We don’t want another one of your feuds rocking this town again. Not another one, so soon.”

The man took his hands off the Royal, Jay, and waited for a second. Jay didn’t make a drastic move.

The man then turned, and saw D.

“You can let go of him now, little lady.”

D listened, taking her hands off the Thunder. He was on the floor, searching around him, checking his things. He saw his gun, and went to grab it.

A foot stepped on the gun, stopping him.

“No, Ricky,” the man said. “You’re done here, too.”

The Thunder, Ricky, glared up at D and the man, but he too didn’t try anything crazy. He got up, scooping everything up into his paper bag, everything except the cereal box.

The man continued to order them. “Ricky, you give Jay his cereal-”

“But he started-”

“I don’t fuckin’ care who started it, I’m ending it!”

His shout was felt through the rest of the store, especially Ricky. He was shut down.

The man – Phil, according to Jay – didn’t have to say it a second time. Ricky bent down to pick up the cereal box, giving it to Jay. The exchange was made in silence.

“Now, Ricky, walk down that way,” Phil said, pointing to the left of the automatic doors. “And then you, Jay, walk down that way.” He pointed to the right of the doors. “I don’t care if you have to take the long way home, but you are not crossing paths again until you can learn to grow up and stop playing in these streets.”

Jay and Ricky left without a word. Ricky went first, going out the doors, taking a left, and Jay followed, going right. The silence they left behind was palpable.

Phil gave D a small glance, but he put his actual attention on the shoppers who happened to catch the incident. On me.

A look, and it was enough to get everyone moving again.

I moved, too, but I moved away from the checkout counter, leaving the snacks behind. I went to D.

“D, hey,” I said. “Good timing, showing up when you did.”

“Good timing for sure,” she said, with a sly look.

“I’m not sure if I should like that look or not.”

“You should,” D said, “I got what we came here for.”

D looked elsewhere, and I followed her gaze.

“And we’re about to get more.”

Phil was approaching, having stepped out to make sure Jay and Ricky left without any more issues. He didn’t look very pleased to see us again.

“And will you look at that, y’all are up to no good.”

D replied, “I’d make a remark, but it won’t go over well with you, will it?”

“It won’t.”

“Then let me come clean right now. Ricky didn’t steal anything. I swapped a cereal box I picked out with his.”

Phil went from not looking pleased to looking pissed.

I turned to look back at the line. The boy was still there, confused at what to do. I didn’t see the cereal box that D had grabbed earlier.

This fucking girl, I thought, She slipped right from under me to pull that stunt.

Before, she had to be checking out the people in the line, planning accordingly. Watching who had what in their baskets, and how particularly attached to what they had. I thought she was just taking half the store’s inventory of snacks, but apparently, she had something else in mind.

Phil spoke softly, but his tone was intense. “And why did you swap the boxes?”

D answered, “I wanted to test a theory, but honestly, I probably could have swapped anything for the same results. Looks like I was just lucky.”

She was being cheeky, and he was stark serious.

“Get out of my-”

Wait,” D said, lifting her hand. She was holding up a wallet. Did she have that the whole time, too?

“We haven’t paid yet,” D said.

“I don’t think I care. I want you out.”

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. My test confirmed my suspicions, but I want the finer details. And I think you’re just the man to ask, Phil.”

There was a pause as Phil stared, having us wait on his response.

D added, “It might prove to be a benefit to your community, here, if you end up hearing us out.”

Over the past few weeks, I had been getting acquainted with D and how she operated, how she loved to throw herself into risky situations to try and get out ahead of everyone else.

This was another one of those times.

We were already on thin ice after what happened at the basketball court, and D was throwing herself, and me, out into the open for another risk.

I waited, wondering if we would remain standing, or if our plan would slip through the cracks and fall apart.

Previous                                                                                               Next

062 – Raid

Previous                                                                                               Next

The sounds of pencil on paper. Scribbles. A leaky faucet, somewhere. Soft but scratchy breathing.

“Does this look good?”

I looked.

“I can’t tell what I’m looking at, here.”

“That’s your head, here’s your arms, and the back part flows to there, past the legs.”

“Wow. You can’t draw, like at all.”

D made a shocked face, pulling her sketchbook close to her chest and turning away from me.

“You’re mean!”

We were in D’s apartment. Yesterday had seemingly gone in different directions for both me and D, so we decided to follow Lawrence’s example and take the rest of the day off. I desperately needed a shower after chasing Arturo, and fending off that dog before that. I also had laundry I wanted to take care of. I was ready to get to work, but a small break wouldn’t hurt.

But, of all the places to get some work done, it had to be here.

The dust, the dirt, the everything. There was no order or cleanliness to be found, here.

D was sitting on the couch, erasing what she had drawn in her notebook. The couch was probably the cleanest thing in the apartment, but I still couldn’t get myself to take a seat there. I remained standing.

I moved away from the couch, stepping over a rag on the floor. It hadn’t rained in some time, but it was wet.

Yesterday, I had desperately needed a shower. And today, I felt like I needed another one.

What a dump, I thought, but I kept that comment to myself.

But that didn’t mean I couldn’t make a comment at all.

“You should really do some cleaning in here.”

“You forget that I’m not the only one living here.”

I looked over to Macy. She was huddled in one corner of the living room, clutching at blankets, her grip tight, even though she was sleeping.

It seemed like it pained her to be unconscious.

“Still, you’ve never considered moving out? You found a place for me just fine.”

“Sure, I can, but I want to keep an eye on Macy as much as possible, you know?”

“But, why?”

D lifted her pencil away from her sketchbook. She looked over to see Macy.

“Who else is going to do it?”

I gave Macy a second glance. She hadn’t moved. If I concentrated, I could hear her soft, raspy breathing, her lips slightly parted, drool trailing down corner of her mouth.

I recalled D mentioning having other business outside of the Ghosts. She never specified, but I still made that connection.

Never mind. There were more important things to be thinking about.

I decided to comment on something else, instead.

“Back when you did have school, you never had a fun day where you got to draw or do some coloring?”

D let her jaw drop, leaving it hanging. Still holding her pencil, she balled up her hand and swiped at my leg. I moved back just in time. She missed.

“Oh my gosh, get off my case about that!”

“I’m just saying, if you want to communicate your ideas properly, being able to draw is a useful way for others to visualize what you’re going for.”

“Shut the heck up!”

She tried to get me again, but I was too far. I backed up some more, going around the table in front of the couch, putting it between me and her.

“You’ll have to try harder than that to get me,” I said, feeling smug.

“Just you wait,” D said with a warning tone. She brought her head down, staring at me from behind her bangs. There was a look of mischief in her eyes. “I’ll get you back for this.”

“I’d like to see you try.”

D made a noise, blowing a puff of air. Her bangs flew up, then landed back into her eyes. She shook her head as she went back to her sketchbook, erasing the drawing.

I grinned.

Teasing D, it’d be a lie to say that I didn’t get a kick out of it, but I recognized that there was a limit.

“Drawing skills or no,” I said, “I still got what you were going for. It’s not a bad look, I might be able to pull it off.”

D bobbed her head back up, her eyes sparkling with excitement. “You think so?”

I nodded. “Definitely.”

With more fervor than before, she returned to her sketchbook. Not to erase, but to draw.

I turned around to face the wall behind me, to do some drawing as well.

We needed writing utensils, and D had mentioned that one of her next door neighbors had a box full of chalk, and they were more than willing to trade for a quick score. It didn’t take long to come to an agreement with him.

We didn’t have a chalkboard to write on, but D didn’t care about leaving marks on the wall on the opposite side of the couch. I did, however, I wanted to try and not make this place even more of a mess. But, it would have taken us longer to find a chalkboard, and we would have less space to write on. I settled for using the wall. It was a small compromise.

One the left side of the wall, starting from as high as I could reach without straining myself, was the list of gangs that were taking advantage of the Ghosts and their deals. I wrote in big letters, so D could read it from where she was sitting. The list of names still went down to my waist, and I had to start another column to get everything down. One and a half columns. A lot of names.

“To be completely honest,” I said, “This is way more than I was expecting.”

“How many were you expecting?”

“I don’t know, ten at least? This is… This almost makes me question how good a leader Lawrence actually is.”

“Consider the position he was in at the time. His gang was an offshoot of a small, controversial gang, with that gang’s name being dragged through the mud each day, thanks to its leader. And that mud splattered onto him, too, affecting his business. Do you think you could have done a better job?”

“I don’t think that at all. I wouldn’t want to have been in his shoes back then.”

“There you go,” D said.

“Fine, he did what he could. Moving on, where do we start?” I pressed the chalk into the wall, but I didn’t move it. Keeping it in place, I turned, letting D get a good look at the list.

She was staring at it, her eyes squinted, her lips puckered, with her pencil balancing on her upper lip.

She tried talking like that, but her words came out a murmured mess.

“Of course,” I said. “Why didn’t I think of that?”

“Blah.” D dropped the pencil into her lap. “Let’s start by crossing off who we can’t go after.”

“Can’t?”

“We’re picking off the smaller, weaker groups, right? If we try to punch above our weight class, we’re going to get knocked back down, powers or no. We build up to the bigger targets, and, depending on how well we do on way, it might not even necessary to check off the whole list.”

“We’ll have gotten big enough, and we can establish ourselves through other avenues. Good point.”

D picked up her pencil, using it to point at the list.

“AZ-Tec, take them off.”

Second column, third from the top. I lifted my chalk and crossed them off.

“That bad?” I asked.

“Along with the Cobras, they’re one of the biggest cartels in the city. Unless you want an all-out war, we will not pick a fight with those guys. Never ever.”

“Maybe we want that,” I said, grinning.

I saw D smile, too, exposing the gap in her teeth. I wasn’t sure about her actual age, but she was old enough to have lost all of her baby teeth already, so that gap wasn’t waiting for a tooth to fill it. She lost that tooth, somehow.

Another story, and I was curious to hear it.

But, now wasn’t the time for that.

“Let’s save that for the grand finale, then,” D said.

Grand finale. It sounded intriguing, but I would rather prefer a quieter way to spend the rest of my days, if such a thing was even possible.

“Maybe let’s put a pin on that. Any other gangs?”

D pointed. “Take off the West Sharks, and the Kung Fools.”

“Kung who?”

“Triad wannabes. They’ve been getting a lot of new members after what happened at the school. It’s a jokey name, but they had numbers before, and now they’re swelling. And, and I’m just saying this as a general rule, but let’s try not to stir up any more racial tensions, okay?”

I started crossing the names off. “No, you’re right. That’s a powder keg we don’t want to keep relying on. This plan’s risky enough, let’s not add to it.”

“Agreed.”

The tensions D was referring to, they were useful for giving me an out. Day by day, there was another attack or assault against a portion of the population. They were no longer isolated incidents, they were statistics. One more incident wasn’t going to attract much attention towards itself, rather it would add to the numbers. It was easy for me to slip through those cracks.

But, making those cracks wider was asking for everything to crumble and fall apart. The city didn’t need another riot.

Hit hard, but hit from the dark. The shadows.

“Anyone else?” I asked.

“Let’s try narrowing it down some. Cross out any names of people and individuals.”

That was about a third of the remaining names.

“John, Ashley, Herbert,” I said, crossing names out as I read them out loud. “You’re all spared. Lucky you.”

“Conversely, those targets are too small to get anything that’s worth the trouble.”

“Arturo and his group were a good test, but yes, let’s go bigger than that. So, who can we target?”

“Let’s see… oh, there!”

“Where?”

D lifted her pencil, and I tried to follow where she was pointing to.

“Where?” I asked again.

“Right there, the Thunders and the Royals!”

I saw Thunders in the first column, the Royals in the second.

“Can’t say I’ve heard of them,” I said. “What’s with the excitement?”

“Together, they’re about as big as the Kung Fools, before the added membership in recent weeks. Not huge, but they do have a presence, more than us, to be honest.”

“That’s why we’re doing this,” I said. “Tell me more.”

“They both hold territory on the west side, not quite in the city, but they’re close. ”

I felt a slight disappointment. “I’d like to go after a group that’s closer to the Eye.”

“They’re close. And there’s a particular reason why I’m suggesting them both at the same time.”

“Which is?”

“They’ve got beef with each other, and it runs deep. I don’t know the full story, but I know enough of the pieces. The leaders of the two gangs are brothers, and there was some fall out between them, and something about a girl…”

“I get it,” I said.

“Whether that girl actually existed or not is relevant, but there is a feud between those brothers, to the point that they can just barely stand each other. It wouldn’t take much for a petty squabble to blow up out of proportion.”

“And they both have the unlucky coincidence of having done business with the Ghosts,” I said.

D nodded. “If we play this right, we can kill two birds with one stone. Spark a conflict that swallows them both up in flames, and the Ghosts can pick up whatever’s left over from the ashes.”

“That is a good reason to pick these guys.”

I circled both names, drawing a line to connect them together. I reached down for a box of extra chalk. I grabbed a new stick, a new color. With my new chalk, I drew an ‘X’ over the line between them. Red.

“Taking them both out is one thing, but we can’t let things stop there,” I said. “We’ll have to find a way to throw me, V, into the mix.”

“Your alter ego?”

“Yup. It’s not enough to just take them both out, we need to have them running scared, too. Give them a story to tell, to warn others, letting my image build from just a rumor to an omen, a curse. A legend.”

“You think very highly of yourself, Wendy.”

“I kind of have to. If I can’t even do that, then how can I lead a gang, or even do this?”

I drew over the ‘X’ again, making the lines bolder.

Confidence. Fake it, if I have to.

“We’ll come up with something,” D said. “It would be boring if we don’t.”

“It would be pointless if we don’t,” I said, correcting her. “I’m not opposed to the Thunders and Royals for round one, though. Any ideas?”

D spun the pencil in between her fingers, then started tapping it on her cheek.

“None,” she said, a little too quickly.

“Well, we know where they are, we should probably scope out the place first, see how things are going over there.”

“Good thinking, I’m down. Oh, oh, can we do it all like undercover and stuff?”

“Undercover?”

“Like we’re spies, infiltrating the enemy base. We can use code names, and use a secret language in case we’re in a jam, so they don’t know what we’re saying. And we can name this operation too, like, maybe, ‘Operation Storm the Castle!’”

“Clever,” I said. “We don’t need to get that detailed though.”

“But I want to!”

“You need a TV in here or something.”

D rolled her eyes. “My imagination is better than anything a shiny box can come up with.”

I walked away from the list of gangs, moving over to a blank space on the wall.

“To move to another separate, but relevant topic,” I said, “We can swing by their territory after this. Now, I want to try and design a new costume.”

“That’s supposed to be my job!”

“I still get the final say,” I said, starting to make my own drawing. A circle, lines extending out of it. A stick figure.

“Oof,” I muttered, stepping away.

The circle was too large, the lines too short. If this was supposed to represent me, then my head was way too big for my body.

I heard D go into a fit of laughter.

“And you said that I can’t draw!”

“Quiet, I never claimed to be an artist,” I said, but she was laughing too hard, she couldn’t hear me.

D kept laughing, cackling. She was loving this.

I waited until she calmed herself down. I waited for a while.

“You done?” I asked, as she started to cool off. Another minute passed before she could answer.

“Just about. Whoa, you nearly killed me with that.”

“Let’s just start brainstorming.”

“Okay, okay. What are you trying to go for?”

I had thought about potential designs, before.

“I’m not sure. My first instinct is to go with the hooded look again, but maybe it’s better to switch things up, this time around.”

“I’m all for switching it up.”

“D, can I see your sketch again?”

“You mean my chicken scratch?” D said, giving me a sneering look, but she got to her feet, and started coming my way. She handed me her sketchbook as she got closer.

I took a look.

She had more time to work with this, and it still didn’t come out all that great. Not that I was in a position to judge, though.

So, what am I looking at, here?

I got the overall idea of the sketch. Covering the torso was a larger, box-like shape, which I could have interpreted as a heavy jacket, or even a poncho. The pants were just dark, sloppy lines coming out from the bottom of that box. The sketch could be wearing anything, there.

The face, however, was the hardest to understand. I couldn’t see anything resembling a mask, black lines scratched out where the eyes should be, but the nose, mouth, and hair were drawn on the face and head. Smears from eraser marks muddied whatever finer details were there. If there was supposed to be a mask, I didn’t see it.

I spoke my thoughts out loud.

“So, what am I looking at, here?”

D groaned, and put her finger on the paper, smearing the sketch even more.

“You were originally wearing a hood, here, but I decided to get rid of it.”

“Was that before or after I made fun of your drawing skills?”

“After. I erased it, but I couldn’t think what to do instead. And… actually I’m not sure about what you’re wearing.”

“Looks like a poncho, I can’t see my arms.”

A small pause.

“I forgot to draw them,” D said.

“D…” I said.

She made a smaller noise, then tried taking away the sketchbook from me. I tightened my grip. She couldn’t budge it.

“I’m not done yet,” I said. “A poncho might work, actually. I was considering it as part of a rough draft, sitting in the back of my head. If we do go that route, we’ll have to make adjustments to the length, so the fabric doesn’t get in the way of my arms, but I think the silhouette it creates would be effective against those who only get a glimpse of me.”

“Let their imaginations fill in the rest,” D ventured. “Now that sounds fun.”

“Could be.” I looked again at the paper, at the face. “I’d like a new mask, too.”

“I’ll leave that to you, I doubt I can come up with something you’ll like.”

“Don’t sell yourself so short, D.”

I moved the sketchbook, so the drawing was facing her.

“Can I keep this?”

D’s eyes darted from me to her sketchbook. A touch of embarrassment and concern.

“Are you sure?”

“Positive. I bet there’s something here I can work with.”

D moved her hand, swiping at the sketchbook. I lifted my arm up high, out of her reach.

“No fair!” she said, jumping after it, failing each time.

“It’s not that bad, D, seriously!”

I had to back up, or she’d be bump into me.

Another step, and I felt my back on the wall. All I had for extra distance was the length of my arm.

“No, fair!”

D was jumping, pushing to get closer, landing on my boots, stepping on them. Messing with her was fine and good, but I didn’t want to get dirt on my boots as a result.

I put my other hand on her shoulder, using just enough strength to push her back, and just on pressure to keep her still. I lowered my arm.

“Here,” I said, letting her take the sketchbook. “Don’t be such a kid.”

“I am a kid, and thank you very much,” she said, not sounding thankful in the slightest. She tore out the page the drawing was on, and handed it back.

“There.”

“Thank you very much,” I said. I looked between D, the drawing and the stick figure on the wall. I’d have to come up with a design to fill the empty space. To put meat on those bones.

That can be next on the list.

I folded up the paper, sticking into my back pocket.

“Alright, we can deal with that later. Let’s check out the Thunders, and Royals, while we still have some daylight.”

D tossed her sketchbook and pencil across the room, hitting the couch cushions.

“Yes, please, I’m itching to be do some infiltration. Operation Storm the Castle is in effect!”

It didn’t take long to realize that we were out of place. Very out of place.

We weren’t sticking out, but we weren’t completely blending in. There was always going to be a risk, but being here, now? It was almost inevitable. We were in the minority.

D and I were at a basketball court, sitting on the bottom of a set of metal bleachers, watching others play. In the west side, not quite in the city, but we were close.

The court was split up into two groups, easy to distinguish by the colors they wore. The right side were all decked in blue, the other side were in white. The Thunders, and the Royals.

Each gang kept to themselves, playing on their own side of the court. They were careful, skilled enough to not let their ball slip away and roll over to the opposing side. If a ball slipped out of someone’s hands, rolling away, everyone on that side would stop what they were doing to secure it, make sure it didn’t go across the court. They’d stop the ball, pick it up, and start the game up again once everyone was alright. A tense, forced version of peace.

If I can call this peace.

Other people were sitting on the bleachers, wearing colors that weren’t blue or white. If they hadn’t been around, I doubted that we could be sitting here with little to no trouble.

The middle of January, the middle of winter, but it was warm enough that wearing a light jacket was okay. By pure coincidence, I was matching with D. I wasn’t wearing a choker, however.

The weather was fair, not a single cloud in the sky, but D still found it necessary to lean on my arm, huddling up close. If she leaned on me even more I would have fallen over.

“You don’t need to be so close,” I said, my eyes still on the court.

D was watching them, too. “I don’t need to be so close, but I want to.”

Not much else I could say against that.

“We’re here,” I said, changing topics. “Do you see anything interesting?”

“I see a lot of interesting things. The Thunders and the Royals are tolerating each other. Seems this basketball court is neutral territory.”

“Are there other places that could be considered neutral territory?”

“Possibly, but this is the most notable one.”

“So, if anything were to spark up here…”

“Not a bad place to start a wildfire,” D said. I didn’t have a good look at her face, but I could imagine her smiling as she said it.

Blow it all up.

“Any key players, here?” I asked. I examined the different faces, searching for who might be worth paying attention to. Worth targeting.

“Pretty much all the big name people came out to play today. I don’t want to point at them directly, so you’ll just have to follow my gaze.”

“Okay.”

Don’t stick out, as much as possible. Blend in.

“Starting with the Thunders… see that skinny guy? He has the ball… oh, he missed.”

“I see him.”

“That’s the leader, brother number one. Easy.”

“Got it.”

“No, that’s his name. ‘E’ and ‘Z.’”

“God dammit.”

“He facilitated the deal with the Ghosts, way back. Five grand, five kilos.”

“I’m still new to this, so I can’t tell if that’s a lot, or not.”

“Yes.”

D craned her head, a slight angle, looking across the court.

“And the guy with the hat, gold on his wrist?”

“Can’t miss that. It’s reflecting into my eye.”

“Brother number two. Name’s Crown.”

“That’s it? No weird interpolation?”

“It’s spelled with a ‘K.’”

“There it is.”

“His deal is exact same as EZ. Five and five.”

“Brother’s think alike, then.”

“If we want to spark anything, it’s going to have to happen between those two. Flick one of them behind the ear, duck out of sight before they turn around, and watch as they smack up whoever they believe to be the culprit.”

“You’ve done this before,” I said, no longer impressed. I expected her to be an expert at raising trouble, by now.

“Something like this. Not to this magnitude, and definitely not for a reason.”

It’s like she was made to raise hell.

I straightened my shoulders, inadvertently pushing D up and away.

“We’ve got visual on the leaders, we’ve know where they’re literally willing to play ball. What’s next… We should probably find out where they stash their, our stuff. So we know where we can hit.”

“Yes, yes,” D said, stroking her chin. “More infiltration.”

I about to tell her to stop saying that, but it was probably best to keep her entertained. Framing this as a game would keep her focused on the task at hand, keep her in line.

I had thought about what Lawrence had said about her yesterday, and what I had already seen for myself. If she saw all of this as a game, then I’d better make it a fun one for her.

“You know, on the way, I was thinking of a code name for you.”

D directed her full attention to me. “You did?”

“I did, but I’ll tell you somewhere else. Right now, we should-”

Something bumped into my leg.

I glanced down.

A basketball.

I felt my heart skip a beat.

I looked back up. I could feel the stares.

Everyone from both gangs, standing in place, heads directed towards me, towards D. They were watching, studying us, waiting for what our move would be. We weren’t exactly on the court, but the ball was with us.

Watching, studying, waiting. It was quiet.

Clues. I tried finding the other ball. I saw it… right on the half-court line. It could belong to either side. Fuck.

Watching, studying, waiting.

“D,” I said, my voice low. “Whose ball is this?”

“I wasn’t looking, I don’t know.”

“God dammit.”

“I feel like… we have to be very careful in who we choose.”

“Yeah. Or else…”

Or else we end up sparking something, now.

It would certainly be bad timing.

I examined their faces, looking at people from both gangs. Watching, waiting. Nothing in their expressions suggested anything, nothing I could glean. It was as if they were purposely making this difficult for me. Like they were in on a grand joke or prank.

Fuck all of you.

Careful, cautious, I lifted my leg, kicking the ball closer to me. I slowly bent down to grab the ball. No one moved.

If we weren’t sitting on the bottom of the bleachers, we probably wouldn’t be in this predicament.

Too late to do anything about that, now.

“Stay here,” I whispered to D. “If anything happens, I’ll come back for you. Even if it means having use a bit of my power.”

“Okay,” was all she whispered back. She didn’t object at the idea of me using my strength as a potential escape. This could be a matter of life and death. We’d have to do what we could, if it meant surviving to see another day.

I picked up the ball, and I stood up.

I watched them as they watched me. I walked forward, along the line down the middle of the court, towards the other ball. Putting myself in the middle of everything, everyone, into the thick of the situation.

The silence stretched as I stopped, surrounded by the Thunders and the Royals. Blue and white.

None of them were going to offer a hint or clue. I’d have to take a stab at it.

I lifted the ball, over my head.

“Um, someone dropped their ball, does anyone know who it belongs to?”

There was a very long, very quiet, very wordless minute.

I didn’t know which way to look, how to stand so my backside wasn’t exposed to so many people.

I had powers, but I wasn’t looking for a fight. Not here, not now. If a fight broke out, we’d lose out on progress, a way forward. Had to avoid that.

I gulped.

I heard footsteps.

From both sides, a person approached. EZ and Krown.

They came up to me, blocking my left and right. I could take a step back, but there was no point in doing so.

It struck me, how tall they were. If I didn’t have powers, I would legitimately feel intimidated.

Scared, even.

I brought down my arms, keeping the ball between me and them, as if it could actually shield me.

“Hello,” I said, trying to sound warm. Trying.

Neither of them answered.

Awesome.

I had to keep trying.

“This ball, it got kicked over to me. I wanted to, um, give it back to whoever it belongs to.”

“That’s your ball, little lady.”

EZ answered, and that answer threw me off. For a skinny guy, his voice was deep.

“Sorry, but I don’t think that’s right,” I said. “I never had any balls.”

I bit my tongue.

Nice wording, Wendy.

They both chuckled.

“Where you from…” Krown started, and a pause followed. And then I realized that he was asking for my name.

“Wendy,” I offered.

“Okay, Wendy, let me ask you again. Where are you from?”

I had to play along. “I’m from East Stephenville.”

EZ’s eyebrows shot upward. “We don’t get a lot of Eastside peeps come around these parts. Why you in town, lil’ Wendy?”

“And who’s your little friend?” Krown asked, glancing behind me, to D.

“Know anyone here?”

“You reppin’ a crew?”

I started, “I, um…”

Too many questions to answer. And I knew why they were taking this approach. Hammering at me, making me uncomfortable, putting me on my heels.

I was the foreigner to this part of the city, the minority. I was always going to stand out. These two gangs were apparently beefing with each other, but they were willing to work together to grill an outsider.

Fuck me.

I gave the best answer I could.

“I’m just hanging out with my friend, just passing through. I’m not with a gang.”

A truth, a half-truth, and an outright lie. But it should have covered all everything they had asked me.

“Ain’t nobody just ‘passing through’ here,” EZ said. “If you here, then you got a reason.”

“You sound suspect, lil’ Wendy, and that upsets me,” Krown said. “You like the Feds. Are you with the Feds, homie?”

This is not going well.

I wanted to look at D, for some sort of guidance, but I didn’t want to turn my back to these guys. I had to handle this on my own.

Confidence, even if I had to fake it.

“I’m definitely not with the Feds, believe me. I really am just like you. I’m normal.”

Now that was a lie.

“You think we normal?” Krown questioned.

“As normal as you are,” I said.

“Okay, I feel you.”

You do?

Krown was the first to break away from our formation, moving to his side of the court. He motioned for me to follow.

I followed.

I heard more footsteps. EZ, and the others in his gang, were coming too. They were crossing the line.

Krown stopped at the freethrow line, looking at me, and the net, made of broken metal chains.

“Yo, EZ!” he called out.

“Wassup?”

“How many shots can you make?”

“Shit, I can do thirty in a row, man.”

“I can do one more on you.”

“You can?”

“Hell yeah, brother.”

“Damn.”

EZ chuckled.

Krown then pointed at me, the gold on his wrist getting in my eye again. “That’s about normal between me and my bro. Match us, and we cool.”

Again, I bit my tongue until it hurt.

“Thirty shots?” I asked. “In a row?”

Krown nodded, and pointed to the freethrow line.

“You’re up.”

There was no way I could object. The Thunders and the Royals came around me, wanting to get a good spot to watch. I felt a hand touch my back. A push.

I was forced to step up to the freethrow line. No way I could object, now.

I can’t believe this is happening.

I had the ball in my hands, the board and net ahead of me. Around me were the Thunders and the Royals, taunting and prodding me to shoot. Couldn’t see D.

If this was volleyball, I could probably tap into those skills, but this wasn’t-

“You gonna shoot or what?” EZ asked, standing by Krown, now, close to the net. “Better shoot in three seconds, or I’m shootin’ you.”

Fuck, fuck me.

No time to think, or even assume a decent position.

Three, two-

I shot the basketball.

Eye on the target, arms following through with the motion, guessing what stance I was supposed to assume.

My heart thumped in my chest. Fast and hard.

The ball moved through the air as if it was in slow motion.

It hit the backboard. The ball dropped.

Before my heart could drop, too, the ball went into the rim, the metal chains rattling after it passed through.

I breathed out, relieved.

The other people watching responded too. They sounded impressed. To me, anyways.

Krown stepped ahead to catch the ball.

“Good shot,” he said. He passed the ball back to me, hard. It hit me as I caught it.

“Now do it again.”

“You got three seconds,” EZ said.

Come the fuck on.

I had to do this twenty nine more times?

No, I couldn’t be negative about this. I made it once, and I had muscle memory. I just had to copy the motion, and it’d only get easier each time. Like practicing, and I could do it perfect.

I could do it.

Confidence.

Time’s ticking, Wendy.

I shot.

Eye on the target, arms following through with the motion, easier this time.

The ball moved through the air, slow.

It hit the backboard, the ball dropping.

It bounced off the rim.

It landed elsewhere. Nowhere near the net.

I missed.

My heart dropped.

I blew it.

Everyone was pointing, laughing. Ridiculing me. I didn’t even feel humiliated. No, feeling humiliated would be too shallow. I was dejected, that I had cost us the game before we officially started.

Krown caught the ball, joining in the laughter. So was EZ.

Still enjoying themselves at my expense, they approached me again.

I stood my ground, even though I didn’t have ground to stand on.

“For a quick minute,” Krown said, “I thought you might actually make it. But nah.”

Nah!” EZ vocalized.

I tried to speak, but my throat was caught. I had to swallow before I could try again.

“I gave it a shot,” I said. “That has to account for something.”

“It really doesn’t,” EZ said, with a jeering tone. “You ain’t normal, so that means you suspect. And if you don’t know what we do to suspect bitches around here, you about to.”

My muscles tensed, my hands clenched beside me. More and more, I was going to have to fight my way out.

EZ moved his hand to his back, and I moved my hand to mine. I knew to bring a knife, this time around, and I knew where D was. A quick slash to throw them off, then I would turn to get-

“EZ, hold on.”

An arm was thrown out, blocking EZ.

Krown.

“Ah, you for real?” EZ questioned. He put his arms to his side.

“For real,” Krown said. “You know I don’t want no trouble here. That’s not what we’re about. I just wanted to see if lil’ Wendy here was legit, and she ain’t.”

Krown looked at me, and thrusted the ball back into my arms. I held onto it.

“Were you scared?”

How was I supposed to answer that?

“I, yeah, you scared me real good there,” I said, playing along.

“If you scared, bitch, go to church,” EZ said.

“That ain’t bad advice,” Krown said. “Listen to my brother, here. You take that ball, and your little friend, and go find a church. And you don’t bother me or my homies again. Don’t come around these parts again, yah heard me? Learn yourself a lesson.”

My head was down, staring at the ball in my hands.

“You’re letting me go?” I asked.

“No shit we’re letting you go. You don’t think I know what you up to? Everybody knows about my beef with my brother. It ain’t nothing new.”

“And it’s old hat,” EZ said. “It’s in the past now. Petty shit.”

The past?

“Word is bond,” Krown said. “If we wanna keep on living out here in these streets, we got to unify. And that means respect to my bro, here.”

“Respect,” EZ said. “He wearing a different gang color than mine, but I can still respect him as a black man. There’s another color that runs deeper than any gang, and we have to stick together to survive against the common enemy.”

“And that enemy is you, lil’ Wendy.”

Krown put his hand on the ball, and pushed, forcing me to take a step backward.

“I saw you coming a mile away, so turn around and go a mile back. You ain’t welcome here no more.”

EZ and Krown walked away, leaving me. Their men moved, joining each other in ranks and numbers, until they were all in one group, on one side of this half of the court. Blue and white.

They were talking amongst themselves, now, making jokes, shooting hoops with their spare ball, enjoying the company of one another. As if they were never split down the middle.

Was it a farce? A set up? Was I being played the whole time?

Fuck, fuck, fuck me.

I took a step, then two, then three. No one reacted or responded to my presence, but the threat was already made, hanging in the air. I wasn’t about to stick around and have them make good on that threat.

Defeated, dejected, I turned and left the court.

D joined my side as I walked, silent as we rounded the corner, and then another corner. We were out of sight, now.

I stopped, and so did D.

Agh!”

In anger, I threw the ball. It soared, going over some buildings, a block, landing wherever it happened to land. I didn’t care.

“Sorry I couldn’t back you up,” D said, soft. “I’m usually good at that sort of thing, but I’m usually not in the open like that. I work better with the element of surprise.”

“It’s not your fault,” I said, shaking my head. “They played us, played me.”

“What happened, exactly?”

“They seemed to have made up.”

“They made up? That’s… new.”

“No shit it’s new. They squashed their beef, and they’re willing to join hands to fight any common threat. They might not know that we’re Ghosts, but they’re not going to be played against each other. That particular dynamic isn’t there. We don’t have that exploit.”

“Well,” D said, leaving a pause, “Darn.”

I started walking again, D following.

“Do we have anyone else on that list?” I asked. “That we can actually cross out?”

“Of course, yeah, but those two? If we actually wanted to make a splash, taking them out was the way to do it.”

My pace quickened. I breathed out loud, reaching a growl at the end.

God dammit.

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