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?”
“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.”
“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.”
“Yesterday. You told me to bring my own food to keep in there.”
“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.”
“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.
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.”
“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.”
“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.
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.
“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.
“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.
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.
Stacks of money, bound by rubber bands. Two, three stacks. He had more money than he did drugs.
“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.”
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.
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.”
“How about you? I’m guessing no one caught you.”
“Nope. All clean. Wanna take a look?”
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.
“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.
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.
“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.