Rule one, fighting was prohibited. We were indoors, in a fancy hotel, filled with prim and proper people, and those whose business was very much not, but still kept up their appearances. Getting into an altercation here would be career suicide. And, frankly, it was just plain rude.
Rule two, we had until tomorrow to conclude this, noon at the latest. We had to check out by then, and if we hadn’t gotten this sorted out, blood would begin to spill, and it would spill out onto the streets. I wasn’t exactly opposed to that, but only if the damages were incurred on Granon’s side of the board. I was not about to lose any of my own people.
Rule three, and perhaps the most critical, was that I could trust no one. There was Lawrence, but he wasn’t at his best, and I’d hesitate to have him out and about with Granon being around. If he had, somehow, gotten to Lawrence first, rule one would have been thrown out the window, and we would have lost right then and there. D… was a whole other thing, and with her being out of the picture yet seemingly having a hand in these events put a large question mark over everything. Couldn’t trust anyone around me, and I fought the urge to not trust in my ability to handle being on my own. I had to believe I could do this, as much as I actually had to do this. Win.
So I was limited in my options, pressed for time, and I had no allies to rely on. I was on my own.
Granted, these rules were largely self-imposed, and it wasn’t as if Granon had to follow them as well. But, we did have a reputation to develop for the future, and if we could clinch a victory without needing to resort to violence, then it would reflect well on our performance as a gang.
I had to do my best.
The doors moved on their own. It had been a long way down.
The lobby opened up before me. Somehow, it looked nicer than the last time I was here, only minutes ago.
Cast in a soft, golden hue, the space was wider than it was tall, but it was still impressive in its scope. Shaped into a rotunda, though the ceiling wasn’t curved, the lobby was filled with people going about their business, or waiting for others so they could conduct business together. People checking out, checking in, everyone dressed like they had somewhere important to go. Chairs made of fine leather, countertops and tables crafted with intricate detailing, almost to the point that they looked more like decorations than anything functional.
I noted the chandelier again, segmented into fractals, but assumed the shape of the moon. From where it was attached to the ceiling, more painted vines and leaves and fruits branched out, stretching and twisting until they weaved an intricate arrangement of color, even more vibrant from the light of the chandelier.
Dang. I could get distracted, just by looking around. I was in a high-class, luxury hotel, so the interior was nothing I had ever seen before. Maybe it was a bit too flashy, ostentatious for my tastes, but then again, what did I know? My tastes weren’t anything near developed.
I walked to cross the lobby, moving around people, trying to find a good place to start, while trying not to stand out by looking lost.
I didn’t get very far.
I knew the voice. I’d heard it just recently.
I glanced to the side, noticed, realized, then stopped.
The lady from the front desk, but she wasn’t at the front desk.
She was out, by an arrangement of chairs around a small table. On the table was a cup of coffee, half empty, with no owner to speak of. The chairs were unoccupied, the lady moving one of them back into place. She must have noticed me as I walked by.
Though I wished she hadn’t said anything.
I turned my shoulders, but I was still leaning forward, putting some weight on the foot ahead of me. A subtle signal that I wasn’t here for an extended chat.
I made a sound to prompt her. “Hm?”
“Did you find everything in your room to your satisfaction?”
She’s just asking if the service has been good so far.
I answered quick, already shifting my weight to move again.
“Everything’s great, thanks.”
“Did your husband find everything great as well?”
The question made me stop again, resulting in an awkward half-jerk, half-skip forward. I turned back.
She blinked twice, her smile restrained by her lips being pressed together, head tilted, slight. A professional demeanor.
“I assumed incorrectly. I do apologize.”
I figured I had to do some damage control.
“Oh right. No, he loves it, he’s taking a nap up there right now.”
The lady’s expression remained.
“That’s great to hear. I do hope you enjoy the rest of your night.”
There were a few different ways to interpret that. I choose not to consider any of them.
“Thanks,” I said. This particular interaction was already starting to drag, I didn’t want to be around her any longer than what was absolutely necessary. Her poised, polite disposition creeped me out to say the least. It was a reason why I let Lawrence talk with her as we checked in. I’d feel more comfortable if her focus wasn’t on me. That, if she looked just a little harder, she’d realize just how much I didn’t belong.
The other reason was that she worked here. This hotel had a very specific reputation, and it had to be next to impossible for her to not notice the true nature of her guests. I had to keep rule three in mind.
One, two steps. Then the third, when I was stopped yet again.
I had to face her directly. No half-turn, no signal that I had to go soon.
Fine, fine. If she really wanted my attention, so be it. She’d get it.
“Yeah?” I asked, blunt.
The lady took her hands off the chair, and clasped them together. She positioned herself so her posture was nice and proper.
Her civility never left her.
“If you’re looking for something to occupy your time for this evening, may I perhaps recommend the lounge and casino? I’m sure you’ll find some entertainment waiting for you there.”
The wording, I didn’t like that there were multiple ways I could take it. A clue to Granon? A good place to start? Did it mean that she actually knew who I really was, this whole time?
Or was it another set up?
But I couldn’t ask any of those questions.
“Which direction is the lounge?” I asked instead. There wasn’t much else I’d want get out of her.
She gestured, her arm out in front of her.
“It’s directly behind you, on the other side of the lobby. Just take the stairs up to the second level. The lounge will be to your left and the casino will be to your right.”
I nodded, playing along. Couldn’t show my unease on my face. I had to be just like her. Poised, polite.
“Thank you,” I said. Then I moved to leave, for the final time.
“Do enjoy your stay, Mrs. Vasquez,” she said, with that light tone. “And good luck.”
Those last three words hit me like a bucket of ice water. A cold, prickling sting that ran down my neck.
You have got to be shitting me.
I crossed the lobby, lumbering in my steps. I held onto the handrail as I went up the stairs.
Rule three. I didn’t trust that lady, but I also didn’t have any leads. I wasn’t following up on her suggestion in good faith. This wasn’t like previous times, I wasn’t going into this blind. I knew what the risks were, and I knew to take anything I get with a healthy dose of paranoia.
It was a conflicted feeling that I couldn’t shake off. Was I playing a game, or was I the one being played? Every new development, it seemed, would give me more reasons to watch my back, to keep my knife close by.
And my feelings on that were very well established. Especially to D. I fucking hated it.
Heated. Had to force myself to cool off, or I might tear the rail off the wall with just my hand.
Was this really what it would be like to lead a gang? The constant second-guessing, problems stacking one on top of the other, being pulled in every direction, always needing to improvise? I could see how Lawrence had trouble maintaining operations when we first met, and I could almost understand how the stress of the position weighed on Benny, causing her to snap at the worst possible place at the wrong people. Everything was so unstable, anything could happen at any time, and it required some ingenuity and imagination just to maintain a status quo. Not everyone could keep up, and some were dragged even lower in the process. And trying to move up was another matter entirely.
Couldn’t let myself be dragged, wouldn’t let that happen. I had to be the exception.
If we were to succeed, I had to stay focused, and concentrate on one problem at a time. And the biggest one hadn’t changed. It was still Granon.
I had to find him.
The stairs ended, and I was on the second level.
The lounge and the casino. I saw them both.
The lounge was open, filled with smoke and people. More tables and chairs, but these had occupants, conversing and enjoying the ambiance of the soft light and even softer jazz music. There was a bar farther back, but I wasn’t particularly thirsty. Not for alcohol, anyways.
For the casino, however, there was a glass wall separating here and there. There was an entrance, but someone was standing in the way, barring the way through. A small line had formed, with people waiting to go in and try their luck. On the other side of the glass were the bright, beeping slot machines, and tables, people playing with chips and cards and cash. The sounds and the sights were harsh, even with a literal barrier to entry.
I’d start at the lounge. It was free to get in, while getting in line for the casino ran the risk of me getting stopped by the guy there. If I wanted to keep a low profile, I’d have to avoid that kind of gamble.
I stepped from tile to carpet as I entered the lounge area. The lighting immediately dimmed, smoke and music making my senses swim. The atmosphere was thick, intoxicating, the desire to sit down and unwind was almost enticing. Almost, though. I wasn’t about to take it easy, now. I had a job to do, and I had to do it fast.
Moving, keeping out of the way, I observed the lounge.
No one that looked like Granon, or any of his men. I was confident that I’d see him if he was here, he wouldn’t be hard to miss. Everyone here was much… smaller, with less imposing frames. And no one looked as though they wanted to wreck the place, or had the temperment of a bull. It was exactly how it appeared, a place to relax, to smoke and drink the night away. With class.
Sticking close to the perimeter of the lounge, I traversed a wide arc around, just to cover my bases. I didn’t see Granon, but I still wanted to be thorough.
I maneuvered around leather chairs and velvet couches, the guests sitting, trying to get as close as possible without alerting them to my presence. Studying faces, catching words.
I wasn’t picking up much.
Investments, details of private dealings, recent trips to Asia. The minutia of people’s daily lives, that I’d never fully learn the context of. In short, nothing of value.
Nothing of worth. Just pointless chatter.
Was this really the best I could come up with? Walking around, aimless, hoping to catch anything of worth towards finding Granon, if not finding Granon himself.
And, was Granon even in the building right now? He might be staying here, but that didn’t mean he was currently here. I might have to change my approach, and go after his men instead, have them lead me to him. But would I be able to pick them out if they weren’t making themselves obvious?
Too many things I was unsure of, too many things I didn’t know. I hated being blind.
Anymore of this, and I might just try to torch the hotel to the ground, smoke him out that way. It had worked once before.
I finished my loop around the lounge, coming up with nothing. The idea of playing with fire seemed to burn that much brighter.
Fuck, nothing or no one stood out.
If not here…
Then somewhere else.
Time to get in line.
I left the lounge, moving over to the other side. The casino. The lounge was too placid for someone like Granon. If he was going to be anywhere, it would be where it was loud, flashy, and active.
I settled into the back of the line. My pulse quickened as everyone moved, as I joined in step, and as someone fell into place behind me.
The opposite of standing out, but it achieved the same effect. I didn’t look like D, body-wise, but I was standing around fully grown adults, several heads taller than me. They all had a natural, relaxed about them, exuding confidence, while I was trying my damndest to not be noticed at all. It was such a minor detail, but I could imagine getting tripped over the most irrelevant thing.
Which would be sad, but not impossible.
But I wasn’t supposed to be doubting myself.
The line progressed forward, and I went along. And then some more. And even more. The line was moving faster than I initially expected.
My heart raced, and I swallowed, hard. I made a mental note of where my wallet was in my jacket.
And then it was my turn.
The security at the door. It was just one guy, but the hotel management clearly thought that would be enough. He was huge. Bigger, wider, taller than even Granon. Built like a square, his head shaved, jaw set, eyes peering into me. If I didn’t possess the unnatural level of strength that I had, his physicality would have given me pause.
It didn’t. But something else did.
Strength wasn’t the factor at play, here. It was credentials. I couldn’t punch my way into the casino.
He stared, and I did everything I could to be able to stare back.
One word, two letters. Several notches deep.
I flinched a little as I responded in turn, fishing my wallet out of a pocket. I flipped it open to slide the card out.
I’d already showed it once before, and it worked out alright. It had better do the trick again, here.
He grabbed it out of my hand, with more force than he needed. He brought the card close.
He looked at the card, then at me, then the card, me, and back again.
When his eyes looked over me the final time, he took his time. Everyone that was ahead of me just waltzed right in. Already, I knew that my entrance wasn’t so graceful.
He spoke, his voice deep, and I felt it in my chest.
Called out on the spot, and he was being loud enough that he could probably be heard halfway down the line. It was a move, getting other people involved without having to make them active participants. Letting them know what was going on, making me stand out even more.
“That’s what it says on the card, right?” I asked him.
The ID was a fake, key details that entirely falsified, like the surname… and the year of birth. The card had dropped mine down by a few years, but the month and day were the same. November the twenty-eight. An important day, on several levels.
I had to try and sell that image, somehow. Act the part. Being standoffish could be a substitute for maturity.
His stare maintained, he frowned, slight.
I reciprocated with a level stare of my own, standing tall… as much as I possibly could. I quickly learned that I wasn’t as good at this as Lawrence. Not at wearing this kind of mask.
He wasn’t budging. That wasn’t a good sign.
“Hm, ma’am,” he said, eyes still trained on me, “You’re going to step to the side, now-”
It wasn’t a word that interrupted him, but an action. And it wasn’t even an action done to him.
A hand slid down the small of my back, staying there, the fingers wrapping around my hip.
Shock coursed through me. I was stunned.
My eyes widened. I hadn’t broken eye contact with the security. As if I wanted his help, now.
Someone was standing right beside me. Someone I couldn’t see.
Touching me. I was very aware of that.
A new voice. A male voice.
“She’s with me.”
The security guy changed directions. Not just in who he directed himself to, but how he directed himself. Poised and polite.
“Of course, sir. I’m sorry for the confusion.”
“As you should be. I’ll be sure to let management know about this. Tell Mrs. C…”
Sounds and sights and smells were fading. Like I wasn’t even present at the scene, just observing from a distance. And even then I couldn’t quite catch everything.
I couldn’t move.
I was reminded of the incident with those girls, Dani. Uncomfortable, an assault on something I preferred to remain unmolested.
Something squirmed under my skin.
More words, but they were warbled utterances, now.
The hand removed itself off me, but it was a momentary relief. It came back, faster and harder. A sharp pat, right above my butt.
I stumbled a bit, catching myself, reminding myself that I had legs to use. They were weak, my waist down feeling numb.
The security guy stepped aside, not unlike a heavy door being swung open.
I was pushed through. And I had wanted to go in.
I did my best to not trip as I was ushered down the steps leading to the central area of the casino. Eyes forward, concentrating on walking, instead of the slot machines and the people playing them.
He talked as he brought me down. Like this was nothing.
“I have to say, it’s a relief that Mr. Hitoshi is willing to try and collaborate with us again. Please tell him that I still deeply regret my decision about deciding to hold our meeting at one of my clubs. If I truly did not want to be… interrupted, we should have just met here. And I also understand his decision over not coming in person, but I will appreciate his business all the same.”
Even if I knew what he was talking about, I couldn’t find it in me to reply. All my focus was going into putting one foot ahead of the other. Trying not to feel the pressure on my back.
I found another handrail, my fingers sliding over it for purchase. Had to wait until I got off the steps.
My back was feeling damp, now, my shirt sticking to skin, and I led away from my main task, forced into a new problem.
I had to tear myself away.
Reaching the last step, I gripped the handrail, feeling the metal give. I planted my feet down, and the hand pressed more into my back. That ugly feeling spiked, but I stood my ground.
The person who took me kept on forward, then stopping to face me. He hand slipped off me and returned to his side.
No one I knew.
A man, thirty at least, wearing a suit. But it wasn’t dark or monotone in its color. Flashy, loud, if an outfit could even be loud. Red jacket and dress pants, with a white shirt, the top button left undone. His hair was neat and recently cut, with some length that was styled and combed on the top, shorter around the sides and around the ears. A youthful look, though that youth would escape him in a few more years.
He had a cane as well. Black, with gold engravings running up the length of the thing, stopping at a gold handle that his other hand had a grip on. But, I noticed how he was standing, how he seemed to favor one side, using the cane as support. It was just as functional as it was for show.
I started to connect the dots, but I still felt like I needed a shower.
He had a look of confusion. Whatever I was feeling must have showed on my face.
Tension was stirring inside me, begging to come out. And I couldn’t throw a punch for release.
I directed it into my words.
“Who the hell are you, you fucking creep?”
I had raised my voice, second only to the added volume of the crowd and machines cheering and ringing alike. Some people spared a glance at us, at me, but they were either too preoccupied, too inebriated, or they just didn’t care to help.
Not that I needed their help, now. I was free, and I still had some tension left to spare.
“You better keep both hands on that cane, or else I’ll-”
I couldn’t even do that.
I was in the middle of the casino, in one of the many beating hearts of the beast that was the criminal world of Stephenville. And if I didn’t want to get eaten alive, I’d have to not make a mess of things. To ostricate myself and the group I was representing.
I breathed in, deep.
It was fucking shitty, but I had to keep that tension down, for just a little bit longer. I had to be diplomatic.
Something Lawrence learned from his old boss. I had to try to learn the same lesson, too.
I fixed my stance, removing my hold off the rail. There was a small handprint left behind on the metal.
“I… shouldn’t have done that,” I said, eyes downcast. “Sorry about that.”
The man shifted his weight, lifting his cane and setting it back down in front of me.
“No, please, it was my fault. I mistook you for someone else. You can go. I, here.”
The man brought his hand out, the same hand he used to touch me.
That name sounded familiar, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I almost didn’t want to. The connection was a little weaker, there.
I didn’t want to shake his hand. I didn’t want to touch it.
I shook his hand. I touched it.
“Wendy,” I said. If I had tried to say my surname, fake or otherwise, my voice would have certainly cracked.
I hadn’t felt this much vitriol before, not even towards Alexis. But it was there, now, and that intensity was directed right back to me. It squirmed. I so badly wanted to direct that intensity elsewhere. Out. To everyone else. Not me.
We broke, my arm falling limp at my side. I only barely had a faint idea about what I was here to do.
An awkward pause followed. I was supposed to leave, he said I could, but I hadn’t. I was a few flickers away from burning out.
So many things I lacked. Experience. Memories. Connections.
Santino D’Angelo… D’Angelo seemed to take notice of me still sticking around, and commented, saying, “If you need to take a seat, there’s a decent spot in the back. Would you like to accompany me?”
He shook his head, then added, “It’s only for a moment, and only if you’re comfortable with the idea. I’m actually supposed to meet someone, and I’m not about to wander around looking for them. If we’re to talk, they’ll have to come to me.”
It took a considerable effort to shore back up some composure, maintain it, and answer properly.
“I’m fine with that. I’m actually trying to look for someone, and I’m tired of wandering.”
D’Angelo seemed to relax, hearing that.
He went off, and I came with. Ushered again, but not by a gesture.
I needed a breather.
He pushed through the party of people moving about, from slot machine to slot machine, from game to game. I stayed back, twisting around so I wouldn’t hit or bump anyone as I walked. The casino was large, I had followed D’Angelo for some time, until he eventually stopped at one of the round tables at the far back.
They were booths, made of velvet, D’Angelo slid into one side, and I moved into the other. I kept my distance, staying on the edge of my seat, scanning more faces.
It hadn’t even been thirty minutes since I left Lawrence in the hotel room, and already, there were so many left turns that it made me dizzy. I could get lost, just reeling from each and every one.
I had to focus, but it was getting so much harder to.
“You do seem a little too young to be hanging around here.”
My head whipped around. D’Angelo, talking to me again.
“But something tells me you’re not just here for some thrills.”
I replied, and it wasn’t as hard, this time.
“I’m not here for pleasure. Just business.”
D’Angelo cocked his head slightly.
“Business, here? That word has a very specific connotation, if spoken under this roof. May I ask who you’re with? Do you have a card?”
“Card?” My thoughts went to cards we got in that envelope. The room keys and fake IDs.
D’Angelo didn’t look impressed. “Business card.”
Gangs use business cards?
“I… just gave out my last one,” I said, thinking on the fly.
He nodded, unconvinced.
“Nice save, but I know a newbie when I see one. Here, I’ll give you mine.”
He pressed something on the underside of the handle of his cane. A paper slipped out.
He handed it to me. I took it, slipping it into my jacket after only giving it the smallest of glances. The name matched, at least.
“May I still get a name?” he asked.
Rule three. I wasn’t about to tell him.
“Personal business,” I said.
D’Angelo tapped his cane against the table.
“Listen, Wendy was it? It’s an amateur move, that. It’s a privilege, just to make it through the front doors. As long as you abide by the rules and keep it civil, you’re free to use the Lunar Tower as a place for discourse and refuge. A safe haven, if you will.”
I tried to loosen up, but it was useless, given the task and company at hand. I was still sitting where I was in the booth, ready to jump if I got even the slightest glance of Granon.
“We’re still making a name for ourselves, at the moment,” I told him. “We hold territory, and we have momentum, though we’re still getting our ducks in a row. But, just you wait, everyone will know who we are.”
“So I’ll be hearing about you very soon. I’m looking forward to it.”
We didn’t actually have anything planned, aside from the plans we already had in motion.
That was a move, as well. I still didn’t trust him, the third rule still in effect, so if anything were to happen in the next few weeks, I knew who to look for, and who to punish, if need be. It was a test for both him, and this establishment.
If nothing else, we might be able to use him in the near future, too.
“Well,” D’Angelo said, “You gave me some info, it’s only fair I divulge some of my own. I like balance, and if you are going to be as promising as I think you’ll be, it should be a worthy investment.”
“Fair?” I questioned, “You’re a larger gang, you can afford to give up some scraps of info here and there. It’s hardly an equivalent exchange.”
“You’re saying you’d use whatever I tell you?”
I didn’t gesture, or make any indication of what I was thinking.
D’Angelo tapped his cane again. He was smiling.
“You may be an amateur, but I know promising when I see it. It takes a lot of fucking guts to walk in here, especially with fakes, and try to get in on the action. That’s dedication, right there, that’s initiative. If you want a spot at the top, you have to take it. That’s straight out of our playbook, Wendy, you’re a natural at this.”
Hard to tell, if he was actually impressed or if he was just flattering me for other reasons. To take something else.
But, either way, I had to take it. Maintain diplomacy.
“You flatter me,” I said, voicing my thoughts from earlier, “But thank you.”
Nodding, looking elsewhere, D’Angelo lifted a hand.
“Not flattery, just mere observations. Oh, here she is! I won’t make the same mistake twice!”
He got up, pushing himself to his feet with his cane. He moved out of the booth to greet another person.
A woman, Asian in her features. Japanese, to make an educated guess. But she looked nothing like me, or even Shiori.
She was tall, towering over D’Angelo, though she did have heels. Slender, too, her waist smaller than mine, and I hadn’t had proper food… ever.
Her dress was fitting, proper for the setting, her skin a shade brighter than the pearls that adorned her neck. Hair done up, lips full, eyelashes long and smoky.
Standing by these adults… I felt as fake as the ID I used to get in here.
D’Angelo embraced the woman, still greeting her. It was brief, and they broke, talking.
“Hello, Mr. D’Angelo,” the woman said, her accent noticeable. Courtily, she placed her hands together in front of her. “Hitoshi-san is anticipating good things to come from this meeting.”
I watched as D’Angelo’s hand dropped, to her hip. Then, a twitch, and his hand recoiled to the handle of his cane.
“Hello to you too, Miss…”
“Lovely name. And yes, I assure you the Path will be steered in the right direction with me. Ah, excuse me, but this is a colleague of mine, Wendy. She won’t be joining us, but she is someone to look out for, believe me.”
Miss Kimiko turned her gaze to me, and I wanted to jump out of my skin. I was so out of my league.
“Cute,” she said, with a grin.
Cute? Was that all I was here?
All I could do was grin back in return, tapping my teeth with my tongue. Ready to snap.
“I should get going,” I said, “You two can get down to business. I still need to find my person.”
D’Angelo motioned with his cane, nudging it forward.
“You want a tip? If you want to show that you have power, even if you don’t actually have any, you don’t seek them out. Make them come to you.”
“I’m not exactly in a position to do that,” I said.
“Then put yourself in that position. Circle about, get yourself the high ground. Now you have power.”
“I’ll… keep that in mind,” I said. Though the whole point was to approach Granon while he was unaware.
“Do that, and you’ll see results. It… ended up being nice to meet you, Wendy. I’m expecting big things from your group.”
For a third time, D’Angelo tapped his cane, and he left, Miss Kimiko at his side, taking his arm. They conversed, discussing matters that I’d probably never learn the specifics of. Our paths split apart from there.
And I had to go on my own.
I went through the other booths, heading back into the main area of the casino. I wasn’t examining every detail of every face I saw, rather I was just making myself aware. Intaking the surrounds, absorbing the culture, learning whatever I could pick up. Not hiding, drawing away from other eyes, I was here, making myself present, acting like I knew what I was doing, where I was going. Like I belonged.
The lights from the chandelier seemed less harsh, the melancholy feeling of insecurity diminished. It wasn’t completely gone, but it lessened in increments. Better than going the other way.
A creep, but maybe D’Angelo had a point.
Still didn’t trust him.
I turned at the end of a row of slot machines, and something on the glass of the slots caught my eye. It took turning at another row to see it again and know for sure.
I was being followed.
Four, maybe five men. I tried getting a glimpse of them by tilting my head, reflecting off my glasses. Nothing clear, but I doubted this was hotel security.
I grabbed my phone out of my jacket, trying to get a look that way. Oh. Several missed calls from Lawrence. He’d have to wait.
I didn’t get a look at them. I put my phone back.
Still moving, I searched for options.
A door, at the far end of the casino. Unmarked, large, green with a gold outline. A backdoor to a maintenance hall?
I’d head there.
I picked up the pace.
I reached the door. Didn’t bother to look around, check behind me. Had to work fast.
Door was locked, needed a card. I didn’t have one.
It didn’t matter.
I grabbed the handle and pulled.
The door broke free from the lock. No alarm sounded, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’d be silent.
That was fine. I’d roll with it.
I slipped through the door, into a hallway, walls white. Maintenance hallway. Even for a place that was off limits and not to be seen by guests, it still looked nice. The walls and floors were smooth, not a speck of dirt.
I was already partway down the hall when I heard the door open again from the back. I had put some distance between us, but they were starting to gain, now that there wasn’t anyone else around.
I didn’t find them. They found me. But I could use that in my favor. The higher ground. They’d have to wait for me to act first, make the first move. I was the one being pursued, but I still had the power, here. And I’d use it.
The hallway continued, but a path also opened up to the left and right. I didn’t hesitate as I banked left.
There were cameras above the door and on of the other side of the hallway, had I continued straight instead. None here. Good.
Rules were still in effect, but in the off chance I had to break them…
I stopped on my heels, spinning back. I waited with my hands behind my back.
Finally, they turned the corner. Three men, actually. Probably miscounted.
They stopped at a distance. The sight of me standing here must have given them reason to pause.
None of them looked armed. Then again, so did I. I kept rule three in mind as I said, “Kept you waiting, huh?”
The man on the right stepped forward, and responded, “So you are the one that interrupted our plans yesterday.”
So they are with the People’s Hammer.
I couldn’t tell if any of these guys were a part of the blockade, but I supposed that was hardly relevant. Any group worth their salt had to be, at minimum, decent at communication.
“You guys were the ones interrupting us. It would have gotten worse if I hadn’t done something about it.”
“How? You have injured a handful of my comrades.”
“And do you want me to include you in that number?”
He shifted. His two ‘comrades’ watched us both, carefully.
“We noticed you walking around the casino,” he said.
“Yeah, I was kind of being obvious about it.”
The man’s expression was cold.
“Why are you even here? You have no reason to be at this hotel.”
“I have every reason to be at this hotel. I need to speak with Granon.”
I needed to direct the conversation to that as soon as possible, use that control while I still had it. Or they might somehow wrangle that away from me.
He dismissed the request right there, on the spot.
“Granon has no need to speak with you. He, we, intend to take your territory and start our tenure in this damn city. We demand our seat at the table.”
“You’re not going to get that by going through us,” I said. “Because it’s just not going to happen. Take me to Granon. I speak for my gang, and I’m willing to extend another hand to you if it means him calling off all attempts to encroach upon my territory and challenging our authority. Let’s handle this diplomatically.”
“That will not happen.” He then said a short phrase in another language. “-for him when I say he is not open for any discussions. And, even if he was, it would not be with you. That discussion is for him and that Lawrence, and for them alone.”
I wasn’t surprised, there. Maybe it was his ego, or perhaps some other prejudice, but it did seem like a shot in the dark that I’d be the one to talk with him. Then again, they weren’t aware the leadership was split into three, with Lawrence being the face presented to everyone else. The least I had wanted to accomplish was convince Granon to back down from this fight. If Lawrence had to take it from there, then fair enough, I could concede that part to him. I just needed this to work out.
These guys weren’t willing to work with me.
I spread my arms a little.
“What? Is Granon too shook to seek a dialogue with me? Did I rattle him too hard?”
“No. The only one who will do any shaking, is you.”
“Great comeback there, buddy, just-”
I heard it before I felt it.
The pop, then the ring. Stunned again, the white lights and tight, close walls threw me to being back at the school. It debilitated.
Hot metal passed through me like I was made of paper.
I was falling before I realized what was happening. I was on the floor when it settled in. I’d been shot.
I’d been shot. I’d been shot.
I had been shot down, I was shut down, my mind going somewhere it didn’t want to go, reminded of something it’d rather forget. I was blank.
Writhing, squirming. My insides were hot, screaming to get out.
Worse than Dani, worse than D’Angelo.
They reached out, groping, manhandling me.
I was wrong. This was so much worse.
The lack the lack the lack the lack-
My head hung as my waist mended. From the back, through the muscle and bone, and out to the other side.
A clean shot.
A hot breath steamed my cheek as a voice spoke.
“Who is shaking now?”
It was Xander L. Granon. He had me in his grasp.
My ears were ringing, his voice just barely able to be heard. Ears ringing.
Kids screaming, crying.
She lunged for Harrian and–
“The same scheme as you, yes? Except this time, you are blockade.”
Couldn’t move, couldn’t respond, even though it was well within my power to do both. I didn’t know why, I couldn’t think.
“I will take your territory, and I will build my employer’s empire from there. That is, as you say, an inevitability.”
Multiple hands, grabbing at me, moving me. My arms were pushed up against my back, drawing my hands close to my shoulder blades, restraining me. A sharp pain.
Something cold slid against my fingers. Something cold.
“However,” Granon said, still breathing down my neck. “Perhaps I can negotiate a deal with that boy once the territory switches hands. Have him pay rent and taxes. Suffer infractions.”
The cold edge cut into a finger, sliding back and forth. I felt a pang.
If I moved now, I’d lose more than just my faculties. I was forced to stay still.
The tension from before was coming back, even more intense, wanting even more to explode.
“You want to talk? To negotiate? The only thing worth discussing is how many pieces he wants sent back to him. And let us start with this, your finger.”
I can heal I can heal I can get through this and slip out and figure something out–
It was all wrong.
Pain. Fire. Excruciating.
Not just me.
Growls and shrieks, over the sound of the air around me being sliced. Hands pulled away from me, and I started to collapse.
My hand, where my finger was supposed to be. Numb, yet it was on fire.
My descent felt slow and gradual. But I felt so heavy. It would be a long way down.
When I hit tile, I fell in blood.
A sweet taste splattered into my mouth, hanging open from the sudden energy being sucked out of me. Drained.
It took a long time for me to get moving again, bringing my hands forward to push myself up.
I drew in a breath, pained.
My hand, my right hand. All five fingers were there. My back and hip were fine, too. But the middle finger… It felt like it was burning. White hot. Like I had touched heated metal. It wasn’t diminishing.
Bringing that hand close, I used the other for support. I had all five fingers there. I crawled, getting out of the blood, which was still pooling.
I turned my head, and through the creeping shadows in my vision, I saw why.
Splashed and splattered across the walls, floor, and even the ceiling. Entire lines and streaks, then specks. There was distance to it.
And the direction.
Haphazard, but it wasn’t random. The blood went in one general direction, pointed one way. Out, away from the bodies and where I had my back turned.
Bodies. Five of them, collapsed, limbs splayed and unmoving. One even had his face buried in the nook where the floor and wall met, flat on his stomach, head bent at an awkward angle.
I couldn’t see Granon. Would I even recognize him among all the red?
I scratched at an eye with my good hand, trying not to get blood on my glasses. My strained vision persisted. The scene still looked grim.
Are they all dead?
Footsteps, hurried. Coming closer.
My eyes were locked at the destruction before me. But there was no sense to make of this. There was nothing to understand.
I pulled away from the scene. I looked up, my expression blank.
Lawrence. He was keeping a distance, but he was here.
My mouth hung open, as if I had anything to say.
“Wendy,” he said in a breath, eyes wide, in shock. “What the hell did you do?”