Three days ago
“Jesus-fucking-Christ, I feel like it’s been forever since I’ve seen any semblance of the real world.”
I had to agree with Lawrence, there.
We were inside of a cafe, having got in right just before the first wave of the lunch rush. Sitting in a corner booth, we were able to find seclusion from the incoming crowd, a small bit of privacy while out in a public space.
There was a window beside our booth, giving us a view of the outside world. As it started to get louder inside the cafe, I concentrated on the activity outside, watching people walk by, going to wherever it was they needed to go. Everyone looked busy, even the people shuffling inside for a bite to eat. They were in a hurry to get in, and get out, and continue on with their day. We were no exception.
The hustle and bustle of a normal life. Being on the move to get to one normal thing to the other.
Weird, to be in a normal place, talking about normal things.
“It does feel like a nice change of pace,” I said, wanting to voice my agreement. It had been one hectic situation after another, constantly changing gears to handle new problems as they arose. Even now, we were in the middle of handling a new problem, but we had managed to fit in some respite, however brief. It was better than nothing, and I knew to appreciate a small break if I ever got one.
“Like, god damn, I wish we could get some time off, but I guess we don’t get breaks in this business. There’s always something else on the horizon.”
Lawrence paused, and I heard him grumble, then smack his lips. A crumpling of paper. He probably just wiped his mouth with a napkin. I wasn’t sure, I wasn’t looking.
“From Benny, to EZ and Krown, and now this, I just need, like, I don’t know, a day. Give me a day where I don’t have to worry about anything, or at least not life and death shit. A full twenty-four hours, is that too much to ask?”
“Could be. Problems don’t just sit on the sidelines, waiting for you to come back to them. That’s why they’re problems.”
“And, to be fair, Benny and those other clowns were sort of things we made into problems. We could have left it well enough alone, if we really really wanted to.”
D had interjected, her mouth sounding stuffed with food.
“What did I say about talking with your mouth full?” I asked, sounding not cynical, but I knew it wouldn’t be the last time I’d have to remind her.
I heard her swallow, fast, washing it down with a glass of water.
“If I don’t say things when I think of them, I might forget.”
“Manners,” I said, as if stuff like that actually mattered to D. “But, anyways, we didn’t make them into problems, they were means to an end, a roadblock that we needed out of the way. If we didn’t have to deal with them, then that says something about us, and our lack of responsibility.”
“If you want to look at it that way, sure.”
I wasn’t sure what she had meant by that, if she meant anything at all, but I wasn’t willing to press it. Make it a problem, so to speak.
My eyes stayed on the scene past the window. At least I had a reason to keep my focus elsewhere.
Lawrence tried to find us a middle ground. “Let’s all agree that this is a problem that showed up, out of our control, but we have to be the ones to take care of it. Can we do that?”
“We can,” I said.
“Ditto,” D said.
Another thing I could agree with.
We weren’t given much time to settle into our new terrority, to make our presence known and establish a relationship with the locals. D and I didn’t even get a chance to touch base again with Fillmore.
We had just set up shop, and already people were knocking on our door.
Xander L. Granon. The People’s Hammer. New to the city in general, but they had been poking their heads into our neighborhood in the last couple of days. No significant moves, but a black limo driving through a not-so affluent section of the city did attract some attention. They weren’t exactly trying to keep a low profile.
It was natural that we’d catch on to their movements, but we wouldn’t make the first move. Rather, our first move was to do nothing. We’d keep an eye on them, but we wouldn’t approach. If they wanted something, they’d have to come to us. Just based on appearances alone, they had us beat. We didn’t have a limo. But, if we forced them to grow impatient, and they had no choice but to approach us first, that would give us a little bit of leverage over them. Also, we’d have a better understanding of them that way. Anyone would be kind if they were treated kindly. But, if they were angry, or even mildly inconvenienced, then their true colors would start to show.
It was D’s idea. Not surprising, I expected her to be the one to suggest a solution that was more underhanded. Lawrence, however, was the exact opposite. He wanted to square up to them, and D had to convince him to try another approach. I was fine either way.
But, it did mean a whole lot of sitting, and a whole lot of waiting. Driving around, watching, marking their path around the neighborhood, locations where they would sit and wait. The only thing we hadn’t gotten was where they were stationed. Once they left our territory, we let them be. We couldn’t risk getting caught tailing them. That would have to require a solo effort to accomplish.
And that would have to be our second move. The first would be setting them up, the next being the follow through. Which was part of the reason why we were here. We hadn’t gotten that bit figured out, yet.
“Oh oh,” D said. There was a sudden excitement in her voice. “That reminds me. Have you guys seen this?”
“What?” Lawrence asked.
“A video I saw. Here.”
A hard, fast series on pats on my shoulder.
“Wendy, Wendy, look here!”
She didn’t stop hitting me until I drew my eyes away from the window, and faced D and Lawrence. D was beside me, and Lawrence was across the table. He was leaned forward, elbows on the table, his plate pushed to the side. A ham and egg and cheese sandwich on rye.
D was sitting on her knees, her elbows also propped up on the table, her torso leaning over her plate. She had gotten the same thing.
I, for my part, had ordered a cup of hot tea. I tried a sip, but it had a foul taste. I let it cool.
I reached over to put a hand on her arm, in case she slipped.
Humming, she had her phone out, swiping her password.
“Oops,” she said, as she unlocked her phone.
A photo was loaded on her screen. A blurry pattern of tiles or squares or something, I wasn’t really paying attention, and she swiped away from it before I had the chance to care about getting a second glance. She went to load something else on another app.
It took a few seconds, with her typing and trying to find the right clip, but she got it, and positioned the phone for us to see.
Lawrence and I watched the video.
A close-up of a guy. A teenager. He had a varsity jacket and a cap, placed backwards on his head. It looked like he was indoors, somewhere. Maybe another restaurant.
He said something, but the video quality wasn’t the best, and it was too fast for me to catch.
A sudden cut, and he was running. Still indoors, definitely a restaurant.
Picking up speed, he brought his hands down, tumbling. With impressive athleticism, his feet went into the air, and he did a flip.
But, at the top of his flip, his face slammed into a sign that was just above. The impact was hard, and the sign actually broke at the hinges, and they both fell-
The video ended. It was only a few seconds.
D started to cackle, an ugly harsh sound, but she was having fun with it. She was loud enough that other people at the tables beside us turned to look.
I used my arm to push her phone away, and D sat herself back down in her seat.
“Gets me everytime,” D said, watching the video again, trying to contain her laughter. She wasn’t doing a very good job.
“That’s it?” Lawrence questioned. “How does our problem with the People’s Hammer remind you of that?”
D wiped the corner of her eye. “Because the restaurant staff wasn’t expecting him to all of sudden do a flip and break their sign. It was out of their control, but they’re the ones to clean it up. Isn’t that funny?”
“Hilarious,” I said.
“WIth that logic, that make us the butt of the joke,” Lawrence said. “I don’t want to be the butt of anything.”
D made a grumbling sound, and fixed her plate so it was right in front of her again.
“You guys are no fun,” she said.
She then put her phone away. With her elbows back on the table, she picked up a piece of her sandwich, going back to eating.
D talked as she chewed. “So, how do y’all want to go about this?”
I turned, back to looking through the window.
“We need this Granon guy to come to us, but that means we need to know where that meeting will take place.”
“Somewhere in our territory, somewhere secluded, where we can have full control of the area,” Lawrence said.
“Our whole hood is pretty secluded,” I said.
A click of the tongue. “Don’t exaggerate. This is way closer to the city than the Redhouse ever was.”
“Ideally, we make it so we connect from here to Casa Martinez,” I said.
“That would be a really big territory,” Lawrence said. “Martinez is halfway across the city. Doing that would make us second to Mister, as far as power would go.”
D nudged me with an elbow.
“Go big or go home, right, Wendy?”
“Right,” I said.
“That aside,” Lawrence said, “I think I know a place we can lure him. There’s a theater, on Malcolm and Cedar Street. It’s not that big, but nobody’s going to use it, anymore. They’d have to go through us, first.”
“Sounds promising,” I said.
“I’m thinking, they get fed up and come to us directly, we lead them there, and we have it set up so we can flip the script on them, if we need to. We don’t have to get into a fight right then and there, but we hear what they have to say, see what they’re all about, and we decide if they’re worth having around or not. Then, we can work off of that.”
“I like that,” D said. “Not a bad plan. It might actually work out for us, after all. We are still pretty small, and new, and we’re already getting some attention. That’s big.”
“It is,” Lawrence said.
“I’ll have to do some more research on them, though. You can never be too careful.”
“Seconded,” I said. “But if we do it like how you suggested, you’ll have to be the lead actor, Lawrence.”
“Lead actor? Why?”
“Granon isn’t going to take us seriously when he shows up and sees that you’re leading a gang with two other, much younger girls. That kind of image isn’t going to fly. I’m willing to admit that.”
“You’re not that much younger, Wendy. D, maybe, but not you. And, please, don’t make me out to be some old fart.”
“But you get it, right? It’s all about presentation, and we can’t have it get around that we’re a part of the gang, me especially. D has her notoriety, and that’s its own thing, but the whole crux of our plan hinges on the fact that no one knows that Blank Face or V or what have you is involved with taking out the gangs of the territory we expand into. That needs to stay a company secret.”
“So D has the brains, you have the muscle, and I’m the face of the brand,” Lawrence said, summing it up.
“That’s the general idea, yeah.”
“And it all works out, since you such a dashing face,” D said.
“Pause,” Lawrence said. “Don’t say stuff like that.”
“It’s creepy, and I’m not about to get in trouble over someone overhearing the wrong words at the wrong time. So quit it.”
“Getting back on track,” I said, “Are you okay with that, Lawrence? You suggested a theater, so now you get to act.”
I heard him breathe out loud.
“Yeah, I can give it a shot, fuck it.”
“You’ll do great, sweetie.”
“Now you got me fucked up.”
I heard a cackle.
I continued to watch the people on the other side of the window. Lawrence and D started to bicker, and I let them have at it. This was more interesting.
Past the people and bikers, among the cars, a black limo strolled by on the street.
It had taken this path before, we had it noted on our map. Seeing them go another round said a lot.
“There,” I said.
I didn’t hear them respond to me specifically, but they stopped what they were doing, and I knew they were following my gaze.
“There he is,” Lawrence said.
“Yup, yup,” D said.
It was around noon, with traffic barely being manageable, but the limo slowed to a crawl on the street, forcing other cars behind it to either go around, or simply deal with it as an inconvenience.
On the other side of the street, directly across from the cafe, was a bank. Not particularly esteemed or reputable, but it was old, it was historic, and it was at the edge of our territory.
“This Granon guy is really going to spin himself in circles to get our attention, isn’t he?” Lawrence asked.
The windows on the limo were tinted, so I couldn’t see anyone in the vehicle, but I wanted to imagine Granon, with his large frame, the space cramped, tapping a fat, sausage-like finger on his knee as he steadily grew restless over our apparent lack of action.
D brought her voice to a whisper, a little girl’s mock impression of a little girl. “Ah, ah, notice me, senpai, notice me!”
“He seems to think we frequent that bank or something,” Lawrence said. “Which isn’t a lie, but little does he know that we’re just out for lunch, right now.”
“So he’s been looping around, that’s good to know,” I said. “And, do you know what that says to me?”
“I have a hunch, but I want to hear what you think,” Lawrence said.
It took a little bit before I answered. I was listening to the honks on the cars behind the limo, pressuring it to get a move on. It soon did, and it went off, until I lost all visual on it. I only saw the vehicle, not the people inside, but I could almost taste the growing frustration. I got a odd sort of satisfaction from it.
“Ah, um,” I said, realizing I was distracted, “It means he’s desperate. He wants something, and we’re somehow tied in with that. He has a heavy sense of pride, too. Whatever it is he wants, he doesn’t want to be the one to approach us about it. I’m willing to bet he’d rather wait to bring it up if we had gone to meet him first.”
“That’s quite the guess,” Lawrence said.
“Um, woman’s intuition?” I suggested.
“I was thinking the same thing too,” D said. “See? We are on the same wavelength!”
For emphasis, D hit me in the shoulder again.
“Well, it’s not going to come to that,” Lawrence said. “So if you’re right about him, then he is not going to be happy when he realizes that it won’t go his way.”
“It’s not going to come to that,” I repeated. “So get ready. We’re about to make this a problem.”
I was crouched, watching as the black limo finally made it to its destination.
One problem after another.
“I’m here,” I said, speaking into my earpiece. “This must be where Granon is staying during his visit.”
“Where?” It was D that answered.
I read the large, ornate letters across the front of the building. “Lunar Tower.”
There was a pause.
“They definitely have money,” D said. “And connections. You can’t exactly just waltz into the Lunar without having to call in a favor or two.”
“So what, it’s some mob-run establishment?”
“Something like that. All the top sponsored gangs chip in to help run places like this. It’s a fancy hotel, a sort of safe haven or neutral ground from any conflict or beef between any gangs. But hey, bad guys are bad guys, it’s kind of in our nature to break the rules.”
I noted D’s use of the word ‘our.’ It was in our nature, apparently. We were bad guys.
Probably, maybe, but I wasn’t quite ready to be so lax about that label.
I tried not to dwell on it as I continued the conversation.
“If we wanted to hit them, and hit them hard, doing it where they’d least expect is one way to go. And, if they really want to give us a fight, I’d rather not have them bring it into our territory. Whether we win or lose, we still have to be the one that clean up the mess.”
“Good point, but trying to get in there while we’re still nobodies? We’ll get stopped before we even get to the door.”
“Groups like the People’s Hammer are noticing us, aren’t they? That means other, bigger, local gang have at least an inkling of who we are.”
“Alright, we get to the door, but we trip over the carpet or… something. You’re stepping all over my metaphor, Vivi.”
“Sorry, but you get my point?”
“I do. Sure, we’ll figure it out.”
I put a pause on the conversation, observing from up high, across of the street.
I had followed the black limo well past the boundaries that dictated our territory, heading closer to what was colloquially known as the Eye. I had my concerns about being noticed while I moving through the air, crossing rooftops and traversing the city’s skyline, especially during the day, but the longer the chase continued, the more those concerns went away. The buildings started getting taller, putting me well above the gaze of any wandering eye. It also just became more fun. I hadn’t gotten this much casual running in for the longest time. The exhilaration that came with every push of my legs, whenever my stomach got that dropping feeling, it was a rush that was addicting as any drug. Or, in my case, the taste of blood.
The Lunar Tower. It was a tall, very tall, black high-rise, with gold markings outlining the edges of the building. The top was pointed, with large, gold panels, giving it an appearance of an obelisk.
Looking down, I saw people starting filing out of the limo, Granon coming out last. They went in through the entrance, being greeted by valet, all wearing vests and dress pants. As they went past the glass doors, I caught a sliver of the lobby. Low lighting, carpet, and marble flooring.
Then, the doors closed, and that was all I saw of Granon. If Granon thought he was being followed, he didn’t act like it.
The Lunar looked extravagant, and heads and shoulders above our pay grade. Unless we fell into some really good money or standing with another group very soon, we weren’t going to be checking into a room there.
“Let’s save it for a little later,” I said. “At least we know where they’re holed up, now.”
“Knowing is better than not knowing.”
“Alright, so we have that.” My thoughts started to move on to other topics. “How’s Lawrence?”
“I’m checking on him right now. You want him on?”
Oh. I wasn’t intending on going that far. “Um, sure.”
“Okay! Hey Lawrence, Vivi wants to talk to you.”
There was a sound of mechanical buzzing in my ear.
“You wanted to talk?”
The voice was deeper. Lawrence. I noticed a bit of strain in his voice, like it hurt to carry a conversation.
“I’m not sure if ‘want’ was the right word, but how are you holding up? Granon really gave you a beating.”
“Yeah, he really fucking did. I was kind of hoping you’d drop down and help me out a little, but nah, apparently.”
“I would if I could, I hope you believe me. But you know why I can’t.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“But hey, way to take one for the team. We all really appreciate it.”
A mechanical cough.
“You fucking better, I’m dying over here.”
“He got you that bad?”
Grunts and groans.
“Yeah, I mean, ow, yeah. My head feels like it’s splitting open, my back is aching to all hell, it hurts to breathe, and I’m pretty sure he broke my hip.”
I winced at the list of injuries. I would have said that I was hoping he’d recover soon, but he could potentially take that the wrong way. I wasn’t one to suffer from long-term injuries, not anymore. Throw in that he had been recently shot, would have been more salt in those wounds.
Another shuffling from my earpiece.
“You didn’t break anything, that’s just a bruise!”
A very pained, very anguished scream.
“D! That is not my hip!”
A excited snickering started to drown out distressed yelps.
“D,” I said, using the name was a warning. “Give him a break.”
She didn’t directly reply, but the noise on the other end started to die down.
“So, we good here?” I asked, changing topics. “We know where they sleep at night, which is a big deal. The only hard part now is getting in.”
The thought crossed my mind again. One problem after another. We knew what the People’s Hammer wanted, now, and we knew where they were staying. They wanted to have a fight, and we had to bring that fight to them.
Somehow, we had to make it all come together. We had to figure this out.
And soon. From what I overheard, Granon was determined to take action against us, fast. Speaking for myself, I had no intention of sitting on my hands.
D was the one to answer. “We’re good. Come back, and we can sort this out.”
“Alright, I’m getting out of my costume. I might take a detour before I head back to you, though. Some routine stuff for the territory.”
“Okie. Text me where you’ll be later and I’ll send a van to go get you. Out.”
The called ended, and I plucked the device out of my ear. I searched my sides of a pocket, slipping it inside.
I stepped away from the lip of the roof, and looked for a decent place to change.
This was about it, I felt like. Barring exceptional circumstances, there wasn’t going to any other changes made.
My costume was finalized.
There were multiple parts to it, but I made sure not to make it cumbersome. The first layer was the one that would have direct contact on my skin. If I was wearing my costume, that meant I would be active, and that would result in me getting really sweaty. I would need something that could breathe, and wouldn’t restrict me as I moved, especially since I would be wearing a few more layers on top.
Spandex shorts, and a dark thermal shirt with long sleeves. That just about covered my bases, and prevent chafing if I ran too hard or slid against something.
Over my shorts were the pants. Slim, but durable. Procured at the army surplus store at the Realm. Comfy, and would last multiple uses without needing a wash. A very big bonus when it came to a costume. I hated the feeling of wearing pants that hadn’t been cleaned for some time. Made me feel gross. Even she wore joggers whenever she went out in a mask.
And over everything was the hood, the poncho. Red, long, flowy, even more durable than the pants. It obscured my arms when I put them to the side, giving me a silhouette that was less definite. Abstract. The fabric would flow behind me whenever I ran or soared through the air, kind of like a cape, but over my whole body. I was trying to go for a wisp or mist effect that followed ghosts or spectres in movies, and this was the best I could come up with, replicating that in the real world. I thought it worked out pretty decent.
Then, there were the gloves and boots. Nothing fancy, they just had to not tear apart with the hard running and jumping I was capable of. So far, so good.
I had a bag, too, a single strap backpack, but it wasn’t part of my overall look. I wore it under my poncho, baggy and loose enough that the bag didn’t protrude or mess up the whole thing.
I, more or less, went with that drawing D made when we were coming up with costume ideas. It was a crude picture, but I managed to make something out of it. Something to be proud of, I figured. I didn’t look like a complete mess.
The only thing left was the mask.
With a minimalist aesthetic, it only covered the upper half of my face, obscuring my eyes, nose, and forehead. Made of a solid material, but there were openings so I could see, but they were covered by a thin layer of cloth, making sure my eyes stayed hidden. With how the mask was built and arranged, going from something solid to something more see-through was almost seamless, giving the impression that I was blindfolded. But, I definitely had my sight. It was for effect, to add to the mystic, abstract look I was going for. The more inhuman I appeared, the more enemies would fear me.
And fear was a good way of getting power over someone.
Piece by piece, I started removing the costume. I was on the roof of a tall building. It wasn’t as tall as the Lunar, but no one was about to look up and see me undress, and I’d be fast enough that I wouldn’t get caught by someone coming to the roof for a smoke break.
The poncho came off first, folded neatly by my feet. Then, my arms went around the strapped backpack that hugged my body, and I removed that along with my thermal shirt. I’d keep the pants on. By themselves, they looked normal enough. No one would bat an eye, looking at them.
I opened the bag, swapping out the regular grey hoodie inside for my costume. The bag wasn’t big, but if I folded everything correctly, it would zip up just fine.
I removed my mask, and I slipped it inside my bag. A tight fit, but the bag zipped closed.
I put my knife and earpiece in a side compartment, and then I was all packed up.
All I had on at that instance were my pants, the leggings underneath, and a sports bra. Not that I needed a sports bra, I hadn’t done much growing since the last big change that wasn’t puberty, but I was doing a lot of moving around, and I wasn’t concave. I figured that I didn’t feel complete without one. A small reminder that I was, before anything else, still a person.
I put the hoodie on, deciding not to zip it up. It was still cool out, but I had worked up a sweat from all that moving. No one would care if I walked around without a shirt, probably. I was decently covered without one.
Picking up my bag, I-
Picking up my bag, I positioned it so I could reach another side compartment. I took out a case.
Opening it, I found my glasses, fixed it on my nose, and put the case back into my bag.
Now we were good to go. I was Wendy, again.
With everything packed away, I left the roof. I found the access door, found it unlocked, and let myself in. I passed through a hall, and located a service elevator. It worked, even without a key or code. I stepped inside, and I let it take me all the way down to the first floor.
My head down, my hands in my pockets, I was out of the building before anyone realized I was ever there.
I stepped on the street, and walked.
I saw the Lunar Tower again, this time from a civilian’s perspective. The hotel was tall. We were close to the Eye, so the buildings were already starting to scrape the sky, but this thing towered over everyone and everything else. To be honest, it was intimidating to look at.
I had suggested the idea, but staring up at the tower gave me a different perspective, overall.
That hotel was supposed to be a safe haven for many of the high profile gangs in the city. If we brought the coming fight there, that would be like kicking the biggest hornet nest ever. What else could we expect besides getting stung?
We’ll talk about it, I thought. But right now, I had other work to get to.
I turned onto another block, putting the tower behind me. The occasional passerby glanced at me, and I noticed the angle they were looking. My midriff.
I adjusted my posture, standing taller, and I fixed my hair and glasses. I found a good place nearby to be picked up, and took out my phone to send my text to D.
They were waiting for me as the van door opened.
I hopped out, almost into Sarah’s arm. I had to take a step to the side to get out of her way.
“Woops,” I said.
“You’re good,” she replied, getting the door for me.
I walked, and she hurried to get to my side. A few others followed. Reggie and Tone hadn’t joined her.
My thoughts were lagging a couple seconds behind.
She had her arm extended as I got out of the van. Was she wanting to help me down? I hadn’t asked, or expressed that I needed such assistance.
It reminded me of what I observed when Granon was getting up on the stage, earlier. Was I going to get used to that? That sort of power? Was there going to be a time that I expected that kind of treatment?
The idea sat oddly within me as I moved to deal with the next task at hand. A smaller problem.
A trio of girls were standing together, clearly irritated for having waited so long. Two were white, the other Hispanic, all three of them signaling their impatience. Tapping their foot, scratching their arms, glaring at me with a hard, almost feral look.
They looked as though they would eat me alive if they didn’t get what they wanted.
With Sarah beside me, and a few others from my gang, I approached.
“Hello ladies,” I said.
One of them clicked their tongue. I didn’t see who.
“And you are?” the Hispanic girl asked.
“I’m the one who’ll either give you a good day, or a really bad one.”
“Well I’m lookin’ to get fucked up.”
That could go either way.
“I’m sure I can arrange that,” I said.
Another click of the tongue. I saw the culprit this time. The white girl on the far right.
“Can you? It’s been hard getting a score lately.”
She snapped her fingers as she said the word ‘hard.’ Her bright green nails clacked together.
The sharp sound brought it to my attention the attire they chose to wear to this meeting. Heavy makeup, bare shoulders, bright tops, short skirts and heels. They were showing more skin than me, and I was still wearing the same outfit from before. I hadn’t gotten the chance to change.
The other white girl spoke up. “Yeah, where’s your boss?”
“I hold enough authority to speak on the matter,” I told her. I wouldn’t make it obvious that I was one of three leaders in the gang. Lawrence was a decent enough face of the group, and the less others knew about us, the better. But, I did have power, here, and I wasn’t shy about using it.
“Well, can you tell me why it’s been so expensive gettin’ anything lately? It used to just take about a month’s work to get everything I need. Now, it’s like, more than that. I can’t keep taking extra nights, I need my sleep.”
“I understand that it’s an inconvenience, but it’s a small hiccup as the neighborhood changes hands to another gang. It may go back down eventually.”
The looks they gave me were grim.
“Eventually?” the Hispanic girl repeated.
No point in hiding it. It would be clear to everyone in the neighborhood. Eventually.
“With a change of hands come with a change in how things are run. We’re emptying out the Thunders and Royals’ stache, and then we’re funneling out for something less… hard.”
From confusion, to anger. They sure had a wide variety of expressions.
“You’re doing what?”
“It’s not perfect, but we do want to make this place better than when we found it. That means controlling what we offer, and who gets what. We’re trying to tailor our clientele, and if we do that, it’ll reflect in the people who choose to hang around here. I’d rather have potheads passed out on couches than any crackheads stabbing someone at a corner for that one dollar they need but they don’t have.”
“That ain’t fair, we’re responsible, upstanding citizens. Why should we be punished for shit we don’t do?”
I shook my head. “We’re not punishing anyone. You want that stuff, there’s plenty of places and gangs you can go talk to. You just can’t get it here.”
I got glances, a few eye-rolls, and some smacked lips.
The girl on the right questioned me, “You playin’ us?”
I shook my head again. “I’m not. We want to make some changes, make a big impact, and this is one way to do it. We have other, more lofty goals, and we can’t let our stature be bogged down by… less-than-desirable customers, not that I’m saying you ladies aren’t… desirable.”
I fumbled that last bit, but they were smart enough to catch my drift.
Two of them crossed their arms, the Hispanic girl other placed a hand on her hip. I saw them consider.
The Hispanic girl spoke. “Okay, we’ll pay up this one time. Going somewhere now ain’t worth the gas money. I’ll say though, I appreciate the hustle.”
I reacted, raising an eyebrow. I wasn’t expecting them to take it so well.
“Oh, hey, I appreciate you ladies. Thanks for understanding.”
“What were your names?” I asked.
The Hispanic pointed to the other two, and then herself. “That’s Tanya, that’s Melanie, and I’m Dani, with an ‘I.’”
“Tanya, Melanie, and Dani with an I, thanks.”
“Of course,” Dani said again.
I was about to give Sarah a nod, but Dani spoke up one more time.
“Although,” she said, “If we don’t have enough dough, maybe we can, perhaps, pay another way?”
I tilted my head. “What other way?”
She pointed a finger at me, moving her hand. It inched lower.
She was close enough to reach me, and she made that fact very clear.
Her finger touched my stomach, still exposed to the open air. I wasn’t anticipating that.
My breath was cut short.
Dani moved her finger up, and then down. I still had some trace amounts of sweat on my body, so the tip of her finger, and her nail, slid across my skin with ease.
I flinched at the touch, the hairs on the back of my neck standing straight. I felt a warmth rush through me. My whole body tensed.
The realization that I could move came to me very slowly, and her finger was nearing the waistband of my pants before I could step out of her reach.
She drew her hand up to her lips, resting her finger against her lower teeth. She lowered her gaze and gave me a look.
“Um,” I started, searching for something to say, but I felt dizzy.
“You’re a girl, but I don’t mind. And I know they won’t.” Dani glanced at the girls beside her. “Definitely helps that you’re actually pretty. It might be those glasses, I think that’s what does it for me.”
“But you look at you, you’re all bones.” Tanya took a turn, now. “Would you even last? We might have to give you something to eat, first.”
“I have something you might enjoy.” Melanie gave me a wink, her tongue partially sticking out. “Something sweet.”
I tried to speak. “I, that’s not…”
That’s not an acceptable form of payment.
The thought, the idea was easy to formulate, but my head was swimming otherwise. I couldn’t get the words out.
But Sarah got them out for me.
“We’ll take the cash,” she said, firm.
Dani looked like she wanted to jump in and say more, not at all thrilled with Sarah’s interruption. But, she complied. Bringing her hands to her top, she reached inside and pulled out a wad of cash. Tanya and Melanie did the same.
Sarah collected the money, and turned. She signaled by raising her arm, making a circle with her hand. Everyone else moved to finish the exchange.
I startled when I felt a hand on my shoulder, but it was just Sarah. She gave me the most gentle of pushes, and it was enough to get my gears moving again.
I turned and walked back with her to the van.
“Thanks,” I said, blinking, my head still somewhat hazy.
“That’s why I don’t like having other women as customers,” Sarah said. “They think they can pay the same way every time. No way.”
We got to the van, Sarah getting the door for me. I got in without saying a word.
There was a wait before everything got settled, the payment and transfer was made without any hassle or further incident. When everyone was satisfied, Sarah started the van, and took us out of the parking lot.
“You alright, Voss?” she asked, glancing at me through the rear-view mirror.
I was, I should have been. I wasn’t hurt, broken, or injured in any way, and I wasn’t violated in a way that should last. I was just shaken, taken off guard by a move I didn’t expect.
If a sudden fight broke out, I could have handled it. If someone fired a gun or made a sudden loud noise… I’d need a second, but I could take action. This…
I wasn’t prepared for this.
I tried avoiding it, but my thoughts went to her. I’d seen the memories, brief flashes of impassioned meetings. I had them, but they weren’t mine. If she had been in my shoes, now, how would she have handled that? Play along, banter a bit before having to make it clear what she needed? Or would she have gone all the way, taking the offer as it stood?
That didn’t seem right.
Hard to navigate, harder still to make sense of what just happened. Leaders were not supposed to lose their cool, no matter what. If something changed, they adapted, and acted accordingly.
But that required experience, and I seemed to be lacking. And if Granon was going to start a fight, how could I lead us to a victory?
So, no. I was not alright. I felt naked.
I didn’t voice my answer. I simply zipped up my hoodie.