093 – Sand Castles in the Eye of the Storm

Previous                                                                                               Next

Spirits were much higher when we returned to the Redhouse. Granted, they weren’t exactly through the roof, but they were leagues above anything I had sensed before we left for the church.

Everyone filed inside, staying in the main lobby area. There was still work to be done, but the atmosphere was more lax, now, people working at their own pace. Giving back guns, giving back keys, and taking every… newly acquired asset out from the vans and into the middle of the space, setting them down and categorizing them by size and type.

Standing still, stretching so my back cracked and popped, I watched as everyone got everything settled. Boxes labeled, weapons added to the inventory. A few people were walking around with clipboards to keep tabs on stuff. Sarah was one of them.

I found myself inching towards her, closer to one of the stacks, as she jotted notes on a clipboard. From just the side of her face, I could tell she was laser-focused on the task at hand, her eyebrows angled, her lips set in a line. She looked so serious and cool.

My shoulder bumped into hers, and I dropped my bag at my side, by my feet. I tried to make it seem natural, like I hadn’t meant to run into her like that.

“Oops,” I said, my voice a low hum. I shifted my weight a bit, so I wasn’t leaning on her too much. Didn’t want to push too hard. But a small, tiny, miniscule part of me really wanted to.

I managed to break Sarah’s focus, enough for her stop writing and give me a glance. Passing, but I’d take it.

“Yes, ma’am?” Sarah asked, just as soft.

I had already gotten out of my costume, folded and tucked into the sports bag at my feet. My mask, my poncho, it was all in there now, needing to get patched up later. With my glasses on, I was back to being Wendy, which left me feeling… I couldn’t really place it. I didn’t have a mask to obscure my face, and I wasn’t in such a tense situation that I could hide behind violence and destruction. There was still a high ringing in my ears, a thunderous echo, but that had already passed, there wasn’t anything immediate and pressing right here, right now. As things were, it was calm.

And I wasn’t used to calm. It was unsettling.

I reached for anything that could hold me down.

“Just wanted to check on inventory. Got to make sure those numbers add up right.”

Sarah huffed out a small laugh.

“Don’t be so obtuse, Wendy. Just say you wanted to check up on me.”

There was a warmth that hit my body and face, sudden. It hadn’t been that bad before, and I only just stepped inside the Redhouse.

Looking away, I stammered.

“I, I mean, I could do that, too, if you really wanted me to.”

I had no idea what I was getting at.

I heard Sarah snicker. She picked up her clipboard and started writing again.

“Kidding,” she said.

Now I felt dumb. Dumber than usual.

Clicking my tongue, I said, “I hate you, you suck.”

Sarah made a purring noise, saying, “Do I, now?”

“Yeah, you do.”

She chuckled. “What is it going to take, to get back in your good graces?”

I actually gave it some thought. A few things came to mind, but none were any I wanted to say out loud. I wasn’t even sure when I had thought of them in the first place. Stupid, lame. Dumb.

I groaned.

“I don’t want to say.”

“So what? I’ll just be ostracized from the gang, and it’ll get so awkward that I’ll be forced to leave. Is that what you want, Wendy, is that what you really want?”

I made a face.

“Of course… not, don’t be lame.”

“Then you better come up with something, or else I’ll have to put this clipboard down and walk away for good.”

“Now that’s not fair. You’re just messing with me.”

Then, I was graced with a full view of Sarah. She smiled, the corners of her lips turning more upward, almost catlike.

She lifted a brow, ever so slightly. The effect was like a sharp hit of adrenaline. A rush. I’d run or punch something, but there was no immediate danger.

“Oh no, you caught me,” Sarah said, that smile… that smile. “Teasing you is kind of fun, actually. I could make a hobby of this, but, you know, I might not be around for much longer.”

“Oh my god, shut up.”

She bumped into me as she looked back at her clipboard, going back to writing. I wanted to think it wasn’t an accident.

It was funny… in a twisted way. Just an hour ago, I had crawled myself free from being pinned by the Cobras and the cops. Too many risky situations, too many close calls. People got killed, people got seriously injured. Probably more than I would guess, if I had to venture one. An explosion that most likely leveled a building. A lot went wrong tonight, but if I slipped, or if a gunman managed a lucky shot, I wouldn’t be here now, standing, being messed with by… by a friend. The disparity between then and now… it was almost laughable, if one could find humor in death.

“Yo!”

Someone found us.

Bumping into my other shoulder, D joined us. She wasn’t as mindful about personal space, however, preferring to stick close and huddle. Her arm wrapped around mine, hugging me. Her other arm was locked around a teddy bear.

With her high voice, D admonished me.

“What the heck are you doing? We get back and you immediately run off to do whatever. There’s still work to do, you know.”

Another warmth hit my body. A sharp sensation, like I was about to break out into a sweat.

“Yeah I know,” I said, faster than I intended. It made me sound like I was denying something. “I’m just checking on the inventory and, and how Sarah’s doing.”

“Why would you care about how Sarah’s doing? Reggie’s taking notes, too.”

D was really making it hard for me to stay cool.

“What, I can’t check on my employees? Morale is important when maintaining an operation. Didn’t we talk about that with Lawrence at the museum?”

“I mean, yeah, but there’s more important stuff to look over. And if we can turn this around, this will be able to take care of that.”

“I suppose so,” I said. It was surreal, being told off by someone so young. Or was she taking the chance to mess with me, too?

D tugged on my arm, and I let her pull me in that direction. I was torn between my obligations, torn from Sarah’s side, but there were things we had to do. Responsibilities.

And I do have to see to them.

“Okay, okay,” I said, appeasing D. We went in the other direction, away from Sarah. I turned to look back at her, mouthing something of an apology. Sarah mouthed back, smiling, but it was hard to make out what she was trying to say. I could only hope she had got what I was trying to say.

Darn you, D.

Walking over to the other side of the lobby, D took me to Lawrence. He had gotten straight to work, talking with a few of the Fangs, getting updates and giving orders. Like Sarah, he was so focused on what he was doing that it took a nudge from D to shake him out of it.

D waved at him, eyes closed, wide smile. Lawrence returned with an annoyed expression, but it didn’t come off as rude, and he still raised a hand at her.

I could recall when I first suggested that we all work together. Me, D, and the Ghosts. Lawrence was furious at the idea, and would rather go after us than Benny. And… yeah, given everything I had heard from both sides since, I could see why Lawrence’s initial reaction was so… sour. The girl had crashed a bus on him.

And yet, here we are, I thought. We’re a team, now. Maybe it isn’t perfect, but we are getting somewhere. And that’s… actually pretty cool.

“Hi,” D said.

Lawrence nodded.

“How’s it adding up?” I asked. “The guns and stuff.”

Lawrence looked over the guns and stuff before saying, “Pistols, rifles, a few boxes of grenades. High-grade shit.”

“Just guns? No papers or anything?”

“Papers? None that I saw.”

“Oh, never mind then.”

Lawrence looked over everything one more time. He nodded.

“We managed a good score. It’s the only reason why I’m not freaking the fuck out about this going south.”

“This didn’t go south,” I said. “Sure, it didn’t go how we wanted, but, we can think of this as a lateral move.”

“We inched up a teensy bit,” D said. “So maybe we moved like northeast?”

“Better than standing still,” I said.

Lawrence didn’t look very pleased at us making light of things, but he didn’t walk away or turn his attention elsewhere. If there was anything that he had learned, it was how to be patient with us.

“Whatever direction this ends up going, there’s going to be fallout,” he said. “The potential consequences, intended or otherwise. We’ll need to get ahead of that. Like, if the Cobras know that we were behind this, or if we need to start covering our ass.”

“No butts need to be covered!” D said. “I doubt we’re even a passing consideration in their minds, which probably says something about us, but we shouldn’t be on their radar.”

“Right,” I said. “They were after me the whole time, and as far as I know, they didn’t notice you guys slip through the cracks. Even when D, uh, showed up when she did, she was able to cover our tracks pretty definitely.”

“As far as you know,” Lawrence said. “They could go to Styx, and Styx is… unpredictable.”

“That,” I started, but I didn’t really have an answer for that. Lawrence wasn’t wrong about Styx. For a man like that, being unpredictable meant being dangerous. A wildcard we didn’t want in play, but it wasn’t like we had a say in the matter.

“He knows who you are, and we can’t touch him,” Lawrence added. “As if he wasn’t scary enough…”

Lawrence trailed off, but I could fill in the rest for myself. Unpredictable. Very, very dangerous.

“Do you think the Cobras would even go to Styx in the first place?” I questioned, trying to find another angle to this, one that didn’t give me any stress. It was a reach.

Lawrence spoke. “Look at it from their perspective. The Cobras plan a dummy raid for tonight, they come in with their squads and cops and see that someone had gotten to the goods first. They chase that person down but it’s like a one-man army, or one-girl army, whatever, jumping around and outrunning them, even when they’re on wheels. To the rest of the world, there’s only one person out there who’s capable of shit like that. Don’t you think that’s worth going to Styx over?”

More stress. Exactly what I needed.

“Would he talk?” I asked. I tried to not let the concern creep into my voice. Didn’t work.

Lawrence shrugged, looking at D.

“You know him better than I do, than any of us here.”

D leaned to one side, fixing the teddy bear in her arms.

“You want me to talk to him?”

“Yeah, if you can,” Lawrence said, with a biting tone. “You went to him behind our backs before, at least this time we’ll know.”

D actually looked hurt, hearing that. Her eyes went to her feet, she tugged at her choker, and  she shifted her weight between her feet. She held the bear tighter. I only had a view of the top of her head, now.

I turned to Lawrence.

“That’s not fair,” I said. “We’ve been over this already. D did that because she thought it would help us against Granon. Sure, yeah, it threw us for a for a loop-”

“-more than a loop, Wendy.”

“But D knows she made a mistake,” I said. “I know that I made a mistake back then, too. We make them so we can learn from them. We wouldn’t have gotten out of that church if we didn’t have previous experiences to draw from.”

Lawrence reached into a pocket. He coughed and turned, bringing his hand up to his mouth, covering it. When he moved back, his jaw was clenched, the lump in his throat moving up, then down.

“Yes, I’m aware,” he said, dry. “It’s just… I don’t like unintended consequences, they’re hard to prepare for, and if the Cobras get Styx involved in any way, I’d want us to get out in front of that. D, please, just… pay him a visit, see where he’s at right now. I know you said that he wouldn’t do anything with that information, but he was part of the Solace shit a few months back, and that doesn’t include the El Paso shit that also involved Solace. It’s obvious that he isn’t above using that info to indulge in his own, fucked up sense of fun.”

I was starting to hate how much sense Lawrence was making. Twice, now, Styx had tried to get me out of the picture, and in that second instance, he had shared my identity with Remus so he would know who to target. Or, he’d have to, how else would Remus know?

Yet, he helped us, too. Helped us with finding Benny, helped with Granon, knocked Dong-Yul down a peg, if not several. The man was a fucking walking paradox, and that irritated me.

I tapped D on the shoulder, gentle. She lifted her head, staring at us.

“It is better than doing nothing,” I told her.

“I’d rather be paranoid and think the whole world is out to get me, and plan for that, than to not even consider it and have it actually be the case.”

Lawrence drilled the point into our heads. Enough so that D got it, too.

She spread her hands, then dropped them beside her.

“Okay, fine. I’ll swing by to see him.”

“Tonight,” Lawrence said. “Before the Cobras have the sense to report anything to him. Don’t make it so obvious, though, just-”

“I know,” D said, interrupting. “I know how to work him.”

Tucking her teddy bear under an arm, D patted her jacket, then groaned. She raised her hands, palms facing us, palms empty.

“I’ll need another set of keys. Kinda left them in the van that I blew up.”

Lawrence started fishing into his own pockets again.

While he worked, D turned to me, saying, “That was your van, Vivi, it literally just now occurred to me. Sorry about that.”

My van. It literally just now occurred to me, too. It had originally been Thomas Thompson’s van, Hleuco’s. The memories weren’t really there anymore, but brief flashes came to me. Riding around, looking for trouble, trying to stop it. Those days as Blank Face. They were so far away, now.

I definitely remembered having to chase after the van when I tried procure it for myself, then I met D. She had taken it for herself, given it back, only to then leave it behind and let it go up in smoke. At least it went out in a blaze of glory.

“It’s fine,” I said. “It’s not like I ever learned how to drive that thing, anyways. Probably for the best, to not hold on to relics from the past.”

“Sure, but we’re short a van, now.”

Lawrence took out a ring of keys, passing them to D. “Here. Actually bring this back in one piece, and keep me posted.”

“I will.”

“And… stay safe. I don’t know what he is to you, but that doesn’t mean you get to be excluded from his… ugliness. Get what we need out of him, and then get back here, as soon as possible.”

“I will,” D said. It was that I had never seen from D before. Or, to be more precise, it was the lack of something I was used to seeing. She looked defeated.

D took the keys, spinning them around her finger. She nodded, then turned, heading out to go to Styx. Big, black beads stared back at us, and I could project a look of longing in the teddy bear’s eyes. Even with the chatter and noise from all the work going on around us, I could hear her footsteps ringing in my head, an ominous note. Or was I just imagining it?

“Maybe I should go with her,” I said, watching D leave, getting smaller and smaller. And she was already so small to begin with.

“No, you stay here,” Lawrence said. “Not that I think you can’t help her, but you do have a particular talent in… inviting violence. Christ, Wendy, I saw the body. We had to step around him when we were talking shit out of the armory. That’s, I’ve seen a lot of shit in the relatively short time I’ve been doing this, and, fuck, shit like that still gets to me.”

His voice sounded shaky at the end, there.

“It could have been someone important, too,” Lawrence added. “Someone important to the Cobras.”

“That wasn’t me,” I refuted. “I didn’t, I didn’t kill that man. It all happened so fast, and yeah, I had to rely on my gun a few times, but that… that wasn’t me.”

“Fine, for all it’s worth, I believe you. But I need you here, not standing in front of Styx.”

“Are you saying that I’d make it worse?”

“What I’m saying is, Styx as a person is unpredictable, and unpredictable things happen to you. Not exactly what I need right now, especially when I want to diffuse this situation before we can do anything else. D can handle this part by herself.”

I breathed, letting it go. No need to fight him on this. Working together, being a team, that meant putting trust in one another, too. Lawrence trusted D in going to Styx, and coming from Lawrence, that meant a lot. If this was going to work, if this gang was going to continue, I’d have to put forth that trust in Lawrence, as well.

“She can, and she will,” I said. “At least the Cobras don’t know about us, Los Colmillos.”

“They’ll know that they actually did get raided tonight, when they go back to check on the church. If they haven’t already. Shit. We have put out all the smoke we can, or it’s going to come back and burn us in the future. Doesn’t help that D had to blow up a van and a building.”

“That-” I started-

“I know,” Lawrence interrupted. “I ain’t tripping. I’m done.”

“We can plan our next move while D does her thing. Like she said, buffer zones get targeted all the time, that’s why they’re there, it’s by design. The Cobras don’t know we were behind what happened tonight, so that buys us some time to do something else. Doesn’t have to be the Cobras, but we do have some room to make a move. Tonight was not a loss.”

Lawrence nodded, then crossed his arms.

“I’m with you on that. I don’t want our visit with Onmon to go to waste, either. And like Onmon, there’s an expiration date on that value.”

“So we’ll try again?” I asked. “Another buffer zone?”

“It’s not off the table. But, it’s not the only way we can make progress.”

“You have something in mind?”

There was a subtle shift in Lawrence’s expression. A slight turn up in the corner of his mouth, a more slight squint in his eye. A twitch that suggested he was holding back from either saying, or showing something on his face. As though he wanted to laugh, but couldn’t. Wouldn’t.

Then, the mask cracked. Somewhat. Lawrence’s grin was restrained.

“Maybe. If we’re doing this my way, you’re going to need a date, but it’s for sure as hell not going to be me.”

I had been shot at, pursued and cornered by cops and mobsters alike, and even had dogs sicced on me, trying to tear me apart. I’d survived getting shot, being stabbed, walked away from death itself. This body had been subjected to things that would be fatal to all, and it could still walk away from them, intact. Time and time again, I had my back up against the wall and I’d have to claw my way free. Nerves did play a factor then, but I was able to shore myself up and work against that, rise above it, even.

Now, those nerves had me frozen, my back was against a wall and I couldn’t budge.

Wrapped in a strange sense of déjà vu.

I was where I was, unable to even sway back and forth to the music. There were so many people here, if I was able to move I’d bump into someone. Everything was loud, from the rumbling bass to the people cheering or singing along. I couldn’t hear my own thoughts, as I tried to come up with some way to calm myself. Nothing, in that venture. The lights were low, the volume was clipped, and the smell of a specific sort of substance swirled in the air.

In other words, I had never felt so out of place.

“Wendy!”

I tried turning in the direction of that voice, but there were so many others competing for space that it immediately got drowned out. I checked in every direction available, seeing only faces, the sides of faces, arms, and cups.

I didn’t have to look for long, though, the owner of the voice approached, and I immediately felt more at ease.

“Sarah,” I said.

She sidled more than she did walk, the amount of room to maneuver being so narrow. Dressed in a light fit that was conducive for dancing, she looked as comfortable as I did not. A short, black top with long sleeves, tight jeans that made it easier to point her out in a crowd. I could recognize her outline, now. She was wearing a choker, but unlike D, it gave her a mature, almost sultry air about her, one that I couldn’t ever hope to match. Her look would have been completed if she had put her hair down. At the moment, it was tied up in a bun. Like I’d complain, though. Sarah still looked good.

She went to my side, a cup in one hand, careful not to spill it. A small smile on her face, shy, she tried to hide it, though she couldn’t help but feel giddy. Something else was holding the reins. I could see it in the light blush in her cheeks, the faint aroma from her breath.

“How’re you feeling?” Sarah asked. She was close enough that my shoulder touched her elbow. I was well aware of the contact.

I had to raise my voice to answer.

“Feeling? Put it like this. You look bad, but in slang kind of way. What I feel is more… dictionary definition.”

“Oh yeah?” Sarah’s voice sounded warm with liquor. Not slurred, but a drink or two away from getting there. She lifted the cup closer to my nose. The smell got stronger.

“Why don’t you have some, then?”

I shot a look at her.

“You know I can’t. I’m not to here to party,” I said, and then I lowered my voice for the next part, using it as an excuse to lean into her ear, “And I’m not exactly able to.”

She whispered back, just as close. “And why is that?”

“Alcohol and I, we don’t mix very well.”

“Oh? And what does?”

“It’s a little sweeter than alcohol.”

Somehow, Sarah was able to get even closer. I could feel her breath in my ear, my skin. The aroma as it hit my nose. The hair on the back of my neck stood straight up.

“Is it something I might be able to provide?”

I hadn’t even had a sip, but my head was spinning. I had to force myself to lean away and lean against the wall instead, or I’d probably lose my balance and fall.

“Maybe,” I said, breaking away from her gaze. “But… I don’t need that, not right now, and I don’t think you’d be up for it.”

Sarah stood straighter, too, pulling her cup away.

“No? Haven’t I already?”

It didn’t take long for me to recall what she was talking about. I saw the bandage wrapped around the hand she used to hold her cup.

“That, I made a mistake,” I said. “It’s just who I am, what I am.”

Whatever that is.

Still needed to work on that.

My hair was pushed back, set behind my ear. Wasn’t me.

Sarah’s fingers brushed against the top of my ear. Soft, almost imperceptible, but I felt it send a shock through my body.

She whispered.

“I know who you are, Wendy. You are courageous, you work hard to a fault, and you have really good taste in glasses.”

I almost laughed. “Is that your way of giving compliments?”

“Why? Did you like them?”

“Coming from you? Can’t say I don’t.”

“See? People like being appreciated, so now I know what you are.”

“It’s not that simple,” I said.

Sarah slinked around me, so she wasn’t as close. Part of me was relieved, another part wouldn’t mind if she had somehow completely closed the space between us.

I did get view of her face, though, as she looked at me. Head tilted down, taller than me, added inches thanks to her heels. It was dark in here, but there was the occasional blink of red and green. Strobe lights. It added to her already smoky yet striking makeup.

“Isn’t it?” she asked. “But if you still see yourself as a mistake, then I could be making far worse ones than you.”

I actually did laugh, that time. Residual giddiness.

“You have a habit of saying stuff like that to me,” I said.

“Until it gets through to your stubborn head, I’ll keep reminding you how awesome you really are.”

It sounded like something Isabella would say. Trying to talk me up.

I tried to match Sarah’s expression. A coy grin.

What the hell am I doing?

“Thank you,” I said.

Sarah gestured, taking a sip. As if this was easy. She went back to my side.

“Forgot how fun this was,” Sarah said. “The nightlife. Takes me back to my college days.”

“Had to be a lot of stories,” I said.

“Some I’ll probably keep to myself,” Sarah said. She winked. “Compromising information for all parties involved.”

“I can imagine,” I said.

“How about you? Was this ever your scene?”

Memories. Scenes I had no attachment to.

I answered.

“It was, but that was a lifetime ago, now. I was…”

“Was what?”

“I was a different person.”

“Cheers to that,” Sarah said, taking another drink, finishing it. “I’ve spent those years learning my limits, testing them. Now I know better.”

I didn’t know what she did with her cup, but she put her hand down, and when I saw it again, the cup was gone.

“All part of growing up?” I suggested.

Sarah’s grin turned to a smile. There was a difference.

“Exactly.”

That gave me enough assurance to take my back off the wall. I was able to move, now, and I had help.

“I think I’ll go check on Lawrence,” I said. “Make sure the deal is going down okay.”

“You know where to find me,” Sarah said. “I’ll help keep an eye on everything and everyone for you. And speaking of…”

Sarah leaned in, signaling to come closer, beckoning with a finger. I tried to leave, but I didn’t hesitate to go back.

She whispered into my ear.

“Looks like I’m not the only one who can’t take their eyes off you.”

I wasn’t sure how to react to that. I took the statement and chopped it up, focusing on the most important bits.

Not the only one.

“Oh?” I asked.

“Blonde, bun in hair. Glasses. Older. Too old for you, in my opinion.”

I didn’t look up and around, not right away. I didn’t want to make it look obvious.

“Oh,” I said, straightening myself.

“Does that put me back in your good graces?” Sarah asked.

I smiled.

“It absolutely does, thank you,” I said, for whatever felt like the millionth time, yet it still didn’t feel like enough.

I started to push through the crowd, leaving Sarah at her post. Everyone was either dancing or drinking, but they were still courteous enough to let me through.

Wasn’t here to have fun, not exactly. There was work to be done.

We were in a nightclub, but it was also neutral territory. We were in talks with another gang. They weren’t bigger than us, but we did comply with their request to have a meeting on a sort of middle ground. It was a show of good faith, on our part.

The meeting was designed to go smooth. The gang was no more than an extended group of wannabes, I couldn’t even recall what they named themselves, they had just rebranded. I did note the blue hoodies when I saw them come in, though.

They owed us some money, and they were actually willing to play ball. Our reputation was finally starting to mean something.

Lawrence would handle the talking, he was better at that stuff. I was to stay downstairs, keep an eye on everything and everyone, in case anyone would try to listen in or interrupt. Because we weren’t just getting our money, we were working on building connections. Real ones. For a gang, connections were like veins, and favors were like lifeblood. We had to curry what we could.

D wasn’t here, but she was around. She had come back from meeting with Styx. Nothing worth reporting, according to her, and for a man like Styx, no news meant good news.

And Sarah… was just to better sell the image of me being here. Easier to get into the club if I was with someone. A date. She was playing a part.

Right.

She also served as my extra eyes and ears, and she had picked up on something. Or someone.

I glanced around, trying to act natural. Then… there. I saw it. Her.

It was a woman, exactly like how Sarah described her. Blonde tied up into a bun, horn-rimmed glasses. What she was wearing looked to be more fitting for a boardroom than a bar at a nightclub.

I turned as soon as I noticed her, pretending to keep looking elsewhere. In the split second I had eyes on her, hers were on me, and she didn’t have a drink in her hand.

Whoever this lady was, she didn’t come here to have a good time. But she sure as hell wouldn’t ruin mine.

I retreated to another part of the club, by some tables. People were either conversing with each other or competing for how many shots they could take. I pulled out my phone, sending a text.

I got a response from D first. All lowercase, with enough icons and shorthand to make it almost unreadable. She didn’t know who the lady might be. I typed out a reply, to drive around the club, see if there was anything else going on. D was right on it.

Lawrence’s response was delayed, but it did come. Made sense, he was in a meeting. His was much easier to read than D’s. He appreciated the heads-up. From his end, it was going well, the gang would provide aid, should we require it. They definitely didn’t want to be our enemies. Lawrence typed that he’d advise them to take another exit out of the club. We couldn’t tip anyone off to our dealings.

Then, I typed out a suggestion.

D approved. So did Lawrence.

I put away my phone.

Pushing through the crowd again, I went straight for the woman.

I used my height to my advantage, it was easier for me to disappear into the crowd, to duck my head low and stay out of sight. If she really was keeping an eye on me, she would have a harder time, now.

All I had for weapons were my hands, I had lost my knife and gun. Even if I hadn’t, I still wouldn’t be allowed in the club with those things on me.

It was just one person, though. I could take her.

I moved over to where the bar was, to the woman’s right. A neon glow emanated from the light fixtures on the corners and back of the shelves, giving everything a soft hue, lighting bottles and people alike. It was red when I approached the bar, green when I approached the woman.

“You come here often?” I asked.

She had lost me in the crowd, and she didn’t see me come up to her. I expected her to be startled, but I got no such reaction. Instead, she turned, facing me. Her hands were placed in front of her, clutching a folder. Her expression was stern.

“Not at all. I don’t find much value in spending time in establishments like these.”

“Then it must be a special occasion, seeing you here.”

The woman’s expression remained, but I could have sworn I saw a small smirk settle across her lips.

“I suppose it is.”

“May I have your name?” I asked. I was trying to assess things before I acted on them, see if this woman posed an actual danger. Right now, I wasn’t sensing much.

“Mrs. Carter,” she answered.

Married.

Not sure why that thought came to me.

“I’m not really good at this kind of thing,” I said, still acting out the role of a normal person, but that was still an admittance on my part. “Not my scene, either.”

“Good, it means we can start taking our leave, soon.”

Our leave?

Was she as Sarah described, or was it something else?

“Is there… some business you had with me?” I questioned.

Mrs. Carter raised her chin, straightened her shoulders. The light around us changed to a warm yellow.

“I do. I am here on the behalf of Mister, and he would like a word from you.”

Previous                                                                                               Next

Advertisements

092 – Upstream Lethe

Previous                                                                                               Next

I didn’t have much time to think, plan, or even talk. Only a few seconds until everything officially went to shit.

I managed some sort of weird juggle between all three.

“Have to move, people, anything?”

Tripping over my own tongue.

Not like I had much to convey. A lot was passing through my mind in flickers, abstract concepts that I could only hope to glance at, forming more concrete ideas piece by piece. Something like that took time, time I didn’t have, but I couldn’t take so many steps blind. I needed something to guide me, give me direction.

I’d need help, and I reached for it.

Concentrate on getting out of there, that’s priority number one!

Right. It was such a simple first step, but that was exactly what I needed. That initial push that would get the ball rolling.

Concentrate on getting out of here. My first priority.

I walked forward with some confidence, with actual confidence. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to work with and scrounge up some mental footing and actually get somewhere. I crossed half the armory, head low, shoulders square, searching and considering fleeting options.

Walls, ceiling, floor? No, everything was made of cold, hard metal, near impossible to tear out or dig into. Near impossible, considering my own strength, but that took more time than I had, not the mention the damn noise that would make. No good.

The tables? They were just steel surfaces with thin legs, wheels at the bottom. Nothing to hide behind, I’d get found out immediately.

Weapons? Had my knife on me, my Springfield XD, but did I want to start things with a firefight when I was cornered with my against the wall? It’d be mine against theirs, the opponent’s experience against my lack. I’d end up with more holes than actual remaining parts of me.

And would I actually die? Or would someone, or something, take over?

My available options were already few and far between, leaving me with less and less with each one I crossed out, and the time I had to decide on something was next to nothing. I wasn’t in a good position. The lights were on in the armory, and the voices and footsteps were getting louder, getting closer. They’d see the lights coming from the end of the hallway, they’d see that something was wrong. They’d come to investigate, they’d see me, and then it would all go to shit. Officially.

There had be a course of action I could take that wouldn’t turn me into warm streaks of red paint, dripping down cold steel. Had to find that course and find it fast.

Now.

I crossed the remaining distance to the entrance, where the armory and the hallway met. The hall itself was more narrow than the armory, so there was a small bit of a metal wall that I could hide behind, if I pressed my elbow into that particular nook as much as possible. I moved fast, getting myself in position.

As I rummaged to get everything together, myself included, my ears were open for the intruders.

Well, I’m an intruder too, but they’re intruding on my intrusion.

I listened.

“-check the lights. Who was the last one in here?”

“Wasn’t me. Hadn’t been here since we first set up.”

“Who then? Manny?”

“Fuck if I know? I hadn’t been here.”

“Then we check every thing. Everything. Make sure we didn’t lose-”

I made sure he didn’t get to finish that sentence.

A man stepped into view, entering the armory. Then several. One in a suit, others in jackets or raincoats. Cops, too. As if this wasn’t complicated enough.

They were so focused on what was in front of them, that they didn’t notice a short, very thin masked girl crouching behind them with a knife in one hand, a gun in the other. None had the sense to react when that girl stalked up, closer, her breath low and her head lower. No one saw her coming.

The handle of my gun met the back of a cop’s neck. It was more the shock of getting hit that brought him down, more than the impact itself. Though, with how hard I brought down, I was sure that had something to do with it.

As he gurgled and fell, I moved on. No need to stop and check. Had to clear the room.

I looked for the tiniest shifts in posture, any tells. A slight turn of a shoulder, the twitch of a head or ear. Reactions. I saw that moment, they noticed that something had happened but before they were actually conscious of it.

And in that moment, I struck again.

One in a raincoat, this time. The hand I had used for the initial strike was still swinging down from the momentum. Trying to bring it back up again for another hit would waste precious seconds when I already had none.

I was in an armory, filled with weapons and mobsters and dirty cops. Even I was a weapon, myself. There was no room for cleanliness and kindness, here.

My other hand. A blade found its way into flesh.

I pulled the knife free, letting blood start pooling out. Wet in another way.

Hands went to the fresh found, the man twisting and his mouth opening, his eyes opened wider. He was about to yell.

I stopped him from doing so.

Leaning into my forward momentum, I kicked, and he flew into the other man in a raincoat, knocking them both into one of the tables. Firearms and limbs flung up, hit the wall, and crashed onto the floor.

There were only a few left standing. Three, to be exact, and I had to be exact. Two cops, and one man in a suit. I went for the cops.

As if I wasn’t already breaking enough laws.

I thought of Lawrence as I lifted both hands in front of me. I lowered them a touch, and I posed, assuming a fighting stance. Hips square to my opponents.

Couldn’t just swing around, flailing, mindless to what was around me. Had to think things through, but not let that bog me down. Know what was coming next, and be cognizant of my surroundings and my own mental state. And to do that, I’d need a certain kind of awareness.

What did Lawrence call it. A Shaolin warrior?

I almost laughed and broke my concentration. It was so dorky. But I’d use it.

Be more like that.

It only lasted a second, but it was enough for me to get my bearings and formulate the semblance of a plan, knowing what was coming next. It was easier to make a step when I was already moving, easier to make progress when progress was already made. Mobsters and cops were on the floor behind me, hurting and bleeding, and all I had to do was finish the remaining number.

Then I can concentrate on getting out of here.

Bouncing on the balls of my feet, I rolled with momentum, forward. On my left, five feet away, a cop. His hands were going to his hip, assuming a position of his own. He had been trained on this sort of thing, more or less, and was using his instincts to guide him. From his perspective, the situation had flipped on a dime, and in that sudden turn, he relied on months of training and possible years on the job to make a snap decision and act by taking control back with a gun.

A slash with my knife forced the gun out of his hands.

The cop joined his gun on the floor, another swing with the blunt end of my gun made sure of that. Two left standing.

The remaining cop was making his move while I had been working on his partner. Just as much training and instinct, that response time, but without me to jump his particular gun.

He fired.

Vivi!

Another voice in my ear. It seemed to join in a chorus of others, yet it had its own tone. Cutting through everything, giving me a certain clarity to push even harder, move even faster.

The bullet just narrowly missed my head.

I had the sense to duck as soon as I slashed with the knife. I heard the loud bang, the harsh ruffle of heavy material as a tiny piece of metal zipped past my hood. It took me back to a time I wanted to a time I had tried to forget and reject. White walls, cold tiles. Splitting screams over a barrage of bullets. Metal and destruction.

One of the most critical of critical moments, and I managed to be fast enough. Faster than this finger, faster than this pulled trigger.

I was able to overtake.

Springing up to a proper standing position, I spun as well, using the movement get my knife in the right place, the blade hitting the gun, pushing it away from being so close to my head. The gun didn’t fling out from his fingers, no, he fired again, but he made contact with flesh that time.

Oh.

Head whipped back, cracking.

Eyes rolled into the back of sockets. I threw myself back, getting out from the splattered blood and picked meat.

The man in the suit had been killed.

There was a pause that seemed to put a stop to time itself. Everything seemed to freeze all at once.

Enough time had passed, giving me a chance to take a breath, sour with the stench of death. I swallowed, and the taste was just as foul.

Blood started spreading out from behind the man’s head, an eye blank, the other now missing, staring up towards the ceiling.

I had to look away, and when I did, I locked eyes with the cop who had pulled the trigger.

Stunned, just as I was, but I couldn’t stay like that forever, or even a second longer. I was already concentrating, thinking of the next move.

Next, I moved up to the cop, leaning in with my shoulder, slamming him against the wall. The guns rattled against the metal wall.

I moved the knife so it was pressing into his side. Not enough to go through, but enough for him to know that it could.

His eyes. There was fear… and something else. A silent rage. He kept looking at what was left of the man in the suit.

“Drop the gun,” I ordered, low.

He dropped the gun.

I wanted to say more, ask more, but there was no time. I could gather the information I needed as I made my escape.

A stab, and he dropped.

I didn’t get a chance to catch another breath.

More were coming.

I could hear them coming, like a stampede, or maybe even a wave. A rush came over me.

Walking to the middle of the armory, I scanned what was ahead as I continued forward.

A group of men. A squad of police, judging from the quick glance at the uniforms they had on. Body armor, guns that packed more punch than my puny pistol. A formation in how they approached and how they lined themselves up.

SWAT? Another sort of team?

If D was right, this would have been the dummy squad used to perform the fake raid on the forward base.

Had to get out, could I take them with me? How? Push, like I always did, like how I did just now?

I hesitated.

Every instinct was yelling at me to attack, to break them with any means I had available. I could feel something inside me push, nudging me in that general direction. I could even feel myself wanting that, to get into that fight, like I just did. To vent frustrations and wrestle control of the situation with my own hands. To do it all by myself. That compulsion was there.

But I knew better. I had to force myself to know better.

Time had now run out. Everything had now gone to shit. Officially.

I made my decision.

I ran towards them.

I kept my footsteps light and fast as I ran into the long corridor, leaving the armory and the downed intruders behind. The squadron made it to the middle, and I met them there. I noted the initial confusion, then the change in postures as they readied themselves for a fight. They halted and lifted their guns.

Lifting myself, I jumped into the air, diving. There was a space between their heads and the ceiling that I was aiming for.

I slipped in between that space, my legs and feet knocking over the top of helmets and shoulders. In my split second decision, I had pushed too hard, and my top of my head tapped the ceiling as well. I felt a little dizzy as I came crashing back down to the hard floor.

Shaking my head, hard, I scrambled to return to my feet and keep running.

Fuck all of that.

I had to get out of here, not get into a fight that I had a chance of losing. Now wasn’t the time to act like I was tough. Those seeds of doubt had sprouted already, and I had given them plenty of water to grow. By this juncture, I’d let them have enough of a sway to pull me in the other direction. I just barely dodged a bullet, I wasn’t going to push my luck any further.

Moving, but not for long. I was close to the stairs when I heard another gunshot, and felt a hot pain in my back. I fell.

Things slipped out of my hands as I hit the floor. My gun skidded away from me, the knife not much farther away, closer to the stairs themselves. The knife slipped underneath the staircase, they weren’t directly attached to the floor.

My knife.

I wasn’t able to let my mind linger on the fact that I couldn’t go grab for it again. Pain was taking over, threatening to blind me if I gave into it entirely.

Couldn’t let it.

I dragged myself with my arms, reaching for the stairs while collecting the gun. Turning to get on my back was as hard as I would have expected it to be, given the pain and all. Something was lodged in the lower base of my spine, and it was stuck there. It was probably smaller than my thumb, but the shock and stiffness of my back made it feel more like a baseball.

Letting out shallow, hollow breaths, with one free hand, I climbed the steps. Pathetic, ungainly, but still alive.

I kept crawling.

More bullets whizzed by me, some pinging off the metal stairs and even leaving dents. One hit me in the back of the leg, and I winced and tensed up. I froze.

I was doing all that I could, and there was still a chance that I wouldn’t make it.

I have to keep going. I fucking have to.

My healing had gone right to work. I got hit, and things moved. A tactile sense of once connected tissue reconnecting, joining together and pushing out foreign objects in the doing. The baseball-sized weight in my back was getting smaller and smaller by noticeable increments, decreasing from a quarter to then a dime. Hot zones where I’d gotten shot, getting hotter as the damage was becoming undone.

I used that sensation and rolled with it, finding the strength to move that much faster, put that much more strength into getting the fuck up.

Among the panic and chaos, I found my footing, and my feet found the steps. Hot metal was spat out of my back and leg as I crawled up on all fours. I managed to reach the landing. The staircases were winding.

I twisted around.

I felt like I was on fire while I peered down the corridor. The squadron had reorganized themselves, turning back around to face me and finish the job. Barrels flared and snarled fire in my general direction.

I booked it, grabbing the railing and pulling myself up, leaping over steps rather than taking them. As I ascended, another wound was closing up near my torso. Did I get hit without realizing it? Had to be the adrenaline kicking in, helping me push past new injuries.

Couldn’t be sloppy, or I’d catch a wandering bullet. Concentrate.

Thoughts scattered, and I let them. I stayed focused on the task at hand.

Up another level. Ground floor, finally. From the noises behind me, and from having a general awareness of things, I knew that this was far from over.

I kept running.

More corridors, lengthy but empty. Could I try to talk to D or Lawrence, or save the breath for when I was sure I’d be safe?

Shit.

It was probably better to just keep moving.

Running, heading down the corridor, I looked for exits. There could be more of them outside, in the main church area. The space was more open too, less places hide, unless I wanted to crouch behind wooden pews. That would hardly count as cover.

I took to a door. I heard the police make it to the top of the stairs.

Looking around, I had slipped into what looked like an office. No exits here. Dammit.

I crouched, leaning against the door. I kept an ear out as the police continued into the corridor, shouting orders and updates to each other. To them, it kept them organized, in order, but for me, it just added to the pain.

I spoke into the earpiece. Whatever. I managed to buy myself some time.

“Hey,” I said, testing. “Anyone?”

A rush of voices. They overlapped. Took a bit before they organized themselves.

You go first.” It was D.

Okay.” Lawrence “This went to shit, quick.”

“Officially. It’s not the end of the world, though. We can still salvage this.”

How? Place is swarming with cops and Cobras. If we make our move now they’ll know it’s us, and they’re not going to hesitate to wipe us off the map. You don’t go after these guys directly. That’s why we were doing it like this, from the shadows. We didn’t account for this.

“We can still salvage this,” I repeated. “And that’s not me being arrogant or cocky. We might not be able to secure the zone, but we can still gut them of their armory.”

Go in and take the weapons?” D asked.

“We could use the extra firepower. Knocks them down a few pegs, which can help us for when we regroup and try again.”

Maybe,” Lawrence said. Even from an earpiece, a mechanical tone, I could sense the doubt. Hell, I could feel it within me, too.

“It can work, but I’ll have to empty out this church.” An idea came to me. “If I can get them all to follow me, I’ll divert their attention and give you room to move in and nab everything you can get your hands on.”

Dangerous,” Lawrence said. Not a warning, a fact. And I knew that all too well.

The police were coming closer, doors banged and feet stomped. They were searching every room as they went down the corridor.

“I know, but I’m not doing this by myself. D, take your van and try to stay close. We’ll coordinate. Lawrence, have Sarah and her group join you so you’ll have more hands on deck. Get everything. Guns, boxes, I think there was a file of papers in there too.”

Lawrence answered immediately. Doubts could still linger, but they wouldn’t give him pause.

Sure. I’ll get what I can.

There’s worse ways to improvise.” I had the sense that D was smiling as she spoke. “Could be fun.

At least someone would get some enjoyment out of this.

More banging, louder stomps. Yells. Back to running out of time.

“So we’re doing this?” I asked. Just wanted to make sure.

Yeah, we’re doing this.

Yes!

I backed away from the door, hunched, ready to pounce. Gun in my hands, fingers around the handle, holding it like how D showed me. Trigger discipline. Safety off. I felt small drafts of cold air brush my skin, holes in my costume. An acute awareness of just how fragile I really was.

If I was doing this alone, I would have gotten into this fight, and I would have lost. Now, I just had to run so I could live another day, while not making this operation a complete failure. That, I could do. It was possible. And with help, it was probable.

I set my legs apart, centering myself. I waited for round two.

My hands were shaking.

“See you soon,” I said. “I’ll get the front door open for you guys. The armory is in the back, past the altar, down a hall and stairs in the back. And when you get here, watch your step. Floors might get slippery.”

And then the door swung open. My fingers clenched harder on the gun as I aimed it.

I timed it so the bang of the gun coincided with the bang of the door. It swung open to reveal a police officer in riot gear, padded armor and heavy weaponry. A helmet with a hard plastic covering over his face.

He had brute forced his way into the room that would have torn the torn off its hinges if I had done the same, and the level of strength and intensity was made proportionate. Almost flying into the room, one foot ahead of him, about to slam hard enough on the carpeted floor to make a decent bit of noise.

He didn’t slam into the floor. He crashed instead.

The bullet had torn through his kneecap, and he leg folded in a way that was just wrong. He twisted, shocked, and fell without so much as a utterance of pain.

The gun had some pushback as part of the recoil, but I knew to account for that, I set my arms and my elbows in a way that was able to absorb the shock and not fling the gun out of my hands.

It was a better shot that the one I had taken in that fucked up city. Remus. Victor. Solace. That had burned into the very recesses of my soul. It was messy, and the splatter went farther and further than just what had gotten smeared across the floor of that cold, marbled floor.

The image flashed clear in my mind’s eye, and it was detailed enough that I almost stopped, a growing lump in my throat that I wanted to expel. Better to vomit.

But, I was relying on other people, and they were relying on me. I couldn’t drop the ball anymore.

I raised my foot and stepped over the police officer.

Starting into a sprint, I went back out into the corridor. Immediately I encountered the rest of the squadron. They were all already mobilizing in response to the sudden bangs and crashes Placed in different points along the length of the corridor, they were turning to ready their guns and get into a better position.

But fuck all of that.

I kept running, ducking and generally keeping myself small and low. Harder to hit if there was less of a target to aim for.

They were quick to start firing. Bullets whizzed past, and I snaked between bodies, legs, and tight spaces to stay out of their sights. I was going so fast that I’d make myself dizzy, but I carried on.

The shots weren’t too frequent, considering how spread out they were, they probably didn’t want to risk hitting one if their own. I used that as my cover, since moving close to some of the cops actually gave me an advantage. It was a paltry amount, but I’d have to stretch it as far as I was able.

Shit. I couldn’t find an emergency exit without getting lost. Had to go back the way I came.

A cop was guarding the doors. Reluctant, but aware, I aimed and dove.

We tagged each other at the same time. He got me in the shoulder, and I got him square in the chest, twice. It was a good thing I didn’t have to reload after each shot.

My gun wasn’t that powerful, especially when up against some decent body armor, but he did stagger, and with me following up with my whole body slamming into his, it was enough to send him back and through the door.

I pushed my way back into the church. Back at the altar.

No reprieve or peace to be found here. Shots continued to fire.

With my shoulder healing, with every alarm in my head was ringing, my eyes darting around so I could reorient myself again. I glanced at a wooden cross hanging high from the ceiling.

I cursed under my breath, in a way that felt like it had reach.

The sound grew into a growl, and I kicked myself off the cop and into the pews. No choice but to use them for cover now.

There were more mobsters than there were cops out here, but guns pointed in my general direction would always be dangerous. Some drew weapons, some came running straight at me. It was like I was swimming upstream, facing the current directly. The harder I tried to swim, the more it felt like I was sinking. But it was the only way out.

I ducked down, and a wooden pew splintered right by my ear. Glass shattered. I wanted to throw up.

But, I was in a more open area, I had room to stretch my arms and legs. No constraints, less that could keep me down.

This was more of my element.

I jumped, high, to get distance and to be closer to the ceiling. There was less light up here, using the shadows to hide. I couldn’t stay up here forever, but it made a world of difference. Shots scattered in wildly different directions, all guesswork. Not as frequent, though, but most of the police and mobsters were still trying to make sense of what was happening and who I was. It wouldn’t have settled in yet, not completely.

And in that confusion, I’d make an escape, and a distraction for Lawrence.

I was falling back down, and the time it took to descend allowed me to prep for the returning fight. I minded the ammunition I had left. Sixteen in a clip, thirteen left. I had some more left in my bag but this was what I was working with right now. I had to make them count.

I fired a shot. I didn’t hit anyone, but that wasn’t the intention. Had to direct their attention and keep it on myself, make certain that they were all hellbent on killing me.

Twelve left.

I landed in the center aisle of the church, breaking into a run right as I touched ground. More shots, more yelling. All at me.

This was terrible, but it was working.

Two men stepped into the aisle, trying to block my way. Twelve shots turned to ten. One went down, I missed the other. I still wasn’t very good at this.

Fuck, I had been so reluctant on using guns, taking lives if I really, absolutely had to, but now, thanks to Solace, the floodgates had been opened, and what spilled out was fire.

Fuck, whatever, it was too late to lament. I had a job to do, people were relying on me, and I was relying on them. I had to keep my end of the bargain.

Fuck.

I made it to the church doors. No lock, they would needed a way in somehow.

I kicked the doors open.

The currents became stronger. More people in the parking lot, black vans and police cars beamed harsh light into my eyes. White, red and blue. I squinted.

Blinded, but I threw myself past it.

I leaped, feeling the open air, the chill and light drizzle as it touched my face. It reminded me of the time at the school. Benny. It has rained then, too.

Over cars and heads, I hit the sidewalk, almost slipping over how wet the cement was. I managed to keep my balance and keep running.

The snarls of vehicles and people started behind me. They knew what I did, and they wouldn’t let me get away with it.

I crossed the street, my legs pumping and my lungs hurting for air. I didn’t energy to burn forever, but I needed to get these guys far away from the church as possible, and keep them there.

“D!” I tried to say, but it came out as a harsh noise instead.

She understood me though.

Loud, but not clear.

I chanced a glance to my back. A lot of headlights, a lot of different colors. There were sirens now.

“I think I got everyone on my trail, but we’ll need a way to shake them off!”

I’m working on it! Let’s see… some weapons, some tools, a few fire hazards.

Jumping again, I bounced off the top of a streetlight to get a decent burst of speed and distance, and to keep myself in everyone’s sights. The real escape would come in a little bit, D was working on that.

I hope.

“I’d start moving over to St. Elizabeth, Lawrence,” I said, between heavy breaths. “Should be empty enough by the time you get there.”

Already on my way.

Good. Things were starting to come together. Something I could salvage. We.

Forward on.

My legs and arms and chest and body were all burning up something major. It hurt. So much. I had to stay on this street, turning would cause too much of a pile up with all the vehicles on my tail and I might actually get away. Shit, just one jump up a roof and some streets over should put me in the clear.

But that wasn’t the point of this. I had to make it look like I was getting away.

Later.

I ran down enough blocks that I had lost count, the vehicles starting to get hotter on my trail. I was fast, but not that fast, I couldn’t outrun a car.

Red and blue lights started casting light on my feet, sirens blaring in my ears, louder. They were close enough to snap at my heels.

“Sorry D, but I’m going to have to rush you!”

Almost! Sure, okay, um, I’ll finish it as I catch up!

“Lawrence!”

We’re here. Reggie and Sarah took their groups and moved out. I’d help, but I’d slow them down. But you’re right, there’s no one in the parking lot.

Good. Yes. This would work.

Just had to finish it. Just had to come up with how.

In the same moment I leapt to and off another streetlight to force more distance, D came through.

Uh, V, where are you again?

I crossed an intersection, barely making out the blur that was the street sign.

“Going down Draten!”

That’s close, yes! Okay! Up another block is a video game store, at a corner. Go there and wait in front of the store!

“You want me to stand there in the open and wait for you?”

I’m a street across, going along Draten. I’ll meet you there!

“Then what?”

D didn’t give me a straight answer.

I’m working on it!

I wanted to yell at her, but I wanted to save my breath.

This better work, D.

I could see the store coming into view, at the corner of the street. With an actual destination in mind, I was able to push myself to run that much harder.

My muscles were screaming for a break.

I broke.

I pressed my feet down, skidding across wet pavement. Spinning around, I didn’t have to wait too long for something to come up at me.

I hopped on top of the hood of an incoming police car.

They were coming at me fast, I had to brace myself for the impact, but it still didn’t feel like it was enough. I had to slam both hands onto the roof of the car in order to hold on, leaving dents in the metal, dropping my gun in the process.

The car screeched as it tried to halt, but with the top speed it managed to reach, its path snaked and skidded before it could come to a complete stop. Holding on, I managed to ride it out, until I got closer to the corner and the store, a few yards away.

Hopping off, I stumbled over to the store, where D wanted me to stand wait. In front of all these cars, mobsters and cops alike, all wanting to shoot me dead.

This was it, the ultimate test. I was putting all of my chips and trust on D.

Turning again, I raised my hands, and backed into the storefront. All that was to my back was a glass window.

Pinned again.

“D?” I said the name like it was a question. Because, in a sense, it was. I was questioning her. “This would be the time where you did something really crazy but it works and we get out of here to live and see another day.”

Almost, agh, there! Just buy me some more time.

I stared at the police and mobsters as they caught up, getting out of their cars to train guns at me. There were even more cops now, since I had made this enough of a thing to involve the actual police force into action.

So many of them yelling at me, and I couldn’t make out any of it. It was just a wall of noise.

“Freeze!”

I was already frozen.

Disoriented, discombobulated.

I wanted out. Needed it.

“I think my balance is zeroed out on that,” I said.

In the distance, where I couldn’t see, I heard rubber peeling, squealing on cement. Another set of headlights coming from the other end of the intersection. Speeding this way.

Then I’ll bail you out!

It all happened so fast, but it really didn’t feel like it.

The van crashed through the storefront, demolishing the glass and ramming through the display and front part of the building. I was right in the middle of all the destruction.

It was barely a warning, but enough of one was given that I could hop a little, bringing my legs in and curling into a ball. When the van crashed through the window, I wasn’t sent flying through it, rather, I was pushed through an opening when the van’s windshield hit my feet.

Crashing through the store stopped the van, but the momentum carried me deeper into the store. My back hit a metal shelf, and it tipped over, plastic cases and boxes falling around me.

My head rattled, pounded, any more and it might split open. I moved, and was surprised that I could move. I leaned over and finally let it all out.

I was wiping a corner of my mouth when I heard a car door open, that ringing tone that indicated it was still open, and the crinkling of glass and plastic.

D was standing over me, hunched. She was holding one arm, cradling it. Or… no, her arms were hugged around something. When my eyes were better able to focus, it was a teddy bear.

“God fucking dammit, D,” I said.

She held out a hand, and I took it. She helped me up.

“Did I break anything?” she asked. Her voice played out in front of me and directly into my ear.

I gave her a look.

“Nothing I can’t heal,” I said, feeling a warm sensation in my feet and arm. I looked around the store. The entire front half of the store was destroyed, as if a bulldozer had went through it. The van was stuck inside the store, debris and dust falling on top of it. When I crashed into the metal shelf, it knocked against the one behind it, knocking over even more stuff, like a domino.

I added, “As for this, you’re better off asking if there’s anything you didn’t break.”

D didn’t let go of my hand. She tugged instead, pulling me along. She took us to the back of the store, past a counter.

“I’m about to take care of that. Hurry, we’ve got about five minutes before the van blows up.”

What?

“You know, cross enough wires and put enough stuff where they don’t belong… Structural integrity is a funny thing.”

“Fuck, D, your plan is to blow up this building?”

What? Blow up what?

That’d have to be Lawrence.

“Relax,” D said, actually sounding relaxed. “I used to know the owners, I’d come by here on occasion to check out vintage games and stuff. But they recently had to downsize since business was never that great, and there was some issues with the building itself, too. It was scheduled for demolition.”

“How convenient. The store’s inventory is still here. When is it supposed to be torn down?”

“Um. In three months?”

“D!”

She didn’t reply, instead finding a back exit that went into an alley. I let D lead the way.

I put my attention somewhere else, instead.

“Lawrence, how’s everything at the church.”

It’s, uh, it’s going well. We just about grabbed everything we could carry. There’s still some weapons left behind, but we managed a decent chunk of it.

“That’s awesome!” D said.

It’s not the win we wanted, but it is something.

“It is,” I said. It was.

Even if this wasn’t the ideal, even if things fell apart, we were still able to salvage something and get at least one point on the board. It was better than nothing.

A single point. If it was just me, there wouldn’t have been one at all.

“Let’s regroup then,” I said. “Think you can pick us up?”

Should be able to, if you distracted the cops and Cobras enough.

“Don’t worry, I did,” D said. “I know a place, start heading north and we’ll meet up and we’ll go back to the Redhouse together.”

Definitely.”

D stopped running. I stopped too.

She was gasping for breath. That much had already taken a lot out of her. Then again, she did crash a van into the middle of the store. I was surprised she could still stand.

“I’m tired,” D said, matter-of-factly, like how a kid would. “Can you carry me? We still need to put some distance behind us.”

I coughed, but I nodded.

“I’m tired too, but sure. Come on.”

She walked around me, and I lowered myself so she could hop onto my back. I grunted. Her arms went around my shoulders, the top of the teddy bear’s head nuzzled my chin.

“Thank you,” she said, almost sleepy.

I didn’t respond, but I didn’t have to. The feeling was mutual.

I took the air one more time, crossing rooftops, going north. D, between fits of laughter and excitement over the closest thing we had to flying, indicated where to go.

Behind us, I only heard it. I felt it, but only in my chest, as I was in the air when it happened.

The van had blown up, taking the store and probably most of the building with it. The sound was loud and reverberating, a boom that affected the deepest parts of me.

We didn’t win, but we didn’t quite lose, either. We did, however, make progress. And that was worth getting excited over.

Previous                                                                                               Next

091 – Parting Seas

Previous                                                                                               Next

“Thirty minutes before we roll out,” Lawrence said, standing straight, standing taller. “On the dot. I don’t want to lose a second because one of you got distracted doing something else. Keep the clock in mind, get busy.”

A shout of assent among the gathered Fangs.

“What he said!” D yelled out. The response was less enthused but there.

I didn’t even bother saying something. I could imagine the response I’d get.

About twenty or so of us at the Redhouse. This wasn’t everyone, not even close, nor should it have been. We weren’t preparing for a war, but we knew that this wasn’t going to be easy. We would have to prep, and meant getting together a decent sized group, take out certain equipment, and drafting a sound plan in a matter of twenty-four hours. We weren’t allotted much time after our visit with Mr. Onmon.

People worked, handing things out, writing things down. Not everyone would be armed, but those that did were assigned a weapon and had to sign the weapon out. If it got lost or misplaced, it would have to be reported. Most of our armory consisted of the shipment Benny had brought in for her gang. We had taken what we could for ourselves, but there was still a significant amount of those armaments circulating out there, in the city’s underworld. D had even set some of them off while we were trying to find Benny. As a gang, we had our teeth, and we’d have to take care of them. Couldn’t afford to have gaps form due to neglect or other circumstances. Unlike D, it wasn’t a cute look.

There was a lot to get through and get organized with, but we were making good time, even with the added bit of red tape. We’d be ready to roll out by Lawrence’s deadline.

“Everything looks to be in order,” I said. I adjusted my glasses. “Good work setting this up.”

Lawrence was standing straight, tall, up until he wasn’t. He shuffled to the edge, and gestured.

“Someone help me get off this thing.”

Reggie and Sarah answered the call, stepping up to lend a hand. Bending down, Lawrence took their hands and hopped off of the small crate he was standing on. He groaned all the way.

Gracias,” he said, grunting.

“You’re starting to sound like an old man,” D said. She added more energy and pep to her own voice, to contrast Lawrence’s weathered rasp. Then, she laughed, as if she couldn’t contain herself.

Lawrence, however, didn’t it as funny.

“Shut up, I’m still sore as shit. Everything hurts and aches and it freaking sucks.”

He muttered, keeping his complaints low, not letting the other Fangs pick up on what ailed him.

“I can’t have you on painkillers forever,” D said. “You’ll have to start relying on your own body to get you through the rest.”

“Fuck that, I feel like I’ll break some bones if I cough hard enough.” Lawrence looked at me. “Hey, you know any way you can give me some of your healing?”

“Me?” I asked. I shook my head. “Not that I’m aware of, no. And are you really saying you’d want my powers?”

“Not all of them, just the ones that are convenient to me.”

“Yeah, you don’t get to pick and choose, sorry. The bad comes with the convenient, and so does the fucking terrifying.”

Lawrence had an expression on his face, as though he was actually weighing his options.

“You can keep all that shit. I’ll tough it out…”

He muttered that last part, low enough that even I missed it. He scratched his neck.

“All of you need to learn how to take it easy,” Sarah said. “I don’t remember the phrase, but it had something to do with burning candles. What was it, Wendy?”

She was wearing baggy jeans and a bomber jacket, a bucket hat to top it off, complimenting lighter bottoms with a darker top. Her white shirt was cut short, hanging right above her ribs, showing off her midriff. Her skin was a natural tan, she wasn’t thin but she had a figure, which her relaxed fit didn’t hide, instead, it accentuated the shape. Maybe it was because the weather was still bad, or because she had been working, passing out equipment and helping with preparation, but some moisture was stuck the surface, making her skin glisten. She had been working hard enough that there was some definition there, too, and-

“Wendy?”

I snapped my head up. “What? I missed, what?”

“Don’t burn candles at both ends,” Reggie offered, “That’s more or less it.”

“Oh, right,” Sarah said. “Thanks.”

I looked back down, facing away from Sarah. Darn.

Sarah and Reggie had been asked to be a part of this operation. The offer was extended to Tone, but, he decided to sit this one out. I could understand him.

These two were here to help, not to play around. No distractions allowed.

I saw D, who met my eyes, her expression curious.

“You got all your gear ready?” she asked.

And like that, just one question was able to reorient myself. To get myself to focus. No more distractions.

I nodded, stern.

“All packed up and ready to go. I am not going to be the one that screws this up for everyone. Not this time.”

D gave me a small smile.

Sarah turned from Reggie, redirecting herself. To me. “Need any help carrying anything?”

I shook my head, stern.

“I’ll be fine, I’m not bringing that much stuff with me, anyways. I like to keep a light load on me. Easier to move around that way.”

“Bet.”

I glanced to the side, near the crate Lawrence was standing on before. A duffel bag with all my stuff. Mask, poncho, pants. Gloves and boots. I was already wearing the thermals. Another bag inside the bag, one I’d actually carry around with me when out in the field. Knife. Simple stuff.

There were some new items in my inventory, though, stuff I never thought I’d use, or need. Like a pistol. The Springfield XD, recommended by D, apparently it was a good gun to use for a beginner. She probably just liked it because the name looked like a huge smile.

I had it, I had some minor, last-minute training with it, but I prayed it wouldn’t have to come to me using it. Or anyone, even. Guns had a not so funny habit of making things escalate, just bringing them would burn a hole in pockets, begging to be fired. We had to bring them for this, but only as a deterrence, in case everything fell apart.

It’d get messy, and we’d need even more rain to that clean that up.

“I like when things are simple,” I said.

“What spurred that on?” Lawrence asked.

I shrugged.

“Just thinking out loud. Simple means easy, or at least easy to understand. And if it’s easy to understand, then it’s easy to plan for.”

“Not necessarily,” D said, interjecting. “There’s plenty of stuff that are easy to understand, but it doesn’t make them easy to deal with.”

“That’s a lot of ‘easy,’” Lawrence said.

“Like, for example, checkers or even chess. There’s a set amount of pieces or rules, and they all move simple enough, but put them all together and now you have a complicated mess of systems and mechanics. Heck, get a king pinned? It can be tricky to slip out of that.”

“If you’re in that situation, it’s easy to understand that you’re fucked,” Lawrence said.

D glared at Lawrence. “Or, like, if someone is being a real stubborn steakhead and won’t listen. That’s not easy to deal with at all.”

I pouted.

“You know what I mean, guys. Simple, easy. Clean. Point me to something, tell me to punch it, and then it’s done with. Stuff like that.”

“When has that ever happened, ever? That’s nothing but a fantasy,” Lawrence said. “There’s always going to be some fall out, no matter what you do. That’s why it’s smart to figure out what the potential consequences are for any given plan. If you can do that, plan for that too, or even use that to your advantage… shit, now you’re talking about things I like.”

I felt like groaning.

“I know,” I said, “Believe me I do. Darn, can’t a girl daydream without getting crap for it?”

Reggie and Sarah chuckled at our interaction.

Lawrence rolled a shoulder, leaning to one side, wincing.

“I ain’t got time to give anyone crap. So get your head out of the clouds, we’re leaving in twenty minutes.”

“Fine, twenty minutes,” I said, confirming it.

Lawrence rolled his shoulder again, his forehead creased. He turned.

“I’ll check on the others. You have nineteen minutes and some seconds.”

He walked off, going to the other Fangs. They all stood straight and alert when he approached them. Some, when they noticed me, gave stares that lasted a second too long. Or was I just being paranoid?

“There he goes, burning candles at both ends,” Sarah said, looking in his direction.

“Hey, you got it,” Reggie said. He was watching Lawrence, too. “I’ll go with him, in case the old man knocks something out of a socket.”

D laughed hard enough for Lawrence to turn back around. The rest of us shrugged at him.

Reggie went off to accompany Lawrence, leaving just the three of us.

“He’s really putting his all into this gang,” I said. I almost felt guilty, that my dedication to Los Colmillos wasn’t up to par with Lawrence. It wasn’t like I was lacking, though, I wouldn’t be here in the position I was in if I didn’t want to put the work in. But, in comparing myself to Lawrence, he was on another level.

“Good boy Lawrence,” D said. “I’m so proud.”

“For sure. Though, it’s probably because of you guys, that he’s able to work so hard.”

I turned to Sarah. “Meaning?”

Sarah made a sound, non-committal. “Hm, I won’t claim that I know him all that well, I joined with Reggie and Tone when it was just the Ghosts, but even then, he had a drive to keep going and be the one on top. He kept a circle with him. Charlie, Jonny, and Mels. They were closest things to ‘friends’ he had in this underworld.”

Those names sounded familiar, but I couldn’t put a face to them. They were probably around before I started working with Lawrence and the Ghosts.

They definitely weren’t around, now.

“I remember them,” D said, “They were nice. Well, not nice to me, but to Lawrence. So yeah, they were nice.”

“They were a big help, back when they were still in the gang,” Sarah said. “And Lawrence relied on them a ton. I’ll admit, the Ghosts weren’t at their best in those early days, with some pretty rough patches. If it weren’t for those three, there might not have even been a gang for you two to join.”

“They sound like real MVPs,” D included. “Shouts out to them.”

“Yeah, more hands like that on deck would be nice,” I said. I tilted my head a little. “Wait. So where are they now?”

Sarah shook her head a little.

“They’re gone. Charlie and Jonny, Mels too. Don’t know why, exactly, maybe they just had enough and walked away? I’m not really sure, and Lawrence isn’t the kind of guy to talk about that kind of personal stuff. And it’s not like anyone has to question it, ever since the two of you joined, things have been looking up, overall.”

Ever since the two of us joined.

I recalled the early tension from the Ghosts. Towards me, towards D. They weren’t very keen on joining forces. Heck, Lawrence had to be the least thrilled about that proposition. I managed to convince them, though, when I pointed to Benny as a common enemy, and ever since then… sailing hadn’t been smooth, not quite, but we could manage. There was always forward momentum.

But, I could still feel that bit of tension, and ever since I got back from El Paso, it seemed to get worse. It left me not wanting to rock the boat even further, to take every word, action, or even appearance with the Fangs with the utmost scrutiny. To plan for the fall out, to use Lawrence’s words.

It was all so fucking complicated. Hated it.

“You’re saying we’re replacements?” I asked, “Filling in that hole that those three left behind?”

All Sarah offered was a shrug, and the verbal equivalent.

“Who is to say, and I don’t want to spread gossip and assume. Maybe he’s trying to find in you what he had in them, or maybe he really is just that driven of a person.”

I was getting better at reading her face. Another idea was on the edge of her lips, ready to be let out.

“Or maybe?” I offered, wanting to tease it out of her.

“Or maybe he feels like he isn’t on your level, and he’s trying to compensate.”

“My level?” I asked, taken aback, slightly. A little surprised.

Sarah turned to face us. “You and Miss D. In the off chance you’re not aware, you two hold very special positions in, not just this gang, but this city, and in your case, the whole world.”

‘Your’ as in me. The whole world.

“D has her crazy tactics and antics, and you have so many amazing things about you, Wendy, powers excluded. If I had to be in a group with you two, I’d worry if I was pulling my weight or not.”

“You think he harbors some kind of insecurity?” I questioned.

“Don’t say that, now I feel bad,” D said. She exaggerated a pained look, lowering her head until she was bending over.

Sarah put her hands up. “I don’t want to think or assume anything. You lead me on a tangent and we have nineteen minutes to kill.”

“Oh, so this is my fault now,” I said, joking.

“Sixteen minutes,” D said.

Sarah rolled her eyes, a grin on her face.

“You’re funny. But, yeah, it wouldn’t be fair to talk about him behind his back like that. Let’s just… let’s just say I’m projecting a little bit.”

She winked. The cold outside had managed to creep into the building, requiring a light jacket and some manual labor to keep warm.

Wearing a light jacket, standing still, I felt warm.

Sarah fixed her hat, looking down, moving her hand so I couldn’t see her face anymore.

“Alright, I’ll get back to it. I’m not management so I don’t get to avoid actual work. Excuse me while I go join the normal folk.”

Sarah twisted around to go the other way, her hand still by her face.

“Are you saying we’re not normal?” I asked, still joking, but brief pieces of previous conversations flashed in my mind. Things she said that helped me, get a better view and grasp of myself. The RV, the barn. Maybe she meant it as a small joke, but it didn’t quite land right with me.

Sarah took a step, half-turning. Her hand and hat over her eyes.

“You’re as normal as the rest of us. You just have a special way of showing it.”

Then, she left, going to help with the rest of the preparations. It was just me and D, now. The normal people in special positions. Apparently.

D fixed her posture, standing up straight with her hands on her hips. She craned her neck to look up at me.

“Fourteen minutes and thirty seconds. How are you holding up?”

I made a small noise in the back of my throat before answering. Echoing Sarah.

“Hm. You should ask me that after we’re done here.”

“I’ll ask you then, that way I’ll have a better idea of how you’re doing. Before and after.”

“You’re really trying to keep tabs on me?”

“Of course!”

D made a face. Closing one eye, pointing to the other. She stuck her tongue.

“I… have… you!”

I had the sudden, strong urge to flick her on the forehead. Lightly.

She’s being extra goofy today.

It did make want to think about it, though. I thought about it.

“I’m okay, I guess. Doing better that I was this time last week. Which, maybe that’s not saying much. It’s hard to tell what’s supposed to be ‘normal’ for someone like me.”

“If you can lose a game and not be a sore loser about it, then you’re doing pretty good.”

“Oh yeah? You think we’ll lose this one?”

D shook her head hard enough for her hair to whip her face and the metal parts of her choker to rattle.

“No way. We have this in the bag. We’ll get that buffer zone and expand our territory and then we’ll have even more places to hang out and play. Because, like, I am so ready to start moving into my base and setting stuff up. It’s going to be so cool!”

“Right, your base. Where was it going to be again?”

D reacted, as if she had genuine terror over the possibility that I might have forgotten. Her jaw dropped, and her arms did too, dangling by her side.

“The Electric Place, remember? Duh. The bowling alley and arcade place we went to before? Remember?”

I remembered.

“Oh, right,” I said, snapping my fingers. “We sabotaged the Thunders and Royals there. Didn’t we-”

“We swapped bowling balls into different lanes, and man did they freak out. Clean up crews were still picking out bullets and filling out holes. One of my finer pranks, if I do say so myself.”

D lifted an arm. She actually patted herself on the back.

“You’re making there your base?” I asked. “After all the trouble you caused?”

“I know how to clean up after myself, Vivi. I’ve already got plans to spruce it up and make it even better and awesomer than before. More games, cabinets, pinball machines, renovated lanes, prizes… I’m going to put the second ‘A’ back into ‘palace!’”

“Sounds like you’re more interested in the idea of owning a game center than you are operating a business.”

D set her hands behind her, and she looked away, staring at something else.

“Um…”

Thought so.

It was good to hear her enthusiasm, it was even encouraging. D had other things she wanted to get to after this particular thing was over. This? It was just another box on the list to check off. Easy. Simple.

Good.

It wasn’t the two of us for very long. Isabella joined our ranks, standing beside me, situating herself between me and D. The closest she had ever been next to her, without it turning into a physical altercation.

“You’ll need to figure out where your base is going to be, too,” Isabella said. “You haven’t even decided yet.”

“I’m still thinking on where mine will be,” I said. “I’d rather keep my options open and see what comes up instead of settling down and I end up in a bad spot. I want to avoid getting pinned.”

“That’s fair,” D said. “We’ll get more places as we expand, and that’s why we each get our own base to begin with, so we don’t actually get pinned and lose everything in one fell swoop. Wherever you pick as your first, there’s no need to put so much stock in it.”

“I know. It’s just, this would be the first place I pick on my own, so I’d like to put some thought and effort into it. I barely have any decorations at my apartment. So much shit to figure out.”

“We have time.”

“You have ten minutes,” Isabella said. “Start getting everything together. Focus on the now. What’s right in front of you.”

“Sure, yeah,” I said. There was a lot to juggle, between business as a leader of a gang, the slow drag of trying to uncover any clues about what I was and what made my powers tick, and taking to just figure myself out. So many complicated matters, and I had to fight the urge to run away from all of them. “I’ll grab my bag.”

“And I’ll go get the van,” D said. She observed the rest of the lobby. “Looks like everyone else is about ready to go.”

“Good.”

D then skipped across the lobby, passing people, brushing against Fangs. They didn’t look too bothered as she bumped into them, instead just leaning out of the way and going back to what they were doing, as if they were used to kids running around. At this point, maybe they were.

I walked to my bag, patting the sides to feel if everything was in there. Felt like it. I picked it up and put the strap around my shoulder.

“Nervous?”

Isabella had her hands around the straps of her bag, too. They were tight.

I lifted a shoulder, half as a gesture and half to actually adjust the strap.

“There’s always a tiny pit in my stomach before I go out with the mask on. But it’s a tiny pit. Small as a seed.”

“Seed. Right.”

I tried recalling the easiest way I could articulate it. Not my experience.

“You know that feeling before you have to give a presentation, or right before stepping onto the court for the big game? It’s a lot like that.”

“I suppose,” Isabella said. “There’s no need to feel that way. You’ll kill it. Even without help.”

Her brazen confidence in me was almost laughable. I compromised with a smile.

“Thanks, coach, I’ll do my best.”

It was time to step out onto the court.

Night, or early morning, depending on the perspective. Either way, the hour was ungodly.

Which was funny, in a sense.

I stood across the street, facing a church. St. Elizabeth, a small cathedral at the edge of the Eye. Still wasn’t exactly a prime location, but it wasn’t terrible, and expanding our reach by circling around until we muscled into the Eye wasn’t such a bad idea.

My hood was up, keeping me dry from the light drizzle that touched ground. This feeling wasn’t unfamiliar. While slight, it bothered me on a fundamental level.

The connection was vague, but it was there. Looking at the winding stone and raised points that seemed to scratch at the sky, the gold outline that shimmered in the rain, it gave me a sense of imposing dread, to be back here again. Not me, but this body had been here before. Alexis. Couldn’t remember the exact circumstances, attempting to was like rubbing a raw nerve. I avoided it.

Returned like dust, then.

Her place wasn’t close, but it wasn’t that from here, either. I could get there if I was willing to take a very, very, very long walk. Too close for comfort, at least. But, I had a job to do, and I needed to keep myself on track. Other people were relying on me, and I needed to know that I could have even just a modicum of faith in myself. No more distractions.

I started crossing the street.

“Moving in,” I said.

Roger roger.” D. “Operation Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door is in effect!

I had to suppress a chuckle and let it get picked up on the earpiece.

Just give the word on when we can move in, too.” Lawrence. “We’ll be on standby until then.

“Sure thing.” I wasn’t V yet. I had my costume and general setup, but my mask was wrapped around my neck. I was in flux, in between two states of being. Ready to go when I had to, but for now I’d have to hold back.

I could imagine what Isabella would say about that.

Hopping over a small puddle, I got to the parking lot across the street, the cathedral larger and more imposing now. As far as architecture went, it wasn’t even that grand compared to others like it, and yet, here I was, feeling small in an even grander scheme. Just because I was at the center of the operation, it didn’t make me the centerpiece. Surrounded by other moving parts, just another cog in the machine. Which… I could find some comfort in only having some of the responsibility. A lighter load. A weird feeling, when not lifting to my full capacity. I felt as if I could be doing more.

But I know what happens when I push myself too much. I’m not as amazing as I’d wish to be.

When I was at my smallest, I was standing at the front of the cathedral doors. I tested the doors.

“Locked,” I said into the earpiece. “No surprise there.”

Any other way to get in? Did you see anyone around?” Lawrence asked.

“None that I saw. I’ll check around and see what I can find as far as an entrance goes.”

There’s a few other buildings you can look through too, like the offices or the maintenance sheds. Mr. Onmon there should be keys you can use to get in.

“I’ll give it a shot. I’ll search around the cathedral some more before I move elsewhere. Less places I search and leave a trace, the better. How’s it looking at your end?”

All quiet on my front,” Lawrence said. Where he was positioned, he was several blocks west. His van and another. Reggie. “Few police cars, but they were routine routes. They didn’t see us.

“D?” I asked.

All super here too.” She was at the opposite end of Lawrence. On the East, two vans with her as well. She was paired with Sarah. “Counted some black vans passing by, but they were going in the other direction from you.”

As things went, I was alone. Had to do this part by myself, no one was assigned to be with me. I would have taken Sarah if I had the option, but I wasn’t so blessed. I was the only one who could handle this portion, and so, I was out here, in the cold night, the light drizzle, breaking in the a church. Cool.

“Cool,” I said, forcing my brain to stay on track, to not dwell on what I did or did not have. Isabella was right, I had to think on what was right in front of me. Focusing on the now.

And what was right in front of me were the cathedral doors. They were locked. I’d need another way in. According to Mr. Onmon’s squeals, the small armory of the Cobras was located deep in the basement of the church. One of several.

“Going up,” I said, more for myself than for my two teammates listening in. Psyching myself up. I put on my mask.

I stepped back, looking up and around, scanning the architecture for holds I could use to haul myself to the high roof.

There, a rounded dome-like section, with a metal railing around it. A door there, probably.

With the route planned in my head, I jumped, scaling the side of the cathedral.

Not much was publicly known about the Cobras, other than the fact that they were one of the gangs brought whenever people talked about Stephenville on the news. Them and the AZ-Tec. So they definitely had a presence. More than Mister, who was still a complete enigma to me, a question mark that begged an answer. Like so many other things. Like me.

I huffed, throwing my arms up to grab a ledge, getting myself over.

Other than their notoriety, which seemed to exist separate from their actual existence, the Cobras have kept a low profile. Mr. Onmon wasn’t able to divulge much about their leadership or how the gang worked, only that he got jobs through anonymous texts, meeting with other… ‘volunteers.’ It reminded me how Solace operated. Most of the real work was being done in the shadows. Maybe that was how the professionals did it?

Mr. Onmon had given us the locations of the buffer zones, with St. Elizabeth being the most recent addition. It was a calculated risk, hitting here first. Their newest buffer zone, but it would be the least established. We could nab the armory and the surrounding territory and they wouldn’t blink an eye. Probably said something, that their scraps were crucial to our growth and survival, but everyone had to start somewhere.

One more leap, and I got somewhere. I made it to the top of the cathedral. I had to lean up against a raised stone wall to keep my balance along the slanted edge. It wasn’t flat here at all. A lot of points and slants.

Almost there. It took a few more hops to reach the rounded top of the building. One more, and I went over the railing and was walking on a flat surface.

“That was harder than I expected,” I said, more just talking to myself again. I walked around until I found the door. Locked with a chain and padlock. I held them in my hands, feeling the weight. “And… got it. Door’s open.”

You’re in?” D asked.

“I am.” The door lead into some stairs, winding down into the cathedral. I went down the spiral.

Careful, I chanced a look down. I could see the floor, moonlight as it fractured into colors through stained glass, a soft illuminated hue. Pews and statues and unlit candles. Paintings of people and images I had briefly believed in, in another lifetime.

The bottom of the stairs led to another door, leading to another area deeper in the cathedral. Where I wanted to go was down, though, and I didn’t want to waste by getting lost maneuvering through the back parts of the building. I knew what I was looking for was at the lower levels, and there was probably another door that led into the back from there as well. Needed to get there directly.

It was a bit of a squeeze, but I got through the railing, free falling for a second before landing. Crouched, I picked myself back up. A quick check around. I was inside the church. Dark, empty, seemingly abandoned. I was worried the creeping shadows might trigger some echoes of memories. It felt strong, standing here, less vague, a tug like testing a rope.

I was moving before I could dwell on it any longer.

Taking a set of steps onto the altar, passing the chancel, I found another door in a corner between the wall and a confessional. Looked promising enough.

Opening it, I went through.

Lights were off, but that was a good thing. I didn’t have to worry about finding a switch, and it meant that no one was around, guarding the place or looking out for potential intruders. The cathedral’s relative obscurity was its only line of defence, and it already been breached the moment we learned about it.

Peeking through every door and hall I stumbled across, only moving forward if I knew it would lead me more down. It wasn’t unlike going through a maze. It took up some time, but progress was being made. Which I really liked.

A stairwell. Leading to upper and lower levels. I descended even farther. Even further.

Then, I found it.

A switch by a panel right before the hallway opened up. From the cold air that passed through, the clean and sterile design of the metal walls and metal ceiling and metal floor, it was like I walked into a bank vault. This was a recent setup.

I flipped the switch.

Guns reflected the dull fluorescent light, tiny white dots on top of black and grey. All different shapes and sizes, lined up against the walls and on some metal tables. There were other cases, boxes of other equipment, but I didn’t want to touch anything. Not until I gave the signal, had everyone close in and secure the spot.

We were close though. Almost there.

“Found the armory,” I said. “Just like we were told.”

Good work,” Lawrence said. Getting praise from him… I wasn’t going to complain.

D didn’t say anything. I explored the rest of the armory, waiting until I heard from her.

The only thing that bugged me was that I felt small here, too. All I had on me was my knife and my gun, dwarfed in comparison to everything I saw on display here. Even the stuff in the boxes probably packed a bigger punch than what was on my person.

No. Something else, on a far table on the other end. The most it could do was a cut, and that was minor.

A manila folder, filled with a stack of papers.

I still didn’t want to touch anything, my paranoia keeping my arms at my sides, but I still had my eyes. The folder was labeled in bold. I read it out loud.

“Helter Skelter,” I said. “The heck is that?”

A voice came in, pushing those thoughts out of my mind.

Guys. Trouble.

D.

I snapped my head up, turning around.

What?”

I was in near-sync with Lawrence.

Got a group of black vans and cop cars moving in the direction of St. Elizabeth. From where I’m parked, it’s a long enough line that I know it’s a thing.

I cursed.

“Dammit, D, why didn’t you tell me sooner?”

I’m sorry! Sarah was out and just came back to confirm for me, but I’ve been trying to listen in to the police with my equipment and nothing. This is weird.

“Weird doesn’t begin to describe it. Dammit, dammit. Lawrence?”

Nothing since the last update. They’re all coming in from the other direction, probably.

Experimentally, I took a step.

“Any ideas?” I asked.

Has to just be a routine raid,” Lawrence ventured. “The Cobras are doing their rounds with the cops they have in their pockets, showing them the new forward base they have so the cops have something to report and make it look like they’re actually getting work done.

Yes. That exactly,” D said.

“So we wouldn’t have known,” I said. We were somewhat pressed for time after our visit with Mr. Onmon. As low on the totem pole as he was, someone would eventually notice that he hadn’t been doing his rounds with the buffer zones. If we were going to take this one, and then some more if we were daring enough, it would have to be immediately after learning about their locations. Doing stakeouts to learn the schedule was something we didn’t have the luxury for.

“You think they’re here now?” I asked.

Then, I got an answer, but it wasn’t from D, or from Lawrence.

Echoes from across a long hallway, then stairs. Steps. Voices.

They were already here, and they were coming this way.

I was pinned.

Previous                                                                                               Next

090 – Null Moon

Previous                                                                                               Next

Plates and silverware clinked onto stainless steel. Cold. Steam floated out into the space. Hot.

The smell bothered me, but I toughed it out. It wouldn’t be fair to present company to sit this one out. To run away.

D started poking and spinning the noodles around her fork.

“Darn, you should have told me you went to Tita’s. I would have came straight home instead of going over to Casa Martinez. Now we have too much.”

“I just got back home. My hands were full.”

“But I can’t eat all of this by myself! I really thought I hit the jackpot over at Casa’s. Mrs. Martinez had just made this super duper fresh chili con carne sauce and she had saved some for me because she wanted to hook me up with some extra so I can put more on my enchiladas and she seemed really really proud about this new batch and it sucks that it’s going to go cold because I can’t finish it in time. It sucks!”

“Then just start with your enchiladas first.”

D popped the fork into her mouth, then licked the utensil clean.

“But Tita Lorene’s cooking is soooo good.”

A small bit of laughter escaped my lips. A low hum.

D was digging deeper into the food. My palm was digging more into my cheek, my elbow propped on the kitchen counter.

We were back at my place. Outside, the sun was just about to give way to the moon, but with the clouds as low and grey as they were, a black of a certain pitch colored the atmosphere in here as well. The lights were kept low, most of it coming from the TV, and even then it wasn’t that much. A game D had put on pause for dinner, to be returned to after. My game system, though I never used it. I only bought it so D would have something to do whenever she came over. Which was often.

The rain kept falling.

I watched D as she ate, helping herself to mouthfuls upon mouthfuls of food. Wolfing them down, giving each noodle and vegetable and piece of meat a real bite. Scraps were stuck or were hanging from the corners of her lips, with little thin lines of spittle threatening to dribble down her chin. She was going to tear her meal apart, leaving it to nothing but bits and shreds.

And I thought I was the monster.

D stopped, her chin raised, mouth open, full with food. Her fork was halfway to its destination, hovering above her lips. From the way she angled her head, it was like she was looking down at me.

“What?” she asked, sounding stuffed.

“Do I even have to say it?”

D took time to swallow her food, and clear her throat. It came with a small, almost juvenile sound. A squeak.

She pointed with her fork.

“You have your elbow on the counter, how’s that for being rude?”

“My house, or, my apartment. My rules.”

“Yeah, but manners are universal. Doesn’t matter whose roof you’re under. Those are the rules that bind us all as a people. As the human race.”

My palm dug more into my face. It slurred my words somewhat.

“Then, is it supposed to say something that we’re both blatantly avoiding those rules?”

More squeaks, but they were more like laughter.

“Duh, we both dropped out of that race a long time ago. Now we’re going after something else.”

A race to the bottom?

I had the urge to say that, but I kept it to myself.

In holding my tongue back, the only sounds that followed were the clinking of metal on ceramic, D being obnoxious on how much she liked the food, and the continued dampened thuds of the rain outside, hitting the windows and the roof above us. It didn’t let up, and it was as though the rain was telling us that it would never let up. It kept falling around us, everywhere. It would never go away.

I would always feel like this.

My fingers slid across the countertop, lazy, until it bumped up against something. Wasn’t cold like stainless steel, wasn’t hot like food that had just been microwaved for thirty seconds. My finger traced upward, gliding across the smooth surface of it.

A ceramic mug.

My eyes fell downward. My dinner.

D talked with her mouth full. “Yeah you better drink up or it’s going to get all lukewarm, and I didn’t go through the trouble to find a gang doc and bring you some if you weren’t going to finish it all quickly.”

With a finger, I pulled the mug closer to me. Friction tried to work against me in keeping the mug in place, but gave way after I had to force more effort into the individual muscles and joints. The minimum amount of work I was willing to put forth.

Juice swished around inside.

Blood.

Enough to fill the mug to the brim. I could have spilled it if I wasn’t being careful. It was chilled, I could feel the residual cold just from holding the handle, my fingers away from the mug itself. Red, a bright and vibrant shade, which gave the impression that it was bursting with flavor. And it definitely was, I could pick up a faint, sweet trace of its aroma, despite the overpowering stench from D’s dinner. It cut through, like light piercing clouds.

Strawberries, cherries, pomegranate. Juice squeezed from fruit, mixed into a drink that had the consistency of syrup, with the sweetness of it, too.

I could admit that I wasn’t in a particularly good mood, but with my eyes on my drink, the appealing color, the aroma beckoning for my lips, it offered to lift my spirits in a way that was appetizing.

My grip tightened around the handle of the mug, and I lifted it off the countertop.

The mug found their way to my lips like an instinct, tipping over until the juices spilled forth, and I did my best to capture and savor every little drop. I caught as much as I could while still being modest, and I swallowed.

It was an experience.

Refreshing, being able to drink blood without having to take it from someone by force, and being able to take my time with it. I didn’t get very many chances to sit down and drink, most of the time I was under extreme duress and stress, taking only quick sips to recharge to get back into the fray. In very few circumstances, was I able to stop and take a moment and actually take that moment.

The mug left my lips, and returned to the countertop. I wasn’t smiling, even though the taste was so good that I couldn’t be blamed if I was. But, even now, I was filled with something other than satisfaction. A feeling I couldn’t quite place.

I sighed.

“That good?” D asked. Clinking of silverware and ceramic peppered her words.

“Yeah,” I said, “It’s good.”

“Doesn’t sound like it’s good.”

“It is.”

D sat up to straighten her back, moving some of the take out boxes around. Her plate was empty, and she was going to get more.

“This is probably weird to say, I’m not really sure, but I’ve always been curious about what it tastes like. For you, anyways, metallic isn’t really a good descriptor to have when it comes to flavor, and I’m not about to go through that again.”

Descriptor? I’d never had to describe the taste of this before.

I opened my mouth, breathing out, feeling how heavy it dragged. It didn’t smell bad, but there was a weight to it, that only another kind of substance could provide.

“I don’t know if you’ve ever had alcohol, but it’s kind of like that, maybe,” I said. I wasn’t exactly sure if the comparison was accurate, I had some faint recollections on what alcohol was like, but they weren’t my recollections, but they were points of references that I could make leaps or inferences from. “It’s sweet, very sweet.”

“Like wine,” D asked.

I gave her a glare. Not that intense, but I wanted to give her some heat.

“I’m hoping you don’t actually know what I’m trying to get at.”

“Don’t worry, I do, but like I said, don’t worry.”

“Um…”

“How about this, is it like coffee? Where just a single sip can wake you up or make it feel like someone’s massaging your brain?”

I considered that. It didn’t sound so off the mark.

“That’s seems more accurate. I haven’t had coffee myself, though, so I can’t say for sure. This is it’s own kind of drink, so it comes with its own unique effects. It’s hard to pin down unless you’ve tried it and can feel it yourself.”

“Uh, no thanks then.”

D popped open another box and started to pile more food onto her plate. This time, it was Mrs. Martinez’s cooking.

“Hey, is that your way of telling me you’ve had coffee before?” I asked.

D continued to eat. She didn’t answer or acknowledge me at all.

I took that as an opportunity to take another sip of my drink, instead. It was light, but my head started to feel like it was pounding, massaged with slow but firm movements. Energy that was being replenished, but had nowhere to burn. Pent up potential.

I set the mug back down, my eyes closed. I had to try, in order to sit still now.

Screaming, crying for help. Fathers. Daughters. Animals howling to tear them into bits.

White walls, cold tiles

“You got a little, um, Wendy?”

I cranked my eyes open. Those sounds all faded away, but their echoes still haunted.

D was touching a spot on her face, by her lower lip.

“You’ve made a mess of yourself.”

“What else is new?” I asked. “Pass me a napkin.”

D reached over the countertop, finding some in one of the plastic bags we had used to carry the food in. Pushing her plate aside, then leaning over the counter, reaching, she handed me some.

I wiped the part where D indicated, dabbing it for good measure. I looked at the napkin, and saw streaks of red. It looked more like I was trying to clean up a minor nosebleed than a meal.

But, it wasn’t my blood. Someone else’s. Blood I had taken and consumed.

I crumbled up the paper, wrapping it in another, and left my seat to toss the whole thing in a bin by the trash. The biohazard symbol was taped to the front.

“Looks like it might be time to start burning some trash again,” D said when I returned to my seat.

“Yeah. Can’t just throw it out wherever.”

“We can move stuff up to the roof later, after the rain goes away.”

“If it ever does,’” I said.

D slid back into her seat, setting her plate back in front of her. She scarfed down several more bites in a row.

Knowing D for long enough, she’d want to say more, even if she was chewing down large chunks of food. I spoke before she could.

“I ran into Nathan, earlier today.”

D didn’t bother to swallow, responding with, “Oh cool, how’s he been?”

“Not so great, apparently, since I literally caught him trying to rob a bank.”

“Oof, that’s a big no-no.”

Sounds exactly like something you’d get yourself into, though.

I kept that point to myself.

“Seems like his friends weren’t keen on the idea of helping him spreading an image around, which, by the way, I got to see it. The tag.”

“Cool cool, you did?”

“Nathan showed me.”

“What’d you think?”

I took some seconds to gather my thoughts. What did I think about it?

Without a clear idea in my head, I tried parsing those fleeting drafts into words, forming them fully as I’d talk.

“It was a good design, one might even say it’s amazing, but…”

“But?”

The design flickered in my mind once again. The eyes, the overall expression. The curled, open smile, the fangs. All the blood.

But,” I reiterated, “It kind of makes me wonder how you look at me.”

“How I look at you?”

“Is that really the image you have of me in your head?”

D looked to the ceiling to finish a bite she had been working on, then reached for a cup to wash it down. Not mine, that much was obvious, but her own, a carton of apple juice placed right next to it.

She let out a satisfied exhale before speaking again.

“Of course not. I mean, yeah I used V as some inspiration, but not entirely. That just happens to be the one face I wanted to present as one part of the gang.”

“I thought Lawrence had that part covered.”

“He covers the business side. That other face hits the streets more directly, though I guess they fall under public relations. But what do I know, I literally didn’t go to school for this.”

She giggled at her joke, like this was some laughing matter.

Rain swelled up against the window on the far wall, prodding.

“Why that image, though? Why did you come up with that design?”

Filling up her cup with more juice, D replied, “I figured we needed something striking, something different from everything else we or anyone else has seen before. I was thinking of some other designs, maybe like an ouroboros or even an orphic egg, but I didn’t want to come off as derivative. There’s already another gang that has the whole Greek mythology thing on lock.”

“So you opted to go with something more… visceral.”

D frowned, leaning against the countertop. “Now I’m confused. I thought you’d really like what I came up with.”

I frowned as well, not because I was disappointed in her confusion, not because my point wasn’t getting across, but because I wasn’t even sure what my point was. I still hadn’t parsed it through my words, not completely. I was trying to finish a puzzle without all of the pieces.

But, I kept going.

“I like it, D, that’s not what I’m getting at.”

“What are you getting at, then?”

I closed my eyes. Those sounds came back and I used them to guide my focus. At least they drowned out the rain.

“That… that you, I don’t freaking know, I don’t know why I’m so worked up over freaking graffitti.”

I lowered my head, my fingers running through my hair. Keeping that position, I opened my eyes again, lifting my gaze at D, mulling on how pathetic I had to be in order to fail at explaining my thoughts and feelings to a girl her age.

D had raised a brow, fixing her hair as well.

“Maybe I can venture a guess,” she said. “Let’s see, uh, I will admit that the tag does have a wild… energy to it, possibly even borderline manic, and since I will also admit that I used V as a base for the design, you feel that somehow says something about you as a person.”

I blinked.

“That’s… I think that’s the closest anyone’s ever going to get. That’s almost scary.”

“Yeah, I get that a lot.”

“Right. Sorry.”

“Nah, I’ve gotten used to it. You could even say I’ve learned how to make my own fun with it!”

A wide grin. A small gap.

“I’d be disappointed if you didn’t,” I said.

D then placed her elbows on the table, copying my position from before. Her hands pressed against her cheeks.

“But something tells me you’re not having as much fun.”

Fun. At least that was an angle I could approach whatever this was, whatever I was feeling, inside.

Again, I tried, but I had a clearer idea of the space my head was in, now. A way forward.

“Not fun, no. It’s just, it’s just that I saw that tag, that face, and it was as if every failure and dark moment in recent times came flooding back to me. Every time I gave in, lost myself, let something else take over. But, the thing is, they aren’t exact details or scenes. Just gaps, blanks, but I recognize them for what they are. Recently, on the way to El Paso, and especially at the Lunar Tower. It’s been too easy for me to slip, and I’m afraid of it getting harder and harder to regain a hold of myself. What happens if I slip away completely?”

Who takes over, then?

I continued.

“I was going to ask, why you hid the fact that you were taking pictures at the barn, but maybe it’s because you were working around my… um…”

“Stubbornness?” D offered, her grin lessened, dropping to a slight, sympathetic smile instead.

I returned a similar expression, maybe a little weaker.

“Exactly. I hate that I’m been my own obstacle, and that I keep getting in my own way. It just keeps happening. I feel like I’ve just been holding everyone back, and on a less important level, I’ve been holding myself back. If I want this group to succeed, to build it all up and knock it and everything down with me, I can’t afford to be so easily pushed over in these early stages.”

“I think you’re just setting impossibly high standards for yourself, Wendy,” D said. “Sure, you fudged up sometimes, and in reality who hasn’t, but your version of fudging up is on a different level from, how do I put it?”

“People?” I offered.

D’s slight smile stayed there.

“Exactly.”

I sat there, my fingers back around my mug, tracing a circle around the lid. Bringing my hand up to my lips, I licked the bit of blood that I had collected, there.

Something inside you… And if you don’t get a grip… the last enemy you want to make right now is yourself.

Lawrence’s words.

The face I saw, on that wall, the image I projected, it wasn’t me or her, it was nothing. The real monster. The one I, and maybe Alexis too, had tried to avoid staring at head on. And I would have to be the one to fill that blank. Somehow.

Yeah… yeah.

I heard clinking, and it took me out of my spinning, spiraling thoughts. D was filling her plate with more food, yet again.

“If it means anything by this point,” D said, “I am sorry that I went behind your back and let Lawrence chew you out. I probably could have handled that better. And it’s not like we’re in a mad rush or anything, and doing it that way might make everything worse, so let’s not do that. For now, we stay on our current course, and we keep you in mind, okay? How does that sound?”

I answered.

“I don’t hate the sound of that.”

I saw that gap again.

“Then it’s settled. You stop worrying about it, and we’ll look into it whenever we get the chance. I’m assuming L-Boy showed you the pics?”

“He did,” I said, a touch quiet.

“Then there, something to consider. A clue. We didn’t find anything else at the barn? That’s fine, we at least have that to work off of. Easy and peasy.”

“When you put it that way, it doesn’t seem as heavy on my mind.”

“Exactly! This isn’t some responsibility you have to handle all by yourself. You’re not alone, in this. Heck, it’s not just you as a leader, too. I’m here, and there’s Lawrence, even if he acts all aloof about it.”

“You don’t have to tell me about it.”

Sarah, D, and even Lawrence. I had to be beaten over the head with it, over and over and over and over again, but it was finally starting to sink in that I didn’t have to shoulder everything. An insane concept. Maybe I’d even let it anchor me.

It was hard, trying to talk about it, harder still to give up some of that control. But, it was comforting, to know that, to be reassured.

To talk about my thoughts, like this, Alexis never really had that. What would have happened if she did? How different would have things turned out?

It was a train of thought that I let pass me by. Too many other tracks to stay on.

“We can be like a happy family,” D said, but it sounded like she was talking more to herself.

I replied, anyways.

“Okay,” I said, finally. “We can give that a shot.”

D gave me a victory sign, and then pushed her plate away.

“Awesome! And man, I’m saving the rest for later. Any more and I’m gonna want to sleep, and I still want to get back to the game.”

“Any more and you’ll explode,” I commented.

“That too, now come on!”

D hopped out of her seat and went around the kitchen counter. Even though she claimed she was full, she still ran over to the living room, kicked off her slippers, and threw herself onto the couch.

I followed, but with much less pep. I went to the couch and joined her, sitting, then pulling my legs up on the couch. I turned to make sure everyone was comfortable.

D had already unpaused her game, fully engrossed in another world. I wasn’t familiar with it at all, but from what parts I had seen her playthrough, with the heavy shadows and heavier ambience, it was some kind of horror game. Lights flickered down a long dark, empty hallway, but I could have sworn I saw the image of a little girl on the other side, but it went away too fast to know for sure.

Not really my thing, and I didn’t really see how it was D’s. But, to each their own.

I turned to check on Isabella.

Sitting on the couch, legs apart, hugging the backpack she had in the space between. She was watching the screen, too, but she looked disinterested, judging from her lowered gaze.

She didn’t want to eat, electing to stay on the couch instead, not really waiting for us to finish dinner, but rather preferring to spend time alone. I wouldn’t blame her if she wanted to keep her distance from D. The girl said it herself. She could be scary.

Isabella spoke, eyes glued to the screen.

“So you’re okay with the tag?”

I nodded, then looked over to D.

“Yeah, I can live with the design.”

“Neat…” D said, eyes still forward, controller clicking away. No use, her attention was somewhere else, now.

“Don’t forget, there’s more important stuff to focus on, don’t get caught up chasing ghosts.”

Isabella made a passing glance to me as she realigned my priorities.

“I’m aware,” I said, leaning back, looking at the screen, now. The character D was playing had gotten a hold of a flashlight, pushing back a shadow devil-thing. The details were murky. But she was winning out, pushing ahead as more light filled the screen. Probably wouldn’t be long until the devil was banished.

“Aware of what?” D asked, sounding distant. “Oh shoot, back up back up!”

“In a few days’ time, the real game starts.”

And now, for something much more proactive. Fucking finally.

D and Isabella stalked down the hallway, brisk. They moved with intent, there was no guesswork to be done here, that part was over. We had set things up, now it was time to start knocking them down.

Head down, yards behind, I followed.

The girls got into position, then I did, too. A door, not at the end of the hall, but close. There was a corner that lead down another, but that had no relevance to us. D and Isabella stood right in front, and I stood on the wall beside it, out of the line of sight from the peephole.

Testing, testing, two two one-two. Y’all hear me fine?” D.

All good.” Lawrence.

“Same.” V.

Sweet, just wanted to check before I press play.

“Ugh, just get on with it already.”

Isabella wasn’t wired up, but I was with her on being antsy. Everything considered, I didn’t have a lot of opportunities where I had the drop on a target. I couldn’t even be certain if it ever happened.

With a group, though, with others I could rely on, that opportunity was present, now. I’d play my part, and I wouldn’t fuck it up. Not this time. Hopefully not ever again.

Waiting for your signal. Good luck, ladies.

Aw, I’m a lady now, that is so sweet of you.

Fuck off. Never mind, just get this shit over with.

A mechanical giggle filtered directly into my ears. A more natural tone sounded off a little farther away.

Okay okay. I’m pressing play… now!

The hall was quiet, still. On the other side of the door, a bell rang.

Muddled footsteps approached the door. The building was old, not very well kept. It creaked with every bit of weight that pressed down on it.

It stopped right at the door. No answer.

Another bell.

“Hello?”

An answer. Finally. But the door remained closed.

I focused on D’s natural tone, instead.

“Hi, I live in the building, down the hall here, and I got locked out. My father doesn’t come back from work for a super long time and I was wondering if I could come and stay inside until he gets back?”

“I’ve never seen you on this floor before.”

“Please sir? My father said it was okay to come here in case something like this happened.”

“I never agreed to anything like that, and I don’t know you or your father.”

“Please? It’s just me out here, and it’s cold.”

“Like I said, there’s nothing I can do for you, girl, go somewhere else.”

Stuck, preoccupied, distracted. He was close to the door, and he wasn’t sure where this was going.

But we did.

D was clearly enjoying this. I could hear it in her voice, see it in her stance. Higher pitched than usual, hurried near the ends of her sentences. Standing on her balls of her feet, leaning, inching forward. Her face could barely contain her gapped grin.

She took a moment, mostly for herself. To savor the anticipation.

I wouldn’t fault her for that.

D signaled.

“Please, Mr. Onmon, could you let me in?”

There was no answer coming from the door, this time.

A step, then another. The second fainter than the first.

He wouldn’t take another step away from the door.

I spun, getting in front of D and Isabella, winding myself up.

With every ounce of strength I had available, I thrusted a foot into the door made of solid wood.

The thing broke and splintered, dust kicking up from the sudden and heavy impact. Wood was torn from metal hinges, and pieces flew in different directions.

Split into pieces, the door giving way to my foot, bursting open into the apartment. It wasn’t unlike a shotgun blast, except the ammunition here was wood.

I was given a brief glimpse into the apartment before more damage could be done. Another hallway, a foyer, but it wasn’t spacious in the slightest. The whole building was dingy, seedy, in a more decrepit part of town. The lowest of the low. Made me wonder if our intel was good.

But I knew to trust D, now. Trust in her enough to kick this door down.

I saw the man on the other side, falling on his ass, more terrified than startled. He had made himself comfortable in his shitty apartment, wearing only boxers and a dark bathrobe. Maybe if he was legitimately handsome, he would have gotten away with the look, but he was anything but. Middle-aged, balding, looking like he hadn’t seen a gym in well over several decades. His stomach protruded out, ungainly. A stout nose.

He looked like a pig.

Screaming as he scrambled back to his feet, flailing as he escaped, he went down the foyer, retreating down a corner of his apartment.

With a quiet calm, I stepped over the debris and let myself in.

I heard banging and crashing of metal and glass, panicked sounds. Other voices, too. Women.

Following the path the man had taken, I turned the corner and-

Turned back. Wood blasted back at me. Wood and metal.

An actual shotgun blast.

I had gotten back to cover before my head was taken clean off. For me, and even for Alexis, I’d rather have that not happen.

The man yelled something at us, but it was buried under the high ringing noise. The blast was loud, and I hated the loud more than I hated the rain.

It would have been easy for me to lapse into panic, to freak out and lose myself, like I always did. I could even feel the early symptoms. A cold shiver, sweat breaking out, the scenery changing to red-on-white tiles of a classroom floor.

The symptoms subsided as I felt a tiny push in the small of my back. I didn’t have to turn to know it was D.

It had to have been one of the most simple – perhaps even insignificant – gestures a person could do for another, but in my case, it was enough to keep me standing and present.

And it allowed for so much.

The ringing was still there and high, the panic creeping at the edge of my consciousness, but in this one instance, I had help, and I was able to keep it at bay.

The tiny push then turned into a stronger shove, and D got the ball rolling. I went out first, rushing.

He couldn’t shoot again, not so soon after the initial blast, reloading would take too much time.

I took in the surroundings of the room, discarded it. I only saw the target and the path to get to it. A straight line.

Everything and everyone had to catch up to me. Sound and sight. The ringing fell back in the mix for other voices to be heard, and dust settled again around messied cupboards and drawers.

We were in this man’s bedroom. The mattress didn’t have any sheets covering it, sitting on the floor, with brown spots everywhere, not just the bed itself. The walls were yellowed, not because of the paint job, but for some other gross reason that I didn’t want to consider. Plastic and glass littered the floor, trash. The owners of the other voices, women, not much older than Sarah, were either naked or almost, shaking and whimpering in fear.

No, not just women. There was another man here, too. Huddled in the corner. He didn’t seem as important as the pig I had skewered under my knife.

Ah.

I had moved on instinct, and my hands had found my knife on their own, stabbing the man in the shoulder, the blade staying there. For added measure, I had a foot pressing into his stomach. He was on his back, on his mattress, I was standing over him.

“We appreciate the hospitality, Mr. Onmon,” I said.

When Mr. Onmon spoke, I could hear him okay.

“Who the shit are all of you?”

“It doesn’t matter who we are, which is kind of the problem.” D walked around from my back to the side of the mattress. There was the gun, knocked to the side. D kicked it farther away. Isabella took the other side. Little girls looking down on a grown man. “We’re in the middle of an identity crisis, and we were hoping you could help us… find ourselves, if you will.”

Isabella commented, “Ew, his stomach looks like the moon. Gross.”

“The shit does that mean?”

“It means you have something that can be of use to us,” another voice offered, entering the room for the first time. Lawrence. He was dressed in a casual fashion, a baggy sweater and jeans, a hat on his head, pale in their shading. Not his usual set whenever doing work outside as part of a gang, but in this apartment, it was comfort over class, clearly. “And we’d like to have it, please.”

“The Cobras, their buffer zones,” D said, “You maintain them, and don’t even pretend that you don’t because you do, I know. So just tell me where each and every one of them are, and maybe you get to have at least one hand to have fun with.”

Mr. Onmon tried to fight back, but a push from my foot deflated him fast. His stomach still stuck out, though.

“You’re going after the Cobras? You must be idiots, so stupid that you shit yourselves every night because you don’t know how to use the bathroom. I’m not telling you shit.”

Lawrence spoke, “Loyalty isn’t going to help you, Mr. Onmon. You’re not high enough on the totem pole that anyone on the top will miss you. Maintenance and designations of those zones are a necessity, but they aren’t so crucial that they won’t outsource that particular job to swine. We take a few zones, we play it quiet, and they won’t notice for a time. And when they do, it’ll be too late, and for them, the cost of taking it back is going to be higher than just going somewhere else and making a new one.”

“You’re taking the buffer zones as territory? Like shit you are. Styx won’t have any of that, it’s his rules.”

“If there’s anything that Styx loves to break, it’s his own rules,” D said. “Or rather, the version of him that made those rules. As long as it doesn’t upset the spirit of the law too much, he’ll bend the letter if he finds it entertaining. That’s where he finds his solace.”

Mr. Onmon’s eyes went in every direction, searching. There was no help for him here. Not even the women and the one man he had in here with him.

Lawrence gestured at the aforementioned man and women.

“Leave, this part doesn’t concern you. You can still get fucked up, but do it somewhere else.”

One by one, they did, leaving the bedroom and abandoning Mr. Onmon.

“If I help you, will you let me live?” he asked.

“We just want info,” I said, “It’s up to you whether you live or die.”

I removed the knife from his shoulder. He grunted.

“We can’t have him slithering back to his superiors, either,” Lawrence said.

“Good point,” D said.

“There is that conceit,” I said. I watched the fear in Mr. Onmon’s eyes grow to the size of saucers. In a similar vein, I felt the same inside.

The next part came with some hesitation. Not even a week ago, I had been pushed to do this, and now I was pushed to do it again. Before, it was against my will, an order from the enemy, but now, it was to assist the people who had my back. Was this part of the job, now, being the teeth of Los Colmillos? That I’d have to bite?

I could feel myself falling, a different sensation from slipping. Falling backwards, and the only form of comfort I had was the hope that D and Sarah and even Lawrence and Isabella were there to catch me.

Cracking a knuckle, I moved the knife to Mr. Onmon’s stomach. It was so engorged. Eating himself fat from the spoils of his degeneracy. Large, white. Like a moon.

“So talk, or I’ll make you squeal.”

Mr. Onmon talked, and then I made him squeal.

Previous                                                                                               Next

089 – Tearz

Previous                                                                                               Next

I had stepped out to the wind and rain, alone with my thoughts.

Isabella walked alongside me, whispering over the weather’s hum.

“He went too far. He didn’t go easy on you at all.”

We were on the sidewalk, closer to the buildings than the road, careful as to not get splashed in case a car came passing by. I had taken the umbrella that Lawrence offered, holding it so I could cover both me and Isabella. One side of my shoulder and arm still got wet.

“But he’s right, which makes it harder to just ignore what he had to say.”

“There’s a difference between being right and being rude about it.”

“And you’re right about that, but I still feel like he’s right about this. He had his reasons, and he was completely justified.”

“But that’s not right, Wendy. You need to be more aware about how much you really have. You can’t, or you shouldn’t let yourself be pushed around. Don’t let yourself get beat on so much. Just because you can heal quicker than most doesn’t mean you should just stand there and tank the hits.”

“Funny. Lawrence said something like that.”

“Then I’m right, right?”

I wanted to agree, to say that she was right, but I couldn’t find it in me to give her the benefit of the doubt, on that.

“Maybe,” I said, the word drowned out by sound.

Rain kept crashing down, refusing to relent. As it hit the pavement, more water kicked back up, resulting in a soft mist that couldn’t be avoided. Droplets brushed against my cheeks, touching the lenses of my glasses, leaving a faint trace. Warm, tepid in a way. Uncomfortable.

Still getting wet, even with an umbrella. It made me feel as though putting in any effort would only be vain attempts. Useless. Worthless.

The mist turned everything about me into a muted haze, from the sounds to the colors. When a car did pass, the lights would be faded and fuzzy. Nothing was vibrant, everything had been made dull, it was like I was walking through a monochrome world.

Wandering thoughts continued to whisper to me.

“And screw D for going behind your back, too.”

Isabella’s voice echoed, carrying a haunting quality to it.

“Don’t say that,” I told her. “She didn’t… do that.”

“Didn’t she, though? She could have told you what she was looking for when you all went to the barn. She could have clued you in. Instead of just leaving you behind to go off and do her own thing, and then she tosses you out to the wolves, to get chewed up and spat out. The plural ‘wolves’ being just Lawrence, in this case.”

“I think I got that.”

“So you get my point? She went behind your back, and set you up to take the fall. How can you even trust her anymore? If you ask me, she’s a total b-”

“Language,” I said, like a reflex. And like a reflex, I cringed at myself for saying it. I had sounded just like D.

Isabella groaned at the end of the word, irritated at being spoken over. I tried to interrupt her, but I could still hear that particular word ringing in my head.

“Again, though, how are you okay with her going behind your back like that?”

“D didn’t go behind my back. I’m sure she had her reasons for doing what she did, and how she went about doing it. It was my fault for not taking the search at the barn all that seriously. I bet D felt as if she was picking up the slack.”

“You don’t have to go and blame yourself for everything. Didn’t Sarah say something like that?”

“Along those lines,” I said.

“See? You keep doing this, and she keeps doing that. This wouldn’t be the first time she’s gone off to enact some other plan without your knowledge, would it?”

That question brought up a particular example. The Lunar Tower. D had went dark for some time, leaving me and Lawrence to scramble to catch up while still trying to get a handle of the Granon situation. It turned out that D had been caught up in her own machinations in trying to help us, and brought Styx into our little tangle. Which lead to Styx coming back to give us the El Paso job.

D had her reasons about why she couldn’t tell us about Styx, and why she went off on her own, but the point did remain. She had enacted her own plan without our knowledge. Behind my back. And she still refused to get into the particulars, claiming that they weren’t relevant. But, were they? Were they really?

Not just the tower. Even some as small as setting up an altercation to draw out Fillmore, the first time we visited the territory, back when it was in other hands. It was only for a few minutes, but she’d left me behind, then, too.

“That’s how she operates. It’s not perfect, but we wouldn’t have gotten this far without her.”

“Doesn’t it bug you?”

Rain filled the silence that followed.

“I’ll,” I started. I paused. “Maybe. I can talk to her about it. I’d want to sort myself out first, though, before I start throwing any stones.”

“Why?”

The question echoed in my mind.

“Glass houses and all. And I don’t think I can recover right now if anything else breaks.”

“I don’t see why you’d want to go easy on them when they didn’t show you the same courtesy. Wendy, you may work with these people, but they aren’t your friends, and they certainly won’t ever be family.”

Isabella was testing those glass barriers, now, with every pointed statement. I deflected with something else. Wandering.

“I just wish I could match the V that’s in my head. That strength, or to even just be competent. I tried, you know, to not just play the part. Like, if I say it, or think it enough, I might be able to become the mask I wear. A monster.”

Isabella followed me on this particular change in direction.

“But you have, Wendy. Remember EZ and Krown? You obliterated them and their gangs, and took over their territory. Sounds pretty monsterous to me.”

“But I had help, back then. D was there, and so was Reggie, Tone… Sarah. I wouldn’t have been able to do what I did, if I didn’t have people with me. I… couldn’t have done it by myself.”

A hard thing to admit, but I’d have to come to terms with it, and soon.

“So you needed some back up, so what? That’s nothing special. All I’m saying is you can do so much more than anyone, or anything else. Lawrence doesn’t have any right, talking to you like that. Who does he think he is?”

“He’s a teammate, and another leader of the gang. Not sure if I can straight up call him a friend, but the point remains, what he has to say matters.”

Isabella went quiet for a minute. The rain said its piece. Mindless chatter.

“It matters as much as you allow it to,” she then said.

“How much weight do I give his words, then?”

“Um, none, really. You stand so far above everyone else they can’t see you. They couldn’t possibly see where you’re coming from, what you’re really capable of. You are so much more than what anyone else can comprehend. You’re not a monster, Wendy, you’re the devil.”

The devil. I wasn’t sure about that wording, but I didn’t dislike it.

“But with help, I can be the Devil,” I said. “With a capital ‘D.’”

Isabella muttered something, but it was lost to the rain. I could imagine what it was, though.

We turned a corner, staying on the sidewalk, closer to the buildings. I was starting to recognize certain places, forming my own, personal landmarks. A post office, meaning we’d pass the Wellport construction- the skate park, then the laundromat. The lady who owned the place, Tita Lorene, she was nice, but she kept offering us something to eat every time we passed by. I couldn’t eat any of it, and it wasn’t like I could just keep giving everything to D. I started planning the rest of the route in my head, in case we’d have to go around the laundromat. I’d rather not lug around warm… what did she call it, pancit?

Either way, I’d rather not lug around food, especially since we weren’t heading back yet. Wouldn’t want it to spoil.

Past the laundromat was the Fill Market. It wouldn’t be a bad idea stop by and see how Fillmore was doing.

I had multiple ways of going about this. I could have gotten a ride from Sarah and taken a look at things that way. But I chose this weather this, instead, despite the rain, despite how it made me feel. I wanted to be on streets, to see how everything was going from that perspective. It would give me a better sense of how the locals were taking to us being here, and how to adjust from there, if necessary.

And, just, I’d rather be alone, for the moment.

“Wanna turn from King to Barton?” Isabella asked, referring to the street names.

“We’ll go around,” I answered. “Explore elsewhere, then touch back on some other key places. I know where I’d want to start.”

Isabella glanced at me.

“Expanding your horizons?”

“In a sense. There are some things I want to see with my own eyes.”

“Like what?”

“You know, like, art and stuff.”

Seemingly in spite of the wind and rain, Isabella laughed.

“Art? You are such a mess, you put yourself down in one second and then think so highly of yourself in the next. Honestly, you’re-”

Isabella didn’t say any more, but I felt as if I knew what she was getting at.

Silent, we finished the length of the sidewalk, stopping at a corner. And I saw, and heard, why Isabella elected to shut her mouth.

Another person was there, waiting for the light on the other side to turn. We waited with him.

He had been talking on his phone, lowering his own volume somewhat as he noticed us standing by him. I only caught the end of a few sentences.

“-the wire, out of time, Nat.”

Not a lot to go off of.

Isabella and I remained silent, minding our distance, our tongues. Ears. I was reminded about the journalists that Lawrence warned us about.

I knew it was just my paranoia, but exercising caution was never a bad policy, especially when around strangers. There was always a chance that they’d turn out to be, well, strange. I had to always be on my guard, wary of any potential threats. Constantly diligent, never distracted.

I almost laughed. Like I’d be able to keep that up. I wasn’t that capable. Like I was even capable.

Isabella grumbled over the rain, clearing her throat. Notes of irritation.

The light turned green.

We all took a step off the sidewalk, crossing to the other side. I kept the edges of the man in the corner of my vision, watching, waiting, for anything. If anything.

Focusing ahead, the light had a timer on it, counting down for when it would turn back to red. Six, five, four…

With every step, my heart pounded. With every second, my muscles tensed up. Would the man do something? Would he try?

The man continued his conversation as we crossed.

“We’re down to the wire if we don’t pick up on something, soon. I, yeah, I know Nat, I’m doing as much as I can. You want shoestring? You can’t get anymore shoestring than this.”

Still, not much.

Still, I kept my paranoia at a shallow level, easy to tap into. It was a pain. But, it was a necessary one.

As much as my head ached in trying to recall, I thought back to Remus, and how easy it was for him to trick me, deceive me. I had helped Solace, up until the moment I wasn’t, and I had to…

My head pounded, compounded by each incoming droplet, hitting the umbrella as if it was hitting me. I couldn’t seem to escape it.

Then again, I did bring this on myself.

Fuck, I just didn’t want it to be easy for anyone else again. To lead me astray.

Isabella reached the other side first, and I was a step behind her. She went one way, and I made sure to keep her covered by the umbrella. A quick check to my rear, and I didn’t see the man that was walking with us. He must have went the other way. I couldn’t hear him anymore.

I caught up with Isabella.

“Lucky him,” she said. “He wasn’t up to anything, after all.”

“That we know of. He’s not around for us to know, anymore.”

“Did you want to tail him?”

Did I? For a split second, I actually did consider it, follow him for a block or two. It wouldn’t even be hard to stay out of sight and earshot. The rain would have actually helped, in that regard. Stay above him, stay just far enough, and he would have never known that I was ever there.

For a split second.

“Not necessary,” I answered. “If we’re going to operate like that, we’ll be stuck here all week. Let’s pick our battles with more concrete stuff, it’s smarter that way.”

“Fine,” Isabella said.

We continued walking, our footfalls drowned out by rainfall.

I wasn’t as familiar with this part of the territory, but that was also part of the reason why I was here, outside, in the rain. To make myself familiar. It wouldn’t do, to be a leader of a gang and not have built a rapport with the locals. And if we managed to build one that was solid enough, we could grow our numbers while still maintaining quality, with more skilled volunteers more willing to step. It might even get to the point where the people would rather come to us than the police, if there was a problem that required some sort of force.

Cultivate a good foundation now, and it would be easier to build on top of that, later.

The scenery changed as we ventured more into the uncharted parts of the territory. Subtle, but there. More shoes hanging from power lines, bigger piles of trash that were sodden and coming apart from all the water, getting onto the street or other corners, deeper cracks in the pavement for larger puddles.

I watched my step, avoiding the puddles. It felt weird, having to mind them now. An abstract, absurd fear, that I would actually fall in and sink, and disappear completely. Obvious, it could never happen, impossible even, yet I still found myself proceeding with caution.

Darn, I resented the fact that I was being like this. Being so weak.

Isabella stepped forward, picking up her pace. I lifted my chin, my ears perked. I heard it the same moment she brought it up.

“People,” she said, with a warning tone.

I nodded, heeding it.

Looking through the rising mist, I noted shapes as they moved, up ahead.

Coming from around the corner, crossing from one side of the road to the other, a mass of shadows, ambiguous in its outline, but sinister in its presence. It spread out, taking up most of the sidewalk and even spilling back onto the road. I noted each individual form as they solidified, features coming in, becoming more clear.

People. They were coming this way, and they were shouting. Loud, over the rain.

Isabella and I moved more to the side as they approached.

The mass of shadows barrelled through. An assemblage of limbs, legs used to run, arms used to grope. I saw the heavy black bags slung across shoulders, clutched close to chests. Even now, they were still in that mode, that mindset, clouded by the mist and adrenaline. Anyone who wasn’t a part of that mass was an obstacle, needed to be taken out or taken from.

And, even though, we had made space for them on the sidewalk, the collective group still thought Isabella and I had to be taken out or be taken from. I saw the direction in their approach, the spread in their numbers. Our direction.

Shouting, different voices adding to the chaos of their sudden intrusion. With how disorganized it all seemed, it was borderline panic.

I didn’t hesitate or question what I’d have to do.

Not the head of the mass, but close. One of the other pairs of eyes on the thing’s ‘neck.’

Limbs reached out, getting close to us. Dangerous. They’d grab Isabella’s backpack if they swiped any closer, probably grabbing her, too. My paranoia kicked up a notch, taking a new form, one that forced my limbs into action.

Creature on creature. Monster taking on monsters.

I had to sell it to myself like that. An easier sell.

My hand went down, knocking a limb back. It retreated, slinking away, and more and more pairs of eyes fell on me. The mass stumbled, the motion coursing like a wave, each shape taking their own moment to realize and grasp why there was a sudden interruption.

Then, each shape, each person, took their own course of action in the wake of my presence. I could see some of their faces now, twisting in either anger or confusion. And those in the former category, whose blood boiled more readily, came back swinging without a second thought or question. Something in their programming. If obstacle, then obliterate.

I could sympathize. But not enough to let them have their way.

The momentum of the group carried them forward, until we found ourselves surrounded. A quick check saw that the numbers were less than just before.

Glass broke, more shouting, all in the near distance.

“Hit and run robberies,” Isabella said, “Using the rain as some kind of cover.”

“Interesting,” I said. I looked around. A leader. The middle head of the beast.

Couldn’t find anyone that stood out, but it didn’t matter. I was already moving, already swinging.

My umbrella went down, past my head, my hand moving to wrap it and lock it closed. In a blur, faster than their eyes could register or recognize.

Gripping the handle of the umbrella, I swung upward.

I felt it connect.

I tried to keep in mind the structural integrity of the thing, my own strength, and how hard it would be to break or dislocate a bone. I adjusted accordingly.

Someone got the wrong end of my particular stick, and was sent off their feet, falling on top of several of his buddies. Surprised by his sudden lift and descent, they were sent down with him.

Others tried to grab at us, at Isabella. I brought the umbrella back down, smacking at hands and arms, poking at them to stay back. A quick look behind me, and I had to swing there, too. It wasn’t like in movies, where fighting in a large group would only lead to a one on one altercation with the rest standing around, waiting their turn. This mass of people knew they had the numbers, and they were trying to use it to their advantage.

Tried, trying. It was an attempt.

I swung again, hitting harder to make them back away even more, literally beating it into their heads that their strategy would not work out well for them. It was tough to juggle, though, because as much as this was already a scene, I didn’t want to drag it out any longer, escalating the situation. I’d rather not show my entire hand and make my strength that obvious. All I wanted was for them to stop what they were doing, to leave, and to leave us alone. But I couldn’t seem to do that without getting someone hurt, or resorting straight to violence.

But, whatever. It got their attention, and it was mine to command.

“Wendy!”

More hands, closer and then closer to Isabella, right by my side. I wasn’t focusing hard enough on my flank. I swiped again, and heard something audibly crack. A yelp followed.

The rain never relented, and I was feeling the full weight of it as it crashed from above. I didn’t have the umbrella over my head anymore. Water splashed as I kept swinging, poking the mass to stay away.

In time, as I gauged their response and stance, they were staying away. Keeping back.

With all the moving and spinning around I had to do, my hood was slipping off my head, leaving my face exposed to the elements and eyes.

I peered through my glasses, the mist and the rain, meeting their eyes. Had to diffuse this situation with something that wasn’t just dishing out hurt.

That wasn’t me having to be me.

“No,” I said, speaking over the rain and other voices. “Just no.”

I tilted my head down some, so I was staring directly ahead without any clouded lenses blocking my sight. I found a face, and met their eyes. Familiar.

A guy, a boy.

They had thought so too, apparently, because their eyes grew wide, their expression screwed with fear. I could almost see their pupils dilate.

“Shit, it’s her! Get the fuck out of here!”

His words rippled through the rest of the gathered mass. They felt it, and decided to ride it through.

The group took one massive step backward.

Their attention diverted in different directions, all away from me and Isabella. They didn’t take as much time to soak in my being here like that one boy did. Regardless, they listened, and scattered into the wind and the rain.

They ran, away from us and back across the street. Some tripped over their feet and each other, their escape wasn’t at all organized.

But, they had given us some room now, letting me move up the sidewalk to investigate where I had heard the glass break from earlier. I readjusted my hood as I moved, shrouding more of my face.

The front of a bank. It looked like an older establishment, there wasn’t even an ATM installed by the entrance. The door was hanging by its hinges, open, glass shattered into pieces, some carried away by falling water.

More commotion inside, shouting and running. Looking inside, I noticed more shapes going back and forth, darting.

Some even darted back outside.

“Hey! What did Noah say-”

They stopped and stared. Their reaction was similar to the other boy’s.

“Fuck, we’re dipping!”

They turned back around and dipped inside. Not back out the other door.

A back exit?

These kids had gathered a large enough group and had the gall to participate in a series of daylight robberies. If they thought they could get away with it, then there were some problems in the dynamics in play, in this territory.

Dynamics that only I would be able to correct.

Darn.

Didn’t want to show my hand, didn’t want to resort to violence. I tried to come up with something that would send a similar message without revealing too much.

I improvised as I jumped.

The buildings in the territory weren’t very tall, a relatively tall, athletic person might have been able to scale a similar height with enough extensive effort. It only took a light leap for me to get up and over. The real use of any energy was in going across the roof, to get to the other side of the building. I crossed the length in three steps.

I saw the drop into an alley. I took it.

I landed before exit door swung open. When it did, I was there, waiting for them.

Eyes even wider than the other boy’s. Yells were louder, too.

The smaller mass here got backed up by ones that were frozen at the door. Congested. They were stuck, and I could sense it was the most scared they had been in some time.

“Other way, other way!”

Another dissenting order, because a boy got pushed forward, out the door, towards me. I caught him, holding myself back from swiping with my umbrella. With how his arms were thrown out, the panic in his expression, he wasn’t trying to provide a distraction for the others to run away.

If anything, he was the distraction.

Forcing myself some more, I let the situation settle, I let the others make their getaway. I wasn’t police, I wasn’t here to make an arrest. But if I scared them enough to think twice before they tried this again, then I did my part.

I let go of the boy, looking down the exit into the bank. No one in the small hall. They had all cleared out.

Checking beside me, I was relieved to see that Isabella had caught up, standing there with her hands around the straps of her backpack. She looked intact, which was always good. She didn’t even look all that wet.

“Now that was awesome!” Isabella said.

Then I checked the boy.

Familiar, too.

He had a hat and raincoat on, a foggy grey, but he didn’t look like a completely new person to me. No, with how he was standing and the general disposition of his being, it was vague, but I had definitely run into this boy, before.

Then it hit me. Rain pattered on the tops of our heads.

Looking down at the boy, I smiled. Sympathetic.

“You can’t seem to stay out of trouble, can you, Nathan?”

Light poked holes through grey clouds above. The rain wouldn’t give up anytime soon, but it did give some space for something else to make way.

Isabella, me, and Nathan. We walked along the path back to King Boulevard. We had already passed Tita’s laundromat. The smell of pancit and lechon filled my nose, now that I had both hands full. I wasn’t very fond of how rich the odor was, but I was sure D would appreciate it.

The umbrella was back over my head, Isabella’s too. Nathan could manage on his own.

“Why are you leaving so much space there?”

“You haven’t exactly earned any special treatment, Nathan.”

“Special treatment?”

“I thought I gave you a job to do. It’s not like you had an exclusive deal with us or anything, but I can’t help but feel… disappointed? Maybe I should have set one up.”

“You basically did. That girl came to check on my work every now and then. It got annoying, especially since she kept taking my cans to spray her own shit.”

“That… does sound like something she would do.”

“God, I have to start watching my back more carefully. I still feel like she might be watching me.”

What the hell did she do while I was out?

“And even though you were under such scrutiny, you still felt the need to go out and do this?”

“I, I don’t know. I didn’t have a choice.”

“Seems like I’ve heard this before.”

“It’s true. A job like that isn’t going to keep food in my stomach forever, and my friends… the other kids on the block weren’t up to learning to spread a new tag for a new gang. They don’t play like that, and that pissed them off. I got roped into another job to, uh, prove myself.”

“So people are still not used to us being around?”

“Maybe, kind of. Some are getting around, the streets have been less hot since you all took over, but people get used to how things are, even if they weren’t so great. They understood EZ and Krown. We don’t know shit about you guys.”

“What, so we have to doing some kind of community outreach program?”

“No, please, you don’t have to go that far. That’s, well I don’t know what that is but it feels corny.”

“Do you have any other bright ideas, then?”

Nathan grumbled, having taken a bite of what looked like an eggroll. Steam billowed out from the inside, revealing some meat and vegetables. Lumpia, Tita Lorene called it.

Her business was a laundromat. What was she doing serving food, on top of that?

Nathan spoke with his mouth full. “Just give it time. If you really care about doing right by this town, just keeping doing you, and let whatever you have in motion fall into place. Maybe people will come around in time. Shit, maybe I will.”

Doing right by this town. The probability of that seemed slim, considering Nathan’s words, and considering what the ultimate goal of this whole operation was. The gang.

Not that I’d bring that up at the moment. But, getting the territory we had on our side would help make everything move more smoothly.

I spoke. “Sounds like we have big shoes to fill.”

“No shit, EZ and Krown have been here for a hot minute, and that’s not even counting when they were working together. That’s history, that’s before I was born.”

“Dang. I had gotten an idea of that when I talked to Fillmore, but still.”

“Who cares? Out with the old, in with the so much better.”

I gave Isabella a look.

“Well,” I said, looking ahead, “You were up for going on this walk with me, getting some food.”

“Not like I had much of a choice. I’m not about to refuse someone who represents the sitting gang.”

“Or maybe you wanted to go on a lunch date with a pretty girl?”

The reactions I got were varied. Isabella laughed, Nathan coughed.

“Wow,” I said, “Whatever. We’re here anyways.”

“Yeah, let’s keep moving,” Nathan said.

We turned into the Wellport skate park. We were back.

There wasn’t anyone here. Not surprising. No one in their right mind would come here when the weather was this bad. It was impossible to skate with the pavement and ramps being so slick.

Whether or not that said something about us being here, now, I wasn’t going to dwell on that too much.

I let Nathan lead the way for this part.

We walked over to the opposite end of the park, going past some metal structures and half-raised cement walls. I couldn’t even call it poorly constructed, because nothing had been set or made permanent. It didn’t even get a chance to be constructed.

Nathan lead us over to one of the walls near the back of the construction. One of the few that were actually placed into its intended position.

Watching more of my steps, over more puddles and broken chips of metal and forgotten power tools, I was able to orient myself to see what Nathan had to show us.

A face. The eyes were closed, with rough, crude lines to exaggerate the creases and folds, accentuating how tight they were being shut. A few dashes to suggest a nose, scrunched to better sell the twisted up expression the piece was conveying.

But they were small in content, part of a larger whole. They weren’t the focus.

It was the mouth. The corners pulled back, wide, into a smile that looked crazed. The tongue was sticking out, long like a serpent’s, hanging over the lower lip, curled and forked. Every tooth on the upper row were in view and detailed, especially the two pointed canines. They were elongated, like razors, as if they had been filed sharp. With how wild the whole expression looked, it was like the face was laughing.

And the blood.

So much blood. Dripping from the teeth, the tongue, and splashed back past the corners of the eyes. A grim, grizzly picture.

The blood even spelled out a word, across the teeth. Fang.

“She came up with this design?” I questioned.

“It’s what she commissioned me to do. Why, you didn’t come up with this?”

“No,” I said.

Then again, I didn’t have a chance to come up with anything on my own. I wasn’t in town.

“You don’t like it?” Nathan asked.

Isabella spoke, “If it means anything, I love it.”

“I do not… dislike it,” I said, reserved. It struck me in a way I couldn’t quite express why, or put a finger on. It was a visceral, it was violent, and it was monstrous.

And, also, it was telling.

This was the gang’s tag, the image we wanted to bring forward when doing business as Los Colmillos. This was our face. D wanted to use mine.

“If you’re worried about this being the final product, don’t,” Nathan said. “She gave me suggestions for more subtle graphics that you can put on business cards and stuff. Not sure why you’d want to get stuff like that printed. But I do have some test designs on another wall, around here.”

“This is all over the town?” I asked.

“Not all over, but I have noticed some people putting their own spin on the design. They’re pretty dope. I doubt they even know where it came from, yet.”

“Have people been asking around, trying to figure it out, learn more about the new gang in town?”

“Um, not really, or not that I know of.”

“Oh,” I said.

“I’m starting to think you don’t actually like the design,” Nathan said.

“I think it’s amazing,” Isabella. “It fits you so well, Wendy.”

“The design is good, Nathan, there’s just a lot to take in.”

And there was a lot to take in. I wasn’t sure why, but the face had an eerie effect to it, and it nagged. Tugged, really.

With the rain, water dripped down the face and eyes, sliding alongside the blood. The face looked like it was crying.

I had taken the long way around to getting here, and that applied in a more general sense than I would have liked. I detoured to see more of the town, came across Nathan, and wrapped back to the park. I had taken every deviation and distraction until I found myself back at the barn, where the truth was gone now, but traces of it had been hiding from me.

Spirals. I thought about what Lawrence showed me. Those pictures.

I had tried taking my mind off them for the internim. Distracting myself through diligence. But now I couldn’t run away. I had come back for a reason. Because, despite what Isabella had to say on the topic, I couldn’t do things by myself. I wasn’t good enough.

I spiraled back to this. And it was staring back at me.

Water dripped down our eyes.

I’d have a lot to talk with D about over dinner.

Previous                                                                                               Next