096 – Stop the Presses

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There was an unsettling quiet that had settled in and around St. Elizabeth. A nebulous yet almost tangible barrier that felt thick to go through. Overbearing, making everyone who was coming in hold their tongues and work in silence. Which was something we didn’t need at the moment. We only had a limited amount of time to coordinate a plan, so communication was key. And I had just learned that we were severely lacking in that department.

Fangs were entering and exiting the church, bringing boxes in, taking splinters and broken glass out, and assessing the damage and cost of repairs. Cleaning out the blood. This was like a twisted version of stopping to smell the roses, even though to my nose, the smell was just as sweet. The last time I was here, I was in a mad rush trying to escape. I hadn’t been aware of just how much gotten broken in that escape.

I was always leaving messes like this? All this time?

Scary to think about, and I almost didn’t really want to. But, here I was, standing in the middle of it all, overseeing the clean up crew. I had to force myself to fight the instinct of just looking away. Put myself up close, put myself back.

Doesn’t mean I have to like it.

I walked across the altar, over to a group of my workers. They were putting some stuff back together, setting them into place. Heavy, fancy looking chairs, and a stone statue that had gotten knocked down, the head now missing. They were having trouble with the last one.

“Jordan,” I said.

A man turned, standing. Taller than me.

“Voss,” he replied, his voice deep. He wore a white shirt, baggy jeans. His hair was short, his eyebrows in a perpetual straight line. As if he was constantly bothered about something.

I tried not to bug him any more than I’d have to.

“Here, let me help with that.”

Jordan and the others moved out of the way. I crouched by the statue, hands hovering over it.

“So, where does this go?”

“Hell if I know. Never been in here before.”

“Oh yeah, right,” I said. “Guess I’ll just… set it somewhere, then.”

I grabbed the statue around its torso. I could feel the weight of it. Had to be a couple hundred pounds, easy, and it would be taller than Jordan when set upright.

The muscles in my arms tensed, and I lifted the statue off the ground.

My jaw was clenched, the muscles in my back were tight now, too, and I wobbled around trying to find a proper place to put this thing.

I adjusted my grip, so I could lift it without having to lean back so much, and shifted over to one end of the row of fancy looking chairs.

I set the statue down. The base of the thing landed with low thud, and it seemed to echo out throughout the rest of the church.

I stepped back, stretching, realizing that I was able to hear an echo.

Jordan and his group were standing a distance away, suspended in place, as if they had turned into stone. A few groups had stopped what they were doing, too, looking in my direction. Staring.

Ah, that’s right. The freak with the super strength.

I tried to play it off the best I could, hands down, walking to Jordan and his group. They remained frozen.

“Uh,” I started, “So you’ve been busy, talking with the others. What’s your take on getting everything back in working order?”

He someone managed to look even more bothered. He scratched his face, his hand in an awkward claw position. It looked stiff.

“Probably by tomorrow afternoon, maybe even before sunrise, if you were wanting to be an ass and work us to the bone.”

I took a glance for the reactions of the others. Not just his group, but everyone. Hunched over, not moving, and I knew they were all waiting for what I was going to say.

They weren’t being very subtle about it, but okay.

“I wouldn’t do that to you guys,” I told them, genuine. I had to raise my voice for it to carry across the church. “Take your time and do it however you need to. But, like, actually get it done though.”

I threw that last part in, haphazard. I was still working on that part of the job.

“Alright, Voss.”

He didn’t say or offer anything else.

Jordan and I stood there, his group just waiting around.

Okay.

“Alright,” I said, clapping my hands together, then setting them at my sides. I started backing away. “I’ll, uh, let you get back to it.”

“Alright.”

I went back in the other direction, turning around. I felt like an ass, regardless.

Darn it, Wendy, you need to be smoother than that.

I knew that much.

Standing on the altar, which was raised over the rest of the church, I scanned around at the different groups as they got back to work.

I saw Reggie leading one group, bringing in boxes, guiding people into a hall in the back of the church. Equipment and tools to fill in the armory, which was ours, now. I saw another group, sweeping dirt and shards into one corner to be scooped up later. People were working, mostly at their own pace, but if Jordan said they could get it done by tomorrow, I’d hold them to that. They set that timeline for themselves.

I also saw D.

She was sitting at the frontmost row, her arms around a stuffed bear, her head resting on top of his. Her feet barely touched the floor. Staring straight ahead, not looking at anyone or anything in particular.

I looked on, somewhat downcast. I wasn’t sure what to do with her.

A small shift in movement from one of the groups below. It caught my eye, and my attention.

Sarah was walking up to me, up some steps and over a few bullet casings. Hands together, careful and deliberate in her approach. Graceful.

“Hey Voss,” she said, joining me at the altar. Despite everything that had went down in the past few hours, she didn’t sound tired or out of sorts. It was admirable to hear. “I knew you were strong, but I’ve never seen up close before. You must have some pretty big muscles.”

I straightened out my clothes, trying to get out any folds or dust. Some crease remained.

“That’s where the super comes in, actually. I don’t have much under here. Probably less than when I first got my powers.”

“That’s something I’ll have to see for myself.”

“And Voss? Not you, too. I thought I had said something about that, already.”

Sarah gestured to the church around her.

“We are kind of on the clock, now,” she said.

I leaned back on my heels, hands set behind me, looking away.

“Oh, that’s right,” I mumbled.

Sarah moved over so she was standing beside me. She took her own scan of the building, observing everyone as they worked.

“So you’re going to use this place as your base?”

“Ah, yes, I am,” I said, fixing my posture. “It’s not a bad spot at all, and the church grounds cover a decent area. There are office buildings, places for storage, and the back area of the church itself has plenty of room, too, like the armory. And being here gives the Fangs more reach, as well. I don’t like how we got this place, but everything seems to check out.”

“But now you won’t be around as much anymore. I’ll miss you.”

I had no response to that. It even stunned me a little.

“It’ll work out,” I said, choosing to talk around it, instead. “I mean, it has to.”

“I’m sure it will. This place is going to be in good hands. With you being here, it gives me a reason to want to start going to church again.”

I almost laughed.

“Sounds like something Isabella would say,” I replied, absentminded.

Sarah didn’t comment or respond. There was a lull in the conversation.

Did I say something wrong? Did I focus on the wrong thing? Or was it how I said it?

I was beginning to think that I wasn’t very good at this kind of thing. Or, I’d have to tap into something I didn’t want to tap into. That experience, or connection.

Wasn’t Alexis better at more mundane things?

Not that this was a mundane situation or even conversation, but knowing how to navigate that might help me in other cases, like when dealing with gang leaders on a round table, dealing with Styx, or even just talking to Sarah. A reference point I could bounce off of.

“Someone call?”

Isabella was coming up the altar, joining us. Her hands tugged at her backpack straps, resting them there.

“What I meant was, I’m not used to being praised,” I said.

“Oh, but you should. You have a lot to be proud of.”

“You should learn to be more open to them, then,” Sarah said.

I shrugged.

“Maybe? It doesn’t feel… right, to me, since there isn’t much I’ve accomplished on my own. I’ve either needed help or I was trying to accomplish something by myself but I’ve needed to be, um, bailed out in the last second.”

Isabella groaned. I could imagine why.

“Looks like I’ll have to teach you how receive compliments,” Sarah said. She spoke with a certain, inviting inflection that caught my ear.

“Sure, shower me with praise. That should do it.”

“Sounds good. We can make a date of it.”

“A what?”

“We can make a day of it,” Sarah said.

“As if you have that kind of time,” Isabella said. “You don’t need more on your plate, Wendy.”

“Ugh, thanks for the reminder,” I said, sarcastic. I shook my head, and got a touch dizzy. The late hour was starting to affect me. “I’ve been so busy and everything has been so hectic that I barely have any time to breathe, anymore. Maybe I do need a break.”

Sarah smiled. “If it means anything, you definitely deserve one.”

“No,” Isabella said.

There was that doubt speaking, again. I’d learned to take stock in it, though. The moment I tried to relax might be the same moment it’d all fall apart, and I wasn’t ready to move. We worked in the underworld, and it was a cutthroat, volatile world, and we were among villains and violence. Which didn’t lead to much in the way of stability, so I always had to be diligent, always had to rely on others. Lawrence, D, and even Sarah and Isabella now, too.

But, it’d be nice to catch my breath, for once.

“We all deserve one, but we don’t get to have that luxury.”

That sounded like Lawrence. I looked back and saw him, coming out from the back, a door behind the altar. He joined up with us, making the group almost complete. We had one person sitting things out, right now.

“You should give up on the hope of ever sleeping eight hours again, and soon, or you’ll be very disappointed,” Lawrence added.

“Wow,” I said, “How doom and gloom of you.”

“That’s just how the world is, now, nobody gets enough rest these days. And if you are going to sleep, do it with one eye open.”

“Aye aye, captain,” Sarah said, joking. I noticed her trying to steal a glance at me.

I wanted to reply, mention how the lack of proper rest was factor in me fucking up the El Paso job. Losing some of the passengers we were transporting, almost losing Sarah and Isabella.

I didn’t bring it up.

Instead, I spread my arms, like I was showing off the church.

“So, Lawrence, you took a look around, what do you think?”

He surveyed the area.

“I think… it certainly suits you. Abandoned cathedral turned into gang headquarters, there’s an extended metaphor for sure.”

“Like what?”

Lawrence waved a hand.

“Something, something, former hero going bad, whatever. It’s too late for me to work my brain that hard.”

“Fair enough,” I said.

“Either way, it’s coming along, and it’s good you finally have your own base.”

“Not disagreeing with you there.”

I scratched the back of my head, thinking.

“But, there might be contention for this next part.”

Lawrence already knew what I was talking about. He looked past me, to the little girl sitting in the front pew, still hugging that stuffed bear.

“What are we going to do with D?” I asked.

“I thought we already discussed this.”

“That barely counts as a discussion. We reaffirmed where our focus needs to be now, and we moved here. We’re going to need specifics once we start getting together a proper plan on how to handle the journalists.”

Lawrence’s stare stayed on D, his expression hard to read. He breathed, hard.

“If you my honest opinion, I still wouldn’t want to bench her. D… she has her use, but she also has a tendency to act on her own, even if it goes specifically against what we had asked of her. It’s like she has a talent to make everything more complicated, and, as much trouble she had wrought upon me, I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for her. Can’t deny that. She is an asset.”

“Her and Wendy,” Isabella said.

“That just sounds off,” Sarah commented, “Referring to her as an asset. She is a person, you know. A kid.”

Lawrence paused. He breathed in, then out again.

“Fine, I get it. We’re just one big happy, circus freakshow of a family, aren’t we?”

Sarah smirked. “You said it, not me.”

“And D might actually feel better if you were to tell her that,” I added, part joking, part not actually.

Lawrence frowned.

“Are you serious?”

I answered, “Since you asked, sure, yeah.”

“I’m positive she’d appreciate it, especially if it came from you,” Sarah said. The ‘joking’ part was starting to weigh a little heavier on the scale, now, but we meant well.

“This is not what I came here to talk about,” Lawrence said.

I crossed my arms, and craned my head a bit.

“What did you come here to talk about, then?”

“Strategy,” Lawrence answered. “Not something haphazardly put together like earlier tonight, when we went to the meeting. I don’t want anymore unforeseen circumstances, not when we have a lot on the line. Reputation, momentum. If we nail this, we stand to gain so much.”

“Like a seat at the table,” I said. The same table that all those gang leaders sat at, and sat comfortably. I felt a stab of guilt, that Lawrence and I both wanted to be at that table, since we probably had very different ideas on what we’d do at that table once we got there.

I held my tongue.

Lawrence didn’t, though. “Exactly. So we need to get to planning and start making some moves by tomorrow morning. We start early.”

“It’s not like we’re going to be getting much sleep, anyways.”

“Take some caffeine pills if you need to.”

“Somehow I doubt that’ll work on someone like me.”

Lawrence shook his head. “Never mind. I have a few ideas we could start with, but it’s tough to when we can’t even meet with John Cruz, and we don’t even have proper invitations to the event at the art gallery, so we can’t even walk in.”

“Mrs. Carter doesn’t want any tangible connections to us, which makes sense, but yeah, it’s a pain in the ass. But you said you have something?”

“I have some things. Maybe. Being down at your new armory gave me some inspiration. But that’s why we’ll need D to get in on this.”

“You need D for help, or you want her?” Sarah said, teasing.

Lawrence didn’t look impressed. “What the fuck are you saying?”

Sarah motioned to the little girl in question. “I’m just saying. She’s in a funk right now, and while you can argue that it’s justified, she’ll need to be in top shape if she’s going to be the asset you claim her to be.”

“I thought didn’t like me using that word.”

“I don’t, but that’s not my problem. You want her, you’re going to need go over there pick her up. Be, you know, her knight and stuff.”

Lawrence shot a glare at me, as if I had something to do with this.

“Don’t look at me,” I said, “I didn’t drink at all tonight.”

Sarah hit me in the stomach. Her hand lingered for a second before pulling away.

“Whatever,” Lawrence said. He sounded irritated. “Wendy, come on.”

He was already walking without me, forcing to catch up. I looked back at Sarah and Isabella, and waved, apologetic. They didn’t seem to mind.

It wasn’t a long walk to D, but it felt like it. There was almost an aura of… uncomfortableness, that surrounded D, and it pushed against us as we approached her. It was hard to penetrate.

“D,” Lawrence said, with no warmth in his voice at all. So much for being a knight.

She lifted her head, slight. Her lips were set in a line, her hair partially in her eyes. None of the energy that I usually associated with her. That wasn’t right.

“Hm,” she sounded. No energy there, either. It sucked to hear her like that.

“We need to start talking plans.”

D didn’t reply right away.

“Okay. I’m game.”

“We only have a four days until the event at the art gallery, meaning we need to get things in motion soon in order to get ready for that, and there’s a shitton to consider. Like, who Natalie Beckham and Oliver Morgan are, and maybe even where they’re working from.”

“It might be possible that we can get to them before the art gallery event,” I said.

“There’s that, too. That could be ideal. But if that doesn’t work out, at least we know where they will be. We have a timeline.”

“And a clock to work against. So, Lawrence, what was it you had in mind, again?”

“Ah. Going from my earlier point, we might be able to get more information on them if we can find out if they have a base they return to, even on occasion. They might keep notes there, or tabs on who they’ve talked to, anything we could use.”

“Where do we start?”

“Based on what was in the folder Mrs. Carter gave us, they used to write for the Stephenville Impact. It was the biggest paper then, still is, so I doubt they’re somehow writing for someone else, much less for an independent blog.”

“So you want to walk right up to those offices and see if they’re in there?”

“I’m saying it’s a start. We probably shouldn’t announce our presence, or make ourselves known, but if we can get familiar with every point or possibility, there’s no way we can’t get this done. I’d want to visit the art gallery, too. I’m guessing the event is going to be some kind of exhibit, so there’ll be a lot of high profile people there. Politicians, businessmen. Mrs. Carter set this up for a reason. If we can completely control that space, we win.”

I was quiet. D was, too.

“Is that not good enough for you?” Lawrence asked.

I shook my head. “No, it’s not that. It’s… what does it mean to win, in this particular game? Think about what Mrs. Carter wants from us. She wants these two out of the picture. How far removed does she want them to be?”

The question hung over our heads, threatening to crush us with the sheer weight of it.

Lawrence managed to find an answer, or at least, one that pushed the question a little further away.

“Removed enough to satisfy her. For now, we focus on just isolating them. What happens after, we’ll figure that out when we get there.”

This is the world we operated in. A cutthroat, volatile one. And we’re the villains.

Not that any of this was supposed to be a surprise, but it wasn’t often we were faced with the reality of what we were doing, and what we had to do.

“We can’t kill them.”

Lawrence and I looked at D as she lifted her head, looking back at us.

“We can’t,” she reiterated.

I nodded, slow.

“Like what Lawrence said, we’ll figure it out later. For now, let’s just focus on how to get there.”

“Right,” Lawrence said. Then he turned to D. “Are you good to help us out?”

“I want to…” D said. It was like she wanted to say more, but she didn’t.

“There’s some shit we took from the Cobras that you might be able to work with. Flashbangs, smoke grenades, shit that hits a little harder than that. It kind of sucks that we took it all just to end up putting it back, but that’s not important. What is, though, is if you can take those apart and make something we can use.”

“Like what?”

“I can take you to the armory and give you a better idea. Is that okay?”

D hugged her bear.

“Hey,” Lawrence said. He paused. Then, before he spoke again, he moved to sit right next to her, closer than I’d ever seen him before.

“D… Yeah, you fucked up, there’s no debate there.”

“Good one,” I said.

Lawrence glared at me, then went back to D again.

But,” he emphasized, “If we can take this is as, as something to learn from, I think we’ll be in a much better position than we were before. I told the same thing to Wendy. She has value, and you don’t… not have that, too. So, if this is what it takes to get a better version of you, D, I can learn some forgiveness, on my end.”

“Aw, that was almost sweet,” I said.

Lawrence shot up from his seat, looking angry. It was kind of funny.

“God dammit. Must be this place, making me say all kinds of bullshit.”

“Yup, that’s it. Definitely.”

I heard a small snicker.

It was slight, but I saw D’s gap in her tooth. She was smiling a little, her lips parted.

“Thank you,” D said, her voice even smaller. Her chin nuzzled deeper into the bear’s head.

That seemed to catch Lawrence off guard.

“You’re, you’re welcome. Now come on, I have weapons to show you.”

D hopped out her seat, her hair bouncing. I reached over and fixed loose strands out of her eyes.

“You’ll be okay,” I said to her.

“I know,” D said in a breath, blinking. “What was it you’ll need, exactly?”

Lawrence answered that. “Tools, more info on these reporters, and a floor plan of the art gallery, a list of everyone attending as well. Oh, and one more thing.”

“What’s that?”

“I’ll need a costume of my own, too.”

I never thought just walking into a building could be so nerve-racking. Middle of the day, people all around, no mask, I never felt so exposed.

I walked through the revolving door, feeling nauseous, as though I was still spinning. I managed to get a few decent hours of sleep, but Lawrence meant it when he said early. Still groggy, still trying to get my bearings. The sun was barely rising, so it hadn’t dawned on me quiet yet, just how close we were about to cut it.

I went through the lobby of the building. The clean, white tiles reflected a harsh light into my eyes, as if I was walking on the a bulb of a spotlight, under an intense heat, my shadow swallowed up by the intense shine of everything. There was little room for any darkness, here, and that put me on edge.

I wasn’t wearing much cover, either. Just a black sweater with a white shirt peeking out underneath, black jeans and black sneakers. I was wearing a matching soft cap, but it didn’t seem like enough to block everything out. My eyes were squinting behind the glare of my glasses.

Normal clothes for a normal setting, yet the circumstances were anything but.

People in suits passed me by, off to handle their own business. On occasion, I had to check my surroundings, make sure I was heading in the right direction, but I still had to blend in, too. I couldn’t look so lost that I drew someone’s attention.

There it was. The elevators. Far side of the lobby. I crossed over, reading a sign by the long, mahogany counter that was the front desk, confirming the floor I needed to go on.

A receptionist raised his head, and I looked away before he could notice me.

I continued forward to a group of suits that had flocked to a nearby elevator. A lot of suits, but they were all huddled together, close.

I didn’t have to wait long before the doors opened up. A few people made their way out, but more entered than they did leave. I joined them, stepping inside the elevator.

There wasn’t a dedicated person to press the buttons, but someone was nice enough to stand by them and help out.

“Ten, if you will,” someone said.

“Sure.” The button lit up.

“Did someone press seven?”

“Just did.”

“Eighteen, please,” I said, adding my voice.

“Of course.”

The doors closed, and the elevator began to climb up. With every passing floor, every stop, my apprehension increased at every interval. I was cramped, with people all around me, my shoulders brushing against everyone else’s upper arm. There was a good chance that I was the youngest and shortest person in here, and that served to make me stand out even more. No one seemed to question my presence, though, being too absorbed with their own concerns.

By the time we past the tenth floor, enough people had filed out that I now had room to breathe. The effect was marginal, though, as I was getting more and more lightheaded as we ascended, higher and higher. I was able to see the window, now. The skyscrapers that made up the Eye dwarfed me, even as the elevator took me past some roofs.

A ringing sound, and the smooth sound of metal doors sliding open. The eighteenth floor. I stepped out.

The doors closed behind me. No going back now.

I bit my tongue as I arrived.

Another receptionist. A woman this time. Black, overweight. She noticed me.

“Hello,” she said, kind. Somehow, it surprised me.

I had to compose myself again.

“This is the Stephenville Impact offices, right?”

The woman gave me a look.

“You got this far and you still have to ask?”

I tightened up even more. “I…”

“Relax, sweetie, you’re at the right place. How may I help you?”

“I was wondering if Natalie Beckham was in at the moment? Or Oliver Morgan, if he was available?”

The reaction from the receptionist was subtle, but there. A slight lowering of her eyebrows, her expression more curious than welcoming.

“And what business do you have with them?”

I had the story straight in my head. I told it.

“I heard through the grapevine that they were doing a story on John Cruz. I might have some info that could be useful.”

The receptionist grabbed a notepad and a pen, and started jotting stuff down.

“Name and position?”

Shit, thought so. Cutting it closer and closer.

“Wendy, and I had an interning position at Mr. Cruz’s campaign office during the race.”

“Alright…” She kept writing.

“Are they around?” I asked, nervous.

She stopped writing, then turned her attention to me.

“Unfortunately, they are not, but I can take a number and have them call you when they get a chance.”

No, no.

“They don’t have an office here I can wait in?” I asked.

“They do not.”

That was telling. They didn’t have an office. Were they working from somewhere else? Where, then?

“Do they come here often?” I asked.

The receptionist jotted something down on the other side of the paper. Notes on me, probably, and that got me even more nervous, and I had already reached new heights.

“They do, when they have to meet with Mr. Edison. But, the best way for you to reach them is if you give me your number, and they will contact you when they are available.”

I couldn’t have that. One cut too close.

“Could I possibly stay here until they show up?” I asked.

She was steadily growing more annoyed with me. Fair, I was pushing my luck.

“Wendy, was it?”

Again, I bit my tongue. Harder.

“Yes,” I said, tense.

She set her notepad and pen to the side.

“You can have a seat there, behind you. Granted, they might not swing by at all, today.”

“That’s fine,” I said, “Thank you.”

I’m prepared to wait.

Moving to a row of chairs, I was able to take in the actual office of the paper. It looked utilitarian in design, like how I’d imagine a generic office interior to be like. Maybe it was a little more busy than the standard office setting, with almost everyone who was at a cubicle chatting with others, talking on a phone, or running from one end of the floor to the other, or straight to elevators. Reporters chasing leads, probably. The energy was so manic, it was scary to think the that kind of energy might be directed to us. As manic as it was precarious.

I wasn’t the only one sitting, waiting. Someone was across from me, a thin man with a bag slung across a shoulder. Young, maybe he was here for a job interview?

I had to shake my head. I was wandering. The early hour made it easy for my thoughts to get away from me.

Instead, I took out my phone. I already had a text typed in, ready to go. I read it over one more time, then sent it.

Then, I waited.

My fingers tapped against my thigh, my feet pressing into the floor. It was tough, to try and act normal. I wasn’t used to wearing that mask.

I picked up my phone again. I stared at a blank, black screen, tapping on it to give the impression that I was actually using it. I wouldn’t be able to focus on anything else. All I could do was pretend.

There were a few directions that this could have gone. For one, the reporters could have actually been here, and I’d have to talk to them. A frightening possibility, but a very real one. If things had went that way, I’d try to feed them disinformation, or act incompetent enough to throw off any suspicion while trying to see if there was anything I could get from them. That was a type of scheme I wasn’t really skilled at, but I’d have to step it up. Everyone was going to work even harder to pull this job off, and I had to match them in that effort.

And then, there was this. I wasn’t able to get what I needed, but I’d at least be able to provide support, even from sitting here, completely innocuous.

I had sent my text. Plan number two. In a sense, this was better for us in the long run. Better than me fumbling in front of two seasoned journalists, anyways.

Ten, fifteen minutes had to have passed. I waited some more.

The elevator doors opened. A man in a brown uniform stepped through, wheeling in a stack of boxes, with the same matching logos printed on the side. A bear. On top of the stack was an actual teddy bear, about two feet in height.

He went up to the desk, getting the woman’s attention.

“Teddy gram delivery,” the delivery man said, dry.

“Kind of late for Valentine’s, isn’t it?” the receptionist questioned.

“All I know is to send this thing, here.”

“May I ask who it’s for? Who it’s from?”

“Can’t say who it’s from, but it is for Janet Haugland in accounting.”

“We don’t have a Janet in accounting.”

The delivery man scratched his head.

“No? Is this not Langston and Associates?”

He was making it hard not to laugh. He was so stilted.

“This is the offices for the Stephenville Impact, sir.”

“Oh, well where am I supposed to go?”

“Langston is three floors down from here.”

“Three floors down… And what floor are we on, exactly?”

“We’re… we’re on the eighteenth floor.”

“So three down from eighteen. That’s fifteen, am I correct? Just want to make sure.”

She grimaced. It was too early in the day to already grimace at someone, but he got her to do just that.

“Is this a prank?”

I was so close to breaking into a nervous laughter, it was dangerous.

Before I could, the elevator doors opened another time. Another man, wearing sunglasses, this time with a dog. Walking blind, using the dog to guide him.

It was a big dog. Rottweiler. Short hair, big teeth, a lot of muscle.

Seeing it knocked any wind out of me. I tensed, and then the dog did as well.

Didn’t take long for chaos to erupt.

The dog locked eyes on me, and immediately snapped. It barked, growled, yelped, tugging against its chain, metal links clinking together. One animal made more noise than everyone else did on this on floor.

I backed up, hanging off the edge of my seat. He’d better have a handle on the dog.

The man with the sunglasses, pulled again, clearly struggling, yelling the barking.

“Russel, Russel! Ay cool it!”

The dog wasn’t obeying, tugging even harder, until it was choking itself against its collar. The dog struggled to break free and attack me, the man struggled to rein him in.

I got out of my chair, the dog was winning out in that struggle. I checked around.

The man was sitting across from me was standing, too, backing away from the dog. The receptionist was up as well, wary, unsure what her next move was supposed to be. A lot of eyes were on the scene, on me. Their focus and attention had been redirected.

I didn’t see the delivery man.

“Sit, Russel, sit!”

The dog wasn’t listening.

Okay, this was cutting it even closer. It wouldn’t be long until those cuts started landing.

More commotion. Coming from behind me.

People. Running up to us, to me. Pulling me away.

“Hey, get moving!”

Others were trying to get to the man, but his dog was putting himself between them, eyes and teeth still trained on me.

“Sir, could you get your dog out of here, maybe come back another time?”

“I’m sorry, Russel isn’t normally like this!”

“I understand that, sir, but if he can’t calm down, he’ll have to go outside. Or I’ll have to call security!”

Hearing that, the man pulled even harder to get the dog to turn around. He made some progress, but at the cost of twisting the dog around, more whimpering than it was growling, now. Still doing all that it could to get at me.

Someone led me back to the receptionist desk, putting more distance between me and the dog. More of a surprise, seeing people immediately jump to help another. The world I operated in didn’t call for much selflessness.

The dog, despite all its bark and its attempt to bite, eventually gave way to its owner, letting itself be dragged back to one of the elevators. The farther it got, the less feral it became.

“Sorry!” the man said, raising his hand to wave, before having to drop it again on the leash, the dog still tugging against it. “I’ll come back another time!”

The doors opened, and they both went into the elevator. The, the doors closed, leaving behind only ringing ears and pounding hearts.

I leaned against the receptionist’s desk, turning to the woman again. Everyone started to disperse as the situation cooled down.

“Wow,” I said, my eyes widened for effect. “Is there another place here I can wait so I’m not around when they come back?”

The woman’s eyes widened, too. Her hands dashed for her notepad and pen again. She scribbled.

“You know what, sweetie, here. That’s Ms. Beckham’s number. Use that.”

She tore the paper and handed it to me.

“Oh, are you sure?” I asked. I took it anyways.

“I am very,” she said.

From the corner of my eye, I saw the delivery man return. He still had the big teddy bear, but from the stack he had brought with him, a box was missing.

“Then, thank you,” I said. I gave the woman a curt nod, then took my leave. I followed the delivery man to the elevators. He pressed down, and I went in with him.

“Ground floor?” he asked.

“Yes, please.”

“Having a good morning so far?”

“I am now,” I answered.

The trip down was like an inverse of the trip going up. Less pressure, less stress as I went back down. It felt faster, too, to my actual relief.

When we got back to the ground floor, we went in different directions. The elevator filled with people as I left.

I found an exit on the side of the building. I was jogging to it as I got closer, pushing through the doors.

I practically growled a sigh of relief as I put the building behind me. Some people looked, it wasn’t ladylike, but I didn’t really give a shit.

I did it, we did it.

Taking the long way, turning more corners than I had to, I saw the parking garage. I picked up the pace now that I had my destination in my sights.

There were a few cars parked on the side of the road. A van, painted to look like a delivery truck.

A door slid open, and I slid right inside.

Sarah closed the door, and the van got started. D peeled us out of the parking spot, getting onto the road proper.

“Welcome back, Voss,” Sarah said. We were on the clock, but she did sound happy to have me back.

“I’m glad I managed to make it back,” I said.

In the passenger’s side, someone looked over. A man in a brown uniform, like he was off to deliver something.

“Good work, Wendy,” Lawrence said. “You played it cool, gave me an opening.”

“No, if it weren’t for Jordan this wouldn’t have worked out as well. And the-”

“Insurance? I followed D’s advice, I put them where no one would look, or question.”

“Awesome, and I got Natalie’s phone number. With D’s help, we should be able to track her down.”

“Yeah,” D said. “We, we should.”

“Fuck yes.” For the first time since I’d known him, Lawrence looked pleased.

“Then, that’s it,” I said. It was nearly impossible to believe. “Day one, and we got phase one locked down. What’s next?”

Lawrence answered. “Now, we need to start perusing some art. And see if there’s any we’d like to take for ourselves.”

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095 – Cutthroat

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Lawrence checked his phone for the third time in two minutes. One more for good measure.

“She’s late.”

He was mumbling to himself, but we all heard him.

There was a low rumble as the car was set to park, music just barely above the noise. It was Lawrence’s car, but it was Sarah’s music. Similar in style and genre from what she had shown me before, and I had grown to like it under its own merits. My head bobbed, and my fingers tapped to the rhythm.

It reminded me of the first time I rode with Sarah. On the way to El Paso, we talked about various things, and put those things into a new perspective. One of the few moments I could look back on with any kind of fondness. We were westward bound, but the trip went south, in a manner of speaking.

There were a few key differences, this time. For one, Lawrence was here, and that changed the dynamic. With the constant phone checking and mumbling, there seemed to be less room to relax or have any sense of calm settle in. It fit for someone like Lawrence, though. I hadn’t ever known him to be someone who could take it easy.

The second difference was that I wasn’t sitting in the passenger’s seat. I was in the back, unable to shake off the feeling that I was the third wheel, even if that wasn’t the case at all. If anything, Sarah would have a reasonable stake to that claim, and she seemed to be handling herself just fine. I was the one who had trouble keeping it cool in that situation, and I hadn’t even drank anything.

Maybe it was having to be here, seeing the sides of their face and the nape of their necks. A small but noticeable distance, but there was a degree of separation, there.

Lawrence’s car, Sarah’s music. And me, hanging on in the back.

I wished I had something to contribute, to feel more involved in things. I wished I was sitting next to Sarah.

I tried saying something, to add my voice and input.

“Just give it some time, they’ll be here soon enough.”

“They?” Lawrence questioned. “All D has to do is get out of the building and come meet us here, it shouldn’t take her that long.”

“You say that like sneaking into a skyscraper and having to find and climb and crawl through the appropriate vents is as fast as taking the elevator. Not to mention having to sneak out.”

“If anyone could do it and do it fast, it’d be her. She freaks me out with what she’s able to do, but, I can’t say she doesn’t have her use.”

“Aw,” Sarah said, making a tune out of the sound. “Is that your way of complimenting her?”

Lawrence made a sound, but it was more noise than melodic.

“No. Put it like that and you’ll make me sick.”

Sarah laughed. It had such a light, breezy tone to it, yet it made something in my chest seize up, tight. I wasn’t sure what to label that feeling as or where it was coming from.

“Y’all are funny,” she said, and the way she phrased it made me think I was included in that, too.

“Funny how?” I asked.

“I was just saying…” she said, but she left it at that.

I didn’t believe her.

I brought my arm around the seat, trying to poke at Sarah.

“No, tell me.”

Sarah wiggled around, trying to get away.

“Ow, what?”

“I said tell me.”

“It’s not, hey, I didn’t mean, quit it!”

I kept poking at her, and she kept twisting, leaning forward in a futile escape. It was probably just reflex, but she was laughing, ticklish, and that only made me want to do it more. Her voice reached a high pitch.

Lawrence cleared his throat.

“Guys, really?” he questioned, stern. He wasn’t looking at us, though. He checked his phone again, then flipped through another page in the folder. “You should be looking through this too, Wendy.”

I backed up from Sarah, leaving her alone. She was panting, her laughter dying down in fits. I kind of wanted to rev her up again.

But, I refocused my attention as I said, “I’ll sort through it with D when she gets here.”

Lawrence grunted. Another mumble, but it slipped past me, that time.

I added, “Hey, it’s not my fault there’s only one copy to pass around.”

“Should have asked for it while I was driving.” He flipped through some more pages, taking them out of the folder. “You know what, here.”

He handed me the pages. I took them from him, starting off with a cursory glance. Better to not meet with D and be completely blind to what we were up against. It was material I needed to familiarize myself with, because it was a job that was assigned to us, and I wouldn’t want to be the reason why it got botched. No, I’d have to do this properly, it was only fair to D and Lawrence. Even to Sarah, now that she was here.

Natalie Beckham and Oliver Morgan. Two journalists who were trying to disrupt Stephenville’s underworld, to dig it up and expose it to the light. Not unlike what I had in mind, but I’d go for something that burned a little brighter than just mere light.

If these were the same journalists that Lawrence was worried about, then our interests did align with Mrs. Carter’s, as she had put it. They were poised to disrupt our plans, too, if they were allowed to continue. We couldn’t let them get that far, wouldn’t. And to do that, I’d have to read up on our enemies. A very rare opportunity, and I learned to not let that go to waste.

I read through the bylines, the articles written by Natalie, photos taken by Oliver. It seemed like they covered local crime in Stephenville years ago, occasionally writing stories on gang leaders who were looking to sink their teeth in the city. They hadn’t managed to take down the larger, more established gangs, though. Not even Styx, and he was more… out there, than the rest.

It wasn’t for lack of trying, though. Attached were several drafts, printed out with some notes scrawled in the margins, most of them dating back to about a decade ago. Some of them concerned the larger gangs, but there wasn’t much detail, just some speculation and suggestions on leads to follow. Styx was brought up on several occasions. This could have been a gold mine for us, but there wasn’t enough to extrapolate anything. It felt so… curated. But, considering who these articles were provided by, it’d make sense not to give up something that had the potential to incriminate. It was just for us to get a feel for these two and their reporting.

Outside of that, though, how did Mrs. Carter get a hold of these? What was her line of access? How much did she actually know?

I saved my questions for later. We’d have a proper discussion once D got here. Which I hoped was soon. I was starting to worry.

“Any word from D yet?”

Lawrence looked at his phone.

“No. I thought you were the one who told me to be patient? Now you can’t wait anymore?”

“Geez. I can’t catch a break with you, can I?”

“Nope.”

I breathed out loud, making it obvious on purpose. Sarah snickered to herself.

“Before then, is there anything that sticks out to you?” I asked.

“Everything,” Lawrence answered. “This whole thing makes me uneasy.”

“Glad to know I’m not the only one.”

“That doesn’t make me feel any better.”

“Sorry.”

“No it’s… I’ll text D again.”

The phone buzzed in my pocket. I wouldn’t bother taking it out until I felt another one.

There was a lot of waiting, and there wasn’t much time.

Maybe we shouldn’t have left D alone, or at least have her sit this one out. It wasn’t like we could just have her sitting with us at that table. As far as image went, having D there would contrast the other gang leaders to the point of absurdity. There probably would have been more ‘no’ votes if they knew, exactly, who they were saying no to. But, at the same time, was this something we wanted assigned to us?

Styx was there. I wasn’t aware of that when went in. It was good call to have her not be within the walls of that room…

D did suggest that she’d sneak around and try to give us an advantage. Did she know that Styx would be there?

I flipped through another article. I breathed out, more quiet that time.

Couldn’t let my thoughts wander.

It was a bad habit, staying in my head for too long, mulling over what had happened and what it could all possibly mean. Dangerous, even. And I was supposed to be getting away from that, to not slip in the usual spots, to be better.

D needs to be here, already.

I reached out.

“Uh,” I started, just wanting to say something, but I didn’t have a proper thought prepared.

“Uh,” Sarah repeated, doing an impression of me. From just a small noise, it sounded pretty close.

“Huh?” Lawrence sounded almost incredulous.

One upside to being in the back. No one saw me when I smiled, feeling dumb, at the fact that Sarah had responded first.

“Nothing,” I said. I leaned over, resting my forehead against the back of Sarah’s seat. Putting more of my face into the shadow.

“I’d reach over and poke you if I could,” Sarah said.

“I’d like to see you try,” I said.

“Are you serious?” Lawrence questioned. My phone buzzed. “Fucking finally, christ. Come on.”

Lawrence pushed a button where the ignition was supposed to be, and the car stopped its rumbling. He opened the door. A chill came in, and he got out.

Sarah and I followed him outside.

The rain wouldn’t let up, but it had eased off as it got darker, later into the night. Not strong enough to really need an umbrella, but I really didn’t like getting wet.

Lawrence went without his umbrella, but Sarah had taken it for her own use. Without me saying anything, Sarah moved to my side, holding the umbrella above our heads. She walked in step with me, Lawrence ahead of us.

There were much more important matters to consider and think on, but they were all drowned out by my internal screaming.

“You can hold your liquor pretty well,” I commented. “Everything considered.”

“Oh yeah?” Sarah said, just barely over the rain, tapping on the umbrella. “To be perfectly honest, I’m freaking out.”

Was that an admittance or a joke? Somewhere in the middle?

“Me too,” I said, at the same volume, with the same kind of vagueness.

We walked across the lot, to the park. Peace Phoenix Plaza. Still in the Eye, but it was close and out of the way enough, and we needed to meet up as soon as we could. Though, if D was going to take forever in getting here, we could have just went over to the church, instead, using the keys that-

Thrown at me by Styx.

Maybe it was best if we stayed away for now. Could be a trap. It sort of was one the last time we were there.

I shook my head. My thoughts were getting away from me, again.

Reaching again, this time for my phone. I wanted to read D’s text. Her van wasn’t anywhere to be seen as we crossed the parking lot.

Orange lamplights illuminated the path ahead of us, making it easier to walk forward while my eyes and attention were elsewhere. Having Sarah huddled close helped too, in other ways.

Rain thumped on plastic, then hair. Sarah went a few steps ahead of me before she turned.

“Everything okay?”

I left a pause before I answered.

“I don’t think so.”

That caught Lawrence’s ear. He turned back and walked closer to Sarah.

“How?”

I showed him my phone. The message log of our group chat.

“Did you read D’s text?” I asked.

“Yes, we have to go over to the bridge at the south end of the park. D parked over there.”

I flicked the screen. The chat scrolled up towards earlier texts.

“Read it again, D doesn’t text like that.”

Lawrence looked at the screen, then his own. Comparing the most recent message with the ones D had sent before.

“It’s different,” Lawrence observed. “It’s off.”

“D doesn’t really bother with stuff like grammar or spelling.”

“You’re… yeah. It didn’t take me a second longer to know what she actually meant.”

Then Lawrence looked at me directly.

“You think D didn’t text us?”

“I’m saying I have doubts, and we need to be careful moving forward.”

“Got a plan?”

I nodded. “I’ll go ahead, scope things out. I’ll call or text you if it’s all clear.”

“That’s it? You don’t even have a knife on you.”

“I don’t want you to get hurt,” Sarah said.

I raised my other hand, palm facing forward.

“I won’t do anything hasty. I’ll just go first and take a look, just in case. If it’s nothing, great-”

“And if it’s something…”

Lawrence trailed off, and I didn’t want to continue the thought from there.

“Okay,” he then said, without much deliberation. Not much time for that. “Go. Be quick, but be careful. We’ll wait here.”

I started moving, passing Lawrence. There was a shock between my fingers.

My hand flinched. I had passed Sarah, her hand had brushed against mine. Nothing else was exchanged or said.

Oh shit.

Was that something I needed to address? There was so much on my plate already.

I concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. I was so dizzy.

That sensation lessened the farther I got away from Sarah and Lawrence, swallowed instead by doubt, but at least that was a feeling I was familiar with. I could work with doubt.

I started jogging down the path, passing others who were out on a stroll. Some were by themselves, some walked as a couple.

How nice, to see something normal.

I blinked as water went past my glasses and into my eye. I picked up the pace.

A fountain came into view. I went around it, passing a statue of a large bird of prey and an assortment of different art installments. One was a series of rings, interconnected and intersecting, until it looked like a web of wires and metal, an entangled mess than anything resembling art. I didn’t quite get it, myself, but I didn’t have to. I walked right past it without a second thought.

Turning to another section of the park, I hurried down the path, looking for anything or anyone that I could recognize, ally or not. At least I’d know I was getting somewhere.

I stopped.

There.

I saw Isabella, by a path that went under a bridge. She had originally gone with D to ride around the club we were meeting that other gang at, then offering to watch the van while D was out. Knowing that Isabella was there helped me feel better about D being where she was, even when Styx turned out to be there, too. A sort of solace I could fall back on.

There she was. I looked ahead and saw D, too. And then Styx.

My blood ran cold.

Under the bridge, as if they were hiding in the shadows, Styx was closer to D than he was to Isabella. Within arm’s reach, because he had an arm around her, holding and keeping her at his side. I was close enough to see D’s reaction to the whole thing. It was a bodily one, trying to get out of his grip, squirming.

I felt it as much as she seemed to.

Moving to the edge of the path, by some hedges, I was being tugged between two different urges. To lunge right at Styx and tear him apart, or sit back for three seconds and text Lawrence.

An almost impossible decision that took over four seconds of deliberation, and I had used up enough time that I might as well have contacted him.

Or was that me learning from past mistakes? To not rush in, headlong?

Couldn’t pat myself on the back, though. Didn’t feel right.

Lawrence replied. Faster than my hesitation. Bless him.

A short message. It was a blur as I skimmed through it. The brevity of it and the few letters I caught was enough for me to make a move in confidence.

Fuck him up.

I lunged.

I went off the path, going around the bushes and trees. Staying out of the light, staying in the dark. A rush went through me, like all my anxiety was being burned into something I could use. Fuel. A kind of bloodlust.

I blinked, and it was sudden. Styx was against the underside of the bridge. There was a curve to it, so Styx was pressed into it at an awkward angle, his back at an arc.

Sounds popped off around me. Isabella’s cheer, D’s surprised shriek, and Styx’s hard grunt into a strained but still raucous laughter.

“Hey! Look at you go!”

Shut up, I willed, then pressed him more into the brick bridge. I had pounced on him, fast, abrupt. Something should have been broken or cracked, but from the way he wouldn’t shut up, it didn’t seem like I had done a thorough enough job.

“Who took the leash off of you? Because I’ll have to thank them for finally making you so interesting.”

“Unless you’re willing to answer my questions, you’d best shut the fuck up.”

Styx cackled, and it only served to piss me off even more.

“Wendy.”

I turned my head, still pushing into Styx. It was D, her hands together, her eyes downward, staring at my feet rather than my face. Isabella walked closer, looking between D and Styx. Concern for her, contempt for him.

Styx managed to shift his head, too, looking in their direction.

“Ah, yes, if you want answers, why don’t you ask her? I’m sure she has something you’d like to hear.”

“I’m not asking her. I have you now, and you can still talk.”

“There’s no fun in that, I’m just an old man!”

“You’re not giving yourself much reason for me to keep you alive.”

“Oh, there’s plenty of reasons, believe me, but how about we go with the one that’s most fun. Come on, ask her, ask her!”

Styx growled the words, as if he was the one with the power in this situation.

I checked around me one more time. Isabella, D. No one else here. Might not stay like that for long. Random civilians, or maybe even Sarah and Lawrence.

D was still wasn’t looking at me.

“D,” I said, as a test, as a reach.

D’s gaze flicked upward, but not meeting me directly.

“What the fuck is he talking about, D?”

She wasn’t answering. I glanced at Isabella, who only offered a shrug. She was as lost as I was.

D,” I intoned, and it wasn’t a question or a suggestion. A command.

She flinched, her fingers twisting together. She opened her mouth, or rather, she let it hang.

“Styx was waiting for me when I got out of the vents. He caught me.”

“Why was he looking for you?” I asked D.

She went silent again.

Styx spoke, even when he wasn’t being spoken to. “I was wondering where she was, didn’t take me long to figure it out. You know, Mrs. Carter requested that everyone show up for the interview, evaluation. She’s not going to be very pleased if she finds out the Fangs were short a tooth.”

“Why were you looking for her?” I asked Styx.

“Wendy-”

“No!” Styx hollered, before cackling again. “I’ll take this one, lo, since you’ve elected to keep yourself choked up.”

He twisted himself around even more, so I could see the wide white of both of his eyes. The sort of flexibility that looked painful, yet he did it with a twisted grin on his face.

“I just wanted to say hi.” He said it like he was taunting me.

With how he was overextending the limits of his spine, and with my hands forcing him more into the brick, it would have been so easy to snap him in half. Wouldn’t need a knife or gun to do it, too.

“What?” I questioned.

“It’s been a minute since I’ve seen you all, seen D, and I was so disappointed that she wasn’t at the table. I just wanted to say hi, catch up.”

Been a minute, been a while…

Didn’t we ask D to check up with Styx after coming back from the church? That was only a few nights ago.

“D,” I said, at a lower register. I watched her. So stubborn.

D!”

I snapped at her.

Her eyes snapped upward, finally meeting mine. It took that much work to get something out of her.

“Did you do like we asked?” I tried to phrase it so only D could catch the actually meaning, but I was afraid that Styx already had us beat.

The reactions were about what I had come to expect, which didn’t inspire a lot of confidence in me. D was quiet, and Styx wasn’t.

I let go of Styx. He slid down the curved wall of the bridge, the side of his face against brick. He twisted himself around so he was leaning up on the wall, supporting himself, his laughter still ringing in my ears.

“Shut your mouth,” I told him, “Or I’ll lock it shut with the keys you gave me.”

“Oh, that’s a good one. Shows creativity.”

I scowled at him, but that only served to make him more elated.

I turned my ire to someone else, instead.

“The last fucking thing I want is for this guy to be right, D. So if you’re not going to talk, you better give me something.”

That something was delayed, as footsteps came up from the path behind Isabella and D. Sarah and Lawrence, they had caught up.

Everyone turned and reoriented themselves in the moment.

“The fuck are you doing here, Styx?” Lawrence asked. He was fully incredulous, that time. He probably only had the confidence to speak like that because Styx was several feet away, on the ground, scratched and bleeding on some parts of this face.

Sarah moved around Styx, like there was an invisible barrier around him. She beckoned for Isabella and D, to get them under her umbrella. They took slow, reluctant steps to her, still facing Styx like he was an animal that could attack at any moment. Maybe he could. Styx’s Ferrymen could be out there, somewhere, waiting for a signal from their leader.

I should have felt better that Sarah was here. Lawrence, too. I didn’t. There was a rotten feeling in my stomach and gullet, and it wouldn’t go away.

We’ll focus on D, later.

“Just here to congratulate all of you,” Styx said. He had been laughing so hard and for so long that his voice started to sound hoarse. “I would have done it up there if you had all been present. I just really wanted to.”

“You know damn well that we don’t need your goodwill,” Lawrence said.

“Oh, you don’t? Because you wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for me, boy.”

“I wouldn’t have been beaten half to death if it weren’t for you, either.”

Styx made a face, as if he had to think about it.

“Ah, that’s right.”

The man laughed again, more rough than ever.

This isn’t it. This isn’t right.

When I spoke, that taste was still there. I felt like spitting bile.

“Styx, I really don’t believe that’s all you’re here for. We already got we needed from Mrs. Carter. You being here is just keeping us from doing our job, and with how important it seems to be to her, fucking it up for us probably isn’t in your best interests.”

The laughter immediately stopped. The sound of light drizzle reigned. It was eerie.

“Do you think you have control here, Voss? That, because I’m down here, you have something you can hold over me? Real power?”

He sprung to his feet. A surprising swiftness that I wasn’t expecting.

Styx loomed over me. He was tall. He was bleeding, but it didn’t seem to bother him one bit.

“Because I can assure you, blueballs, that could not be further from the truth, which is something you continually turn a blind eye to, little Dolly won’t speak on, and El doesn’t actually want to hear. Fitting, since you were tasked to kill it. It’s actually very funny, I applaud Mrs. Carter.”

“Excuse me?”

Styx turned to Lawrence.

“I’m just here to set y’all straight before you tackle the big job. Help you get on the same page, or else you’ll all get torn apart from the inside. And as fun as that to observe from the side, I have bread to make. Haven’t set every duck in a row to operate on a smaller scale. Not yet.”

He fixed his leather jacket, tilting his head until I heard something pop.

“And until that happens, I’ll guide you along. I’ll just have my fun in seeing where I can take you.”

That didn’t sound foreboding at all.

“So the church really is good to use?” I asked.

“Good as holy water,” Styx said, but nothing he said gave me any assurance. He didn’t have the tone or even the context for it.

“Not a single bit of this feels right to me,” I said. “Mrs. Carter, the table, this job, you. Why the hell would we believe that you’re approaching this with any kind of goodwill?”

“Doesn’t that give you the best kind of thrill? Thinking that you have to make that gamble? How about this, let’s make it my second favor, that you have to take me on my word.”

I wanted to throw him into the brick again, paint this whole section of the bridge in red.

His second favor, meaning there was still one more.

“This is just one big joke to you, isn’t it?” I asked.

“Life is just one perspective shift away from being a tragedy or a comedy, and I prefer a longshot.”

“God dammit, Styx, if this is another trap I swear I’ll break your bones.”

“Not a trap, promise.” Styx grinned, wide. “The people voted you in for the position. I didn’t have a say in it, neither did Mrs. Carter. You got lucky with Santino. See? That just makes it all the more interesting for everyone involved. I’m on the edge of my seat, and I’m vibrating.”

“You tried to get Wendy killed! Everything with Solace is because of you!”

I didn’t expect Sarah to jump in and back me up, but I wasn’t opposed to it.

“I didn’t try to do anything,” Styx said, still looking at me. “I had a job to do, and so did Victor. Sometimes, those tasks overlapped, other time, we tried to have our fun when and where we could. It can hard, working different shifts.”

Every word that slithered out of his mouth offended me, making my head ache all the more. Nothing seemed to make sense, as if everything was a riddle, but only Styx knew what he was getting at, and what the possible answer would be, if there even was one. There was a chance he was saying things just to throw me off.

Paranoia and doubt. I knew more of those things than I did peace and quiet.

Styx had continued while I was sifting through my thoughts, somewhat distracted. “In the end, I did give Victor over to you, didn’t I? It’s a gesture, much like the keys. A sign of… well, is faith nothing more than just an illusion?”

The whites of his eyes and teeth seemed to take up more and more real estate on his face. It disturbed.

“Victor, Remus… Solace, he set it up so he could sabotage the transport. People died. He tried to kill me.”

“He had his job to do.”

“You knowingly put a wolf in sheep’s clothing and hid him in the herd. What happens afterwards is still on you.”

“Maybe it is.”

Maybe it is.

Enigmatic, cryptic. It was everything I despised. Everything I didn’t want to think about.

Styx adjusted his jacket again, brushing dirt off of his shoulders.

“Well, it looks to me I’m not wanted, here, so I’ll take my leave. Like I mentioned, I just wanted to see your faces one more time. Who knows, it might be my last chance to savor it.”

He had the audacity to take a step back and start walking away.

“And you think you can just go, just like that?” Lawrence asked.

“I know I can, El, so I will. Maybe if you weren’t tweaking so hard, your senses would be working properly.”

Lawrence didn’t respond, and I didn’t get to see the reaction on his face. I was transfixed on Styx, as he walked to the other side of the bridge, chuckling to himself.

“I’ve said too much, then. I’ll let you all sort yourselves out. It was good seeing you all again, especially you, D. Please actually come by again, don’t be a stranger.”

No response from D, either.

I’d tell you to go to hell, Styx, but you already take regular trips.

I wanted to say that, I wanted to spit that at him with venom.

Styx got farther away, and hardly a breath passed my lips.

I clenched my teeth and my fists, until fingernails dug into my palms, until my jaw was tense.

Styx turned, walking backwards. Grinning.

“Oh! Before I forget, I wanted to leave you all with a word of advice. The real reason I was here. Nat and Oli? You should know better than to underestimate them. They’re good. So all I wanted to say is, I hope you’ve cut enough ties, so they don’t come back to choke you.”

Then, with his back to us now, Styx raised his hand, waving. He stepped out from under the bridge, to the other side of the path. From each side of that particular opening, bikers emerged, as if from the shadows, stalking over from the bridge to Styx, forming a mob until I couldn’t see Styx anymore.

His other Ferrymen. His actual insurance.

Goddamn you, Styx.

There was so much I wanted to get out of him, but he knew how to keep us at a distance, while standing on that line. Laughing about it.

I watched as they all disappeared into the distance. When enough time passed that we were certain that they were gone, we regrouped, taking cover from the rain under the bridge.

This part wasn’t going to be any easier.

Lawrence was the first person to say something.

“Shit.”

Yeah.

He looked down at D. “Did he do anything to you? Did he… do anything else?”

D shook her head. It was a while before I was going to hear her voice again, it seemed.

“Are you two going to be okay?” Sarah asked, setting her umbrella down. Her eyes went over me, Isabella, and D.

“We will be,” Isabella answered. “Maybe. Should have done more to Styx when you had the chance, Wendy.”

I glanced over Isabella to D. “Now’s not the time for that.”

“Then what?” Sarah asked. She sounded almost hurt, at that. It pained me, too.

“What? Right now, we need to focus on D. What happened, or rather, what didn’t happen.”

D fidgeted.

“What do you mean?” Lawrence asked.

D fidgeted some more.

I put my hands on my hips, and gave the girl a stern look.

“D, tell Lawrence. Now.”

I felt like a mom, or maybe an older sister. Either way, I felt disappointed.

My harder tone was enough of a nudge for D, and she finally found it within herself to speak.

“I… I didn’t go to Styx like you asked.”

Eyes were on Lawrence. Waiting, wondering what his reaction would be. Even D looked like she was bracing herself, and she had crashed a bus on the poor guy.

Lawrence took his time with it, as if he was considering his options on how to handle this.

“Where did you go when you left that night?”

He sounded calm. Which was somehow worse.

D was much less so. I had never really seen her like this. Her eyes darted, her words fumbled over, her fingers tugging at her choker.

“I went around the territory surrounding the church instead, assessing the damage done and the Cobras’ reaction.”

“And? Did you at least get anything?”

“Yes. I was able to get a name of their leader. Manny. They pulled out of the territory because they were afraid of a similar incident happening again, incurring more loses. Like Manny’s son.”

Manny’s son. Was that the guy who got killed in the armory? Was that why the cop paused and got so scared and angry. I could see it in his eyes. It was a loss for their side.

“They’re keeping everything under wraps because they don’t want it to affect their other business proceedings,” D said.

“But you didn’t go check if they went to Styx.”

“No.”

Lawrence was still putting on a calm veneer.

“Why?”

D bit her lip, and-

“Fucking speak, D.”

D’s head snapped up.

There it is.

“I didn’t… I don’t know,” D stammered. “I didn’t want to risk tipping him off, or getting roped into one of his schemes, like, like last time. I figured I could work around him, but I didn’t know Styx would show up with… this.”

She was small before, and she only looked smaller, now. It broke my heart to see.

Lawrence scratched the back of his head. His eyes scrunched, and he did it for long enough that it seemed like he was pulling hair out or otherwise trying to hurt himself. His eyes looked bigger than usual.

For once, D tried to speak without being prompted to.

“I’m sorry, I wasn’t trying to-”

“No.”

Lawrence stopped her.

Just… no.

D was frozen. I was, too. Sarah and Isabella were tense.

Lawrence started shaking his head. He brought his hands back down, reaching into his pocket. He took out a small bottle, inside it were smaller pills. He took several, swallowing them dry.

No one said a thing. He wouldn’t want to hear it.

He put the bottle back. When he talked again, his voice was dry.

“I’ll put the blame solely on myself for this one. I should have known better than to send D to Styx. He’s a scary motherfucker, I get that, and you probably get that more than me, D. You have some history with him, but there’s a reason why he walked away and you’re still here, right?”

D didn’t answer.

“Right,” Lawrence said, answering his own question. “We can’t get held up on this any longer. Did you at least get what we needed at the meeting?”

“I… I did. Got pictures of all the different people at the table. Recorded the whole thing, too. With enough time I can put names to those faces, save D’Angelo and Manny.”

“Does Styx know what you were up to, exactly?”

D answered right away. “He doesn’t, I promise.”

“A promise from you doesn’t really hold much weight anymore.”

It was like Lawrence had slapped her. Everyone had a visible reaction. There was some moisture gathering in D’s eyes.

Lawrence made a sound. Noise.

“Whatever. I fucking hate to admit it, but Styx is right. I don’t know what he’s trying to do, but if this is his way of trying to mess with us, we can’t give him that satisfaction. They gave us a job to do, and we’re not going to let this, or anything else fuck it up. Okay?”

“Okay,” D said, quiet.

“Of course,” I said, throwing my voice into the mix, so D didn’t feel so alone.

“Then we’ll put a pin on this for now. Styx can wait. This Natalie Beckham and Oliver Morgan, they’re the real targets.”

D nodded, slow, stiff.

I put a hand on her shoulder. I tried to be as gentle as humanly possible, as if that specific sentiment could mean anything, coming from me.

“Let’s go,” I said. “We have work to do.”

Everyone could agree on that. The awkward part was that D had parked at another section of the park. The instant we were all on the same page, we had to split up.

“We’ll go with D to her van,” I told Lawrence. “We can meet back up with you at the car or we can drive with her.”

“Either way is fine by me,” he said.

We’d figure it out as we went, then. We went our separate ways. Sarah and I, Isabella and D. Lawrence.

We followed the path Styx had taken earlier. There wasn’t anyone around now, but we still walked with some trepidation.

D had gone ahead, leading us. Out of the cover of the umbrella, head down.

I felt for her, because, more often than not, I would be the one in that position.

“Thoughts?” I asked, reaching out again.

“Who, me?” Sarah asked. She was close enough to hear my whisper. “Does my opinion even matter?”

“I think it does. I want it to.”

Sarah shifted the umbrella, so it could provided better cover. “I think… Styx is a bully, and D is just a kid. It’s not fair that he’s allowed to do whatever he wants, and it’s also not fair to expect her to be all there, as far as maturity goes. Kids rebel, they don’t listen, or they’ll find a way around doing something.”

“But like this, though?”

“It’s no laughing matter, but, everyone needs something, or someone, that can center or anchor them. Maybe Styx has learned to work without that, but D is too young to be trying to swim on her own.”

“She’ll be fine,” Isabella said. “You’ve been fine without that kind of thing, Wendy.”

Have I been? It sounded good, but it also didn’t sound right. It just gave me more doubts to work with.

“Are you saying we shouldn’t have D around?” I asked

“Not saying that, that could just make it worse,” Sarah said. “Lawrence, D, you, Wendy. Someone needs to hold you down. Watch your back.”

“Sounds like a chore. You up for that?”

I felt a shock near my fingers again.

“Sure, I might need to focus on one thing at a time, though.”

The prospect of that gave me a sinking feeling, yet it was a calm, soothing descent. A selfish request wanted to come out, bubbling up inside.

I held my breath.

Previous                                                                                               Next

094 – World of Dogs

epy arc 13 take

Previous                                                                                               Next

That’s a lot to take in.

I stared at the woman, Mrs. Carter, as she had introduced herself to me. The entire conversation was playing back in my head, over and over again. We only had a short interaction before she dropped this one me, but that only allowed for more and more repetitions.

This woman represented Mister, and she was here for me.

It wasn’t a moment I was prepared for, but it was one I had to deal with. I stood there, frozen, unsure of what to do or say, aware that every second I let pass was a change in the power dynamic. She was standing taller, and I was shrinking. I grabbed the counter beside me, the bar. Balance, in case I ended up losing it.

I had to say something.

“Mister?”

The name fell out of my mouth, more repeating what was already said, rather than offering a new piece of insight on the situation.

Mrs. Carter remained cool, staring back at me, staring down. Her back was straight, her clothes were buttoned up and proper, and her glasses caught the light in a way that gave them a glare, adding to the intensity of her being here, representing who she represented. Cool, and maybe even calculated.

“Yes,” Mrs. Carter said.

It was just one word. She had no need to repeat herself.

I held onto the counter next to me, leaning on it. I knew that I wasn’t in a good position, I knew that I wasn’t presenting myself well. This wasn’t the image I wanted to portray.

No, I couldn’t let myself stumble, not like this, not anymore. I was done letting myself be that weak.

Putting pressure on the counter beside me, and myself, I pushed, shifting my weight back to my feet, using and relying on my own body to keep upright. I was standing straight again, matching Mrs. Carter. Even if I wasn’t on the same level as her, I would at least act like I was.

“Finally,” I said, “I was wondering when he’d introduce himself. I was beginning to think we were being ignored.”

Mrs. Carter smiled. It was odd, almost chilling to see, because it actually looked genuine.

“We have many eyes and ears, darling, and they are everywhere. Believe me, we have not overlooked you.”

“Well, that’s good,” I said, trying not to let my growing paranoia creep into my voice. It was already bad enough, with most of it being applied internally, and my own capabilities, but a significant chunk of that had echoed Lawrence’s own. There was a lot of danger and a lot of enemies out there, and we had to be prepared for them.

And one of them was standing in front of me, right now.

“May I ask what matter would Mister like to discuss?”

“Not a discussion, a hearing.”

“A hearing?”

“I would prefer not to divulge any details here, in such a public venue, and you will find out for yourself, in due time.”

Mrs. Carter shifted around, moving her shoulders and adjusting the folder in her hands. It was a subtle, restrained movement, but I noticed it. There was a grace to it that stood out to me, and I wasn’t sure why. Maybe it was because that was grace that I inherently lacked? The reason why she was able to keep standing straight and I couldn’t?

If I could, I’d take her and drain that out of her in a heartbeat.

A moment passed.

What the hell was I thinking?

Mrs. Carter spoke again, taking me out of the distraction of my own making. Something I was begrudged to be grateful for.

“And speaking of time, please, gather the others that represent your organization and follow me. The faster we can handle our business with you, the more convenient it is for me.”

“And why is that?” I asked. How fast this process would go was probably the only thing I had direct control of, and I’d use it to prod, if it meant getting any kind of leverage or edge over her.

Mrs. Carter answered, “Because I do have other business to attend to, tonight. I do not intend to babysit.”

So she had other plans. I could keep her from them if I stretched this out for long enough, came up with something else. If I managed to delay her, would I be able to fuck up her night? Her and Mister’s plans?

It was an intriguing proposition.

“I’m not going anywhere… or gathering anyone… until you tell me where you’re taking us.”

I spoke slow, drawing out my words and letting my thoughts run in the meantime. I was buying myself precious seconds, and I had to use every single one. What were my options?

I didn’t have my knife or gun with me, I had lost both of them in trying to escape the raid at the church. I had my fists, but was there anything to gain by starting a bar fight? Could I grab D and Lawrence and use the ensuing chaos for cover? But, any perhaps the most important question, would trying to get out from this even be worth it?

I already knew the answer to that one.

It was just… Mrs. Carter was here, now, forcing my hand into making a move she wanted me to make, and I’d have to bring D and Lawrence along. I just wanted the time to make that decision for myself, to make sure I wouldn’t end up leading them into a trap with me. I didn’t want to fuck this up for everyone else, like I had done before, like I always seemed to do. For once – for fucking once – I would have liked to do something that didn’t screw me and my colleagues over.

“I can guarantee that you will be taken to a location much safer than even this one,” Mrs. Carter said. She looked around, the light caught in her lenses, an air of disdain about her. “Here, there are too many… nonentities, but they have a tendency to get in the way, if you allow them to. I can promise you a more neutral territory.”

It’s like she read my mind.

But was she to be believed? I had my doubts, but, thinking like that was dangerous in its own way. I wouldn’t be able to do anything if I second-guessed every possibility and got myself stuck, uncertain of which path I should take. And my choices were already narrow, I had to take Mrs. Carter on her word.

It just… it had to a choice I made willingly. To get some agency in this situation.

I wasted more of her time.

I started, “If I may be so bold though-”

“You may not.”

Mrs. Carter tried to cut me off, but I kept going, kept prodding.

“-I’d like to ask exactly what we’d be doing, because I am not about to take important, key members of my organization and bring them with me to something that might up us all at risk. With the limited information you’re giving me, it gives me the impression that you’re acting in bad faith, and-”

A blunt force on my chest, knocking me back. I didn’t fall over, though, because a hard pressure gripped my lower lip and chin, keeping me up and in place.

Mrs. Carter moved, and while it was movement I had registered, it wasn’t one I had anticipated. We were fairly close, given how crowded the club was, with all the people around us, dancing and drinking and lounging about. A decent amount of personal space was more a luxury than anything else, here. For her to take another step closer would violate what little I had left, and grabbing me within that space sounded alarms in my head that I couldn’t answer. People were around me, I was still trying to be discreet, and I had to fight the very strong impulse to start breaking something or someone.

She had stepped forward, putting her foot between mine. She lifted a hand, pressing into my chest, then moving to hold the lower half of my face. She raised my chin, forcing me to look right into her eyes, underneath her glasses.

Listen,” Mrs. Carter intoned, with a surprising lack of contempt. It was just stern, like a parent scolding a child. Maybe. I didn’t exactly have that specific frame of reference. “Do not play me. I have been at this for a very long time, so I know every trick, every lead in, every gambit. What you are trying here will not work out for you, and that… I can promise you as well.”

I tried to voice a response, but found that I couldn’t. Air pushed between my lips and cheeks, a strained, pathetic sound.

Mrs. Carter continued to drive her point home.

“I have given you my word, as it stands in this current moment. Gather the people you have with you – all of them – and come with me, and while I can guarantee you a more neutral territory than this, I cannot guarantee your own personal safety. That, will be entirely dependent on your temperament. So I advise you, let this be a lesson to you, because you will have the chance to apply it soon.”

If her catch was forced and sudden, then her release was gentle and gradual. She let me go, her fingers sliding down my cheek. Her thumb wiped the corner of my lip, catching some moisture that had collected there, with my mouth being opened for so long.

She took a step back, giving me that space back as well. Her hand settled on the folder she in front of me, resting it there. Mrs. Carter looked as poised as ever.

I inched my hand upward, experimentally, ready to grab for the counter if I needed.

Fuck, shit, fuck.

Then, a tug on my other hand, and I was pulled away from the bar. I turned around, and while I had reason to feel relaxed, now, I wasn’t able let myself have that relief.

Sarah pulled me towards her, until I entered her personal space. That, though, I didn’t mind.

She hovered over me as she stared at Mrs. Carter. Her hand was on my shoulder, her other was in my own, our fingers brushing together, ready to pull me back farther and away if she had to. Mrs. Carter returned that look, the glare flashing across her glasses again. The neon colors around us changed to a deep red.

“Is everything alright?” she asked, her tone stern. “Or am I going to need to get the bartender and the bouncer?”

Mrs. Carter didn’t answer, instead keeping herself level, as if that threat couldn’t possibly apply to her.

For my part, I didn’t know what to say or think, and I hated the idea that I was also lost on what to do.

“Go,” Mrs. Carter said to me, ignoring Sarah. She kept that well-tempered disposition, which made it even more eerie, given what was hiding just beneath the surface. “Do not keep me waiting.”

A moment passed, long enough for the neon colors to change again, and when the light switched to green, Sarah pulled again, and I followed her as we left the bar, disappearing into the crowd on the dance floor. She didn’t let go.

“Thanks,” I said, at a normal volume, but with how loud the music and people around us were, it was the equivalent of a whisper.

Sarah replied as she led the way.

“The second I saw her move in I just knew I had to do something! That is not cool!”

Self-conscious over my mind and body, I was hyper aware of the contact Sarah’s hand had with mine. She wasn’t letting go, instead holding tighter because of sweat making my skin slick. It made me feel gross, like slime, that I was only inconveniencing Sarah on having to bail me out. But it was the fact that I wasn’t even able to do my job was what made me feel even worse. Another failure, from both circumstance and lack of ability.

I tried pulling away from her grip, but that only made Sarah grip and pull even harder. I flinched a little, the emotions on my face and in my heart were mixed. Most of what was in that mixture wasn’t great, but there was some good in there. Some relief I was finally allowing myself to have.

I might have fucked it up, but something told me that Mrs. Carter was going to get what she had came here for, regardless. Forced to play along, but that didn’t mean I had to do this alone. There was D and Lawrence. I had Sarah.

When I spoke up again, it wasn’t at a normal volume. It was raised, filled with what little scraps of confidence I had left.

“I’m getting the others. There’s been a change of plans, but we’ll get through it.”

Trace amounts of self-confidence could only take me so far.

The ride here was long, but it wasn’t silent. We discussed strategy, divvied up roles and responsibilities, and tried to figure out what exactly we were getting ourselves into. D had no idea, and that only made Lawrence more nervous, which didn’t help me any, creating a feedback loop of anxiety and doubt.

We did, however, manage to come to an agreement on how we would approach this. Lawrence would handle most of the talking, and, if all hell were to break loose, I’d have to step in and do my part. I… could do it. I’d have to, if the situation called for it.

But, all we could really do was play this by ear. And, for now, we had to listen.

The doors opened up before us, and, speaking for myself, I was rendered breathless.

The room was expansive, wide as it was tall. Gold patterns weaved through the walls and ceiling in fractals. Even the carpet was nice to look at, made of intricate red and gold shapes. The ceiling glistened with lights, shining bright to the point I had to squint the moment I stepped into the room.

Round tables were laid out in different spots across the space, but only one was filled with people. They were waiting for us.

Mrs. Carter was waiting, too, somehow beating us up here. She was standing by the table, and  indicated to an empty section for us to take our seats.

Lawrence, Sarah and I joined the rest at the table.

There were a lot of people in assembly, a lot of eyes staring at us. Some were ready to pick us apart, and some looked completely disinterested but they were here, and they were forming an opinion of us in their minds.

I tried to match them with a similar demeanor. Chin up, shoulders square, meeting them in the eye. It was hard, when not wearing a mask.

Scanning over faces, I tried to find someone who matched the image I had in my head, someone who might look like a Mister. Hard to do, when the group was so diverse. Some were a few years older than Lawrence, some were actually old, and not everyone was dressed up in a way that fit the room we were gathered in. The image in my head started to blur, and I began to have my doubts.

Mrs. Carter started the proceedings.

“I do thank everyone for coming tonight, especially on such notice,” she said, in that formal, diplomatic tone that I was now coming to expect from her, a kind of voice that commanded order and respect. Going against that wouldn’t be ideal. “But I believe this is of enough importance that it will make up for any inconvenience I might have caused you.”

“It better,” someone replied. A man wearing a suit. He wasn’t old, but a few more years would take him there. “And if it’s so important, wouldn’t Mister be here?”

I wanted to trade looks with Sarah and the others, but I was too stiff. Frozen. Mister wasn’t here? Then what was this meeting for?

Our understanding of the situation kept changing, and that kept us on the back foot, on constantly shaky ground. Anything could happen, now, nothing was concrete.

“I’ll fill him in, there’s no need to worry.”

Another voice. One I did recognize, and it made my skin go clammy and cold.

The man who had replied turned, and I followed his gaze. I didn’t see him there before, but it was impossible to ignore now.

Styx was sitting at a table by himself, closer to the far side of the room, by a large window that overlooked the city below. Rainfall tapped against the glass on the other side, cascading down as a stream. It didn’t help in calming my nerves.

We were high up, somewhere in the downtown area. We were in the middle of the Eye, in several respects.

As if this situation wasn’t already tense enough. Styx just had to be here.

The man continued voicing his complaints. “This keeps happening, Styx, he can’t keep bailing on us, and I’m starting to get sick of the lip service.”

“Then hurry up and die already.”

“What did you say!”

The man pushed his chair back, leaning on the edge of his seat, ready to stand. His hand was gripped around a cane, black with gold engravings.

He seemed… familiar, but I couldn’t quite place him. At least he was talking some of the heat off of us, it gave me more time to compose myself.

“Please cool off,” someone said. Not Mrs. Carter, but another woman, sitting at the table. “You’re always trying to do… that, and it gets tiring. Can you please just quit it, or at least for now?”

The man paused, probably considering the woman’s word. Styx’s deep chuckle sounded in the distance. Seemingly reluctant, the man fixed his chair, returning to the group. He looked at us, at me, and he tapped his cane against the table. He didn’t offer another word.

Styx glanced at me, then at the ceiling, and grinned, baring teeth. My heart dropped, but I tried my best to not show that on my face.

“Then,” Mrs. Carter said, “Let us continue.”

She walked around the table, towards us, until she moved out of sight, and I didn’t feel comfortable enough to turn all the way around and show my back to these people. It just made me tense up all the more.

Her voice rang in my ears as she addressed the room.

“The group you see before you, they represent something… new. A current has been sweeping over the city, and they are the face of it. Competing against rival businesses, calculated mergers, and obtaining key assets. I present to you The Fangs. Come, introduce yourselves.”

It was in that moment, where we all shared looks. Nervous, uncertain. We stuck to the plan, though.

Lawrence introduced himself.

“I’m Lawrence. I’m the leader of this group. I was originally the leader of the Ghosts before-”

“You’re Benny’s boy!”

Someone interrupted. A man, not the same one from before. A larger man, bald, but his beard more than made up for the lack of hair in that regard.

“I heard about you, floundering around like a dead fish. I’m surprised you managed to find some more calm waters.”

Lawrence played off of that with ease, nodding and then adding, “You’re correct, sir, I was a member of El Carruaje, but I wasn’t part of the group that she kept with her. I was just a grunt at the time.”

A third person snapped their fingers. A black man, older than everyone else.

“But you’re so much more than that now, brother. You’re the man of the hour.”

“I… suppose I am. Thank you. And to address your other point, sir, I did have some trouble in the beginning, but it wasn’t for my colleagues here, I wouldn’t have been able to get my bearings. We’re doing swimmingly, now.”

“Good for you,” the larger bald man replied.

This was a different side of Lawrence than I was used to, but it was the one we needed right now. He was doing fine, just let him handle the talking.

“And who are you?”

Fuck.

“Um, me?” Sarah asked. She sounded jumpy, hesitant, in way that scraped like nails on the glass windows that Styx was next to.

I felt for her. This wasn’t where Sarah was supposed to be, this wasn’t where she was supposed to operate. Like Lawrence, her position was but a regular member of the Fangs, even if she occasionally rubbed shoulders with the leaders, with me. Being here, though, it exposed her to whole other world of danger, to people like Mrs. Carter and Styx. There was always going to be an inherent risk that came with being in a gang, but… I didn’t like this part of the plan, involving Sarah in this, moving her a space forward like a pawn.

“Yes, you,” the larger man said, talking to Sarah. I didn’t like the way he was looking at her, how his eyes somehow went past the person, and only taking in the body. And I didn’t even know why it bothered me as much as it did.

Sarah answered regardless.

“My name is Sarah, I’m just an internal liaison, I guess. I help where and when I can.”

The assembly in front of us reacted, casting glances amongst one another.

“What does that mean?” the man asked.

“It means she’s a nonentity,” Mrs. Carter answered. “Next.”

Fuck.

I stared at the many faces, and they stared back at me. There had to be about nine or ten of them here. It was hard to get an accurate number, with my anxiety getting the best of me. Faces started to blur together, bright lights blending colors and edges, shapes losing all definition.

I could venture a guess as to who these people were a general sense, but I didn’t know their names, and I still didn’t know why we were here. Mister wasn’t present, even though Mrs. Carter claimed he wanted a word with us. And the only one who would relay this discussion to him was Styx?

I felt my suspicions grow and yawn wider, ready to snap and ensnare me. Us. The trap that I led us into. And we only had so much in the way of a wildcard.

Opening my mouth, looking forward, not trying to give anything away, even with the tiniest of movements. Couldn’t look at the walls or ceiling.

A breath first, then a hum, then the first utterances of a word.

“I’m, uh, Wendy. I’m second-in-command to Lawrence, and I handle some of the more day to day businesses regarding the Fangs and the territory. I-”

A hard knock of wood hitting wood. A cane rapped the table.

“Oh, Wendy, that’s right!”

All eyes went to the man that had been squabbling with Styx earlier. He was beaming right at me, head perked up, with a white glint in his teeth as he grinned, clearly delighted over something about me.

I paused, frozen, a blank expression on my face. I didn’t know what this was about.

The man caught onto my confusion, and raised his cane a bit. He waved it around.

“You don’t remember? It’s me, Santino!”

He waved his cane again for good measure.

Then, a click in my head.

Santino.

Santino D’Angelo.

I had encountered him at the Lunar Tower some time ago, when we were up against Granon.

Other memories started pouring back into my head.

Stuck in place, afraid of being found out and caught, not unlike the feeling that wracked me here. A throbbing pressure started making itself known, down on my lower back, in the shape of a handprint.

“Oh,” I said, sounding hollow. I did remember him. In a roundabout way, he had helped inch me close to the edge before Granon tossed me off of it, completely.

Mrs. Carter, Styx, and now D’Angelo. The ground beneath me continued to rock.

The woman who berated him earlier glanced at me, then back to him. Fuck, if only I had their names.

“You two are familiar?” she asked.

D’Angelo nodded. “We’ve met. It was brief but it did leave an impression. I apologize that it took so long for it to come back to me, though.”

I realized that he was talking to me.

My hands were pressed together in my lap. I squeezed them until a knuckle cracked.

“No offense taken. And yes, I do remember.”

“Splendid. At least my time hasn’t been completely wasted, now.”

This was just more on the pile of stuff I had trouble dealing with. Being in the spotlight, with no shadows to hide in. I hated it.

A shape moved from the left corner of my eye. I dared not to move my head in that direction.

“Yes,” Mrs. Carter said, measured. “It was never my intention to do that.”

She circled around until I had a better view of her again.

“We’ll continue, then.”

Judging from the reactions across the whole table, it was something we all could agree with.

Something I took note of.

I still couldn’t allow myself to relax, though. I was as stiff as ever.

Mrs. Carter continued to speak to the room. “The reason why I have brought the Fangs to you this evening, is because this table could use some reshuffling. Mister believes that there will be a shift in how things are done, in fact, it’s already begun, with all the attention that’s being brought to Stephenville. The civil unrest right outside, and the… rampant vigilantism that had plagued us not so long ago.”

Another kind of current swept through the group. A tangible concern, borderline fear.

“I thought we had already discussed that,” someone said. Someone new. A man in a coat. “And I thought it was already covered.”

“It has,” Styx answered from across the room. “In part.”

“In part?”

“Meaning,” Mrs. Carter said, “There is still much that needs to be done in the wake of all the changes happening in the city. All the attention. A lot of eyes that need to be plucked out, and a lot of tongues that need to be cut.”

“That’s… a little much.”

“To survive in this business, it requires a cutthroat state of mind. You’d know more than anyone, I’d presume.”

“Dogs eating dogs,” Styx said. He smiled. “It’s all suicide to me.”

“One way to put it,” Mrs. Carter said. “But I digress. To bring this back to the Fangs, Mister has invited them to have a seat at the table, but they still have to work and prove their place.”

Mrs. Carter handed the folder to D’Angelo. He opened it, and flipped through its contents. He didn’t look through it long, and passed it to the woman beside him.

“And it will be up to you on whether or not they get to keep those seats.”

The folder continued to get past around the table, heading our way.

Lawrence spoke up, managing to get a word in among everything that was happening.

“Given present company, and the severe risk of interrupting, I’m still not sure what all of this is, yet. Some clarification would be much appreciated.”

Mrs. Carter replied. “If you haven’t figured out yet, consider this a job interview.”

The folder finally made it to us. Lawrence took it, opening it. He scooted his chair closer to Sarah, holding it so we could all get a better look. I was inclined to lean in as well. Sarah smelled of alcohol and a light perfume. Lavender, maybe?

I focused on the folder.

There were papers, a lot of them. Taking a glance through the contents revealed articles and photos, headshots of three people in particular. One was of a man. Hispanic, in a well-fitting suit and tie. His hair was gelled up, styled in an inoffensive way. The other man wasn’t as handsome, with much more weight on him, some even hanging on the underside of his neck. I could only look from the shoulders up, but it was clear that he wasn’t as well dressed as the first man.

The third was a woman. Blonde, thirty at the youngest. Her hair was tied up in a bun, messy, like she had put it up in a hurry. The whole photo had an impromptu energy captured within it. The woman was smiling, but the expression was half-formed, not quite there yet. And yet, she had eyes that could pierce. Like they were staring right at and through me.

I read the names that were beside each photo. John Cruz, Oliver Morgan, and-

“Natalie Beckham and Oliver Morgan are journalists who have been trying to investigate John Cruz, the city’s district attorney.”

A bang was heard in the distance. Everyone looked around, curious. It sounded like it came from the ceiling, but there wouldn’t be anything or anyone up there. Shouldn’t.

I avoided Styx’s widening grin.

“Journalists?” Lawrence said, putting the attention back on him. There was a curious tone in his voice. “Funny. I’ve been getting whispers of journalists poking around in my territory.”

My, not our. Better to sell the idea that Lawrence was the real leader of the Fangs. The face of the gang.

“Ah,” Mrs. Carter said, “So our interests may align, here. How convenient.”

Convenient for sure, I thought. Doubts were starting to ring clear.

Mrs. Carter resumed, “As I was saying, those journalists haven’t been very quiet about their questioning of John Cruz, and talk of their movements have reached my ears. Under normal circumstances, reporters like them would get taken care of rather swiftly, but these circumstances are not normal, and they are not like most reporters.”

“What do you mean?” Lawrence asked.

“Those two have had a way of… disrupting things, and Mister tires of the constant disruptions. Should they be allowed to continue, they are poised to leave a trail of destruction in their wake. Where I consider my talents to be better suited for building, they are much the opposite. Their presence threatens to undermine a lot of moving parts, one of them being John Cruz.”

Lawrence took the photos out of the folder, holding them up. He separated them, John Cruz in one hand, the journalists in the other.

“And I’m guessing you want these two out of the picture,” he quipped, lifting the photos of the journalists even higher.”

“To put it blunt, yes.”

“I assume we don’t get to refuse?”

“You can, but need I remind you of who you would be refusing?”

It didn’t take another look at present company to know what she was getting at. Again, Mrs. Carter was forcing our hand.

“Point taken. How are we supposed to do this, or do we have to figure that out by yourselves?”

“I refer you to the back half of the attached papers. But to summarize, in four days John will be hosting an event at an art gallery in support of his beneficiaries and as one last rally for support of a piece of legislature that he is backing. Should it pass, those at this table will stand to gain a lot.”

“Damn right,” a man commented.

Mrs. Carter ignored him. “Through their incessant prodding and digging, we got notice of their attempt to attend the event as press. We’ve decided to indulge them, this one time.”

“You want us to go to this thing and apprehend them there?”

“Find them, figure out how much they already know, who they have been talking to, and when you are certain you have taken every shred of information…”

“You tear them apart with your fangs, like the dogs you really are!”

Styx called out from across the room, and laughed. It was a high-pitched, howling noise.

“I believe that statement carries with it the appropriate weight,” Mrs. Carter said.

“Why us, though?” Lawrence asked. “And why bring us here for tell us this?”

“Because you are outsiders, and yet you have managed to claim so much. You took over your territory, you took over the drug trade, and you took back from those who tried to short you.”

Mrs. Carter paused for a brief moment, but that moment felt loaded. Her way of tipping her hand, that she might know what our plans were, how we were operating.

Which only gave more teeth to the worry that nibbling in the back of my mind. How much did Mrs. Carter know?

Mrs. Carter then went on, and I had to discard the thought. For now. She glanced over D’Angelo as she said, “You have no legitimate ties to anyone at this table, so you have the perfect angle to approach this from. An angle they shouldn’t expect. And that includes John himself. You are not to meet or plan with him. The less culpable he is, the more favorable.”

“So,” Lawrence said, “You just see us as disposable, and you get to keep your hands clean if this goes wrong. No culpability.”

She replied coldly, a light in her lenses. “Everyone is disposable. Everyone. But, if you insist…”

A small glint of light caught my eye, coming right at me. It was a twitch reaction, my hand in front of my face, palm open. Something hit it, and I clasped my hands together.

It was a ring of keys.

“Think of it as a sign of good faith.”

“What is it?” I asked.

Styx was sitting on the edge of his seat, his arm out in front of him. He answered.

“Keys to St. Elizabeth. The Cobras have conceded their hold on that property and the surrounding area.”

A shock went through me. I could almost sense that it went through Sarah and Lawrence, too.

They’ve just been playing with us this whole time.

“My men no longer want to operate in that area,” another man said, wearing a gold chain around his neck. “And they were adamant enough that I had to listen. Have to sort some shit out, but I ain’t touching that place no more. It’s out of my hands, now.”

And the leader of the Cobras was here, because of course he fucking was. Lawrence’s fears were justified, the Cobras did go to Styx about the raid.

A prickling sensation in the back of my neck. I’d break into a sweat if this meeting lasted any longer.

Shit, fuck, shit.

“It’s yours, now,” Mrs. Carter said. “Bound in word between you and Styx. And that’s just standard business, it has no official relation to the discussion at hand. Do we understand?”

I knew how to answer that one, now.

“We do,” I said.

“Good,” Mrs. Carter said. She turned, fast. “And now we must come to a vote. You’ve seen the gang before you, do you believe them to be acceptable candidates for the job?”

The vote started immediately, leaving me little time to process everything that just happened.

“No.”

“Yes.”

“No.”

“No.”

“Yes,” D’Angelo said.

“Yes.”

“No.”

“Yes.”

“Yes.”

“Majority in favor of the Fangs tackling this job,” Mrs. Carter said. “Congratulations.”

I didn’t feel particularly grateful to be receiving any praise.

“Once this has concluded in full, we will gather for a second vote to evaluate performance, and if things go in your favor, you might be allowed to have your place here be permanent. And the benefits are well worth the trouble.”

Lawrence didn’t say anything. Sarah remained silent. I followed suit.

“Then it’s settled,” Mrs. Carter said. “I’ll leave those files with you, so you can better familiarize yourself with the material. I suggest you get right to the preparations, the event is in four days. Good luck.”

Those last two words carried, having enough authority to make mobsters, cartel leaders, and Styx get up and start conversing with one another. The meeting had concluded.

But I was still gripped tight by an overbearing dread. So much to parse over, it made my head spin.

I gripped the ring of keys until I felt the metal give. A knuckle cracked.

A hand on my shoulder. Sarah. She was standing already. I had to will my legs to move and join her.

“Wendy.”

And I still wasn’t able to find any reprieve. Fuck me.

It was D’Angelo. He approached, hobbling somewhat due to his cane, but he managed to walk over to us at a decent pace.

“Hello,” I said. The most neutral and level greeting I could give.

Sarah and Lawrence exchanged small introductions with him. They shook each other’s hands. I noticed when Sarah’s hand went into his.

“I don’t want to keep you, but I did want to say how good it was to see you again,” D’Angelo said.

Good? Was it really good?

“Same here,” I said. “It’s a coincidence, but I think it worked out. You voted for us, so thanks.”

“Of course. I’m just excited that you had taken my advice.”

“What advice?” Lawrence asked.

“Making them come to you. The Fangs have been making enough of the right moves to catch Mrs. Carter’s attention and bring you to us. That’s the real power. And if she believes that you two are the right people for the job, then there must be a reason, and I’ll vote in support of that reason.”

“I suppose that’s one way to look at it,” Sarah said.

“Certainly.”

Lawrence stepped up. He had the folder in his hands, his fingers tapping against it.

“I don’t suppose you’d help introduce the others to us?” he asked.

“Ah, that might be for another time. We still don’t know if you’ll be back to join us.”

He grinned and winked.

“Fair enough,” Lawrence said. I could tell he was disappointed.

D’Angelo tapped his cane.

“I’d wish you luck, but I don’t really believe in luck. Just keep proving me right, and I’ll get to claim the credit once you have a seat at the table.”

D’Angelo laughed, a hearty one. It rumbled a bit in my chest, and I wanted to squirm.

He shook our hands once again, and left to converse with the others that were at the table. I joined up with Sarah and Lawrence. We each checked our surroundings, in case someone else was about to approach us. No one did.

I looked for Mrs. Carter. She was standing by herself, where Styx had been, looking out the window, talking on a phone. Probably attending to the other plans that she had on her agenda. And just like that, we were no longer her concern. In a sense, we were already dealt with.

Didn’t see Styx, though. That worried me.

“Let’s go,” I said, putting the keys in a pocket. Sarah and Lawrence agreed with me. No use in sticking around. We left the way we came, going through the doors and back out into the hall of the building. We had to see our exit by ourselves, apparently.

Four days to execute a plan to potentially execute someone. Had to regroup and figure out how this factored into our own plans. And the first step was reconvening with D, who I hoped would make it out of the air vents okay.

Previous                                                                                               Next

Interlude – Natalie

Previous                                                                                               Next

“What is it you want, exactly?”

Natalie Beckham smiled. She flattened out a sheet of paper. She could feel the indentations of what she had written on the page before. A new page, a blank page.

“I want the truth,” she answered.

Earl Fillmore set his arms across the table, the wrinkles in his forehead creasing. He was an older man, with grey in his bread and his skin with a leathery texture to it. A few years past fifty. No, if there was anything that really aged him, it was the way he dressed. His brown sweater was zipped up to his chin, with a collar and bowtie around his neck. A wool cap on his head completed the look. If he were forty years younger, he would be handing out newspapers.

But now I’m trying to get him in one.

“I’m giving you what I can,” Earl said, “What I know. And what I know, is that this law will tear this community apart, and I’m tired of seeing the seams get tested, time and time again. And the way things are going, something’s going to break, eventually.”

Natalie wanted to drop her smile, but didn’t.

“It’s not a law, Earl, not yet.”

Earl breathed. “And it would be great if it never became one.”

Shifting only her eyes, Natalie glanced over to her partner. From behind a camera, Oliver returned a look, tapping his phone that he had set on the table. The screen lit up, showing the amount of time the microphone was recording. Ten minutes.

Natalie adjusted her thick-rimmed glasses, straightening out loose, blonde hair she had tied back. Setting herself straight.

She’d have to steer the interview, get it back on track. Otherwise she’d never get to the heart of the matter. Why she was here.

Natalie proposed her next question.

“If you don’t mind, Earl, I’d to give you the runthrough of the bill, one more time.”

Earl breathed again, deeper this time.

“Sure.”

“Thank you. John Cruz and his proposed Thompson Act would give more power to law enforcement to investigate any and all claims regarding people and businesses with potential connections to organized crime. It calls for stricter penalties across the board, even on minor misdemeanors, and less regulation in state prisons. The chances of parole should someone be found guilty on any accounts relating to the Thompson Act are next to zero.”

“John Cruz?”

“The district attorney. The Thompson Act is named in the memory of the person Cruz was running against, Thomas Thompson.”

“Named in the memory of?”

“Thompson died before the ballots ever opened. Killed, really. One of the many losses suffered from the terrorist attacks by Solace last November.”

Earl frowned. “Ah, that.”

That. A situation that had been so dire, so grave, that reduced all sentiments to but a single word. That.

Natalie continued. “Cruz ended up taking the position, as if an opposing candidate could have cropped up in the following weeks, but he still wanted to ensure that his legacy would continue and leave its own mark on the city.”

“Is that supposed to be a noble deed?” Earl asked.

“It isn’t my position to say,” Natalie said. “But your perspective will help guide the story. Just before, you mention that the Thompson Act would tear your community apart. Why do you see things that way? Potentially, the bill could have a big hand in taking out a lot of the criminal activity that happens in Stephenville.”

A slight prod, Natalie knew, but it was calculated. To ease out what she needed, instead of taking a more direct approach, one that might get him to shut down, completely.

Earl tapped a finger on the surface of the table. A dull, wooden note.

“Natalie, you’re not from around here, are you?”

The reaction was expected.

“I am, born and raised. Though, I admit, it has been a while since I’ve been back, so I’m playing catch up right now. I need context.”

“Context?”

“Yes, Earl. The facts? They’re easy to get, obtain enough of them and you become credible. From what you just told me, it matches up with what I already know, which is promising, but if that’s all I needed, I’d just put myself in the story. But I can’t, and I won’t.”

Natalie motioned to Oliver, then Earl.

“That’s why we’re meeting here today, in the back meeting room of your establishment. Only you can provide the proper understanding of what this bill would do in your neck of the woods. And once we get that…”

Natalie set her hand back on her notebook, feeling the paper. She spun her pen around her fingers.

“We can be on the same page.”

Earl sat back in his seat. Not relaxed, there was a stiffness in his shoulders, but she could see the gears turning in his head. It was in the other things, instead. The long takes of breath, the way his fingers tensed as he wrung his hands together.

In that moment, Natalie asked again, “What would the Thompson Act mean to this community?”

Then, he answered.

“If this bill passes, it gives police a hell of a lot more reach in what they’re allowed to do when carrying out investigations. Stop and frisks, search and seizures. Allow them to reach deep enough, and they’re bound to find some dirt to throw back in your face. Less oversight for a proposed increase in productivity. If there’s no red tape blocking their way, it’s gets easier for them to get places. Now, imagine that kind of policy being introduced in a community that has a high minority population. People make calls, they turn the cops into their personal hounds, and then they flip and turn anyone’s home or place of business upside down, and then it ends in one of two ways. They leave and you have to clean up the mess, or you have to find someone else to clean because the cops took you with them.”

“And you’re afraid that people, under the Thompson Act, would point police at your neighbors, or even yourself?”

“Right. Those tips will turn into hits. It’s an excuse to clear this part of town out, quick, and then what? It gets gentrified, and who’s filling out those prisons?”

The question remained hanging, but the answer was implicit. Without looking, Natalie started jotting down some new notes. Filling out the page.

“But that’s not what I’m afraid of,” Earl said.

“No?” Natalie questioned.

“I’m afraid of the John Cruz and the Thomas Thompsons of the world. The fact that this thing even has any legs. A year ago, this sort of legislature would have gotten laughed out of the capitol. Now? The whole world has been flipped to shit.”

The whole world.

“Blank Face,” Natalie ventured. The room they were in wasn’t warm, but like a spell, it sent out a chill when uttered.

“Ever since that thing showed up in this city, everything’s gone out the window. Logic, rules. The law. Now everyone is scrambling to parade in on their platform of fear, doing the most to line up their pockets and their sponsor’s pockets.”

That, was true. It was easy to rally support behind certain proposals and actions if it meant going against the one big question mark that was Blank Face. Just recently, Congress and the Oval Office had approved the biggest increase in the military budget in the country’s history. The justification was to protect citizens – overseas and otherwise – from other potential Blank Faces that might pop up in the future. None hadn’t since the initial first contact, but that didn’t stop the Department of Defense from salivating at the mouth for more tanks, more planes, more missiles, more everything. If anything, that was the real reason they pushed so hard for the budget surplus.

But, that was the global context. The Thompson Act was a symptom of a much bigger problem.

Natalie paused in her writing. Thinking.

Too broad, have to hone it in, bring Earl back before I lose him on this tangent.

“To be fair,” Natalie said, “John Cruz is just one man, and Thomas Thompson is a dead one. And there’s nothing to fear, if you don’t have anything to lie about. And for my last set of questions, I’d like to talk about your history living here, in this part of Stephenville.”

I’d like to talk about something I’m very curious about.

“And that is?”

“You’ve been a part of this community for a long time, have you not?”

“My whole life, basically.”

“So you’ve seen how it’s changed, over the years, keeping a pulse on what’s happening out there.”

“I keep my ear to the streets.”

Natalie set her pen on the paper, not writing, but about it. The ink started to spill out and blot a bit.

“Then I wanted to ask about the history of gang activity in this area. Namely, the new gang that has taken over after the Thunders and the Royals.”

Natalie watched for Earl’s reaction. It would be telling.

Earl’s expression changed with a twitch. Easy enough to read.

He didn’t answer, at least, not right away. There was a pause, but more was said in that silence than any utterance actually could.

“I wouldn’t know anything about that,” Earl answered.

“At the risk of coming off as rude, I just don’t believe that. You said it yourself, you keep your ears to the streets. And I know as a fact that you had a personal relationship with Darius and Marcus Jackson that goes back even before the Koninkryk, the gang they lead together before splitting into the Thunders and the Royals, respectively.”

Earl flinched. It meant she was getting somewhere. Just had to keep applying pressure.

Natalie applied that pressure.

Los Colmillos, or the Fangs. They’re the new gang in town, and no one has written about them yet. Considering they’re part of the community as much as you are, now, I was wondering if there’s anything you could share with me about them.”

“I don’t really have anything to share. I’m not a gang member, if that’s what you’re insinuating.”

“Of course not, Earl, but as I mentioned, you did personally know the two leaders of the gangs who held this community as a territory before the Fangs came in. If there was anyone who would know anything considering the changing of those particular guards, it’d be you.”

Earl’s eyes were low, avoiding Natalie.

“What happened to those two, it came out of nowhere, and it was ruthless.”

“And who are they, Earl? Do you know anything about those responsible?”

“I don’t.”

You’re lying.

Earl was taking a more defensive posture. He was backing into his seat, his arms were folded.

“Natalie, but… if my word is worth anything, I’d tell you to drop this.”

“And why is that?”

“What’s going out there, on those streets, it’s dangerous. It doesn’t take someone who’s been here for as long as I have to see that. But it’s always been like that, it’s not going to change. Ever. Life here, it’s hard, and what happened to those boys, they… life didn’t go easy on them.”

Natalie took a second to let that sink in.

You’re hiding something, Earl, I just know it.

But, she also knew that wasn’t what she was here for. Not exactly. It was just a stretch, to see if she could grab anything else, while she was here.

Natalie closed her notebook.

“I know, Earl, I was there. But thank you for your time.”

Oliver pressed a button on the camera and closed his laptop.

Earl, for his part, fell back into his seat, all tension leaving his body. His shoulders dropped, his head lowered. He looked like he needed a nap, and that wasn’t on account of his age.

“You really are ruthless,” he said.

“I’m sorry,” Natalie replied, meaning it. “It’s just part of the job.”

“I can respect it. We are off the record now, right?”

“We are.”

“Then, yeah, I can respect it.”

Natalie got up from her seat, gathering her belongings. Oliver did the same, packing the camera and laptop into a backpack.

“We’ll take our leave, now. If you don’t mind, could we contact you again in case I have any follow up questions? Don’t worry, it’ll only be in regards to the Thompson Act, in case there are any updates.”

“Sure. If it’s just that, I’d be willing to offer a quote or two.”

“Thank you.”

Natalie glanced at Oliver, and he nodded. They were all packed and ready to go.

They left the room first, seeing themselves out. They went through the store, heading out through the front.

When they stepped outside, Natalie noted the clouds above. Grey and pregnant with water. It wasn’t raining yet, but when it did, it would rain hard.

“Oli?” Natalie asked. “What do you think?”

Oliver fixed the backpack around his shoulders. He wasn’t exactly stout, but he did have some weight on him, with some stubble on his rounded chin, and a stomach that protruded somewhat. His baggier sense in fashion didn’t help, making him look heavier than he actually was. Natalie tried to give him some pointers, sharing with him some picture of outfits she thought he might look good in, but he never picked up on them.

There was a slight wheeze that came with every step, but Oliver didn’t complain. He kept up with Natalie as she walked, brisk, down the sidewalk.

“I think he’s full of shit,” he said, sounding breathy at the end of his words. “If he really cares about this place like he seems to claim, he’d be more open about talking about the Fangs.”

“Careful, we don’t know that for sure. I believe him when he says he’s not involved with them, but I do have a feeling he knows more than he wants to tell us. And that can run independent on what he thinks of the effects the Thompson Act might have in his backyard.”

“Because someone might send the hounds on him?”

“Or, he just wants things to stay how they are.”

“Well too bad. Change is coming, change is already here.”

Natalie agreed with that sentiment.

They continued down the sidewalk, taking the corner, going around the building. Oliver parked about a block away, which gave Natalie some time to think on what they had so far. The pages of notes.

“I’m fucked,” she said.

She liked to think aloud. Oliver was good for that.

“You think so?”

Natalie sighed. “The John Cruz piece is barely getting us anywhere. Doesn’t help that we can’t even get in the same room as the damn guy.”

“He’s a busy man. Question is, what’s he so busy with?”

“I would love to know.”

They continued walking, Natalie continued thinking aloud.

“We a lot of tangible, but small niblets of a story, but no real meat. There’s so much happening here in the city that I don’t even know where to start. There’s the Thompson Act, there’s the Fangs, Blank Face, but I don’t have an angle to tackle any of it. There’s no throughline to follow. Doesn’t help that the Impact already has reporters covering enough of it that whatever I come up with feels redundant. Small stories aren’t going to cut it anymore. I need a pitch that Edison will think is worth printing, and I’m coming up blank. I hate coming up blank.”

“I know you do, Nat.”

She fought the urge to let out another, drawn breath.

“Should we just try going for another drive around?”

“Your call. I’d hate to take an aimless approach, though.”

“Yeah, you’re right.”

“No one wants to talk, not even people like Earl. And they don’t respond to video or photo we have to show, like that traffic jam one. I’m beginning to think no one likes us.”

Natalie chuckled.

“People hate us when we get it wrong, but they especially despise us when we get it right. Journalists aren’t meant to be liked, Oli.”

“It’s definitely something you have to get used to.”

“Absolutely.”

Then, Natalie ended up letting out a sigh, despite herself.

“We’ll just have to keep trying. Maybe we should go to James.”

“Is he even going to be of any help?”

“He better, he’s my only person on the inside I have left. Everyone else got shuffled out or retired.”

Natalie pulled out her phone.

“I’ll just send a text…”

“Nat.”

Oliver put a hand on her shoulder, forcing her to stop walking. They were about to cross the street, and a van was driving by.

When the van passed, Oliver checked both sides of the road, then walked across, letting Natalie focus on her text.

She finished it as they reached the lot where Oliver had parked the car. Returning the phone to her pocket, Natalie noticed something.

“Hey.”

She pointed, and Oliver followed. He grabbed it for her.

Between the glass and the windshield wiper, a piece of paper was stuck in place. Around it was a string, with a small piece of wood attached.

Oliver passed it to Natalie, and started looking around. But, aside from the van from earlier, there was no one else around.

“That’s not terrifying,” Oliver commented.

Natalie ignored him, removing the string and unfolding the paper. She took the wooden piece, examining it.

It was a chess piece, a white rook, to be more specific. She turned it around, but there was nothing on it.

“I’m more of a checkers guy, myself,” Oliver said. When Natalie remained quiet instead, he added, “What does the note say?”

Natalie read it out loud. It was handwritten, in scrawls, as if a child had wrote it. Or, someone who wasn’t using their dominant hand.

“Ask James Gomez about Alexis Barnett.”

Another chill.

“Who?” Oliver asked.

Natalie was too deep into her thoughts to respond right away. Was someone reaching out to guide them, or derail them? Either way, she didn’t appreciate people who operated in the shadows.

But, one thing was for certain, now. Whatever track they were about to go on, it was bound to be the right one.

Natalie then responded to Oliver.

“I suppose that’s for us to ask. And now, we know who to meet.”

Coffee. It was so classic that it had become cliché, but it worked for a reason. Everyone could appreciate a cup of coffee, especially if they didn’t have to pay for it.

Natalie and Oliver had arrived at the cafe. Chief of Police James Gomez, in badge and in uniform, was already waiting for them.

Cafe Sharktooth, a trendier location closer to downtown. A bit far, out of the way from both the motel and the police station, but that worked in their favor. Open enough that there was no pressure, but private enough that they could discuss more… sensitive issues.

It was late into the afternoon. The cafe wasn’t full, but business wasn’t slow. From college kids to adults in more formal attire, people were sitting at the different booths and tables, sipping cups of coffee with their laptops out in front of them, looking like they were ready to camp there for hours, working, mooching off the free internet.

Sliding in a booth in the corner of the cafe, Natalie and Oliver sat opposite of James. Oliver set their cups down. James already had his.

“Natalie,” James said. He looked at Oliver and gave him a curt nod. Oliver did the same.

“James,” Natalie said. “You should have told me that you had already ordered. I would have offered to pay.”

He shook his head. “It’s fine. That type of thing doesn’t work on me, not anymore. Skipping formalities or not, it all tastes bitter, now.”

“You agreed to meet with us, on short notice. I assume that means you have something you can share.”

James had his hands around his cup. Black coffee. Light wisps of steam drew up into the air. He hadn’t taken a sip, yet.

“I needed a coffee break,” he said. “You just happened to text me at a good time.”

Natalie worked on her cup while she talked, reaching for cream and sugar. She thought about the white rook, the note. Was it a good time to bring it up now?

And if you’re the one who sent the note, now would be a good time to tell me.

“Alexis Barnett, know anything about her?”

James’ brow furrowed.

“I do. She’s a missing persons case that’s gone cold. Been a few months since it happened.”

“Anything about it that stands out to you?”

“Not in particular. It… it was a personal favor, to find her, but I never did. Never had the time, never had the resources.”

James looked pretty downtrodden about that, but nothing about him seemed… shadowy or theatrical. He wouldn’t resort to that, he wasn’t that kind of person.

Natalie could feel the paper and rook in her pocket.

“Well, if you have anything on her, would you mind sending it to me?”

“Um, sure. The file’s still on my desk, I can send you everything I have.”

“Much appreciated, James.”

“But something tells me that’s not what you came here to ask.”

She nodded, thankful for the change in course. Time for to get down to business.

Natalie sipped her coffee before getting right to it.

“I’m feeling stuck on my Thompson Act piece. It’s hard to get sources when everyone who supports it is actively turning up their noses at you. I can give you a dozen people like Earl Fillmore who oppose it, but no credible source is willing to speak with me why they want it passed. In my experience, that’s not how this works.”

James didn’t respond. His attention went to and stayed on the cup, as if he was about to drink it, but didn’t.

“I’ve called. Called so many times they’ve probably blocked my number. I went down their offices numerous times, and he’s always either out that day or in a meeting, and I’ve waited, meetings don’t last until the building gets shut down for the night. Emails just keep sending me the same press junket-type bullshit about why the bill’s great for the ‘average citizen’s well-being and safety’ but I can’t use that. I need people, sources, and even the people there aren’t willing to offer their two-cents.”

James didn’t respond. He looked more interested in the steam coming from the cup than the steam that was about to come out of Natalie’s ears.

“Who is John Cruz?” Natalie asked. “Or, more accurately, who does he really work for?”

That got a reaction from James. He looked up, staring at Natalie. He looked tired.

“Your reputation precedes you,” he said. “The only people who remember you are the only people who have reason to fear you.”

“Edison doesn’t fear me. He asked me to come back.”

“Not until you come to him with this. Your editor will shit bricks if he learned what angle you’d end up approaching this from.”

“But that’s exactly why I decided to come back to Stephenville when he asked. I read the articles the Impact has on this Cruz guy. They’re nothing, or they’re so watered down that there might as well be nothing. I’d actually learn more about him reading a blank page than the puff they’ve written about him, because at least it would be easier to figure out that the Impact’s reporters are compromised.”

“And you’re supposed to come in and save the paper? The world, if you have some time to spare?”

Natalie fixed her hair. It was getting in her face. She was leaning forward too much.

“I’m freelance now, James,” Natalie said. “I don’t have to work in that building or report to anyone in there except Edison, and even then, we’re keeping it lowkey. I write a big piece, he hits it with a line edit, Oliver does his part to clean it up and when we’re done, it gets published first thing the next morning. The word’s out before anyone has had their morning coffee, and no one saw it coming.”

James lifted a hand to his face, stroking not a beard, but his mustache. It had gotten thicker, since the last time Natalie was in Stephenville.

Has it been seven years, already?

“But I need something, James, I can’t get anywhere if no one will give me anything, and you’re the only one who can help me. With Thomas gone, you’re the last good man in this city.”

“Hey,” Oliver said.

Natalie turned to him. “You don’t count, Oli, I brought you with me.”

“Edison?”

“He’s a good journalist, a great editor. As a person? Not-”

A clank. Ceramic on wood.

James was giving her a hard look. Stern, cold.

“Sorry,” Natalie said.

“I’m not offended,” James replied. He leaned back. His hands were around the cup again, but he lifted it this time, actually taking a sip. Looking to the side, at the large window beside them, watching as the people outside walked and conversed, going about their day. The sun would be setting soon, and a slight shade of red began to tint the cafe interior and its patrons.

“This was his favorite place to get coffee,” James said, low, as if he was talking to himself. “Thomas. He always recommended it to me, but I never had the time. Think about that, I had years to grab a cup of coffee with him, here, but I never did. Never will.”

“My condolences,” Natalie said, speaking for herself and for Oliver. “It shocked me when I heard. He was a good man, who I believe genuinely wanted to make this city a better place. He didn’t deserve what he got.”

“Maybe he did,” James said. The cup to his lips, he blew on the surface of his coffee. Steam swirled. “Play with fire long enough…”

Natalie chanced a look with Oliver. He raised his shoulders.

Facing forward again, she spoke. “John Cruz is using the Thompson name to push this bill, without permission from his wife or the rest of his surviving family. I’d put them in the story, but they don’t want to go back onto the national stage like that, not after what they’d already been through. Cruz is getting away with tarnishing this man’s legacy in order to give more power to himself and the police, and I covered the scene here for five years, so I have confidence when I say we both know who that power is really going to.”

James, for all his integrity and nobility and goodness, didn’t answer.

Natalie pleaded.

“Please, James, if I could plagiarize the writing that’s on the goddamn wall, I would. Thomas and John were both campaigning for the DA’s office, when one of them gets kidnapped and forced into a terrorist scheme, and dies, while the other gets to waltz into that office and no one is allowed to question it? I don’t, I can’t buy that for a fucking second. So please, for old time’s sake I am begging you, what do you have on Cruz? Who is he really working for?”

The seconds were long, and they stretched. Shades of red grew stronger, casting a warmer glow inside the cafe.

Natalie was itching, burning for a story. The smaller pieces weren’t going to be enough. It wasn’t what Edison called her for, it wasn’t what she was here to do. The truth was buried, had been buried somewhere deep in this city for years, decades, and she knew in her heart that this would be the time that truth finally comes to light.

And it would be the sort of light that could burn.

James faced her, his hands clasped together.

“Everyone,” he said. “John Cruz works for everyone.”

Natalie tapped Oliver, nearly a slap. He bounced, almost tearing his bag open to get Natalie her pen and pad. Without looking, she flipped through her notes and stopped at the next available page. Indentations from the page before. New. Blank.

She started writing. Oliver started recording.

“What do you mean by everyone?” Natalie questioned. “I need specifics. Names. Who?”

“Cruz is a game lawyer, working in the best interests of the Eye.”

The Eye, a nickname for downtown Stephenville. Also where many of the largest and most powerful gangs hold their territory. Like the AZ-Tecs and Cobras, the Italian mob, among others. The standard organized criminal fares were present, like drug trafficking, but there were other activities. Money laundering, racketeering. The collars were more white than blue, there.

“Who, James, I need names.”

“I couldn’t tell you. I had one meeting with them, but that was years ago, when I first started at this position. I’ve been kept at arm’s length ever since.”

“Give me what you remember. Anything.”

“Um, Forest, Cassius. Styx, but you’d already know of him, and Mrs. Carter.”

She wrote down the names. Forest and Cassius were new, but she did know of Styx. Doing this for as long as she had, it would have been impossible not to.

Mrs. Carter, though, that name stood out entirely.

“Who is Mrs. Carter?” Natalie questioned. “Why the prefix?”

“Again, I couldn’t tell you. All I know is that she represents Mister.”

Mister. Natalie almost dropped her pen.

Shit,” she whispered, a hissed sound. “John Cruz is locked in deep with the sharks. Anything else?”

“Being in my position, the chief of police? It’s a puppet show. There’s no real power, it’s just one part in an elaborate show. I keep my head down, and let the real powers that be pull the strings. I’m just up here to make it look like everything’s okay. I’m nothing but a mask, being worn by the real monsters. But, I guess I’m a monster myself, now.”

Natalie stopped, her pen still on the paper. She looked at James. She felt for him.

“James…” she said.

“And it’s not just that, it’s not just me. T-”

His voice cracked, like he himself was about to break.

“Thomas, too.”

Natalie was at a loss of words. Verbal and written. Her voice would have cracked, too, if she tried to respond, her pen would have trembled, if she tried to jot another note.

Her hands went flat on the table, she leaned in. All her focus went on James Gomez, potentially disgraced Chief of Police for the Stephenville Police Department. Oliver, her other notes, her own cup of coffee? It all faded away.

It was just her and the truth, now.

“You better not be joking,” Natalie said, slow, every word careful and considered, so as to not break the moment they were in. “This is serious. This is real.”

“This is real,” James Gomez answered. “But not in the way you’re thinking. Thomas still wanted to fight crime, he still wanted to clean up the streets, but he ended up taking it in another direction. He… he worked with Blank Face.”

She wasn’t already sitting, Natalie would have dropped to her knees.

This is it. This is the story. This is my lede.

And James was handing it to her, just like that.

It took some time before Natalie could speak up again. Start writing again.

“Blank Face, as in… as in the-”

“The vigilante, the world’s first superhuman. She goes by V, now, but she hasn’t been publicly active since-”

“Since the Thunders and Royals got wiped out,” Natalie finished. That was their confirmation. “V. So the new gang in that area is- wait, we need to take a huge step back. Thomas and Blank Face. What’s the story there?”

James answered, “I don’t have the exact details, but he must have started working with her right after she first went public. Stopping petty crime, going after smaller gangs, it had to be stuff like that. Starting small, building the image of, not a vigilante, but a hero. Someone who would protect the people of Stephenville.”

“And you know this for a fact, that this was how they operated?”

James took a deep breath.

“No.”

“I can’t use speculation, James. But in your… expert opinion, why do you think that?”

“Because I saw the answer. Solace came as a result of their actions. Terrorizing the city as a way to get Blank Face out of the picture. I met Blank Face only-”

“Wait. You met with the vigilante?”

James lowered his head.

“We met on only three separate occasions. The first time was when Thomas went missing, originally announced to be dead by Solace. She had found out that was a bluff, and went to me for help.”

“Why you?”

“I ask myself that question everyday.”

Natalie flipped the page, turning to a new one.

“Continue, please.”

James did. “It was a short stint, but we did work together to find Thomas. It was how we found and apprehended Edgar Brown and Linda Day. We would have gotten Thomas at city hall, too, but we weren’t fast enough.”

The city hall bombing. It was the last known appearance of Solace, and the night before was the last appearance of Blank Face. She was there, among the smoke and chaos?

Wait, she.

“Do you know her identity?” Natalie asked.

“I do not.”

A shame, but she was already getting so much gold, she wouldn’t complain now.

“Anyway, what about the other two times you met?”

“Second time was after the attack on Stephenville High School. She asked for help in pursuing those responsible, but I declined. And the third and last time, she wasn’t Blank Face anymore.”

“V?” Natalie offered.

“Yes.”

Natalie fell back, slumped. She found herself leaning on Oliver. Everything started to fade back in.

But she wasn’t done yet, there was so much to get to, still.

She needed a breather. She needed a cup of coffee.

Natalie took a small break, and a small sip. Her cup went back to the table, and the sound it made rang in her ears.

She savored the taste, the flavor of this.

“Okay, wow,” she said, her eyes widening for emphasis. “You sure know how to treat a reporter right.”

“No comment,” James said.

Taking another breath, Natalie sat back up, supporting her own weight. She looked down, and saw the notes she had taken while James talked. Scrawls, shorthand, bullet points. Somewhere in there, in those scribbles, was the story of a lifetime.

“Do you have anyone who can corroborate what you just told me?” she asked, eyes still on the page. “Or other notes, police reports you can point me to?”

“Campbell. A fellow officer, another good man. He could attest to my part in things. If he was up for it. Thomas or John, not so much.”

“Police reports? Records you can show me?”

“John… maybe, there might be something, somewhere. But my hands are, were tied. I’ll see what I can dig up while I keep my head down.”

“And Thomas? Blank Face?”

“All I know is what was on the face of it. The particulars… the only one who would know of that now was Blank Face. V. You’d have to ask her. And no, I have no way of contacting her.”

“At least you saved me the breath on that question,” Natalie said.

What else, then, what else?

The fact that James even brought that up. That it even was a suggestion. To interview the world’s first superhuman.

“And you know Blank Face, V, is a girl? You can confirm that?”

“To the best of my ability. I am a police officer, I have dealt with and had to identity masked individuals before. The voice struck me as female. As for height and built, that can vary dramatically between each person. With that being said, I wouldn’t pin them as being any older than eighteen, twenty if I’m being generous. And you know the rumors that followed the school incident, I’m not getting into any of that.”

Natalie nodded. Speculation was tricky, dangerous even. She just had to look outside and see it for herself. The riots, the targeting of those in the Asian American community. If it wasn’t a claim she couldn’t substantiate, it wouldn’t go in the story.

But this, she could use. A female, a teenager. A kid.

She flipped to a new page. What more could she get from James right now? He was right here, giving all of this her. She had to take advantage of that, wrack her brain for every question and detail and-

A nudge to her right. Oliver. He bumped her arm while drinking his coffee.

It was a gentle reminder. No need to get carried away.

Natalie gave herself some time to get some composure. Another sip.

“So,” Natalie started, after getting some much needed clarity back, “We will come back to this another time, hopefully soon. You suggested that you’d dig through some reports to see what was on Cruz, and I’m holding you to that. Gather anyone else who you believe is credible and is willing to go on record. This Campbell guy sounds like a good start. In the meantime, Oliver and I will gather all the notes and sort everything out, plan our next move, and make some follow up questions. Next time we’re meet face to face, it’s to get all of our facts and quotes straight, to put some spice on the meat of this story. To make history.”

He didn’t move, didn’t gesture in any way. James was still.

“Okay,” he said.

It wasn’t hard at all for Natalie to lose herself in the planning and pursuing of the story, for the world around her to blur as she barrelled forward for one thing and one thing only. The truth. It got her far in her career, to New York, but that same focus could blind her to the other things in the peripherals, and those things were important, too. Like the people, those who were subjected to the reality of the truth she so desperately sought after. The human element.

Natalie closed her notebook.

“James, just so I can be perfectly clear, you do know that by answering my questions, offering to provide documents and bring forth other potential sources, you are agreeing to appear in the story, in name and position, and be directly quoted and such in support of the facts that will be presented?”

He drank from his cup, slow, measured. When he brought the cup back down, it was empty.

“I do.”

“And you recognize the risk you pose to both yourself and your family. This isn’t a fluff story about the local shelter’s new adoption policies, this is you putting a spotlight on the entire criminal enterprise of Stephenville.”

“I am aware.”

Natalie, in all her years of reporting, all the shit and beauty and love and hatred she learned humans could be capable of, was stunned.

“You’re going to get burned,” Natalie said. Not a threat, not even a warning. It was fact.

James set his shoulder and jaw square.

“Thomas and I, we were going to rebuild this city together. Clean it up, and turn it into something great. A place where no man, woman, or child would ever wander and be led astray. With him as district attorney, and with me as chief of police. We were going to do it, do it together, and do it right.”

Natalie saw it in his eyes. He was serious.

She let him speak.

“But it didn’t work out the way we planned. In reality, what does, but this… this was different. I got my promotion first, but I didn’t realize what I had gotten myself into, how bad it was, how deep it ran. I was blocked before I ever had a chance to start. And Thomas… I could tell how heartbroken he was, over that. I could feel it. He truly wanted to help this city, and it was like the city spat in his face.”

James tried to breathe steady, but it faltered. Cracked.

“The plan was on ice, but he kept going. What other choice did he have? It was the kind of person he was, always wanting to be the hero, and he’d do it himself if he had to. When Thomas announced his campaign and when John announced his, I think that made it even more personal. John was once a colleague of Thomas, and knowing who was backing him, it made the race symbolic. Now, it was a race for Stephenville’s soul, and Thomas was going to play it straight. Play it right.”

He chuckled, glancing at his empty cup. He knew he was rambling, Natalie knew it, but no one cared.

“I’ve been friends with that man for years, so I know for a fact that his frustration was eating at him, under the skin. That he had to work so damn hard, just to keep things from degrading any further, to maintain the status quo. I can imagine the frustration, how that would turn him desperate. He wanted his holy war. And when Blank Face comes along, it’s must have been a godsend for him. But in truth, it was more like making a deal with the devil.”

Natalie had to say something.

“James, you do understand what you’re telling me, right? This is Thomas we’re talking about, this is your life. I have to ask, but… why?”

James Gomez closed his eyes, unmoving, like a statue. When he opened them again, he looked right at Natalie, even passing a glance and Oliver. Cold, colder. Blank. The eyes of a dead man.

“It doesn’t matter to me. Thomas is dead, and what life do I have? I’m an old man getting older. No family, extended or otherwise. No career aspirations, I got stonewalled as soon as I got this job. This… this is all I have left to give. The truth as I know it. And then, I’m done. This city has a way of making people lost, wander in the dark. And in that dark, there’s no choice to get used to maneuvering through it, and it corrupts, to the core. They become demons. Thomas, John, even Blank Face. In the grand scheme of things, it’s my turn, now.”

The ramblings of an old, defeated man. But the truth was in there, hiding, waiting to be discovered. He was giving up the last glimmers of light he had left.

“Please let me pay for your coffee,” Natalie said. She reached out, touching his hand. James didn’t move.

“No,” James said. “I’m not about to sell my soul for a cup of black coffee. This is on me, and me alone.”

Natalie didn’t have a response to that. Checking Oliver beside her, he clicked his phone. He had recorded the whole thing.

She collected her belongings, holding the notebook in her hands. It felt heavy.

“Thank you for your time, James.”

There was a lot to go through. There was a lot to consider. And they had barely scratched the surface.

Notes were sprawled out all across the room. On desks, dressers, the bed, stuck between books in shelves, on top of the printer, luggage, and on the different exercise equipment her father never used. It was hardly organized, but Natalie knew where everything was. A sort of physical layout of what was going on in her mind.

Oliver was tiptoeing around, careful not to step on anything. Natalie was sitting in the corner of the room, laptop resting on her lap, in a comfy sofa chair that used to be too big for her. She was too young to remember, but her mother recounted stories where Natalie would sit here with her father while he read her stories. Those were her favorite times, according to her mother, especially when he used to funny voice.

Now, it was just her, the chair was a normal size, and she had to make her own stories.

It was weird, to come back home and see how much had changed. At least they had work to keep their minds elsewhere.

“Nat.”

Oliver was sorting through some papers by the exercise equipment. That section was of all the supporters of the Thompson Act, and all the records they could get on them.

“Hm?” Natalie sounded, lifting her head, slight.

“Want me to order some pizza?”

“Is there any place open at this time?”

“If we hurry, I can call Poggio’s and just go pick it up.”

“Holy shit.”

“What?”

“Poggio’s is still around?”

“It is, Nat.”

“Then sure, let’s do that. Actually, you know what, why don’t we just go out and eat there?”

“They close in an hour and a half.”

“We’ll work for thirty more minutes.” She fixed her pajamas. “Might need some time to get ready, though.”

“You look fine like that.”

Natalie made a noise. “You don’t get it, Oli.”

“Never will!”

They shared a laugh. If they could still do that, it meant they were doing okay.

Oliver found the papers he needed, and moved across the bedroom again, not rustling even a single piece of paper by his feet. For someone of his gait, he was nimble. Natalie loved that about him.

“I’m already fantasizing about getting this thing published,” Oliver said.

“Me too,” Natalie replied, sound absentminded. She was just reading off her laptop, some transcribed notes, while she talked. “This is big. Plain and simple. John Cruz, the Eye, James, Thomas Thompson and fucking Blank Face? And they’re all connected? It’s… it’s…”

She was so excited she couldn’t finish the thought.

“You thinking Pulitzer?” Oliver asked.

“For this year and every year after!” She winked. “Joking.”

“Yeah, the writing part of it has to actually be good, too, otherwise it’s just going to look like this.”

Natalie looked at Oliver, and spread his hands out, signaling the room.

“A mess,” Oliver said.

“I’m working on it,” Natalie replied. “So will Edison when we finally show him this.”

“Heard anything from James?”

“Not yet. Should be soon, though. He said he was having some trouble getting clearance for some stuff.”

“Clearance?”

“We know he’s not lying now,” Natalie said.

“What else do we need on Cruz, again?”

“Campaign funds, and where he got his money. There’s a list of sponsors on his campaign website, but they don’t go very far, or they don’t go far enough. James might be able to help us on that. When in doubt, follow the money, and there’s always a paper trail.”

“James is really pulling through for us, isn’t he?”

“He’s the MVP,” Natalie said. She swiped at the touchpad, and continued reading.

“Natalie.”

The whole name.

She pulled herself away from her laptop. Oliver was sitting on the bed, papers pushed away from him.

“Oliver,” she responded.

“I’ve been, you know, been listening to the recording on James, looping it over and over again, and it still… baffles me.”

“Baffles you how?”

“Thomas was his friend, maybe even something like a brother, if they were going to go that far in their goals. And to just… tell it all like that, be so willing to go forward with it…”

“There are few things scarier than someone with nothing to lose.”

“Shows how fragile society is. It’s all just a game, enough people have to play by the rules for it work. And if someone decides one day that they don’t want to, they can do a lot of damage.”

“And that’s why we’re here. We’re the referees, and we have to call these people out on their bullshit. From John Cruz, to even Thomas and James.”

“This isn’t going to end well for him. Once this story goes live, he’s going to get put into custody, investigated, and it’s a given he’ll be sent to prison. He’s implicating himself by helping us.”

“James knows the risk, I made it abundantly clear to him. Whatever happens to him after the fact, that’s on him, and he’s made his peace with that.”

“And Thomas? He has a reputation in this city, a good one. He has a family. If the people find out what he was involved with, the riots are going to get even worse.”

“Then we’ll ask Kristen for a comment, and whether or not she offers one we stick it at the bottom. We’re not targeting his family, we’re just showing people that their image of Thomas isn’t what they originally thought.”

“And Blank Face?”

Natalie raised an eyebrow.

“What about her?”

“How far do you want to go into that, into her? The person behind the mask?”

“As far as I need to, what the story calls for. Right now, we just need to prove that Thomas and Blank Face worked together, and that we can connect Blank Face to V and the new gang on the west side, where the Thompson Act would most likely hit hardest. That’s how it all connects. That’s the throughline.”

Natalie smiled, thinking about how it all fell together. Like an elaborate puzzle.

“Fuck,” Oliver said. He rubbed his hands in face, his cheeks squishing.

“What?”

Oliver wheezed, then coughed. He set his hands back down.

“We have a responsibility to seek the truth and report it, but we also have a responsibility to gauge what might happen when that truth comes out. Natalie, this story is about people, before it’s published and after, that is who it concerns and that is who it affects. So, this isn’t just big, you’re dropping a fucking atom bomb on this city. You’re going to shedding so much light on this the shadows will get etched into the fucking cement.”

“That’s what journalism is,” Natalie said. “This is news, we gather what people don’t know yet, what they need to know, and then we tell them.”

Oliver coughed again.

“Yeah, I, yeah. I’m just anxious to get this out.”

“It’ll be fine, Oli. Once all is said and done we can- oh.”

“What is it?”

“James sent me an email.”

“Shit.”

Oliver got up from the bed, hopping around papers to get to Natalie. She moved her laptop so he could take a look.

“Anything?”

Natalie clicked the attachment, the file opening up on her screen. No subject or body in the message.

She muttered.

“Dammit, James.”

It wasn’t anything that was relevant to the main story. A missing person’s report, some written statements. A photo was attached at the bottom.

“This is the Alexis Barnett thing?” Oliver asked.

“Yeah,” Natalie said, sounding disappointed. The lead up to getting this report was strange, but there were far more important reports that she’d rather obtain, instead.

Oliver kept on his particular line of questioning. “What’s up with this person, anyways? Why the note or chess piece?”

“Could not tell you,” Natalie said, reading over the report. As presented, nothing stood out. Alexis Kizuko Barnett. Age sixteen, Asian, though the writing stated that she was half white and Japanese. Went missing in early December, having been kidnapped from a restaurant after an altercation between a group of Hispanic men and the rest of the patrons. Shots were fired, and the men fled the scene, taking some others with them.

As presented, nothing stood out, but the timing, the context under which this was brought to her attention, it was starting to scratch that particular itch.

Strange, indeed.

“Three others were kidnapped,” Oliver said, reading different parts of the report. “But she’s the only one who hasn’t been accounted for. Look here, two were returned that day, another the next, but her…”

“Still out there,” Natalie finished. “She could be dead?”

“But why bring this to us? What is our mysterious source trying to say?”

Could not tell you, Natalie thought, but the questions were intriguing.

“Ah,” she said. She scrolled down and pointed at one of the written statements. One made by James himself. “She attended the same school as Katy Thompson.”

“Thomas’ kid?”

“Stephenville High School.”

She traded a look with Oliver.

“That’s the school that got attacked,” he said.

“According to reports and numerous sources there, it was by a group that was after Blank Face, they had reason to believe that she was a student at that school. It was how the rumors that Blank Face was a female Asian American got started, and the uptick in violent crimes against that particular nationality, as vague as it really is.”

A heavy pause filled the air.

“You don’t think…” Oliver started.

“I don’t speculate,” Natalie interrupted. “But I do find this interesting. As it is, though, we don’t have enough to work with. We’d have to start digging, but I don’t want to get distracted from our real work.”

Oliver moved from Natalie, checking another part of the bedroom, by the desk. When he came back, he had the note and chess piece with him.

“What if it isn’t a distraction,” Oliver said, getting more estatic, “What if they’re trying to lead us right to her? What if this source is our own personal Deep Throat?”

A shock went through Natalie’s body. She squirmed in her seat.

“Now is not time to get me hot and bothered, Oli.”

“Think about it, the note pointed us in James’ direction.”

“We were going to him, anyway.”

“But look what he gave us when we did!” Oliver motioned to all the stacks of papers and notebooks in the room, as if he was presenting them to her. “Never in a million years would we have expected this!”

“And what, maybe they wanted to make sure we got all of this?”

“Maybe?” Oliver lifted the chess piece, putting it right in Natalie’s face. “Maybe they’re trying to get us to make a specific move. But that move might lead us to Blank Face.”

Natalie took the chess piece from Oliver, observing it from every angle. A white rook.

“They might be leading us to something else entirely,” Natalie said. “Like a trap?”

“Given what’s happened, that wouldn’t make any sense.”

She thought about it. Considered it. The possibility was enticing.

“How about this,” Natalie started, thinking, considering. “While we wait for James to get back with us, we can pursue this, but only as a police accountability story. We ask around, get a profile on Alexis Barnett, and we publish it as the tragedy of someone who fell through the cracks of the system. We can frame with alongside what’s happening in that community, too. It’s not going to win us a Pulitzer, but it will give us gas money for dinner at Poggio’s… and rent for my mom.”

“Why, you’re not going to try and connect it to the original story?”

“As of right now, we don’t know what our Deep Throat wants from us, and I don’t like anonymous sources. If they want to involve us in their game, they’ll have to contact us again. And until then, if I don’t know what specific move they want us to make, we’ll just keep making the wrong one.”

Shoestring journalism, the idea that a reporter would take to the street, literally running back and forth for quotes and records and sources until their shoes were reduced to nothing but the laces. Nowadays, it was easy to just shoot someone an email, make an open records request online, or find other leads through a quick search. Easy, but it didn’t guarantee success. It was even easier to ignore an email, getting those records could take time, too much time, and it could get tricky trying to navigate links and the appropriate search terms. No, to do it right, going outside and talking to people was always the best bet.

And, it would harder for them to ignore us.

Natalie walked up to the door and knocked.

The wait wasn’t that long, but the seconds gave her the jitters. Moments like this, was where she got her enjoyment out of the job. The anticipation. That this could either go really well, or not at all. And either way, she’d have to maneuver through it, drawing from all her skills and experiences.

She was ready.

The door opened.

Natalie smiled.

“Good evening, may I speak with Shiori Barnett?”

The woman at the door was silent.

A superficial glance matched the image Natalie had in her head. Asian, female. But that was about as far as she’d want to deduce.

She observed this woman under her own merits.

The woman was short, thin, the oversized grey sweater and loose pajama pants serving to make her look even smaller. She looked tired, like how James looked tired, but not exactly. Drained, as if something that once propped her up was now missing, and it put more strain on all that remained. Like a building that had a section crumble into dust. It was still standing, but no one in their right mind would say it was structurally sound.

Her hair was lengthy, unkempt, frayed out past her shoulders. Loose strands fell out of the way when the woman blinked. Bags under her eyes. As if she had just been stirred awaken, unwillingly.

The woman responded, “This is she.”

“Hi, I’m Natalie Beckham, and this is Oliver Morgan, we’re with the Stephenville Impact, and we just wanted to ask you a few questions about your daughter, if that’s alright with you?”

Shiori opened her mouth, letting it hang. Her eyes widened a little, too. More seconds, more jitters.

“No,” she said, moving behind the door, trying to hide behind it.

“Mrs. Barnett,” Natalie said, leaning in but not inside, enough so that Shiori would have hit her in the face if she closed it all the way. Shiori didn’t.

Natalie took that opening.

“It’s been about four months since Alexis Barnett has went missing. She, along with three others, were taken from a Vietnamese restaurant in the middle of the day. She is the only one who hasn’t been returned to her home. That’s… people need to know that the police dropped the ball on this, on your daughter.”

Shiori spoke. When she did, it came out weak, wobbly.

“It will not help anything, anymore.”

She sounded so defeated.

“Mrs. Barnett,” Natalie said, “You look like someone with a lot of questions, and Oliver and I want to get those answers for you. If you would allow us, we’d like to get a better understanding of what happened, who your daughter… is, we can run a better story, and if we can do that, and if the public response ends up being vocal enough, we might be able to get the police to try again, try harder.”

Dangling hope in front of someone who so desperately needed it. Baiting them, almost, but it was a real possibility. If Natalie put enough time and effort into this as normal story, it could work.

For now, she’d play this straight.

Shiori continued to stare at them. She didn’t seem like a cold person, but she was hard to read.

Jitters.

Then, she spoke.

“Come in.”

Shiori took a step back, opening the door wider for the two. Natalie went in first, Oliver following.

Natalie couldn’t help but take stock of what she could see of the apartment.

It wasn’t big, but it looked lived in. Shiori led them to the living room, to a couch in front of a TV. Natalie noted the shelves and the dinner and coffee tables, the edge of the TV. Some dust had accumulated, enough that it should have been taken care of by now. There streaks of dirt and grime on some surfaces, especially the table in the middle of the room. She would have missed it if she wasn’t scrutinizing every detail, and with the lights being so dim, but it was like Shiori was trying to avoid seeing just how dirty her apartment was becoming. She saw a picture frame, two people standing in a field of bluebonnets, the saturation a little strong for her taste. An older woman and a child. Shiori and Alexis? Where was the father?

The picture was clean of any speck.

“Would you like some tea?” Shiori asked. While Natalie and Oliver had taken their seats at the couch, Shiori had kept going towards the kitchen.

“Um, yes please, thank you.”

It was better to accept whatever was offered by the host. Easier to build a connection that way, even if it was menial.

Natalie and Oliver prepared their equipment while Shiori prepared tea. Natalie got out her notebook, while Oliver got his phone, ready to record. He didn’t take out the camera for this one. A quick judgement call, but Natalie was with him on that one. Shiori was still apprehensive on doing an impromptu interview. Pulling out a big camera and tripod would be a sure-fire way to get kicked out.

They were all set up, Natalie and Oliver, and Shiori. She returned to the living room, handing Natalie and Oliver their tea, and went back to the kitchen to retrieve her own.

Shiori took her own seat at a chair on the other side of the room. A blanket was folded over one arm, she grabbed it and set it over her lap.

Cup in hands, blanket in lap, general disposition down, Shiori was as ready to talk as she’d ever be.

“Alright,” Natalie said, opening up a blank page, spinning a pen in her fingers. “How I’d like to start this is by-”

“How did you find me?”

Shiori had asked the first question.

It’s fine. Be transparent, be honest.

“We had spoken to James Gomez, Chief of Police for the Stephenville Police Department. He gave us the report on Alexis, your address was attached to your written statements.”

“James?”

“He mentioned that he knows you. Friend of a friend.”

“Oh.”

She didn’t say anything else. It would be Natalie’s turn, now.

“Alright,” she said, starting it up again. “This story is ultimately about your daughter, but I do want to get a full picture of who you are, as well. May I get your full name and occupation?”

“I am… Shiori Barnett. I work at a hair salon.”

“You’re a hairstylist?”

“I am.”

“And may I get your age?”

“Forty.”

“Wow, still pretty young.”

Add in some casual conversation, some compliments. Enough to make them comfortable to keep talking.

“I was young when I had her,” Shiori added. A neutral observation.

Natalie continued with her questions, continued with her writing.

“Going back to that time… is the father around today?”

She gauged Shiori’s reaction. There was none, but it was more like she didn’t have energy for one.

“He is not.”

“By natural causes or of his own choice?”

A delay between answers. A long one.

“Yes,” Shiori said.

“I don’t follow.”

Another delay.

“He… passed, not long after Alexis was born.”

“What happened? What was his name? How did you meet and how did it get to that point?”

It was tricky, to pry into someone’s personal life in such a manner. But, even if it could be trivial, it would help shape the story. After all, an entire parental unit was literally out of the picture, that had to have an affect on a child. And if Alexis Barnett had but a single strand in the web they were looking into, it might say a lot.

A third delay, Shiori used the time to drink her tea. Slow, drawn out movements.

“His name is Matthew. Matt. We meet about a year before I move to America. I was a singer back then, and he was working at nearby Navy base.”

“You were a singer?”

Shiori nodded. “Performer. Sing and dance, and play a lot of shows.”

“Wow, so you were famous?”

Shiori shook her head. “Not exactly. Maybe, if I stuck with it.”

“I’m guessing you had other ideas when you met your husband?”

Shiori had no discernable expression on her face as she recounted these memories. No warmth, but no callousness, either.

“He happen to pass by during one of my shows. He was… so nice. We start meeting, hiding from my agency and parents. They wouldn’t have approved.”

Natalie could feel the interview getting away from her a bit, but she’d allow it. She still had the reins, and she knew how to force things back on course, if she had to.

“Then,” Shiori said. “A few months pass, Matt had to be reassigned somewhere else, in America, and I did not want him to leave.”

“A few months?”

“We were young and it was… fun. Late nights, dancing and singing and drinking. I didn’t want to let that go.”

“So you went with him, to America?”

“I go with him, we get married, and then I was pregnant with Alexis. I leave my job and family to be with him here in Stephenville.”

All in the span of a year?

It was a neutral observation. She couldn’t judge.

Shiori continued without a prompt from Natalie. “The years here have always been stressful. Matt lost his job. No more dancing and singing, more drinking. Then, Matt… became sick.”

Natalie began to brace herself. She had heard these kinds of stories before.

“He was already so sick, so weak, when Alexis was born. She was born a month early, so she was a little weak, too. Then, before she was able to be strong enough to walk, Alexis became sick.”

“Life-threatening?”

“Not quite, but it was a scare. But… Matthew caught it, and he didn’t react very well. Not at all. He didn’t…”

Shiori had to put her cup down. Her hands were shaking too much.

“He passed, not long after Alexis was born,” Shiori said.

Natalie stopped writing. She hadn’t heard this story before.

“What did you tell your daughter when she got older?”

Shiori’s answer was as plain as it was simple. And yet, it felt like it was the cause of so many complications.

“I didn’t. I told her he left us before I gave birth to her.”

A silence fell upon the whole apartment. The dim light seemed to deepen into gloom.

For a long while, Natalie didn’t know what to say. She didn’t know what to write.

What the fuck, Natalie thought. Not Natalie the journalist, in all objectivity. But Natalie the person, wanting to shout at the universe at how could that situation go so wrong. Why?

“Nat…

Oliver whispered.

Natalie gripped her pen, hard.

Focus.

Holding the reins, Natalie forced things back on course.

“Moving on, could you talk about Alexis? What’s she like, what’re her interests?”

The harsh snap to another train of thought seemed to throw Shiori for a loop. She fixed her blanket, she rubbed at one eye.

“She… Alexis. She’s kind, energetic. So talented in sports, even with how weak she was as a baby. Her favorite was volleyball. Always bouncing, always the life of the party. She loved to be with her friends, always playing with them and going to their house for sleepovers. What is the phrase, again? Someone who is social and friendly with everyone they meet?”

“A social butterfly?”

“Yes. She is a butterfly.”

Natalie was finding it harder and harder to write.

Shiori’s hands fell into her lap, her hair falling over her face and eyes.

“You… were always so much stronger than me, so much braver. It doesn’t seem right that you are my daughter, that someone so beautiful could have come from someone like me. You always found it easy to smile. It made me afraid of you, sometimes, that I didn’t deserve to be your mother. I was so scared to live up to being your mother, but I try, I try anyways. Because you were worth it, because you have given me so much and I just wanted to return the favor. You made… me still being here… you made it worth it. You made me happy.”

Shaking, laughing. Weak. Wobbly. Sobbing.

Shiori’s hands covered her face.

“I’m sorry Alexis, I’m sorry Alexis, I’m sorry Alexis,  I’m so sorry… I love you…”

Shiori wept, Natalie let her. The moment stayed and lingered for long enough. The tea became cool.

Natalie closed her notebook. She set her pen down.

“I want… I want to thank you for your time, Mrs. Barnett. If you’d allow us, we’d like to contact you again in case there’s anything we want to follow up on.”

Shiori didn’t reply, couldn’t. She was still in the moment, lingering there, maybe even staying in it forever.

“We’ll see ourselves out, Mrs. Barnett. Thank you again for the tea.”

Natalie and Oliver packed up and left, being delicate about their departure. Shiori was dead silent by the time they were out the door. They stood right by the apartment for a time, hoping to hear a click as Shiori locked the door behind them. They didn’t.

“We should get going,” Oliver said.

“Yeah.”

They left the apartment complex, finding the stairs and heading down. It was a sobering walk back to the car.

“You cut it shorter than I expected,” Oliver said.

“I got what I needed out of her. I almost didn’t even need to ask. She’s holding in a lot of pain, the kind you don’t show to your closest friends or family. We have her statements in the reports, and we’ll follow up and do it proper, as usual. I just wanted to get a feel for where Mrs. Barnett is, right now.”

And a feel for what we’re getting ourselves into.

“What’s next?”

“Tomorrow we’ll talk with Susan Tilly, Alexis’ volleyball coach. A few of her teachers were willing to talk, too.”

“Cool. When we get back to your folk’s place I’ll start transcribing the interviews.”

“Thanks, Oli. I’ll cook this time.”

“What do you have in mind?”

“Hm, I’m thinking-”

Natalie stopped.

Right on the windshield, a folded note was stuffed against a wiper. A small wooden piece was tied around it with string.

Another one.

“They really like their theatrics, don’t they?” Oliver asked.

“It’s starting to annoy me,” Natalie said. “But, this means we have their attention, and we can poke at it.”

She grabbed the paper, unfolding it.

“Same handwriting,” Oliver observed. He held his phone up to the paper, using its light.

“Same piece,” Natalie said. She caught it as she untied the string. “Another white rook.”

“What do you think? Should we go?”

Natalie smirked.

“You ask as if you don’t already know the answer.”

Oliver stopped the car on a rough, uneven path. More rock and dirt than anything else.

The car’s interior lights turned on as Natalie opened the door.

“How do you want to play this?” Oliver asked. He was looking ahead, only able to see as far as the car’s headlights would allow him. It was late, and it was dark.

“By ear,” Natalie replied. She took one foot out the car, onto the dirt. Thinking.

“Do you want me to come with you? It’s your call.”

It was a tough call to make. With Oliver at her side, she’d feel more at ease, she’d have backup, but in case something went wrong, she’d need him at in the car for a quick getaway. Unlike her late father, she used the exercise equipment at home, and she went for regular jogs while in New York. And running around, chasing leads, that was its own exercise, too.

A tough call, but Natalie made her decision.

“Stay in the car,” Natalie told him. “Just keep an eye on my back.”

“No complaints there,” Oliver said.

Natalie eyed him.

Oliver raised his hands. “You have a good backside.”

She knew he was joking, but it did help. A little bit of confidence went a long way.

“Thanks, Oli.”

“Anytime and everytime.”

Natalie let herself smile as she got out of the car. She felt a light drizzle start. It wasn’t raining hard, but it would soon.

After checking the sky, she looked ahead, rereading the new note in her mind.

Braham Barn. Midnight.

The barn stood in front of her, standing on its last legs. A dilapidated structure, a decayed husk of what it was once. She knew of its history, the whole property was once held by a plantation owner, but now it was free range, the house now used by college kids for weekend parties, the barn itself being a decent, out of the way place for drug deals. It was a well-kept secret, but Natalie covered it back during her original tenure at the Stephenville Impact, and now it was largely abandoned, a place hardly used because it was too obvious.

If they were being led here, it had be something gang related. It was her best guess.

Natalie closed the car door, walking towards the barn and into the light. There weren’t any other cars here, but didn’t mean anything. There were plenty of other places to hide a vehicle. In the vegetation, or just farther up the dirt path.

With caution, Natalie approached the barn doors, then passing them. No more ambient lighting from the moon above, she only had Oliver’s car to guide her, now.

She was careful to only take a few steps into the barn. Looking around, she didn’t see anything or anyone that stood out to her.

But, Natalie didn’t have to wait long. They approached her.

Two figures emerged from the shadows, where the light wasn’t able to reach. They stopped at the edge of it, a distance away from Natalie, but within a reasonable earshot.

They were wearing masks, each with their own design. One was black all around, with numerous circular lenses, with an elongated beak that obscured the whole face. It gave the impression of a mutant raven, with more eyes than usual.

The other mask more closely resembled a face, but it wasn’t blank. Messy, dark splotches filled in large circles around the eyes, running down the cheeks in different lengths to resemble tears. Within the circles, white lines crossed into an ‘X’ in the corner. Red paint was applied across the mask’s mouth, shaping into a long smile that went past the edges of the circles. Grey brush marks in certain places gave the face more definition, making the cheeks and nose look more sunken in, more resembling a skull.

Aside from the masks, they were in identical clothing, and of similar height. They both wore grey, wool long coats. Fashionable, but in this context looked more like a uniform. They both wore shawls over their heads, covering the last bit of skin and hair, making it impossible to profile them.

Several seconds passed between the three of them. The sound of light rainfall.

Natalie decided to speak up first.

“This is awkward, you should have mentioned this was a costume party, I didn’t come prepared.”

The two masked individuals didn’t respond to that.

One of them spoke. From the distance, it was hard to tell who, but it did sound like a woman.

“Natalie Beckham, we are here to assist you.”

“Funny. I didn’t think I needed assistance. I’ve been on a roll lately.”

“We are the reason you went to James Gomez.”

“Please, I had every intention to speak with him again before I got your message. Don’t try to take credit for my work. Somehow, I doubt you even know of the testimony James had given to me, otherwise you wouldn’t have reached out to me again. You’ve been watching us closely, haven’t you, and I’m guessing you just don’t want me to write a gussied up piece on Alexis Barnett, no?”

“There’s more to the story than you’re trying to report. We want to guide you to the truth.”

“Coming from two people sending messages behind the shadows? Shows how much you know about the truth. How about this, why don’t you two take off your masks, and if you two are actually good sources, I might consider using what you give me.”

The two didn’t answer right away.

“You may refer to us as Machiavélique,” they said.

“Subtle,” Natalie said. “But this is child’s play. I prefer to not use anonymous sources. Unless you have something really, and I mean really good, I’m not going to consider anything you have to give me. I started the Alexis Barnett piece as a way to meet you, and now that we have, I can say that I’m not impressed.”

Catch them off guard, and keep them off their toes. In the case that they might be trying to derail me, I won’t let them.

They, Machiavélique, didn’t answer right away.

“Then I’m going,” Natalie said. “If all you want to do is waste my time, don’t contact me again.”

Natalie turned, ready to go, because she was. She was done with this.

“Alexis Barnett is Blank Face.”

Natalie turned back.

The one with the beak, the raven, was a few paces closer, more in the light. They spread their arms.

“This is where it all began, where she got her powers.”

“Where’s your proof?” Natalie asked.

Machiavélique paused.

“We’re gathering it for you as we speak.”

“That’s not going to be enough. Either give me something solid, or I’m walking.”

Inside, Natalie was fighting every urge to chomp at the bit. Someone, even under a pseudonym, was coming forward, willing to corroborate the hunch that Alexis Barnett might be the world’s first superhuman. Any reporter worth their salt would investigate this further. But, she had her integrity, and that mattered even more. She had do this right, she had to be sure.

Machiavélique spoke, “Thomas Thompson and Blank Face did work together.”

Natalie stood firm, facing them.

“And?” Natalie asked.

“What did James Gomez tell you about Blank Face?”

“Why do you want to know?”

“Because we can confirm it. All of it, and then some. We can guide you in the right direction. Like west?”

“West? The new gang in that part of town?”

“Yes. All you have to do is follow the blood. That’s where she is, now. Alexis, under a new name. V.”

That was it, the proof she needed that these two were legit. It was all starting to click, the story of a fucking lifetime.

Alexis Barnett is still alive.

“Okay,” Natalie said, “I’ll listen.”

“We appreciate it, Natalie Beckham.”

She reached into her pocket, taking out both chess pieces, holding it in a way that caught the light.

“If you wanted to involve me and my partner into this, I would have figured you’d use us as pawns.”

The raven indicated to the one with the clown mask. Reaching into their pocket, they grabbed something and tossed it to Natalie.

With her free hand, Natalie caught it. A black queen.

Not the king.

“The truth has a way of being blunt, forthright,” they said. “There’s no oblique angle or spin to approach it from. The truth is, and there is no running away from that. You and Oliver Morgan don’t need masks or trickery to take down the monsters. You face it head on, direct.”

“I’ve already agreed to play your game,” Natalie said. “No need to flatter me any more.”

“It’s not a game.”

“Isn’t it? But I have to ask, why? What do you get out of this?”

Machiavélique replied, and Natalie was certain it from was the raven.

“I get to see Alexis burn.”

So that’s what this is. Revenge.

It didn’t matter, shouldn’t. Machiavélique wasn’t the one reporting this, Natalie would know how to filter what they gave her, and how to present the facts as they were. The full and complete web. Mister, Styx, James and Thomas, Blank Face and V. Natalie and Oliver, they’d tear it down, wholly and fairly.

What is it I want, exactly?

Natalie smiled.

“Tell me everything you know about Alexis Barnett.”

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