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.
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.”
“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?”
“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.”
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.
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.”
“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.
“Yes,” D’Angelo said.
“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.
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.
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.