Lawrence checked his phone for the third time in two minutes. One more for good measure.
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.
“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?”
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.”
“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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
“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.
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.”
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.
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.”
“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.”
Lawrence was still putting on a calm veneer.
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-”
Lawrence stopped her.
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.