Interlude – V

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Everyone was already talking by the time the girl got inside.

Darn, the girl thought.

She shuffled over to her seat. It wasn’t her seat, exactly, there was no assigned seating. But that was the funny thing about getting to choose their own seats, everyone ended up sticking with the same ones. Easy, to settle into a routine of sorts.

Three long tables, placed together to form three-fourths of a square, the opening faced a whiteboard at the head of the room. The girl grabbed her usual seat at a corner of the makeshift shape, closest to the board, and farthest from everyone else.

No greetings as she settled in, everyone was too busy to notice her.

About three minutes left before things got started. The girl tried to find a conversation, an opening for her to jump into. She didn’t find any.

Darn.

Jasmine sat right next to her, but she was deep in a discussion about a movie that just came out. The girl hadn’t seen it yet, Mom didn’t get the chance to take her to the movies on Saturday. Money was always tight around this time of year.

She could try with Andrew, but he still had his headphones on, nodding to whatever he was listening to. Probably some rock band she’d never heard of.

Emily was closer, but she was way too preoccupied with Justin, who kept picking at her hair and joking about her height… even though they were all sitting down. Like their seat arrangements, it was routine for them, too. The jokes never got too bad, or mean-spirited, it was more like teasing. Maybe Justin was letting on more than he intended with the constant pestering.

Maybe.

The girl looked around, but there were no good openings. Everyone was too busy for someone like her. She resigned to staying quiet, keeping to herself.

She hated keeping to herself. She hated having nothing to do. She’d even settle for reading a book.

There was a bible within her reach. Was she that bored?

Yes, she was, but the boredom didn’t last long. Mrs. Phan entered the room, and a hush followed. Everyone was quiet.

“Good morning, class,” Mrs. Phan said, accent heavy. “And Merry Christmas.”

The class answered in unison. “Merry Christmas, Mrs. Phan.”

None of the levity from earlier was present, the same levity the girl wanted to get in on. It was instead replaced by a heavy feeling of anxiety. If one fell, the girl could hear a pin drop, and the floor was carpeted.

Mrs. Phan was short, about the same height as the girl, but her presence stood well above the rest. Her hair was long but done up, styled and kept in place with hairspray, with a swoop across her forehead. A retro look, but it aged her.

Her sweater was a bright red, with snowflakes and reindeer knitted on, with black pants and shoes to finish the look. The end result was tacky, but it was fitting for the season.

If it was Mrs. Phan’s intention to look this way, to lighten up the mood, the effect was marginal. Everyone’s lips remained sealed. They were waiting for her.

Mrs. Phan then started off the discussion for the hour.

“So, what week are we on in this Advent season?”

“The third week,” the class answered, all at once.

“Correct. And what color is the candle on the wreath?”

Mrs. Phan pointed to a corner on the whiteboard. A wreath was up in the corner, crudely drawn in marker.

“Pink.”

“Correct again, but Lilly, I didn’t hear you there, speak up next time, okay?”

A squeak, from the table opposite the girl. Lilly. She was quietest person in class, second only to the girl herself. Not that she wanted to be in that position. It was a reluctant quiet.

Mrs. Phan went on with the review. “So that means it is the third Sunday of the Advent season, and next week is Christmas, the birthday of Jesus.”

A small ‘woo’ came from one of the kids. Mrs. Phan turned to try and find the culprit, but no one was caught. Even the girl couldn’t find who was responsible.

Mrs. Phan went back to the board, and continued writing.

“Alright, this season is a very important time for us as Catholics. In fact, the season doesn’t end until well into January. Does anyone know what else happens during Christmas time?”

She put a pause in her writing, and looked back to the class.

“How about… ah, Alexis?”

The girl felt a pang of panic. Her name was up.

The girl… Alexis, examined the board for a hint. Nothing. Mrs. Phan’s handwriting wasn’t the best, and it was most likely just an itinerary for the hour.

She looked to the other kids for help. No luck there. They looked either too bored or too disinterested to offer an answer, or whisper anything. Most weren’t even looking her way. Not even Jasmine, and she was right there.

Alexis was completely alone.

She turned back to Mrs. Phan, hoping the expression on her face would be enough, that she had no idea what the answer was. Didn’t work, Mrs. Phan still looked expectant.

Darn.

The question was vague, the correct answer unclear. Alexis thought back to last Sunday, but she couldn’t remember that class very well. She hadn’t paid much attention.

Something about… God, and Jesus… and giving.

No hints, and her friends weren’t going to help. Alexis was on her own in this.

She ventured a guess.

“Um… Santa comes and gives gifts to all the good boys and girls?”

Mrs. Phan raised an eyebrow, then raised it some more, as if to inject ire in a neutral, at most curious expression.

She wasn’t satisfied with that answer.

Here and there, kids snickered. They were silenced as Mrs. Phan asked, “Would you like to give that another try, Alexis?”

Ugh.

She was going to make her try again? Alexis really didn’t know, and putting her more on the spot wouldn’t do anyone any favors. It was a waste of time.

Alexis was a waste of time.

But, she made the others laugh a bit. That was worth it, in part.

And if she didn’t know the answer… might as well have some fun.

“Yeah,” Alexis said, leaning back into her seat, “Santa’s gonna come and give everyone presents. And because Jesus was born on Christmas, and he was extra good, he got like, three presents that day!”

Alexis held up three fingers to accentuate her point.

The joke landed, sort of. Not necessarily by execution, but rather by how inappropriate it was, and Mrs. Phan’s reaction. Her face twisted, opening her mouth wide, and yelled.

But it was drowned out by laughter. The joke sort of landed, after all. The other classmates were tittering and giggling, and looking at Alexis. She wasn’t sure if they were laughing with her or at her, but they were laughing all the same.

Looking her way, smiling, showing teeth. Giving her attention.

It filled Alexis with a strange sense of satisfaction.

Mrs. Phan continued to yell, but the sound was farther, now. The laughter overtook it, and filled the girl’s ears.

Then, the scene collapsed, with only the faint ringing of laughter remaining, and the pieces changed, new actors and props moving onto the set.

A new scene was being recalled.

An intimate one, but also equally not so.

The girl… and a boy. Already the details were muddy.

There was Alexis, but the boy’s name wasn’t recalled. His face was blurry, too, smeared like an oil painting, damaged by water.

Even the setting was nondescript. Four walls, a window, a door. A bed.

Alexis sat on the bed as the boy made sure to lock the door.

His name and face were lost, the details maybe even dropped on purpose. It could have been anyone. But the context rooted this moment and gave it meaning.

Alexis had only met the boy a few weeks ago. The tall, athletic type, that much was certain. They were in the same class, and their desks were right next to one another. It helped that the teacher allowed the class to work in pairs…

They had gotten to talking, going from mere acquaintances… to something more. Not boyfriend and girlfriend, but the awkward step before that.

The boy didn’t even have to do much, and what he did do hardly impressed her. Some lame jokes, some corny compliments.

But she was in the mood for lame, for corny. And she was looking for what the boy had provided in spades.

Attention.

She wasn’t getting it from the kids at Sunday school, part of the reason why she ditched them. There was a barrier, a subtle but effective wall around them that she couldn’t get over. And she had a hunch as to why.

She was too different from them.

Something like that didn’t matter at her school, though. She’d found friends, and activities she could do with those friends. Like sports. Partying.

Other stuff. Stuff she’d never done before.

The boy turned, facing Alexis. He approached her, slow in his steps, giving her time to take off her shirt.

The fabric flew over her eyes, and the boy was much closer, now. He leaned in, and she met him head on.

The scene collapsed before anything more could happen.

New actors, new props. Everything was moved around.

Another recall.

The new scene started with an explosion.

“God, it’s like you’re looking for a reason to be pissed off!”

The words spat out of the girl’s mouth before she was fully conscious of them.

Her mother’s face twisted, turning sour. The feeling churned in the girl’s stomach. She stood her ground though. Tried to.

They were in the kitchen, arguing over something. Emotions were too high, now, too hot for either of them to remember what exactly this argument was about. Something about the spilled coffee on the table, maybe? Maybe, but it seemed too trivial, too trite.

This was a long time coming, then, for both sides. Bubbling tempers, the lids shaking, needing only a spark for everything to blow up.

And blow up it did.

Her mother took a second to formulate a response, words to throw back at her daughter.

“I would not be like this if you did just listened to me the first time.”

She wasn’t yelling, but she matched Alexis in intensity. Holding back just enough to let Alexis know that there was more to come, should she push her there.

Alexis pushed.

“I was just about to get around to it, if you could have just waited like one second!”

She saw her mother open her mouth to respond, and threw out more words before she could.

“That’s your thing, you’re impatient and you jump the gun, all the time! Can’t you just cool it, for like a minute?”

She saw a twitch, a small delay in her mother’s movements. Riled, blinded, she took that opening.

“Maybe that’s why that guy left you, right?”

Stinging. Burning. Like a grenade that went off too early. Friendly fire.

Everything stopped. The weight of her words brought their world to a screeching halt.

Her mother… it was as if all life was drained from her. Her skin was white, her eyes had a dreary look to them. Hollow.

Alexis was stunned. The regret was immediate. But it always seemed harder to take it back, especially when emotions flared.

She was moving before her mother could attempt another word, trying to get out of the kitchen. Her mother was closer to the faucet, so the path wasn’t blocked. A stroke of luck.

She left the kitchen, fleeing to her room, the door slamming behind her.

She leaned, and found herself on her side, down. It hadn’t registered to Alexis that she fell.

Tears started streaming, not down her face, but across the bridge of her nose, past one ear.

It wasn’t true. Not one word she said was true.

Her mother could be uptight, but Alexis knew she was patient, how forgiving she was to her daughter. She could cool it, for much longer than a second.

And that guy didn’t leave her… he left them. He never came back. She never got the chance to learn his name.

She didn’t want to. Fuck that. Fuck that guy.

She knew she’d have to go back out there. She’d have to apologize. She wanted to.

But…

She didn’t have power to stand up now. She’d stay down, keep herself down.

Here, at the bottom.

I’m a terrible person.

As the tears fell, so the scene, collapsing all around the girl.

But, a new scene wasn’t being recalled. The stage was left blank.

It was just the girl, in an ever-expanding expanse of darkness.

She opened her eyes, and looked at her bare arms and legs. Her bare torso.

Scars, enough to outline her entire body. Bruises marked her skin, colored it, like blotches of paint on a canvas.

She wasn’t embarrassed, or ashamed of the blemishes. They defined her, gave her a shape.

All that she was, and all that she would be.

Here, there was no Alexis, no other labels. Just the core underneath it all. The scars.

The girl tested her voice, and it carried in the darkness, echoing forever.

“I don’t get it. Why show me that, all that ugliness. Is this your idea of a stronger foothold?”

No voiced answer. The darkness emitted.

“Oh.”

The darkness swam, forming faint, weak images. As if being seen through static.

Less ugly scenes, scenes that were less taxing to share. Playing on a playground, running on a track, helping in the kitchen. Pleasant, but the grainy filter distorted the images, making it impossible to get a proper view.

The darkness relented, and the scenes dissipated.

“You want the same things I do, huh? Alright, I get it now.”

The voice echoed, reaching into the darkness, affecting it. The darkness rippled in response.

The girl managed a smile.

“I guess I’m capable of understanding, I managed with Benny. Okay, you… no. There aren’t really winners and losers in this, are there? Not me, not you.”

The girl breathed after what felt like an eternity, and it rejuvenated.

“It’s us.”

Spoken as an objective fact. The truth.

The darkness reacted.

It slinked, moving over arms and legs. The scars and bruises were being washed away. A warm sensation hit the core. A healing that was long overdue.

“It’s not going to be pretty, I’ll tell you that right now. But we’ve gotten used to it, haven’t we? The ugliness.”

An absence was now starting to settle in, spaces where darkness once occupied. White. It began to solidify, taking its own shape.

A checkerboard.

“Take a deep breath, because it’s as close to a heaven as we’re going to get. It’ll get much hotter from here on out.”

The darkness pulsated, as if it understood. An agreement.

It finished, and the scars and bruises were gone. Not one mark was left.

The arrangement was simple, clean. Some darkness remained, keeping the checkerboard pattern.

Under her own power, the girl stood.

“Let’s burn it all to the fucking ground.”

“Hey, Alexis?”

V responded. “Yeah?”

“You’re kinda spacing out there. You okay?”

V smiled, warm. “I’m okay.”

Justin gave her another look over, but he sat back, letting it go.

Emily jabbed him in the arm. “Stop looking at her like that.”

“Ow, what’d I do?”

Too late, the damage was done. Emily turned up her nose, and looked away from Justin. Where she was irritated, he was equally confused.

V found the whole thing amusing.

They were in a Vietnamese restaurant. Phở Nam, at the Asian market, somewhere in the edge of downtown, away from the bigger buildings. A nice change of pace, to not have buildings towering above.

Justin and Emily had reached out again, to hang out with Alexis. Grab some lunch, maybe catch a movie later. Spending a day with the OG Francis Xavier youth group… except the rest of them couldn’t make it. V wasn’t particularly surprised, or disappointed.

The couple felt that three wasn’t enough of a crowd, though. They heavily suggested that Alexis could invite anyone, bring them along. V immediately knew who to reach out to.

Katy was on her phone, and Maria sipped from a small bowl of soup. They were all around a table, waiting for their food.

It was a calm scene, the atmosphere lowkey. Nothing to worry about, nothing that would ruin their day. They could just sit, and be okay.

V checked her watch.

“Emily, babe, I wasn’t actually…”

Justin kept trying to explain himself to Emily, but he was badgering her by this point. She looked like she was having none of it, but the gesture was exaggerated. She was teasing him.

“If you get me a molten lava chocolate cake after this,” Emily said, her voice high, “I might be able to look the other way.”

Justin scrunched up his face. “You’re just toying with me, aren’t you?”

“I dunno, am I?”

His concerned expression dropped, replaced by a grin.

“Ah, fuck you,” he said, then took a sip from his own bowl of soup.

“How long have you two been together?”

It was Maria that asked.

Emily dropped her act to answer. “Oh, couple years, I think. Beginning of high school.”

“Last day of school, actually,” Justin said, wiping his lip with a napkin. “But it was during freshman year. I asked you out right by your locker.”

“That’s right, but does that really count? I remember saying no, then.”

Maria gave a look of shock.

“You said no?”

Justin looked hurt. “You weren’t supposed to tell people that.”

“But it’s true, and she asked. I can’t just, you know, lie.”

“Fine. But hey, she did say yes about a week later, so who really won in the end?”

Justin pointed two thumbs in his direction.

“This guy!”

Emily rolled her eyes, groaning at him. She seemed to mean it, that time.

“Babe, I was kidding, I was joking…”

Maria laughed at Justin’s expense. Justin seemed annoyed, but he rolled with it. All in good fun.

V checked her watch again.

“It’s alright,” Katy said, finally off her phone. “We still have time for a movie, if you haven’t crossed that out, already.”

“Oh, um, right.”

V had to tell herself to stop checking.

“Speaking of,” Justin said, “Is there anything good out right now?”

“There’s that Water… Shape… something movie,” Emily said. “That looks interesting. But, man, that’s too recent. I’m not very fond of crowded theaters.”

“Same, girl,” Maria said. “I’d rather wait until I can stream it at home. That way, I can stay in bed and watch a movie with my own damn popcorn.”

“That sounds like a dream.”

Emily lifted a hand, and Maria matched her, a solid high five.

They’re getting along, V noted. That’s good.

It wouldn’t be perfect, but it could be good.

V tapped a finger on the table, downing half her glass of water.

Katy asked, “Something on your mind, Alexis?”

V spun her straw around the lid of the glass.

“Nothing really. Just waiting.”

“Just waiting?”

“Yup.”

Katy proceeded to make a comment, but V couldn’t quite catch it. The tone was odd, though. Not accusatory, but it was pointed.

“Damn, it’s loud,” V said, her voice raised in turn.

“It is pretty busy,” Justin said, looking around the restaurant. “Even at this hour.”

“Ever since, uh…” Emily stammered, eyes darting around. “Ever since he… did the things, people have been flocking to these places. It’s been rough couple of weeks.”

“Like a kind of refuge?” Maria asked.

“Kind of, I guess.”

Just from listening, it was easy to tell the place was busy. People were talking, conversing, shouting in Vietnamese across tables to call waiters. Noon during the holiday season already made things hectic, but another factor added to all the activity.

Harrian was the he, and him attacking a school were the things. A big incident like that meant big ramifications, and they stretched far and wide. A whole subsection of the city’s population were thrusted into the public consciousness, and neither were used to it. People who were already used to being hidden in plain sight, and a light that was too sudden, too harsh, and too bright. It lead to a push and pull from both sides. It lead to friction.

Here, it was Katy and Maria who were in the minority. The rest of them were those who wanted to find a place to feel at ease. To hide in plain sight. Refuge.

It was either this, or another riot. And this city had already seen more of its share fair of those. The cage was being rattled one too many times.

Here, there was peace, as relative as it was.

“I’m, dang, sorry guys,” Emily said. “I didn’t mean to bring that up. I’m not trying to be a downer.”

“It’s alright,” Katy said. “It’s not nothing, but it’s alright. That kind of thing affects a lot of people. We’re not that special in that regard.”

“But you,” Emily started, but she had the decent sense to not press that point. She shut herself up.

“Happy thoughts, guys,” Maria said, filling the dead air. “Happy thoughts.”

Katy threw in another comment before that dead air could come back again. “Saying it like that makes it more awkward.”

The group chuckled, trying to lighten the mood. V had joined in to keep appearances.

With everyone distracted, she stole a glance at her watch for a third time.

Maria gave it another try. “Emily, the reason why I thought you two were so funny earlier was because I kind of did the same thing, too.”

“What thing?” Emily asked.

“When my boyfriend asked me out, I didn’t give him a yes until like, six months later.”

Emily gave a her own look of shock.

“Holy shit, six months?”

“It’s a long story, obviously, but yeah, it took a while before I realized I was being dumb, and then I went to him. I’m still baffled at how he didn’t get another girl at that time.”

“Oh. Handsome guy?”

“Oh yeah,” Maria said, sounding proud.

“Aw, sounds like he was hoping you’d change your mind.”

“That’s what I tell myself.”

“Geez, I think I’d kill myself if I ended up waiting six months,” Justin commented, out of the blue. “Or, maybe I would have found someone else by then?”

Emily made a grunt.

“Please, you’re lucky that I gave your ass a chance!”

Justin looked physically pained to hear that, with Maria and Emily laughing at him again, sharing another high five.

“How about you two,” Emily said, turning to V and Katy. “Single?”

V and Katy looked at each other. V gestured for Katy to go first.

“I am,” Katy said. “And I’m not exactly looking for a guy, either.”

“Fair.” Emily looked at V, moving her eyebrows up and down. “And you?”

V brought her glass close, drinking more of her water.

“Same here,” V said. “Not interested at the moment.”

“That, I don’t believe. You’re hiding it, but you’re practically glowing.”

Glowing?

“I am not,” V said.

Emily’s eyebrows hadn’t stopped going up and down. “Don’t lie, we’re all friends here. I have a good eye for stuff like that. Something happened, and it was recent. Come on, spill the tea, girl.”

The sudden attention on her was more than she needed. V had to fight herself from checking her watch again.

She settled for drinking more water.

“No no,” Emily said. “Don’t hide behind your water. I wanna hear the details.”

A bubbling sound. V had ran out of water, her straw getting more air now than anything else.

“You must be seeing things, then,” V said. “Because you’re wrong. There are no details, and even if there were, and there aren’t, I’m not up to sharing.”

Emily pouted. “Ah fine, I’ll let you off the hook.”

She shot V a look though, the corners of her mouth folding up. She resembled a cat.

“For now.”

“She’s just being shy,” Katy said, giving V a sidelong glance. “Usually you can goad Alexis into sharing a few stories. She actually has some good ones. Remember the lake?”

V didn’t even try, but she knew there was a barrier, there. A mental block.

“I do,” V lied. “But I still don’t want to get into it.”

Katy’s glance lingered, but she then dropped it, moving on. V briefly squinted at her.

“We can talk about other stuff,” Katy said. “Like Maria’s boyfriend. This is the most I’ve heard of him… ever. I’m actually kind of shocked.”

“I’m full of surprises,” Maria said.

“Keep surprising me. I want to hear all-”

A shout had cut into everything. Katy talking, the restaurant bustling.

“You fucker! I been waitin’ for thirty goddamn minutes! When am I getting served?”

A man, standing up from his table, his chair sliding back away from him. It was cold out, somewhat chilly in here, but he had on a baggy white shirt and jeans. A bandage over one hand.

Mexican, just from his face alone, and he was probably the tallest one here, mean mugging anyone who was looking up at him.

He had a crew with him, sitting at the table. Dressed in a similar fashion. They didn’t seem disconcerted about their friend’s behavior. Unconcerned, maybe even disinterested.

The man yelled at the nearest waitress.

“You speak English?”

The waiter struggled to get out a word.

The man yelled some more.

“Fuck, speak English! We’re in America. I’m here, you’re here, speak some fucking real words!”

He spread his arms, fast and hard. He almost swiped at the waitress, who backed away, hitting a table. Water and tea were spilled all over.

“Fuck!” he yelled again, arms high. It was as if he was being mad just to be mad. Like putting a show.

“What a dick,” Emily said, under her breath. It was certainly one way to put it. Everyone’s lunch was ruined, the atmosphere spoiled.

Sitting in her seat, Katy looked tense, unsure of what was to come next. Maria retreated into herself, trying to appear smaller.

V checked her watch. She waited.

“Sir, please calm down.”

A woman walked to the angered man, hands in a placating gesture. Vietnamese, probably the manager.

The man’s face contorted.

“Calm down? How I can fucking calm down? We be waitin’ for a fucking hour by now!”

“Sir, you said thirty minutes.”

The man just yelled.

“See? No fucking wonder everyone’s been beating on you squity-eyed fucks! You’re all the same.”

Words mattered. They affected people. And they riled up the crowded restaurant.

Everyone began to voice their protest.

Yelling, shouting, it all mixed into a cacophonous wall of sound. Even Justin heated up for a moment, yelling out a profanity, then sitting back in his chair.

The man didn’t care. He was looking around, egging people on, getting a rise of them. He took his time, staring down each and every person.

He was facing V’s table when others started getting up, too. From the other tables, looking to pick a fight with the man.

“I think it’s time for you and your friends to leave,” one of them said. Another man.

“I agree,” another said. A girl.

The man clearly did not agree.

“Sit your flat-ass down, or I’ll make you.”

He lifted one side of his shirt, revealing a holster he had on his hip.

V got up from her seat.

“Alexis?” Katy questioned.

“Hey, dick,” V said. She ignored Katy.

The man turned. He wasn’t that far, and she was loud enough.

He took a second longer that needed to get a look at her face, as if he was studying her.

“Fuck you doing here?” he asked.

“If you’re really going to harass a girl, you really shouldn’t do it in a restaurant with a lot of people. Someone might catch you.”

V had thought over her words.

The man chuckled.

“Bitch, you stay outta this!” He lifted his shirt move, reaching for his gun.

Everyone moved. Everyone jumped out of their seats. Most ran away from the man. A select few dared to run towards him.

V was among that select few.

“Alexis!”

She heard Katy from behind.

“Damn you, don’t!”

V ignored her for the last time.

She was fast, faster than anyone else here. She got to the man first.

But his hand was faster. He was already holding the handgun.

V swung with her arm, aiming for-

No.

A finger was faster than an arm.

The shot rang out.

V dropped.

She could have gotten back up, sprang back to her feet, but she didn’t. She stayed down. Her ears ringing. Head aching.

Past that were the sounds of more commotion. Screaming, shouting. Fighting.

She wasn’t hurt, no bullet had even grazed her, but V didn’t get up.

V played dead.

Loud. Tables being flipped over. Metal on tile. Some water dripped on V’s head as stuff got thrown around. She didn’t move.

V felt hands on her. Then, she felt the floor move away from her.

She was being lifted.

She tried moving her arms, her legs. Budging just a little. Nothing. She was being held tight.

“We’re moving out!”

The man. He sounded close.

Bobbing. Rough. They were running, and she was being taken with them.

Cold. The door has swung open, exposing her to the weather outside. She felt a chill.

The men didn’t break stride. Another shot rang outdoors.

A hard stop. She heard the rumbling of an engine.

“No! Put the others in the back, this one stays here, alone!”

The man was barking orders.

Footsteps, moving fast. Doors sliding open and closed. Fast. They were working with haste.

V was tossed, landing on leather.

Tires screeched as the door slid closed.

The van was at top speed as it pulled away, leaving the restaurant behind.

V clenched her hands, making fists. Counting down from ten. Getting her focus back. Loud sounds really did get to her.

The van sped through corners, making the turns tight. V was jostled around, and it was hard to make herself upright.

She felt more hands press into her body, keeping her steady. Small.

“Almost there! If we can make it to that back road, we’re in the clear!”

A yell, but the voice was small. Young.

The ride was fast, then bumpy, speeding along anyways. It continued for several minutes.

“Wakey wakey.”

That was directed to her. V opened her eyes, slow, finding that she screwed them tight.

She needed time to get her bearings.

A girl was watching her, looking after her with care. Her arms were out, holding her, as the drive jerked them around. Neither were of them were wearing seatbelts.

She saw V come to, and gradually moved her hands away. She was smiling as V managed to sit properly.

V pushed her hair back, fixing loose strands.

“How are we doing on time?” the girl asked, still watching V. She had a phone in her hand, now, taking only small, needed glances. Her eyes were on V, otherwise.

Someone else answered. The driver.

“Good on all counts. Decoys are in place, and everyone’s moving on their assigned routes with no trouble.”

“Awesome.”

V was blinking, checking her watch. A simple but sleek design, an all-black face with no numbers or markings, with gold hands. It was a quarter to one.

She had this watch during the Eastside raid. She had it with her.

I really am a sentimental one.

She looked up and saw D, with her trademark grin. She gave her a nod.

“You’re late, Dor-,” V said.

“That’s my grandmother’s name,” D said. “Operation was a success, we’re off to Wanderland, now. We can do whatever we want. Play chess all day, feed our curious appetites, whatever. We never have to grow up. So sit back, relax, and enjoy yourself, it’s about to get extra fun.”

D smiled wider.

“Or, would you rather have something to drink?”

She looked pleased with herself for making the various references.

The girl managed to return one of her own, deciding to indulge her. It didn’t feel forced.

“Something sweet, please,” Wendy said.

Previous                                                                     Bonus

057 – Red Flavor

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Benny was bound, wrists and ankles. She couldn’t move, fight back, or otherwise escape.

A chill ran up my spine.

We were in the abandoned factory, where Hleuco and Blank Face used to convene, back when Hleuco was still corporeal, and where I first encountered D. It was secluded, people would only come here if they knew about it, and few cared to remember. And at this hour, no one else was going to be wandering in here. The perfect place to hide a body, if it ever came to that. It was still up in the air.

I was still thinking about it.

I watched as D fixed the last zip tie. A hard tug, and Benny flinched.

“That’s the last of them,” D said, getting up from behind Benny. D went around her and joined me.

“Thanks,” I said.

Benny was on the floor, sitting on the tarp that used to cover up Hleuco’s van. We were on an upper level, overlooking the ground floor and machines. Inside a managerial office, situated in the very back of the factory, probably so the supervisor could watch over the sweating, tired workers break their backs while he sat comfy, leaning back in an air-conditioned room. We didn’t get that luxury, though. An abandoned factory meant no power, and the only lights that were available were backup flashlights D and I found in a nearby closet. The room was lit, though dim, the flashlights placed in a half-circle around Benny.

The whole setup looked like a ritual. Or maybe even a sacrifice.

With the lights, I still had to be careful. It was a good idea to bring the tarp.

If the ground floor was dusty, this place was even worse for wear. Pipes and tools were strewn about, along with dirty needles and broken bits of glass. There was enough dust that I had to watch my step, it was too easy to slip and fall.

The corner of a corner. No one was going to find us, here.

Benny groaned, shifting her arms and legs, trying to find what little allowance we gave her.

“Even without these, I’m in no position to run or fight. This is a bit much, don’t you think?”

I shrugged.

“Chalk it up to paranoia. I’m used to things suddenly going wrong, all at once, so forgive me if I don’t leave anything up to chance.”

She shrugged, herself.

“That’s a feeling I know all too well.”

She went quiet, and we stared at each other, an uneasy silence settling in. Not unlike the one from earlier, in the kitchen, but it was nice to definitively have the upper hand this go around.

A black skirt, with leggings to match. The skirt was tight fit, preventing her from sitting properly, giving the bindings, and she had to position herself so her legs were folded underneath her, feet together.

So, that’s what you’re wearing.

Sitting there, with her arms tied behind her back, her legs tied under her, completely powerless. Her hair had loosened from the different scuffles and being moved around, strands falling in front of her face. She exuded anger, though. I could see the scowl. She had no control or hold in this situation, here, yet she did what she could to exercise her remaining slivers of agency. Her expression.

Her face…

There was a quality to her, that I couldn’t quite place, but the sensation was real. Carnal.

Ah, I couldn’t take my eyes off of her.

Benny broke the silence. “Sitting here, in the dark, where it’s cold and filthy and why the hell is it damp-”

She coughed, probably from some dust catching in the back of her throat.

“This is fun and all, but I have to ask, why did you even bring me out here? I thought you were going to give me up, already.”

From the corner of my eye, I saw D shoot me a look, but my attention stayed squarely on Benny.

“I don’t know,” I said.

Benny gave me a funny look. Her voice wavered as she asked me her next question.

“Are, are you going to kill me, or are you leaving that up to the powers that be?”

D’s look and Benny’s stare remained on me. They were curious. I was too.

“I don’t know,” I said again.

Benny’s expression and body language both expressed different reactions. Her body relaxed some, but her face was stark terror.

“You don’t know?”

“You have to understand, I’ve been chasing after you for a long, long time. Now that I have you… I’m struggling to figure out what comes next. When you’re so focused and driven to a specific goal, and for so long… And when you finally do get it, see, I don’t know.”

I stopped, failing to have made any point, or any sense.

“Can’t say I’m all that flattered,” Benny said. “Having taken so much space in one person’s mind.”

“What can I say? That’s just how it happened. I… we, gave up a lot over the weeks in order to just be in the same room with you. And now, here we are.”

“Sounds like you’ve developed something of an obsession for me,” Benny said.

I didn’t reply to that.

Another break in the conversation, a period of silence.

Benny shifted, groaning again when the restraints dug deeper into her skin.

“Ironically, you’re indecision on killing me or not is killing me,” she said. “If you tell me either way, at least I’ll know, and I can come to terms with whatever happens.”

“Just wait, you’ll know in time,” I told her. “I’m still figuring it out.”

Benny grunted from the restraints, and coupled with the uncertainty of her ultimate fate, resulted in a more pained expression.

I was getting more of a satisfaction just from looking at her than doing anything else. I could stay here until the sun rose.

I saw a glow emanating from right beside me. D had taken out her tablet.

“You might want to figure it out sooner rather than later,” she said.

“Are we short on time?” I asked, still watching Benny.

“No, but the other Ghosts are going to be worried if we take too long, and Jordan can’t stay in the hospital room forever. With Lawrence out of commission, they’re going to need someone to take orders from.”

“Will they listen to us? This was a joint effort, not one person was supposed to lead the rest.”

“It’s not one person, it’s us two, and it’s better than nothing, and I’d like to think we earned enough of their trust if we ever need to take point. Like right now.”

D lifted her tablet. “I can communicate from this, but they’ll appreciate it more if we call the shots in-person.”

I watched Benny. She was still, now, listening to our conversation. But we weren’t trying to be discreet, exactly.

“Sooner, rather than later, huh?” I said. “That does move things up a little.”

“Sorry,” D replied, as if this was something she had control over.

“No need,” I said. “It’s better this way. If you give me all the time in the world, I’ll probably never come to a decision. I work better with my back against the wall, thinking on my feet.”

D hummed. “I feel that.”

I moved to crouch in front of Benny, getting on my knees.

“Lucky you, looks like you’ll get your answer sooner than you thought.”

“Fun,” Benny said, with no fun to be found in her voice.

I took off my bag, setting it aside. Then, I threw a hand into my pocket. I drew out my knife, revealing the blade. Dried blood caked the sharpest point, trailing down until it was reduced to a smear.

I set it down, placing it between me and Benny, the tip of the blade pointing to her. She was stiff.

“I mentioned that I’m struggling to find out what to do with you, that I’ve spent so much time and energy pursuing you that I haven’t put enough time and energy towards what follows.”

Benny was watching me, wary.

“But, that doesn’t mean I’ve come up completely blank. I do have a few ideas.”

Benny’s eyes grew to saucers.

“I thought about hurting all of your crew first, the rest I didn’t get to, back at the school. Demoralize you, bring you lower before it was even your turn. Then, I would hurt you, in every way I could think of. Take out your eyes, cut off your tongue, burning your skin. I’d take breaks, so I could be thorough. And then, once I’ve harmed you enough, I would kill you.”

Terrible, terrible things. But I was saying them like they were easy.

Her lower lip trembled, but no sound was produced.

I went on. “Things changed though, naturally. I joined up with D and the Ghosts, and now it’s no longer just about me. Not anymore. I won’t be able to get around to hurting your crew, but that’s such a small setback, and the Ghosts need you to be somewhat recognizable, if they want to cash you in for a prize. That takes some of my ideas off the table. Out of courtesy, I won’t be making a mess of your face, that’s for sure. And personally…”

I stopped myself.

Benny looked at me with confusion. A sharp anxiety. The wait really was killing her.

“Damn,” I said, “I never expected it to go down like this.”

“What, what do you want from me, exactly?” Benny asked. She was leaning back, as if she was afraid of what my answer would be. “Revenge?”

“From you? I want you to pay, for what you did at the school, for your involvement with Solace. For bringing me here. All of it, you’re responsible for all of it.”

Benny took a deep breath, shuddering as she exhaled.

“Revenge, then.”

I thought about what Gomez asked me, between ‘justice’ and something more… intimate. It wasn’t too long ago, but it felt like forever.

“Yeah,” I said.

“I hate to burst your bubble, but I can’t be responsible for everything, not when it comes to revenge. That takes some action on your part, an active hand to get what you want. You didn’t have to join up with Lawrence and that young girl, you didn’t have to set half of Eastside aflame, you didn’t have to threaten me using my closest friend. I may have pushed you, but you chose to keep falling, and drag me down with you.”

“You didn’t have to attack the school,” I said back. “You didn’t have to join up with Solace.”

“I didn’t have a choice, on that last part.” Benny sounded downcast, broken.

“But,” she said. “You are right. I recognize, now, that I was blinded by that desire for vengeance. That’s why I attacked the school. You hit me, and I wanted to hit back harder. But look where it brought me, brought you.”

“It’s too late to start feeling sorry for yourself.”

“Please, the last thing I feel right now is sorry. Regret, though, that’s a whole other matter.”

She looked back at me, meeting my eyes. Level.

“V, right?” she asked.

“Right,” I said.

Benny fixed her posture, not making a sound, the restraints probably numbing any feeling, there.

“We both pushed each other. We both fell, and we both dragged each other down. In our pursuit of revenge, it made us do hideous things. A chain of increasingly hideous things, and led us down into this hellhole. That’s what revenge does to you. It corrupts you, V, and it changes you, inside and out. It makes you ugly.”

“You’re very easy on the eyes, for someone so ugly,” I said. “I hope I age as well as you.”

She shook her head. “You don’t get it, do you? Or maybe you’ve made up your mind, and you don’t want to hear anything different. This… it’s a spiral of destruction, and it’s not going to end with one of us leaving here alive. It’s going to continue. Someone we hurt along the way, or something we did, it comes back. It’s a cycle. Maybe she stabs you in the back, one day.”

She pointed with her lips, pointing to D. I didn’t turn to look at her.

“I haven’t been in the city for that long, but her reputation precedes her. And I’ve seen it myself, too. Petty pranks. Nothing too damaging, until tonight. But, my point is, from what I’ve heard and seen, the whole world is a joke to her. What’s to say that she isn’t making a mockery of you, right now?”

“Are you trying to waste my time?” I asked. “Distract me, until I either run out of time, or you come up with something better?”

Benny shot me a look.

“Maybe,” she said.

“D, how long do we have?”

D answered. “Um, about an hour and a half. We do have to be back, but as of right now, it’s not super urgent.”

A noise, coming from Benny. It sounded like a snarl.

“An hour and a half,” I repeated. “That’s not bad at all. You know what? I decided what I want to do.”

Benny stiffened again, hearing that. “And that is?”

I sat, my butt on the tarp, my legs crossed. I inched myself so I was closer to Benny.

“Let’s talk.”

Benny blinked.

“Talk?”

“Why not? Even though you’re tied up and everything, you’re still willing to run your mouth. And honestly, I’m willing to listen. There’s a lot I want to ask you, actually, and I can imagine there’s a lot you want to ask me. So let’s do it.”

Benny opened her mouth, then closed it. Unsure of what to do or say next.

I threw in another point for her. “This might be your opportunity to convince me not to kill you. I can’t say the Ghosts, or whoever they hand you to, will show you that same mercy, but my offer’s there.”

Benny dropped her head a little, but it didn’t last long. She straightened herself, facing me again.

“I’ll take what I can get,” she said. “You start.”

She was a gang leader. She was used to power. She maybe even craved it, and was looking for as much power as she could consolidate, given her position, her situation.

It was admirable.

I smiled, remembering I had on a mask.

“Okay then, let’s start at the very beginning.”

Benny tilted forward, eyes down as she talked.

“I didn’t ask for any of this, it was forced upon me.”

“But you went along with it, and let those circumstances shape you,” I said. “Somewhere, on that path, there had to be a point where you could stop.”

“Are you admonishing me, V?”

I fell silent.

“I’m not,” I finally said. “Just an observation. I was much the same way.”

“Whatever happens,” Benny said, “Just make sure nothing happens to Roland. Just let him get back to Mexico.”

It was the third time she asked that.

“I make no promises about that last part, but nothing’s going to happen to Roland as long as you’re here, and your crew doesn’t pull anything.”

Benny nodded.

It was the third time I answered that.

“You care about your people a lot,” I said.

“Of course I do, they’re family. They’ve protected me my whole life, and I tried to protect them.”

A tear fell from one eye.

“And I failed.”

I didn’t really have a follow up. I was the reason why she failed.

I felt for her, in that moment. I had the memory of wanting to protect someone, and to fail, catastrophically. The tears wouldn’t come, however, that part of me was sectioned off, to be discarded.

But the memory was still there. I understood, and let Benny shed tears for the both of us.

“You say you want to kill me, but have you actually done it before? Take another person’s life?”

Flashes of memories surfaced. From a time I didn’t want to recall.

“Maybe. I’ve incapacitated people, using more strength than what was reasonably necessary. Maybe I left them to die. I can’t say for sure.”

“So, no, you haven’t.”

I squinted at her.

“Consciously, no. Have you?”

“I haven’t. That wasn’t my thing. If it ever came to that, I left it to the others. But I always tried diplomacy, first. Always.”

“Honor among thieves?” I asked. “Or among mobsters?”

“Something like that. People deserve fairness, even the worst of them. It’s a principle I tried to follow. A personal philosophy. No cheating.”

“The world isn’t fair,” I said, not to object, but as a general observation. “People aren’t fair, they cheat each other, and they get back at each other. At least you tried, but the world ended up beating you down, didn’t it? It broke you.”

Benny met my eyes.

“It broke you, too.”

“Tell me about Solace.”

Benny didn’t move.

“And Mister, too.”

Benny jerked her head up.

“If you’re going after him, then you are insane!”

“I’m just asking for information,” I said.

Benny slouched again.

“I don’t know much, honestly, about either of them. You’d be disappointed.”

“I’ll be the judge of that. But just tell me what you do know, for now.”

“Or,” I added, “I might have to bring Roland into this, again.”

Benny made a sound. Between a cry and a snarl.

“That’s not fair,” Benny said.

“I’m sorry,” I responded, meaning it.

“If you had the chance to start over, do it all again, would you change anything?”

“I…”

“You don’t think you would?”

“I think… people are incredibly stubborn, and, even if I was taken back to the beginning, I can’t imagine a reality where I don’t make the same mistakes.”

“That’s a rather stubborn thing to say.”

“I still see myself as ‘people.’”

“So you believe in fate? That you were meant to be here?”

“Not… exactly. I believe in moving forward, and learning from the past. My mistakes define me just as much as my successes do. If I could go back, do things different, I wouldn’t be me, and I’m not sure I want that.”

“I see. I can’t believe I agree with you on that.”

“We’re truly ugly people, aren’t we?”

“Ha, you could even say ‘hideous.’”

I sat back, more drained than I had anticipated.

“Thirty minutes,” D said. A reminder for me, and a sentence for Benny.

“Thanks for the heads-up,” I said to D. I turned back to Benny. “That went by faster than I thought it would.”

Benny’s face was hard to read, a dark look in her eyes.

“That’s too bad. I was hoping we’d go for a while longer.”

“I’m already beat. This, on top of everything else that happened tonight, I’m shocked you can go another round.”

“You should be the one with the endurance. You’re still young, after all.”

Benny lowered her head.

“And besides, my life is sort of depending on it.”

I looked at Benny. There was something… different, about her.

Nothing explicit had changed, though. She was still there, restrained, sitting on the tarp. Couldn’t run, couldn’t hide. The gold blazer, the black leggings. Her ponytail, her tan skin. Her makeup. She was still Benny.

Yet, there was that quality to her.

Benny looked at me.

No. Something was different, but not with her. With me.

The dim of the flashlights illuminated her, illuminated us, and there was a warmth to it, that I hadn’t noticed before. A certain sentimentality, and she glowed in that light.

It wasn’t the traditional sort, but there was beauty, there, that struck me in a way that managed to leave an impact.

We looked at each other. The silence was shared, but it had different meanings for each of us.

Then, I broke that silence.

“I won’t kill you.”

Benny arched an eyebrow.

“You… won’t kill me.”

She said it slow, deliberate, as if repeating it made it more real.

It did. I had made up my mind.

“I tried to find it in my heart, the anger I would need to hurt you, and then to end your life. And funnily enough, I didn’t even need to try that hard. It was easy. It’s just… right there, sitting on top of everything else. But, digging a little deeper, I found something else. Something new.”

“And that was?”

“An understanding,” I answered.

“Don’t pity me,” she said, growling the second word.

I shook my head.

“Not pity. I don’t want you to look at me in that way, so I won’t do the same for you.”

“How noble of you,” Benny said. She started struggling with the restraints around her ankles. “Now help me up.”

I let her struggle a bit more, until she realized she wouldn’t receive any help.

Slow, but Benny caught on. She stopped moving, and stared back at me, very carefully.

“You’re fucking kidding me,” she said, voice breaking before she finished. She sounded like she was either about to laugh or cry.

“It’s not what you think,” I said, as if to reassure her. “I have another thing in mind.”

“What?” she asked. In that one word, I could hear it so clearly. Trepidation.

I answered not with words, but with actions. I removed my gloves, setting them by the knife. With my hands free, I felt how cold the air was on my skin.

I touched my face, and felt the mask. The hard, cold plastic.

I hid my face with my hands, lowering myself. I undid the strap around my head.

The mask clattered to the floor.

I raised myself, taking off my hood. Benny and I looked at each other.

She took it all in, studying my face. Her eyes darted from one detail to the other. Up, down. From my forehead to my chin. Not a freckle or mole would slip by her, it felt like.

I pushed some hair away from my face, fixing it. I averted her gaze. The sudden and heavy attention had me strangely flustered, but it was also what I wanted. A paradox.

“I’m not at my best right now,” I said, just to say something. “I’ve had a busy night.”

I waited for a comment, a response from Benny. None came. The now all-too familiar stillness returned.

Couldn’t avoid it forever. A sharp inhale through my nose, and I faced Benny.

Shadows were cast on her face. Hard to read.

“Hey,” I said.

“You’re… just a kid,” she said, nearing a whisper. “You’re just as young as her.”

She was referring to D.

“I’m not that young,” I said. I made my back straight, so the shadows would fall differently on my face. “Surprised?”

“Not surprised, no. When I… visited the school, I had an idea in my head of who to look for. You’re not too far removed from that image. Maybe you’re a little thinner, a little more pale, but that isn’t what scares me.”

Benny chuckled, or at least she tried. It came out more strained.

“What does scare me, is this sickening feeling at the pit of my stomach. It feels like I’m staring death in the face.”

Slow, nervous, I put my hands on Benny’s shoulders. It took an ungodly amount effort to get them to not shake.

“I’m afraid I can’t do anything about that,” I said.

Gently, I removed Benny’s blazer. It fell to a bundle behind her. She still had her sleeves on, due to the bindings.

I worked on the buttons on her shirt next, undoing them. My hands felt like they were moving on their own.

Benny reacted, and she went still, stiff. Exhaling softly, then more pronounced as I got to the lower buttons. I had robbed her of the ability to vocalize, to protest.

Wrong, this was all wrong.

But I didn’t stop.

I was drawing it out, taking longer to undo the next button. Not to waste time, not to question myself, but to stay in the moment. To turn it into a picture in my head. Framing it.

I finished the shirt, and pushed the fabric off her shoulders. She was still wearing the sleeves, but I had gotten to what I wanted.

Her shoulders were exposed, and my eyes trailed see to what else touched the open air. Her chest, rising and fall as she breathed. Her stomach. A thin, white line of skin peeked out from the waistline of her skirt. Benny gasped as my finger grazed it.

I wouldn’t go farther than this.

I stalled.

Benny managed to get out some more words, between periodic, shallow breaths. “If… you’re not intending to… kill me… what, exactly, are you planning?”

What was I planning?

I searched for an answer.

I spoke, but I found it almost impossible. Shaky, and soft.

“I still hold you responsible for everything. This, me. There’s… a catharsis that comes with finally getting what you want.”

“A catharsis?”

“Yes, and it’s a very sweet taste.”

“Um, I can leave if you want, put a sock on the door.”

That didn’t come from Benny. Someone else? But I was sure it was just the two of us.

Hazy, getting to my head. It was cold, but my body was heating up. My fingers traced around Benny’s shoulder, her skin smooth with sweat. I felt her body heat.

I leaned closer.

Benny remained there, making it easier for me to remove a strap off one shoulder, letting it hang. My lips brushed against goosebumps.

If I had left it there, it would have been a kiss.

But there was more to come.

I held her with my hands, keeping her in place. She’d want to move. I wouldn’t let her.

I opened my mouth.

My tongue grazed a salty taste, and then my teeth brought forth a sweeter flavor. Red.

Small noises, smaller sips, and this continued until I had my fill.

I found myself at the top of the factory, the breeze in my face and hair.

The air was fresher here than in the city. It soothed, and helped in bringing my thoughts back to other matters.

It was cool, calm, and I hadn’t felt more collected. But, could I call this peace? The question gnawed at the back of my mind, raw.

I walked, and Hleuco landed ahead of me, waiting for me as I approached.

He looked worse for wear. His feathers were ruffled, matted in some places, sticking out in others. He slouched, and leaned one way, favoring a leg. I remembered how he’d raise his chest, giving off a sense of pride and power. Standing tall. Now, it took all he had just to keep standing.

Hleuco was standing, though, meaning like me, he had won.

I saw what he had in his beak, what was stuck in blood and feather. Bits of a blue windbreaker.

Hello there.

I heard his voice.

I smiled, soft.

“We did good, didn’t we?”

I continued walking, passing him. He stayed as I crossed the roof, heading for the edge. I found D there, sitting.

I sat with her, setting my mask beside me.

Our legs dangled, and it was long way to the bottom. Should an accident occur, only one of us would have been able to survive that drop. Yet she was sitting here without a care in the world.

D gave me a glance, then turned her attention back to the city.

We watched the skyline for a while. The smoke was all but gone, now, but even from here, I could see the wisps that were left. All that remained of what was once a greater fire.

“You’re late,” D said. “We’re late.”

“Are we in trouble?”

D raised her shoulders, then dropped them.

“Nah. I’ve been in contact with them, but we really should be heading back.”

D gestured again.

“But, now I need a break.”

“I would say I’m sorry, but it would only half true.”

“No biggie,” D said. “Hard to believe we actually pulled this off.”

“Yeah, it’s been a long and crazy night.”

“We ended up cutting it close, but we got lucky.”

D rubbed her hands together in her lap for warmth.

“It’s the kind of luck that makes you wonder if something truly terrible is just around the corner.”

I didn’t want to think about that.

“Either way,” I said. “You managed to prove yourself to me. Congratulations.”

D made a fist, and drew it in close.

Yes!”

We laughed a bit, briefly amused by the exchange.

As D settled back down again, she fixed her jacket.

“Oh yeah. How’s… um, the lucky girl?” she asked.

Who else was she talking about?

“Not a concern,” I answered. “Benny’s not getting up.”

That was all I was willing to offer.

D didn’t press for more details. “You’re carrying her back to the van, though. She’s heavy, and my arms are tired.”

“Will do,” I said.

“So, you finally got her, in more ways than one. All that’s left is to give her up to the Ghosts, and you don’t have to be there for that. Your part is done.”

Done? I didn’t feel done.

“What’s next for V?” she asked.

What was next for me? I couldn’t go back to the apartment. That wasn’t home for me. I couldn’t go back to being Shiori’s daughter, or Katy and Maria’s best friend. They weren’t connected to me. I couldn’t go back to a life that didn’t fit, to fill a hole that wasn’t shaped like me.

And I didn’t want to.

Styx, Solace, Mister. The girl at the center of it all. Not everything from the list was checked off.

There’s still much to do. The fire still burns.

I answered her.

“I won’t pull back, that’s for damn sure. I’ll press forward. Don’t count me out just yet.”

“I like that,” D said, sounding satisfied. “You’re up for another game. I’m hyped.”

The breeze picked up, strong enough that it pushed, and I gripped to the ledge to stay in place. It was cold.

It died down, and I could relax again.

“Sorry to disappoint, but that’s not really my thing. Also, I kind of can’t.”

Turning to D, I realized that I had grabbed her arm, as if to secure her as well.

I let her go. “That, I can apologize for.”

“You don’t have to. I don’t mind that, particularly. No one’s going to object to holding hands with a pretty girl.”

“Hm?” I asked.

D looked at me. This time it was longer than a glance. “Yup, you are seriously pretty.”

I wasn’t expecting to hear that. “Um, thanks. I’ve never been told that before.”

Me, as in V, and not her.

“Really?” D questioned. “There had to be someone who’s told you that before. Like a boy at school, or your grandma? I dunno.”

“Nothing I care to remember,” I said. “Sorry.”

“Eh, it’s whatever. But I hope it made you feel better.”

I had to think about it. It was a compliment, but that sort compliment was better suited coming from a boy. I’d even accept it coming from anyone else’s grandmother.

From her?

“It did, I think. Thanks again.”

“Happy to oblige.”

We spent another minute looking towards the city again. The smoke was all clear, now. From a distance, it was like nothing had happened at all.

The hectic buzzing, the chaos. We’d have to return to it, eventually. Sooner, rather than later.

Another minute passed.

“I thought you were going to say more,” I said. “About me showing my face.”

“Um, besides having a tiny bit of… something, on your upper lip, then no. If not that, gosh, you’re already fishing for compliments?”

Flustered, I wiped my lip. “Not that. Earlier, when I was trying to get back to E-One, I had gotten… distracted.”

“Yeah?”

“I had to gather myself together, to keep myself going, and that involved, um, raising my voice a notch or two.”

“Make that like ten notches. You almost blew out my ear back there.”

“Sorry, again. I wanted to ask, also because your stunt back at the restaurant nearly gave me a heart attack, but, while I had gotten distracted, did you pick up anything, especially at the end?”

“At the end?” D asked. She put a finger to her chin, thinking. “Not really, no. Again, you almost blew out my ear, and I was focusing on other things. You can’t expect me to catch everything, especially when it didn’t sound like it was something I was supposed to catch.”

“I suppose so,” I said.

“And, about my stunt, anyone in Benny or Christian’s position would jump at that kind of bait, even if it was true or not. They were desperate, and I took that to my advantage.”

“I see.”

I got my clarification, but I couldn’t take any relief in that. A strange part of me expected her to know.

Want her to know.

“Was there something I had to catch?”

I held my tongue. I tasted juice in my mouth. Intoxicating.

I made my choice.

“My name,” I said. “I want to give you my name.”

“Is it not ‘V?’” D asked.

“It’s more a placeholder, for lack of a better word. I’ve already shown you my face, so I guess my real name would follow.”

“Shucks, you don’t have to, but if you’re up for it, then I won’t stop you.”

She turned to face me.

“I’ll give you mine, too.”

I wasn’t expecting to hear that, either. “It’s not ‘D,’” I asked.

“Placeholder,” was all she said, with a wide smile. Toothy, with a gap.

“Hm,” I said, giving myself some time to think. Tonight wasn’t just about finding Benny. It was about finding where I stood, how I functioned without her. Alexis. Without her connections and memories. And I did pretty well, when all was said and done. I got what I wanted, and I didn’t stumble where she would have fallen. I proved myself, as much as D proved herself. I didn’t need Alexis. Not anymore.

I’d rejected her memories, and her connections, and I succeeded. I won.

A flurry of feathers. Hleuco flew over our heads.

I watched him go, joining other birds in the distance. As he got smaller, he tested himself with a flap of his wings, but he’d falter, flounder in the air. He settled to keep his wings level, more of a glide than flight itself.

He slowly became a dot, and then he was gone. There was something melancholic about his departure. A sort of finality to it.

I willed him good luck.

I turned my attention back to myself.

Alexis had never declared a name to the world. That was her first mistake, the first stumble. She let the world give her a name, stamp an identity on her. Their perception on her warped, despite her attempts, and the world fought back. They rejected her, wanted her gone. She didn’t shape herself properly, and instead let others give her a shape neither wanted. She tried to get take back her name, her identity, but it was too little, too late.

Names were important, names were everything. Names held meaning, not only for the individual person, but to others. And she’d called herself Blank Face. No wonder she was overwritten.

She was a white canvas, painted over in blue. Now, red and black.

Names were important, names were everything.

I’d need a new name.

Like the dying spurts of a candle, I felt a spark. A faded memory, a connection that Alexis had. Brief and fleeting to her, but to me, I would use that. Another rock to build upon.

There.

I returned to D, giving her a smile of my own, and we exchanged first names.

Previous                                                                                               Next

056 – Minor Piece

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Everything exploded.

Loud enough to rupture ears. Loud enough that my heart sank to my stomach and stayed there. Loud enough that my mind went completely blank.

It was so loud.

Deafening.

Like the whole world was crashing around me. Destruction.

Not like the movies. The sounds weren’t mixed or mastered, here. Just a stinging intensity. The hail of gunfire put everything in the red.

A bang, followed by cracks and pops occurring with equal intensity. Sharp, jarring. Noise. My ears were ringing, and it only added to the sense of chaos. I lost my sense of placement. Left and right, up and down.

Classroom. It reminded me of the classroom. The bodies, the-

That thought was overridden.

I didn’t lose my sense of direction. I clung to it. Ingrained in the very fiber of my being.

Retribution.

My body moved under the orders of my last conscious thought.

Arms close, wrapping around me. Not a reflex, not for comfort, but to secure.

The action was interrupted, then blocked from moving any farther. Something was in my grasp. Someone.

No time to check. No time to think. Just had to focus on getting down, and staying out of harm’s way.

And then, it was quiet.

Not silent, not completely, sound wasn’t absent. There was the harsh intakes of breath, the clicks of guns being reloaded and ready to fire again. And there was the high-pitched ring that sang in my ears.

Not silent, but a stillness that sat heavy in the air.

It was quiet.

It took some time before I realized I could move. Testing, I used my legs, rubbing them together. No issue there. No pain, it seemed like, coming from any other part of my body. I had made it out okay. Miraculously.

I tried breathing. The air was thick. Almost polluted.

Something squirmed in my grip, trying to wrestle itself away from me. Tried.

I tightened my hold, exercising just a fraction of my full strength. The movement stopped.

The stillness remained, giving me a chance to survey the situation in full. It felt like the light was attacking my eyes as I opened them, and I needed a second to adjust.

Bits and pieces. I couldn’t see much. I was on the floor, all my weight on one side. One arm was pinned down. A body. They were close, and their back, neck, and head blocked most of my view. A few loose strands from a ponytail got into my eyes, and I had to blink them away.

A body. They were close, and they were wearing a gold blazer.

My heart jumped in my chest at the realization. Faster and faster, all from how close she was. I finally had her in my grasp.

She couldn’t hide from me, or slip away like before. I had her. Finally. There she was, and here I was.

Just me, just her.

It was everything I ever wanted.

We were together.

Now it was simply a matter of getting out of here, and taking her with me.

Easier said than done, though.

I shifted us around, moving so I had a better position to work with. I wasn’t about to try and leave. I had what I wanted, but I was still trapped here.

And I couldn’t just fight my way out.

As the dust settled, everyone else started getting their bearings again. Barking orders, my ears still too out of commission to pick it up. Everyone’s attention was pointed in different directions. The side door of the kitchen, the vents above, each other.

Me and Benny.

Scattered, disorganized, but it didn’t take long for everyone’s attention to point in a particular way.

With guns reloaded and ready, Benny’s crew had me in their sights.

“Let her go,” one of them said, voice tight. Oh, I could hear, now. It was the man in the suit.

I adjusted my posture, pushing my weight more into Benny. She grumbled from the added pressure, but she didn’t try to fight me.

I was crouched over her, my foot pressed into the small of her back. I had my knife drawn, the blade right against her gullet. My other hand went to the back of her neck, helping keep her down. If I tripped, or if she tried to move, the result would be rather messy.

I used that as my leverage.

Tapping the flat of the blade on her throat, I gave my response.

“How about no? I worked too hard, I worked too long, and I gave up too much to get here. I earned this.”

That garnered more grimaces and piercing glares. Itchier trigger fingers. Best not to push them any further.

I looked past the man in the suit, at the others in Benny’s crew, and the other Ghosts. There were more guns in play than I had fingers. Not all were trained at me though, some of Benny’s crew were keeping the Ghosts in check. After that bang, the players on the board had moved around, but the overall situation snapped back to the previous state of being. A standoff.

I looked for Lawrence. I didn’t see him.

I saw the streak of blood that led away from the nearby table and chair, past the man in the suit.

Benny? I checked, but there was no pool of blood under her. She wasn’t bleeding. By process of elimination, then, it had to be-

“You’re cornered, Bluemoon,” the man in the suit said. His gun was still staring right at me. “There’s no variation of this that sees you getting out of here alive.”

“That’s where you’re wrong again,” I said. “And on two different counts. It’s not the Bluemoon, it’s V. Even your boss acknowledged that.”

Underneath my foot, Benny tried to speak, but it came out as a muffled, incoherent mess.

The man in the suit glowered.

“Fine,” he said. “V it is.”

“And what’s your name?” I asked. Had to keep them busy, distracted. If they were talking, they weren’t shooting.

“Christian,” he said.

“Nice name. See, now that makes it easier for us to get a dialogue going.”

“I’m not interested in talking.”

So much for that plan.

A shuffle, behind Christian. People were moving around, stepping out of the way as more people came into the kitchen. A momentary interruption from everything that was going on.

I would have used that as my opportunity, but Christian maintained his position. He hadn’t budged.

“Found anything?” Christian asked, eyes still on me. The question was for his partners behind him.

“Found something, alright.”

Two men approached Christian, struggling to walk a straight line to him. I immediately saw why.

Carried by the armpits, feet off the ground. D was kicking and twisting to try and get away, but two fully-grown men proved to be much stronger than one little girl. They brought her to Christian, stopping at his side.

“We caught her hiding in a box, out in the hall where that door lead.”

D continued to kick, even trying to go for Christian’s knee, but he was too far, and her leg was too short.

For her trouble, D received a smack in the back of the head. The hit was audible.

She yelped, and they yelled over her. “Pipe down!”

I felt a surge in my body, a charge. I wanted to rush them for laying hands on her. But I had to remind myself where I was, and what I was here to do.

Keep a hold on Benny, and they can’t do anything.

The hit was hard, but D recovered enough to scan the kitchen. She noticed me.

“Hi, V,” she said.

“Hi, D,” I said.

“I tried, but I guess it’s gonna have to take more than that. Insurance?”

Not a question, a suggestion. I nodded. Like Lawrence, she didn’t have her earpiece. We really had to play the rest of this out by ear, now.

“Oh, where’s Lawrence?” D asked, skimming the kitchen from her perspective.

“Follow the trail of blood,” Christian said. “You’ll find him.”

D looked down, and saw the blood go past her feet, and behind a counter where we both couldn’t see. D kicked again.

“You dummies! What did you-”

Another outburst, another hit. D piped down.

Christian gave her a glance, but he kept his eyes on me when he said, “Lawrence, you, and now her? Talk about an unholy union.”

“You know her?” I asked.

“I know her work.”

He left it at that. Not giving me much to work with.

“You, what was that, just now?”

I wasn’t sure if that was for me or D.

“Bring her up here, too,” Christian ordered, nudging with this chin.

The men listened, carrying D somewhere between me and Christian. Her feet dragged behind her as they moved. Now we were both in the gun’s sights.

“Answer me,” Christian asked. That time, it was clear he was talking to D.

“Firecrackers,” D said, sounding out of breath. “Up in the vents. Scared you, didn’t I? And I kick open one door and you guys blow up like it’s the Fourth of July or something. Y’all…”

D started shaking.

“Y’all crack me up.”

D started laughing, and she was struck in the head again. She kept laughing. It took three more, increasingly violent hits to get her to wind down.

At the final hit, D’s head slumped forward, and she was panting, sounding hoarse.

“Respect your elders,” Christian said. “You should have learned that lesson by now.”

“You’ll find…” D started, she had to take another breath before continuing. “That I’m very selective with what lessons I retain.”

“Then I’ll beat that lesson into you, and many more.” Christian looked to the two men. “Search her, make sure she doesn’t have any tricks up her sleeve.”

A small noise came from D. A giggle.

The two men dropped D, and she fell to the floor, on her knees, barely supporting herself with her arms. They began patting her down.

“And you,” Christian said, looking straight at me. It was my turn, again. “Let her go. Don’t make me repeat myself.”

“Take one step forward,” I said, “And Benny will have to breathe through a tube.”

“You won’t harm her,” Christian said, shaking his head. “You want her, for reasons only you are keen to. But you need her alive.”

“You’re right, I do need her alive, but what does that really mean? What does it mean to be alive? Break it down to the most basic definition, it’s a state of being. Having life. And you can harm someone while still keeping them alive. It’s just a matter of taking away what isn’t necessary. Lose an arm, you’ll live. Lose a leg, you can still moving around okay. Lose all four limbs? You’ll need assistance, but as long as you can eat, breath, and shit, you’ll live. Quality of life sucks, but you’re still alive. And how about the other stuff? Gouging out eyes, cutting out tongues, burning skin. Breaking bones. It’s nothing that’ll kill you. The brink of death is still a state of being. Take one step forward, and you bring Benny close to that brink. I need her alive, but I can harm her.”

Benny didn’t seem to like the sound of that. She struggled, mumbled. Little success in either venture, but she got her message across.

Christian’s gaze narrowed.

“I shoot you, then, right through the head. I’m a good shot.”

I paused.

“You say that, thinking it will stop me. You would be very disappointed.”

It was partially true. I had been shot before, and I was shot earlier tonight, but they weren’t shots through the head. This body might survive… but would I?

I wasn’t sure, and I wasn’t about to put that to the test.

Christian stood there, his gun still out in front of him. If his arms were getting tired, he didn’t show it on his face.

We were at a standstill. I couldn’t move, or I might die, and Christian couldn’t move, or Benny would get mauled. And the first scenario had the implied risk of Benny getting injured, too.

There must be a way out of this.

I willed that thought to D.

“Christian, I think I have something.”

Of the two men that were searching D, one stood, holding a device in his hand. “Found this in her jacket.”

Christian gave it a quick look, then looked at it again, for a longer time. I didn’t move.

“A tablet?” Christian asked.

“Ah, crud,” D said, head still down.

The two men grabbed her and brought her up, making her stand. They didn’t take their hands off of her.

“What is this?” Christian questioned.

She lifted her head, facing Christian.

“I thought you didn’t like repeating yourself.”

He looked like he was about to snap.

“What’s on it?” he then asked.

D hesitated, her head down again.

“Crud,” she said.

“Tell me,” he said, teeth gritting together.

D didn’t answer, of the two men that held her, the one who wasn’t holding the tablet raised his free hand. A smack to the back of her head.

D squeaked, and her head drooped, hair obscuring her face.

The stillness stretched. Christian wasn’t going to ask again, instead waiting for D to finally give up an answer.

And then she did.

“Notes… crucial to our plan,” D breathed. “And drafts of other plans. Backups. Scribbles, really. There’s some other stuff on there, too.”

“Like what?”

She tried raising her head, only to lower it again.

“Personal stuff. Where other gangs keep their stashes. Drugs, weapons, money. Names, too. As… a bargaining chip.”

“Names?” Christian’s gaze shifted, from me to Benny. “Could use those chips as our ticket out of here. What kind of names?”

“The Bluemoon’s secret identity.”

It was like a shockwave. Everyone reacted. Myself included.

Christian looked right at D. I was too caught off guard to make a move. And I wanted to see what exactly she was up to, what she meant.

“The Bluemoon’s secret identity?” Christian repeated, but he was being serious.

“I’m not stupid,” D said. “I keep a lot of notes, I’m thorough. Otherwise I wouldn’t be able to last.”

Craning her neck, D looked at the two men that were detaining her, then at Christian. “Benny came to make a deal, how about a counteroffer? Let me go, that tablet’s yours.”

My eyes went wide.

Benny gurgled, and I was reminded that she was there. I was strangling her. I loosened my grip, but not by much.

“D,” I said, anger creeping in my voice.

She had the gall to look at them when she gave her terms, but she couldn’t bear to show me her face.

She’s selling me out.

Wait, I had to think. There was no way she knew that bit of information. The name that wasn’t my name. There was only one person that knew, and they were dead. There was no way D knew.

Right?

Something’s not right here.

Wait a minute…

Oh god.

A flash of a memory. The hooded figure, decked in blue. The declarations I used to fight it off.

I went cold.

Christian questioned her. “You’re willing to walk away from this?”

“If it means walking away from this. I can start from scratch again. It’ll take forever, but it’s a fair trade-off.”

D,” I said, harder that time. Seething. I was so close, and she was threatening to take away everything.

“Shut up,” Christian told me, gun still pointed and ready. “You’ve lost this game.”

He turned his attention to D. “You can let go of her.”

The men complied, releasing D. She was standing on her own now, but slouched. She started fixing her hair, massaging her head.

“What’s the password?” Christian asked.

“No password,” D said, tossing her hair back with one hand. “Just swipe it and you’re in.”

“Let me verify it, and it looks legit, you’re free to go.”

“Okay.”

It’s like I’m not even here right now.

Christian nodded at the man with the tablet, and let him be the one to turn it on.

He pressed the button on the side.

Stop him.

But I’d lose Benny.

They’ll find out. They’ll ruin everything.

We weren’t sure of that.

I struggled to find a proper course of action. I hesitated.

While I was drowning in my uncertainty, he swiped the tablet.

I held my breath.

The tablet was facing Christian. Only he had a good look at the display, and all I could do was gauge his reaction.

His expression was blank.

“I don’t understand,” he said.

“Follow the instructions,” D said. “It’ll make sense.”

Christian stared at the tablet, then took it from his partner. He started heading towards me.

“Hey!” I yelled, my knife still on Benny’s throat.

“Just… following instructions,” Christian explained.

D spoke, too. “It’s okay, V, let him.”

Christian approached, and I remained wary.

“Stop there,” I said, when he was a foot away. He stopped.

Christian bent down, and flipped the tablet, having it face me. He lowered it so even Benny could see it.

Black letters on a white canvas, the letters were sloppy and uneven, as if drawn with a finger instead of a pen. A poorly done smiley face was done on the side, too.

For Benny’s eyes. Swipe right.

Benny twisted herself, trying to get her arm out from under her. My weight prevented her from getting anywhere.

“Set the tablet down,” I ordered.

Christian set it down, flipping out a stand on the back of the tablet’s case to let it stay upright on its own.

“Back away,” I ordered, tapping the knife against Benny’s throat again.

Christian backed away, but his gun was still trained on me. The standoff remained.

I eased off of Benny, but only by a margin. Benny took the cue, and wedged her arm free, reaching towards the tablet in front of her.

“Remember where you are,” I told Benny. “Who’s allowing you a bit of freedom. Abuse it, and I abuse you.”

Benny grumbled, and I took that as her understanding the situation. She moved her head to get a better look at the tablet, and with her only free hand, she swiped right.

The picture changed.

A hospital bed, a man resting. Tubes ran into his arms, his nose, a device attached to his finger. Blankets covered his waist, over his stomach, but his face was visible. Eyes closed, mouth open. Either asleep, or knocked out by anaesthesia.

The room was dark, but the subject cast in a bright light, and source coming from whatever device had taken the photo.

“Who is this?” Benny asked, sounding rough.

“I think you know,” D said. “Not everyone from your crew is standing in this kitchen.”

Benny swiped again, and again. Again.

Every picture was similar, but not exactly the same. Each consecutive picture was closer to the man in the bed. From the whole bed in the frame, to the foot of the bed, to the side, to his face, eyes closed and mouth open.

In the very last picture, the angle changed again, higher up, the man still visible. But he wasn’t the only one in the shot this time.

D was in the shot, holding the tablet high, placing herself right up against the man’s face. She held up a victory symbol.

A selfie.

I couldn’t see Benny’s face, but sitting on top of her I felt her reaction. Her whole body tightened up, tensing at whatever the realization was.

“Oh no,” she said. It pained her to say, but I could catch it. “Oh no!”

“Oooh yeaah,” D said, drawing out the words. I saw her face as she mocked her.

She wore a toothy grin. Vulpine, though a tooth was missing.

“Benny, what?” Christian questioned. He turned to D. “What did you do?”

Benny answered him with a single word.

“Roland.”

Christian let his mouth drop.

“Ah crud,” D said, that grin never leaving her. “You guys got bamboozled.”

Another shockwave. Christian jumped back, so D and I would be more in his gun’s range. The men that held D went after her again, but she ducked down, rolling away. She got up and ran towards me, stopping at my side, hands raised.

“Nah ah ah, we’ve been so well behaved, it’d be a shame to be so rash, now.”

D was taunting them, when we were just barely keeping them back.

This better work.

Benny was fighting me, now, trying to break away from me. I had to press the knife a fraction harder against her throat to calm her down.

“Explain,” Benny said, straining, breathing hard. “Now.”

“Wow, I was really on edge, there. I couldn’t just tell you to open up the thing, or you wouldn’t have felt compelled enough to do it. Had to make up a whole bit about information to entice you guys. And you fell for the bait, and hard. You guys really are desperate.”

Christian repeated after Benny. “Explain, now.”

“Don’t worry, I will, that’s part of the fun. Last night, among so much other stuff, I was doing a little hospital hopping. I was actually looking for someone else, but guess who I found in the meantime?”

“But that’s impossible,” Benny said, exasperated but weary. Being on her stomach took more air out of her than she could use to speak. “We went through the proper channels, using the right doctors. They don’t snitch or let anything leak. It’s against their code.”

“Code, schmode,” D said, “A magician never reveals their secrets. But, that’s not what really matters. Double-tap the button at the bottom, there.”

Benny pressed the home button on the tablet, twice, in quick succession.

It switched to another app.

The tablet displayed another picture. Grainy, but it was the same image. The hospital bed, Roland. He was still asleep. It wasn’t as bright, though, most of the light came from a lamp in the background, and the ambient bulbs and screens running next to him.

“Wave hi, Jordan!” D said.

From under the picture, a hand emerged, palm facing us. It was lightly wrapped in bandages. The hand waved, and the screen shook, too.

I could feel Benny starting to sweat. Quickly checking my knife, I saw a small bead of water drip from the tip.

“It’s a live feed,” D said. “And he can hear everything that goes on here. If you shoot me or V, or if we just give the word, Jordan pulls a few plugs, removes a few casts and bandages, and then he’s out before anyone there gets the chance to notice. Maybe more, if he’s up to it?”

D spoke louder for her last question. Jordan’s hand gave us a thumbs-up.

Benny coughed, wheezing, due to my foot, my weight on her back.

“You… wouldn’t…”

“Hey, that’s all up to you. New deal. Me and V get to walk out of here, unharmed, and we get to take Benny with us.”

Christian laughed, but it sounded like Benny, right before D’s ambush. Wild. “As if we’re letting you walk out of here with our boss!”

“You are, and you will,” D said. “And I know exactly why you will.”

“And why is that?”

“It’s been over a week since you attacked the school. Over a week. You had all the time in the world to leave the city, and hey, I even came up with a few ways for you. You could’ve left in smaller groups, you’ve taken the long way and hopped the border in another state. You could’ve even set up a meeting with the Ghosts before all this. But you didn’t.”

No one responded. An invitation for D to continue.

D continued.

“Why? Well, it wasn’t clear to me until I laid eyes on that handsome man over there.” She pointed to the tablet on the floor. “You were waiting for him to get better. You couldn’t leave until he recovered enough to move without medical attention. And from what I saw, you would have waited for a long while. Broken arm, fractured ribs, severe burns. That takes time.”

I could feel Benny slump underneath me.  The fight had all but left her.

This was our final play, our last-ditch effort to get Benny to comply, in case we ended up in a pinch like this. Our insurance. I just didn’t know how D would lead up to that.

She had a knack for making things complicated.

It was scary.

But, enticing them by claiming she knew my secret identity. Genius.

“You’re wrong,” Christian said. “We have other matters to deal with before we can leave. Roland isn’t our highest priority. It’d be great if he gets better by the time we’re ready to go, but if he isn’t, then it’s a loss we’ll have to take.”

“Maybe,” D conceded. “You might have a point there. Except there’s a difference between him and those you already left behind. Like Sofia, and Samuel.”

“How do you know about that?”

D ignored him. “But you won’t leave without Roland. Even with the entire city, from good guys and bad guys out to get you, you won’t leave. In fact, you can’t. And you know why. Unlike them, he isn’t disposable. He’s family.”

“Paco,” Christian said. The fight was starting to leave him, too.

“And that is the not-so small detail that gives us the win. The Chariot, El Carruaje… You were originally here as representatives of larger cartel. La Rueda. And your real boss, Paco, or El Tunante, isn’t gonna be happy if you leave his nephew behind.”

D answered before Christian could repeat himself. “I’m thorough.”

Again, the stillness stretched. No one said a thing. Not Christian, not any of his partners, not Benny. The deal was clear, the terms obvious.

It was just a matter of them wrapping around the fact that they lost.

Checkmate.

Benny wasn’t moving, hardly breathing.

I wasn’t moving, hardly breathing. I wanted to say something, add more, involve myself, but I was lost for words.

I had my role here, though. I had to keep Benny pinned, or our position didn’t have legs to stand on.

Time passed.

Benny spoke. It was so quiet, but the words still carried.

“You win. I give up.”

Her crew needed a moment for that to sink in. I needed a moment.

We won.

“Benny, por favor,” Christian pleaded. “You don’t have to-”

Benny screamed. Prolonged, raw. Not a word, but an emotion.

Despair.

She trailed off, then sputtered, coughing. Her body shook.

“Don’t you lay a fucking hand on him,” Benny said, for all to hear. “I’ll come with you.”

“Smart,” I said, taking over. “Get up.”

I got off of Benny, my legs already aching, but it was easy to ignore. D gathered her tablet, then helped as I lifted Benny to her feet.

I put my knife to the small of her back, a simple but effective reminder. My other hand reached around her neck. She was taller than me.

I watched the others.

Christian didn’t react, he didn’t move or say anything. He finally had his gun down, arms at his sides. Defeated.

I nudged Benny, and she walked. The three of us moved as a group, careful not to trip over bullets and casing.

D stuck her tongue out at the two men that held her. They didn’t react.

It was odd, even awkward as we walked past Christian and the other leftovers of El Carruaje. The stares, the frustration that festered within. As if they were trying to kill me and D with looks alone.

But they couldn’t, and there was nothing they could do about it. All they could do was stand there and watch, and let the emotion sit.

“Jesus, what did they do to you?”

I turned when I heard D break formation, going ahead of us. She ran to a corner of a counter.

Lawrence was there, on the floor, bleeding. His knees were to his chest.

“Got shot, duh,” he said. He had to force it out. “They dragged me here, out of the way.”

“Shoot, shoot,” D muttered. She was clearly worried. It was obvious in her tone.

D’s hands hovered over Lawrence’s body, unsure where to help. Her head popped back up, looking around in haste, hair flying. “You!”

She pointed to one of the few Ghosts in the back. A girl. She pointed to herself.

“Yes, you! Get over here and get him some help!”

She looked between D and the girl who still had a pistol on her, though it was half-raised, now.

“Don’t worry about that, they touch you and Roland dies! Get over here, and a grab towel!”

She jumped, hearing D raise her voice, shrill. She hurried over to Lawrence’s side, grabbing a towel from a nearby rack along the way.

D turned back to Lawrence. “Where were you shot?”

He gestured, somewhere near his chest, closer to the shoulder.

“Oh god,” D said, sighing at the end. “Might not be fatal. Here, put pressure on it, and keep it there until we get someone else to handle it.”

D stood up, giving room for the Ghost to help Lawrence.

“What’s it to you?” Lawrence asked, wincing. “I thought you were a heartless bitch.”

“Hush. You work on making it through this, or I’m shooting you myself.”

D then left Lawrence, walking in front this time.

Surprising, seeing that from her.

I pushed Benny again, and we moved.

We stopped again when we reached the door. Our exit out of the kitchen. D approached one of the other remaining Ghosts.

“Call the others,” D said. “Tell them they can pull back now. You need numbers if you want to keep an eye on them. Make sure they don’t pull anything, and you’ll be free to take Lawrence and have him looked after. Oh, except Jordan. He stays until we’re all done.

“What if they do try to pull something?”

“If they try to fight back or sabotage this, I’ll know, and they know what happens after that. Round them up, have them give up their guns. It’s okay if we don’t have everything, we have who matters.”

“And where are you going?” the Ghost asked.

D turned to me. I didn’t know what to say. I was still trying to process this.

“Out,” D ventured. “We’ll be back. And to you peeps…”

She directed the next part to Benny’s crew.

“We promise you’ll see Benny again. You can count on it.”

She didn’t clarify whether or not Benny would be alive when they saw her again. Now that I finally had her, I started asking myself the same question.

Is Benny going to live to see the morning?

The debate in my head was ongoing as I pressed into Benny’s back, urging her through the door.

“We’re going,” I said, lost in thought.

“Bye bye!” D said with a wave. “And someone tell Mrs. Martinez I said sorry for making a mess of her kitchen!”

We moved out the kitchen, finally, into the dining area of the restaurant. It was just us, now. Me, D, and Benny. No one to interrupt, no one to interfere.

And I still couldn’t fucking believe it.

“You can sit here,” D said, “And I’ll bring the van around. We’ll wait for the rest of the Ghost to show up, and we can take it from there.”

“Alright,” I said, still taking it all in. “Alright.”

“You okay? You kinda went quiet after a while.”

“I’m alright, I’m just… I don’t know, I’ve told myself, for so long, that this day would come. Now that it’s here, now that I have it, I…”

I went quiet. Still.

Benny didn’t even have anything to say. She hung her head. Too dejected, I assumed, to do anything, anymore.

“I get it,” D said. “Just stay put, and take deep breaths.”

I nodded.

“We won.” she said.

We won.

Repeating it, over and over, in my head. I still couldn’t believe it.

We fucking won.

I nodded.

With that, D left, going through the front door. Through the glass, I saw her run off, crossing the sidewalk, to the other side of the street.

She was gone before I could think about stopping her. Asking her questions. But I wasn’t up for talking, myself.

Later, then.

So many things on my mind. If things were really handled here or not, if Lawrence would be okay. If D actually knew my civilian name.

And yet, I couldn’t give a fuck.

I had Benny, and she wasn’t getting away. It was everything I ever wanted. The floodgates opened, and I felt a pure sort of relief that overwhelmed me. Peace of mind.

I didn’t know what to do with myself, and I didn’t know what to do with Benny. But that was okay. I had the inklings of a start.

I cleared my throat. It itched.

It was generally considered rude to play with food. However, after a long night of hard work, a girl should be allowed to indulge herself.

Previous                                                                                               Next

055 – Vultures

Previous                                                                                               Next

Back to square one.

But I had no clear path to getting there, though.

Up ahead? No way. Behind me? Again, no way.

Left, the giant hole leading outside? Maybe, but I’d be even more out in the open.

Right-

No way in hell was I going right.

I only had a few seconds before bullets would start flying, and I’d be torn to shreds. Had to make a decision, a path to take. A direction to go.

Down

The bullets flew before the thought could fully take hold. I went with that draft of an idea.

The blast affected the walls, ceiling, and floor. A decent-sized hole was taken out from the floor, right by my hands.

I dove for it.

Hot, piercing. Tearing through me.

The deafening noise, the sudden darkness, it debilitated, and I lost control of my movements. The hole wasn’t neatly formed. I bumped and broke through wiring and pipes and other material. I got stuck partway through, but my weight ended up breaking through the rest of the stuff.

I fell, and collapsed onto another floor, the lower level. The gunfire above was hardly dampened.

I scrambled to find my way to my feet, but a searing pain kept me down. I fell again, flat on my face.

I’d been shot.

I felt it in my shoulder and hip. A clean shot through my right shoulder, a messier one through my side. A bullet was stuck in my left hip, and it flared in pain when I tried to stand. I couldn’t move properly.

Hot, hot. Bullets were flying, flaming bits of metal. It was fucking hot.

With my good arm, I touched my face, the back of my head. No wound there. I felt some relief, but not much. I was still injured.

Operating on half-thoughts, responding to certain and immediate stimuli. Pain, move. Safety, find.

I felt around for my knife, and found it among a small collection of wires, drywall, and other bits of metal. I balled my hand around the handle and crawled to get moving, in case someone tried to shoot at me through the ceiling. Pulling with my good arm, dragging my legs behind me.

Maneuvering was slow, but my shoulder started healing enough that I could use it. I hauled my arm out in front me, testing it. Heavy, tight around the shoulder itself. It’d be another minute until I had full functionality.

My hip, however, was glacial in its healing. I still couldn’t stand, or even move my foot or wiggle my toes. How bad was the hit? How far in was that bullet?

Wincing, I crawled to the nearest cubicle. Another office space, but it seemed like I was alone. If anyone else was here, they didn’t announce themselves after I crashed through the ceiling.

Had to hide for now, recuperate. Had to figure out what to do with my hip. The bullet was lodged in there, preventing my healing from fully doing its job. I’d have to get it out, somehow.

I placed myself under the desk of a cubicle, pulling my one good leg towards me, and letting the other leg rest, flat on the floor. With my back against the surface of the cubicle, I allowed myself a moment to breathe.

I could barely breathe.

The best I could manage were short, quick huffs. Like a snake had coiled around my chest, constricting me. I didn’t even get shot in the chest. But my body felt as though it was seizing.

My ears were ringing, my head and heart were pounding. My lungs were getting less air with every breath I tried to take.

And my thoughts couldn’t tear themselves away from that bullet that nearly went through my head.

It echoed. Loud. So loud that it discombobulated. I was losing track of who I was, where I was, and what I was originally trying to do.

Loud.

It echoed. Why? That bullet never even touched me, yet I was freaking out, my body just barely under my own control.

And why now? I’d experienced loud sounds, and I had a wandering memory that informed me that I’d been at shot before. I couldn’t make sense of this, or anything else.

I shut my eyes tight, drawing my arms and my only usable leg as close as possible. Voices were shouting in my head, muffled as murmurs, but amplified to a painful degree. Screaming, shouting. Classroom. It reminded me of the classroom. The bodies, the sweet fragrance they produced. The blood.

I couldn’t function like this. I still had the bullet in my hip, I still had to get it out. But I had little control over my mind and my body. Couldn’t function.

No, this couldn’t be me. Something else. I had to section it off, then discard it. This wasn’t me.

It wasn’t.

You’re right, this isn’t you.

Among the sea of voices fighting for my attention, one in particular stole my attention.

It was my own.

Cautious, I squinted into the gloom. I saw something move.

A solid as mist, but there was a general form to it. I could make out an outline.

Humanoid, but stretched out in places. Arms, legs. Hooded, covering the eyes, but two distinct, black lines dripped down snow-white cheeks, leaking from where I’d expect the eyes to be. A darker spot of black was seeped onto the top of hood, and its head lolled one way, as if the neck couldn’t support the head properly. Limping, lumbering forward. To me.

Between the dark it passed through, and passed through it, I saw dark streaks of blue.

I stopped breathing.

The figure lurched, stopping right at my foot. I wanted to pull that leg back, but it wouldn’t budge.

It stood there, staring at me.

Look at you,” it said.

I tried backing away, but the wall of the cubicle stopped me.

This is what I meant by getting more purchase, a stronger foothold. You keep relying on me, and in turn, my roots dig a little deeper. And in time, you know where that leads.

I shuddered, and sucked a sliver of air between my teeth. It was the most I managed.

“Get… out of my head,” I said, exhaling the words.

Compartmentalizing helped, I felt my body starting to relax, the convulsions less intense, but it also lead to this.

I sectioned it off, but it became harder to discard.

Something about its stiff, stilted posture changed. A twitch. A response to what I had said.

Funny, whose head do you think you’re in?

The convulsions came back, even stronger now. Harsher. My head felt like it was about to split down to the skull.

No more air in my lungs, but I yelled at the top of them.

The figure took a step closer, but I was done being here.

Still yelling, I took my knife, and plunged into my side. My hip, where I had been shot.

I started digging.

I poked around the wound, hitting flesh, blood, and bone. I flicked the blade out, and all three splattered out. I stabbed myself again. The pain was almost too much to bear.

But I carried on.

I was an inch away from blacking out, but I hit something, softer than bone but harder than muscle, the blade was pushed away. The wound flared up with an even more intense heat, and I could feel the different parts of my hip move around. Flesh, blood, bone. I wasn’t in a good enough position to see it for myself, but something was happening, there.

Before it closed up, the wound spat out any and all foreign objects, and I could move both legs again.

I brought both legs in, and then I kicked.

I pressed myself off the floor, pushing my back more into the wall behind me. It gave way, snapping away from the other cubicle walls, and I fell along with it.

I had a way out, though, the ability to make distance. I flipped onto my stomach, and rushed to my feet.

Eyes wet, I tried blinking, but it made everything worse. Dark, blurry. I hurried away from the figure, but I was stumbling, knees weak.

I was frantic.

“Get away from me! Get out of my head!”

I bumped into a wall. A real wall or the side of a cubicle, I wasn’t sure. I couldn’t see very well, and I was screaming to get my head in order, and to keep moving. Trying to find sense in the nonsensical.

I was wholly concentrated on the concept of forward.

“I am V! I am holdfast and set in stone! And on this blank slate I swear I will carve out my own name! I will prove myself, and I will take what’s mine!”

My words carried an edge to them, sharp at the ends. I screamed my throat raw.

“You had your chance, and you failed! Now it’s my turn, and I will accomplish what you could not, and then some!”

I heard a group rush onto the floor from two different ends, their shouts joining my own. I made haste, but I had to bring my shoulder against a wall, using it to guide me forward.

I didn’t turn back, couldn’t waste the time and energy. Too slow. They were there, and the figure was there, too.

“This body is mine, this mind is mine! I am in control, I wear the crown! Just try and take it from me!”

I had to keep screaming, or else I’d lose my sense of purpose and direction. Risk be damned.

I heard the bullets fly, and I ducked my head on instinct. Leaning on the wall, I started running.

“I reject your memories, and I reject your connections! I refuse to let them tie me down! I am not Alexis Barnett!”

The ends of my statements were drowned out by the bullets storming the room. I was running to the other side of the space, another wall, lined with windows. The bullets soared overhead, and one broke a pane of glass ahead of me. I threw my shoulder into the opening, into the jagged edges.

Glass rained as pieces around me as I fell.

Two, three, how many stories it was, I slammed into pavement, and hard.

But, the crash did help in reorienting me, somewhat. More bones broke in some places, and definite bruises, but the healing now worked to get myself centered and present. Aware. I was coming to.

The ringing in my ears subsided as I worked myself to my feet.

A sign, V, gimme a sign you’re here.

A voice came through the haze of my mind, helping me get back on track to what was happening right now. Helping me focus.

The earpiece. I still had it on.

“D,” I said, clearer than I had anticipated. I expected something more rough.

There you are. You scared me, thought I lost you for a second.

“I’m here,” I said, looking around. “I’m mostly here.”

Good, because I need you. Where are you right now?

“Right now?”

I checked around.

I was in an alley by the side of the building. Long, but I could see what was going on at both ends.

Red lights flashed at a consistent pattern, some blue appearing at regular intervals. Ambulances and cop cars. Gunfire still rang out, but it was contained in the building I had just jumped out of. Through the window.

I’ve been doing that a lot, lately.

I tested my thoughts, and they were my own. Checking again, I didn’t see the figure. It wasn’t here.

But that did not mean it would stay like that.

“I’m in an alley, right outside the FSM base. F…”

F-Six,” D offered.

“Yeah.”

Are you hurt, can you move?

Did that concern come from a genuine place, or did she want to see this plan through?

“Got shot at, got hit, but I’m fine now. I can move.”

Ah right, you’ve got that going for you.

Palms flat on the ground, I brought myself up, getting on my feet once again. More shouting, from both ends of the alley.

Police. Must have heard when I crashed through the window.

Surrounded again.

I scanned up and down the alley, and bolted one way.

It forced me to run towards one group of cops, but the alley branched off in another direction. I made a hard left.

A chain-link fence. Almost three times my height.

I leapt over it, pressing my foot against the side of a building for more leverage, my hands on the top of the fence to smooth the process along.

I didn’t lose any speed as I touched ground.

“I’m on the move again,” I said. Even though I was making a break for it, I got the words out. Clear.

Wish I could say the same for myself. Traffic’s got super crazy, everything’s backed up. Still at F-Four. You mentioned being mostly here, you know where we’re headed, right?

Running, staying on the move, it helped make my mind run, too.

The plan. The fires. The Ghosts. D. Lawrence. Benny. E-One.

“E-One, where Lawrence said he had Benny.”

Bingo.

“Do we know any more than that?”

Sadly, no. Lawrence isn’t responding.

That was a problem, and a lack of communication made this all the more suspect. Were we being led to a trap?

What, exactly, was waiting for us, back at E-One?

The alley branched off again, and I took the turn. The fence was enough to hold off my pursuers, buying me time. I was farther away from the FSM base, too, which meant less in the way of obstacles.

I ran faster.

“What do you think?” I asked. “Any ideas?”

Um, if Benny’s back at E-One, then the restaurant would be my first guess. Casa Martinez.

The Ghost’s base.

“I should have just stayed back if I knew she’d show up there,” I said.

Hindsight’s silly like that. At least we have a lead on Benny, now. We just need to get over there.

“Should we meet up?” I asked, thinking up other ideas, plans.

Nah,” D said. “We can communicate just as well, being separated. Chances are, you’ll get there faster than I will. Let’s meet at the restaurant.

“I was thinking the same thing. I’ll try to find one of Lawrence’s crew, maybe I can get some info from them.”

Yeah, I like that. I bet you’ll still beat me there.

“It’s a start. Okay, see you-”

I stopped.

I saw it, at the end of the alley.

I ran the other way.

Yeah, nope.

I found a fire escape I had passed earlier, and jumped to reach it. The first rung of the ladder was about ten feet high. I made it to the first level of the stairwell.

A squad of police appeared around the corner, running into this alley. Another group of them?

I ran up the stairwell, twisting and turning, higher and higher. Those cops probably had a visual on me, but I was already putting more distance between us.

They might have seen me, but they wouldn’t know it was me. The Bluemoon. I wasn’t dressed right, and aside from getting over the fence and reaching the stairwell, I wasn’t being obvious with my powers. From their perspective, it could be explained with some decent parkour.

What I was more worried about was that thing. The figure.

I was fine until it blocked my way.

I made it to the top of the stairwell, then, to the roof of the building. The last remaining wisps of smoke rose from three rooftops over. Still in F-Six. The border to E-Six was right there.

A single helicopter floated in place, high above the FSM building. Its attention was there, it wouldn’t notice me unless I made myself known.

Seeing the smoke as my marker, I knew which direction to go, how to get back to E-One. A straight line.

You have to stop doing that.

D was talking into my ear the whole time.

I stepped forward, getting ready to run some more.

“Sorry, I, I got distracted. Had to go another way.”

Stop getting distracted, then. I get thrown out of the loop when that happens. Hate that.

“I promise I’m here.”

Through my earpiece, I picked up the smallest of hums.

You better.

If this was a race, and E-One the finish line, I used D’s words as my mark to start. I sprinted to the edge of the building, and leapt across the street.

I wasn’t the only one soaring through the air.

I was being followed.

Being airborne, I had caught but a glimpse of the street beneath me. The activity was dying down, now being contained by the cops and other forces. People were tending those who were downed and managed to get back up, and others were gathering the ones who weren’t ever going to get back up again.

People were dead, down there. All due to a plan I had enacted. If there was any consolation to be found, it would be in the success of this mission.

But, in one corner of my vision, a blue figure moved to intercept me. As soon as my feet found a solid surface to cover, I dashed ahead. On the grid, I was going down the E column, there wasn’t a damn thing that had the power to stop me.

I was running across another rooftop, but the figure blocked my way, on the other side. I didn’t slow, stop, hesitate, or falter in any way.

“Move,” I said, “You are not getting another warning.”

The figure twitched, then bent its long limbs. It jumped, arms outstretched, reaching for me.

I sped up.

It would have hit me, brought me down to my knees, and I’d have another episode, one I’d might not make it back from. It didn’t hit me.

Hleuco swooped from up above, grabbing the figure by his talons. A hard push with his wings, and he flew to the clouds.

Clearer in mind, I was allowed a safe passage forward. I continued.

I knew they were visions, phantoms born from stress and trauma, but that didn’t make them any less real. They gave as much as they threatened to take away. Between it all, it was a struggle to find a balance.

I knew now, though, what would have to be broken away. Sectioned off.

I came to the end of a roof, and a street. Something down there grabbed my attention. Something real.

Two cars were stopped at a light, even though it was green. Both cars had their driver and passenger side doors opened.

People were huddled at the back, away from the cars. From here, I counted six total. Two of them were on the ground, being beaten by the other four.

Of the two cars, I recognized the farthest one.

It was the one that was being loaded up at the front of the restaurant. The people being beaten, they were Ghosts.

I dropped from the roof, getting on the sidewalk. Didn’t take many steps to make it to the car.

I wasn’t exactly concentrating on making this clean, just fast. One flew forward, slamming into the trunk of the car. One hit the curb, a mouthful of concrete. They dropped wooden bats as they were incapacitated.

No bullshit, no dancing around. I needed progress.

Two down, before anyone could really take notice.

The remaining two finally did, though, but I saw it in their eyes. Fear. They knew better than to stick around. To even try.

They fled.

I didn’t even have to use my knife.

However, I wasn’t here to loiter. I went to the least injured of the two, a man, and moved him on his back. I lifted his head, keeping him elevated.

He groaned.

Blood ran from his left ear to his chin. His eyes swollen shut. His lower lip was split at a corner, more blood flowing out. Anything resembling humanity had been beaten out of him.

If he was the least injured of the two, it said a lot about the other guy.

“Jonathan,” I said, surprised I could even recognize him in this state. “Nod if you can hear me.”

He nodded.

“Nod if you can talk.”

He didn’t nod.

“Who did this?” I asked. “FSM?”

He nodded.

“Alright, you don’t have to worry about them anymore,” I said. “But I need your help. I just heard from Lawrence that Benny’s back at E-One, maybe even at Casa Martinez. Do you happen to know anything about that?”

He didn’t move.

I asked him again. “Jonathan, you have to stay alert. This helps you as much as it helps me. Do you know-”

He started shaking his head.

“-anything regarding Lawrence and Benny,” I finished. He kept shaking his head, but more languid, now.

Nothing. Even he didn’t have a clue. No use.

The light up ahead changed from red to green, and the rumblings of an engine approached.

To my side, a motorcycle came to a stop. I looked at the rider.

Not a cop. The design of the bike, the uniform, it didn’t fit.

White, long brown hair tied back. Large, muscular frame, barely held back by the black leather jacket he was wearing. On his neck was a tattoo of a skull breathing fire. It even got over his Adam’s apple.

Like his jacket, the bike was black, too. I had little to no knowledge about cars and motorcycles and the like, but it looked more modified than anything I was familiar with. Its tailpipe was bellowing out exhaust, the metal of its engine was exposed, winding around the frame of the bike, heavy but thrumming with power. Life. It looked more alive than anything mechanical. Bestial.

I had a feeling I knew who the rider of this monster answered to.

“Are you going to stop me?” I asked the ferryman. “Is he?”

The ferryman smiled. It freaked me out.

He raised a hand, a finger pointing at me. Almost accusatory. With his index finger out, his lifted his hand again, along with the middle finger.

He gave me the victory symbol.

“Peace,” he said, as though he was correcting me. He was still smiling.

Interesting. I saw it as victory. I still did.

I wasn’t certain if this was another fight, but the ferryman answered that question for me. Never dropping that wide smile, he put both hands on the handlebars of his bike.

He drove away.

He and the growling of the bike’s engine faded into the distance, and I lost sight of him as he got around a corner.

That… was an odd encounter. I couldn’t make heads or tails of what that was supposed to mean, if there was any meaning at all.

I had other priorities, though. Lawrence and Benny.

The other Ghost stirred, sitting up, head in their hands. He was moving of his own power. Seemed like I was wrong about who was in better shape.

“You,” I said, “Take care of Jonathan.”

He glanced my way, and gave me a weak nod. Moving him slowly, I handed Jonathan over to his fellow Ghost.

I jumped back up to my feet.

“Hey D,” I said into the earpiece. I was already walking.

Wassup.

“Still stuck?”

I want to say I’m not, but it’s gonna be another while.

I caught her up. “I found Jonathan, he’s in a rough shape, no thanks to the FSM. He’s safe now, but he doesn’t know anything about E-One. I’m not liking the sound of anything of this, so I might just go on ahead.”

I’m cool with that. I’ll be right behind you.

“And,” I started.

“Yeah?”

I considered bringing up the ferryman, how he saw me, maybe even recognized me, but I decided not to bring it up. It wasn’t irrelevant, but it didn’t directly pertain to this matter, and it would only slow us down if I brought it up now.

And, that vibe he gave off… It wasn’t one that made me fear that all was lost.

She knew that feeling, all too well, and she was usually right about it.

By proxy, I knew that feeling, too.

“Never mind,” I said. “I’m heading back.”

My legs carrying me far, I was back on the roofs, an eye out for any other helicopters.

Anticipation, worry. I was filled to the brim with both feelings. If Lawrence was telling the truth, I was about to see Benny again. But there was also the chance that I was being led into danger, and everything I had worked so hard for might fall like dust between my fingers.

Casa Martinez. The building loomed from across the street. It wasn’t even that tall, made up of only the restaurant and a few office levels, but the feeling was palpable. Anticipation, worry.

The majority of the action that consumed East Stephenville was taking place in the middle of the ‘grid,’ with less people and activity the farther away I got. It even reached the point that I could walk the last two blocks with little trouble. I passed the occasional person, but my head was down, my hood was up, and my mask looked too much like an actual face in the gloom that no one would give me a second glance.

And here it was. The Ghost’s base. She had to be in there.

She’d better.

No one was outside, around the building, gang members or civilians or otherwise. No one to clue me in on what the situation was inside.

No hooded figure, and no Hleuco. Just me.

Even with no one around, I still looked both ways when I crossed the street.

“Going in,” I told D. “Taking the front door approach. Whatever goes down, I’ll try to manage until you get here. You have insurance?”

It’s all here. Hopefully it won’t come to that, and you can handle this without me. Still, I’m… almost there. Don’t have too much fun without me!

“Can’t say I will,” I said. I tested the front door to the restaurant, and found it unlocked. Even though the cardboard sign attached to the door said ‘closed,’ even though the whole building was dark.

I drew a long inhale as the door opened, and I drew out a long exhale as the door closed behind me.

Empty in here, too. Wooden chairs were put up on the tables, another signal that the establishment was done for the night. It was a Mexican restaurant, so the walls were a deep red, with green Christmas lights affixed around ornate plates, placed on the walls for display. In the middle of the area was a fountain, completely dry, and made of plaster.

I walked past the tables and chairs, and went to the kitchen. Light crept from the sliver of an opening.

I stepped through the door.

I blinked, having not been in a well-lit room since early evening. It was well past midnight, now.

Here they are.

This was where everyone had gathered.

Not many Ghosts, not many potential allies. Though, I wasn’t counting on them to have my back. We were only working together because of circumstance and convenience.

The rest were all new faces. Actually, no, that wasn’t true, I remembered some of them as I walked more into the kitchen. I couldn’t place any names, but I’d definitely seen them before.

They were part of Benny’s crew.

I arrived at the table at the far back of the kitchen, where we had our meetings, and where we hashed out this plan. My heart raced.

Benny.

She was sitting at the end of the table, facing me. For someone supposed to be in hiding, she looked ready for a night out on the town. Hair neatly tied, makeup on, bright red lipstick. She had on a gold blazer with a white dress shirt under that. The table prevented me from seeing what she wore at the waist and below.

Shame. I wanted to get a good look at her. Take her image in full. Savor it, before I tore it down.

I swallowed.

Standing behind her, to her right, was a man in suit. Tall, he looked strong. If I didn’t have powers, I would never think of messing with him.

Standing behind her, to her left, was Lawrence.

That basically confirmed my suspicions.

All eyes were on me. Benny and her crew had let me walk in, seemingly unsure of who I was. It wouldn’t take long before they’d find out, and it would all go to shit from there.

Everyone was armed.

“Lawrence,” I said. I had to pace out my words, to not let my swirl of emotions show. It was hard. “I came by for an explanation.”

“And you’ll get one, soon enough,” he said. He gestured to Benny. Her back was straight, she was prim and proper. “I believe you two have met?”

“Not formally, no, but that mask is big red flag. Lawrence, what is this?”

Her words were careful, unsure of this development of me being here. The man in the suit caught on, too, his shoulders becoming more square. Tense.

Oh.

“It’s your end, Benny. I’m not sorry, but this was over the moment you walked in.”

I had to stifle a laugh. She had no idea about any of this. She played herself.

Sorry, D. Looks like we’re having fun without you.

Benny’s face turned sour. She brought her hands together, resting on the table.

“You’re throwing away a good thing, Lawrence, by doing this. It’s a good deal.”

I was impressed that she still sounded measured, given this turn of events.

“What deal?” I asked. “Still looking for context, here.”

“Right,” Lawrence said. “I came back here to stock up on supplies, and I found them all here. Benny caught on pretty quick, that the Ghosts were involved, and she showed up to make a deal.”

“Wearing different colors isn’t enough to hide you,” Benny said, with a more vacant look to her eyes now. “I know your faces.”

Lawrence continued, ignoring Benny, ignoring her crew that had us outnumbered. “The deal was, if I assure her a safe passage across the border, she’d give me a position with the cartel she works with. La Rueda.”

“And what happens to the rest of the Ghosts?” I asked, keeping an eye on Benny and her surrounding crew. Having flipped the script on her was amusing in a cathartic way, but tensions were boiling here, and it wouldn’t take much for things to explode.

“I can pick who comes with me, and the rest fend for themselves. I get to work with a real boss, and I’m free from all the shit that’s keeping me down in this city. A fresh start, and a seat at a table.”

“A seat at the kitchen table,” I repeated. Partially repeated. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be the table in Stephenville.”

“Correct, it’s a more lucrative market there, too. But…”

Then, Lawrence pulled a gun from his jacket, and pointed it to Benny.

“You can take your fuckin’ deal and burn.”

Everyone jumped out of their skin. Even me.

Guns everywhere, pointed mostly to Lawrence and me. The man in the suit had his trained on Lawrence. I knew there were some behind me that I couldn’t see.

We were outnumbered, and we were outgunned. If one of us even coughed in a way that offended Benny, we were done for.

“Now you know where I stand,” Lawrence said, unwavering. “V, my apologies for not giving you a better heads up. Didn’t have a lot of time to myself when I encountered her.”

He tilted his head one way, showing that he didn’t have his earpiece. Only I knew what to look for in that gesture, what he meant.

“Apologies accepted,” I said, slowly. I tilted my head as well, trying to imbue my own meaning into it, hoping he’d pick it up.

That Benny was mine, and it was part of our deal.

He didn’t move, simply keeping his gun straight.

Benny, for her part, was letting a deep rage boil beneath her skin. She remained composed, though, her fingers still intertwined.

Why…” she whispered, but we heard her. Her head was lowered, eyes staring into the table, as if they burn holes into the surface.

“I learned it from you, señorita,” Lawrence said. “You don’t abandon family.”

“Lawrence, Lawrence, have you forgotten that I was included in that, too?”

Was,” he said, firm. “Was.”

Benny tried to smile, but it didn’t hold. “How unfair. Not fair. You want me dead, is that right? After everything I’ve done for you? After… after everything I gave you?”

“You left us first, Benny, now the table’s turned.” Lawrence said. “It’s just how it works.”

She slammed her hands down onto the table.

“I didn’t have a choice!”

She screamed, but I caught a bit of legitimate sadness, in Benny’s tone.

“Benny,” I said, and she looked at me. Skin pale, her makeup was starting to run, crumbling at the corners of her eyes. “In terms of numbers, you may have us beat in here, in the kitchen, but out there? It’s another story. The Ghosts have you guys swarmed, and if you try anything, everyone’s going to come knocking. You don’t want that.”

“Ah,” Benny said, her eyes wider. Her crumbling makeup turned to streaks. “It’s you, the source of all my misery. The Bluemoon, Blank Face, or V, according to Lawrence. How have you been? I tried visiting you, did you get my message?”

Did she not hear me? Or was she already losing it?

“I did get your message,” I answered. “I’m here to return the favor. There’s really only one way this could go. If I’m the source of all your misery, then I’m here to put you out of it.”

I added, “Come quietly, and no one from your crew has to die.”

It started small, growing, then became raucous. Laughter. Throughout the kitchen, Benny’s crew roared in laughter.

“What empty threat is that?” Benny said, in between laughing fits. She was starting to sound wild, unhinged. “You have no leg to stand on here! I have at least two guns on each of you pathetic Ghosts. You think I’m just going to walk out of here with you, to my death?”

“Yes,” I said, completely serious.

The laughter grew again.

Benny was practically screeching now. “I let you walk in here, I’m letting you stand there and live! I didn’t get you at the school, but I have you, now. Congratulations, Lawrence, you brought her to me and exposed yourself as the traitor you are. How do you think the other gangs will feel about you aligning yourself with a superhero?”

“They won’t know,” Lawrence responded, cool. “Wasn’t part of the plan.”

“Was this part of your grand plan? What did you expect to have happen, inviting her and having her waltz in here? How do you see yourself getting out of this?”

Lawrence glanced my way, and shrugged. “Shot in the dark.”

Benny snarled a word in Spanish. I figured that was it, and the bullets would just go

But everyone stayed in place. The tension bubbling.

Benny was in control, her crew at her beck and call, but she was slipping, mentally. Was she too occupied with talking to us to realize that she could kill us with a single word?

A small voice. Not in my head, but my ear. I ignored it.

Lawrence was still looking at me. “Can’t do everything myself. I was hoping for something crazy. Insane?”

I spread my arms, and more guns cocked from behind.

“Crazy and insane,” I said. “I think I have something worth serving up.”

“Don’t try me,” Benny tested.

That small voice filled my earpiece again.

I’m working on it! Jeez, just one more, ugh, screw this!

My hoodie was over my head. Benny didn’t know about the earpiece, that I was trying to keep a certain someone updated.

A certain crazy and insane little girl.

There!

There was a hissing, coming from above, but I couldn’t exactly place it. Prolonged.

The others started to notice, asking each other about it. Benny took a glance up, too.

Grab cover! Get away from the side door!

The side door. There was only one, about five feet away. In the middle of the wall closest to me.

The hiss started getting louder and louder, and it was clear that it was about to reach a crescendo. Everyone was on their heels.

Lawrence looked at me, and I nodded. With my hands raised, I signaled towards Benny. We both moved before anyone had the sense that they should be moving, too. Grabbing cover.

Hindsight’s silly like that.

The side door swung open.

Bang!” I heard, from both the earpiece and from right outside the door.

And then everything went to hell.

Previous                                                                                               Next

054 – Peek-A-Boo

Previous                                                                                               Next

East Stephenville was in flames. Not swallowed, but simply licked. The city wouldn’t, couldn’t, burn to the ground.

It was a controlled fire, as much as fire could really be controlled. The extent of the damage would be contained, D assured me, but we were still playing with fire. Anything could happen.

We couldn’t burn ourselves, in the midst of this.

I double-checked the street below, watching for any onlookers looking up. Some were around, having stepped outside after hearing and feeling the initial impacts. Standing on the sidewalk, others venturing out onto the street for a better view. Even cars had stopped to take a look for themselves. People were pointing, noticing the smoke.

I backed away from the edge.

Not over the street, then. Around.

I broke into a run, crossing over alleyways, keeping an eye on the fire and the smoke. Hleuco took flight, going ahead of me.

“Anything yet?” I asked, while in the air, going from one rooftop to the next.

D answered as soon as I landed. “Negatory. But wow, are you seeing this? This is insane!

This was your idea. What does that say about you?

A new voice cut in. Lawrence.

It says that I can come up with freaking awesome ideas!

You’re going to get us all killed!

I cut in. “It’s too late for that, Lawrence. We’re in this now, and we’re seeing this through to the end. No one’s going to die.”

If we can help it.

I kept on running, looking back from the smoke to the street, trying to find an opening where there weren’t clusters of people with their eyes to the sky.

I hopped over a wider gap between buildings.

“If it’s negatory,” I said, soaring, “I’ll do the initial rounds. Going clockwise, starting with C-Three.  Update me if anything else comes up.”

Alright,” Lawrence responded.

Okie dokie!

I didn’t break my stride as the discussion ended, running and looking for my chance to move over to the next street.

I found it at an intersection, little in the way of cars and people. I took a cursory glance down the street, then made my move to cross it.

I threw more strength into my legs than I would normally use for a distance like this, trying to make my path more straight than arced. Air rushed past my ears, my hood flipping back when I landed onto the next roof.

Flipping my hood back in place, I kept my momentum going.

It wasn’t exact, or perfect, but East Stephenville could be seen as a grid from a bird’s eye view, with the blocks being their own squares, and the streets being the lines that divided them. We used the Ghost’s base of operations as our point of reference. E-One.

Using that system, to get to C-Three, I still had to go one square up, and two squares left. I was on E-Two, now.

Or, just move two spots diagonally.

Exactly.

That was what it meant to have the least limitations. Power. Freedom.

Oh, it felt good, being a queen.

I adjusted my path, moving from one corner of the roof to the other. I jumped, going over not the alleyways, but the streets. Going diagonally, making my path shorter. Cars and pedestrians would have to take the long way around, which was one reason why I didn’t go with Lawrence or D.

I ran until the motions fell into the back of my focus, crossing roofs and streets without much thought. My legs were pumping, my breathing hard but steady. Freerunning across the city’s skyline was starting to be my form of jogging. If I didn’t have a destination in mind, I’d imagine I could go on forever.

My focus sharpened once I smelled the smoke, and saw it float up into the air.

I slowed myself, stopping at the ledge of a building, overlooking the alley. On the other side of the street, the smoke was at its thickest.

“I’m in C-Three,” I said, talking into the earpiece. “Checking things out myself.”

D was the first to reply. “Sweet. Still nothing here. Thinking of moving.

“If you want, but maybe give it another minute, just to be sure. The Ghosts should have things covered, anyways.”

Whatever you say boss!

“Lawrence, any updates?”

A pause, before he came on.

Nothing.

“Alright,” I said, but I couldn’t help but feel impatient. I was ready to get my hands on Benny, already. “I’ll give it about five minutes. If I don’t see anything here, or hear anything from you guys, I’m moving on.”

Stay safe!

There was another pause from Lawrence.

Yes, be careful.

I moved along, checking the alley below. No one. The drop was about five stories.

I hopped down.

The landing was hard, but I properly steeled myself. I hit the ground, dropping to a crouch to better absorb the impact. My legs rocked, but I was able to move in the next second. Had it been anyone else, they’d be crumpled in a pathetic heap.

Head down, hoodie up, I left the alley and pushed into the swarm of people.

So many people, everyone trying to piece together the situation for themselves. Asking questions, getting hardly meaningful answers. Only listening in, picking it up from here and there, made for a very general picture, the details muddled.

“Anyone know what’s going on? What’s happening?”

“Heard they closed off some streets already. They might close entire blocks if the fire spreads.”

“How bad is it? Does anyone know?”

“My cousin’s over at Lenard and Tenth, she says the whole damn street’s on fire.”

“Jesus Christ.”

I frowned. It wasn’t that bad. It shouldn’t be. I would have heard something if the situation had gotten out of hand.

We weren’t looking to burn down the whole forest, just root out a few bad weeds.

I pushed through the crowd, trying to get a look for myself. I was too small, too inconsequential, in the eyes of the people gathered. Though, in reality, it was quite the opposite.

“Has anyone been injured?” someone asked, right beside me.

“I see ambulances, but I haven’t seen anyone get taken away yet. Everyone’s been evacuating, though.”

“Is everyone out?”

“I don’t know.”

“How about the other fires? Are the people there okay?”

“I don’t know.”

I didn’t know, either, but if there was significant number, it’d reach my ears.

It was a drawback, throwing innocents into the thick of this, but there was no clean way to go about it. Ideally, there would be a way, but that would involve time we didn’t have, and personally, patience that I lacked. Benny would be gone for certain, if we sat down for days on end, hashing out a plan that caused the least amount of damage.

This was as close to a happy medium as we could get, in the time allowed. We did our best to contain the damage and the flames. We drew the line in the sand. If anyone were to cross, it would be of their own accord, their own fault.

I got through as much of the crowd as I could, and I watched the firefighters do their job.

The building was like one big chimney, smoke escaping from the top, out of broken windows and exposed parts of the interior. Flashes of red showed themselves, only to be drowned out by the streams of water, aimed by the firefighters. People were still being escorted out of the building, but the line was thinning, now.

This, right here, was the heart of the plan.

D had been busy all day, and it involved a lot of legwork. Lawrence had given her list of the neighboring gangs and their bases, possible spots where Benny might be hiding. She… found things along the way. Things that allowed this plan to be.

Weapons. Ammunitions. Bombs. Things that could incinerate.

Not the standard toys.

The bases she found them in were empty, hardly guarded, no one working within. The weapons were hidden in plain sight. Scattered across different locations in East Stephenville. She didn’t find everything, the amount totaled didn’t even match what was found in the Irving Street warehouse, but there was enough to do something with it.

This just had to be what D came up with.

She had tampered with the weapons, placing them in key points in the bases, where the damage would be minimal, but attract attention all the same. She had set them up so they all went off at once, at a press of a button.

Benny’s weapons, turned against her.

I watched as the smoke started to lessen, the fires losing out to the constant stream of water. There was more mist spreading into the air, the affected portions of building completely soaked. At this rate, the fires would be completely taken care of by the time I moved to another location. These firefighters worked fast.

My focus turned from the smoke to the people leaving the building, being checked out by paramedics, sitting by the ambulances. None of them were seemed to be in critical condition, though they were all drenched in sweat, some covered in dirt and ash.

I took note of the colors of their jackets, the designs of their arm bands. They were all belonging to the same gang.

Scared and suspicious of the sudden blasts, they’d be worried if they were being raided or attacked. They’d come to investigate, they’d come to check things out.

If Benny was in the city, she’d hide out in East Stephenville, where she knew the lay of the land. She’d want to be close to her weapons, as security or insurance.

If something were to happen to those weapons…

The fire rises, the smoke will bring out the damned.

Benny was here, she was around. She had to be.

She was around, but she wasn’t here.

If Benny was being protected by another gang, it wasn’t this one.

“I’m still at C-Three,” I said, murmuring into my earpiece. “Lawrence, any of your guys pick up anything?”

Time was of the essence, and I had to wait for my answer.

Nothing’s standing out. If she’s there, we’d see her, and you’d know.

“Damn. The more time passes, the harder this gets. There’s a bunch of people around, and it’s easy to slip between the cracks when everyone’s focusing on something else.”

I get that, but we haven’t seen nothing yet, give it a bit more time.

Yeah, we got this! Anywho, I’m at G-Four. I’m thinking of going counterclockwise, hitting the key points as I go. V, wanna meet up halfway?

“Sure, that would make it…” I started, referring to my mental map again.

About F-Six,” D ventured.

“Okay, and yes, let’s meet up. That way we can go with a change of plans if need be. Fine with me.”

Awesome. I’m moving now.

“I should probably get a move on, too,” I said. “Lawrence, if you or your crew-”

Heard it the first hundred times. I’ll give you any updates I get.

Updates. Asking for them. I was starting to sound like Hleuco, now.

We left the discussion there, each of us making our own moves. I turned away from the scene, going back through the crowd. I kept my head down, the edge of my hood nearly blocking my view forward.

As I went, I picked up more speculations from the people around.

“Who do you think did this? Sounds to me like it’s a concentrated effort, with this happening all over Eastside.”

“Could be a gang war, this city has been going to shit, lately.”

“Or maybe… You think it’s that Solace guy? Is he back?”

“How’d I know? I couldn’t tell you, man.”

I didn’t say or think up a retort. I just removed myself from the crowd, dipping back into the alley I came from. I was back on the roof in a heartbeat.

Going clockwise, the next stop would be over at D-Six. It was a longer distance to get there than it was to get here, but I’d manage. I had rested well enough, and I had the stamina.

The path involved a detour, though, I had to get over or past the burning building to continue, but everyone’s sights were glued in that direction. I worked around them by going farther down the length of the street than needed, covering my bases. I flew over the street, then hopped across the nearer buildings, righting myself, making my path more straight.

I hurried to the next square on the grid.

I knew this wasn’t going to be easy, but I was hoping that it would be fast. Chalk it up to naiveté, I supposed. I really wanted this to be over, for this to be done, because it’d mean that I finally got what I wanted, what I was looking for.

Benny.

Comparing baseline capabilities, I was so much more superior to her, yet she had a way of staying out of my grasp. It was almost a talent. From aligning with Solace, to the incident at the school, to right now, Benny always seemed around, but not present. And in my attempts to find her, it had taken me to strange places, meeting strange people. The broken down apartment and parking garage, D and Lawrence. These strange circumstances. There didn’t seem to be an end to them.

Taking an outside look at it all, from the spotty perspective I had of events before the school incident, to the crystal clear clarity I had of the past forty-eight hours, it seemed like the most wild of wild rabbit chases.

I wondered how deep this rabbit hole went. Where it would take me.

How far was I willing to go?

If you don’t have Benny, then you haven’t gone far enough.

I touched down on a roof, stumbling a bit. I pushed past some clotheslines as I regained my balance.

That… was one way to think about it.

I got through the barrier of clothes, and felt something rub at my eye. A loose strand or sleeve must have hit me in the eye.

An eyelid flickered.

I jumped, going through the air to continue on to D-Six. I could have sworn I saw a flash of blue in the corner of my vision as I moved.

When I landed again, I hastened my steps, my impatience getting the better of me.

I tried to not let my thoughts wander again, focusing on keeping one foot in front of the other, and then I arrived at D-Six, and the burning base within.

Flames escaped into the air, but they were mere sparks compared to what I’d seen earlier in the night. Here, the firefighters were winning out, leaving only sprays of water and gray exhaust blowing into the air.

The damage here was worse than the one back in C-Three, admittedly. The fire had spread through more of the building, eating through the upper floors. The holes in the bricks yawned wider, probably allowing for more smoke to get through when the fire was at its strongest.

There was a crowd that showed up here, too, but they were hanging back by a considerable amount. Police and other firefighters forced the crowd back even more.

In my head, I was berating D for letting it get this bad. But, to also be fair, there were a number of other factors that she might not have had time to account for. The age of the building, the internal structure, how well-maintained it was. It would have added up. The fault couldn’t completely fall on just her.

I checked over the people, and found that the building was already evacuated. I wasn’t going down there to check things out, this time, staying on the roof of the building facing the burning base. I kept low, crouching, to better obscuring myself from a wandering eye.

I checked, and checked again.

“Just made it to D-Six,” I said into the earpiece. “This is starting to get irritating.”

Yeah, I know it’s tough, but we just started.” It was from D. “Benny will pop up, eventually.”

Eventually. I didn’t have the patience for eventually. The wait was eating me up inside.

I couldn’t let this plan go up in smoke.

“Lawrence, please tell me you have something new. Give me something that’ll make me feel better.”

Time ticked away. The fire was all but extinguished by the time I heard back from Lawrence.

Wish I had that something, but I don’t. Not yet. Sorry, mija.

Damn it all.

I didn’t want my biggest fear of tonight to be realized. That we were wrong the entire time. That Benny had already fled the city, hiding out elsewhere, completely out of any of our grasps. That she was gone.

Damn it all.

I scanned over the crowd, again. As I worked, Hleuco dropped down to my right, perching over the ledge. He helped search, too, his beak pointing in the direction he was looking. Sometimes turning around.

Civilians, cops, firefighters, medics. Gang members. Just going onto a different block, square, the colors and branding changed. This was another gang’s base, but they fell into the same habits as the other. They rushed in to figure out what the hell was happening, and they rushed out when the fire proved to be too hot to handle.

Some of the members were being tended to by the medics, standing close to the ambulances. The majority of them didn’t need the attention, preferring to slip away, back into the shadows.

Benny was here, in those shadows, I just knew it.

My eyes turned elsewhere.

The crowd that came to watch the spectacle of it all were mostly civilians, unaware of the scheme in play that led them here. Among them, were some of Lawrence’s men. The Ghosts.

They had their own colors, black and white, if I remembered it right. I explicitly told them not to wear their colors, tonight. I needed eyes and ears on the ground, and if a bunch of members from a rival gang were found hanging around the several burning-down bases of their competition, it would only further fan the flames of an all-out gang war. We wanted confusion, not rage.

Their uniforms tonight weren’t going to be their standard fits. They had to dress normally.

They did a good job, too, blending into the crowd. I noticed Charlie at the edge of the mass of people, closest to the building. She was wearing a cream sweater, a beanie on her head. From a distance, there was nothing suspicious about her. She was just watching like everyone else.

Unlike everyone else, though, there was a specific thing that she was watching out for.

I exhaled, hard.

“Looks like I’m not getting any luck here,” I said, still watching below. “Fuck.”

D responded. “Can’t help it if it’s like this. Traffic’s getting tough now, too. Harder to move around, and I can’t get too close anymore. I don’t wanna get stopped by a cop and notice… me.

“Right, you don’t have to push it, that’s what the Ghosts are for.”

It was a cue in the discussion, a signal for Lawrence to offer something that would put my mind at ease.

He didn’t take.

“Fuck,” I said again, though mostly under my breath. I composed myself for the next part. “D, there’s nothing to report from you?”

Nope, uh, sorry. Only just got to H-Five now. I’ll take the time to check things out, but…

She quickly stopped herself at the end, there, hoping I wouldn’t hear. I heard.

“Alright, next up for me is F-Six. That isn’t too far. I’ll head there, and hope I’m lucky. If not, I’ll wait for you to come my way. We’ll figure out what to do from there.”

Roger roger.

“And Lawrence,” I said, “Keep doing whatever it is you’re doing.”

I hardly got a response. It was, at best, a vague vocalization.

Was there something going on at his end?

Had to press that later. Now, my attention was still on finding Benny.

Doing a last minute check, I looked over the crowd one more time. I caught the gaze of a child, looking back at me. Mouth open, finger pointed.

It was like a punch to the stomach.

I turned to go.

Hleuco was already in the air as I picked up the pace. The next base wasn’t as far, so I didn’t need to expend as much energy to get there. But it only made my apprehension even worse.

What if it was same there? Just nothing.

I might actually lose it.

Maybe… by the third time around, I’d strike gold. Charms, and all that.

If I wasn’t running, I would have bowled over laughing.

Jump, land. Run, jump again.

I felt sweat trickle down the back of my neck, tracing small hairs. The sleeves sticking to my skin. The tiny, but noticeable pressure in my chest as I ran.

All this running and jumping. I couldn’t let it get to the point where it became taxing.

The pressure was on.

I was steady already approaching F-Six, black and gray wisps about two rooftops away, but a loud crack brought me to a halt.

Another loud crack, and this time it was among screaming and cries. People.

I knew that sound all too well.

I ran.

I reached the nearest roof that overlooked the situation. By coincidence, it was also the base I was heading towards.

Judging from just the state of the roof, it hadn’t sustained as much damage as the other bases I checked out. But, I didn’t have a direct look at the building itself. Couldn’t say for sure.

Through the smoke, I peered down.

It was as bad as I feared.

Easy, separating the different groups here. The civilians, fleeing for dear life. The police, providing cover for those trying to get away.

The gang, spilling out of the front of the building, firing with little regard.

“They’re here! Fuckin’ told you!”

“Where, which ones?”

“All of ‘em, fuck! Everyone else, load up and bring the vans around. They want hell? We’re friggin’ bringing it.”

The gang members were yelling over their own gunfire, fingers glued down on their triggers. People were dropping left and right, blood pooling from their bodies.

No, no.

The police weren’t able to fire back just as hard, they didn’t know to pack the same kind of heat, but they had the blessing of cover, staying back behind their cars, periodically popping up to get a shot in. They were generally hitting their mark. They were trained, after all.

How was this happening?

Did someone catch on? Somehow connecting the arbitrary dots?

I need answers.

“D!” I called. I was yelling.

I just heard, what’s the visual?

“A gang is shooting at everyone here. Who are they? Are we fucked?”

Where are you again?

“F, F-Six.”

F-Six, F… shoot.

Didn’t like the sound of that.

“You better explain.”

That base is owned by the FSM, another small cartel branch. They’ve been having some disputes with some other groups in Eastside.

“Which gangs? Like the Ghosts?”

Don’t think so.

People were still falling, dropping like flies. Gang members and police and innocents alike.

“You better know for sure, D.”

I do. In the slim chance they did have some beef, maybe they recognized some of the Ghosts, even when they weren’t dressed the part? I dunno. But either way, they were a gang that had severe case of the itchy trigger finger. Something was bound to go down between them and whoever just pissed them off.

Like us.

“And we just poked the wrong beehive,” I said.

I… This was a calculated risk, you know, and we’re on a time limit. We had to bite the bullet and cover our bases, all the bases.

I whispered. “We miscalculated, and now they’re the ones biting the bullets.”

D didn’t respond. She didn’t hear me.

Something inside me kicked. Weak, but there.

“We can’t let this continue,” I said. “Lawrence!”

Absolutely nothing.

What the fuck was the hold up?

“D,” I said.

V?

“F-Six is compromised. We’ll have to find some other place to rendezvous. You’ll have to give me some time, gotta clean up here.”

I brought my foot over-

Hey! Wait!

I brought my foot back.

What?” I asked, stressing the word.

I get that you have the hero background and everything, but if you go down there, we lose whatever edge we still have. You even said you’re putting that behind, now, just leave it to the people who are supposed to handle this kind of thing.

I balled up my fists, my heart skipping a beat every time I saw someone hit the ground. Every time a gun was fired. The police were winning out against the FSM, but it’d take a while for a full suppression. Should I go down there, it’d be over a lot faster.

But that’s not what you’re here to do.

Hesitant, I drew back, falling into the cover of smoke. Doing so was harder than I expected.

I looked at the skyline, trying to figure out where to head next. My eyes widened.

I ran from the ledge, making an escape.

“D!” I yelled.

What, what?

I only had enough focus to yell out a single word.

“Helicopters!”

Where? Did they see you?

Didn’t have time to turn around. Didn’t have time to check.

There was a roof access door. I ran towards it, slipping inside. Into the building.

I slowed myself as I entered into a hallway. It was hot in here, like I had just stepped into a sauna. Embers traced the corners of the hall, where the floor met the wall. Doors were singed.

The lights were all off, but I could see just fine. It looked like an office building.

I moved through the rest of the floor. Definitely an office space, with computers and cubicles. If a gang used this place as a base, the office look was probably a front. The pistols sitting beside some keyboards and laptops broke the illusion.

“I don’t think they saw me,” I said, catching D up to speed. “I saw them in the distance though, quickly closing in. If I had stayed up there, I would have been seen for sure.”

I just saw one, too, it passed overhead, just now. That sucks.

“Can’t really use the rooftops, anymore. Not if I want to be picked out from the air.”

It was good while it lasted. You’ll have to find another way to get around. Do you know how to ride a motorcycle?

Motorcycle?

“I don’t,” I said.

Ah man, I’ve gotta teach you sometime!

“Not our priority right now, D.”

Alright, yeah. Well, any ideas on what to do next?

I found the stairs, taking them down. I was hurrying, but I tried not to make my footsteps too loud, in case anyone was still in here.

I managed to go down by two floors before I was stopped. Parts of the ceiling had fallen in, blocking my way. I couldn’t even get to the door. I had to go back up one floor, and went through the door there, leaving the stairs.

Another office space, but I wasn’t alone.

Four gang members, stocking up on various weapons. They were talking amongst themselves, but I couldn’t catch it.

Their heads were turning, having heard me open the door.

I was faster than they were, ducking as soon as I saw them, my back up to a cubicle wall.

More and more complications.

I brought my voice to a whisper.

“D, can you hear me?”

Yeah, you’re a little quiet, though.

“I’m trying to go down through the FSM base, but not everyone’s left the building. Have to get around them somehow.”

I started moving, sneaking around the corner. I heard their footsteps. They were coming to check out why the door had suddenly opened. It was dark in here, too, but there was enough ambient light for them to still move around easily.

“As for you,” I whispered, “Where are you right now?”

At the edge of F-Four.

“That’s pretty close. Find a good spot there to hide, and I’ll meet up with you there. And find out what the fuck is going on with Lawrence. He hasn’t been answering.”

On it. See you in a little, V.

That was it for now. The plan had changed, but the goal was still salvageable. I hoped. Maybe it was that naiveté in me, again.

Which left me with these guys. The FSM.

I crouched-walked, keeping low, with an ear out to every little sound. Their footsteps, whenever they asked each other something. The relative silence was regularly broken by the sounds of gunfire, somewhat muted by the brick walls.

Based on what I could hear, the group of four had split up, the remaining two staying in the middle of the space.

I got to a break in the cubicle walls, an aisle in the middle of the room. The line of cubicles continued on the other side, about five feet away.

I peeked around the corner.

There they were, two of the FSM members, looking in the direction of the doors and stairs.

“See anything?” one of them asked.

The answer was farther off, by the door.

“Nah, swore I saw it open.”

“It did open, we heard it open.”

“I mean, I ain’t seeing nothing.”

As they debated, I dashed to the next set of cubicles, and continued on my way. Under other circumstances, I would have engaged them, stopped them before they could go outside and hurt anyone else. But I was in hurry, and fighting them now would be like sticking my face into a beehive once I had already poked it.

No thanks.

I managed to avoid being detected, and I slipped by with a problem. I found another set of stairs at the other end of the floor. I made sure to open the door slowly, this time around.

But I couldn’t go down a floor without running to more trouble.

Coming up the stairs, they ran right into me. A pair of guys. They immediately recognized me as a foreign element, drawing their guns.

I drew my knife in response.

I smacked the first guy’s hand, stopping him from lifting his gun any higher. I stabbed with my other hand, my blade finding its way into the flesh right underneath his collarbone.

He opened his mouth to howl in pain, but I kicked him square in the chest, sending him flying down, and into his companion. They both tumbled down the stairs.

I followed them, taking the stairs two and three steps at a time. I stopped at the crumpled heap of bodies.

I sorted through them, laying out their arms and legs. I stabbed at each limb. Eight in total. I kicked again, in the back and chest, to knock the remaining wind out of them.

I was already engaged with these unlucky souls, better to take them out of the fight now, so they wouldn’t do anything worse, later.

Satisfied, I left them behind, winding down the steps. Nothing else impeded my way down this flight of stairs.

V,” I heard in my ear.

It was him.

“Lawrence, where the fuck have you been? We’re kind of in a bind now.”

I understand that, but I have something you might want to hear.

I was taking the stairs to the first floor, but the cracks of gunfire were seemingly getting louder, closer. I broke through the next door instead. I had lost track of what floor this was.

“And that is?” I said, running down a hall. It was cool, in here. The lights were shot, but I could see. The ambient light was much stronger.

I had a feeling as to why.

I have a hold on Benny.

I very nearly stopped, but my forward momentum was too much, and I almost tripped. I threw my foot out ahead of me to keep going.

“You have Benny?” I questioned.

Where?” That was from D.

There was a pause.

E-One.

E-One?

“What the hell is she doing back there?” I asked.

I heard the beginnings of an answer, but a bullet grazed my head. I collapsed, hard.

A harsh light burst into my eyes. I pulled back, arms in front of my face.

Ear ringing, my head felt like it was splitting open. Loud sounds seized control from my body, and I was shaken. I felt as if I was brought back to that classroom.

It took longer than it should, regaining my sense of my surroundings.

It dawned on me, why the hall was so cool, why there was so much light pouring in.

The initial impacts that set the building ablaze tore out chunks of the wall on either side, and on the floor right in front of me. This portion of the building was exposed to the outside.

Directly ahead of me were the FSM, guns pointed and ready.

Directly behind me were the police, backed by a SWAT team.

To my side, was the blinding light. I could hear where it was coming from.

The spotlight of a helicopter.

Then, a flicker in my eye.

On the other side, coming out from the shadow and lingering smoke, a figure steadily approached. Decked in blue.

My breath shortened.

I was exposed from every side. Surrounded.

Benny was at E-One, for reasons I wasn’t privy to. She was a straight line from here, but there wasn’t a move I could make that would let me leave in one piece.

Previous                                                                                               Next

053 – Fugue

Previous                                                                                               Next

I stirred, tossing and turning, pulling covers up over my head.

In another plane, I was on the move.

Benny was there, sprinting down the street. Running for dear life.

Her strides were long, her movements fast. It was impressive, in a relative sense.

Impressive for a human.

She ran, passing others, pushing them down when they got in her way. She wasn’t being very quiet about her trying to escape.

“Get out of my way!” she yelled, her voice straining, wild. “Get, get the fuck out of my way!”

Watching her like this, struggling to make distance, knowing that it was futile…

It was cute.

I spun, changing directions. I dropped from the ledge, heading down.

I landed in the middle of the street, where Benny tried to cross. She stopped, dead in her tracks.

She stared at me, and she looked like she was seeing a ghost. Her eyes were wide, red, her face drained of all color. She was tense, so tense that the slightest bit of movement caused her whole body to jitter in fits. She tested a step forward, reconsidered, and tested a step back, reconsidering again.

Benny froze.

She knew. There was nowhere to go for her, nowhere to run. Try anything, and I’d simply find her again.

Sweat glistened off her cheeks. Her mouth was agape, lower lip trembling. Eyes focused straight ahead, at me. Tears streamed from the edges, mixing with the sweat.

There was no hope to be found in that expression.

Yes.

That face, that face.

That was exactly the kind of face I wanted to see from her. The kind of face I was dreaming of.

I wanted to see it up close.

Savoring every second of that image, I took my first step towards her. Then the second.

Benny didn’t move.

There she was, and here I was. Finally. I had her. She couldn’t hide from me, or slip away like before.

She had no one to rely on, no one to save her in the last second. It was just me, and it was just her.

It was everything I ever wanted.

I opened and closed my hands, an attempt to focus myself. My pace hastened the closer I got.

So close, so close.

I could taste it.

I was walking forward, then I wasn’t anymore.

A hit, and I was sent flying the opposite way.

The wind was knocked out of me, my throat seized and locked up. I couldn’t get anything in, or out. I couldn’t breathe.

Stunned.

I tried getting my bearings, but the scene started to change. The night sky was cut off, a white plane rushing over my field of view, yawning and stretching until every speck of black was gone, and shining my eyes with light.

The surface folded at a right angle, moving right in front my path.

The back of my neck hit the wall, and I heard something crack. I slid down, collapsed on the floor. My arms fell close to my sides.

Cold tile.

It’d be another thirty seconds before I could move my head, but I had a sinking feeling about where I was.

Against the tile were slow, steady steps. The situation was flipped. I was unable to move, and they were taking their time.

I saw legs come into my frame of view. Grey joggers, a blue jacket stopping right above the waist.

My stomach dropped.

They approached, until they were right at my feet. I only saw the legs, now.

They crouched, and I could their face. A blank face. The eyes were blacked out, the face cracked in places, like a broken doll. Head tilted, it studied me carefully.

Its lips didn’t move when it spoke.

You think you can get rid of me that easy?

Its voice was twisted and distorted, like it was being broadcasted through an old, busted radio.

I had my mask, but I smiled all the same, projecting an air of superiority.

I replied.

“It was easy, and I can do it again.”

Is that what you think? Don’t be so foolish. Look around you. Everything you have, everything you are, it’s all mine. You’re merely a co-pilot, and you still need me to guide the way.

“I don’t need you,” I said, but even I knew how false that was.

Don’t make me laugh. You feel it too, don’t you? You’re incomplete, and you draw on me as a resource. You and I both know that grinds away at you, and gives me that much more purchase. A stronger foothold.

I drew my arms closer beside me, slipping my fingers out of sight. I felt the warm sensation wrapping around my neck. I was healing, but I didn’t dare move. Not yet.

I was also taking the time to formulate an answer. Something it couldn’t punch a hole through.

You don’t have anything to say? No rebuttal, a refusal of the facts? How-”

Its head snapped back, black ooze spraying from one eye socket. The knife stayed in place.

My hand moved as a blur, from my side to its eye. I brought my hands back down to help myself up.

That was my answer.

It fell onto one side, hands shaking as they hovered over the knife. Wanted to pull it out, but the pain that followed would be significant. It hesitated.

Benny was gone. Taken away from me once again. And once again, it was all its fault. Her.

I lifted a foot over its face, over its hands.

“Don’t be stupid,” I said. “Or, at least don’t blind yourself by your stupidity. I draw upon you to get a better sense of myself, and I know what I want, now. I’ll prove that I don’t need you, or any of your connections.”

I slammed my foot down, pushing her hands into the handle of the knife. The blade sinked deeper.

I spoke over the screaming.

“Don’t forget, you put yourself here, at the bottom. You wanted this. Stay where you belong, stay down.”

Above even the screaming, a larger, louder noise began to blare. Enough that it was tearing apart the classroom. The walls cracked, the ceiling falling into pieces-

I woke up in a frenzy.

I threw the covers away from my head, gasping for air. I blinked, and water dripped down the sides of my face.

I winced. Light was in my eyes, and an alarm sang in my ears.

Holy fuck, fuck, fuck that.

That was a nightmare, a dream, but it was so vivid. My heart was racing, and I was still in bed. I searched for something I could use to realign myself, bring my mind back to here, this room.

I struggled.

Nothing here was mine.

I changed position, pushing my head into the pillow. I had to will myself to calm down. My hand drifted to find the alarm, on the small table by the bed. I had to feel my way towards it, but I eventually pressed the button.

The silence that followed was somehow louder than the beeping alarm.

I stirred, tossing and turning, pulling the covers back over my head. I tried forcing myself back to sleep, but it was useless. I was awake.

But I elected to stay in bed for a while longer.

In trying to cool my head, I thought back to the night before. The early morning.

The meeting went on for another hour before it we wrapped it up, and we called it a night. Or rather, an early morning. I declined D’s offer to take me somewhere closer to home, for obvious reasons. I went off on my own, over a few streets and rooftops, and found a bus back, instead.

Mother… Shiori was fast asleep when I returned to the apartment, and she would be gone, should I check right now. She’d have to go to work.

And I had things to do, too, but ten more minutes in bed wouldn’t hurt.

I tossed and turned again, trying to feel where the coldest part of the bed was. Trying to find the most comfort.

It was such a fight, just to find comfort in sleep. A struggle. As if I was forced to put in effort to take it easy, to relax. My mind and thoughts were already way ahead of me, and I had to reign it back to the now.

Now, I couldn’t stop thinking about later tonight.

I was anxious in a way that electrified my body, screaming at me to get up and do something. A nervous energy that was begging to be burned. Not unlike my thirst, but this was asking for something else.

Action.

Torn between a want and a need. I wanted it to be night so I could go out and join the others, but I needed rest. I had to gather as much energy as possible, so I could be alert, aware, and awake, even in the later hours. The night that Alexis – Blank Face – was looking for Thomas… I wasn’t looking for a repeat of that, for myself.

I’ll succeed where she couldn’t. I have to. I have to.

I repeated the words in my head, like counting sheep, hoping to soothe my restless mind, and get an extra bit of sleep. It didn’t really help.

There were so many other factors to consider. So many ways this could go.

Anything could happen, tonight. A miscalculation here, a bad guess there. A minor slip-up early on that spirals into disaster. Simple bad luck. Should something happen, I had the ability to be flexible, but if too many cogs spun out of control, if too many things went wrong

Would I be able to bounce back? Regroup, and try again? Maybe, but it’d be difficult, and it might even be too late, once I got my ducks in a row again. Benny might be gone.

It had to be tonight, and it had to be a success.

Yet, it all hinged on a motley crew of sorts.

I wondered how strong the truce really was, especially between D and Lawrence. There was a troubled history, there, and that meant friction, temporary ceasefire or no. Especially on Lawrence’s part. And I couldn’t say for sure whether or not that friction would eventually rub him the wrong way.

One of the reasons he even agreed to work together was so he could kill D if he saw fit. He practically jumped at the chance. I had to watch out for him.

And there was the girl herself. D.

She was an anomaly, I even told her that myself, but that still made her hard to pin down. Who was she, really, and how did someone like her end up in a situation like that? What did the letter ‘D’ even stand for? She stole Thomas’s van, dealt drugs to petty gangs, and when the deal went south, she was willing to risk everything to save herself.

I almost admired her tenacity.

But, she also agreed to help me. She even offered. Why?

Could she really be trusted? Could she really prove herself?

There was only one way to find out.

Tonight, it was her idea. She pitched it. We’d see if it worked out.

I flipped myself on my back, my arm over my eyes. Blocking the light.

A motley crew. A gang, a girl, and me, whoever that was.

But, in working towards the same goal, that should be enough to keep everyone in line. Probably. Hopefully.

Tossing, turning. I pulled the covers away from my head, and I gasped for open air again. Being so lost in my thoughts, I nearly forgot to breathe. Sweat lightly soaked the back of my shirt, sticking skin to fabric.

That nightmare was still fresh in my mind, and the anxiety of tonight was killing me.

I shifted one more time, pushing my eyelids open to stare at the ceiling. I could feel it in the muscles of my eyes and the aches in my body. I slept okay, but another hour or two wouldn’t hurt. I just couldn’t find it within me to get anymore rest. I was too agitated.

Fuck me.

Taking heavy breaths, I crawled out of bed. I left the room, trying to clear my throat.

Thirsty.

“Good morning.”

It took me a second, having to place the voice to a name, and realizing a voice was here in the first place.

It was Mother. Shiori.

She was in the kitchen, sitting at the table in the middle. She wore a silk, velvet bathrobe, a white towel wrapped over her hair. Her hands were around a mug, a finger tracing around the open lid.

“Morning,” I said back, confused. “What are you doing here?”

“Am I not allowed to be in my own home?”

“You know what I mean. Why aren’t you at work?”

This complicates things, you being here.

“Not going to work. Going to the church.”

“Again?”

“There’s still stuff to do, and I plan on helping.”

“What about work?”

Shiori spun her mug around, her fingers going around the handle. “My co-workers are coming with me.”

At least she was leaving the house. Not as complicated as I feared.

Satisfied, I continued into the kitchen, towards the cabinet. I started getting myself a glass of water.

“Do you want coffee?” Shiori asked.

“No,” I said. “Can’t have it.”

“I have coffee when I was your age. Not like everyday, but sometime.”

You mean ‘had coffee,’ and ‘sometimes?’ How long have you lived in this country?

I filled my glass with water from the refrigerator. I drew out a long gulp. Cold. Exactly what I needed.

I was about to leave, bring my glass with me, but Shiori stopped me again.

“Alexis.”

Oh come on.

I didn’t want to respond to that name, or play that role so early in my day. But Shiori was giving me no choice.

“Yes?”

“Your friends stopped by earlier.”

What friends?

“Who?”

“From the church, Justin and Emily.”

Oh, them. I had already forgotten about them. It didn’t feel like it was only yesterday. Felt like weeks ago, honestly.

“Okay?” I said.

“They invited you to go with them and watch movie, and eat lunch. But you were still sleep, but maybe you can meet them later.”

Trivial. Not interested.

“Sure,” I said. “Might be fun.”

I had to go out, grab a few things before tonight, but that wasn’t Shiori’s business. If she thought I was out with friends instead, I was fine with that.

“I’ll go get ready then,” I said, about to leave the kitchen.

“Stay right there.”

Tension coursed through me. I froze, wary.

Shiori got up from the table, and walked to me.

I recalled the dream I had earlier. In my hand was a glass of water. If I struck the counter beside me, I’d have something much sharper.

I halted that particular thought process.

I let Shiori approach.

She stopped at less than an arm’s length away, and looked deep into my eyes. Her gaze remained there.

It was disconcerting.

“Look,” Shiori said. “I’m taller than you again.”

“What?”

She had to tilt her head up to look at me.

“See?”

Shiori raised her hand over the towel bundled up over her head. She moved her hand, half a foot over the top of my head.

“I’m taller now.”

Was that supposed to be a joke?

I could feel my time being wasted away. I wanted out.

“That doesn’t count,” I said.

“I’m your mother, it counts.”

I made a face.

“Do you still have your watch?” Shiori asked, out of nowhere.

“What watch?”

Shiori made a face.

“The one I got you for your birthday, don’t tell me you lost it already.”

The watch. I had a vague recollection over what she was talking about. I tried not to press my mind towards getting a clearer picture.

“I didn’t lose it,” I said. “It’s around, somewhere.”

Shiori mumbled something in Japanese. The meaning was lost on me.

“Uh,” I said, finding an excuse to leave. “I’ve got to shower if I want to meet up with Justin and Emily. Gotta get going.”

Shiori’s eyes continued to peer into me, like she was searching for something. She blinked, looking away.

“I remember when you were so small. I had to keep reminding you, over and over, to stop tugging at my pants. You never wanted to leave my side.”

Somehow, that prompted a connection, and I couldn’t stop it. It hit me, harder than any truck or van could.

The memories, the relationship with this woman. I recognized point A, and saw point B for what it was. Now, her looking in my eyes actually meant something.

My heart was tugged one way.

Fuck, fuck.

“People change,” I said, voice wavering. “They grow up.”

Shiori, Mother, nodded. “But you didn’t have to grow up so fast.”

A piercing strike. I would have doubled over if I wasn’t already moving, heading back into my room.

I closed the door, harder than I intended.

Oh, shit.

I was breathing hard. I clutched my chest, and my heart was beating as if I had just spent the whole morning running.

This isn’t good, this isn’t good.

I wished Shiori had left by the time I got out of bed. It would have made this so much easier.

Between that, and the dream I just had, it only added pressure for tonight. No matter what, it absolutely had to be a success. Or I’d lose more than Benny.

I’d lose myself.

I placed the glass by the table at the bed, next to the alarm. I moved into the closet.

Opening my bag, I sorted through my costume. The red windbreaker, the dark joggers, the mask, no longer blank, painted over by my own efforts.

This isn’t good.

Nothing here was truly mine. It was borrowed, taken, repurposed. Sure, I picked out these clothes myself, modified them in my image, but it wouldn’t be enough. I couldn’t genuinely claim anything here.

And there was a certain danger, to that.

Being here, in this apartment, the memories and connections came in small but continuous intervals, like a being feed through an IV drip. Eventually, it would build, and my sense of self would be washed away.

We can’t have that.

I put down my stuff, hiding it for later. I got back to my feet, feeling very conscious over my body, aware of every inch of movement, and the seed of doubt, if I could claim this vessel as mine.

I’d have to, if I wanted to continue.

I started undressing, getting ready for a shower, tossing the pajamas into a corner of the closet.

Tonight was a step towards that affirmation I needed. I had to prepare for it.

That preparation involved getting some items for D. Stuff she apparently needed. Stuff like firecrackers.

The light gave way to night, and I never felt more centered.

This was it, right here. The moon, the handful of glimmering stars above, the countless lights below. Cars, buildings, streetlights. The business of it all. There was a pulse, a rhythm to how everything and everyone moved. A certainty.

And standing over it all, outside of that pulse, that certainty, that system. It was liberating.

My own pulse quickened as I continued to observe the city’s skyline.

Footsteps, coming from behind. Not one, but several. My eyes stayed on the city.

They stood at either side of me. To my left, Lawrence. To my right, D. Hleuco was in the skies, enjoying the open air.

Lucky.

Lawrence had a new set of bandages over his face. His expression was stern, making him look older than he was. He had on a denim jacket, a white turtleneck underneath. Denim pants, leather boots. If he was trying to go for a classic gangster look, it wasn’t a bad attempt.

D was dressed similarly from last night. An oversized biker jacket, a choker around her neck. She was wearing a skirt, but with striped tights, this time. If it was anyone else, it’d seem like they were playing dress up, but she sold her look pretty well.

I was in costume. Mask on, hood up, bag strapped around my back. Very aware of how none of it was mine. V’s.

“Ah, the classic ‘brooding vigilante looking over rooftop bit,’” D said. “I like it.”

I didn’t entertain her with a response. I wasn’t in the mood.

“Everyone’s getting ready, and we’ll all be in position within the hour,” Lawrence said. “I like the uniforms, it’s a good touch.”

“Right on schedule,” I commented.

“We can move fast when we have to.”

“Good to hear,” I said, eyes down to the street below. Two vans and a car were parked in front of the Mexican restaurant. People were going back and forth from the restaurant’s entrance and the vehicles, loading boxes and other equipment.

“Speaking of,” D said, “Here.”

She poked my shoulder, and my eyes went from the street to her hand. She opened up her palm, revealing the earpiece in her palm.

“We each have one,” she said, tilting her head, pushing her hair over an ear. She was already wearing her own. “This should be good in keeping tabs with one another. But don’t talk too much, I don’t need to be updated on every second of your life.”

I nodded, and I took the earpiece. I fit it into my right ear, adjusting my hood once it was in place.

I pressed it, turning it on.

“And Lawrence will be communicating with his group, and relaying anything relevant back to us. That way, there aren’t a million voices in our heads.”

I would have commented, there, saying that it wasn’t that hard to parse through it all, but I didn’t.

I glanced in Lawrence’s direction, curious at how he was taking everything.

He was watching his crew below, his head down, some hair over his eyes. I only had a good view of one side of his face, but I could sense the general vibe. His lips were set in a line, his eyebrow slightly furrowed. As though he was holding onto some tension without realizing it.

“Second thoughts?” I asked.

There was a delay, and then he turned his head, noticing me. His eyebrows furrowed even more.

“Hell no, I don’t back down from nothing. Fuck that.”

Then I saw his expression change. It was slight.

“I want to know, is this something you expected to happen?”

“Expected what to happen?”

This. With your whole ‘hero thing,’ picking a fight with almost every gang in the city, Solace, Benny, did you ever expect to be working with someone like me, and someone like her?”

He gestured towards D, then to the crew below.

“Did you ever expect to agree on a plan as insane as this?”

Lawrence to my left, D to right, Hleuco soaring in the skies above. I recalled what I thought about this lineup, earlier. A motley crew.

I didn’t look at Lawrence when I answered, “Did you?”

I heard a small noise, the brushing of denim when he folded his arms.

“Course not. I ask, because I was thinking to back before all this started, when I joined El Carruaje. Back then, I was just a dumb kid, chasing highs. I wanted the easy life, and a gang like that seemed like the way to go.”

Another small noise, this time coming from D. I caught her expression. Apologetic. Like she’d heard this story hundreds of times, and now I had to be subjected to it.

That was probably exactly it.

Lawrence continued. “Even just two years ago, El Carruaje was different. There were no schemes, no hidden plans, at least, not that I was aware of. It was just a bunch of kids selling drugs, and bunch of kids taking them. The parties, the access. It was all there, and it was all easy to consume.”

He lowered his head, looking down again.

“But then I met the rest of Benny’s crew. I saw the power they wielded, the command in their voices. They gave orders, and we listened. Suddenly, the weed and parties weren’t as exciting anymore. That was where the real high was. That power.”

“And that’s why you wanted to join Benny’s crew?” D asked, like she was reading from a script.

“That’s why. I wanted that for myself. To command, to give orders and have people listen.”

“Then, congratulations,” I said. “You finally got what you wanted.”

Lawrence didn’t move, but a sharp exhale escaped from his nose.

“Maybe, but now it’s a matter of defending that position, or proving myself to others. It’s never just the one thing, it’s everything that comes with it. All this time chasing highs, eventually the lows are going to hit you.”

I struggled to find the point in this, why he was giving me his life story. There was a reason why I came up here by myself.

“Why are you telling me this?” I asked. “Are you trying to talk yourself out of it?”

Lawrence scoffed. “Hell no, I’m in this all the way. I’ll do what I have to. I’m just saying, it’s funny how things fall into place sometimes. Tell me two years ago that I’d be here, in this position, I’d call you crazy.”

The word repeated itself in my head. Crazy. That was one way to put it. Maybe it was even funny, when looking at it from another angle. Life was unpredictable, and it had a way of dealing out bad hands. It was why people hated being asked where they saw themselves in five years. Impossible to answer, and a good answer just meant satisfying whoever asked.

No one truly has a way of knowing. Was Alexis able to predict this?

No, she wouldn’t.

And all the better for it.

Some time passed, with no one adding anything else to say. Lawrence stepped back from the roof’s edge.

“I’ll be heading out now,” he said. “Shouldn’t be too long before we’re all in order. I’ll give the signal, and I’ll concede the play to you. It’s your call.”

“Thanks,” I said.

“Anything else? Do you have a gun?”

“Don’t need one, I have my knife.”

“Is that enough?”

I turned away from my view of the city, and faced Lawrence.

I’m more than enough,” I said.

Lawrence looked amused at that answer. “Suit yourself. Well, I’m off. Good luck, V… D.”

“Good luck!” D said for the both of us.

“This better fucking work,” he told her, grim.

“It will, and if it doesn’t, we can laugh about it later.”

Lawrence narrowed his eyes.

“Watch yourself,” he said, but he took his leave, and I went back to looking over the city.

They seem to be getting along, if I can call it that. Could be worse, though.

“Don’t mind him,” D said, as Lawrence was heading back down, unable to hear her. “He’s just psyching himself up.”

Couldn’t fault him for that. This was a big move, a power move, and that meant risks.

Even pawns can be nervous.

“What about you?” I asked. “Anything you want to say?”

D lifted her shoulders.

“Um, not really. I said that I was going to help you, and I intend to do exactly that. I’m excited.”

“You even got the stuff I asked for,” she added.

“Is this like your version of putting a magnifying glass to an anthill?”

D snapped her fingers. “Yeah! That’s a great way to put it!”

Her enthusiasm over what was to come forced a laugh out of me.

“You’re like the funhouse mirror version of youth,” I said.

“Matter of perspective. Everything distorts when you put it through a looking-glass.”

I chuckled. Funny, that I felt more like myself, here, even when among complete strangers.

Hleuco flew overhead, and I saw the moon. I moved my wrist, checking the time.

“You should get going,” I said. “It’s almost time.”

“Sure,” D said, and she backed away from the edge. “Keep an ear out. L-Boy will give you his confirmation, and so will I. After that, we’ll be waiting on you to give us the go-ahead.”

“I’m ready when you are.”

“Now we’re talking, I’ll catch you later.”

D left, going back the way she came. Her footsteps weren’t paced at a steady rhythm, one foot following the other. There was a beat to it. She skipped her way to the exit.

She was so calm. How? Even if it was her idea, it wasn’t unnatural to harbor concerns. Yet she seemed cool, calm, and more collected than any of us.

An anomaly for sure.

I, in contrast, was restless. Itching to go, ready for action. I was centered, and I was prepared to push that energy outward. I was alert, aware, and awake.

A good sleep had done me some good.

I stayed still, unmoving from my spot on the roof, watching the city. I saw Lawrence’s crew finishing up their work, getting into their vehicles. They started up, and drove off. The vans went one way, the car went another.

For the remaining time I was waiting, Hleuco swooped low, landing by my side.

He’d been quiet lately, I noticed. I wondered if that meant anything.

In wait, observing the buildings and the farther skyline, Stephenville took on other qualities. Cars drove by, not rushing to go anywhere. People walked, usually by themselves, hurrying to get indoors. There was activity, but it wasn’t busy. It was akin to a slumbering giant.

Imagine poking that giant with a hot spike.

Before my thoughts wandered even more, a voice buzzed in my ear. Mechanical.

This is Lawrence, everyone’s in position. Ready to go.

I didn’t answer right away. I kept waiting.

Another minute came and went before I heard anything from D.

Sorry, sorry I’m late! Had to check up on some last minute things. But I’m good now, ready to go.”

Two confirmations. One remained.

There was certain pressure, having the final word, knowing that there was no going back once that word was uttered. But, I was ready to make that move. I wasn’t lying when I said it.

This is it. This is my move. The hand I’ll play, to use another metaphor.

The pawns were in place, the bishop already in position. It made me wonder where I was on the board.

If I may be so bold, I would liken you to the queen.

Queen. I wasn’t sure I liked that label. Compared to the king, the most vital piece, the queen could be disposed of. It could be sacrificed.

But, it did fit, in another sense. The queen wasn’t bound by the same rules as the other pieces. Pawns could only move forward, one at a time. Bishops, though less limited, could only move in a specific fashion.

Queens, however, had the least limitations. The most important piece, second only to the king. They could move. Forward, backward, sideways, diagonally. They had power, and they had freedom.

I inhaled, deep, and exhaled just as strong.

“Ready to go,” I said, firm. “Payback time.”

My heart started beating faster. I was waiting for a response.

And then, the response came. Not from Lawrence or D. It wasn’t verbal.

The response was heard, felt, then seen.

I heard the booming, I felt the soft rumble, I saw the smoke.

This was why I was so fixated on the skyline. I wanted to see the before, and the after.

Plumes of smoke rose from various points, blending into the night sky. Flickers of orange and red flared, gnawing to take a piece out of the oppressive black. Sirens sang, and people screamed. The pulse of the city quickened, the beast startling awake.

This was my play.

D had suggested smoking Benny out. But how would we accomplish such a feat?

Easy.

We used fire.

Previous                                                                                               Next

052 – Q’s Gambit

Previous                                                                                               Next

Everyone reacted in some way. Tilted heads, steps taken back, even D moved from behind to better face me, her curiosity piqued.

Hleuco, standing at my side, stood even straighter. Taller. His head just barely grazed the ceiling.

Lawrence stammered.

“Help? How? Why?”

I tried answering each three one-word questions, all at once. “I’ll need all the help I can get, and you need all the help you can get. It’s why I’m standing here, with her.” I gestured to D.

I continued. “You have my powers, and I have your numbers. And together, we all stand to benefit if we can get to Benny first.”

“That sounds ridiculous,” Lawrence said, “Why should I even trust you? And who even are you?”

All of you can trust me,” I said, stressing to point each of them out. “I saved your life, when I didn’t have to. And even outside of that, it’s not even about trust. It’s about the benefits far outweighing the idea to breach an alliance. Also, I wear a mask, I stopped a van with my bare hands twice in one night. Use your brain, and don’t ask useless questions.”

I saw the crease in his forehead forming, thinking. Then, he stared at me, eyes wide.

“You…” he said, but he became speechless. He mouthed the rest, and turned away.

I turned to the rest of the Ghosts.

“The offer is there. Help me get Benny, and in doing so, I’ll help your group get a better standing with the others. The only caveat is that I get to be the one to tear her head off. You can take it from there, and cash it in for whatever it’s worth.”

“What about after?”

Another Ghost asked. Sounded like a girl.

“After? That’s it,” I said. “We go our separate ways, doing our own thing. No tricks or loopholes about it. No fingers crossed. I’ll leave you alone, and I hope you’d do the same for me.”

They all took that in their own way, some huddling together to discuss it. Not even discussing with Lawrence, their leader.

Lawrence nudged the guy helping him, and the guy let go, leaving Lawrence to stand on his own. He watched his gang work without him.

He was visibly shaking.

“Hey!” he shouted, and then another thing in Spanish. The meaning was lost on me, but the intention was not.

“You’re all actually considering this? Working with that?”

He thrusted a finger at me.

“And her!”

His finger moved to D.

“We don’t know them, they aren’t part of the family. Fuck, look at them, do they look like they can be trusted? One of them wears a mask, and the other is that fucking heartless bitch, who just tried to kill me!”

D interjected. “Because you tried to get the jump on me!”

I shook my head. “Try to see the bigger picture, Lawrence. We work together, and everyone gets what they want. There’s no incentive for me to double cross you, or anyone here. Benny is the only one I’m after, and coming to a gang made up of those she abandoned for assistance, that’s a good start.”

“No, you,” Lawrence stepped closer to me. “You told me to use my brain, and I am. You’re the fucking Bluemoon, aren’t you?”

Watching the other Ghosts was a good way of assessing the general atmosphere of the situation. Their postures tightened, tensed up. Those who got together to talk broke away from each other to face me.

All had firm hold on their weapons.

I had given them everything but my name, as far as my old identity was concerned, but it didn’t click for them until Lawrence had to verbalize it, out loud. Showed the power in names, I supposed.

Hleuco was standing straight, and I tried to match him. No cracks in my stance, my posture. I couldn’t appear fazed.

“I was,” I admitted. “I was the Bluemoon.”

The Ghosts collectively bristled. They did not look thrilled.

I opened my mouth again. “But I’m not-”

Lawrence spoke over me.

“It was you,” he said. “Few months ago, in this same place. Some freak in a blue hoodie attacked while I… was trying to get shit done. In the end, I couldn’t get that shit done, but as it turned out, it didn’t matter. Because, what do I see the next day, on the news? The same freak in a blue hoodie, and fucking Benny. El Carruaje didn’t last very long after that.”

It wasn’t me… but semantics, I suppose.

The situation was degrading with every word that came out of his mouth. The truce standing on shakier and shakier ground, now, and it was faltering.

“Instead of Benny,” Lawrence said, “How about we turn in your head as a prize, you blue piece of shit?”

I kept my voice level. “You don’t know if there even is one.”

He shrugged. “I’m sure people would pay big bucks to get their hands on someone like you. Definitely more than a fifth of what we’d get from Benny. Enough that we all can be comfortable. Doesn’t that sound nice, no?”

He was appealing to his gang for that last part, and they were eating it up. Scraps weren’t enough, and they were hungry. I had seen it in their eyes, and in their dogs, too. It was why I tried to appeal to them, myself. If I could direct that anger, it could have been the edge I needed to turn things around.

As it turned out, that hunger could easily be directed to me.

Like a double-edge sword.

A few of Lawrence’s crew approached, testing with small steps. Their guns raised just a little higher than before.

Shit.

Hleuco bent down, wings extended. One went around my shoulder, as though to shield me.

This was going south, fast, and we were surrounded.

Could I make an escape? Yes, and it’d even be easy. I had healed enough that running wasn’t difficult, I’d move if I had to. D mentioned that the next building over was two level below this one. That was a drop I could make.

Now, if they fired…

Tricky, but manageable. There was always a chance of a stray bullet hitting me, or someone getting in a lucky shot, but I’d ultimately get out alright. I doubted that they could trip me up, but I’d been wrong before. Blindsided.

What about D?

D, right. That made things complicated. Was I even responsible for her? Considering I already saved her life once, and just minutes ago at that, it would be hypocritical to leave her behind now.

By myself, I could escape just fine. With D? It was safe to assume that she couldn’t heal like me. She was vulnerable, susceptible to actual, lasting injury. She was human.

Eyes on the Ghosts, I moved my arm, trying to find D at my side, in case I had to grab her and run. I spent too long touching nothing before I realized that no one was there.

Where is she?

I would have moved more, turned my head to locate her, but anything could set these guys off further.

Think of what else we can say to

“Bang!”

A sound, but nothing mechanical. Not nearly as loud.

A voice.

We turned all the same.

It was D, standing away from me and the Ghosts.

She had struck a pose. Standing on her toes, one arm pointing to the ceiling. Holding a gun.

“Bang bang bang!”

She was shouting, imitating the act of firing a gun into the air. But she wasn’t actually firing.

There was a pause that followed. No one was sure what she was doing, or what to do next. I wasn’t even sure.

We all watched D.

The pause stretched for a while longer, then D set her arm down, gun to her side. She coughed a few times.

“Alright,” she said, loud, for everyone to hear. “Now that I have your attention. I just want to say that you’re all being big dummies!”

It was like watching a sitcom with the laugh track missing. A momentary pause after a line, but with nothing to fill it. Dead air.

No one had a response.

D spoke again, picking up where she left off. “Do you people really think you have a chance on taking her out? Or even capturing her? Look!”

With her free hand, she pointed. A few, including Lawrence turned to look.

“See that pillar? She destroyed that thing with just one hand. Imagine what she could do to your face! And didn’t you see how fast she can move? You slowpokes can’t touch her. She’s gone in a blink, and now you have a super strong, super fast vigilante who is super mad. What’s to stop her from coming back and picking you off, one by one?”

D looked my way, and directed everyone’s attention back to me. My turn, then.

“That’s something I could do, should you cross that line. I don’t want to, though.”

“Is that a threat?” Lawrence questioned.

Annoying. How fucking dense was this guy?

“It’s not a threat,” I said, having to spell it out for him. “But I can promise you that it’s a line we don’t want crossed. If that happens, both sides lose out on a lot, and nobody gets what they want.”

I kept it vague, on what exactly both sides would lose out on. I’d let them use their imagination on that.

Lawrence’s hard stare remained. He wasn’t satisfied.

I spoke. “Listen. Yes, I was the Bluemoon, and I’ve went after gangs like yours, The Chariot. I’m probably the reason why the Ghosts came to be, and why you’re in the position you are now. Sure, blame it all on me.”

“I think I will,” Lawrence said.

I spread my arms. “But I’ve put that behind me, now. The Bluemoon’s dead, I’ve retired that name. I’m looking to start things anew, and I truly think getting Benny is the first step. And to do that, I could use your help, and I think you could use mine, too. Because, we both know the Ghosts won’t last, and making me your enemy puts you on a fast track to actually being gone. And I doubt you that’s what you want.”

I would have made some kind of ‘ghost’ joke at the end, there, but it didn’t feel appropriate.

Before, the feelings of everyone here were easily known, and easily directed. Now? They were mixed, and each one of the Ghosts looked like they were at a loss of what to do. D’s distraction seemed to have set the tension back a bit.

Lawrence, for his part, was harder to gauge. His jaw was set, square, looking between me, D, and his gang. Would he try and convince his gang to fight me, again? Or would he finally come around?

He turned my way.

“Does she come included with your deal?” he asked, tilting his head one way. I didn’t need to look to know that he was referring to D.

I answered.

“We have our own arrangement, and that will continue into this one. She has to prove her usefulness, up until she can’t, and then I kill her.”

“It’s true,” D said, piping in.

Lawrence rubbed his chin, and scratched the back of his head. He looked at the members of his gang, and they looked back at him.

A sort of silent discussion.

After a time, Lawrence had something to say.

“Okay,” he said, facing me.

“Okay?”

“Yeah, I’ll agree to work with you, only if you let me into that deal, too.”

“Meaning?” I asked.

“I’m willing to give her one more shot. One. If she fucks it up, by messing with me or my crew again, I get to kill her myself.”

I turned to D. She shrugged.

“Eh, whatever,” she said. “I promise I’ll be good.”

She really is a strange one.

I turned to Lawrence. “Satisfied?”

He took his time in responding.

“I am,” he finally said.

He extended a hand.

“Do we have a deal?” he asked, his expression pained. For him, this had to be a hard pill to swallow.

Slow, I walked to him, aware of the Ghosts, their weapons, and their dogs.

“We do,” I said, bringing up my hand to-

“If you’re not the Bluemoon, then who are you?”

Another voice, but I heard it earlier. A woman. I pointed her out from the crowd.

“What do we call you?” she asked.

Put on the spot, with no answer prepared. My time and energy were being spent on something else. I had put it off for later.

But that wouldn’t fly, not with these people. Had to come up with something.

And there is a certain power in names.

I glanced at D. She was looking back at me, standing more relaxed, now. Her arms were at her side, her hands free. She was waiting for my answer, too.

Well, in the spirit of present company…

“V,” I said. “You can call me ‘V.’”

I could see Lawrence almost roll his eyes. But he took my hand, shaking it.

“Deal,” he said.

“Deal, I repeated.

“Sweet!” D cheered, from the back.

A wave of relief came over everyone, it seemed like. Everyone was settling down, even the dogs were starting to sit, or rest on their stomachs. People were even putting their guns away.

“Now that we have that squared away,” Lawrence said, crossing his arms, “What’s next?”

“We plan,” I replied. “We need to get everything straightened out, and figure out what our next official move should be.”

Lawrence nodded. “We’ll have to relocate, though, can’t stay up here forever. We have a base over in Eastside. It’s not much, but everything’s there.”

“Good!” D ran to us, joining in the conversation. “We’ll need everything. You Ghosts came from the rib of The Chariot, so I’m gonna have to pick your brains to see if I can’t finangle a lead from it.”

Lawrence definitely rolled his eyes that time. “Yeah, fine, yeah, do what you need to. You know how to get there, don’t you?”

D smiled her wide smile. “Of course I do. Speaking of, as part of our deal, the van’s all yours, free of charge. The whole thing, bears and all.”

“Thanks,” he said, though he didn’t sound thankful. “Wait, you’re not driving it back?”

She gestured to me. “She kinda broke the windshield. I’m not going to be able to drive it without getting some looks.”

Unwanted looks,” she added, as if she was correcting herself.

“How are you getting there?” Lawrence asked.

D smiled again. “I have my pick.”

I could sense that Lawrence was already losing his patience with her. He backed up, and addressed his gang.

“We’re rolling out, back to base! Ándele!”

They all went into motion, gathering into small parties, then moving to their own vans, bringing the dogs with them. They were quick, too, already ready to leave before any of us three could say anything else.

Lawrence turned to us again.

“Meet you there,” he said, and he left, meeting with the man who was helping him up from before. We took that as our signal to leave, too.

With Hleuco following, D and I walked as a group.

“So, V?” D asked.

I rubbed the fingers of one hand together, feeling where the glove was torn.

“Better than ‘The Bluemoon.’ And at least it’s a name I picked for myself.”

“I’m not complaining, I think it’s cool. Definitely better than ‘The Bluemoon.’”

“Glad you like it,” I said, unsure of how to take the compliment.

My thoughts fell upon another detail.

“Hey,” I said, “Is that why you brought me here, to see the Ghosts? You knew they had ties to The Chariot.”

“Um, kinda? I was just going to ask them if they knew anything, or had a lead. I didn’t expect Lawrence to cheat me, and I for sure didn’t expect you to recruit them.”

“Things happen,” I replied. “Do you think it was a good call?”

D brushed her lip with her finger. “Dunno, too early to tell. Nothing wrong with some extra hands, I guess.”

I grinned, and waited until we were out of earshot.

“Exactly,” I said. “You don’t win games with just a bishop. You need pawns, too.”

D found that funny, laughing loud and hard.

We continued walking, going down the garage, taking the stairs when we found them. We got to the first level, and I let D take the lead. She approached a dark red minivan. Mini, but it seemed larger than the last one.

“Give me a second,” D said. “Usually this goes by faster when you have the key.”

She got on her toes, and peered through the window. Her breath fogged up the glass.

Watching D, and taking the little moment of downtime to let her work brought my attention back to my thirst. My throat was dry, and I could feel myself on the edge of something worse. My arms twitched one way, as if itching to grab something, and keep it still. My legs were burning, and it wasn’t from earlier. It was as though I was filled with energy I needed to use, or I’d end up burning from the inside, out.

You need blood.

I needed to get this sorted out soon, preferably before we met up with the Ghosts again.

“D,” I said.

“Hmm?” she answered, her attention still on the window.

“Earlier, when you were asking about my powers? There’s more to it than that.”

The base was simple. Smaller than I expected. Or maybe my expectations were too high.

We were in a Mexican restaurant, all the way back into the kitchen. Everything was metallic and reflexive, making the already harsh lighting even brighter. It was chilly, being closer to the big freezers and coolers, but I had a jacket on. Nothing was being cooked or simmered, but the place was imbued with a strong, spicy smell.

The restaurant was the first floor of a five-floor building, and the Ghost’s base of operations extended to the rest of the place, but Lawrence saw it fit to hold the meeting here. This was all they had, supposedly. But, there was enough space for everyone, even when it became standing room only.

Everyone, except for Hleuco.

Multiple, mismatched tables were put together, so the important players could have a seat, and some elbow room. Me, D, Lawrence, and two of his officers. Charlie, a girl in her mid-twenties, and Jonathan, and a man a few years older. Both had long, dark hair, and serious expressions.

In the middle of the table, were everyone’s guns. Including D’s. And my knife. A sign of faith.

Six chairs were laid out, but five were filled. A chair was empty.

“Where’s Melissa?” Lawrence asked. He was turned in his seat, facing one of his men who weren’t at the table.

D and I exchanged looks.

“She’s supposed to be here,” the man said, unsure.

“I know she’s supposed to be here, that’s why I’m asking.”

“Last time I saw her, she was on her way inside. Lost her in the shuffle.”

“Dammit, we need to start-”

D smacked her hands on the table, directing everyone’s attention to her.

“Relax, I’m sure she’s around. It’s getting kinda late, you know, maybe she’s taking a quick nap? I know I need one, it’s way past my bedtime.”

Lawrence shot her a look, squinting. “Ha ha. Fine, let’s get started. I can catch her up later-”

“Wait.”

Jonathan raised his hand, and pointed to me.

“I’d feel more comfortable about this if she didn’t have her mask on.”

I breathed, and a faint, sweet smell escaped my lips.

“I set my knife down, it’s the equivalent of you setting down your gun. Believe me.”

“But-”

“It’s fine, Jonathan,” Lawrence said, interrupting. “We don’t need any more problems at this juncture. What we need is her, V, not the person behind the mask. It can stay on.”

Resigned, Jonathan sat back in his seat.

I nodded to Lawrence, a silent form of appreciation.

“Now, let’s get started?” I suggested.

Looks from across the table. No objections.

“Good. Let’s go over the basic terms, real quick. This is a temporary partnership between me and D, and you, the Ghosts. As requested by Lawrence, I am to establish that not one person here gets to lead the others. We discuss best course of action, and we go from there. Also, this alliance is to be held with utmost secrecy. No other rival gang or competitor must know of what we’re doing, or what we have planned. We lose any leverage we have, if that happens.”

More looks from across the table. No objections.

“Good, then let’s continue. The end goal is capturing Benny. And she should be alive, when we get our hands on her. What happens after, is another story.”

I exhaled.

“The problem is, she’s damn good at keeping herself out of my reach. So I’m hoping, since the Ghosts came from El Carruaje, that you have something or anything I can use to… extend that reach, as it were.”

Again, I exhaled. It hit me how long I had been after this woman. How long Alexis had been after this woman. There was seemingly no end to this fucking chase.

Soon, soon.

Voices reassured me.

I took a second to recompose myself.

“So let’s get right to it,” D said, talking in my stead. “What do y’all got? L… Lawrence, if I remember correctly, you weren’t one of the top brass of El Carruaje, but you were trying.”

Lawrence made a twisted expression, barely restrained.

“Yes, you’re right, I wanted to be one of the big guns, part of the crew she kept close to her. And when I heard about what Benny was planning, with the weapons, I thought that was my in. If I could get everyone on board, and show her we were up for the task, she’d let me lead.”

He looked over to me.

“That all went to shit, though. But anyway, after the family fell apart, everyone scrambled to pick up the pieces. Neighboring gangs like the Rattlesnakes took some turf, and some new groups cropped up, like us.”

Lawrence motioned with his hand, as if showing off the back of this kitchen.

“This is the only scrap of El Carruaje we got,” he said. “And to finally get around to your question, I don’t got nothing on Benny. If she’s still here, then she could be anywhere. Maybe she’s hiding out in some of her old bases, but that would mean that another gang is housing her. Competition.”

“And you don’t think anyone in Eastside would be willing to hide her?” D asked.

“I said ‘maybe.’ There might be someone out there loyal enough to want to help her, but with real dough on the table, they’re more likely going to grab it for themselves. If I’m any indication…”

D tapped her fingers on the table. “Tell me where those bases are. I can check, just to be sure.”

She then winked. “I can be pretty sneaky.”

“Will do,” Lawrence said, flat.

“Neat,” D said. “That’s one possible avenue, but we need something more… well, more. How about Benny’s crew, anyone you can contact?”

“I wish. Guys like Samuel, or Roland, you don’t go to them, they come to you, whenever they, or Benny, needed something. It was a top-down sort of deal, the channels went one way, and you had to force your way to the top if you wanted your voice heard.”

I put myself back into the conversation.

“We have to assume that she has her crew,” I said, remembering the events at the school. “Not if, but when we find her, we might have to go through them, first.”

“Meaning we’ll be going to war,” Lawrence commented.

“Not if we can help it,” I said. “That’s why we’re having this discussion. Hash it out, see if we can’t find a way to strike them from behind, when they aren’t expecting it.”

“Okay,” D said. “So her crew’s gonna be a problem, but if we can get a hold of one of them, we get a hold on Benny. Anything else? How about the police? I’m sure if we ask politely, they might know something.”

“That was my original idea, before I ran into you.” I briefly turned towards D. “Not all of them are clean, if any, and if they’re on the lookout for her, then it’ll help to keep an eye on their movements. Gomez himself, though? He’s not going to play ball.”

D groaned. “Aw, what a lame-o.”

“But, considering other avenues, the police might not be a bad option. Which was why the police scanners were so crucial.”

In that last word, I directed a smidge of irritation towards D. She noticed, and made a heart symbol with her hands, pointing it to me.

I can see how Lawrence got to the point of wanting to kill you.

“And,” I said, “Like Benny, some of them were a part of the Solace conspiracy.”

It was as though I told the room that God wasn’t real. No one, here in the kitchen, could keep themselves completely still. Murmurs broke out between those standing around, Charlie and Jonathan whispered to each other, and D lifted her eyebrows, exaggerating the motion.

And Lawrence reeled.

“Solace,” he said. “Fucking Solace? The guy that fucked the city sideways to get to you?”

He jabbed a finger my way.

“Not one guy,” I said, calm, “But yes. Solace wasn’t a single person, but a collaborative effort. The police, Benny, and I think Styx was involved, too.”

“Shit, how deep does that go?” Lawrence asked.

“I don’t know, but I almost want to say that it doesn’t matter. After the bombing at city hall, Solace hasn’t made a move since. Again, I don’t know why, but we can use that. We’re looking for Benny, but the other pieces that made up Solace are still around.”

“Are you saying we go after Styx?” Lawrence questioned. “You do know that picking a fight with him means picking a fight with everyone.”

“He’s right,” D said. “That’s a beehive you don’t poke. It stings.”

I spoke. “Believe me, I know.”

Or, at least Alexis knew.

“I vote to not go after the crazy fuck with the motorcycle,” Lawrence said. “Especially since the Ghosts need a working relationship with him after this is over.”

I placed my arms on the table, putting my hands together. Going into my thoughts.

We were talking, hoping to go somewhere, but all we managed were circles. Round and round. An idea brought up, and then the reasons why it wasn’t a good idea. We were moving, but we weren’t going anywhere.

This wouldn’t do. I had to break this loop, somehow. Something I could come up with, that could let us progress. Move forward.

Styx. Gomez. The warehouse.

“If not people,” I said, “How about places. There was a warehouse that housed some of those weapons that Benny had smuggled in. And it was here, in East Stephenville.”

“Tell us something we don’t know,” Charlie said.

“The whole stockpile wasn’t stored in one place. When Solace was active, that warehouse didn’t even account for a half of what they had. Tell me, Lawrence, the neighboring gangs, have you noticed them carrying anything different, as far as firearms go? Anything that packs more of a punch than what you usually see on the street?”

“Can’t say that I have,” Lawrence said.

“Meaning those weapons are still in storage,” I said. “When Benny attacked the school, she used heavy-duty stuff. Bombs, that could be used remotely. That’s not stuff you see everyday.”

“You think she still has access to those weapons,” Lawrence.

“That’s what I’m guessing. We find where she has the rest stashed… you can fill in the gap.”

“Do you have a lead on that?”

I grimaced, though I had my mask. “I don’t.”

“Great, another dead end. I’m starting to think this isn’t going to work.”

Dammit. Dammit.

There had to be something I could use, something that could work. I got some decent momentum, with getting the Ghosts to agree to this, but it wouldn’t mean anything if I let it stop dead in its tracks, here.

I caught a sight of the sixth chair. Previously empty. A vestige had taken a seat. A blank face, wearing blue.

Without being conscious of it, I was tapping into more connections.

Dammit.

“Edgar Brown, Linda Day, Officer Jeffery and Officer… Sumeet, I think his name was? They all either had something to do with Solace, or they were in the loop, in some capacity. How about that?”

“Maybe,” D said. “Brown and Day are locked up pretty tight now, though. Read up on that on my tablet. Officer Jeffery could be anyone… but Sumeet is a unique name. Definitely narrows it down.”

I saw the vestige again, and I felt a pressure in my head. Not on, in.

I wish Hleuco was here.

“Last time I saw Sumeet, he had just fallen a handful of stories. A lot of broken bones, I bet he’s still trying to recover.”

“So he’s stuck in one spot, then,” D said. “That’s usable. If he’s in a hospital, I can find him. I know how to get those records.”

“You do?” I asked.

“That’s why I’m here,” D said, grinning.

“That’s something,” Lawrence said. “But it’s not a guarantee.”

Charlie and Jonathan muttered, seemingly in agreement.

“No, it’s not,” I said.

I shifted in my seat, bringing my arms close, raising them so I could massage my head. Relying on her memories and connections was dangerous, but I was running out of options, here.

Running, yet going nowhere.

Why was finding one person so damn difficult?

Maybe we’re looking at this all wrong.

“Ah, we seem to be stuck,” D said. She was mimicking me, with her arms on the table, hands raised, but her fingers were intertwined, in front of her mouth. “We can’t seem to come up with a way to find her. It’s definitely frustrating.”

“You read my mind,” I said.

I didn’t see her teeth, but I saw her cheeks move. She was smiling.

“All the pieces are there, but individually, they pose problems. Benny, the police, Styx, the weapons. But, together, I think I can come with something workable, maybe even fun.”

“What are you proposing?” I asked.

She tried to hide behind her hands, but I saw it. D was smirking.

“Instead of trying to find her,” D said, “We do the opposite. We smoke her out.”

Previous                                                                                               Next

051 – Give Me Teeth

Previous                                                                                               Next

There was a flash, coming at me from behind. I spun and caught it out the air.

“Snowball fight!” D said, a few seconds too late.

She shouted from across the parking lot. I could pinch my fingers together and have her fit in the space between.

“You actually got it?” she called out.

I lifted the white package above my head, showing her that I indeed ‘got it.’

A brick.

“Wow, that is legit super rad!” D exclaimed, skipping as she headed my way.

“I thought we were heading to one of your ‘jobs,’” I said, tossing the brick back as she approached. “Shouldn’t you be taking this more seriously?”

D had to jump to catch it, or the brick would have flown over her head.

Oof,” she said, as she got it secured. “And relax, we’ve got time.”

Her reply was dismissive in tone. Something I’d have to get accustomed to.

She passed Hleuco as she approached, who had been waiting outside the whole time. He moved in step with her, eyeing her closely, a very curious creature. But D had no idea.

“And it’s better to be on time than be early,” D added.

“And why’s that?”

“So you’re not a sitting duck, and people won’t get the jump on you.”

“You don’t seem to have much trust in the people you work with,” I said.

“That’s just the nature of the game,” D said, smiling. “You always have to watch your back, no matter who you’re playing with.”

Was I supposed to take that as a joke, or a warning? It was hard to tell, coming from her. Everything she said or did seemed like something I wasn’t in on, or I had to look at it a different way to catch the true meaning. Maybe that was just in her nature, to playfully jest. Maybe she was playing me.

But, she had her use, and I needed someone useful.

“Message… received,” I said, as D met me at the van. We were right outside the forsaken apartment complex, in a parking lot that was home to more vehicles that didn’t work than did. I was standing outside with my mask on, but it was too dark for anyone to notice, and even if anyone did notice, would they even be able to connect the dots? I wasn’t dressed as the Bluemoon. To them, I was just any random masked weirdo.

“Is this job anything I need to concern myself with?” I asked. “Or involve myself with?”

“No and no. Just delivering some toys to some lucky kids. And while I’m at it, I’ll ask about Benny, see if we can’t pick up anything already.”

“Doesn’t sound too bad.”

“See? Oh yeah.” D reached down at her feet, picking up an actual brick. “Try this next.”

She held it out, then dropped it. I would have let it fall, but it would have hit my feet, and I didn’t have the room to back up. The van was a foot behind me.

My hands moved, and I grabbed it out of the air.

“Watch it!”

Relax, you had a fast reaction the first time, and that was when I threw something at you, when you weren’t looking.”

“I saw it coming from the window, I can get blindsided, for your information.”

“But you still had enough sense to react. Most people would have ducked for cover after it collided with the window.”

Most people?

She was just messing around.

I lifted the brick to her face, a small reminder for her sake.

“Anyways, what’s with the bricks?” I asked.

D’s eyes lit up.

“Crush it.”

“What?”

“Break it in your hand!”

I looked at D, then at the brick. Both with confused looks.

“Is there something I’m missing?”

“Come on, you have superpowers, don’t you? I want to see you use them. It’s so cool!”

I let my disappointment show. I loosened my shoulders, and slouched. My arms fell beside me.

“They’re not cool,” I said.

“Uh, yeah they are, and you know it. They’re like magic tricks, except real.”

“And me chasing after you on foot wasn’t enough?”

D pouted, but it felt off. Rehearsed. As if she knew she was a kid, and was using that to play up the act even more. It was eerie.

“That’s different,” she said. “I was trying to run away, but now that you have me I wanna see it up close. Now come on, crush it in your hand!”

I brought my hand, and the brick, up again. I stared at it for almost a minute.

There was nothing to gain from crushing a cement brick with a single hand. Could I, even? Probably, but what would that prove? I’d just be doing this to entertain a little girl. Magic tricks, as she so aptly put it.

But, damn me. She had the keys. She knew how to drive.

As if I need another reminder.

And we apparently were early. Nothing else to do.

I put the brick back in front of D’s face. She gave me some space.

I wrapped my fingers around the brick.

Without much effort, my thoughts went to Benny. To the world.

I channeled that energy, through every individual digit. It coursed.

Then, I applied the necessary pressure.

Cracks through cement. Whole, then fractured. I felt the brick begin to crumble in my hand.

One more push of pressure, and I closed my hand completely.

“Whoa!” D said, astonished. She seemed genuine. “Ah man, I wish I recorded that!”

“No recording anything,” I said, patting my gloves together. “Now, are we done, or do you want me to crush that, too?”

I quickly pointed to the white, tightly packaged block in her hands.

D pulled it closer to her chest, slipping into her jacket. “No way, I actually need this one.”

When she moved her hand out of the jacket, she was holding a ring of keys.

“Alright, that’s enough playing around, for now. Hop in.”

She moved to the other side of the van, unlocking it from there. We got inside, both of us having to move teddy bears in order to find our seats.

After we settled, D worked to put the key into the ignition, turning it. The van activated, but only after some fits and starts. It soon got to a low, even rumble, and D stepped on the gas.

Or, more accurately, she stood on it.

I watched D as she drove the van. I couldn’t help myself. I was as curious as I was concerned we might hit something.

As I expected, she wasn’t tall enough to see over the wheel if she were to take a seat. She had to stand, placing herself between the seat and the wheel, with the seat adjusted farther back to provide her some room to move around. She was buckled in, but the strap that was supposed to go across her chest was tucked back and away, leaving only the waistband part that hugged her stomach. As an added measure, she had a stack of phone books propped up behind her.

I observed her every time she shifted her weight from each foot, moving from gas to break, or just coasting. Glancing from the wheel to the cracked windshield, signaling when needed. For someone who shouldn’t even legally be behind the wheel, she was doing pretty well for herself.

I wanted to find something to critique, as if I was a driving instructor myself, but that assumed a level of experience I didn’t have. And she seemed to be doing a decent job. The ride was smooth, and she was aware of what was happening around her, checking her mirrors and blindspots. If she was skilled enough to race through the city, drifting and performing other stunts, then she was better than me.

It was a sight for sure.

D glanced to her side, and noticed me watching.

“Are you that impressed?” she asked.

“Can you blame me if I am?” I asked in return, my eyes still trained on her. “It’s something I’ve never seen before. Kind of like a magic trick.”

“Hah, kind of, if you wanna look at it that way. But I still think the whole ‘crushing a brick with your bare hands’ thing has me beat.”

“Mm,” I said, shifting my focus to the street ahead. The cracks in the glass had spread, but D was managing fine. If nothing else, I was more concerned over the van itself than D’s driving.

“So, what’s your deal?” D asked, her eyes to the road.

“My deal?”

“Don’t act like having superpowers is the most normal thing in the world. You had to get it from somewhere. So spill the beans. I wanna know.”

My memories on that day were of broad strokes. Like skipping through scenes of a movie I had already seen before. I got most of it, but I was glossing over the details.

A party. A walk. A barn. A girl.

And I didn’t really need to know more than that. The broad strokes were enough.

“Sorry,” I said. “But I’m not up for saying.”

D pouted.

“Aw, that’s no fair. But hey, you know, we just met. We can work up to that.”

As if, I thought.

Part of me wanted to get back at her the same way.

I asked, “And your deal is?”

“My deal?”

“Don’t act like being a thirteen year old van-stealing, delinquent drug dealer is some normal thing.”

“Hey, let’s get something straight. I’m not thirteen.”

“How old are you then?”

She grinned, and left it there.

If she was going to be like that, fine, I was being the same way. I could even make a decent guess from there, anyways.

But, damn, I really wanted to pin her down, have her figured out.

I continued a stream of questions.

“Where are your parents?”

I had already asked that, but she being smart with me before, and there were more pressing matters at hand. Now? D said we were early, so right now we had time.

And, like the last time I asked her, there was a moment’s pause.

“Didn’t I already give you a jokey answer? Wasn’t the bit funny enough the first time?”

Oh. That was harsh.

Definitely struck a nerve, there.

“Guess they’re not around,” I whispered, so she couldn’t hear me. It was probably the best assumption. D lived alone in that apartment, aside from Macy, but I could barely consider her a roommate. And if she did have parents that were around, they would have to be majorly fucked to let a child run free, doing…

My thoughts went to Shiori.

Point taken.

“You said you’re free to do whatever. I’m guessing you don’t have school to keep you busy during the day?”

“Nah,” she said, with more pep. “School’s for chumps. I learn by being outside, by doing. And if there’s anything super technical I want to know, I dunno, I can just grab a book, or something.”

I wouldn’t question her methods, considering they got her this far. She seemed more capable than any kid her age. Probably more capable than some adults.

“So you do this all day?” I asked.

D checked a mirror, and made a turn.

“Eh, not really. Before I picked up this gig, I was getting into a lot more trouble, just for the fun of it. That’s all well and good, but I learned pretty quickly you need some structure. This helps center me, keeps me busy, all the while giving me a chance for that sweet, sweet upward mobility.”

“You want structure, but no school?” I asked.

“Nope. It’s for chumps.” She took a hand off the wheel, pressing a button on the center console. Heavy metal music started playing, at an almost unreasonable level.

“Maybe I am still looking for trouble,” she said, barely registering over the noise.

The music played, and it put up enough of barrier to stop any more conversation, which was fine by me, I wasn’t here to soul-search with a little kid. My eyes drifted to the side, watching the streets go by. I found Hleuco in the skies, spinning and rolling through the air, zipping ahead, only to spiral around and do it again. His great wings pushed with a sense of strength. Power. Freedom.

It was a fantasy, but how could I be so envious?

It had been but a handful of days, but I was already drained from having to play Alexis Barnett. It was a role I had little enthusiasm towards, a mask I didn’t want to wear. Some of her connections were needed, like her experiences as Blank Face, but they came with trite, superfluous information. I didn’t need to know about how she got into volleyball, I didn’t care to know about the intimate details of her first kiss. But that was the draw, they came with the more useful bits.

And it is going to stack, dilute your thinking, until you’re a little less you, and a little more her.

I didn’t want that. I didn’t want to disappear.

It made having to find Benny all the more imperative. That was me, and me only. A goal I would see to the end, and not Alexis.

And what happens after we get Benny?

I didn’t know. Would I disappear? Like a robot, after it fulfilled its programming. Would I shut down, waiting further instructions?

I didn’t want that.

I couldn’t let myself be stuck to Alexis when I was done. Chained. To be shackled back in that apartment, haunted by phantoms of a past I wanted nothing to do with. To have bits of my mind chipped away, until my very self faded to a dark nothing. What would happen to me, then? Where would I go?

Pressing a finger to my chin, I fixed my mask.

No.

No no no.

I couldn’t let that happen to me. Couldn’t let that be my fate. I wasn’t going to let her win. I wasn’t going to let her connections tie me down.

Her friends weren’t mine, her family wasn’t mine, and I hated wasting the effort to pretend. I hated it, and I hated Alexis.

I wanted to be up there, with Hleuco. Free.

After Benny, then, shall we-

“Yo, here we be.”

D’s word provided a needed distraction. I looked through the broken glass ahead.

We were entering a parking garage, near a larger department store. Familiar, but I stopped my mind from going down that route. No more connections than were necessary.

There were other vehicles on the first floor, but none as D drove us up to the higher levels. We passed by the third, the fourth, then the fifth. As we reached the sixth, lights drew towards us.

D took her foot off the gas, steering us through the vans, people, and dogs.

The windows were tinted, they wouldn’t see us. But the eyes still put me on edge.

D positioned us so we parked in one of the few empty spots, the front of the van facing the gang. In a way, our backs were against the ropes, since the end of the parking spot was lined with metal cables, towards open air.

She put the van in park, and relayed the plan to me before I could get a voice in.

“Alright, you’re gonna have to stay in here and sit tight. I’ll handle all of this, and see what info I can squeeze out in the meantime. Just stay low, and we’ll be one and done before you know it.”

“This is a lot more people than I expected, and I’m not liking how cornered this is making me feel,” I said. “How do I know you’re not leading me into a trap, by leaving me in this van?”

D gave me that look again, like I asked something stupid. “You can fight your way out, can’t you? You’re strong.”

She then reached across to my side, opening up the glove compartment. A black handgun made itself very well known.

“In case of trap, pull trigger,” she said.

She closed the compartment, and then she was out, leaving me inside the still-running van.

Fuck.

I had my suspicions of D, and while I was confident in myself and my own abilities, this was playing too close to the fire. I might recover from the burns, but I’d still have been burnt.

For just this moment, D had me stuck. I was forced to watch as she took things from here. A wary spectator.

D walked in front of the van, cutting through all the heavy beams of light. The dogs barked as soon as they laid eyes on her, their teeth snapping. Only held back by leashes, and the armed men holding them.

Some of the lights got cut, giving me a clearer view of the scene. D had her back to me, facing a man twice her size. The right side of his face was patched with bandages, the other I could tell was swollen. He’d seen some action, or at least, got his ass kicked.

His mouth moved, but I couldn’t catch the words. The dogs were too loud.

D gestured in response, but I had no way of picking up the meaning. She flipped open her jacket, showing him something, then she jabbed a thumb over her shoulder, briefly turning around. I could have sworn she was looking right at me.

Fuck.

I took off my seatbelt, and tried to make myself smaller.

The man nodded, then shook his head. He raised his chin.

He howled.

Enough!”

The dogs stopped barking. Some whimpered before they completely went quiet.

D and the man continued talking. I could hear them, now, but I couldn’t understand them.

Glancing to a button on my side of the door, I considered pushing it, cracking the window open.

My entire body tensed as I moved my hand, a finger hovering over the button.

Teeth gritting together, I barely gave it so much as a tap.

“-very lucky that I’m letting you walk away without a fuckin’ scratch.”

“Lucky? Please, L-Boy, you’re not going to last if you don’t have a stream of revenue, and no one in this town is willing to do business with you. Well, no one except me. You should be considering yourselves lucky.”

There. I had an ear in the conversation. It was faint at best, but it was something.

“You’re just doing this to spite me,” the man said. “To rub salt in the wounds you caused.”

“Yeah, so?”

“You’re such a heartless bitch.”

D brought her hands behind her back, and tapped her foot on the ground.

“Aw,” she said, tapping her foot again. “I like the sweet talk, Lawrence, but it’s not sweet enough. Just having me work with you is best deal you’re gonna get. The price stays.”

“Yeah yeah, you heartless bitch.” The man, Lawrence, took a step to pass D, and she moved, walking with him. “You really got this stuff from him?”

They were coming towards the van. Towards me.

All night, I had been keeping a mental note of where my knife was, at all times. Now, I made of note of the gun in the glove compartment.

‘In case of trap,’ she said.

“Who else am I gonna get it from?” D replied.

“But you understand why I’m hesitating, even when I’m desperate. If you stole shipment from-”

“Relax, it’s gonna be fine. He’s not even really going to miss it. It’s from an older stash, meaning the quality isn’t the best-”

D murmured that last part.

“-and there isn’t much. But, you said it yourself, you’re desperate. So you’ll take what you can get, and you and your Ghosts can go on to haunt for another day.”

“Stop. I’m tired of finding reasons to call you a heartless bitch. Just let me and my boys walk with some dignity.”

I lost sight of them as they came around to the driver’s side. I ducked even lower. Ready, if this really was a set up.

The door slid open. Not the driver’s door.

“Too late for that, L-Boy. Here’s everything, you can-”

I heard a commotion.

Grunts, a startled shout, a thud of metal on flesh. The sounds of a struggle.

Some dogs started barking again.

Before I could make sense of what was happening, D reappeared from the back row, jumping into the space between the driver’s seat and the wheel.

Every dog was gnarling and gnashing teeth.

“What did you-” I started, but D once again cut me off.

“Crap, crap, mission abort,” she said, clutching the gear knob. “Either you buckle in, or you find us another way out of this.”

And then she pulled on the gear knob, and she stomped.

The van jerked, then flung.

But not forward.

Backward.

The van accelerated backwards, and immediately hit the metal cables. But we were going at a decent speed, and the cables already looked weak, unattended to.

Looks weren’t deceiving, in the case.

I heard them snap. The van continued.

She’s sending us off the edge of the building.

I turned to D, her hands still on the gear, her foot still planted down flat.

No words. My body just moved on its own.

D had curled herself into a ball around the gear, protecting it with her body.

I thrusted out my hand, squeezing it between her and the gear. I found her chest. I shoved.

D was practically lifted into the air, the gear shifting and her foot taken off the gas. As she came back down, she covered her head, to not hit the wheel. Her small body fell into the space where the driver was supposed to put their legs.

But the van kept moving. Toppling.

I felt us tipping back.

We were going to fall.

No.

Had to do something.

My body moved on its own, again. No thoughts, just action.

I pushed myself up, my hands on the seat itself, my feet on the back part. I lifted my head to see the window.

It was cracked. Could I break through it with a strong enough impact?

Maybe, potentially.

The gun. Could I use it to give me an opening?

As if in response, the van swayed back, and I felt my stomach leap.

No time for that option.

I steeled myself.

Using the back of the seat as a platform, I sprang from the seat. My arms over my head, bracing for the shattering of glass.

I heard it, I felt it.

Glass shattered all around me. The sounds of glass, barking, and shouting.

I felt the open air, the rush as I knew I had to continue to work, and work fast.

The van and I moved in opposite directions, all at the same time. It made it easier for me to get over the hood.

Hard, my landing on solid cement. I landed, but I didn’t collapse. I didn’t let myself.

I sprung back up, turning around. I went straight to the van. I could see the underside of the thing, already.

Throwing out both hands, I scrambled for a hold underneath the grill of the van. It was the only place I could get a good grip.

I had to dive to get that grip.

Got it.

I grabbed a hold of the van, but now I was moving with it, too. It’d bring me over with it, if I didn’t do anything else.

My hands still in place, I pushed my body up, using my hips. I went a bit into the air, and I used that to throw my legs and feet under me, getting some footing.

I got it, but I was still sliding, inching forward.

I needed to get us to stop.

Planting my feet down as hard as I could, I tried pulling the van towards me, all the while pushing the vehicle down. If I could get the damn thing down flat, it might save me some trouble.

Not much progress in that regard. Cement moved from under me.

My muscles in my arms hurt, my legs screaming in pain. I already went through the wringer, earlier in the night, with this very same van. With the very same person behind the reason why.

I couldn’t take much more.

But I kept pulling, even if every second made the effort harder. More in vain. I kept on.

I screamed, as if that would accomplish anything.

I tossed my head back, trying to pull more. More of the same.

Through squinted, sweat-soaked eyes, I saw something.

A pillar dividing one section of the floor to the next. Between two parking spaces. As I was sliding, I was passing it, getting closer.

I could reach it. But…

We can’t reach the far end of it for a hold. Too far.

That couldn’t stop me. The next best thing, then.

Which, really, was an absolutely terrible idea.

Which shows just how fucked I was. If the the next best thing was a terrible idea.

I took a hand off the van. The closer one. The left.

I punched the cement pillar.

I wasn’t sure what broke first. My hand, or the cement.

But I got a hold.

I had made a hole in the pillar, but my fist stayed inside. About half of my forearm was within the thing.

An intense, blinding pressure. A tug, all focusing onto my elbow.

My arm went taut.

An anchor.

And I used it to keep myself in place, with the van in hand.

I screamed, not because it helped, but because it hurt so fucking god damn much.

The weight of the van tore at me, threatening to separate me from my arm. It was probably even feasible.

My head was about to be split open, my eyes about to burst out of their sockets.

Hold out for a bit more.

Easier said than done.

My fingers on one hand dug into metal, and there was no feeling in the fingers of the other. Just pressure from that elbow, up to the rest of my arm, my shoulder, then my whole fucking body.

Metal kept digging, and in turn, I kept pulling.

Something was bound to break. Probably me.

D said there was a lead to Benny, here. Let this go, and I’d lose everything. I had to salvage this somehow.

With my last remaining strength, I drew my arm back, and as hard as I could possibly manage.

I felt it bend.

My arm was moving. My grip on the van.

Perhaps negligible, but there. I felt it.

And it seemed to be enough.

The van creeped, bit by bit, away from the drop, its metal belly scratching the cement edges.

Come here, come here, dammit.

Tiny, but usable centimeters of progress, but I could only do so much, like this. I did have a breaking point. Someone else was going to have to pick up my slack.

I screamed again. But there was a purpose in my tone. Not just raw expression. A calling.

The sound of movement, the shuffling of feet. Shouts.

A man came running to the van, stopping right where I was. He had a length of chain in one hand, extending somewhere behind us.

He searched around for something he could do, somewhere to apply the chain. Couldn’t help him there. I didn’t have the voice.

He bent down, working the chain under the van, right by my hand. He figured it out himself.

The man worked fast, he was already up and running away. Another person took his place. A female, with chains of her own. She was about as fast as the first guy, tying the chain somewhere underneath the grill. She was up and out in a flash.

I watched, the chains slowly lifting off the ground. Getting tight.

The chains stretched into straight, parallel lines, and then the van started moving forward.

To me.

There was a transfer of power going on, between me and the chains. The van moved, and I felt the pressure on my body lessen. The metal dug into my fingers a little less, my arm in the cement pillar getting a little looser. The strain on my body was easing up.

Which gave room for the pain to sweep in and make itself known.

The soreness, the throbbing. It hit my whole being. As if stretching a rubber band as far as possible without breaking it, when the pressure was alleviated, the band was left loose and flaccid.

I felt like rubber. Stretched-out. No cuts, I wasn’t bleeding, but I was still hurting. The healing process started, but it was within me. Reconnecting muscles and joints. Making them firm again. Feeling things worm inside me.

I almost lost enough of my senses to laugh. Of all the things I inherited from Alexis, it just had to be her penchant for self-abuse.

Fuck you, Alexis.

Fuck you.

The van moved some more, the grill pressing into my chest and face. Moving me along with it, but I was still elbow-deep into the cement pillar.

I waited a bit, the van pushing me more. Positioning myself.

When I found myself at a decent position, I yanked my arm out of the pillar. It fell beside me, and I fell onto my back.

I couldn’t get a good look at my arm, but I could guess how mangled it had become. The van kept moving, rolling over me. I was small, I didn’t get run over.

I was breathing hard when the van was secured, people moving about. I needed to be present.

The desire to stay down and mope in the pain, I pushed it aside.

I forced myself up, propping myself up with my okay arm.

My healing was working all this time, and I was feeling somewhat better by the time I was on my two feet. I checked the arm I used to hit the pillar. The jacket sleeve was still decently intact, but the glove was tattered. My fist looked compact, more like a ball of flesh and bone than separate digits and parts.

I hitched in my breathing at seeing that, and I put my arm down. It’d heal, in time. I just didn’t want to look at it anymore.

Shit. After the first accident earlier tonight, I could have went another night without needing to feed. Now, I had to get something to drink before I returned to the apartment.

It’s fine. You’ll find something.

I’d better.

Arms at my side, I approached the van. Every door was wide open, with teddy bears spilling out. Some of the dogs were tearing them up, fighting each other for their own to chew up. One was licking a man by the cheek. A bandaged cheek. He was sitting on the ground, a distance away from the van. Rattled.

Their boss? He was in the van, too?

Other dogs noticed me, and went to barking.

It brought the gang’s attention to me.

I already had my arms up before it was a solid thought in my head. Even the bad arm, or the one that was more worse off.

“None of the macho stuff,” I said. “I think I just saved your boss. Let’s call it a truce, and we can settle this with words.”

The gang members looked among each other. They turned to me, all nodding. They tugged at their hounds, getting them to zip it.

Good. They weren’t stupid.

D collapsed out of the van, heaving for air. She stayed on her back. She had the handgun, clutched to her chest.

One of the gang members closed in on her, weapons ready. She immediately brought her gun up, but she was pointing more to the ceiling than anyone here. Her arms were too stiff, if she had any intention of pulling that trigger.

“Get away! Back off! It’s Lawrence’s fault, he tried to short me! You don’t freaking cheat me! You can’t!”

The gang members stopped. I walked over to D.

“D,” I said, looking at her. “You’re safe now. No one’s going to hurt you. Relax. I don’t know why, but I got you. I saved you.”

“Thank, thanks you,” she said, between heavy breaths. Hiccups.

“Thank you,” she said again, correcting herself.

Funny. It was in this situation when she acted most like a kid.

“What the hell were you thinking, doing that?” I asked.

“I know, I knew what I was doing. The next building over was only two levels lower. I woulda made it, I would have.”

As she fell over her words, Hleuco came to my side. Browsing the scene, he squawked at the few dogs that couldn’t keep calm.

She’s as crazy as the rest of us.

“Can you get up, or do you need help?” I asked.

“I’ve got it,” she replied, but she soon shook her head. “No, can you? Please help?”

She dropped one arm to her chest, along with the gun. She extended a small hand my way.

I took her hand, using my worse one. My healing really did wonders for me.

I helped her up, while checking my surroundings. And we were surrounded.

All hostiles, with only a temporary, shaky truce keeping them back. I had to maneuver through this – through them – carefully, if I wanted to be able to walk away with no further harm done.

Coming around the front part of the van, I saw the man D was talking with. Lawrence. One of his men was helping him, getting him to stand. He managed, but he still had to rely on his lackey.

Much like this parking garage, he seemed familiar.

It made me realize I was still holding D’s hand. I let go, and heard a faint whimper.

I walked to him, Hleuco coming with. The gang members reacted, and as if by routine, I raised my hands.

The truce remained.

“Lawrence,” I said, voice raised. “You tried to sabotage the only good thing going for you and your gang. Why?”

I made it a point to phrase it like that, to get everyone up to speed, while making Lawrence out to be the offended. It might shake his gang’s faith in him. Anything to get an edge in this.

“I didn’t sabotage shit, she was the one constantly talking shit. You don’t know her like I do, this has been going on so fucking long. From pranks and shit, and when El Carruaje disbanded, she kept going, after me.”

“Because you make it too fun,” D said. She moved behind me, holding my jacket.

“Shut up! She fucked with me when I tried to build up the Ghosts, and now I have to buy from her if I want my boys to continue holding a presence in the city. I swear she planned out this whole damn thing from the beginning.”

“Not now,” I told D, pushing her back with my arm. I returned to Lawrence. “And you wanted to get back at her? At a little girl?”

“I’ll do what I can to survive, I’ll bite that bullet. But if I one up her, then sure, fuck it. I just didn’t expect…”

I filled in the blank for him. “Me?”

“Yeah, you.”

I scanned the people around, and looked back to Lawrence. “Your gang’s on the skids, and you put everyone at risk by trying to pick a fight with a girl half your size. And you still lost, you would have died if I wasn’t there to do something about it. Tell me, was it worth it?”

I didn’t intend for the question to hang, but Lawrence let it, not answering for a good minute. But his silence was saying a lot for the others. Exchanging looks, lowered weapons, an overall down disposition. Even the gang member Lawrence was holding onto shifted, almost as if he was trying to pull away from him. Doing the minimal effort required to keep him up.

“You’re not a gang,” I continued, “You’re scavengers, picking up whatever scraps possible, hoping to see the next day, and you fucked up the last bit of scraps you’re ever going to get. Let that sink in.”

I reiterated the same point for effect. It did sink in. Lawrence dropped his head, and everyone else in his gang felt that. They were all in this together, and they were struggling. I didn’t have any knowledge of the Ghosts before this, but I wouldn’t be surprised if everyone gathered was all the gang had to offer.

“But,” I said, “There is a way to turn it around. There is someone you should direct your anger to.”

All eyes were on me.

“Benny,” I said.

Lawrence lifted his head, eyeing me. “Benny?”

“Yes. You were part of her old gang, were you not? But after her plans failed, the one that necessitated all those weapons, The Chariot fell apart, and you, Lawrence, tried to pick up the pieces for yourself. To scavenge.”

“So what if I did?” he asked.

“It would have worked, for a time, if Benny didn’t decide to shoot up a school.”

Various looks from all around. Mostly concern.

“She did do it,” Lawrence said.

“Yes, she did, and that’s probably a reason why the Ghosts are losing traction in the city. No one wants to associate with someone with too much dirt on their hands, even with a few degrees removed. Shit sticks, and then it spreads.”

“Okay? What does that have to do with us?”

“It has everything to do with you. Benny slipped away, but she’s still in the city. There’s a nice prize for her head. Find her, and you might be in a better standing. Your gang earns a seat at the table.”

Lawrence glared at me, a puzzled expression.

“Why are you suggesting this to us?”

His question gave me pause.

Why was I suggesting this? Benny was mine, but I was telling a branch of her old gang to go after her.

Because I couldn’t do this myself, because it was something Alexis would have never resorted to.

Because it would be a nail in her coffin.

And we need all the nails we can get.

Glancing at Hleuco, I found the confidence I needed to say my next piece.

“Because, I’m thinking we should team up.”

Previous                                                                                               Next

050 – Les Enfants Terribles

Previous                                                                                               Next

“Yo…”

I repeated the word, still trying to process what I was seeing.

This girl was the one driving the van. Her. Someone this young.

Drifting around corners, racing down streets like a professional. Like a madman, honestly.

I kept staring at her, but it was becoming more and more implausible.

She was short, young, definitely not the legal age to even hold a permit. Short, brown bob cut, disheveled from the van’s sudden stop. Pale skin, indigo eyes. A white sweater with a bomber jacket on top, three sizes too big. The jacket matched with her skirt, leather and black. Black boots. The choker around her neck threw me for even more of a loop.

For a getaway driver, she was pretty well coordinated.

But that was neither here nor there.

Just her being here raised so many questions.

I regained enough of my senses to ask the most pressing one.

“Where are your parents?”

The girl made a face, as if the most reasonable question to ask was instead the most stupid.

“Mind if I lie to you? I’m not up for giving you a proper explanation. I’d rather make it up.”

Flabbergasted couldn’t even begin to describe it.

This was it, right? Thomas’s van? I couldn’t have done this whole chase across the city just to find some stuffed animals… and her. Did I have it right, or was this some elaborate prank?

I had enough sense to ask something else, instead.

“Where’d you find this van? Did you get it back at the factory?”

“What if I did?”

She had a subtle lisp, I noticed. Probably from that missing tooth. She whistled when she talked.

But she still sounded like a child. High-pitched and grating. It annoyed.

She really was just a kid.

I gave her a pointed look.

“It’s not good to take things that aren’t yours, kid. Didn’t your parents ever teach you any common sense?”

She made another face, complete with that sneer from before. “They taught me plenty, thank you very much.”

I noted the past tense, but I didn’t comment.

A honk, and I moved my head. Claire’s taxi was approaching, coming up beside me.

She brought down her window.

“Hey!”

She didn’t sound very happy.

“Claire,” I said, but I didn’t know how to go about handling her. My mind was preoccupied with another matter, and my body was doing its own thing.

I was sore, and my healing wasn’t done doing its rounds. Bones creaked as they joined together, a strange, welcoming numbness soothed me into a better condition.

My clothes didn’t have the same ability, however. My windbreaker weathered a few rips in some places, and I was a few steps away from becoming soleless.

Your shoes, you mean.

Yeah.

“One second,” was all I could tell Claire. For the moment.

I looked back at the girl.

“I’m not through with you, but we have to take this somewhere else. Can’t have cops interrupting us. Do you have any place we can go?”

Using her sleeve, the girl wiped the bottom of her lip.

“There’s a place,” she said.

“Good, because you’re taking us there, now. And don’t try anything funny.”

I backed up to close the driver’s side door, and turned to address Claire.

“My taxi’s-” she started, but I spoke over her.

“I’m really sorry about… this, but she’s going to have to take precedence,” I said. “We’re heading somewhere else to have a proper discussion.”

“Where?”

“Don’t know, but you’re free to come along. And after I’m through with her, we can figure something out, between the two of us. Sound okay to you?”

Claire put the taxi in reverse, presumably to get a better look at the girl.

“Yo!” the girl said.

Then, Claire gave me a pointed look.

“Her?”

“Yeah. It’s… strangely complicated.”

Claire shook her head.

“Whatever. I’m coming.”

I nodded. “Alright. See you in a bit.”

I was in a hurry, now, moving back to the van, sliding the passenger door open. More stuffed bears fell out onto the street.

“Hey, I need those!” the girl whined. “And what are you doing?”

I picked up the bears, throwing them back inside. I closed the door.

“I’m making sure you don’t cause any more trouble,” I said. “Go.”

This place was a shithole.

The building smelled of must, and it was warm. The recent rain seeped into cracks and holes, dripping from the ceiling and soaking the tiled floor, making the air sticky. Moist. It would be very easy to slip and fall into one of the many bags of trash or litter accumulating the different floors.

This place was an apartment complex. People lived here.

The girl led the way, taking us into one of the apartments. Based on the numbers of the doors around us, this was apartment 414, but the ‘1’ was scratched out, the grooves in the door making a ‘0’ instead.

“I’m back,” the girl called out, as all of us filtered inside. No one answered.

The lights were already on, but they were low, not running on full capacity. Everything was cast in a burnt orange hue.

Looking around, the apartment might as well have been ransacked. Nothing of even potentially sentimental value was anywhere to be found. Just boxes, stacked together and kept out of the way. There was a single bedroom, kitchen, and bathroom, and only a couch here in the living room. The doors were closed, I could only imagine what was being hidden behind those doors, considering how seedy this place was.

The air was humid in here, too, the smell masked only by an air freshener plugged in the corner. It smelled of lavender.

Cracks in the wall, the floor creaking with every step. Smaller, secluded holes in corners that suggested other, four-legged tenants.

This girl lived here, didn’t she?

No shit, but it was still a hard pill to swallow. Who would subject themselves to these living conditions?

“Welcome to my humble abode,” the girl said, falling into the couch, by a bundle of blankets. The bundle squirmed.

“Humble doesn’t even begin to put it into words,” I said.

“Well, originally, it was gonna be renovated and cleaned up, you know, gentrification, but the tenants had something to say about that. With the help of some local gangs, they drove out the company in charge, and the city hasn’t really cared to do anything about it, after the fact. Of course, they scared off everyone whose job it was to clean this dump, and it’s been running itself into the ground ever since. Eating itself alive.”

“And you chose to live here?”

The girl shrugged. “I dunno, I needed a quick and easy place to crash. I just came back into the city.”

“You mean you’re by yourself? Alone?”

Claire got a word in before I could. But she was speaking for the both of us, there.

“I’m not alone, I’ve got Macy.”

A hard tug, and the girl threw the blanket off the couch, revealing a woman laying there, curled up. She wasn’t moving, but she was breathing, looking more unconscious than asleep.

Claire, for her part, took several steps back.

“Ah, damn, I told you to lay off the stuff already,” the girl said, leaning over Macy and swatting at her hand. “One more hit like that and you’re donezo.”

Macy reacted, twitching, yet delayed. Her hands opened, and a needle slipped between her fingers, onto the floor.

Claire took another step back.

“Is that…” she started to ask.

“Huh? Oh, nah, she was already here when I moved in, but I don’t think she’s noticed.”

“How could-”

“Wait, hold on.”

I had to stop Claire, or we’d end up going nowhere. I lifted my hands, a signal to move to a different topic.

“I came up with a whole list of questions to ask on the way here, just so I can get it down all at once, and not forget anything. This might be pressing by itself, but there are more important things I want to get to.”

While I was talking, the girl was pulling the blanket over Macy again, fixing it so her face wasn’t obscured. When she finished, she fell back into the couch.

“Sure, ask away. You did catch me, after all, so I guess you deserve a prize.”

From behind my mask, I gave her a pointed look. Even though her biological parents weren’t seemingly around, she was in desperate need of some serious guidance, and counseling.

“First off, a name.”

She sneered.

“You first, O’ Masked One.”

I bit my lip.

I was in need of some blood, soon. I could drain her dry right here, and no one would miss her.

I looked at Claire, but she averted her eyes. Looking at her made me realize it was the first time I’d ever had a clear view of her.

Shoulder length hair, red, tied back. White shirt and jeans. Pushing thirty, if not there already. The creases in her forehead aged her.

She would have been pretty, in another, less stressful life.

My eyes went back to the girl.

“You know who I am, or who I used to be.”

The girl crossed her arms.

“Say. It.”

I tapped my side, making sure my knife was still there.

“The Bluemoon.”

She grinned, showing the gap in the upper row of her teeth.

“How super, the hero in the flesh. Emphasis on super.” She then eyed me. Up, then down.

“Not gonna lie, I thought you were a boy.”

I nearly rolled my eyes. She would have seen if I did that.

“I thought the same thing, too.”

I saw Claire, hands in her pockets. She sounded guilty.

I fixed my hood, setting it more evenly on my head. “Sorry for not choosing something more revealing, or skin-tight. I went for something neutral, people made their assumptions and I didn’t feel the need to correct them. Truth be told, it’s probably been a more effective disguise than any mask I’ve worn.”

But that disguise is gone now. Benny blew it wide open. Now everyone knows that the Bluemoon is a girl, of some Asian ethnicity.

I felt the anger flow within, continuing to shift me. Like magma, under plates of earth.

“That doesn’t matter, not anymore. I’m not here as the Bluemoon, and I’m not quite sure if I’m even here as a hero.”

The girl spoke. “That surprisingly keeps us at square one. I’ll call you ‘Bluemoon,’ easier that way.”

I was more than a touch annoyed, but not enough to make a big fuss over it.

“That’s fine, I suppose,” I said. “But now it’s your turn.”

“Right. Okay, if we’re going by code names, then you can call me ‘D.’”

“Dee?”

“Like the letter. D as in ‘deepthroat.’”

Again, I tapped my side.

The girl, Dee – no, D – laughed, the sort of laugh that was unrestrained, uncaring of public decency.

Full of surprises, she was.

D settled down, and cleared her throat.

“Alright, what else you got?” she asked.

Now she was the one asking questions.

I decided to roll with it.

“The van. You stole it from that factory, did you not?”

“That’s a pretty strong word, but sure. I needed a way around, and I happened upon it. If it’s any consolation, I’ve been good about parking it there whenever I’m done with it, and I gas it up every time.”

“Barely a consolation,” I commented. “But the van isn’t my main priority, actually, though it is useful. There was equipment in there I was looking for. Police scanners, radios, laptops. I didn’t see any of it when I rode with you here.”

“Oh, all that junk? I needed the space, and some cash, so I pawned it.”

I crossed the living room.

I grabbed her at the collar, and threw her onto the wall behind her. I kept her up there.

Claire yelped at how sudden I was.

“You fucking didn’t,” I said, my patience with her having thinned away to nothingness. Young, old, it didn’t matter. I’d break them if they deserved it.

D hardly reacted or panicked. Her arms stayed by her sides. Her vulpine sneer returned.

“I freaking did. I saw an opportunity, and I took it. I was short on cash when I came back, and anything helps when trying to get back on your feet, yeah? Can’t blame me for trying to feed myself a little.”

I made a sound, nearing a growl, and I dropped her. D fell onto the couch, landing on top of Macy. I walked back to where I had been standing before.

I was seething. Barely restrained.

All that work, that whole rabbit chase, and it led to nothing. I was still empty-handed. Nothing to show for all that effort.

I tired of this, spinning my wheels and going nowhere. I craved progress, even more than I craved blood.

I tried looking around for Hleuco, but then I realized he hadn’t come in with us. I would have imagined him wanting to come through the window, but the ones here were boarded up. Unless he didn’t want to show himself if I moved my head elsewhere, I was by myself.

Standing still, I gave myself a moment to cool off, shifting my weight from foot to foot.

D propped herself up, pushing away from Macy, settling back onto the couch. She looked at Claire.

“Props to you, by the way,” she said, as she tugged at her choker.

“About what?”

“That’s some serious driving you did, good job.”

“Oh, thanks?”

“Seriously, it was really awesome, like-”

“Stop, stop.”

We all looked at Claire, who had begun to make an ‘X’ with her arms.

“Look, girls, I’m just a cab driver. I purposely put myself in the dark about this stuff so I can try and sleep at night while making some decent money for my own girls. I don’t know why the literal actual superhero is looking for police scanner shit, and I don’t know why you… are whoever you are. My taxi got fucked in that chase, and my shift ends in an hour. How am I supposed to explain that to my real boss when I take it back in?”

D grumbled, getting up from the couch, towards one of the stacks of boxes. She moved them, opening one from the middle of the stack.

She pulled out a teddy bear. And a sizable stack of cash.

Across the room, she tossed them to Claire. She caught them both.

“Do you know Patrick, over at Pecan? The Ferryman.”

Claire answered, holding the bear out in front of her. It didn’t look particularly dirty.

“I’ve passed there a few times,” she answered.

“Give that bear to him, and tell him I send my regards. He should give you a good enough patch-up job. Nothing crazy, but it’ll do. The cash should be enough to cover your ‘detour’ for the night.”

Claire held the bear away from her even more. “Is there something in here?”

“Unless you’re a customer yourself, then nope.”

Hearing that, Claire’s entire body language changed. She let her arms fall beside her, still holding the bear, and money.

“Appreciate it,” she said. The sarcasm was laid on thick.

She looked to me, and my head had cleared up some more. I was ready to get back into this conversation.

“Yeah?” I said.

“I have to leave now if I want to get everything back in working order and clock out on time. If I hurry, I can drop you off somewhere, but it’d have to be along the way.”

Taking a breath, I placed a hand on my hip.

“You can go, I still have unfinished business here. I’ll manage getting back.”

I wasn’t expecting this night to go down the way it was going, considering I was expecting Gomez to be my go-to option, but with D being here, I wanted to get a grip on what she was about.

Claire nodded, curt. “If that’s okay with you, then I’ll be going. And if you ever need a lift in the future, boss, you have my number. I promise I won’t run the meter.”

Not surprised, but pleased.

“That means a lot, Claire, thank you. Again, sorry about the-”

She stopped me with a gesture, lifting the bear. Then, she went to leave the apartment.

The door closed with a heavy clunk, and it was just me and the girl. D.

Well, there was Macy, but she wasn’t so much here as she was… there.

I turned, facing D again. She had returned to the couch, her legs crossed, with an expectant expression.

This fucking girl…

No, she was more like a character.

“And I’m not done with you,” I told her.

“I’d be disappointed if you were.”

“Those scanners would have been really helpful. The police have got eyes and ears everywhere, and I’d-”

“Puh-lease,” she said, interjecting. “That old junk’s worthless, they can’t pick up even half the channels the cops use nowadays, and what they can pick up, the signal’s shoddy at best. They’re outdated, even paperweights make fun of them. If you want something better than that, I’m your girl. I can out-scan any pleb-tier gadget that Señor Gomez has.”

I took a step to her.

“Wait, ‘Gomez?’ As in James Gomez, Chief of Police?”

D snapped her fingers. “Yeah yeah, him.”

“You know him?”

She glanced to the corner of the couch. “I’ve had some run-ins with him, in the past.”

Another surprise. It was getting harder to keep up.

“Do you know where I can get another scanner?” I asked.

D grumbled, and then her hands went into her lap.

“Scanner this, scanner that, blah blah blah. What do you even want to do with those things, anyway? They’re not even very fun to play with. If you want a toy so bad I’ve got a spare tablet I picked up-”

“Because I’m looking for someone.”

She stopped for a second, and then looked very interested. Curious.

“Who?”

I sighed. No harm in telling her.

“Benny, from The Chariot.”

D lifted an eyebrow.

“Oof, if I had dollar for every time I heard that name.”

I approached her again, at a pace that was inhuman. D reacted, putting her feet up on the couch, pressing her back to the wall.

Even Macy stirred.

“Don’t tell me you know her, too,” I said. “You know where she is?”

I was cornering her, throwing her off. I had enough of her attitude. Too smug for her own good, and for her age.

I put my foot on the couch, raising my head to look at her. I questioned her again. “Do you know where she is?”

D brought up her hands, her palms facing me. “Whoa whoa, I’m not saying that at all! I just meant I’ve heard people mentioning her ever since I came back. Like with Gomez, I’ve run into her and her gang, but they were still nobodies last time I checked. Now? It’s like she’s the hottest thing on the block. It’s strange.”

“It’s not strange. Everyone’s after Benny, and I have to beat them to it. She’s in hiding, biding her time until she can leave the city. But I’m not going to let her have that chance, she’s not getting out of this alive.”

The expression on D’s face changed, taking in everything. The corners of her mouth folded upward.

“Oh ho? I like the sound of that.”

She shifted, standing on a couch cushion, her hands on her hips. She leaned towards me, seeing me at eye level.

“I was afraid that you were going to turn out to be boring. But you’re already bringing the party to me. I’m in.”

The hell is she rambling about?

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“I mean exactly that. I want to help. Wait, not want, I will help you.”

I frowned, but my mask’s expression was blank.

“You? You’re going to help me?”

Her smile widened.

“Of course. I know these streets like the back of my hand. Other kids my age couldn’t even walk down the street without their heads in their phones, telling them where to go.”

“That’s not the part I’m questioning,” I said.

D restated her point, “You don’t have to worry about me. I’ll be your eyes and ears, even your personal bodyguard, if it has to come to that.”

I huffed, a light scoff. “Highly doubt it’ll get to that point.”

D rolled her eyes. “Fine, but I’m still a good piece to have on the board. You could stand to have me by your side.”

“Hm, and what piece would you be, should I decide to put you on this metaphorical board?”

I saw careful thought cross D’s face, taking her time.

After some deliberation, she answered.

“The bishop.”

Speaking for myself, I’d never played chess. And, gathering from what connections and memories I decided to take, neither had Alexis.

But that wasn’t the main focal point, here. Was this girl actually going to be of any use? She seemed to be pretty knowledgeable about Stephenville and its underground, and she probably knew more than I ever did. My ventures into that world usually took place in the night, and I had a clean bed to come home to. This girl lived in that world. It was the ugly reality she faced each and every day.

And she faced it with a smug, irritating sneer.

Oddly inspiring, I had to admit.

But there was another point to consider.

“How do I know that I can trust you?”

I decided to ask, rather than speculate in my own head.

D seemed to be taken aback, stumbling on the couch. She straightened herself, and her back.

“Of, of course you can trust me. I mean it when I say I will help you. It’s just a matter of whether or not you want it.”

Talking around my question. She wasn’t being entirely convincing.

“Alright, how about this? Why should I let you help me?”

“Because you don’t have any leads, and you don’t have a lot of time. I can get you both. You wear a mask, and that tells me that you have some other life you need to attend to. Me? I’m out there, all day, every day, by myself, and no one bats an eye. I’m free to do whatever. During the day, I can ask around, discreetly, and see what I can come up with. And that saves you time to properly prepare, and you can do the whole superhero schtick, and give the bad guys exactly what they deserve.”

I saw into her eyes, and I knew she meant every word. She was being serious.

It was a look I’d seen before. But exactly when or where or who was unclear. Vague, like a foggy memory, getting more distorted the more I tried to reconnect. It wasn’t worth the resulting headache.

Maybe she really would be of use? My options were limited, no thanks to her, but she did have a point about accessibility. I was still chained to the name of ‘Alexis,’ and someone like Gomez was chained in a similar way, by the law, as perverted as it was. Even Claire had other responsibilities, I couldn’t expect her to be at my constant beck and call. D didn’t seem to be tied by those restrictions. As she put it, she was free to do whatever.

‘D’ for ‘different,’ I suppose.

By and large, an extra pair of eyes and ears wasn’t a bad idea. It just had to be her eyes and ears, though.

If she ever proves to be an issue, we can dispose of her easily. A resource for blood.

Even I had my reservations about that idea.

I broke eye contact with her, and gave her some space. She got down from the couch.

“Here’s what we’ll do,” I told her. “You’re… an anomaly, but in the grand scheme of everything, so am I. I’m willing to give us a shot, if you’re really as good as you think you are.”

D clasped her hands together, doing a small hop in celebration. “Yes! This is going to be so fun!”

But,” I said, cutting her short. I let the word hang. “If you give me a reason to doubt you, for even just a second, I will kill you.”

I didn’t mean that last part, but it was over-the-top enough to drive the point home.

D didn’t seem very bothered by that threat. “Looks like I’ve got my work cut out for me. Double fun!”

I heard a soft rumble, and D patted her jacket, then slipped her hand into a pocket. She took out a cell phone. It looked new, better than any phone I, or Alexis, had ever owned.

“And will you look at that, great timing. Hey, do you have anywhere else you need to be right now? Or better yet, when does your whole superhero shift end?”

I thought about Shiori, sleeping in the smaller of the two bedrooms in the apartment. Come morning, she’d wake up, get ready for work, then leave without ever checking on me or my room. She gave Alexis her space in the mornings, something I was more than happy to capitalize on.

“It ends when I get my hands on Benny,” I replied. “Why?”

“Because, I was originally on my way to park your van and call it a night, though you kinda got in the way of that. But, I did have a job I was saving until morning, might as well take care of it now, since I still have the van with me. So my real question is, do you want to come along?”

“Why should I?”

D grinned.

“If it all goes well, we might have a clear lead on Benny. Instead of asking you to trust me, I’ll prove it.”

I watched as the little girl puffed out her chest, even though there wasn’t anything to puff out. It would have been endearing, if it hadn’t come from her.

A piece on the board, begging to be played. I just hoped it was the right move.

Previous                                                                                               Next

049 – Spikes

Previous                                                                                               Next

Dim, artificial light. Cramped space. A controlled, level speed that almost lulled me into taking a nap. The lack of control.

A taxi ride was the stark opposite of traversing a jagged city skyline.

“Gotta say, never thought I’d ever see you again, boss,” the driver said. She was calm, unconcerned. Not that she would be keen to my exact plans, but the contrast between us was almost amusing.

Claire, her name was. Not due to any connection to this person being notably strong, all I did was ask.

“Funny how that works out,” I said, though I didn’t sound very amused. I was looking out the window, watching cars and buildings pass. I saw a man strolling on the sidewalk, and as the taxi continued, I noticed a group, tailing him. A gang.

That won’t end well.

The taxi turned a corner, and I lost sight of them. I was left assuming the worst.

“Oh, and don’t call me ‘boss,”’ I added.

“Why not?” Claire questioned, eyes still on the road. “You called me up, gave me a job, now I’m working for some dough. As long as you’re in my taxi, you’re my boss.”

She said it so matter-of-factly.

I rested my head on the window beside me. “Sound logic, there.”

My eyes roamed some more, not really focusing on anything or anyone. I just watched, letting the scene pass. When buildings gave way for slivers of sky, I saw Hleuco, soaring through the air, on his own.

I felt an oddly placed sense of envy.

But I had to go about it this way, buildings and rooftops weren’t going to take me where I needed to go. It was too far, and walking was too time consuming. Taking the bus would have been another option, but this was more convenient, more direct.

I had to remember the number to call for Claire’s taxi, and have her come pick me up. I wouldn’t use my personal phone, just to be safe, so I elected to use a payphone. It took some time finding one, and it took some time learning how to use one, but I got it all straightened out.

Claire arrived at the back of a liquor store ten minutes later. My mask was off, but my hood was still up.

The taxi slowed to a stop. We were at a light. Cars lined up around us.

“Oh, shoot,” Claire said. She lightly smacked her hand on the wheel.

“Problem?” I asked, my eye on a car.

“I, um, no. I just got on the wrong lane and now I’ll have to go around. Barely a detour.”

“You’re just running up my meter,” I said, partly as a joke, but she really would be running up the meter.

“I promise it wasn’t intentional. It’s just that I’m not very familiar with this part of town. I don’t get called out here too often, and even with the GPS, it’s easy to get on a middle lane and not realize you can only turn left.”

“I wasn’t being too serious about it,” I said, having to reassure her. “As long as you get me to where I need to go.”

“Uh, yeah, sure thing, boss.”

The light turned green, and we started moving again.

The ride wasn’t uncomfortable, but there was a tinge of anxiety in the air. A sort of pressure. No music from the radio, with the only sound coming from our breathing, and the wheezing of the engine. The taxi was old, seemingly.

“That Bluemoon stuff, huh? Such a shame that happened.” Claire said. Out of nowhere.

“Bluemoon stuff?”

“The school, those kids. What a shame.”

“It was,” I said, wary. Uneasy.

“You know, I remember the last time I had you in my taxi. You left quite the impression.”

“Did I?”

“You did. If I recall, I asked if you were the Bluemoon or not. You denied it, and said the Bluemoon was arrested at the Panorama. The club that was promptly burned to the ground just minutes after you asked me to take you there.”

The decoy. I remembered. It bought me some time on that night, allowing me to slip past police and meet with Gomez, but the illusion didn’t hold, I supposed. It was probably easy to prove the decoy was fake, and it went unreported. Had anyone actually bought it, Benny wouldn’t have went to the school.

I drew my hand to my side, my pocket. Fingers traced the edge of my knife.

“Your point being?” I asked.

“I may be just a lowly taxi driver, but I’m not dumb. Just tell me if you’re the Bluemoon.”

That right there. Her million dollar question.

I remembered denying her once before. It probably wouldn’t work again.

“And what if I was?” I asked, my hand in my pocket. “Would you tell anyone? Call police?”

There was a notable silence from Claire.

“I wouldn’t,” she answered.

“No?”

“It’s an unspoken rule among cab drivers here, we don’t talk about who we pick up, where we take them, or what they do when they get there. And, the Bluemoon has superpowers. I’ve seen the videos. I’d get ripped into pieces before I could even think to do anything. No, it wouldn’t be worth it. I just…”

Claire went mute.

“You just what?” I asked.

“I just want my money.”

I see.

I asked another question. “Claire, do you have a family?”

“I do,” she whispered. She left out the details, and I didn’t ask for them.

She couldn’t see me, but I nodded.

I spoke.

“You don’t have anything to worry about, Claire. I’m not the Bluemoon. I’m not going to kill you, and you’re not going to be ripped into pieces. You’re far more useful to me alive.”

And we’re saving that intent for someone else.

Precisely.

“That’s… a relief,” Claire said, but there was no relief to be found in her tone.

The conversation died on that soured note, and the remainder of the drive went without another word.

The ride took us farther away from downtown, where the buildings became shorter, the housing becoming more public. The hood.

Another turn, and the road changed to something considerably less paved. We were almost there.

“And here we are,” Claire said. The taxi began to slow, but not to a stop. It cruised, instead.

My destination was up ahead. I positioned myself to get a better look through the windshield.

An abandoned factory. The abandoned factory. The one Hleuco and I used as a meeting place, back when I was Blank Face.

It was as run-down as ever, maybe even more so in the weeks I hadn’t come back here. Cracks in the cement structure ran up several levels, reaching up to the roof. The tops of smoke stacks were solid black, covered in dirt. Blocky windows were either broken or so dirty, useless either way. Graffiti was tagged and retagged, resulting in legitimate murals becoming indecipherable scribbles.

It was a skeleton of a factory, now. Out of the way, forgotten.

That made it a perfect place for wannabe-heroes to meet up. And the perfect place to hide the toys they used when they went out to play pretend.

Claire kept the taxi at a low speed, inching towards the broken building. “Want me to keep going?” she asked.

“That won’t be necessary,” I said. “Don’t want you running the meter any more.”

She gave a short laugh, putting the taxi in park. “Of course, boss.”

I checked the meter at the front, the cost of the trip here. Oh. It was more than I expected. And there was still more to come. I still needed Claire, I still needed her taxi.

But that was the price for convenience.

I was aware of how light my funds had become. Thomas had once compensated me for my outings as Blank Face, but I was on my own, now, and I’d need another way to get some cash.

Time was money, and wasting one was wasting the other. Drag this out, and I’d run the chance of never being able to find Benny. Claire was useful, but I couldn’t rely on her forever.

I had to budget my time and money.

As I walked ahead, Claire rolled down her window.

“I’m guessing you want me to stay here?” she asked. “Haven’t paid me yet.”

“Yeah, if you don’t mind,” I said, not very enthused. “I’ll be bringing back some stuff.”

“Sounds good to me. I’ll move ahead so I can wait for you. My lights will probably be off.”

She then added, “Don’t worry, I won’t run the meter for that.”

“You’re funny,” I said.

“Also, um, this place is a little suspect, even for me. I might honk, in case of, I dunno, anything.”

“Sorry about that,” I said. “I promise I won’t take long.”

Claire nodded, and I turned to the factory. No point in loitering. Backlit by the taxi’s headlights, I headed to the factory, keeping a hurried pace.

I entered through a wide gap where doors were supposed to be. A huge hole, as wide as it was tall. Large enough to drive a van through.

I stepped into complete darkness, but I continued without pause or hesitation. As if reading from a map, I knew where to go.

Thomas’s old van. The one he used when his beak was still part of a mask.

Inside would be all the equipment Thomas had left behind. Police scanners, radios, laptops, anything and everything I’d need to listen in on police activity. Where they were, what they were doing, I’d be privy to. And if they happen to get even the smallest whispers of Benny and her location, I’d be there, listening in.

Gomez wasn’t going to help me, but he’d provide assistance all the same.

I had to watch my footing, stepping over fallen pipes and other broken bits of metal and glass. I recalled a stack of used needles I had to look out for, too. Even with my healing, I wasn’t about to let any of those things prick me.

Carefully, I maneuvered through winding assembly lines and heavy machinery, over to where Thomas last left the van.

There, tucked to the side, between the wall and a hulking block of metal. Another machine. The van should still be parked in that space, hidden under a heavy tarp.

Except…

I stopped where I was.

There was nothing here.

The van was gone.

I stared.

Nope. Still gone. Just the tarp that would have covered it up, now crumpled and flat on the floor. Where the van should have been.

Fuck.

I took a step closer, and picked up the tarp, feeling the rough fabric.

Where did it go? Who took it? How? In the back of my head, I had feared the worst, but I didn’t actually expect this to happen. It was hidden well out of sight, the only people who’d dare to come around here were druggies and their dealers. That, and the stupid and the curious, maybe. But there was never a good reason to stick around and wander. Even the homeless had no need for this place, it was too far from the city.

The only way to find the van was to already know of its existence. Yet, it wasn’t here.

Then, who took it?

I dropped the tarp, backing away to avoid dust and bugs.

Fuck, I needed that equipment. The ability to listen in on the police was a valuable asset, and now it was gone, along with the van. Back to square one, and I couldn’t afford to take any more losses. Not at this juncture.

Otherwise, it would have been all for naught.

But, what were my other options? What else could I do?

Fuck.

I slammed a fist against the machine beside me, and it dented.

I was frustrated, but I wasn’t defeated. This was but a minor setback, I could figure out something else.

Hell, maybe the van was still-

A burst of noise. I tensed up.

The sound of a car horn.

Claire.

Did something happen?

I didn’t waste time to question it, I just moved.

I hopped onto the machine, getting on top. I knew my way out, now, I could take a short cut.

Smoothly, I flowed into my next move. I sprung through the air, my hands reaching into the bag strapped to my back.

I had my mask in my hands by the time I touched ground, running out of the factory. Just in case.

A flash of light flooded my eyes. I reacted, blocking with my arms and spinning around. I threw my mask on, as well.

The light drew away the next instant, and I was able to regain my bearings.

A black van was turning back, speeding off when it righted itself.

A black van, at this hour, here? That was no coincidence.

We have to get that van.

The vehicle was already retreating into the distance, down the path we took to get here.

I had to find Claire.

I scanned the lot, quickly finding Claire’s taxi heading to me. I met her halfway.

“You signaled?” I asked, her window already down.

“I did, and-”

She paused for a moment, her eyes widening a fraction.

Ah.

My mask. I had it on. That pretty much confirmed who I was, who I used to be.

But that was the least of my concerns, right now. The van was getting away.

“Yes?” I said, urging her to go on.

“Um, yeah, that van came and shined its light at me, and I got worried. I thought something was about to go down, or I was about to get caught in some ugly business. I’m used to taking people to where they need to go, but I’m not used to sticking around. So I signaled.”

“Good, thanks,” I said.

“It’s a good thing it went and ran off, or I might’ve been a goner.”

I stole a glance back at the path, at the van. Two red brake lights were becoming smaller and smaller.

“Actually…” I started to say.

I looked back at Claire, completely serious.

“We need to catch that van.”

She looked as if I had told a really bad joke. Deadpan.

“Boss, honey, you’re not seriously suggesting-”

“I am, that was what I came here for.”

I ran around the taxi, getting into the passenger side.

“Just drive,” I said as I slammed the door.

Claire grunted, but she listened, slamming on the pedal. The taxi lurched before sending us forward, but we were moving.

We got back on the path, giving chase.

The red lights were mere dots, now. The van was farther up, having had a head start, but we could do it. Claire could do it.

“I’m really doing this right now!” Claire yelled as we streaked down the bumpy road. Thuds and clanks. The taxi sounded like it was going to tear itself apart from all the little hits and impacts.

She yelled again. “You’re really making me do this!”

“Just keep going!”

I was leaning forward, knuckles clenched on the dashboard. White. As if doing that could make us go faster.

But we were going faster. The speedometer was rising at a steady pace.

Claire shouted.

“How are we even going to stop them? We’re just chasing it!”

Good point.

“I’ve got that covered!” I said. “Just get me as close as you can!”

“Jesus fuck, I am absolutely charging extra for this!”

The taxi tore up the path, and we were nearing where dirt met road. Squinting, I swore the lights on the van were getting bigger. We were gaining.

The van sped off the dirt path, and continued straight. It was a heavy vehicle, not to mention large, it couldn’t make a turn without having to slow down. It crossed the intersection, and a red light, making a beeline to the city proper.

We raced behind.

“Come on!” I shouted. “Faster!”

“That’s not helping!”

I had to make an effort to zip my mouth. A significant effort. My blood was going as fast as the taxi.

My eyes scanned the road ahead. If I was going to help, I’d be the lookout.

Not a lot to worry about. The late hour had cleared out any potential obstacles, drivers or pedestrians alike. There was one – make that two – cars we zipped by, but they took up other lanes. Claire was free to push this hunk of metal as hard as it would allow.

The advantage was double-edged, though, since there wasn’t anything impeding the van, either.

The van was going fast, and we needed to be going faster.

We were making progress, however. I had a better visual on the van. We were closing in.

“Just a bit more!” I yelled. “We’re almost there!”

Claire grunted, gripping the wheel even harder.

“There’s still the question of how we’re gonna stop it! We’ve got about a half-mile before we have to make a turn, we can’t go straight forever!”

I took a hand off the dashboard, moving to the door. I pressed a button, and the window came down.

Wind immediately whipped my face.

“I said I’ve got it covered!”

I put my feet up on the seat, and I started climbing out of the taxi, through the window.

Claire yelled something, but it was lost on me, now. The wind was too loud out here.

I twisted and turned, positioning myself so I was sitting on the bottom of the frame, my butt hanging outside. If we passed by a car now, I’d be clipped and turned into paint.

I extended my arms, trying to reach the taxi sign bolted to the roof of the vehicle. My fingers got a hold of it, and I pulled.

It was like being thrown into a hurricane. I flung myself up onto the roof, and the wind kicked back my hood, my hair flying everywhere.

The taxi was accelerating even more, and I was hanging on for dear life.

Wind rushed past my ears, compromising my hearing. I could barely hear myself think. Every movement of the taxi sent my veering in that direction, with only my hold on the taxi’s sign to keep me in place. It took all my strength to not slip off.

My jaw clenched, I pulled myself again, lifting my legs so I could get some footing on the roof. I had to manage by feeling it out, my eyes were getting watery.

I shifted, moving my arms and legs until I had a decent position, crouched on top of the taxi. Even with powers, this was harder than movies had led me to believe.

Blinking water away, I tried getting another look at the van.

It was even closer, now, we were going to catch up. Just a little more, and I could jump over.

Just… a little more…

Tires screeching, horns honking.

The van swerved left, onto another street. Drifting around the corner, without sacrificing too much speed or momentum. Tires screeched again, and the van fixed its course, continuing down a new path.

Shit.

To pull that stunt with a huge van, I was almost impressed. Almost.

Claire just had to try and pull off the same thing.

The taxi swerved left as well, but it was lacking in the execution. The turn was too sharp, and Claire tried to compensate by stepping harder on the brakes.

I slipped.

My whole body was heaved one way, a hard right. I lost my footing, and my legs were hanging off the taxi.

Claire had taken her foot of the brake, I could tell that much. The taxi skidded, then accelerated forward.

“Agh!” I yelled.

The tips of my fingers were fighting for purchase on the taxi sign. It was the only thing I had to hang on to, or I’d be sent spiraling off the car.

But, coupled with my weight, and how fast we had turned, and how old the taxi was…

It was all grounds for a disaster.

The sign started coming off, bolts and screws flying apart where I had put too much force in my grip. I could feel the sign getting loose, and with half my body being dragged off the taxi, I was completely and utterly dependent on the support of small, rusted metal pieces. My whole weight was on it.

It wasn’t going to last.

The taxi straightened itself into a new lane, and the chase continued. Other cars were around, and Claire drove past them.

The sign was starting to hang onto the roof of the taxi as much as I was hanging onto the sign itself, bolts and screws scattering everywhere.

Another second of this, and I’d fall off. The van would get away, and I’d lose them. I’d lose everything.

No, we mustn’t let go.

“Agreed.”

I removed my hand off the sign, at the same time it gave out. I made a fist, then punched into the metal roof.

Then, with my other hand, I released my hold on the sign. Tossed back, it hit the cement behind me. I reached out, fitting my fingers into the hole I made in the roof.

There we go.

I wouldn’t fall off like this. I moved myself again, regaining a better position on the top of the taxi.

Below, I heard Claire yelling.

But, damn, that was a close call.

With my hands secured, gloves protecting my fingers from the jagged metal edges, I could put my energy back on the van.

We had lost some distance back at that turn, but we were quickly making up for it. When it came to speed, the smaller taxi was faster than the larger, weightier van.

But there were other variables to keep in mind. The length of the street, the number of lights and intersections, other cars. Other people. Obstacles. Whoever was in the van was apparently a better driver, too. I couldn’t allow them to pull another fast one on us, they might actually slip away next time.

Claire had to bring me closer, and I’d be the one to stop them. If by force, with my bare hands, then so be it.

I was more than capable.

A moment later, I saw Hleuco rushing by, overhead.

He was fast, fast enough to reach the van and circle around. No one else could see him, though. Little in the way of a distraction.

But that wasn’t the only way he could help.

Hleuco circled one more time, then flew ahead, passing the van. My eyes followed him.

He came onto another corner, making his turn into it wide… and obvious.

It was the next turn. The end of the road.

And there was only one way to turn.

I changed positions, lowering myself so my stomach was flat on the roof’s surface. I pulled up so my mouth was near the hole.

“Right turn up ahead!” I shouted. “Get ready!”

“Fuck!” Claire barked out, but the taxi adjusted from under me. Inching right while we sped forward.

We were going to cut them off at the turn.

Readying myself, I wiggled my fingers some, trying to get some feeling back. They’d gone numb.

Holy hell, we were going fast. People willingly strapped themselves into these fucking death machines.

And I was sitting on top of one of those fucking death machines, hanging by the skin of, not my teeth, but my fingers. There was no seat belt to help me here.

I only had one shot at this.

We were tailing them, and approaching the corner at top speeds. Now or never.

Underneath me, I felt the taxi start to decelerate slightly. Claire had taken her foot off the gas pedal.

Then, she had switched to the brake, tilting the wheel, and we started drifting.

We beat them to it, already preparing to make the turn. It slowed us down a touch, and the distance grew, but it was marginal.

And it was planned.

The van’s brake lights finally went on, and the entire vehicle shifted, keeping its momentum. A controlled drift.

Claire managed to pull it off the second time around, but the van’s driver was still way better at it, probably more experienced. But it wasn’t about skill. It was about timing.

They were still angling themselves by the time we were already in a new position. Momentum carried us, sliding us so close it was dangerous. Between the two vehicles, we formed a lopsided ‘T.’

Now.

My feet were flat, my knees pressed to my chest. I let go of the roof. Wheeling around, I faced the van.

I hopped over.

A hard impact, knocking the wind out of me. But there was no time to grumble over it, or try and catch my breath.

I landed on my stomach, nearly sliding off. As hard as I possibly could, I gripped the edges of the roof, keeping myself stable. Pulling inward, tightening the muscles of my arms.

The van finished rounding the corner, and continued forward. Hleuco rejoined me, flapping his wings with more fervor, as if to cheer.

I did it. I had the van. I wasn’t sure about Claire, if she was still following or not, but I had a feeling I’d be seeing her again either way. It was something my gut told me.

Now…

How the fuck was I supposed to get this thing to stop?

I couldn’t start punching holes into the thing. I didn’t want to. I’d try to keep as much of it intact as possible. Hopefully, the equipment was still in there.

The person inside? I didn’t care less over what would befall them.

I moved bit by bit, slowing crawling along the top of the van. I probably moved more cautiously than what was necessary, but I’d rather be safe than sorry, here. Should I fall off, it would be that much harder to come back.

The van still rolled along, fast, but I could manage. It swerved when it had the opportunity, trying to shake me off.

Nice try, I thought. I was too strong.

I recalled, in movies, wouldn’t people usually shoot at the roof of the cars if their pursuer was above them? Whoever was in the van hadn’t tried that, yet.

I should probably end this before it went there.

The chase was over, I had them. Now, it was time to end it.

I reached the front of the vehicle, my hands on the top of the windshield. I crouched, having found a decent foothold.

I braced for impact.

Lifting my hand, I banged my fist against the windshield. It cracked, running like spider-webs across the glass.

The driver immediately hit the brakes.

I was flipped over, sent forward, but I was aware enough to catch myself. I twirled.

A solid landing, my feet on concrete.

Then the four-thousand pound speeding block of metal hit me.

Everything exploded everywhere.

Bones crunched, metal crushed, the sharp pain enveloped.

But I held on, pushing back.

I wasn’t sent flying.

Hugging the grill of the van, I took the brunt of the force head on. It reverberated, shaking me to the core.

But I held on.

My feet were skidding on the road, my arms on fire as I threw my weight forward.

“Uff!” I cried out.

I was fighting back, and it was working. We were slowing down, losing speed. I was forcing us to a stop.

My eyes were screwed shut. Brown and black shapes formed as I concentrated on not dying.

Everything bore into me. Let go for even a second, and I would crumble, be flattened, crushed.

Not this time.

I put more strength into my arms and legs, and my resolve.

Come on come on come on come on come on come on come on come on

Eventual, but gradual. And then final.

We were no longer in motion.

I fell back, leaning heavily on my right foot for balance. I winced.

From the toes to the heel, my feet were stinging. The soles of my shoes were wrecked, burned by friction. They clung by a thread, now.

The rest of my body was ten times worse. Like an inferno, it throbbed, hitting me in waves. Every muscle and joint and tendon burned. It was a miracle I was still standing.

It hurt. A lot.

But I could move. Broken bones and torn muscles were already being attended to. Healing. I could still go on.

As my healing did its thing, I looked over the result of my work.

And, between me and the van, I was in a worse condition.

The van was still, unmoving. The front bumper was bent in some places, the hood dented. The left headlight flickered twice before fixing itself. The windshield cracked. It was pretty banged up, but the engine was running, a low hum emanating from the vehicle. It would still drive.

But, it wasn’t the outside that mattered. What mattered was the equipment inside. The scanners and laptops.

I had healed enough to walk with my own strength. I crossed the distance, to the driver’s side.

Hleuco landed by me, his wings folding around him. We moved as a pair.

Even with my blood pumping, adrenaline running, it was cold out here. I was sweating, but the wind and air had chilled me to the bone. Any sort of movement did wonders in keeping me warm.

Another set of lights fell on me. A car, with stickers and logos on the side to indicate it was a taxi, but the sign on top was missing.

Claire. She had followed.

I’d deal with her next. This came first.

I flung the door open. I looked inside.

I tilted my head.

What?

The first thing I noticed were the teddy bears. The van was filled to the brim with them. The passenger’s seat, and from what little I saw of the back row, were covered with the stuffed animals.

The second thing I noticed was the person in the driver’s seat.

Teddy bears had landed in her lap, and she tossed them aside. She grunted and groaned, then looked at me as she massaged her jaw.

A girl.

But her appearance… She didn’t look any older than thirteen.

The girl opened and closed her mouth, testing, before giving me an outright sneer. It had a vulpine quality to it, though she was missing a tooth.

“Yo!”

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