058 – Rotting Cores

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There was an hour before noon, and I was just about ready to get going.

Christmas came and went, and the ball was dropped on New Year’s with only the bare minimum of festivities. A party was held, but it was nothing fancy. We were all busy moving things around, getting settled, and easing into the recent administrative shakeups. It was work, but it was work that everyone wanted to get done.

And there was still much more work that we needed to get to.

Police, arriving on scene after neighbors called nine-one-one, found Eliza Waller dead in her home. She was pregnant at the time.

The TV buzzed in the background as I went around, a towel around my shoulders.

This has been the fourth in a string of escalated murders that have taken place in the suburban communities around Stephenville, and is believed to be related to the riots that continue to plague the city.

I opened a drawer, picking through the few shirts I had left. I already didn’t have much to choose from, but I wanted to avoid wearing the same thing twice in a row. I picked up the last clean shirt left, while keeping a mental note to do the laundry sometime soon.

Starting from the Halloween Riots back in October of last year, to the riot and bombing of City Hall in November, to these attacks that target those from the Asian-American community, it has certainly been a tumultuous few months for the people of Stephenville.

I had only taken a few seconds to flip through the handful of channels I had available, but I still ended up on this news broadcast. I could go change it, but it was more effort than it was worth.

It was just a guy monologuing, but his words and tone rubbed me the wrong way. Smarmy. He didn’t sound genuine. He wasn’t talking to his audience, he was pandering to them.

And it’s actually easy to point to the very person that started this twisted chain of events. That’s right, the Bluemoon.

I turned towards the TV, even though it was in another room. I was dressed, wearing a white shirt and black pants, but I’d need at least another layer before I stepped outside.

But, it was warm enough in the apartment, so I was fine for the moment. I left my towel on the metal frame at the foot of my bed, then walked out to the living room. I brushed some hair away, feeling it. My hair was still a bit damp, but it was also much shorter than it had ever been. It’d dry pretty fast.

“-has yet to make any official public appearance or statement about who she is or what she’s trying to accomplish. Can the Bluemoon be trusted? From what we’ve seen, and from all the collateral damage she’s caused, the answer must be a hard ‘no.’ The Bluemoon has taken no responsibility for all the destruction, and we’re left to pick up the pieces.

‘She?’ Right. The attack at the school did blow that out into the open, but that was an unsubstantiated claim by a band of terrorists. At best, it was just a rumor. It didn’t stop people from rioting against those that looked like me, however, nor did it stop this guy from running with the idea that the Bluemoon was, in fact, a girl.

Well, he was right, but he didn’t know that.

And, what was with that bit of about picking up the pieces? If I remembered correctly, this guy was based in New York.

Give me a break.

The guy continued to ramble.

Where does this lead for the city, and what does this mean for the country as a whole? Vigilantism is sweeping the nation as naïve, deluded kids play dress-up and imitate the Bluemoon, harassing good citizens and interrupting the due process of law. It’s all a game to them, and it trivializes the traditional, American values we all hold so dear.

A game? Maybe he had a point, there. But we had our reasons. It wasn’t for entertaining ourselves, it was just easier to strategize, to plan, when thinking along those lines. Moving pieces in place, waiting for the opportune time to strike, learning how to bend the rules… and trying to be the top dog in the end. The winner.

A lot of it was logistics, preparations, actual work. None of it was fun, in the traditional sense.

I was standing in front of the TV, watching this young, admittedly handsome guy babble on about the old me. It was weird, watching everything that had happened turn into talking points for this guy’s noon talk show. Filtered, watered down. Didn’t seem real, coming from his mouth.

But it was real, his monologue was a result of what Alexis, I, we, had done.

And I was about to give him more things to talk about.

-is a biology professor and researcher from the University of Texas at Austin, and James Gomez, the Chief of Police for the Stephenville Police Department. Gentlemen, good-

A knock on the door. Then several. A rhythm.

There wasn’t a set code, but I already knew who it was, just from that.

I went to the door, keeping the TV on.

“You’re early this time,” I told D.

She was dressed for the weather. A large, poofy jacket, with the sleeves going past her hands, and the fleece on the collar brushing her cheeks. Her skirt inched out from the bottom of her jacket, with black tights and shoes to complete the look.

With a stuffed teddy bear she was hugging, she looked rather comfy.

“Hi Wendy,” she said, giving me her usual smile. “Just making up for last time.”

“Consider it made up. Come in.”

I stepped back to give her room, closing the door as she let herself in. We walked to the TV, D taking a small detour to drop off the bear on a counter that separated the kitchen from the living room. The bear was with her new family, all sitting together, as if to keep warm.

It was just a small, nothing joke I made after the second time she visited, after I moved in, but she seemed intent on keeping it going. The collection grew. At least they were made of fluff, through and through.

There was only one couch facing the TV, and D threw herself onto the cushions. She was small enough for me to sit without her shoes touching me. I stayed at one end of the couch, though, watching her.

Speaking of…

“If you’re gonna lie down like that, you better take your shoes off.”

D unzipped her jacket, and started fanning herself. “Aw, you’re being strict about your new place. I’m happy.”

I crossed my arms. “I just don’t want you making a mess so soon. Next time, just keep your shoes at the door. I’ll get some slippers for you, later.”

Another thing on the list. Like doing the laundry.

“Alright, alright,” D said. She leaned over to reach her feet, undoing her shoelaces. She dropped her shoes onto the floor once she removed them.

As she went back down, she looked at the TV.

“This guy? You can do better than that.”

This guy was still rambling, but he had guests this time. Gomez was one of them. I was shocked to see that he agreed to appear on the show.

No, Mr. Gomez, I’ll tell you what she is. She is a parasite, feeding off of the blood, sweat, and hard work that your-”

I stopped paying attention to what he, they, had to say. They wouldn’t have anything new to offer.

“I just happened on it,” I said. “I wasn’t really listening.”

“All these people do is just simple fearmongering. Making little old ladies clutch their purses even tighter. You want a real scare? Go up against a real journalist.”

“Or don’t,” D quickly added. “Not worth it.”

“Noted,” I said. I started looking around for the remote.

“At least Uncle J still looks okay,” D said. She made a face, then moved around on the couch. The channel flipped.

She reached underneath where she was sitting, between her and the seat. She pulled out the remote.

“Oh. That was… up there.”

She set the remote down, by her shoes. I didn’t have coffee table to place anything, yet.

The channel got switched to some cartoon. Nothing I was personally familiar with. D started watching as she talked.

“How’s the place treating you so far? You like it?”

The place. My new apartment. It sat on the border of Eastside, a good distance from all the trouble brewing over there. It was about the same size as the old one, but living by myself gave me more room to stretch my legs.

One bedroom, one bathroom. A kitchen and living room that had shared the same space. It had a modern feel to it, if not utilitarian, with the muted color schemes of the walls and floors. There was a window on the far wall to let in some light, breaking up the monotony. But, beside some sun, there wasn’t much on the walls. Not yet. I had just moved in.

But, it was all mine. This was my apartment. The walls were larger, the ceilings higher, I had room, here. Freedom.

“I like it,” I said.

There was a pause, like I was supposed to say more, but I didn’t.

“But?” D asked.

But.

“There’s no real ‘but’ to it, I’m just still getting used to the idea that the place is mine. My own room, my own bed, my own apartment. I never really felt like myself, back in that old place.”

“Still?” D questioned.

I know, but it was always her place, not mine, I thought.

“Here, I have freedom,” I said, reiterating that point to myself. “And yeah, it’s liberating, but it’s also more than I’m used to. I don’t know what to do with it.”

“You could try sprucing up the place,” D said, eyes still on the screen. “Put a painting up somewhere. Maybe another bear will do you some good.”

“I’m fine with the bears,” I said, giving her another reminder. Another reminder that she’d ignore. “But that’s the thing, I don’t even know what kind of painting I’d want. If I want something abstract, or a realistic painting of an apple, or whatever.”

“Apples can be good, they keep doctors away.”

I took it in stride. “How about an abstract painting of an apple?”

“There you go!” She moved around again, putting her hands behind her head, facing me. “But stuff like that costs money, which we’re all a little short on. A chunk of what the gang’s making is helping to let you sleep here, and keeping these lights running. As much as I get it, and as much as I want you to start doing some real decorating… it can wait.”

I sighed. “Yeah, it can.”

“But, how about you?” D asked, putting an emphasis on that last word. “How are you holding up?”

That question could be potentially loaded.

“What happens if I say I’m not?” I asked.

“Then you would be giving me a real scare, seriously.”

“Just kidding,” I said, probably faster than I intended. “That’s not what I meant. I’m holding up fine, considering I threw away the entirety of my previous life. Still wrapping my head around this being the new normal.”

“It’ll take some getting used to, for sure. You’ll feel better once you start personalizing your space, and if you’re ever feeling down, you have them, and more importantly, you have me.”

D grinned again, showing teeth, her eyes closed.

I have D, right. Doubt the others are willing to lend a shoulder to cry on, though.

I wasn’t sure where I stood with D. Not entirely. Friends? Probably wouldn’t go that far. I’d gotten more familiar with her over the past month, with her coming over at pretty regularly, maybe three to four times a week. Never asked her to, she kept inviting herself, but I couldn’t bring myself to turn down her company. At worst, she bugged me like any little kid would. At best, I appreciated her being around.

Maybe we weren’t exactly best friends yet, but I saved her life, and she saved mine. That was more than most friends ever did for each other.

There was, however, a part of her that creeped me out, which was a weird thing to admit out loud. She was just a little girl. On principle, she was harmless. But looking at it that way was too simple. She wasn’t just a little girl, she was D. The person who stole and drove Hleuco’s van, who led me to the Ghosts, and helped bring Benny and The Chariot to their knees. All with some firecrackers and a tablet. That was reason enough to be wary of her.

I was just lucky she was on my side.

“Noted,” I said again.

D had gone back to staring at the TV, flipping through the channels herself. I didn’t have much, and with each consecutive cycle, D was looking more and more bored.

“How’d you do it?” I asked.

“Do what?” she said, listless, eyes still on the screen.

We still had time before we had to go. And D was a curious little thing.

“How old were you when you struck out on your own?” I asked. “What’s your… I dunno, your origin story?”

D scratched the underside of the chin. “Origin story? Am I a superhero now, too?”

“You are pretty super,” I said. I couldn’t help it.

I swore I saw her blush.

“Thank you,” she said, her expression cheeky. She actually sounded like a kid, there.

Worth.

“Wait, no,” I said. “I’m talking about how you got into all of this stuff in the first place. How you… ended up here, doing this?”

D dropped that childlike demeanor she had just before. Neutral, blank.

And that freaked me out.

“I know,” I said. “I’ve asked this before.”

“And I think I did a pretty good job dancing around it the first time,” she said. “I’ve got a similar routine lined up, now, if you want to hear it.”

I didn’t quite catch it then, but I certainly did now. That was definitely her tell. Acting hyper self-aware about herself in order to avoid the subject, especially if that subject was her. Maybe it was her way of being cute, or maybe it was a feint to get me off track from another thing. I couldn’t put it past D.

Maybe she knew that I knew.

But that’s the thing, isn’t it? All these head games…

“Sore spot?” I asked, as if to test things.

D’s eyes hardened, her jaw set. Didn’t seem like it should be menacing, coming from her, but it did. I felt it.

Probably shouldn’t get her so pissed off before we headed out.

“The sorest,” D replied, hard.

Too late. She was pissed.

I spread my arms. “Okay, fine, I promise I won’t ask anymore, unless you decide to bring it up first. Everyone’s different. I shared my story, or at least the more relevant parts, but that doesn’t mean you have to tell me yours. But I just want to know how you deal.”

“Deal?” she asked.

“Like, when you first started out, how did you handle being on your own? Were you always on your own?”

I couldn’t read D’s expression anymore. If she was still upset, or just down.

D answered with a shrug. A second passed. And then another second passed, and I knew I wasn’t getting much else out of her.

I decided to drop the subject. We didn’t need this, not right now.

“Sorry, I know I keep pushing it, but that’s because I do like you, D, and you’ve been a big help, especially when I was trying to find Benny. And, since we’ll be working together for the foreseeable future, I’d like to know the girl who’ll have my back. Us ladies have to stick together, you know.”

D looked at me, blinking.

“You like me?”

My hands went to my hips, and I gave her a stern look.

“It was a rocky road, getting there, you did steal my van.”

“I was borrowing it.”

“Same difference.”

She also nearly drove that same van off a parking garage, but I decided not to bring that up.

D breathed, relaxing just a bit. “It’s not like I don’t get where you’re coming from. I like you, too, and there are things I’d like to tell you about, it’s just…”

“Not now?”

D nodded. “Not now. But that doesn’t mean never. I promise.”

“I’m holding you to that, then.”

“I’m okay with that,” D said, shrugging. “And hey, maybe we can even be more than friends, later down the road.”

She said that part with a wink.

It was involuntary, but I felt my cheeks warm up. And it wasn’t the air conditioning.

“What does, what?” I asked.

“Anyways, going back to your main point, you just take it a day at a time, figure out what you want to do, what you need to do, and how to do it. And it’s important to learn what you like, finding hobbies outside of all the other stuff. For me, it just so happens that I like all this stuff, so everyday is like being on the playground.”

She completely ignored me. But she also gave me what I asked for in the first place. I’d let it slide.

“Taking it a day at a time… seems obvious, it’s a good reminder. Thanks.”

“You got it,” D said, grabbing for the remote. She turned off the TV.

“We should probably get going,” she said, getting up from the couch.

“Is it time already?” I asked. I realized I didn’t have my watch on. I thought to where I placed it last. On the drawer, facing the bed. My sweater and coat were ready in the closet, along with my mask. The old, painted-over Blank Face one. Not ideal, but it would have to do for the time being.

“We’ll be early, which normally for me is a big no, but they’ll appreciate the gesture. A show of faith.”

“Good point. Let’s go.”

We got to moving, but in different directions. D went to the kitchen counter, and I went back to my room.

“You still don’t have anything in here!” D yelled out. She was talking about my refrigerator.

I was putting on my sweater, then grabbing for my jacket as I answered. “I told you I don’t have much use for it!”

“I got it for me! You need to start putting some snacks in here, like ice cream! Or cake! Or ice cream cake!”

“Next time, or just bring food yourself so you can keep it in there!”

I heard a noise. A guttural, but childlike moan.

I crouched in front of a box in the corner of the closet. Heavy, made of hard plastic, with different locks and latches on it. I took my time getting through them all.

The last latch cracked open, and I was face to face with my mask. Nothing else was in there.

Temporary.

I closed the box. I wouldn’t bring it. A show of faith.

I grabbed the rest of my things. Wallet, watch, and phone. I stepped out of my room, and met up with D by the counter.

“Ready?” I asked.

“Sure. Let’s make a stop along the way, I am starved.”

“Won’t that take time?”

D grinned.

“It will. Looks like we won’t be early, anymore. We’ll just be… on time.”

Busy. People pushing past each other, orders getting yelled. Clanking metal and fires sizzling. A flavorful aroma that attacked my senses. A sort of frenetic energy, that, if I wasn’t an active participant, I’d feel like I was in the way. A bother.

I wasn’t an active participant. Not in that regard, anyways.

Probably wasn’t the best idea to hold a meeting in a kitchen during peak hours.

It was me, D, and Lawrence. We were in Casa Martinez, sitting at the table in the far back of the kitchen. Workers, cooks, and waiters and other staff were darting around to get things done. Put food on the table of waiting, hungry customers. They all worked smoothly, too, moving like a well-oiled machine. Mrs. Martinez ran a tight ship, around here.

Which made me feel even more in the way, even more like a bother. We had made quite a mess, back during our standoff against The Chariot. The vents got fucked, bullet holes and casings littered the floor, and that was on top of Lawrence bleeding all over the place. Mrs. Martinez wasn’t happy when she came back the next morning.

If we wanted to keep using her restaurant as a place to meet, she brought down some new rules on our heads. No activities after hours, and no meetings when she couldn’t keep an eye on us. We’d been effectively grounded.

Lawrence had a plate out in front of him, taking the occasional bite of a beef enchilada, topped with some chili con carne. D was finishing up some leftover fries from the trip here.

I didn’t have anything for myself.

“You sure you’re good?” Lawrence asked, glancing at the empty space in front of me.

“I am,” I said. “I ate before I left, she didn’t.”

“I hafd-” D started, but she coughed.

“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” I told her.

She took a sip of her drink, and wiped her mouth with a napkin. Then she finally got out what she meant to say.

“I had a light breakfast.”

“Eat more for breakfast then. You’re still growing.”

Lawrence looked at me and D. “The hell was that?”

“Nothing,” I said. “Let’s get started.”

Lawrence put down his fork, nodding. “Well, there’s good news and bad news.”

“That’s your starting bit?” D asked.

“Shut up.” He grumbled. “Now it feels awkward to ask which one you want first.”

“Let’s go with the good news,” I said. “No reason not to.”

“Okay, well, the good news is that we’re still up and running. What we got out of Benny is enough to keep us going for a bit longer.”

“So we have time to figure out our next move?”

“Exactly. The dust has settled over East Stephenville, mostly. We blew up half the neighboring gang’s bases, and sparked whatever tensions were going on between them. There’s still some quarrels that flare up here and there, but one cop car comes by, and everyone disperses. A lot of attention is on the city, now more than ever. People are trying to behave themselves. Trying.”

“And no one’s starting to suspect us?”

Lawrence shook his head. “It’s been some time, and nothing’s come up, so I don’t think it’ll be an issue, anymore. It helps that you dropped Benny off to a third party.”

“It helps that D dropped her off,” I said. “I can’t take credit for that part.”

“Done on neutral ground, taking turns,” D said. “We moved her there, left for thirty minutes, and when I came back, the cash was in her place. Clean, no questions asked.”

My thoughts wandered to Benny. I wondered where she was now, if she was even still alive. I wondered who exactly picked her up.

The less I know, the better.

It was easier to think that way.

“And the bad news?” I asked.

“The bad news,” Lawrence said, “Is the good news, looking at it from a different perspective. We’re still up and running, we’ve got money, but its not going to last forever. And we can’t keep taking from old, forgotten staches and selling at a discount. That’s not good business.”

“You don’t have anyone to supply us with stuff? Our own manufacturer?”

“If I did, I wouldn’t have been in this situation to begin with. I wouldn’t have had to go to D for weight, and I wouldn’t have needed to accept your offer to work together.”

“Okay, so we just find one.”

Lawrence grumbled again. “If it was that easy… you know where I’m going with this.”

Ah!” D had taken another swig of her drink. “Think about it this way. Stephenville is like a port city for gangs, mobs, and cartels. They send a group of their own to set up shop in the city, and act as representatives. Diplomats, if it comes down to it. And in turn, those gangs, mobs, and cartels act as sponsors, providing money, supplies, and reputation. And depending on who’s your sponsor…”

“It comes with some real good perks,” I said.

“Yup, and if you have a really good sponsor, you get a seat at the table, and a legitimate word in how things get run.”

“That’s quite the system,” I said. “How does something like that even get started?”

D and Lawrence shared a look.

“Mister,” D said.

Mister.

At that metaphorical table, he would be sitting at the head. The man on top, above everyone else. A spider, really, at the center of the web, sensitive to any pull or tug on its many threads, aware of any bug that happened to get trapped inside.

That, was how Benny put it, when I asked her.

There wasn’t much else known about him. His name, his face, his identity, they all drew up blanks. From what I’d heard, and from reactions I got whenever he was brought up gave credence to the fact that he was real…

He seemed more like a boogeyman than the lynchpin of the city.

But, if we were going to do this, and Mister was real, and at the center of it all, we couldn’t get caught in those webs.

Had to play it smart. Had to be… whatever ate spiders.

“Getting back on track,” I said, “Is it even viable, getting a sponsor?”

Lawrence cut into his enchilada, taking a bite. He spoke while he ate, but he didn’t sound stuffed. “Honestly, I don’t think so. Sponsors aren’t generous enough to support two gangs, and they’re not looking to adopt, either.”

“What about The Chariot? Who was their sponsor, again?”

Lawrence laughed, or rather he scoffed. “El Tunante, leader of La Rueda. Yeah, don’t think so. Aside from the fact that we’re too far removed from them, do you think El Tunante is going to want to support the nobodies that sold out his best representative, and threatened his nephew to do it?”

“Nope,” I said.

“That bridge has long been burned. Unless we get very lucky with someone else, it’s not happening.”

“Damn,” I said. “There has to be something we can do. Not every gang has a sponsor though, right?”

“Lots operate the more traditional way, sure, but they’re all small fries.”

D said that as she ate a small fry.

“Then we can muscle in on some of the smaller of those fries,” I ventured. “Get whoever makes for them… make for us, instead.”

Lawrence set his fork down, looking right at me. “You have to understand, we are the smallest fry in the city. We may have gotten some green thanks to Benny, but comparatively, that still puts us in the yellow. If we make too-big a move, and it doesn’t work…”

He snapped his fingers.

“We’re snuffed out, just like that.”

“But we’re not in the red, though,” I said. “You have me. And we have some of the weapons that The Chariot were secretly staching.”

“A crate of high-end pistols, and half a crate of some nice rifles,” D said. “We got four big boys left, too. But let’s save those for a bad day. Or a really good one.”

I gestured towards D. “See? It’s something.”

Lawrence turned, flagging down a passing waiter. He lifted his glass, and the waiter understood.

He turned back to me.

“Look, um, Wendy-”

“It’s V, this time, we’re on the clock.”

“Fuck, that’s confusing. Anyway, V, I appreciate you still trying to help us, I do, but…”

“But what?”

“But why?” he asked. “I didn’t get a chance ask earlier, since I was on my ass, recovering, but why throw yourself into all this shit? You’re young, you have powers. Shit, without that, you still have your whole life ahead of you. Why commit to this?”

The kitchen worked, the sounds of people and metal crashing together. It was hard to gather my thoughts for a question like that, in a place like this.

But I had to try.

“Because I tried normal, I tried regular. It didn’t work. It’s like trying to fit a square into a circle hole. It won’t fit, and if you try to force it, things break. With this, I know what I’m getting into, I know where I fit. Perhaps, in a past life, I wasn’t built for this, wasn’t made for this. But I am, now. I have talents that make me valuable. I’m capable. And now that I can put my focus onto this full-time, I can actually make progress. Move forward.”

It was a long, rambling answer, but Lawrence seemed to accept it. He sat back, and the waiter came by to refill his drink. The waiter left, and Lawrence managed to down half his glass before speaking again.

“I guess I can live with that. It’s just, it’s going to have to take some getting used to, working with both the heartless bitch that made my life a living hell, and the ex-hero who got me into this mess to begin with.”

D covered her face with a napkin. “You flatter me too much, Lawrence.”

“Shut it,” he said.

“We worked well together, when it came down to it,” I said. “I think we even managed to surprise each other.”

I received nods from the two.

But it was true, I was surprised. Pleasantly surprised, at that. D managed to prove her usefulness, setting up the plan to smoke out Benny, and saving us when I was cornered by Benny in this very kitchen. Lawrence, too, proved himself as well. Back when we started this, when we were just a coalition, I had thought of Lawrence and his Ghosts as pawns. Now, I knew that Lawrence was more capable than that. He kept Benny in place, buying me time to get back to the restaurant, and turned the tables by tricking her. With all our history, our baggage with each other, we managed to make it work.

And that was worth acknowledging.

“So, I think we can do this,” I said. “We can pull it off.”

“I fuckin’ hope so,” Lawrence said. “Shit, getting Benny was supposed to make things easier.”

“It’s never going to be easy,” D said. “But that’s what makes it fun.”

“Fun?” Lawrence questioned. “Fuck, I’m fucked, aren’t I?”

I intervened. “Let’s call it a day, for now, before D stresses you out too much. You’re still recovering. We know what the problems are, and we have time to think about some solutions. Things are settled down. It’s peace, relatively. Let’s take advantage of that.”

“Sure thing,” D said, balling up her paper bags and napkins, getting ready to toss them away.

“Fine. I do have to get back to my Ghosts, anyway. I just don’t like walking away here without a clear plan in mind.”

“We’ll figure it out,” I said, more just for him, so he could take it easy.

It seemed like I got the last word in for the meeting. We got up from the table, thanked Mrs. Martinez and her staff for the meal and hospitality, and we split up from there. Lawrence went through the front door, while D and I took the back exit.

“Do you think Lawrence will take it easy?” I asked, walking to the van. Not the van D stole after she trashed Hleuco’s, but rather it was Hleuco’s. Lawrence got his men to patch it up, repair some parts, refurbish it, and gave it back, as thanks for D taking care of him after he got wounded. But, he didn’t want us to mention it, or he’d string us up. “You know him better than I do.”

“He’s not the kind of guy that likes to stand still. It’s why he was willing to go to me when he was running out of options. It’s why he ended up agreeing with your initial idea to work together. He’ll do anything to take a step forward.”

“Not a bad mentality, but that can easily lead to trouble.”

“Don’t you worry about that,” D said. Again, she winked. “I can keep an eye on him.”

We reached the van, and took our respective sides. D got in the driver’s seat, and I rode shotgun.

I had to warn D. “Careful. At best, he’s tolerating you being around.”

“He’s tolerating us.”

“Like I said, don’t give him a reason to immediately drop you. I need you on this.”

D started up the van, humming to life. Good as new.

“Aw, would you miss me?”

“I would,” I said, without skipping a beat.

D backed out, leaving the parking lot, getting onto the street. Eastside seemed to have bounced back from our shakeup pretty well. People were strolling on the sidewalks, traffic was moving along at a decent pace. It was as if nothing had ever happened.

“Want me to drop you off back at your place?” D asked.

I thought about it.

“No, sun’s still up. I’ll take advantage of this time, too.”

“That’s what I like to hear. Just tell me where.”

I looked at the side view mirror as we turned, Casa Martinez in the back. The restaurant disappeared as we rounded the corner.

As far as territory went, that was the extent of it. There was so much that needed to get done.

A lot of work, running a gang.

Bonus                                                                                               Next

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Interlude – V

Previous                                                                     Bonus

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 that 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 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 of 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 off 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 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.

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