*These are to be read right to left, then from top to bottom. Click them to see a larger version. Enjoy!
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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?”
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.
“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.
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.”
“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 saw it, at the end of the alley.
I ran the other way.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
“Nod if you can talk.”
He didn’t nod.
“Who did this?” I asked. “FSM?”
“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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
Taking heavy breaths, I crawled out of bed. I left the room, trying to clear my throat.
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.”
“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.
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.
“Your friends stopped by earlier.”
“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.”
She had to tilt her head up to look at me.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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?
We used fire.
Peru – Sixteen years before present
The waves slid across the sand, white foam bubbling in its wake.
Thomas let the cool waters run across his feet.
Sunlight beat down on his face. Bright, hot. He was going to get a sunburn if he stayed like that for another minute.
I can’t remember the last time I was this happy.
A hand gently landed on his shoulder. Warm, comforting. Inviting. It was a touch he wasn’t quite used to, not yet, but at the same time, he didn’t want to lose that spark. That electricity. It was all so new to him.
Even with plenty of space on the beach, he still sidestepped to let his girlfriend stand beside him. They held hands.
They watched the waves come to them, then away.
They watched, then watched some more.
This was a moment, and they were in it.
“Already trying to go out and get cigarettes?” Kristin asked.
Thomas kept his eyes on the water. He smiled.
“You know I don’t smoke.”
“That doesn’t exactly answer my question.”
“I’m not going anywhere. Not now, not ever.”
“Is that so?”
“One hundred percent.”
Kristin bumped her shoulder against Thomas, only getting right above his elbow. She interlocked their fingers.
“Big words. Only time will tell.”
They were big words, but Thomas was up for it, up for the challenge. If not just to surprise himself, but Kristin especially. Scary? It was terrifying, down to the bone. Commitment was heavier than anything even Atlas could carry.
Thomas closed his eyes, seeing red from how bright it was out here. When he opened them again, he was staring right at Kristin.
At Kristin, and at her.
“Are we crazy for this?” Thomas asked, though he already knew what Kristin would say.
She kept her eyes to the ocean.
“We are crazy, and we get crazier with every passing day. Every passing month. We are long past the point of takebacks.”
A door closed, but Thomas didn’t think of it in that way.
“Good, good. I wouldn’t want to.”
She made a sound. A hum. Barely audible over the waves.
“You keep talking like that, I’ll start to think the opposite.”
Thomas put his hands behind his head, stretching. “What would it take to convince you, then?” He gulped. “A ring?”
Kristin made a face. A playful shock.
“Slow your horses there, cowboy.” Kristin then shook her head. “But who am I to talk?” Delicately, she pressed her hand against her stomach. Through her shirt, a noticeable bump.
“Another day then?” Thomas suggested.
“Another day.” Kristin agreed.
He left it at that, satisfied.
Amongst the waves, Thomas watched her listlessly.
He didn’t know how many minutes passed when she finally noticed him.
“Stop being such a loser.”
“If I’m a loser, then what does that make you?”
Kristin puffed out her chest.
“A winner. I’m the one who scored.”
Thomas almost snorted. What kind of logic was that?
“You certainly think highly of yourself,” Thomas said.
“I do. Get used to it, or you’ll be in for rough ride.”
Thomas rubbed his cheek with his free hand. “But, rough rides can be good.”
Kristin bumped him again, this time harder, more force.
He swayed one way, then back.
“Am I going to have to get used to that, too?”
“Keep getting smart with me, you just might.”
Chuckling, Thomas let go of her hand, and put his arm around her. He brought her close, tight, before falling to his side, bringing her with him.
She let out a high, shrill squeak as they dropped, water splashing around them.
Kristin was in the water, Thomas on top of her. Both wet.
“And you’re going to have to get used to that,” Thomas said. He couldn’t come up with a better comeback.
“Don’t do that!” Kristin said, scolding him. Salt water splattered from her lips to his face. “This isn’t some dumb movie where you can just do that!”
Smooth, Thomas. But Thomas was sure that a small part of her appreciated that kind of gesture.
Maybe it was a very small part of her that appreciated it.
“Now I’m wet,” Kristin said, complaining about the obvious. She propped herself up to get the water out of her hair. She groaned.
“That reminds me, Spacey wanted you back at the headquarters in ten minutes. You’re due an extra shift.”
Thomas grinned, almost vulpine. “He should know by now that if he sends you, we’re both going to be late.”
“Don’t joke about this. I can tell his patience with you is thinning.”
Thomas’s thoughts went to his boss, though he didn’t want them to. “I suppose I can’t fault him for feeling that way. A six-month volunteering program and I just… fooled around for most of it. Really, you did this to me.”
“Yes, distracting me with your feminine ways.”
“I don’t think so, buddy. You don’t get to be absolved from this.”
“Oh, so I’m just a buddy to you?” Thomas asked. He mouthed various positions, moves, references. “Do you give those out to all your buddies like party favors?”
Kristin pouted. “Don’t be so base. I only do that for pals.”
Thomas frowned. “When you talk like that, it’s hard to tell if you’re serious or not.”
“Then don’t change the subject. And get off of me.”
Before he let her go, Thomas kissed the top of her head, then he moved, letting her free. Though, neither of them moved to leave the beach. They stayed, sitting in the water.
“I thought we were leaving now,” Thomas said.
“Yeah, but it did take a long time to find you, and it’s so damn hot. I think Spacey can wait while we cool ourselves off.”
Thomas didn’t object to that. They still had some weeks of the program left, he’d pick up the slack then.
And, more time alone with Kristin was never a bad thing.
I’m so glad I met you.
“What do you want to talk about?” Thomas asked her, already lost in her eyes.
“We don’t have to talk about anything,” Kristin said, twisting her hair, getting water out. “We can just sit here.”
“We can, and while I agree that nothing’s more pure and beautiful than these silent, unspeakable memories, I like to talk.”
“That you do.”
Thomas took her hand, submerging it into the water between them. She leaned on him.
“I thought of a name.”
“Couldn’t help it. It’s a girl, right?”
“Right you are.”
“Since it’s a girl…”
“Wait, let me guess.”
He paused, tilting his head. Waiting.
“It’s Katy, isn’t it?”
He smile widened. “You are good.”
“Get used to it,” she said, melodically.
He could feel himself falling for her even more. Deeper and deeper.
“Can you guess why?” he asked.
“I’m not a mind reader. I may think highly of myself, but you’ll need to have more realistic expectations of me.”
“Ah, that’s no fun.” Thomas squeezed her hand. “I picked ‘Katy because, it’s like the ‘K’ from ‘Kristin,’ and the ‘T’ from my name. Also, ‘K.T.’ would be her initials, as well.”
His explanation hung in the salty air. A breeze cooling them.
Kristin didn’t offer up a response. She just snickered.
That snicker grew into a heartier laugh.
“Oh my god, you are such a loser!”
Dumbfounded, stupefied, and dismayed. Thomas hadn’t expected that response.
“Hey, if you hate it, you can just say so!”
In between her fits of laughter, Kristin tried to get words out. Her body was shaking.
“No, I don’t hate it… I love it.”
He felt like he was being thrown for a loop. “You what?”
“I said I love it.”
“Do you actually?”
“Yes,” she said, now stern. “I had my own ideas for names, but I adore that reasoning. I really want to use it.”
Thomas sat back, shocked that he could even be more satisfied. Katy. The name rang in his ears like a bell. Clear and bright. Like the sky above him. Endless possibilities. But there would be two constants in his future, now. He felt unstoppable.
“Katy.” He said it out loud, to make the idea solidify even more in his mind. He was going to be a father.
“My folks are going to love you,” he said.
“Of course they will. I’m me.” She pressed more of her weight onto him, leaning on him more. Relying on him more.
He couldn’t stop smiling like a big dumb stupid idiot.
“I love you,” he said to her, for the hundredth time.
“I know,” she said to him, for the hundredth time.
Stephenville – Ten years before present
Thomas stood tall, firm. Confident. And he exuded that confidence because he knew. He had all the facts, the statements, and the jury would be eating out of his hand once he was fully through with him. This wasn’t going to end well for the other guy. Or the other guy’s other guy.
It wouldn’t be easy, but Thomas would have been disappointed if it was.
He was going to have some fun.
“Good morning,” Thomas said, apt. He stayed at the podium. Weren’t supposed to move around and make a show of things like in shows or movies. These proceedings were usually slow, laborious. A lot of patience, waiting, and listening. For the audience, anyway. For Thomas, he might as well be skydiving.
“Morning,” the witness said back, with no life at all. She was in a suit of her own, drab colors, sitting at the stand. Her hair was tied, but it was done poorly, strands sticking out. There was a microphone situated in front of her, but she was sitting away from it. She didn’t look like she wanted to be there.
“Ms. Jessica Quinn, how long have you been the CEO of Tate and Mono Construction?
“Seven years, give or take.”
“So, relatively new at the job?”
“Thank you, ma’am. Just double-checking for myself, I apologize that I’ll have to continue like this for a few more questions. Feel free to relax while I gather my thoughts.”
Jessica didn’t relax. Thomas continued with his questioning.
“Okay, Ms. Quinn, you spearheaded the construction projects in King District, am I correct?”
“For how long, and what were the projects, exactly?”
“Different housing projects, apartments, homes, offices. My men loaded stuff, dumped stuff, put the hammer to the nail. The whole shtick. And about six months.”
She answered the questions, just not in the right order.
“And thank you for giving me the whole shtick. Now, as well all know, the reason why you are called up there today is because your ‘whole shtick’ hasn’t gone through the usual procedure, disturbing many residents and businesses, and some of those resident and business happen to be our clients.”
Thomas tapped his fingers on the podium.
“They filed a complaint to you, and not much has been done in the wake of that. Now, here we are.”
Quinn didn’t react to anything Thomas was saying. And he was loving it.
“Ms. Quinn, what was King District like, before Tate and Mono came to do its business?”
“Decent? Do you mind expanding on that?”
“I can’t explain it, it was just decent. That’s not too hard to grasp.”
“I’ll need a proper answer if only to get a better picture of the situation.”
“Fine, it was fucking Candy Land.”
Some in the audience behind him found that humorous. Thomas, not so much.
“Permission to treat the witness as hostile?”
Judge Edgar Brown hardly gave it a thought. “Granted.”
Thomas kept questioning, but now he could ask leading questions. “Streets were clean, people were friendly, a little rough, but what neighborhood doesn’t have an issue or two? Would you say that’s an accurate description of King District, Ms. Quinn?”
She yawned. “Yeah.”
He glanced at Phillips, Quinn’s lawyer, who was biting the end of his pen.
Cool it, Thomas. Don’t get too excited.
“And what was King District like during Tate and Mono’s time in the area?”
She didn’t say.
“Streets weren’t as clean, the people were hesitant to go outside, rougher overall. Would that be accurate to your experience there?”
Thomas nodded. “One particular bad apple started making roots around that time, right? The Path, a branch of a Japanese mafia group. The Yakuza. Their men have been causing quite the ruckus in the district since Tate and Mono started their construction, with reports that the Path’s men have been coming and going through buildings your company were responsible for, is that correct?”
“Objection,” Phillips said, “That’s speculation.”
“All the evidence is here, sir,” Thomas pointed to his stack of papers at the folder, “Numerous arrests close to these buildings, drugs, weapons found nearby. This is all written down and documented stuff, and this is more than just some noise complaints. I thought you knew this, Phillips?”
“Alright Thomas, enough,” Judge Brown said. “Do you have a point?”
“One I’m eager to make.”
With little enthusiasm, the judge said, “Overruled.”
Thomas tapped his fingers again, faster. “Ms. Quinn, among noise complaints, have these other more, serious grievances have been brought to your attention?”
Thomas could see her neck glisten under the fluorescent lights. Sweat?
“Keep in mind that you are under oath, Ms. Quinn,” Thomas said, reminding her.
“They have,” she answered.
“And what has been done about it?”
“We never encountered any issue with any outside party or the like, and our construction sites were clean of any illicit materials or contraband.”
“Thank you, Ms. Quinn. To switch gears here, you’re still a small company, relatively speaking. This is a big project you’ve undertaken, who’s employed you for these buildings?”
A noted lapse.
“Ishida Hitoshi,” she answered.
“That’s a big name, a big name for a big company overseas.”
Quinn didn’t comment or respond.
And now, the clincher.
“That’s also I name I recognize as part of a big controversy in Japan, with rumors that he has very strong connections with the Yazuka, and-”
“Objection, this is hearsay!”
Phillips leaped out of his chair, furious. “That has nothing to do with this case.”
“I think it has everything to do with this case,” Thomas argued. “If those connections are true, it lines up with what we’re hearing about the buildings Tate-”
Judge Brown stopped them. “Both of you, here.”
They both approached the table. Thomas was ready for what was to come, what could come.
The judge leaned closer, whispering, “Thomas, what are you trying to pull?”
“I’m simply raising an important detail that should be relevant in this case. If Ishida Hitoshi is in league with the Yakuza, people should be looking into what the hell he’s doing in Stephenville.”
“If,” Phillips nearly spat the word. “If that’s true, but any claims about that here are unsubstantiated, you have no evidence, and it’s not relevant, and you didn’t submit any of this. You’re making a mockery of this court and this case.”
“It is relevant, Phillips. The writing’s on the wall, yet no one is willing to read it, and I’m left wondering, why? And if you want evidence, look to the countless victims that have been coming forward in the last three years. Also, I can bet you Randolf and his boys can find a connecting thread if they decided to show some initiative. The only one making a mockery of this court is that woman on the stand.”
“Shut it, Thomas,” Judge Brown said. “I’ll be the one to decide if there’s any mockery here. Thomas, let’s say this is looked into, and what you’re saying is true, then this whole case turns into something else entirely, and you are out of here. Is that what you want?”
Thomas was beaming on the inside, but he couldn’t show it, not here. “Criminal activity is a factor here, and I want that recognized. I’ll throw the Hail Mary, someone else can score the touchdown.”
Phillips was fuming. “This is unnecessary.”
Judge Brown wasn’t looking pleased with Thomas. “You better know what you’re doing, or this is it for you. Go back.”
They left the judge. Thomas did know what he was doing, because that probably was it for him.
Stephenville – A week after Loving v. Tate and Mono Construction
A man stood next to him, holding a beer. James Gomez. Shorter than Thomas, more stout, but with more muscle than him. A head full of hair, a thick mustache. Both were in fashionable, yet casual wear.
“Thanks for coming,” Thomas said.
“Thanks for… inviting me.” James had to duck when a ball flew too close to his head. He was more concerned over not spilling a drop than he was about the kid who threw said ball. “I’m not a huge fan of children’s birthday parties, though.”
“I invited you, you knew what this was, and you showed up, regardless.”
“At this point, I’ll take anything to get out of the office.”
“Even to arrest me for malpractice?” Thomas asked. “A two-for-one deal? I give you a beer, and you give me handcuffs.”
“No, I wouldn’t do that, but I should. That was a dumb stunt you pulled back there. I heard about it through the grapevine.”
“My bosses are breathing down my neck, drowning me in mindless work. Death threats, many of which are written in Japanese. An earful from the wife, which was the worst of it.”
“God damn,” James said, his voice lowered. There were kids around. “You gonna be okay? With your wife and kid, you have to look out for them, too.”
“It’s nothing but big talk on the gang’s part. They do anything, it’ll implicate them, and then the Path is done for. They’ll keep their distance.
“You sound rather confident about that.”
“I have to be. I’ll admit, it was dumb, but it’ll be worth it soon enough?”
Thomas said it like it was a question.
“I can’t give any details,” James said, “But we’ve traced the money. You were onto something.”
Thomas let himself show the emotion inside him. Gratification. He was beaming.
“But why’d you have to go about it that way?” James asked. “You could have just sent in a tip, or better yet, tell me.”
“Tips are too slow. You’re good, James, but your position isn’t. You’re still new, like me. You don’t have the pull to launch an entire investigation. I saw the circumstances, saw my chance, and I took it. Putting it out like that really got things moving, didn’t it?”
“At the cost of your credibility and reputation?”
“If you’re good at what you do, you can get credibility back, and I’m great. And my reputation is with the people.”
“Why be a corporate lawyer then? If that’s the way you think, you’d be better off in the DA’s office.”
Thomas watched the kids play.
“Big companies mean big money, and big money means more for the little guy. I’ll come down, when the time’s right.”
“When? When I’m police chief?”
Thomas nudged him. “Probably.”
“Whoa there, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”
“Why not? Dream big, do bigger. You’ll be the new police chief, and I’ll be the new district attorney. Together, we’ll rule Stephenville as…”
“Friends?” James ventured.
“I was going to go with pals.”
James didn’t get it, taking a swig of his drink, instead.
“Could be interesting,” James said.
“Could be real,” Thomas said, correcting him. “This city means a lot to me, you know that more than anyone else. It kills me every time someone asks why I haven’t left yet, why I haven’t packed up and moved. I want them to see what I see in it. It’s not perfect, but I can help, I know I can.”
James drank some more, then said, “Real powerful words there, pal, but don’t beat yourself up over it. You’re not a hero, you can’t put all that weight on your shoulders.”
Thomas agreed, “You’re right, I can’t. I’ll need people. People like-”
Katy came running to him, her face twisted up, and she was wailing.
“Yes sweetie?” He had to crouch to meet her at eye level. The way she was acting, it was unbecoming of her pretty pink dress. He had to get to the bottom of this, pronto.
“Alexis took my gun and she keeps shooting me but I told her to stop but she keeps doing it and I’m-”
“Hey hey, hey there.” Thomas had to rub her back, calm her down. She was hiccupping.
“I’ll have a talk with her, I’m sure she’s just gotten too excited again. She doesn’t mean anything by it.”
Katy was shaking her head, rubbing her cheeks with fists.
“I wanna get her back, I wanna get that gun back.”
Where do kids come up with this stuff?
Thomas massaged her again. “That’s not what I’m trying to instill in you. Go get some cake, and you’re making up with Alexis. No one gets that toy gun until this party’s over. Understand?”
She hiccuped. “Understood.”
“That’s my girl.” He let her run off to get cake, and he stood, his back hurting a little.
“Kids these days,” James said.
“You’re telling me,” Thomas said. “Sorry about this, James.”
“Go do your thing, I’ll go have another one of these, and I should be up to hear about Kristin’s summer in India one more time.”
“Make sure she mentions the story about the-”
“The Yamarāja. I know, I know.”
He shook hands with James, then excused himself.
Stephenville – Three weeks before present
“Car chase going into Williamson Avenue. It’s red, and the only one going that fast. Police might lose it if this goes for any longer. What do you think about lending a helping hand?”
“I’m thinking I’m done with the warm ups. Time for some real action.”
Hleuco grinned to himself. He liked it whenever Blank Face showed some enthusiasm, even if it was behind a layer of playful arrogance. It meant that she was getting something out of this. And it meant that she wasn’t completely doom and gloom.
He shifted in his seat, moving away from the complicated connected system of scanners and laptops, to the wheel in front of him. The van started.
With the different channels yelping into his ear, he got out of the parking garage, and drove.
The equipment was outdated, but it was functional, and it served a purpose. Gifts from Gomez. Whenever new stuff came in, the old stuff had to be taken out to make room. And James knew how much he liked antique trinkets.
The van was old, too. Unmarked, bought with cash, kept away in a location disclosed only to Blank Face. He knew the city, the ins and outs. Learned from the best, and the worst, when it came to hiding things. It was a hassle to have to walk there every night he needed to use it, but its purpose was well worth a little pain in his legs.
His foot was heavier on the gas pedal than usual, and not because he was too sore to lift it up more. He needed to keep up with the car, and keep up with Blank Face, so he could be in a good position to pick her up and make a getaway. It was imperative that they kept things as simple as possible, as clean as possible. They weren’t attempting to save the world, they were just attempting to make it nicer. Even if by a margin.
And the girl has school tomorrow, can’t let her be out too late.
“Update, please,” Hleuco asked.
“Can’t see it yet, but I do see the cars tailing it. Fuck me, they’re fast.”
Please don’t say ‘fuck me,’ Hleuco thought.
“Can you get to it?”
“Yeah, if it would turn to the right, I could intercept it from up top.”
Hleuco kept an ear out for anything interesting. Anything new.
He relayed what he was hearing.
“Police are setting up a blockade, it can’t make a right anymore.”
Hleuco shook his head as he drove, knowing she couldn’t see him.
“They’re attempting to trap the car on Williamson. They’re mobilizing faster than I thought.”
“What does that mean for me?”
“Seems to me they might actually have this one under control now. I’m impressed.”
“Great. So all I did tonight was just get some exercise?”
“Don’t sell yourself short. Mrs. Azikiwe wouldn’t be sleeping soundly right now if you hadn’t gotten her cat out of that tree.”
“I won’t stop selling myself short.”
Hleuco took the comment in stride. He sped down the street he was on, still mindful of the speed limit, other cars, and lights. It’d slow him down in getting to Blank Face, but she could make up for that with her own speed and mobility.
The fact that she even had that type of speed and mobility…
He was still having trouble wrapping his head around it. Blank Face had powers, strength beyond compare. No one had seen anything like it, ever. The world was still reeling from the revelation, what it meant, what was to come. How, and why.
It was a day that wouldn’t ever fade over time. It had become something of a pop culture lexicon. A meme, as the kids put it. ‘Where were you when the first superhuman made themselves known?’
Hleuco, Thomas knew. He was in his office, watching the whole thing unfold. Watching the potential.
A hero, here, in Stephenville of all places.
And he was able to work with her on this. On being an actual hero. Providing guidance. He would have felt privileged about the partnership, if the sheer coincidence didn’t shake him to his core.
With something so big, they had to take small steps. That meant limiting her shifts to more manageable times throughout the week, picking and choosing what petty crimes she’d handle, and monitoring police activity so they wouldn’t be in her hair as much. All to help instill the idea that her great power should be married with a greater sense of duty.
To better steer her in that direction, establishing rules was important.
Exercise extreme caution. Avoid overextending power for oneself or unto others.
Constant communication is necessary. Updates should be regularly provided and orders must be promptly followed.
Anything else was common sense.
He thought those rules were simple enough when he came up with them, but establishing them early was crucial. This had never been done before, there was no precedent. Blank Face was strong, and by her own admittance, already stabbed someone. Accident or not, that needed to be curbed, avoided in the future. He worried that she might want to escalate if things weren’t in check.
Which was why he also invested in precautions. He prayed he never had to use them.
There were many kinds in Stephenville. Those who were good, those who weren’t so, and those who turned and became lost. He only wanted Blank Face to be the former.
Thomas didn’t want another one in that last category. Not again.
“Hey, Hleuco, you still thirsty for an update?”
Her voice brought his conscious attention back to the road. He clicked the left turn signal, then turned.
“I’m on Williamson now, but the car keeps tearing through blockades.”
He tuned his ear to the police broadcasts. She was right.
“The car’s modified?”
“It’s going fast as fuck, everyone’s jumping out of the way since it’s just plowing through everything. Cars and vans. I think the front’s been reinforced.”
“Where are you right now?”
“I’m ahead of everyone, so I’m seeing it all, it’s just…”
“It broke through the last blockade. A… a bus is coming from the left at an intersection. A school bus.”
“At this hour?”
“Anyone could be in there! Shit, at this rate they’re going to collide.
Again, a pause.
Hleuco almost stomped on the breaks, but there were others around him. He had to keep driving.
“That’s a big no, Blank Face. You’re going to come back here right now.”
“And let people die? I can stop the car, there’s still time.”
Hleuco threw caution to the wind, listening to the police and getting a better sense of where to go.
He stomped on the gas.
“Blank Face, if you’re even thinking about it-”
“I don’t have time to argue. I’ll update you in a bit.”
He passed up a car, crossing a red light. The city flew past him.
He kept driving, and the police kept blabbering on. He punched the button to shut them up. He only wanted to hear Blank Face.
But there was no one on the other end.
Fuck me, Hleuco thought.
With another turn, he was close as he could get to Williamson Avenue. The police blockades worked both ways. He drove down a street that ran parallel.
Sweat dripped down the steering wheel. His heart beat so hard it hurt.
The machines beside him whirred, the van’s tires rolling down the concrete. A screaming sound.
Still no answer.
It was maddening.
Hleuco started slowing down.
Not another one…
Not another regret.
He moved a finger to turn on the police-
“Hleuco? I’m at-”
Hleuco went to a full and complete stop. The van and everything inside it rocked. Cars honked as they passed.
He ran his hand through his hair, nearly pulling strands out from the root. He was so happy he was mad.
“Repeat that, Blank Face?”
“I’m at an alley over on Baxton, by a pharmacy. Is it a good pick-up spot?”
That was a block down, secluded enough. It worked.
“It works,” Hleuco said slowly, “Stay there, don’t move. Be there soon.”
“I hear you.”
Now you hear me, he thought. But he drove to get her.
His chest wouldn’t ease up.
Before he got to the spot, he reached back to the seats behind him. He put on his mask as he went. A memento from his time in Europe.
He needed an identity too, some gesture to make Blank Face feel less alone in her role as a hero. Hleuco. From the name haliaeetus leucocephalus. The bald eagle.
He needed a mask, too. She couldn’t see his face as it was now. Not now.
The door slid open. Blank Face stepped in. They left.
“I’m back,” she said. It was good to hear her voice without the mechanical filter. That was what he wanted to hear.
“Count your blessings,” he said, “You’re lucky you made it out of that okay. But don’t push that luck.”
“I’m with you on that.” She was breathing hard, panting. Whatever she did took everything out of her. “My arms are killing me.”
How strong are you, Alexis?
The van rolled on, and Thomas was ready to call it a night.
He checked to see if he had everything on him. He did. Wallet, phone, keys.
Thomas got into the car, Jeffery closing the door for him.
The vehicle pulled out of the driveway, and they went.
Jeffery was usually more talkative, but he was mute, now. Thomas wasn’t that lively, either.
Solace got Edgar. He’s dead.
He was at his wit’s end, but he was too sick of everything to exert effort for a reaction.
He just sat.
Solace got Edgar, and he was dead. Because Blank Face and Hleuco pushed too hard, pushed the gangs too far, too fast, and Solace was born from their desperation. He thought he calculated it right, he thought they were disrupting just enough that it would not come to this.
Thomas was cognizant of the fact it would have been an uphill battle. Public opinion of Blank Face was plummeting, and they hadn’t yet reestablished her name as being Blank Face.
Uphill, but he didn’t expect it to become this steep.
No, these criminals are superstitious, cowardly. Especially in the face of an actual threat. I should have taken that into more consideration.
His thoughts poured over every detail, every bit of information in the past forty-eight hours. What connected, what made sense, what was a legitimate clue?
Thomas made a fist with each hand.
He had to give it up to Solace, they were thorough. Nothing came up when they investigated the event staff, and of course nothing came up when they went to Kristin. The only lead was the apartment they traced the signal back to. Nothing but bricks and wood.
Except a message to Blank Face.
Blank Face – Alexis – was positive the message was directed to her, by the leader of El Carruaje, a now-defunct gang, and Blank Face’s first foe. When she informed him of this, he tried to inquire about the woman who ran that gang, Benny. Her record, whether or not she was actually incarcerated.
Of course, everyone was scrambling over Solace. Of course, they were too busy to look into a small fry.
Thomas wasn’t the district attorney, not yet. He could only do so much as he was. No one answered to him, they would only consider what he had to say.
After forty-eight hours, all any of them could do was try and prevent this. But it didn’t work.
Lost in his thoughts, Thomas caught a glimpse of an intersection as they passed it. The sign.
Gomez’s office isn’t this way.
“Jeffery, are we meeting with Gomez elsewhere?” Thomas asked.
Jeffery kept driving.
The officer whipped his arm back, pointing a gun to Thomas.
Thomas backed up as far as he could, which was hardly at all. His hands went up.
“Just, just be quiet, or I’ll shoot. Not another word. And if you do anything else except sit there and keep those hands up, I’ll shoot.”
Thomas didn’t try him. Jeffery’s finger was already on the trigger. Thomas put his hands above his head.
Behind the car, a resounding, deep grumble rocked Thomas’s ears. He would have liked to turn and investigate, but there was no need to set off Jeffery.
Looking wasn’t even needed. He could see from the rear view mirror, and that distinct tone of that sound.
It was Styx’s bike. Styx was here.
So this was how…
And he considered Jeffery a pal, too.
He was fucked.