097 – Entangled Mess

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“Oh, that’s a cute one. You should totally get that for your apartment, Wendy.”

“I don’t think cute is even my thing, though. Not really.”

“It can be. I think it is.”

I gave Sarah a sidelong glance. “Now you’re just messing with me.”

Blood-red lips turned from a line to a smirk. I caught her in the act.

“Guilty as charged,” Sarah said, smiling now.

I couldn’t help but smile, too, even if it felt stupid to do so. My eyes moved back to the art again. The other art.

In front of us, a painting was framed, and the visuals, from the brush strokes to the colors to the shapes those two things formed, it was like they were fighting to break out. The painting wasn’t portraying any particular subject, being more abstract in design. Sharp angles, breaking into fractals, splintering off and going up the canvas like cinders, small and quick dashes of white and yellow against a red backdrop to simulate an intense flare. An angry image, jagged shapes stabbing into the thin, dark blue frame, trying to tear itself free from its bindings. It couldn’t, though, being a still image, forever constrained by the border it was encased in. Anger, but I drew some sadness from the painting, too.

Taking a step back, the whole thing looked like a city on fire.

“You call this cute?” I asked, soaking in the image. “Looks… sad, if anything else.”

“But look here,” Sarah said, pointing to a set of shapes on the lower right corner of the canvas. “Doesn’t it look like a puppy?”

“That… wait.”

A full stop. I didn’t want to admit that it actually did look like a puppy.

Sarah lightly jabbed me with her elbow. “I’m right, aren’t I?”

“You’re… that’s not… shut up. I’m going somewhere else.”

I did just that, moving along from the painting and going to another part of the gallery.

The Mazzucchelli Art Gala. It was an expansive space with wide, white walls and bright lights, the perfect setting to display all the paintings and sculptures and photographs blown up to absurd dimensions, some taking up a whole wall to themselves. The majority of the art presented looked to be more modern stuff, with brighter colors and more abstract approaches to the design and composition and illustration. Very little of the skilled depiction of old people doing old people stuff, which was my initial expectation. I had never been in an art gallery before.

I explored the space, my eyes passing over works that must have taken hundreds of hours of effort to create, and I only gave myself a second to take them all in. But none of them were really catching my eye in the first place. But, I had no reference as to what I, Wendy, liked. What specifically would appeal to me.

Everything looked expensive, I could gather that much.

I stopped at another painting. A smaller canvas than the last one, I could imagine it being set on a wall in my apartment. Maybe as a centerpiece in the living room. Maybe.

It was an easier piece to wrap my head around, too. There was a central subject, for one, and the colors weren’t so… violent to my eyes. They were still bright and vibrant, but there was an order to them, filling in the lines and shapes rather than trying to break and bleed out of them. A face, a woman’s face, smiling wide enough that her teeth was showing, her face peeled back in a way that seemed genuine. Shades of lime green around her eyes suggested makeup, giving her a mature look that I could never hope to match. Pink highlights in her hair and cheeks gave the image more life. Just one girl, with a lot going on and around her, yet she was smiling, she was okay.

I gravitated towards the image. My feet stayed in place, my eyes locked on the painting, not passing it over after a second.

“So this is more to your tastes, then?”

Sarah had followed me, moving back to my side. Returning to it.

I shrugged. “I don’t know if I have any taste, honestly. Haven’t taken the time to stop and look at stuff to develop anything. Like, does this suck? I have no idea if this sucks, and I’d hate to put this up somewhere, and, on the off chance I have people over, they come in and see this and they don’t like so they judge my tastes, judge me.”

“You’re thinking too much about it,” Sarah said.

“I don’t think I think enough,” I said.

“Fair enough.” Sarah took a longer look at the painting. “If it means anything, I like it.”

“Do you really, or only because I might?”

“Yes,” Sarah said. She smiled again. “No, but seriously, you could go for worse. This is a pretty modern style, but it’s not too distracting. I could see it hanging up on a wall somewhere, giving the room some color. I wouldn’t judge you for it. But that’s just me. Whatever you get for your room, I’d love to see it no matter what.”

“My room? If I’m getting anything, it’d be for the living room.”

“Oh. I see. I’d still, I’d still like to see your room, though.”

“Why? I don’t have anything remarkable there.”

Sarah touched my shoulder. Her hand traced down to my forearm. The tiny hairs on the back of my neck spiked up.

“Just… invite me over next time. I can bring some stuff.”

“Like what?” I asked.

“Just stuff,” she answered, coy. “It’ll be great. Trust me.”

Something about that begged for more questioning, but I wasn’t here to mess around. I had to get a sense of the gallery, the space, how many people would be going through here at any given moment. John Cruz’s event was in three days, Natalie Beckham and Oliver Morgan were going to attend, and we had a stage to set. We knew ahead of time where everyone was going to be, and we’d use the coming days to prepare and coordinate until we had full control over the situation, until we could pull the strings, with nothing that could come and cut them. To toss in another metaphor, we had a board, and we knew where the pieces would be. Now, we just had to plan our moves, the play we would make.

Sarah, though? That was a different kind of play, one I didn’t have time for. A small but growing part of me wished that I did.

“We can put that for another day,” I said, eyes on the art. “But, not too far off. Hopefully. If that’s alright with you.”

Sarah was smiling. “That’s great with me.”

Then, I took off to another part of the gallery, Sarah following without a word or any other indication from me. I could almost let myself feel okay, because I was starting to get a better picture of what it was I wanted.

We took one more walk around the gallery, making note of any exits, vents, windows, stairs. It was a lot to take in, though getting a more detailed floor plan was in the works. But, until D came back with those, we could spend some time getting a look around. Exploring our options.

The gallery was big enough to hold a lot of people, it definitely didn’t have a shortage of artwork. We had to, at the very least, gauge how many people were going to be in attendance, and see how they and their numbers would factor into our plans. Crowd control, and we had to know how big the crowd was going to be, and who would be in it.

I spotted Lawrence, not wearing a uniform, talking with an elderly man in a nice looking suit. He was getting that information for us.

“You’re closing the gallery in a few days? I wasn’t aware of that. I had plans to bring a date here, so I was checking this place out ahead of time.”

“We appreciate your interests in the arts, sir, but yes, we will have to close our doors to the public, but only for a short time.”

“What’s happening that you’d need to shut everything down? Maintenance?”

The elderly man looked offended at the suggestion that anything had to be maintained. “No. We’re holding a private event for some very important people. More high profile than a date.”

“Oh? That’s cool, then. What kind of event? Who’s going?”

“Beneficiaries to the gallery and donors to Mr. Cruz. He the one who is planning this event together.”

“As in John Cruz, the district attorney?”

The elderly man looked at him again. “Yes. He is inviting some of his biggest backers, the city’s elite, partly in celebration of his recent win with the election, but also to touch base and introduce some legislature and garner some support for it.”

“Lotta big names, it sounds like. Is it going to be packed?”

The elderly man gave him a third, more curious look.

“More people than we normally get when let this gallery be open to the public.”

He managed to spit out that last word, as if a bad taste was left on his tongue as he said it.

Lawrence twitched, and rubbed his cheek with a hand. Did the old guy actually spit on him?

“Good to know,” Lawrence said. “Thank you for explaining the expressionist piece, and for indulging me for the other stuff. I can take it from here.”

“Of course,” the elderly man said. He nodded. “Have a good rest of your day. And best of luck for your… date.”

“Oh, thank you. Yeah, she’ll definitely love all the art here.”

Lawrence walked away before the elderly man could say anything else, acting like another sculpture grabbed his attention. The elderly man looked as if he was going after Lawrence, but someone else asked for him, and his focus was redirected. Lawrence got away.

Sarah and I kept walking around, studying the art, making brief comments about them, until Lawrence bumped into us while we were standing in front of an installation piece. Long threads of different colored rope were tangled into a mass on the floor. I wasn’t sure if it was legitimate art, or if someone, somehow, left a mess behind.

The encounter was completely on accident. Looked like it, anyways.

“Excuse me,” I said.

“No problem.” Then he dropped the act. “They’re expecting a full house.”

“We heard. It’s going to be tight.”

“Real tight. With so many people, there is that much of a chance for everything to get fucked. More people, more factors to account for.”

“If you’re having doubts, we don’t have to do it like this. We have Natalie’s phone number. We can give her a call and lure her and Oliver somewhere else, and get at them that way.”

Lawrence was staring hard at the art piece in front of us, or rather, he was staring past it. His thoughts were somewhere beyond that.

“No. If we try to pull them somewhere else, it might raise their suspicions. They might try something, too, move with precaution. We could try to work around that, but… I think Mrs. Carter gave us this art gallery for a reason. Remember, they’re investigating John Cruz. If we do anything before this event, they, and anyone those reporters talked to or worked with, are going to start asking questions of their own, many of them directed to Cruz. If we do something during, though…”

“It would be harder for anyone make a connection,” I said. “No, yeah, you’re right about that.”

“With enough smoke and mirrors, we can blur the lines, put the devil in the details, and hide you in them.”

“That was a lot of phrases in a short amount of time,” Sarah said.

“Hush,” Lawrence said. “The point is, we’ll use this space, and the insurance is just that, a last resort. But we make sure we can pull this off, without a hitch, because that would look a lot more impressive to those who know what to look for.”

“You really want to have a seat at that table,” I observed.

“And you don’t? This is everything we’ve been working towards, Wendy. Most gangs never get a chance to move up, to expand their operations. And we’ve been doing that on our own, with no sponsors, and we’ve been doing it fast. Mrs. Carter was right, there have been a ton of changes happening in the city, especially once you came onto the scene. And now, the Fangs are an embodiment of that. Donnie’s gang, too, if Styx hadn’t… slammed him through multiple tables.”

Lawrence paused. He reached into a pocket. A small bottle. He popped another pill. Lawrence massaged a shoulder, grunting, before he could talk again.

“What I’m trying to say, is that we have a chance to be the real face of that change. Represent it. And if we can do that, our seat suddenly becomes worth a lot more. Because change will keep coming, and with it, a lot of power.”

That stab of guilt again, this time through the heart.

“Change,” I said, at the appropriate volume for an art gallery. “Yeah. You’re not wrong about that.”

Lawrence reached into his pocket again. His phone, this time. He raised it, and took a photo.

“D just texted. She’s secured the floor plans.”

“I can go get the van and go around the back for her,” Sarah said. “I’ll pick you two up afterwards?”

“Do that,” Lawrence said, putting his phone back. “Best if we leave separately.”

“Okay. I’ll be right back, Wendy.”

Sarah touched my arm again, then left to go get D.

I had my reservations on leaving D to her own devices again, and so soon, especially considering the last time we had asked her to go off and do something, she didn’t. It was part of the reason why I wanted Sarah to come along with us this time, so we could have someone watch D when we couldn’t. Not a matter of distrust, just accountability. But, D really wanted to set things straight with us, with Lawrence, and D was the only person we had available who could tackle this job, and after texting Lawrence, she proved herself again.

Sarah left to go get D. I could still feel where she had touched my arm.

I rubbed my arm.

“When you said ‘date,’ who were you thinking of bringing?”

Lawrence didn’t answer right away, and when I looked for him, he had already started to walk elsewhere, having only stopped because I had spoken up. He was facing me, half-turned.

“Date?” he asked. It didn’t sound like a word when he repeated it back.

I frowned a bit. “You won’t be able to go around by yourself, you’ll need someone with you, to give some more cover, make it more, uh, believable.”

Lawrence turned back.

“Are you going to be mad if I ask Sarah?”

That was blunt. I threw me off, made me take longer to formulate a response.

Lawrence spoke up before I could.

“Look, Wendy, sometimes I forget you’re only a teenager, so believe me when I tell you that… I don’t give a shit. Seriously. Outside of this, the job, you can do whatever or whoever you want. Doesn’t matter to me. I’ll probably need to ask Sarah if she’s up for it. It was bad enough that you had to share my last name when we went to the Lunar Tower. I wouldn’t entirely hate it if you were joining me instead, but again, you’re closer in age to D than you are to me, so, no. And, besides, I’ll need you elsewhere.”

“That wasn’t… that wasn’t what I was getting at,” I lied.

“Sure it wasn’t,” Lawrence said. He turned back. “I’m heading out first. Give it five more minutes, and then you can leave. Tonight-”

“Tonight,” I said. “Yeah. I’ll keep an eye on her.”

“Cool.” Lawrence paused. “You’ve been doing good, lately. Keep it up.”

I wasn’t used to hearing that from Lawrence. Maybe there was more change going on that I had thought.

I gave him a victory sign with my fingers.

“Will do,” I said.

Lawrence was already walking away, leaving the gallery. He wasn’t used to giving out praise.

Then, I was by myself. Alone. Something I wasn’t unfamiliar with, but I didn’t miss it, either.

Five minutes. I waited, my thoughts more tangled than the art piece in front of me. I rubbed my arm again.

D bumped into my shoulder. I had to put my hands back down for balance, or else I would have tumbled over the roof and onto the cold, slick cement.

“Watch where you’re going,” I warned, more for her than for me. If I fell, I would have been able to walk away just fine. D… wouldn’t be as lucky.

“Sorry, woops.”

D repositioned herself so she was perched over the edge of the building. She sat, instead, setting her butt down and letting her legs dangle freely. We were several stories up, watching people as they went about their business, maneuvering through hallways with wide windows, going through the doors at the front of the building. More left than they entered, which would make sense, given the late hour. As the police started to clock out, we were getting ready to start.

The Pupil. It was a nickname for the new police headquarters that was built a couple years ago. Housing the newest equipment and technology for forensics and other criminal investigations. One of the biggest and most expensive tool boxes the Stephenville Police Department had at their disposal, and we were going to get a chance to play with those tools ourselves.

The building itself wasn’t that big, the old police headquarters was more impressive in scope, but it was the Pupil that had all the good stuff.

“So this is where you tracked your texts to Tone?”

“Yes. Right there. That place. Over yonder. The building you’re pointing to right now.”

“I’m not pointing at anything,” I said.

D made a squeaking noise, then coughed. Her legs knocked together as the breeze kicked up some more. We were high up, after all.

“You sure you’re up for this, D? We still have a few days left, we can give this another night.”

D crossed her legs so the constant knocking wouldn’t bother her.

“It’s fine,” she said. “It’s better we get this done now so we can concentrate on other stuff later. Once we start finalizing the details of what we’re going to do for the art gallery, it’ll be harder to walk away to tackle a side thing.”

“A side thing,” I said. “If we can track Natalie Beckham now, that’ll save us a hell of a lot of trouble. Lawrence might want to put on a show for Mrs. Carter, but I’d prefer we actually get this done rather than try to look good while doing it, then failing. And if nothing else, we have that much more insurance.”

“Insurance. Right.”

D shuffled next to me. She leaned in, then forward, her hands gripping the edge. She leaned so much that it scared me. Her bangs fell to the front of her face.

I reached and pulled her back, hard. Harder than I’d needed, because she fell and landed on her back, facing the sky. But she had tested her balance too far for my comfort. I reacted like any sister would.

“D, what the hell?” I said, admonishing her, like any sister would. “I know it’s late, but you need to stay alert.”

D stared at the sky, dark clouds in her eyes. The rain had finally taken a break, but from the expression on D’s face, it looked like the water might start falling again.

“If I fell, no one would miss me. It used to be like that for the longest time.”

There was no life in her words. Hollow. It scared me in a different kind of way.

“What are you saying?”

“But now, it’s not like that anymore. It’s not easy. There are too many things that keep me here. So many that it would start to slow my fall, now. El-Boy, you…”

D’s mouth was hanging open, like she was going to say another name. She didn’t. She did, however, keep going.

“If I fall, it wouldn’t be easy, or quick, or painless. I’d break first, and collapse there. Hurting. Cold, getting colder until the hurting stopped. But it would be like that for the longest time.”

“D,” I said, unsure of what to make of this or where it was coming from. It seemed like a tender, raw topic, because it was, but I wasn’t prepared or even equipped to handle something like this. It wasn’t what I came here to do. But it was the most important thing now.

“D,” I said again, still unsure but with a conviction I thought we both needed to hear. “If you ever fall, I’m going to catch you. And that’s not a promise. That’s what will happen.”

D blinked. Her face contorted into an expression I didn’t want to look at. It wasn’t the D I had come to know.

Rain started again, falling down the side of her face. Her cheeks.

“Come on,” I said, putting a hand on hers. She didn’t grab it, but she did let me intertwine our fingers. “We’ll both get soaked if we stay out here.”

She accepted my tug as a gesture to get back up. We both moved, getting to our feet, and into position. I shifted so I could balance on a knee. D was behind me, her arms wrapped around my shoulders, her hands close to my neck.

“I’m sorry,” D said. She hopped onto my back, holding on with a tight grip. Her full weight was on me, but I had the strength to support her.

I remembered what Sarah had said. D wasn’t an asset. She was just a kid. A kid in a world of mobsters and monsters. Of Styx and me. This was no place for kid, yet she was here, having her fun, before I had ever even become aware of it.

It should have occurred to me much sooner then, that it wouldn’t always be fun and games. Like with powers, being super, it allowed for higher reaches, to scale taller heights. But the inverse was the same, as well. The valleys were much lower, the shadows more deep and more dark. D was just as super as I was, but in a different but still very real way.

I had to keep that in mind. Another thing to keep in mind. The gang, Mister, what I really was, Sarah… That list kept growing. I could see the cracks starting to form. The doubts, as they took deeper roots.

“You’ve apologized enough. You don’t have anything to be sorry about anymore,” I said. “Now hold tight, it might get slippery. Are we good to go?”

D’s head bumped into mine as she looked ahead. “We are.”

I took a leap. It was enough to get me moving.

Wind blew into my face, and I could feel how it made my mask cold, how it flapped my hood into my ears, knocking out any other sound. It was soothing, to have one of my senses dulled like this, in a way that didn’t put me on alert or on edge. I could focus on other things, rely on other sense, putting me in a more level, meditative mood. A flow I could get into to just take me to where I needed to go, without worries or doubts to bog me down. D was on my back, or rather she had it, giving me an anchor so I didn’t lose myself completely.

The leap took us across the street, across the roof of an office building. Then, the old police headquarters. It was a larger building, so it was a longer distance to cross. I crossed it in only a few steps, the strength of each individual stride getting me there rather than speed. We weren’t in a rush, and I wasn’t trying to make D sick.

I could recalled the time I had met with Gomez, here. I had asked for his assistance in helping me find Benny. He refused, and I met with D and Lawrence soon after. Now, he was hardly a consideration, a factor in our plans. If he was still in his office, it didn’t matter, and he wouldn’t ever know that we were here.

More roofs, alleys and streets, until we made it over to the Pupil. Funny, that we were about to break into a place with that name, undetected.

My feet hit the roof, a firm impact. I stopped to lower myself and set D down. No one else around.

D got a move on.

“Through there,” she said, pointing. She indicated a roof access door.

“How hard are we expecting this to be?” I asked.

“Not hard at all. I did this by myself, last time, and that was in the middle of the day. But now that you’re here, and so is the moon, this should be a walk in the park.”

I didn’t comment on her choice of words, there, but if she was willing to make a joke, I wouldn’t begrudge her of that.

“Alright,” I said. I grabbed her hand and took the lead. “You still have to stay close. Let’s not take any chances.”

“Okie.”

We took to the door, finding it unlocked. We descended down some stairs, until we reached a corner, leading into a short hallway. Harsh lights hit my eyes, harsh only because they took away any cover I could have used. We were out in the open, immediately spotted should someone be unlucky enough to make the wrong turn.

D went first, peeking her head into the hall, checking both sides. She jogged to the left.

“No one’s around, here!”

I dashed out into the hallway after her. I still had to keep an eye on her.

She stuck to one side of the hall, as far away from the windows as possible. I followed suit, staying close and staying low.

We didn’t have to go far to get where our destination. D stopped at a metal door, while pulling her hand out of her bomber jacket. She had a keycard in hand.

“And there we go,” she whispered, pleased with herself as she swiped the card into the reader by the door. A light by the reader turned green, and metal locks tumbled out of place, allowing us in.

D pulled the door open for me. This time, I went through first.

The room was dark. A lab, upon closer inspection. Devices and machines sat there, quiet, with only the soft whirring of a computer or the occasional beeping lights of some equipment I wasn’t familiar with and definitely didn’t want to touch. I’d let D handle that part.

I saw some microscopes, boxes that were labeled for test tube storage. I could probably use a place like this to study my own blood or something.

“All clear,” I called out. Had to keep moving. D let the door shut behind her, following me into the lab. She immediately passed me, heading elsewhere. She knew where she was going.

D pushed a chair from one table to another, letting it roll over. She plopped herself into the seat, pulling the lever adjust the height. The chair lifted her up more, her feet leaving the floor, and I didn’t think that was her intention. She swiveled around in an attempt to move closer, but all she did was spin in place.

I pushed her the rest of the way.

“Thanks,” she said, getting right to work. She moved herself over to a computer, moving the mouse, the screen waking up. A green flash hit us in the face, and the rest of the lab behind us, with it being the only source of light. I checked behind us. There weren’t any windows peeking into the halls on the opposite side of these walls, so we were still good.

Good, in the sense that we hadn’t gotten caught. Breaking into a police headquarters and using their very expensive equipment without any permission was absolutely outside of anything that could be considered good.

The screen displayed fields for usernames and passwords. Every tapped key clacked as D filled them both in. She logged in without any issue.

“I’m… I’m in,” D said. “You have the number?”

“I do.”

I slipped my hand into the side of my bag I had strapped to my back. Part of my costume. I got the slip of paper with Natalie’s number on it. I gave it to D.

D was clicking through folders, as she said, “Could you… keep a lookout for me? I can handle this part from here.”

“I told Lawrence that I’d keep an eye on you. I can’t do that if I’m not… looking at you,” I said. “That came out weird.”

“I’ll be right here,” D said, hurried. “It’s not like I can go anywhere else. Come on Vivi, pleeease.”

She was pleading with me, but she was using that higher register tone that I was familiar with. I didn’t hate having to hear it.

I sighed.

“Alright, You win,” I said. I turned to go to the other end of the lab, where we had come in from. “You better behave yourself!”

“I, I will!”

I took her at her word. I had no other choice.

I moved into position, crouching by the metal doors that let us in here. D was right, I wouldn’t be much of help to her, not with the technical side of things. But if anyone were to wander in here, I could work to subdue them.

Which made me wonder how D managed to assist me with finding Tone and our passengers when they were taken by the cult. It was the middle of the day. How did she not get caught?

“D?” I called out. I had to keep myself hushed, but she was still able to hear me.

Oui?”

“How’d you get in here the first time?”

“It definitely wasn’t easy. I had to sneak into the back instead, the roof would be impossible to get to by myself. At first, I was a teensy bit nervous because I could’ve ran into a officer I pulled a prank on once before so that was really scary but it turned the few I ran into thought I was just some lost kid so I’d ask where the nearest restroom was so then I just ping-ponged my way down different halls and restroom until I got to where I needed to go. Just like that!”

“Right,” I said. “Just like that.”

“Why, that wasn’t believable enough for you?”

“No, it was, I mean I don’t have any real reason not to believe that.”

“Oh. Okay. Cool.”

This was more of what I was used to. D being weird, me accepting that weirdness and going along with it anyways. Familiar, routine even.

And of I could keep her talking, I could keep tabs on her, even from here.

“D,” I said, reaching for her voice. Not because I needed to hear it, but because she needed to hear mine.

“Vivi.”

“Do you like… doing this?”

“Doing what, you need to be more specific.”

“This, D, the gang stuff, leading one. I know you’ve been playing around in this world for some time now, but I’m guessing you never had a direct hand in things, not like how we have it now. I was just curious, now that you’ve had time doing both, if you do prefer being on your own or not.”

No answer, not immediately. Just the clacking of keys. Clicks.

“It can be fun. It has been fun. It’s been getting a little harder to find that fun, though.”

Ah.

“It can’t always be like that,” I told her. “We’re in a position that requires us to get work done. There might be some fun to be found during that, but a lot of it is just that. Work.”

“I know that. I’m just not…”

“Not what?”

“I’m not very used to it.”

“You’ve been doing pretty well so far, better than me.”

“But we both know this won’t last forever. And I don’t want Lawrence to hate me, because I like him. And I like you too, Vivi.”

This wouldn’t last forever. We both knew that. D was feeling that guilt, as well. Lawrence.

“And I like you, D, that won’t ever change. Can’t speak for Lawrence though.”

That part was mostly a joke. Mostly.

I continued.

“We’re doing this so we can get to that table. If you want to rethink what we do when we get there, we can do that then.”

“Like how we’re putting off what we’ll do to Natalie and Oli when we get to them?”

No answer. Not immediately. I let the question hang.

“We can’t kill them, Wendy,” D said. “We can’t.”

“We have a job to do,” I answered. “Let’s focus on that.”

“Oh,” D then said, in a way that suggested a change in topic. I took it.

“What?”

I went back to D. She was still at the computer, still typing. I watched as she scrolled down on some program.

“The number, all I’m getting from it is an address.”

“An address? You can’t text the number and see where it leads from here?”

“I…” D started, then she lifted her phone to show me the screen. A message log with only one text. “I sent a test one that looks like a spam message, but nothing. I don’t want to send more or else it’ll look too sketchy.”

“Why isn’t it working this time?”

D tugged at her choker, then moved her mouse again. She closed the program.

“I don’t know. Could be a glitch, or, with it being so late the system might be doing some background maintenance. I don’t know.”

“Do you have time to restart it?”

“I don’t know. Maybe? I took a picture of the address, so maybe-”

The one time I turned away from the door, it opened.

I grabbed D and yanked her out of the chair, scurrying to hide under a nearby table. I pushed her head lower so she wouldn’t get clipped by the corner of the table as we rushed.

“Ow, my head still hurts,” D whined.

“Hush.”

The metal door made a lot of noise as it opened, and we were able to use that brief moment as cover. The rolling chair had banged on the side of the desk D was using when I grabbed her, but the intruder didn’t seem to hear it.

Then, the door closed, the same noises again, and I used that to get lower and push the tangle of wires out of the way so I could peek through. I saw legs.

From the angle we were at, the desk and the door, there had been enough equipment to block their view of us as they entered. From how they were walking, they didn’t seem alarmed.

They were, however, walking over to where we had been, seconds ago.

“I’m back in, but I can’t take too long.”

Talking, but not to us. It sounded like a man, a voice I’d heard before.

“I’ll see if there’s anything else I can find on him.”

It’s James Gomez.

I exchanged a glance with D. That was enough to confirm it.

What was he doing here?

He continued to talk to no one. He had to be on the phone, then. He didn’t turn the lights on as he came in, was he trying to sneak in as well?

What the hell is he doing here?

“Hold on, let me… No, it’s nothing. It’s this damn chair. I think someone was just in here. Close call.”

I held my breath. From how still D went, so did she.

James Gomez was in here, in this lab. We weren’t supposed to be in here, and from what I could gather and guess, neither was he. Which only made me repeat the question in my head a third time. What was James Gomez doing here?

We were in the dark, hiding in the shadows. He didn’t know we were in here. If we stayed long enough, me might be able to find out what Gomez was after.

D tugged at my arm.

Careful with my movements, so I wouldn’t bump into anything and make sound, I shifted to look at her.

D pointed to the door, stabbing a finger in its direction.

She wanted to leave? Now?

It was a risk, sticking around. But if Gomez was up to something, it wasn’t a bad idea to learn what that might be.

D kept pointing to the door, bumping into me to nudge me forward. I hesitated.

“Give me a second, I’m not really familiar with the system. And… there. What did you want me to cross-reference again?”

Shit.

I hesitated for too long, apparently. D burst out from the underneath the table, sprinting to the door.

Shit.

Panicked, I got out from the cover, going after her.

The door wasn’t that far, D was already opening it, pushing all her weight into her shoulder to open it faster. I caught up with her as soon as she slipped through the crack, the light.

“Hey!”

Not my voice.

I picked D up as I kept running, throwing her over my shoulder. It wasn’t a comfortable position for her to be in, but she left me with little choice.

A corner, then the stairs to the roof. We weren’t that far.

A cop.

A cop that looked vaguely familiar. Young, caucasian. Maybe someone I had acquainted myself with in a previous life. Was he on lookout for Gomez?

He was standing between us and the stairs. Just one cop, and we were free.

I was running fast, his reaction was one of surprise, but delayed compared to my speed. I reached out with my hand.

No time to go for a knife. I swiped at him.

I aimed for his collarbone. Under his uniform, I felt as the bone shifted, depressing into a lower position, into his body.

The man winced, the pain sudden and too debilitating, and he folded over, letting us go free.

“Campbell!”

Still not my voice.

We were up the steps and out the door in a flash. The door almost flung from the hinges from how hard I pushed it.

I turned, jumping. To the other side of the access door. I set D on her feet. She gripped her stomach. She looked nauseous.

“D,” I said, stern, “Now that I don’t like-”

“This was just a side thing,” D snapped, “We didn’t get want we wanted but I did get an address, that might work, but we’re still on track for the art gallery. Now hurry, or Uncle J is gonna catch up to us!”

I couldn’t argue with that. I wondered if she was purposefully not giving me room to argue.

Silent, I put D onto my back, and took off into the night, escaping. The weight on me felt different, now. Less of an anchor, and more of an overall sinking feeling.

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Interlude – James

Previous                                                                     Bonus

No, Mr. Gomez, I’ll tell you what she is. She is a parasite, feeding off of the blood, sweat, and hard work that your officers lay down their lives for every day. She throws a wrench in your efforts, undermining the whole system you have in place. And how do you claim to know what Blank Face’s true motives are? Have you spoken to Blank Face? Are you in regular contact with her?

“I have never had any contact with Blank Face, nor do I claim to know her true motives. I am merely providing my comments on the issue, as I was asked to do when I was invited to your show.”

So you believe that Blank Face is providing a service to your city? Because, and correct me if I’m wrong, but if Blank Face is the hero you claim she is, then why have large-scale riots and displays of civil unrest increased by sixty percent since she’s showed up, why have assaults against Asian Americans skyrocketed by seventy percent since she’s showed up, and why has her presence introduced a new wave of themed vigilante and gang activity, as well as her being challenged by terrorists whose capabilities are unprecedented, and, need I remind you, are still at large? And, those statistics are only representative of what is happening in Stephenville, it’s about half, spread throughout the rest of the country. What do you have to say about that?

“I say that’s a lot to throw at me. Again, Jim, I don’t claim to know what’s in her heart. She’s here, she’s fighting criminals and gang members. As the police chief, and as a citizen, I oppose of her methods and vigilantism, but Blank Face has attempted to stop evil when she encounters it. I do believe that says something. But, whether or not her attempts have proved to be of any benefit… that’s a whole other debate.”

You’re right, that’s a debate for another time, and I hope I can have that with you very soon. Sorry gentlemen, there’s still so much to talk about, like the state of Stephenville in the face of these continuing and escalating issues, and the fact that the last public sight of Blank Face was almost two months ago, but my time is running out. Dr. Paltro, I apologize for losing you at the end, there.

“It’s no problem.

Alright. It was good having you two come on the show. Thanks again.

“Thank you, Jim.”

The camera feed was cut off. James started blinking at the bright blue screen.

“Ah, fuck,” James muttered, reaching for his collar. He removed the tape and microphone, wrapping the wire around his fingers. He placed the coil on the table in front of him, and got up to stretch.

Bones creaked and joints popped.

“Ah fuck,” James said. He was getting older.

It was something he avoided thinking about, he didn’t want to admit it to himself. But he felt it, as he went about his day to day. That much harder to get up, that much harder to move around. The aches in the morning, the soreness as he crawled back into bed. He wasn’t that old, but he was getting up there in years. The work, pressures, the stress… it all piled together, and that combined weight was starting to slow him down.

I wonder if he ever felt like this.

No. That was another thing he wanted to avoid thinking about, as much as possible. But it proved to be a significant challenge, even in this brief moment of being calm and quiet and alone. If left to wander, his mind wouldn’t, couldn’t stop from going in that direction. The wound was still too fresh, still too deep, not want to dwell on it.

But he knew he couldn’t, he had to distract himself, keep his mind busy. Later hours in the office, longer hours in meetings. Meaning more work, more pressure, more stress.

James stalked over to the door, turning the knob, pushing it open. He waited.

Campbell stepped inside.

“Did it go well?” Campbell asked, stepping past James to collect the camera, and turn of the television.

Young, caucasian. Well-built and tall. Reliable. Still held onto the belief that there was good in this world, and that it would somehow prevail, in the end.

James wasn’t so jaded as to call it stupid, no, he admired the fact that people like Campbell were around. That people were still willing to try to leave this world a better place than they found it.

James tried. Now, it wasn’t so much to try and save the world, but just save what little of his own world he had left. Hold it close, hold it tight.

Even then, it’s as if everything’s slipping away.

His mind was wandering again.

James finally answered. “As well as it could have.”

“My condolences,” Campbell said.

“I don’t know why I keep agreeing to these whenever I get invited. I make an ass out of myself every time.”

“Maybe you have something you want to say.”

“Ha. You have a job, Campbell, you don’t have to kiss my ass.”

Campbell flinched. “Sorry, Chief.”

It was like flicking a dog on the head. It was just wrong.

“Come on,” James said, “Let’s go.”

“Right behind you,” Campbell replied, having finished wrapping up the wires, turning off the camera, and placing it back into the bag. He picked it up, and zipped it closed.

Together, they left the conference room.

The halls weren’t bustling, leaving James and Campbell plenty of room to walk side by side. Everyone was either out on patrol or at their desks, working all the same. It wasn’t busy, but it wasn’t lifeless. It was just another day at the Stephenville Police Station.

Even with the chaos and turmoil going on in the city, just beyond this building, the atmosphere seemed lax. People were working, but there wasn’t any sense of urgency. It was wartime, to be dramatic, yet everyone seemed content on laying back, only getting up when they were prodded hard enough. James wanted nothing more than to kick them in the ass and get them moving, but he knew better. Or rather, he just knew. He had no power to exert over his own men.

The halls were clean. James hated that. It meant that the janitors and cleaning ladies had the time to clean thoroughly, that his men weren’t running the place ragged.

There should be more being done, here. People should be tearing their hair out, trying to set this city straight. People should be working together, hand in hand, to rebuild what was broken and creating sturdier foundations.

Someone should be doing… something.

“Campbell,” James said, needing another distraction.

“Yes, sir?”

“How long have you been on the force, now?”

“How long? It’s been, wow, five years already? Certainly doesn’t feel like it.”

“Time flies when you’re having fun. You… you’re not from around here, right?”

“I’m not. I moved here while I was still in highschool.”

“And that was, what, five years ago?”

Campbell laughed.

“It was ten years ago, sir.”

“Color me shocked.”

“But, actually, I still call Chicago my home. Sorry, Chief.”

“No need to apologize.”

“Not that I don’t care about this city, I was just saying that-”

James interrupted him, reassuring him. “I know what you mean, son.”

They walked down the halls, passing by other conference rooms, offices, broom closets. They were in the administrative section of the old building, located on the third floor. The Stephenville police department had two separate buildings, a smaller, newer facility, and the larger, historical main base.The newer building, nicknamed ‘the Pupil’ by those who had the privilege to be able to work there.

The Pupil housed the high-tech labs, with state-of-the-art equipment for forensics and other data analyses, and keeping the higher-grade firearms for emergency use only. He’d seen a lot of those arms be used in recent weeks.

Nice, clean, innovative. A bastion of hope for the city. James had to hear it all through the grapevine.

The building was finished five years ago, and he had yet to take a step inside.

He was there, though, at the grand opening. Cameras pointed at him, smiling that wide, fake smile while holding that stupid, oversized pair of scissors. He cut the ribbon, everyone poured in, and James stayed back and watched.

The memory was still clear in his mind. The meeting, on a trail under the southern bridge at the Peace Phoenix Plaza. The dead of night. Styx had informed him that the Pupil was constructed, in large part, thanks to dummy corporations that Mister owned. The tech was legit, the facility was functional, but all of it was to stay out of James’ reach. He was not granted permission or jurisdiction over the equipment within.

“Looks like you’re blinded,” Styx had told him, before he cracked a wild grin, and chuckled. The sound perturbed, and it only served to cement that moment in James’ mind even more.

Again, wandering.

James scratched his face, running his fingers through his hair, using more force than he needed. To keep him here, instead of being lost in his thoughts for hundredth time that morning.

“Campbell,” James said, finding himself reaching for another distraction, even though he recognized that continuously relying on Campbell for that was probably not the best of ideas. He didn’t work at a high school, but rumors did form, and they would spread.

“Um, yes sir?”

“What’s your take-”

James closed his mouth as they went around a corner, running into another pair of officers. They all exchanged greetings as they moved to pass each other, and James waited until he was certain they were out of earshot before he tried again.

“What’s your take on Blank Face?”

“Blank Face?”

James noted Campbell’s hesitation.

“You can speak your mind around me, son, it’s alright.”

“It’s not that sir, it’s just…”

That hesitation again.

“It’s just what?”

“I’m not sure what to think, it’s all so complicated, maybe even needlessly so.”

“That’s not a bad answer, see, it is complicated. How about this, then. You’ve met her, right?”

“Yes, I did. Back at the warehouse while we were looking for Mr. Thompson, and Solace, and I sat with you and her on the way to city hall.”

Even just hearing his surname, it was like a punch to the gut. Dealing hadn’t gotten any easier.

“So… I, then, what was your first impression of her?”

Campbell took his sweet time in formulating an answer.

“I think, and this is going off a very brief, very hectic interaction from months ago… I have the impression that she was tired.”

“We were all tired back then, Campbell, that was a hectic time. Hell, it still is hectic, and I’m still tired.”

“I know, I just can’t find the right word for it. Maybe exhausted, drained? I didn’t see her face, of course, but I can read body language okay. From what I can remember, she’s young, isn’t she?”

“Just a kid,” James ventured. It was something the media or the public had only picked up in recent weeks. Nothing more than a theory – a rumor – that had spread to be accepted as fact. From the mad ramblings of a domestic terrorist, during one of the most heinous attacks on American soil, at the newest peak of paranoia over the Bluemoon, it was no wonder that people grabbed onto the loudest unsubstantiated claim they had. Even if it wasn’t confirmed, even if it acting on that impulse to believe was unwise and dangerous

People were desperate, and people had stakes to burn. Everyone was looking for even the tiniest flicker to set their hate ablaze.

Granted, James and Campbell knew the truth, but the people didn’t. They just wanted a witch to hunt.

“Just a kid,” Campbell repeated, as if he couldn’t believe it, himself. “Yeah, the way she was standing, how she held herself. I’d hate to assume, but it reminds me of what I’ve seen before.”

“Before?”

“My mother. She… how do I put it? She was a hard worker. She had grown up poor, so she forced herself to work to the bone for her family. It paid off, in a sense. The company recognized her, rewarded her accordingly, and she kept working hard to impress them even more. Always pushing herself, she was.”

“And the twist was?” James asked.

“I’m not sure if you can call it a twist, nothing surprising happened. Looking back, it was almost unavoidable. Something must have snapped, or the wrong set of wires was crossed, but she took her work ethic and made it… not ethical. It turned into an addiction, working herself so hard that she became bone. How files were organized were more important than if anything was in her stomach, or if she was getting enough sleep, or if she saw her husband and two sons for more than ten hours a week. And then… the three of us moved here.”

Campbell’s voice was just a bit tight.

“You don’t have to get too deep into it, if you feel uncomfortable,” James said. “We’ve veered off the main topic, anyway.”

Campbell shook his head.

“It’s not that, I was trying to get to my point. What I mean to say is, I’ve seen that. The restlessness, even when exhausted, making you twitchy, making you lash out at when the slightest thing goes wrong.”

James remembered back to that time in the warehouse, when they encountered Linda Day. Twice, Blank Face had assaulted her, at the slightest provocations. Would Blank Face had killed her, if he wasn’t in the way? James couldn’t say for sure.

Campbell had continued while James was pondering. “-when they’re at the frayed ends of sanity. That’s never healthy. She, my mother, subjected herself to all that stress, and she let it consume her. Multiply that stress by ten, a hundred fold, and put that on a kid, and a kid like her…”

“Something’s bound to snap,” James said, finishing the thought.

“And considering that we haven’t seen her in so long, it’s weird, I actually feel a little concerned for her, and not in the obvious, ‘super-powerful-vigilante-has-gone-missing’ kind of way.”

He coughed, the camera bag shaking a little.

“You know what I’m trying to say, sir?”

“I know,” James said.

James had a thought he wanted to share with Campbell, but they had gotten to the elevators. James pressed the button for the both of them. Different floors, but the same direction. Up.

Campbell spoke as they waited for the elevator. “But hey, it could just be me not remembering things right, and my mind ended up going there. I’d bet money that I’m wrong.”

“No,” James replied, eyes forward. “It’s not a bad assumption. If anything, it’s food for thought.”

“Yeah, food for thought.”

As if it was responding that point as well, the elevator dinged, the doors sliding open. They went inside, James pressing the appropriate buttons, and the doors closed.

They stood in silence as the elevator worked itself up. James listened to the hum of the machines, the cables and gears, focusing the small bumps as the three thousand pound metal box was being pulled up.

A ding.

The doors slid open. It was Campbell’s floor.

“Thank you again for letting me set up the meeting for you,” Campbell said as he walked out.

“I’m no good with all that stuff, and you’re the only one I can trust.”

“Honor to hear that.”

The door closed before James could get another word in. The elevator continued.

The workings of the interior felt farther away.

That last thing he had said to Campbell, how sad was it, for that to actually be the case?

An exaggeration, but there was some truth to that. Campbell was there with him when he traced the signal that led them to the warehouse. He watched the door while James worked. And he was there, helping James assemble the crew he needed to get a leg up against Solace. Of the crew that James knew he could work with, Campbell was the one he knew he could trust.

And in a building full of people who were supposed to be his men, his officers, that feeling was like finding a drop of water in the desert.

A ding.

James got out of the elevator.

His body moved on its own, he knew his floor better than anyone ever would. And he had better, no one spent as much time on this floor as much as James did.

He passed someone in the hall. Detective Harvey. Forest’s man.

Harvey smiled, and James tried to smile back. He picked up the pace back to his office.

James’ office. He had always wanted a space on an upper floor, with a window that faced the city. There was a sort of dignity to it that appealed to the six year old James during job day. Back then, he knew what he wanted.

What he got was a bit of a compromise. He got that office space high up, but the window faced an alley, a brick building was all he could see out that window.

Well, that, and another more peculiar thing.

Two scraps of paper were taped to the wall, with an arrow drawn in marker pointing from one to the other. The marks were on the other side of the glass. James hadn’t bothered to erase them. Somewhere within him, he was wanting to put up another scrap of paper.

Others had seen it, but no one had made mention of it. Either they thought that was just another quirk of the police chief, or, more likely, they just didn’t care.

James walked through the stacks of boxes, full of files of cases and other investigations and potential leads. So many files that he had to empty out his bookshelf and start stacking files using that. Some stacks went up to his chest in height. Getting past it all was cumbersome, there were simply a lot of boxes.

He finally made it to his desk on the other side of the room. He slumped into his chair, righted himself some, and booted up his computer.

As he waited, he looked around.

Not that he had less stuff in his office, now, it was just that all of his stuff had been replaced by files and boxes. Photos and trinkets, precious mementos and superficial awards. All moved out for files and boxes. Even his desk, there was a pile of names and cases that took up all the real-estate, and then some. Things he could actually work on, and need legitimate attention by the police.

A serial murderer who had used the Halloween Riots as cover for his killings. Patrick Goldstein, a convicted felony who fled into the city to join one of the many growing gangs. No one wanted him, so now he was stuck, and the police had to find him. Solace, but he had stopped getting regular updates about that.

A missing persons case. There were so many as it stood, but James was asked to put it on the top of his desk. A personal favor.

Blank Face. The official order to bring down the vigilante. Her stack was the tallest in the room. The amount of offenses they stuck on her was almost comical.

Work, pressure, stress. His own office was no longer a haven for him.

Sitting here, he already wanted to go up to the roof and have a smoke. Funny, he had already quit smoking. But all this work, pressure, and stress, it brought him right back.

What would have six year old James thought, should he see this? Disappointment? Would he cry?

Pathetic.

The computer finished waking up. James moved the mouse to click and check through his emails.

Several. A dozen, to be exact. But one caught his eye.

John Cruz. The new district attorney.

It was a proposal about a new bill that he was going to support, and was suggesting that James back the bill, too. Nothing concrete was put to paper yet, but it would use-

James stopped reading.

He looked away from the computer screen, wanting to shut down the computer, wanting to throw the whole thing out the window.

The wording, the formality of it, that James saw it as callous. An offense that James took personally.

Fuck you, John. You shit-drinking, piss-eating bastard. I don’t know how you eat piss, but I’m sure the devil would love to get creative when he meets you. Fuck. You.

Finding a distraction, his eyes went to a portrait, instead.

It was the only memento that kept its rightful place on his desk.

Three people. No, four. James almost didn’t see little Katy there, wrapped up in a bundle, held by Kristin.

Beside him was-

He had to look away again. Not his mind’s eye, this time, it was more direct.

But he kept it there, James never removed the portrait. He needed it there.

But he lost the will to even look at that, too.

James got out of his seat, and went to the window.

Nothing but a brick wall. All he could see. A block to his vision.

He almost laughed.

“We were supposed to do this together,” James said, his words reaching no one. “I got here first, waiting for you to catch up. Now you’ve left me hanging. Was this your plan all along, to set me up as part of a big joke?”

No answer, but James wasn’t expecting one.

James stared at the brick wall in front of him. He got so far, but he was never even close. The whole time, he was impeded by something that he had no control over, and he had learned that lesson way too late.

He stared at nothing, and got nothing.

It wasn’t always like this.

It was James’ job to keep the peace.

Red and blue lights illuminated his face and back as he stood, arms spread out. The colors enveloped, giving him more of a presence. He tried using that to his advantage.

“Stay back people! Please stay behind the tape!”

The people listened, backing up some, giving those closer to the tape and James more room to breathe.

James grinned to himself.

Good job, me.

The scene was still fresh, the last gun shot still ringing in his ears. The last time he had checked, the last time he took a glance behind him, the scene still wasn’t pretty.

James didn’t even want to see it in full. So why would all of these people gather to take a look?

Vultures. I bet they don’t even see them as human. Just another spectacle to indulge themselves in.

For their sakes, and for his, he tried to push them back even more.

“I’m gonna have to ask y’all to back up one more time! One big step back, please!”

His portion of the crowd listened again, but they weren’t backing up as much as he would have liked.

He opened his mouth to shout again.

“Everyone, please back-”

“James, James!”

He heard his name getting called. Not from behind, but in front. Someone in the crowd.

James saw as people were moving out of the way. Had he not asked for more room, there probably would have been more objections, more shouting at the people squeezing through. There wasn’t, though, which James liked. The people here were behaved.

The last line of defense broke, and James saw who the offenders were.

“Thomas,” James said.

Thomas Thompson smirked upon hearing his name.

It was well past any reasonable hour, but Thomas was still clean and proper, looking like the lawyer he was. Dressed in a fitting, expensive looking grey suit, his hair combed back, with the only sign of disheveledness was how wild the strands were at the ends. He needed a haircut, that was for sure.

He walked with a swagger, like he didn’t just know what the next move was, but the one after that, and so on. Like it was all part of a grand plan, and all Thomas had to do was go through the motions of that plan, and everything would fall into place.

Some would have called that arrogance, but James recognized it as Thomas just being that damn confident.

“Why am I not surprised?” James asked as Thomas approached. Thomas stopped right at the tape, and Gomez had to take a step to close in the distance.

“Because you’re looking for something to do, my friend,” Thomas answered. “And I’ve got just the thing.”

“Or, man,” Thomas then said, correcting himself.

He gestured to the man standing beside him. Younger, just a hair shorter than Thomas. White, though the features in his eyes and jaw suggested that he might be part Hispanic. Dressed similarly. Though, unlike Thomas, he had a bag strapped around one shoulder, and had a cup of coffee in one hand. Another lawyer, if James had to guess.

He was dressed the part, but he looked new to the job. His top buttons of his shirt were undone, the tie loosened. His dark brown hair was much more of a mess. He wasn’t used to the late nights, not yet.

“Hello there,” James said, going first. He extended a hand.

The man took it, shaking it. Firm.

“John Cruz,” the man said.

“James Gomez.”

“John’s still paying his dues, cutting his teeth as a public defender. He’s the guy you get if you can’t afford a guy.”

“I’m cheap, but I’m good,” John said, rolling with it.

“You have a sense of humor,” James said.

“Helps with the late nights.”

“Alright then. But, what brings you two here?”

James asked them both, but the question was mostly directed to Thomas. If he was here, James knew he wanted something.

“I wanted to say hi, give an old friend some coffee to get through the warm night.”

Thomas nudged John with an elbow, and John lifted the cup to James.

“You didn’t even have the decency to give it to me yourself,” James said, berating his friend. He took the coffee anyway, letting the cup warm his hands.

“I’m showing John the ropes, how to establish a good rapport with other good guys. But we don’t need the formalities, do we James? We’re closer than that.”

“We may be, but I still like coffee.” He took a sip. “Skipping formalities can taste bitter, sometimes.”

Thomas laughed. “Does it, now?”

“It does. Alright, I know what you’re here for.”

James turned, and raised his free hand. He flagged another cop over.

“Mind if you handle this?” James asked, “I need a coffee break.”

The cop nodded, understanding what a ‘coffee break’ really meant.

They swapped places, and James signaled for Thomas and John to step over the tape.

Now the objections and shouting came forth. The trio walked away as the cop who had taken James’ place yelled over the crowd’s complaints.

They moved over to the middle of the street, closer to the actual ‘scene.’ There were more cars and people now, cops and gangbangers alike. People were giving statements, people were being taken away. Everyone was too busy to care about a rookie cop and some no name lawyers.

“Did the chief say anything about this?” Thomas asked.

“Nothing we haven’t seen before,” James replied.

They got close, but they couldn’t get too close. James pulled them to the side, standing beside one of the many cop cars on the street. Out of the way, but they still had a visual of what was going on.

“So, what’s going on?” John asked. He was looking at something just past James. There was only one thing here that would have grabbed his attention. James didn’t need to see for himself.

Several blue tarps, laid out in different places across the street, with red stains pooling out from underneath, spilling onto the road. The cops that were closer had to watch their footing as they maneuvered around the area.

A fresh crime scene.

James answered. “Two new gangs on the scene, trying to establish presence in their neighborhood.”

“I think they did too good of a job, if you ask me,” John said.

“Yes,” James said. He couldn’t bear to look, which was why he offered to take care of the perimeter, instead.

The thought of taking another sip of coffee wasn’t so appetizing, anymore.

“John,” Thomas said, “If it stuck out to you like that, why do you think that is? Use your brain.”

“It’s much more than just establishing presence. These two new gangs, even if they’re rivals, it shouldn’t have gotten this bad, this soon. Am I right, assuming that?”

“Sense of humor, and you’re smart? I can see why you brought him along, Thomas.”

Thomas nodded, looking proud of himself.

James addressed John directly. “Yes, you’re thinking in the right direction. Those two gangs are actually two broken halves of an older group.”

Thomas thought aloud. “If we’re in this neighborhood, opposite of Eastside… The Koninkryk?”

James nodded. “They’re split in the Thunders and Royals, now. We have both leaders in custody. So John, they’re not just rivals, they’re brothers.”

“Oh, shit,” John said. “So it runs deep.”

“Apparently so. I heard a bit of it during the initial ‘questioning.’”

James used his free hand to make air quotes around the word ‘questioning.’

“It was more like they were screaming their heads off at each other while we restrained them, and we ended up getting some info in the doing. Something about a girl named Lucy?”

“All over a girl,” Thomas commented. “Fleets of ships and armies were sent out over them.”

“Not like that, I don’t know how to describe it, but it didn’t come across that way. Maybe this Lucy was their mom or aunt or something?”

“All this, over a mom?” John asked, eyes still trained to the work being done behind James.

“You don’t mess with people’s mommas,” Thomas said.

“Sorry I don’t have much to tell you,” James said. “I left before I could get any of the juicier details. I… I guess I’m still not used to seeing so much blood.”

“It’s no problem, James,” Thomas said. “You’re doing what you can, out here. I admire that.”

“And even if I did have anything, this is still an active crime scene. I shouldn’t be telling you two shit. So no buttering me up, it won’t work.”

James handed the cup back to John. Thomas intercepted it.

“Another lesson for you,” Thomas said. “Not everyone’s receptive to the coffee trick. Personalize it, find out what they like ahead of time. I’ll give you a hint for James, for next time. It starts with ‘box of,’ and ends with ‘Partagás.’”

“Hey, that’s top secret,” James said. “And potentially above his pay grade.”

“I’ll manage,” John responded, “For next time.”

John fixed his shoulder bag, gripping the strap. “Actually, you think I can get a closer look? I want to know more about what’s happening, maybe see if I can get those juicer details.”

“Stay low, and stay out of the way,” Thomas told him. “Don’t talk to anyone unless you know for sure you’re going to get a real answer. Listen. And here.”

Thomas gave the coffee back to John.

“Someone might like that.”

John took the coffee, and went off, passing Thomas and James to get a closer look at the scene.

“I sipped that, you know. John knows.”

“They don’t.”

Between the two friends, they shared a small chuckle.

“So,” Thomas said, after they cooled a bit. “What do you think of him?”

“Him? John?”

“Yes, of course John, who else?”

“He’s decent, I suppose. Curious, doing his best to learn. A couple minutes and a cup of coffee doesn’t really give me much to work with.”

“I know, but I wanted to hear what your initial thoughts were, however small.”

“Why?”

“I’m thinking of having him join us, as part of our team of pals.”

James paused, and then he sighed.

“Thomas,” he said.

“Just hear me out, and I know I’m jumping the gun by bringing it up now-”

“Jumping the gun? This is running up to the factory that makes the guns.”

“I know. I’m just saying he has potential, and I wouldn’t want him to waste it because we didn’t steer him in the right direction. Our direction.”

“You really see something in him?”

Thomas shrugged. “I might.”

“That’s a strong foundation to build from.”

Thomas leaned back, rolling his shoulders. “I met John at a cafe I frequent about three weeks ago, usually I take my breaks there, drinking coffee, reading up on the news. That’s actually where I got that coffee.”

He pointed in John’s general direction.

“Cafe Sharktooth. It’s trendy, but I highly recommend it.”

Thomas met James in the eye.

“But I digress,” Thomas said.

“But you digress,” James echoed.

“Right. I met him there, working on a case, getting really into it. Like, really into it. So into it that I went over to talk to him. It was another one of his public defense cases, but he was getting deep into the files of the case, making sure he got everything straight. We exchanged cards, and when I see him the next day, he already knew everything about me. I mean, not everything, but he did his research. I knows what I’m after, and what I want for this city. So, we got more acquainted, and I offered to help him out on that case, unofficially, providing insight where I could. His questions were good, too. He wasn’t asking just for tips on procedures, but about the culture. What the gangs are like, how each one operated, and how to use the defendant’s circumstance with the case’s relevant gang to appeal to the jury.”

“Doesn’t sound like you, Thomas. You want to save this city, and you’re helping a guy get off?”

Thomas raised a finger. “Ah, but if you looked at the case, you would have known something was up. I saw it immediately, and John was able to catch it, too. Turns out, they found him innocent, and Miles Turner can drive another day.”

“Turner? Of Turner’s Moving Company?”

“The very same.”

“Hm, not too shabby, then. Though, one would argue you should check more closely if you’re carrying four hundred kilograms of cocaine in your truck halfway across the country.”

“James, please, we already worked so hard to win that argument, I’m tired just thinking about doing it again.”

James grinned. “I’ll spare you, this one time.”

“Thanks, pal.”

“But,” James said, crossing his arms, “I’ve give you this, that John of yours is legit fellow, and that he’s smart, and he wants to learn more about this culture so he can better fight against that. He’s an angel, I get that.”

“But you still object to him.”

James shook his head. “I’m objecting to you.”

The expression on Thomas’ face had changed, but it was too hard to read, being in the dark. His jaw was set, his stare penetrated.

James had to explain himself.

“Before you start blowing steam out your ears, just know I’m still one hundred percent behind our plan, I really am. You kick ass all the way up to being the district attorney, and my dumb ass will somehow become the new chief of police.”

“And we work together in tandem to clean the streets,” Thomas said. “For good.”

“Yes, and I’m still there for that, I want that. But…”

James struggled to find the words.

Thomas questioned him. “What are you so concerned about?”

“But, you shouldn’t try to recruit anyone into this holy war of yours. Between us, we know what the stakes are, the risks we’ll run into along the way. Don’t bring anyone into this, and for god’s sake, don’t groom them into being the ideal pawn. People aren’t just assets, Thomas, and if you’re seriously considering going in that direction, I’m not going to follow you.”

Thomas threw his hands into his pockets. He didn’t answer for some time.

When he did, he said, “Don’t call it a holy war, and especially don’t call it grooming.”

“I’m exaggerating for effect. I know you’re not actually that radical, Thomas, otherwise you’d be taking more extreme, more stupid measures right now.”

“Like wearing a mask, and punching criminals in the face?”

“Like that,” James said, to bring another percentage point of levity into their conversation. “Like that exactly.”

“Wouldn’t that be nice, though? It’d certainly relieve some of tension on my mind. Playing the long game takes its toll.”

“Keep it in your fantasies. Last thing I want to do is detain you for something stupid.”

“I will, I will.”

James had a point he wanted to get to, a point he felt like Thomas needed to hear. A point he should have heard sooner.

He got to the point.

“I’m only telling this to you because you have a tendency to want to see yourself in others, so you want to raise them to your level. Not everyone can handle that kind of pressure, not everyone can reach the same heights as you, and certainly not everyone will be as committed to this as you. Except for, you know, me.”

“Alright, I understand. We’ll keep this between us. I’d still like to keep in touch with John in case he becomes useful in the future, but, as far as our plan goes…”

“We keep it between us.”

James gave Thomas a hand, and they shook on it. For the second time, the first was when James heard the initial pitch.

“Or,” Thomas said, as he let go, “Maybe you’re just saying that because you’re jealous?”

“Jealous?”

“You don’t want another man coming in between our sacred union.”

Everyone around was busy, but James still checked his surrounding.

“God damn, man, there are people here, with ears. And you have a wife and a kid.”

“Come on, man, love is love. Now give me a hug, you fool.”

“Get away from me!”

“Thomas, James.”

Jogging to them, John returned before the bantering could go any further. James noticed that he didn’t have the cup.

“Welcome back. Learn anything?”

John nodded. “I learned that all this escalated from a game with dice and cash. I learned the names of the two leaders, Darius and Marcus Jackson, EZ and Krown of the Thunders and Royals, respectively. Their feud is over a woman, and it is their mother, or rather, over whose mother is the real one.”

“What does that even mean,” James commented.

“Their father was out of the picture, so they were raised by a single mother. They have something of a deep reverence for her, so the brothers constantly argued over who would take care of her when she got old. But, for whatever reason, she never got a chance to grow old. Things kind of went out of hand from there.”

“That’s one fucked up family dynamic,” James said.

“And, that’s not all,” John said. It was dark, and yet his face practically beaming as he said, “They’re not even worried about incarceration. The whole ‘knows a guy who owes a guy a favor’ scenario, and they’re hooked up with some lawyers who can get them back on the street in a week, no hassle.”

James and Thomas didn’t say anything.

“What?” John questioned, looking at the both of them. “It’s something I should know about, isn’t it? Shouldn’t we look into it?”

“There’s nothing to look into,” James said, shaking his head. “They’re set, now.”

“Now what does that even mean?”

“It means they have connections with game lawyers, or lawyers in the pocket of one of the gangs at the table. The big boys. If you can afford their services, then you have nothing to worry about. Ever.”

James added, “You could kill a man in the middle of the business district in broad daylight, and those damn lawyers would find a way to spin it, and sell that the other guy deserved it.”

“Then why aren’t we doing something about it? Expose them, or something?”

James looked at Thomas, and Thomas was looking down at his shoes.

We are, it’s just further down the long game.

“Don’t poke at beasts you’re not prepared to slay,” Thomas said, eyes still low. “That’s your next lesson. Those lawyers demand exuberant prices, and it’s not always money. Shaking them up is shaking up who they represent, and we can’t afford to bring that on our heads. Not while we’re still so small.”

James knew that Thomas hated that. Being small.

“Exuberant prices, huh? Wow, I just thought this seedy shit went deep, I didn’t know it went up, too.”

James didn’t like the look on John’s face.

Thomas spoke, as if to derail whatever train of thought John was on. “Anyone worth their honest salt ends up getting a call like that, at some point in their career. A promotion, if you will. It’s not worth it, I guarantee it. You’ll never get exactly what you’re after.”

Thomas had never sounded so sure in his life.

James wondered if they would ever get what they were after.

He sat for about ten minutes before he got out of his car. He walked up the driveway, up a few steps, and approached the front door.

This never gets any easier.

James knocked on the door. Two heavy, slow knocks. He didn’t wait very long.

“Kristin,” James said as the door opened.

Kristin smiled, though it was a weary, forced one. Out of good manners than anything genuine.

James didn’t blame her.

She didn’t look like she had somewhere to go, but she had touched up some. An oversized sweater, with black pants and slippers on her feet. Her hair was tied up, but it wasn’t combed. She had applied some makeup around her eyes and cheeks. Not for him, and not for anyone else but her. That was just the kind of person Kristin was. If she looked good, she felt good. And here, she wasn’t feeling terrible.

The sweater, James noticed, was of Thomas’ alma mater.

“May I-” James started.

“Please,” Kristin said.

She let him in, and James entered into the Thompson household. He wasn’t dressed in his uniform, and he didn’t take his police car to get here. He wore a polo shirt, a coat, and pair of slacks, and he took his old, beat up sedan. He wasn’t here for business, it was personal.

James took a glance around as he followed Kristin down the main hall. She hadn’t taken down any of the picture frames hanging on the wall. He could only focus on the edges of the frames themselves, the actual pictures were too much of a reminder of what was missing. Not just the man himself, but the role he filled in the house. Husband, father. Best friend.

If it was hard for him, then he couldn’t imagine what it was like for Kristin, having to live with constant reminders all day, every day. And she chose to keep those reminders up, no matter how much they might have hurt.

Maybe the pain of remembering is better than the release of forgetting.

“How’ve you been?” James asked, hoping Kristin would provide the distraction he so desperately needed.

“Been better, but I haven’t had a bad day for at least a week. That has to count for something.”

He was his best friend, but James was able to get more acquainted with Kristin over the years. James first met her back when they arrived together at the airport, after the volunteering program. He first met Kristin and Katy that day. It was quite the surprise. James was only expecting to carry one person’s bags.

From then, to now, James had grown to consider Kristin a good friend. They had developed their own connection outside of the common thread that they first met with. Now, even with that thread cut, James was still willing to reach out and support her, support a friend.

“You’re doing way better than me, then,” James said.

He heard a dry laugh come from Kristin.

“I try.”

They went by the kitchen. Annie, the dog, had smelled and heard him, and was by the gate on the other side. She saw him, and got excited. Too excited, instead of barking, she kept huffing, instead.

“Hi Annie,” James said, giving her a pat on the head, and then he walked on by.

Kristin brought him into the living room. Sitting on the couch, was someone he had seen before, but he couldn’t quite place his finger on where, or why.

Kristin ended up filling in the blanks for him.

“James, this is Shiori.”

Shiori. The name sort of helped.

She was sitting down, her feet up on the couch, legs pulled close to her body. On the table in front of her was a cup of tea.

She… did not look as well as Kristin did. She looked over at the mention of her name, and James could see it on her face. Exhaustion. Wrecked. Her clothes were dark and baggy, and she looked like she had just woken up, her eyes and cheeks a little puffy, her messy hair pushed back by a headband. Her eyes were red, wet at the corners. She’d been crying, and she’d been crying for a long time.

James had to approach this carefully.

“Hello, Shiori,” James said, measured. “I’m James.”

Shiori only offered a nod. She remained silent, remained sitting.

“She was at the service for Thomas. She sang.”

Then it clicked. He remembered that.

“Oh, that’s right. You have a lovely voice, Shiori.”

Again, Shiori only nodded.

James felt an awkward silence about to settle in.

Kristin spoke, recognizing it as well. “Did you want anything, James? I got tea for Shiori, but maybe you want some coffee?”

“Coffee would be great, thanks.”

“I’ll be right back.”

Kristin left to go into the kitchen, leaving James with Shiori. Not that he particularly minded, but he had to approach her with the utmost care and sincerity.

Slow, he moved over to the couch, finding a seat, but making sure to keep a respectable distance. He stayed on the edge of the cushion.

“It’s a good thing I was able to run into you again,” James said. “I meant to compliment you for your singing at… the service, but I must have lost you while the crowd was moving back outside. I’m glad I was able to get another chance to tell you.”

Shiori didn’t move or verbalize a response. She only nodded.

Was she ill? Did she lose her voice?

It was obvious that there was something wrong. Chances were good that it wasn’t his business to ask, and he wasn’t about to try and touch upon something still raw. He had to be sensitive.

James took out his phone from his pocket, and browsed the internet. He didn’t hear much outside of the work being done in the kitchen, Annie still huffing, and the occasional sniffle by Shiori.

She only moved to reach for a box of tissues by her cup of tea. She took a few, and used them to rub her eyes. She crumpled them, and placed them by her side, away from James.

Shiori wasn’t even watching TV. It was off, the black screen facing them both. There was nothing to distract her from whatever was on her mind. She was just sitting there, being like that.

How does she do it? James wondered.

Before James could try to think of an answer, he heard a voice from the kitchen.

“James, can you help me in here?”

James got up without any protest or objection.

“If you’ll excuse me, I’ll be right back,” he said to Shiori. He got the typical response.

Maybe it was rude, insensitive, but he hurried to the kitchen.

James stepped over the gate and into the path of a dog. Annie really was excited to see him.

“Down, Annie, down!”

The dog listened to her owner, stopping in her tracks, and sitting.

“Now go to your bed.”

Annie whined, but went to her bed. She spun twice before sitting back down.

“Sorry, Annie, maybe next time,” James said.

The dog was getting older, but she still had those puppy eyes. It was hard to resist.

But, he had to. He turned to Kristin, who was standing by the sink, holding a mug of coffee. James saw the other mug beside her on the counter. Black.

“What’s up?” he asked.

Kristin whispered, very deliberate. “How does she look to you?”

James matched her in volume. “She as in Shiori?”

Kristin nodded.

James shrugged.

“Quiet, reserved. Maybe shy, but she didn’t seem to have a problem performing to a crowd.”

It was obvious she was going through something, but James wasn’t going to mention it outright. It was a shared understanding.

“Shiori’s been staying with us for the past two weeks,” Kristin explained. “We’ve been taking of her, looking after her, making sure she’s okay. It was my idea, and she was hesitant at first, but she came around. I’m glad she did.”

“Okay, then that explains why I didn’t see her the last time I was here. This is a new thing?”

“It is. I invited her over after her daughter-”

Kristin’s voice cracked. She looked away, putting a hand close to an eye. A preemptive measure, in case her makeup started running.

James was an experienced enough cop to piece things together.

“She’s Alexis Barnett’s mom,” James said.

Kristin had to nod to confirm it. She cleared her throat before she could speak again.

“I’m not going to go into the details, you already have them.”

“I do,” James said. “It’s still on my desk.”

“Is there anything you can tell her? Anything at all?”

James felt his heart drop.

“I’m sorry, Kristin, but I don’t really have anything worth telling. It’s been more than difficult, with all of the shit that’s been happening in Stephenville, and it all keeps piling on. You should see my office.”

“You don’t have anything,” Kristin said. She sounded so disappointed.

James felt his heart drop even lower.

“Do you know how many reports I get about violence against Asian Americans in the past month? Dozens, if not hundreds, every day. You know the situation with me and my men, but we do legit work on stuff like that. But we’re being spread way too thin. If our attention is in one place, then something else happens and we’re too late to respond to that. Stuff falls through the cracks, or we can’t give everything the proper attention it deserves.”

Kristin snapped. “Dammit, this deserves attention, James! Shiori deserves attention, and Alexis deserves attention. This is close to me, and I want it to be close to you. You have to, you know, fucking do something!”

She managed to hush herself halfway through her outburst, but the anger was still there, the frustration. It came out so easy. That was something he liked to say to James every now and then. The only thing free in life was frustration.

“I did do something,” James said. “I followed up. I asked around, I went back to the restaurant on multiple occasions. No one could give me anything concrete. It all happened so fast, or they were firing at the crowd. There was a single bullet hole in the ceiling. Everyone’s stories conflict with one another. Even your daughter’s.”

Kristin was shaking the whole time, rubbing her arms together, as if the temperature had dipped below zero.

“I wish I had something, I really, truly do. But I gave it the best shot I could, with the resources I have available and most amount of focus I could put into it at this time… and I still…”

James couldn’t bear to say it. That he did everything he could and he still failed.

He didn’t even have the time to meet with Shiori when the kidnapping first happened. He had been called away to three other active scenes, with three successful arrests. He actually made progress, that day.

But not with this. He still failed.

“I can’t have that,” Kristin said, low. “I can’t accept that answer. I want Shiori to have her daughter back, James. Shit, I want Alexis back. She was taken, not killed. She has to be somewhere.”

“I know that,” James said. “But it did happen so fast, at the worst possible time. I’m so, so sorry.”

It’s like they knew what they were doing. Everyone’s preoccupied with the riots and the assaults and Blank Face, and they took advantage of our scattered attention.

“If this was any other time, I promise you we’d have her back by now,” James said, meaning it. “It’s just-”

“It’s the worst possible time.”

Kristin didn’t say anything for a while. She wasn’t just his best friend’s wife, she was his friend, and he had let her down.

“I was hoping you had something,” Kristin whispered, eyes down. “An update, a lead, anything. Something to give to Shiori so she could have hope. She doesn’t even have that, right now.”

Kristin hiccuped.

“Because, you know, he… Thomas is gone, but I’m not alone in this house. Katy’s here, and hell, I have you. But Shiori? She sits in her apartment, alone, being constantly reminded of what’s missing. That’s not good, for the mind, body, or soul. When I went over to invite her, she had lost so much weight that I thought she needed an IV drip instead of actual food.”

“That bad?”

“I’m exaggerating, but it is bad. She needs to be here, so she can be reminded that there are people around that love her and want to see her back on her feet, with Alexis in her arms and in her home. And I was praying that you had something to lift her spirits up.”

Every word Kristin said was like a kick to James’ own spirit. He did what he could, but he still came up short, disappointing Kristin, Shiori, himself… and him. What would he think, if he were around? Would he have thought of him as pathetic, too?

Maybe.

“I’m out of apologies, and excuses,” James said. “There’s not much I can do after that. I can’t tell Shiori anything if I have nothing, that’ll only make it worse for her.”

“Okay,” Kristin said.

“How long were you expecting to have her stay here?”

“As long as she needs, I don’t care. I’ll pay for her apartment if I have to.”

“I don’t recommend going that far, but do help her to get back on her feet. I’d say your doing a great job now. You told me she wasn’t eating when you invited her over, but I didn’t see a sign of malnutrition on her face. That’s good. You’re making her eat.”

Kristin stayed quiet.

“It’s great that you’re willing to take care of her, too,” James said. “Keeping yourself busy, helping others in the face of your own loss. I admire that.”

She looked up, meeting James in the eye.

“You lost him, too.”

There were no words to respond to that. He opened his arms, and gave Kristin a hug. Kristin accepted the gesture.

They stayed like that for a second longer. A hug between good friends.

When they broke, James said, “Here’s what I’ll do. I’ll go through everything again, and I mean everything, and give this another shot. I’ll come by if I have any updates, and you work on helping Shiori, and yourself. You have family, you know. You need to be there for them, too.”

“Shiori is family, and you are, too. You take care of yourself, too.”

“I am, by doing this. Even when I’m overworked, I need more work.”

More distractions.

“I’m sorry for being hard on you,” Kristin said.

“I deserve it,” James said. “I’m not doing good enough by you. And you’re a good person, one of the few I know left.”

“Thank you, James. Can I ask you for one more favor?”

“Anything.”

“Can you check on Katy?”

“She’s here?”

“Upstairs, in her room. Just knock. I’m sure she’d appreciate you swinging by.”

“Hope so, but of course.”

James didn’t leave right away. Kristin moved to step out of the kitchen, putting a hand on James’ arm as she left. James gave himself a break to drink his coffee.

Bitter.

He finished his coffee, placing the mug in the sink, and left the kitchen. From across the hall, he saw Kristin and Shiori.

They were on the couch. Shiori hadn’t budged since he left, and Kristin was sitting closer to her than he had been. The TV was on this time, judging from the angle Kristin held her head at, she was looking at something. Shiori, however, had her head down, silent.

If James had the power to save everyone, he’d do it in a heartbeat. But he didn’t, and he was still given that task. And it had broke him down years ago, back when the police chief at the time offered James the position, back when he took it, and back when the chief took him out to meet with the gangs that ran the city. Mrs. Carter, who was there to represent Mister.

Styx was there, too.

They told him he would have no real power at all. That all he had to do was play the part of a competent chief, while making sure the real checks and balances were in place. He was blocked before he ever had a chance to start.

His best friend was disappointed then, furious, frustrated. And he had used that frustration to go even harder with his campaigning, and it led to him finding Blank Face… leading to everything else.

James went up the stairs before his thoughts could beat him down any more. He still felt like he was being beat down, though, the aches were making themselves known as he moved. He hated that.

It was easy to find Katy’s room. He’d been up there before, when he was asked to babysit her during her kindergarten and elementary school years.

He knocked.

Katy wasn’t the one who got the door.

A girl, a teenager. Hispanic. Her hair was colored a lighter brown, and she was wearing a coat. It looked trendy.

“Hello,” James said.

“Hello,” the girl repeated.

Then, as if it was a delayed reaction, he remembered.

“Oh, you’re… Maria, am I right?”

“I am,” Maria said.

No mention of what she was doing here, or where Katy was. James recalled her being this flat during the questioning of what happened at the restaurant. She answered properly and honestly, but James recognized a innate distrust for police when he saw it.

“I,” James started, but he was interrupted by another voice.

“Uncle James, you can come in.”

That voice, he knew. Maria stepped to the side, and James took about three steps into the room. He was still close to the door.

The room hadn’t changed much since he last saw it. Then again, all girls’ rooms looked the same to him. An inherent girliness, that he didn’t quite understand.

Katy. She was sitting on the floor, by the coffee table in the middle of the room, phone in one hand, and a chess piece in another. Like Maria, she was also dressed for the outside.

James examined the board. There were more black pieces in play, but the white ones that were left were the tough ones, that could do more than just move up one square. The way the pieces were situated suggested that the white side was on the offensive, with black pawns in place to block the path of the white queen. But, it didn’t seem like the white pieces were after the opponent’s king. They were all being directed to another, specific piece.

“Did the rules change since I last played?” James asked. “I don’t recall taking out the queen being the way to win.”

“I’m just figuring something out,” Katy answered. With the chess piece she was holding, she flicked away a black piece, and placed that instead. A white bishop, four diagonal spaces away, with a direct path to the black queen.

As Katy took a picture of the board on her phone, she asked, “What brings you in, Uncle James?”

‘Uncle James’ answered. “Just checking in on everyone, like usual. I see that Shiori’s staying with you guys.”

“Yeah, it’s been fun.”

Her tone was so dry, he wasn’t used to that. If Katy hadn’t inherited her father and mother’s intelligence, her charisma would have brought her straight to the cheerleading captain position. But, life had other plans for her.

And that spark of life, he didn’t see it in her, and he didn’t hear it, either. She still looked down.

Still coping, dealing, with the greatest loss in her life, only for another, equally difficult loss to strike when she was at her lowest. Her father, and her best friend. James understood exactly how that could suck the air out of someone.

“Any good news?”

It was Maria that asked. She was standing over Katy, now, looking at James.

“None, I’m sorry. I already got it from your mom, Katy, but I deserve to get it again.”

“No, I can imagine my mom made you suffer through that for the both of us.”

James couldn’t tell if there was anger behind her words, lashing out at him.

“She did,” he said.

“I saw you on TV,” Katy said. “The other day.”

“Did you now? What’d you think?”

“Terrible. I don’t know why they keep inviting you.”

“I can count the number of times I’ve been on with one hand. It’s not like I get practice for that stuff.”

“Not that. I’m saying you should have been harder on Blank Face. Fuck Blank Face.”

Maria made a face, cringing at what Katy had said.

James wasn’t going to get into it, now. That wasn’t what he came up for.

“Okay, I’m just going to make this short, so you can go back to your game.”

“It’s not a game,” Katy said.

“Okay, I just wanted to see you all again. I’ll see you later, Katy, and it was nice seeing you again, Maria.”

“Come back when you have good news,” Maria said.

That was definitely the atmosphere, James could feel it thick in the air. He wasn’t wanted.

“Bye,” he said quietly, turning to leave. He reached for the door-

“Leave the door open.”

James turned back again. Katy’s focus was still on the board, rearranging the pieces, putting them back in their starting positions.

“We’ll be heading out after you,” Katy said, still moving pieces around. “So leave the door open.”

“Heading out?” James asked.

“Yes.”

That was all James got in regards to an answer. He recalled seeing another car out on the driveway. A teal Honda. Probably Maria’s.

“I’ll leave the door open. Bye, ladies.”

He got no response as he left the room, and went down the stairs. He felt the aches again.

He ran into Kristin as he reached the final step.

“How were they?” she asked.

“Didn’t want to give me the time of day, but they’re still young, going through things most adults can’t handle. If they need space, I’ll give it to them.”

Kristin’s expression seemed like she was expecting that answer. The girls had been like that for some time, now.

James couldn’t blame them for that.

“Are you leaving now?” Kristin asked.

“I think I will. Thank you again for the coffee.”

“Anytime.”

Kristin gave him a quick hug before he left the house. It was a gesture that showed that he was always welcome to come back and visit.

But, by the next time, he had better have fucking something to show.

The air was thick with a pungent smell. James almost tripped over himself, something sliding out from under him.

So many bullet holes, so many bullet casings, so many bullets.

James took one, slow walk around the perimeter, trying to take it all in. It was hard. Decades on the force, and he had the gall to assume that he had seen it all. Apparently, he hadn’t seen shit.

Morning, early morning. So early the sun hadn’t considered getting up yet. The basketball court in a neighborhood on the west side. Neutral territory between the Thunders and the Royals.

Nothing neutral about it now.

Chunks of concrete were torn out of the ground, debris thrown haphazardly across the court. Bullets were stuck in the ground, embedded in both the grass and dirt around the court and the court itself. Even the backboards were riddled by bullets, there were more holes than metal. It was like an actual warzone.

Around the court and the surrounding perimeter, everyone was working to collect as much info as possible, and clean up as much as possible. Wherever James looked, there was someone picking up bullets and casings to put into a bag, someone helping the injured into an ambulance, or someone trying to fix where the tall fence around the court had fallen over. Parts of the fence were torn and crushed, like it was trampled on by a stampede of elephants.

That was a good way to put it, in terms of animals. What had happened here, happened between animals. A raw, deep force that craved violence and rage. It had consumed the hearts of the people, and they didn’t see each other as people, anymore. Not as their fellow man, not as brothers. Humans couldn’t have done this, it had to have been some other cause.

Right?

James watched his step, careful to not slip again. There were too many things here that could catch him off guard. Debris, bullet casings, pools of blood. He kept a flashlight at his feet, to keep an eye on what was directly ahead. Normally, there would have been fixtures that lit up the court, but the power was out around the spot. It hadn’t come back on, yet.

Campbell followed him as he tried to get a sense of the whole situation.

“They’re going to want me on TV to talk about this, aren’t they?” James asked.

“Media’s starting to come in, but they’ve actually been a bit slow in getting here. Journalists aren’t used to coming down here.”

“That’s because they don’t have a reason to. They’ve gotten every story they could possibly get out of places like this. They squeezed it dry, and left it to rot in the sun. They’re only back now because, as it turns out, there’s still a little bit of juice left to sell.”

“Well, the perimeter’s about two blocks around the court. They’re not getting in here.”

“Let’s push it back another block, just to be safe, before the first few shoe-stringers get here.”

“Roger that, chief.”

Campbell reached for a walkie-talkie to relay the Chief’s words to the others. All around James, he heard the cries of affirmation, and the action afterward. Neither of the gangs had any relevance to the ones that had teeth in James’ police force, so James got to be the leading authority. Right now, for now, James’ men were his. They listened and reported to him, and they had no other bosses to answer to.

If only it was like that the whole time. His best friend would have loved that for sure.

James stopped his walk around the area, and headed straight to the middle. The middle of the court.

There was a shout, somewhere in the far back. “Power’s coming back!”

Small cheers sounded throughout, immediately hushed when the lights switched on, shining a harsh light on everything.

James squinted. For more than one reason.

He saw the edges of it before, but not a full view. This… This was harsh.

There were two bodies. Cut up, beaten, and bruised. Reduced to a bloody pulp, their bodies defiled and tampered with. The result was something less than human.

They were completely naked, cut skin touching the hard and cold concrete. They were situated, placed in a specific way, moved after whatever happened to them… happened. James noted the streaks of blood beside them, how they were dragged and then set to achieve the intended effect.

Arms and legs together, their feet meeting at a point. One body was on one side of the court, the other body was on the opposite side. What looked like larger brush strokes of blood were marked beside their appendages to make it read better.

It looked like a giant red ‘V.’

The men? The leaders of the relevant gangs. Darius and Marcus Jackson.

“God, who could’ve-”

Campbell stopped, or rather the scene was too visceral that he lost the words. He turned on a heel, so it was to his side, and he was facing James, instead.

“How can you even look, sir?”

“Part of the job,” James answered. He was looking at it, head on. Others were, too, collecting photographs and getting vitals on the bodies. A man bent down to get a pulse from Darius, another checked for signs of breathing on Marcus.

“But, even if you put it like that, this is just too much.”

“My job is to face the ugliest of humanity, and do what I can to put a stop to it. Clearly, humans are capable of much more ugliness than I ever thought, but the job stays the same.”

Campbell turned again, putting his back to the scene.

“I don’t know which is worse. This, or the school.”

“The school, unfortunately.” James looked at the medical staff working on EZ and Krown. They both gave him a thumbs up. A miracle.

“At least no one died, here,” James added.

“Sure, but we have dozens injured and two critically injured, and plenty aren’t going to walk away from this with all their limbs attached. Fuck, some literally will not be able to walk away.”

“Yeah.”

“I can’t look at this, I have to go.”

Campbell started to walk away from the scene. James couldn’t help but feel let down at Campbell’s weakened resolve. Everyone had a breaking point, and it seemed that this one was his.

James addressed the men in front of him.

“You have your pictures, so scoop these two up and get them into a hospital. Yesterday. And I want every gangbanger present to be accounted for, you know what that means.”

His men sprung to action, and James left them to work.

He caught up with Campbell as they left the court.

“What does that even accomplish?” Campbell questioned. He walked away, but his thoughts were still fixated on that. “Who would do something like that?”

“Either it’s a message,” James said, “Or a cruel joke. Either way, we’ll get to the bottom of it.”

They walked into the grass, James feeling the metal of the bullets and casings under his shoes, but they were walking on dirt, easier to step through bumpier terrain, here. James wasn’t afraid of slipping and making an ass of himself, needing Campbell to help him back up. He could do without an embarrassment.

James saw a tree by a concrete trail that would have led into an intact basketball court. The trunk was splintered and split open by bullets.

James saw someone approach, running out of the dark.

“James Gomez?”

He didn’t stop walking.

“James Gomez?”

He kept going.

“James!”

Not once did James break his stride.

A woman fell in step with him. Brown hair, thick rimmed glasses, beige coat and black tights. She looked like she was in her thirties, now. Time really did pass.

I really am getting old.

James didn’t want to admit that.

“I wanted to ask you some questions, James,” Natalie asked. “Actually, I don’t have anything to ask you, I have the answers, I just wanted some confirmation.”

Natalie Beckham. She was one of the top writers of the Stephenville Impact, the city’s number one news organization. Was. She had covered the local crime scene, back in the day, but the last time James had seen her around was almost seven years ago. He heard something about her moving to New York.

For whatever reason, she was back, now, and that only meant more complications.

James saw the cup in her hand. He wasn’t interested.

He didn’t entertain her. He just kept walking, Campbell on his right, Natalie on his left.

“I caught some of the gang members here as they tried to recount the events. The Thunders and the Royals had previously been operating in good faith in regards to a pact, but after too many incidents between the two groups, came here to settle the score. Is this true?”

James didn’t answer.

“And I heard that, right before the initial confrontation, there was a starting gunshot in the distance. Would you know that to be true?”

James didn’t answer.

“After that, was when the power began to cut out. In the dark, I’ve got multiple reports and a mysterious figure, cloaked in red, attacking members from both gangs. Could you confirm this?”

Red? Not blue?

James didn’t answer.

“Both gangs stopped their fighting and tried to go after this figure instead, but it was only striking in the dark, and they only had brief glimpses about its location during the seconds the power did come on. It was as though someone was toying with them.”

James and Campbell kept walking.

“When it was somehow established that this figure had gotten to both gang leaders, and when it proved fruitless to land a hit on this figure without shooting or stabbing someone else, everyone who could run, did.”

That was a decent summary of the events, but James wasn’t about to confirm that with her.

“Now, this part’s off the record since I don’t really like to speculate, I prefer facts, but given the recent activity in Stephenville, but do you believe this mysterious, cloaked figure could be related to the vigilante known as the Bluemoon?”

“Natalie,” James said.

“Finally, some life from the old man.”

“You’re not supposed to be here. The perimeter extends more than two blocks.”

“You think that’s going to stop someone like me?”

She had a point.

“No, but I am going to just leave you with a warning. I don’t want to see you around here again, and I’m done with questions.”

“I’m sad to hear that, James, you used to be so helpful before. What happened?”

That question, he would answer.

“I got old.”

He gestured to Campbell, and Campbell went over to Natalie’s side. He whisked her away, with her offering very little protest.

At least she could honor him on that. Natalie knew that she had what she needed, she just needed confirmation, for formalities.

What a good little journalist.

James continued until he reached the lot, seeing all of the men perform their proper duties. He’d probably give the whole area one more sweep, to see if he had missed anything.

Maybe get some info on this cloaked figure, as well.

His phone rang. He stopped.

James fished it out of his pocket, bringing it to his ear.

“Gomez,” he said, answering it.

Art studio, top floor. Eastern window facing the court. Come alone. Someone wants to see you.

He recognized the voice. It was that of a little girl.

Her?

“D,” James said, hard. “What the fuck do you have to do with this?”

The call ended.

James thrusted a hand in his pocket, putting his phone back. He hurried.

He was already facing the east, if this art studio had a clear view of the court, then it would be on the street just across from the court.

She said to come alone. Would he? Was it another trap, or one of D’s pranks?

Couldn’t be. Either D started getting bored of the same old tricks, and started escalating on her own – a dangerous notion – or she was a part of something else. Something bigger.

Did he need backup?

James slipped past some tape and his men. Everyone was too preoccupied to notice their chief pass them by.

He needed backup, but he had learned that particular lesson when he started this job. Bringing others in situations like this, when expressed not to, would only ever lead to disaster. James wouldn’t sacrifice good men like that.

If it was just him, just his life at stake, he was fine with that.

James found the art building, and checked the front door. It was unlocked.

Turning his flashlight on, he found the staircase on the side of the first floor. There were elevators, but James would rather take the stairs. At least to prove he still had a body he could use.

As he ascended, James made sure he had all of the essentials. Walkie-talkie, phone, and gun.

Check, check, and check.

James reached the fourth floor.

Art supplies, paint cans, canvases hanging on the wall. James wasn’t sure what he was expecting, perhaps another clue or body, but nothing here immediately stood out to him.

He saw the window. Light crept through the glass, lighting up a square shape on the floor of the art studio. He began to approach.

Slowly, carefully. James pulled his gun out, ready to fire. He kept his head low as he got closer to the glass. Last thing he wanted was to get sniped through a window.

James got in place. For long, agonizing seconds, he scoped out the scene below.

People working, collecting data from the basketball court and surrounding grass, helping victims into ambulances to send them off to the hospital, cleaning up wherever they could.

At the court itself, James saw that Darius and Marcus Jackson had been moved, but the blood remained. The broad strokes, and another pool that James didn’t notice before. A period. It was a message.

V.

“Thoughts?”

A voice from behind. James recognized it.

He turned around, his gun prepared.

From the shadows, a figure emerged.

A hood covered their head, but where the moonlight touched their face, James could only see the lower half, the mouth and chin. Everything from the nose up was covered. Flecks of blood dotted the figure’s mouth.

The rest of the figure’s shape was hard to make out. He couldn’t see its arms, the material draped over their body in such a way that it was difficult to make sense of it. They were wearing some sort of cloak or long robe, made of a flowy but heavy material.

From top to bottom, the cloak was red. The only other colors on the figure were the black shadows masking their face, the black pants they wore, and the snowy white skin of their mouth and chin.

A ghost, or a phantom, covered in blood. Or perhaps the Devil himself. Either way, James felt like he was being haunted. Cursed.

The only thing that was familiar about this figure was its voice.

“Blank Face?” he asked.

The figure twitched, as if offended by the suggestion.

“I wrote it out there for you to see,” the figure answered.

“V, then.”

“Yes.”

“But you were the vigilante known as Blank Face, am I correct?”

There was a pause.

“I was, unfortunately. Those days are behind all of us, now.”

James wasn’t sure what that was supposed to mean.

He asked.

“When you said you were rebranding, I wasn’t expecting this.” James put his arms to his side, including his gun. “Not exactly coming across as heroic with this new image. It’s a little too macabre.”

Another pause.

V spoke. “I’m only meeting with you now to give you a brief update on where things stand. This is probably the last time we’ll ever speak, like this.”

You ignored my comment.

James let that be.

“And you’re sure of that,” he said.

“I am.”

“Fine then, continue.”

“The Thunders and the Royals are out of the picture, now. I gathered them all here, and made a show of their leaders. While I had the majority of their numbers distracted, I had all of their assets and territories and cash seized. There are survivors, and they’ll probably want to retaliate, but they’ll find that they have nothing to go back to. It’s all been snatched out from under them.”

“That’s quite the workload for one person.”

“It certainly wasn’t easy.”

“I’m more inclined to believe that you had help. The call I got earlier, and with her reputation… Are you telling me a new gang is already moving in?”

The idea of that little girl working with a gang… It almost made James shiver. Before, she had always been something of a free agent, working by herself, enacting her own whims. Her irreverence for any structure or systems actually prevented her from being a legitimate threat. If she was content with being independent, she was actually easier to handle.

But to focus that destruction, aiming it with purpose? And throwing Blank Face – V – into the fold? James had already seen the results, out there on the court. It would be devastating.

“I’m telling you to stay away,” V said. “Let the dust settle where it does. You can clean up here, but after that, you’re done. I don’t want to see you in this territory again.”

He’d heard those words before, or something to that effect. Being ordered by the leader of a cartel or gang, by the enemy.

“You’re telling me what to do?”

“Yes, I am. You’re used to that sort of thing, aren’t you, being the puppet that you are.”

James was stunned.

Something must have snapped, in that mind of hers. She was but a child, just a kid.

“What the hell happened? Last time we met, you were asking me to help you find Benny.”

“And you refused, and I found her anyways. You’re useless, Gomez.”

“Then the fires on Eastside, that was you?”

A pause.

Ignored again.

“V,” James said. “Blank Face-”

V twitched.

“When you first came to my window, and we met on that roof, and you were asking me about finding Thomas, I knew then that you were the one he was working with. You see, Thomas never told me about his activities with you, but I knew him like a brother. He saw something in you, and he wanted to cultivate that. Shape you, despite himself. Part it was stress relief, since our plans weren’t going the way he wanted.”

V didn’t respond.

“So, I just want to ask you a few more questions, before you go, and I officially consider you as the enemy. Do you think Thomas would be proud of what you’ve become? What does ‘V’ stand for, to you? Vengeance, vendetta, villainy?”

V stood there, her head pointed to James. He couldn’t see her eyes, so he could only guess that she was staring at him.

For the third time, V ignored his questions.

“Don’t get in my way, or if you do, get a new office. You don’t want a third visit from me.”

With that final line, drawn in the sand, V took a step back, returning into the shadows.

James ran after her.

“Blank Face!”

He reached for his gun and flashlight. He pointed both around the room.

Nothing, no one, nowhere. V was gone.

“Shit!”

James turned back, going to the window. He watched the scene again, looking at the red letter that faced him, taunted him. ‘V’ was out there, free, and he was the one confined to these walls.

A cycle, revenge was. A vicious circle that turned good people desperate and cruel. Thomas had become desperate, and Blank Face had become cruel.

The number of good people in this city was getting smaller by the day.

James knew, now. It had always been like this, and they were doomed to fail from the start. And now, he was all alone, with nothing to show for his efforts.

Previous                                                                     Bonus

041 – Wake

Previous                                                                                               Next

The sun pierced through broken windows, visible rays coming down onto the rotunda.

I’m still up. I’m still doing this.

Too exhausted, I wasn’t registering the swarm of people here as people, merely obstacles. Getting in my way, preventing me from moving forward. At this rate, I’d be stuck. At this rate, I’d lose them.

I’d lose him.

I continued to press onward, shoving more people out of the way. Sound and noise stacked upon one another, the shouting and the ruckus of things breaking and shattering filled what was essentially a huge echo chamber. It disoriented, threw me off course, whenever my focus momentarily slipped.

A man turned, facing me directly. Me. He wanted to impede my progress.

No.

I swung my hand, despite the little space allowed. It was cramped.

The back of my hand struck his cheek, and he flew, spinning into more people behind him. His tumbling down led to a chain reaction, clearing a path for me.

I took it, before the sea of people could swallow up the space again, like waves after an impact.

The blasts and crashes, it buzzed in my head, and I could hardly hear my own thoughts. Not that I needed them, I was being driven by only one goal, by a singular objective I needed to complete. Everything I was doing went towards that goal’s fulfilment.

Go go go go go go get get get get get get.

Another person. Another thing in my goddamn way.

My foot moved without a conscious thought controlling it. I hit her square in the chest.

She got sent back, delivered elsewhere. More followed, more of a path made.

I was in a crowd of many. I almost blended in. Too much was going on for any one person to pay any attention to one small, masked girl among a large number of others. A needle in a haystack. I could work without largely being noticed.

I continued on, stepping over bodies and debris, trying not to get my foot caught on anything, trying not to get slowed down. Though, I couldn’t do the first without compromising the second.

More pushing, more pulling. The masses pushed, and I had to push back.

An endless fight.

Finally, finally, I made it out of the crowd. There were still many here, but they were in scattered clumps, groups fighting amongst themselves. Here, I had room to move without bumping into anyone, or anything else.

So I moved.

I went to where I saw them last, heading into the large corridor on the east wing. The noise didn’t lessen since leaving the rotunda. Instead, it seemed to get worse, the sound more free to travel throughout the more empty space.

I shook my head, then immediately regretted it. Dizzy. Hurt.

So sleepy.

I looked again, trying to find them.

Not here.

Fuck, no, fuck.

I tried again, checking around.

No…

A glimpse.

A group, moving up the large marbled stairs that zig-zagged to the next floor. The second floor. I lost visual when they went up high enough for the ceiling to block my view.

I moved, as swiftly as my weary legs would take me.

I took the stairs by three, before I almost tripped. My hand reached for the wooden railing for support.

Hasty, so hasty.

Could jump all the way, skip the first flight of stairs and middle landing entirely, and work my way up the second flight instead. But I was so fucking heavy. Exhausted. Tapping into empty reserves. A shell of a person, moving only with the purpose that was last in its mind before the mind had shut down completely.

A zombie, in a very scarily real sense.

I took the stairs a step at a time, sometimes two, when I felt daring enough. I turned when I reached the middle landing, then turned, taking the stairs as painfully slow as before. I moved someone out of the way, where they were resting their back on the railing, juice flowing from their sides.

Juice, red, red juice, yes.

No. Him first.

I want him first.

Finally, finally, I completed my trek, and ascended the stairs. I was on the second floor, in another large, grand hall.

Here, there was much less in the way of obstacles, but the sound was only marginally dampened. The hall led back to the center of the building, the rotunda. The chaotic cacophony carried here, too. I couldn’t escape it.

Left, right, I looked both ways.

Not that way, back to the rotunda, that way.

Down the hall, into a room.

I saw them move.

I followed.

The door closed before I got to it. Big. Two, three times my size. It looked heavy.

I pressed, arms straining, and the door opened, swinging.

Six in here. Five, excluding him. The one I wanted so bad it was killing me.

They all turned to the door. To me.

All of them had some kind of blunt instrument in their hand, looking like they were more than ready to strike, and they did.

They ran at me.

Still up, still doing this.

I got into a crouch, ready to jump.

Get over their heads, change up our placement on the field, make things easier on me

My legs had another idea.

Instead of tense, potential energy ready to turn and propel me upward, I continued, and fell down onto my knees.

On my knees.

Oh no no no no no.

My chin depressed into the space between my collarbone, I was leaning forward. I had pretty much spent all that I had, all that I was.

Body failing me, betraying me.

I was completely open.

The first hit struck home, a club to my temple.

My ear touched my shoulder.

I went one way, having to catch myself by throwing my hands to the floor.

I shifted, crawling, but I could not get away from the next hit.

A swift kick to the stomach.

I choked, and my body contorted, falling onto my back.

Everything was going wrong so fast, I barely had the time to process what was happening.

Mind running slow, body not moving how and when I wanted it to.

It was an attack on all fronts. Externally, internally.

Another person took their turn, striking. I lifted an arm to block my face.

The knife went through me like I was butter. Hot, through cold.

Piercing. The pain shot through my body, jolting my brain awake. I saw the blade stick out through my arm, through the sleeve, crimson soaking the fabric.

My breath was cut short, reduced to fits and starts, and I was twitching, trying to get away. But I was pinned, my limbs felt like jelly from the shock of it all.

With me being stunned, the others took that as an opportunity to continue their assault, hitting and clubbing me, giving it all they had. The knife stayed in my arm, the owner of it having stepped back to give the others more room. I would have turned into a bloody mess, had it not been for my healing, but I did have my limits. And I was about to meet them.

Not healing fast enough.

Never drank blood, instead losing it. I was seeing stars, losing my sense of self.

Lost in a sort of black emptiness.

Hit. Pain. Hurt. Cut.

I was meat, being tenderized. Served up.

A hand grabbed for my face, balling itself into a fist. My goggles and ski mask were starting to come with it as it pulled away.

Can’t let that happen.

Both of my hands went in front of my face, gripping the arm that had my mask by the wrist. I gripped as hard as I still could, then twisted.

Bones cracked, then shifted out of place.

A cry. It should have been close, but it sounded farther off.

I felt hands come off of me, a momentary lapse of inactivity where I wasn’t being hit or attacked. I was blinded, my mask and goggles scrunched up over my eyes, but I used that as my chance to find my way to my feet.

I still had their arm in my grasp, I wouldn’t let go.

Anger, and but a blip of energy left to express it.

I spun, their body flailing around me, and I released them at the top of my turn. The pained cries of others, the crashing of flesh onto wood. I must have thrown hard enough to slam a number of them back.

Over the crying, I heard an exchange, but I missed the first part of it.

“Why is it beeping?”

“It’s beeping?”

“I thought we were supposed-”

“Fuck, everyone get out! We’re leaving him!”

“What about-”

“Benny! You waste the time to do it now, you’ll be blown sky-fucking-high. Let’s go.”

Squeaks of sneakers on marble, then steps on carpet, then nothing.

My back hit a wall behind me, and I pushed my legs to prop myself up, getting myself to stand. I fixed my mask and goggles with my right hand as I did so.

My vision was blurry, but it was better than nothing. I could make out the room.

Wider than it was tall, it was like an office space that had been cleared out for future use. It had a regal look to it, that matched the marble and Roman architecture of the rest of the building. The only light in here was natural, coming in from the windows on one side of the room.

I glanced across the floor. My eyes fell upon a vest, sliding across the floor, and the man who threw it.

Thomas.

Jacket was off, tossed behind him. He was by the corner on the opposite end, fallen over.

I looked back at the vest. The beeping vest.

My body moved before I could make sense of it all. Before the danger actually settled in. Like something else has taken over.

I threw everything I had into one last sprint. One last go. One last chance to get something right.

Everything blurred together. A whirlwind of heat and sound.

I crossed the room as everything fell apart.

One hour ago

I had to lift a goggle lens away from my eye if I wanted to rub at it. I wanted to, but the police officers squished beside me prevented me from taking that course of action.

I sat in the back of a police van, rubbing shoulders with others stuffed in here. Stuffed, because I couldn’t move, couldn’t rest. Tilt my head either way, I’d end up resting my head on an officer’s arm. Lean forward, I’d bump into James Gomez.

Considering everything that had happened in the past few hours… this was really awkward. Super awkward.

The van was stuck in traffic. We weren’t even close enough to be considered close, but long stretches of cars kept us from moving an inch. Honking horns blared randomly, sometimes in spurts, other times all at once into one huge wall of sound. Even if I had the room to rest my head and sleep, the sound kept me up.

It had been like this for at least for an hour and a half. Progress hadn’t been good.

I was becoming twitchy, despite my weariness. We were supposed to have the upper hand, but we weren’t moving fast enough to make any use of it, and that advantage was slipping away with every passing second.

It grated, and it must have been the same for Gomez, too.

I could tell because I saw it.

He had kept checking his wristwatch to the point that I had lost count, and opened his phone just as many times. Irritated.

He shook his head.

“You, you, and you,” he said, pointing to a select few, including the two officers beside me. But not me. “We won’t make it in time like this. I want eyes on the field. Get out and run.”

They followed his order without so much of a ‘yes sir,’ opening the metal doors to make it out of the van. I turned away from the opening to better obscure myself, hide my visage.

I did notice how the light changed, through the front window. The sun was rising.

They closed the doors behind them, and I was left alone with Gomez, and one other police officer, sitting to Gomez’s right.

That didn’t make things any less awkward.

The van inched some, the most progress we’d made in minutes.

Gomez handled most of the questioning, but there wasn’t anything else we got out of Linda Day that was terribly useful. She was a lackey, apparently forced to pay some kind of debt. A debt that was big enough to warrant faking her death. Either way, her circumstances weren’t helpful to us stopping the planned riot on city hall.

Gomez then ordered his men to be split up into groups. One to keep an eye on Linda and the other two henchmen, and the weapons they stole back from police. Another would have to keep tabs on Edgar Brown. The final group had to go to city hall… just to see what could be done, if anything. We were stretched thin, by that point. At most, it would have to be damage control.

I was included in that final group.

I sat in thought, trying to come up with a way to foil Solace’s plan that didn’t involve total anarchy, given how stacked things were against us. Nothing.

“Ah!”

A feeling like I was falling, my whole body jolted. I jumped in my seat.

I had drifted too far forward without realizing it.

Gomez and the other cop both looked at me.

“Tired?” he asked.

I nodded, sleepily.

“I’ve been at this all night, I had hoped that this would be over by now. Guess not.”

“Almost there, almost.”

I would have agreed, except this whole ordeal wouldn’t just magically fix itself overnight. Even if we got Thomas back, Solace was still a very real threat that still needed to be taken head on. Even this was a distraction, a detour, towards the real goal.

I made some sort of gesture.

Gomez cleared his throat before saying, “Law enforcement officers have a sworn duty to protect and serve their citizens, that means a lot of late nights, early mornings. That’s something one should expect, going into this, and it’s something one gets trained for. You… you weren’t trained for this, were you? You didn’t expect this?”

I put my head back, glancing away.

“No, I wasn’t. If anything, it’s more like I was thrown into the ocean without having ever learned how to swim. And the ocean’s on fire. And full of sharks. And my hands were tied behind my back.”

“Your analogy lost it’s focus at the end there, but I see what you mean. I think. You’re new to your… powers?”

“More than you know. I’m not an alien, or a super… whatever. I’m…”

I trailed off.

“You’re what?”

I exhaled.

“I’m just very unlucky.”

A glance back, and I saw Gomez on his phone again, typing away.

“Well, you’re young, younger than anyone would realistically guess, I’m surprised you even managed to manage,” he said, eyes still on his screen, “I wonder how well I’d hold up, if I were in your shoes.”

I would have rolled my eyes, if my eyes didn’t feel so hot, as though they were overheated. Why was I talking to him, why was I engaging? It didn’t seem to fit with what had happened not too long ago, when I was berating him for not jumping at the gun to cooperate.

I wanted to distract myself some more, pass the time. At least, I had to keep myself mentally pacing.

But my only option was to keep talking with Gomez.

“Any updates?” I asked. I sounded like Hleuco, there.

He continued typing on his phone, and a slight frown formed on his lips. “They’ll let me know when they get there, give it a minute.”

“That’s why I suggested to go down there myself, by rooftop. I could find a bird’s eye view of things, see how things are, and I can direct you guys from there.”

Gomez grunted, and it was prolonged, as though he was actually irritated by my suggestion.

“It’s too risky, and there are a lot of eyes at city hall already. Granted, those eyes aren’t mine, but we know the situation enough that throwing you in there would be like throwing a bull in a china shop.”

“I can hide,” I said, “I’m not even wearing my usual costume.”

He eyed me. “Somehow I doubt your ability to be inconspicuous. You heard Linda Day, people have been camped out there, waiting for the mayor to come out and speak. And, considering how fast word gets out nowadays, more must be coming out in droves to see what’s going to happen. Reporters, bloggers, activists, actual protesters, the morbidly curious…”

He tapped his foot, before adding, “By itself, that’s enough cause for concern. A riot might very well break out on its own, and that’s before considering both you and Solace. I don’t want fuel to the fire.”

“You don’t trust me,” I said.

“I don’t know you, but I suppose that does extend to me not trusting you completely. You’ll have to understand that I’m coming at this from a police officer’s point of view. There’s still a lot we don’t know about you, both in your true nature and your true intentions. The less of a factor you yourself play, the better.”

I gritted my teeth. Being benched, at such a crucial hour? Hell no. I didn’t spend the whole night tearing the city apart to find Thomas, just to hand it off to others. Why was I brought along, if I’d end up being stuck in here?

I tried balling my hands into fists, but I found there was some missing strength, there, too much effort for such a weak grip. I looked at Gomez head on, asking him something I probably should have made clear before I got into a van full of policemen.

“So you are going to arrest me, after all this. Is that why you want me out of the way, keep me close so I don’t escape?”

Gomez traded a quick look with the cop sitting next to him. Campbell, now that I tried to put effort in remembering his name.

“Right now, we’re aligned by mutual interests, but there’s a fine line, here. I will tolerate you being here, so long as you don’t give me a reason to change my mind. But, right here, right now? I’m more concerned about damage control, and getting Thomas back.”

I took note of that word, ‘tolerate.’ I kept that in mind.

I turned to Campbell, curious about his thoughts, too.

“And you? Do you agree with him?”

He looked at me straight in the eye. Or the goggles.

“If the Chief is willing to go along with it, then I’m in no position to complain. I can’t speak for my colleagues, but I’d like to think they’re of the same mind.”

I huffed through my nose, and I felt it heat up my face.

“Speaking for myself, though,” Campbell said, “There were times where you’ve been there to help, and we weren’t, or you’ve provided assistance at a critical moment. I was there when you stopped that car with your bare hands. That was impressive.”

An immense pressure pressed on my arms. The sensation came back to me. A memory.

“Um, thanks, I guess,” I said.

“But I’m just speaking for myself,” Campbell reiterated. “Maybe the others feel the same way, or they despise you all the same, but they trust in the Chief’s judgement enough to, like he said, tolerate you being here, without handcuffs.”

Tolerate.

“You know, if I can stop a speeding car with my bare hands, handcuffs won’t be enough to keep me down.”

Gomez put his phone away. “I suppose, if you really wanted to, you could get away quite easily. How far you’d go, that’s a different matter, entirely.”

An uneasy feeling stirred inside me. A rocky truce between me and the police, that only existed in the now. How things would play out in the near future, was unclear.

It might help to make a good impression, in the meantime.

The van inched once more. I was scared that we wouldn’t make it in time.

“Do we, or, you, not have any allies that can help us there?” I asked, switching topics. “Police that are already stationed at city hall?”

“If anyone’s already stationed there, that means they’re there on someone else’s orders, not mine. It might be fine if I show my face, but I have to be careful not to tip anyone off about what we know.”

“You’re the police chief, are you really that powerless?”

Campbell looked over at Gomez, but Gomez had his eyes on me. They held something deeper than disappointment.

“I have authority over my men, don’t get me wrong. I can tell them where to go and what to do when they get there. Generally speaking. But, quite a number of them are in the pocket of someone else, for any number of reasons. And for some of them, reasons I can’t fault them for. So, under normal circumstances, they’ll listen, and they’ll entertain me, but I know where their loyalties lie.”

I almost had a sense of pity for Gomez. What did it mean to be at the top, when you weren’t allowed to exercise the power that came with that position? I could imagine someone becoming jaded over time, as the frustration gave way to a reluctant acceptance.

This world…

“I’m… sorry,” I decided to say. That last word was especially difficult. I wasn’t sure I meant it, it just felt right to say. “I called you inept… and a motherfucker.”

Gomez chuckled at that, surprising me. “Oh, that? I already forgot about that.”

“She called you that, sir?” the officer beside him asked.

Gomez shrugged, “It’s nothing. I’ve been called far worse things by good friends of mine. But let’s not concern ourselves with something so trivial, let’s focus on getting Thomas back.”

That, we could all agree on. If only the traffic would let us through.

The van moved along again, but not by inches, this time. It was slow, but we were moving.

“Looks like traffic’s being directed away from city hall now,” Gomez explained. “That should speed things along.”

“Are we going to make in time?” I asked.

“We might miss the first part of the mayor’s speech, but we’ll get there.”

I grumbled, but I was unable to do anything about it. I just sat, and waited for the van to take us there.

Fifteen minutes ago

They benched me, after all.

Fuck this.

Gomez and Campbell – even the driver – hopped out of the van as soon as we arrived at city hall, disappearing into the crowd of people. There was a scary amount of people here.

I looked out from the front windshield of the van.

City Hall. The building was big, expansive. Modeled after the U.S. Capitol building, sans the giant dome that topped it off. White, with columns across the front, stairs leading up to it. A symbol of democracy.

I had been here once before, on a school field trip back in elementary school. It was big then, and it seemed even bigger now, especially with all the people here.

So many people.

The van was parked right past the large front gates that served as the official entrance to the premises. Past the gates was a field that was about the size of a football field, if not bigger. It was more like a park, though, with pathways for a stroll and trees to have a picnic under the shade. Not a bad place to do some sightseeing, and enjoy the weather.

However, right now, there was so many people I could hardly find a patch of green, just heads, other vans, picket signs, raised fists. It was as if a popular rapper decided to hold a concert here.

And the sheer volume, from the chanting to the cheering, to the random person shouting their own manifesto, I only made out a few words from Mayor Scott, who was standing at the head of the crowd, above them on a makeshift stage, in front of city hall. Pretty much a dot, from here.

He spoke into some mics attached to a podium.

“Blank Face, and this terrorist… not be tolerated… justice will be…”

I can’t understand what he’s trying to say.

I grabbed the walkie-talkie by my side, the only consolation Gomez lent me. I spoke into it.

“What’s the deal?” I asked, “Did you find him yet?”

Now I’m the guy in the van.

The device produced a burst of static before I heard Gomez.

Nothing yet. I’m approaching the stage, trying to get close to the mayor, but I’m not seeing anything on my way there. There’s too many people, and a lot of them are dressed like you, by the way.

“I can see that from here. Guess I wouldn’t be much help here, either. It’s like the whole ‘needle in a haystack’ thing.”

Or maybe a ‘haystack in a pile of needles.’ I’ll keep my eyes peeled. The others will, too.

“Yeah,” I said, and I left it at that. Powerless.

I was getting twitchy. I was here, but Thomas was nowhere to be found. So close, but he was constantly yanked from my fingertips. I wanted to get him so bad.

I went back to watching the mayor, trying to catch every other word, watching whether that dot or that dot was suspicious or not. My vision was swimming, from both the difficulty of it, and simply exhaustion and overwork taking its toll.

The mayor continued.

“We will see to it that-”

A dot moved across the stage. To the podium.

The mayor’s speech was interrupted. He was thrown to the floor.

Cries of surprise swelled over the crowd like a wave, starting from the front, and coming all the way back here.

I gripped the walkie-talkie.

Someone else was at the podium. Someone new. They were far away, but I saw the outline of a blue hood over their heads. Two other dots stood behind them.

They spoke, and they were somehow much more audible than the mayor.

“This is Thomas Thompson, District Attorney-elect for the city of Stephenville, and I stand in support of Solace.”

Another wave of surprise. I felt it, too.

There he is.

I immediately went to the walkie-talkie. “Are you getting this?”

No answer.

Hey!”

Again, nothing.

Thomas was the middle of his speech. I turned my eyes to him, again.

“In just a short amount of… time, the villain known as The Bluemoon has terrorized the good people of Stephenville, including me and my family. I had to turn myself to Solace in order to protect those that I love, and go into… hiding. But, it wouldn’t have been for long, because I want this city to be rid of this evil, and the only way to get back our sense of comfort in these… hard times, is to side with Solace!”

I pressed the button on the walkie-talkie, but my throat was dry.

Nothing he was saying made sense, none of it. He had to have been coerced into saying these things, like that guy back at the dinner party. The real Solace had to be speaking through him, spouting nonsense.

But, even if that were true, hearing Thomas say those things…

It cut, and it cut deep.

I need to stop him.

“Solace is not the enemy, rather our liberat-”

Someone interrupted Thomas, crossing the stage and slamming into him.

The panic was bubbling, now, and I saw it boiling throughout the crowd that was gathered here.

Then, a pop.

And all hell broke loose.

The crowd expanded out into every direction, as if to get as far away from the building as possible. But another group within that crowd made their play, too.

One out of every ten in the crowd were dressed like me, like Blank Face. Blue hoods, white masks. Some were carrying signs, others were clumped together, but they all dropped what they were doing to add to the chaos. The anarchy of it all.

They shoved into others, preventing them from getting away easily. Fights broke out, panic spreading like fire. A crush of people ran past the van, trying to go through the gates behind me.

Oh no.

I turned, and the walkie-talkie finally buzzed.

Blank Face, this is Gomez! I tried to tackle Thomas but… agh!

“What’s going on now?”

There’s a group with him, and they got away, taking him along. They’re fleeing into the building, and rioters are going in with them. I can’t follow anymore.

“Why not?”

The mayor’s hurt, I have to stay with him, keep him secure. And, I’m in no condition to give them chase. But you can.

I was drowsy as fuck, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me.

“I’m on it!” I said, and I tossed the walkie-talkie behind me. Needed both hands for this one.

I opened the back doors of the van.

The first thing I saw was that the gates were closed, people rattling them. They weren’t closed before.

Shit, I had to leave that behind, couldn’t help there. How were we supposed to control this damage?

Need to get to Thomas.

I stepped out of the the van, and was immediately flushed into the horde of masses. Not people, obstacles.

Barely budge, barely move, I had no agency here.

The city hall was a whole football field away. How was I supposed to get there in time?

I had to fight my way through.

I fought.

Present

The dust settled after the rubble.

The vest had exploded. Exploded. With far more force and energy than I would have ever realistically expected. I wasn’t a soldier, I hadn’t grown up in a war-torn area of the world. This was never something I had to anticipate. The shock, the sound, the impact, it rocked my very soul.

And the floor.

The explosion tore the floor to pieces, as if there was an anger to it, and it was lashing out at everything it came into contact with. Which was mostly everything in this wide room. I was instantly enveloped in heat, then smoke, before the floor broke from under me. I reached in front of me, feeling fabric, the weight behind it.

I pulled him toward me as we were tumbling down.

Glass, rock, wood. Everything had moved, the impact tossing us every which way. It added to the disorientation, the dizziness of it all. I spun, and my head continued to spin. I tried with all my might to keep straight, to keep Thomas close. And, as everything crumbled and broke all around us, to not get him crushed.

I’d dropped before from far higher heights, but this was a whole other level. This was a fall, a descent. We were on the second floor, and we were headed to the first.

Thrashed around, like I was a rag in a dryer. It didn’t last, but it felt like forever.

The dust settled after the rubble.

Everything ached. Everything hurt.

I coughed, but found that my chest and back wouldn’t expand properly to let out any air. I sputtered, instead. My fast and short breathing heated up my mask, my face. Stuffy.

Down on my hands and knees. I felt like I was sinking into the earth.

Dark, cloudy, could barely see. Ears ringing.

An immense weight sat on me, threatening to crush me flat if I gave in to the pressure. Couldn’t, wouldn’t.

“Ah! Aaaah!”

With the dust, hysteria also settled in.

“H- help, help! Somebody help! There, there are p- people down here! We’re trapped here! Please someone come get us! Help! We’re down here! He-”

I coughed, again. Harder to get my breath this time. Wheezing. My arms shook, and that was enough for the rock that had me pinned to find more purchase, pushing me down. A rumble of other rocks shifting. I had to straighten my arms again, and sharp pang reminded me of the knife that was still in my arm.

Okay, no screaming, or we’ll be even more stuck down here.

Couldn’t let this fucking boulder crush me, wouldn’t.

Because Thomas was right under me, on his back, in between my arms.

In the gloom, I could make out his features. He’d seen better days.

Soot and dirt smeared his forehead, down to his right cheek. His hair was messy, sticking up in some places, reddened in others. A gash that traced his left temple to his nose, bad enough that he couldn’t open his left eye. Blood colored the left side of his face.

Whatever Styx had done to him, it didn’t include his face. That was hardly a relief, for my part.

Alive, but barely. But I had him.

I just had to find a way to get us out.

“Thomas,” I said. It was a struggle to say anything, but I wanted to say something to Thomas. I finally had him. After everything I’d been through, I had him.

“Are you hurt?” I asked.

He moved his head side to side, painfully slow.

It was obvious he was hurt, I could see it, I could infer, thinking back to the bloodied chair I saw back at the warehouse.

You don’t have to lie to me, Thomas.

“Kept you waiting, huh?” I asked instead.

Somehow, or perhaps miraculously, Thomas found it within himself to smile. It was weak, and I could tell it strained him, but he smiled.

“Took you long enough,” he said, nearing a whisper. “The wait was killing me.”

Despite everything, I cracked a smile too, though just as weak.

“I got your message,” I whispered, “But… But…”

“How? It was a precautionary measure. I figured Solace would be coming for me the moment he made himself known at the dinner party.”

He took a second to breathe. Several.

“Your pager. I had a text queued, timed to whenever Solace’s timers would reach zero. If I was okay, I could simply set it back twenty-four hours. If not…”

“I get the message,” I said.

“Precisely. If something were to happen to me, I wouldn’t be able to send you where I was exactly, or where I would be taken. They ended up taking my phone, anyway. My best bet was to send you to James, and you could work with him.”

I winced, my back… just my back. It fucking hurt.

“Sorry to break it to you,” I said, “But Gomez wasn’t willing to play along at first. He was harder to bring on board than I would’ve liked, but even then…”

His expression changed, disappointment.

“Shame.”

Shame on Gomez, his best friend, or shame on me, the supposed superhero? Shame that we couldn’t work together sooner to find him? Or maybe shame on himself, for having not seen this coming?

I was projecting, had to put my priorities elsewhere. Like keeping myself up.

The boulder was getting heavier with every second. Losing strength, strength that I needed, strength that I required.

I still managed to tell him more. “I was turning this city upside-down to try and find you. You have no idea what my night was like.”

Another frail smile from Thomas.

“Same.”

I couldn’t keep it up anymore, I frowned.

“I can’t hold on for much longer,” I said, in between short breaths. “I’m losing it… This thing is fucking heavy.”

“You’re doing great, Alexis.”

Alexis. That was it, right, my name? Hearing it made me feel better. By a small, almost negligible margin, but better.

“I think I can hear people,” Thomas said, “Checking over the debris.”

“Really?” I tried to hear, but it was impossible for me, now. It was as if my heart was in my head, pounding in my skull. Nothing but an intrusive, arrhythmic pounding.

“Really. I’d hate to put even more pressure on you, but if you can get this thing off…”

I shut my eyes, the beginnings of tears wetting the corners of my eyes.

“I can’t, I can’t, it’s taking everything I have just to stay in this pose. It’s too heavy.”

“You have to try, Alexis, believe in yourself, for once.”

The air in here was thinning, I couldn’t repeat myself.

I shut my eyes, tighter, and tensed all the muscles in my body. I tried to push, to find my way to my feet, to get this chunk of rubble off of me.

No. There was nothing there. It wouldn’t budge. I wouldn’t budge.

The attempt left my arms wobbling for a second, and the rock pushed on me even more. Thomas shuddered, but it wasn’t like he could go anywhere. I did what I could to straighten my arms again, to stop its progress in squashing us. It stopped, but I was closer to Thomas, now, my arms straining two-fold.

I gasped for air that wasn’t there. That was enough to show Thomas that it was hopeless.

I was burnt out, completely empty. Impossible, to do this on my own, with the resources I had available, with the resources I had within me. I needed something more, I needed more than I what I was.

Thomas met my eyes, and I stared back. I was so close to saving him, yet it had to be like this.

This isn’t fair, the world isn’t fair.

Thomas whispered softly. Barely audible, drowned out by the pounding in my head.

“What?”

“My blood, Alexis, drink my blood.”

My own blood ran cold.

What?”

“I’m giving you my blood to drink, Alexis, use it. Anything to get you back on your feet.”

I flinched, a particular jagged edge driving into the back of my shoulder. The rock pushed down on me again, pushing me closer to Thomas’s face.

He shifted, bringing his arms up. I could see the effort it took, how much it hurt him to do so.

He pulled up on my mask, freeing my lips, my nose. He was uncomfortably close.

“Do it, it’s okay,” he said. “In fact, consider it an explicit order.”

“I… can’t,” I said back, “It’s too…”

I trailed off.

“This is a matter of life… and death, Alexis, we can’t let something like that stop us now.”

I grimaced at the thought of it, but the desperation in me told me he was right. I might be able to get some strength back to get this thing off of me, but even then, I’d never pushed myself that hard before.

Thomas hacked out a cough, and spurts of blood flew from his mouth.

“Alexis, we need to get out of here. You… know, I managed to get some stuff on Solace. You were right about Benny, but she’s nothing but a hired gun, not unlike Edgar, and Linda. And Styx…”

He coughed again.

“I want to share my… notes, with you. You need to get us out of here.”

Impossible, it was impossible.

I blinked more tears away, the water collecting at the bottom of my goggles.

Damn me.

“Please, Alexis, it’s okay,” Thomas said, soft. “The search party might go away soon. If you can at least move the rock, you can get their attention, and they might find help on their end.”

My arms, my entire body, twitched from the weight of the burden. I nodded once.

“Take off my goggles,” I said.

I had my eyes closed when he did so, setting them above my eyebrows. I put my thoughts elsewhere, to the other times I drank blood. Blood from Thomas’s cut finger, blood spilled onto Styx’s bike, blood from when I stabbed Benny…

Blood from that rabbit.

Animal, I had to think of this like taking from a mere animal.

“Okay,” I said, defeated, “Okay.”

I opened my eyes, and saw Thomas working on unbuttoning his shirt, exposing his collar, the skin underneath.

Oh, right. How else was I to do this? Lick the wounds on his face? Not enough blood, there, to get anything substantial, I could tell by some twisted instinct. I had to go a more direct way.

“I’ve never really done it that way, before,” I said. The situation was too grave to be embarrassed at the wording.

“Let’s set a rule first,” Thomas said, leaning his head one way, until his forehead pressed against rock. “I’ll lift myself to you as much as I can, so you don’t have to lean down any more. I’ll have to determine when you’ve had enough, and, if and when we get to that point, I’ll pat you on the back. Do you understand?”

I nodded again.

“It’s going to hurt,” I said. I was sure it would.

“I can deal, let’s do this. Good luck.”

Thomas pushed himself up, and I felt his body heat get hotter as it approached my lips. My breathing got even heavier, as I realized what I was about to do.

I opened my mouth. My lips pressed against the top of his shoulder, then my teeth. My tongue tasted of sweat.

I closed my eyes.

I bit down.

I expected a resistance, where the skin would be hard to pierce. And there was… at first. It was a lot like biting an apple. A small instance of difficulty, putting more effort than what was probably needed, then juice spilled forth.

And it did.

Thomas drew in a quick breath. I felt muscles briefly tighten around my teeth.

It seemed easier than it should have been, biting him, and getting him to bleed. I didn’t think on that now, I only drank.

Drinking only brought attention to just how thirsty I was, how drained I was of sustenance. How I deprived myself of such a delectable flavor.

It was good. So good that I couldn’t think.

Tasting it again, I was at a loss of words, other than ‘sweet.’ It summed it up perfectly. Short, sweet, to the point.

I swallowed, and it reinvigorated. A surge that washed over me, leaving me with more power than I had felt in years.

With every gulp, I felt like I was gaining something. Yet, at the same time, I was giving up an essential part of myself in exchange.

It took me a while before I came back to my senses.

A smack, a slap against my neck. I made a sound in response.

“I think that’s… more than enough,” Thomas said, weaker than ever. “I feel like I’m about to faint.”

I made another sound. Had I gone too far? Would I have even stopped, if I wasn’t prompted?

Dangerous, nearly lost myself there.

I pulled away from Thomas, a trail of blood still linking my lower lip and his marks, dotted in red. A clear imprint of teeth was left behind.

Thomas fixed his shirt back into place, hiding it. He moved his arm, wiping my chin with his sleeve.

I didn’t thank him, I didn’t waste any more time.

I just fought my way back to my feet.

It was like there was a second wind under me, I could move without being completely hindered. I pushed up, by my back, and the rubble gave way.

It was still massive, and that jutted edge pressed more into my shoulder blade, but I was making progress.

The aches and pangs came back and stronger, screaming at my body to stop, to give up. I screamed in return.

I kept pushing, and the rubble was being lifted higher. I was almost about to think that I’d make it. That it was feasible. Escape.

The rubble was high enough that I was able to finally change positions. I shifted my feet so my soles were flat on the ground, and I was crouched. My hands no longer had to work to keep me up, and I pressed them against the rubble. My forearm that had the knife flared up in pain as I lifted.

I was working to a standing position, now, and to get this off of me.

For me, for Thomas. For Mom. For Katy, for Kristin. For Maria. Even for Gomez.

For everyone.

Heavy, my muscles stiffening, but I was still getting somewhere. Getting to my feet.

I heard the distant falling of other rocks. Rubble that was stacked on top of the one that had me pinned. It had added to the weight, but with excess sliding off, it was becoming much easier, now.

I howled, and I pushed.

More pain meant more progress, and I was on fire.

I was standing, but I was hunched over, and light was rushing in between slits and cracks. I was able to hear what Thomas was talking about earlier, the search party. They were here, and I had their attention.

One more, Alexis, just one more, and we’re out of here.

One more solid push, and I’d get this thing off of me, and out of my life.

One… more…

I mustered everything I had into one last effort. One last throw.

Everything went white. I was yelling, but I didn’t hear it. I was pushing, but my body didn’t feel it. I just did.

And then it was over.

When I came to, I was standing, and huge chunks of rubble were being flipped over, falling around behind me.

I was free. I felt like I was about to float away.

There was a moment of stillness, like even the world itself couldn’t believe what just transpired. Even I couldn’t believe it.

I stared at Thomas, and he stared back, eyes wide, mouth open.

Stunned as I was.

His mouth moved, but it was lost on me. I tilted my head, then turned.

The ceiling was completely gone, having collapsed into the room below. The explosion also left behind a huge, gaping hole in the wall, light pouring in. People were coming up the pile of rock and rubble, by way of the hole. Paramedics.

A few circled around me and Thomas. They went right to taking care of Thomas.

One of them faced me, his mouth moved. I didn’t quite understand, but it had something to do with my arms.

I looked at them. The knife, through my sleeve and my arm.

I shook my head once. I pulled the knife out, and tossed it away. My arm went right to taking care of itself, but my sleeve covered up the process.

Other paramedics were here, forming a larger circle around us. We were standing in a pile of debris, the footing uneven. I’d be taking up space if I stayed here, loitering around. I had to leave Thomas to the professionals. I didn’t need to be looked after.

I began to take the path of least resistance, where I could step without risking a tumble all the down. If I fell, I probably wouldn’t get up again.

Slow, cumbersome, but I managed, and I ended up essentially coming back the way I came. I stood in the wide and tall corridor, in one of the wings of city hall.

Arms by my side, stiff, and I had a slouch. I was more zombie than human, right now.

I want to sleep so bad.

Others were in the hall with me, mostly police. Some began to approach when they noticed me.

If I tried to run, I’d most likely fall over, and that’d be the end of it. I stayed put, readying myself for yet another fight, prepared to bite back, if I had to.

One other cop, originally standing by himself, jogged to intercept the incoming cops. He stopped them, waved his arms. Talking with his hands?

Then, the incoming cops turned around, and went elsewhere. The single cop approached, in their stead. I didn’t relax.

“I won’t lie, you saved my ass, up there. That was truly something.” He then drew out a long breath. “He should be in good hands, now.”

His voice, his face. I was familiar with it, I was supposed to recognize it, but I had trouble connecting the dots. Maybe it was the bloodied nose, mucking everything up.

It took a minute.

His face changed.

“You okay, do you need to be checked out?”

His name is James Gomez, he’s the police chief of the Stephenville Police Department. Thomas’s friend.

“James Gomez,” I said, like I was learning to read for the first time.

“I can’t see your face, but I know when someone’s out of it. Do you need to be checked out?”

No, you’re fine.

“No, I’m fine,” I said.

“Are you sure?”

Yes, you are.

“Yes, I am,” I said.

Gomez checked behind him before asking, “Can you walk?”

You can.

I nodded, and took a step. Gomez accepted that as an answer, and proceeded to lead the way, heading to the stairs.

“Things are still pretty bad,” Gomez said, as we went down. “Dozens injured, including the mayor, but thankfully no casualties. Yet, maybe. There’s still spurts of fighting here and there, but when the explosion happened, everyone cleared out of the building in an instant. Little did I know that you and Thomas were down there. Guess I was lucky to come, anyway.”

I had to hold onto the wooden railing to keep my balance. I was much slower going down, Gomez had to accommodate for me.

My throat wasn’t dry, but I had no energy to waste on words. I’d only speak when I really had to.

Gomez continued, “If things weren’t already bad, this happens. A massive explosion in a government building. I think the only thing that was bigger in recent memory was, well, you. I bet Solace didn’t see this coming.”

We turned, and continued down. The whole area was a stark contrast from before. Only our footsteps made any sound as we descended, and there wasn’t another soul on the lower floor.

“But, it’s not all bad,” Gomez said. “We prevented Solace from fully accomplishing whatever it is they had planned, and we got Thomas back. We didn’t net a win, but at least Solace suffered a loss.”

A win, a loss? There was a massive explosion in a government building. That was bad, no matter how you slice it. Solace played with fire, there, and maybe it was supposed to be a bluff, but it ended with everyone else getting burned. He’d pay for that, and I’d see to it, myself.

After I get some sleep.

“This way,” Gomez said, turning another way. “And pick up the pace.”

I did my best to follow as he led me behind the flight of stairs. A metal door was situated underneath. He opened it.

“Hurry,” he said, going through it. I was a step behind.

More stairs, leading down. The space was small, made of stone, lit by bulbs hanging above us. The stairs spiraled.

The explosion still had me in shock, I still hadn’t really processed anything that happened after it.

At the end of the stairs was another metal door, and Gomez pushed through. We both stepped into a lower level of the building. It looked to be like a underground bunker of sorts, a tunnel.

“Where are we?” I asked.

“Underground tunnels connecting different facilities, even offices that are located under city hall. Secret, but not really, this one in particular funnels to a kind of mini-mall, full of gift shops and knick-knacks, shit like that.”

Gomez walked again, and I followed.

“And?” I asked.

“Don’t make me admit that I’m invariably helping you slip away,” he said.

“Huh?”

“After the explosion, we set up a perimeter around the entire building. No one gets in or out. But the mall wasn’t included in that perimeter, it wasn’t considered. And it’s still early in the morning. Other than some shopkeepers opening up, no one’s going to be there.”

“You’re escorting me out?”

“I’m not going to go that far, I’m just showing you the way.”

I wasn’t about to question him if he was handing me an escape route on a silver platter. I walked.

We continued until we reached what seemed to be the end of the corridor. Larger metal doors, and I felt a draft coming from under it.

Gomez took a step back, gesturing towards the door. “The mall’s that way, and you can go from there. Wash your face, or get a fresh set of clothes if you can. Once you’re out those doors, you’re on your own again. Get caught, that’s on you.”

He then reached to his side, and whipped out a gun. He pointed it at me. He clicked it.

I tried raising my hands, but they were lifeless, by this point.

If I had to, though, I might be able to take him…

“Mind explaining this?” I asked.

“I found you, tried to take you in by myself for the credit,” Gomez said. “To get some more clout and pull in my own force again. But you fought, you got away.”

“Is that the story you’re going to tell others?”

“It’s the story I’m going to tell myself. Blank Face, or the Bluemoon, didn’t technically make an appearance at city hall, did she?”

“Guess not.”

“Call me crazy, but I do want to believe you can do more good out there than locked up. No matter what Solace says. Or, maybe I just don’t want Solace to get their way. Ha, I guess I am crazy.”

There was a compliment in there, somewhere, but I was too out of it to want to look for it.

I’d rather give him less of a reason to change his mind.

“Do you want some good? Thomas said that he has some dirt on Solace, it might be useful. Can you see what you get from him, and actually use that info?”

Gomez nodded once, slowly.

“Don’t make me regret this.”

Later, then.

I would’ve smiled, but my face hurt.

“Regret what? I fought you, I got away.”

Gomez didn’t drop his gun, but he moved it to the side, pointing to the door.

A mutual understanding.

Without a word, I turned to the door, and stepped through it. A cold air met me, and I moved on to my next goal. Getting the fuck home.

I sat in a chair in the corner, curled in a ball.

Through squinted eyes, I watched everyone as they handled the news.

Kristin had her arms around Katy, and they were both still bawling. Maria was sitting two chairs down, leaning forward, hands around her stomach. My mom was standing, an island of her own, quietly taking everything in, too. She must have been a wreck, as well.

I didn’t make it home in time. My mom had gotten the call while arriving at work, but turned right around to pick me up. But I wasn’t there yet. She found me crossing the parking lot, dressed in clothes she hadn’t seen before. I gave a weak explanation, that I decided to skip school and go for a walk. Even I wouldn’t believe me, if I was in my mom’s shoes.

Didn’t matter. She ushered me in the van, and she drove. I’d be in trouble another time.

Gomez called Kristen, and Kristen called my mom. I texted Maria.

They found Thomas. He was in critical condition, but he was hospitalized, now, and he was being worked on. We all rushed to the hospital he was at.

We sat in the waiting area, doing the only thing one could do in such a place. It had only been an hour, but I suspected we’d be here for many more.

Even here, I had to wear a mask. I had to lie to my mom about where I was, I had to pretend I was hearing about Thomas for the first time, I had to act like an ‘Alexis’ that never played a part in this. But that concept, that identity, had been gone for quite a while.

Again, another mask.

Everyone was absorbed in their own emotions, a mix of relief and fear. And I was wrapped up in that, too, but I was too exhausted to express anything.

We have him, I thought to myself, These are tears of happiness. Solace can wait, just for now. God, let me have this, let me revel in the comfort of that.

I let my eyes close. Leave it to being in a hospital, where I was allowed to rest in peace.

Previous                                                                                               Next

040 – You Left Me Hanging

Previous                                                                                               Next

I wanted nothing more than to have the biggest sleep of all time, but things had a way of taking me past the breaking point, then hammering away the remaining shards.

I was so tired that I could barely remember my name. It started with… a letter of the alphabet, I knew that much. More than one syllable, for sure. But, why was I thinking there was more than one word to it?

Stop, you’re letting yourself drift. Just a little more.

What was a little more, after there was nothing left? Past the bottom of the barrel?

Again, drifting.

I left the supermarket, bags in tow. Not much I needed, just stuff I could use to cover myself up. That, and more water.

I arrived back at the taxi, parked in wait. I got inside, sitting behind the driver’s seat, head down.

“Where to now, boss?” the driver asked.

Prying open a bottle while I tried to remember. Wasn’t even an hour ago, but it already seemed like someone else’s distant past. A story someone had told me, rather than experiencing it for myself.

I sipped, and some clarity came back to me. Refreshing.

“East Stephenville, Irving Street. There’s a warehouse, there, but you can drop me off a block ahead, or whatever.”

I took a breath. “And…”

“And?”

“That should be it.”

The driver accepted that. She had better, this was probably her most profitable night in years.

“Sure thing.”

She put the vehicle into drive, then proceeded to take us out of the parking lot.

Time to get my thoughts in order, time to rest, however brief.

I was instructed to make my way over to that warehouse, the order coming from James Gomez, apparently. Why there, though? Was Thomas really being held there? Did it really have to come full circle, like this? I wanted nothing more than to be done with this, but I was just as afraid to see what I’d find, when I got there.

What would I even find there? Thomas, or just his body? The other two? What did D’Angelo mean, by listing their names and telling me who Solace was? Nothing was piecing together, no sense was being made.

Only one way to figure it out.

While thinking, or at least trying, I started to fumble around with the things I had bought, shuffling them around, moving them. I had to make a stop before I moved to my final destination to get them. Second-rate, compared to what I had before, but that was a loss I begrudgingly had to take.

I liked that costume, it was cool. It was still new. I didn’t even get to wear it enough times to really settle into it, to make it feel like a second skin. And now some criminal was knocked out, wearing those threads. I wondered how long that facade would last.

I did have my pants though, I had that going for me. Oh, and my gloves.

Not much, but still.

After I finished moving things around, I set everything beside me. My new backpack. Single strap.

“Are you going to kill me?”

I shifted my head, rubbing my forehead against the back of the driver’s seat. I frowned.

The driver spoke. She hadn’t said anything when we were on route to the club, or to the supermarket.

She spoke, asking something… odd.

It threw me off.

I made a sound. “Huh?”

“After I drop you off… are you going to kill me? Because I’m a loose end? Because I think I know who you are.”

I made a noise. Somewhere between a groan and a grunt, but the emotion behind it was clear. Ticked off.

She had me figured out?

My eyes stayed down.

“Who do you think I am?” I asked, lapsing into that habit of lowering the pitch of my voice, even though I had no mask on.

“The Bluemoon.”

Shit.

It probably wouldn’t have taken much for her to piece it together. If she hadn’t by now, I might have actually been worried.

“Am I right?” she asked.

If I held back my tongue, my silence would say more than words could.

I answered.

“The Bluemoon was arrested back at the club. He set a fire to the place, but got stuck inside. There are plenty of eye-witnesses to attest to that.”

Probably. I hadn’t stuck around to see what they did with the decoy, whether or not it had been reported, already.

“As for me,” I continued, “I’m no one.”

The taxi stopped at a light. Nothing heard but the rumbling of the engine, a lone siren far off, somewhere.

She took that as an opportunity to speak again, more coldly than I would have expected.

“So, are you still going to? Kill me, that is?”

She doesn’t believe me?

I started, “I’m not-”

“Hey, if you say you’re not, then you’re not, I’m not up to fighting you on that. But you’re still a shady motherfucker. Excuse the language.”

Shady? Wasn’t she the shady one, for even asking in such a calm manner?

“So, I wanted to ask again, is this my last ride, or no?”

Images flashed. Thoughts formed. I let them linger in my mind.

A moment passed, then I had the realization that it did. I spent too long staying silent.

“Did you see my face?” I asked, then I realized again that I shouldn’t have asked that particular question. It insinuated things, made implications. Set conditions, even if they weren’t actually there.

I am too tired.

“You’ve had your head down every second you’ve been in my taxi,” the driver said. “Of course I haven’t.”

“Then, there you go,” I said. “I’m not going to… kill you.”

I heard a heavy breath get let out. The light must have changed, because the taxi started up again, going forward.

“It was never a consideration,” I had to hastily add, “I don’t do that.”

I wanted to leave it at that. No use in trying to explain myself to a stranger.

However…

Maybe talking would do me some good, keep me alert.

“Why would you even ask that?” I questioned.

The driver turned the wheel, then straightened it.

“A lot of people come by to sit in that back row, a lot of places they want to go. Not all of them have the most kind-hearted intentions when they get to their destinations. And not all of them aren’t so kind as to let an end stay loose, so to speak.”

“Have you been threatened before?”

“I’ve been lucky,” she said. Talking around the question, it seemed. “Some of my co-workers haven’t. I just thought my number was up.”

I had to go for another sip of water. Then, one more.

“Don’t worry about me,” I said, after I nearly finished the whole bottle. “I’m not as… ill-intentioned.”

“That’s a relief,” she said, but she certainly didn’t sound relieved.

A low grumble. I clutched my stomach, closing my eyes. A grim reminder.

Intense irritability, anxiety, the restlessness. Everything would be eleven.

I had to keep talking, to put my focus elsewhere.

“Is it so bad that you had to even ask me?”

“Bad? I don’t have much of a reference point, I’ve lived here all my life. I can tell you it’s always been like this.”

Always?

“It’s a matter of getting used to,” she said. “If you think about it, there are people in other parts of the world, living in way worse conditions. I’m lucky I can make a living driving other people around.”

“Even if some of them aren’t so kind-hearted?” I ventured.

There was a moment where she didn’t answer right away. Maybe a gesture, though I couldn’t see it.

“Kind-hearted or not, they have money to pay.”

I reacted, but I couldn’t even get a read on myself.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Uh, it’s Claire.” She took another turn, then decelerated.

We stopped.

“And here we are,” Claire said, “A block away, or whatever, just like you asked.”

I was much faster to get out of the taxi, this time. I took everything with me, my new bag strapped across my back, new clothes in my hands. I had left the payment for the entire ride on the console beside her seat.

The door shut.

“Thank you, Claire,” I said. I did a half-turn away from the vehicle, to better obscure my face. It was dark, here, but anything helped.

“By the by, you don’t have to worry about me, too,” Claire said, “I won’t tell anyone about… this.”

A smile almost formed across my lips. It nearly creeped me out.

“Of course not, Claire, you have nothing to say to anyone about any of this. I’m a ghost. Better off forgotten. I have money to pay, right? It should be easy.”

Morality wasn’t black or white. It was green.

I breathed.

“But, Claire, I’ll remember you. I know your name, I know the number stamped on the outside of your taxi. For any reason, any at all, I can find you.”

I stopped there, not offering any more. I figured that was enough.

“Alright,” Claire said, “Have a good rest of your night.”

She drove off, leaving me to stand alone. Nothing here but the sound of crickets.

I walked.

It had been dark my whole time out, but here? This was a different kind of dark. A sort of absence.

No one on the streets, and the lights were out in the buildings. Streetlights flickered, cracks webbed across the pavement and cement. A place neglected, as if people collectively decided that this neighborhood wasn’t worth it. This place wasn’t even that unique in that regard, spots like this were patched across the whole city. I saw them in my run around and time as Blank Face, my eyes were already open to them, but they had been opened wider, since.

Like a disease that ravaged a body, shutting down parts, limbs, organs, until the entire system was taken over.

Taken over by the gangs.

And what was I, in all of this? The antivirus? Then, what was Solace, a developed resistance?

Dammit, I ended up setting myself up, too.

No one here meant there was no one to see me. I slipped on my mask. A ski mask, something considerably less conspicuous than my previous choices. There was a slight musty smell to it as it went over my nose. I fitted on a pair of goggles to better cover my eyes. A subtle tinge in my vision, but nothing that would hinder me. I could see in the dark just fine.

Next came the grey hoodie. A little baggy, but beggars couldn’t be choosers. I supposed I couldn’t escape the hooded look, after all.

The last piece was my gloves, the only other carry-over from my old costume.

Pieced together off the cuff, but this new costume would have to do. It had to.

I tightened the strap crossing my chest one more time, as I started to see the police cars. I was approaching the warehouse.

It looked exactly as I had left it, not too long ago. It didn’t stir any pleasant memories in me, just panic, the frenzy of it all. I almost saw my old self running out of the warehouse, frantic, trying to save Maria and Eduardo.

I blinked. The image changed. A cop, running from the building, meeting with another cop at their car. From a distance, I could see them exchange a few words, before heading into the car. It pulled out of the lot, and I tensed. I was told to come here, but I wasn’t sure how welcomed I’d be when I arrived.

The car sped the other way, no lights, no siren. I remained tense.

There were only two other cars parked out front, not much in the way of a force. No other cops outside. Were the rest in there? Did I have to be wary about them, too?

Well, I wasn’t about to go through the front door. That wasn’t what on-the-run vigilantes do.

I stayed low, circling around the perimeter. I traced the old path I took to get in there, going along the side of the building, looking for the window I entered through the first time.

I moved faster this time, more comfortably, despite the growing aches. I hopped up to reach the height of the window, and snuck in, climbing up the metal racks. Again.

Déjà vu.

But I actually remembered to bring gloves, this time.

Again, I kept a steady and consistent pace, while still trying to keep myself hidden. Less hesitation in my steps, this time. I moved with purpose.

I made it to the central hallway.

Like last time, I wasn’t alone. There were others here. Cops, and a woman, sitting, with hands behind her back. Two others were on the ground, hands cuffed.

A single metal folding chair, atop sheets of newspapers, laid out. Blood dripped from the seat, down the legs, soaking the paper.

I squinted, my pulse quickening.

I immediately went down, my landing echoing in the space.

My hands were up before the police could turn and react and pull out their guns.

“It’s me,” I said, “It’s Blank Face, I mean, the Bluemoon.”

You have to believe me.

“Um, I can try and do a flip if you want me to,” I added.

“That’s not necessary.”

A man stepped away from a group of cops, towards me. The reason why I was here.

“Speak of the devil,” he said. “Though, dressed differently than I remember.”

“James Gomez,” I said, putting my hands down. “Can’t say I’m not surprised.”

“I can say the same thing, myself,” Gomez said. “We just picked up whispers of your arrest at the Panorama, which was why I gave the order to move in. No point in waiting for someone who might not show up.”

“It was a distraction, but, who knows how long it’ll hold, if at all.” I set to rest my hands at my sides. “How did you find this place? How did you find me?”

Gomez lowered his head, and his voice, a fraction. “After word spread about you and Sumeet, the men back at base jumped at the chance to get a piece of you. For my part, I stayed behind, and I was able to trace the signal you were talking about. Hadn’t seen that floor in months.”

“I’ve been out here, nearly getting myself killed to get that info, when all I could’ve done was wait for you to take an elevator. I’m so touched you found it within yourself to actually help me,” I said.

He nodded. “Happy to hear it. As for getting that info to you, you pretty much signaled where you were and what you were doing.”

“The fire at the club,” I said.

“Exactly. I wasn’t sure if you’d manage to make it, but I thought you deserved to know. After that I tried to gather up as many men I could trust as possible. Not as many as I would’ve liked. Or hoped. But we’ll have to make do.”

“Beggars can’t be choosers,” I said.

“You get the idea.” Gomez turned, but he kept going, “Follow me.”

I followed, catching the glances of the other officers. It felt odd, for once they weren’t trying to get at me.

They still stared, though, like I was a circus animal. I met the eyes of a certain cop, and he looked the other way. But something told me he went right back to gawking as I passed.

“Back to work, people,” Gomez said, addressing his men. He seemed to notice, too. “We need everything stored and catalogued, make sure it matches with what we have back home!”

I didn’t express my gratitude out loud. I changed the subject, instead.

“You said you were able to follow the signal, meaning that it came from here?”

“It did, but I’ll tell you right now, Thomas isn’t here.”

My heart dropped.

My mind immediately went to the chair here in the main corridor.

I avoided bringing it up, asking about it. I was afraid I’d be right.

“What is here, then?” I asked instead.

“We’re in the process of that, right now.”

We stopped in front of the woman. She moved her head, I couldn’t get a good look at her face.

Gomez made a gesture, and a nearby cop moved to action, putting a hand under her armpit and forcing her to her feet. Rough.

“Meet Linda Day,” Gomez said, “Business tycoon, CEO of a sizable moving company, breast cancer charity sponsor.”

I looked at her. She had the appearance of someone who was attractive when they were in high school or college, but time, and whatever stress they subjected themselves to, took their toll on the body. Lines etched across her cheeks and forehead, and she still looked relatively young. Excess weight hung off her neck, I could imagine the flab that was underneath her sleeves and waistband.

However, she wasn’t exactly dressed like someone who was abducted from her home in the middle of the night. She had on a nice looking black coat, brown dress pants. She had on makeup.

More importantly, she’s alive.

“You clean up nicely for a hostage,” I commented. I turned to Gomez. “What is this?”

Gomez folded his arms. “I’ll give you the long and short of it. We searched the place, and came across these three, tending to some leftover equipment. Wasn’t hard, they didn’t see us coming, so they didn’t put up much of a fight.”

“Nice, so you’re competent when you want to be, that’s good to know.”

Gomez didn’t comment on that.

But, another word, a certain word stuck out to me.

“Anyways, ‘we?’” I asked.

Gomez audibly huffed. “Yeah. Apparently, she’s a part of what I like to now call the ‘Solace Conspiracy.’ She’s been helping out in preparing for Solace’s next move.”

I felt life and color leave my body. My main objective was to find – if not save – Thomas, but I had Edgar Brown and Linda Day in mind, too. I hadn’t… expected this to be a possibility.

“What’s she doing here?” I asked. I shook my head, and faced Linda, instead. “What are you doing here?”

She lifted her face, looking back at me. She grimaced. “Doing what we can to get you out of the picture.”

It brought back to mind what D’Angelo had told me about who Solace supposedly was. He listed off the names of the hostages. Thomas as well.

Is this what he meant?

Shocked wasn’t the right word. Something stronger was needed. I was almost impressed that things could go this wrong, this incorrect.

Their deaths were faked?

“It’s the same with Edgar Brown,” Gomez said, “Day tells us that he’s been participating in setting up other plans that Solace has. We don’t know the extent of it, though, if he’s a key player or just another pawn.”

“Where’s he? Did you find him here?”

“Right now she says he’s staying in a motel a few miles away from here. She was poised to sleep in the room beside his. Just had some men go see if she’s telling the truth.”

My jaw would have hit the floor, if it was physically possible.

You’re shitting me.

I had been running myself ragged to find where these people had been taken, only to discover that two of them had a part in this, a role to play. They were at the party, they were invited by Kristin, they were acquainted with the Thompsons.

Hands on shoulders. A flip. Linda Day was thrown up the height of the metal racks before crashing back down.

I screamed.

“Blank Face! Everyone back away!”

Gomez shouted out orders. I heard activity from the other cops.

I bent down, and picked her up again. I pushed her up against the rack, pressing so the metal pinched her back.

She wriggled, but she couldn’t worm away from me. I had her.

But I was too mad to form words in my head, to spit them in her face. Questions. Things were blurring. Giving in to something more basic.

A hand on my shoulder.

I twisted my head.

Gomez.

“Put her down, Blank Face. We have time to get information, to figure out what we need to do. No one knows we’re here, and no one knows you’re here. As it stands, we have an upper hand. Let her go.”

“What about Thomas, is he involved? Was he a part of this all along?”

Have I been lied to this whole time?

Gomez, slowly, shook his head. “I know the guy, and… something tells me you know him, too. This isn’t like him, I don’t think he’d agree to play ball, or even want to mastermind this. Something else is going on here. You’ll… just have to trust me on this.”

I thought, considered, and I knew he was right. Didn’t make sense for Thomas to be involved with Solace, it didn’t add up.

My grip loosened a bit. Just a bit.

I heard him out, and I understood, but I still had to find it within me to take the proper action.

It took everything I had to let her go. Linda fell back to the ground, slumping over.

“Come with me,” Gomez said to me. “Get Day on her feet, have her follow,” he said to someone else.

Gomez took me down a corridor, towards a set of large wooden boxes. The tops were pried off, crowbars at the base of them. A familiar sight.

“What’s this?” I asked, but the answer was provided as we got closer. I didn’t like the answer.

Guns. A whole lot of them. Stacked and lined up neatly together. Pistols, rifles, shotguns, stuff I didn’t know the exact names of, stuff in smaller boxes that led me to use my imagination.

And that was only the first box.

Others were taken out from the bottom shelf and opened by the cops. They were going back and forth, looking inside and tapping on tablets and devices, shouting out numbers, arbitrary to me.

I’d seen these boxes before.

“Oh my god,” I said, though breathless. “Please tell me this isn’t…”

“It is,” Gomez said, matter-of-factly. “These are the same weapons The Chariot had smuggled in months ago. You prevented these from getting around and being used, if I remember correctly.”

One of my first nights out as Blank Face. Thomas said I had prevented a gang war from breaking out by having these weapons be turned in.

But now, they’re back. Just like Benny.

“I thought these things were taken care of,” I asked, “What are they still doing here?”

“They were taken care of, contraband found by us gets confiscated and is stored in our facilities. It should have been impossible for these to get on the streets.”

“Yet here we are,” I said. “You’re telling me all these weapons circled back here?”

That nothing I do matters in the long run?

“Not all of them,” someone else said. Another cop. He came up to Gomez to hand him a paper. “This looks like a lot, but this isn’t even half of what got taken out from inventory. We just checked, sir.”

“Thanks, Campbell,” Gomez said.

“But, sir, there is some bad news. Some things aren’t accounted for. Of the missing weapons, the ones found here only account for about a fourth.”

“Meaning this isn’t their only base, just a stopping point,” Gomez concluded. “The weapons are elsewhere. Thank you, again.”

Gomez dismissed him with a nod.

“Great, just fantastic,” I said, “Just one gun is too much. Now all these things are back, out here to be used.”

Another complication in this sick game.

“Try to find some silver lining, or you’ll be blinded by too much negativity. We’ve taken back these weapons, I’ll just have to do a better job of making sure these stay where they belong.”

“You better,” I said, fighting back the irritation that nothing I did had any lasting impact. The impatience that I needed to be doing more, yet we were still standing here, talking.

“If you really think you can trust these men, we’ll have to leave this as is,” I said. “I want to find Thomas. Where is he, what did they do to him?”

Gomez nodded in agreement, he had to ignore my slight against the police. We both turned to look back at Linda Day. She stood, though hunched, propped up by another police officer.

“Here’s the part where you talk some more,” Gomez said to her, “And make it fast. I don’t have the power to control my friend, here.”

Friend? Some odd hours ago you refused to actively help me.

I said nothing.

“What’s the plan? Where’s Thomas?” Gomez asked.

Linda brought her eyes up, glaring at us from behind strands of hair that fell into her face.

“First thing in the morning, the mayor will be making a speech in front of city hall, about Solace and the Bluemoon. He’s been heavily criticized for his silence on the issue. With Thomas Thompson gone, his hand has been forced to say something. They’ll be his first public comments about the matter, many will be there.”

“And then?” Gomez asked.

“A riot, the biggest one yet, they’ll take over and spread more fear about the Bluemoon. And the one to lead the charge… will be Thomas Thompson.”

A cold sweat swept over me. The mention of his name in this scheme.

I tried to say something, ask a question of my own, but I found myself speechless.

Gomez, for his part, was much more collected. “People are afraid enough, why orchestrate a riot that big?”

“I don’t know, believe me, that’s just what I overheard.”

“From who?”

“From the group that took me, they all had masks, I didn’t see their faces.”

“Where’s Thomas!?”

I yelled out the question, losing myself for a moment. The words carried across the entire warehouse. I saw people stop what they were doing. Brief.

“He was here, but they took him, I swear I don’t know where. When they explained it to him, he refused, so Styx strapped him to a chair and…”

Linda stopped there.

A chair, the chair I passed earlier. Styx. Whatever it was, it was better left unsaid.

Thomas sat in that chair.

I lunged at the woman.

We both went down, and I pushed her into the ground. I shook her, wild.

“You bitch, you let that happen to him! You threw him away!”

Sounds coming from her were nearing shrieks, reaching higher pitches when she probably realized she would not be getting away. Her hands were behind her, bound. She was mine to hurt.

Mine to consume.

I, myself, was much less loud. I shook her, then threw her back down. Her hair flew everywhere across her face.

I released my grip, and I raised my hands, aiming for her throat next-

I felt hands wrap around my hands, my arms. Trying to hold me back?

Useless.

The attempt was unexpected, my arms continuing downward without regard for who was holding them. Two people fell beside me, falling flat. Cops.

Mechanical clicks. Orders barked. I realized where I was, what I was doing.

I took a breath.

Raising my hands, I slowly returned to my feet. Linda stayed on her back, crying in between gasps.

I’m so tired. Of this, of everything.

“Sorry,” I said, not really meaning it, but I needed to calm the others down. “Didn’t mean to go that far.”

“Guns down, everyone.”

Gomez stood ahead of me, waving his hands. “Last thing we want is a shootout with all this stuff here.”

The men complied, not questioning him. Their hard stares remained, though some returned to what they were doing.

Gomez turned to me again, but he didn’t lower his head or his voice. “I understand that you’ve had a long night, and you’re young, so I’ll let that slide. But, do something like that again, and I’m not stopping my men. You’re still wanted.”

I nodded, putting my hands to my side. The emotions didn’t go away, just pushed to the side, locked up.

Everything’s been flipped on its head. Turned upside down.

Fuck.

Gomez rolled his shoulders back, and addressed his men one more time. “Everyone, listen up! We know the situation, so we know that we’re on our own. This has to stay between us, or we lose our advantage. We get what we can out of Linda Day, and then we plan accordingly. By the time the sun rises today, this will all be over.”

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