050 – Les Enfants Terribles

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“Yo…”

I repeated the word, still trying to process what I was seeing.

This girl was the one driving the van. Her. Someone this young.

Drifting around corners, racing down streets like a professional. Like a madman, honestly.

I kept staring at her, but it was becoming more and more implausible.

She was short, young, definitely not the legal age to even hold a permit. Short, brown bob cut, disheveled from the van’s sudden stop. Pale skin, indigo eyes. A white sweater with a bomber jacket on top, three sizes too big. The jacket matched with her skirt, leather and black. Black boots. The choker around her neck threw me for even more of a loop.

For a getaway driver, she was pretty well coordinated.

But that was neither here nor there.

Just her being here raised so many questions.

I regained enough of my senses to ask the most pressing one.

“Where are your parents?”

The girl made a face, as if the most reasonable question to ask was instead the most stupid.

“Mind if I lie to you? I’m not up for giving you a proper explanation. I’d rather make it up.”

Flabbergasted couldn’t even begin to describe it.

This was it, right? Thomas’s van? I couldn’t have done this whole chase across the city just to find some stuffed animals… and her. Did I have it right, or was this some elaborate prank?

I had enough sense to ask something else, instead.

“Where’d you find this van? Did you get it back at the factory?”

“What if I did?”

She had a subtle lisp, I noticed. Probably from that missing tooth. She whistled when she talked.

But she still sounded like a child. High-pitched and grating. It annoyed.

She really was just a kid.

I gave her a pointed look.

“It’s not good to take things that aren’t yours, kid. Didn’t your parents ever teach you any common sense?”

She made another face, complete with that sneer from before. “They taught me plenty, thank you very much.”

I noted the past tense, but I didn’t comment.

A honk, and I moved my head. Claire’s taxi was approaching, coming up beside me.

She brought down her window.

“Hey!”

She didn’t sound very happy.

“Claire,” I said, but I didn’t know how to go about handling her. My mind was preoccupied with another matter, and my body was doing its own thing.

I was sore, and my healing wasn’t done doing its rounds. Bones creaked as they joined together, a strange, welcoming numbness soothed me into a better condition.

My clothes didn’t have the same ability, however. My windbreaker weathered a few rips in some places, and I was a few steps away from becoming soleless.

Your shoes, you mean.

Yeah.

“One second,” was all I could tell Claire. For the moment.

I looked back at the girl.

“I’m not through with you, but we have to take this somewhere else. Can’t have cops interrupting us. Do you have any place we can go?”

Using her sleeve, the girl wiped the bottom of her lip.

“There’s a place,” she said.

“Good, because you’re taking us there, now. And don’t try anything funny.”

I backed up to close the driver’s side door, and turned to address Claire.

“My taxi’s-” she started, but I spoke over her..

“I’m really sorry about… this, but she’s going to have to take precedence,” I said. “We’re heading somewhere else to have a proper discussion.”

“Where?”

“Don’t know, but you’re free to come along. And after I’m through with her, we can figure something out, between the two of us. Sound okay to you?”

Claire put the taxi in reverse, presumably to get a better look at the girl.

“Yo!” the girl said.

Then, Claire gave me a pointed look.

“Her?”

“Yeah. It’s… strangely complicated.”

Claire shook her head.

“Whatever. I’m coming.”

I nodded. “Alright. See you in a bit.”

I was in a hurry, now, moving back to the van, sliding the passenger door open. More stuffed bears fell out onto the street.

“Hey, I need those!” the girl whined. “And what are you doing?”

I picked up the bears, throwing them back inside. I closed the door.

“I’m making sure you don’t cause any more trouble,” I said. “Go.”

This place was a shithole.

The building smelled of must, and it was warm. The recent rain seeped into cracks and holes, dripping from the ceiling and soaking the tiled floor, making the air sticky. Moist. It would be very easy to slip and fall into one of the many bags of trash or litter accumulating the different floors.

This place was an apartment complex. People lived here.

The girl led the way, taking us into one of the apartments. Based on the numbers of the doors around us, this was apartment 414, but the ‘1’ was scratched out, the grooves in the door making a ‘0’ instead.

“I’m back,” the girl called out, as all of us filtered inside. No one answered.

The lights were already on, but they were low, not running on full capacity. Everything was cast in a burnt orange hue.

Looking around, the apartment might as well have been ransacked. Nothing of even potentially sentimental value was anywhere to be found. Just boxes, stacked together and kept out of the way. There was a single bedroom, kitchen, and bathroom, and only a couch here in the living room. The doors were closed, I could only imagine what was being hidden behind those doors, considering how seedy this place was.

The air was humid in here, too, the smell masked only by an air freshener plugged in the corner. It smelled of lavender.

Cracks in the wall, the floor creaking with every step. Smaller, secluded holes in corners that suggested other, four-legged tenants.

This girl lived here, didn’t she?

No shit, but it was still a hard pill to swallow. Who would subject themselves to these living conditions?

“Welcome to my humble abode,” the girl said, falling into the couch, by a bundle of blankets. The bundle squirmed.

“Humble doesn’t even begin to put it into words,” I said.

“Well, originally, it was gonna be renovated and cleaned up, you know, gentrification, but the tenants had something to say about that. With the help of some local gangs, they drove out the company in charge, and the city hasn’t really cared to do anything about it, after the fact. Of course, they scared off everyone whose job it was to clean this dump, and it’s been running itself into the ground ever since. Eating itself alive.”

“And you chose to live here?”

The girl shrugged. “I dunno, I needed a quick and easy place to crash. I just came back into the city.”

“You mean you’re by yourself? Alone?”

Claire got a word in before I could. But she was speaking for the both of us, there.

“I’m not alone, I’ve got Macy.”

A hard tug, and the girl threw the blanket off the couch, revealing a woman laying there, curled up. She wasn’t moving, but she was breathing, looking more unconscious than asleep.

Claire, for her part, took several steps back.

“Ah, damn, I told you to lay off the stuff already,” the girl said, leaning over Macy and swatting at her hand. “One more hit like that and you’re donezo.”

Macy reacted, twitching, yet delayed. Her hands opened, and a needle slipped between her fingers, onto the floor.

Claire took another step back.

“Is that…” she started to ask.

“Huh? Oh, nah, she was already here when I moved in, but I don’t think she’s noticed.”

“How could-”

“Wait, hold on.”

I had to stop Claire, or we’d end up going nowhere. I lifted my hands, a signal to move to a different topic.

“I came up with a whole list of questions to ask on the way here, just so I can get it down all at once, and not forget anything. This might be pressing by itself, but there are more important things I want to get to.”

While I was talking, the girl was pulling the blanket over Macy again, fixing it so her face wasn’t obscured. When she finished, she fell back into the couch.

“Sure, ask away. You did catch me, after all, so I guess you deserve a prize.”

From behind my mask, I gave her a pointed look. Even though her biological parents weren’t seemingly around, she was in desperate need of some serious guidance, and counseling.

“First off, a name.”

She sneered.

“You first, O’ Masked One.”

I bit my lip.

I was in need of some blood, soon. I could drain her dry right here, and no one would miss her.

I looked at Claire, but she averted her eyes. Looking at her made me realize it was the first time I’d ever had a clear view of her.

Shoulder length hair, red, tied back. White shirt and jeans. Pushing thirty, if not there already. The creases in her forehead aged her.

She would have been pretty, in another, less stressful life.

My eyes went back to the girl.

“You know who I am, or who I used to be.”

The girl crossed her arms.

“Say. It.”

I tapped my side, making sure my knife was still there.

“The Bluemoon.”

She grinned, showing the gap in the upper row of her teeth.

“How super, the hero in the flesh. Emphasis on super.” She then eyed me. Up, then down.

“Not gonna lie, I thought you were a boy.”

I nearly rolled my eyes. She would have seen if I did that.

“I thought the same thing, too.”

I saw Claire, hands in her pockets. She sounded guilty.

I fixed my hood, setting it more evenly on my head. “Sorry for not choosing something more revealing, or skin-tight. I went for something neutral, people made their assumptions and I didn’t feel the need to correct them. Truth be told, it’s probably been a more effective disguise than any mask I’ve worn.”

But that disguise is gone now. Benny blew it wide open. Now everyone knows that the Bluemoon is a girl, of some Asian ethnicity.

I felt the anger flow within, continuing to shift me. Like magma, under plates of earth.

“That doesn’t matter, not anymore. I’m not here as the Bluemoon, and I’m not quite sure if I’m even here as a hero.”

The girl spoke. “That surprisingly keeps us at square one. I’ll call you ‘Bluemoon,’ easier that way.”

I was more than a touch annoyed, but not enough to make a big fuss over it.

“That’s fine, I suppose,” I said. “But now it’s your turn.”

“Right. Okay, if we’re going by code names, then you can call me ‘D.’”

“Dee?”

“Like the letter. D as in ‘deepthroat.’”

Again, I tapped my side.

The girl, Dee – no, D – laughed, the sort of laugh that was unrestrained, uncaring of public decency.

Full of surprises, she was.

D settled down, and cleared her throat.

“Alright, what else you got?” she asked.

Now she was the one asking questions.

I decided to roll with it.

“The van. You stole it from that factory, did you not?”

“That’s a pretty strong word, but sure. I needed a way around, and I happened upon it. If it’s any consolation, I’ve been good about parking it there whenever I’m done with it, and I gas it up every time.”

“Barely a consolation,” I commented. “But the van isn’t my main priority, actually, though it is useful. There was equipment in there I was looking for. Police scanners, radios, laptops. I didn’t see any of it when I rode with you here.”

“Oh, all that junk? I needed the space, and some cash, so I pawned it.”

I crossed the living room.

I grabbed her at the collar, and threw her onto the wall behind her. I kept her up there.

Claire yelped at how sudden I was.

“You fucking didn’t,” I said, my patience with her having thinned away to nothingness. Young, old, it didn’t matter. I’d break them if they deserved it.

D hardly reacted or panicked. Her arms stayed by her sides. Her vulpine sneer returned.

“I fucking did. I saw an opportunity, and I took it. I was short on cash when I came back, and anything helps when trying to get back on your feet, yeah? Can’t blame me for trying to feed myself a little.”

I made a sound, nearing a growl, and I dropped her. D fell onto the couch, landing on top of Macy. I walked back to where I had been standing before.

I was seething. Barely restrained.

All that work, that whole rabbit chase, and it led to nothing. I was still empty-handed. Nothing to show for all that effort.

I tired of this, spinning my wheels and going nowhere. I craved progress, even more than I craved blood.

I tried looking around for Hleuco, but then I realized he hadn’t come in with us. I would have imagined him wanting to come through the window, but the ones here were boarded up. Unless he didn’t want to show himself if I moved my head elsewhere, I was by myself.

Standing still, I gave myself a moment to cool off, shifting my weight from foot to foot.

D propped herself up, pushing away from Macy, settling back onto the couch. She looked at Claire.

“Props to you, by the way,” she said, as she tugged at her choker.

“About what?”

“That’s some serious driving you did, good job.”

“Oh, thanks?”

“Seriously, it was really badass, like-”

“Stop, stop.”

We all looked at Claire, who had begun to make an ‘X’ with her arms.

“Look, girls, I’m just a cab driver. I purposely put myself in the dark about this stuff so I can try and sleep at night while making some decent money for my own girls. I don’t know why the literal actual superhero is looking for police scanner shit, and I don’t know why you… are whoever you are. My taxi got fucked in that chase, and my shift ends in an hour. How am I supposed to explain that to my real boss when I take it back in?”

D grumbled, getting up from the couch, towards one of the stacks of boxes. She moved them, opening one from the middle of the stack.

She pulled out a teddy bear. And a sizable stack of cash.

Across the room, she tossed them to Claire. She caught them both.

“Do you know Patrick, over at Pecan? The Ferryman.”

Claire answered, holding the bear out in front of her. It didn’t look particularly dirty.

“I’ve passed there a few times,” she answered.

“Give that bear to him, and tell him I send my regards. He should give you a good enough patch-up job. Nothing crazy, but it’ll do. The cash should be enough to cover your ‘detour’ for the night.”

Claire held the bear away from her even more. “Is there something in here?”

“Unless you’re a customer yourself, then nope.”

Hearing that, Claire’s entire body language changed. She let her arms fall beside her, still holding the bear, and money.

“Appreciate it,” she said. The sarcasm was laid on thick.

She looked to me, and my head had cleared up some more. I was ready to get back into this conversation.

“Yeah?” I said.

“I have to leave now if I want to get everything back in working order and clock out on time. If I hurry, I can drop you off somewhere, but it’d have to be along the way.”

Taking a breath, I placed a hand on my hip.

“You can go, I still have unfinished business here. I’ll manage getting back.”

I wasn’t expecting this night to go down the way it was going, considering I was expecting Gomez to be my go-to option, but with D being here, I wanted to get a grip on what she was about.

Claire nodded, curt. “If that’s okay with you, then I’ll be going. And if you ever need a lift in the future, boss, you have my number. I promise I won’t run the meter.”

Not surprised, but pleased.

“That means a lot, Claire, thank you. Again, sorry about the-”

She stopped me with a gesture, lifting the bear. Then, she went to leave the apartment.

The door closed with a heavy clunk, and it was just me and the girl. D.

Well, there was Macy, but she wasn’t so much here as she was… there.

I turned, facing D again. She had returned to the couch, her legs crossed, with an expectant expression.

This fucking girl…

No, she was more like a character.

“And I’m not done with you,” I told her.

“I’d be disappointed if you were.”

“Those scanners would have been really helpful. The police have got eyes and ears everywhere, and I’d-”

“Puh-lease,” she said, interjecting. “That old junk’s worthless, they can’t pick up even half the channels the cops use nowadays, and what they can pick up, the signal’s shoddy at best. They’re outdated, even paperweights make fun of them. If you want something better than that, I’m your girl. I can out-scan any pleb-tier gadget that Señor Gomez has.”

I took a step to her.

“Wait, ‘Gomez?’ As in James Gomez, Chief of Police?”

D snapped her fingers. “Yeah yeah, him.”

“You know him?”

She glanced to the corner of the couch. “I’ve had some run-ins with him, in the past.”

Another surprise. It was getting harder to keep up.

“Do you know where I can get another scanner?” I asked.

D grumbled, and then her hands went into her lap.

“Scanner this, scanner that, blah blah blah. What do you even want to do with those things, anyway? They’re not even very fun to play with. If you want a toy so bad I’ve got a spare tablet I picked up-”

“Because I’m looking for someone.”

She stopped for a second, and then looked very interested. Curious.

“Who?”

I sighed. No harm in telling her.

“Benny, from The Chariot.”

D lifted an eyebrow.

“Oof, if I had dollar for every time I heard that name.”

I approached her again, at a pace that was inhuman. D reacted, putting her feet up on the couch, pressing her back to the wall.

Even Macy stirred.

“Don’t tell me you know her, too,” I said. “You know where she is?”

I was cornering her, throwing her off. I had enough of her attitude. Too smug for her own good, and for her age.

I put my foot on the couch, raising my head to look at her. I questioned her again. “Do you know where she is?”

D brought up her hands, her palms facing me. “Whoa whoa, I’m not saying that at all! I just meant I’ve heard people mentioning her ever since I came back. Like with Gomez, I’ve run into her and her gang, but they were still nobodies last time I checked. Now? It’s like she’s the hottest thing on the block. It’s strange.”

“It’s not strange. Everyone’s after Benny, and I have to beat them to it. She’s in hiding, biding her time until she can leave the city. But I’m not going to let her have that chance, she’s not getting out of this alive.”

The expression on D’s face changed, taking in everything. The corners of her mouth folded upward.

“Oh ho? I like the sound of that.”

She shifted, standing on a couch cushion, her hands on her hips. She leaned towards me, seeing me at eye level.

“I was afraid that you were going to turn out to be boring. But you’re already bringing the party to me. I’m in.”

The hell is she rambling about?

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“I mean exactly that. I want to help. Wait, not want, I will help you.”

I frowned, but my mask’s expression was blank.

“You? You’re going to help me?”

Her smile widened.

“Of course. I know these streets like the back of my hand. Other kids my age couldn’t even walk down the street without their heads in their phones, telling them where to go.”

“That’s not the part I’m questioning,” I said.

D restated her point, “You don’t have to worry about me. I’ll be your eyes and ears, even your personal bodyguard, if it has to come to that.”

I huffed, a light scoff. “Highly doubt it’ll get to that point.”

D rolled her eyes. “Fine, but I’m still a good piece to have on the board. You could stand to have me by your side.”

“Hm, and what piece would you be, should I decide to put you on this metaphorical board?”

I saw careful thought cross D’s face, taking her time.

After some deliberation, she answered.

“The bishop.”

Speaking for myself, I’d never played chess. And, gathering from what connections and memories I decided to take, neither had Alexis.

But that wasn’t the main focal point, here. Was this girl actually going to be of any use? She seemed to be pretty knowledgeable about Stephenville and its underground, and she probably knew more than I ever did. My ventures into that world usually took place in the night, and I had a clean bed to come home to. This girl lived in that world. It was the ugly reality she faced each and every day.

And she faced it with a smug, irritating sneer.

Oddly inspiring, I had to admit.

But there was another point to consider.

“How do I know that I can trust you?”

I decided to ask, rather than speculate in my own head.

D seemed to be taken aback, stumbling on the couch. She straightened herself, and her back.

“Of, of course you can trust me. I mean it when I say I will help you. It’s just a matter of whether or not you want it.”

Talking around my question. She wasn’t being entirely convincing.

“Alright, how about this? Why should I let you help me?”

“Because you don’t have any leads, and you don’t have a lot of time. I can get you both. You wear a mask, and that tells me that you have some other life you need to attend to. Me? I’m out there, all day, every day, by myself, and no one bats an eye. I’m free to do whatever. During the day, I can ask around, discreetly, and see what I can come up with. And that saves you time to properly prepare, and you can do the whole superhero schtick, and give the bad guys exactly what they deserve.”

I saw into her eyes, and I knew she meant every word. She was being serious.

It was a look I’d seen before. But exactly when or where or who was unclear. Vague, like a foggy memory, getting more distorted the more I tried to reconnect. It wasn’t worth the resulting headache.

Maybe she really would be of use? My options were limited, no thanks to her, but she did have a point about accessibility. I was still chained to the name of ‘Alexis,’ and someone like Gomez was chained in a similar way, by the law, as perverted as it was. Even Claire had other responsibilities, I couldn’t expect her to be at my constant beck and call. D didn’t seem to be tied by those restrictions. As she put it, she was free to do whatever.

‘D’ for ‘different,’ I suppose.

By and large, an extra pair of eyes and ears wasn’t a bad idea. It just had to be her eyes and ears, though.

If she ever proves to be an issue, we can dispose of her easily. A resource for blood.

Even I had my reservations about that idea.

I broke eye contact with her, and gave her some space. She got down from the couch.

“Here’s what we’ll do,” I told her. “You’re… an anomaly, but in the grand scheme of everything, so am I. I’m willing to give us a shot, if you’re really as good as you think you are.”

D clasped her hands together, doing a small hop in celebration. “Yes! This is going to be so fun!”

But,” I said, cutting her short. I let the word hang. “If you give me a reason to doubt you, for even just a second, I will kill you.”

I didn’t mean that last part, but it was over-the-top enough to drive the point home.

D didn’t seem very bothered by that threat. “Looks like I’ve got my work cut out for me. Double fun!”

I heard a soft rumble, and D patted her jacket, then slipped her hand into a pocket. She took out a cell phone. It looked new, better than any phone I, or Alexis, had ever owned.

“And will you look at that, great timing. Hey, do you have anywhere else you need to be right now? Or better yet, when does your whole superhero shift end?”

I thought about Shiori, sleeping in the smaller of the two bedrooms in the apartment. Come morning, she’d wake up, get ready for work, then leave without ever checking on me or my room. She gave Alexis her space in the mornings, something I was more than happy to capitalize on.

“It ends when I get my hands on Benny,” I replied. “Why?”

“Because, I was originally on my way to park your van and call it a night, though you kinda got in the way of that. But, I did have a job I was saving until morning, might as well take care of it now, since I still have the van with me. So my real question is, do you want to come along?”

“Why should I?”

D grinned.

“If it all goes well, we might have a clear lead on Benny. Instead of asking you to trust me, I’ll prove it.”

I watched as the little girl puffed out her chest, even though there wasn’t anything to puff out. It would have been endearing, if it hadn’t come from her.

A piece on the board, begging to be played. I just hoped it was the right move.

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049 – Spikes

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Dim, artificial light. Cramped space. A controlled, level speed that almost lulled me into taking a nap. The lack of control.

A taxi ride was the stark opposite of traversing a jagged city skyline.

“Gotta say, never thought I’d ever see you again, boss,” the driver said. She was calm, unconcerned. Not that she would be keen to my exact plans, but the contrast between us was almost amusing.

Claire, her name was. Not due to any connection to this person being notably strong, all I did was ask.

“Funny how that works out,” I said, though I didn’t sound very amused. I was looking out the window, watching cars and buildings pass. I saw a man strolling on the sidewalk, and as the taxi continued, I noticed a group, tailing him. A gang.

That won’t end well.

The taxi turned a corner, and I lost sight of them. I was left assuming the worst.

“Oh, and don’t call me ‘boss,”’ I added.

“Why not?” Claire questioned, eyes still on the road. “You called me up, gave me a job, now I’m working for some dough. As long as you’re in my taxi, you’re my boss.”

She said it so matter-of-factly.

I rested my head on the window beside me. “Sound logic, there.”

My eyes roamed some more, not really focusing on anything or anyone. I just watched, letting the scene pass. When buildings gave way for slivers of sky, I saw Hleuco, soaring through the air, on his own.

I felt an oddly placed sense of envy.

But I had to go about it this way, buildings and rooftops weren’t going to take me where I needed to go. It was too far, and walking was too time consuming. Taking the bus would have been another option, but this was more convenient, more direct.

I had to remember the number to call for Claire’s taxi, and have her come pick me up. I wouldn’t use my personal phone, just to be safe, so I elected to use a payphone. It took some time finding one, and it took some time learning how to use, but I got it all straightened out.

Claire arrived at the back of a liquor store ten minutes later. My mask was off, but my gloves were still on.

The taxi slowed to a stop. We were at a light. Cars lined up around us.

“Oh, shoot,” Claire said. She lightly smacked her hand on the wheel.

“Problem?” I asked, my eye on a car.

“I, um, no. I just got on the wrong lane and now I’ll have to go around. Barely a detour.”

“You’re just running up my meter,” I said, partly as a joke, but she really would be running up the meter.

“I promise it wasn’t intentional. It’s just that I’m not very familiar with this part of town. I don’t get called out here too often, and even with the GPS, it’s easy to get on a middle lane and not realize you can only turn left.”

“I wasn’t being too serious about it,” I said, having to reassure her. “As long as you get me to where I need to go.”

“Uh, yeah, sure thing, boss.”

The light turned green, and we started moving again.

The ride wasn’t uncomfortable, but there was a tinge of anxiety in the air. A sort of pressure. No music from the radio, with the only sound coming from our breathing, and the wheezing of the engine. The taxi was old, seemingly.

“That Bluemoon stuff, huh? Such a shame that happened.” Claire said. Out of nowhere.

“Bluemoon stuff?”

“The school, those kids. What a shame.”

“It was,” I said, wary. Uneasy.

“You know, I remember the last time I had you in my taxi. You left quite the impression.”

“Did I?”

“You did. If I recall, I asked if you were the Bluemoon or not. You denied it, and said the Bluemoon was arrested at the Panorama. The club that was promptly burned to the ground just minutes after you asked me to take you there.”

The decoy. I remembered. It bought me some time on that night, allowing me to slip past police and meet with Gomez, but the illusion didn’t hold, I supposed. It was probably easy to prove the decoy was fake, and it went unreported. Had anyone actually bought it, Benny wouldn’t have went to the school.

I drew my hand to my side, my pocket. Fingers traced the edge of my knife.

“Your point being?” I asked.

“I may be just a lowly taxi driver, but I’m not dumb. Just tell me if you’re the Bluemoon.”

That right there. Her million dollar question.

I remembered denying her once before. It probably wouldn’t work again.

“And what if I was?” I asked, my hand in my pocket. “Would you tell anyone? Call police?”

There was a notable silence from Claire.

“I wouldn’t,” she answered.

“No?”

“It’s an unspoken rule among cab drivers here, we don’t talk about who we pick up, where we take them, or what they do when they get there. And, the Bluemoon has superpowers. I’ve seen the videos. I’d get ripped into pieces before I could even think to do anything. No, it wouldn’t be worth it. I just…”

Claire went mute.

“You just what?” I asked.

“I just want my money.”

I see.

I asked another question. “Claire, do you have a family?”

“I do,” she whispered. She left out the details, and I didn’t ask for them.

She couldn’t see me, but I nodded.

I spoke.

“You don’t have anything to worry about, Claire. I’m not the Bluemoon. I’m not going to kill you, and you’re not going to be ripped into pieces. You’re far more useful to me alive.”

And we’re saving that intent for someone else.

Precisely.

“That’s… a relief,” Claire said, but there was no relief to be found in her tone.

The conversation died on that soured note, and the remainder of the drive went without another word.

The ride took us farther away from downtown, where the buildings became shorter, the housing becoming more public. The hood.

Another turn, and the road changed to something considerably less paved. We were almost there.

“And here we are,” Claire said. The taxi began to slow, but not to a stop. It cruised, instead.

My destination was up ahead. I positioned myself to get a better look through the windshield.

An abandoned factory. The abandoned factory. The one Hleuco and I used as a meeting place, back when I was Blank Face.

It was as run-down as ever, maybe even more so in the weeks I hadn’t come back here. Cracks in the cement structure ran up several levels, reaching up to the roof. The tops of smoke stacks were solid black, covered in dirt. Blocky windows were either broken or so dirty, useless either way. Graffiti was tagged and retagged, resulting in legitimate murals becoming indecipherable scribbles.

It was a skeleton of a factory, now. Out of the way, forgotten.

That made it a perfect place for wannabe-heroes to meet up. And the perfect place to hide the toys they used when they went out to play pretend.

Claire kept the taxi at a low speed, inching towards the broken building. “Want me to keep going?” she asked.

“That won’t be necessary,” I said. “Don’t want you running the meter any more.”

She gave a short laugh, putting the taxi in park. “Of course, boss.”

I checked the meter at the front, the cost of the trip here. Oh. It was more than I expected. And there was still more to come. I still needed Claire, I still needed her taxi.

But that was the price for convenience.

I was aware of how light my funds had become. Thomas had once compensated me for my outings as Blank Face, but I was on my own, now, and I’d need another way to get some cash.

Time was money, and wasting one was wasting the other. Drag this out, and I’d run the chance of never being able to find Benny. Claire was useful, but I couldn’t rely on her forever.

I had to budget my time and money.

As I walked ahead, Claire rolled down her window.

“I’m guessing you want me to stay here?” she asked. “Haven’t paid me yet.”

“Yeah, if you don’t mind,” I said, not very enthused. “I’ll be bringing back some stuff.”

“Sounds good to me. I’ll move ahead so I can wait for you. My lights will probably be off.”

She then added, “Don’t worry, I won’t run the meter for that.”

“You’re funny,” I said.

“Also, um, this place is a little suspect, even for me. I might honk, in case of, I dunno, anything.”

“Sorry about that,” I said. “I promise I won’t take long.”

Claire nodded, and I turned to the factory. No point in loitering. Backlit by the taxi’s headlights, I headed to the factory, keeping a hurried pace.

I entered through a wide gap where doors were supposed to be. A huge hole, as wide as it was tall. Large enough to drive a van through.

I stepped into complete darkness, but I continued without pause or hesitation. As if reading from a map, I knew where to go.

Thomas’s old van. The one he used when his beak was still part of a mask.

Inside would be all the equipment Thomas had left behind. Police scanners, radios, laptops, anything and everything I’d need to listen in on police activity. Where they were, what they were doing, I’d be privy to. And if they happen to get even the smallest whispers of Benny and her location, I’d be there, listening in.

Gomez wasn’t going to help me, but he’d provide assistance all the same.

I had to watch my footing, stepping over fallen pipes and other broken bits of metal and glass. I recalled a stack of used needles I had to look out for, too. Even with my healing, I wasn’t about to let any of those things prick me.

Carefully, I maneuvered through winding assembly lines and heavy machinery, over to where Thomas last left the van.

There, tucked to the side, between the wall and a hulking block of metal. Another machine. The van should still be parked in that space, hidden under a heavy tarp.

Except…

I stopped where I was.

There was nothing here.

The van was gone.

I stared.

Nope. Still gone. Just the tarp that would have covered it up, now crumpled and flat on the floor. Where the van should have been.

Fuck.

I took a step closer, and picked up the tarp, feeling the rough fabric.

Where did it go? Who took it? How? In the back of my head, I had feared the worst, but I didn’t actually expect this to happen. It was hidden well out of sight, the only people who’d dare to come around here were druggies and their dealers. That, and the stupid and the curious, maybe. But there was never a good reason to stick around and wander. Even the homeless had no need for this place, it was too far from the city.

The only way to find the van was to already know of its existence. Yet, it wasn’t here.

Then, who took it?

I dropped the tarp, backing away to avoid dust and bugs.

Fuck, I needed that equipment. The ability to listen in on the police was a valuable asset, and now it was gone, along with the van. Back to square one, and I couldn’t afford to take any more losses. Not at this juncture.

Otherwise, it would have been all for naught.

But, what were my other options? What else could I do?

Fuck.

I slammed a fist against the machine beside me, and it dented.

I was frustrated, but I wasn’t defeated. This was but a minor setback, I could figure out something else.

Hell, maybe the van was still-

A burst of noise. I tensed up.

The sound of a car horn.

Claire.

Did something happen?

I didn’t waste time to question it, I just moved.

I hopped onto the machine, getting on top. I knew my way out, now, I could take a short cut.

Smoothly, I flowed into my next move. I sprung through the air, my hands reaching into the bag strapped to my bag.

I had my mask in my hands by the time I touched ground, running out of the factory. Just in case.

A flash of light flooded my eyes. I reacted, blocking with my arms and spinning around. I threw my mask on, as well.

The light drew away the next instant, and I was able to regain my bearings.

A black van was turning back, speeding off when it righted itself.

A black van, at this hour, here? That was no coincidence.

We have to get that van.

The vehicle was already retreating into the distance, down the path we took to get here.

I had to find Claire.

I scanned the lot, quickly finding Claire’s taxi heading to me. I met her halfway.

“You signaled?” I asked, her window already down.

“I did, and-”

She paused for a moment, her eyes widening a fraction.

Ah.

My mask. I had it on. That pretty much confirmed who I was, who I used to be.

But that was the least of my concerns, right now. The van was getting away.

“Yes?” I said, urging her to go on.

“Um, yeah, that van came and shined its light at me, and I got worried. I thought something was about to go down, or I was about to get caught in some ugly business. I’m used to taking people to where they need to go, but I’m not used to sticking around. So I signaled.”

“Good, thanks,” I said.

“It’s a good thing it went and ran off, or I might’ve been a goner.”

I stole a glance back at the path, at the van. Two red brake lights were becoming smaller and smaller.

“Actually…” I started to say.

I looked back at Claire, completely serious.

“We need to catch that van.”

She looked as if I had told a really bad joke. Deadpan.

“Boss, honey, you’re not seriously suggesting-”

“I am, that was what I came here for.”

I ran around the taxi, getting into the passenger side.

“Just drive,” I said as I slammed the door.

Claire grunted, but she listened, slamming on the pedal. The taxi lurched before sending us forward, but we were moving.

We got back on the path, giving chase.

The red lights were mere dots, now. The van was farther up, having had a head start, but we could do it. Claire could do it.

“I’m really doing this right now!” Claire yelled as we streaked down the bumpy road. Thuds and clanks. The taxi sounded like it was going to tear itself apart from all the little hits and impacts.

She yelled again. “You’re really making me do this!”

“Just keep going!”

I was leaning forward, knuckles clenched on the dashboard. White. As if doing that could make us go faster.

But we were going faster. The speedometer was rising at a steady pace.

Claire shouted.

“How are we even going to stop them? We’re just chasing it!”

Good point.

“I’ve got that covered!” I said. “Just get me as close as you can!”

“Jesus fuck, I am absolutely charging extra for this!”

The taxi tore up the path, and we were nearing where dirt met road. Squinting, I swore the lights on the van were getting bigger. We were gaining.

The van sped off the dirt path, and continued straight. It was a heavy vehicle, not to mention large, it couldn’t make a turn without having to slow down. It crossed the intersection, and a red light, making a beeline to the city proper.

We raced behind.

“Come on!” I shouted. “Faster!”

“That’s not helping!”

I had to make an effort to zip my mouth. A significant effort. My blood was going as fast as the taxi.

My eyes scanned the road ahead. If I was going to help, I’d be the lookout.

Not a lot to worry about. The late hour had cleared out any potential obstacles, drivers or pedestrians alike. There was one – make that two – cars we zipped by, but they took up other lanes. Claire was free to push this hunk of metal as hard as it would allow.

The advantage was double-edged, though, since there wasn’t anything impeding the van, either.

The van was going fast, and we needed to be going faster.

We were making progress, however. I had a better visual on the van. We were closing in.

“Just a bit more!” I yelled. “We’re almost there!”

Claire grunted, gripping the wheel even harder.

“There’s still the question of how we’re gonna stop it! We’ve got about a half-mile before we have to make a turn, we can’t go straight forever!”

I took a hand off the dashboard, moving to the door. I pressed a button, and the window came down.

Wind immediately whipped my face.

“I said I’ve got it covered!”

I put my feet up on the seat, and I started climbing out of the taxi, through the window.

Claire yelled something, but it was lost on me, now. The wind was too loud out here.

I twisted and turned, positioning myself so I was sitting on the bottom of the frame, my butt hanging outside. If we passed by a car now, I’d be clipped and turned into paint.

I extended my arms, trying to reach the taxi sign bolted to the roof of the vehicle. My fingers got a hold of it, and I pulled.

It was like being thrown into a hurricane. I flung myself up onto the roof, and the wind kicked back my hood, my hair flying everywhere.

The taxi was accelerating even more, and I was hanging on for dear life.

Wind rushed past my ears, compromising my hearing. I could barely hear myself think. Every movement of the taxi sent my veering in that direction, with only my hold on the taxi’s sign to keep me in place. It took all my strength to not slip off.

My jaw clenched, I pulled myself again, lifting my legs so I could get some footing on the roof. I had to manage by feeling it out, my eyes were getting watery.

I shifted, moving my arms and legs until I had a decent position, crouched on top of the taxi. Even with powers, this was harder than movies had led me to believe.

Blinking water away, I tried getting another look at the van.

It was even closer, now, we were going to catch up. Just a little more, and I could jump over.

Just… a little more…

Tires screeching, horns honking.

The van swerved left, onto another street. Drifting around the corner, without sacrificing too much speed or momentum. Tires screeched again, and the van fixed its course, continuing down a new path.

Shit.

To pull that stunt with a huge van, I was almost impressed. Almost.

Claire just had to try and pull off the same thing.

The taxi swerved left as well, but it was lacking in the execution. The turn was too sharp, and Claire tried to compensate by stepping harder on the brakes.

I slipped.

My whole body was heaved one way, a hard right. I lost my footing, and my legs were hanging off the taxi.

Claire had taken her foot of the brake, I could tell that much. The taxi skidded, then accelerated forward.

“Agh!” I yelled.

The tips of my fingers were fighting for purchase on the taxi sign. It was the only thing I had to hang on to, or I’d be sent spiraling off the car.

But, coupled with my weight, and how fast we had turned, and how old the taxi was…

It was all grounds for a disaster.

The sign started coming off, bolts and screws flying apart where I had put too much force in my grip. I could feel the sign getting loose, and with half my body being dragged off the taxi, I was completely and utterly dependent on the support of small, rusted metal pieces. My whole weight was on it.

It wasn’t going to last.

The taxi straightened itself into a new lane, and the chase continued. Other cars were around, and Claire drove past them.

The sign was starting to hang onto the roof of the taxi as much as I was hanging onto the sign itself, bolts and screws scattering everywhere.

Another second of this, and I’d fall off. The van would get away, and I’d lose them. I’d lose everything.

No, we mustn’t let go.

“Agreed.”

I removed my hand off the sign, at the same time it gave out. I made a fist, then punched into the metal roof.

Then, with my other hand, I released my hold on the sign. Tossed back, it hit the cement behind me. I reached out, fitting my fingers into the hole I made in the roof.

There we go.

I wouldn’t fall off like this. I moved myself again, regaining a better position on the top of the taxi.

Below, I heard Claire yelling.

But, damn, that was a close call.

With my hands secured, gloves protecting my fingers from the jagged metal edges, I could put my energy back on the van.

We had lost some distance back at that turn, but we were quickly making up for it. When it came to speed, the smaller taxi was faster than the larger, weightier van.

But there were other variables to keep in mind. The length of the street, the number of lights and intersections, other cars. Other people. Obstacles. Whoever was in the van was apparently a better driver, too. I couldn’t allow them to pull another fast one on us, they might actually slip away next time.

Claire had to bring me closer, and I’d be the one to stop them. If by force, with my bare hands, then so be it.

I was more than capable.

A moment later, I saw Hleuco rushing by, overhead.

He was fast, fast enough to reach the van and circle around. No one else could see him, though. Little in the way of a distraction.

But that wasn’t the only way he could help.

Hleuco circled one more time, then flew ahead, passing the van. My eyes followed him.

He came onto another corner, making his turn into it wide… and obvious.

It was the next turn. The end of the road.

And there was only one way to turn.

I changed positions, lowering myself so my stomach was flat on the roof’s surface. I pulled up so my mouth was near the hole.

“Right turn up ahead!” I shouted. “Get ready!”

“Fuck!” Claire barked out, but the taxi adjusted from under me. Inching right while we sped forward.

We were going to cut them off at the turn.

Readying myself, I wiggled my fingers some, trying to get some feeling back. They’d gone numb.

Holy hell, we were going fast. People willingly strapped themselves into these fucking death machines.

And I was sitting on top of one of those fucking death machines, hanging by the skin of, not my teeth, but my fingers. There was no seat belt to help me here.

I only had one shot at this.

We were tailing them, and approaching the corner at top speeds. Now or never.

Underneath me, I felt the taxi start to decelerate slightly. Claire had taken her foot off the gas pedal.

Then, she had switched to the brake, tilting the wheel, and we started drifting.

We beat them to it, already preparing to make the turn. It slowed us down a touch, and the distance grew, but it was marginal.

And it was planned.

The van’s brake lights finally went on, and the entire vehicle shifted, keeping its momentum. A controlled drift.

Claire managed to pull it off the second time around, but the van’s driver was still way better at it, probably more experienced. But it wasn’t about skill. It was about timing.

They were still angling themselves by the time we were already in a new position. Momentum carried us, sliding us so close it was dangerous. Between the two vehicles, we formed a lopsided ‘T.’

Now.

My feet were flat, my knees pressed to my chest. I let go of the roof. Wheeling around, I faced the van.

I hopped over.

A hard impact, knocking the wind out of me. But there was no time to grumble over it, or try and catch my breath.

I landed on my stomach, nearly sliding off. As hard as I possibly could, I gripped the edges of the roof, keeping myself stable. Pulling inward, tightening the muscles of my arms.

The van finished rounding the corner, and continued forward. Hleuco rejoined me, flapping his wings with more fervor, as if to cheer.

I did it. I had the van. I wasn’t sure about Claire, if she was still following or not, but I had a feeling I’d be seeing her again either way. It was something my gut told me.

Now…

How the fuck was I supposed to get this thing to stop?

I couldn’t start punching holes into the thing. I didn’t want to. I’d try to keep as much of it intact as possible. Hopefully, the equipment was still in there.

The person inside? I didn’t care less over what would befall them.

I moved bit by bit, slowing crawling along the top of the van. I probably moved more cautiously than what was necessary, but I’d rather be safe than sorry, here. Should I fall off, it would be that much harder to come back.

The van still rolled along, fast, but I could manage. It swerved when it had the opportunity, trying to shake me off.

Nice try, I thought. I was too strong.

I recalled, in movies, wouldn’t people usually shoot at the roof of the cars if their pursuer was above them? Whoever was in the van hadn’t tried that, yet.

I should probably end this before it went there.

The chase was over, I had them. Now, it was time to end it.

I reached the front of the vehicle, my hands on the top of the windshield. I crouched, having found a decent foothold.

I braced for impact.

Lifting my hand, I banged my fist against the windshield. It cracked, running like spider-webs across the glass.

The driver immediately hit the brakes.

I was flipped over, sent forward, but I was aware enough to catch myself. I twirled.

A solid landing, my feet on concrete.

Then the four-thousand pound speeding block of metal hit me.

Everything exploded everywhere.

Bones crunched, metal crushed, the sharp pain enveloped.

But I held on, pushing back.

I wasn’t sent flying.

Hugging the grill of the van, I took the brunt of the force head on. It reverberated, shaking me to the core.

But I held on.

My feet were skidding on the road, my arms on fire as I threw my weight forward.

“Uff!” I cried out.

I was fighting back, and it was working. We were slowing down, losing speed. I was forcing us to a stop.

My eyes were screwed shut. Brown and black shapes formed as I concentrated on not dying.

Everything bore into me. Let go for even a second, and I would crumble, be flattened, crushed.

Not this time.

I put more strength into my arms and legs, and my resolve.

Come on come on come on come on come on come on come on come on

Eventual, but gradual. And then final.

We were no longer in motion.

I fell back, leaning heavily on my right foot for balance. I winced.

From the toes to the heel, my feet were stinging. The soles of my shoes were wrecked, burned by friction. They clung by a thread, now.

The rest of my body was ten times worse. Like an inferno, it throbbed, hitting me in waves. Every muscle and joint and tendon burned. It was a miracle I was still standing.

It hurt. A lot.

But I could move. Broken bones and torn muscles were already being attended to. Healing. I could still go on.

As my healing did its thing, I looked over the result of my work.

And, between me and the van, I was in a worse condition.

The van was still, unmoving. The front bumper was bent in some places, the hood dented. The left headlight flickered twice before fixing itself. The windshield cracked. It was pretty banged up, but the engine was running, a low hum emanating from the vehicle. It would still drive.

But, it wasn’t the outside that mattered. What mattered was the equipment inside. The scanners and laptops.

I had healed enough to walk with my own strength. I crossed the distance, to the driver’s side.

Hleuco landed by me, his wings folding around him. We moved as a pair.

Even with my blood pumping, adrenaline running, it was cold out here. I was sweating, but the wind and air had chilled me to the bone. Any sort of movement did wonders in keeping me warm.

Another set of lights fell on me. A car, with stickers and logos on the side to indicate it was a taxi, but the sign on top was missing.

Claire. She had followed.

I’d deal with her next. This came first.

I flung the door open. I looked inside.

I tilted my head.

What?

The first thing I noticed were the teddy bears. The van was filled to the brim with them. The passenger’s seat, and from what little I saw of the back row, were covered with the stuffed animals.

The second thing I noticed was the person in the driver’s seat.

Teddy bears had landed in her lap, and she tossed them aside. She grunted and groaned, then looked at me as she massaged her jaw.

A girl.

But her appearance… She didn’t look any older than thirteen.

The girl opened and closed her mouth, testing, before giving me an outright sneer. It had a vulpine quality to it, though she was missing a tooth.

“Yo!”

Previous                                                                                               Next

040 – You Left Me Hanging

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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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