064 – The Illest Villains

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The wait was excruciating.

Time seemed to stretch as Phil stared down at us, keeping us still, keeping us waiting.

If D had a reason for doing this, it had better be a very good one.

People were looking, watching our standstill. We were in a store, during the middle of the day. Peak hours, for a business like this. People were leaving, entering, noticing us as they went about their day. More eyes on us, more eyes on me and D.

Not the best way to go about scouting an area. Not exactly.

We couldn’t stay like this forever. Someone had to budge, to give in to the other.

And it wasn’t going to be us.

“The faster you hear us out, the faster we can be out of your store and out of your hair,” I said. That was my small push, to get the ball rolling.

Phil spoke, for the first time in what felt like an hour.

“Or, I have you taken out of here, by force. Jay and Ricky, they ain’t the only ones in here. I can make this real easy if I want it to.”

“The only thing you’ll be making this is, is… not… easy, bleh.”

D stuck out her tongue and spat, as if a bug had gotten in her mouth.

“Almost,” I said to D.

She shook her head, and tried again.

“You’re not making anything easier if you call for backup, you’ll be making a mess. Trust me.”

“Are you threatening me in my own establishment?”

“I’m not, but I am telling you how it will go down, if you take it there.”

Phil’s gaze hardened.

I couldn’t exactly defend or justify D, there. She was only giving him more reasons to be done with us, testing his patience until it whittled away to nothing. She seemed to have a talent for that.

I had to do something to mediate this.

“Phil, look,” I said, “Let’s not ‘make this’ into anything. We want to talk, and you want us out of the way. Help us, and you’ll be helping yourself, too.”

He didn’t react or acknowledge me, and I began to wonder if he was just that stubborn.

“Come with me.”

I heard him, and I saw him walk away, but it almost didn’t register in my head. We were so frozen in that moment for so long that I couldn’t comprehend that something happened.

And now I had to catch up.

D was already following him by the time I moved a foot. I looked over to the checkout counter as I walked. I saw the boy working, still bagging up D’s snacks. He noticed me, and I made a gesture, to stack our stuff on the side, somewhere. He nodded along, understanding what I meant.

Which left me free to go after D and Phil.

He led us to the back of the store, through a set of doors by the produce section. The sooner we were out of sight, the better, it seemed.

As we followed, I looked at D, and she noticed. She shrugged.

We needed information, and this man seemed to be in the know.

And the power of knowing was a very good power to have.

But, something about this rubbed me the wrong way.

Not with Phil, not exactly, but with D.

I had caught on to what D was doing, why she ran off, pretending to have lost her wallet. I just wished she had told me about it.

I told her that I hated being in the dark about things, and she still went off to enact her own plan, leaving me behind. Even if she didn’t need me to help, even if she just wanted to stay still and just watch…

I would have at least been in the know, but, in that moment, I didn’t know. I was powerless.

That bothered me.

Phil coughed, and it sounded harsh, rasp. It brought me back to the present. Where we were, what we were doing.

I took a breath.

Did it really matter, though? I had my qualms, but I knew better than to get worked up over it now, especially after what happened at the basketball court. D was trying to make a move on my behalf, our behalf. D took a risk, nearly starting a gun fight in a store, all to draw out this old man. She thought it was worth it, she had her reasons.

And I was willing to back her up on it.

Wasn’t worth getting worked up over, wasn’t worth bringing it up with her afterwards. There were more important matters at hand.

I kept walking.

Through doors and corridors, past crates and employees, we got closer to where stuff was stocked, stuff that wasn’t ready to be displayed out front. Like frozen meat, and vegetables, and snacks.

We got close, but that was as far as we were taken in that direction. Phil took a corner down another way, and we had to follow.

He was a step ahead of us, walking fast for someone his age. It was as if we weren’t even here. If we somehow had fallen behind, or had gotten lost, I doubted that he would have noticed or cared.

He walked until he reached a room, probably used for staff meetings. The blinds on the other side of the window were up, obstructing my view inside, and the door was closed.

Fishing out a set of keys from his pocket, Phil got the door opened. He didn’t say anything as he entered, not until we came in, ourselves.

“Take a seat, we can continue this in here.”

He flipped a switch by the door, turning on the lights. A small, round table was placed in the middle of the room.

We each took our own seat, Phil having left the blinds up.

“Continue what, exactly?” I asked. I had my own ideas about where this would go, but I wanted to make it clear. If he was trying to lure us into some sort of trap… I was ready to swing.

I had my knife, I had my strength, and I had learned my lesson. I wasn’t going to be played twice in one day.

“Our compromise. I’ve gotten you out of the way, but you’re still in my store. So, you can tell me exactly what it is you want, but I don’t necessarily have to be of any assistance, in that regard.”

“I think that’s a fair deal,” I said. I turned to D. “Right?”

“Sure,” she said, nonchalant.

Phil then added, “Oh, and my name’s Fillmore, with a ‘F.’ You don’t get to shorten it.”

“Alright, Fillmore, thanks for doing this much, at least.”

“Don’t thank me so soon,” Fillmore said. “I still haven’t heard you out, yet.”

“Fair,” I said again. “I’m Wendy, by the way, and this… little lady, is D.”

Fillmore blinked. The expression on his face, it was as if he didn’t believe those were our real names.

“Pretty name,” he then commented, though I wasn’t sure which name he was referring to.

D wasn’t about to shy away from taking the credit, however.

“Thank you,” she said, smiling.

“I’ll leave this to you, then, D,” I said. I decided that I’d concede the rest of the discussion to her. Not to be passive, I’d steer the talk along, rein D in if and when she needed it, and try to keep things civil. But, I trusted that she knew what she was after, that she knew what we needed, to get the job done.

“Cool cool cool,” D said, in quick succession. “So first off, Mr. Phil, I wanted to ask, just to confirm, that you’ve been around here for a long time. Is that true?”

“Damn near forty years.”

“Dang near forty years, right,” D repeated. “So, obviously, you know a lot about what’s been going on?”

“My ear’s close to the streets, yeah.”

“Then, you have to know about the gangs in the area.”

Fillmore tapped his finger on the table. “Get right to it. You’re asking about the Thunders and the Royals.”

“Well, will you look at that, you are no fool.”

Fillmore’s expression changed with a twitch. It was easy to read.

Already, I felt like I had to step in. Could she not go until her next breath before she ticked someone off?

Her style, her way of doing her. That kind of quirk was… an acquired taste, I’d admit, and not everyone had the patience to want to be acquainted.

“D,” I said, testing, warning.

She leaned forward, placing her elbows on the table, putting her hands together. Linking her fingers, she rested her chin there.

Anywho,” D said, “Let’s get right to it, then. I want to know what’s up with the Thunders and the Royals. We just came back from a… encounter, with them, and we learned that there’s a pact between the two gangs now. And, much like yourself, I like to think that I know a lot about these streets, too, so hearing about that was a pretty big shock to me. So, what’s up with that?”

Fillmore breathed, drawing it out to a long sigh.

“That’s what you want?”

“That’s it.”

“Of all the things you could be learning, like math, or why the sky’s blue, or quantum physics, and that’s what you want to know?”

“Math’s easy, it’s blue thanks to Rayleigh scattering, and I can learn that whenever I’m at the library. I can’t learn about this in a book.”

Why, though?” he questioned. He sounded genuinely confused as to why we cared so much about this.

“Like I mentioned, I pride myself on my knowledge about what goes on in this city. In order to do whatever I want, I have to know what everyone else is doing, and why. Keeping a pulse on the world around you is key to survival. And, it’s just fun for me.”

He closed his eyes, keeping them shut.

“I don’t suppose you’ll be using this knowledge for anything good?”

“My point is, it’s still not ‘good’ out there, even now. They have their pact, but it’s clear that doesn’t equate to any real peace. You saw it, didn’t you? It wasn’t hard. Tempers are still there, just below the surface, and it doesn’t take much to bring them right back up again. What if something happens, and you weren’t there to stop it? What if it was over something bigger than a cereal box?”

“And you’re saying you can do something about them? That you have a solution?”

“Definitely. You leave them and that alone, maybe you’ll have a month or two of relative calm, maybe. But something will happen, it always does, and then they both get snuffed out, burning down everything with them. But, if my colleague and I can do something about it, maybe we can lessen that damage, if only a little.”

Fillmore opened his eyes.

“You’re still talking damage,” he said. “Destroying them.”

“Are you really ‘destroying’ anything whenever you rid your house of dusts and pests? I like to think of it more as a controlled fire, to go back to the burning metaphor from earlier. We can mitigate the flames, not make them stretch as far and as wide, and, as an added bonus, we cast out the blanket and sit on it so no other sparks come up.”

I spoke. “You kind of lost the metaphor at the end there, D.”

“I did, but you know what I’m getting at, right, Mr. Phil?”

“I do,” Fillmore said.

Fillmore scratched his chin, closing his eyes again. He was silent for a time. That was about the extent he’d hear us out, it seemed. Now, it was up to him, whether we were done here or not.

Again, the wait…

It was excruciating.

Slow, he opened his eyes again.

“I do know what you’re getting at. Whatever I tell you about those two gangs, you’re going to use as leverage to take them out, and you move into their territory. My neighborhood. Is that right?”

“Just about,” D said, admitting it right then and there.

A bold move, and not one I agreed with. I would have stepped in to say something as the mediator, but D had already ran her mouth. The damage was already done.

“Then,” Fillmore said, and I held my breath. “I’ll tell you what I know, but I don’t promise to have all the exact details.”

I lifted an eyebrow.

“You’re telling… us.”

That last word came out funny, I wasn’t sure if I should have intoned it as a question or as a flat statement. I didn’t want to force my curiosity and have him rethink his decision, but I did want to know where he was coming from.

Fillmore sighed, with a distinct rasp as he finished.

“Always the same, ain’t nothing changed. It would be arrogant to believe that it didn’t apply to me.”

He gave himself a moment to pause, bringing his hands close, dropping them into his lap.

“It’s not as if I can stop y’all from poking your noses around here. I’m nothing but a withered, old man, filled with regret. Even if I refused, you’ll probably still get what you’re looking for. Might as well get it from a primary source.”

I felt like I needed to offer some sort of response.

“You’re not… withered.”

Good job, Wendy.

Fillmore met my eyes, and I saw just how tired he was.

“And you two, at least you’re upfront about your villainy. We don’t even know each other, and you’re already being real with me. Those two, EZ and Krown? I haven’t seen those boys in years, they send their crew here if they want something. That ain’t real, that’s pathetic.

“Years?” I asked. “Were you close?”

Fillmore shook his head, all he had to offer as a response.

D fixed her posture, putting her hands flat on the surface of the table.

“Get right to it, already!”

I glared at D. We were so close, and if D were to fuck it up now…

I, I don’t know, I’ll have to ground her, or something.

D returned a look at me, sticking her tongue out.

“Please?” she added, looking back to Fillmore.

He answered, sounding even more resigned.

“I’ll take you back, way back. Just promise me one thing?”

“What is it?” I asked.

“Go easy on them.”

It had gotten colder as we returned outside.

We left through the side door, taking us back into the alley where we first met Fillmore. A fitting metaphor, that. To avoid being out in the open, taking the less direct route. Staying in the shadows.

Sneaky? Sure. Underhanded. Probably. Villainous?

I’d keep the jury out on that.

We kept moving, cutting through the other side of the alley, putting the store to our backs. Fillmore still had work to do, and so did we.

I walked, my arms already straining. D made me carry the bulk of the plastic bags. She bought a lot of fucking snacks.

I had enhanced strength, and I was ready to drop these at the van.

D, however, had a sort of spring to her step as she paced ahead of me, humming along the way. Not any melody I knew, but she was out of tune.

“Excited?” I asked.

“I just can’t hide it,” D said, off-pitch. “I’m so ready to stuff your fridge, and my face.”

That’s what you’re excited about?”

“Heck yeah, I hate that you don’t have anything whenever I come over, and I hate that you don’t buy stuff yourself.”

“That’s because I don’t need anything, so I would only be getting stuff for you.”

“Exactly!”

“You’re unbelievable,” I said. “And I don’t think you ever asked permission to use my fridge.”

“What do you mean? You said I could.”

“When?”

“Yesterday. You told me to bring my own food to keep in there.”

Did I?

“I have no recollection of anything before our meeting with Lawrence yesterday. These past two days have been such a blur to me.”

“I know right? These gangs can wait, I want to watch a movie, eat some delicious tiramisu gelato tonight.”

“And where do you expect to be doing such a thing?”

“Where else? Your place, of course.”

“Oh no, you don’t,” I said. “We still have a lot of prep work to do.”

“But we don’t have to rush,” D said. “We can take our time.”

“I’m not disagreeing with you, I’m just saying you should hold off until we’re done. Save it as a reward for yourself, you could stand to learn a thing or two about moderation.”

“That doesn’t sound very exciting.”

“Learn,” I said.

“I’ll try,” she said, but I knew better than to believe her.

Maybe I’ll have to hide some of her snacks, keep it out of reach.

It was a thought, but a passing one. There were more important matters to think over.

Like Fillmore, and what he had to say about the Thunders and the Royals. EZ and Krown. The story between those two brothers.

It almost made me reconsider.

I observed our surroundings as we continued our walk. The later hour was accompanied by a subtle shade of orange that blanketed the streets and buildings. A certain familiarity, that wasn’t there before.

We crossed the street, moving from Barton to King Boulevard. We walked past Tita Lorene’s laundromat, then the deserted Wellport construction site, turned into a makeshift skate park.

The street corners had a history to them, their names had a meaning and reason. The graffiti and tags told their own stories, a mark left behind by someone who was once there.

The small crosses in smaller patches of grass. The flowers growing in the cracks in the ground. The smeared outline of chalk, the young boy that passed us on the sidewalk, headphones on, minding his own business. Everyone, and everything, had a story to tell.

This town was full of stories.

And that included EZ and Krown. Fillmore.

Not that I was already connected to this place on a deeper level. It was more like the feeling I had when I first checked out what ended up becoming my new apartment. Looking around, getting the feel of it. What it would be like to move in and live there. Getting used to the idea of calling it home.

There’s going to be a lot to take care of once we take over.

I spoke. “This really is going to be a lot of work, isn’t it?”

“That’s what I’m saying. I could use a gelato break.”

“No, not that. Leading the Ghosts, this neighborhood, our plan. I knew it was going to be tall order, but being here, in the thick of it? It really puts into perspective how big this project really is. It makes me wonder how far we’ll go.”

“Don’t ever wonder what’s ahead, just dive right into it. It’s more exciting like that.”

“Is it?”

“Oh, absolutely, you’ll never know where you end up, or what you run into along the way.”

“I’ll never fail to be amazed by your spontaneous approach to things,” I said, trying to be sarcastic.

“I’m going take that as a compliment,” D said, bouncing as we moved.

Maybe it was a compliment, it certainly was a trait I could admire. For my part, I preferred to be meticulous, to plan ahead of time, and have complete control of the finer details. To have real power.

Sweeter than any blood I had ever tasted.

Soon, I thought. Soon.

Reconnaissance. It wasn’t as fun a job as it sounded.

I sat in the van, waiting. Waiting for something, anything to happen.

I yawned.

D had slept over after dropping off her snacks at my place, stuffing my fridge and pantry with food. She wasn’t allowed to touch them, yet, not until we were done with the job. I was adamant about that.

She threw a fit, but she eventually came around. I never set a hard rule against using the TV, so I let her flip through channels while I sat next to her, browsing the internet, trying to get more info on the Thunders and the Royals, and their neighborhood. D left to get some Chinese food, came back, and fell asleep on the couch after eating, TV still on. I hadn’t gotten up the entire time.

Now, it was a new day, and break time was over.

I yawned again.

If I had it my way, I wouldn’t be sitting here, right now. But D explained that she had to work alone, for this one, small part. She had the experience, she knew what to look for. Having another person tag along would only slow her down.

I agreed to step back for this one, small part. D had a good reason, and she actually told me, this time. All without me saying anything about it. I was willing to comply.

But, there had to be a better way to spend my time than sitting in the parking lot of an arcade.

Not fun at all.

I’ve been here for an hour. When’s-

From the across the lot, the doors opened.

D was already pretty small, but from a distance she was miniscule. It was almost cute.

She hurried as she returned to the van, head down, not bothering to check for any moving cars, or wandering eyes.

The driver’s side door opened, and she hopped in.

“How was it?” I asked, ready to get right down to business.

D gave a short nod. “Mr. Phil’s info was legit. They’re in there.”

“Both of them?”

D nodded again. “Not EZ or Known, but members of both gangs are in there. They’re bowling.”

“There’s a bowling alley in there?”

“Yeah, and it’s big. We should go sometime, with Lawrence.”

“Next time,” I said, bringing her back to the task at hand.

“Anyways, come on. I just came back so I can get you.”

She opened the door again, getting out.

I got out of the van, too.

“Where we headed?” I asked, joining D. We were walking back to the arcade. Electric Palace was the original name, apparently, but the giant sign across the front of the building was missing the first ‘A.’ So it was just Electric Place, now. A little less grand.

“Around the back. Side route.”

“What did you see in there? Anything interesting?”

“I saw lot of things in there, and one very interesting thing.”

“Like?”

“The Thunders and Royals split themselves down the middle of the bowling alley, a lot like what we saw at the basketball court. But I know how to keep a low profile, they didn’t notice me. According to Mr. Phil, before their attempt to make amends, the gangs took turns hanging out at this spot. If the Thunders were in, then the Royals wouldn’t go anywhere near here, and vice versa.”

“So this is a new development?”

“Oh yeah, and you can feel it in the air, too, now that we know to look for it. They’re just barely tolerating one another.”

“Without either of their bosses, it might be harder to behave themselves.”

“Let’s hope so. Here.”

D brought me around the back of the building. A door. No one else was in sight.

“Sneaking through the back?” I asked.

“Sneaking through the back,” D said.

“Do we have to worry about getting caught?”

“Don’t think so. Service wasn’t great while I was inside. I’d be surprised if anyone cared to come back here on a regular basis.”

D moved, heading for the door.

“Why?” I asked. “What’s back here?”

D didn’t have to answer, I saw it for myself.

Machinery. Long, winding rods of metal. Large, heavy gears. Whirring, spinning things.

Loud. Lots of moving parts, hitting together. Clanging, rattling.

There was a lot to make sense of, all at once, I wasn’t sure if I could.

“Where are we?” I asked, as D closed the door. I had to raise my voice to be heard.

“This is what the back of a bowling alley looks like,” D said, voice raised.

Standing space was small, but long. To our right were the machines, autonomous, running as if each block of wires and gears and rods had a life of their own. To our left was a space to sidle along the wall, probably for mechanics to go and inspect the different parts of the system.

It felt like we were in the belly of a mechanical beast.

D led the way, putting her back to the wall, moving down the long hall. I was right behind her.

She explained more as we continued.

“These are the machines that spit the bowling balls back out, and reset the pins. It’s all done from back here.”

From the sound alone, that was easy enough to gauge. I could hear it echo down the hall. Pins being struck, bowling balls falling into the pit just past the lanes. But we were so close. I felt like I was about to get hit, every time a bang went off.

D kept sildling down, and I had to keep up.

“I kept a close eye on the gangs, the Royals especially. One of them, Darren, has his own special bowling ball that he always uses. Never goes bowling without it.”

“So?” I asked.

“So, we’re going to take it. We just passed by the lane the Thunders are using, lane fifteen. We take Darren’s ball, and we drop it into the other gang’s lane. Hilarity ensues.”

“You are literally a little devil.”

“Been a while since I heard that. Usually I get called much worse things.”

“Like what?”

“Ask Lawrence,” D said, grinning.

We advanced farther down the wall, until I started to get used to the sounds pins and the mechanical clacking, until I was no longer worried about getting my hair caught in what looked like spinning metal death traps.

“Here,” D said, stepping away from the wall, into another space between two blocks of giant machines, where those metaphorical mechanics would stand to do their work. I copied her, being mindful of the limited space. I wanted to avoid bumping into her, and having one of us fall.

Each block of machines were labeled by a number on top. Following D’s gaze, she was looking at a block labeled two. Lane two.

And the Thunders were all the way back at lane thirteen. Fuck.

“What a lovely device,” D said, seemingly admiring the mechanism. “Hasn’t aged very well though.”

“What am I even looking at?” I asked.

D started pointing. “There’s the pinwheel, and that’s the checkerboard. Pins go into that thing to fall into there, and gets collected and sent back up to the turret.”

“Got it,” I said. I didn’t get any of it.

“But we’re not here for pins, we’re here for balls.”

“Phrasing,” I said.

D moved in between block two and block three, squeezing through. Cautious, I peeked my head in to get a better look.

“See this conveyor belt?” D gestured to a metal rod, angled so that it pointed up to the ceiling. Parallel to that was a rubber conveyor belt, moving and spinning at its own, fast pace.

“I see it.”

“Those belts pick up the bowling balls and send them over the top, there, like that.”

D put a pause in her explanation, since I could see it for myself.

A ball had come through, getting picked up by the assembly of metal and rubber. The ball was accelerated up to the top, close to the ceiling, before going over a ramp and out of sight.

“Gravity sends it back to the players on the other end,” D said, explaining the rest.

D squeezed herself free, and I backed up to give her the room.

“So why am I being shown this?”

“Well, your job is to take out the ball before it goes over the ramp.”

“You want me to do it?”

“The ball goes too fast for me to grab, it’ll crush my fingers. But you have the strength to pluck it out. And if you mess up, I mean, you’ll heal.”

“We can’t turn off these machines?”

“And risk someone knowing we’re back here? Or having the Royals be suspicious before their ball goes missing? No way.”

I really wanted to protest her idea more, but she had a point. And I was itching for something to do, today.

But, at the risk of crushing my fingers?

Even with enhanced healing, I’d rather not have that happen to me.

But, I relented.

“Ugh, fine.”

D cheered me on as I slipped between the machines. If it was a tight fit for her, then I was about to be a claustrophobe. It was cramped.

I squeezed into position, finding myself in front of the whirring conveyor belt. Loud, dangerous. Not where I thought I would be, today.

A ball went through. Red, zipping up and over the metal ramp.

Fast.

“Hey wait!” I shouted. “What does the ball even look like?”

“Blue with gold engravings! You can’t miss it!”

I inhaled, but I held my breath. Blue with gold engravings. That damn ball had better come soon. I needed to be out of here, now.

Black. Red. Orange. Red. Purple. Green. Green. Black. Yellow.

I was losing my breath, and my patience.

Where the fuck is-

Right at the very bottom of the belt. Blue, a hint of gold.

Fast, but my hands had to be faster.

I breathed in as I threw my hands out.

A weight hit my fingers, my palms.

I pulled out.

Pluck.

“Ah!” I shouted.

“Yes!” D shouted. “Yes!”

I looked up. I was holding the ball above my head, arms outstretched. A sixteen pound ball. Blue with gold engravings.

I didn’t waste another second. I shuffled out of the space, D taking the ball out of my hands as I got myself free.

“I’ll take it from here,” she said. “Good job, Wendy.”

“Don’t,” I started. I was panting, tired. “No, you know what? I did do a good job.”

“That’s the spirit.”

We returned to the wall, hugging it as we went back down the way we came. D stopped at the thirteenth block to drop the ball off.

She returned, and we continued with our extraction. Looking at the numbers, there were twenty lanes in total. We passed the twentieth block, and made it to the door with no problems.

As the door closed behind us, over the machines and pins, I could have sworn I heard an argument break out.

The moon was out, and so was I.

We had taken the next day off, just to pace ourselves, but it was right back to work come nighttime. I didn’t mind the odd hours, it was why I uprooted my life in the first place. I had the freedom to schedule myself as needed. I could focus on the job, and nothing else. No room for superfluous things.

Unlike most people, I didn’t have a structure, and I could use that to my advantage.

No costume, but I was covered up. Balaclava, goggles, turtle neck with a jacket on top, gloves, jeans and boots with ankle-length socks. All black. Not a single inch of skin was showing.

I felt a thrill, starting from my head, racing to my toes as I wiggled them over the roof’s edge, adjusting my footing. It never got old.

I watched the people below.

Three people. One Thunder, two Royals. Taking part in some sort of exchange.

What they were doing, exactly, hardly mattered. It was what happened after that counted.

I waited as they went about their business. They stood around, talking for a while. I couldn’t catch what they were saying. I was too high up.

I had been following the Thunder since he left his base, a small tattoo parlor south of the basketball court. Fillmore spared no detail, however small.

Tailing him was easy. Stay back, stay quiet, and stay high. From all my time crossing rooftops, I had learned a thing or two. I learned how to gauge my strength, my speed. I learned how to make the jumps, to maximize distance without tripping up and losing momentum later. And, I also learned that people hardly ever looked up.

People, as a species, were limited in their spatial awareness. They knew to check what was directly ahead of them, and they knew to check their backs. Even their sides, they knew to keep in mind. But directly above? That was a blind spot I could occupy and exploit.

I didn’t have invisibility as a power, but this was a functionally close second.

From above, I watched.

There, movement. The two Royals walked away, leaving the Thunder by himself. He stayed behind, moving over to a wall on the other side. His hands were brought together, moving to his lips. Between his fingers, a small orange glow was produced, illuminating his face for a short time.

The glow lessened, and he brought a hand down to his pocket. On occasion, he drew his other hand away from his face, puffing out a winding trail of smoke.

He had no idea I was here, that I had my eyes on him.

This was but a sample of the control I wanted, the power. That upper hand.

My toes were positioned past the end of the roof. It only took the slightest lean forward to tip me off the edge.

I descended.

It didn’t even matter, that I landed right in front of him, that he had a brief glimpse of me. I was already moving, rushing him.

No knife this time. It wasn’t necessary.

I struck at his neck, palm open. I slapped him hard into the ground.

He barely saw me coming.

His body went down first, then the blunt he had in mouth.

I stepped on it as I leaned over the Thunder, flipping him over on his back. My other foot pressed into his chest. I searched his person. He was still reeling from the first strike, stunned. He couldn’t move or yell as I worked.

I emptied out his pockets. Gun, knife. A plastic baggie, white powder inside. A small tin container. I put it to my ear, shaking it. Filled with something. Weed, most likely.

I threw everything to the side. Not what I was after.

Found it.

Stacks of money, bound by rubber bands. Two, three stacks. He had more money than he did drugs.

Supplier, then.

“We’re taking our money back,” I said, trying to make my voice low, deeper than it really was. I was putting on an act, and I had to sell it, as much as possible.

The Thunder groaned, strained by the hurt and weight I was putting on him.

I had to make myself louder, in order to make the message clear.

“Oh yeah, and this is for trying to steal our shit back at the bowling alley.”

“We… never…”

He tried to get some words out of his own.

I struck him again, this time in the ribs. I heard a crack. He wheezed.

“Don’t fuck with us.”

He winced, trying to speak again.

“We-”

I struck him again.

“Don’t fuck with us.”

I stuffed the money in my pockets, keeping my foot on him, squeezing out any air he tried to draw in. I was quick, I couldn’t take too long, here.

I patted my sides, making sure I had gotten everything. I straightened myself, taking my foot off him. He didn’t have a stack of cash left.

“Don’t fuck with the Royals,” I said, and then I left him there. Down, hurting.

No dramatic exits was needed. I simply walked out of the alleyway, pulling the balaclava off my head, removing my goggles in one motion. I stuffed them into a pocket inside my coat, fixing my hair as I continued at a hurried pace.

It was late, and it was dark. No one saw me leave.

I walked for some time. If I had to divide the neighborhood by gang territory, I was deep in with the Thunders. And I needed to get over to the Royals, their territory.

South to north. It was easy to remember how it was divided. Using the basketball court as a point of reference, the side of the court that pointed south was claimed by the Thunders, and the northern half was claimed by the Royals. Simple as that.

And for us, we wanted to own the whole damn court. And we’d pick and choose who got to play.

That, on a grander scale.

Small steps, first.

I was deep in my thoughts as I crossed the street. The court was a block down, so I knew I was entering another territory, now.

It was almost overwhelming, how much work went into the gangs and mobs and cartels that ran this city. All the politics, the heated tempers. The alliances, the systems to keep it all in place. In Stephenville, crime was systemic. It was a structure that needed to be maintained in order for this city to run properly.

Which showed how deep the roots had gotten.

Being a hero meant fighting the system, fighting the established normal. It would be harder to fight it from the outside, pretty much impossible. It was misguided.

Better, to fight from the shadows, a less direct route.

But doing so made it much easier to slip.

Just have to be careful.

I watched my step as I crossed again, heading towards a restaurant. It was after hours, the restaurant was closed.

I met D in front of the building.

“How’d it go?” D asked as I approached. Her breath was visible as she spoke.

“Went well.” I tapped a pocket. “Some more change for the piggy bank.”

“Awesome.”

“How about you? I’m guessing no one caught you.”

“Nope. All clean. Wanna take a look?”

“Sure.”

D led me around the building, to the side. Not an alley, this time, there was just a field of dirt and mud. Bits of grass and weeds sprouted up, here and there. But it was otherwise desolate.

Nothing of interest. What D had to show me was on the wall.

Caught by the moonlight, a graffiti drawing of a robot. It was about as tall as D, and was detailed with colorful wires and light bulbs. Blocky, maybe a bit amateurish, but it was recognizable.

“You can’t draw with a pencil, but you can do graffiti pretty well?” I questioned.

“Quiet. It helps when I’m going off a reference.”

She held up her phone, flipping through pictures.

Robots, similar in design and style.

“Took these while snooping around the Thunder side of the neighborhood. From what I gathered, newbies have to come up with their own unique tag to represent the gang, while expressing their own individuality. It’s a neat exercise, if I do say so myself.”

“So, robots, going with the thunder or electricity theme?”

“Just about. Lil’ Nathan’s going to have some explaining to do when the Royals finds this, and these.”

D lifted her other hand, shaking a can of paint.

“Is that Nathan’s?”

“He really should keep an eye on his belongings. Like, they were right there.”

She tossed the can, and it landed at the base of the wall. There were other cans, other colors.

“And check this out.”

D pointed to the robot’s chest. In blocky letters was the word ‘LUCY.’ Bold, in all caps.

“Nice touch,” I said. “Fillmore’s going to hate that we’re using that.”

“Shh…” D responded, pressing her finger to her lips. She kept doing it, even as we left the scene, until her hiss escalated into a childish cackle.

“Here, and here. Oh, here’s good too. And maybe here, for good measure.”

“Don’t get too carried away now,” I said.

Sitting on the floor, working, getting in the way of others. We didn’t even have a table to set our stuff on.

We were in the Redhouse, early afternoon. Two days after our last visit to the neighborhood.

D had laid out a map of the area. A large, printed, detailed map. It had the street names and names of establishments. They were official labels, though, D and I had to fill in the blanks.

“We could hit this place, too,” D said, drawing yet another circle on the map. She was using crayon. Red.

“We don’t need to go overboard,” I said, having to remind her again.

“I’m just putting down some options. We don’t have to do all of these.”

She paused, smiling.

“It’d be fun, though,” she said.

I looked over the map as she kept drawing. We crossed out some labels, replacing them with the more locally recognized names. Fill Market was one, replacing it with ‘Philly’s.’ We circled key locations that were important to each gang. Bases, popular hangout spots, like the bowling alley. We also drew circles over places that weren’t officially labeled, but were important all the same. The basketball court was one, the skate park was another. Places like that were marked all over the map. And D kept adding on to it.

“Any particular reason why you circled three different sandwich shops?” I asked. “I haven’t heard of these places. Are they relevant?”

“Just saw them now. Those are, um, for me.”

“D,” I said.

“I’m using a different color, see? So I can distinguish them!”

She circled them again for emphasis, using a purple crayon. But her lines were thick, and she had kept drawing and writing all over the map. It was getting harder and harder to read.

“You just had lunch, how are you already thinking about food?”

“I just don’t want to forget, okay? I want to check them out after we’re all done. You’re not letting me eat my snacks, so I’m going crazy thinking about food.”

“Hold out for a little longer, we’re almost there.”

D whined, but I knew that she was overacting. She tossed her crayon to the side, and it knocked into the other crayons she had taken out. They scattered.

They didn’t go far, but they spread out across the lobby of the Redhouse. I was well aware of the other Ghosts standing around, with nothing else to do.

It was D’s idea to sketch out a plan here, and I understood her reasoning. The Ghosts, as a whole, were still wary of us, so we needed to show that we were working towards the benefit of the gang, working with them in mind.

But, sitting like this, on the floor with crayons, it looked like we were just playing around instead.

I got up to go after the crayons, leaving D to color in peace. I could sort through labels and circles later.

It was… awkward, having to go around and collect them while others watched. As if I was too old to be chasing after crayons. We were getting work done, but it probably didn’t seem like that to them.

Working with D, trying to prove myself to the Ghosts, all thanks to an old reputation from a past life. It sucked, to say the least. But, if it was necessary to facilitate progress, then so be it. Best to assuage their worries now, while we were still getting started.

I just hoped we could convince them that we were the real deal, and soon.

I followed the path of one of the last crayons. It had stopped right at someone’s foot. I dreaded having to look up.

But I did anyways.

“Oh,” I said. “Hey.”

It was Lawrence. Standing over me, wearing a shirt with a collar, with a blazer on top. Black dress pants completed the look. It was form fitting, and upon closer inspection, made me realize that he did, in fact, work out.

“Hey,” he said, as I picked up the crayon, rushing to stand up. “What are you doing?”

I found that I needed a moment before I could answer. I had moved too fast in getting back up. My glasses were crooked.

I fixed them, and managed a single word. “Trying.”

“How’s your plan going?”

That was easy to answer. I looked back, and saw D. She was flat on her stomach, legs kicking, still coloring and drawing. She looked completely absorbed in what she was doing.

“It’s going great,” I said, looking back at Lawrence. “Everything’s moving along smoothly. There was a bit of a hiccup right at the beginning, but there hasn’t been any issues since. We’re in the final stages right now. If all goes well, then it should inspire some confidence, moving forward.”

“No pressure, then. Which gang?”

“Two, actually. The Thunders and the Royals.”

“Those assholes? Just wait long enough, and they’ll take each other out.”

“That’s what we originally thought, too, but apparently they’ve been trying to work things out. They’re pretty much best friends, now.”

Lawrence’s brow creased. “That’s worrying.”

“I’m kidding. Yes, they have a pact, but it’s still complicated between them. It’s more just a united front against an enemy they can see.”

I spread my arms and added,  “And they won’t see us coming.”

He nodded. “How devious. D is rubbing off on you already.”

Was she? I had hoped it would have been the other way around, instead.

“I’ll have to take that as a compliment,” I said.

He nodded again, looking past me.

“How’s she doing? I only ask because I want to be in the loop about things, and that includes being the loop about her.”

I turned again to get a glance at D. Still engrossed with her coloring.

I wasn’t sure if Lawrence was genuinely concerned about D’s well-being, or if his paranoia was getting the better of him.

In a way, though, I understood where he was coming from.

“She’s doing fine,” I answered. “She’s been really engaged throughout this whole thing, and she really wants to do a good job. I’ve been letting her go loose with her pranks, and… well, it’s been something, alright. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like she wants you all to like her.”

Lawrence made a face.

“I don’t know why, but the prospect of that feels very harrowing to me.”

“She’s trying, Lawrence, and liking should be a two-way street. She wants to be on our side, and I want her to be here, too. We shouldn’t push her away. The last thing we need is a D that’s pissed, with that anger being directed at us.”

Lawrence waved a hand, cringing. “Yeah, I get it. But please never talk about angrily pissing D’s again.”

“What?” I questioned, but then I got what he meant. I felt flustered. “Ew, no, what? No.”

“But alright, fine, I see what you’re getting at, and I’ll give it a shot, too. Is there anything you need?”

“Oh, I think we have it covered,” I said.

“You sure? I’m not doubting you guys, but maybe we can provide some extra manpower? With the full force of the Ghosts behind you, we can knock the Thunders and Royals flat on their ass.”

I shook my head. “That won’t be necessary. I want to keep this a small operation. As much as possible, anyways.”

“How about cash? Anything you need ordered? Like a gun or knife, or some costume parts? No one owes me any favors, but maybe I can call around and-”

“Lawrence, I appreciate the gesture, but we want to be able to bring something to the table, just the two of us. We can’t exactly prove ourselves if we get help from the Ghosts. And about money and costume, we picked up some loose change while working this job. It’s covered.”

“Fine, I can back off about the costume, but I still think you could do with some extra hands on deck. I’ll bring it up to Reggie and Tone. Sarah, too. See if they want to give you the assist.”

I was about to object, but I didn’t want to fight Lawrence on this. A two-way street, and he was trying to meet me halfway.

And, it was those three, and they were cool. I was willing to compromise if it meant working with them again.

“Sure,” I said. “Thanks Lawrence.”

“You don’t have to thank me, it feels weird.”

“Get used to it,” I said, giving him a smile.

Okay, it does feel weird.

Lawrence took a step, checking his wrist. He was wearing a watch. It looked expensive.

“I’ve have to go, got some rounds to do.”

“Go,” I said. “We’ll get us a win. Bet on it.”

“I will. Good luck.”

Then, he left, crossing the lobby, giving out the occasional order to the Ghosts he passed. They moved in response, finally having something to do.

I saw his exchange with D as he approached her. She stopped what she was doing and craned her neck to look at him. She smiled, giving him an enthusiastic wave. He responded with a curt nod, but he waved back, before taking his leave through the double doors.

I went back to D and the map, having picked up the remaining crayons. I could barely see the actual map underneath, now.

“You got carried away,” I said.

“I did.”

I paused.

“Yeah, a little help isn’t going to hurt.”

The ride was smooth, the van speeding along. There was some light, easygoing music that helped ease some of my anxieties.

It was night again. About a week had passed since we met Fillmore.

Five of us in the van. D was driving, and I was in the back, sitting with Reggie, Tone, and Sarah.

Everyone, me excluded, was decked out in all black. D wore her usual style, while the others were more appropriately covered. I was in costume.

“Nervous, Voss?” Sarah asked. She was sitting closest to me.

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t,” I answered. “But it’s nothing to worry about.”

“It’s okay. Even Olympic athletes get nervous.”

“This is a little more life-or-death than any sport I know.”

Tone interjected. “So what was it you did again? You did what with a bowling ball?”

“That’s not even the best one,” D said, taking a peek at us through the rear-view mirror. “V, you should tell them about the hot dog one!”

“Hot dog one?”

“Oh god.” I started shaking my head. “It was such a mess. I’ve never seen that much ketchup cover a wall before. It was like someone died in there.”

“Whoa, what? You have to tell me.”

“Wait,” D said. “We’re coming up to the spot. Get ready, V.”

“Sorry, Tone,” I said, apologetic. “Seems as if it’s going to have to wait.”

He jabbed a finger at me.

“You owe me a story after this. It better be good.”

“It’s a damn good story, you’ll like it.”

Satisfied, he leaned back into his seat. Reggie muttered something to him, and he chuckled as a response.

“Looks like you’re up,” Sarah said.

“Looks like,” I said.

I checked to make sure I had everything. Costume was on, bag underneath, earpiece in. I had my knife, extra ammunition. Not that I had any real intention to use it, or for things to do so far that I needed another clip, but Sarah wouldn’t let me out of the van unless I had it on me.

Another compromise.

I threw the hood over my head, fixing it so it stayed in place, properly covering my face. I adjusted my mask, feeling leather as my gloves brushed against my cheeks. I played with the heavy fabric so it flowed better around my sides.

Just about ready.

“Here,” Sarah said, giving me the final piece. A handgun. Forty caliber. Standard-issue pistol given to police.

“Thank you,” I said, taking it. She didn’t pull her hands away after giving it to me. Instead, took my hands into hers, giving a soft shake.

“Hit them hard, but stay safe.”

“I can’t do one without forgoing the other.”

“Try,” she told me.

I pulled away.

“I’ll try.”

“Almost there!” D announced.

I gave myself a moment to compose myself. A week ago, I faced up against EZ and Krown for the first time, and they won. It wasn’t exactly fair and square, but they beat me. Now? It was my turn to return the favor.

For the past week, we had been striking from the shadows, using the dark to our advantage. From small pranks, to sabotaging big deals, setting them up against each other, even with a pact. All to sow seeds of doubt, which would grow into distrust at the worst yet most critical of times. Would one come to the aid of the other, when their shaky bond had been drilled and needled until it was reduced to a single, thin thread?

We’re about to find out.

For the past seven days, we struck at what was important to the Thunders and the Royals. Their belongings, their territories, their pride, even their wallets. Now, the next strike was going to be the last.

We were going to strike their hearts.

“Now!” D yelled.

Sarah got the door, I hopped out.

The wind and cold whipped in my ears. The van didn’t slow, but my momentum was maintained.

It was in the distance. The basketball court. A group was gathered within.

I sprinted past tagged buildings, small crosses. Streets I knew the nicknames of, places I was familiar with.

A town full of stories. And I would be bringing about the end for so many of them.

Time to tear off the bandage. Make them bleed.

I ran straight, raised my arm, and I fired my gun.

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063 – Strange Ways

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I wasn’t ready to go back to the van, to run away and admit defeat. I wasn’t ready to admit that to myself.

I crossed the street, purposely avoiding to turn and head back to where we had parked. I continued straight, walking into an alleyway between a barber shop and a produce market.

I turned on my heels, and turned back, pacing up and down the alley. Couldn’t stop moving, couldn’t cool off.

Fuming.

“Wendy.”

Humiliated wouldn’t even begin to describe this feeling. I was toyed with, made a fool, strung along, all as a part of their scheme. I had no idea or hint that I was being set up.

Anger. That was the most direct and apt description. The most present emotion. The one that was closest to the surface and ran the most deep. I was angry. Angry at them, angry at myself.

“Wendy.”

I tried, I tried to think back to the events that had just transpired, trying to find any tell or slip in their words or actions that could have clued me in to what they were doing. I tried. But the more I tried, the more my anger muddled with my recollection of what just happened. The details were fuzzy, the images were swirling, and an intense desire to see and taste red fueled my mind to want-

Wendy!”

I wheeled around.

“What?” I asked, eyes wide, voice strained.

D was staring at me, her expression was of obvious concern. Eyebrows furrowed, lip curled slightly, hands down in front of her skirt, fingers entwined.

“You’ve got to-”

She stopped, reconsidering.

“I was going to tell you to calm down, but that would only make you more mad.”

I opened my mouth, about to yell or say something, but I reconsidered. In a roundabout way, D was telling me to calm down, but the oblique way she went about doing it gave me an extra second to put more thought into what she was saying, and where my focus should be.

I calmed down.

“I’m not mad,” I said, sounding anything but. My shoulders were still square, my breathing heavy, my eyes darting between D and the recycling bin she was standing next to.

D spoke, her voice flat. “Way to convince me, Wendy.”

I made a guttural sound, somewhere between a grunt and a groan. I forced myself to stand straighter, rolling my shoulders, taking in deeper, more relaxing breaths.

I started pacing again.

“Sorry. It’s just, fuck, I wasn’t expecting that. At all.”

“I understand that, and it surprised me, too, but you can’t let it get to you like this.”

“I’m trying,” I said, knowing that I wasn’t trying hard enough. I failed then, and I was failing now.

“Try harder.”

“I…”

I closed my mouth.

I tried harder.

My glasses, I felt them slipping more down my nose. I took them off, and noticed how heated, how sweaty, I had gotten. I rolled up a sleeve, and rubbed the bridge of my nose with my arm.

I put my glasses back on, fixing them in place. When I could focus on my vision again, I checked for D. I couldn’t find her.

“D?” I asked, calling out. There was a slight echo.

“Still here.”

I turned around.

There she was. She’d hadn’t moved or budged. I must have started pacing without me realizing.

“Better?” she asked.

I shrugged. “Not better, but I’m dealing.”

D raised an eyebrow.

“I will try to deal with it.”

“That’s better,” D said.

I gave myself a second to breathe. Trying, like I promised.

I ran my fingers through my hair, putting both hands into my jacket pocket after I was done. I breathed, using it as an exercise to relax.

D was still staring at me, and I was able to stare back, without my emotions pulling my attention away.

“I’m back,” I said.

“Good to have you,” D responded, nodding. “Now we can properly talk about this, and figure out where we go from here.”

I nodded back. “I just, I feel like an idiot, for not seeing that coming. I walked right into their little game, and I didn’t even make it hard for them. I didn’t trip them up, I didn’t force them to take another approach. I just… walked.”

Another branch in the conversation, another detour. I was ranting.

But, D didn’t respond, verbal or otherwise. She was just letting me talk. Vent.

If she was going to let me continue, I’d continue.

“I hate not being in control. I hate not knowing, being in the dark. I hate being blind. I-”

I was running out of things to say, and I didn’t want to keep repeating myself.

That underlying feeling was still there, though. That anger, directed out and back towards me. That hatred.

I shut my mouth, conceding to D. Getting it all out was one thing, but I wasn’t going to waste her time with a therapy session.

D took a careful step closer, fingers still together. She was smiling, but it wasn’t that knowing, sly sneer that was I so used to. It was apologetic. It was sympathetic.

It was strange.

“I hate it too,” she said. “Knowing means having control, and there’s so many ways you can play with that. And, and I’m speaking for myself, but not having that control means I’m back to being just another kid. And that sucks.”

I chuckled a bit. “It does.”

“It really sucks.”

“Okay,” I said. I pulled a hand it out my pocket, fixing my glasses one more time. “Now I’m back. Let’s talk about this, properly.”

D smiled. “Let’s.”

“The Thunders and the Royals. Whatever beef they had, it’s gone now, it’s settled. And they have a pact to stick together against any potential threat.”

“Like us.”

“Potentially. You picked those two since you thought you could twist that against them.”

“That’s the knowing I was talking about, and that’s how I wanted to play them. This new bit, however, is just that. It’s news to me.”

This was review, but I needed it. To get another look at the details to better understand a situation, it would help in getting my mind in the proper place.

And now that I had a better understanding, I knew what had to be done.

“I still want to do this,” I said.

D looked surprised to hear that.

“You do?”

I gave her a singular, slow, measured nod.

“EZ and Krown. I still want to take them down. I think it can be done, I won’t turn this into a complete loss.”

“I’m not saying it’s impossible, or this is a lost cause, but it has gotten more difficult. More… complicated.”

“This was never going to be easy,” I said.

D’s smile changed to one I was more familiar with. “Easy would be boring.”

I removed my hands from my pockets, and I folded my arms.

D spoke as I got my thoughts together. “If this revelation is as new and as sudden as I think it is, then I don’t believe for a second that they’re all buddy-buddy. You just don’t forget the past, people aren’t wired like that. Whatever happened between them still happened. And if we can find out what drove those two brothers apart, we can drill at that, needle that bond to a breaking point.”

“And the fallout from that…” I said.

I tried to imagine it.

“It might be even bigger than if they hadn’t made up at all,” D said. “Have you ever torn off a bandage or splint before a wound healed up completely?”

“No.”

“Well, it sucks.”

“I can’t exactly relate to that, not anymore, but I see what you mean. It’ll be harder, but driving them apart now sends a much bigger message to even more people.”

“A bigger splash,” D said. “And we can ride that wave out much farther.”

The idea of EZ and Krown, in all of their assuredness, to kick them while they thought they had all of the cards…

It satiated a different thirst that I had.

“I really, really like that idea. Okay, let’s do it. Let’s tear that bandage off.”

D’s grin grew wider, exaggerated. “Heck yes.”

Between those two gangs, those two brothers, there was a wound. Time healed all, but it was a stretch to assume that everything was smoothed over. If this beef ran as deep as D suggested, then some resentment had to be there. Even if it was residual, even if it was just below the surface.

We would expose that wound to the open air, throw some acid into it, if we had to. This wasn’t just about their debt with the Ghosts, anymore. I wanted to see that wound burn.

“So,” I said, meeting D’s eyes again, “We’re not going anywhere just yet. We’ve got some more scouting to do.”

D threw her hands up, bouncing on her feet. She was cheering.

“Yeah! Operation Storm the Castle is back on!”

Might as well keep her entertained, I thought.

As D jumped in glee, shouting for joy, I barely heard the sound of metal scraping on concrete. I turned back to locate the source of the noise.

A door, from the produce market’s side of the alley. A man had stepped outside, a trash bag in hand.

He took notice of us, and we took notice of him.

A black man, tall, well past fifty, judging from the grey in his beard and the creases in his features. He wore a flat brim hat, with a buttoned long sleeve and sweater vest on top. Black jeans with boots to match.

I couldn’t parse his expression. He looked too stoic.

He had stopped to notice us, but he continued on his way, walking to a nearby garbage bin to dispose of his trash.

“Storefront’s over there, ladies,” he said as he approached the bin. His voice was deep, but smooth, as if he was announcing something on the radio.

“We were just chatting,” I said, “We’ll be out of here soon.”

“You better, I don’t like young kids hanging around places like this.”

“Why’s that?”

“Mean’s trouble. Kids like you should be in school, not in these streets and alleys.”

I looked at D, her hands still in the air. I gestured, and she brought them down.

“You don’t have to worry about us,” I told him. “We’re not up to any trouble, sir.”

The man tossed the trash bag into the bin, landing with an audible thud.

“I’ve heard that a thousand times,” he said. “I’d die of shock if you meant it.”

“What, you don’t believe me?” I asked.

He brushed his hands against his jeans, walking over to us. Approaching.

“I believe what I’ve seen and heard, being out in this motherfucker for damn near forty years. It’s always been the same, ain’t nothing changed. It’s a cycle. You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t up to no good. So don’t act like you’re anything special, and don’t think I’m some fool. I’m no fool.”

“Your choice in fashion says otherwise,” D said.

I gave D a hard look, willing her to shut up. She shrugged, but she seemed to get the message.

To the man, I raised a hand at him, placating. “She didn’t mean that.”

The man shot me a hard look in return. “Don’t you dare speak for another person without their explicit consent. Who do you think you are?”

I didn’t provide an answer. I wasn’t sure what answer would be appropriate.

The man seemed to accept the lack of an answer, and looked past me to D, instead.

“Little lady, is that what you really think?”

The man asked D directly.

D hardly flinched or hesitated. “I do.”

The man turned his attention back to me, and paused, as if to establish that a point had been made.

He spread his arms.

“My apologies, then,” I said.

“Good,” he said, and then he turned to go. “Now run along. Whatever trouble it is you find yourself in, I better not hear about it on the news.”

Then, he was gone, having went through the door that led into the produce market.

An odd encounter, but I was used to those. Nothing new.

Again, I turned to face D, and she looked like she had something on her mind.

I voiced my thoughts out loud. “What’s up?”

She shook her head once. “It’s nothing.”

“Nothing’s ever nothing with you. What is it?”

“It is nothing,” she said, stern, offset by her childish tone. “Now come on, no point in sticking around here.”

“Right,” I said, and we started moving to get out of the alley. I was feeling better as we left than when I stormed in here. “Do you know of any good places to start scouting?”

“Maybe,” D said. “But first, I want to go into the market.”

I looked, and I saw the entrance to the building we were standing next to. Fill Market, it was called. The glass storefront was protected by metal bars, making it hard to get a look inside Labels advertising alcohol and lottery tickets were slapped onto the windows. There was another sign, a warning about something, but the metal bars made it hard to read.

The automatic doors shuddered as they made way for us, and we stepped inside.

“What, you want to do some shopping?” I asked. “Do you even have a refrigerator to fill?”

“I have your refrigerator to fill, but no, I also want to get a look around.”

“Why, what do they have here?”

D answered. “Information. This way.”

She picked up a basket by the door, and we went deeper into the store. The place mostly had produce, vegetables and fruits, but D passed by all of it to get to the more processed stuff. We entered one aisle, filled with cans. Canned meat, canned vegetables, canned soup.

“What kind of info could you possibly get here?” I asked.

D explained as she took cans out from the shelves. “For communities like this, markets, barber shops, basketball courts, they’re deep in the heart of things. If you want to be in the know, here is where you want to take a look around.”

I glanced around as we left the aisle. Cans behind us, yogurt and milk and juice ahead of us, bags of chips and cereal and oatmeal in other aisles as we passed them. It looked like any other store. Maybe it wasn’t the tidiest of places, I saw one too many wet floor signs, and mismatched stock belonging to shelves two or three aisles down, but it was a market. Nothing too special or notable.

The few employees – and even shoppers  – we passed seemed to be more interested in us than we were in them. Watching as we walked, glances lasting longer than what was normally acceptable. Passing so many people in public, the occasional bit of eye contact was unavoidable. It happened, sometimes, and that was that. Here, though? The gazes were held.

I noticed what some of the shoppers were wearing, the colors. Mostly blues and whites. It crossed my mind, to be nervous, but it wasn’t as if word had already spread about us in the area. We were given a warning, but there a give to that, and we would capitalize on it, while we still could.

It didn’t bother me, the stares. I’d prefer to blend in, but there was nothing, or no one, to be afraid of. It was simply a reminder, that D and I were in the minority, here. We weren’t from around these parts.

D led us into another aisle, a snack aisle. D started picking through the ones she wanted.

“You can’t eat any of these, right?” she asked. Gummy worms, chocolate bars, cookies, powdered donuts. D wasn’t being particularly fussy with her snacks.

“Nope. Literally impossible.”

“Dang. That makes me so so sad.” She grabbed for a bag of marshmallows, and continued-

D paused, and leaned over to grab another bag, putting in the basket.

“I should get double the snacks, so I can eat on your behalf.”

“I’ll appreciate it.”

We stalked further down, D taking more and more snacks. At this rate, she would clear out the entire aisle.

“So, how does that even work?” D asked, dropping in a box of brownies. And then another. “You have your little, um… thing, you get your powers, hurray, but how do you even come to that kind of conclusion. That, hey, I’m done eating burgers and fries, I’m on a strictly liquid diet now, and what I’m drinking is pretty, um, raw.”

Answering that properly meant sorting through memories and events that I’d rather not touch upon. For various reasons. It had taken so much effort just to store them away in the back of my mind, recalling them now would be like tearing off a bandage on a wound that wasn’t quite gone yet. And I wasn’t about to do that to myself.

“It… it’s a hard thing to process, harder still to quench that thirst. It takes over your life, consuming you as much as you try to consume anything else.”

Not much of an answer, but that was all I was willing to give up.

“I can’t believe you tried to balance that out with being a hero,” D said, taking my non-answer in stride. “Sounds a little misguided. Uh, in my opinion.”

I took that in stride. “I’m not offended, it was misguided. It was stupid, trying to fit into a shape that wouldn’t hold. At least, now, I don’t have to worry about being a hero anymore. I don’t need that balance, and what I’m after is actually in conjunction with my powers. There’s no more of that seemingly cosmic pushback, and that means a lot less stress on my mind.”

D dropped three boxes of granola bars, and a cereal box. There was no sign of stopping.

“Then, it’s good that you found yourself,” D said. “And I’m like, amazed that you managed to keep your liquid diet thing under wraps from the rest of the world.”

“I’m amazed, too,” I said. “And let’s keep it that way. Who knows if that’s a card we’ll need to keep up our sleeves.”

“Yup, I’m all about not showing my hand. Here.”

D finally, finally, left the snack aisle, and walked us over to the other end of the store. It got chillier as we approached.

Ice cream, and lots of it. Different flavors, different colors. I saw D’s eyes light up as she perused her choices.

“Now hold it,” I said, “I thought we were here for info, not to fulfill your surprisingly sweet sweet tooth.”

“And we will get info, but this is important, too. I don’t want to come over to your apartment and not find any snacks there. We’re getting multiple things done, here.”

“I guess, if that’s how you want to go about it. But, lay off the sugar, you’re going to rot the rest of your teeth off.”

“Wouldn’t that be cool?” D asked, reaching for what was already her third pint of gelato.

“Do not over do it,” I said, serious.

D gave me a scowl, but she relented, putting the gelato back. Instead of letting the door close on its own, she gave it a push, slamming it with more strength than needed, and walked off at a faster pace.

I had to put forth effort to catch up, as she rounded a corner, heading to the front of the market. We passed by more shoppers and employees, D’s rushing getting their attention even more.

“D,” I said. “Slow down.”

“I thought you wanted to get info, right? Faster I pay for these, faster we can get to that.”

“Yeah, but-”

“What?” she asked, her voice sharp.

“Wow,” I said, but I mouthed the word to myself, and D didn’t catch me, either, her eyes still forward.

Was she mad?

I supposed, on some level, I could understand if she was. Kids craved freedom to do whatever, whenever. And, on most occasions, kids were restricted by rules laid down by parents or other institutions, and were only allowed certain opportunities throughout the day to express that freedom, like recess or playing outside, after school hours. And for D’s part, she had gotten rid of those restrictions a long time ago.

Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Every waking moment was like recess for her.

For the brief time that I had known D, she was running around freely, with no one to tell her what to do, or otherwise discipline her. Even a bit of that discipline, she wasn’t accustomed to, and now she was ticked off.

Tough shit.

We were leading a gang, now, and as leaders, it was our responsibility to bring our people up to a higher position. And that required structure, rules and discipline. D agreed to work with me on this, to bring the Ghosts where I wanted to take them, so she’d have to suck it up and accept that as part of the job.

I need to have the upper hand, and D needs to have her freedom. Take that away, and we flip out. We all have our sour spots.

It was something to keep in mind.

D walked, and I was right behind her, both of us staying silent. I’d let her fume, be mad, and she needed to learn how to work with that, too. I knew that I still had to, as well.

We arrived at the checkout line. Even with the store being busy, there were only two lanes active out of the ten that were potentially available. There were lines at both.

We got into closest lane, lane seven.

“Here,” D said, passing me the basket. I took it without protest, she was still in her mood.

The handle fell into my grip, and I felt my muscles harden.

It was heavy, even for someone with my strength. How many snacks did she stuff in here?

I adjusted my hold, and got used to the weight. The line started moving, and we moved in accordance.

“So, did you manage to catch anything?” I asked. I figured we were done here, but other than the various different gang members, there wasn’t much I could piece together. D, however, might have seen something different.

“Yeah, I caught some delicious snacks.”

We moved up some more.

She was still in her feelings? Alright, fine. I left her alone.

As the line moved along, the registers beeping and the employees working, D on occasion kept peeking out ahead. Enough times that I knew she was trying to look for something specific.

“Oh darn!” she then said, startling me and the people around us.

“What?” I asked as she turned my way. She looked panicked.

She brought her voice low as she said, “I forgot my wallet.”

“You forgot it? Where is it?”

“I promise I had it with me when we walked in here, I felt it in my pocket as we left the apartment!”

“Where’d you last feel it?”

“In my pocket!”

She showed me her pockets, lifting the sides of her jacket. A pocket on each side, with zippers, and both were zipped open.

I had to ask her. “Were your pockets zipped like that when we left?”

No, I had them zipped closed, like how they should be. I think, I’m sure.”

I lifted up the basket, carrying it in my arms. All the different boxes and bags of snacks were there. So many that the outline curved outward.

D sifted through the basket, picking between the boxes and bags and cartons, as though she had dropped her wallet in there, somehow.

We were getting close to the register.

“I have some cash,” I said, “But it might not be enough to cover all of this. You’ll have to put some of it-”

“D!”

D took a step away from the basket, her back bumping into the woman ahead of us. She slightly turned to see who it was.

“I’ll find it, it’s around somewhere, let me go retrace my steps!”

Let,’ as in requesting permission, but D ran off before I could say anything about it.

“Wait!” I called out, but D was already too far ahead, disappearing in the line of people and baskets and carts. I was about to chase after her, but I remembered that I still had the basket.

Or did she leave me with it?

Oh darn was right.

The line moved along, and it was my turn to start unloading stuff onto the checkout counter. D’s snacks began to overtake the rest of the counter, as the conveyor belt rolled out other people’s groceries. Then, as the counter started spilling out snacks to the other side, the counter was still full of snacks, and there was still more to go.

Crap.

A lot of snacks, a lot of money, and D hadn’t come back yet. The van was a few blocks away, and If she was retracing her steps…

Was she going to go back to the basketball court? To EZ and Krown? Was she reckless enough to show her face around there again, and so soon?

I knew what the answer was, and my stomach churned.

A boy, a teen looking a year or two older, worked the cash register, scanning the boxes and bags, his expression changing from flat to surprised to concerned at all the food coming his way.

“That’s a lot of snacks,” he commented, glancing at me.

“Girl’s gotta eat,” I said.

“You having a party or something?”

“Uh, it’s something,” I answered.

“Oh, if it was a party, I would have asked what’s up.”

I titled my head one way. “What’s up?”

“You know, have me and some pals roll up to your crib, maybe we can do a little something.”

I titled my head the other way. “A little something what?”

The boy set his jaw straight, but he didn’t respond, focusing on scanning all the food.

He was almost done, and D wasn’t back yet, and I didn’t have enough cash to pay for all of this.

D better not have left me here to-

“Hey, hey, where the fuck do you think you’re going?”

“Fuck, yo, let go of me!”

The yelling got my attention, and from the looks of the boy, and everyone else in line, I wasn’t the only one.

It was one of Royals and one of the Thunders I had seen before, while walking around the store. They were by the automatic doors, the doors clacking as they shifted from open to trying to close, as the two were standing in the way of the sensors.

A paper bag was at their feet, torn and spilling out its contents of cans and vegetables. The Royal held the Thunder’s wrist, fighting to keep the Thunder in place. Pushing and pulling.

“You took my cereal, man!” the Royal yelled.

“I didn’t take shit!” the Thunder yelled back.

“Then what’s in your bag? Why do I see that in your bag?”

“I didn’t put that shit in there! Look, you already have a fucking- That’s my box!”

“It ain’t mine, you swapped them!”

“Why the fuck would I-”

The Royal tugged, bringing the Thunder more inside, away from the doors. The door were finally able to close.

“Get in here bitch!”

“Man, fuck you, I don’t give a shit about you, I don’t give a shit about your crew, and I don’t give a shit about your fucking cereal!”

“Just admit that you ain’t got no money, and you have to steal from a real man to get what you want.”

It was as if the very air had changed. The atmosphere.

“Say that again?” the Thunder questioned.

“Use your ears, bitch, and if you got a brain, use that too.”

The Thunder reached under his shirt, and I saw the light catch his hand when he drew it out again.

Again in one day, I felt my heart skip a beat.

“Want to take this to the streets?”

“If you want to bleed out there, then absolutely.”

I moved a foot, prepared to step in and do… something, but I saw others move in ahead of me.

D, and another man.

“Hold it cowboy!”

D ran through the open doors and around the two men, and grabbed the Thunder by the collar, kicking him behind the knee. He fell, and she found his arm and twisted it, forcing him to let go of the gun. It hit the floor, landing among the other groceries, and the cereal box.

The man rushed the Royal, grabbing him by the shoulders. The Royal wasn’t reaching for a gun, but there was no way he could, now.

“Jay!” the man shouted, “Get your shit together!”

The deep, but still smooth voice. I recognized him as the man from earlier, in the alley.

“Phil, I-”

“Quit it, Jay, quit it. You want to be a real man? Grab your shit and walk away. Settle this peacefully, please. We don’t want another one of your feuds rocking this town again. Not another one, so soon.”

The man took his hands off the Royal, Jay, and waited for a second. Jay didn’t make a drastic move.

The man then turned, and saw D.

“You can let go of him now, little lady.”

D listened, taking her hands off the Thunder. He was on the floor, searching around him, checking his things. He saw his gun, and went to grab it.

A foot stepped on the gun, stopping him.

“No, Ricky,” the man said. “You’re done here, too.”

The Thunder, Ricky, glared up at D and the man, but he too didn’t try anything crazy. He got up, scooping everything up into his paper bag, everything except the cereal box.

The man continued to order them. “Ricky, you give Jay his cereal-”

“But he started-”

“I don’t fuckin’ care who started it, I’m ending it!”

His shout was felt through the rest of the store, especially Ricky. He was shut down.

The man – Phil, according to Jay – didn’t have to say it a second time. Ricky bent down to pick up the cereal box, giving it to Jay. The exchange was made in silence.

“Now, Ricky, walk down that way,” Phil said, pointing to the left of the automatic doors. “And then you, Jay, walk down that way.” He pointed to the right of the doors. “I don’t care if you have to take the long way home, but you are not crossing paths again until you can learn to grow up and stop playing in these streets.”

Jay and Ricky left without a word. Ricky went first, going out the doors, taking a left, and Jay followed, going right. The silence they left behind was palpable.

Phil gave D a small glance, but he put his actual attention on the shoppers who happened to catch the incident. On me.

A look, and it was enough to get everyone moving again.

I moved, too, but I moved away from the checkout counter, leaving the snacks behind. I went to D.

“D, hey,” I said. “Good timing, showing up when you did.”

“Good timing for sure,” she said, with a sly look.

“I’m not sure if I should like that look or not.”

“You should,” D said, “I got what we came here for.”

D looked elsewhere, and I followed her gaze.

“And we’re about to get more.”

Phil was approaching, having stepped out to make sure Jay and Ricky left without any more issues. He didn’t look very pleased to see us again.

“And will you look at that, y’all are up to no good.”

D replied, “I’d make a remark, but it won’t go over well with you, will it?”

“It won’t.”

“Then let me come clean right now. Ricky didn’t steal anything. I swapped a cereal box I picked out with his.”

Phil went from not looking pleased to looking pissed.

I turned to look back at the line. The boy was still there, confused at what to do. I didn’t see the cereal box that D had grabbed earlier.

This fucking girl, I thought, She slipped right from under me to pull that stunt.

Before, she had to be checking out the people in the line, planning accordingly. Watching who had what in their baskets, and how particularly attached to what they had. I thought she was just taking half the store’s inventory of snacks, but apparently, she had something else in mind.

Phil spoke softly, but his tone was intense. “And why did you swap the boxes?”

D answered, “I wanted to test a theory, but honestly, I probably could have swapped anything for the same results. Looks like I was just lucky.”

She was being cheeky, and he stark serious.

“Get out of my-”

Wait,” D said, lifting her hand. She was holding up a wallet. Did she have that the whole time, too?

“We haven’t paid yet,” D said.

“I don’t think I care. I want you out.”

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. My test confirmed my suspicions, but I want the finer details. And I think you’re just the man to ask, Phil.”

There was a pause as Phil stared, having us wait on his response.

D added, “It might prove to be a benefit to your community, here, if you end up hearing us out.”

Over the past few weeks, I had been getting acquainted with D and how she operated, how she loved to throw herself into risky situations to try and get out ahead of everyone else.

This was another one of those times.

We were already on thin ice after what happened at the basketball court, and D was throwing herself, and me, out into the open for another risk.

I waited, wondering if we would remain standing, or if our plan would slip through the cracks and fall apart.

Previous                                                                                               Next

062 – Raid

Previous                                                                                               Next

The sounds of pencil on paper. Scribbles. A leaky faucet, somewhere. Soft but scratchy breathing.

“Does this look good?”

I looked.

“I can’t tell what I’m looking at, here.”

“That’s your head, here’s your arms, and the back part flows to there, past the legs.”

“Wow. You can’t draw, like at all.”

D made a shocked face, pulling her sketchbook close to her chest and turning away from me.

“You’re mean!”

We were in D’s apartment. Yesterday had seemingly gone in different directions for both me and D, so we decided to follow Lawrence’s example and take the rest of the day off. I desperately needed a shower after chasing Arturo, and fending off that dog before that. I also had laundry I wanted to take care of. I was ready to get to work, but a small break wouldn’t hurt.

But, of all the places to get some work done, it had to be here.

The dust, the dirt, the everything. There was no order or cleanliness to be found, here.

D was sitting on the couch, erasing what she had drawn in her notebook. The couch was probably the cleanest thing in the apartment, but I still couldn’t get myself to take a seat there. I remained standing.

I moved away from the couch, stepping over a rag on the floor. It hadn’t rained in some time, but it was wet.

Yesterday, I had desperately needed a shower. And today, I felt like I needed another one.

What a dump, I thought, but I kept that comment to myself.

But that didn’t mean I couldn’t make a comment at all.

“You should really do some cleaning in here.”

“You forget that I’m not the only one living here.”

I looked over to Macy. She was huddled in one corner of the living room, clutching at blankets, her grip tight, even though she was sleeping.

It seemed like it pained her to be unconscious.

“Still, you’ve never considered moving out? You found a place for me just fine.”

“Sure, I can, but I want to keep an eye on Macy as much as possible, you know?”

“But, why?”

D lifted her pencil away from her sketchbook. She looked over to see Macy.

“Who else is going to do it?”

I gave Macy a second glance. She hadn’t moved. If I concentrated, I could hear her soft, raspy breathing, her lips slightly parted, drool trailing down corner of her mouth.

I recalled D mentioning having other business outside of the Ghosts. She never specified, but I still made that connection.

Never mind. There were more important things to be thinking about.

I decided to comment on something else, instead.

“Back when you did have school, you never had a fun day where you got to draw or do some coloring?”

D let her jaw drop, leaving it hanging. Still holding her pencil, she balled up her hand and swiped at my leg. I moved back just in time. She missed.

“Oh my gosh, get off my case about that!”

“I’m just saying, if you want to communicate your ideas properly, being able to draw is a useful way for others to visualize what you’re going for.”

“Shut the heck up!”

She tried to get me again, but I was too far. I backed up some more, going around the table in front of the couch, putting it between me and her.

“You’ll have to try harder than that to get me,” I said, feeling smug.

“Just you wait,” D said with a warning tone. She brought her head down, staring at me from behind her bangs. There was a look of mischief in her eyes. “I’ll get you back for this.”

“I’d like to see you try.”

D made a noise, blowing a puff of air. Her bangs flew up, then landed back into her eyes. She shook her head as she went back to her sketchbook, erasing the drawing.

I grinned.

Teasing D, it’d be a lie to say that I didn’t get a kick out of it, but I recognized that there was a limit.

“Drawing skills or no,” I said, “I still got what you were going for. It’s not a bad look, I might be able to pull it off.”

D bobbed her head back up, her eyes sparkling with excitement. “You think so?”

I nodded. “Definitely.”

With more fervor than before, she returned to her sketchbook. Not to erase, but to draw.

I turned around to face the wall behind me, to do some drawing as well.

We needed writing utensils, and D had mentioned that one of her next door neighbors had a box full of chalk, and they were more than willing to trade for a quick score. It didn’t take long to come to an agreement with him.

We didn’t have a chalkboard to write on, but D didn’t care about leaving marks on the wall on the opposite side of the couch. I did, however, I wanted to try and not make this place even more of a mess. But, it would have taken us longer to find a chalkboard, and we would have less space to write on. I settled for using the wall. It was a small compromise.

One the left side of the wall, starting from as high as I could reach without straining myself, was the list of gangs that were taking advantage of the Ghosts and their deals. I wrote in big letters, so D could read it from where she was sitting. The list of names still went down to my waist, and I had to start another column to get everything down. One and a half columns. A lot of names.

“To be completely honest,” I said, “This is way more than I was expecting.”

“How many were you expecting?”

“I don’t know, ten at least? This is… This almost makes me question how good a leader Lawrence actually is.”

“Consider the position he was in at the time. His gang was an offshoot of a small, controversial gang, with that gang’s name being dragged through the mud each day, thanks to its leader. And that mud splattered onto him, too, affecting his business. Do you think you could have done a better job?”

“I don’t think that at all. I wouldn’t want to have been in his shoes back then.”

“There you go,” D said.

“Fine, he did what he could. Moving on, where do we start?” I pressed the chalk into the wall, but I didn’t move it. Keeping it in place, I turned, letting D get a good look at the list.

She was staring at it, her eyes squinted, her lips puckered, with her pencil balancing on her upper lip.

She tried talking like that, but her words came out a murmured mess.

“Of course,” I said. “Why didn’t I think of that?”

“Blah.” D dropped the pencil into her lap. “Let’s start by crossing off who we can’t go after.”

“Can’t?”

“We’re picking off the smaller, weaker groups, right? If we try to punch above our weight class, we’re going to get knocked back down, powers or no. We build up to the bigger targets, and, depending on how well we do on way, it might not even necessary to check off the whole list.”

“We’ll have gotten big enough, and we can establish ourselves through other avenues. Good point.”

D picked up her pencil, using it to point at the list.

“AZ-Tec, take them off.”

Second column, third from the top. I lifted my chalk and crossed them off.

“That bad?” I asked.

“Along with the Cobras, they’re one of the biggest cartels in the city. Unless you want an all-out war, we will not pick a fight with those guys. Never ever.”

“Maybe we want that,” I said, grinning.

I saw D smile, too, exposing the gap in her teeth. I wasn’t sure about her actual age, but she was old enough to have lost all of her baby teeth already, so that gap wasn’t waiting for a tooth to fill it. She lost that tooth, somehow.

Another story, and I was curious to hear it.

But, now wasn’t the time for that.

“Let’s save that for the grand finale, then,” D said.

Grand finale. It sounded intriguing, but I would rather prefer a quieter way to spend the rest of my days, if such a thing was even possible.

“Maybe let’s put a pin on that. Any other gangs?”

D pointed. “Take off the West Sharks, and the Kung Fools.”

“Kung who?”

“Triad wannabes. They’ve been getting a lot of new members after what happened at the school. It’s a jokey name, but they had numbers before, and now they’re swelling. And, and I’m just saying this as a general rule, but let’s try not to stir up any more racial tensions, okay?”

I started crossing the names off. “No, you’re right. That’s a powder keg we don’t want to keep relying on. This plan’s risky enough, let’s not add to it.”

“Agreed.”

The tensions D was referring to, they were useful for giving me an out. Day by day, there was another attack or assault against a portion of the population. They were no longer isolated incidents, they were statistics. One more incident wasn’t going to attract much attention towards itself, rather it would add to the numbers. It was easy for me to slip through those cracks.

But, making those cracks wider was asking for everything to crumble and fall apart. The city didn’t need another riot.

Hit hard, but hit from the dark. The shadows.

“Anyone else?” I asked.

“Let’s try narrowing it down some. Cross out any names of people and individuals.”

That was about a third of the remaining names.

“John, Ashley, Herbert,” I said, crossing names out as I read them out loud. “You’re all spared. Lucky you.”

“Conversely, those targets are too small to get anything that’s worth the trouble.”

“Arturo and his group were a good test, but yes, let’s go bigger than that. So, who can we target?”

“Let’s see… oh, there!”

“Where?”

D lifted her pencil, and I tried to follow where she was pointing to.

“Where?” I asked again.

“Right there, the Thunders and the Royals!”

I saw Thunders in the first column, the Royals in the second.

“Can’t say I’ve heard of them,” I said. “What’s with the excitement?”

“Together, they’re about as big as the Kung Fools, before the added membership in recent weeks. Not huge, but they do have a presence, more than us, to be honest.”

“That’s why we’re doing this,” I said. “Tell me more.”

“They both hold territory on the West side, not quite in the city, but they’re close. ”

I felt a slight disappointment. “I’d like to go after a group that’s closer to the Eye.”

“They’re close. And there’s a particular reason why I’m suggesting them both at the same time.”

“Which is?”

“They’ve got beef with each other, and it runs deep. I don’t know the full story, but I know enough of the pieces. The leaders of the two gangs are brothers, and there was some fall out between them, and something about a girl…”

“I get it,” I said.

“Whether that girl actually existed or not is relevant, but there is a feud between those brothers, to the point that they can just barely stand each other. It wouldn’t take much for a petty squabble to blow up out of proportion.”

“And they both have the unlucky coincidence of having done business with the Ghosts,” I said.

D nodded. “If we play this right, we can kill two birds with one stone. Spark a conflict that swallows them both up in flames, and the Ghosts can pick up whatever’s left over from the ashes.”

“That is a good reason to pick these guys.”

I circled both names, drawing a line to connect them together. I reached down for a box of extra chalk. I grabbed a new stick, a new color. With my new chalk, I drew an ‘X’ over the line between them. Red.

“Taking them both out is one thing, but we can’t let things stop there,” I said. “We’ll have to find a way to throw me, V, into the mix.”

“Your alter ego?”

“Yup. It’s not enough to just take them both out, we need to have them running scared, too. Give them a story to tell, to warn others, letting my image build from just a rumor to an omen, a curse. A legend.”

“You think very highly of yourself, Wendy.”

“I kind of have to. If I can’t even do that, then how can I lead a gang, or even do this?”

I drew over the ‘X’ again, making the lines bolder.

Confidence. Fake it, if I have to.

“We’ll come up with something,” D said. “It would be boring if we don’t.”

“It would be pointless if we don’t,” I said, correcting her. “I’m not opposed to the Thunders and Royals for round one, though. Any ideas?”

D spun the pencil in between her fingers, then started tapping it on her cheek.

“None,” she said, a little too quickly.

“Well, we know where they are, we should probably scope out the place first, see how things are going over there.”

“Good thinking, I’m down. Oh, oh, can we do it all like undercover and stuff?”

“Undercover?”

“Like we’re spies, infiltrating the enemy base. We can use code names, and use a secret language in case we’re in a jam, so they don’t know what we’re saying. And we can name this operation too, like, maybe, ‘Operation Storm the Castle!’”

“Clever,” I said. “We don’t need to get that detailed though.”

“But I want to!”

“You need a TV in here or something.”

D rolled her eyes. “My imagination is better than anything a shiny box can come up with.”

I walked away from the list of gangs, moving over to a blank space on the wall.

“To move to another separate, but relevant topic,” I said, “We can swing by their territory after this. Now, I want to try and design a new costume.”

“That’s supposed to be my job!”

“I still get the final say,” I said, starting to make my own drawing. A circle, lines extending out of it. A stick figure.

“Oof,” I muttered, stepping away.

The circle was too large, the lines too short. If this was supposed to represent me, then my head was way too big for my body.

I heard D go into a fit of laughter.

“And you said that I can’t draw!”

“Quiet, I never claimed to be an artist,” I said, but she was laughing too hard, she couldn’t hear me.

D kept laughing, cackling. She was loving this.

I waited until she calmed herself down. I waited for a while.

“You done?” I asked, as she started to cool off. Another minute passed before she could answer.

“Just about. Whoa, you nearly killed me with that.”

“Let’s just start brainstorming.”

“Okay, okay. What are you trying to go for?”

I had thought about potential designs, before.

“I’m not sure. My first instinct is to go with the hooded look again, but maybe it’s better to switch things up, this time around.”

“I’m all for switching it up.”

“D, can I see your sketch again?”

“You mean my chicken scratch?” D said, giving me a sneering look, but she got to her feet, and started coming my way. She handed me her sketchbook as she got closer.

I took a look.

She had more time to work with this, and it still didn’t come out all that great. Not that I was in a position to judge, though.

So, what am I looking at, here?

I got the overall idea of the sketch. Covering the torso was a larger, box-like shape, which I could have interpreted as a heavy jacket, or even a poncho. The pants were just dark, sloppy lines coming out from the bottom of that box. The sketch could be wearing anything, there.

The face, however, was the hardest to understand. I couldn’t see anything resembling a mask, black lines scratched out where the eyes should be, but the nose, mouth, and hair were drawn on the face and head. Smears from eraser marks muddied whatever finer details were there. If there was supposed to be a mask, I didn’t see it.

I spoke my thoughts out loud.

“So, what am I looking at, here?”

D groaned, and put her finger on the paper, smearing the sketch even more.

“You were originally wearing a hood, here, but I decided to get rid of it.”

“Was that before or after I made fun of your drawing skills?”

“After. I erased it, but I couldn’t think what to do instead. And… actually I’m not sure about what you’re wearing.”

“Looks like a poncho, I can’t see my arms.”

A small pause.

“I forgot to draw them,” D said.

“D…” I said.

She made a smaller noise, then tried taking away the sketchbook from me. I tightened my grip. She couldn’t budge it.

“I’m not done yet,” I said. “A poncho might work, actually. I was considering it as part of a rough draft, sitting in the back of my head. If we do go that route, we’ll have to make adjustments to the length, so the fabric doesn’t get in the way of my arms, but I think the silhouette it creates would be effective against those who only get a glimpse of me.”

“Let their imaginations fill in the rest,” D ventured. “Now that sounds fun.”

“Could be.” I looked again at the paper, at the face. “I’d like a new mask, too.”

“I’ll leave that to you, I doubt I can come up with something you’ll like.”

“Don’t sell yourself so short, D.”

I moved the sketchbook, so the drawing was facing her.

“Can I keep this?”

D’s eyes darted from me to her sketchbook. A touch of embarrassment and concern.

“Are you sure?”

“Positive. I bet there’s something here I can work with.”

D moved her hand, swiping at the sketchbook. I lifted my arm up high, out of her reach.

“No fair!” she said, jumping after it, failing each time.

“It’s not that bad, D, seriously!”

I had to back up, or she’d be bump into me.

Another step, and I felt my back on the wall. All I had for extra distance was the length of my arm.

“No, fair!”

D was jumping, pushing to get closer, landing on my boots, stepping on them. Messing with her was fine and good, but I didn’t want to get dirt on my boots as a result.

I put my other hand on her shoulder, using just enough strength to push her back, and just on pressure to keep her still. I lowered my arm.

“Here,” I said, letting her take the sketchbook. “Don’t be such a kid.”

“I am a kid, and thank you very much,” she said, not sounding thankful in the slightest. She tore out the page the drawing was on, and handed it back.

“There.”

“Thank you very much,” I said. I looked between D, the drawing and the stick figure on the wall. I’d have to come up with a design to fill the empty space. To put meat on those bones.

That can be next on the list.

I folded up the paper, sticking into my back pocket.

“Alright, we can deal with that later. Let’s check out the Thunders, and Royals, while we still have some daylight.”

D tossed her sketchbook and pencil across the room, hitting the couch cushions.

“Yes, please, I’m itching to be do some infiltration. Operation Storm the Castle is in effect!”

It didn’t take long to realize that we were out of place. Very out of place.

We weren’t sticking out, but we weren’t completely blending in. There was always going to be a risk, but being here, now? It was almost inevitable. We were in the minority.

D and I were at a basketball court, sitting on the bottom of a set of metal bleachers, watching others play. In the West side, not quite in the city, but we were close.

The court was split up into two groups, easy to distinguish by the colors they wore. The right side were all decked in blue, the other side were in white. The Thunders, and the Royals.

Each gang kept to themselves, playing on their own side of the court. They were careful, skilled enough to not let their ball slip away and roll over to the opposing side. If a ball slipped out of someone’s hands, rolling away, everyone on that side would stop what they were doing to secure it, make sure it didn’t go across the court. They’d stop the ball, pick it up, and start the game up again once everyone was alright. A tense, forced version of peace.

If I can call this peace.

Other people were sitting on the bleachers, wearing colors that weren’t blue or white. If they hadn’t been around, I doubted that we could be sitting here with little to no trouble.

The middle of January, the middle of winter, but it was warm enough that wearing a light jacket was okay. By pure coincidence, I was matching with D. I wasn’t wearing a choker, however.

The weather was fair, not a single cloud in the sky, but D still found it necessary to lean on my arm, huddling up close. If she leaned on me even more I would have fallen over.

“You don’t need to be so close,” I said, my eyes still on the court.

D was watching them, too. “I don’t need to be so close, but I want to.”

Not much else I could say against that.

“We’re here,” I said, changing topics. “Do you see anything interesting?”

“I see a lot of interesting things. The Thunders and the Royals are tolerating each other. Seems this basketball court is neutral territory.”

“Are there other places that could be considered neutral territory?”

“Possibly, but this is the most notable one.”

“So, if anything were to spark up here…”

“Not a bad place to start a wildfire,” D said. I didn’t have a good look at her face, but I could imagine her smiling as she said it.

Blow it all up.

“Any key players, here?” I asked. I examined the different faces, searching for who might be worth paying attention to. Worth targeting.

“Pretty much all the big name people came out to play today. I don’t want to point at them directly, so you’ll just have to follow my gaze.”

“Okay.”

Don’t stick out, as much as possible. Blend in.

“Starting with the Thunders… see that skinny guy? He has the ball… oh, he missed.”

“I see him.”

“That’s the leader, brother number one. Easy.”

“Got it.”

“No, that’s his name. ‘E’ and ‘Z.’”

“God dammit.”

“He facilitated the deal with the Ghosts, way back. Five grand, five kilos.”

“I’m still new to this, so I can’t tell if that’s a lot, or not.”

“Yes.”

D craned her head, a slight angle, looking across the court.

“And the guy with the hat, gold on his wrist?”

“Can’t miss that. It’s reflecting into my eye.”

“Brother number two. Name’s Crown.”

“That’s it? No weird interpolation?”

“It’s spelled with a ‘K.’”

“There it is.”

“His deal is exact same as EZ. Five and five.”

“Brother’s think alike, then.”

“If we want to spark anything, it’s going to have to happen between those two. Flick one of them behind the ear, duck out of sight before they turn around, and watch as they smack up whoever they believe to be the culprit.”

“You’ve done this before,” I said, no longer impressed. I expected her to be an expert at raising trouble, by now.

“Something like this. Not to this magnitude, and definitely not for a reason.”

It’s like she was made to raise hell.

I straightened my shoulders, inadvertently pushing D up and away.

“We’ve got visual on the leaders, we’ve know where they’re literally willing to play ball. What’s next… We should probably find out where they stash their, our stuff. So we know where we can hit.”

“Yes, yes,” D said, stroking her chin. “More infiltration.”

I about to tell her to stop saying that, but it was probably best to keep her entertained. Framing this as a game would keep her focused on the task at hand, keep her in line.

I had thought about what Lawrence had said about her yesterday, and what I had already seen for myself. If she saw all of this as a game, then I’d better make it a fun one for her.

“You know, on the way, I was thinking of a code name for you.”

D directed her full attention to me. “You did?”

“I did, but I’ll tell you somewhere else. Right now, we should-”

Something bumped into my leg.

I glanced down.

A basketball.

I felt my heart skip a beat.

I looked back up. I could feel the stares.

Everyone from both gangs, standing in place, heads directed towards me, towards D. They were watching, studying us, waiting for what our move would be. We weren’t exactly on the court, but the ball was with us.

Watching, studying, waiting. It was quiet.

Clues. I tried finding the other ball. I saw it… right on the half-court line. It could belong to either side. Fuck.

Watching, studying, waiting.

“D,” I said, my voice low. “Whose ball is this?”

“I wasn’t looking, I don’t know.”

“God dammit.”

“I feel like… we have to be very careful in who we choose.”

“Yeah. Or else…”

Or else we end up sparking something, now.

It would certainly be bad timing.

I examined their faces, looking at people from both gangs. Watching, waiting. Nothing in their expressions suggested anything, nothing I could glean. It was as if they were purposely making this difficult for me. Like they were in on a grand joke or prank.

Fuck all of you.

Careful, cautious, I lifted my leg, kicking the ball closer to me. I slowly bent down to grab the ball. No one moved.

If we weren’t sitting on the bottom of the bleachers, we probably wouldn’t be in this predicament.

Too late to do anything about that, now.

“Stay here,” I whispered to D. “If anything happens, I’ll come back for you. Even if it means having use a bit of my power.”

“Okay,” was all she whispered back. She didn’t object at the idea of me using my strength as a potential escape. This could be a matter of life and death. We’d have to do what we could, if it meant surviving to see another day.

I picked up the ball, and I stood up.

I watched them as they watched me. I walked forward, along the line down the middle of the court, towards the other ball. Putting myself in the middle of everything, everyone, into the thick of the situation.

The silence stretched as I stopped, surrounded by the Thunders and the Royals. Blue and white.

None of them were going to offer a hint or clue. I’d have to take a stab at it.

I lifted the ball, over my head.

“Um, someone dropped their ball, does anyone know who it belongs to?”

There was a very long, very quiet, very wordless minute.

I didn’t know which way to look, how to stand so my backside wasn’t exposed to so many people.

I had powers, but I wasn’t looking for a fight. Not here, not now. If a fight broke out, we’d lose out on progress, a way forward. Had to avoid that.

I gulped.

I heard footsteps.

From both sides, a person approached. EZ and Krown.

They came up to me, blocking my left and right. I could take a step back, but there was no point in doing so.

It struck me, how tall they were. If I didn’t have powers, I would legitimately feel intimidated.

Scared, even.

I brought down my arms, keeping the ball between me and them, as if it could actually shield me.

“Hello,” I said, trying to sound warm. Trying.

Neither of them answered.

Awesome.

I had to keep trying.

“This ball, it got kicked over to me. I wanted to, um, give it back to whoever it belongs to.”

“That’s your ball, little lady.”

EZ answered, and that answer threw me off. For a skinny guy, his voice was deep.

“Sorry, but I don’t think that’s right,” I said. “I never had any balls.”

I bit my tongue.

Nice wording, Wendy.

They both chuckled.

“Where you from…” Krown started, and a pause followed. And then I realized that he was asking for my name.

“Wendy,” I offered.

“Okay, Wendy, let me ask you again. Where are you from?”

I had to play along. “I’m from East Stephenville.”

EZ’s eyebrows shot upward. “We don’t get a lot of Eastside peeps come around these parts. Why you in town, lil’ Wendy?”

“And who’s your little friend?” Krown asked, glancing behind me, to D.

“Know anyone here?”

“You reppin’ a crew?”

I started, “I, um…”

Too many questions to answer. And I knew why they were taking this approach. Hammering at me, making me uncomfortable, putting me on my heels.

I was the foreigner to this part of the city, the minority. I was always going to stand out. These two gangs were apparently beefing with each other, but they were willing to work together to grill an outsider.

Fuck me.

I gave the best answer I could.

“I’m just hanging out with my friend, just passing through. I’m not with a gang.”

A truth, a half-truth, and an outright lie. But it should have covered all everything they had asked me.

“Ain’t nobody just ‘passing through’ here,” EZ said. “If you here, then you got a reason.”

“You sound suspect, lil’ Wendy, and that upsets me,” Krown said. “You like the Feds. Are you with the Feds, homie?”

This is not going well.

I wanted to look at D, for some sort of guidance, but I didn’t want to turn my back to these guys. I had to handle this on my own.

Confidence, even if I had to fake it.

“I’m definitely not with the Feds, believe me. I really am just like you. I’m normal.”

Now that was a lie.

“You think we normal?” Krown questioned.

“As normal as you are,” I said.

“Okay, I feel you.”

You do?

Krown was the first to break away from our formation, moving to his side of the court. He motioned for me to follow.

I followed.

I heard more footsteps. EZ, and the others in his gang, were coming too. They were crossing the line.

Krown stopped at the freethrow line, looking at me, and the net, made of broken metal chains.

“Yo, EZ!” he called out.

“Wassup?”

“How many shots can you make?”

“Shit, I can do thirty in a row, man.”

“I can do one more on you.”

“You can?”

“Hell yeah, brother.”

“Damn.”

EZ chuckled.

Krown then pointed at me, the gold on his wrist getting in my eye again. “That’s about normal between me and my bro. Match us, and we cool.”

Again, I bit my tongue until it hurt.

“Thirty shots?” I asked. “In a row?”

Krown nodded, and pointed to the freethrow line.

“You’re up.”

There was no way I could object. The Thunders and the Royals came around me, wanting to get a good spot to watch. I felt a hand touch my back. A push.

I was forced to step up to the freethrow line. No way I could object, now.

I can’t believe this is happening.

I had the ball in my hands, the board and net ahead of me. Around me were the Thunders and the Royals, taunting and prodding me to shoot. Couldn’t see D.

If this was volleyball, I could probably tap into those skills, but this wasn’t-

“You gonna shoot or what?” EZ asked, standing by Krown, now, close to the net. “Better shoot in three seconds, or I’m shootin’ you.”

Fuck, fuck me.

No time to think, or even assume a decent position.

Three, two-

I shot the basketball.

Eye on the target, arms following through with the motion, guessing what stance I was supposed to assume.

My heart thumped in my chest. Fast and hard.

The ball moved through the air as if it was in slow motion.

It hit the backboard. The ball dropped.

Before my heart could drop, too, the ball went into the rim, the metal chains rattling after it passed through.

I breathed out, relieved.

The other people watching responded too. They sounded impressed. To me, anyways.

Krown stepped ahead to catch the ball.

“Good shot,” he said. He passed the ball back to me, hard. It hit me as I caught it.

“Now do it again.”

“You got three seconds,” EZ said.

Come the fuck on.

I had to do this twenty nine more times?

No, I couldn’t be negative about this. I made it once, and I had muscle memory. I just had to copy the motion, and it’d only get easier each time. Like practicing, and I could do it perfect.

I could do it.

Confidence.

Time’s ticking, Wendy.

I shot.

Eye on the target, arms following through with the motion, easier this time.

The ball moved through the air, slow.

It hit the backboard, the ball dropping.

It bounced off the rim.

It landed elsewhere. Nowhere near the net.

I missed.

My heart dropped.

I blew it.

Everyone was pointing, laughing. Ridiculing me. I didn’t even feel humiliated. No, feeling humiliated would be too shallow. I was dejected, that I had cost us the game before we officially started.

Krown caught the ball, joining in the laughter. So was EZ.

Still enjoying themselves at my expense, they approached me again.

I stood my ground, even though I didn’t have ground to stand on.

“For a quick minute,” Krown said, “I thought you might actually make it. But nah.”

Nah!” EZ vocalized.

I tried to speak, but my throat was caught. I had to swallow before I could try again.

“I gave it a shot,” I said. “That has to account for something.”

“It really doesn’t,” EZ said, with a jeering tone. “You ain’t normal, so that means you suspect. And if you don’t know what we do to suspect bitches around here, you about to.”

My muscles tensed, my hands clenched beside me. More and more, I was going to have to fight my way out.

EZ moved his hand to his back, and I moved my hand to mine. I knew to bring a knife, this time around, and I knew where D was. A quick slash to throw them off, then I would turn to get-

“EZ, hold on.”

An arm was thrown out, blocking EZ.

Krown.

“Ah, you for real?” EZ questioned. He put his arms to his side.

“For real,” Krown said. “You know I don’t want no trouble here. That’s not what we’re about. I just wanted to see if lil’ Wendy here was legit, and she ain’t.”

Krown looked at me, and thrusted the ball back into my arms. I held onto it.

“Were you scared?”

How was I supposed to answer that?

“I, yeah, you scared me real good there,” I said, playing along.

“If you scared, bitch, go to church,” EZ said.

“That ain’t bad advice,” Krown said. “Listen to my brother, here. You take that ball, and your little friend, and go find a church. And you don’t bother me or my homies again. Don’t come around these parts again, yah heard me? Learn yourself a lesson.”

My head was down, staring at the ball in my hands.

“You’re letting me go?” I asked.

“No shit we’re letting you go. You don’t think I know what you up to? Everybody knows about my beef with my brother. It ain’t nothing new.”

“And it’s old hat,” EZ said. “It’s in the past now. Petty shit.”

The past?

“Word is bond,” Krown said. “If we wanna keep on living out here in these streets, we got to unify. And that means respect to my bro, here.”

“Respect,” EZ said. “He wearing a different gang color than mine, but I can still respect him as a black man. There’s another color that runs deeper than any gang, and we have to stick together to survive against the common enemy.”

“And that enemy is you, lil’ Wendy.”

Krown put his hand on the ball, and pushed, forcing me to take a step backward.

“I saw you coming a mile away, so turn around and go a mile back. You ain’t welcome here no more.”

EZ and Krown walked away, leaving me. Their men moved, joining each other in ranks and numbers, until they were all in one group, on one side of this half of the court. Blue and white.

They were talking amongst themselves, now, making jokes, shooting hoops with their spare ball, enjoying the company of one another. As if they were never split down the middle.

Was it a farce? A set up? Was I being played the whole time?

Fuck, fuck, fuck me.

I took a step, then two, then three. No one reacted or responded to my presence, but the threat was already made, hanging in the air. I wasn’t about to stick around and have them make good on that threat.

Defeated, dejected, I turned and left the court.

D joined my side as I walked, silent as we rounded the corner, and then another corner. We were out of sight, now.

I stopped, and so did D.

Agh!”

In anger, I threw the ball. It soared, going over some buildings, a block, landing wherever it happened to land. I didn’t care.

“Sorry I couldn’t back you up,” D said, soft. “I’m usually good at that sort of thing, but I’m usually not in the open like that. I work better with the element of surprise.”

“It’s not your fault,” I said, shaking my head. “They played us, played me.”

“What happened, exactly?”

“They seemed to have made up.”

“They made up? That’s… new.”

“No shit it’s new. They squashed their beef, and they’re willing to join hands to fight any common threat. They might not know that we’re Ghosts, but they’re not going to be played against each other. That particular dynamic isn’t there. We don’t have that exploit.”

“Well,” D said, leaving a pause, “Darn.”

I started walking again, D following.

“Do we have anyone else on that list?” I asked. “That we can actually cross out?”

“Of course, yeah, but those two? If we actually wanted to make a splash, taking them out was the way to do it.”

My pace quickened. I breathed out loud, reaching a growl at the end.

God dammit.

Previous                                                                                               Next

061 – Two Two One-Two

Previous                                                                                               Next

We pulled up to the spot, parked, and proceeded to get everything out of the van. We didn’t linger or dawdle.

I pushed through the double doors, holding one open for the others. People inside saw me, saw us, and moved to help. All without me saying a word.

That’s almost as sweet as blood itself.

The Redhouse. What was once the headquarters for a small, local loading company was now our unofficially official base of operations.

The company was long gone, now, but that didn’t mean that we were there to stay. We couldn’t afford to plant our roots here. It was too far from the city, too far away from the action. It took thirty minutes just to get to Casa Martinez, give or take the traffic. My damn apartment was in a better location than this base. If we wanted to get any headway as a gang, we actually had to be in the city to do it.

The place just wasn’t prime real estate. We had space for cars, vans, weapons, drugs, money, people, but it wasn’t the best place for all that stuff to be stored. We were out in the open, in the middle of nowhere. I saw more tumbleweeds here than anything that had life, flora and fauna.

Should the cops, or a rival group find out where we were laying our heads, that would only ever lead to disaster. Keeping one eye open helped, but the Ghosts weren’t exactly held in high regard in the eyes of the other gangs, even with Benny out of the picture. We were still weak, underestimated.

I just didn’t want us to be sitting ducks, here.

I stepped aside as more came to help, getting the door for me and taking some of the bags that Reggie, Tone, and Sarah were carrying. There wasn’t a lot to get out of the van, but the people here were bored, itching to do something. They jumped at the chance to be active.

I let them.

“Where’s Lawrence?” I asked. I wasn’t directing that question to anyone in particular, rather I threw it out there.

“He’s in the back, there, in the office.”

I couldn’t catch whoever answered, everyone was too busy working or trying to help. None of them were looking directly at me.

I glanced from across the lobby, where a hall lead to the offices, closets, and emergency exit. The ceiling above was made of glass, and it was late in the afternoon, now. The space was tinted an orange hue.

“Thanks,” I said.

No one responded, still preoccupied with Reggie and the rest. It was as if I was invisible. And I knew that wasn’t a power I had.

The gathering of workers shifted from one door to the other, crossing the lobby to get the warehouse storage facility, where the trucks would have parked to load and unload if this place was actually being used for its intended purpose.

Tone broke away from the moving group, standing by my side, back on the wall. Sarah was right behind him. Beside us was a large, brown pot. No plant inside.

The Redhouse was temporary, and we had to treat it as such.

“Reggie’s getting them to put the money and dope where they belong,” Tone said, “But he wanted to thank you for coming along. Probably would have gone to shit if you hadn’t been there.”

“I’m sure you could have handled it without me,” I said. “I just… streamlined the process.”

Sarah crossed her arms. “We would have gotten fucked without you. So yeah, thank you, really, from all three of us.”

I shrugged, avoiding her gaze. “Don’t flatter me.”

“I’ll flatter you all day long, Voss, you can’t stop me.”

“Alright, quit it,” I said, looking back at them. I couldn’t help but crack a smile, even if it was a small one.

“Gross, Sarah,” Tone said. He was making a face, turning his nose up, like he had just smelled something rotten.

She jabbed him in the ribs, and he folded, leaning more into the wall for support. He didn’t see that coming.

“Ah, shit!”

“That’s what you get, asshole!”

Between them, they shared a laugh. It was probably routine for them, that bit. The laughter was infectious, and, despite my best attempts, my grin widened into a chuckle. I joined in with them.

I felt tension leave my body. My shoulders relaxed, my head felt clearer.

I hadn’t realized how damn stiff I was, up until now. Gunfire, fighting off a dog, then a gang, threatening kids… That weighed on the mind, affected the body.

I was still carrying some of that residual stress, subconsciously holding on to it as if I was waiting for something else to happen, another crisis to deal with. Being here, laughing and smiling, even with random strangers, somehow made that stress slowly erode away. It couldn’t completely disappear, there was always a chance that something would happen, a crisis, but to momentarily disregard all of that…

It did a lot for the mind.

I kept laughing, staying in the moment. Bit by bit, piece by piece, I was feeling less weary.

A small, cursory glance to the other Ghosts as they worked. It was like a kick to the chest.

I caught one of the Ghosts staring at us, then another.

Not at us. At me.

Eyebrows raised, head tilted. But they didn’t look curious, they looked disgusted.

Like they had just smelled something rotten.

It was enough to get me to stop. I dropped my smile, looked away, averting their stares.

A brief moment, but that pressure came back. I stiffened.

“I… gotta go,” I said, turning. “I’m going to find Lawrence.”

I pulled the gun out from my coat, careful to stay lowkey about it. I handed it to Sarah, who took it without saying a word.

“Give this back to Reggie, and I’ll leave the van to you guys.”

“Okay, Voss,” Sarah said. They had stopped laughing, but their grins remained. “See you later.”

I waved, then walked, crossing the lobby, trying to make my back straight.

Probably for the best, now’s not the time to relax.

I didn’t have to go to down the hall to find Lawrence. He found me, meeting me halfway.

He had gotten a change of clothes since the last time I saw him, earlier today. Swapped out his light jacket with something thicker, warmer. There was a tendency for it to get colder during the later hours, so he had probably prepared himself for that. The collar of his dress shirt underneath was folded over the collar of his sweater. He looked more prepared to give a lecture than lead a gang.

“Hey,” I said.

“Hey,” he said back. “I heard movement, saw it. got worried.”

“It’s the good kind of movement. I come bearing gifts.”

Wait, I already used that line, already.

Shoot. I needed to get back on track. Focus.

“So, I’m guessing it went well?” Lawrence asked.

“It did. We got the money back, and some drugs to resell if we need to. And we’re not in a position to be giving out shitty deals. Not anymore.”

“You’re right. Good job. But…”

He eyed me, from my head to my boots. I shifted my weight from one foot to the other. I was about to say something before Lawrence beat me to it.

“Did you get glasses?”

“Oh,” I said. I adjusted them, remembering I still had them on. “Yeah, bought them after the meeting.”

He looked like he was about to say more, but he commented on something else, instead. “What happened to your arm?”

I looked at my hand I used to adjust my glasses, then to the sleeve that covered my arm. Torn, strips of cloth hanging down, threads stuck together by sweat and slobber.

Man, I’m running out of clean clothes.

“Oh,” I said, rolling my sleeves up, to the forearms. “There was a… thing, with a dog, earlier. Don’t want to get into it.”

“A dog?”

“It was a big dog, okay?”

Lawrence brought his hands up.

“Hey, sure, I believe you.”

“Anyways,” I said, exhaling out the word. “Can we move this back to your office? There’s something I want to talk about.”

Lawrence reacted, a twitch of the neck, as if he was hesitant about the idea.

His words reflected that ounce of uncertainty.

“We can, yeah, sure.”

He lead the way back to the hall. I followed him into his office, leaving the rest of the Ghosts to go do their own thing. I could have taken one of the extra rooms for myself, have an office of my own, but I’d rather wait until we found a better place. It gave me a reason to work harder. I wanted to earn that office.

We entered, and I closed the door behind us.

Posters, posters everywhere. Pin-ups of models, posing alongside, or on top of, expensive-looking sports cars.

A terrible way to wash a vehicle, I thought.

There were other posters, considerably less risque, but they were few and far between. Horses, cacti, eagles. The land around the Redhouse was pretty much a grass and hills, so it fit, in a way.

“I’d take these down, but they were here before we moved in,” Lawrence said, taking a seat at his desk. A laptop sat open, facing him. “It feels weird to get rid of them now.”

“Sure, that’s why you won’t throw them away,” I said. I grabbed a stool by the door, moving it closer to Lawrence’s desk. I sat. “And not so you can sit around pretty girls all day.”

Lawrence coughed.

“That’s not, I wouldn’t-”

“It’s fine,” I said. “I don’t really care.”

He coughed again, then clearing his throat. He leaned over, trying to reach for one of the posters beside him, but his fingers were a few inches shy. His attempt was futile, and he reclined back into his seat.

A certain silence crept in. There wasn’t any electricity running through the building, the only source of light came from the window behind Lawrence. I could barely make out his features and expressions as he sat there, facing me.

Then, it had dawned on me that this was the first time I had ever been alone in a room with Lawrence.

I wasn’t sure how to start.

“Um-”

“I-”

We spoke over each other.

I gestured. “You go first.”

“Okay,” Lawrence said. “I was just going to say, also, I wasn’t expecting to see you again today, since we already had the meeting. Part of me was afraid that D might be with you. Doesn’t seem like it, though.”

“She’s not. I’ve actually been trying to contact her, but she hasn’t responded. Have you heard from her, recently?”

“Me? I haven’t, I try not to have her on my mind as much as possible. That means not texting her unless I absolutely have to.”

I frowned slightly. “You really have a bone to pick with her.”

Lawrence grunted, scoffed. He pushed away from his desk. He rested one foot on his knee, and leaned back into his chair.

“Can you blame me? She’s been a pain in my ass for as long as I’ve been in the game. She’d always try to pull something. At first, they were just stupid pranks, harmless enough. I’d reach for a blunt and it’s gone, or I’d wake up with some… thing, on my face.”

“Why the hell were you letting her get so close to you, then?”

“I don’t, she finds me. It’s like I have a target on my back. I didn’t ask for this, I didn’t ask for her.”

“But, those particular pranks you mentioned don’t sound too bad,” I said.

“You didn’t let me finish. At first, they were harmless. Later, she kicked it into high gear. Back when I was in El Carruaje, at the end of every month, Benny’s crew would do rounds to take a cut from whatever we earned from dealing. Guess who came up short, from time to time?”

“You did,” I ventured.

“Yeah, me. And any product I was selling got lost in the mix, too. Back then, I wanted to prove myself to those guys, to Benny, but D kept cutting me down every time.”

“That,” I started, but I wasn’t sure what to say. I closed my mouth.

“There’s other shit, too, but I try not to think on it. Let’s just say, the one time I actually find an opportunity to get back at her for all the shit she’s pulled… she crashes a fucking bus on me.”

“She crashed a…”

I was at a loss for words.

Lawrence rubbed at something on his cheek. I noticed a mark. Faint, but I noticed it. A scar. I recalled the first time I saw him, he had a bandage there.

D had put that there?

Lawrence continued, his tone more serious. Grave. “She dragged innocent people into that, and  I’m not even sure if everyone made it out alright. Fuck, I barely did. I was out of commission for a minute, and just when I’m starting to walk on my own two feet again, I see her, and you.”

I didn’t have anything to say.

There was also the fact that he had gotten shot, a consequence from being involved with a scheme D came up with. I wasn’t sure if that counted, but I wasn’t going to bring it up.

“Well, she’s helped since then,” I said, trying to find something to say about her. “Helping out around here, doing recon and surveillance on some other, smaller gangs, being the person in the chair. If it wasn’t for her, the Ghosts would be long gone, and I wouldn’t have found Benny.”

Lawrence moved around in his chair. The light behind him made it hard to see what expression he had.

“I’ll give you that she has her use, and that she promised to be good, and she’s largely kept to that, but you have to understand where I’m coming from. That girl, D, she’s a wild card, through and through. She just gives me these weird vibes.”

“Vibes?”

“Like, when I look at her, and there’s that light in her eyes, and she gives me that fucking smile… I just know that she’s not taking any of this seriously. It’s all just a game to her, and people are just pieces for her to move. I’ll admit to being biased, but I’m waiting for the day when the wool gets pulled away from my eyes, and I see just how bad I was being played with, the entire time.”

I sat there, completely still.

But I couldn’t just leave that alone.

“I think I do understand where you’re coming from, Lawrence, but there’s definitely a bias, there, and I don’t think you’re giving her a fair shot at this. I know she’s not like any other kid, but she still is one, and she deserves that chance.”

A long, exaggerated sigh came out of Lawrence. As if his very soul was being deflated.

“Yeah,” he said, sounding tired. “Maybe.”

Another stretch of silence entered the room, more pronounced with its presence. There would usually be the hum of machinery or people working in the background. We didn’t even have that. Even the lights seemed more dim, now.

“Sorry,” Lawrence said, then he sighed again. “I didn’t mean to go on a whole tangent, I wasn’t trying to ramble.”

“It’s okay, I don’t mind rambling, so long as you get some good points in there.”

Lawrence leaned forward, pressing a button on his laptop. A soft light illuminated him. “What was it you wanted to talk about?”

Right. We were finally wrapping around to what I originally wanted to discuss.

“I think I have an idea on how to get some forward momentum for the Ghosts.”

“Is that so?”

I nodded. “It came to me after I took care of our recent business. Tell me, do we have any gangs, or anyone, that owes us anything?”

Lawrence rubbed the side of his chin, scratching his neck. “There’s a few, some random kids, definitely some gangs we made deals with, deals they’re taking advantage of.”

I leaned, slouching a bit. “It’s not good to let these people walk all over you.”

He scowled, like he had taken it personally. “We were in a bad place, we still are. We have to do what we can in order to stay afloat.”

“And now,” I said, “There’s a way to not just keep our heads above water by paddling, and we can actually get to swimming.”

“Let me guess,” Lawrence said. “You want to pay these people a visit?”

“It’s not the most complicated idea, I admit, but we should try and keep things simple. For now, anyways.”

“And it’s better than nothing,” Lawrence said.

I straightened my back. “Better than nothing.”

Simple moves, to get us in a better position. Then, we can start setting up the more complex plays.

“How’d you want to go about this?” Lawrence asked.

I had thought about it, drafting plans in my head on the drive back here.

“Give me a list of everyone that owes us, from gangs to individuals. D and I will sort them by which ones are easier to hit, moving up from there. Then I go, and, you know, pay these people a visit, using your words.”

“Are you bringing anyone along with you on these visits, like Sarah or Reggie?”

“I thinking that it’ll just be me and D, with her in the chair, using my own words.”

Lawrence moved to rest his arms on his desk. He looked at me, as though he was expecting me to continue.

He knew there was more to my idea.

I continued.

“I hit them, I hit them hard, and I hit them from the dark. Scare them, shake them so they run off and warn others. Word spreads about a mysterious figure, taking out gang members in a single strike, foiling other plans they might have had. And then the rest of you quietly swoop in, take what they owe us, and then some. Territories, assets. A little bit at a time, but we can build something from that, brick by brick. Eventually, we obtain enough assets to be self-sustainable, and we can move from there.”

“And when you hit them,” Lawrence said, “Are you going to be wearing a mask?”

He’s thinking along the same lines.

“I will,” I said. “On the field, we act like we’re operating separately. From a outside perspective, there shouldn’t be a connection between the gangs we’re targeting. I’ll still be careful to not leave a trail, though.”

“So, I give you a list of targets, and you give me an opening for the Ghosts to slip right in.”

“Precisely,” I said. “But, about the Ghosts…”

“What?”

“This is just a suggestion, but how about we change the name?”

“Change it?”

“The name is soiled, people don’t take the Ghosts seriously. I know it, you know it. That’s why people think they can take advantage of your shit deals in the first place.”

“I thought that was why you and D came on board in the first place,” Lawrence said, more firm. “To clean that dirt off that name.”

“And that’s what I’m doing, but it’s easier if you start all over from a blank slate. Consider this, a new gang comes out of nowhere, taking hold in places other gangs got ran out of, growing stronger and larger by the day. No one knows where they came from, and, in their confusion and added distraction by yours truly, the gang continues to expand.”

I summed it up with my final point. “Keep the old name, you attract old enemies and grudges. Start fresh, and no one knows what to make of you. And by the time they figure it out, you’re in a position to keep them at a distance, afraid to get any closer.”

I added, “Believe me, a name change can do some good.”

Lawrence closed his eyes, long enough that I almost thought he had fallen asleep.

He opened his eyes, staring me down.

“Did you and D come up with this?”

“Just me, I’ll have to ask her what she thinks. But, I have a feeling she’ll be on board with it.”

“Of course she will be. It’s a crazy plan, and she’s fucked up in the head.”

I ignored that last part. “It’s a crazy plan, but it can work, and it’s better than nothing. What do you think?”

He took his time to answer.

“I think it’s crazy. But, I think it can work, too.”

I relaxed a bit, glad to hear that he was up to the idea.

“And about the name, I’ve never been too attached to it, so I’m down to hear any suggestions. If anything, you’ll have a harder time convincing them.”

He angled his head, looking past me. At the door, leading back to the other Ghosts.

“Them?” I asked.

“They’re still adjusting to the all the changes. Like you, and D.”

“It’s been a month. We had a New Year’s party.”

“Even then, it’s not like they suddenly forgot about the type of shit D pulled, or your previous occupation, even if you’re trying to distance yourself from that. You’re worried about old enemies and grudges? Well, once upon a time, they were your enemies, and they still hold a bit of a grudge from back then.”

I thought back to the look I had received from several of the Ghosts, when I was with Sarah and Tone. That look of distaste, repugnance.

On the whole, they still hadn’t accepted me.

Lawrence and the Ghosts. They had agreed to work together when I suggested it, but we were after a common enemy. Benny. It was easier to rally to take down someone rather than cooperate on something more nebulous. Like progress. With Benny gone, the goal was farther away, and those grudges sat closer to home.

It was another obstacle.

“If I bring in results, they’ll come around,” I said, mostly for myself to hear. “The three I brought with me today seemed to like me okay.”

“Those three?” Lawrence said, referring to Reggie, Tone, and Sarah.

“They even gave me a nickname. Voss.”

“Voss? Can’t say I get it.”

“It’s a play on-”

“Yeah, I know, I’m just saying. But, Reggie and them? They’re just nice people in general. The rest are just people, for better and worse. They’re normal.”

My expression must have revealed something, with Lawrence adding, “I wouldn’t worry about it too much. If I’m willing to work alongside you and D, of all people, that’ll be good enough for them. And don’t worry about them potentially double-crossing you. They won’t cross you, and they definitely won’t cross me. They’re not stupid.”

“That’s reassuring,” I said.

“It’s true. Just don’t completely fuck up, and we’ll be in good shape. Okay?”

“Okay.”

Lawrence exhaled, then he got out of his chair, closing his laptop. He picked it up.

“Alright, go ahead with your plan. I’ll get you that list. I’m looking forward to the results.”

“Me too.”

I remembered what D had said about Lawrence, that he’d do anything in order to take a step forward.

Then, this was it, for him. That step forward. And he was ready to take it.

I got out of my seat, pushing the stool to the side using my foot.

“Let’s get out of here,” Lawrence said. “It’s getting late, and I’m not about to stick around when it gets dark. It gets creepy in here.”

“Sure,” I said. I opened the door for him, and we headed out together.

The lobby was largely cleared out by the time we returned, tinted a deeper orange after some time had passed. Most of them probably left after a day of not having much to do, figuring they could do nothing, elsewhere. I didn’t see Reggie or Tone or Sarah, or the van we arrived in. Did they park it somewhere? Were they around?

I hoped so. I’d need a ride.

Close by the counter, two Ghosts were arguing. On occasion, they looked over to something over the counter, but I couldn’t catch it from this angle.

Lawrence and I both approached.

“There is no way she stopped it with her bare hands!”

“And I’m telling you she did.”

“I believe it.”

“You do?”

“You weren’t there that night, but you should have seen it, for real. Ask others who were there, they’ll tell you.”

“Man, y’all should have taken pics.”

“It wasn’t the time for that.”

“What’s this about?” Lawrence asked. They all stopped talking, and turned. Including D.

“D?” I questioned, looking across the counter. She was sitting on a rolling chair, on her knees, elbows propped on the countertop.

Bonsoir. Oh, nice glasses. They’re cute.”

“Uh, thanks,” I said.

“Alright, what’s this all about?” Lawrence asked again, stern.

The shorter of the two Ghosts answered. A teenager, several years older than me.

I really need to learn all of your names.

“She came in, Boss, just now.”

“At this hour?”

D explained. “I got Wendy’s texts, so I came over.”

“Did you?” I asked. I pulled out my phone, checking for any new messages. None.

“Whoa, what’s with your sleeve?” D asked.

“If you had come by earlier, you would’ve gotten that story.”

“It wasn’t a very detailed story,” Lawrence commented.

I gave him a look.

I drew my attention back to D, and there was a longing in her eyes, like she was a puppy I had denied treats to.

I shook my head.

When it finally hit her that I wouldn’t budge, she glowered.

“Sorry I’m late then, I was caught in some stuff.”

I felt something stir within me.

“What kind of stuff?” I asked.

“Personal stuff.”

Again, that stir.

“Like?”

“Hey, I have a life outside of this, you know. I’ve got other business.”

I wasn’t trying to, but I left a gap in the conversation, where I should have responded, but I didn’t.

As much as I was satisfied with how my talk with Lawrence went, what he had to say about D brought back feelings I thought I had packed away already.

Not suspicion, but a second guess.

“Next time, at least text me that you read the message,” I said. “And tell me if you’re sending people my way. We’re lucky that it worked out in the end, but don’t spring them on me like that. It’s not fair on me, and it’s not fair on them.”

D actually looked remorseful.

“I can do that,” she said.

I almost laughed.

I felt like a parent, constantly reminding their child of what they should or should not be doing.

I wasn’t going to do this, I wasn’t going to be like that. Paranoia towards the enemy was one thing, but paranoia towards partners would tear me, us, apart.

Had to keep my head on straight. Focus.

“Anyways,” I said, “It’s actually good timing that you’re here. There’s something I pitched to Lawrence that you’re going to want to hear.”

“Neat, I like pitches. They’re like little idea seeds.”

“Idea what?”

“Then you’ll love this one,” Lawrence said. He turned to the other two Ghosts. He said something in Spanish, and they responded. He gestured, and they each took a step away from the counter, about to leave.

Before they went, I caught their eyes, the looks our way. My way.

Similar to the other Ghosts from before. Wary.

The shorter one seemed like he had something to say, with the way he kept glancing at me, but he kept it zipped.

It seemed like Reggie, Tone, and Sarah were the exceptions to that rule.

Another thing to deal with.

Then, they left, and it was only us three. The leaders of this gang.

“I’ll be heading out, too,” Lawrence said.

Or not.

“You are?” I asked.

“I’ve heard it already, so you tell D and get things sorted out with her. And, I’ve got a stack of movies I’ve been meaning to marathon. I need a break, yo.”

“No problem,” I said. “Enjoy your movies.”

“No shit I will. Text me when you’re both ready, so we can coordinate all of this, together. And, Wendy?”

“Hm?”

“I, um, never mind.”

He turned, scratching his chin, covering his face with his hand. The cheek that had the small scar.

Alright, I thought.

“Don’t hide your feelings, Lawrence,” D said. “Speak your heart!”

“Fuck off,” Lawrence said, but didn’t sound that mad. “Catch you later.”

He left, walking at a pace a notch or two below jogging.

I turned back to D. “What’s that about?”

“He’s just being dramatic,” she replied, still watching him as went through the doors. “But that’s what I like about him.”

“You like him?”

“Not like that,” she said, hurried. “I like his reactions when I tease him. He’s dramatic.”

“I wouldn’t call that him being dramatic, per se.” I put the word ‘dramatic’ in air quotes. “Anyone would be a bit paranoid after what you’ve put them through.”

“I suppose.”

“Apparently, you crashed a bus on him.”

That was a story I just had to know.

D pushed away from the counter, falling into her seat. She rolled back a foot or so.

She groused.

“I said I was sorry.”

She didn’t add to that. Too bad.

“Sorry’s not going to cut it,” I said.

“What, you want me to say sorry again? Last time, I had to lock the both of us in that room, and I wouldn’t let him out until he accepted my apology.”

D pointed behind her. A storage closet.

I huffed air out of my nose. I tapped my fingers on the countertop.

“That doesn’t help any. You know, just, don’t say anything. Just do. Promise you’ll behave, and you’ll do right by him. Actions do speak louder than words.”

“I already made that promise, geez. He still gets to kill me if I step out of line. And technically, it’s still like that with you, too.”

I was astounded that she could bring that up so casually.

“Right. So don’t give him any reminders. Or me, for that matter.”

D smiled.

“Shoot, everyone’s been getting on my back today. I can’t catch a break.”

She giggled to herself.

I brought my hands together, intertwining my fingers. I had a point I needed to get to, and I kept getting distracted by all of these changes in all of these conversations.

“Well, if you’re interested, I have an idea that will help us get in everyone’s good graces.”

“What, your pitch?”

“My pitch.”

D reached forward, pulling herself closer. She propped her knees back on the seat, pushing herself up with her arms to look at me, eye level.

Close, she studied me.

“From the looks of it,” she said. “It sounds like it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

Was that shown on my face? Could she actually read me that easily?

Oh well.

“I’m thinking it will be,” I said.

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Omake.03 (Bonus)

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*These are to be read right to left, then from top to bottom. Click them to see a larger version. Enjoy!

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058 – Rotting Cores

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Give me a break.

The guy continued to ramble.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I went to the door, keeping the TV on.

“You’re early this time,” I told D.

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

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

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

“Consider it made up. Come in.”

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

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

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

Speaking of…

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

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

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

Another thing on the list. Like doing the laundry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh. That was… up there.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I like it,” I said.

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

“But?” D asked.

But.

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

“Still?” D questioned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I sighed. “Yeah, it can.”

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

That question could be potentially loaded.

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

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

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

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

D grinned again, showing teeth, her eyes closed.

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

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

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

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

I was just lucky she was on my side.

“Noted,” I said again.

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

“How’d you do it?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

I swore I saw her blush.

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

Worth.

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

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

And that freaked me out.

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

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

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

Maybe she knew that I knew.

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

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

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

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

“The sorest,” D replied, hard.

Too late. She was pissed.

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

“Deal?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

D looked at me, blinking.

“You like me?”

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

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

“I was borrowing it.”

“Same difference.”

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

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

“Not now?”

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

“I’m holding you to that, then.”

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

She said that part with a wink.

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

“What does, what?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good point. Let’s go.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Temporary.

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

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

“Ready?” I asked.

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

“Won’t that take time?”

D grinned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I didn’t have anything for myself.

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

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

“I hafd-” D started, but she coughed.

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

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

“I had a light breakfast.”

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

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

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

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

“That’s your starting bit?” D asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The less I know, the better.

It was easier to think that way.

“And the bad news?” I asked.

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

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

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

“Okay, so we just find one.”

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

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

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

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

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

D and Lawrence shared a look.

“Mister,” D said.

Mister.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nope,” I said.

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

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

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

D said that as she ate a small fry.

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

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

He snapped his fingers.

“We’re snuffed out, just like that.”

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

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

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

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

He turned back to me.

“Look, um, Wendy-”

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

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

“But what?”

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

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

But I had to try.

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

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

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

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

“Shut it,” he said.

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

I received nods from the two.

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

And that was worth acknowledging.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He’s tolerating us.”

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

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

“Aw, would you miss me?”

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

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

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

I thought about it.

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

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

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

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

A lot of work, running a gang.

Bonus                                                                                               Next

Interlude – V

Previous                                                                     Bonus

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

Darn, the girl thought.

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

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

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

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

Darn.

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

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

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

Maybe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pink.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How about… ah, Alexis?”

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

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

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

Alexis was completely alone.

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

Darn.

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

Something about… God, and Jesus… and giving.

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

She ventured a guess.

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

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

She wasn’t satisfied with that answer.

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

Ugh.

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

Alexis was a waste of time.

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

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

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

Alexis held up three fingers to accentuate her point.

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

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

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

It filled Alexis with a strange sense of satisfaction.

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

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

A new scene was being recalled.

An intimate one, but also equally not so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Attention.

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

She was too different from them.

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

Other stuff. Stuff she’d never done before.

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

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

The scene collapsed before anything more could happen.

New actors, new props. Everything was moved around.

Another recall.

The new scene started with an explosion.

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

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

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

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

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

And blow up it did.

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

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

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

Alexis pushed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But…

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

Here, at the bottom.

I’m a terrible person.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No voiced answer. The darkness emitted.

“Oh.”

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

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

The darkness relented, and the scenes dissipated.

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

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

The girl managed a smile.

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

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

“It’s us.”

Spoken as an objective fact. The truth.

The darkness reacted.

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

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

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

A checkerboard.

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

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

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

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

Under her own power, the girl stood.

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

“Hey, Alexis?”

V responded. “Yeah?”

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

V smiled, warm. “I’m okay.”

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

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

“Ow, what’d I do?”

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

V found the whole thing amusing.

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

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

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

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

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

V checked her watch.

“Emily, babe, I wasn’t actually…”

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

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

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

“I dunno, am I?”

His concerned expression dropped, replaced by a grin.

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

“How long have you two been together?”

It was Maria that asked.

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

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

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

Maria gave a look of shock.

“You said no?”

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

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

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

Justin pointed two thumbs in his direction.

“This guy!”

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

“Babe, I was kidding, I was joking…”

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

V checked her watch again.

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

“Oh, um, right.”

V had to tell herself to stop checking.

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

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

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

“That sounds like a dream.”

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

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

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

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

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

V spun her straw around the lid of the glass.

“Nothing really. Just waiting.”

“Just waiting?”

“Yup.”

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

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

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

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

“Like a kind of refuge?” Maria asked.

“Kind of, I guess.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What thing?” Emily asked.

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

Emily gave a her own look of shock.

“Holy shit, six months?”

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

“Oh. Handsome guy?”

“Oh yeah,” Maria said, sounding proud.

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

“That’s what I tell myself.”

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

Emily made a grunt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glowing?

“I am not,” V said.

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

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

She settled for drinking more water.

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

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

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

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

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

“For now.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m full of surprises,” Maria said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The man yelled at the nearest waitress.

“You speak English?”

The waiter struggled to get out a word.

The man yelled some more.

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

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

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

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

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

V checked her watch. She waited.

“Sir, please calm down.”

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

The man’s face contorted.

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

“Sir, you said thirty minutes.”

The man just yelled.

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

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

Everyone began to voice their protest.

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

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

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

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

“I agree,” another said. A girl.

The man clearly did not agree.

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

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

V got up from her seat.

“Alexis?” Katy questioned.

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

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

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

“Fuck you doing here?” he asked.

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

V had thought over her words.

The man chuckled.

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

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

V was among that select few.

“Alexis!”

She heard Katy from behind.

“Damn you, don’t!”

V ignored her for the last time.

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

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

V swung with her arm, aiming for-

No.

A finger was faster than an arm.

The shot rang out.

V dropped.

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

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

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

V played dead.

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

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

She was being lifted.

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

“We’re moving out!”

The man. He sounded close.

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

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

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

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

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

The man was barking orders.

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

V was tossed, landing on leather.

Tires screeched as the door slid closed.

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

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

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

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

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

A yell, but the voice was small. Young.

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

“Wakey wakey.”

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

She needed time to get her bearings.

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

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

V pushed her hair back, fixing loose strands.

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

Someone else answered. The driver.

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

“Awesome.”

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

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

I really am a sentimental one.

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

“You’re late, Dor-,” V said.

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

D smiled wider.

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

She looked pleased with herself for making the various references.

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

“Something sweet, please,” Wendy said.

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