102 – Wings of Wax

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Wind brushed through my hair, sweeping it past one ear. Sarah was right, my hair had gotten long.

I fixed it myself, brushing a loose strand away from my face. A nibbling want in the back of head was asking for Sarah to do it for me.

And I could have. She was right there.

Seemed like it would have been too much, though.

The sun shined without a single cloud to block its rays. A week had passed since the rain and clouds greyed the skies. Now, it was a clear blue that pierced through.

Outside, sitting by the storefront of a cafe. I was exposed to the elements, but it was something I could weather.

Cold air nipped, but it didn’t bite. I could still feel the tip of my nose, my face as it got warm when I looked. Outside, but I hadn’t gone numb. Just the opposite, really. I was in a flutter.

“Is this a good spot?”

I was already looking at her when she asked.

A bright red hat, or a beret, whatever she called it. It was petite in size, and it didn’t look goofy when she wore it. I could imagine it looking stupid on me.

She had round shades that framed her face, a scarf that bundled around her neck. A black sweater and coat made her outfit even more trendy and chic. She didn’t have to go all out today, but she did, but it was hard muster any disappointment when she looked that good.

A pair of jeans had completed the look, but I couldn’t see them from where I was, across the round metal table chair we were sharing. But I had already stolen a glance or several on our way over here.

Oh right. There was a question I had to answer.

“Should be,” I said, finally getting to it. “It’s not like we can move now. You already got a coffee.”

“We can move,” Sarah said. “Do you want to move?”

“We don’t have to. This can work.”

“But it can be better. If you want to, we can go somewhere else.”

“I said it’s fine.”

“I want to do what you think works best.”

I glanced up at her, trying to wear the most annoyed expression on my face. Trying, because it was only an attempt.

Sarah was across from me, holding her cup, covering her mouth with it, as if she was hiding behind it. From how her eyes crinkled at the corners, I could tell she was wearing a knowing smirk. It immediately broke through any facade I had.

As I thought, it was only an attempt.

Me. Sarah. The very idea that we could even fit in the same sentence. Sarah and I.

A week, and I still couldn’t wrap my head around it.

That slow day had been extended into seven more, marked with late nights and later mornings, waking well after the sun had already gotten up. It was a routine of sorts, and I wouldn’t have minded if it actually became routine. I could absolutely get used to the pattern we were falling into.

It did leave me with a nagging thought, however, like how fragile everything was, or how fragile I perceived everything to be, and how that affected my approach in things. This. The longer this went, the more scared I was that this could get ripped away from me. My whole existence, I felt, was a shaky and tumultuous one, not exactly the best foundation to start building… anything. At the very end, it might be akin to stacking a house of cards. It would be easy, for this to crumble.

I didn’t want this to crumble.

It made me second-guess myself. Just how serious was I supposed to take this? Was this a real thing, or was this just the current state of affairs?

Where did Sarah stand? Did it matter? Did I want it to?

Why was I always overthinking things?

I looked at Sarah again, like a habit, a routine. I thought it would a certain effect, but I found the opposite. My heart raced even faster.

From behind that cup, I could see the edges of her expression, the corners of her lips, turned up. So bright that there needed to be something to block it. Couldn’t be faced straight on.

But, at least in this very moment, those concerns seemed to melt away. There was only this, and if I could get myself to sit here and enjoy this, I might be able to relax.

It was a promising dream.

Sarah placed her cup back into the saucer. It was a smooth, practiced movement. Cool. Something I could never hope to replicate, myself.

What wasn’t cool, was when the wind tried to intrude on us again, blowing stray strands into my eyes. I had to fix my hair and glasses both.

“Let me get that.”

A hand reached for me, fingers brushing into my hair, pushing it to one side. It didn’t seem to help much, as the wind came back to try and undo most of the work. Maybe Sarah had the right idea, wearing a hat today.

I wasn’t about to complain. I didn’t even have to ask, that time. I’d let her take the lead. A small part of our routine.

Finally, the wind relented, and Sarah could start making some progress on me. Or my hair, rather. I angled myself forward, so she could have an easier time with it. It was only a few stray, but she fussed over it for much longer than she really had to.

Again, no complaints there.

“There,” Sarah said, seemingly satisfied with the results. She sat back into her seat. I was still sitting forward, lingering there, with something on the tip of my tongue, that nibbling want returning. I was hoping she would get that, too.

She didn’t, but I couldn’t fault her for it.

It hit me, where we were again. Outside, sitting at a cafe, people watching. Meaning that there were people around us.

Was I being too obvious?

I sat myself back, feeling a touch flustered over it. Stupid.

“Wendy.”

She was watching me, now. Or maybe she had been, this whole time.

“Yes?”

“Enjoying yourself?”

I could answer that honestly.

“Of course I am. Of course.”

I touched my hair. Then I realized it was the third time I had done that.

“But?” Sarah ventured.

I let out a breath.

“It’s not, it’s not any one thing, there’s just a lot on my mind, right now. But hey, isn’t everyone like that?”

“Sure, but you are not everyone. You are you.”

“I guess I am. But there’s more to it than that. I, um, sorry, I’m not trying to be lame right now.”

“We have time for lame.”

I really wasn’t trying to get into this now. But, we did have the time, I supposed. And we had to fill it with something. I supposed.

Sarah knew how to draw this stuff out of me. It was a dangerous power.

I started with a question.

“How does it taste? Your coffee?”

Sarah’s reaction was crucial. I watched for it.

There wasn’t one. Too muted and understated. She took it completely serious.

I found some comfort, in that.

Another part of our new routine. Whatever she tasted, she would share with me. We couldn’t exactly share a meal, so this was the closest thing we had.

Sarah lifted her chin, slight, lifting a finger to tap a steady rhythm as she thought. She was playing it up, I knew that much, even that was crucial to me. Sarah wanted me to know that she was putting in that effort. And that said so much to me that I couldn’t even begin to translate it. I knew how it made me feel, though. It made my eyes all watery.

Good nights, better mornings.

“Well, according to the menu, these beans were from South America. Columbia. So it has a tendency to be more sweet, not so acidic. But, it can have a nutty hint to it.”

A soft chuckle. “Nutty, huh? Sounds nutty.”

That prompted something similar from Sarah. “Sure is.”

“What else?” I asked. “You added, like, sugar and cream, right?”

I wanted to know more, demanded it. I wanted to savor every detail she could give me, I wanted to be selfish.

She said we’d have the time. She would have to indulge me.

“I did. There’s a natural sweetness to it, but, coffee is coffee. It’s always going to be bitter by itself. I had to punch it up with some sugar, some cream. Not too much, though, I didn’t want to spoil its original taste.”

“Can’t have that,” I said. “But I know how much of a sweet tooth you have.”

“I guess you do,” Sarah said. Then she smiled. “Am I describing it right? Or am I just boring you?”

“Not at all,” I replied. “I can’t get enough, really.”

“You are you,” she said, as if it was a matter of fact.

“And coffee is coffee,” I said, in much the same way. “Thank you so much, Sarah. I probably wouldn’t have been able to make it through this week if it weren’t for you.”

Sarah’s smile was warmer than the weather.

“I think you’d do just fine. But you know, not as fine if I wasn’t around.”

Her smile turned into a smirk. That effect had yet to diminish on me.

“I will not disagree with you there,” I said.

Our surroundings stirred, passing us by. People, cars in the distance, the wind. But there wasn’t anything to be concerned over. Not for a little while longer. It was just us, sitting here, stationary and completely in the moment. It was almost like nothing else mattered. That I could just… be here, and do this. With Sarah.

This, this right here? It wasn’t for V, and it sure as hell wasn’t for Alexis Barnett. This was mine, and mine alone. Wendy.

I knew it would be fleeting, and would escape from my grasp like sand from an hourglass. But for now, I’d use every ounce of my enhanced strength and hold on for as long as inhumanly possible.

“Once things start picking up again, it’s going to get harder to slip some time in during the day,” I said, “For stuff like this.”

“You’re right,” Sarah said. “It will be a hassle. But I doubt it’ll turn into a mess.”

“I hope not.”

“Which means I probably shouldn’t be coming over as often.”

I frowned at the prospect of that.

“That doesn’t sound fun at all.”

Sarah frowned, too, but it was a sympathetic one.

“I know, but there’s fun and there’s being realistic. People are starting to ask questions.”

“People? Who?”

She lifted a shoulder, nothing too committal.

“I’m kidding. Well, Reggie, even Tone. There’s only so many times they call me up for drinks and I’m not available, and I’m running out of excuses.”

“Just say work has been holding you up or something.”

“I don’t think that will fly so far when we all work for the same boss.”

“Well that sucks,” I said, plainly. There was a bit of sadness in those words that I didn’t expect, and I hoped they didn’t ring out, clear enough for Sarah’s ears to pick up.

I wanted her, I wanted this. And it sucked how fragile and how easy this could slip out of my hands. Or like it could get yanked away by a string.

I pressed my lips together and huffed. Hard enough to mess up my bangs, my hair.

I was overreacting.

“We’ll just have to pace ourselves,” Sarah said. As though she knew what was on my mind. “I’m still coming over tonight.”

I tried to stop myself from showing something on my face, but I didn’t have a cup to block Sarah’s view of me.

Darn.

From what she showed on her face, she saw. Darn. But whatever. I didn’t really care.

“Sweet,” I said.

“It is.”

This… I could have spent the rest of the day doing this. Another thirty minutes here, just chatting, then we could go to the Realm and look at clothes, maybe do some shopping. Then we could either go for dinner at the food court there, or a nearby place, or just take something and bring it back to my apartment. We’d watch a movie, maybe two, and just hang out until it got too late for Sarah to try and drive back home.

And then we would…

We’d do other stuff.

Thoughts crystallized in my head as they came to me. Too much to say out loud.

Before either of us could say something else, though, a new scene arrived. Not to pass us by, but to interrupt.

A car squealed as it swerved around a corner, music booming out of the open windows. Loud enough to turn heads, even ours, and I recognized it in an instant.

The gears turned in my head. Like I had put on my mask. The objective reason why I had come out, today.

“They’re here,” I said.

I remained seated, only watching as the car straightened onto the new street. The street the cafe was on. It was a silver muscle car, with black stripes running along the edges of the machine. It sprinted down the length of the street, squealing again as it came to a halt. The front of a general store on the other side.

The muscle car sat in park for a minute, rumbling with power, as if to flex what it had. They definitely weren’t shy about their presence.

Other people started to move on, going about the rest of their day. For me and Sarah, this was part of our day.

Doors on each side opened, people getting out. Four of them, not the driver, the car was still rumbling, alive.

They circled around, going into the store. It was a small detail, hard to see from a distance, but I saw it. A sign on the store’s entrance flipped to ‘closed.’

“I hate those guys already,” Sarah said. I heard her fingernail tap against her cup, irritated. “Cutting into our date like that?”

“Don’t worry,” I told her, kind of happy to hear Sarah call this a date, “If anything, we’re the ones that’ll do the cutting. We were waiting for them.”

“Figured that much, but what should I look out for?”

“You don’t have to do anything. We’re just here to confirm things.”

“And that’s it? Just for that?”

Sarah had raised the pitch of her voice. It made my face get all warm and dumb.

“And our date, of course,” I stammered.

“That’s all I wanted to hear.”

“Lame,” I said. “So so lame.”

We both shared a small laugh.

I kept my watch on the car ahead, though, the store. Nothing we could glean from this position, but we weren’t here to find out what they were up to. We just needed to know that they were here in the first place. Our territory.

According to D, who had gotten it from Nathan, some of youth who happened to live within our borders were becoming more and more… displeased with the changes happening around them.

Looking at it from their perspective, I could see it. The Thunders and the Royals had been rooted in the community, they had grown from it. And, from somewhere in the dark, those roots were ripped out, and another group moved in to fill in the cracks and gaps. How we operated was different than how they worked, pushing different weight, tagging different tags, and stamping out threats in different ways. My way.

It would make sense for the younger ones to want to rebel. With everything that was going down in the city, not unlike a downward spiral, their home was the last the place they wanted to start breaking apart, not making sense. They’d work to take it back, or they’d try, at least. I could give them that.

But that was as much as I’d give them.

Whatever it was they were planning, they wouldn’t get far. The Fangs were already onto them, ready to bite. We just had to keep an eye on them, wait until they were about to make a move, then we’d would go and pay them a visit. Give them a good enough scare as V so they wouldn’t try anything again.

It was a simple plan, but this was a simple problem. Just part of the process of holding onto a territory. Mundane, in all honesty.

I looked at the sign above the store and tried to read it. Tried, because I couldn’t read those characters.

Chinese, definitely not Japanese. But it was a store owned by someone from the Asian community.

A small detail, but it was too early to draw any conclusions with that.

For now, I’d watch. With Sarah.

“Any thoughts so far?” Sarah asked.

“Thoughts? I think we’ll be able to handle this. It just some unruly kids. Nothing I haven’t dealt with, myself.”

I thought of D when I said that. Not so much Isabella.

“I can imagine,” Sarah said.

“Yeah, and it looks like you picked a good spot for us, after all. We have an eye on them, and we’re at a safe distance. And I can hear all about your delicious coffee.”

“You still haven’t had enough?”

“I am always up for more.”

“Well, you know, I’m just trying to do my part.”

She sounded pleased with herself.

“And you’re doing great,” I said.

“Are you referring to anything in particular?”

“Everything,” I said.

It was a moment that ultimately came and went, but I managed to get a hold on it, if only for a short moment.

The moment passed, and then it was back to work.

My phone buzzed in my pocket. I kept my eyes on the store and the car as I got it out, only glancing to check the new message.

My heart skipped a small beat.

“Done with your coffee?” I asked Sarah.

“Just about,” she said. “Why? We’re heading out?”

“Just about,” I answered. “Got a text from Lawrence. Looks like the committee has come to a decision, and they’re ready to tell us.”

“Meaning?”

“We’re about to see if we’ll get a seat at the round table, and be among the leaders of the biggest gangs in Stephenville.”

“That’s exciting.”

“If it works out, sure,” I said. “Lawrence must be freaking out over it.”

I am, too, but I can’t tell you about it.

Pangs of guilt. There had been one when I considered Lawrence, but now…

I hated the thought of hiding this from Sarah. My real plan with the city and the Fangs. She was in the dark about all of it, and it hurt.

Was there a way of getting her out, before it was too late? Bring her with me? Would she even want to be there, when it all fell down? At my side?

It hurt, thinking about it.

There was still this, though, this moment. If I could hold it…

“We should get ready for when Lawrence calls for us again,” I said, “No need to stick around anymore.”

“We got what needed from here?”

“We did.”

The two of us prepared to leave, gathering our belongings, and for my part, gathering my thoughts.

The Fangs, the table, Lawrence, Sarah. When all was said and done, what would be left? Who would still be around?

The thought of being alone, it froze me cold. Worse than the weather around us.

“So the rest of our day is put on hold?” Sarah questioned. Disappointed.

I was, too.

“Doesn’t have to be,” I said. “We should have some time before then.”

Sarah looked relieved to hear that, in a way that set me at ease.

“Then let’s not waste any more time.”

I nodded, unable to suppress a coming grin. I’d let it get plastered on my face, even if it looked stupid. Because with Sarah, it was the only time I could show some stupidity, without any real consequences.

“If it’s you,” I said, “I don’t want to waste a second.”

“You’re right on time.”

Mrs. Carter didn’t sound impressed as she addressed us.

“Not a second late,” Lawrence said. “Wouldn’t miss this for the world.”

This was it. The moment of truth.

Ironic, since we had to cover up the truth to get here.

We were back at the table. It was round, yet Mrs. Carter somehow managed to find the head of the table and position herself there. Part of the effect could have been attributed to the fact that she was standing, angling herself so she looked down on everyone, even Styx, but I figured it was more simple than that.

She just commanded presence.

Everyone was on edge. Or, it was either that, or I was so on edge that I projected that onto everyone else. Every scratch, itch, cough, shake of the head. Every low chuckle from Styx.

I could feel my stomach twist into knots. Knots into knots. The tension was so tight that it might snap.

It probably would, if this went on for any longer-

I nearly jumped out of my seat.

Something tapped my leg, by my thigh. Stiff, I looked in that direction.

Sarah passed me a glance. It was only through her eyes, there were too many others on us for anything else to be shared.

I’d take it, though. It helped.

My eyes went back up to Mrs. Carter, and I scrounged up the confidence needed to just shut up and let Lawrence do the talking.

Lawrence did the talking.

“So should we move along with the… with the proceedings? It would be naïve of me, us, the Fangs, to assume that this is the most important part of your night. This meeting.”

“Naïve, yes, but this does deserve the appropriate weight. To not do would be rather… ignorant of us.”

Styx chuckled again, from his far corner. Off to the side, but his presence was still known. It seemed fitting. His voice had a harrowing note to it.

Lawrence nodded. It was shaky, uncertain.

“Then, what’s the verdict? The suspense is, uh, killing me.”

“It’s not suspense that’s going to kill you, boy!”

Styx hollered from across the space. The crackling noise rattled my very bones.

Mrs. Carter remained cool and calm. It was wonder that they seemed to work together, that she even tolerated him at all. They were the polar opposites, representing the different parts of the crime that gripped Stephenville. From the grime of Styx’s domain, to the upper echelon that I could associate Mrs. Carter with. And yet, there wasn’t any friction, not from what I could see. Then again, I didn’t exactly have a good view on things. Not from this seat.

She let Styx settle before she took back control of the room again.

“What he is implying, is that we operate in a volatile world, where nothing is guaranteed. This whole time, you’ve only had a taste of just how changeable it really is. Complacency is the enemy of survival. Even I believe you all need a reminder of that. Everyone at this table.”

Everyone at this table exchanged looks. Not to us, though. Everyone who was here to represent the Fangs were too frozen to move.

Mrs. Carter was still facing forward, eyes trained on us.

“But, it’s a lesson we will all learn. As part of this table.”

There was a pause. Lawrence was supposed to say something, but he didn’t.

He let the moment hang. The appropriate weight.

“As part of this table?” Lawrence repeated.

“Yes,” Mrs. Carter said. “Everyone here, me and Styx excepted, have already taken their vote. Those seats you’re sitting in now? You’ve earned them. Congratulations.”

We heard that word, that confirmation. It still didn’t feel real.

I almost couldn’t believe it.

“We’re in?” I asked. The first words I’d spoken since walking into this building.

“Yes. Of course, there’s still a significant discrepancy between yourselves and the rest, but nevertheless, you now share common ground.”

You now share common ground.

I noted the distinction. Separating herself from everyone else at the table. Mrs. Carter wasn’t seated, she was looking down at us. On us.

But I could forgive that. Because we got it, we were here. The Fangs were now considered among the top gangs of the city. The snake was allowed among the rats.

“That, well, that’s… that’s good news,” Lawrence said, breaking his own silence. His own voice broke a little.

“Don’t let the new height you’ve reached make you dizzy,” Mrs. Carter said. It sounded like something of a warning. “As I mentioned, there is a difference in might between you and the rest here, and it is very real.”

“We’ll keep that in mind.”

“And you were put here on a vote. And it wasn’t unanimous. In fact, it results were more narrow than the initial one.”

That was worth noting. I looked at the faces around us. D’Angelo. Arthur. Inez.

Of everyone here, D’Angelo seemed the most pleased about this development. Could we have counted on him to have voted in our favor, again?

Wait. D’Angelo had helped in swinging the vote our way, last time. It couldn’t have gotten more narrow than that. If we had somehow cut it that close, then who had broken the tie, this time?

Styx chuckled, low. It was like he thrived on keeping me on my toes, unsettled.

No, not like. He absolutely did.

“Then we still have a lot of work ahead of us,” Lawrence said.

“Yes, you do,” Mrs. Carter said. “We all do.”

“I don’t suppose those results are confidential? We were here for the initial round of voting.”

Mrs. Carter gestured, spreading her arms.

“You’re here now, aren’t you? As a word of advice, I would just focus on that work you ahead. Work produces its own results. Use that.”

“I suppose we will. Is there, is there anything else you need from us?”

“At this juncture, I do not. For now, just work on getting yourselves in good standing and position here, and I can handle the rest.”

What ‘the rest’ was, Mrs. Carter didn’t share. If I wanted things to go my way, we would have to get ahead of her, too. Find out what her plans were.

Added to the pile of work ahead of us. But the results would be worth it.

“We can definitely do that,” Lawrence said. It was the most certain he had sounded all night.

“Good. Then the only word I have left to say is… welcome.”

With another gesture, and a step back, Mrs. Carter was done. She relinquished control of the room, and the whole table was free to move about.

People got up from their seats. Some went to chat with each other, mingling, while others kept their focus on us, guarded, as if we were liable to strike at any moment.

We would, just not in any way that would be clear to them.

Lawrence stood. Sarah and I joined him.

“Shit,” Lawrence gasped. He exhaled the word. He leaned away when he scratched the side of his neck.

“Shit,” I said.

Sarah commented. “What you guys said. You did it.”

“You had a part in this too, Sarah,” I said. “Don’t count yourself out.”

“I guess I can’t then.” Sarah smiled. “Shit.”

I would have smiled, too, looking at her, but the pangs were even sharper, now that I was getting so close.

“I think I’m about to have a panic attack,” Lawrence said.

We had gotten good news, the best turn our gang had taken since getting started. Upward mobility, as D had mentioned once, a long while back.

Good news, and Lawrence looked like he had been told that a close friend had passed.

He was sweating, his forehead glistening, dots of white reflected from the lights above us. For his part, he was smiling, but it was weak, underselling how relieved he must have really been on the inside.

Lawrence was dressed sharp, but he still wasn’t looking his best. It had been a week since he gave us a scare, and he didn’t seem to like like he had improved. He was going through his own pangs.

“Next thing on our list is going to be an intervention,” I said. I had to keep my voice low. “You can’t keep going like this, Lawrence. This isn’t healthy.”

“I can manage,” Lawrence protested. He coughed, despite himself.

“That is a dangerous game you are playing, Lawrence. You said it yourself, you hate half-hearted bullshit. You loathe it, to use your own words. You have to put in the proper effort, or we might end up losing everything.”

“Yeah? Like how I asked you to keep digging into the source of your powers? What’s inside you? How is that going?”

Those questions were like a slap in the face. Too stunned to give a proper reply.

But Lawrence continued.

“Just as I thought. Motherfucker. Unless you have a real answer for me, I really don’t want to hear it.”

Sarah pleaded. “Guys, not now.”

Lawrence didn’t stop.

“And you know, you’re so certain that it was someone else who gave you your powers. Another monster, another vampire. Where are they now? Did they fuck off and go into hiding? Or did they get hunted? What if someone got to them? And what happens when that someone decides that it’s your turn to be hunted? It would only be a matter of time, Wendy.”

“Lawrence!”

Sarah hissed at him.

“This isn’t the time, and it definitely isn’t the place. So please, just leave it be.”

Sarah was sticking up for me. I couldn’t even speak for myself.

The idea of being hunted…

Lawrence stared at Sarah. There was a mad look in his eye, like he had to process the fact that she was even here at all.

He wanted to say more, I could see that, too, but we were interrupted.

“Wendy!”

D’Angelo was as flamboyant as ever, walking with his cane, using his limp to give more swing in his stride. As he grinned, I could have sworn it was brighter than lights reflecting off Lawrence’s skin.

“Yes sir,” I said, not wanting to show any hint of the previous argument. No one needed to hear that.

“I just wanted to personally congratulate you all for passing the test. You did good work, and it you were rewarded for those efforts.”

“Thanks. Feels like we barely made it, though.”

“There’s nothing else to feel at the moment but pride.”

Can I really be proud over having seen to the deaths of two journalists?

I’d let that question remain a passing thought. The pangs were sharp enough as they were.

“Would it be safe to assume that you casted your vote for us?”

Lawrence went straight to it.

D’Angelo laughed, a hearty timbre.

“You would be, but I’d rather not speak for anyone else. Trust is a rare commodity, in our line of work, and betraying that is akin to a death sentence.”

“Noted,” Lawrence said.

Tapping his cane, D’Angelo pointed in the direction of others.

“Why don’t you ask them yourselves? You are one of us, now.”

I examined the faces across from us. Arthur and Brian were conversing with one another, Cassius, Edward, Forest and Gary were holding their own discussion as well. Hayden was on her own, and Inez was, too, looking right at us. Firm.

None of them looked particularly… inviting.

Lawrence lowered his head, seemingly bowing at Inez, and she turned to Hayden, saying a word to her.

From here, it was hard to tell who voted which way. But I could venture a guess for some of them.

“We’ll introduce ourselves on our own time,” Lawrence said. “I’m more interested in what it means to have a seat at the table. Mrs. Carter didn’t exactly make that clear.”

“To help maintain an equilibrium,” D’Angelo explained. “Crime, like business, is a fine art, and is supported by many people who not only work for their own interests, but for the longevity of the game. There’s a reason why feuds can be dangerous, they can threaten the whole system that’s been set in place. Are you aware of a Xander L. Granon?”

“Still in my nightmares,” Lawrence said. “Our gang had gone up against his. We beat him, somehow.”

“So I’ve heard. See, Mr. Granon tried to muscle into our arrangement by violence and force. He wanted to come in and crash everything around him, and rule over the debris. You, on the other hand, have certainly made an impact, but I find your approach more… respectable.”

“I appreciate the kind words,” Lawrence said.

D’Angelo gave him a nod. “So, with Mrs. Carter and the likes of Styx, we officially maintain the delicate balance that keeps this city standing tall.”

“And Mister?” I asked. “Are we ever going to meet with him?”

D’Angelo smirked.

“That would be for him to decide.”

So close, yet he kept us at a distance. We’d- I’d need Mister, in order to fully and completely destroy that balance we now had some responsibility to maintain.

“Hopefully it’ll be soon,” I said.

“For your sake, maybe,” D’Angelo said. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll have to take my leave. And once again, congrats.”

“Thanks again,” I said. “Really appreciate it.”

D’Angelo tapped his cane again, and gave us one more smirk before taking off.

Of all the gang leaders that I’d come across, D’Angelo seemed to be the most eccentric, yet the most… agreeable. It was almost a shame, that I’d have to bring him down, too.

It was back to the three of us. We reconvened.

“Well, we got what we came here for,” I said. “We ready to head out?”

“I am,” Sarah said.

“Sure, I think,” Lawrence said. “Any ideas on our next move?”

“Wendy and I had plans to watch one or two if we had some time left. I wasn’t aware you wanted to join us.”

Lawrence looked at Sarah.

Sarah’s eyes went wide.

“Oh. I thought you said movie.”

“Are you fucking kidding me?”

“Hey,” I said, voice back to being low, “Let’s… not. How about this? We’re at the table, but we still need to establish an individual rapport with each of them. D’Angelo? He’s a good start.”

“That’s not a bad idea,” Sarah said.

I continued. “Not everyone voted for us to be here, so we should find out who they are, see if we can’t convince them that we’re the real deal.”

“Do you think that’ll work?” Lawrence asked.

“It’s better than them continuing to doubt us,” I said.

And it gives me an idea on who to go after, first.

“Okay, I don’t hate that.”

“Good. So we’ll catch up with D, gather all the info she got on each of these guys from the past week, and we’ll go from there.”

“Okay,” Lawrence said.

Wary, I looked up at the ceiling, past that lights. I wore that expression, made it obvious.

Then I saw Styx, watching him watch me.

By the huge windows that overlooked the city, where water had cascaded down the glass the last time we were here. For someone who could stick out like a blade in my back, Styx could blend into the background just as well. A ghost in the shadows.

His face twisted up, and I could hear that sound in my head. A low cackle.

He looked up, too, at the ceiling, then back to me. He brought a finger to his lips, face still twisted. Still cackling.

No one else saw that. It was for me only.

Me only, because D wasn’t actually here. Like we’d risk putting her in the same position as last time. I had to learn from some of my mistakes.

D got what we needed from our first visit here. It was time to use that information.

We’re at the table. Finally. Now we had to prep the fire.

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094 – World of Dogs

epy arc 13 take

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That’s a lot to take in.

I stared at the woman, Mrs. Carter, as she had introduced herself to me. The entire conversation was playing back in my head, over and over again. We only had a short interaction before she dropped this one me, but that only allowed for more and more repetitions.

This woman represented Mister, and she was here for me.

It wasn’t a moment I was prepared for, but it was one I had to deal with. I stood there, frozen, unsure of what to do or say, aware that every second I let pass was a change in the power dynamic. She was standing taller, and I was shrinking. I grabbed the counter beside me, the bar. Balance, in case I ended up losing it.

I had to say something.

“Mister?”

The name fell out of my mouth, more repeating what was already said, rather than offering a new piece of insight on the situation.

Mrs. Carter remained cool, staring back at me, staring down. Her back was straight, her clothes were buttoned up and proper, and her glasses caught the light in a way that gave them a glare, adding to the intensity of her being here, representing who she represented. Cool, and maybe even calculated.

“Yes,” Mrs. Carter said.

It was just one word. She had no need to repeat herself.

I held onto the counter next to me, leaning on it. I knew that I wasn’t in a good position, I knew that I wasn’t presenting myself well. This wasn’t the image I wanted to portray.

No, I couldn’t let myself stumble, not like this, not anymore. I was done letting myself be that weak.

Putting pressure on the counter beside me, and myself, I pushed, shifting my weight back to my feet, using and relying on my own body to keep upright. I was standing straight again, matching Mrs. Carter. Even if I wasn’t on the same level as her, I would at least act like I was.

“Finally,” I said, “I was wondering when he’d introduce himself. I was beginning to think we were being ignored.”

Mrs. Carter smiled. It was odd, almost chilling to see, because it actually looked genuine.

“We have many eyes and ears, darling, and they are everywhere. Believe me, we have not overlooked you.”

“Well, that’s good,” I said, trying not to let my growing paranoia creep into my voice. It was already bad enough, with most of it being applied internally, and my own capabilities, but a significant chunk of that had echoed Lawrence’s own. There was a lot of danger and a lot of enemies out there, and we had to be prepared for them.

And one of them was standing in front of me, right now.

“May I ask what matter would Mister like to discuss?”

“Not a discussion, a hearing.”

“A hearing?”

“I would prefer not to divulge any details here, in such a public venue, and you will find out for yourself, in due time.”

Mrs. Carter shifted around, moving her shoulders and adjusting the folder in her hands. It was a subtle, restrained movement, but I noticed it. There was a grace to it that stood out to me, and I wasn’t sure why. Maybe it was because that was grace that I inherently lacked? The reason why she was able to keep standing straight and I couldn’t?

If I could, I’d take her and drain that out of her in a heartbeat.

A moment passed.

What the hell was I thinking?

Mrs. Carter spoke again, taking me out of the distraction of my own making. Something I was begrudged to be grateful for.

“And speaking of time, please, gather the others that represent your organization and follow me. The faster we can handle our business with you, the more convenient it is for me.”

“And why is that?” I asked. How fast this process would go was probably the only thing I had direct control of, and I’d use it to prod, if it meant getting any kind of leverage or edge over her.

Mrs. Carter answered, “Because I do have other business to attend to, tonight. I do not intend to babysit.”

So she had other plans. I could keep her from them if I stretched this out for long enough, came up with something else. If I managed to delay her, would I be able to fuck up her night? Her and Mister’s plans?

It was an intriguing proposition.

“I’m not going anywhere… or gathering anyone… until you tell me where you’re taking us.”

I spoke slow, drawing out my words and letting my thoughts run in the meantime. I was buying myself precious seconds, and I had to use every single one. What were my options?

I didn’t have my knife or gun with me, I had lost both of them in trying to escape the raid at the church. I had my fists, but was there anything to gain by starting a bar fight? Could I grab D and Lawrence and use the ensuing chaos for cover? But, any perhaps the most important question, would trying to get out from this even be worth it?

I already knew the answer to that one.

It was just… Mrs. Carter was here, now, forcing my hand into making a move she wanted me to make, and I’d have to bring D and Lawrence along. I just wanted the time to make that decision for myself, to make sure I wouldn’t end up leading them into a trap with me. I didn’t want to fuck this up for everyone else, like I had done before, like I always seemed to do. For once – for fucking once – I would have liked to do something that didn’t screw me and my colleagues over.

“I can guarantee that you will be taken to a location much safer than even this one,” Mrs. Carter said. She looked around, the light caught in her lenses, an air of disdain about her. “Here, there are too many… nonentities, but they have a tendency to get in the way, if you allow them to. I can promise you a more neutral territory.”

It’s like she read my mind.

But was she to be believed? I had my doubts, but, thinking like that was dangerous in its own way. I wouldn’t be able to do anything if I second-guessed every possibility and got myself stuck, uncertain of which path I should take. And my choices were already narrow, I had to take Mrs. Carter on her word.

It just… it had to a choice I made willingly. To get some agency in this situation.

I wasted more of her time.

I started, “If I may be so bold though-”

“You may not.”

Mrs. Carter tried to cut me off, but I kept going, kept prodding.

“-I’d like to ask exactly what we’d be doing, because I am not about to take important, key members of my organization and bring them with me to something that might up us all at risk. With the limited information you’re giving me, it gives me the impression that you’re acting in bad faith, and-”

A blunt force on my chest, knocking me back. I didn’t fall over, though, because a hard pressure gripped my lower lip and chin, keeping me up and in place.

Mrs. Carter moved, and while it was movement I had registered, it wasn’t one I had anticipated. We were fairly close, given how crowded the club was, with all the people around us, dancing and drinking and lounging about. A decent amount of personal space was more a luxury than anything else, here. For her to take another step closer would violate what little I had left, and grabbing me within that space sounded alarms in my head that I couldn’t answer. People were around me, I was still trying to be discreet, and I had to fight the very strong impulse to start breaking something or someone.

She had stepped forward, putting her foot between mine. She lifted a hand, pressing into my chest, then moving to hold the lower half of my face. She raised my chin, forcing me to look right into her eyes, underneath her glasses.

Listen,” Mrs. Carter intoned, with a surprising lack of contempt. It was just stern, like a parent scolding a child. Maybe. I didn’t exactly have that specific frame of reference. “Do not play me. I have been at this for a very long time, so I know every trick, every lead in, every gambit. What you are trying here will not work out for you, and that… I can promise you as well.”

I tried to voice a response, but found that I couldn’t. Air pushed between my lips and cheeks, a strained, pathetic sound.

Mrs. Carter continued to drive her point home.

“I have given you my word, as it stands in this current moment. Gather the people you have with you – all of them – and come with me, and while I can guarantee you a more neutral territory than this, I cannot guarantee your own personal safety. That, will be entirely dependent on your temperament. So I advise you, let this be a lesson to you, because you will have the chance to apply it soon.”

If her catch was forced and sudden, then her release was gentle and gradual. She let me go, her fingers sliding down my cheek. Her thumb wiped the corner of my lip, catching some moisture that had collected there, with my mouth being opened for so long.

She took a step back, giving me that space back as well. Her hand settled on the folder she in front of me, resting it there. Mrs. Carter looked as poised as ever.

I inched my hand upward, experimentally, ready to grab for the counter if I needed.

Fuck, shit, fuck.

Then, a tug on my other hand, and I was pulled away from the bar. I turned around, and while I had reason to feel relaxed, now, I wasn’t able let myself have that relief.

Sarah pulled me towards her, until I entered her personal space. That, though, I didn’t mind.

She hovered over me as she stared at Mrs. Carter. Her hand was on my shoulder, her other was in my own, our fingers brushing together, ready to pull me back farther and away if she had to. Mrs. Carter returned that look, the glare flashing across her glasses again. The neon colors around us changed to a deep red.

“Is everything alright?” she asked, her tone stern. “Or am I going to need to get the bartender and the bouncer?”

Mrs. Carter didn’t answer, instead keeping herself level, as if that threat couldn’t possibly apply to her.

For my part, I didn’t know what to say or think, and I hated the idea that I was also lost on what to do.

“Go,” Mrs. Carter said to me, ignoring Sarah. She kept that well-tempered disposition, which made it even more eerie, given what was hiding just beneath the surface. “Do not keep me waiting.”

A moment passed, long enough for the neon colors to change again, and when the light switched to green, Sarah pulled again, and I followed her as we left the bar, disappearing into the crowd on the dance floor. She didn’t let go.

“Thanks,” I said, at a normal volume, but with how loud the music and people around us were, it was the equivalent of a whisper.

Sarah replied as she led the way.

“The second I saw her move in I just knew I had to do something! That is not cool!”

Self-conscious over my mind and body, I was hyper aware of the contact Sarah’s hand had with mine. She wasn’t letting go, instead holding tighter because of sweat making my skin slick. It made me feel gross, like slime, that I was only inconveniencing Sarah on having to bail me out. But it was the fact that I wasn’t even able to do my job was what made me feel even worse. Another failure, from both circumstance and lack of ability.

I tried pulling away from her grip, but that only made Sarah grip and pull even harder. I flinched a little, the emotions on my face and in my heart were mixed. Most of what was in that mixture wasn’t great, but there was some good in there. Some relief I was finally allowing myself to have.

I might have fucked it up, but something told me that Mrs. Carter was going to get what she had came here for, regardless. Forced to play along, but that didn’t mean I had to do this alone. There was D and Lawrence. I had Sarah.

When I spoke up again, it wasn’t at a normal volume. It was raised, filled with what little scraps of confidence I had left.

“I’m getting the others. There’s been a change of plans, but we’ll get through it.”

Trace amounts of self-confidence could only take me so far.

The ride here was long, but it wasn’t silent. We discussed strategy, divvied up roles and responsibilities, and tried to figure out what exactly we were getting ourselves into. D had no idea, and that only made Lawrence more nervous, which didn’t help me any, creating a feedback loop of anxiety and doubt.

We did, however, manage to come to an agreement on how we would approach this. Lawrence would handle most of the talking, and, if all hell were to break loose, I’d have to step in and do my part. I… could do it. I’d have to, if the situation called for it.

But, all we could really do was play this by ear. And, for now, we had to listen.

The doors opened up before us, and, speaking for myself, I was rendered breathless.

The room was expansive, wide as it was tall. Gold patterns weaved through the walls and ceiling in fractals. Even the carpet was nice to look at, made of intricate red and gold shapes. The ceiling glistened with lights, shining bright to the point I had to squint the moment I stepped into the room.

Round tables were laid out in different spots across the space, but only one was filled with people. They were waiting for us.

Mrs. Carter was waiting, too, somehow beating us up here. She was standing by the table, and  indicated to an empty section for us to take our seats.

Lawrence, Sarah and I joined the rest at the table.

There were a lot of people in assembly, a lot of eyes staring at us. Some were ready to pick us apart, and some looked completely disinterested but they were here, and they were forming an opinion of us in their minds.

I tried to match them with a similar demeanor. Chin up, shoulders square, meeting them in the eye. It was hard, when not wearing a mask.

Scanning over faces, I tried to find someone who matched the image I had in my head, someone who might look like a Mister. Hard to do, when the group was so diverse. Some were a few years older than Lawrence, some were actually old, and not everyone was dressed up in a way that fit the room we were gathered in. The image in my head started to blur, and I began to have my doubts.

Mrs. Carter started the proceedings.

“I do thank everyone for coming tonight, especially on such notice,” she said, in that formal, diplomatic tone that I was now coming to expect from her, a kind of voice that commanded order and respect. Going against that wouldn’t be ideal. “But I believe this is of enough importance that it will make up for any inconvenience I might have caused you.”

“It better,” someone replied. A man wearing a suit. He wasn’t old, but a few more years would take him there. “And if it’s so important, wouldn’t Mister be here?”

I wanted to trade looks with Sarah and the others, but I was too stiff. Frozen. Mister wasn’t here? Then what was this meeting for?

Our understanding of the situation kept changing, and that kept us on the back foot, on constantly shaky ground. Anything could happen, now, nothing was concrete.

“I’ll fill him in, there’s no need to worry.”

Another voice. One I did recognize, and it made my skin go clammy and cold.

The man who had replied turned, and I followed his gaze. I didn’t see him there before, but it was impossible to ignore now.

Styx was sitting at a table by himself, closer to the far side of the room, by a large window that overlooked the city below. Rainfall tapped against the glass on the other side, cascading down as a stream. It didn’t help in calming my nerves.

We were high up, somewhere in the downtown area. We were in the middle of the Eye, in several respects.

As if this situation wasn’t already tense enough. Styx just had to be here.

The man continued voicing his complaints. “This keeps happening, Styx, he can’t keep bailing on us, and I’m starting to get sick of the lip service.”

“Then hurry up and die already.”

“What did you say!”

The man pushed his chair back, leaning on the edge of his seat, ready to stand. His hand was gripped around a cane, black with gold engravings.

He seemed… familiar, but I couldn’t quite place him. At least he was talking some of the heat off of us, it gave me more time to compose myself.

“Please cool off,” someone said. Not Mrs. Carter, but another woman, sitting at the table. “You’re always trying to do… that, and it gets tiring. Can you please just quit it, or at least for now?”

The man paused, probably considering the woman’s word. Styx’s deep chuckle sounded in the distance. Seemingly reluctant, the man fixed his chair, returning to the group. He looked at us, at me, and he tapped his cane against the table. He didn’t offer another word.

Styx glanced at me, then at the ceiling, and grinned, baring teeth. My heart dropped, but I tried my best to not show that on my face.

“Then,” Mrs. Carter said, “Let us continue.”

She walked around the table, towards us, until she moved out of sight, and I didn’t feel comfortable enough to turn all the way around and show my back to these people. It just made me tense up all the more.

Her voice rang in my ears as she addressed the room.

“The group you see before you, they represent something… new. A current has been sweeping over the city, and they are the face of it. Competing against rival businesses, calculated mergers, and obtaining key assets. I present to you The Fangs. Come, introduce yourselves.”

It was in that moment, where we all shared looks. Nervous, uncertain. We stuck to the plan, though.

Lawrence introduced himself.

“I’m Lawrence. I’m the leader of this group. I was originally the leader of the Ghosts before-”

“You’re Benny’s boy!”

Someone interrupted. A man, not the same one from before. A larger man, bald, but his beard more than made up for the lack of hair in that regard.

“I heard about you, floundering around like a dead fish. I’m surprised you managed to find some more calm waters.”

Lawrence played off of that with ease, nodding and then adding, “You’re correct, sir, I was a member of El Carruaje, but I wasn’t part of the group that she kept with her. I was just a grunt at the time.”

A third person snapped their fingers. A black man, older than everyone else.

“But you’re so much more than that now, brother. You’re the man of the hour.”

“I… suppose I am. Thank you. And to address your other point, sir, I did have some trouble in the beginning, but it wasn’t for my colleagues here, I wouldn’t have been able to get my bearings. We’re doing swimmingly, now.”

“Good for you,” the larger bald man replied.

This was a different side of Lawrence than I was used to, but it was the one we needed right now. He was doing fine, just let him handle the talking.

“And who are you?”

Fuck.

“Um, me?” Sarah asked. She sounded jumpy, hesitant, in way that scraped like nails on the glass windows that Styx was next to.

I felt for her. This wasn’t where Sarah was supposed to be, this wasn’t where she was supposed to operate. Like Lawrence, her position was but a regular member of the Fangs, even if she occasionally rubbed shoulders with the leaders, with me. Being here, though, it exposed her to whole other world of danger, to people like Mrs. Carter and Styx. There was always going to be an inherent risk that came with being in a gang, but… I didn’t like this part of the plan, involving Sarah in this, moving her a space forward like a pawn.

“Yes, you,” the larger man said, talking to Sarah. I didn’t like the way he was looking at her, how his eyes somehow went past the person, and only taking in the body. And I didn’t even know why it bothered me as much as it did.

Sarah answered regardless.

“My name is Sarah, I’m just an internal liaison, I guess. I help where and when I can.”

The assembly in front of us reacted, casting glances amongst one another.

“What does that mean?” the man asked.

“It means she’s a nonentity,” Mrs. Carter answered. “Next.”

Fuck.

I stared at the many faces, and they stared back at me. There had to be about nine or ten of them here. It was hard to get an accurate number, with my anxiety getting the best of me. Faces started to blur together, bright lights blending colors and edges, shapes losing all definition.

I could venture a guess as to who these people were a general sense, but I didn’t know their names, and I still didn’t know why we were here. Mister wasn’t present, even though Mrs. Carter claimed he wanted a word with us. And the only one who would relay this discussion to him was Styx?

I felt my suspicions grow and yawn wider, ready to snap and ensnare me. Us. The trap that I led us into. And we only had so much in the way of a wildcard.

Opening my mouth, looking forward, not trying to give anything away, even with the tiniest of movements. Couldn’t look at the walls or ceiling.

A breath first, then a hum, then the first utterances of a word.

“I’m, uh, Wendy. I’m second-in-command to Lawrence, and I handle some of the more day to day businesses regarding the Fangs and the territory. I-”

A hard knock of wood hitting wood. A cane rapped the table.

“Oh, Wendy, that’s right!”

All eyes went to the man that had been squabbling with Styx earlier. He was beaming right at me, head perked up, with a white glint in his teeth as he grinned, clearly delighted over something about me.

I paused, frozen, a blank expression on my face. I didn’t know what this was about.

The man caught onto my confusion, and raised his cane a bit. He waved it around.

“You don’t remember? It’s me, Santino!”

He waved his cane again for good measure.

Then, a click in my head.

Santino.

Santino D’Angelo.

I had encountered him at the Lunar Tower some time ago, when we were up against Granon.

Other memories started pouring back into my head.

Stuck in place, afraid of being found out and caught, not unlike the feeling that wracked me here. A throbbing pressure started making itself known, down on my lower back, in the shape of a handprint.

“Oh,” I said, sounding hollow. I did remember him. In a roundabout way, he had helped inch me close to the edge before Granon tossed me off of it, completely.

Mrs. Carter, Styx, and now D’Angelo. The ground beneath me continued to rock.

The woman who berated him earlier glanced at me, then back to him. Fuck, if only I had their names.

“You two are familiar?” she asked.

D’Angelo nodded. “We’ve met. It was brief but it did leave an impression. I apologize that it took so long for it to come back to me, though.”

I realized that he was talking to me.

My hands were pressed together in my lap. I squeezed them until a knuckle cracked.

“No offense taken. And yes, I do remember.”

“Splendid. At least my time hasn’t been completely wasted, now.”

This was just more on the pile of stuff I had trouble dealing with. Being in the spotlight, with no shadows to hide in. I hated it.

A shape moved from the left corner of my eye. I dared not to move my head in that direction.

“Yes,” Mrs. Carter said, measured. “It was never my intention to do that.”

She circled around until I had a better view of her again.

“We’ll continue, then.”

Judging from the reactions across the whole table, it was something we all could agree with.

Something I took note of.

I still couldn’t allow myself to relax, though. I was as stiff as ever.

Mrs. Carter continued to speak to the room. “The reason why I have brought the Fangs to you this evening, is because this table could use some reshuffling. Mister believes that there will be a shift in how things are done, in fact, it’s already begun, with all the attention that’s being brought to Stephenville. The civil unrest right outside, and the… rampant vigilantism that had plagued us not so long ago.”

Another kind of current swept through the group. A tangible concern, borderline fear.

“I thought we had already discussed that,” someone said. Someone new. A man in a coat. “And I thought it was already covered.”

“It has,” Styx answered from across the room. “In part.”

“In part?”

“Meaning,” Mrs. Carter said, “There is still much that needs to be done in the wake of all the changes happening in the city. All the attention. A lot of eyes that need to be plucked out, and a lot of tongues that need to be cut.”

“That’s… a little much.”

“To survive in this business, it requires a cutthroat state of mind. You’d know more than anyone, I’d presume.”

“Dogs eating dogs,” Styx said. He smiled. “It’s all suicide to me.”

“One way to put it,” Mrs. Carter said. “But I digress. To bring this back to the Fangs, Mister has invited them to have a seat at the table, but they still have to work and prove their place.”

Mrs. Carter handed the folder to D’Angelo. He opened it, and flipped through its contents. He didn’t look through it long, and passed it to the woman beside him.

“And it will be up to you on whether or not they get to keep those seats.”

The folder continued to get past around the table, heading our way.

Lawrence spoke up, managing to get a word in among everything that was happening.

“Given present company, and the severe risk of interrupting, I’m still not sure what all of this is, yet. Some clarification would be much appreciated.”

Mrs. Carter replied. “If you haven’t figured out yet, consider this a job interview.”

The folder finally made it to us. Lawrence took it, opening it. He scooted his chair closer to Sarah, holding it so we could all get a better look. I was inclined to lean in as well. Sarah smelled of alcohol and a light perfume. Lavender, maybe?

I focused on the folder.

There were papers, a lot of them. Taking a glance through the contents revealed articles and photos, headshots of three people in particular. One was of a man. Hispanic, in a well-fitting suit and tie. His hair was gelled up, styled in an inoffensive way. The other man wasn’t as handsome, with much more weight on him, some even hanging on the underside of his neck. I could only look from the shoulders up, but it was clear that he wasn’t as well dressed as the first man.

The third was a woman. Blonde, thirty at the youngest. Her hair was tied up in a bun, messy, like she had put it up in a hurry. The whole photo had an impromptu energy captured within it. The woman was smiling, but the expression was half-formed, not quite there yet. And yet, she had eyes that could pierce. Like they were staring right at and through me.

I read the names that were beside each photo. John Cruz, Oliver Morgan, and-

“Natalie Beckham and Oliver Morgan are journalists who have been trying to investigate John Cruz, the city’s district attorney.”

A bang was heard in the distance. Everyone looked around, curious. It sounded like it came from the ceiling, but there wouldn’t be anything or anyone up there. Shouldn’t.

I avoided Styx’s widening grin.

“Journalists?” Lawrence said, putting the attention back on him. There was a curious tone in his voice. “Funny. I’ve been getting whispers of journalists poking around in my territory.”

My, not our. Better to sell the idea that Lawrence was the real leader of the Fangs. The face of the gang.

“Ah,” Mrs. Carter said, “So our interests may align, here. How convenient.”

Convenient for sure, I thought. Doubts were starting to ring clear.

Mrs. Carter resumed, “As I was saying, those journalists haven’t been very quiet about their questioning of John Cruz, and talk of their movements have reached my ears. Under normal circumstances, reporters like them would get taken care of rather swiftly, but these circumstances are not normal, and they are not like most reporters.”

“What do you mean?” Lawrence asked.

“Those two have had a way of… disrupting things, and Mister tires of the constant disruptions. Should they be allowed to continue, they are poised to leave a trail of destruction in their wake. Where I consider my talents to be better suited for building, they are much the opposite. Their presence threatens to undermine a lot of moving parts, one of them being John Cruz.”

Lawrence took the photos out of the folder, holding them up. He separated them, John Cruz in one hand, the journalists in the other.

“And I’m guessing you want these two out of the picture,” he quipped, lifting the photos of the journalists even higher.”

“To put it blunt, yes.”

“I assume we don’t get to refuse?”

“You can, but need I remind you of who you would be refusing?”

It didn’t take another look at present company to know what she was getting at. Again, Mrs. Carter was forcing our hand.

“Point taken. How are we supposed to do this, or do we have to figure that out by yourselves?”

“I refer you to the back half of the attached papers. But to summarize, in four days John will be hosting an event at an art gallery in support of his beneficiaries and as one last rally for support of a piece of legislature that he is backing. Should it pass, those at this table will stand to gain a lot.”

“Damn right,” a man commented.

Mrs. Carter ignored him. “Through their incessant prodding and digging, we got notice of their attempt to attend the event as press. We’ve decided to indulge them, this one time.”

“You want us to go to this thing and apprehend them there?”

“Find them, figure out how much they already know, who they have been talking to, and when you are certain you have taken every shred of information…”

“You tear them apart with your fangs, like the dogs you really are!”

Styx called out from across the room, and laughed. It was a high-pitched, howling noise.

“I believe that statement carries with it the appropriate weight,” Mrs. Carter said.

“Why us, though?” Lawrence asked. “And why bring us here for tell us this?”

“Because you are outsiders, and yet you have managed to claim so much. You took over your territory, you took over the drug trade, and you took back from those who tried to short you.”

Mrs. Carter paused for a brief moment, but that moment felt loaded. Her way of tipping her hand, that she might know what our plans were, how we were operating.

Which only gave more teeth to the worry that nibbling in the back of my mind. How much did Mrs. Carter know?

Mrs. Carter then went on, and I had to discard the thought. For now. She glanced over D’Angelo as she said, “You have no legitimate ties to anyone at this table, so you have the perfect angle to approach this from. An angle they shouldn’t expect. And that includes John himself. You are not to meet or plan with him. The less culpable he is, the more favorable.”

“So,” Lawrence said, “You just see us as disposable, and you get to keep your hands clean if this goes wrong. No culpability.”

She replied coldly, a light in her lenses. “Everyone is disposable. Everyone. But, if you insist…”

A small glint of light caught my eye, coming right at me. It was a twitch reaction, my hand in front of my face, palm open. Something hit it, and I clasped my hands together.

It was a ring of keys.

“Think of it as a sign of good faith.”

“What is it?” I asked.

Styx was sitting on the edge of his seat, his arm out in front of him. He answered.

“Keys to St. Elizabeth. The Cobras have conceded their hold on that property and the surrounding area.”

A shock went through me. I could almost sense that it went through Sarah and Lawrence, too.

They’ve just been playing with us this whole time.

“My men no longer want to operate in that area,” another man said, wearing a gold chain around his neck. “And they were adamant enough that I had to listen. Have to sort some shit out, but I ain’t touching that place no more. It’s out of my hands, now.”

And the leader of the Cobras was here, because of course he fucking was. Lawrence’s fears were justified, the Cobras did go to Styx about the raid.

A prickling sensation in the back of my neck. I’d break into a sweat if this meeting lasted any longer.

Shit, fuck, shit.

“It’s yours, now,” Mrs. Carter said. “Bound in word between you and Styx. And that’s just standard business, it has no official relation to the discussion at hand. Do we understand?”

I knew how to answer that one, now.

“We do,” I said.

“Good,” Mrs. Carter said. She turned, fast. “And now we must come to a vote. You’ve seen the gang before you, do you believe them to be acceptable candidates for the job?”

The vote started immediately, leaving me little time to process everything that just happened.

“No.”

“Yes.”

“No.”

“No.”

“Yes,” D’Angelo said.

“Yes.”

“No.”

“Yes.”

“Yes.”

“Majority in favor of the Fangs tackling this job,” Mrs. Carter said. “Congratulations.”

I didn’t feel particularly grateful to be receiving any praise.

“Once this has concluded in full, we will gather for a second vote to evaluate performance, and if things go in your favor, you might be allowed to have your place here be permanent. And the benefits are well worth the trouble.”

Lawrence didn’t say anything. Sarah remained silent. I followed suit.

“Then it’s settled,” Mrs. Carter said. “I’ll leave those files with you, so you can better familiarize yourself with the material. I suggest you get right to the preparations, the event is in four days. Good luck.”

Those last two words carried, having enough authority to make mobsters, cartel leaders, and Styx get up and start conversing with one another. The meeting had concluded.

But I was still gripped tight by an overbearing dread. So much to parse over, it made my head spin.

I gripped the ring of keys until I felt the metal give. A knuckle cracked.

A hand on my shoulder. Sarah. She was standing already. I had to will my legs to move and join her.

“Wendy.”

And I still wasn’t able to find any reprieve. Fuck me.

It was D’Angelo. He approached, hobbling somewhat due to his cane, but he managed to walk over to us at a decent pace.

“Hello,” I said. The most neutral and level greeting I could give.

Sarah and Lawrence exchanged small introductions with him. They shook each other’s hands. I noticed when Sarah’s hand went into his.

“I don’t want to keep you, but I did want to say how good it was to see you again,” D’Angelo said.

Good? Was it really good?

“Same here,” I said. “It’s a coincidence, but I think it worked out. You voted for us, so thanks.”

“Of course. I’m just excited that you had taken my advice.”

“What advice?” Lawrence asked.

“Making them come to you. The Fangs have been making enough of the right moves to catch Mrs. Carter’s attention and bring you to us. That’s the real power. And if she believes that you two are the right people for the job, then there must be a reason, and I’ll vote in support of that reason.”

“I suppose that’s one way to look at it,” Sarah said.

“Certainly.”

Lawrence stepped up. He had the folder in his hands, his fingers tapping against it.

“I don’t suppose you’d help introduce the others to us?” he asked.

“Ah, that might be for another time. We still don’t know if you’ll be back to join us.”

He grinned and winked.

“Fair enough,” Lawrence said. I could tell he was disappointed.

D’Angelo tapped his cane.

“I’d wish you luck, but I don’t really believe in luck. Just keep proving me right, and I’ll get to claim the credit once you have a seat at the table.”

D’Angelo laughed, a hearty one. It rumbled a bit in my chest, and I wanted to squirm.

He shook our hands once again, and left to converse with the others that were at the table. I joined up with Sarah and Lawrence. We each checked our surroundings, in case someone else was about to approach us. No one did.

I looked for Mrs. Carter. She was standing by herself, where Styx had been, looking out the window, talking on a phone. Probably attending to the other plans that she had on her agenda. And just like that, we were no longer her concern. In a sense, we were already dealt with.

Didn’t see Styx, though. That worried me.

“Let’s go,” I said, putting the keys in a pocket. Sarah and Lawrence agreed with me. No use in sticking around. We left the way we came, going through the doors and back out into the hall of the building. We had to see our exit by ourselves, apparently.

Four days to execute a plan to potentially execute someone. Had to regroup and figure out how this factored into our own plans. And the first step was reconvening with D, who I hoped would make it out of the air vents okay.

Previous                                                                                               Next

069 – Diplomatic Immunity

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Rule one, fighting was prohibited. We were indoors, in a fancy hotel, filled with prim and proper people, and those whose business was very much not, but still kept up their appearances. Getting into an altercation here would be career suicide. And, frankly, it was just plain rude.

Rule two, we had until tomorrow to conclude this, noon at the latest. We had to check out by then, and if we hadn’t gotten this sorted out, blood would begin to spill, and it would spill out onto the streets. I wasn’t exactly opposed to that, but only if the damages were incurred on Granon’s side of the board. I was not about to lose any of my own people.

Rule three, and perhaps the most critical, was that I could trust no one. There was Lawrence, but he wasn’t at his best, and I’d hesitate to have him out and about with Granon being around. If he had, somehow, gotten to Lawrence first, rule one would have been thrown out the window, and we would have lost right then and there. D… was a whole other thing, and with her being out of the picture yet seemingly having a hand in these events put a large question mark over everything. Couldn’t trust anyone around me, and I fought the urge to not trust in my ability to handle being on my own. I had to believe I could do this, as much as I actually had to do this. Win.

So I was limited in my options, pressed for time, and I had no allies to rely on. I was on my own.

Fantastic.

Granted, these rules were largely self-imposed, and it wasn’t as if Granon had to follow them as well. But, we did have a reputation to develop for the future, and if we could clinch a victory without needing to resort to violence, then it would reflect well on our performance as a gang.

I had to do my best.

The doors moved on their own. It had been a long way down.

The lobby opened up before me. Somehow, it looked nicer than the last time I was here, only minutes ago.

Cast in a soft, golden hue, the space was wider than it was tall, but it was still impressive in its scope. Shaped into a rotunda, though the ceiling wasn’t curved, the lobby was filled with people going about their business, or waiting for others so they could conduct business together. People checking out, checking in, everyone dressed like they had somewhere important to go. Chairs made of fine leather, countertops and tables crafted with intricate detailing, almost to the point that they looked more like decorations than anything functional.

I noted the chandelier again, segmented into fractals, but assumed the shape of the moon. From where it was attached to the ceiling, more painted vines and leaves and fruits branched out, stretching and twisting until they weaved an intricate arrangement of color, even more vibrant from the light of the chandelier.

Dang. I could get distracted, just by looking around. I was in a high-class, luxury hotel, so the interior was nothing I had ever seen before. Maybe it was a bit too flashy, ostentatious for my tastes, but then again, what did I know? My tastes weren’t anything near developed.

I walked to cross the lobby, moving around people, trying to find a good place to start, while trying not to stand out by looking lost.

I didn’t get very far.

“Hello, ma’am.”

I knew the voice. I’d heard it just recently.

I glanced to the side, noticed, realized, then stopped.

The lady from the front desk, but she wasn’t at the front desk.

She was out, by an arrangement of chairs around a small table. On the table was a cup of coffee, half empty, with no owner to speak of. The chairs were unoccupied, the lady moving one of them back into place. She must have noticed me as I walked by.

Though I wished she hadn’t said anything.

I turned my shoulders, but I was still leaning forward, putting some weight on the foot ahead of me. A subtle signal that I wasn’t here for an extended chat.

I made a sound to prompt her. “Hm?”

“Did you find everything in your room to your satisfaction?”

She’s just asking if the service has been good so far.

I answered quick, already shifting my weight to move again.

“Everything’s great, thanks.”

“Did your husband find everything great as well?”

The question made me stop again, resulting in an awkward half-jerk, half-skip forward. I turned back.

“My what?”

She blinked twice, her smile restrained by her lips being pressed together, head tilted, slight. A professional demeanor.

“I assumed incorrectly. I do apologize.”

I figured I had to do some damage control.

“Oh right. No, he loves it, he’s taking a nap up there right now.”

The lady’s expression remained.

“That’s great to hear. I do hope you enjoy the rest of your night.”

There were a few different ways to interpret that. I choose not to consider any of them.

“Thanks,” I said. This particular interaction was already starting to drag, I didn’t want to be around her any longer than what was absolutely necessary. Her poised, polite disposition creeped me out to say the least. It was a reason why I let Lawrence talk with her as we checked in. I’d feel more comfortable if her focus wasn’t on me. That, if she looked just a little harder, she’d realize just how much I didn’t belong.

The other reason was that she worked here. This hotel had a very specific reputation, and it had to be next to impossible for her to not notice the true nature of her guests. I had to keep rule three in mind.

One, two steps. Then the third, when I was stopped yet again.

“Mrs. Vazquez.”

I had to face her directly. No half-turn, no signal that I had to go soon.

Fine, fine. If she really wanted my attention, so be it. She’d get it.

“Yeah?” I asked, blunt.

The lady took her hands off the chair, and clasped them together. She positioned herself so her posture was nice and proper.

Her civility never left her.

“If you’re looking for something to occupy your time for this evening, may I perhaps recommend the lounge and casino? I’m sure you’ll find some entertainment waiting for you there.”

The wording, I didn’t like that there were multiple ways I could take it. A clue to Granon? A good place to start? Did it mean that she actually knew who I really was, this whole time?

Or was it another set up?

But I couldn’t ask any of those questions.

“Which direction is the lounge?” I asked instead. There wasn’t much else I’d want get out of her.

She gestured, her arm out in front of her.

“It’s directly behind you, on the other side of the lobby. Just take the stairs up to the second level. The lounge will be to your left and the casino will be to your right.”

I nodded, playing along. Couldn’t show my unease on my face. I had to be just like her. Poised, polite.

“Thank you,” I said. Then I moved to leave, for the final time.

“Do enjoy your stay, Mrs. Vasquez,” she said, with that light tone. “And good luck.”

Those last three words hit me like a bucket of ice water. A cold, prickling sting that ran down my neck.

You have got to be shitting me.

I crossed the lobby, lumbering in my steps. I held onto the handrail as I went up the stairs.

Rule three. I didn’t trust that lady, but I also didn’t have any leads. I wasn’t following up on her suggestion in good faith. This wasn’t like previous times, I wasn’t going into this blind. I knew what the risks were, and I knew to take anything I get with a healthy dose of paranoia.

It was a conflicted feeling that I couldn’t shake off. Was I playing a game, or was I the one being played? Every new development, it seemed, would give me more reasons to watch my back, to keep my knife close by.

And my feelings on that were very well established. Especially to D. I fucking hated it.

Heated. Had to force myself to cool off, or I might tear the rail off the wall with just my hand.

Was this really what it would be like to lead a gang? The constant second-guessing, problems stacking one on top of the other, being pulled in every direction, always needing to improvise? I could see how Lawrence had trouble maintaining operations when we first met, and I could almost understand how the stress of the position weighed on Benny, causing her to snap at the worst possible place at the wrong people. Everything was so unstable, anything could happen at any time, and it required some ingenuity and imagination just to maintain a status quo. Not everyone could keep up, and some were dragged even lower in the process. And trying to move up was another matter entirely.

Couldn’t let myself be dragged, wouldn’t let that happen. I had to be the exception.

If we were to succeed, I had to stay focused, and concentrate on one problem at a time. And the biggest one hadn’t changed. It was still Granon.

I had to find him.

The stairs ended, and I was on the second level.

The lounge and the casino. I saw them both.

The lounge was open, filled with smoke and people. More tables and chairs, but these had occupants, conversing and enjoying the ambiance of the soft light and even softer jazz music. There was a bar farther back, but I wasn’t particularly thirsty. Not for alcohol, anyways.

For the casino, however, there was a glass wall separating here and there. There was an entrance, but someone was standing in the way, barring the way through. A small line had formed, with people waiting to go in and try their luck. On the other side of the glass were the bright, beeping slot machines, and tables, people playing with chips and cards and cash. The sounds and the sights were harsh, even with a literal barrier to entry.

I’d start at the lounge. It was free to get in, while getting in line for the casino ran the risk of me getting stopped by the guy there. If I wanted to keep a low profile, I’d have to avoid that kind of gamble.

I moved.

I stepped from tile to carpet as I entered the lounge area. The lighting immediately dimmed, smoke and music making my senses swim. The atmosphere was thick, intoxicating, the desire to sit down and unwind was almost enticing. Almost, though. I wasn’t about to take it easy, now. I had a job to do, and I had to do it fast.

Moving, keeping out of the way, I observed the lounge.

No one that looked like Granon, or any of his men. I was confident that I’d see him if he was here, he wouldn’t be hard to miss. Everyone here was much… smaller, with less imposing frames. And no one looked as though they wanted to wreck the place, or had the temperment of a bull. It was exactly how it appeared, a place to relax, to smoke and drink the night away. With class.

No luck.

Sticking close to the perimeter of the lounge, I traversed a wide arc around, just to cover my bases. I didn’t see Granon, but I still wanted to be thorough.

I maneuvered around leather chairs and velvet couches, the guests sitting, trying to get as close as possible without alerting them to my presence. Studying faces, catching words.

I wasn’t picking up much.

Investments, details of private dealings, recent trips to Asia. The minutia of people’s daily lives, that I’d never fully learn the context of. In short, nothing of value.

Nothing of worth. Just pointless chatter.

Was this really the best I could come up with? Walking around, aimless, hoping to catch anything of worth towards finding Granon, if not finding Granon himself.

And, was Granon even in the building right now? He might be staying here, but that didn’t mean he was currently here. I might have to change my approach, and go after his men instead, have them lead me to him. But would I be able to pick them out if they weren’t making themselves obvious?

Too many things I was unsure of, too many things I didn’t know. I hated being blind.

Anymore of this, and I might just try to torch the hotel to the ground, smoke him out that way. It had worked once before.

I finished my loop around the lounge, coming up with nothing. The idea of playing with fire seemed to burn that much brighter.

Fuck, nothing or no one stood out.

If not here…

Then somewhere else.

Time to get in line.

I left the lounge, moving over to the other side. The casino. The lounge was too placid for someone like Granon. If he was going to be anywhere, it would be where it was loud, flashy, and active.

I settled into the back of the line. My pulse quickened as everyone moved, as I joined in step, and as someone fell into place behind me.

The opposite of standing out, but it achieved the same effect. I didn’t look like D, body-wise, but I was standing around fully grown adults, several heads taller than me. They all had a natural, relaxed about them, exuding confidence, while I was trying my damndest to not be noticed at all. It was such a minor detail, but I could imagine getting tripped over the most irrelevant thing.

Which would be sad, but not impossible.

But I wasn’t supposed to be doubting myself.

The line progressed forward, and I went along. And then some more. And even more. The line was moving faster than I initially expected.

My heart raced, and I swallowed, hard. I made a mental note of where my wallet was in my jacket.

And then it was my turn.

The security at the door. It was just one guy, but the hotel management clearly thought that would be enough. He was huge. Bigger, wider, taller than even Granon. Built like a square, his head shaved, jaw set, eyes peering into me. If I didn’t possess the unnatural level of strength that I had, his physicality would have given me pause.

It didn’t. But something else did.

Strength wasn’t the factor at play, here. It was credentials. I couldn’t punch my way into the casino.

He stared, and I did everything I could to be able to stare back.

One word, two letters. Several notches deep.

“ID.”

I flinched a little as I responded in turn, fishing my wallet out of a pocket. I flipped it open to slide the card out.

I’d already showed it once before, and it worked out alright. It had better do the trick again, here.

He grabbed it out of my hand, with more force than he needed. He brought the card close.

He looked at the card, then at me, then the card, me, and back again.

When his eyes looked over me the final time, he took his time. Everyone that was ahead of me just waltzed right in. Already, I knew that my entrance wasn’t so graceful.

He spoke, his voice deep, and I felt it in my chest.

“You twenty-one?”

Called out on the spot, and he was being loud enough that he could probably be heard halfway down the line. It was a move, getting other people involved without having to make them active participants. Letting them know what was going on, making me stand out even more.

I swallowed.

“That’s what it says on the card, right?” I asked him.

The ID was a fake, key details that entirely falsified, like the surname… and the year of birth. The card had dropped mine down by a few years, but the month and day were the same. November the twenty-eight. An important day, on several levels.

I had to try and sell that image, somehow. Act the part. Being standoffish could be a substitute for maturity.

His stare maintained, he frowned, slight.

I reciprocated with a level stare of my own, standing tall… as much as I possibly could. I quickly learned that I wasn’t as good at this as Lawrence. Not at wearing this kind of mask.

He wasn’t budging. That wasn’t a good sign.

“Hm, ma’am,” he said, eyes still trained on me, “You’re going to step to the side, now-”

It wasn’t a word that interrupted him, but an action. And it wasn’t even an action done to him.

A hand slid down the small of my back, staying there, the fingers wrapping around my hip.

Shock coursed through me. I was stunned.

My eyes widened. I hadn’t broken eye contact with the security. As if I wanted his help, now.

Someone was standing right beside me. Someone I couldn’t see.

Touching me. I was very aware of that.

A new voice. A male voice.

“She’s with me.”

The security guy changed directions. Not just in who he directed himself to, but how he directed himself. Poised and polite.

“Of course, sir. I’m sorry for the confusion.”

“As you should be. I’ll be sure to let management know about this. Tell Mrs. C…”

Sounds and sights and smells were fading. Like I wasn’t even present at the scene, just observing from a distance. And even then I couldn’t quite catch everything.

I couldn’t move.

I was reminded of the incident with those girls, Dani. Uncomfortable, an assault on something I preferred to remain unmolested.

Something squirmed under my skin.

More words, but they were warbled utterances, now.

The hand removed itself off me, but it was a momentary relief. It came back, faster and harder. A sharp pat, right above my butt.

I stumbled a bit, catching myself, reminding myself that I had legs to use. They were weak, my waist down feeling numb.

The security guy stepped aside, not unlike a heavy door being swung open.

I was pushed through. And I had wanted to go in.

I did my best to not trip as I was ushered down the steps leading to the central area of the casino. Eyes forward, concentrating on walking, instead of the slot machines and the people playing them.

He talked as he brought me down. Like this was nothing.

“I have to say, it’s a relief that Mr. Hitoshi is willing to try and collaborate with us again. Please tell him that I still deeply regret my decision about deciding to hold our meeting at one of my clubs. If I truly did not want to be… interrupted, we should have just met here. And I also understand his decision over not coming in person, but I will appreciate his business all the same.”

Even if I knew what he was talking about, I couldn’t find it in me to reply. All my focus was going into putting one foot ahead of the other. Trying not to feel the pressure on my back.

I found another handrail, my fingers sliding over it for purchase. Had to wait until I got off the steps.

My back was feeling damp, now, my shirt sticking to skin, and I led away from my main task, forced into a new problem.

I had to tear myself away.

Reaching the last step, I gripped the handrail, feeling the metal give. I planted my feet down, and the hand pressed more into my back. That ugly feeling spiked, but I stood my ground.

The person who took me kept on forward, then stopping to face me. He hand slipped off me and returned to his side.

No one I knew.

A man, thirty at least, wearing a suit. But it wasn’t dark or monotone in its color. Flashy, loud, if an outfit could even be loud. Red jacket and dress pants, with a white shirt, the top button left undone. His hair was neat and recently cut, with some length that was styled and combed on the top, shorter around the sides and around the ears. A youthful look, though that youth would escape him in a few more years.

He had a cane as well. Black, with gold engravings running up the length of the thing, stopping at a gold handle that his other hand had a grip on. But, I noticed how he was standing, how he seemed to favor one side, using the cane as support. It was just as functional as it was for show.

I started to connect the dots, but I still felt like I needed a shower.

He had a look of confusion. Whatever I was feeling must have showed on my face.

Tension was stirring inside me, begging to come out. And I couldn’t throw a punch for release.

I directed it into my words.

“Who the hell are you, you fucking creep?”

I had raised my voice, second only to the added volume of the crowd and machines cheering and ringing alike. Some people spared a glance at us, at me, but they were either too preoccupied, too inebriated, or they just didn’t care to help.

Not that I needed their help, now. I was free, and I still had some tension left to spare.

“You better keep both hands on that cane, or else I’ll-”

Wait, stop.

I couldn’t even do that.

I was in the middle of the casino, in one of the many beating hearts of the beast that was the criminal world of Stephenville. And if I didn’t want to get eaten alive, I’d have to not make a mess of things. To ostricate myself and the group I was representing.

I breathed in, deep.

It was fucking shitty, but I had to keep that tension down, for just a little bit longer. I had to be diplomatic.

Something Lawrence learned from his old boss. I had to try to learn the same lesson, too.

I fixed my stance, removing my hold off the rail. There was a small handprint left behind on the metal.

“I… shouldn’t have done that,” I said, eyes downcast. “Sorry about that.”

The man shifted his weight, lifting his cane and setting it back down in front of me.

“No, please, it was my fault. I mistook you for someone else. You can go. I, here.”

The man brought his hand out, the same hand he used to touch me.

“Santino D’Angelo.”

That name sounded familiar, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I almost didn’t want to. The connection was a little weaker, there.

I didn’t want to shake his hand. I didn’t want to touch it.

Diplomacy first.

Fuck that.

I shook his hand. I touched it.

“Wendy,” I said. If I had tried to say my surname, fake or otherwise, my voice would have certainly cracked.

I hadn’t felt this much vitriol before, not even towards Alexis. But it was there, now, and that intensity was directed right back to me. It squirmed. I so badly wanted to direct that intensity elsewhere. Out. To everyone else. Not me.

We broke, my arm falling limp at my side. I only barely had a faint idea about what I was here to do.

An awkward pause followed. I was supposed to leave, he said I could, but I hadn’t. I was a few flickers away from burning out.

So many things I lacked. Experience. Memories. Connections.

Santino D’Angelo… D’Angelo seemed to take notice of me still sticking around, and commented, saying, “If you need to take a seat, there’s a decent spot in the back. Would you like to accompany me?”

He shook his head, then added, “It’s only for a moment, and only if you’re comfortable with the idea. I’m actually supposed to meet someone, and I’m not about to wander around looking for them. If we’re to talk, they’ll have to come to me.”

It took a considerable effort to shore back up some composure, maintain it, and answer properly.

“I’m fine with that. I’m actually trying to look for someone, and I’m tired of wandering.”

D’Angelo seemed to relax, hearing that.

“Splendid. Come.”

He went off, and I came with. Ushered again, but not by a gesture.

I needed a breather.

He pushed through the party of people moving about, from slot machine to slot machine, from game to game. I stayed back, twisting around so I wouldn’t hit or bump anyone as I walked. The casino was large, I had followed D’Angelo for some time, until he eventually stopped at one of the round tables at the far back.

They were booths, made of velvet, D’Angelo slid into one side, and I moved into the other. I kept my distance, staying on the edge of my seat, scanning more faces.

It hadn’t even been thirty minutes since I left Lawrence in the hotel room, and already, there were so many left turns that it made me dizzy. I could get lost, just reeling from each and every one.

I had to focus, but it was getting so much harder to.

“You do seem a little too young to be hanging around here.”

My head whipped around. D’Angelo, talking to me again.

“But something tells me you’re not just here for some thrills.”

I replied, and it wasn’t as hard, this time.

“I’m not here for pleasure. Just business.”

D’Angelo cocked his head slightly.

“Business, here? That word has a very specific connotation, if spoken under this roof. May I ask who you’re with? Do you have a card?”

“Card?” My thoughts went to cards we got in that envelope. The room keys and fake IDs.

D’Angelo didn’t look impressed. “Business card.”

Gangs use business cards?

“I… just gave out my last one,” I said, thinking on the fly.

He nodded, unconvinced.

“Nice save, but I know a newbie when I see one. Here, I’ll give you mine.”

He pressed something on the underside of the handle of his cane. A paper slipped out.

He handed it to me. I took it, slipping it into my jacket after only giving it the smallest of glances. The name matched, at least.

“May I still get a name?” he asked.

Rule three. I wasn’t about to tell him.

“Personal business,” I said.

D’Angelo tapped his cane against the table.

“Listen, Wendy was it? It’s an amateur move, that. It’s a privilege, just to make it through the front doors. As long as you abide by the rules and keep it civil, you’re free to use the Lunar Tower as a place for discourse and refuge. A safe haven, if you will.”

I tried to loosen up, but it was useless, given the task and company at hand. I was still sitting where I was in the booth, ready to jump if I got even the slightest glance of Granon.

“We’re still making a name for ourselves, at the moment,” I told him. “We hold territory, and we have momentum, though we’re still getting our ducks in a row. But, just you wait, everyone will know who we are.”

“So I’ll be hearing about you very soon. I’m looking forward to it.”

We didn’t actually have anything planned, aside from the plans we already had in motion.

That was a move, as well. I still didn’t trust him, the third rule still in effect, so if anything were to happen in the next few weeks, I knew who to look for, and who to punish, if need be. It was a test for both him, and this establishment.

If nothing else, we might be able to use him in the near future, too.

“Well,” D’Angelo said, “You gave me some info, it’s only fair I divulge some of my own. I like balance, and if you are going to be as promising as I think you’ll be, it should be a worthy investment.”

“Fair?” I questioned, “You’re a larger gang, you can afford to give up some scraps of info here and there. It’s hardly an equivalent exchange.”

“You’re saying you’d use whatever I tell you?”

I didn’t gesture, or make any indication of what I was thinking.

D’Angelo tapped his cane again. He was smiling.

“You may be an amateur, but I know promising when I see it. It takes a lot of fucking guts to walk in here, especially with fakes, and try to get in on the action. That’s dedication, right there, that’s initiative. If you want a spot at the top, you have to take it. That’s straight out of our playbook, Wendy, you’re a natural at this.”

Hard to tell, if he was actually impressed or if he was just flattering me for other reasons. To take something else.

But, either way, I had to take it. Maintain diplomacy.

“You flatter me,” I said, voicing my thoughts from earlier, “But thank you.”

Nodding, looking elsewhere, D’Angelo lifted a hand.

“Not flattery, just mere observations. Oh, here she is! I won’t make the same mistake twice!”

He got up, pushing himself to his feet with his cane. He moved out of the booth to greet another person.

A woman, Asian in her features. Japanese, to make an educated guess. But she looked nothing like me, or even Shiori.

She was tall, towering over D’Angelo, though she did have heels. Slender, too, her waist smaller than mine, and I hadn’t had proper food… ever.

Her dress was fitting, proper for the setting, her skin a shade brighter than the pearls that adorned her neck. Hair done up, lips full, eyelashes long and smoky.

Standing by these adults… I felt as fake as the ID I used to get in here.

D’Angelo embraced the woman, still greeting her. It was brief, and they broke, talking.

“Hello, Mr. D’Angelo,” the woman said, her accent noticeable. Courtily, she placed her hands together in front of her. “Hitoshi-san is anticipating good things to come from this meeting.”

I watched as D’Angelo’s hand dropped, to her hip. Then, a twitch, and his hand recoiled to the handle of his cane.

“Hello to you too, Miss…”

“Kimiko.”

“Lovely name. And yes, I assure you the Path will be steered in the right direction with me. Ah, excuse me, but this is a colleague of mine, Wendy. She won’t be joining us, but she is someone to look out for, believe me.”

Miss Kimiko turned her gaze to me, and I wanted to jump out of my skin. I was so out of my league.

“Cute,” she said, with a grin.

Cute? Was that all I was here?

All I could do was grin back in return, tapping my teeth with my tongue. Ready to snap.

“I should get going,” I said, “You two can get down to business. I still need to find my person.”

D’Angelo motioned with his cane, nudging it forward.

“You want a tip? If you want to show that you have power, even if you don’t actually have any, you don’t seek them out. Make them come to you.”

“I’m not exactly in a position to do that,” I said.

“Then put yourself in that position. Circle about, get yourself the high ground. Now you have power.”

“I’ll… keep that in mind,” I said. Though the whole point was to approach Granon while he was unaware.

“Do that, and you’ll see results. It… ended up being nice to meet you, Wendy. I’m expecting big things from your group.”

For a third time, D’Angelo tapped his cane, and he left, Miss Kimiko at his side, taking his arm. They conversed, discussing matters that I’d probably never learn the specifics of. Our paths split apart from there.

And I had to go on my own.

I went through the other booths, heading back into the main area of the casino. I wasn’t examining every detail of every face I saw, rather I was just making myself aware. Intaking the surrounds, absorbing the culture, learning whatever I could pick up. Not hiding, drawing away from other eyes, I was here, making myself present, acting like I knew what I was doing, where I was going. Like I belonged.

The lights from the chandelier seemed less harsh, the melancholy feeling of insecurity diminished. It wasn’t completely gone, but it lessened in increments. Better than going the other way.

A creep, but maybe D’Angelo had a point.

Still didn’t trust him.

I turned at the end of a row of slot machines, and something on the glass of the slots caught my eye. It took turning at another row to see it again and know for sure.

I was being followed.

Four, maybe five men. I tried getting a glimpse of them by tilting my head, reflecting off my glasses. Nothing clear, but I doubted this was hotel security.

I grabbed my phone out of my jacket, trying to get a look that way. Oh. Several missed calls from Lawrence. He’d have to wait.

I didn’t get a look at them. I put my phone back.

Still moving, I searched for options.

A door, at the far end of the casino. Unmarked, large, green with a gold outline. A backdoor to a maintenance hall?

I’d head there.

I picked up the pace.

I reached the door. Didn’t bother to look around, check behind me. Had to work fast.

Door was locked, needed a card. I didn’t have one.

It didn’t matter.

I grabbed the handle and pulled.

The door broke free from the lock. No alarm sounded, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’d be silent.

That was fine. I’d roll with it.

I slipped through the door, into a hallway, walls white. Maintenance hallway. Even for a place that was off limits and not to be seen by guests, it still looked nice. The walls and floors were smooth, not a speck of dirt.

I was already partway down the hall when I heard the door open again from the back. I had put some distance between us, but they were starting to gain, now that there wasn’t anyone else around.

I didn’t find them. They found me. But I could use that in my favor. The higher ground. They’d have to wait for me to act first, make the first move. I was the one being pursued, but I still had the power, here. And I’d use it.

The hallway continued, but a path also opened up to the left and right. I didn’t hesitate as I banked left.

There were cameras above the door and on of the other side of the hallway, had I continued straight instead. None here. Good.

Rules were still in effect, but in the off chance I had to break them…

I stopped on my heels, spinning back. I waited with my hands behind my back.

Finally, they turned the corner. Three men, actually. Probably miscounted.

They stopped at a distance. The sight of me standing here must have given them reason to pause.

None of them looked armed. Then again, so did I. I kept rule three in mind as I said, “Kept you waiting, huh?”

The man on the right stepped forward, and responded, “So you are the one that interrupted our plans yesterday.”

So they are with the People’s Hammer.

I couldn’t tell if any of these guys were a part of the blockade, but I supposed that was hardly relevant. Any group worth their salt had to be, at minimum, decent at communication.

“You guys were the ones interrupting us. It would have gotten worse if I hadn’t done something about it.”

“How? You have injured a handful of my comrades.”

“And do you want me to include you in that number?”

He shifted. His two ‘comrades’ watched us both, carefully.

“We noticed you walking around the casino,” he said.

“Yeah, I was kind of being obvious about it.”

The man’s expression was cold.

“Why are you even here? You have no reason to be at this hotel.”

“I have every reason to be at this hotel. I need to speak with Granon.”

I needed to direct the conversation to that as soon as possible, use that control while I still had it. Or they might somehow wrangle that away from me.

He dismissed the request right there, on the spot.

“Granon has no need to speak with you. He, we, intend to take your territory and start our tenure in this damn city. We demand our seat at the table.”

“You’re not going to get that by going through us,” I said. “Because it’s just not going to happen. Take me to Granon. I speak for my gang, and I’m willing to extend another hand to you if it means him calling off all attempts to encroach upon my territory and challenging our authority. Let’s handle this diplomatically.”

“That will not happen.” He then said a short phrase in another language. “-for him when I say he is not open for any discussions. And, even if he was, it would not be with you. That discussion is for him and that Lawrence, and for them alone.”

I wasn’t surprised, there. Maybe it was his ego, or perhaps some other prejudice, but it did seem like a shot in the dark that I’d be the one to talk with him. Then again, they weren’t aware the leadership was split into three, with Lawrence being the face presented to everyone else. The least I had wanted to accomplish was convince Granon to back down from this fight. If Lawrence had to take it from there, then fair enough, I could concede that part to him. I just needed this to work out.

These guys weren’t willing to work with me.

I spread my arms a little.

“What? Is Granon too shook to seek a dialogue with me? Did I rattle him too hard?”

“No. The only one who will do any shaking, is you.”

“Great comeback there, buddy, just-”

I heard it before I felt it.

The pop, then the ring. Stunned again, the white lights and tight, close walls threw me to being back at the school. It debilitated.

Hot metal passed through me like I was made of paper.

I was falling before I realized what was happening. I was on the floor when it settled in. I’d been shot.

I’d been shot. I’d been shot.

Shot. Shot.

Shot.

I had been shot down, I was shut down, my mind going somewhere it didn’t want to go, reminded of something it’d rather forget. I was blank.

Writhing, squirming. My insides were hot, screaming to get out.

Worse than Dani, worse than D’Angelo.

They reached out, groping, manhandling me.

I was wrong. This was so much worse.

The lack the lack the lack the lack-

My head hung as my waist mended. From the back, through the muscle and bone, and out to the other side.

A clean shot.

Shot. Shot.

A hot breath steamed my cheek as a voice spoke.

“Who is shaking now?”

It was Xander L. Granon. He had me in his grasp.

My ears were ringing, his voice just barely able to be heard. Ears ringing.

Kids screaming, crying.

She lunged for Harrian and

“The same scheme as you, yes? Except this time, you are blockade.”

Couldn’t move, couldn’t respond, even though it was well within my power to do both. I didn’t know why, I couldn’t think.

“I will take your territory, and I will build my employer’s empire from there. That is, as you say, an inevitability.”

Multiple hands, grabbing at me, moving me. My arms were pushed up against my back, drawing my hands close to my shoulder blades, restraining me. A sharp pain.

Something cold slid against my fingers. Something cold.

“However,” Granon said, still breathing down my neck. “Perhaps I can negotiate a deal with that boy once the territory switches hands. Have him pay rent and taxes. Suffer infractions.”

The cold edge cut into a finger, sliding back and forth. I felt a pang.

If I moved now, I’d lose more than just my faculties. I was forced to stay still.

The tension from before was coming back, even more intense, wanting even more to explode.

“You want to talk? To negotiate? The only thing worth discussing is how many pieces he wants sent back to him. And let us start with this, your finger.”

I can heal I can heal I can get through this and slip out and figure something out

Cut.

It was all wrong.

Pain. Fire. Excruciating.

Screaming. Crying.

Not just me.

All wrong.

Growls and shrieks, over the sound of the air around me being sliced. Hands pulled away from me, and I started to collapse.

My hand, where my finger was supposed to be. Numb, yet it was on fire.

My descent felt slow and gradual. But I felt so heavy. It would be a long way down.

When I hit tile, I fell in blood.

A sweet taste splattered into my mouth, hanging open from the sudden energy being sucked out of me. Drained.

It took a long time for me to get moving again, bringing my hands forward to push myself up.

I drew in a breath, pained.

My hand, my right hand. All five fingers were there. My back and hip were fine, too. But the middle finger… It felt like it was burning. White hot. Like I had touched heated metal. It wasn’t diminishing.

Bringing that hand close, I used the other for support. I had all five fingers there. I crawled, getting out of the blood, which was still pooling.

I turned my head, and through the creeping shadows in my vision, I saw why.

Blood, everywhere.

Splashed and splattered across the walls, floor, and even the ceiling. Entire lines and streaks, then specks. There was distance to it.

And the direction.

Haphazard, but it wasn’t random. The blood went in one general direction, pointed one way. Out, away from the bodies and where I had my back turned.

Wait…

The bodies?

Bodies. Five of them, collapsed, limbs splayed and unmoving. One even had his face buried in the nook where the floor and wall met, flat on his stomach, head bent at an awkward angle.

I couldn’t see Granon. Would I even recognize him among all the red?

Are…

I scratched at an eye with my good hand, trying not to get blood on my glasses. My strained vision persisted. The scene still looked grim.

Are they all dead?

Footsteps, hurried. Coming closer.

My eyes were locked at the destruction before me. But there was no sense to make of this. There was nothing to understand.

“Wendy!”

I pulled away from the scene. I looked up, my expression blank.

Lawrence. He was keeping a distance, but he was here.

My mouth hung open, as if I had anything to say.

“Wendy,” he said in a breath, eyes wide, in shock. “What the hell did you do?”

Previous                                                                                               Next

039 – Trial by Phlegethon

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Every sign was pointing to me to call it a night. The sun had about five more hours before it was up, so I was working against the clock. I had the cops biting at my heels with every step, and having to take on an Italian mob without so much as a draft of a plan…

To change gears and go home, regroup, start over, it started to seem like the better of every option.

Except, in the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t.

I only had information on where D’Angelo would be tonight, and, did I really want to try my hand at this when the body count might have potentially doubled?

I think not.

The truck continued rolling, taking another street. Sounds of sirens filled the air, alongside incoming, consecutive slices of wind.

A tarp, here. I lifted it, and slipped under, using it for cover.

The wind-sound got louder, peaking as it passed overhead. Then, it grew distant.

I sighed.

Helicopters.

As if things weren’t hard enough.

Shit, Solace managed to get everyone in a frenzy.

And that was what I hated about this from the beginning. Who was at the bottom of this Solace thing?

Solace was hardly a concrete thing, an enemy made of air, I would reach out and just get nothing. I couldn’t even attribute a gender. And yet, Solace was capable of so much that it baffled me. How could I ever stack up against… it? Was there even a way to get ahead?

I sat in thought – and in wait – scratching my arm, and thumbing out shards of glass that littered my arms, shoulders, and neck. Some even got stuck in my hair. The wounds closed as soon as they were completely free of foreign objects, as though my body knew when to do so. It’d never stop freaking me out, watching the cuts treat themselves, the skin moving, the flesh touching back together, mending with a strange warmth, the red line thinning, then disappearing.

Quite the trip, it was.

But, holes in fabric didn’t heal. My shirt was left in tatters, ripped and torn on the sleeves and back. And blood already out of my body didn’t go back in. Small, messy stripes of red streaked across the skin on my forearms, smearing also onto my sleeves.

Might as well have painted a target on my back.

I took my mask off, again. I did appreciate Thomas’s gesture in giving me this gas mask, but it was proving to be a bit of a hassle, having to work the straps and making sure everything fit before I could make a move. I wouldn’t deny it being an improvement from my old mask in entire measures, but this night had proved that there were some flaws in its function as part of my superhero identity.

Mainly, it was hard to drink blood with this thing on.

And fuck, did I need it.

My body was already going through some of the symptoms, and I shook just thinking about them. The aches, the fever, the paranoia. I wasn’t me when it started to get bad, and it was like there was something else, trying to get out. It had to be caged by blood.

I wouldn’t last if I didn’t address this tonight. I had to find a way to squeeze it in my schedule, among everything else that needed to be done.

The mask fell into my lap as I got it off. I did my hair one more time, and pulled at my temples, where the mask had kept rubbing until I was nearing a headache.

The loud sounds didn’t help, either.

The activity outside the tarp hadn’t lessened since I hid inside. Blaring sirens, people shouting, cars speeding and horns honking. It went without saying, I was hesitant to stick my head out.

I got this far without another incident, was I in the clear? Wished I knew for sure.

I opened my backpack.

I had packed for this night as if I was going on a field trip. Water bottles, cash, an extra shirt, a hat. I was originally planning on changing after I was through with tonight, but everything ended up out of my control.

Under the tarp, I changed into the extra shirt, while forgoing the hat. Some time passed since I landed in here, I should be well out of the area the cops originally blocked off. Now, it’d be a crapshoot as to my current whereabouts.

Use that to my benefit.

Brakes squeaking, I heard the truck come to a stop. And so did my heart. A light? No other sound clued me into a police car that might have stopped us. But it wouldn’t take much longer to be found, here. Police would extend their search once they’ve exhausted all their options on the block they… blocked off, and they were on high alert.

Had to move, evade. Yet, had to exercise caution, too.

Gradually, I lifted the tarp, pulling it over my head, wary of another helicopter, or even a wandering eye. Neither, but I was still on edge. I shot a glance upward, and the buildings loomed. The truck had taken me deeper into the city.

I was in the Eye, now. Uncharted territory.

I had never spent a substantial amount of time in the area. There was never a reason to, anything my mom and I needed was a drive elsewhere, like a nearby supermarket, or an outlet mall. We had no business spending time in the inner city.

But, it couldn’t that bad, right?

It has a nickname, I told myself, Of course it’s gonna be that bad.

Dammit.

I peeked ahead. Some amount of cars were ahead of me, but the truck was stopped at a light. Red and blue lights hadn’t tinged the scenery here, so I was free of any pursuers. For now.

I crawled out of the tarp, slowly, carefully. My mask had gone back into my backpack, my parka still stuffed in there. Cash and phone in my pockets. I stayed low, crouching, waiting to see if an opportune time would come, so I could make a move.

The truck started, and I had to place my hands down to keep my balance. I shuffled back, stepping over the tarp, and I lifted my head to steal another peek to the sidewalk.

Buildings gave way to a metal fence, with paths and greenery behind it. Tall trees. The fence then turned into a gate, wide open. It was a park. But not just any park, I actually knew of this place.

The Peace Phoenix Plaza.

That might work.

I moved fast. I hopped over the wall of the trailer and touched ground, onto the street. A brisk walk took me through the gates, entering the park.

Head down, don’t look at anybody.

Orange lights illuminated the cement walkway. Civilians were here, too, of course. Some out for a late night jog, others here for a leisurely stroll. How many were on the run?

Not me, I’m just a regular girl.

I passed a fountain, the design traditional, yet impressive. I passed a statue and a number of modern art installments I didn’t quite get. It would’ve been a nice walk, barring circumstances.

I picked up the pace.

A police car zoomed down the next street I arrived at, after I crossed the park. A motorcycle followed. I never wanted to see either kind of vehicle again, for the rest of my life.

Here, though, was a line of taxis, waiting for anyone who’d take them. Being such a popular park, plenty of buses and taxis would stop by. I approached the first one I saw.

Casting my head down, I opened the door, and slid into the back row.

“Where to?” the driver asked. A woman.

I didn’t answer her right away. I propped my back against the door on the other side, leaning down, my legs resting across the seat. Hiding my face.

“Panorama,” I said, “The club downtown.”

“I know where it is.”

The taxi moved, getting back onto the street.

“Actually, I don’t plan on being there for too long. Would you mind waiting for me, somewhere? I can pay extra.”

“Sure, no problem,” she said back, casually. But she had no idea this was biggest problem anybody would ever have.

The taxi had stopped four minutes ago. The radio blared a pop tune, but it was already noise to me, now.

I hadn’t moved.

“We’re here,” the lady said, a touch annoyed, but keeping her patience. “A street over from the club, like you asked.”

I still hadn’t moved, but I was clutching my backpack tighter.

“Do you want me to stay right here?” she asked, “I can keep the blinkers on.”

“No,” I said, “No. Do you mind… waiting somewhere else? Out of sight?”

She gave me a look. “You want me to hide? I won’t front, but this is starting to sound like some shady shit.”

I clenched my jaw. Could I just tell her never mind?

“If this is too weird or too uncomfortable for you, I…”

“Honey, I’ve been at this for eight years now, my job is to take who sits in the back anywhere they need to go. Ask ten drivers, eight of them will tell you they’ve taken someonesomewhere, to do something. The other two are still new.”

I was at a loss on how to respond. I wasn’t like those guys she was probably talking about. Not exactly. But I couldn’t articulate that without sounding like I was in denial. I had my reasons, my justifications.

Or, was this city just that fucked up?

She then waved me off, like she was shooing me away. “Go, do your thing, I’ll be over in the space between the liquor store and the health clinic, about another block down.”

I looked down the direction she was talking about. That couldn’t be too hard to find.

“Okay,” was all I had to say.

Not another word was said. I got out of the taxi, and we went off in different directions. The taxi went down the street, I crossed it, finding my way to the club, the thumping music swelling in volume as I closed in.

Panorama.

The club wasn’t what I expected it to look like in my head. Sleek and black, unlike the brick that constituted the buildings beside it. Multiple stories, the tallest structure here. Pointed at the top, resembling something like an obelisk. Neon spotlights danced across the surface of the glass, lighting up the logo and name of the club. I felt the music pulse through me with every beat, even from across the street.

A line of people stretched from the door to the end of the street, turning the corner. Bouncers at the door, their arms crossed. The line wasn’t moving, and I saw people still walking to get in line.

How am I supposed to get in?

I wasn’t twenty-one, I didn’t even look eighteen. No one in their right mind would let me walk through the front door as I was. Backpack on, sweaty, and I wasn’t quite dressed for clubbing. Getting in line wasn’t a viable option, especially since I was pressed for time.

I had the whole taxi ride to think of a way to get in, but I wasn’t able to come up with anything. And after taking a look at the actual building, my options seemed to be even more limited.

Had to think on my feet. I walked while continuing to think of something.

Could I sneak in? Unlikely. I probably wouldn’t be able to get far before I was seen, and I didn’t know the layout inside enough to successfully find D’Angelo without getting caught. I still didn’t know his face, so waiting for him outside for an ambush wasn’t the smartest idea, too.

Dammit, nothing I do will be a good idea.

A direct approach? A way to smoke him out?

Possibly, but with the police still on the lookout for me, it would be like I was asking to be caught up with them again, and there was no guarantee that I’d make a ‘successful’ escape, this time. High risk, for a potentially little reward.

Decisions, decisions.

I found myself heading towards the line, anyways. So many people, clumped into their own groups, chatting among one another. Some were smoking, several already had drinks in their hands.

I ended up wandering towards the back of the line. I couldn’t help it, but I was having trouble coming up with a plan ahead of time. Usually, I could play it by ear pretty well, but in this case, I was also playing with fire. Take too many risks, and I was bound to mess up somewhere.

Perhaps it was just a matter of making the mess ups manageable. Like a controlled flame.

Nothing came to me. No spark of inspiration.

A group of girls beat me to where the line stopped, though I didn’t really have any intention of getting in line. Skimpily-clad, heavy makeup, smelling of perfume and other substances. I was envious.

They were talking about something, one of them pulling out a pack of cigarettes, a lighter following as a single stick was put to rest in between her lips.

Something flashed before my eyes. Something burned within me. Something terrible.

That anger, again. That frustration.

I held my breath.

I turned as I walked passed her, like I was reacting to my name being called from behind. My backpack hit her elbow.

“Oh!”

Everything fell, the contents of her box spilling out onto the sidewalk, including her lighter.

“I am so sorry,” I said, in an attempt to mean it.

She shot me a glance before she smacked her lips. “Watch where you’re going, okay?”

She crouched to pick her stuff up. I crouched, too, though faster. I closed my eyes, briefly, bracing myself.

My head knocked into hers.

“Ah!”

She gasped, confused, but distracted. I quickly opened my eyes, my hand moving faster.

“Oh my gosh,” I said, getting up, “I didn’t mean that, I’m so sorry.”

Her friends went to consult the girl I knocked into. She was slower to get back on her feet, massaging her forehead as she was helped up.

“I said ‘watch it,’ bitch,” she said, obviously irritated.

I raised my hands, palms open, facing them. “And I said I’m sorry. I thought I heard my name, and… I’ll just be on my way.”

“Yeah, go,” one of her friends said.

I nodded, and did as I told. I left, having to walk by more people, as the line had already gotten longer since that minor altercation.

My hands were in my pocket. It was hard to keep a neutral expression, but I had to keep my smug satisfaction to myself. There were other things to deal with, and I needed to be focused.

I reached what was now the end of the line, but I wasn’t planning on loitering around, anymore. I dipped into yet another alley.

A look back to make sure no one was watching, then I ducked behind a dumpster, changing once again into my costume.

One of the benefits of having a costume that went over my clothes as supposed to under. It was easy to get in and out of them.

There. I was all set. I walked under where metal stairs spiraled up the side of the building, and I hopped up. I checked over everything on my person again as I went up, and up.

I guess we’re doing it like this, then.

I broke into a run as soon as I reached the roof, but it wasn’t as smooth as I would’ve liked. The rooftops downtown were more cluttered than ones I had begun to be used to, with more stuff in my way. Vents, air conditioning units, metal railings. It made for a stilted path, having to go up and down more frequently, climbing over things more than I was jumping over them. Awkward and slow. I would have taken to the edge, but I’d chance a plunge back to the street below, and being seen more easily. Better to be hidden for the moment.

The music got louder again as I was approaching the club. I climbed over the last ventilation shaft before making it to the end of my run. The club was the next building over.

Panorama had a glass ceiling, and it wasn’t tinted. Dimly lit, but lights flashed enough for me to get a decent look. One big room, with two other floors or levels that overlooked the dance floor. People were partying at the very bottom, drinking and having a good time. Neon strobe lights. Multiple girls, multiple guys, grinding on one another. That was barely dancing.

I was suddenly aware of how below me those people were.

And I could see where the club got its name.

Along the farthest wall from the front door was a large, curved screen, made of many small light bulbs. Graphics of silhouetted girls dancing, the images tall enough to reach the second level. The wall was large, panoramic. A DJ was performing right in front of it. If this place had a main stage, that was it.

There wasn’t as many people as I anticipated, at least, it wasn’t as packed. I had heard of a tactic like that being used in trendy clubs, controlling the flow of people coming inside so it would appear more busy to those outside. But, the amount of people inside was still significant, still a considerable challenge.

No obvious signs of any Italian mobsters. Though, it wasn’t like I knew what to look for.

I decided to trace the side of the building, walking along the edge. The club was big enough to warrant having to take a look around, first.

The back half of the building was a more private, loft-like area. Open air, no windows. I had mistaken it for its own establishment at first, but upon a second look, I could tell they were connected. A set of double doors in the wall between the two area linked them together. A pool, a bar, people lounging about rather than raving. More girls than guys, there, and a big difference in dress, too. The girls were wearing bathing suits, most of the men standing around were in suits. That looked more promising.

I took another look, and noticed a particular table by the pool. Two men sat across each other, a brief case between them. It was hard to discern due to the distance, but I was positive one of them was Asian. The other… had to be white. They looked important enough that I could make an educated enough guess as to who one of them were.

It would have been nice to have binoculars, but that’d be another thing to store in my backpack. All I could do at this distance was guess.

A movement. A man leaned over to the Asian man sitting at the table, then movements.

The Asian man bursted out of his chair, pointing at the other male. His mouth went wide as he spoke. Yelling? The other men on his side of the table assumed positions as well. Firm, on guard. Some had their hands around their hips.

That doesn’t look good.

If a shootout happened here, it would ruin everything. My chances of getting more information, my chances of finding Thomas. I needed to diffuse the situation, somehow.

How, though? Could I just drop into the loft? Then the man I had guessed as D’Angelo would be surrounded by guards. Even the Asian man’s entourage would be included in that, by proxy of wanting to protect themselves and their boss. And they’d all be targeting me. I couldn’t run fast enough to swoop past all of them and take D’Angelo someplace else. I wasn’t faster than their collective trigger fingers.

Some of the girls in the pool had noticed what was about to go down, too, and tore out of the pool, running through the double doors, despite their being out of dress code. Only one way out of the loft?

Something roundabout, then.

I ran back toward my earlier position, where I was overlooking the main dance floor. Appalling, awful, downright stupid.

But what else could I come up with in little to no time?

Had to play it by ear.

I took a moment to steel myself. It was a necessity.

I closed my eyes, breathing in, then out.

I took to the air. High as my legs would allow.

Up, then down.

Please break easily please break easily please break easily

The soles of my feet collided with the glass. It wasn’t easy, but it did break.

I fell through the glass panel, shards scattering around me. The sound of shattering glass and bass-heavy music filled my ears.

The fall wasn’t too bad, I only aimed for the third level, where there was the least amount of people. Not too bad, but the landing was nothing graceful.

My legs took the brunt of the impact, and I folded like a chair when I crashed. More fractures peppered my feet, legs, and hip.

Again, no time to wallow in the pain. I fought through it like an insane person.

The bones mended as I found my way onto my feet. My costume was heavy-duty enough to prevent glass from getting into my skin this time.

People around, but no one else was hurt. They were just staring, some already running. Good. Keep… moving.

My first steps were of me waddling to the edge of the floor, overlooking the dance floor. The music kept playing, people kept dancing. I clutched the railing, and had to take another deep breath.

Again.

I dropped down the next two levels.

I hit the dance floor. I wasn’t feeling my most festive.

Bones healed again as I pushed my way through the crowd, most getting out of the way on their own once they realized who I was. I pushed until I reached the bar, and I hopped over.

More partygoers here than security, I noticed. Or were they all on that loft.

Time to bring them all down here.

I grabbed bottles in both hands, and tossed them toward the stage, hitting the huge screen. The DJ ran away, abandoning his equipment. The music still continued.

The bottles broke, emptying its contents onto the screen’s bulbs and stage. The display went black where the bulbs had been broken.

The bartender tried to stop me. I brought him down with a gentle push of my foot. To his chest.

More bottles, more broken bulbs. I threw hard and fast.

Another bottle down, and I figured that was enough. My hand went into my pocket. I held the lighter that I stole from that girl.

I tossed it onto the stage.

Sparks flew. A fire rose. The blaze grew.

That got people moving.

I’m most definitely going to Hell for this.

I didn’t want to think too much about it, or psychoanalyze what fucked up part of my brain though this was the best idea. I probably wouldn’t like the answer.

The flames bounced across the stage, the screen catching fire where the liquor had soaked it, growing from there. It was spreading faster than I would have liked, tongues of heat were already licking the second level.

Not exactly a controlled fire.

I stepped back onto the dance floor, nearly slipping. The sprinklers had turned on, but they weren’t strong enough. The fire was likely to continue unless firefighters came onto the scene.

Firefighters, and cops.

People were evacuating, taking stairs alongside the walls, connecting the different levels. Also good. The fire was relatively fast, but they would have to be faster. I couldn’t help them, there. Hopefully, there were fire exits here that I didn’t know about, and they were being used.

But there was only one way down, from the loft.

I jumped back up to the third level.

I mounted myself over the railing, and I saw that the flames were starting to reach here, too. Women were shrill as they ran past me. Men in suits followed, and I blocked their path.

I saw the Asian man, and his other partner at the table. I had smoked them out.

They all charged. And so did I.

If they had guns, they wouldn’t be firing them, not here, not now, not anymore. Dark plumes of smoke started to pollute the upper levels, too, limiting visibility. All this, I could use to my advantage.

The first guy was easy to fight off. I flipped him over my head, tossing him away, towards the stairs. I wasn’t here to incapacitate. I had my knife with me, but I couldn’t use something that would impede anyone’s progress out of here.

The next guy went just as easily. I ducked, getting under his swing, then performed the same move.

I hoped they had the presence of mind to run away instead of coming back to fight me. Flight, instead of fight.

A force on my backpack, and I was sent down. A kick from behind.

I threw my hands out in front of me, stopping myself from a bad fall. I caught myself, then used that momentum to propel myself forward, creating distance. I turned to face my new attacker.

A woman, this time, also in a suit. Like the ones with the Asian man. Her features were similar.

She had a bottle in her hand. There were standing tables scattered throughout the club. People had abandoned their beer and wine bottles.

She ran, ready to strike. I was ready to defend myself, and protect her.

The smoke was getting worse, it was like stepping into a fog when I moved to dodge. I was standing beside her. A chop to her back, and that was it for her.

There were still some left, but most finally wised up. They were running.

Including the man I was sure was D’Angelo.

I moved to his shape, taking him by the collar. I twisted my hand around, and he was complied, the fight leaving his body.

The heat was more than overwhelming, the smoke dizzying. I had a gas mask on, but it mostly served a visual purpose. I wondered if my healing applied to my lungs.

I took the both of us over to a table first, and I grabbed a bottle, turning real quick to throw it down onto the pit, to the dance floor. The music had cut out, and the sounds of deafening, crackling destruction took over instead, as the fire continued to eat the Panorama.

I coughed, heavy.

Everyone would be abandoning the building by now. I had to let the Asian man go, he wasn’t who I needed.

I maneuvered us back the way they came, through the double doors, opening automatically. We were on the loft. The air got a little clearer as we got outside, but smoke was following us out the door.

I fumbled with him until he was in front of me. I shoved him into the ground, but I dropped with him. I had him pinned, straddled.

Had to shout, if I wanted to be heard over the flames, the crumbling building. “D’Angelo!”

With one word, I knew I was right. “You,” he said back. “The deal was going well, before the Japanese caught wind of your attack on my men. Suddenly got scared that they were next. Guess they were right.”

“Benny asked your cop, Jeffery Robinson, to do a job for Solace. Where did he take Thomas Thompson?”

D’Angelo somehow found it within himself to grin. “Oh, that? I have to say, you are a lot warmer than I expected you to be.”

I growled.

I took a hand off him, just one, and patted my leg for a pocket. I flipped out a knife out of my thigh, and it went right into his.

This time, I meant it. This was no accident.

I made him scream.

Bloodcurdling, yet I felt nothing. Shouldn’t I? Like, remorse?

No, another thing. Fuel.

“God damn you,” I yelled, “Give me an answer!” I pulled the knife out of him. Blood trailed between the knife and his leg.

He continued his screaming, “Aaagh can damn me all you want! I’m not saying a fucking thing!”

“Where next, huh?” I roared, “You’re not going anywhere until you give me something!”

“The…” he breathed, “Same spot. Still itches, there.”

I growled, again. I angled the knife differently, but I hit the same general area. It formed a ‘V.’

Screaming.

“Where did he take Thomas? Who is Solace?”

A long pause, D’Angelo tearing up from his wounds. “As if I know, and as if I’d tell you if I did know. Benny wanted to borrow him for however long she wanted, as long as he’s back in one piece. For… now, he’s leased out, out of my hands.”

“What does Benny have to do with this? Who is Solace?”

He heaved in between some words. “Does it truly matter to you? It… sounds like you don’t want justice, you want revenge, just like her… probably. You’re not stopping petty crimes anymore, getting into our business. You’ve made it personal, you’re… hunting us, trying to get payback. That’s straight out of our playbook, Blank Face, you’re a natural at this.”

I took the knife out again, and he winced. “No!”

Over the noise, the fire and collapse, sirens blared, and wind chopped. A helicopter soared into view, putting us both in a harsh light.

Blank Face, step away from the man! I repeat, step away from the man!

Blank Face?

“Looks like your time is up,” D’Angelo said, shaking his head, almost laughing. “You may have extraordinary powers, but that’s not real power. And you want to know who Solace is? I’ll… give you that. It’s Edgar Brown, Linda… Day. Thomas… Thompson.”

The fire swelled behind me, and within me, and I felt the heat. I had to stand, and put a foot on his leg. He screamed, again.

“Tell Mister I’ll be coming for him, too.”

D’Angelo breathed, exasperated. “That’ll… be fun.”

I put more weight onto his leg. His pain amplified.

Everyone needs to stop fucking with me.

I then faced the helicopter. I saw more of the light than the chopper itself. It was so bright.

Blank Face, step away from the man!

I backed up a step. I noticed that they didn’t threaten to fire.

How was I supposed to get out of this one? I had a few thoughts, but they weren’t exactly clean getaways. That was impossible, by this point.

I was surrounded, forces had time to gather and mobilize, from police, SWAT, even firefighters. No getting lucky this go-around.

I thought some more.

Run to the helicopter, take it over? Crash it somewhere and escape in the confusion?

What was I thinking?

How many more people needed to be hurt before this was over?

Was this what superheroes do? Abducting and assaulting police officers, committing arson, among God knows what else? They called me a terrorist, but I had another word for myself…

Say it, become it.

Fuck me.

Is this what Alexis would do?

The man in the helicopter ordered me again.

Blank Face! This is a message from Chief of Police James Gomez!

I straightened my neck. What?

You are to go to the warehouse on Irving Street! I repeat, the warehouse on Irving Street!

The warehouse on Irving Street. That was where I first took on El Carruaje. Where it all began.

And where it all would end.

Do you understand?

I put my knife away, then I raised my hands above my head, as if I was to surrender. But not now.

I turned, and ran back into the fire.

Hot hot hot.

My costume was flame retardant, but not fireproof. I’d go up in smoke if I was in here for too long.

Everything was falling apart. The fire had consumed the entire building. Only blotches of flooring were untouched by now. I played the most messed up game of hopscotch, ever.

Every breath, I inhaled smoke, black scorched lungs. I felt like I was melting. Meeeeelting.

Something caught my attention.

Someone was still in here, downed.

The woman from before, in the suit. She was face down, a bottle near her outstretched hand. If it ignited now…

Leaving her behind was out of the question.

I ran to her, smacking my arms were the fire brushed against them.

Holy shit, holy shit.

I grabbed her, carrying her. One arm under her legs, the other supporting her back. I kept a move on.

Didn’t bother with the stairs. I went over the railing, descending into the flames.

Back on the bottom floor. Firefighters hadn’t gotten in here, yet, but the floor wasn’t entirely taken over by fire.

I took the worst of it, and she just rolled out of my arms. Might as well have fallen on a bed.

Shit, shit.

Bones felt like they were taking longer to come together.

Don’t think… Don’t think about that now.

I worked without thinking. She might already have burns I wasn’t seeing, or was aware of. She probably had trouble breathing, too.

I took this costume off for the last time. Mask, parka, backpack. The mask and parka was for her. The backpack met its fate in the fire. Knife and cash and phone stayed in my pockets. Gloves were stuffed in there, too.

My eyes immediately started to water. It really was hot in here. Was the woman even alive, still?

She was limp, I had to move her myself in order to get her in the gear. I slipped her arms into the sleeves, zipped up the front. Fitting and tightening the mask turned into a pretty sloppy job, but it just had to do. The sprinklers were still on, water splashing into the inside of the jacket, flushing the mask.

My breathing got worse the longer I stayed in here, the fumes getting… to my head. No mask, no filter, every little bit had helped. Now, no more.

I… heard…

I heard more noise just as I was finishing up. She was the spitting image of me…

Well, Blank Face.

The woman wasn’t that much taller than me, her build was similar. This might have worked out, after all.

I was certain they didn’t get a good look at me during the apartment escape, but if this would help in throwing them off, I’d be willing to give it a shot. Some time, bought back.

I stood and fled for the front doors right as the firefighters came in. Mist flew into my face. I fell into one of their arms. I wanted to scream, but nothing came out. The sound of powerful hoses hummed in turn as I was being carried out.

The last of my reserves. The last of everything I was.

I was brought out onto the street. Some people put their hands on me as I was set down. Paramedics. I was put among a group of those who were inside, now being tended to.

“Is that the last of them? Are you injured?”

What question was I supposed to answer?

“Everyone’s accounted for,” someone answered. “Only one left in there is… her.”

“No way. Miss, are you injured?”

A call for me, I had to get that. I shook my head.

“Thirsty,” I said, faint.

Plastic was put into my hands. A water bottle. Something heavy was put on top of my shoulders. A blanket.

“Take this, and take a seat on the sidewalk across the street. Someone else will be with you and make sure you’re all good and all clear. If not, we can take you to a hospital.”

Slow, not really understanding, I nodded. Dizzy.

One step at a time, I walked. I was rendered unable to do two things at once. When I went where I was told, I took a sip of my water.

A little bit of strength returned, but not a lot. My head was still clouded.

Had to get out of here.

Like my body moved on its own.

I lumbered through a crowd of people. Women huddled together, shaking. Men sitting, heads in their hands.

The crowd was big, I noticed, as I walked. Divided by survivors, and the onlookers. Divided by a line of yellow tape.

I crouched under the yellow tape, dropping the blanket. I pushed past legs and knees to get out of mass of bodies.

Soon, I was free. I continued, drinking water. All of the effort and energy I had left went to walking straight, not drawing attention as I navigated my way back to a space between a liquor store and a health clinic.

People didn’t give a crap about those they passed on a sidewalk, I supposed.

I collapsed into the back row of a taxi.

“Whoa, welcome back,” a lady said. “Where to, now?”

My mouth was so, so dry. I forced out a single word.

“Drive.”

Previous                                                                                               Next

Interlude – Styx

Previous                                                                                               Next

The music was loud. Loud enough that he didn’t hear the chair collide with the wall, tools scattering into the air, then banging onto the floor.

Styx roared.

It was a sort of rage that was utterly recreational. A push, and that was all that was needed for him to go off. Like his moods lived on a swing. All it took was a simple push.

Recreational, yet fulfilling. He needed this. Craved it. The freedom to do, the freedom to be. Addicting, and he was his own supplier.

And here? He also had the freedom to destroy.

Everything in the garage was his. The sports cars, the vintage motorcycles, the guns. Organized according to manufacturers, then year. Everything in the condominium was his. To be precise, he owned the whole building. The crown jewel of his decades of hard labor. Building an empire wasn’t easy, but it certainly was rewarding.

The vehicles were clean, the walls white, the area well-lit. A complicated sound system blasted the music throughout the garage, a deep bass rumbling mirrors and windows. Guns rattled where they were situated on a wall, but they wouldn’t fall. The cleanliness didn’t necessarily fit Styx’s nature, but it didn’t have to. He had the means to afford it, and the means to indulge himself in it.

However, despite the otherwise well-kept status of the garage, there was one third of the space that he allowed to be dirty. The innermost section of the garage. His workstation, where he kept his projects and other endeavors. Here, was where he was most free. Tools and knives and guns were strewn about, dirt marks were streaked across the floor and walls. Dark splotches of paint and blood touched the ceilings. Various tables with various tools and gadgets, randomly placed, unlike how his cars and motorcycles were lined up. He liked the contrast, how things didn’t necessarily go from one to the other.

He liked the chaos.

Again, Styx roared. It strained.

As he let himself come down from his fit, he grabbed a towel off of a table, wiping sweat off of his body. He was shirtless, wearing only black skinny jeans and black boots. Tattoos of different images were sketched across his chest, torso, and arms. Pagan, tarot, Lovecraftian.

Styx bent down where the chair had landed. He picked up a wrench, gripping it tight in his hand. He turned, then stopped.

Acknowledgement.

He went to another metal table, where other tools laid, available. A remote was there, too. Without having to lift it, he pressed a finger on a button. The music was immediately cut.

“Victor,” Styx said, but he didn’t hear himself. A high ringing had replaced the noisy, industrial instrumental.

‘Victor’ answered with a lift of his chin.

His clothes were simple, but it was all he had time to procure. Things were moving, quickly, and Victor had little in the way of leisure time. A white shirt, tucked into blue denim jeans. Light brown boots. Round, large sunglasses adorned his face.

He ran his fingers through his hair, despite the bandages wrapped around his palm. Though, there wasn’t much there, thanks to his buzz cut.

“I’m surprised you haven’t blown out your ears yet,” Victor said, having to raise his voice for Styx to hear. The proper security measures were set up across the building, even though it wasn’t necessary. Anyone who knew, knew to stay away.

After one of Styx’s men escorted the two back to the condo, and after the two spent some time catching up, Styx had told Victor the different words and numbers necessary to let himself in. Told. Styx trusted he wouldn’t write it down, and was confident in Victor’s ability to memorize a few letters and digits.

Victor had taken the wooden stairs down to the garage, the glass door behind him. A large, brown paper bag sat at his feet.

“You were okay with being out in the open?” Styx asked instead, as if Victor’s concern wasn’t worth addressing. “No issues?”

“None. I know how to keep my head down.”

“Don’t want to spoil your arrival to the Feds?”

“Oh yeah, I prefer being the uninvited guest. Makes things interesting. Especially if I bring gifts.”

Styx nodded. His brow was still furrowed, his eyes wild, like he was still maintaining a hold on the anger that gripped him not too long ago. He creeped over to the middle of the garage, towards his bike, to actually get some work done on it.

“It’s just a few scratches, Styx, I don’t see why you need to tune up the whole-”

Styx cut him off.

“They fucked up King of Pentacles!” he bellowed at the top of his lungs, referring to his bike. “I’ll whip the bitch who did it!”

King of Pentacles. The motorcycle was a mechanical embodiment of Styx’s career in the underground. Originally a used bike he stole almost thirty years ago, he’d built upon it, adding where it was needed, stripping away where it was least efficient. Now, it was a bike that perfectly represented his status in the city. Not how he viewed himself, necessarily, but how others should view him.

An all-black custom chopper. Sleek, elegant, but with a edge to it that made people steer clear of it, turning another way if they simply saw it parked, somewhere. Styx preferred functionality over aesthetics, but it worked, here. The large engine at the bottom resembled something of a ribcage, and the headlight was encased in a plating that resembled Cthulhu. Asymmetric slits allowed light to bleed through, with tentacles reaching forward to hold the front tire. It had a form, but nothing definite, concrete. It left things to the imagination, and most didn’t want to be around to ponder over it.

And Styx saw where scratches defiled the bike, where dents fucked up his handiwork. Though few, and negligible, it make his blood boil.

Angrily, Styx went back to finishing the final touches on his bike. If anyone could work the nuts and bolts of a motorcycle with anger, it was Styx.

“We’re not even taking King of Pentacles to the meeting,” Victor said. “You can fix it later.”

“This is my bike,” Styx replied, in a much more reserved manner. “You know that.”

“And you know I know that, I’m just telling you that it can wait. The meeting’s in an hour, and you’re the only one with clearance to take me.”

Styx twisted with the wrench, making more adjustments. “I don’t give a fuck. Everyone can wait. You, Mister, and those fucks. My shit takes precedence over their shit.” He yelled, as though to verbally form an exclamation point. It rang throughout the garage. That, he heard.

“Then I have no choice but to wait.” Styx heard Victor walk through the workstation, picking up the chair that Styx had thrown, and sat in it.

“Man, this city hasn’t really changed much since I left,” Victor said. “More of the same. Except, there’s actually more. More gangs, more drugs, more shit. I commend you for keeping things together.”

“It’s easy,” Styx said, keeping it short.

“I’ll say. You’re living lavish. I’d comment and suggest that the wealth has made you soft, but it clearly hasn’t.”

Styx didn’t respond, focusing too much on King of Pentacles.

From behind him, Victor murmured, or spoke at a normal enough volume that Styx couldn’t pick it up. The ringing was only now starting to subside.

“Yeah?” Styx questioned.

“Right, the music. I was talking… there’s one new player in all this, huh?”

Styx knew exactly what he was talking about. Who, to be precise.

“Yeah.”

“‘The Bluemoon.’ Or, didn’t you mention another name?”

“Yeah, Blueballs?”

“Your humor is still on point, Styx. No, I mean an actual name.”

“Last night, when I got a call from a police station that I’m good with. John told us everything. Told us it went by ‘Blank Face.’”

“That was it. If it went by another name, couldn’t it just be another super… thing?”

“That’s a whole different question. All I know is, that’s the same one that came by the yard. The physical description matched up. It was a good thing I kept watch, in the distance.”

“Blank Face, huh.”

Then, Victor laughed, without warning. Styx kept working.

“The hell? I’m not impressed at all!” Victor exclaimed. “I was thinking it’d be some terrifying figure, but all I saw was some clown with a limp arm. What kind of hero can I just kick out the back of a truck, and you come in to break their arms. What a little bitch.”

Styx giggled to himself. It was manic, uneven in pitch. “Heh, lil’ bitch.”

“That’s why I had to ask if that really was The Bluemoon I’ve seen on TV. It shouldn’t have been that easy.”

“That was our Blueballs for sure, but does it really matter? The meeting is still happening, they still want to talk about this.”

Victor sighed, letting out another chuckle. “Hah, I get it, though. There’s more to it than that, and that’s what they’re pissing themselves over. We’ll all go over it then. But, I’m not going to say it didn’t take the wind out of my sails, even just a bit. I sit for thirty-six hours in the back of a truck, smelling like shit, only for it to be almost unbelievable easy to take the hero out. Do you see what I’m getting at?”

“Yes.”

“Maybe being a ‘hero’ isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.”

Styx pulled away the wrench, and patted the leather seat of the bike. He stood, facing Victor. “Don’t get ahead of yourself. If taking out Blueballs was all he needed you to do, Mister wouldn’t have asked for you. And what you perceive to be a minor threat is still a threat. You don’t get to where I am by underestimating bitches.”

Victor lifted his hands, placating. “I know, I know. I’ve got work to do.” He groaned.

Victor casted a glance at Styx. “What about you? You scared of this, thing? It escaped, went after your guys, last night.”

Styx answered plainly, truthfully. “Me? Nah. If anything, I’m curious.”

“Nice.”

Victor stared at Styx, and he stared back. Blankly.

Victor dropped his shoulders, grumbling, and lazily pointed to a corner of Styx’s workstation. “Um, I was trying to find a way to bring this to your attention, but… Aren’t you going to introduce me?”

Styx looked, and remembered that the man tied to a chair was there.

He was blindfolded, with no clothes, save for his underwear. Twitching, shaking. His mouth shuddered, but no sound came forth.

He dripped of blood and sweat and tears, his blindfold most dark where his eyes should be. His chair was placed on top of multiple mats, placed into a large square. Normally used for dogs, the mats caught the blood and urine that slid down the chair’s legs.

Styx shrugged.

“My payment for agreeing to see through you crossing the border. You might recognize him, you sat by him for thirty-six hours.”

Victor frowned. “This is why society agreed to put value into things like green paper.”

“So?”

Victor shifted in his seat. Not because he was alarmed, Styx knew, but because he went to reach for his phone. Styx took that as a chance to check his, too.

“Bored?” Victor asked, looking at his phone.

“Stress reliever,” Styx replied, while looking at his, “And practice for when I get that bitch who fucked King of Pentacles.”

“The more things change, the more they stay the same, then.”

“Aye aye.”

The man was becoming audible, now, but no one paid heed to him. The man whimpered while Styx checked his phone.

Victor put his phone away. “So, you almost finished, here? I’ll leave a better impression if I show up early. You know, like an actual professional.”

“Eh.” Styx put his phone in his pants pocket. “Let me get my stuff, then.”

Victor griped again, as he got out of the chair. “Styx, if you’re so bored being here, in this city, why haven’t you left, yet? You could’ve visited me.”

“That again?”

“Yes, again. Nothing’s honestly tying you down, you could leave anytime you want, let the city burn behind you while you see the world.”

“Like what you did?”

“Yes.”

Styx looked to Victor, his chin tilted up some to make up for the height difference. He had no expression. “That’s what makes us different. You wanted to see the world, I wanted to make my own.”

Victor smiled. “And that’s the only difference?”

Styx’s lack of expression stayed.

Victor then nodded, as if taking it all in. “I suppose that still makes me Remus, and you Romulus,” he said.

“Careful, I haven’t killed you yet.”

“If it ever comes to that, you’ll die, too,” Victor said. “Of boredom.”

Styx actually cracked something of a smile to that, though twisted, unhinged.

Before Styx could let the moment get the better of him, he turned, retrieving his leather jacket, putting it on over his bare torso. He didn’t bother to bring a gun. His presence would be enough. Victor followed, taking the paper bag he brought in with him.

“You can pick which car we take,” Styx said.

Styx took to a corner of the room. Fitting, to how much of a role he played in this. A willing, listening participant, but not necessarily an active one.

Others began filing in, sitting around a round table. Some were in more casual wear, but most elected to wear suits. Mostly men, but two women were in attendance, already waiting.

Styx rested his tongue on his upper lip.

Victor sat next to him, watching as the rest came into the high-rise restaurant. The room was dimly lit, sensual, if Styx wanted to be poetic, which he sometimes liked to be. A light jazz tune wafted about the area, almost as if the room had housed the essence of this music, and the building, the floor, the room, was built in accommodation to it.

Poetic.

Styx looked at them all, uncaring. They weren’t even a third of the gangs that had a hold on the city.

He listed the names of the different mobsters. Arthur, Brian, Cassius, D’Angelo, Edward, Forest, Gary, Hayden, Inez.

All separate, yet connected by a single thread…

And they were completely oblivious.

“Is Mister gonna make it, Styx?” It was D’Angelo, calling from across the room. Leader of one of the Italian mobs.

“No,” Styx replied, at half the volume. “He’s sitting it out. I can fill him in, if he wants.”

D’Angelo motioned to the whole room, as everyone took their seats. “This isn’t enough for him to show? This isn’t important enough to appear in person, for once?”

“It may look that way to stupider eyes, but I am not his keeper. If he found a more pressing matter to deal with instead, that’s on him.”

“He called the meeting!”

“Calm down, D’Angelo,” Inez said, ushering him to sit. “We can still have a discussion and act without him. So let’s try to be punctual.”

D’Angelo sat, and Inez looked pleased with herself. The leader of a cartel on the south side. A real cougar with the power to dominate. So badly, Styx wanted to fuck that grin right off of her face.

He tried to keep still.

“Let’s get started then, brother,” Forest said, pointing to Victor. “Man of the hour.”

Victor took that cue, leaving his seat to approach the circle. He brought his bag with him.

“That’s what I am. ‘Kay, I’ll make the introduction short. Most of you, we go way back, and it’s nice to see you all again.” He gestured with a small bow to the table.

“The rest of you who are not familiar, I’m probably the reason why you’re​ at this table, today, and absolutely the reason why Mister can afford to miss such a meeting. To be cocky, I produce results.”

Some of the mobsters exchanged glances. The ones who didn’t know him.  The naïve ones.

“To all you new folk, don’t waste the energy trying to decide whether or not I’m the real deal. I am. Let’s all just accept that, and we’ll all be a lot richer for it, in the end.”

Victor set the paper bag down on the table, next to Arthur. Arthur pointed to it, and Victor motioned, letting him take a peek inside.

Styx leered to himself when he saw Arthur’s reaction.

“Are you mad? What are you thinking, bringing-”

“Now, now,” Victor interrupted. “Let’s not get so irritable so soon. You’ll find that it may come in handy, one day.”

Arthur grumbled, and passed the bag down for Brian to look inside. His reaction was more understated, Styx saw, but he couldn’t quite hide the fear. Brian passed the bag down, and the bag made its round trip. The ones who already had a rapport with Victor masked their trepidation well. The others did not.

Styx knew Victor was making a show of things, but it was only because he had to confidence to do so. The repertoire.

“Let’s start with the obvious, yeah? Why are we all here, today, having a meeting over a light breakfast?”

The mobsters looked amongst each other.

“Tough crowd,” Victor said. “Then, I won’t tiptoe around it anymore. The Bluemoon. Or ‘Blank Face,’ from what I’ve heard on the streets.” Victor put his hands into air quotes when he said ‘Blank Face.’ “A very indecisive individual, this one.”

Victor started snapping his fingers, looking expectant.

“What do we want to call this individual? Bluemoon, Blank Face, hero, vigilante, monster…”

“Lil’ bitch,” Styx yelled out.

“Thanks for that, Styx, but I’ll just go ahead and use ‘Blank Face.’ If that’s what they want to be called, then I’ll respect their wishes.”

Hayden, the other female mob boss, leaned in with her elbows on the table, her chin resting on her hands. “Are you going to at least pretend that you’re taking this seriously?”

Styx squinted. One of the naïve ones.

“Oh, I am. Wouldn’t want to waste a perfectly good sightseeing opportunity. Yes, this Blank Face has been causing some trouble for the lot of you. Even its very existence raises some issues. Coupled with the fact that the National Guard might sweep the streets to find the vigilante, and not to mention all the media coverage placed on the city because of it, that’s a lot of eyes on things we don’t want to be looked at, no?”

Hayden fell back into her seat. Styx couldn’t see it from his view, but he read that she crossed her legs.

Victor kept going. “This may be unprecedented, but we’re not blind and in the dark. There are some things we do know about Blank Face. I’m sure all of you have heard by now, but Blank Face decided to pay me a visit, last night.”

A few had worried expression. Styx knew what that would imply, that he was incapable, or vulnerable, to an assault by Blank Face or another party. That he somehow slipped up, able to be taken advantage of. He hated that implication. He could have pushed, and killed any one of them for thinking that, if he wanted to.

He didn’t.

Styx had an outlet for his frustrations at home.

A feeling stirred within Styx.

Arthur spoke. “Is that why you’re trying to act so nonchalant about this? To save face after seeing the devil?”

Several laughed.

Victor was motionless, not responding to that comment.

“We were close to capturing it,” Victor said, fixing his sunglasses, “Maybe even closer to killing it, last night. I was able to subdue it and distract it enough for Styx to do his thing. Two broken arms, strangulation, at least. Who knows what we managed internally. Blank Face managed to walk away from that.”

Suddenly, there was no room for levity. The table was dead quiet.

“How, how are you so sure?” It was Cassius who had to balls to say something.

Styx spoke. Everyone turned their heads. “Our transport of Blank Face was interrupted, and it got away. My men told me afterwards that Blank Face was soon active, moving like nothing ever happened.”

Victor gave Styx a thumbs up. “Which brings me to my next point. Bla-”

“You’re fucking telling us that thing can’t die!”

The voice was too on edge, too shrill, to point to a source. Panic was rushing into the hearts of the mobsters, at the revelation. Styx took a glance at his phone.

“Everyone, please, settle yourselves!” Victor had to raise his voice to be heard above the uproar. “You’re going to scare our hard working servers!”

Some turned, Styx did, too. A small team of young waiters stood, flustered at what to do. One had a platter of crepes and omelets. Another had his hands around an intricately designed cart, with pancakes and cups of coffee on it. But he was still.

Styx silently judged as the mobsters started to right themselves, straightening their backs. Victor gave the servers the okay to approach.

“To address the table’s concerns,” Victor said, “It appears that Blank Face has some sort of improved healing. But, do not let that scare you. Blank Face can be taken down, and it may be easy for it to get back up, that point remains. We just need to hit back, hard. Harder.”

“And how do you propose to do that?” someone asked. Styx couldn’t tell.

Victor, now, had started walking around the table. Styx only saw the back of his head, but he knew what his expression would be. He mouthed it in time with Victor.

“I’m working on it.”

“You’re… working on it?” Forest.

“Yes, my man, working on it. I’ll give you the proper pitch when I have it more developed, probably by later tonight, so I’m hoping I’ll have your… support.”

“We’ll see if it’s good enough for that.”

“Thank you very much. I don’t want to spoil what I have right now, but I’m thinking something theatrical? We have people in masks, now, performing magic and tricks. I suggest we play into that a bit.”

“Wait, people?” Inez questioned, stressing that second word.

“Oh, I almost forgot! Everyone was losing it a moment ago…” Victor scratched his throat, before saying, “Blank Face isn’t working alone.”

Styx could feel it in the room, the panic coming back, but no one wanted to fall into it. Not anymore. Styx remained calm.

“You’re joking.”

“‘Fraid not. One of Styx’s Ferrymen were interrupted by Blank Face, earlier in the night, before it came to us. A van came to get him. A man in a bird mask accompanies Blank Face.”

The two women went pale. Styx, instead, seethed at the mention of the van. “There’s… there’s more of them?”

Victor shook his head. “That’s one of the things we don’t know. I’m inclined to say yes, just to be careful.”

Murmurs among the mobsters, unsure of what to make of the possibility of at least two superhumans working against them. Styx couldn’t help but think of ways to rip them apart, instead. And if they could recover from that, then more fun for him.

“What more do we know of this man in the bird mask?” Inez asked.

“Not much, but they were probably in constant communication with each other.”

Styx had realized that Victor never mentioned how they got interrupted by the van, how it crashed into King of Pentacles. At this meeting, too many details were coming out that were frightening the mobsters. It wouldn’t do to have them completely chicken out and not want to hear Victor’s plans. Or was it better that he play into that, getting more support?

Or, was Victor trying to protect Styx’s rep? As if he needed it, but, if so, Styx appreciated the effort.

D’Angelo cut into his pancake, then ate, chewing slowly. After washing it down with coffee he asked, “And you think you can take them on, not knowing what you don’t know?”

“Oh, I can. The battle isn’t as uphill as you’re insinuating it be. The whole world is even more fearful of Blank Face. By the by, I love the riot idea. I say we do more of that, while we’re at it.”

The different members of the table nodded. Styx loved the idea, too.

“If we play our cards right, this might turn out to be a problem that solves itself. Again, more details to come.”

Forest raised his cup, looking around for a waiter. “Ah, man, that’s enough of the Blank Face talk, for now. Getting me sick to my stomach. Brother, we’ll patiently await your pitch.”

Victor had wrapped around the table, his back to Styx. He brought both hands up. Peace signs.

“Super.”

While the others got to their breakfast, Hayden asked, “Is there anything else we want to bring up?”

Arthur set down his fork. “There’s one thing.”

Victor leaned close. “Hmm?”

“Thomas Thompson.”

“Don’t know the name, sorry.”

“He’s a lawyer. Pain in the ass, with the potential of becoming a bigger one.”

“I’m listening.”

“Elections for the next DA are coming up, and it looks like he’s going to take it. We had our guy, John Cruz, but the public adores Thompson. He’s squeaky clean, going on a platform of ‘hope’ and ‘courage’ in the face of adversity. ‘Wander no more,’ he says. It’s bullshit, but they’re eating it up.”

Victor fixed a sleeve. “Squeaky clean does present a problem.”

“Him being in office isn’t going to help us any. Harsher punishments on any alleged corruption in the police force, and he’s advocating for harsher punishments for any possible connection to any gang activity, however minute. He was instrumental in bringing down one of the Cobras. They’re still shaken up about it.”

“Sebastian?”

“Yes.”

“No.” Victor looked legitimately disheartened, hearing that. He brought a finger to his chin, thinking.

“So you understand why I brought it up? If he can do that much without holding an official office…”

Victor snapped his fingers. “Say no more, I can take care of it.”

No one did say more, seemingly satisfied. Everyone continued eating. A minute with only small talk, then Victor walked back to Styx, bringing his bag with him.

“Doing okay?” Victor asked.

Styx grunted, non-committal.

“Hey, I’ll need your help in this, in all of this.”

“As long as you keep it entertaining.”

“I’ll plan around it.”

They both smiled, Styx’s much more menacing. Victor was a man of his word, and he was looking forward to it as much as he was.

Styx was ready to push.

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