052 – Q’s Gambit

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Everyone reacted in some way. Tilted heads, steps taken back, even D moved from behind to better face me, her curiosity piqued.

Hleuco, standing at my side, stood even straighter. Taller. His head just barely grazed the ceiling.

Lawrence stammered.

“Help? How? Why?”

I tried answering each three one-word questions, all at once. “I’ll need all the help I can get, and you need all the help you can get. It’s why I’m standing here, with her.” I gestured to D.

I continued. “You have my powers, and I have your numbers. And together, we all stand to benefit if we can get to Benny first.”

“That sounds ridiculous,” Lawrence said, “Why should I even trust you? And who even are you?”

All of you can trust me,” I said, stressing to point each of them out. “I saved your life, when I didn’t have to. And even outside of that, it’s not even about trust. It’s about the benefits far outweighing the idea to breach an alliance. Also, I wear a mask, I stopped a van with my bare hands twice in one night. Use your brain, and don’t ask useless questions.”

I saw the crease in his forehead forming, thinking. Then, he stared at me, eyes wide.

“You…” he said, but he became speechless. He mouthed the rest, and turned away.

I turned to the rest of the Ghosts.

“The offer is there. Help me get Benny, and in doing so, I’ll help your group get a better standing with the others. The only caveat is that I get to be the one to tear her head off. You can take it from there, and cash it in for whatever it’s worth.”

“What about after?”

Another Ghost asked. Sounded like a girl.

“After? That’s it,” I said. “We go our separate ways, doing our own thing. No tricks or loopholes about it. No fingers crossed. I’ll leave you alone, and I hope you’d do the same for me.”

They all took that in their own way, some huddling together to discuss it. Not even discussing with Lawrence, their leader.

Lawrence nudged the guy helping him, and the guy let go, leaving Lawrence to stand on his own. He watched his gang work without him.

He was visibly shaking.

“Hey!” he shouted, and then another thing in Spanish. The meaning was lost on me, but the intention was not.

“You’re all actually considering this? Working with that?”

He thrusted a finger at me.

“And her!”

His finger moved to D.

“We don’t know them, they aren’t part of the family. Fuck, look at them, do they look like they can be trusted? One of them wears a mask, and the other is that fucking heartless bitch, who just tried to kill me!”

D interjected. “Because you tried to get the jump on me!”

I shook my head. “Try to see the bigger picture, Lawrence. We work together, and everyone gets what they want. There’s no incentive for me to double cross you, or anyone here. Benny is the only one I’m after, and coming to a gang made up of those she abandoned for assistance, that’s a good start.”

“No, you,” Lawrence stepped closer to me. “You told me to use my brain, and I am. You’re the fucking Bluemoon, aren’t you?”

Watching the other Ghosts was a good way of assessing the general atmosphere of the situation. Their postures tightened, tensed up. Those who got together to talk broke away from each other to face me.

All had firm hold on their weapons.

I had given them everything but my name, as far as my old identity was concerned, but it didn’t click for them until Lawrence had to verbalize it, out loud. Showed the power in names, I supposed.

Hleuco was standing straight, and I tried to match him. No cracks in my stance, my posture. I couldn’t appear fazed.

“I was,” I admitted. “I was the Bluemoon.”

The Ghosts collectively bristled. They did not look thrilled.

I opened my mouth again. “But I’m not-”

Lawrence spoke over me.

“It was you,” he said. “Few months ago, in this same place. Some freak in a blue hoodie attacked while I… was trying to get shit done. In the end, I couldn’t get that shit done, but as it turned out, it didn’t matter. Because, what do I see the next day, on the news? The same freak in a blue hoodie, and fucking Benny. El Carruaje didn’t last very long after that.”

It wasn’t me… but semantics, I suppose.

The situation was degrading with every word that came out of his mouth. The truce standing on shakier and shakier ground, now, and it was faltering.

“Instead of Benny,” Lawrence said, “How about we turn in your head as a prize, you blue piece of shit?”

I kept my voice level. “You don’t know if there even is one.”

He shrugged. “I’m sure people would pay big bucks to get their hands on someone like you. Definitely more than a fifth of what we’d get from Benny. Enough that we all can be comfortable. Doesn’t that sound nice, no?”

He was appealing to his gang for that last part, and they were eating it up. Scraps weren’t enough, and they were hungry. I had seen it in their eyes, and in their dogs, too. It was why I tried to appeal to them, myself. If I could direct that anger, it could have been the edge I needed to turn things around.

As it turned out, that hunger could easily be directed to me.

Like a double-edge sword.

A few of Lawrence’s crew approached, testing with small steps. Their guns raised just a little higher than before.

Shit.

Hleuco bent down, wings extended. One went around my shoulder, as though to shield me.

This was going south, fast, and we were surrounded.

Could I make an escape? Yes, and it’d even be easy. I had healed enough that running wasn’t difficult, I’d move if I had to. D mentioned that the next building over was two level below this one. That was a drop I could make.

Now, if they fired…

Tricky, but manageable. There was always a chance of a stray bullet hitting me, or someone getting in a lucky shot, but I’d ultimately get out alright. I doubted that they could trip me up, but I’d been wrong before. Blindsided.

What about D?

D, right. That made things complicated. Was I even responsible for her? Considering I already saved her life once, and just minutes ago at that, it would be hypocritical to leave her behind now.

By myself, I could escape just fine. With D? It was safe to assume that she couldn’t heal like me. She was vulnerable, susceptible to actual, lasting injury. She was human.

Eyes on the Ghosts, I moved my arm, trying to find D at my side, in case I had to grab her and run. I spent too long touching nothing before I realized that no one was there.

Where is she?

I would have moved more, turned my head to locate her, but anything could set these guys off further.

Think of what else we can say to

“Bang!”

A sound, but nothing mechanical. Not nearly as loud.

A voice.

We turned all the same.

It was D, standing away from me and the Ghosts.

She had struck a pose. Standing on her toes, one arm pointing to the ceiling. Holding a gun.

“Bang bang bang!”

She was shouting, imitating the act of firing a gun into the air. But she wasn’t actually firing.

There was a pause that followed. No one was sure what she was doing, or what to do next. I wasn’t even sure.

We all watched D.

The pause stretched for a while longer, then D set her arm down, gun to her side. She coughed a few times.

“Alright,” she said, loud, for everyone to hear. “Now that I have your attention. I just want to say that you’re all being big dummies!”

It was like watching a sitcom with the laugh track missing. A momentary pause after a line, but with nothing to fill it. Dead air.

No one had a response.

D spoke again, picking up where she left off. “Do you people really think you have a chance on taking her out? Or even capturing her? Look!”

With her free hand, she pointed. A few, including Lawrence turned to look.

“See that pillar? She destroyed that thing with just one hand. Imagine what she could do to your face! And didn’t you see how fast she can move? You slowpokes can’t touch her. She’s gone in a blink, and now you have a super strong, super fast vigilante who is pissed off. What’s to stop her from coming back and picking you off, one by one?”

D looked my way, and directed everyone’s attention back to me. My turn, then.

“That’s something I could do, should you cross that line. I don’t want to, though.”

“Is that a threat?” Lawrence questioned.

Annoying. How fucking dense was this guy?

“It’s not a threat,” I said, having to spell it out for him. “But I can promise you that it’s a line we don’t want crossed. If that happens, both sides lose out on a lot, and nobody gets what they want.”

I kept it vague, on what exactly both sides would lose out on. I’d let them use their imagination on that.

Lawrence’s hard stare remained. He wasn’t satisfied.

I spoke. “Listen. Yes, I was the Bluemoon, and I’ve went after gangs like yours, The Chariot. I’m probably the reason why the Ghosts came to be, and why you’re in the position you are now. Sure, blame it all on me.”

“I think I will,” Lawrence said.

I spread my arms. “But I’ve put that behind me, now. The Bluemoon’s dead, I’ve retired that name. I’m looking to start things anew, and I truly think getting Benny is the first step. And to do that, I could use your help, and I think you could use mine, too. Because, we both know the Ghosts won’t last, and making me your enemy puts you on a fast track to actually being gone. And I doubt you that’s what you want.”

I would have made some kind of ‘ghost’ joke at the end, there, but it didn’t feel appropriate.

Before, the feelings of everyone here were easily known, and easily directed. Now? They were mixed, and each one of the Ghosts looked like they were at a loss of what to do. D’s distraction seemed to have set the tension back a bit.

Lawrence, for his part, was harder to gauge. His jaw was set, square, looking between me, D, and his gang. Would he try and convince his gang to fight me, again? Or would he finally come around?

He turned my way.

“Does she come included with your deal?” he asked, tilting his head one way. I didn’t need to look to know that he was referring to D.

I answered.

“We have our own arrangement, and that will continue into this one. She has to prove her usefulness, up until she can’t, and then I kill her.”

“It’s true,” D said, piping in.

Lawrence rubbed his chin, and scratched the back of his head. He looked at the members of his gang, and they looked back at him.

A sort of silent discussion.

After a time, Lawrence had something to say.

“Okay,” he said, facing me.

“Okay?”

“Yeah, I’ll agree to work with you, only if you let me into that deal, too.”

“Meaning?” I asked.

“I’m willing to give her one more shot. One. If she fucks it up, by messing with me or my crew again, I get to kill her myself.”

I turned to D. She shrugged.

“Eh, whatever,” she said. “I promise I’ll be good.”

She really is a strange one.

I turned to Lawrence. “Satisfied?”

He took his time in responding.

“I am,” he finally said.

He extended a hand.

“Do we have a deal?” he asked, his expression pained. For him, this had to be a hard pill to swallow.

Slow, I walked to him, aware of the Ghosts, their weapons, and their dogs.

“We do,” I said, bringing up my hand to-

“If you’re not the Bluemoon, then who are you?”

Another voice, but I heard it earlier. A woman. I pointed her out from the crowd.

“What do we call you?” she asked.

Put on the spot, with no answer prepared. My time and energy were being spent on something else. I had put it off for later.

But that wouldn’t fly, not with these people. Had to come up with something.

And there is a certain power in names.

I glanced at D. She was looking back at me, standing more relaxed, now. Her arms were at her side, her hands free. She was waiting for my answer, too.

Well, in the spirit of present company…

“V,” I said. “You can call me ‘V.’”

I could see Lawrence almost roll his eyes. But he took my hand, shaking it.

“Deal,” he said.

“Deal, I repeated.

“Sweet!” D cheered, from the back.

A wave of relief came over everyone, it seemed like. Everyone was settling down, even the dogs were starting to sit, or rest on their stomachs. People were even putting their guns away.

“Now that we have that squared away,” Lawrence said, crossing his arms, “What’s next?”

“We plan,” I replied. “We need to get everything straightened out, and figure out what our next official move should be.”

Lawrence nodded. “We’ll have to relocate, though, can’t stay up here forever. We have a base over in Eastside. It’s not much, but everything’s there.”

“Good!” D ran to us, joining in the conversation. “We’ll need everything. You Ghosts came from the rib of The Chariot, so I’m gonna have to pick your brains to see if I can’t finangle a lead from it.”

Lawrence definitely rolled his eyes that time. “Yeah, fine, yeah, do what you need to. You know how to get there, don’t you?”

D smiled her wide smile. “Of course I do. Speaking of, as part of our deal, the van’s all yours, free of charge. The whole thing, bears and all.”

“Thanks,” he said, though he didn’t sound thankful. “Wait, you’re not driving it back?”

She gestured to me. “She kinda broke the windshield. I’m not going to be able to drive it without getting some looks.”

Unwanted looks,” she added, as if she was correcting herself.

“How are you getting there?” Lawrence asked.

D smiled again. “I have my pick.”

I could sense that Lawrence was already losing his patience with her. He backed up, and addressed his gang.

“We’re rolling out, back to base! Ándele!”

They all went into motion, gathering into small parties, then moving to their own vans, bringing the dogs with them. They were quick, too, already ready to leave before any of us three could say anything else.

Lawrence turned to us again.

“Meet you there,” he said, and he left, meeting with the man who was helping him up from before. We took that as our signal to leave, too.

With Hleuco following, D and I walked as a group.

“So, V?” D asked.

I rubbed the fingers of one hand together, feeling where the glove was torn.

“Better than ‘The Bluemoon.’ And at least it’s a name I picked for myself.”

“I’m not complaining, I think it’s cool. Definitely better than ‘The Bluemoon.’”

“Glad you like it,” I said, unsure of how to take the compliment.

My thoughts fell upon another detail.

“Hey,” I said, “Is that why you brought me here, to see the Ghosts? You knew they had ties to The Chariot.”

“Um, kinda? I was just going to ask them if they knew anything, or had a lead. I didn’t expect Lawrence to cheat me, and I for sure didn’t expect you to recruit them.”

“Things happen,” I replied. “Do you think it was a good call?”

D brushed her lip with her finger. “Dunno, too early to tell. Nothing wrong with some extra hands, I guess.”

I grinned, and waited until we were out of earshot.

“Exactly,” I said. “You don’t win games with just a bishop. You need pawns, too.”

D found that funny, laughing loud and hard.

We continued walking, going down the garage, taking the stairs when we found them. We got to the first level, and I let D take the lead. She approached a dark red minivan. Mini, but it seemed larger than the last one.

“Give me a second,” D said. “Usually this goes by faster when you have the key.”

She got on her toes, and peered through the window. Her breath fogged up the glass.

Watching D, and taking the little moment of downtime to let her work brought my attention back to my thirst. My throat was dry, and I could feel myself on the edge of something worse. My arms twitched one way, as if itching to grab something, and keep it still. My legs were burning, and it wasn’t from earlier. It was as though I was filled with energy I needed to use, or I’d end up burning from the inside, out.

You need blood.

I needed to get this sorted out soon, preferably before we met up with the Ghosts again.

“D,” I said.

“Hmm?” she answered, her attention still on the window.

“Earlier, when you were asking about my powers? There’s more to it than that.”

The base was simple. Smaller than I expected. Or maybe my expectations were too high.

We were in a Mexican restaurant, all the way back into the kitchen. Everything was metallic and reflexive, making the already harsh lighting even brighter. It was chilly, being closer to the big freezers and coolers, but I had a jacket on. Nothing was being cooked or simmered, but the place was imbued with a strong, spicy smell.

The restaurant was the first floor of a five-floor building, and the Ghost’s base of operations extended to the rest of the place, but Lawrence saw it fit to hold the meeting here. This was all they had, supposedly. But, there was enough space for everyone, even when it became standing room only.

Everyone, except for Hleuco.

Multiple, mismatched tables were put together, so the important players could have a seat, and some elbow room. Me, D, Lawrence, and two of his officers. Charlie, a girl in her mid-twenties, and Jonathan, and a man a few years older. Both had long, dark hair, and serious expressions.

In the middle of the table, were everyone’s guns. Including D’s. And my knife. A sign of faith.

Six chairs were laid out, but five were filled. A chair was empty.

“Where’s Melinda?” Lawrence asked. He was turned in his seat, facing one of his men who weren’t at the table.

D and I exchanged looks.

“She’s supposed to be here,” the man said, unsure.

“I know she’s supposed to be here, that’s why I’m asking.”

“Last time I saw her, she was on her way inside. Lost her in the shuffle.”

“Dammit, we need to start-”

D smacked her hands on the table, directing everyone’s attention to her.

“Relax, I’m sure she’s around. It’s getting kinda late, you know, maybe she’s taking a quick nap? I know I need one, it’s way past my bedtime.”

Lawrence shot her a look, squinting. “Ha ha. Fine, let’s get started. I can catch her up later-”

“Wait.”

Jonathan raised his hand, and pointed to me.

“I’d feel more comfortable about this if she didn’t have her mask on.”

I breathed, and a faint, sweet smell escaped my lips.

“I set my knife down, it’s the equivalent of you setting down your gun. Believe me.”

“But-”

“It’s fine, Jonathan,” Lawrence said, interrupting. “We don’t need any more problems at this juncture. What we need is her, V, not the person behind the mask. It can stay on.”

Resigned, Jonathan sat back in his seat.

I nodded to Lawrence, a silent form of appreciation.

“Now, let’s get started?” I suggested.

Looks from across the table. No objections.

“Good. Let’s go over the basic terms, real quick. This is a temporary partnership between me and D, and you, the Ghosts. As requested by Lawrence, I am to establish that not one person here gets to lead the others. We discuss best course of action, and we go from there. Also, this alliance is to be held with utmost secrecy. No other rival gang or competitor must know of what we’re doing, or what we have planned. We lose any leverage we have, if that happens.”

More looks from across the table. No objections.

“Good, then let’s continue. The end goal is capturing Benny. And she should be alive, when we get our hands on her. What happens after, is another story.”

I exhaled.

“The problem is, she’s damn good at keeping herself out of my reach. So I’m hoping, since the Ghosts came from El Carruaje, that you have something or anything I can use to… extend that reach, as it were.”

Again, I exhaled. It hit me how long I had been after this woman. How long Alexis had been after this woman. There was seemingly no end to this fucking chase.

Soon, soon.

Voices reassured me.

I took a second to recompose myself.

“So let’s get right to it,” D said, talking in my stead. “What do y’all got? L… Lawrence, if I remember correctly, you weren’t one of the top brass of El Carruaje, but you were trying.”

Lawrence made a twisted expression, barely restrained.

“Yes, you’re right, I wanted to be one of the big guns, part of the crew she kept close to her. And when I heard about what Benny was planning, with the weapons, I thought that was my in. If I could get everyone on board, and show her we were up for the task, she’d let me lead.”

He looked over to me.

“That all went to shit, though. But anyway, after the family fell apart, everyone scrambled to pick up the pieces. Neighboring gangs like the Rattlesnakes took some turf, and some new groups cropped up, like us.”

Lawrence motioned with his hand, as if showing off the back of this kitchen.

“This is the only scrap of El Carruaje we got,” he said. “And to finally get around to your question, I don’t got nothing on Benny. If she’s still here, then she could be anywhere. Maybe she’s hiding out in some of her old bases, but that would mean that another gang is housing her. Competition.”

“And you don’t think anyone in Eastside would be willing to hide her?” D asked.

“I said ‘maybe.’ There might be someone out there loyal enough to want to help her, but with real dough on the table, they’re more likely going to grab it for themselves. If I’m any indication…”

D tapped her fingers on the table. “Tell me where those bases are. I can check, just to be sure.”

She then winked. “I can be pretty sneaky.”

“Will do,” Lawrence said, flat.

“Neat,” D said. “That’s one possible avenue, but we need something more… well, more. How about Benny’s crew, anyone you can contact?”

“I wish. Guys like Samuel, or Roland, you don’t go to them, they come to you, whenever they, or Benny, needed something. It was a top-down sort of deal, the channels went one way, and you had to force your way to the top if you wanted your voice heard.”

I put myself back into the conversation.

“We have to assume that she has her crew,” I said, remembering the events at the school. “Not if, but when we find her, we might have to go through them, first.”

“Meaning we’ll be going to war,” Lawrence commented.

“Not if we can help it,” I said. “That’s why we’re having this discussion. Hash it out, see if we can’t find a way to strike them from behind, when they aren’t expecting it.”

“Okay,” D said. “So her crew’s gonna be a problem, but if we can get a hold of one of them, we get a hold on Benny. Anything else? How about the police? I’m sure if we ask politely, they might know something.”

“That was my original idea, before I ran into you.” I briefly turned towards D. “Not all of them are clean, if any, and if they’re on the lookout for her, then it’ll help to keep an eye on their movements. Gomez himself, though? He’s not going to play ball.”

D groaned. “Aw, what a lame-o.”

“But, considering other avenues, the police might not be a bad option. Which was why the police scanners were so crucial.”

In that last word, I directed a smidge of irritation towards D. She noticed, and made a heart symbol with her hands, pointing it to me.

I can see how Lawrence got to the point of wanting to kill you.

“And,” I said, “Like Benny, some of them were a part of the Solace conspiracy.”

It was as though I told the room that God wasn’t real. No one, here in the kitchen, could keep themselves completely still. Murmurs broke out between those standing around, Charlie and Jonathan whispered to each other, and D lifted her eyebrows, exaggerating the motion.

And Lawrence reeled.

“Solace,” he said. “Fucking Solace? The guy that fucked the city sideways to get to you?”

He jabbed a finger my way.

“Not one guy,” I said, calm, “But yes. Solace wasn’t a single person, but a collaborative effort. The police, Benny, and I think Styx was involved, too.”

“Shit, how deep does that go?” Lawrence asked.

“I don’t know, but I almost want to say that it doesn’t matter. After the bombing at city hall, Solace hasn’t made a move since. Again, I don’t know why, but we can use that. We’re looking for Benny, but the other pieces that made up Solace are still around.”

“Are you saying we go after Styx?” Lawrence questioned. “You do know that picking a fight with him means picking a fight with everyone.”

“He’s right,” D said. “That’s a beehive you don’t poke. It stings.”

I spoke. “Believe me, I know.”

Or, at least Alexis knew.

“I vote to not go after the crazy fuck with the motorcycle,” Lawrence said. “Especially since the Ghosts need a working relationship with him after this is over.”

I placed my arms on the table, putting my hands together. Going into my thoughts.

We were talking, hoping to go somewhere, but all we managed were circles. Round and round. An idea brought up, and then the reasons why it wasn’t a good idea. We were moving, but we weren’t going anywhere.

This wouldn’t do. I had to break this loop, somehow. Something I could come up with, that could let us progress. Move forward.

Styx. Gomez. The warehouse.

“If not people,” I said, “How about places. There was a warehouse that housed some of those weapons that Benny had smuggled in. And it was here, in East Stephenville.”

“Tell us something we don’t know,” Charlie said.

“The whole stockpile wasn’t stored in one place. When Solace was active, that warehouse didn’t even account for a half of what they had. Tell me, Lawrence, the neighboring gangs, have you noticed them carrying anything different, as far as firearms go? Anything that packs more of a punch than what you usually see on the street?”

“Can’t say that I have,” Lawrence said.

“Meaning those weapons are still in storage,” I said. “When Benny attacked the school, she used heavy-duty stuff. Bombs, that could be used remotely. That’s not stuff you see everyday.”

“You think she still has access to those weapons,” Lawrence.

“That’s what I’m guessing. We find where she has the rest stashed… you can fill in the gap.”

“Do you have a lead on that?”

I grimaced, though I had my mask. “I don’t.”

“Great, another dead end. I’m starting to think this isn’t going to work.”

Dammit. Dammit.

There had to be something I could use, something that could work. I got some decent momentum, with getting the Ghosts to agree to this, but it wouldn’t mean anything if I let it stop dead in its tracks, here.

I caught a sight of the sixth chair. Previously empty. A vestige had taken a seat. A blank face, wearing blue.

Without being conscious of it, I was tapping into more connections.

Dammit.

“Edgar Brown, Linda Day, Officer Jeffery and Officer… Sumeet, I think his name was? They all either had something to do with Solace, or they were in the loop, in some capacity. How about that?”

“Maybe,” D said. “Brown and Day are locked up pretty tight now, though. Read up on that on my tablet. Officer Jeffery could be anyone… but Sumeet is a unique name. Definitely narrows it down.”

I saw the vestige again, and I felt a pressure in my head. Not on, in.

I wish Hleuco was here.

“Last time I saw Sumeet, he had just fallen a handful of stories. A lot of broken bones, I bet he’s still trying to recover.”

“So he’s stuck in one spot, then,” D said. “That’s usable. If he’s in a hospital, I can find him. I know how to get those records.”

“You do?” I asked.

“That’s why I’m here,” D said, grinning.

“That’s something,” Lawrence said. “But it’s not a guarantee.”

Charlie and Jonathan muttered, seemingly in agreement.

“No, it’s not,” I said.

I shifted in my seat, bringing my arms close, raising them so I could massage my head. Relying on her memories and connections was dangerous, but I was running out of options, here.

Running, yet going nowhere.

Why was finding one person so damn difficult?

Maybe we’re looking at this all wrong.

“Ah, we seem to be stuck,” D said. She was mimicking me, with her arms on the table, hands raised, but her fingers were intertwined, in front of her mouth. “We can’t seem to come up with a way to find her. It’s definitely frustrating.”

“You read my mind,” I said.

I didn’t see her teeth, but I saw her cheeks move. She was smiling.

“All the pieces are there, but individually, they pose problems. Benny, the police, Styx, the weapons. But, together, I think I can come with something workable, maybe even fun.”

“What are you proposing?” I asked.

She tried to hide behind her hands, but I saw it. D was smirking.

“Instead of trying to find her,” D said, “We do the opposite. We smoke her out.”

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051 – Give Me Teeth

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There was a flash, coming at me from behind. I spun and caught it out the air.

“Snowball fight!” D said, a few seconds too late.

She shouted from across the parking lot. I could pinch my fingers together and have her fit in the space between.

“You actually got it?” she called out.

I lifted the white package above my head, showing her that I indeed ‘got it.’

A brick.

“Wow, that is legit super rad!” D exclaimed, skipping as she headed my way.

“I thought we were heading to one of your ‘jobs,’” I said, tossing the brick back as she approached. “Shouldn’t you be taking this more seriously?”

D had to jump to catch it, or the brick would have flown over her head.

Oof,” she said, as she got it secured. “And relax, we’ve got time.”

Her reply was dismissive in tone. Something I’d have to get accustomed to.

She passed Hleuco as she approached, who had been waiting outside the whole time. He moved in step with her, eyeing her closely, a very curious creature. But D had no idea.

“And it’s better to be on time than be early,” D added.

“And why’s that?”

“So you’re not a sitting duck, and people won’t get the jump on you.”

“You don’t seem to have much trust in the people you work with,” I said.

“That’s just the nature of the game,” D said, smiling. “You always have to watch your back, no matter who you’re playing with.”

Was I supposed to take that as a joke, or a warning? It was hard to tell, coming from her. Everything she said or did seemed like something I wasn’t in on, or I had to look at it a different way to catch the true meaning. Maybe that was just in her nature, to playfully jest. Maybe she was playing me.

But, she had her use, and I needed someone useful.

“Message… received,” I said, as D met me at the van. We were right outside the forsaken apartment complex, in a parking lot that was home to more vehicles that didn’t work than did. I was standing outside with my mask on, but it was too dark for anyone to notice, and even if anyone did notice, would they even be able to connect the dots? I wasn’t dressed as the Bluemoon. To them, I was just any random masked weirdo.

“Is this job anything I need to concern myself with?” I asked. “Or involve myself with?”

“No and no. Just delivering some toys to some lucky kids. And while I’m at it, I’ll ask about Benny, see if we can’t pick up anything already.”

“Doesn’t sound too bad.”

“See? Oh yeah.” D reached down at her feet, picking up an actual brick. “Try this next.”

She held it out, then dropped it. I would have let it fall, but it would have hit my feet, and I didn’t have the room to back up. The van was a foot behind me.

My hands moved, and I grabbed it out of the air.

“Watch it!”

Relax, you had a fast reaction the first time, and that was when I threw something at you, when you weren’t looking.”

“I saw it coming from the window, I can get blindsided, for your information.”

“But you still had enough sense to react. Most people would have ducked for cover after it collided with the window.”

Most people?

She was just messing around.

I lifted the brick to her face, a small reminder for her sake.

“Anyways, what’s with the bricks?” I asked.

D’s eyes lit up.

“Crush it.”

“What?”

“Break it in your hand!”

I looked at D, then at the brick. Both with confused looks.

“Is there something I’m missing?”

“Come on, you have superpowers, don’t you? I want to see you use them. It’s so cool!”

I let my disappointment show. I loosened my shoulders, and slouched. My arms fell beside me.

“They’re not cool,” I said.

“Uh, yeah they are, and you know it. They’re like magic tricks, except real.”

“And me chasing after you on foot wasn’t enough?”

D pouted, but it felt off. Rehearsed. As if she knew she was a kid, and was using that to play up the act even more. It was eerie.

“That’s different,” she said. “I was trying to run away, but now that you have me I wanna see it up close. Now come on, crush the damn thing!”

I brought my hand, and the brick, up again. I stared at it for almost a minute.

There was nothing to gain from crushing a cement brick with a single hand. Could I, even? Probably, but what would that prove? I’d just be doing this to entertain a little girl. Magic tricks, as she so aptly put it.

But, damn me. She had the keys. She knew how to drive.

As if I need another reminder.

And we apparently were early. Nothing else to do.

I put the brick back in front of D’s face. She gave me some space.

I wrapped my fingers around the brick.

Without much effort, my thoughts went to Benny. To the world.

I channeled that energy, through every individual digit. It coursed.

Then, I applied the necessary pressure.

Cracks through cement. Whole, then fractured. I felt the brick begin to crumble in my hand.

One more push of pressure, and I closed my hand completely.

“Whoa!” D said, astonished. She seemed genuine. “Ah shit, I wish I recorded that!”

“No recording anything,” I said, patting my gloves together. “Now, are we done, or do you want me to crush that, too?”

I quickly pointed to the white, tightly packaged block in her hands.

D pulled it closer to her chest, slipping into her jacket. “No way, I actually need this one.”

When she moved her hand out of the jacket, she was holding a ring of keys.

“Alright, that’s enough playing around, for now. Hop in.”

She moved to the other side of the van, unlocking it from there. We got inside, both of us having to move teddy bears in order to find our seats.

After we settled, D worked to put the key into the ignition, turning it. The van activated, but only after some fits and starts. It soon got to a low, even rumble, and D stepped on the gas.

Or, more accurately, she stood on it.

I watched D as she drove the van. I couldn’t help myself. I was as curious as I was concerned we might hit something.

As I expected, she wasn’t tall enough to see over the wheel if she were to take a seat. She had to stand, placing herself between the seat and the wheel, with the seat adjusted farther back to provide her some room to move around. She was buckled in, but the strap that was supposed to go across her chest was tucked back and away, leaving only the waistband part that hugged her stomach. As an added measure, she had a stack of phone books propped up behind her.

I observed her every time she shifted her weight from each foot, moving from gas to break, or just coasting. Glancing from the wheel to the cracked windshield, signaling when needed. For someone who shouldn’t even legally be behind the wheel, she was doing pretty well for herself.

I wanted to find something to critique, as if I was a driving instructor myself, but that assumed a level of experience I didn’t have. And she seemed to be doing a decent job. The ride was smooth, and she was aware of what was happening around her, checking her mirrors and blindspots. If she was skilled enough to race through the city, drifting and performing other stunts, then she was better than me.

It was a sight for sure.

D glanced to her side, and noticed me watching.

“Are you that impressed?” she asked.

“Can you blame me if I am?” I asked in return, my eyes still trained on her. “It’s something I’ve never seen before. Kind of like a magic trick.”

“Hah, kind of, if you wanna look at it that way. But I still think the whole ‘crushing a brick with your bare hands’ thing has me beat.”

“Mm,” I said, shifting my focus to the street ahead. The cracks in the glass had spread, but D was managing fine. If nothing else, I was more concerned over the van itself than D’s driving.

“So, what’s your deal?” D asked, her eyes to the road.

“My deal?”

“Don’t act like having superpowers is the most normal thing in the world. You had to get it from somewhere. So spill the beans. I wanna know.”

My memories on that day were of broad strokes. Like skipping through scenes of a movie I had already seen before. I got most of it, but I was glossing over the details.

A party. A walk. A barn. A girl.

And I didn’t really need to know more than that. The broad strokes were enough.

“Sorry,” I said. “But I’m not up for saying.”

D pouted.

“Aw, that’s no fair. But hey, you know, we just met. We can work up to that.”

As if, I thought.

Part of me wanted to get back at her the same way.

I asked, “And your deal is?”

“My deal?”

“Don’t act like being a thirteen year old van-stealing, delinquent drug dealer is some normal thing.”

“Hey, let’s get something straight. I’m not thirteen.”

“How old are you then?”

She grinned, and left it there.

If she was going to be like that, fine, I was being the same way. I could even make a decent guess from there, anyways.

But, damn, I really wanted to pin her down, have her figured out.

I continued a stream of questions.

“Where are your parents?”

I had already asked that, but she being smart with me before, and there were more pressing matters at hand. Now? D said we were early, so right now we had time.

And, like the last time I asked her, there was a moment’s pause.

“Didn’t I already give you a jokey answer? Wasn’t the bit funny enough the first time?”

Oh. That was harsh.

Definitely struck a nerve, there.

“Guess they’re not around,” I whispered, so she couldn’t hear me. It was probably the best assumption. D lived alone in that apartment, aside from Macy, but I could barely consider her a roommate. And if she did have parents that were around, they would have to be majorly fucked to let a child run free, doing…

My thoughts went to Shiori.

Point taken.

“You said you’re free to do whatever. I’m guessing you don’t have school to keep you busy during the day?”

“Nah,” she said, with more pep. “School’s for chumps. I learn by being outside, by doing. And if there’s anything super technical I want to know, I dunno, I can just grab a book, or something.”

I wouldn’t question her methods, considering they got her this far. She seemed more capable than any kid her age. Probably more capable than some adults.

“So you do this all day?” I asked.

D checked a mirror, and made a turn.

“Eh, not really. Before I picked up this gig, I was getting into a lot more trouble, just for the fun of it. That’s all well and good, but I learned pretty quickly you need some structure. This helps center me, keeps me busy, all the while giving me a chance for that sweet, sweet upward mobility.”

“You want structure, but no school?” I asked.

“Nope. It’s for chumps.” She took a hand off the wheel, pressing a button on the center console. Heavy metal music started playing, at an almost unreasonable level.

“Maybe I am still looking for trouble,” she said, barely registering over the noise.

The music played, and it put up enough of barrier to stop any more conversation, which was fine by me, I wasn’t here to soul-search with a little kid. My eyes drifted to the side, watching the streets go by. I found Hleuco in the skies, spinning and rolling through the air, zipping ahead, only to spiral around and do it again. His great wings pushed with a sense of strength. Power. Freedom.

It was a fantasy, but how could I be so envious?

It had been but a handful of days, but I was already drained from having to play Alexis Barnett. It was a role I had little enthusiasm towards, a mask I didn’t want to wear. Some of her connections were needed, like her experiences as Blank Face, but they came with trite, superfluous information. I didn’t need to know about how she got into volleyball, I didn’t care to know about the intimate details of her first kiss. But that was the draw, they came with the more useful bits.

And it is going to stack, dilute your thinking, until you’re a little less you, and a little more her.

I didn’t want that. I didn’t want to disappear.

It made having to find Benny all the more imperative. That was me, and me only. A goal I would see to the end, and not Alexis.

And what happens after we get Benny?

I didn’t know. Would I disappear? Like a robot, after it fulfilled its programming. Would I shut down, waiting further instructions?

I didn’t want that.

I couldn’t let myself be stuck to Alexis when I was done. Chained. To be shackled back in that apartment, haunted by phantoms of a past I wanted nothing to do with. To have bits of my mind chipped away, until my very self faded to a dark nothing. What would happen to me, then? Where would I go?

Pressing a finger to my chin, I fixed my mask.

No.

No no no.

I couldn’t let that happen to me. Couldn’t let that be my fate. I wasn’t going to let her win. I wasn’t going to let her connections tie me down.

Her friends weren’t mine, her family wasn’t mine, and I hated wasting the effort to pretend. I hated it, and I hated Alexis.

I wanted to be up there, with Hleuco. Free.

After Benny, then, shall we-

“Yo, here we be.”

D’s word provided a needed distraction. I looked through the broken glass ahead.

We were entering a parking garage, near a larger department store. Familiar, but I stopped my mind from going down that route. No more connections than were necessary.

There were other vehicles on the first floor, but none as D drove us up to the higher levels. We passed by the third, the fourth, then the fifth. As we reached the sixth, lights drew towards us.

D took her foot off the gas, steering us through the vans, people, and dogs.

The windows were tinted, they wouldn’t see us. But the eyes still put me on edge.

D positioned us so we parked in one of the few empty spots, the front of the van facing the gang. In a way, our backs were against the ropes, since the end of the parking spot was lined with metal cables, towards open air.

She put the van in park, and relayed the plan to me before I could get a voice in.

“Alright, you’re gonna have to stay in here and sit tight. I’ll handle all of this, and see what info I can squeeze out in the meantime. Just stay low, and we’ll be one and done before you know it.”

“This is a lot more people than I expected, and I’m not liking how cornered this is making me feel,” I said. “How do I know you’re not leading me into a trap, by leaving me in this van?”

D gave me that look again, like I asked something stupid. “You can fight your way out, can’t you? You’re strong.”

She then reached across to my side, opening up the glove compartment. A black handgun made itself very well known.

“In case of trap, pull trigger,” she said.

She closed the compartment, and then she was out, leaving me inside the still-running van.

Fuck.

I had my suspicions of D, and while I was confident in myself and my own abilities, this was playing too close to the fire. I might recover from the burns, but I’d still have been burnt.

For just this moment, D had me stuck. I was forced to watch as she took things from here. A wary spectator.

D walked in front of the van, cutting through all the heavy beams of light. The dogs barked as soon as they laid eyes on her, their teeth snapping. Only held back by leashes, and the armed men holding them.

Some of the lights got cut, giving me a clearer view of the scene. D had her back to me, facing a man twice her size. The right side of his face was patched with bandages, the other I could tell was swollen. He’d seen some action, or at least, got his ass kicked.

His mouth moved, but I couldn’t catch the words. The dogs were too loud.

D gestured in response, but I had no way of picking up the meaning. She flipped open her jacket, showing him something, then she jabbed a thumb over her shoulder, briefly turning around. I could have sworn she was looking right at me.

Fuck.

I took off my seatbelt, and tried to make myself smaller.

The man nodded, then shook his head. He raised his chin.

He howled.

Enough!”

The dogs stopped barking. Some whimpered before they completely went quiet.

D and the man continued talking. I could hear them, now, but I couldn’t understand them.

Glancing to a button on my side of the door, I considered pushing it, cracking the window open.

My entire body tensed as I moved my hand, a finger hovering over the button.

Teeth gritting together, I barely gave it so much as a tap.

“-very lucky that I’m letting you walk away without a fuckin’ scratch.”

“Lucky? Please, L-Boy, you’re not going to last if you don’t have a stream of revenue, and no one in this town is willing to do business with you. Well, no one except me. You should be considering yourselves lucky.”

There. I had an ear in the conversation. It was faint at best, but it was something.

“You’re just doing this to spite me,” the man said. “To rub salt in the wounds you caused.”

“Yeah, so?”

“You’re such a heartless bitch.”

D brought her hands behind her back, and tapped her foot on the ground.

“Aw,” she said, tapping her foot again. “I like the sweet talk, Lawrence, but it’s not sweet enough. Just having me work with you is best deal you’re gonna get. The price stays.”

“Yeah yeah, you heartless bitch.” The man, Lawrence, took a step to pass D, and she moved, walking with him. “You really got this stuff from him?”

They were coming towards the van. Towards me.

All night, I had been keeping a mental note of where my knife was, at all times. Now, I made of note of the gun in the glove compartment.

‘In case of trap,’ she said.

“Who else am I gonna get it from?” D replied.

“But you understand why I’m hesitating, even when I’m desperate. If you stole shipment from-”

“Relax, it’s gonna be fine. He’s not even really going to miss it. It’s from an older stash, meaning the quality isn’t the best-”

D murmured that last part.

“-and there isn’t much. But, you said it yourself, you’re desperate. So you’ll take what you can get, and you and your Ghosts can go on to haunt for another day.”

“Stop. I’m tired of finding reasons to call you a heartless bitch. Just let me and my boys walk with some dignity.”

I lost sight of them as they came around to the driver’s side. I ducked even lower. Ready, if this really was a set up.

The door slid open. Not the driver’s door.

“Too late for that, L-Boy. Here’s everything, you can-”

I heard a commotion.

Grunts, a startled shout, a thud of metal on flesh. The sounds of a struggle.

Some dogs started barking again.

Before I could make sense of what was happening, D reappeared from the back row, jumping into the space between the driver’s seat and the wheel.

Every dog was gnarling and gnashing teeth.

“What did you-” I started, but D once again cut me off.

“Fuck fuck, mission abort,” she said, clutching the gear knob. “Either you buckle in, or you find us another way out of this.”

And then she pulled on the gear knob, and she stomped.

The van jerked, then flung.

But not forward.

Backward.

The van accelerated backwards, and immediately hit the metal cables. But we were going at a decent speed, and the cables already looked weak, unattended to.

Looks weren’t deceiving, in the case.

I heard them snap. The van continued.

She’s sending us off the edge of the building.

I turned to D, her hands still on the gear, her foot still planted down flat.

No words. My body just moved on its own.

D had curled herself into a ball around the gear, protecting it with her body.

I thrusted out my hand, squeezing it between her and the gear. I found her chest. I shoved.

D was practically lifted into the air, the gear shifting and her foot taken off the gas. As she came back down, she covered her head, to not hit the wheel. Her small body fell into the space where the driver was supposed to put their legs.

But the van kept moving. Toppling.

I felt us tipping back.

We were going to fall.

No.

Had to do something.

My body moved on its own, again. No thoughts, just action.

I pushed myself up, my hands on the seat itself, my feet on the back part. I lifted my head to see the window.

It was cracked. Could I break through it with a strong enough impact?

Maybe, potentially.

The gun. Could I use it to give me an opening?

As if in response, the van swayed back, and I felt my stomach leap.

No time for that option.

I steeled myself.

Using the back of the seat as a platform, I sprang from the seat. My arms over my head, bracing for the shattering of glass.

I heard it, I felt it.

Glass shattered all around me. The sounds of glass, barking, and shouting.

I felt the open air, the rush as I knew I had to continue to work, and work fast.

The van and I moved in opposite directions, all at the same time. It made it easier for me to get over the hood.

Hard, my landing on solid cement. I landed, but I didn’t collapse. I didn’t let myself.

I sprung back up, turning around. I went straight to the van. I could see the underside of the thing, already.

Throwing out both hands, I scrambled for a hold underneath the grill of the van. It was the only place I could get a good grip.

I had to dive to get that grip.

Got it.

I grabbed a hold of the van, but now I was moving with it, too. It’d bring me over with it, if I didn’t do anything else.

My hands still in place, I pushed my body up, using my hips. I went a bit into the air, and I used that to throw my legs and feet under me, getting some footing.

I got it, but I was still sliding, inching forward.

I needed to get us to stop.

Planting my feet down as hard as I could, I tried pulling the van towards me, all the while pushing the vehicle down. If I could get the damn thing down flat, it might save me some trouble.

Not much progress in that regard. Cement moved from under me.

My muscles in my arms hurt, my legs screaming in pain. I already went through the wringer, earlier in the night, with this very same van. With the very same person behind the reason why.

I couldn’t take much more.

But I kept pulling, even if every second made the effort harder. More in vain. I kept on.

I screamed, as if that would accomplish anything.

I tossed my head back, trying to pull more. More of the same.

Through squinted, sweat-soaked eyes, I saw something.

A pillar dividing one section of the floor to the next. Between two parking spaces. As I was sliding, I was passing it, getting closer.

I could reach it. But…

We can’t reach the far end of it for a hold. Too far.

That couldn’t stop me. The next best thing, then.

Which, really, was an absolutely terrible idea.

Which shows just how fucked I was. If the the next best thing was a terrible idea.

I took a hand off the van. The closer one. The left.

I punched the cement pillar.

I wasn’t sure what broke first. My hand, or the cement.

But I got a hold.

I had made a hole in the pillar, but my fist stayed inside. About half of my forearm was within the thing.

An intense, blinding pressure. A tug, all focusing onto my elbow.

My arm went taut.

An anchor.

And I used it to keep myself in place, with the van in hand.

I screamed, not because it helped, but because it hurt so fucking god damn much.

The weight of the van tore at me, threatening to separate me from my arm. It was probably even feasible.

My head was about to be split open, my eyes about to burst out of their sockets.

Hold out for a bit more.

Easier said than done.

My fingers on one hand dug into metal, and there was no feeling in the fingers of the other. Just pressure from that elbow, up to the rest of my arm, my shoulder, then my whole fucking body.

Metal kept digging, and in turn, I kept pulling.

Something was bound to break. Probably me.

D said there was a lead to Benny, here. Let this go, and I’d lose everything. I had to salvage this somehow.

With my last remaining strength, I drew my arm back, and as hard as I could possibly manage.

I felt it bend.

My arm was moving. My grip on the van.

Perhaps negligible, but there. I felt it.

And it seemed to be enough.

The van creeped, bit by bit, away from the drop, its metal belly scratching the cement edges.

Come here, come here, dammit.

Tiny, but usable centimeters of progress, but I could only do so much, like this. I did have a breaking point. Someone else was going to have to pick up my slack.

I screamed again. But there was a purpose in my tone. Not just raw expression. A calling.

The sound of movement, the shuffling of feet. Shouts.

A man came running to the van, stopping right where I was. He had a length of chain in one hand, extending somewhere behind us.

He searched around for something he could do, somewhere to apply the chain. Couldn’t help him there. I didn’t have the voice.

He bent down, working the chain under the van, right by my hand. He figured it out himself.

The man worked fast, he was already up and running away. Another person took his place. A female, with chains of her own. She was about as fast as the first guy, tying the chain somewhere underneath the grill. She was up and out in a flash.

I watched, the chains slowly lifting off the ground. Getting tight.

The chains stretched into straight, parallel lines, and then the van started moving forward.

To me.

There was a transfer of power going on, between me and the chains. The van moved, and I felt the pressure on my body lessen. The metal dug into my fingers a little less, my arm in the cement pillar getting a little looser. The strain on my body was easing up.

Which gave room for the pain to sweep in and make itself known.

The soreness, the throbbing. It hit my whole being. As if stretching a rubber band as far as possible without breaking it, when the pressure was alleviated, the band was left loose and flaccid.

I felt like rubber. Stretched-out. No cuts, I wasn’t bleeding, but I was still hurting. The healing process started, but it was within me. Reconnecting muscles and joints. Making them firm again. Feeling things worm inside me.

I almost lost enough of my senses to laugh. Of all the things I inherited from Alexis, it just had to be her penchant for self-abuse.

Fuck you, Alexis.

Fuck you.

The van moved some more, the grill pressing into my chest and face. Moving me along with it, but I was still elbow-deep into the cement pillar.

I waited a bit, the van pushing me more. Positioning myself.

When I found myself at a decent position, I yanked my arm out of the pillar. It fell beside me, and I fell onto my back.

I couldn’t get a good look at my arm, but I could guess how mangled it had become. The van kept moving, rolling over me. I was small, I didn’t get run over.

I was breathing hard when the van was secured, people moving about. I needed to be present.

The desire to stay down and mope in the pain, I pushed it aside.

I forced myself up, propping myself up with my okay arm.

My healing was working all this time, and I was feeling somewhat better by the time I was on my two feet. I checked the arm I used to hit the pillar. The jacket sleeve was still decently intact, but the glove was tattered. My fist looked compact, more like a ball of flesh and bone than separate digits and parts.

I hitched in my breathing at seeing that, and I put my arm down. It’d heal, in time. I just didn’t want to look at it anymore.

Shit. After the first accident earlier tonight, I could have went another night without needing to feed. Now, I had to get something to drink before I returned to the apartment.

It’s fine. You’ll find something.

I’d better.

Arms at my side, I approached the van. Every door was wide open, with teddy bears spilling out. Some of the dogs were tearing them up, fighting each other for their own to chew up. One was licking a man by the cheek. A bandaged cheek. He was sitting on the ground, a distance away from the van. Rattled.

Their boss? He was in the van, too?

Other dogs noticed me, and went to barking.

It brought the gang’s attention to me.

I already had my arms up before it was a solid thought in my head. Even the bad arm, or the one that was more worse off.

“None of the macho stuff,” I said. “I think I just saved your boss. Let’s call it a truce, and we can settle this with words.”

The gang members looked among each other. They turned to me, all nodding. They tugged at their hounds, getting them to zip it.

Good. They weren’t stupid.

D collapsed out of the van, heaving for air. She stayed on her back. She had the handgun, clutched to her chest.

One of the gang members closed in on her, weapons ready. She immediately brought her gun up, but she was pointing more to the ceiling than anyone here. Her arms were too stiff, if she had any intention of pulling that trigger.

“Get away! Back off! It’s Lawrence’s fault, he tried to short me! You don’t fucking cheat me! You can’t!”

The gang members stopped. I walked over to D.

“D,” I said, looking at her. “You’re safe now. No one’s going to hurt you. Relax. I don’t know why, but I got you. I saved you.”

“Thank, thanks you,” she said, between heavy breaths. Hiccups.

“Thank you,” she said again, correcting herself.

Funny. It was in this situation when she acted most like a kid.

“What the hell were you thinking, doing that?” I asked.

“I know, I knew what I was doing. The next building over was only two levels lower. I woulda made it, I would have.”

As she fell over her words, Hleuco came to my side. Browsing the scene, he squawked at the few dogs that couldn’t keep calm.

She’s as crazy as the rest of us.

“Can you get up, or do you need help?” I asked.

“I’ve got it,” she replied, but she soon shook her head. “No, can you? Please help?”

She dropped one arm to her chest, along with the gun. She extended a small hand my way.

I took her hand, using my worse one. My healing really did wonders for me.

I helped her up, while checking my surroundings. And we were surrounded.

All hostiles, with only a temporary, shaky truce keeping them back. I had to maneuver through this – through them – carefully, if I wanted to be able to walk away with no further harm done.

Coming around the front part of the van, I saw the man D was talking with. Lawrence. One of his men was helping him, getting him to stand. He managed, but he still had to rely on his lackey.

Much like this parking garage, he seemed familiar.

It made me realize I was still holding D’s hand. I let go, and heard a faint whimper.

I walked to him, Hleuco coming with. The gang members reacted, and as if by routine, I raised my hands.

The truce remained.

“Lawrence,” I said, voice raised. “You tried to sabotage the only good thing going for you and your gang. Why?”

I made it a point to phrase it like that, to get everyone up to speed, while making Lawrence out to be the offended. It might shake his gang’s faith in him. Anything to get an edge in this.

“I didn’t sabotage shit, she was the one constantly talking shit. You don’t know her like I do, this has been going on so fucking long. From pranks and shit, and when El Carruaje disbanded, she kept going, after me.”

“Because you make it too fun,” D said. She moved behind me, holding my jacket.

“Shut up! She fucked with me when I tried to build up the Ghosts, and now I have to buy from her if I want my boys to continue holding a presence in the city. I swear she planned out this whole damn thing from the beginning.”

“Not now,” I told D, pushing her back with my arm. I returned to Lawrence. “And you wanted to get back at her? At a little girl?”

“I’ll do what I can to survive, I’ll bite that bullet. But if I one up her, then sure, fuck it. I just didn’t expect…”

I filled in the blank for him. “Me?”

“Yeah, you.”

I scanned the people around, and looked back to Lawrence. “Your gang’s on the skids, and you put everyone at risk by trying to pick a fight with a girl half your size. And you still lost, you would have died if I wasn’t there to do something about it. Tell me, was it worth it?”

I didn’t intend for the question to hang, but Lawrence let it, not answering for a good minute. But his silence was saying a lot for the others. Exchanging looks, lowered weapons, an overall down disposition. Even the gang member Lawrence was holding onto shifted, almost as if he was trying to pull away from him. Doing the minimal effort required to keep him up.

“You’re not a gang,” I continued, “You’re scavengers, picking up whatever scraps possible, hoping to see the next day, and you fucked up the last bit of scraps you’re ever going to get. Let that sink in.”

I reiterated the same point for effect. It did sink in. Lawrence dropped his head, and everyone else in his gang felt that. They were all in this together, and they were struggling. I didn’t have any knowledge of the Ghosts before this, but I wouldn’t be surprised if everyone gathered was all the gang had to offer.

“But,” I said, “There is a way to turn it around. There is someone you should direct your anger to.”

All eyes were on me.

“Benny,” I said.

Lawrence lifted his head, eyeing me. “Benny?”

“Yes. You were part of her old gang, were you not? But after her plans failed, the one that necessitated all those weapons, The Chariot fell apart, and you, Lawrence, tried to pick up the pieces for yourself. To scavenge.”

“So what if I did?” he asked.

“It would have worked, for a time, if Benny didn’t decide to shoot up a school.”

Various looks from all around. Mostly concern.

“She did do it,” Lawrence said.

“Yes, she did, and that’s probably a reason why the Ghosts are losing traction in the city. No one wants to associate with someone with too much dirt on their hands, even with a few degrees removed. Shit sticks, and then it spreads.”

“Okay? What does that have to do with us?”

“It has everything to do with you. Benny slipped away, but she’s still in the city. There’s a nice prize for her head. Find her, and you might be in a better standing. Your gang earns a seat at the table.”

Lawrence glared at me, a puzzled expression.

“Why are you suggesting this to us?”

His question gave me pause.

Why was I suggesting this? Benny was mine, but I was telling a branch of her old gang to go after her.

Because I couldn’t do this myself, because it was something Alexis would have never resorted to.

Because it would be a nail in her coffin.

And we need all the nails we can get.

Glancing at Hleuco, I found the confidence I needed to say my next piece.

“Because, I’m thinking we should team up.”

Previous                                                                                               Next

049 – Spikes

Previous                                                                                               Next

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

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

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

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

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

That won’t end well.

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

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

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

She said it so matter-of-factly.

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

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

I felt an oddly placed sense of envy.

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

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

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

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

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

“Problem?” I asked, my eye on a car.

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

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

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

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

“Uh, yeah, sure thing, boss.”

The light turned green, and we started moving again.

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

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

“Bluemoon stuff?”

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

“It was,” I said, wary. Uneasy.

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

“Did I?”

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

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

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

“Your point being?” I asked.

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

That right there. Her million dollar question.

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

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

There was a notable silence from Claire.

“I wouldn’t,” she answered.

“No?”

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

Claire went mute.

“You just what?” I asked.

“I just want my money.”

I see.

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

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

She couldn’t see me, but I nodded.

I spoke.

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

And we’re saving that intent for someone else.

Precisely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that was the price for convenience.

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

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

I had to budget my time and money.

As I walked ahead, Claire rolled down her window.

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

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

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

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

“You’re funny,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Except…

I stopped where I was.

There was nothing here.

The van was gone.

I stared.

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

Fuck.

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

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

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

Then, who took it?

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

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

Otherwise, it would have been all for naught.

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

Fuck.

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

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

Hell, maybe the van was still-

A burst of noise. I tensed up.

The sound of a car horn.

Claire.

Did something happen?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We have to get that van.

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

I had to find Claire.

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

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

“I did, and-”

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

Ah.

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

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

“Yes?” I said, urging her to go on.

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

“Good, thanks,” I said.

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

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

“Actually…” I started to say.

I looked back at Claire, completely serious.

“We need to catch that van.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

We got back on the path, giving chase.

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

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

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

“Just keep going!”

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

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

Claire shouted.

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

Good point.

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

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

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

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

We raced behind.

“Come on!” I shouted. “Faster!”

“That’s not helping!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Claire grunted, gripping the wheel even harder.

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

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

Wind immediately whipped my face.

“I said I’ve got it covered!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just… a little more…

Tires screeching, horns honking.

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

Shit.

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

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

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

I slipped.

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

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

“Agh!” I yelled.

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

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

It was all grounds for a disaster.

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

It wasn’t going to last.

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

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

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

No, we mustn’t let go.

“Agreed.”

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

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

There we go.

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

Below, I heard Claire yelling.

But, damn, that was a close call.

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

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

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

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

I was more than capable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And there was only one way to turn.

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

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

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

We were going to cut them off at the turn.

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

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

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

I only had one shot at this.

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

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

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

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

And it was planned.

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

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

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

Now.

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

I hopped over.

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

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

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

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

Now…

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

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

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

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

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

Nice try, I thought. I was too strong.

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

I should probably end this before it went there.

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

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

I braced for impact.

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

The driver immediately hit the brakes.

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

A solid landing, my feet on concrete.

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

Everything exploded everywhere.

Bones crunched, metal crushed, the sharp pain enveloped.

But I held on, pushing back.

I wasn’t sent flying.

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

But I held on.

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

“Uff!” I cried out.

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

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

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

Not this time.

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

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

Eventual, but gradual. And then final.

We were no longer in motion.

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

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

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

It hurt. A lot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Claire. She had followed.

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

I flung the door open. I looked inside.

I tilted my head.

What?

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

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

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

A girl.

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

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

“Yo!”

Previous                                                                                               Next

048 – Balancing Act

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“Can’t remember the last time I was up here,” Katy said, flat. She rested her arms on the railing, feeling the wind in her hair.

I tapped my foot.

“Shit, I’ve never been up here,” Maria said, joining her. “Hey, and the view isn’t too bad. Do you come out here often, Alexis?”

I crossed my legs, and my arms.

I was sitting in a chair beside Maria, farther from her than she was to Katy. Behind bars, I saw the city.

“Every now and then,” I answered. During my time as a ‘hero,’ I used the balcony as my way of going in and out of the apartment.

But, there was no reason to bring up that bit of info.

Our volunteering at the church ended around noontime, and aside from giving our condolences to Mrs. Phan and Justin one more time, we left without a fuss. I didn’t bother to seek out those other kids to say farewell, either.

Mother offered to cook lunch back at the apartment, since we were already all together. Katy and Maria were up for it. I wasn’t, but I couldn’t exactly voice that sentiment. I had to go along with it, with everyone. Reluctantly.

She prepared miso soup and fried chicken. It was apparent that I used to have some kind of connection to those particular dishes. The extra company of little girls that sat with us at the table, lounging on the couch, eating their own fill, each with their faces scraped away…

At least, it made it easier to keep my head down, be quiet, and eat.

The food tasted awful, of course, but I had learned how to hide it. It sat like a weight in my stomach. I’d have to throw it up later, when I had time.

Which was the problem I had, now.

Time.

Lunch was over, Katy and Maria got what they came here for. Why were they still hanging around?

I remembered those kids back at the church.

Licking wounds. Pity.

My foot tapped, my legs crossed and uncrossed. I sat back and leaned forward.

Please, let the sun set faster.

“How’d you even get this deal, anyways?” Maria asked, ripping me away from my thoughts and planning. “Getting the master bedroom all to yourself is quite sweet.”

She was talking to me. I’d rather not, but it was unavoidable.

I looked away from the city to see into the glass door, my room. I saw a girl a few years my junior, in her bed, typing away at her phone. Giggling.

I looked elsewhere, back, on the balcony, and saw brief flashes of a toddler, tightly hugging her mother, delighted over something.

The images drilled, and it actively hurt to try and look at. Like staring at the sun.

“Shi- My mom, she let me have this room, back when we moved in.”

“Really? She just gave it to you?”

My head ached the more she forced me to put thought into it. “Yes. She prefers smaller spaces, I guess.”

“Your mom’s from Japan, right? Did she grow up in a apartment there, too?”

If I tried to reach that far back, that hard, for such an insignificant detail, my head would split open.

“I really don’t know,” I said.

A sound, not from Maria, but from Katy.

“You don’t know where your mom grew up?” Maria asked.

“She’s never shared much about her time there. She’s never brought it up, and I just learned not to ask.”

That didn’t require strenuous brain power to say. As if it was a lesson that truly left a mark on my very being.

“I can give you that,” Maria said. “No diss, but she does seem kind of… standoffish?”

Even I could see it. Clear. The description fit.

“No diss,” I said. “That’s about right.”

“But, like, don’t get me wrong, Shiori’s awesome, she just also has this side to her, you know, like, I can’t get her mad, no matter what, or she’d fucking kill me, or worse.”

I smirked, almost in spite of myself.

“That’s what Asian parents are like,” I said.

Then, right there, a moment came and went. An opening to continue the conversation, but no one took it. Maria didn’t.

A breeze gently passed, and hair brushed into my face. I briefly had the thought of getting it cut.

Maria clicked her tongue, seemingly out of nowhere.

“Hard to believe it’s already December,” Maria said. “Barely feels like it.”

She’s forcing it.

This time, Katy answered her, her tone as dry as ever. “It’s because it’s been so warm. It’s only ever really chilly in the morning, other than that you’re good with a jacket. We can’t even get a proper winter.”

“I bet it’ll get colder later, probably around Christmas or New Year’s,” Maria said. “Hey, do you guys have any plans for the holidays?”

No answer, from me or from Katy. Enough time passed that it should have meant something.

Maria fixed her hair, removing a strand that flew into her mouth.

“Same,” Maria said, breathing out the word.

I had enough awareness that I could see what she was trying to do, but I just didn’t have the will or care or investment to play along. They were friendly, and the connection between me and them existed, but it was becoming frail, nearly vestigial. I couldn’t claim it as my own.

Doing so would be lying to myself.

But, I also recognized that I couldn’t neglect that part of my life altogether. It was a chore, but it was a necessary one. A role I had to play, a mask I needed to wear.

In a perfect world, I would have no need to be here. I would have no need for this.

Yet, here I was.

At least for now, I’d have to act as Alexis Barnett.

“I legit don’t know what I’ll be doing around that time,” I said, throwing Maria a bone. “Hopefully I’ll just be chilling, getting some peace and quiet.”

“Yeah, some of that would be nice,” Maria said. “Things just keep happening. I need a damn break.”

“Snowball effect,” Katy said. She didn’t say anything more than that.

“What do you mean?” Maria asked.

Katy remained silent for a time.

“Nothing,” she finally said.

Maria fixed her hair again, then looked at me. I noticed her stare. It was a very specific kind of stare. Was I supposed to know what she was thinking? Reading between the lines?

A sort of mutual understanding, but I couldn’t deliver on my end. That particular meaning was lost on me.

I broke eye contact, and I gave a half-hearted shrug. An empty gesture, but it should’ve been enough for Maria. She could ascribe her own meaning in that.

My foot started tapping again, and I leaned back, observing the other two. Katy had her phone out, her attention focused there. Maria was taking in the view of the city, doing her best to keep up a brave face. She tried, but I somehow managed to see the cracks.

This wasn’t working. At all.

None of us were up for talking, and none of us could face each other for any meaningful length of time. Even for me, at a distance from it all, it was blatantly clear. Katy was still reeling from the death of her father, and Maria had to stand at the sidelines if she wanted to support her. And I, on principle, preferred that distance to maintain.

On top of everything else, the attack at the school was still fresh on everyone’s minds. That alone would force any normal person to retreat inward.

It wasn’t unlike trying to push together magnets of the same end. There was bound to be a resistance, from every side.

And if you push too hard, what would happen when you suddenly let go?

“All the pieces fly away,” I said to myself.

“Did you say something?” Maria asked. Must have heard me.

“Um, nothing,” I said. I sounded like Katy, there.

Maria grumbled, then turned around, her back against the railing. “Man, you people need to stop with the subliminals. Freaks me out.”

“My bad,” I said.

“Sorry,” Katy said.

We spoke at the same time.

“Sorry,” I said.

“My bad,” Katy said.

We did it again.

An awkward pause followed.

Maria was the one to break, laughing at our expense.

She kept laughing.

Then some more.

“I’m okay,” Maria said, between fits. Oddly pitchy. “It’s okay, see, it can be okay, just laugh at something whenever, it can help. Just fucking saying.”

She rubbed, massaged at her eyes using her sleeve. When she pulled away, her eyes were red.

“Ugh, fuck,” she said. “I am so fucking lame.”

The connection between us, I felt it shoring up. Despite me. A tug at my chest that I couldn’t explain.

I used the new, more intense awkward pause, and retreated into it. No one said any more.

We all retreated.

I wasn’t sure how much time had gone by when Mother came to check in on us.

“Hi,” she said, soft, stepping onto the balcony, door left open. She had a tin bowl in her hands. “I cut up apples, please help yourselves.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Barnett,” Maria said, immediately going for them. “They’re great.”

Katy went next, taking her arms off the railing, phone falling back into a pocket.

“Thanks,” she said, dry.

And that meant I had to have a turn.

“Thanks, Ma,” I said. I would’ve fumbled if I had to say more than one and a half words.

I grabbed two slices, and ate them. I chewed fast, then swallowed like I was drinking water.

Mush, wet. Like grounded-up fish guts. It repulsed. Mother had washed the apples before cutting, which did help, it made them easier to bring down.

And it would make them easier to bring back up.

“Tastes good,” I lied.

“I leave them here for you?” she suggested.

“Actually,” Katy said, after wiping her mouth. “I’ll have to get going, now. Mom called, and I’ve got some errands to run.”

“Are you sure?” Mother asked.

Katy cast glance at the two of us. At Maria. At me.

“I’m sure,” she said.

“I guess,” Maria said, unsure of herself, “That’s it for me, too. Don’t wanna overstay anything.”

“It’s no problem,” Mother said. “Of course you’re welcome.”

“But, I loved the food, though,” Maria said, as if to save face. “I’ve never had authentic Japanese before. It was delish.”

“It was,” Katy added. “Thanks again, Shiori.”

Katy started, passing Mother to leave. I got out of my seat. It was only proper, when guests were leaving.

“Bye,” I said, watching Maria follow, as they both left.

“Bye,” Katy returned, without turning back. However, I noticed Maria steal a glance.

They crossed my room, leaving through the other door, into the living room. From there, the front door was their exit.

“You won’t see them off?” Mother asked, facing me.

My hand went over my stomach.

“I really need some fresh air. But I’ll see them again.”

That last bit sounded more like a premonition than a blessing.

Mother lifted the bowl of apples to me. “Do you still want?”

I took a slice.

“You can leave the rest in the kitchen,” I said. “I might get some more, later.”

Mother nodded, then left the balcony, and I got the door for her. I spun back, and rested my arms on the railing.

I looked back at the city, uncaged.

I tossed the apple away, the slice falling into grass below.

The wind picked up again, and I took a deep breath. The headache was starting to subside.

I didn’t like reaching into older, useless connections. It diluted my thinking. Making me less me, and giving purchase to another thing. Her.

Granted, some connections, memories, were necessary, like my time as Blank Face. Others, if I could, I’d drop them immediately. Trim the fat, as the saying went.

In a perfect world, I would have no need to be here.

It was another reason why I was pressed for time. The last thing I wanted was to doubt myself.

Which was why tonight was so crucial.

If I was to do this again, I had to make some serious changes. I had to do this right. No more blindly jumping about, grasping at straws. I needed to go about this with a plan in mind.

If I wanted to play for keeps, I needed to prepare a hand to play.

Now this was more like it.

Standing on the edge, the thrill of being so high up. Overseeing everything, the city completely unaware. The cold, beaten only by the rush of adrenaline pumping through my veins. The sight and sounds were present, but far away. From up here, everything seemed so small.

The feeling of plastic on my face.

This was true freedom.

My costume underwent some more changes. It was all makeshift, I’d have to make do with what I had for just a little longer.

I ditched the blue. Better to distance myself from that image, than risk more trouble by dressing as the blue demon everyone was hunting. Better yet to ditch that identity entirely.

Functionally speaking, however, I was still married to the idea of wearing hoodies and windbreakers. I couldn’t seem to get myself away from that concept. On that front, all I did was swap the blue for red.

The mask I had on was my old one, the first one I ever used. It was simple, and barely identifiable. It worked. But I did make some changes to its look. I darkened the sockets around the eyes and the edges of the mask, to shape it more like a human face. As an added touch, I applied some red paint onto the lips. Following the phantoms that wandered around my apartment, I managed to find old, forgotten material, and used it to touch-up my mask.

After that were the smaller essentials. Bag, extra clothes, cash, gloves, knife.

The final result, with everything working in tandem, with mask on and hood up, I didn’t look like someone wearing a mask. I looked like a whole new person.

Not a costume, but a form to call my own. I wasn’t Blank Face, I wasn’t the Bluemoon, and I especially was not Alexis Barnett. I’d need a name, but that could wait.

Standing above the city, I was me.

We’re just us.

Precisely.

Then, I moved.

It was exhilarating, refreshing. A much needed opportunity to stretch my legs and really extend my abilities. I had to keep focused on the path ahead, watching out when I had to jump higher to reach the next building, and bracing myself when the drop was that much lower. It kept my mind running, as much as my body.

I crossed gaps, careful not to overextend and lose my footing. I knew how to maneuver over obstacles, the vents and air conditioning units. Ducking, sliding when necessary.

You’ve gotten better at this, I told myself. The thought alone was liberating. From my old self, old limitations.

I checked the sky as I moved through the air, and he passed overhead.

Hleuco.

He had feathers, a beak, it wasn’t that much of a leap for him to have wings, too.

Coming out from his back, his wings were as large as they were long, to support something of his height and weight. Jet black. It was hard to make out in the night, but he was gliding more than he was actually flying. One flap of his huge wings was enough to go a long distance.

When he passed the moon, the light pierced him for a moment, and he’d vanish, only to materialize as he left that sphere of influence.

I fought the urge to cheer as I soared through the air a final time. I stopped, landing right before our destination.

Hleuco was already there, perched on the roof of the adjacent building. It took four flaps for him to beat me to the police station.

Here we are.

Back again.

I kept low, stalking to the edge of the roof to check the windows of the next building.

There he was, just like last time. Working at his desk.

James Gomez.

A visual was all I needed, and I moved again, dropping down to the fire escape that was mounted to the wall. I had become light enough to not make too much noise when I landed.

I went up to the window of his office, and something caught my eye.

Blank Face’s message was still here from the last time, etched with a black marker, but bits of the letters were reduced to mere smudges. Probably from the rain we had gotten recently.

He had covered up the original message with a scrap of notebook paper, taped from his side of the window. And when the rain came and went, he forgot to take it down.

There was something humorous in that, and it almost gave me pause. I had to remind myself not to laugh and give myself away.

Focus.

Yeah, yeah.

Good thing I had come prepared. I slipped out another marker from the side of my bag, and wrote out a new message on the window. I finished by drawing an arrow, pointing to the scrap of paper.

‘COME CLEAN!’

I put the marker back, then knocked on the window. In the next breath, I was already ascending up the remainder of the fire escape. As I drew in another, I already was up on the roof.

I didn’t situate myself atop the cement roof enclosure, over the roof access door. Not like last time. I just stood at the door, arms folded. Waiting.

Hleuco was gone, leaving me with time to concentrate. I shut my eyes to regain certain connections to better prepare myself for the meeting.

Waiting.

My foot began to tap.

Waiting.

He was really taking his sweet time.

The door creaked when it finally opened, and I opened my eyes, ready. I saw Gomez as he stepped onto the roof. The door shut on its own as he approached. He saw me, and I saw his hand move slowly toward his side. His hip.

“It’s me, Blank Face,” I said, to reassure him.

Even though I don’t care much for that name, anymore.

Gomez’s hand stopped, instead going into a pocket. He bobbed his head in a nod.

“Rebranding, are we?” he questioned. “I think I’ve only ever seen you with your proper costume once, and that was the first time you showed up here.”

“Rebranding is a good way of putting it,” I said.

Gomez’s expression changed, his heavy mustache accentuating his frown.

He looked drained, beaten down by recent events. His cheeks a little sunken in, what little of his hair left frayed at the ends. Add on top the decades of wear, tear, and stress a job like his dished out…

He looked like a husk of James Gomez, Chief of Police of the Stephenville Police Department.

His voice reflected that, too, when he spoke. Hoarse.

“A lot has happened since the last time I saw you, and dare I say, a lot has happened because of you. You’re very popular, if you weren’t aware. Lot of people want to get their hands on you, yet you come to visit me. Can’t tell if I should be grateful.”

He took a step towards me. Then another.

“Maybe I should call it in, it’d be so easy. Like I mentioned the last time you were up here, one press of a button, and you’re done. I have you. And I put all of this bullshit behind me and finally start seeing a therapist. God knows I need one.”

He wouldn’t actually turn me in, would he? I’d probably be able to get away if he did, but it’d be an inconvenience, a door shut in my face.

I stood, tense, watching his every step, every twitch or movement. If he was going to pull something, I could stop him, break his arm, send him off the ledge.

I could, but I shouldn’t.

I had to actively tell myself no. That wouldn’t do me any good.

Let’s save the energy for someone else.

Gomez continued, interrupting my thoughts.

“You’ve been awfully quiet. Tell me, do you still think you’re the good guy? The hero?”

It was that question that derailed my train of thought. What did this have to do with anything? How was that relevant?

Behind my mask, I looked at Gomez right in the eye.

No, he was being serious.

I bit my tongue.

I had to answer him, and I had a feeling that there was a right answer to his question. Piss him off, and I’d lose the point of being here in the first place.

I gave him my answer.

“I’m after the bad guys, the people responsible for this whole mess. Solace, Styx, Benny, they’ve gone too far without having lost anything in return. I want them to pay, and I want to take from them the equivalent of what they’ve taken from everyone else.”

What they’ve taken from us.

Gomez blinked, slow, taking in my response. His eyebrow furrowed.

“Eye for an eye, don’t you know what happens when the whole world operates like that?”

I had no answer, there, and I was running out of patience.

“We’re getting sidetracked. I came here because I need your help. I’m looking for Benny. If she’s still in the city, I’m going to find her.”

“Just Benny?” he asked.

“She’s a start. Is she still here?”

Gomez removed a hand from his pocket, and rubbed his mustache, fixing it.

“She could be. Honestly? I’m inclined to say yes.”

Yes.

Exactly what I wanted to hear.

“How do you know for sure?” I asked, almost excitedly so.

“I don’t know for sure, but given what I know of this city and the situation, she won’t get too far without getting caught. Border’s even more tight, now, thanks to her own actions, and considering the… culture, here, there’s a nice price on her head.”

“Meaning,” I offered.

“Meaning everyone’s going to want to cash in. Gangs… and some of my own men, with secondary loyalties.”

“It’s a manhunt from all sides,” I said, summing it up.

“Precisely, and if every movement might get you sniffed out, then the best bet is to stay put, and pray for some miraculous opening. If she’s smart, she’ll have holed herself up, wherever she is.”

I nodded, taking it in.

Those were good odds, but it came with the added challenge of everyone being a player in the game of finding her.

It wouldn’t be easy, but it could be done.

“That’s reassuring,” I said. “We find her, and we have a very big piece of the Solace… conspiracy, for want of a better word. From the weapons found back at that warehouse, we know that The Chariot was involved. If she can’t give us anything, fine, but we still have the person who led the attack at Stephenville High School.”

“Stephenville High School,” he repeated, and it came with a harrowing note. “You know she was behind it?”

“I know some of her crew were brought into custody.”

He fixed his mustache again.

“I see. Is that why you’re looking for her, because it’s personal?”

I could almost see the scenery change around me, and I was back in that bloody, messy, classroom. Where I woke up.

“Thomas was personal,” I said, bringing myself back. “This is another matter. She called me out, and people, kids, suffered for it. This is…”

Personal in a different way. Therapeutic, using your own words.

But I just trailed off, instead.

I couldn’t gauge Gomez’s exact expression, but it wasn’t pleasant.

“Don’t bring up his name, not like that, not here. His funeral wasn’t that long ago. Maybe you were there?”

The mention of his name brought back Hleuco. He stood by Gomez, head cocked, like observing prey.

“In spirit,” I said, glancing at the shadow figure. “But we’re getting sidetracked again.”

If I wasn’t getting what I needed out of Gomez, I was wasting time. “I know that not everyone of Benny’s crew made it out of the school, some were left behind. If you have them in custody, I’d like to pay them a visit. Any one of them will do.”

“Ah.” He bobbed his head, again, then said, “They’re not here. We don’t have them.”

“They’re not what? Where are they?”

Gomez explained. “They attacked and destroyed a public school, and terrorized the students and staff inside that school. We arrested them, but we had to hand them over. They’re in a federal prison, now. They might even end up being deported, but it’s too soon to tell.”

Fuck. I hadn’t considered that, I didn’t see that coming.

“You’re saying I can’t get to any of them?” I asked.

“I can give you the address, but breaking into a heavily-guarded, federal prison is more trouble than any of them are worth. You’d be better off asking random strangers on the street, but I rather you not do that.”

I glanced away, thankful for my mask. Gomez couldn’t see the anger behind it.

Dammit, dammit. I needed them to get to Benny, and Gomez was someone I could actually turn to. Sofia, Samuel. Any of the others I incapacitated. If they were being treated, they were probably under watch, too. Alone, I couldn’t get to them, and Gomez was right. It wouldn’t be worth it.

I clenched a fist, forcing myself to calm down, and I addressed Gomez again.

“I need anything you have that can lead me to Benny. Please. One of your men, they’d have to know something. Just give me a minute with them, I’ll get what I need out of them.”

Gomez stepped away, walking to one end of the roof. “I’m not in the business of handing over police officers for you to dangle and drop down multiple stories.”

I followed him, but I didn’t move too close to the edge. Didn’t want to be seen from up here.

“You gave me Sumeet,” I said, reminding him.

“I gave you a chance, at a time when my hands were tied. And when you were out, setting the city ablaze, I was able to gather enough intel and men to come back and help you. And we got pretty damn close, too. We had him, we got Thomas back.”

His head dropped a fraction.

“In the end, it wasn’t enough, but it was something,” he said. “It was a decent, even good, effort, to save something tangible.”

“How is that any different from now?” I asked.

“Now? This time, with Benny, the damage has already been done. You finding Benny isn’t going to save anyone, or bring anyone back. Not all of the perpetrators were caught, but some were. And the kid that took lives, along with his own… It goes without saying that he’s not around anymore. With or without Benny, people are going to find a way to heal from that.”

“What about bringing Benny to justice?”

Gomez laughed. It took me by surprise.

“Nothing of what you told me tonight has convinced me for a second that you want to turn her in.”

Turning, he jabbed a finger in my direction.

“From what I’ve gathered, you’re not looking for justice, are you? You’re looking for revenge.”

Revenge. The word resonated within me.

Was that what I was looking for? Was that what I wanted?

No, it wasn’t the ends. But the means?

Again, the word resonated.

“You’re really not going to help me?” I asked, disappointment showing in my voice.

Gomez walked back from the end of the roof. He passed me.

“I can’t, and I won’t,” he answered. “Not like this. I really must be crazy, because I still have some respect for you, and I’m not about to be complicit in whatever you’re going to do to Benny, if or when you do find her. I’m giving you a chance to walk away and just let this be. Let proper authorities do their jobs.”

He continued walking, heading to the door. I started moving to stop him.

“And what if I can’t?” I asked.

Gomez stopped right at the door, hand on the knob. He moved his shoulders to get a decent look at me.

“Then that wouldn’t be very super of you, would it?”

I set my jaw, my teeth gritting. Even Hleuco made a gesture. Feathers raised, chest puffed out.

“Dammit, Gomez. Work with me, here.”

“This is the part where I’m supposed to say ‘I’m sorry,’ but I won’t. Goodbye.”

He opened the door, and he left, leaving me alone on the rooftop. Dry.

Fuck. Dammit. Shit.

I wheeled around, and stormed off. I jumped to another rooftop and ran.

Damn Gomez, damn him. And damn me for not being able to convince him. He was my best bet on getting my hands on someone who could lead me to Benny, and now I had nothing. Not having custody of her crew was one thing, but actively trying to talk me out of pursuing her?

A myriad of different words flew through my head. Hypocrite was one of them.

I vaulted up to a taller building, and kept going. I was running to let off steam. Cool my head.

It wasn’t working.

What I needed was Benny, to find her and hurt her. To make it even. To make it fair.

Blank Face had tried to find her. Now, it was my turn. How hard is it to locate one fucking woman?

A shrill screech stopped me in my tracks. With a foot near the edge of the roof, I peered into the alley below.

A woman, running, chased by three men. Crossing from one street, hoping to escape to the other. But the men were faster, catching up on her.

She screeched again.

I almost responded as reflex, lifting my foot to prepare for a descent, but I stopped myself.

Police cars sped to the end of alley, cutting them all off. Lights on, the sirens sounding off. The woman threw her last remaining effort into a short, hard sprint, and she fell into the arms of an officer, already getting out of the car.

I heard the shouting and commotion below, the cops telling the attackers to freeze, get down, hands behind their head. They froze, and complied, and the cops moved in. The situation ended as soon as I happened upon it.

Too bad, I needed an outlet. Blood would do me some good, too.

The world really doesn’t need a Blank Face, does it?

It didn’t.

I watched as the cops cuffed the men, taking them into the cars, illuminated red and blue. Thinking.

If Gomez wasn’t going to hand me over any cops, should I just pick them out myself? I might find someone who knew a thing or two. A clue.

No, I dismissed the idea. More trouble than it was worth. Do that, and I’d end up in a similar situation to that night. The night I set the ‘city ablaze,’ as Gomez put it. Running about, wildly, leaving behind a smoke trail of chaos.

Another approach, then. Couldn’t do this like before. I had to think laterally.

I looked ahead, and saw Hleuco, perched on the roof of the building across from me. Seeing him gave me an idea.

Head over, without anyone following, and I’ll meet you there. Out.

Of course.

It might not be the most efficient way of going about things, but it was a start.

I leapt again, crossing the gap. Hleuco unfurled his wings, taking to the air at the same time.

I knew where I needed to go, and how to get there. But it wouldn’t be by rooftop.

I would need to make a call. But, to do that, I’d have to find a payphone. And learn how to use one.

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047 – Latae sententiae

epy arc 8 bite

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The sun was shining, not a cloud in the sky. Somewhat fitting, considering how blue the atmosphere was.

St. Francis Xavier had been trashed.

Windows broken, statues dented and graffitied over. Crosses knocked and flipped around. The east wing was burned to the ground. Papers got caught in the wind, flying around, pews had been thrown outside and ripped apart. Paintings, too, tossed out and cut open. The church and offices had been gutted, its innards laid out to rot in the sun.

The church itself was no cathedral, but it was a temple, a place of worship. It was sizable, large enough to house a decent number of people. A symbol.

And it had been reduced to a shell of its former glory. As it stood now, it couldn’t serve its core purpose.

All this, in just a matter of days.

Shiori, Mother, went first, leading the way, maneuvering through the damage. I was behind her, followed by the two girls who wanted to accompany us.

Katy and Maria were their names.

All around us, others were picking up the pieces. Cleaning up, doing what they could to help. Mostly those from the church’s community, but others offered their help after news broke out. Outsiders.

A few squads of police were here, supervising the crews and volunteers, sometimes giving out their own orders. Firetrucks and firefighters moved to the burnt wing of the church.

A lot of people, a lot of moving parts, but weather itself was serene. Cool. Mother and I had to wear a light jacket to keep warm. Maria needed only a fitted sweater, and so did Katy, though she was wearing all black.

We entered into the gathering space just outside the church’s front doors, wide open and dented in places. Mother led us to a group being addressed by a short woman. Not elderly, but almost there. The woman noticed us, and dismissed the group with a word.

“Shiori, it’s good to see you,” the woman said. She looked sullen, with little energy to her words. She didn’t appear to have gotten much sleep, recently. “And you too, Alexis.”

That was me. I needed a moment to respond, but the situation didn’t call for me taking my time.

That’s Mrs. Phan.

Mother answered for the both of us. “Good to see you, too, Linda. It is a shame that it has to be under these circumstances.”

Mrs. Phan nodded, then she glanced around. She frowned.

“It happened at night, I was already asleep. I woke up to so many calls and messages, but it was already too late, and I couldn’t do anything. I was powerless.”

Again, she looked around, then back down. As if there was a faint hope that, if she were to check one more time, this would all seemingly go away, never to have happened. That hope was immediately squandered.

“Maybe if I was here, I could have done something, stopped them somehow. But I was slacking. Maybe this is my fault, my faith wasn’t strong enough. Maybe this is what happens when your faith isn’t strong enough. This happens.”

Mrs. Phan was just talking to herself by now. Repeating herself, rambling, looking as if sleep was a foreign concept to her…

I could imagine her completely breaking, if rebuilding the church was simply not an option. What would happen to her, then? How would she rebuild herself?

I was curious.

Mother put a hand on her shoulder. Firm.

“You are plenty strong, Linda, this is not a strike against you. Let’s go, tell me what we can do to help, and you take it easy the rest of the day.”

“But,” Mrs. Phan said.

She would’ve said more if Mother didn’t cut her off. “If nothing else, I will make sure you take a break today. Now, breath in.”

Mrs. Phan breathed in.

“And breath out.”

Mrs. Phan breathed out. It wasn’t much, but some tension did leave her body. The effect was visible.

She moved her hand, removing Mother’s hold off her shoulder. She stood straighter, now.

“Thank you, Shiori, and God bless you,” Mrs. Phan said. She cleared her throat, then handed out proper orders. “Shiori, I’ll have you come with me, I’ll need your help with the moving group. And Alexis?”

“Yes?” I said, responding to that name.

“You and your friends go to Justin. He’s leading the youth group and watching over their efforts in cleaning up. You can help there.”

“Alright,” I said, and I had to stop myself there.

I didn’t want to ask who Justin was.

But another question might serve me better.

“Where is Justin?” I asked.

Mrs. Phan pointed to her right, a small field. A sizable group of kids my age were there, sorting through junk, pushing and moving carts and wagons.

“He should be there,” she said.

“Alright,” I said again, and I headed out, Katy and Maria following me. Mother went with Mrs. Phan, to provide her own support.

“Is it just me, or did that lady give me a funny look?” Maria asked. Providing a comment.

“Just you, I don’t think she saw us at all,” Katy said.

They talked amongst themselves, but I continued. We reached the field Mrs. Phan specified.

What exactly was here, I couldn’t tell, it was beaten until it became unrecognizable. No section of the church’s premises was spared, it seemed.

Chips of wood, broken beams, tattered cloth. And a fuck ton of mushy gourds.

We watched our step, but we stayed at the edge of the mess, watching kids go back and forth to clean up.

“Alexis!”

I was the only one to be addressed, but all three of us turned.

A boy, jogging our way. White shirt, brown shorts, and yellow gloves. A bandana on his forehead, damp with sweat.

He stopped just short of colliding into me, breathing hard. He took a second before he spoke up again.

“Wassup,” he said. “It’s been a minute, hasn’t it?”

Justin.

“Definitely more than just a minute,” I said, as though on autopilot.

“Man, when was the last time you were here?” he asked, while removing a glove. “Must be forever.”

“Probably,” I said.

“Oh, and you brought some extra hands, that’s nice.”

I stepped aside, and Katy and Maria moved in.

“Katy.”

“I’m Justin, nice to meet you.”

They shook hands.

“I’m Maria, sorry to hear about your church.”

“Justin, and yeah, it’s pretty bad.”

The two of them shook hands, too.

Justin put his glove back on again, and crossed his arms. “It’s bad, but it was a way worse earlier, so we’ve been making progress, which is good. People have been coming and going throughout the day, too, helping whenever they have the time. A lot of them don’t even come here, so, if anything, it’s definitely moral support. Just seeing you lovely ladies lifts the spirit.”

The sun was getting in my eyes, so I couldn’t see Katy or Maria’s reaction. For my part, I didn’t have much of one.

Justin cleared his throat

“But anyways, yeah, there’s still a long way to go, but we’ll get there. You guys ready to do some work?”

We all answered simultaneously.

“Yeah.”

“For sure.”

“I am.”

Justin nodded, satisfied. “Sweet. Come with me, and I’ll get you some gloves.”

He started back the way he came, and we came with. The table wasn’t far, placed on the same field where all the kids worked, and was topped with gloves, tools, and a cooler with energy drinks and bottles of water.

“Here you are,” he said, handing each of us our own pair of gloves. “Help yourself to the drinks if you’re feeling lightheaded, or need a breather. You’re volunteering your time, and as long as you’re here, you’re being a big help in one way or another. Do you know how long you’ll be here?”

The three of us exchanged looks. Something told me that Katy would have taken that, but this wasn’t her ballpark. Not here.

And it wasn’t mine, quite frankly, but the fact remained.

“As long as you need us for.” I gave a non-answer, but Justin looked like he accepted it.

“Awesome, maybe I’ll take advantage of that.” He snickered, but no one ended up played along.

He cleared his throat again.

“Right, um, let’s get started. Katy and Maria, can you join that crew with the carts there, and Alexis, you up for some lifting?”

I nodded. “Sure.”

“Then let’s break. Thanks again, guys.”

Maria glanced at me, then to Katy, but she was already leaving. Maria looked like she was about to say something, considered, then left to join Katy.

It was me and Justin, now. Together, we headed out.

We wrapped around to the other side of the ruined field. A snapped wooden beam on its side, in the grass. This piece was about seven or eight feet, making me wonder how tall the whole thing was. I stopped at the closest end, and Justin went to the farther part.

“We’re moving this off to the concrete there,” Justin called out, facing the nearby lot for emphasis. “Along with all the other wood parts. It’ll be picked up later.”

“Sure,” I said.

“Careful, it’s heavy.”

“Okay.”

He lowered himself, squatting down and squaring his shoulders. He grabbed the beam with both hands.

I did the same, but I just bent down.

“On ‘three,’” Justin said. “One, two, three!”

The beam lifted, but my end went up much faster. Justin nearly lost his balance.

“Holy- Alright then, let’s go.”

We moved as a unit, I walked backwards, and Justin made sure I didn’t bumping into anyone or anything. I looked, and saw Katy and Maria doing their own jobs, picking up mush and dropping into carts to be sent away.

“Here,” Justin said, and I was brought back to this particular instance.

We were on the lot, near a stack of wood. Not very neatly arranged, maybe more like a pile.

Justin counted to three, and we dropped the beam into the clump. Dust was thrown in the air.

“You’re really stronger than you look,” Justin said. “It wasn’t heavy for you?”

“To be fair, you’ve been out here all day, I guess, you’re more worn out. I just got here,” I said.

“Oh yeah, I guess you’re right.”

We stepped out the way for another pair with their own bits of wood to come in, and we headed back to do it all again.

“What was this supposed to be?” I asked. I couldn’t step over orange mush again and not get curious.

“The church was selling pumpkins and squashes, stuff like that. The youth group was running it.”

“But it’s not Halloween anymore.”

“I know, but people were still buying them. Like, Thanksgiving just passed, so I guess people wanted their pumpkin pies. Have you ever had pumpkin pie?”

“I haven’t.”

“Me neither. And I guess you can’t get one from us, anymore, not for a while.”

Justin chuckled to himself, but it sounded forced, uneasy. It didn’t last.

Dammit,” he said at the end.

The next few trips back to the pile of wood were wordless, other than Justin occasionally warning me about bumping into someone. We fell into a rhythm, and the work flew by without a hitch, even without any chatter. We crossed paths with Katy and Maria every now and then, but we were getting too tired to exchange any words.

We dropped the last wooden beam, and then we were done. With that part of the process, at least.

There was still smashed pumpkins and squashed squashes to get to, and pieces of the tattered tent to pick up.

Nowhere near done, but progress was made.

Justin removed his bandana, and wiped his brow.

“Thanks a lot, Lexi, really means a lot for you to be here and help out. Especially since you haven’t been around for a bit.”

“It’s nothing,” I said, just to say it.

“Man, I’m ready to take a break. Wanna come get a drink with me? I think the others are around, you should come say hi. We’ll all catch up.”

The others?

“I’m not sure if I’m up for that,” I said, trailing away at the end.

“Ah, come on, I know it’s not the best circumstances for a reunion, but I bet they’ll be down to see you again. It’ll be interesting, at least.”

At least.

That, I could agree with.

I searched among the other kids working, for Katy and Maria. Couldn’t find them. Did they run off somewhere?

Even considering everything between me and them, I caught myself looking for them.

But they weren’t here.

I looked back at Justin, who was waiting, eyebrow raised.

“Sound good to you?” he asked.

Reluctant, I answered, “I suppose.”

With that being the decided factor, we went to the tables to put back the gloves. Justin got an energy drink for himself, and I took a water. Justin gestured and moved, and I was forced to tag along.

“Should be this way,” Justin said. “If they aren’t lazing around, color me shocked.”

We walked across one of the parking lots, going around an office building. As we headed towards the front of what looked like the church’s event center, I saw them.

A group of teens, chatting away. Smoke flew away from some of their heads, and some had their own drinks taken from the cooler. They were dressed in trendy, fitting streetwear.

They immediately noticed us. Me. There were cheers.

“Alexis!”

“Holy shit, it’s you.”

“Wow, long time no see.”

“Hey, looks like the dead can come back, after all.”

My eyes roved over the people, smiling, happy at the sight of me. Obviously, connections were supposed to be here. I blinked.

I have no idea who any of you are.

The circle opened up somewhat, giving us room to slip in.

The faces. The eyes. The smiles. They were all being wasted on someone who wasn’t present.

“Hi guys,” I said, trying to inflect some emotion, but I was already regretting being here. This might not go well. I needed to be cautious.

“Want a hit?” someone beside me asked. A girl. I looked down at what she had in her hand. A vape.

“No, I’m good,” I said.

She shrugged, and took a puff of her own. Smoke dissipated into thin air.

“How’s it been with you, Alexis? Doing okay, considering everything?”

Another from the group. A boy, taller than the rest. For the life of me, I couldn’t pin down his name.

“Considering everything,” I said, “I’m doing what I can to be okay.”

“Super duper,” the boy said. “You can say we’re all doing the same.”

There were nods all around. More puffs of smoke as another gesture of assent.

“I can’t believe people went out of their way to do this,” another girl said. “All because another asshole kind of looks like us, kind of.”

“To think, the dicks that did this were less than half the people coming to help clean up now, and it’ll take the whole day to finish, if not longer.”

“Maybe if you guys got a move on, we’d finish faster,” Justin said.

The group laughed, as if they knew he was actually joking. Dismissing him.

“Hey Alexis, you gonna be here all day, or do you have to go school later? We all ditched our classes to be here.”

The tallest boy addressed me again.

I didn’t know how to answer without making things awkward.

I just had to go right ahead and tackle it directly.

“They shut down my school for a while,” I said. “And with how it’s already December, they threw in the towel and called this the early start of the break. Like this place, the school needs time to pick up the pieces.”

The boy’s eyes widened, and then he looked away, scratching his head. Embarrassed.

“Right, fuck. I forgot you went… I’m sorry.”

“Nice going, Andrew,” a girl said.

“And thank you for rubbing it in, Jasmine.”

Justin interjected. “Yeah, you didn’t mean it, Andrew, don’t worry.” He then turned to me and said, “Sorry to hear what happened at your school, by the way. I can’t even comprehend what that must have been like.”

Images flashed in my mind’s eye. Clear. The clearest of any memory I had access to.

It was a good thing, too. I needed them to be clear. I needed to remember.

“Hectic,” I said, putting the entire experience to a single word. It certainly was that.

“Did you know him?” a girl asked. The one that berated that ‘Andrew.’ Jasmine.

She lowered her voice to a near whisper when she specified a name.

“Harrian?”

The general atmosphere of the group changed. Everyone tensed up, averting gazes, shifting in place.

The fact that his name carried such a weight to it…

Jasmine still had her eye on me, waiting for an answer. I had to bring my thoughts back to that day.

I only ever had one memorable interaction with him. Anyone else was either so inconsequential I couldn’t recall, or a connection to those particular memories were simply gone.

But, I did see him that one time, at his most extreme, his most focused. He knew what he wanted, and he knew what the cost was, the consequences. Yet he continued in the face of that.

I barely knew Harrian Wong, yet, and the same time, I knew more about him than most ever would.

“We weren’t friends, if that’s what you’re asking,” I said. “I never really knew about it until after it happened. We ran in different circles.”

Jasmine looked relieved to hear that. “Good, good, you’re not associated with a freak like that.”

“Don’t say that,” a boy said. Not the tallest one. “He went to Francis Xavier. Sure, all he did was sit in the back and not talk to anyone, but we probably knew him better than Lexi did.”

Jasmine looked torn to hear that. “But, I was just saying, and…”

She didn’t finish her sentence, just stopping right there. She rolled her eyes and looked away.

The girl next to me passed her vape to Jasmine, and she helped herself.

Justin took a swig of his drink, then exhaled, loud. He put his arm around a girl on the other side of him, and kissed the top of her head. His girlfriend?

Justin spoke. “The last two days have been, like you said, hectic. Granted, it pales in comparison to what you’ve been through, but still. After the media caught wind of Harrian, it’s like we inherited a bit of that negative press, too. The looks we get when we walk in the halls, the way people walk around us, it’s as if we did it, we had something to do with this.”

“Yeah, and it’s not just us, the ones who actually come here,” Andrew said. “A friend of mine, he doesn’t come here, but he goes to the same school as me, he got jumped on the way to his car. Some Mexican gangbangers wanted to pick a fight with him, all because he looked like Harrian. And you know what’s funny? He’s not even Chinese, he’s fucking Korean, for fuck’s sake.”

Justin added, “People are already calling this the worst thing to ever happen on school grounds, and on top of the terrorists that started the whole thing, and the rumor that the Bluemoon is a student at Stephenville High School, and is an Asian-American too…”

“All of us get targets on our back,” Jasmine said, in between a puff of smoke, “Without ever asking for it.”

The group’s mood changed again, this time more morose. I had a feeling they came here, not to just ditch school, not just to help fix up the church, but to lick each other’s wounds. And the only thing they were getting in return was pity.

I wouldn’t have guessed that the aftermath of the incident at school could affect a whole population of people. But it was a minor setback, in the grand scheme of things.

Behind a mask, it wasn’t going to matter what my race was.

“Hey, Alexis,” the girl at Justin’s side said, getting my attention. “Does the Bluemoon go to your school?”

The ears of everyone else perked up. They all looked at me, again.

I knew the conversation would move to this, in some way. I wanted to avoid that by not being here.

I had to answer how a regular person would. Like Alexis.

I took a sip of my water, then answered, “I wouldn’t know, and even with what happened, I wouldn’t think so. If the Bluemoon really did go to my school, they wouldn’t have let something like that happen, right?”

There were various gestures all around.

“Maybe.”

“Yeah, right.”

“That’s probably true…”

In their haze of uncertainty, I took a step back, taking myself out of the group.

“It’s been great seeing all of you again,” I said. “But I should probably get back. I came with other people, and they might be looking for me if I’m gone for too long.”

Jasmine made a sound. “Aw, I was hoping you’d come chill with us for a bit longer. We were going to go and phở in about an hour. It’d be nice if you could join us.”

“I agree,” Andrew said. “There’s some new guys, but it’ll be like the whole gang’s back together. The OG Francis Xavier youth group. It’d be lit as fuck.”

“Definitely,” another said.

This was the part where I was supposed to consider the offer, but the will to do so just was not there.

You never fit in with them back in the day. You were the only Japanese kid there, and the only one who was half-anything. Mom didn’t make as much money as their parents, and they teased you over the clothes you showed up to bible school in. Maybe they didn’t mean it, maybe it was only in jest, but you stopped coming the second you didn’t have to.

The thought spilled into my head, slow, like hot magma. Intrusive, and it felt like holes being seared into my brain. New connections.

Memories I had, memories that I had to be told about. Forced to remember. And it came with pain.

I absolutely had no intention of coming along with these people, but now I had another reason not to.

“We’ll see,” I said, my head lowered an inch, from the coming aches. “I’ll still be here for the next hour or so, I’ll just play it from there.”

All lies.

“Fair,” Justin said. “And the rest of you, break time’s over. Back to work, before Mrs. Phan woops y’all herself.”

The rest of the group spoke all at once, most of it a jumble from all the different voices. But they all started to disperse, going elsewhere, in pairs or groups of three.

“See you, Emily,” Justin said to the girl by his side. “I’ll walk with Alexis.”

You’ll what?

“Hmph, do anything funny, and it’s gonna be the end of you. Not us, you.”

The girl, Emily, warned him.

“Don’t be crazy, I won’t do anything funny, I’m not even much of a funny guy. Isn’t that right, Alexis?”

Justin and Emily both looked in my direction.

“Um, yeah, it’s true, he’s not funny at all,” I said.

They both laughed, but I didn’t see the humor in what I said. I just told it as I saw it.

“Okay then, I’ll catch you two later,” Emily said. “It was good to see you again, Alexis. Hope to see you soon, and under better circumstances.”

“Same. Good to see you all again.”

Then, before I could take another step back, Emily opened her arms, and approached me.

I was wrapped into a hug before I could do or say anything about it.

Restricted, frozen, stuck in the moment. I didn’t need this, right now.

I wedged my arms between us, and nudged, prompting her to stop. She did.

“Bye,” I said, waving. I turned before anything else could happen. Justin followed.

We started heading back the way we came.

“See, that wasn’t so bad,” Justin commented as we walked. “Just like old times.”

Was it like old times? I wouldn’t have known.

We returned to the field, and some progress was made in our absence. Nothing significant, but noticeable.

I couldn’t find Katy and Maria. They weren’t here.

Still?

We reached the table with all of the gloves and tools. We both threw away our drinks. Justin started removing his gloves, and I copied him.

“Before we get back to work, mind if I show you something?” Justin asked.

“Show me what?”

“Don’t worry, it’s nothing that’ll freak Emily out, I just wanted to take you inside the church.”

“Oh, okay. Fine.”

“Cool, let’s head.”

Justin took the lead, and we changed course, heading to the church itself.

Every door was broken into, the glass panels gone. We stepped through the door, rather than opening it.

The light from outside immediately gave way to the dim, hollow interior.

If the outside was bad, the inside of the church received the worst of it. Smeared with dirt marks and graffiti, and other streak of stuff with a smell that made my imagination do the rest.

Justin continued.

“Watch your step, no one’s cleared this place out yet. To be honest, we’re not supposed to be in here, more qualified people will take care of this place, but the rest of us got to go through here, and I wanted you to see it, too.”

“Why me?” I asked.

“Because you’re one of us,” he said.

I didn’t respond to that sentiment. Even when my thoughts were laughing otherwise.

Justin led us to the main, central area of the church. Aisles and pews were either knocked down or missing, some even charred. Stained glass windows at the sides were shattered, the walls carrying a red and blue and green hue wherever pieces of glass reflected the light elsewhere. There was supposed to be a table in the middle of the room, where a majority of the service would take place, but it was gone. Nowhere around.

The place had such an emptiness to it. Uncanny, even for me. If this was the house of God, then he had already moved out.

As we moved, Justin pointed to the head of the room, the chamber. He lifted his finger up.

“Look there,” he said.

I looked, and saw what he was referring to. Larger than life-sized effigy of Christ, arms splayed, legs together. Nailed to a wooden cross. The crucifix. It was untouched, unsullied by the damage surrounding it.

“This whole place got fu- messed up, and yet they couldn’t touch that,” Justin explained. “It didn’t get messed with. Isn’t that, I don’t know, kind of cool?”

“That’s because it’s so high up,” I said. “Who could reasonably touch that without wasting time? If you wanted to cause damage before anyone could stop you, you’d be better off getting what’s immediately around you.”

“Man, you’re such a spoilsport,” Justin said, frowning. He looked back to the figure. “I know I’m the head of the youth program and everything, but I’m not like the Pope when it comes to stuff like this. Even then, I couldn’t help but feel something when I saw it, you know? I showed the others, and they said the same. They said it helped. I don’t know, I just thought you might feel the same way.”

I looked again, and saw the bloodied corpse of a man nailed to wood. The figure itself wasn’t defamed or damaged, but, in a sense, it was already ruined. The man himself.

“Maybe,” I said.

“Well, at least you saw it.”

“No, I, uh, I appreciate the sentiment.”

I couldn’t tell if that was a lie or not.

“You’re welcome, oh hey, I’m surprised to see you here.”

Justin turned when he finished that sentence, and I realized he wasn’t talking to me. I turned, as well.

Sitting at the front aisle was Katy and Maria, both looking our way as we reached them.

“There you are,” I said.

“Here we are,” Katy said back, monotone.

“Who let you guys here?” Justin asked. “Not that I mind, but right now it’s kind of off-limits.”

“The priest did,” Maria said. “We were asked to go help fix up the offices, and he was there, and noticed Katy. Apparently, um…”

Maria stopped.

“He used to know my dad,” Katy explained, a somber look in her eyes. “He was a supporter of his back when he ran for DA.”

“DA?” Justin repeated.

“District Attorney.”

“Oh, yeah. Oh, your dad was…”

Justin managed to stop himself before he said something completely stupid. But he was already too late. He hit that sore spot, and it showed on Katy’s face.

That, I could recognize.

Justin scratched the back of his head, clearly ashamed of himself. “Sorry, I wasn’t trying to-”

“I know,” Katy said, curt. “Anyways, Father Chris wanted to show us this, probably for the same reasons you brought her.”

She didn’t look at me when she said that. ‘Her.’

“Where’s Father now?” Justin asked.

“He left to do more work. Said we could be here as long as we wanted. We were just talking.”

Talking about what?

Justin sniffled, wiped his nose.

“Okay, but we probably should go. We might get in trouble if we overstay our welcome. It is off-limits for a reason, the building’s not exactly up to code.”

Katy and Maria traded looks.

“Sure,” Maria said, and they both got up and left, passing us without another word.

It was clear they were on the same page about something. If it had anything to do with me, I had to be ready. Even now, they were obstacles.

We have to watch our backs around them. Around everyone. You know this.

I did.

Justin moved to catch up. Before I did the same, I glanced back up at the figure above.

A pained expression, but a resigned one. If anyone were to help him, he wasn’t expecting it, and it would have to be of their own accord.

To try and rebuild the peace that was once here, or to find a new peace for myself. I had already tried the former, numerous times.

Checking again, I had noticed something else, too.

By the front, where the choir would be situated, a young girl sat in one of the chairs. Her face scratched out.

Unsightly.

What do you want to do?

I heard that voice ask.

“What do I do?” I started, as if on autopilot, but I corrected myself. “I know exactly I want to do. Let’s just pray we don’t run out of time.”

I could imagine the taste on my lips. Sweet.

Perfect.

I turned my back, and saw the shadowed-Hleuco standing before me. Between me and the others.

His feathers ruffled, even though no wind could affect him here.

I smiled.

I stepped forward, joining him, and we left the church.

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046 – Supernova

Previous

I was fast, I could overtake people with just my speed alone. It was one of my assets when it came to being a superhero. It gave me an advantage, it gave me value.

People had guns, but I was faster than those people. Even if they had a tool to level the playing field, more often than not, I still had them beat. I was still much faster than they were.

But, in the most critical of critical moments, I wasn’t faster than this finger, this pulled trigger. The bullets that followed.

Flown into a barrage of metal and destruction.

I was torn to ribbons, and then the others. I lost the breath needed to vocalize the pain.

Oh.

My head whipped back, cracking.

Eyes rolled in the back of the sockets. I was thrown back, along with the splattered blood and the picked-apart meat.

In a very real sense, I was killed.

Previous

Continue reading

Interlude – Thomas

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Peru – Sixteen years before present

The waves slid across the sand, white foam bubbling in its wake.

Thomas let the cool waters run across his feet.

Sunlight beat down on his face. Bright, hot. He was going to get a sunburn if he stayed like that for another minute.

I can’t remember the last time I was this happy.

A hand gently landed on his shoulder. Warm, comforting. Inviting. It was a touch he wasn’t quite used to, not yet, but at the same time, he didn’t want to lose that spark. That electricity. It was all so new to him.

Even with plenty of space on the beach, he still sidestepped to let his girlfriend stand beside him. They held hands.

They watched the waves come to them, then away.

They watched, then watched some more.

This was a moment, and they were in it.

“Already trying to go out and get cigarettes?” Kristin asked.

Thomas kept his eyes on the water. He smiled.

“You know I don’t smoke.”

“That doesn’t exactly answer my question.”

“I’m not going anywhere. Not now, not ever.”

“Is that so?”

“One hundred percent.”

Kristin bumped her shoulder against Thomas, only getting right above his elbow. She interlocked their fingers.

“Big words. Only time will tell.”

They were big words, but Thomas was up for it, up for the challenge. If not just to surprise himself, but Kristin especially. Scary? It was terrifying, down to the bone. Commitment was heavier than anything even Atlas could carry.

Thomas closed his eyes, seeing red from how bright it was out here. When he opened them again, he was staring right at Kristin.

At Kristin, and at her.

“Are we crazy for this?” Thomas asked, though he already knew what Kristin would say.

She kept her eyes to the ocean.

“We are crazy, and we get crazier with every passing day. Every passing month. We are long past the point of takebacks.”

A door closed, but Thomas didn’t think of it in that way.

“Good, good. I wouldn’t want to.”

She made a sound. A hum. Barely audible over the waves.

“You keep talking like that, I’ll start to think the opposite.”

Thomas put his hands behind his head, stretching. “What would it take to convince you, then?” He gulped. “A ring?”

Kristin made a face. A playful shock.

So cute.

“Slow your horses there, cowboy.” Kristin then shook her head. “But who am I to talk?” Delicately, she pressed her hand against her stomach. Through her shirt, a noticeable bump.

“Another day then?” Thomas suggested.

“Another day.” Kristin agreed.

He left it at that, satisfied.

Amongst the waves, Thomas watched her listlessly.

He didn’t know how many minutes passed when she finally noticed him.

She blushed.

“Stop.”

“Stop what?”

“Stop being such a loser.”

“If I’m a loser, then what does that make you?”

Kristin puffed out her chest.

“A winner. I’m the one who scored.”

Thomas almost snorted. What kind of logic was that?

“You certainly think highly of yourself,” Thomas said.

“I do. Get used to it, or you’ll be in for rough ride.”

Thomas rubbed his cheek with his free hand. “But, rough rides can be good.”

Kristin bumped him again, this time harder, more force.

He swayed one way, then back.

“Am I going to have to get used to that, too?”

“Keep getting smart with me, you just might.”

Chuckling, Thomas let go of her hand, and put his arm around her. He brought her close, tight, before falling to his side, bringing her with him.

She let out a high, shrill squeak as they dropped, water splashing around them.

Kristin was in the water, Thomas on top of her. Both wet.

“And you’re going to have to get used to that,” Thomas said. He couldn’t come up with a better comeback.

“Don’t do that!” Kristin said, scolding him. Salt water splattered from her lips to his face. “This isn’t some dumb movie where you can just do that!”

Smooth, Thomas. But Thomas was sure that a small part of her appreciated that kind of gesture.

I think.

Maybe it was a very small part of her that appreciated it.

“Now I’m wet,” Kristin said, complaining about the obvious. She propped herself up to get the water out of her hair. She groaned.

“That reminds me, Spacey wanted you back at the headquarters in ten minutes. You’re due an extra shift.”

Thomas grinned, almost vulpine. “He should know by now that if he sends you, we’re both going to be late.”

“Don’t joke about this. I can tell his patience with you is thinning.”

Thomas thoughts went to the boss, though he didn’t want them to. “I suppose I can’t fault him for feeling that way. A six-month volunteering program and I just… fooled around for most of it. Really, you did this to me.”

“Excuse me?”

“Yes, distracting me with your feminine ways.”

“I don’t think so, buddy. You don’t get to be absolved from this.”

“Oh, so I’m just a buddy to you?” Thomas asked. He mouthed various positions, moves, references. “Do you give those out to all your buddies like party favors?”

Kristin pouted. “Don’t be so base. I only do that for pals.”

Thomas frowned. “When you talk like that, it’s hard to tell if you’re serious or not.”

“Then don’t change the subject. And get off of me.”

Before he let her go, Thomas kissed the top of her head, then he moved, letting her free. Though, neither of them moved to leave the beach. They stayed, sitting in the water.

“I thought we were leaving now,” Thomas said.

“Yeah, but it did take a long time to find you, and it’s so damn hot. I think Spacey can wait while we cool ourselves off.”

Thomas didn’t object to that. They still had some weeks left of the program left, he’d pick up the slack then.

And, more time alone with Kristin was never a bad thing.

Never.

I’m so glad I met you.

“What do you want to talk about?” Thomas asked her, already lost in her eyes.

“We don’t have to talk about anything,” Kristin said, twisting her hair, getting water out. “We can just sit here.”

“We can, and while I agree that nothing’s more pure and beautiful than these silent, unspeakable memories, I like to talk.”

“That you do.”

Thomas took her hand, submerging it into the water between them. She leaned on him.

“I thought of a name.”

“You have?”

“Couldn’t help it. It’s a girl, right?”

“Right you are.”

“Since it’s a girl…”

“Wait, let me guess.”

He paused, tilting his head. Waiting.

“It’s Katy, isn’t it?”

He smile widened. “You are good.”

“Get used to it,” she said, melodically.

He could feel himself falling for her even more. Deeper and deeper.

“Can you guess why?” he asked.

“I’m not a mind reader. I may think highly of myself, but you’ll need to have more realistic expectations of me.”

“Ah, that’s no fun.” Thomas squeezed her hand. “I picked ‘Katy because, it’s like the ‘K’ from ‘Kristin,’ and the ‘T’ from my name. Also, ‘K.T.’ would be her initials, as well.”

His explanation hung in the salty air. A breeze cooling them.

Kristin didn’t offer up a response. She just snickered.

That snicker grew into a heartier laugh.

“Oh my god, you are such a loser!”

Dumbfounded, stupefied, and dismayed. Thomas hadn’t expected that response.

“Hey, if you hate it, you can just say so!”

In between her fits of laughter, Kristin tried to get words out. Her body was shaking.

“No, I don’t hate it… I love it.”

He felt like he was being thrown for a loop. “You what?”

“I said I love it.”

“Do you actually?”

Yes,” she said, now stern. “I had my own ideas for names, but I adore that reasoning. I really want to use it.”

Thomas sat back, shocked that he could even be more satisfied. Katy. The name rang in his ears like a bell. Clear and bright. Like the sky above him. Endless possibilities. But there would be two constants in his future, now. He felt unstoppable.

“Katy.” He said it out loud, to make the idea solidify even more in his mind. He was going to be a father.

“My folks are going to love you,” he said.

“Of course they will. I’m me.” She pressed more of her weight onto him, leaning on him more. Relying on him more.

He couldn’t stop smiling like a big dumb stupid idiot.

“I love you,” he said to her, for the hundredth time.

“I know,” she said to him, for the hundredth time.

Stephenville – Ten years from present

Thomas stood tall, firm. Confident. And he exuded that confidence because he knew. He had all the facts, the statements, and the jury would be eating out of his hand once he was fully through with him. This wasn’t going to end well for the other guy. Or the other guy’s other guy.

It wouldn’t be easy, but Thomas would have been disappointed if it was.

The homestretch.

He was going to have some fun.

“Good morning,” Thomas said, apt. He stayed at the podium. Weren’t supposed to move around and make a show of things like in shows or movies. These proceedings were usually slow, laborious. A lot of patience, waiting, and listening. For the audience, anyway. For Thomas, he might as well be skydiving.

“Morning,” the witness said back, with no life at all. She was in a suit of her own, drab colors, sitting at the stand. Her hair was tied, but it was done poorly, strands sticking out. There was a microphone situated in front of her, but she was sitting away from it. She didn’t look like she wanted to be there.

Who did?

Thomas started.

“Ms. Jessica Quinn, how long have you been the CEO of Tate and Mono Construction?

“Seven years, give or take.”

“So, relatively new at the job?”

“Relatively, yes.”

“Thank you, ma’am. Just double-checking for myself, I apologize that I’ll have to continue like this for a few more questions. Feel free to relax while I gather my thoughts.”

Jessica didn’t relax. Thomas continued with his questioning.

“Okay, Ms. Quinn, you spearheaded the construction projects in King District, am I correct?”

“Yes.”

“For how long, and what were the projects, exactly?”

“Different housing projects, apartments, homes, offices. My men loaded stuff, dumped stuff, put the hammer to the nail. The whole shtick. And about six months.”

She answered the questions, just not in the right order.

I see.

“And thank you for giving me the whole shtick. Now, as well all know, the reason why you are called up there today is because your ‘whole shtick’ hasn’t gone through the usual procedure, disturbing many residents and businesses, and some of those resident and business happen to be our clients.”

Thomas tapped his fingers on the podium.

“They filed a complaint to you, and not much has been done in the wake of that. Now, here we are.”

Quinn didn’t react to anything Thomas was saying. And he was loving it.

“Ms. Quinn, what was King District like, before Tate and Mono came to do its business?”

“Decent.”

“Decent? Do you mind expanding on that?”

“I can’t explain it, it was just decent. That’s not too hard to grasp.”

“I’ll need a proper answer if only to get a better picture of the situation.”

“Fine, it was fucking Candy Land.”

Some in the audience behind him found that humorous. Thomas, not so much.

“Permission to treat the witness as hostile?”

Judge Edgar Brown hardly gave it a thought. “Granted.”

Thomas kept questioning, but now he could ask leading questions. “Streets were clean, people were friendly, a little rough, but what neighborhood doesn’t have an issue or two? Would you say that’s an accurate description of King District, Ms. Quinn?”

She yawned. “Yeah.”

He glanced at Phillips, Quinn’s lawyer, who was biting the end of his pen.

Cool it, Thomas. Don’t get too excited.

“And what was King District like during Tate and Mono’s time in the area?”

She didn’t say.

“Streets weren’t as clean, the people were hesitant to go outside, rougher overall. Would that be accurate to your experience there?”

“I guess.”

Thomas nodded. “One particular bad apple started making roots around that time, right? The Path, a branch of a Japanese mafia group. The Yakuza. Their men have been causing quite the ruckus in the district since Tate and Mono started their construction, with reports that the Path’s men have been coming and going through buildings your company were responsible for, is that correct?”

“Objection,” Phillips said, “That’s speculation.”

“All the evidence is here, sir,” Thomas pointed to his stack of papers at the folder, “Numerous arrests close to these buildings, drugs, weapons found nearby. This is all written down and documented stuff, and this is more than just some noise complaints. I thought you knew this, Phillips?”

“Alright Thomas, enough,” Judge Brown said. “Do you have a point?”

“One I’m eager to make.”

With little enthusiasm, the judge said, “Overruled.”

Thomas tapped his fingers again, faster. “Ms. Quinn, among noise complaints, have these other more, serious grievances have been brought to your attention?”

Thomas could see her neck glisten under the fluorescent lights. Sweat?

“Keep in mind that you are under oath, Ms. Quinn,” Thomas said, reminding her.

“They have,” she answered.

“And what has been done about it?”

“We never encountered any issue with any outside party or the like, and our construction sites were clean of any illicit materials or contraband.”

“So, nothing?”

“Nothing.”

“Thank you, Ms. Quinn. To switch gears here, you’re still a small company, relatively speaking. This is a big project you’ve undertaken, who’s employed you for these buildings?”

A noted lapse.

“Ishida Hitoshi,” she answered.

“That’s a big name, a big name for a big company overseas.”

Quinn didn’t comment or respond.

And now, the clincher.

“That’s also I name I recognize as part of a big controversy in Japan, with rumors that he has very strong connections with the Yazuka, and-”

“Objection, this is hearsay!”

Phillips leaped out of his chair, furious. “That has nothing to do with this case.”

“I think it has everything to do with this case,” Thomas argued. “If those connections are true, it lines up with what we’re hearing about the buildings Tate-”

Judge Brown stopped them. “Both of you, here.”

They both approached the table. Thomas was ready for what was to come, what could come.

The judge leaned closer, whispering, “Thomas, what are you trying to pull?”

“I’m simply raising an important detail that should be relevant in this case. If Ishida Hitoshi is in league with the Yakuza, people should be looking into what the hell he’s doing in Stephenville.”

If,” Phillips nearly spat the word. “If that’s true, but any claims about that here are unsubstantiated, you have no evidence, and it’s not relevant, and you didn’t submit any of this. You’re making a mockery of this court and this case.”

“It is relevant, Phillips. The writing’s on the wall, yet no one is willing to read it, and I’m left wondering, why? And if you want evidence, look to the countless victims that have been coming forward in the last three years. Also, I can bet you Randolf and his boys can find a connecting thread if they decided to show some initiative. The only one making a mockery of this court is that woman on the stand.”

“Shut it, Thomas,” Judge Brown said. “I’ll be the one to decide if there’s any mockery here. Thomas, let’s say this is looked into, and what you’re saying is true, then this whole case turns into something else entirely, and you are out of here. Is that what you want?”

Thomas was beaming on the inside, but he couldn’t show it, not here. “Criminal activity is a factor here, and I want that recognized. I’ll throw the Hail Mary, someone else can score the touchdown.”

Phillips was fuming. “This is unnecessary.”

Judge Brown wasn’t looking pleased with Thomas. “You better know what you’re doing, or this is it for you. Go back.”

They left the judge. Thomas did know what he was doing, because that probably was it for him.

Stephenville – A week after Loving v. Tate and Mono Construction

“Thomas.”

A man stood next to him, holding a beer. James Gomez. Shorter than Thomas, more stout, but with more muscle than him. A head full of hair, a thick mustache. Both were in fashionable, yet casual wear.

“Thanks for coming,” Thomas said.

“Thanks for… inviting me.” James had to duck when a ball flew too close to his head. He was more concerned over not spilling a drop than he was about the kid who threw said ball. “I’m not a huge fan of children’s birthday parties, though.”

“I invited you, you knew what this was, and you showed up, regardless.”

“At this point, I’ll take anything to get out of the office.”

“Even to arrest me for malpractice?” Thomas asked. “A two-for-one deal? I give you a beer, and you give me handcuffs.”

“No, I wouldn’t do that, but I should. That was a dumb stunt you pulled back there. I heard about it through the grapevine.”

“My bosses are breathing down my neck, drowning me in mindless work. Death threats, many of which are written in Japanese. An earful from the wife, which was the worst of it.”

“God damn,” James said, his voice lowered. There were kids around. “You gonna be okay? With your wife and kid, you have to look out for them, too.”

“It’s nothing but big talk on the gang’s part. They do anything, it’ll implicate them, and then the Path is done for. They’ll keep their distance.

“You sound rather confident about that.”

“I have to be. I’ll admit, it was dumb, but it’ll be worth it soon enough?”

Thomas said it like it was a question.

“I can’t give any details,” James said, “But we’ve traced the money. You were onto something.”

Thomas let himself show the emotion inside him. Gratification. He was beaming.

“But why’d you have to go about it that way?” James asked. “You could have just sent in a tip, or better yet, tell me.”

“Tips are too slow. You’re good, James, but your position isn’t. You’re still new, like me. You don’t have the pull to launch an entire investigation. I saw the circumstances, saw my chance, and I took it. Putting it out like that really got things moving, didn’t it?”

“At the cost of your credibility and reputation?”

“If you’re good at what you do, you can get credibility back, and I’m great. And my reputation is with the people.”

“Why be a corporate lawyer then? If that’s the way you think, you’d be better off in the DA’s office.”

Thomas watched the kids play.

“Big companies mean big money, and big money means more for the little guy. I’ll come down, when the time’s right.”

“When? When I’m police chief?”

Thomas nudged him. “Probably.”

“Whoa there, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”

“Why not? Dream big, do bigger. You’ll be the new police chief, and I’ll be the new district attorney. Together, we’ll rule Stephenville as…”

“Friends?” James ventured.

“I was going to go with pals.”

James didn’t get it, taking a swig of his drink, instead.

“Could be interesting,” James said.

“Could be real,” Thomas said, correcting him. “This city means a lot to me, you know that more than anyone else. It kills me every time someone asks why I haven’t left yet, why I haven’t packed up and moved. I want them to see what I see in it. It’s not perfect, but I can help, I know I can.”

James drank some more, then said, “Real powerful words there, pal, but don’t beat yourself up over it. You’re not a hero, you can’t put all that weight on your shoulders.”

Thomas agreed, “You’re right, I can’t. I’ll need people. People like-”

“Daddy!”

Katy came running to him, her face twisted up, and she was wailing.

“Yes sweetie?” He had to crouch to meet her at eye level. The way she was acting, it was unbecoming of her pretty pink dress. He had to get to the bottom of this, pronto.

“Alexis took my gun and she keeps shooting me but I told her to stop but she keeps doing it and I’m-”

“Hey hey, hey there.” Thomas had to rub her back, calm her down. She was hiccupping.

“I’ll have a talk with her, I’m sure she’s just gotten too excited again. She doesn’t mean anything by it.”

Katy was shaking her head, rubbing her cheeks with fists.

“I wanna get her back, I wanna get that gun back.”

Where do kids come up with this stuff?

Thomas massaged her again. “That’s not what I’m trying to instill in you. Go get some cake, and you’re making up with Alexis. No one gets that toy gun until this party’s over. Understand?”

She hiccuped. “Understood.”

“That’s my girl.” He let her run off to get cake, and he stood, his back hurting a little.

“Kids these days,” James said.

“You’re telling me,” Thomas said. “Sorry about this, James.”

“Go do your thing, I’ll go have another one of these, and I should be up to hear about Kristin’s summer in India one more time.”

“Make sure she mentions the story about the-”

“The Yamarāja. I know, I know.”

He shook hands with James, then excused himself.

Stephenville – Three weeks from present

“Car chase going into Williamson Avenue. It’s red, and the only one going that fast. Police might lose it if this goes for any longer. What do you think about lending a helping hand?”

I’m thinking I’m done with the warm ups. Time for some real action.

Hleuco grinned to himself. He liked it whenever Blank Face showed some enthusiasm, even if it was behind a layer of playful arrogance. It meant that she was getting something out of this. And it meant that she wasn’t completely doom and gloom.

He shifted in his seat, moving away from the complicated connected system of scanners and laptops, to the wheel in front of him. The van started.

With the different channels yelping into his ear, he got out of the parking garage, and drove.

The equipment was outdated, but it was functional, and it served a purpose. Gifts from Gomez. Whenever new stuff came in, the old stuff had to be taken out to make room. And James knew how much he liked antique trinkets.

The van was old, too. Unmarked, bought with cash, kept away in a location disclosed only to Blank Face. He knew the city, the ins and outs. Learned from the best, and the worst, when it came to hiding things. It was a bitch to have to walk to every night he needed to use it, but its purpose was well worth a little pain in his legs.

His foot was heavier on the gas pedal than usual, and not because he was too sore to lift it up more. He needed to keep up with the car, and keep up with Blank Face, so he could be in a good position to pick her up and make a getaway. It was imperative that they kept things as simple as possible, as clean as possible. They weren’t attempting to save the world, they were just attempting to make it nicer. Even if by a margin.

And the girl has school tomorrow, can’t let her be out too late.

“Update, please,” Hleuco asked.

Can’t see it yet, but I do see the cars tailing it. Fuck me, they’re fast.

Please don’t say ‘fuck me,’ Hleuco thought.

“Can you get to it?”

Yeah, if it would turn to the right, I could intercept it from up top.

Hleuco kept an ear out for anything interesting. Anything new.

He relayed what he was hearing.

“Police are setting up a blockade, it can’t make a right anymore.”

Fuck me.

Hleuco shook his head as he drove, knowing she couldn’t see him.

Shut up.

“They’re attempting to trap the car on Williamson. They’re mobilizing faster than I thought.”

What does that mean for me?

“Seems to me they might actually have this one under control now. I’m impressed.”

Great. So all I did tonight was just get some exercise?

“Don’t sell yourself short. Mrs. Azikiwe wouldn’t be sleeping soundly right now if you hadn’t gotten her cat out of that tree.”

I won’t stop selling myself short.

Hleuco took the comment in stride. He sped down the street he was on, still mindful of the speed limit, other cars, and lights. It’d slow him down in getting to Blank Face, but she could make up for that with her own speed and mobility.

The fact that she even had that type of speed and mobility…

He was still having trouble wrapping his head around it. Blank Face had powers, strength beyond compare. No one had seen anything like it, ever. The world was still reeling from the revelation, what it meant, what was to come. How, and why.

It was a day that wouldn’t ever fade over time. It had become something of a pop culture lexicon. A meme, as the kids put it. ‘Where were you when the first superhuman made themselves known?’

Hleuco, Thomas knew. He was in his office, watching the whole thing unfold. Watching the potential.

A hero, here, in Stephenville of all places.

And he was able to work with her on this. On being an actual hero. Providing guidance. He would have felt privileged about the partnership, if the sheer coincidence didn’t shake him to his core.

With something so big, they had to take small steps. That meant limiting her shifts to more manageable times throughout the week, picking and choosing what petty crimes she’d handle, and monitoring police activity so they wouldn’t be in her hair as much. All to help instill the idea that her great power should be married with a greater sense of duty.

To better steer her in that direction, establishing rules was important.

Exercise extreme caution. Avoid overextending power for oneself or unto others.

Constant communication is necessary. Updates should be regularly provided and orders must be promptly followed.

Anything else was common sense.

He thought those rules were simple enough when he came up with them, but establishing them early was crucial. This had never been done before, there was no precedent. Blank Face was strong, and by her own admittance, already stabbed someone. Accident or not, that needed to be curbed, avoided in the future. He worried that she might want to escalate if things weren’t in check.

Which was why he also invested in precautions. He prayed he never had to use them.

There were many kinds in Stephenville. Those who were good, those who weren’t so, and those who turned and became lost. He only wanted Blank Face to be the former.

Thomas didn’t want another one in that last category. Not again.

Hey, Hleuco, you still thirsty for an update?

Her voice brought his conscious attention back to the road. He clicked the left turn signal, then turned.

“Always.”

I’m on Williamson now, but the car keeps tearing through blockades.

He tuned his ear to the police broadcasts. She was right.

“The car’s modified?”

It’s going fast as fuck, everyone’s jumping out of the way since it’s just plowing through everything. Cars and vans. I think the front’s been reinforced.

“Where are you right now?”

I’m ahead of everyone, so I’m seeing it all, it’s just…

A pause.

Fuck!

“What’s wrong?”

It broke through the last blockade. A… a bus is coming from the left at an intersection. A school bus.

“At this hour?”

Anyone could be in there! Shit, at this rate they’re going to collide.

Again, a pause.

I’m going.

Hleuco almost stomped on the breaks, but there were others around him. He had to keep driving.

“That’s a big no, Blank Face. You’re going to come back here right now.”

And let people die? I can stop the car, there’s still time.

Hleuco threw caution to the wind, listening to the police and getting a better sense of where to go.

He stomped on the gas.

“Blank Face, if you’re even thinking about it-”

I don’t have time to argue. I’ll update you in a bit.

He passed up a car, crossing a red light. The city flew past him.

“Blank Face!”

He kept driving, and the police kept blabbering on. He punched the button to shut them up. He only wanted to hear Blank Face.

But there was no one on the other end.

Fuck me, Hleuco thought.

With another turn, he was close as he could get to Williamson Avenue. The police blockades worked both ways. He drove down a street that ran parallel.

Sweat dripped down the steering wheel. His heart beat so hard it hurt.

The machines beside him whirred, the van’s tires rolling down the concrete. A screaming sound.

Silent.

He drove.

Quiet.

Still no answer.

It was maddening.

Hleuco started slowing down.

Not another one…

Not another regret.

He moved a finger to turn on the police-

Hleuco? I’m at-

Hleuco went to a full and complete stop. The van and everything inside it rocked. Cars honked as they passed.

He ran his hand through his hair, nearly pulling strands out from the root. He was so happy he was mad.

“Repeat that, Blank Face?”

I’m at an alley over on Baxton, by a pharmacy. Is it a good pick-up spot?

That was a block down, secluded enough. It worked.

“It works,” Hleuco said slowly, “Stay there, don’t move. Be there soon.”

I hear you.

Now you hear me, he thought. But he drove to get her.

His chest wouldn’t ease up.

Before he got to the spot, he reached back to the seats behind him. He put on his mask as he went. A memento from his time in Europe.

He needed an identity too, some gesture to make Blank Face feel less alone in her role as a hero. Hleuco. From the name haliaeetus leucocephalus. The bald eagle.

He needed a mask, too. She couldn’t see his face as it was now. Not now.

The door slid open. Blank Face stepped in. They left.

“I’m back,” she said. It was good to hear her voice without the mechanical filter. That was what he wanted to hear.

“Count your blessings,” he said, “You’re lucky you made it out of that okay. But don’t push that luck.”

“I’m with you on that.” She was breathing hard, panting. Whatever she did took everything out of her. “My arms are killing me.”

How strong are you, Alexis?

The van rolled on, and Thomas was ready to call it a night.

Present

He checked to see if he had everything on him. He did. Wallet, phone, keys.

Thomas got into the car, Jeffery closing the door for him.

The vehicle pulled out of the driveway, and they went.

Jeffery was usually more talkative, but he was mute, now. Thomas wasn’t that lively, either.

Solace got Edgar. He’s dead.

He was at his wit’s end, but he was too sick of everything to exert effort for a reaction.

He just sat.

Solace got Edgar, and he was dead. Because Blank Face and Hleuco pushed too hard, pushed the gangs too far, too fast, and Solace was born from their desperation. He thought he calculated it right, he thought they were disrupting just enough that it would not come to this.

Thomas was cognizant of the fact it would have been an uphill battle. Public opinion of Blank Face was plummeting, and they hadn’t yet reestablished her name as being Blank Face.

Uphill, but he didn’t expect it to become this steep.

No, these criminals are superstitious, cowardly. Especially in the face of an actual threat. I should have taken that into more consideration.

His thoughts poured over every detail, every bit of information in the past forty-eight hours. What connected, what made sense, what was a legitimate clue?

Thomas made a fist with each hand.

He had to give it up to Solace, they were thorough. Nothing came up when they investigated the event staff, and of course nothing came up when they went to Kristin. The only lead was the apartment they traced the signal back to. Nothing but bricks and wood.

Except a message to Blank Face.

Blank Face – Alexis – was positive the message was directed to her, by the leader of El Carruaje, a now-defunct gang, and Blank Face’s first foe. When she informed him of this, he tried to inquire about the woman who ran that gang, Benny. Her record, whether or not she was actually incarcerated.

Of course, everyone was scrambling over Solace. Of course, they were too busy to look into a small fry.

Thomas wasn’t the district attorney, not yet. He could only do so much as he was. No one answered to him, they would only consider what he had to say.

After forty-eight hours, all any of them could do was try and prevent this. But it didn’t work.

Lost in his thoughts, Thomas caught a glimpse of an intersection as they passed it. The sign.

Gomez’s office isn’t this way.

“Jeffery, are we meeting with Gomez elsewhere?” Thomas asked.

Jeffery kept driving.

“Jeffery? I-”

The officer whipped his arm back, pointing a gun to Thomas.

Thomas backed up as far as he could, which was hardly at all. His hands went up.

“Just, just be quiet, or I’ll shoot. Not another word. And if you do anything else except sit there and keep those hands up, I’ll shoot.”

Thomas didn’t try him. Jeffery’s finger was already on the trigger. Thomas put his hands above his head.

Behind the car, a resounding, deep grumble rocked Thomas’s ears. He would have liked to turn and investigate, but there was no need to set off Jeffery.

Looking wasn’t even needed. He could see from the rear view mirror, and that distinct tone of that sound.

It was Styx’s bike. Styx was here.

So this was how…

And he considered Jeffery a pal, too.

He was fucked.

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