Interlude – Isabella

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“You’re positive you didn’t forget anything?” The man eyed her carefully. She felt like she was being judged for a crime, waiting for a verdict.

In a way, she was. She wasn’t supposed to be here.

“Just myself,” Isabella answered.

The man, the driver, didn’t avert his hard gaze.

“The trip is eight hours, are you sure you’re going to be okay without any anything to bring? Not to mention, you have to purchase a ticket online.”

Isabella stared up at the driver, and he stared her down. He was more like a pig than a man, overweight, large nose, balding. Not the most friendly appearance.

Her chances of getting on the bus weren’t looking good.

She knew she had to start making haste. She already made the call, so she’d be finished if she stuck around for whatever the aftermath would turn out to be. Like a fire under her butt.

She had to go.

‘No one will ask any questions if you can cough up enough dough.

The words of that lady, Wendy, came to her. The lady that saved her.

No use trying nothing.

She reached into her back pocket, and took out a small brick of cash. It was but one of four. The most amount of money she’d ever seen in her entire life. She flipped through it, pulling out two fifty dollar bills.

Isabella stuck out her hand, holding one hundred dollars.

“Is this enough for a ticket?”

The man’s eyes softened to those of wonder, then confusion. Then, a glint in his eyes.

He didn’t take too long to think it over, however. He moved his head.

“You sit in the back, and you don’t make a sound,” he said. Isabella took that as a sort of warning.

Wordlessly, Isabella got on the bus, taking the few steps to reach the driver. Smoothly, she slipped him the money, and he accepted it with a nod.

Gringos must really be easy to pay off.

Isabella moved down the bus.

The bus wasn’t full, she had her pick if the driver hadn’t given her stipulations. But, it wasn’t empty, there were people here she probably could not pay off.

A man in his late fifties, wearing a suit, talking on a phone. A teenage girl, fiddling with her phone. A boy with his mother, both already napping. There was another girl here, too, closer to her age, but she actually had luggage to bring. The rest started to blend together, the features starting to look too familiar. Unless they were famous, Americans all looked the same to her.

No one paid her any mind as she passed by, going down the aisle to get to the very back. The seats here were unoccupied, and she was able to make herself comfortable, lifting up the armrest in the middle so she could rest her legs.

The bus started, thrumming with life, then drove off.

Isabella leaned her head against the window beside her, watching the city pass.

At least I got a view this time.

She had barely just started getting used to things in Stephenville, and already she had to relocate. It was sudden, too, and now she was going to step foot in a new city, empty-handed. Again.

Well, she did have nine hundred dollars to her name this time.

Though, maybe she would have better chances if she moved elsewhere. The gang and cartel situation here was only marginally better than the one back home, but Stephenville still had way too much baggage attached, and it wasn’t very friendly to outsiders. Southern hospitality was as foreign a concept as she was.

All that, she learned in a week of being here.

Part of her did wish she could stay longer, though. She wanted to see the local celebrity one more time. La luna azul.

Isabella’s stomach grumbled. She massaged her shoulder.

Relocating might have been a good idea, but it was one she hadn’t planned for. That ‘Wendy’ practically pushed it on her. Nine hundred dollars might pull her through the next week, but there were so many other things to worry about. Like, where would she stay? What were the gangs like there? The cops? How would she make money? She was underage, no official papers on her. Illegal, in multiple senses of the word. Not many places would want to take her in, or they might get in trouble, too. Maybe an orphanage?

See, how am I to survive without a gang? They can provide for me, kind of.

The word ‘orphanage’ struck her again.

Her chest welled up. She probably was one by now, if she wasn’t already. It was why she had to flee, they were going to come for her next, and string her up. Isabella had given up hope on seeing her parents ever again, before any of this began. A harsh reality.

Isabella closed her eyes. There were no more tears to shed.

A lot to handle, more than she was reasonably capable of. But, it would have to come later. In eight hours, approximately. She’d deal, then. She would have to. Or she’d never survive.

For eight hours, she would rest. She needed it. To make the most of an unexpected, and shitty, situation.

The bus stopped.

Isabella half-opened her eyes.

That was fast.

She heard the other passengers. Whispers, questions. They weren’t in the know.

Meaning we’re not supposed to stop.

Other voices came into the mix. Outside, yelling, barking orders. Coming from her side of the bus. She checked the window.

She quickly ducked under her seat, cursing under her breath.

Lawrence.

He, and a small crew of his Ghosts, were circling around the bus. Tapping at the windows, tapping at the door. Searching, looking for something. Isabella could only think of one thing they’d want.

Me.

She cursed under her breath again. She made the call like Wendy asked, and told the operator on the other end everything the Ghosts were doing. The skirmishes for territorial expansion, the attempts to get their own slice of the drug trade, the screwed up initiation games for the newbies. And which studio apartment Lawrence was running the whole thing in. She told them everything. Everything she knew. And, through one way or another, Lawrence found out. Fuck.

From what she had seen from the window, she was barely out of the downtown area. Still in the city. Double fuck.

And she saw that the majority of the Ghosts had guns. Triple fuck.

Surrounded. Trapped. Isabella was the fish in this particular barrel. Even so, her mind still went to ways she could make it out of here. As alive as possible.

There was a restroom in the back, but they’d definitely check there, and that would make her a sitting duck, and another analogy. The emergency exit above also wouldn’t do, not with all the Ghosts still ‘haunting’ the area around the bus. The window beside her wouldn’t open, the most it could do was let a little air in. And there was still there issue of multiple hostiles outside. And their cars.

She was stuck here, through and through.

Quadruple fuck.

And with being stuck, it was better to be hidden than to escape and be instantly caught. Luck was all she had.

She stayed put.

If this was a setup by Wendy… she was gonna be pissed.

The yelling and knocking then ended, only because the door was opened.

Footsteps rushed in.

“Thank you, sir.” Isabella heard Lawrence thank someone, probably the driver. No brainer. If Isabella could convince the driver with some cash, there was nothing that said that Lawrence couldn’t.

Pudrete en el infierno.

She tried pressing herself closer to the floor, shimmying under the seats. Sticky, all around icky. Not a pleasant experience. And, while she was small, the space was smaller. Not much in the way of cover.

Isabella held her breath.

“What’s the meaning of this?” Finally, a passenger spoke up. Probably the old man.

“A not-so-routine inspection,” Lawrence responded, “But we won’t take too much of your time. We know you all have places you need to be, and you still have a long trip ahead of you. Ah, the door, please.”

The door closed, squeaking as it shut. Isabella cursed for a fifth time.

Lawrence continued with his orders. “Check every person, every row. Be thorough. We ain’t letting that bitch get away.”

She could hear them get to work, walking down the aisle and harassing the other passengers. Zippers were opened up, things dropping to the floor. Isabella wasn’t that small.

They’re taking advantage of those poor folk, all because of

“Yo!”

Isabella moved her head, shifting her gaze.

Someone also dropped to the floor, a row over. Facing Isabella. A leather jacket, light jeans, a choker. Short brown hair. Deep blue, almost indigo eyes, and something about them carried a feeling of mischief, not concerned in the slightest. Gringo.

The other girl her age.

She whispered, but excitedly, like she was sharing a secret she wasn’t supposed to, but telling someone was more fun.

“Mind if I steal from you? I’m lucky I made it here before he opened the door, or I woulda been a goner. Man, can’t go three steps without running into some trouble, am I right or am I right?”

Isabella blinked. Who…

The girl nodded fast. “Another good idea. We’ll communicate using nonverbal cues instead. Smart. Let’s do that.” She flashed a toothy grin, though a front tooth was missing.

Isabella blinked twice more.

The girl whispered again, already breaking her own rule. “Roger roger. Can’t be back here forever, since they’re about to find us. Mind if you follow my lead? I can take it from here. Oh, I wanna apologize now for the trouble. The Ghosts wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for me.”

… ¿Qué haces?

Isabella blinked one more time. For good measure.

Things just took a weird turn.

The Ghosts were after her? This girl? But that didn’t seem right at all.

What did she do?

The footsteps were nearing them, louder, sounding like a stampede. More than one person, more than just Lawrence. To Isabella, she was as good as caught, maybe even dead. This was very much it.

I shoulda taken the money and went back to Lawrence in the first place.

Isabella was about to curse for the sixth time, but she looked over to the girl hiding with her. The girl’s face hadn’t changed. Her toothy grin stayed.

She winked.

The girl then flipped onto her back. Isabella couldn’t see what she was doing, but she could hear it. A prolonged hiss.

It became louder, almost becoming something like a warning. The gang members noticed, asking about it.

Louder, then louder again.

It came to a crescendo.

“Now!”

The girl got out from her hiding spot. Isabella saw her feet. She was standing.

She jumped back.

Everything exploded.

One big bang, followed by crackling and popping. Also very loud. Screams, cries. Even Isabella shrieked. A bomb had definitely went off, and that girl was involved in a way.

Bomb. Girl. Loud. Ringing.

Pull.

Isabella was being pulled.

Forced onto her feet, moving towards where the blasts were coming from. Too disoriented to resist.

“Push them forward, not down!” the girl called out, making herself known. “Make it snappy.”

Isabella followed, but she didn’t follow. She lagged behind as the girl let her go and worked, pushing the Ghosts, backing them up. Few tried to fight back, but they were in the midst of the explosions, stunned, susceptible to being pushed around. They stumbled backwards, the girl moving them like cattle.

Only one other Ghost was unaffected.

“I’ll skin you for that!” Lawrence bellowed, though quieter from Isabella’s ears. “And for last time!”

“You need better hobbies, L-Boy!” the girl said back.

Lawrence started getting ready for his move. His counter.

“You’re up next!” the girl ordered, as she pressed on more bodies. “Get that last guy!”

Isabella woke right up. “I, I can’t do that! And he has a gun!” She hushed herself on that last word, as if she was trying not to remind Lawrence of the weapon in his hand.

“You’ll be fine!”

Is this girl freaking insane?

“Just go! I’ll back you up!” She sounded serious this time.

Reluctant, Isabella sprang to life.

She never considered herself to be agile, but she could move when the situation called for it. She could run. She hopped, pulling herself above the seats by the overhead bars. Putting her feet on the seats, she maneuvered over everyone.

“Get down! One more!”

The girl yelled.

Isabella dropped down, putting herself between the girl and the Ghosts, and Lawrence. He was a good three feet away.

She saw it fall in front of his face. Red cylinders, attached by a string, hissing. She’d played with those before, back in Mexico.

Firecrackers.

She didn’t see them go off.

It was loud, if not louder than before. But she was ready for it this time, she had turned and covered her ears. It crackled, popped.

Lawrence, however, wasn’t as prepared.

As soon as she was certain the firecrackers were done, she spun, then rushed to Lawrence. Isabella knew she wouldn’t be stronger than him, but the element of surprise was well in her favor.

Her shoulder rammed into his side. His ribs.

He cried out. More pain than she had expected. Sensitive? A previous injury?

As if severe burns weren’t sufficient.

Lawrence buckled, but Isabella held onto him so he wouldn’t fall. By the hair, she dragged him toward the front of the bus. He didn’t fight back.

They got to the front, and Isabella turned and kicked, and Lawrence tumbled down the steps. The top of his head hit the door.

Oh Dios mío that felt so good.

She looked at the driver, and he was drenched in sweat, bug-eyed. She wanted to hit him, too.

“Incoming!”

The girl joined Isabella, bringing the remaining Ghosts with her.

“Out of the chair, fatso!” the girl said.

Isabella took the initiative, putting her hands on the driver, pulling him up. Despite his heavy weight, he was out of his seat with ease.

“Move!”

The girl pushed past Isabella and grabbed the driver by the collar. She threw him down the same steps, atop a pile of sore bodies. The driver, the various Ghosts, then Lawrence.

Surprising strength.

We actually beat him…

“Nice!” The girl lifted a hand, and on instinct, Isabella gave her a high-five. “We’re on the same wavelength after all.”

“Ha, maybe.”

“But next comes the really really really fun part. Keep an eye on the Ghosts, and try to calm the other peeps.”

She fell into the driver’s seat, and started moving stuff around, like she knew what she was doing.

Isabella questioned her. “Exactly what-”

The bus sped off.

Isabella grabbed for a metal bar, preventing a fall. The other passengers jerked forward.

“What is she doing?” one of them asked. The woman, the mother. She tried standing, but the bus did a sharp left, then righting itself. The ride was bumpy.

“Just stay seated, everything is fine!” It wasn’t true, but it was the only thing Isabella had to say.

Things just took another, actual weird turn.

What is she doing?

Gripping the bar, holding on for dear life, Isabella shouted her question at the girl.

“What’s the deal?”

“I’m taking us out of here.”

“Do you even have a license?”

“I’m not old enough for one, you dummy.”

Some of the others in the bus caught that. They raised their voices, protesting.

“Stop the bus! Stop the bus!”

“Why is a little girl driving?”

“Jesus, please, someone else take the wheel!”

The bus swerved, harshly getting on another street.

“Pipe down!” the girl shouted. “I’m not taking us super duper far!”

“Then where?” Isabella asked. The whole bus was shaking from the speeds they were reaching.

The girl paused, eyes on the road. She took a right, and a deep breath.

“Hmm… oh, how about a little window shopping?”

“What-”

The bus veered again, but the girl didn’t correct the vehicle. Instead, it stopped very suddenly.

It crashed.

The opposite of slow motion. Everything happened so fast.

Glass crashing together. Metal and tires screeching. Deafening. A hard jolt, everything thrown forward. Violent. Too fast and too sudden to truly process. It just happened.

Isabella was standing when it just happened.

The abrupt stop made her ragdoll, and it was a rough fall to the floor, glass landing on and around her.

Blunt force and sharp stings. Pain of every variety, surpassing any known threshold. Inconceivable.

Isabella didn’t feel like moving. Couldn’t even twitch a muscle.

Couldn’t even question if she was still alive.

But it wasn’t her call to make.

“Dang, you’re still alive.”

Heard that voice before. Recently.

“People will be coming soon. Cops, more Ghosts. Can you stand?”

I can barely think.

“No go, huh? Here, I’ll help. I’d say we should take our time, but we can’t afford the luxury.”

Isabella felt hands on her, and she gasped. The stings. The pain. Intensified.

“Oof, okay. Looks like we’re gonna do this the hard way. Don’t hate me too much for this.”

The hands came upon her again, and grabbed. The pain reached newer and newer heights, and Isabella let herself block out what followed.

By blacking out.

Waking up was a long, nebulous process. She didn’t come to, not immediately. Instead, it was a long stretch of soft breathing, followed by the realization that she was indeed alive, and awake.

And with that realization finally becoming clear in her mind, Isabella opened her eyes.

Nowhere she knew. An old brick factory, somewhere. Was this still Stephenville? Streaks of dawn spilled through the cracks in the walls and ceilings. How long had it been?

Right. Lawrence. The bus crash. The girl. Help.

Even the stuff with Wendy. That felt like another lifetime. Was that all really the same night?

Oddly enough, it didn’t feel like this was the first time her brain had run this particular lap.

Isabella nearly did so herself, but her whole body seemed to scream in pain. Though, it was like a dull knife, now. Still hurt, but a bit of the edge had been taken off.

Standing was a great ordeal, but she had to do it. She was on her feet… after a minute.

No one. Nothing. Isabella was alone.

She checked her body. So very sore. Nothing broken, but scratches all over. It hurt. Small cuts across her arms and legs and face. And one really painful one on her forehead. From the way the skin was pulled, she could tell it was stitched up.

She was wearing a leather jacket, she didn’t have one before. Her shirt underneath, when she checked it, was more blood than white.

Oddly enough, she didn’t feel shocked about what she saw.

Lawrence. The bus crash. The girl. Wendy.

Piecing things together was hard, nearly impossible. She was worried that she was completely abandoned. It might have been quiet and calm in here, but she didn’t know what dangers might be lurking right outside, ready to screw her over once she stepped outside. She wasn’t sure what her first move should be.

Her stomach grumbled.

Maybe I should start with some food, first.

She started to leave, but she stepped on something. It was soft. Squishy. She stopped, and checked.

A teddy bear?

She picked it up, the pain coming back. She fought through it, because there was another thing there that caught her attention.

A note was attached, tied to the bear’s hand by a red string.

She undid the string, then opened up the note. She noticed how pretty the handwriting was.

Isabella read it.

To whatever your name is… sorry that I forgot to ask!

You can call me D, like Deep Throat, get it?

Isabella didn’t get it. Perhaps it was a reference of some kind.

She kept reading.

Anyways, sorry again for the whole bus thing, I was actually on my way out of the city to wait for things to cool down. I know I cause too much trouble for my own good okay, I just get bored sometimes!

So it was her fault that Lawrence came? Isabella still couldn’t believe it, her 9-1-1 call had to play a part, somehow.

Any-anyways, I crashed the bus into some clothing store to get the Ghosts off our trail. But nobody got hurt! Well, except you, Lawrence and those Ghosts, and the driver. I didn’t have time to check on the passengers so…

‘D’ drew a face. A sad face.

You were bleeding pretty badly, but thankfully there was nothing serious. I didn’t have time to bring my stuff, but I did my very best to patch you up. A cut on your forehead was the worst of it. And you were pretty responsive while I worked on you, so that’s good! Whew! Other than that, you’re all golden. Just don’t bathe with any lemons!

Isabella didn’t find that very funny. Everything stung.

So yeah, sorry about everything. I wanted to help you because you’re cute, and being a Ghost doesn’t fit you to be honest. You can keep the jacket as a gift, my way of making it up to you. Hope you dig it, it was originally Styx’s, if you know who that is.

She did. How did she get a jacket from him? Who was this anomaly?

And… cute? And she knew Isabella was a gang member?

Like Isabella needed another reason to think this girl was something else.

Well, the jacket’s not uncomfortable, Isabella thought. She’d might as well hold on to it.

Okay, now here’s the sucky part. I know this is going to sound bad, but I still need to lay low in another zip code for the time being, and I left all my stuff and money on the bus…

¿Qué?

Alrighty, this is goodbye! I don’t know if you’ll be staying in Wanderland, but I’ll definitely be back. If you’re ever in the area, come chase me down. Let’s play again sometime!

¿Qué? ¿Qué?

Love, D.’ She drew a smiley face.

Isabella immediately jammed her hands into her pockets, dropping the bear. Front pockets, then back pockets. Nothing. Empty. Nada.

That bitch…

She robbed me.

Isabella swore for the sixth and seventh time.

Quintuple fuck.

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034 – Fifty-Nine on the Tenth Hour

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Never before did I want to forget a school day as soon as the bell rang.

Not until today.

Ever since news broke out about The Bluemoon, and the existence of people with abnormal capabilities came to light, the world watched the struggling city of Stephenville closely, thirsty for updates. It almost became routine. Check the weather, check the traffic on the highway, check for any recent sightings of The Bluemoon. Probably something a stay-at-home father kept an eye on, drinking a cup of coffee while the rest of his family was still asleep. In Chicago. However, down here, for me, the concept of a ‘routine’ was already a lost one.

Especially today.

How was I expected to focus on the movements and minutiae of a school day when I had a potentially literal ticking time bomb to handle? It was a good thing I didn’t have math today, because the only bit of calculation I could manage right now was subtraction.

Twenty-four hours left.

I knew things couldn’t continue like this, not at school. Days couldn’t keep blurring like this, couldn’t keep pushing my normal responsibilities off to the side, neglected. Because I knew I’d end up forgetting about it, and chances were slim that I would get back on track with missing homework, failed tests, and quizzes. Ms. Powers already got on my case about it, and I suspected the rest of my teachers would be lining up pretty soon.

But, even with me being conscious of that issue, I had to neglect my schoolwork for yet another night. How superheroes were ever able to juggle their two separate lives like how I saw in the few movies I watched, I’d never know.

Maybe I should watch them again, as a reference.

Another reason why I wanted to block today out of my mind was the entire student body itself. The split-second glance, the accidental meeting of the eyes in passing. I couldn’t stop myself from attaching another, insinuating meaning behind them.

The increased media attention on the city meant that everyone knew about the threat Solace made. The police and conscientious journalists tried their best to not reveal names, but their efforts could only go so far. I didn’t disclose my weekend plans with everyone, but I had no control over how loose their lips would be. If anyone knew, they didn’t say anything, but I couldn’t shake the feeling like I was already casted out and away. Didn’t help that I wasn’t up for talking with anyone, friends or acquaintances.

Maria, for her part, never told anyone about her being there, so her day went a bit more smoothly. Lucky. The one time she kept her personal life close to the chest, it benefitted her.

Lucky.

Katy, however, had it the worst out of all of us.

She thrived off of social interactions, fed off of it. I never thought of myself as an introvert, but I definitely wasn’t an extrovert on Katy’s level. The more people she had to talk to and with, the more energized and animated she became. Sometimes she’d end up taking things too far, like planning a birthday party at a manor in the middle of nowhere, but she meant well. She loved to talk, to gossip.

And if my school day was bad, I couldn’t begin to imagine how Katy was taking things.

Everyone would know who her dad was, by now. They would know what role he had in this. People would definitely avoid her, even if it wasn’t sensible. As if the threat would reach and affect them, too. Katy wasn’t used to this, wasn’t used to the tables being turned in this way. Like she was a freak, a black sheep. How was she holding up?

I wanted to talk with her, see how she was doing, but I didn’t have the chance. My mom took me to and from school, today.

I needed to clear my head, sort things out.

Dammit, I really do need a walk.

But did I have to do it in East Stephenville?

I strolled, hands in my pocket and wary of anything that moved.

Getting here wasn’t a hassle, just time-consuming. I had way more than enough money for the multiple buses it took to reach this part of town. But it was a lot of sitting, a lot of waiting for stops. I had a backpack with me, but not with all of my Blank Face stuff. My old mask, the baton, my knife. The essentials… essentially. I wasn’t out here on official ‘hero’ business. At least, it wasn’t my intention.

I had on a maroon hoodie and black pants. I tried to blend in with the worn, dark bricks that made up the buildings here.

As I walked, I fished the paper out of my pocket. I read it over again.

I looked around me.

Last time I was in the area, The Bluemoon was revealed to the world. And while it wasn’t the case for me, it was ground zero for everyone else. Simply walking around, taking a look at things, it was easy to tell how my actions had shaken the core of this part of town.

The Halloween Riots popped up all around the city, but it especially did some damage to the East side. Property all over was broken into, businesses robbed, windows shattered, and the garbage flew whenever the wind picked up. More than usual. The place became a mess, and no one wanted to clean it.

It wasn’t exactly a warzone, but the more decent places became less so, and the bad places became worse.

Certainly not the safest place to be at this late hour.

I kept walking.

Already, Thomas was giving me progress on the police investigation on Solace. The call that Solace made was traced back to the top floor of an apartment building in the area, but it was abandoned by the time SWAT teams arrived and raided the place. A dead end, right when we couldn’t afford to run into one.

But, there was a particular detail that stood out to me.

The building was right in the middle of what used to be El Carruaje territory.

That… was certainly intriguing.

My fight against El Carruaje was never publicized, neither was the stockpile of weapons that the gang had smuggled in. As far as I knew, El Carruaje had become a non-factor, and Benny was out of the picture. But it was still odd. Intriguing, the source of the call.

And that was where I stepped in.

Take a look around, try to find any clues that connected Solace and El Carruaje and report it back to Thomas via the pager.

I moved to the side when a woman in a short skirt and high heels passed me. I was still reading the rudimentary map Thomas drew out of me, finding my way, getting my bearings.

Finally, something to do, somewhere to start. Problem was, I had to be on my own for this, I had to figure out how I was going to get anything useful. I didn’t have a lot of time to work with, either. Less than twenty-four hours. Tonight was my only chance.

No pressure.

I had to find a way to get some information, but it wouldn’t do if I started running around here as Blank Face, I needed to be inconspicuous. My old mask was only as a precaution, and it wasn’t even my real mask. Not anymore. I couldn’t afford to cause another riot.

So I had to assume a third identity of sorts, I couldn’t use Blank Face as a veil to hide behind.

My sense of self is getting thinner and thinner.

A greasy, brown paper bag floated my way. With my next step, I lifted my foot higher so it wouldn’t touch me.

My best bet was to start at the area around the apartment building the call was traced back to. Old El Carruaje territory. It wasn’t that far, only two blocks away. It might be best if I checked the building myself.

Though, it would be faster if I used the rooftops.

I considered the idea. I would be saving precious time, but there was a risk of someone spotting me. But, it was night, I had the dark to use as cover.

A couple hops, and I’d be there.

I’ll just look left and right and left again. Like driving.

Man, I need to learn how, already.

A motorcycle zoomed by, rumbling. I waited until it was out of sight, then I crossed the street, towards an alley on the other side.

A series of footsteps, following behind me. I heard them. I took note.

I continued into the alley, regardless.

I stopped. A wall.

The buildings on either side weren’t high, I could scale them easily. From there, shouldn’t be a challenge to get over to that apartment building.

Just had to take care of these clowns first.

Cornered, but not concerned.

I put up my hood, then turned.

Five men, two women, all taller than me, except one. Actually, she didn’t look like a woman at all, maybe a teenager, if not younger.

The four others were in a line, blocking my way back onto the street. The girl was out of line, in front of them.

I stepped back, and they all took one forward. Except the girl.

“Hurry up so we can get back to the real work,” one of the men said. “You’re the last one, can’t ignore your duties forever, baby.”

Another one of them kicked the girl in the back, not enough to make her fall, but she was forced forward.

The girl’s hand flashed something, even in the little bit of light here. A knife.

She looked to me, then back to the others behind her. Hesitant, from her face and stance. Inward, weak. Her hair was in pigtails, and she wore a white shirt, black pants.

Something about her…

Actually, all of them were dressed in a similar fashion. White top, black pants or shorts.

“You put yourself at a disadvantage, wasting your time like this.” It was the woman, this time. She was heavyset, speaking with a slur, out of breath at the end of her words. “Everybody else had got their thousand within the week, and you have what, until twenty-four hours?”

The girl was quiet.

“And how much you got?”

The girl was quiet.

“How much!” the heavyset woman yelled.

The girl twitched, squeaked. “N-nothing!”

“Right, nothing. And what happens if you don’t get anything.”

“I-I don’t know.”

“And you definitely want to keep it that way, believe that shit. This is a ‘L’ you don’t wanna take.”

The possibilities ran through my head. Was this some type of initiation? A test? Looking at the girl as she was right now, there was no way she’d succeed in time. She’d be put on the chopping block, suffering whatever consequences were in store for her when she inevitably failed.

A girl, a prisoner to her circumstances. Jailed by them.

Five men, one woman.

This shouldn’t take long.

I spoke like I was reading lines in class, “Don’t hurt me. I’ll give you whatever you want, just don’t hurt me.”

The men laughed, the heavyset woman laughing even harder. “See? She’s making it easier for you!”

The girl was still frozen, but she looked at me, almost more relaxed than before. She believed me, that I’d make this easy.

I was about to make it easier.

I spread my arms apart. Exposing myself.

Appearing that way.

“Everything’s in my backpack, just please, don’t hurt me,” I said.

The other thugs were making a day of this, goading the girl as she finally advanced, towards me. I stood, waiting.

Anticipating.

She finally came within reach. Before she could react, I grabbed a hold of her arm, and pulled.

I jumped forward as I let go. She fell, and I landed, putting myself between the girl and her superiors.

They weren’t expecting that, to put it lightly. They backed away, and I used that to my advantage.

I lunged at the heavyset woman first, going for her arm. I grabbed it, then turned. Using my strength, I flipped her over my shoulder. Instead of slamming her onto the concrete, I let go at as she was coming down, throwing her into her accomplices.

I knocked one of them down with her, but the others got out of the way in time. Two of them drew out knives, the other whipped out a gun.

Huh.

It only now came to me, concerning the threat of a gun. They’d been pointed at me a few times, but I’d never had gun fired at me, or anywhere near my general vicinity. Despite trying to do this superhero thing for this long, guns had nearly been out of sight, out of mind, something I rarely had to deal with. A gun was never fired.

Let’s not make tonight an exception.

I rushed to the man with gun next, elbowing him across the chin. As the gun fell from his hand, I pushed him, and his back smacked against the brick wall. Another down.

The last two attacked at the same time, but I could deal.

I was already in the air before they could manage anything. I flipped backwards, and found myself behind the two.

Did I just do a backflip?

I didn’t have time to ruminate on it, though it was pretty cool. Like… doing a backflip.

I was on them before they could even turn around.

A similar tactic as with the man with the gun. I shoved the closer man into the brick wall. His face took most of the impact, blood trailing when he slid down the wall. Down.

The last man standing. Running, now. He was already out of the alley, across the street.

Whatever. No use in going after him. Pointless.

The others here weren’t in any position to move or be an issue. But sticking around wasn’t necessary.

I walked back down the alley, over to the girl I was trying to save.

She was still on the ground, backing away as I approached. She held out her knife, pointing it at me.

Crying, whimpering.

No good. Was she that intimidated by me?

“Stand,” I said, “I’m not trying to turn the tables and rob you. I helped you out, didn’t I?”

The girl went still, and met my eyes, pausing, as if she was thinking it over.

I took off my hood. I was fine with revealing my face, here. That fight back there wouldn’t incriminate me as The Bluemoon, even with a backflip. I extended a hand.

“Here,” I said.

After a moment, she put away her knife, and took my hand, instead.

I helped her up, then we walked out of the alley, stepping over some moaning bodies, my hand in hers. She was young enough that I didn’t feel weird about it, one way or another. I let go as we took a left.

Guess I’m walking.

The girl continued to walk with me. I could take her somewhere safe, and move on to the apartment building.

“What’s your name?” I asked, filling the air. Why not. She might have information.

“Isabella,” she said, barely above a whisper.

“That’s a pretty name.”

Had to give her mine, if I wanted to keep a conversation alive. I already showed her my face, after all.

“I’m… Wendy.”

That doesn’t mean I’m going to give you my real name.

Isabella didn’t respond, but I knew I was going to be pulling the weight in this.

“Who were those guys?” I asked. “They didn’t look like your friends.”

“They aren’t.”

“Who are they apart of? Who’s their boss?”

“The Ghosts, a splinter of another gang that broke apart recently. Some man named Lawrence.”

Isabella had the voice of a kid, but she didn’t sound like one. There was a weariness to her that broke my heart whenever she spoke.

But I had to keep her talking.

“Must have been scary back there, but aren’t you a little young to be getting involved in stuff like that?”

Isabella kept her eyes to her feet. “Yeah.”

“Where are your parents? If they’re close, I can take you, or maybe call a taxi or something.”

Isabella kept her eyes to her feet. “My parents aren’t here, no more.”

I felt a sting inside me. How fucked was this city?

“Sorry to hear that,” I said, steadily becoming uncertain on how to word things. “Is there anywhere I can take you? Anywhere safe?”

Isabella glanced up, but only for a moment. “No, I dunno, I’m new here.”

New?

“I’ve only been here for a week… ish,” Isabella said.

“Oh, then I have an idea. Follow me?”

Isabella didn’t object. She followed when I went another way.

Wait a minute…

And she does look familiar.

“You didn’t happen to come in by way of sitting in the back of a semi-trailer truck, did you?” I asked.

Now I saw her face. Surprise.

“How, how’d you know?”

“Just a guess,” I said, thinking quickly. “I try to keep my ear to the ground. Don’t worry, I’m not going to turn you in.”

“Oh,” was all she said about that. We crossed, then turned. We kept going.

Isabella was one of the people I found in that trailer yard. One of the illegal immigrants. That was where I saw her. Thomas was right, the people there got divided up among different gangs. But children? Putting them through trials like that?

How fucked was this city?

I remembered that Thomas was puzzled over their transport, being supervised by Styx’s Gang. I wondered if Isabella knew anything about that.

“You’re amazing,” Isabella then said, without any prompting. Softly.

“What, me?” I didn’t expect to hear that.

“You fought Georgie and Bronson and Jay and Samantha and them like it was nothing. I wish I could be that strong.”

I just pushed around a couple of losers, it wasn’t anything to applaud, I thought. She was overestimating me.

“I’m not that strong, not at all,” I said. “You know, I think you’re stronger. It takes a lot to be caught up in this and not end up being completely nuts.”

Her eyes were still facing forward, but I saw her cheek go upward. A smile?

“Who says I hadn’t?”

A joke. She was starting to feel better.

Now was my chance.

“Um, I hope you don’t mind too much, but I wanted to ask you some questions, while we walk?”

“Oh, sure, alright.”

I made a list of questions in my head, trying to make sure I wouldn’t end up forgetting anything. Not that I expected Isabella to be in the know.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

Ciudad de México.”

Mexico City, then.

“And how far is that from, say, Pátzcuaro?”

She took time to think about it. “That’s about four hours west. The truck came from there. Why?”

“Just thinking. Did you notice anything weird about your ride? Anything off?”

“I don’t follow.”

“Are you aware of Styx’s Gang?”

Isabella looked down, in every sense of the phrase. I didn’t need a verbal answer.

“They supervised your ride into the country, am I correct?”

Isabella nodded. “I heard the motorcycles during the last leg of the trip, we thought they were cops, but the sounds followed us all the way, until we finally stopped.”

“Do you know why?”

Isabella had a look on her face. She didn’t follow.

“The thing is, Styx’s Gang doesn’t deal in transporting immigrants, but apparently your ride was an exception. My question is, was there anyone in there with you that seemed… off?”

She started to slow her pace. I had to match her.

“We were all crammed in there for days,” Isabella said. She didn’t sound very fond of having to recall that memory. “Everyone kept to themselves, as much as they could in that space. I can’t say for sure.”

No luck there, then.

“But, maybe there was one person…”

I raised an eyebrow.

“But they came after we arrived here. They wore a mask.”

That’s not what I wanted to hear.

“I think I know who you’re talking about,” I said.

“At first, I thought they were with that motorcycle gang, but I wasn’t getting that vibe. Then I realized it was that hero I saw on TV. La luna azul.”

I had to look ahead when we crossed another street. Good to know I’m on the world stage.

“I couldn’t believe my eyes, but it wasn’t what I expected though,” Isabella added, “Cradling an arm, talking to themselves. It was very strange.”

I had to cut her off. “That’s not what I was getting at, I mean someone in the trailer, with you.”

“Why are you so curious about that?” Isabella asked.

Think fast. “I said it earlier, I try to keep my ear about the ground, get any dirt I can. In this city, it’s more valuable than cash.”

“Who are you?” Isabella asked, seemingly perplexed. “Is your name even Wendy? Are you part of another gang?”

Dang, she’s sharp. “Of course my name’s Wendy, and I’m just a third party. Wouldn’t catch me dead, being involved with a gang.”

“Okay…” Isabella pulled at her shirt, when a brief rush of wind blew towards us. I had to fix my bangs.

“When you put it that way, I guess another person stuck out.”

Oh?

“Who?” I asked.

La luna azul was speaking with someone I was with. A boy named Miguel. He helped with the arm, and then a man pushed through everyone, and kicked ‘em down. The motorcycle people came in right after, and after that…”

Isabella stopped there.

But now we’re getting somewhere.

“And who was that man? What did he look like?”

“Uh, he was a gringo, skinny but tall, and he had a buzz.”

“Buzz?”

“Buzz cut.”

A surge of anger came over me. I tried my best to recall that person. Fragmented memories, but I knew I was ambushed back at the trailer. I had pinned it to Styx, but that didn’t seem right, now that I put more thought into it. The first hits came from within the trailer, I was sure of it now.

So it was someone else.

I clenched a fist.

“What else do you know about the guy?” I asked, trying to keep my voice level.

“I dunno, he was by himself, didn’t say anything the whole trip. When it was time to get sorted out… he wasn’t among the rest of us. He was with the leader of the biker gang.”

This… was also intriguing.

Thomas might have been onto something. Maybe a person of interest was among those immigrants. But certain questions remained. Who? Why? Was it something for Blank Face and Hleuco to tackle?

Maybe it was because I was desperate for answers, for things to connect, but maybe that person was Solace?

Wishful thinking, at this point. I needed more solid info.

Another street crossed. We were getting farther from that apartment building, now, but that was okay.

“Have you heard of Solace? Do you know anything about that?”

“I heard of it, I don’t know anything about it.”

Didn’t expect you to.

I decided to ask her something else. Another subject.

“That boy, Miguel? Do you know what gang he ended up in? He might know something.”

She shook her head. Isabella looked sad. Did I touch a nerve?

“All of us got split up when the masked hero was attacked, not sure why. We were taken in different trucks. When we met up again, Miguel wasn’t there.”

I didn’t like the sound of that.

I wanted to press for more, about that man, but we were coming up on our destination. If it really came down to it, I could try and visit one of Styx’s Ferrymen, again.

A corner stop for a megabus was in the distance. People were already there, waiting. I pulled her into a nearby alley.

“You’ll have to take it from here,” I said.

“Take what from where?” she asked. I still had my own things to do, but at the same time, I didn’t want to leave Isabella on her own. I just had to trust in her strength.

I gave her a soft smile.

“How about this,” I said, moving my backpack so it was in front of me, slung across a shoulder. I opened it.

I was careful about not accidentally taking out my mask or weapons, but I took out a wad of cash, some change, and handed to Isabella.

She had a quizzical look to her, feeling the weight in her hands. “How much is this?”

“I think a thousand dollars?”

“A thousand-”

“Shh, hey, but it’s not for your gang. You take this, and you get the hell out of this city. You braved a long ride getting here, and I can’t begin to imagine how terrible that trip was, but it’d be all a waste if you were stuck in Stephenville.”

She held the money in her hands, still bewildered by the amount.

“Just do me a favor,” I said.

“Yeah?”

“Use that change, and go to the payphone by the bus stop. Call 9-1-1, tell them everything you know about the Ghosts. Tell them where your boss is. I’m sure they’ll find a charge that sticks. After that, take the bus out of here. You’ll have to be on your own then, but you seem smart enough to manage. Oh, and where you’ve been staying, is there anything there that can’t be replaced with cash?”

“No.” She sounded down about that being the case.

“Cool, that should be enough money to go as you are, no one will ask any questions if you can cough up enough dough.”

Isabella split the cash four ways, stuffing each piece into both front and back pockets. “But, how can I manage if I don’t stay with a gang? It’s hard to be by yourself.”

I put a hand on her shoulder. She didn’t tense up.

“It is hard, I’m not going to lie, but it’s going to be even harder if you get tangled up in that life even more. Don’t play with fire. Besides, I might not go so easy on you if I see you again.”

“Huh?”

“Just promise me you’ll do as I ask,” I said, trying to sound kind. Compassionate. “Or, at least promise me you won’t be about that life, anymore.”

Isabella nodded, her hair bouncy. “Sure, I promise.”

“Good.”

I put my other hand on her. I spun her around, then I gave her a light push forward.

By the time she could turn back around, I was already on the rooftops.

The building was in ruin. It had lost the right to provide proper shelter and necessities to people a long time ago.

Dark and cold. Dirty and cracked. Degraded and crumbled.

I entered the apartment building through the front doors, putting on my mask as I entered. I made sure to check that no one was around before I moved in.

The SWAT team cleared out the area before me, and they were good. Bags of trash and debris were kicked to the side, every room and hall scouted and cleared. If there was a trap, they wouldn’t have missed it. I had no reason to doubt their capabilities on that front.

Which gave me a straight path to the room on the top floor, marked by Thomas on my map. Room 543.

There was no door, I walked right in.

As expected, as I suspected, nothing.

The room was as trashed as the rest of the apartment building, streaks of black marked the floors and walls and ceilings, the colored tagging making everything uglier. But the space was empty, nothing here except a single wooden table at one corner. Missing a leg.

Not much.

I still took some time to inspect every wall, fixating and focusing on every detail until my eyes hurt. There were electrical outlets, but nothing plugged in. No hidden camera, no secret microphone. Could there have been something they missed? Probably not, if they had found the room like this, too. They were trained for this, I wasn’t. I didn’t even know what to look for. What stood out here, aside from the very location of the building this room was in? There was little chance it was just a coincidence, there had to be something. Maybe the info I got from Isabella was enough, enough to start working out some theories with Thomas.

Maybe.

I searched over the room again.

The table in the corner. I hadn’t checked that.

No point in skipping it.

I moved to get a closer look. It was more banged up than I thought. Scratches all over the surface, droplets of dried blood. Not a lot in the way of dust, however. It was used by whoever was in here, whoever that was. An extension of the rest of the room, really, an extension of the damage and decay this building had seen.

So, nothing.

“Agh!”

I threw the table across the room. It crashed onto the opposite wall, breaking into two.

I had less than twenty-four hours to come up with a way to stop Solace. Twenty-four hours to foil his plan. But all I had was a few potentially unrelated details from a little girl and an empty room. That wasn’t nearly enough to prevent Solace from killing a person everyday until I gave myself up.

Dammit.

I was about to leave, but I looked at table again, more broken than before. It was on its side, the undersides of the two halves facing me.

I noticed there were even more scratches underneath.

I approached to get a better look. I read the marks.

‘Doris was here,’ a number promising illicit sexual acts if dialed, and other meaningless messages were scrawled out under the table. None really stood-

Hold it.

There was one.

I took a step back, and bent down, so I could read it easily.

Messy, scraped out in large letters, but it was hard to notice among all the other crap. Easy to gloss over, I could see SWAT officers brushing this off. They wouldn’t have known to discern this.

Unbelievable.

The table was broken, and the message was split down the middle. But I could still piece it together.

No cheating.

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