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 were still asleep. In Chicago. However, down here, for me, the concept of a ‘routine’ was already a lost one.
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 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.
Katy, however, had it the worst out of all of us.
She thrived off of social interactions, feed 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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?”
“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.
“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.”
“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.”
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 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 to sure 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.
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.
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.
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.
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-
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.
The table was broken, and the message was split down the middle. But I could still piece it together.