098 – Lie, Cheat, Steal

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I had a lot on my mind, a long list of things that only kept getting longer and longer. And I was afraid that the points that were getting pushed lower on the list would begin to fester. Rotting until the stink and stain began to taint everything else that needed my attention. A kind of corruption that trailed up. So it wasn’t a surprise that the thing at the very bottom was also the most decayed. Not surprising, but it was disconcerting.

What am I really, and what is the source of my powers?

The first question, buried by everything that came after it, that came because of it.

It was strange reversal of priorities. Lowest on my list, yet it could cast a shadow over the rest. The Lunar Tower incident came to mind, where my lack of understand over my own body had left behind a literal spiral of destruction. It was… embarrassing, to vastly undersell it, but, as much as I wanted, needed, to avoid a similar situation from happening again, too many obstacles kept getting in the way, kept stacking on top of the list, that the Fangs and I needed to tackle that before getting back to the rest. And that gave a lot of room for doubt.

Would this current point on the list become tainted by the very bottom? When? A sudden turn of events, caught in a corner and then I’d snap? I didn’t want a repeat of that, but I barely had any time to dig that deep, investigate any further. Hell, I hadn’t had the chance to follow up on D’s findings on the police reports, if anything out of the ordinary was missing or covered up, on the night Alexis got her powers, got mauled. My time and energy kept getting pulled in different directions, and it was easy, even a little comforting, to get that distracted.

I was nervous. Things could go wrong, and they had. I was scared of another failure, and I was scared of letting the Fangs down again. Lawrence, D. I was scared of losing Sarah.

I cracked the knuckle of my middle finger. Right hand.

“How are we on time?” I asked. My foot kept tapping by itself.

“Everything’s on point,” Lawrence said. “Following the schedule, they won’t be letting people in for another twenty minutes. We’re good.”

“The other kind of good,” D said. “We’re not about to win any peace prizes with this one.”

“But they’re gearing up to disrupt a lot of the operations in this city, ours included. We can’t let them continue. So it’s probably for the best, that we’re the ones that get to handle this. It’s in our hands.”

“I don’t want blood on them, though,” D said.

Lawrence passed me a quick look, unnoticed by D. He took advantage of her height, or how tall she wasn’t, to try and communicate something to me. I felt like I got the message.

D wasn’t exactly being subtle about her misgivings about the job, more specifically the endgame. How far were we willing to go with the two journalists? Were we going to scare them away, or resort to something more final? What would be enough to satisfy Mrs. Carter? We still hadn’t come to a consensus. We were minutes away from executing the plan, and we weren’t sure if this plan would even include an execution.

It reminded me of the first time the three of us worked together, when we were hunting Benny. When I finally had her in my grasp, I was initially lost on what to do with her. Initially. What followed perhaps gave me the most clarity I’d ever have, on what I wanted to do moving forward. Joining the Ghosts, forming the Fangs. That table and Mister in my sights. All because I had put Benny behind me.

For her part, D did not want to go that far, and for his, Lawrence was willing to go that distance. Which left me at a crossroads. I could go in either direction, and that decision might very well alter the course of the Fangs forever. More weight on my shoulders, that sinking feeling, again.

I had that long list in mind as I said, “Once we’re done with this part, everything will get straightened out. Let’s just focus on putting on a good show.”

“Yes,” Lawrence said. He clapped his hands together, rubbing them for warmth. It wasn’t that cold, but weather still had a tendency to dip at times. Only a few more weeks until we’d see spring.

I wondered where the gang would be by then. What would the city and its underworld look like? A status quo hardly meant anything, anymore.

“We should probably get a move on,” Lawrence said. “Sarah, double-check your stuff, so you don’t accidentally forget something.”

“Will do.”

Sarah leaned past me in order to reach her bag. She didn’t have to, there was plenty of space here, but she got close enough for me to smell her perfume. Lavender, again. Close enough that I could note how the shadows fell down the low cut of her blouse. I chanced a look and stole it.

Fitting, in a sense.

She reached some more, until her bare shoulder almost brushed my cheek. I lost my balance and I fell back, landing next to D, who had been sitting in the back of the van, the trunk doors open.

“Oof,” D said, as I bumped into her.

“Woops,” I said.

“Could you not goof off right now?” Lawrence asked, annoyed.

Sarah pulled the bag to her, opening it, and checking over the contents as second time. She was half-dressed, in that she was wearing the top half of one outfit and the bottom half of another. For her top, she had on a white, very loose blouse, perfect for any occasion, even a formal engagement. To complete that half of her outfit, she’d need something like a black skirt, and she would look great in it.

She wasn’t, however, wearing one at the moment. She was instead wearing beige and baggy cargo pants, with pockets and tools strapped to her hip. Instead of heels, she had on boots.

As it was, her outfit clashed, hard, and it didn’t take someone like me, someone who was still developing their tastes, to see that. But that wasn’t the point. One was supposed to be worn on top of the other. A disguise on top of another.

Lawrence was already rocking his, top to bottom. A heavy brown fleece jacket, and pants that matched with Sarah’s. The only thing that didn’t mesh all that well was his hair, combed up, styled. Sarah was similar in that regard, too. Eyeliner and blush, with lips as red as blood. Sweet, if I could taste them.

“Got everything I need,” Sarah said. She pulled out a bundle of clothes and zipped up the bag. “I’m as ready as you are.”

“You’ll be as ready as I am when you put on your jacket,” Lawrence said. His arms were crossed, standing a distance away from the van. His bag was at his feet, ready to be picked up and taken with him.

“Yeah, yeah,” Sarah said. She started putting on the jacket, covering up her blouse.

Too bad, I thought.

Sarah put her arms through the sleeves, zipping the front up to her collar to hide what she had on underneath. She fixed her hair so it wouldn’t get stuck to her neck.

The nape of her neck, I thought.

She caught me as I watched. She smirked, as if she had her own plan and I was falling right into it. Maybe I was. Maybe that wasn’t so bad.

I swallowed, and I felt the inside of my throat scrape. I was getting thirsty.

Sarah stepped back from the van, bag around one shoulder. She joined Lawrence, and I clenched my jaw. Involuntarily.

“Wow,” D said. “You two are the most devilishly pulchritudinous mechanics I have ever seen in my life.”

“Why, thank you,” Sarah said. She looked pleased to hear it.

“Whatever,” Lawrence said.

I was struck with the urge to say something, too. Say something to Sarah.

“No, yeah, you… you look great.”

My compliment paled in comparison to D’s.

Sarah still looked just as pleased, maybe even more so.

“And thank you, Wendy.”

“Holy fucking shit, can we get moving already?”

Lawrence was not having it.

D hopped out of the trunk, fixing her skirt. I stepped out as well, so I wouldn’t get hit the doors as she closed them.

We gathered together, standing around in a loose circle. At the top level of a parking garage, with only a few empty cars parked nearby.

“I’ll go and make sure everyone else is in place,” D said, twirling a ring of keys around a finger. She flicked her hand, tossing the keys in the air. Catching them, she swung her hands behind for back for a second, then threw her hands out again, juggling her keys and another thing.

She tossed the thing to me, and went back to twirling her keys. A small device, a button, the kind that could open a garage door or something. I put it in my pocket.

“When you’re ready, Vivi, we’ll all swing by.”

D wasn’t subtle with her objections to the ends, but she was still helping through with the means. We needed all of the Fangs in order to pull this off, and D seemed to be, by all accounts, pitching in. We asked her to pull her weight, and she tried to pull more than that. Getting a copy of the art gallery floor plan, setting up, getting what she could from Natalie Beckham’s phone number…

There wasn’t anything or anyone of note at the address that was attached to the number. Just a studio apartment, a single man with a dog. With no knowledge of the tenant who lived there before him. That was what Reggie reported, anyways. A potential lead, but it came up empty. But that was what covering our bases meant, we had to be thorough.

It made me wonder if the number was a fake to begin with. Maybe there was a reason why the reporters didn’t go to the office that often.

I kept Reggie on standby, there, anyways. An order from me to him, it hadn’t been heard by anyone else. Not D, not Lawrence.

Just to be sure.

The lead came up empty, but D was still trying. That accounted for something.

And then, there was this. The night of the John Cruz’s event. It was time, and there was no room for trying, we had to complete the job was forced on us.

I looked at D, and ruffled her hair. She scrunched up her face and knocked my arm away.

“Hey, quit it, ugh.”

D shook her head, her hair whipping around, until it settled back into place. She twirled her keys again.

I couldn’t help but crack a small laugh. She was fun to mess with.

“Got it,” I said. “I’ll give you a call. See you later, D.”

D waved as she left, keys jingling in her hand. She went over to the driver’s side to get in. I looked, and saw Isabella, waiting by the passenger’s side. She gestured.

V for victory.

The van started as I rejoined Sarah and Lawrence.

“Alright, let’s clear a way for you two,” I said to them.

“Finally,” Lawrence said. “Because I’m ready to put on a show.”

The Mazzucchelli Art Gala stood tall. The building from the outside had a peculiar shape to it, as if its architecture was an art piece, in and of itself. There was no definite shape to it, rather a mashing of different shapes put together, with sharp corners that jutted out, to cylinder structures that rounded things out, providing contrast. It wasn’t an eyesore, but it was hard for me to wrap my head around its form. Couldn’t say I was a fan, but I was still figuring out what I was a fan of.

Exterior lights shined bright on the metal letters that spelled out the gala’s name on the only flat surface of the building, the front part. City lights provided some more ambience. Like some kind of flame, small dots were flocking to it. People.

We weren’t among those people, but we would be soon enough. The stage was set, the props and actors in place. The lines were practiced, but with some room for improvisation. We were as ready as we were ever going to be.

“This way,” I said, leading Sarah and Lawrence across the street. We kept to the peripherals as we approached, walking by the line of guests that were waiting to be let into the gala. The line was long, but it was moving quickly. The event organizers were really on the ball for this.

I didn’t see Natalie or Oliver in the line, but I knew they were here. They had to be.

Keeping my pace, I took Sarah and Lawrence around the gala, around its irregular shape. Turning a corner, I found the alley between the gala and another building. Wide enough to drive a truck through. There was a dense set of sounds from the city’s bustle and the lively chatter of the people we passed, which deadened the moment we turned, going deeper into the alley.

D had laid out the path for me to show them. Through the back parts of the building, where D had taken the floor plans, was where Sarah and Lawrence would infiltrate from, as well.

“God, I can’t believe D walked through here by herself,” Sarah said. Despite all the noise behind us, Sarah’s words rang out with a slight reverb. The lights were more dim, here, the shadows more oppressive. Trash and dead leaves littered the ground we walked on.

“Why?” Lawrence questioned. “It was the middle of the day, the last time we were here.”

“Maybe it’s different for guys, but I’d think twice before I took a shortcut like this, even when the sun is up. Sometimes I’d have a piece on me for some peace of mind, but even then…”

Lawrence grunted. “I guess.”

“You ever feel that way, Wendy?”

I wasn’t surprised, but I wasn’t expecting the conversation to move over to me. My mind was elsewhere, to the steps we hadn’t taken yet. Bringing my focus back to here took a certain kind of shift, a repositioning of the points on my list. Sarah shot back up to the top. I found that it was easy to put her there.

I answered the best I could.

“I don’t think so? Not really. Doesn’t really cross my mind that much, but I guess I can afford to do that since I have… you know, powers and stuff.”

“Fair,” Sarah said. “I should just start walking around with you, then. It’d be better than having a gun on me all the time.”

“How?”

“Well, I mean, I can’t walk down the street with a gun in my hand, much less go in to a restaurant or a movie theater. Kind of super illegal.”

“But it’s not like you have to be obvious with it, unless you’re saying that you’d rather-”

I stopped.

Oh.

That’s what she meant.

I didn’t finish that thought, instead putting them elsewhere again. Forward. Back to the steps we had yet to take. Back to the plan.

“I’m saying that exactly,” Sarah said. There was a tune to her voice that was inviting, but I forced myself to keep looking forward, down the alley instead.

“Can we not do this right now?” Lawrence questioned. “God, you two…”

He trailed off, as if he was leaving the thought behind. I was of the same mind, which was weird, because it was Lawrence. To think our work relationship managed to get this far.

The alley widened as we approached the other side, the gala curving away. We followed the curve, circling around to the back of the building, to a deep part of the city inaccessible to normal civilians. And right now, we weren’t that. We had a different role to play.

I could see the storage trucks, parked beside one another, several drivers and workers were huddled together for a smoke break. Five in total, all bulky. They’d have to be, if their job was to carry large boxes around.

Across the small lot was a set of double doors. They swung open, letting others through, going back and forth as they unloaded boxes from the trucks and brought them inside.

Some of the drivers and workers noticed us, but that was all. From the uniform and bags and tools, Sarah and Lawrence looked like any random, miscellaneous members of the crew. I wasn’t dressed like them, but I wasn’t standing out, either.

We kept walking.

The doors swung open again, but more people were heading out, not going back inside. From how empty the backs of the trucks looked, they were almost done unloading.

Right on time.

I jogged ahead, getting to the doors before they could close and lock. A man was walking up to them, his arms around a box, struggling to keep an even pace. He wouldn’t have gotten to the doors in time.

“Here,” I said, my voice light, friendly. I caught the door and pulled, holding it for him.

The man made a noise, too indistinct to be a word, but he seemed to appreciate the assist. He passed through, still having trouble with the box, but he managed.

I kept the door open as Sarah and Lawrence caught up with me.

Lawrence was quiet as he passed, eyes straight ahead. He was in the zone, now, ready to play his part.

Sarah was right behind him, and she wasn’t as calm. Her eyes darted from me to the door, a hand digging in a jacket pocket, tight lines in the material from how hard she kept digging.

I touched her arm.

“You’ll be fine,” I said as she walked by, “Go bring me some stuff.”

Sarah managed a smirk, her pursed lips betraying her nervousness. It was so cute.

Then, they went inside, into the gala, disguised as technicians ready to fix up what issue they had made up. That was for them to decide. D told them the path, how to snake through the building to find an appropriate place to hide and change, and then how to get to the main exhibit hall from there. All while remaining undetected.

They could do it. I knew they could. As much as I knew I could do this part.

The hard part.

I let the door close. It shut, the sound almost delayed in my head. My felt my lips pressed into a firm line. I was right there with Sarah. Nervous.

Putting a hand in a pocket, my hand made a fist. I felt a click.

I drew out a long breath.

Now to buy some time.

The drivers were still on their break as I walked to them. Eight, now, having finished their work. Smoke trailed a lazy path into the air, not unlike how I approached, to give an air of being natural. Acting natural.

“Long night?”

I started with a question. It would be easier to get their attention now, and direct it from what I was even doing here in the first place. Something I had picked up from D.

One of them turned, facing me. As he moved, he left an opening for me to fill. I leveraged it.

“It has been, yeah,” the man said.

“Almost done with the boxes?”

“Just about. Got one or two left but other than that, we’re about to wrap up. What’s it to you?”

“Just here to check on- what were in the boxes again?”

I sped through that first part, push it past their attention and taking it again with something else.

“The boxes? They’re for an exhibition those art snobs are setting up. Part of the reason why the gala’s closed to the public, tonight. The timing just worked out. Who are you again?”

People took a puff of their cigarettes, and started glancing my way. The drafts of smoke blew in my direction. Not in my face, I wasn’t that close, but they definitely gave me the impression that they were trying.

Diverting their attention would only get harder from here.

I did it a third time.

“Just checking how things are going around here, you know, making sure everything’s running smooth. How’s the security throughout the building?”

“How the hell should I know? Who the hell are you?”

Behind me, I heard the door swing open. I turned, craning my neck and moving my shoulders, making the motion obvious. It got people to look in that other direction, stealing their focus one more time.

The man from before, who I had gotten the door for. He was coming this way.

“Hey, Fin. I thought I told y’all, I hate it when you take your breaks without me.”

“Maybe if you worked a little faster, Miller, we wouldn’t have to do this.”

So the guy I was talking to was Fin, and the guy I helped was Miller. I could use that.

“Miller. Yo,” I said. I gave him a wave. “Mind if I kill your time for a bit?”

Wow, that was such a D thing to say.

Miller gave me a puzzled look, but still said, “Sure. I need a break.”

“Was that the last of the load?” I asked.

“Hm. Should be.” He looked over the trucks as he passed them, then to us, “Yeah. Everything and everyone. And you are?”

“That’s what I’ve been trying to find out,” Fin said. His voice sounded gruff, more than a touch pissed. I was grating on him, now.

All eyes fell on me. Hard stares. I didn’t meet them. Because the sense I was honing in with was my hearing.

The incoming hum of rubber on road. Made slick by the recent rain. The weather was forecasted to improve after this, so I hoped things would change soon, too. I hoped they would be changes for the better.

Then, and finally, I answered and stole their attention, to distract them for a final time.

“I’m no one in particular,” I lied. “I was just killing some time.”

Three white vans in a line drove into the lot. We were surrounded by buildings that towered, that imposed over us. An urban pocket, a corner they were trapped in.

They. Because I had just brought in the snare.

The vans skidded to a halt right in front of the workers. Those doors opened, and guns spilled out onto the lot, the people carrying them aimed and fired words, throwing out chaos and panic.

I could see the men collectively jump out of their skins. The image itself would be enough to paralyze. I did what I could to heighten that level of fear. Taller than the towers themselves.

Leaning in, I put a hand on Fin, and before he could look over to see who had touched him, I threw him, and his body crashed into Miller’s, sprawling limbs knocking and slapping into the nearby faces of their pals. They landed into a heap by a truck.

Several stumbled back, others were frozen by the advancing guns. I was walking, hopping over Fin and Miller, meeting the people from the vans halfway. I gave them a wave, too.

“You kept me waiting,” I told them. “Can’t do this without you all. Can’t bite with no teeth.”

Most passed without paying me any heed. Which was fine. They had jobs to do.

To contrast the white on the vans, the Fangs were decked in black, wearing masks. It didn’t really fit as far as a metaphor went, unless I was trying to suggest my teeth had rotted completely, but I needed to sacrifice theatrics for practicality, in this particular department.

Besides, the real show would be in there. In about thirty minutes.

The last of the Fangs got out of the vans, save the drivers, and they were working to take over the lot. They were rounding up the workers, securing their trucks and taking their keys.

D hopped out from one van, leaving the key in the ignition. Instead of twirling keys, she had a bag of her own this time.

“Hiya,” she said. “Been some time.”

“Sure, some,” I said. “Everything’s been running smooth.”

D handed me the strap of the bag. I held it up for her as she took something out from the side. A tablet.

“We’ll just see about that.”

She tapped on the screen, walking, and I matched her pace. We went back to the trucks and workers as they got rounded up by the Fangs.

They weren’t going down without some kind of protest.

“Who the hell are you? What is this?”

They were yelling.

“Quiet,” I said, still focused on D’s screen. I heard a crack, then a slow, deflated breath. The butt of a gun met the man’s jaw, sending him back to the pavement.

“What the Voss said,” the Fang commanded.

D tapped the screen again, loading up a program. After a short wait, a grid of small boxes filled the screen, each showing a different picture. An empty hall, a corner as people in suits and dresses passed, others standing around, watching, hands placed in front of them.

“They don’t very many cameras out in the main exhibit areas,” D explained. “Too boorish. But we can get a better picture of things if we look around the edges…”

Another tap.

“And if we keep our ears open!”

From the tablet’s speakers, a voice came through. It wasn’t the best quality, but I could make out who it belonged to.

Oh, sir, fancy seeing you, again. Didn’t know you were overseeing things.

Yes, I… Hello, sir.

I told you I had a date tonight.

It was Lawrence, and Sarah had to be at his side. I felt the muscles on my face tense up, and I realized I was frowning.

I tried to relax.

D and I went around one of the trucks, where it’d be harder for the workers to listen in or try anything.

“They’re in, and it sounds like they’re doing good,” D said. “Good.”

“Yeah, good,” I said. “How long until we move in?”

“Soon,” D said. “We keep listening for the keyword and I’ll send them in.”

“Alright. I’ll get prepared.”

A single hop got me on top of the truck. I had the bag with me. Opening it, I found my face staring back at me.

I changed quick. As the mask fit my face, I could feel myself settle. The clouds fell away from my mind and my eyes, and everything seemed so much more clear. The objective, the want to burn and burn out. It was all so tactile, the warmth on my face like a low fire. I let it crackle.

A single hop got me back down. I had the bag in my arms, crumbled, now that it was empty. I tossed it into the back of one of the storage trucks.

D was still watching the different camera feeds, listening to Sarah and Lawrence as they mingled among the elite, getting into position.

“Any updates?” I asked.

“Noooo,” D said, shaking her head.

“I’ll do a quick check on the rest, then. We have time.”

“Sure, but I’m about to set the cameras on a loop. You’re almost up.”

I offered a nod, but D didn’t see it. Too busy with her work, like how I needed to be with mine.

I got to it.

I did a quick check on the rest, seeing how the Fangs were doing. Pretty well.

They had already rounded up the workers, stuffing them in the back of one of the trucks. And we still had plenty of space to work with.

Some Fangs had already taken seats in the trucks, having gotten the keys from their original owners. I tapped the windows, and they signaled. Good to go.

Good to know.

“Vivi!”

D called for me the moment I had wrapped up.

I hopped back over the truck, clearing the whole thing. More for warming up than anything else.

“It’s showtime,” D said. She walked, and I walked with her.

The Fangs were waiting for me to give the word.

Those who weren’t securing the workers and trucks had been mobilizing, positioning themselves to the door leading into the gala. Guns pointed, shoulders square. Ready to move on my order.

A different kind of power from my super strength and healing, but power all the same. It felt good.

“Lawrence is about to take center stage,” D said. “The extras here will help fill out the place, make the show feel bigger.”

“And Sarah?” I asked.

“Gosh, Sarah, Sarah, it’s always her with you, lately.”

A warmth hit my face. A different kind.

“I-”

“I’m just kidding,” D said, flat. “She’s doing fine. Gauging audience reaction, making sure they’re into it.”

“Ha ha, Miss Director,” I said, sarcastic. “Did you want to do the honors, instead?”

D started bouncing a bit. “Wait, can I actually?”

“You can actually.”

“Yes! Okay, go! No wait, action!”

The Fangs had moment’s hesitation after the confusing way that came out, but it was only for that moment. They sprung to action, pushing through the doors and entering the gala.

D and I moved again, faster.

“You got your earpiece?” D asked.

I fished for it out from a hidden pocket of my bag. The strap around me was firm. It wouldn’t whip around in the wind.

“It’s in,” I said, tapping the button on the side. It turned on, and Lawrence’s voice entered my ear. It sounded fuzzy.

I’m curious what you think of this painting…

I caught the image of our Fangs as they maneuvered through the gala’s back halls. They had been briefed on the path, too, how to get through with minimal chance of running into trouble.

They appeared as small black dots on the grid, popping in and out as they passed different cameras. D had set up a loop through a transmitter, so they’d have a bit more cover getting in.

And that was only the first half. Getting in. Getting out? That was my part.

My turn.

“Everyone’s in place!” D called out, her voice raised. It would never be entertaining to hear her address gangsters like this. “Operation Smoke and Mirrors is in effect!”

D and her nicknames. At least she was having fun with it.

I jumped, crossing the lot, landing on the roof of a white van. I gave the side door a hard tap.

“Let’s move!” I ordered.

Tires squealed as they tried to get traction, then peeling out from the lot. If I didn’t already have a firm grip, I would have tumbled off the van.

Three white vans tore through the alley, ready to pierce the road on the other side. In my costume, masked, I held onto the roof of one of them.

It was time. Through the smoke and mirrors, we’d get Natalie Beckham and Oliver Morgan.

We were going to stage an art heist.

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096 – Stop the Presses

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There was an unsettling quiet that had settled in and around St. Elizabeth. A nebulous yet almost tangible barrier that felt thick to go through. Overbearing, making everyone who was coming in hold their tongues and work in silence. Which was something we didn’t need at the moment. We only had a limited amount of time to coordinate a plan, so communication was key. And I had just learned that we were severely lacking in that department.

Fangs were entering and exiting the church, bringing boxes in, taking splinters and broken glass out, and assessing the damage and cost of repairs. Cleaning out the blood. This was like a twisted version of stopping to smell the roses, even though to my nose, the smell was just as sweet. The last time I was here, I was in a mad rush trying to escape. I hadn’t been aware of just how much gotten broken in that escape.

I was always leaving messes like this? All this time?

Scary to think about, and I almost didn’t really want to. But, here I was, standing in the middle of it all, overseeing the clean up crew. I had to force myself to fight the instinct of just looking away. Put myself up close, put myself back.

Doesn’t mean I have to like it.

I walked across the altar, over to a group of my workers. They were putting some stuff back together, setting them into place. Heavy, fancy looking chairs, and a stone statue that had gotten knocked down, the head now missing. They were having trouble with the last one.

“Jordan,” I said.

A man turned, standing. Taller than me.

“Voss,” he replied, his voice deep. He wore a white shirt, baggy jeans. His hair was short, his eyebrows in a perpetual straight line. As if he was constantly bothered about something.

I tried not to bug him any more than I’d have to.

“Here, let me help with that.”

Jordan and the others moved out of the way. I crouched by the statue, hands hovering over it.

“So, where does this go?”

“Hell if I know. Never been in here before.”

“Oh yeah, right,” I said. “Guess I’ll just… set it somewhere, then.”

I grabbed the statue around its torso. I could feel the weight of it. Had to be a couple hundred pounds, easy, and it would be taller than Jordan when set upright.

The muscles in my arms tensed, and I lifted the statue off the ground.

My jaw was clenched, the muscles in my back were tight now, too, and I wobbled around trying to find a proper place to put this thing.

I adjusted my grip, so I could lift it without having to lean back so much, and shifted over to one end of the row of fancy looking chairs.

I set the statue down. The base of the thing landed with low thud, and it seemed to echo out throughout the rest of the church.

I stepped back, stretching, realizing that I was able to hear an echo.

Jordan and his group were standing a distance away, suspended in place, as if they had turned into stone. A few groups had stopped what they were doing, too, looking in my direction. Staring.

Ah, that’s right. The freak with the super strength.

I tried to play it off the best I could, hands down, walking to Jordan and his group. They remained frozen.

“Uh,” I started, “So you’ve been busy, talking with the others. What’s your take on getting everything back in working order?”

He someone managed to look even more bothered. He scratched his face, his hand in an awkward claw position. It looked stiff.

“Probably by tomorrow afternoon, maybe even before sunrise, if you were wanting to be an ass and work us to the bone.”

I took a glance for the reactions of the others. Not just his group, but everyone. Hunched over, not moving, and I knew they were all waiting for what I was going to say.

They weren’t being very subtle about it, but okay.

“I wouldn’t do that to you guys,” I told them, genuine. I had to raise my voice for it to carry across the church. “Take your time and do it however you need to. But, like, actually get it done though.”

I threw that last part in, haphazard. I was still working on that part of the job.

“Alright, Voss.”

He didn’t say or offer anything else.

Jordan and I stood there, his group just waiting around.

Okay.

“Alright,” I said, clapping my hands together, then setting them at my sides. I started backing away. “I’ll, uh, let you get back to it.”

“Alright.”

I went back in the other direction, turning around. I felt like an ass, regardless.

Darn it, Wendy, you need to be smoother than that.

I knew that much.

Standing on the altar, which was raised over the rest of the church, I scanned around at the different groups as they got back to work.

I saw Reggie leading one group, bringing in boxes, guiding people into a hall in the back of the church. Equipment and tools to fill in the armory, which was ours, now. I saw another group, sweeping dirt and shards into one corner to be scooped up later. People were working, mostly at their own pace, but if Jordan said they could get it done by tomorrow, I’d hold them to that. They set that timeline for themselves.

I also saw D.

She was sitting at the frontmost row, her arms around a stuffed bear, her head resting on top of his. Her feet barely touched the floor. Staring straight ahead, not looking at anyone or anything in particular.

I looked on, somewhat downcast. I wasn’t sure what to do with her.

A small shift in movement from one of the groups below. It caught my eye, and my attention.

Sarah was walking up to me, up some steps and over a few bullet casings. Hands together, careful and deliberate in her approach. Graceful.

“Hey Voss,” she said, joining me at the altar. Despite everything that had went down in the past few hours, she didn’t sound tired or out of sorts. It was admirable to hear. “I knew you were strong, but I’ve never seen up close before. You must have some pretty big muscles.”

I straightened out my clothes, trying to get out any folds or dust. Some crease remained.

“That’s where the super comes in, actually. I don’t have much under here. Probably less than when I first got my powers.”

“That’s something I’ll have to see for myself.”

“And Voss? Not you, too. I thought I had said something about that, already.”

Sarah gestured to the church around her.

“We are kind of on the clock, now,” she said.

I leaned back on my heels, hands set behind me, looking away.

“Oh, that’s right,” I mumbled.

Sarah moved over so she was standing beside me. She took her own scan of the building, observing everyone as they worked.

“So you’re going to use this place as your base?”

“Ah, yes, I am,” I said, fixing my posture. “It’s not a bad spot at all, and the church grounds cover a decent area. There are office buildings, places for storage, and the back area of the church itself has plenty of room, too, like the armory. And being here gives the Fangs more reach, as well. I don’t like how we got this place, but everything seems to check out.”

“But now you won’t be around as much anymore. I’ll miss you.”

I had no response to that. It even stunned me a little.

“It’ll work out,” I said, choosing to talk around it, instead. “I mean, it has to.”

“I’m sure it will. This place is going to be in good hands. With you being here, it gives me a reason to want to start going to church again.”

I almost laughed.

“Sounds like something Isabella would say,” I replied, absentminded.

Sarah didn’t comment or respond. There was a lull in the conversation.

Did I say something wrong? Did I focus on the wrong thing? Or was it how I said it?

I was beginning to think that I wasn’t very good at this kind of thing. Or, I’d have to tap into something I didn’t want to tap into. That experience, or connection.

Wasn’t Alexis better at more mundane things?

Not that this was a mundane situation or even conversation, but knowing how to navigate that might help me in other cases, like when dealing with gang leaders on a round table, dealing with Styx, or even just talking to Sarah. A reference point I could bounce off of.

“Someone call?”

Isabella was coming up the altar, joining us. Her hands tugged at her backpack straps, resting them there.

“What I meant was, I’m not used to being praised,” I said.

“Oh, but you should. You have a lot to be proud of.”

“You should learn to be more open to them, then,” Sarah said.

I shrugged.

“Maybe? It doesn’t feel… right, to me, since there isn’t much I’ve accomplished on my own. I’ve either needed help or I was trying to accomplish something by myself but I’ve needed to be, um, bailed out in the last second.”

Isabella groaned. I could imagine why.

“Looks like I’ll have to teach you how receive compliments,” Sarah said. She spoke with a certain, inviting inflection that caught my ear.

“Sure, shower me with praise. That should do it.”

“Sounds good. We can make a date of it.”

“A what?”

“We can make a day of it,” Sarah said.

“As if you have that kind of time,” Isabella said. “You don’t need more on your plate, Wendy.”

“Ugh, thanks for the reminder,” I said, sarcastic. I shook my head, and got a touch dizzy. The late hour was starting to affect me. “I’ve been so busy and everything has been so hectic that I barely have any time to breathe, anymore. Maybe I do need a break.”

Sarah smiled. “If it means anything, you definitely deserve one.”

“No,” Isabella said.

There was that doubt speaking, again. I’d learned to take stock in it, though. The moment I tried to relax might be the same moment it’d all fall apart, and I wasn’t ready to move. We worked in the underworld, and it was a cutthroat, volatile world, and we were among villains and violence. Which didn’t lead to much in the way of stability, so I always had to be diligent, always had to rely on others. Lawrence, D, and even Sarah and Isabella now, too.

But, it’d be nice to catch my breath, for once.

“We all deserve one, but we don’t get to have that luxury.”

That sounded like Lawrence. I looked back and saw him, coming out from the back, a door behind the altar. He joined up with us, making the group almost complete. We had one person sitting things out, right now.

“You should give up on the hope of ever sleeping eight hours again, and soon, or you’ll be very disappointed,” Lawrence added.

“Wow,” I said, “How doom and gloom of you.”

“That’s just how the world is, now, nobody gets enough rest these days. And if you are going to sleep, do it with one eye open.”

“Aye aye, captain,” Sarah said, joking. I noticed her trying to steal a glance at me.

I wanted to reply, mention how the lack of proper rest was factor in me fucking up the El Paso job. Losing some of the passengers we were transporting, almost losing Sarah and Isabella.

I didn’t bring it up.

Instead, I spread my arms, like I was showing off the church.

“So, Lawrence, you took a look around, what do you think?”

He surveyed the area.

“I think… it certainly suits you. Abandoned cathedral turned into gang headquarters, there’s an extended metaphor for sure.”

“Like what?”

Lawrence waved a hand.

“Something, something, former hero going bad, whatever. It’s too late for me to work my brain that hard.”

“Fair enough,” I said.

“Either way, it’s coming along, and it’s good you finally have your own base.”

“Not disagreeing with you there.”

I scratched the back of my head, thinking.

“But, there might be contention for this next part.”

Lawrence already knew what I was talking about. He looked past me, to the little girl sitting in the front pew, still hugging that stuffed bear.

“What are we going to do with D?” I asked.

“I thought we already discussed this.”

“That barely counts as a discussion. We reaffirmed where our focus needs to be now, and we moved here. We’re going to need specifics once we start getting together a proper plan on how to handle the journalists.”

Lawrence’s stare stayed on D, his expression hard to read. He breathed, hard.

“If you my honest opinion, I still wouldn’t want to bench her. D… she has her use, but she also has a tendency to act on her own, even if it goes specifically against what we had asked of her. It’s like she has a talent to make everything more complicated, and, as much trouble she had wrought upon me, I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for her. Can’t deny that. She is an asset.”

“Her and Wendy,” Isabella said.

“That just sounds off,” Sarah commented, “Referring to her as an asset. She is a person, you know. A kid.”

Lawrence paused. He breathed in, then out again.

“Fine, I get it. We’re just one big happy, circus freakshow of a family, aren’t we?”

Sarah smirked. “You said it, not me.”

“And D might actually feel better if you were to tell her that,” I added, part joking, part not actually.

Lawrence frowned.

“Are you serious?”

I answered, “Since you asked, sure, yeah.”

“I’m positive she’d appreciate it, especially if it came from you,” Sarah said. The ‘joking’ part was starting to weigh a little heavier on the scale, now, but we meant well.

“This is not what I came here to talk about,” Lawrence said.

I crossed my arms, and craned my head a bit.

“What did you come here to talk about, then?”

“Strategy,” Lawrence answered. “Not something haphazardly put together like earlier tonight, when we went to the meeting. I don’t want anymore unforeseen circumstances, not when we have a lot on the line. Reputation, momentum. If we nail this, we stand to gain so much.”

“Like a seat at the table,” I said. The same table that all those gang leaders sat at, and sat comfortably. I felt a stab of guilt, that Lawrence and I both wanted to be at that table, since we probably had very different ideas on what we’d do at that table once we got there.

I held my tongue.

Lawrence didn’t, though. “Exactly. So we need to get to planning and start making some moves by tomorrow morning. We start early.”

“It’s not like we’re going to be getting much sleep, anyways.”

“Take some caffeine pills if you need to.”

“Somehow I doubt that’ll work on someone like me.”

Lawrence shook his head. “Never mind. I have a few ideas we could start with, but it’s tough to when we can’t even meet with John Cruz, and we don’t even have proper invitations to the event at the art gallery, so we can’t even walk in.”

“Mrs. Carter doesn’t want any tangible connections to us, which makes sense, but yeah, it’s a pain in the ass. But you said you have something?”

“I have some things. Maybe. Being down at your new armory gave me some inspiration. But that’s why we’ll need D to get in on this.”

“You need D for help, or you want her?” Sarah said, teasing.

Lawrence didn’t look impressed. “What the fuck are you saying?”

Sarah motioned to the little girl in question. “I’m just saying. She’s in a funk right now, and while you can argue that it’s justified, she’ll need to be in top shape if she’s going to be the asset you claim her to be.”

“I thought didn’t like me using that word.”

“I don’t, but that’s not my problem. You want her, you’re going to need go over there pick her up. Be, you know, her knight and stuff.”

Lawrence shot a glare at me, as if I had something to do with this.

“Don’t look at me,” I said, “I didn’t drink at all tonight.”

Sarah hit me in the stomach. Her hand lingered for a second before pulling away.

“Whatever,” Lawrence said. He sounded irritated. “Wendy, come on.”

He was already walking without me, forcing to catch up. I looked back at Sarah and Isabella, and waved, apologetic. They didn’t seem to mind.

It wasn’t a long walk to D, but it felt like it. There was almost an aura of… uncomfortableness, that surrounded D, and it pushed against us as we approached her. It was hard to penetrate.

“D,” Lawrence said, with no warmth in his voice at all. So much for being a knight.

She lifted her head, slight. Her lips were set in a line, her hair partially in her eyes. None of the energy that I usually associated with her. That wasn’t right.

“Hm,” she sounded. No energy there, either. It sucked to hear her like that.

“We need to start talking plans.”

D didn’t reply right away.

“Okay. I’m game.”

“We only have a four days until the event at the art gallery, meaning we need to get things in motion soon in order to get ready for that, and there’s a shitton to consider. Like, who Natalie Beckham and Oliver Morgan are, and maybe even where they’re working from.”

“It might be possible that we can get to them before the art gallery event,” I said.

“There’s that, too. That could be ideal. But if that doesn’t work out, at least we know where they will be. We have a timeline.”

“And a clock to work against. So, Lawrence, what was it you had in mind, again?”

“Ah. Going from my earlier point, we might be able to get more information on them if we can find out if they have a base they return to, even on occasion. They might keep notes there, or tabs on who they’ve talked to, anything we could use.”

“Where do we start?”

“Based on what was in the folder Mrs. Carter gave us, they used to write for the Stephenville Impact. It was the biggest paper then, still is, so I doubt they’re somehow writing for someone else, much less for an independent blog.”

“So you want to walk right up to those offices and see if they’re in there?”

“I’m saying it’s a start. We probably shouldn’t announce our presence, or make ourselves known, but if we can get familiar with every point or possibility, there’s no way we can’t get this done. I’d want to visit the art gallery, too. I’m guessing the event is going to be some kind of exhibit, so there’ll be a lot of high profile people there. Politicians, businessmen. Mrs. Carter set this up for a reason. If we can completely control that space, we win.”

I was quiet. D was, too.

“Is that not good enough for you?” Lawrence asked.

I shook my head. “No, it’s not that. It’s… what does it mean to win, in this particular game? Think about what Mrs. Carter wants from us. She wants these two out of the picture. How far removed does she want them to be?”

The question hung over our heads, threatening to crush us with the sheer weight of it.

Lawrence managed to find an answer, or at least, one that pushed the question a little further away.

“Removed enough to satisfy her. For now, we focus on just isolating them. What happens after, we’ll figure that out when we get there.”

This is the world we operated in. A cutthroat, volatile one. And we’re the villains.

Not that any of this was supposed to be a surprise, but it wasn’t often we were faced with the reality of what we were doing, and what we had to do.

“We can’t kill them.”

Lawrence and I looked at D as she lifted her head, looking back at us.

“We can’t,” she reiterated.

I nodded, slow.

“Like what Lawrence said, we’ll figure it out later. For now, let’s just focus on how to get there.”

“Right,” Lawrence said. Then he turned to D. “Are you good to help us out?”

“I want to…” D said. It was like she wanted to say more, but she didn’t.

“There’s some shit we took from the Cobras that you might be able to work with. Flashbangs, smoke grenades, shit that hits a little harder than that. It kind of sucks that we took it all just to end up putting it back, but that’s not important. What is, though, is if you can take those apart and make something we can use.”

“Like what?”

“I can take you to the armory and give you a better idea. Is that okay?”

D hugged her bear.

“Hey,” Lawrence said. He paused. Then, before he spoke again, he moved to sit right next to her, closer than I’d ever seen him before.

“D… Yeah, you fucked up, there’s no debate there.”

“Good one,” I said.

Lawrence glared at me, then went back to D again.

But,” he emphasized, “If we can take this is as, as something to learn from, I think we’ll be in a much better position than we were before. I told the same thing to Wendy. She has value, and you don’t… not have that, too. So, if this is what it takes to get a better version of you, D, I can learn some forgiveness, on my end.”

“Aw, that was almost sweet,” I said.

Lawrence shot up from his seat, looking angry. It was kind of funny.

“God dammit. Must be this place, making me say all kinds of bullshit.”

“Yup, that’s it. Definitely.”

I heard a small snicker.

It was slight, but I saw D’s gap in her tooth. She was smiling a little, her lips parted.

“Thank you,” D said, her voice even smaller. Her chin nuzzled deeper into the bear’s head.

That seemed to catch Lawrence off guard.

“You’re, you’re welcome. Now come on, I have weapons to show you.”

D hopped out her seat, her hair bouncing. I reached over and fixed loose strands out of her eyes.

“You’ll be okay,” I said to her.

“I know,” D said in a breath, blinking. “What was it you’ll need, exactly?”

Lawrence answered that. “Tools, more info on these reporters, and a floor plan of the art gallery, a list of everyone attending as well. Oh, and one more thing.”

“What’s that?”

“I’ll need a costume of my own, too.”

I never thought just walking into a building could be so nerve-racking. Middle of the day, people all around, no mask, I never felt so exposed.

I walked through the revolving door, feeling nauseous, as though I was still spinning. I managed to get a few decent hours of sleep, but Lawrence meant it when he said early. Still groggy, still trying to get my bearings. The sun was barely rising, so it hadn’t dawned on me quiet yet, just how close we were about to cut it.

I went through the lobby of the building. The clean, white tiles reflected a harsh light into my eyes, as if I was walking on the a bulb of a spotlight, under an intense heat, my shadow swallowed up by the intense shine of everything. There was little room for any darkness, here, and that put me on edge.

I wasn’t wearing much cover, either. Just a black sweater with a white shirt peeking out underneath, black jeans and black sneakers. I was wearing a matching soft cap, but it didn’t seem like enough to block everything out. My eyes were squinting behind the glare of my glasses.

Normal clothes for a normal setting, yet the circumstances were anything but.

People in suits passed me by, off to handle their own business. On occasion, I had to check my surroundings, make sure I was heading in the right direction, but I still had to blend in, too. I couldn’t look so lost that I drew someone’s attention.

There it was. The elevators. Far side of the lobby. I crossed over, reading a sign by the long, mahogany counter that was the front desk, confirming the floor I needed to go on.

A receptionist raised his head, and I looked away before he could notice me.

I continued forward to a group of suits that had flocked to a nearby elevator. A lot of suits, but they were all huddled together, close.

I didn’t have to wait long before the doors opened up. A few people made their way out, but more entered than they did leave. I joined them, stepping inside the elevator.

There wasn’t a dedicated person to press the buttons, but someone was nice enough to stand by them and help out.

“Ten, if you will,” someone said.

“Sure.” The button lit up.

“Did someone press seven?”

“Just did.”

“Eighteen, please,” I said, adding my voice.

“Of course.”

The doors closed, and the elevator began to climb up. With every passing floor, every stop, my apprehension increased at every interval. I was cramped, with people all around me, my shoulders brushing against everyone else’s upper arm. There was a good chance that I was the youngest and shortest person in here, and that served to make me stand out even more. No one seemed to question my presence, though, being too absorbed with their own concerns.

By the time we past the tenth floor, enough people had filed out that I now had room to breathe. The effect was marginal, though, as I was getting more and more lightheaded as we ascended, higher and higher. I was able to see the window, now. The skyscrapers that made up the Eye dwarfed me, even as the elevator took me past some roofs.

A ringing sound, and the smooth sound of metal doors sliding open. The eighteenth floor. I stepped out.

The doors closed behind me. No going back now.

I bit my tongue as I arrived.

Another receptionist. A woman this time. Black, overweight. She noticed me.

“Hello,” she said, kind. Somehow, it surprised me.

I had to compose myself again.

“This is the Stephenville Impact offices, right?”

The woman gave me a look.

“You got this far and you still have to ask?”

I tightened up even more. “I…”

“Relax, sweetie, you’re at the right place. How may I help you?”

“I was wondering if Natalie Beckham was in at the moment? Or Oliver Morgan, if he was available?”

The reaction from the receptionist was subtle, but there. A slight lowering of her eyebrows, her expression more curious than welcoming.

“And what business do you have with them?”

I had the story straight in my head. I told it.

“I heard through the grapevine that they were doing a story on John Cruz. I might have some info that could be useful.”

The receptionist grabbed a notepad and a pen, and started jotting stuff down.

“Name and position?”

Shit, thought so. Cutting it closer and closer.

“Wendy, and I had an interning position at Mr. Cruz’s campaign office during the race.”

“Alright…” She kept writing.

“Are they around?” I asked, nervous.

She stopped writing, then turned her attention to me.

“Unfortunately, they are not, but I can take a number and have them call you when they get a chance.”

No, no.

“They don’t have an office here I can wait in?” I asked.

“They do not.”

That was telling. They didn’t have an office. Were they working from somewhere else? Where, then?

“Do they come here often?” I asked.

The receptionist jotted something down on the other side of the paper. Notes on me, probably, and that got me even more nervous, and I had already reached new heights.

“They do, when they have to meet with Mr. Edison. But, the best way for you to reach them is if you give me your number, and they will contact you when they are available.”

I couldn’t have that. One cut too close.

“Could I possibly stay here until they show up?” I asked.

She was steadily growing more annoyed with me. Fair, I was pushing my luck.

“Wendy, was it?”

Again, I bit my tongue. Harder.

“Yes,” I said, tense.

She set her notepad and pen to the side.

“You can have a seat there, behind you. Granted, they might not swing by at all, today.”

“That’s fine,” I said, “Thank you.”

I’m prepared to wait.

Moving to a row of chairs, I was able to take in the actual office of the paper. It looked utilitarian in design, like how I’d imagine a generic office interior to be like. Maybe it was a little more busy than the standard office setting, with almost everyone who was at a cubicle chatting with others, talking on a phone, or running from one end of the floor to the other, or straight to elevators. Reporters chasing leads, probably. The energy was so manic, it was scary to think the that kind of energy might be directed to us. As manic as it was precarious.

I wasn’t the only one sitting, waiting. Someone was across from me, a thin man with a bag slung across a shoulder. Young, maybe he was here for a job interview?

I had to shake my head. I was wandering. The early hour made it easy for my thoughts to get away from me.

Instead, I took out my phone. I already had a text typed in, ready to go. I read it over one more time, then sent it.

Then, I waited.

My fingers tapped against my thigh, my feet pressing into the floor. It was tough, to try and act normal. I wasn’t used to wearing that mask.

I picked up my phone again. I stared at a blank, black screen, tapping on it to give the impression that I was actually using it. I wouldn’t be able to focus on anything else. All I could do was pretend.

There were a few directions that this could have gone. For one, the reporters could have actually been here, and I’d have to talk to them. A frightening possibility, but a very real one. If things had went that way, I’d try to feed them disinformation, or act incompetent enough to throw off any suspicion while trying to see if there was anything I could get from them. That was a type of scheme I wasn’t really skilled at, but I’d have to step it up. Everyone was going to work even harder to pull this job off, and I had to match them in that effort.

And then, there was this. I wasn’t able to get what I needed, but I’d at least be able to provide support, even from sitting here, completely innocuous.

I had sent my text. Plan number two. In a sense, this was better for us in the long run. Better than me fumbling in front of two seasoned journalists, anyways.

Ten, fifteen minutes had to have passed. I waited some more.

The elevator doors opened. A man in a brown uniform stepped through, wheeling in a stack of boxes, with the same matching logos printed on the side. A bear. On top of the stack was an actual teddy bear, about two feet in height.

He went up to the desk, getting the woman’s attention.

“Teddy gram delivery,” the delivery man said, dry.

“Kind of late for Valentine’s, isn’t it?” the receptionist questioned.

“All I know is to send this thing, here.”

“May I ask who it’s for? Who it’s from?”

“Can’t say who it’s from, but it is for Janet Haugland in accounting.”

“We don’t have a Janet in accounting.”

The delivery man scratched his head.

“No? Is this not Langston and Associates?”

He was making it hard not to laugh. He was so stilted.

“This is the offices for the Stephenville Impact, sir.”

“Oh, well where am I supposed to go?”

“Langston is three floors down from here.”

“Three floors down… And what floor are we on, exactly?”

“We’re… we’re on the eighteenth floor.”

“So three down from eighteen. That’s fifteen, am I correct? Just want to make sure.”

She grimaced. It was too early in the day to already grimace at someone, but he got her to do just that.

“Is this a prank?”

I was so close to breaking into a nervous laughter, it was dangerous.

Before I could, the elevator doors opened another time. Another man, wearing sunglasses, this time with a dog. Walking blind, using the dog to guide him.

It was a big dog. Rottweiler. Short hair, big teeth, a lot of muscle.

Seeing it knocked any wind out of me. I tensed, and then the dog did as well.

Didn’t take long for chaos to erupt.

The dog locked eyes on me, and immediately snapped. It barked, growled, yelped, tugging against its chain, metal links clinking together. One animal made more noise than everyone else did on this on floor.

I backed up, hanging off the edge of my seat. He’d better have a handle on the dog.

The man with the sunglasses, pulled again, clearly struggling, yelling the barking.

“Russel, Russel! Ay cool it!”

The dog wasn’t obeying, tugging even harder, until it was choking itself against its collar. The dog struggled to break free and attack me, the man struggled to rein him in.

I got out of my chair, the dog was winning out in that struggle. I checked around.

The man was sitting across from me was standing, too, backing away from the dog. The receptionist was up as well, wary, unsure what her next move was supposed to be. A lot of eyes were on the scene, on me. Their focus and attention had been redirected.

I didn’t see the delivery man.

“Sit, Russel, sit!”

The dog wasn’t listening.

Okay, this was cutting it even closer. It wouldn’t be long until those cuts started landing.

More commotion. Coming from behind me.

People. Running up to us, to me. Pulling me away.

“Hey, get moving!”

Others were trying to get to the man, but his dog was putting himself between them, eyes and teeth still trained on me.

“Sir, could you get your dog out of here, maybe come back another time?”

“I’m sorry, Russel isn’t normally like this!”

“I understand that, sir, but if he can’t calm down, he’ll have to go outside. Or I’ll have to call security!”

Hearing that, the man pulled even harder to get the dog to turn around. He made some progress, but at the cost of twisting the dog around, more whimpering than it was growling, now. Still doing all that it could to get at me.

Someone led me back to the receptionist desk, putting more distance between me and the dog. More of a surprise, seeing people immediately jump to help another. The world I operated in didn’t call for much selflessness.

The dog, despite all its bark and its attempt to bite, eventually gave way to its owner, letting itself be dragged back to one of the elevators. The farther it got, the less feral it became.

“Sorry!” the man said, raising his hand to wave, before having to drop it again on the leash, the dog still tugging against it. “I’ll come back another time!”

The doors opened, and they both went into the elevator. The, the doors closed, leaving behind only ringing ears and pounding hearts.

I leaned against the receptionist’s desk, turning to the woman again. Everyone started to disperse as the situation cooled down.

“Wow,” I said, my eyes widened for effect. “Is there another place here I can wait so I’m not around when they come back?”

The woman’s eyes widened, too. Her hands dashed for her notepad and pen again. She scribbled.

“You know what, sweetie, here. That’s Ms. Beckham’s number. Use that.”

She tore the paper and handed it to me.

“Oh, are you sure?” I asked. I took it anyways.

“I am very,” she said.

From the corner of my eye, I saw the delivery man return. He still had the big teddy bear, but from the stack he had brought with him, a box was missing.

“Then, thank you,” I said. I gave the woman a curt nod, then took my leave. I followed the delivery man to the elevators. He pressed down, and I went in with him.

“Ground floor?” he asked.

“Yes, please.”

“Having a good morning so far?”

“I am now,” I answered.

The trip down was like an inverse of the trip going up. Less pressure, less stress as I went back down. It felt faster, too, to my actual relief.

When we got back to the ground floor, we went in different directions. The elevator filled with people as I left.

I found an exit on the side of the building. I was jogging to it as I got closer, pushing through the doors.

I practically growled a sigh of relief as I put the building behind me. Some people looked, it wasn’t ladylike, but I didn’t really give a shit.

I did it, we did it.

Taking the long way, turning more corners than I had to, I saw the parking garage. I picked up the pace now that I had my destination in my sights.

There were a few cars parked on the side of the road. A van, painted to look like a delivery truck.

A door slid open, and I slid right inside.

Sarah closed the door, and the van got started. D peeled us out of the parking spot, getting onto the road proper.

“Welcome back, Voss,” Sarah said. We were on the clock, but she did sound happy to have me back.

“I’m glad I managed to make it back,” I said.

In the passenger’s side, someone looked over. A man in a brown uniform, like he was off to deliver something.

“Good work, Wendy,” Lawrence said. “You played it cool, gave me an opening.”

“No, if it weren’t for Jordan this wouldn’t have worked out as well. And the-”

“Insurance? I followed D’s advice, I put them where no one would look, or question.”

“Awesome, and I got Natalie’s phone number. With D’s help, we should be able to track her down.”

“Yeah,” D said. “We, we should.”

“Fuck yes.” For the first time since I’d known him, Lawrence looked pleased.

“Then, that’s it,” I said. It was nearly impossible to believe. “Day one, and we got phase one locked down. What’s next?”

Lawrence answered. “Now, we need to start perusing some art. And see if there’s any we’d like to take for ourselves.”

Previous                                                                                               Next

095 – Cutthroat

Previous                                                                                               Next

Lawrence checked his phone for the third time in two minutes. One more for good measure.

“She’s late.”

He was mumbling to himself, but we all heard him.

There was a low rumble as the car was set to park, music just barely above the noise. It was Lawrence’s car, but it was Sarah’s music. Similar in style and genre from what she had shown me before, and I had grown to like it under its own merits. My head bobbed, and my fingers tapped to the rhythm.

It reminded me of the first time I rode with Sarah. On the way to El Paso, we talked about various things, and put those things into a new perspective. One of the few moments I could look back on with any kind of fondness. We were westward bound, but the trip went south, in a manner of speaking.

There were a few key differences, this time. For one, Lawrence was here, and that changed the dynamic. With the constant phone checking and mumbling, there seemed to be less room to relax or have any sense of calm settle in. It fit for someone like Lawrence, though. I hadn’t ever known him to be someone who could take it easy.

The second difference was that I wasn’t sitting in the passenger’s seat. I was in the back, unable to shake off the feeling that I was the third wheel, even if that wasn’t the case at all. If anything, Sarah would have a reasonable stake to that claim, and she seemed to be handling herself just fine. I was the one who had trouble keeping it cool in that situation, and I hadn’t even drank anything.

Maybe it was having to be here, seeing the sides of their face and the nape of their necks. A small but noticeable distance, but there was a degree of separation, there.

Lawrence’s car, Sarah’s music. And me, hanging on in the back.

I wished I had something to contribute, to feel more involved in things. I wished I was sitting next to Sarah.

I tried saying something, to add my voice and input.

“Just give it some time, they’ll be here soon enough.”

“They?” Lawrence questioned. “All D has to do is get out of the building and come meet us here, it shouldn’t take her that long.”

“You say that like sneaking into a skyscraper and having to find and climb and crawl through the appropriate vents is as fast as taking the elevator. Not to mention having to sneak out.”

“If anyone could do it and do it fast, it’d be her. She freaks me out with what she’s able to do, but, I can’t say she doesn’t have her use.”

“Aw,” Sarah said, making a tune out of the sound. “Is that your way of complimenting her?”

Lawrence made a sound, but it was more noise than melodic.

“No. Put it like that and you’ll make me sick.”

Sarah laughed. It had such a light, breezy tone to it, yet it made something in my chest seize up, tight. I wasn’t sure what to label that feeling as or where it was coming from.

“Y’all are funny,” she said, and the way she phrased it made me think I was included in that, too.

“Funny how?” I asked.

“I was just saying…” she said, but she left it at that.

I didn’t believe her.

I brought my arm around the seat, trying to poke at Sarah.

“No, tell me.”

Sarah wiggled around, trying to get away.

“Ow, what?”

“I said tell me.”

“It’s not, hey, I didn’t mean, quit it!”

I kept poking at her, and she kept twisting, leaning forward in a futile escape. It was probably just reflex, but she was laughing, ticklish, and that only made me want to do it more. Her voice reached a high pitch.

Lawrence cleared his throat.

“Guys, really?” he questioned, stern. He wasn’t looking at us, though. He checked his phone again, then flipped through another page in the folder. “You should be looking through this too, Wendy.”

I backed up from Sarah, leaving her alone. She was panting, her laughter dying down in fits. I kind of wanted to rev her up again.

But, I refocused my attention as I said, “I’ll sort through it with D when she gets here.”

Lawrence grunted. Another mumble, but it slipped past me, that time.

I added, “Hey, it’s not my fault there’s only one copy to pass around.”

“Should have asked for it while I was driving.” He flipped through some more pages, taking them out of the folder. “You know what, here.”

He handed me the pages. I took them from him, starting off with a cursory glance. Better to not meet with D and be completely blind to what we were up against. It was material I needed to familiarize myself with, because it was a job that was assigned to us, and I wouldn’t want to be the reason why it got botched. No, I’d have to do this properly, it was only fair to D and Lawrence. Even to Sarah, now that she was here.

Natalie Beckham and Oliver Morgan. Two journalists who were trying to disrupt Stephenville’s underworld, to dig it up and expose it to the light. Not unlike what I had in mind, but I’d go for something that burned a little brighter than just mere light.

If these were the same journalists that Lawrence was worried about, then our interests did align with Mrs. Carter’s, as she had put it. They were poised to disrupt our plans, too, if they were allowed to continue. We couldn’t let them get that far, wouldn’t. And to do that, I’d have to read up on our enemies. A very rare opportunity, and I learned to not let that go to waste.

I read through the bylines, the articles written by Natalie, photos taken by Oliver. It seemed like they covered local crime in Stephenville years ago, occasionally writing stories on gang leaders who were looking to sink their teeth in the city. They hadn’t managed to take down the larger, more established gangs, though. Not even Styx, and he was more… out there, than the rest.

It wasn’t for lack of trying, though. Attached were several drafts, printed out with some notes scrawled in the margins, most of them dating back to about a decade ago. Some of them concerned the larger gangs, but there wasn’t much detail, just some speculation and suggestions on leads to follow. Styx was brought up on several occasions. This could have been a gold mine for us, but there wasn’t enough to extrapolate anything. It felt so… curated. But, considering who these articles were provided by, it’d make sense not to give up something that had the potential to incriminate. It was just for us to get a feel for these two and their reporting.

Outside of that, though, how did Mrs. Carter get a hold of these? What was her line of access? How much did she actually know?

I saved my questions for later. We’d have a proper discussion once D got here. Which I hoped was soon. I was starting to worry.

“Any word from D yet?”

Lawrence looked at his phone.

“No. I thought you were the one who told me to be patient? Now you can’t wait anymore?”

“Geez. I can’t catch a break with you, can I?”

“Nope.”

I breathed out loud, making it obvious on purpose. Sarah snickered to herself.

“Before then, is there anything that sticks out to you?” I asked.

“Everything,” Lawrence answered. “This whole thing makes me uneasy.”

“Glad to know I’m not the only one.”

“That doesn’t make me feel any better.”

“Sorry.”

“No it’s… I’ll text D again.”

The phone buzzed in my pocket. I wouldn’t bother taking it out until I felt another one.

There was a lot of waiting, and there wasn’t much time.

Maybe we shouldn’t have left D alone, or at least have her sit this one out. It wasn’t like we could just have her sitting with us at that table. As far as image went, having D there would contrast the other gang leaders to the point of absurdity. There probably would have been more ‘no’ votes if they knew, exactly, who they were saying no to. But, at the same time, was this something we wanted assigned to us?

Styx was there. I wasn’t aware of that when went in. It was good call to have her not be within the walls of that room…

D did suggest that she’d sneak around and try to give us an advantage. Did she know that Styx would be there?

I flipped through another article. I breathed out, more quiet that time.

Couldn’t let my thoughts wander.

It was a bad habit, staying in my head for too long, mulling over what had happened and what it could all possibly mean. Dangerous, even. And I was supposed to be getting away from that, to not slip in the usual spots, to be better.

D needs to be here, already.

I reached out.

“Uh,” I started, just wanting to say something, but I didn’t have a proper thought prepared.

“Uh,” Sarah repeated, doing an impression of me. From just a small noise, it sounded pretty close.

“Huh?” Lawrence sounded almost incredulous.

One upside to being in the back. No one saw me when I smiled, feeling dumb, at the fact that Sarah had responded first.

“Nothing,” I said. I leaned over, resting my forehead against the back of Sarah’s seat. Putting more of my face into the shadow.

“I’d reach over and poke you if I could,” Sarah said.

“I’d like to see you try,” I said.

“Are you serious?” Lawrence questioned. My phone buzzed. “Fucking finally, christ. Come on.”

Lawrence pushed a button where the ignition was supposed to be, and the car stopped its rumbling. He opened the door. A chill came in, and he got out.

Sarah and I followed him outside.

The rain wouldn’t let up, but it had eased off as it got darker, later into the night. Not strong enough to really need an umbrella, but I really didn’t like getting wet.

Lawrence went without his umbrella, but Sarah had taken it for her own use. Without me saying anything, Sarah moved to my side, holding the umbrella above our heads. She walked in step with me, Lawrence ahead of us.

There were much more important matters to consider and think on, but they were all drowned out by my internal screaming.

“You can hold your liquor pretty well,” I commented. “Everything considered.”

“Oh yeah?” Sarah said, just barely over the rain, tapping on the umbrella. “To be perfectly honest, I’m freaking out.”

Was that an admittance or a joke? Somewhere in the middle?

“Me too,” I said, at the same volume, with the same kind of vagueness.

We walked across the lot, to the park. Peace Phoenix Plaza. Still in the Eye, but it was close and out of the way enough, and we needed to meet up as soon as we could. Though, if D was going to take forever in getting here, we could have just went over to the church, instead, using the keys that-

Thrown at me by Styx.

Maybe it was best if we stayed away for now. Could be a trap. It sort of was one the last time we were there.

I shook my head. My thoughts were getting away from me, again.

Reaching again, this time for my phone. I wanted to read D’s text. Her van wasn’t anywhere to be seen as we crossed the parking lot.

Orange lamplights illuminated the path ahead of us, making it easier to walk forward while my eyes and attention were elsewhere. Having Sarah huddled close helped too, in other ways.

Rain thumped on plastic, then hair. Sarah went a few steps ahead of me before she turned.

“Everything okay?”

I left a pause before I answered.

“I don’t think so.”

That caught Lawrence’s ear. He turned back and walked closer to Sarah.

“How?”

I showed him my phone. The message log of our group chat.

“Did you read D’s text?” I asked.

“Yes, we have to go over to the bridge at the south end of the park. D parked over there.”

I flicked the screen. The chat scrolled up towards earlier texts.

“Read it again, D doesn’t text like that.”

Lawrence looked at the screen, then his own. Comparing the most recent message with the ones D had sent before.

“It’s different,” Lawrence observed. “It’s off.”

“D doesn’t really bother with stuff like grammar or spelling.”

“You’re… yeah. It didn’t take me a second longer to know what she actually meant.”

Then Lawrence looked at me directly.

“You think D didn’t text us?”

“I’m saying I have doubts, and we need to be careful moving forward.”

“Got a plan?”

I nodded. “I’ll go ahead, scope things out. I’ll call or text you if it’s all clear.”

“That’s it? You don’t even have a knife on you.”

“I don’t want you to get hurt,” Sarah said.

I raised my other hand, palm facing forward.

“I won’t do anything hasty. I’ll just go first and take a look, just in case. If it’s nothing, great-”

“And if it’s something…”

Lawrence trailed off, and I didn’t want to continue the thought from there.

“Okay,” he then said, without much deliberation. Not much time for that. “Go. Be quick, but be careful. We’ll wait here.”

I started moving, passing Lawrence. There was a shock between my fingers.

My hand flinched. I had passed Sarah, her hand had brushed against mine. Nothing else was exchanged or said.

Oh shit.

Was that something I needed to address? There was so much on my plate already.

I concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. I was so dizzy.

That sensation lessened the farther I got away from Sarah and Lawrence, swallowed instead by doubt, but at least that was a feeling I was familiar with. I could work with doubt.

I started jogging down the path, passing others who were out on a stroll. Some were by themselves, some walked as a couple.

How nice, to see something normal.

I blinked as water went past my glasses and into my eye. I picked up the pace.

A fountain came into view. I went around it, passing a statue of a large bird of prey and an assortment of different art installments. One was a series of rings, interconnected and intersecting, until it looked like a web of wires and metal, an entangled mess than anything resembling art. I didn’t quite get it, myself, but I didn’t have to. I walked right past it without a second thought.

Turning to another section of the park, I hurried down the path, looking for anything or anyone that I could recognize, ally or not. At least I’d know I was getting somewhere.

I stopped.

There.

I saw Isabella, by a path that went under a bridge. She had originally gone with D to ride around the club we were meeting that other gang at, then offering to watch the van while D was out. Knowing that Isabella was there helped me feel better about D being where she was, even when Styx turned out to be there, too. A sort of solace I could fall back on.

There she was. I looked ahead and saw D, too. And then Styx.

My blood ran cold.

Under the bridge, as if they were hiding in the shadows, Styx was closer to D than he was to Isabella. Within arm’s reach, because he had an arm around her, holding and keeping her at his side. I was close enough to see D’s reaction to the whole thing. It was a bodily one, trying to get out of his grip, squirming.

I felt it as much as she seemed to.

Moving to the edge of the path, by some hedges, I was being tugged between two different urges. To lunge right at Styx and tear him apart, or sit back for three seconds and text Lawrence.

An almost impossible decision that took over four seconds of deliberation, and I had used up enough time that I might as well have contacted him.

Or was that me learning from past mistakes? To not rush in, headlong?

Couldn’t pat myself on the back, though. Didn’t feel right.

Lawrence replied. Faster than my hesitation. Bless him.

A short message. It was a blur as I skimmed through it. The brevity of it and the few letters I caught was enough for me to make a move in confidence.

Fuck him up.

I lunged.

I went off the path, going around the bushes and trees. Staying out of the light, staying in the dark. A rush went through me, like all my anxiety was being burned into something I could use. Fuel. A kind of bloodlust.

I blinked, and it was sudden. Styx was against the underside of the bridge. There was a curve to it, so Styx was pressed into it at an awkward angle, his back at an arc.

Sounds popped off around me. Isabella’s cheer, D’s surprised shriek, and Styx’s hard grunt into a strained but still raucous laughter.

“Hey! Look at you go!”

Shut up, I willed, then pressed him more into the brick bridge. I had pounced on him, fast, abrupt. Something should have been broken or cracked, but from the way he wouldn’t shut up, it didn’t seem like I had done a thorough enough job.

“Who took the leash off of you? Because I’ll have to thank them for finally making you so interesting.”

“Unless you’re willing to answer my questions, you’d best shut the fuck up.”

Styx cackled, and it only served to piss me off even more.

“Wendy.”

I turned my head, still pushing into Styx. It was D, her hands together, her eyes downward, staring at my feet rather than my face. Isabella walked closer, looking between D and Styx. Concern for her, contempt for him.

Styx managed to shift his head, too, looking in their direction.

“Ah, yes, if you want answers, why don’t you ask her? I’m sure she has something you’d like to hear.”

“I’m not asking her. I have you now, and you can still talk.”

“There’s no fun in that, I’m just an old man!”

“You’re not giving yourself much reason for me to keep you alive.”

“Oh, there’s plenty of reasons, believe me, but how about we go with the one that’s most fun. Come on, ask her, ask her!”

Styx growled the words, as if he was the one with the power in this situation.

I checked around me one more time. Isabella, D. No one else here. Might not stay like that for long. Random civilians, or maybe even Sarah and Lawrence.

D was still wasn’t looking at me.

“D,” I said, as a test, as a reach.

D’s gaze flicked upward, but not meeting me directly.

“What the fuck is he talking about, D?”

She wasn’t answering. I glanced at Isabella, who only offered a shrug. She was as lost as I was.

D,” I intoned, and it wasn’t a question or a suggestion. A command.

She flinched, her fingers twisting together. She opened her mouth, or rather, she let it hang.

“Styx was waiting for me when I got out of the vents. He caught me.”

“Why was he looking for you?” I asked D.

She went silent again.

Styx spoke, even when he wasn’t being spoken to. “I was wondering where she was, didn’t take me long to figure it out. You know, Mrs. Carter requested that everyone show up for the interview, evaluation. She’s not going to be very pleased if she finds out the Fangs were short a tooth.”

“Why were you looking for her?” I asked Styx.

“Wendy-”

“No!” Styx hollered, before cackling again. “I’ll take this one, lo, since you’ve elected to keep yourself choked up.”

He twisted himself around even more, so I could see the wide white of both of his eyes. The sort of flexibility that looked painful, yet he did it with a twisted grin on his face.

“I just wanted to say hi.” He said it like he was taunting me.

With how he was overextending the limits of his spine, and with my hands forcing him more into the brick, it would have been so easy to snap him in half. Wouldn’t need a knife or gun to do it, too.

“What?” I questioned.

“It’s been a minute since I’ve seen you all, seen D, and I was so disappointed that she wasn’t at the table. I just wanted to say hi, catch up.”

Been a minute, been a while…

Didn’t we ask D to check up with Styx after coming back from the church? That was only a few nights ago.

“D,” I said, at a lower register. I watched her. So stubborn.

D!”

I snapped at her.

Her eyes snapped upward, finally meeting mine. It took that much work to get something out of her.

“Did you do like we asked?” I tried to phrase it so only D could catch the actually meaning, but I was afraid that Styx already had us beat.

The reactions were about what I had come to expect, which didn’t inspire a lot of confidence in me. D was quiet, and Styx wasn’t.

I let go of Styx. He slid down the curved wall of the bridge, the side of his face against brick. He twisted himself around so he was leaning up on the wall, supporting himself, his laughter still ringing in my ears.

“Shut your mouth,” I told him, “Or I’ll lock it shut with the keys you gave me.”

“Oh, that’s a good one. Shows creativity.”

I scowled at him, but that only served to make him more elated.

I turned my ire to someone else, instead.

“The last fucking thing I want is for this guy to be right, D. So if you’re not going to talk, you better give me something.”

That something was delayed, as footsteps came up from the path behind Isabella and D. Sarah and Lawrence, they had caught up.

Everyone turned and reoriented themselves in the moment.

“The fuck are you doing here, Styx?” Lawrence asked. He was fully incredulous, that time. He probably only had the confidence to speak like that because Styx was several feet away, on the ground, scratched and bleeding on some parts of this face.

Sarah moved around Styx, like there was an invisible barrier around him. She beckoned for Isabella and D, to get them under her umbrella. They took slow, reluctant steps to her, still facing Styx like he was an animal that could attack at any moment. Maybe he could. Styx’s Ferrymen could be out there, somewhere, waiting for a signal from their leader.

I should have felt better that Sarah was here. Lawrence, too. I didn’t. There was a rotten feeling in my stomach and gullet, and it wouldn’t go away.

We’ll focus on D, later.

“Just here to congratulate all of you,” Styx said. He had been laughing so hard and for so long that his voice started to sound hoarse. “I would have done it up there if you had all been present. I just really wanted to.”

“You know damn well that we don’t need your goodwill,” Lawrence said.

“Oh, you don’t? Because you wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for me, boy.”

“I wouldn’t have been beaten half to death if it weren’t for you, either.”

Styx made a face, as if he had to think about it.

“Ah, that’s right.”

The man laughed again, more rough than ever.

This isn’t it. This isn’t right.

When I spoke, that taste was still there. I felt like spitting bile.

“Styx, I really don’t believe that’s all you’re here for. We already got we needed from Mrs. Carter. You being here is just keeping us from doing our job, and with how important it seems to be to her, fucking it up for us probably isn’t in your best interests.”

The laughter immediately stopped. The sound of light drizzle reigned. It was eerie.

“Do you think you have control here, Voss? That, because I’m down here, you have something you can hold over me? Real power?”

He sprung to his feet. A surprising swiftness that I wasn’t expecting.

Styx loomed over me. He was tall. He was bleeding, but it didn’t seem to bother him one bit.

“Because I can assure you, blueballs, that could not be further from the truth, which is something you continually turn a blind eye to, little Dolly won’t speak on, and El doesn’t actually want to hear. Fitting, since you were tasked to kill it. It’s actually very funny, I applaud Mrs. Carter.”

“Excuse me?”

Styx turned to Lawrence.

“I’m just here to set y’all straight before you tackle the big job. Help you get on the same page, or else you’ll all get torn apart from the inside. And as fun as that to observe from the side, I have bread to make. Haven’t set every duck in a row to operate on a smaller scale. Not yet.”

He fixed his leather jacket, tilting his head until I heard something pop.

“And until that happens, I’ll guide you along. I’ll just have my fun in seeing where I can take you.”

That didn’t sound foreboding at all.

“So the church really is good to use?” I asked.

“Good as holy water,” Styx said, but nothing he said gave me any assurance. He didn’t have the tone or even the context for it.

“Not a single bit of this feels right to me,” I said. “Mrs. Carter, the table, this job, you. Why the hell would we believe that you’re approaching this with any kind of goodwill?”

“Doesn’t that give you the best kind of thrill? Thinking that you have to make that gamble? How about this, let’s make it my second favor, that you have to take me on my word.”

I wanted to throw him into the brick again, paint this whole section of the bridge in red.

His second favor, meaning there was still one more.

“This is just one big joke to you, isn’t it?” I asked.

“Life is just one perspective shift away from being a tragedy or a comedy, and I prefer a longshot.”

“God dammit, Styx, if this is another trap I swear I’ll break your bones.”

“Not a trap, promise.” Styx grinned, wide. “The people voted you in for the position. I didn’t have a say in it, neither did Mrs. Carter. You got lucky with Santino. See? That just makes it all the more interesting for everyone involved. I’m on the edge of my seat, and I’m vibrating.”

“You tried to get Wendy killed! Everything with Solace is because of you!”

I didn’t expect Sarah to jump in and back me up, but I wasn’t opposed to it.

“I didn’t try to do anything,” Styx said, still looking at me. “I had a job to do, and so did Victor. Sometimes, those tasks overlapped, other time, we tried to have our fun when and where we could. It can hard, working different shifts.”

Every word that slithered out of his mouth offended me, making my head ache all the more. Nothing seemed to make sense, as if everything was a riddle, but only Styx knew what he was getting at, and what the possible answer would be, if there even was one. There was a chance he was saying things just to throw me off.

Paranoia and doubt. I knew more of those things than I did peace and quiet.

Styx had continued while I was sifting through my thoughts, somewhat distracted. “In the end, I did give Victor over to you, didn’t I? It’s a gesture, much like the keys. A sign of… well, is faith nothing more than just an illusion?”

The whites of his eyes and teeth seemed to take up more and more real estate on his face. It disturbed.

“Victor, Remus… Solace, he set it up so he could sabotage the transport. People died. He tried to kill me.”

“He had his job to do.”

“You knowingly put a wolf in sheep’s clothing and hid him in the herd. What happens afterwards is still on you.”

“Maybe it is.”

Maybe it is.

Enigmatic, cryptic. It was everything I despised. Everything I didn’t want to think about.

Styx adjusted his jacket again, brushing dirt off of his shoulders.

“Well, it looks to me I’m not wanted, here, so I’ll take my leave. Like I mentioned, I just wanted to see your faces one more time. Who knows, it might be my last chance to savor it.”

He had the audacity to take a step back and start walking away.

“And you think you can just go, just like that?” Lawrence asked.

“I know I can, El, so I will. Maybe if you weren’t tweaking so hard, your senses would be working properly.”

Lawrence didn’t respond, and I didn’t get to see the reaction on his face. I was transfixed on Styx, as he walked to the other side of the bridge, chuckling to himself.

“I’ve said too much, then. I’ll let you all sort yourselves out. It was good seeing you all again, especially you, D. Please actually come by again, don’t be a stranger.”

No response from D, either.

I’d tell you to go to hell, Styx, but you already take regular trips.

I wanted to say that, I wanted to spit that at him with venom.

Styx got farther away, and hardly a breath passed my lips.

I clenched my teeth and my fists, until fingernails dug into my palms, until my jaw was tense.

Styx turned, walking backwards. Grinning.

“Oh! Before I forget, I wanted to leave you all with a word of advice. The real reason I was here. Nat and Oli? You should know better than to underestimate them. They’re good. So all I wanted to say is, I hope you’ve cut enough ties, so they don’t come back to choke you.”

Then, with his back to us now, Styx raised his hand, waving. He stepped out from under the bridge, to the other side of the path. From each side of that particular opening, bikers emerged, as if from the shadows, stalking over from the bridge to Styx, forming a mob until I couldn’t see Styx anymore.

His other Ferrymen. His actual insurance.

Goddamn you, Styx.

There was so much I wanted to get out of him, but he knew how to keep us at a distance, while standing on that line. Laughing about it.

I watched as they all disappeared into the distance. When enough time passed that we were certain that they were gone, we regrouped, taking cover from the rain under the bridge.

This part wasn’t going to be any easier.

Lawrence was the first person to say something.

“Shit.”

Yeah.

He looked down at D. “Did he do anything to you? Did he… do anything else?”

D shook her head. It was a while before I was going to hear her voice again, it seemed.

“Are you two going to be okay?” Sarah asked, setting her umbrella down. Her eyes went over me, Isabella, and D.

“We will be,” Isabella answered. “Maybe. Should have done more to Styx when you had the chance, Wendy.”

I glanced over Isabella to D. “Now’s not the time for that.”

“Then what?” Sarah asked. She sounded almost hurt, at that. It pained me, too.

“What? Right now, we need to focus on D. What happened, or rather, what didn’t happen.”

D fidgeted.

“What do you mean?” Lawrence asked.

D fidgeted some more.

I put my hands on my hips, and gave the girl a stern look.

“D, tell Lawrence. Now.”

I felt like a mom, or maybe an older sister. Either way, I felt disappointed.

My harder tone was enough of a nudge for D, and she finally found it within herself to speak.

“I… I didn’t go to Styx like you asked.”

Eyes were on Lawrence. Waiting, wondering what his reaction would be. Even D looked like she was bracing herself, and she had crashed a bus on the poor guy.

Lawrence took his time with it, as if he was considering his options on how to handle this.

“Where did you go when you left that night?”

He sounded calm. Which was somehow worse.

D was much less so. I had never really seen her like this. Her eyes darted, her words fumbled over, her fingers tugging at her choker.

“I went around the territory surrounding the church instead, assessing the damage done and the Cobras’ reaction.”

“And? Did you at least get anything?”

“Yes. I was able to get a name of their leader. Manny. They pulled out of the territory because they were afraid of a similar incident happening again, incurring more loses. Like Manny’s son.”

Manny’s son. Was that the guy who got killed in the armory? Was that why the cop paused and got so scared and angry. I could see it in his eyes. It was a loss for their side.

“They’re keeping everything under wraps because they don’t want it to affect their other business proceedings,” D said.

“But you didn’t go check if they went to Styx.”

“No.”

Lawrence was still putting on a calm veneer.

“Why?”

D bit her lip, and-

“Fucking speak, D.”

D’s head snapped up.

There it is.

“I didn’t… I don’t know,” D stammered. “I didn’t want to risk tipping him off, or getting roped into one of his schemes, like, like last time. I figured I could work around him, but I didn’t know Styx would show up with… this.”

She was small before, and she only looked smaller, now. It broke my heart to see.

Lawrence scratched the back of his head. His eyes scrunched, and he did it for long enough that it seemed like he was pulling hair out or otherwise trying to hurt himself. His eyes looked bigger than usual.

For once, D tried to speak without being prompted to.

“I’m sorry, I wasn’t trying to-”

“No.”

Lawrence stopped her.

Just… no.

D was frozen. I was, too. Sarah and Isabella were tense.

Lawrence started shaking his head. He brought his hands back down, reaching into his pocket. He took out a small bottle, inside it were smaller pills. He took several, swallowing them dry.

No one said a thing. He wouldn’t want to hear it.

He put the bottle back. When he talked again, his voice was dry.

“I’ll put the blame solely on myself for this one. I should have known better than to send D to Styx. He’s a scary motherfucker, I get that, and you probably get that more than me, D. You have some history with him, but there’s a reason why he walked away and you’re still here, right?”

D didn’t answer.

“Right,” Lawrence said, answering his own question. “We can’t get held up on this any longer. Did you at least get what we needed at the meeting?”

“I… I did. Got pictures of all the different people at the table. Recorded the whole thing, too. With enough time I can put names to those faces, save D’Angelo and Manny.”

“Does Styx know what you were up to, exactly?”

D answered right away. “He doesn’t, I promise.”

“A promise from you doesn’t really hold much weight anymore.”

It was like Lawrence had slapped her. Everyone had a visible reaction. There was some moisture gathering in D’s eyes.

Lawrence made a sound. Noise.

“Whatever. I fucking hate to admit it, but Styx is right. I don’t know what he’s trying to do, but if this is his way of trying to mess with us, we can’t give him that satisfaction. They gave us a job to do, and we’re not going to let this, or anything else fuck it up. Okay?”

“Okay,” D said, quiet.

“Of course,” I said, throwing my voice into the mix, so D didn’t feel so alone.

“Then we’ll put a pin on this for now. Styx can wait. This Natalie Beckham and Oliver Morgan, they’re the real targets.”

D nodded, slow, stiff.

I put a hand on her shoulder. I tried to be as gentle as humanly possible, as if that specific sentiment could mean anything, coming from me.

“Let’s go,” I said. “We have work to do.”

Everyone could agree on that. The awkward part was that D had parked at another section of the park. The instant we were all on the same page, we had to split up.

“We’ll go with D to her van,” I told Lawrence. “We can meet back up with you at the car or we can drive with her.”

“Either way is fine by me,” he said.

We’d figure it out as we went, then. We went our separate ways. Sarah and I, Isabella and D. Lawrence.

We followed the path Styx had taken earlier. There wasn’t anyone around now, but we still walked with some trepidation.

D had gone ahead, leading us. Out of the cover of the umbrella, head down.

I felt for her, because, more often than not, I would be the one in that position.

“Thoughts?” I asked, reaching out again.

“Who, me?” Sarah asked. She was close enough to hear my whisper. “Does my opinion even matter?”

“I think it does. I want it to.”

Sarah shifted the umbrella, so it could provided better cover. “I think… Styx is a bully, and D is just a kid. It’s not fair that he’s allowed to do whatever he wants, and it’s also not fair to expect her to be all there, as far as maturity goes. Kids rebel, they don’t listen, or they’ll find a way around doing something.”

“But like this, though?”

“It’s no laughing matter, but, everyone needs something, or someone, that can center or anchor them. Maybe Styx has learned to work without that, but D is too young to be trying to swim on her own.”

“She’ll be fine,” Isabella said. “You’ve been fine without that kind of thing, Wendy.”

Have I been? It sounded good, but it also didn’t sound right. It just gave me more doubts to work with.

“Are you saying we shouldn’t have D around?” I asked

“Not saying that, that could just make it worse,” Sarah said. “Lawrence, D, you, Wendy. Someone needs to hold you down. Watch your back.”

“Sounds like a chore. You up for that?”

I felt a shock near my fingers again.

“Sure, I might need to focus on one thing at a time, though.”

The prospect of that gave me a sinking feeling, yet it was a calm, soothing descent. A selfish request wanted to come out, bubbling up inside.

I held my breath.

Previous                                                                                               Next

091 – Parting Seas

Previous                                                                                               Next

“Thirty minutes before we roll out,” Lawrence said, standing straight, standing taller. “On the dot. I don’t want to lose a second because one of you got distracted doing something else. Keep the clock in mind, get busy.”

A shout of assent among the gathered Fangs.

“What he said!” D yelled out. The response was less enthused but there.

I didn’t even bother saying something. I could imagine the response I’d get.

About twenty or so of us at the Redhouse. This wasn’t everyone, not even close, nor should it have been. We weren’t preparing for a war, but we knew that this wasn’t going to be easy. We would have to prep, and meant getting together a decent sized group, take out certain equipment, and drafting a sound plan in a matter of twenty-four hours. We weren’t allotted much time after our visit with Mr. Onmon.

People worked, handing things out, writing things down. Not everyone would be armed, but those that did were assigned a weapon and had to sign the weapon out. If it got lost or misplaced, it would have to be reported. Most of our armory consisted of the shipment Benny had brought in for her gang. We had taken what we could for ourselves, but there was still a significant amount of those armaments circulating out there, in the city’s underworld. D had even set some of them off while we were trying to find Benny. As a gang, we had our teeth, and we’d have to take care of them. Couldn’t afford to have gaps form due to neglect or other circumstances. Unlike D, it wasn’t a cute look.

There was a lot to get through and get organized with, but we were making good time, even with the added bit of red tape. We’d be ready to roll out by Lawrence’s deadline.

“Everything looks to be in order,” I said. I adjusted my glasses. “Good work setting this up.”

Lawrence was standing straight, tall, up until he wasn’t. He shuffled to the edge, and gestured.

“Someone help me get off this thing.”

Reggie and Sarah answered the call, stepping up to lend a hand. Bending down, Lawrence took their hands and hopped off of the small crate he was standing on. He groaned all the way.

Gracias,” he said, grunting.

“You’re starting to sound like an old man,” D said. She added more energy and pep to her own voice, to contrast Lawrence’s weathered rasp. Then, she laughed, as if she couldn’t contain herself.

Lawrence, however, didn’t it as funny.

“Shut up, I’m still sore as shit. Everything hurts and aches and it freaking sucks.”

He muttered, keeping his complaints low, not letting the other Fangs pick up on what ailed him.

“I can’t have you on painkillers forever,” D said. “You’ll have to start relying on your own body to get you through the rest.”

“Fuck that, I feel like I’ll break some bones if I cough hard enough.” Lawrence looked at me. “Hey, you know any way you can give me some of your healing?”

“Me?” I asked. I shook my head. “Not that I’m aware of, no. And are you really saying you’d want my powers?”

“Not all of them, just the ones that are convenient to me.”

“Yeah, you don’t get to pick and choose, sorry. The bad comes with the convenient, and so does the fucking terrifying.”

Lawrence had an expression on his face, as though he was actually weighing his options.

“You can keep all that shit. I’ll tough it out…”

He muttered that last part, low enough that even I missed it. He scratched his neck.

“All of you need to learn how to take it easy,” Sarah said. “I don’t remember the phrase, but it had something to do with burning candles. What was it, Wendy?”

She was wearing baggy jeans and a bomber jacket, a bucket hat to top it off, complimenting lighter bottoms with a darker top. Her white shirt was cut short, hanging right above her ribs, showing off her midriff. Her skin was a natural tan, she wasn’t thin but she had a figure, which her relaxed fit didn’t hide, instead, it accentuated the shape. Maybe it was because the weather was still bad, or because she had been working, passing out equipment and helping with preparation, but some moisture was stuck the surface, making her skin glisten. She had been working hard enough that there was some definition there, too, and-

“Wendy?”

I snapped my head up. “What? I missed, what?”

“Don’t burn candles at both ends,” Reggie offered, “That’s more or less it.”

“Oh, right,” Sarah said. “Thanks.”

I looked back down, facing away from Sarah. Darn.

Sarah and Reggie had been asked to be a part of this operation. The offer was extended to Tone, but, he decided to sit this one out. I could understand him.

These two were here to help, not to play around. No distractions allowed.

I saw D, who met my eyes, her expression curious.

“You got all your gear ready?” she asked.

And like that, just one question was able to reorient myself. To get myself to focus. No more distractions.

I nodded, stern.

“All packed up and ready to go. I am not going to be the one that screws this up for everyone. Not this time.”

D gave me a small smile.

Sarah turned from Reggie, redirecting herself. To me. “Need any help carrying anything?”

I shook my head, stern.

“I’ll be fine, I’m not bringing that much stuff with me, anyways. I like to keep a light load on me. Easier to move around that way.”

“Bet.”

I glanced to the side, near the crate Lawrence was standing on before. A duffel bag with all my stuff. Mask, poncho, pants. Gloves and boots. I was already wearing the thermals. Another bag inside the bag, one I’d actually carry around with me when out in the field. Knife. Simple stuff.

There were some new items in my inventory, though, stuff I never thought I’d use, or need. Like a pistol. The Springfield XD, recommended by D, apparently it was a good gun to use for a beginner. She probably just liked it because the name looked like a huge smile.

I had it, I had some minor, last-minute training with it, but I prayed it wouldn’t have to come to me using it. Or anyone, even. Guns had a not so funny habit of making things escalate, just bringing them would burn a hole in pockets, begging to be fired. We had to bring them for this, but only as a deterrence, in case everything fell apart.

It’d get messy, and we’d need even more rain to that clean that up.

“I like when things are simple,” I said.

“What spurred that on?” Lawrence asked.

I shrugged.

“Just thinking out loud. Simple means easy, or at least easy to understand. And if it’s easy to understand, then it’s easy to plan for.”

“Not necessarily,” D said, interjecting. “There’s plenty of stuff that are easy to understand, but it doesn’t make them easy to deal with.”

“That’s a lot of ‘easy,’” Lawrence said.

“Like, for example, checkers or even chess. There’s a set amount of pieces or rules, and they all move simple enough, but put them all together and now you have a complicated mess of systems and mechanics. Heck, get a king pinned? It can be tricky to slip out of that.”

“If you’re in that situation, it’s easy to understand that you’re fucked,” Lawrence said.

D glared at Lawrence. “Or, like, if someone is being a real stubborn steakhead and won’t listen. That’s not easy to deal with at all.”

I pouted.

“You know what I mean, guys. Simple, easy. Clean. Point me to something, tell me to punch it, and then it’s done with. Stuff like that.”

“When has that ever happened, ever? That’s nothing but a fantasy,” Lawrence said. “There’s always going to be some fall out, no matter what you do. That’s why it’s smart to figure out what the potential consequences are for any given plan. If you can do that, plan for that too, or even use that to your advantage… shit, now you’re talking about things I like.”

I felt like groaning.

“I know,” I said, “Believe me I do. Darn, can’t a girl daydream without getting crap for it?”

Reggie and Sarah chuckled at our interaction.

Lawrence rolled a shoulder, leaning to one side, wincing.

“I ain’t got time to give anyone crap. So get your head out of the clouds, we’re leaving in twenty minutes.”

“Fine, twenty minutes,” I said, confirming it.

Lawrence rolled his shoulder again, his forehead creased. He turned.

“I’ll check on the others. You have nineteen minutes and some seconds.”

He walked off, going to the other Fangs. They all stood straight and alert when he approached them. Some, when they noticed me, gave stares that lasted a second too long. Or was I just being paranoid?

“There he goes, burning candles at both ends,” Sarah said, looking in his direction.

“Hey, you got it,” Reggie said. He was watching Lawrence, too. “I’ll go with him, in case the old man knocks something out of a socket.”

D laughed hard enough for Lawrence to turn back around. The rest of us shrugged at him.

Reggie went off to accompany Lawrence, leaving just the three of us.

“He’s really putting his all into this gang,” I said. I almost felt guilty, that my dedication to Los Colmillos wasn’t up to par with Lawrence. It wasn’t like I was lacking, though, I wouldn’t be here in the position I was in if I didn’t want to put the work in. But, in comparing myself to Lawrence, he was on another level.

“Good boy Lawrence,” D said. “I’m so proud.”

“For sure. Though, it’s probably because of you guys, that he’s able to work so hard.”

I turned to Sarah. “Meaning?”

Sarah made a sound, non-committal. “Hm, I won’t claim that I know him all that well, I joined with Reggie and Tone when it was just the Ghosts, but even then, he had a drive to keep going and be the one on top. He kept a circle with him. Charlie, Jonny, and Mels. They were closest things to ‘friends’ he had in this underworld.”

Those names sounded familiar, but I couldn’t put a face to them. They were probably around before I started working with Lawrence and the Ghosts.

They definitely weren’t around, now.

“I remember them,” D said, “They were nice. Well, not nice to me, but to Lawrence. So yeah, they were nice.”

“They were a big help, back when they were still in the gang,” Sarah said. “And Lawrence relied on them a ton. I’ll admit, the Ghosts weren’t at their best in those early days, with some pretty rough patches. If it weren’t for those three, there might not have even been a gang for you two to join.”

“They sound like real MVPs,” D included. “Shouts out to them.”

“Yeah, more hands like that on deck would be nice,” I said. I tilted my head a little. “Wait. So where are they now?”

Sarah shook her head a little.

“They’re gone. Charlie and Jonny, Mels too. Don’t know why, exactly, maybe they just had enough and walked away? I’m not really sure, and Lawrence isn’t the kind of guy to talk about that kind of personal stuff. And it’s not like anyone has to question it, ever since the two of you joined, things have been looking up, overall.”

Ever since the two of us joined.

I recalled the early tension from the Ghosts. Towards me, towards D. They weren’t very keen on joining forces. Heck, Lawrence had to be the least thrilled about that proposition. I managed to convince them, though, when I pointed to Benny as a common enemy, and ever since then… sailing hadn’t been smooth, not quite, but we could manage. There was always forward momentum.

But, I could still feel that bit of tension, and ever since I got back from El Paso, it seemed to get worse. It left me not wanting to rock the boat even further, to take every word, action, or even appearance with the Fangs with the utmost scrutiny. To plan for the fall out, to use Lawrence’s words.

It was all so fucking complicated. Hated it.

“You’re saying we’re replacements?” I asked, “Filling in that hole that those three left behind?”

All Sarah offered was a shrug, and the verbal equivalent.

“Who is to say, and I don’t want to spread gossip and assume. Maybe he’s trying to find in you what he had in them, or maybe he really is just that driven of a person.”

I was getting better at reading her face. Another idea was on the edge of her lips, ready to be let out.

“Or maybe?” I offered, wanting to tease it out of her.

“Or maybe he feels like he isn’t on your level, and he’s trying to compensate.”

“My level?” I asked, taken aback, slightly. A little surprised.

Sarah turned to face us. “You and Miss D. In the off chance you’re not aware, you two hold very special positions in, not just this gang, but this city, and in your case, the whole world.”

‘Your’ as in me. The whole world.

“D has her crazy tactics and antics, and you have so many amazing things about you, Wendy, powers excluded. If I had to be in a group with you two, I’d worry if I was pulling my weight or not.”

“You think he harbors some kind of insecurity?” I questioned.

“Don’t say that, now I feel bad,” D said. She exaggerated a pained look, lowering her head until she was bending over.

Sarah put her hands up. “I don’t want to think or assume anything. You lead me on a tangent and we have nineteen minutes to kill.”

“Oh, so this is my fault now,” I said, joking.

“Sixteen minutes,” D said.

Sarah rolled her eyes, a grin on her face.

“You’re funny. But, yeah, it wouldn’t be fair to talk about him behind his back like that. Let’s just… let’s just say I’m projecting a little bit.”

She winked. The cold outside had managed to creep into the building, requiring a light jacket and some manual labor to keep warm.

Wearing a light jacket, standing still, I felt warm.

Sarah fixed her hat, looking down, moving her hand so I couldn’t see her face anymore.

“Alright, I’ll get back to it. I’m not management so I don’t get to avoid actual work. Excuse me while I go join the normal folk.”

Sarah twisted around to go the other way, her hand still by her face.

“Are you saying we’re not normal?” I asked, still joking, but brief pieces of previous conversations flashed in my mind. Things she said that helped me, get a better view and grasp of myself. The RV, the barn. Maybe she meant it as a small joke, but it didn’t quite land right with me.

Sarah took a step, half-turning. Her hand and hat over her eyes.

“You’re as normal as the rest of us. You just have a special way of showing it.”

Then, she left, going to help with the rest of the preparations. It was just me and D, now. The normal people in special positions. Apparently.

D fixed her posture, standing up straight with her hands on her hips. She craned her neck to look up at me.

“Fourteen minutes and thirty seconds. How are you holding up?”

I made a small noise in the back of my throat before answering. Echoing Sarah.

“Hm. You should ask me that after we’re done here.”

“I’ll ask you then, that way I’ll have a better idea of how you’re doing. Before and after.”

“You’re really trying to keep tabs on me?”

“Of course!”

D made a face. Closing one eye, pointing to the other. She stuck her tongue.

“I… have… you!”

I had the sudden, strong urge to flick her on the forehead. Lightly.

She’s being extra goofy today.

It did make want to think about it, though. I thought about it.

“I’m okay, I guess. Doing better that I was this time last week. Which, maybe that’s not saying much. It’s hard to tell what’s supposed to be ‘normal’ for someone like me.”

“If you can lose a game and not be a sore loser about it, then you’re doing pretty good.”

“Oh yeah? You think we’ll lose this one?”

D shook her head hard enough for her hair to whip her face and the metal parts of her choker to rattle.

“No way. We have this in the bag. We’ll get that buffer zone and expand our territory and then we’ll have even more places to hang out and play. Because, like, I am so ready to start moving into my base and setting stuff up. It’s going to be so cool!”

“Right, your base. Where was it going to be again?”

D reacted, as if she had genuine terror over the possibility that I might have forgotten. Her jaw dropped, and her arms did too, dangling by her side.

“The Electric Place, remember? Duh. The bowling alley and arcade place we went to before? Remember?”

I remembered.

“Oh, right,” I said, snapping my fingers. “We sabotaged the Thunders and Royals there. Didn’t we-”

“We swapped bowling balls into different lanes, and man did they freak out. Clean up crews were still picking out bullets and filling out holes. One of my finer pranks, if I do say so myself.”

D lifted an arm. She actually patted herself on the back.

“You’re making there your base?” I asked. “After all the trouble you caused?”

“I know how to clean up after myself, Vivi. I’ve already got plans to spruce it up and make it even better and awesomer than before. More games, cabinets, pinball machines, renovated lanes, prizes… I’m going to put the second ‘A’ back into ‘palace!’”

“Sounds like you’re more interested in the idea of owning a game center than you are operating a business.”

D set her hands behind her, and she looked away, staring at something else.

“Um…”

Thought so.

It was good to hear her enthusiasm, it was even encouraging. D had other things she wanted to get to after this particular thing was over. This? It was just another box on the list to check off. Easy. Simple.

Good.

It wasn’t the two of us for very long. Isabella joined our ranks, standing beside me, situating herself between me and D. The closest she had ever been next to her, without it turning into a physical altercation.

“You’ll need to figure out where your base is going to be, too,” Isabella said. “You haven’t even decided yet.”

“I’m still thinking on where mine will be,” I said. “I’d rather keep my options open and see what comes up instead of settling down and I end up in a bad spot. I want to avoid getting pinned.”

“That’s fair,” D said. “We’ll get more places as we expand, and that’s why we each get our own base to begin with, so we don’t actually get pinned and lose everything in one fell swoop. Wherever you pick as your first, there’s no need to put so much stock in it.”

“I know. It’s just, this would be the first place I pick on my own, so I’d like to put some thought and effort into it. I barely have any decorations at my apartment. So much shit to figure out.”

“We have time.”

“You have ten minutes,” Isabella said. “Start getting everything together. Focus on the now. What’s right in front of you.”

“Sure, yeah,” I said. There was a lot to juggle, between business as a leader of a gang, the slow drag of trying to uncover any clues about what I was and what made my powers tick, and taking to just figure myself out. So many complicated matters, and I had to fight the urge to run away from all of them. “I’ll grab my bag.”

“And I’ll go get the van,” D said. She observed the rest of the lobby. “Looks like everyone else is about ready to go.”

“Good.”

D then skipped across the lobby, passing people, brushing against Fangs. They didn’t look too bothered as she bumped into them, instead just leaning out of the way and going back to what they were doing, as if they were used to kids running around. At this point, maybe they were.

I walked to my bag, patting the sides to feel if everything was in there. Felt like it. I picked it up and put the strap around my shoulder.

“Nervous?”

Isabella had her hands around the straps of her bag, too. They were tight.

I lifted a shoulder, half as a gesture and half to actually adjust the strap.

“There’s always a tiny pit in my stomach before I go out with the mask on. But it’s a tiny pit. Small as a seed.”

“Seed. Right.”

I tried recalling the easiest way I could articulate it. Not my experience.

“You know that feeling before you have to give a presentation, or right before stepping onto the court for the big game? It’s a lot like that.”

“I suppose,” Isabella said. “There’s no need to feel that way. You’ll kill it. Even without help.”

Her brazen confidence in me was almost laughable. I compromised with a smile.

“Thanks, coach, I’ll do my best.”

It was time to step out onto the court.

Night, or early morning, depending on the perspective. Either way, the hour was ungodly.

Which was funny, in a sense.

I stood across the street, facing a church. St. Elizabeth, a small cathedral at the edge of the Eye. Still wasn’t exactly a prime location, but it wasn’t terrible, and expanding our reach by circling around until we muscled into the Eye wasn’t such a bad idea.

My hood was up, keeping me dry from the light drizzle that touched ground. This feeling wasn’t unfamiliar. While slight, it bothered me on a fundamental level.

The connection was vague, but it was there. Looking at the winding stone and raised points that seemed to scratch at the sky, the gold outline that shimmered in the rain, it gave me a sense of imposing dread, to be back here again. Not me, but this body had been here before. Alexis. Couldn’t remember the exact circumstances, attempting to was like rubbing a raw nerve. I avoided it.

Returned like dust, then.

Her place wasn’t close, but it wasn’t that from here, either. I could get there if I was willing to take a very, very, very long walk. Too close for comfort, at least. But, I had a job to do, and I needed to keep myself on track. Other people were relying on me, and I needed to know that I could have even just a modicum of faith in myself. No more distractions.

I started crossing the street.

“Moving in,” I said.

Roger roger.” D. “Operation Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door is in effect!

I had to suppress a chuckle and let it get picked up on the earpiece.

Just give the word on when we can move in, too.” Lawrence. “We’ll be on standby until then.

“Sure thing.” I wasn’t V yet. I had my costume and general setup, but my mask was wrapped around my neck. I was in flux, in between two states of being. Ready to go when I had to, but for now I’d have to hold back.

I could imagine what Isabella would say about that.

Hopping over a small puddle, I got to the parking lot across the street, the cathedral larger and more imposing now. As far as architecture went, it wasn’t even that grand compared to others like it, and yet, here I was, feeling small in an even grander scheme. Just because I was at the center of the operation, it didn’t make me the centerpiece. Surrounded by other moving parts, just another cog in the machine. Which… I could find some comfort in only having some of the responsibility. A lighter load. A weird feeling, when not lifting to my full capacity. I felt as if I could be doing more.

But I know what happens when I push myself too much. I’m not as amazing as I’d wish to be.

When I was at my smallest, I was standing at the front of the cathedral doors. I tested the doors.

“Locked,” I said into the earpiece. “No surprise there.”

Any other way to get in? Did you see anyone around?” Lawrence asked.

“None that I saw. I’ll check around and see what I can find as far as an entrance goes.”

There’s a few other buildings you can look through too, like the offices or the maintenance sheds. Mr. Onmon there should be keys you can use to get in.

“I’ll give it a shot. I’ll search around the cathedral some more before I move elsewhere. Less places I search and leave a trace, the better. How’s it looking at your end?”

All quiet on my front,” Lawrence said. Where he was positioned, he was several blocks west. His van and another. Reggie. “Few police cars, but they were routine routes. They didn’t see us.

“D?” I asked.

All super here too.” She was at the opposite end of Lawrence. On the East, two vans with her as well. She was paired with Sarah. “Counted some black vans passing by, but they were going in the other direction from you.”

As things went, I was alone. Had to do this part by myself, no one was assigned to be with me. I would have taken Sarah if I had the option, but I wasn’t so blessed. I was the only one who could handle this portion, and so, I was out here, in the cold night, the light drizzle, breaking in the a church. Cool.

“Cool,” I said, forcing my brain to stay on track, to not dwell on what I did or did not have. Isabella was right, I had to think on what was right in front of me. Focusing on the now.

And what was right in front of me were the cathedral doors. They were locked. I’d need another way in. According to Mr. Onmon’s squeals, the small armory of the Cobras was located deep in the basement of the church. One of several.

“Going up,” I said, more for myself than for my two teammates listening in. Psyching myself up. I put on my mask.

I stepped back, looking up and around, scanning the architecture for holds I could use to haul myself to the high roof.

There, a rounded dome-like section, with a metal railing around it. A door there, probably.

With the route planned in my head, I jumped, scaling the side of the cathedral.

Not much was publicly known about the Cobras, other than the fact that they were one of the gangs brought whenever people talked about Stephenville on the news. Them and the AZ-Tec. So they definitely had a presence. More than Mister, who was still a complete enigma to me, a question mark that begged an answer. Like so many other things. Like me.

I huffed, throwing my arms up to grab a ledge, getting myself over.

Other than their notoriety, which seemed to exist separate from their actual existence, the Cobras have kept a low profile. Mr. Onmon wasn’t able to divulge much about their leadership or how the gang worked, only that he got jobs through anonymous texts, meeting with other… ‘volunteers.’ It reminded me how Solace operated. Most of the real work was being done in the shadows. Maybe that was how the professionals did it?

Mr. Onmon had given us the locations of the buffer zones, with St. Elizabeth being the most recent addition. It was a calculated risk, hitting here first. Their newest buffer zone, but it would be the least established. We could nab the armory and the surrounding territory and they wouldn’t blink an eye. Probably said something, that their scraps were crucial to our growth and survival, but everyone had to start somewhere.

One more leap, and I got somewhere. I made it to the top of the cathedral. I had to lean up against a raised stone wall to keep my balance along the slanted edge. It wasn’t flat here at all. A lot of points and slants.

Almost there. It took a few more hops to reach the rounded top of the building. One more, and I went over the railing and was walking on a flat surface.

“That was harder than I expected,” I said, more just talking to myself again. I walked around until I found the door. Locked with a chain and padlock. I held them in my hands, feeling the weight. “And… got it. Door’s open.”

You’re in?” D asked.

“I am.” The door lead into some stairs, winding down into the cathedral. I went down the spiral.

Careful, I chanced a look down. I could see the floor, moonlight as it fractured into colors through stained glass, a soft illuminated hue. Pews and statues and unlit candles. Paintings of people and images I had briefly believed in, in another lifetime.

The bottom of the stairs led to another door, leading to another area deeper in the cathedral. Where I wanted to go was down, though, and I didn’t want to waste by getting lost maneuvering through the back parts of the building. I knew what I was looking for was at the lower levels, and there was probably another door that led into the back from there as well. Needed to get there directly.

It was a bit of a squeeze, but I got through the railing, free falling for a second before landing. Crouched, I picked myself back up. A quick check around. I was inside the church. Dark, empty, seemingly abandoned. I was worried the creeping shadows might trigger some echoes of memories. It felt strong, standing here, less vague, a tug like testing a rope.

I was moving before I could dwell on it any longer.

Taking a set of steps onto the altar, passing the chancel, I found another door in a corner between the wall and a confessional. Looked promising enough.

Opening it, I went through.

Lights were off, but that was a good thing. I didn’t have to worry about finding a switch, and it meant that no one was around, guarding the place or looking out for potential intruders. The cathedral’s relative obscurity was its only line of defence, and it already been breached the moment we learned about it.

Peeking through every door and hall I stumbled across, only moving forward if I knew it would lead me more down. It wasn’t unlike going through a maze. It took up some time, but progress was being made. Which I really liked.

A stairwell. Leading to upper and lower levels. I descended even farther. Even further.

Then, I found it.

A switch by a panel right before the hallway opened up. From the cold air that passed through, the clean and sterile design of the metal walls and metal ceiling and metal floor, it was like I walked into a bank vault. This was a recent setup.

I flipped the switch.

Guns reflected the dull fluorescent light, tiny white dots on top of black and grey. All different shapes and sizes, lined up against the walls and on some metal tables. There were other cases, boxes of other equipment, but I didn’t want to touch anything. Not until I gave the signal, had everyone close in and secure the spot.

We were close though. Almost there.

“Found the armory,” I said. “Just like we were told.”

Good work,” Lawrence said. Getting praise from him… I wasn’t going to complain.

D didn’t say anything. I explored the rest of the armory, waiting until I heard from her.

The only thing that bugged me was that I felt small here, too. All I had on me was my knife and my gun, dwarfed in comparison to everything I saw on display here. Even the stuff in the boxes probably packed a bigger punch than what was on my person.

No. Something else, on a far table on the other end. The most it could do was a cut, and that was minor.

A manila folder, filled with a stack of papers.

I still didn’t want to touch anything, my paranoia keeping my arms at my sides, but I still had my eyes. The folder was labeled in bold. I read it out loud.

“Helter Skelter,” I said. “The heck is that?”

A voice came in, pushing those thoughts out of my mind.

Guys. Trouble.

D.

I snapped my head up, turning around.

What?”

I was in near-sync with Lawrence.

Got a group of black vans and cop cars moving in the direction of St. Elizabeth. From where I’m parked, it’s a long enough line that I know it’s a thing.

I cursed.

“Dammit, D, why didn’t you tell me sooner?”

I’m sorry! Sarah was out and just came back to confirm for me, but I’ve been trying to listen in to the police with my equipment and nothing. This is weird.

“Weird doesn’t begin to describe it. Dammit, dammit. Lawrence?”

Nothing since the last update. They’re all coming in from the other direction, probably.

Experimentally, I took a step.

“Any ideas?” I asked.

Has to just be a routine raid,” Lawrence ventured. “The Cobras are doing their rounds with the cops they have in their pockets, showing them the new forward base they have so the cops have something to report and make it look like they’re actually getting work done.

Yes. That exactly,” D said.

“So we wouldn’t have known,” I said. We were somewhat pressed for time after our visit with Mr. Onmon. As low on the totem pole as he was, someone would eventually notice that he hadn’t been doing his rounds with the buffer zones. If we were going to take this one, and then some more if we were daring enough, it would have to be immediately after learning about their locations. Doing stakeouts to learn the schedule was something we didn’t have the luxury for.

“You think they’re here now?” I asked.

Then, I got an answer, but it wasn’t from D, or from Lawrence.

Echoes from across a long hallway, then stairs. Steps. Voices.

They were already here, and they were coming this way.

I was pinned.

Previous                                                                                               Next

090 – Null Moon

Previous                                                                                               Next

Plates and silverware clinked onto stainless steel. Cold. Steam floated out into the space. Hot.

The smell bothered me, but I toughed it out. It wouldn’t be fair to present company to sit this one out. To run away.

D started poking and spinning the noodles around her fork.

“Darn, you should have told me you went to Tita’s. I would have came straight home instead of going over to Casa Martinez. Now we have too much.”

“I just got back home. My hands were full.”

“But I can’t eat all of this by myself! I really thought I hit the jackpot over at Casa’s. Mrs. Martinez had just made this super duper fresh chili con carne sauce and she had saved some for me because she wanted to hook me up with some extra so I can put more on my enchiladas and she seemed really really proud about this new batch and it sucks that it’s going to go cold because I can’t finish it in time. It sucks!”

“Then just start with your enchiladas first.”

D popped the fork into her mouth, then licked the utensil clean.

“But Tita Lorene’s cooking is soooo good.”

A small bit of laughter escaped my lips. A low hum.

D was digging deeper into the food. My palm was digging more into my cheek, my elbow propped on the kitchen counter.

We were back at my place. Outside, the sun was just about to give way to the moon, but with the clouds as low and grey as they were, a black of a certain pitch colored the atmosphere in here as well. The lights were kept low, most of it coming from the TV, and even then it wasn’t that much. A game D had put on pause for dinner, to be returned to after. My game system, though I never used it. I only bought it so D would have something to do whenever she came over. Which was often.

The rain kept falling.

I watched D as she ate, helping herself to mouthfuls upon mouthfuls of food. Wolfing them down, giving each noodle and vegetable and piece of meat a real bite. Scraps were stuck or were hanging from the corners of her lips, with little thin lines of spittle threatening to dribble down her chin. She was going to tear her meal apart, leaving it to nothing but bits and shreds.

And I thought I was the monster.

D stopped, her chin raised, mouth open, full with food. Her fork was halfway to its destination, hovering above her lips. From the way she angled her head, it was like she was looking down at me.

“What?” she asked, sounding stuffed.

“Do I even have to say it?”

D took time to swallow her food, and clear her throat. It came with a small, almost juvenile sound. A squeak.

She pointed with her fork.

“You have your elbow on the counter, how’s that for being rude?”

“My house, or, my apartment. My rules.”

“Yeah, but manners are universal. Doesn’t matter whose roof you’re under. Those are the rules that bind us all as a people. As the human race.”

My palm dug more into my face. It slurred my words somewhat.

“Then, is it supposed to say something that we’re both blatantly avoiding those rules?”

More squeaks, but they were more like laughter.

“Duh, we both dropped out of that race a long time ago. Now we’re going after something else.”

A race to the bottom?

I had the urge to say that, but I kept it to myself.

In holding my tongue back, the only sounds that followed were the clinking of metal on ceramic, D being obnoxious on how much she liked the food, and the continued dampened thuds of the rain outside, hitting the windows and the roof above us. It didn’t let up, and it was as though the rain was telling us that it would never let up. It kept falling around us, everywhere. It would never go away.

I would always feel like this.

My fingers slid across the countertop, lazy, until it bumped up against something. Wasn’t cold like stainless steel, wasn’t hot like food that had just been microwaved for thirty seconds. My finger traced upward, gliding across the smooth surface of it.

A ceramic mug.

My eyes fell downward. My dinner.

D talked with her mouth full. “Yeah you better drink up or it’s going to get all lukewarm, and I didn’t go through the trouble to find a gang doc and bring you some if you weren’t going to finish it all quickly.”

With a finger, I pulled the mug closer to me. Friction tried to work against me in keeping the mug in place, but gave way after I had to force more effort into the individual muscles and joints. The minimum amount of work I was willing to put forth.

Juice swished around inside.

Blood.

Enough to fill the mug to the brim. I could have spilled it if I wasn’t being careful. It was chilled, I could feel the residual cold just from holding the handle, my fingers away from the mug itself. Red, a bright and vibrant shade, which gave the impression that it was bursting with flavor. And it definitely was, I could pick up a faint, sweet trace of its aroma, despite the overpowering stench from D’s dinner. It cut through, like light piercing clouds.

Strawberries, cherries, pomegranate. Juice squeezed from fruit, mixed into a drink that had the consistency of syrup, with the sweetness of it, too.

I could admit that I wasn’t in a particularly good mood, but with my eyes on my drink, the appealing color, the aroma beckoning for my lips, it offered to lift my spirits in a way that was appetizing.

My grip tightened around the handle of the mug, and I lifted it off the countertop.

The mug found their way to my lips like an instinct, tipping over until the juices spilled forth, and I did my best to capture and savor every little drop. I caught as much as I could while still being modest, and I swallowed.

It was an experience.

Refreshing, being able to drink blood without having to take it from someone by force, and being able to take my time with it. I didn’t get very many chances to sit down and drink, most of the time I was under extreme duress and stress, taking only quick sips to recharge to get back into the fray. In very few circumstances, was I able to stop and take a moment and actually take that moment.

The mug left my lips, and returned to the countertop. I wasn’t smiling, even though the taste was so good that I couldn’t be blamed if I was. But, even now, I was filled with something other than satisfaction. A feeling I couldn’t quite place.

I sighed.

“That good?” D asked. Clinking of silverware and ceramic peppered her words.

“Yeah,” I said, “It’s good.”

“Doesn’t sound like it’s good.”

“It is.”

D sat up to straighten her back, moving some of the take out boxes around. Her plate was empty, and she was going to get more.

“This is probably weird to say, I’m not really sure, but I’ve always been curious about what it tastes like. For you, anyways, metallic isn’t really a good descriptor to have when it comes to flavor, and I’m not about to go through that again.”

Descriptor? I’d never had to describe the taste of this before.

I opened my mouth, breathing out, feeling how heavy it dragged. It didn’t smell bad, but there was a weight to it, that only another kind of substance could provide.

“I don’t know if you’ve ever had alcohol, but it’s kind of like that, maybe,” I said. I wasn’t exactly sure if the comparison was accurate, I had some faint recollections on what alcohol was like, but they weren’t my recollections, but they were points of references that I could make leaps or inferences from. “It’s sweet, very sweet.”

“Like wine,” D asked.

I gave her a glare. Not that intense, but I wanted to give her some heat.

“I’m hoping you don’t actually know what I’m trying to get at.”

“Don’t worry, I do, but like I said, don’t worry.”

“Um…”

“How about this, is it like coffee? Where just a single sip can wake you up or make it feel like someone’s massaging your brain?”

I considered that. It didn’t sound so off the mark.

“That’s seems more accurate. I haven’t had coffee myself, though, so I can’t say for sure. This is it’s own kind of drink, so it comes with its own unique effects. It’s hard to pin down unless you’ve tried it and can feel it yourself.”

“Uh, no thanks then.”

D popped open another box and started to pile more food onto her plate. This time, it was Mrs. Martinez’s cooking.

“Hey, is that your way of telling me you’ve had coffee before?” I asked.

D continued to eat. She didn’t answer or acknowledge me at all.

I took that as an opportunity to take another sip of my drink, instead. It was light, but my head started to feel like it was pounding, massaged with slow but firm movements. Energy that was being replenished, but had nowhere to burn. Pent up potential.

I set the mug back down, my eyes closed. I had to try, in order to sit still now.

Screaming, crying for help. Fathers. Daughters. Animals howling to tear them into bits.

White walls, cold tiles

“You got a little, um, Wendy?”

I cranked my eyes open. Those sounds all faded away, but their echoes still haunted.

D was touching a spot on her face, by her lower lip.

“You’ve made a mess of yourself.”

“What else is new?” I asked. “Pass me a napkin.”

D reached over the countertop, finding some in one of the plastic bags we had used to carry the food in. Pushing her plate aside, then leaning over the counter, reaching, she handed me some.

I wiped the part where D indicated, dabbing it for good measure. I looked at the napkin, and saw streaks of red. It looked more like I was trying to clean up a minor nosebleed than a meal.

But, it wasn’t my blood. Someone else’s. Blood I had taken and consumed.

I crumbled up the paper, wrapping it in another, and left my seat to toss the whole thing in a bin by the trash. The biohazard symbol was taped to the front.

“Looks like it might be time to start burning some trash again,” D said when I returned to my seat.

“Yeah. Can’t just throw it out wherever.”

“We can move stuff up to the roof later, after the rain goes away.”

“If it ever does,’” I said.

D slid back into her seat, setting her plate back in front of her. She scarfed down several more bites in a row.

Knowing D for long enough, she’d want to say more, even if she was chewing down large chunks of food. I spoke before she could.

“I ran into Nathan, earlier today.”

D didn’t bother to swallow, responding with, “Oh cool, how’s he been?”

“Not so great, apparently, since I literally caught him trying to rob a bank.”

“Oof, that’s a big no-no.”

Sounds exactly like something you’d get yourself into, though.

I kept that point to myself.

“Seems like his friends weren’t keen on the idea of helping him spreading an image around, which, by the way, I got to see it. The tag.”

“Cool cool, you did?”

“Nathan showed me.”

“What’d you think?”

I took some seconds to gather my thoughts. What did I think about it?

Without a clear idea in my head, I tried parsing those fleeting drafts into words, forming them fully as I’d talk.

“It was a good design, one might even say it’s amazing, but…”

“But?”

The design flickered in my mind once again. The eyes, the overall expression. The curled, open smile, the fangs. All the blood.

But,” I reiterated, “It kind of makes me wonder how you look at me.”

“How I look at you?”

“Is that really the image you have of me in your head?”

D looked to the ceiling to finish a bite she had been working on, then reached for a cup to wash it down. Not mine, that much was obvious, but her own, a carton of apple juice placed right next to it.

She let out a satisfied exhale before speaking again.

“Of course not. I mean, yeah I used V as some inspiration, but not entirely. That just happens to be the one face I wanted to present as one part of the gang.”

“I thought Lawrence had that part covered.”

“He covers the business side. That other face hits the streets more directly, though I guess they fall under public relations. But what do I know, I literally didn’t go to school for this.”

She giggled at her joke, like this was some laughing matter.

Rain swelled up against the window on the far wall, prodding.

“Why that image, though? Why did you come up with that design?”

Filling up her cup with more juice, D replied, “I figured we needed something striking, something different from everything else we or anyone else has seen before. I was thinking of some other designs, maybe like an ouroboros or even an orphic egg, but I didn’t want to come off as derivative. There’s already another gang that has the whole Greek mythology thing on lock.”

“So you opted to go with something more… visceral.”

D frowned, leaning against the countertop. “Now I’m confused. I thought you’d really like what I came up with.”

I frowned as well, not because I was disappointed in her confusion, not because my point wasn’t getting across, but because I wasn’t even sure what my point was. I still hadn’t parsed it through my words, not completely. I was trying to finish a puzzle without all of the pieces.

But, I kept going.

“I like it, D, that’s not what I’m getting at.”

“What are you getting at, then?”

I closed my eyes. Those sounds came back and I used them to guide my focus. At least they drowned out the rain.

“That… that you, I don’t freaking know, I don’t know why I’m so worked up over freaking graffitti.”

I lowered my head, my fingers running through my hair. Keeping that position, I opened my eyes again, lifting my gaze at D, mulling on how pathetic I had to be in order to fail at explaining my thoughts and feelings to a girl her age.

D had raised a brow, fixing her hair as well.

“Maybe I can venture a guess,” she said. “Let’s see, uh, I will admit that the tag does have a wild… energy to it, possibly even borderline manic, and since I will also admit that I used V as a base for the design, you feel that somehow says something about you as a person.”

I blinked.

“That’s… I think that’s the closest anyone’s ever going to get. That’s almost scary.”

“Yeah, I get that a lot.”

“Right. Sorry.”

“Nah, I’ve gotten used to it. You could even say I’ve learned how to make my own fun with it!”

A wide grin. A small gap.

“I’d be disappointed if you didn’t,” I said.

D then placed her elbows on the table, copying my position from before. Her hands pressed against her cheeks.

“But something tells me you’re not having as much fun.”

Fun. At least that was an angle I could approach whatever this was, whatever I was feeling, inside.

Again, I tried, but I had a clearer idea of the space my head was in, now. A way forward.

“Not fun, no. It’s just, it’s just that I saw that tag, that face, and it was as if every failure and dark moment in recent times came flooding back to me. Every time I gave in, lost myself, let something else take over. But, the thing is, they aren’t exact details or scenes. Just gaps, blanks, but I recognize them for what they are. Recently, on the way to El Paso, and especially at the Lunar Tower. It’s been too easy for me to slip, and I’m afraid of it getting harder and harder to regain a hold of myself. What happens if I slip away completely?”

Who takes over, then?

I continued.

“I was going to ask, why you hid the fact that you were taking pictures at the barn, but maybe it’s because you were working around my… um…”

“Stubbornness?” D offered, her grin lessened, dropping to a slight, sympathetic smile instead.

I returned a similar expression, maybe a little weaker.

“Exactly. I hate that I’m been my own obstacle, and that I keep getting in my own way. It just keeps happening. I feel like I’ve just been holding everyone back, and on a less important level, I’ve been holding myself back. If I want this group to succeed, to build it all up and knock it and everything down with me, I can’t afford to be so easily pushed over in these early stages.”

“I think you’re just setting impossibly high standards for yourself, Wendy,” D said. “Sure, you fudged up sometimes, and in reality who hasn’t, but your version of fudging up is on a different level from, how do I put it?”

“People?” I offered.

D’s slight smile stayed there.

“Exactly.”

I sat there, my fingers back around my mug, tracing a circle around the lid. Bringing my hand up to my lips, I licked the bit of blood that I had collected, there.

Something inside you… And if you don’t get a grip… the last enemy you want to make right now is yourself.

Lawrence’s words.

The face I saw, on that wall, the image I projected, it wasn’t me or her, it was nothing. The real monster. The one I, and maybe Alexis too, had tried to avoid staring at head on. And I would have to be the one to fill that blank. Somehow.

Yeah… yeah.

I heard clinking, and it took me out of my spinning, spiraling thoughts. D was filling her plate with more food, yet again.

“If it means anything by this point,” D said, “I am sorry that I went behind your back and let Lawrence chew you out. I probably could have handled that better. And it’s not like we’re in a mad rush or anything, and doing it that way might make everything worse, so let’s not do that. For now, we stay on our current course, and we keep you in mind, okay? How does that sound?”

I answered.

“I don’t hate the sound of that.”

I saw that gap again.

“Then it’s settled. You stop worrying about it, and we’ll look into it whenever we get the chance. I’m assuming L-Boy showed you the pics?”

“He did,” I said, a touch quiet.

“Then there, something to consider. A clue. We didn’t find anything else at the barn? That’s fine, we at least have that to work off of. Easy and peasy.”

“When you put it that way, it doesn’t seem as heavy on my mind.”

“Exactly! This isn’t some responsibility you have to handle all by yourself. You’re not alone, in this. Heck, it’s not just you as a leader, too. I’m here, and there’s Lawrence, even if he acts all aloof about it.”

“You don’t have to tell me about it.”

Sarah, D, and even Lawrence. I had to be beaten over the head with it, over and over and over and over again, but it was finally starting to sink in that I didn’t have to shoulder everything. An insane concept. Maybe I’d even let it anchor me.

It was hard, trying to talk about it, harder still to give up some of that control. But, it was comforting, to know that, to be reassured.

To talk about my thoughts, like this, Alexis never really had that. What would have happened if she did? How different would have things turned out?

It was a train of thought that I let pass me by. Too many other tracks to stay on.

“We can be like a happy family,” D said, but it sounded like she was talking more to herself.

I replied, anyways.

“Okay,” I said, finally. “We can give that a shot.”

D gave me a victory sign, and then pushed her plate away.

“Awesome! And man, I’m saving the rest for later. Any more and I’m gonna want to sleep, and I still want to get back to the game.”

“Any more and you’ll explode,” I commented.

“That too, now come on!”

D hopped out of her seat and went around the kitchen counter. Even though she claimed she was full, she still ran over to the living room, kicked off her slippers, and threw herself onto the couch.

I followed, but with much less pep. I went to the couch and joined her, sitting, then pulling my legs up on the couch. I turned to make sure everyone was comfortable.

D had already unpaused her game, fully engrossed in another world. I wasn’t familiar with it at all, but from what parts I had seen her playthrough, with the heavy shadows and heavier ambience, it was some kind of horror game. Lights flickered down a long dark, empty hallway, but I could have sworn I saw the image of a little girl on the other side, but it went away too fast to know for sure.

Not really my thing, and I didn’t really see how it was D’s. But, to each their own.

I turned to check on Isabella.

Sitting on the couch, legs apart, hugging the backpack she had in the space between. She was watching the screen, too, but she looked disinterested, judging from her lowered gaze.

She didn’t want to eat, electing to stay on the couch instead, not really waiting for us to finish dinner, but rather preferring to spend time alone. I wouldn’t blame her if she wanted to keep her distance from D. The girl said it herself. She could be scary.

Isabella spoke, eyes glued to the screen.

“So you’re okay with the tag?”

I nodded, then looked over to D.

“Yeah, I can live with the design.”

“Neat…” D said, eyes still forward, controller clicking away. No use, her attention was somewhere else, now.

“Don’t forget, there’s more important stuff to focus on, don’t get caught up chasing ghosts.”

Isabella made a passing glance to me as she realigned my priorities.

“I’m aware,” I said, leaning back, looking at the screen, now. The character D was playing had gotten a hold of a flashlight, pushing back a shadow devil-thing. The details were murky. But she was winning out, pushing ahead as more light filled the screen. Probably wouldn’t be long until the devil was banished.

“Aware of what?” D asked, sounding distant. “Oh shoot, back up back up!”

“In a few days’ time, the real game starts.”

And now, for something much more proactive. Fucking finally.

D and Isabella stalked down the hallway, brisk. They moved with intent, there was no guesswork to be done here, that part was over. We had set things up, now it was time to start knocking them down.

Head down, yards behind, I followed.

The girls got into position, then I did, too. A door, not at the end of the hall, but close. There was a corner that lead down another, but that had no relevance to us. D and Isabella stood right in front, and I stood on the wall beside it, out of the line of sight from the peephole.

Testing, testing, two two one-two. Y’all hear me fine?” D.

All good.” Lawrence.

“Same.” V.

Sweet, just wanted to check before I press play.

“Ugh, just get on with it already.”

Isabella wasn’t wired up, but I was with her on being antsy. Everything considered, I didn’t have a lot of opportunities where I had the drop on a target. I couldn’t even be certain if it ever happened.

With a group, though, with others I could rely on, that opportunity was present, now. I’d play my part, and I wouldn’t fuck it up. Not this time. Hopefully not ever again.

Waiting for your signal. Good luck, ladies.

Aw, I’m a lady now, that is so sweet of you.

Fuck off. Never mind, just get this shit over with.

A mechanical giggle filtered directly into my ears. A more natural tone sounded off a little farther away.

Okay okay. I’m pressing play… now!

The hall was quiet, still. On the other side of the door, a bell rang.

Muddled footsteps approached the door. The building was old, not very well kept. It creaked with every bit of weight that pressed down on it.

It stopped right at the door. No answer.

Another bell.

“Hello?”

An answer. Finally. But the door remained closed.

I focused on D’s natural tone, instead.

“Hi, I live in the building, down the hall here, and I got locked out. My father doesn’t come back from work for a super long time and I was wondering if I could come and stay inside until he gets back?”

“I’ve never seen you on this floor before.”

“Please sir? My father said it was okay to come here in case something like this happened.”

“I never agreed to anything like that, and I don’t know you or your father.”

“Please? It’s just me out here, and it’s cold.”

“Like I said, there’s nothing I can do for you, girl, go somewhere else.”

Stuck, preoccupied, distracted. He was close to the door, and he wasn’t sure where this was going.

But we did.

D was clearly enjoying this. I could hear it in her voice, see it in her stance. Higher pitched than usual, hurried near the ends of her sentences. Standing on her balls of her feet, leaning, inching forward. Her face could barely contain her gapped grin.

She took a moment, mostly for herself. To savor the anticipation.

I wouldn’t fault her for that.

D signaled.

“Please, Mr. Onmon, could you let me in?”

There was no answer coming from the door, this time.

A step, then another. The second fainter than the first.

He wouldn’t take another step away from the door.

I spun, getting in front of D and Isabella, winding myself up.

With every ounce of strength I had available, I thrusted a foot into the door made of solid wood.

The thing broke and splintered, dust kicking up from the sudden and heavy impact. Wood was torn from metal hinges, and pieces flew in different directions.

Split into pieces, the door giving way to my foot, bursting open into the apartment. It wasn’t unlike a shotgun blast, except the ammunition here was wood.

I was given a brief glimpse into the apartment before more damage could be done. Another hallway, a foyer, but it wasn’t spacious in the slightest. The whole building was dingy, seedy, in a more decrepit part of town. The lowest of the low. Made me wonder if our intel was good.

But I knew to trust D, now. Trust in her enough to kick this door down.

I saw the man on the other side, falling on his ass, more terrified than startled. He had made himself comfortable in his shitty apartment, wearing only boxers and a dark bathrobe. Maybe if he was legitimately handsome, he would have gotten away with the look, but he was anything but. Middle-aged, balding, looking like he hadn’t seen a gym in well over several decades. His stomach protruded out, ungainly. A stout nose.

He looked like a pig.

Screaming as he scrambled back to his feet, flailing as he escaped, he went down the foyer, retreating down a corner of his apartment.

With a quiet calm, I stepped over the debris and let myself in.

I heard banging and crashing of metal and glass, panicked sounds. Other voices, too. Women.

Following the path the man had taken, I turned the corner and-

Turned back. Wood blasted back at me. Wood and metal.

An actual shotgun blast.

I had gotten back to cover before my head was taken clean off. For me, and even for Alexis, I’d rather have that not happen.

The man yelled something at us, but it was buried under the high ringing noise. The blast was loud, and I hated the loud more than I hated the rain.

It would have been easy for me to lapse into panic, to freak out and lose myself, like I always did. I could even feel the early symptoms. A cold shiver, sweat breaking out, the scenery changing to red-on-white tiles of a classroom floor.

The symptoms subsided as I felt a tiny push in the small of my back. I didn’t have to turn to know it was D.

It had to have been one of the most simple – perhaps even insignificant – gestures a person could do for another, but in my case, it was enough to keep me standing and present.

And it allowed for so much.

The ringing was still there and high, the panic creeping at the edge of my consciousness, but in this one instance, I had help, and I was able to keep it at bay.

The tiny push then turned into a stronger shove, and D got the ball rolling. I went out first, rushing.

He couldn’t shoot again, not so soon after the initial blast, reloading would take too much time.

I took in the surroundings of the room, discarded it. I only saw the target and the path to get to it. A straight line.

Everything and everyone had to catch up to me. Sound and sight. The ringing fell back in the mix for other voices to be heard, and dust settled again around messied cupboards and drawers.

We were in this man’s bedroom. The mattress didn’t have any sheets covering it, sitting on the floor, with brown spots everywhere, not just the bed itself. The walls were yellowed, not because of the paint job, but for some other gross reason that I didn’t want to consider. Plastic and glass littered the floor, trash. The owners of the other voices, women, not much older than Sarah, were either naked or almost, shaking and whimpering in fear.

No, not just women. There was another man here, too. Huddled in the corner. He didn’t seem as important as the pig I had skewered under my knife.

Ah.

I had moved on instinct, and my hands had found my knife on their own, stabbing the man in the shoulder, the blade staying there. For added measure, I had a foot pressing into his stomach. He was on his back, on his mattress, I was standing over him.

“We appreciate the hospitality, Mr. Onmon,” I said.

When Mr. Onmon spoke, I could hear him okay.

“Who the shit are all of you?”

“It doesn’t matter who we are, which is kind of the problem.” D walked around from my back to the side of the mattress. There was the gun, knocked to the side. D kicked it farther away. Isabella took the other side. Little girls looking down on a grown man. “We’re in the middle of an identity crisis, and we were hoping you could help us… find ourselves, if you will.”

Isabella commented, “Ew, his stomach looks like the moon. Gross.”

“The shit does that mean?”

“It means you have something that can be of use to us,” another voice offered, entering the room for the first time. Lawrence. He was dressed in a casual fashion, a baggy sweater and jeans, a hat on his head, pale in their shading. Not his usual set whenever doing work outside as part of a gang, but in this apartment, it was comfort over class, clearly. “And we’d like to have it, please.”

“The Cobras, their buffer zones,” D said, “You maintain them, and don’t even pretend that you don’t because you do, I know. So just tell me where each and every one of them are, and maybe you get to have at least one hand to have fun with.”

Mr. Onmon tried to fight back, but a push from my foot deflated him fast. His stomach still stuck out, though.

“You’re going after the Cobras? You must be idiots, so stupid that you shit yourselves every night because you don’t know how to use the bathroom. I’m not telling you shit.”

Lawrence spoke, “Loyalty isn’t going to help you, Mr. Onmon. You’re not high enough on the totem pole that anyone on the top will miss you. Maintenance and designations of those zones are a necessity, but they aren’t so crucial that they won’t outsource that particular job to swine. We take a few zones, we play it quiet, and they won’t notice for a time. And when they do, it’ll be too late, and for them, the cost of taking it back is going to be higher than just going somewhere else and making a new one.”

“You’re taking the buffer zones as territory? Like shit you are. Styx won’t have any of that, it’s his rules.”

“If there’s anything that Styx loves to break, it’s his own rules,” D said. “Or rather, the version of him that made those rules. As long as it doesn’t upset the spirit of the law too much, he’ll bend the letter if he finds it entertaining. That’s where he finds his solace.”

Mr. Onmon’s eyes went in every direction, searching. There was no help for him here. Not even the women and the one man he had in here with him.

Lawrence gestured at the aforementioned man and women.

“Leave, this part doesn’t concern you. You can still get fucked up, but do it somewhere else.”

One by one, they did, leaving the bedroom and abandoning Mr. Onmon.

“If I help you, will you let me live?” he asked.

“We just want info,” I said, “It’s up to you whether you live or die.”

I removed the knife from his shoulder. He grunted.

“We can’t have him slithering back to his superiors, either,” Lawrence said.

“Good point,” D said.

“There is that conceit,” I said. I watched the fear in Mr. Onmon’s eyes grow to the size of saucers. In a similar vein, I felt the same inside.

The next part came with some hesitation. Not even a week ago, I had been pushed to do this, and now I was pushed to do it again. Before, it was against my will, an order from the enemy, but now, it was to assist the people who had my back. Was this part of the job, now, being the teeth of Los Colmillos? That I’d have to bite?

I could feel myself falling, a different sensation from slipping. Falling backwards, and the only form of comfort I had was the hope that D and Sarah and even Lawrence and Isabella were there to catch me.

Cracking a knuckle, I moved the knife to Mr. Onmon’s stomach. It was so engorged. Eating himself fat from the spoils of his degeneracy. Large, white. Like a moon.

“So talk, or I’ll make you squeal.”

Mr. Onmon talked, and then I made him squeal.

Previous                                                                                               Next

089 – Tearz

Previous                                                                                               Next

I had stepped out to the wind and rain, alone with my thoughts.

Isabella walked alongside me, whispering over the weather’s hum.

“He went too far. He didn’t go easy on you at all.”

We were on the sidewalk, closer to the buildings than the road, careful as to not get splashed in case a car came passing by. I had taken the umbrella that Lawrence offered, holding it so I could cover both me and Isabella. One side of my shoulder and arm still got wet.

“But he’s right, which makes it harder to just ignore what he had to say.”

“There’s a difference between being right and being rude about it.”

“And you’re right about that, but I still feel like he’s right about this. He had his reasons, and he was completely justified.”

“But that’s not right, Wendy. You need to be more aware about how much you really have. You can’t, or you shouldn’t let yourself be pushed around. Don’t let yourself get beat on so much. Just because you can heal quicker than most doesn’t mean you should just stand there and tank the hits.”

“Funny. Lawrence said something like that.”

“Then I’m right, right?”

I wanted to agree, to say that she was right, but I couldn’t find it in me to give her the benefit of the doubt, on that.

“Maybe,” I said, the word drowned out by sound.

Rain kept crashing down, refusing to relent. As it hit the pavement, more water kicked back up, resulting in a soft mist that couldn’t be avoided. Droplets brushed against my cheeks, touching the lenses of my glasses, leaving a faint trace. Warm, tepid in a way. Uncomfortable.

Still getting wet, even with an umbrella. It made me feel as though putting in any effort would only be vain attempts. Useless. Worthless.

The mist turned everything about me into a muted haze, from the sounds to the colors. When a car did pass, the lights would be faded and fuzzy. Nothing was vibrant, everything had been made dull, it was like I was walking through a monochrome world.

Wandering thoughts continued to whisper to me.

“And screw D for going behind your back, too.”

Isabella’s voice echoed, carrying a haunting quality to it.

“Don’t say that,” I told her. “She didn’t… do that.”

“Didn’t she, though? She could have told you what she was looking for when you all went to the barn. She could have clued you in. Instead of just leaving you behind to go off and do her own thing, and then she tosses you out to the wolves, to get chewed up and spat out. The plural ‘wolves’ being just Lawrence, in this case.”

“I think I got that.”

“So you get my point? She went behind your back, and set you up to take the fall. How can you even trust her anymore? If you ask me, she’s a total b-”

“Language,” I said, like a reflex. And like a reflex, I cringed at myself for saying it. I had sounded just like D.

Isabella groaned at the end of the word, irritated at being spoken over. I tried to interrupt her, but I could still hear that particular word ringing in my head.

“Again, though, how are you okay with her going behind your back like that?”

“D didn’t go behind my back. I’m sure she had her reasons for doing what she did, and how she went about doing it. It was my fault for not taking the search at the barn all that seriously. I bet D felt as if she was picking up the slack.”

“You don’t have to go and blame yourself for everything. Didn’t Sarah say something like that?”

“Along those lines,” I said.

“See? You keep doing this, and she keeps doing that. This wouldn’t be the first time she’s gone off to enact some other plan without your knowledge, would it?”

That question brought up a particular example. The Lunar Tower. D had went dark for some time, leaving me and Lawrence to scramble to catch up while still trying to get a handle of the Granon situation. It turned out that D had been caught up in her own machinations in trying to help us, and brought Styx into our little tangle. Which lead to Styx coming back to give us the El Paso job.

D had her reasons about why she couldn’t tell us about Styx, and why she went off on her own, but the point did remain. She had enacted her own plan without our knowledge. Behind my back. And she still refused to get into the particulars, claiming that they weren’t relevant. But, were they? Were they really?

Not just the tower. Even some as small as setting up an altercation to draw out Fillmore, the first time we visited the territory, back when it was in other hands. It was only for a few minutes, but she’d left me behind, then, too.

“That’s how she operates. It’s not perfect, but we wouldn’t have gotten this far without her.”

“Doesn’t it bug you?”

Rain filled the silence that followed.

“I’ll,” I started. I paused. “Maybe. I can talk to her about it. I’d want to sort myself out first, though, before I start throwing any stones.”

“Why?”

The question echoed in my mind.

“Glass houses and all. And I don’t think I can recover right now if anything else breaks.”

“I don’t see why you’d want to go easy on them when they didn’t show you the same courtesy. Wendy, you may work with these people, but they aren’t your friends, and they certainly won’t ever be family.”

Isabella was testing those glass barriers, now, with every pointed statement. I deflected with something else. Wandering.

“I just wish I could match the V that’s in my head. That strength, or to even just be competent. I tried, you know, to not just play the part. Like, if I say it, or think it enough, I might be able to become the mask I wear. A monster.”

Isabella followed me on this particular change in direction.

“But you have, Wendy. Remember EZ and Krown? You obliterated them and their gangs, and took over their territory. Sounds pretty monsterous to me.”

“But I had help, back then. D was there, and so was Reggie, Tone… Sarah. I wouldn’t have been able to do what I did, if I didn’t have people with me. I… couldn’t have done it by myself.”

A hard thing to admit, but I’d have to come to terms with it, and soon.

“So you needed some back up, so what? That’s nothing special. All I’m saying is you can do so much more than anyone, or anything else. Lawrence doesn’t have any right, talking to you like that. Who does he think he is?”

“He’s a teammate, and another leader of the gang. Not sure if I can straight up call him a friend, but the point remains, what he has to say matters.”

Isabella went quiet for a minute. The rain said its piece. Mindless chatter.

“It matters as much as you allow it to,” she then said.

“How much weight do I give his words, then?”

“Um, none, really. You stand so far above everyone else they can’t see you. They couldn’t possibly see where you’re coming from, what you’re really capable of. You are so much more than what anyone else can comprehend. You’re not a monster, Wendy, you’re the devil.”

The devil. I wasn’t sure about that wording, but I didn’t dislike it.

“But with help, I can be the Devil,” I said. “With a capital ‘D.’”

Isabella muttered something, but it was lost to the rain. I could imagine what it was, though.

We turned a corner, staying on the sidewalk, closer to the buildings. I was starting to recognize certain places, forming my own, personal landmarks. A post office, meaning we’d pass the Wellport construction- the skate park, then the laundromat. The lady who owned the place, Tita Lorene, she was nice, but she kept offering us something to eat every time we passed by. I couldn’t eat any of it, and it wasn’t like I could just keep giving everything to D. I started planning the rest of the route in my head, in case we’d have to go around the laundromat. I’d rather not lug around warm… what did she call it, pancit?

Either way, I’d rather not lug around food, especially since we weren’t heading back yet. Wouldn’t want it to spoil.

Past the laundromat was the Fill Market. It wouldn’t be a bad idea stop by and see how Fillmore was doing.

I had multiple ways of going about this. I could have gotten a ride from Sarah and taken a look at things that way. But I chose this weather this, instead, despite the rain, despite how it made me feel. I wanted to be on streets, to see how everything was going from that perspective. It would give me a better sense of how the locals were taking to us being here, and how to adjust from there, if necessary.

And, just, I’d rather be alone, for the moment.

“Wanna turn from King to Barton?” Isabella asked, referring to the street names.

“We’ll go around,” I answered. “Explore elsewhere, then touch back on some other key places. I know where I’d want to start.”

Isabella glanced at me.

“Expanding your horizons?”

“In a sense. There are some things I want to see with my own eyes.”

“Like what?”

“You know, like, art and stuff.”

Seemingly in spite of the wind and rain, Isabella laughed.

“Art? You are such a mess, you put yourself down in one second and then think so highly of yourself in the next. Honestly, you’re-”

Isabella didn’t say any more, but I felt as if I knew what she was getting at.

Silent, we finished the length of the sidewalk, stopping at a corner. And I saw, and heard, why Isabella elected to shut her mouth.

Another person was there, waiting for the light on the other side to turn. We waited with him.

He had been talking on his phone, lowering his own volume somewhat as he noticed us standing by him. I only caught the end of a few sentences.

“-the wire, out of time, Nat.”

Not a lot to go off of.

Isabella and I remained silent, minding our distance, our tongues. Ears. I was reminded about the journalists that Lawrence warned us about.

I knew it was just my paranoia, but exercising caution was never a bad policy, especially when around strangers. There was always a chance that they’d turn out to be, well, strange. I had to always be on my guard, wary of any potential threats. Constantly diligent, never distracted.

I almost laughed. Like I’d be able to keep that up. I wasn’t that capable. Like I was even capable.

Isabella grumbled over the rain, clearing her throat. Notes of irritation.

The light turned green.

We all took a step off the sidewalk, crossing to the other side. I kept the edges of the man in the corner of my vision, watching, waiting, for anything. If anything.

Focusing ahead, the light had a timer on it, counting down for when it would turn back to red. Six, five, four…

With every step, my heart pounded. With every second, my muscles tensed up. Would the man do something? Would he try?

The man continued his conversation as we crossed.

“We’re down to the wire if we don’t pick up on something, soon. I, yeah, I know Nat, I’m doing as much as I can. You want shoestring? You can’t get anymore shoestring than this.”

Still, not much.

Still, I kept my paranoia at a shallow level, easy to tap into. It was a pain. But, it was a necessary one.

As much as my head ached in trying to recall, I thought back to Remus, and how easy it was for him to trick me, deceive me. I had helped Solace, up until the moment I wasn’t, and I had to…

My head pounded, compounded by each incoming droplet, hitting the umbrella as if it was hitting me. I couldn’t seem to escape it.

Then again, I did bring this on myself.

Fuck, I just didn’t want it to be easy for anyone else again. To lead me astray.

Isabella reached the other side first, and I was a step behind her. She went one way, and I made sure to keep her covered by the umbrella. A quick check to my rear, and I didn’t see the man that was walking with us. He must have went the other way. I couldn’t hear him anymore.

I caught up with Isabella.

“Lucky him,” she said. “He wasn’t up to anything, after all.”

“That we know of. He’s not around for us to know, anymore.”

“Did you want to tail him?”

Did I? For a split second, I actually did consider it, follow him for a block or two. It wouldn’t even be hard to stay out of sight and earshot. The rain would have actually helped, in that regard. Stay above him, stay just far enough, and he would have never known that I was ever there.

For a split second.

“Not necessary,” I answered. “If we’re going to operate like that, we’ll be stuck here all week. Let’s pick our battles with more concrete stuff, it’s smarter that way.”

“Fine,” Isabella said.

We continued walking, our footfalls drowned out by rainfall.

I wasn’t as familiar with this part of the territory, but that was also part of the reason why I was here, outside, in the rain. To make myself familiar. It wouldn’t do, to be a leader of a gang and not have built a rapport with the locals. And if we managed to build one that was solid enough, we could grow our numbers while still maintaining quality, with more skilled volunteers more willing to step. It might even get to the point where the people would rather come to us than the police, if there was a problem that required some sort of force.

Cultivate a good foundation now, and it would be easier to build on top of that, later.

The scenery changed as we ventured more into the uncharted parts of the territory. Subtle, but there. More shoes hanging from power lines, bigger piles of trash that were sodden and coming apart from all the water, getting onto the street or other corners, deeper cracks in the pavement for larger puddles.

I watched my step, avoiding the puddles. It felt weird, having to mind them now. An abstract, absurd fear, that I would actually fall in and sink, and disappear completely. Obvious, it could never happen, impossible even, yet I still found myself proceeding with caution.

Darn, I resented the fact that I was being like this. Being so weak.

Isabella stepped forward, picking up her pace. I lifted my chin, my ears perked. I heard it the same moment she brought it up.

“People,” she said, with a warning tone.

I nodded, heeding it.

Looking through the rising mist, I noted shapes as they moved, up ahead.

Coming from around the corner, crossing from one side of the road to the other, a mass of shadows, ambiguous in its outline, but sinister in its presence. It spread out, taking up most of the sidewalk and even spilling back onto the road. I noted each individual form as they solidified, features coming in, becoming more clear.

People. They were coming this way, and they were shouting. Loud, over the rain.

Isabella and I moved more to the side as they approached.

The mass of shadows barrelled through. An assemblage of limbs, legs used to run, arms used to grope. I saw the heavy black bags slung across shoulders, clutched close to chests. Even now, they were still in that mode, that mindset, clouded by the mist and adrenaline. Anyone who wasn’t a part of that mass was an obstacle, needed to be taken out or taken from.

And, even though, we had made space for them on the sidewalk, the collective group still thought Isabella and I had to be taken out or be taken from. I saw the direction in their approach, the spread in their numbers. Our direction.

Shouting, different voices adding to the chaos of their sudden intrusion. With how disorganized it all seemed, it was borderline panic.

I didn’t hesitate or question what I’d have to do.

Not the head of the mass, but close. One of the other pairs of eyes on the thing’s ‘neck.’

Limbs reached out, getting close to us. Dangerous. They’d grab Isabella’s backpack if they swiped any closer, probably grabbing her, too. My paranoia kicked up a notch, taking a new form, one that forced my limbs into action.

Creature on creature. Monster taking on monsters.

I had to sell it to myself like that. An easier sell.

My hand went down, knocking a limb back. It retreated, slinking away, and more and more pairs of eyes fell on me. The mass stumbled, the motion coursing like a wave, each shape taking their own moment to realize and grasp why there was a sudden interruption.

Then, each shape, each person, took their own course of action in the wake of my presence. I could see some of their faces now, twisting in either anger or confusion. And those in the former category, whose blood boiled more readily, came back swinging without a second thought or question. Something in their programming. If obstacle, then obliterate.

I could sympathize. But not enough to let them have their way.

The momentum of the group carried them forward, until we found ourselves surrounded. A quick check saw that the numbers were less than just before.

Glass broke, more shouting, all in the near distance.

“Hit and run robberies,” Isabella said, “Using the rain as some kind of cover.”

“Interesting,” I said. I looked around. A leader. The middle head of the beast.

Couldn’t find anyone that stood out, but it didn’t matter. I was already moving, already swinging.

My umbrella went down, past my head, my hand moving to wrap it and lock it closed. In a blur, faster than their eyes could register or recognize.

Gripping the handle of the umbrella, I swung upward.

I felt it connect.

I tried to keep in mind the structural integrity of the thing, my own strength, and how hard it would be to break or dislocate a bone. I adjusted accordingly.

Someone got the wrong end of my particular stick, and was sent off their feet, falling on top of several of his buddies. Surprised by his sudden lift and descent, they were sent down with him.

Others tried to grab at us, at Isabella. I brought the umbrella back down, smacking at hands and arms, poking at them to stay back. A quick look behind me, and I had to swing there, too. It wasn’t like in movies, where fighting in a large group would only lead to a one on one altercation with the rest standing around, waiting their turn. This mass of people knew they had the numbers, and they were trying to use it to their advantage.

Tried, trying. It was an attempt.

I swung again, hitting harder to make them back away even more, literally beating it into their heads that their strategy would not work out well for them. It was tough to juggle, though, because as much as this was already a scene, I didn’t want to drag it out any longer, escalating the situation. I’d rather not show my entire hand and make my strength that obvious. All I wanted was for them to stop what they were doing, to leave, and to leave us alone. But I couldn’t seem to do that without getting someone hurt, or resorting straight to violence.

But, whatever. It got their attention, and it was mine to command.

“Wendy!”

More hands, closer and then closer to Isabella, right by my side. I wasn’t focusing hard enough on my flank. I swiped again, and heard something audibly crack. A yelp followed.

The rain never relented, and I was feeling the full weight of it as it crashed from above. I didn’t have the umbrella over my head anymore. Water splashed as I kept swinging, poking the mass to stay away.

In time, as I gauged their response and stance, they were staying away. Keeping back.

With all the moving and spinning around I had to do, my hood was slipping off my head, leaving my face exposed to the elements and eyes.

I peered through my glasses, the mist and the rain, meeting their eyes. Had to diffuse this situation with something that wasn’t just dishing out hurt.

That wasn’t me having to be me.

“No,” I said, speaking over the rain and other voices. “Just no.”

I tilted my head down some, so I was staring directly ahead without any clouded lenses blocking my sight. I found a face, and met their eyes. Familiar.

A guy, a boy.

They had thought so too, apparently, because their eyes grew wide, their expression screwed with fear. I could almost see their pupils dilate.

“Shit, it’s her! Get the fuck out of here!”

His words rippled through the rest of the gathered mass. They felt it, and decided to ride it through.

The group took one massive step backward.

Their attention diverted in different directions, all away from me and Isabella. They didn’t take as much time to soak in my being here like that one boy did. Regardless, they listened, and scattered into the wind and the rain.

They ran, away from us and back across the street. Some tripped over their feet and each other, their escape wasn’t at all organized.

But, they had given us some room now, letting me move up the sidewalk to investigate where I had heard the glass break from earlier. I readjusted my hood as I moved, shrouding more of my face.

The front of a bank. It looked like an older establishment, there wasn’t even an ATM installed by the entrance. The door was hanging by its hinges, open, glass shattered into pieces, some carried away by falling water.

More commotion inside, shouting and running. Looking inside, I noticed more shapes going back and forth, darting.

Some even darted back outside.

“Hey! What did Noah say-”

They stopped and stared. Their reaction was similar to the other boy’s.

“Fuck, we’re dipping!”

They turned back around and dipped inside. Not back out the other door.

A back exit?

These kids had gathered a large enough group and had the gall to participate in a series of daylight robberies. If they thought they could get away with it, then there were some problems in the dynamics in play, in this territory.

Dynamics that only I would be able to correct.

Darn.

Didn’t want to show my hand, didn’t want to resort to violence. I tried to come up with something that would send a similar message without revealing too much.

I improvised as I jumped.

The buildings in the territory weren’t very tall, a relatively tall, athletic person might have been able to scale a similar height with enough extensive effort. It only took a light leap for me to get up and over. The real use of any energy was in going across the roof, to get to the other side of the building. I crossed the length in three steps.

I saw the drop into an alley. I took it.

I landed before exit door swung open. When it did, I was there, waiting for them.

Eyes even wider than the other boy’s. Yells were louder, too.

The smaller mass here got backed up by ones that were frozen at the door. Congested. They were stuck, and I could sense it was the most scared they had been in some time.

“Other way, other way!”

Another dissenting order, because a boy got pushed forward, out the door, towards me. I caught him, holding myself back from swiping with my umbrella. With how his arms were thrown out, the panic in his expression, he wasn’t trying to provide a distraction for the others to run away.

If anything, he was the distraction.

Forcing myself some more, I let the situation settle, I let the others make their getaway. I wasn’t police, I wasn’t here to make an arrest. But if I scared them enough to think twice before they tried this again, then I did my part.

I let go of the boy, looking down the exit into the bank. No one in the small hall. They had all cleared out.

Checking beside me, I was relieved to see that Isabella had caught up, standing there with her hands around the straps of her backpack. She looked intact, which was always good. She didn’t even look all that wet.

“Now that was awesome!” Isabella said.

Then I checked the boy.

Familiar, too.

He had a hat and raincoat on, a foggy grey, but he didn’t look like a completely new person to me. No, with how he was standing and the general disposition of his being, it was vague, but I had definitely run into this boy, before.

Then it hit me. Rain pattered on the tops of our heads.

Looking down at the boy, I smiled. Sympathetic.

“You can’t seem to stay out of trouble, can you, Nathan?”

Light poked holes through grey clouds above. The rain wouldn’t give up anytime soon, but it did give some space for something else to make way.

Isabella, me, and Nathan. We walked along the path back to King Boulevard. We had already passed Tita’s laundromat. The smell of pancit and lechon filled my nose, now that I had both hands full. I wasn’t very fond of how rich the odor was, but I was sure D would appreciate it.

The umbrella was back over my head, Isabella’s too. Nathan could manage on his own.

“Why are you leaving so much space there?”

“You haven’t exactly earned any special treatment, Nathan.”

“Special treatment?”

“I thought I gave you a job to do. It’s not like you had an exclusive deal with us or anything, but I can’t help but feel… disappointed? Maybe I should have set one up.”

“You basically did. That girl came to check on my work every now and then. It got annoying, especially since she kept taking my cans to spray her own shit.”

“That… does sound like something she would do.”

“God, I have to start watching my back more carefully. I still feel like she might be watching me.”

What the hell did she do while I was out?

“And even though you were under such scrutiny, you still felt the need to go out and do this?”

“I, I don’t know. I didn’t have a choice.”

“Seems like I’ve heard this before.”

“It’s true. A job like that isn’t going to keep food in my stomach forever, and my friends… the other kids on the block weren’t up to learning to spread a new tag for a new gang. They don’t play like that, and that pissed them off. I got roped into another job to, uh, prove myself.”

“So people are still not used to us being around?”

“Maybe, kind of. Some are getting around, the streets have been less hot since you all took over, but people get used to how things are, even if they weren’t so great. They understood EZ and Krown. We don’t know shit about you guys.”

“What, so we have to doing some kind of community outreach program?”

“No, please, you don’t have to go that far. That’s, well I don’t know what that is but it feels corny.”

“Do you have any other bright ideas, then?”

Nathan grumbled, having taken a bite of what looked like an eggroll. Steam billowed out from the inside, revealing some meat and vegetables. Lumpia, Tita Lorene called it.

Her business was a laundromat. What was she doing serving food, on top of that?

Nathan spoke with his mouth full. “Just give it time. If you really care about doing right by this town, just keeping doing you, and let whatever you have in motion fall into place. Maybe people will come around in time. Shit, maybe I will.”

Doing right by this town. The probability of that seemed slim, considering Nathan’s words, and considering what the ultimate goal of this whole operation was. The gang.

Not that I’d bring that up at the moment. But, getting the territory we had on our side would help make everything move more smoothly.

I spoke. “Sounds like we have big shoes to fill.”

“No shit, EZ and Krown have been here for a hot minute, and that’s not even counting when they were working together. That’s history, that’s before I was born.”

“Dang. I had gotten an idea of that when I talked to Fillmore, but still.”

“Who cares? Out with the old, in with the so much better.”

I gave Isabella a look.

“Well,” I said, looking ahead, “You were up for going on this walk with me, getting some food.”

“Not like I had much of a choice. I’m not about to refuse someone who represents the sitting gang.”

“Or maybe you wanted to go on a lunch date with a pretty girl?”

The reactions I got were varied. Isabella laughed, Nathan coughed.

“Wow,” I said, “Whatever. We’re here anyways.”

“Yeah, let’s keep moving,” Nathan said.

We turned into the Wellport skate park. We were back.

There wasn’t anyone here. Not surprising. No one in their right mind would come here when the weather was this bad. It was impossible to skate with the pavement and ramps being so slick.

Whether or not that said something about us being here, now, I wasn’t going to dwell on that too much.

I let Nathan lead the way for this part.

We walked over to the opposite end of the park, going past some metal structures and half-raised cement walls. I couldn’t even call it poorly constructed, because nothing had been set or made permanent. It didn’t even get a chance to be constructed.

Nathan lead us over to one of the walls near the back of the construction. One of the few that were actually placed into its intended position.

Watching more of my steps, over more puddles and broken chips of metal and forgotten power tools, I was able to orient myself to see what Nathan had to show us.

A face. The eyes were closed, with rough, crude lines to exaggerate the creases and folds, accentuating how tight they were being shut. A few dashes to suggest a nose, scrunched to better sell the twisted up expression the piece was conveying.

But they were small in content, part of a larger whole. They weren’t the focus.

It was the mouth. The corners pulled back, wide, into a smile that looked crazed. The tongue was sticking out, long like a serpent’s, hanging over the lower lip, curled and forked. Every tooth on the upper row were in view and detailed, especially the two pointed canines. They were elongated, like razors, as if they had been filed sharp. With how wild the whole expression looked, it was like the face was laughing.

And the blood.

So much blood. Dripping from the teeth, the tongue, and splashed back past the corners of the eyes. A grim, grizzly picture.

The blood even spelled out a word, across the teeth. Fang.

“She came up with this design?” I questioned.

“It’s what she commissioned me to do. Why, you didn’t come up with this?”

“No,” I said.

Then again, I didn’t have a chance to come up with anything on my own. I wasn’t in town.

“You don’t like it?” Nathan asked.

Isabella spoke, “If it means anything, I love it.”

“I do not… dislike it,” I said, reserved. It struck me in a way I couldn’t quite express why, or put a finger on. It was a visceral, it was violent, and it was monstrous.

And, also, it was telling.

This was the gang’s tag, the image we wanted to bring forward when doing business as Los Colmillos. This was our face. D wanted to use mine.

“If you’re worried about this being the final product, don’t,” Nathan said. “She gave me suggestions for more subtle graphics that you can put on business cards and stuff. Not sure why you’d want to get stuff like that printed. But I do have some test designs on another wall, around here.”

“This is all over the town?” I asked.

“Not all over, but I have noticed some people putting their own spin on the design. They’re pretty dope. I doubt they even know where it came from, yet.”

“Have people been asking around, trying to figure it out, learn more about the new gang in town?”

“Um, not really, or not that I know of.”

“Oh,” I said.

“I’m starting to think you don’t actually like the design,” Nathan said.

“I think it’s amazing,” Isabella. “It fits you so well, Wendy.”

“The design is good, Nathan, there’s just a lot to take in.”

And there was a lot to take in. I wasn’t sure why, but the face had an eerie effect to it, and it nagged. Tugged, really.

With the rain, water dripped down the face and eyes, sliding alongside the blood. The face looked like it was crying.

I had taken the long way around to getting here, and that applied in a more general sense than I would have liked. I detoured to see more of the town, came across Nathan, and wrapped back to the park. I had taken every deviation and distraction until I found myself back at the barn, where the truth was gone now, but traces of it had been hiding from me.

Spirals. I thought about what Lawrence showed me. Those pictures.

I had tried taking my mind off them for the internim. Distracting myself through diligence. But now I couldn’t run away. I had come back for a reason. Because, despite what Isabella had to say on the topic, I couldn’t do things by myself. I wasn’t good enough.

I spiraled back to this. And it was staring back at me.

Water dripped down our eyes.

I’d have a lot to talk with D about over dinner.

Previous                                                                                               Next

088 – The Revenge of Surf Queen

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It hadn’t occurred to me just how much I took my leadership position for granted, not until I had to go through the fallout of botching the El Paso job. This last week was nothing if not a harsh wake-up call, or a splash of water in my face, about the responsibilities of my role. Unlike being whatever it was that gave me my powers, being a gang leader wasn’t a natural thing. It had to be earned, and the foundation of that was built on trust.

That had been shattered by the time I got back to Stephenville.

I could see it in the eyes of the other members, in their postures as D and Lawrence had everyone come meet us when we returned. Word spread fast, apparently, and not everyone was happy with what they heard.

It was varied, but the general sentiment was mutual, shared. Some shifted their gazes away, others glared at me straight on. Hard to avoid, when I was at the center of it all. Nothing I wasn’t used to, but getting it from people who were supposed to be in my corner… it didn’t help, in any case.

When we got back, Lawrence seemed to take it in stride, but he was also on an assortment of different painkillers, being propped up by D. He was off on his own ride, and I had just gotten back from mine. Now, all that was left was the come down. And that was a slow, numbing, gradual descent into self-flagellation and self-loathing. A thick miasma of an atmosphere that was hard to parse, harder still to get out of.

Which, which was…

I don’t know.

And that atmosphere was palpable throughout the rest of the week, clouding my vision, my mindset, and my general disposition. Every movement, every passing thought, was being met with second and third guesses, every stare and whispered breath made me more and more conscious over all of my decisions. Picking up and turning over the same stone, time and time again, becoming a bad habit.

Those seeds of doubt had finally taken root, and this was what bloomed. An ugly flower with more thorns than petals.

If only there was a way to nip it in the bud. Or was it too late?

I don’t know.

All I knew was that there was a lot to do, and it would take time before everything would straighten out, reach a new equilibrium. It wouldn’t be the same, but it would have to do.

It’d have to.

Challenge after challenge, constant struggling with no end in sight. It was such a tiny, fleeting draft of an idea, but it flickered in my mind, anyways.

That, maybe, it was better that I give up, or that I had never tried at all.

A small pressure on my head, right between my elbow and my temple, pushing against me. Rain tapped against the other side of the glass, like a weird sort of role reversal of the whole fish in the bowl thing. Except I didn’t want to put myself in the position of a helpless creature, exactly, but…

I don’t know. That’s where I am, I guess.

But, whatever. In the grand scheme of things, none of this mattered. It all stacked together, adding up but still not amounting to much, leaving me being nothing but-

“Wendy?”

I startled a little, lifting my head. The pressure became a fading throb, lessening as I shook my head, slight.

Sarah, at the driver’s side.

She was facing me, her hands off the steering wheel. Lips upturned, slight, her eyes crinkling a little. If there was ever an expression to project ‘patient’ onto, it was that one.

“We’re here,” she said. I could hear it in her voice, too. Patience.

But, I didn’t want to keep everyone waiting. I didn’t want to be what held everyone back.

The only response I could offer was a nod, enough of a signal for everyone to start getting out of the van.

I braced myself for the rain. It came down harder, merciless even, hammering down on us as if each drop was attempting to pound us into the cement. Punching, stomping me into the curb, and it would have, if I didn’t put past the minimum effort in standing up, standing my ground. With how tired and done I was feeling, that particular tug of war would have favored the opposition, had the door leading inside not been only a few paces away.

Sarah threw the door open, the hinges creaking, announcing our arrival. Even over the rain. Assholes.

Heads turned. Eyes stared.

Another sort of role reversal. I had gotten out of the water for a chance to breathe, but now I had found myself burning up in the glare of others.

My own subordinates.

They were all moving about and working as we came in, the majority of them taken a moment to pause what they were doing and put their focus on us, instead. Me, more than likely.

It was only for a moment, but time seemed to stretch for so long that it might as well have been for an eternity.

Dozens upon dozens of spotlights, a stage I once thought I could stand on with confidence, and a part I once thought I could play, but now, I doubted my ability to deliver those lines with conviction. The queen.

I’m still on the board, but I’m not in a good position.

I was stuck on what direction to take.

Through the blinding glares, I peered past them to take in the rest of the base.

One of the headquarters for the Fangs. Deep in the heart of our territory in West Stephenville, an emptied out museum we took over and renovated. Like the Whiterose Hall for Music and Theater, where we had taken Granon for our first encounter with him, the Free Grant Museum of Arts was supposed to be a community center that encouraged students do partake in after-school programs, joining art classes with peers instead of joining gangs. But, like the theater, it lost out on the appropriate funds and eventually had to shut down. It had taken some work, and some time, but we had enough hands on deck, and we got the museum up and running again… for Lawrence. The museum wasn’t open to the public anymore.

One of the headquarters, because it was agreed that each of the leaders would have their own, spreading out, taking over more bases as the territory expanded. We were still in the process of getting everything together. Lawrence had just gotten his and was ready to go, D was in the planning stages now that she had a place in mind, and I was still undecided on where I’d set up shop. There were some options, but part of me would rather wait until the territory expanded into places where I’d have better choices.

But, I couldn’t see myself having a base if this was what I’d return to.

We were in the lobby of the museum, branching off into the different wings of the building, available to us from there. Lawrence’s office would be in the back, straight ahead, but there was a sizable crowd of people between us and our destination. Carrying boxes, checking inventory, doing last-minute checks on wiring to make sure it held up after a week or two. And most had paused, brief, to look at us as if we were intruding. Even though they were all members of my gang.

It was only for a moment, but the tension coming from each glare, each spotlight… it was tactile. Pulling, tugging at me, in every direction, until I came apart.

Was that what they intended? Did that want that?

It made me feel so alien. So other. I was very conscious of the droplets of water on my face and glasses, how my clothes weighed me down.

Paranoia. A miasma by any other name would be just as toxic.

A nudge from behind, like the wind from before, except I was made to move, this time.

D moved to the side of me, her hand still between my shoulder blades.

“Come on,” she said, putting more force there, where she was touching me.

I complied. As a group, we made the first move, and everyone else went right back to work. Only for a moment, we were all locked in a kind of stasis, a symptom of what could be a larger issue. What would happen if I had to give an order at a critical juncture? Would they drag their feet, delay, or fight me on my decision? It would be hard to say for sure until we were in that exact situation, but at the same time, I didn’t want things to get that bad.

I’d have to do something about that. Another box to put on the list. There were so many boxes, already.

Sarah cleared the way, getting in front so others would have to get out of the way. She was in a weird position, as well, being one of the people who worked under me while still comfortable being at my side. She could maneuver through both circles with ease, which made her a big help.

I felt bad for having to rely on her. D, as well.

Like bodyguards protecting a celebrity, Sarah and D and Isabella made a barrier around me, putting space between us and them. Space that shouldn’t be there, but we’d have to work around that.

We ducked into a door past the main exhibit hall, leading into the back area of the museum. The walls immediately shrunk in dimensions, choking us so we had to walk in less of a group, and more of a line. D took point, leading the way. I was a step behind her, lagging a little.

Then, after finding a set of stairs leading up, and down another hall, we made our way over to Lawrence’s office.

The door, an off-white wooden slab with subtle, winding engraving, wasn’t open, but D pressed against the surface of it anyways. She reached for the handle, then pressed both hands against the door, palms flat, fingers splayed, and threw her weight onto the door. It took some doing, some real effort or some genuinely good acting on D’s part, but she managed to sell the image that the door was heavy.

It gave our entrance, and our intrusion into his office, that much more weight.

Lawrence was waiting for us.

He was sitting on the other side of his office, the room dim, with wisps of smoke floating through the air. Lit by the window behind him, rain pelting the glass, soft greys became white brushstrokes against the dark hues that enveloped Lawrence and the room. Across the space, there were white patches of light gave shape and form to the shadows. I saw Lawrence, I saw his desk, I saw how he sat, favoring a side, the only other color in here was a burnt orange, by where his lips would be, glowing periodically.

Burning orange, then a soft white, tracing thin, hazy lines into the air.

“What the heck is this?” D asked, stomping into the room. With how delicate the atmosphere was in here, each step came down like thunder.

“You… kept me waiting,” was the answer from Lawrence. It sounded slurred, slowed in a way. But measured. As though he had to put effort in not tripping over his words.

Where Lawrence was sluggish, however, D was fast as lightning.

She crossed the distance in a sprint, disappearing into the shadow, patches of light falling on her on occasion. The shape of Lawrence vanished, swallowed by dark, the burnt orange gone as well. I heard ruffling and a bit of a struggle, and when I saw the orange light again, it was on the floor, quickly being stomped out.

“No smoking,” D said, harsh.

“I needed to something to take the edge off.”

“That’s why I gave you those meds. Your prescription. Don’t mix it with other junk.”

“A little bit isn’t going to do anything too bad. Don’t… worry, I know what I’m doing.”

“If you know what you were doing, then you wouldn’t be self-medication. Mixing that stuff while you’re already on something is just a recipe for disaster. So stop it. Last thing I need is for you to fall into a drug-induced coma, or you get a seizure or a heart attack or something, okay?”

“It’s clean weed, D, I got it from the boys down there. It’s stuff we sell. And I didn’t even take that much, before you got here. And it helps. So-”

“I said stop, okay, I said it. I don’t need another-”

D twitched, going quiet. The outline of her twisted around, facing us. As if she realized that she wasn’t alone.

Dropping her shoulders, head lowered, she stepped to the side, and I could see Lawrence’s outline again. Light cut through blinds to shape him.

“Do you need a light in here?” I asked, experimentally moving inside.

Lawrence replied. “Probably not the kind of light you’re offering, so no, I’m good.”

I was fine with that. I wasn’t like I couldn’t see in the dark, anyways, and there were more important things to fuss over about. The lights stayed off.

My eyes began to adjust to the dimness, and I was finally able to see Lawrence as I approached. He was dressed to relax, or at least be as comfortable as possible, while still being presentable. A sweater one size too big, the hole for his head hanging open, revealing the white undershirt he had underneath. He had one leg propped up on his desk, slim fit acid-washed jeans and a cream seashell colored shoe upon closer inspection. He was resting it by a laptop, but by the lack of any lighting reflection off him, I could tell that it was on a sleep mode.

As relaxed as he appeared, the expression he wore was one of restraint, his eyes part of the way scrunched while his jaw was set, square. Holding back from showing any of the pain he was feeling. Which was fair, he still had to wear a bandage on his chin, covering the stitches.

He was still suffering from residual aches from his multiple bouts with Granon, and had the lower half of his face split open by Styx. I could see why he’d want to find reprieve in any way possible, be it at the bottom of a pill bottle, or at the end of a joint.

Lawrence scratched his neck, close to the stitches. He was being ginger with it, not wanting to irritate the skin there, probably.

“How was the barn?” he asked.

D looked at me. I wanted to look and see if Sarah was still here. I had left her by the door when I walked into the office after D.

“A bust,” I replied, looking back at Lawrence. “Nothing left there. Doesn’t help that we went when it’s raining as hard as it is. Everything’s been cleaned out and washed away.”

“We found a bunch of puddles, though,” D said. “Lots and lots of them.”

Easy to tell, that Lawrence didn’t like hearing that. He looked to the side, over to D. She must have done something, judging by his sudden frown. He moved his hand from his neck to his nose, pinching the bridge of it, looking up.

“So that’s it, just like that? You’re just going to give up?”

I wasn’t sure if that question was pointed or more general in scope.

My turn to look at D, and all she did was tilt her head.

“We don’t have to,” I answered, in both meanings. “That barn was our best lead though, and we couldn’t turn up anything.”

“That’s why you don’t delay, Wendy, because the opportunity slips away from you. Fuck. You don’t let chances disappear when they’re right there.”

“Yeah, I get it, I don’t need to hear it twice.”

“I think you do. You’re surprisingly stubborn.”

Fuck. Like I needed this right now.

I turned, glancing back. Sarah was here. Which made everything more complicated.

It was good that she was here, that I still had her, but it sucked that she had to see this. There was space between us, too, now that I was in D and Lawrence’s company, the leaders of Los Colmillos. As much as I wanted- needed her here, she didn’t belong.

“You’re dismissed,” I told her. “Thanks again, for everything.”

Sarah gave me a nod.

“Of course. Anytime.”

She took her leave, the heavy door slamming behind her. Not because of any lingering emotion, but because the door was that damn heavy, apparently.

After that sound rang out, it gave way to the rain. Tapping on the window, incessant, like a unsolicited visitor, trying to get in.

I turned back to Lawrence.

“It’s not the first time I went down to Braham Barn,” I said. Jumping back into the previous discussion, but it felt like a non-sequitur.

“When?” Lawrence asked.

I sifted through broken memories, loose connections. I didn’t like that I had to plug some of them back in.

A shock coursed through me, like a tiny bit of static, but across my whole body.

“Back when I first got my powers, a couple days after the incident that took place there. I went back. It was the same then, too. Nothing.”

Lawrence lifted a brow. He shifted, leaning more into that side he favored. He grunted.

“You didn’t mention that before.”

I took a second before I answered. Images flashed in my head. Alexis. The barn. Testing her newfound strength on some picnic tables. That moment was the most clear, since it was one of the few times her powers ever gave her a sense of wonderment. That feeling was all her own, I couldn’t take that away from her, not that I wanted to. I’d rather keep my hands off, regarding that.

“It just came back to me,” I explained, “But yeah, it wasn’t like I didn’t try. Didn’t find anything then, either.”

“So you just wasted your time by going there again, even when you knew you wouldn’t find shit?”

I lowered my eyes. Lawrence was irritating when he was a little high.

“It’s… complicated,” I said, “I have a new set of eyes now, metaphorically speaking. I brought others, too, different perspectives. Still came up blank.”

“We all tried,” D said. “It’s big deal that Wendy even wanted to go back. Seriously.”

“This isn’t a therapy session,” I commented, voice hushed. Stupid, to bring up that tidbit.

Lawrence didn’t seem to catch it, though, continuing the conversation with another point.

“And you still didn’t find anything?”

“I don’t know what else to tell you.”

“Then you go at it from another angle. I don’t know your whole origin story, but there has to be some record of it. Cops used to stop by there for drugs. Check those.”

D interjected. “You have been smoking, because you’ve forgotten the cops we have to deal with. Chances are good that they’d covered things up, without even realizing what they covering up. You’re right, that barn was a hot spot for drugs back in the day, so the less attention places like that, the less trouble and heat on them. Wouldn’t shock me if this thing did get covered, but got buried in the back pages of the paper or at the bottom of someone’s feed. We probably wouldn’t get anything out of it.”

Lawrence coughed, sounding strained at the end.

“You wanted another perspective, there’s one. Don’t let this one slip past you, too.”

D and I exchanged a glance. Fleeting.

“I can look into it for you, Wendy, if you like,” D said. She winked. “It wouldn’t even be hard. I know how to get past Uncle J’s back when he’s not looking.”

Uncle J. James Gomez. She really had nicknames for everyone.

“Sure,” I said to D, and for Lawrence as well. “We’ll give it a shot.”

Lawrence leaned on his side some more, failing to suppress a groan. He sounded like an old man.

“It’s a start. Just don’t go about this all half-heartedly. That’ll just piss me off even more.”

“God,” I said, “Maybe you do need a light.”

D flashed me a look. With how the shadows fell on her face, she looked scary.

Lawrence laughed a little. Sounding strained.

“Ha, ow, not maybe, I do, but that’s beside the point. Alright, fine, I won’t keep bugging you about it, since it seems like you give enough of a shit. Let’s move onto other business.”

“Yes, please,” I said.

Moving onto other business was good, and it helped that business was good. Despite my fuck up, the gang was doing pretty well, growing at a steady rate and building momentum. Granon wouldn’t have come after us if we hadn’t been doing something right. And all we had to do was keep at it. Getting numbers, looking after the terrority, and eyeing rival gangs to go after, ourselves. That particular plan was still in effect. We had beaten out the Thunders and the Royals, and, though our dealing with Hóngshuǐ ended in a stalemate, there were still others that owed us, other doors to knock down. Other business.

“What’s next on the agenda?” D asked.

Lawrence lowered his chin, letting the shadows take more of his face. He was starting to look more and more the part of a mob boss. If we weren’t on the same team, and if I didn’t have powers, I could see myself wanting to shrink under his gaze.

He really was the face of this gang.

“Maintenance and expansion,” Lawrence said. “We get back on track with everything we were doing before Wendy left for El Paso. There’s a lot we need to check up on, especially here in town, and if we want to keep growing, we’ll have to start scoping out potential targets. Other gangs.”

“Y’all got any suggestions for gangs?” D asked.

“Lawrence knows them better than I would,” I said. “What do you think?”

“I think,” Lawrence started. He scratched his chin. “We’re going to be swinging above our weight pretty soon. What’s left on the list are either individuals with nothing else to offer, or gangs that squat at a place without really holding anything there, or they’re just too fucking far. I’d like everything to connect, it makes coordinating and communication much easier. If we get split up, fragment ourselves, that leaves us with openings for others to exploit.”

“It’s not going to be easy,” I said, “I don’t know how above our weight you want to swing, but that comes with the risk of us getting smacked back down, no chance of getting up.”

“You think I don’t know that? We’ll play it smart, gather some intel. If we do lock on a bigger gang, like the Cobras or something, we can go for their smaller holds, inching in on parts of their territory that they aren’t as secure over.”

“Buffer zones,” D said. “The bigger the gang, the more hold you have on the city, meaning a lot of smaller groups might try to size you up to prove themselves, or police might have to come knocking just to keep appearances. That what those zones, or forward bases, are for. Leftover scraps for them to chew on. Like remoras to sharks.”

“I’d never heard of these,” I said.

“Insider secret,” D offered, with sing-songy tone.

I considered the plan that was being suggested.

“So if we take these bases for ourselves, we would be able to grow the gang a little bit at a time. Growth, while still pacing ourselves.”

“We’d have to be careful, though,” Lawrence said. “Take enough of those bases and they’ll have to retaliate. This isn’t like taking candy from a corner store. They have the power to wipe us out, make it look like we were never here in the first place. Worse than a war. Obliteration.”

A tug, a reflex. This was the part where I’d say that we had the power to wipe them out to. Referring to myself.

I held my tongue. I couldn’t even fake it.

Instead, I ventured with, “So we should start scoping out some places, then. See who we can hit first, and who. No one, specific target is in our sights yet.”

“I can start on that,” D said. “I know where to look.”

Lawrence nodded, more assured now. “Then I’m putting you on that for now. No need to rush, let’s just get our ducks in a row first.”

“Agreed,” I said. “Now, what’s next? Anything that needs to be taken care of here?”

“A lot,” Lawrence said. “If D is going to be working on expansion, then you’re taking care of maintenance. Check around the terrority, touch base with the locals. Make sure our presence is well established. If there’s any trouble or problems, take care of it.”

“Any in particular that’ve cropped up recently?”

Shadows dug into his grimace.

“Some. Maybe. Few of the boys have mentioned someone snooping around, talking to the locals, asking questions. A lot of questions, which to me means too many.”

“What kind of questions?”

“Like who’s occupying the territory now, what happened to the previous occupants, any rumors, leads.”

I didn’t like the sound of any of that.

“Oof, sounds like a real journalist,” D said. “Scary.”

In one word, D voiced my concerns for me.

The idea of someone out there, asking about us, trying to get information… it gave me a sense of creeping dread. As if I had been stabbed with my own knife.

“I haven’t been able to get much else on this person,” Lawrence said. “Age, name… all I have is they might be a woman. White.”

“Might be?” I questioned.

“The reports conflict. Some say it was a male, others say female.”

“More than one journalist, then?” D suggested. “Super scary.”

Two words, now.

“That doesn’t make this any easier,” I commented. “We don’t need anyone sticking their nose where it doesn’t belong, and not at this juncture.”

Lawrence gestured, the look on his face suggesting that it hurt to do so.

“I hadn’t heard anything about them in a while, which still worries me. It’s just something I heard during the daily reports.”

“Something to keep in mind then,” I said. “I’ll be on the lookout.”

“Me too,” D said. “What else we got?”

I paused.

“There’s… something I need to bring up.”

There were just two others here, but I back up a bit to better gauge the room’s reaction.

Lawrence looked at me, D did too. The rain seemed to tap harder on the window, bodily crashing into the glass.

It was like being the spotlight again.

“Yes?” Lawrence asked.

I breathed.

“It’s the others,” I said, breathing out. “There’s some tension between me and those we have working for us. Ever since I got back from El Paso. It’s hard to explain, but… it’s there.”

I wanted to put air quotes on the word ‘some,’ but I didn’t have the energy to lift my arms, move my fingers.

“You’ll be fine,” D said. Her voice was pitched higher than usual. Fake. “It’s all just in your head.”

“I’m tired of everything being in my head,” I exhaled. I must have had some kind of expression on my face, or how the shadows hit mine, because D dropped any pretense of being chipper. Just for a split second, but I caught it.

“No, you’re right,” Lawrence said. “Doesn’t surprise me. We’ve been keeping them in the dark about certain stuff, like how we operate. There’s cliques, now, ever since we started taking in more people. Those who were on the come up with me, us, they’re more in the know than the newer guys, and I can bet they have some reservations over having to take orders from a thirteen year old girl.”

“Hey, whoa,” D said. She made a victory sign. “I’m not thirteen.”

“My point stands.”

“And they’d feel frustrated if they don’t get anything clear on V, or her relation to the Fangs,” I said. “Reggie, Tone… Sarah. People like them know. Doesn’t mean everyone does.”

“It’s an open secret,” D said. “It was always designed to be that way. If it gets out, fine, that’s how it was supposed to work. But we do have to get out in front of it by a smidge. Once locals or other gangs pick up on what’s going on, before we get any bigger, they’ll started getting their ducks in a row and it’ll be harder to make any more headway.”

We could pace ourselves, but we also couldn’t. We were racing against an abstract timer, having to beat it before it reached zero.

I voiced other thoughts.

“We still have to do something about our own people. The locals and our members. I don’t want to be on bad terms with them. That’s just complicates everything even more.”

“Then don’t fuck up next time,” Lawrence said. Like it was easy.

“Thanks,” I breathed.

Lawrence groaned, moving in his seat. He brought himself forward, elbows propped up on the table. He scratched his chin, and flinched.

“But that’s what this next part is for. There was a stumble, sure, but it didn’t end in a complete failure. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be here, talking about it. All that’s left is to just, you know-”

“Keep swimming?” D offered.

“Shut up,” Lawrence moaned, and D laughed. “But sure, go with that. And, Wendy?”

“Yeah?”

“Being disliked by your workers, or feeling that kind of distance? It comes with the job. The opposite might even be unnatural. As long as you keep your head on straight, and have a good vision for the future, it all falls into place. Don’t beat yourself up over it.”

“Sounds easier to say that do.”

“Too bad, time to get to doing. You two have your assignments. I’d help you out, but I still feel like complete shit.”

Lawrence twitched, his hand hovering under his bandage.

“Styx really did a number on you,” I said. The comment was more meant for him, but I could feel it reflecting back on me, as well. “We’ll have to do something about him, too.”

“Like what? He’s practically untouchable. Go after him, that’s guaranteed obliteration.”

“He’s like a storm,” D said. “If you see it in the distance, try and get away. If you can’t, all you can do is let it do its damage, and pick up the pieces later.”

Pick up the pieces. That was all I kept doing, in the months after the incident at the school.

“Sure,” I said, resigned.

Rain kept knocking, the light outside tinged grey. I wasn’t at my best.

“I’ll go out first and get started,” D said. “I’ll take the van, if you don’t mind.”

“There’s a spare umbrella at the door,” Lawrence said. “You can take that if you’d like, Wendy.”

“Sure,”  I said.

“We can meet up later, Vivi. I’ll get you dinner?”

“Sure.”

Then, we all broke from the discussion. D went first, heading out, her hand touching mine, rubbing it before passing me.

“D?” Lawrence said, pressing a button on his laptop. A soft light illuminated face. “Send me everything you took. Now.”

She didn’t respond right away.

“Go easy on her.”

The door slammed. It was just the two of us.

I had the distinct impression that he wanted me to stay back.

Lawrence stood up. I could see how hard it was for him.

“Am I being unreasonable?” he asked. “I don’t think I am. I try to be fair, Wendy, I really do. It helps when you’re a leader, and it’s invaluable when you’re on a team. It’s diplomatic.”

He asked again. “Am I being unreasonable?”

I answered, uncertain, “I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t be.”

Lawrence glanced down. He tapped at his laptop, and turned it around. The screen faced me.

“Look.”

Not a suggestion. An order.

Reluctant, I looked.

Red and white. There was so much of the former that it took time for it to sink in. Blood-soaked tile.

Splashed about, streaked in some places, pooling in others. There was so much I could smell it from here. In the deeper, darker sections of the liquid, there were gouges in the tile, chunk torn out and missing, as if someone had gone through and picked at it with a jackhammer. There was a whole length of destruction in that vein. The word choice even fit, considering all the blood.

I swallowed.

Lawrence brought his hand on the keyboard, fumbling with it since the laptop was facing me. He pressed an arrow key.

A wider shot. The arrangement of tiles lined up and spread out far enough for me to see that it was a hall. It seemed familiar, but there was even more blood.

It soaked and streaked the walls, even the ceiling, and in this particular photo, it had been taken while some blood dripped down, a thin line connecting the top and bottom of the hallway.

And the veins.

Spiraling down the length of the hall, gouges were made into the tile and brick, slashing across the floor, the wall, the ceiling, the other wall, and farther down the floor. A spiral. The damage was bad enough that it had broken through some pipes in the floor and ceiling, releasing some water, and taking out lights above.

Lawrence pressed the arrow key again.

I saw body parts. A hand. A leg. Granon’s body.

Despite myself, or perhaps because of myself, I looked away.

Look,” was all Lawrence said. I heard the sound another pressed key.

Even more reluctant, even more disgusted, I looked.

Water, wood. More familiar and more recent.

“What is this?” I asked.

“Braham Barn,” Lawrence explained. “D sent these to me just now. Look.”

He kept cycling through the pictures. They were all of the interior of the barn. The floor, the walls, the high ceiling, the walls on the other side… back to the floor.

A spiral.

I looked at where the water had collected, how it pooled in some places. Puddles. So many puddles.

Lawrence fished out his phone, reading off of it. “Here’s the description that came with the pics. Also from D. ‘Spiral pattern matches the damage observed in the Lunar Tower service hallway, however, less deep considering the dimensions of the barn’s interior. Wood breaks differently as well, but the end result is similar enough to start gathering a conclusion. Also explains the holes in the ceiling, allowing more rain to get in.’”

He put his phone down by the laptop, and cycled through the rest of the photos. Different gouges at different angles. I even saw myself, standing in the distance, talking with Sarah.

When were these taken? While I wasn’t looking?

Then, the photos circled back to the first one. With all the blood and gore.

Lawrence pushed his laptop down. It closed with a slap. I felt like I had been slapped in the face.

“What happened at the Lunar Tower?”

My mouth was open, but that was more my jaw hanging. Frozen, like a chill went through me, turning the water that had settled on me into ice.

Tell me,” Lawrence ordered.

“I,” I started. In one hand, I balled up a fist. In the other, I cracked the knuckle of my middle finger. “I was looking Granon, but he got to me first. In that hall. Shot me, had me in a lock. He-”

I pressed my finger again, but it had already cracked.

“He cut off my finger.”

Rain.

“And then?” Lawrence asked.

Both my hands were fists, now.

That,” I said, referring to the pictures. “The rest really is a blur to me.”

Lawrence sighed, rough.

“Let me see your hand.”

There was hesitation, but no delay. I brought my hand out. My right hand.

Lawrence took it in his. He wasn’t being gentle.

“Which finger?”

“The middle one.”

“Still there,” he said, brushing it away. My arm fell to my side.

My head stayed angled towards the laptop, but my eyes went up. Lawrence. I was shrinking under his gaze.

“Whatever happened in that hall, it happened before in that barn. Maybe you didn’t remember it then, but you would have picked up on it if you had seen these pictures when D offered, initially. You looked, but you refused to see.”

“I get it. I know what you mean.”

“Do you? I don’t like half-hearted bullshit, Wendy, in fact I fucking loathe it. If you’re going to not put in the proper effort, then you might as well not do it at all, and fuck over all of us in the process. And I didn’t take the risk in working with you, and D, just so you can fuck me over.”

“I’m not, we won’t.”

“You better not.”

I watched as Lawrence threw both hands into his pockets. He talked as he worked.

“There’s something inside of you, Wendy, I don’t want say ‘monster’ but humans can’t do that on their own. Some facet or side-effect of your power that you’ve never been aware of. And if you don’t get a grip, it’s going to get a hold of you instead, and the last enemy you want to make right now is yourself.”

“What, so you want me to start cutting off my appendages and see what happens?”

He drew out both hands. A lighter and joint in his left, and a raised middle finger in his right. He lifted his right hand to me.

“You have value, Wendy, you have your use in this gang. After all, I agreed to rename the gang in your image. So I’m giving you one more chance. Don’t make it your last one.”

Each word hit me like rainfall. The message was clear. In fact, it was explicit.

“I understand.”

Lawrence didn’t respond right away. Careful, he dropped back into his seat, and proceeded to light the joint.

“You have your assignment. Get to it.”

He took a puff.

“And don’t tell D. I don’t want to hear it.”

I nodded, just going along with the flow, by this point.

Dismissing myself, I left the office, gathering what I needed. With a light flick of my wrist, the door swung open.

Isabella met me across the hall.

“Forgot you were here,” I said, still walking. Footsteps dragged. Isabella followed.

“As long as you need me, I’ll be around.”

“Good,” I said, dreading the moment when I’d have to open the door out into the museum proper. “We’ve got, ugh, we’ve got shit to do.”

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