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.”
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.”
“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-”
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.
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…”
“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.
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’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.
“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.