Interlude – Natalie

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“What is it you want, exactly?”

Natalie Beckham smiled. She flattened out a sheet of paper. She could feel the indentations of what she had written on the page before. A new page, a blank page.

“I want the truth,” she answered.

Earl Fillmore set his arms across the table, the wrinkles in his forehead creasing. He was an older man, with grey in his bread and his skin with a leathery texture to it. A few years past fifty. No, if there was anything that really aged him, it was the way he dressed. His brown sweater was zipped up to his chin, with a collar and bowtie around his neck. A wool cap on his head completed the look. If he were forty years younger, he would be handing out newspapers.

But now I’m trying to get him in one.

“I’m giving you what I can,” Earl said, “What I know. And what I know, is that this law will tear this community apart, and I’m tired of seeing the seams get tested, time and time again. And the way things are going, something’s going to break, eventually.”

Natalie wanted to drop her smile, but didn’t.

“It’s not a law, Earl, not yet.”

Earl breathed. “And it would be great if it never became one.”

Shifting only her eyes, Natalie glanced over to her partner. From behind a camera, Oliver returned a look, tapping his phone that he had set on the table. The screen lit up, showing the amount of time the microphone was recording. Ten minutes.

Natalie adjusted her thick-rimmed glasses, straightening out loose, blonde hair she had tied back. Setting herself straight.

She’d have to steer the interview, get it back on track. Otherwise she’d never get to the heart of the matter. Why she was here.

Natalie proposed her next question.

“If you don’t mind, Earl, I’d to give you the runthrough of the bill, one more time.”

Earl breathed again, deeper this time.

“Sure.”

“Thank you. John Cruz and his proposed Thompson Act would give more power to law enforcement to investigate any and all claims regarding people and businesses with potential connections to organized crime. It calls for stricter penalties across the board, even on minor misdemeanors, and less regulation in state prisons. The chances of parole should someone be found guilty on any accounts relating to the Thompson Act are next to zero.”

“John Cruz?”

“The district attorney. The Thompson Act is named in the memory of the person Cruz was running against, Thomas Thompson.”

“Named in the memory of?”

“Thompson died before the ballots ever opened. Killed, really. One of the many losses suffered from the terrorist attacks by Solace last November.”

Earl frowned. “Ah, that.”

That. A situation that had been so dire, so grave, that reduced all sentiments to but a single word. That.

Natalie continued. “Cruz ended up taking the position, as if an opposing candidate could have cropped up in the following weeks, but he still wanted to ensure that his legacy would continue and leave its own mark on the city.”

“Is that supposed to be a noble deed?” Earl asked.

“It isn’t my position to say,” Natalie said. “But your perspective will help guide the story. Just before, you mention that the Thompson Act would tear your community apart. Why do you see things that way? Potentially, the bill could have a big hand in taking out a lot of the criminal activity that happens in Stephenville.”

A slight prod, Natalie knew, but it was calculated. To ease out what she needed, instead of taking a more direct approach, one that might get him to shut down, completely.

Earl tapped a finger on the surface of the table. A dull, wooden note.

“Natalie, you’re not from around here, are you?”

The reaction was expected.

“I am, born and raised. Though, I admit, it has been a while since I’ve been back, so I’m playing catch up right now. I need context.”

“Context?”

“Yes, Earl. The facts? They’re easy to get, obtain enough of them and you become credible. From what you just told me, it matches up with what I already know, which is promising, but if that’s all I needed, I’d just put myself in the story. But I can’t, and I won’t.”

Natalie motioned to Oliver, then Earl.

“That’s why we’re meeting here today, in the back meeting room of your establishment. Only you can provide the proper understanding of what this bill would do in your neck of the woods. And once we get that…”

Natalie set her hand back on her notebook, feeling the paper. She spun her pen around her fingers.

“We can be on the same page.”

Earl sat back in his seat. Not relaxed, there was a stiffness in his shoulders, but she could see the gears turning in his head. It was in the other things, instead. The long takes of breath, the way his fingers tensed as he wrung his hands together.

In that moment, Natalie asked again, “What would the Thompson Act mean to this community?”

Then, he answered.

“If this bill passes, it gives police a hell of a lot more reach in what they’re allowed to do when carrying out investigations. Stop and frisks, search and seizures. Allow them to reach deep enough, and they’re bound to find some dirt to throw back in your face. Less oversight for a proposed increase in productivity. If there’s no red tape blocking their way, it’s gets easier for them to get places. Now, imagine that kind of policy being introduced in a community that has a high minority population. People make calls, they turn the cops into their personal hounds, and then they flip and turn anyone’s home or place of business upside down, and then it ends in one of two ways. They leave and you have to clean up the mess, or you have to find someone else to clean because the cops took you with them.”

“And you’re afraid that people, under the Thompson Act, would point police at your neighbors, or even yourself?”

“Right. Those tips will turn into hits. It’s an excuse to clear this part of town out, quick, and then what? It gets gentrified, and who’s filling out those prisons?”

The question remained hanging, but the answer was implicit. Without looking, Natalie started jotting down some new notes. Filling out the page.

“But that’s not what I’m afraid of,” Earl said.

“No?” Natalie questioned.

“I’m afraid of the John Cruz and the Thomas Thompsons of the world. The fact that this thing even has any legs. A year ago, this sort of legislature would have gotten laughed out of the capitol. Now? The whole world has been flipped to shit.”

The whole world.

“Blank Face,” Natalie ventured. The room they were in wasn’t warm, but like a spell, it sent out a chill when uttered.

“Ever since that thing showed up in this city, everything’s gone out the window. Logic, rules. The law. Now everyone is scrambling to parade in on their platform of fear, doing the most to line up their pockets and their sponsor’s pockets.”

That, was true. It was easy to rally support behind certain proposals and actions if it meant going against the one big question mark that was Blank Face. Just recently, Congress and the Oval Office had approved the biggest increase in the military budget in the country’s history. The justification was to protect citizens – overseas and otherwise – from other potential Blank Faces that might pop up in the future. None hadn’t since the initial first contact, but that didn’t stop the Department of Defense from salivating at the mouth for more tanks, more planes, more missiles, more everything. If anything, that was the real reason they pushed so hard for the budget surplus.

But, that was the global context. The Thompson Act was a symptom of a much bigger problem.

Natalie paused in her writing. Thinking.

Too broad, have to hone it in, bring Earl back before I lose him on this tangent.

“To be fair,” Natalie said, “John Cruz is just one man, and Thomas Thompson is a dead one. And there’s nothing to fear, if you don’t have anything to lie about. And for my last set of questions, I’d like to talk about your history living here, in this part of Stephenville.”

I’d like to talk about something I’m very curious about.

“And that is?”

“You’ve been a part of this community for a long time, have you not?”

“My whole life, basically.”

“So you’ve seen how it’s changed, over the years, keeping a pulse on what’s happening out there.”

“I keep my ear to the streets.”

Natalie set her pen on the paper, not writing, but about it. The ink started to spill out and blot a bit.

“Then I wanted to ask about the history of gang activity in this area. Namely, the new gang that has taken over after the Thunders and the Royals.”

Natalie watched for Earl’s reaction. It would be telling.

Earl’s expression changed with a twitch. Easy enough to read.

He didn’t answer, at least, not right away. There was a pause, but more was said in that silence than any utterance actually could.

“I wouldn’t know anything about that,” Earl answered.

“At the risk of coming off as rude, I just don’t believe that. You said it yourself, you keep your ears to the streets. And I know as a fact that you had a personal relationship with Darius and Marcus Jackson that goes back even before the Koninkryk, the gang they lead together before splitting into the Thunders and the Royals, respectively.”

Earl flinched. It meant she was getting somewhere. Just had to keep applying pressure.

Natalie applied that pressure.

Los Colmillos, or the Fangs. They’re the new gang in town, and no one has written about them yet. Considering they’re part of the community as much as you are, now, I was wondering if there’s anything you could share with me about them.”

“I don’t really have anything to share. I’m not a gang member, if that’s what you’re insinuating.”

“Of course not, Earl, but as I mentioned, you did personally know the two leaders of the gangs who held this community as a territory before the Fangs came in. If there was anyone who would know anything considering the changing of those particular guards, it’d be you.”

Earl’s eyes were low, avoiding Natalie.

“What happened to those two, it came out of nowhere, and it was ruthless.”

“And who are they, Earl? Do you know anything about those responsible?”

“I don’t.”

You’re lying.

Earl was taking a more defensive posture. He was backing into his seat, his arms were folded.

“Natalie, but… if my word is worth anything, I’d tell you to drop this.”

“And why is that?”

“What’s going out there, on those streets, it’s dangerous. It doesn’t take someone who’s been here for as long as I have to see that. But it’s always been like that, it’s not going to change. Ever. Life here, it’s hard, and what happened to those boys, they… life didn’t go easy on them.”

Natalie took a second to let that sink in.

You’re hiding something, Earl, I just know it.

But, she also knew that wasn’t what she was here for. Not exactly. It was just a stretch, to see if she could grab anything else, while she was here.

Natalie closed her notebook.

“I know, Earl, I was there. But thank you for your time.”

Oliver pressed a button on the camera and closed his laptop.

Earl, for his part, fell back into his seat, all tension leaving his body. His shoulders dropped, his head lowered. He looked like he needed a nap, and that wasn’t on account of his age.

“You really are ruthless,” he said.

“I’m sorry,” Natalie replied, meaning it. “It’s just part of the job.”

“I can respect it. We are off the record now, right?”

“We are.”

“Then, yeah, I can respect it.”

Natalie got up from her seat, gathering her belongings. Oliver did the same, packing the camera and laptop into a backpack.

“We’ll take our leave, now. If you don’t mind, could we contact you again in case I have any follow up questions? Don’t worry, it’ll only be in regards to the Thompson Act, in case there are any updates.”

“Sure. If it’s just that, I’d be willing to offer a quote or two.”

“Thank you.”

Natalie glanced at Oliver, and he nodded. They were all packed and ready to go.

They left the room first, seeing themselves out. They went through the store, heading out through the front.

When they stepped outside, Natalie noted the clouds above. Grey and pregnant with water. It wasn’t raining yet, but when it did, it would rain hard.

“Oli?” Natalie asked. “What do you think?”

Oliver fixed the backpack around his shoulders. He wasn’t exactly stout, but he did have some weight on him, with some stubble on his rounded chin, and a stomach that protruded somewhat. His baggier sense in fashion didn’t help, making him look heavier than he actually was. Natalie tried to give him some pointers, sharing with him some picture of outfits she thought he might look good in, but he never picked up on them.

There was a slight wheeze that came with every step, but Oliver didn’t complain. He kept up with Natalie as she walked, brisk, down the sidewalk.

“I think he’s full of shit,” he said, sounding breathy at the end of his words. “If he really cares about this place like he seems to claim, he’d be more open about talking about the Fangs.”

“Careful, we don’t know that for sure. I believe him when he says he’s not involved with them, but I do have a feeling he knows more than he wants to tell us. And that can run independent on what he thinks of the effects the Thompson Act might have in his backyard.”

“Because someone might send the hounds on him?”

“Or, he just wants things to stay how they are.”

“Well too bad. Change is coming, change is already here.”

Natalie agreed with that sentiment.

They continued down the sidewalk, taking the corner, going around the building. Oliver parked about a block away, which gave Natalie some time to think on what they had so far. The pages of notes.

“I’m fucked,” she said.

She liked to think aloud. Oliver was good for that.

“You think so?”

Natalie sighed. “The John Cruz piece is barely getting us anywhere. Doesn’t help that we can’t even get in the same room as the damn guy.”

“He’s a busy man. Question is, what’s he so busy with?”

“I would love to know.”

They continued walking, Natalie continued thinking aloud.

“We a lot of tangible, but small niblets of a story, but no real meat. There’s so much happening here in the city that I don’t even know where to start. There’s the Thompson Act, there’s the Fangs, Blank Face, but I don’t have an angle to tackle any of it. There’s no throughline to follow. Doesn’t help that the Impact already has reporters covering enough of it that whatever I come up with feels redundant. Small stories aren’t going to cut it anymore. I need a pitch that Edison will think is worth printing, and I’m coming up blank. I hate coming up blank.”

“I know you do, Nat.”

She fought the urge to let out another, drawn breath.

“Should we just try going for another drive around?”

“Your call. I’d hate to take an aimless approach, though.”

“Yeah, you’re right.”

“No one wants to talk, not even people like Earl. And they don’t respond to video or photo we have to show, like that traffic jam one. I’m beginning to think no one likes us.”

Natalie chuckled.

“People hate us when we get it wrong, but they especially despise us when we get it right. Journalists aren’t meant to be liked, Oli.”

“It’s definitely something you have to get used to.”

“Absolutely.”

Then, Natalie ended up letting out a sigh, despite herself.

“We’ll just have to keep trying. Maybe we should go to James.”

“Is he even going to be of any help?”

“He better, he’s my only person on the inside I have left. Everyone else got shuffled out or retired.”

Natalie pulled out her phone.

“I’ll just send a text…”

“Nat.”

Oliver put a hand on her shoulder, forcing her to stop walking. They were about to cross the street, and a van was driving by.

When the van passed, Oliver checked both sides of the road, then walked across, letting Natalie focus on her text.

She finished it as they reached the lot where Oliver had parked the car. Returning the phone to her pocket, Natalie noticed something.

“Hey.”

She pointed, and Oliver followed. He grabbed it for her.

Between the glass and the windshield wiper, a piece of paper was stuck in place. Around it was a string, with a small piece of wood attached.

Oliver passed it to Natalie, and started looking around. But, aside from the van from earlier, there was no one else around.

“That’s not terrifying,” Oliver commented.

Natalie ignored him, removing the string and unfolding the paper. She took the wooden piece, examining it.

It was a chess piece, a white rook, to be more specific. She turned it around, but there was nothing on it.

“I’m more of a checkers guy, myself,” Oliver said. When Natalie remained quiet instead, he added, “What does the note say?”

Natalie read it out loud. It was handwritten, in scrawls, as if a child had wrote it. Or, someone who wasn’t using their dominant hand.

“Ask James Gomez about Alexis Barnett.”

Another chill.

“Who?” Oliver asked.

Natalie was too deep into her thoughts to respond right away. Was someone reaching out to guide them, or derail them? Either way, she didn’t appreciate people who operated in the shadows.

But, one thing was for certain, now. Whatever track they were about to go on, it was bound to be the right one.

Natalie then responded to Oliver.

“I suppose that’s for us to ask. And now, we know who to meet.”

Coffee. It was so classic that it had become cliché, but it worked for a reason. Everyone could appreciate a cup of coffee, especially if they didn’t have to pay for it.

Natalie and Oliver had arrived at the cafe. Chief of Police James Gomez, in badge and in uniform, was already waiting for them.

Cafe Sharktooth, a trendier location closer to downtown. A bit far, out of the way from both the motel and the police station, but that worked in their favor. Open enough that there was no pressure, but private enough that they could discuss more… sensitive issues.

It was late into the afternoon. The cafe wasn’t full, but business wasn’t slow. From college kids to adults in more formal attire, people were sitting at the different booths and tables, sipping cups of coffee with their laptops out in front of them, looking like they were ready to camp there for hours, working, mooching off the free internet.

Sliding in a booth in the corner of the cafe, Natalie and Oliver sat opposite of James. Oliver set their cups down. James already had his.

“Natalie,” James said. He looked at Oliver and gave him a curt nod. Oliver did the same.

“James,” Natalie said. “You should have told me that you had already ordered. I would have offered to pay.”

He shook his head. “It’s fine. That type of thing doesn’t work on me, not anymore. Skipping formalities or not, it all tastes bitter, now.”

“You agreed to meet with us, on short notice. I assume that means you have something you can share.”

James had his hands around his cup. Black coffee. Light wisps of steam drew up into the air. He hadn’t taken a sip, yet.

“I needed a coffee break,” he said. “You just happened to text me at a good time.”

Natalie worked on her cup while she talked, reaching for cream and sugar. She thought about the white rook, the note. Was it a good time to bring it up now?

And if you’re the one who sent the note, now would be a good time to tell me.

“Alexis Barnett, know anything about her?”

James’ brow furrowed.

“I do. She’s a missing persons case that’s gone cold. Been a few months since it happened.”

“Anything about it that stands out to you?”

“Not in particular. It… it was a personal favor, to find her, but I never did. Never had the time, never had the resources.”

James looked pretty downtrodden about that, but nothing about him seemed… shadowy or theatrical. He wouldn’t resort to that, he wasn’t that kind of person.

Natalie could feel the paper and rook in her pocket.

“Well, if you have anything on her, would you mind sending it to me?”

“Um, sure. The file’s still on my desk, I can send you everything I have.”

“Much appreciated, James.”

“But something tells me that’s not what you came here to ask.”

She nodded, thankful for the change in course. Time for to get down to business.

Natalie sipped her coffee before getting right to it.

“I’m feeling stuck on my Thompson Act piece. It’s hard to get sources when everyone who supports it is actively turning up their noses at you. I can give you a dozen people like Earl Fillmore who oppose it, but no credible source is willing to speak with me why they want it passed. In my experience, that’s not how this works.”

James didn’t respond. His attention went to and stayed on the cup, as if he was about to drink it, but didn’t.

“I’ve called. Called so many times they’ve probably blocked my number. I went down their offices numerous times, and he’s always either out that day or in a meeting, and I’ve waited, meetings don’t last until the building gets shut down for the night. Emails just keep sending me the same press junket-type bullshit about why the bill’s great for the ‘average citizen’s well-being and safety’ but I can’t use that. I need people, sources, and even the people there aren’t willing to offer their two-cents.”

James didn’t respond. He looked more interested in the steam coming from the cup than the steam that was about to come out of Natalie’s ears.

“Who is John Cruz?” Natalie asked. “Or, more accurately, who does he really work for?”

That got a reaction from James. He looked up, staring at Natalie. He looked tired.

“Your reputation precedes you,” he said. “The only people who remember you are the only people who have reason to fear you.”

“Edison doesn’t fear me. He asked me to come back.”

“Not until you come to him with this. Your editor will shit bricks if he learned what angle you’d end up approaching this from.”

“But that’s exactly why I decided to come back to Stephenville when he asked. I read the articles the Impact has on this Cruz guy. They’re nothing, or they’re so watered down that there might as well be nothing. I’d actually learn more about him reading a blank page than the puff they’ve written about him, because at least it would be easier to figure out that the Impact’s reporters are compromised.”

“And you’re supposed to come in and save the paper? The world, if you have some time to spare?”

Natalie fixed her hair. It was getting in her face. She was leaning forward too much.

“I’m freelance now, James,” Natalie said. “I don’t have to work in that building or report to anyone in there except Edison, and even then, we’re keeping it lowkey. I write a big piece, he hits it with a line edit, Oliver does his part to clean it up and when we’re done, it gets published first thing the next morning. The word’s out before anyone has had their morning coffee, and no one saw it coming.”

James lifted a hand to his face, stroking not a beard, but his mustache. It had gotten thicker, since the last time Natalie was in Stephenville.

Has it been seven years, already?

“But I need something, James, I can’t get anywhere if no one will give me anything, and you’re the only one who can help me. With Thomas gone, you’re the last good man in this city.”

“Hey,” Oliver said.

Natalie turned to him. “You don’t count, Oli, I brought you with me.”

“Edison?”

“He’s a good journalist, a great editor. As a person? Not-”

A clank. Ceramic on wood.

James was giving her a hard look. Stern, cold.

“Sorry,” Natalie said.

“I’m not offended,” James replied. He leaned back. His hands were around the cup again, but he lifted it this time, actually taking a sip. Looking to the side, at the large window beside them, watching as the people outside walked and conversed, going about their day. The sun would be setting soon, and a slight shade of red began to tint the cafe interior and its patrons.

“This was his favorite place to get coffee,” James said, low, as if he was talking to himself. “Thomas. He always recommended it to me, but I never had the time. Think about that, I had years to grab a cup of coffee with him, here, but I never did. Never will.”

“My condolences,” Natalie said, speaking for herself and for Oliver. “It shocked me when I heard. He was a good man, who I believe genuinely wanted to make this city a better place. He didn’t deserve what he got.”

“Maybe he did,” James said. The cup to his lips, he blew on the surface of his coffee. Steam swirled. “Play with fire long enough…”

Natalie chanced a look with Oliver. He raised his shoulders.

Facing forward again, she spoke. “John Cruz is using the Thompson name to push this bill, without permission from his wife or the rest of his surviving family. I’d put them in the story, but they don’t want to go back onto the national stage like that, not after what they’d already been through. Cruz is getting away with tarnishing this man’s legacy in order to give more power to himself and the police, and I covered the scene here for five years, so I have confidence when I say we both know who that power is really going to.”

James, for all his integrity and nobility and goodness, didn’t answer.

Natalie pleaded.

“Please, James, if I could plagiarize the writing that’s on the goddamn wall, I would. Thomas and John were both campaigning for the DA’s office, when one of them gets kidnapped and forced into a terrorist scheme, and dies, while the other gets to waltz into that office and no one is allowed to question it? I don’t, I can’t buy that for a fucking second. So please, for old time’s sake I am begging you, what do you have on Cruz? Who is he really working for?”

The seconds were long, and they stretched. Shades of red grew stronger, casting a warmer glow inside the cafe.

Natalie was itching, burning for a story. The smaller pieces weren’t going to be enough. It wasn’t what Edison called her for, it wasn’t what she was here to do. The truth was buried, had been buried somewhere deep in this city for years, decades, and she knew in her heart that this would be the time that truth finally comes to light.

And it would be the sort of light that could burn.

James faced her, his hands clasped together.

“Everyone,” he said. “John Cruz works for everyone.”

Natalie tapped Oliver, nearly a slap. He bounced, almost tearing his bag open to get Natalie her pen and pad. Without looking, she flipped through her notes and stopped at the next available page. Indentations from the page before. New. Blank.

She started writing. Oliver started recording.

“What do you mean by everyone?” Natalie questioned. “I need specifics. Names. Who?”

“Cruz is a game lawyer, working in the best interests of the Eye.”

The Eye, a nickname for downtown Stephenville. Also where many of the largest and most powerful gangs hold their territory. Like the AZ-Tecs and Cobras, the Italian mob, among others. The standard organized criminal fares were present, like drug trafficking, but there were other activities. Money laundering, racketeering. The collars were more white than blue, there.

“Who, James, I need names.”

“I couldn’t tell you. I had one meeting with them, but that was years ago, when I first started at this position. I’ve been kept at arm’s length ever since.”

“Give me what you remember. Anything.”

“Um, Forest, Cassius. Styx, but you’d already know of him, and Mrs. Carter.”

She wrote down the names. Forest and Cassius were new, but she did know of Styx. Doing this for as long as she had, it would have been impossible not to.

Mrs. Carter, though, that name stood out entirely.

“Who is Mrs. Carter?” Natalie questioned. “Why the prefix?”

“Again, I couldn’t tell you. All I know is that she represents Mister.”

Mister. Natalie almost dropped her pen.

Shit,” she whispered, a hissed sound. “John Cruz is locked in deep with the sharks. Anything else?”

“Being in my position, the chief of police? It’s a puppet show. There’s no real power, it’s just one part in an elaborate show. I keep my head down, and let the real powers that be pull the strings. I’m just up here to make it look like everything’s okay. I’m nothing but a mask, being worn by the real monsters. But, I guess I’m a monster myself, now.”

Natalie stopped, her pen still on the paper. She looked at James. She felt for him.

“James…” she said.

“And it’s not just that, it’s not just me. T-”

His voice cracked, like he himself was about to break.

“Thomas, too.”

Natalie was at a loss of words. Verbal and written. Her voice would have cracked, too, if she tried to respond, her pen would have trembled, if she tried to jot another note.

Her hands went flat on the table, she leaned in. All her focus went on James Gomez, potentially disgraced Chief of Police for the Stephenville Police Department. Oliver, her other notes, her own cup of coffee? It all faded away.

It was just her and the truth, now.

“You better not be joking,” Natalie said, slow, every word careful and considered, so as to not break the moment they were in. “This is serious. This is real.”

“This is real,” James Gomez answered. “But not in the way you’re thinking. Thomas still wanted to fight crime, he still wanted to clean up the streets, but he ended up taking it in another direction. He… he worked with Blank Face.”

She wasn’t already sitting, Natalie would have dropped to her knees.

This is it. This is the story. This is my lede.

And James was handing it to her, just like that.

It took some time before Natalie could speak up again. Start writing again.

“Blank Face, as in… as in the-”

“The vigilante, the world’s first superhuman. She goes by V, now, but she hasn’t been publicly active since-”

“Since the Thunders and Royals got wiped out,” Natalie finished. That was their confirmation. “V. So the new gang in that area is- wait, we need to take a huge step back. Thomas and Blank Face. What’s the story there?”

James answered, “I don’t have the exact details, but he must have started working with her right after she first went public. Stopping petty crime, going after smaller gangs, it had to be stuff like that. Starting small, building the image of, not a vigilante, but a hero. Someone who would protect the people of Stephenville.”

“And you know this for a fact, that this was how they operated?”

James took a deep breath.

“No.”

“I can’t use speculation, James. But in your… expert opinion, why do you think that?”

“Because I saw the answer. Solace came as a result of their actions. Terrorizing the city as a way to get Blank Face out of the picture. I met Blank Face only-”

“Wait. You met with the vigilante?”

James lowered his head.

“We met on only three separate occasions. The first time was when Thomas went missing, originally announced to be dead by Solace. She had found out that was a bluff, and went to me for help.”

“Why you?”

“I ask myself that question everyday.”

Natalie flipped the page, turning to a new one.

“Continue, please.”

James did. “It was a short stint, but we did work together to find Thomas. It was how we found and apprehended Edgar Brown and Linda Day. We would have gotten Thomas at city hall, too, but we weren’t fast enough.”

The city hall bombing. It was the last known appearance of Solace, and the night before was the last appearance of Blank Face. She was there, among the smoke and chaos?

Wait, she.

“Do you know her identity?” Natalie asked.

“I do not.”

A shame, but she was already getting so much gold, she wouldn’t complain now.

“Anyway, what about the other two times you met?”

“Second time was after the attack on Stephenville High School. She asked for help in pursuing those responsible, but I declined. And the third and last time, she wasn’t Blank Face anymore.”

“V?” Natalie offered.

“Yes.”

Natalie fell back, slumped. She found herself leaning on Oliver. Everything started to fade back in.

But she wasn’t done yet, there was so much to get to, still.

She needed a breather. She needed a cup of coffee.

Natalie took a small break, and a small sip. Her cup went back to the table, and the sound it made rang in her ears.

She savored the taste, the flavor of this.

“Okay, wow,” she said, her eyes widening for emphasis. “You sure know how to treat a reporter right.”

“No comment,” James said.

Taking another breath, Natalie sat back up, supporting her own weight. She looked down, and saw the notes she had taken while James talked. Scrawls, shorthand, bullet points. Somewhere in there, in those scribbles, was the story of a lifetime.

“Do you have anyone who can corroborate what you just told me?” she asked, eyes still on the page. “Or other notes, police reports you can point me to?”

“Campbell. A fellow officer, another good man. He could attest to my part in things. If he was up for it. Thomas or John, not so much.”

“Police reports? Records you can show me?”

“John… maybe, there might be something, somewhere. But my hands are, were tied. I’ll see what I can dig up while I keep my head down.”

“And Thomas? Blank Face?”

“All I know is what was on the face of it. The particulars… the only one who would know of that now was Blank Face. V. You’d have to ask her. And no, I have no way of contacting her.”

“At least you saved me the breath on that question,” Natalie said.

What else, then, what else?

The fact that James even brought that up. That it even was a suggestion. To interview the world’s first superhuman.

“And you know Blank Face, V, is a girl? You can confirm that?”

“To the best of my ability. I am a police officer, I have dealt with and had to identity masked individuals before. The voice struck me as female. As for height and built, that can vary dramatically between each person. With that being said, I wouldn’t pin them as being any older than eighteen, twenty if I’m being generous. And you know the rumors that followed the school incident, I’m not getting into any of that.”

Natalie nodded. Speculation was tricky, dangerous even. She just had to look outside and see it for herself. The riots, the targeting of those in the Asian American community. If it wasn’t a claim she couldn’t substantiate, it wouldn’t go in the story.

But this, she could use. A female, a teenager. A kid.

She flipped to a new page. What more could she get from James right now? He was right here, giving all of this her. She had to take advantage of that, wrack her brain for every question and detail and-

A nudge to her right. Oliver. He bumped her arm while drinking his coffee.

It was a gentle reminder. No need to get carried away.

Natalie gave herself some time to get some composure. Another sip.

“So,” Natalie started, after getting some much needed clarity back, “We will come back to this another time, hopefully soon. You suggested that you’d dig through some reports to see what was on Cruz, and I’m holding you to that. Gather anyone else who you believe is credible and is willing to go on record. This Campbell guy sounds like a good start. In the meantime, Oliver and I will gather all the notes and sort everything out, plan our next move, and make some follow up questions. Next time we’re meet face to face, it’s to get all of our facts and quotes straight, to put some spice on the meat of this story. To make history.”

He didn’t move, didn’t gesture in any way. James was still.

“Okay,” he said.

It wasn’t hard at all for Natalie to lose herself in the planning and pursuing of the story, for the world around her to blur as she barrelled forward for one thing and one thing only. The truth. It got her far in her career, to New York, but that same focus could blind her to the other things in the peripherals, and those things were important, too. Like the people, those who were subjected to the reality of the truth she so desperately sought after. The human element.

Natalie closed her notebook.

“James, just so I can be perfectly clear, you do know that by answering my questions, offering to provide documents and bring forth other potential sources, you are agreeing to appear in the story, in name and position, and be directly quoted and such in support of the facts that will be presented?”

He drank from his cup, slow, measured. When he brought the cup back down, it was empty.

“I do.”

“And you recognize the risk you pose to both yourself and your family. This isn’t a fluff story about the local shelter’s new adoption policies, this is you putting a spotlight on the entire criminal enterprise of Stephenville.”

“I am aware.”

Natalie, in all her years of reporting, all the shit and beauty and love and hatred she learned humans could be capable of, was stunned.

“You’re going to get burned,” Natalie said. Not a threat, not even a warning. It was fact.

James set his shoulder and jaw square.

“Thomas and I, we were going to rebuild this city together. Clean it up, and turn it into something great. A place where no man, woman, or child would ever wander and be led astray. With him as district attorney, and with me as chief of police. We were going to do it, do it together, and do it right.”

Natalie saw it in his eyes. He was serious.

She let him speak.

“But it didn’t work out the way we planned. In reality, what does, but this… this was different. I got my promotion first, but I didn’t realize what I had gotten myself into, how bad it was, how deep it ran. I was blocked before I ever had a chance to start. And Thomas… I could tell how heartbroken he was, over that. I could feel it. He truly wanted to help this city, and it was like the city spat in his face.”

James tried to breathe steady, but it faltered. Cracked.

“The plan was on ice, but he kept going. What other choice did he have? It was the kind of person he was, always wanting to be the hero, and he’d do it himself if he had to. When Thomas announced his campaign and when John announced his, I think that made it even more personal. John was once a colleague of Thomas, and knowing who was backing him, it made the race symbolic. Now, it was a race for Stephenville’s soul, and Thomas was going to play it straight. Play it right.”

He chuckled, glancing at his empty cup. He knew he was rambling, Natalie knew it, but no one cared.

“I’ve been friends with that man for years, so I know for a fact that his frustration was eating at him, under the skin. That he had to work so damn hard, just to keep things from degrading any further, to maintain the status quo. I can imagine the frustration, how that would turn him desperate. He wanted his holy war. And when Blank Face comes along, it’s must have been a godsend for him. But in truth, it was more like making a deal with the devil.”

Natalie had to say something.

“James, you do understand what you’re telling me, right? This is Thomas we’re talking about, this is your life. I have to ask, but… why?”

James Gomez closed his eyes, unmoving, like a statue. When he opened them again, he looked right at Natalie, even passing a glance and Oliver. Cold, colder. Blank. The eyes of a dead man.

“It doesn’t matter to me. Thomas is dead, and what life do I have? I’m an old man getting older. No family, extended or otherwise. No career aspirations, I got stonewalled as soon as I got this job. This… this is all I have left to give. The truth as I know it. And then, I’m done. This city has a way of making people lost, wander in the dark. And in that dark, there’s no choice to get used to maneuvering through it, and it corrupts, to the core. They become demons. Thomas, John, even Blank Face. In the grand scheme of things, it’s my turn, now.”

The ramblings of an old, defeated man. But the truth was in there, hiding, waiting to be discovered. He was giving up the last glimmers of light he had left.

“Please let me pay for your coffee,” Natalie said. She reached out, touching his hand. James didn’t move.

“No,” James said. “I’m not about to sell my soul for a cup of black coffee. This is on me, and me alone.”

Natalie didn’t have a response to that. Checking Oliver beside her, he clicked his phone. He had recorded the whole thing.

She collected her belongings, holding the notebook in her hands. It felt heavy.

“Thank you for your time, James.”

There was a lot to go through. There was a lot to consider. And they had barely scratched the surface.

Notes were sprawled out all across the room. On desks, dressers, the bed, stuck between books in shelves, on top of the printer, luggage, and on the different exercise equipment her father never used. It was hardly organized, but Natalie knew where everything was. A sort of physical layout of what was going on in her mind.

Oliver was tiptoeing around, careful not to step on anything. Natalie was sitting in the corner of the room, laptop resting on her lap, in a comfy sofa chair that used to be too big for her. She was too young to remember, but her mother recounted stories where Natalie would sit here with her father while he read her stories. Those were her favorite times, according to her mother, especially when he used to funny voice.

Now, it was just her, the chair was a normal size, and she had to make her own stories.

It was weird, to come back home and see how much had changed. At least they had work to keep their minds elsewhere.

“Nat.”

Oliver was sorting through some papers by the exercise equipment. That section was of all the supporters of the Thompson Act, and all the records they could get on them.

“Hm?” Natalie sounded, lifting her head, slight.

“Want me to order some pizza?”

“Is there any place open at this time?”

“If we hurry, I can call Poggio’s and just go pick it up.”

“Holy shit.”

“What?”

“Poggio’s is still around?”

“It is, Nat.”

“Then sure, let’s do that. Actually, you know what, why don’t we just go out and eat there?”

“They close in an hour and a half.”

“We’ll work for thirty more minutes.” She fixed her pajamas. “Might need some time to get ready, though.”

“You look fine like that.”

Natalie made a noise. “You don’t get it, Oli.”

“Never will!”

They shared a laugh. If they could still do that, it meant they were doing okay.

Oliver found the papers he needed, and moved across the bedroom again, not rustling even a single piece of paper by his feet. For someone of his gait, he was nimble. Natalie loved that about him.

“I’m already fantasizing about getting this thing published,” Oliver said.

“Me too,” Natalie replied, sound absentminded. She was just reading off her laptop, some transcribed notes, while she talked. “This is big. Plain and simple. John Cruz, the Eye, James, Thomas Thompson and fucking Blank Face? And they’re all connected? It’s… it’s…”

She was so excited she couldn’t finish the thought.

“You thinking Pulitzer?” Oliver asked.

“For this year and every year after!” She winked. “Joking.”

“Yeah, the writing part of it has to actually be good, too, otherwise it’s just going to look like this.”

Natalie looked at Oliver, and spread his hands out, signaling the room.

“A mess,” Oliver said.

“I’m working on it,” Natalie replied. “So will Edison when we finally show him this.”

“Heard anything from James?”

“Not yet. Should be soon, though. He said he was having some trouble getting clearance for some stuff.”

“Clearance?”

“We know he’s not lying now,” Natalie said.

“What else do we need on Cruz, again?”

“Campaign funds, and where he got his money. There’s a list of sponsors on his campaign website, but they don’t go very far, or they don’t go far enough. James might be able to help us on that. When in doubt, follow the money, and there’s always a paper trail.”

“James is really pulling through for us, isn’t he?”

“He’s the MVP,” Natalie said. She swiped at the touchpad, and continued reading.

“Natalie.”

The whole name.

She pulled herself away from her laptop. Oliver was sitting on the bed, papers pushed away from.

“Oliver,” she responded.

“I’ve been, you know, been listening to the recording on James, looping it over and over again, and it still… baffles me.”

“Baffles you how?”

“Thomas was his friend, maybe even something like a brother, if they were going to go that far in their goals. And to just… tell it all like that, be so willing to go forward with it…”

“There are few things scarier than someone with nothing to lose.”

“Shows how fragile society is. It’s all just a game, enough people have to play by the rules for it work. And if someone decides one day that they don’t want to, they can do a lot of damage.”

“And that’s why we’re here. We’re the referees, and we have to call these people out on their bullshit. From John Cruz, to even Thomas and James.”

“This isn’t going to end well for him. Once this story goes live, he’s going to get put into custody, investigated, and it’s a given he’ll be sent to prison. He’s implicating himself by helping us.”

“James knows the risk, I made it abundantly clear to him. Whatever happens to him after the fact, that’s on him, and he’s made his peace with that.”

“And Thomas? He has a reputation in this city, a good one. He has a family. If the people find out what he was involved with, the riots are going to get even worse.”

“Then we’ll ask Kristen for a comment, and whether or not she offers one we stick it at the bottom. We’re not targeting his family, we’re just showing people that their image of Thomas isn’t what they originally thought.”

“And Blank Face?”

Natalie raised an eyebrow.

“What about her?”

“How far do you want to go into that, into her? The person behind the mask?”

“As far as I need to, what the story calls for. Right now, we just need to prove that Thomas and Blank Face worked together, and that we can connect Blank Face to V and the new gang on the west side, where the Thompson Act would most likely hit hardest. That’s how it all connects. That’s the throughline.”

Natalie smiled, thinking about how it all fell together. Like an elaborate puzzle.

“Fuck,” Oliver said. He rubbed his hands in face, his cheeks squishing.

“What?”

Oliver wheezed, then coughed. He set his hands back down.

“We have a responsibility to seek the truth and report it, but we also have a responsibility to gauge what might happen when that truth comes out. Natalie, this story is about people, before it’s published and after, that is who it concerns and that is who it affects. So, this isn’t just big, you’re dropping a fucking atom bomb on this city. You’re going to shedding so much light on this the shadows will get etched into the fucking cement.”

“That’s what journalism is,” Natalie said. “This is news, we gather what people don’t know yet, what they need to know, and then we tell them.”

Oliver coughed again.

“Yeah, I, yeah. I’m just anxious to get this out.”

“It’ll be fine, Oli. Once all is said and done we can- oh.”

“What is it?”

“James sent me an email.”

“Shit.”

Oliver got up from the bed, hopping around papers to get to Natalie. She moved her laptop so he could take a look.

“Anything?”

Natalie clicked the attachment, the file opening up on her screen. No subject or body in the message.

She muttered.

“Dammit, James.”

It wasn’t anything that was relevant to the main story. A missing person’s report, some written statements. A photo was attached at the bottom.

“This is the Alexis Barnett thing?” Oliver asked.

“Yeah,” Natalie said, sounding disappointed. The lead up to getting this report was strange, but there were far more important reports that she’d rather obtain, instead.

Oliver kept on his particular line of questioning. “What’s up with this person, anyways? Why the note or chess piece?”

“Could not tell you,” Natalie said, reading over the report. As presented, nothing stood out. Alexis Kizuko Barnett. Age sixteen, Asian, though the writing stated that she was half white and Japanese. Went missing in early December, having been kidnapped from a restaurant after an altercation between a group of Hispanic men and the rest of the patrons. Shots were fired, and the men fled the scene, taking some others with them.

As presented, nothing stood out, but the timing, the context under which this was brought to her attention, it was starting to scratch that particular itch.

Strange, indeed.

“Three others were kidnapped,” Oliver said, reading different parts of the report. “But she’s the only one who hasn’t been accounted for. Look here, two were returned that day, another the day, but her…”

“Still out there,” Natalie finished. “She could be dead?”

“But why bring this to us? What is our mysterious source trying to say?”

Could not tell you, Natalie thought, but the questions were intriguing.

“Ah,” she said. She scrolled down and pointed at one of the written statements. One made by James himself. “She attended the same school as Katy Thompson.”

“Thomas’ kid?”

“Stephenville High School.”

She traded a look with Oliver.

“That’s the school that got attacked,” he said.

“According to reports and numerous sources there, it was by a group that was after Blank Face, they had reason to believe that she was a student at that school. It was how the rumors that Blank Face was a female Asian American got started, and the uptick in violent crimes against that particular nationality, as vague as it really is.”

A heavy pause filled the air.

“You don’t think…” Oliver started.

“I don’t speculate,” Natalie interrupted. “But I do find this interesting. As it is, though, we don’t have enough to work with. We’d have to start digging, but I don’t want to get distracted from our real work.”

Oliver moved from Natalie, checking another part of the bedroom, by the desk. When he came back, he had the note and chess piece with him.

“What if it isn’t a distraction,” Oliver said, getting more estatic, “What if they’re trying to lead us right to her? What if this source is our own personal Deep Throat?”

A shock went through Natalie’s body. She squirmed in her seat.

“Now is not time to get me hot and bothered, Oli.”

“Think about it, the note pointed us in James’ direction.”

“We were going to him, anyway.”

“But look what he gave us when we did!” Oliver motioned to all the stacks of papers and notebooks in the room, as if he was presenting them to her. “Never in a million years would we have expected this!”

“And what, maybe they wanted to make sure we got all of this?”

“Maybe?” Oliver lifted the chess piece, putting it right in Natalie’s face. “Maybe they’re trying to get us to make a specific move. But that move might lead us to Blank Face.”

Natalie took the chess piece from Oliver, observing it from every angle. A white rook.

“They might be leading us to something else entirely,” Natalie said. “Like a trap?”

“Given what’s happened, that wouldn’t make any sense.”

She thought about it. Considered it. The possibility was enticing.

“How about this,” Natalie started, thinking, considering. “While we wait for James to get back with us, we can pursue this, but only as a police accountability story. We ask around, get a profile on Alexis Barnett, and we publish it as the tragedy of someone who fell through the cracks of the system. We can frame with alongside what’s happening in that community, too. It’s not going to win us a Pulitzer, but it will give us gas money for dinner at Poggio’s… and rent for my mom.”

“Why, you’re not going to try and connect it to the original story?”

“As of right now, we don’t know what our Deep Throat wants from us, and I don’t like anonymous sources. If they want to involve us in their game, they’ll have to contact us again. And until then, if I don’t know what specific move they want us to make, we’ll just keep making the wrong one.”

Shoestring journalism, the idea that a reporter would take to the street, literally running back and forth for quotes and records and sources until their shoes were reduced to nothing but the laces. Nowadays, it was easy to just shoot someone an email, make an open records request online, or find other leads through a quick search. Easy, but it didn’t guarantee success. It was even easier to ignore an email, getting those records could take time, too much time, and it could get tricky trying to navigate links and the appropriate search terms. No, to do it right, going outside and talking to people was always the best bet.

And, it would harder for them to ignore us.

Natalie walked up to the door and knocked.

The wait wasn’t that long, but the seconds gave her the jitters. Moments like this, was where she got her enjoyment out of the job. The anticipation. That this could either go really well, or not at all. And either way, she’d have to maneuver through it, drawing from all her skills and experiences.

She was ready.

The door opened.

Natalie smiled.

“Good evening, may I speak with Shiori Barnett?”

The woman at the door was silent.

A superficial glance matched the image Natalie had in her head. Asian, female. But that was about as far as she’d want to deduce.

She observed this woman under her own merits.

The woman was short, thin, the oversized grey sweater and loose pajama pants serving to make her look even smaller. She looked tired, like how James looked tired, but not exactly. Drained, as if something that once propped her up was now missing, and it put more strain on all that remained. Like a building that had a section crumble into dust. It was still standing, but no one in their right mind would say it was structurally sound.

Her hair was lengthy, unkempt, frayed out past her shoulders. Loose strands fell out of the way when the woman blinked. Bags under her eyes. As if she had just been stirred awaken, unwillingly.

The woman responded, “This is she.”

“Hi, I’m Natalie Beckham, and this is Oliver Morgan, we’re with the Stephenville Impact, and we just wanted to ask you a few questions about your daughter, if that’s alright with you?”

Shiori opened her mouth, letting it hang. Her eyes widened a little, too. More seconds, more jitters.

“No,” she said, moving behind the door, trying to hide behind it.

“Mrs. Barnett,” Natalie said, leaning in but not inside, enough so that Shiori would have hit her in the face if she closed it all the way. Shiori didn’t.

Natalie took that opening.

“It’s been about four months since Alexis Barnett has went missing. She, along with three others, were taken from a Vietnamese restaurant in the middle of the day. She is the only one who hasn’t been returned to her home. That’s… people need to know that the police dropped the ball on this, on your daughter.”

Shiori spoke. When she did, it came out weak, wobbly.

“It will not help anything, anymore.”

She sounded so defeated.

“Mrs. Barnett,” Natalie said, “You look like someone with a lot of questions, and Oliver and I want to get those answers for you. If you would allow us, we’d like to get a better understanding of what happened, who your daughter… is, we can run a better story, and if we can do that, and if the public response ends up being vocal enough, we might be able to get the police to try again, try harder.”

Dangling hope in front of someone who so desperately needed it. Baiting them, almost, but it was a real possibility. If Natalie put enough time and effort into this as normal story, it could work.

For now, she’d play this straight.

Shiori continued to stare at them. She didn’t seem like a cold person, but she was hard to read.

Jitters.

Then, she spoke.

“Come in.”

Shiori took a step back, opening the door wider for the two. Natalie went in first, Oliver following.

Natalie couldn’t help but take stock of what she could see of the apartment.

It wasn’t big, but it looked lived in. Shiori led them to the living room, to a couch in front of a TV. Natalie noted the shelves and the dinner and coffee tables, the edge of the TV. Some dust had accumulated, enough that it should have been taken care of by now. There streaks of dirt and grime on some surfaces, especially the table in the middle of the room. She would have missed it if she wasn’t scrutinizing every detail, and with the lights being so dim, but it was like Shiori was trying to avoid seeing just how dirty her apartment was becoming. She saw a picture frame, two people standing in a field of bluebonnets, the saturation a little strong for her taste. An older woman and a child. Shiori and Alexis? Where was the father?

The picture was clean of any speck.

“Would you like some tea?” Shiori asked. While Natalie and Oliver had taken their seats at the couch, Shiori had kept going towards the kitchen.

“Um, yes please, thank you.”

It was better to accept whatever was offered by the host. Easier to build a connection that way, even if it was menial.

Natalie and Oliver prepared their equipment while Shiori prepared tea. Natalie got out her notebook, while Oliver got his phone, ready to record. He didn’t take out the camera for this one. A quick judgement call, but Natalie was with him on that one. Shiori was still apprehensive on doing an impromptu interview. Pulling out a big camera and tripod would be a sure-fire way to get kicked out.

They were all set up, Natalie and Oliver, and Shiori. She returned to the living room, handing Natalie and Oliver their tea, and went back to the kitchen to retrieve her own.

Shiori took her own seat at a chair on the other side of the room. A blanket was folded over one arm, she grabbed it and set it over her lap.

Cup in hands, blanket in lap, general disposition down, Shiori was as ready to talk as she’d ever be.

“Alright,” Natalie said, opening up a blank page, spinning a pen in her fingers. “How I’d like to start this is by-”

“How did you find me?”

Shiori had asked the first question.

It’s fine. Be transparent, be honest.

“We had spoken to James Gomez, Chief of Police for the Stephenville Police Department. He gave us the report on Alexis, your address was attached to your written statements.”

“James?”

“He mentioned that he knows you. Friend of a friend.”

“Oh.”

She didn’t say anything else. It would be Natalie’s turn, now.

“Alright,” she said, starting it up again. “This story is ultimately about your daughter, but I do want to get a full picture of who you are, as well. May I get your full name and occupation?”

“I am… Shiori Barnett. I work at a hair salon.”

“You’re a hairstylist?”

“I am.”

“And may I get your age?”

“Forty.”

“Wow, still pretty young.”

Add in some casual conversation, some compliments. Enough to make them comfortable to keep talking.

“I was young when I had her,” Shiori added. A neutral observation.

Natalie continued with her questions, continued with her writing.

“Going back to that time… is the father around today?”

She gauged Shiori’s reaction. There was none, but it was more like she didn’t have energy for one.

“He is not.”

“By natural causes or of his own choice?”

A delay between answers. A long one.

“Yes,” Shiori said.

“I don’t follow.”

Another delay.

“He… passed, not long after Alexis was born.”

“What happened? What was his name? How did you meet and how did it get to that point?”

It was tricky, to pry into someone’s personal life in such a manner. But, even if it could be trivial, it would help shape the story. After all, an entire parental unit was literally out of the picture, that had to have an affect on a child. And if Alexis Barnett had but a single strand in the web they were looking into, it might say a lot.

A third delay, Shiori used the time to drink her tea. Slow, drawn out movements.

“His name is Matthew. Matt. We meet about a year before I move to America. I was a singer back then, and he was working at nearby Navy base.”

“You were a singer?”

Shiori nodded. “Performer. Sing and dance, and play a lot of shows.”

“Wow, so you were famous?”

Shiori shook her head. “Not exactly. Maybe, if I stuck with it.”

“I’m guessing you had other ideas when you met your husband?”

Shiori had no discernable expression on her face as she recounted these memories. No warmth, but no callousness, either.

“He happen to pass by during one of my shows. He was… so nice. We start meeting, hiding from my agency and parents. They wouldn’t have approved.”

Natalie could feel the interview getting away from her a bit, but she’d allow it. She still had the reins, and she knew how to force things back on course, if she had to.

“Then,” Shiori said. “A few months pass, Matt had to be reassigned somewhere else, in America, and I did not want him to leave.”

“A few months?”

“We were young and it was… fun. Late nights, dancing and singing and drinking. I didn’t want to let that go.”

“So you went with him, to America?”

“I go with him, we get married, and then I was pregnant with Alexis. I leave my job and family to be with him here in Stephenville.”

All in the span of a year?

It was a neutral observation. She couldn’t judge.

Shiori continued without a prompt from Natalie. “The years here have always been stressful. Matt lost his job. No more dancing and singing, more drinking. Then, Matt… became sick.”

Natalie began to brace herself. She had heard these kinds of stories before.

“He was already so sick, so weak, when Alexis was born. She was born a month early, so she was a little weak, too. Then, before she was able to be strong enough to walk, Alexis became sick.”

“Life-threatening?”

“Not quite, but it was a scare. But… Matthew caught it, and he didn’t react very well. Not at all. He didn’t…”

Shiori had to put her cup down. Her hands were shaking too much.

“He passed, not long after Alexis was born,” Shiori said.

Natalie stopped writing. She hadn’t heard this story before.

“What did you tell your daughter when she got older?”

Shiori’s answer was as plain as it was simple. And yet, it felt like it was the cause of so many complications.

“I didn’t. I told her he left us before I gave birth to her.”

A silence fell upon the whole apartment. The dim light seemed to deepen into gloom.

For a long while, Natalie didn’t know what to say. She didn’t know what to write.

What the fuck, Natalie thought. Not Natalie the journalist, in all objectivity. But Natalie the person, wanting to shout at the universe at how could that situation go so wrong. Why?

“Nat…

Oliver whispered.

Natalie gripped her pen, hard.

Focus.

Holding the reins, Natalie forced things back on course.

“Moving on, could you talk about Alexis? What’s she like, what’re her interests?”

The harsh snap to another train of thought seemed to throw Shiori for a loop. She fixed her blanket, she rubbed at one eye.

“She… Alexis. She’s kind, energetic. So talented in sports, even with how weak she was as a baby. Her favorite was volleyball. Always bouncing, always the life of the party. She loved to be with her friends, always playing with them and going to their house for sleepovers. What is the phrase, again? Someone who is social and friendly with everyone they meet?”

“A social butterfly?”

“Yes. She is a butterfly.”

Natalie was finding it harder and harder to write.

Shiori’s hands fell into her lap, her hair falling over her face and eyes.

“You… were always so much stronger than me, so much braver. It doesn’t seem right that you are my daughter, that someone so beautiful could have come from someone like me. You always found it easy to smile. It made me afraid of you, sometimes, that I didn’t deserve to be your mother. I was so scared to live up to being your mother, but I try, I try anyways. Because you were worth it, because you have given me so much and I just wanted to return the favor. You made… me still being here… you made it worth it. You made me happy.”

Shaking, laughing. Weak. Wobbly. Sobbing.

Shiori’s hands covered her face.

“I’m sorry Alexis, I’m sorry Alexis, I’m sorry Alexis,  I’m so sorry… I love you…”

Shiori wept, Natalie let her. The moment stayed and lingered for long enough. The tea became cool.

Natalie closed her notebook. She set her pen down.

“I want… I want to thank you for your time, Mrs. Barnett. If you’d allow us, we’d like to contact you again in case there’s anything we want to follow up on.”

Shiori didn’t reply, couldn’t. She was still in the moment, lingering there, maybe even staying in it forever.

“We’ll see ourselves out, Mrs. Barnett. Thank you again for the tea.”

Natalie and Oliver packed up and left, being delicate about their departure. Shiori was dead silent by the time they were out the door. They stood right by the apartment for a time, hoping to hear a click as Shiori locked the door behind them. They didn’t.

“We should get going,” Oliver said.

“Yeah.”

They left the apartment complex, finding the stairs and heading down. It was a sobering walk back to the car.

“You cut it shorter than I expected,” Oliver said.

“I got what I needed out of her. I almost didn’t even need to ask. She’s holding in a lot of pain, the kind you don’t show to your closest friends or family. We have her statements in the reports, and we’ll follow up and do it proper, as usual. I just wanted to get a feel for where Mrs. Barnett is, right now.”

And a feel for what we’re getting ourselves into.

“What’s next?”

“Tomorrow we’ll talk with Susan Tilly, Alexis’ volleyball coach. A few of her teachers were willing to talk, too.”

“Cool. When we get back to your folk’s place I’ll start transcribing the interviews.”

“Thanks, Oli. I’ll cook this time.”

“What do you have in mind?”

“Hm, I’m thinking-”

Natalie stopped.

Right on the windshield, a folded note was stuffed against a wiper. A small wooden piece was tied around it with string.

Another one.

“They really like their theatrics, don’t they?” Oliver asked.

“It’s starting to annoy me,” Natalie said. “But, this means we have their attention, and we can poke at it.”

She grabbed the paper, unfolding it.

“Same handwriting,” Oliver observed. He held his phone up to the paper, using its light.

“Same piece,” Natalie said. She caught it as she untied the string. “Another white rook.”

“What do you think? Should we go?”

Natalie smirked.

“You ask as if you don’t already know the answer.”

Oliver stopped the car on a rough, uneven path. More rock and dirt than anything else.

The car’s interior lights turned on as Natalie opened the door.

“How do you want to play this?” Oliver asked. He was looking ahead, only able to see as far as the car’s headlights would allow him. It was late, and it was dark.

“By ear,” Natalie replied. She took one foot out the car, onto the dirt. Thinking.

“Do you want me to come with you? It’s your call.”

It was a tough call to make. With Oliver at her side, she’d feel more at ease, she’d have backup, but in case something went wrong, she’d need him at in the car for a quick getaway. Unlike her late father, she used the exercise equipment at home, and she went for regular jogs while in New York. And running around, chasing leads, that was its own exercise, too.

A tough call, but Natalie made her decision.

“Stay in the car,” Natalie told him. “Just keep an eye on my back.”

“No complaints there,” Oliver said.

Natalie eyed him.

Oliver raised his hands. “You have a good backside.”

She knew he was joking, but it did help. A little bit of confidence went a long way.

“Thanks, Oli.”

“Anytime and everytime.”

Natalie let herself smile as she got out of the car. She felt a light drizzle start. It wasn’t raining hard, but it would soon.

After checking the sky, she looked ahead, rereading the new note in her mind.

Braham Barn. Midnight.

The barn stood in front of her, standing on its last legs. A dilapidated structure, a decayed husk of what it was once. She knew of its history, the whole property was once held by a plantation owner, but now it was free range, the house now used by college kids for weekend parties, the barn itself being a decent, out of the way place for drug deals. It was a well-kept secret, but Natalie covered it back during her original tenure at the Stephenville Impact, and now it was largely abandoned, a place hardly used because it was too obvious.

If they were being led here, it had be something gang related. It was her best guess.

Natalie closed the car door, walking towards the barn and into the light. There weren’t any other cars here, but didn’t mean anything. There were plenty of other places to hide a vehicle. In the vegetation, or just farther up the dirt path.

With caution, Natalie approached the barn doors, then passing them. No more ambient lighting from the moon above, she only had Oliver’s car to guide her, now.

She was careful to only take a few steps into the barn. Looking around, she didn’t see anything or anyone that stood out to her.

But, Natalie didn’t have to wait long. They approached her.

Two figures emerged from the shadows, where the light wasn’t able to reach. They stopped at the edge of it, a distance away from Natalie, but within a reasonable earshot.

They were wearing masks, each with their own design. One was black all around, with numerous circular lenses, with an elongated beak that obscured the whole face. It gave the impression of a mutant raven, with more eyes than usual.

The other mask more closely resembled a face, but it wasn’t blank. Messy, dark splotches filled in large circles around the eyes, running down the cheeks in different lengths to resemble tears. Within the circles, white lines crossed into an ‘X’ in the corner. Red paint was applied across the mask’s mouth, shaping into a long smile that went past the edges of the circles. Grey brush marks in certain places gave the face more definition, making the cheeks and nose look more sunken in, more resembling a skull.

Aside from the masks, they were in identical clothing, and of similar height. They both wore grey, wool long coats. Fashionable, but in this context looked more like a uniform. They both wore shawls over their heads, covering the last bit of skin and hair, making it impossible to profile them.

Several seconds passed between the three of them. The sound of light rainfall.

Natalie decided to speak up first.

“This is awkward, you should have mentioned this was a costume party, I didn’t come prepared.”

The two masked individuals didn’t respond to that.

One of them spoke. From the distance, it was hard to tell who, but it did sound like a woman.

“Natalie Beckham, we are here to assist you.”

“Funny. I didn’t think I needed assistance. I’ve been on a roll lately.”

“We are the reason you went to James Gomez.”

“Please, I had every intention to speak with him again before I got your message. Don’t try to take credit for my work. Somehow, I doubt you even know of the testimony James had given to me, otherwise you wouldn’t have reached out to me again. You’ve been watching us closely, haven’t you, and I’m guessing you just don’t want me to write a gussied up piece on Alexis Barnett, no?”

“There’s more to the story than you’re trying to report. We want to guide you to the truth.”

“Coming from two people sending messages behind the shadows? Shows how much you know about the truth. How about this, why don’t you two take off your masks, and if you two are actually good sources, I might consider using what you give me.”

The two didn’t answer right away.

“You may refer to us as Machiavélique,” they said.

“Subtle,” Natalie said. “But this is child’s play. I prefer to not use anonymous sources. Unless you have something really, and I mean really good, I’m not going to consider anything you have to give me. I started the Alexis Barnett piece as a way to meet you, and now that we have, I can say that I’m not impressed.”

Catch them off guard, and keep them off their toes. In the case that they might be trying to derail me, I won’t let them.

They, Machiavélique, didn’t answer right away.

“Then I’m going,” Natalie said. “If all you want to do is waste my time, don’t contact me again.”

Natalie turned, ready to go, because she was. She was done with this.

“Alexis Barnett is Blank Face.”

Natalie turned back.

The one with the beak, the raven, was a few paces closer, more in the light. They spread their arms.

“This is where it all began, where she got her powers.”

“Where’s your proof?” Natalie asked.

Machiavélique paused.

“We’re gathering it for you as we speak.”

“That’s not going to be enough. Either give me something solid, or I’m walking.”

Inside, Natalie was fighting every urge to chomp at the bit. Someone, even under a pseudonym, was coming forward, willing to corroborate the hunch that Alexis Barnett might be the world’s first superhuman. Any reporter worth their salt would investigate this further. But, she had her integrity, and that mattered even more. She had do this right, she had to be sure.

Machiavélique spoke, “Thomas Thompson and Blank Face did work together.”

Natalie stood firm, facing them.

“And?” Natalie asked.

“What did James Gomez tell you about Blank Face?”

“Why do you want to know?”

“Because we can confirm it. All of it, and then some. We can guide you in the right direction. Like west?”

“West? The new gang in that part of town?”

“Yes. All you have to do is follow the blood. That’s where she is, now. Alexis, under a new name. V.”

That was it, the proof she needed that these two were legit. It was all starting to click, the story of a fucking lifetime.

Alexis Barnett is still alive.

“Okay,” Natalie said, “I’ll listen.”

“We appreciate it, Natalie Beckham.”

She reached into her pocket, taking out both chess pieces, holding it in a way that caught the light.

“If you wanted to involve me and my partner into this, I would have figured you’d use us as pawns.”

The raven indicated to the one with the clown mask. Reaching into their pocket, they grabbed something and tossed it to Natalie.

With her free hand, Natalie caught it. A black queen.

Not the king.

“The truth has a way of being blunt, forthright,” they said. “There’s no oblique angle or spin to approach it from. The truth is, and there is no running away from that. You and Oliver Morgan don’t need masks or trickery to take down the monsters. You face it head on, direct.”

“I’ve already agreed to play your game,” Natalie said. “No need to flatter me any more.”

“It’s not a game.”

“Isn’t it? But I have to ask, why? What do you get out of this?”

Machiavélique replied, and Natalie was certain it from was the raven.

“I get to see Alexis burn.”

So that’s what this is. Revenge.

It didn’t matter, shouldn’t. Machiavélique wasn’t the one reporting this, Natalie would know how to filter what they gave her, and how to present the facts as they were. The full and complete web. Mister, Styx, James and Thomas, Blank Face and V. Natalie and Oliver, they’d tear it down, wholly and fairly.

What is it I want, exactly?

Natalie smiled.

“Tell me everything you know about Alexis Barnett.”

Previous                                                                                               Next

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Interlude – James

Previous                                                                     Bonus

No, Mr. Gomez, I’ll tell you what she is. She is a parasite, feeding off of the blood, sweat, and hard work that your officers lay down their lives for every day. She throws a wrench in your efforts, undermining the whole system you have in place. And how do you claim to know what Blank Face’s true motives are? Have you spoken to Blank Face? Are you in regular contact with her?

“I have never had any contact with Blank Face, nor do I claim to know her true motives. I am merely providing my comments on the issue, as I was asked to do when I was invited to your show.”

So you believe that Blank Face is providing a service to your city? Because, and correct me if I’m wrong, but if Blank Face is the hero you claim she is, then why have large-scale riots and displays of civil unrest increased by sixty percent since she’s showed up, why have assaults against Asian Americans skyrocketed by seventy percent since she’s showed up, and why has her presence introduced a new wave of themed vigilante and gang activity, as well as her being challenged by terrorists whose capabilities are unprecedented, and, need I remind you, are still at large? And, those statistics are only representative of what is happening in Stephenville, it’s about half, spread throughout the rest of the country. What do you have to say about that?

“I say that’s a lot to throw at me. Again, Jim, I don’t claim to know what’s in her heart. She’s here, she’s fighting criminals and gang members. As the police chief, and as a citizen, I oppose of her methods and vigilantism, but Blank Face has attempted to stop evil when she encounters it. I do believe that says something. But, whether or not her attempts have proved to be of any benefit… that’s a whole other debate.”

You’re right, that’s a debate for another time, and I hope I can have that with you very soon. Sorry gentlemen, there’s still so much to talk about, like the state of Stephenville in the face of these continuing and escalating issues, and the fact that the last public sight of Blank Face was almost two months ago, but my time is running out. Dr. Paltro, I apologize for losing you at the end, there.

“It’s no problem.

Alright. It was good having you two come on the show. Thanks again.

“Thank you, Jim.”

The camera feed was cut off. James started blinking at the bright blue screen.

“Ah, fuck,” James muttered, reaching for his collar. He removed the tape and microphone, wrapping the wire around his fingers. He placed the coil on the table in front of him, and got up to stretch.

Bones creaked and joints popped.

“Ah fuck,” James said. He was getting older.

It was something he avoided thinking about, he didn’t want to admit it to himself. But he felt it, as he went about his day to day. That much harder to get up, that much harder to move around. The aches in the morning, the soreness as he crawled back into bed. He wasn’t that old, but he was getting up there in years. The work, pressures, the stress… it all piled together, and that combined weight was starting to slow him down.

I wonder if he ever felt like this.

No. That was another thing he wanted to avoid thinking about, as much as possible. But it proved to be a significant challenge, even in this brief moment of being calm and quiet and alone. If left to wander, his mind wouldn’t, couldn’t stop from going in that direction. The wound was still too fresh, still too deep, not want to dwell on it.

But he knew he couldn’t, he had to distract himself, keep his mind busy. Later hours in the office, longer hours in meetings. Meaning more work, more pressure, more stress.

James stalked over to the door, turning the knob, pushing it open. He waited.

Campbell stepped inside.

“Did it go well?” Campbell asked, stepping past James to collect the camera, and turn of the television.

Young, caucasian. Well-built and tall. Reliable. Still held onto the belief that there was good in this world, and that it would somehow prevail, in the end.

James wasn’t so jaded as to call it stupid, no, he admired the fact that people like Campbell were around. That people were still willing to try to leave this world a better place than they found it.

James tried. Now, it wasn’t so much to try and save the world, but just save what little of his own world he had left. Hold it close, hold it tight.

Even then, it’s as if everything’s slipping away.

His mind was wandering again.

James finally answered. “As well as it could have.”

“My condolences,” Campbell said.

“I don’t know why I keep agreeing to these whenever I get invited. I make an ass out of myself every time.”

“Maybe you have something you want to say.”

“Ha. You have a job, Campbell, you don’t have to kiss my ass.”

Campbell flinched. “Sorry, Chief.”

It was like flicking a dog on the head. It was just wrong.

“Come on,” James said, “Let’s go.”

“Right behind you,” Campbell replied, having finished wrapping up the wires, turning off the camera, and placing it back into the bag. He picked it up, and zipped it closed.

Together, they left the conference room.

The halls weren’t bustling, leaving James and Campbell plenty of room to walk side by side. Everyone was either out on patrol or at their desks, working all the same. It wasn’t busy, but it wasn’t lifeless. It was just another day at the Stephenville Police Station.

Even with the chaos and turmoil going on in the city, just beyond this building, the atmosphere seemed lax. People were working, but there wasn’t any sense of urgency. It was wartime, to be dramatic, yet everyone seemed content on laying back, only getting up when they were prodded hard enough. James wanted nothing more than to kick them in the ass and get them moving, but he knew better. Or rather, he just knew. He had no power to exert over his own men.

The halls were clean. James hated that. It meant that the janitors and cleaning ladies had the time to clean thoroughly, that his men weren’t running the place ragged.

There should be more being done, here. People should be tearing their hair out, trying to set this city straight. People should be working together, hand in hand, to rebuild what was broken and creating sturdier foundations.

Someone should be doing… something.

“Campbell,” James said, needing another distraction.

“Yes, sir?”

“How long have you been on the force, now?”

“How long? It’s been, wow, five years already? Certainly doesn’t feel like it.”

“Time flies when you’re having fun. You… you’re not from around here, right?”

“I’m not. I moved here while I was still in highschool.”

“And that was, what, five years ago?”

Campbell laughed.

“It was ten years ago, sir.”

“Color me shocked.”

“But, actually, I still call Chicago my home. Sorry, Chief.”

“No need to apologize.”

“Not that I don’t care about this city, I was just saying that-”

James interrupted him, reassuring him. “I know what you mean, son.”

They walked down the halls, passing by other conference rooms, offices, broom closets. They were in the administrative section of the old building, located on the third floor. The Stephenville police department had two separate buildings, a smaller, newer facility, and the larger, historical main base.The newer building, nicknamed ‘the Pupil’ by those who had the privilege to be able to work there.

The Pupil housed the high-tech labs, with state-of-the-art equipment for forensics and other data analyses, and keeping the higher-grade firearms for emergency use only. He’d seen a lot of those arms be used in recent weeks.

Nice, clean, innovative. A bastion of hope for the city. James had to hear it all through the grapevine.

The building was finished five years ago, and he had yet to take a step inside.

He was there, though, at the grand opening. Cameras pointed at him, smiling that wide, fake smile while holding that stupid, oversized pair of scissors. He cut the ribbon, everyone poured in, and James stayed back and watched.

The memory was still clear in his mind. The meeting, on a trail under the southern bridge at the Peace Phoenix Plaza. The dead of night. Styx had informed him that the Pupil was constructed, in large part, thanks to dummy corporations that Mister owned. The tech was legit, the facility was functional, but all of it was to stay out of James’ reach. He was not granted permission or jurisdiction over the equipment within.

“Looks like you’re blinded,” Styx had told him, before he cracked a wild grin, and chuckled. The sound perturbed, and it only served to cement that moment in James’ mind even more.

Again, wandering.

James scratched his face, running his fingers through his hair, using more force than he needed. To keep him here, instead of being lost in his thoughts for hundredth time that morning.

“Campbell,” James said, finding himself reaching for another distraction, even though he recognized that continuously relying on Campbell for that was probably not the best of ideas. He didn’t work at a high school, but rumors did form, and they would spread.

“Um, yes sir?”

“What’s your take-”

James closed his mouth as they went around a corner, running into another pair of officers. They all exchanged greetings as they moved to pass each other, and James waited until he was certain they were out of earshot before he tried again.

“What’s your take on Blank Face?”

“Blank Face?”

James noted Campbell’s hesitation.

“You can speak your mind around me, son, it’s alright.”

“It’s not that sir, it’s just…”

That hesitation again.

“It’s just what?”

“I’m not sure what to think, it’s all so complicated, maybe even needlessly so.”

“That’s not a bad answer, see, it is complicated. How about this, then. You’ve met her, right?”

“Yes, I did. Back at the warehouse while we were looking for Mr. Thompson, and Solace, and I sat with you and her on the way to city hall.”

Even just hearing his surname, it was like a punch to the gut. Dealing hadn’t gotten any easier.

“So… I, then, what was your first impression of her?”

Campbell took his sweet time in formulating an answer.

“I think, and this is going off a very brief, very hectic interaction from months ago… I have the impression that she was tired.”

“We were all tired back then, Campbell, that was a hectic time. Hell, it still is hectic, and I’m still tired.”

“I know, I just can’t find the right word for it. Maybe exhausted, drained? I didn’t see her face, of course, but I can read body language okay. From what I can remember, she’s young, isn’t she?”

“Just a kid,” James ventured. It was something the media or the public had only picked up in recent weeks. Nothing more than a theory – a rumor – that had spread to be accepted as fact. From the mad ramblings of a domestic terrorist, during one of the most heinous attacks on American soil, at the newest peak of paranoia over the Bluemoon, it was no wonder that people grabbed onto the loudest unsubstantiated claim they had. Even if it wasn’t confirmed, even if it acting on that impulse to believe was unwise and dangerous

People were desperate, and people had stakes to burn. Everyone was looking for even the tiniest flicker to set their hate ablaze.

Granted, James and Campbell knew the truth, but the people didn’t. They just wanted a witch to hunt.

“Just a kid,” Campbell repeated, as if he couldn’t believe it, himself. “Yeah, the way she was standing, how she held herself. I’d hate to assume, but it reminds me of what I’ve seen before.”

“Before?”

“My mother. She… how do I put it? She was a hard worker. She had grown up poor, so she forced herself to work to the bone for her family. It paid off, in a sense. The company recognized her, rewarded her accordingly, and she kept working hard to impress them even more. Always pushing herself, she was.”

“And the twist was?” James asked.

“I’m not sure if you can call it a twist, nothing surprising happened. Looking back, it was almost unavoidable. Something must have snapped, or the wrong set of wires was crossed, but she took her work ethic and made it… not ethical. It turned into an addiction, working herself so hard that she became bone. How files were organized were more important than if anything was in her stomach, or if she was getting enough sleep, or if she saw her husband and two sons for more than ten hours a week. And then… the three of us moved here.”

Campbell’s voice was just a bit tight.

“You don’t have to get too deep into it, if you feel uncomfortable,” James said. “We’ve veered off the main topic, anyway.”

Campbell shook his head.

“It’s not that, I was trying to get to my point. What I mean to say is, I’ve seen that. The restlessness, even when exhausted, making you twitchy, making you lash out at when the slightest thing goes wrong.”

James remembered back to that time in the warehouse, when they encountered Linda Day. Twice, Blank Face had assaulted her, at the slightest provocations. Would Blank Face had killed her, if he wasn’t in the way? James couldn’t say for sure.

Campbell had continued while James was pondering. “-when they’re at the frayed ends of sanity. That’s never healthy. She, my mother, subjected herself to all that stress, and she let it consume her. Multiply that stress by ten, a hundred fold, and put that on a kid, and a kid like her…”

“Something’s bound to snap,” James said, finishing the thought.

“And considering that we haven’t seen her in so long, it’s weird, I actually feel a little concerned for her, and not in the obvious, ‘super-powerful-vigilante-has-gone-missing’ kind of way.”

He coughed, the camera bag shaking a little.

“You know what I’m trying to say, sir?”

“I know,” James said.

James had a thought he wanted to share with Campbell, but they had gotten to the elevators. James pressed the button for the both of them. Different floors, but the same direction. Up.

Campbell spoke as they waited for the elevator. “But hey, it could just be me not remembering things right, and my mind ended up going there. I’d bet money that I’m wrong.”

“No,” James replied, eyes forward. “It’s not a bad assumption. If anything, it’s food for thought.”

“Yeah, food for thought.”

As if it was responding that point as well, the elevator dinged, the doors sliding open. They went inside, James pressing the appropriate buttons, and the doors closed.

They stood in silence as the elevator worked itself up. James listened to the hum of the machines, the cables and gears, focusing the small bumps as the three thousand pound metal box was being pulled up.

A ding.

The doors slid open. It was Campbell’s floor.

“Thank you again for letting me set up the meeting for you,” Campbell said as he walked out.

“I’m no good with all that stuff, and you’re the only one I can trust.”

“Honor to hear that.”

The door closed before James could get another word in. The elevator continued.

The workings of the interior felt farther away.

That last thing he had said to Campbell, how sad was it, for that to actually be the case?

An exaggeration, but there was some truth to that. Campbell was there with him when he traced the signal that led them to the warehouse. He watched the door while James worked. And he was there, helping James assemble the crew he needed to get a leg up against Solace. Of the crew that James knew he could work with, Campbell was the one he knew he could trust.

And in a building full of people who were supposed to be his men, his officers, that feeling was like finding a drop of water in the desert.

A ding.

James got out of the elevator.

His body moved on its own, he knew his floor better than anyone ever would. And he had better, no one spent as much time on this floor as much as James did.

He passed someone in the hall. Detective Harvey. Forest’s man.

Harvey smiled, and James tried to smile back. He picked up the pace back to his office.

James’ office. He had always wanted a space on an upper floor, with a window that faced the city. There was a sort of dignity to it that appealed to the six year old James during job day. Back then, he knew what he wanted.

What he got was a bit of a compromise. He got that office space high up, but the window faced an alley, a brick building was all he could see out that window.

Well, that, and another more peculiar thing.

Two scraps of paper were taped to the wall, with an arrow drawn in marker pointing from one to the other. The marks were on the other side of the glass. James hadn’t bothered to erase them. Somewhere within him, he was wanting to put up another scrap of paper.

Others had seen it, but no one had made mention of it. Either they thought that was just another quirk of the police chief, or, more likely, they just didn’t care.

James walked through the stacks of boxes, full of files of cases and other investigations and potential leads. So many files that he had to empty out his bookshelf and start stacking files using that. Some stacks went up to his chest in height. Getting past it all was cumbersome, there were simply a lot of boxes.

He finally made it to his desk on the other side of the room. He slumped into his chair, righted himself some, and booted up his computer.

As he waited, he looked around.

Not that he had less stuff in his office, now, it was just that all of his stuff had been replaced by files and boxes. Photos and trinkets, precious mementos and superficial awards. All moved out for files and boxes. Even his desk, there was a pile of names and cases that took up all the real-estate, and then some. Things he could actually work on, and need legitimate attention by the police.

A serial murderer who had used the Halloween Riots as cover for his killings. Patrick Goldstein, a convicted felony who fled into the city to join one of the many growing gangs. No one wanted him, so now he was stuck, and the police had to find him. Solace, but he had stopped getting regular updates about that.

A missing persons case. There were so many as it stood, but James was asked to put it on the top of his desk. A personal favor.

Blank Face. The official order to bring down the vigilante. Her stack was the tallest in the room. The amount of offenses they stuck on her was almost comical.

Work, pressure, stress. His own office was no longer a haven for him.

Sitting here, he already wanted to go up to the roof and have a smoke. Funny, he had already quit smoking. But all this work, pressure, and stress, it brought him right back.

What would have six year old James thought, should he see this? Disappointment? Would he cry?

Pathetic.

The computer finished waking up. James moved the mouse to click and check through his emails.

Several. A dozen, to be exact. But one caught his eye.

John Cruz. The new district attorney.

It was a proposal about a new bill that he was going to support, and was suggesting that James back the bill, too. Nothing concrete was put to paper yet, but it would use-

James stopped reading.

He looked away from the computer screen, wanting to shut down the computer, wanting to throw the whole thing out the window.

The wording, the formality of it, that James saw it as callous. An offense that James took personally.

Fuck you, John. You shit-drinking, piss-eating bastard. I don’t know how you eat piss, but I’m sure the devil would love to get creative when he meets you. Fuck. You.

Finding a distraction, his eyes went to a portrait, instead.

It was the only memento that kept its rightful place on his desk.

Three people. No, four. James almost didn’t see little Katy there, wrapped up in a bundle, held by Kristin.

Beside him was-

He had to look away again. Not his mind’s eye, this time, it was more direct.

But he kept it there, James never removed the portrait. He needed it there.

But he lost the will to even look at that, too.

James got out of his seat, and went to the window.

Nothing but a brick wall. All he could see. A block to his vision.

He almost laughed.

“We were supposed to do this together,” James said, his words reaching no one. “I got here first, waiting for you to catch up. Now you’ve left me hanging. Was this your plan all along, to set me up as part of a big joke?”

No answer, but James wasn’t expecting one.

James stared at the brick wall in front of him. He got so far, but he was never even close. The whole time, he was impeded by something that he had no control over, and he had learned that lesson way too late.

He stared at nothing, and got nothing.

It wasn’t always like this.

It was James’ job to keep the peace.

Red and blue lights illuminated his face and back as he stood, arms spread out. The colors enveloped, giving him more of a presence. He tried using that to his advantage.

“Stay back people! Please stay behind the tape!”

The people listened, backing up some, giving those closer to the tape and James more room to breathe.

James grinned to himself.

Good job, me.

The scene was still fresh, the last gun shot still ringing in his ears. The last time he had checked, the last time he took a glance behind him, the scene still wasn’t pretty.

James didn’t even want to see it in full. So why would all of these people gather to take a look?

Vultures. I bet they don’t even see them as human. Just another spectacle to indulge themselves in.

For their sakes, and for his, he tried to push them back even more.

“I’m gonna have to ask y’all to back up one more time! One big step back, please!”

His portion of the crowd listened again, but they weren’t backing up as much as he would have liked.

He opened his mouth to shout again.

“Everyone, please back-”

“James, James!”

He heard his name getting called. Not from behind, but in front. Someone in the crowd.

James saw as people were moving out of the way. Had he not asked for more room, there probably would have been more objections, more shouting at the people squeezing through. There wasn’t, though, which James liked. The people here were behaved.

The last line of defense broke, and James saw who the offenders were.

“Thomas,” James said.

Thomas Thompson smirked upon hearing his name.

It was well past any reasonable hour, but Thomas was still clean and proper, looking like the lawyer he was. Dressed in a fitting, expensive looking grey suit, his hair combed back, with the only sign of disheveledness was how wild the strands were at the ends. He needed a haircut, that was for sure.

He walked with a swagger, like he didn’t just know what the next move was, but the one after that, and so on. Like it was all part of a grand plan, and all Thomas had to do was go through the motions of that plan, and everything would fall into place.

Some would have called that arrogance, but James recognized it as Thomas just being that damn confident.

“Why am I not surprised?” James asked as Thomas approached. Thomas stopped right at the tape, and Gomez had to take a step to close in the distance.

“Because you’re looking for something to do, my friend,” Thomas answered. “And I’ve got just the thing.”

“Or, man,” Thomas then said, correcting himself.

He gestured to the man standing beside him. Younger, just a hair shorter than Thomas. White, though the features in his eyes and jaw suggested that he might be part Hispanic. Dressed similarly. Though, unlike Thomas, he had a bag strapped around one shoulder, and had a cup of coffee in one hand. Another lawyer, if James had to guess.

He was dressed the part, but he looked new to the job. His top buttons of his shirt were undone, the tie loosened. His dark brown hair was much more of a mess. He wasn’t used to the late nights, not yet.

“Hello there,” James said, going first. He extended a hand.

The man took it, shaking it. Firm.

“John Cruz,” the man said.

“James Gomez.”

“John’s still paying his dues, cutting his teeth as a public defender. He’s the guy you get if you can’t afford a guy.”

“I’m cheap, but I’m good,” John said, rolling with it.

“You have a sense of humor,” James said.

“Helps with the late nights.”

“Alright then. But, what brings you two here?”

James asked them both, but the question was mostly directed to Thomas. If he was here, James knew he wanted something.

“I wanted to say hi, give an old friend some coffee to get through the warm night.”

Thomas nudged John with an elbow, and John lifted the cup to James.

“You didn’t even have the decency to give it to me yourself,” James said, berating his friend. He took the coffee anyway, letting the cup warm his hands.

“I’m showing John the ropes, how to establish a good rapport with other good guys. But we don’t need the formalities, do we James? We’re closer than that.”

“We may be, but I still like coffee.” He took a sip. “Skipping formalities can taste bitter, sometimes.”

Thomas laughed. “Does it, now?”

“It does. Alright, I know what you’re here for.”

James turned, and raised his free hand. He flagged another cop over.

“Mind if you handle this?” James asked, “I need a coffee break.”

The cop nodded, understanding what a ‘coffee break’ really meant.

They swapped places, and James signaled for Thomas and John to step over the tape.

Now the objections and shouting came forth. The trio walked away as the cop who had taken James’ place yelled over the crowd’s complaints.

They moved over to the middle of the street, closer to the actual ‘scene.’ There were more cars and people now, cops and gangbangers alike. People were giving statements, people were being taken away. Everyone was too busy to care about a rookie cop and some no name lawyers.

“Did the chief say anything about this?” Thomas asked.

“Nothing we haven’t seen before,” James replied.

They got close, but they couldn’t get too close. James pulled them to the side, standing beside one of the many cop cars on the street. Out of the way, but they still had a visual of what was going on.

“So, what’s going on?” John asked. He was looking at something just past James. There was only one thing here that would have grabbed his attention. James didn’t need to see for himself.

Several blue tarps, laid out in different places across the street, with red stains pooling out from underneath, spilling onto the road. The cops that were closer had to watch their footing as they maneuvered around the area.

A fresh crime scene.

James answered. “Two new gangs on the scene, trying to establish presence in their neighborhood.”

“I think they did too good of a job, if you ask me,” John said.

“Yes,” James said. He couldn’t bear to look, which was why he offered to take care of the perimeter, instead.

The thought of taking another sip of coffee wasn’t so appetizing, anymore.

“John,” Thomas said, “If it stuck out to you like that, why do you think that is? Use your brain.”

“It’s much more than just establishing presence. These two new gangs, even if they’re rivals, it shouldn’t have gotten this bad, this soon. Am I right, assuming that?”

“Sense of humor, and you’re smart? I can see why you brought him along, Thomas.”

Thomas nodded, looking proud of himself.

James addressed John directly. “Yes, you’re thinking in the right direction. Those two gangs are actually two broken halves of an older group.”

Thomas thought aloud. “If we’re in this neighborhood, opposite of Eastside… The Koninkryk?”

James nodded. “They’re split in the Thunders and Royals, now. We have both leaders in custody. So John, they’re not just rivals, they’re brothers.”

“Oh, shit,” John said. “So it runs deep.”

“Apparently so. I heard a bit of it during the initial ‘questioning.’”

James used his free hand to make air quotes around the word ‘questioning.’

“It was more like they were screaming their heads off at each other while we restrained them, and we ended up getting some info in the doing. Something about a girl named Lucy?”

“All over a girl,” Thomas commented. “Fleets of ships and armies were sent out over them.”

“Not like that, I don’t know how to describe it, but it didn’t come across that way. Maybe this Lucy was their mom or aunt or something?”

“All this, over a mom?” John asked, eyes still trained to the work being done behind James.

“You don’t mess with people’s mommas,” Thomas said.

“Sorry I don’t have much to tell you,” James said. “I left before I could get any of the juicier details. I… I guess I’m still not used to seeing so much blood.”

“It’s no problem, James,” Thomas said. “You’re doing what you can, out here. I admire that.”

“And even if I did have anything, this is still an active crime scene. I shouldn’t be telling you two shit. So no buttering me up, it won’t work.”

James handed the cup back to John. Thomas intercepted it.

“Another lesson for you,” Thomas said. “Not everyone’s receptive to the coffee trick. Personalize it, find out what they like ahead of time. I’ll give you a hint for James, for next time. It starts with ‘box of,’ and ends with ‘Partagás.’”

“Hey, that’s top secret,” James said. “And potentially above his pay grade.”

“I’ll manage,” John responded, “For next time.”

John fixed his shoulder bag, gripping the strap. “Actually, you think I can get a closer look? I want to know more about what’s happening, maybe see if I can get those juicer details.”

“Stay low, and stay out of the way,” Thomas told him. “Don’t talk to anyone unless you know for sure you’re going to get a real answer. Listen. And here.”

Thomas gave the coffee back to John.

“Someone might like that.”

John took the coffee, and went off, passing Thomas and James to get a closer look at the scene.

“I sipped that, you know. John knows.”

“They don’t.”

Between the two friends, they shared a small chuckle.

“So,” Thomas said, after they cooled a bit. “What do you think of him?”

“Him? John?”

“Yes, of course John, who else?”

“He’s decent, I suppose. Curious, doing his best to learn. A couple minutes and a cup of coffee doesn’t really give me much to work with.”

“I know, but I wanted to hear what your initial thoughts were, however small.”

“Why?”

“I’m thinking of having him join us, as part of our team of pals.”

James paused, and then he sighed.

“Thomas,” he said.

“Just hear me out, and I know I’m jumping the gun by bringing it up now-”

“Jumping the gun? This is running up to the factory that makes the guns.”

“I know. I’m just saying he has potential, and I wouldn’t want him to waste it because we didn’t steer him in the right direction. Our direction.”

“You really see something in him?”

Thomas shrugged. “I might.”

“That’s a strong foundation to build from.”

Thomas leaned back, rolling his shoulders. “I met John at a cafe I frequent about three weeks ago, usually I take my breaks there, drinking coffee, reading up on the news. That’s actually where I got that coffee.”

He pointed in John’s general direction.

“Cafe Sharktooth. It’s trendy, but I highly recommend it.”

Thomas met James in the eye.

“But I digress,” Thomas said.

“But you digress,” James echoed.

“Right. I met him there, working on a case, getting really into it. Like, really into it. So into it that I went over to talk to him. It was another one of his public defense cases, but he was getting deep into the files of the case, making sure he got everything straight. We exchanged cards, and when I see him the next day, he already knew everything about me. I mean, not everything, but he did his research. I knows what I’m after, and what I want for this city. So, we got more acquainted, and I offered to help him out on that case, unofficially, providing insight where I could. His questions were good, too. He wasn’t asking just for tips on procedures, but about the culture. What the gangs are like, how each one operated, and how to use the defendant’s circumstance with the case’s relevant gang to appeal to the jury.”

“Doesn’t sound like you, Thomas. You want to save this city, and you’re helping a guy get off?”

Thomas raised a finger. “Ah, but if you looked at the case, you would have known something was up. I saw it immediately, and John was able to catch it, too. Turns out, they found him innocent, and Miles Turner can drive another day.”

“Turner? Of Turner’s Moving Company?”

“The very same.”

“Hm, not too shabby, then. Though, one would argue you should check more closely if you’re carrying four hundred kilograms of cocaine in your truck halfway across the country.”

“James, please, we already worked so hard to win that argument, I’m tired just thinking about doing it again.”

James grinned. “I’ll spare you, this one time.”

“Thanks, pal.”

“But,” James said, crossing his arms, “I’ve give you this, that John of yours is legit fellow, and that he’s smart, and he wants to learn more about this culture so he can better fight against that. He’s an angel, I get that.”

“But you still object to him.”

James shook his head. “I’m objecting to you.”

The expression on Thomas’ face had changed, but it was too hard to read, being in the dark. His jaw was set, his stare penetrated.

James had to explain himself.

“Before you start blowing steam out your ears, just know I’m still one hundred percent behind our plan, I really am. You kick ass all the way up to being the district attorney, and my dumb ass will somehow become the new chief of police.”

“And we work together in tandem to clean the streets,” Thomas said. “For good.”

“Yes, and I’m still there for that, I want that. But…”

James struggled to find the words.

Thomas questioned him. “What are you so concerned about?”

“But, you shouldn’t try to recruit anyone into this holy war of yours. Between us, we know what the stakes are, the risks we’ll run into along the way. Don’t bring anyone into this, and for god’s sake, don’t groom them into being the ideal pawn. People aren’t just assets, Thomas, and if you’re seriously considering going in that direction, I’m not going to follow you.”

Thomas threw his hands into his pockets. He didn’t answer for some time.

When he did, he said, “Don’t call it a holy war, and especially don’t call it grooming.”

“I’m exaggerating for effect. I know you’re not actually that radical, Thomas, otherwise you’d be taking more extreme, more stupid measures right now.”

“Like wearing a mask, and punching criminals in the face?”

“Like that,” James said, to bring another percentage point of levity into their conversation. “Like that exactly.”

“Wouldn’t that be nice, though? It’d certainly relieve some of tension on my mind. Playing the long game takes its toll.”

“Keep it in your fantasies. Last thing I want to do is detain you for something stupid.”

“I will, I will.”

James had a point he wanted to get to, a point he felt like Thomas needed to hear. A point he should have heard sooner.

He got to the point.

“I’m only telling this to you because you have a tendency to want to see yourself in others, so you want to raise them to your level. Not everyone can handle that kind of pressure, not everyone can reach the same heights as you, and certainly not everyone will be as committed to this as you. Except for, you know, me.”

“Alright, I understand. We’ll keep this between us. I’d still like to keep in touch with John in case he becomes useful in the future, but, as far as our plan goes…”

“We keep it between us.”

James gave Thomas a hand, and they shook on it. For the second time, the first was when James heard the initial pitch.

“Or,” Thomas said, as he let go, “Maybe you’re just saying that because you’re jealous?”

“Jealous?”

“You don’t want another man coming in between our sacred union.”

Everyone around was busy, but James still checked his surrounding.

“God damn, man, there are people here, with ears. And you have a wife and a kid.”

“Come on, man, love is love. Now give me a hug, you fool.”

“Get away from me!”

“Thomas, James.”

Jogging to them, John returned before the bantering could go any further. James noticed that he didn’t have the cup.

“Welcome back. Learn anything?”

John nodded. “I learned that all this escalated from a game with dice and cash. I learned the names of the two leaders, Darius and Marcus Jackson, EZ and Krown of the Thunders and Royals, respectively. Their feud is over a woman, and it is their mother, or rather, over whose mother is the real one.”

“What does that even mean,” James commented.

“Their father was out of the picture, so they were raised by a single mother. They have something of a deep reverence for her, so the brothers constantly argued over who would take care of her when she got old. But, for whatever reason, she never got a chance to grow old. Things kind of went out of hand from there.”

“That’s one fucked up family dynamic,” James said.

“And, that’s not all,” John said. It was dark, and yet his face practically beaming as he said, “They’re not even worried about incarceration. The whole ‘knows a guy who owes a guy a favor’ scenario, and they’re hooked up with some lawyers who can get them back on the street in a week, no hassle.”

James and Thomas didn’t say anything.

“What?” John questioned, looking at the both of them. “It’s something I should know about, isn’t it? Shouldn’t we look into it?”

“There’s nothing to look into,” James said, shaking his head. “They’re set, now.”

“Now what does that even mean?”

“It means they have connections with game lawyers, or lawyers in the pocket of one of the gangs at the table. The big boys. If you can afford their services, then you have nothing to worry about. Ever.”

James added, “You could kill a man in the middle of the business district in broad daylight, and those damn lawyers would find a way to spin it, and sell that the other guy deserved it.”

“Then why aren’t we doing something about it? Expose them, or something?”

James looked at Thomas, and Thomas was looking down at his shoes.

We are, it’s just further down the long game.

“Don’t poke at beasts you’re not prepared to slay,” Thomas said, eyes still low. “That’s your next lesson. Those lawyers demand exuberant prices, and it’s not always money. Shaking them up is shaking up who they represent, and we can’t afford to bring that on our heads. Not while we’re still so small.”

James knew that Thomas hated that. Being small.

“Exuberant prices, huh? Wow, I just thought this seedy shit went deep, I didn’t know it went up, too.”

James didn’t like the look on John’s face.

Thomas spoke, as if to derail whatever train of thought John was on. “Anyone worth their honest salt ends up getting a call like that, at some point in their career. A promotion, if you will. It’s not worth it, I guarantee it. You’ll never get exactly what you’re after.”

Thomas had never sounded so sure in his life.

James wondered if they would ever get what they were after.

He sat for about ten minutes before he got out of his car. He walked up the driveway, up a few steps, and approached the front door.

This never gets any easier.

James knocked on the door. Two heavy, slow knocks. He didn’t wait very long.

“Kristin,” James said as the door opened.

Kristin smiled, though it was a weary, forced one. Out of good manners than anything genuine.

James didn’t blame her.

She didn’t look like she had somewhere to go, but she had touched up some. An oversized sweater, with black pants and slippers on her feet. Her hair was tied up, but it wasn’t combed. She had applied some makeup around her eyes and cheeks. Not for him, and not for anyone else but her. That was just the kind of person Kristin was. If she looked good, she felt good. And here, she wasn’t feeling terrible.

The sweater, James noticed, was of Thomas’ alma mater.

“May I-” James started.

“Please,” Kristin said.

She let him in, and James entered into the Thompson household. He wasn’t dressed in his uniform, and he didn’t take his police car to get here. He wore a polo shirt, a coat, and pair of slacks, and he took his old, beat up sedan. He wasn’t here for business, it was personal.

James took a glance around as he followed Kristin down the main hall. She hadn’t taken down any of the picture frames hanging on the wall. He could only focus on the edges of the frames themselves, the actual pictures were too much of a reminder of what was missing. Not just the man himself, but the role he filled in the house. Husband, father. Best friend.

If it was hard for him, then he couldn’t imagine what it was like for Kristin, having to live with constant reminders all day, every day. And she chose to keep those reminders up, no matter how much they might have hurt.

Maybe the pain of remembering is better than the release of forgetting.

“How’ve you been?” James asked, hoping Kristin would provide the distraction he so desperately needed.

“Been better, but I haven’t had a bad day for at least a week. That has to count for something.”

He was his best friend, but James was able to get more acquainted with Kristin over the years. James first met her back when they arrived together at the airport, after the volunteering program. He first met Kristin and Katy that day. It was quite the surprise. James was only expecting to carry one person’s bags.

From then, to now, James had grown to consider Kristin a good friend. They had developed their own connection outside of the common thread that they first met with. Now, even with that thread cut, James was still willing to reach out and support her, support a friend.

“You’re doing way better than me, then,” James said.

He heard a dry laugh come from Kristin.

“I try.”

They went by the kitchen. Annie, the dog, had smelled and heard him, and was by the gate on the other side. She saw him, and got excited. Too excited, instead of barking, she kept huffing, instead.

“Hi Annie,” James said, giving her a pat on the head, and then he walked on by.

Kristin brought him into the living room. Sitting on the couch, was someone he had seen before, but he couldn’t quite place his finger on where, or why.

Kristin ended up filling in the blanks for him.

“James, this is Shiori.”

Shiori. The name sort of helped.

She was sitting down, her feet up on the couch, legs pulled close to her body. On the table in front of her was a cup of tea.

She… did not look as well as Kristin did. She looked over at the mention of her name, and James could see it on her face. Exhaustion. Wrecked. Her clothes were dark and baggy, and she looked like she had just woken up, her eyes and cheeks a little puffy, her messy hair pushed back by a headband. Her eyes were red, wet at the corners. She’d been crying, and she’d been crying for a long time.

James had to approach this carefully.

“Hello, Shiori,” James said, measured. “I’m James.”

Shiori only offered a nod. She remained silent, remained sitting.

“She was at the service for Thomas. She sang.”

Then it clicked. He remembered that.

“Oh, that’s right. You have a lovely voice, Shiori.”

Again, Shiori only nodded.

James felt an awkward silence about to settle in.

Kristin spoke, recognizing it as well. “Did you want anything, James? I got tea for Shiori, but maybe you want some coffee?”

“Coffee would be great, thanks.”

“I’ll be right back.”

Kristin left to go into the kitchen, leaving James with Shiori. Not that he particularly minded, but he had to approach her with the utmost care and sincerity.

Slow, he moved over to the couch, finding a seat, but making sure to keep a respectable distance. He stayed on the edge of the cushion.

“It’s a good thing I was able to run into you again,” James said. “I meant to compliment you for your singing at… the service, but I must have lost you while the crowd was moving back outside. I’m glad I was able to get another chance to tell you.”

Shiori didn’t move or verbalize a response. She only nodded.

Was she ill? Did she lose her voice?

It was obvious that there was something wrong. Chances were good that it wasn’t his business to ask, and he wasn’t about to try and touch upon something still raw. He had to be sensitive.

James took out his phone from his pocket, and browsed the internet. He didn’t hear much outside of the work being done in the kitchen, Annie still huffing, and the occasional sniffle by Shiori.

She only moved to reach for a box of tissues by her cup of tea. She took a few, and used them to rub her eyes. She crumpled them, and placed them by her side, away from James.

Shiori wasn’t even watching TV. It was off, the black screen facing them both. There was nothing to distract her from whatever was on her mind. She was just sitting there, being like that.

How does she do it? James wondered.

Before James could try to think of an answer, he heard a voice from the kitchen.

“James, can you help me in here?”

James got up without any protest or objection.

“If you’ll excuse me, I’ll be right back,” he said to Shiori. He got the typical response.

Maybe it was rude, insensitive, but he hurried to the kitchen.

James stepped over the gate and into the path of a dog. Annie really was excited to see him.

“Down, Annie, down!”

The dog listened to her owner, stopping in her tracks, and sitting.

“Now go to your bed.”

Annie whined, but went to her bed. She spun twice before sitting back down.

“Sorry, Annie, maybe next time,” James said.

The dog was getting older, but she still had those puppy eyes. It was hard to resist.

But, he had to. He turned to Kristin, who was standing by the sink, holding a mug of coffee. James saw the other mug beside her on the counter. Black.

“What’s up?” he asked.

Kristin whispered, very deliberate. “How does she look to you?”

James matched her in volume. “She as in Shiori?”

Kristin nodded.

James shrugged.

“Quiet, reserved. Maybe shy, but she didn’t seem to have a problem performing to a crowd.”

It was obvious she was going through something, but James wasn’t going to mention it outright. It was a shared understanding.

“Shiori’s been staying with us for the past two weeks,” Kristin explained. “We’ve been taking of her, looking after her, making sure she’s okay. It was my idea, and she was hesitant at first, but she came around. I’m glad she did.”

“Okay, then that explains why I didn’t see her the last time I was here. This is a new thing?”

“It is. I invited her over after her daughter-”

Kristin’s voice cracked. She looked away, putting a hand close to an eye. A preemptive measure, in case her makeup started running.

James was an experienced enough cop to piece things together.

“She’s Alexis Barnett’s mom,” James said.

Kristin had to nod to confirm it. She cleared her throat before she could speak again.

“I’m not going to go into the details, you already have them.”

“I do,” James said. “It’s still on my desk.”

“Is there anything you can tell her? Anything at all?”

James felt his heart drop.

“I’m sorry, Kristin, but I don’t really have anything worth telling. It’s been more than difficult, with all of the shit that’s been happening in Stephenville, and it all keeps piling on. You should see my office.”

“You don’t have anything,” Kristin said. She sounded so disappointed.

James felt his heart drop even lower.

“Do you know how many reports I get about violence against Asian Americans in the past month? Dozens, if not hundreds, every day. You know the situation with me and my men, but we do legit work on stuff like that. But we’re being spread way too thin. If our attention is in one place, then something else happens and we’re too late to respond to that. Stuff falls through the cracks, or we can’t give everything the proper attention it deserves.”

Kristin snapped. “Dammit, this deserves attention, James! Shiori deserves attention, and Alexis deserves attention. This is close to me, and I want it to be close to you. You have to, you know, fucking do something!”

She managed to hush herself halfway through her outburst, but the anger was still there, the frustration. It came out so easy. That was something he liked to say to James every now and then. The only thing free in life was frustration.

“I did do something,” James said. “I followed up. I asked around, I went back to the restaurant on multiple occasions. No one could give me anything concrete. It all happened so fast, or they were firing at the crowd. There was a single bullet hole in the ceiling. Everyone’s stories conflict with one another. Even your daughter’s.”

Kristin was shaking the whole time, rubbing her arms together, as if the temperature had dipped below zero.

“I wish I had something, I really, truly do. But I gave it the best shot I could, with the resources I have available and most amount of focus I could put into it at this time… and I still…”

James couldn’t bear to say it. That he did everything he could and he still failed.

He didn’t even have the time to meet with Shiori when the kidnapping first happened. He had been called away to three other active scenes, with three successful arrests. He actually made progress, that day.

But not with this. He still failed.

“I can’t have that,” Kristin said, low. “I can’t accept that answer. I want Shiori to have her daughter back, James. Shit, I want Alexis back. She was taken, not killed. She has to be somewhere.”

“I know that,” James said. “But it did happen so fast, at the worst possible time. I’m so, so sorry.”

It’s like they knew what they were doing. Everyone’s preoccupied with the riots and the assaults and Blank Face, and they took advantage of our scattered attention.

“If this was any other time, I promise you we’d have her back by now,” James said, meaning it. “It’s just-”

“It’s the worst possible time.”

Kristin didn’t say anything for a while. She wasn’t just his best friend’s wife, she was his friend, and he had let her down.

“I was hoping you had something,” Kristin whispered, eyes down. “An update, a lead, anything. Something to give to Shiori so she could have hope. She doesn’t even have that, right now.”

Kristin hiccuped.

“Because, you know, he… Thomas is gone, but I’m not alone in this house. Katy’s here, and hell, I have you. But Shiori? She sits in her apartment, alone, being constantly reminded of what’s missing. That’s not good, for the mind, body, or soul. When I went over to invite her, she had lost so much weight that I thought she needed an IV drip instead of actual food.”

“That bad?”

“I’m exaggerating, but it is bad. She needs to be here, so she can be reminded that there are people around that love her and want to see her back on her feet, with Alexis in her arms and in her home. And I was praying that you had something to lift her spirits up.”

Every word Kristin said was like a kick to James’ own spirit. He did what he could, but he still came up short, disappointing Kristin, Shiori, himself… and him. What would he think, if he were around? Would he have thought of him as pathetic, too?

Maybe.

“I’m out of apologies, and excuses,” James said. “There’s not much I can do after that. I can’t tell Shiori anything if I have nothing, that’ll only make it worse for her.”

“Okay,” Kristin said.

“How long were you expecting to have her stay here?”

“As long as she needs, I don’t care. I’ll pay for her apartment if I have to.”

“I don’t recommend going that far, but do help her to get back on her feet. I’d say your doing a great job now. You told me she wasn’t eating when you invited her over, but I didn’t see a sign of malnutrition on her face. That’s good. You’re making her eat.”

Kristin stayed quiet.

“It’s great that you’re willing to take care of her, too,” James said. “Keeping yourself busy, helping others in the face of your own loss. I admire that.”

She looked up, meeting James in the eye.

“You lost him, too.”

There were no words to respond to that. He opened his arms, and gave Kristin a hug. Kristin accepted the gesture.

They stayed like that for a second longer. A hug between good friends.

When they broke, James said, “Here’s what I’ll do. I’ll go through everything again, and I mean everything, and give this another shot. I’ll come by if I have any updates, and you work on helping Shiori, and yourself. You have family, you know. You need to be there for them, too.”

“Shiori is family, and you are, too. You take care of yourself, too.”

“I am, by doing this. Even when I’m overworked, I need more work.”

More distractions.

“I’m sorry for being hard on you,” Kristin said.

“I deserve it,” James said. “I’m not doing good enough by you. And you’re a good person, one of the few I know left.”

“Thank you, James. Can I ask you for one more favor?”

“Anything.”

“Can you check on Katy?”

“She’s here?”

“Upstairs, in her room. Just knock. I’m sure she’d appreciate you swinging by.”

“Hope so, but of course.”

James didn’t leave right away. Kristin moved to step out of the kitchen, putting a hand on James’ arm as she left. James gave himself a break to drink his coffee.

Bitter.

He finished his coffee, placing the mug in the sink, and left the kitchen. From across the hall, he saw Kristin and Shiori.

They were on the couch. Shiori hadn’t budged since he left, and Kristin was sitting closer to her than he had been. The TV was on this time, judging from the angle Kristin held her head at, she was looking at something. Shiori, however, had her head down, silent.

If James had the power to save everyone, he’d do it in a heartbeat. But he didn’t, and he was still given that task. And it had broke him down years ago, back when the police chief at the time offered James the position, back when he took it, and back when the chief took him out to meet with the gangs that ran the city. Mrs. Carter, who was there to represent Mister.

Styx was there, too.

They told him he would have no real power at all. That all he had to do was play the part of a competent chief, while making sure the real checks and balances were in place. He was blocked before he ever had a chance to start.

His best friend was disappointed then, furious, frustrated. And he had used that frustration to go even harder with his campaigning, and it led to him finding Blank Face… leading to everything else.

James went up the stairs before his thoughts could beat him down any more. He still felt like he was being beat down, though, the aches were making themselves known as he moved. He hated that.

It was easy to find Katy’s room. He’d been up there before, when he was asked to babysit her during her kindergarten and elementary school years.

He knocked.

Katy wasn’t the one who got the door.

A girl, a teenager. Hispanic. Her hair was colored a lighter brown, and she was wearing a coat. It looked trendy.

“Hello,” James said.

“Hello,” the girl repeated.

Then, as if it was a delayed reaction, he remembered.

“Oh, you’re… Maria, am I right?”

“I am,” Maria said.

No mention of what she was doing here, or where Katy was. James recalled her being this flat during the questioning of what happened at the restaurant. She answered properly and honestly, but James recognized a innate distrust for police when he saw it.

“I,” James started, but he was interrupted by another voice.

“Uncle James, you can come in.”

That voice, he knew. Maria stepped to the side, and James took about three steps into the room. He was still close to the door.

The room hadn’t changed much since he last saw it. Then again, all girls’ rooms looked the same to him. An inherent girliness, that he didn’t quite understand.

Katy. She was sitting on the floor, by the coffee table in the middle of the room, phone in one hand, and a chess piece in another. Like Maria, she was also dressed for the outside.

James examined the board. There were more black pieces in play, but the white ones that were left were the tough ones, that could do more than just move up one square. The way the pieces were situated suggested that the white side was on the offensive, with black pawns in place to block the path of the white queen. But, it didn’t seem like the white pieces were after the opponent’s king. They were all being directed to another, specific piece.

“Did the rules change since I last played?” James asked. “I don’t recall taking out the queen being the way to win.”

“I’m just figuring something out,” Katy answered. With the chess piece she was holding, she flicked away a black piece, and placed that instead. A white bishop, four diagonal spaces away, with a direct path to the black queen.

As Katy took a picture of the board on her phone, she asked, “What brings you in, Uncle James?”

‘Uncle James’ answered. “Just checking in on everyone, like usual. I see that Shiori’s staying with you guys.”

“Yeah, it’s been fun.”

Her tone was so dry, he wasn’t used to that. If Katy hadn’t inherited her father and mother’s intelligence, her charisma would have brought her straight to the cheerleading captain position. But, life had other plans for her.

And that spark of life, he didn’t see it in her, and he didn’t hear it, either. She still looked down.

Still coping, dealing, with the greatest loss in her life, only for another, equally difficult loss to strike when she was at her lowest. Her father, and her best friend. James understood exactly how that could suck the air out of someone.

“Any good news?”

It was Maria that asked. She was standing over Katy, now, looking at James.

“None, I’m sorry. I already got it from your mom, Katy, but I deserve to get it again.”

“No, I can imagine my mom made you suffer through that for the both of us.”

James couldn’t tell if there was anger behind her words, lashing out at him.

“She did,” he said.

“I saw you on TV,” Katy said. “The other day.”

“Did you now? What’d you think?”

“Terrible. I don’t know why they keep inviting you.”

“I can count the number of times I’ve been on with one hand. It’s not like I get practice for that stuff.”

“Not that. I’m saying you should have been harder on Blank Face. Fuck Blank Face.”

Maria made a face, cringing at what Katy had said.

James wasn’t going to get into it, now. That wasn’t what he came up for.

“Okay, I’m just going to make this short, so you can go back to your game.”

“It’s not a game,” Katy said.

“Okay, I just wanted to see you all again. I’ll see you later, Katy, and it was nice seeing you again, Maria.”

“Come back when you have good news,” Maria said.

That was definitely the atmosphere, James could feel it thick in the air. He wasn’t wanted.

“Bye,” he said quietly, turning to leave. He reached for the door-

“Leave the door open.”

James turned back again. Katy’s focus was still on the board, rearranging the pieces, putting them back in their starting positions.

“We’ll be heading out after you,” Katy said, still moving pieces around. “So leave the door open.”

“Heading out?” James asked.

“Yes.”

That was all James got in regards to an answer. He recalled seeing another car out on the driveway. A teal Honda. Probably Maria’s.

“I’ll leave the door open. Bye, ladies.”

He got no response as he left the room, and went down the stairs. He felt the aches again.

He ran into Kristin as he reached the final step.

“How were they?” she asked.

“Didn’t want to give me the time of day, but they’re still young, going through things most adults can’t handle. If they need space, I’ll give it to them.”

Kristin’s expression seemed like she was expecting that answer. The girls had been like that for some time, now.

James couldn’t blame them for that.

“Are you leaving now?” Kristin asked.

“I think I will. Thank you again for the coffee.”

“Anytime.”

Kristin gave him a quick hug before he left the house. It was a gesture that showed that he was always welcome to come back and visit.

But, by the next time, he had better have fucking something to show.

The air was thick with a pungent smell. James almost tripped over himself, something sliding out from under him.

So many bullet holes, so many bullet casings, so many bullets.

James took one, slow walk around the perimeter, trying to take it all in. It was hard. Decades on the force, and he had the gall to assume that he had seen it all. Apparently, he hadn’t seen shit.

Morning, early morning. So early the sun hadn’t considered getting up yet. The basketball court in a neighborhood on the west side. Neutral territory between the Thunders and the Royals.

Nothing neutral about it now.

Chunks of concrete were torn out of the ground, debris thrown haphazardly across the court. Bullets were stuck in the ground, embedded in both the grass and dirt around the court and the court itself. Even the backboards were riddled by bullets, there were more holes than metal. It was like an actual warzone.

Around the court and the surrounding perimeter, everyone was working to collect as much info as possible, and clean up as much as possible. Wherever James looked, there was someone picking up bullets and casings to put into a bag, someone helping the injured into an ambulance, or someone trying to fix where the tall fence around the court had fallen over. Parts of the fence were torn and crushed, like it was trampled on by a stampede of elephants.

That was a good way to put it, in terms of animals. What had happened here, happened between animals. A raw, deep force that craved violence and rage. It had consumed the hearts of the people, and they didn’t see each other as people, anymore. Not as their fellow man, not as brothers. Humans couldn’t have done this, it had to have been some other cause.

Right?

James watched his step, careful to not slip again. There were too many things here that could catch him off guard. Debris, bullet casings, pools of blood. He kept a flashlight at his feet, to keep an eye on what was directly ahead. Normally, there would have been fixtures that lit up the court, but the power was out around the spot. It hadn’t come back on, yet.

Campbell followed him as he tried to get a sense of the whole situation.

“They’re going to want me on TV to talk about this, aren’t they?” James asked.

“Media’s starting to come in, but they’ve actually been a bit slow in getting here. Journalists aren’t used to coming down here.”

“That’s because they don’t have a reason to. They’ve gotten every story they could possibly get out of places like this. They squeezed it dry, and left it to rot in the sun. They’re only back now because, as it turns out, there’s still a little bit of juice left to sell.”

“Well, the perimeter’s about two blocks around the court. They’re not getting in here.”

“Let’s push it back another block, just to be safe, before the first few shoe-stringers get here.”

“Roger that, chief.”

Campbell reached for a walkie-talkie to relay the Chief’s words to the others. All around James, he heard the cries of affirmation, and the action afterward. Neither of the gangs had any relevance to the ones that had teeth in James’ police force, so James got to be the leading authority. Right now, for now, James’ men were his. They listened and reported to him, and they had no other bosses to answer to.

If only it was like that the whole time. His best friend would have loved that for sure.

James stopped his walk around the area, and headed straight to the middle. The middle of the court.

There was a shout, somewhere in the far back. “Power’s coming back!”

Small cheers sounded throughout, immediately hushed when the lights switched on, shining a harsh light on everything.

James squinted. For more than one reason.

He saw the edges of it before, but not a full view. This… This was harsh.

There were two bodies. Cut up, beaten, and bruised. Reduced to a bloody pulp, their bodies defiled and tampered with. The result was something less than human.

They were completely naked, cut skin touching the hard and cold concrete. They were situated, placed in a specific way, moved after whatever happened to them… happened. James noted the streaks of blood beside them, how they were dragged and then set to achieve the intended effect.

Arms and legs together, their feet meeting at a point. One body was on one side of the court, the other body was on the opposite side. What looked like larger brush strokes of blood were marked beside their appendages to make it read better.

It looked like a giant red ‘V.’

The men? The leaders of the relevant gangs. Darius and Marcus Jackson.

“God, who could’ve-”

Campbell stopped, or rather the scene was too visceral that he lost the words. He turned on a heel, so it was to his side, and he was facing James, instead.

“How can you even look, sir?”

“Part of the job,” James answered. He was looking at it, head on. Others were, too, collecting photographs and getting vitals on the bodies. A man bent down to get a pulse from Darius, another checked for signs of breathing on Marcus.

“But, even if you put it like that, this is just too much.”

“My job is to face the ugliest of humanity, and do what I can to put a stop to it. Clearly, humans are capable of much more ugliness than I ever thought, but the job stays the same.”

Campbell turned again, putting his back to the scene.

“I don’t know which is worse. This, or the school.”

“The school, unfortunately.” James looked at the medical staff working on EZ and Krown. They both gave him a thumbs up. A miracle.

“At least no one died, here,” James added.

“Sure, but we have dozens injured and two critically injured, and plenty aren’t going to walk away from this with all their limbs attached. Fuck, some literally will not be able to walk away.”

“Yeah.”

“I can’t look at this, I have to go.”

Campbell started to walk away from the scene. James couldn’t help but feel let down at Campbell’s weakened resolve. Everyone had a breaking point, and it seemed that this one was his.

James addressed the men in front of him.

“You have your pictures, so scoop these two up and get them into a hospital. Yesterday. And I want every gangbanger present to be accounted for, you know what that means.”

His men sprung to action, and James left them to work.

He caught up with Campbell as they left the court.

“What does that even accomplish?” Campbell questioned. He walked away, but his thoughts were still fixated on that. “Who would do something like that?”

“Either it’s a message,” James said, “Or a cruel joke. Either way, we’ll get to the bottom of it.”

They walked into the grass, James feeling the metal of the bullets and casings under his shoes, but they were walking on dirt, easier to step through bumpier terrain, here. James wasn’t afraid of slipping and making an ass of himself, needing Campbell to help him back up. He could do without an embarrassment.

James saw a tree by a concrete trail that would have led into an intact basketball court. The trunk was splintered and split open by bullets.

James saw someone approach, running out of the dark.

“James Gomez?”

He didn’t stop walking.

“James Gomez?”

He kept going.

“James!”

Not once did James break his stride.

A woman fell in step with him. Brown hair, thick rimmed glasses, beige coat and black tights. She looked like she was in her thirties, now. Time really did pass.

I really am getting old.

James didn’t want to admit that.

“I wanted to ask you some questions, James,” Natalie asked. “Actually, I don’t have anything to ask you, I have the answers, I just wanted some confirmation.”

Natalie Beckham. She was one of the top writers of the Stephenville Impact, the city’s number one news organization. Was. She had covered the local crime scene, back in the day, but the last time James had seen her around was almost seven years ago. He heard something about her moving to New York.

For whatever reason, she was back, now, and that only meant more complications.

James saw the cup in her hand. He wasn’t interested.

He didn’t entertain her. He just kept walking, Campbell on his right, Natalie on his left.

“I caught some of the gang members here as they tried to recount the events. The Thunders and the Royals had previously been operating in good faith in regards to a pact, but after too many incidents between the two groups, came here to settle the score. Is this true?”

James didn’t answer.

“And I heard that, right before the initial confrontation, there was a starting gunshot in the distance. Would you know that to be true?”

James didn’t answer.

“After that, was when the power began to cut out. In the dark, I’ve got multiple reports and a mysterious figure, cloaked in red, attacking members from both gangs. Could you confirm this?”

Red? Not blue?

James didn’t answer.

“Both gangs stopped their fighting and tried to go after this figure instead, but it was only striking in the dark, and they only had brief glimpses about its location during the seconds the power did come on. It was as though someone was toying with them.”

James and Campbell kept walking.

“When it was somehow established that this figure had gotten to both gang leaders, and when it proved fruitless to land a hit on this figure without shooting or stabbing someone else, everyone who could run, did.”

That was a decent summary of the events, but James wasn’t about to confirm that with her.

“Now, this part’s off the record since I don’t really like to speculate, I prefer facts, but given the recent activity in Stephenville, but do you believe this mysterious, cloaked figure could be related to the vigilante known as the Bluemoon?”

“Natalie,” James said.

“Finally, some life from the old man.”

“You’re not supposed to be here. The perimeter extends more than two blocks.”

“You think that’s going to stop someone like me?”

She had a point.

“No, but I am going to just leave you with a warning. I don’t want to see you around here again, and I’m done with questions.”

“I’m sad to hear that, James, you used to be so helpful before. What happened?”

That question, he would answer.

“I got old.”

He gestured to Campbell, and Campbell went over to Natalie’s side. He whisked her away, with her offering very little protest.

At least she could honor him on that. Natalie knew that she had what she needed, she just needed confirmation, for formalities.

What a good little journalist.

James continued until he reached the lot, seeing all of the men perform their proper duties. He’d probably give the whole area one more sweep, to see if he had missed anything.

Maybe get some info on this cloaked figure, as well.

His phone rang. He stopped.

James fished it out of his pocket, bringing it to his ear.

“Gomez,” he said, answering it.

Art studio, top floor. Eastern window facing the court. Come alone. Someone wants to see you.

He recognized the voice. It was that of a little girl.

Her?

“D,” James said, hard. “What the fuck do you have to do with this?”

The call ended.

James thrusted a hand in his pocket, putting his phone back. He hurried.

He was already facing the east, if this art studio had a clear view of the court, then it would be on the street just across from the court.

She said to come alone. Would he? Was it another trap, or one of D’s pranks?

Couldn’t be. Either D started getting bored of the same old tricks, and started escalating on her own – a dangerous notion – or she was a part of something else. Something bigger.

Did he need backup?

James slipped past some tape and his men. Everyone was too preoccupied to notice their chief pass them by.

He needed backup, but he had learned that particular lesson when he started this job. Bringing others in situations like this, when expressed not to, would only ever lead to disaster. James wouldn’t sacrifice good men like that.

If it was just him, just his life at stake, he was fine with that.

James found the art building, and checked the front door. It was unlocked.

Turning his flashlight on, he found the staircase on the side of the first floor. There were elevators, but James would rather take the stairs. At least to prove he still had a body he could use.

As he ascended, James made sure he had all of the essentials. Walkie-talkie, phone, and gun.

Check, check, and check.

James reached the fourth floor.

Art supplies, paint cans, canvases hanging on the wall. James wasn’t sure what he was expecting, perhaps another clue or body, but nothing here immediately stood out to him.

He saw the window. Light crept through the glass, lighting up a square shape on the floor of the art studio. He began to approach.

Slowly, carefully. James pulled his gun out, ready to fire. He kept his head low as he got closer to the glass. Last thing he wanted was to get sniped through a window.

James got in place. For long, agonizing seconds, he scoped out the scene below.

People working, collecting data from the basketball court and surrounding grass, helping victims into ambulances to send them off to the hospital, cleaning up wherever they could.

At the court itself, James saw that Darius and Marcus Jackson had been moved, but the blood remained. The broad strokes, and another pool that James didn’t notice before. A period. It was a message.

V.

“Thoughts?”

A voice from behind. James recognized it.

He turned around, his gun prepared.

From the shadows, a figure emerged.

A hood covered their head, but where the moonlight touched their face, James could only see the lower half, the mouth and chin. Everything from the nose up was covered. Flecks of blood dotted the figure’s mouth.

The rest of the figure’s shape was hard to make out. He couldn’t see its arms, the material draped over their body in such a way that it was difficult to make sense of it. They were wearing some sort of cloak or long robe, made of a flowy but heavy material.

From top to bottom, the cloak was red. The only other colors on the figure were the black shadows masking their face, the black pants they wore, and the snowy white skin of their mouth and chin.

A ghost, or a phantom, covered in blood. Or perhaps the Devil himself. Either way, James felt like he was being haunted. Cursed.

The only thing that was familiar about this figure was its voice.

“Blank Face?” he asked.

The figure twitched, as if offended by the suggestion.

“I wrote it out there for you to see,” the figure answered.

“V, then.”

“Yes.”

“But you were the vigilante known as Blank Face, am I correct?”

There was a pause.

“I was, unfortunately. Those days are behind all of us, now.”

James wasn’t sure what that was supposed to mean.

He asked.

“When you said you were rebranding, I wasn’t expecting this.” James put his arms to his side, including his gun. “Not exactly coming across as heroic with this new image. It’s a little too macabre.”

Another pause.

V spoke. “I’m only meeting with you now to give you a brief update on where things stand. This is probably the last time we’ll ever speak, like this.”

You ignored my comment.

James let that be.

“And you’re sure of that,” he said.

“I am.”

“Fine then, continue.”

“The Thunders and the Royals are out of the picture, now. I gathered them all here, and made a show of their leaders. While I had the majority of their numbers distracted, I had all of their assets and territories and cash seized. There are survivors, and they’ll probably want to retaliate, but they’ll find that they have nothing to go back to. It’s all been snatched out from under them.”

“That’s quite the workload for one person.”

“It certainly wasn’t easy.”

“I’m more inclined to believe that you had help. The call I got earlier, and with her reputation… Are you telling me a new gang is already moving in?”

The idea of that little girl working with a gang… It almost made James shiver. Before, she had always been something of a free agent, working by herself, enacting her own whims. Her irreverence for any structure or systems actually prevented her from being a legitimate threat. If she was content with being independent, she was actually easier to handle.

But to focus that destruction, aiming it with purpose? And throwing Blank Face – V – into the fold? James had already seen the results, out there on the court. It would be devastating.

“I’m telling you to stay away,” V said. “Let the dust settle where it does. You can clean up here, but after that, you’re done. I don’t want to see you in this territory again.”

He’d heard those words before, or something to that effect. Being ordered by the leader of a cartel or gang, by the enemy.

“You’re telling me what to do?”

“Yes, I am. You’re used to that sort of thing, aren’t you, being the puppet that you are.”

James was stunned.

Something must have snapped, in that mind of hers. She was but a child, just a kid.

“What the hell happened? Last time we met, you were asking me to help you find Benny.”

“And you refused, and I found her anyways. You’re useless, Gomez.”

“Then the fires on Eastside, that was you?”

A pause.

Ignored again.

“V,” James said. “Blank Face-”

V twitched.

“When you first came to my window, and we met on that roof, and you were asking me about finding Thomas, I knew then that you were the one he was working with. You see, Thomas never told me about his activities with you, but I knew him like a brother. He saw something in you, and he wanted to cultivate that. Shape you, despite himself. Part it was stress relief, since our plans weren’t going the way he wanted.”

V didn’t respond.

“So, I just want to ask you a few more questions, before you go, and I officially consider you as the enemy. Do you think Thomas would be proud of what you’ve become? What does ‘V’ stand for, to you? Vengeance, vendetta, villainy?”

V stood there, her head pointed to James. He couldn’t see her eyes, so he could only guess that she was staring at him.

For the third time, V ignored his questions.

“Don’t get in my way, or if you do, get a new office. You don’t want a third visit from me.”

With that final line, drawn in the sand, V took a step back, returning into the shadows.

James ran after her.

“Blank Face!”

He reached for his gun and flashlight. He pointed both around the room.

Nothing, no one, nowhere. V was gone.

“Shit!”

James turned back, going to the window. He watched the scene again, looking at the red letter that faced him, taunted him. ‘V’ was out there, free, and he was the one confined to these walls.

A cycle, revenge was. A vicious circle that turned good people desperate and cruel. Thomas had become desperate, and Blank Face had become cruel.

The number of good people in this city was getting smaller by the day.

James knew, now. It had always been like this, and they were doomed to fail from the start. And now, he was all alone, with nothing to show for his efforts.

Previous                                                                     Bonus

Interlude – Thomas

Previous                                                                                               Next

Peru – Sixteen years before present

The waves slid across the sand, white foam bubbling in its wake.

Thomas let the cool waters run across his feet.

Sunlight beat down on his face. Bright, hot. He was going to get a sunburn if he stayed like that for another minute.

I can’t remember the last time I was this happy.

A hand gently landed on his shoulder. Warm, comforting. Inviting. It was a touch he wasn’t quite used to, not yet, but at the same time, he didn’t want to lose that spark. That electricity. It was all so new to him.

Even with plenty of space on the beach, he still sidestepped to let his girlfriend stand beside him. They held hands.

They watched the waves come to them, then away.

They watched, then watched some more.

This was a moment, and they were in it.

“Already trying to go out and get cigarettes?” Kristin asked.

Thomas kept his eyes on the water. He smiled.

“You know I don’t smoke.”

“That doesn’t exactly answer my question.”

“I’m not going anywhere. Not now, not ever.”

“Is that so?”

“One hundred percent.”

Kristin bumped her shoulder against Thomas, only getting right above his elbow. She interlocked their fingers.

“Big words. Only time will tell.”

They were big words, but Thomas was up for it, up for the challenge. If not just to surprise himself, but Kristin especially. Scary? It was terrifying, down to the bone. Commitment was heavier than anything even Atlas could carry.

Thomas closed his eyes, seeing red from how bright it was out here. When he opened them again, he was staring right at Kristin.

At Kristin, and at her.

“Are we crazy for this?” Thomas asked, though he already knew what Kristin would say.

She kept her eyes to the ocean.

“We are crazy, and we get crazier with every passing day. Every passing month. We are long past the point of takebacks.”

A door closed, but Thomas didn’t think of it in that way.

“Good, good. I wouldn’t want to.”

She made a sound. A hum. Barely audible over the waves.

“You keep talking like that, I’ll start to think the opposite.”

Thomas put his hands behind his head, stretching. “What would it take to convince you, then?” He gulped. “A ring?”

Kristin made a face. A playful shock.

So cute.

“Slow your horses there, cowboy.” Kristin then shook her head. “But who am I to talk?” Delicately, she pressed her hand against her stomach. Through her shirt, a noticeable bump.

“Another day then?” Thomas suggested.

“Another day.” Kristin agreed.

He left it at that, satisfied.

Amongst the waves, Thomas watched her listlessly.

He didn’t know how many minutes passed when she finally noticed him.

She blushed.

“Stop.”

“Stop what?”

“Stop being such a loser.”

“If I’m a loser, then what does that make you?”

Kristin puffed out her chest.

“A winner. I’m the one who scored.”

Thomas almost snorted. What kind of logic was that?

“You certainly think highly of yourself,” Thomas said.

“I do. Get used to it, or you’ll be in for rough ride.”

Thomas rubbed his cheek with his free hand. “But, rough rides can be good.”

Kristin bumped him again, this time harder, more force.

He swayed one way, then back.

“Am I going to have to get used to that, too?”

“Keep getting smart with me, you just might.”

Chuckling, Thomas let go of her hand, and put his arm around her. He brought her close, tight, before falling to his side, bringing her with him.

She let out a high, shrill squeak as they dropped, water splashing around them.

Kristin was in the water, Thomas on top of her. Both wet.

“And you’re going to have to get used to that,” Thomas said. He couldn’t come up with a better comeback.

“Don’t do that!” Kristin said, scolding him. Salt water splattered from her lips to his face. “This isn’t some dumb movie where you can just do that!”

Smooth, Thomas. But Thomas was sure that a small part of her appreciated that kind of gesture.

I think.

Maybe it was a very small part of her that appreciated it.

“Now I’m wet,” Kristin said, complaining about the obvious. She propped herself up to get the water out of her hair. She groaned.

“That reminds me, Spacey wanted you back at the headquarters in ten minutes. You’re due an extra shift.”

Thomas grinned, almost vulpine. “He should know by now that if he sends you, we’re both going to be late.”

“Don’t joke about this. I can tell his patience with you is thinning.”

Thomas’s thoughts went to his boss, though he didn’t want them to. “I suppose I can’t fault him for feeling that way. A six-month volunteering program and I just… fooled around for most of it. Really, you did this to me.”

“Excuse me?”

“Yes, distracting me with your feminine ways.”

“I don’t think so, buddy. You don’t get to be absolved from this.”

“Oh, so I’m just a buddy to you?” Thomas asked. He mouthed various positions, moves, references. “Do you give those out to all your buddies like party favors?”

Kristin pouted. “Don’t be so base. I only do that for pals.”

Thomas frowned. “When you talk like that, it’s hard to tell if you’re serious or not.”

“Then don’t change the subject. And get off of me.”

Before he let her go, Thomas kissed the top of her head, then he moved, letting her free. Though, neither of them moved to leave the beach. They stayed, sitting in the water.

“I thought we were leaving now,” Thomas said.

“Yeah, but it did take a long time to find you, and it’s so damn hot. I think Spacey can wait while we cool ourselves off.”

Thomas didn’t object to that. They still had some weeks of the program left, he’d pick up the slack then.

And, more time alone with Kristin was never a bad thing.

Never.

I’m so glad I met you.

“What do you want to talk about?” Thomas asked her, already lost in her eyes.

“We don’t have to talk about anything,” Kristin said, twisting her hair, getting water out. “We can just sit here.”

“We can, and while I agree that nothing’s more pure and beautiful than these silent, unspeakable memories, I like to talk.”

“That you do.”

Thomas took her hand, submerging it into the water between them. She leaned on him.

“I thought of a name.”

“You have?”

“Couldn’t help it. It’s a girl, right?”

“Right you are.”

“Since it’s a girl…”

“Wait, let me guess.”

He paused, tilting his head. Waiting.

“It’s Katy, isn’t it?”

He smile widened. “You are good.”

“Get used to it,” she said, melodically.

He could feel himself falling for her even more. Deeper and deeper.

“Can you guess why?” he asked.

“I’m not a mind reader. I may think highly of myself, but you’ll need to have more realistic expectations of me.”

“Ah, that’s no fun.” Thomas squeezed her hand. “I picked ‘Katy because, it’s like the ‘K’ from ‘Kristin,’ and the ‘T’ from my name. Also, ‘K.T.’ would be her initials, as well.”

His explanation hung in the salty air. A breeze cooling them.

Kristin didn’t offer up a response. She just snickered.

That snicker grew into a heartier laugh.

“Oh my god, you are such a loser!”

Dumbfounded, stupefied, and dismayed. Thomas hadn’t expected that response.

“Hey, if you hate it, you can just say so!”

In between her fits of laughter, Kristin tried to get words out. Her body was shaking.

“No, I don’t hate it… I love it.”

He felt like he was being thrown for a loop. “You what?”

“I said I love it.”

“Do you actually?”

Yes,” she said, now stern. “I had my own ideas for names, but I adore that reasoning. I really want to use it.”

Thomas sat back, shocked that he could even be more satisfied. Katy. The name rang in his ears like a bell. Clear and bright. Like the sky above him. Endless possibilities. But there would be two constants in his future, now. He felt unstoppable.

“Katy.” He said it out loud, to make the idea solidify even more in his mind. He was going to be a father.

“My folks are going to love you,” he said.

“Of course they will. I’m me.” She pressed more of her weight onto him, leaning on him more. Relying on him more.

He couldn’t stop smiling like a big dumb stupid idiot.

“I love you,” he said to her, for the hundredth time.

“I know,” she said to him, for the hundredth time.

Stephenville – Ten years before present

Thomas stood tall, firm. Confident. And he exuded that confidence because he knew. He had all the facts, the statements, and the jury would be eating out of his hand once he was fully through with him. This wasn’t going to end well for the other guy. Or the other guy’s other guy.

It wouldn’t be easy, but Thomas would have been disappointed if it was.

The homestretch.

He was going to have some fun.

“Good morning,” Thomas said, apt. He stayed at the podium. Weren’t supposed to move around and make a show of things like in shows or movies. These proceedings were usually slow, laborious. A lot of patience, waiting, and listening. For the audience, anyway. For Thomas, he might as well be skydiving.

“Morning,” the witness said back, with no life at all. She was in a suit of her own, drab colors, sitting at the stand. Her hair was tied, but it was done poorly, strands sticking out. There was a microphone situated in front of her, but she was sitting away from it. She didn’t look like she wanted to be there.

Who did?

Thomas started.

“Ms. Jessica Quinn, how long have you been the CEO of Tate and Mono Construction?

“Seven years, give or take.”

“So, relatively new at the job?”

“Relatively, yes.”

“Thank you, ma’am. Just double-checking for myself, I apologize that I’ll have to continue like this for a few more questions. Feel free to relax while I gather my thoughts.”

Jessica didn’t relax. Thomas continued with his questioning.

“Okay, Ms. Quinn, you spearheaded the construction projects in King District, am I correct?”

“Yes.”

“For how long, and what were the projects, exactly?”

“Different housing projects, apartments, homes, offices. My men loaded stuff, dumped stuff, put the hammer to the nail. The whole shtick. And about six months.”

She answered the questions, just not in the right order.

I see.

“And thank you for giving me the whole shtick. Now, as well all know, the reason why you are called up there today is because your ‘whole shtick’ hasn’t gone through the usual procedure, disturbing many residents and businesses, and some of those resident and business happen to be our clients.”

Thomas tapped his fingers on the podium.

“They filed a complaint to you, and not much has been done in the wake of that. Now, here we are.”

Quinn didn’t react to anything Thomas was saying. And he was loving it.

“Ms. Quinn, what was King District like, before Tate and Mono came to do its business?”

“Decent.”

“Decent? Do you mind expanding on that?”

“I can’t explain it, it was just decent. That’s not too hard to grasp.”

“I’ll need a proper answer if only to get a better picture of the situation.”

“Fine, it was fucking Candy Land.”

Some in the audience behind him found that humorous. Thomas, not so much.

“Permission to treat the witness as hostile?”

Judge Edgar Brown hardly gave it a thought. “Granted.”

Thomas kept questioning, but now he could ask leading questions. “Streets were clean, people were friendly, a little rough, but what neighborhood doesn’t have an issue or two? Would you say that’s an accurate description of King District, Ms. Quinn?”

She yawned. “Yeah.”

He glanced at Phillips, Quinn’s lawyer, who was biting the end of his pen.

Cool it, Thomas. Don’t get too excited.

“And what was King District like during Tate and Mono’s time in the area?”

She didn’t say.

“Streets weren’t as clean, the people were hesitant to go outside, rougher overall. Would that be accurate to your experience there?”

“I guess.”

Thomas nodded. “One particular bad apple started making roots around that time, right? The Path, a branch of a Japanese mafia group. The Yakuza. Their men have been causing quite the ruckus in the district since Tate and Mono started their construction, with reports that the Path’s men have been coming and going through buildings your company were responsible for, is that correct?”

“Objection,” Phillips said, “That’s speculation.”

“All the evidence is here, sir,” Thomas pointed to his stack of papers at the folder, “Numerous arrests close to these buildings, drugs, weapons found nearby. This is all written down and documented stuff, and this is more than just some noise complaints. I thought you knew this, Phillips?”

“Alright Thomas, enough,” Judge Brown said. “Do you have a point?”

“One I’m eager to make.”

With little enthusiasm, the judge said, “Overruled.”

Thomas tapped his fingers again, faster. “Ms. Quinn, among noise complaints, have these other more, serious grievances have been brought to your attention?”

Thomas could see her neck glisten under the fluorescent lights. Sweat?

“Keep in mind that you are under oath, Ms. Quinn,” Thomas said, reminding her.

“They have,” she answered.

“And what has been done about it?”

“We never encountered any issue with any outside party or the like, and our construction sites were clean of any illicit materials or contraband.”

“So, nothing?”

“Nothing.”

“Thank you, Ms. Quinn. To switch gears here, you’re still a small company, relatively speaking. This is a big project you’ve undertaken, who’s employed you for these buildings?”

A noted lapse.

“Ishida Hitoshi,” she answered.

“That’s a big name, a big name for a big company overseas.”

Quinn didn’t comment or respond.

And now, the clincher.

“That’s also I name I recognize as part of a big controversy in Japan, with rumors that he has very strong connections with the Yazuka, and-”

“Objection, this is hearsay!”

Phillips leaped out of his chair, furious. “That has nothing to do with this case.”

“I think it has everything to do with this case,” Thomas argued. “If those connections are true, it lines up with what we’re hearing about the buildings Tate-”

Judge Brown stopped them. “Both of you, here.”

They both approached the table. Thomas was ready for what was to come, what could come.

The judge leaned closer, whispering, “Thomas, what are you trying to pull?”

“I’m simply raising an important detail that should be relevant in this case. If Ishida Hitoshi is in league with the Yakuza, people should be looking into what the hell he’s doing in Stephenville.”

If,” Phillips nearly spat the word. “If that’s true, but any claims about that here are unsubstantiated, you have no evidence, and it’s not relevant, and you didn’t submit any of this. You’re making a mockery of this court and this case.”

“It is relevant, Phillips. The writing’s on the wall, yet no one is willing to read it, and I’m left wondering, why? And if you want evidence, look to the countless victims that have been coming forward in the last three years. Also, I can bet you Randolf and his boys can find a connecting thread if they decided to show some initiative. The only one making a mockery of this court is that woman on the stand.”

“Shut it, Thomas,” Judge Brown said. “I’ll be the one to decide if there’s any mockery here. Thomas, let’s say this is looked into, and what you’re saying is true, then this whole case turns into something else entirely, and you are out of here. Is that what you want?”

Thomas was beaming on the inside, but he couldn’t show it, not here. “Criminal activity is a factor here, and I want that recognized. I’ll throw the Hail Mary, someone else can score the touchdown.”

Phillips was fuming. “This is unnecessary.”

Judge Brown wasn’t looking pleased with Thomas. “You better know what you’re doing, or this is it for you. Go back.”

They left the judge. Thomas did know what he was doing, because that probably was it for him.

Stephenville – A week after Loving v. Tate and Mono Construction

“Thomas.”

A man stood next to him, holding a beer. James Gomez. Shorter than Thomas, more stout, but with more muscle than him. A head full of hair, a thick mustache. Both were in fashionable, yet casual wear.

“Thanks for coming,” Thomas said.

“Thanks for… inviting me.” James had to duck when a ball flew too close to his head. He was more concerned over not spilling a drop than he was about the kid who threw said ball. “I’m not a huge fan of children’s birthday parties, though.”

“I invited you, you knew what this was, and you showed up, regardless.”

“At this point, I’ll take anything to get out of the office.”

“Even to arrest me for malpractice?” Thomas asked. “A two-for-one deal? I give you a beer, and you give me handcuffs.”

“No, I wouldn’t do that, but I should. That was a dumb stunt you pulled back there. I heard about it through the grapevine.”

“My bosses are breathing down my neck, drowning me in mindless work. Death threats, many of which are written in Japanese. An earful from the wife, which was the worst of it.”

“God damn,” James said, his voice lowered. There were kids around. “You gonna be okay? With your wife and kid, you have to look out for them, too.”

“It’s nothing but big talk on the gang’s part. They do anything, it’ll implicate them, and then the Path is done for. They’ll keep their distance.

“You sound rather confident about that.”

“I have to be. I’ll admit, it was dumb, but it’ll be worth it soon enough?”

Thomas said it like it was a question.

“I can’t give any details,” James said, “But we’ve traced the money. You were onto something.”

Thomas let himself show the emotion inside him. Gratification. He was beaming.

“But why’d you have to go about it that way?” James asked. “You could have just sent in a tip, or better yet, tell me.”

“Tips are too slow. You’re good, James, but your position isn’t. You’re still new, like me. You don’t have the pull to launch an entire investigation. I saw the circumstances, saw my chance, and I took it. Putting it out like that really got things moving, didn’t it?”

“At the cost of your credibility and reputation?”

“If you’re good at what you do, you can get credibility back, and I’m great. And my reputation is with the people.”

“Why be a corporate lawyer then? If that’s the way you think, you’d be better off in the DA’s office.”

Thomas watched the kids play.

“Big companies mean big money, and big money means more for the little guy. I’ll come down, when the time’s right.”

“When? When I’m police chief?”

Thomas nudged him. “Probably.”

“Whoa there, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”

“Why not? Dream big, do bigger. You’ll be the new police chief, and I’ll be the new district attorney. Together, we’ll rule Stephenville as…”

“Friends?” James ventured.

“I was going to go with pals.”

James didn’t get it, taking a swig of his drink, instead.

“Could be interesting,” James said.

“Could be real,” Thomas said, correcting him. “This city means a lot to me, you know that more than anyone else. It kills me every time someone asks why I haven’t left yet, why I haven’t packed up and moved. I want them to see what I see in it. It’s not perfect, but I can help, I know I can.”

James drank some more, then said, “Real powerful words there, pal, but don’t beat yourself up over it. You’re not a hero, you can’t put all that weight on your shoulders.”

Thomas agreed, “You’re right, I can’t. I’ll need people. People like-”

“Daddy!”

Katy came running to him, her face twisted up, and she was wailing.

“Yes sweetie?” He had to crouch to meet her at eye level. The way she was acting, it was unbecoming of her pretty pink dress. He had to get to the bottom of this, pronto.

“Alexis took my gun and she keeps shooting me but I told her to stop but she keeps doing it and I’m-”

“Hey hey, hey there.” Thomas had to rub her back, calm her down. She was hiccupping.

“I’ll have a talk with her, I’m sure she’s just gotten too excited again. She doesn’t mean anything by it.”

Katy was shaking her head, rubbing her cheeks with fists.

“I wanna get her back, I wanna get that gun back.”

Where do kids come up with this stuff?

Thomas massaged her again. “That’s not what I’m trying to instill in you. Go get some cake, and you’re making up with Alexis. No one gets that toy gun until this party’s over. Understand?”

She hiccuped. “Understood.”

“That’s my girl.” He let her run off to get cake, and he stood, his back hurting a little.

“Kids these days,” James said.

“You’re telling me,” Thomas said. “Sorry about this, James.”

“Go do your thing, I’ll go have another one of these, and I should be up to hear about Kristin’s summer in India one more time.”

“Make sure she mentions the story about the-”

“The Yamarāja. I know, I know.”

He shook hands with James, then excused himself.

Stephenville – Three weeks before present

“Car chase going into Williamson Avenue. It’s red, and the only one going that fast. Police might lose it if this goes for any longer. What do you think about lending a helping hand?”

I’m thinking I’m done with the warm ups. Time for some real action.

Hleuco grinned to himself. He liked it whenever Blank Face showed some enthusiasm, even if it was behind a layer of playful arrogance. It meant that she was getting something out of this. And it meant that she wasn’t completely doom and gloom.

He shifted in his seat, moving away from the complicated connected system of scanners and laptops, to the wheel in front of him. The van started.

With the different channels yelping into his ear, he got out of the parking garage, and drove.

The equipment was outdated, but it was functional, and it served a purpose. Gifts from Gomez. Whenever new stuff came in, the old stuff had to be taken out to make room. And James knew how much he liked antique trinkets.

The van was old, too. Unmarked, bought with cash, kept away in a location disclosed only to Blank Face. He knew the city, the ins and outs. Learned from the best, and the worst, when it came to hiding things. It was a hassle to have to walk there every night he needed to use it, but its purpose was well worth a little pain in his legs.

His foot was heavier on the gas pedal than usual, and not because he was too sore to lift it up more. He needed to keep up with the car, and keep up with Blank Face, so he could be in a good position to pick her up and make a getaway. It was imperative that they kept things as simple as possible, as clean as possible. They weren’t attempting to save the world, they were just attempting to make it nicer. Even if by a margin.

And the girl has school tomorrow, can’t let her be out too late.

“Update, please,” Hleuco asked.

Can’t see it yet, but I do see the cars tailing it. Fuck me, they’re fast.

Please don’t say ‘fuck me,’ Hleuco thought.

“Can you get to it?”

Yeah, if it would turn to the right, I could intercept it from up top.

Hleuco kept an ear out for anything interesting. Anything new.

He relayed what he was hearing.

“Police are setting up a blockade, it can’t make a right anymore.”

Fuck me.

Hleuco shook his head as he drove, knowing she couldn’t see him.

Please be quiet.

“They’re attempting to trap the car on Williamson. They’re mobilizing faster than I thought.”

What does that mean for me?

“Seems to me they might actually have this one under control now. I’m impressed.”

Great. So all I did tonight was just get some exercise?

“Don’t sell yourself short. Mrs. Azikiwe wouldn’t be sleeping soundly right now if you hadn’t gotten her cat out of that tree.”

I won’t stop selling myself short.

Hleuco took the comment in stride. He sped down the street he was on, still mindful of the speed limit, other cars, and lights. It’d slow him down in getting to Blank Face, but she could make up for that with her own speed and mobility.

The fact that she even had that type of speed and mobility…

He was still having trouble wrapping his head around it. Blank Face had powers, strength beyond compare. No one had seen anything like it, ever. The world was still reeling from the revelation, what it meant, what was to come. How, and why.

It was a day that wouldn’t ever fade over time. It had become something of a pop culture lexicon. A meme, as the kids put it. ‘Where were you when the first superhuman made themselves known?’

Hleuco, Thomas knew. He was in his office, watching the whole thing unfold. Watching the potential.

A hero, here, in Stephenville of all places.

And he was able to work with her on this. On being an actual hero. Providing guidance. He would have felt privileged about the partnership, if the sheer coincidence didn’t shake him to his core.

With something so big, they had to take small steps. That meant limiting her shifts to more manageable times throughout the week, picking and choosing what petty crimes she’d handle, and monitoring police activity so they wouldn’t be in her hair as much. All to help instill the idea that her great power should be married with a greater sense of duty.

To better steer her in that direction, establishing rules was important.

Exercise extreme caution. Avoid overextending power for oneself or unto others.

Constant communication is necessary. Updates should be regularly provided and orders must be promptly followed.

Anything else was common sense.

He thought those rules were simple enough when he came up with them, but establishing them early was crucial. This had never been done before, there was no precedent. Blank Face was strong, and by her own admittance, already stabbed someone. Accident or not, that needed to be curbed, avoided in the future. He worried that she might want to escalate if things weren’t in check.

Which was why he also invested in precautions. Pentazemin rounds. He prayed he never had to use them.

There were many kinds in Stephenville. Those who were good, those who weren’t so, and those who turned and became lost. He only wanted Blank Face to be the former.

Thomas didn’t want another one in that last category. Not again.

Hey, Hleuco, you still thirsty for an update?

Her voice brought his conscious attention back to the road. He clicked the left turn signal, then turned.

“Always.”

I’m on Williamson now, but the car keeps tearing through blockades.

He tuned his ear to the police broadcasts. She was right.

“The car’s modified?”

It’s going fast as fuck, everyone’s jumping out of the way since it’s just plowing through everything. Cars and vans. I think the front’s been reinforced.

“Where are you right now?”

I’m ahead of everyone, so I’m seeing it all, it’s just…

A pause.

Fuck!

“What’s wrong?”

It broke through the last blockade. A… a bus is coming from the left at an intersection. A school bus.

“At this hour?”

Anyone could be in there! Shit, at this rate they’re going to collide.

Again, a pause.

I’m going.

Hleuco almost stomped on the breaks, but there were others around him. He had to keep driving.

“That’s a big no, Blank Face. You’re going to come back here right now.”

And let people die? I can stop the car, there’s still time.

Hleuco threw caution to the wind, listening to the police and getting a better sense of where to go.

He stomped on the gas.

“Blank Face, if you’re even thinking about it-”

I don’t have time to argue. I’ll update you in a bit.

He passed up a car, crossing a red light. The city flew past him.

“Blank Face!”

He kept driving, and the police kept blabbering on. He punched the button to shut them up. He only wanted to hear Blank Face.

But there was no one on the other end.

Fuck me, Hleuco thought.

With another turn, he was close as he could get to Williamson Avenue. The police blockades worked both ways. He drove down a street that ran parallel.

Sweat dripped down the steering wheel. His heart beat so hard it hurt.

The machines beside him whirred, the van’s tires rolling down the concrete. A screaming sound.

Silent.

He drove.

Quiet.

Still no answer.

It was maddening.

Hleuco started slowing down.

Not another one…

Not another regret.

He moved a finger to turn on the police-

Hleuco? I’m at-

Hleuco went to a full and complete stop. The van and everything inside it rocked. Cars honked as they passed.

He ran his hand through his hair, nearly pulling strands out from the root. He was so happy he was mad.

“Repeat that, Blank Face?”

I’m at an alley over on Baxton, by a pharmacy. Is it a good pick-up spot?

That was a block down, secluded enough. It worked.

“It works,” Hleuco said slowly, “Stay there, don’t move. Be there soon.”

I hear you.

Now you hear me, he thought. But he drove to get her.

His chest wouldn’t ease up.

Before he got to the spot, he reached back to the seats behind him. He put on his mask as he went. A memento from his time in Europe.

He needed an identity too, some gesture to make Blank Face feel less alone in her role as a hero. Hleuco. From the name haliaeetus leucocephalus. The bald eagle.

He needed a mask, too. She couldn’t see his face as it was now. Not now.

The door slid open. Blank Face stepped in. They left.

“I’m back,” she said. It was good to hear her voice without the mechanical filter. That was what he wanted to hear.

“Count your blessings,” he said, “You’re lucky you made it out of that okay. But don’t push that luck.”

“I’m with you on that.” She was breathing hard, panting. Whatever she did took everything out of her. “My arms are killing me.”

How strong are you, Alexis?

The van rolled on, and Thomas was ready to call it a night.

Present

He checked to see if he had everything on him. He did. Wallet, phone, keys.

Thomas got into the car, Jeffery closing the door for him.

The vehicle pulled out of the driveway, and they went.

Jeffery was usually more talkative, but he was mute, now. Thomas wasn’t that lively, either.

Solace got Edgar. He’s dead.

He was at his wit’s end, but he was too sick of everything to exert effort for a reaction.

He just sat.

Solace got Edgar, and he was dead. Because Blank Face and Hleuco pushed too hard, pushed the gangs too far, too fast, and Solace was born from their desperation. He thought he calculated it right, he thought they were disrupting just enough that it would not come to this.

Thomas was cognizant of the fact it would have been an uphill battle. Public opinion of Blank Face was plummeting, and they hadn’t yet reestablished her name as being Blank Face.

Uphill, but he didn’t expect it to become this steep.

No, these criminals are superstitious, cowardly. Especially in the face of an actual threat. I should have taken that into more consideration.

His thoughts poured over every detail, every bit of information in the past forty-eight hours. What connected, what made sense, what was a legitimate clue?

Thomas made a fist with each hand.

He had to give it up to Solace, they were thorough. Nothing came up when they investigated the event staff, and of course nothing came up when they went to Kristin. The only lead was the apartment they traced the signal back to. Nothing but bricks and wood.

Except a message to Blank Face.

Blank Face – Alexis – was positive the message was directed to her, by the leader of El Carruaje, a now-defunct gang, and Blank Face’s first foe. When she informed him of this, he tried to inquire about the woman who ran that gang, Benny. Her record, whether or not she was actually incarcerated.

Of course, everyone was scrambling over Solace. Of course, they were too busy to look into a small fry.

Thomas wasn’t the district attorney, not yet. He could only do so much as he was. No one answered to him, they would only consider what he had to say.

After forty-eight hours, all any of them could do was try and prevent this. But it didn’t work.

Lost in his thoughts, Thomas caught a glimpse of an intersection as they passed it. The sign.

Gomez’s office isn’t this way.

“Jeffery, are we meeting with Gomez elsewhere?” Thomas asked.

Jeffery kept driving.

“Jeffery? I-”

The officer whipped his arm back, pointing a gun to Thomas.

Thomas backed up as far as he could, which was hardly at all. His hands went up.

“Just, just be quiet, or I’ll shoot. Not another word. And if you do anything else except sit there and keep those hands up, I’ll shoot.”

Thomas didn’t try him. Jeffery’s finger was already on the trigger. Thomas put his hands above his head.

Behind the car, a resounding, deep grumble rocked Thomas’s ears. He would have liked to turn and investigate, but there was no need to set off Jeffery.

Looking wasn’t even needed. He could see from the rear view mirror, and that distinct tone of that sound.

It was Styx’s bike. Styx was here.

So this was how…

And he considered Jeffery a pal, too.

He was fucked.

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