063 – Strange Ways

Previous                                                                                               Next

I wasn’t ready to go back to the van, to run away and admit defeat. I wasn’t ready to admit that to myself.

I crossed the street, purposely avoiding to turn and head back to where we had parked. I continued straight, walking into an alleyway between a barber shop and a produce market.

I turned on my heels, and turned back, pacing up and down the alley. Couldn’t stop moving, couldn’t cool off.

Fuming.

“Wendy.”

Humiliated wouldn’t even begin to describe this feeling. I was toyed with, made a fool, strung along, all as a part of their scheme. I had no idea or hint that I was being set up.

Anger. That was the most direct and apt description. The most present emotion. The one that was closest to the surface and ran the most deep. I was angry. Angry at them, angry at myself.

“Wendy.”

I tried, I tried to think back to the events that had just transpired, trying to find any tell or slip in their words or actions that could have clued me in to what they were doing. I tried. But the more I tried, the more my anger muddled with my recollection of what just happened. The details were fuzzy, the images were swirling, and an intense desire to see and taste red fueled my mind to want-

Wendy!”

I wheeled around.

“What?” I asked, eyes wide, voice strained.

D was staring at me, her expression was of obvious concern. Eyebrows furrowed, lip curled slightly, hands down in front of her skirt, fingers entwined.

“You’ve got to-”

She stopped, reconsidering.

“I was going to tell you to calm down, but that would only make you more mad.”

I opened my mouth, about to yell or say something, but I reconsidered. In a roundabout way, D was telling me to calm down, but the oblique way she went about doing it gave me an extra second to put more thought into what she was saying, and where my focus should be.

I calmed down.

“I’m not mad,” I said, sounding anything but. My shoulders were still square, my breathing heavy, my eyes darting between D and the recycling bin she was standing next to.

D spoke, her voice flat. “Way to convince me, Wendy.”

I made a guttural sound, somewhere between a grunt and a groan. I forced myself to stand straighter, rolling my shoulders, taking in deeper, more relaxing breaths.

I started pacing again.

“Sorry. It’s just, fuck, I wasn’t expecting that. At all.”

“I understand that, and it surprised me, too, but you can’t let it get to you like this.”

“I’m trying,” I said, knowing that I wasn’t trying hard enough. I failed then, and I was failing now.

“Try harder.”

“I…”

I closed my mouth.

I tried harder.

My glasses, I felt them slipping more down my nose. I took them off, and noticed how heated, how sweaty, I had gotten. I rolled up a sleeve, and rubbed the bridge of my nose with my arm.

I put my glasses back on, fixing them in place. When I could focus on my vision again, I checked for D. I couldn’t find her.

“D?” I asked, calling out. There was a slight echo.

“Still here.”

I turned around.

There she was. She’d hadn’t moved or budged. I must have started pacing without me realizing.

“Better?” she asked.

I shrugged. “Not better, but I’m dealing.”

D raised an eyebrow.

“I will try to deal with it.”

“That’s better,” D said.

I gave myself a second to breathe. Trying, like I promised.

I ran my fingers through my hair, putting both hands into my jacket pocket after I was done. I breathed, using it as an exercise to relax.

D was still staring at me, and I was able to stare back, without my emotions pulling my attention away.

“I’m back,” I said.

“Good to have you,” D responded, nodding. “Now we can properly talk about this, and figure out where we go from here.”

I nodded back. “I just, I feel like an idiot, for not seeing that coming. I walked right into their little game, and I didn’t even make it hard for them. I didn’t trip them up, I didn’t force them to take another approach. I just… walked.”

Another branch in the conversation, another detour. I was ranting.

But, D didn’t respond, verbal or otherwise. She was just letting me talk. Vent.

If she was going to let me continue, I’d continue.

“I hate not being in control. I hate not knowing, being in the dark. I hate being blind. I-”

I was running out of things to say, and I didn’t want to keep repeating myself.

That underlying feeling was still there, though. That anger, directed out and back towards me. That hatred.

I shut my mouth, conceding to D. Getting it all out was one thing, but I wasn’t going to waste her time with a therapy session.

D took a careful step closer, fingers still together. She was smiling, but it wasn’t that knowing, sly sneer that was I so used to. It was apologetic. It was sympathetic.

It was strange.

“I hate it too,” she said. “Knowing means having control, and there’s so many ways you can play with that. And, and I’m speaking for myself, but not having that control means I’m back to being just another kid. And that sucks.”

I chuckled a bit. “It does.”

“It really sucks.”

“Okay,” I said. I pulled a hand it out my pocket, fixing my glasses one more time. “Now I’m back. Let’s talk about this, properly.”

D smiled. “Let’s.”

“The Thunders and the Royals. Whatever beef they had, it’s gone now, it’s settled. And they have a pact to stick together against any potential threat.”

“Like us.”

“Potentially. You picked those two since you thought you could twist that against them.”

“That’s the knowing I was talking about, and that’s how I wanted to play them. This new bit, however, is just that. It’s news to me.”

This was review, but I needed it. To get another look at the details to better understand a situation, it would help in getting my mind in the proper place.

And now that I had a better understanding, I knew what had to be done.

“I still want to do this,” I said.

D looked surprised to hear that.

“You do?”

I gave her a singular, slow, measured nod.

“EZ and Krown. I still want to take them down. I think it can be done, I won’t turn this into a complete loss.”

“I’m not saying it’s impossible, or this is a lost cause, but it has gotten more difficult. More… complicated.”

“This was never going to be easy,” I said.

D’s smile changed to one I was more familiar with. “Easy would be boring.”

I removed my hands from my pockets, and I folded my arms.

D spoke as I got my thoughts together. “If this revelation is as new and as sudden as I think it is, then I don’t believe for a second that they’re all buddy-buddy. You just don’t forget the past, people aren’t wired like that. Whatever happened between them still happened. And if we can find out what drove those two brothers apart, we can drill at that, needle that bond to a breaking point.”

“And the fallout from that…” I said.

I tried to imagine it.

“It might be even bigger than if they hadn’t made up at all,” D said. “Have you ever torn off a bandage or splint before a wound healed up completely?”

“No.”

“Well, it sucks.”

“I can’t exactly relate to that, not anymore, but I see what you mean. It’ll be harder, but driving them apart now sends a much bigger message to even more people.”

“A bigger splash,” D said. “And we can ride that wave out much farther.”

The idea of EZ and Krown, in all of their assuredness, to kick them while they thought they had all of the cards…

It satiated a different thirst that I had.

“I really, really like that idea. Okay, let’s do it. Let’s tear that bandage off.”

D’s grin grew wider, exaggerated. “Heck yes.”

Between those two gangs, those two brothers, there was a wound. Time healed all, but it was a stretch to assume that everything was smoothed over. If this beef ran as deep as D suggested, then some resentment had to be there. Even if it was residual, even if it was just below the surface.

We would expose that wound to the open air, throw some acid into it, if we had to. This wasn’t just about their debt with the Ghosts, anymore. I wanted to see that wound burn.

“So,” I said, meeting D’s eyes again, “We’re not going anywhere just yet. We’ve got some more scouting to do.”

D threw her hands up, bouncing on her feet. She was cheering.

“Yeah! Operation Storm the Castle is back on!”

Might as well keep her entertained, I thought.

As D jumped in glee, shouting for joy, I barely heard the sound of metal scraping on concrete. I turned back to locate the source of the noise.

A door, from the produce market’s side of the alley. A man had stepped outside, a trash bag in hand.

He took notice of us, and we took notice of him.

A black man, tall, well past fifty, judging from the grey in his beard and the creases in his features. He wore a flat brim hat, with a buttoned long sleeve and sweater vest on top. Black jeans with boots to match.

I couldn’t parse his expression. He looked too stoic.

He had stopped to notice us, but he continued on his way, walking to a nearby garbage bin to dispose of his trash.

“Storefront’s over there, ladies,” he said as he approached the bin. His voice was deep, but smooth, as if he was announcing something on the radio.

“We were just chatting,” I said, “We’ll be out of here soon.”

“You better, I don’t like young kids hanging around places like this.”

“Why’s that?”

“Mean’s trouble. Kids like you should be in school, not in these streets and alleys.”

I looked at D, her hands still in the air. I gestured, and she brought them down.

“You don’t have to worry about us,” I told him. “We’re not up to any trouble, sir.”

The man tossed the trash bag into the bin, landing with an audible thud.

“I’ve heard that a thousand times,” he said. “I’d die of shock if you meant it.”

“What, you don’t believe me?” I asked.

He brushed his hands against his jeans, walking over to us. Approaching.

“I believe what I’ve seen and heard, being out in this motherfucker for damn near forty years. It’s always been the same, ain’t nothing changed. It’s a cycle. You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t up to no good. So don’t act like you’re anything special, and don’t think I’m some fool. I’m no fool.”

“Your choice in fashion says otherwise,” D said.

I gave D a hard look, willing her to shut up. She shrugged, but she seemed to get the message.

To the man, I raised a hand at him, placating. “She didn’t mean that.”

The man shot me a hard look in return. “Don’t you dare speak for another person without their explicit consent. Who do you think you are?”

I didn’t provide an answer. I wasn’t sure what answer would be appropriate.

The man seemed to accept the lack of an answer, and looked past me to D, instead.

“Little lady, is that what you really think?”

The man asked D directly.

D hardly flinched or hesitated. “I do.”

The man turned his attention back to me, and paused, as if to establish that a point had been made.

He spread his arms.

“My apologies, then,” I said.

“Good,” he said, and then he turned to go. “Now run along. Whatever trouble it is you find yourself in, I better not hear about it on the news.”

Then, he was gone, having went through the door that led into the produce market.

An odd encounter, but I was used to those. Nothing new.

Again, I turned to face D, and she looked like she had something on her mind.

I voiced my thoughts out loud. “What’s up?”

She shook her head once. “It’s nothing.”

“Nothing’s ever nothing with you. What is it?”

“It is nothing,” she said, stern, offset by her childish tone. “Now come on, no point in sticking around here.”

“Right,” I said, and we started moving to get out of the alley. I was feeling better as we left than when I stormed in here. “Do you know of any good places to start scouting?”

“Maybe,” D said. “But first, I want to go into the market.”

I looked, and I saw the entrance to the building we were standing next to. Fill Market, it was called. The glass storefront was protected by metal bars, making it hard to get a look inside Labels advertising alcohol and lottery tickets were slapped onto the windows. There was another sign, a warning about something, but the metal bars made it hard to read.

The automatic doors shuddered as they made way for us, and we stepped inside.

“What, you want to do some shopping?” I asked. “Do you even have a refrigerator to fill?”

“I have your refrigerator to fill, but no, I also want to get a look around.”

“Why, what do they have here?”

D answered. “Information. This way.”

She picked up a basket by the door, and we went deeper into the store. The place mostly had produce, vegetables and fruits, but D passed by all of it to get to the more processed stuff. We entered one aisle, filled with cans. Canned meat, canned vegetables, canned soup.

“What kind of info could you possibly get here?” I asked.

D explained as she took cans out from the shelves. “For communities like this, markets, barber shops, basketball courts, they’re deep in the heart of things. If you want to be in the know, here is where you want to take a look around.”

I glanced around as we left the aisle. Cans behind us, yogurt and milk and juice ahead of us, bags of chips and cereal and oatmeal in other aisles as we passed them. It looked like any other store. Maybe it wasn’t the tidiest of places, I saw one too many wet floor signs, and mismatched stock belonging to shelves two or three aisles down, but it was a market. Nothing too special or notable.

The few employees – and even shoppers  – we passed seemed to be more interested in us than we were in them. Watching as we walked, glances lasting longer than what was normally acceptable. Passing so many people in public, the occasional bit of eye contact was unavoidable. It happened, sometimes, and that was that. Here, though? The gazes were held.

I noticed what some of the shoppers were wearing, the colors. Mostly blues and whites. It crossed my mind, to be nervous, but it wasn’t as if word had already spread about us in the area. We were given a warning, but there a give to that, and we would capitalize on it, while we still could.

It didn’t bother me, the stares. I’d prefer to blend in, but there was nothing, or no one, to be afraid of. It was simply a reminder, that D and I were in the minority, here. We weren’t from around these parts.

D led us into another aisle, a snack aisle. D started picking through the ones she wanted.

“You can’t eat any of these, right?” she asked. Gummy worms, chocolate bars, cookies, powdered donuts. D wasn’t being particularly fussy with her snacks.

“Nope. Literally impossible.”

“Dang. That makes me so so sad.” She grabbed for a bag of marshmallows, and continued-

D paused, and leaned over to grab another bag, putting in the basket.

“I should get double the snacks, so I can eat on your behalf.”

“I’ll appreciate it.”

We stalked further down, D taking more and more snacks. At this rate, she would clear out the entire aisle.

“So, how does that even work?” D asked, dropping in a box of brownies. And then another. “You have your little, um… thing, you get your powers, hurray, but how do you even come to that kind of conclusion. That, hey, I’m done eating burgers and fries, I’m on a strictly liquid diet now, and what I’m drinking is pretty, um, raw.”

Answering that properly meant sorting through memories and events that I’d rather not touch upon. For various reasons. It had taken so much effort just to store them away in the back of my mind, recalling them now would be like tearing off a bandage on a wound that wasn’t quite gone yet. And I wasn’t about to do that to myself.

“It… it’s a hard thing to process, harder still to quench that thirst. It takes over your life, consuming you as much as you try to consume anything else.”

Not much of an answer, but that was all I was willing to give up.

“I can’t believe you tried to balance that out with being a hero,” D said, taking my non-answer in stride. “Sounds a little misguided. Uh, in my opinion.”

I took that in stride. “I’m not offended, it was misguided. It was stupid, trying to fit into a shape that wouldn’t hold. At least, now, I don’t have to worry about being a hero anymore. I don’t need that balance, and what I’m after is actually in conjunction with my powers. There’s no more of that seemingly cosmic pushback, and that means a lot less stress on my mind.”

D dropped three boxes of granola bars, and a cereal box. There was no sign of stopping.

“Then, it’s good that you found yourself,” D said. “And I’m like, amazed that you managed to keep your liquid diet thing under wraps from the rest of the world.”

“I’m amazed, too,” I said. “And let’s keep it that way. Who knows if that’s a card we’ll need to keep up our sleeves.”

“Yup, I’m all about not showing my hand. Here.”

D finally, finally, left the snack aisle, and walked us over to the other end of the store. It got chillier as we approached.

Ice cream, and lots of it. Different flavors, different colors. I saw D’s eyes light up as she perused her choices.

“Now hold it,” I said, “I thought we were here for info, not to fulfill your surprisingly sweet sweet tooth.”

“And we will get info, but this is important, too. I don’t want to come over to your apartment and not find any snacks there. We’re getting multiple things done, here.”

“I guess, if that’s how you want to go about it. But, lay off the sugar, you’re going to rot the rest of your teeth off.”

“Wouldn’t that be cool?” D asked, reaching for what was already her third pint of gelato.

“Do not over do it,” I said, serious.

D gave me a scowl, but she relented, putting the gelato back. Instead of letting the door close on its own, she gave it a push, slamming it with more strength than needed, and walked off at a faster pace.

I had to put forth effort to catch up, as she rounded a corner, heading to the front of the market. We passed by more shoppers and employees, D’s rushing getting their attention even more.

“D,” I said. “Slow down.”

“I thought you wanted to get info, right? Faster I pay for these, faster we can get to that.”

“Yeah, but-”

“What?” she asked, her voice sharp.

“Wow,” I said, but I mouthed the word to myself, and D didn’t catch me, either, her eyes still forward.

Was she mad?

I supposed, on some level, I could understand if she was. Kids craved freedom to do whatever, whenever. And, on most occasions, kids were restricted by rules laid down by parents or other institutions, and were only allowed certain opportunities throughout the day to express that freedom, like recess or playing outside, after school hours. And for D’s part, she had gotten rid of those restrictions a long time ago.

Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Every waking moment was like recess for her.

For the brief time that I had known D, she was running around freely, with no one to tell her what to do, or otherwise discipline her. Even a bit of that discipline, she wasn’t accustomed to, and now she was ticked off.

Tough shit.

We were leading a gang, now, and as leaders, it was our responsibility to bring our people up to a higher position. And that required structure, rules and discipline. D agreed to work with me on this, to bring the Ghosts where I wanted to take them, so she’d have to suck it up and accept that as part of the job.

I need to have the upper hand, and D needs to have her freedom. Take that away, and we flip out. We all have our sour spots.

It was something to keep in mind.

D walked, and I was right behind her, both of us staying silent. I’d let her fume, be mad, and she needed to learn how to work with that, too. I knew that I still had to, as well.

We arrived at the checkout line. Even with the store being busy, there were only two lanes active out of the ten that were potentially available. There were lines at both.

We got into closest lane, lane seven.

“Here,” D said, passing me the basket. I took it without protest, she was still in her mood.

The handle fell into my grip, and I felt my muscles harden.

It was heavy, even for someone with my strength. How many snacks did she stuff in here?

I adjusted my hold, and got used to the weight. The line started moving, and we moved in accordance.

“So, did you manage to catch anything?” I asked. I figured we were done here, but other than the various different gang members, there wasn’t much I could piece together. D, however, might have seen something different.

“Yeah, I caught some delicious snacks.”

We moved up some more.

She was still in her feelings? Alright, fine. I left her alone.

As the line moved along, the registers beeping and the employees working, D on occasion kept peeking out ahead. Enough times that I knew she was trying to look for something specific.

“Oh darn!” she then said, startling me and the people around us.

“What?” I asked as she turned my way. She looked panicked.

She brought her voice low as she said, “I forgot my wallet.”

“You forgot it? Where is it?”

“I promise I had it with me when we walked in here, I felt it in my pocket as we left the apartment!”

“Where’d you last feel it?”

“In my pocket!”

She showed me her pockets, lifting the sides of her jacket. A pocket on each side, with zippers, and both were zipped open.

I had to ask her. “Were your pockets zipped like that when we left?”

No, I had them zipped closed, like how they should be. I think, I’m sure.”

I lifted up the basket, carrying it in my arms. All the different boxes and bags of snacks were there. So many that the outline curved outward.

D sifted through the basket, picking between the boxes and bags and cartons, as though she had dropped her wallet in there, somehow.

We were getting close to the register.

“I have some cash,” I said, “But it might not be enough to cover all of this. You’ll have to put some of it-”

“D!”

D took a step away from the basket, her back bumping into the woman ahead of us. She slightly turned to see who it was.

“I’ll find it, it’s around somewhere, let me go retrace my steps!”

Let,’ as in requesting permission, but D ran off before I could say anything about it.

“Wait!” I called out, but D was already too far ahead, disappearing in the line of people and baskets and carts. I was about to chase after her, but I remembered that I still had the basket.

Or did she leave me with it?

Oh darn was right.

The line moved along, and it was my turn to start unloading stuff onto the checkout counter. D’s snacks began to overtake the rest of the counter, as the conveyor belt rolled out other people’s groceries. Then, as the counter started spilling out snacks to the other side, the counter was still full of snacks, and there was still more to go.

Crap.

A lot of snacks, a lot of money, and D hadn’t come back yet. The van was a few blocks away, and If she was retracing her steps…

Was she going to go back to the basketball court? To EZ and Krown? Was she reckless enough to show her face around there again, and so soon?

I knew what the answer was, and my stomach churned.

A boy, a teen looking a year or two older, worked the cash register, scanning the boxes and bags, his expression changing from flat to surprised to concerned at all the food coming his way.

“That’s a lot of snacks,” he commented, glancing at me.

“Girl’s gotta eat,” I said.

“You having a party or something?”

“Uh, it’s something,” I answered.

“Oh, if it was a party, I would have asked what’s up.”

I tilted my head one way. “What’s up?”

“You know, have me and some pals roll up to your crib, maybe we can do a little something.”

I tilted my head the other way. “A little something what?”

The boy set his jaw straight, but he didn’t respond, focusing on scanning all the food.

He was almost done, and D wasn’t back yet, and I didn’t have enough cash to pay for all of this.

D better not have left me here to-

“Hey, hey, where the fuck do you think you’re going?”

“Fuck, yo, let go of me!”

The yelling got my attention, and from the looks of the boy, and everyone else in line, I wasn’t the only one.

It was one of Royals and one of the Thunders I had seen before, while walking around the store. They were by the automatic doors, the doors clacking as they shifted from open to trying to close, as the two were standing in the way of the sensors.

A paper bag was at their feet, torn and spilling out its contents of cans and vegetables. The Royal held the Thunder’s wrist, fighting to keep the Thunder in place. Pushing and pulling.

“You took my cereal, man!” the Royal yelled.

“I didn’t take shit!” the Thunder yelled back.

“Then what’s in your bag? Why do I see that in your bag?”

“I didn’t put that shit in there! Look, you already have a fucking- That’s my box!”

“It ain’t mine, you swapped them!”

“Why the fuck would I-”

The Royal tugged, bringing the Thunder more inside, away from the doors. The door were finally able to close.

“Get in here bitch!”

“Man, fuck you, I don’t give a shit about you, I don’t give a shit about your crew, and I don’t give a shit about your fucking cereal!”

“Just admit that you ain’t got no money, and you have to steal from a real man to get what you want.”

It was as if the very air had changed. The atmosphere.

“Say that again?” the Thunder questioned.

“Use your ears, bitch, and if you got a brain, use that too.”

The Thunder reached under his shirt, and I saw the light catch his hand when he drew it out again.

Again in one day, I felt my heart skip a beat.

“Want to take this to the streets?”

“If you want to bleed out there, then absolutely.”

I moved a foot, prepared to step in and do… something, but I saw others move in ahead of me.

D, and another man.

“Hold it cowboy!”

D ran through the open doors and around the two men, and grabbed the Thunder by the collar, kicking him behind the knee. He fell, and she found his arm and twisted it, forcing him to let go of the gun. It hit the floor, landing among the other groceries, and the cereal box.

The man rushed the Royal, grabbing him by the shoulders. The Royal wasn’t reaching for a gun, but there was no way he could, now.

“Jay!” the man shouted, “Get your shit together!”

The deep, but still smooth voice. I recognized him as the man from earlier, in the alley.

“Phil, I-”

“Quit it, Jay, quit it. You want to be a real man? Grab your shit and walk away. Settle this peacefully, please. We don’t want another one of your feuds rocking this town again. Not another one, so soon.”

The man took his hands off the Royal, Jay, and waited for a second. Jay didn’t make a drastic move.

The man then turned, and saw D.

“You can let go of him now, little lady.”

D listened, taking her hands off the Thunder. He was on the floor, searching around him, checking his things. He saw his gun, and went to grab it.

A foot stepped on the gun, stopping him.

“No, Ricky,” the man said. “You’re done here, too.”

The Thunder, Ricky, glared up at D and the man, but he too didn’t try anything crazy. He got up, scooping everything up into his paper bag, everything except the cereal box.

The man continued to order them. “Ricky, you give Jay his cereal-”

“But he started-”

“I don’t fuckin’ care who started it, I’m ending it!”

His shout was felt through the rest of the store, especially Ricky. He was shut down.

The man – Phil, according to Jay – didn’t have to say it a second time. Ricky bent down to pick up the cereal box, giving it to Jay. The exchange was made in silence.

“Now, Ricky, walk down that way,” Phil said, pointing to the left of the automatic doors. “And then you, Jay, walk down that way.” He pointed to the right of the doors. “I don’t care if you have to take the long way home, but you are not crossing paths again until you can learn to grow up and stop playing in these streets.”

Jay and Ricky left without a word. Ricky went first, going out the doors, taking a left, and Jay followed, going right. The silence they left behind was palpable.

Phil gave D a small glance, but he put his actual attention on the shoppers who happened to catch the incident. On me.

A look, and it was enough to get everyone moving again.

I moved, too, but I moved away from the checkout counter, leaving the snacks behind. I went to D.

“D, hey,” I said. “Good timing, showing up when you did.”

“Good timing for sure,” she said, with a sly look.

“I’m not sure if I should like that look or not.”

“You should,” D said, “I got what we came here for.”

D looked elsewhere, and I followed her gaze.

“And we’re about to get more.”

Phil was approaching, having stepped out to make sure Jay and Ricky left without any more issues. He didn’t look very pleased to see us again.

“And will you look at that, y’all are up to no good.”

D replied, “I’d make a remark, but it won’t go over well with you, will it?”

“It won’t.”

“Then let me come clean right now. Ricky didn’t steal anything. I swapped a cereal box I picked out with his.”

Phil went from not looking pleased to looking pissed.

I turned to look back at the line. The boy was still there, confused at what to do. I didn’t see the cereal box that D had grabbed earlier.

This fucking girl, I thought, She slipped right from under me to pull that stunt.

Before, she had to be checking out the people in the line, planning accordingly. Watching who had what in their baskets, and how particularly attached to what they had. I thought she was just taking half the store’s inventory of snacks, but apparently, she had something else in mind.

Phil spoke softly, but his tone was intense. “And why did you swap the boxes?”

D answered, “I wanted to test a theory, but honestly, I probably could have swapped anything for the same results. Looks like I was just lucky.”

She was being cheeky, and he stark serious.

“Get out of my-”

Wait,” D said, lifting her hand. She was holding up a wallet. Did she have that the whole time, too?

“We haven’t paid yet,” D said.

“I don’t think I care. I want you out.”

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. My test confirmed my suspicions, but I want the finer details. And I think you’re just the man to ask, Phil.”

There was a pause as Phil stared, having us wait on his response.

D added, “It might prove to be a benefit to your community, here, if you end up hearing us out.”

Over the past few weeks, I had been getting acquainted with D and how she operated, how she loved to throw herself into risky situations to try and get out ahead of everyone else.

This was another one of those times.

We were already on thin ice after what happened at the basketball court, and D was throwing herself, and me, out into the open for another risk.

I waited, wondering if we would remain standing, or if our plan would slip through the cracks and fall apart.

Previous                                                                                               Next

Advertisements

034 – Fifty-Nine on the Tenth Hour

Previous                                                                                               Next

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

Not until today.

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

Especially today.

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

Twenty-four hours left.

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

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

Maybe I should watch them again, as a reference.

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

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

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

Lucky.

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

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

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

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

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

I needed to clear my head, sort things out.

Dammit, I really do need a walk.

But did I have to do it in East Stephenville?

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

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

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

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

I looked around me.

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

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

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

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

I kept walking.

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

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

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

That… was certainly intriguing.

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

And that was where I stepped in.

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

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

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

No pressure.

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

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

My sense of self is getting thinner and thinner.

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

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

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

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

A couple hops, and I’d be there.

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

Man, I need to learn how, already.

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

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

I continued into the alley, regardless.

I stopped. A wall.

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

Just had to take care of these clowns first.

Cornered, but not concerned.

I put up my hood, then turned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something about her…

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

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

The girl was quiet.

“And how much you got?”

The girl was quiet.

“How much!” the heavyset woman yelled.

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

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

“I-I don’t know.”

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

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

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

Five men, one woman.

This shouldn’t take long.

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

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

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

I was about to make it easier.

I spread my arms apart. Exposing myself.

Appearing that way.

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

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

Anticipating.

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

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

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

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

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

Huh.

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

Let’s not make tonight an exception.

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

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

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

Did I just do a backflip?

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

I was on them before they could even turn around.

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

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

Whatever. No use in going after him. Pointless.

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

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

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

Crying, whimpering.

No good. Was she that intimidated by me?

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

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

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

“Here,” I said.

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

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

Guess I’m walking.

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

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

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

“That’s a pretty name.”

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

“I’m… Wendy.”

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

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

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

“They aren’t.”

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

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

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

But I had to keep her talking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New?

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

“Oh, then I have an idea. Follow me?”

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

Wait a minute…

And she does look familiar.

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

Now I saw her face. Surprise.

“How, how’d you know?”

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

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

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

How fucked was this city?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who says I hadn’t?”

A joke. She was starting to feel better.

Now was my chance.

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

“Oh, sure, alright.”

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

“Where are you from?” I asked.

Ciudad de México.”

Mexico City, then.

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

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

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

“I don’t follow.”

“Are you aware of Styx’s Gang?”

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

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

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

“Do you know why?”

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

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

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

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

No luck there, then.

“But, maybe there was one person…”

I raised an eyebrow.

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

That’s not what I wanted to hear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh?

“Who?” I asked.

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

Isabella stopped there.

But now we’re getting somewhere.

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

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

“Buzz?”

“Buzz cut.”

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

So it was someone else.

I clenched a fist.

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

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

This… was also intriguing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Didn’t expect you to.

I decided to ask her something else. Another subject.

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

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

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

I didn’t like the sound of that.

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

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

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

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

I gave her a soft smile.

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

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

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

“I think a thousand dollars?”

“A thousand-”

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

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

“Just do me a favor,” I said.

“Yeah?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Huh?”

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

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

“Good.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was no door, I walked right in.

As expected, as I suspected, nothing.

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

Not much.

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

Maybe.

I searched over the room again.

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

No point in skipping it.

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

So, nothing.

“Agh!”

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

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

Dammit.

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

I noticed there were even more scratches underneath.

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

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

Hold it.

There was one.

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

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

Unbelievable.

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

No cheating.

Previous                                                                                               Next