“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.
“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?”
“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.
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?”
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.”
“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.
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.
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?
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-”
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.
“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.”
Between the two friends, they shared a small chuckle.
“So,” Thomas said, after they cooled a bit. “What do you think of him?”
“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.”
“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.”
“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?”
“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!”
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.
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?”
“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.”
“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.”
“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?
“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.”
“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?”
“Can you check on Katy?”
“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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
“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.
He didn’t stop walking.
He kept going.
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
“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.”
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.
“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?”
“V,” James said. “Blank Face-”
“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.
He reached for his gun and flashlight. He pointed both around the room.
Nothing, no one, nowhere. V was gone.
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.