Interlude – James

Previous                                                                     Bonus

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s no problem.

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

“Thank you, Jim.”

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

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

Bones creaked and joints popped.

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

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

I wonder if he ever felt like this.

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

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

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

Campbell stepped inside.

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

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

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

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

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

His mind was wandering again.

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

“My condolences,” Campbell said.

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

“Maybe you have something you want to say.”

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

Campbell flinched. “Sorry, Chief.”

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

“Come on,” James said, “Let’s go.”

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

Together, they left the conference room.

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

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

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

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

Someone should be doing… something.

“Campbell,” James said, needing another distraction.

“Yes, sir?”

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

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

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

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

“And that was, what, five years ago?”

Campbell laughed.

“It was ten years ago, sir.”

“Color me shocked.”

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

“No need to apologize.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again, wandering.

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

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

“Um, yes sir?”

“What’s your take-”

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

“What’s your take on Blank Face?”

“Blank Face?”

James noted Campbell’s hesitation.

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

“It’s not that sir, it’s just…”

That hesitation again.

“It’s just what?”

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

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

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

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

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

Campbell took his sweet time in formulating an answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Before?”

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

“And the twist was?” James asked.

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

Campbell’s voice was just a bit tight.

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

Campbell shook his head.

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

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

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

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

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

He coughed, the camera bag shaking a little.

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

“I know,” James said.

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

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

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

“Yeah, food for thought.”

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

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

A ding.

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

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

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

“Honor to hear that.”

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

The workings of the interior felt farther away.

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

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

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

A ding.

James got out of the elevator.

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

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

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

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

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

Well, that, and another more peculiar thing.

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

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

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

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

As he waited, he looked around.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pathetic.

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

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

John Cruz. The new district attorney.

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

James stopped reading.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beside him was-

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

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

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

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

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

He almost laughed.

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

No answer, but James wasn’t expecting one.

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

He stared at nothing, and got nothing.

It wasn’t always like this.

It was James’ job to keep the peace.

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

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

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

James grinned to himself.

Good job, me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He opened his mouth to shout again.

“Everyone, please back-”

“James, James!”

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

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

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

“Thomas,” James said.

Thomas Thompson smirked upon hearing his name.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The man took it, shaking it. Firm.

“John Cruz,” the man said.

“James Gomez.”

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

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

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

“Helps with the late nights.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas laughed. “Does it, now?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A fresh crime scene.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas nodded, looking proud of himself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas gave the coffee back to John.

“Someone might like that.”

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

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

“They don’t.”

Between the two friends, they shared a small chuckle.

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

“Him? John?”

“Yes, of course John, who else?”

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

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

“Why?”

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

James paused, and then he sighed.

“Thomas,” he said.

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

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

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

“You really see something in him?”

Thomas shrugged. “I might.”

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

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

He pointed in John’s general direction.

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

Thomas met James in the eye.

“But I digress,” Thomas said.

“But you digress,” James echoed.

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

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

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

“Turner? Of Turner’s Moving Company?”

“The very same.”

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

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

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

“Thanks, pal.”

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

“But you still object to him.”

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

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

James had to explain himself.

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

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

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

James struggled to find the words.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I will, I will.”

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

He got to the point.

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

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

“We keep it between us.”

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

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

“Jealous?”

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

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

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

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

“Get away from me!”

“Thomas, James.”

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

“Welcome back. Learn anything?”

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

“What does that even mean,” James commented.

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

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

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

James and Thomas didn’t say anything.

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

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

“Now what does that even mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

James knew that Thomas hated that. Being small.

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

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

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

Thomas had never sounded so sure in his life.

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

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

This never gets any easier.

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

“Kristin,” James said as the door opened.

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

James didn’t blame her.

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

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

“May I-” James started.

“Please,” Kristin said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He heard a dry laugh come from Kristin.

“I try.”

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

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

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

Kristin ended up filling in the blanks for him.

“James, this is Shiori.”

Shiori. The name sort of helped.

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

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

James had to approach this carefully.

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

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

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

Then it clicked. He remembered that.

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

Again, Shiori only nodded.

James felt an awkward silence about to settle in.

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

“Coffee would be great, thanks.”

“I’ll be right back.”

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

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

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

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

Was she ill? Did she lose her voice?

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

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

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

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

How does she do it? James wondered.

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

“James, can you help me in here?”

James got up without any protest or objection.

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

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

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

“Down, Annie, down!”

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

“Now go to your bed.”

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

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

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

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

“What’s up?” he asked.

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

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

Kristin nodded.

James shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

James was an experienced enough cop to piece things together.

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

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

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

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

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

James felt his heart drop.

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

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

James felt his heart drop even lower.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But not with this. He still failed.

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

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

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

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

“It’s the worst possible time.”

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

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

Kristin hiccuped.

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

“That bad?”

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

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

Maybe.

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

“Okay,” Kristin said.

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

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

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

Kristin stayed quiet.

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

She looked up, meeting James in the eye.

“You lost him, too.”

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

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

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

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

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

More distractions.

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

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

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

“Anything.”

“Can you check on Katy?”

“She’s here?”

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

“Hope so, but of course.”

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

Bitter.

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

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

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

Styx was there, too.

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

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

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

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

He knocked.

Katy wasn’t the one who got the door.

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

“Hello,” James said.

“Hello,” the girl repeated.

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

“Oh, you’re… Maria, am I right?”

“I am,” Maria said.

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

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

“Uncle James, you can come in.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, it’s been fun.”

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

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

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

“Any good news?”

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

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

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

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

“She did,” he said.

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

“Did you now? What’d you think?”

“Terrible. I don’t know why they keep inviting you.”

“I can count the number of times I’ve been on with one hand. It’s not like I get practice for that stuff.”

“Not that. I’m saying you should have been harder on Blank Face. Fuck Blank Face.”

Maria made a face, cringing at what Katy had said.

James wasn’t going to get into it, now. That wasn’t what he came up for.

“Okay, I’m just going to make this short, so you can go back to your game.”

“It’s not a game,” Katy said.

“Okay, I just wanted to see you all again. I’ll see you later, Katy, and it was nice seeing you again, Maria.”

“Come back when you have good news,” Maria said.

That was definitely the atmosphere, James could feel it thick in the air. He wasn’t wanted.

“Bye,” he said quietly, turning to leave. He reached for the door-

“Leave the door open.”

James turned back again. Katy’s focus was still on the board, rearranging the pieces, putting them back in their starting positions.

“We’ll be heading out after you,” Katy said, still moving pieces around. “So leave the door open.”

“Heading out?” James asked.

“Yes.”

That was all James got in regards to an answer. He recalled seeing another car out on the driveway. A teal Honda. Probably Maria’s.

“I’ll leave the door open. Bye, ladies.”

He got no response as he left the room, and went down the stairs. He felt the aches again.

He ran into Kristin as he reached the final step.

“How were they?” she asked.

“Didn’t want to give me the time of day, but they’re still young, going through things most adults can’t handle. If they need space, I’ll give it to them.”

Kristin’s expression seemed like she was expecting that answer. The girls had been like that for some time, now.

James couldn’t blame them for that.

“Are you leaving now?” Kristin asked.

“I think I will. Thank you again for the coffee.”

“Anytime.”

Kristin gave him a quick hug before he left the house. It was a gesture that showed that he was always welcome to come back and visit.

But, by the next time, he had better have fucking something to show.

The air was thick with a pungent smell. James almost tripped over himself, something sliding out from under him.

So many bullet holes, so many bullet casings, so many bullets.

James took one, slow walk around the perimeter, trying to take it all in. It was hard. Decades on the force, and he had the gall to assume that he had seen it all. Apparently, he hadn’t seen shit.

Morning, early morning. So early the sun hadn’t considered getting up yet. The basketball court in a neighborhood on the west side. Neutral territory between the Thunders and the Royals.

Nothing neutral about it now.

Chunks of concrete were torn out of the ground, debris thrown haphazardly across the court. Bullets were stuck in the ground, embedded in both the grass and dirt around the court and the court itself. Even the backboards were riddled by bullets, there were more holes than metal. It was like an actual warzone.

Around the court and the surrounding perimeter, everyone was working to collect as much info as possible, and clean up as much as possible. Wherever James looked, there was someone picking up bullets and casings to put into a bag, someone helping the injured into an ambulance, or someone trying to fix where the tall fence around the court had fallen over. Parts of the fence were torn and crushed, like it was trampled on by a stampede of elephants.

That was a good way to put it, in terms of animals. What had happened here, happened between animals. A raw, deep force that craved violence and rage. It had consumed the hearts of the people, and they didn’t see each other as people, anymore. Not as their fellow man, not as brothers. Humans couldn’t have done this, it had to have been some other cause.

Right?

James watched his step, careful to not slip again. There were too many things here that could catch him off guard. Debris, bullet casings, pools of blood. He kept a flashlight at his feet, to keep an eye on what was directly ahead. Normally, there would have been fixtures that lit up the court, but the power was out around the spot. It hadn’t come back on, yet.

Campbell followed him as he tried to get a sense of the whole situation.

“They’re going to want me on TV to talk about this, aren’t they?” James asked.

“Media’s starting to come in, but they’ve actually been a bit slow in getting here. Journalists aren’t used to coming down here.”

“That’s because they don’t have a reason to. They’ve gotten every story they could possibly get out of places like this. They squeezed it dry, and left it to rot in the sun. They’re only back now because, as it turns out, there’s still a little bit of juice left to sell.”

“Well, the perimeter’s about two blocks around the court. They’re not getting in here.”

“Let’s push it back another block, just to be safe, before the first few shoe-stringers get here.”

“Roger that, chief.”

Campbell reached for a walkie-talkie to relay the Chief’s words to the others. All around James, he heard the cries of affirmation, and the action afterward. Neither of the gangs had any relevance to the ones that had teeth in James’ police force, so James got to be the leading authority. Right now, for now, James’ men were his. They listened and reported to him, and they had no other bosses to answer to.

If only it was like that the whole time. His best friend would have loved that for sure.

James stopped his walk around the area, and headed straight to the middle. The middle of the court.

There was a shout, somewhere in the far back. “Power’s coming back!”

Small cheers sounded throughout, immediately hushed when the lights switched on, shining a harsh light on everything.

James squinted. For more than one reason.

He saw the edges of it before, but not a full view. This… This was harsh.

There were two bodies. Cut up, beaten, and bruised. Reduced to a bloody pulp, their bodies defiled and tampered with. The result was something less than human.

They were completely naked, cut skin touching the hard and cold concrete. They were situated, placed in a specific way, moved after whatever happened to them… happened. James noted the streaks of blood beside them, how they were dragged and then set to achieve the intended effect.

Arms and legs together, their feet meeting at a point. One body was on one side of the court, the other body was on the opposite side. What looked like larger brush strokes of blood were marked beside their appendages to make it read better.

It looked like a giant red ‘V.’

The men? The leaders of the relevant gangs. Darius and Marcus Jackson.

“God, who could’ve-”

Campbell stopped, or rather the scene was too visceral that he lost the words. He turned on a heel, so it was to his side, and he was facing James, instead.

“How can you even look, sir?”

“Part of the job,” James answered. He was looking at it, head on. Others were, too, collecting photographs and getting vitals on the bodies. A man bent down to get a pulse from Darius, another checked for signs of breathing on Marcus.

“But, even if you put it like that, this is just too much.”

“My job is to face the ugliest of humanity, and do what I can to put a stop to it. Clearly, humans are capable of much more ugliness than I ever thought, but the job stays the same.”

Campbell turned again, putting his back to the scene.

“I don’t know which is worse. This, or the school.”

“The school, unfortunately.” James looked at the medical staff working on EZ and Krown. They both gave him a thumbs up. A miracle.

“At least no one died, here,” James added.

“Sure, but we have dozens injured and two critically injured, and plenty aren’t going to walk away from this with all their limbs attached. Fuck, some literally will not be able to walk away.”

“Yeah.”

“I can’t look at this, I have to go.”

Campbell started to walk away from the scene. James couldn’t help but feel let down at Campbell’s weakened resolve. Everyone had a breaking point, and it seemed that this one was his.

James addressed the men in front of him.

“You have your pictures, so scoop these two up and get them into a hospital. Yesterday. And I want every gangbanger present to be accounted for, you know what that means.”

His men sprung to action, and James left them to work.

He caught up with Campbell as they left the court.

“What does that even accomplish?” Campbell questioned. He walked away, but his thoughts were still fixated on that. “Who would do something like that?”

“Either it’s a message,” James said, “Or a cruel joke. Either way, we’ll get to the bottom of it.”

They walked into the grass, James feeling the metal of the bullets and casings under his shoes, but they were walking on dirt, easier to step through bumpier terrain, here. James wasn’t afraid of slipping and making an ass of himself, needing Campbell to help him back up. He could do without an embarrassment.

James saw a tree by a concrete trail that would have led into an intact basketball court. The trunk was splintered and split open by bullets.

James saw someone approach, running out of the dark.

“James Gomez?”

He didn’t stop walking.

“James Gomez?”

He kept going.

“James!”

Not once did James break his stride.

A woman fell in step with him. Brown hair, thick rimmed glasses, beige coat and black tights. She looked like she was in her thirties, now. Time really did pass.

I really am getting old.

James didn’t want to admit that.

“I wanted to ask you some questions, James,” Natalie asked. “Actually, I don’t have anything to ask you, I have the answers, I just wanted some confirmation.”

Natalie Beckham. She was one of the top writers of the Stephenville Impact, the city’s number one news organization. Was. She had covered the local crime scene, back in the day, but the last time James had seen her around was almost seven years ago. He heard something about her moving to New York.

For whatever reason, she was back, now, and that only meant more complications.

James saw the cup in her hand. He wasn’t interested.

He didn’t entertain her. He just kept walking, Campbell on his right, Natalie on his left.

“I caught some of the gang members here as they tried to recount the events. The Thunders and the Royals had previously been operating in good faith in regards to a pact, but after too many incidents between the two groups, came here to settle the score. Is this true?”

James didn’t answer.

“And I heard that, right before the initial confrontation, there was a starting gunshot in the distance. Would you know that to be true?”

James didn’t answer.

“After that, was when the power began to cut out. In the dark, I’ve got multiple reports and a mysterious figure, cloaked in red, attacking members from both gangs. Could you confirm this?”

Red? Not blue?

James didn’t answer.

“Both gangs stopped their fighting and tried to go after this figure instead, but it was only striking in the dark, and they only had brief glimpses about its location during the seconds the power did come on. It was as though someone was toying with them.”

James and Campbell kept walking.

“When it was somehow established that this figure had gotten to both gang leaders, and when it proved fruitless to land a hit on this figure without shooting or stabbing someone else, everyone who could run, did.”

That was a decent summary of the events, but James wasn’t about to confirm that with her.

“Now, this part’s off the record since I don’t really like to speculate, I prefer facts, but given the recent activity in Stephenville, but do you believe this mysterious, cloaked figure could be related to the vigilante known as the Bluemoon?”

“Natalie,” James said.

“Finally, some life from the old man.”

“You’re not supposed to be here. The perimeter extends more than two blocks.”

“You think that’s going to stop someone like me?”

She had a point.

“No, but I am going to just leave you with a warning. I don’t want to see you around here again, and I’m done with questions.”

“I’m sad to hear that, James, you used to be so helpful before. What happened?”

That question, he would answer.

“I got old.”

He gestured to Campbell, and Campbell went over to Natalie’s side. He whisked her away, with her offering very little protest.

At least she could honor him on that. Natalie knew that she had what she needed, she just needed confirmation, for formalities.

What a good little journalist.

James continued until he reached the lot, seeing all of the men perform their proper duties. He’d probably give the whole area one more sweep, to see if he had missed anything.

Maybe get some info on this cloaked figure, as well.

His phone rang. He stopped.

James fished it out of his pocket, bringing it to his ear.

“Gomez,” he said, answering it.

Art studio, top floor. Eastern window facing the court. Come alone. Someone wants to see you.

He recognized the voice. It was that of a little girl.

Her?

“D,” James said, hard. “What the fuck do you have to do with this?”

The call ended.

James thrusted a hand in his pocket, putting his phone back. He hurried.

He was already facing the east, if this art studio had a clear view of the court, then it would be on the street just across from the court.

She said to come alone. Would he? Was it another trap, or one of D’s pranks?

Couldn’t be. Either D started getting bored of the same old tricks, and started escalating on her own – a dangerous notion – or she was a part of something else. Something bigger.

Did he need backup?

James slipped past some tape and his men. Everyone was too preoccupied to notice their chief pass them by.

He needed backup, but he had learned that particular lesson when he started this job. Bringing others in situations like this, when expressed not to, would only ever lead to disaster. James wouldn’t sacrifice good men like that.

If it was just him, just his life at stake, he was fine with that.

James found the art building, and checked the front door. It was unlocked.

Turning his flashlight on, he found the staircase on the side of the first floor. There were elevators, but James would rather take the stairs. At least to prove he still had a body he could use.

As he ascended, James made sure he had all of the essentials. Walkie-talkie, phone, and gun.

Check, check, and check.

James reached the fourth floor.

Art supplies, paint cans, canvases hanging on the wall. James wasn’t sure what he was expecting, perhaps another clue or body, but nothing here immediately stood out to him.

He saw the window. Light crept through the glass, lighting up a square shape on the floor of the art studio. He began to approach.

Slowly, carefully. James pulled his gun out, ready to fire. He kept his head low as he got closer to the glass. Last thing he wanted was to get sniped through a window.

James got in place. For long, agonizing seconds, he scoped out the scene below.

People working, collecting data from the basketball court and surrounding grass, helping victims into ambulances to send them off to the hospital, cleaning up wherever they could.

At the court itself, James saw that Darius and Marcus Jackson had been moved, but the blood remained. The broad strokes, and another pool that James didn’t notice before. A period. It was a message.

V.

“Thoughts?”

A voice from behind. James recognized it.

He turned around, his gun prepared.

From the shadows, a figure emerged.

A hood covered their head, but where the moonlight touched their face, James could only see the lower half, the mouth and chin. Everything from the nose up was covered. Flecks of blood dotted the figure’s mouth.

The rest of the figure’s shape was hard to make out. He couldn’t see its arms, the material draped over their body in such a way that it was difficult to make sense of it. They were wearing some sort of cloak or long robe, made of a flowy but heavy material.

From top to bottom, the cloak was red. The only other colors on the figure were the black shadows masking their face, the black pants they wore, and the snowy white skin of their mouth and chin.

A ghost, or a phantom, covered in blood. Or perhaps the Devil himself. Either way, James felt like he was being haunted. Cursed.

The only thing that was familiar about this figure was its voice.

“Blank Face?” he asked.

The figure twitched, as if offended by the suggestion.

“I wrote it out there for you to see,” the figure answered.

“V, then.”

“Yes.”

“But you were the vigilante known as Blank Face, am I correct?”

There was a pause.

“I was, unfortunately. Those days are behind all of us, now.”

James wasn’t sure what that was supposed to mean.

He asked.

“When you said you were rebranding, I wasn’t expecting this.” James put his arms to his side, including his gun. “Not exactly coming across as heroic with this new image. It’s a little too macabre.”

Another pause.

V spoke. “I’m only meeting with you now to give you a brief update on where things stand. This is probably the last time we’ll ever speak, like this.”

You ignored my comment.

James let that be.

“And you’re sure of that,” he said.

“I am.”

“Fine then, continue.”

“The Thunders and the Royals are out of the picture, now. I gathered them all here, and made a show of their leaders. While I had the majority of their numbers distracted, I had all of their assets and territories and cash seized. There are survivors, and they’ll probably want to retaliate, but they’ll find that they have nothing to go back to. It’s all been snatched out from under them.”

“That’s quite the workload for one person.”

“It certainly wasn’t easy.”

“I’m more inclined to believe that you had help. The call I got earlier, and with her reputation… Are you telling me a new gang is already moving in?”

The idea of that little girl working with a gang… It almost made James shiver. Before, she had always been something of a free agent, working by herself, enacting her own whims. Her irreverence for any structure or systems actually prevented her from being a legitimate threat. If she was content with being independent, she was actually easier to handle.

But to focus that destruction, aiming it with purpose? And throwing Blank Face – V – into the fold? James had already seen the results, out there on the court. It would be devastating.

“I’m telling you to stay away,” V said. “Let the dust settle where it does. You can clean up here, but after that, you’re done. I don’t want to see you in this territory again.”

He’d heard those words before, or something to that effect. Being ordered by the leader of a cartel or gang, by the enemy.

“You’re telling me what to do?”

“Yes, I am. You’re used to that sort of thing, aren’t you, being the puppet that you are.”

James was stunned.

Something must have snapped, in that mind of hers. She was but a child, just a kid.

“What the hell happened? Last time we met, you were asking me to help you find Benny.”

“And you refused, and I found her anyways. You’re useless, Gomez.”

“Then the fires on Eastside, that was you?”

A pause.

Ignored again.

“V,” James said. “Blank Face-”

V twitched.

“When you first came to my window, and we met on that roof, and you were asking me about finding Thomas, I knew then that you were the one he was working with. You see, Thomas never told me about his activities with you, but I knew him like a brother. He saw something in you, and he wanted to cultivate that. Shape you, despite himself. Part it was stress relief, since our plans weren’t going the way he wanted.”

V didn’t respond.

“So, I just want to ask you a few more questions, before you go, and I officially consider you as the enemy. Do you think Thomas would be proud of what you’ve become? What does ‘V’ stand for, to you? Vengeance, vendetta, villainy?”

V stood there, her head pointed to James. He couldn’t see her eyes, so he could only guess that she was staring at him.

For the third time, V ignored his questions.

“Don’t get in my way, or if you do, get a new office. You don’t want a third visit from me.”

With that final line, drawn in the sand, V took a step back, returning into the shadows.

James ran after her.

“Blank Face!”

He reached for his gun and flashlight. He pointed both around the room.

Nothing, no one, nowhere. V was gone.

“Shit!”

James turned back, going to the window. He watched the scene again, looking at the red letter that faced him, taunted him. ‘V’ was out there, free, and he was the one confined to these walls.

A cycle, revenge was. A vicious circle that turned good people desperate and cruel. Thomas had become desperate, and Blank Face had become cruel.

The number of good people in this city was getting smaller by the day.

James knew, now. It had always been like this, and they were doomed to fail from the start. And now, he was all alone, with nothing to show for his efforts.

Previous                                                                     Bonus

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041 – Wake

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The sun pierced through broken windows, visible rays coming down onto the rotunda.

I’m still up. I’m still doing this.

Too exhausted, I wasn’t registering the swarm of people here as people, merely obstacles. Getting in my way, preventing me from moving forward. At this rate, I’d be stuck. At this rate, I’d lose them.

I’d lose him.

I continued to press onward, shoving more people out of the way. Sound and noise stacked upon one another, the shouting and the ruckus of things breaking and shattering filled what was essentially a huge echo chamber. It disoriented, threw me off course, whenever my focus momentarily slipped.

A man turned, facing me directly. Me. He wanted to impede my progress.

No.

I swung my hand, despite the little space allowed. It was cramped.

The back of my hand struck his cheek, and he flew, spinning into more people behind him. His tumbling down led to a chain reaction, clearing a path for me.

I took it, before the sea of people could swallow up the space again, like waves after an impact.

The blasts and crashes, it buzzed in my head, and I could hardly hear my own thoughts. Not that I needed them, I was being driven by only one goal, by a singular objective I needed to complete. Everything I was doing went towards that goal’s fulfilment.

Go go go go go go get get get get get get.

Another person. Another thing in my goddamn way.

My foot moved without a conscious thought controlling it. I hit her square in the chest.

She got sent back, delivered elsewhere. More followed, more of a path made.

I was in a crowd of many. I almost blended in. Too much was going on for any one person to pay any attention to one small, masked girl among a large number of others. A needle in a haystack. I could work without largely being noticed.

I continued on, stepping over bodies and debris, trying not to get my foot caught on anything, trying not to get slowed down. Though, I couldn’t do the first without compromising the second.

More pushing, more pulling. The masses pushed, and I had to push back.

An endless fight.

Finally, finally, I made it out of the crowd. There were still many here, but they were in scattered clumps, groups fighting amongst themselves. Here, I had room to move without bumping into anyone, or anything else.

So I moved.

I went to where I saw them last, heading into the large corridor on the east wing. The noise didn’t lessen since leaving the rotunda. Instead, it seemed to get worse, the sound more free to travel throughout the more empty space.

I shook my head, then immediately regretted it. Dizzy. Hurt.

So sleepy.

I looked again, trying to find them.

Not here.

Fuck, no, fuck.

I tried again, checking around.

No…

A glimpse.

A group, moving up the large marbled stairs that zig-zagged to the next floor. The second floor. I lost visual when they went up high enough for the ceiling to block my view.

I moved, as swiftly as my weary legs would take me.

I took the stairs by three, before I almost tripped. My hand reached for the wooden railing for support.

Hasty, so hasty.

Could jump all the way, skip the first flight of stairs and middle landing entirely, and work my way up the second flight instead. But I was so fucking heavy. Exhausted. Tapping into empty reserves. A shell of a person, moving only with the purpose that was last in its mind before the mind had shut down completely.

A zombie, in a very scarily real sense.

I took the stairs a step at a time, sometimes two, when I felt daring enough. I turned when I reached the middle landing, then turned, taking the stairs as painfully slow as before. I moved someone out of the way, where they were resting their back on the railing, juice flowing from their sides.

Juice, red, red juice, yes.

No. Him first.

I want him first.

Finally, finally, I completed my trek, and ascended the stairs. I was on the second floor, in another large, grand hall.

Here, there was much less in the way of obstacles, but the sound was only marginally dampened. The hall led back to the center of the building, the rotunda. The chaotic cacophony carried here, too. I couldn’t escape it.

Left, right, I looked both ways.

Not that way, back to the rotunda, that way.

Down the hall, into a room.

I saw them move.

I followed.

The door closed before I got to it. Big. Two, three times my size. It looked heavy.

I pressed, arms straining, and the door opened, swinging.

Six in here. Five, excluding him. The one I wanted so bad it was killing me.

They all turned to the door. To me.

All of them had some kind of blunt instrument in their hand, looking like they were more than ready to strike, and they did.

They ran at me.

Still up, still doing this.

I got into a crouch, ready to jump.

Get over their heads, change up our placement on the field, make things easier on me

My legs had another idea.

Instead of tense, potential energy ready to turn and propel me upward, I continued, and fell down onto my knees.

On my knees.

Oh no no no no no.

My chin depressed into the space between my collarbone, I was leaning forward. I had pretty much spent all that I had, all that I was.

Body failing me, betraying me.

I was completely open.

The first hit struck home, a club to my temple.

My ear touched my shoulder.

I went one way, having to catch myself by throwing my hands to the floor.

I shifted, crawling, but I could not get away from the next hit.

A swift kick to the stomach.

I choked, and my body contorted, falling onto my back.

Everything was going wrong so fast, I barely had the time to process what was happening.

Mind running slow, body not moving how and when I wanted it to.

It was an attack on all fronts. Externally, internally.

Another person took their turn, striking. I lifted an arm to block my face.

The knife went through me like I was butter. Hot, through cold.

Piercing. The pain shot through my body, jolting my brain awake. I saw the blade stick out through my arm, through the sleeve, crimson soaking the fabric.

My breath was cut short, reduced to fits and starts, and I was twitching, trying to get away. But I was pinned, my limbs felt like jelly from the shock of it all.

With me being stunned, the others took that as an opportunity to continue their assault, hitting and clubbing me, giving it all they had. The knife stayed in my arm, the owner of it having stepped back to give the others more room. I would have turned into a bloody mess, had it not been for my healing, but I did have my limits. And I was about to meet them.

Not healing fast enough.

Never drank blood, instead losing it. I was seeing stars, losing my sense of self.

Lost in a sort of black emptiness.

Hit. Pain. Hurt. Cut.

I was meat, being tenderized. Served up.

A hand grabbed for my face, balling itself into a fist. My goggles and ski mask were starting to come with it as it pulled away.

Can’t let that happen.

Both of my hands went in front of my face, gripping the arm that had my mask by the wrist. I gripped as hard as I still could, then twisted.

Bones cracked, then shifted out of place.

A cry. It should have been close, but it sounded farther off.

I felt hands come off of me, a momentary lapse of inactivity where I wasn’t being hit or attacked. I was blinded, my mask and goggles scrunched up over my eyes, but I used that as my chance to find my way to my feet.

I still had their arm in my grasp, I wouldn’t let go.

Anger, and but a blip of energy left to express it.

I spun, their body flailing around me, and I released them at the top of my turn. The pained cries of others, the crashing of flesh onto wood. I must have thrown hard enough to slam a number of them back.

Over the crying, I heard an exchange, but I missed the first part of it.

“Why is it beeping?”

“It’s beeping?”

“I thought we were supposed-”

“Fuck, everyone get out! We’re leaving him!”

“What about-”

“Benny! You waste the time to do it now, you’ll be blown sky-fucking-high. Let’s go.”

Squeaks of sneakers on marble, then steps on carpet, then nothing.

My back hit a wall behind me, and I pushed my legs to prop myself up, getting myself to stand. I fixed my mask and goggles with my right hand as I did so.

My vision was blurry, but it was better than nothing. I could make out the room.

Wider than it was tall, it was like an office space that had been cleared out for future use. It had a regal look to it, that matched the marble and Roman architecture of the rest of the building. The only light in here was natural, coming in from the windows on one side of the room.

I glanced across the floor. My eyes fell upon a vest, sliding across the floor, and the man who threw it.

Thomas.

Jacket was off, tossed behind him. He was by the corner on the opposite end, fallen over.

I looked back at the vest. The beeping vest.

My body moved before I could make sense of it all. Before the danger actually settled in. Like something else has taken over.

I threw everything I had into one last sprint. One last go. One last chance to get something right.

Everything blurred together. A whirlwind of heat and sound.

I crossed the room as everything fell apart.

One hour ago

I had to lift a goggle lens away from my eye if I wanted to rub at it. I wanted to, but the police officers squished beside me prevented me from taking that course of action.

I sat in the back of a police van, rubbing shoulders with others stuffed in here. Stuffed, because I couldn’t move, couldn’t rest. Tilt my head either way, I’d end up resting my head on an officer’s arm. Lean forward, I’d bump into James Gomez.

Considering everything that had happened in the past few hours… this was really awkward. Super awkward.

The van was stuck in traffic. We weren’t even close enough to be considered close, but long stretches of cars kept us from moving an inch. Honking horns blared randomly, sometimes in spurts, other times all at once into one huge wall of sound. Even if I had the room to rest my head and sleep, the sound kept me up.

It had been like this for at least for an hour and a half. Progress hadn’t been good.

I was becoming twitchy, despite my weariness. We were supposed to have the upper hand, but we weren’t moving fast enough to make any use of it, and that advantage was slipping away with every passing second.

It grated, and it must have been the same for Gomez, too.

I could tell because I saw it.

He had kept checking his wristwatch to the point that I had lost count, and opened his phone just as many times. Irritated.

He shook his head.

“You, you, and you,” he said, pointing to a select few, including the two officers beside me. But not me. “We won’t make it in time like this. I want eyes on the field. Get out and run.”

They followed his order without so much of a ‘yes sir,’ opening the metal doors to make it out of the van. I turned away from the opening to better obscure myself, hide my visage.

I did notice how the light changed, through the front window. The sun was rising.

They closed the doors behind them, and I was left alone with Gomez, and one other police officer, sitting to Gomez’s right.

That didn’t make things any less awkward.

The van inched some, the most progress we’d made in minutes.

Gomez handled most of the questioning, but there wasn’t anything else we got out of Linda Day that was terribly useful. She was a lackey, apparently forced to pay some kind of debt. A debt that was big enough to warrant faking her death. Either way, her circumstances weren’t helpful to us stopping the planned riot on city hall.

Gomez then ordered his men to be split up into groups. One to keep an eye on Linda and the other two henchmen, and the weapons they stole back from police. Another would have to keep tabs on Edgar Brown. The final group had to go to city hall… just to see what could be done, if anything. We were stretched thin, by that point. At most, it would have to be damage control.

I was included in that final group.

I sat in thought, trying to come up with a way to foil Solace’s plan that didn’t involve total anarchy, given how stacked things were against us. Nothing.

“Ah!”

A feeling like I was falling, my whole body jolted. I jumped in my seat.

I had drifted too far forward without realizing it.

Gomez and the other cop both looked at me.

“Tired?” he asked.

I nodded, sleepily.

“I’ve been at this all night, I had hoped that this would be over by now. Guess not.”

“Almost there, almost.”

I would have agreed, except this whole ordeal wouldn’t just magically fix itself overnight. Even if we got Thomas back, Solace was still a very real threat that still needed to be taken head on. Even this was a distraction, a detour, towards the real goal.

I made some sort of gesture.

Gomez cleared his throat before saying, “Law enforcement officers have a sworn duty to protect and serve their citizens, that means a lot of late nights, early mornings. That’s something one should expect, going into this, and it’s something one gets trained for. You… you weren’t trained for this, were you? You didn’t expect this?”

I put my head back, glancing away.

“No, I wasn’t. If anything, it’s more like I was thrown into the ocean without having ever learned how to swim. And the ocean’s on fire. And full of sharks. And my hands were tied behind my back.”

“Your analogy lost it’s focus at the end there, but I see what you mean. I think. You’re new to your… powers?”

“More than you know. I’m not an alien, or a super… whatever. I’m…”

I trailed off.

“You’re what?”

I exhaled.

“I’m just very unlucky.”

A glance back, and I saw Gomez on his phone again, typing away.

“Well, you’re young, younger than anyone would realistically guess, I’m surprised you even managed to manage,” he said, eyes still on his screen, “I wonder how well I’d hold up, if I were in your shoes.”

I would have rolled my eyes, if my eyes didn’t feel so hot, as though they were overheated. Why was I talking to him, why was I engaging? It didn’t seem to fit with what had happened not too long ago, when I was berating him for not jumping at the gun to cooperate.

I wanted to distract myself some more, pass the time. At least, I had to keep myself mentally pacing.

But my only option was to keep talking with Gomez.

“Any updates?” I asked. I sounded like Hleuco, there.

He continued typing on his phone, and a slight frown formed on his lips. “They’ll let me know when they get there, give it a minute.”

“That’s why I suggested to go down there myself, by rooftop. I could find a bird’s eye view of things, see how things are, and I can direct you guys from there.”

Gomez grunted, and it was prolonged, as though he was actually irritated by my suggestion.

“It’s too risky, and there are a lot of eyes at city hall already. Granted, those eyes aren’t mine, but we know the situation enough that throwing you in there would be like throwing a bull in a china shop.”

“I can hide,” I said, “I’m not even wearing my usual costume.”

He eyed me. “Somehow I doubt your ability to be inconspicuous. You heard Linda Day, people have been camped out there, waiting for the mayor to come out and speak. And, considering how fast word gets out nowadays, more must be coming out in droves to see what’s going to happen. Reporters, bloggers, activists, actual protesters, the morbidly curious…”

He tapped his foot, before adding, “By itself, that’s enough cause for concern. A riot might very well break out on its own, and that’s before considering both you and Solace. I don’t want fuel to the fire.”

“You don’t trust me,” I said.

“I don’t know you, but I suppose that does extend to me not trusting you completely. You’ll have to understand that I’m coming at this from a police officer’s point of view. There’s still a lot we don’t know about you, both in your true nature and your true intentions. The less of a factor you yourself play, the better.”

I gritted my teeth. Being benched, at such a crucial hour? Hell no. I didn’t spend the whole night tearing the city apart to find Thomas, just to hand it off to others. Why was I brought along, if I’d end up being stuck in here?

I tried balling my hands into fists, but I found there was some missing strength, there, too much effort for such a weak grip. I looked at Gomez head on, asking him something I probably should have made clear before I got into a van full of policemen.

“So you are going to arrest me, after all this. Is that why you want me out of the way, keep me close so I don’t escape?”

Gomez traded a quick look with the cop sitting next to him. Campbell, now that I tried to put effort in remembering his name.

“Right now, we’re aligned by mutual interests, but there’s a fine line, here. I will tolerate you being here, so long as you don’t give me a reason to change my mind. But, right here, right now? I’m more concerned about damage control, and getting Thomas back.”

I took note of that word, ‘tolerate.’ I kept that in mind.

I turned to Campbell, curious about his thoughts, too.

“And you? Do you agree with him?”

He looked at me straight in the eye. Or the goggles.

“If the Chief is willing to go along with it, then I’m in no position to complain. I can’t speak for my colleagues, but I’d like to think they’re of the same mind.”

I huffed through my nose, and I felt it heat up my face.

“Speaking for myself, though,” Campbell said, “There were times where you’ve been there to help, and we weren’t, or you’ve provided assistance at a critical moment. I was there when you stopped that car with your bare hands. That was impressive.”

An immense pressure pressed on my arms. The sensation came back to me. A memory.

“Um, thanks, I guess,” I said.

“But I’m just speaking for myself,” Campbell reiterated. “Maybe the others feel the same way, or they despise you all the same, but they trust in the Chief’s judgement enough to, like he said, tolerate you being here, without handcuffs.”

Tolerate.

“You know, if I can stop a speeding car with my bare hands, handcuffs won’t be enough to keep me down.”

Gomez put his phone away. “I suppose, if you really wanted to, you could get away quite easily. How far you’d go, that’s a different matter, entirely.”

An uneasy feeling stirred inside me. A rocky truce between me and the police, that only existed in the now. How things would play out in the near future, was unclear.

It might help to make a good impression, in the meantime.

The van inched once more. I was scared that we wouldn’t make it in time.

“Do we, or, you, not have any allies that can help us there?” I asked, switching topics. “Police that are already stationed at city hall?”

“If anyone’s already stationed there, that means they’re there on someone else’s orders, not mine. It might be fine if I show my face, but I have to be careful not to tip anyone off about what we know.”

“You’re the police chief, are you really that powerless?”

Campbell looked over at Gomez, but Gomez had his eyes on me. They held something deeper than disappointment.

“I have authority over my men, don’t get me wrong. I can tell them where to go and what to do when they get there. Generally speaking. But, quite a number of them are in the pocket of someone else, for any number of reasons. And for some of them, reasons I can’t fault them for. So, under normal circumstances, they’ll listen, and they’ll entertain me, but I know where their loyalties lie.”

I almost had a sense of pity for Gomez. What did it mean to be at the top, when you weren’t allowed to exercise the power that came with that position? I could imagine someone becoming jaded over time, as the frustration gave way to a reluctant acceptance.

This world…

“I’m… sorry,” I decided to say. That last word was especially difficult. I wasn’t sure I meant it, it just felt right to say. “I called you inept… and a motherfucker.”

Gomez chuckled at that, surprising me. “Oh, that? I already forgot about that.”

“She called you that, sir?” the officer beside him asked.

Gomez shrugged, “It’s nothing. I’ve been called far worse things by good friends of mine. But let’s not concern ourselves with something so trivial, let’s focus on getting Thomas back.”

That, we could all agree on. If only the traffic would let us through.

The van moved along again, but not by inches, this time. It was slow, but we were moving.

“Looks like traffic’s being directed away from city hall now,” Gomez explained. “That should speed things along.”

“Are we going to make in time?” I asked.

“We might miss the first part of the mayor’s speech, but we’ll get there.”

I grumbled, but I was unable to do anything about it. I just sat, and waited for the van to take us there.

Fifteen minutes ago

They benched me, after all.

Fuck this.

Gomez and Campbell – even the driver – hopped out of the van as soon as we arrived at city hall, disappearing into the crowd of people. There was a scary amount of people here.

I looked out from the front windshield of the van.

City Hall. The building was big, expansive. Modeled after the U.S. Capitol building, sans the giant dome that topped it off. White, with columns across the front, stairs leading up to it. A symbol of democracy.

I had been here once before, on a school field trip back in elementary school. It was big then, and it seemed even bigger now, especially with all the people here.

So many people.

The van was parked right past the large front gates that served as the official entrance to the premises. Past the gates was a field that was about the size of a football field, if not bigger. It was more like a park, though, with pathways for a stroll and trees to have a picnic under the shade. Not a bad place to do some sightseeing, and enjoy the weather.

However, right now, there was so many people I could hardly find a patch of green, just heads, other vans, picket signs, raised fists. It was as if a popular rapper decided to hold a concert here.

And the sheer volume, from the chanting to the cheering, to the random person shouting their own manifesto, I only made out a few words from Mayor Scott, who was standing at the head of the crowd, above them on a makeshift stage, in front of city hall. Pretty much a dot, from here.

He spoke into some mics attached to a podium.

“Blank Face, and this terrorist… not be tolerated… justice will be…”

I can’t understand what he’s trying to say.

I grabbed the walkie-talkie by my side, the only consolation Gomez lent me. I spoke into it.

“What’s the deal?” I asked, “Did you find him yet?”

Now I’m the guy in the van.

The device produced a burst of static before I heard Gomez.

Nothing yet. I’m approaching the stage, trying to get close to the mayor, but I’m not seeing anything on my way there. There’s too many people, and a lot of them are dressed like you, by the way.

“I can see that from here. Guess I wouldn’t be much help here, either. It’s like the whole ‘needle in a haystack’ thing.”

Or maybe a ‘haystack in a pile of needles.’ I’ll keep my eyes peeled. The others will, too.

“Yeah,” I said, and I left it at that. Powerless.

I was getting twitchy. I was here, but Thomas was nowhere to be found. So close, but he was constantly yanked from my fingertips. I wanted to get him so bad.

I went back to watching the mayor, trying to catch every other word, watching whether that dot or that dot was suspicious or not. My vision was swimming, from both the difficulty of it, and simply exhaustion and overwork taking its toll.

The mayor continued.

“We will see to it that-”

A dot moved across the stage. To the podium.

The mayor’s speech was interrupted. He was thrown to the floor.

Cries of surprise swelled over the crowd like a wave, starting from the front, and coming all the way back here.

I gripped the walkie-talkie.

Someone else was at the podium. Someone new. They were far away, but I saw the outline of a blue hood over their heads. Two other dots stood behind them.

They spoke, and they were somehow much more audible than the mayor.

“This is Thomas Thompson, District Attorney-elect for the city of Stephenville, and I stand in support of Solace.”

Another wave of surprise. I felt it, too.

There he is.

I immediately went to the walkie-talkie. “Are you getting this?”

No answer.

Hey!”

Again, nothing.

Thomas was the middle of his speech. I turned my eyes to him, again.

“In just a short amount of… time, the villain known as The Bluemoon has terrorized the good people of Stephenville, including me and my family. I had to turn myself to Solace in order to protect those that I love, and go into… hiding. But, it wouldn’t have been for long, because I want this city to be rid of this evil, and the only way to get back our sense of comfort in these… hard times, is to side with Solace!”

I pressed the button on the walkie-talkie, but my throat was dry.

Nothing he was saying made sense, none of it. He had to have been coerced into saying these things, like that guy back at the dinner party. The real Solace had to be speaking through him, spouting nonsense.

But, even if that were true, hearing Thomas say those things…

It cut, and it cut deep.

I need to stop him.

“Solace is not the enemy, rather our liberat-”

Someone interrupted Thomas, crossing the stage and slamming into him.

The panic was bubbling, now, and I saw it boiling throughout the crowd that was gathered here.

Then, a pop.

And all hell broke loose.

The crowd expanded out into every direction, as if to get as far away from the building as possible. But another group within that crowd made their play, too.

One out of every ten in the crowd were dressed like me, like Blank Face. Blue hoods, white masks. Some were carrying signs, others were clumped together, but they all dropped what they were doing to add to the chaos. The anarchy of it all.

They shoved into others, preventing them from getting away easily. Fights broke out, panic spreading like fire. A crush of people ran past the van, trying to go through the gates behind me.

Oh no.

I turned, and the walkie-talkie finally buzzed.

Blank Face, this is Gomez! I tried to tackle Thomas but… agh!

“What’s going on now?”

There’s a group with him, and they got away, taking him along. They’re fleeing into the building, and rioters are going in with them. I can’t follow anymore.

“Why not?”

The mayor’s hurt, I have to stay with him, keep him secure. And, I’m in no condition to give them chase. But you can.

I was drowsy as fuck, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me.

“I’m on it!” I said, and I tossed the walkie-talkie behind me. Needed both hands for this one.

I opened the back doors of the van.

The first thing I saw was that the gates were closed, people rattling them. They weren’t closed before.

Shit, I had to leave that behind, couldn’t help there. How were we supposed to control this damage?

Need to get to Thomas.

I stepped out of the the van, and was immediately flushed into the horde of masses. Not people, obstacles.

Barely budge, barely move, I had no agency here.

The city hall was a whole football field away. How was I supposed to get there in time?

I had to fight my way through.

I fought.

Present

The dust settled after the rubble.

The vest had exploded. Exploded. With far more force and energy than I would have ever realistically expected. I wasn’t a soldier, I hadn’t grown up in a war-torn area of the world. This was never something I had to anticipate. The shock, the sound, the impact, it rocked my very soul.

And the floor.

The explosion tore the floor to pieces, as if there was an anger to it, and it was lashing out at everything it came into contact with. Which was mostly everything in this wide room. I was instantly enveloped in heat, then smoke, before the floor broke from under me. I reached in front of me, feeling fabric, the weight behind it.

I pulled him toward me as we were tumbling down.

Glass, rock, wood. Everything had moved, the impact tossing us every which way. It added to the disorientation, the dizziness of it all. I spun, and my head continued to spin. I tried with all my might to keep straight, to keep Thomas close. And, as everything crumbled and broke all around us, to not get him crushed.

I’d dropped before from far higher heights, but this was a whole other level. This was a fall, a descent. We were on the second floor, and we were headed to the first.

Thrashed around, like I was a rag in a dryer. It didn’t last, but it felt like forever.

The dust settled after the rubble.

Everything ached. Everything hurt.

I coughed, but found that my chest and back wouldn’t expand properly to let out any air. I sputtered, instead. My fast and short breathing heated up my mask, my face. Stuffy.

Down on my hands and knees. I felt like I was sinking into the earth.

Dark, cloudy, could barely see. Ears ringing.

An immense weight sat on me, threatening to crush me flat if I gave in to the pressure. Couldn’t, wouldn’t.

“Ah! Aaaah!”

With the dust, hysteria also settled in.

“H- help, help! Somebody help! There, there are p- people down here! We’re trapped here! Please someone come get us! Help! We’re down here! He-”

I coughed, again. Harder to get my breath this time. Wheezing. My arms shook, and that was enough for the rock that had me pinned to find more purchase, pushing me down. A rumble of other rocks shifting. I had to straighten my arms again, and sharp pang reminded me of the knife that was still in my arm.

Okay, no screaming, or we’ll be even more stuck down here.

Couldn’t let this fucking boulder crush me, wouldn’t.

Because Thomas was right under me, on his back, in between my arms.

In the gloom, I could make out his features. He’d seen better days.

Soot and dirt smeared his forehead, down to his right cheek. His hair was messy, sticking up in some places, reddened in others. A gash that traced his left temple to his nose, bad enough that he couldn’t open his left eye. Blood colored the left side of his face.

Whatever Styx had done to him, it didn’t include his face. That was hardly a relief, for my part.

Alive, but barely. But I had him.

I just had to find a way to get us out.

“Thomas,” I said. It was a struggle to say anything, but I wanted to say something to Thomas. I finally had him. After everything I’d been through, I had him.

“Are you hurt?” I asked.

He moved his head side to side, painfully slow.

It was obvious he was hurt, I could see it, I could infer, thinking back to the bloodied chair I saw back at the warehouse.

You don’t have to lie to me, Thomas.

“Kept you waiting, huh?” I asked instead.

Somehow, or perhaps miraculously, Thomas found it within himself to smile. It was weak, and I could tell it strained him, but he smiled.

“Took you long enough,” he said, nearing a whisper. “The wait was killing me.”

Despite everything, I cracked a smile too, though just as weak.

“I got your message,” I whispered, “But… But…”

“How? It was a precautionary measure. I figured Solace would be coming for me the moment he made himself known at the dinner party.”

He took a second to breathe. Several.

“Your pager. I had a text queued, timed to whenever Solace’s timers would reach zero. If I was okay, I could simply set it back twenty-four hours. If not…”

“I get the message,” I said.

“Precisely. If something were to happen to me, I wouldn’t be able to send you where I was exactly, or where I would be taken. They ended up taking my phone, anyway. My best bet was to send you to James, and you could work with him.”

I winced, my back… just my back. It fucking hurt.

“Sorry to break it to you,” I said, “But Gomez wasn’t willing to play along at first. He was harder to bring on board than I would’ve liked, but even then…”

His expression changed, disappointment.

“Shame.”

Shame on Gomez, his best friend, or shame on me, the supposed superhero? Shame that we couldn’t work together sooner to find him? Or maybe shame on himself, for having not seen this coming?

I was projecting, had to put my priorities elsewhere. Like keeping myself up.

The boulder was getting heavier with every second. Losing strength, strength that I needed, strength that I required.

I still managed to tell him more. “I was turning this city upside-down to try and find you. You have no idea what my night was like.”

Another frail smile from Thomas.

“Same.”

I couldn’t keep it up anymore, I frowned.

“I can’t hold on for much longer,” I said, in between short breaths. “I’m losing it… This thing is fucking heavy.”

“You’re doing great, Alexis.”

Alexis. That was it, right, my name? Hearing it made me feel better. By a small, almost negligible margin, but better.

“I think I can hear people,” Thomas said, “Checking over the debris.”

“Really?” I tried to hear, but it was impossible for me, now. It was as if my heart was in my head, pounding in my skull. Nothing but an intrusive, arrhythmic pounding.

“Really. I’d hate to put even more pressure on you, but if you can get this thing off…”

I shut my eyes, the beginnings of tears wetting the corners of my eyes.

“I can’t, I can’t, it’s taking everything I have just to stay in this pose. It’s too heavy.”

“You have to try, Alexis, believe in yourself, for once.”

The air in here was thinning, I couldn’t repeat myself.

I shut my eyes, tighter, and tensed all the muscles in my body. I tried to push, to find my way to my feet, to get this chunk of rubble off of me.

No. There was nothing there. It wouldn’t budge. I wouldn’t budge.

The attempt left my arms wobbling for a second, and the rock pushed on me even more. Thomas shuddered, but it wasn’t like he could go anywhere. I did what I could to straighten my arms again, to stop its progress in squashing us. It stopped, but I was closer to Thomas, now, my arms straining two-fold.

I gasped for air that wasn’t there. That was enough to show Thomas that it was hopeless.

I was burnt out, completely empty. Impossible, to do this on my own, with the resources I had available, with the resources I had within me. I needed something more, I needed more than I what I was.

Thomas met my eyes, and I stared back. I was so close to saving him, yet it had to be like this.

This isn’t fair, the world isn’t fair.

Thomas whispered softly. Barely audible, drowned out by the pounding in my head.

“What?”

“My blood, Alexis, drink my blood.”

My own blood ran cold.

What?”

“I’m giving you my blood to drink, Alexis, use it. Anything to get you back on your feet.”

I flinched, a particular jagged edge driving into the back of my shoulder. The rock pushed down on me again, pushing me closer to Thomas’s face.

He shifted, bringing his arms up. I could see the effort it took, how much it hurt him to do so.

He pulled up on my mask, freeing my lips, my nose. He was uncomfortably close.

“Do it, it’s okay,” he said. “In fact, consider it an explicit order.”

“I… can’t,” I said back, “It’s too…”

I trailed off.

“This is a matter of life… and death, Alexis, we can’t let something like that stop us now.”

I grimaced at the thought of it, but the desperation in me told me he was right. I might be able to get some strength back to get this thing off of me, but even then, I’d never pushed myself that hard before.

Thomas hacked out a cough, and spurts of blood flew from his mouth.

“Alexis, we need to get out of here. You… know, I managed to get some stuff on Solace. You were right about Benny, but she’s nothing but a hired gun, not unlike Edgar, and Linda. And Styx…”

He coughed again.

“I want to share my… notes, with you. You need to get us out of here.”

Impossible, it was impossible.

I blinked more tears away, the water collecting at the bottom of my goggles.

Damn me.

“Please, Alexis, it’s okay,” Thomas said, soft. “The search party might go away soon. If you can at least move the rock, you can get their attention, and they might find help on their end.”

My arms, my entire body, twitched from the weight of the burden. I nodded once.

“Take off my goggles,” I said.

I had my eyes closed when he did so, setting them above my eyebrows. I put my thoughts elsewhere, to the other times I drank blood. Blood from Thomas’s cut finger, blood spilled onto Styx’s bike, blood from when I stabbed Benny…

Blood from that rabbit.

Animal, I had to think of this like taking from a mere animal.

“Okay,” I said, defeated, “Okay.”

I opened my eyes, and saw Thomas working on unbuttoning his shirt, exposing his collar, the skin underneath.

Oh, right. How else was I to do this? Lick the wounds on his face? Not enough blood, there, to get anything substantial, I could tell by some twisted instinct. I had to go a more direct way.

“I’ve never really done it that way, before,” I said. The situation was too grave to be embarrassed at the wording.

“Let’s set a rule first,” Thomas said, leaning his head one way, until his forehead pressed against rock. “I’ll lift myself to you as much as I can, so you don’t have to lean down any more. I’ll have to determine when you’ve had enough, and, if and when we get to that point, I’ll pat you on the back. Do you understand?”

I nodded again.

“It’s going to hurt,” I said. I was sure it would.

“I can deal, let’s do this. Good luck.”

Thomas pushed himself up, and I felt his body heat get hotter as it approached my lips. My breathing got even heavier, as I realized what I was about to do.

I opened my mouth. My lips pressed against the top of his shoulder, then my teeth. My tongue tasted of sweat.

I closed my eyes.

I bit down.

I expected a resistance, where the skin would be hard to pierce. And there was… at first. It was a lot like biting an apple. A small instance of difficulty, putting more effort than what was probably needed, then juice spilled forth.

And it did.

Thomas drew in a quick breath. I felt muscles briefly tighten around my teeth.

It seemed easier than it should have been, biting him, and getting him to bleed. I didn’t think on that now, I only drank.

Drinking only brought attention to just how thirsty I was, how drained I was of sustenance. How I deprived myself of such a delectable flavor.

It was good. So good that I couldn’t think.

Tasting it again, I was at a loss of words, other than ‘sweet.’ It summed it up perfectly. Short, sweet, to the point.

I swallowed, and it reinvigorated. A surge that washed over me, leaving me with more power than I had felt in years.

With every gulp, I felt like I was gaining something. Yet, at the same time, I was giving up an essential part of myself in exchange.

It took me a while before I came back to my senses.

A smack, a slap against my neck. I made a sound in response.

“I think that’s… more than enough,” Thomas said, weaker than ever. “I feel like I’m about to faint.”

I made another sound. Had I gone too far? Would I have even stopped, if I wasn’t prompted?

Dangerous, nearly lost myself there.

I pulled away from Thomas, a trail of blood still linking my lower lip and his marks, dotted in red. A clear imprint of teeth was left behind.

Thomas fixed his shirt back into place, hiding it. He moved his arm, wiping my chin with his sleeve.

I didn’t thank him, I didn’t waste any more time.

I just fought my way back to my feet.

It was like there was a second wind under me, I could move without being completely hindered. I pushed up, by my back, and the rubble gave way.

It was still massive, and that jutted edge pressed more into my shoulder blade, but I was making progress.

The aches and pangs came back and stronger, screaming at my body to stop, to give up. I screamed in return.

I kept pushing, and the rubble was being lifted higher. I was almost about to think that I’d make it. That it was feasible. Escape.

The rubble was high enough that I was able to finally change positions. I shifted my feet so my soles were flat on the ground, and I was crouched. My hands no longer had to work to keep me up, and I pressed them against the rubble. My forearm that had the knife flared up in pain as I lifted.

I was working to a standing position, now, and to get this off of me.

For me, for Thomas. For Mom. For Katy, for Kristin. For Maria. Even for Gomez.

For everyone.

Heavy, my muscles stiffening, but I was still getting somewhere. Getting to my feet.

I heard the distant falling of other rocks. Rubble that was stacked on top of the one that had me pinned. It had added to the weight, but with excess sliding off, it was becoming much easier, now.

I howled, and I pushed.

More pain meant more progress, and I was on fire.

I was standing, but I was hunched over, and light was rushing in between slits and cracks. I was able to hear what Thomas was talking about earlier, the search party. They were here, and I had their attention.

One more, Alexis, just one more, and we’re out of here.

One more solid push, and I’d get this thing off of me, and out of my life.

One… more…

I mustered everything I had into one last effort. One last throw.

Everything went white. I was yelling, but I didn’t hear it. I was pushing, but my body didn’t feel it. I just did.

And then it was over.

When I came to, I was standing, and huge chunks of rubble were being flipped over, falling around behind me.

I was free. I felt like I was about to float away.

There was a moment of stillness, like even the world itself couldn’t believe what just transpired. Even I couldn’t believe it.

I stared at Thomas, and he stared back, eyes wide, mouth open.

Stunned as I was.

His mouth moved, but it was lost on me. I tilted my head, then turned.

The ceiling was completely gone, having collapsed into the room below. The explosion also left behind a huge, gaping hole in the wall, light pouring in. People were coming up the pile of rock and rubble, by way of the hole. Paramedics.

A few circled around me and Thomas. They went right to taking care of Thomas.

One of them faced me, his mouth moved. I didn’t quite understand, but it had something to do with my arms.

I looked at them. The knife, through my sleeve and my arm.

I shook my head once. I pulled the knife out, and tossed it away. My arm went right to taking care of itself, but my sleeve covered up the process.

Other paramedics were here, forming a larger circle around us. We were standing in a pile of debris, the footing uneven. I’d be taking up space if I stayed here, loitering around. I had to leave Thomas to the professionals. I didn’t need to be looked after.

I began to take the path of least resistance, where I could step without risking a tumble all the down. If I fell, I probably wouldn’t get up again.

Slow, cumbersome, but I managed, and I ended up essentially coming back the way I came. I stood in the wide and tall corridor, in one of the wings of city hall.

Arms by my side, stiff, and I had a slouch. I was more zombie than human, right now.

I want to sleep so bad.

Others were in the hall with me, mostly police. Some began to approach when they noticed me.

If I tried to run, I’d most likely fall over, and that’d be the end of it. I stayed put, readying myself for yet another fight, prepared to bite back, if I had to.

One other cop, originally standing by himself, jogged to intercept the incoming cops. He stopped them, waved his arms. Talking with his hands?

Then, the incoming cops turned around, and went elsewhere. The single cop approached, in their stead. I didn’t relax.

“I won’t lie, you saved my ass, up there. That was truly something.” He then drew out a long breath. “He should be in good hands, now.”

His voice, his face. I was familiar with it, I was supposed to recognize it, but I had trouble connecting the dots. Maybe it was the bloodied nose, mucking everything up.

It took a minute.

His face changed.

“You okay, do you need to be checked out?”

His name is James Gomez, he’s the police chief of the Stephenville Police Department. Thomas’s friend.

“James Gomez,” I said, like I was learning to read for the first time.

“I can’t see your face, but I know when someone’s out of it. Do you need to be checked out?”

No, you’re fine.

“No, I’m fine,” I said.

“Are you sure?”

Yes, you are.

“Yes, I am,” I said.

Gomez checked behind him before asking, “Can you walk?”

You can.

I nodded, and took a step. Gomez accepted that as an answer, and proceeded to lead the way, heading to the stairs.

“Things are still pretty bad,” Gomez said, as we went down. “Dozens injured, including the mayor, but thankfully no casualties. Yet, maybe. There’s still spurts of fighting here and there, but when the explosion happened, everyone cleared out of the building in an instant. Little did I know that you and Thomas were down there. Guess I was lucky to come, anyway.”

I had to hold onto the wooden railing to keep my balance. I was much slower going down, Gomez had to accommodate for me.

My throat wasn’t dry, but I had no energy to waste on words. I’d only speak when I really had to.

Gomez continued, “If things weren’t already bad, this happens. A massive explosion in a government building. I think the only thing that was bigger in recent memory was, well, you. I bet Solace didn’t see this coming.”

We turned, and continued down. The whole area was a stark contrast from before. Only our footsteps made any sound as we descended, and there wasn’t another soul on the lower floor.

“But, it’s not all bad,” Gomez said. “We prevented Solace from fully accomplishing whatever it is they had planned, and we got Thomas back. We didn’t net a win, but at least Solace suffered a loss.”

A win, a loss? There was a massive explosion in a government building. That was bad, no matter how you slice it. Solace played with fire, there, and maybe it was supposed to be a bluff, but it ended with everyone else getting burned. He’d pay for that, and I’d see to it, myself.

After I get some sleep.

“This way,” Gomez said, turning another way. “And pick up the pace.”

I did my best to follow as he led me behind the flight of stairs. A metal door was situated underneath. He opened it.

“Hurry,” he said, going through it. I was a step behind.

More stairs, leading down. The space was small, made of stone, lit by bulbs hanging above us. The stairs spiraled.

The explosion still had me in shock, I still hadn’t really processed anything that happened after it.

At the end of the stairs was another metal door, and Gomez pushed through. We both stepped into a lower level of the building. It looked to be like a underground bunker of sorts, a tunnel.

“Where are we?” I asked.

“Underground tunnels connecting different facilities, even offices that are located under city hall. Secret, but not really, this one in particular funnels to a kind of mini-mall, full of gift shops and knick-knacks, shit like that.”

Gomez walked again, and I followed.

“And?” I asked.

“Don’t make me admit that I’m invariably helping you slip away,” he said.

“Huh?”

“After the explosion, we set up a perimeter around the entire building. No one gets in or out. But the mall wasn’t included in that perimeter, it wasn’t considered. And it’s still early in the morning. Other than some shopkeepers opening up, no one’s going to be there.”

“You’re escorting me out?”

“I’m not going to go that far, I’m just showing you the way.”

I wasn’t about to question him if he was handing me an escape route on a silver platter. I walked.

We continued until we reached what seemed to be the end of the corridor. Larger metal doors, and I felt a draft coming from under it.

Gomez took a step back, gesturing towards the door. “The mall’s that way, and you can go from there. Wash your face, or get a fresh set of clothes if you can. Once you’re out those doors, you’re on your own again. Get caught, that’s on you.”

He then reached to his side, and whipped out a gun. He pointed it at me. He clicked it.

I tried raising my hands, but they were lifeless, by this point.

If I had to, though, I might be able to take him…

“Mind explaining this?” I asked.

“I found you, tried to take you in by myself for the credit,” Gomez said. “To get some more clout and pull in my own force again. But you fought, you got away.”

“Is that the story you’re going to tell others?”

“It’s the story I’m going to tell myself. Blank Face, or the Bluemoon, didn’t technically make an appearance at city hall, did she?”

“Guess not.”

“Call me crazy, but I do want to believe you can do more good out there than locked up. No matter what Solace says. Or, maybe I just don’t want Solace to get their way. Ha, I guess I am crazy.”

There was a compliment in there, somewhere, but I was too out of it to want to look for it.

I’d rather give him less of a reason to change his mind.

“Do you want some good? Thomas said that he has some dirt on Solace, it might be useful. Can you see what you get from him, and actually use that info?”

Gomez nodded once, slowly.

“Don’t make me regret this.”

Later, then.

I would’ve smiled, but my face hurt.

“Regret what? I fought you, I got away.”

Gomez didn’t drop his gun, but he moved it to the side, pointing to the door.

A mutual understanding.

Without a word, I turned to the door, and stepped through it. A cold air met me, and I moved on to my next goal. Getting the fuck home.

I sat in a chair in the corner, curled in a ball.

Through squinted eyes, I watched everyone as they handled the news.

Kristin had her arms around Katy, and they were both still bawling. Maria was sitting two chairs down, leaning forward, hands around her stomach. My mom was standing, an island of her own, quietly taking everything in, too. She must have been a wreck, as well.

I didn’t make it home in time. My mom had gotten the call while arriving at work, but turned right around to pick me up. But I wasn’t there yet. She found me crossing the parking lot, dressed in clothes she hadn’t seen before. I gave a weak explanation, that I decided to skip school and go for a walk. Even I wouldn’t believe me, if I was in my mom’s shoes.

Didn’t matter. She ushered me in the van, and she drove. I’d be in trouble another time.

Gomez called Kristen, and Kristen called my mom. I texted Maria.

They found Thomas. He was in critical condition, but he was hospitalized, now, and he was being worked on. We all rushed to the hospital he was at.

We sat in the waiting area, doing the only thing one could do in such a place. It had only been an hour, but I suspected we’d be here for many more.

Even here, I had to wear a mask. I had to lie to my mom about where I was, I had to pretend I was hearing about Thomas for the first time, I had to act like an ‘Alexis’ that never played a part in this. But that concept, that identity, had been gone for quite a while.

Again, another mask.

Everyone was absorbed in their own emotions, a mix of relief and fear. And I was wrapped up in that, too, but I was too exhausted to express anything.

We have him, I thought to myself, These are tears of happiness. Solace can wait, just for now. God, let me have this, let me revel in the comfort of that.

I let my eyes close. Leave it to being in a hospital, where I was allowed to rest in peace.

Previous                                                                                               Next

036 – On One’s Own

epy arc 6 rest

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Physically, mentally, emotionally spent. I was at the end of my rope. And the rope was on fire.

I was burned-out.

I didn’t get the gift of sleep. I was on the floor, unmoving, eyes to the ceiling, my mind running, until daylight started slipping through the windows. Everyone woke up before the alarm, and I woke up with them. Or got up, rather. Though, I couldn’t imagine anyone else getting a wink, not after what happened last night.

Judge Edgar Brown. I had never heard of the name before, but he was at that party, he was targeted, and now he was dead. Didn’t know anything about him, what he was like, his hobbies, what his kids were like, what he liked to do with his family. But he was a person, the center of his own world and universe, and we failed in stopping the destruction of that world. Gone. No more. Dead.

The guilt slowed my steps down the stairs, until I was falling behind.

I failed to think about anything else, but I kept trying. I lumbered into the kitchen, joining everyone for breakfast.

My mom was already up, helping Kristin prepare the food. Kristin herself was on the phone, talking while cooking bacon. The smell wasn’t appetizing.

“I won’t apologize this time, Sumeet, what’s keeping him? Don’t give me that! He can’t spare a second just to say a word? Where’s Jeffery?”

Dang, Kristin was going in on that Sumeet guy.

I grabbed a seat at the table, Katy and Maria on the other end. The dog was outside.

“What’s that all about?” I asked as I rubbed in one eye. Crust stuck to my hand when I moved it away. Ew.

Katy explained, “Dad hasn’t back home yet from last night, so she’s been freaking out. I don’t think she went up to her room.”

“She’s been down here all night?”

“Seems that way.” Katy fixed her disheveled hair, tying it up. It flew apart at the ends.

“I’m worried too, but this isn’t the first time my dad’s pulled all-nighters, they’ve even ramped up in the last month or so. He can get pretty absorbed with his work when he wants to. There were times when I didn’t see him for a couple of days.”

She put her fork in her mouth, but there was no food, there. She was biting on the metal.

Maria picked up her own spoon, then put it down. “It might be the norm for you guys, but considering what’s been going down, you can’t blame your mom.”

Katy set her fork to the side. “I’m not, and I won’t.”

Now I was beginning to worry.

Thomas wasn’t the type to go a length of time without informing someone of his activities. During our outings, he demanded updates from me, and I could expect the same from him. It was a mutual respect that I appreciated, coming from the one person who saw Blank Face as something other than a monstrosity. It meant a lot to me, and it wasn’t a notion I expressed to him as often as I would have liked to.

So, if Thomas isn’t even contacting his wife…

I put myself in check. Couldn’t be thinking that way, or I’d come apart, completely.

“Maybe he’s just asleep at his desk, or stuck in some absurdly long meeting,” I said, “We’ll probably see him tonight.”

It felt like I said that mostly for my own sake.

“We better,” Katy said, with no energy.

I watched my friends as they picked at their utensils, spinning them around. We never had a sleepover with the three of us before, but I always thought it would have been fun. We’d sit and chat over boys, watch a movie, maybe get into the stereotypical pillow fight, for kicks. Maybe even try and squeeze a game of chess out of Katy and her strange chessboard.

We did some of those things, but…

I never expected it to be like this, under these circumstances.

“Don’t talk with that tone,” my mom said, coming to the table. She set down different dishes for us to eat. “Not that you are rude, but it’s discouraging.”

“Sorry then,” Katy said.

“Don’t apologize, just eat.” My mom then went to putting food on all of our plates. Eggs, bacon, and an extra helping of rice for me. I was so out of it that I didn’t even protest.

Though I should have.

Kristin stepped out of the kitchen, continuing to rant on the phone. I had no one to bail me out from my breakfast. Not even Solace.

The food looked delicious, though, I couldn’t say much for the taste.

The bacon glistened in oil and juice, the eggs a bright golden color. The rice was steaming, fluffy. To think, my mouth would have watered at the sight of it, maybe over two months ago.

And the smell coming from the food did the opposite of reinvigorating me. It drained, leaving me even less willing to face the rest of the day.

And it served as a reminder that I was becoming thirsty, again.

I tried not to show it on my face. I tried not to act. It was like walking on eggshells, letting any tells slip now would be a certain and complete disaster. Had to stay calm, had to maintain my composure.

I pushed my plate away.

“Maria, do you want like, half of my food?” I asked. “I’m not too hungry.”

Maria’s look was telling. She would have rather had me eat. But, she still agreed to take a load off of my shoulders, reaching across the table for my food. “This is only because I want to eat food your mom made.”

Maria took some food, then took some more.

“Maria, that’s more than half,” Katy said.

Maria glowered at Katy. “Look, Ms. Barnett looks like she’s a good cook, okay? Can I live?”

“But my mom helped cook, too…”

She took until there was about enough for three big spoonfuls. She wasn’t about to make things easy.

How delightful.

My mom went over the sink, moving on to washing pots and pans. “You eat, Alexis, you need energy. But hurry, we will be late if we don’t leave soon. I will be taking you all today.”

Ah, that’s right, I thought, We still have school.

The food was like a void, and it was staring right back at me. Three bites. If I ate this, it’d help in quelling some of the worries my mom and my friends had. It wouldn’t be by much, but it was something.

And that was all I needed for now.

Especially after ‘promising’ to tell my friends everything, after Solace was defeated.

I gathered some food with my spoon. A little bit of everything. Rice, bacon, egg. I knew a day like this would come.

I swallowed, before food even entered my mouth.

It was considered rude, but I placed my left elbow on table, resting my head in my hand. I situated myself away from everyone, facing downward. Discreet.

With my right hand, I took the first bite.

For Edgar Brown… rest in peace.

The rice and egg had the consistency of mud, the bacon was like cardboard.

Harder to chew, harder still to swallow.

But I did, and it burned.

I almost gagged.

I gathered the second bite, the spoon much heavier, now.

I put it in my mouth, like I was force-feeding myself. Well, I was.

For Thomas, Hleuco. Together, we can take Solace down.

Leftover rice was starting to cling to the insides of my mouth, as if I had eaten dirt, and bits of soil were stuck. The egg tasted rotten, somehow reminding me of a skunk. Dead, on the side of the road, decaying and smelly. The smell, condensed to a taste.

I almost threw up, right then and there.

I took a minute to stop myself from trembling. From shaking.

The third and final spoonful. The most daunting one of all.

And for myself. I wish it would all end, already.

I went right into it, sliding it between my lips.

If my arm wasn’t propping my head up, I would have slammed my chin onto the edge of the table, passing out.

I couldn’t describe this one. It made my mind go blank, hurting me on every front. Physically, emotionally, mentally.

It was just fucking awful.

Every bit of me was screaming to run. My mind going cloudy. Chewed, then swallowed, doing all that I could to keep it down.

The next part was critical to everything. I had to get up, and leave.

But, could I?

I powered through it, had no choice but to. Dropped the spoon, stood, then shuffled along the perimeter of the kitchen. My hand ran along the counter and wall for balance.

I tried to enunciate as clearly as possible.

“Imma try shower…”

Tried.’

Only my mom responded, Katy and Maria were eating their own food, Maria even going for seconds. “Collect your clothes and sleeping bag, I can get them later when I come back.”

I nodded once, sluggishly, then I left. I didn’t move any faster up the steps, or into the bathroom.

I stripped, entered the shower, and let the water run.

In the gloom, all alone, I had the freedom to let everything out.

Katy, Maria, and I all met back at the kitchen, cleaned up and ready to go. I had my backpack, Katy had a purse, and Maria had nothing at all.

Kristin and my mom were sitting at the table.

“I cannot believe this,” Kristin said. She had hung up the phone. “All I want is to talk to him.”

My mom consoled her. “He’ll be back, Kristin. He’s passionate about his work, and we have to do our part too.”

Kristin nodded, sleepily.

“And you also need rest. We don’t want Thomas coming back and you’re not awake to greet him, do we?”

Kristin nodded sleepily, again. She snacked on a piece of bacon while she talked. “No, we don’t. Speaking of which, will you and Alexis be spending the night with us again?”

My mom glanced at me, and I tilted my head towards the front door.

“I appreciate the offer for us to intrude for another night, but I think it is best for us to start staying at our apartment. We can’t be here forever, and I do not want to be a burden.”

“You two are anything but a burden,” Kristin said. “You’re welcome anytime, and you can stay for as long as you need. If you want, you and Alexis can move in and live with us. Maria is also welcome.”

My mom gave her a look. “That’s not reasonable. I still have work, and we can’t leave the apartment unattended for too long.”

“Same here,” Maria said. “Don’t wanna overstay my welcome.”

Kristin responded with a weak smile. “That was my poor attempt at a joke. You go do what you have to, Shiori, Maria. I can arrange for an officer to come by and check on you guys every now and then, if you’d like.”

My mom offered a similar expression. “I will be sure to let you know.” She turned to the three of us. “Let’s get going.”

Kristin dropped the other strip of bacon she was about to eat. “Shiori, let me take them. You’ve already taken credit for cooking breakfast.”

That made my mom give her a sterner look. “No, you stay here, eat, and then you sleep. If I come back and you’re still up, I will put you down myself.”

Maria whispered to us, “Damn, your mom is giving orders to your mom.”

“Mom, let Shiori take us,” Katy said, out loud. “We’ll really be late if we don’t leave now, and Mom? I have a feeling Shiori might make good on her word.”

Kristin sat back, and started chewing on bacon again. “Not might, will. Go, I’ll take a nap.”

My mom accepted that, then left the kitchen, then the house. The rest of us had to hurry to catch up, or she’d somehow leave us behind. We all managed to hop into my mom’s blue van in time.

The drive to school was rather uneventful. I would have liked for some meaningless chatting to come and pass the time, but no one offered up anything to start with. Solace must have been weighing on everybody’s mind.

My mom drove us up to the front of the school, and we filed out as soon as she stopped.

“Thanks for the ride, Ms. Barnett,” Maria said. “You’re the best.”

My mom made a small gesture. “I will be back here when school ends. Alexis, I get your stuff together, and we go back home after I drop off Maria and Katy.”

I needed a second to realize she was talking to me. Still out of sorts.

“That’s cool,” I said, mildly. In truth, I was itching to be back home. I wanted to have easy access to my Blank Face things again.

“Bye,” my mom then said, and she went off.

The three of us moved as a group, entering the school. Loud as ever, with kids bustling and hurrying to their classes. Some gave us looks. I knew that had some effect on Katy and Maria.

But, there was no time to relax, we had to start our day.

Before we could go our separate ways, we were approached by a woman.

“Katy Thompson, Maria Gonzalez, and Alexis Barnett?” She listed us off, wording it like a question.

Cautiously, we nodded.

“Good morning, you three,” she then said, as kindly as one could.

“Good morning,” Katy said back. She had delegated herself to speak for us. I was cool with it.

“Principal Kirk would like to see you.”

The woman’s name escaped me, but I was not unfamiliar with her. She was one of ladies who ran the front office. A secretary.

“Right now?”

“It won’t take too much of your time, you’ll be done before your first class ends.”

Maria interjected, “Are we in trouble already? We just got to school.”

The woman didn’t take it as very funny, answering her directly. “I assure you, you’re not in trouble. All three of you, please come follow me.”

The three of us exchanged some looks, but there wasn’t really much of a choice in the matter.

We followed her towards the front office.

The number of students out in the hall were thinning, giving us room to walk without bumping arms.

I caught sight of Harrian from across the hall.

He didn’t notice me, and I only noticed him because of how hard he was trying to not be noticed. Decked in all black, head down, hands in his pockets, and if he was any faster, he’d get called out by a teacher. He seemed to be in a hurry.

Harrian turned my way, but he still didn’t see me. I got a better look at his face. Haggard. He was skinny, but I could tell that he hadn’t been eating, even from a distance. Shadows were cast on his eyes and cheeks, and his mouth hung open, like he didn’t have enough energy to lift his jaw. He looked weak.

He didn’t come any closer. His eyes went wide, then he spun on his heels, returning the way he came.

Okay… that happened.

If I wasn’t so out of it myself, and if I wasn’t headed to the principal’s office, I would have let myself be more curious as to what that was about. But, from my handful of interactions with him, he was always a bit odd, and I did have my own business to take care of, as both Alexis and Blank Face. Harrian would have to be a lower priority.

Still following the woman, we went around a corner, going towards a side entrance of the front office. The hallway was nearly empty, now.

“Coming up behind you!”

“Let me get that for you, ladies.”

Eric and Evan. Right before the woman hold put her hand on the knob, the duo passed us and opened the door.

“What are you two doing here?” Katy asked as we continued inside. Faculty and some students were here, busy with differents tasks and errands. A lively atmosphere. We passed the front counter, heading into the faculty area.

“Student aide,” Eric answered, “Printing papers, stacking papers, filing those papers, and sometimes, go around school to give people pink slips. They don’t seem to like those.”

“Sounds fun.”

“It’s a blast,” Evan said.

“You two are involuntary student aides,” the woman added, “Don’t act like you want to do this.”

“Aw, come on, Mrs. K.” Eric slouched his shoulders and hunched forward, but he still towered over all of us. “We’re liking it now, promise!”

Evan nodded along, agreeing with Eric.

“What are you in for?” I asked.

“It’s either that or detention,” Eric said. He didn’t offer any more, but he didn’t sound too bummed over it, either.

“This way,” the woman said, going another way in the office, down a smaller hallway where the principal and assistant principal’s offices were.

“It’s nothing, but I can explain some other time,” Eric said.

“I don’t really care,” Katy said, straightforward. Normally, she’d play along with their fooling around, but she wasn’t having it, this time. “Like how we have our own thing.”

“Fair.” Eric started going in the opposite direction, another hall. “We’re this way, got more papers to print.”

“Then stack, then file,” Evan said.

“Yup, and it is fun, Mrs. K!” Eric’s voiced boomed across the halls, but ‘Mrs. K’ didn’t respond. She was standing, hands resting behind her back, facing us. In front of Principal Kirk’s office.

We split up without a proper ‘see you later,’ the boys going to do menial work, and us girls going to do… another thing. I still didn’t know what this was about.

Mrs. K waited until all three of us entered the office before closing the door. She didn’t come in with us.

It wasn’t my first time coming in here. At least I wasn’t alone, this time.

Principal Kirk’s office was like any other principal’s office. Neat and tidy, muted colors, with a few personal touches to make it his own. Namely, a picture frame of his family, and a Van Halen record on his wall. Signed.

The principal himself was typing at his computer. Average looking, he looked nice in a suit, but he wasn’t Thomas. For someone his age, he sure didn’t show the signs of his number. His hair was still chestnut brown, neatly combed back. He had circular framed glasses, but they didn’t look old-fashioned on him. Stylish, in fact.

He stopped what he was doing when he heard Katy pull at the first chair.

“Ah yes, here y’all are, feel free to take a seat,” he motioned to the chairs in front of his desk.

He was prepared for us to come. Three chairs were set, normally there would be only two. Two of the chairs were supposed to be here, they kept in line with the general aesthetics of the room. Wooden, with cushions on the seat. The third chair was clearly pulled from another room. A metal folding chair. It didn’t match with anything in here.

Katy and Maria took the cushioned seats. I settled for the metal folding chair, dropping my backpack beside me.

“How are you all today?” he asked, sounding chipper. It bothered me, or maybe that was a testament to how fucked up I was, mentally and emotionally. It was coloring how I perceived others.

“We’re trying,” Katy said, answering for us again. It wasn’t even much of an answer. We were just… trying.

Trying to do what?

“It’s better than not giving up,” he replied, his tone still the same. I couldn’t argue with him, there.

Principal Kirk came across as the kind of guy who would have been popular when he was in high school, he had that air, that charisma, about him. Maybe he was even a captain of the football team. Though, looking at it another way, it was like he never left high school.

He closed the monitor of his computer, then he gave us his full attention, resting his elbows on the desk, putting his hands together.

“I’ll try to make this snappy, and let you go about your day. Now, from your parents, I’ve heard about the… ordeal, that y’all are going through, and it truly tears me apart that you girls have to go through something of this magnitude.”

I didn’t need to see my friends’ faces to confirm for myself, I could already guess what they were thinking.

Nothing but empty words.

“But,” Principal Kirk said, as if to counter my line of thinking, “Luckily for me, I don’t have just my condolences to give.”

I blinked, the extent of how much energy I was willing to spend. I fought back a yawn.

“I haven’t run this through your parents yet, but I’ve spoken with your teachers, and they’ve all agreed to let you continue your courses from home.”

Katy fixed her seat, briefly lifting herself up so she could scoot her chair forward. She was curious.

“You’ll have to elaborate,” she said.

“The school has a duty and responsibility to provide a safe environment for our students to feel comfortable in. However, given that this is a… special circumstance, we, the school, are willing to overlook your attendance on campus for as long as you need.”

“You’re saying we don’t have to come to school?” Maria asked.

If you feel safer spending the day in the comfort of your own home, the school will not penalize you for doing so. Of course, you will still have schoolwork. The school will email you the lessons, notes, assignments, and reviews for all of your classes, put together by your different teachers. It’ll be in one big file. You complete it from home, send it back, and your teachers will grade it.”

“What about tests or quizzes? Don’t we have to come to school to take those?”

“We will accommodate you on that as well. It’s up to your teachers, but they might change the format, making it multiple choice, or depending on how well you do on your assignments, they might forgo tests, entirely.”

Maria fell back into her chair. Obviously, she was into this.

“Of course, this is all up to you,” the principal said, “Well, it does require your parents’ consent, but this is your decision. Whatever you feel is best for you, we’ll go with that. Want to go home? No problem. Want to come to school? More power to you. This is all about what makes you comfortable.”

The effort Principal Kirk was putting in to get that idea through our heads was admirable. He wanted us to be taken care of, he wanted us to feel safe. Did it suck that the Solace situation had gotten so out of hand that it was affecting the school administration? Sure, but they were trying, and doing their part, too. It might have been a small gesture, but it was going a long way. A small light in an ever-consuming darkness.

“Do we have to make that decision now?” Katy asked.

Principal Kirk shook his head. “Not now, not this instance, though you can, if you’ve come to a decision already. Just let me know anytime, and I’ll make the necessary preparations. All I ask for now is to talk to your parents about this, and give this some serious thought.”

It was an alluring option, I wouldn’t lie. Time away from school could be a big help, it meant time away elsewhere. Mom would be out of the apartment, and I would be free to-

“I’m in.”

We all turned to Maria.

“You’ve already made your decision, Maria?” Principal Kirk said. “You don’t need to discuss this with your father?”

“He won’t mind. It might actually be better. Yeah, I’m sure.”

The principal nodded. “Understood, stick around after we’re done here, and I’ll get things going for you.” He then faced me and Katy. “I don’t suppose either of you have already decided?”

Katy spoke first. “I really appreciate the offer, I do, but I’ll decline. I can tough it out here, at school.”

So Katy decided to stay? Does this have something to do with Thomas talking about not folding to pressure? Tougher stuff?

Principal Kirk sat back, his hand still together, resting on his lap. “I’ll respect that decision, too. We do have extra officers on campus for some added security. I can promise you, you are as safe here as you are in your own home.”

His eyes then went to me. It was my turn.

I want to discuss this with Thomas, too. See if we can’t meet or plan during normal school hours. Maybe even some Blank Face action in the afternoon.

I put my finger to my chin. My eyes went elsewhere.

“I’ll have to talk with my mom about this. She’d want to be in the know before I make a decision.”

Principal Kirk accepted that, too. “That’s just as fine with me. And remember, this is an option that will always be available to you. Katy, if you happen to change your mind, I’ll be more than willing to move in that direction. And Alexis, just let me know either way, after you’ve spoken with your mom.”

“Will do,” I said, “Thank you, though, you didn’t have to go that far.”

“Oh, we do. It wouldn’t be right if we stood here and did nothing. Like I mentioned, it’s our duty and responsibility.”

Duty and responsibility. The words repeated and looped in my head. Somehow, it was reassuring.

Principal Kirk changed his position, tapping a key on his keyboard. His computer woke up.

“I know it’s not a lot of fun for me to have called you down here and talk about boring tests and quizzes, but it is important. Is there anything else you’d like to say to me? Any questions?”

The three of us exchanged looks again. I got the general impression that we were just about done, here.

“I think we’re good,” Katy said, speaking for all of us. “Thanks again.”

“Then that settles it,” Principal Kirk said, getting back onto his computer. “Hope to hear from you soon, and I hope this situation gets resolved as fast as possible, as safely as possible. Maria, stay right there, and we’ll get started. You’ll need to bring back a permission slip for your father to sign.”

“Guess I can’t leave with you,” Maria said to me and Katy. “See you later?”

“Yeah, see yah,” Katy said.

“We’ll text you when we’re out of school,” I said. We got up, taking our stuff with us.

“Oh, Katy, tell your dad the school has his back,” Principal Kirk said.

“Sure,” Katy said, “I’ll let him know as soon as I see him.”

I kept to myself for that one.

Katy and I left the principal’s office, Principal Kirk and Maria getting right to work. We took the same path back of the office, and we were back in the hallways of the school. We didn’t run into Eric and Evan on the way.

The hall was empty. Not even a kid walking around with a hall pass. Somewhere in between going to the front office and conversing with Eric and Evan, the bell rang, but I never heard it.

“Maria’s really gonna stay at home?” I asked. We moved to the front of the school. My locker was on the other side of the building.

“I don’t fault her for that,” Katy said, “Deep down, I think she’s the most freaked out by the whole thing.”

I agreed with her by saying, “I don’t fault her, either.”

“And you?” Katy asked.

“Me?”

“Are you going to end up taking Principal Kirk’s offer?”

Not even deep down, I was definitely considering it. “It depends on what my mom has to say about it. She’ll probably want me to keep coming to school, but I might be able to convince her if I really wanted to.”

“Do you really want to?”

Again, she asked me. She really wanted a direct answer.

“I do. It’d be nice if I could. It’s just that, if my mom says no, that’ll be the final word.”

Katy nodded, slow. It almost looked like she was shaking her head, too.

“Bye, Alexis.”

And that was the final word between us for that morning. We split to go to our classes, located at different ends of the building.

On my way, I stopped to take a sip at a nearby water fountain. The sips turned to gulps, as I was spending more time there than I should.

I tried getting myself back into the mind of being just a student, to being just Alexis, but other things were too prominent, too heavy.

I wish things could go back to the way they were.

I remembered when all I had to deal with were due dates and test grades. And now, I was handling deadlines of the most literal kind.

Because, in less than twenty-four hours, if nothing happened, we would be going through the same thing all over again.

No, no no no, no no no no no no no.

No.

This was the same thing all over again.

I staggered into the closet. My mom left me alone, letting me retreat into my room.

I clawed through piles of clothes and boxes. Bits of dust had settled in my absence.

Ripping open the bag, I found the mask. I yanked it out, hugging it close.

I collapsed to the floor, I curled up into a ball.

My chest was pounding, my heart was sinking.

My whole body, my very being, felt like it was on fire.

The end of my rope.

Solace came back, on the TV, posturing like he or she always did. They listed off more names, and they rattled in my head, echoing and echoing and echoing and echoing.

I wasn’t able to do anything. Not in time. Even if it was just another pair of eyes, it was enough to keep me locked up in my apartment. Like a bird in a cage.

I couldn’t cry, couldn’t tear up. I shook, I trembled.

Please, no.

A wide range of emotions, that I wasn’t sure what to call it. Anger? Horror? Panic? Dismay? It was everything, all at once, until it wrapped back around and became nothing.

A certain sadness.

The names Solace said…

Edgar Brown… Linda Day…

Thomas Thompson.

Previous                                                                                               Next

Interlude – Thomas

Previous                                                                                               Next

Peru – Sixteen years before present

The waves slid across the sand, white foam bubbling in its wake.

Thomas let the cool waters run across his feet.

Sunlight beat down on his face. Bright, hot. He was going to get a sunburn if he stayed like that for another minute.

I can’t remember the last time I was this happy.

A hand gently landed on his shoulder. Warm, comforting. Inviting. It was a touch he wasn’t quite used to, not yet, but at the same time, he didn’t want to lose that spark. That electricity. It was all so new to him.

Even with plenty of space on the beach, he still sidestepped to let his girlfriend stand beside him. They held hands.

They watched the waves come to them, then away.

They watched, then watched some more.

This was a moment, and they were in it.

“Already trying to go out and get cigarettes?” Kristin asked.

Thomas kept his eyes on the water. He smiled.

“You know I don’t smoke.”

“That doesn’t exactly answer my question.”

“I’m not going anywhere. Not now, not ever.”

“Is that so?”

“One hundred percent.”

Kristin bumped her shoulder against Thomas, only getting right above his elbow. She interlocked their fingers.

“Big words. Only time will tell.”

They were big words, but Thomas was up for it, up for the challenge. If not just to surprise himself, but Kristin especially. Scary? It was terrifying, down to the bone. Commitment was heavier than anything even Atlas could carry.

Thomas closed his eyes, seeing red from how bright it was out here. When he opened them again, he was staring right at Kristin.

At Kristin, and at her.

“Are we crazy for this?” Thomas asked, though he already knew what Kristin would say.

She kept her eyes to the ocean.

“We are crazy, and we get crazier with every passing day. Every passing month. We are long past the point of takebacks.”

A door closed, but Thomas didn’t think of it in that way.

“Good, good. I wouldn’t want to.”

She made a sound. A hum. Barely audible over the waves.

“You keep talking like that, I’ll start to think the opposite.”

Thomas put his hands behind his head, stretching. “What would it take to convince you, then?” He gulped. “A ring?”

Kristin made a face. A playful shock.

So cute.

“Slow your horses there, cowboy.” Kristin then shook her head. “But who am I to talk?” Delicately, she pressed her hand against her stomach. Through her shirt, a noticeable bump.

“Another day then?” Thomas suggested.

“Another day.” Kristin agreed.

He left it at that, satisfied.

Amongst the waves, Thomas watched her listlessly.

He didn’t know how many minutes passed when she finally noticed him.

She blushed.

“Stop.”

“Stop what?”

“Stop being such a loser.”

“If I’m a loser, then what does that make you?”

Kristin puffed out her chest.

“A winner. I’m the one who scored.”

Thomas almost snorted. What kind of logic was that?

“You certainly think highly of yourself,” Thomas said.

“I do. Get used to it, or you’ll be in for rough ride.”

Thomas rubbed his cheek with his free hand. “But, rough rides can be good.”

Kristin bumped him again, this time harder, more force.

He swayed one way, then back.

“Am I going to have to get used to that, too?”

“Keep getting smart with me, you just might.”

Chuckling, Thomas let go of her hand, and put his arm around her. He brought her close, tight, before falling to his side, bringing her with him.

She let out a high, shrill squeak as they dropped, water splashing around them.

Kristin was in the water, Thomas on top of her. Both wet.

“And you’re going to have to get used to that,” Thomas said. He couldn’t come up with a better comeback.

“Don’t do that!” Kristin said, scolding him. Salt water splattered from her lips to his face. “This isn’t some dumb movie where you can just do that!”

Smooth, Thomas. But Thomas was sure that a small part of her appreciated that kind of gesture.

I think.

Maybe it was a very small part of her that appreciated it.

“Now I’m wet,” Kristin said, complaining about the obvious. She propped herself up to get the water out of her hair. She groaned.

“That reminds me, Spacey wanted you back at the headquarters in ten minutes. You’re due an extra shift.”

Thomas grinned, almost vulpine. “He should know by now that if he sends you, we’re both going to be late.”

“Don’t joke about this. I can tell his patience with you is thinning.”

Thomas’s thoughts went to his boss, though he didn’t want them to. “I suppose I can’t fault him for feeling that way. A six-month volunteering program and I just… fooled around for most of it. Really, you did this to me.”

“Excuse me?”

“Yes, distracting me with your feminine ways.”

“I don’t think so, buddy. You don’t get to be absolved from this.”

“Oh, so I’m just a buddy to you?” Thomas asked. He mouthed various positions, moves, references. “Do you give those out to all your buddies like party favors?”

Kristin pouted. “Don’t be so base. I only do that for pals.”

Thomas frowned. “When you talk like that, it’s hard to tell if you’re serious or not.”

“Then don’t change the subject. And get off of me.”

Before he let her go, Thomas kissed the top of her head, then he moved, letting her free. Though, neither of them moved to leave the beach. They stayed, sitting in the water.

“I thought we were leaving now,” Thomas said.

“Yeah, but it did take a long time to find you, and it’s so damn hot. I think Spacey can wait while we cool ourselves off.”

Thomas didn’t object to that. They still had some weeks of the program left, he’d pick up the slack then.

And, more time alone with Kristin was never a bad thing.

Never.

I’m so glad I met you.

“What do you want to talk about?” Thomas asked her, already lost in her eyes.

“We don’t have to talk about anything,” Kristin said, twisting her hair, getting water out. “We can just sit here.”

“We can, and while I agree that nothing’s more pure and beautiful than these silent, unspeakable memories, I like to talk.”

“That you do.”

Thomas took her hand, submerging it into the water between them. She leaned on him.

“I thought of a name.”

“You have?”

“Couldn’t help it. It’s a girl, right?”

“Right you are.”

“Since it’s a girl…”

“Wait, let me guess.”

He paused, tilting his head. Waiting.

“It’s Katy, isn’t it?”

He smile widened. “You are good.”

“Get used to it,” she said, melodically.

He could feel himself falling for her even more. Deeper and deeper.

“Can you guess why?” he asked.

“I’m not a mind reader. I may think highly of myself, but you’ll need to have more realistic expectations of me.”

“Ah, that’s no fun.” Thomas squeezed her hand. “I picked ‘Katy because, it’s like the ‘K’ from ‘Kristin,’ and the ‘T’ from my name. Also, ‘K.T.’ would be her initials, as well.”

His explanation hung in the salty air. A breeze cooling them.

Kristin didn’t offer up a response. She just snickered.

That snicker grew into a heartier laugh.

“Oh my god, you are such a loser!”

Dumbfounded, stupefied, and dismayed. Thomas hadn’t expected that response.

“Hey, if you hate it, you can just say so!”

In between her fits of laughter, Kristin tried to get words out. Her body was shaking.

“No, I don’t hate it… I love it.”

He felt like he was being thrown for a loop. “You what?”

“I said I love it.”

“Do you actually?”

Yes,” she said, now stern. “I had my own ideas for names, but I adore that reasoning. I really want to use it.”

Thomas sat back, shocked that he could even be more satisfied. Katy. The name rang in his ears like a bell. Clear and bright. Like the sky above him. Endless possibilities. But there would be two constants in his future, now. He felt unstoppable.

“Katy.” He said it out loud, to make the idea solidify even more in his mind. He was going to be a father.

“My folks are going to love you,” he said.

“Of course they will. I’m me.” She pressed more of her weight onto him, leaning on him more. Relying on him more.

He couldn’t stop smiling like a big dumb stupid idiot.

“I love you,” he said to her, for the hundredth time.

“I know,” she said to him, for the hundredth time.

Stephenville – Ten years before present

Thomas stood tall, firm. Confident. And he exuded that confidence because he knew. He had all the facts, the statements, and the jury would be eating out of his hand once he was fully through with him. This wasn’t going to end well for the other guy. Or the other guy’s other guy.

It wouldn’t be easy, but Thomas would have been disappointed if it was.

The homestretch.

He was going to have some fun.

“Good morning,” Thomas said, apt. He stayed at the podium. Weren’t supposed to move around and make a show of things like in shows or movies. These proceedings were usually slow, laborious. A lot of patience, waiting, and listening. For the audience, anyway. For Thomas, he might as well be skydiving.

“Morning,” the witness said back, with no life at all. She was in a suit of her own, drab colors, sitting at the stand. Her hair was tied, but it was done poorly, strands sticking out. There was a microphone situated in front of her, but she was sitting away from it. She didn’t look like she wanted to be there.

Who did?

Thomas started.

“Ms. Jessica Quinn, how long have you been the CEO of Tate and Mono Construction?

“Seven years, give or take.”

“So, relatively new at the job?”

“Relatively, yes.”

“Thank you, ma’am. Just double-checking for myself, I apologize that I’ll have to continue like this for a few more questions. Feel free to relax while I gather my thoughts.”

Jessica didn’t relax. Thomas continued with his questioning.

“Okay, Ms. Quinn, you spearheaded the construction projects in King District, am I correct?”

“Yes.”

“For how long, and what were the projects, exactly?”

“Different housing projects, apartments, homes, offices. My men loaded stuff, dumped stuff, put the hammer to the nail. The whole shtick. And about six months.”

She answered the questions, just not in the right order.

I see.

“And thank you for giving me the whole shtick. Now, as well all know, the reason why you are called up there today is because your ‘whole shtick’ hasn’t gone through the usual procedure, disturbing many residents and businesses, and some of those resident and business happen to be our clients.”

Thomas tapped his fingers on the podium.

“They filed a complaint to you, and not much has been done in the wake of that. Now, here we are.”

Quinn didn’t react to anything Thomas was saying. And he was loving it.

“Ms. Quinn, what was King District like, before Tate and Mono came to do its business?”

“Decent.”

“Decent? Do you mind expanding on that?”

“I can’t explain it, it was just decent. That’s not too hard to grasp.”

“I’ll need a proper answer if only to get a better picture of the situation.”

“Fine, it was fucking Candy Land.”

Some in the audience behind him found that humorous. Thomas, not so much.

“Permission to treat the witness as hostile?”

Judge Edgar Brown hardly gave it a thought. “Granted.”

Thomas kept questioning, but now he could ask leading questions. “Streets were clean, people were friendly, a little rough, but what neighborhood doesn’t have an issue or two? Would you say that’s an accurate description of King District, Ms. Quinn?”

She yawned. “Yeah.”

He glanced at Phillips, Quinn’s lawyer, who was biting the end of his pen.

Cool it, Thomas. Don’t get too excited.

“And what was King District like during Tate and Mono’s time in the area?”

She didn’t say.

“Streets weren’t as clean, the people were hesitant to go outside, rougher overall. Would that be accurate to your experience there?”

“I guess.”

Thomas nodded. “One particular bad apple started making roots around that time, right? The Path, a branch of a Japanese mafia group. The Yakuza. Their men have been causing quite the ruckus in the district since Tate and Mono started their construction, with reports that the Path’s men have been coming and going through buildings your company were responsible for, is that correct?”

“Objection,” Phillips said, “That’s speculation.”

“All the evidence is here, sir,” Thomas pointed to his stack of papers at the folder, “Numerous arrests close to these buildings, drugs, weapons found nearby. This is all written down and documented stuff, and this is more than just some noise complaints. I thought you knew this, Phillips?”

“Alright Thomas, enough,” Judge Brown said. “Do you have a point?”

“One I’m eager to make.”

With little enthusiasm, the judge said, “Overruled.”

Thomas tapped his fingers again, faster. “Ms. Quinn, among noise complaints, have these other more, serious grievances have been brought to your attention?”

Thomas could see her neck glisten under the fluorescent lights. Sweat?

“Keep in mind that you are under oath, Ms. Quinn,” Thomas said, reminding her.

“They have,” she answered.

“And what has been done about it?”

“We never encountered any issue with any outside party or the like, and our construction sites were clean of any illicit materials or contraband.”

“So, nothing?”

“Nothing.”

“Thank you, Ms. Quinn. To switch gears here, you’re still a small company, relatively speaking. This is a big project you’ve undertaken, who’s employed you for these buildings?”

A noted lapse.

“Ishida Hitoshi,” she answered.

“That’s a big name, a big name for a big company overseas.”

Quinn didn’t comment or respond.

And now, the clincher.

“That’s also I name I recognize as part of a big controversy in Japan, with rumors that he has very strong connections with the Yazuka, and-”

“Objection, this is hearsay!”

Phillips leaped out of his chair, furious. “That has nothing to do with this case.”

“I think it has everything to do with this case,” Thomas argued. “If those connections are true, it lines up with what we’re hearing about the buildings Tate-”

Judge Brown stopped them. “Both of you, here.”

They both approached the table. Thomas was ready for what was to come, what could come.

The judge leaned closer, whispering, “Thomas, what are you trying to pull?”

“I’m simply raising an important detail that should be relevant in this case. If Ishida Hitoshi is in league with the Yakuza, people should be looking into what the hell he’s doing in Stephenville.”

If,” Phillips nearly spat the word. “If that’s true, but any claims about that here are unsubstantiated, you have no evidence, and it’s not relevant, and you didn’t submit any of this. You’re making a mockery of this court and this case.”

“It is relevant, Phillips. The writing’s on the wall, yet no one is willing to read it, and I’m left wondering, why? And if you want evidence, look to the countless victims that have been coming forward in the last three years. Also, I can bet you Randolf and his boys can find a connecting thread if they decided to show some initiative. The only one making a mockery of this court is that woman on the stand.”

“Shut it, Thomas,” Judge Brown said. “I’ll be the one to decide if there’s any mockery here. Thomas, let’s say this is looked into, and what you’re saying is true, then this whole case turns into something else entirely, and you are out of here. Is that what you want?”

Thomas was beaming on the inside, but he couldn’t show it, not here. “Criminal activity is a factor here, and I want that recognized. I’ll throw the Hail Mary, someone else can score the touchdown.”

Phillips was fuming. “This is unnecessary.”

Judge Brown wasn’t looking pleased with Thomas. “You better know what you’re doing, or this is it for you. Go back.”

They left the judge. Thomas did know what he was doing, because that probably was it for him.

Stephenville – A week after Loving v. Tate and Mono Construction

“Thomas.”

A man stood next to him, holding a beer. James Gomez. Shorter than Thomas, more stout, but with more muscle than him. A head full of hair, a thick mustache. Both were in fashionable, yet casual wear.

“Thanks for coming,” Thomas said.

“Thanks for… inviting me.” James had to duck when a ball flew too close to his head. He was more concerned over not spilling a drop than he was about the kid who threw said ball. “I’m not a huge fan of children’s birthday parties, though.”

“I invited you, you knew what this was, and you showed up, regardless.”

“At this point, I’ll take anything to get out of the office.”

“Even to arrest me for malpractice?” Thomas asked. “A two-for-one deal? I give you a beer, and you give me handcuffs.”

“No, I wouldn’t do that, but I should. That was a dumb stunt you pulled back there. I heard about it through the grapevine.”

“My bosses are breathing down my neck, drowning me in mindless work. Death threats, many of which are written in Japanese. An earful from the wife, which was the worst of it.”

“God damn,” James said, his voice lowered. There were kids around. “You gonna be okay? With your wife and kid, you have to look out for them, too.”

“It’s nothing but big talk on the gang’s part. They do anything, it’ll implicate them, and then the Path is done for. They’ll keep their distance.

“You sound rather confident about that.”

“I have to be. I’ll admit, it was dumb, but it’ll be worth it soon enough?”

Thomas said it like it was a question.

“I can’t give any details,” James said, “But we’ve traced the money. You were onto something.”

Thomas let himself show the emotion inside him. Gratification. He was beaming.

“But why’d you have to go about it that way?” James asked. “You could have just sent in a tip, or better yet, tell me.”

“Tips are too slow. You’re good, James, but your position isn’t. You’re still new, like me. You don’t have the pull to launch an entire investigation. I saw the circumstances, saw my chance, and I took it. Putting it out like that really got things moving, didn’t it?”

“At the cost of your credibility and reputation?”

“If you’re good at what you do, you can get credibility back, and I’m great. And my reputation is with the people.”

“Why be a corporate lawyer then? If that’s the way you think, you’d be better off in the DA’s office.”

Thomas watched the kids play.

“Big companies mean big money, and big money means more for the little guy. I’ll come down, when the time’s right.”

“When? When I’m police chief?”

Thomas nudged him. “Probably.”

“Whoa there, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”

“Why not? Dream big, do bigger. You’ll be the new police chief, and I’ll be the new district attorney. Together, we’ll rule Stephenville as…”

“Friends?” James ventured.

“I was going to go with pals.”

James didn’t get it, taking a swig of his drink, instead.

“Could be interesting,” James said.

“Could be real,” Thomas said, correcting him. “This city means a lot to me, you know that more than anyone else. It kills me every time someone asks why I haven’t left yet, why I haven’t packed up and moved. I want them to see what I see in it. It’s not perfect, but I can help, I know I can.”

James drank some more, then said, “Real powerful words there, pal, but don’t beat yourself up over it. You’re not a hero, you can’t put all that weight on your shoulders.”

Thomas agreed, “You’re right, I can’t. I’ll need people. People like-”

“Daddy!”

Katy came running to him, her face twisted up, and she was wailing.

“Yes sweetie?” He had to crouch to meet her at eye level. The way she was acting, it was unbecoming of her pretty pink dress. He had to get to the bottom of this, pronto.

“Alexis took my gun and she keeps shooting me but I told her to stop but she keeps doing it and I’m-”

“Hey hey, hey there.” Thomas had to rub her back, calm her down. She was hiccupping.

“I’ll have a talk with her, I’m sure she’s just gotten too excited again. She doesn’t mean anything by it.”

Katy was shaking her head, rubbing her cheeks with fists.

“I wanna get her back, I wanna get that gun back.”

Where do kids come up with this stuff?

Thomas massaged her again. “That’s not what I’m trying to instill in you. Go get some cake, and you’re making up with Alexis. No one gets that toy gun until this party’s over. Understand?”

She hiccuped. “Understood.”

“That’s my girl.” He let her run off to get cake, and he stood, his back hurting a little.

“Kids these days,” James said.

“You’re telling me,” Thomas said. “Sorry about this, James.”

“Go do your thing, I’ll go have another one of these, and I should be up to hear about Kristin’s summer in India one more time.”

“Make sure she mentions the story about the-”

“The Yamarāja. I know, I know.”

He shook hands with James, then excused himself.

Stephenville – Three weeks before present

“Car chase going into Williamson Avenue. It’s red, and the only one going that fast. Police might lose it if this goes for any longer. What do you think about lending a helping hand?”

I’m thinking I’m done with the warm ups. Time for some real action.

Hleuco grinned to himself. He liked it whenever Blank Face showed some enthusiasm, even if it was behind a layer of playful arrogance. It meant that she was getting something out of this. And it meant that she wasn’t completely doom and gloom.

He shifted in his seat, moving away from the complicated connected system of scanners and laptops, to the wheel in front of him. The van started.

With the different channels yelping into his ear, he got out of the parking garage, and drove.

The equipment was outdated, but it was functional, and it served a purpose. Gifts from Gomez. Whenever new stuff came in, the old stuff had to be taken out to make room. And James knew how much he liked antique trinkets.

The van was old, too. Unmarked, bought with cash, kept away in a location disclosed only to Blank Face. He knew the city, the ins and outs. Learned from the best, and the worst, when it came to hiding things. It was a hassle to have to walk there every night he needed to use it, but its purpose was well worth a little pain in his legs.

His foot was heavier on the gas pedal than usual, and not because he was too sore to lift it up more. He needed to keep up with the car, and keep up with Blank Face, so he could be in a good position to pick her up and make a getaway. It was imperative that they kept things as simple as possible, as clean as possible. They weren’t attempting to save the world, they were just attempting to make it nicer. Even if by a margin.

And the girl has school tomorrow, can’t let her be out too late.

“Update, please,” Hleuco asked.

Can’t see it yet, but I do see the cars tailing it. Fuck me, they’re fast.

Please don’t say ‘fuck me,’ Hleuco thought.

“Can you get to it?”

Yeah, if it would turn to the right, I could intercept it from up top.

Hleuco kept an ear out for anything interesting. Anything new.

He relayed what he was hearing.

“Police are setting up a blockade, it can’t make a right anymore.”

Fuck me.

Hleuco shook his head as he drove, knowing she couldn’t see him.

Please be quiet.

“They’re attempting to trap the car on Williamson. They’re mobilizing faster than I thought.”

What does that mean for me?

“Seems to me they might actually have this one under control now. I’m impressed.”

Great. So all I did tonight was just get some exercise?

“Don’t sell yourself short. Mrs. Azikiwe wouldn’t be sleeping soundly right now if you hadn’t gotten her cat out of that tree.”

I won’t stop selling myself short.

Hleuco took the comment in stride. He sped down the street he was on, still mindful of the speed limit, other cars, and lights. It’d slow him down in getting to Blank Face, but she could make up for that with her own speed and mobility.

The fact that she even had that type of speed and mobility…

He was still having trouble wrapping his head around it. Blank Face had powers, strength beyond compare. No one had seen anything like it, ever. The world was still reeling from the revelation, what it meant, what was to come. How, and why.

It was a day that wouldn’t ever fade over time. It had become something of a pop culture lexicon. A meme, as the kids put it. ‘Where were you when the first superhuman made themselves known?’

Hleuco, Thomas knew. He was in his office, watching the whole thing unfold. Watching the potential.

A hero, here, in Stephenville of all places.

And he was able to work with her on this. On being an actual hero. Providing guidance. He would have felt privileged about the partnership, if the sheer coincidence didn’t shake him to his core.

With something so big, they had to take small steps. That meant limiting her shifts to more manageable times throughout the week, picking and choosing what petty crimes she’d handle, and monitoring police activity so they wouldn’t be in her hair as much. All to help instill the idea that her great power should be married with a greater sense of duty.

To better steer her in that direction, establishing rules was important.

Exercise extreme caution. Avoid overextending power for oneself or unto others.

Constant communication is necessary. Updates should be regularly provided and orders must be promptly followed.

Anything else was common sense.

He thought those rules were simple enough when he came up with them, but establishing them early was crucial. This had never been done before, there was no precedent. Blank Face was strong, and by her own admittance, already stabbed someone. Accident or not, that needed to be curbed, avoided in the future. He worried that she might want to escalate if things weren’t in check.

Which was why he also invested in precautions. Pentazemin rounds. He prayed he never had to use them.

There were many kinds in Stephenville. Those who were good, those who weren’t so, and those who turned and became lost. He only wanted Blank Face to be the former.

Thomas didn’t want another one in that last category. Not again.

Hey, Hleuco, you still thirsty for an update?

Her voice brought his conscious attention back to the road. He clicked the left turn signal, then turned.

“Always.”

I’m on Williamson now, but the car keeps tearing through blockades.

He tuned his ear to the police broadcasts. She was right.

“The car’s modified?”

It’s going fast as fuck, everyone’s jumping out of the way since it’s just plowing through everything. Cars and vans. I think the front’s been reinforced.

“Where are you right now?”

I’m ahead of everyone, so I’m seeing it all, it’s just…

A pause.

Fuck!

“What’s wrong?”

It broke through the last blockade. A… a bus is coming from the left at an intersection. A school bus.

“At this hour?”

Anyone could be in there! Shit, at this rate they’re going to collide.

Again, a pause.

I’m going.

Hleuco almost stomped on the breaks, but there were others around him. He had to keep driving.

“That’s a big no, Blank Face. You’re going to come back here right now.”

And let people die? I can stop the car, there’s still time.

Hleuco threw caution to the wind, listening to the police and getting a better sense of where to go.

He stomped on the gas.

“Blank Face, if you’re even thinking about it-”

I don’t have time to argue. I’ll update you in a bit.

He passed up a car, crossing a red light. The city flew past him.

“Blank Face!”

He kept driving, and the police kept blabbering on. He punched the button to shut them up. He only wanted to hear Blank Face.

But there was no one on the other end.

Fuck me, Hleuco thought.

With another turn, he was close as he could get to Williamson Avenue. The police blockades worked both ways. He drove down a street that ran parallel.

Sweat dripped down the steering wheel. His heart beat so hard it hurt.

The machines beside him whirred, the van’s tires rolling down the concrete. A screaming sound.

Silent.

He drove.

Quiet.

Still no answer.

It was maddening.

Hleuco started slowing down.

Not another one…

Not another regret.

He moved a finger to turn on the police-

Hleuco? I’m at-

Hleuco went to a full and complete stop. The van and everything inside it rocked. Cars honked as they passed.

He ran his hand through his hair, nearly pulling strands out from the root. He was so happy he was mad.

“Repeat that, Blank Face?”

I’m at an alley over on Baxton, by a pharmacy. Is it a good pick-up spot?

That was a block down, secluded enough. It worked.

“It works,” Hleuco said slowly, “Stay there, don’t move. Be there soon.”

I hear you.

Now you hear me, he thought. But he drove to get her.

His chest wouldn’t ease up.

Before he got to the spot, he reached back to the seats behind him. He put on his mask as he went. A memento from his time in Europe.

He needed an identity too, some gesture to make Blank Face feel less alone in her role as a hero. Hleuco. From the name haliaeetus leucocephalus. The bald eagle.

He needed a mask, too. She couldn’t see his face as it was now. Not now.

The door slid open. Blank Face stepped in. They left.

“I’m back,” she said. It was good to hear her voice without the mechanical filter. That was what he wanted to hear.

“Count your blessings,” he said, “You’re lucky you made it out of that okay. But don’t push that luck.”

“I’m with you on that.” She was breathing hard, panting. Whatever she did took everything out of her. “My arms are killing me.”

How strong are you, Alexis?

The van rolled on, and Thomas was ready to call it a night.

Present

He checked to see if he had everything on him. He did. Wallet, phone, keys.

Thomas got into the car, Jeffery closing the door for him.

The vehicle pulled out of the driveway, and they went.

Jeffery was usually more talkative, but he was mute, now. Thomas wasn’t that lively, either.

Solace got Edgar. He’s dead.

He was at his wit’s end, but he was too sick of everything to exert effort for a reaction.

He just sat.

Solace got Edgar, and he was dead. Because Blank Face and Hleuco pushed too hard, pushed the gangs too far, too fast, and Solace was born from their desperation. He thought he calculated it right, he thought they were disrupting just enough that it would not come to this.

Thomas was cognizant of the fact it would have been an uphill battle. Public opinion of Blank Face was plummeting, and they hadn’t yet reestablished her name as being Blank Face.

Uphill, but he didn’t expect it to become this steep.

No, these criminals are superstitious, cowardly. Especially in the face of an actual threat. I should have taken that into more consideration.

His thoughts poured over every detail, every bit of information in the past forty-eight hours. What connected, what made sense, what was a legitimate clue?

Thomas made a fist with each hand.

He had to give it up to Solace, they were thorough. Nothing came up when they investigated the event staff, and of course nothing came up when they went to Kristin. The only lead was the apartment they traced the signal back to. Nothing but bricks and wood.

Except a message to Blank Face.

Blank Face – Alexis – was positive the message was directed to her, by the leader of El Carruaje, a now-defunct gang, and Blank Face’s first foe. When she informed him of this, he tried to inquire about the woman who ran that gang, Benny. Her record, whether or not she was actually incarcerated.

Of course, everyone was scrambling over Solace. Of course, they were too busy to look into a small fry.

Thomas wasn’t the district attorney, not yet. He could only do so much as he was. No one answered to him, they would only consider what he had to say.

After forty-eight hours, all any of them could do was try and prevent this. But it didn’t work.

Lost in his thoughts, Thomas caught a glimpse of an intersection as they passed it. The sign.

Gomez’s office isn’t this way.

“Jeffery, are we meeting with Gomez elsewhere?” Thomas asked.

Jeffery kept driving.

“Jeffery? I-”

The officer whipped his arm back, pointing a gun to Thomas.

Thomas backed up as far as he could, which was hardly at all. His hands went up.

“Just, just be quiet, or I’ll shoot. Not another word. And if you do anything else except sit there and keep those hands up, I’ll shoot.”

Thomas didn’t try him. Jeffery’s finger was already on the trigger. Thomas put his hands above his head.

Behind the car, a resounding, deep grumble rocked Thomas’s ears. He would have liked to turn and investigate, but there was no need to set off Jeffery.

Looking wasn’t even needed. He could see from the rear view mirror, and that distinct tone of that sound.

It was Styx’s bike. Styx was here.

So this was how…

And he considered Jeffery a pal, too.

He was fucked.

Previous                                                                                               Next

035 – Last Promise

Previous                                                                                               Next

“Don’t touch that!” Katy smacked Maria’s hand before she could move a piece. Maria pulled back, and massaged the back of her hand.

“Damn, it’s just a chess piece.”

“I said don’t touch that.”

My eyes moved back to my magazine. I flipped through some pages without reading it.

Thomas and Kristin wanted us together when the forty-eight hours were up. I couldn’t think of a more mindless way to pass the time.

But what choice did I have? Sneaking out and gathering more intel would be impossible, my mom would want to keep an eye on me all night.

At the very least, I could keep tabs on everyone that was close to me. My mom, Maria, the Thompsons. They wouldn’t slip from my grasp. Solace wouldn’t get to them.

Despite the certainty, there was still a palpable tension, an anticipation, that wouldn’t go away. Not until this was resolved, if that was even possible.

I tried not thinking about it. Tried.

Because we only had about an hour left.

“Can’t you listen for once in your life? Step away from the board.”

Uh-oh. Katy was pissed.

“Holy shit, I’m just sitting here.”

“You’re near it, and you’re driving me up the wall because of it. Just, here. Come here.”

I heard a shuffling. I closed the magazine, and tossed it beside me, on Katy’s bed. I watched Katy forcefully move Maria away from a coffee table in the middle of the her room. A chessboard placed on top.

That chessboard had always been something of an oddity. Some pieces were missing, for one, and the pieces that were on the board were placed on seemingly random squares. A white queen had no business being near a black pawn, especially since the rest of the white pieces were placed properly. The white king was nowhere to be found, and the only the black king remained of the black pieces, backed into a corner. Nothing about it was right.

But that wasn’t exactly why the chessboard was so odd to me. It was because I couldn’t count on one hand how many times I’d seen that chessboard set up properly, because that never once was the case. I couldn’t even lift a finger.

Every time I came over, the board was set up differently. Previously missing pieces returned, then others were gone, placed randomly across the board.

Seemingly.

“God, ow, let go.” Maria winced under Katy’s hard grip.

“It’s better if you don’t ask,” I said. “She’ll never tell you. She’s anal about that for whatever reason.”

“You don’t say.”

The pair only stopped when Katy moved Maria far enough from the chessboard, far enough so that Katy could be comfortable. Her room was large enough to warrant walking for a time with no interruptions. Almost as big as my room.

“Here, you sit by my bed and you stay,” Katy ordered.

“Am I a dog, now? Am I going to be sharing my meals with Annie?”

“It means you’re going to be staying outside if you don’t get your act together. My room, my rules.”

Maria breathed out loud, then folded her arms, but she sat. The added tension didn’t last long, though, Maria picked up the magazine I had put down, and flipped through it herself.

For a short while, we kept to ourselves. Katy sat at her computer, Maria with her magazine, and I responded to the few texts I received in the past thirty minutes. Nothing important, but it helped in taking my mind off things, if only for a little bit. I had gotten used to having to tap multiple times to get different letters and characters, and I was almost as fast as being on a regular smartphone. If just for myself, I’d chalk it up as something to be proud of.

Three girls, lounging around in pajamas, relaxing the night away. The scene would have been comfy, if it weren’t for the waiting, waiting for whether the news we’d be getting was good… or terrible.

I wondered how the others were managing. The others at the dinner party. Were they pretending like everything was fine, or were they afraid?

I couldn’t recall the last time I prayed for another person, and meant it, but I set my phone down, and lied down on the bed. I clasped my hands together, interlocking my fingers, and rested them on my stomach. I stared at the familiar ceiling.

I prayed. I prayed, hard.

“Let’s do something,” Maria said.

Katy didn’t respond. Neither did I.

“Hey, I’m bored,” Maria said.

“It’s hard to want to entertain ourselves under this kind of stress,” I said, still looking up.

“But we shouldn’t just sit here and do nothing. At least I shouldn’t. I’ll end up dying from waiting.”

“Quit it,” Katy said. I heard the clicking and clacking of a mouse and keyboard. “I don’t want to hear anything like that.”

“Fine, fine, but my point remains, I’m bored.”

I sat up, legs crossed, and Katy clicked one more time before turning.

“Did you have anything in mind?” Katy asked.

With all seriousness, Maria answered.

“Chess.”

“I am so done with you.”

Katy went back to her computer. I snorted, trying to contain my laughter.

“I’m kidding, kidding! God, you people can’t take a joke.”

“I need worthier jokes,” Katy said. “Step your game up if you want to entertain me.”

Maria scoffed, flipping the bird to the back of Katy’s head.

In her own little way, Maria was trying to make us feel better. And in a strange way, it was working.

Katy typed out a string of characters, ending with loud slap of a key. Guessing from the rhythm and sound, she was typing out a web address.

She spun in her chair, her elbow resting on her desk, her fingers pushing her hair up.

“What do you guys think?”

“About what?” I asked.

“Do you think Solace is really going to make good on their threat, tonight?”

“I see how it is,” Maria said. “When I mention it, I get berated, but it’s fine if you bring it up.”

“You were making light of things, I’m being real here.”

“You are so-”

“Cool it, ladies,” I said. Had to break them up somewhere, or someone would end up saying something they’d regret, and no one needed that one their plate. “Now’s not the time to be getting into it.”

Katy sank more into her chair, and Maria climbed up into the bed next to me. The waiting was taking its toll on them, I knew, and things were about to either end in sweet relief, or continue to tumble down.

I knew, because I was feeling the exact same way.

It was only a matter of minutes.

“I want to ask again, if I may?” Katy asked, looking to Maria, as if her permission was necessary.

Maria cut through her question, going right into answering it, instead. “I shouldn’t have a reason to think that Solace will. You know what your dad said, there was no evidence of any guest list being leaked out, and everyone who is on the list has to report to a nearby cop, every hour on the hour, until this thing is over, and so far nothing’s happened. We even have cops sitting outside the house right now.”

“Nothing’s happened because there’s still some time left. And there were over two hundred people at the party, not including staff. That’s a lot of variables, and with the police force as spread as thin as it is, there are no guarantees.”

“Katy, everyone’s still present and accounted for, trying to get at someone now would be asking for failure. And it’ll be the same in like… forty-eight minutes.”

Katy didn’t move a muscle. She wasn’t being convinced by Maria’s attempts to soothe her worries.

I chimed in.

“I totally get how you’re feeling, Katy,” I said, “But you’re just going to have to put some faith in your dad and the police, they’re doing the best they can, under the circumstances.”

And so am I.

“And remember what he said the day before yesterday? Giving us forty-eight hours turned out to be a big help, and we had the time to plan, to be prepared. The likelihood of something happening has significantly decreased. It has to.”

“Us? We?”

Katy’s face was scrunched up.

“Uh, you know what I mean.”

She clicked her tongue, twirling her hair. “You’re right, everyone’s working their ass off. I’m just running in circles by this point. It just sucks, being completely helpless. As if there was anything I could even do.”

“Yeah, just leave it to the big boys,” Maria said. “They got this.”

Katy raised her chin by a fraction.

“They better.”

They better. I shared that sentiment.

I sympathized with Katy, or maybe I even empathized with her, too. The stress of the past two days, dealing with pressures at school, and then this. Feeling helpless, unable to do anything, at this hour. Even with what I had discovered last night, not a lot of progress was made with that revelation.

Solace was Benny.

She had to be.

It was her message I found at that apartment, it was her old territory that the apartment was in. That had to be a message for me. It had to be her, or she had to be involved with Solace in some way. It made less sense if she wasn’t. The question left, then, was how.

I relayed my findings to Thomas as soon as I could, but I hadn’t had a chance to get back with him to see what had been done, or what the new game plan should be in general. Despite having to spend the night under his roof for the second night in a row, I couldn’t get a hold of him for a detailed discussion. I might be able to sneak one in later tonight, once everyone was asleep. I was certain that he wanted to talk with me, too.

If there was a way to ask Maria about Benny, without outing myself…

No news was not good news, in this case. The police might be able to prevent a death tonight, but Solace was still out there, and the threat extended until I revealed myself as The Bluemoon, or until we put a stop to it. Tomorrow, and the next day, were as crucial as this moment.

No, more crucial.

“Agh.” Maria made an odd noise, before putting her head on my lap. She coughed, thoughtfully covering her mouth.

“Looks like The Bluemoon’s not going to take off its mask,” Maria said.

I winced, turning away.

“Looks like.”

“How selfish. If it’s trying so hard to be a hero, wouldn’t giving in save more lives?”

The thought made me bite my tongue.

Would it?

That was one way of saving everyone, but it’d be my last. I still wanted, needed, to prove myself as a superhero, and giving up would be shooting myself and everyone I care for in the foot. Besides, I’d be letting Thomas down.

We’d been over this already.

“The Bluemoon could be working on their own plot to find and catch Solace,” I said, “Independent of the police or proper authorities.”

“Pfft, good luck then, because we’re all gonna need it.”

I knew this was her being sour, biting, but it still left me with a bad taste in my mouth. It reminded me that luck probably had a big part to play in this, and having to leave something this big to chance was scary. Really scary. As if I needed any more reminders.

News flash. I didn’t.

Katy returned to her computer. She put on a song, a hazy, atmospheric hip-hop track. It played in the background.

Nothing to do except sit here and wait. And the wait was killing me. Us.

Maria moved her head, and I felt her hair brush against my leg. She looked right up at me.

“You’ve really gotten super skinny.”

A chill ran through me. Deep. Cold.

We’re not getting into that now, are we?

“About that,” Katy whipped back around, and the song was paused, and time seemed to pause with it.

“Let’s talk about that for a little.”

“I’m game,” Maria said. She sat upright, and stared at me intently. “Sorry, Lexi, but you don’t get a say.”

Blindsided. Should have seen this coming. Should have been more careful.

Alarms were ringing in my head. Red. I was on alert.

“This doesn’t seem like a good time…” I started, doing all I could to come up with a way out of this, a way to move to another topic.

“It’s a great time for it actually,” Katy said. She held her hands up, a placating gestures, like she didn’t mean any harm. “There’s not a lot I want out of you, not right now. Think of this as a mini-pseudo-intervention. Some planning, but I think it’s good if we can get into this now, if only for a small exchange.”

The look in her eyes, she wouldn’t be so easily swayed this time around. She wanted a talk, and Maria was going to be her backup.

There’s no running away from this, is there?

I thought.

And as if a switch was flipped inside me, an odd sort of peace swelled within me. Like a train, or a truck, was about to hit me, and all I could do was accept it.

I gave Katy a look of my own. Tranquil. A certain ease.

The biggest lie I ever gave to my best friend.

That was how I saw it.

“What is it you want from me?” I asked.

She watched my expression change. Briefly, Katy struggled with her words, almost flummoxed.

“One, one question. All I ask of you, for now, is to answer one question.”

“I can manage that,” I said, knowing that it was very possible that I might not manage that. But the façade remained.

Katy cleared her throat.

“Have you been eating? Like, at all?”

Technically, you just asked two questions, but okay.

That was a question on everyone’s minds, I knew, and I couldn’t leave it unaddressed forever. I knew they wouldn’t. To pretend like I’d never be called out on it would be foolish. Especially since I already had, but I couldn’t worm my way out of this one.

And I wasn’t exactly planning to. Not this time.

As calmly as I did before, I gave Katy an answer.

“I have.”

Katy shifted her gaze. She didn’t look satisfied. Maria wasn’t exactly pleased, either.

I sighed, trying not to shiver.

“Look, I know you guys have been concerned for me, and you have every right to be so, because… because things haven’t been really good for me, lately. I’ve been dealing with a lot of shit that I’ll still not comfortable talking about. And that’s not including all of this stuff with Solace. It’s… overwhelming, and I know it’s selfish of me to say that since everyone’s going through their own stuff, they have their own problems…”

I trailed off. I was losing focus on what I meant to say.

I tried one more time.

“I feel like my head’s going to be a lot… clearer, once Solace is no longer a thing that’s in our lives. I’ll feel better, then. So, once that happens… I’ll tell you everything. I promise.”

I looked into Maria’s eyes, then Katy’s, as though I meant every word I said.

My heart kept pounding.

Katy nodded, saying, “I’ll hold you to that.”

“Me too,” Maria said.

With some relief, I replied, “Good.”

We sat in silence.

There was a knock on Katy’s door. It opened.

It was my mom.

“Everyone come down. It is almost time.”

We all nodded, then we moved as a group. Downstairs.

I was in the back, feeling like I just did ten-mile sprint.

I had no intention of telling them the truth. But, just for a while, I bought myself some time. Time to think, plan, and sell Katy and Maria different story. A believable one. Until then, they wouldn’t bother me about it, they wouldn’t push. They’d back off, leaving me to handle Solace. With Hleuco.

Maybe I’d change my mind once all was settled with Solace, but…

We’ll see when I get there.

At a bare minimum, my friends deserved something.

We went to the living room, Thomas and Kristin were standing in front of the TV, watching closely to a news broadcast. The broadcast had the courtesy of having a graphic of a giant timer play out behind the newscaster.

“Almost here,” Thomas said, his eyes not breaking away from the screen. He looked restless, but he also looked like he needed a full week’s rest. His dark eyebags were just one testament to that. Worse for wear, on all fronts. He still had on his suit, loose and hanging off his body.

The countdown continued.

There was only a minute left.

… and with no appearance of The Bluemoon, will the terrorist known as Solace strike once the timer concludes? The whole city is watching with bated breath.

The seconds were ticking down. Everyone was stiff. Thomas held his wife’s hand, tight. Katy was by his side. I was with my mom, her arm over my shoulder.

Maria was by herself. I pulled her in to bring her closer.

This was it. The moment of truth.

I almost wasn’t ready.

But time waits for no man.

Five.

Four.

Three.

Two.

One.

Zero. The timer behind the newscaster went to zero.

And there was nothing.

None of us moved.

And it seems that we are now five minutes past, and nothing has occurred, which is of course a good thing,” the reporter said. “We are now waiting on reports from SPD about the current situation.

“Ah hell yeah!”

Maria cheered.

We all immediately relaxed. Katy hugged her parents, and my mom patted my shoulder.

We did it, we actually did it.

Everything fell into place, and it worked.

I almost forgot that we still had to catch Solace, I was so relieved.

I looked to Thomas, and he was already looking at me. We shared a smile. We had this. This.

Let’s enjoy this moment, this victory. Tomorrow, we can

Breaking news-

Everyone stopped.

We’ve just received a report from police that judge Edgar Brown is not accounted for and is likely to be considered missing. The report comes-

“Damn!” Thomas hissed the word. He slammed a fist at the sofa. The trepidation and fear came back, except multiplied, greater.

“How!”

I watched, deeply hoping that this was a grand prank, and we were being played the entire time. I’d settle for total humiliation than the alternative, which was a death of a human being.

Please, let this be a prank.

We were back to watching the TV, unable to look away.

Now we’re hearing that local stations are receiving-”

The picture cut.

It was replaced with static, and a single word, in an old-style font.

Solace.

Good evening, to the so-called hero known as The Bluemoon.

The voice was distorted.

The forty-eight hours I allotted you have now run out, and you have failed to reveal yourself and remove your mask. And now, others will pay the price, all due to your choice.

The sound was filtered with high and low pitches, and I couldn’t discern the gender. It grated, since that could have been the real Solace speaking, but I couldn’t get anything out of it, couldn’t make it out. So close, so far.

And one, already, has paid that price. Edgar Brown was a father to three, a devoted husband for fifteen years, a man of good virtue. Of course, he was also a pillar of this corrupt city, one of the very few left. Now, a few good men must mourn the loss of a great one.”

I was breathless.

Solace continued.

But that matters not to you, does it, hero? You believe yourself to be above the law, attacking downtrodden, troubled citizens, and forcing your twisted brand of justice unto others. Edgar Brown’s death must be something of a convenience, isn’t it? As the pillars fall, something new can be built to replace them. Something of your own sick design.

I had to force myself, to remind myself, to breathe.

Solace continued.

If so, I propose a change. Come this time tomorrow, if you have not complied, I will kill two people, then three the following day, and so forth. Perhaps this is enough to spur a change of heart within you?

My fingernails dug into the inside of my palms. My jaws clenched together, grinding. A leap past furious.

I took a glance at Thomas. He was still, not doing much of anything.

I’m looking forward to seeing you tomorrow. Until then…

The screen cut back to the news. The newscaster was sitting there, confused as the rest of us, but we weren’t paying attention, anymore.

“You have got to be kidding me!” Maria’s voice neared a shriek at the end. Kristin was massaging her forehead, and Katy had to take a seat. My mom followed, sitting elsewhere.

More knocks. At the front door, this time, and more like bangs. Thomas went to get it.

Everyone else was busy coping. I needed to talk to Thomas. Still needed to, and even more, now.

I followed him to the door.

He opened it.

“Jeffery,” he said.

One of the officers who was assigned to watch over the house.

“Gomez wants to see you. It’s important, obviously.”

Thomas took a look back, and noticed me. He looked lost at what to do.

I didn’t move. Or I couldn’t?

He went back to Jeffery.

“My family… Gomez needs me now?”

“He’s just calling for you. Can’t say for sure how long it’ll take, what I can say is that I can escort you there and back. We’ve got Percy and Sumeet if you really want to be careful.”

“Thomas? What is it?”

The rest came to the front door. Kristin passed me and moved a step behind Thomas.

“Gomez is asking for me. Probably to strategize about Solace, now that they’ve changed the game.”

“You can’t go now, you don’t know what’s going to happen, we need you here. I need you here.”

Thomas paused, then started putting on his shoes, retying his tie. He hugged his wife.

“Honey, hon, it’ll be okay. Jeffery’s escorting me both ways, so you know I’ll be safe. I’ll come up with a better plan, and I’ll put an end to this. I promise. And I promise I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

He gave her a kiss.

“Dad!”

Katy pushed through everyone for a hug.

Thomas kissed the top of her head.

“Love you both, I’m sorry it ended up like this. See you soon.”

He hugged Katy one more time, then went outside, following Jeffery.

“Thomas!”

I called out.

He turned, while still moving forward. We shared a look. Determination. At that moment, I wasn’t Alexis, and he wasn’t Thomas.

I was Blank Face, and him Hleuco.

And we weren’t going to let this stand.

A mutual determination.

“Bye,” Thomas said.

That was good for now. It was confirmation that he wanted to talk and plan with me, after Gomez, and all the more that we shouldn’t give up.

We weren’t giving up.

That was a promise.

Thomas nodded, like he was actually seconding my thoughts, and he went off, to the cars and cops. Safe hands.

Kristin closed the door, then we backtracked to the living room. It was as though the wind was knocked out of all of them. No one was feeling very talkative.

“It’ll be okay,” I said, though I couldn’t muster a lot of conviction. “It’ll be okay.”

No one responded. It was disheartening. I looked at my hands, and they were shaking, despite me.

Who was I trying to convince?

Previous                                                                                               Next

033 – Required Strength

Previous                                                                                               Next

It had taken up to three hours to make it to Katy’s place, from getting through the frenzy at the hotel, traffic, and making sure everyone was following and in step with the police escorts. Three hours.

Forty-five hours left.

Kristin dealt with the officers while Katy let us in.

The interior was dark, but it was no matter to me. I could have navigated this whole house blindfolded, I was that familiar with the place.

Her house was big, even for a two-story home. It had a modern design and chic to it that made it hard to believe it was in the same school district as mine. The whole neighborhood had that posh air, giving the impression that it was a safe place to be. Kristin insisted that we stayed together for the night, and this was the only place that could comfortably house everyone. I was itching to do more, myself, but maybe it was something we needed, after that ordeal.

Maybe it was something I needed.

Katy pointed to the slippers lined up by the door. “Should be enough for everyone. Try to make yourself at home.”

“Remind me to marry you, Katy,” Maria said. She made room for my mom to close the door. “I have got to get in on this.”

Katy responded, “How well can you cook and clean?”

“Once you taste my spicy fish tacos, you’ll be begging me to put a ring on it.”

This is the most anyone’s spoke since leaving the hotel, I thought.

Katy flipped a nearby set of switches, and the lights turned on throughout the house. We walked through the main hallway, Katy ahead of us. The stairs were to our right, and the kitchen opened up to our left. Katy stopped at the kitchen.

A gate was set up at the entrance. Plastic, about as high as my hip.

On the other side, a dog stirred.

“Annie, come here, come here,” Katy called in a high pitch.

“Ah, the legend herself,” Maria said. She’d heard all about Annie before, to the point that Maria had to demand that Katy never bring her up again, lest she lose the feeling in her upper lip.

Annie was a labrador retriever, the family pet, absolutely adorable, but she was getting up there in years. Her fur wasn’t as bright as it used to be, gray streaked her ears and the top of her head. She moved from her bed, sluggish.

She used to be so energetic and excited whenever guests came over. Now, she was more content with just sitting by their side in the living room.

But, she was still absolutely adorable, just looking at her made me feel a little better.

Katy folded the gate to let her pass, but the dog stopped halfway, seemingly confused. She tilted her head.

Katy ordered her again, “Annie, come here, let’s go outside.”

The dog didn’t budge, instead taking a more defensive stance.

Annie started growling. Baring teeth.

“Annie!” Katy had to snap at her, scold her. “Behave!”

Katy entered the kitchen, and grabbed Annie’s collar. She didn’t bite, but she did resist. Katy had to use actual force to tug her along.

Annie continued to growl as she went out of the kitchen. But, as she approached, she tried to break out of Katy’s hold, and lunge.

At me.

It was my mom, Maria, and myself, but I saw how Annie moved, where her eyes went, which person she attempted to get. The spring in her step, the sudden fire in her eyes. Even though I played and ran around the house with her when I was a kid, it was like I was a stranger to her, now.

No one seemed to notice that, however. Mom and Maria both backed up when Annie started trying to get on her hind legs, growling all the way. Katy had to hold her down.

“Agh, shoot. I think I’ll have to keep her outside,” Katy decided, her arms shaking from Annie’s movements, her gown getting stepped on by the dog.

Finally, after Katy’s repeated insistence, Annie complied, following Katy to the other side of the house. All by the collar, letting out a grunt or snarl on the way.

“Man, even the dog’s on edge,” Maria commented. I didn’t know what to think of that, myself.

The three of us continued into the living room. Large, the ceiling high with wooden beams, a wooden floor, white walls and white curtains. The farthest wall was essentially one big window. Katy was probably on the other side, with Annie.

The room and its furniture put recently built model homes to shame. Fancy, yet cozy was the best way I could describe it. Only a few spots here and there didn’t fit, didn’t mesh, and I knew enough to know that was Thomas’s doing. Knick-knacks from different countries, a doll from Japan sat on a small table in the corner, beside two tribal African masks. If anything, it added character.

On every shelf and table, however, had picture frames of the Thompson family. Some had all three of them, but most were just Katy as a kid, running in a field, or playing on a playground. One family photo had them standing in front of the Eiffel Tower. There was another picture where Katy was playing with a smaller, younger girl. On first glance, you’d be forgiven if you thought they were stock photos. Just the shots, the lighting, the expressions, the general aura of the pictures, they were humorlessly generic.

Then again, I didn’t have a lot of photos like that at my place, so who was I to judge?

My mom and I went to the sofa, Maria fell onto the loveseat. Her first time here, and she was already making herself at home.

A flat screen TV faced us. Huge, like a large chunk of the wall in front of us was simply missing, non-existent. Shelves at the bottom had the blu-ray player, and below that was a small cabinet with an extensive library of movies.

They had an extensive sound and lighting rig. But, the TV wasn’t on, the lights for the rig weren’t activated, either.

I could really go for a movie right now, I thought, but it didn’t seem appropriate, at the moment.

The silence was deafening. Not a single word was uttered.

I couldn’t sit still. I repositioned myself, crossed my legs, switched them, crossed my arms. There was more I could be doing, other than sitting here.

But what?

A clack, and a window at the farthest wall slid open. Katy stepped into the living room at the same time her mother did, coming from the hallway. They met us in the middle of the room.

Even with more people, the silence remained.

Someone… please…

Katy was the one to break it, a false levity, a nervous tinge, “Geez, everyone’s acting like someone died.”

“Too soon,” Maria said, moving around on the seat to be on her back. “No one’s died yet.”

“Stop that,” Kristin said, “No one here is going to die, and no one here is in any danger. I just spoke with the police officers outside, and they offered to do shifts and patrol the area for the night. And, I also just got off the phone with your father. He’s already done with his business at the hotel, and he’s on his way back home.”

She moved to sit by my mom, then putting an arm around her shoulder.

“Shiori? You and Alexis are more than welcome to stay the night if you’d like.”

“I’ve got some pajamas that should fit,” Katy added, “And of course y’all can sleep in my room.”

My mom looked at me for so long I thought she was considering against it. I almost wanted her to. But I didn’t have a way of projecting that without outright saying it.

I watched her closely, intensely. Every detail, I noted, I saw.

She then faced Kristin. “We’ll take you up on that, thank you,” my mom said instead.

Stuck here for the night, when the clock’s ticking. Fuck.

Kristin hugged my mom, and she received it warmly.

“Of course, the offer extends to you too, Maria,” Kristin said, getting up from the sofa. “You might want to contact your parents, first.”

“And your boyfriend,” Katy added.

Maria gave Katy a sidelong glance.

“I left a message,” Maria said, in a way that came off as apathetic. “They’ll see it.”

Kristin was aware enough to leave that alone, and addressed all of us at once. “I’d try to explain more, but I’ll let Thomas handle that when he gets here. He’ll have more of the details. I’ll be in the kitchen, see if I can’t whip up something to eat.”

“I’ll help,” my mom said, leaving the sofa. “I want to make myself useful.”

“By all means. Katy, did you take the dog out?”

“Yup,” Katy said, as she dropped onto the seat Maria was in, nearly sitting in her lap if Maria hadn’t gotten out of the way in time.

“Okay, good. In the meantime, why don’t you set up a movie for y’all to watch?”

She left after making the suggestion, and my mom followed. And somehow, their absence sucked what little air was left in the room.

It was still… still.

Between my friends, especially these two, it usually wasn’t hard to find something to talk about. But none of us uttered a sound. Katy didn’t bother trying to turn on the TV.

The looming words of that bomber. Solace. I knew they were on the minds of everyone here. How much was it affecting them?

“The…”

Maria sighed, failing to get a sentence out.

Katy and I looked at her.

She fixed her position, sitting properly, and Katy had to scoot over to give her space. Maria undid her hair, letting it fall around her. It was hard to read her face.

“The Bluemoon really creeps me the fuck out,” Maria said, timorous. It sounded like an opener to something else.

“Some hero,” Katy said. She gave me a look. Fleeting. Was that to have me say something, too? Or was there another implication?

I felt my skin go clammy.

All this second guessing, always having to watch my step, watch my words. It was killing me.

I kept quiet.

“No, like, I really hope it gives itself up,” Maria said, stammering, “I really fucking do. I’m tired of… hearing about it all the time. Can’t it just go away?”

From across the room, her words stung. Eduardo must have said something to her about me. But what, exactly? What was the fallout like on her end? What went down?

And Katy. Did my friends really hate The Bluemoon that much? Blank Face? Me?

I wanted to read their thoughts so bad.

“Why does it have to exist?” Maria asked, her face in her palms. “Why does it have to ruin everything?”

Tears. Any more, and the last thing I would end up ruining was myself.

Katy looked my way again, and I was starting to get scared.

Please don’t look at me.

Before I could try to do anything, I heard the front door open, then close. It wasn’t long after until Thomas revealed himself, coming into the living room.

Everything about him looked down. His jacket was unbuttoned, his shirt untucked in some places. His hair was a mess, and he wasn’t standing straight.

“Hi,” he said, weary, exhausted, tired.

“Dad!”

Katy got up immediately, and ran straight to him, nearly tackling him into an embrace. I couldn’t blame her, a very small part of me wanted to do the same.

I stood, anyways, and Maria followed, fixing her hair. My mom and Kristin came up from behind Thomas, both wearing aprons.

Everyone was in the living room.

Katy stepped back, finally letting her father go. With how things were going recently, that grueling silence would have returned, but Thomas curbed that like it was nothing.

“Is everyone okay?” he asked.

There were nods all around.

Thomas looked pleased, relieved. He chose to believe us.

“How about yourself?” Kristin asked. She approached Thomas and kissed him on the cheek. He leaned down for an easy reach.

“I’m holding up. There was nothing more I wanted than to go home with you all,” he said, “But I had to give a statement, work things out with the police, not to mention handle the press and their incessant questions…”

“Then I hate to do this to you, Dad,” Katy said, “But you’re going to have to answer some more.”

He exhaled, then forced a smile. “I would rather answer a million from you than one from those reporters.”

Thomas gestured, and we all moved, taking positions. Mom and I returned to the sofa, with Maria joining us. Kristin and Katy sat together on the other seat. Thomas stood, in front of the TV.

“I’ll just run down through everything I covered back at the hotel. Easier that way. Basically, it’s still too early to know if this ‘Solace’ will follow through with the threat, but everyone is going to be treating it like he will. Police are already starting investigations as we speak, like tracing where Solace’s call was coming from, and going through and asking everyone involved with the planning and running of the dinner, to see if there isn’t a clue.”

“Meaning they’ll be knocking on our door, very soon,” Kristin said. “Asking for me.”

Thomas nodded. “‘Suspicion’ is a bad word to use, but they’re not looking at you in that way, hon. However, they will need your assistance on this.”

“And they will have it.” She wrapped her arm around Katy, and Katy leaned on her.

I only now noticed that my mom had her hand on my lap.

“Do they really have a list of all of the guests?” Maria asked, blurting out the question. “Are we all potential targets?”

Had to go and say it, I thought, but I knew it was a concern that needed to be addressed.

‘Concern,’ being a very severe understatement.

“Can’t say for certain,” Thomas answered. “Nothing on that man beside the bomb and his clothes, and nothing he said confirmed that he had a supposed list. It could’ve all been for show, a bluff…”

“Or he wants us to not be certain, and have all of us constantly doubt and fear what we don’t know,” Katy said.

“Katy!” her mom exclaimed.

Katy leaned away from Kristin. “Well, couldn’t that also be the case? They’re trying to get us afraid, to be scared as shit, all over some damn hero that can jump high!”

Visibly exasperated. Her voice uneven, shaking. She was already feeling it.

Thomas sulked, shadows over his eyes.

“That’s… also a possibility. Once again, too early to say.”

“And once we can say, it’ll be too late,” Katy said, soft. She wasn’t looking at anything in particular. Kristin hugged her, even tighter.

Maria looked at Katy, Kristin, then to Thomas.

“Can’t you ask the guy?” Maria asked, “The bomber man? Wouldn’t he know something?”

“He was immediately taken to the hospital for injuries he sustained from wherever the hell he came from. Medics had found signs of internal bleeding, multiple organ failures, the works. I overheard them having to consider the possibility of a medically induced coma, but I hope it doesn’t come to that.”

“But…”

“But, this ‘Solace,’ whoever he, she, or they are, they knew what they were doing with the bomber. If the bomb didn’t kill him, his injuries weren’t that far behind. As of now, he might live, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be useful.

“Another reason why Solace might be a credible threat.”

I spoke, the first real words I said in hours. Everyone directed themselves to me.

But that was all I had in me to say.

Thomas agreed, “The nature of their announcement, the bomb, the fact that it could be remotely deactivated, the fact that the bomber could even get close enough to grab the mic away from me-”

He stopped himself, pinching the bridge of his nose. He maintained that position for a time, and I could hear the seconds ticking away in my head. The hours.

Thomas stayed that way, but he said, “Regardless, telegraphing the threat like that can actually work to our advantage. We know the scope of the threat, and we have a time limit to formulate a plan and start getting things in order so nothing happens when Solace’s supposed timer hits zero.”

He paused, taking another second, then put his hand down, looking at us individually, in the eyes.

“The number one priority is keeping everyone safe. Each and every one of you. All those good police officers and law enforcement aren’t going to rest until this situation is handled and dissolved, and I don’t plan to, either. Nothing is going to happen to you.”

No one said anything. I wasn’t sure if anyone believed him.

“What do we do in the meantime?”

My mom asked.

Thomas put a hand in his pocket, and took out a phone. It was ringing. He silenced it.

“Terrorists want to instill fear and disturb the minds of good people. The best way to undermine their efforts is to not let that fear get to you. We have to continue, heads held high, not just for ourselves, but for everyone. To show them that we’re made of tougher stuff, and that we don’t fold to such pressure.”

A last ditch effort to instill some confidence, I guessed, Putting on a show. I just want to find that fucker and…

What exactly, would I do if I got my hands on him?

Maria raised her hand. “Uuum, does this mean we still have to go to school tomorrow?” she asked out of the blue.

Weak, short laughs all around, me included. Even Thomas managed to find humor in the timing.

“Yes, Maria, I advise you should all go to school tomorrow,” Thomas said, with a tad more energy. “You shouldn’t use this as an excuse to skip a few classes.”

“Would you blame me if I did?”

“No, I guess I wouldn’t.”

“And The Bluemoon?” Katy mentioned, and immediately she brought the mood crashing down. “This would all be over if it gave itself up.”

It. Itself. No one ever used a gender pronoun towards The Bluemoon. Katy or Maria didn’t use it, and neither did Solace. Hardly anyone did. They truly didn’t think of me as one of them. A person.

I hung my head.

“Things would certainly be easier if he does,” Thomas said. “However, The Bluemoon is most likely operating on his own agenda, we can’t assume or trust that he will come forward. We’ll have to plan as if that’s not going to happen.”

He was answering for me. How accurate that answer was, I was beginning to have my doubts.

More and more second guessing.

It never ended.

I heard Thomas’s phone. Ringing, again.

“They don’t know how to leave a man alone. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll have to take this. I’ll be in the backyard.”

“Oh, Annie’s out there,” Katy said.

“All the more reason to go outside. I’ll be back shortly.” Thomas started making his way to the backyard.

Kristin called out to him as he left. “‘Each and every one of you’ includes you, too. Don’t push yourself, you’re not even officially the new DA yet.”

He waved without turning, and went outside. My mom and Kristin both left to go back into the kitchen.

That silence.

I can’t be here, with Katy or Maria. Not like this.

“I’m going to the bathroom,” I muttered. I left the sofa, then the living room.

Then to the stairs we passed earlier, and then up.

I found the bathroom easily, locking the door behind me. I was facing the mirror, hands pressed against the marble sink, but I couldn’t look at myself.

I saw it, I saw it all. From subtleties in my mom’s expression, to how Maria went from joking to morose and back again, to Katy’s trouble state. She showed it the most.

They were scared.

Anyone would be. It was understandable. Expected, even. But all I ever felt this whole time was anger. The fire to do something to get back at Solace. It was a war he started, and it would be a war I wanted to bring. I wanted to go back to my apartment, I wanted to get my costume and go out there. But…

But…

What good would that do?

I saw them all. How down they looked, the gloom that held them. Was this the only thing I’d ever provide as Blank Face? Fear, and people willing to capitalize on it? Did I do any good as Blank Face? I’d crippled a gang, stopped some crimes, fought against the cornerstone of the city’s underworld establishment, all for what? Who saw it that way? Who cared to look at it from that perspective? Or would everyone really prefer to have me gone, out of the picture?

My family, my friends, others. Their lives were at stake, now. Because of me.

Would it be better if I did give myself up?

Without looking at myself, I washed my hands. I was up here for too long, already. And thinking like this all the time… I’d lose my mind.

I turned off the faucet, and dried my hands, using a fancy towel on the rack beside me. I left the bathroom, and found Thomas waiting for me outside.

“AK,” he said, calling me by that nickname again.

“T-Thomas,” I said, unexpectedly. I patted my backside, and fixed my dress. My hands were still wet. “Everyone’s downstairs?”

“Yeah, Katy’s preparing a movie.” Thomas blinked, but he let his eyes stayed closed for a while. He had a shoulder on a wall, propping himself. He looked so done that he’d flop onto the floor if he didn’t have something to help him stay upright. “I’ve got more business to handle, so I’m heading into my office.”

“Okay.”

“How’re you feeling?” he then asked.

I answered honestly. “Keeping it together. Trying to, anyways, but I feel like I’m going to explode in any minute. I would say I’m drained, but you look the part more than I do.”

Thomas either nodded, taking in my answer, or he was already drifting elsewhere.

“That,” Thomas said, “But also, how are you feeling? Thirsty? Hungry? Stomach pains?”

“Oh, I’m getting to be a little thirsty, I guess. A small itch in the back of my throat. You… I was able to manage for the whole week.”

“That’s good. I suspect it won’t be that way for much longer.”

“No.”

“I’ll have to put that on my list of things to do. I tried thinking of possible ways I could get you blood, but nothing came up that wouldn’t automatically raise flags, of course. Can’t just go through the process of donating blood and ask to bring it home with you. Can’t just walk into a blood bank and ask for some, either. I’m more than aware of ‘gang doctors,’ but that’s underground, black market territory, so we’ll probably have to cross that out, considering our modus operandi. I’m really sorry.”

“No, I really appreciate you trying to help in that. You’ve almost put more thought into it than I have.”

And I don’t want to keep having you give up more and more of your blood to me.

I could see the timer ticking in my head, imagining what it would be like when it got to zero.

Thomas spoke when my imaginary timer reached ‘one.’

“I wanted to talk with you the most, about all of this,” Thomas said, “And yet, you ended up being the last in line.”

I didn’t know how to take that.

“Everything I said earlier still applies. What I didn’t mention is that the police will be doubling down on their lookout for you. This might be enough for the National Guard to make a move, too.”

I swallowed. Even more complications. Even more players in this sick game.

“This is gang related, right?” I asked. “Couldn’t Styx’s Gang be involved in this? They were the ones I revealed the Blank Face name to. The last thing Solace said, that ‘blank face in the crowd’ line. It has to be connected to Styx, somehow.”

“It’s a good assumption, very likely a correct one, but considering Styx and his gang, they’d only disseminate that information to others. I wouldn’t put this past them, but they might not be the true masterminds. Could be someone else.”

Even more complications. Even more players in this sick game.

I swallowed, again.

All of it was weighing down, crushing me. It wouldn’t take more for me to give out, entirely and completely.

I wanted to curse, but I didn’t. Thomas knew how I was, now. Part of me felt weird about it.

I was at a loss of what to say.

Thomas picked up my slack. “What do you want to do?”

What do I want to do?

I was just asking that, myself.

“What… What do I do?” I asked, voice unsteady. “People could die, all because of me. What am I supposed to do, if I don’t reveal myself?”

Thomas considered his response. He closed his eyes.

He opened them.

“You maintain. You maintain, and endure. This is what Blank Face has to be about. Unwavering, even in the face of threats and danger. Tougher stuff.”

I reiterated, “People could die, and it’d be all my fault. I don’t want that on my hands. I want to get Solace and stop him myself, but… I don’t know where to start. I wanted to go home, get my costume, but I’d be running blind. And I saw everyone’s reaction and… I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know. I don’t know if I can endure this. Maybe I should just give myself up, I-”

I had to force myself to stop my rambling.

Thomas was watching me, intently, and put his hand on my arm. He squeezed.

“Don’t you dare think for a second that you’re not worth existing. No matter what anyone says, no matter what anyone does, you belong. It might be hard for people to see it, but you’ve done good. At a sufficient minimum, you’ve done good by me. And if everyone gave up just because others didn’t think they belong, we’d be living in a much sadder, much scarier world.”

I was shaking my head the whole time, my eyes getting wet, my makeup starting to run. My normal life was already ruined, there was no getting out from this unscathed, personal life or just my person. Solace challenged me, and dragged along everyone else in order to do it. Even if Hleuco and I stopped Solace, the ramifications would last, linger. People would hate and fear Blank Face even more, and everything we had done against the gangs would be wasted. Even if Solace’s threats were just empty promises, irreparable damage was already done.

What could I hope to gain?

“Alexis, listen,” Thomas said. He pushed himself off of the wall and put his other hand on my other arm. “Don’t you dare think for a second that you’re alone in this, either. I’ve told you that much already. I’m here to help, I will help, and police will be indirectly helping you, too. They want to stop Solace just as much as you do. We’re going to get through this, together.”

I nodded. It was all I could do.

“Are we good?” Thomas questioned.

“Not good,” I answered, “But better.”

“You’ve got this, Alexis, just take it a day at a time.” Thomas let go, and walked past me, going deeper into the hall. “With that being said, I won’t be able to join you as Hleuco, not for the time being. Not with insisted police protection, press, and general preparations as the district attorney-elect.”

I figured as much, but I felt like choking, regardless.

“I can still contact you, feed you information so you’re not in the dark about how the investigation is going. Plans, too, if I think there’s something you can do. I’ll do the same about your blood situation, and if I can find anything about your true nature, but that last bit’s will have to really be in the back burner.”

“I don’t know if I could repay you for everything you’ve done,” I said, feeling guilty. “Out of everyone here, I’ve put you in the worst position.”

Thomas shook his head. “Back when I first met you as Blank Face, I was the one to approach you. I encouraged you to do more with your powers. If we really want to play the blame game, I gave myself the biggest cross to bear.”

He continued, “When you get up to my age, you end up with a lot of regrets, a lot of missed chances and overlooked opportunities. Your only options are to either forget about them, or work harder to not add another regret to that list. I will not turn you into a bullet point on that sad list.”

He slouched one shoulder, and rested on the wall again.

In my head, and for as long as I knew him, Thomas was nothing if not a pillar. Standing, never faltering to pressure, tension, stress. An absolute. Someone to look up to, and even admire.

Tonight, I saw a crack in that pillar.

“Good night, Alexis,” Thomas said, faintly. “Enjoy that movie, get some sleep, and when tomorrow comes, keep your chin up. I’ll be in touch.”

His office was at the end of the hallway, and I watched as he retreated into it. The door didn’t make a sound as it opened and closed.

I wondered how much of what he said was for himself, too.

With gradual, heavy steps, I went back down the stairs, back into the living room. The lights were a contrast from earlier. Everything was off except for the lights for the TV, and the TV itself. Everyone was around the TV, a light rom-com playing. A movie I’d seen before. Only Katy and Maria were up, eyes glued to the screen, eating popcorn. They didn’t acknowledge me coming in. Which was for the best, I didn’t want to show my face.

I sat next to my mom, praying she wouldn’t snore and bother the rest. I placed my head on her arm, and I focused on her breathing, the rise and fall of her chest. The television went blurry, and I closed my eyes, the sounds muffling.

A small bit of peace, a calm before the storm. I just wanted this moment to last, even for a second longer.

The time was displayed on the blu-ray player. I had checked it before I dozed off.

Forty-three hours left.

Previous                                                                                               Next

032 – Invitation

Bonus                                                                                               Next

We moved as a squad, fresh as we could possibly be, ready to have a blast.

The ballroom opened up before us, and, speaking for myself, it took my breath away.

The room was wide, expansive. Intricate gold patterns weaving throughout the walls and ceiling. Even the carpet was nice to look at, red and gold fractals. A chandelier shined above our heads, glistening from every angle. The room was more wide than it was high, but that was its only limit, being in a five-star hotel.

Still the prettiest room I’d ever been in.

A band was playing on the stage at the head of the room. A singer, a guitarist, a pianist, a bassist, and a drummer, all in suits, performing smooth jazz. It added to the ambiance.

All in all, it was actually kind of neat.

Round tables were set up throughout, with fancy glasses and fancy utensils. People were already eating the food and enjoying themselves.

Everyone was dressed up for the occasion. Fancy suits for the men, lovely dresses and gowns for the ladies. Even the waiters and servers were gussied up, in black button-ups and white bowties, matching aprons. The people here looked so good it was intimidating, present company included, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have butterflies in my stomach, but I’d have to get over it.

I had to.

Katy was wearing that blue gown, because of course she was. I had to swallow my words, though, because she was actually rocking it. Her hair was styled into a side-swept dutch braid, not tightly tied, but loose and natural. Her makeup wasn’t heavily applied, going for more subtle touches. The only daring application made was her lipstick. Cherry red.

She had all the other game show hosts beat, in my opinion.

Maria, on the other hand, went for the opposite approach. She had on a black lace dress. Simple, but there was elegance there that I typically didn’t associate with Maria. It was a nice fit, showing off a figure I was jealous over. Her hair was tied back, a clean look. Compared to Katy, Maria’s makeup was more heavily applied, but tastefully done, highlighting her eyes and cheeks, her lips a deeper red.

Maria promised that she had ‘dope shit’ to wear. I believed her, and she delivered.

Me? I could only try my best to keep up.

A red dress. Nothing fancy, but with my matching heels, it elevated me to Katy and Maria’s level.

Well, close enough.

A low, square neckline, scoop back, with the length of the dress reaching my mid-thigh. As for me, my makeup was even more minimal than Katy’s, but I did have some added blush on my cheeks. It wasn’t much, but it was more pronounced that it should have been, my mom explaining that it was because my skin had gotten so white, recently.

Had it?

If I had a better phone, I’d take more selfies to compare.

I fixed my hair, a curled bob.

Ogling the sights, we all moved to find our table. It was in the middle of the room, equal distance to the food and the band. Not far at all, if I was hungry.

Which I was, just not for what was served here.

“And here we are,” Katy said, leading us to our table. A card was placed on top, with all of our names on it. “It’s a prime location. Food’s right there, and all eyes are on us.”

“Great, exactly what I need,” Maria said. “Everyone can see me as I inhale my dinner.”

“More bang for their buck, then,” I added. “People get more entertainment for the night.”

Maria ribbed my side, and I laughed, hiding my own concern about being easily seen. Being out in the open.

Really have watch my back, here.

“Feel free to start the show early, if you want to, Maria,” Katy said, “I’m probably going to get something right now.”

“I’ll come with,” Maria said. “I don’t give a f… I don’t mind.”

“Alexis?” Katy turned my way.

“I’ll just sit for now,” I said, shaking my head a little, “I’ll get food later.”

“You better. The oysters here are to die for.”

“Oh, I’ll start with that,” Maria said, and they both went off, dipping into the mass of people moving about.

My mom and I took seats at the table.

I listened to the sounds around me, the music just barely over the hum of people conversing. Mom hadn’t said a word since we got into the hotel and met up with Katy and Maria, and she still had nothing to say for herself. She sat, back straight, her eyes wandering around, occasionally looking back at the band.

I noticed she would look at the singer, specifically.

I waved my hand to get her attention. “Ma, what do you think?”

“It’s big,” was all she said.

Of course it is.

I wasn’t too perturbed by her seemingly nonexistent enthusiasm. If any excitement was there, she was keeping it inside. Keeping it to herself. I was sure of that. No offense was taken or intended. That was just how she was wired. The type of person she was.

I looked over the people around us. No one I knew. Everyone was from a social or political circle that I simply was not aware of. I caught small instances of the passing conversations. The weather, a court hearing, how the housing project up in Malibu was going. And I could’ve sworn I caught a muttered mention of ‘The Bluemoon.’

So, no one was talking about anything I was terribly interested in.

I noted a few people buzzing about, flashes of light periodically blasting whatever direction they were looking. Photographers.

Really, really, had to watch my back.

Following my mom’s example, I decided to watch the band perform, the pianist’s fingers floating over the keys, the bassist being the unsung foundation the song was building from. The drummer keeping time.

The singer… was decent.

I checked my watch. The one my mom gave me for my birthday. Four minutes had passed.

“We’re back,” I heard Katy say in a sing-song way. I scooted my chair to my left to make room for her. She sat, and so did Maria.

And so did Katy’s mother and father.

“Shiori, Alexis, I’m so thrilled you two could make it,” Katy’s mother said. Kristin.

Unlike my mom and I, you could tell that Kristin was Katy’s mother. That wasn’t to say she wasn’t pretty herself, she pulled off her white dress nicely.

Between Katy’s mom and dad, I wasn’t sure where she got her smarts. Probably from both of them. Kristin occasionally taught Language classes at universities, flying out to speak at seminars. Regarding knowledge in general, Kristin was a source. Not to mention the connections she had to plan this thing.

The Thompsons were one power family. Seriously.

My mom nodded, “Thank you for inviting us. This is quite the event.”

“Don’t say that, this was the best I could do on such short notice,” Kristin responded, clearly minimizing the effort. “All I hope is that you enjoy yourself.”

“We will,” my mom said.

“Kristin, honey, I wish you had less time to put this together,” Thomas said, “I’m not used to all these old people congratulating me.”

Kristin lightly smacked him on the shoulder. “You’ll be working with those ‘old people’ soon enough. They’re part of the community, too, you know.”

“Yes, but, can’t they be more interesting?”

She hit him on the shoulder again. Thomas grinned.

He looked the same as ever, maybe more tired. But, his suit was nicer, and he still found it in him to be cheery.

“Leaving that aside,” Thomas said, “Hello, ladies.” He gestured to my mom, me, and Maria.

The three of us returned our own form of ‘hello.’

“How are you, Thomas?”

“Hi.”

“What is up?”

Thomas nodded. “Shiori, I wanted to stop and swing by for another haircut before all of this, but I couldn’t find the time.”

“It’s understandable,” she said.

“Alexis,” Thomas then said, looking at me right in the eyes. “Any updates?”

My heartbeat upped in tempo, and I almost broke eye contact.

“Trying to keep it together,” I answered.

“Good to hear, really good to hear,” he said, with far more concern than he should have let on.

Idiot, I thought, You’re not Hleuco right now. Don’t talk like that while we’re here.

I ended up glancing away when he started speaking with Maria. I folded my arms, rubbing an elbow. This was not ‘keeping it together.’

“And you must be Maria,” I heard Thomas. “Katy’s told me a lot about you.”

“Oh, I really hope not,” Maria said.

“Please tell me Katy’s been a good friend to you, I’d hate for her to be giving you trouble.”

“I wouldn’t say ‘good,’ but she tries. And you wouldn’t believe the trouble she gets us into.”

A gurgled, choking sound, followed by a hacking cough.

“Maria!” Katy berated.

Abrupt and heartily, Thomas cracked up. I looked back up, and saw Thomas wipe an eye with his thumb. He still had a bandage around it. Back at the church, after our conversation. From when he pricked himself with my knife. A temporary, improvised solution.

My makeup amplified the flush of red coming to my face.

A man walked to Thomas, putting a hand on shoulder for his attention. Thomas stood, they shook hands, and got to talking.

Thomas turned his attention back to the table. “It appears I’m needed elsewhere,” Thomas said, “I’ll be back whenever these people feel like giving me mercy. Hon, Katy, I’ll see you, Shiori, always a pleasure to see you again, and Maria, it was my pleasure meeting you. And Alexis…”

My heart started racing again.

“Keep keeping it together.”

He took his leave, following the other man towards another group, it looked like.

Leaving me red as an apple.

Idiot.

Unintentionally, I looked down, to hide behind my food. I reached for my fork and…

Right. I didn’t have food. Couldn’t have food. Almost forgot.

Fuck.

To my left, my friends were eating. To my right, my mom and Kristin were still conversing. I was left with nothing to do. Nothing to do with all my restlessness.

I just sat there, trying to maintain my composure, keep it together. I picked up on the conversation my mom and Kristin were having.

“… reminds me, and I know this would be asking a lot of you, but I think it would be absolutely delightful if you could sing for us. I can arrange something with the band.”

“Oh, no, I can’t,” my mom said, “I’m out of practice, too.”

“For someone like you, I bet it’s like riding a bike.”

“Hold on, you sing?” Maria interrupted from across the table, from my mom’s point of view.

Sang,” I said, deciding to put myself into the conversation, and to answer for my mom. “She was a singer before she came here. I thought I told you this already?”

“You probably did, doesn’t mean I heard it. Or cared to remember.”

“Nice to know you put so much stock in what I have to say.”

“You betcha.”

“That was a long time ago,” my mom said, looking at the band again. Something in her eye.

I saw it.

“Aw, at least I tried. I’m sure Thomas would love it,” Kristin said, “I know I would.”

Mom lowered her chin, ever so slightly.

It wasn’t entirely true, what my mom had said. She wasn’t out of practice completely.

She did sing, still would. While she was cooking or cleaning, cutting my hair. Humming to herself, too. She was good. Really good. Despite a distinct rasp, there was a soft, soothing quality to her voice, but a power to it when she wanted to reach for a higher note. She liked to sing, I knew. Somewhere, deep down inside, she still had a passion for it. I just knew it.

Which made me wonder why she had put such a restriction on herself. About singing in public. When Mom first met Kristin and Thomas years ago, she wasn’t shy about sharing what she used to do, before coming to America. But, she didn’t share everything. Even to me. Even when I’d ask about her past, being in Japan, she didn’t share much. I barely even knew my grandparents. Over time, I just learned not to bring it up.

Sometimes, my brain would bring that conundrum back to me, and I’d be annoyed to no end. Like an itch I couldn’t get. Why did she stop singing?

I had some theories of my own.

Perhaps, my being born had something to do with it.

Or maybe… it was his fault.

The timid emotion within me immediately warped into something more rotten. Duller, though, after some odd years.

A… Alexis, neither time or place. You’re at a party, right now. Act like it.

It was no struggle to realign my feelings from that. Set myself straight. Years and years of practice.

I brought myself out of my head, and back into the moment. Katy and Maria were just about finished with their food, exchanging words as they ate. Kristin had already left, and so did my mom. Probably hungry, now.

I looked at my watch, before speaking up.

“Dressed up like this, doesn’t it feel like prom?” I asked Katy and Maria.

“Prom? No way,” Maria said, in between a bite of a steak. “It’s just people here… existing. And there’s not enough people our age. And it’s not trashy enough.”

“Your idea of prom is a trashy one?” Katy questioned.

“All I’m saying is, prom will be better. Trust.”

Prom wasn’t until next semester, yet it felt so far away. With every day being its own battle, it was hard to believe I could even make it that far.

Maybe I should make it a goal, something to look forward to.

I know the old Alexis would be excited for that.

“Let’s have the trashiest prom ever, then,” I said, turning the thought in my head into a pact.

“Hell yeah, girl,” Maria said, tapping her fork and knife together.

Katy looked just as thrilled, if not more so. “Sounds like a grand old time. I’m down. Especially since my dad won’t be there.”

We all looked at each other, and we shared an air of something playfully sinister.

Maria creased an eyebrow, pointing to the fork in front of me. “When you gonna get food? Katy was right, I could kill for another oyster. Good thing I don’t have to.”

I gave it some thought. “I guess it’s time to grab a plate. You coming?”

“Nah, I still have plenty left.” Maria motioned over her plate. She’d been eating this whole time, but I still couldn’t see the white of the plate, underneath the food.

“You can get seconds,” I said, “It’s not like they’re going to run out anytime soon.”

“These are my seconds.” Maria pointed to another part of her plate, “And these are my ‘firsts.’ So, when I get up, I can get thirds, see?”

“Barely. Okay, I’m going.”

“Right behind you,” Katy said, “I’ll come with.”

I didn’t mind, the more the merrier. We left the table, and crossed the room. My mom opted to stay.

The line of food stretched, a length down one wall that could feed a small village. And it looked expensive, with dishes and ingredients I couldn’t name. The smell, however, I could attribute a single word, easy.

Revolting.

It was like running into a burning building. I took a plate, and started putting some food down, without thought or care. I didn’t get too much, I still had to figure out how to get around actually not eating this.

Katy followed after me, getting her own food.

“What was that, just before?”

Under her breath, Katy asked me a question. She was leaning towards me.

Not so merry, after all.

“What was what?” I asked back, scooping up half a spoonful of mashed potatoes.

“When my dad was at the table, you were acting all weird while he was talking with you.”

I went straight to denying it. “Was I? I didn’t think I was acting weird. Who’s acting weird?”

“You are. I’m not kidding around, Alexis. Honestly, it’s not just that. You’ve been weird for longest time, and it’s not only me. Maria’s noticed, too.”

Fuck. Have they? Was all my work and effort been for nothing?

A pit in my stomach, and it wasn’t from the food.

Okay, part of it was.

Without a word, I continued down the line of food, picking up something here and there.

“Alexis,” Katy said.

I couldn’t face her. “Yes?”

“Can’t you tell me what’s going on?”

Fuck, fuck.

“There’s nothing to say because there’s nothing going on,” I said, like it was as clear as day.

“Don’t do this to me, Alexis. Remember when you and I went to find Maria to confront her about avoiding us? Now it’s me and Maria, trying to get through to you. Why do you think we stopped by your place, the other day? This was something we wanted to go over for a long, long time.

Oh, fuck.

If everything fell apart, right this second, at this juncture, it’d mean the end of me, and everyone I cared about. People were after me, protesting and rioting in the streets, all due to me existing. Even if I trusted Katy and Maria about keeping a secret, what about Thomas, what about Kristin? What about my mom? So many variables, so many places where something could slip out, and I didn’t want them to become a target.

I can’t let that happen.

But my friends were already suspicious of me. Been suspicious. I had to assuage their worries if I wanted to protect them.

Which meant I had to lie through my teeth. Again.

“Uuuh,” I started, thinking.

A loud, but muffled tap sounded throughout the room.

Reach, reach. What could I use, instead? What was a plausible enough excuse that I could use? What was acceptable?

My grades. Volleyball. Coach T. That could work, I just had to spin it well enough. Enough to be convincing.

“-uum. Okay,” I said, “The truth is, I’ve been working with-”

Thomas. His voice took command of the whole room.

We turned around.

Thomas had taken his place at the head of the room, in front of the stage where the band was. He had a mic in his hand, tapping it. The sound reverberated across the room.

“Hello, everyone. I wanted to say a word or two. Actually, my wife wanted me to, so here I am.”

Several laughed, from what now was an audience.

Katy whispered to me. “We’re not done here, what were you going-”

“-wanted to thank my beautiful wife, Kristin, for arranging this extravagant party and her tremendous support, and my even more beautiful daughter, Katy, for all her support throughout my campaign.” From even that far away, Thomas could still point out his daughter, raising a hand to wave at her.

Dropping away all the tension from before, she waved back, beaming. Everyone had turned to either see her or Kristin, then went to applaud. Pictures were snapped. I turned to have my back facing them. I poked at some food. Since Katy wasn’t looking, I started inching away.

After the clapping died down, Thomas continued. “A lot, and I mean a lot, of my friends and colleagues had some very choice words for me when I announced that I was running. None of which are worth repeating here, otherwise this becomes a therapy session, but I noticed an underlying tone from those words, all coming from the same place. Fear.”

Utensils kept hitting the bottoms of plates, from what I could hear. Some weren’t paying attention to Thomas. But I couldn’t see who, I was still facing the other way.

“Fear of what?” Thomas asked, though rhetorically. “Fear for my well-being? A fear of something greater? Considering the city I will be operating in as the next district attorney, their concern may be understandable, but that’s exactly the reason why I decided to run in the first place. Because this city never got its chance to shine, never got a chance to put its best foot forward. People from the outside looking in, they don’t know what this city truly has to offer, the loving and kind folk that truly make up the core community. A community that, unfortunately, hasn’t had a chance to raise their voice and say, ‘we exist.’”

Thomas paused, to space out his speech.

“I was born and raised in Stephenville, my parents owned a small pharmacy out on the city limits. They didn’t have much, but they helped, when and where they could. My father gave his free time to the local schools and churches, my mother organized and ran food drives, among so many other things. They loved their community, and the community loved them back. And I’ve tried my best, my whole career, to accomplish a percentage of what they’ve done. I want to be a voice for those who don’t have one. Change. It will be a long process, it will be more than tiring, and change can be slow, I know. I might not get to see what this city becomes, when it does blossom. But I want to be its best foot forward.”

People applauded.

“Those who don’t truly know this city, they call it the ‘Wanderland of the South.’ Which was where I got my slogan from. ‘Wander no more.’ Yes, it is corny, I’m not afraid to admit that.”

People chuckled.

“But that’s why I chose it, because it’s so important that-”

The lights cut out for a second.

Noise over the speakers. Grunting. Struggling. I spun around.

A man had wrestled the mic out of Thomas’s hands, shoving Thomas out of the way. Before Thomas could rush at him, the man spoke into the mic.

“Don’t touch him, he has a bomb.”

I could see the fear sweep over everyone. I could feel it in myself.

Thomas stood, hunched, not moving. Security personnel at the sides of the room were stopped, too, unsure of what to do.

For me, I dared not move, but I was tense.

The man moved again, this time unbuttoning his shirt with one hand. He seemed to be in a hurry, fumbling with some of the buttons.

Then, I saw exactly why.

He took off his shirt, revealing a vest underneath. Wires extended across his torso, plugged into different metallic cylinders and boxes. A large timer was across his chest, ticking down the numbers.

And we’re already too late.

Five.

Four.

Three…

“Good evening,” the man spoke into the mic.

In that instant, the timer jumped up. To thirty seconds.

And it started going down again.

Twenty-nine.

Twenty-eight.

“I would like for things to r-run smoothly, while I have the floor,” the man said, and the timer reset again, “I wouldn’t want to make a m-mess of this kind, poor volunteer. Alright, fine, he’s not a volunteer.”

He went still, and nobody moved. The timer went back down, past nineteen.

The more he talked, the more I realized that English was a second language to him. He had a Hispanic accent.

Fuck is going on?

And am I supposed to do something?

The man’s face was swollen in the eyes, with wounds down his neck, and down his arms, visible from where I was. There were probably more under his vest. He looked tortured.

How did this guy get in here?

He walked forward, slow, closer to the center of the room. People tried to back away, but they were restricted to their chairs, their tables. No one knew what would set him off, in a very real and grim sense.

The timer went to ten before he spoke again.

“Here are the rules. You let this man speak, and the timer doesn’t go all the way down. You touch him, you in any way interfere with him, you call for help, I let the bomb go off. And this thing’s quite the firecracker. Do not test me.”

So, that was the situation.

We were at the mercy of this bomber, forced against his will by an unknown third party. He moved his head, and I saw a wire go from his ear, into his a device on his vest. An earpiece. He was being fed words to say, repeating after someone. Thirty seconds on the clock, and we’d all die if it reached down to zero. The only thing standing in the way of that was that man. He had to keep talking.

My mom, Maria, Thomas. I found Kristin on the opposite end of the room, back to the wall, hand over her mouth. They were all closer to the man than Katy and I.

That timer can not go down to zero.

It can’t.

I wanted nothing more than to spring into action, and bring them all to safety. Or stop that man, somehow. But even I wasn’t faster than an explosion. I couldn’t get to them in time, I wasn’t faster than the push of a trigger. I couldn’t do anything.

I was ultimately powerless.

He had to keep talking.

Please, I don’t care what you say, keep talking.

Fifteen on the timer.

“All this talk about community, yet you ignore the loudest voice,” the man said. “The ones most afraid, the ones most in need, and o-ones who need reassurance that all is still right in this world. I will be the one to lead this city to a true glory. Call me… Solace.”

Twenty-five.

“This city has been… infested by a monster. A real monster that preys on the i-innocent with their very being. More real than any supposed evil that corrupts this city. The Bluemoon.”

Many squirmed in their seats.

Nineteen.

“There have been no answers, only disturbing questions. Where did it come from? Why does it attack? Who is under that m-mask? The people have spoken, with their impassioned actions, but I bring their word.”

Twenty-one.

“And yet, you all sit here, consuming delectable food and drink, ignoring the rest of us? How dare you. You all deserve to d-die.”

His words filled the room, and it there was such a disconnect with what he said and how he said it. Scared, faltering, it didn’t fit with the ‘for the people’ tone the words of his speech were going for. It resulted in a jarring, harrowing atmosphere.

He didn’t speak, but the timer continued. Was it the third party, this Solace, purposefully letting the time go by?

I was sweating, cringing every second he was silent. Twelve.

The only sound over the speakers was the man’s whimpering, sad and desperate.

Nine.

People were crying around me. I couldn’t bring myself to look for Katy, my eyes fixated on that timer.

Five.

Four.

Three.

Two.

One-

“S-so I come w-with an ultimatum!” The man weeped.

The crowd cried more, all at once. The timer jumped back up to thirty.

“The Bluemoon must reveal themselves, and take off that mask in public. If it does not comply… I kill a random person in this room, for everyday you don’t come forward. I have a list of those who were invited.”

No. You wouldn’t.

The hysteria increased tenfold, but many forced themselves to stay in their seats. Though most were already at the edge of them.

As for me, I was already shaking.

Mom, Maria, Katy, Kristin, Thomas. Myself. Even if we made it out of here, we weren’t safe. They had our names. Without being aware, this Solace already had Blank Face’s civilian name.

A cold shiver down my spine, electric.

Twenty.

Sixteen.

Eight.

I had gotten so numb that I almost wanted it to go all the way down.

But it didn’t.

“Y-you have forty-eight hours, for our message to reach you, Bluemoon, and for you to act. Then I begin my hunt. The people have spoken, and they demand a penalty from those who failed to act on their behalf. And, one last word, that must absolutely get out. Whoever you are, you are not human, and you are not one of us. You will never be a blank face in the crowd. Goodnight, and Godspeed.”

The timer turned off, the number vanishing, followed by a high beep, descending in tone. The man collapsed, hitting the floor, and everyone lost it all at once. People yelling, screaming, crying, running. Security loudly ordering people to vacate the building, police surrounding the downed man, yelling for a bomb squad.

I stayed put. I was incapable of movement. I could barely keep it together.

It was the hard yank of my arm that forced me to drop everything and move.

“Come on, Alexis!” Katy shouted, “We have to get out of here!”

I followed, almost limply. I searched over the hectic swarm of people.

Mom, Maria, Kristin…

Thomas.

I found Thomas, staring right at me, circled by his own posse of police. A hard, angered stare. A look I had never seen before.

Because they knew. Solace knew.

His last words. ‘A blank face in the crowd.’ He couldn’t have said it like that without a reason. Solace knew my real name. And it was enough of a clue for me to know what we were up against. And Thomas was aware of that, too.

This was gang-related.

“Everyone’s leaving! We’ll meet them outside!”

Katy pulled me along, and I was consequently torn from Thomas’s icy stare. I had to work in pushing through a crush of bodies trying to get to the exit, everyone exploding in trepidation. Fear.

Inside me, that fear was shaping into something else.

That Solace. He or she came here, threatened my friends, my family, and simultaneously called out both me and Thomas. Blank Face and Hleuco. While I didn’t know how, I was going to make sure they’d regret that. Terribly.

Solace might have won this battle, but the war had just begun.

Bonus                                                                                               Next