064 – The Illest Villains

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The wait was excruciating.

Time seemed to stretch as Phil stared down at us, keeping us still, keeping us waiting.

If D had a reason for doing this, it had better be a very good one.

People were looking, watching our standstill. We were in a store, during the middle of the day. Peak hours, for a business like this. People were leaving, entering, noticing us as they went about their day. More eyes on us, more eyes on me and D.

Not the best way to go about scouting an area. Not exactly.

We couldn’t stay like this forever. Someone had to budge, to give in to the other.

And it wasn’t going to be us.

“The faster you hear us out, the faster we can be out of your store and out of your hair,” I said. That was my small push, to get the ball rolling.

Phil spoke, for the first time in what felt like an hour.

“Or, I have you taken out of here, by force. Jay and Ricky, they ain’t the only ones in here. I can make this real easy if I want it to.”

“The only thing you’ll be making this is, is… not… easy, bleh.”

D stuck out her tongue and spat, as if a bug had gotten in her mouth.

“Almost,” I said to D.

She shook her head, and tried again.

“You’re not making anything easier if you call for backup, you’ll be making a mess. Trust me.”

“Are you threatening me in my own establishment?”

“I’m not, but I am telling you how it will go down, if you take it there.”

Phil’s gaze hardened.

I couldn’t exactly defend or justify D, there. She was only giving him more reasons to be done with us, testing his patience until it whittled away to nothing. She seemed to have a talent for that.

I had to do something to mediate this.

“Phil, look,” I said, “Let’s not ‘make this’ into anything. We want to talk, and you want us out of the way. Help us, and you’ll be helping yourself, too.”

He didn’t react or acknowledge me, and I began to wonder if he was just that stubborn.

“Come with me.”

I heard him, and I saw him walk away, but it almost didn’t register in my head. We were so frozen in that moment for so long that I couldn’t comprehend that something happened.

And now I had to catch up.

D was already following him by the time I moved a foot. I looked over to the checkout counter as I walked. I saw the boy working, still bagging up D’s snacks. He noticed me, and I made a gesture, to stack our stuff on the side, somewhere. He nodded along, understanding what I meant.

Which left me free to go after D and Phil.

He led us to the back of the store, through a set of doors by the produce section. The sooner we were out of sight, the better, it seemed.

As we followed, I looked at D, and she noticed. She shrugged.

We needed information, and this man seemed to be in the know.

And the power of knowing was a very good power to have.

But, something about this rubbed me the wrong way.

Not with Phil, not exactly, but with D.

I had caught on to what D was doing, why she ran off, pretending to have lost her wallet. I just wished she had told me about it.

I told her that I hated being in the dark about things, and she still went off to enact her own plan, leaving me behind. Even if she didn’t need me to help, even if she just wanted to stay still and just watch…

I would have at least been in the know, but, in that moment, I didn’t know. I was powerless.

That bothered me.

Phil coughed, and it sounded harsh, rasp. It brought me back to the present. Where we were, what we were doing.

I took a breath.

Did it really matter, though? I had my qualms, but I knew better than to get worked up over it now, especially after what happened at the basketball court. D was trying to make a move on my behalf, our behalf. D took a risk, nearly starting a gun fight in a store, all to draw out this old man. She thought it was worth it, she had her reasons.

And I was willing to back her up on it.

Wasn’t worth getting worked up over, wasn’t worth bringing it up with her afterwards. There were more important matters at hand.

I kept walking.

Through doors and corridors, past crates and employees, we got closer to where stuff was stocked, stuff that wasn’t ready to be displayed out front. Like frozen meat, and vegetables, and snacks.

We got close, but that was as far as we were taken in that direction. Phil took a corner down another way, and we had to follow.

He was a step ahead of us, walking fast for someone his age. It was as if we weren’t even here. If we somehow had fallen behind, or had gotten lost, I doubted that he would have noticed or cared.

He walked until he reached a room, probably used for staff meetings. The blinds on the other side of the window were up, obstructing my view inside, and the door was closed.

Fishing out a set of keys from his pocket, Phil got the door opened. He didn’t say anything as he entered, not until we came in, ourselves.

“Take a seat, we can continue this in here.”

He flipped a switch by the door, turning on the lights. A small, round table was placed in the middle of the room.

We each took our own seat, Phil having left the blinds up.

“Continue what, exactly?” I asked. I had my own ideas about where this would go, but I wanted to make it clear. If he was trying to lure us into some sort of trap… I was ready to swing.

I had my knife, I had my strength, and I had learned my lesson. I wasn’t going to be played twice in one day.

“Our compromise. I’ve gotten you out of the way, but you’re still in my store. So, you can tell me exactly what it is you want, but I don’t necessarily have to be of any assistance, in that regard.”

“I think that’s a fair deal,” I said. I turned to D. “Right?”

“Sure,” she said, nonchalant.

Phil then added, “Oh, and my name’s Fillmore, with a ‘F.’ You don’t get to shorten it.”

“Alright, Fillmore, thanks for doing this much, at least.”

“Don’t thank me so soon,” Fillmore said. “I still haven’t heard you out, yet.”

“Fair,” I said again. “I’m Wendy, by the way, and this… little lady, is D.”

Fillmore blinked. The expression on his face, it was as if he didn’t believe those were our real names.

“Pretty name,” he then commented, though I wasn’t sure which name he was referring to.

D wasn’t about to shy away from taking the credit, however.

“Thank you,” she said, smiling.

“I’ll leave this to you, then, D,” I said. I decided that I’d concede the rest of the discussion to her. Not to be passive, I’d steer the talk along, rein D in if and when she needed it, and try to keep things civil. But, I trusted that she knew what she was after, that she knew what we needed, to get the job done.

“Cool cool cool,” D said, in quick succession. “So first off, Mr. Phil, I wanted to ask, just to confirm, that you’ve been around here for a long time. Is that true?”

“Damn near forty years.”

“Dang near forty years, right,” D repeated. “So, obviously, you know a lot about what’s been going on?”

“My ear’s close to the streets, yeah.”

“Then, you have to know about the gangs in the area.”

Fillmore tapped his finger on the table. “Get right to it. You’re asking about the Thunders and the Royals.”

“Well, will you look at that, you are no fool.”

Fillmore’s expression changed with a twitch. It was easy to read.

Already, I felt like I had to step in. Could she not go until her next breath before she ticked someone off?

Her style, her way of doing her. That kind of quirk was… an acquired taste, I’d admit, and not everyone had the patience to want to be acquainted.

“D,” I said, testing, warning.

She leaned forward, placing her elbows on the table, putting her hands together. Linking her fingers, she rested her chin there.

Anywho,” D said, “Let’s get right to it, then. I want to know what’s up with the Thunders and the Royals. We just came back from a… encounter, with them, and we learned that there’s a pact between the two gangs now. And, much like yourself, I like to think that I know a lot about these streets, too, so hearing about that was a pretty big shock to me. So, what’s up with that?”

Fillmore breathed, drawing it out to a long sigh.

“That’s what you want?”

“That’s it.”

“Of all the things you could be learning, like math, or why the sky’s blue, or quantum physics, and that’s what you want to know?”

“Math’s easy, it’s blue thanks to Rayleigh scattering, and I can learn that whenever I’m at the library. I can’t learn about this in a book.”

Why, though?” he questioned. He sounded genuinely confused as to why we cared so much about this.

“Like I mentioned, I pride myself on my knowledge about what goes on in this city. In order to do whatever I want, I have to know what everyone else is doing, and why. Keeping a pulse on the world around you is key to survival. And, it’s just fun for me.”

He closed his eyes, keeping them shut.

“I don’t suppose you’ll be using this knowledge for anything good?”

“My point is, it’s still not ‘good’ out there, even now. They have their pact, but it’s clear that doesn’t equate to any real peace. You saw it, didn’t you? It wasn’t hard. Tempers are still there, just below the surface, and it doesn’t take much to bring them right back up again. What if something happens, and you weren’t there to stop it? What if it was over something bigger than a cereal box?”

“And you’re saying you can do something about them? That you have a solution?”

“Definitely. You leave them and that alone, maybe you’ll have a month or two of relative calm, maybe. But something will happen, it always does, and then they both get snuffed out, burning down everything with them. But, if my colleague and I can do something about it, maybe we can lessen that damage, if only a little.”

Fillmore opened his eyes.

“You’re still talking damage,” he said. “Destroying them.”

“Are you really ‘destroying’ anything whenever you rid your house of dusts and pests? I like to think of it more as a controlled fire, to go back to the burning metaphor from earlier. We can mitigate the flames, not make them stretch as far and as wide, and, as an added bonus, we cast out the blanket and sit on it so no other sparks come up.”

I spoke. “You kind of lost the metaphor at the end there, D.”

“I did, but you know what I’m getting at, right, Mr. Phil?”

“I do,” Fillmore said.

Fillmore scratched his chin, closing his eyes again. He was silent for a time. That was about the extent he’d hear us out, it seemed. Now, it was up to him, whether we were done here or not.

Again, the wait…

It was excruciating.

Slow, he opened his eyes again.

“I do know what you’re getting at. Whatever I tell you about those two gangs, you’re going to use as leverage to take them out, and you move into their territory. My neighborhood. Is that right?”

“Just about,” D said, admitting it right then and there.

A bold move, and not one I agreed with. I would have stepped in to say something as the mediator, but D had already ran her mouth. The damage was already done.

“Then,” Fillmore said, and I held my breath. “I’ll tell you what I know, but I don’t promise to have all the exact details.”

I lifted an eyebrow.

“You’re telling… us.”

That last word came out funny, I wasn’t sure if I should have intoned it as a question or as a flat statement. I didn’t want to force my curiosity and have him rethink his decision, but I did want to know where he was coming from.

Fillmore sighed, with a distinct rasp as he finished.

“Always the same, ain’t nothing changed. It would be arrogant to believe that it didn’t apply to me.”

He gave himself a moment to pause, bringing his hands close, dropping them into his lap.

“It’s not as if I can stop y’all from poking your noses around here. I’m nothing but a withered, old man, filled with regret. Even if I refused, you’ll probably still get what you’re looking for. Might as well get it from a primary source.”

I felt like I needed to offer some sort of response.

“You’re not… withered.”

Good job, Wendy.

Fillmore met my eyes, and I saw just how tired he was.

“And you two, at least you’re upfront about your villainy. We don’t even know each other, and you’re already being real with me. Those two, EZ and Krown? I haven’t seen those boys in years, they send their crew here if they want something. That ain’t real, that’s pathetic.

“Years?” I asked. “Were you close?”

Fillmore shook his head, all he had to offer as a response.

D fixed her posture, putting her hands flat on the surface of the table.

“Get right to it, already!”

I glared at D. We were so close, and if D were to fuck it up now…

I, I don’t know, I’ll have to ground her, or something.

D returned a look at me, sticking her tongue out.

“Please?” she added, looking back to Fillmore.

He answered, sounding even more resigned.

“I’ll take you back, way back. Just promise me one thing?”

“What is it?” I asked.

“Go easy on them.”

It had gotten colder as we returned outside.

We left through the side door, taking us back into the alley where we first met Fillmore. A fitting metaphor, that. To avoid being out in the open, taking the less direct route. Staying in the shadows.

Sneaky? Sure. Underhanded. Probably. Villainous?

I’d keep the jury out on that.

We kept moving, cutting through the other side of the alley, putting the store to our backs. Fillmore still had work to do, and so did we.

I walked, my arms already straining. D made me carry the bulk of the plastic bags. She bought a lot of fucking snacks.

I had enhanced strength, and I was ready to drop these at the van.

D, however, had a sort of spring to her step as she paced ahead of me, humming along the way. Not any melody I knew, but she was out of tune.

“Excited?” I asked.

“I just can’t hide it,” D said, off-pitch. “I’m so ready to stuff your fridge, and my face.”

That’s what you’re excited about?”

“Heck yeah, I hate that you don’t have anything whenever I come over, and I hate that you don’t buy stuff yourself.”

“That’s because I don’t need anything, so I would only be getting stuff for you.”

“Exactly!”

“You’re unbelievable,” I said. “And I don’t think you ever asked permission to use my fridge.”

“What do you mean? You said I could.”

“When?”

“Yesterday. You told me to bring my own food to keep in there.”

Did I?

“I have no recollection of anything before our meeting with Lawrence yesterday. These past two days have been such a blur to me.”

“I know right? These gangs can wait, I want to watch a movie, eat some delicious tiramisu gelato tonight.”

“And where do you expect to be doing such a thing?”

“Where else? Your place, of course.”

“Oh no, you don’t,” I said. “We still have a lot of prep work to do.”

“But we don’t have to rush,” D said. “We can take our time.”

“I’m not disagreeing with you, I’m just saying you should hold off until we’re done. Save it as a reward for yourself, you could stand to learn a thing or two about moderation.”

“That doesn’t sound very exciting.”

“Learn,” I said.

“I’ll try,” she said, but I knew better than to believe her.

Maybe I’ll have to hide some of her snacks, keep it out of reach.

It was a thought, but a passing one. There were more important matters to think over.

Like Fillmore, and what he had to say about the Thunders and the Royals. EZ and Krown. The story between those two brothers.

It almost made me reconsider.

I observed our surroundings as we continued our walk. The later hour was accompanied by a subtle shade of orange that blanketed the streets and buildings. A certain familiarity, that wasn’t there before.

We crossed the street, moving from Barton to King Boulevard. We walked past Tita Lorene’s laundromat, then the deserted Wellport construction site, turned into a makeshift skate park.

The street corners had a history to them, their names had a meaning and reason. The graffiti and tags told their own stories, a mark left behind by someone who was once there.

The small crosses in smaller patches of grass. The flowers growing in the cracks in the ground. The smeared outline of chalk, the young boy that passed us on the sidewalk, headphones on, minding his own business. Everyone, and everything, had a story to tell.

This town was full of stories.

And that included EZ and Krown. Fillmore.

Not that I was already connected to this place on a deeper level. It was more like the feeling I had when I first checked out what ended up becoming my new apartment. Looking around, getting the feel of it. What it would be like to move in and live there. Getting used to the idea of calling it home.

There’s going to be a lot to take care of once we take over.

I spoke. “This really is going to be a lot of work, isn’t it?”

“That’s what I’m saying. I could use a gelato break.”

“No, not that. Leading the Ghosts, this neighborhood, our plan. I knew it was going to be tall order, but being here, in the thick of it? It really puts into perspective how big this project really is. It makes me wonder how far we’ll go.”

“Don’t ever wonder what’s ahead, just dive right into it. It’s more exciting like that.”

“Is it?”

“Oh, absolutely, you’ll never know where you end up, or what you run into along the way.”

“I’ll never fail to be amazed by your spontaneous approach to things,” I said, trying to be sarcastic.

“I’m going take that as a compliment,” D said, bouncing as we moved.

Maybe it was a compliment, it certainly was a trait I could admire. For my part, I preferred to be meticulous, to plan ahead of time, and have complete control of the finer details. To have real power.

Sweeter than any blood I had ever tasted.

Soon, I thought. Soon.

Reconnaissance. It wasn’t as fun a job as it sounded.

I sat in the van, waiting. Waiting for something, anything to happen.

I yawned.

D had slept over after dropping off her snacks at my place, stuffing my fridge and pantry with food. She wasn’t allowed to touch them, yet, not until we were done with the job. I was adamant about that.

She threw a fit, but she eventually came around. I never set a hard rule against using the TV, so I let her flip through channels while I sat next to her, browsing the internet, trying to get more info on the Thunders and the Royals, and their neighborhood. D left to get some Chinese food, came back, and fell asleep on the couch after eating, TV still on. I hadn’t gotten up the entire time.

Now, it was a new day, and break time was over.

I yawned again.

If I had it my way, I wouldn’t be sitting here, right now. But D explained that she had to work alone, for this one, small part. She had the experience, she knew what to look for. Having another person tag along would only slow her down.

I agreed to step back for this one, small part. D had a good reason, and she actually told me, this time. All without me saying anything about it. I was willing to comply.

But, there had to be a better way to spend my time than sitting in the parking lot of an arcade.

Not fun at all.

I’ve been here for an hour. When’s-

From the across the lot, the doors opened.

D was already pretty small, but from a distance she was miniscule. It was almost cute.

She hurried as she returned to the van, head down, not bothering to check for any moving cars, or wandering eyes.

The driver’s side door opened, and she hopped in.

“How was it?” I asked, ready to get right down to business.

D gave a short nod. “Mr. Phil’s info was legit. They’re in there.”

“Both of them?”

D nodded again. “Not EZ or Known, but members of both gangs are in there. They’re bowling.”

“There’s a bowling alley in there?”

“Yeah, and it’s big. We should go sometime, with Lawrence.”

“Next time,” I said, bringing her back to the task at hand.

“Anyways, come on. I just came back so I can get you.”

She opened the door again, getting out.

I got out of the van, too.

“Where we headed?” I asked, joining D. We were walking back to the arcade. Electric Palace was the original name, apparently, but the giant sign across the front of the building was missing the first ‘A.’ So it was just Electric Place, now. A little less grand.

“Around the back. Side route.”

“What did you see in there? Anything interesting?”

“I saw lot of things in there, and one very interesting thing.”

“Like?”

“The Thunders and Royals split themselves down the middle of the bowling alley, a lot like what we saw at the basketball court. But I know how to keep a low profile, they didn’t notice me. According to Mr. Phil, before their attempt to make amends, the gangs took turns hanging out at this spot. If the Thunders were in, then the Royals wouldn’t go anywhere near here, and vice versa.”

“So this is a new development?”

“Oh yeah, and you can feel it in the air, too, now that we know to look for it. They’re just barely tolerating one another.”

“Without either of their bosses, it might be harder to behave themselves.”

“Let’s hope so. Here.”

D brought me around the back of the building. A door. No one else was in sight.

“Sneaking through the back?” I asked.

“Sneaking through the back,” D said.

“Do we have to worry about getting caught?”

“Don’t think so. Service wasn’t great while I was inside. I’d be surprised if anyone cared to come back here on a regular basis.”

D moved, heading for the door.

“Why?” I asked. “What’s back here?”

D didn’t have to answer, I saw it for myself.

Machinery. Long, winding rods of metal. Large, heavy gears. Whirring, spinning things.

Loud. Lots of moving parts, hitting together. Clanging, rattling.

There was a lot to make sense of, all at once, I wasn’t sure if I could.

“Where are we?” I asked, as D closed the door. I had to raise my voice to be heard.

“This is what the back of a bowling alley looks like,” D said, voice raised.

Standing space was small, but long. To our right were the machines, autonomous, running as if each block of wires and gears and rods had a life of their own. To our left was a space to sidle along the wall, probably for mechanics to go and inspect the different parts of the system.

It felt like we were in the belly of a mechanical beast.

D led the way, putting her back to the wall, moving down the long hall. I was right behind her.

She explained more as we continued.

“These are the machines that spit the bowling balls back out, and reset the pins. It’s all done from back here.”

From the sound alone, that was easy enough to gauge. I could hear it echo down the hall. Pins being struck, bowling balls falling into the pit just past the lanes. But we were so close. I felt like I was about to get hit, every time a bang went off.

D kept sildling down, and I had to keep up.

“I kept a close eye on the gangs, the Royals especially. One of them, Darren, has his own special bowling ball that he always uses. Never goes bowling without it.”

“So?” I asked.

“So, we’re going to take it. We just passed by the lane the Thunders are using, lane fifteen. We take Darren’s ball, and we drop it into the other gang’s lane. Hilarity ensues.”

“You are literally a little devil.”

“Been a while since I heard that. Usually I get called much worse things.”

“Like what?”

“Ask Lawrence,” D said, grinning.

We advanced farther down the wall, until I started to get used to the sounds pins and the mechanical clacking, until I was no longer worried about getting my hair caught in what looked like spinning metal death traps.

“Here,” D said, stepping away from the wall, into another space between two blocks of giant machines, where those metaphorical mechanics would stand to do their work. I copied her, being mindful of the limited space. I wanted to avoid bumping into her, and having one of us fall.

Each block of machines were labeled by a number on top. Following D’s gaze, she was looking at a block labeled two. Lane two.

And the Thunders were all the way back at lane thirteen. Fuck.

“What a lovely device,” D said, seemingly admiring the mechanism. “Hasn’t aged very well though.”

“What am I even looking at?” I asked.

D started pointing. “There’s the pinwheel, and that’s the checkerboard. Pins go into that thing to fall into there, and gets collected and sent back up to the turret.”

“Got it,” I said. I didn’t get any of it.

“But we’re not here for pins, we’re here for balls.”

“Phrasing,” I said.

D moved in between block two and block three, squeezing through. Cautious, I peeked my head in to get a better look.

“See this conveyor belt?” D gestured to a metal rod, angled so that it pointed up to the ceiling. Parallel to that was a rubber conveyor belt, moving and spinning at its own, fast pace.

“I see it.”

“Those belts pick up the bowling balls and send them over the top, there, like that.”

D put a pause in her explanation, since I could see it for myself.

A ball had come through, getting picked up by the assembly of metal and rubber. The ball was accelerated up to the top, close to the ceiling, before going over a ramp and out of sight.

“Gravity sends it back to the players on the other end,” D said, explaining the rest.

D squeezed herself free, and I backed up to give her the room.

“So why am I being shown this?”

“Well, your job is to take out the ball before it goes over the ramp.”

“You want me to do it?”

“The ball goes too fast for me to grab, it’ll crush my fingers. But you have the strength to pluck it out. And if you mess up, I mean, you’ll heal.”

“We can’t turn off these machines?”

“And risk someone knowing we’re back here? Or having the Royals be suspicious before their ball goes missing? No way.”

I really wanted to protest her idea more, but she had a point. And I was itching for something to do, today.

But, at the risk of crushing my fingers?

Even with enhanced healing, I’d rather not have that happen to me.

But, I relented.

“Ugh, fine.”

D cheered me on as I slipped between the machines. If it was a tight fit for her, then I was about to be a claustrophobe. It was cramped.

I squeezed into position, finding myself in front of the whirring conveyor belt. Loud, dangerous. Not where I thought I would be, today.

A ball went through. Red, zipping up and over the metal ramp.

Fast.

“Hey wait!” I shouted. “What does the ball even look like?”

“Blue with gold engravings! You can’t miss it!”

I inhaled, but I held my breath. Blue with gold engravings. That damn ball had better come soon. I needed to be out of here, now.

Black. Red. Orange. Red. Purple. Green. Green. Black. Yellow.

I was losing my breath, and my patience.

Where the fuck is-

Right at the very bottom of the belt. Blue, a hint of gold.

Fast, but my hands had to be faster.

I breathed in as I threw my hands out.

A weight hit my fingers, my palms.

I pulled out.

Pluck.

“Ah!” I shouted.

“Yes!” D shouted. “Yes!”

I looked up. I was holding the ball above my head, arms outstretched. A sixteen pound ball. Blue with gold engravings.

I didn’t waste another second. I shuffled out of the space, D taking the ball out of my hands as I got myself free.

“I’ll take it from here,” she said. “Good job, Wendy.”

“Don’t,” I started. I was panting, tired. “No, you know what? I did do a good job.”

“That’s the spirit.”

We returned to the wall, hugging it as we went back down the way we came. D stopped at the thirteenth block to drop the ball off.

She returned, and we continued with our extraction. Looking at the numbers, there were twenty lanes in total. We passed the twentieth block, and made it to the door with no problems.

As the door closed behind us, over the machines and pins, I could have sworn I heard an argument break out.

The moon was out, and so was I.

We had taken the next day off, just to pace ourselves, but it was right back to work come nighttime. I didn’t mind the odd hours, it was why I uprooted my life in the first place. I had the freedom to schedule myself as needed. I could focus on the job, and nothing else. No room for superfluous things.

Unlike most people, I didn’t have a structure, and I could use that to my advantage.

No costume, but I was covered up. Balaclava, goggles, turtle neck with a jacket on top, gloves, jeans and boots with ankle-length socks. All black. Not a single inch of skin was showing.

I felt a thrill, starting from my head, racing to my toes as I wiggled them over the roof’s edge, adjusting my footing. It never got old.

I watched the people below.

Three people. One Thunder, two Royals. Taking part in some sort of exchange.

What they were doing, exactly, hardly mattered. It was what happened after that counted.

I waited as they went about their business. They stood around, talking for a while. I couldn’t catch what they were saying. I was too high up.

I had been following the Thunder since he left his base, a small tattoo parlor south of the basketball court. Fillmore spared no detail, however small.

Tailing him was easy. Stay back, stay quiet, and stay high. From all my time crossing rooftops, I had learned a thing or two. I learned how to gauge my strength, my speed. I learned how to make the jumps, to maximize distance without tripping up and losing momentum later. And, I also learned that people hardly ever looked up.

People, as a species, were limited in their spatial awareness. They knew to check what was directly ahead of them, and they knew to check their backs. Even their sides, they knew to keep in mind. But directly above? That was a blind spot I could occupy and exploit.

I didn’t have invisibility as a power, but this was a functionally close second.

From above, I watched.

There, movement. The two Royals walked away, leaving the Thunder by himself. He stayed behind, moving over to a wall on the other side. His hands were brought together, moving to his lips. Between his fingers, a small orange glow was produced, illuminating his face for a short time.

The glow lessened, and he brought a hand down to his pocket. On occasion, he drew his other hand away from his face, puffing out a winding trail of smoke.

He had no idea I was here, that I had my eyes on him.

This was but a sample of the control I wanted, the power. That upper hand.

My toes were positioned past the end of the roof. It only took the slightest lean forward to tip me off the edge.

I descended.

It didn’t even matter, that I landed right in front of him, that he had a brief glimpse of me. I was already moving, rushing him.

No knife this time. It wasn’t necessary.

I struck at his neck, palm open. I slapped him hard into the ground.

He barely saw me coming.

His body went down first, then the blunt he had in mouth.

I stepped on it as I leaned over the Thunder, flipping him over on his back. My other foot pressed into his chest. I searched his person. He was still reeling from the first strike, stunned. He couldn’t move or yell as I worked.

I emptied out his pockets. Gun, knife. A plastic baggie, white powder inside. A small tin container. I put it to my ear, shaking it. Filled with something. Weed, most likely.

I threw everything to the side. Not what I was after.

Found it.

Stacks of money, bound by rubber bands. Two, three stacks. He had more money than he did drugs.

Supplier, then.

“We’re taking our money back,” I said, trying to make my voice low, deeper than it really was. I was putting on an act, and I had to sell it, as much as possible.

The Thunder groaned, strained by the hurt and weight I was putting on him.

I had to make myself louder, in order to make the message clear.

“Oh yeah, and this is for trying to steal our shit back at the bowling alley.”

“We… never…”

He tried to get some words out of his own.

I struck him again, this time in the ribs. I heard a crack. He wheezed.

“Don’t fuck with us.”

He winced, trying to speak again.

“We-”

I struck him again.

“Don’t fuck with us.”

I stuffed the money in my pockets, keeping my foot on him, squeezing out any air he tried to draw in. I was quick, I couldn’t take too long, here.

I patted my sides, making sure I had gotten everything. I straightened myself, taking my foot off him. He didn’t have a stack of cash left.

“Don’t fuck with the Royals,” I said, and then I left him there. Down, hurting.

No dramatic exits was needed. I simply walked out of the alleyway, pulling the balaclava off my head, removing my goggles in one motion. I stuffed them into a pocket inside my coat, fixing my hair as I continued at a hurried pace.

It was late, and it was dark. No one saw me leave.

I walked for some time. If I had to divide the neighborhood by gang territory, I was deep in with the Thunders. And I needed to get over to the Royals, their territory.

South to north. It was easy to remember how it was divided. Using the basketball court as a point of reference, the side of the court that pointed south was claimed by the Thunders, and the northern half was claimed by the Royals. Simple as that.

And for us, we wanted to own the whole damn court. And we’d pick and choose who got to play.

That, on a grander scale.

Small steps, first.

I was deep in my thoughts as I crossed the street. The court was a block down, so I knew I was entering another territory, now.

It was almost overwhelming, how much work went into the gangs and mobs and cartels that ran this city. All the politics, the heated tempers. The alliances, the systems to keep it all in place. In Stephenville, crime was systemic. It was a structure that needed to be maintained in order for this city to run properly.

Which showed how deep the roots had gotten.

Being a hero meant fighting the system, fighting the established normal. It would be harder to fight it from the outside, pretty much impossible. It was misguided.

Better, to fight from the shadows, a less direct route.

But doing so made it much easier to slip.

Just have to be careful.

I watched my step as I crossed again, heading towards a restaurant. It was after hours, the restaurant was closed.

I met D in front of the building.

“How’d it go?” D asked as I approached. Her breath was visible as she spoke.

“Went well.” I tapped a pocket. “Some more change for the piggy bank.”

“Awesome.”

“How about you? I’m guessing no one caught you.”

“Nope. All clean. Wanna take a look?”

“Sure.”

D led me around the building, to the side. Not an alley, this time, there was just a field of dirt and mud. Bits of grass and weeds sprouted up, here and there. But it was otherwise desolate.

Nothing of interest. What D had to show me was on the wall.

Caught by the moonlight, a graffiti drawing of a robot. It was about as tall as D, and was detailed with colorful wires and light bulbs. Blocky, maybe a bit amateurish, but it was recognizable.

“You can’t draw with a pencil, but you can do graffiti pretty well?” I questioned.

“Quiet. It helps when I’m going off a reference.”

She held up her phone, flipping through pictures.

Robots, similar in design and style.

“Took these while snooping around the Thunder side of the neighborhood. From what I gathered, newbies have to come up with their own unique tag to represent the gang, while expressing their own individuality. It’s a neat exercise, if I do say so myself.”

“So, robots, going with the thunder or electricity theme?”

“Just about. Lil’ Nathan’s going to have some explaining to do when the Royals finds this, and these.”

D lifted her other hand, shaking a can of paint.

“Is that Nathan’s?”

“He really should keep an eye on his belongings. Like, they were right there.”

She tossed the can, and it landed at the base of the wall. There were other cans, other colors.

“And check this out.”

D pointed to the robot’s chest. In blocky letters was the word ‘LUCY.’ Bold, in all caps.

“Nice touch,” I said. “Fillmore’s going to hate that we’re using that.”

“Shh…” D responded, pressing her finger to her lips. She kept doing it, even as we left the scene, until her hiss escalated into a childish cackle.

“Here, and here. Oh, here’s good too. And maybe here, for good measure.”

“Don’t get too carried away now,” I said.

Sitting on the floor, working, getting in the way of others. We didn’t even have a table to set our stuff on.

We were in the Redhouse, early afternoon. Two days after our last visit to the neighborhood.

D had laid out a map of the area. A large, printed, detailed map. It had the street names and names of establishments. They were official labels, though, D and I had to fill in the blanks.

“We could hit this place, too,” D said, drawing yet another circle on the map. She was using crayon. Red.

“We don’t need to go overboard,” I said, having to remind her again.

“I’m just putting down some options. We don’t have to do all of these.”

She paused, smiling.

“It’d be fun, though,” she said.

I looked over the map as she kept drawing. We crossed out some labels, replacing them with the more locally recognized names. Fill Market was one, replacing it with ‘Philly’s.’ We circled key locations that were important to each gang. Bases, popular hangout spots, like the bowling alley. We also drew circles over places that weren’t officially labeled, but were important all the same. The basketball court was one, the skate park was another. Places like that were marked all over the map. And D kept adding on to it.

“Any particular reason why you circled three different sandwich shops?” I asked. “I haven’t heard of these places. Are they relevant?”

“Just saw them now. Those are, um, for me.”

“D,” I said.

“I’m using a different color, see? So I can distinguish them!”

She circled them again for emphasis, using a purple crayon. But her lines were thick, and she had kept drawing and writing all over the map. It was getting harder and harder to read.

“You just had lunch, how are you already thinking about food?”

“I just don’t want to forget, okay? I want to check them out after we’re all done. You’re not letting me eat my snacks, so I’m going crazy thinking about food.”

“Hold out for a little longer, we’re almost there.”

D whined, but I knew that she was overacting. She tossed her crayon to the side, and it knocked into the other crayons she had taken out. They scattered.

They didn’t go far, but they spread out across the lobby of the Redhouse. I was well aware of the other Ghosts standing around, with nothing else to do.

It was D’s idea to sketch out a plan here, and I understood her reasoning. The Ghosts, as a whole, were still wary of us, so we needed to show that we were working towards the benefit of the gang, working with them in mind.

But, sitting like this, on the floor with crayons, it looked like we were just playing around instead.

I got up to go after the crayons, leaving D to color in peace. I could sort through labels and circles later.

It was… awkward, having to go around and collect them while others watched. As if I was too old to be chasing after crayons. We were getting work done, but it probably didn’t seem like that to them.

Working with D, trying to prove myself to the Ghosts, all thanks to an old reputation from a past life. It sucked, to say the least. But, if it was necessary to facilitate progress, then so be it. Best to assuage their worries now, while we were still getting started.

I just hoped we could convince them that we were the real deal, and soon.

I followed the path of one of the last crayons. It had stopped right at someone’s foot. I dreaded having to look up.

But I did anyways.

“Oh,” I said. “Hey.”

It was Lawrence. Standing over me, wearing a shirt with a collar, with a blazer on top. Black dress pants completed the look. It was form fitting, and upon closer inspection, made me realize that he did, in fact, work out.

“Hey,” he said, as I picked up the crayon, rushing to stand up. “What are you doing?”

I found that I needed a moment before I could answer. I had moved too fast in getting back up. My glasses were crooked.

I fixed them, and managed a single word. “Trying.”

“How’s your plan going?”

That was easy to answer. I looked back, and saw D. She was flat on her stomach, legs kicking, still coloring and drawing. She looked completely absorbed in what she was doing.

“It’s going great,” I said, looking back at Lawrence. “Everything’s moving along smoothly. There was a bit of a hiccup right at the beginning, but there hasn’t been any issues since. We’re in the final stages right now. If all goes well, then it should inspire some confidence, moving forward.”

“No pressure, then. Which gang?”

“Two, actually. The Thunders and the Royals.”

“Those assholes? Just wait long enough, and they’ll take each other out.”

“That’s what we originally thought, too, but apparently they’ve been trying to work things out. They’re pretty much best friends, now.”

Lawrence’s brow creased. “That’s worrying.”

“I’m kidding. Yes, they have a pact, but it’s still complicated between them. It’s more just a united front against an enemy they can see.”

I spread my arms and added,  “And they won’t see us coming.”

He nodded. “How devious. D is rubbing off on you already.”

Was she? I had hoped it would have been the other way around, instead.

“I’ll have to take that as a compliment,” I said.

He nodded again, looking past me.

“How’s she doing? I only ask because I want to be in the loop about things, and that includes being the loop about her.”

I turned again to get a glance at D. Still engrossed with her coloring.

I wasn’t sure if Lawrence was genuinely concerned about D’s well-being, or if his paranoia was getting the better of him.

In a way, though, I understood where he was coming from.

“She’s doing fine,” I answered. “She’s been really engaged throughout this whole thing, and she really wants to do a good job. I’ve been letting her go loose with her pranks, and… well, it’s been something, alright. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like she wants you all to like her.”

Lawrence made a face.

“I don’t know why, but the prospect of that feels very harrowing to me.”

“She’s trying, Lawrence, and liking should be a two-way street. She wants to be on our side, and I want her to be here, too. We shouldn’t push her away. The last thing we need is a D that’s pissed, with that anger being directed at us.”

Lawrence waved a hand, cringing. “Yeah, I get it. But please never talk about angrily pissing D’s again.”

“What?” I questioned, but then I got what he meant. I felt flustered. “Ew, no, what? No.”

“But alright, fine, I see what you’re getting at, and I’ll give it a shot, too. Is there anything you need?”

“Oh, I think we have it covered,” I said.

“You sure? I’m not doubting you guys, but maybe we can provide some extra manpower? With the full force of the Ghosts behind you, we can knock the Thunders and Royals flat on their ass.”

I shook my head. “That won’t be necessary. I want to keep this a small operation. As much as possible, anyways.”

“How about cash? Anything you need ordered? Like a gun or knife, or some costume parts? No one owes me any favors, but maybe I can call around and-”

“Lawrence, I appreciate the gesture, but we want to be able to bring something to the table, just the two of us. We can’t exactly prove ourselves if we get help from the Ghosts. And about money and costume, we picked up some loose change while working this job. It’s covered.”

“Fine, I can back off about the costume, but I still think you could do with some extra hands on deck. I’ll bring it up to Reggie and Tone. Sarah, too. See if they want to give you the assist.”

I was about to object, but I didn’t want to fight Lawrence on this. A two-way street, and he was trying to meet me halfway.

And, it was those three, and they were cool. I was willing to compromise if it meant working with them again.

“Sure,” I said. “Thanks Lawrence.”

“You don’t have to thank me, it feels weird.”

“Get used to it,” I said, giving him a smile.

Okay, it does feel weird.

Lawrence took a step, checking his wrist. He was wearing a watch. It looked expensive.

“I’ve have to go, got some rounds to do.”

“Go,” I said. “We’ll get us a win. Bet on it.”

“I will. Good luck.”

Then, he left, crossing the lobby, giving out the occasional order to the Ghosts he passed. They moved in response, finally having something to do.

I saw his exchange with D as he approached her. She stopped what she was doing and craned her neck to look at him. She smiled, giving him an enthusiastic wave. He responded with a curt nod, but he waved back, before taking his leave through the double doors.

I went back to D and the map, having picked up the remaining crayons. I could barely see the actual map underneath, now.

“You got carried away,” I said.

“I did.”

I paused.

“Yeah, a little help isn’t going to hurt.”

The ride was smooth, the van speeding along. There was some light, easygoing music that helped ease some of my anxieties.

It was night again. About a week had passed since we met Fillmore.

Five of us in the van. D was driving, and I was in the back, sitting with Reggie, Tone, and Sarah.

Everyone, me excluded, was decked out in all black. D wore her usual style, while the others were more appropriately covered. I was in costume.

“Nervous, Voss?” Sarah asked. She was sitting closest to me.

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t,” I answered. “But it’s nothing to worry about.”

“It’s okay. Even Olympic athletes get nervous.”

“This is a little more life-or-death than any sport I know.”

Tone interjected. “So what was it you did again? You did what with a bowling ball?”

“That’s not even the best one,” D said, taking a peek at us through the rear-view mirror. “V, you should tell them about the hot dog one!”

“Hot dog one?”

“Oh god.” I started shaking my head. “It was such a mess. I’ve never seen that much ketchup cover a wall before. It was like someone died in there.”

“Whoa, what? You have to tell me.”

“Wait,” D said. “We’re coming up to the spot. Get ready, V.”

“Sorry, Tone,” I said, apologetic. “Seems as if it’s going to have to wait.”

He jabbed a finger at me.

“You owe me a story after this. It better be good.”

“It’s a damn good story, you’ll like it.”

Satisfied, he leaned back into his seat. Reggie muttered something to him, and he chuckled as a response.

“Looks like you’re up,” Sarah said.

“Looks like,” I said.

I checked to make sure I had everything. Costume was on, bag underneath, earpiece in. I had my knife, extra ammunition. Not that I had any real intention to use it, or for things to do so far that I needed another clip, but Sarah wouldn’t let me out of the van unless I had it on me.

Another compromise.

I threw the hood over my head, fixing it so it stayed in place, properly covering my face. I adjusted my mask, feeling leather as my gloves brushed against my cheeks. I played with the heavy fabric so it flowed better around my sides.

Just about ready.

“Here,” Sarah said, giving me the final piece. A handgun. Forty caliber. Standard-issue pistol given to police.

“Thank you,” I said, taking it. She didn’t pull her hands away after giving it to me. Instead, took my hands into hers, giving a soft shake.

“Hit them hard, but stay safe.”

“I can’t do one without forgoing the other.”

“Try,” she told me.

I pulled away.

“I’ll try.”

“Almost there!” D announced.

I gave myself a moment to compose myself. A week ago, I faced up against EZ and Krown for the first time, and they won. It wasn’t exactly fair and square, but they beat me. Now? It was my turn to return the favor.

For the past week, we had been striking from the shadows, using the dark to our advantage. From small pranks, to sabotaging big deals, setting them up against each other, even with a pact. All to sow seeds of doubt, which would grow into distrust at the worst yet most critical of times. Would one come to the aid of the other, when their shaky bond had been drilled and needled until it was reduced to a single, thin thread?

We’re about to find out.

For the past seven days, we struck at what was important to the Thunders and the Royals. Their belongings, their territories, their pride, even their wallets. Now, the next strike was going to be the last.

We were going to strike their hearts.

“Now!” D yelled.

Sarah got the door, I hopped out.

The wind and cold whipped in my ears. The van didn’t slow, but my momentum was maintained.

It was in the distance. The basketball court. A group was gathered within.

I sprinted past tagged buildings, small crosses. Streets I knew the nicknames of, places I was familiar with.

A town full of stories. And I would be bringing about the end for so many of them.

Time to tear off the bandage. Make them bleed.

I ran straight, raised my arm, and I fired my gun.

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061 – Two Two One-Two

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We pulled up to the spot, parked, and proceeded to get everything out of the van. We didn’t linger or dawdle.

I pushed through the double doors, holding one open for the others. People inside saw me, saw us, and moved to help. All without me saying a word.

That’s almost as sweet as blood itself.

The Redhouse. What was once the headquarters for a small, local loading company was now our unofficially official base of operations.

The company was long gone, now, but that didn’t mean that we were there to stay. We couldn’t afford to plant our roots here. It was too far from the city, too far away from the action. It took thirty minutes just to get to Casa Martinez, give or take the traffic. My damn apartment was in a better location than this base. If we wanted to get any headway as a gang, we actually had to be in the city to do it.

The place just wasn’t prime real estate. We had space for cars, vans, weapons, drugs, money, people, but it wasn’t the best place for all that stuff to be stored. We were out in the open, in the middle of nowhere. I saw more tumbleweeds here than anything that had life, flora and fauna.

Should the cops, or a rival group find out where we were laying our heads, that would only ever lead to disaster. Keeping one eye open helped, but the Ghosts weren’t exactly held in high regard in the eyes of the other gangs, even with Benny out of the picture. We were still weak, underestimated.

I just didn’t want us to be sitting ducks, here.

I stepped aside as more came to help, getting the door for me and taking some of the bags that Reggie, Tone, and Sarah were carrying. There wasn’t a lot to get out of the van, but the people here were bored, itching to do something. They jumped at the chance to be active.

I let them.

“Where’s Lawrence?” I asked. I wasn’t directing that question to anyone in particular, rather I threw it out there.

“He’s in the back, there, in the office.”

I couldn’t catch whoever answered, everyone was too busy working or trying to help. None of them were looking directly at me.

I glanced from across the lobby, where a hall lead to the offices, closets, and emergency exit. The ceiling above was made of glass, and it was late in the afternoon, now. The space was tinted an orange hue.

“Thanks,” I said.

No one responded, still preoccupied with Reggie and the rest. It was as if I was invisible. And I knew that wasn’t a power I had.

The gathering of workers shifted from one door to the other, crossing the lobby to get the warehouse storage facility, where the trucks would have parked to load and unload if this place was actually being used for its intended purpose.

Tone broke away from the moving group, standing by my side, back on the wall. Sarah was right behind him. Beside us was a large, brown pot. No plant inside.

The Redhouse was temporary, and we had to treat it as such.

“Reggie’s getting them to put the money and dope where they belong,” Tone said, “But he wanted to thank you for coming along. Probably would have gone to shit if you hadn’t been there.”

“I’m sure you could have handled it without me,” I said. “I just… streamlined the process.”

Sarah crossed her arms. “We would have gotten fucked without you. So yeah, thank you, really, from all three of us.”

I shrugged, avoiding her gaze. “Don’t flatter me.”

“I’ll flatter you all day long, Voss, you can’t stop me.”

“Alright, quit it,” I said, looking back at them. I couldn’t help but crack a smile, even if it was a small one.

“Gross, Sarah,” Tone said. He was making a face, turning his nose up, like he had just smelled something rotten.

She jabbed him in the ribs, and he folded, leaning more into the wall for support. He didn’t see that coming.

“Ah, shit!”

“That’s what you get, asshole!”

Between them, they shared a laugh. It was probably routine for them, that bit. The laughter was infectious, and, despite my best attempts, my grin widened into a chuckle. I joined in with them.

I felt tension leave my body. My shoulders relaxed, my head felt clearer.

I hadn’t realized how damn stiff I was, up until now. Gunfire, fighting off a dog, then a gang, threatening kids… That weighed on the mind, affected the body.

I was still carrying some of that residual stress, subconsciously holding on to it as if I was waiting for something else to happen, another crisis to deal with. Being here, laughing and smiling, even with random strangers, somehow made that stress slowly erode away. It couldn’t completely disappear, there was always a chance that something would happen, a crisis, but to momentarily disregard all of that…

It did a lot for the mind.

I kept laughing, staying in the moment. Bit by bit, piece by piece, I was feeling less weary.

A small, cursory glance to the other Ghosts as they worked. It was like a kick to the chest.

I caught one of the Ghosts staring at us, then another.

Not at us. At me.

Eyebrows raised, head tilted. But they didn’t look curious, they looked disgusted.

Like they had just smelled something rotten.

It was enough to get me to stop. I dropped my smile, looked away, averting their stares.

A brief moment, but that pressure came back. I stiffened.

“I… gotta go,” I said, turning. “I’m going to find Lawrence.”

I pulled the gun out from my coat, careful to stay lowkey about it. I handed it to Sarah, who took it without saying a word.

“Give this back to Reggie, and I’ll leave the van to you guys.”

“Okay, Voss,” Sarah said. They had stopped laughing, but their grins remained. “See you later.”

I waved, then walked, crossing the lobby, trying to make my back straight.

Probably for the best, now’s not the time to relax.

I didn’t have to go to down the hall to find Lawrence. He found me, meeting me halfway.

He had gotten a change of clothes since the last time I saw him, earlier today. Swapped out his light jacket with something thicker, warmer. There was a tendency for it to get colder during the later hours, so he had probably prepared himself for that. The collar of his dress shirt underneath was folded over the collar of his sweater. He looked more prepared to give a lecture than lead a gang.

“Hey,” I said.

“Hey,” he said back. “I heard movement, saw it. got worried.”

“It’s the good kind of movement. I come bearing gifts.”

Wait, I already used that line, already.

Shoot. I needed to get back on track. Focus.

“So, I’m guessing it went well?” Lawrence asked.

“It did. We got the money back, and some drugs to resell if we need to. And we’re not in a position to be giving out shitty deals. Not anymore.”

“You’re right. Good job. But…”

He eyed me, from my head to my boots. I shifted my weight from one foot to the other. I was about to say something before Lawrence beat me to it.

“Did you get glasses?”

“Oh,” I said. I adjusted them, remembering I still had them on. “Yeah, bought them after the meeting.”

He looked like he was about to say more, but he commented on something else, instead. “What happened to your arm?”

I looked at my hand I used to adjust my glasses, then to the sleeve that covered my arm. Torn, strips of cloth hanging down, threads stuck together by sweat and slobber.

Man, I’m running out of clean clothes.

“Oh,” I said, rolling my sleeves up, to the forearms. “There was a… thing, with a dog, earlier. Don’t want to get into it.”

“A dog?”

“It was a big dog, okay?”

Lawrence brought his hands up.

“Hey, sure, I believe you.”

“Anyways,” I said, exhaling out the word. “Can we move this back to your office? There’s something I want to talk about.”

Lawrence reacted, a twitch of the neck, as if he was hesitant about the idea.

His words reflected that ounce of uncertainty.

“We can, yeah, sure.”

He lead the way back to the hall. I followed him into his office, leaving the rest of the Ghosts to go do their own thing. I could have taken one of the extra rooms for myself, have an office of my own, but I’d rather wait until we found a better place. It gave me a reason to work harder. I wanted to earn that office.

We entered, and I closed the door behind us.

Posters, posters everywhere. Pin-ups of models, posing alongside, or on top of, expensive-looking sports cars.

A terrible way to wash a vehicle, I thought.

There were other posters, considerably less risque, but they were few and far between. Horses, cacti, eagles. The land around the Redhouse was pretty much a grass and hills, so it fit, in a way.

“I’d take these down, but they were here before we moved in,” Lawrence said, taking a seat at his desk. A laptop sat open, facing him. “It feels weird to get rid of them now.”

“Sure, that’s why you won’t throw them away,” I said. I grabbed a stool by the door, moving it closer to Lawrence’s desk. I sat. “And not so you can sit around pretty girls all day.”

Lawrence coughed.

“That’s not, I wouldn’t-”

“It’s fine,” I said. “I don’t really care.”

He coughed again, then clearing his throat. He leaned over, trying to reach for one of the posters beside him, but his fingers were a few inches shy. His attempt was futile, and he reclined back into his seat.

A certain silence crept in. There wasn’t any electricity running through the building, the only source of light came from the window behind Lawrence. I could barely make out his features and expressions as he sat there, facing me.

Then, it had dawned on me that this was the first time I had ever been alone in a room with Lawrence.

I wasn’t sure how to start.

“Um-”

“I-”

We spoke over each other.

I gestured. “You go first.”

“Okay,” Lawrence said. “I was just going to say, also, I wasn’t expecting to see you again today, since we already had the meeting. Part of me was afraid that D might be with you. Doesn’t seem like it, though.”

“She’s not. I’ve actually been trying to contact her, but she hasn’t responded. Have you heard from her, recently?”

“Me? I haven’t, I try not to have her on my mind as much as possible. That means not texting her unless I absolutely have to.”

I frowned slightly. “You really have a bone to pick with her.”

Lawrence grunted, scoffed. He pushed away from his desk. He rested one foot on his knee, and leaned back into his chair.

“Can you blame me? She’s been a pain in my ass for as long as I’ve been in the game. She’d always try to pull something. At first, they were just stupid pranks, harmless enough. I’d reach for a blunt and it’s gone, or I’d wake up with some… thing, on my face.”

“Why the hell were you letting her get so close to you, then?”

“I don’t, she finds me. It’s like I have a target on my back. I didn’t ask for this, I didn’t ask for her.”

“But, those particular pranks you mentioned don’t sound too bad,” I said.

“You didn’t let me finish. At first, they were harmless. Later, she kicked it into high gear. Back when I was in El Carruaje, at the end of every month, Benny’s crew would do rounds to take a cut from whatever we earned from dealing. Guess who came up short, from time to time?”

“You did,” I ventured.

“Yeah, me. And any product I was selling got lost in the mix, too. Back then, I wanted to prove myself to those guys, to Benny, but D kept cutting me down every time.”

“That,” I started, but I wasn’t sure what to say. I closed my mouth.

“There’s other shit, too, but I try not to think on it. Let’s just say, the one time I actually find an opportunity to get back at her for all the shit she’s pulled… she crashes a fucking bus on me.”

“She crashed a…”

I was at a loss for words.

Lawrence rubbed at something on his cheek. I noticed a mark. Faint, but I noticed it. A scar. I recalled the first time I saw him, he had a bandage there.

D had put that there?

Lawrence continued, his tone more serious. Grave. “She dragged innocent people into that, and  I’m not even sure if everyone made it out alright. Fuck, I barely did. I was out of commission for a minute, and just when I’m starting to walk on my own two feet again, I see her, and you.”

I didn’t have anything to say.

There was also the fact that he had gotten shot, a consequence from being involved with a scheme D came up with. I wasn’t sure if that counted, but I wasn’t going to bring it up.

“Well, she’s helped since then,” I said, trying to find something to say about her. “Helping out around here, doing recon and surveillance on some other, smaller gangs, being the person in the chair. If it wasn’t for her, the Ghosts would be long gone, and I wouldn’t have found Benny.”

Lawrence moved around in his chair. The light behind him made it hard to see what expression he had.

“I’ll give you that she has her use, and that she promised to be good, and she’s largely kept to that, but you have to understand where I’m coming from. That girl, D, she’s a wild card, through and through. She just gives me these weird vibes.”

“Vibes?”

“Like, when I look at her, and there’s that light in her eyes, and she gives me that fucking smile… I just know that she’s not taking any of this seriously. It’s all just a game to her, and people are just pieces for her to move. I’ll admit to being biased, but I’m waiting for the day when the wool gets pulled away from my eyes, and I see just how bad I was being played with, the entire time.”

I sat there, completely still.

But I couldn’t just leave that alone.

“I think I do understand where you’re coming from, Lawrence, but there’s definitely a bias, there, and I don’t think you’re giving her a fair shot at this. I know she’s not like any other kid, but she still is one, and she deserves that chance.”

A long, exaggerated sigh came out of Lawrence. As if his very soul was being deflated.

“Yeah,” he said, sounding tired. “Maybe.”

Another stretch of silence entered the room, more pronounced with its presence. There would usually be the hum of machinery or people working in the background. We didn’t even have that. Even the lights seemed more dim, now.

“Sorry,” Lawrence said, then he sighed again. “I didn’t mean to go on a whole tangent, I wasn’t trying to ramble.”

“It’s okay, I don’t mind rambling, so long as you get some good points in there.”

Lawrence leaned forward, pressing a button on his laptop. A soft light illuminated him. “What was it you wanted to talk about?”

Right. We were finally wrapping around to what I originally wanted to discuss.

“I think I have an idea on how to get some forward momentum for the Ghosts.”

“Is that so?”

I nodded. “It came to me after I took care of our recent business. Tell me, do we have any gangs, or anyone, that owes us anything?”

Lawrence rubbed the side of his chin, scratching his neck. “There’s a few, some random kids, definitely some gangs we made deals with, deals they’re taking advantage of.”

I leaned, slouching a bit. “It’s not good to let these people walk all over you.”

He scowled, like he had taken it personally. “We were in a bad place, we still are. We have to do what we can in order to stay afloat.”

“And now,” I said, “There’s a way to not just keep our heads above water by paddling, and we can actually get to swimming.”

“Let me guess,” Lawrence said. “You want to pay these people a visit?”

“It’s not the most complicated idea, I admit, but we should try and keep things simple. For now, anyways.”

“And it’s better than nothing,” Lawrence said.

I straightened my back. “Better than nothing.”

Simple moves, to get us in a better position. Then, we can start setting up the more complex plays.

“How’d you want to go about this?” Lawrence asked.

I had thought about it, drafting plans in my head on the drive back here.

“Give me a list of everyone that owes us, from gangs to individuals. D and I will sort them by which ones are easier to hit, moving up from there. Then I go, and, you know, pay these people a visit, using your words.”

“Are you bringing anyone along with you on these visits, like Sarah or Reggie?”

“I thinking that it’ll just be me and D, with her in the chair, using my own words.”

Lawrence moved to rest his arms on his desk. He looked at me, as though he was expecting me to continue.

He knew there was more to my idea.

I continued.

“I hit them, I hit them hard, and I hit them from the dark. Scare them, shake them so they run off and warn others. Word spreads about a mysterious figure, taking out gang members in a single strike, foiling other plans they might have had. And then the rest of you quietly swoop in, take what they owe us, and then some. Territories, assets. A little bit at a time, but we can build something from that, brick by brick. Eventually, we obtain enough assets to be self-sustainable, and we can move from there.”

“And when you hit them,” Lawrence said, “Are you going to be wearing a mask?”

He’s thinking along the same lines.

“I will,” I said. “On the field, we act like we’re operating separately. From a outside perspective, there shouldn’t be a connection between the gangs we’re targeting. I’ll still be careful to not leave a trail, though.”

“So, I give you a list of targets, and you give me an opening for the Ghosts to slip right in.”

“Precisely,” I said. “But, about the Ghosts…”

“What?”

“This is just a suggestion, but how about we change the name?”

“Change it?”

“The name is soiled, people don’t take the Ghosts seriously. I know it, you know it. That’s why people think they can take advantage of your shit deals in the first place.”

“I thought that was why you and D came on board in the first place,” Lawrence said, more firm. “To clean that dirt off that name.”

“And that’s what I’m doing, but it’s easier if you start all over from a blank slate. Consider this, a new gang comes out of nowhere, taking hold in places other gangs got ran out of, growing stronger and larger by the day. No one knows where they came from, and, in their confusion and added distraction by yours truly, the gang continues to expand.”

I summed it up with my final point. “Keep the old name, you attract old enemies and grudges. Start fresh, and no one knows what to make of you. And by the time they figure it out, you’re in a position to keep them at a distance, afraid to get any closer.”

I added, “Believe me, a name change can do some good.”

Lawrence closed his eyes, long enough that I almost thought he had fallen asleep.

He opened his eyes, staring me down.

“Did you and D come up with this?”

“Just me, I’ll have to ask her what she thinks. But, I have a feeling she’ll be on board with it.”

“Of course she will be. It’s a crazy plan, and she’s fucked up in the head.”

I ignored that last part. “It’s a crazy plan, but it can work, and it’s better than nothing. What do you think?”

He took his time to answer.

“I think it’s crazy. But, I think it can work, too.”

I relaxed a bit, glad to hear that he was up to the idea.

“And about the name, I’ve never been too attached to it, so I’m down to hear any suggestions. If anything, you’ll have a harder time convincing them.”

He angled his head, looking past me. At the door, leading back to the other Ghosts.

“Them?” I asked.

“They’re still adjusting to the all the changes. Like you, and D.”

“It’s been a month. We had a New Year’s party.”

“Even then, it’s not like they suddenly forgot about the type of shit D pulled, or your previous occupation, even if you’re trying to distance yourself from that. You’re worried about old enemies and grudges? Well, once upon a time, they were your enemies, and they still hold a bit of a grudge from back then.”

I thought back to the look I had received from several of the Ghosts, when I was with Sarah and Tone. That look of distaste, repugnance.

On the whole, they still hadn’t accepted me.

Lawrence and the Ghosts. They had agreed to work together when I suggested it, but we were after a common enemy. Benny. It was easier to rally to take down someone rather than cooperate on something more nebulous. Like progress. With Benny gone, the goal was farther away, and those grudges sat closer to home.

It was another obstacle.

“If I bring in results, they’ll come around,” I said, mostly for myself to hear. “The three I brought with me today seemed to like me okay.”

“Those three?” Lawrence said, referring to Reggie, Tone, and Sarah.

“They even gave me a nickname. Voss.”

“Voss? Can’t say I get it.”

“It’s a play on-”

“Yeah, I know, I’m just saying. But, Reggie and them? They’re just nice people in general. The rest are just people, for better and worse. They’re normal.”

My expression must have revealed something, with Lawrence adding, “I wouldn’t worry about it too much. If I’m willing to work alongside you and D, of all people, that’ll be good enough for them. And don’t worry about them potentially double-crossing you. They won’t cross you, and they definitely won’t cross me. They’re not stupid.”

“That’s reassuring,” I said.

“It’s true. Just don’t completely fuck up, and we’ll be in good shape. Okay?”

“Okay.”

Lawrence exhaled, then he got out of his chair, closing his laptop. He picked it up.

“Alright, go ahead with your plan. I’ll get you that list. I’m looking forward to the results.”

“Me too.”

I remembered what D had said about Lawrence, that he’d do anything in order to take a step forward.

Then, this was it, for him. That step forward. And he was ready to take it.

I got out of my seat, pushing the stool to the side using my foot.

“Let’s get out of here,” Lawrence said. “It’s getting late, and I’m not about to stick around when it gets dark. It gets creepy in here.”

“Sure,” I said. I opened the door for him, and we headed out together.

The lobby was largely cleared out by the time we returned, tinted a deeper orange after some time had passed. Most of them probably left after a day of not having much to do, figuring they could do nothing, elsewhere. I didn’t see Reggie or Tone or Sarah, or the van we arrived in. Did they park it somewhere? Were they around?

I hoped so. I’d need a ride.

Close by the counter, two Ghosts were arguing. On occasion, they looked over to something over the counter, but I couldn’t catch it from this angle.

Lawrence and I both approached.

“There is no way she stopped it with her bare hands!”

“And I’m telling you she did.”

“I believe it.”

“You do?”

“You weren’t there that night, but you should have seen it, for real. Ask others who were there, they’ll tell you.”

“Man, y’all should have taken pics.”

“It wasn’t the time for that.”

“What’s this about?” Lawrence asked. They all stopped talking, and turned. Including D.

“D?” I questioned, looking across the counter. She was sitting on a rolling chair, on her knees, elbows propped on the countertop.

Bonsoir. Oh, nice glasses. They’re cute.”

“Uh, thanks,” I said.

“Alright, what’s this all about?” Lawrence asked again, stern.

The shorter of the two Ghosts answered. A teenager, several years older than me.

I really need to learn all of your names.

“She came in, Boss, just now.”

“At this hour?”

D explained. “I got Wendy’s texts, so I came over.”

“Did you?” I asked. I pulled out my phone, checking for any new messages. None.

“Whoa, what’s with your sleeve?” D asked.

“If you had come by earlier, you would’ve gotten that story.”

“It wasn’t a very detailed story,” Lawrence commented.

I gave him a look.

I drew my attention back to D, and there was a longing in her eyes, like she was a puppy I had denied treats to.

I shook my head.

When it finally hit her that I wouldn’t budge, she glowered.

“Sorry I’m late then, I was caught in some stuff.”

I felt something stir within me.

“What kind of stuff?” I asked.

“Personal stuff.”

Again, that stir.

“Like?”

“Hey, I have a life outside of this, you know. I’ve got other business.”

I wasn’t trying to, but I left a gap in the conversation, where I should have responded, but I didn’t.

As much as I was satisfied with how my talk with Lawrence went, what he had to say about D brought back feelings I thought I had packed away already.

Not suspicion, but a second guess.

“Next time, at least text me that you read the message,” I said. “And tell me if you’re sending people my way. We’re lucky that it worked out in the end, but don’t spring them on me like that. It’s not fair on me, and it’s not fair on them.”

D actually looked remorseful.

“I can do that,” she said.

I almost laughed.

I felt like a parent, constantly reminding their child of what they should or should not be doing.

I wasn’t going to do this, I wasn’t going to be like that. Paranoia towards the enemy was one thing, but paranoia towards partners would tear me, us, apart.

Had to keep my head on straight. Focus.

“Anyways,” I said, “It’s actually good timing that you’re here. There’s something I pitched to Lawrence that you’re going to want to hear.”

“Neat, I like pitches. They’re like little idea seeds.”

“Idea what?”

“Then you’ll love this one,” Lawrence said. He turned to the other two Ghosts. He said something in Spanish, and they responded. He gestured, and they each took a step away from the counter, about to leave.

Before they went, I caught their eyes, the looks our way. My way.

Similar to the other Ghosts from before. Wary.

The shorter one seemed like he had something to say, with the way he kept glancing at me, but he kept it zipped.

It seemed like Reggie, Tone, and Sarah were the exceptions to that rule.

Another thing to deal with.

Then, they left, and it was only us three. The leaders of this gang.

“I’ll be heading out, too,” Lawrence said.

Or not.

“You are?” I asked.

“I’ve heard it already, so you tell D and get things sorted out with her. And, I’ve got a stack of movies I’ve been meaning to marathon. I need a break, yo.”

“No problem,” I said. “Enjoy your movies.”

“No shit I will. Text me when you’re both ready, so we can coordinate all of this, together. And, Wendy?”

“Hm?”

“I, um, never mind.”

He turned, scratching his chin, covering his face with his hand. The cheek that had the small scar.

Alright, I thought.

“Don’t hide your feelings, Lawrence,” D said. “Speak your heart!”

“Fuck off,” Lawrence said, but didn’t sound that mad. “Catch you later.”

He left, walking at a pace a notch or two below jogging.

I turned back to D. “What’s that about?”

“He’s just being dramatic,” she replied, still watching him as went through the doors. “But that’s what I like about him.”

“You like him?”

“Not like that,” she said, hurried. “I like his reactions when I tease him. He’s dramatic.”

“I wouldn’t call that him being dramatic, per se.” I put the word ‘dramatic’ in air quotes. “Anyone would be a bit paranoid after what you’ve put them through.”

“I suppose.”

“Apparently, you crashed a bus on him.”

That was a story I just had to know.

D pushed away from the counter, falling into her seat. She rolled back a foot or so.

She groused.

“I said I was sorry.”

She didn’t add to that. Too bad.

“Sorry’s not going to cut it,” I said.

“What, you want me to say sorry again? Last time, I had to lock the both of us in that room, and I wouldn’t let him out until he accepted my apology.”

D pointed behind her. A storage closet.

I huffed air out of my nose. I tapped my fingers on the countertop.

“That doesn’t help any. You know, just, don’t say anything. Just do. Promise you’ll behave, and you’ll do right by him. Actions do speak louder than words.”

“I already made that promise, geez. He still gets to kill me if I step out of line. And technically, it’s still like that with you, too.”

I was astounded that she could bring that up so casually.

“Right. So don’t give him any reminders. Or me, for that matter.”

D smiled.

“Shoot, everyone’s been getting on my back today. I can’t catch a break.”

She giggled to herself.

I brought my hands together, intertwining my fingers. I had a point I needed to get to, and I kept getting distracted by all of these changes in all of these conversations.

“Well, if you’re interested, I have an idea that will help us get in everyone’s good graces.”

“What, your pitch?”

“My pitch.”

D reached forward, pulling herself closer. She propped her knees back on the seat, pushing herself up with her arms to look at me, eye level.

Close, she studied me.

“From the looks of it,” she said. “It sounds like it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

Was that shown on my face? Could she actually read me that easily?

Oh well.

“I’m thinking it will be,” I said.

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Omake.03 (Bonus)

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058 – Rotting Cores

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There was an hour before noon, and I was just about ready to get going.

Christmas came and went, and the ball was dropped on New Year’s with only the bare minimum of festivities. A party was held, but it was nothing fancy. We were all busy moving things around, getting settled, and easing into the recent administrative shakeups. It was work, but it was work that everyone wanted to get done.

And there was still much more work that we needed to get to.

Police, arriving on scene after neighbors called nine-one-one, found Eliza Waller dead in her home. She was pregnant at the time.

The TV buzzed in the background as I went around, a towel around my shoulders.

This has been the fourth in a string of escalated murders that have taken place in the suburban communities around Stephenville, and is believed to be related to the riots that continue to plague the city.

I opened a drawer, picking through the few shirts I had left. I already didn’t have much to choose from, but I wanted to avoid wearing the same thing twice in a row. I picked up the last clean shirt left, while keeping a mental note to do the laundry sometime soon.

Starting from the Halloween Riots back in October of last year, to the riot and bombing of City Hall in November, to these attacks that target those from the Asian-American community, it has certainly been a tumultuous few months for the people of Stephenville.

I had only taken a few seconds to flip through the handful of channels I had available, but I still ended up on this news broadcast. I could go change it, but it was more effort than it was worth.

It was just a guy monologuing, but his words and tone rubbed me the wrong way. Smarmy. He didn’t sound genuine. He wasn’t talking to his audience, he was pandering to them.

And it’s actually easy to point to the very person that started this twisted chain of events. That’s right, the Bluemoon.

I turned towards the TV, even though it was in another room. I was dressed, wearing a white shirt and black pants, but I’d need at least another layer before I stepped outside.

But, it was warm enough in the apartment, so I was fine for the moment. I left my towel on the metal frame at the foot of my bed, then walked out to the living room. I brushed some hair away, feeling it. My hair was still a bit damp, but it was also much shorter than it had ever been. It’d dry pretty fast.

“-has yet to make any official public appearance or statement about who she is or what she’s trying to accomplish. Can the Bluemoon be trusted? From what we’ve seen, and from all the collateral damage she’s caused, the answer must be a hard ‘no.’ The Bluemoon has taken no responsibility for all the destruction, and we’re left to pick up the pieces.

‘She?’ Right. The attack at the school did blow that out into the open, but that was an unsubstantiated claim by a band of terrorists. At best, it was just a rumor. It didn’t stop people from rioting against those that looked like me, however, nor did it stop this guy from running with the idea that the Bluemoon was, in fact, a girl.

Well, he was right, but he didn’t know that.

And, what was with that bit of about picking up the pieces? If I remembered correctly, this guy was based in New York.

Give me a break.

The guy continued to ramble.

Where does this lead for the city, and what does this mean for the country as a whole? Vigilantism is sweeping the nation as naïve, deluded kids play dress-up and imitate the Bluemoon, harassing good citizens and interrupting the due process of law. It’s all a game to them, and it trivializes the traditional, American values we all hold so dear.

A game? Maybe he had a point, there. But we had our reasons. It wasn’t for entertaining ourselves, it was just easier to strategize, to plan, when thinking along those lines. Moving pieces in place, waiting for the opportune time to strike, learning how to bend the rules… and trying to be the top dog in the end. The winner.

A lot of it was logistics, preparations, actual work. None of it was fun, in the traditional sense.

I was standing in front of the TV, watching this young, admittedly handsome guy babble on about the old me. It was weird, watching everything that had happened turn into talking points for this guy’s noon talk show. Filtered, watered down. Didn’t seem real, coming from his mouth.

But it was real, his monologue was a result of what Alexis, I, we, had done.

And I was about to give him more things to talk about.

-is a biology professor and researcher from the University of Texas at Austin, and James Gomez, the Chief of Police for the Stephenville Police Department. Gentlemen, good-

A knock on the door. Then several. A rhythm.

There wasn’t a set code, but I already knew who it was, just from that.

I went to the door, keeping the TV on.

“You’re early this time,” I told D.

She was dressed for the weather. A large, poofy jacket, with the sleeves going past her hands, and the fleece on the collar brushing her cheeks. Her skirt inched out from the bottom of her jacket, with black tights and shoes to complete the look.

With a stuffed teddy bear she was hugging, she looked rather comfy.

“Hi Wendy,” she said, giving me her usual smile. “Just making up for last time.”

“Consider it made up. Come in.”

I stepped back to give her room, closing the door as she let herself in. We walked to the TV, D taking a small detour to drop off the bear on a counter that separated the kitchen from the living room. The bear was with her new family, all sitting together, as if to keep warm.

It was just a small, nothing joke I made after the second time she visited, after I moved in, but she seemed intent on keeping it going. The collection grew. At least they were made of fluff, through and through.

There was only one couch facing the TV, and D threw herself onto the cushions. She was small enough for me to sit without her shoes touching me. I stayed at one end of the couch, though, watching her.

Speaking of…

“If you’re gonna lie down like that, you better take your shoes off.”

D unzipped her jacket, and started fanning herself. “Aw, you’re being strict about your new place. I’m happy.”

I crossed my arms. “I just don’t want you making a mess so soon. Next time, just keep your shoes at the door. I’ll get some slippers for you, later.”

Another thing on the list. Like doing the laundry.

“Alright, alright,” D said. She leaned over to reach her feet, undoing her shoelaces. She dropped her shoes onto the floor once she removed them.

As she went back down, she looked at the TV.

“This guy? You can do better than that.”

This guy was still rambling, but he had guests this time. Gomez was one of them. I was shocked to see that he agreed to appear on the show.

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-”

I stopped paying attention to what he, they, had to say. They wouldn’t have anything new to offer.

“I just happened on it,” I said. “I wasn’t really listening.”

“All these people do is just simple fearmongering. Making little old ladies clutch their purses even tighter. You want a real scare? Go up against a real journalist.”

“Or don’t,” D quickly added. “Not worth it.”

“Noted,” I said. I started looking around for the remote.

“At least Uncle J still looks okay,” D said. She made a face, then moved around on the couch. The channel flipped.

She reached underneath where she was sitting, between her and the seat. She pulled out the remote.

“Oh. That was… up there.”

She set the remote down, by her shoes. I didn’t have coffee table to place anything, yet.

The channel got switched to some cartoon. Nothing I was personally familiar with. D started watching as she talked.

“How’s the place treating you so far? You like it?”

The place. My new apartment. It sat on the border of Eastside, a good distance from all the trouble brewing over there. It was about the same size as the old one, but living by myself gave me more room to stretch my legs.

One bedroom, one bathroom. A kitchen and living room that had shared the same space. It had a modern feel to it, if not utilitarian, with the muted color schemes of the walls and floors. There was a window on the far wall to let in some light, breaking up the monotony. But, beside some sun, there wasn’t much on the walls. Not yet. I had just moved in.

But, it was all mine. This was my apartment. The walls were larger, the ceilings higher, I had room, here. Freedom.

“I like it,” I said.

There was a pause, like I was supposed to say more, but I didn’t.

“But?” D asked.

But.

“There’s no real ‘but’ to it, I’m just still getting used to the idea that the place is mine. My own room, my own bed, my own apartment. I never really felt like myself, back in that old place.”

“Still?” D questioned.

I know, but it was always her place, not mine, I thought.

“Here, I have freedom,” I said, reiterating that point to myself. “And yeah, it’s liberating, but it’s also more than I’m used to. I don’t know what to do with it.”

“You could try sprucing up the place,” D said, eyes still on the screen. “Put a painting up somewhere. Maybe another bear will do you some good.”

“I’m fine with the bears,” I said, giving her another reminder. Another reminder that she’d ignore. “But that’s the thing, I don’t even know what kind of painting I’d want. If I want something abstract, or a realistic painting of an apple, or whatever.”

“Apples can be good, they keep doctors away.”

I took it in stride. “How about an abstract painting of an apple?”

“There you go!” She moved around again, putting her hands behind her head, facing me. “But stuff like that costs money, which we’re all a little short on. A chunk of what the gang’s making is helping to let you sleep here, and keeping these lights running. As much as I get it, and as much as I want you to start doing some real decorating… it can wait.”

I sighed. “Yeah, it can.”

“But, how about you?” D asked, putting an emphasis on that last word. “How are you holding up?”

That question could be potentially loaded.

“What happens if I say I’m not?” I asked.

“Then you would be giving me a real scare, seriously.”

“Just kidding,” I said, probably faster than I intended. “That’s not what I meant. I’m holding up fine, considering I threw away the entirety of my previous life. Still wrapping my head around this being the new normal.”

“It’ll take some getting used to, for sure. You’ll feel better once you start personalizing your space, and if you’re ever feeling down, you have them, and more importantly, you have me.”

D grinned again, showing teeth, her eyes closed.

I have D, right. Doubt the others are willing to lend a shoulder to cry on, though.

I wasn’t sure where I stood with D. Not entirely. Friends? Probably wouldn’t go that far. I’d gotten more familiar with her over the past month, with her coming over at pretty regularly, maybe three to four times a week. Never asked her to, she kept inviting herself, but I couldn’t bring myself to turn down her company. At worst, she bugged me like any little kid would. At best, I appreciated her being around.

Maybe we weren’t exactly best friends yet, but I saved her life, and she saved mine. That was more than most friends ever did for each other.

There was, however, a part of her that creeped me out, which was a weird thing to admit out loud. She was just a little girl. On principle, she was harmless. But looking at it that way was too simple. She wasn’t just a little girl, she was D. The person who stole and drove Hleuco’s van, who led me to the Ghosts, and helped bring Benny and The Chariot to their knees. All with some firecrackers and a tablet. That was reason enough to be wary of her.

I was just lucky she was on my side.

“Noted,” I said again.

D had gone back to staring at the TV, flipping through the channels herself. I didn’t have much, and with each consecutive cycle, D was looking more and more bored.

“How’d you do it?” I asked.

“Do what?” she said, listless, eyes still on the screen.

We still had time before we had to go. And D was a curious little thing.

“How old were you when you struck out on your own?” I asked. “What’s your… I dunno, your origin story?”

D scratched the underside of the chin. “Origin story? Am I a superhero now, too?”

“You are pretty super,” I said. I couldn’t help it.

I swore I saw her blush.

“Thank you,” she said, her expression cheeky. She actually sounded like a kid, there.

Worth.

“Wait, no,” I said. “I’m talking about how you got into all of this stuff in the first place. How you… ended up here, doing this?”

D dropped that childlike demeanor she had just before. Neutral, blank.

And that freaked me out.

“I know,” I said. “I’ve asked this before.”

“And I think I did a pretty good job dancing around it the first time,” she said. “I’ve got a similar routine lined up, now, if you want to hear it.”

I didn’t quite catch it then, but I certainly did now. That was definitely her tell. Acting hyper self-aware about herself in order to avoid the subject, especially if that subject was her. Maybe it was her way of being cute, or maybe it was a feint to get me off track from another thing. I couldn’t put it past D.

Maybe she knew that I knew.

But that’s the thing, isn’t it? All these head games…

“Sore spot?” I asked, as if to test things.

D’s eyes hardened, her jaw set. Didn’t seem like it should be menacing, coming from her, but it did. I felt it.

Probably shouldn’t get her so pissed off before we headed out.

“The sorest,” D replied, hard.

Too late. She was pissed.

I spread my arms. “Okay, fine, I promise I won’t ask anymore, unless you decide to bring it up first. Everyone’s different. I shared my story, or at least the more relevant parts, but that doesn’t mean you have to tell me yours. But I just want to know how you deal.”

“Deal?” she asked.

“Like, when you first started out, how did you handle being on your own? Were you always on your own?”

I couldn’t read D’s expression anymore. If she was still upset, or just down.

D answered with a shrug. A second passed. And then another second passed, and I knew I wasn’t getting much else out of her.

I decided to drop the subject. We didn’t need this, not right now.

“Sorry, I know I keep pushing it, but that’s because I do like you, D, and you’ve been a big help, especially when I was trying to find Benny. And, since we’ll be working together for the foreseeable future, I’d like to know the girl who’ll have my back. Us ladies have to stick together, you know.”

D looked at me, blinking.

“You like me?”

My hands went to my hips, and I gave her a stern look.

“It was a rocky road, getting there, you did steal my van.”

“I was borrowing it.”

“Same difference.”

She also nearly drove that same van off a parking garage, but I decided not to bring that up.

D breathed, relaxing just a bit. “It’s not like I don’t get where you’re coming from. I like you, too, and there are things I’d like to tell you about, it’s just…”

“Not now?”

D nodded. “Not now. But that doesn’t mean never. I promise.”

“I’m holding you to that, then.”

“I’m okay with that,” D said, shrugging. “And hey, maybe we can even be more than friends, later down the road.”

She said that part with a wink.

It was involuntary, but I felt my cheeks warm up. And it wasn’t the air conditioning.

“What does, what?” I asked.

“Anyways, going back to your main point, you just take it a day at a time, figure out what you want to do, what you need to do, and how to do it. And it’s important to learn what you like, finding hobbies outside of all the other stuff. For me, it just so happens that I like all this stuff, so everyday is like being on the playground.”

She completely ignored me. But she also gave me what I asked for in the first place. I’d let it slide.

“Taking it a day at a time… seems obvious, it’s a good reminder. Thanks.”

“You got it,” D said, grabbing for the remote. She turned off the TV.

“We should probably get going,” she said, getting up from the couch.

“Is it time already?” I asked. I realized I didn’t have my watch on. I thought to where I placed it last. On the drawer, facing the bed. My sweater and coat were ready in the closet, along with my mask. The old, painted-over Blank Face one. Not ideal, but it would have to do for the time being.

“We’ll be early, which normally for me is a big no, but they’ll appreciate the gesture. A show of faith.”

“Good point. Let’s go.”

We got to moving, but in different directions. D went to the kitchen counter, and I went back to my room.

“You still don’t have anything in here!” D yelled out. She was talking about my refrigerator.

I was putting on my sweater, then grabbing for my jacket as I answered. “I told you I don’t have much use for it!”

“I got it for me! You need to start putting some snacks in here, like ice cream! Or cake! Or ice cream cake!”

“Next time, or just bring food yourself so you can keep it in there!”

I heard a noise. A guttural, but childlike moan.

I crouched in front of a box in the corner of the closet. Heavy, made of hard plastic, with different locks and latches on it. I took my time getting through them all.

The last latch cracked open, and I was face to face with my mask. Nothing else was in there.

Temporary.

I closed the box. I wouldn’t bring it. A show of faith.

I grabbed the rest of my things. Wallet, watch, and phone. I stepped out of my room, and met up with D by the counter.

“Ready?” I asked.

“Sure. Let’s make a stop along the way, I am starved.”

“Won’t that take time?”

D grinned.

“It will. Looks like we won’t be early, anymore. We’ll just be… on time.”

Busy. People pushing past each other, orders getting yelled. Clanking metal and fires sizzling. A flavorful aroma that attacked my senses. A sort of frenetic energy, that, if I wasn’t an active participant, I’d feel like I was in the way. A bother.

I wasn’t an active participant. Not in that regard, anyways.

Probably wasn’t the best idea to hold a meeting in a kitchen during peak hours.

It was me, D, and Lawrence. We were in Casa Martinez, sitting at the table in the far back of the kitchen. Workers, cooks, and waiters and other staff were darting around to get things done. Put food on the table of waiting, hungry customers. They all worked smoothly, too, moving like a well-oiled machine. Mrs. Martinez ran a tight ship, around here.

Which made me feel even more in the way, even more like a bother. We had made quite a mess, back during our standoff against The Chariot. The vents got fucked, bullet holes and casings littered the floor, and that was on top of Lawrence bleeding all over the place. Mrs. Martinez wasn’t happy when she came back the next morning.

If we wanted to keep using her restaurant as a place to meet, she brought down some new rules on our heads. No activities after hours, and no meetings when she couldn’t keep an eye on us. We’d been effectively grounded.

Lawrence had a plate out in front of him, taking the occasional bite of a beef enchilada, topped with some chili con carne. D was finishing up some leftover fries from the trip here.

I didn’t have anything for myself.

“You sure you’re good?” Lawrence asked, glancing at the empty space in front of me.

“I am,” I said. “I ate before I left, she didn’t.”

“I hafd-” D started, but she coughed.

“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” I told her.

She took a sip of her drink, and wiped her mouth with a napkin. Then she finally got out what she meant to say.

“I had a light breakfast.”

“Eat more for breakfast then. You’re still growing.”

Lawrence looked at me and D. “The hell was that?”

“Nothing,” I said. “Let’s get started.”

Lawrence put down his fork, nodding. “Well, there’s good news and bad news.”

“That’s your starting bit?” D asked.

“Shut up.” He grumbled. “Now it feels awkward to ask which one you want first.”

“Let’s go with the good news,” I said. “No reason not to.”

“Okay, well, the good news is that we’re still up and running. What we got out of Benny is enough to keep us going for a bit longer.”

“So we have time to figure out our next move?”

“Exactly. The dust has settled over East Stephenville, mostly. We blew up half the neighboring gang’s bases, and sparked whatever tensions were going on between them. There’s still some quarrels that flare up here and there, but one cop car comes by, and everyone disperses. A lot of attention is on the city, now more than ever. People are trying to behave themselves. Trying.”

“And no one’s starting to suspect us?”

Lawrence shook his head. “It’s been some time, and nothing’s come up, so I don’t think it’ll be an issue, anymore. It helps that you dropped Benny off to a third party.”

“It helps that D dropped her off,” I said. “I can’t take credit for that part.”

“Done on neutral ground, taking turns,” D said. “We moved her there, left for thirty minutes, and when I came back, the cash was in her place. Clean, no questions asked.”

My thoughts wandered to Benny. I wondered where she was now, if she was even still alive. I wondered who exactly picked her up.

The less I know, the better.

It was easier to think that way.

“And the bad news?” I asked.

“The bad news,” Lawrence said, “Is the good news, looking at it from a different perspective. We’re still up and running, we’ve got money, but its not going to last forever. And we can’t keep taking from old, forgotten staches and selling at a discount. That’s not good business.”

“You don’t have anyone to supply us with stuff? Our own manufacturer?”

“If I did, I wouldn’t have been in this situation to begin with. I wouldn’t have had to go to D for weight, and I wouldn’t have needed to accept your offer to work together.”

“Okay, so we just find one.”

Lawrence grumbled again. “If it was that easy… you know where I’m going with this.”

Ah!” D had taken another swig of her drink. “Think about it this way. Stephenville is like a port city for gangs, mobs, and cartels. They send a group of their own to set up shop in the city, and act as representatives. Diplomats, if it comes down to it. And in turn, those gangs, mobs, and cartels act as sponsors, providing money, supplies, and reputation. And depending on who’s your sponsor…”

“It comes with some real good perks,” I said.

“Yup, and if you have a really good sponsor, you get a seat at the table, and a legitimate word in how things get run.”

“That’s quite the system,” I said. “How does something like that even get started?”

D and Lawrence shared a look.

“Mister,” D said.

Mister.

At that metaphorical table, he would be sitting at the head. The man on top, above everyone else. A spider, really, at the center of the web, sensitive to any pull or tug on its many threads, aware of any bug that happened to get trapped inside.

That, was how Benny put it, when I asked her.

There wasn’t much else known about him. His name, his face, his identity, they all drew up blanks. From what I’d heard, and from reactions I got whenever he was brought up gave credence to the fact that he was real…

He seemed more like a boogeyman than the lynchpin of the city.

But, if we were going to do this, and Mister was real, and at the center of it all, we couldn’t get caught in those webs.

Had to play it smart. Had to be… whatever ate spiders.

“Getting back on track,” I said, “Is it even viable, getting a sponsor?”

Lawrence cut into his enchilada, taking a bite. He spoke while he ate, but he didn’t sound stuffed. “Honestly, I don’t think so. Sponsors aren’t generous enough to support two gangs, and they’re not looking to adopt, either.”

“What about The Chariot? Who was their sponsor, again?”

Lawrence laughed, or rather he scoffed. “El Tunante, leader of La Rueda. Yeah, don’t think so. Aside from the fact that we’re too far removed from them, do you think El Tunante is going to want to support the nobodies that sold out his best representative, and threatened his nephew to do it?”

“Nope,” I said.

“That bridge has long been burned. Unless we get very lucky with someone else, it’s not happening.”

“Damn,” I said. “There has to be something we can do. Not every gang has a sponsor though, right?”

“Lots operate the more traditional way, sure, but they’re all small fries.”

D said that as she ate a small fry.

“Then we can muscle in on some of the smaller of those fries,” I ventured. “Get whoever makes for them… make for us, instead.”

Lawrence set his fork down, looking right at me. “You have to understand, we are the smallest fry in the city. We may have gotten some green thanks to Benny, but comparatively, that still puts us in the yellow. If we make too-big a move, and it doesn’t work…”

He snapped his fingers.

“We’re snuffed out, just like that.”

“But we’re not in the red, though,” I said. “You have me. And we have some of the weapons that The Chariot were secretly staching.”

“A crate of high-end pistols, and half a crate of some nice rifles,” D said. “We got four big boys left, too. But let’s save those for a bad day. Or a really good one.”

I gestured towards D. “See? It’s something.”

Lawrence turned, flagging down a passing waiter. He lifted his glass, and the waiter understood.

He turned back to me.

“Look, um, Wendy-”

“It’s V, this time, we’re on the clock.”

“Fuck, that’s confusing. Anyway, V, I appreciate you still trying to help us, I do, but…”

“But what?”

“But why?” he asked. “I didn’t get a chance ask earlier, since I was on my ass, recovering, but why throw yourself into all this shit? You’re young, you have powers. Shit, without that, you still have your whole life ahead of you. Why commit to this?”

The kitchen worked, the sounds of people and metal crashing together. It was hard to gather my thoughts for a question like that, in a place like this.

But I had to try.

“Because I tried normal, I tried regular. It didn’t work. It’s like trying to fit a square into a circle hole. It won’t fit, and if you try to force it, things break. With this, I know what I’m getting into, I know where I fit. Perhaps, in a past life, I wasn’t built for this, wasn’t made for this. But I am, now. I have talents that make me valuable. I’m capable. And now that I can put my focus onto this full-time, I can actually make progress. Move forward.”

It was a long, rambling answer, but Lawrence seemed to accept it. He sat back, and the waiter came by to refill his drink. The waiter left, and Lawrence managed to down half his glass before speaking again.

“I guess I can live with that. It’s just, it’s going to have to take some getting used to, working with both the heartless bitch that made my life a living hell, and the ex-hero who got me into this mess to begin with.”

D covered her face with a napkin. “You flatter me too much, Lawrence.”

“Shut it,” he said.

“We worked well together, when it came down to it,” I said. “I think we even managed to surprise each other.”

I received nods from the two.

But it was true, I was surprised. Pleasantly surprised, at that. D managed to prove her usefulness, setting up the plan to smoke out Benny, and saving us when I was cornered by Benny in this very kitchen. Lawrence, too, proved himself as well. Back when we started this, when we were just a coalition, I had thought of Lawrence and his Ghosts as pawns. Now, I knew that Lawrence was more capable than that. He kept Benny in place, buying me time to get back to the restaurant, and turned the tables by tricking her. With all our history, our baggage with each other, we managed to make it work.

And that was worth acknowledging.

“So, I think we can do this,” I said. “We can pull it off.”

“I fuckin’ hope so,” Lawrence said. “Shit, getting Benny was supposed to make things easier.”

“It’s never going to be easy,” D said. “But that’s what makes it fun.”

“Fun?” Lawrence questioned. “Fuck, I’m fucked, aren’t I?”

I intervened. “Let’s call it a day, for now, before D stresses you out too much. You’re still recovering. We know what the problems are, and we have time to think about some solutions. Things are settled down. It’s peace, relatively. Let’s take advantage of that.”

“Sure thing,” D said, balling up her paper bags and napkins, getting ready to toss them away.

“Fine. I do have to get back to my Ghosts, anyway. I just don’t like walking away here without a clear plan in mind.”

“We’ll figure it out,” I said, more just for him, so he could take it easy.

It seemed like I got the last word in for the meeting. We got up from the table, thanked Mrs. Martinez and her staff for the meal and hospitality, and we split up from there. Lawrence went through the front door, while D and I took the back exit.

“Do you think Lawrence will take it easy?” I asked, walking to the van. Not the van D stole after she trashed Hleuco’s, but rather it was Hleuco’s. Lawrence got his men to patch it up, repair some parts, refurbish it, and gave it back, as thanks for D taking care of him after he got wounded. But, he didn’t want us to mention it, or he’d string us up. “You know him better than I do.”

“He’s not the kind of guy that likes to stand still. It’s why he was willing to go to me when he was running out of options. It’s why he ended up agreeing with your initial idea to work together. He’ll do anything to take a step forward.”

“Not a bad mentality, but that can easily lead to trouble.”

“Don’t you worry about that,” D said. Again, she winked. “I can keep an eye on him.”

We reached the van, and took our respective sides. D got in the driver’s seat, and I rode shotgun.

I had to warn D. “Careful. At best, he’s tolerating you being around.”

“He’s tolerating us.”

“Like I said, don’t give him a reason to immediately drop you. I need you on this.”

D started up the van, humming to life. Good as new.

“Aw, would you miss me?”

“I would,” I said, without skipping a beat.

D backed out, leaving the parking lot, getting onto the street. Eastside seemed to have bounced back from our shakeup pretty well. People were strolling on the sidewalks, traffic was moving along at a decent pace. It was as if nothing had ever happened.

“Want me to drop you off back at your place?” D asked.

I thought about it.

“No, sun’s still up. I’ll take advantage of this time, too.”

“That’s what I like to hear. Just tell me where.”

I looked at the side view mirror as we turned, Casa Martinez in the back. The restaurant disappeared as we rounded the corner.

As far as territory went, that was the extent of it. There was so much that needed to get done.

A lot of work, running a gang.

Bonus                                                                                               Next

056 – Minor Piece

Previous                                                                                               Next

Everything exploded.

Loud enough to rupture ears. Loud enough that my heart sank to my stomach and stayed there. Loud enough that my mind went completely blank.

It was so loud.

Deafening.

Like the whole world was crashing around me. Destruction.

Not like the movies. The sounds weren’t mixed or mastered, here. Just a stinging intensity. The hail of gunfire put everything in the red.

A bang, followed by cracks and pops occurring with equal intensity. Sharp, jarring. Noise. My ears were ringing, and it only added to the sense of chaos. I lost my sense of placement. Left and right, up and down.

Classroom. It reminded me of the classroom. The bodies, the-

That thought was overridden.

I didn’t lose my sense of direction. I clung to it. Ingrained in the very fiber of my being.

Retribution.

My body moved under the orders of my last conscious thought.

Arms close, wrapping around me. Not a reflex, not for comfort, but to secure.

The action was interrupted, then blocked from moving any farther. Something was in my grasp. Someone.

No time to check. No time to think. Just had to focus on getting down, and staying out of harm’s way.

And then, it was quiet.

Not silent, not completely, sound wasn’t absent. There was the harsh intakes of breath, the clicks of guns being reloaded and ready to fire again. And there was the high-pitched ring that sang in my ears.

Not silent, but a stillness that sat heavy in the air.

It was quiet.

It took some time before I realized I could move. Testing, I used my legs, rubbing them together. No issue there. No pain, it seemed like, coming from any other part of my body. I had made it out okay. Miraculously.

I tried breathing. The air was thick. Almost polluted.

Something squirmed in my grip, trying to wrestle itself away from me. Tried.

I tightened my hold, exercising just a fraction of my full strength. The movement stopped.

The stillness remained, giving me a chance to survey the situation in full. It felt like the light was attacking my eyes as I opened them, and I needed a second to adjust.

Bits and pieces. I couldn’t see much. I was on the floor, all my weight on one side. One arm was pinned down. A body. They were close, and their back, neck, and head blocked most of my view. A few loose strands from a ponytail got into my eyes, and I had to blink them away.

A body. They were close, and they were wearing a gold blazer.

My heart jumped in my chest at the realization. Faster and faster, all from how close she was. I finally had her in my grasp.

She couldn’t hide from me, or slip away like before. I had her. Finally. There she was, and here I was.

Just me, just her.

It was everything I ever wanted.

We were together.

Now it was simply a matter of getting out of here, and taking her with me.

Easier said than done, though.

I shifted us around, moving so I had a better position to work with. I wasn’t about to try and leave. I had what I wanted, but I was still trapped here.

And I couldn’t just fight my way out.

As the dust settled, everyone else started getting their bearings again. Barking orders, my ears still too out of commission to pick it up. Everyone’s attention was pointed in different directions. The side door of the kitchen, the vents above, each other.

Me and Benny.

Scattered, disorganized, but it didn’t take long for everyone’s attention to point in a particular way.

With guns reloaded and ready, Benny’s crew had me in their sights.

“Let her go,” one of them said, voice tight. Oh, I could hear, now. It was the man in the suit.

I adjusted my posture, pushing my weight more into Benny. She grumbled from the added pressure, but she didn’t try to fight me.

I was crouched over her, my foot pressed into the small of her back. I had my knife drawn, the blade right against her gullet. My other hand went to the back of her neck, helping keep her down. If I tripped, or if she tried to move, the result would be rather messy.

I used that as my leverage.

Tapping the flat of the blade on her throat, I gave my response.

“How about no? I worked too hard, I worked too long, and I gave up too much to get here. I earned this.”

That garnered more grimaces and piercing glares. Itchier trigger fingers. Best not to push them any further.

I looked past the man in the suit, at the others in Benny’s crew, and the other Ghosts. There were more guns in play than I had fingers. Not all were trained at me though, some of Benny’s crew were keeping the Ghosts in check. After that bang, the players on the board had moved around, but the overall situation snapped back to the previous state of being. A standoff.

I looked for Lawrence. I didn’t see him.

I saw the streak of blood that led away from the nearby table and chair, past the man in the suit.

Benny? I checked, but there was no pool of blood under her. She wasn’t bleeding. By process of elimination, then, it had to be-

“You’re cornered, Bluemoon,” the man in the suit said. His gun was still staring right at me. “There’s no variation of this that sees you getting out of here alive.”

“That’s where you’re wrong again,” I said. “And on two different counts. It’s not the Bluemoon, it’s V. Even your boss acknowledged that.”

Underneath my foot, Benny tried to speak, but it came out as a muffled, incoherent mess.

The man in the suit glowered.

“Fine,” he said. “V it is.”

“And what’s your name?” I asked. Had to keep them busy, distracted. If they were talking, they weren’t shooting.

“Christian,” he said.

“Nice name. See, now that makes it easier for us to get a dialogue going.”

“I’m not interested in talking.”

So much for that plan.

A shuffle, behind Christian. People were moving around, stepping out of the way as more people came into the kitchen. A momentary interruption from everything that was going on.

I would have used that as my opportunity, but Christian maintained his position. He hadn’t budged.

“Found anything?” Christian asked, eyes still on me. The question was for his partners behind him.

“Found something, alright.”

Two men approached Christian, struggling to walk a straight line to him. I immediately saw why.

Carried by the armpits, feet off the ground. D was kicking and twisting to try and get away, but two fully-grown men proved to be much stronger than one little girl. They brought her to Christian, stopping at his side.

“We caught her hiding in a box, out in the hall where that door lead.”

D continued to kick, even trying to go for Christian’s knee, but he was too far, and her leg was too short.

For her trouble, D received a smack in the back of the head. The hit was audible.

She yelped, and they yelled over her. “Pipe down!”

I felt a surge in my body, a charge. I wanted to rush them for laying hands on her. But I had to remind myself where I was, and what I was here to do.

Keep a hold on Benny, and they can’t do anything.

The hit was hard, but D recovered enough to scan the kitchen. She noticed me.

“Hi, V,” she said.

“Hi, D,” I said.

“I tried, but I guess it’s gonna have to take more than that. Insurance?”

Not a question, a suggestion. I nodded. Like Lawrence, she didn’t have her earpiece. We really had to play the rest of this out by ear, now.

“Oh, where’s Lawrence?” D asked, skimming the kitchen from her perspective.

“Follow the trail of blood,” Christian said. “You’ll find him.”

D looked down, and saw the blood go past her feet, and behind a counter where we both couldn’t see. D kicked again.

“You dummies! What did you-”

Another outburst, another hit. D piped down.

Christian gave her a glance, but he kept his eyes on me when he said, “Lawrence, you, and now her? Talk about an unholy union.”

“You know her?” I asked.

“I know her work.”

He left it at that. Not giving me much to work with.

“You, what was that, just now?”

I wasn’t sure if that was for me or D.

“Bring her up here, too,” Christian ordered, nudging with this chin.

The men listened, carrying D somewhere between me and Christian. Her feet dragged behind her as they moved. Now we were both in the gun’s sights.

“Answer me,” Christian asked. That time, it was clear he was talking to D.

“Firecrackers,” D said, sounding out of breath. “Up in the vents. Scared you, didn’t I? And I kick open one door and you guys blow up like it’s the Fourth of July or something. Y’all…”

D started shaking.

“Y’all crack me up.”

D started laughing, and she was struck in the head again. She kept laughing. It took three more, increasingly violent hits to get her to wind down.

At the final hit, D’s head slumped forward, and she was panting, sounding hoarse.

“Respect your elders,” Christian said. “You should have learned that lesson by now.”

“You’ll find…” D started, she had to take another breath before continuing. “That I’m very selective with what lessons I retain.”

“Then I’ll beat that lesson into you, and many more.” Christian looked to the two men. “Search her, make sure she doesn’t have any tricks up her sleeve.”

A small noise came from D. A giggle.

The two men dropped D, and she fell to the floor, on her knees, barely supporting herself with her arms. They began patting her down.

“And you,” Christian said, looking straight at me. It was my turn, again. “Let her go. Don’t make me repeat myself.”

“Take one step forward,” I said, “And Benny will have to breathe through a tube.”

“You won’t harm her,” Christian said, shaking his head. “You want her, for reasons only you are keen to. But you need her alive.”

“You’re right, I do need her alive, but what does that really mean? What does it mean to be alive? Break it down to the most basic definition, it’s a state of being. Having life. And you can harm someone while still keeping them alive. It’s just a matter of taking away what isn’t necessary. Lose an arm, you’ll live. Lose a leg, you can still moving around okay. Lose all four limbs? You’ll need assistance, but as long as you can eat, breath, and shit, you’ll live. Quality of life sucks, but you’re still alive. And how about the other stuff? Gouging out eyes, cutting out tongues, burning skin. Breaking bones. It’s nothing that’ll kill you. The brink of death is still a state of being. Take one step forward, and you bring Benny close to that brink. I need her alive, but I can harm her.”

Benny didn’t seem to like the sound of that. She struggled, mumbled. Little success in either venture, but she got her message across.

Christian’s gaze narrowed.

“I shoot you, then, right through the head. I’m a good shot.”

I paused.

“You say that, thinking it will stop me. You would be very disappointed.”

It was partially true. I had been shot before, and I was shot earlier tonight, but they weren’t shots through the head. This body might survive… but would I?

I wasn’t sure, and I wasn’t about to put that to the test.

Christian stood there, his gun still out in front of him. If his arms were getting tired, he didn’t show it on his face.

We were at a standstill. I couldn’t move, or I might die, and Christian couldn’t move, or Benny would get mauled. And the first scenario had the implied risk of Benny getting injured, too.

There must be a way out of this.

I willed that thought to D.

“Christian, I think I have something.”

Of the two men that were searching D, one stood, holding a device in his hand. “Found this in her jacket.”

Christian gave it a quick look, then looked at it again, for a longer time. I didn’t move.

“A tablet?” Christian asked.

“Ah, crud,” D said, head still down.

The two men grabbed her and brought her up, making her stand. They didn’t take their hands off of her.

“What is this?” Christian questioned.

She lifted her head, facing Christian.

“I thought you didn’t like repeating yourself.”

He looked like he was about to snap.

“What’s on it?” he then asked.

D hesitated, her head down again.

“Crud,” she said.

“Tell me,” he said, teeth gritting together.

D didn’t answer, of the two men that held her, the one who wasn’t holding the tablet raised his free hand. A smack to the back of her head.

D squeaked, and her head drooped, hair obscuring her face.

The stillness stretched. Christian wasn’t going to ask again, instead waiting for D to finally give up an answer.

And then she did.

“Notes… crucial to our plan,” D breathed. “And drafts of other plans. Backups. Scribbles, really. There’s some other stuff on there, too.”

“Like what?”

She tried raising her head, only to lower it again.

“Personal stuff. Where other gangs keep their stashes. Drugs, weapons, money. Names, too. As… a bargaining chip.”

“Names?” Christian’s gaze shifted, from me to Benny. “Could use those chips as our ticket out of here. What kind of names?”

“The Bluemoon’s secret identity.”

It was like a shockwave. Everyone reacted. Myself included.

Christian looked right at D. I was too caught off guard to make a move. And I wanted to see what exactly she was up to, what she meant.

“The Bluemoon’s secret identity?” Christian repeated, but he was being serious.

“I’m not stupid,” D said. “I keep a lot of notes, I’m thorough. Otherwise I wouldn’t be able to last.”

Craning her neck, D looked at the two men that were detaining her, then at Christian. “Benny came to make a deal, how about a counteroffer? Let me go, that tablet’s yours.”

My eyes went wide.

Benny gurgled, and I was reminded that she was there. I was strangling her. I loosened my grip, but not by much.

“D,” I said, anger creeping in my voice.

She had the gall to look at them when she gave her terms, but she couldn’t bear to show me her face.

She’s selling me out.

Wait, I had to think. There was no way she knew that bit of information. The name that wasn’t my name. There was only one person that knew, and they were dead. There was no way D knew.

Right?

Something’s not right here.

Wait a minute…

Oh god.

A flash of a memory. The hooded figure, decked in blue. The declarations I used to fight it off.

I went cold.

Christian questioned her. “You’re willing to walk away from this?”

“If it means walking away from this. I can start from scratch again. It’ll take forever, but it’s a fair trade-off.”

D,” I said, harder that time. Seething. I was so close, and she was threatening to take away everything.

“Shut up,” Christian told me, gun still pointed and ready. “You’ve lost this game.”

He turned his attention to D. “You can let go of her.”

The men complied, releasing D. She was standing on her own now, but slouched. She started fixing her hair, massaging her head.

“What’s the password?” Christian asked.

“No password,” D said, tossing her hair back with one hand. “Just swipe it and you’re in.”

“Let me verify it, and it looks legit, you’re free to go.”

“Okay.”

It’s like I’m not even here right now.

Christian nodded at the man with the tablet, and let him be the one to turn it on.

He pressed the button on the side.

Stop him.

But I’d lose Benny.

They’ll find out. They’ll ruin everything.

We weren’t sure of that.

I struggled to find a proper course of action. I hesitated.

While I was drowning in my uncertainty, he swiped the tablet.

I held my breath.

The tablet was facing Christian. Only he had a good look at the display, and all I could do was gauge his reaction.

His expression was blank.

“I don’t understand,” he said.

“Follow the instructions,” D said. “It’ll make sense.”

Christian stared at the tablet, then took it from his partner. He started heading towards me.

“Hey!” I yelled, my knife still on Benny’s throat.

“Just… following instructions,” Christian explained.

D spoke, too. “It’s okay, V, let him.”

Christian approached, and I remained wary.

“Stop there,” I said, when he was a foot away. He stopped.

Christian bent down, and flipped the tablet, having it face me. He lowered it so even Benny could see it.

Black letters on a white canvas, the letters were sloppy and uneven, as if drawn with a finger instead of a pen. A poorly done smiley face was done on the side, too.

For Benny’s eyes. Swipe right.

Benny twisted herself, trying to get her arm out from under her. My weight prevented her from getting anywhere.

“Set the tablet down,” I ordered.

Christian set it down, flipping out a stand on the back of the tablet’s case to let it stay upright on its own.

“Back away,” I ordered, tapping the knife against Benny’s throat again.

Christian backed away, but his gun was still trained on me. The standoff remained.

I eased off of Benny, but only by a margin. Benny took the cue, and wedged her arm free, reaching towards the tablet in front of her.

“Remember where you are,” I told Benny. “Who’s allowing you a bit of freedom. Abuse it, and I abuse you.”

Benny grumbled, and I took that as her understanding the situation. She moved her head to get a better look at the tablet, and with her only free hand, she swiped right.

The picture changed.

A hospital bed, a man resting. Tubes ran into his arms, his nose, a device attached to his finger. Blankets covered his waist, over his stomach, but his face was visible. Eyes closed, mouth open. Either asleep, or knocked out by anaesthesia.

The room was dark, but the subject cast in a bright light, and source coming from whatever device had taken the photo.

“Who is this?” Benny asked, sounding rough.

“I think you know,” D said. “Not everyone from your crew is standing in this kitchen.”

Benny swiped again, and again. Again.

Every picture was similar, but not exactly the same. Each consecutive picture was closer to the man in the bed. From the whole bed in the frame, to the foot of the bed, to the side, to his face, eyes closed and mouth open.

In the very last picture, the angle changed again, higher up, the man still visible. But he wasn’t the only one in the shot this time.

D was in the shot, holding the tablet high, placing herself right up against the man’s face. She held up a victory symbol.

A selfie.

I couldn’t see Benny’s face, but sitting on top of her I felt her reaction. Her whole body tightened up, tensing at whatever the realization was.

“Oh no,” she said. It pained her to say, but I could catch it. “Oh no!”

“Oooh yeaah,” D said, drawing out the words. I saw her face as she mocked her.

She wore a toothy grin. Vulpine, though a tooth was missing.

“Benny, what?” Christian questioned. He turned to D. “What did you do?”

Benny answered him with a single word.

“Roland.”

Christian let his mouth drop.

“Ah crud,” D said, that grin never leaving her. “You guys got bamboozled.”

Another shockwave. Christian jumped back, so D and I would be more in his gun’s range. The men that held D went after her again, but she ducked down, rolling away. She got up and ran towards me, stopping at my side, hands raised.

“Nah ah ah, we’ve been so well behaved, it’d be a shame to be so rash, now.”

D was taunting them, when we were just barely keeping them back.

This better work.

Benny was fighting me, now, trying to break away from me. I had to press the knife a fraction harder against her throat to calm her down.

“Explain,” Benny said, straining, breathing hard. “Now.”

“Wow, I was really on edge, there. I couldn’t just tell you to open up the thing, or you wouldn’t have felt compelled enough to do it. Had to make up a whole bit about information to entice you guys. And you fell for the bait, and hard. You guys really are desperate.”

Christian repeated after Benny. “Explain, now.”

“Don’t worry, I will, that’s part of the fun. Last night, among so much other stuff, I was doing a little hospital hopping. I was actually looking for someone else, but guess who I found in the meantime?”

“But that’s impossible,” Benny said, exasperated but weary. Being on her stomach took more air out of her than she could use to speak. “We went through the proper channels, using the right doctors. They don’t snitch or let anything leak. It’s against their code.”

“Code, schmode,” D said, “A magician never reveals their secrets. But, that’s not what really matters. Double-tap the button at the bottom, there.”

Benny pressed the home button on the tablet, twice, in quick succession.

It switched to another app.

The tablet displayed another picture. Grainy, but it was the same image. The hospital bed, Roland. He was still asleep. It wasn’t as bright, though, most of the light came from a lamp in the background, and the ambient bulbs and screens running next to him.

“Wave hi, Jordan!” D said.

From under the picture, a hand emerged, palm facing us. It was lightly wrapped in bandages. The hand waved, and the screen shook, too.

I could feel Benny starting to sweat. Quickly checking my knife, I saw a small bead of water drip from the tip.

“It’s a live feed,” D said. “And he can hear everything that goes on here. If you shoot me or V, or if we just give the word, Jordan pulls a few plugs, removes a few casts and bandages, and then he’s out before anyone there gets the chance to notice. Maybe more, if he’s up to it?”

D spoke louder for her last question. Jordan’s hand gave us a thumbs-up.

Benny coughed, wheezing, due to my foot, my weight on her back.

“You… wouldn’t…”

“Hey, that’s all up to you. New deal. Me and V get to walk out of here, unharmed, and we get to take Benny with us.”

Christian laughed, but it sounded like Benny, right before D’s ambush. Wild. “As if we’re letting you walk out of here with our boss!”

“You are, and you will,” D said. “And I know exactly why you will.”

“And why is that?”

“It’s been over a week since you attacked the school. Over a week. You had all the time in the world to leave the city, and hey, I even came up with a few ways for you. You could’ve left in smaller groups, you’ve taken the long way and hopped the border in another state. You could’ve even set up a meeting with the Ghosts before all this. But you didn’t.”

No one responded. An invitation for D to continue.

D continued.

“Why? Well, it wasn’t clear to me until I laid eyes on that handsome man over there.” She pointed to the tablet on the floor. “You were waiting for him to get better. You couldn’t leave until he recovered enough to move without medical attention. And from what I saw, you would have waited for a long while. Broken arm, fractured ribs, severe burns. That takes time.”

I could feel Benny slump underneath me.  The fight had all but left her.

This was our final play, our last-ditch effort to get Benny to comply, in case we ended up in a pinch like this. Our insurance. I just didn’t know how D would lead up to that.

She had a knack for making things complicated.

It was scary.

But, enticing them by claiming she knew my secret identity. Genius.

“You’re wrong,” Christian said. “We have other matters to deal with before we can leave. Roland isn’t our highest priority. It’d be great if he gets better by the time we’re ready to go, but if he isn’t, then it’s a loss we’ll have to take.”

“Maybe,” D conceded. “You might have a point there. Except there’s a difference between him and those you already left behind. Like Sofia, and Samuel.”

“How do you know about that?”

D ignored him. “But you won’t leave without Roland. Even with the entire city, from good guys and bad guys out to get you, you won’t leave. In fact, you can’t. And you know why. Unlike them, he isn’t disposable. He’s family.”

“Paco,” Christian said. The fight was starting to leave him, too.

“And that is the not-so small detail that gives us the win. The Chariot, El Carruaje… You were originally here as representatives of larger cartel. La Rueda. And your real boss, Paco, or El Tunante, isn’t gonna be happy if you leave his nephew behind.”

D answered before Christian could repeat himself. “I’m thorough.”

Again, the stillness stretched. No one said a thing. Not Christian, not any of his partners, not Benny. The deal was clear, the terms obvious.

It was just a matter of them wrapping around the fact that they lost.

Checkmate.

Benny wasn’t moving, hardly breathing.

I wasn’t moving, hardly breathing. I wanted to say something, add more, involve myself, but I was lost for words.

I had my role here, though. I had to keep Benny pinned, or our position didn’t have legs to stand on.

Time passed.

Benny spoke. It was so quiet, but the words still carried.

“You win. I give up.”

Her crew needed a moment for that to sink in. I needed a moment.

We won.

“Benny, por favor,” Christian pleaded. “You don’t have to-”

Benny screamed. Prolonged, raw. Not a word, but an emotion.

Despair.

She trailed off, then sputtered, coughing. Her body shook.

“Don’t you lay a fucking hand on him,” Benny said, for all to hear. “I’ll come with you.”

“Smart,” I said, taking over. “Get up.”

I got off of Benny, my legs already aching, but it was easy to ignore. D gathered her tablet, then helped as I lifted Benny to her feet.

I put my knife to the small of her back, a simple but effective reminder. My other hand reached around her neck. She was taller than me.

I watched the others.

Christian didn’t react, he didn’t move or say anything. He finally had his gun down, arms at his sides. Defeated.

I nudged Benny, and she walked. The three of us moved as a group, careful not to trip over bullets and casing.

D stuck her tongue out at the two men that held her. They didn’t react.

It was odd, even awkward as we walked past Christian and the other leftovers of El Carruaje. The stares, the frustration that festered within. As if they were trying to kill me and D with looks alone.

But they couldn’t, and there was nothing they could do about it. All they could do was stand there and watch, and let the emotion sit.

“Jesus, what did they do to you?”

I turned when I heard D break formation, going ahead of us. She ran to a corner of a counter.

Lawrence was there, on the floor, bleeding. His knees were to his chest.

“Got shot, duh,” he said. He had to force it out. “They dragged me here, out of the way.”

“Shoot, shoot,” D muttered. She was clearly worried. It was obvious in her tone.

D’s hands hovered over Lawrence’s body, unsure where to help. Her head popped back up, looking around in haste, hair flying. “You!”

She pointed to one of the few Ghosts in the back. A girl. She pointed to herself.

“Yes, you! Get over here and get him some help!”

She looked between D and the girl who still had a pistol on her, though it was half-raised, now.

“Don’t worry about that, they touch you and Roland dies! Get over here, and a grab towel!”

She jumped, hearing D raise her voice, shrill. She hurried over to Lawrence’s side, grabbing a towel from a nearby rack along the way.

D turned back to Lawrence. “Where were you shot?”

He gestured, somewhere near his chest, closer to the shoulder.

“Oh god,” D said, sighing at the end. “Might not be fatal. Here, put pressure on it, and keep it there until we get someone else to handle it.”

D stood up, giving room for the Ghost to help Lawrence.

“What’s it to you?” Lawrence asked, wincing. “I thought you were a heartless bitch.”

“Hush. You work on making it through this, or I’m shooting you myself.”

D then left Lawrence, walking in front this time.

Surprising, seeing that from her.

I pushed Benny again, and we moved.

We stopped again when we reached the door. Our exit out of the kitchen. D approached one of the other remaining Ghosts.

“Call the others,” D said. “Tell them they can pull back now. You need numbers if you want to keep an eye on them. Make sure they don’t pull anything, and you’ll be free to take Lawrence and have him looked after. Oh, except Jordan. He stays until we’re all done.

“What if they do try to pull something?”

“If they try to fight back or sabotage this, I’ll know, and they know what happens after that. Round them up, have them give up their guns. It’s okay if we don’t have everything, we have who matters.”

“And where are you going?” the Ghost asked.

D turned to me. I didn’t know what to say. I was still trying to process this.

“Out,” D ventured. “We’ll be back. And to you peeps…”

She directed the next part to Benny’s crew.

“We promise you’ll see Benny again. You can count on it.”

She didn’t clarify whether or not Benny would be alive when they saw her again. Now that I finally had her, I started asking myself the same question.

Is Benny going to live to see the morning?

The debate in my head was ongoing as I pressed into Benny’s back, urging her through the door.

“We’re going,” I said, lost in thought.

“Bye bye!” D said with a wave. “And someone tell Mrs. Martinez I said sorry for making a mess of her kitchen!”

We moved out the kitchen, finally, into the dining area of the restaurant. It was just us, now. Me, D, and Benny. No one to interrupt, no one to interfere.

And I still couldn’t fucking believe it.

“You can sit here,” D said, “And I’ll bring the van around. We’ll wait for the rest of the Ghost to show up, and we can take it from there.”

“Alright,” I said, still taking it all in. “Alright.”

“You okay? You kinda went quiet after a while.”

“I’m alright, I’m just… I don’t know, I’ve told myself, for so long, that this day would come. Now that it’s here, now that I have it, I…”

I went quiet. Still.

Benny didn’t even have anything to say. She hung her head. Too dejected, I assumed, to do anything, anymore.

“I get it,” D said. “Just stay put, and take deep breaths.”

I nodded.

“We won.” she said.

We won.

Repeating it, over and over, in my head. I still couldn’t believe it.

We fucking won.

I nodded.

With that, D left, going through the front door. Through the glass, I saw her run off, crossing the sidewalk, to the other side of the street.

She was gone before I could think about stopping her. Asking her questions. But I wasn’t up for talking, myself.

Later, then.

So many things on my mind. If things were really handled here or not, if Lawrence would be okay. If D actually knew my civilian name.

And yet, I couldn’t give a fuck.

I had Benny, and she wasn’t getting away. It was everything I ever wanted. The floodgates opened, and I felt a pure sort of relief that overwhelmed me. Peace of mind.

I didn’t know what to do with myself, and I didn’t know what to do with Benny. But that was okay. I had the inklings of a start.

I cleared my throat. It itched.

It was generally considered rude to play with food. However, after a long night of hard work, a girl should be allowed to indulge herself.

Previous                                                                                               Next

055 – Vultures

Previous                                                                                               Next

Back to square one.

But I had no clear path to getting there, though.

Up ahead? No way. Behind me? Again, no way.

Left, the giant hole leading outside? Maybe, but I’d be even more out in the open.

Right-

No way in hell was I going right.

I only had a few seconds before bullets would start flying, and I’d be torn to shreds. Had to make a decision, a path to take. A direction to go.

Down

The bullets flew before the thought could fully take hold. I went with that draft of an idea.

The blast affected the walls, ceiling, and floor. A decent-sized hole was taken out from the floor, right by my hands.

I dove for it.

Hot, piercing. Tearing through me.

The deafening noise, the sudden darkness, it debilitated, and I lost control of my movements. The hole wasn’t neatly formed. I bumped and broke through wiring and pipes and other material. I got stuck partway through, but my weight ended up breaking through the rest of the stuff.

I fell, and collapsed onto another floor, the lower level. The gunfire above was hardly dampened.

I scrambled to find my way to my feet, but a searing pain kept me down. I fell again, flat on my face.

I’d been shot.

I felt it in my shoulder and hip. A clean shot through my right shoulder, a messier one through my side. A bullet was stuck in my left hip, and it flared in pain when I tried to stand. I couldn’t move properly.

Hot, hot. Bullets were flying, flaming bits of metal. It was fucking hot.

With my good arm, I touched my face, the back of my head. No wound there. I felt some relief, but not much. I was still injured.

Operating on half-thoughts, responding to certain and immediate stimuli. Pain, move. Safety, find.

I felt around for my knife, and found it among a small collection of wires, drywall, and other bits of metal. I balled my hand around the handle and crawled to get moving, in case someone tried to shoot at me through the ceiling. Pulling with my good arm, dragging my legs behind me.

Maneuvering was slow, but my shoulder started healing enough that I could use it. I hauled my arm out in front me, testing it. Heavy, tight around the shoulder itself. It’d be another minute until I had full functionality.

My hip, however, was glacial in its healing. I still couldn’t stand, or even move my foot or wiggle my toes. How bad was the hit? How far in was that bullet?

Wincing, I crawled to the nearest cubicle. Another office space, but it seemed like I was alone. If anyone else was here, they didn’t announce themselves after I crashed through the ceiling.

Had to hide for now, recuperate. Had to figure out what to do with my hip. The bullet was lodged in there, preventing my healing from fully doing its job. I’d have to get it out, somehow.

I placed myself under the desk of a cubicle, pulling my one good leg towards me, and letting the other leg rest, flat on the floor. With my back against the surface of the cubicle, I allowed myself a moment to breathe.

I could barely breathe.

The best I could manage were short, quick huffs. Like a snake had coiled around my chest, constricting me. I didn’t even get shot in the chest. But my body felt as though it was seizing.

My ears were ringing, my head and heart were pounding. My lungs were getting less air with every breath I tried to take.

And my thoughts couldn’t tear themselves away from that bullet that nearly went through my head.

It echoed. Loud. So loud that it discombobulated. I was losing track of who I was, where I was, and what I was originally trying to do.

Loud.

It echoed. Why? That bullet never even touched me, yet I was freaking out, my body just barely under my own control.

And why now? I’d experienced loud sounds, and I had a wandering memory that informed me that I’d been at shot before. I couldn’t make sense of this, or anything else.

I shut my eyes tight, drawing my arms and my only usable leg as close as possible. Voices were shouting in my head, muffled as murmurs, but amplified to a painful degree. Screaming, shouting. Classroom. It reminded me of the classroom. The bodies, the sweet fragrance they produced. The blood.

I couldn’t function like this. I still had the bullet in my hip, I still had to get it out. But I had little control over my mind and my body. Couldn’t function.

No, this couldn’t be me. Something else. I had to section it off, then discard it. This wasn’t me.

It wasn’t.

You’re right, this isn’t you.

Among the sea of voices fighting for my attention, one in particular stole my attention.

It was my own.

Cautious, I squinted into the gloom. I saw something move.

A solid as mist, but there was a general form to it. I could make out an outline.

Humanoid, but stretched out in places. Arms, legs. Hooded, covering the eyes, but two distinct, black lines dripped down snow-white cheeks, leaking from where I’d expect the eyes to be. A darker spot of black was seeped onto the top of hood, and its head lolled one way, as if the neck couldn’t support the head properly. Limping, lumbering forward. To me.

Between the dark it passed through, and passed through it, I saw dark streaks of blue.

I stopped breathing.

The figure lurched, stopping right at my foot. I wanted to pull that leg back, but it wouldn’t budge.

It stood there, staring at me.

Look at you,” it said.

I tried backing away, but the wall of the cubicle stopped me.

This is what I meant by getting more purchase, a stronger foothold. You keep relying on me, and in turn, my roots dig a little deeper. And in time, you know where that leads.

I shuddered, and sucked a sliver of air between my teeth. It was the most I managed.

“Get… out of my head,” I said, exhaling the words.

Compartmentalizing helped, I felt my body starting to relax, the convulsions less intense, but it also lead to this.

I sectioned it off, but it became harder to discard.

Something about its stiff, stilted posture changed. A twitch. A response to what I had said.

Funny, whose head do you think you’re in?

The convulsions came back, even stronger now. Harsher. My head felt like it was about to split down to the skull.

No more air in my lungs, but I yelled at the top of them.

The figure took a step closer, but I was done being here.

Still yelling, I took my knife, and plunged into my side. My hip, where I had been shot.

I started digging.

I poked around the wound, hitting flesh, blood, and bone. I flicked the blade out, and all three splattered out. I stabbed myself again. The pain was almost too much to bear.

But I carried on.

I was an inch away from blacking out, but I hit something, softer than bone but harder than muscle, the blade was pushed away. The wound flared up with an even more intense heat, and I could feel the different parts of my hip move around. Flesh, blood, bone. I wasn’t in a good enough position to see it for myself, but something was happening, there.

Before it closed up, the wound spat out any and all foreign objects, and I could move both legs again.

I brought both legs in, and then I kicked.

I pressed myself off the floor, pushing my back more into the wall behind me. It gave way, snapping away from the other cubicle walls, and I fell along with it.

I had a way out, though, the ability to make distance. I flipped onto my stomach, and rushed to my feet.

Eyes wet, I tried blinking, but it made everything worse. Dark, blurry. I hurried away from the figure, but I was stumbling, knees weak.

I was frantic.

“Get away from me! Get out of my head!”

I bumped into a wall. A real wall or the side of a cubicle, I wasn’t sure. I couldn’t see very well, and I was screaming to get my head in order, and to keep moving. Trying to find sense in the nonsensical.

I was wholly concentrated on the concept of forward.

“I am V! I am holdfast and set in stone! And on this blank slate I swear I will carve out my own name! I will prove myself, and I will take what’s mine!”

My words carried an edge to them, sharp at the ends. I screamed my throat raw.

“You had your chance, and you failed! Now it’s my turn, and I will accomplish what you could not, and then some!”

I heard a group rush onto the floor from two different ends, their shouts joining my own. I made haste, but I had to bring my shoulder against a wall, using it to guide me forward.

I didn’t turn back, couldn’t waste the time and energy. Too slow. They were there, and the figure was there, too.

“This body is mine, this mind is mine! I am in control, I wear the crown! Just try and take it from me!”

I had to keep screaming, or else I’d lose my sense of purpose and direction. Risk be damned.

I heard the bullets fly, and I ducked my head on instinct. Leaning on the wall, I started running.

“I reject your memories, and I reject your connections! I refuse to let them tie me down! I am not Alexis Barnett!”

The ends of my statements were drowned out by the bullets storming the room. I was running to the other side of the space, another wall, lined with windows. The bullets soared overhead, and one broke a pane of glass ahead of me. I threw my shoulder into the opening, into the jagged edges.

Glass rained as pieces around me as I fell.

Two, three, how many stories it was, I slammed into pavement, and hard.

But, the crash did help in reorienting me, somewhat. More bones broke in some places, and definite bruises, but the healing now worked to get myself centered and present. Aware. I was coming to.

The ringing in my ears subsided as I worked myself to my feet.

A sign, V, gimme a sign you’re here.

A voice came through the haze of my mind, helping me get back on track to what was happening right now. Helping me focus.

The earpiece. I still had it on.

“D,” I said, clearer than I had anticipated. I expected something more rough.

There you are. You scared me, thought I lost you for a second.

“I’m here,” I said, looking around. “I’m mostly here.”

Good, because I need you. Where are you right now?

“Right now?”

I checked around.

I was in an alley by the side of the building. Long, but I could see what was going on at both ends.

Red lights flashed at a consistent pattern, some blue appearing at regular intervals. Ambulances and cop cars. Gunfire still rang out, but it was contained in the building I had just jumped out of. Through the window.

I’ve been doing that a lot, lately.

I tested my thoughts, and they were my own. Checking again, I didn’t see the figure. It wasn’t here.

But that did not mean it would stay like that.

“I’m in an alley, right outside the FSM base. F…”

F-Six,” D offered.

“Yeah.”

Are you hurt, can you move?

Did that concern come from a genuine place, or did she want to see this plan through?

“Got shot at, got hit, but I’m fine now. I can move.”

Ah right, you’ve got that going for you.

Palms flat on the ground, I brought myself up, getting on my feet once again. More shouting, from both ends of the alley.

Police. Must have heard when I crashed through the window.

Surrounded again.

I scanned up and down the alley, and bolted one way.

It forced me to run towards one group of cops, but the alley branched off in another direction. I made a hard left.

A chain-link fence. Almost three times my height.

I leapt over it, pressing my foot against the side of a building for more leverage, my hands on the top of the fence to smooth the process along.

I didn’t lose any speed as I touched ground.

“I’m on the move again,” I said. Even though I was making a break for it, I got the words out. Clear.

Wish I could say the same for myself. Traffic’s got super crazy, everything’s backed up. Still at F-Four. You mentioned being mostly here, you know where we’re headed, right?

Running, staying on the move, it helped make my mind run, too.

The plan. The fires. The Ghosts. D. Lawrence. Benny. E-One.

“E-One, where Lawrence said he had Benny.”

Bingo.

“Do we know any more than that?”

Sadly, no. Lawrence isn’t responding.

That was a problem, and a lack of communication made this all the more suspect. Were we being led to a trap?

What, exactly, was waiting for us, back at E-One?

The alley branched off again, and I took the turn. The fence was enough to hold off my pursuers, buying me time. I was farther away from the FSM base, too, which meant less in the way of obstacles.

I ran faster.

“What do you think?” I asked. “Any ideas?”

Um, if Benny’s back at E-One, then the restaurant would be my first guess. Casa Martinez.

The Ghost’s base.

“I should have just stayed back if I knew she’d show up there,” I said.

Hindsight’s silly like that. At least we have a lead on Benny, now. We just need to get over there.

“Should we meet up?” I asked, thinking up other ideas, plans.

Nah,” D said. “We can communicate just as well, being separated. Chances are, you’ll get there faster than I will. Let’s meet at the restaurant.

“I was thinking the same thing. I’ll try to find one of Lawrence’s crew, maybe I can get some info from them.”

Yeah, I like that. I bet you’ll still beat me there.

“It’s a start. Okay, see you-”

I stopped.

I saw it, at the end of the alley.

I ran the other way.

Yeah, nope.

I found a fire escape I had passed earlier, and jumped to reach it. The first rung of the ladder was about ten feet high. I made it to the first level of the stairwell.

A squad of police appeared around the corner, running into this alley. Another group of them?

I ran up the stairwell, twisting and turning, higher and higher. Those cops probably had a visual on me, but I was already putting more distance between us.

They might have seen me, but they wouldn’t know it was me. The Bluemoon. I wasn’t dressed right, and aside from getting over the fence and reaching the stairwell, I wasn’t being obvious with my powers. From their perspective, it could be explained with some decent parkour.

What I was more worried about was that thing. The figure.

I was fine until it blocked my way.

I made it to the top of the stairwell, then, to the roof of the building. The last remaining wisps of smoke rose from three rooftops over. Still in F-Six. The border to E-Six was right there.

A single helicopter floated in place, high above the FSM building. Its attention was there, it wouldn’t notice me unless I made myself known.

Seeing the smoke as my marker, I knew which direction to go, how to get back to E-One. A straight line.

You have to stop doing that.

D was talking into my ear the whole time.

I stepped forward, getting ready to run some more.

“Sorry, I, I got distracted. Had to go another way.”

Stop getting distracted, then. I get thrown out of the loop when that happens. Hate that.

“I promise I’m here.”

Through my earpiece, I picked up the smallest of hums.

You better.

If this was a race, and E-One the finish line, I used D’s words as my mark to start. I sprinted to the edge of the building, and leapt across the street.

I wasn’t the only one soaring through the air.

I was being followed.

Being airborne, I had caught but a glimpse of the street beneath me. The activity was dying down, now being contained by the cops and other forces. People were tending those who were downed and managed to get back up, and others were gathering the ones who weren’t ever going to get back up again.

People were dead, down there. All due to a plan I had enacted. If there was any consolation to be found, it would be in the success of this mission.

But, in one corner of my vision, a blue figure moved to intercept me. As soon as my feet found a solid surface to cover, I dashed ahead. On the grid, I was going down the E column, there wasn’t a damn thing that had the power to stop me.

I was running across another rooftop, but the figure blocked my way, on the other side. I didn’t slow, stop, hesitate, or falter in any way.

“Move,” I said, “You are not getting another warning.”

The figure twitched, then bent its long limbs. It jumped, arms outstretched, reaching for me.

I sped up.

It would have hit me, brought me down to my knees, and I’d have another episode, one I’d might not make it back from. It didn’t hit me.

Hleuco swooped from up above, grabbing the figure by his talons. A hard push with his wings, and he flew to the clouds.

Clearer in mind, I was allowed a safe passage forward. I continued.

I knew they were visions, phantoms born from stress and trauma, but that didn’t make them any less real. They gave as much as they threatened to take away. Between it all, it was a struggle to find a balance.

I knew now, though, what would have to be broken away. Sectioned off.

I came to the end of a roof, and a street. Something down there grabbed my attention. Something real.

Two cars were stopped at a light, even though it was green. Both cars had their driver and passenger side doors opened.

People were huddled at the back, away from the cars. From here, I counted six total. Two of them were on the ground, being beaten by the other four.

Of the two cars, I recognized the farthest one.

It was the one that was being loaded up at the front of the restaurant. The people being beaten, they were Ghosts.

I dropped from the roof, getting on the sidewalk. Didn’t take many steps to make it to the car.

I wasn’t exactly concentrating on making this clean, just fast. One flew forward, slamming into the trunk of the car. One hit the curb, a mouthful of concrete. They dropped wooden bats as they were incapacitated.

No bullshit, no dancing around. I needed progress.

Two down, before anyone could really take notice.

The remaining two finally did, though, but I saw it in their eyes. Fear. They knew better than to stick around. To even try.

They fled.

I didn’t even have to use my knife.

However, I wasn’t here to loiter. I went to the least injured of the two, a man, and moved him on his back. I lifted his head, keeping him elevated.

He groaned.

Blood ran from his left ear to his chin. His eyes swollen shut. His lower lip was split at a corner, more blood flowing out. Anything resembling humanity had been beaten out of him.

If he was the least injured of the two, it said a lot about the other guy.

“Jonathan,” I said, surprised I could even recognize him in this state. “Nod if you can hear me.”

He nodded.

“Nod if you can talk.”

He didn’t nod.

“Who did this?” I asked. “FSM?”

He nodded.

“Alright, you don’t have to worry about them anymore,” I said. “But I need your help. I just heard from Lawrence that Benny’s back at E-One, maybe even at Casa Martinez. Do you happen to know anything about that?”

He didn’t move.

I asked him again. “Jonathan, you have to stay alert. This helps you as much as it helps me. Do you know-”

He started shaking his head.

“-anything regarding Lawrence and Benny,” I finished. He kept shaking his head, but more languid, now.

Nothing. Even he didn’t have a clue. No use.

The light up ahead changed from red to green, and the rumblings of an engine approached.

To my side, a motorcycle came to a stop. I looked at the rider.

Not a cop. The design of the bike, the uniform, it didn’t fit.

White, long brown hair tied back. Large, muscular frame, barely held back by the black leather jacket he was wearing. On his neck was a tattoo of a skull breathing fire. It even got over his Adam’s apple.

Like his jacket, the bike was black, too. I had little to no knowledge about cars and motorcycles and the like, but it looked more modified than anything I was familiar with. Its tailpipe was bellowing out exhaust, the metal of its engine was exposed, winding around the frame of the bike, heavy but thrumming with power. Life. It looked more alive than anything mechanical. Bestial.

I had a feeling I knew who the rider of this monster answered to.

“Are you going to stop me?” I asked the ferryman. “Is he?”

The ferryman smiled. It freaked me out.

He raised a hand, a finger pointing at me. Almost accusatory. With his index finger out, his lifted his hand again, along with the middle finger.

He gave me the victory symbol.

“Peace,” he said, as though he was correcting me. He was still smiling.

Interesting. I saw it as victory. I still did.

I wasn’t certain if this was another fight, but the ferryman answered that question for me. Never dropping that wide smile, he put both hands on the handlebars of his bike.

He drove away.

He and the growling of the bike’s engine faded into the distance, and I lost sight of him as he got around a corner.

That… was an odd encounter. I couldn’t make heads or tails of what that was supposed to mean, if there was any meaning at all.

I had other priorities, though. Lawrence and Benny.

The other Ghost stirred, sitting up, head in their hands. He was moving of his own power. Seemed like I was wrong about who was in better shape.

“You,” I said, “Take care of Jonathan.”

He glanced my way, and gave me a weak nod. Moving him slowly, I handed Jonathan over to his fellow Ghost.

I jumped back up to my feet.

“Hey D,” I said into the earpiece. I was already walking.

Wassup.

“Still stuck?”

I want to say I’m not, but it’s gonna be another while.

I caught her up. “I found Jonathan, he’s in a rough shape, no thanks to the FSM. He’s safe now, but he doesn’t know anything about E-One. I’m not liking the sound of anything of this, so I might just go on ahead.”

I’m cool with that. I’ll be right behind you.

“And,” I started.

“Yeah?”

I considered bringing up the ferryman, how he saw me, maybe even recognized me, but I decided not to bring it up. It wasn’t irrelevant, but it didn’t directly pertain to this matter, and it would only slow us down if I brought it up now.

And, that vibe he gave off… It wasn’t one that made me fear that all was lost.

She knew that feeling, all too well, and she was usually right about it.

By proxy, I knew that feeling, too.

“Never mind,” I said. “I’m heading back.”

My legs carrying me far, I was back on the roofs, an eye out for any other helicopters.

Anticipation, worry. I was filled to the brim with both feelings. If Lawrence was telling the truth, I was about to see Benny again. But there was also the chance that I was being led into danger, and everything I had worked so hard for might fall like dust between my fingers.

Casa Martinez. The building loomed from across the street. It wasn’t even that tall, made up of only the restaurant and a few office levels, but the feeling was palpable. Anticipation, worry.

The majority of the action that consumed East Stephenville was taking place in the middle of the ‘grid,’ with less people and activity the farther away I got. It even reached the point that I could walk the last two blocks with little trouble. I passed the occasional person, but my head was down, my hood was up, and my mask looked too much like an actual face in the gloom that no one would give me a second glance.

And here it was. The Ghost’s base. She had to be in there.

She’d better.

No one was outside, around the building, gang members or civilians or otherwise. No one to clue me in on what the situation was inside.

No hooded figure, and no Hleuco. Just me.

Even with no one around, I still looked both ways when I crossed the street.

“Going in,” I told D. “Taking the front door approach. Whatever goes down, I’ll try to manage until you get here. You have insurance?”

It’s all here. Hopefully it won’t come to that, and you can handle this without me. Still, I’m… almost there. Don’t have too much fun without me!

“Can’t say I will,” I said. I tested the front door to the restaurant, and found it unlocked. Even though the cardboard sign attached to the door said ‘closed,’ even though the whole building was dark.

I drew a long inhale as the door opened, and I drew out a long exhale as the door closed behind me.

Empty in here, too. Wooden chairs were put up on the tables, another signal that the establishment was done for the night. It was a Mexican restaurant, so the walls were a deep red, with green Christmas lights affixed around ornate plates, placed on the walls for display. In the middle of the area was a fountain, completely dry, and made of plaster.

I walked past the tables and chairs, and went to the kitchen. Light crept from the sliver of an opening.

I stepped through the door.

I blinked, having not been in a well-lit room since early evening. It was well past midnight, now.

Here they are.

This was where everyone had gathered.

Not many Ghosts, not many potential allies. Though, I wasn’t counting on them to have my back. We were only working together because of circumstance and convenience.

The rest were all new faces. Actually, no, that wasn’t true, I remembered some of them as I walked more into the kitchen. I couldn’t place any names, but I’d definitely seen them before.

They were part of Benny’s crew.

I arrived at the table at the far back of the kitchen, where we had our meetings, and where we hashed out this plan. My heart raced.

Benny.

She was sitting at the end of the table, facing me. For someone supposed to be in hiding, she looked ready for a night out on the town. Hair neatly tied, makeup on, bright red lipstick. She had on a gold blazer with a white dress shirt under that. The table prevented me from seeing what she wore at the waist and below.

Shame. I wanted to get a good look at her. Take her image in full. Savor it, before I tore it down.

I swallowed.

Standing behind her, to her right, was a man in suit. Tall, he looked strong. If I didn’t have powers, I would never think of messing with him.

Standing behind her, to her left, was Lawrence.

That basically confirmed my suspicions.

All eyes were on me. Benny and her crew had let me walk in, seemingly unsure of who I was. It wouldn’t take long before they’d find out, and it would all go to shit from there.

Everyone was armed.

“Lawrence,” I said. I had to pace out my words, to not let my swirl of emotions show. It was hard. “I came by for an explanation.”

“And you’ll get one, soon enough,” he said. He gestured to Benny. Her back was straight, she was prim and proper. “I believe you two have met?”

“Not formally, no, but that mask is big red flag. Lawrence, what is this?”

Her words were careful, unsure of this development of me being here. The man in the suit caught on, too, his shoulders becoming more square. Tense.

Oh.

“It’s your end, Benny. I’m not sorry, but this was over the moment you walked in.”

I had to stifle a laugh. She had no idea about any of this. She played herself.

Sorry, D. Looks like we’re having fun without you.

Benny’s face turned sour. She brought her hands together, resting on the table.

“You’re throwing away a good thing, Lawrence, by doing this. It’s a good deal.”

I was impressed that she still sounded measured, given this turn of events.

“What deal?” I asked. “Still looking for context, here.”

“Right,” Lawrence said. “I came back here to stock up on supplies, and I found them all here. Benny caught on pretty quick, that the Ghosts were involved, and she showed up to make a deal.”

“Wearing different colors isn’t enough to hide you,” Benny said, with a more vacant look to her eyes now. “I know your faces.”

Lawrence continued, ignoring Benny, ignoring her crew that had us outnumbered. “The deal was, if I assure her a safe passage across the border, she’d give me a position with the cartel she works with. La Rueda.”

“And what happens to the rest of the Ghosts?” I asked, keeping an eye on Benny and her surrounding crew. Having flipped the script on her was amusing in a cathartic way, but tensions were boiling here, and it wouldn’t take much for things to explode.

“I can pick who comes with me, and the rest fend for themselves. I get to work with a real boss, and I’m free from all the shit that’s keeping me down in this city. A fresh start, and a seat at a table.”

“A seat at the kitchen table,” I repeated. Partially repeated. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be the table in Stephenville.”

“Correct, it’s a more lucrative market there, too. But…”

Then, Lawrence pulled a gun from his jacket, and pointed it to Benny.

“You can take your fuckin’ deal and burn.”

Everyone jumped out of their skin. Even me.

Guns everywhere, pointed mostly to Lawrence and me. The man in the suit had his trained on Lawrence. I knew there were some behind me that I couldn’t see.

We were outnumbered, and we were outgunned. If one of us even coughed in a way that offended Benny, we were done for.

“Now you know where I stand,” Lawrence said, unwavering. “V, my apologies for not giving you a better heads up. Didn’t have a lot of time to myself when I encountered her.”

He tilted his head one way, showing that he didn’t have his earpiece. Only I knew what to look for in that gesture, what he meant.

“Apologies accepted,” I said, slowly. I tilted my head as well, trying to imbue my own meaning into it, hoping he’d pick it up.

That Benny was mine, and it was part of our deal.

He didn’t move, simply keeping his gun straight.

Benny, for her part, was letting a deep rage boil beneath her skin. She remained composed, though, her fingers still intertwined.

Why…” she whispered, but we heard her. Her head was lowered, eyes staring into the table, as if they burn holes into the surface.

“I learned it from you, señorita,” Lawrence said. “You don’t abandon family.”

“Lawrence, Lawrence, have you forgotten that I was included in that, too?”

Was,” he said, firm. “Was.”

Benny tried to smile, but it didn’t hold. “How unfair. Not fair. You want me dead, is that right? After everything I’ve done for you? After… after everything I gave you?”

“You left us first, Benny, now the table’s turned.” Lawrence said. “It’s just how it works.”

She slammed her hands down onto the table.

“I didn’t have a choice!”

She screamed, but I caught a bit of legitimate sadness, in Benny’s tone.

“Benny,” I said, and she looked at me. Skin pale, her makeup was starting to run, crumbling at the corners of her eyes. “In terms of numbers, you may have us beat in here, in the kitchen, but out there? It’s another story. The Ghosts have you guys swarmed, and if you try anything, everyone’s going to come knocking. You don’t want that.”

“Ah,” Benny said, her eyes wider. Her crumbling makeup turned to streaks. “It’s you, the source of all my misery. The Bluemoon, Blank Face, or V, according to Lawrence. How have you been? I tried visiting you, did you get my message?”

Did she not hear me? Or was she already losing it?

“I did get your message,” I answered. “I’m here to return the favor. There’s really only one way this could go. If I’m the source of all your misery, then I’m here to put you out of it.”

I added, “Come quietly, and no one from your crew has to die.”

It started small, growing, then became raucous. Laughter. Throughout the kitchen, Benny’s crew roared in laughter.

“What empty threat is that?” Benny said, in between laughing fits. She was starting to sound wild, unhinged. “You have no leg to stand on here! I have at least two guns on each of you pathetic Ghosts. You think I’m just going to walk out of here with you, to my death?”

“Yes,” I said, completely serious.

The laughter grew again.

Benny was practically screeching now. “I let you walk in here, I’m letting you stand there and live! I didn’t get you at the school, but I have you, now. Congratulations, Lawrence, you brought her to me and exposed yourself as the traitor you are. How do you think the other gangs will feel about you aligning yourself with a superhero?”

“They won’t know,” Lawrence responded, cool. “Wasn’t part of the plan.”

“Was this part of your grand plan? What did you expect to have happen, inviting her and having her waltz in here? How do you see yourself getting out of this?”

Lawrence glanced my way, and shrugged. “Shot in the dark.”

Benny snarled a word in Spanish. I figured that was it, and the bullets would just go

But everyone stayed in place. The tension bubbling.

Benny was in control, her crew at her beck and call, but she was slipping, mentally. Was she too occupied with talking to us to realize that she could kill us with a single word?

A small voice. Not in my head, but my ear. I ignored it.

Lawrence was still looking at me. “Can’t do everything myself. I was hoping for something crazy. Insane?”

I spread my arms, and more guns cocked from behind.

“Crazy and insane,” I said. “I think I have something worth serving up.”

“Don’t try me,” Benny tested.

That small voice filled my earpiece again.

I’m working on it! Jeez, just one more, ugh, screw this!

My hoodie was over my head. Benny didn’t know about the earpiece, that I was trying to keep a certain someone updated.

A certain crazy and insane little girl.

There!

There was a hissing, coming from above, but I couldn’t exactly place it. Prolonged.

The others started to notice, asking each other about it. Benny took a glance up, too.

Grab cover! Get away from the side door!

The side door. There was only one, about five feet away. In the middle of the wall closest to me.

The hiss started getting louder and louder, and it was clear that it was about to reach a crescendo. Everyone was on their heels.

Lawrence looked at me, and I nodded. With my hands raised, I signaled towards Benny. We both moved before anyone had the sense that they should be moving, too. Grabbing cover.

Hindsight’s silly like that.

The side door swung open.

Bang!” I heard, from both the earpiece and from right outside the door.

And then everything went to hell.

Previous                                                                                               Next

054 – Peek-A-Boo

Previous                                                                                               Next

East Stephenville was in flames. Not swallowed, but simply licked. The city wouldn’t, couldn’t, burn to the ground.

It was a controlled fire, as much as fire could really be controlled. The extent of the damage would be contained, D assured me, but we were still playing with fire. Anything could happen.

We couldn’t burn ourselves, in the midst of this.

I double-checked the street below, watching for any onlookers looking up. Some were around, having stepped outside after hearing and feeling the initial impacts. Standing on the sidewalk, others venturing out onto the street for a better view. Even cars had stopped to take a look for themselves. People were pointing, noticing the smoke.

I backed away from the edge.

Not over the street, then. Around.

I broke into a run, crossing over alleyways, keeping an eye on the fire and the smoke. Hleuco took flight, going ahead of me.

“Anything yet?” I asked, while in the air, going from one rooftop to the next.

D answered as soon as I landed. “Negatory. But wow, are you seeing this? This is insane!

This was your idea. What does that say about you?

A new voice cut in. Lawrence.

It says that I can come up with freaking awesome ideas!

You’re going to get us all killed!

I cut in. “It’s too late for that, Lawrence. We’re in this now, and we’re seeing this through to the end. No one’s going to die.”

If we can help it.

I kept on running, looking back from the smoke to the street, trying to find an opening where there weren’t clusters of people with their eyes to the sky.

I hopped over a wider gap between buildings.

“If it’s negatory,” I said, soaring, “I’ll do the initial rounds. Going clockwise, starting with C-Three.  Update me if anything else comes up.”

Alright,” Lawrence responded.

Okie dokie!

I didn’t break my stride as the discussion ended, running and looking for my chance to move over to the next street.

I found it at an intersection, little in the way of cars and people. I took a cursory glance down the street, then made my move to cross it.

I threw more strength into my legs than I would normally use for a distance like this, trying to make my path more straight than arced. Air rushed past my ears, my hood flipping back when I landed onto the next roof.

Flipping my hood back in place, I kept my momentum going.

It wasn’t exact, or perfect, but East Stephenville could be seen as a grid from a bird’s eye view, with the blocks being their own squares, and the streets being the lines that divided them. We used the Ghost’s base of operations as our point of reference. E-One.

Using that system, to get to C-Three, I still had to go one square up, and two squares left. I was on E-Two, now.

Or, just move two spots diagonally.

Exactly.

That was what it meant to have the least limitations. Power. Freedom.

Oh, it felt good, being a queen.

I adjusted my path, moving from one corner of the roof to the other. I jumped, going over not the alleyways, but the streets. Going diagonally, making my path shorter. Cars and pedestrians would have to take the long way around, which was one reason why I didn’t go with Lawrence or D.

I ran until the motions fell into the back of my focus, crossing roofs and streets without much thought. My legs were pumping, my breathing hard but steady. Freerunning across the city’s skyline was starting to be my form of jogging. If I didn’t have a destination in mind, I’d imagine I could go on forever.

My focus sharpened once I smelled the smoke, and saw it float up into the air.

I slowed myself, stopping at the ledge of a building, overlooking the alley. On the other side of the street, the smoke was at its thickest.

“I’m in C-Three,” I said, talking into the earpiece. “Checking things out myself.”

D was the first to reply. “Sweet. Still nothing here. Thinking of moving.

“If you want, but maybe give it another minute, just to be sure. The Ghosts should have things covered, anyways.”

Whatever you say boss!

“Lawrence, any updates?”

A pause, before he came on.

Nothing.

“Alright,” I said, but I couldn’t help but feel impatient. I was ready to get my hands on Benny, already. “I’ll give it about five minutes. If I don’t see anything here, or hear anything from you guys, I’m moving on.”

Stay safe!

There was another pause from Lawrence.

Yes, be careful.

I moved along, checking the alley below. No one. The drop was about five stories.

I hopped down.

The landing was hard, but I properly steeled myself. I hit the ground, dropping to a crouch to better absorb the impact. My legs rocked, but I was able to move in the next second. Had it been anyone else, they’d be crumpled in a pathetic heap.

Head down, hoodie up, I left the alley and pushed into the swarm of people.

So many people, everyone trying to piece together the situation for themselves. Asking questions, getting hardly meaningful answers. Only listening in, picking it up from here and there, made for a very general picture, the details muddled.

“Anyone know what’s going on? What’s happening?”

“Heard they closed off some streets already. They might close entire blocks if the fire spreads.”

“How bad is it? Does anyone know?”

“My cousin’s over at Lenard and Tenth, she says the whole damn street’s on fire.”

“Jesus Christ.”

I frowned. It wasn’t that bad. It shouldn’t be. I would have heard something if the situation had gotten out of hand.

We weren’t looking to burn down the whole forest, just root out a few bad weeds.

I pushed through the crowd, trying to get a look for myself. I was too small, too inconsequential, in the eyes of the people gathered. Though, in reality, it was quite the opposite.

“Has anyone been injured?” someone asked, right beside me.

“I see ambulances, but I haven’t seen anyone get taken away yet. Everyone’s been evacuating, though.”

“Is everyone out?”

“I don’t know.”

“How about the other fires? Are the people there okay?”

“I don’t know.”

I didn’t know, either, but if there was significant number, it’d reach my ears.

It was a drawback, throwing innocents into the thick of this, but there was no clean way to go about it. Ideally, there would be a way, but that would involve time we didn’t have, and personally, patience that I lacked. Benny would be gone for certain, if we sat down for days on end, hashing out a plan that caused the least amount of damage.

This was as close to a happy medium as we could get, in the time allowed. We did our best to contain the damage and the flames. We drew the line in the sand. If anyone were to cross, it would be of their own accord, their own fault.

I got through as much of the crowd as I could, and I watched the firefighters do their job.

The building was like one big chimney, smoke escaping from the top, out of broken windows and exposed parts of the interior. Flashes of red showed themselves, only to be drowned out by the streams of water, aimed by the firefighters. People were still being escorted out of the building, but the line was thinning, now.

This, right here, was the heart of the plan.

D had been busy all day, and it involved a lot of legwork. Lawrence had given her list of the neighboring gangs and their bases, possible spots where Benny might be hiding. She… found things along the way. Things that allowed this plan to be.

Weapons. Ammunitions. Bombs. Things that could incinerate.

Not the standard toys.

The bases she found them in were empty, hardly guarded, no one working within. The weapons were hidden in plain sight. Scattered across different locations in East Stephenville. She didn’t find everything, the amount totaled didn’t even match what was found in the Irving Street warehouse, but there was enough to do something with it.

This just had to be what D came up with.

She had tampered with the weapons, placing them in key points in the bases, where the damage would be minimal, but attract attention all the same. She had set them up so they all went off at once, at a press of a button.

Benny’s weapons, turned against her.

I watched as the smoke started to lessen, the fires losing out to the constant stream of water. There was more mist spreading into the air, the affected portions of building completely soaked. At this rate, the fires would be completely taken care of by the time I moved to another location. These firefighters worked fast.

My focus turned from the smoke to the people leaving the building, being checked out by paramedics, sitting by the ambulances. None of them were seemed to be in critical condition, though they were all drenched in sweat, some covered in dirt and ash.

I took note of the colors of their jackets, the designs of their arm bands. They were all belonging to the same gang.

Scared and suspicious of the sudden blasts, they’d be worried if they were being raided or attacked. They’d come to investigate, they’d come to check things out.

If Benny was in the city, she’d hide out in East Stephenville, where she knew the lay of the land. She’d want to be close to her weapons, as security or insurance.

If something were to happen to those weapons…

The fire rises, the smoke will bring out the damned.

Benny was here, she was around. She had to be.

She was around, but she wasn’t here.

If Benny was being protected by another gang, it wasn’t this one.

“I’m still at C-Three,” I said, murmuring into my earpiece. “Lawrence, any of your guys pick up anything?”

Time was of the essence, and I had to wait for my answer.

Nothing’s standing out. If she’s there, we’d see her, and you’d know.

“Damn. The more time passes, the harder this gets. There’s a bunch of people around, and it’s easy to slip between the cracks when everyone’s focusing on something else.”

I get that, but we haven’t seen nothing yet, give it a bit more time.

Yeah, we got this! Anywho, I’m at G-Four. I’m thinking of going counterclockwise, hitting the key points as I go. V, wanna meet up halfway?

“Sure, that would make it…” I started, referring to my mental map again.

About F-Six,” D ventured.

“Okay, and yes, let’s meet up. That way we can go with a change of plans if need be. Fine with me.”

Awesome. I’m moving now.

“I should probably get a move on, too,” I said. “Lawrence, if you or your crew-”

Heard it the first hundred times. I’ll give you any updates I get.

Updates. Asking for them. I was starting to sound like Hleuco, now.

We left the discussion there, each of us making our own moves. I turned away from the scene, going back through the crowd. I kept my head down, the edge of my hood nearly blocking my view forward.

As I went, I picked up more speculations from the people around.

“Who do you think did this? Sounds to me like it’s a concentrated effort, with this happening all over Eastside.”

“Could be a gang war, this city has been going to shit, lately.”

“Or maybe… You think it’s that Solace guy? Is he back?”

“How’d I know? I couldn’t tell you, man.”

I didn’t say or think up a retort. I just removed myself from the crowd, dipping back into the alley I came from. I was back on the roof in a heartbeat.

Going clockwise, the next stop would be over at D-Six. It was a longer distance to get there than it was to get here, but I’d manage. I had rested well enough, and I had the stamina.

The path involved a detour, though, I had to get over or past the burning building to continue, but everyone’s sights were glued in that direction. I worked around them by going farther down the length of the street than needed, covering my bases. I flew over the street, then hopped across the nearer buildings, righting myself, making my path more straight.

I hurried to the next square on the grid.

I knew this wasn’t going to be easy, but I was hoping that it would be fast. Chalk it up to naiveté, I supposed. I really wanted this to be over, for this to be done, because it’d mean that I finally got what I wanted, what I was looking for.

Benny.

Comparing baseline capabilities, I was so much more superior to her, yet she had a way of staying out of my grasp. It was almost a talent. From aligning with Solace, to the incident at the school, to right now, Benny always seemed around, but not present. And in my attempts to find her, it had taken me to strange places, meeting strange people. The broken down apartment and parking garage, D and Lawrence. These strange circumstances. There didn’t seem to be an end to them.

Taking an outside look at it all, from the spotty perspective I had of events before the school incident, to the crystal clear clarity I had of the past forty-eight hours, it seemed like the most wild of wild rabbit chases.

I wondered how deep this rabbit hole went. Where it would take me.

How far was I willing to go?

If you don’t have Benny, then you haven’t gone far enough.

I touched down on a roof, stumbling a bit. I pushed past some clotheslines as I regained my balance.

That… was one way to think about it.

I got through the barrier of clothes, and felt something rub at my eye. A loose strand or sleeve must have hit me in the eye.

An eyelid flickered.

I jumped, going through the air to continue on to D-Six. I could have sworn I saw a flash of blue in the corner of my vision as I moved.

When I landed again, I hastened my steps, my impatience getting the better of me.

I tried to not let my thoughts wander again, focusing on keeping one foot in front of the other, and then I arrived at D-Six, and the burning base within.

Flames escaped into the air, but they were mere sparks compared to what I’d seen earlier in the night. Here, the firefighters were winning out, leaving only sprays of water and gray exhaust blowing into the air.

The damage here was worse than the one back in C-Three, admittedly. The fire had spread through more of the building, eating through the upper floors. The holes in the bricks yawned wider, probably allowing for more smoke to get through when the fire was at its strongest.

There was a crowd that showed up here, too, but they were hanging back by a considerable amount. Police and other firefighters forced the crowd back even more.

In my head, I was berating D for letting it get this bad. But, to also be fair, there were a number of other factors that she might not have had time to account for. The age of the building, the internal structure, how well-maintained it was. It would have added up. The fault couldn’t completely fall on just her.

I checked over the people, and found that the building was already evacuated. I wasn’t going down there to check things out, this time, staying on the roof of the building facing the burning base. I kept low, crouching, to better obscuring myself from a wandering eye.

I checked, and checked again.

“Just made it to D-Six,” I said into the earpiece. “This is starting to get irritating.”

Yeah, I know it’s tough, but we just started.” It was from D. “Benny will pop up, eventually.”

Eventually. I didn’t have the patience for eventually. The wait was eating me up inside.

I couldn’t let this plan go up in smoke.

“Lawrence, please tell me you have something new. Give me something that’ll make me feel better.”

Time ticked away. The fire was all but extinguished by the time I heard back from Lawrence.

Wish I had that something, but I don’t. Not yet. Sorry, mija.

Damn it all.

I didn’t want my biggest fear of tonight to be realized. That we were wrong the entire time. That Benny had already fled the city, hiding out elsewhere, completely out of any of our grasps. That she was gone.

Damn it all.

I scanned over the crowd, again. As I worked, Hleuco dropped down to my right, perching over the ledge. He helped search, too, his beak pointing in the direction he was looking. Sometimes turning around.

Civilians, cops, firefighters, medics. Gang members. Just going onto a different block, square, the colors and branding changed. This was another gang’s base, but they fell into the same habits as the other. They rushed in to figure out what the hell was happening, and they rushed out when the fire proved to be too hot to handle.

Some of the members were being tended to by the medics, standing close to the ambulances. The majority of them didn’t need the attention, preferring to slip away, back into the shadows.

Benny was here, in those shadows, I just knew it.

My eyes turned elsewhere.

The crowd that came to watch the spectacle of it all were mostly civilians, unaware of the scheme in play that led them here. Among them, were some of Lawrence’s men. The Ghosts.

They had their own colors, black and white, if I remembered it right. I explicitly told them not to wear their colors, tonight. I needed eyes and ears on the ground, and if a bunch of members from a rival gang were found hanging around the several burning-down bases of their competition, it would only further fan the flames of an all-out gang war. We wanted confusion, not rage.

Their uniforms tonight weren’t going to be their standard fits. They had to dress normally.

They did a good job, too, blending into the crowd. I noticed Charlie at the edge of the mass of people, closest to the building. She was wearing a cream sweater, a beanie on her head. From a distance, there was nothing suspicious about her. She was just watching like everyone else.

Unlike everyone else, though, there was a specific thing that she was watching out for.

I exhaled, hard.

“Looks like I’m not getting any luck here,” I said, still watching below. “Fuck.”

D responded. “Can’t help it if it’s like this. Traffic’s getting tough now, too. Harder to move around, and I can’t get too close anymore. I don’t wanna get stopped by a cop and notice… me.

“Right, you don’t have to push it, that’s what the Ghosts are for.”

It was a cue in the discussion, a signal for Lawrence to offer something that would put my mind at ease.

He didn’t take.

“Fuck,” I said again, though mostly under my breath. I composed myself for the next part. “D, there’s nothing to report from you?”

Nope, uh, sorry. Only just got to H-Five now. I’ll take the time to check things out, but…

She quickly stopped herself at the end, there, hoping I wouldn’t hear. I heard.

“Alright, next up for me is F-Six. That isn’t too far. I’ll head there, and hope I’m lucky. If not, I’ll wait for you to come my way. We’ll figure out what to do from there.”

Roger roger.

“And Lawrence,” I said, “Keep doing whatever it is you’re doing.”

I hardly got a response. It was, at best, a vague vocalization.

Was there something going on at his end?

Had to press that later. Now, my attention was still on finding Benny.

Doing a last minute check, I looked over the crowd one more time. I caught the gaze of a child, looking back at me. Mouth open, finger pointed.

It was like a punch to the stomach.

I turned to go.

Hleuco was already in the air as I picked up the pace. The next base wasn’t as far, so I didn’t need to expend as much energy to get there. But it only made my apprehension even worse.

What if it was same there? Just nothing.

I might actually lose it.

Maybe… by the third time around, I’d strike gold. Charms, and all that.

If I wasn’t running, I would have bowled over laughing.

Jump, land. Run, jump again.

I felt sweat trickle down the back of my neck, tracing small hairs. The sleeves sticking to my skin. The tiny, but noticeable pressure in my chest as I ran.

All this running and jumping. I couldn’t let it get to the point where it became taxing.

The pressure was on.

I was steady already approaching F-Six, black and gray wisps about two rooftops away, but a loud crack brought me to a halt.

Another loud crack, and this time it was among screaming and cries. People.

I knew that sound all too well.

I ran.

I reached the nearest roof that overlooked the situation. By coincidence, it was also the base I was heading towards.

Judging from just the state of the roof, it hadn’t sustained as much damage as the other bases I checked out. But, I didn’t have a direct look at the building itself. Couldn’t say for sure.

Through the smoke, I peered down.

It was as bad as I feared.

Easy, separating the different groups here. The civilians, fleeing for dear life. The police, providing cover for those trying to get away.

The gang, spilling out of the front of the building, firing with little regard.

“They’re here! Fuckin’ told you!”

“Where, which ones?”

“All of ‘em, fuck! Everyone else, load up and bring the vans around. They want hell? We’re friggin’ bringing it.”

The gang members were yelling over their own gunfire, fingers glued down on their triggers. People were dropping left and right, blood pooling from their bodies.

No, no.

The police weren’t able to fire back just as hard, they didn’t know to pack the same kind of heat, but they had the blessing of cover, staying back behind their cars, periodically popping up to get a shot in. They were generally hitting their mark. They were trained, after all.

How was this happening?

Did someone catch on? Somehow connecting the arbitrary dots?

I need answers.

“D!” I called. I was yelling.

I just heard, what’s the visual?

“A gang is shooting at everyone here. Who are they? Are we fucked?”

Where are you again?

“F, F-Six.”

F-Six, F… shoot.

Didn’t like the sound of that.

“You better explain.”

That base is owned by the FSM, another small cartel branch. They’ve been having some disputes with some other groups in Eastside.

“Which gangs? Like the Ghosts?”

Don’t think so.

People were still falling, dropping like flies. Gang members and police and innocents alike.

“You better know for sure, D.”

I do. In the slim chance they did have some beef, maybe they recognized some of the Ghosts, even when they weren’t dressed the part? I dunno. But either way, they were a gang that had severe case of the itchy trigger finger. Something was bound to go down between them and whoever just pissed them off.

Like us.

“And we just poked the wrong beehive,” I said.

I… This was a calculated risk, you know, and we’re on a time limit. We had to bite the bullet and cover our bases, all the bases.

I whispered. “We miscalculated, and now they’re the ones biting the bullets.”

D didn’t respond. She didn’t hear me.

Something inside me kicked. Weak, but there.

“We can’t let this continue,” I said. “Lawrence!”

Absolutely nothing.

What the fuck was the hold up?

“D,” I said.

V?

“F-Six is compromised. We’ll have to find some other place to rendezvous. You’ll have to give me some time, gotta clean up here.”

I brought my foot over-

Hey! Wait!

I brought my foot back.

What?” I asked, stressing the word.

I get that you have the hero background and everything, but if you go down there, we lose whatever edge we still have. You even said you’re putting that behind, now, just leave it to the people who are supposed to handle this kind of thing.

I balled up my fists, my heart skipping a beat every time I saw someone hit the ground. Every time a gun was fired. The police were winning out against the FSM, but it’d take a while for a full suppression. Should I go down there, it’d be over a lot faster.

But that’s not what you’re here to do.

Hesitant, I drew back, falling into the cover of smoke. Doing so was harder than I expected.

I looked at the skyline, trying to figure out where to head next. My eyes widened.

I ran from the ledge, making an escape.

“D!” I yelled.

What, what?

I only had enough focus to yell out a single word.

“Helicopters!”

Where? Did they see you?

Didn’t have time to turn around. Didn’t have time to check.

There was a roof access door. I ran towards it, slipping inside. Into the building.

I slowed myself as I entered into a hallway. It was hot in here, like I had just stepped into a sauna. Embers traced the corners of the hall, where the floor met the wall. Doors were singed.

The lights were all off, but I could see just fine. It looked like an office building.

I moved through the rest of the floor. Definitely an office space, with computers and cubicles. If a gang used this place as a base, the office look was probably a front. The pistols sitting beside some keyboards and laptops broke the illusion.

“I don’t think they saw me,” I said, catching D up to speed. “I saw them in the distance though, quickly closing in. If I had stayed up there, I would have been seen for sure.”

I just saw one, too, it passed overhead, just now. That sucks.

“Can’t really use the rooftops, anymore. Not if I want to be picked out from the air.”

It was good while it lasted. You’ll have to find another way to get around. Do you know how to ride a motorcycle?

Motorcycle?

“I don’t,” I said.

Ah man, I’ve gotta teach you sometime!

“Not our priority right now, D.”

Alright, yeah. Well, any ideas on what to do next?

I found the stairs, taking them down. I was hurrying, but I tried not to make my footsteps too loud, in case anyone was still in here.

I managed to go down by two floors before I was stopped. Parts of the ceiling had fallen in, blocking my way. I couldn’t even get to the door. I had to go back up one floor, and went through the door there, leaving the stairs.

Another office space, but I wasn’t alone.

Four gang members, stocking up on various weapons. They were talking amongst themselves, but I couldn’t catch it.

Their heads were turning, having heard me open the door.

I was faster than they were, ducking as soon as I saw them, my back up to a cubicle wall.

More and more complications.

I brought my voice to a whisper.

“D, can you hear me?”

Yeah, you’re a little quiet, though.

“I’m trying to go down through the FSM base, but not everyone’s left the building. Have to get around them somehow.”

I started moving, sneaking around the corner. I heard their footsteps. They were coming to check out why the door had suddenly opened. It was dark in here, too, but there was enough ambient light for them to still move around easily.

“As for you,” I whispered, “Where are you right now?”

At the edge of F-Four.

“That’s pretty close. Find a good spot there to hide, and I’ll meet up with you there. And find out what the fuck is going on with Lawrence. He hasn’t been answering.”

On it. See you in a little, V.

That was it for now. The plan had changed, but the goal was still salvageable. I hoped. Maybe it was that naiveté in me, again.

Which left me with these guys. The FSM.

I crouched-walked, keeping low, with an ear out to every little sound. Their footsteps, whenever they asked each other something. The relative silence was regularly broken by the sounds of gunfire, somewhat muted by the brick walls.

Based on what I could hear, the group of four had split up, the remaining two staying in the middle of the space.

I got to a break in the cubicle walls, an aisle in the middle of the room. The line of cubicles continued on the other side, about five feet away.

I peeked around the corner.

There they were, two of the FSM members, looking in the direction of the doors and stairs.

“See anything?” one of them asked.

The answer was farther off, by the door.

“Nah, swore I saw it open.”

“It did open, we heard it open.”

“I mean, I ain’t seeing nothing.”

As they debated, I dashed to the next set of cubicles, and continued on my way. Under other circumstances, I would have engaged them, stopped them before they could go outside and hurt anyone else. But I was in hurry, and fighting them now would be like sticking my face into beehive once I had already poked it.

No thanks.

I managed to avoid being detected, and I slipped by with a problem. I found another set of stairs at the other end of the floor. I made sure to open the door slowly, this time around.

But I couldn’t go down a floor without running to more trouble.

Coming up the stairs, they ran right into me. A pair of guys. They immediately recognized me as a foreign element, drawing their guns.

I drew my knife in response.

I smacked the first guy’s hand, stopping him from lifting his gun any higher. I stabbed with my other hand, my blade finding its way into the flesh right underneath his collarbone.

He opened his mouth to howl in pain, but I kicked him square in the chest, sending him flying down, and into his companion. They both tumbled down the stairs.

I followed them, taking the stairs two and three steps at a time. I stopped at the crumpled heap of bodies.

I sorted through them, laying out their arms and legs. I stabbed at each limb. Eight in total. I kicked again, in the back and chest, to knock the remaining wind out of them.

I was already engaged with these unlucky souls, better to take them out of the fight now, so they wouldn’t do anything worse, later.

Satisfied, I left them behind, winding down the steps. Nothing else impeded my way down this flight of stairs.

V,” I heard in my ear.

It was him.

“Lawrence, where the fuck have you been? We’re kind of in a bind now.”

I understand that, but I have something you might want to hear.

I was taking the stairs to the first floor, but the cracks of gunfire were seemingly getting louder, closer. I broke through the next door instead. I had lost track of what floor this was.

“And that is?” I said, running down a hall. It was cool, in here. The lights were shot, but I could see. The ambient light was much stronger.

I had a feeling as to why.

I have a hold on Benny.

I very nearly stopped, but my forward momentum was too much, and I almost tripped. I threw my foot out ahead of me to keep going.

“You have Benny?” I questioned.

Where?” That was from D.

There was a pause.

E-One.

E-One?

“What the hell is she doing back there?” I asked.

I heard the beginnings of an answer, but a bullet grazed my head. I collapsed, hard.

A harsh light burst into my eyes. I pulled back, arms in front of my face.

Ear ringing, my head felt like it was splitting open. Loud sounds seized control from my body, and I was shaken. I felt as if I was brought back to that classroom.

It took longer than it should, regaining my sense of my surroundings.

It dawned on me, why the hall was so cool, why there was so much light pouring in.

The initial impacts that set the building ablaze tore out chunks of the wall on either side, and on the floor right in front of me. This portion of the building was exposed to the outside.

Directly ahead of me were the FSM, guns pointed and ready.

Directly behind me were the police, backed by a SWAT team.

To my side, was the blinding light. I could hear where it was coming from.

The spotlight of a helicopter.

Then, a flicker in my eye.

On the other side, coming out from the shadow and lingering smoke, a figure steadily approached. Decked in blue.

My breath shortened.

I was exposed from every side. Surrounded.

Benny was at E-One, for reasons I wasn’t privy to. She was a straight line from here, but there wasn’t a move I could make that would let me leave in one piece.

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