076 – Burdened by Obligation

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I yawned, wanting to rub an eye, but I was too lazy to take off my glasses. Too much work.

One new thing I learned about myself. I wasn’t much of a morning person.

The early hour brought a certain chill. The sun wasn’t out yet, and while the months were getting closer to what was supposed to be spring, the weather could still dip below sixty when it wanted to. To someone else, that was probably laughable, but I had gotten used to the warmer temperatures that came with living in the South. Anything that dropped past a certain threshold was liable to make me shiver.

And with a certain static in the air, I shivered even more.

I zipped my jacket up higher, flipping the hood up.

It felt weird, wearing a hood while not in costume. It hadn’t occurred to me how much of a regular thing I turned… not regular. I had come to associate wearing something over my head, my face, with activities involving being V, the other me. Getting into a scrap, taking out people, putting on another identity. It put me on edge. Which would help, if I was actually in a scrap, but I wasn’t in any implicit danger. Not here, not now.

I walked between the different groups of people. There was space between the clusters, but there wasn’t any real order in the placement or space, so my path snaked around as I moved and observed. The people were all busy tending to themselves or their groups, not really paying any mind to me as I passed. Some gave me passing glances, but they didn’t last, and they went back to getting ready. All were sitting down, some had cut-up tarps to sit on, some only had the cold concrete.

The total count was one hundred and three. Men, women, children.

It felt weird.

Their faces were ones of… despair. Maybe with it being so early, my perception of things were exaggerated. I couldn’t exactly have coffee to perk me up. People looked tired, worn out, worn down, and despondent. There wasn’t any hope or glimmer of life in their eyes.

Again, it was probably because the sun wasn’t up yet.

One of them glanced, but it wasn’t in passing. I caught it.

A little girl, sitting on concrete. She looked to be about D’s age. She wasn’t with a group, and there was no one around looking after her. She was completely alone.

Well, not completely.

She had a teddy bear, which made me think of D again. It sat in her lap, her arms wrapped around it. She hugged it tight.

Her eyes stayed on me. A blank expression on her face.

It made me stop, staring back. Fighting my natural inclination to keep going and look away.

The girl didn’t, or wouldn’t, break her gaze. Did she want something?

Before I could think of any possibilities, the girl waved by moving the bear’s hand.

It was a cute little gesture. I caught myself waving back.

Darn.

I was trying to avoid this sort of thing.

Because what was left of these people’s lives were in my hands.

“Cargo?” I repeated.

Styx nodded. He smiled. Probably a cause for concern.

“What kind?” I asked.

Styx smiled wider.

“I’m still getting them together. Final count’s at the end of the week. You’ll know by then.”

He avoided answering directly.

Meaning he’s got something up his sleeve.

Definitely a cause for concern.

Styx lifted a finger, pointing upward.

“So, let me break it down for you, and set it straight. I’m preparing some cargo that’s to be sent across the border, to Mexico. Mexico City, to be exact, with some drop offs going as far south as Oaxaca.”

“You’re telling me we’re going to-”

“Did I fucking say you could talk!”

Styx bellowed. I shut my mouth.

He cleared his throat before starting again. It was a scratchy, rough sound.

“You’re going to be supervising the transport of that cargo, making certain it gets to the border in one piece, and in tact. If even one fucking thing ends up missing, I’ll fucking vomit in anger.”

That… was certainly one way to put it.

“And you don’t have to go down that far,” Styx said. “I’ve got a guy. Marco Montez. You’re going to meet him at the border.”

Styx spun his finger. The helmeted and long-haired Ferrymen moved, and moved fast. By the time Styx stabbed his finger onto the surface of the table, they had materialized a map, unfolded it, and placed it on the table to face us. His finger hit exactly where he meant it to. The border between us and Mexico. But it was more to the left, farther than I expected.

“He’ll take over things from there,” Styx said.

His finger moved again, sliding across the map. Over to where we were, right now. Stephenville.

Styx kept moving his finger back and forth between the two points. His nail started scraping and tearing a hole through the paper.

He continued, regardless.

“The trip will be taking you west. El Paso, to be exact. About seven hundred miles, or eight to ten hours, give or take. I suspect it’s going to take you longer than that, though, given that you’re not speeding off to a vacation. You’ll have to be deliberate, doing periodic stops, checking on everything, making sure the path ahead of you is clear and the path behind you isn’t being picked up on. Keeping the work of this in mind, I’ll give you twelve hours, thirteen hours tops. Take however long you need to get back.”

Styx took his finger off the map. He had torn a line between Stephenville and El Paso, and I could see the surface of the table underneath. A black line marked the path we’d have to take. The long journey we’d have to embark upon.

Just the sudden prospect of going on a road trip, it gave me pause.

I tried to gauge D and Lawrence’s reactions. D was hard to read, and Lawrence was harder still. But, to be fair to him, he was sort of preoccupied with that beatdown he gotten from Styx, earlier. I’d cut him some slack.

I would have tried to glean anything from Styx’s face, but it would be like trying to read a foreign language. I’d, more likely than not, be completely off base, and I’d most likely offend.

There was a slight opening in the conversation. If I was talking with anyone but Styx, I would have taken it.

“Now would be the time for questions,” Styx said.

Oh.

“What’s the cargo going to be transported in?”

Lawrence asked that question. I had ruled him out, but he managed to contribute something. I didn’t consider how much of a fighter he was.

“I got trucks for you to move the stuff with. Eighteen-wheelers. You probably only need one but I’m ordering at least two just in case. Standard dimensions, about forty feet in length, ten feet wide, and about twelve feet high. Doesn’t really matter, but I’m just giving you an idea of how big this thing really is.”

To illustrate, Styx got up from his seat, and set his hand on his crotch. I was about to avert my eyes before he moved his hand out, in front of him.

I realized he was making his point with a rude gesture.

“It’s really fucking big,” Styx said, spelling it out.

The gesture was unnecessary, but, in a sick and wrong way, it did give the job a sense of weight. This was serious, apparently. A long road trip to the border? And what were we transporting? Drugs, weapons? Some other kind of contraband? I couldn’t begin to guess what it could be, but with Styx telling us the dimensions of a standard trailer, it told me that there was going to be a lot of it.

Really fucking big.

“And drivers?” Lawrence asked, “It takes a different kind of license to drive one of those things. And it’s going to take time before any of us can get one.”

Dammit, I really needed to learn how to drive.

Styx pointed to the person sitting between us.

“She can drive one.”

He said it like it was so obvious.

“Are you-”

Lawrence tried, but he shook, going into a coughing fit, and every cough made him hurt more. D rubbed his shoulder as he attempted to settle back down.

“As Lawrence was trying to say,” I said, having found my opportunity to get a word in, “You’re asking for us to get pulled over if D gets behind the wheel of something so big. If that happens, we’re done for, and whatever you want us to supervise the transport of gets lost.”

“I know how to drive one,” D said.

I looked at her.

“I don’t doubt your ability to, but that’s still too much of a risk, and it’s really unneeded.”

Turning back to Styx, I said, “And I know you were probably kidding when you brought that up, but there’s no way any of us will be capable of driving across the state in an eighteen-wheeler, much less getting the license in time.”

“I know how to drive one,” D said again, which much more emphasis.

I didn’t look at her this time.

Styx looked disinterested, bummed out, as if he was expecting a certain reaction but didn’t quite get it out of us. As long as it wasn’t a lead up to more violence, because that violence would only find its way to one other person. I couldn’t get any lasting damage, and it didn’t seem like he would touch D.

Or… maybe he would, or did, but that was a can of worms I was trying not to open or even get close to.

I had to work this conversation in a way that didn’t lead to another beatdown on Lawrence.

“Then find drivers,” Styx said. “Or I’ll… fucking find someone, fuck, you were supposed to play along, there. D, I thought you had my back?”

“For your information, Styx, I’m sitting on this side of the table, this time. I’m not here to play with you.”

Styx made a face. Was I supposed to interpret that as being disappointed?

“Is that so?” he asked.

“It is.”

“Well then, I guess I really will be on my own from now on. How sad.”

His expression changed again. At this juncture, I couldn’t trust that any tell or sign from Styx was genuine. It all had to be a trick to keep us on our guard. Constantly putting us on our back foot.

Styx breathed, fixing his jacket.

“Any other questions?”

Lawrence spoke.

“Not questions, but concerns. I’m just failing to see why you’d want us to take on this job, even outside of it being one of your favors. Wouldn’t it be too much of a risk, sending us out on a job we don’t have any experience in? From the sounds of it, this cargo has to be a big deal, so trusting us with taking care of it seems like throwing caution to the wind. I don’t know, but this seems too heavy a responsibility for us to carry. Plus, isn’t this your forte, Styx? You do this sort of thing all the time, why put this particular job on us, now?”

It wasn’t surprising, that Lawrence would have reservations about the nature of this favor. They weren’t bad points to raise. And with this favor coming from Styx, it was even more cause for worry.

Styx put his hands on his hips. He looked downward.

“You’re right. This is a big fucking deal. The biggest, actually. And it’s compounded when you consider that, after the first hour of your trip, you’ll be in no man’s land. The same protections and safeguards that helped shape this city won’t be granted to you once you leave it. Cops out there have no reason to look the other way. In fact, they’ll be closer to bloodhounds, and they’ll sniff you out the second they catch a whiff of anything. And it will be even more arduous once you get to El Paso. The pigs there know the game, and they know what to look for, what to smell for. There is a trick to it, but it would only come through having done this route several times, learning the ins and outs. Experience.”

He took a second, and everything settled in.

Even more points as to why this job was such a risk. We weren’t ready to handle a task like this. It was too dangerous, too risky, our necks sticking out too much. The last thing I wanted was to screw this up and fuck up everything. There would be a lot riding on this, on us, if we were to undertake the job, not just the cargo. Styx’s work could be in jeopardy, our gang could potentially lose a lot of its momentum and a chunk of its leadership, depending on who we sent out. And Stephenville’s underground would get yet another shock to its foundation, after so many already.

And with us, me, being at the center of it, I might not make it out of the fallout.

These were seeds of doubt, for sure, but Styx might realize that we would be in over our heads if we took this.

Styx, with his hands still at his hips, lifted his head, and faced each of us down.

“I still want you to go.”

Hearing that hit harder than any punch I could have delivered. Good thing I was already in a seat.

“You… what?” Lawrence questioned, the confusion in his voice said it all.

Styx answered like the concerns Lawrence raised, and the ones Styx himself brought up, weren’t valid.

“I know what I’m doing. I have prep for my setup, so I can have my final and ultimate punchline. One last joke, then it’s off into the sunset. Wow, I really am getting sentimental in my old age.”

“You’re quitting after this?”

“I don’t quit, I never quit. But it will be quite… boring, for some time, after this. I suppose you could call it a form of death.”

“You still want us to do this? Why do I get the feeling that this is some trap?”

I wanted to get to the heart of the matter, and call Styx out directly. If he was adamant about this, there had to be a reason.

Setups, punchlines. Jokes. Styx wasn’t even trying to hide that he was leading us into… something.

“Not a trap,” Styx said. “If all goes smoothly, which it should, and if you plan it well enough as you go, I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t be back by the end of the day, or early morning of the next, depending on traffic. You’re not even doing the hard part of the job, once you meet with Marco, he’ll take the cargo off your hands, and it’s an easy ride back home. And it’s not as though you’ll be completely out of your element.”

Styx pointed to D again.

“She knows, I’ve taken her on this route hundreds of times.”

She has?

I knew I shouldn’t be surprised, but that only raised more questions.

“She should know the trick to it, otherwise I’ve been a terrible teacher.”

“That doesn’t excuse the fact that the nature of this job brings too much risk on it’s own, no matter how many tricks you throw into it,” Lawrence said. “And do you really expect to put this much of an obligation on a little girl?”

“I can do it,” D said.

“There has to be something else you could get us to do-”

It was like a switch flipped in Styx’s head. He jumped, not unlike how I would jump, using my power. He used his, getting up high enough to put himself over the table. He slammed both feet down, hard.

The table flipped.

My arms were resting on the surface, Lawrence had his arms there, too. The kick of the table forced our arms up, and I had to push my chair back so the wooden edge wouldn’t clip my chin. Lawrence wasn’t as fortunate to have the strength to move so fast.

Lawrence’s chin was sent pointing upward, his chair leaning back too far. With a gurgled noise, Lawrence fell to the floor.

“Styx! You, ugh!”

D dropped out of her seat to fall right beside Lawrence, tending to him once again. I stayed in my chair, but my mind and body were kicked into another gear, in case another fight broke out. Adrenaline was pumping through me, and I was ready to flow through it.

The table was flipped on its side, leaning over. I couldn’t see Styx from my point of view, with it being raised.

Then, I heard grunts, the sound of other people moving.

Styx’s head reappeared, popping up. He was being helped by his own men.

He got to his feet. In his hand was the map, or part of it. It had been torn to pieces after Styx… blew up. It was a larger portion of it, with the line Styx scratched out still there. It had torn wider, though, tearing through most of the country. A hole, instead of a line.

“You lot are so arrogant, thinking you can keep breaking the rules that bind you. The rules I set. Mother Hydra, Father Dagon, Cthulhu, let’s see if you deep croaking fucks can fathom that. Break those binds.”

Back on his feet, Styx started tearing up the map even more, tossing the pieces across the fallen table, sprinkling them on Lawrence. The bits of paper stuck to blood.

His chin had been split open.

“You came to me for help, and I provided it. On multiple occasions. And now, when I want to call in those favors, what I’m owed, you want to back down? I really don’t fucking think so.”

Of the three of us, I was the only one who was paying any attention to Styx. Lawrence was out, and D was screaming and panicking over the rush of blood flowing from the lower half of Lawrence’s face. She patted it with her shirt, her jacket, Lawrence’s shirt and jacket, the red seeping through everything.

Someone had to be here, in the moment, with Styx. I was the only one available.

“Fine,” I said, raising a hand to placate him. “We’ll do it.”

“There is no permutation that will let you get away from this, Vampiregirl. The consequences will catch up to you. You wanted my help, now I get what I’m owed in return.”

Vamp- what? What kind of name was that?”

Styx tore up the last of the paper, then made a thing of wiping his hands and showing he had no more scraps left, making his palms face us. D kept picking the bits of the map off of Lawrence’s cheek and his upper lip. Some collected by his chin, but she seemed too scared to put her fingers anywhere near it.

A hard clap sounded throughout the room.

“Stitch him up,” Styx said, hands together.

More Ferrymen moved, breaking from the perimeter that surrounded us. Again, in silence, they worked fast and in sync with one another, there was a system to it. One of them took Lawrence, two others went for D, in case she started kicking, which she did, and more pulled out medical kits and towels and other equipment to clean Lawrence up.

Styx stared at me the whole time. I couldn’t avoid it for very long. For all my strength, I couldn’t move a muscle.

I stayed there, sitting, letting Styx do whatever the fuck he wanted.

Styx beamed.

“Okay then, looks like everything’s straightened out. I’ll get you in touch with Marco so you two can coordinate, and I’ll contact you again once I have the cargo in full and ready to go. Good luck.”

Nothing good or lucky about this.

I put my hand down, putting both in the pockets of my hoodie. I looked away, and walked elsewhere, trying to act like that small exchange never happened. I tried checking on the other people, but my eyes wanted to wander back over.

It was hard to touch on why, exactly.

Putting my focus somewhere else, I watched people from my gang work and get everything prepared. Fueling the truck, checking the air of each and every tire, testing the brakes and axles, cleaning the interior of the trailer, and starting to hand out brown paper bags to those sitting down. Every individual got one, every child under ten was allowed another depending on how many was left before we departed.

Their lunch. It was my idea.

The people turned when shadows were casted over them, their gazes following up until they saw my people, bags in hand. I found Sarah among those passing them out. She handed the bag over, and I saw a little bit of light glimmer back into their eyes. Parents opened their bags and showed a chocolate bar to their child. The child’s eyes lit up, too.

Maybe it was a stupid, simple sentiment, but it made me smile.

It was a fucked up situation, and one I could imagine Styx having orchestrated just so he could see the looks on our faces when we found out what kind of ‘cargo’ we were transporting. I could still hear his cackling, ringing in my head. Was this his final, ultimate joke? It wasn’t very funny, and I certainly wasn’t laughing along.

For one reason or another, these people had went through the grueling effort to illegally immigrate into this country, and now, for one reason or another, they had to go back. More grueling effort. More sitting in the dark, more sweltering heat from being pressed against other sweaty people, more stress of getting caught by police or border patrol. And that was only the first part of their journey. They still had to cross the border back into Mexico, and it wasn’t like it was any safer for them, there.

And I had to ensure a safe passage for them. All one hundred and three of them. Lawrence had told me that up to two hundred people could fit into one of those trailers. But that was for coming into the country. Much less would want to leave after going through all the effort to get there.

Yet, here we are.

I wasn’t going to judge, to pry or ask. I just had to get the job done.

Sarah had a whole cardboard box of bagged lunches. She made her way to me as she kept passing them out.

“Hi Voss,” she said.

“Hey.”

“Kind of weird, to be in this position, don’t you think?”

“I’m thinking a lot more things than just weird.”

“Like?”

“Can’t say. There are kids around.”

“Ah.”

Sarah handed out another bag.

“Nervous?” she asked.

“I guess,” I said.

“You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to. There’s still some time to switch the plan around, somewhat.”

“No there isn’t. This is happening, and it’s happening now. There’s no one else that can do this. It has to be me.”

“But…”

“No ‘buts’ about it,” I said. “Take it from your Voss.”

Another bag passed.

“Yes ma’am.”

“Besides,” I said, walking up to Sarah, reaching into the box. “It’s not like you’re not coming.”

I grabbed a bag and left, maneuvering between the spaces of people.

Difficult, to put a finger on what compelled me to move to where I was going. But I walked, bag in hand.

“Morning,” I said.

I had walked up to the little girl I saw earlier.

Hispanic, her hair dark and long, in pigtails. She was wearing a leather jacket, and with the teddy bear she was holding, it drove the D comparison that much stronger.

Something about her…

Her face didn’t have any of that youthful energy or naivety that I’d expect from a kid. Rather, she looked downcast, tired. Part of that could be from it being so early, but it looked like it went… deeper, than simply the time of day.

All by herself. She didn’t have a parent or guardian around.

“Morning,” she said.

Despite her looking so down, she was looking up at me, her eyes squinted, her brow furrowed. As if she was studying me.

Being under a large amount of scrutiny, by someone so small, it felt weird.

Just give her the bag and be done with it.

“Here you are,” I said, giving her the paper bag. “Your lunch. There’s some candy in there, but, don’t tell anybody.”

She took the bag, taking a peek inside. She closed it, looking back at me.

I couldn’t tell if she appreciated it.

Gracias.”

I’d put that towards a ‘maybe.’

Breaking her stare, the girl put the lunch bag away, in a backpack that was placed beside her.

Zipping it back closed, she resumed her staring.

She definitely wants something from me.

“Anything else you need?” I asked.

“Um…”

She drew out the sound. I could hear the youth in her voice, in that.

“Wendy?”

A chill went through me. Wasn’t the weather.

“Do, do I know you?” I asked, feeling a certain trepidation.

“So you are Wendy, I thought you looked familiar. But you were in the distance, and I didn’t want to call you over because it might have been awkward, but then you came over and started talking and then I knew for sure. You cut your hair and got glasses, and it looks cute by the way, but it’s definitely you. Oh my gosh.”

Why was I feeling legitimate fear? From a little girl?

“Do I know you?” I asked, forcing myself to sound level.

The girl frowned. “Oh, you don’t remember?”

Again. For a third time.

“Do I know you?”

The girl held the bear, pulling it closer.

“I’m Isabella.”

The name hit, and I hadn’t braced myself. It was like smelling a fragrance that could take someone back to an earlier time in their life. The sights, the sounds, it all came back like a cancer. Something clicked, and a connection was made.

My eye flickered.

I scratched around my eye, avoiding smudging my glasses.

“Isabella?” I repeated. I had to hear the name come out of my own mouth. I still couldn’t believe it.

“You helped me get away from the Ghosts, back when they were forcing me to do those messed up initiation games.”

“Yeah, I hear you.”

I moved my hand from my eye to my temple, rubbing it hard. A headache.

“I remember,” I said.

I fucking remember.

“What, what happened? You didn’t leave the city?”

“It, uh, it was a long story. Or maybe it wasn’t that long, but that happened a long time ago.”

She brought her hand to her hair, pushing her bangs up. I saw a smooth white line that contrasted against her tan skin.

“It didn’t work out,” Isabella said.

The details were still muddied, but I recognized the broad strokes, and that was a problem, in and of itself. I thought I had taken myself out of that headspace, and out of that world entirely. But Isabella was here, and, through no real fault of her own, she had given me a grim reminder.

That world had a possibility of rearing its ugly head at any given time. That identity.

Isabella put her hand down, fixing her hair. Then they went around the stuff bear again.

“So you’re going back to Mexico?” I asked. I immediately recognized how dumb it was to ask that. Of course she was, otherwise she wouldn’t be here.

Isabella took it in stride, anyways. “I tried, believe me, I did. But it…”

Her voice cracked. A glimmer in her eyes, but it wasn’t from any happy feelings. Her eyes were wet.

“It just didn’t work out,” I said, finishing the thought for her.

Isabella nodded, her face in her sleeve.

I gave her the time she needed. It would be awful to walk away now.

Isabella lifted her head, a little bit of red around the eyes. She ignored it as she continued the conversation.

“I’m surprised to see you here. I thought you said you weren’t part of a gang.”

Did I say that?

I rubbed my cheek, and scratched the back of my head.

“Um, right, about that…”

Before I could come up with anything to say, another voice cut through the awkward silence.

“Vivi!”

I turned in the direction of the voice.

D came running at me, her feet clapping against the cement, cutting it too close when she turned corners around people. If she wasn’t being careful, she would have tripped over someone or kicked their lunch bag. Thankfully, she arrived while avoiding disaster.

“There you are! We were looking for-”

D stopped, and turned.

Isabella was standing, now, and any semblance of brooding she had before was dashed. She was animated, shaking, her jaw and her bear was dropped. Wide eyes were getting wider.

She was attempting to get words out, but all I heard were strained whimpers.

“You, I, you, you-”

“Yo…” D said, but it was without the usual fervor that I’d come to associate with that greeting. She was probably just as confused as I was.

Isabella jumped out at D, and they both fell.

A small scuffle, with Isabella on top of D, shaking her. She had her by the collar of D’s jacket. Isabella snapped, and she was trying snap D.

“You bitch! You’re the one who robbed me! You made me get into that shit and you crashed that fuckin’ bus! Bitch!”

She screamed more, but it was in Spanish. I missed the rest of it.

D flailed back and forth, her eyes rolling back, her tongue hanging out. That was how I knew she wasn’t taking any of this seriously.

People’s attention shifted to us. More than we needed.

I swooped in before it could get any worse.

“Whoa there,” I said, picking up Isabella by the back of her jacket. I only needed one arm to get her away from D.

“Hey, hey!”

Isabella tried a kick, but it hit air, and she stopped then and there, letting her arms and legs dangle. It was as if I was holding a cat by the back of its neck. She had completely shut down.

“Cool it,” I said. “Now’s not the time.”

Isabella groaned.

“Got it?”

“Okay,” she answered, voice small.

I set Isabella down, back on her feet. D was getting back to hers in the meantime.

Crossing my arms, I said, “Now, what was that all about?”

Isabella paused, she seemed like she needed a moment before she could respond. I gave it to her.

“I ran into that girl, right after we split up. I still remember that day. She was on the bus that the Ghosts attacked, and she roped me into helping her get out of it. And then she crashed that bus!”

The infamous bus crash. I’d heard it from Lawrence. This girl was there for that, too.

“And then she stole the money you gave me!”

I didn’t recall that.

“How much money?” I asked.

Isabella brought her voice to a whisper, but she still sounded heated.

“One thousand dollars.”

Shit. Alexis was balling, back in the day.

I looked at D.

“Is this true?”

D was fiddling with her fingers, avoiding eye contact.

“I mean, it could be, it sounds like something I would do.”

I rolled my eyes.

D,” I intoned.

She let out a nervous chuckle.

I adjusted my posture, crossing my arms again.

“Isabella,” I said, focusing on her. “I know it’s probably too little, too late, but D? You should apologize.”

D grabbed the front of her skirt, twisting it a bit. Nervous.

If she needed time, I’d give her that luxury, too.

“I… I’m sorry, Isabella.”

D bowed, her head low, almost comically so. The gesture was exaggerated.

“I’m sorry!”

She stayed that way for a long time. It started to get embarrassing.

“That’s quite enough,” I said. I lifted her back up with one arm.

“Whoa, head rush.”

Isabella looked at D, then me, and the D again. Now it was her turn to be confused.

“So, you two know each other?”

“Oh yeah!” D grabbed for my arm, getting closer to my side. “Vivi and I are practically sisters.”

“Stop,” I said, pushing her off, my hand in her face, messing with her hair. “Goofball.”

“Bleh.”

“What?” Isabella asked. “Wendy, I just, what? You’re part of a gang, and you’re working with her?”

“I suppose it’s a lot to take in,” I said. “Long story.”

I could almost see the gears turning in Isabella’s head. It still hadn’t sunk in for her, not yet.

“But why? I don’t get it.”

Isabella looked really disappointed about this revelation.

“What, are you jealous of me and Vivi?” D asked.

I nudged D with my elbow.

Isabella was exasperated, that much was obvious.

“No,” she said, but I noted a hint of something there, regardless. “And why are you calling her ‘Vivi?’ Her name is Wendy.”

“It’s a nickname,” D said.

“But that doesn’t even make sense.”

“Oh yeah it does. ‘Wendy’ starts with the letter ‘W,’ but in Spanish, it can be pronounced as either doble u, or-”

Doble ve,” Isabella finished.

“See, now you got it.”

“I didn’t even know that,” I said. “That, I guess that’s clever.”

“Ha, thank you.”

“Oh my god,” Isabella said, “Oh my god.”

“Now I feel like I have to apologize,” I said. “It seems like I’ve let you down.”

Isabella looked flustered. She stepped back, and picked the teddy bear back up.

“Maybe you did? You really helped me, back there. I thought I was going to die, if I didn’t finish that initiation game in time. But you showed up, and you beat up those guys. It was, it was awesome. You saved my life, Wendy. And now you’re here, a part of this gang. It’s, I don’t know.”

“Well, she’s not a part of the gang,” D said.

“She’s not?” Isabella looked my way. “You’re not?”

My turn to look away. I stammered.

“It’s not that. It’s not like I’m a part of it, so much as I’m-”

“Wendy.”

Yet another voice.

It was Lawrence, he approached with a careful, measured step. Every inch of progress came with a metallic series of clicks and snaps. Lawrence was using crutches.

“Don’t make me raise my voice to find you,” he said.

I took a glance to Isabella, to see how she was handling this.

If her initial reaction to seeing D was to tackle and beat her up, then it was the complete opposite with Lawrence. She backed up even more, her foot hitting against the backpack behind her. Shaking, scared. Subdued.

“You really have to be fucking kidding me,” she whispered.

Hearing her curse, it was jarring. Comparing Isabella with D again, the latter was a saint, in that regard.

“Oh,” Lawrence said. “I remember you. Long time no see.”

Isabella brought the bear up, nearly covering her face, putting it between her and us.

“I think this is the worst day of my life,” she said. “I think I’m going to throw up.”

“Please don’t,” Lawrence said, “We just finished cleaning the trailer.”

Her face turned green anyways.

“This whole thing is being run by the Ghosts?” Isabella asked. “Do you still do those initiation games?”

Lawrence looked at me and D, then Isabella.

“The Ghosts are long gone. Spirited away. We’re operating under a new name, now. Los Colmillos.”

Los Colmillos? The Fangs?”

“Yup!”

D struck a pose, forming a sign with both hands, two victory signs. She put them close to her face, her mouth.

“See, now they look like fangs, and one’s a ‘V,’ and another ‘V!’”

She shook each hand as she made her point.

“Vivi!”

Lawrence spoke, ignoring D.

“And as for those games, those were during a more desperate point in my career, my life. We don’t play like that anymore.”

Isabella only shook her head in response.

I wanted to reach out and put my hand on her shoulder, or something, but it didn’t seem appropriate.

“It’s a new name, a new operation. We’re not like those other gangs, trust me.”

Isabella looked back at me, truly appearing distraught. Like I had told her Santa wasn’t real.

She muttered something in Spanish, and finished off with, “This is the worst day of my life.”

More metallic clicks, and Lawrence shuffled over to me. He tapped the wristwatch he was wearing..

“No time for no crime,” he said.

I nodded, understanding him.

“Hey, Isabella?”

“Yeah?”

She sounded so down.

“I have to go, we can catch up a bit more later, okay?”

“I doubt I want any more updates. Just get me in that trailer, already.”

That… well it didn’t feel good, having to hear that.

“Catch you later,” I said. “D?”

“What? Oh.”

D didn’t sound very enthused to go, either. All that energy she just had was gone. She looked like she had something to say, but she decided against saying anything.

With my two partners beside me, we moved as a group, taking Lawrence’s walking speed into consideration. When we got far enough, I took a glance back, and saw Isabella sitting back down on the cold cement, teddy bear on its stomach, tossed a foot away.

Her eyes glimmered.

The light was snuffed, disappearing as I stepped through. Dark. I had to lead the way.

I kept the door open as D helped Lawrence into my apartment.

Our meeting with Styx had concluded, leaving us free to gather our thoughts, plan accordingly, and in Lawrence’s case, to lick wounds.

D had brought the van around, and we went straight here. From the Gonnishi, my place was closer than the territory, and we didn’t have time to waste. Lawrence needed to be looked at one more time, and we needed to discuss this.

I found the switches by the wall, and flipped them for D and Lawrence. Better lighting than the ones from the hallway.

D took the lead, now, taking Lawrence over to the couch in the living room. The steps were slow and careful, D making sure Lawrence wouldn’t hurt himself, or worse, open up those stitches again.

She set him down, being ginger. Lawrence grumbled and groaned, regardless.

I circled around the couch, standing across D and Lawrence. I tossed my bag with my costume in it, landing on the floor, by the couch.

I spoke first.

“Shit.”

It was the first word uttered between the three of us in a hour or so.

“Shoot,” D said, agreeing with me, but her attention was still on Lawrence. She checked the stitches.

A rough line, running from one corner of Lawrence’s mouth, crossing down to the other side of his chin. The immediate area around the wound was clean, Styx’s men really did know how to clean up a cut. Was it experience from having to deal with such an insane boss like him?

The cut and stitch work were clean, but I couldn’t say the same for everything around it.

Blood stained his collar and shirt, with red flecks on his nostrils and cheeks, small bits the Ferrymen missed. There were darker splotches farther down his clothes and neck, but it wasn’t anything a wash couldn’t get out. I hoped. Lawrence was really getting beat down, lately. It would be like salt in those wounds if he couldn’t salvage his clothes after this.

D had some of Lawrence’s blood on her clothes, too. She didn’t seem to care.

“So…” I started, but it was hard to find the words needed. How was I supposed to lead this conversation, when one of us was rendered unable to talk? D was still here and able, but I was the next oldest after her, I felt as if I had some responsibility, there.

“How you feeling, Lawrence?”

I asked something else instead. For now.

Lawrence’s head was hanging down a bit, his chin pointing down. Despite that, he still gave me a thumbs up.

D spoke for him, too.

“He’ll be fine. Just don’t talk for a while, okay?”

Lawrence responded by opening his hand, palm facing the floor. He shook it.

“No talking.”

“Maybe not him, but we have to talk about this,” I said. “About Styx.”

D got in one more look at Lawrence. She sat back into the couch, next to him. Her feet were up, her shoes were still on. I didn’t care.

“Then let’s talk.”

“Please, please tell me he was so hocked up on crack or something and he’ll forget all about this tomorrow.”

D shook her head.

“Believe it or not, you’ll never meet a more sober guy than me.”

D was right. I couldn’t believe it.

I lowered my head, fixing my glasses. My hand twitched as I tried to cool myself.

“Then, there’s no getting out of this, Styx called in his favor, and we have to do it. Thing is, how?”

“He laid it out pretty clear for us. A long road trip.”

“A whole day of travel,” I said.

“Have you ever been to El Paso?” D asked.

“I haven’t. You?”

“It’s alright. It’s dry.”

“You mean like weather or that’s the kind of place it is?”

“Yes.”

I tapped my foot. I wasn’t irritated at D, but this fell into my lap, and it was so sudden. The idea of a road trip. Going elsewhere, when so much of my time and energy was spent and focused here.

“I just don’t like how this was sprung up on us,” I said. “I knew that Styx would pull something, and I knew it would be soon, but like this? This sucks.”

“That’s just how he is. You can’t so much predict what he does next, you just have to roll with whatever he throws at you. Even I get caught off guard with him, after all this time.”

I dreaded asking, but it was too strange to not question.

“Yeah, about that. What’s the story between you two, anyways?”

I didn’t miss that D turned away. She didn’t even turn to check on Lawrence. Then, as if she realized it herself, turned the other way.

“I asked a question,” I said.

“Is it relevant?” D replied back, still examining Lawrence. Intently, closely.

“You tell me. Is it? You went to him when we were going after Benny, and again when we had to deal with Granon. And some other third time that I don’t know what for.”

“Not relevant,” D replied. She still wasn’t facing me.

“D, we owe Styx three favors because of you. This is only the first one. I can’t even begin to imagine what else he has in store of us. Sure, his help ended up being instrumental in putting us where we are today, but we’ve accrued some debt from that, and I didn’t even know we were in debt with Styx because you never told us about it. We were almost blindsided with this.”

“But we weren’t!”

D snapped. She faced me.

“We knew Styx would be coming, and like I said, you can’t predict what he’ll do, but we knew he’d do something. We weren’t blindsided. And you said before that you didn’t give a flip about why I know him. No excuses, just do better next time, remember? So why do you care about it now?”

“That was a different principle, a different matter.”

“No it literally isn’t.”

“That was before I saw it for myself. The way you got right up to him, hitting him like some annoying sibling would, and he wasn’t doing anything to stop you, I don’t know. It just begged so many questions, and I couldn’t help but ask one of them.”

Her lips pressed, firm. She was wearing a choker, and she kept playing with the metal loop, pulling at it.

“Getting to El Paso won’t be easy. Styx is right, it’s going to be tough as heck if you don’t know what you’re doing.”

“Hey,” I said.

D grunted, and I sensed real anger.

“My history with Styx doesn’t have any relevance here. I still would have went to him anyways, since I’d still be in the position I’m in, and he’d still be in the position he’s in. That’s just how it works, in this city. That other stuff is completely ancillary. Honestly.”

Wow. She really didn’t want to get into it.

“It is going to be tough,” I said.

I conceded. In the now, there were more important matters that needed urgent attention. I didn’t need a history lesson. Maybe later, but not now.

“Any idea what the cargo might be?”

D let the metal loop slip between her fingers.

“It could be anything, and I mean anything. Drugs, guns, maybe shipments of both. That’s usually what Styx handles. But if it’s that route, and he’s making us do it as a favor… I wouldn’t be shocked if it’s people.”

People. The possibility hadn’t even occurred to me.

“Do you really think he’d put that on us?”

“Really? Yes, I do. Just don’t be surprised if he does.”

I breathed in.

“I’ll try not to.”

People complicated things, even if they didn’t mean to. If that was what the cargo really was, then that made this favor even more tough. It was exactly the kind of thing Styx would pull for a laugh, I’d bet.

A big fucking deal.

I’d put that on the side, for now. Consider everything else.

“Styx mentioned you’ve taken this route before? And apparently you’ve been over to El Paso.”

“I have, it’s been some time though. I’d need a refresher, or I could just remember stuff along the way.”

“Okay,” I said, nodding. “You’ll have to fill me in as I go. Make sure to keep your tablet with you all day, that day.”

“I won’t have to if I’m… Wait, wait no. Wendy, no.”

She realized what I meant.

“I’m the only one who can do this,” I said.

“But you’re not, you’re literally not.”

“Lawrence can’t make the trip, no thanks to Styx, and I know you’ll want to look after him until he’s one hundred percent. And if this route is everything Styx described, and you corroborating, then there’s always a risk of something going wrong, and I can’t guarantee your safety if you’re around, as much as I’d want to. You’ll be better off here, in Stephenville.”

“Wendy, I can-”

“This part of the plan is final,” I said. “I’m serious. We need someone taking care of business back in the city, in our territory, and we can’t do that if two of us are out on a trip, and the other is temporarily out of commission.”

Lawrence groaned, shuffling around in the couch. D put a hand on his chest, and that was enough to get him to stay down.

“Quit it,” D warned.

“Point stands,” I said. I felt bad, using Lawrence’s various injuries to prove a point, but they weren’t bad points.

“How are you going to know what you’re doing out there? You’ve never even been out of Stephenville, before.”

“It’s not like I won’t have you. Keep your tablet with you and charged, we can keep a call going that lasts all day. I’ll provide you updates as I move along, and you can give your input from there. If there’s anything I’ll need to look out for, or, knock on wood, if anything happens, what to do in case of that. D, you work best when you’re elsewhere, at a distance. Let’s take advantage of that.”

“What about drivers?”

“It’s not like you can drive down all those miles on the interstate and have no one bat an eye. There has to be someone in the gang with the proper license. We’ll find them.”

“And you? You’re just going to sit shotgun the ride there?”

I tilted my head a little. “Is that not good?”

“No, Wendy, if you’re supervising cargo transport, don’t put yourself so physically close to it. If the truck gets pulled over or something, you’re going be stuck, and you’re done for. You have to take another vehicle, like a RV or camper, so you can run interference if you have to. Actually, you know what? That’s exactly what we’re doing. I’ll rent a RV, and you go in that. If you don’t want me around, let me do that, at least.”

“It’s not that I don’t want you around, D. You’ll just be at your best back here.”

D punched one of the couch pillows beside her. Not near Lawrence.

“Why are you actually like this!”

It took me a second to process that outburst. It had echoed throughout my apartment, and in my head.

I opened my mouth.

“She’s… right.”

We both looked at Lawrence.

He was struggling to sit up properly, lifting his head, his chin. Pushing himself with his arms.

“Lawrence-”

“D’s right. You… keep doing… this.”

“Doing what?” I asked.

“Darn it, Lawrence,” D said, dropping the anger she had just displayed. Concern, now. “You’re opening your stitches. Please, for once in your life, take it easy.”

Lawrence closed his eyes, and when he opened them, he was looking at her.

“As if you’d really let me.”

D got up from the couch.

“I’m getting a towel, and some ice. You’re about to start bleeding again.”

D walked, or maybe she stormed off, heading back farther into my apartment.

It was just me and Lawrence.

There was a growing silence, and I didn’t want it to be there.

I placed myself on the couch, where D had been sitting.

“Feeling better?” I asked.

When Lawrence answered, it was muttered, pained. His face was starting to swell.

“Give me more painkillers.”

I gave a slight smile, sympathetic.

“I’m right, though,” I said. “You know I’m right. Lawrence, you can’t expect to go on this trip in that condition, and D is competent, more than competent, but there’s a risk in bringing her, too. She’ll be a bigger help if she stays back. Taking care of the gang and the territory is more important. If I fuck this up, which I pray I don’t, we can go from there. But it doesn’t make sense to put too much of our manpower on something that should just be a side thing. A distraction.”

Lawrence gave me the same look he gave D. Eyes closed, then, when opened, staring right at me.

“Just… please don’t make this a thing. It’s a bad habit.”

“What is?”

Eyes closed, opened, looking elsewhere.

“So this is your place.”

A non sequitur. D had given him some painkillers on the way here, but how drugged up was he? Or was it finally starting to kick in?

“It is,” I said.

“It’s… empty.”

“Empty? No, there’s stuff around.”

“Where? I don’t even see a painting. Just that black, void looking one.”

“That’s because you’re staring at the TV, and it’s off.”

“Oh.”

Lawrence made a noise. Shaking, wincing, but his lips were curled upward. Was he trying to laugh?

“What else do you have here?”

“There’s my room, back there, some food in the kitchen if you want any. I’m not sure if you should try opening your mouth that wide, yet.”

“But you don’t eat food. Don’t need food.”

“It’s all of D’s candies and snacks. I let her fill up my fridge and pantry as long as she’s paying for it herself.”

“D… picked this apartment for you…right?”

“She did, yes.”

“The TV and furniture too?”

“Yeah, why?”

“Is there anything here that’s yours?”

“I-”

“Wendy?”

D.

I looked, and saw  D in the kitchen. She was holding a towel, and a pack of ice.

“Can I get your help in here please?”

“Sure.”

I left the couch, and Lawrence, and went into the kitchen.

D pointed to a shelf. “I need a glass, I can’t reach it.”

“Sure.”

I reached up, grabbing it. I had to get on the tips of my toes, though.

“There,” I said.

“Fill it with some water? Lawrence needs something to drink.”

“Got it.”

I went to the fridge, taking out a pitcher of water. I filled the glass.

“Don’t make Lawrence talk when he doesn’t have to,” D said.

I set the glass and pitcher down on a counter.

“Sorry. He’s talking all sorts of crazy though. I think the drugs are starting to get to his head.”

“He’s hardheaded to begin with. Stubborn. You’re pretty similar, too.”

“Similar how?”

“You don’t have to shoulder everything all on your own,” D said. “I thought I told you this already.”

“Did you? Sounds vaguely familiar.”

“I’m serious.”

D, being serious?

“I’m kidding,” I said. “But no one else is available to do this part of Styx’s favor. And it’s not like I’ll be completely by myself. Everyone will be helping, it’s just that I’m the only one who can handle that particular part. And I’ll only be out for a day. It’s a favor for Styx, but if all goes well, we’ll be done with it like that, and it’s on to the next thing.”

I snapped my fingers as I said the word ‘that.’

“Don’t be stubborn, Wendy, people don’t like that. And some people really really don’t like that.”

Somehow, that came off as a threat.

“It’s not stubbornness if the circumstances force certain actions,” I said.

D sighed. She opened her mouth.

“After we handled the thing with Dong-Yul, I was hoping we’d take a visit to that barn, see if we couldn’t find any clues.”

Barn?

Braham Barn.

“We can still do that,” I said, partly dismissive. “We’ll just have to put it off for now. Something did get in the way.”

A distraction, I thought.

D shook her head. “How many things are you going to let get in the way?”

That sounded very pointed.

“Just this one, I promise.”

I bit my tongue afterwards.

D wrapped the towel around the ice pack.

“I’ll do one more look at Lawrence, and we can start. I’ll make some calls, rent that RV, and get our people moving. I’ll brief you on what to look out for while on the road and in El Paso. We get in contact with this Marco guy, and when Styx comes back to us with the cargo, we’ll be ready.”

“Sounds like a plan,” I said.

I picked up the glass of water, and walked with D, back to Lawrence. Plans were in motion, now, and things would be moving very soon.

Things were moving now. People and vehicles. It was almost time.

D, Lawrence, and I were standing in the back, watching as our men opened the back door of the trailer.

Starting with the larger groups, families, then to individuals. That way, we could guarantee that everyone who needed to stick together were able to, and those going by themselves weren’t in anyone else’s way. Though, that last part would be pretty much impossible, given the limited space.

Everyone started filing in, being led and directed by our people. Herded in like cattle.

“This really puts it into perspective,” I said.

“Styx wasn’t lying when he said it was a big fucking deal,” Lawrence replied. He still had the stitches, but he was able to talk more clearly. Or he was just fighting through the pain better.

“One hundred and three people. And I can’t let even one of them get hurt, or get caught, or worse. I hope a fight doesn’t break out in there.”

“Right. So don’t fuck this up.”

I would have hit him with my elbow, but he’d suffered enough, already.

“Last chance to change your mind,” D said. She was cheerful before, when Isabella was here, but none of that was present, now. “I can come with you.”

I shook my head.

“I’m not changing my mind. It’s been settled. I need you here.”

D muttered. “Stubborn dummy.”

I didn’t offer a response.

“We’ll hold it down from here,” Lawrence said. “D and I. Trust us to do that, and we can do the same for you.”

“That’s all I ask,” I said.

“I’m surprised Styx isn’t here, actually. I had a feeling he’d swing by to see this, maybe say a few more words to freak us out.”

“Good thing he’s not, then.”

“But now I’m left wondering where he could be, and that freaks me out.”

“Take it…”

I stopped myself.

“You already know.”

“Same goes for you.”

D had spoken.

“Yeah.”

More people were getting into the trailer. It had gotten to the point that it looked like we reached max capacity, but there was a sizable group left to go. A little less than half.

The rest started squeezing in, people pushing into one another. I saw some trying to protect their lunch bags, only for it to get flattened by the oncoming crush of bodies. I frowned.

“Hopefully it doesn’t rain today,” I said, checking the sky. The clouds were darker than when I last saw them. Darker than the sky above them.

“It’ll rain,” Lawrence said. “Definitely.”

“Boo,” D said. “You’re being a stick in the mud.”

“What I mean is, it’ll probably rain later in the day. Afternoon, probably. And it’s only in Stephenville. Weather’s supposed to be clear everywhere west of us. It’s the other side that’ll get drenched.”

“Good timing,” I said, sarcastic.

About a quarter of the people left, mostly the individuals, now. A woman, with only the clothes on her back. A tall man with a buzz cut… and Isabella. She had her backpack, the head of the teddy bear sticking out. The bag wasn’t huge, but it protruded, and anything inside would be getting mashed together by the tight fit of people.

And she was the only kid going on this journey all by herself. Every other kid I saw had someone with them. But not Isabella.

“D,” I said.

“Wendy.”

“Grab Isabella, bring her here.”

“Why me?”

“Just go, before she gets in there. And don’t be obvious about it.”

I sensed that D had her reservations, but she didn’t voice them as she ran, catching up to Isabella and tapping her on the shoulder. Isabella turned, and D pointed our way.

I waved.

Grabbing her by the wrist, D brought Isabella over. No one else noticed.

“What, what is it now?” Isabella asked, sounding more tired than ever. Sleepy.

“The three of us had to put this transport together, but I’m the one that will be supervising the actual moving of you guys. I’ll be in a separate vehicle. It’s a RV. If you want, you can ride with me.”

She lit up, hearing that.

“I can?”

“Of course.”

“Oh my gosh, that is so much better than being in that smelly thing. Thank you, Wendy, you’re a lifesaver!”

It was still chilly out, but I felt a little warmer.

“Hey, we cleaned those, just so you know,” Lawrence said.

“Come on, let’s get going.” I turned to Lawrence. “Before they close the doors, let them know they’ll be down one in the trailer, but not to worry. Tell Tone, too.”

“Will do.”

I motioned to Isabella. “Come on.”

Isabella and I walked over to another part of the lot. D followed. There were other trailers, but they were in park, not attached to a truck, and not in use. The RV was parked somewhere in between two trailers, out of view from everyone else.

“Hey, Isabella?”

“What?”

“I wanted to say, before you left, I think it’s cool you still have the bear and jacket I gave you.”

“Oh, this? I thought about getting rid of them after meeting you again, but it’s still cold, even with all those people, and I already made this thing my own.”

Isabella pointed at the bear behind her, using her thumb.

“Ah, that’s super sweet of you.”

“Be quiet.”

We arrived at the RV. It was a rental, so it wasn’t extravagant, but it would work. Inside, it had the essentials. Chairs, a bed, a sink and microwave and fridge, among other things that I probably wouldn’t need. The exterior was white, with blue stripes running across the sides of the vehicle. It was on the smaller end, but it was originally going to be just for me… and Sarah. We had room for one more.

I approached Sarah at the side door of the RV.

“We got one coming with us,” I told her.

Sarah lifted a walkie-talkie. “Just heard it from Tone, we’re good to go. Hello there.”

“Hello,” Isabella said.

They shook hands, exchanging some words in Spanish.

“Alright, other than that Voss, we’re ready. All we need is your word.”

I nodded.

Sarah took over things from there, helping Isabella get into the RV. I turned back to D.

“How come I can’t come with you but she can?” D asked.

“I think you know why,” I said.

D pouted.

“I know, it’s still not fair.”

I put my hand on her head. She knocked it away before I could ruffle her hair like I usually do.

She was still mad.

Lawrence showed up, swinging forward with his crutches.

“Everything’s good. Ready when you are,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Any last words?”

“Don’t phrase it like that.”

“Whatever.”

“Um, if there is anything, there’s this kid, Nathan, back at the territory. I was supposed to meet with him about tagging certain places with our sign, marking things as officially ours. That’s not until, when was it?”

“Not for a few days, but I’ve got it covered,” D said.

“Okay, thank you.”

“Anything else?” Lawrence asked.

“Then, that’s it, I think.”

I breathed out, hard.

“I’m off to El Paso, guys, see you soon.”

“Good luck, Wendy, you got this.”

It was nice, getting encouragement from Lawrence.

“Bye.”

That brought me down a few notches.

“I’ll call when I get out of city limits.”

A pause.

“D?”

“I heard you.”

No point in sticking around, then.

Feeling bummed, I waved, and I got into the RV.

I saw Isabella, who made herself at home, sitting in one of the padded chairs at the back, eyelids heavy.

I crossed the length of the RV, meeting Sarah at the driver’s seat.

“I’m ready,” I told her.

She nodded, and started the RV. She relayed the message into her walkie-talkie. Tone replied back, a mechanical tone.

We started moving.

I moved myself back to the other side of the RV, where Isabella was. I found another seat by her, and sat.

I found my bag of stuff that I packed for the trip. Less than when I stayed at the Lunar, but I did have my costume.

The RV got off the lot, onto the street, and it was a longer drive until we got onto the highway.

Curiosity getting the better of me, I stood, and checked the back window. Isabella roused.

The eighteen wheeler.

It followed us. Seeing Tone driving the truck, and knowing who was inside the trailer, and being out in the open, made that feeling of trepidation come back even stronger.

Then the heavy sound of a motor.

I froze.

From my left, the right side of the truck, a motorcycle appeared. Black, the fringes of it appeared monstrous in nature. I saw the rider.

He motioned with a salute, then making a victory sign with hand.

Styx beamed, and I stepped away from the window.

That’s how he wants to see me off?

He was fucking with us.

Isabella managed to sleep through the rumbling of the engine, but it kept me up until we officially left the city. After what felt like an hour or more, the sound faded into the distance, Styx probably taking an exit somewhere along the highway. I could hear Styx cackling in my head, laughing at a joke I wasn’t in on.

Then, we left Stephenville. It was half past three in the morning. Seven hundred miles, ten hours, give or take, to the west. El Paso. And there was still the trip back.

I breathed, feeling shaky, but at the same time, there was an eerie calm, too.

Putting dark clouds, and darker sentiments behind me, it almost felt nice, to get away from the city, to take a break from it all.

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075 – Whatever I Want (Fuck Who’s Watching)

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Styx took his sweet time, surveying the room, looking over everything and everyone. His arms were outstretched, as if he was presenting the scene that he saw before him. He studied every face, observing every detail he could soak in.

Then his eyes fell on D, and then me.

Wide, widening I saw more the whites of his eyes than the pupils. He was still beaming, harder than ever, and his fingers twitched. He balled up his hands, releasing, balling them up again. Releasing. Like electricity coursed through his body. He shuddered.

His eyes were still trained on me.

He looked nearly frantic, like he couldn’t contain himself. Excited.

I shuddered.

“Remain calm,” Styx said, looking anything but. “I only plan to do… whatever I want.”

‘En garde,’ and then ‘remain calm?’ Was he aware that he was inherently contradicting himself?

No one moved, no one made a sound. Nothing was stopping me from doing anything, I had the weight and the power to throw around, but…

Something was compelling me to fall in line. To listen, just like everyone else. Being brought down to their level. And to concede this moment to Styx.

I hated that I didn’t have that control.

But, it was either that, or pulling something that might put D at risk. We were surrounded before, and now those numbers, and the amount of threats, had swelled. Trying anything now would, more likely than not, lead to a disaster, especially when I was down and I had to get myself up. To the higher ground. D’Angelo’s words.

I can’t even circle about, here.

I lowered my head more. My hood should have obscured my face from everyone else but D and Styx. For Styx’s eyes only, I gave him a heated glare.

That seemed to make him beam even more.

“Hi,” he said.

I refused to grace him with a greeting back.

He didn’t drop his expression as he broke his gaze, letting it wander again, getting one more look over.

Everyone – that wasn’t with Styx – was frozen, unsure of what to do next, or what was about to happen. Dong-Yul’s men were petrified, still reeling from the attack in the dark, and now seeing their boss, and their plans, compromised. Nobody dared to move.

Seemingly satisfied, Styx turned around and motioned to the men behind him. To Lawrence and Dong-Yul.

They were still holding hands.

Styx motioned with his hands. A number of his men took their backs off the wall to join him. He motioned again.

Following Styx’s orders, his Ferrymen pushed Lawrence and Dong-Yul forward. Styx stepped to the side, letting them take center stage.

Styx still had command of the room, though.

“See? We all can get along!”

His face must have hurt by now, smiling as much as he was. Yet he kept at it. I would have been impressed if it weren’t so sickening.

“Isn’t it beautiful?”

Clearly he was enjoying himself.

There was movement as Lawrence took a step to Styx, and his Ferrymen bristled. They all tensed, ready to pounce on anyone who would dare touch their master, let alone speak against him. That was how I interpreted it, anyways.

“Dammit, Styx, quit fucking around and quit fucking with us!”

There wasn’t even a moment to react or process. Lawrence was on the ground, curled up arms covering his face and head, and Styx was pounding on him, stomping at him with heavy steel-toed boots. Dong-Yul had tripped over, on his knees, after whatever force sent Lawrence down hard.

“Do. Not. Fuck. King. Speak. While. I. Am. Feeling it!”

Styx punctuated every word, every syllable, with a kick to Lawrence’s side or arm. With the way Lawrence’s head jolted back, Styx probably got a good hit there, too.

I winced, feeling for Lawrence, feeling terrible. He couldn’t seem to catch a break.

D stirred, then she bursted out of my arms.

“D!”

I tried to grab her and pull her back, but she was running hard, running fast. She pushed past some of the men in suits, and some of the Ferrymen who hadn’t gotten into position around the walls.

They didn’t stop her, giving D a straight line to Styx. Would they have stopped me if I ran, instead?

“Styx!”

D jumped at Styx, her arms wrapping around his shoulders, her feet off the ground as she secured a hold. Styx didn’t look all that muscular, maybe closer to being spindly, but he stayed his ground while D was swinging, trying to throw her weight around. It didn’t work, he hardly budged, still kicking down Lawrence.

D kept at it all the same.

“Dummy! Stop it! You jerk!”

Bless her, she tried, but she couldn’t get Styx to stop, or ever falter. Even with the floor being wet. He only did because of his own volition.

Styx rolled his shoulders, forcing D to drop back down. He turned to face her.

D punched him in the arm.

“Dummy!” she shouted again.

I watched for the reactions of the Ferrymen. None of them budged.

“Are you done?” he asked, in a casual manner that stood out to me. That tone, that response to a kid. It wasn’t really in that patronizing manner that one would use when talking to someone younger. It went deeper than that, an implication of some familiarity, and, at least on some level, respect.

Lawrence had mentioned that Styx and D went way back, but to see it with my own eyes, with D yelling at Styx, hitting him to get him to stop, and with him addressing her in that casual manner…

Even seeing it with my own eyes, it was still hard to believe.

D crossed her arms, and stomped her foot. I could only see the back of her head, but she looked indignant.

“Are you?”

She was talking back to Styx, of all people. And he was letting her.

“I am now,” Styx said, dismissive. He shifted his balance, so he wasn’t standing over Lawrence, with his foot still hovering above him.

“Get off!” D shouted, shoving Styx away. One last try at getting him to fall. It still didn’t pan out.

Styx rolled with it, stepping over Lawrence before catching himself, smooth. He fixed his jacket with a hard tug.

“There,” he said, “Happy?”

D didn’t answer, instead kneeling over Lawrence, tending to him. As she worked, her back to me, I stole another glance ahead.

Styx was standing still, without the energy from before, almost deflated after D rudely interrupted him. Dong-Yul was picking himself back up, careful, as if to not set off Styx again.

He tried to get his bearings as well, looking over the whole lounge, and then his eyes fell onto me.

“Styx, what the fuck is all of this? Who the fuck are you?”

He was asking about me.

I stayed still, crouched low, refusing to acknowledge him, ignoring his questions.

Styx addressed him instead.

“You are not allowed to talk here, Donnie.”

He recoiled, flinching at the admonishment. To Dong-Yul, Styx was speaking to him like he would a child.

Dong-Yul didn’t look at all happy about it, but he had no choice. He went silent.

“Good,” Styx said, “Now where was I?”

Again, he took back control of the room. The situation.

“Ah yes, getting along. It’s as beautiful as I was told it would be.”

He clapped his hands together.

“It’s like a white canvas. Can’t say it’s my thing, personally, but that is what tastes are, and I’d like to think I’m the kind of person who tries to acquire as much as I can. White, though. For me, I’d much prefer a splash of red. But I digress.”

I had no idea what he was talking about.

He continued to address the room. Or more like he was talking just to talk.

“Some people can be so blind. Seeing only what they want to see, liking only the colors they like. They never see what else is out there for them. Sometimes, it’s better than what they were looking at and searching for. Other times… you should be aware of your surroundings.”

His wide, too-white eyes landed on me again.

“Gonnelli! Can you see the scene you sculpted with your very fingers?”

I thought he was talking about painting. Now sculpting?

Now I was officially and totally lost.

What was Styx doing here to begin with? Why did he have Lawrence and Dong-Yul? What the fuck was he talking about?

Too many questions, and I wasn’t really in a position to ask.

But, he was talking to me, directly. Styx. It would be wrong to ignore him.

I stood.

“I didn’t know you were a fan of my work,” I said, playing along. I tried deepening my voice, masking that as well.

“It still needs some refining, but I do think you’re onto something. Experimenting and seeing other methods to craft your art, will make for much more dynamic pieces in the future. I’m looking forward to it.”

He beamed again.

Yeah. Officially lost.

I wasn’t sure how to go about dealing with a guy like Styx. He seemed like he could snap at any second. He certainly snapped at Lawrence after just talking out of line. It wasn’t like he could beat me up, I wasn’t in his reach, and he didn’t have that kind of strength, but he did have the command of his men, and the room, and the situation. If he so desired, he could fill this place with more holes and lead than people.

He seemed to be keen to madness. I’d have to lean into that, appeal to that side of him. Appeal to that side of myself.

If I want to sell it properly and get out of this with everyone intact.

“I’ll look into it,” I said, “Art is ever-evolving, anyways.”

“Yes, it is.”

Where the hell is this conversation going?

“Now, Styx,” I said, cautious, “If I may be so bold as to steer this talk a little bit…”

I trailed out at the end, to test Styx in a way, to gauge his reaction. Would just that much be enough to make him flip?

I watched for the slightest of movements, any sign, however subtle. I couldn’t catch a thing.

Damn, it was so hard to get a read on the guy.

It was only when Styx spoke did I get any indication.

“Enough with the posturing, get on with it.”

Fucking what?

I was more envious of D’s ability to smack Styx without repercussions than I was perplexed. And it made me unsure of what my next move should be. If I should even have a next move.

Styx jumped to whatever was next on his twisted agenda.

“Get him up.”

Some of Styx’s Ferrymen moved, going to D and Lawrence. She was still taking care of him, making sure he was okay.

D noticed that they were approaching. She didn’t like it.

“Get away! Back off!”

They continued.

“I said get back! Or I pinky promise I’ll do something! I’ll spill rats down a wire cage attached to your faces! I’ll steal all of your personal info and passwords and upload them online! I’ll tape papers with bad words on them to your backs!”

Despite the warnings from a little girl, they continued. They worked together to split the pair apart.

One of them went for D, and she struck, swinging her fist to hit them across the temple. It connected.

He didn’t keep his balance like Styx did, but he didn’t completely fall to the ground. He wobbled, but he was still able to sweep D up with his arms, more prepared to hold her back when she kicked and hollered. It was the helmet that he was wearing that softened the blow.

I’ve seen that helmet before.

It was the same Ferryman that had given me the keys to the Lunar, the fake IDs.

I searched around. I didn’t have to look far.

The other Ferryman. The one I’d encountered during our burning of East Stephenville. The biker with long brown hair, tied back, looking almost as crazy as his boss. He was working on getting Lawrence back to his feet, propping him up when Lawrence was unable to stand straight on his own. Parts of his face and clothes had gotten wet from being in contact with the slippery floor.

So badly did I want to fly across the room and break them apart. To get Styx’s people away from mine. But they were already too tangled up, and Styx was so unpredictable that I couldn’t plan for any possible reaction on his part to counter. I didn’t want to make a move that I couldn’t follow up on, if I couldn’t guess what the opponent’s counter would be. It was all a gamble with Styx. And unless the odds were stacked in my favor by a large, large margin, I hated gambles.

“Grab El, he is to hold hands with-”

“Styx, god dammit, stop fucking around and explain yourself-”

Stepping forward, interrupting Styx. Dong-Yul was willing to make that gamble. It didn’t work out for him.

He crashed into a table, toppling over with him. Styx ran and tackled him with such an intensity and disregard for his own body and safety that bordered on manic.

Styx got up first, and Dong-Yul followed, as Styx lifted him with straps and latches that made up his jacket. A certain number Ferrymen sprung to action without an order from their boss, running from their different positions at the perimeter, fixing the table and holding it down.

He slammed Dong-Yul back down to the table. It didn’t topple this time.

Not kicks, but fists. Styx laid into Dong-Yul with every word echoing.

“What. The. Fuck. Did. I. Tell you!”

Each fist was made more red as Styx pulled out from his face, thin trails of blood following the knuckles, connecting the two of them like threads. Deeper, more red, the color darkening.

I looked away.

Tell me, what the fuck did I say?”

Punch. Squelch.

“The fuck did I say! Tell me!”

Punch. Punch. Squelch.

“Tell me! Tell me! Tell me!”

Squelch. Squelch. Squelch.

It was like the sound of raw meat slapping against a marble slab. It nauseated. And was what worse was the sweet smell that began to waft from that direction.

I heard more noises, more movement. Like something cutting through air, and then another crash. I could only use my imagination, and I didn’t really want to.

He must have flipped him to the other table, the Ferrymen holding that one, too.

More punches, more squelching.

Styx and Dong-Yul went silent, both for very different reasons.

The silence stayed for some time.

“Clean this up.”

More sounds of activity. None of the wet noises from before.

I chanced a look.

The Ferrymen were working on cleaning ‘this’ up. They each were taking out rags from their leather jackets, setting the tables back to where they belonged, cleaning the surfaces and spraying away the blood with water. They kept pulling supplies from their jackets, sharing with one another whenever any of them needed something. One group of Ferrymen would spray the tables, another would wipe and dry, and another was setting Dong-Yul down to do whatever it was they were going to do with him.

A final pair of Ferrymen had towels, washing Styx’s hands as he talked once more.

“Now I hope you’ve learned the lessons you needed to learn. Do take Donnie here as another lesson as to what happens if you don’t get the simple things through your skulls. It’s so simple.”

I couldn’t make sense of anything that was happening, or what had happened leading up to this. Something about a fight in the dark? It wasn’t even anything directly involving me, yet, somehow, Styx created a situation so twisted and illogical and wrong that I couldn’t keep up. I tried to keep up, but it he was seemingly on another plane of existence.

I was discombobulated.

I watched Styx as he continued. It was all I could really do.

“I know all of your faces, and if I need to, I can learn all of your names. Your little crusade ends here. This war you think you were preparing for, it’s over. Your army has been stripped away and dismantled. You no longer are allowed access to those uniforms. And if you so much as look at a shirt with buttons on it… I’ve given you several examples.”

Gesturing behind him, to Dong-Yul. I realized that Styx was looking at each and every one of Dong-Yul’s men in the face.

He gestured again.

“There’s two elevators. If I may be so bold as to ask you all to take your leave, it would be much appreciated.”

Using my words, or some of them. Posturing. He really was just doing whatever the fuck he wanted.

After everything that just happened, everything Styx had done, I couldn’t blame anyone for taking long to start moving. Realizing they were allowed to, given that privilege by someone above them.

Dong-Yul’s men started walking. Slow, going together, filling the elevators that a Ferryman called for them. Most of them stared me down as they passed. For them, I was right there, like how Styx was right there, but they were powerless to do anything about it.

It took minutes, to get everyone in and out of the lounge, with Dong-Yul getting his own elevator to himself. Two Ferrymen carried him by the arms and legs, moving him with the utmost care so he wouldn’t bump into anything. Where Styx was capable of such violence, his men knew how to counter that.

I couldn’t see Dong-Yul’s face. His dyed hair was stained red.

Then, and only then, when the doors closed and what was left of Dong-Yul was out of sight, did I realize that Lawrence, D, and I were still stuck in a room with this biker psychopath and his merry band of other psycho bikers.

My heart started beating so hard I felt my body ache.

It was just me, Lawrence, D, and Styx’s Gang now.

Fuck me. Fuck us. Fuck all of this.

Styx clapped one more time, his hands now clean and dry. One of his men started collecting the red, soddened rags into a plastic bag.

“Onto the next one,” he said, somehow sounding bored.

We’re next, I thought.

With more gestures and motions, he ordered his men to come closer. The ones were still standing around the room began to walk forward, in unison, making the perimeter smaller.

They were closing in on us.

I wanted to avoid them, didn’t want them to touch me. I didn’t even want them to be near me, but I had no choice in that regard.

I walked over to the center of the lounge, the center of the perimeter Styx’s men were making.

I met D there, she’d been released by the helmeted Ferryman. Lawrence was now being supported by him and the other Ferryman I had met before.

D went to my side, hugging me. I put an arm around her.

Lawrence… wasn’t looking too hot. He was better than Dong-Yul by miles, but he was still taken up to a threshold of pain that certainly was not comfortable. He was hunched, cradling an arm, more bandages on his face. His expression was one of hurt. It hurt to look at him.

I couldn’t bear it anymore.

“Styx,” I said, facing him head on. The whole front of my body was pointed in his direction. Shoulders straight and square. Head held high. He was much taller than me.

What?” he asked, with that disinterested demeanor. It was like all the fight in him had left his body, and he was the only one doing the fighting.

This was him. Styx. I was face to face with the man who was connected to the Solace conspiracy, how Benny fit into all of that, and Mister.

He had been active in trying to take Blank Face out, and had a hand in Hleuco’s disappearance. That, I would never be able to forget.

And yet he was also the man who pulled strings to get us into the Lunar Tower, giving us a direct line to Granon in order to stop his group.

So many contradictions.

There was so much I wanted to ask him about, to interrogate or even beat that information out of him if I could. But, I wasn’t holding the reigns, here, and I’d have to start from the most pressing matter, first.

I readied myself.

“You better seriously fucking explain yourself with this. I, we, were in the middle of something, and you went ahead and… you didn’t throw a wrench in it, you broke the whole fucking machine.”

Styx leaned his head one way, with a soft grin. “Ah thank you.”

I clenched my hands. If I didn’t have my gloves on, my fingernails would have punctured the skin of my palms.

Styx fixed his jacket again, stroking his beard, straightening wiry hairs.

“Seriously? Seriously. If fucking anything, I was the one in the middle of something, and you meddling kids and your little bitch came in with the wrench to throw. But actually, you are right, I was the one to break the machine, so thank you again for the opportunity. I managed to salvage some fun out of it.”

“You knew about Dong-Yul and his volunteers?”

Styx looked legitimately offended, which was not a good thing.

“Bitch, I have been knowing. I’ve been following Donnie’s movements ever since his brother got offed and he took over, watching as he formed his army and tried to start his new cause. I was going to wait for the moment he was going to try something with them, I even knew what he had planned and where he had in mind. And you came and got ahead of me. I’ll have to keep a note of that, your enthusiasm. It would be impressive if it hadn’t gotten in my way.”

“You didn’t have to do that to Lawrence, you jerk.”

D spoke up, popping her head out from under my poncho.

“Dummy.”

“I had to set an example for Donnie and his boys, otherwise they wouldn’t get the message. Relax, D, I didn’t go for anything vital, and I know I didn’t break anything. I have self-control. You know that more than anyone here.”

He does?

“So that was just for show?” I asked, “All of it?”

“Not all of it. I do get enjoyment out of my work, I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t. But, I did have to deter them from their original course of action. I can’t have them conducting business in a way that interferes with my business, because my business is everyone’s business.”

“If Donnie started up trouble with tensions being what they are, it would make things even more complicated for this city, and everyone in it.”

“Effects ripple, leading to unforeseen circumstances. As fun as those can be, it allows room for disaster if you’re not careful, being blindsided. I detest that.”

He said those last three word with such clarity, it resonated within me. Because I was much the same way.

“I…” I started. “That can be a hassle.”

“Mass hysteria, something you seem to have a knack for causing.”

I couldn’t tell if Styx was criticizing me or commending me. Or maybe a little bit of both?

Then Styx directed himself to me. Like how I did to him.

“Hi,” he said again.

My response was the same as before.

“You’re looking much better than the last time I saw you. You were positively vibrating, then. If there’s more where that came from, I can dig this update very much.

My response was the same as before. Mostly because I had no idea how to begin to touch that.

“What do they call you, back at home base?” Styx asked. “Voss?”

I was glad that I still had my mask on, and that my skin had turned so white, over the months of having powers. He couldn’t see my expression change to dread and shock, and there was no color left to drain from my face.

I felt D tug tighter around the fabric of my poncho.

“So you do know,” I said, doing my best to drum up the confidence. To not look shaken. Fake it if I had to. And I had to. “Did D give you my warning?”

“She did. I considered it, as the courtesy as it was, but I’ll be riding on King of Pentacles long after everything’s said and done. I’m not sweating it.”

“No?”

“Eh.” Styx shrugged. “Death’s been waiting for me with a rope in hand, but she knows I can’t leave just yet. Too many people are standing on my shoulders. If I ever fall into a casket…”

“Unforeseen circumstances?” I asked.

Styx smiled in response. It made my skin crawl.

“You catch on quick. That’s funny.”

Funny?

“But you’re still the fool I remember from back then.”

“Fool?”

That word, I repeated back to Styx.

“You don’t remember? It was the first time we met. I can still see it in my mind’s eye, that image of you flailing with a chain around your neck. And what did I call you then. Oh yeah, the Blueballs.”

Several images flickered, as if someone had shined a strobe light into my eyes. I shook my head.

“Oh yeah, and I believe I had broken both your arms then, too. Yet here you are, as if it never happened. It’s not a good look for me, you know, when people think I can’t finish what I start. I have a reputation to keep.”

I tried to breathe, but it hitched.

Even if I couldn’t remember that exactly, I could feel a intense pressure begin to coil around my neck. Hard to breathe, hard to stay composed. Connections trying to come back online, after I had already put them down and laid them to rest.

I felt the beginnings of a headache.

It physically hurt to regain an equilibrium, and I had to do it while standing my ground here with Styx, and not giving any tells. Shit.

I hadn’t felt something like that since I left that old life behind.

“That was so long ago,” I said, voice sounding more dry than I wanted it to. “I’d like to think I’ve gotten better since then.”

“Or you could have just gotten better at hiding your flaws. From everyone and yourself. As foolish as ever.”

“You’re off the mark,” I said, but I was unsure if I was saying that more for him or for myself. “Totally off the mark.”

“I admit I could be, our interactions have been very limited. But, I seen crazy shit, man, seen crazy shit, and I know how to call it when I see it. And I can see-”

He raised a hand, wagging a finger, as if accusatory.

“-what you refuse to.”

The playing yet warning tone, the toothy sneer that came with it. He was toying with me.

D tugged even tighter. She’d crinkle the material if she kept that up.

“Lo, little Dolly,” Styx said. He was talking to her now. “It’s been fun seeing this side of you, thirsting so desperately for blood when all you need is water. I’m sorry to say, but you won’t be finding it in these two. They’re the dummies, and you’re grasping for straws, and stuffing them with it. I thought you grew out of this, already?”

“Hush, Styx, I don’t have to explain myself to you. Not anymore.”

“Of course you don’t. And I will respect that.”

Dolly. I hadn’t heard that one. That wasn’t the name she told me. A nickname?

Lawrence had mentioned that D and Styx went way back.

“What is this, really?” I questioned. The question ended up being more universal than specific. “Between you two. It bothers me, with you being so familiar.”

“Does it? Do I sense of hint of jealousy?”

“Curiosity, is all.”

“I… don’t even think I want to hear it.”

Lawrence. He struggled to get out his piece in this stilted conversation.

“There’s a legit chance it might be worse than anything I want to guess.”

I looked at D and Styx again.

“You two… You couldn’t have possibly…”

I didn’t finish the thought, not out loud. I wasn’t even sure if that was a thought I wanted to finish.

D didn’t say anything. Styx did.

“I am not a vain and cruel wretch, nor am I a hateful person. I chose to see past what she reduced herself to. Past the letter.”

He didn’t confirm or deny. Confirm or deny what, though? I had never finished the thought.

Maybe I didn’t want to know. I was with Lawrence on this one.

“Anyways,” I said, feeling more tired from just a conversation, ignoring the fight I had just gotten into earlier. “What else are you here for, Styx? We inadvertently got ahead of your plans, sure, but you couldn’t have come here just to give us a warning, too. We aren’t like Dong-Yul’s gang, and I think on some level you know that.”

Styx laughed, too hard for whatever he found funny.

“Actually, I did come here to do exactly that. But it’s two-fold. I really did want to see El and Donnie holding hands, getting along. Because, for humans, peace is an acquired taste, and they have to force themselves into it. It’s important to be reminded of that for my job, and I cannot ever slack, and the moment I slip up, even for a second, it all falls apart, and that’s on me. It’s weight on my shoulders, that only I can carry.”

I really fucking hated how much I got that.

Styx moved over to one of the tables. He pointed to some of the men at the perimeter, and they broke formation to prepare chairs.

“Come, sit,” he said. “Watch, speak, listen.”

I detested how hard it was to get my bearings with Styx. Every other minute, it seemed, he would do or say something that caused me to step back and try to understand it, only for everything to stack and I’d end up falling behind. It was so unfocused, scatterbrained, but not like how Dong-Yul and his gang’s structure was. This was… This had to be deliberate. This had to be a tactic. To keep himself ahead of everyone else, to maintain power and control.

Not a bad tactic, but I didn’t have to like it when it was used against me.

We went to the table, silent. D helped Lawrence settle into a chair, taking the chair between us when she finished. The helmeted and the brown-haired Ferrymen didn’t take seats beside their boss, rather they stood right behind him, one to his left and right. Were they his lieutenants, or something to that effect?

This was the worst reunion ever.

More seconds of silence. We had to wait for Styx to start.

Styx started.

“I came here to stop Donnie, he was prime to cause a fuckton of trouble, but the truth is, you all are much worse. With the three of you working together, with the capabilities you each bring to the table, your gang is liable to leave a much bigger and far wider impact than any gang in Stephenville. That can either be a good thing, or the destruction of everything I worked to build. Both ways sound entertaining, but I’m not ready for a grand finale, not yet.”

Sweat began to form around the back of my neck. How much did he really know?

“So, it’s up to me to steer you in the right direction. Which was one of the many, many reasons why I elected to help D the three times she came to me about this.”

Three times?

The third favor that D refused to talk about.

“Of course, I have to have my own fun with it.”

Styx beamed again. Seeing it so wide and free, it filled me with disgust.

“So you’re here to…” I started, but Styx interrupted.

“You do catch on quick. Very good! Yes, I’m here to cash in my first favor.”

One out of three. It had already begun. We stuck to our original plan, and Styx had showed himself, and it was up in the air how ready we really were.

Previous                                                                                               Next

074 – Bring da Ruckus

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“No way, D, no fucking way.”

“Yes way, Wendy, yes… um, flipping way.”

I took another look at the picture.

The tops of heads. Men. More than I could reasonably guess. With the suits they were all wearing, and with the situation being what it was, and everything Dong-Yul had been espousing, the context clues made me think mercenaries.

They were gathered, different groups of them sitting at different tables in what looked like a large waiting room. The colors of the wall and floor, and some of the decor, brought to mind the club we were in right now.

The angle of the picture itself stood out to me. For one, I could mostly see the tops of their heads and their shoulders, and there were thin, blurry lines that ran down the length of the image.

From above, behind some bars. Where did she take this from?

But, looking closer, none of them seemed particularly ready to jump the gun, and many of them were in the middle of having drinks, conversing, or just taking it easy. If I had to deal with them, I had some time.

But, they were there, they were in uniform, and they would be a problem.

“Is that what I think it is?” I asked, still looking at the picture.

“It is,” D said.

“Okay,” I said, before a brief pause. “Is this going to be my problem?”

“It’s going to be everyone’s problem if we don’t take care of it.”

“What I mean is, is it going to be my problem to solve?”

D patted me on the shoulder, her hand reaching over her head to get me.

“There, there, you’ll be fine.”

I grunted, starting to unzip the bag that D handed over. My bag. My costume.

“Wait, I’m just kidding, of course I‘m going to help. Geez. You overachiever.”

I looked over the contents of my bag, checking and double-checking that everything was there. And it had better be, I gave her everything before we left.

It was.

Maybe I was being too clingy with my stuff, or even attaching too much sentiment to material things, but knowing my mask and hood and knife were all accounted for, made me feel a little more at ease. It made me feel like I could take on anything.

I zipped it up partway, so nothing would spill out.

“Okay,” I said. “If you’re going to help-”

“I am.”

“-then I need as many details as possible. I don’t want to go into this blind.”

“I know you don’t, which was why I did as much as I could before you came by here, and I got some stuff ready beforehand. If we’re going to do this, we’re going to do this right.”

I liked the sound of that.

“I like the sound of that,” I said, “What do you have?”

D grinned.

“To be more or less accurate, there isn’t like, a hundred guys in there, there’s probably about forty, maybe fifty, but I tried to get as many people in the shot as possible, and that’s just me being zealous, I’d rather overestimate than underprepare. But yes, fifty would be my best guess.”

After a pause, D then added, “More or less.”

“Somehow, even with you cutting that number down by half, it still doesn’t make it any easier,” I commented.

“We should be fine.”

“Should be?”

D gestured with her tablet, as if she was waving me away.

“The beauty of this is we don’t have to beat all of them up, or hurt them in any lasting way. We just… need to keep them occupied until Dong-Yul needs them, and they don’t show.”

“You call that beauty?” I asked.

“There’s an art to chaos,” D answered, “I find it very appealing.”

I was about to comment further, but there wasn’t any time to discuss other things. We were on the clock.

I moved the tablet back, so I could a better look at it again.

“And where are all of these guys?” I asked, realizing that I hadn’t gotten that yet. That should have been the first, if not the second, maybe third, thing to be clear on. Maybe aside from an exact number, but we could be a tad flexible on that.

We couldn’t do anything about the mercenaries if we didn’t know where they were.

“There’s a bottom level of the club. What Dong-Yul didn’t make clear is that he owns the place, or rather, his brother did. It’s a decent headquarters for the Kung Fools, or the Hóngshuǐ, now that they’ve rebranded. Forty or fifty dudes, more or less, all hanging around a few stories below our feet.”

I let go D’s wrist, giving the tablet back to her.

“Any guesses as to what they’re doing here, and what Dong-Yul needs them for?” I asked.

“No guesses needed, you even heard it yourself. Using his surplus of recruits, gathering numbers. He’s preparing for a war, and to do that, he’s building an army.”

“What does that have to do with us, and why they’re here at the Gonnishi?”

“Because Dong-Yul doesn’t actually intend to make any friends. Especially with us.”

I could have laughed, but I didn’t want to make too much noise. I was spending too much time in the restroom as it was, getting briefed on the situation.

“He isn’t, of course he isn’t. He thinks he can lead us into a trap?”

“Looks like. It’s for very different reasons, but, like him, our gang has been growing pretty quickly, too. We’ve both been getting a lot of attention, making waves, as they say. So, what happens if two hot rookies are pitted against each other?”

“The winner gets the combined hype of both,” I said. “They get momentum.”

“Exactly. Which gives him more clout to do… whatever it is he wants to do. And, considering the rhetoric, it’s probably not very good.”

“Probably. What good does he think he’ll accomplish with a war, though?”

“Maybe he doesn’t want to do any good. Maybe he just wants to watch the world drown. Hóngshuǐ does mean flood, in case you didn’t know, but you probably did.”

I raised my chin, feeling compelled to wrap my head around that.

It was hard, trying to make sense of Dong-Yul and his actions. His attire, his attitude, the girls, the fact his gang’s name was in Chinese, structured like it wanted to be a triad, yet he owned a Japanese club and restaurant, all while having adopted a Korean name.

The whole setup of it felt all over the place, scatterbrained, cultures blending and mixing in a way that seemed forced, pushed to fit a vision of someone who might not understand what they were getting themselves, and others, into. He wasn’t even one to get his hands dirty.

And, apparently, according to Lawrence and Jess and Tiffany, there used to not even be a Dong-Yul. It was Donnie. Something had to have happened.

I shook my head.

But, I didn’t necessarily need to understand that, understand him. He just needed to be stopped.

“We can’t have floods,” I said. “Kind of puts a damper on what we’re trying to do.”

“A little bit,” D said, with a sly look in her eyes.

“Alright, then let’s get on with it, I actually don’t want to hang around a restroom and just talk.”

“Why not? It’s private, it’s clean, relatively. Can’t find a better place to converse up in da club.”

With a finger, I tapped D on the forehead. She made a noise, closing her eyes as a reflex.

“Focus,” I told her. “What’s the plan? You said we keep them occupied? How?”

D rubbed her forehead as she answered, “Mm, we distract. During dinner, Dong-Yul is going to want to play that card and sweep the rug under us, calling those men into the restaurant and overwhelm with numbers. He’d reveal his true colors, then. Dong-Yul might wait until you get back, but since you will be invariably taking your time, he might just go and rush it, or I can have Lawrence push harder with any negotiations and force Dong-Yul’s hand. Either way, we need to make sure he thinks he still has the upper hand, but in reality, we’re sweeping the rug from under him.”

“Conniving, but it can work. Give me more details.”

“Oh, the details are the best part, Wendy. I’ll go back up where I came from, through the ceiling. Access is somewhat limited, but I can get to what it matters. Like where the power comes from, for one. I can get in there and really start messing with some stuff.”

“And me? How am I getting down to the bottom levels?”

“The back lounge area that you just passed has two elevators. It’s employee access only, but I already went ahead and nabbed a key for you. It’s here, in your bag.”

D touched the side of my bag, the one pocket I hadn’t checked yet.

“What you do is call both elevators, but only get into the one on the left. That’s like, super important. Then, you’ll be going through there as Wendy, but you’re leaving as Vivi.”

“Is that going to work?” I questioned. “What about cameras, or the fact I’ll be immediately boxed in once those doors open again?”

“No need to worry. Power flows through the building in sections, meaning I can isolate certain chunks of the building from one another. By floor, elevator, and room. It’s a quirk in the design of the club. And we’ll be using, or abusing, every bit of that quirk to pull this off.”

“So I call both elevators, but only get into the left one…” I started.

“And I’ll have to shut power to the camera room to let you change. Wait for my text for the go-ahead to do that. And make sure you have your earpiece on after so we can coordinate from there.”

“Roger,” I said, musing. It felt like a ‘D thing’ to respond with.

“And then, the elevator itself. You’ll have to drop down the rest of the way to make it to the bottom. I hope you’re okay with that.”

“I’ll deal,” I said. “Large drops don’t faze me much, you know that.”

“Sweet, just making sure. And you’ll need to open the elevator doors at the bottom, yourself. Just so you know.”

“Doable.”

“Sweet sweet. Next would be the floor. I can’t mess with the power too much for too long, otherwise people will get onto us faster, but by the time you get those doors open, all power and lights and such to that floor should be cut. Then you do your thing.”

“Fuck them up like I did EZ and Krown?” I suggested, joking.

D huffed air out of her nose. “Maybe a notch or two shy of that.”

“We have an exit strategy?”

“Yeah, back the way you came. I can work on covering our tracks the best I can. I’ll let you know when you’re good to pull back. If we do this right, they will never know what hit them.”

“Man, this sounds crazy, but it might actually work.”

“It is crazy, I had to cobble this together on the fly. But that’s fine. Thankfully, we’re able to play this pretty loosely, by ear, so we have room to switch things around and improvise if we have to. As long as Dong-Yul isn’t able to do what he had planned to do, we’re good.”

“Sounds solid to me,” I said. “Elevators. Costume. Fuck them up from the shadows.”

“You got it, Voss.”

D slipped her tablet between her arm and her side, holding it there, while passing me to get closer to the toilet.

“If you keep your head straight and act like you know where you’re going, you should get to the elevators A-okay. That’s honestly the hardest part. Everything else should come naturally.”

Naturally. That word stuck out to me with a certain melancholy. And I couldn’t exactly place why.

“And Lawrence?” I asked.

“I’ll text him to keep him in the loop. If this goes well, he shouldn’t be in any danger at all. He’s a fighter, so he can hold his own in the meantime.”

D set the toilet seat and cover down with her foot, propping herself on top of it.

“Help me up?”

“Sure,” I said, moving.

Getting closer, I put my hands out for her to use as a foothold. She stepped, and I used my strength to lift her, almost tossing her up to the ceiling. She moved the panel and got through before she could bump her head.

“Arigatou,” D said. She fumbled around, and turned back so she was facing me again, like she was before she dropped down. Shadows obscured parts of her face.

“I’ll be off. Wait for my text in about… five minutes?”

“Five minutes,” I repeated.

“Hey,” I added, thinking. The lines going down the image. How she was getting around in the first place.

“How did you even get that shot, anyways?”

“What shot? The picture of the dudes I showed you?”

I nodded.

“Air vents that lead around the building, duh.”

“Don’t they make those too small to get through, even for kids?”

“They actually made them wider here, they have a lot of smoke they need to vent out. Weed, cigarettes, those weird scent machines that periodically spray stuff to make people feel good. Hotels have it too. It’s still a bit of a squeeze.”

I felt a pang of concern.

“That can’t be good for you,” I said.

“It’s not that bad, as long as I suck in my gut, I can fit anywhere.”

I looked at her, eyebrow up.

“That’s not what I meant. Being up in those things while they’re circulating out so much shit, that can’t be healthy.”

I saw D fumble about again. She removed a clump of cloth and unfurled it, dangling it from a strap.

She set it around her ears, covering her mouth, muffling her voice.

“Don’t sweat it, I use protection.”

I ignored her phrasing.

“Just don’t get stuck in there,” I said.

“I won’t, I’ll be in and out,” D said. “Like a ninja.”

I exhaled the word. “Ninja, right.”

It fit, with D’s sense of humor, and the fact we were in a Japanese-themed nightclub, about to take on fifty mercenaries, more or less.

Maybe I could laugh about it later. But not now.

“Alright little ninja,” I said. “Let’s do this.”

“Let’s.”

“Stay safe,” I said, but D’s face had already disappeared into the dark. She probably missed it.

I did more searching through my bag, finding, and taking out the employee card D had slipped into the side. I moved it from the bag to my pocket.

Zipping the bag back up, and putting it around my shoulder, I finally left the restroom.

The air was clearer as I stepped out, but it was only relative. The faint traces of sweat and flavored smoke filled my nose as I went down the hall, taking a turn that took me away from the restaurant.

I found myself in the lounge.

Different, from the one at the Lunar Tower, but only in aesthetic and atmosphere. The lighting was moody, dim, and the walls were dark, the edges of the tables and the bar were fuzzy with a neon glow. People were lazing around in some drug-induced haze, either by a drink or something smoked. The music had a heavy bass and bounce to it, the hi-hats stuttering.

It gave me a strong, strange sense of déjà vu, not because I was in another lounge, on my way to take care of another gang, but this atmosphere, this aesthetic. Like I had been at this kind of scene before…

Like…

No. I knew the time, it wasn’t midnight yet. I discarded the fleeting thought and moved on.

The lounge wasn’t full or cramped like what I had seen on the dance floor. People probably paid top dollar to enjoy themselves up here, above everyone else, so there was some exclusivity, in the lounge and the restaurant. Walking across the area, with purpose, no one paid me any mind.

I used what I had learned at the Lunar, how to blend into the background, how to act like I belonged.

I reached the elevators.

I saw a reader for the card, by the buttons. I got the card ready, and swiped without missing a beat.

I pressed to call both.

The elevators beeped, the doors sliding open.

I got into the one of the left, the doors sliding closed. I kept my head low and my face hidden.

That wasn’t hard at all.

I checked my phone, waiting for a text from D.

It didn’t take long for it to come.

Camera’s down. Change.

I changed.

I went quick, taking everything out first before putting on just what I needed. The essentials. Mask, outer layer, gloves, knife. Hood up. I wouldn’t have time to change to my proper pants or thermals. But if we only needed to provide a distraction, then I was ready.

I had finished changing.

Responding to D’s text, I put the earpiece in last.

The call came in.

Hear me, Vivi?

“Loud and clear,” I replied.

Nice. Hit the button that says B-Three.

I found the button. I hit it.

The elevator started moving.

Do you see the door to get out from the top?

I looked up, searching.

“There, in the corner.”

You’re going to need pull the latch to get it open, and make sure to close it behind you. I won’t be able to keep power away from the cameras and elevator forever, so in case someone else needs to use the elevator, it’ll be there for them, and that means less suspicion.

“Sure.”

I watched as the glowing numbers ticked down. I passed the first floor, getting to B-One.

Thinking of it as a timer, it did make me a little nervous. Just a little.

The elevator shuddered to a halt before going down another level.

And… There you go, power’s knocked out on the elevator. Same should be for the bottom level once you get to it.

“Should be?” I asked.

Will be.

Without any other words, I got moving.

The space inside the elevator was rather expansive, enough to fit a crowd if it had to. It took a few hops, but I was able to undo the latch, and with two more hops, I pushed the door open, clanging, and I got out of the elevator box from the top.

What immediately got my attention was the echo, and the pitch blackness of the chasm I was in. The elevator shaft was as long as it was dark.

Upon being greeted by the cold air, I immediately understood why D wanted me to bring up both elevators. Both elevators needed to be called up so I could have clearance to drop down once I was lowered enough. If I hadn’t, then I’d jump and get stuck, partway through. Then I would be fucked.

It was a good thing D knew to account for something like that.

The fact that she was so capable, it was kind of creepy, the more I thought about it.

I tried not to think about it.

I dropped down, feeling a split second of the jitters when the fall lasted just a second longer than it should have.

I landed, a thud echoing up and down the elevator shaft.

“Here,” I said, hushed, the sound still carrying.

And… done. Power’s cut for that whole floor.

I put my hands on the doors. I could hear the panic and confusing rising from the other side.

There were a lot of people on the other side of these doors.

“And if they try to communicate with Dong-Yul?” I asked.

Doesn’t really matter. They’ll all be down there with you so it’s not like Dong-Yul will be able to do anything about it.  Now go, I’ll keep you updated on my end. Do your thing. Operation Floodgate is in effect!

“Thank you,” I said. “I really do appreciate it.”

There was a stutter at D’s end. A connection issue from being in the elevator shaft?

And… I did hear you, by the way. You stay safe too.

I smiled.

It was such a small thing, but that gave me enough assurance that I could do this on my own. By myself.

I let the sounds of their panicking flow through me as I wiggled my fingers between the cracks of the doors. It turned into a thrill as I threw the doors open.

I rushed into the gloom, and began my ambush.

I pushed into the first person my arms fell into. He tumbled in an instant, and the force I used was enough to knock down others as he tried to grab anything in reach for purchase. They fell like dominoes.

I jumped, to get my bearings and distance. I used the few seconds I was airborne to get a scan of the room.

The layout was similar to the lounge area above. Round tables placed about, a private bar area that wasn’t manned, but open for everyone who was allowed to be in here. There was a set of lockers on the opposite side of the room, long, some open. I saw the weapons that were placed and displayed within. Guns and models of stuff I hadn’t learned the names of yet.

I took note of any doors and exits, anything they might use as a means of escape and getting help.

I couldn’t let anyone get closer to the lockers or the exits.

Another scan… Fifty suits. Seemed about right. More or less.

I began to descend, and I put my feet out, preparing to get a kick in before I could touch ground.

My feet crashed into someone’s face, and they crashed into more people. The chain reaction that followed to several more out of commission.

Was it too early to think that this was going well? Because it was.

No one could see me, and everyone was confused as to what was happening. It was just chaos, pandemonium. I kept myself shrouded in the dark, keeping quiet as everyone else screamed and shouted for anything that could help them understand, but there wouldn’t be anybody that could offer any help.

I was causing terror, doing quick damage.

Wild, in a frenzy, someone started swinging, arms flailing. I ducked, getting out of the way, swinging at him when I found the chance. It connected, and he flung across the length of the room, making a heap of those he slammed down into.

Close to one of the exits.

Hurrying, I leapt over the crowd to get over to that side.

I struck again as I landed, hitting someone square across the jaw. Maybe the same person I had sent flying, earlier. My arm extended to its full length, and I felt something give.

Not me, someone else.

I probably just broke someone’s jaw.

I-

A smack to the back of my head, forcing me to stumble in another direction. The angle was awkward, and I would have tripped if I didn’t grab for the edge of a table.

I righted myself, and jabbed, striking one of the mercenaries right in his ribs. I felt something give there, too.

A howl, and he fell over.

Dammit. I almost lost myself in the moment. Getting too swept up in the disarray and disorder of everything. I couldn’t let myself drift, or someone could get a lucky shot it.

Throwing my arms out, pushing and shoving, I tore through the crowd, hurting more to debilitate than anything lasting. As long as they were out of the picture, as long as they were distracted, and as long as Dong-Yul was unable to get any use of these mercenaries.

Maybe mercenaries isn’t the right word, I thought, as I backhanded a man into a group of his friends, one of them splitting their chin at the end of a counter. They were more like glorified volunteers.

I had to ease off on the action, hold myself back. One reason why, even though I had my knife at the ready, I wasn’t going for it right away. It didn’t need to get any worse.

“D,” I said, over the continued confusion. I kept moving towards the nearest exit, tossing anyone who even had the thought of leaving.

Yes?

“Any other tricks up your sleeves? It won’t be long until someone does get out of here, I can’t keep it contained to here forever.”

I was working on that. Let me see… here!

I heard a series of hard clicks, scattered across the ceiling.

I heard a series of hard taps, pattered down on my hood.

Water?

Sprinkler’s on.

Using my shoulder, I shoved one suit into another, causing yet another chain reaction. Doing it like this, attacking from the dark and taking advantage of everyone being discombobulated. Unless I jumped, I wasn’t allowed much leg room to kick, but shoving people around was getting the job done. I’d stick with that strategy until the circumstances changed.

People fell, and they slipped as they tried to scramble back up. The floor was collecting water in some places. It was working.

Have to watch my step, too.

I made my way over to the closest exit, clawing my way through. I saw a thin line of light as someone cracked the door open.

I grabbed his arm, twisting it. The line disappeared. I threw my arm back, and him with it.

Putting my hands on the metal bar, I pulled the handle off the door.

A blunt hit right between my shoulder blades. It was more the weight of the hit than the actual pain that caused me to slam into the door, cheek pressed up on the metal surface.

I could feel hands trying to get at me, reaching and pulling for the hood and flowing sides of the poncho of my costume. They’d snag a hold, but it wouldn’t last, their grip slipping away. Was it the water, making me harder to pin down?

With the metal handle still in my hands, I pressed it back on the door, and I hopped, bringing my feet up as well. With a kick, I sent myself flying back. The door didn’t crack open.

Sending my full weight behind me, I shoved the portion of the crowd back. They collapsed and landed in a pile, with me at the top.

I stepped over bodies, heads and hands to climb out of the pile and get back on my feet.

I jumped to reach another part of the room. The tapping of water momentarily got stronger when I got closer to the sprinklers above.

Crowd control. Had to keep everyone inside, and everyone occupied, for as long as possible.

I underestimated the strength of my jump, my shoulder bumping into a locker to stop myself.

A group of suits had the dumb idea to grab for some guns. Couldn’t let that happen.

One of them grabbed for a rifle, hanging from an open locker. I put both hands on the metal handle I had gotten from the door.

I swung down, hitting an arm. Another underestimation, another howl. He recoiled, hugging his arms close and collapsing to his knees.

More people with the same dumb idea. I hit them with the door handle so they could reconsider.

Being in the dark, with so many people and so many things happening all at once, it would be so stupid to grab for a gun and start firing in here. People wouldn’t shoot if it meant friendly fire.

I swung again, and I was blocked.

A man in a suit, towering over me, using the gun as a blunt weapon.

He tried to fight me on this.

Pressing his arms, and the gun, down, he tried to overpower me and get me to heel. I could see the veins on his face and neck, I could see the effort.

My makeshift weapon was locked with his manufactured killing machine.

A light thrust. That was all it took to get him off of me and onto his ass.

I did one more sweep of the lockers, closing each one I came across, kicking other guns under counters and tables to prevent any searching hands from getting lucky.

There. That was one problem literally swept away. It would have to do.

What more could I do? There had to be something.

“D,” I said. “How is it on your end? And Lawrence?”

It took a moment before I heard anything from her. I had to get back at working on crowd control while I waited.

Then came her reply.

Hold on, hold on!

“D…” I said, huffing out the name. My focus was split between trying to talk and trying to fight.

I’m not at that room right now! They, I, it’s gotten a little complicated!

A little complicated?

I wanted to press for more info, but the amount of energy I was exerting was beginning to take a toll. I wasn’t getting too tired, but I was feeling like I had just completed the first significant stretch of a marathon. I couldn’t talk at the moment, but I could exhale out the words if I really wanted to.

Shoot, they’re here, crap crap crap!

I was worried to have to hear her cries for help, and I couldn’t do anything about it. I wanted to go up there and get her, but I still had a job to do, here.

I lunged, kicking. Several more people dropped at the wake of my hit.

Yeah uh okay this isn’t working Vivi get ready I’m heading-

I couldn’t hear the last part.

What I did hear was much, much louder.

Snapping, cracking, stuff crumbling out of place. The ceiling gave way at one part, leaving a hole where something broke through into the room.

Or someone.

There was a short pause in the action, as people tried, and failed, to make sense of anything that was happening.

V!” I heard from both the earpiece, and in that momentary pause. From across the room.

Across the room, with about fifty people between us, thirty or forty of them still standing. I had to get over there.

Getting there, and crowd control. I could do both at the same time.

I went to work.

I lashed out, swinging with the metal bar, going for limbs, making them fall. Breaking bones, if I had to. I just needed get to D.

Watching my footing, I walked over fallen mercs, hurting and whining over the various injuries I had given them.

I brought another foot-

Being in the crush of bodies, I felt a wave of movement. I almost tripped, if not for someone being right next to me.

People were pushing into me.

Maybe they were finally getting their bearings, coordinating with one another. Maybe they were finally catching on.

I can’t let them.

Powering through, I fought against the current, grabbing a hold of anything I could use-

I saw a fist coming at me. I didn’t have the room to dodge.

I threw the metal bar.

It hit him across the head, I heard a clang, and dropped limp onto a nearby table.

Anything I could use.

I grabbed edge of the table. It was round, so I had to bring out my arms to get a better grip on it.

I lifted.

People had gotten up on some of the tables, trying to get a better vantage point to see everything, despite how black it was. Some even managed to get out a phone or flashlight to try and find an answer.

The table turned, leaving the ground, and I flipped them off, back into the gloom.

I waved the table like I would a fan, if the fan was large, circular, and wooden. I swung it at people, literally swatting at them like flies. People scattered, clearing a path for me.

I threw the table, and it crashed into a corner of the room. Maybe it hit someone, maybe it didn’t.

I saw D.

She was being held up by another guy, picking her up by a headlock, properly restraining her. D tried to kick, but her legs only struck the air in front of her. Struggling, but it’d be useless.

I drew out my knife.

Without any real thought, just instinct, I sprinted forward. And with just a light spring in my step, I was going through the air.

I went over the man that had D, grabbing him by the hair. He tumbled back when I hit ground again.

I was on the floor, and him with me. Just him. D was free.

I stabbed with my knife. Arms and legs.

Didn’t care about inflicted pain, didn’t care about the screaming.

I kept going until he no longer-

Hands grabbed at me, pulling me back. I turned back and raised my arm to-

It was D.

She put her hands to my face, squishing my cheeks together. The sprinkling water made her hair stick to her face and forehead. Her clothes were damp.

“I’m not worth going that far for,” she said.

I blinked, water seeping into my mask, wanting to argue.

I didn’t get the chance to argue.

“So… plan’s changed,” D said. “Any ideas on how to get us out of here?”

I didn’t have any.

“That’s alright. We’ll stick to what we can control, let’s have you focus on-”

D didn’t get the chance to finish.

The lights cut back on, the sprinklers turning off.

I squinted, having to readjust.

This was not ideal.

I no longer had the dark to hide in, the shadows now too small to make useful. I was out in the open, and very visible.

I was able to assess part of the damage I had done.

About half of the glorified volunteers were down and out. The rest were huddled into groups of two or three, helping each other up, or trying not to slip with the floor being as wet as it was. Some did slip, only adding to the number of those who were out of commission.

There was still a sizable amount of those who were not, though. And they all had their sights on me, now.

I shifted, keeping low, head down, using part of my poncho to conceal D and keep her close.

“Change of plans, huh?” I murmured to D.

She didn’t respond.

I fidgeted, feeling for my knife, making sure I had it in hand. If I made the first move, now, I could still catch a few more by surprise.

I made the first-

An elevator made a ding.

Everyone had turned, so disoriented that any external stimuli could override their attention and focus.

I turned as well.

The doors opened.

“Oh flip me,” D said.

A man got out of the elevators, clapping. Biker’s attire, leather jacket, skinny jeans. All black, from skin to clothes.

More men filed out of the elevator. They were dressed in a similar style. As far as the gangs represented, they outnumbered us, but the glorified volunteers had them beat.

But only one group had the swagger to move about here, now.

They lined up around the perimeter of the room, and a few feet or paces across, until they had the whole lounge filled out.

The man was still clapping.

From behind him, Lawrence and Dong-Yul walked out, hand in hand. Neither of them seemed particularly pleased to be doing so. They stopped, still behind the still-clapping man.

D and I had control of the situation, earlier, and now I was brought down to the same level as those volunteers.

I had never seen the man before, not personally, but with the group he brought in with him, the uniforms, two in particular standing out by a lot, I felt like I could accurately guess who this was. Who else could it have really been?

A grand entrance, and he had made everyone watch.

He finally stopped his clapping, and beamed, his teeth shining, too white and too bright. He spread his arms out even more.

En garde,” Styx intoned.

Previous                                                                                               Next

073 – Crouching Tiger, Hidden Lady

Previous                                                                                               Next

It didn’t take long for us to get together and get coordinated. We were all primed to get going, itching to make some progress. To get shit done, basically. No time to waste time, and no rest for the weary.

Or the wicked, if I was still ruminating on Fillmore’s words.

Which I wasn’t.

More important things to focus on. Other, loftier goals that I’d rather put my energy towards. Set my sights on the horizon. Forward.

Ironic, in a sense, since my head was down, my eyes were closed, and we were moving backwards.

Though, in reality, the vehicle was moving in the right direction, and my perspective was skewed, thanks to where I was seated.

I had never been in a limo before.

We were going around, no real destination in mind, driving just to drive. It wasn’t something I considered very often, but I wondered how much gas we were using up, meandering so aimlessly. All those resources that were being wasted. Time, gas, money.

I could judge, but I couldn’t complain. It wasn’t up to me.

We were the guests.

From across the limousine, a man clapped his hands.

“I’m really, really glad you decided to take our invitation, despite our… disagreements, the other day.”

“Yes,” Lawrence said, “Despite.”

I kept an ear out, listening to the conversation, but not actively participating. I’d let Lawrence handle the bulk of the conversation, since it was supposed to be part of his responsibilities as the ‘face’ of the gang. I would have considered that as me not shouldering everything, but I’d imagine D having some words about that.

But, no use in putting mental stock on an imaginary conversation. Had to focus on the one going on now, in the moment.

“You really surprised me, when you came to visit. I thought you were a goner for sure. With everything that went down with The Chariot, and the Ghosts were never on an even keel, I would have suspected you’d go down. It would have been in a blaze of glory, but you’d go down.”

“There was a blaze, but something else came up from those ashes. Don’t count me out just yet.”

“Lesson learned.”

“And don’t forget, the Kung Fools came to me for help. Don’t act so high and mighty now.”

“Hey now, you know I had nothing to do with that, I wasn’t in charge at that time. And we’re rebranding, too, I’m sure you understand that.”

“I do, but it doesn’t matter. You’re in charge now, it’s still debt you inherited. Now it’s time to pay up.”

“Ever diligent, aren’t you? I have to say, you’ve changed from the last few times we’ve met. You’re much more uptight, now.”

“Am I? I’d say you changed too. I remember you being much more… meek. This… show? It’s more something I’d could see Bruce setting up, not you. You don’t even go by Donnie, anymore.”

“It’s not a show, Lawrence, I guarantee you it’s really real, out here. I have to do what it takes to survive. I’ve got people to protect, now, a war to get prepared for.”

“Do girls and expensive clubs count as surviving?”

“It’s all about image, Lawrence, if I show that I have everything under control, which I do, people will believe me, and believe the rest of my brothers and sisters aren’t to be fucked with. It may not look like it, but it is important.”

“I suppose I understand. I still want my money.”

“That diligence, again. I can see how you got to be the leader of your own gang so fast, but I did manage to catch up, didn’t I? You might even say I’ve surpassed you.”

“And what did I just say about being cocky? You just got lucky. People have a legitimately good reason to join your gang.”

“I wouldn’t call that me being lucky. Bruce got caught up in the undercurrent of hate and anger in the city, and he couldn’t keep his head above the water, so to speak. Drive-by, three months ago, to the day. Still fucking freaks me out that he’s gone.”

“I’m sorry for your loss.”

“It’s alright. I’m sure you felt something similar after what happened with your boss?”

“I… wasn’t as close to her as you were to yours. In the end, we weren’t really family.”

“I see, still a shame then. I rather liked Benny. Smart, strong, and not to mention, hot as fuck. I was kind of pulling for her, you know? That maybe one day, our groups would have had a better work relationship.”

“That’s why you should wipe the slate clean by paying this debt. Depending on how this goes, we can still succeed where our predecessors couldn’t. Together, we can build what they were unable to.”

“It is more shameful to distrust our friends than to be deceived by them. Confucius, or at least, that’s what an online search claims he said. I had disagreed with you before because I wanted to do you one better. I believe in goodwill, Lawrence, especially in these trying times. And you’re right about working together, I’ll need all the friends I can get. And I think I know the way to win you over, for good.”

“If you believe in goodwill as much as you claim, you’d stop wasting my time, and give back the money you owe us.”

“Oh, Lawrence, that’s why I brought you and your girl out here, tonight. I do have a surprise for you.”

There was a noticeable pause, on Lawrence’s part.

“You do?”

“Now you’ve made go and ruin it! Oh well, fuck it. I know, I didn’t come across as very… generous, when you came by after so long, but, I was able to see the potential benefit of having a group like yours on our side of this fight. It took some convincing, but I was able to come around. I get the final word, but my people are allowed to have a say in the matter.”

“How benevolent.”

“I do try.”

The limo slowed as it prepared for a turn. I swayed, and I had to set my hands down beside me to catch myself from tipping over.

“And it’s exactly because I try, that I can be so… benevolent, as you so eloquently put it. You see, Lawrence, I didn’t want to just give you your money and be done with it, there’s no good business in that. But, if I treat you and your lovely plus-one to dinner at one of the most famous club and restaurant in town, get more acquainted with one another, and then give you the money with interest? I can’t think of a happier ending to your night than that, and you get to bring that bombshell with you back home.”

“It’s not like that. Wendy is a very valuable member of our team, and she carries as much authority as I do. I would highly advise you to not get on her bad side, trust me. Hell, it makes me uncomfortable, just having to bring it up.”

“Does it? Then that makes it even better, then. I almost envy you, having a beautiful, fierce woman like her at your side.”

“Again, it’s not like that. Really.”

“Like I said, I almost envy you. Why have one when you can have two?”

I heard Lawrence grumble something, but I couldn’t tell if it was supposed to be for me or not.

Either way, I lifted my head, opening my eyes by fraction. Glaring.

“Ah, the beauty awakens!”

My line of sight snapped to the source of the boisterous voice. Kim Dong-Yul.

A young man, around Lawrence in age, give or take a couple of years. Hard to pin down, exactly, it could get like that with Asian people, sometimes. His hair was styled in a trendy fashion, an undercut with the top part combed back, dyed blue. His clothes were just as flashy, a bright red jacket that was zipped up all the way. Though, I wasn’t sure if ‘zipped’ was the right word, I saw more straps and latches across the thing than an actual zipper. On the whole, it resembled a straitjacket. Experimental.

If I had to be subjected to wearing that myself, I would have purposed it as the grail piece, something the rest of the outfit revolved around. Dong-Yul didn’t seem to agree.

His pants were track pants. Neon green, with white stripes running up along the side. Brighter, yellow sneakers that made me think he was walking on two suns. Every piece was loud, every article of clothing fought and clashed against one another for attention. It was an eyesore, and the limo’s interior lights were dimmed. I wanted to close my eyes, again.

He was beaming as he looked me down, head cocked, his grills glistening even in the low light, cast in orange. His arms were around two girls, one on each side of him. They were both dressed similarly, both Korean in their features. Hats, blue hoodies, opened, showing off tank tops that exposed their stomachs. Grey, baggy sweatpants. Uniform enough that it had to be deliberate. Nobody wore those clothes with those colors without invoking a specific image.

Dong-Yul looked as if he was very pleased with himself, an air of self-satisfaction that was almost a put-on. At the very least, he seemed to be having the time of his life.

He had addressed me, and I was inclined to respond.

“Or you stirred a beast,” I warned.

“Oh, you are fierce, I like it.”

He didn’t take the hint.

“Glad you could finally join us, Miss Wendy,” Dong-Yul added. “I was worried that you weren’t into this arrangement, or even worse, bored.”

He flashed a wide grin, showing off the grills.

He spoke like someone who thought they held all the cards. A high level of confidence that bordered on arrogance, which brought to mind what Lawrence had said about him after the first, initial meeting.

Arrogant asshole.

Hearing him for myself, it sounded about right.

I gave a faint smile, more just to be cordial. For politeness sake.

“Bored? Never. I’m just taking advantage of the ride you’ve provided us. Just a little tired, is all.”

“And why might that be?”

I took note of the slight prodding.

“A lot of late nights, a lot of working. You know how it is, running a gang.”

Dong-Yul gestured in a way that I took as dismissive. He looked to the girls beside him, and nudged them to lean in closer. After a delay, they did.

“Maybe, but that’s why I have subordinates, let them do all the work. I don’t like getting my hands dirty.”

That… didn’t sit well with me.

“You’re in the wrong business if you’re unwilling to do what might be necessary,” I said.

He cocked his head again.

“CEOs don’t clean and mop the floors. They sit at the top, calling the shots and making others move in their stead, you dig? I make the buildings they clean. People have been coming to me, now, flooding over in droves, to join together and fight for me. Who am I, if I’m not the one at the top, giving the orders? I can’t mingle with them, or even entertain that pretense, otherwise we all get lost. I have the vision, and they’re the means of making it real. I can’t do everything, so why even pretend that I can?”

I blinked.

In my heart, I had the feeling that he was wrong, but in my head, I couldn’t pick the proper words to say why. And I didn’t really want to put forth the proper effort and get into it. Not for him, not with him.

“Agree to disagree,” I said.

He clicked his tongue before answering, “Interesting.”

The limo rolled, steady. Music with deep bass and dark synths played in the background, the rapping too mumbled for me to make out or understand. It was easy to ignore and it was overall unobtrusive, but it did add to the atmosphere inside the vehicle. A subtle effect. With the smoke, the music, and the dim, it reminded me of the lounge in the Lunar Tower. The sort of relaxed, but privileged ambience that only a select few could enjoy. But it had been twisted, to fit Dong-Yul’s bargain version of that concept. The smoke was of weed, the music was commercial, and the lights periodically faded from one color to another.

And the limo, it wasn’t a fancy, luxury type. A cheap rental. The floor was carpeted, a little sticky, the seats vinyl, the limo itself wasn’t allowed much actual room for stretching. I could have seen myself being forced to ride in one for prom, if I ever stuck around at the school long enough for that event to come around. Well, not me. Her.

Dots. I’d need more if I wanted to connect them, and come to a conclusion.

“So, Miss Wendy, I’ve been meaning to ask, what are you exactly?”

Multiple ways I could have interpreted that question.

“You’re going to have to be more specific.”

“Race. Chinese, Vietnamese? I’d offer Korean, but I’m fairly confident I can rule that out.”

“Oh. None of the above, even including the one you ruled out. I’m Japanese, but even then, I’m only half.”

“That’s cool, that’s cool. There’s not a lot of people repping glorious Nippon in Stephenville, but there are a lot halves and mixed of different kinds, even among my people. It can be cool.”

Can be.

“Cool,” I said.

“Which side?” Dong-Yul asked. “Mom or Pops?”

More prodding.

“Mother’s side,” I breathed.

Dong-Yul seemed… disappointed, hearing that. His expression dropped for a split moment.

“I’m guessing you were born here?” he asked, his mixed reaction gone, as if it was never there to begin with.

“I was.”

“And your mother? Moved over from the motherland, right?”

“I suppose she did,” I answered, careful to not reveal too much about myself. The conversation had shifted over to me, in a way that made me wary. Not uncomfortable, but cautious.

“May I ask where? I apologize if I’m coming across as pushy, but getting to know my fellow brothers and sisters… it’s an interest of mine. You know how it is.”

I actually don’t.

“I wouldn’t know. I never found out.”

“You didn’t? Why not?”

I felt my glasses slip down my face. I fixed them.

“I never really… cared, I guess, about that sort of thing. It was never a concern of mine to find out.”

Dong-Yul quirked an eyebrow. “You guess? You have to know, Miss Wendy, or rather you should know. It’s an important thing, your heritage. Being part of a larger culture.”

“It’s only half of my heritage, less than half if I consider other things. Like this.”

I gestured at the interior of the limousine. The smoke and music and lights. The gang members.

“And there’s more important things to worry about than where someone came from,” I said. “For me, it’s irrelevant.”

I heard Lawrence grumble again.

“That is interesting,” Dong-Yul said. “I do agree, on one hand, your background doesn’t define everything about you, but on the other? For some, it’s all they have, and they can’t run away from home. I’d  agree that you can’t either.”

Dong-Yul shifted, finally removing his arms off the girls. I felt relieved for them.

“Pisses you off, doesn’t it?” he said, serious, leaning forward with his hands together. “I know you’re only half, but it’s not like they care, so you can relate. The struggle is still real.”

“Relate to what?”

Dong-Yul looked at me, shocked.

“All this shit, the injustice that’s been going on to a big chunk of the population in this city. Robbery, assault, murder, other stuff I don’t even want to say, it’s that bad. Literal hate crimes. It’s been happening, more and more, faster and faster, and nobody cares. Nobody gives a shit. Cops don’t, or they’re so slow with it that they might as well not even try, and all the media does is point and shake their heads, but they spin it as an unfortunate consequence of something else. A fucking bullet point of what they think is the much larger issue. No, all they really care about is the fucking Bluemoon.”

The two girls traded looks, unknown to Dong-Yul. He was hunched over, hands together, staring at me right in the face.

“It doesn’t get you heated?” Dong-Yul asked, watching me very closely.

I knew I had to pick my words, very carefully.

“Of course it does. It’s fucked up, and it’s just plain wrong. Even in our territory, I’m doing what I can to protect the people there, and I’d do the same if I was in your position, race and skin color aside.”

I couldn’t discern any reaction from Dong-Yul.

“Interesting,” he said.

The real answer was much more complicated.

The racial tensions bubbling in the city were reaching the point of boiling over and exploding, and it wouldn’t be long before another incident escalated the situation up another notch. People from a specific portion of the population were getting targeted, hurt and maimed. It was true that there wasn’t any justice to be found, and if left unchecked, it could lead to another disaster, something not unlike what happened at the school. What happened with Harrian.

More complications.

D had advised that we shouldn’t stir the pot, and yet here we were. Here I was. I had exploited these tensions before, and we were going to exploit it one more time. But, Lawrence had a reason for wanting to put this gang back on the list, after meeting with Dong-Yul the first time.

Dong-Yul continued, without any further provocation.

“This is America, you feel? They never cared about us. They ignored us, kept us in the margins. And for a minute, we were even cool with it, we just kept our head down and we made our money, and so did they, even if it was a buck off our looks, and sometimes, our culture. And now, with all this shit coming out about Harrian Wong, and the Bluemoon, motherfuckers want to take us out as if it’s our fault? When we didn’t do nothing? Fuck that with chopsticks in both holes.”

The lights switched in color again, casting everyone in a soft red.

“These kids, they’ve been coming to me, wanting to be a part of something. Something bigger, that can fight back for them, protect them, when they can’t protect themselves. It’s us versus them, now, and I’ve got to do what I can to raise an army, make connections. It took some work, some attitude adjustments, but I think I’m getting somewhere, and it’s something I can be proud of. I’m done with people thinking we can be forgotten, or stepped on, or stolen from without any regard. It’s about time everyone hears us, and we’ll make them listen.”

His hands were shaking, his teeth clenched after concluding his monologue. Then, he moved, stiff, as if he was forcing himself to sit back and relax.

The limo waited at a light. The music, and the hum of the vehicle filled my ears as the silence lingered.

Tension.

His arms went back around the girls.

Lawrence had a reason for wanting to put this gang back on the list, and I was starting to see why.

Dong-Yul laughed, half-hearted.

“Man, I did not intend to get into a whole thing about it right now. It’s just, every new recruit I get, I have to hear their stories, how all these riots and offenses have been fucking them over, and their stories become my stories. My burden. What about you, Lawrence? It wasn’t always like this for you, right? It used to be okay.”

Lawrence nodded.

“I remember. No one gets into this life because they want to. I did, because it was easy, and I needed to survive. And then it becomes a little bit harder, responsibilities stack, and other stuff catches up to you. It’s a lot to wrangle. And then, all of a sudden, if you managed to survive long enough, you’re at the top, wondering how the fuck you’re going to keep it up, and keep it together.”

I gave a glance to Lawrence. Dong-Yul had said he had changed from the last time they met, but I didn’t have that frame of reference. Did he?

He didn’t look any different. Hair neat, clothes sharp, ready to go. He was the same Lawrence as I came to know him. But, he was still nursing some injuries, but it didn’t show. He was good at that.

Maybe he answered in that way to win some sympathy points with Dong-Yul? To appeal to his concerns, and make him think he still held the cards?

Either way, it worked. Dong-Yul seemed to relax some more, holding the girls tighter.

“I like that, Lawrence, I really do. It’s a shame we didn’t get to be proper partners back when we were still greenhorns. I think we could have worked well together.”

“Nothing’s impossible,” Lawrence said.

“Truly.”

I looked between Lawrence and Dong-Yul. In the moment, they looked like seasoned veterans, trading war stories, talking about how this life had changed them, and not necessarily for the better. I wondered how much going down this path would change me, and how much it had already. It would be impossible, and perhaps arrogant, to assume that I hadn’t changed at all. I had some hope that there was some good in there, though.

“But,” Dong-Yul said, glancing out the window, “We can discuss this further over dinner. We’re here.”

We were here.

The limousine slowed to a crawl, then stopped. The music outside drowned out any other sound inside.

Dong-Yul leaned out of his seat to get the door, opening it. He left, and the girls followed.

Followed by me and Lawrence.

We exchanged looks as we hopped out of the limo. Lawrence nodded, and I took that as a sign that the plan was still on. His hunch had solidified into something more concrete.

I nodded back, reaching for my phone.

Taking the occasional glance down to type, I read the neon sign flashing across the face of the building.

The Gonnishi.

Shaped like a Japanese temple, the roof was curved, extending past the building itself to function as a veranda. The bright, blinking lights caught the underside of the roof, revealing an intricate design of flowers and dragons etched into the architecture. It was a detail that would be probably go unnoticed by most, but it had somehow caught my eye.

The building itself was like a fusion of modern and traditional stylings. The outline and feel of the building resembled that old-temple look, but the actual design of it was sleek and minimalist in nature. Dark, smooth glass surfaces, metal fractals that spread out to resemble falling flowers. Cherry blossoms, mostly likely.

It would have been easy, to appropriate the architecture and style and come out with something tacky. But they didn’t. Whoever designed the place knew what they were doing.

And after being subjected to Dong-Yul’s ramblings, I could see why he picked this place to hold the meeting proper.

A long line snaked around the entrance of the Gonnishi, people waiting hours upon hours to get in. We bypassed the whole thing, Dong-Yul waving to the bouncers, and they let us in without a word being exchanged.

I sent a text, put my phone away, and walked into the building. I passed Lawrence a bit.

The inside of the Gonnishi was not unlike the outside, it even reminded me of the limo. Dark, with changing hues of primary colors. Pounding music, dancing people. It was a crowd, bustling, brushing up against each other as they moved to the music, or moved to get drinks.

Everyone stayed close as we walked, staying close to the edge.

I had caught up to the two girls that were with Dong-Yul, who was at the head of the group, leading the rest of us.

Too far, and too loud to hear me, even if I raised my voice.

“Hi,” I said.

They both turned, saw me, and made room for me to squeeze in between them. Compared to them, I was a dwarf, I realized.

“What’s up?” one of them asked. The girl to my left, now.

“I just wanted to say hi,” I repeated. “Dong-Yul never introduced you guys when you picked us up, and it kinda became awkward after that.”

“Oh, hi then.” The girl smiled. “I’m Jess.”

“Yuri,” the other girl said, to my right.

“And I’m Wendy,” I said, “But I’ve already mentioned that, but not to you guys.”

“I appreciate it,” Jess said.

“Is he always like that?” I asked. “Dong-Yul. I’m not going to lie and say it didn’t bug me, just a little, but something about it seemed… off. Calling me ‘beautiful’ and ‘fierce’ and all that crap, and the way he had you sit next to him. I don’t know, and maybe it isn’t my business, but it was just something that came to mind.”

Jess looked ahead, to Dong-Yul.

“No, he wasn’t. I’ve known him back when his brother was the leader.”

“Leader. That Bruce guy?”

“That Bruce guy. It’s kind of a sore spot for Donnie, which isn’t surprising, so we don’t really bring it up. But yeah, Lawrence was right, his death changed him. It was like whiplash.”

Yuri cut her off. “We probably shouldn’t be talking about this behind Donnie’s back, Jess.”

Jess frowned. “Right. Sorry, Wendy.”

“No, I’m sorry for asking, I was just curious.”

“It’s alright. Oh, restaurant’s this way.”

We changed directions, turning onto a set of stairs, going up. Dong-Yul walked up first.

The stairs were a bit narrow, so I fell back to let Jess and Yuri have room to move. Lawrence caught up to me.

“What was that about?” he asked.

“Nothing you don’t already know.”

He gave me a look.

“It’s true,” I reiterated. “It’s food for thought. If it’s any consolation, you were right about him. Them.”

“I was?” Lawrence scratched his head. “Not sure how to feel about that.”

“You should feel proud you managed to catch this in time. Now come on, let’s eat.”

For a third time, Lawrence grumbled.

The stairs led up to a second level, a balcony-like area that overlooked the dance floor. It was its own separate section, though, with windows that closed each part from one another.

Another bouncer let us through.

The bouncing music and heavy bass immediately gave way to silence. It wasn’t a complete absence of sound, it would have been impossible with the booming club below, but there was a certain stillness that made me not want to speak above a whisper.

The restaurant part of the Gonnishi.

Of the modern and traditional dichotomy that made up the club, the latter had won out here. It looked like a fancy Japanese restaurant, with soft, padded mats and an earthy texture and color to everything. Wooden tables, bamboo stems that ran up the wall, as if they supported the ceiling.

No one else around, I noticed. Either this place was exclusive, or Dong-Yul had strings that he could pull.

Dong-Yul was talking with a server, and had them take us to our booth. The smell grew stronger, and more foul, as we approached.

It was as every bit appetizing for humans as it was not for me. I had to fight my instincts on wanting to avoid it and run the other way. Every step was harder than the last.

Like rotting, melting cow guts.

The meat glistened on the hot metal surface, and we took our seats around the grill.

“This is teppanyaki. Best of the fucking best. I made sure they started prepping before we got here,” Dong-Yul said, “So now we don’t have to wait. You’re welcome.”

“Thank you,” Lawrence said, eyeing the food. I could tell he was actually looking forward to having a taste.

Me, on the other hand? Not so much. I’d cut off my own finger.

The cook on the other side of the grill handed each of us a plate, utensils, and a bowl of rice. With his different sets of spatulas, he slid the meat around, cooking it, making sure it looked alright.

It looked… alright, I supposed.

I steeled myself.

One by one, everyone started getting their pick of the meat, setting it on the rice and blowing on it to cool down. Dong-Yul, Jess, and Yuri used chopsticks. Lawrence was stuck using a fork.

“Ah man, Lawrence, please tell me you’re kidding!” Dong-Yul joked.

“Shut up. I never got around to it.”

“Holy shit, you’re really not kidding.”

“I said shut up!”

Lawrence was keeping Dong-Yul, which was good.

For my part, I grabbed the chopsticks, and picked up a piece of charred beef.

I hadn’t used these before, not me. I let my hands move on their own, operating on muscle memory.

Her memory.

I gulped.

“So, Lawrence, what do you think?”

“Tastes great, Dong-Yul, thank you for the treat.”

“Anytime, my man.”

“Actually…”

“Yes?”

“You mentioned earlier about raising an army, and making connections. Preparing for war. Is that just rhetoric, deterrence, or do you really mean to go all the way?”

“Everything is everything, Lawrence. I want to build something that shows everyone that we can’t be pushed around and stomped down anymore. If it means having to throw some weight around to show I mean business, then I’ll do that. If it means striking before we get struck again, then fine.”

“All without getting your own hands dirty?”

“Someone has to call the shots, and someone else has to follow through. But we’ll all be cleansed of this, soon enough. I’ll bring in the tsunami, raise the tides, and all the boats we came in on. Everyone else can get caught in the undertow.”

“Dong-Yul, Donnie, I say this as a colleague, that kind of approach won’t-”

I coughed, choking.

All heads turned to me.

“Wendy!”

I sputtered, gagging. Shaking as I hacked food out from my mouth, making a mess of the surface in front of me.

The meat was terrible, I could barely call it food. More like burnt rubber, and it wasn’t even dry. It was covered in slime and a mucus that made the thing slide down my throat, only making it that much easier for it to slide back up.

I grabbed from a napkin while I was still convulsing, trying to wipe some spit and slime from my mouth. I got some of it.

Crap, taste like crap.

“Wendy, you okay?”

A girl’s voice, sounded like Yuri?

I shook my head, still shaking.

I tried to vocalize, but the taste had arrested that ability from me.

I felt hands grab for me.

Didn’t fight as I was brought to my feet, my seat pulled away from me. The hands were for support.

I forced my eyes to open. Lights hurt a bit as they came in.

Lawrence.

He was holding me up, looking at me with a concern I wasn’t used to.

“Hey, you alright?”

Time passed before I could reply.

“Choked,” I managed to strain out.

“Find a restroom, clean yourself off. Hey Donnie, there a restroom here?”

“There’s one on the bottom floor.”

“Don’t you have something up here? She can’t go down there by herself.”

“Why not?”

Lawrence had brought his voice down, but Dong-Yul would have been able to pick it up.

“She’s not even eighteen.”

“Lawrence, what? Wait, wait, I think we do have one up here. Yeah? Yeah, they’re saying we do.”

Lawrence took his hands off me, leaving me to stand on my own. I managed.

“I, I am so sorry,” I said, legitimately feeling embarrassed. “I didn’t mean to…”

“No big,” Dong-Yul said, “You can excuse yourself if you have to.”

“Yeah,” Lawrence said. “Go, and come back once it’s sorted out.”

“Okay,” I said, blinking, nodding. A signal.

Taking another napkin with me, I turned to go, leaving Lawrence with Dong-Yul, heading through a door across the restaurant by someone who looked like they worked there.

I stumbled out, finding myself in a hall in the back of the club. The music was loud again. I was reminded of the Lunar, which gave me a sinking feeling, but not by much. The walls were black, here, marked by stickers and phone numbers written in chalk. Names of people who were here before.

The door clicked behind me. I looked to see another bouncer. An Asian guy, well over six feet.

“I’ll let you in when you come back,” he said. “There’s another longue area here that connects the club and the restaurant, but you can’t come in unless you came out through here.”

“Got it, thanks for letting me know. Um, where’s the lady’s room?”

“Down the hall, take a right, it’s at the back of the lounge.”

“I… I was told there was a private one.”

I showed him the napkin.

“I kind of need the privacy. Dong-Yul said it was okay.”

The bouncer took a breath.

“Down the hall, take a left. There’s a number pad, but just keep pressing the ‘one’ key until it unlocks.”

I bowed, slight.

“Thank you so much.”

I continued on, down the hall, taking a left. I walked, and kept walking. The hallway was long. Passing employees, keeping my head down, I found the door to the private restroom.

I pressed the one key. After four presses, a light turned green, and a mechanism fell into place.

I let myself in.

The restroom was pretty big for just one person. The walls and floors were clean, the mirror without any spots, and the smell wasn’t as bad as the food.

Wiping my mouth again, suppressing the urge to vomit, I walked straight over to the mirror.

I washed my face, rinsing my chin, cleaning myself off. Trying to wash that taste out of my mouth.

Crap. I knew it would taste bad, but it was even worse than I ever expected. My stomach was shuddering, twisting and turning, as if it had its own volition, trying to get out of me. I put my thoughts away from that as I grabbed for more paper towels to dry myself.

I dabbed on spots on my face, making sure I didn’t make a streak across my glasses. Some of it was guesswork, as I tried to avoid looking directly at my own face, my own eyes.

I heard something shift. Above me.

I turned and looked up.

“Yo,” I said.

A panel had been taking out of the ceiling, and a face was staring back at me. There was little to no lighting up there, so the shadows made the image creepier than it actually was.

Though, having a face staring from above, while in the restroom… Definitely creepy.

Point taken.

“Yo,” D said back, whispering a bit.

Her face retreated into the dark, but only for a moment. From the hole in the ceiling, feet popped out, and the rest of her followed as she dropped down.

“Oof!” she sounded, involuntary.

She bounced back to her feet, fixing the strap around her.

“It’s about flipping time you showed up. Do you know how gross to be sitting up there, waiting until you came over. People coming in, doing one of two things. Ew. Gosh.”

“There’s other stuff you could have been doing,” I said. “Like scoping out the rest of the club.”

“I did that, but there’s only so much I could get done without sticking my neck out too much.”

“Did you find anything, um, interesting?”

“I did, yes. I don’t hate to admit it, because I get to be proud of my L-Boy, but yeah, his hunch was right, it’s definitely a thing.”

I thought back to what Dong-Yul had said, his piece on fighting and armies and war, making everyone listen.

“Definitely a thing,” I said.

“It’s not just that, either. I checked around, and found… well, here.”

D took off the bag, giving it to me. I took it, feeling the weight of it. It gave a me a certain comfort.

With her hands free, D had her tablet out, flipping through it as she talked.

“You know in those martial arts movies, where one guy goes into a room and takes out, like, a hundred other guys?”

“Yeah?” I asked.

D stopped flipping through the tablet, and flipped it around, making it face me.

I looked at the picture, at D, the picture, and back to D.

She was completely serious.

“Yeah…”

Previous                                                                                               Next

071 – 三猿

epy arc 11 ride

Previous                                                                                               Next

“Rise and shine, Wendy.”

I opened my eyes.

White.

Blinding.

A bodily reaction. I twitched.

Instinct. I drew away, retreating.

A fading dream.

Only had the broad strokes, even then, they were being erased. A room. Chairs, strewn about. Limbs, too. Chaos there.

Black and white checkered pattern.

Eyes.

So many of them. Appearing in every square. Watching, observing.

Not a dream, a nightmare.

The gazes make my skin crawl.

Couldn’t find comfort in sleep, yet it hurt to face the light.

No choice.

I tried opening my eyes again. I took my time with it, going slow, letting myself adjust to the light, little by little.

I didn’t have the energy or will to rush myself.

The light gave way to details, and I was able to start piecing together where I was, what I was looking at, and the general state of things around me.

Drapes, pulled away from the window, the main source of all the light. As I adjusted, other stuff starting coming into view, more clear. The ceiling, blue with gold highlights, the lines coiling and winding like vines. There was an ambiance to it, as what I assumed was the morning hours bouncing off the colors, giving a soft, warm glow.

It was all so relaxing.

I moved my head. Stiff. I hadn’t stretched or used my muscles in some time, apparently. I put for effort into my fingers and toes, arms and legs, and found that it was tense there, too.

Brushed against heavy blankets. Warm, and somewhat wet. A certain fear began to manifest, until I realized that I had just been sweating.

I pushed myself, and the blankets off my body. I felt how fabric stuck to my skin, how my hair felt damp against my forehead. I pulled my arms free, using them to sit up on the bed.

Bed.

Wasn’t my bed.

Where exactly was I?

“Took you long enough.”

Feeling an itch in my eye, I rubbed at it, but with the other, I searched for the owner of the voice.

Lawrence.

Accompanied by D, sitting at either side of the foot of my bed. If I was groggy from too much rest, then Lawrence was groggy from too little. Bags under his eyes, color gone from his face. His hair, usually neat and combed, was clumped together and standing in some places, as he meant to spike it up. He wore a soft, padded brace around his neck. He was sitting, but I noticed that he was in a wheelchair.

D, however, looked the best out of all three of us, but that wasn’t saying much. She looked tired as well, not so much blinking as she was letting her eyes close, then opening them for brief intervals. She was dressed, though, in her usual style, her hair was sticking together, wet, as if she had just gotten out of a shower. If something were to happen, she’d be the most prepared to handle it.

I tried to speak, but there was a hitch in my throat, and I produced a light cough, instead. It didn’t escalate into a full-on fit, but it did bother me, how dry it sounded.

I cleared my throat, and tried again.

I spoke.

“Yo.”

Being succinct. It helped.

D smiled, soft, with none of the impish or vulpine quality I had come to associate with her expression. It looked as real as I hoped it was.

“Good to have you back,” she said.

Testing myself, I set my back straight up against the pillow, until I was sitting more upright. The bones in my back popped.

“Can’t say it feels good to, ah, be back,” I said.

“Careful,” Lawrence said, “Can’t have you overextending yourself again. Last time that happened, well, you ended up there.”

“Overextending… myself…”

I ran my fingers through my hair, my bangs, getting strands out of my eye.

“I don’t really, I mean, it’s all kind of fuzzy.”

“Take it easy, Vivi, let’s just take it easy, and take it slow. How are you feeling?”

Testing myself, I made a fist, with both hands.

All ten fingers…

“I feel like, I feel like shit. Like I overslept and lost any benefit of sleep to just go around and be tired again.”

“That’s because you did oversleep,” Lawrence said. “It’s been two days.”

My heart leaped in my chest, a small yet potent burst of energy that woke me up even more.

“Two days?”

“I wish it was a joke, but yeah,” D said, as if she was apologizing.

“You and I were supposed to be out of here yesterday,” Lawrence said, “But you slept right past that. We had to pay for an extra night, out of the gang’s pockets. Do you know how fucking expensive it is for just one night?”

“No,” I said.

Lawrence shook his head.

“If I hear that number one more time, I think I’ll lose it. So, never mind.”

D looked at Lawrence.

“You take it easy, too. Don’t give yourself any more stress.”

“Too late.”

She looked back to me.

“It doesn’t set us back that far. We’ll be fine.”

“We’ll be fucked, that’s what it means.”

Lawrence!”

D shot a hard expression at Lawrence, one of disapproval. He only waved her off.

“I didn’t know I was out for so long,” I said. I put my hands together, resting right in front of me, on the blanket.

I broke all three rules I set for myself, I thought.

Causing problems, being an inconvenience. I didn’t like how much trouble I was causing for Lawrence and D, to the gang, and myself. Like taking steps forward, but always taking one less back. I would be making much more headway if I didn’t keep finding ways to stunt that progress.

D patted the blanket, right above my feet. I looked and met her eyes.

“Back to what I was saying,” D said. “Taking it easy and slow. How much do you remember, before you woke up here?”

Before I woke up here.

My thoughts and memories were like peering through a fog. Thick, muddy, unclear. Difficult to parse. Even the dream I just had was already lost.

Lost, but I felt a certain discomfort.

“I haven’t been very good at remembering things,” I answered, telling the truth. “Asking me now would be like, I don’t know, turning water into wine.”

“Crazier things have happened,” Lawrence commented.

D gave him a glance.

“What happened?” I asked. I was almost afraid to ask, considering a sizable chunk of my memory was missing. I had blacked out, blanked out, lost all sense of self and what took place in the interim. Picking up the pieces without being aware of what knocked those pieces down in the first place…

I was almost afraid to ask, but I was more afraid of the picture I might end up with.

Still, it was something I needed to know. Rather that, than be out of the loop.

“You really don’t know?” Lawrence questioned.

“It’s fuzzy,” I said. “It’s hard.”

“Try.”

I tried. Searching for anything I could use to glean even a piece of what was missing. To latch onto something.

A dream. It was already escaping me, but I held on to what I could. Lawrence wanted an answer, and I had to find one.

“White. I remember being followed by Granon’s men, but, I think it was more me leading them. I brought them to that hallway, I remember that and how white it was…”

“Wasn’t like that when I saw it,” Lawrence said.

D’s reaction was expected. I continued.

“After that, it all goes blurry. I remember it being really hot, and…”

I trailed off. I massaged my fingers, working much longer on one in particular.

I remember how loud it was.

Even now, apparently two days later, the impression of it hadn’t gone away. A very distinct echo, still ringing in my head. Voices, distorted and raw. Pained, hurting, begging. I had a distinct feeling as to who those voices belonged to.

And a pounding. Though, that was much harder to place. I chose not to concentrate on it.

I stopped, letting the silence that followed be a sign that I was done, that I had divulged all that I could recall.

“That’s fine, you did what you could,” D said.

“I could be doing more, it’s just not coming to me. Dammit.”

It was frustrating, not knowing, but in this case, there was almost a comfort, in that.

Maybe I don’t want to know, after all.

“Has this happened before?” Lawrence asked, pulling me away from my thoughts. “You blacking out?”

“I, it’s… the first time.”

“It is?”

I didn’t respond right away.

It was a lie of the partial sort. She had moments when she lost herself, Alexis, but I didn’t claim those experiences as my own. They weren’t regular occurrences, and if this recent incident was bad, then it was impossible to recall anything of those times back then. Only that they happened.

“Do you know what caused it?” Lawrence asked. “Why?”

Don’t know. Don’t want to know.

“I wish I knew,” I said.

“That’s not inspiring a lot of confidence.”

All I could do was shrug.

Lawrence looked like he wanted to say more, but he deferred to D, instead, saying, “You’re up next, D.”

D pointed to a nightstand by the head of my bed.

“There weren’t any cameras in that area, I took some pictures of the hall after everything… happened. You want to see?”

The reaction was instant. My stomach was tied up in knots at the thought of it.

“No thanks, I don’t want to see it.”

“Maybe later, it is pretty important that you look at it.”

“Sure,” I said, trying to put my mind on other stuff. “Later.”

Lawrence sat back and folded his arms.

“Don’t dodge, D. Tell Wendy why and how we’re even here to begin with.”

D winced, as if those words had a weight to them, and Lawrence just hit her.

D, right. She was here, present, being active. It had just occurred to me that I was talking with her, seeing her.

When was the last time we talked, face to face? It felt like ages ago.

D twiddled her thumbs.

“That’s, uh, a much deeper conversation than I’m qualified to have, and personally I believe that everyone should find their own meaning and purpose in life, and-”

D cut off when she saw me.

“Please,” I said. “I hadn’t seen you for a while. I missed you.”

D reacted, making a face and adjusting her choker.

“Missed you too, Vivi.”

I would have expected Lawrence to make another comment, but instead, he just stayed back, watching, as if he was letting this happen.

Then, D gave her explanation.

“Alright, let’s back this up a bit. As I’m sure you might have guessed, but Styx did have a hand in this.”

“Styx,” I said, breathing the name. I let it sink in. I had never met the man before, not me, not personally, and yet he had played such a pivotal part in putting us in this situation.

It was a mixture of emotions. Anger being one of them. Rage, really. Forlorn, too, that I wasn’t doing enough to regain my own hold on things I didn’t like how events in my life were being arranged by people I’d never interacted with. That wasn’t freedom, it wasn’t peace.

D nodded, saying, “He helped because I came to him for help. And it wasn’t the first time. When we were tackling the whole Benny thing, he had his Ferrymen, um, contain the fires that we started in Eastside, so to speak. If it weren’t for him, we’d have a lot more enemies on our back, and we probably wouldn’t even last long enough to have Granon as an enemy. He’s had a hand in this, in our growth, and in our ability to maintain.”

I was in bed, but I still felt I had been knocked down.

My memory was hazy, but that was only for recent events. I remembered the Ferryman that I had encountered when I was making my way back to E-One, where Lawrence reported on the earpiece that he had Benny. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but, coupled with this, the other Ferryman that gave us the keys into the Lunar, maybe I should have.

D going to Styx… It made sense, but I almost wished it didn’t.

“How did you even know to go to Styx?” I asked, but I felt as if I already knew what the answer would be.

“Styx and her go way back.”

It was Lawrence that spoke, giving D an accusatory look. D, however, didn’t look back at him. Her focus was still on me.

She didn’t have anything to say.

I’d have to get it out of her.

“You could have told us,” I said. “Keep us in the know, keep me in the know. Maybe I hadn’t told you this before, but I absolutely detest being kept in the dark about things, being led around, manipulated, and played with. You were there, when EZ and Krown got the better of me, you know how it… irks me.”

D had a dour expression on her face, eyes down. She tried to make herself look small, bringing her shoulders down, inward.

But she was still there, I could still see her.

I asked her again.

“Why didn’t you tell me about this?”

D stammered out her reply.

“I, he, it was one of Styx’s conditions. I couldn’t directly help you guys, but I did what I could to work around it, bugging rooms and getting access to the security and cameras in the hotel. I was always keeping an eye on you guys, making sure things were running smoothly, and also I-”

I interrupted.

“I don’t give a fuck about that, D, that’s not what I’m getting at. I’m talking about before any of this shit even started. You could have told me about Styx’s involvement in our plan of getting Benny, you could have gotten ahead of this. I’m talking about the principle of the matter. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

It was a slow, barely perceptible movement, but D nodded her head.

“I do,” she said, sounding hushed and apologetic. She either meant it from the bottom of her heart, or she was playing up the little kid angle. It was hard to tell with her.

D continued.

“It was just, we were just starting, everyone was still getting used to the idea of working together, like Lawrence and the Ghosts, and us. I thought something like that would be so fun, and I didn’t want to mess it up, so I kind of played my own card, to ensure that everything would go smoothly. And then it worked, but like, I could tell that the other Ghosts were still kind of wary about me and Wendy, so I kept-”

I raised a hand, palm facing outward. D stopped.

I set my hand back down, and I noticed that I had been gripping the blanket tight. I had to pry my fingers out from the fabric before I could use them properly.

“No excuses,” I said, “I’m not in the mood for them. I just want things to get better. Can you do that?”

“Yes.”

“Thank you, I’m holding you to that.”

D blinked, quiet, nodding as well.

It wasn’t great, and I was still feeling that mix of melancholy and anger. I wasn’t at my best, but it would have to do, for now.

But, shit.

So much to consider, now. Too much, even. It was overwhelming.

Take it apart, compartmentalize it. Discard what isn’t needed.

Not a bad way to start.

“Now,” I said, changing the course of the conversation, “There’s a lot we need to get through and figure out. Like what the fuck are we going to do now?”

I tossed the covers off of my body, swinging my legs over the edge of the bed. Heavier than I expected. I really had been out for a long time.

I took the next part easy, planting my feet on the floor, getting up slow. D got up from her chair to help me to a standing position. I didn’t stop her.

“Let’s move while we talk,” I said. “It should help me think clearly again, get all my gears moving.”

D helped me with my first step, allowed me to test myself with the second, and I was under my own power by the third.

I was still sluggish, but damn, it felt good moving around again.

What didn’t feel good, though, was how greasy and oily and sweaty my skin against my pajamas. I couldn’t wait to hop into the shower after this.

D went to Lawrence, turning him around in his wheelchair. She pushed, and they had passed me as we moved the discussion over to the living room area.

“Lawrence,” I said.

“Wendy.”

“How long are you going to be in that?”

Lawrence grunted.

“She’s been making me stay in this thing until we’re out of this hotel. But I’m fine.”

“You’re not fine,” D said. “I just want to make sure you will be.”

Lawrence made a hand signal, lifting a finger and traced a circle in the air. D spun around so they could both face me.

“As soon as we get out of here, I’ll be better than fine. I’ll be okay.”

“Soon,” I said. “When are we supposed to be leaving again?”

“Technically, twenty-two hours ago.” Lawrence let out a small chuckle.

“Noon,” D said, correcting him.

“So, we’ve got two hours? That’s enough time to iron things out.”

I put my hands on the ornate couch in the living room, using it for balance. I started.

“Let’s start with what we do know. Granon and the People’s Hammer?”

“Summarily fucked,” Lawrence offered. “You did your… thing, and I did mine. They’re not going to be a problem anymore, especially Granon. His employer might want to try branching into Stephenville again, but that won’t have anything to do with us. Probably.”

“Is he…” I paused.

“Dead? He’s not, but he is fucked. He’ll need a tube up his ass to take a shit, now.”

“Language,” D said. “Gosh.”

“I curse all the time.”

“Yeah, but you’ve been doing it too much, lately.”

“It’s how I deal. Deal with it.”

D grumbled.

“Deal.”

“Next,” I said, “Styx. Is he still a factor?”

I would have asked about Granon’s men, if they had met a similar fate or not. But, this was one of those very few, very rare instances that I’d rather not know.

Killing was a hard line to cross, different from maiming or hurting. A very definite step above. I didn’t see myself as a killer, even with having handled knives and guns in the past. I’d hurt people, and I’d put them at the brink of death, but I had never pushed someone over the edge. I didn’t have a particular rule against it, but it would brand me forever, the second I crossed that line. Murderer. Killer.

Even Benny, whose life I was more than willing to take, I shied away from that particular edge at the last second. It didn’t feel right, in that instance.

Much like how it didn’t feel right, in this one.

If those men were gone forever, never to wake up again, I… couldn’t see me as being wholly responsible. I had lost control of both my mind and body, whatever happened wasn’t anything I intended to do. Maybe people did die, but it wouldn’t have happened if I could help it. And I couldn’t.

It doesn’t count.

“Styx will always be a factor,” Lawrence answered. “He was here before Stephenville became a sanctuary city for gangs and cartels, and he’ll probably be here even after nuclear war wipes the rest of us out. He’s a fucking cockroach.”

D answered the question properly, saying, “He sees me, or us, as being in his debt for all the assistance he’s provided. He’s going to want to cash in those favors. When? It’s anybody’s guess.”

“It’s going to be soon,” Lawrence said, as if it was a premonition. “It’ll be some sort of test, I’m guessing, he mentioned that we should get our shit together. But, whatever it is, I’m not looking forward to it.”

“Mentioned?” I asked.

“As in, he fucking told us.”

“Ugh, language,” D said, quiet.

“Ah,” I said, “Duh.”

Two potential tests.

At worst, they’d derail the gang’s progress. At best, it could be Styx’s way of helping us even more, but I doubted the man’s benevolence.

“Well, if he helped us twice, now, he probably wants to get something out of it,” I said.

“Three times,” Lawrence said, correcting me. “Three.”

I tilted my head.

“What was the third thing?”

Lawrence jabbed a thumb at D. She, in response, went stiff, her lips in a hard line.

“D,” I said.

“It’s not relevant,” she said, avoiding my eyes. “It doesn’t pertain to the gang.”

“I told you, D, I don’t like-”

“It’s not relevant!”

D shouted, sudden, so loud that I flinched, and I could have sworn the scene around me briefly change. White. Chairs strewn. Red splotched everywhere. I blinked, and I was back in the suite, in the living room, that incident already fading from my memory.

“Uh,” I said, unsure of how to respond, if I even should.

D had screwed her eyes shut. She wasn’t holding onto the wheelchair’s handles, her arms were straight down, hands balled up.

There was no act to it, no pretending. D was a kid, and she reacted like how a kid would.

She doesn’t want to say.

Lawrence gave me a measured, careful look.

“Hey,” he said, “If it’s not relevant, it’s not relevant. Right?”

“Yeah,” I replied, with care. “Not relevant.”

D took her time in composing herself, unwinding. She played with her choker.

I put my thoughts elsewhere.

I was standing, lifting a leg up to stretch and get blood flowing. I still felt fatigued, thoughts and ideas weren’t connecting as well as they should have been.

Delayed, I was finally hit by a harrowing realization.

I opened my mouth, speaking slowly.

“Does… Styx know my secret identity?”

Heads turned.

I saw their expressions. I knew.

“Fuck,” I said.

“It’s just a feeling,” Lawrence said, “But I have my doubts that he’d do anything with that. It’s his business to know things. It’s how he got to where he is today. If he let slip every piece of information he has, then his gang wouldn’t exist, or not to this capacity.”

“But he was a part of the Solace conspiracy,” I said. “He was directly involved with trying to take me out of the picture, during my Blank Face days.”

Lawrence spread his hands.

“I wouldn’t know about that. You’d have to ask her, she’s the one that’s chummy with the guy.”

I looked at D. She didn’t look at me.

“Styx isn’t going to do anything with that information,” D said. Her voice wasn’t firm, but it didn’t falter.

“You had better know for sure, or I’ll make it so he can never ride his bike again.”

For a moment, D set her jaw, lips pressed together.

Then, she replied.

“I’ll be sure to tell him that.”

Covered, but not concluded. Styx’s actions, as I understood it, were completely contradictory. Sabotaging me as Blank Face, but willing to help now that I was V. It didn’t connect, not from where I was standing, not with the limited information I had on him.

I’d have to seek him out, one of these days. Get a proper dialogue going. If anything, it would interesting.

“So we’ll keep Styx in the back of our minds,” I said. “We still have our own priorities, and we can’t have him looming over our heads. We stick with our original plan, and whenever he shows himself again, we’ll be ready.”

Lawrence replied. “And our priorities are?”

“Maintenance and expansion. We touch base with our territory, and we start picking through other gangs that had a debt with the Ghosts. That plan is still in effect. That doesn’t change.”

“Hit the ground running, then? I’m down.”

“Same here.”

D had responded, though with less enthusiasm than before. She was still shaken from her own outburst from earlier.

I nodded, glad that we were in agreement. Even though it was on varying levels.

“Anything else?” I asked. Every pertinent item was addressed, but I wanted to be thorough, to cover all of our bases.

Lawrence didn’t hesitate to offer another topic.

“Yeah. You.”

I paused.

“Me?”

“You heard me. All this talk about knowing this and knowing that and staying in the loop, yet you’ve never told me a damn thing about how your powers actually work and what fuels it.”

“Fuel?”

“You mentioned that you don’t eat, that it was a drawback of your powers. What you failed to mention was, while you may not eat, you do drink, and I’ve seen what you’re like when you’re thirsty.”

I swallowed, hard.

“You saw?” I asked, my voice breaking a little bit.

“You’d have to be blind to miss it.”

It was my turn to avoid the stares. I glanced elsewhere, keeping my eyes down. I moved my hands to my side, but I found that my pajamas didn’t have any pockets.

I was in an awkward position.

“It’s not relevant,” I said.

“Bullshit. The only reason why things turned out like this is because you ran off and went berserk on Granon and his men. It’s why we had to stay an extra night to wait while you were recuperating. That is absolutely something I should know about. If I did, then maybe this entire thing would have went down different. Less messy.”

“It’s…” I started to say, but I wasn’t sure what point I wanted to make. What I point I wanted to refute.

Lawrence raised his hand again, using his thumb to point at the little girl behind him.

“Did she know?”

A simple question. A simple answer.

I gave him the truth.

“She does,” I said.

Lawrence frowned. And in his eyes, I could almost ascribe it to the same feeling I had now. That mixture.

“Let me ask the same question you asked her. Why the hell did you not tell me about this?”

My gaze was to the couch, down, unsure of what to say.

What was I supposed to tell him?

That I had once thought of him and his Ghosts as expendable? Pieces that could be sacrificed for a move or a play? No one ever liked hearing that they were expendable.

“It’s not something that is a direct concern for the gang,” I explained. “I have my condition, and I’m usually good at taking care of it on my own time. It doesn’t have anything to do with you, and I only told D because she asked.”

“So it’s my fault I didn’t consider that you might have a condition. How idiotic of me, then.”

“The less people know, the better. Just as a rule. Could you imagine what might happen if it got out? People were already freaking out and rioting over the fact that I exist. That would only get worse if they learned what I needed in order to sustain myself.”

“Panic is panic is panic. And you think I’m a snitch? That I’d go off and run my mouth to anyone who would listen?”

“Course not,” I said. “It’s just a rule. Did you want to know, Lawrence?”

His response was immediate.

“I don’t give a fuck.”

Now I was confused.

I brought my eyes back up, meeting his.

He doesn’t want to hear it.

“Then why bring it up?” I asked.

“I had some time to think about it while you were resting. It’s not about me knowing, it’s about you not knowing. Because, it seems to me like you are completely unaware about who and what you are, and you’re letting your ignorance blindside you, and you’re not in a position to be tripped up like that. It’s dangerous, and more importantly, it’s stupid. My life is already crazy enough, I can do without your baggage.”

“What is it you want from me, then?”

He straightened up. I could see how he tried to mask the aches, his effort to maintain a neutral expression. It didn’t really work.

“I want you to get yourself together. And fast. We can’t bail you out everytime a screw gets loose in your head. If you become a liability, then that puts everyone in the gang at risk. Me, D, and all the rest. It’s like having nukes. Ideally, it should be used as deterrence against our enemies, and if we have to use it, then so be it. It shouldn’t break down and give the rest of us radiation and turn us into mutant-vampire-demon-things.”

“I doubt that’s going to happen,” I said.

“But do you know for sure? Like, how did you put it, it’s the principle of the matter. Understand, exactly, how you tick, and why. If you’re going to be our muscle, you can’t just come in, wildly and blindly swinging, hoping for something to connect. You have to think what your next move is going to be.”

Lawrence continued, “So instead of this-”

He mimicked what he had mentioned earlier. He swung his arms around, flailing them.

“Be more like this.”

He stopped, his arms out in front of him. He lowered them, posing, assuming a fighting stance.

“A Shaolin warrior.”

An odd sort of silence settled in, as Lawrence kept his fists up, and I stared, trying to make sense of the point.

It lingered.

D was the one to break it up.

“Wow! Where’d you pull that from? That’s so dorky!”

D started cackling, tossing her head back, making herself louder.

Lawrence turned red. Even his ears.

Then, he slammed his hands down, grabbing for the wheels of his chair, and he pushed himself away from D.

“Fuck this, fuck all y’all! You’re not taking this seriously!”

D tried to chase after him, but she had found it way too funny, having to lean on a leather chair for balance. She tried to call out to him between her fits of laughter.

“Wait, L- I am, we are taking this seriously, promise! Right Wendy?”

Despite how tired I was, how bombarded I was with every new update I had gotten, I broke, and cracked a smile.

“We are, Lawrence.”

It was a brief respite, considering I had just woke up, shaken, and immediately had to deal with the fallout of the fight with Granon. A little bit of levity could go a long way.

He stopped in his tracks, though he was pretty close to the door. It made me wonder where exactly he was trying to go.

Lawrence sighed, twisting his wheelchair around. D was cooling down, now, reduced to giggles. He spoke over her.

“But you do get my point, right?”

I did.

“I do,” I said, rubbing my eye, stifling a yawn. “I’d rather focus on this, the gang, but I can start that on the side… or something.”

“And whatever you do find, you can spare me the details, honestly. As long as you’re moving forward with it.”

“Yeah… no, yeah, that’s fair.”

“And I can help,” D ventured. She gave me a victory sign.

“If I need it,” I told her.

“No way, you don’t have a say in this, actually.”

“I don’t?”

“Nope. You shouldn’t keep trying to do everything yourself. Even if you have super duper strength, you still have your limits. Obviously. I’m just curbing this before it becomes a bad habit.”

I rubbed my eye again. “I can live with that. Sure.”

Before either of them could get another word in, I continued. “I see where you’re going with this, and I… agree. Is it safe to say that we’re all in sync, now?”

Lawrence’s head perked up, and I swore I saw him smiling.

“More or less. It’s a start.”

I nodded, satisfied.

“Awesome. Good, now we can actually start making some moves. And our first one should be getting out of this fucking hotel.”

“I’m definitely with you there, girl.”

“Same.”

I clapped my hands together, finally able to stand for an extended amount of time on my own two feet. “Then let’s move. Hit the ground running.”

After a shower.

Of course.

With everyone on the same page, we split up, each doing our own thing in order to get ready to leave.

I was ready to go.

Ready to get back to the territory, ready to make that territory larger, ready to work on other stuff that I’d have to pick and choose from.

I returned to the big, fancy bedroom, finding my luggage set aside in one corner. I worked on getting some fresh clothes to change into.

Part of me wanted to change into my costume, my mask was right there. I liked the way it fit on my face, the way it covered my eyes, how comforting it was to wear.

“Hey, Vivi?”

I turned as I closed a zipper, collecting a shirt and jeans instead.

It was D, standing over me with her hands behind her. Weird, to have her looking down at me.

I stood, and the perspective immediately switched. She moved her head in turn.

“What’s up?” I asked.

D moved her hands to her neck, tugging at her choker again.

“I wasn’t sure if I should say, but, I know that things got a little crazy, back there, and maybe you’re feeling super anxious about yourself and your powers and maybe even your body but that’s why I said I was going to help since you know it’s tough to try and do everything by yourself and I’d-”

I put a hand on her head, ruffling her hair. She stopped rambling, and dropped her arms to her sides. It was easy to forget just how young she was, sometimes.

“There’s no need to worry about me,” I said, “I’ll be fine.”

“But-”

I brought that hand up to my eye, rubbing it some more.

“But you don’t have to shoulder everything all on your own,” D said.

Still getting at that itch, feeling the eyelid flicker, I tried to assuage her concerns.

“Honest,” I said, lying, “I’ll be fine.”

Previous                                                                                               Next

070 – All Along the Watchtower

Previous                                                                                               Next

What the hell did I do?

I had no clear answer to give.

The blood was still there, dripping now, down the wall and from the ceiling. It wasn’t an illusion, or a trick of the eye. So very real, and so very wrong.

My attention was divided, trying to make sense of the situation, finding how to address Lawrence, and figuring out what to do next. I wasn’t making much progress in any one of those avenues.

Couldn’t think? Then move. I had to make progress somewhere.

I crawled, on my hand and knees. I wanted to use my other hand to go faster, but it was still burning. The one finger.

I didn’t get far. I wasn’t trying to. I made it to the base of the wall and sat, letting myself fall and letting the wall keep me propped up.

My eyes roved over everything again. Worse than before. Not only in how visceral it was, but in my actual ability to see.

Shadows flickered around the edges of my vision, making whatever images I saw to be blurry and undefined. The intense light reflecting off the white walls and tile didn’t help, making it even more of a burden to understand anything. It hurt to look, and it hurt to try and look.

The bodies weren’t moving.

They were just dark shapes, now, but they weren’t moving, trying to get up or showing any other signs of life. Strewn about, torn apart, spilled everywhere. So much blood, and none of it was mine.

Okay, not true. I did have some blood on my hands, when Granon had cut my finger…

When Granon had cut my finger clean off.

My head was down, looking at my hands, palms open. All ten fingers were there.

But there was nine, if only for a brief moment. I had felt the knife cut through the skin, muscle, bone, then muscle and skin again. There was no mistake about that. Everything happened so fast, but that one moment seemed to stretch, as every fiber and piece of my finger was ripped away by the sharp edge of a cold knife.

And then the fire.

It contrasted against the cold blade that had cut me. A sudden burst of heat, then numbness…

Trying to piece together what immediately followed was impossible.

I fell to the floor, Lawrence arrived…

And here I am, now, failing to fill in the blanks.

My thoughts caught back up to me, and I hadn’t learned anything new. Nothing to report to Lawrence.

Hold on, Lawrence.

He had arrived, Lawrence was here.

How, why?

“Lahw-” I started, but a rough edge scraped my voice away. It was dry. The realization that followed was immediate and clear.

I was thirsty.

I failed to properly address him, but Lawrence was spurred to action anyways. He hurried over to me.

“What, you can’t get up? Here.”

He didn’t bring both hands forward, instead keeping one pressed against the side of his head. He seized me by the arm.

His hard tug sent a surge through my body. I shut down again.

Lawrence pulled up, but all he managed to do was hold my arm up. I was still down, back to the wall, hunched a bit, coddling my other arm, my hand and finger throbbing, now.

“Wendy, come on. Um, I don’t know what happened, and she doesn’t seem to be in the mood to talk. Hey, Wendy, get the fuck up!”

He pulled and tugged even more, until he started yanking, but it was fruitless. I wasn’t complying.

“Shit, hold on, let me get her up first.”

Another hand touched me. That only made things worse.

I felt myself getting lifted, my back getting dragged up the wall.

I resisted, pulling back, trying to shake him off. I didn’t want to be here, but I was still out of it, but I didn’t want help. I didn’t want anyone touching me.

“Hey, hey!” Lawrence said, struggling to get me on my feet. “We don’t have time for this. We need to get going!”

I was of two minds. I recognized that it wasn’t a good idea to stick around, that someone would be coming to investigate or happen upon this very soon. I also understood that fighting Lawrence on this now wouldn’t do us any favor as far as the dynamic of the gang.

But, on the other hand, fuck everything and fuck everyone.

“Let,” I started, feeling the itch in my throat, the coarse, scraping noise that was my voice, “Go!”

I threw out my arm, the one Lawrence had been pulling at. He went from him trying to move me, to him doing what he could to hold on.

Useless. I was too fast, too strong.

Lawrence grip gave out, and he slipped, flung away to the other side of the hall.

He crashed bodily into the wall, not making a sound at the initial hit or when he collapsed to the floor. His back was to me, I couldn’t see if he was breathing or not.

The regret I felt was instant.

I fell, too, sliding back down the wall. Still watching Lawrence, hoping he’d move or give me some notion that he was okay.

Then, he coughed, hard. It gave me relief.

“You… zombie bitch,” he said, breathing out the words, “I told you… we don’t have time for… this.”

I was blinking, erratic, eyes stinging from sweat getting in and how much it ached to look at anything.

Blood, I needed blood. But I didn’t want to go after Lawrence for it, and I didn’t want him to see me use the other bodies, instead.

Why?

Everything I was feeling was hard to parse. It all mixed together.

I was confused, hurt, and on a more worrying note, scared. I had no angle to approach this, no way to wrap my head around it. I had been betrayed by my own body, it doing something behind my back. All I had was the aftermath to gather any clues about it, and it was almost too hard to look. I couldn’t accept any of this.

Horrid, an ugly feeling that sat heavy within my chest. Pressure. It was suffocating, both physically and mentally. I couldn’t breathe, and I couldn’t focus on anything that wasn’t the confusion and the hurt and the fear.

This wasn’t like me. I wasn’t supposed be like this. This wasn’t part of my design.

Wendy, V, we had to be the antithesis to what came before us. Stitched together by a different fabric, made to hold, no matter what outside pressure tugged and needled. I wouldn’t come apart, I wouldn’t pull back, I’d press forward.

Don’t count me out just yet.

I raised my head, trying this one more time. I wouldn’t rely on Lawrence, or anyone, not here. No one else could help me with this. Had to do it on my own.

I lolled, letting my upper body hang. Before I could falter and split my chin open on the cold, hard tile, I brought my hands forward, catching myself. Both hands.

That middle finger was stinging, pulsating at the miniscule amount of pressure and weight I was putting on it. I could have relented, lifting that hand back up, but I pushed through it, letting the hurt of it fuel me to spur a change. To move.

I brought a foot under me, wincing as I did it. I wasn’t used to this, the pain, the fact that I had an injury and that feeling persisted. I didn’t get hurt, I didn’t succumb to damage, I had powers that put me above people. This… this was bringing me down, to that level, their level. People.

A hard thrust with my foot, and I lifted myself back up, using my other foot for regain balance. I wasn’t standing completely straight, I was still hunched, my body a bit sore, my hand feeling as if I had stuck it in a fire. Wasn’t at my level best, but being that was a luxury, now.

As if to touch base with myself, using the hand that wasn’t fucked up, I ran my fingers down my back and around my waist, right above the hip, feeling where the bullet and gone through me. There was a small hole at both ends, ruining my jacket and the shirt underneath. I poked a finger through the hole at the back, touching skin. No tears or rips or anything broken, nothing protruding.

I drew my hand away, seeing the blood at the tip of my finger. My blood.

That, I was used to. That, I was fine with. I’d been shot at before. It still discombobulated, and it was hard to shake off, but I’d manage to walk away, debatably alright. I could deal.

This, though, this was nothing I’d ever experienced. The lack didn’t even apply here, this was too foreign for anyone to comprehend. Too off, too wrong.

It was all wrong.

A rough, scratchy sound tore me away from constant, looped thoughts. Lawrence. He was moving as well, hands pressed to the wall behind him, using his legs to slide up to a standing position. He managed about as well as he could, still hunched, his legs not all the way straight.

He looked right at me, and I looked right at him.

Sorry.

I willed the sentiment at him, knowing he wouldn’t actually pick that up. My throat was too dry to talk.

Lawrence opened his mouth, but he didn’t speak, instead putting a hand into his pocket. His hand came back up, an object in his hand, lifting up to his head.

“Yeah,” Lawrence said, eyes still on me, but it didn’t seem like he was addressing me. “She’s here. V has come to.”

Lawrence dropped his arm, and swung, letting go of the object. It finally clicked to me what it was as it made an arc through the air, across the hall.

I caught the phone. It hit my finger, and it flared up again. I was almost sent back to the floor from the intensity.

I tried to keep my focus on Lawrence, though, to try and dull out the throb and burning. It hardly helped.

“She wants to talk to you.”

He added another piece, but I couldn’t catch it, him muttering under his breath. Wasn’t a pleasant mutter, though.

One of my hands was useless for picking up and grabbing at the moment. Fumbling around, switching grips while not properly standing or balanced, made for what should have been a simple task, into an arduous and frustrating process.

I got it, but it took some bending, an awkward lean. Through my foggy eyesight, I could have sworn I saw his lips curl up.

This isn’t funny.

“Hehk-” I tried, but my voice was locked up, my throat begging for sustenance. I coughed, even though it sent sudden aches throughout my whole body, making me shudder, shake.

Oof, that doesn’t sound good. You holding up, Vivi?

I knew that voice. I hadn’t heard it in quite some time.

I wasn’t sure if I should be relieved or pissed as all hell at hearing it.

“Deh…”

A simple letter, and I couldn’t even do that right.

Um, right. L-Boy was trying to explain to me what he’s seeing at your end, but I’m kind of having trouble visualizing it. Think you can help?

“Nuh…”

It was pointless, but I tried anyways. As though the third time would somehow be a charm. Or maybe repeating the same thing over and over said something about me.

Hm, doesn’t seem like this is going to work. Can you give the phone back to Lawrence, please?

I listened without putting much thought into it. I hardly wanted to think at all.

I tossed the phone. I was out of it, weak, but the phone flung out of my grasp in a blur, hitting one of the lights above. It made a loud noise.

Not weak, rather my control was compromised. Which, for me, was even worse.

Lawrence had to step forward to catch the phone, getting his back off the wall. The phone had bounced off the ceiling, spiraling down.

It fell into his palms, catching it like he would a baseball. He stopped with one foot ahead of him, and set himself straight again, standing. Despite all his injuries, everything that was inflicted upon him, he was still able to move under his own volition. He wasn’t useless. And he was only human.

Lawrence put the phone back to his ear, watching me, being careful. I saw the concern in his eyes. For himself? For me?

“I told you she’s being weird. No, I don’t know what the fuck I’m looking at here. Yes, I fucking hate both of you for putting me through this. You all suck.”

It wasn’t coming, it was already here. It had been here. A massive headache.

The burning sensation from my middle finger seemed to spread throughout the rest of my body, like a cancer or disease. As if my body giving me message, loud and clear.

To go fuck myself.

I had very little grasp of anything that was going on, I couldn’t make anything connect. And any attempt was met with the equivalent of getting kicked in the head. Separating, taking everything apart, compartmentalizing, only did so much.

The bloodied hallway, the bodies… something I wasn’t willing to touch upon, anyways, but it was worth putting on the mental list.

Lawrence and D. Lawrence was here, and while D wasn’t physically present, she was on the other end of that call. I could reach her, if I was able. But I had my own plethora of personal issues plaguing me at the moment.

I need blood.

As I sifted through my thoughts again, Lawrence continued his conversation with D.

“You better stay on the line, D, or I swear to god I’ll, fuck, I’ll come up with something next time I see you, and it better be soon. No, I didn’t fucking miss you!”

Lawrence was going around, pacing, avoiding the blood and avoiding me, seemingly, he wasn’t trying to approach me.

He would, on occasion, look over me, presumably to make sure I was okay. I wasn’t, but it was the thought that counts, I supposed.

“Hold on,” Lawrence said, observing me, “I need to check on Wendy, first. She’s freaking me out. Her eyes are huge but she’s staring off into nothing, and she’s all bent over and breathing hard. The fucking murder hall I found her in doesn’t help, either. D? D. She looks like a goddamn zombie.”

Did I really look that bad? I probably did, if I looked as bad as I felt, and I felt like shit. I was doing everything I could to keep myself together, but it clearly was not enough.

Shit. I hated this, not being in control, not knowing, not being aware. This was all of my fears and anxieties being rolled into one, and, for added salt on the emotional wound, I was the root cause. Who was I supposed to direct my anger and frustration to? I had no outlet, no method of release, and I was afraid that, if I tried, something might happen again. Something even worse.

Shit. Had to prove Lawrence wrong, that I was fine. I had to make myself believe that.

With the phone still to his ear, Lawrence had stopped pacing, taking measured, slow steps to me instead. I swayed, ready to move and keep trying.

“Wendy, hey,” Lawrence said. I didn’t like the tone he was using. Too calm, patronizing, condescending. Like he was talking to a creature, instead. “Let’s try this again. Can you move? Like, under your own strength?”

I swayed again, leaning one way, tipping my weight so I was forced to move a foot forward to stabilize myself. A step. It was the best I could do without just simply vocalizing an answer.

“Okay, so you can move. Not well, but you can move. Wendy, I know you’re pretty stressed out right now, but I need you to take some of that fire you used to throw me at the wall, and kick yourself in the ass because we need to get going. We’re going to have to catch each other up on the way, because I know you have questions, and I… I want to know what the fuck this is.”

Questions.

So many questions, and I had zero answers. Didn’t matter how many times I repeated the last few minutes in my head, over and over and over again, I couldn’t come up with anything worth saying, anything of value.

And I couldn’t even speak. My voice was robbed by my thirst.

Nothing to say, and no way to say it.

“What’s wrong?” Lawrence asked. A very, very good question. “What the hell is holding you back?”

I couldn’t even begin to answer that.

I opened my mouth, letting it hang, and stumbled forward. I was fighting the urge to leap at him and tear his neck out, juice spilling between my teeth and past my tongue. I was also fighting the urge to dive for the other bodies to get my fill there, too. I didn’t want him to see, I didn’t want him to know.

But, why?

D had seen me, D knew. I was upfront with her about that. What was stopping me now?

Embarrassment? Shame?

I wasn’t aware that I felt those things.

Whatever it was, it gave me pause, it held me back.

I stumbled again, to the side, in the direction of the blood and bodies. I wasn’t sure on what I was trying to accomplish, but I was still operating on vague directives. Prove Lawrence wrong, make myself believe that I was okay.

It was so hard.

Lawrence pulled the phone away from his ear, his expression unreadable, but it wasn’t a pleasant one.

“Here, I’m getting nowhere with her. You’re on speaker phone, D.”

Another, digitized voice filled the hall.

Man, this took a sudden and not very awesome turn. Okay, fine, I guess we have a couple seconds to spare. Wendy? Hi.

“She just looked at me. I think that’s a response.”

Let’s just go with that. As far as I was able to gather, it’s not looking so pretty over there, is it?

“That is a severe understatement.”

You said Granon was there? Is he alive?

“I don’t want to look, D. I, I’m doing everything I can to not throw up here.”

It’s kind of important. If he’s no longer a problem, whatever that entails, we need to provide proof to show that we won.

“The fuck did you set me and Wendy up for?”

I gave us an opportunity. Now hurry and find him. Take a picture if you have to. There must be some kind of way out of here, right? I’m sure you’re thinking along those lines. Just take it a step at a time.

“What about Wendy? She hasn’t moved or responded. I’m worried it might be some kind of trauma or something.”

Yeah I’m, I’m thinking. I’m only working off what you’re telling me. Um, I can only guess, but, Wendy? Are you thirsty?

I am.

I am so thirsty.

“What does that have to with anything?”

It might have to do with everything. Wendy, I know I don’t have to tell you this, but go ahead and drink. Lawrence, you’re probably scaring her so turn around and don’t look at her until she’s done.

“Done with what?”

Don’t tell me you watch a lady while she eats? How rude.

“D, you have a lot to answer for, I swear to-”

And promise I’ll give you the proper context. Right now, just listen, please?

A warped sound, not from the device. Human, closer.

The man turned, his back turned, his face obscured.

Free, unshackled. No longer bound by the man’s gaze.

Movement, not a smooth or elegant.

Rough.

On the floor, crawling. Insect. Insect. Wrestling control from more base instincts. The man was not a threat. Here to help. Back turned, meaning submission. Free to move. Indulge.

Fingers wet. Arrival.

No hesitation.

Fingers met lips. Tongue. Swallow.

Electricity.

Oh yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah

I came to.

The effect was instant. The shadows digging and blurring my eyesight fell away, disappearing, like a veil being pulled off of my face. A wave of calm washed over me, and the finer controls over my own body were being returned to me. The burning and the fever was going away. I could see, again, and I could feel things that weren’t just abject dysphoria.

I sipped, not concerned over cleanliness or decency. Lawrence wasn’t watching, I was free to consume how I needed to. No reservations, no qualms about what I was doing.

I slurped, licking my fingers down to the knuckle, thrusting my fingers back into the puddle of red to scoop up some more, making it collect into my palms. I was still aware of that the bodies were there, so I maintained a distance, trying not to think about them as much as possible, blocking it out of my mind’s eye. I blocked out the deep grooves and scratches in the tiles, at the bottom of the puddle, I’d rather not consider where those might have came from.

I could see, but I closed my eyes regardless, to savor the taste, lose myself in the moment. To forget about everything that weighed on my mind. I had almost forgotten this, how good and sweet the taste was, how it seemed to cleanse my palate, how it-

It hit me like a kick to the teeth.

I was kicked in the teeth, sent back from the sudden and blunt impact to my face.

I heard a shout. Then I heard several.

On my back, eyes rolled back, mouth filling with blood. My blood.

My jaw had been forcibly shut, fast, tight. My tongue was out, between my teeth. I nearly bit it right off.

I started choking, convulsing from confusion and trying to cough the blood out. I sputtered, with some drool and blood trailing down my cheeks.

A high ring was singing in my ears again, but I picked up the other noise that were happening around me. Shouts. Footsteps.

“How the fuck are you still standing?”

“A real man does not let such setbacks stop him.”

“There’s a fucking hole in your shoulder!”

“I sense fear in your voice, boy, I see you tremble. Was our prior meeting an act? A show, to give me a false impression of you and your group?”

“Damn right it was! Jesus-fucking-Christ, this is insane, this isn’t real!”

“This is real, boy, and it’s also about to be over.”

The footsteps swelled in volume, and something told me the growing commotion couldn’t be ignored. This wasn’t like earlier, with the tension in the air, but Lawrence still being patient with me. This was much more pressing, much more urgent.

“Wendy! I kind of need you on this!”

Right. That was a good indication as well.

I put a hand to my face. I was healing, feeling things shift.

My nose had been broken, with blood spilling out onto my face. My tongue was cut, split almost in half by the teeth, with even more blood for me to cough and spit out. The muscles in my face and mouth pulled, setting things back into place, taking things out where they shouldn’t. That shifting feeling, hot, like magma moving under my skin. Bones mending, skin and muscle coming back together. Teeth pushed back into place.

I moved as I healed, as fast as I was capable. I had gotten some blood, but it wasn’t enough to cover everything, I wasn’t recovering fast enough.

But it would have to do.

I scrambled to my feet. I opened my eyes, trying to get my bearings. I fixed my glasses, surprised to see that they still fit on my face.

Fuck.

There was a lot of bearings to get.

People. A lot of people, not just me and Lawrence and…

And Granon.

Granon was here, that much I knew, but he was still standing. How?

He was there, towering over me, blocking the light, but his attention was squarely on Lawrence, who was on the opposite side of him, several feet away. Granon, though, was stealing the attention of everyone else.

He had a buttoned shirt, but it was undone, not due to any effort on his part, but there were so many hole and tears and tatters that it left little to the imagination.

Under his shirt was body armor.

Of course he has body armor.

But, whatever happened, whatever it was I did, it would only do so much in protecting him, now. He was clutching a shoulder, the fabric reddening around the area. I would have thought that he couldn’t use that arm anymore, but the way he formed a fist, and the way his muscles tensed, led me to believe otherwise. The armor, too, had seen some damage, hanging together by a thread. It looked like it would fall apart if he took another step. It certainly wouldn’t hold if he were to get into a fight now.

And it looked like we were all about to.

Others filed into the hall, moving in groups, holding firearms. I turned so my back wasn’t an easy target. More of Granon’s men, and part of me prayed it was the rest of them. If we made it out of this on top, then there wouldn’t be any stragglers left to deal with. And if Granon was going to make this his last stand, then so would we.

But… shit. We were outnumbered, outgunned. I could heal, but that didn’t mean that I’d survive this.

Their presence alone was enough to keep me and Lawrence still, waiting to see how all of this would play out.

Granon bellowed, and his men positioned their guns. At me, at Lawrence, meaning Granon was in their sights, too.

Where was everyone else? Hotel staff, security? D? Who was letting this happen, letting this situation escalate in the back of the Lunar Tower? What happened to this place being a neutral zone?

Granon bellowed again, gripping his shoulder even tighter. He swung with that arm, removing his shirt and armor in one motion. The body armor thudded against the wall. I could sense the weight of it by how the thing dropped to the floor.

Granon’s torso was like a wide canvas, colored in different shades of red, varying strokes of gashes and cuts. From smaller nicks to wounds that looked worrying, Granon stood as if he didn’t feel a thing.

His body was a result of something I had done, after he cut off my finger. I’d get another headache if I tried to remember what that something was, looping my thoughts again.

Granon stretched, and clapped his hands together. He really was a beast of a man.

“Come, boy, you come all this way to where I’ve been staying, where would my manners be if I do not provide some hospitality? We’re face to face, now, so let’s make a deal! Let’s settle this like men!”

Lawrence looked equal parts annoyed, scared, confused, to the point that he could laugh.

“Am I a boy or a man? What the fuck is happening?”

“Winner gets to decide. Come!”

Granon charged at Lawrence, as though he hadn’t taken a piercing wound through the shoulder, and other injuries across his body. He rushed with the strength of a bull.

And Lawrence was the matador, but he was wholly unequipped and unprepared.

Lawrence dashed to the side, just narrowly dodging his tackle. He bumped into the wall, and I saw him make a face. In pain.

“Wendy! Get over here and help! You don’t get to stand there and do nothing anymore!”

Granon turned, and pointed at me. He yelled in his native tongue, then gave us the general message.

“She does not move, and she does not speak! I will settle this with the boy, and then I take care of her! If she so much as coughs, you will turn her into shreds!”

Granon’s men responded by turning their weapons on me. Every single one of their guns.

It was risky, stupid show of power. If I actually did move, and they fired, there was no guaranteeing anyone’s safety, not even Granon’s. A bullet could ricochet, or someone’s poor aim could hit him directly. He knew that he’d put himself in harm’s way, giving that order. Yet he gave it, in spite of that.

Risky, stupid, but I complied. I didn’t move.

Various reasons. I didn’t move because I couldn’t. My entire body was screaming for more blood, fuel for healing. I hadn’t gotten enough to quench my thirst, and I had been interrupted by a boot to the face, requiring more healing there, too. I was tired, rattled, and afraid.

Afraid. Another reason why I didn’t move. I was afraid of getting shot. The loudness of it, the shock, the pain that followed. Powers or no, healing or no, the fear of it never went away. Especially not when there was the very real chance of a bullet going through my head, and I wouldn’t be the one that came back. Everything that I had tried to build would disappear, everything would have been for naught.

I don’t want to disappear.

With that fear seizing me tight, with my self-hatred boiling, I didn’t move a muscle.

Leaving Lawrence and Granon to fight it out themselves, Man to man. Face to face.

It was all on him.

We were going to lose everything.

Lawrence jumped away again as Granon charged.

The difference between the two was obvious. Lawrence was one man, but Granon was easily the size of two, with plenty left over. Breeds of a different kind, and Granon was built for fighting.

In dodging, Lawrence had managed to put some space between them, and he tried his first move. A kick, to where there was a decent cut on Granon’s side.

Hardly anything. Granon roared, either in actual pain or for some other psychological effect. For Lawrence’s part, all he accomplished was pushing himself off Granon, like being launched off a platform. The force of the kick made him stumble when he landed, a critical mistake.

Granon stalked over to Lawrence while he tried to get back on his feet, moving with an incredible stride for someone already so bloodied.

A sweep of his leg, his foot into Lawrence’s ribs. Lawrence would scream if he could.

Large hands then went out, and grabbed Lawrence by the collar.

He threw, but he didn’t let go. Lawrence was swept off his feet, his back shoved into a red portion of the wall, his feet kept above the floor. Lawrence hacked and coughed, then gasped for breath as sausage-like fingers wrapped around his throat.

Granon began to choke the life out of Lawrence.

My heart sank.

Lawrence tried to wrestle out of Granon’s chokehold, kicking, twisting, but all it amounted to was him flailing uselessly as Granon held him in place. He had already gone through so much punishment in recent months, weeks, days. From surviving a bus crash, to getting shot, to his now two fights with Granon. A human body could only take so much punishment, and Lawrence had reached his limit a while back.

The kicking started to have less kick in them, the energy behind the twisting dropped. Lawrence started to give out, the colors of his face turning white, his eyes bulging out of his head.

I formed a fist so tight I made crescent moon shaped imprints into my palms. Blood moons.

Fuck, fuck.

How could I be so frozen in my fear? Lawrence was dying, forced to risk his life in fight he had little chance of winning, and he was still fighting to the end. He didn’t have powers, didn’t have the ability to heal, and yet he didn’t run away. He was trying.

He had yelled for me, and I was standing here, doing nothing.

This wasn’t the lack, or any missing connections. This was me being a coward, running away when it actually mattered.

The realization choked me.

I want my costume, I want to wear my mask. Hide. I want to hide.

I inched forward, the feeling of bile rising in my stomach. My fingers dug into my palms even deeper.

Then, a burst.

It wasn’t from me. Lawrence.

He didn’t kick. With the last of his breath and strength, he lifted a leg, and thrusted. He didn’t remove his foot or pull away though. He kept it there, pushing, digging the heel of his boot in more and more.

Into the hole in Granon’s shoulder.

Granon shouted in another language, and seemed to double down, twisting his fingers around Lawrence’s neck, straightening his arms. Lawrence only returned the favor by pressing his heel into the wound even harder, faster, more desperate.

A sick game of chicken. Until either Granon let go, or if Lawrence died.

One of them gave.

Lawrence dropped down the wall, slumped.

Granon backed away, holding his shoulder, grunting all the way.

There was a pause.

And then Lawrence blinked.

A small thing, but I noticed it. I was looking for it, praying for it.

He was still alive, he still had a chance.

I tried to inch closer again, but a click behind me made me reconsider.

Damn me.

Lawrence began to dry-heave, body jerking, wild, tears streaming down his face. Granon’s attention had remained on his shoulder, having not noticed Lawrence. Was that a potential weakness? An exploit? If Lawrence could focus on that shoulder, or hammer on other deep cuts, then he might be able to pull this off.

He’d have to get control back of his body, though.

Shaking, heaving, Lawrence did what he could to slump forward, head hanging down. Slow, he brought his hand to his lips. His fingers disappeared into his mouth.

I sympathized.

A sudden, hard shake, and Lawrence retched, and a stream of bile flew out of his mouth. Violent, harsh, fast, a brown and green mass of liquid waste was flung, far and strong enough that it curved in the air.

Projectile vomit.

Everyone had a reaction. Granon’s men blanched, taking steps back, even though they were nowhere near him. Even I was granted permission to move.

Granon reacted as well, but with his attention having been elsewhere, it was delayed. He craned his neck to look, and leapt in surprise.

Agh!”

Anyone would have acted similarly to seeing such a sight. Women, children, men like Granon. But his response was a second too late.

Lawrence had been purposeful with his attack. He had intent. He had aimed right for Granon’s feet.

Granon attempted to swing his feet back, to avoid the vomit. But he had seen it a second too late, the floor already compromised by all the blood. Vomit splashed right under him, mixed with the blood, and coupled with his size and momentum, he slipped the second his feet returned to terra firma.

Bigger they are…

Legs over his head, his neck bore the brunt of the impact. I heard a very audible crack.

His arms fell beside him, his feet landing and pointing in different directions, outward. A stretch of nothing, a pause as it settled in that Xander L. Granon wasn’t going to be moving ever again.

Time seemed to have all but stopped, inside that hallway.

Both on the floor, only one of them still breathing. It wasn’t a possibility the majority of the people here saw as actually feasible.

Lawrence didn’t turn his head, but he moved his eyes. I met them.

A passing of the torch.

My turn.

I turned. Facing the crowd of gunmen, all dazed, confused, and soon, very angry.

There weren’t any that had come the other way, from where I had turned when I was being followed. Maybe it was part of Granon’s ego, his arrogance, that led to his downfall. He assumed he would win, he thought he had power over us, and tried to use that to orchestrate a situation that would illustrate that to everyone present. A way of gloating. He ended up drawing up a different point, instead.

I took a step to them. They took a step away.

Lawrence had went above and beyond, not just for his own survival, but for my own, and for the gang. He could have been killed by Granon’s hand, but he fought back. He tried.

I had no excuses.

I had operated under three rules, the moment I walked into this hotel. They limited me, made me bend in ways I wasn’t meant to bend. A shape I wasn’t meant to fit.

I had broken the first and the most important rule, despite my best efforts. Now, I wasn’t going to let anything limit me, anymore.

Barriers fell and crumbled, inhibitions lifted. Something else was taking over. Something distorted.

Diving into the mob, diving back into the madness. But this time, it was an intentional descent.

Previous                                                                                               Next

069 – Diplomatic Immunity

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Rule one, fighting was prohibited. We were indoors, in a fancy hotel, filled with prim and proper people, and those whose business was very much not, but still kept up their appearances. Getting into an altercation here would be career suicide. And, frankly, it was just plain rude.

Rule two, we had until tomorrow to conclude this, noon at the latest. We had to check out by then, and if we hadn’t gotten this sorted out, blood would begin to spill, and it would spill out onto the streets. I wasn’t exactly opposed to that, but only if the damages were incurred on Granon’s side of the board. I was not about to lose any of my own people.

Rule three, and perhaps the most critical, was that I could trust no one. There was Lawrence, but he wasn’t at his best, and I’d hesitate to have him out and about with Granon being around. If he had, somehow, gotten to Lawrence first, rule one would have been thrown out the window, and we would have lost right then and there. D… was a whole other thing, and with her being out of the picture yet seemingly having a hand in these events put a large question mark over everything. Couldn’t trust anyone around me, and I fought the urge to not trust in my ability to handle being on my own. I had to believe I could do this, as much as I actually had to do this. Win.

So I was limited in my options, pressed for time, and I had no allies to rely on. I was on my own.

Fantastic.

Granted, these rules were largely self-imposed, and it wasn’t as if Granon had to follow them as well. But, we did have a reputation to develop for the future, and if we could clinch a victory without needing to resort to violence, then it would reflect well on our performance as a gang.

I had to do my best.

The doors moved on their own. It had been a long way down.

The lobby opened up before me. Somehow, it looked nicer than the last time I was here, only minutes ago.

Cast in a soft, golden hue, the space was wider than it was tall, but it was still impressive in its scope. Shaped into a rotunda, though the ceiling wasn’t curved, the lobby was filled with people going about their business, or waiting for others so they could conduct business together. People checking out, checking in, everyone dressed like they had somewhere important to go. Chairs made of fine leather, countertops and tables crafted with intricate detailing, almost to the point that they looked more like decorations than anything functional.

I noted the chandelier again, segmented into fractals, but assumed the shape of the moon. From where it was attached to the ceiling, more painted vines and leaves and fruits branched out, stretching and twisting until they weaved an intricate arrangement of color, even more vibrant from the light of the chandelier.

Dang. I could get distracted, just by looking around. I was in a high-class, luxury hotel, so the interior was nothing I had ever seen before. Maybe it was a bit too flashy, ostentatious for my tastes, but then again, what did I know? My tastes weren’t anything near developed.

I walked to cross the lobby, moving around people, trying to find a good place to start, while trying not to stand out by looking lost.

I didn’t get very far.

“Hello, ma’am.”

I knew the voice. I’d heard it just recently.

I glanced to the side, noticed, realized, then stopped.

The lady from the front desk, but she wasn’t at the front desk.

She was out, by an arrangement of chairs around a small table. On the table was a cup of coffee, half empty, with no owner to speak of. The chairs were unoccupied, the lady moving one of them back into place. She must have noticed me as I walked by.

Though I wished she hadn’t said anything.

I turned my shoulders, but I was still leaning forward, putting some weight on the foot ahead of me. A subtle signal that I wasn’t here for an extended chat.

I made a sound to prompt her. “Hm?”

“Did you find everything in your room to your satisfaction?”

She’s just asking if the service has been good so far.

I answered quick, already shifting my weight to move again.

“Everything’s great, thanks.”

“Did your husband find everything great as well?”

The question made me stop again, resulting in an awkward half-jerk, half-skip forward. I turned back.

“My what?”

She blinked twice, her smile restrained by her lips being pressed together, head tilted, slight. A professional demeanor.

“I assumed incorrectly. I do apologize.”

I figured I had to do some damage control.

“Oh right. No, he loves it, he’s taking a nap up there right now.”

The lady’s expression remained.

“That’s great to hear. I do hope you enjoy the rest of your night.”

There were a few different ways to interpret that. I choose not to consider any of them.

“Thanks,” I said. This particular interaction was already starting to drag, I didn’t want to be around her any longer than what was absolutely necessary. Her poised, polite disposition creeped me out to say the least. It was a reason why I let Lawrence talk with her as we checked in. I’d feel more comfortable if her focus wasn’t on me. That, if she looked just a little harder, she’d realize just how much I didn’t belong.

The other reason was that she worked here. This hotel had a very specific reputation, and it had to be next to impossible for her to not notice the true nature of her guests. I had to keep rule three in mind.

One, two steps. Then the third, when I was stopped yet again.

“Mrs. Vazquez.”

I had to face her directly. No half-turn, no signal that I had to go soon.

Fine, fine. If she really wanted my attention, so be it. She’d get it.

“Yeah?” I asked, blunt.

The lady took her hands off the chair, and clasped them together. She positioned herself so her posture was nice and proper.

Her civility never left her.

“If you’re looking for something to occupy your time for this evening, may I perhaps recommend the lounge and casino? I’m sure you’ll find some entertainment waiting for you there.”

The wording, I didn’t like that there were multiple ways I could take it. A clue to Granon? A good place to start? Did it mean that she actually knew who I really was, this whole time?

Or was it another set up?

But I couldn’t ask any of those questions.

“Which direction is the lounge?” I asked instead. There wasn’t much else I’d want get out of her.

She gestured, her arm out in front of her.

“It’s directly behind you, on the other side of the lobby. Just take the stairs up to the second level. The lounge will be to your left and the casino will be to your right.”

I nodded, playing along. Couldn’t show my unease on my face. I had to be just like her. Poised, polite.

“Thank you,” I said. Then I moved to leave, for the final time.

“Do enjoy your stay, Mrs. Vasquez,” she said, with that light tone. “And good luck.”

Those last three words hit me like a bucket of ice water. A cold, prickling sting that ran down my neck.

You have got to be shitting me.

I crossed the lobby, lumbering in my steps. I held onto the handrail as I went up the stairs.

Rule three. I didn’t trust that lady, but I also didn’t have any leads. I wasn’t following up on her suggestion in good faith. This wasn’t like previous times, I wasn’t going into this blind. I knew what the risks were, and I knew to take anything I get with a healthy dose of paranoia.

It was a conflicted feeling that I couldn’t shake off. Was I playing a game, or was I the one being played? Every new development, it seemed, would give me more reasons to watch my back, to keep my knife close by.

And my feelings on that were very well established. Especially to D. I fucking hated it.

Heated. Had to force myself to cool off, or I might tear the rail off the wall with just my hand.

Was this really what it would be like to lead a gang? The constant second-guessing, problems stacking one on top of the other, being pulled in every direction, always needing to improvise? I could see how Lawrence had trouble maintaining operations when we first met, and I could almost understand how the stress of the position weighed on Benny, causing her to snap at the worst possible place at the wrong people. Everything was so unstable, anything could happen at any time, and it required some ingenuity and imagination just to maintain a status quo. Not everyone could keep up, and some were dragged even lower in the process. And trying to move up was another matter entirely.

Couldn’t let myself be dragged, wouldn’t let that happen. I had to be the exception.

If we were to succeed, I had to stay focused, and concentrate on one problem at a time. And the biggest one hadn’t changed. It was still Granon.

I had to find him.

The stairs ended, and I was on the second level.

The lounge and the casino. I saw them both.

The lounge was open, filled with smoke and people. More tables and chairs, but these had occupants, conversing and enjoying the ambiance of the soft light and even softer jazz music. There was a bar farther back, but I wasn’t particularly thirsty. Not for alcohol, anyways.

For the casino, however, there was a glass wall separating here and there. There was an entrance, but someone was standing in the way, barring the way through. A small line had formed, with people waiting to go in and try their luck. On the other side of the glass were the bright, beeping slot machines, and tables, people playing with chips and cards and cash. The sounds and the sights were harsh, even with a literal barrier to entry.

I’d start at the lounge. It was free to get in, while getting in line for the casino ran the risk of me getting stopped by the guy there. If I wanted to keep a low profile, I’d have to avoid that kind of gamble.

I moved.

I stepped from tile to carpet as I entered the lounge area. The lighting immediately dimmed, smoke and music making my senses swim. The atmosphere was thick, intoxicating, the desire to sit down and unwind was almost enticing. Almost, though. I wasn’t about to take it easy, now. I had a job to do, and I had to do it fast.

Moving, keeping out of the way, I observed the lounge.

No one that looked like Granon, or any of his men. I was confident that I’d see him if he was here, he wouldn’t be hard to miss. Everyone here was much… smaller, with less imposing frames. And no one looked as though they wanted to wreck the place, or had the temperment of a bull. It was exactly how it appeared, a place to relax, to smoke and drink the night away. With class.

No luck.

Sticking close to the perimeter of the lounge, I traversed a wide arc around, just to cover my bases. I didn’t see Granon, but I still wanted to be thorough.

I maneuvered around leather chairs and velvet couches, the guests sitting, trying to get as close as possible without alerting them to my presence. Studying faces, catching words.

I wasn’t picking up much.

Investments, details of private dealings, recent trips to Asia. The minutia of people’s daily lives, that I’d never fully learn the context of. In short, nothing of value.

Nothing of worth. Just pointless chatter.

Was this really the best I could come up with? Walking around, aimless, hoping to catch anything of worth towards finding Granon, if not finding Granon himself.

And, was Granon even in the building right now? He might be staying here, but that didn’t mean he was currently here. I might have to change my approach, and go after his men instead, have them lead me to him. But would I be able to pick them out if they weren’t making themselves obvious?

Too many things I was unsure of, too many things I didn’t know. I hated being blind.

Anymore of this, and I might just try to torch the hotel to the ground, smoke him out that way. It had worked once before.

I finished my loop around the lounge, coming up with nothing. The idea of playing with fire seemed to burn that much brighter.

Fuck, nothing or no one stood out.

If not here…

Then somewhere else.

Time to get in line.

I left the lounge, moving over to the other side. The casino. The lounge was too placid for someone like Granon. If he was going to be anywhere, it would be where it was loud, flashy, and active.

I settled into the back of the line. My pulse quickened as everyone moved, as I joined in step, and as someone fell into place behind me.

The opposite of standing out, but it achieved the same effect. I didn’t look like D, body-wise, but I was standing around fully grown adults, several heads taller than me. They all had a natural, relaxed about them, exuding confidence, while I was trying my damndest to not be noticed at all. It was such a minor detail, but I could imagine getting tripped over the most irrelevant thing.

Which would be sad, but not impossible.

But I wasn’t supposed to be doubting myself.

The line progressed forward, and I went along. And then some more. And even more. The line was moving faster than I initially expected.

My heart raced, and I swallowed, hard. I made a mental note of where my wallet was in my jacket.

And then it was my turn.

The security at the door. It was just one guy, but the hotel management clearly thought that would be enough. He was huge. Bigger, wider, taller than even Granon. Built like a square, his head shaved, jaw set, eyes peering into me. If I didn’t possess the unnatural level of strength that I had, his physicality would have given me pause.

It didn’t. But something else did.

Strength wasn’t the factor at play, here. It was credentials. I couldn’t punch my way into the casino.

He stared, and I did everything I could to be able to stare back.

One word, two letters. Several notches deep.

“ID.”

I flinched a little as I responded in turn, fishing my wallet out of a pocket. I flipped it open to slide the card out.

I’d already showed it once before, and it worked out alright. It had better do the trick again, here.

He grabbed it out of my hand, with more force than he needed. He brought the card close.

He looked at the card, then at me, then the card, me, and back again.

When his eyes looked over me the final time, he took his time. Everyone that was ahead of me just waltzed right in. Already, I knew that my entrance wasn’t so graceful.

He spoke, his voice deep, and I felt it in my chest.

“You twenty-one?”

Called out on the spot, and he was being loud enough that he could probably be heard halfway down the line. It was a move, getting other people involved without having to make them active participants. Letting them know what was going on, making me stand out even more.

I swallowed.

“That’s what it says on the card, right?” I asked him.

The ID was a fake, key details that entirely falsified, like the surname… and the year of birth. The card had dropped mine down by a few years, but the month and day were the same. November the twenty-eight. An important day, on several levels.

I had to try and sell that image, somehow. Act the part. Being standoffish could be a substitute for maturity.

His stare maintained, he frowned, slight.

I reciprocated with a level stare of my own, standing tall… as much as I possibly could. I quickly learned that I wasn’t as good at this as Lawrence. Not at wearing this kind of mask.

He wasn’t budging. That wasn’t a good sign.

“Hm, ma’am,” he said, eyes still trained on me, “You’re going to step to the side, now-”

It wasn’t a word that interrupted him, but an action. And it wasn’t even an action done to him.

A hand slid down the small of my back, staying there, the fingers wrapping around my hip.

Shock coursed through me. I was stunned.

My eyes widened. I hadn’t broken eye contact with the security. As if I wanted his help, now.

Someone was standing right beside me. Someone I couldn’t see.

Touching me. I was very aware of that.

A new voice. A male voice.

“She’s with me.”

The security guy changed directions. Not just in who he directed himself to, but how he directed himself. Poised and polite.

“Of course, sir. I’m sorry for the confusion.”

“As you should be. I’ll be sure to let management know about this. Tell Mrs. C…”

Sounds and sights and smells were fading. Like I wasn’t even present at the scene, just observing from a distance. And even then I couldn’t quite catch everything.

I couldn’t move.

I was reminded of the incident with those girls, Dani. Uncomfortable, an assault on something I preferred to remain unmolested.

Something squirmed under my skin.

More words, but they were warbled utterances, now.

The hand removed itself off me, but it was a momentary relief. It came back, faster and harder. A sharp pat, right above my butt.

I stumbled a bit, catching myself, reminding myself that I had legs to use. They were weak, my waist down feeling numb.

The security guy stepped aside, not unlike a heavy door being swung open.

I was pushed through. And I had wanted to go in.

I did my best to not trip as I was ushered down the steps leading to the central area of the casino. Eyes forward, concentrating on walking, instead of the slot machines and the people playing them.

He talked as he brought me down. Like this was nothing.

“I have to say, it’s a relief that Mr. Hitoshi is willing to try and collaborate with us again. Please tell him that I still deeply regret my decision about deciding to hold our meeting at one of my clubs. If I truly did not want to be… interrupted, we should have just met here. And I also understand his decision over not coming in person, but I will appreciate his business all the same.”

Even if I knew what he was talking about, I couldn’t find it in me to reply. All my focus was going into putting one foot ahead of the other. Trying not to feel the pressure on my back.

I found another handrail, my fingers sliding over it for purchase. Had to wait until I got off the steps.

My back was feeling damp, now, my shirt sticking to skin, and I led away from my main task, forced into a new problem.

I had to tear myself away.

Reaching the last step, I gripped the handrail, feeling the metal give. I planted my feet down, and the hand pressed more into my back. That ugly feeling spiked, but I stood my ground.

The person who took me kept on forward, then stopping to face me. He hand slipped off me and returned to his side.

No one I knew.

A man, thirty at least, wearing a suit. But it wasn’t dark or monotone in its color. Flashy, loud, if an outfit could even be loud. Red jacket and dress pants, with a white shirt, the top button left undone. His hair was neat and recently cut, with some length that was styled and combed on the top, shorter around the sides and around the ears. A youthful look, though that youth would escape him in a few more years.

He had a cane as well. Black, with gold engravings running up the length of the thing, stopping at a gold handle that his other hand had a grip on. But, I noticed how he was standing, how he seemed to favor one side, using the cane as support. It was just as functional as it was for show.

I started to connect the dots, but I still felt like I needed a shower.

He had a look of confusion. Whatever I was feeling must have showed on my face.

Tension was stirring inside me, begging to come out. And I couldn’t throw a punch for release.

I directed it into my words.

“Who the hell are you, you fucking creep?”

I had raised my voice, second only to the added volume of the crowd and machines cheering and ringing alike. Some people spared a glance at us, at me, but they were either too preoccupied, too inebriated, or they just didn’t care to help.

Not that I needed their help, now. I was free, and I still had some tension left to spare.

“You better keep both hands on that cane, or else I’ll-”

Wait, stop.

I couldn’t even do that.

I was in the middle of the casino, in one of the many beating hearts of the beast that was the criminal world of Stephenville. And if I didn’t want to get eaten alive, I’d have to not make a mess of things. To ostricate myself and the group I was representing.

I breathed in, deep.

It was fucking shitty, but I had to keep that tension down, for just a little bit longer. I had to be diplomatic.

Something Lawrence learned from his old boss. I had to try to learn the same lesson, too.

I fixed my stance, removing my hold off the rail. There was a small handprint left behind on the metal.

“I… shouldn’t have done that,” I said, eyes downcast. “Sorry about that.”

The man shifted his weight, lifting his cane and setting it back down in front of me.

“No, please, it was my fault. I mistook you for someone else. You can go. I, here.”

The man brought his hand out, the same hand he used to touch me.

“Santino D’Angelo.”

That name sounded familiar, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I almost didn’t want to. The connection was a little weaker, there.

I didn’t want to shake his hand. I didn’t want to touch it.

Diplomacy first.

Fuck that.

I shook his hand. I touched it.

“Wendy,” I said. If I had tried to say my surname, fake or otherwise, my voice would have certainly cracked.

I hadn’t felt this much vitriol before, not even towards Alexis. But it was there, now, and that intensity was directed right back to me. It squirmed. I so badly wanted to direct that intensity elsewhere. Out. To everyone else. Not me.

We broke, my arm falling limp at my side. I only barely had a faint idea about what I was here to do.

An awkward pause followed. I was supposed to leave, he said I could, but I hadn’t. I was a few flickers away from burning out.

So many things I lacked. Experience. Memories. Connections.

Santino D’Angelo… D’Angelo seemed to take notice of me still sticking around, and commented, saying, “If you need to take a seat, there’s a decent spot in the back. Would you like to accompany me?”

He shook his head, then added, “It’s only for a moment, and only if you’re comfortable with the idea. I’m actually supposed to meet someone, and I’m not about to wander around looking for them. If we’re to talk, they’ll have to come to me.”

It took a considerable effort to shore back up some composure, maintain it, and answer properly.

“I’m fine with that. I’m actually trying to look for someone, and I’m tired of wandering.”

D’Angelo seemed to relax, hearing that.

“Splendid. Come.”

He went off, and I came with. Ushered again, but not by a gesture.

I needed a breather.

He pushed through the party of people moving about, from slot machine to slot machine, from game to game. I stayed back, twisting around so I wouldn’t hit or bump anyone as I walked. The casino was large, I had followed D’Angelo for some time, until he eventually stopped at one of the round tables at the far back.

They were booths, made of velvet, D’Angelo slid into one side, and I moved into the other. I kept my distance, staying on the edge of my seat, scanning more faces.

It hadn’t even been thirty minutes since I left Lawrence in the hotel room, and already, there were so many left turns that it made me dizzy. I could get lost, just reeling from each and every one.

I had to focus, but it was getting so much harder to.

“You do seem a little too young to be hanging around here.”

My head whipped around. D’Angelo, talking to me again.

“But something tells me you’re not just here for some thrills.”

I replied, and it wasn’t as hard, this time.

“I’m not here for pleasure. Just business.”

D’Angelo cocked his head slightly.

“Business, here? That word has a very specific connotation, if spoken under this roof. May I ask who you’re with? Do you have a card?”

“Card?” My thoughts went to cards we got in that envelope. The room keys and fake IDs.

D’Angelo didn’t look impressed. “Business card.”

Gangs use business cards?

“I… just gave out my last one,” I said, thinking on the fly.

He nodded, unconvinced.

“Nice save, but I know a newbie when I see one. Here, I’ll give you mine.”

He pressed something on the underside of the handle of his cane. A paper slipped out.

He handed it to me. I took it, slipping it into my jacket after only giving it the smallest of glances. The name matched, at least.

“May I still get a name?” he asked.

Rule three. I wasn’t about to tell him.

“Personal business,” I said.

D’Angelo tapped his cane against the table.

“Listen, Wendy was it? It’s an amateur move, that. It’s a privilege, just to make it through the front doors. As long as you abide by the rules and keep it civil, you’re free to use the Lunar Tower as a place for discourse and refuge. A safe haven, if you will.”

I tried to loosen up, but it was useless, given the task and company at hand. I was still sitting where I was in the booth, ready to jump if I got even the slightest glance of Granon.

“We’re still making a name for ourselves, at the moment,” I told him. “We hold territory, and we have momentum, though we’re still getting our ducks in a row. But, just you wait, everyone will know who we are.”

“So I’ll be hearing about you very soon. I’m looking forward to it.”

We didn’t actually have anything planned, aside from the plans we already had in motion.

That was a move, as well. I still didn’t trust him, the third rule still in effect, so if anything were to happen in the next few weeks, I knew who to look for, and who to punish, if need be. It was a test for both him, and this establishment.

If nothing else, we might be able to use him in the near future, too.

“Well,” D’Angelo said, “You gave me some info, it’s only fair I divulge some of my own. I like balance, and if you are going to be as promising as I think you’ll be, it should be a worthy investment.”

“Fair?” I questioned, “You’re a larger gang, you can afford to give up some scraps of info here and there. It’s hardly an equivalent exchange.”

“You’re saying you’d use whatever I tell you?”

I didn’t gesture, or make any indication of what I was thinking.

D’Angelo tapped his cane again. He was smiling.

“You may be an amateur, but I know promising when I see it. It takes a lot of fucking guts to walk in here, especially with fakes, and try to get in on the action. That’s dedication, right there, that’s initiative. If you want a spot at the top, you have to take it. That’s straight out of our playbook, Wendy, you’re a natural at this.”

Hard to tell, if he was actually impressed or if he was just flattering me for other reasons. To take something else.

But, either way, I had to take it. Maintain diplomacy.

“You flatter me,” I said, voicing my thoughts from earlier, “But thank you.”

Nodding, looking elsewhere, D’Angelo lifted a hand.

“Not flattery, just mere observations. Oh, here she is! I won’t make the same mistake twice!”

He got up, pushing himself to his feet with his cane. He moved out of the booth to greet another person.

A woman, Asian in her features. Japanese, to make an educated guess. But she looked nothing like me, or even Shiori.

She was tall, towering over D’Angelo, though she did have heels. Slender, too, her waist smaller than mine, and I hadn’t had proper food… ever.

Her dress was fitting, proper for the setting, her skin a shade brighter than the pearls that adorned her neck. Hair done up, lips full, eyelashes long and smoky.

Standing by these adults… I felt as fake as the ID I used to get in here.

D’Angelo embraced the woman, still greeting her. It was brief, and they broke, talking.

“Hello, Mr. D’Angelo,” the woman said, her accent noticeable. Courtily, she placed her hands together in front of her. “Hitoshi-san is anticipating good things to come from this meeting.”

I watched as D’Angelo’s hand dropped, to her hip. Then, a twitch, and his hand recoiled to the handle of his cane.

“Hello to you too, Miss…”

“Kimiko.”

“Lovely name. And yes, I assure you the Path will be steered in the right direction with me. Ah, excuse me, but this is a colleague of mine, Wendy. She won’t be joining us, but she is someone to look out for, believe me.”

Miss Kimiko turned her gaze to me, and I wanted to jump out of my skin. I was so out of my league.

“Cute,” she said, with a grin.

Cute? Was that all I was here?

All I could do was grin back in return, tapping my teeth with my tongue. Ready to snap.

“I should get going,” I said, “You two can get down to business. I still need to find my person.”

D’Angelo motioned with his cane, nudging it forward.

“You want a tip? If you want to show that you have power, even if you don’t actually have any, you don’t seek them out. Make them come to you.”

“I’m not exactly in a position to do that,” I said.

“Then put yourself in that position. Circle about, get yourself the high ground. Now you have power.”

“I’ll… keep that in mind,” I said. Though the whole point was to approach Granon while he was unaware.

“Do that, and you’ll see results. It… ended up being nice to meet you, Wendy. I’m expecting big things from your group.”

For a third time, D’Angelo tapped his cane, and he left, Miss Kimiko at his side, taking his arm. They conversed, discussing matters that I’d probably never learn the specifics of. Our paths split apart from there.

And I had to go on my own.

I went through the other booths, heading back into the main area of the casino. I wasn’t examining every detail of every face I saw, rather I was just making myself aware. Intaking the surrounds, absorbing the culture, learning whatever I could pick up. Not hiding, drawing away from other eyes, I was here, making myself present, acting like I knew what I was doing, where I was going. Like I belonged.

The lights from the chandelier seemed less harsh, the melancholy feeling of insecurity diminished. It wasn’t completely gone, but it lessened in increments. Better than going the other way.

A creep, but maybe D’Angelo had a point.

Still didn’t trust him.

I turned at the end of a row of slot machines, and something on the glass of the slots caught my eye. It took turning at another row to see it again and know for sure.

I was being followed.

Four, maybe five men. I tried getting a glimpse of them by tilting my head, reflecting off my glasses. Nothing clear, but I doubted this was hotel security.

I grabbed my phone out of my jacket, trying to get a look that way. Oh. Several missed calls from Lawrence. He’d have to wait.

I didn’t get a look at them. I put my phone back.

Still moving, I searched for options.

A door, at the far end of the casino. Unmarked, large, green with a gold outline. A backdoor to a maintenance hall?

I’d head there.

I picked up the pace.

I reached the door. Didn’t bother to look around, check behind me. Had to work fast.

Door was locked, needed a card. I didn’t have one.

It didn’t matter.

I grabbed the handle and pulled.

The door broke free from the lock. No alarm sounded, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’d be silent.

That was fine. I’d roll with it.

I slipped through the door, into a hallway, walls white. Maintenance hallway. Even for a place that was off limits and not to be seen by guests, it still looked nice. The walls and floors were smooth, not a speck of dirt.

I was already partway down the hall when I heard the door open again from the back. I had put some distance between us, but they were starting to gain, now that there wasn’t anyone else around.

I didn’t find them. They found me. But I could use that in my favor. The higher ground. They’d have to wait for me to act first, make the first move. I was the one being pursued, but I still had the power, here. And I’d use it.

The hallway continued, but a path also opened up to the left and right. I didn’t hesitate as I banked left.

There were cameras above the door and on of the other side of the hallway, had I continued straight instead. None here. Good.

Rules were still in effect, but in the off chance I had to break them…

I stopped on my heels, spinning back. I waited with my hands behind my back.

Finally, they turned the corner. Three men, actually. Probably miscounted.

They stopped at a distance. The sight of me standing here must have given them reason to pause.

None of them looked armed. Then again, so did I. I kept rule three in mind as I said, “Kept you waiting, huh?”

The man on the right stepped forward, and responded, “So you are the one that interrupted our plans yesterday.”

So they are with the People’s Hammer.

I couldn’t tell if any of these guys were a part of the blockade, but I supposed that was hardly relevant. Any group worth their salt had to be, at minimum, decent at communication.

“You guys were the ones interrupting us. It would have gotten worse if I hadn’t done something about it.”

“How? You have injured a handful of my comrades.”

“And do you want me to include you in that number?”

He shifted. His two ‘comrades’ watched us both, carefully.

“We noticed you walking around the casino,” he said.

“Yeah, I was kind of being obvious about it.”

The man’s expression was cold.

“Why are you even here? You have no reason to be at this hotel.”

“I have every reason to be at this hotel. I need to speak with Granon.”

I needed to direct the conversation to that as soon as possible, use that control while I still had it. Or they might somehow wrangle that away from me.

He dismissed the request right there, on the spot.

“Granon has no need to speak with you. He, we, intend to take your territory and start our tenure in this damn city. We demand our seat at the table.”

“You’re not going to get that by going through us,” I said. “Because it’s just not going to happen. Take me to Granon. I speak for my gang, and I’m willing to extend another hand to you if it means him calling off all attempts to encroach upon my territory and challenging our authority. Let’s handle this diplomatically.”

“That will not happen.” He then said a short phrase in another language. “-for him when I say he is not open for any discussions. And, even if he was, it would not be with you. That discussion is for him and that Lawrence, and for them alone.”

I wasn’t surprised, there. Maybe it was his ego, or perhaps some other prejudice, but it did seem like a shot in the dark that I’d be the one to talk with him. Then again, they weren’t aware the leadership was split into three, with Lawrence being the face presented to everyone else. The least I had wanted to accomplish was convince Granon to back down from this fight. If Lawrence had to take it from there, then fair enough, I could concede that part to him. I just needed this to work out.

These guys weren’t willing to work with me.

I spread my arms a little.

“What? Is Granon too shook to seek a dialogue with me? Did I rattle him too hard?”

“No. The only one who will do any shaking, is you.”

“Great comeback there, buddy, just-”

I heard it before I felt it.

The pop, then the ring. Stunned again, the white lights and tight, close walls threw me to being back at the school. It debilitated.

Hot metal passed through me like I was made of paper.

I was falling before I realized what was happening. I was on the floor when it settled in. I’d been shot.

I’d been shot. I’d been shot.

Shot. Shot.

Shot.

I had been shot down, I was shut down, my mind going somewhere it didn’t want to go, reminded of something it’d rather forget. I was blank.

Writhing, squirming. My insides were hot, screaming to get out.

Worse than Dani, worse than D’Angelo.

They reached out, groping, manhandling me.

I was wrong. This was so much worse.

The lack the lack the lack the lack-

My head hung as my waist mended. From the back, through the muscle and bone, and out to the other side.

A clean shot.

Shot. Shot.

A hot breath steamed my cheek as a voice spoke.

“Who is shaking now?”

It was Xander L. Granon. He had me in his grasp.

My ears were ringing, his voice just barely able to be heard. Ears ringing.

Kids screaming, crying.

She lunged for Harrian and

“The same scheme as you, yes? Except this time, you are blockade.”

Couldn’t move, couldn’t respond, even though it was well within my power to do both. I didn’t know why, I couldn’t think.

“I will take your territory, and I will build my employer’s empire from there. That is, as you say, an inevitability.”

Multiple hands, grabbing at me, moving me. My arms were pushed up against my back, drawing my hands close to my shoulder blades, restraining me. A sharp pain.

Something cold slid against my fingers. Something cold.

“However,” Granon said, still breathing down my neck. “Perhaps I can negotiate a deal with that boy once the territory switches hands. Have him pay rent and taxes. Suffer infractions.”

The cold edge cut into a finger, sliding back and forth. I felt a pang.

If I moved now, I’d lose more than just my faculties. I was forced to stay still.

The tension from before was coming back, even more intense, wanting even more to explode.

“You want to talk? To negotiate? The only thing worth discussing is how many pieces he wants sent back to him. And let us start with this, your finger.”

I can heal I can heal I can get through this and slip out and figure something out

Cut.

It was all wrong.

Pain. Fire. Excruciating.

Screaming. Crying.

Not just me.

All wrong.

Growls and shrieks, over the sound of the air around me being sliced. Hands pulled away from me, and I started to collapse.

My hand, where my finger was supposed to be. Numb, yet it was on fire.

My descent felt slow and gradual. But I felt so heavy. It would be a long way down.

When I hit tile, I fell in blood.

A sweet taste splattered into my mouth, hanging open from the sudden energy being sucked out of me. Drained.

It took a long time for me to get moving again, bringing my hands forward to push myself up.

I drew in a breath, pained.

My hand, my right hand. All five fingers were there. My back and hip were fine, too. But the middle finger… It felt like it was burning. White hot. Like I had touched heated metal. It wasn’t diminishing.

Bringing that hand close, I used the other for support. I had all five fingers there. I crawled, getting out of the blood, which was still pooling.

I turned my head, and through the creeping shadows in my vision, I saw why.

Blood, everywhere.

Splashed and splattered across the walls, floor, and even the ceiling. Entire lines and streaks, then specks. There was distance to it.

And the direction.

Haphazard, but it wasn’t random. The blood went in one general direction, pointed one way. Out, away from the bodies and where I had my back turned.

Wait…

The bodies?

Bodies. Five of them, collapsed, limbs splayed and unmoving. One even had his face buried in the nook where the floor and wall met, flat on his stomach, head bent at an awkward angle.

I couldn’t see Granon. Would I even recognize him among all the red?

Are…

I scratched at an eye with my good hand, trying not to get blood on my glasses. My strained vision persisted. The scene still looked grim.

Are they all dead?

Footsteps, hurried. Coming closer.

My eyes were locked at the destruction before me. But there was no sense to make of this. There was nothing to understand.

“Wendy!”

I pulled away from the scene. I looked up, my expression blank.

Lawrence. He was keeping a distance, but he was here.

My mouth hung open, as if I had anything to say.

“Wendy,” he said in a breath, eyes wide, in shock. “What the hell did you do?”

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