Everyone reacted in some way. Tilted heads, steps taken back, even D moved from behind to better face me, her curiosity piqued.
Hleuco, standing at my side, stood even straighter. Taller. His head just barely grazed the ceiling.
“Help? How? Why?”
I tried answering each three one-word questions, all at once. “I’ll need all the help I can get, and you need all the help you can get. It’s why I’m standing here, with her.” I gestured to D.
I continued. “You have my powers, and I have your numbers. And together, we all stand to benefit if we can get to Benny first.”
“That sounds ridiculous,” Lawrence said, “Why should I even trust you? And who even are you?”
“All of you can trust me,” I said, stressing to point each of them out. “I saved your life, when I didn’t have to. And even outside of that, it’s not even about trust. It’s about the benefits far outweighing the idea to breach an alliance. Also, I wear a mask, I stopped a van with my bare hands twice in one night. Use your brain, and don’t ask useless questions.”
I saw the crease in his forehead forming, thinking. Then, he stared at me, eyes wide.
“You…” he said, but he became speechless. He mouthed the rest, and turned away.
I turned to the rest of the Ghosts.
“The offer is there. Help me get Benny, and in doing so, I’ll help your group get a better standing with the others. The only caveat is that I get to be the one to tear her head off. You can take it from there, and cash it in for whatever it’s worth.”
“What about after?”
Another Ghost asked. Sounded like a girl.
“After? That’s it,” I said. “We go our separate ways, doing our own thing. No tricks or loopholes about it. No fingers crossed. I’ll leave you alone, and I hope you’d do the same for me.”
They all took that in their own way, some huddling together to discuss it. Not even discussing with Lawrence, their leader.
Lawrence nudged the guy helping him, and the guy let go, leaving Lawrence to stand on his own. He watched his gang work without him.
He was visibly shaking.
“Hey!” he shouted, and then another thing in Spanish. The meaning was lost on me, but the intention was not.
“You’re all actually considering this? Working with that?”
He thrusted a finger at me.
His finger moved to D.
“We don’t know them, they aren’t part of the family. Fuck, look at them, do they look like they can be trusted? One of them wears a mask, and the other is that fucking heartless bitch, who just tried to kill me!”
D interjected. “Because you tried to get the jump on me!”
I shook my head. “Try to see the bigger picture, Lawrence. We work together, and everyone gets what they want. There’s no incentive for me to double cross you, or anyone here. Benny is the only one I’m after, and coming to a gang made up of those she abandoned for assistance, that’s a good start.”
“No, you,” Lawrence stepped closer to me. “You told me to use my brain, and I am. You’re the fucking Bluemoon, aren’t you?”
Watching the other Ghosts was a good way of assessing the general atmosphere of the situation. Their postures tightened, tensed up. Those who got together to talk broke away from each other to face me.
All had firm hold on their weapons.
I had given them everything but my name, as far as my old identity was concerned, but it didn’t click for them until Lawrence had to verbalize it, out loud. Showed the power in names, I supposed.
Hleuco was standing straight, and I tried to match him. No cracks in my stance, my posture. I couldn’t appear fazed.
“I was,” I admitted. “I was the Bluemoon.”
The Ghosts collectively bristled. They did not look thrilled.
I opened my mouth again. “But I’m not-”
Lawrence spoke over me.
“It was you,” he said. “Few months ago, in this same place. Some freak in a blue hoodie attacked while I… was trying to get shit done. In the end, I couldn’t get that shit done, but as it turned out, it didn’t matter. Because, what do I see the next day, on the news? The same freak in a blue hoodie, and fucking Benny. El Carruaje didn’t last very long after that.”
It wasn’t me… but semantics, I suppose.
The situation was degrading with every word that came out of his mouth. The truce standing on shakier and shakier ground, now, and it was faltering.
“Instead of Benny,” Lawrence said, “How about we turn in your head as a prize, you blue piece of shit?”
I kept my voice level. “You don’t know if there even is one.”
He shrugged. “I’m sure people would pay big bucks to get their hands on someone like you. Definitely more than a fifth of what we’d get from Benny. Enough that we all can be comfortable. Doesn’t that sound nice, no?”
He was appealing to his gang for that last part, and they were eating it up. Scraps weren’t enough, and they were hungry. I had seen it in their eyes, and in their dogs, too. It was why I tried to appeal to them, myself. If I could direct that anger, it could have been the edge I needed to turn things around.
As it turned out, that hunger could easily be directed to me.
Like a double-edge sword.
A few of Lawrence’s crew approached, testing with small steps. Their guns raised just a little higher than before.
Hleuco bent down, wings extended. One went around my shoulder, as though to shield me.
This was going south, fast, and we were surrounded.
Could I make an escape? Yes, and it’d even be easy. I had healed enough that running wasn’t difficult, I’d move if I had to. D mentioned that the next building over was two level below this one. That was a drop I could make.
Now, if they fired…
Tricky, but manageable. There was always a chance of a stray bullet hitting me, or someone getting in a lucky shot, but I’d ultimately get out alright. I doubted that they could trip me up, but I’d been wrong before. Blindsided.
What about D?
D, right. That made things complicated. Was I even responsible for her? Considering I already saved her life once, and just minutes ago at that, it would be hypocritical to leave her behind now.
By myself, I could escape just fine. With D? It was safe to assume that she couldn’t heal like me. She was vulnerable, susceptible to actual, lasting injury. She was human.
Eyes on the Ghosts, I moved my arm, trying to find D at my side, in case I had to grab her and run. I spent too long touching nothing before I realized that no one was there.
Where is she?
I would have moved more, turned my head to locate her, but anything could set these guys off further.
Think of what else we can say to–
A sound, but nothing mechanical. Not nearly as loud.
We turned all the same.
It was D, standing away from me and the Ghosts.
She had struck a pose. Standing on her toes, one arm pointing to the ceiling. Holding a gun.
“Bang bang bang!”
She was shouting, imitating the act of firing a gun into the air. But she wasn’t actually firing.
There was a pause that followed. No one was sure what she was doing, or what to do next. I wasn’t even sure.
We all watched D.
The pause stretched for a while longer, then D set her arm down, gun to her side. She coughed a few times.
“Alright,” she said, loud, for everyone to hear. “Now that I have your attention. I just want to say that you’re all being big dummies!”
It was like watching a sitcom with the laugh track missing. A momentary pause after a line, but with nothing to fill it. Dead air.
No one had a response.
D spoke again, picking up where she left off. “Do you people really think you have a chance on taking her out? Or even capturing her? Look!”
With her free hand, she pointed. A few, including Lawrence turned to look.
“See that pillar? She destroyed that thing with just one hand. Imagine what she could do to your face! And didn’t you see how fast she can move? You slowpokes can’t touch her. She’s gone in a blink, and now you have a super strong, super fast vigilante who is pissed off. What’s to stop her from coming back and picking you off, one by one?”
D looked my way, and directed everyone’s attention back to me. My turn, then.
“That’s something I could do, should you cross that line. I don’t want to, though.”
“Is that a threat?” Lawrence questioned.
Annoying. How fucking dense was this guy?
“It’s not a threat,” I said, having to spell it out for him. “But I can promise you that it’s a line we don’t want crossed. If that happens, both sides lose out on a lot, and nobody gets what they want.”
I kept it vague, on what exactly both sides would lose out on. I’d let them use their imagination on that.
Lawrence’s hard stare remained. He wasn’t satisfied.
I spoke. “Listen. Yes, I was the Bluemoon, and I’ve went after gangs like yours, The Chariot. I’m probably the reason why the Ghosts came to be, and why you’re in the position you are now. Sure, blame it all on me.”
“I think I will,” Lawrence said.
I spread my arms. “But I’ve put that behind me, now. The Bluemoon’s dead, I’ve retired that name. I’m looking to start things anew, and I truly think getting Benny is the first step. And to do that, I could use your help, and I think you could use mine, too. Because, we both know the Ghosts won’t last, and making me your enemy puts you on a fast track to actually being gone. And I doubt you that’s what you want.”
I would have made some kind of ‘ghost’ joke at the end, there, but it didn’t feel appropriate.
Before, the feelings of everyone here were easily known, and easily directed. Now? They were mixed, and each one of the Ghosts looked like they were at a loss of what to do. D’s distraction seemed to have set the tension back a bit.
Lawrence, for his part, was harder to gauge. His jaw was set, square, looking between me, D, and his gang. Would he try and convince his gang to fight me, again? Or would he finally come around?
He turned my way.
“Does she come included with your deal?” he asked, tilting his head one way. I didn’t need to look to know that he was referring to D.
“We have our own arrangement, and that will continue into this one. She has to prove her usefulness, up until she can’t, and then I kill her.”
“It’s true,” D said, piping in.
Lawrence rubbed his chin, and scratched the back of his head. He looked at the members of his gang, and they looked back at him.
A sort of silent discussion.
After a time, Lawrence had something to say.
“Okay,” he said, facing me.
“Yeah, I’ll agree to work with you, only if you let me into that deal, too.”
“Meaning?” I asked.
“I’m willing to give her one more shot. One. If she fucks it up, by messing with me or my crew again, I get to kill her myself.”
I turned to D. She shrugged.
“Eh, whatever,” she said. “I promise I’ll be good.”
She really is a strange one.
I turned to Lawrence. “Satisfied?”
He took his time in responding.
“I am,” he finally said.
He extended a hand.
“Do we have a deal?” he asked, his expression pained. For him, this had to be a hard pill to swallow.
Slow, I walked to him, aware of the Ghosts, their weapons, and their dogs.
“We do,” I said, bringing up my hand to-
“If you’re not the Bluemoon, then who are you?”
Another voice, but I heard it earlier. A woman. I pointed her out from the crowd.
“What do we call you?” she asked.
Put on the spot, with no answer prepared. My time and energy were being spent on something else. I had put it off for later.
But that wouldn’t fly, not with these people. Had to come up with something.
And there is a certain power in names.
I glanced at D. She was looking back at me, standing more relaxed, now. Her arms were at her side, her hands free. She was waiting for my answer, too.
Well, in the spirit of present company…
“V,” I said. “You can call me ‘V.’”
I could see Lawrence almost roll his eyes. But he took my hand, shaking it.
“Deal,” he said.
“Deal, I repeated.
“Sweet!” D cheered, from the back.
A wave of relief came over everyone, it seemed like. Everyone was settling down, even the dogs were starting to sit, or rest on their stomachs. People were even putting their guns away.
“Now that we have that squared away,” Lawrence said, crossing his arms, “What’s next?”
“We plan,” I replied. “We need to get everything straightened out, and figure out what our next official move should be.”
Lawrence nodded. “We’ll have to relocate, though, can’t stay up here forever. We have a base over in Eastside. It’s not much, but everything’s there.”
“Good!” D ran to us, joining in the conversation. “We’ll need everything. You Ghosts came from the rib of The Chariot, so I’m gonna have to pick your brains to see if I can’t finangle a lead from it.”
Lawrence definitely rolled his eyes that time. “Yeah, fine, yeah, do what you need to. You know how to get there, don’t you?”
D smiled her wide smile. “Of course I do. Speaking of, as part of our deal, the van’s all yours, free of charge. The whole thing, bears and all.”
“Thanks,” he said, though he didn’t sound thankful. “Wait, you’re not driving it back?”
She gestured to me. “She kinda broke the windshield. I’m not going to be able to drive it without getting some looks.”
“Unwanted looks,” she added, as if she was correcting herself.
“How are you getting there?” Lawrence asked.
D smiled again. “I have my pick.”
I could sense that Lawrence was already losing his patience with her. He backed up, and addressed his gang.
“We’re rolling out, back to base! Ándele!”
They all went into motion, gathering into small parties, then moving to their own vans, bringing the dogs with them. They were quick, too, already ready to leave before any of us three could say anything else.
Lawrence turned to us again.
“Meet you there,” he said, and he left, meeting with the man who was helping him up from before. We took that as our signal to leave, too.
With Hleuco following, D and I walked as a group.
“So, V?” D asked.
I rubbed the fingers of one hand together, feeling where the glove was torn.
“Better than ‘The Bluemoon.’ And at least it’s a name I picked for myself.”
“I’m not complaining, I think it’s cool. Definitely better than ‘The Bluemoon.’”
“Glad you like it,” I said, unsure of how to take the compliment.
My thoughts fell upon another detail.
“Hey,” I said, “Is that why you brought me here, to see the Ghosts? You knew they had ties to The Chariot.”
“Um, kinda? I was just going to ask them if they knew anything, or had a lead. I didn’t expect Lawrence to cheat me, and I for sure didn’t expect you to recruit them.”
“Things happen,” I replied. “Do you think it was a good call?”
D brushed her lip with her finger. “Dunno, too early to tell. Nothing wrong with some extra hands, I guess.”
I grinned, and waited until we were out of earshot.
“Exactly,” I said. “You don’t win games with just a bishop. You need pawns, too.”
D found that funny, laughing loud and hard.
We continued walking, going down the garage, taking the stairs when we found them. We got to the first level, and I let D take the lead. She approached a dark red minivan. Mini, but it seemed larger than the last one.
“Give me a second,” D said. “Usually this goes by faster when you have the key.”
She got on her toes, and peered through the window. Her breath fogged up the glass.
Watching D, and taking the little moment of downtime to let her work brought my attention back to my thirst. My throat was dry, and I could feel myself on the edge of something worse. My arms twitched one way, as if itching to grab something, and keep it still. My legs were burning, and it wasn’t from earlier. It was as though I was filled with energy I needed to use, or I’d end up burning from the inside, out.
You need blood.
I needed to get this sorted out soon, preferably before we met up with the Ghosts again.
“D,” I said.
“Hmm?” she answered, her attention still on the window.
“Earlier, when you were asking about my powers? There’s more to it than that.”
The base was simple. Smaller than I expected. Or maybe my expectations were too high.
We were in a Mexican restaurant, all the way back into the kitchen. Everything was metallic and reflexive, making the already harsh lighting even brighter. It was chilly, being closer to the big freezers and coolers, but I had a jacket on. Nothing was being cooked or simmered, but the place was imbued with a strong, spicy smell.
The restaurant was the first floor of a five-floor building, and the Ghost’s base of operations extended to the rest of the place, but Lawrence saw it fit to hold the meeting here. This was all they had, supposedly. But, there was enough space for everyone, even when it became standing room only.
Everyone, except for Hleuco.
Multiple, mismatched tables were put together, so the important players could have a seat, and some elbow room. Me, D, Lawrence, and two of his officers. Charlie, a girl in her mid-twenties, and Jonathan, and a man a few years older. Both had long, dark hair, and serious expressions.
In the middle of the table, were everyone’s guns. Including D’s. And my knife. A sign of faith.
Six chairs were laid out, but five were filled. A chair was empty.
“Where’s Melinda?” Lawrence asked. He was turned in his seat, facing one of his men who weren’t at the table.
D and I exchanged looks.
“She’s supposed to be here,” the man said, unsure.
“I know she’s supposed to be here, that’s why I’m asking.”
“Last time I saw her, she was on her way inside. Lost her in the shuffle.”
“Dammit, we need to start-”
D smacked her hands on the table, directing everyone’s attention to her.
“Relax, I’m sure she’s around. It’s getting kinda late, you know, maybe she’s taking a quick nap? I know I need one, it’s way past my bedtime.”
Lawrence shot her a look, squinting. “Ha ha. Fine, let’s get started. I can catch her up later-”
Jonathan raised his hand, and pointed to me.
“I’d feel more comfortable about this if she didn’t have her mask on.”
I breathed, and a faint, sweet smell escaped my lips.
“I set my knife down, it’s the equivalent of you setting down your gun. Believe me.”
“It’s fine, Jonathan,” Lawrence said, interrupting. “We don’t need any more problems at this juncture. What we need is her, V, not the person behind the mask. It can stay on.”
Resigned, Jonathan sat back in his seat.
I nodded to Lawrence, a silent form of appreciation.
“Now, let’s get started?” I suggested.
Looks from across the table. No objections.
“Good. Let’s go over the basic terms, real quick. This is a temporary partnership between me and D, and you, the Ghosts. As requested by Lawrence, I am to establish that not one person here gets to lead the others. We discuss best course of action, and we go from there. Also, this alliance is to be held with utmost secrecy. No other rival gang or competitor must know of what we’re doing, or what we have planned. We lose any leverage we have, if that happens.”
More looks from across the table. No objections.
“Good, then let’s continue. The end goal is capturing Benny. And she should be alive, when we get our hands on her. What happens after, is another story.”
“The problem is, she’s damn good at keeping herself out of my reach. So I’m hoping, since the Ghosts came from El Carruaje, that you have something or anything I can use to… extend that reach, as it were.”
Again, I exhaled. It hit me how long I had been after this woman. How long Alexis had been after this woman. There was seemingly no end to this fucking chase.
Voices reassured me.
I took a second to recompose myself.
“So let’s get right to it,” D said, talking in my stead. “What do y’all got? L… Lawrence, if I remember correctly, you weren’t one of the top brass of El Carruaje, but you were trying.”
Lawrence made a twisted expression, barely restrained.
“Yes, you’re right, I wanted to be one of the big guns, part of the crew she kept close to her. And when I heard about what Benny was planning, with the weapons, I thought that was my in. If I could get everyone on board, and show her we were up for the task, she’d let me lead.”
He looked over to me.
“That all went to shit, though. But anyway, after the family fell apart, everyone scrambled to pick up the pieces. Neighboring gangs like the Rattlesnakes took some turf, and some new groups cropped up, like us.”
Lawrence motioned with his hand, as if showing off the back of this kitchen.
“This is the only scrap of El Carruaje we got,” he said. “And to finally get around to your question, I don’t got nothing on Benny. If she’s still here, then she could be anywhere. Maybe she’s hiding out in some of her old bases, but that would mean that another gang is housing her. Competition.”
“And you don’t think anyone in Eastside would be willing to hide her?” D asked.
“I said ‘maybe.’ There might be someone out there loyal enough to want to help her, but with real dough on the table, they’re more likely going to grab it for themselves. If I’m any indication…”
D tapped her fingers on the table. “Tell me where those bases are. I can check, just to be sure.”
She then winked. “I can be pretty sneaky.”
“Will do,” Lawrence said, flat.
“Neat,” D said. “That’s one possible avenue, but we need something more… well, more. How about Benny’s crew, anyone you can contact?”
“I wish. Guys like Samuel, or Roland, you don’t go to them, they come to you, whenever they, or Benny, needed something. It was a top-down sort of deal, the channels went one way, and you had to force your way to the top if you wanted your voice heard.”
I put myself back into the conversation.
“We have to assume that she has her crew,” I said, remembering the events at the school. “Not if, but when we find her, we might have to go through them, first.”
“Meaning we’ll be going to war,” Lawrence commented.
“Not if we can help it,” I said. “That’s why we’re having this discussion. Hash it out, see if we can’t find a way to strike them from behind, when they aren’t expecting it.”
“Okay,” D said. “So her crew’s gonna be a problem, but if we can get a hold of one of them, we get a hold on Benny. Anything else? How about the police? I’m sure if we ask politely, they might know something.”
“That was my original idea, before I ran into you.” I briefly turned towards D. “Not all of them are clean, if any, and if they’re on the lookout for her, then it’ll help to keep an eye on their movements. Gomez himself, though? He’s not going to play ball.”
D groaned. “Aw, what a lame-o.”
“But, considering other avenues, the police might not be a bad option. Which was why the police scanners were so crucial.”
In that last word, I directed a smidge of irritation towards D. She noticed, and made a heart symbol with her hands, pointing it to me.
I can see how Lawrence got to the point of wanting to kill you.
“And,” I said, “Like Benny, some of them were a part of the Solace conspiracy.”
It was as though I told the room that God wasn’t real. No one, here in the kitchen, could keep themselves completely still. Murmurs broke out between those standing around, Charlie and Jonathan whispered to each other, and D lifted her eyebrows, exaggerating the motion.
And Lawrence reeled.
“Solace,” he said. “Fucking Solace? The guy that fucked the city sideways to get to you?”
He jabbed a finger my way.
“Not one guy,” I said, calm, “But yes. Solace wasn’t a single person, but a collaborative effort. The police, Benny, and I think Styx was involved, too.”
“Shit, how deep does that go?” Lawrence asked.
“I don’t know, but I almost want to say that it doesn’t matter. After the bombing at city hall, Solace hasn’t made a move since. Again, I don’t know why, but we can use that. We’re looking for Benny, but the other pieces that made up Solace are still around.”
“Are you saying we go after Styx?” Lawrence questioned. “You do know that picking a fight with him means picking a fight with everyone.”
“He’s right,” D said. “That’s a beehive you don’t poke. It stings.”
I spoke. “Believe me, I know.”
Or, at least Alexis knew.
“I vote to not go after the crazy fuck with the motorcycle,” Lawrence said. “Especially since the Ghosts need a working relationship with him after this is over.”
I placed my arms on the table, putting my hands together. Going into my thoughts.
We were talking, hoping to go somewhere, but all we managed were circles. Round and round. An idea brought up, and then the reasons why it wasn’t a good idea. We were moving, but we weren’t going anywhere.
This wouldn’t do. I had to break this loop, somehow. Something I could come up with, that could let us progress. Move forward.
Styx. Gomez. The warehouse.
“If not people,” I said, “How about places. There was a warehouse that housed some of those weapons that Benny had smuggled in. And it was here, in East Stephenville.”
“Tell us something we don’t know,” Charlie said.
“The whole stockpile wasn’t stored in one place. When Solace was active, that warehouse didn’t even account for a half of what they had. Tell me, Lawrence, the neighboring gangs, have you noticed them carrying anything different, as far as firearms go? Anything that packs more of a punch than what you usually see on the street?”
“Can’t say that I have,” Lawrence said.
“Meaning those weapons are still in storage,” I said. “When Benny attacked the school, she used heavy-duty stuff. Bombs, that could be used remotely. That’s not stuff you see everyday.”
“You think she still has access to those weapons,” Lawrence.
“That’s what I’m guessing. We find where she has the rest stashed… you can fill in the gap.”
“Do you have a lead on that?”
I grimaced, though I had my mask. “I don’t.”
“Great, another dead end. I’m starting to think this isn’t going to work.”
There had to be something I could use, something that could work. I got some decent momentum, with getting the Ghosts to agree to this, but it wouldn’t mean anything if I let it stop dead in its tracks, here.
I caught a sight of the sixth chair. Previously empty. A vestige had taken a seat. A blank face, wearing blue.
Without being conscious of it, I was tapping into more connections.
“Edgar Brown, Linda Day, Officer Jeffery and Officer… Sumeet, I think his name was? They all either had something to do with Solace, or they were in the loop, in some capacity. How about that?”
“Maybe,” D said. “Brown and Day are locked up pretty tight now, though. Read up on that on my tablet. Officer Jeffery could be anyone… but Sumeet is a unique name. Definitely narrows it down.”
I saw the vestige again, and I felt a pressure in my head. Not on, in.
I wish Hleuco was here.
“Last time I saw Sumeet, he had just fallen a handful of stories. A lot of broken bones, I bet he’s still trying to recover.”
“So he’s stuck in one spot, then,” D said. “That’s usable. If he’s in a hospital, I can find him. I know how to get those records.”
“You do?” I asked.
“That’s why I’m here,” D said, grinning.
“That’s something,” Lawrence said. “But it’s not a guarantee.”
Charlie and Jonathan muttered, seemingly in agreement.
“No, it’s not,” I said.
I shifted in my seat, bringing my arms close, raising them so I could massage my head. Relying on her memories and connections was dangerous, but I was running out of options, here.
Running, yet going nowhere.
Why was finding one person so damn difficult?
Maybe we’re looking at this all wrong.
“Ah, we seem to be stuck,” D said. She was mimicking me, with her arms on the table, hands raised, but her fingers were intertwined, in front of her mouth. “We can’t seem to come up with a way to find her. It’s definitely frustrating.”
“You read my mind,” I said.
I didn’t see her teeth, but I saw her cheeks move. She was smiling.
“All the pieces are there, but individually, they pose problems. Benny, the police, Styx, the weapons. But, together, I think I can come with something workable, maybe even fun.”
“What are you proposing?” I asked.
She tried to hide behind her hands, but I saw it. D was smirking.
“Instead of trying to find her,” D said, “We do the opposite. We smoke her out.”