Interlude – D

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A loose circle had formed around the gathered gangsters. Loose, because not everyone showed up, leaving very little yet very noticeable gaps in the lineup.

A certain little girl attempted to fill one of those gaps, but it was still too wide, the space around her still too noticeable. She stuck out like a really really really sore thumb. But, with it being her, who had a unique tendency to stand out as it was, her presence alone was enough to raise both questions and eyebrows.

A man, Arthur, asked, “Who the hell is this?”

Showtime.

“Yo! Mind if I disrupt- I mean interrupt?”

D grinned, mouth open, showing off her own gap. The one between her teeth.

The man was perplexed to the point of being offended. He looked across the loosely formed group and questioned the whole thing.

“Please tell me you ain’t serious with this, Mrs. Carter.”

The woman, standing across from her, at the opposite end of the not really circle, stared D down hard behind horned spectacles. D wasn’t nervous. In fact, it gave her a thrill that she craved. She couldn’t get enough.

Like bubble gum or lollipops or cotton candy or jelly donuts!

The woman, Mrs. Carter, kept staring.

“I’m very serious, Arthur, but I don’t know what this is. Or rather, who.”

D watched the woman’s movements, or the seeming lack thereof. Nothing obvious, very subtle. The slight angle of her chin. Up, eyes lowered by a fraction. Fingers tensed, grip tight on the binder she was clutching. Shoulders raised in a straight line, her back perpendicular. Poised, but there was an energy behind it. Ready to charge, needing just the exact provocation.

Everyone had a breaking point. D knew that all too well. And, after spending her smaller and small and formative years doing this, being this, D knew just how to tease it out. It was something she could intuit.

She knew now, though, to not reach for that impulse so… impulsively. If this was a year ago, she totally would have. She had learned some self-control. But not now. This was too important.

From her smaller to small years, to now.

Maybe I am growing up.

The thought freaked her out a little.

“I’m D,” D said, as though to reaffirm herself as well, “Like the letter!”

It was like a routine, by this point. A series of certain words and actions that brought out certain reactions, reactions she could use. Like playing a piano, pressing certain produced certain notes.

And, for what it was worth, D was a pretty decent musician.

She watched with a keen eye, and got exactly what she expected. Mrs. Carter and the other gangster’s guards were up, but not by much. They were wary of her, but they were underestimating, and she knew it was because of her age and stature. Nobody ever took her seriously, and she liked that. Knowing that was as comfy as a big warm sweater, or a fuzzy teddy bear.

She didn’t have one on her now, but D wished she did.

She wasn’t nervous at all.

“Reduced to nothing but.”

A dry chuckle followed after those words. A noise that grated. A sound that echoed from a not too distant past, but it haunted all the same.

Shuffling next to Mrs. Carter, Styx crept up to the circle, filling in another gap. He was slouched over, his arms hanging limp by his side. His eyes were wide, as he took everything in, darting around like he was on something. But he wasn’t on something, Styx wouldn’t be that dumb. Manic, but not dumb.

When he locked onto D, his eyes were wider, somehow, his mouth yawned to an exaggerated smile. That chuckle emanated out of him again as though it was possessing him. But, nope, it was Styx that was in control. Always.

It was something she admired about Styx. It was also something that freaked her out a lot.

He really found all of this funny.

Mrs. Carter remained as still as a statue.

“Would you know anything about this, Styx? Her?”

Styx stretched, his limbs groping and twisting through the air around him like the legs of a spider. Feeling for the webs he had spun, long ago.

With an odd pitch that spiked up, Styx’s laughter crescendoed, then stopped. A shrill noise that unnerved everyone in the circle, D excepted, maybe Mrs. Carter, too. But for D’s part, it was a song she had heard before.

Styx finally spoke.

“It’s a surprise to me, but very welcome one. She’s free to be here.”

Styx had spoken. No one would dare challenge him on that.

Which gave D the chance for her to rub it in. Styx totally gave that to her.

She’d take it though.

“Yup, I’m with the Fangs,” D said. “Hello again!”

Another one from the loose circle said their piece. A woman, this time. Hayden.

“Never seen her before. Weren’t there other Fangs? What happened to them?”

That last question in particular almost pierced through D. Almost. She plastered a goofy looking expression on her face. Not really a frown, but she opened her mouth and showed off the gap in her tooth again. Sulking in a way that only a kid could.

Wearing the expression like a mask.

D answered.

“Same thing that happened to D’Angelo, or Edward, Gary or Inez.”

That answer rippled through the others in a similar way, hitting them, but they weren’t as good at hiding it. Worried looks were cast, concern falling over everyone, oppressive like the dark that surrounded them.

Everyone except Mrs. Carter and Styx.

“No, no! I refuse to fucking believe that this little girl is coming here to announce the end times. Not for a fucking second!”

“Nothing is ending, Cassius. You will be fine.”

Mrs. Carter sounded so cool. Calm.

Cassius sounded rather uncollected when he bursted out again.

“Don’t give me that crap! How could you look at the situation we’re in and not be even a little concerned? Shit, I mean- Inez is dead, Gary is dead! Fuckin’ D’Angelo! And now we can put those two new fuckers on that list!”

With each name bellowed, their respective absence among the group was made painfully and painstakingly clear. Little gaps, but they were there. And for D in particular, the gap at each side of her felt as wide as a canyon and as deep as a cliff. There was no avoiding the feeling it gave her. Right there, a knot in her tummy.

“They had names,” D said, mimicking Mrs. Carter’s tone of voice. “Lawrence and Wendy.”

“Cassius is right, if I may be so bold.” That had come from Hayden. “Too much is happening, and too quickly at that. Several of our own are dead. We couldn’t even rendezvous in our usual location. We have to move here, to a place hardly more elevated than a garbage lot. I’m not asking you to lie to us, Mrs. Carter, but at least pretend that some alarms need to be raised.”

“And where the hell is Mister?” Brian asked. “This ain’t important enough for him?”

Mrs. Carter didn’t crack, however, her composure still composed, maybe even detached. The only thing alarming was how much Styx seemed to enjoy watching the scene unfold.

“What would you say then, Hayden, if I did indulge in your wishes for panic? Would you feel more at ease if I succumbed to fear like all of you seem to have? I have no time for such things. I’d much rather hold this meeting to achieve something tangible. If you would all prefer a therapy session, please, do so at your own time. But not mine.”

No one seemed to have any objections to that. No one said anything.

“Good,” Mrs. Carter then said, as though she was pleased with that response, or lack thereof. She then continued, and took back control of the space.

“With that being said, I do understand where you concerns are coming from. They are legitimate, but not cause for panic. As long as you stay here, you are safe. None of you have any obligation to stay here, however, and you are permitted to come and go and see to your respective gang’s activities. Just take the usual precautions, do not be followed. Does that sound agreeable?”

No objections. There were nods all over.

“And, as for Mister, he is well aware of the situation, and hopes that we can bring this to a satisfying resolution. Now, shall we have a proper discussion, then?”

“Please,” someone said. It wasn’t a voice within the circle.

Everyone turned. D did, too, following the act.

From the dark, two figures emerged. Covered completely, even wearing masks. A raven and a clown.

They approached the circle, moving like they belonged. They didn’t.

Everyone who wasn’t D or Styx or Mrs. Carter reacted with alarm. Tensed up.

“Who the fuck are you?” Arthur growled.

The masked pair stopped. The raven raised her hands. A gesture, before things could heat up.

“We are Machiavélique,” one of them said. Came from the raven.

“And how the fuck did you get in here?”

“That shouldn’t be a concern.”

“Well I fucking think it should be. I thought this place was supposed to be cool.”

“It is,” Mrs. Carter stressed. She looked over the masked pair. “Consider yourselves fortunate that I haven’t had you immediately shot for trespassing. Explain yourselves.”

“You came here for a discussion. We would like to participate. We believe our interests may align.”

Mrs. Carter was silent. A sign for Machiavélique to continue. The raven continued.

“As you all are aware, there have been some… complications that have popped up in the last few days.”

“Understatement of the fucking century,” Arthur said. “The city is on fucking fire, and, because this bears repeating, nearly half of us are fucking dead because of-”

“I’d advise you to check your math again, Arthur,” Mrs. Carter said.

“That’s one way to put it,” Machiavélique said, “But it carries the appropriate weight. Complications. The riots all over the city, and V.”

“V?” Forest asked.

“The Bluemoon,” Machiavélique corrected. The clown.

From the gestures and ticks, D observed as a chill looped through the circle.

“Well then,” Forest said. It was all he could say.

“The problems aren’t separate from one another, but let’s peel away the layers a bit. First, the riots. They’re tearing into the city, they’re growing in magnitude, and they’re believed to be targeted. Several of you have reported attacks on your own bases and buffer zones, is that correct?”

Everyone nodded, D included.

“In regards to your own equipment, manpower, your capacity to fight back, this shouldn’t be an issue, but with the very… politically charged nature of them, it makes the situation quite, again, complicated. Volatile. They are a minority, but they are a loud minority, and they are, at the end of the day, civilians. When they hit, they think they’re fighting against a world that has wronged them. A system. If you hit back, it shows the world that they’re right. That the system exists and needs to be addressed. And that will mean a larger response, and a brighter spotlight, on all of you.”

“Meaning?” Forest asked.

“Meaning that, once you go out to defend yourself, you also put yourself out there as a problem that needs solving. What those riots are really about exists on a deeper, fundamental level, a black thread that has stitched itself through the fabric of society itself. It can’t truly be cut or washed out. However, through either military intervention, or increased media coverage, the second any one of you gets pinned as a potential scapegoat, it’s over. Everyone that isn’t a part of your industry will be against it, and they will not be satisfied until you’re liquidated of all of your assets. The underlying problem would still persist for these people, but for that fleeting, pitiful moment, they will be satisfied. We assume that you’d all be against that.”

“What do you suggest we do, then?”

Mrs. Carter asked.

Everyone waited for Machiavélique’s answer. Even D was curious… at how Machiavélique would word it.

Machiavélique, the raven, raised her head, then her hand. A victory sign was made with her fingers.

“Layer two. V.”

Those chills again. D liked watching them squirm. It was funny.

“During the chaos of all the riots, she’s been targeting you, too. In the past few days, she’s already taken out a decent chunk of this group, here.”

Machiavélique didn’t have to mention their names again. Their lack of presence was felt. The lack at D’s sides.

Names she couldn’t bear saying again.

“The super villain thinks she’s being clever, taking advantage of the widespread panic she’s partly a cause of, but she doesn’t realize that she’s putting herself out in the open, too. You can’t really fight mass hysteria, but you can take down one person, even if they have powers. Prop V up to be the scapegoat, take her out, and the fires will quell.”

“And you truly believe that will work?” Mrs. Carter questioned, “That it will be that easy?”

“Might not be easy, but it is simple. If we all work together, I think we can accomplish something very special.”

The gangsters conversed with one another. It wasn’t an immediate rejection.

Mrs. Carter continued to stare at Machiavélique.

They’re doing well, D noted. It was kind of scary.

Forest had a question.

“Why should I believe any of this? Why should we believe you? I left Las Estrellas because of a similar incident, and that was damn near twenty five years ago. Now it’s happening all over again, except now you have these masked fools running around, taking bigger, messier shits. I heard some other fool in a mask is leading the riots. A gang going after other gangs.”

“The Flood, Dong-Yul being their leader. From what I’ve heard, he’d have the motive.”

Forest spread his arms, as if to say ‘I hecking told you so.’ D thought that in her head.

“But Dong-Yul is human. He’s only human. If he gets taken out, it won’t change anything. You’ll need to go after someone bigger. A monster. V. She is the beast you need to slay.”

“And you know how to slay this beast?” Hayden asked.

“We have a plan,” Machiavélique answered.

“Why? You two come out of nowhere, making this proposition. I don’t think you’re in a gang. So what’s your stake in this?”

Machiavélique paused, considering.

“No stake. Just… it’s just. Now, will y’all consider helping me?”

D observed with a keen eye. They were all considering it. Mrs. Carter, for her part, was allowing the discussion to continue, and Styx was having the time of his life. About to crack up. Ready to hear the great punchline of it all.

D didn’t find it funny, though, but she didn’t have a choice but to consider it, and go along with it. She didn’t have a choice at all.

D was no longer free.

“Break it down, I guess. Reduce it, right down to the letter.”

“Okay.”

Doris followed the instructions, right down to the letter. She was good at that, good at listening. And she liked that he liked that she was so good at following instructions.

Dad ruffled her hair, leaving it messy.

“Very good. You need anything else?”

Doris shook her head, both as a gesture and also to get her long hair out of her face.

“Nuh uh. I think I’ll be okay.”

“That’s my girl. I’ll be over in the living room. If you need me, just holler.”

“Okay!” Doris hollered.

That prompted Dad to ruffle her hair again, leaving it even more messy.

Giggling, Doris had to put the homework on pause to get some bunched up hair out of her eyes. Her pencil went flat on the table, her hands and her attention elsewhere. It took her some time, because she was so uncoordinated, and her hair was so long. It went past her lower back, as long as it was nutty brown.

She finally got everything sorted out, pushed back, and she was free from her tangle to get back to the homework.

Simplifying functions. Easy stuff.

Doris saw a lot triangles and X’s and tiny twos that liked to hang out in the upper right of the letters. Divided and separated into fractions. Doris knew fractions, she learned that in Ms. Gibbons’ class.

She went to work, doing it like how Dad showed her. She was just following after the steps, but it still came easy to her, she could feel that it was all coming together, everything either being broken down or reduced. She just had to keep plugging at it.

Crossing out X’s, canceling stuff that looked the same. Taking out those tiny twos when she didn’t need them anymore.

And… there. Just a two and a ‘X’ standing together like buddies.

She found the derivative.

Down to the letter!

It was easy to feel proud of herself. Dad said this kind of thing was hard, but she did it just like that. Well, she needed instructions, but even Dad admitted that he didn’t really understand this stuff, he was just reading words off of the page. But she still figured it out, and she liked to think that Dad had a hand in that.

Smacking her pencil down again, a loud clack, Doris pushed her chair away from the table. Her chair rolled back.

“Dad!” Doris hollered.

She didn’t hear an answer. Weird.

He said he’d be in the living room, right?

“Dad?”

Again, nothing.

Doris hopped out of the chair, gathering her pencil, paper, and textbook. She hugged them into her arms and stalked her way out of the kitchen.

Before she could step out on her own, a heavy hand guided her.

“Come on little one, this way.”

“Hey!”

A bit of fear rose within her, but that was nipped in the bud, after having realized who it was.

“Dad!”

She could only go for one word responses.

“Go to your room and stay in there for now.” Her dad took a pause. “And no, you’re not in trouble.”

Doris was rushed down a hall to her room, her bare feet barely keeping up with her dad’s longer strides.

“Why?”

“Nothing to worry about,” Dad said, but with the way he was acting, how he was hurrying, it made her worry anyways.

“But-”

They got to her room. Her dad opened it for her, nudging Doris inside. Not a push, but the implication was there. She felt it on her back.

Doris spun around, her things shaking in her arms.

“I finished your homework!” Doris said, louder than she had meant it to.

Dad smiled. It was something in his eyes, the corners of them. A little sad.

“That’s my girl. Thank you. Now just stay here. Go read something.”

Dad closed the door before Doris could get even another word in.

Frowning, Doris turned around and looked at her room.

It was a simple room, but Doris and Dad had always lived by simple means, and there was nothing bad about that.

The walls were a soft yellow, the sun as it filtered through the shutters made it brighter. A bed and some stuff animals in one corner, a dresser with maybe five different combinations of outfits in another. No closet in here.

Along one wall was a shelf, filled with books of different types. Dictionaries in different languages, encyclopedias, biographies of prominent anarchists, and coloring books. Not a lot of fiction stuff, Dad didn’t want her head to be filled with ‘fantasy crap.’ Doris didn’t really get it, but she wouldn’t complain over what they didn’t have. She knew better.

She had more books than clothes, and she was fine with that. More than fine, really.

Doris moved along to the shelf, setting her things there. Pencil, paper, and textbook. Her dad’s textbook.

It was Dad’s idea, but she wanted to help where and when she was able. Doris was more than happy to do it.

Dad had just went back to school, a local community college. Studying… Doris wasn’t sure exactly, but Dad needed to go through the core subjects first. That included stuff like math, stuff Dad wasn’t so good at.

Doris was a willing learner, and a fast one at that. So Dad let her in on it. Whatever he couldn’t wrap his head around, he’d try to teach her and have her take a crack at it. And then, he would get a good grade and pass and Doris would get an early and free college education.

It was a good idea, and it made sense to Doris. She just wondered if Dad was learning anything.

She picked up voices on the other side of the door.

This apartment was her home, but it was more like a tenement, to borrow from one of her dictionaries. The walls were thin, and someone didn’t have to be very loud to be heard. Doris was well aware of that.

Moving back to the door, she sat with her own back resting on it. She listened.

“… from his office. Nothing big, a quick meeting. How are you holding up, Carl?”

She didn’t know that voice. A man, maybe around Dad’s age, but it was hard to tell from voice alone.

“I’ve been doing everything you’ve asked. Twiddling my thumbs.”

That was her dad. Carl.

“You’ve been calm during this whole ordeal. That’s good. That’s, um, you’re doing a great job, I can say that much.”

She heard good, she heard great. That had to be a good thing, right? Maybe they were talking about planning a surprise birthday party for Doris or something.

Doris reconsidered. But her birthday wasn’t for another few months.

“I don’t like how you’re talking there, though.”

“I… it’s not good, Carl.”

Oh no. Not good wasn’t good. It was not good.

She heard her dad make a noise. Something like a moan or a groan.

“Damn- come on, man, I thought you said you’d help me out, here!”

Dad tried to keep his voice low, but it didn’t work.

“Like I told you the first time, Carl, I’m doing what I can, but what I can’t do is promise you anything. I talked with the company that’s looking to buy the building, Tate and Mono Construction. They’re pretty adamant about getting this property, and several others, for their planned, shall I say, aggressive expansion. And, this was supposed to be between me and their lawyers, but they are putting together a deal, a payout to anyone who is willing to leave by a certain date.”

“Payout? How much?”

“Ten thousand.”

“Each?”

Doris didn’t hear the answer, but she definitely heard the response to that.

“I can’t take that! That’s bull- that’s peanuts to the peanuts I’m making now! If I take that, where else am I gonna go? I- We can’t afford to live anywhere else.”

“And I understand that, Carl, but there’s only so much I can do. I’d love to take you on as a client and go after these bastards, but there’s the whole matter of…”

“I can’t afford you?” Dad asked.

“As you are, the firm I represent doesn’t see a need to take you on. Me? You can always come to me.”

“I’m coming to you now, please. If I have to beg, then I’ll beg.”

“There’s no need, but this is all I have for you. Any more and it becomes a thing, and you know how it is. My firm is rather selective with its clients, and… well, the more I talk the more I’ll demoralize you, so I’ll stop right there.”

There was a long pause. Doris almost thought that she had lost her hearing.

Then the man spoke again.

“I’m not officially your legal counsel, so I won’t advise to take the money, but as a friend, I’d think about it.”

“My daughter won’t have a home-”

“Think about it. In the meantime I can start looking for some other places for you and Doris. Public housing. The programs haven’t been properly funded for some time but I’ve been getting to know the people who run it. They’re good folk, they’ll set you two up and make you comfortable.”

Another lengthy pause.

“That still doesn’t give me a lot of time. And, it’s not like I want to stay here, but, I can’t go anywhere else, man. You know what I do, what I did. I’m trying to get out of that game, but I leave now they’ll… I just need some time. And money, but if I have time I can get money, and I want to do it the right way, do it clean. I’m just… I want to do things right by her, cause I know I ain’t do squat for her mother.”

Her mother. Doris felt a breeze run through her. A large and noticeable hole that she had grown to live with, but sometimes, she’d feel that cold, how it touched the edges. She shivered.

Dad continued to plead. Beg.

“Please, man, I’m not going to ask you for money but please just buy me some time.”

A third, much longer pause. She really thought she went deaf that time.

“I’ll tell you what,” the man then said, “Something about those lawyers at Tate and Mono, they were serious about securing this spot for them. I don’t know why, no offense Carl, but it isn’t exactly prime location for a large overseas company, looking to dig some roots into American soil.”

“Thanks.”

“What I meant was, Tate and Mono are desperate to get their footing in Stephenville. I can only guess as to why, so I’ll have to do some more digging. But, their lawyers did briefly mention that they were looking into some other buildings in the area as well, buildings my firm’s clients happen to own. I’ll keep an eye on this, and if they try to make a move on another building, and it lines up, I can encourage them to take action, and your testimony will help when it comes time to that.”

“You’d do that?”

“I’ll try. Until then, just sit still, twiddle your thumbs for a bit longer. I’ll get you the time you need. No promises, though.”

“Ah god, thank you, seriously. Thank you, Th-”

The door cracked and bent off the hinge. The door, the whole apartment, was old and rickety, and Doris had leaned on it for too long.

She fell back into the hallway, making a dumb sounding grunt as she did so.

Hurrying, Doris jumped back onto her feet, her hands going to the door to fix it. Shake the hinges back into place so she could close it, but that only made more noise. Loud, so super duper obvious noise.

“Doris?”

She froze.

Turning to look down the hall, she saw her dad, staring back at her. He wasn’t mad, but he was confused, maybe a little embarrassed.

She saw the man standing behind him.

Tall, wearing a suit. Handsome, fit. Dark hair, slicked back. He looked nice. The opposite of Dad. Except the nice part. Dad was nice, too.

But looking at that man, Doris felt her face get all warm. Definitely more than a little embarrassed.

She forgot about the door. She ran back into her room, diving onto her bed, her tiny arms being greeted by fuzzy ones. She hugged a huge teddy bear. The only thing she had could come close to filling that hole that had always been there.

Doris hugged it tight, eyes shut just as heard.

Still though, she couldn’t help but listen.

“That her?”

“It is.”

“Cute kid. Hey, if she wants to make a new friend, I know someone who would love to get to know her.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Sure, why not? It might make my next visit less depressing, depending on how things go. And if anyone deserves some good, it should be her, right?”

“Right, exactly.”

Doris only hugged the bear tighter.

She wasn’t quite sure what they were talking about, she didn’t understand it. She got that last part, though, that she might make a new friend. Or someone closer than friends. Like family.

It was hard for her to get along with the other kids in class, and she didn’t know why. Maybe it was because she was too short, or they didn’t read the same books as her. But maybe someone new would like her, someone different.

Doris wasn’t so worried anymore. In fact, she was thinking of some encyclopedias to recommend right now.

The old but grand building stood tall in the distance. A hangar in an airstrip, once passed between corporations, it was now owned a single, sole, private entity. In any case, it was away from the city. it was secluded, it was safe.

Even then, D still felt like they’d be fish in a barrel.

Them, not me.

Get far enough out of the city, the sprawling cityscape would give way to something more sparse, rolling hills and long stretches of road. The hangar on the very edge of that. Far enough to escape the heat, but the smoke was still very visible from the rearview mirror.

D drove down the long road. She was by herself. She had been used to that for some time now, but, ever since she returned to Stephenville, she became very busy. That meant meeting new people, making new friends. Even new family. Not a lot of time to be on her own, anymore.

But, for the moment, for this drive, she was alone. A brief respite.

Time alone, time to think.

The van sped along, speeding, really. D wasn’t concerned over any cops or other drivers. It was that late, or it was that early, depending how one considered it. It was a weird time. It was a weird time for everybody.

D took a glance at the mirror, checking the road behind her. The city was but a small dot in the back. It glowed, though, stinging if she looked at it for too long.

Her eyes stung.

She blinked away coming tears. Dangerous, being on the road. Doubly so if her mask cracked during the meeting. She’d have to get a grip on herself, now. D was good at that, and being alone helped, but it had gotten harder, since she came back.

Everything had gotten harder since came back.

D could remember a time when it was easy, when it was fun. When it was all about doing whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted. Pranks and just scraping by to do more pranks. And if she fell or failed, it wouldn’t matter, because nothing did. No one would have missed her.

Now, it sort of did kind of mattered. There was people she missed, now, so the inverse had to be true. Now, if she fell, the descent was slowed, the inevitable crash hurting all the more.

No longer instantaneous.

Don’t think of their names. Don’t even say them.

In the instant that thought flashed in her mind, a light flashed behind her.

D checked the mirror.

A pair of lights. Bright. They hadn’t been there before.

Not a cop. No color. Just white.

Blinking. Hazard lights. Signaling.

D looked ahead, and saw a tree off to the side of the highway. Secluded, safe.

The van skipped as it changed terrain. In the back, a pile of teddy bears fell out of their seats. Tires had to work harder to climb up the slight incline, dirt kicking and sliding out under the rubber, but she managed to get up there.

On her tail, the lights followed.

D put the van in park, turning her hazard lights on for a second.

The other car’s lights got cut. Then D’s.

She hopped out of the van. She was able to see the car now. A teal Honda.

Without breaking a stride, D walked, calm, over to the tree. The hangar, the meeting place, was still way over there.

D turned. She didn’t want to think about that now.

Leaning against the tree, she watched doors opened on each side of the teal car. Two figures emerged.

They approached, walking in step with one another.

The moonlight was dim, but D could see their faces. Or rather, she couldn’t. They were already wearing their masks. One more closely resembled a human face, with colors and shapes painted across it like a clown. The other looked like a raven with more eyes than it needed.

D wasn’t perturbed. Just a little cold.

Ça fait longtemps, dis donc,” D said, lively. Any other negative emotion was kept locked down, it wouldn’t be allowed out, kept below her choker.

Neither replied.

Quoi de neuf?” D tried.

The clown and the raven stopped. They stood in a triangle.

D and Machiavélique.

“If you have to ask, then you’re not taking this seriously.”

Quothed the raven.

D shrugged. Acting cool, staying cool.

“I’m taking this very serious. For real.”

If any of those eyes could react, they would all be squinting at her. They remained wide and open. All-seeing, but not all-knowing. That was what D was for.

“Is that it?” Machiavélique asked. The clown half. “The huge building building over there?”

There was only one huge building around.

“Yup yup! Meeting’s moved to the outskirts. Precautions. You can imagine why.”

D would have punctuated that with a laugh or giggle, but she didn’t want to push it. A simple crack, or if she got the delivery wrong, would have given away everything.

Getting a hold of herself. The real test would be in there.

“God damn,” the clown said. “This is getting out of fucking hand.”

“It’s been out of hand for a long time now,” the raven said. “But that’s what we’re here for, to take it back. To set things right.”

“Be prepared for it to get a heck of a lot worse right before it gets better,” D said. “That’s how stuff like this usually goes. That’s how everything goes, always.”

“We’re ready,” the raven said, answering for both halves of Machiavélique. “You came alone?”

“I did. I thought Sarah might try to come, since she was there for the other meetings, but she dipped, instead. Didn’t like how things were going. What the other Fangs wanted to do.”

“So it’s really just you now?”

“It really just is.”

“That doesn’t scare you?”

It was the clown that asked her.

D shrugged again, exaggerating it on purpose.

“Nah. What does scare me is the responsibility. I was used to staying on the side, doing the fun stuff for the gang, but now I have a bunch of underlings who they have to take orders from. And while I like them a bunch, I know they don’t like me. They prefer me on the side, and I work better from there, honestly. I don’t belong on the stage. I’m more like the stagehand, I rig things.”

“You won’t be on stage for long,” the raven said. “And you shouldn’t have to worry about the other Fangs. Play these next few moves right, this should be over very soon.”

D thought about the prospect of that. Reaching endgame, even if Machiavélique didn’t like to think of it as that. A game.

Yet there were moves to make.

“My Fangs are already down, so if you can manage to get everyone in there to work together, then you might be right,” D said. She looked up, gauged the position of the moon, its light dancing between the gaps in the leaves. “Let’s get going, everyone else should be there by now, and I don’t like to keep Styx waiting. Really don’t like to. Leave your car here, and I’ll sneak you in with the van. I stuffed like the biggest pile of teddy bears in the back, so you can hide among all of them if they decide to do a search through.”

“You and your bears,” the raven said.

D grinned, gap showing. That was genuine.

“Yeah, let’s go,” the clown said. “I’m shaking as it is, and it’s not because it’s cold.”

“Let’s,” the raven replied, and that word got them all to move. They went back, all heading to D’s van. A new van. The old one with some sentiment value had been sacrificed. A worthy cover.

D felt something well up in her throat, under her choker. Pressure boiling, punching against a lid. She knew she had to relieve some of it, or she might burst at the wrong time.

She spoke, only for the raven to hear.

“You say I don’t need to worry about the Fangs, but I quite like them. I like those two, too. Liked.”

“I know you do,” the raven said. “I also know that you recognize that they cannot be allowed to continue. Her especially. We take her down, and this madness ends.”

Or you finally get your petty, selfish revenge.

But D managed to keep that thought down, below the choker. She knew better than to talk back to an elder. Besides, D was still here, she was still helping.

And that choked her up inside.

Tugging her choker, relieving some of that pressure, D replied with only a soft, “D’accord.”

“Nor… Nordisk, no disc family book, what?”

The older girl inspected the book with a mild curiosity, but the expression on her face was mostly confusion.

Nordisk familjebok,” Doris said, without the trace of an accent. “It’s an encyclopedia from Sweden. That one is the Uggleupplagan, or the owl edition, because there’s an owl on the cover.”

The older girl ran her hand across the cover. She never cracked it open, though, instead sliding it right back into the shelf. Her hand floated through the other options, ready to pick out a new one like fruit.

“You don’t have any book series or anything,” the older girl said, a little disappointed.

Doris pointed, her arm and finger fully straight. “Noooo! There in the corner! The complete history of motorcycles, from the Reitwagen to the right now!”

The older girl laughed.

“Noooo,” she said back, imitating Doris. “I’m talking about book books, with characters and stories. Things like that.”

“Oh,” Doris said, a little disappointed. “My dad doesn’t want me to read those kind of books. Book books.”

Book book books.

“Why not?”

“I dunno. He says I should read to learn so that’s why we have all these.” Doris motioned across her shelves.

“That’s crap, you can learn from anything you read. Say, would he get mad if I got you something, as a gift?”

As a gift? Doris thought about it.

“I don’t think he’d get mad. He also says you should never not accept a gift.”

“Cool.” The older girl smiled. “I’ll bring something next time.”

“Next time?”

That smile grew brighter. “Sure.”

Doris squeezed her fists, shaking them a little. This girl just got here, and she was already talking about a next time. That made Doris super duper excited.

With even more awe in her eyes, Doris watched as the girl perused her humble library and its offerings.

The girl was older than her, as Doris kept noting, and while it was only by a fistful of years, the older girl already looked so much more mature than her. Taller, her darkish blonde hair done up, her outfit more stylish than Doris had ever seen in a magazine or TV.

She looked cool, and she seemed cool because she was nice. Doris appreciated that.

“What kind of books do you like?” Doris asked.

“I like… um,” the older girl took out something and skimmed the pages. A French dictionary. She stopped at a page and gave the book to Doris, leaving a finger on the thing.

“Those kind,” she said.

Doris followed to where her finger pointed. She read the word with ease.

“What’s noir?” The dictionary definition by itself didn’t make any sense.

“Crime stories. Pulp fiction. Cops and robbers and detectives and the like.”

“Oh. Cool.”

Doris knew what those things were but she didn’t see the appeal in them.

“My dad is a lawyer so it’s like the same thing. Well, not actually but I still like it.”

“Oh. But that is cool. Like actually.”

Doris didn’t want to be misconstrued.

“Thanks,” the older girl said, a funny tone. Like she meant it, but she was also joking somehow. It was weird.

“Why do you like it?” Doris asked. She really wanted to know more about her.

The older girl leaned a bit, eyes to the ceiling. Thinking.

“Why? That’s a weird question.”

“Is it?”

“Kidding. I’ve just never been probed on why I like a thing, before. Not weird, just different.”

Not weird. Different.

“Why do I like them? Uh… I dunno, I like bad guys when their just desserts. But, I guess, in those kinds of stories the main character isn’t usually such a great person, either.”

“So what happens when there aren’t any good guys?”

The older girl put some serious thought into it.

“In that case, you just have to go with the lesser of two evils.”

The lesser of two evils.

“So you like it when the bad guy is beat? Or the bad bad guy?”

“Worse than beat. When they’re beat so bad they can’t run away and do more bad.”

“Oh,” Doris said.

“Anyways, let’s not get into that,” the girl said. She took the book back and set it into its proper place on the shelf.

“Why?”

“It’s depressing, and I’m not about to mess up a little kid I just met.”

“Okay,” Doris said, accepting that answer. “But promise when you come back you’ll bring me a book you like.”

“Hmmm. I shouldn’t make any promises, but sure.”

Doris made little fists again.

“For now though,” the older girl said, “Wanna play a game?”

“Yeah!”

Crawling a few feet across the floor, she reached over for a small purse. She pulled out a tablet.

“Um, do you know how to play chess?”

“Yeah!”

The older girl tapped on the screen, setting the game up, and then placed it on the floor between them.

Doris hadn’t gotten a lot of chances to use a device like this before, her family never had one, but she figured it out fast.

The older girl went first. She was white, then it was Doris’ turn.

Pieces started moving around. They talked as they played.

“So, uh…”

“Try to remember it, will you? Name’s-”

“Can I call you Big Sis?”

A pause.

“That’s another weird question.”

“Is it?”

“Kidding again. Um, alright, why not?”

Yes, Doris thought.

“Big Sis. Your dad is a lawyer?” Doris asked. Pawn to C5.

“Yes ma’am,” was the answer. Knight to F3.

“Is he going to help my dad?” Knight to C6.

“As much as he can, I guess.” Pawn to D4. “Do you know what he needs help with?”

Pawn over to D4. Pawn taking pawn. Knight to D4. Knight taking pawn.

“No,” Doris said, down. “I’m scared that he needs help because he’s a bad guy.”

“Why would you say that? Do you think he’s a bad guy?”

“No,” Doris said.

Pawn to G6. Bishop to E3. Bishop to G7. Pawn to C4.

“I know we just met, so it might not mean anything, but, if my dad is willing to help yours, then he can’t be such a bad guy.”

“Okay,” Doris said.

“Those are just stories, they’re not like real life.”

“Okay.”

More pieces moved. Pieces taken.

“Not bad,” Big Sis said.

“I want to help him but I don’t know how.”

The words blurted out of her mouth.

She couldn’t stop thinking about it, though. Dad and her dad were out there, in the living room, talking about matters that Doris couldn’t fully understand. It was grown up stuff. But Doris could understand that Dad got really stressed, that he lost lots of sleep and wouldn’t be able to finish his homework by himself. Dad got sad a lot, and that made Doris sad. Kids and adults could understand that feeling.

Doris wanted to help Dad like how her dad was, but she didn’t know how.

Big Sis’ turn. Rook to F5.

“Hey,” she said. “You’re a kid, so you shouldn’t worry about it so much. But hey, I say that, but I worry about my dad, too.”

“How?”

“He really wants to get this… your whole situation straightened out, and he hates that he isn’t in the right position to make the right moves. He talks about this with my mom after dinner. He thinks I can’t hear him but I do. My dad’s the type to give it his all to his work, so when something doesn’t work out…”

Big Sis paused. Doris was quiet too.

It was Doris’ turn. Pawn to rook. F5.

Big Sis’s turn again. Bishop to F7.

“… he gets frustrated.”

Doris couldn’t quite place the feeling in the air with a word, but it was probably not what either of them intended for this playdate.

Doris was stuck. On what to say and on what move to make. Her king was stuck in a corner.

Doris tried, though.

“Maybe, if we can have fun today, would that be enough for them?”

Queen taking pawn. B2.

She looked at Big Sis.

Big Sis smiled.

“That could work.”

Then, she made her move. Bishop to F8.

Doris let her mouth open so long it got dry.

Check and mate.

Big Sis smiled even wider. Doris knew the word for that one for sure. Smug.

Doris smiled back.

“Who are you talking to?”

D was worried. It was a genuine concern. No smiling here.

Wendy had her arms flat on the desk in a vain attempt to cover up something, but D could see how the table bent inward, like there was a crack down the middle. Wendy was never very good at hiding things. Not at all.

But this was different. This was concerning.

Wendy was talking to someone, but D didn’t remember leaving anyone else in the room with her. And she sounded mad.

Clutching her teddy bear, D took stock of the office. Right. No one else in here.

No. Wait. No one else in here. That wasn’t right. That was so very wrong.

Wendy stared at D, and it was almost like looking back at the abyss. There was simply nothing within those pools of wide blackness.

Her mouth dropped open, and an hollow sound echoed out.

“Huh?”

It wasn’t even a word.

D was good at hiding what she felt, deep down. She could keep it from sounding out when she spoke, disguising it as something else. Chipper. Hyper. Nothing would go above the choker she wore.

Crying was different. That was real, and it fit, made sense for this situation.

But now, a certain emotion threatened to bubble up and burst out of her mouth. One she didn’t want to show. Fear.

Had to suppress it when she asked again.

“Who are you talking to?”

The lights never seemed more harsh and oppressive, the glare catching Wendy’s lenses and glazing over the eyes themselves.

Then, Wendy moved her head slow, almost like how an old person would, and they had forgotten where they were or how they got there. Her arms, resting on the desk, had relaxed.

“Isabella,” Wendy said, looking off to some far distance, somewhere D couldn’t see. “She’s right there.”

D looked. But, no. Try as she might, the corner, the walls, the ceiling. Nothing there.

She was scared to report that.

D didn’t risk it. Stayed quiet.

But that only made Wendy more dazed.

“You alright?”

D wasn’t sure if Wendy was talking to her or not.

But she didn’t answer regardless.

Wendy closed her eyes, then opened them again. A slow blink?

“D?”

So much was happening, so much had happened. D was reeling from one thing, already. Lawrence was dead. She wasn’t prepared for this.

“Yeah?” she asked, getting ready to take a step backwards, to the hall. She already regretted coming back in here.

“You… alright?”

Wendy’s speech slurred there a bit.

This… D couldn’t save this.

She couldn’t bear to answer. She couldn’t say.

D bit her tongue.

Wendy broke her stare from D, and looked into the distant nothingness again.

“It’s not up to me, we have to come to a decision together.”

D only hugged the bear tighter. If it could breathe, she was strangling it.

She still couldn’t say anything.

Wendy looked back at D, and blinked again. Blinked some more. And blinked. Blink blink blink.

D was scared. But she couldn’t say that.

“Isabella asked you something.”

A knot went up into D’s throat.

Have to say something.

D nodded, glancing to a vague direction within the room. Leaning back.

Choking, D said, “I’ll have to get to back on you with that… Isabella.”

Wendy motioned for D. “Hey-”

An arm was lifted off the desk, and there was nothing to hold it together anymore. The desk was split into two, dropping into place and making a thud.

But it might as well have been a crash.

D leaped, despite herself, and like an animal that hunted for its food, Wendy didn’t respond well to that.

Wendy jumped up, too, away from the collapsed desk. Her head and eyes darted around, searching for something, hunting for it, until the gradual realization came down like the setting sun. That nothing was there.

And then something rose. Something much darker.

D couldn’t stick around to find out.

She bolted out of the room.

Down the hall, a corner, a corner, then-

The quick panic made her temporarily lost. Dark. Couldn’t see.

No delay, but fear had her. Delay.

Pause. Panic.

Turn.

Run.

So much running.

Crash.

Disoriented, D shook herself off. She found herself on the floor, on top of Sarah. It was Sarah.

“Sarah,” she said. Glad to see her.

She was on the floor too, having been knocked into by D. She grunted.

“You alright?”

“Please don’t ask me that, we need to get out of here.”

“What-”

What followed wasn’t Wendy herself, but her howl, the moon just outside.

D picked her and Sarah up, rushing her.

“We need to get everyone out of here.”

Sarah snapped to action, but she still wasn’t sure of what was happening. Then again, neither did D.

But it almost didn’t matter. It immediate goal was simple enough to understand.

Leave.

Both getting to their feet, they ran together down a hall. D let Sarah take the front, because she was older and because she was faster overall.

The howl grew in both intensity and volume, seeming to bounce off the cold steel walls around them. Imprisoned by metal and sound. More crashes and bangs.

“… going on?”

Sarah yelled out maybe less than half a question, but D got the meaning.

“I don’t know, Vivi’s having another episode!”

“Again?”

More howls and crashing answered that for her. Louder. Closer.

“There isn’t anything we can do for her?” Sarah asked.

“For her? That’ll have to wait. Now? Gotta-”

D could have sworn she heard metal snap.

“Go!” D finished.

They ran, and D’s legs were already hurting. The Redhouse had been blown up only two hours ago, and now she was fearing for her life again. Wendy carried her to safety that time, now they were running from her.

This wasn’t how it was supposed to be.

The doors.

Bursted open.

“Every-”

D couldn’t finish the word.

Wood splintered and cracked and fell apart. Somewhere above her.

She couldn’t even begin to consider how, but Wendy had gotten out another way, crawling out from somewhere that led back to the main area of the church. A sizable hole was left in a wall above where the priest would have sat, dirt and debris dropping down.

D looked, and saw the moonlight frame the girl. More shadows than anything else. The outline vaguely human.

The vague outline that was supposed to be her new big sis, and Sarah’s new partner, leapt from her post and into the crowd. Her fangs met her Fangs.

Chaos ensued. More than D had ever seen or caused.

Everyone rushed to get out of there seats and aisle, spilling out to the sides, trying to find an exit. Screaming things too rude for D to repeat.

This wasn’t good.

She wasn’t considering that these were her own men. She was going through them, taking them down, one by one by one by one. She would leap into the air, landing on top of them. D lost visual on them as they fell behind one of the wooden seats.

She’s going to tear them apart.

And we led her right to them.

D had to come up with something. Couldn’t let this last any longer.

Too dark, too crazy in here. Her voice was too small to direct them to proper exits.

D took a quick scan of the church. Wendy’s base. Probably not her base anymore.

“Don’t go into the crowd yet!” D yelled to Sarah, “Stay out of the way.”

“But Tone-”

“Stay out of the way!”

D shoved the teddy bear into Sarah’s arms and ran.

Over to the other end of the church. Exactly where D told Sarah not to go.

The crowd was dispersing, being cut down to size. D couldn’t make out the scope of the destruction. Just screams and people bigger than her running for their lives. It was hard to squeeze through, but she had to move.

Too much was happening to the Fangs, one after another. The riots starting at Wellport, and then Lawrence… they couldn’t even give him a proper burial. And now this. Wendy snapping and lashing out at the nearest things around her.

So much pressure had been building up, and now it was blowing up.

D couldn’t let the Fangs fall apart. She still needed them.

Had to keep it together. For the endgame.

Someone knocked into D. She would have fallen over, if she hadn’t knocked into someone else. She pushed and kept going.

Another super loud sound. Shots. People were trying to shoot their way out now.

Or at her.

Keep running keep running keep running.

There. She could reach it now.

On a wall in a small pocket by where the choir would play. A panel that controlled the sound equipment.

D went right to work crossing wires and plugging things in. Power still ran through here. She could use it.

She heard a static click of a speaker turning on.

Spinning around, she searched for a mic. There, on a chair. It was dusty and old but it would work.

She grabbed for it, fumbled with the wire, then yelled.

“Exits to the side, not just the front!”

The roar of the crowd dampened at the sudden sound, but there was no clear response. D did see, however, Fangs start directing themselves to where D had indicated. The chaos was still there, but it was beginning to thin out.

But Wendy was still there, too.

Blood and splatter arced through the air. D wasn’t able to count how many of her own teeth Wendy was pulling out.

I have to stop her.

D yelled again.

“Vivi!”

A head popped up. Tilted and bent and crazed and covered in blood.

There were no words. Just anger and aggression.

D clapped her hand against the mic, making another loud sound. She tapped it.

The speakers were at the head of the church. Less people there. If D could direct it- her-

Wendy, Vivi, Sis

It jumped, soaring through the air, towards the front of the church.

D was almost disappointed at how easy that was. But that wasn’t Wendy right now. Something else had taken over.

Shots followed after Wendy, missing, but they kept trying. They kept shooting at their own Voss.

Wendy landed on top of the altar, on all fours. She stumbled and staggered when the occasional stray bullet tagged her, but she didn’t fall.

She didn’t go after D, just the sound of her voice, coming from somewhere else. All D had to do was keep Wendy away from the rest. Then, how to get the heck out of here.

Shots continued to zip by. Most of them missed. But not all of them were aiming for her directly.

Some of the Fangs were working together, now, shooting above Wendy, what was overhead. And what was overhead was a crucifix, held suspended in the air by old cables.

One stray bullet wouldn’t do. Several hitting the mark could. And then it did.

“No!”

D’s scream reverberated throughout the whole church, then swallowed by the crash. Nails to teeth.

She saw how the sudden weight tore through her new big sister. A beam of wood caught her at the shoulder, severing the arm. Crossing her, cutting her, the weight sliced the limb.

It-

D recalled a conversation with Wendy. What had happened in the Lunar Hotel against Granon. Lawrence saw the aftermath there. She had seen it for herself, too, when they visited Braham Barn on a rainy day.

A spiral of destruction.

Then, now, D finally was able to witness the leading suspect.

A burst of mass and blood. Black and slick and huge. Lengthy, it stretched and twisted of fibers and muscles. Sinew.

Obsidian tendrils whipped around in a circle, taking out everything in its path. The crucifix had its turn to be cut in two, and many more pieces.

Long and powerful, the tendrils sprouted from the place where her arm was supposed to be. They had reach.

Spinning out of control, they sliced and slashed the poor unfortunates who tried to take the side exits D had pointed out. Some still made it out, some were able to turn back, the rest weren’t able to do either.

Lucky bullets hit a long black target. It was like steel. Bounced off.

Just more destruction. A spiral of it.

Moving on its own volition. This was that something else.

The screams spun around D. It was a blur and a rush.

Then, the whirlwind stopped, the debris allowed to settle in place.

It happened fast. Or, it took long for D to realize that it was over.

From behind a chair in the choir section, D climbed back up to her feet. She didn’t even remember ducking for cover.

A church was in disarray. People picking each other up. Less than before. Some got out. But not everyone did.

Wall, ceiling, wall, floor, wall, ceiling, broken window. D could follow a path of destruction, of self and otherwise. But she wasn’t here anymore.

Horror show. Horrible.

D walked to the altar. Sarah was there, standing up, by the broken wood and metal and marble. She was still holding the teddy bear.

No one was at the altar. No arm, but D was certain it had been lobbed off. She found a torn piece of cloth in the wreckage. A sleeve.

Sarah was speechless, all words robbed from her. D was just as broke now, too. But she’d need the words soon, because it was time to make that call. That move.

The queen had moved into position. The beginning of the endgame.

Doris was scared, and she couldn’t do anything.

Scared for herself, scared for Dad.

A voice taunted on the opposite side of the door, across the hall. Menacing.

“Should have taken the money right then and there, Carl man. You see, those good people need this property. For good reasons. Good for my business.”

“Please, don’t!”

“And your testimony put a stop to that. You and your lawyer friend. That’s not ace.”

“God, please!”

“No, Carl, no deities here. I could take you to them, though.”

“Stop!”

She tried to cover her ears with her teddy bear.

Tried, but the walls were thin, Doris heard every struggle, every strained scream. Her dad’s. The other voice was like nails on a chalkboard.

Blocking her hearing didn’t work, her only line of defense now was staying under her bed.

“Shh, shh, it’s okay, don’t move. Here, here. When you go see the doctor for this, tell them you took a trip down the stairs as you were moving out of here.”

“No, no, stop, please, no-”

Dad scream was so loud it scared her. But it was the laughter over it that terrified her.

It was all so sudden. Doris couldn’t even remember what she was doing before it happened. Probably something mundane. Probably reading the newest book her big sister gave her.

Dad’s descended to a whimper. Doris couldn’t hear him anymore.

She heard nails on a chalkboard, though.

“Search the rest of the apartment. Take anything they don’t need. Lighten the load for when they leave.”

Footsteps. Up and down the hall. Things breaking.

Hinges squeaking.

The footsteps were closer now. In her room.

Boots walked to the foot of the bed, stopping there. Unmoving for a time.

Then, they turned, but instead of walking away, rusty bed springs bent and creaked together. They were sitting on the bed, right on top of her.

“Hi.”

Doris kept every emotion and word in her throat.

“What’s your name?”

No escape. Stuck here. No choice.

She looked at the man’s boots. Boots with sharp things coming out the bottom of them.

“Doris…”

“Hi Doris, I’m Sticks.”

“Sticks?”

“Like the river. Anything I can get you? Thirsty?”

Salty tears were already streaming down her face. She wasn’t in need for water.

“Styx, did you hurt my dad?”

“I did. He wouldn’t listen otherwise.”

“Are you going to hurt me?”

“Not up to me. Offer still stands.”

Doris didn’t, couldn’t get another word out, even though her throat was dry.

“Well,” Styx said, “Just so you know, the offer will always stand. Always. No matter what. If you need me, for anything, just come and find me, and we’ll figure something out. And in fact, I insist. Please. Do me that favor, from you to me.”

He then chuckled.

Doris didn’t really get it, at all. She was still too scared to connect any thoughts.

“Why are you doing this?”

That was the only question she could think of, her confusion like a haze in her mind.

“Why? Because I can. I can do whatever I please. I didn’t have to do this, but I felt like it this time. Seems to me like it was worth it.”

“So you’re a bad guy?”

Sticks, Styx paused.

Dumb question. Stupid. Stupid. But she wasn’t really thinking.

“Bad?” Styx asked back, “I do what I want in a system that allows me that freedom. I’m free, in every sense of word and existence. Is that so bad?”

Doris didn’t have an answer for that.

“Tell me, Doris, do you feel free here?”

Through the haze, Doris thought about it. Here, with Dad, doing his homework, playing with big sis whenever came over, she was content, hardly sad, but free? Within these walls? Maybe not. But that had never been a detriment, something that Doris complained about, under her breath.

“No,” Doris answered.

“Oh wow! Doris! You should really try it sometime! Most people go their whole lives, letting themselves get shackled to things. But true freedom is liberating, it’s honest, it’s real. And that, my Doris, is a very good thing.”

Somewhere deep in the core of her, where she wasn’t or would ever be conscious of, those words struck like a bell, and rang throughout the rest of her being.

She sounded, “Oh.”

“I’d best get going then. Remember, offer. Favor. See you then.”

The bed springs retracted to their neutral positions, creaking along the way. Styx’s boots walked their owner out of her room.

Her heart was in her throat. Pounding. That sensation reached her head.

She’d always wanted to help Dad. She even thought she was helping by playing with her big sis, having fun, being happy. But Dad still got hurt. She couldn’t do anything at all.

Her heart was pounding so hard it was breaking. That sensation matched what was happening in her mind.

It didn’t work. Nothing she had tried worked. Now, those feelings of wanting to help that broken whimpering man kept her down. Very much like shackles.

Freedom didn’t sound so bad.

The van had slammed into a sudden stop, and D’s bones were rattling. She couldn’t even shake it off, because of how hard the impact thrummed through her body.

Nothing broken, so go me. Yay.

D still felt as if her atoms were splitting apart though.

Testing, she moved an arm, and found that she could. A huge relief, that she was able to move over some of the stuffed teddy bears. Stuffed with stuff. Made for a decent cushion.

Her head rattled, and so did her thoughts. She took a second to collect them, remember what just happened.

Oh, right. She was being chased. A car chase, except she was driving a van. And she was being chased by a taxicab, of all things.

And then someone climbed out onto the top of the taxi while it was speeding down the street, she definitely remembered that. It was like a stunt from a movie.

Then they jumped over onto her van.

D did what she could to shake them off, but their grip was like steel. Impossible.

Then a crash happened, somehow, and D forced the van to a halt.

Cracks ran across the windshield like a web. Hard to see through, but she could still drive with it like that. It’d just be really really hard.

Rearview. The taxi was there, lights on. No movement.

Before D could check the windshield again, the door to her side flung open.

Middle of the road, but D didn’t crash into another vehicle. Not even the taxi. She was too good of a driver for that.

Something else had stopped her, someone.

A person crashed her van to a skidding stop.

That person.

Shorter than D had expected, but still taller than her. Covered from head to toe, even the face was hidden behind a mask.

A red phantom. Not a blue moon, but the phenomenon was just as rare.

It has to be you.

Their head was tilted as they inspected the van’s interior. The reaction was expected, everything was. Staking out the factory, waiting. The chase, the run-around, the van and the teddy bears, all to throw them off and make them not suspect a thing. Her.

My new big sister.

All D could do was smile, big and wide. Goofy, but only because she was so excited.

“Yo!”

“Dad says you’re moving out soon.”

Doris moved a bishop. No word.

“He also said you can sleep over in my room in the meantime, while he helps your dad find a new place. I’m totally cool with that, by the way. I don’t have to keep bringing my board and pieces here all the time.”

A rook. Still no word.

“Do you, do you wanna sleep over at my place?”

Pawn. Doris said nothing when she let a pawn go.

“Hey, you listening? You’re not even playing-”

Wordless, D only replied with chess moves. Putting her heart and thoughts into each one. Her intent. Things she couldn’t bear to say, but had every sense to follow through. She hoped her sister would understand.

She did. Replying with counters, responding by the certain placement of a certain piece. A developing language, spoken only on the board, the message only fully fleshed out by the final position of the remaining pieces.

Doris had sacrificed her black queen early in the game for an opening. A risky move, but it played out well in the long run. Queen’s gambit.

Checkmate.

Doris had it. With but her king and bishop left, and putting as much distance between the pieces as possible, she was able to finally beat her big sister.

She won. She’d be free. She almost wished she wouldn’t be.

Her eyes were hot, wet in the corners, her throat locked up again.

Words failed her big sister, too, because it was too late. Nothing she could do or say would stop her now.

“Got your message, sis.”

D sat atop of an impressive height of teddy bears, almost like a throne. Looking down. Her smile was gapped.

Three of them total. Two people at the bottom. One response.

“You ran away from family but you’re still calling me that?”

“All of the fun but none of the work. It’s great!”

She had paused. Looking up and down the pile again.

“A lot of bears. How heavy is the weight?”

“Enough,” D said, “These gang leaders need better number crunchers. I’d offer my services, but… it’s work.”

“Katy, this is crazy.”

The other girl spoke up. Maria, her sister introduced her as. A new big?

No, she doesn’t seem into the idea.

How disappointing.

Maria was ignored.

“Doris,” her sister called out, “Get down here!”

She complied. She’d only be allowed to tease her for so long.

Slipping out, D slid down the pile. The friction on her legs was warm and fuzzy.

She reached the bottom and fixed her skirt. It had been a minute since she last saw her sister. They had all gotten taller.

“I think you’re asking for someone else,” D said, “But… mais je divague.”

“Here.”

D cupped her hands. Something dropped into it.

A black queen.

D started tossing it up into the air, catching it. Playing with it.

“Who is it?”

“I don’t know who it is exactly, but I know the name it’s using. Alexis Barnett.”

“Alexis. Ah-leck-sis.”

D giggled.

“Keep an eye on her for me. Doesn’t matter how. Follow her, befriend her. Be her personal bodyguard for all I care.”

Maria spoke, “You’re seriously just a kid. Katy, she’s just a kid. Do you know what you’re asking of her?”

“That’s all I need for now. Give me constant updates. Don’t let her go too far.”

“Can’t promise that last part,” D said.

“Then if she does, we’ll go from there. Just be my eyes and ears.”

“Sounds like a lot of work. Responsibility. What’s in it for me?”

Her older sister gave D a look.

“You’ll have someone new to play with.”

D shivered when she heard that, starting from the very bottom of her spine, shooting up.

Spinning the chess piece between her fingers, D grinned, excited and silly. She didn’t have to say any more.

“Doris.”

Knock.

“Doris?”

Knock knock.

“Got some math problems for you. They’re a little out of my league. Want to take a crack at it?”

Nothing.

Nothing.

Her mouth was full, her tummy fuller.

D for donuts.

The car spun wildly out of control, music blasting from loud speakers and open windows. Hard to hear anything else, except when the back parts collided into the other cars in the lot. She’d skid a bit, then she’d kick the engine back into full gear.

Spin spin spin.

A loud and distinct blare. Police.

D let the car collide into another to get to a stop.

Music down, windows up halfway. She waited.

The officer approached the car. Driver’s side.

“Do I have to tell you why-”

He lost his remaining words. She was good at that.

“Yo!” D said, giving the office a full smile, showing all her teeth. Bits of jelly dripped out a corner of her mouth.

The officer looked so stunned, and his huge mustache made him look so funny. She’d never had an uncle, but this guy kind of looked like one.

Before he was able to find those words again, D spoke up first.

“Mind if I practice my driving here? I’m still getting the hang out it. Better yet, how about a race!”

D stood up from her seat, stomping on the gas.

The car tore through the parking lot, leaving the cop and his car behind in head start.

The window was half open. She felt the wind in her hair as it flew around. Free.

Finally.

It was time.

From one life to the next.

Doris stood at the edge of the hall. Her room behind her. Nothing but the clothes on her back, and her favorite teddy bear.

She hadn’t packed anything else. There was nothing to bring.

She was supposed to go to school today. She instead waited at the corner of the bus stop, and waited some more. The bus left without her.

Dad should be at work by now, thirty minutes late after having to hobble there in crutches. A while to get there, a while to get back.

Time alone, time to think.

This was it. A hurdle to step over, and then there was no coming back here.

Doris started walking.

The hall, where the walls were etched in crayon but Dad never got mad. The living room, where they would sit on the couch and watch public access television, or run around the rickety coffee table in a game of tag.

The kitchen, where she would sit and do her homework as fast as possible so she could move on to Dad’s.

The apartment was mostly empty, now, everything had been packed and ready to go. The plan was for them to move into the project housing by the evening. Mr. Thompson would come and pick them up and take them there.

That was their plan. But she had other plans.

Doris went to a drawer, and drew out a big knife.

Silent, she moved over the dining table. Where she’d do their homework. Where she tried to help and make her Dad happy. Where, even if she got every problem right, there was one she wasn’t ever able to solve.

And she was done solving problems.

Frustrated, she kicked one of the legs, and her foot hurt. Feeling worse, she pushed the table around until it fell over, and she pushed it some more until she got it halfway across the living room.

Kick. Kick. Kick.

Doris was useless, Doris couldn’t do anything. She wasn’t free at all.

But I will be.

Her arms seemingly moved on their own as she brought the knife to the underside of the table, carving into it. The table was old, bought secondhand or thirdhand from somewhere. Other people before her had left their mark. Most of them were mean messages. But Doris wasn’t writing something mean, it was something true.

She poured what was left of her heart and self into the blade tip, leaving them there, leaving it here, within these walls.

She got up to inspect her work, pushing her wild hair out of her face. No good. She’d have to get it cut.

The inscription, the epitaph.

Doris is here.

Doris would stay here, like she always did. Trapped. And now, she was free to go.

And she knew just who to see first.

D turned around and never looked back.

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Interlude – Natalie

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“What is it you want, exactly?”

Natalie Beckham smiled. She flattened out a sheet of paper. She could feel the indentations of what she had written on the page before. A new page, a blank page.

“I want the truth,” she answered.

Earl Fillmore set his arms across the table, the wrinkles in his forehead creasing. He was an older man, with grey in his bread and his skin with a leathery texture to it. A few years past fifty. No, if there was anything that really aged him, it was the way he dressed. His brown sweater was zipped up to his chin, with a collar and bowtie around his neck. A wool cap on his head completed the look. If he were forty years younger, he would be handing out newspapers.

But now I’m trying to get him in one.

“I’m giving you what I can,” Earl said, “What I know. And what I know, is that this law will tear this community apart, and I’m tired of seeing the seams get tested, time and time again. And the way things are going, something’s going to break, eventually.”

Natalie wanted to drop her smile, but didn’t.

“It’s not a law, Earl, not yet.”

Earl breathed. “And it would be great if it never became one.”

Shifting only her eyes, Natalie glanced over to her partner. From behind a camera, Oliver returned a look, tapping his phone that he had set on the table. The screen lit up, showing the amount of time the microphone was recording. Ten minutes.

Natalie adjusted her thick-rimmed glasses, straightening out loose, blonde hair she had tied back. Setting herself straight.

She’d have to steer the interview, get it back on track. Otherwise she’d never get to the heart of the matter. Why she was here.

Natalie proposed her next question.

“If you don’t mind, Earl, I’d to give you the runthrough of the bill, one more time.”

Earl breathed again, deeper this time.

“Sure.”

“Thank you. John Cruz and his proposed Thompson Act would give more power to law enforcement to investigate any and all claims regarding people and businesses with potential connections to organized crime. It calls for stricter penalties across the board, even on minor misdemeanors, and less regulation in state prisons. The chances of parole should someone be found guilty on any accounts relating to the Thompson Act are next to zero.”

“John Cruz?”

“The district attorney. The Thompson Act is named in the memory of the person Cruz was running against, Thomas Thompson.”

“Named in the memory of?”

“Thompson died before the ballots ever opened. Killed, really. One of the many losses suffered from the terrorist attacks by Solace last November.”

Earl frowned. “Ah, that.”

That. A situation that had been so dire, so grave, that reduced all sentiments to but a single word. That.

Natalie continued. “Cruz ended up taking the position, as if an opposing candidate could have cropped up in the following weeks, but he still wanted to ensure that his legacy would continue and leave its own mark on the city.”

“Is that supposed to be a noble deed?” Earl asked.

“It isn’t my position to say,” Natalie said. “But your perspective will help guide the story. Just before, you mention that the Thompson Act would tear your community apart. Why do you see things that way? Potentially, the bill could have a big hand in taking out a lot of the criminal activity that happens in Stephenville.”

A slight prod, Natalie knew, but it was calculated. To ease out what she needed, instead of taking a more direct approach, one that might get him to shut down, completely.

Earl tapped a finger on the surface of the table. A dull, wooden note.

“Natalie, you’re not from around here, are you?”

The reaction was expected.

“I am, born and raised. Though, I admit, it has been a while since I’ve been back, so I’m playing catch up right now. I need context.”

“Context?”

“Yes, Earl. The facts? They’re easy to get, obtain enough of them and you become credible. From what you just told me, it matches up with what I already know, which is promising, but if that’s all I needed, I’d just put myself in the story. But I can’t, and I won’t.”

Natalie motioned to Oliver, then Earl.

“That’s why we’re meeting here today, in the back meeting room of your establishment. Only you can provide the proper understanding of what this bill would do in your neck of the woods. And once we get that…”

Natalie set her hand back on her notebook, feeling the paper. She spun her pen around her fingers.

“We can be on the same page.”

Earl sat back in his seat. Not relaxed, there was a stiffness in his shoulders, but she could see the gears turning in his head. It was in the other things, instead. The long takes of breath, the way his fingers tensed as he wrung his hands together.

In that moment, Natalie asked again, “What would the Thompson Act mean to this community?”

Then, he answered.

“If this bill passes, it gives police a hell of a lot more reach in what they’re allowed to do when carrying out investigations. Stop and frisks, search and seizures. Allow them to reach deep enough, and they’re bound to find some dirt to throw back in your face. Less oversight for a proposed increase in productivity. If there’s no red tape blocking their way, it’s gets easier for them to get places. Now, imagine that kind of policy being introduced in a community that has a high minority population. People make calls, they turn the cops into their personal hounds, and then they flip and turn anyone’s home or place of business upside down, and then it ends in one of two ways. They leave and you have to clean up the mess, or you have to find someone else to clean because the cops took you with them.”

“And you’re afraid that people, under the Thompson Act, would point police at your neighbors, or even yourself?”

“Right. Those tips will turn into hits. It’s an excuse to clear this part of town out, quick, and then what? It gets gentrified, and who’s filling out those prisons?”

The question remained hanging, but the answer was implicit. Without looking, Natalie started jotting down some new notes. Filling out the page.

“But that’s not what I’m afraid of,” Earl said.

“No?” Natalie questioned.

“I’m afraid of the John Cruz and the Thomas Thompsons of the world. The fact that this thing even has any legs. A year ago, this sort of legislature would have gotten laughed out of the capitol. Now? The whole world has been flipped to shit.”

The whole world.

“Blank Face,” Natalie ventured. The room they were in wasn’t warm, but like a spell, it sent out a chill when uttered.

“Ever since that thing showed up in this city, everything’s gone out the window. Logic, rules. The law. Now everyone is scrambling to parade in on their platform of fear, doing the most to line up their pockets and their sponsor’s pockets.”

That, was true. It was easy to rally support behind certain proposals and actions if it meant going against the one big question mark that was Blank Face. Just recently, Congress and the Oval Office had approved the biggest increase in the military budget in the country’s history. The justification was to protect citizens – overseas and otherwise – from other potential Blank Faces that might pop up in the future. None hadn’t since the initial first contact, but that didn’t stop the Department of Defense from salivating at the mouth for more tanks, more planes, more missiles, more everything. If anything, that was the real reason they pushed so hard for the budget surplus.

But, that was the global context. The Thompson Act was a symptom of a much bigger problem.

Natalie paused in her writing. Thinking.

Too broad, have to hone it in, bring Earl back before I lose him on this tangent.

“To be fair,” Natalie said, “John Cruz is just one man, and Thomas Thompson is a dead one. And there’s nothing to fear, if you don’t have anything to lie about. And for my last set of questions, I’d like to talk about your history living here, in this part of Stephenville.”

I’d like to talk about something I’m very curious about.

“And that is?”

“You’ve been a part of this community for a long time, have you not?”

“My whole life, basically.”

“So you’ve seen how it’s changed, over the years, keeping a pulse on what’s happening out there.”

“I keep my ear to the streets.”

Natalie set her pen on the paper, not writing, but about it. The ink started to spill out and blot a bit.

“Then I wanted to ask about the history of gang activity in this area. Namely, the new gang that has taken over after the Thunders and the Royals.”

Natalie watched for Earl’s reaction. It would be telling.

Earl’s expression changed with a twitch. Easy enough to read.

He didn’t answer, at least, not right away. There was a pause, but more was said in that silence than any utterance actually could.

“I wouldn’t know anything about that,” Earl answered.

“At the risk of coming off as rude, I just don’t believe that. You said it yourself, you keep your ears to the streets. And I know as a fact that you had a personal relationship with Darius and Marcus Jackson that goes back even before the Koninkryk, the gang they lead together before splitting into the Thunders and the Royals, respectively.”

Earl flinched. It meant she was getting somewhere. Just had to keep applying pressure.

Natalie applied that pressure.

Los Colmillos, or the Fangs. They’re the new gang in town, and no one has written about them yet. Considering they’re part of the community as much as you are, now, I was wondering if there’s anything you could share with me about them.”

“I don’t really have anything to share. I’m not a gang member, if that’s what you’re insinuating.”

“Of course not, Earl, but as I mentioned, you did personally know the two leaders of the gangs who held this community as a territory before the Fangs came in. If there was anyone who would know anything considering the changing of those particular guards, it’d be you.”

Earl’s eyes were low, avoiding Natalie.

“What happened to those two, it came out of nowhere, and it was ruthless.”

“And who are they, Earl? Do you know anything about those responsible?”

“I don’t.”

You’re lying.

Earl was taking a more defensive posture. He was backing into his seat, his arms were folded.

“Natalie, but… if my word is worth anything, I’d tell you to drop this.”

“And why is that?”

“What’s going out there, on those streets, it’s dangerous. It doesn’t take someone who’s been here for as long as I have to see that. But it’s always been like that, it’s not going to change. Ever. Life here, it’s hard, and what happened to those boys, they… life didn’t go easy on them.”

Natalie took a second to let that sink in.

You’re hiding something, Earl, I just know it.

But, she also knew that wasn’t what she was here for. Not exactly. It was just a stretch, to see if she could grab anything else, while she was here.

Natalie closed her notebook.

“I know, Earl, I was there. But thank you for your time.”

Oliver pressed a button on the camera and closed his laptop.

Earl, for his part, fell back into his seat, all tension leaving his body. His shoulders dropped, his head lowered. He looked like he needed a nap, and that wasn’t on account of his age.

“You really are ruthless,” he said.

“I’m sorry,” Natalie replied, meaning it. “It’s just part of the job.”

“I can respect it. We are off the record now, right?”

“We are.”

“Then, yeah, I can respect it.”

Natalie got up from her seat, gathering her belongings. Oliver did the same, packing the camera and laptop into a backpack.

“We’ll take our leave, now. If you don’t mind, could we contact you again in case I have any follow up questions? Don’t worry, it’ll only be in regards to the Thompson Act, in case there are any updates.”

“Sure. If it’s just that, I’d be willing to offer a quote or two.”

“Thank you.”

Natalie glanced at Oliver, and he nodded. They were all packed and ready to go.

They left the room first, seeing themselves out. They went through the store, heading out through the front.

When they stepped outside, Natalie noted the clouds above. Grey and pregnant with water. It wasn’t raining yet, but when it did, it would rain hard.

“Oli?” Natalie asked. “What do you think?”

Oliver fixed the backpack around his shoulders. He wasn’t exactly stout, but he did have some weight on him, with some stubble on his rounded chin, and a stomach that protruded somewhat. His baggier sense in fashion didn’t help, making him look heavier than he actually was. Natalie tried to give him some pointers, sharing with him some picture of outfits she thought he might look good in, but he never picked up on them.

There was a slight wheeze that came with every step, but Oliver didn’t complain. He kept up with Natalie as she walked, brisk, down the sidewalk.

“I think he’s full of shit,” he said, sounding breathy at the end of his words. “If he really cares about this place like he seems to claim, he’d be more open about talking about the Fangs.”

“Careful, we don’t know that for sure. I believe him when he says he’s not involved with them, but I do have a feeling he knows more than he wants to tell us. And that can run independent on what he thinks of the effects the Thompson Act might have in his backyard.”

“Because someone might send the hounds on him?”

“Or, he just wants things to stay how they are.”

“Well too bad. Change is coming, change is already here.”

Natalie agreed with that sentiment.

They continued down the sidewalk, taking the corner, going around the building. Oliver parked about a block away, which gave Natalie some time to think on what they had so far. The pages of notes.

“I’m fucked,” she said.

She liked to think aloud. Oliver was good for that.

“You think so?”

Natalie sighed. “The John Cruz piece is barely getting us anywhere. Doesn’t help that we can’t even get in the same room as the damn guy.”

“He’s a busy man. Question is, what’s he so busy with?”

“I would love to know.”

They continued walking, Natalie continued thinking aloud.

“We a lot of tangible, but small niblets of a story, but no real meat. There’s so much happening here in the city that I don’t even know where to start. There’s the Thompson Act, there’s the Fangs, Blank Face, but I don’t have an angle to tackle any of it. There’s no throughline to follow. Doesn’t help that the Impact already has reporters covering enough of it that whatever I come up with feels redundant. Small stories aren’t going to cut it anymore. I need a pitch that Edison will think is worth printing, and I’m coming up blank. I hate coming up blank.”

“I know you do, Nat.”

She fought the urge to let out another, drawn breath.

“Should we just try going for another drive around?”

“Your call. I’d hate to take an aimless approach, though.”

“Yeah, you’re right.”

“No one wants to talk, not even people like Earl. And they don’t respond to video or photo we have to show, like that traffic jam one. I’m beginning to think no one likes us.”

Natalie chuckled.

“People hate us when we get it wrong, but they especially despise us when we get it right. Journalists aren’t meant to be liked, Oli.”

“It’s definitely something you have to get used to.”

“Absolutely.”

Then, Natalie ended up letting out a sigh, despite herself.

“We’ll just have to keep trying. Maybe we should go to James.”

“Is he even going to be of any help?”

“He better, he’s my only person on the inside I have left. Everyone else got shuffled out or retired.”

Natalie pulled out her phone.

“I’ll just send a text…”

“Nat.”

Oliver put a hand on her shoulder, forcing her to stop walking. They were about to cross the street, and a van was driving by.

When the van passed, Oliver checked both sides of the road, then walked across, letting Natalie focus on her text.

She finished it as they reached the lot where Oliver had parked the car. Returning the phone to her pocket, Natalie noticed something.

“Hey.”

She pointed, and Oliver followed. He grabbed it for her.

Between the glass and the windshield wiper, a piece of paper was stuck in place. Around it was a string, with a small piece of wood attached.

Oliver passed it to Natalie, and started looking around. But, aside from the van from earlier, there was no one else around.

“That’s not terrifying,” Oliver commented.

Natalie ignored him, removing the string and unfolding the paper. She took the wooden piece, examining it.

It was a chess piece, a white rook, to be more specific. She turned it around, but there was nothing on it.

“I’m more of a checkers guy, myself,” Oliver said. When Natalie remained quiet instead, he added, “What does the note say?”

Natalie read it out loud. It was handwritten, in scrawls, as if a child had wrote it. Or, someone who wasn’t using their dominant hand.

“Ask James Gomez about Alexis Barnett.”

Another chill.

“Who?” Oliver asked.

Natalie was too deep into her thoughts to respond right away. Was someone reaching out to guide them, or derail them? Either way, she didn’t appreciate people who operated in the shadows.

But, one thing was for certain, now. Whatever track they were about to go on, it was bound to be the right one.

Natalie then responded to Oliver.

“I suppose that’s for us to ask. And now, we know who to meet.”

Coffee. It was so classic that it had become cliché, but it worked for a reason. Everyone could appreciate a cup of coffee, especially if they didn’t have to pay for it.

Natalie and Oliver had arrived at the cafe. Chief of Police James Gomez, in badge and in uniform, was already waiting for them.

Cafe Sharktooth, a trendier location closer to downtown. A bit far, out of the way from both the motel and the police station, but that worked in their favor. Open enough that there was no pressure, but private enough that they could discuss more… sensitive issues.

It was late into the afternoon. The cafe wasn’t full, but business wasn’t slow. From college kids to adults in more formal attire, people were sitting at the different booths and tables, sipping cups of coffee with their laptops out in front of them, looking like they were ready to camp there for hours, working, mooching off the free internet.

Sliding in a booth in the corner of the cafe, Natalie and Oliver sat opposite of James. Oliver set their cups down. James already had his.

“Natalie,” James said. He looked at Oliver and gave him a curt nod. Oliver did the same.

“James,” Natalie said. “You should have told me that you had already ordered. I would have offered to pay.”

He shook his head. “It’s fine. That type of thing doesn’t work on me, not anymore. Skipping formalities or not, it all tastes bitter, now.”

“You agreed to meet with us, on short notice. I assume that means you have something you can share.”

James had his hands around his cup. Black coffee. Light wisps of steam drew up into the air. He hadn’t taken a sip, yet.

“I needed a coffee break,” he said. “You just happened to text me at a good time.”

Natalie worked on her cup while she talked, reaching for cream and sugar. She thought about the white rook, the note. Was it a good time to bring it up now?

And if you’re the one who sent the note, now would be a good time to tell me.

“Alexis Barnett, know anything about her?”

James’ brow furrowed.

“I do. She’s a missing persons case that’s gone cold. Been a few months since it happened.”

“Anything about it that stands out to you?”

“Not in particular. It… it was a personal favor, to find her, but I never did. Never had the time, never had the resources.”

James looked pretty downtrodden about that, but nothing about him seemed… shadowy or theatrical. He wouldn’t resort to that, he wasn’t that kind of person.

Natalie could feel the paper and rook in her pocket.

“Well, if you have anything on her, would you mind sending it to me?”

“Um, sure. The file’s still on my desk, I can send you everything I have.”

“Much appreciated, James.”

“But something tells me that’s not what you came here to ask.”

She nodded, thankful for the change in course. Time for to get down to business.

Natalie sipped her coffee before getting right to it.

“I’m feeling stuck on my Thompson Act piece. It’s hard to get sources when everyone who supports it is actively turning up their noses at you. I can give you a dozen people like Earl Fillmore who oppose it, but no credible source is willing to speak with me why they want it passed. In my experience, that’s not how this works.”

James didn’t respond. His attention went to and stayed on the cup, as if he was about to drink it, but didn’t.

“I’ve called. Called so many times they’ve probably blocked my number. I went down their offices numerous times, and he’s always either out that day or in a meeting, and I’ve waited, meetings don’t last until the building gets shut down for the night. Emails just keep sending me the same press junket-type bullshit about why the bill’s great for the ‘average citizen’s well-being and safety’ but I can’t use that. I need people, sources, and even the people there aren’t willing to offer their two-cents.”

James didn’t respond. He looked more interested in the steam coming from the cup than the steam that was about to come out of Natalie’s ears.

“Who is John Cruz?” Natalie asked. “Or, more accurately, who does he really work for?”

That got a reaction from James. He looked up, staring at Natalie. He looked tired.

“Your reputation precedes you,” he said. “The only people who remember you are the only people who have reason to fear you.”

“Edison doesn’t fear me. He asked me to come back.”

“Not until you come to him with this. Your editor will shit bricks if he learned what angle you’d end up approaching this from.”

“But that’s exactly why I decided to come back to Stephenville when he asked. I read the articles the Impact has on this Cruz guy. They’re nothing, or they’re so watered down that there might as well be nothing. I’d actually learn more about him reading a blank page than the puff they’ve written about him, because at least it would be easier to figure out that the Impact’s reporters are compromised.”

“And you’re supposed to come in and save the paper? The world, if you have some time to spare?”

Natalie fixed her hair. It was getting in her face. She was leaning forward too much.

“I’m freelance now, James,” Natalie said. “I don’t have to work in that building or report to anyone in there except Edison, and even then, we’re keeping it lowkey. I write a big piece, he hits it with a line edit, Oliver does his part to clean it up and when we’re done, it gets published first thing the next morning. The word’s out before anyone has had their morning coffee, and no one saw it coming.”

James lifted a hand to his face, stroking not a beard, but his mustache. It had gotten thicker, since the last time Natalie was in Stephenville.

Has it been seven years, already?

“But I need something, James, I can’t get anywhere if no one will give me anything, and you’re the only one who can help me. With Thomas gone, you’re the last good man in this city.”

“Hey,” Oliver said.

Natalie turned to him. “You don’t count, Oli, I brought you with me.”

“Edison?”

“He’s a good journalist, a great editor. As a person? Not-”

A clank. Ceramic on wood.

James was giving her a hard look. Stern, cold.

“Sorry,” Natalie said.

“I’m not offended,” James replied. He leaned back. His hands were around the cup again, but he lifted it this time, actually taking a sip. Looking to the side, at the large window beside them, watching as the people outside walked and conversed, going about their day. The sun would be setting soon, and a slight shade of red began to tint the cafe interior and its patrons.

“This was his favorite place to get coffee,” James said, low, as if he was talking to himself. “Thomas. He always recommended it to me, but I never had the time. Think about that, I had years to grab a cup of coffee with him, here, but I never did. Never will.”

“My condolences,” Natalie said, speaking for herself and for Oliver. “It shocked me when I heard. He was a good man, who I believe genuinely wanted to make this city a better place. He didn’t deserve what he got.”

“Maybe he did,” James said. The cup to his lips, he blew on the surface of his coffee. Steam swirled. “Play with fire long enough…”

Natalie chanced a look with Oliver. He raised his shoulders.

Facing forward again, she spoke. “John Cruz is using the Thompson name to push this bill, without permission from his wife or the rest of his surviving family. I’d put them in the story, but they don’t want to go back onto the national stage like that, not after what they’d already been through. Cruz is getting away with tarnishing this man’s legacy in order to give more power to himself and the police, and I covered the scene here for five years, so I have confidence when I say we both know who that power is really going to.”

James, for all his integrity and nobility and goodness, didn’t answer.

Natalie pleaded.

“Please, James, if I could plagiarize the writing that’s on the goddamn wall, I would. Thomas and John were both campaigning for the DA’s office, when one of them gets kidnapped and forced into a terrorist scheme, and dies, while the other gets to waltz into that office and no one is allowed to question it? I don’t, I can’t buy that for a fucking second. So please, for old time’s sake I am begging you, what do you have on Cruz? Who is he really working for?”

The seconds were long, and they stretched. Shades of red grew stronger, casting a warmer glow inside the cafe.

Natalie was itching, burning for a story. The smaller pieces weren’t going to be enough. It wasn’t what Edison called her for, it wasn’t what she was here to do. The truth was buried, had been buried somewhere deep in this city for years, decades, and she knew in her heart that this would be the time that truth finally comes to light.

And it would be the sort of light that could burn.

James faced her, his hands clasped together.

“Everyone,” he said. “John Cruz works for everyone.”

Natalie tapped Oliver, nearly a slap. He bounced, almost tearing his bag open to get Natalie her pen and pad. Without looking, she flipped through her notes and stopped at the next available page. Indentations from the page before. New. Blank.

She started writing. Oliver started recording.

“What do you mean by everyone?” Natalie questioned. “I need specifics. Names. Who?”

“Cruz is a game lawyer, working in the best interests of the Eye.”

The Eye, a nickname for downtown Stephenville. Also where many of the largest and most powerful gangs hold their territory. Like the AZ-Tecs and Cobras, the Italian mob, among others. The standard organized criminal fares were present, like drug trafficking, but there were other activities. Money laundering, racketeering. The collars were more white than blue, there.

“Who, James, I need names.”

“I couldn’t tell you. I had one meeting with them, but that was years ago, when I first started at this position. I’ve been kept at arm’s length ever since.”

“Give me what you remember. Anything.”

“Um, Forest, Cassius. Styx, but you’d already know of him, and Mrs. Carter.”

She wrote down the names. Forest and Cassius were new, but she did know of Styx. Doing this for as long as she had, it would have been impossible not to.

Mrs. Carter, though, that name stood out entirely.

“Who is Mrs. Carter?” Natalie questioned. “Why the prefix?”

“Again, I couldn’t tell you. All I know is that she represents Mister.”

Mister. Natalie almost dropped her pen.

Shit,” she whispered, a hissed sound. “John Cruz is locked in deep with the sharks. Anything else?”

“Being in my position, the chief of police? It’s a puppet show. There’s no real power, it’s just one part in an elaborate show. I keep my head down, and let the real powers that be pull the strings. I’m just up here to make it look like everything’s okay. I’m nothing but a mask, being worn by the real monsters. But, I guess I’m a monster myself, now.”

Natalie stopped, her pen still on the paper. She looked at James. She felt for him.

“James…” she said.

“And it’s not just that, it’s not just me. T-”

His voice cracked, like he himself was about to break.

“Thomas, too.”

Natalie was at a loss of words. Verbal and written. Her voice would have cracked, too, if she tried to respond, her pen would have trembled, if she tried to jot another note.

Her hands went flat on the table, she leaned in. All her focus went on James Gomez, potentially disgraced Chief of Police for the Stephenville Police Department. Oliver, her other notes, her own cup of coffee? It all faded away.

It was just her and the truth, now.

“You better not be joking,” Natalie said, slow, every word careful and considered, so as to not break the moment they were in. “This is serious. This is real.”

“This is real,” James Gomez answered. “But not in the way you’re thinking. Thomas still wanted to fight crime, he still wanted to clean up the streets, but he ended up taking it in another direction. He… he worked with Blank Face.”

She wasn’t already sitting, Natalie would have dropped to her knees.

This is it. This is the story. This is my lede.

And James was handing it to her, just like that.

It took some time before Natalie could speak up again. Start writing again.

“Blank Face, as in… as in the-”

“The vigilante, the world’s first superhuman. She goes by V, now, but she hasn’t been publicly active since-”

“Since the Thunders and Royals got wiped out,” Natalie finished. That was their confirmation. “V. So the new gang in that area is- wait, we need to take a huge step back. Thomas and Blank Face. What’s the story there?”

James answered, “I don’t have the exact details, but he must have started working with her right after she first went public. Stopping petty crime, going after smaller gangs, it had to be stuff like that. Starting small, building the image of, not a vigilante, but a hero. Someone who would protect the people of Stephenville.”

“And you know this for a fact, that this was how they operated?”

James took a deep breath.

“No.”

“I can’t use speculation, James. But in your… expert opinion, why do you think that?”

“Because I saw the answer. Solace came as a result of their actions. Terrorizing the city as a way to get Blank Face out of the picture. I met Blank Face only-”

“Wait. You met with the vigilante?”

James lowered his head.

“We met on only three separate occasions. The first time was when Thomas went missing, originally announced to be dead by Solace. She had found out that was a bluff, and went to me for help.”

“Why you?”

“I ask myself that question everyday.”

Natalie flipped the page, turning to a new one.

“Continue, please.”

James did. “It was a short stint, but we did work together to find Thomas. It was how we found and apprehended Edgar Brown and Linda Day. We would have gotten Thomas at city hall, too, but we weren’t fast enough.”

The city hall bombing. It was the last known appearance of Solace, and the night before was the last appearance of Blank Face. She was there, among the smoke and chaos?

Wait, she.

“Do you know her identity?” Natalie asked.

“I do not.”

A shame, but she was already getting so much gold, she wouldn’t complain now.

“Anyway, what about the other two times you met?”

“Second time was after the attack on Stephenville High School. She asked for help in pursuing those responsible, but I declined. And the third and last time, she wasn’t Blank Face anymore.”

“V?” Natalie offered.

“Yes.”

Natalie fell back, slumped. She found herself leaning on Oliver. Everything started to fade back in.

But she wasn’t done yet, there was so much to get to, still.

She needed a breather. She needed a cup of coffee.

Natalie took a small break, and a small sip. Her cup went back to the table, and the sound it made rang in her ears.

She savored the taste, the flavor of this.

“Okay, wow,” she said, her eyes widening for emphasis. “You sure know how to treat a reporter right.”

“No comment,” James said.

Taking another breath, Natalie sat back up, supporting her own weight. She looked down, and saw the notes she had taken while James talked. Scrawls, shorthand, bullet points. Somewhere in there, in those scribbles, was the story of a lifetime.

“Do you have anyone who can corroborate what you just told me?” she asked, eyes still on the page. “Or other notes, police reports you can point me to?”

“Campbell. A fellow officer, another good man. He could attest to my part in things. If he was up for it. Thomas or John, not so much.”

“Police reports? Records you can show me?”

“John… maybe, there might be something, somewhere. But my hands are, were tied. I’ll see what I can dig up while I keep my head down.”

“And Thomas? Blank Face?”

“All I know is what was on the face of it. The particulars… the only one who would know of that now was Blank Face. V. You’d have to ask her. And no, I have no way of contacting her.”

“At least you saved me the breath on that question,” Natalie said.

What else, then, what else?

The fact that James even brought that up. That it even was a suggestion. To interview the world’s first superhuman.

“And you know Blank Face, V, is a girl? You can confirm that?”

“To the best of my ability. I am a police officer, I have dealt with and had to identity masked individuals before. The voice struck me as female. As for height and built, that can vary dramatically between each person. With that being said, I wouldn’t pin them as being any older than eighteen, twenty if I’m being generous. And you know the rumors that followed the school incident, I’m not getting into any of that.”

Natalie nodded. Speculation was tricky, dangerous even. She just had to look outside and see it for herself. The riots, the targeting of those in the Asian American community. If it wasn’t a claim she couldn’t substantiate, it wouldn’t go in the story.

But this, she could use. A female, a teenager. A kid.

She flipped to a new page. What more could she get from James right now? He was right here, giving all of this her. She had to take advantage of that, wrack her brain for every question and detail and-

A nudge to her right. Oliver. He bumped her arm while drinking his coffee.

It was a gentle reminder. No need to get carried away.

Natalie gave herself some time to get some composure. Another sip.

“So,” Natalie started, after getting some much needed clarity back, “We will come back to this another time, hopefully soon. You suggested that you’d dig through some reports to see what was on Cruz, and I’m holding you to that. Gather anyone else who you believe is credible and is willing to go on record. This Campbell guy sounds like a good start. In the meantime, Oliver and I will gather all the notes and sort everything out, plan our next move, and make some follow up questions. Next time we’re meet face to face, it’s to get all of our facts and quotes straight, to put some spice on the meat of this story. To make history.”

He didn’t move, didn’t gesture in any way. James was still.

“Okay,” he said.

It wasn’t hard at all for Natalie to lose herself in the planning and pursuing of the story, for the world around her to blur as she barrelled forward for one thing and one thing only. The truth. It got her far in her career, to New York, but that same focus could blind her to the other things in the peripherals, and those things were important, too. Like the people, those who were subjected to the reality of the truth she so desperately sought after. The human element.

Natalie closed her notebook.

“James, just so I can be perfectly clear, you do know that by answering my questions, offering to provide documents and bring forth other potential sources, you are agreeing to appear in the story, in name and position, and be directly quoted and such in support of the facts that will be presented?”

He drank from his cup, slow, measured. When he brought the cup back down, it was empty.

“I do.”

“And you recognize the risk you pose to both yourself and your family. This isn’t a fluff story about the local shelter’s new adoption policies, this is you putting a spotlight on the entire criminal enterprise of Stephenville.”

“I am aware.”

Natalie, in all her years of reporting, all the shit and beauty and love and hatred she learned humans could be capable of, was stunned.

“You’re going to get burned,” Natalie said. Not a threat, not even a warning. It was fact.

James set his shoulder and jaw square.

“Thomas and I, we were going to rebuild this city together. Clean it up, and turn it into something great. A place where no man, woman, or child would ever wander and be led astray. With him as district attorney, and with me as chief of police. We were going to do it, do it together, and do it right.”

Natalie saw it in his eyes. He was serious.

She let him speak.

“But it didn’t work out the way we planned. In reality, what does, but this… this was different. I got my promotion first, but I didn’t realize what I had gotten myself into, how bad it was, how deep it ran. I was blocked before I ever had a chance to start. And Thomas… I could tell how heartbroken he was, over that. I could feel it. He truly wanted to help this city, and it was like the city spat in his face.”

James tried to breathe steady, but it faltered. Cracked.

“The plan was on ice, but he kept going. What other choice did he have? It was the kind of person he was, always wanting to be the hero, and he’d do it himself if he had to. When Thomas announced his campaign and when John announced his, I think that made it even more personal. John was once a colleague of Thomas, and knowing who was backing him, it made the race symbolic. Now, it was a race for Stephenville’s soul, and Thomas was going to play it straight. Play it right.”

He chuckled, glancing at his empty cup. He knew he was rambling, Natalie knew it, but no one cared.

“I’ve been friends with that man for years, so I know for a fact that his frustration was eating at him, under the skin. That he had to work so damn hard, just to keep things from degrading any further, to maintain the status quo. I can imagine the frustration, how that would turn him desperate. He wanted his holy war. And when Blank Face comes along, it’s must have been a godsend for him. But in truth, it was more like making a deal with the devil.”

Natalie had to say something.

“James, you do understand what you’re telling me, right? This is Thomas we’re talking about, this is your life. I have to ask, but… why?”

James Gomez closed his eyes, unmoving, like a statue. When he opened them again, he looked right at Natalie, even passing a glance and Oliver. Cold, colder. Blank. The eyes of a dead man.

“It doesn’t matter to me. Thomas is dead, and what life do I have? I’m an old man getting older. No family, extended or otherwise. No career aspirations, I got stonewalled as soon as I got this job. This… this is all I have left to give. The truth as I know it. And then, I’m done. This city has a way of making people lost, wander in the dark. And in that dark, there’s no choice to get used to maneuvering through it, and it corrupts, to the core. They become demons. Thomas, John, even Blank Face. In the grand scheme of things, it’s my turn, now.”

The ramblings of an old, defeated man. But the truth was in there, hiding, waiting to be discovered. He was giving up the last glimmers of light he had left.

“Please let me pay for your coffee,” Natalie said. She reached out, touching his hand. James didn’t move.

“No,” James said. “I’m not about to sell my soul for a cup of black coffee. This is on me, and me alone.”

Natalie didn’t have a response to that. Checking Oliver beside her, he clicked his phone. He had recorded the whole thing.

She collected her belongings, holding the notebook in her hands. It felt heavy.

“Thank you for your time, James.”

There was a lot to go through. There was a lot to consider. And they had barely scratched the surface.

Notes were sprawled out all across the room. On desks, dressers, the bed, stuck between books in shelves, on top of the printer, luggage, and on the different exercise equipment her father never used. It was hardly organized, but Natalie knew where everything was. A sort of physical layout of what was going on in her mind.

Oliver was tiptoeing around, careful not to step on anything. Natalie was sitting in the corner of the room, laptop resting on her lap, in a comfy sofa chair that used to be too big for her. She was too young to remember, but her mother recounted stories where Natalie would sit here with her father while he read her stories. Those were her favorite times, according to her mother, especially when he used to funny voice.

Now, it was just her, the chair was a normal size, and she had to make her own stories.

It was weird, to come back home and see how much had changed. At least they had work to keep their minds elsewhere.

“Nat.”

Oliver was sorting through some papers by the exercise equipment. That section was of all the supporters of the Thompson Act, and all the records they could get on them.

“Hm?” Natalie sounded, lifting her head, slight.

“Want me to order some pizza?”

“Is there any place open at this time?”

“If we hurry, I can call Poggio’s and just go pick it up.”

“Holy shit.”

“What?”

“Poggio’s is still around?”

“It is, Nat.”

“Then sure, let’s do that. Actually, you know what, why don’t we just go out and eat there?”

“They close in an hour and a half.”

“We’ll work for thirty more minutes.” She fixed her pajamas. “Might need some time to get ready, though.”

“You look fine like that.”

Natalie made a noise. “You don’t get it, Oli.”

“Never will!”

They shared a laugh. If they could still do that, it meant they were doing okay.

Oliver found the papers he needed, and moved across the bedroom again, not rustling even a single piece of paper by his feet. For someone of his gait, he was nimble. Natalie loved that about him.

“I’m already fantasizing about getting this thing published,” Oliver said.

“Me too,” Natalie replied, sound absentminded. She was just reading off her laptop, some transcribed notes, while she talked. “This is big. Plain and simple. John Cruz, the Eye, James, Thomas Thompson and fucking Blank Face? And they’re all connected? It’s… it’s…”

She was so excited she couldn’t finish the thought.

“You thinking Pulitzer?” Oliver asked.

“For this year and every year after!” She winked. “Joking.”

“Yeah, the writing part of it has to actually be good, too, otherwise it’s just going to look like this.”

Natalie looked at Oliver, and spread his hands out, signaling the room.

“A mess,” Oliver said.

“I’m working on it,” Natalie replied. “So will Edison when we finally show him this.”

“Heard anything from James?”

“Not yet. Should be soon, though. He said he was having some trouble getting clearance for some stuff.”

“Clearance?”

“We know he’s not lying now,” Natalie said.

“What else do we need on Cruz, again?”

“Campaign funds, and where he got his money. There’s a list of sponsors on his campaign website, but they don’t go very far, or they don’t go far enough. James might be able to help us on that. When in doubt, follow the money, and there’s always a paper trail.”

“James is really pulling through for us, isn’t he?”

“He’s the MVP,” Natalie said. She swiped at the touchpad, and continued reading.

“Natalie.”

The whole name.

She pulled herself away from her laptop. Oliver was sitting on the bed, papers pushed away from.

“Oliver,” she responded.

“I’ve been, you know, been listening to the recording on James, looping it over and over again, and it still… baffles me.”

“Baffles you how?”

“Thomas was his friend, maybe even something like a brother, if they were going to go that far in their goals. And to just… tell it all like that, be so willing to go forward with it…”

“There are few things scarier than someone with nothing to lose.”

“Shows how fragile society is. It’s all just a game, enough people have to play by the rules for it work. And if someone decides one day that they don’t want to, they can do a lot of damage.”

“And that’s why we’re here. We’re the referees, and we have to call these people out on their bullshit. From John Cruz, to even Thomas and James.”

“This isn’t going to end well for him. Once this story goes live, he’s going to get put into custody, investigated, and it’s a given he’ll be sent to prison. He’s implicating himself by helping us.”

“James knows the risk, I made it abundantly clear to him. Whatever happens to him after the fact, that’s on him, and he’s made his peace with that.”

“And Thomas? He has a reputation in this city, a good one. He has a family. If the people find out what he was involved with, the riots are going to get even worse.”

“Then we’ll ask Kristen for a comment, and whether or not she offers one we stick it at the bottom. We’re not targeting his family, we’re just showing people that their image of Thomas isn’t what they originally thought.”

“And Blank Face?”

Natalie raised an eyebrow.

“What about her?”

“How far do you want to go into that, into her? The person behind the mask?”

“As far as I need to, what the story calls for. Right now, we just need to prove that Thomas and Blank Face worked together, and that we can connect Blank Face to V and the new gang on the west side, where the Thompson Act would most likely hit hardest. That’s how it all connects. That’s the throughline.”

Natalie smiled, thinking about how it all fell together. Like an elaborate puzzle.

“Fuck,” Oliver said. He rubbed his hands in face, his cheeks squishing.

“What?”

Oliver wheezed, then coughed. He set his hands back down.

“We have a responsibility to seek the truth and report it, but we also have a responsibility to gauge what might happen when that truth comes out. Natalie, this story is about people, before it’s published and after, that is who it concerns and that is who it affects. So, this isn’t just big, you’re dropping a fucking atom bomb on this city. You’re going to shedding so much light on this the shadows will get etched into the fucking cement.”

“That’s what journalism is,” Natalie said. “This is news, we gather what people don’t know yet, what they need to know, and then we tell them.”

Oliver coughed again.

“Yeah, I, yeah. I’m just anxious to get this out.”

“It’ll be fine, Oli. Once all is said and done we can- oh.”

“What is it?”

“James sent me an email.”

“Shit.”

Oliver got up from the bed, hopping around papers to get to Natalie. She moved her laptop so he could take a look.

“Anything?”

Natalie clicked the attachment, the file opening up on her screen. No subject or body in the message.

She muttered.

“Dammit, James.”

It wasn’t anything that was relevant to the main story. A missing person’s report, some written statements. A photo was attached at the bottom.

“This is the Alexis Barnett thing?” Oliver asked.

“Yeah,” Natalie said, sounding disappointed. The lead up to getting this report was strange, but there were far more important reports that she’d rather obtain, instead.

Oliver kept on his particular line of questioning. “What’s up with this person, anyways? Why the note or chess piece?”

“Could not tell you,” Natalie said, reading over the report. As presented, nothing stood out. Alexis Kizuko Barnett. Age sixteen, Asian, though the writing stated that she was half white and Japanese. Went missing in early December, having been kidnapped from a restaurant after an altercation between a group of Hispanic men and the rest of the patrons. Shots were fired, and the men fled the scene, taking some others with them.

As presented, nothing stood out, but the timing, the context under which this was brought to her attention, it was starting to scratch that particular itch.

Strange, indeed.

“Three others were kidnapped,” Oliver said, reading different parts of the report. “But she’s the only one who hasn’t been accounted for. Look here, two were returned that day, another the day, but her…”

“Still out there,” Natalie finished. “She could be dead?”

“But why bring this to us? What is our mysterious source trying to say?”

Could not tell you, Natalie thought, but the questions were intriguing.

“Ah,” she said. She scrolled down and pointed at one of the written statements. One made by James himself. “She attended the same school as Katy Thompson.”

“Thomas’ kid?”

“Stephenville High School.”

She traded a look with Oliver.

“That’s the school that got attacked,” he said.

“According to reports and numerous sources there, it was by a group that was after Blank Face, they had reason to believe that she was a student at that school. It was how the rumors that Blank Face was a female Asian American got started, and the uptick in violent crimes against that particular nationality, as vague as it really is.”

A heavy pause filled the air.

“You don’t think…” Oliver started.

“I don’t speculate,” Natalie interrupted. “But I do find this interesting. As it is, though, we don’t have enough to work with. We’d have to start digging, but I don’t want to get distracted from our real work.”

Oliver moved from Natalie, checking another part of the bedroom, by the desk. When he came back, he had the note and chess piece with him.

“What if it isn’t a distraction,” Oliver said, getting more estatic, “What if they’re trying to lead us right to her? What if this source is our own personal Deep Throat?”

A shock went through Natalie’s body. She squirmed in her seat.

“Now is not time to get me hot and bothered, Oli.”

“Think about it, the note pointed us in James’ direction.”

“We were going to him, anyway.”

“But look what he gave us when we did!” Oliver motioned to all the stacks of papers and notebooks in the room, as if he was presenting them to her. “Never in a million years would we have expected this!”

“And what, maybe they wanted to make sure we got all of this?”

“Maybe?” Oliver lifted the chess piece, putting it right in Natalie’s face. “Maybe they’re trying to get us to make a specific move. But that move might lead us to Blank Face.”

Natalie took the chess piece from Oliver, observing it from every angle. A white rook.

“They might be leading us to something else entirely,” Natalie said. “Like a trap?”

“Given what’s happened, that wouldn’t make any sense.”

She thought about it. Considered it. The possibility was enticing.

“How about this,” Natalie started, thinking, considering. “While we wait for James to get back with us, we can pursue this, but only as a police accountability story. We ask around, get a profile on Alexis Barnett, and we publish it as the tragedy of someone who fell through the cracks of the system. We can frame with alongside what’s happening in that community, too. It’s not going to win us a Pulitzer, but it will give us gas money for dinner at Poggio’s… and rent for my mom.”

“Why, you’re not going to try and connect it to the original story?”

“As of right now, we don’t know what our Deep Throat wants from us, and I don’t like anonymous sources. If they want to involve us in their game, they’ll have to contact us again. And until then, if I don’t know what specific move they want us to make, we’ll just keep making the wrong one.”

Shoestring journalism, the idea that a reporter would take to the street, literally running back and forth for quotes and records and sources until their shoes were reduced to nothing but the laces. Nowadays, it was easy to just shoot someone an email, make an open records request online, or find other leads through a quick search. Easy, but it didn’t guarantee success. It was even easier to ignore an email, getting those records could take time, too much time, and it could get tricky trying to navigate links and the appropriate search terms. No, to do it right, going outside and talking to people was always the best bet.

And, it would harder for them to ignore us.

Natalie walked up to the door and knocked.

The wait wasn’t that long, but the seconds gave her the jitters. Moments like this, was where she got her enjoyment out of the job. The anticipation. That this could either go really well, or not at all. And either way, she’d have to maneuver through it, drawing from all her skills and experiences.

She was ready.

The door opened.

Natalie smiled.

“Good evening, may I speak with Shiori Barnett?”

The woman at the door was silent.

A superficial glance matched the image Natalie had in her head. Asian, female. But that was about as far as she’d want to deduce.

She observed this woman under her own merits.

The woman was short, thin, the oversized grey sweater and loose pajama pants serving to make her look even smaller. She looked tired, like how James looked tired, but not exactly. Drained, as if something that once propped her up was now missing, and it put more strain on all that remained. Like a building that had a section crumble into dust. It was still standing, but no one in their right mind would say it was structurally sound.

Her hair was lengthy, unkempt, frayed out past her shoulders. Loose strands fell out of the way when the woman blinked. Bags under her eyes. As if she had just been stirred awaken, unwillingly.

The woman responded, “This is she.”

“Hi, I’m Natalie Beckham, and this is Oliver Morgan, we’re with the Stephenville Impact, and we just wanted to ask you a few questions about your daughter, if that’s alright with you?”

Shiori opened her mouth, letting it hang. Her eyes widened a little, too. More seconds, more jitters.

“No,” she said, moving behind the door, trying to hide behind it.

“Mrs. Barnett,” Natalie said, leaning in but not inside, enough so that Shiori would have hit her in the face if she closed it all the way. Shiori didn’t.

Natalie took that opening.

“It’s been about four months since Alexis Barnett has went missing. She, along with three others, were taken from a Vietnamese restaurant in the middle of the day. She is the only one who hasn’t been returned to her home. That’s… people need to know that the police dropped the ball on this, on your daughter.”

Shiori spoke. When she did, it came out weak, wobbly.

“It will not help anything, anymore.”

She sounded so defeated.

“Mrs. Barnett,” Natalie said, “You look like someone with a lot of questions, and Oliver and I want to get those answers for you. If you would allow us, we’d like to get a better understanding of what happened, who your daughter… is, we can run a better story, and if we can do that, and if the public response ends up being vocal enough, we might be able to get the police to try again, try harder.”

Dangling hope in front of someone who so desperately needed it. Baiting them, almost, but it was a real possibility. If Natalie put enough time and effort into this as normal story, it could work.

For now, she’d play this straight.

Shiori continued to stare at them. She didn’t seem like a cold person, but she was hard to read.

Jitters.

Then, she spoke.

“Come in.”

Shiori took a step back, opening the door wider for the two. Natalie went in first, Oliver following.

Natalie couldn’t help but take stock of what she could see of the apartment.

It wasn’t big, but it looked lived in. Shiori led them to the living room, to a couch in front of a TV. Natalie noted the shelves and the dinner and coffee tables, the edge of the TV. Some dust had accumulated, enough that it should have been taken care of by now. There streaks of dirt and grime on some surfaces, especially the table in the middle of the room. She would have missed it if she wasn’t scrutinizing every detail, and with the lights being so dim, but it was like Shiori was trying to avoid seeing just how dirty her apartment was becoming. She saw a picture frame, two people standing in a field of bluebonnets, the saturation a little strong for her taste. An older woman and a child. Shiori and Alexis? Where was the father?

The picture was clean of any speck.

“Would you like some tea?” Shiori asked. While Natalie and Oliver had taken their seats at the couch, Shiori had kept going towards the kitchen.

“Um, yes please, thank you.”

It was better to accept whatever was offered by the host. Easier to build a connection that way, even if it was menial.

Natalie and Oliver prepared their equipment while Shiori prepared tea. Natalie got out her notebook, while Oliver got his phone, ready to record. He didn’t take out the camera for this one. A quick judgement call, but Natalie was with him on that one. Shiori was still apprehensive on doing an impromptu interview. Pulling out a big camera and tripod would be a sure-fire way to get kicked out.

They were all set up, Natalie and Oliver, and Shiori. She returned to the living room, handing Natalie and Oliver their tea, and went back to the kitchen to retrieve her own.

Shiori took her own seat at a chair on the other side of the room. A blanket was folded over one arm, she grabbed it and set it over her lap.

Cup in hands, blanket in lap, general disposition down, Shiori was as ready to talk as she’d ever be.

“Alright,” Natalie said, opening up a blank page, spinning a pen in her fingers. “How I’d like to start this is by-”

“How did you find me?”

Shiori had asked the first question.

It’s fine. Be transparent, be honest.

“We had spoken to James Gomez, Chief of Police for the Stephenville Police Department. He gave us the report on Alexis, your address was attached to your written statements.”

“James?”

“He mentioned that he knows you. Friend of a friend.”

“Oh.”

She didn’t say anything else. It would be Natalie’s turn, now.

“Alright,” she said, starting it up again. “This story is ultimately about your daughter, but I do want to get a full picture of who you are, as well. May I get your full name and occupation?”

“I am… Shiori Barnett. I work at a hair salon.”

“You’re a hairstylist?”

“I am.”

“And may I get your age?”

“Forty.”

“Wow, still pretty young.”

Add in some casual conversation, some compliments. Enough to make them comfortable to keep talking.

“I was young when I had her,” Shiori added. A neutral observation.

Natalie continued with her questions, continued with her writing.

“Going back to that time… is the father around today?”

She gauged Shiori’s reaction. There was none, but it was more like she didn’t have energy for one.

“He is not.”

“By natural causes or of his own choice?”

A delay between answers. A long one.

“Yes,” Shiori said.

“I don’t follow.”

Another delay.

“He… passed, not long after Alexis was born.”

“What happened? What was his name? How did you meet and how did it get to that point?”

It was tricky, to pry into someone’s personal life in such a manner. But, even if it could be trivial, it would help shape the story. After all, an entire parental unit was literally out of the picture, that had to have an affect on a child. And if Alexis Barnett had but a single strand in the web they were looking into, it might say a lot.

A third delay, Shiori used the time to drink her tea. Slow, drawn out movements.

“His name is Matthew. Matt. We meet about a year before I move to America. I was a singer back then, and he was working at nearby Navy base.”

“You were a singer?”

Shiori nodded. “Performer. Sing and dance, and play a lot of shows.”

“Wow, so you were famous?”

Shiori shook her head. “Not exactly. Maybe, if I stuck with it.”

“I’m guessing you had other ideas when you met your husband?”

Shiori had no discernable expression on her face as she recounted these memories. No warmth, but no callousness, either.

“He happen to pass by during one of my shows. He was… so nice. We start meeting, hiding from my agency and parents. They wouldn’t have approved.”

Natalie could feel the interview getting away from her a bit, but she’d allow it. She still had the reins, and she knew how to force things back on course, if she had to.

“Then,” Shiori said. “A few months pass, Matt had to be reassigned somewhere else, in America, and I did not want him to leave.”

“A few months?”

“We were young and it was… fun. Late nights, dancing and singing and drinking. I didn’t want to let that go.”

“So you went with him, to America?”

“I go with him, we get married, and then I was pregnant with Alexis. I leave my job and family to be with him here in Stephenville.”

All in the span of a year?

It was a neutral observation. She couldn’t judge.

Shiori continued without a prompt from Natalie. “The years here have always been stressful. Matt lost his job. No more dancing and singing, more drinking. Then, Matt… became sick.”

Natalie began to brace herself. She had heard these kinds of stories before.

“He was already so sick, so weak, when Alexis was born. She was born a month early, so she was a little weak, too. Then, before she was able to be strong enough to walk, Alexis became sick.”

“Life-threatening?”

“Not quite, but it was a scare. But… Matthew caught it, and he didn’t react very well. Not at all. He didn’t…”

Shiori had to put her cup down. Her hands were shaking too much.

“He passed, not long after Alexis was born,” Shiori said.

Natalie stopped writing. She hadn’t heard this story before.

“What did you tell your daughter when she got older?”

Shiori’s answer was as plain as it was simple. And yet, it felt like it was the cause of so many complications.

“I didn’t. I told her he left us before I gave birth to her.”

A silence fell upon the whole apartment. The dim light seemed to deepen into gloom.

For a long while, Natalie didn’t know what to say. She didn’t know what to write.

What the fuck, Natalie thought. Not Natalie the journalist, in all objectivity. But Natalie the person, wanting to shout at the universe at how could that situation go so wrong. Why?

“Nat…

Oliver whispered.

Natalie gripped her pen, hard.

Focus.

Holding the reins, Natalie forced things back on course.

“Moving on, could you talk about Alexis? What’s she like, what’re her interests?”

The harsh snap to another train of thought seemed to throw Shiori for a loop. She fixed her blanket, she rubbed at one eye.

“She… Alexis. She’s kind, energetic. So talented in sports, even with how weak she was as a baby. Her favorite was volleyball. Always bouncing, always the life of the party. She loved to be with her friends, always playing with them and going to their house for sleepovers. What is the phrase, again? Someone who is social and friendly with everyone they meet?”

“A social butterfly?”

“Yes. She is a butterfly.”

Natalie was finding it harder and harder to write.

Shiori’s hands fell into her lap, her hair falling over her face and eyes.

“You… were always so much stronger than me, so much braver. It doesn’t seem right that you are my daughter, that someone so beautiful could have come from someone like me. You always found it easy to smile. It made me afraid of you, sometimes, that I didn’t deserve to be your mother. I was so scared to live up to being your mother, but I try, I try anyways. Because you were worth it, because you have given me so much and I just wanted to return the favor. You made… me still being here… you made it worth it. You made me happy.”

Shaking, laughing. Weak. Wobbly. Sobbing.

Shiori’s hands covered her face.

“I’m sorry Alexis, I’m sorry Alexis, I’m sorry Alexis,  I’m so sorry… I love you…”

Shiori wept, Natalie let her. The moment stayed and lingered for long enough. The tea became cool.

Natalie closed her notebook. She set her pen down.

“I want… I want to thank you for your time, Mrs. Barnett. If you’d allow us, we’d like to contact you again in case there’s anything we want to follow up on.”

Shiori didn’t reply, couldn’t. She was still in the moment, lingering there, maybe even staying in it forever.

“We’ll see ourselves out, Mrs. Barnett. Thank you again for the tea.”

Natalie and Oliver packed up and left, being delicate about their departure. Shiori was dead silent by the time they were out the door. They stood right by the apartment for a time, hoping to hear a click as Shiori locked the door behind them. They didn’t.

“We should get going,” Oliver said.

“Yeah.”

They left the apartment complex, finding the stairs and heading down. It was a sobering walk back to the car.

“You cut it shorter than I expected,” Oliver said.

“I got what I needed out of her. I almost didn’t even need to ask. She’s holding in a lot of pain, the kind you don’t show to your closest friends or family. We have her statements in the reports, and we’ll follow up and do it proper, as usual. I just wanted to get a feel for where Mrs. Barnett is, right now.”

And a feel for what we’re getting ourselves into.

“What’s next?”

“Tomorrow we’ll talk with Susan Tilly, Alexis’ volleyball coach. A few of her teachers were willing to talk, too.”

“Cool. When we get back to your folk’s place I’ll start transcribing the interviews.”

“Thanks, Oli. I’ll cook this time.”

“What do you have in mind?”

“Hm, I’m thinking-”

Natalie stopped.

Right on the windshield, a folded note was stuffed against a wiper. A small wooden piece was tied around it with string.

Another one.

“They really like their theatrics, don’t they?” Oliver asked.

“It’s starting to annoy me,” Natalie said. “But, this means we have their attention, and we can poke at it.”

She grabbed the paper, unfolding it.

“Same handwriting,” Oliver observed. He held his phone up to the paper, using its light.

“Same piece,” Natalie said. She caught it as she untied the string. “Another white rook.”

“What do you think? Should we go?”

Natalie smirked.

“You ask as if you don’t already know the answer.”

Oliver stopped the car on a rough, uneven path. More rock and dirt than anything else.

The car’s interior lights turned on as Natalie opened the door.

“How do you want to play this?” Oliver asked. He was looking ahead, only able to see as far as the car’s headlights would allow him. It was late, and it was dark.

“By ear,” Natalie replied. She took one foot out the car, onto the dirt. Thinking.

“Do you want me to come with you? It’s your call.”

It was a tough call to make. With Oliver at her side, she’d feel more at ease, she’d have backup, but in case something went wrong, she’d need him at in the car for a quick getaway. Unlike her late father, she used the exercise equipment at home, and she went for regular jogs while in New York. And running around, chasing leads, that was its own exercise, too.

A tough call, but Natalie made her decision.

“Stay in the car,” Natalie told him. “Just keep an eye on my back.”

“No complaints there,” Oliver said.

Natalie eyed him.

Oliver raised his hands. “You have a good backside.”

She knew he was joking, but it did help. A little bit of confidence went a long way.

“Thanks, Oli.”

“Anytime and everytime.”

Natalie let herself smile as she got out of the car. She felt a light drizzle start. It wasn’t raining hard, but it would soon.

After checking the sky, she looked ahead, rereading the new note in her mind.

Braham Barn. Midnight.

The barn stood in front of her, standing on its last legs. A dilapidated structure, a decayed husk of what it was once. She knew of its history, the whole property was once held by a plantation owner, but now it was free range, the house now used by college kids for weekend parties, the barn itself being a decent, out of the way place for drug deals. It was a well-kept secret, but Natalie covered it back during her original tenure at the Stephenville Impact, and now it was largely abandoned, a place hardly used because it was too obvious.

If they were being led here, it had be something gang related. It was her best guess.

Natalie closed the car door, walking towards the barn and into the light. There weren’t any other cars here, but didn’t mean anything. There were plenty of other places to hide a vehicle. In the vegetation, or just farther up the dirt path.

With caution, Natalie approached the barn doors, then passing them. No more ambient lighting from the moon above, she only had Oliver’s car to guide her, now.

She was careful to only take a few steps into the barn. Looking around, she didn’t see anything or anyone that stood out to her.

But, Natalie didn’t have to wait long. They approached her.

Two figures emerged from the shadows, where the light wasn’t able to reach. They stopped at the edge of it, a distance away from Natalie, but within a reasonable earshot.

They were wearing masks, each with their own design. One was black all around, with numerous circular lenses, with an elongated beak that obscured the whole face. It gave the impression of a mutant raven, with more eyes than usual.

The other mask more closely resembled a face, but it wasn’t blank. Messy, dark splotches filled in large circles around the eyes, running down the cheeks in different lengths to resemble tears. Within the circles, white lines crossed into an ‘X’ in the corner. Red paint was applied across the mask’s mouth, shaping into a long smile that went past the edges of the circles. Grey brush marks in certain places gave the face more definition, making the cheeks and nose look more sunken in, more resembling a skull.

Aside from the masks, they were in identical clothing, and of similar height. They both wore grey, wool long coats. Fashionable, but in this context looked more like a uniform. They both wore shawls over their heads, covering the last bit of skin and hair, making it impossible to profile them.

Several seconds passed between the three of them. The sound of light rainfall.

Natalie decided to speak up first.

“This is awkward, you should have mentioned this was a costume party, I didn’t come prepared.”

The two masked individuals didn’t respond to that.

One of them spoke. From the distance, it was hard to tell who, but it did sound like a woman.

“Natalie Beckham, we are here to assist you.”

“Funny. I didn’t think I needed assistance. I’ve been on a roll lately.”

“We are the reason you went to James Gomez.”

“Please, I had every intention to speak with him again before I got your message. Don’t try to take credit for my work. Somehow, I doubt you even know of the testimony James had given to me, otherwise you wouldn’t have reached out to me again. You’ve been watching us closely, haven’t you, and I’m guessing you just don’t want me to write a gussied up piece on Alexis Barnett, no?”

“There’s more to the story than you’re trying to report. We want to guide you to the truth.”

“Coming from two people sending messages behind the shadows? Shows how much you know about the truth. How about this, why don’t you two take off your masks, and if you two are actually good sources, I might consider using what you give me.”

The two didn’t answer right away.

“You may refer to us as Machiavélique,” they said.

“Subtle,” Natalie said. “But this is child’s play. I prefer to not use anonymous sources. Unless you have something really, and I mean really good, I’m not going to consider anything you have to give me. I started the Alexis Barnett piece as a way to meet you, and now that we have, I can say that I’m not impressed.”

Catch them off guard, and keep them off their toes. In the case that they might be trying to derail me, I won’t let them.

They, Machiavélique, didn’t answer right away.

“Then I’m going,” Natalie said. “If all you want to do is waste my time, don’t contact me again.”

Natalie turned, ready to go, because she was. She was done with this.

“Alexis Barnett is Blank Face.”

Natalie turned back.

The one with the beak, the raven, was a few paces closer, more in the light. They spread their arms.

“This is where it all began, where she got her powers.”

“Where’s your proof?” Natalie asked.

Machiavélique paused.

“We’re gathering it for you as we speak.”

“That’s not going to be enough. Either give me something solid, or I’m walking.”

Inside, Natalie was fighting every urge to chomp at the bit. Someone, even under a pseudonym, was coming forward, willing to corroborate the hunch that Alexis Barnett might be the world’s first superhuman. Any reporter worth their salt would investigate this further. But, she had her integrity, and that mattered even more. She had do this right, she had to be sure.

Machiavélique spoke, “Thomas Thompson and Blank Face did work together.”

Natalie stood firm, facing them.

“And?” Natalie asked.

“What did James Gomez tell you about Blank Face?”

“Why do you want to know?”

“Because we can confirm it. All of it, and then some. We can guide you in the right direction. Like west?”

“West? The new gang in that part of town?”

“Yes. All you have to do is follow the blood. That’s where she is, now. Alexis, under a new name. V.”

That was it, the proof she needed that these two were legit. It was all starting to click, the story of a fucking lifetime.

Alexis Barnett is still alive.

“Okay,” Natalie said, “I’ll listen.”

“We appreciate it, Natalie Beckham.”

She reached into her pocket, taking out both chess pieces, holding it in a way that caught the light.

“If you wanted to involve me and my partner into this, I would have figured you’d use us as pawns.”

The raven indicated to the one with the clown mask. Reaching into their pocket, they grabbed something and tossed it to Natalie.

With her free hand, Natalie caught it. A black queen.

Not the king.

“The truth has a way of being blunt, forthright,” they said. “There’s no oblique angle or spin to approach it from. The truth is, and there is no running away from that. You and Oliver Morgan don’t need masks or trickery to take down the monsters. You face it head on, direct.”

“I’ve already agreed to play your game,” Natalie said. “No need to flatter me any more.”

“It’s not a game.”

“Isn’t it? But I have to ask, why? What do you get out of this?”

Machiavélique replied, and Natalie was certain it from was the raven.

“I get to see Alexis burn.”

So that’s what this is. Revenge.

It didn’t matter, shouldn’t. Machiavélique wasn’t the one reporting this, Natalie would know how to filter what they gave her, and how to present the facts as they were. The full and complete web. Mister, Styx, James and Thomas, Blank Face and V. Natalie and Oliver, they’d tear it down, wholly and fairly.

What is it I want, exactly?

Natalie smiled.

“Tell me everything you know about Alexis Barnett.”

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