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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102 – Wings of Wax

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Wind brushed through my hair, sweeping it past one ear. Sarah was right, my hair had gotten long.

I fixed it myself, brushing a loose strand away from my face. A nibbling want in the back of head was asking for Sarah to do it for me.

And I could have. She was right there.

Seemed like it would have been too much, though.

The sun shined without a single cloud to block its rays. A week had passed since the rain and clouds greyed the skies. Now, it was a clear blue that pierced through.

Outside, sitting by the storefront of a cafe. I was exposed to the elements, but it was something I could weather.

Cold air nipped, but it didn’t bite. I could still feel the tip of my nose, my face as it got warm when I looked. Outside, but I hadn’t gone numb. Just the opposite, really. I was in a flutter.

“Is this a good spot?”

I was already looking at her when she asked.

A bright red hat, or a beret, whatever she called it. It was petite in size, and it didn’t look goofy when she wore it. I could imagine it looking stupid on me.

She had round shades that framed her face, a scarf that bundled around her neck. A black sweater and coat made her outfit even more trendy and chic. She didn’t have to go all out today, but she did, but it was hard muster any disappointment when she looked that good.

A pair of jeans had completed the look, but I couldn’t see them from where I was, across the round metal table chair we were sharing. But I had already stolen a glance or several on our way over here.

Oh right. There was a question I had to answer.

“Should be,” I said, finally getting to it. “It’s not like we can move now. You already got a coffee.”

“We can move,” Sarah said. “Do you want to move?”

“We don’t have to. This can work.”

“But it can be better. If you want to, we can go somewhere else.”

“I said it’s fine.”

“I want to do what you think works best.”

I glanced up at her, trying to wear the most annoyed expression on my face. Trying, because it was only an attempt.

Sarah was across from me, holding her cup, covering her mouth with it, as if she was hiding behind it. From how her eyes crinkled at the corners, I could tell she was wearing a knowing smirk. It immediately broke through any facade I had.

As I thought, it was only an attempt.

Me. Sarah. The very idea that we could even fit in the same sentence. Sarah and I.

A week, and I still couldn’t wrap my head around it.

That slow day had been extended into seven more, marked with late nights and later mornings, waking well after the sun had already gotten up. It was a routine of sorts, and I wouldn’t have minded if it actually became routine. I could absolutely get used to the pattern we were falling into.

It did leave me with a nagging thought, however, like how fragile everything was, or how fragile I perceived everything to be, and how that affected my approach in things. This. The longer this went, the more scared I was that this could get ripped away from me. My whole existence, I felt, was a shaky and tumultuous one, not exactly the best foundation to start building… anything. At the very end, it might be akin to stacking a house of cards. It would be easy, for this to crumble.

I didn’t want this to crumble.

It made me second-guess myself. Just how serious was I supposed to take this? Was this a real thing, or was this just the current state of affairs?

Where did Sarah stand? Did it matter? Did I want it to?

Why was I always overthinking things?

I looked at Sarah again, like a habit, a routine. I thought it would a certain effect, but I found the opposite. My heart raced even faster.

From behind that cup, I could see the edges of her expression, the corners of her lips, turned up. So bright that there needed to be something to block it. Couldn’t be faced straight on.

But, at least in this very moment, those concerns seemed to melt away. There was only this, and if I could get myself to sit here and enjoy this, I might be able to relax.

It was a promising dream.

Sarah placed her cup back into the saucer. It was a smooth, practiced movement. Cool. Something I could never hope to replicate, myself.

What wasn’t cool, was when the wind tried to intrude on us again, blowing stray strands into my eyes. I had to fix my hair and glasses both.

“Let me get that.”

A hand reached for me, fingers brushing into my hair, pushing it to one side. It didn’t seem to help much, as the wind came back to try and undo most of the work. Maybe Sarah had the right idea, wearing a hat today.

I wasn’t about to complain. I didn’t even have to ask, that time. I’d let her take the lead. A small part of our routine.

Finally, the wind relented, and Sarah could start making some progress on me. Or my hair, rather. I angled myself forward, so she could have an easier time with it. It was only a few stray, but she fussed over it for much longer than she really had to.

Again, no complaints there.

“There,” Sarah said, seemingly satisfied with the results. She sat back into her seat. I was still sitting forward, lingering there, with something on the tip of my tongue, that nibbling want returning. I was hoping she would get that, too.

She didn’t, but I couldn’t fault her for it.

It hit me, where we were again. Outside, sitting at a cafe, people watching. Meaning that there were people around us.

Was I being too obvious?

I sat myself back, feeling a touch flustered over it. Stupid.

“Wendy.”

She was watching me, now. Or maybe she had been, this whole time.

“Yes?”

“Enjoying yourself?”

I could answer that honestly.

“Of course I am. Of course.”

I touched my hair. Then I realized it was the third time I had done that.

“But?” Sarah ventured.

I let out a breath.

“It’s not, it’s not any one thing, there’s just a lot on my mind, right now. But hey, isn’t everyone like that?”

“Sure, but you are not everyone. You are you.”

“I guess I am. But there’s more to it than that. I, um, sorry, I’m not trying to be lame right now.”

“We have time for lame.”

I really wasn’t trying to get into this now. But, we did have the time, I supposed. And we had to fill it with something. I supposed.

Sarah knew how to draw this stuff out of me. It was a dangerous power.

I started with a question.

“How does it taste? Your coffee?”

Sarah’s reaction was crucial. I watched for it.

There wasn’t one. Too muted and understated. She took it completely serious.

I found some comfort, in that.

Another part of our new routine. Whatever she tasted, she would share with me. We couldn’t exactly share a meal, so this was the closest thing we had.

Sarah lifted her chin, slight, lifting a finger to tap a steady rhythm as she thought. She was playing it up, I knew that much, even that was crucial to me. Sarah wanted me to know that she was putting in that effort. And that said so much to me that I couldn’t even begin to translate it. I knew how it made me feel, though. It made my eyes all watery.

Good nights, better mornings.

“Well, according to the menu, these beans were from South America. Columbia. So it has a tendency to be more sweet, not so acidic. But, it can have a nutty hint to it.”

A soft chuckle. “Nutty, huh? Sounds nutty.”

That prompted something similar from Sarah. “Sure is.”

“What else?” I asked. “You added, like, sugar and cream, right?”

I wanted to know more, demanded it. I wanted to savor every detail she could give me, I wanted to be selfish.

She said we’d have the time. She would have to indulge me.

“I did. There’s a natural sweetness to it, but, coffee is coffee. It’s always going to be bitter by itself. I had to punch it up with some sugar, some cream. Not too much, though, I didn’t want to spoil its original taste.”

“Can’t have that,” I said. “But I know how much of a sweet tooth you have.”

“I guess you do,” Sarah said. Then she smiled. “Am I describing it right? Or am I just boring you?”

“Not at all,” I replied. “I can’t get enough, really.”

“You are you,” she said, as if it was a matter of fact.

“And coffee is coffee,” I said, in much the same way. “Thank you so much, Sarah. I probably wouldn’t have been able to make it through this week if it weren’t for you.”

Sarah’s smile was warmer than the weather.

“I think you’d do just fine. But you know, not as fine if I wasn’t around.”

Her smile turned into a smirk. That effect had yet to diminish on me.

“I will not disagree with you there,” I said.

Our surroundings stirred, passing us by. People, cars in the distance, the wind. But there wasn’t anything to be concerned over. Not for a little while longer. It was just us, sitting here, stationary and completely in the moment. It was almost like nothing else mattered. That I could just… be here, and do this. With Sarah.

This, this right here? It wasn’t for V, and it sure as hell wasn’t for Alexis Barnett. This was mine, and mine alone. Wendy.

I knew it would be fleeting, and would escape from my grasp like sand from an hourglass. But for now, I’d use every ounce of my enhanced strength and hold on for as long as inhumanly possible.

“Once things start picking up again, it’s going to get harder to slip some time in during the day,” I said, “For stuff like this.”

“You’re right,” Sarah said. “It will be a hassle. But I doubt it’ll turn into a mess.”

“I hope not.”

“Which means I probably shouldn’t be coming over as often.”

I frowned at the prospect of that.

“That doesn’t sound fun at all.”

Sarah frowned, too, but it was a sympathetic one.

“I know, but there’s fun and there’s being realistic. People are starting to ask questions.”

“People? Who?”

She lifted a shoulder, nothing too committal.

“I’m kidding. Well, Reggie, even Tone. There’s only so many times they call me up for drinks and I’m not available, and I’m running out of excuses.”

“Just say work has been holding you up or something.”

“I don’t think that will fly so far when we all work for the same boss.”

“Well that sucks,” I said, plainly. There was a bit of sadness in those words that I didn’t expect, and I hoped they didn’t ring out, clear enough for Sarah’s ears to pick up.

I wanted her, I wanted this. And it sucked how fragile and how easy this could slip out of my hands. Or like it could get yanked away by a string.

I pressed my lips together and huffed. Hard enough to mess up my bangs, my hair.

I was overreacting.

“We’ll just have to pace ourselves,” Sarah said. As though she knew what was on my mind. “I’m still coming over tonight.”

I tried to stop myself from showing something on my face, but I didn’t have a cup to block Sarah’s view of me.

Darn.

From what she showed on her face, she saw. Darn. But whatever. I didn’t really care.

“Sweet,” I said.

“It is.”

This… I could have spent the rest of the day doing this. Another thirty minutes here, just chatting, then we could go to the Realm and look at clothes, maybe do some shopping. Then we could either go for dinner at the food court there, or a nearby place, or just take something and bring it back to my apartment. We’d watch a movie, maybe two, and just hang out until it got too late for Sarah to try and drive back home.

And then we would…

We’d do other stuff.

Thoughts crystallized in my head as they came to me. Too much to say out loud.

Before either of us could say something else, though, a new scene arrived. Not to pass us by, but to interrupt.

A car squealed as it swerved around a corner, music booming out of the open windows. Loud enough to turn heads, even ours, and I recognized it in an instant.

The gears turned in my head. Like I had put on my mask. The objective reason why I had come out, today.

“They’re here,” I said.

I remained seated, only watching as the car straightened onto the new street. The street the cafe was on. It was a silver muscle car, with black stripes running along the edges of the machine. It sprinted down the length of the street, squealing again as it came to a halt. The front of a general store on the other side.

The muscle car sat in park for a minute, rumbling with power, as if to flex what it had. They definitely weren’t shy about their presence.

Other people started to move on, going about the rest of their day. For me and Sarah, this was part of our day.

Doors on each side opened, people getting out. Four of them, not the driver, the car was still rumbling, alive.

They circled around, going into the store. It was a small detail, hard to see from a distance, but I saw it. A sign on the store’s entrance flipped to ‘closed.’

“I hate those guys already,” Sarah said. I heard her fingernail tap against her cup, irritated. “Cutting into our date like that?”

“Don’t worry,” I told her, kind of happy to hear Sarah call this a date, “If anything, we’re the ones that’ll do the cutting. We were waiting for them.”

“Figured that much, but what should I look out for?”

“You don’t have to do anything. We’re just here to confirm things.”

“And that’s it? Just for that?”

Sarah had raised the pitch of her voice. It made my face get all warm and dumb.

“And our date, of course,” I stammered.

“That’s all I wanted to hear.”

“Lame,” I said. “So so lame.”

We both shared a small laugh.

I kept my watch on the car ahead, though, the store. Nothing we could glean from this position, but we weren’t here to find out what they were up to. We just needed to know that they were here in the first place. Our territory.

According to D, who had gotten it from Nathan, some of youth who happened to live within our borders were becoming more and more… displeased with the changes happening around them.

Looking at it from their perspective, I could see it. The Thunders and the Royals had been rooted in the community, they had grown from it. And, from somewhere in the dark, those roots were ripped out, and another group moved in to fill in the cracks and gaps. How we operated was different than how they worked, pushing different weight, tagging different tags, and stamping out threats in different ways. My way.

It would make sense for the younger ones to want to rebel. With everything that was going down in the city, not unlike a downward spiral, their home was the last the place they wanted to start breaking apart, not making sense. They’d work to take it back, or they’d try, at least. I could give them that.

But that was as much as I’d give them.

Whatever it was they were planning, they wouldn’t get far. The Fangs were already onto them, ready to bite. We just had to keep an eye on them, wait until they were about to make a move, then we’d would go and pay them a visit. Give them a good enough scare as V so they wouldn’t try anything again.

It was a simple plan, but this was a simple problem. Just part of the process of holding onto a territory. Mundane, in all honesty.

I looked at the sign above the store and tried to read it. Tried, because I couldn’t read those characters.

Chinese, definitely not Japanese. But it was a store owned by someone from the Asian community.

A small detail, but it was too early to draw any conclusions with that.

For now, I’d watch. With Sarah.

“Any thoughts so far?” Sarah asked.

“Thoughts? I think we’ll be able to handle this. It just some unruly kids. Nothing I haven’t dealt with, myself.”

I thought of D when I said that. Not so much Isabella.

“I can imagine,” Sarah said.

“Yeah, and it looks like you picked a good spot for us, after all. We have an eye on them, and we’re at a safe distance. And I can hear all about your delicious coffee.”

“You still haven’t had enough?”

“I am always up for more.”

“Well, you know, I’m just trying to do my part.”

She sounded pleased with herself.

“And you’re doing great,” I said.

“Are you referring to anything in particular?”

“Everything,” I said.

It was a moment that ultimately came and went, but I managed to get a hold on it, if only for a short moment.

The moment passed, and then it was back to work.

My phone buzzed in my pocket. I kept my eyes on the store and the car as I got it out, only glancing to check the new message.

My heart skipped a small beat.

“Done with your coffee?” I asked Sarah.

“Just about,” she said. “Why? We’re heading out?”

“Just about,” I answered. “Got a text from Lawrence. Looks like the committee has come to a decision, and they’re ready to tell us.”

“Meaning?”

“We’re about to see if we’ll get a seat at the round table, and be among the leaders of the biggest gangs in Stephenville.”

“That’s exciting.”

“If it works out, sure,” I said. “Lawrence must be freaking out over it.”

I am, too, but I can’t tell you about it.

Pangs of guilt. There had been one when I considered Lawrence, but now…

I hated the thought of hiding this from Sarah. My real plan with the city and the Fangs. She was in the dark about all of it, and it hurt.

Was there a way of getting her out, before it was too late? Bring her with me? Would she even want to be there, when it all fell down? At my side?

It hurt, thinking about it.

There was still this, though, this moment. If I could hold it…

“We should get ready for when Lawrence calls for us again,” I said, “No need to stick around anymore.”

“We got what needed from here?”

“We did.”

The two of us prepared to leave, gathering our belongings, and for my part, gathering my thoughts.

The Fangs, the table, Lawrence, Sarah. When all was said and done, what would be left? Who would still be around?

The thought of being alone, it froze me cold. Worse than the weather around us.

“So the rest of our day is put on hold?” Sarah questioned. Disappointed.

I was, too.

“Doesn’t have to be,” I said. “We should have some time before then.”

Sarah looked relieved to hear that, in a way that set me at ease.

“Then let’s not waste any more time.”

I nodded, unable to suppress a coming grin. I’d let it get plastered on my face, even if it looked stupid. Because with Sarah, it was the only time I could show some stupidity, without any real consequences.

“If it’s you,” I said, “I don’t want to waste a second.”

“You’re right on time.”

Mrs. Carter didn’t sound impressed as she addressed us.

“Not a second late,” Lawrence said. “Wouldn’t miss this for the world.”

This was it. The moment of truth.

Ironic, since we had to cover up the truth to get here.

We were back at the table. It was round, yet Mrs. Carter somehow managed to find the head of the table and position herself there. Part of the effect could have been attributed to the fact that she was standing, angling herself so she looked down on everyone, even Styx, but I figured it was more simple than that.

She just commanded presence.

Everyone was on edge. Or, it was either that, or I was so on edge that I projected that onto everyone else. Every scratch, itch, cough, shake of the head. Every low chuckle from Styx.

I could feel my stomach twist into knots. Knots into knots. The tension was so tight that it might snap.

It probably would, if this went on for any longer-

I nearly jumped out of my seat.

Something tapped my leg, by my thigh. Stiff, I looked in that direction.

Sarah passed me a glance. It was only through her eyes, there were too many others on us for anything else to be shared.

I’d take it, though. It helped.

My eyes went back up to Mrs. Carter, and I scrounged up the confidence needed to just shut up and let Lawrence do the talking.

Lawrence did the talking.

“So should we move along with the… with the proceedings? It would be naïve of me, us, the Fangs, to assume that this is the most important part of your night. This meeting.”

“Naïve, yes, but this does deserve the appropriate weight. To not do would be rather… ignorant of us.”

Styx chuckled again, from his far corner. Off to the side, but his presence was still known. It seemed fitting. His voice had a harrowing note to it.

Lawrence nodded. It was shaky, uncertain.

“Then, what’s the verdict? The suspense is, uh, killing me.”

“It’s not suspense that’s going to kill you, boy!”

Styx hollered from across the space. The crackling noise rattled my very bones.

Mrs. Carter remained cool and calm. It was wonder that they seemed to work together, that she even tolerated him at all. They were the polar opposites, representing the different parts of the crime that gripped Stephenville. From the grime of Styx’s domain, to the upper echelon that I could associate Mrs. Carter with. And yet, there wasn’t any friction, not from what I could see. Then again, I didn’t exactly have a good view on things. Not from this seat.

She let Styx settle before she took back control of the room again.

“What he is implying, is that we operate in a volatile world, where nothing is guaranteed. This whole time, you’ve only had a taste of just how changeable it really is. Complacency is the enemy of survival. Even I believe you all need a reminder of that. Everyone at this table.”

Everyone at this table exchanged looks. Not to us, though. Everyone who was here to represent the Fangs were too frozen to move.

Mrs. Carter was still facing forward, eyes trained on us.

“But, it’s a lesson we will all learn. As part of this table.”

There was a pause. Lawrence was supposed to say something, but he didn’t.

He let the moment hang. The appropriate weight.

“As part of this table?” Lawrence repeated.

“Yes,” Mrs. Carter said. “Everyone here, me and Styx excepted, have already taken their vote. Those seats you’re sitting in now? You’ve earned them. Congratulations.”

We heard that word, that confirmation. It still didn’t feel real.

I almost couldn’t believe it.

“We’re in?” I asked. The first words I’d spoken since walking into this building.

“Yes. Of course, there’s still a significant discrepancy between yourselves and the rest, but nevertheless, you now share common ground.”

You now share common ground.

I noted the distinction. Separating herself from everyone else at the table. Mrs. Carter wasn’t seated, she was looking down at us. On us.

But I could forgive that. Because we got it, we were here. The Fangs were now considered among the top gangs of the city. The snake was allowed among the rats.

“That, well, that’s… that’s good news,” Lawrence said, breaking his own silence. His own voice broke a little.

“Don’t let the new height you’ve reached make you dizzy,” Mrs. Carter said. It sounded like something of a warning. “As I mentioned, there is a difference in might between you and the rest here, and it is very real.”

“We’ll keep that in mind.”

“And you were put here on a vote. And it wasn’t unanimous. In fact, it results were more narrow than the initial one.”

That was worth noting. I looked at the faces around us. D’Angelo. Arthur. Inez.

Of everyone here, D’Angelo seemed the most pleased about this development. Could we have counted on him to have voted in our favor, again?

Wait. D’Angelo had helped in swinging the vote our way, last time. It couldn’t have gotten more narrow than that. If we had somehow cut it that close, then who had broken the tie, this time?

Styx chuckled, low. It was like he thrived on keeping me on my toes, unsettled.

No, not like. He absolutely did.

“Then we still have a lot of work ahead of us,” Lawrence said.

“Yes, you do,” Mrs. Carter said. “We all do.”

“I don’t suppose those results are confidential? We were here for the initial round of voting.”

Mrs. Carter gestured, spreading her arms.

“You’re here now, aren’t you? As a word of advice, I would just focus on that work you ahead. Work produces its own results. Use that.”

“I suppose we will. Is there, is there anything else you need from us?”

“At this juncture, I do not. For now, just work on getting yourselves in good standing and position here, and I can handle the rest.”

What ‘the rest’ was, Mrs. Carter didn’t share. If I wanted things to go my way, we would have to get ahead of her, too. Find out what her plans were.

Added to the pile of work ahead of us. But the results would be worth it.

“We can definitely do that,” Lawrence said. It was the most certain he had sounded all night.

“Good. Then the only word I have left to say is… welcome.”

With another gesture, and a step back, Mrs. Carter was done. She relinquished control of the room, and the whole table was free to move about.

People got up from their seats. Some went to chat with each other, mingling, while others kept their focus on us, guarded, as if we were liable to strike at any moment.

We would, just not in any way that would be clear to them.

Lawrence stood. Sarah and I joined him.

“Shit,” Lawrence gasped. He exhaled the word. He leaned away when he scratched the side of his neck.

“Shit,” I said.

Sarah commented. “What you guys said. You did it.”

“You had a part in this too, Sarah,” I said. “Don’t count yourself out.”

“I guess I can’t then.” Sarah smiled. “Shit.”

I would have smiled, too, looking at her, but the pangs were even sharper, now that I was getting so close.

“I think I’m about to have a panic attack,” Lawrence said.

We had gotten good news, the best turn our gang had taken since getting started. Upward mobility, as D had mentioned once, a long while back.

Good news, and Lawrence looked like he had been told that a close friend had passed.

He was sweating, his forehead glistening, dots of white reflected from the lights above us. For his part, he was smiling, but it was weak, underselling how relieved he must have really been on the inside.

Lawrence was dressed sharp, but he still wasn’t looking his best. It had been a week since he gave us a scare, and he didn’t seem to like like he had improved. He was going through his own pangs.

“Next thing on our list is going to be an intervention,” I said. I had to keep my voice low. “You can’t keep going like this, Lawrence. This isn’t healthy.”

“I can manage,” Lawrence protested. He coughed, despite himself.

“That is a dangerous game you are playing, Lawrence. You said it yourself, you hate half-hearted bullshit. You loathe it, to use your own words. You have to put in the proper effort, or we might end up losing everything.”

“Yeah? Like how I asked you to keep digging into the source of your powers? What’s inside you? How is that going?”

Those questions were like a slap in the face. Too stunned to give a proper reply.

But Lawrence continued.

“Just as I thought. Motherfucker. Unless you have a real answer for me, I really don’t want to hear it.”

Sarah pleaded. “Guys, not now.”

Lawrence didn’t stop.

“And you know, you’re so certain that it was someone else who gave you your powers. Another monster, another vampire. Where are they now? Did they fuck off and go into hiding? Or did they get hunted? What if someone got to them? And what happens when that someone decides that it’s your turn to be hunted? It would only be a matter of time, Wendy.”

“Lawrence!”

Sarah hissed at him.

“This isn’t the time, and it definitely isn’t the place. So please, just leave it be.”

Sarah was sticking up for me. I couldn’t even speak for myself.

The idea of being hunted…

Lawrence stared at Sarah. There was a mad look in his eye, like he had to process the fact that she was even here at all.

He wanted to say more, I could see that, too, but we were interrupted.

“Wendy!”

D’Angelo was as flamboyant as ever, walking with his cane, using his limp to give more swing in his stride. As he grinned, I could have sworn it was brighter than lights reflecting off Lawrence’s skin.

“Yes sir,” I said, not wanting to show any hint of the previous argument. No one needed to hear that.

“I just wanted to personally congratulate you all for passing the test. You did good work, and it you were rewarded for those efforts.”

“Thanks. Feels like we barely made it, though.”

“There’s nothing else to feel at the moment but pride.”

Can I really be proud over having seen to the deaths of two journalists?

I’d let that question remain a passing thought. The pangs were sharp enough as they were.

“Would it be safe to assume that you casted your vote for us?”

Lawrence went straight to it.

D’Angelo laughed, a hearty timbre.

“You would be, but I’d rather not speak for anyone else. Trust is a rare commodity, in our line of work, and betraying that is akin to a death sentence.”

“Noted,” Lawrence said.

Tapping his cane, D’Angelo pointed in the direction of others.

“Why don’t you ask them yourselves? You are one of us, now.”

I examined the faces across from us. Arthur and Brian were conversing with one another, Cassius, Edward, Forest and Gary were holding their own discussion as well. Hayden was on her own, and Inez was, too, looking right at us. Firm.

None of them looked particularly… inviting.

Lawrence lowered his head, seemingly bowing at Inez, and she turned to Hayden, saying a word to her.

From here, it was hard to tell who voted which way. But I could venture a guess for some of them.

“We’ll introduce ourselves on our own time,” Lawrence said. “I’m more interested in what it means to have a seat at the table. Mrs. Carter didn’t exactly make that clear.”

“To help maintain an equilibrium,” D’Angelo explained. “Crime, like business, is a fine art, and is supported by many people who not only work for their own interests, but for the longevity of the game. There’s a reason why feuds can be dangerous, they can threaten the whole system that’s been set in place. Are you aware of a Xander L. Granon?”

“Still in my nightmares,” Lawrence said. “Our gang had gone up against his. We beat him, somehow.”

“So I’ve heard. See, Mr. Granon tried to muscle into our arrangement by violence and force. He wanted to come in and crash everything around him, and rule over the debris. You, on the other hand, have certainly made an impact, but I find your approach more… respectable.”

“I appreciate the kind words,” Lawrence said.

D’Angelo gave him a nod. “So, with Mrs. Carter and the likes of Styx, we officially maintain the delicate balance that keeps this city standing tall.”

“And Mister?” I asked. “Are we ever going to meet with him?”

D’Angelo smirked.

“That would be for him to decide.”

So close, yet he kept us at a distance. We’d- I’d need Mister, in order to fully and completely destroy that balance we now had some responsibility to maintain.

“Hopefully it’ll be soon,” I said.

“For your sake, maybe,” D’Angelo said. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll have to take my leave. And once again, congrats.”

“Thanks again,” I said. “Really appreciate it.”

D’Angelo tapped his cane again, and gave us one more smirk before taking off.

Of all the gang leaders that I’d come across, D’Angelo seemed to be the most eccentric, yet the most… agreeable. It was almost a shame, that I’d have to bring him down, too.

It was back to the three of us. We reconvened.

“Well, we got what we came here for,” I said. “We ready to head out?”

“I am,” Sarah said.

“Sure, I think,” Lawrence said. “Any ideas on our next move?”

“Wendy and I had plans to watch one or two if we had some time left. I wasn’t aware you wanted to join us.”

Lawrence looked at Sarah.

Sarah’s eyes went wide.

“Oh. I thought you said movie.”

“Are you fucking kidding me?”

“Hey,” I said, voice back to being low, “Let’s… not. How about this? We’re at the table, but we still need to establish an individual rapport with each of them. D’Angelo? He’s a good start.”

“That’s not a bad idea,” Sarah said.

I continued. “Not everyone voted for us to be here, so we should find out who they are, see if we can’t convince them that we’re the real deal.”

“Do you think that’ll work?” Lawrence asked.

“It’s better than them continuing to doubt us,” I said.

And it gives me an idea on who to go after, first.

“Okay, I don’t hate that.”

“Good. So we’ll catch up with D, gather all the info she got on each of these guys from the past week, and we’ll go from there.”

“Okay,” Lawrence said.

Wary, I looked up at the ceiling, past that lights. I wore that expression, made it obvious.

Then I saw Styx, watching him watch me.

By the huge windows that overlooked the city, where water had cascaded down the glass the last time we were here. For someone who could stick out like a blade in my back, Styx could blend into the background just as well. A ghost in the shadows.

His face twisted up, and I could hear that sound in my head. A low cackle.

He looked up, too, at the ceiling, then back to me. He brought a finger to his lips, face still twisted. Still cackling.

No one else saw that. It was for me only.

Me only, because D wasn’t actually here. Like we’d risk putting her in the same position as last time. I had to learn from some of my mistakes.

D got what we needed from our first visit here. It was time to use that information.

We’re at the table. Finally. Now we had to prep the fire.

Previous                                                                                               Next

094 – World of Dogs

epy arc 13 take

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That’s a lot to take in.

I stared at the woman, Mrs. Carter, as she had introduced herself to me. The entire conversation was playing back in my head, over and over again. We only had a short interaction before she dropped this one me, but that only allowed for more and more repetitions.

This woman represented Mister, and she was here for me.

It wasn’t a moment I was prepared for, but it was one I had to deal with. I stood there, frozen, unsure of what to do or say, aware that every second I let pass was a change in the power dynamic. She was standing taller, and I was shrinking. I grabbed the counter beside me, the bar. Balance, in case I ended up losing it.

I had to say something.

“Mister?”

The name fell out of my mouth, more repeating what was already said, rather than offering a new piece of insight on the situation.

Mrs. Carter remained cool, staring back at me, staring down. Her back was straight, her clothes were buttoned up and proper, and her glasses caught the light in a way that gave them a glare, adding to the intensity of her being here, representing who she represented. Cool, and maybe even calculated.

“Yes,” Mrs. Carter said.

It was just one word. She had no need to repeat herself.

I held onto the counter next to me, leaning on it. I knew that I wasn’t in a good position, I knew that I wasn’t presenting myself well. This wasn’t the image I wanted to portray.

No, I couldn’t let myself stumble, not like this, not anymore. I was done letting myself be that weak.

Putting pressure on the counter beside me, and myself, I pushed, shifting my weight back to my feet, using and relying on my own body to keep upright. I was standing straight again, matching Mrs. Carter. Even if I wasn’t on the same level as her, I would at least act like I was.

“Finally,” I said, “I was wondering when he’d introduce himself. I was beginning to think we were being ignored.”

Mrs. Carter smiled. It was odd, almost chilling to see, because it actually looked genuine.

“We have many eyes and ears, darling, and they are everywhere. Believe me, we have not overlooked you.”

“Well, that’s good,” I said, trying not to let my growing paranoia creep into my voice. It was already bad enough, with most of it being applied internally, and my own capabilities, but a significant chunk of that had echoed Lawrence’s own. There was a lot of danger and a lot of enemies out there, and we had to be prepared for them.

And one of them was standing in front of me, right now.

“May I ask what matter would Mister like to discuss?”

“Not a discussion, a hearing.”

“A hearing?”

“I would prefer not to divulge any details here, in such a public venue, and you will find out for yourself, in due time.”

Mrs. Carter shifted around, moving her shoulders and adjusting the folder in her hands. It was a subtle, restrained movement, but I noticed it. There was a grace to it that stood out to me, and I wasn’t sure why. Maybe it was because that was grace that I inherently lacked? The reason why she was able to keep standing straight and I couldn’t?

If I could, I’d take her and drain that out of her in a heartbeat.

A moment passed.

What the hell was I thinking?

Mrs. Carter spoke again, taking me out of the distraction of my own making. Something I was begrudged to be grateful for.

“And speaking of time, please, gather the others that represent your organization and follow me. The faster we can handle our business with you, the more convenient it is for me.”

“And why is that?” I asked. How fast this process would go was probably the only thing I had direct control of, and I’d use it to prod, if it meant getting any kind of leverage or edge over her.

Mrs. Carter answered, “Because I do have other business to attend to, tonight. I do not intend to babysit.”

So she had other plans. I could keep her from them if I stretched this out for long enough, came up with something else. If I managed to delay her, would I be able to fuck up her night? Her and Mister’s plans?

It was an intriguing proposition.

“I’m not going anywhere… or gathering anyone… until you tell me where you’re taking us.”

I spoke slow, drawing out my words and letting my thoughts run in the meantime. I was buying myself precious seconds, and I had to use every single one. What were my options?

I didn’t have my knife or gun with me, I had lost both of them in trying to escape the raid at the church. I had my fists, but was there anything to gain by starting a bar fight? Could I grab D and Lawrence and use the ensuing chaos for cover? But, any perhaps the most important question, would trying to get out from this even be worth it?

I already knew the answer to that one.

It was just… Mrs. Carter was here, now, forcing my hand into making a move she wanted me to make, and I’d have to bring D and Lawrence along. I just wanted the time to make that decision for myself, to make sure I wouldn’t end up leading them into a trap with me. I didn’t want to fuck this up for everyone else, like I had done before, like I always seemed to do. For once – for fucking once – I would have liked to do something that didn’t screw me and my colleagues over.

“I can guarantee that you will be taken to a location much safer than even this one,” Mrs. Carter said. She looked around, the light caught in her lenses, an air of disdain about her. “Here, there are too many… nonentities, but they have a tendency to get in the way, if you allow them to. I can promise you a more neutral territory.”

It’s like she read my mind.

But was she to be believed? I had my doubts, but, thinking like that was dangerous in its own way. I wouldn’t be able to do anything if I second-guessed every possibility and got myself stuck, uncertain of which path I should take. And my choices were already narrow, I had to take Mrs. Carter on her word.

It just… it had to a choice I made willingly. To get some agency in this situation.

I wasted more of her time.

I started, “If I may be so bold though-”

“You may not.”

Mrs. Carter tried to cut me off, but I kept going, kept prodding.

“-I’d like to ask exactly what we’d be doing, because I am not about to take important, key members of my organization and bring them with me to something that might up us all at risk. With the limited information you’re giving me, it gives me the impression that you’re acting in bad faith, and-”

A blunt force on my chest, knocking me back. I didn’t fall over, though, because a hard pressure gripped my lower lip and chin, keeping me up and in place.

Mrs. Carter moved, and while it was movement I had registered, it wasn’t one I had anticipated. We were fairly close, given how crowded the club was, with all the people around us, dancing and drinking and lounging about. A decent amount of personal space was more a luxury than anything else, here. For her to take another step closer would violate what little I had left, and grabbing me within that space sounded alarms in my head that I couldn’t answer. People were around me, I was still trying to be discreet, and I had to fight the very strong impulse to start breaking something or someone.

She had stepped forward, putting her foot between mine. She lifted a hand, pressing into my chest, then moving to hold the lower half of my face. She raised my chin, forcing me to look right into her eyes, underneath her glasses.

Listen,” Mrs. Carter intoned, with a surprising lack of contempt. It was just stern, like a parent scolding a child. Maybe. I didn’t exactly have that specific frame of reference. “Do not play me. I have been at this for a very long time, so I know every trick, every lead in, every gambit. What you are trying here will not work out for you, and that… I can promise you as well.”

I tried to voice a response, but found that I couldn’t. Air pushed between my lips and cheeks, a strained, pathetic sound.

Mrs. Carter continued to drive her point home.

“I have given you my word, as it stands in this current moment. Gather the people you have with you – all of them – and come with me, and while I can guarantee you a more neutral territory than this, I cannot guarantee your own personal safety. That, will be entirely dependent on your temperament. So I advise you, let this be a lesson to you, because you will have the chance to apply it soon.”

If her catch was forced and sudden, then her release was gentle and gradual. She let me go, her fingers sliding down my cheek. Her thumb wiped the corner of my lip, catching some moisture that had collected there, with my mouth being opened for so long.

She took a step back, giving me that space back as well. Her hand settled on the folder she in front of me, resting it there. Mrs. Carter looked as poised as ever.

I inched my hand upward, experimentally, ready to grab for the counter if I needed.

Fuck, shit, fuck.

Then, a tug on my other hand, and I was pulled away from the bar. I turned around, and while I had reason to feel relaxed, now, I wasn’t able let myself have that relief.

Sarah pulled me towards her, until I entered her personal space. That, though, I didn’t mind.

She hovered over me as she stared at Mrs. Carter. Her hand was on my shoulder, her other was in my own, our fingers brushing together, ready to pull me back farther and away if she had to. Mrs. Carter returned that look, the glare flashing across her glasses again. The neon colors around us changed to a deep red.

“Is everything alright?” she asked, her tone stern. “Or am I going to need to get the bartender and the bouncer?”

Mrs. Carter didn’t answer, instead keeping herself level, as if that threat couldn’t possibly apply to her.

For my part, I didn’t know what to say or think, and I hated the idea that I was also lost on what to do.

“Go,” Mrs. Carter said to me, ignoring Sarah. She kept that well-tempered disposition, which made it even more eerie, given what was hiding just beneath the surface. “Do not keep me waiting.”

A moment passed, long enough for the neon colors to change again, and when the light switched to green, Sarah pulled again, and I followed her as we left the bar, disappearing into the crowd on the dance floor. She didn’t let go.

“Thanks,” I said, at a normal volume, but with how loud the music and people around us were, it was the equivalent of a whisper.

Sarah replied as she led the way.

“The second I saw her move in I just knew I had to do something! That is not cool!”

Self-conscious over my mind and body, I was hyper aware of the contact Sarah’s hand had with mine. She wasn’t letting go, instead holding tighter because of sweat making my skin slick. It made me feel gross, like slime, that I was only inconveniencing Sarah on having to bail me out. But it was the fact that I wasn’t even able to do my job was what made me feel even worse. Another failure, from both circumstance and lack of ability.

I tried pulling away from her grip, but that only made Sarah grip and pull even harder. I flinched a little, the emotions on my face and in my heart were mixed. Most of what was in that mixture wasn’t great, but there was some good in there. Some relief I was finally allowing myself to have.

I might have fucked it up, but something told me that Mrs. Carter was going to get what she had came here for, regardless. Forced to play along, but that didn’t mean I had to do this alone. There was D and Lawrence. I had Sarah.

When I spoke up again, it wasn’t at a normal volume. It was raised, filled with what little scraps of confidence I had left.

“I’m getting the others. There’s been a change of plans, but we’ll get through it.”

Trace amounts of self-confidence could only take me so far.

The ride here was long, but it wasn’t silent. We discussed strategy, divvied up roles and responsibilities, and tried to figure out what exactly we were getting ourselves into. D had no idea, and that only made Lawrence more nervous, which didn’t help me any, creating a feedback loop of anxiety and doubt.

We did, however, manage to come to an agreement on how we would approach this. Lawrence would handle most of the talking, and, if all hell were to break loose, I’d have to step in and do my part. I… could do it. I’d have to, if the situation called for it.

But, all we could really do was play this by ear. And, for now, we had to listen.

The doors opened up before us, and, speaking for myself, I was rendered breathless.

The room was expansive, wide as it was tall. Gold patterns weaved through the walls and ceiling in fractals. Even the carpet was nice to look at, made of intricate red and gold shapes. The ceiling glistened with lights, shining bright to the point I had to squint the moment I stepped into the room.

Round tables were laid out in different spots across the space, but only one was filled with people. They were waiting for us.

Mrs. Carter was waiting, too, somehow beating us up here. She was standing by the table, and  indicated to an empty section for us to take our seats.

Lawrence, Sarah and I joined the rest at the table.

There were a lot of people in assembly, a lot of eyes staring at us. Some were ready to pick us apart, and some looked completely disinterested but they were here, and they were forming an opinion of us in their minds.

I tried to match them with a similar demeanor. Chin up, shoulders square, meeting them in the eye. It was hard, when not wearing a mask.

Scanning over faces, I tried to find someone who matched the image I had in my head, someone who might look like a Mister. Hard to do, when the group was so diverse. Some were a few years older than Lawrence, some were actually old, and not everyone was dressed up in a way that fit the room we were gathered in. The image in my head started to blur, and I began to have my doubts.

Mrs. Carter started the proceedings.

“I do thank everyone for coming tonight, especially on such notice,” she said, in that formal, diplomatic tone that I was now coming to expect from her, a kind of voice that commanded order and respect. Going against that wouldn’t be ideal. “But I believe this is of enough importance that it will make up for any inconvenience I might have caused you.”

“It better,” someone replied. A man wearing a suit. He wasn’t old, but a few more years would take him there. “And if it’s so important, wouldn’t Mister be here?”

I wanted to trade looks with Sarah and the others, but I was too stiff. Frozen. Mister wasn’t here? Then what was this meeting for?

Our understanding of the situation kept changing, and that kept us on the back foot, on constantly shaky ground. Anything could happen, now, nothing was concrete.

“I’ll fill him in, there’s no need to worry.”

Another voice. One I did recognize, and it made my skin go clammy and cold.

The man who had replied turned, and I followed his gaze. I didn’t see him there before, but it was impossible to ignore now.

Styx was sitting at a table by himself, closer to the far side of the room, by a large window that overlooked the city below. Rainfall tapped against the glass on the other side, cascading down as a stream. It didn’t help in calming my nerves.

We were high up, somewhere in the downtown area. We were in the middle of the Eye, in several respects.

As if this situation wasn’t already tense enough. Styx just had to be here.

The man continued voicing his complaints. “This keeps happening, Styx, he can’t keep bailing on us, and I’m starting to get sick of the lip service.”

“Then hurry up and die already.”

“What did you say!”

The man pushed his chair back, leaning on the edge of his seat, ready to stand. His hand was gripped around a cane, black with gold engravings.

He seemed… familiar, but I couldn’t quite place him. At least he was talking some of the heat off of us, it gave me more time to compose myself.

“Please cool off,” someone said. Not Mrs. Carter, but another woman, sitting at the table. “You’re always trying to do… that, and it gets tiring. Can you please just quit it, or at least for now?”

The man paused, probably considering the woman’s word. Styx’s deep chuckle sounded in the distance. Seemingly reluctant, the man fixed his chair, returning to the group. He looked at us, at me, and he tapped his cane against the table. He didn’t offer another word.

Styx glanced at me, then at the ceiling, and grinned, baring teeth. My heart dropped, but I tried my best to not show that on my face.

“Then,” Mrs. Carter said, “Let us continue.”

She walked around the table, towards us, until she moved out of sight, and I didn’t feel comfortable enough to turn all the way around and show my back to these people. It just made me tense up all the more.

Her voice rang in my ears as she addressed the room.

“The group you see before you, they represent something… new. A current has been sweeping over the city, and they are the face of it. Competing against rival businesses, calculated mergers, and obtaining key assets. I present to you The Fangs. Come, introduce yourselves.”

It was in that moment, where we all shared looks. Nervous, uncertain. We stuck to the plan, though.

Lawrence introduced himself.

“I’m Lawrence. I’m the leader of this group. I was originally the leader of the Ghosts before-”

“You’re Benny’s boy!”

Someone interrupted. A man, not the same one from before. A larger man, bald, but his beard more than made up for the lack of hair in that regard.

“I heard about you, floundering around like a dead fish. I’m surprised you managed to find some more calm waters.”

Lawrence played off of that with ease, nodding and then adding, “You’re correct, sir, I was a member of El Carruaje, but I wasn’t part of the group that she kept with her. I was just a grunt at the time.”

A third person snapped their fingers. A black man, older than everyone else.

“But you’re so much more than that now, brother. You’re the man of the hour.”

“I… suppose I am. Thank you. And to address your other point, sir, I did have some trouble in the beginning, but it wasn’t for my colleagues here, I wouldn’t have been able to get my bearings. We’re doing swimmingly, now.”

“Good for you,” the larger bald man replied.

This was a different side of Lawrence than I was used to, but it was the one we needed right now. He was doing fine, just let him handle the talking.

“And who are you?”

Fuck.

“Um, me?” Sarah asked. She sounded jumpy, hesitant, in way that scraped like nails on the glass windows that Styx was next to.

I felt for her. This wasn’t where Sarah was supposed to be, this wasn’t where she was supposed to operate. Like Lawrence, her position was but a regular member of the Fangs, even if she occasionally rubbed shoulders with the leaders, with me. Being here, though, it exposed her to whole other world of danger, to people like Mrs. Carter and Styx. There was always going to be an inherent risk that came with being in a gang, but… I didn’t like this part of the plan, involving Sarah in this, moving her a space forward like a pawn.

“Yes, you,” the larger man said, talking to Sarah. I didn’t like the way he was looking at her, how his eyes somehow went past the person, and only taking in the body. And I didn’t even know why it bothered me as much as it did.

Sarah answered regardless.

“My name is Sarah, I’m just an internal liaison, I guess. I help where and when I can.”

The assembly in front of us reacted, casting glances amongst one another.

“What does that mean?” the man asked.

“It means she’s a nonentity,” Mrs. Carter answered. “Next.”

Fuck.

I stared at the many faces, and they stared back at me. There had to be about nine or ten of them here. It was hard to get an accurate number, with my anxiety getting the best of me. Faces started to blur together, bright lights blending colors and edges, shapes losing all definition.

I could venture a guess as to who these people were a general sense, but I didn’t know their names, and I still didn’t know why we were here. Mister wasn’t present, even though Mrs. Carter claimed he wanted a word with us. And the only one who would relay this discussion to him was Styx?

I felt my suspicions grow and yawn wider, ready to snap and ensnare me. Us. The trap that I led us into. And we only had so much in the way of a wildcard.

Opening my mouth, looking forward, not trying to give anything away, even with the tiniest of movements. Couldn’t look at the walls or ceiling.

A breath first, then a hum, then the first utterances of a word.

“I’m, uh, Wendy. I’m second-in-command to Lawrence, and I handle some of the more day to day businesses regarding the Fangs and the territory. I-”

A hard knock of wood hitting wood. A cane rapped the table.

“Oh, Wendy, that’s right!”

All eyes went to the man that had been squabbling with Styx earlier. He was beaming right at me, head perked up, with a white glint in his teeth as he grinned, clearly delighted over something about me.

I paused, frozen, a blank expression on my face. I didn’t know what this was about.

The man caught onto my confusion, and raised his cane a bit. He waved it around.

“You don’t remember? It’s me, Santino!”

He waved his cane again for good measure.

Then, a click in my head.

Santino.

Santino D’Angelo.

I had encountered him at the Lunar Tower some time ago, when we were up against Granon.

Other memories started pouring back into my head.

Stuck in place, afraid of being found out and caught, not unlike the feeling that wracked me here. A throbbing pressure started making itself known, down on my lower back, in the shape of a handprint.

“Oh,” I said, sounding hollow. I did remember him. In a roundabout way, he had helped inch me close to the edge before Granon tossed me off of it, completely.

Mrs. Carter, Styx, and now D’Angelo. The ground beneath me continued to rock.

The woman who berated him earlier glanced at me, then back to him. Fuck, if only I had their names.

“You two are familiar?” she asked.

D’Angelo nodded. “We’ve met. It was brief but it did leave an impression. I apologize that it took so long for it to come back to me, though.”

I realized that he was talking to me.

My hands were pressed together in my lap. I squeezed them until a knuckle cracked.

“No offense taken. And yes, I do remember.”

“Splendid. At least my time hasn’t been completely wasted, now.”

This was just more on the pile of stuff I had trouble dealing with. Being in the spotlight, with no shadows to hide in. I hated it.

A shape moved from the left corner of my eye. I dared not to move my head in that direction.

“Yes,” Mrs. Carter said, measured. “It was never my intention to do that.”

She circled around until I had a better view of her again.

“We’ll continue, then.”

Judging from the reactions across the whole table, it was something we all could agree with.

Something I took note of.

I still couldn’t allow myself to relax, though. I was as stiff as ever.

Mrs. Carter continued to speak to the room. “The reason why I have brought the Fangs to you this evening, is because this table could use some reshuffling. Mister believes that there will be a shift in how things are done, in fact, it’s already begun, with all the attention that’s being brought to Stephenville. The civil unrest right outside, and the… rampant vigilantism that had plagued us not so long ago.”

Another kind of current swept through the group. A tangible concern, borderline fear.

“I thought we had already discussed that,” someone said. Someone new. A man in a coat. “And I thought it was already covered.”

“It has,” Styx answered from across the room. “In part.”

“In part?”

“Meaning,” Mrs. Carter said, “There is still much that needs to be done in the wake of all the changes happening in the city. All the attention. A lot of eyes that need to be plucked out, and a lot of tongues that need to be cut.”

“That’s… a little much.”

“To survive in this business, it requires a cutthroat state of mind. You’d know more than anyone, I’d presume.”

“Dogs eating dogs,” Styx said. He smiled. “It’s all suicide to me.”

“One way to put it,” Mrs. Carter said. “But I digress. To bring this back to the Fangs, Mister has invited them to have a seat at the table, but they still have to work and prove their place.”

Mrs. Carter handed the folder to D’Angelo. He opened it, and flipped through its contents. He didn’t look through it long, and passed it to the woman beside him.

“And it will be up to you on whether or not they get to keep those seats.”

The folder continued to get past around the table, heading our way.

Lawrence spoke up, managing to get a word in among everything that was happening.

“Given present company, and the severe risk of interrupting, I’m still not sure what all of this is, yet. Some clarification would be much appreciated.”

Mrs. Carter replied. “If you haven’t figured out yet, consider this a job interview.”

The folder finally made it to us. Lawrence took it, opening it. He scooted his chair closer to Sarah, holding it so we could all get a better look. I was inclined to lean in as well. Sarah smelled of alcohol and a light perfume. Lavender, maybe?

I focused on the folder.

There were papers, a lot of them. Taking a glance through the contents revealed articles and photos, headshots of three people in particular. One was of a man. Hispanic, in a well-fitting suit and tie. His hair was gelled up, styled in an inoffensive way. The other man wasn’t as handsome, with much more weight on him, some even hanging on the underside of his neck. I could only look from the shoulders up, but it was clear that he wasn’t as well dressed as the first man.

The third was a woman. Blonde, thirty at the youngest. Her hair was tied up in a bun, messy, like she had put it up in a hurry. The whole photo had an impromptu energy captured within it. The woman was smiling, but the expression was half-formed, not quite there yet. And yet, she had eyes that could pierce. Like they were staring right at and through me.

I read the names that were beside each photo. John Cruz, Oliver Morgan, and-

“Natalie Beckham and Oliver Morgan are journalists who have been trying to investigate John Cruz, the city’s district attorney.”

A bang was heard in the distance. Everyone looked around, curious. It sounded like it came from the ceiling, but there wouldn’t be anything or anyone up there. Shouldn’t.

I avoided Styx’s widening grin.

“Journalists?” Lawrence said, putting the attention back on him. There was a curious tone in his voice. “Funny. I’ve been getting whispers of journalists poking around in my territory.”

My, not our. Better to sell the idea that Lawrence was the real leader of the Fangs. The face of the gang.

“Ah,” Mrs. Carter said, “So our interests may align, here. How convenient.”

Convenient for sure, I thought. Doubts were starting to ring clear.

Mrs. Carter resumed, “As I was saying, those journalists haven’t been very quiet about their questioning of John Cruz, and talk of their movements have reached my ears. Under normal circumstances, reporters like them would get taken care of rather swiftly, but these circumstances are not normal, and they are not like most reporters.”

“What do you mean?” Lawrence asked.

“Those two have had a way of… disrupting things, and Mister tires of the constant disruptions. Should they be allowed to continue, they are poised to leave a trail of destruction in their wake. Where I consider my talents to be better suited for building, they are much the opposite. Their presence threatens to undermine a lot of moving parts, one of them being John Cruz.”

Lawrence took the photos out of the folder, holding them up. He separated them, John Cruz in one hand, the journalists in the other.

“And I’m guessing you want these two out of the picture,” he quipped, lifting the photos of the journalists even higher.”

“To put it blunt, yes.”

“I assume we don’t get to refuse?”

“You can, but need I remind you of who you would be refusing?”

It didn’t take another look at present company to know what she was getting at. Again, Mrs. Carter was forcing our hand.

“Point taken. How are we supposed to do this, or do we have to figure that out by yourselves?”

“I refer you to the back half of the attached papers. But to summarize, in four days John will be hosting an event at an art gallery in support of his beneficiaries and as one last rally for support of a piece of legislature that he is backing. Should it pass, those at this table will stand to gain a lot.”

“Damn right,” a man commented.

Mrs. Carter ignored him. “Through their incessant prodding and digging, we got notice of their attempt to attend the event as press. We’ve decided to indulge them, this one time.”

“You want us to go to this thing and apprehend them there?”

“Find them, figure out how much they already know, who they have been talking to, and when you are certain you have taken every shred of information…”

“You tear them apart with your fangs, like the dogs you really are!”

Styx called out from across the room, and laughed. It was a high-pitched, howling noise.

“I believe that statement carries with it the appropriate weight,” Mrs. Carter said.

“Why us, though?” Lawrence asked. “And why bring us here for tell us this?”

“Because you are outsiders, and yet you have managed to claim so much. You took over your territory, you took over the drug trade, and you took back from those who tried to short you.”

Mrs. Carter paused for a brief moment, but that moment felt loaded. Her way of tipping her hand, that she might know what our plans were, how we were operating.

Which only gave more teeth to the worry that nibbling in the back of my mind. How much did Mrs. Carter know?

Mrs. Carter then went on, and I had to discard the thought. For now. She glanced over D’Angelo as she said, “You have no legitimate ties to anyone at this table, so you have the perfect angle to approach this from. An angle they shouldn’t expect. And that includes John himself. You are not to meet or plan with him. The less culpable he is, the more favorable.”

“So,” Lawrence said, “You just see us as disposable, and you get to keep your hands clean if this goes wrong. No culpability.”

She replied coldly, a light in her lenses. “Everyone is disposable. Everyone. But, if you insist…”

A small glint of light caught my eye, coming right at me. It was a twitch reaction, my hand in front of my face, palm open. Something hit it, and I clasped my hands together.

It was a ring of keys.

“Think of it as a sign of good faith.”

“What is it?” I asked.

Styx was sitting on the edge of his seat, his arm out in front of him. He answered.

“Keys to St. Elizabeth. The Cobras have conceded their hold on that property and the surrounding area.”

A shock went through me. I could almost sense that it went through Sarah and Lawrence, too.

They’ve just been playing with us this whole time.

“My men no longer want to operate in that area,” another man said, wearing a gold chain around his neck. “And they were adamant enough that I had to listen. Have to sort some shit out, but I ain’t touching that place no more. It’s out of my hands, now.”

And the leader of the Cobras was here, because of course he fucking was. Lawrence’s fears were justified, the Cobras did go to Styx about the raid.

A prickling sensation in the back of my neck. I’d break into a sweat if this meeting lasted any longer.

Shit, fuck, shit.

“It’s yours, now,” Mrs. Carter said. “Bound in word between you and Styx. And that’s just standard business, it has no official relation to the discussion at hand. Do we understand?”

I knew how to answer that one, now.

“We do,” I said.

“Good,” Mrs. Carter said. She turned, fast. “And now we must come to a vote. You’ve seen the gang before you, do you believe them to be acceptable candidates for the job?”

The vote started immediately, leaving me little time to process everything that just happened.

“No.”

“Yes.”

“No.”

“No.”

“Yes,” D’Angelo said.

“Yes.”

“No.”

“Yes.”

“Yes.”

“Majority in favor of the Fangs tackling this job,” Mrs. Carter said. “Congratulations.”

I didn’t feel particularly grateful to be receiving any praise.

“Once this has concluded in full, we will gather for a second vote to evaluate performance, and if things go in your favor, you might be allowed to have your place here be permanent. And the benefits are well worth the trouble.”

Lawrence didn’t say anything. Sarah remained silent. I followed suit.

“Then it’s settled,” Mrs. Carter said. “I’ll leave those files with you, so you can better familiarize yourself with the material. I suggest you get right to the preparations, the event is in four days. Good luck.”

Those last two words carried, having enough authority to make mobsters, cartel leaders, and Styx get up and start conversing with one another. The meeting had concluded.

But I was still gripped tight by an overbearing dread. So much to parse over, it made my head spin.

I gripped the ring of keys until I felt the metal give. A knuckle cracked.

A hand on my shoulder. Sarah. She was standing already. I had to will my legs to move and join her.

“Wendy.”

And I still wasn’t able to find any reprieve. Fuck me.

It was D’Angelo. He approached, hobbling somewhat due to his cane, but he managed to walk over to us at a decent pace.

“Hello,” I said. The most neutral and level greeting I could give.

Sarah and Lawrence exchanged small introductions with him. They shook each other’s hands. I noticed when Sarah’s hand went into his.

“I don’t want to keep you, but I did want to say how good it was to see you again,” D’Angelo said.

Good? Was it really good?

“Same here,” I said. “It’s a coincidence, but I think it worked out. You voted for us, so thanks.”

“Of course. I’m just excited that you had taken my advice.”

“What advice?” Lawrence asked.

“Making them come to you. The Fangs have been making enough of the right moves to catch Mrs. Carter’s attention and bring you to us. That’s the real power. And if she believes that you two are the right people for the job, then there must be a reason, and I’ll vote in support of that reason.”

“I suppose that’s one way to look at it,” Sarah said.

“Certainly.”

Lawrence stepped up. He had the folder in his hands, his fingers tapping against it.

“I don’t suppose you’d help introduce the others to us?” he asked.

“Ah, that might be for another time. We still don’t know if you’ll be back to join us.”

He grinned and winked.

“Fair enough,” Lawrence said. I could tell he was disappointed.

D’Angelo tapped his cane.

“I’d wish you luck, but I don’t really believe in luck. Just keep proving me right, and I’ll get to claim the credit once you have a seat at the table.”

D’Angelo laughed, a hearty one. It rumbled a bit in my chest, and I wanted to squirm.

He shook our hands once again, and left to converse with the others that were at the table. I joined up with Sarah and Lawrence. We each checked our surroundings, in case someone else was about to approach us. No one did.

I looked for Mrs. Carter. She was standing by herself, where Styx had been, looking out the window, talking on a phone. Probably attending to the other plans that she had on her agenda. And just like that, we were no longer her concern. In a sense, we were already dealt with.

Didn’t see Styx, though. That worried me.

“Let’s go,” I said, putting the keys in a pocket. Sarah and Lawrence agreed with me. No use in sticking around. We left the way we came, going through the doors and back out into the hall of the building. We had to see our exit by ourselves, apparently.

Four days to execute a plan to potentially execute someone. Had to regroup and figure out how this factored into our own plans. And the first step was reconvening with D, who I hoped would make it out of the air vents okay.

Previous                                                                                               Next

093 – Sand Castles in the Eye of the Storm

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Spirits were much higher when we returned to the Redhouse. Granted, they weren’t exactly through the roof, but they were leagues above anything I had sensed before we left for the church.

Everyone filed inside, staying in the main lobby area. There was still work to be done, but the atmosphere was more lax, now, people working at their own pace. Giving back guns, giving back keys, and taking every… newly acquired asset out from the vans and into the middle of the space, setting them down and categorizing them by size and type.

Standing still, stretching so my back cracked and popped, I watched as everyone got everything settled. Boxes labeled, weapons added to the inventory. A few people were walking around with clipboards to keep tabs on stuff. Sarah was one of them.

I found myself inching towards her, closer to one of the stacks, as she jotted notes on a clipboard. From just the side of her face, I could tell she was laser-focused on the task at hand, her eyebrows angled, her lips set in a line. She looked so serious and cool.

My shoulder bumped into hers, and I dropped my bag at my side, by my feet. I tried to make it seem natural, like I hadn’t meant to run into her like that.

“Oops,” I said, my voice a low hum. I shifted my weight a bit, so I wasn’t leaning on her too much. Didn’t want to push too hard. But a small, tiny, miniscule part of me really wanted to.

I managed to break Sarah’s focus, enough for her stop writing and give me a glance. Passing, but I’d take it.

“Yes, ma’am?” Sarah asked, just as soft.

I had already gotten out of my costume, folded and tucked into the sports bag at my feet. My mask, my poncho, it was all in there now, needing to get patched up later. With my glasses on, I was back to being Wendy, which left me feeling… I couldn’t really place it. I didn’t have a mask to obscure my face, and I wasn’t in such a tense situation that I could hide behind violence and destruction. There was still a high ringing in my ears, a thunderous echo, but that had already passed, there wasn’t anything immediate and pressing right here, right now. As things were, it was calm.

And I wasn’t used to calm. It was unsettling.

I reached for anything that could hold me down.

“Just wanted to check on inventory. Got to make sure those numbers add up right.”

Sarah huffed out a small laugh.

“Don’t be so obtuse, Wendy. Just say you wanted to check up on me.”

There was a warmth that hit my body and face, sudden. It hadn’t been that bad before, and I only just stepped inside the Redhouse.

Looking away, I stammered.

“I, I mean, I could do that, too, if you really wanted me to.”

I had no idea what I was getting at.

I heard Sarah snicker. She picked up her clipboard and started writing again.

“Kidding,” she said.

Now I felt dumb. Dumber than usual.

Clicking my tongue, I said, “I hate you, you suck.”

Sarah made a purring noise, saying, “Do I, now?”

“Yeah, you do.”

She chuckled. “What is it going to take, to get back in your good graces?”

I actually gave it some thought. A few things came to mind, but none were any I wanted to say out loud. I wasn’t even sure when I had thought of them in the first place. Stupid, lame. Dumb.

I groaned.

“I don’t want to say.”

“So what? I’ll just be ostracized from the gang, and it’ll get so awkward that I’ll be forced to leave. Is that what you want, Wendy, is that what you really want?”

I made a face.

“Of course… not, don’t be lame.”

“Then you better come up with something, or else I’ll have to put this clipboard down and walk away for good.”

“Now that’s not fair. You’re just messing with me.”

Then, I was graced with a full view of Sarah. She smiled, the corners of her lips turning more upward, almost catlike.

She lifted a brow, ever so slightly. The effect was like a sharp hit of adrenaline. A rush. I’d run or punch something, but there was no immediate danger.

“Oh no, you caught me,” Sarah said, that smile… that smile. “Teasing you is kind of fun, actually. I could make a hobby of this, but, you know, I might not be around for much longer.”

“Oh my god, shut up.”

She bumped into me as she looked back at her clipboard, going back to writing. I wanted to think it wasn’t an accident.

It was funny… in a twisted way. Just an hour ago, I had crawled myself free from being pinned by the Cobras and the cops. Too many risky situations, too many close calls. People got killed, people got seriously injured. Probably more than I would guess, if I had to venture one. An explosion that most likely leveled a building. A lot went wrong tonight, but if I slipped, or if a gunman managed a lucky shot, I wouldn’t be here now, standing, being messed with by… by a friend. The disparity between then and now… it was almost laughable, if one could find humor in death.

“Yo!”

Someone found us.

Bumping into my other shoulder, D joined us. She wasn’t as mindful about personal space, however, preferring to stick close and huddle. Her arm wrapped around mine, hugging me. Her other arm was locked around a teddy bear.

With her high voice, D admonished me.

“What the heck are you doing? We get back and you immediately run off to do whatever. There’s still work to do, you know.”

Another warmth hit my body. A sharp sensation, like I was about to break out into a sweat.

“Yeah I know,” I said, faster than I intended. It made me sound like I was denying something. “I’m just checking on the inventory and, and how Sarah’s doing.”

“Why would you care about how Sarah’s doing? Reggie’s taking notes, too.”

D was really making it hard for me to stay cool.

“What, I can’t check on my employees? Morale is important when maintaining an operation. Didn’t we talk about that with Lawrence at the museum?”

“I mean, yeah, but there’s more important stuff to look over. And if we can turn this around, this will be able to take care of that.”

“I suppose so,” I said. It was surreal, being told off by someone so young. Or was she taking the chance to mess with me, too?

D tugged on my arm, and I let her pull me in that direction. I was torn between my obligations, torn from Sarah’s side, but there were things we had to do. Responsibilities.

And I do have to see to them.

“Okay, okay,” I said, appeasing D. We went in the other direction, away from Sarah. I turned to look back at her, mouthing something of an apology. Sarah mouthed back, smiling, but it was hard to make out what she was trying to say. I could only hope she had got what I was trying to say.

Darn you, D.

Walking over to the other side of the lobby, D took me to Lawrence. He had gotten straight to work, talking with a few of the Fangs, getting updates and giving orders. Like Sarah, he was so focused on what he was doing that it took a nudge from D to shake him out of it.

D waved at him, eyes closed, wide smile. Lawrence returned with an annoyed expression, but it didn’t come off as rude, and he still raised a hand at her.

I could recall when I first suggested that we all work together. Me, D, and the Ghosts. Lawrence was furious at the idea, and would rather go after us than Benny. And… yeah, given everything I had heard from both sides since, I could see why Lawrence’s initial reaction was so… sour. The girl had crashed a bus on him.

And yet, here we are, I thought. We’re a team, now. Maybe it isn’t perfect, but we are getting somewhere. And that’s… actually pretty cool.

“Hi,” D said.

Lawrence nodded.

“How’s it adding up?” I asked. “The guns and stuff.”

Lawrence looked over the guns and stuff before saying, “Pistols, rifles, a few boxes of grenades. High-grade shit.”

“Just guns? No papers or anything?”

“Papers? None that I saw.”

“Oh, never mind then.”

Lawrence looked over everything one more time. He nodded.

“We managed a good score. It’s the only reason why I’m not freaking the fuck out about this going south.”

“This didn’t go south,” I said. “Sure, it didn’t go how we wanted, but, we can think of this as a lateral move.”

“We inched up a teensy bit,” D said. “So maybe we moved like northeast?”

“Better than standing still,” I said.

Lawrence didn’t look very pleased at us making light of things, but he didn’t walk away or turn his attention elsewhere. If there was anything that he had learned, it was how to be patient with us.

“Whatever direction this ends up going, there’s going to be fallout,” he said. “The potential consequences, intended or otherwise. We’ll need to get ahead of that. Like, if the Cobras know that we were behind this, or if we need to start covering our ass.”

“No butts need to be covered!” D said. “I doubt we’re even a passing consideration in their minds, which probably says something about us, but we shouldn’t be on their radar.”

“Right,” I said. “They were after me the whole time, and as far as I know, they didn’t notice you guys slip through the cracks. Even when D, uh, showed up when she did, she was able to cover our tracks pretty definitely.”

“As far as you know,” Lawrence said. “They could go to Styx, and Styx is… unpredictable.”

“That,” I started, but I didn’t really have an answer for that. Lawrence wasn’t wrong about Styx. For a man like that, being unpredictable meant being dangerous. A wildcard we didn’t want in play, but it wasn’t like we had a say in the matter.

“He knows who you are, and we can’t touch him,” Lawrence added. “As if he wasn’t scary enough…”

Lawrence trailed off, but I could fill in the rest for myself. Unpredictable. Very, very dangerous.

“Do you think the Cobras would even go to Styx in the first place?” I questioned, trying to find another angle to this, one that didn’t give me any stress. It was a reach.

Lawrence spoke. “Look at it from their perspective. The Cobras plan a dummy raid for tonight, they come in with their squads and cops and see that someone had gotten to the goods first. They chase that person down but it’s like a one-man army, or one-girl army, whatever, jumping around and outrunning them, even when they’re on wheels. To the rest of the world, there’s only one person out there who’s capable of shit like that. Don’t you think that’s worth going to Styx over?”

More stress. Exactly what I needed.

“Would he talk?” I asked. I tried to not let the concern creep into my voice. Didn’t work.

Lawrence shrugged, looking at D.

“You know him better than I do, than any of us here.”

D leaned to one side, fixing the teddy bear in her arms.

“You want me to talk to him?”

“Yeah, if you can,” Lawrence said, with a biting tone. “You went to him behind our backs before, at least this time we’ll know.”

D actually looked hurt, hearing that. Her eyes went to her feet, she tugged at her choker, and  she shifted her weight between her feet. She held the bear tighter. I only had a view of the top of her head, now.

I turned to Lawrence.

“That’s not fair,” I said. “We’ve been over this already. D did that because she thought it would help us against Granon. Sure, yeah, it threw us for a for a loop-”

“-more than a loop, Wendy.”

“But D knows she made a mistake,” I said. “I know that I made a mistake back then, too. We make them so we can learn from them. We wouldn’t have gotten out of that church if we didn’t have previous experiences to draw from.”

Lawrence reached into a pocket. He coughed and turned, bringing his hand up to his mouth, covering it. When he moved back, his jaw was clenched, the lump in his throat moving up, then down.

“Yes, I’m aware,” he said, dry. “It’s just… I don’t like unintended consequences, they’re hard to prepare for, and if the Cobras get Styx involved in any way, I’d want us to get out in front of that. D, please, just… pay him a visit, see where he’s at right now. I know you said that he wouldn’t do anything with that information, but he was part of the Solace shit a few months back, and that doesn’t include the El Paso shit that also involved Solace. It’s obvious that he isn’t above using that info to indulge in his own, fucked up sense of fun.”

I was starting to hate how much sense Lawrence was making. Twice, now, Styx had tried to get me out of the picture, and in that second instance, he had shared my identity with Remus so he would know who to target. Or, he’d have to, how else would Remus know?

Yet, he helped us, too. Helped us with finding Benny, helped with Granon, knocked Dong-Yul down a peg, if not several. The man was a fucking walking paradox, and that irritated me.

I tapped D on the shoulder, gentle. She lifted her head, staring at us.

“It is better than doing nothing,” I told her.

“I’d rather be paranoid and think the whole world is out to get me, and plan for that, than to not even consider it and have it actually be the case.”

Lawrence drilled the point into our heads. Enough so that D got it, too.

She spread her hands, then dropped them beside her.

“Okay, fine. I’ll swing by to see him.”

“Tonight,” Lawrence said. “Before the Cobras have the sense to report anything to him. Don’t make it so obvious, though, just-”

“I know,” D said, interrupting. “I know how to work him.”

Tucking her teddy bear under an arm, D patted her jacket, then groaned. She raised her hands, palms facing us, palms empty.

“I’ll need another set of keys. Kinda left them in the van that I blew up.”

Lawrence started fishing into his own pockets again.

While he worked, D turned to me, saying, “That was your van, Vivi, it literally just now occurred to me. Sorry about that.”

My van. It literally just now occurred to me, too. It had originally been Thomas Thompson’s van, Hleuco’s. The memories weren’t really there anymore, but brief flashes came to me. Riding around, looking for trouble, trying to stop it. Those days as Blank Face. They were so far away, now.

I definitely remembered having to chase after the van when I tried procure it for myself, then I met D. She had taken it for herself, given it back, only to then leave it behind and let it go up in smoke. At least it went out in a blaze of glory.

“It’s fine,” I said. “It’s not like I ever learned how to drive that thing, anyways. Probably for the best, to not hold on to relics from the past.”

“Sure, but we’re short a van, now.”

Lawrence took out a ring of keys, passing them to D. “Here. Actually bring this back in one piece, and keep me posted.”

“I will.”

“And… stay safe. I don’t know what he is to you, but that doesn’t mean you get to be excluded from his… ugliness. Get what we need out of him, and then get back here, as soon as possible.”

“I will,” D said. It was that I had never seen from D before. Or, to be more precise, it was the lack of something I was used to seeing. She looked defeated.

D took the keys, spinning them around her finger. She nodded, then turned, heading out to go to Styx. Big, black beads stared back at us, and I could project a look of longing in the teddy bear’s eyes. Even with the chatter and noise from all the work going on around us, I could hear her footsteps ringing in my head, an ominous note. Or was I just imagining it?

“Maybe I should go with her,” I said, watching D leave, getting smaller and smaller. And she was already so small to begin with.

“No, you stay here,” Lawrence said. “Not that I think you can’t help her, but you do have a particular talent in… inviting violence. Christ, Wendy, I saw the body. We had to step around him when we were talking shit out of the armory. That’s, I’ve seen a lot of shit in the relatively short time I’ve been doing this, and, fuck, shit like that still gets to me.”

His voice sounded shaky at the end, there.

“It could have been someone important, too,” Lawrence added. “Someone important to the Cobras.”

“That wasn’t me,” I refuted. “I didn’t, I didn’t kill that man. It all happened so fast, and yeah, I had to rely on my gun a few times, but that… that wasn’t me.”

“Fine, for all it’s worth, I believe you. But I need you here, not standing in front of Styx.”

“Are you saying that I’d make it worse?”

“What I’m saying is, Styx as a person is unpredictable, and unpredictable things happen to you. Not exactly what I need right now, especially when I want to diffuse this situation before we can do anything else. D can handle this part by herself.”

I breathed, letting it go. No need to fight him on this. Working together, being a team, that meant putting trust in one another, too. Lawrence trusted D in going to Styx, and coming from Lawrence, that meant a lot. If this was going to work, if this gang was going to continue, I’d have to put forth that trust in Lawrence, as well.

“She can, and she will,” I said. “At least the Cobras don’t know about us, Los Colmillos.”

“They’ll know that they actually did get raided tonight, when they go back to check on the church. If they haven’t already. Shit. We have put out all the smoke we can, or it’s going to come back and burn us in the future. Doesn’t help that D had to blow up a van and a building.”

“That-” I started-

“I know,” Lawrence interrupted. “I ain’t tripping. I’m done.”

“We can plan our next move while D does her thing. Like she said, buffer zones get targeted all the time, that’s why they’re there, it’s by design. The Cobras don’t know we were behind what happened tonight, so that buys us some time to do something else. Doesn’t have to be the Cobras, but we do have some room to make a move. Tonight was not a loss.”

Lawrence nodded, then crossed his arms.

“I’m with you on that. I don’t want our visit with Onmon to go to waste, either. And like Onmon, there’s an expiration date on that value.”

“So we’ll try again?” I asked. “Another buffer zone?”

“It’s not off the table. But, it’s not the only way we can make progress.”

“You have something in mind?”

There was a subtle shift in Lawrence’s expression. A slight turn up in the corner of his mouth, a more slight squint in his eye. A twitch that suggested he was holding back from either saying, or showing something on his face. As though he wanted to laugh, but couldn’t. Wouldn’t.

Then, the mask cracked. Somewhat. Lawrence’s grin was restrained.

“Maybe. If we’re doing this my way, you’re going to need a date, but it’s for sure as hell not going to be me.”

I had been shot at, pursued and cornered by cops and mobsters alike, and even had dogs sicced on me, trying to tear me apart. I’d survived getting shot, being stabbed, walked away from death itself. This body had been subjected to things that would be fatal to all, and it could still walk away from them, intact. Time and time again, I had my back up against the wall and I’d have to claw my way free. Nerves did play a factor then, but I was able to shore myself up and work against that, rise above it, even.

Now, those nerves had me frozen, my back was against a wall and I couldn’t budge.

Wrapped in a strange sense of déjà vu.

I was where I was, unable to even sway back and forth to the music. There were so many people here, if I was able to move I’d bump into someone. Everything was loud, from the rumbling bass to the people cheering or singing along. I couldn’t hear my own thoughts, as I tried to come up with some way to calm myself. Nothing, in that venture. The lights were low, the volume was clipped, and the smell of a specific sort of substance swirled in the air.

In other words, I had never felt so out of place.

“Wendy!”

I tried turning in the direction of that voice, but there were so many others competing for space that it immediately got drowned out. I checked in every direction available, seeing only faces, the sides of faces, arms, and cups.

I didn’t have to look for long, though, the owner of the voice approached, and I immediately felt more at ease.

“Sarah,” I said.

She sidled more than she did walk, the amount of room to maneuver being so narrow. Dressed in a light fit that was conducive for dancing, she looked as comfortable as I did not. A short, black top with long sleeves, tight jeans that made it easier to point her out in a crowd. I could recognize her outline, now. She was wearing a choker, but unlike D, it gave her a mature, almost sultry air about her, one that I couldn’t ever hope to match. Her look would have been completed if she had put her hair down. At the moment, it was tied up in a bun. Like I’d complain, though. Sarah still looked good.

She went to my side, a cup in one hand, careful not to spill it. A small smile on her face, shy, she tried to hide it, though she couldn’t help but feel giddy. Something else was holding the reins. I could see it in the light blush in her cheeks, the faint aroma from her breath.

“How’re you feeling?” Sarah asked. She was close enough that my shoulder touched her elbow. I was well aware of the contact.

I had to raise my voice to answer.

“Feeling? Put it like this. You look bad, but in slang kind of way. What I feel is more… dictionary definition.”

“Oh yeah?” Sarah’s voice sounded warm with liquor. Not slurred, but a drink or two away from getting there. She lifted the cup closer to my nose. The smell got stronger.

“Why don’t you have some, then?”

I shot a look at her.

“You know I can’t. I’m not to here to party,” I said, and then I lowered my voice for the next part, using it as an excuse to lean into her ear, “And I’m not exactly able to.”

She whispered back, just as close. “And why is that?”

“Alcohol and I, we don’t mix very well.”

“Oh? And what does?”

“It’s a little sweeter than alcohol.”

Somehow, Sarah was able to get even closer. I could feel her breath in my ear, my skin. The aroma as it hit my nose. The hair on the back of my neck stood straight up.

“Is it something I might be able to provide?”

I hadn’t even had a sip, but my head was spinning. I had to force myself to lean away and lean against the wall instead, or I’d probably lose my balance and fall.

“Maybe,” I said, breaking away from her gaze. “But… I don’t need that, not right now, and I don’t think you’d be up for it.”

Sarah stood straighter, too, pulling her cup away.

“No? Haven’t I already?”

It didn’t take long for me to recall what she was talking about. I saw the bandage wrapped around the hand she used to hold her cup.

“That, I made a mistake,” I said. “It’s just who I am, what I am.”

Whatever that is.

Still needed to work on that.

My hair was pushed back, set behind my ear. Wasn’t me.

Sarah’s fingers brushed against the top of my ear. Soft, almost imperceptible, but I felt it send a shock through my body.

She whispered.

“I know who you are, Wendy. You are courageous, you work hard to a fault, and you have really good taste in glasses.”

I almost laughed. “Is that your way of giving compliments?”

“Why? Did you like them?”

“Coming from you? Can’t say I don’t.”

“See? People like being appreciated, so now I know what you are.”

“It’s not that simple,” I said.

Sarah slinked around me, so she wasn’t as close. Part of me was relieved, another part wouldn’t mind if she had somehow completely closed the space between us.

I did get view of her face, though, as she looked at me. Head tilted down, taller than me, added inches thanks to her heels. It was dark in here, but there was the occasional blink of red and green. Strobe lights. It added to her already smoky yet striking makeup.

“Isn’t it?” she asked. “But if you still see yourself as a mistake, then I could be making far worse ones than you.”

I actually did laugh, that time. Residual giddiness.

“You have a habit of saying stuff like that to me,” I said.

“Until it gets through to your stubborn head, I’ll keep reminding you how awesome you really are.”

It sounded like something Isabella would say. Trying to talk me up.

I tried to match Sarah’s expression. A coy grin.

What the hell am I doing?

“Thank you,” I said.

Sarah gestured, taking a sip. As if this was easy. She went back to my side.

“Forgot how fun this was,” Sarah said. “The nightlife. Takes me back to my college days.”

“Had to be a lot of stories,” I said.

“Some I’ll probably keep to myself,” Sarah said. She winked. “Compromising information for all parties involved.”

“I can imagine,” I said.

“How about you? Was this ever your scene?”

Memories. Scenes I had no attachment to.

I answered.

“It was, but that was a lifetime ago, now. I was…”

“Was what?”

“I was a different person.”

“Cheers to that,” Sarah said, taking another drink, finishing it. “I’ve spent those years learning my limits, testing them. Now I know better.”

I didn’t know what she did with her cup, but she put her hand down, and when I saw it again, the cup was gone.

“All part of growing up?” I suggested.

Sarah’s grin turned to a smile. There was a difference.

“Exactly.”

That gave me enough assurance to take my back off the wall. I was able to move, now, and I had help.

“I think I’ll go check on Lawrence,” I said. “Make sure the deal is going down okay.”

“You know where to find me,” Sarah said. “I’ll help keep an eye on everything and everyone for you. And speaking of…”

Sarah leaned in, signaling to come closer, beckoning with a finger. I tried to leave, but I didn’t hesitate to go back.

She whispered into my ear.

“Looks like I’m not the only one who can’t take their eyes off you.”

I wasn’t sure how to react to that. I took the statement and chopped it up, focusing on the most important bits.

Not the only one.

“Oh?” I asked.

“Blonde, bun in hair. Glasses. Older. Too old for you, in my opinion.”

I didn’t look up and around, not right away. I didn’t want to make it look obvious.

“Oh,” I said, straightening myself.

“Does that put me back in your good graces?” Sarah asked.

I smiled.

“It absolutely does, thank you,” I said, for whatever felt like the millionth time, yet it still didn’t feel like enough.

I started to push through the crowd, leaving Sarah at her post. Everyone was either dancing or drinking, but they were still courteous enough to let me through.

Wasn’t here to have fun, not exactly. There was work to be done.

We were in a nightclub, but it was also neutral territory. We were in talks with another gang. They weren’t bigger than us, but we did comply with their request to have a meeting on a sort of middle ground. It was a show of good faith, on our part.

The meeting was designed to go smooth. The gang was no more than an extended group of wannabes, I couldn’t even recall what they named themselves, they had just rebranded. I did note the blue hoodies when I saw them come in, though.

They owed us some money, and they were actually willing to play ball. Our reputation was finally starting to mean something.

Lawrence would handle the talking, he was better at that stuff. I was to stay downstairs, keep an eye on everything and everyone, in case anyone would try to listen in or interrupt. Because we weren’t just getting our money, we were working on building connections. Real ones. For a gang, connections were like veins, and favors were like lifeblood. We had to curry what we could.

D wasn’t here, but she was around. She had come back from meeting with Styx. Nothing worth reporting, according to her, and for a man like Styx, no news meant good news.

And Sarah… was just to better sell the image of me being here. Easier to get into the club if I was with someone. A date. She was playing a part.

Right.

She also served as my extra eyes and ears, and she had picked up on something. Or someone.

I glanced around, trying to act natural. Then… there. I saw it. Her.

It was a woman, exactly like how Sarah described her. Blonde tied up into a bun, horn-rimmed glasses. What she was wearing looked to be more fitting for a boardroom than a bar at a nightclub.

I turned as soon as I noticed her, pretending to keep looking elsewhere. In the split second I had eyes on her, hers were on me, and she didn’t have a drink in her hand.

Whoever this lady was, she didn’t come here to have a good time. But she sure as hell wouldn’t ruin mine.

I retreated to another part of the club, by some tables. People were either conversing with each other or competing for how many shots they could take. I pulled out my phone, sending a text.

I got a response from D first. All lowercase, with enough icons and shorthand to make it almost unreadable. She didn’t know who the lady might be. I typed out a reply, to drive around the club, see if there was anything else going on. D was right on it.

Lawrence’s response was delayed, but it did come. Made sense, he was in a meeting. His was much easier to read than D’s. He appreciated the heads-up. From his end, it was going well, the gang would provide aid, should we require it. They definitely didn’t want to be our enemies. Lawrence typed that he’d advise them to take another exit out of the club. We couldn’t tip anyone off to our dealings.

Then, I typed out a suggestion.

D approved. So did Lawrence.

I put away my phone.

Pushing through the crowd again, I went straight for the woman.

I used my height to my advantage, it was easier for me to disappear into the crowd, to duck my head low and stay out of sight. If she really was keeping an eye on me, she would have a harder time, now.

All I had for weapons were my hands, I had lost my knife and gun. Even if I hadn’t, I still wouldn’t be allowed in the club with those things on me.

It was just one person, though. I could take her.

I moved over to where the bar was, to the woman’s right. A neon glow emanated from the light fixtures on the corners and back of the shelves, giving everything a soft hue, lighting bottles and people alike. It was red when I approached the bar, green when I approached the woman.

“You come here often?” I asked.

She had lost me in the crowd, and she didn’t see me come up to her. I expected her to be startled, but I got no such reaction. Instead, she turned, facing me. Her hands were placed in front of her, clutching a folder. Her expression was stern.

“Not at all. I don’t find much value in spending time in establishments like these.”

“Then it must be a special occasion, seeing you here.”

The woman’s expression remained, but I could have sworn I saw a small smirk settle across her lips.

“I suppose it is.”

“May I have your name?” I asked. I was trying to assess things before I acted on them, see if this woman posed an actual danger. Right now, I wasn’t sensing much.

“Mrs. Carter,” she answered.

Married.

Not sure why that thought came to me.

“I’m not really good at this kind of thing,” I said, still acting out the role of a normal person, but that was still an admittance on my part. “Not my scene, either.”

“Good, it means we can start taking our leave, soon.”

Our leave?

Was she as Sarah described, or was it something else?

“Is there… some business you had with me?” I questioned.

Mrs. Carter raised her chin, straightened her shoulders. The light around us changed to a warm yellow.

“I do. I am here on the behalf of Mister, and he would like a word from you.”

Previous                                                                                               Next

Interlude – Dong-Yul

Previous                                                                                               Next

Finally, I’m back home.

Dong-Yul moved into his apartment, or rather, he was carried into it. He couldn’t operate under his own strength.

A whole crew was waiting for him, having gotten there well before he did. Through squinted eyes, Dong-Yul saw how they had shuffled around the furniture to better accommodate the crowd and then some. Chairs and coffee tables and designer pieces were placed into corners above him, and people were walking along the ceiling to get out of his way as he was led through.

Everything had been flipped upside down. No, wait. It was just him.

It was bright, as if it hurt to see. Before letting his eyes close, Dong-Yul tried scanning for a place he could be set down. It was hard, though, considering that everything was reorientated and it just plain hurt to try. His vision swam.

Dong-Yul gave up, letting his eyes drift, closed. He’d let whoever had him take point in that.

He groaned.

It really fucking hurt.

With the way he was being carried, Dong-Yul could tell that they were doing their level best to not make it such a bumpy trip. But, even with the tiniest of movements, a cut would get pressed into, or his clothes would brush against a scrape, or a wound opening a pinch more, he’d flinch at how much it all hurt…

It really fucking hurt.

The pain was enveloping, making his whole body feel like it was throbbing, feel like it was somewhere else. It was so bad that Dong-Yul could almost distance himself from it, a sensation so deep that it dulled the senses, in an abstract way. Like being submerged underwater. Hard to feel wet when the water was everywhere.

Almost, though. Pain had a funny way of giving reminders. But Dong-Yul wasn’t laughing. Couldn’t.

Like being in a dream.

Crossing the living room, Dong-Yul practically floated as he was taken somewhere to rest. He slowed, and people worked with his momentum to slide him into a-

Dong-Yul’s eyes cracked open. Bright. He groaned, loud.

There it was. That reminder.

His back was propped up against soft cushions, but throbbing and stinging made it feel anything but. The aches hammered at his body and mind. Until it consumed his focus.

It took genuine and concentrated effort to get himself out of the headspace, to think of anything else that wasn’t the hurt, that wasn’t the cuts and scrapes and aches and bruises and pangs. Considering how upfront they all were, it was a challenge.

“Sorry, Donnie.”

Dong-Yul recognized that voice.

“No, it’s…”

He wanted to make himself comfortable, but he didn’t have it in him to move. Comfort was too far a shore to reach. Off in the distance, into the horizon.

“It’s shit, Jackie,” Dong-Yul said, hoarse. “I feel like- ow, shit.”

“Yeah.”

Dong-Yul fell back, and the regret was immediate. His back had taken a pretty serious hit, when Styx had flipped him and slammed him down onto the hard surface of a table. Second only to his face. That motherfucker had really gone to town, there. Even now, just an hour or so later, he could still hear the squelching.

How many stitches? How many painkillers did Styx’s men hook him up on? His entire body flared, but a stilling effect would wash over him in occasion. It took the edge off, and while it was only by a margin, it was a godsend compared to tackling the full brunt of it all. He only wished that they had given him more, because the little bit of relief he was desperately clinging onto wouldn’t last forever.

But, for now, he could manage, he could deal. And he was able to communicate without it killing him.

“What’s… up?”

It was a start.

“You’re at your place, in case you weren’t aware. Tried to gather as many of us as I can, but there’s only so much space, and there is a lot of us.”

If Dong-Yul could smile, he would have. But the sentiment was there.

“Army,” he said.

“Just focus on getting some rest right now, Donnie. If we try to discuss anything now you might not remember it in the morning.”

“Just… catch me up then.”

Through the throbbing and faded sensations, Dong-Yul heard Jackie grouse at him. Dong-Yul had known Jackie long enough to decipher the different mumbles and non-words that would come out of him on occasion. Though, it would be more accurate a claim that Jackie knew Dong-Yul for even longer. He was one of Bruce’s best friends.

Was.

Bruce and Jackie went back, way back, to even before they were born. Their respective parents having met when they first moved into the city, the country. Immigrated. The parents had become good friends over the years, and when they had their own children around the same time, it was only natural that those kids would get along well. By the time Donnie had moved up from crawling to walking, Jackie was already like another older brother to him. A brought from another mother tongue.

Now, Jackie was the only family Dong-Yul had left.

In a gang, connections mattered, and real, tangible ones could make all the difference. Life and death. Dong-Yul knew not to put so much strain on this, particular one. It was like walking on a tightrope. A delicate balance, and all it took was a hard enough push to send him down, that connection slipping far and away, then gone.

Dong-Yul could feel that tension now. Wobbly. He was pushing it.

“How’s everyone?” he asked, pushing the words through puffy cheeks. He screwed his eyes open.

Not just Jackie. Other concerned faces stared him down, too.

Making another sound, Jackie took his eyes off Dong-Yul, his gaze going around the room looking at the other faces. Some words were exchanged, Dong-Yul saw Jackie’s mouth move, but the words just missed his hears. The pounding aches overtook the sounds.

The words continued to be exchanged, Jackie nodding and shaking his head, then directing himself back to Dong-Yul.

“We’ve got a lot of people that managed to come up here, but we also got a lot of those who can’t. We got fucked, Donnie, this night didn’t at all go how you, we, planned it.”

It was Dong-Yul’s turn to grouse. Words were hard.

Tonight. They had plans for tonight. And, if there was one thing Dong-Yul hated the most, it was when things didn’t go according to plan.

It should have been easy. In the recent weeks, Dong-Yul had been getting more and more reports about a new gang in town, one that had risen from the ashes of The Chariot, having come back from near death as the Ghosts. They were gaining momentum, fast, with a lot of eyes on them, even international ones. There were rumors that some Eastern European mobs had been meeting with them for… something. No one knew for sure. Possible joint ventures, vying for their territory? Whatever the case, this reborn gang, Los Colmillos, the Fangs, had momentum, and people were wanting to hitch a ride up.

Dong-Yul didn’t want that opportunity slip by. He wanted to ride that wave.

It should have been easy. He knew Lawrence, maybe they weren’t brothers, but they were acquainted well enough. They had met back when they were still nobodies in their respective gangs, and they had bonded over that. Somewhat. A slight connection, but it was enough that the Kung Fools could go to the Ghosts when they were selling goods for cheap. To help out a friend in need, so the favor could be returned later.

Sure.

This world was one of dogs, vicious animals that would tear the other to shreds to stay on top. Donnie was never one of the top dogs, but Dong-Yul would be, in place of his older brother. He had his own fangs to use, in the form of his recent swell of volunteers. He didn’t know what Lawrence’s secret was, but he didn’t have the numbers, not like Dong-Yul.

It should have been easy.

He thought he had them, Los Colmillos, cornered when he led Lawrence and his girl to the club in order to pay back his debt and float the idea of working together. It was all a lie, of course, a trap to capture Lawrence and use him as leverage to take that momentum by force. The girl would have been for more leverage, another way to twist Lawrence’s arm, to force him into complying.

Dong-Yul had no idea that the night would go down like this.

“Some of our… volunteers didn’t make it.”

Dong-Yul might as well have gotten another hit to the face. The same type of pain, but it struck another part of him. Something more raw.

He must have reacted in some noticeable way, because Jackie went right to correcting himself.

“No, no one died, but a lot of them did get fucked up. Some might not be able to stand, ever again. Or breathe properly without some kind of machine. It’s not pretty. Oh, and I’m okay, thanks for asking.”

Dong-Yul wanted to make a quip, that he didn’t look pretty, too. But this wasn’t the time for jokes.

“It got ugly down there, Donnie. We were just sitting there, in the basement lounge, I was waiting for you signal, when the lights were cut without warning. Then, it all went to hell.”

Another metaphorical hit to the face. Through the haze of his drug-addled memory, Dong-Yul could recall his disposition earlier in the night. The confidence, the swag. Having Jess and Yuri at his side, helping him give off the air of the cool gangster. Like Bruce.

A mask.

Then, the fact that, while he was up in the restaurant above the club, acting suave while his boys, his last remaining real connection, were being terrorized below his feet, all without him knowing any better…

More hits to the face.

I should have known something was up when that girl left the table.

“Her…”

It was all Dong-Yul managed to get out. He could sense that the drugs would be wearing out. Not now, and not for a several more hours, but they would. Whatever he had over the counter wouldn’t be enough. Wouldn’t be strong enough.

When those wore off, he would be Donnie again.

Couldn’t have that, didn’t want that.

He needed something to hold on to.

Dong-Yul pushed.

“I saw her, down there. With Lawrence, and Styx. Someone else too, but I can’t remember it very well. I know they were short.”

Jackie was frozen as Dong-Yul spoke, as if he was shocked to hear him go for that long. Maybe he was. It took a bit longer for Jackie to respond.

“That… I know who you’re talking about. And don’t push yourself too much, Donnie. You’ll regret it.”

Not Donnie.

Dong-Yul grumbled the thought.

Jackie picked up on it. He smiled, slight, in a way that made Dong-Yul think he was pitying him. That look.

Her,” Dong-Yul said, stressing the word. “I think it’s her. The Bluemoon.”

The room was already packed with people, anxious in atmosphere. The mere mention of the name screwed everything that much tighter. People huddled closer, more faces looking down on Dong-Yul. Breaths were held.

Dong-Yul released his.

“I mean, she has to be. She, ow, that girl Lawrence brought with her. They had something, agh, planned against us from the start. A counterattack.”

“But it was hectic down there, I couldn’t see shit for a while. But, yeah, I think you’re right.”

As if to punctuate his conviction, Dong-Yul nodded, despite his body. If it weren’t for the drugs, he wouldn’t be able to move at all.

“Then, that woman, I think… I think her name was Wendy, but I don’t remember her last name. She’s the Bluemoon, or V, or whatever that other freak announced itself as. She’s their secret weapon. No… doubt about it.”

Silence came in like an unwanted visitor. And Dong-Yul didn’t want anyone he couldn’t trust in here with him.

He continued.

“Doesn’t anyone here get it? We have that, now. We know. We tried to take them out, they tried to stop us, but Styx got in the way of that, because we were the bigger threat. Over them, her. And now we know their secret weapon and its name. Don’t you see? It’s leverage.”

With his words, Dong-Yul tried to kick silence out the door. But, after a time, it found its way back in.

He closed his eyes, slow, letting himself float there for a moment, before opening them again.

Why?

Jackie answered that thought.

“Not that I don’t believe you, Donnie, but… I want to believe you. But what’s your proof?”

Proof?

“Proof? What else do you need? I saw her, she was right there! She, I…”

Various memories started coming through the haze.

Wendy choking on food, leaving the table, Styx coming up to interrupt the dinner, and his plans. Forced to… hold hands with Lawrence, of all things, and being sent down to the basement lounge to find-

The Bluemoon, V, or whatever she decided to call herself. She was there. In the mask and hood and everything. His men scrambling all over the wet floor, broken and battered and bruised.

She was there. Wendy. V. That had to be her.

But, proof. What else did he have besides a hunch?

“Just trust me,” Dong-Yul said, with confidence than before. Sounding like Donnie.

“That’s a big accusation to throw out there,” Jackie said, matching him in faith. Or lack thereof. “Do you want a witch hunt? Because that’s how you get a witch hunt. Cast that girl to the fire without evidence, and you’re no better than everyone who participated in those riots and attacked those that look-”

“Don’t fucking finish that sentence.”

His whole body had been flaring up, and now he was on fire.

“Don’t put me in with them, I’m not like that. I’m just-”

“Doing the exact same thing? I’m not against the concept of what you’re proposing, Donnie, but you need to think this through. If you’re working on a feeling, and that feeling is compounded by stress and adrenaline and a plethora of painkillers that no one here knows the exact mixture of, then you’re not in the right mind to make any decisions, not for some time, anyway.”

That was a lot of words. Dong-Yul didn’t like the sound of them.

“What are you saying?” he questioned.

Jackie breathed and backed away, his face dipping out of Dong-Yul’s view. The space where he used to be got filled by others.

Dong-Yul tried to gather strength in his body, but couldn’t. Could barely form fists with his hands.

He bit his tongue, pushing himself more. He bit his tongue harder, until it felt as though his teeth would cut through, but he didn’t care. The drugs dulled the feeling, allowing him to push that much more.

Pressing his hands into the leather, Dong-Yul pushed his body up, leaning against the cushions. He didn’t even raise himself by that much, but his head felt light, a wave of nausea coming over him. It took every bit of his concentration to not make more of a mess of himself, in front of everyone.

Searching past the faces, he saw Jess and Yuri. They had that same look. Pity. He used his anger to ignore them. Hard.

He found Jackie, sitting across the living room, in one of the older, more expensive pieces of furniture in the apartment. It was here before Dong-Yul moved in, after Bruce no longer needed the place.

Donnie had debated on whether or not he’d get rid of all that stuff. He compromised, getting rid of less important items, like toothbrushes or old clothes, and keeping what at least held some sentimental value. Like the chair that Jackie was in right now.

I should have thrown it out with everything else.

With his eyes back on Jackie, Dong-Yul let him explain himself.

“We’re not in a good position to do anything crazy. Not anymore. And with you needing to rest, I’m…”

“You’re what?”

“I was never good at this leadership thing, that was more Bruce’s talent, and I wasn’t going to get in your way when you stepped up, but, I can take over while you recover, if you want.”

More words. More, did Dong-Yul not like the sounds of them.

“No, I do not want that.”

Jackie frowned.

“It was more of me putting my foot down than a suggestion, really. I don’t want you doing anything rash because you think we have something to prove.”

“We do. Now isn’t the time to lie down and do nothing, or we risk killing any hype we-”

Dong-Yul’s eyes went wide, a pang in his back.

Jackie got a word in before Dong-Yul had a chance to.

“Maybe you missed what Styx told us, but I didn’t. We’re done. This war you want, to pit us against them, you against the world? Styx already put a stop to that.”

Styx.

Dong-Yul recalled something along the lines of that, but he refused to believe it.

“We go deeper into the shadows,” he said, “Where not even Styx can see. People are still coming to us, they won’t stop coming to us and we can-”

“Donnie, no!”

Every face turned from Dong-Yul to Jackie.

Out of the chair, Jackie was standing, now. Dong-Yul was finally able to take him in, full view.

His vision was still blurry, but he knew that man’s outline. Tall, broad shoulders, a physique that Donnie could never match, and Dong-Yul would never get near, despite his efforts.

Wearing half of a uniform, Jackie had his blazer off, hanging on the armrest of the chair, his shirt unbuttoned halfway down. The lights inside were set to low, probably to spare Dong-Yul’s eyes, but he could see how Jackie’s skin glistened. He had been sweating, working to carry Dong-Yul’s limp body up to the apartment, and that was after being thrown into a fight with the Bluemoon herself, the sprinkler system working against him as part of her sabotage.

He was still standing, and Dong-Yul was still Donnie.

“Just, no,” Jackie said. “That’s not what we need right now, that’s not what this city needs. We can’t, shouldn’t, fight fire with fire, that just leaves everyone burned. That includes us.”

“Water,” Dong-Yul said, feeling like he was floating, again.

“What?”

“We flood them out with our numbers. Everyone who’s been antagonizing us since this whole thing started. We’re a growing tide, Jackie, you can’t just plug a hole and hope we go away. It won’t work like this.”

Jackie shook his head.

“Then, it’s going to have to. Until you’ve recovered and you’re in the right mindset, Hóngshuǐ is on ice.”

Dong-Yul cracked.

“Get out.”

No one moved. It was like they didn’t even hear him.

Dong-Yul mustered all the remaining strength he had, and spat it out at them.

“Everyone get the fuck out!”

A long stretch of time passed before it settled that everyone meant everyone.

One by one, Dong-Yul saw the faces as they disappeared, out the door, leaving him alone. Jess and Yuri lagged behind, but they left, taking their pity with them.

Good, he didn’t need it. He didn’t need this.

Dong-Yul looked, and saw that Jackie was still standing there.

“What did I say?” Dong-Yul asked.

Jackie shook his head again.

“What did Bruce say? I promised him I’d look after you. I’m not leaving. Sorry, Donnie.”

Another slap across the face. Dong-Yul fell back down, into the couch. He didn’t care how much it’d hurt.

He blanched.

Regret. It did hurt.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

This wasn’t fair.

Dong-Yul was supposed to be the one to dole out the pain, the hurt. There was a reason why he forced himself to step up after Bruce passed. Forced himself and the gang to change. Donnie was weak, he wouldn’t have been capable of leading. Dong-Yul, though, he would.

That was the image he wanted to project. The mask he wanted to become. The dyed hair, the streetwear, the flexing, the strength.

He looked at Jackie again. He remembered how Jess and Yuri looked at him.

So, why does everyone keeping looking past all that?

Dong-Yul watched as Jackie moved, approaching him. Delicate, Jackie landed a hand on a shoulder. More stings.

Cold, like ice.

Time wasn’t the all-encompassing healer it was advertised to be. If anything, it had made everything worse.

Dong-Yul could stand, now. He had that at least. That still put him at sixty percent of what his ‘normal’ should be, and it would take even longer before he could get to that point.

The stitches made his face a little puffy, the bandages that patched his body together made him feel like a mummy. If he took a moment to rest, he was afraid that he’d drift off to another, far deeper slumber.

No. There was too much to do. He had to make up for lost time.

Dong-Yul looked across the room, and addressed the new recruits.

“Everyone, thank you for being here today, for deciding to-”

Dong-Yul coughed.

“For deciding to finally stand against those who-”

Dong-Yul coughed. His whole body shook.

“Against… against those who have tried to silence us and keep us down. We will-”

Dong-Yul coughed. His whole body shook. He tried to suppress a groan and he couldn’t.

He had wanted to express his frustration, he had written it all down. And he couldn’t even deliver the words with the gravitas they deserved, and he couldn’t even express the frustration he had with himself.

These over the counter knockoffs. These drugs weren’t good enough.

Whatever Styx had given him, he needed more. Couldn’t get through this assembly without them.

He would have to try, though. No other choice.

Dong-Yul tried again, his words coming out in a sputter.

“We will show… agh, show the world that we…”

He had to stop before he started shaking again. Convulsing.

“What Dong-Yul wants to say is, he appreciates you coming to us when you needed help, and we’ll be sure to make you useful.”

Dong-Yul felt hands placing themselves on his shoulder, pressing him down. Jackie.

With little energy to protest, he found the chair in front of him and sat. Falling into it, really.

He grunted as he sat down, as though he was an old man.

Looking across the room again, he gauged the reactions of the new recruits. There weren’t many in here, ten of them, but this was only the first round of the new batch. There were plenty more to go. He had wanted to address them as close to individually as he could, to make a deeper bond, to show that he cared about their struggle. It would take longer, but in turn, they’d fight for him that much harder.

There were looks of concern, worry. Maybe even pity.

No.

Dong-Yul, above anything else, knew that appearances mattered. They could be used as a symbol, to shape how others perceived it when viewed. From hope, to even fear. Dong-Yul, from his name to his face, wanted to be a symbol.

And Styx had taken that away from him.

He did what he could. He dyed his hair another color. He wore a black face mask, which was a decent fashion statement by itself. It covered most of the stitches and the puffiness around the face and cheeks. His full fit, with each individual piece of clothing a grail item to another person’s closet, covered all of the bandages and wrappings that coiled around his body. He didn’t like what he saw in the mirror, a beaten, bruised version of the symbol he had in mind. Even a dent in symbols could mean a huge difference, given the abstract nature of it all. Dong-Yul wondered what the dents meant to the recruits.

“You,” he said, looking at one in particular.

The recruit tensed, Dong-Yul could tell by how his shoulders went up.

“Your name, Justin, was it?”

The recruit, Justin, nodded. A kid, no older than a high school senior, most likely. Vietnamese. Thin, more lanky than he was a soldier.

But, he’d do. He could make it work.

“What brought you here today? To me?”

Dong-Yul had to be careful to not strain himself again. He spoke slow, deliberate.

Justin answered, “Um, everything, really. Figured I had enough. Getting shit from random strangers, threats on me and my family, even my-”

Justin choked, sounding strained at the end.

“Your?” Dong-Yul offered.

Justin looked pained that he had to continue.

“My girl, or she was. Not threats, though, actions. And I’m tired of people getting away with shit.”

There it was. The wound. The thing he needed to press into to turn that hurt into something more.

Dong-Yul pressed.

“What’s her name?”

Justin flinched. He didn’t answer.

“What was your girl’s name?”

He heard Jackie, to his right. A whisper.

“What are you doing?”

Dong-Yul didn’t answer him, he just waited for his own from Justin.

Don’t make me ask again, he willed.

Then, Justin did answer.

“Emily.”

“Emily,” Dong-Yul repeated. Slow, he brought his head down, slight, almost a bow.

He wouldn’t ask for the specifics, but he would request something else.

“You remember Emily, and you hold on to that feeling of losing her. Take that loss, that anger, and you turn it to the rest of the world. Make them feel what they did to you, so they can understand their injustice. Do you understand?”

“Don- Donnie.”

Another whisper. Dong-Yul raised his hand. So sore.

“Do you understand?”

Repeating himself, but every syllable was delivered with care and intent.

He watched the gears spin in Justin’s head.

“I, yeah.”

Satisfied, Dong-Yul turned to the other recruits around him.

“Same goes to you, too. Find your Emily, let that anger fuel you, and direct it to where I point. If you can do that, then we won’t have any problems.”

The recruits, Justin included, all responded in unison.”

“Yes sir!”

“Dismissed.”

They took their leave at that last word, filing out of the door at the corner of the space.

The backroom of a bar and casino, specializing in Chinese cuisine. Jackie’s father once owned the place. Past tense.

The space was well furnished and expensive, in both price and actual appearance. Kept in a low light by paper lanterns, red and orange light reflected into soft hues off the wood and gold that lined corners and edges. A chic, modern twist on something more ceremonial, Jackie’s additions on top of what his family had built before him.

“What are you doing?” Jackie asked, as they watched the last of them leave, the door closing behind them.

Dong-Yul leaned forward, resting his arms on the table in front of him. Green, with a wooden border around it. A table for mahjong.

“You know what I’m doing. You’re just questioning it because you don’t like it.”

“Then, why?”

“I know what I’m doing. You don’t want me to touch the Fangs for now? Fine. But there’s no rule against getting more people to join us. I just won’t make a show of things. Which is why I’m introducing myself to them in this way. It’s not efficient, but it pads out enough time to get another plan going, one Styx won’t be privy to.”

“You’re an idiot if you think Styx won’t know about this. That’s why I-”

“I know ‘that’s why you,’” Dong-Yul said, mocking. “I just don’t want to hear it. I’m the leader of this gang, it’s my decision and it’s final.”

Another grumble from Jackie. And he just said that he didn’t want to hear it.

“Bruce wouldn’t have done this.”

Dong-Yul would have slammed his fists on the table, if he had the strength.

“Yes he would have. He was, before…”

He trailed off, letting the sentence die out. It reminded him of how he saw his brother go.

“Not like this. Not this aggressive.”

Dong-Yul settled for a light tap on the table.

“Bruce isn’t here. I’m just picking up the slack and running with it. Your input is appreciated, bro, but I’d rather not get another word about this from you.”

One more sound from Jackie, this time a breath. Dong-Yul knew the meaning.

For now.

The door opened before either of them could get another word in.

A fat, Vietnamese man entered. With a very visible look of dread on his face.

Dong-Yul frowned, even though he was wearing a mask.

“Sunny, what’s wrong?”

Sunny, the lead security for the bar, was a wide man, so it took until he was completely out of the doorway before Dong-Yul could see who followed him in.

A cold, prickling feeling crept up the back of his neck. Hair standing on ends. The pain of his entire body flaring up in anticipation, in fear.

No, not you. Not again.

Styx.

It was like he hadn’t changed in the week Dong-Yul saw him last. The leather jacket, the skinny jeans, all black. The wild look in his eye, like a feral animal. That anything could happen with a snap.

Dong-Yul did not, under any conceivable circumstance, want that snap.

The contrast between the two men was as wide as Sunny’s build. Where one man was built more like a ball of pure muscle, the other was more lean and cut. One was pale, the other much less so. Though, Sunny had a good reason to have much color in his face, at the moment.

Styx wasted no time in making himself comfortable.

“Man man man, I just can’t keep doing this! Always running around, always so busy!”

He slapped Sunny’s back, and Sunny leapt, yelped. Dong-Yul had never seen him be like this.

Not that he blamed him.

Styx then walked around Sunny, his finger tracing from his back to his shoulder, sliding off as he walked across the room, leaving him there, frozen. Sunny looked like he wanted to crawl out of his skin.

“And you, my friend, suffer from the same ailment.”

A disconcerting quiet lingered, threatening to stick around for more. Did Styx want him to respond?

“And… what is that?” Dong-Yul said, wary.

Styx smiled, baring teeth, and Dong-Yul felt a freeze run through him.

“Stubbornness.”

“Stubbornness?” Jackie repeated. His way of interjecting himself into the conversation. His way of trying to deflect Styx’s attention, his way of protecting Dong-Yul.

Dong-Yul didn’t think he’d need it. Donnie might, though.

Styx kept his eyes forward, at Donnie. Like a hawk.

“Everyone has something they’re stubborn about, a vice they can’t quit. People are… single-minded, like that. Try to tear it out of a man, and they go batshit. And if you do manage to take it away, and cut off all ways to reconnect, you get…”

Styx inhaled, deep, eyes closed, lifting his head so he was facing the ceiling, then Sunny behind him. He kept tilting his head back, until it looked like he was about to fall.

Then, he snapped.

Styx threw his head forward, like an even more hardcore version of a headbang. He exhaled, but it sounded more like a scream.

“Disorder,” Styx said, smiling.

Dong-Yul didn’t know what to make of anything.

He didn’t have any exits, Sunny was supposed to be guarding the only entrance into this room. And if Styx’s Ferrymen were right outside…

Donnie prayed for his life.

Styx tilted his head.

“You look swell,” he said, twisting that smile again.

Dong-Yul’s face throbbed.

“I saw the new boys out there. Good meat, they really hold themselves well in a fight.”

This was the absolute worst time Styx could have showed up.

Styx lifted his hands. A placating gesture.

“Relax, you already know the proper meaning of a beatdown. I’m just here to mediate.”

That didn’t answer what he did to the new recruits, and Dong-Yul was already too afraid to ask.

Dong-Yul lifted an eyebrow, instead.

“Mediate? I didn’t know you were capable of keeping the peace.”

Stupid. Wasn’t thinking.

Last time I questioned this psychopath he nearly killed me.

With his hands still raised, he shrugged.

“I’m capable of anything. I just said goodbye to solace not too long ago. Disorder.”

Styx grinned.

Any possible meaning was lost on Dong-Yul.

Styx put his hands down, looking at Sunny. Dong-Yul gave an order before Styx could force his own command.

“You can leave, Sunny, it’s okay.”

Sunny was a decent friend, a good man. Dong-Yul had never seen him move so fast.

Before he could clear out, though, he was stopped at the door by another person.

A woman.

She was well-dressed, in a suit, her blonde hair tied up into a bun. She looked more in place in a boardroom, meeting with executives, than she was being here, in a den with gangsters. She was as prim as she was proper.

Sunny jumped out of the way, letting her get through, he ran to his escape, the door closing behind him.

The woman started walking as everyone’s eyes fell on her. With an elegance and grace that also contrasted with Styx’s wild, unpredictable nature.

“I hate to be kept waiting,” the woman said, eyeing Styx as she passed him, stopping right at the front of the table.

“Take pity on a grieving old man,” Styx said.

“I’m not here to be concerned about your personal life.”

“It was both, this time. Business and personal.”

“Not my concern, Styx.”

“Ah, but in this case, it is half of it.”

“Excuse me, but who are you?”

The woman directed herself back to Dong-Yul. Adjusting several items she had in her arms, she also adjusted her glasses.

“You can call me Mrs. Carter.”

With that, Mrs. Carter took another step to the table, taking the seat across Dong-Yul. She set her belongings down. A tablet, and a binder full of documents. Styx moved as well, taking the seat to his right.

“May I?” Styx asked.

It wasn’t like he could say no. Dong-Yul nodded.

“Mahjong,” Styx said, settling in. “Been a while since I played, but my Mandarin is rusty.”

“It takes at least three to play, four is ideal,” Jackie said, still standing at Dong-Yul’s side. “And I’m not in the mood for games.”

“Same,” Mrs. Carter said, looking straight at Dong-Yul. She didn’t at all sound or look delighted to be here.

“Another game, then,” Styx offered instead, grinning.

Mrs. Carter breathed, audible for it to have meaning. She fixed her glasses.

“I’d like to start, now.”

Styx gestured. “By all means.”

Dong-Yul turned to Jackie, tilting his head, indicating towards the table.

Reluctant, he could tell, but Jackie complied. He sat.

Dong-Yul turned back to the other two.

“What’s,” he started, flinching at a sudden spike in pain. “What’s this about?”

“A lot of things,” Styx said. “About you, me, the entire city. If we want, we make this to be about the whole world.

What?

Dong-Yul couldn’t help but feel like he was being played for a fool.

“Let’s keep the focus to what’s in this room,” Mrs. Carter said, sounding tired. “And please, Styx, allow me to speak.”

“Go ahead.”

She was treating him like a unruly kid. The fact that someone could even get away with that…

Who is this woman?

Mrs. Carter finally got to speak, but she was tapping at her tablet, swiping, while addressing Dong-Yul.”

“I represent Mister, and I’m here to provide a proposal that was just recently drafted, with my input and… his.”

She glanced at Styx.

This woman represented Mister.

Excitement and fear coursed through Dong-Yul.

“Mister, and Mrs. Carter,” Jackie said, “Am I supposed to ignore a possible connection there?”

“The proposal, as it stands, is a simple one, but I find that it will prove to be a good opportunity for you and the Kung Fools.”

The way she said that name, she sounded disgusted.

Hóngshuǐ, now,” Dong-Yul said. He couldn’t help but correct her. “We’re under new management.”

“Yes. So I’ve heard.”

“So what’s this proposal then?”

Tapping the tablet one more time, Mrs. Carter moved her attention over to the binder, turning it around and sliding it across the table. Dong-Yul caught it.

Opening it, he skimmed through the documents. Plain English, but with the sudden arrival of Styx, this woman, the mention of Mister, and the general amount of pain and stress he was under, it was hard to focus on any particular word and its meaning.

“Explain the general idea,” Dong-Yul said. He lifted his eyes to meet Mrs. Carter’s glasses. A glare had caught the lenses. “Please.”

“Mister is offering to back you in the growth and general operation of your gang, Hóngshuǐ.”

Stunned. Dong-Yul and Jackie exchanged looks.

“Mister?” Dong-Yul repeated.

“In exchange for your resources and capabilities, you will work for him.”

“Congratulations,” Styx said. “You want a sponsor? You can’t ask for a better one.”

Dong-Yul couldn’t believe a word they were saying. Not because he thought they were lying. Styx’s presence, in a way, officiated the offer. He wasn’t sure about Mrs. Carter, but she seemed serious enough.

“Can’t say the offer intrigues me.” Dong-Yul looked from Styx, then back to the papers in the binder. “Though, I wonder how much room I have in this deal. Is there even an option to refuse?”

“You can, though it would make this your second biggest mistake.”

“Second?”

“The first was refusing to listen to me the first time.”

Styx grinned, and Dong-Yul understood. He had no room, unless he wanted to reopen stitches and break more skin.

“Okay,” Dong-Yul said. “What’re the particulars of this… sponsorship?”

Mrs. Carter swiped at her tablet again.

“You have recently been reaping the benefits of the political uproar in the city, the increased violence against Asian Americans have brought many of their youth to you, either for protection or willingness to strike back against those that wronged them through no fault of their own. Your numbers have swelled, and continues to swell, which is always impressive, but it isn’t sustainable.”

“No?”

“It isn’t. How do you expect to pay all your new people, or provide the protection, the reason they joined in the first place? You had a decent sized territory before, but it won’t be enough to properly accommodate everybody. You would need growth in those other departments in order to catch up, but, I suspect you haven’t been growing fast enough?”

She was right. For a time since the first wave of new recruits, Dong-Yul had a worry in the back of his mind, on how he’d take care of everyone that went to him. They hadn’t been hurting before, save for the loss of Bruce, but they had never been making much in the way of waves under his tutelage, and when the tides started to turn and rise, Dong-Yul had to cut some corners where he could, like shaking hands with Lawrence, while hiding a knife behind his back with the other.

But, that wouldn’t be sufficient enough. The logistics weren’t there. As much as he wanted to, he couldn’t provide for everyone. People like Justin.

“And you’re saying that Mister will give me that growth in those departments?”

“He is able and willing,” Mrs. Carter said. “Warehouses, equipment, cars. Weapons. We still have plenty thanks to an acquisition made last year, in the fall.”

“The wheels turn and turn,” Styx said.

“Mister will invest in your proper growth,” Mrs. Carter said. “Giving you assets to turn you into a better one.”

Dong-Yul flipped through another page, the words hardly registering to him. What he read, what he heard.

“Why?” he questioned. “Why the sudden interest?”

Too good to be true.

“That’s not for me to say. I wouldn’t delve into the particulars, in that regard. Accept the terms, and let him round out the edges for you.”

“May I meet him, ask him myself?”

“You may not.”

Mrs. Carter answered a touch too quickly.

Dong-Yul closed the book. He looked up at the woman.

“What’s the catch, then?”

He knew there had to be one.

Mrs. Carter took her time in answering.

“It’s spelled out in more detail in that binder, but, in accepting the vested interest of Mister, you will have to put a freeze in any and all movements toward enacting a retaliation against the forces that brought you those swelled numbers in the first place.”

Her wording made Dong-Yul take a moment to parse everything. He didn’t get what she meant at first.

Jackie caught on a second before he could.

“You want us to stop building our army.”

Dong-Yul tapped the table, his body flaring up again. Pain.

“No,” Mrs. Carter said. “The opposite, in fact. As it stands, Hóngshuǐ is an asset, one Mister would like to put in his pocket for the future. He would just like if you didn’t dry yourself up before that time comes.”

There. The catch. Dong-Yul knew there’d be one.

“You want me to sell my revolution?”

It was Mrs. Carter’s turn to raise an eyebrow.

“Just don’t cause any fires where we don’t need them.”

“Not fires, a tsunami. Because you know that it’s going to flood, hard, and you want to buy as much property as you can so you can claim the insurance.”

The woman smiled. Pity again. If Dong-Yul had the strength, he’d tear her lips off her face.

“I assure you that will not be the case. It’s a simple stipulation.”

Dong-Yul was done.

“Then I refuse Mister’s sponsorship.”

“Donnie-”

“No, no Jackie. These people, they don’t understand why I’m doing this, and I don’t think you even know, now. Every goddamn day, I get stories from Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese people telling me all the shit they go through now because of a select few.”

The select few. Harrian Wong. Blank Face, V. Wendy.

Dong-Yul continued, saying, “They’re tired, Mrs. Carter, Styx, there’s a restless undercurrent that’s bubbling, and it won’t be long before things overtake. I’m not sorry Styx, but I’m ready to accept the consequences of my second biggest mistake.”

Styx lifted himself, brief, to adjust his chair to better face Dong-Yul. For a second, his heart leapt, thinking that Styx was about to snap.

He didn’t.

“Hate to break it to you, buddy, but this revolution of yours? It was never going to work. Not really.”

Dong-Yul stared at him, hard.

“You and Bruce, Jackie, Justin. You all have your differences, your different cultures that define you. And they’re very well defined and unique in their own way. And each of you, I know, take pride in that.”

Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese.

“Your point,” Dong-Yul said.

“Maybe you band together on this one thing, the pressure from the other, because they all think you all look the same, that those differences aren’t there. Say you do win, this war of yours goes the way you want. Then what? Do you truly think you’ll stay as one group forever? All of you know you really aren’t, there is no amalgamation. Eventually, those differences become borders, and your sovereign nation becomes split.”

Dong-Yul breathed, measured.

Asian people and cultures weren’t one entity, it didn’t work like that. It was tricky. Dong-Yul knew that, recognized it. But, he didn’t like hearing it being spelled out for him. Having Styx poke holes, enough that it might make the whole plan sink.

“Take it from me,” Styx said, in a tone that Dong-Yul had never heard before. A normal one. “You all still have your identity. For me? This country took away mine when my ancestors were taken here on ships. I never got to learn about my tribe. That’s why I had to go make my own.”

Dong-Yul hesitated to answer, unsure what to make of anything, at this point.

“You’re building something with them, together, and there’s something to be said about that accomplishment. Just keep in mind that you’re not going to last if you get to where you want with this. Take this sponsorship, and you’re in the big leagues, you’re at the table. Your people get taken care of, and you can continue to grow and help them, too. All we’re asking, is to temper things in exchange, throw some water on the fire.”

Then, Styx shrugged.

“And, when the time comes, and it will, I will personally give you oil.”

Dong-Yul started shaking his head.

“It’s not a bad deal, Donnie,” Jackie said.

“Why? What’s Mister planning?” Dong-Yul asked. “Why does he want us?”

“That’s not for me to tell you,” Mrs. Carter answered. “To be honest, I don’t even know myself. But, knowing him for as long as I have, I can guess he’s doing the same thing you should be doing, gathering up resources. People.”

“He wants to use my army,” Dong-Yul said. “Why? Is it because of V?”

The quiet that followed said so much. So did Styx’s grin.

“She was there. At the club. You, ow, remember, right?”

“I do.”

“Why didn’t you do anything then?”

Styx’s grin went wider. Wilder.

“I did, actually, right after I had you removed from the scene. You aren’t the only cog in this machine.”

“What’d you do?”

“I had a laugh.”

Cryptic. Which was normal for the psychopathic biker.

“I know her name.”

Dong-Yul said it like a threat.

The statement felt like pulling out a gun, a way to escalate. As if he needed leverage to use.

Styx’s expression became more neutral.

“About that,” Mrs. Carter said. “That would be part of the deal we offer. Whatever you think you know, don’t act on it, because it’s the same thing as you going forward with your quote unquote ‘war.’ We don’t need any more trouble, and especially any more with her at the root of it. In summary, you are not to approach V or the Fangs until explicitly ordered by Mister.”

Styx winked at Dong-Yul.

Even though we still have a score to settle.

It was neither a confirmation or denial. Dong-Yul still felt like he was onto something, though.

Again, he exchanged looks with Jackie. His stomach turned.

Almost everything he wanted. Recognition, power, a seat at the table, and a way to prove that he had surpassed his late older brother. But, at the same time, it didn’t feel right, it felt too easy. Cheap. Like he was selling out.

Proof, but not on his terms. A way to ride the wave up, but not his own current.

But, could he really refuse?

“Fine,” Dong-Yul said, “I’ll accept those terms.”

Mrs. Carter smiled. It seemed genuine. “Swell. Then, my work here is done.”

She scooped up her tablet, then got up, fast, and proceeded to cross the room.

“I’ll leave that with you,” Mrs. Carter said, referring to the binder. “I’ll be in touch. Styx or one his Ferrymen will monitor you to make sure you keep your end of the deal.”

“I can do it myself,” Styx said. “Consider it a personal favor.”

“That’s your choice.”

With those words, Mrs. Carter left the room. She was gone.

Styx then rose to stand, but he was slower, more relaxed.

“Ah, finally, I hate meetings. So much busywork.”

Dong-Yul couldn’t find any words. He needed to process this, how he was going to move forward from here. Now that his main goal was officially put on ice.

He heard a crinkling of plastic, and a rattling that fell onto the table.

Looking up, he saw that Styx had tossed a bag. Plastic, transparent.

Bottles atop bottles of pills.

“Consider this a welcoming gift,” Styx said. “Strong shit, I take it you’ll need it as you recover, you’re not quite there yet.”

No thanks to you. Asshole.

“Yeah, sorry about that. I was just feeling it, is all.”

Styx spoke as if he had heard those thoughts. “But there’s plenty more where that came from, if you behave.”

Giving a salute, Styx started to turn, heading out. With his handle on the door, he spoke one more time.

“Bruce would have wet himself, he’d be so proud of you. So don’t screw this up. No need to be stubborn.”

“안녕,” Styx then said, in perfect Hangul, and with a twisted, ugly, cackle, Styx left the room. The sound seemed to echo in Dong-Yul’s head as he stared at the pills. The pain of everything stacked against his body and mind. His spirit.

The pills looked appetizing.

“Hey, Donnie,” Jackie said, after what felt like ten minutes. It probably was. “You okay?”

The question was too easy, the answer obvious.

Donnie was weak, his whole life was spent being protected by the likes of Bruce and Jackie. And the one time Bruce actually needed him, he wasn’t there to protect his older brother. Now, he was gone.

Dong-Yul wasn’t supposed to be weak, he was supposed to be the older brother for everyone else. To look after those that came to him, in these troubled and confusing times. Protect them, teach them to fight for themselves, and hope they’d learn, like how his older brother did before him.

And now, backed into a corner, beaten and bruised and bloodied and scared, he had to take those promises away. He didn’t have the strength to fight back. Not for himself, not for them.

The answer was obvious, the question too easy. No need to say it, hear it out loud.

His eyes were still on the pills.

“Get me some water,” Donnie said.

Previous                                                                                               Next

Interlude – Benny

Previous                                                                     Bonus

Papa was mad again today.

Mama ushered Bernadette into the closet, then shut it behind her.

They both knew the drill, it was a lot like an earthquake. Find cover, stay low, keep your head down, and pray that it would end sooner rather than later.

They’d been through very many earthquakes.

Sometimes, they weren’t so bad. Just tremors, and they wouldn’t last long. Other times, not so much.

And sometimes, there were aftershocks.

Papa yelled, but Bernadette couldn’t understand it. A loud crash followed, the breaking of glass. Bernadette threw herself into the corner of the closet, pulling her legs to her chest. Boxes carefully stacked were knocked around her as she moved with haste.

From there, she heard Mama rush back out into the hall, trying to talk to Papa. It wouldn’t work, it never did.

But it was part of the drill.

Mama’s shouting crashed against Papa’s, and sounded like when the dogs barked at night. Her high shrieking and Papa’s low roar, Bernadette put her hands to her ears. It barely helped.

More yelling, more sounds of fighting. More glass breaking, more shelves falling over. Just… more.

More.

Bernadette forced her eyes shut, the tears welling up again. She tried to retreat somewhere in her head, think of something happy. A fond memory. Waking up early to help out Papa on the ranch, gathering eggs from the chickens, cleaning some of the equipment. Mama preparing dinner after they were done, eating together at the table.

Mama’s terrible jokes, the fact that Papa laughed anyway.

It didn’t work.

I hate this.

She hated that it happened, she hated that it kept happening. She hated that it was allowed to happen. Just because Papa was friends with Pedro, he had the money and power to get away with whatever he wanted. The ability. She knew that much. Papa was but a simple rancher, and she felt pride in being the daughter of a rancher, but that wouldn’t be enough to live in the house they had. There needed to be more, and that more had to come from somewhere.

Take, take, take.

The nice house, the cars, the wine… the girls, Papa was allowed to take whatever he wanted. Papa could afford to be as good and as bad as he wanted. She hated it. It wasn’t fair. Papa wasn’t playing by any rules, so there were never any consequences.

Papa was cheating, and Bernadette hated it.

Another crash, and Mama’s yelp followed. It went quiet for a second.

Then Papa yelled again.

This time, she could understand it.

He was calling for her.

“Bernadette!” he roared. “Come clean up your mother!”

Her pulse was speeding until it might go flat, but she had to stay still. She sat in the dark, curled up even tighter, heart in her throat. Shaking.

Bernadette!” he called again, much angrier, now. It startled her, she jumped.

Her arm bumped into a stack of boxes beside her, knocking some over.

She started to sweat.

She didn’t hear him call out again, just the footfall and booming that followed.

Stick to the drill, the drill.

She looked around, in the dark, looking for anything she could use.

Not sticking to the drill.

He was coming closer, faster.

She uncurled herself, and shifted around in the gloom.

Her hands touched something metal.

Her fingers wrapped around it, feeling the metal, the weight of it. She gripped it, her fingers finding their place on the weapon.

She tried to gulp, but found her throat dry.

The closest door flew open.

Bernadette let out a shriek, despite herself, and threw her hands out in front of her.

She had a brief second to face her father.

Shadows fell over his face, hiding his eyes. Her dread and horror warped her image of him even further. A wild look to his eyes, bloodshot, like he was hunting for something. His hair wasn’t long, but it was unruly, unkempt, standing up in places. His teeth bared. Sharp.

She kept shaking.

Papa had gotten down on his knees, arm reached into the closet to grab her. He stopped though, when his eyes fell on what was in her hands.

He smirked, and it freaked her out, just from how wrong it was.

His hands moved fast, seizing Bernadette by her shirt, dragging her out of the closet.

She shrieked again as she was tossed out, her fingers squeezing together.

Nothing fired, despite that.

Bernadette would have stopped to consider why, if it weren’t for her being hurled out of her parents’ room and into the hall. Her attention was elsewhere.

Light flooded into her eyes when she was taken out of her room, a temporary blindness. She was on the floor, finding it hard to get herself to stand.

“Come here!”

Fingers grabbed at her hair, twisting, then pulled, and Bernadette was dragged out of the hall. She couldn’t find her footing, Papa kept his hand by his hip, and she couldn’t raise her head any higher without her hair being pulled at even more. Dragged.

Instant regret. She berated herself for not keeping to the drill. For not keeping her head down.

She screamed again as her head was whipped in another direction, her body then coming with. It wasn’t a clean fall. Strands of hair had wrapped themselves around Papa’s fingers, going taut, yanking her head back, before being ripped of her scalp and letting her continue down. It added to the pain.

She landed on her shoulder.

She had to blink a few times to make sense of what she was seeing. The kitchen. She was on the floor, the cold tiles. She pushed herself up.

Her head pounded from being yanked around. Her heart pounded faster when she saw the blood.

Not her own.

It wasn’t a lot, but the fact that there was any at all, the wrongness of it. The smeared line, the red handprint, it resembled an upside-down exclamation point.

She glanced in different directions, peeking into another hall on the other side, the living room at another end, the glass door to the patio that led out into the dark. No one. She didn’t see Mama.

Bernadette looked at her hands. It wasn’t there.

A smack to the back of her head announced Papa’s reentry into the kitchen. She went down, hard.

“You wanna kill me, is that it? After everything I’ve done for you? After… after everything I gave you?”

She could smell his breath from here. Alcohol.

Bernadette had to reorient herself, but the yelling and the hurt and the questions threw her mind and focus in every direction.

Where’s Mama?

A clack sounded off by her ear, and she flinched. But no pain came after.

She moved her head again, and saw the gun. The gun she had taken from the closet, hidden under boxes and boxes of stuff.

“There, found the bullets for you. Do you want to kill me, huh?”

Papa was yelling enough to hurt his voice, a harsh rasp scraping out the end of his words. Like he was screaming just to scream.

Bernadette turned to see him. Papa. He was standing over her, towering, blocking light. She tried backing away, and found that she could. He’d let her.

No fair. Flexing power over those much weaker. Playing with them. That’s cheating.

As though her hand moved on its own, she grabbed for the gun at her side. Much heavier. She fumbled with it, then set it between her legs.

She felt like she was about to wet herself.

She looked back at Papa, and he had his arms raised, leaving himself open. Making himself open.

“Do it, I dare you, let’s see how you are without me.”

Tears rolled down her cheeks. She wanted someone, anyone else. Mama, one of the maids, even one of Papa’s girls. She couldn’t do this on her own, by herself. She needed someone.

The gun was heavier in her hands, like it was crushing her fingers.

Do it!” Papa bellowed.

No use. The gun wouldn’t budge. Even if she wanted to. And, being pushed this far, this fast, a large part of her did want to.

And that frightened Bernadette.

She heard Papa draw in yet another breath, to yell again. Bernadette braced herself.

A crash. Then more.

People stormed into the room.

They took over. One of them went right to Bernadette’s father, and struck him hard on the chest. He went down easy.

More people, more than the kitchen should reasonably fit. Some had guns trained on Papa.

The noise and shouting ratcheted up to another level.

Bernadette needed some more time to get a sense of what was happening.

Many of them. All men. Most were in regular clothes. Baggy jeans, white T-shirts, a sombrero or hat. Others wore more protective gear. Vests, armor, masks.

The sudden intrusion and activity only gave her more questions, more things to wrap her head around, but she was far too disoriented.

The group of men weren’t in any formation, but they moved, the group splitting down the middle.

Bernadette saw the patio door slide open.

A man stepped into the kitchen.

Just from the posture, how everyone moved out of the way for him, Bernadette knew this was a man who had power.

His hair looked recently cut, combed, and had a certain style to it. No beard or mustache. Young, for sure, maybe a decade younger than Papa. He wore a faded pink shirt, buttoned up, and khaki pants. A complete contrast to the other men here, even Papa. As if he wanted to make himself known, to stand out.

Bernadette just sat there, trying to take everything in.

The man walked down the length of the path his men – she assumed it was his men – set for him, and stopped halfway. He turned, looking down at her Papa. Papa was sitting, cross-legged, looking back up at the man. Other men all around him had guns trained in his direction.

“Who the fuck are you?” Papa asked.

“Your new boss.”

The man had answered, and his Spanish was smooth, condescending. To the point that Bernadette almost forgot where she was, what just happened, and felt insulted, herself. Someone talking to Papa like that?

Bernadette had to stop herself from going down that line of thinking. Focus on now.

“What happened to my old boss, then?”

“Dead.”

A single word, and it sent chills through her whole body. Bernadette was young, but she wasn’t ignorant. She’d only seen Pedro on a few occasions, when he came to visit, and Papa would take him out to the ranch to talk. Bernadette wasn’t allowed to go outside during those times.

She had seen the dots, and made the connections. She knew who Pedro really was, and what that meant for their growing town.

Hearing that single word, for Bernadette, changed everything.

“You’re lying,” Papa said.

“We have his head, along with the heads of those who stayed by his side. Enrique?”

That mention of a name, and Papa put his head down.

The way the man broke the news, his nonchalant manner of speaking, it made Bernadette wish he was lying.

The man made a gesture, and his men made Papa return to his feet. The man put his hand on Papa’s cheek, stroking his face.

“This city is mine, now, and so is La Rueda. It’s mine for me to steer. I was going around to Pedro’s constituents, and letting them know of the change in management… only to find this.”

The man spared a quick glance at Bernadette. She froze.

He faced Papa again. “I don’t know about Pedro, but I refuse to let swine freely bathe in their own shit and mud. Women and children? I will not tolerate those in power abusing those who do not have the power to fight back.”

He then turned his head, looking back outside. “Take him out.”

Three words, vague. The man’s workers took Papa, grabbing him, much like how Papa had grabbed Bernadette. Papa yelled, trying to fight back, but he was too drunk, out of sorts, and outnumbered to retake any freedom.

Bernadette watched as Papa was escorted out of the kitchen. She opened her mouth, but no sound came out. Maybe if she said something, he could stay, and he might not be taken out.

Bernadette closed her mouth.

The man turned yet again, this time facing her. He continued down the length of the kitchen, stopping right at her feet.

“Put the gun down, mija.”

She just realized that she still had it in her hands. She stared at it. The tingling numbness came from the gun that weighed her hands down. Even with this in her hands, she couldn’t do anything. She couldn’t protect Mama, or herself.

She opened her hands, and the gun fell to the side.

The man crouched, meeting Bernadette at eye level.

His eyes. Something about his eyes…

“What’s your name?” he asked, soft. Nearing a whisper.

“Bern… Bernadette.”

A sense of shame came upon her after saying that name. She didn’t know where it came from, or why.

The man nodded, as if he was sympathizing with her at some level.

“Hello, Bernadette. I’m Fransico, but you can call me Paco. May I call you ‘Benny?’”

She didn’t have any particular objections to that. She did a gesture, a nod and a shrug at the same time.

Gracias. Tell me, Benny, do you love your papa?”

The question struck her as funny. Like, bad joke funny. Of course she liked Papa, he played with her, gave her toys and phones, games, he’d let her help sometimes with the chickens.

But then she thought about the bad times. The drills. The here and now.

Not his fault, Papa just gets that way sometimes. Maybe… Mama and I just have to watch what we say and do.

Like? Maybe. Love…

She decided to answer how she felt right there, right now.

“No,” she breathed. It hurt to admit.

Gracias. No need to worry, Benny. I won’t hurt you or your mama, like he did. I’m here, now, and I will protect you. Your mama is fine, okay? I protected her already. She’s right outside, would you like to go see her?”

The girl nodded. She did want to see Mama.

Gracias. Let’s get you up.” Paco snapped his fingers. “Roland?”

Someone approached, a boy, in the white shirt and jeans. He didn’t look much older than her, maybe mid-teens, while she wouldn’t be there for some years.

He held out his hand for her.

She wasn’t sure if she could trust Paco completely, whether or not he’d actually protect her and Mama in the future. But she was tired, confused, scared. She wanted something to believe in.

And she didn’t believe in herself. Not Bernadette.

Benny took the helping hand.

The sun beat down.

“Move,” Benny ordered, and they did.

Roland led the men out of the van, and onto the dirt road. They walked in a line, without a word of resistance. To do so now would be useless. Foolish, even. It might cost them their lives.

Three men, all blindfolded, walking with caution. Roland had them stop before another group, another black van.

Benny followed, but walked past them to meet with the head of that group. A man, bald, tall. The men behind him had guns. Semi-automatics. None were pointed, but the message was clear.

She stood firm.

“You wanted them, here they are,” Benny said.

“Why the blindfolds?” the man, Javier, asked.

“Standard procedure.”

“Where’s El Tunante?” he then asked. Grovely.

“He’s attending to another matter. I assure you that your deal was handled with the best of hands. My own.”

His expression changed from flat to another. Uncertainty.

“I harbor doubts about that,” Javier said.

“Is it because I’m a woman?” Benny questioned.

“It is because you are a child. I feel personally insulted that El Tunante would skirt this responsibility and hand it off to someone so… small.”

Benny let herself grin. “You wanted these men out of prison, and El Tunante was willing to go a more direct way to go about it. I preferred for something cleaner.”

“Cleaner?”

“We made a deal of our own with the warden. We capture and bring in three other, probably more terrible scumbags, they’ll be willing to make an exchange. Along with a little cash to make it run more smoothly, everybody gets what they want. The public gets the real bad guys off the streets, the prisons get a little pocket cash along with some new goods, and you get your sons back.”

Javier’s face switched back to unreadable, again.

“Very well.”

He signaled, and the men behind him moved, taking hold of the blindfolded men, and escorting them to Javier’s van.

“And you’ll still hold up your end of the bargain?” Benny asked.

“I’m a man of my word, child, of course I will. I’ve already made the proper arrangements. El Tunante is allowed to take over the property and territory I have in the States. It’s his now.”

Muchas Gracias.”

“Hm, I only wish him luck.”

Javier spun on his heels, and returned to his van. Benny and Roland did the same.

They went into the back seats, sitting next to each other.

The driver prepared to turn them around.

“Good job, Benny,” Paco said, sitting in the passenger seat. “I’m very proud of you.”

The windows in the van were tinted black.

Benny released all of the tension in her body, going limp in her seat. “Oh my god, I thought I was going to die.”

“You weren’t going to die,” Roland said, “I would have had your back.”

“Yeah?”

“Duh, don’t be silly.”

Benny smiled a bit. ‘Silly’ was a silly word.

Paco interjected. “As did I, Benny. Your way might have asked for more trouble on our end, but it worked out. No one got hurt, and you did it fair. Again, very proud.”

“Stop, you’re going to make me blush and stuff.”

All three of them laughed.

“So it’s settled, then?” Paco asked, after the levity died down a tad. “We have it?”

“He confirmed it. His territory is ours, now. We just have to go through the necessary channels, make sure the Americans are aware of the new tenants coming in.”

“Yes. It’s not much, but it’s a start, and we need all we can get if I want this empire to spread. If you can make it there, then you’re the real deal.”

Paco paused. The van rocked from the uneven surface of the road.

“That’s why I want you, Benny, to oversee the new American branch.”

Tension quickly returned to her body.

“What, me?”

“Yes, you. The rules are different in America, they operate under a different code. I’m too set in my ways to try and bend to them, and I have too much to keep tabs on here in Mexico. You, on the other hand, you’re willing to take other approaches, less bloody ones, even ways that would greatly benefit other partners, whereas I might look for something decidedly one-sided. That sort of thinking will benefit us in the States, give us a good reputation, and help us expand fast and clean.”

Benny still couldn’t fathom it. Her, a leader of her own gang, representing El Tunante? Real authority and power, exercised by her vision? It was a dream she never thought would actually be realized.

No way.

“Why me?” Benny question. “Why not Roland, he’s your nephew!”

“Roland will be accompanying you, along with some others. They’ll be your eyes and ears. But I’m not asking Roland, I’m asking you.”

She looked at him, and Roland. He looked back, happy for her.

Stop being so good-looking.

It was something she’d only noticed in recent years, but Roland’s boyish features were really giving way to a more chiseled, masculine look. He could’ve modeled if he wasn’t working for a cartel.

Which made it even more weird, because they’d been through enough for her to think of him as an older brother.

Stop.

Benny asked, “Are you okay with this, Roland?”

“Yeah, I am. I’d prefer it, honestly. You’ve always been more of the planner, and I don’t mind getting my hands dirty every now and then. That part of the job doesn’t quite suit you.”

It doesn’t?

A small flash of a painful memory. Benny pushed it aside.

Paco interjected. “See, even Roland approves, as do I. He believes in you almost as much as I do. So, what do you say?”

Benny sat back, looking out the window, the trees as they passed.

She considered it.

“You really sprung this on me, no idea that was in the cards.”

Her gaze then shifted to meet Paco’s, who turned back in his seat to face her.

“Okay.”

Paco and Roland beamed.

“I’ll go to Stephenville.”

Paco and Roland, even the driver, cheered for Benny.

Who the hell are you?

Benny stared at the creature, and the creature stared back. Its body was blue, but the edges of its body were like smoke. Not an outline, but rather a suggestion. The edges seemed to eat away at the light around it, until it was wrapped in a sort of darkness, distorting the image even further.

And its face. Very human, but so wrong. Featureless, white as the moon, its expression blank. It unsettled her, it was uncanny. Its eyes piercing her with a look. Like it wanted something, a desire. A sort of lust.

The creature stood there, twisted and warped. And Benny was powerless to do anything.

No fair, no fair.

The creature spoke, though its lips didn’t move. The voice was strangely high.

Shoot me instead.

Benny tilted her head.

“What?”

Shoot me instead. Leave them alone.

Benny had to rattle her mind to find the context. Staring at the creature, trying to figure it out, made her lose connections to other things.

“How do you know I won’t just shoot you first, then kill him and his girl?”

She spoke as if on autopilot.

Then fine, you can do that. As long as you shoot me first, then we have a deal.

Something off about that, that concession. Benny had the power, here, not that thing. Why?

“Sounds like a trap,” Benny said.

Not a trap. Like you said, I don’t have a legitimate threat against you, not with me standing here, with only a knife. And it wouldn’t be fair if I went unpunished. I was a part of Eduardo’s scheme, I deserve a bullet.

Benny knew the creature was lying. It was taunting her, it had something up its sleeve. Playing her for a fool.

Cheater.

You’re not even supposed to be here.

“What are you?” Benny questioned, trying to mask her irritation.

The creature didn’t offer anything.

An ugly pause. And it stirred an even uglier memory within Benny. Papa.

Benny was sweating bullets. Darkness was creeping in from everywhere, and in her most base senses, she knew this was it. Over. Either she would die right here, or she would suffer something far worse. All because of this thing, this creature. It had to come in and ruin everything.

And it just stared, with those eyes.

Die die die die.

“Only because I want you to shut up,” Benny finally said, “You have your wish. I’ll kill you first.”

She lifted her hand, and found a gun there. The same gun she should have shot Papa with.

Benny didn’t get to pull the trigger.

The creature moved in a flash, disappearing from her sight. Before she could react, she folded in, getting slammed in the stomach.

A blunt force, but it also tore through her. Like being hit by a bullet the size of a volleyball, with a knife attached at the end.

Something went through her, sliding through muscle and meat. It electrified.

The creature’s claw? It vanished, and attacked. It was hiding something.

No fair no fair no fair.

Benny was down, and she felt a cold come in with the darkness. It didn’t take long for her eyes to feel heavy.

The last image in her mind before she opened her eyes again was being back in the closet.

She startled herself awake.

White ceiling. A touch too bright. A constant, regular beep. An eerie quiet.

She inspected herself. In a bed, scratchy pillows and blankets, tubes in her arms, tubes in her nose.

Hospital room.

Benny shifted to sit herself up, but a harsh sting rushed through her body, and she had to stop. She exhaled, slow, sitting back down.

“Don’t move too much.”

Her eyes roved towards the direction of the voice. A sight for sore eyes.

“Roland.”

He didn’t have his suit jacket, but he was wearing the same clothes from the last time she saw him. Presentable, but not good.

He stood by the window, close to the bed and the beeping machines. Some natural light was allowed in, but it was overpowered by the artificial lights from above.

“Doctor says you can’t move too much, not so soon. Might tear your whole stomach open.”

Smiling, he then added, “So much for kids.”

A joke, obviously, but he didn’t sell it very well.

“How long have I been in here?” Benny asked.

“About a day, you were out of it for the whole time. Sleeping.”

Sleeping?

It didn’t feel like sleep. There was lucidity to her rest, her brain running while her body didn’t. Memories looped, trying to parse and figure things out, until the images rotted over time, bastardized memories becoming nightmares.

Maybe she was out for the whole day, but she got no benefit from it.

Groggy.

“Is it bad?” Benny asked. Had to rip off the bandaid sooner than later, metaphorically speaking.

“Huh? No, what I said before? I was kidding.” Roland appeared a bit red at that.

“I know, don’t be silly. Is it bad?”

“Um, no. Nothing vital was damaged. Just don’t do anything strenuous for a month or two, and you should be good.”

“Good. My next question, then. Which hospital is this?”

That particular question shut Roland up. His eyes shifted elsewhere.

“You’re in our hospital, Benny.”

Another voice. Benny’s neck creaked when she turned.

A woman, standing at the edge of the hospital bed, hands behind her back. Gringo. She was dressed professionally, all black, Benny would have pinned her for a lawyer. Her blonde hair was up, tied into a bun. Prim and proper.

“And you are?” Benny asked.

The woman fixed her glasses.

“Carter.”

“Okay, Ca-”

Mrs. Carter, I do believe I’m a few years your senior.”

Benny squinted. She didn’t look it, but there was no point in thinking otherwise.

She had to go along with it.

“Okay, Mrs. Carter, I can only assume you’re here for something, and not because you want to wish me a speedy recovery. Which you haven’t yet, by the way.”

Benny felt an impulse to dig into her a little. To not keep herself in too low of spirits.

“You assume correctly, and I do wish you well, Benny.”

Mrs. Carter put her arms in front of her, and Benny saw the tablet she was holding. She tapped at it, swiping, before addressing Benny again.

“I’m here to give you some, um, news,” Mrs. Carter said.

“Good news, or bad news?”

A grin formed across Mrs. Carter’s lips.

“Yes.”

Benny didn’t like the sound of that.

A short pause. A prompt, in and of itself, for Mrs. Carter to continue.

“I’ll give things to you as it is, and you can determine which is which. You see, I represent Mister, and-”

If Benny’s stomach wasn’t cut, it would have dropped.

She kept her lips shut.

“- he regrets to inform you that The Chariot’s presence in the city is over.”

That is certainly not good news.

“What do you mean by that?” Benny asked. She eyed Roland, and he didn’t seem thrown off in any meaningful way. Just still.

Was he already filled in?

Mrs. Carter answered, “Meaning you’ve accrued one too many strikes too fast, and Mister isn’t very pleased with you. There’s a delicate balance that has to be maintained, between all the different groups we have stationed in Stephenville. We can’t exactly tolerate you smuggling so many weapons into the city.”

Benny went still. The weapons Paco had delivered to her, to spur her into making biggers moves, to become a larger presence in Stephenville. And Benny was well aware of the underlying feeling behind the gesture.

Disappointment.

Paco had trusted her in this, over his own nephew. She was supposed to make headway in the South, and build upon the empire Paco had created. It was supposed to be growth, not only for the cartel, but for her as well.

Years passed, and not much was gained in terms of expansion.

She thought about the people she attracted, the first batch of members that she had join just so she could get a footing in the city. Kids, teenagers. Stoners who were more interested in a quick fix than getting any work done, wannabes who were looking to indulge in ultimately empty power trips. Not that she expected much out of them, but it would have been nice to see some cream rise from that crop.

But, no. All the good guys had already found their place in the other gangs, and Paco was growing impatient. Then he sent his message, in the way of some firepower.

If you couldn’t get yourself through the door, break it down.

But Mrs. Carter, who represented Mister, found out about the weapons, and their plan.

It’s over.

“What happened to them?” Benny asked. “My guns?”

“They’ve been seized by the police. By our police, so we’ll be keeping an eye on them, and to keep the media’s nose out of this.”

“You’re- He’s taking them, why?”

“It’s for your own good, keeping this quiet means less people know about what you were trying to pull, meaning less people are pointing guns in your direction. And, it puts us in a better position to give you our terms.”

“Terms?”

Benny and Roland repeated that word at the same time.

“Yes,” Mrs. Carter said, tapping more on her tablet. “As far as you’re concerned, you’re blackballed, now. You and yours no longer have any hold in the territory we let you take. The word’s already out. It’s officially open season there, now, up for grabs to anyone who can hold it. It’s not the most prime location, so Mister’s willing to accept whatever the fallout ends up being.”

All that work, the deals, the close calls, down the drain. All because some bad luck.

And that creature.

“We’ve already had a discussion with El Tunante, and gave him our side of the story, and a warning for breaking the rules. He’s not happy, obviously, and I think he’ll be less happy if he sees you again soon.”

She didn’t know what a ‘warning’ entailed…

Damn.

If it weren’t for the cut in her stomach, she would have leaped out of her bed and strangled that bitch right there.

“You’re lying,” Benny said.

“Sure, call him up, or you can cross the border and see him yourself. Just keep in mind that everything that The Chariot claimed will be compromised. Your territory, your money, your product, your weapons. It must have been a large investment to come here and do business, and to lose all of that… It’s a shame that I can’t see your face when El Tunante beheads you for your failures.”

Benny lost herself. She screeched, getting up from her bed, reaching out for Mrs. Carter’s throat, cut in her stomach be damned. Roland had to pin her down, pressing her shoulders.

The beeping hastened.

“How dare you say that! You don’t know shit, you fly!”

Mrs. Carter remained there, unfazed. It infuriated.

Benny spat out more curses, in Spanish, before the pain got the better of her, and she had to back down. With a push, Roland put her back in bed.

She was breathing hard, scowling from both her cut and the insinuation that Paco would have her killed for this.

Paco wouldn’t be like that, would he?

Mrs. Carter put her hands back behind her.

“I tried detailing it as much as I could, but you’re effectively out of the picture, Benny. As you are, in that bed, you don’t have anyone to turn to. Which brings me to why I’m here…”

“Finally,” Benny muttered, while still full of spite.

“Yes, the terms. Under these circumstances, this is an offense that is punishable by death, but Mister is willing to make an exception.

Benny and Roland exchanged looks.

“Exception?” Benny repeated.

“In exchange for you… not dying, you work for him.”

“Excuse me, what?”

“Well, not like how I work for him, but as some extra for some work, when the time is right.”

“Why me? Is Mister more short-staffed than I thought?”

“Of course not, but you, and your connections and assets, can be of use to him.”

“What connections and assets? You made it quite clear that everything I built up here is gone.”

Everything, in about a day. All because of that.

Mrs. Carter shook her head. “I think I made it quite clear that it will happen, it hasn’t happened yet. It’s only been a day. Your crew that you brought with you across the border, will they still follow you, after all of this?”

Her thoughts went to her crew. The select few that she could trust, handpicked by Paco. Samuel, Sofia, Christian… Roland. The best El Carruaje had to offer.

More people she let down.

She looked at Roland. He nodded, slowly.

She looked at Mrs. Carter. “They will follow.”

“Swell. I suggest gathering them, along with any resources you can pick back up, before it gets lost in the fire. All that will be needed for when you’re needed. And when that time comes, we might even allow you access to your gifts from El Tunante, again. An added bonus.”

Benny was bewildered by offer. Changing hands to Mister? Getting the weapons back?

“Why? What’s Mister planning?”

“That’s not for me to tell you,” Mrs. Carter said. “Actually, I don’t even know myself. But, knowing him as long as I do, I can guess he’s doing the same thing you should be doing, gathering up resources.”

“I’m just a resource to him, then? Maybe even expendable?”

“Most likely.”

“And if I refuse?”

Mrs. Carter gestured, facing Roland. “We should still have plenty of unoccupied rooms, here. Shall I see to it that you get your own… accommodations?”

Roland glared, lips pressed to a line.

“You’re not leaving me with much of a choice,” Benny said, scowling again. “Putting power over those in a much weaker position.”

“Isn’t that how power works? I’m not hearing a ‘no.’”

Benny stared daggers at the woman. She’d very much like to stab daggers into her.

“I’ll accept those terms.”

Mrs. Carter smiled, seemingly genuine. “Fantastic. Then, my work here is done.”

She started to turn, heading out.

“Wait,” Benny said, “When will Mister be calling?”

“We’ll call you when we call you. Just be prepared. Like I said, I do wish you a speedy recovery.”

“Wait,” Benny said again, before she could turn again. “Just a few more. The officer who handcuffed me, who was it?”

Mrs. Carter made a face. “I don’t see how that pertains to this.”

“I remember how I got here. I wasn’t taken here in an ambulance, I was handcuffed and stuffed in the back of their shitty car. Who was it?”

Mrs. Carter made another face, still not getting why it mattered. “I can look into it.”

“And lastly. That creature…”

“What creature?”

“That fucking thing that stabbed me and ruined me and sent me here! Who is that, one of yours? A saboteur?”

Mrs. Carter fixed her glasses.

“The world doesn’t know what that ‘thing’ is. If it chooses to be a problem, we will respond accordingly. Now goodbye.”

She threw that last bit in before Benny could find another reason to keep her. Better for it, Benny had wanted her gone, already.

The door shut behind Mrs. Carter, and it was just Roland and Benny.

A constant beeping.

“Would Paco…” Benny started.

Roland finished, “Would Paco kill you over this? You know him as well as I do.”

“No, then.”

“That woman could lying about how angry mi tío really is, to make you feel more cornered to taking her deal.”

Benny fell into her bed, sinking her head into the pillow. Scratchy.

“Games, great. More cheating.”

“I can call him, see for ourselves.”

“You can if you want but… I can’t face him, not like this.”

The cut wasn’t lethal, but the shame that came with losing everything…

“Now what?” Roland asked. He sat back in a chair by the bed.

Benny moved her head so she could see him. She took out her hand, hanging it over the side of the bed. Roland took it.

“We’re resources, now, Roland, and as much as I hate to follow that bitch’s advice, we need to get the others. And whatever scraps are left of El Carruaje.”

“Shouldn’t be hard. I’ll get right on it.”

Benny had to fight the urge to cry. “I’m sorry I dragged you into this.”

Roland put his other hand on hers.

“For you, anything. It’s the same for the others, too.”

A tear finally rolled down.

“Anything? If there’s anything I want, it’s revenge.”

Benny stepped through the door, amid the cries and confusion.

Everyone was in place.

The apartment was dingier than she expected, but she’d seen worse conditions. Lived through worse.

It was more a hub than it was a place to live. Tables lined up against walls, computers on every one. Posters damn near covering every square inch. Bands she’d never heard of, movies she hadn’t had the chance to watch yet. A big television in one corner, a game system with controllers and wires sticking out of it. Action figures of cartoon characters lined up on any available surface.

A teenager’s haven. And Benny and crew just intruded upon it. Computer monitors were knocked over, a poster was torn where someone had their back on it, and the television was broken. The figures were strewn about on the floor, disorderly, like their human counterparts.

No problem. We go in, see if they have anything. Probably not.

If they do

Benny walked over to Sofia, who had a boy down on his back, gun trained on him. She stood over him.

Benny had a pencil skirt on, but if the boy was more concerned over that, then he wasn’t in enough danger.

Benny looked down at him.

“The Bluemoon Club, am I correct?” she asked.

The boy was shaking, hair falling into his eyes. Trembling.

Speak.”

“Y- yeah, we are, we are.”

She had seen the flyers, the website itself when she would scour the internet for more information about that pest. The Bluemoon Fan Club, they called themselves, and it was almost an affront to her senses.

They were among the ‘other,’ the fanatics who were fascinated with the existence of a superhero, rather than terrified of someone who defied all previous logic. They posted ridiculous content on every social media feed, usually of humorless, low quality pictures the Bluemoon’s mask on cats, or pictures of themselves in places where the Bluemoon was last sighted. They’d engage with others online, defending the hero’s actions no matter what it was. A kind of idol worship Benny thought was only designated to pop stars and other celebrities.

Different strokes, different folks.

She still didn’t like it.

One way they would try for more attention was to ‘sell’ what sliver of information they had for more ‘follows.’ A thousand follows and they’d share what brand jacket the Bluemoon wore. A thousand more, and they’d post an exclusive picture that a member managed to snag. The fanfare was enraging enough, but the fact that there were people out there that ate it up?

It ate at her.

“I have some questions I’d like to ask you. Answer them, and you can live to post shit for another day.”

The boy nodded fast.

I can’t believe I’m about to ask this.

“At one hundred thousand follows, your club claimed you’d share something personal about the Bluemoon. Something no one else knows. You’re only at forty thousand, but I’m here to collect that information, now.”

“I don’t know that, and we’ve deleted that tweet since.”

The boy’s voice was quivering.

“You deleted it, why?” Benny asked. “Because it was true, and you didn’t want to compromise the person behind the mask, if you reached that number?”

The boy went mute.

“Is it true?”

Again, mute.

She gestured to Sofia. “Make it quick.”

Sofia readied her gun. Click.

Multiple teenagers cried out.

Benny caught one sentence, in that.

She faced the source.

“What was that?”

A girl, hands up, her back against a wall. Samuel had her. Her hair was odd. Purple, and it moved whenever she breathed.

“It’s true, please don’t hurt him!”

The boy on the floor called out, “Steph, don’t!”

“She was going to kill you, Robby!”

Benny crossed the room, going to Samuel and ‘Steph.’

“Tell me what it is, and I promise that no one here, Robby or whoever, gets hurt.”

The girl’s face changed across many different expressions. Wincing, biting her lip, her tongue, closing her eyes.

Conflicting emotions.

Finally, she gave up, spilling it. “The… Bluemoon, she’s a girl. Asian. Vietnamese, Chinese, I’m not sure. She-”

The girl stopped herself, biting her tongue again. Perhaps for a reason.

“Is there more?” Benny intoned.

The girl tried to keep still. More trembling.

Liar.

“Sofia,” Benny said, not taking her eyes of Steph.

Another click.

“Stephenville High School!”

It was as if air was sucked out of the whole room.

Something. Finally, something.

Benny was elated, but she had to hide it for now.

“And how do you know that?” Benny asked.

The girl answered in between takes of crying. “I’ve… seen her up close. She was pretending, but I knew it was her. We’d seen her before, before she had a mask. She… was wearing a jacket that day, it had the school’s mascot on it. Please, I have friends that go to that school, I-”

Benny slapped her to shut her up. She shut down.

Benny looked right at Samuel.

They’d failed at city hall. A mishap during an altercation, and the bomb that lawyer wore went off. The plan wasn’t seen all the way through. Benny failed.

Styx was the one to tell her, after the fact. She was done, officially. Taken off the Solace project. Her blackballed status remained. Others would be going after her, now. After her and her crew. She didn’t have Mister’s deal to protect them, not anymore.

And she wasn’t the only one to suffer for their loss. Roland was in the hospital, this time, his arm shattered in four different places.

No choice but to run back to Mexico, to Paco. Tail between her legs.

But, before they left, Benny wanted to leave a parting gift to the hero that made her lose all that made her Benny.

“You know,” Benny told Samuel, “I never got to swing by and see Maria. How about we pay her a visit, too?”

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