100 – Blood to Let, Peace to Make

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Alexis Barnett.

Alexis, Barnett. Alexis. Barnett.

Alexis Alexis Alexis, Alexis, Alexis Barnett? Alexis Barnett.

Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis Alexis Barnett, Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis Barnett. Alexis Alexis.

Alexis Alexis Alexis Barnett, Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis. Alexis Alexis Alexis Barnett Alexis Barnett. Alexis Alexis Alexis Alexis. Alexis Alexis Alexis Barnett, Alexis Barnett. Alexis Alexis Alexis Alexis. Alexis. Alexis Alexis Alexis, Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis Alexis Alexis Alexis. Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis Alexis Barnett? Alexis Barnett Alexis Barnett. Alexis Alexis. Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis, Alexis Barnett. Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis Alexis Barnett. Alexis. Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis Alexis Barnett, Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis Barnett. Alexis Alexis.

Alexis Barnett, Alexis Barnett.

Alexis Barnett.

Alexis Barnett Alexis Barnett. Alexis Alexis. Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis, Alexis Barnett. Alexis Alexis. Alexis Barnett Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis Barnett. Alexis, Barnett, Alexis Barnett. Alexis Alexis Alexis Barnett.

Alexis?

Alexis Barnett.

Alexis. Alexis Alexis. Alexis Barnett. Alexis, Alexis, Alexis Barnett. Alexis Barnett Alexis Barnett. Alexis, Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis. Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis, Alexis Barnett. Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis Alexis Barnett. Alexis. Alexis Alexis Alexis Barnett Alexis Barnett, Alexis Barnett.

Alexis. Barnett. Alexis.

Alexis.

Alexis, Alexis, Alexis Barnett. Alexis Barnett Alexis Barnett. Alexis, Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis. Alexis Alexis Alexis, Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis Alexis? Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis Alexis Alexis Alexis. Alexis Barnett. Alexis Alexis. Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis, Alexis Barnett. Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis Alexis Barnett. Alexis.

Alexis Barnett.

Alexis.

Alexis.

Alexis.

Alexis.

“I don’t know who that is,” I said.

“I can’t even entertain that possibility for a second. I’ve done my research, I know who you are, Alexis Barnett.”

That voice… it was taunting me, mocking me. An upper register that I despised.

Alexis Barnett.

Fuck no. I tried to not think about that name. Ignore it, block it out. Deny it.

Alexis. Alexis Barnett.

I gritted my teeth until it hurt. Fuck this. Fuck no.

Through those gritted teeth, sharpened fangs, tongue pressed against them, I pushed out the words.

“My name is Wendy.”

I told her that, and I also told myself that.

“Maybe that’s the name you’re using now, but it’s nothing more than an alias. A mask. A lie. And you can’t lie to me, Alexis.”

My hands were clenched tight, fingernails digging into my palms. Pinpricks.

“You can think what you want, Natalie Beckham, but that doesn’t change the situation you’re in. It doesn’t change the now. You’re still stuck in here, you still might die.”

I stared at the thin wall that divided us. The outline of Natalie Beckham was still, unmoving.

“That very may well be the case,” Natalie said after a time, “But that still cannot change the underlying truth, here. You’re still Alexis Barnett, you’re still-”

I punched the wall. Natalie startled.

Not enough break through, but enough to let her know that I could.

I let silence come into the booth with us. I let it hang.

And just as I let the silence in, I also destroyed it. A show, a display. It was also a reminder.

For her, and for me.

“No matter how hard you dig, there isn’t anything else. Nothing. Just me. Just Wendy.”

“That’s so sad,” Natalie said. “Sadder still that it’s a lie.”

I wanted to punch the wall again, but I couldn’t guarantee that it would stay up after a second hit.

God, fuck this. Fuck.

I couldn’t get away from this, couldn’t get around it. Natalie was saying her name, invoking it. And I needed to find out the why and how. It was one of the other things Mrs. Carter had asked of us, to interrogate Natalie Beckham and Oliver Morgan. Figure out what they know, who they had talked to. Assess the damage they would have caused if they hadn’t been stopped.

This was part of that assessment. This. Alexis fucking Barnett.

I cringed. I unfurled my fists, my nails having dug in too deep. I stared at the palms of my hands. Tiny crescent moons of crimson. Red against white. They almost looked like paintings.

The image didn’t last, though, the white eventually wiking out of existence, leaving nothing but blankness. It unsettled, leaving a nauseating impression that sat heavy in my stomach.

I sat here in this booth. I was sitting in this booth.

I’m stuck in this booth.

Lifting my head up, then my eyes, everything was weighing me down, making even the most incremental movements feel sluggish, listless. There wasn’t a shred of confidence in them.

I opened my mouth, or rather, I tried to relax the building tension in my jaw. It instead felt like I was prying it open. When I did speak, my voice was dry. I was thirsty.

“Believe what you want, it won’t change anything. Like I said before, you’re stuck in here with me, and you have a lot to answer for.”

“As do you,” Natalie said.

She didn’t sound scared, nervous, or uneasy in any capacity. It was almost the opposite. She sounded intrigued.

“I know you’ve been looking into John Cruz, and that you’ve sneaking around the Fang’s territory, too.”

“Ah,” Natalie said.

“So how much do you know, already?”

I went right to the questioning. The doubt was there, as if it was sitting right next to me, or like Isabella, who would standing right outside the door. The doubt was there, but I had to put that divider between me and that, too.

“I only know what I know. It’s not everything, but if you had given me enough time…”

“Well, don’t plan on it anymore. We’re cutting you off right now. Speaking of, I need to know where Oliver is, too. Where is he?”

“No, no, Alexis, that’s not how you do it at all. You stay on topic, hammer it in if you have to. Don’t lose track of the interview, because that’s the fastest way for the interviewee to lose their confidence in you. They might shut down, get frustrated, and it’s not going to lead you to getting the most accurate information out of them. And there is nothing worse than being inaccurate.”

“Answer my fucking questions,” I said.

“Now, see, which one? You’ve already lost me. That’s no good.”

I brought my hands together, wringing them, as if I could crush the very air between my palms.

I could just kill her right now. I could just lie, say she didn’t have much on anyone, and kill her. Leave her corpse out rotting as the sun rises and draw Oliver out using it.

I cracked a knuckle.

No, I couldn’t. I put up another divider between me and that urge, too.

This isn’t working.

Walls were being raised up all around me, leaving me with less and less room to breath. Like being in a confessional wasn’t constricting enough. I couldn’t even stretch my arms out to their full length.

“Tell me,” I started, but I paused. Had to set my everything straight in my head, what I needed to ask, what was pertinent to know.

One thing kept coming to mind, one name.

“Alexis Barnett,” I said. Her name tasted bitter in my mouth. I cringed again. “How do you know that name?”

My heart was pounding, on the precipice, about to drop. I was waiting for an answer that I didn’t want to hear. An answer I was scared to hear.

“How? I’m a journalist, that’s what I do. I search through records, I follow up on what’s happened before, I see the patterns and I make the connections. Then, I report it, but I haven’t gotten to that part. Not yet.”

“And you won’t get to,” I said.

Natalie clicked her tongue. “Another thing you shouldn’t do? Jump to conclusions.”

I grunted, nearing a growl. She was testing my patience. Challenging my authority.

The former was already so thin. I didn’t want the latter to fall in the same way.

“You clearly want something,” I said, trying to get at this from another direction, despite her advice. “I’m beginning to suspect that you… planned to be in here with me.”

Bringing that idea up… it came with a risk. It was the equivalent of my sticking my chin out while trying to get in close for a better shot. Or something along those lines. Either way, I metaphorically stood to lose some ground. The dynamic wouldn’t shift too hard in her favor, she was still bound and stuck in that booth, I could always walk away.

But if I did… would that equate to me forfeiting the fight? Losing to someone who had a handicap?

I shook my head, and I was only one in here. I adjusted my glasses.

Natalie Beckham answered me.

“Planned? I’m not so cunning, it just worked out like this. But, after years of having to gather info after the fact, working my way backwards, I can’t help but feel like this was always meant to happen. You and me.”

“Yeah?”

“Lorene informed me of someone coming to office, asking for me and Oli. She gave them my number, and gave me their name.”

I clicked my tongue. So much for that.

“I saw an opportunity and I took it. Though, I admit it’s not my smartest move.”

Natalie chuckled. I noticed some trepidation had managed to creep into her voice.

“But it wasn’t really my move to make.”

“What do you want?” I asked her, knowing I was switching topics again, moving from Alexis to this. Fuck.

“Same thing I always want,” Natalie answered. “The truth. You think I’d pass a chance like this up? An interview with the world’s first superhuman? That’s the story of the lifetime, and I only have the one.”

“You must be fucking delusional,” I said, “If you think you’ll be able to report anything I give you. You’re done, Natalie. You’ve lost, or you’re being cornered and running out of moves to make. In any case, the game is entering its final rounds.”

“In any case,” Natalie repeated, “I still have some moves left, it’s not over. There are still pieces on the board, more than you might even be aware of.”

“Like Oliver Morgan?” I questioned. I hated how this conversation was going. Too circular, looping the same few topics, without making much headway between any of them. It was starting to make my head ache.

“He’s one of them,” Natalie said.

We had pieces in play, too, but I didn’t dare mention them. The insurance. We could use them if we had to, and with how things were going, it might go that way.

“I need to know where he is,” I told her. “Me and my gang were tasked to take you both in. We’ll get what we need out of you, and then Oliver will get to have his turn, too.”

“Why? So you can kill him once you’re done with him?”

“So I can cross-reference with him what you tell me.”

“You didn’t answer my second question.”

“You’re not even in a position to ask,” I said. I breathed. “I’ve been very patient with you, to the point where I’m testing my own limits. Do not push me.”

There was a break in the already broken conversation. It wasn’t even so much a conversation as it was a battle, but we weren’t trading blows, just words. And I was struggling to keep on a grip on things.

I made fists with my hands again, as if I could actually take the reins of this nebulous concept.

Dammit. If only I had D, here, even Lawrence. Sarah. She could just be close and that would be enough to put my mind at ease. Now, though? It was just me, my thoughts, and the walls around me. I told the others that I could handle this part, but my track record when doing things by myself, it only made the walls start closing in even more.

I couldn’t do this by myself, but I didn’t have to.

“You know what?” Natalie started, “You’re right, I do want something. So how about this? I’m here, now, you have me. I can’t do much else. All we can do at the moment is talk. Let me ask you some questions, and I can answer whatever you ask me.”

“That’s not an offer you can give me,” I said. “You were always going to talk, no matter what. That hasn’t changed.”

“I know, I get that. But, please, would you indulge me?”

“In my world, words like that lead me to think that it’s a trap.”

“Trap? If I’m delusional, then you’re being paranoid.”

“Paranoia is a warm blanket. You need it when shit gets bad, and it does. Often, and fast.”

“Seems lonely,” Natalie commented.

I didn’t comment.

Natalie spoke. “I can go first, then. Something of a peace offering. John Cruz? I know he’s dirty, that he’s been secretly been sponsored by the mob, propped up as the new district attorney, so he can make their claws sink in that much deeper. But it doesn’t take loose lips to figure that out. When in doubt, follow the money, and there’s always a paper trail. Is that a good start for you?”

I didn’t comment. Not for a time.

It took some serious willpower to get me to unclench again, even though that manic energy was still kicking inside of me, still begging for an outlet. I adjusted my glasses, and found that my fingers were shaking as they moved.

I breathed, my voice hissing at the end of it.

“It’s a start,” I said. “You want to talk? Fine, let’s talk. I can entertain your curiosity. For a moment.”

Until Lawrence can get back on his feet, and we can all work together towards interrogating you, properly.

I tapped my foot, then grabbed for my phone. The sudden light from the screen blinded me. I sent a text to D, to update me on Lawrence’s condition, and when they’d be able to come back to assist me in questioning Natalie.

I put my phone away, ready to talk.

“Remember where you are right now,” I said, reminding her, reminding myself. “Your… predicament.”

“Kind of hard to forget.”

My ears picked up a faint clinking of metal on the other side. Handcuffs, most likely.

I didn’t start things off, instead letting the silence back in. I’d let her be the one to break it, this time.

“Let’s start with your name. Who are you?”

“I already told you. It’s Wendy.”

“But I want to get to the heart of things.”

I didn’t answer that, but my silence sent its own message.

Then, Natalie started.

“Alexis… to Wendy. Blank Face to V. The world’s first superhero, to its first supervillain. That has to be quite the journey, to go from one extreme to the other. I’d like to get the full picture, as you understand it. Paint it for me, would you?”

The full picture.

“The full picture,” I repeated. “That’s something I can’t even get for myself. I’m still, you know, working on it. And it’s a picture I didn’t even start. Painting over things, using different colors, endlessly unsure if my technique is any good, or if it’s even right. As I understand it? I barely had the chance to take a step back and take in everything I put to the canvas.”

I blinked when I referred to myself. I. Me. Wendy.

“Alright, we can frame it another way, then. What does Alexis Barnett mean to you?”

Alexis Barnett. Alexis Barnett-

“Weakness,” I said, before my thoughts could loop and my head start achining even harder. “She struggled and couldn’t handle it, couldn’t keep standing. She buckled, and there wasn’t anything there to prop her back up. So she submerged, stayed there. At the bottom.”

“So what keeps you standing? Wickedness?”

The wording of that reminded of something Fillmore had said, once.

“Something along those lines, yeah.”

“And you retreated into that wickedness, decided to be the villain, instead.”

“Sure,” I said.

“That’s… rather self-destructive of you.”

I shrugged, knowing she couldn’t see that.

“I don’t expect you to understand what we’re doing, here,” I said.

“That’s why I ask questions, gather context. All I want to know is, why? Why did you have to go down this road?”

Some time ticked away. I didn’t know how much, but it did.

After some more passed, Natalie said, “You haven’t asked yourself these questions, have you?”

“I have,” I said, a touch defensive. “Plenty of times.”

Plenty of times, mostly just in my own head. But I haven’t really… talked it over with someone else. Not too often.

I left it at that.

Natalie continued her questioning.

“Okay. Whatever your motivations were, they led you down that road. You got your start fighting gangs, and now you lead one yourself. Why? What’s your ultimate goal, doing this? What could you possibly hope to accomplish?”

“You’ve stuck your nose in my territory, you tell me.”

“Well, comparing you to the previous gang, the Fangs aren’t as ingrained in the community, but I’ve noticed the effort. Pushing out the harder drugs, clearing the streets of more troublesome individuals. It’s like you’re actually trying to make that neighborhood a better place than you found it.”

“Getting warm,” I said.

“Is that it, then? You couldn’t make the difference you wanted to as a hero, so you turned yourself into some other thing, entirely?”

“Warmer, but not quite there.”

“Then what is it?”

That trepidation was still in her voice, but there was another emotion mixed in there, now. Not excited, exactly, but as if she was sitting at the edge of her seat, thirsting over an answer. The truth.

I could feel a strange sense of comfort, in that. Being able to talk to a dead person. Any secrets shared would get buried with them.

My heart pounded, my head ached. The walls fell away a bit.

If I answered her, she would die.

“Peace,” I said. “I want solace.”

I answered her.

Sorry, D.

“And setting the city on fire is your way of getting that? I heard the sirens. Shit, I heard the explosions. And this isn’t the first time smoke was raised over Stephenville. You’re going to end up burning everything to the ground.”

“Exactly,” I said. “This is a fucked up city, and an even more fucked up world. I just want to take over everything and burn it down with me. And then, I can lay in the ashes and rest.”

I massaged my hands, rubbing them together. I had set them between my thighs, the cold starting to get to me. I felt the friction begin to heat me up.

That had been the plan, all along. What I was striving for this whole time. To build the Fangs up into a force that could sweep over the whole city like a wildfire. D was the only other person who was playing along, helping set everything up for me to knock down.

But what we were building, we were building with Lawrence. And he had different aspirations, what he was building, he wanted it to last. I could see it as we were getting further along, after being approached by Mrs. Carter. He worked so hard to plan this art heist, to put on a show, not just to throw smoke over our actual plan, but to impress the upper echelon of gang leaders.

The table was within reach, but we had different ideas of what we would do when we got there.

Sorry, Lawrence.

Natalie had paused. Or rather, she hesitated.

“That… sounds more like revenge than solace,” she then observed.

“Call it what you want. Doesn’t change anything.”

“I think it does. Revenge is a cyclical thing. A vicious circle. You think by doing this, you’re taking control of the things around you? I’ve seen it time and time again, working the crime beat, reporting on it. It’s a cycle. Someone gets wronged, they get burned hard, and they’ll come back with their perverted sense of how to make things right, again. It’s a spiral that does nothing but destroy everyone that chooses to go down that path, that road. That will include you, Wendy. It’s like clockwork.”

“I can bounce back,” I said. “Perks of being a monster.”

“You burned a lot of bridges to be where you are right now, from Alexis to Wendy. That means a lot of enemies. I suspect… you’d actually stand to gain much more agency if you were to just stop, and walk away from all of this.”

I shook my head again. I was still the only one in here.

“It’s too late for that,” I said. “It’s too late for me. Like you mentioned, I burned those bridges already. This is where I have to be. I don’t have those connections, anymore.”

I could only imagine the look she had on her face. Was she frowning? Disappointed? Or was she just happy that she could satiate her thirst?

On that level, I was envious of her.

When Natalie spoke again, it nearly took me by surprise. I would have figured she was done.

“You really hate that part of your life that much? To just throw it all away?”

I told myself as much as I told her, “It was a necessary bit of evil.”

“Is that what powers do to you? I wouldn’t know for myself.”

That was a question that hit my core, in a way I didn’t expect. My powers… they changed how I saw the world, and how Alexis had fit in it. If she never had gotten them, if she had never went out that day, I wouldn’t be here, I wouldn’t want to burn.

“Having powers like mine is like having anything else. It’s how you use it, or how you let it use you. It’s a delicate balance, and I’ll admit, I haven’t been very good at maintaining it. But that’s just another thing for me to work on.”

“How could you possibly find that balance when you’ve let your powers, your predicament, veer you to such an extreme course of action? Tell me, if you think Alexis Barnett to be so weak that you’d sooner disown her, then who are you even getting revenge for?”

Another hit to the core. A question for which I didn’t quite have an answer.

One was forming, on the tip of my dry tongue, but the words weren’t coming out.

  1. Me. Wendy.

But who was I actually? What was I really?

I remembered the Lunar Tower, I remembered the barn. There were spirals there, too. Spirals of destruction.

It was supposed to be easy. The answer was supposed to be right there.

Wendy. Me. I.

Alexis Barnett.

“For myself, and myself only,” I answered. I sounded more defensive. I sounded more irritated.

The more I doubled down…

“Is that something you can claim for yourself? That vengeance?”

“I will.”

“Another thing for you to work on?”

I wanted to stand up, but I didn’t have room for even that. Constricted, constrained. I clenched my hands again, fingernails digging.

“We’re done here,” I said. “You keep saying her name, Alexis Barnett. But no matter how many times you bring her up, it’s not going to bring her back.”

“It’s not about bringing her back, it’s about not making her forgotten.”

“Some people prefer to be left alone,” I said.

I felt my phone, heavy in my pocket. I was ready for it to vibrate, inform me that a response had come. It hadn’t.

I tapped my foot again.

We needed to know more on what she had on John Cruz, and Oliver Morgan was still out there, too. But I wanted to avoid doing anything drastic while it was just me here, watching Natalie. Better to play it safe for now, and there was no need to for us to rush.

But, there was one thing that I could look into on my own. I wouldn’t need D or Lawrence or Sarah for this.

In my head, her name echoed, calling out to me from the very bottom. Again.

Damn you.

“Natalie, you said Alexis Barnett was the one you really wanted to talk to. Why?”

It was now that Natalie Beckham went silent.

“Remember-”

I was interrupted by a metal clinking. More deliberate.

“Still haven’t forgotten,” Natalie said. “You’re asking why I did this, it’s like asking why a moth goes to a flame. It’s in their nature.”

“That’s rather self-destructive of you,” I said, throwing those words back. “Get close to fire, you might get burned. That’s the risk you run the second you started getting into our business.”

My business, I thought.

“You don’t have to tell me. I’ve been at this for a long time.”

“Then what? Are you afraid?”

“Afraid? No. Doing what I do, I knew this might happen eventually, getting swallowed by the very light I’m so attracted to. So with me here, now? Might as well make something of it. It’s a shame I can’t tell your story, Wendy. Despite everything, I wouldn’t want you to be forgotten.”

“I prefer the shadow,” I said. “Now enough with the misdirection. Tell me what you have on Alexis Barnett.”

I was done with this fight. Trading words, worrying over everything that had been said. I was going to get what I needed out of her, and I could finally be done.

Natalie breathed, shaky, and then finally got to the point.

“Sure, but, instead of telling you, how about you read it for yourself?”

I tilted my head.

“I don’t understand.”

“Go to the Impact’s website. Early edition section. Should be up by now.”

I reached for my phone, which felt as heavy as a brick in my hand. No replies from D, yet.

Light violated my eyes as I unlocked my phone. I went to the website of the Stephenville Impact.

I froze.

Her name in print. It was like seeing a ghost.

Alexis Barnett-

I couldn’t even read the rest. I just saw the name. I saw the face.

Alexis, Barnett. Alexis. Barnett-

My hands were shaking, my vision going red. The walls were starting to crack and my throat flared in thirst.

Alexis-

I snapped. It wasn’t even hard. It was right there, the whole time. Bubbling inside of me, ready to burst.

The walls fell around me. The divider between us splintered into pieces.

I clawed through the wood and mesh. My hands found their way to Natalie’s neck.

It was the first time I saw her in person. I didn’t have to guess at her expressions anymore.

Fear. Her eyes were wide and darting. It had been dark in both booths, so she couldn’t see what just happened. Her hands were tied behind her, she couldn’t fight back as I threw her back into the wall, pushing her up until her head hit the short ceiling above her.

She tried to kick, wiggle around. It wouldn’t work. The space was too tight, and I already had her. She wasn’t going anywhere.

“I told you not to test me,” I growled.

Natalie struggled to speak. Some strands of her hair had whipped around, getting in her mouth. She spat before she could articulate anything.

“What the fuck did you do?”

I growled again.

Natalie gagged. “I told- I told the truth!”

I slammed her into the wall. The wood cracked in places.

“You wrote your own death sentence!”

“It’s- It’s not everything. It’s just the lede. Alexis Barnett the- the teenage girl who loved volleyball and being with her friends-”

I tightened my grip around her throat.

“Shut up! Shut the fuck up!”

I was contradicting myself. But I was panicking. Scatterbrained. Everything about this was cracked and broken and fucked up.

“What did you write? What the fuck did you put in there?”

“Nothing about the Fangs, or John Cruz. That- That was to come later, once I have everything. I don’t have everything!”

“I’ll kill you!”

“You kill me, you don’t get anything!”

I willed myself to release her, to just pull my fingers back and let her drop, but my hands weren’t moving. Something else was taking over. A lust for something more than blood.

Against that, though, Natalie still managed to gasp out some more words.

“Journalists have… a responsibility to seek the truth… report it… but how it’s presented is just as important. People… won’t understand if it hits them all at once. The truth is a… difficult thing to handle. That’s why I had to do it like this, they need… context.”

“You’re not making any fucking sense!”

I threw Natalie back into the wall. She didn’t go through, instead slumping down, into her seat.

The force of it threw me back, too, landing somewhere between the two booths, on top of the broken wood and torn mesh.

This wasn’t working.

I scrambled for purchase, mentally and physically. Cracked and broken and fucked up.

Natalie was useless, she was playing me the whole time. Needed someone else.

“Where’s Oliver, you get him over here now!”

I crawled over the debris to get to Natalie.

She was human. I was not. She couldn’t take the kind of punishment I could dish out.

Natalie slouched, head hanging. Breathing was light, but she was still alive.

My hands didn’t go for her throat, not this time. They went around her collar, to the clothes.

Like tearing up paper. Her clothes were in tatters.

Bare skin presented itself to me.

“Tell me how to contact him.”

Natalie was quiet.

I reached for her hand and squeezed it. Breaking every bone in it.

Natalie’s screams filled my ears.

“Pocket! In my pocket!”

I felt around, searching her body. Something on her dress, by her hip.

Finding her phone, I took it out and put it to her face.

“Call him,” I said.

Natalie looked up, weak, breathing harder now. Her phone had to be one of the newer types that could recognize faces, because the screen lit up. I could see the tears stream down her face.

She did this to herself.

Natalie muttered, but it worked. The phone beeped and dialed. It had recognized her voice, too.

The call was picked up, but it was quiet on the other end.

I reached for her other hand.

“Oli,” Natalie gasped, terrified.

A faint voice replied.

Nat? That you?

“It’s me, Oli, it’s-”

She screamed again. I had squeezed her hand.

Natalie!

I moved the phone around, holding it in both hands. I set it to speaker.

“That’s both hands already, Oliver Morgan. There’s twenty-seven bones in each. That makes fifty-four, so I still have a hundred and fifty-two to go through. Shall I go through them individually?”

Juvenile. You fucking kids think you can treat us like pawns?

Natalie murmured. I barely picked it up, but I caught the word ‘rook.’

I spoke over them both.

“Whatever you’re planning, it ends, now. Give yourself up, Oliver, it doesn’t have to get any worse for her.”

Fuck you. Coward.

I made a noise, somewhere between a growl and a snarl.

Why were they fighting me on this? Too deliberate. It was like they had some sort of contingency, in case either of them got tortured or killed.

If they had accounted for that…

“Oliver,” I said into the phone. I surprised myself by how calm I sounded there. Calm enough that Oliver was quiet on the other end.

I continued in that tone.

“What if I propose this, instead? It doesn’t get worse for her. In fact, it gets so much better.”

What the hell are you saying?” Oliver questioned.

“You’ve been looking us, me, Alexis freaking Barnett. So you know I have powers. One of them includes the ability to heal from any wound, no matter how serious. Even from a shot to the head. Are you following me?”

I don’t,” Oliver said.

“I’ll spell it out for you then. Give yourself up, and I don’t drink her blood, turn her into a thrall, and sic her on you?”

I wasn’t touching Natalie, but I could sense her go cold, frozen stiff at the mere suggestion.

You’re lying.

“I’m not,” I said, very much not sure if that was the truth at all.

Could I even turn someone into… whatever the hell I was? It hadn’t happened before, but I never really experimented with my abilities with any meaningful capacity. Was that a possibility?

Maybe, possibly, but I wasn’t about to test that with her. This would be her last night alive.

I kept that close to my chest. Along with everything else.

I had let the threat hang in the air. Static in my ears and my head.

The silence broke.

Fine.

“Follow my instructions, by the letter. Go where I tell you, go alone, and neither of you have to get hurt more than what you’ve already inflicted on yourself.”

I gave Oliver an address, the same address that was attached to Natalie’s phone number. Reggie was already there, he’d intercept Oliver the moment he came into view.

Oliver agreed, and the call ended.

I dropped the phone, tossing it by Natalie.

“It’s over,” I said to her. “It didn’t have to get this bad, but you forced my hand.”

Natalie was getting weaker by the second. Both of her hands were broken. She couldn’t move.

She still found it in her to run her mouth.

“Everyone’s hands were forced, Wendy. That’s what happens when you allow yourself to get caught in that spiral?”

“Yeah? But you and Oliver are the ones that are going down, first.”

“Burn enough bridges, Wendy, there’s nowhere else for you to run. It might be us now, but who’s to say someone won’t try to corner you?”

“Like I said, I’ll bounce back.”

“Wendy… Alexis… please… you don’t have to be stuck here. You can turn around, go back. Your mother misses you.”

A cold fear pierced through me. Right through my heart.

I lowered myself, hovering over Natalie.

“You what?”

“She’s in the story, I talked to her, about Alexis. I can’t lie, she isn’t looking very well, but if you went back-”

I slapped her with enough strength to probably knock a tooth out. I went to searching through the chipped wood at the confessional.

I found my phone, opening a program.

I showed Natalie the phone.

“When I visited the office, looking for you? Boxes of teddy bears were delivered on the same day. Most of them were clean, but some of them were packed with enough thermite to burn down the entire floor of the building.”

Natalie didn’t react. Maybe she didn’t have the energy to.

“It was our insurance, if you didn’t comply, and you didn’t. But it’s fine, now. I don’t care.”

I tapped my screen. It vibrated, then beeped, sending a remote signal to detonate the explosives.

“You… can’t last like this forever.”

She winced as I lifted her up. Her collar was still exposed. Gleaming, appetizing.

“Is this peace you’re after… worth all this violence and vengeance?”

“If we ever meet again, I’ll let you know.”

I didn’t give a warning. I just brought her to my teeth, and had my fill.

She twitched as I drained her, as the front of my lips to the back of my throat sang with the sweet flavor.

I didn’t go all the way. I wasn’t trying to be greedy. Just enough to satiate my thirst.

Natalie dropped in the seat again, falling over to her side. She was wheezing, her breaths slow.

If she’d end up turning, I wouldn’t know. She’d be dead before that ever happened.

I stepped out of the confessional. I didn’t feel good, but I did feel better.

Isabella greeted me. She was smiling.

I rolled my eyes and wiped my mouth.

Putting my phone to my ear, I dialed a number that finally managed to reply.

“I’m sorry, guys…”

“… accepted,” Styx finished with a grin. He zipped up the bags.

Styx grinned again, wider. “I can definitely accept this.”

“Was it worth seeing us again?” Lawrence asked.

I didn’t know Styx could grin any wider, but he did.

“Definitely.”

Smoke billowed behind him, blackening the sky above us. Some spilled out down the building, dissipating onto the ground and bits of debris.

The Stephenville Impact burned to ashes.

We had all convened at the parking garage we started the operation from. The top level was high enough to see the city’s skyline, and close enough to be able to observe certain things at a decent distance.

Firefighters were working to put out the smoke and its source, but the problem was that the office was on a higher floor, making it harder for people on the ground to try anything. From where I could see, I wasn’t able to see what they were doing about it, exactly, but that was their problem to solve. That was their job.

Me, D, Lawrence, Sarah at my side. Styx and his Ferrymen, across from us.

It was the first time I’d ever seen Styx’s Gang with anything bigger than a motorcycle, but it’d make less sense if they limited themselves in that capacity. But when they had to go big, they went there.

Styx indicated the two black bags and the huge armored truck. It looked like something banks would use to transport money around. Ferrymen moved, dragging the bags across the pavement, over to the open truck. I saw the Ferryman with helmet and the one with his hair tied back, waiting to help lift the bags inside.

Even covered up, I could make out their shapes.

“So,” Lawrence said, “What’s the verdict? Did we do good or no?”

Styx ran his fingers through his bread.

“You certainly put on a show. I definitely enjoyed it.”

“And Mrs. Carter?”

“Can’t speak for her, but you did what she asked of you, in a roundabout way. How she judges this is up to her. I just get to watch how it goes down.”

Lawrence nodded. I knew that he hated having to wait. As if it was a nervous tick, he scratched at his wrists, fixing the cuffs. I saw the stains on his sleeves. He hadn’t gotten all the blood out.

Styx turned and climbed on his bike. King of Pentacles.

“You roused me from an early grave, so I might as well go on an early haunt. Oh, and before I forget again, how about another piece of advice?”

What was the first advice? I thought. I tried to remember.

Cut ties?

“What is it?” Lawrence asked.

Styx’s expression changed. Twisted, vile really. It made me sick.

“Laugh!”

His bike then started up, rumbling with life. Exhaust swelled out from the metal veins of the mechanical beast.

Styx drove off, the armored truck and the other Ferrymen tailed him. The ones who were keeping watch of the different paths up to the top level got on their bikes and went with.

Another truck came into view, following suit. John Cruz and the other decoy hostages. We’d hold onto the other truck, the one with the paintings.

The loud engines fell into the distance, and then it was just us.

Lawrence shook his head, leaning back onto the hood of his car.

“Fucking hell, that guy creeps me the fuck out.”

“He’s out of our hair now, now what?”

D asked.

“We wait for Mrs. Carter to approach us again, so we give her over everything Oliver Morgan told us. Until then, though? We get our ducks in a row, focus on our territory again. Because if this goes the way I hope it does, we’re about to have a lot more territory to focus on.”

“Not just the territory, Ellie, we need to focus on ourselves.”

Lawrence leaned more onto his car.

“We can’t have another scare like that. You need to start tapering off your painkillers.”

“I will, in time. Just needed one to hold me over for tonight.”

“You better, or I’ll kick you in the shins, or I’ll get Vivi to do it. Right?”

D turned to me. All I did was offer a nod.

Lawrence scratched his wrists again. Still nervous? He shook his head again. Harder.

“There’s still some stuff about this that bugs me.”

“Like?”

Lawrence looked at D. “Like, why did they both not go to the event? There was no reason for them to split up. Oliver wouldn’t say, and even after I gave him his middle finger, I’m not sure if I believe what he told me. Their notes, too. It was all just public records on Cruz, hardly anything substantial. They were looking in him because they thought he was dirty, but they hadn’t collected any evidence to prove that claim. Why go after him then?”

D didn’t try to offer anything. I didn’t have an explanation.

“It’s like some weird, twisted murder mystery.”

“Doesn’t matter, right?” D asked, somehow hurried. “The real goal was to stop them, and we did. And look…”

She pointed to the sky, the smoke as it continued to pool upwards.

“That’s warning enough to anyone else who tries to go against us.”

Lawrence shrugged, shaking his head a little. Scratching his wrists.

“That’s big talk for a little girl. Not sure if I believe that, too.”

Before anyone could get another word in, Lawrence pushed himself to his feet, grunting from the effort.

“Whatever. We did what we were asked. No one can dispute that. In this world, that’s as close to a win as we’re going to get.”

He walked around his car, keeping a hand on it to keep his balance.

“I’ll text when something comes up. And Wendy?”

Everyone had turned to me. I lifted my head up.

“I’m-”

“I heard it the first time. You don’t have anything to apologize for. She was being… difficult, and you corrected that. It’s leave it at that, okay?”

Reluctant, I nodded. “Okay.”

Lawrence had nothing else to say. He got in his car, and left.

Me, D, and Sarah at my side.

D was on her phone, now, texting. She glanced at me. Hesitant, and a little pitiful. Not for herself, but for me.

“Sorry it didn’t go the way you wanted,” I said.

“It’s… I’m not mad, Vivi.”

“Just disappointed?”

“Not even that. I’ll… I really want to stay here with you, but…”

“It’s fine, you can go.”

She touched my hand, giving it a wag.

Leaving it at that, D walked over to her van. The next to leave.

Me, and Sarah at my side.

“Wasn’t D your ride?” Sarah asked.

I turned to face Sarah.

She wasn’t wearing the mechanic outfit, but the blouse and skirt she had on underneath. The only light here was artificial, from the light pole above, but she still somehow basked in it.

I was confused. My heart was pounding and my head was aching.

I reached for her hand, I gave it a squeeze.

I asked her for something I should have asked for a long time ago.

“Would you mind coming with me?”

Sarah looked like she was about to speak, but she didn’t. Instead, her lips were set together, bright and red.

Sarah’s expression was answer enough.

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099 – Keyword

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An intense rush went over and through me. Hitting against my chest, forcing me to steel myself and keep an iron grip on the van’s cold, metal roof. A hard wind that sent shivers across my whole being.

It probably said something, that this kept my focus, centered me, to the point that I could get lost in it, because I had done that before. Danger, destruction. A void that I had come from and could easily slip back into.

The wind hit, and I shivered again. I smiled.

Speeding out of the alley, the vans immediately disrupted the oncoming traffic, tearing up the road and causing chaos. Cars swerved out of the way, tires screeching, people screaming. The drivers were good, they didn’t hit anyone or crash into anything, but they did leave behind a mess.

Over the initial wave of pandemonium, I yelled into the earpiece.

“We’re en route! The vans, or the hammers, are splitting up as we speak!”

I could hear D’s tiny voice in my ear.

I can hear it from here. Could you not be so obvious about it, though? We need to leave through the same alley, too.

The van drifted through an intersection, hardly losing any speed. I held on hard enough for the metal to bend.

“And you’ll get that, don’t worry!”

I almost heard the start of a whine, but a sharper horn cut through that, instead.

Cars practically leapt to safety, even if it meant endangering other people. The van I was on snaked between the different obstacles, sometimes just skirting past the metal of other vehicles, almost trading paint. It was so easy for this to go so wrong. A turn made too late, a driver panicking and skidding right into us… a collision would send me soaring before I crashed, myself. It was something I could walk away from, but that meant losing precious time, time that could be spent raising even more hell.

I wasn’t planning on staying on the roof of this van, however, I’d have to split up again. That was the point. But I needed more distance, we had to spread out more.

Another corner, turning even when the light was red. The squeals of tire on rubber pierced my ears as the van veered through everything and everyone. Another street.

The traffic was thinning out as we got farther away from the gala, moving through another part of the Eye. The metropolis still sprawled out, so we all had plenty of cover from buildings and alleys, back roads and some even improvised paths if we had to brute force it.

A benefit of being able to operate in the city, we were given a lot of room to work with. The vans and trucks would have the streets, while I had the rooftops. The verticality.

It wasn’t unlike having a canvas to paint on. We were in the process of making a picture. I had in mind a piece that Sarah had singled out, while we scoped out the gala ourselves. The image of anger, of broken fractals and harsh colors. Fire.

With the Fangs, I didn’t need a painting like that in my apartment. We could paint an even more vivid picture.

The van accelerated, and I didn’t budge or sway. I did, though, start to lift myself up, pushing so my feet were pressing more into the roof. My legs tensed, my arms tightened, my whole body coiling up and getting ready to spring.

I waited. People and cars scrambled to get out of our path, risking other lives to save their own, creating a sort of lawlessness that branched out and spread by itself, almost like a wildfire. The high pitched screams and squeaks were like the embers of a great flame.

One more turn, and then it was just us. The van, and me on top of it. The others were taking their own routes, forming their own branches. And I was to add to that, as well.

I yelled into the earpiece.

“I’m about to start! How’s Sarah and Lawrence?”

D answered.

Same as you. About to start. The Fangs are right at the door, and Lawrence is about to signal them in. He’s got visual on at least one of them.

Hearing that almost made me stumble off the van and onto the pavement.

“At least one of them?”

The reporters. I can’t get anything else from Lawrence since he’s about to start. We’ll just have to make do.

Words I didn’t want to hear so early on in this. We needed both reporters in order to consider this job complete, we couldn’t let either of them slip past us. And Lawrence only pegged down one of them?

I wanted to turn back and help Lawrence, maybe even protect Sarah if she’d need it. I wanted to, but I recognized that I couldn’t. That wasn’t what the job called for. If it was, I’d be there instead, hiding in the crowd, being another pair of eyes for Lawrence, bringing in some muscle if the situation called for that.

No. I could only help by doing my part, and that was here, away from the gala, leaving as much disorder as I could in the distance between us. And that distance was growing.

A lot of work to do.

“That’s fine,” I said into the earpiece, “We’ll make it work, we always do.”

Do we? I’m kidding. Alright, cameras are on a loop and… there. Their communications will be all scrambly for a little. The Fangs are about to bite.

Lawrence was looped into the call as well, but he couldn’t actively participate in our conversation. He was about to get on stage, ready to perform.

And so was I.

Now.

It was a synchronized moment in three parts. The van took a sudden turn, Lawrence shouted, and I took to the air.

I heard it in my ear, over the wind as I through it.

A harsh, digitized burst of noise, like static. The single warning shot of a gun.

And then Lawrence.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are your entertainment for tonight.

His voice sounded a touch more distorted than before, when he was among the attendees, mingling with them, pretending. If I got the timing of everyone’s part right, one of the Fangs would have passed him his mask by now.

First a costume, now a mask. Was he trying to give me competition?

The question soon passed from my mind as I headed to terra firma.

I hit the ground running.

We’ll be putting on an amazing show for you, and we’re about to get right to it. But, before we do, may I ask for some volunteers?

I jumped again, clearing more of the street, until my feet hit the sidewalk, running and pushing through a small group of passersby.

I couldn’t remember the last time, if ever, that I had brought myself down to this level while I was in the city, in my costume. Wearing the mask, being active, being so close to people who couldn’t even comprehend what I was capable of. Alexis and Blank Face, maybe, but not me, not V.

I remembered the Thunders and the Royals, when I had made my debut as V. It was a show for EZ and Krown, and for Gomez, when his cops came to clean them up. A warning, that we weren’t to be messed with, that we’d play, we would play for keeps.

Now, we were going to send out another warning. This time, it was for everyone else.

Confusion gripped the men and women I knocked over, stunned at what was happening and what to do in response of it. Perfect. Cause a big enough mess, and people would take too long in making sense of it all. Reports would conflict, the point of origin would be harder to pin down, and first responders would be slowed by a significant margin, forced to tackle things at the edges of that mess, first. By the time the smoke cleared and the glass got swept away, it would take even longer to find what started it all, to find any connection.

Cause a big enough fire, and the source gets swallowed up, too.

Finding an alley, I dipped into it, jumping up a fire escape to I hauled myself over a building. I crossed the roof, then the street, then another roof.

Lawrence continued with the show as I moved.

No one wants to step up? That’s… that’s quite alright, I can just call on you from the audience. Let’s start with, Alan Gordon!

Lawrence started listing names. We didn’t have access to a guest list, but we didn’t need one. Sarah and Lawrence were able to pick out a few names from just talking with people, getting acclimated with that environment. They only needed a handful, just enough to make it seem random.

Congratulations, Mr. Gordon, you’re the first to join us, but we’re not done yet. Do we-”

Lawrence coughed, the static fuzziness in his voice clipped.

Do we have a John Cruz in here as well?

As I ran, I kept an ear on Lawrence, and another on the city around me. Sirens, now, joining the growing cacophony. Music, really.

And just a reminder,” Lawrence buzzed, “Please, no flash photography, getting up during the show, or talking with others during the show. We take your safety very seriously, so don’t make us put it in jeopardy!

Yes, Ellie, you are totally selling it.

“Now is not the time for new nicknames, D.”

She groaned as I hopped another roof, maneuvering down the length of a street. I saw a structure in the distance, a building that hadn’t been fully constructed yet. The marker.

I plotted my path in that direction.

Thank you,” Lawrence said, as if to address both his captive audience and D as well. “Back to the show. Still need just a few more lucky volunteers. Let’s see…  do we what have a Natalie Beckham and Oliver Morgan?

All my attention started to narrow towards my earpiece. I was running without any conscious thought for the steps ahead of me, my body moving on its own. Muscle memory. I climbed over vents and metal railings, flew over alleys in a single bound. There was one building with people lounging on top, eating. Probably a rooftop patio. I ran along the edge, running harder. Before people could turn and realize who I was, I had already moved on.

People would catch glimpses of me, maybe enough to try and piece together a picture. But they wouldn’t get the full thing, they’d only have enough to make them scared.

And Oliver Morgan?

Lawrence asked again, then coughed again. Was Lawrence not able to find him?

I couldn’t get an answer. I couldn’t ask, the extended exercise of having to parkour across rooftops left me with little breath to speak. I’d have to stop, and I couldn’t.

The hollow husk of a building loomed overhead as I got closer.

Lawrence continued. The show had to go on.

Alright, and just one more before we can start. Last but certainly not the least, Martin Bolland!

My legs were pumping hard, muscles straining as I pushed myself to run faster. Lawrence seemed to be doing alright, D had things under control, and I needed to stoke the flames. I couldn’t let doubt slow me down, not at this juncture.

I jumped again.

D, being Miss Director, directed things along.

Better wrap it up soon, Ellie. Silent alarm has been tripped. It’s still gonna take the cops a while to get there, and Vivi is working to slow them down, but we can’t stick around for too long.

“What she said,” I said. It came out strained.

I got over to the other side of the street and ran.

Okay then,” Lawrence said, as if speaking to us and the audience, “Time to get on with the show. What we have for you tonight is a magic trick, actually. Watch closely as we make half this fucking room disappear!

I smiled as I closed in on the building. Lawrence was really playing it up.

It was easy to see it in my head, the picture clear. Lawrence standing at the head of the exhibit hall, masked, with the Fangs spread out through entire space, controlling the crowd. Everyone else would be crouched or on their knees, not daring to try and pull any tricks of their own. Sarah, being an extra pair of eyes, wearing her complete outfit in that white blouse and fitting skirt. Easy to see how good it looked on her.

The people Lawrence called out would have been pushed together, forming a small herd, surrounded by Fangs. John Cruz. Natalie Beckham and Oliver Morgan both, hopefully.

Other Fangs were moving now, too, taking different paintings off the walls.

Someone would protest, despite themselves. One of the art curators. They’d risk their lives over some art.

No, no, we can’t have that.” I heard Lawrence. “We already gave you a warning!

Through the earpiece, I heard a more faint sound. A cry. Did someone actually try to fight Lawrence and the Fangs?

If I was there, I’d go for the hand, because they tried to take the paintings back, or maybe the leg, because they got up and ran. Break them, set an example for the rest, a further warning.

It was important, posturing in that way. The image of power was just as crucial as having it. Lawrence understood that more than anyone.

My dear audience, it is time for the trick, and then we will close our show. I do hope you had a good time, or at least a memorable one. In any case, so long, and we vanish!

We’re starting the trucks now,” D said. “We’re open and ready to load!

“And I’m almost at the marker!”

There was a courtyard tucked between some buildings, between me and a large, unfinished structure. A skeleton of a building. The marker. My real destination was just below.

I did a cursory check before I would drop down. I saw them.

Two groups, meeting at the fountain, in the middle of the courtyard. Two gangs.

Six to seven on each sides, the heads of each group were speaking to one another. Each indicated to a member behind them, and they went around to hand the leader a bag. After inspecting the contents between them, the bags switched hands.

Some kind of deal.

I knew the gangs that were just below. We moved them there.

One of the groups were decked out in blue, hoods that covered their heads. Styled after a long-abandoned identity, but it just made it easier to know where their loyalties would lie. Lawrence had already gone to them and held that meeting. Instead of paying back the funds they owed us, they’d work for us instead. Manpower over money.

Or pawns, really.

The other gang was in a similar position, but they wouldn’t get the same grace as the blue hoods. They were another gang that owed us, another set of pawns that we could move and manipulate.

The blue hoods would call the other gang, hoping to cut some sort of deal. Meet in a secluded location, discuss the details there. All from Lawrence’s suggestion. The blue hoods had no choice but to comply.

The pieces were on the board. I could move freely.

I moved.

Dropping down, I descended several stories, sticking a foot out. Several lampposts illuminated the courtyard, with one being directly above the two gangs, overlooking the deal as they proceeded.

I went at an angle. The heavy sole of my boot crashed into the lamp itself, casting the gangs in darkness and shattered glass. They fell back, shocked, as I pounced on one of them. The leader that wasn’t in a blue hood.

He went down, stayed down, without a fight. He didn’t even know there would be one.

I heard screams, I heard clicks. I heard gunfire.

Ducking close to the ground, I crawled over the man I had laid out flat, keeping low to avoid getting hit. Bullets zipped by, but they didn’t go anywhere near me or anyone else. Warning shots, to try and scare off the sudden ambush. But I wasn’t going anywhere. I was right where I needed to be.

With something as loud as a gun, it brought with it attention. Sirens were already incoming, I could hear them blare. They had been out, red and blue lights searching for a source of trouble, and I was able to lead some of them this way.

I just had to lead even more.

Springing back up, I tackled another in the ribs, feeling them crack. I rolled, keeping my momentum, stretching out that momentary shock as far as I could. Until it snapped.

Two were advancing on me as I got up, square on my feet. One was armed with a pistol, the other with a knife.

I had both on me as well, but I didn’t go for them. They were substitutes, tools as I wasn’t as intimately familiar with, having lost the originals during the initial raid of the church.

Still need to see if I can find them again. They should still be there. Another thing on the list I-

Cold metal slid right through my arm, tearing past the meat and getting caught in the bone. I winced, my thoughts escaping me, and I twisted around to avoid more hurt while still keeping some momentum.

Fuck. Got stabbed. Had to keep my priorities straight.

It was fine. I could keep going. Focus, focus.

I struck out, going for the guy with the gun. The other guy already lost his weapon, with it being stuck in me.

The gun got knocked out of his hands. I threw my arms forward, grabbing his wrists, twisting them until they couldn’t move again.

His screams gurgled as he went to the ground, arms still braided in front of him. More shock, more confusion. More momentum.

I went without my weapons because I didn’t need to kill. Maim, maybe. The message would be about the same.

That was about half of the other gang, already. I wasn’t tearing through them, not exactly, but I very well could, and everyone here knew that, now.

Before anyone could get their bearings again, we were flooded by red and blue lights.

Police yelled orders as they ran out of their cars, guns pointed. Everyone who was able to, scrambled.

I started to move, but I noticed one of the blue hoods. He was standing still, frozen, staring at me. The leader of his particular group.

For reasons I wouldn’t try to understand, this gang had decided to change their entire look around Blank Face. Whatever. I didn’t care.

But, he wasn’t running. The cops were getting closer.

Someone from the other gang was running, though, to him. He had a knife too, ready to slow another down in order to buy him some time.

I started to move.

It didn’t even take a second. In one smooth motion, I lowered myself and scooped up a handful of glass. I threw it.

The shards flew right into his face. He was down before I even fully crossed that distance.

I didn’t slow when I passed. I indicated to a path behind the blue hood, a way out through the courtyard.

“Go,” I said, “Don’t waste this chance I gave you.”

I wasn’t even sure if he heard me. I didn’t bother to check. I was already out of earshot. Running, but in a different direction.

Someone fired. The cops fired back. They tried to go after everyone. Me.

I could let them get close, but I wouldn’t let them catch me.

There was a short wall that divided the courtyard and the unfinished building on the other side. It only took a short jump to scale the thing. But it was more than enough for the cops to stop what they were doing and direct themselves to me.

Cars rumbled back to life. Sirens blared again.

I ran.

Bullets followed me as I went over the wall, landing in a patch of grass that stretched to the building proper. Maybe proper wasn’t the right word, since it wasn’t a proper building, yet.

I ran inside, or rather, I used the place as a cover.

The building was tall enough to see from a distance, so stairs had already been installed to get to the higher levels. I rushed over to them, the sirens and gunfire never that far behind.

I tripped over a stray brick, catching myself on the metal railing that wound up and around the staircase. Hasty.

The near fall gave me pause. I had to catch my breath. It was so loud.

“Updates?” I breathed.

Everything’s been loaded in the trucks. D has supervising the art, and I’m keeping my eye on our passengers.

I wanted to be with you!

As if. We’ve already left the gala.

“And the cops?” I asked.

All part of the plan,” Lawrence said. “Got delayed in showing up, and they don’t have enough of a force to stop us, not with everything that’s been happening. Will happen.

“You’re welcome. I think they’re converging on my position.”

Good. Keep them coming. We’re almost… we’re almost home free.

“Yeah, but I’m not.”

Deal with it.

“Thanks.”

The hammers are loaded with enough firecrackers to make the new year come super early,” D said. “You’ll have an opening.

Sounds were getting louder. Couldn’t stick around any longer.

“I hope it’s a big enough opening,” I said. “Better send one of them over to me now.”

On it,” Lawrence said.

“Alright, I’ll catch up with you in a bit.”

You can do it!” D cheered, so loud that it clipped.

I couldn’t delay another second, but I needed one in order to pull the knife out of my arm. It immediately went to healing itself. The wound sealed up, I saw as the individual fibers groped out across the gap to join back together, mending.

I pulled the sleeve back down. Did not to see that, right now.

I went back to getting the fuck out of here.

The stairs took me higher and higher up the building. Winding, spiraling. I grabbed the railing, using it to pull myself farther and hop over more steps. I lost count at how many floors there were, but it didn’t even take me a minute to reach the very top.

It wasn’t much of a roof, rather just another floor with nothing else above it. Steel beams spiked up, exposed, cement blocks and other building materials were strewn about. I had to be careful to not trip over anything.

I ran until I got to the edge of the surface. It was a long fall to the bottom.

I turned, and I waited.

The building was unfinished, there were only so many available means of getting up here. The stairs, in turn, became a choke point. The cops would be forced to take them. I left them with no other choice.

I gripped the knife, tight. The one I had pulled out from my arm. I gripped it even tighter.

My heart was beating heavy and hard. My knees were shaking, my ears ringing. My head.

That doubt seeped back in, again. No, not again, it was more like that doubt reminded me of its presence. That it never really left.

There was a chance that I wouldn’t make it back. I might die instead.

I could see how funny that was. I could laugh. I almost did.

Instead, I settled with a wide smile. It’d give the approaching police a more startling image, at the very least.

Everyone converged at once. The footsteps of the gathered police force came as a stampede, and I was basked in a sudden, blinding light, with a hard thrum that droned overhead.

It was a sensory overload, but I wouldn’t let it overwhelm me. I couldn’t let it. Doubt held me, but I had to fight to prevent it from seizing.

Ah, I want to get back to Sarah.

A flood of people came rushing from the stairs. Bigger guns and bigger equipment. Armor.

They saw a chance, and they were going take that shot.

Taking their formations, the SWAT team circled around me. They were fast, no surprise there.

I expected them to start barking orders, screaming for me to put my arms up, put them down, drop my weapon, to not move, get on my knees. They didn’t. They were silent.

As a collective, they took one large step forward, closing the circle. They took one more. They should have known that this wouldn’t go their way, but they tried, regardless. I could admire that.

I stood my ground. Just another second. Just long enough that they thought they could stop me. The more time they spent being here, the bigger the opening for the Fangs. Less of a force available to go after them.

One more step. One more second.

The circle tightened.

I swallowed.

Strangling.

Now.

It was my turn to rush them. Forward, to the stairs I had just came from. Fast enough that I caught them by surprise.

I had a few moments before they could respond. I used that, throwing the knife. The blade spun, striking the one of the SWAT team members in the faceplate. It didn’t break through the hard plastic, but it did hit hard. The man was knocked back, falling into the men behind him.

There wasn’t a moment I wasted. Running into that part of the circle, I pushed further, flattening him. The effect rippled to the me around me.

I had to squint as I glanced around. Bright.

Everyone leaped into action. I did, as well.

Again, I ducked low. I was surrounded by armed men, they were basically soldiers. They were trained, unlike random gang members, they wouldn’t shoot when the target was among their own. I used that against them, hid among their numbers. It bought me a little more time.

Getting lower, my hands touched the ground, searching for anything else I could use. The knife again, maybe even shards of glass, somehow. My hands found something else.

I picked it up, felt the weight of it, and swung.

The metal pipe was twice my height, and it wasn’t light, and I didn’t have much room to actually toss it around. I powered through it, though. Literally.

My arms tensed as I swung a complete arc, using the pipe to clear out a circle. I relied on sheer strength more than speed, pressing them down rather than a push. I didn’t waste time to breathe as I threw the pipe itself, the horizontal bar slamming into the another part of the group across from me.

And then I booked it.

I bought them enough time. Sarah and D and Lawrence would make it out okay. Now I just had to do the same for myself.

Bullets flew past me as I went straight to the edge of the roof.

“That hammer better be here already!” I could barely hear myself over the gunfire.

It’s-”

I wasn’t sure if that was D or Lawrence. The sound that swallowed the rest of it.

The sound came first, then the fury. A deep rumble that shook the foundation of the building. It was enough to make me stumble.

A bullet caught me in the spine.

Fuck.

I stumbled, the ledge only a step away. I lost any momentum I might have had, and I plunged, instead.

The wind hit, and I couldn’t move. I was paralyzed.

An out of body experience, it felt like, as I fell deeper and deeper. I couldn’t feel anything, couldn’t hear much outside of the wind that whipped past my ears. I was watching my body as it tumble, my limbs lazily dragging around me.

A fall that could very well kill me.

I would have smiled if I could.

Instead, I just crashed into a fire escape attached to the building across an alley. It broke my fall into the alley itself.

I wasn’t moving. Couldn’t. My healing kicked into high gear, my entire body overwhelmed by an intense warmth. Bones came back together, cuts sealed, bruises lost their color.

Normally, I would have let the healing go through its motions, get as close to better as I could before I got going again.

Didn’t have that luxury.

Through the pain so hot it was like I was on fire, I crawled, weak. The bullet was still lodged in my back, the bone and muscle feeling like it was massaging itself in order to push the foreign object out. Until then, I had the relative strength of a child learning to walk for the first time.

My fingers found a tiny thing of plastic. My earpiece. It had fallen out when I crashed landed.

I pressed it into the side of my head, not being ginger with it at all. Everything hurt so much it was as if I couldn’t feel a damn thing.

I gurgled. It was the only sound I could produce.

V?

Whoever that was, it sounded like a test.

I couldn’t answer.

My healing finally started to turn things around. I was able to move a bit better, crawling on my knees, then dragging myself over to a dumpster, using it to pull myself up. I leaned against it, catching my breath. My mouth was filled with a nauseous stench from the trash beside me.

I coughed.

“I’m… still alive, somehow.”

Oh my god, you totally had me freaking out, there.

“Sorry, I just need to stop getting shot in the back.”

I took a breath. Sour.

“I don’t know where I am.”

Where are you, then?

No. I wasn’t being pursued at the moment. I checked my surroundings.

On another side of the unfinished building. The SWAT team had stationed themselves through at different levels of the construction site, mostly near the stairs. Most of their force was dedicated to the building itself, not the narrow sides where most cars couldn’t fit through. I was in the clear.

For now.

They saw where I had fallen. A helicopter’s spotlight was searching down the alleyway behind me. It would find me if I didn’t move.

I moved.

Bones popped into place as I put my weight on them, cracks disappearing. I had a limp, but it lessened as I tested my body.

I was healing, but I was becoming thirsty.

Checking for the spotlight behind me again, I saw what had caused that deep rumbling. Or what was left of it.

At the foot of the building, where the front entrance would have been when the thing was completed, a hollow shell of a van burned, smoke billowing out. It was among the gathered police force, near their vehicles, burning as well.

Accelerating until it couldn’t be stopped, the van careened right into the police blockade, exploding with enough of an impact that I could have felt it from all the way at the top. The police were nails, and that was our hammer.

“Christ, D, those are not fireworks,” I whispered.

It’s fine,” I heard her say, even when it clearly wasn’t. “The driver aimed the van and got out in time, and if the police were smart enough to realize they couldn’t stop it they were smart enough to jump out of the way. Where are you?

I answered while I limped.

“East? No, west. Dizzy. Side alley by the marker. Blue hoods brought in the bait, now that’s two gangs that know not to mess with us anymore. Cops should be sufficiently distracted by now.”

Yes they are,” Lawrence said. “The other hammers went down, so now their forces are divided again to try and clear up all the smoke. Now’s your chance.

Right! Yes! The driver got picked up already, so I’ll tell them to go your way and you get out of there already.

“Will do,” I said. That intense rush was still there, and I sensed that focus still guiding me. Just had to use that to guide me that back to the base.

Once you’re secured, everyone’s home free. Good work.

I was walking now. I actually smiled.

“Too soon to be talking like that,” I said.

Fair,” Lawrence replied, as I found a window in the alley. A storefront. Clothes and stuff.

Surreal, that after everything that had happened, this was the easy part. I broke the window, letting myself in. I picked and switched clothes as I moved, bundling up my costume into my arms. It didn’t take long to find my ride.

By the time there was a spare police officer who could investigate the break-in, I was already gone.

I was the last to get to St. Elizabeth. The Fangs already had everything set up, so it was just a matter of me getting back, and getting the updates.

I strolled down the main aisle to reach the altar.

“You’re late,” Lawrence said. On the altar, he was sitting where the priest would. Leaning back, slumped. D was seated in the chair next to him, arms hugged tight around a teddy bear.

“I’m fashionably… whatever. I’m here now, I’m ready to go.”

“You sure, Wendy? D told me you took a pretty nasty fall.”

Sarah was here, too. It was so easy to find her. Standing by Isabella.

Seeing her made me feel more relaxed and not, all at the same time. A weird feeling to properly parse.

“Yeah,” I said. “Still feel some lingering aches, but I can still walk.”

Sarah frowned. Her concern over me made my stomach twist up.

“If you ever need a massage, just hit me up.”

I really, really wanted that, but now wasn’t the time.

I nodded. “Of course.”

I stepped up to the altar, meeting her there. Turning to Lawrence, I asked, “Are they in there?”

Lawrence tilted his head. A half-gesture. Not a nod, not a shake.

“Not they, just she.”

She.

“Natalie? Where’s Oliver?”

My stomach twisted again, but not in a good way.

“I wanted to wait until we were all here to talk about it. I didn’t see him at the event.”

“There were a lot of people there, maybe you didn’t-”

“I did, I was thorough. Ask your girlfriend. She didn’t see him there, either.”

Sarah gave the same half-gesture.

I felt like I had to dispute that other comment, but there were more important things to discuss.

“We need both of them,” I said. “That’s the job we were given.”

“And we’ll get them both,” Lawrence said. He pointed to a section of the altar behind him and D. “Tied and stuffed her back there, in the… confessional, I think it’s called. We’ll just ask her.”

Could have done that before I got here, I thought, but Lawrence probably wanted to do this as a team. Nothing behind any of our backs.

I frowned, guilty.

“Sure,” I said.

I headed to the confessional. Natalie was in there, at least. We were halfway there.

Lawrence started to get up, but he faltered. He went to his knees, and it didn’t look like he was trying to pray.

“Shit…” he muttered.

D jumped out of her chair to help him stand. She tossed her bear to the side.

“Ellie…”

Lawrence stiffened, but he didn’t push her away. “Stop calling me that, will you? Fuck…”

I walked over to Lawrence instead. Sarah did too.

“Is everything alright?”

A quick look told me it wasn’t. Up close, Lawrence was sweating, and it wasn’t because he was in a suit. The inside of an abandoned church wasn’t known to be keep warm in the early months, and yet his skin glistened.

Lawrence shook his head.

“It’s just… it’s just my painkillers. I usually take them at a certain time but… had that whole art heist thing. Kind of got in the way.”

“That’s why I told you to taper off of them already,” D said, berating up.

“I don’t want to hear it.”

“You look like you’re about to pass out,” I said. “D, go with him, make sure he gets some rest.”

“No.” Lawrence tried to stand again, but he fumbled with it.

“I bet you can’t even stand without assistance.”

“I am fine, I just need to catch up on my dose.”

“I can handle this part. D, listen to me and go with Lawrence.”

D, still holding Lawrence, craned her neck to look at me.

“But I don’t want to go. I don’t want you to-”

I raised my hands. “I won’t do anything drastic until I’ve discussed it with you both. But right now, Lawrence won’t be able to walk or talk if he pushes himself any more. Sarah?”

“Voss?”

“You go, too. Make sure D listens.”

“Okay.”

Sarah went to D, helping Lawrence get to his feet. Reluctant, he put an arm around Sarah. Not so much D, considering the height difference, but she did stay by his side as they got down from the altar, walking across the aisle.

D looked back at me. I raised my hands again.

That seemed to be enough for her, but already made her reservations clear. They were ringing in my head.

We can’t kill them.

On that thought, I turned, to the confessional. Isabella joined me.

“You know you’ll have to,” she said.

I didn’t respond.

One side of the confessional was propped open. The other wasn’t. I slid into the empty booth and closed it.

The space was limited, but it wasn’t uncomfortable. A wood box, like a coffin I could sit in. Eerie, in that respect.

Vague connections made themselves known. I’d been here before. Alexis. Except this time, I was sitting on the other side. I wasn’t the one being questioned.

“Natalie Beckham,” I said.

There wasn’t an answer. But I knew she was there. Through the cross-shaped pattern and faint black mesh that divided us, I could make out a woman’s outline. Natalie was here.

“It all depends on you, Natalie, but you could either see the sunrise in peace, or in pieces. All up to how you want to play it.”

“Play, huh?”

“Hm?”

“This is all just a game to you, isn’t it? Playing at the hero, now the villain. Pulling off fake heists just to get to me. It’s all pretend, there’s no truth to what you’re doing at all.”

“I assure you this is all very real,” I said.

“Where are the others? The paintings, John Cruz?”

“No,” I said. “You don’t get to ask the questions, here. And it’s precisely why you were asking about John Cruz that got you into this predicament in the first place.

There was a pause.

“That may be the case,” Natalie Beckham said. “But now I’m in this predicament because of something I find much more interesting. The one I really want to talk about is you, Alexis Barnett.”

Previous                                                                                               Next

Interlude – Natalie

Previous                                                                                               Next

“What is it you want, exactly?”

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

“I want the truth,” she answered.

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

But now I’m trying to get him in one.

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

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

“It’s not a law, Earl, not yet.”

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

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

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

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

Natalie proposed her next question.

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

Earl breathed again, deeper this time.

“Sure.”

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

“John Cruz?”

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

“Named in the memory of?”

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

Earl frowned. “Ah, that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The reaction was expected.

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

“Context?”

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

Natalie motioned to Oliver, then Earl.

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

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

“We can be on the same page.”

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

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

Then, he answered.

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

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

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

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

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

“No?” Natalie questioned.

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

The whole world.

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

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

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

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

Natalie paused in her writing. Thinking.

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

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

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

“And that is?”

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

“My whole life, basically.”

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

“I keep my ear to the streets.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Natalie applied that pressure.

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

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

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

Earl’s eyes were low, avoiding Natalie.

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

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

“I don’t.”

You’re lying.

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

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

“And why is that?”

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

Natalie took a second to let that sink in.

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

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

Natalie closed her notebook.

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

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

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

“You really are ruthless,” he said.

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

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

“We are.”

“Then, yeah, I can respect it.”

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

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

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

“Thank you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Because someone might send the hounds on him?”

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

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

Natalie agreed with that sentiment.

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

“I’m fucked,” she said.

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

“You think so?”

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

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

“I would love to know.”

They continued walking, Natalie continued thinking aloud.

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

“I know you do, Nat.”

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

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

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

“Yeah, you’re right.”

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

Natalie chuckled.

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

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

“Absolutely.”

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

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

“Is he even going to be of any help?”

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

Natalie pulled out her phone.

“I’ll just send a text…”

“Nat.”

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

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

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

“Hey.”

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

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

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

“That’s not terrifying,” Oliver commented.

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

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

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

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

“Ask James Gomez about Alexis Barnett.”

Another chill.

“Who?” Oliver asked.

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

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

Natalie then responded to Oliver.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Alexis Barnett, know anything about her?”

James’ brow furrowed.

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

“Anything about it that stands out to you?”

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

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

Natalie could feel the paper and rook in her pocket.

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

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

“Much appreciated, James.”

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

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

Natalie sipped her coffee before getting right to it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Has it been seven years, already?

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

“Hey,” Oliver said.

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

“Edison?”

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

A clank. Ceramic on wood.

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

“Sorry,” Natalie said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Natalie pleaded.

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

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

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

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

James faced her, his hands clasped together.

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

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

She started writing. Oliver started recording.

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

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

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

“Who, James, I need names.”

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

“Give me what you remember. Anything.”

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

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

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

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

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

Mister. Natalie almost dropped her pen.

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

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

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

“James…” she said.

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

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

“Thomas, too.”

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

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

It was just her and the truth, now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Blank Face, as in… as in the-”

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

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

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

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

James took a deep breath.

“No.”

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

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

“Wait. You met with the vigilante?”

James lowered his head.

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

“Why you?”

“I ask myself that question everyday.”

Natalie flipped the page, turning to a new one.

“Continue, please.”

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

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

Wait, she.

“Do you know her identity?” Natalie asked.

“I do not.”

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

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

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

“V?” Natalie offered.

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

She savored the taste, the flavor of this.

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

“No comment,” James said.

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

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

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

“Police reports? Records you can show me?”

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

“And Thomas? Blank Face?”

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

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

What else, then, what else?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay,” he said.

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

Natalie closed her notebook.

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

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

“I do.”

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

“I am aware.”

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

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

James set his shoulder and jaw square.

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

Natalie saw it in his eyes. He was serious.

She let him speak.

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

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

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

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

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

Natalie had to say something.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you for your time, James.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Nat.”

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

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

“Want me to order some pizza?”

“Is there any place open at this time?”

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

“Holy shit.”

“What?”

“Poggio’s is still around?”

“It is, Nat.”

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

“They close in an hour and a half.”

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

“You look fine like that.”

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

“Never will!”

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

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

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

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

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

“You thinking Pulitzer?” Oliver asked.

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

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

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

“A mess,” Oliver said.

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

“Heard anything from James?”

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

“Clearance?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Natalie.”

The whole name.

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

“Oliver,” she responded.

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

“Baffles you how?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And Blank Face?”

Natalie raised an eyebrow.

“What about her?”

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

Oliver coughed again.

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

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

“What is it?”

“James sent me an email.”

“Shit.”

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

“Anything?”

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

She muttered.

“Dammit, James.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strange, indeed.

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

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

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

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

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

“Thomas’ kid?”

“Stephenville High School.”

She traded a look with Oliver.

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

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

A heavy pause filled the air.

“You don’t think…” Oliver started.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We were going to him, anyway.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, it would harder for them to ignore us.

Natalie walked up to the door and knocked.

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

She was ready.

The door opened.

Natalie smiled.

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

The woman at the door was silent.

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

She observed this woman under her own merits.

The woman was short, thin, the oversized grey sweater and loose pajama pants serving to make her look even smaller. She looked tired, like how James looked tired, but not exactly. Drained, as if something that once propped her up was now missing, and it put more strain on all that remained. Like a building that had a section crumble into dust. It was still standing, but no one in their right mind would say it was structurally sound.

Her hair was lengthy, unkempt, frayed out past her shoulders. Loose strands fell out of the way when the woman blinked. Bags under her eyes. As if she had just been stirred awaken, unwillingly.

The woman responded, “This is she.”

“Hi, I’m Natalie Beckham, and this is Oliver Morgan, we’re with the Stephenville Impact, and we just wanted to ask you a few questions about your daughter, if that’s alright with you?”

Shiori opened her mouth, letting it hang. Her eyes widened a little, too. More seconds, more jitters.

“No,” she said, moving behind the door, trying to hide behind it.

“Mrs. Barnett,” Natalie said, leaning in but not inside, enough so that Shiori would have hit her in the face if she closed it all the way. Shiori didn’t.

Natalie took that opening.

“It’s been about four months since Alexis Barnett has went missing. She, along with three others, were taken from a Vietnamese restaurant in the middle of the day. She is the only one who hasn’t been returned to her home. That’s… people need to know that the police dropped the ball on this, on your daughter.”

Shiori spoke. When she did, it came out weak, wobbly.

“It will not help anything, anymore.”

She sounded so defeated.

“Mrs. Barnett,” Natalie said, “You look like someone with a lot of questions, and Oliver and I want to get those answers for you. If you would allow us, we’d like to get a better understanding of what happened, who your daughter… is, we can run a better story, and if we can do that, and if the public response ends up being vocal enough, we might be able to get the police to try again, try harder.”

Dangling hope in front of someone who so desperately needed it. Baiting them, almost, but it was a real possibility. If Natalie put enough time and effort into this as normal story, it could work.

For now, she’d play this straight.

Shiori continued to stare at them. She didn’t seem like a cold person, but she was hard to read.

Jitters.

Then, she spoke.

“Come in.”

Shiori took a step back, opening the door wider for the two. Natalie went in first, Oliver following.

Natalie couldn’t help but take stock of what she could see of the apartment.

It wasn’t big, but it looked lived in. Shiori led them to the living room, to a couch in front of a TV. Natalie noted the shelves and the dinner and coffee tables, the edge of the TV. Some dust had accumulated, enough that it should have been taken care of by now. There streaks of dirt and grime on some surfaces, especially the table in the middle of the room. She would have missed it if she wasn’t scrutinizing every detail, and with the lights being so dim, but it was like Shiori was trying to avoid seeing just how dirty her apartment was becoming. She saw a picture frame, two people standing in a field of bluebonnets, the saturation a little strong for her taste. An older woman and a child. Shiori and Alexis? Where was the father?

The picture was clean of any speck.

“Would you like some tea?” Shiori asked. While Natalie and Oliver had taken their seats at the couch, Shiori had kept going towards the kitchen.

“Um, yes please, thank you.”

It was better to accept whatever was offered by the host. Easier to build a connection that way, even if it was menial.

Natalie and Oliver prepared their equipment while Shiori prepared tea. Natalie got out her notebook, while Oliver got his phone, ready to record. He didn’t take out the camera for this one. A quick judgement call, but Natalie was with him on that one. Shiori was still apprehensive on doing an impromptu interview. Pulling out a big camera and tripod would be a sure-fire way to get kicked out.

They were all set up, Natalie and Oliver, and Shiori. She returned to the living room, handing Natalie and Oliver their tea, and went back to the kitchen to retrieve her own.

Shiori took her own seat at a chair on the other side of the room. A blanket was folded over one arm, she grabbed it and set it over her lap.

Cup in hands, blanket in lap, general disposition down, Shiori was as ready to talk as she’d ever be.

“Alright,” Natalie said, opening up a blank page, spinning a pen in her fingers. “How I’d like to start this is by-”

“How did you find me?”

Shiori had asked the first question.

It’s fine. Be transparent, be honest.

“We had spoken to James Gomez, Chief of Police for the Stephenville Police Department. He gave us the report on Alexis, your address was attached to your written statements.”

“James?”

“He mentioned that he knows you. Friend of a friend.”

“Oh.”

She didn’t say anything else. It would be Natalie’s turn, now.

“Alright,” she said, starting it up again. “This story is ultimately about your daughter, but I do want to get a full picture of who you are, as well. May I get your full name and occupation?”

“I am… Shiori Barnett. I work at a hair salon.”

“You’re a hairstylist?”

“I am.”

“And may I get your age?”

“Forty.”

“Wow, still pretty young.”

Add in some casual conversation, some compliments. Enough to make them comfortable to keep talking.

“I was young when I had her,” Shiori added. A neutral observation.

Natalie continued with her questions, continued with her writing.

“Going back to that time… is the father around today?”

She gauged Shiori’s reaction. There was none, but it was more like she didn’t have energy for one.

“He is not.”

“By natural causes or of his own choice?”

A delay between answers. A long one.

“Yes,” Shiori said.

“I don’t follow.”

Another delay.

“He… passed, not long after Alexis was born.”

“What happened? What was his name? How did you meet and how did it get to that point?”

It was tricky, to pry into someone’s personal life in such a manner. But, even if it could be trivial, it would help shape the story. After all, an entire parental unit was literally out of the picture, that had to have an affect on a child. And if Alexis Barnett had but a single strand in the web they were looking into, it might say a lot.

A third delay, Shiori used the time to drink her tea. Slow, drawn out movements.

“His name is Matthew. Matt. We meet about a year before I move to America. I was a singer back then, and he was working at nearby Navy base.”

“You were a singer?”

Shiori nodded. “Performer. Sing and dance, and play a lot of shows.”

“Wow, so you were famous?”

Shiori shook her head. “Not exactly. Maybe, if I stuck with it.”

“I’m guessing you had other ideas when you met your husband?”

Shiori had no discernable expression on her face as she recounted these memories. No warmth, but no callousness, either.

“He happen to pass by during one of my shows. He was… so nice. We start meeting, hiding from my agency and parents. They wouldn’t have approved.”

Natalie could feel the interview getting away from her a bit, but she’d allow it. She still had the reins, and she knew how to force things back on course, if she had to.

“Then,” Shiori said. “A few months pass, Matt had to be reassigned somewhere else, in America, and I did not want him to leave.”

“A few months?”

“We were young and it was… fun. Late nights, dancing and singing and drinking. I didn’t want to let that go.”

“So you went with him, to America?”

“I go with him, we get married, and then I was pregnant with Alexis. I leave my job and family to be with him here in Stephenville.”

All in the span of a year?

It was a neutral observation. She couldn’t judge.

Shiori continued without a prompt from Natalie. “The years here have always been stressful. Matt lost his job. No more dancing and singing, more drinking. Then, Matt… became sick.”

Natalie began to brace herself. She had heard these kinds of stories before.

“He was already so sick, so weak, when Alexis was born. She was born a month early, so she was a little weak, too. Then, before she was able to be strong enough to walk, Alexis became sick.”

“Life-threatening?”

“Not quite, but it was a scare. But… Matthew caught it, and he didn’t react very well. Not at all. He didn’t…”

Shiori had to put her cup down. Her hands were shaking too much.

“He passed, not long after Alexis was born,” Shiori said.

Natalie stopped writing. She hadn’t heard this story before.

“What did you tell your daughter when she got older?”

Shiori’s answer was as plain as it was simple. And yet, it felt like it was the cause of so many complications.

“I didn’t. I told her he left us before I gave birth to her.”

A silence fell upon the whole apartment. The dim light seemed to deepen into gloom.

For a long while, Natalie didn’t know what to say. She didn’t know what to write.

What the fuck, Natalie thought. Not Natalie the journalist, in all objectivity. But Natalie the person, wanting to shout at the universe at how could that situation go so wrong. Why?

“Nat…

Oliver whispered.

Natalie gripped her pen, hard.

Focus.

Holding the reins, Natalie forced things back on course.

“Moving on, could you talk about Alexis? What’s she like, what’re her interests?”

The harsh snap to another train of thought seemed to throw Shiori for a loop. She fixed her blanket, she rubbed at one eye.

“She… Alexis. She’s kind, energetic. So talented in sports, even with how weak she was as a baby. Her favorite was volleyball. Always bouncing, always the life of the party. She loved to be with her friends, always playing with them and going to their house for sleepovers. What is the phrase, again? Someone who is social and friendly with everyone they meet?”

“A social butterfly?”

“Yes. She is a butterfly.”

Natalie was finding it harder and harder to write.

Shiori’s hands fell into her lap, her hair falling over her face and eyes.

“You… were always so much stronger than me, so much braver. It doesn’t seem right that you are my daughter, that someone so beautiful could have come from someone like me. You always found it easy to smile. It made me afraid of you, sometimes, that I didn’t deserve to be your mother. I was so scared to live up to being your mother, but I try, I try anyways. Because you were worth it, because you have given me so much and I just wanted to return the favor. You made… me still being here… you made it worth it. You made me happy.”

Shaking, laughing. Weak. Wobbly. Sobbing.

Shiori’s hands covered her face.

“I’m sorry Alexis, I’m sorry Alexis, I’m sorry Alexis,  I’m so sorry… I love you…”

Shiori wept, Natalie let her. The moment stayed and lingered for long enough. The tea became cool.

Natalie closed her notebook. She set her pen down.

“I want… I want to thank you for your time, Mrs. Barnett. If you’d allow us, we’d like to contact you again in case there’s anything we want to follow up on.”

Shiori didn’t reply, couldn’t. She was still in the moment, lingering there, maybe even staying in it forever.

“We’ll see ourselves out, Mrs. Barnett. Thank you again for the tea.”

Natalie and Oliver packed up and left, being delicate about their departure. Shiori was dead silent by the time they were out the door. They stood right by the apartment for a time, hoping to hear a click as Shiori locked the door behind them. They didn’t.

“We should get going,” Oliver said.

“Yeah.”

They left the apartment complex, finding the stairs and heading down. It was a sobering walk back to the car.

“You cut it shorter than I expected,” Oliver said.

“I got what I needed out of her. I almost didn’t even need to ask. She’s holding in a lot of pain, the kind you don’t show to your closest friends or family. We have her statements in the reports, and we’ll follow up and do it proper, as usual. I just wanted to get a feel for where Mrs. Barnett is, right now.”

And a feel for what we’re getting ourselves into.

“What’s next?”

“Tomorrow we’ll talk with Susan Tilly, Alexis’ volleyball coach. A few of her teachers were willing to talk, too.”

“Cool. When we get back to your folk’s place I’ll start transcribing the interviews.”

“Thanks, Oli. I’ll cook this time.”

“What do you have in mind?”

“Hm, I’m thinking-”

Natalie stopped.

Right on the windshield, a folded note was stuffed against a wiper. A small wooden piece was tied around it with string.

Another one.

“They really like their theatrics, don’t they?” Oliver asked.

“It’s starting to annoy me,” Natalie said. “But, this means we have their attention, and we can poke at it.”

She grabbed the paper, unfolding it.

“Same handwriting,” Oliver observed. He held his phone up to the paper, using its light.

“Same piece,” Natalie said. She caught it as she untied the string. “Another white rook.”

“What do you think? Should we go?”

Natalie smirked.

“You ask as if you don’t already know the answer.”

Oliver stopped the car on a rough, uneven path. More rock and dirt than anything else.

The car’s interior lights turned on as Natalie opened the door.

“How do you want to play this?” Oliver asked. He was looking ahead, only able to see as far as the car’s headlights would allow him. It was late, and it was dark.

“By ear,” Natalie replied. She took one foot out the car, onto the dirt. Thinking.

“Do you want me to come with you? It’s your call.”

It was a tough call to make. With Oliver at her side, she’d feel more at ease, she’d have backup, but in case something went wrong, she’d need him at in the car for a quick getaway. Unlike her late father, she used the exercise equipment at home, and she went for regular jogs while in New York. And running around, chasing leads, that was its own exercise, too.

A tough call, but Natalie made her decision.

“Stay in the car,” Natalie told him. “Just keep an eye on my back.”

“No complaints there,” Oliver said.

Natalie eyed him.

Oliver raised his hands. “You have a good backside.”

She knew he was joking, but it did help. A little bit of confidence went a long way.

“Thanks, Oli.”

“Anytime and everytime.”

Natalie let herself smile as she got out of the car. She felt a light drizzle start. It wasn’t raining hard, but it would soon.

After checking the sky, she looked ahead, rereading the new note in her mind.

Braham Barn. Midnight.

The barn stood in front of her, standing on its last legs. A dilapidated structure, a decayed husk of what it was once. She knew of its history, the whole property was once held by a plantation owner, but now it was free range, the house now used by college kids for weekend parties, the barn itself being a decent, out of the way place for drug deals. It was a well-kept secret, but Natalie covered it back during her original tenure at the Stephenville Impact, and now it was largely abandoned, a place hardly used because it was too obvious.

If they were being led here, it had be something gang related. It was her best guess.

Natalie closed the car door, walking towards the barn and into the light. There weren’t any other cars here, but didn’t mean anything. There were plenty of other places to hide a vehicle. In the vegetation, or just farther up the dirt path.

With caution, Natalie approached the barn doors, then passing them. No more ambient lighting from the moon above, she only had Oliver’s car to guide her, now.

She was careful to only take a few steps into the barn. Looking around, she didn’t see anything or anyone that stood out to her.

But, Natalie didn’t have to wait long. They approached her.

Two figures emerged from the shadows, where the light wasn’t able to reach. They stopped at the edge of it, a distance away from Natalie, but within a reasonable earshot.

They were wearing masks, each with their own design. One was black all around, with numerous circular lenses, with an elongated beak that obscured the whole face. It gave the impression of a mutant raven, with more eyes than usual.

The other mask more closely resembled a face, but it wasn’t blank. Messy, dark splotches filled in large circles around the eyes, running down the cheeks in different lengths to resemble tears. Within the circles, white lines crossed into an ‘X’ in the corner. Red paint was applied across the mask’s mouth, shaping into a long smile that went past the edges of the circles. Grey brush marks in certain places gave the face more definition, making the cheeks and nose look more sunken in, more resembling a skull.

Aside from the masks, they were in identical clothing, and of similar height. They both wore grey, wool long coats. Fashionable, but in this context looked more like a uniform. They both wore shawls over their heads, covering the last bit of skin and hair, making it impossible to profile them.

Several seconds passed between the three of them. The sound of light rainfall.

Natalie decided to speak up first.

“This is awkward, you should have mentioned this was a costume party, I didn’t come prepared.”

The two masked individuals didn’t respond to that.

One of them spoke. From the distance, it was hard to tell who, but it did sound like a woman.

“Natalie Beckham, we are here to assist you.”

“Funny. I didn’t think I needed assistance. I’ve been on a roll lately.”

“We are the reason you went to James Gomez.”

“Please, I had every intention to speak with him again before I got your message. Don’t try to take credit for my work. Somehow, I doubt you even know of the testimony James had given to me, otherwise you wouldn’t have reached out to me again. You’ve been watching us closely, haven’t you, and I’m guessing you just don’t want me to write a gussied up piece on Alexis Barnett, no?”

“There’s more to the story than you’re trying to report. We want to guide you to the truth.”

“Coming from two people sending messages behind the shadows? Shows how much you know about the truth. How about this, why don’t you two take off your masks, and if you two are actually good sources, I might consider using what you give me.”

The two didn’t answer right away.

“You may refer to us as Machiavélique,” they said.

“Subtle,” Natalie said. “But this is child’s play. I prefer to not use anonymous sources. Unless you have something really, and I mean really good, I’m not going to consider anything you have to give me. I started the Alexis Barnett piece as a way to meet you, and now that we have, I can say that I’m not impressed.”

Catch them off guard, and keep them off their toes. In the case that they might be trying to derail me, I won’t let them.

They, Machiavélique, didn’t answer right away.

“Then I’m going,” Natalie said. “If all you want to do is waste my time, don’t contact me again.”

Natalie turned, ready to go, because she was. She was done with this.

“Alexis Barnett is Blank Face.”

Natalie turned back.

The one with the beak, the raven, was a few paces closer, more in the light. They spread their arms.

“This is where it all began, where she got her powers.”

“Where’s your proof?” Natalie asked.

Machiavélique paused.

“We’re gathering it for you as we speak.”

“That’s not going to be enough. Either give me something solid, or I’m walking.”

Inside, Natalie was fighting every urge to chomp at the bit. Someone, even under a pseudonym, was coming forward, willing to corroborate the hunch that Alexis Barnett might be the world’s first superhuman. Any reporter worth their salt would investigate this further. But, she had her integrity, and that mattered even more. She had do this right, she had to be sure.

Machiavélique spoke, “Thomas Thompson and Blank Face did work together.”

Natalie stood firm, facing them.

“And?” Natalie asked.

“What did James Gomez tell you about Blank Face?”

“Why do you want to know?”

“Because we can confirm it. All of it, and then some. We can guide you in the right direction. Like west?”

“West? The new gang in that part of town?”

“Yes. All you have to do is follow the blood. That’s where she is, now. Alexis, under a new name. V.”

That was it, the proof she needed that these two were legit. It was all starting to click, the story of a fucking lifetime.

Alexis Barnett is still alive.

“Okay,” Natalie said, “I’ll listen.”

“We appreciate it, Natalie Beckham.”

She reached into her pocket, taking out both chess pieces, holding it in a way that caught the light.

“If you wanted to involve me and my partner into this, I would have figured you’d use us as pawns.”

The raven indicated to the one with the clown mask. Reaching into their pocket, they grabbed something and tossed it to Natalie.

With her free hand, Natalie caught it. A black queen.

Not the king.

“The truth has a way of being blunt, forthright,” they said. “There’s no oblique angle or spin to approach it from. The truth is, and there is no running away from that. You and Oliver Morgan don’t need masks or trickery to take down the monsters. You face it head on, direct.”

“I’ve already agreed to play your game,” Natalie said. “No need to flatter me any more.”

“It’s not a game.”

“Isn’t it? But I have to ask, why? What do you get out of this?”

Machiavélique replied, and Natalie was certain it from was the raven.

“I get to see Alexis burn.”

So that’s what this is. Revenge.

It didn’t matter, shouldn’t. Machiavélique wasn’t the one reporting this, Natalie would know how to filter what they gave her, and how to present the facts as they were. The full and complete web. Mister, Styx, James and Thomas, Blank Face and V. Natalie and Oliver, they’d tear it down, wholly and fairly.

What is it I want, exactly?

Natalie smiled.

“Tell me everything you know about Alexis Barnett.”

Previous                                                                                               Next

Interlude – James

Previous                                                                     Bonus

No, Mr. Gomez, I’ll tell you what she is. She is a parasite, feeding off of the blood, sweat, and hard work that your officers lay down their lives for every day. She throws a wrench in your efforts, undermining the whole system you have in place. And how do you claim to know what Blank Face’s true motives are? Have you spoken to Blank Face? Are you in regular contact with her?

“I have never had any contact with Blank Face, nor do I claim to know her true motives. I am merely providing my comments on the issue, as I was asked to do when I was invited to your show.”

So you believe that Blank Face is providing a service to your city? Because, and correct me if I’m wrong, but if Blank Face is the hero you claim she is, then why have large-scale riots and displays of civil unrest increased by sixty percent since she’s showed up, why have assaults against Asian Americans skyrocketed by seventy percent since she’s showed up, and why has her presence introduced a new wave of themed vigilante and gang activity, as well as her being challenged by terrorists whose capabilities are unprecedented, and, need I remind you, are still at large? And, those statistics are only representative of what is happening in Stephenville, it’s about half, spread throughout the rest of the country. What do you have to say about that?

“I say that’s a lot to throw at me. Again, Jim, I don’t claim to know what’s in her heart. She’s here, she’s fighting criminals and gang members. As the police chief, and as a citizen, I oppose of her methods and vigilantism, but Blank Face has attempted to stop evil when she encounters it. I do believe that says something. But, whether or not her attempts have proved to be of any benefit… that’s a whole other debate.”

You’re right, that’s a debate for another time, and I hope I can have that with you very soon. Sorry gentlemen, there’s still so much to talk about, like the state of Stephenville in the face of these continuing and escalating issues, and the fact that the last public sight of Blank Face was almost two months ago, but my time is running out. Dr. Paltro, I apologize for losing you at the end, there.

“It’s no problem.

Alright. It was good having you two come on the show. Thanks again.

“Thank you, Jim.”

The camera feed was cut off. James started blinking at the bright blue screen.

“Ah, fuck,” James muttered, reaching for his collar. He removed the tape and microphone, wrapping the wire around his fingers. He placed the coil on the table in front of him, and got up to stretch.

Bones creaked and joints popped.

“Ah fuck,” James said. He was getting older.

It was something he avoided thinking about, he didn’t want to admit it to himself. But he felt it, as he went about his day to day. That much harder to get up, that much harder to move around. The aches in the morning, the soreness as he crawled back into bed. He wasn’t that old, but he was getting up there in years. The work, pressures, the stress… it all piled together, and that combined weight was starting to slow him down.

I wonder if he ever felt like this.

No. That was another thing he wanted to avoid thinking about, as much as possible. But it proved to be a significant challenge, even in this brief moment of being calm and quiet and alone. If left to wander, his mind wouldn’t, couldn’t stop from going in that direction. The wound was still too fresh, still too deep, not want to dwell on it.

But he knew he couldn’t, he had to distract himself, keep his mind busy. Later hours in the office, longer hours in meetings. Meaning more work, more pressure, more stress.

James stalked over to the door, turning the knob, pushing it open. He waited.

Campbell stepped inside.

“Did it go well?” Campbell asked, stepping past James to collect the camera, and turn of the television.

Young, caucasian. Well-built and tall. Reliable. Still held onto the belief that there was good in this world, and that it would somehow prevail, in the end.

James wasn’t so jaded as to call it stupid, no, he admired the fact that people like Campbell were around. That people were still willing to try to leave this world a better place than they found it.

James tried. Now, it wasn’t so much to try and save the world, but just save what little of his own world he had left. Hold it close, hold it tight.

Even then, it’s as if everything’s slipping away.

His mind was wandering again.

James finally answered. “As well as it could have.”

“My condolences,” Campbell said.

“I don’t know why I keep agreeing to these whenever I get invited. I make an ass out of myself every time.”

“Maybe you have something you want to say.”

“Ha. You have a job, Campbell, you don’t have to kiss my ass.”

Campbell flinched. “Sorry, Chief.”

It was like flicking a dog on the head. It was just wrong.

“Come on,” James said, “Let’s go.”

“Right behind you,” Campbell replied, having finished wrapping up the wires, turning off the camera, and placing it back into the bag. He picked it up, and zipped it closed.

Together, they left the conference room.

The halls weren’t bustling, leaving James and Campbell plenty of room to walk side by side. Everyone was either out on patrol or at their desks, working all the same. It wasn’t busy, but it wasn’t lifeless. It was just another day at the Stephenville Police Station.

Even with the chaos and turmoil going on in the city, just beyond this building, the atmosphere seemed lax. People were working, but there wasn’t any sense of urgency. It was wartime, to be dramatic, yet everyone seemed content on laying back, only getting up when they were prodded hard enough. James wanted nothing more than to kick them in the ass and get them moving, but he knew better. Or rather, he just knew. He had no power to exert over his own men.

The halls were clean. James hated that. It meant that the janitors and cleaning ladies had the time to clean thoroughly, that his men weren’t running the place ragged.

There should be more being done, here. People should be tearing their hair out, trying to set this city straight. People should be working together, hand in hand, to rebuild what was broken and creating sturdier foundations.

Someone should be doing… something.

“Campbell,” James said, needing another distraction.

“Yes, sir?”

“How long have you been on the force, now?”

“How long? It’s been, wow, five years already? Certainly doesn’t feel like it.”

“Time flies when you’re having fun. You… you’re not from around here, right?”

“I’m not. I moved here while I was still in highschool.”

“And that was, what, five years ago?”

Campbell laughed.

“It was ten years ago, sir.”

“Color me shocked.”

“But, actually, I still call Chicago my home. Sorry, Chief.”

“No need to apologize.”

“Not that I don’t care about this city, I was just saying that-”

James interrupted him, reassuring him. “I know what you mean, son.”

They walked down the halls, passing by other conference rooms, offices, broom closets. They were in the administrative section of the old building, located on the third floor. The Stephenville police department had two separate buildings, a smaller, newer facility, and the larger, historical main base.The newer building, nicknamed ‘the Pupil’ by those who had the privilege to be able to work there.

The Pupil housed the high-tech labs, with state-of-the-art equipment for forensics and other data analyses, and keeping the higher-grade firearms for emergency use only. He’d seen a lot of those arms be used in recent weeks.

Nice, clean, innovative. A bastion of hope for the city. James had to hear it all through the grapevine.

The building was finished five years ago, and he had yet to take a step inside.

He was there, though, at the grand opening. Cameras pointed at him, smiling that wide, fake smile while holding that stupid, oversized pair of scissors. He cut the ribbon, everyone poured in, and James stayed back and watched.

The memory was still clear in his mind. The meeting, on a trail under the southern bridge at the Peace Phoenix Plaza. The dead of night. Styx had informed him that the Pupil was constructed, in large part, thanks to dummy corporations that Mister owned. The tech was legit, the facility was functional, but all of it was to stay out of James’ reach. He was not granted permission or jurisdiction over the equipment within.

“Looks like you’re blinded,” Styx had told him, before he cracked a wild grin, and chuckled. The sound perturbed, and it only served to cement that moment in James’ mind even more.

Again, wandering.

James scratched his face, running his fingers through his hair, using more force than he needed. To keep him here, instead of being lost in his thoughts for hundredth time that morning.

“Campbell,” James said, finding himself reaching for another distraction, even though he recognized that continuously relying on Campbell for that was probably not the best of ideas. He didn’t work at a high school, but rumors did form, and they would spread.

“Um, yes sir?”

“What’s your take-”

James closed his mouth as they went around a corner, running into another pair of officers. They all exchanged greetings as they moved to pass each other, and James waited until he was certain they were out of earshot before he tried again.

“What’s your take on Blank Face?”

“Blank Face?”

James noted Campbell’s hesitation.

“You can speak your mind around me, son, it’s alright.”

“It’s not that sir, it’s just…”

That hesitation again.

“It’s just what?”

“I’m not sure what to think, it’s all so complicated, maybe even needlessly so.”

“That’s not a bad answer, see, it is complicated. How about this, then. You’ve met her, right?”

“Yes, I did. Back at the warehouse while we were looking for Mr. Thompson, and Solace, and I sat with you and her on the way to city hall.”

Even just hearing his surname, it was like a punch to the gut. Dealing hadn’t gotten any easier.

“So… I, then, what was your first impression of her?”

Campbell took his sweet time in formulating an answer.

“I think, and this is going off a very brief, very hectic interaction from months ago… I have the impression that she was tired.”

“We were all tired back then, Campbell, that was a hectic time. Hell, it still is hectic, and I’m still tired.”

“I know, I just can’t find the right word for it. Maybe exhausted, drained? I didn’t see her face, of course, but I can read body language okay. From what I can remember, she’s young, isn’t she?”

“Just a kid,” James ventured. It was something the media or the public had only picked up in recent weeks. Nothing more than a theory – a rumor – that had spread to be accepted as fact. From the mad ramblings of a domestic terrorist, during one of the most heinous attacks on American soil, at the newest peak of paranoia over the Bluemoon, it was no wonder that people grabbed onto the loudest unsubstantiated claim they had. Even if it wasn’t confirmed, even if it acting on that impulse to believe was unwise and dangerous

People were desperate, and people had stakes to burn. Everyone was looking for even the tiniest flicker to set their hate ablaze.

Granted, James and Campbell knew the truth, but the people didn’t. They just wanted a witch to hunt.

“Just a kid,” Campbell repeated, as if he couldn’t believe it, himself. “Yeah, the way she was standing, how she held herself. I’d hate to assume, but it reminds me of what I’ve seen before.”

“Before?”

“My mother. She… how do I put it? She was a hard worker. She had grown up poor, so she forced herself to work to the bone for her family. It paid off, in a sense. The company recognized her, rewarded her accordingly, and she kept working hard to impress them even more. Always pushing herself, she was.”

“And the twist was?” James asked.

“I’m not sure if you can call it a twist, nothing surprising happened. Looking back, it was almost unavoidable. Something must have snapped, or the wrong set of wires was crossed, but she took her work ethic and made it… not ethical. It turned into an addiction, working herself so hard that she became bone. How files were organized were more important than if anything was in her stomach, or if she was getting enough sleep, or if she saw her husband and two sons for more than ten hours a week. And then… the three of us moved here.”

Campbell’s voice was just a bit tight.

“You don’t have to get too deep into it, if you feel uncomfortable,” James said. “We’ve veered off the main topic, anyway.”

Campbell shook his head.

“It’s not that, I was trying to get to my point. What I mean to say is, I’ve seen that. The restlessness, even when exhausted, making you twitchy, making you lash out at when the slightest thing goes wrong.”

James remembered back to that time in the warehouse, when they encountered Linda Day. Twice, Blank Face had assaulted her, at the slightest provocations. Would Blank Face had killed her, if he wasn’t in the way? James couldn’t say for sure.

Campbell had continued while James was pondering. “-when they’re at the frayed ends of sanity. That’s never healthy. She, my mother, subjected herself to all that stress, and she let it consume her. Multiply that stress by ten, a hundred fold, and put that on a kid, and a kid like her…”

“Something’s bound to snap,” James said, finishing the thought.

“And considering that we haven’t seen her in so long, it’s weird, I actually feel a little concerned for her, and not in the obvious, ‘super-powerful-vigilante-has-gone-missing’ kind of way.”

He coughed, the camera bag shaking a little.

“You know what I’m trying to say, sir?”

“I know,” James said.

James had a thought he wanted to share with Campbell, but they had gotten to the elevators. James pressed the button for the both of them. Different floors, but the same direction. Up.

Campbell spoke as they waited for the elevator. “But hey, it could just be me not remembering things right, and my mind ended up going there. I’d bet money that I’m wrong.”

“No,” James replied, eyes forward. “It’s not a bad assumption. If anything, it’s food for thought.”

“Yeah, food for thought.”

As if it was responding that point as well, the elevator dinged, the doors sliding open. They went inside, James pressing the appropriate buttons, and the doors closed.

They stood in silence as the elevator worked itself up. James listened to the hum of the machines, the cables and gears, focusing the small bumps as the three thousand pound metal box was being pulled up.

A ding.

The doors slid open. It was Campbell’s floor.

“Thank you again for letting me set up the meeting for you,” Campbell said as he walked out.

“I’m no good with all that stuff, and you’re the only one I can trust.”

“Honor to hear that.”

The door closed before James could get another word in. The elevator continued.

The workings of the interior felt farther away.

That last thing he had said to Campbell, how sad was it, for that to actually be the case?

An exaggeration, but there was some truth to that. Campbell was there with him when he traced the signal that led them to the warehouse. He watched the door while James worked. And he was there, helping James assemble the crew he needed to get a leg up against Solace. Of the crew that James knew he could work with, Campbell was the one he knew he could trust.

And in a building full of people who were supposed to be his men, his officers, that feeling was like finding a drop of water in the desert.

A ding.

James got out of the elevator.

His body moved on its own, he knew his floor better than anyone ever would. And he had better, no one spent as much time on this floor as much as James did.

He passed someone in the hall. Detective Harvey. Forest’s man.

Harvey smiled, and James tried to smile back. He picked up the pace back to his office.

James’ office. He had always wanted a space on an upper floor, with a window that faced the city. There was a sort of dignity to it that appealed to the six year old James during job day. Back then, he knew what he wanted.

What he got was a bit of a compromise. He got that office space high up, but the window faced an alley, a brick building was all he could see out that window.

Well, that, and another more peculiar thing.

Two scraps of paper were taped to the wall, with an arrow drawn in marker pointing from one to the other. The marks were on the other side of the glass. James hadn’t bothered to erase them. Somewhere within him, he was wanting to put up another scrap of paper.

Others had seen it, but no one had made mention of it. Either they thought that was just another quirk of the police chief, or, more likely, they just didn’t care.

James walked through the stacks of boxes, full of files of cases and other investigations and potential leads. So many files that he had to empty out his bookshelf and start stacking files using that. Some stacks went up to his chest in height. Getting past it all was cumbersome, there were simply a lot of boxes.

He finally made it to his desk on the other side of the room. He slumped into his chair, righted himself some, and booted up his computer.

As he waited, he looked around.

Not that he had less stuff in his office, now, it was just that all of his stuff had been replaced by files and boxes. Photos and trinkets, precious mementos and superficial awards. All moved out for files and boxes. Even his desk, there was a pile of names and cases that took up all the real-estate, and then some. Things he could actually work on, and need legitimate attention by the police.

A serial murderer who had used the Halloween Riots as cover for his killings. Patrick Goldstein, a convicted felony who fled into the city to join one of the many growing gangs. No one wanted him, so now he was stuck, and the police had to find him. Solace, but he had stopped getting regular updates about that.

A missing persons case. There were so many as it stood, but James was asked to put it on the top of his desk. A personal favor.

Blank Face. The official order to bring down the vigilante. Her stack was the tallest in the room. The amount of offenses they stuck on her was almost comical.

Work, pressure, stress. His own office was no longer a haven for him.

Sitting here, he already wanted to go up to the roof and have a smoke. Funny, he had already quit smoking. But all this work, pressure, and stress, it brought him right back.

What would have six year old James thought, should he see this? Disappointment? Would he cry?

Pathetic.

The computer finished waking up. James moved the mouse to click and check through his emails.

Several. A dozen, to be exact. But one caught his eye.

John Cruz. The new district attorney.

It was a proposal about a new bill that he was going to support, and was suggesting that James back the bill, too. Nothing concrete was put to paper yet, but it would use-

James stopped reading.

He looked away from the computer screen, wanting to shut down the computer, wanting to throw the whole thing out the window.

The wording, the formality of it, that James saw it as callous. An offense that James took personally.

Fuck you, John. You shit-drinking, piss-eating bastard. I don’t know how you eat piss, but I’m sure the devil would love to get creative when he meets you. Fuck. You.

Finding a distraction, his eyes went to a portrait, instead.

It was the only memento that kept its rightful place on his desk.

Three people. No, four. James almost didn’t see little Katy there, wrapped up in a bundle, held by Kristin.

Beside him was-

He had to look away again. Not his mind’s eye, this time, it was more direct.

But he kept it there, James never removed the portrait. He needed it there.

But he lost the will to even look at that, too.

James got out of his seat, and went to the window.

Nothing but a brick wall. All he could see. A block to his vision.

He almost laughed.

“We were supposed to do this together,” James said, his words reaching no one. “I got here first, waiting for you to catch up. Now you’ve left me hanging. Was this your plan all along, to set me up as part of a big joke?”

No answer, but James wasn’t expecting one.

James stared at the brick wall in front of him. He got so far, but he was never even close. The whole time, he was impeded by something that he had no control over, and he had learned that lesson way too late.

He stared at nothing, and got nothing.

It wasn’t always like this.

It was James’ job to keep the peace.

Red and blue lights illuminated his face and back as he stood, arms spread out. The colors enveloped, giving him more of a presence. He tried using that to his advantage.

“Stay back people! Please stay behind the tape!”

The people listened, backing up some, giving those closer to the tape and James more room to breathe.

James grinned to himself.

Good job, me.

The scene was still fresh, the last gun shot still ringing in his ears. The last time he had checked, the last time he took a glance behind him, the scene still wasn’t pretty.

James didn’t even want to see it in full. So why would all of these people gather to take a look?

Vultures. I bet they don’t even see them as human. Just another spectacle to indulge themselves in.

For their sakes, and for his, he tried to push them back even more.

“I’m gonna have to ask y’all to back up one more time! One big step back, please!”

His portion of the crowd listened again, but they weren’t backing up as much as he would have liked.

He opened his mouth to shout again.

“Everyone, please back-”

“James, James!”

He heard his name getting called. Not from behind, but in front. Someone in the crowd.

James saw as people were moving out of the way. Had he not asked for more room, there probably would have been more objections, more shouting at the people squeezing through. There wasn’t, though, which James liked. The people here were behaved.

The last line of defense broke, and James saw who the offenders were.

“Thomas,” James said.

Thomas Thompson smirked upon hearing his name.

It was well past any reasonable hour, but Thomas was still clean and proper, looking like the lawyer he was. Dressed in a fitting, expensive looking grey suit, his hair combed back, with the only sign of disheveledness was how wild the strands were at the ends. He needed a haircut, that was for sure.

He walked with a swagger, like he didn’t just know what the next move was, but the one after that, and so on. Like it was all part of a grand plan, and all Thomas had to do was go through the motions of that plan, and everything would fall into place.

Some would have called that arrogance, but James recognized it as Thomas just being that damn confident.

“Why am I not surprised?” James asked as Thomas approached. Thomas stopped right at the tape, and Gomez had to take a step to close in the distance.

“Because you’re looking for something to do, my friend,” Thomas answered. “And I’ve got just the thing.”

“Or, man,” Thomas then said, correcting himself.

He gestured to the man standing beside him. Younger, just a hair shorter than Thomas. White, though the features in his eyes and jaw suggested that he might be part Hispanic. Dressed similarly. Though, unlike Thomas, he had a bag strapped around one shoulder, and had a cup of coffee in one hand. Another lawyer, if James had to guess.

He was dressed the part, but he looked new to the job. His top buttons of his shirt were undone, the tie loosened. His dark brown hair was much more of a mess. He wasn’t used to the late nights, not yet.

“Hello there,” James said, going first. He extended a hand.

The man took it, shaking it. Firm.

“John Cruz,” the man said.

“James Gomez.”

“John’s still paying his dues, cutting his teeth as a public defender. He’s the guy you get if you can’t afford a guy.”

“I’m cheap, but I’m good,” John said, rolling with it.

“You have a sense of humor,” James said.

“Helps with the late nights.”

“Alright then. But, what brings you two here?”

James asked them both, but the question was mostly directed to Thomas. If he was here, James knew he wanted something.

“I wanted to say hi, give an old friend some coffee to get through the warm night.”

Thomas nudged John with an elbow, and John lifted the cup to James.

“You didn’t even have the decency to give it to me yourself,” James said, berating his friend. He took the coffee anyway, letting the cup warm his hands.

“I’m showing John the ropes, how to establish a good rapport with other good guys. But we don’t need the formalities, do we James? We’re closer than that.”

“We may be, but I still like coffee.” He took a sip. “Skipping formalities can taste bitter, sometimes.”

Thomas laughed. “Does it, now?”

“It does. Alright, I know what you’re here for.”

James turned, and raised his free hand. He flagged another cop over.

“Mind if you handle this?” James asked, “I need a coffee break.”

The cop nodded, understanding what a ‘coffee break’ really meant.

They swapped places, and James signaled for Thomas and John to step over the tape.

Now the objections and shouting came forth. The trio walked away as the cop who had taken James’ place yelled over the crowd’s complaints.

They moved over to the middle of the street, closer to the actual ‘scene.’ There were more cars and people now, cops and gangbangers alike. People were giving statements, people were being taken away. Everyone was too busy to care about a rookie cop and some no name lawyers.

“Did the chief say anything about this?” Thomas asked.

“Nothing we haven’t seen before,” James replied.

They got close, but they couldn’t get too close. James pulled them to the side, standing beside one of the many cop cars on the street. Out of the way, but they still had a visual of what was going on.

“So, what’s going on?” John asked. He was looking at something just past James. There was only one thing here that would have grabbed his attention. James didn’t need to see for himself.

Several blue tarps, laid out in different places across the street, with red stains pooling out from underneath, spilling onto the road. The cops that were closer had to watch their footing as they maneuvered around the area.

A fresh crime scene.

James answered. “Two new gangs on the scene, trying to establish presence in their neighborhood.”

“I think they did too good of a job, if you ask me,” John said.

“Yes,” James said. He couldn’t bear to look, which was why he offered to take care of the perimeter, instead.

The thought of taking another sip of coffee wasn’t so appetizing, anymore.

“John,” Thomas said, “If it stuck out to you like that, why do you think that is? Use your brain.”

“It’s much more than just establishing presence. These two new gangs, even if they’re rivals, it shouldn’t have gotten this bad, this soon. Am I right, assuming that?”

“Sense of humor, and you’re smart? I can see why you brought him along, Thomas.”

Thomas nodded, looking proud of himself.

James addressed John directly. “Yes, you’re thinking in the right direction. Those two gangs are actually two broken halves of an older group.”

Thomas thought aloud. “If we’re in this neighborhood, opposite of Eastside… The Koninkryk?”

James nodded. “They’re split in the Thunders and Royals, now. We have both leaders in custody. So John, they’re not just rivals, they’re brothers.”

“Oh, shit,” John said. “So it runs deep.”

“Apparently so. I heard a bit of it during the initial ‘questioning.’”

James used his free hand to make air quotes around the word ‘questioning.’

“It was more like they were screaming their heads off at each other while we restrained them, and we ended up getting some info in the doing. Something about a girl named Lucy?”

“All over a girl,” Thomas commented. “Fleets of ships and armies were sent out over them.”

“Not like that, I don’t know how to describe it, but it didn’t come across that way. Maybe this Lucy was their mom or aunt or something?”

“All this, over a mom?” John asked, eyes still trained to the work being done behind James.

“You don’t mess with people’s mommas,” Thomas said.

“Sorry I don’t have much to tell you,” James said. “I left before I could get any of the juicier details. I… I guess I’m still not used to seeing so much blood.”

“It’s no problem, James,” Thomas said. “You’re doing what you can, out here. I admire that.”

“And even if I did have anything, this is still an active crime scene. I shouldn’t be telling you two shit. So no buttering me up, it won’t work.”

James handed the cup back to John. Thomas intercepted it.

“Another lesson for you,” Thomas said. “Not everyone’s receptive to the coffee trick. Personalize it, find out what they like ahead of time. I’ll give you a hint for James, for next time. It starts with ‘box of,’ and ends with ‘Partagás.’”

“Hey, that’s top secret,” James said. “And potentially above his pay grade.”

“I’ll manage,” John responded, “For next time.”

John fixed his shoulder bag, gripping the strap. “Actually, you think I can get a closer look? I want to know more about what’s happening, maybe see if I can get those juicer details.”

“Stay low, and stay out of the way,” Thomas told him. “Don’t talk to anyone unless you know for sure you’re going to get a real answer. Listen. And here.”

Thomas gave the coffee back to John.

“Someone might like that.”

John took the coffee, and went off, passing Thomas and James to get a closer look at the scene.

“I sipped that, you know. John knows.”

“They don’t.”

Between the two friends, they shared a small chuckle.

“So,” Thomas said, after they cooled a bit. “What do you think of him?”

“Him? John?”

“Yes, of course John, who else?”

“He’s decent, I suppose. Curious, doing his best to learn. A couple minutes and a cup of coffee doesn’t really give me much to work with.”

“I know, but I wanted to hear what your initial thoughts were, however small.”

“Why?”

“I’m thinking of having him join us, as part of our team of pals.”

James paused, and then he sighed.

“Thomas,” he said.

“Just hear me out, and I know I’m jumping the gun by bringing it up now-”

“Jumping the gun? This is running up to the factory that makes the guns.”

“I know. I’m just saying he has potential, and I wouldn’t want him to waste it because we didn’t steer him in the right direction. Our direction.”

“You really see something in him?”

Thomas shrugged. “I might.”

“That’s a strong foundation to build from.”

Thomas leaned back, rolling his shoulders. “I met John at a cafe I frequent about three weeks ago, usually I take my breaks there, drinking coffee, reading up on the news. That’s actually where I got that coffee.”

He pointed in John’s general direction.

“Cafe Sharktooth. It’s trendy, but I highly recommend it.”

Thomas met James in the eye.

“But I digress,” Thomas said.

“But you digress,” James echoed.

“Right. I met him there, working on a case, getting really into it. Like, really into it. So into it that I went over to talk to him. It was another one of his public defense cases, but he was getting deep into the files of the case, making sure he got everything straight. We exchanged cards, and when I see him the next day, he already knew everything about me. I mean, not everything, but he did his research. I knows what I’m after, and what I want for this city. So, we got more acquainted, and I offered to help him out on that case, unofficially, providing insight where I could. His questions were good, too. He wasn’t asking just for tips on procedures, but about the culture. What the gangs are like, how each one operated, and how to use the defendant’s circumstance with the case’s relevant gang to appeal to the jury.”

“Doesn’t sound like you, Thomas. You want to save this city, and you’re helping a guy get off?”

Thomas raised a finger. “Ah, but if you looked at the case, you would have known something was up. I saw it immediately, and John was able to catch it, too. Turns out, they found him innocent, and Miles Turner can drive another day.”

“Turner? Of Turner’s Moving Company?”

“The very same.”

“Hm, not too shabby, then. Though, one would argue you should check more closely if you’re carrying four hundred kilograms of cocaine in your truck halfway across the country.”

“James, please, we already worked so hard to win that argument, I’m tired just thinking about doing it again.”

James grinned. “I’ll spare you, this one time.”

“Thanks, pal.”

“But,” James said, crossing his arms, “I’ve give you this, that John of yours is legit fellow, and that he’s smart, and he wants to learn more about this culture so he can better fight against that. He’s an angel, I get that.”

“But you still object to him.”

James shook his head. “I’m objecting to you.”

The expression on Thomas’ face had changed, but it was too hard to read, being in the dark. His jaw was set, his stare penetrated.

James had to explain himself.

“Before you start blowing steam out your ears, just know I’m still one hundred percent behind our plan, I really am. You kick ass all the way up to being the district attorney, and my dumb ass will somehow become the new chief of police.”

“And we work together in tandem to clean the streets,” Thomas said. “For good.”

“Yes, and I’m still there for that, I want that. But…”

James struggled to find the words.

Thomas questioned him. “What are you so concerned about?”

“But, you shouldn’t try to recruit anyone into this holy war of yours. Between us, we know what the stakes are, the risks we’ll run into along the way. Don’t bring anyone into this, and for god’s sake, don’t groom them into being the ideal pawn. People aren’t just assets, Thomas, and if you’re seriously considering going in that direction, I’m not going to follow you.”

Thomas threw his hands into his pockets. He didn’t answer for some time.

When he did, he said, “Don’t call it a holy war, and especially don’t call it grooming.”

“I’m exaggerating for effect. I know you’re not actually that radical, Thomas, otherwise you’d be taking more extreme, more stupid measures right now.”

“Like wearing a mask, and punching criminals in the face?”

“Like that,” James said, to bring another percentage point of levity into their conversation. “Like that exactly.”

“Wouldn’t that be nice, though? It’d certainly relieve some of tension on my mind. Playing the long game takes its toll.”

“Keep it in your fantasies. Last thing I want to do is detain you for something stupid.”

“I will, I will.”

James had a point he wanted to get to, a point he felt like Thomas needed to hear. A point he should have heard sooner.

He got to the point.

“I’m only telling this to you because you have a tendency to want to see yourself in others, so you want to raise them to your level. Not everyone can handle that kind of pressure, not everyone can reach the same heights as you, and certainly not everyone will be as committed to this as you. Except for, you know, me.”

“Alright, I understand. We’ll keep this between us. I’d still like to keep in touch with John in case he becomes useful in the future, but, as far as our plan goes…”

“We keep it between us.”

James gave Thomas a hand, and they shook on it. For the second time, the first was when James heard the initial pitch.

“Or,” Thomas said, as he let go, “Maybe you’re just saying that because you’re jealous?”

“Jealous?”

“You don’t want another man coming in between our sacred union.”

Everyone around was busy, but James still checked his surrounding.

“God damn, man, there are people here, with ears. And you have a wife and a kid.”

“Come on, man, love is love. Now give me a hug, you fool.”

“Get away from me!”

“Thomas, James.”

Jogging to them, John returned before the bantering could go any further. James noticed that he didn’t have the cup.

“Welcome back. Learn anything?”

John nodded. “I learned that all this escalated from a game with dice and cash. I learned the names of the two leaders, Darius and Marcus Jackson, EZ and Krown of the Thunders and Royals, respectively. Their feud is over a woman, and it is their mother, or rather, over whose mother is the real one.”

“What does that even mean,” James commented.

“Their father was out of the picture, so they were raised by a single mother. They have something of a deep reverence for her, so the brothers constantly argued over who would take care of her when she got old. But, for whatever reason, she never got a chance to grow old. Things kind of went out of hand from there.”

“That’s one fucked up family dynamic,” James said.

“And, that’s not all,” John said. It was dark, and yet his face practically beaming as he said, “They’re not even worried about incarceration. The whole ‘knows a guy who owes a guy a favor’ scenario, and they’re hooked up with some lawyers who can get them back on the street in a week, no hassle.”

James and Thomas didn’t say anything.

“What?” John questioned, looking at the both of them. “It’s something I should know about, isn’t it? Shouldn’t we look into it?”

“There’s nothing to look into,” James said, shaking his head. “They’re set, now.”

“Now what does that even mean?”

“It means they have connections with game lawyers, or lawyers in the pocket of one of the gangs at the table. The big boys. If you can afford their services, then you have nothing to worry about. Ever.”

James added, “You could kill a man in the middle of the business district in broad daylight, and those damn lawyers would find a way to spin it, and sell that the other guy deserved it.”

“Then why aren’t we doing something about it? Expose them, or something?”

James looked at Thomas, and Thomas was looking down at his shoes.

We are, it’s just further down the long game.

“Don’t poke at beasts you’re not prepared to slay,” Thomas said, eyes still low. “That’s your next lesson. Those lawyers demand exuberant prices, and it’s not always money. Shaking them up is shaking up who they represent, and we can’t afford to bring that on our heads. Not while we’re still so small.”

James knew that Thomas hated that. Being small.

“Exuberant prices, huh? Wow, I just thought this seedy shit went deep, I didn’t know it went up, too.”

James didn’t like the look on John’s face.

Thomas spoke, as if to derail whatever train of thought John was on. “Anyone worth their honest salt ends up getting a call like that, at some point in their career. A promotion, if you will. It’s not worth it, I guarantee it. You’ll never get exactly what you’re after.”

Thomas had never sounded so sure in his life.

James wondered if they would ever get what they were after.

He sat for about ten minutes before he got out of his car. He walked up the driveway, up a few steps, and approached the front door.

This never gets any easier.

James knocked on the door. Two heavy, slow knocks. He didn’t wait very long.

“Kristin,” James said as the door opened.

Kristin smiled, though it was a weary, forced one. Out of good manners than anything genuine.

James didn’t blame her.

She didn’t look like she had somewhere to go, but she had touched up some. An oversized sweater, with black pants and slippers on her feet. Her hair was tied up, but it wasn’t combed. She had applied some makeup around her eyes and cheeks. Not for him, and not for anyone else but her. That was just the kind of person Kristin was. If she looked good, she felt good. And here, she wasn’t feeling terrible.

The sweater, James noticed, was of Thomas’ alma mater.

“May I-” James started.

“Please,” Kristin said.

She let him in, and James entered into the Thompson household. He wasn’t dressed in his uniform, and he didn’t take his police car to get here. He wore a polo shirt, a coat, and pair of slacks, and he took his old, beat up sedan. He wasn’t here for business, it was personal.

James took a glance around as he followed Kristin down the main hall. She hadn’t taken down any of the picture frames hanging on the wall. He could only focus on the edges of the frames themselves, the actual pictures were too much of a reminder of what was missing. Not just the man himself, but the role he filled in the house. Husband, father. Best friend.

If it was hard for him, then he couldn’t imagine what it was like for Kristin, having to live with constant reminders all day, every day. And she chose to keep those reminders up, no matter how much they might have hurt.

Maybe the pain of remembering is better than the release of forgetting.

“How’ve you been?” James asked, hoping Kristin would provide the distraction he so desperately needed.

“Been better, but I haven’t had a bad day for at least a week. That has to count for something.”

He was his best friend, but James was able to get more acquainted with Kristin over the years. James first met her back when they arrived together at the airport, after the volunteering program. He first met Kristin and Katy that day. It was quite the surprise. James was only expecting to carry one person’s bags.

From then, to now, James had grown to consider Kristin a good friend. They had developed their own connection outside of the common thread that they first met with. Now, even with that thread cut, James was still willing to reach out and support her, support a friend.

“You’re doing way better than me, then,” James said.

He heard a dry laugh come from Kristin.

“I try.”

They went by the kitchen. Annie, the dog, had smelled and heard him, and was by the gate on the other side. She saw him, and got excited. Too excited, instead of barking, she kept huffing, instead.

“Hi Annie,” James said, giving her a pat on the head, and then he walked on by.

Kristin brought him into the living room. Sitting on the couch, was someone he had seen before, but he couldn’t quite place his finger on where, or why.

Kristin ended up filling in the blanks for him.

“James, this is Shiori.”

Shiori. The name sort of helped.

She was sitting down, her feet up on the couch, legs pulled close to her body. On the table in front of her was a cup of tea.

She… did not look as well as Kristin did. She looked over at the mention of her name, and James could see it on her face. Exhaustion. Wrecked. Her clothes were dark and baggy, and she looked like she had just woken up, her eyes and cheeks a little puffy, her messy hair pushed back by a headband. Her eyes were red, wet at the corners. She’d been crying, and she’d been crying for a long time.

James had to approach this carefully.

“Hello, Shiori,” James said, measured. “I’m James.”

Shiori only offered a nod. She remained silent, remained sitting.

“She was at the service for Thomas. She sang.”

Then it clicked. He remembered that.

“Oh, that’s right. You have a lovely voice, Shiori.”

Again, Shiori only nodded.

James felt an awkward silence about to settle in.

Kristin spoke, recognizing it as well. “Did you want anything, James? I got tea for Shiori, but maybe you want some coffee?”

“Coffee would be great, thanks.”

“I’ll be right back.”

Kristin left to go into the kitchen, leaving James with Shiori. Not that he particularly minded, but he had to approach her with the utmost care and sincerity.

Slow, he moved over to the couch, finding a seat, but making sure to keep a respectable distance. He stayed on the edge of the cushion.

“It’s a good thing I was able to run into you again,” James said. “I meant to compliment you for your singing at… the service, but I must have lost you while the crowd was moving back outside. I’m glad I was able to get another chance to tell you.”

Shiori didn’t move or verbalize a response. She only nodded.

Was she ill? Did she lose her voice?

It was obvious that there was something wrong. Chances were good that it wasn’t his business to ask, and he wasn’t about to try and touch upon something still raw. He had to be sensitive.

James took out his phone from his pocket, and browsed the internet. He didn’t hear much outside of the work being done in the kitchen, Annie still huffing, and the occasional sniffle by Shiori.

She only moved to reach for a box of tissues by her cup of tea. She took a few, and used them to rub her eyes. She crumpled them, and placed them by her side, away from James.

Shiori wasn’t even watching TV. It was off, the black screen facing them both. There was nothing to distract her from whatever was on her mind. She was just sitting there, being like that.

How does she do it? James wondered.

Before James could try to think of an answer, he heard a voice from the kitchen.

“James, can you help me in here?”

James got up without any protest or objection.

“If you’ll excuse me, I’ll be right back,” he said to Shiori. He got the typical response.

Maybe it was rude, insensitive, but he hurried to the kitchen.

James stepped over the gate and into the path of a dog. Annie really was excited to see him.

“Down, Annie, down!”

The dog listened to her owner, stopping in her tracks, and sitting.

“Now go to your bed.”

Annie whined, but went to her bed. She spun twice before sitting back down.

“Sorry, Annie, maybe next time,” James said.

The dog was getting older, but she still had those puppy eyes. It was hard to resist.

But, he had to. He turned to Kristin, who was standing by the sink, holding a mug of coffee. James saw the other mug beside her on the counter. Black.

“What’s up?” he asked.

Kristin whispered, very deliberate. “How does she look to you?”

James matched her in volume. “She as in Shiori?”

Kristin nodded.

James shrugged.

“Quiet, reserved. Maybe shy, but she didn’t seem to have a problem performing to a crowd.”

It was obvious she was going through something, but James wasn’t going to mention it outright. It was a shared understanding.

“Shiori’s been staying with us for the past two weeks,” Kristin explained. “We’ve been taking of her, looking after her, making sure she’s okay. It was my idea, and she was hesitant at first, but she came around. I’m glad she did.”

“Okay, then that explains why I didn’t see her the last time I was here. This is a new thing?”

“It is. I invited her over after her daughter-”

Kristin’s voice cracked. She looked away, putting a hand close to an eye. A preemptive measure, in case her makeup started running.

James was an experienced enough cop to piece things together.

“She’s Alexis Barnett’s mom,” James said.

Kristin had to nod to confirm it. She cleared her throat before she could speak again.

“I’m not going to go into the details, you already have them.”

“I do,” James said. “It’s still on my desk.”

“Is there anything you can tell her? Anything at all?”

James felt his heart drop.

“I’m sorry, Kristin, but I don’t really have anything worth telling. It’s been more than difficult, with all of the shit that’s been happening in Stephenville, and it all keeps piling on. You should see my office.”

“You don’t have anything,” Kristin said. She sounded so disappointed.

James felt his heart drop even lower.

“Do you know how many reports I get about violence against Asian Americans in the past month? Dozens, if not hundreds, every day. You know the situation with me and my men, but we do legit work on stuff like that. But we’re being spread way too thin. If our attention is in one place, then something else happens and we’re too late to respond to that. Stuff falls through the cracks, or we can’t give everything the proper attention it deserves.”

Kristin snapped. “Dammit, this deserves attention, James! Shiori deserves attention, and Alexis deserves attention. This is close to me, and I want it to be close to you. You have to, you know, fucking do something!”

She managed to hush herself halfway through her outburst, but the anger was still there, the frustration. It came out so easy. That was something he liked to say to James every now and then. The only thing free in life was frustration.

“I did do something,” James said. “I followed up. I asked around, I went back to the restaurant on multiple occasions. No one could give me anything concrete. It all happened so fast, or they were firing at the crowd. There was a single bullet hole in the ceiling. Everyone’s stories conflict with one another. Even your daughter’s.”

Kristin was shaking the whole time, rubbing her arms together, as if the temperature had dipped below zero.

“I wish I had something, I really, truly do. But I gave it the best shot I could, with the resources I have available and most amount of focus I could put into it at this time… and I still…”

James couldn’t bear to say it. That he did everything he could and he still failed.

He didn’t even have the time to meet with Shiori when the kidnapping first happened. He had been called away to three other active scenes, with three successful arrests. He actually made progress, that day.

But not with this. He still failed.

“I can’t have that,” Kristin said, low. “I can’t accept that answer. I want Shiori to have her daughter back, James. Shit, I want Alexis back. She was taken, not killed. She has to be somewhere.”

“I know that,” James said. “But it did happen so fast, at the worst possible time. I’m so, so sorry.”

It’s like they knew what they were doing. Everyone’s preoccupied with the riots and the assaults and Blank Face, and they took advantage of our scattered attention.

“If this was any other time, I promise you we’d have her back by now,” James said, meaning it. “It’s just-”

“It’s the worst possible time.”

Kristin didn’t say anything for a while. She wasn’t just his best friend’s wife, she was his friend, and he had let her down.

“I was hoping you had something,” Kristin whispered, eyes down. “An update, a lead, anything. Something to give to Shiori so she could have hope. She doesn’t even have that, right now.”

Kristin hiccuped.

“Because, you know, he… Thomas is gone, but I’m not alone in this house. Katy’s here, and hell, I have you. But Shiori? She sits in her apartment, alone, being constantly reminded of what’s missing. That’s not good, for the mind, body, or soul. When I went over to invite her, she had lost so much weight that I thought she needed an IV drip instead of actual food.”

“That bad?”

“I’m exaggerating, but it is bad. She needs to be here, so she can be reminded that there are people around that love her and want to see her back on her feet, with Alexis in her arms and in her home. And I was praying that you had something to lift her spirits up.”

Every word Kristin said was like a kick to James’ own spirit. He did what he could, but he still came up short, disappointing Kristin, Shiori, himself… and him. What would he think, if he were around? Would he have thought of him as pathetic, too?

Maybe.

“I’m out of apologies, and excuses,” James said. “There’s not much I can do after that. I can’t tell Shiori anything if I have nothing, that’ll only make it worse for her.”

“Okay,” Kristin said.

“How long were you expecting to have her stay here?”

“As long as she needs, I don’t care. I’ll pay for her apartment if I have to.”

“I don’t recommend going that far, but do help her to get back on her feet. I’d say your doing a great job now. You told me she wasn’t eating when you invited her over, but I didn’t see a sign of malnutrition on her face. That’s good. You’re making her eat.”

Kristin stayed quiet.

“It’s great that you’re willing to take care of her, too,” James said. “Keeping yourself busy, helping others in the face of your own loss. I admire that.”

She looked up, meeting James in the eye.

“You lost him, too.”

There were no words to respond to that. He opened his arms, and gave Kristin a hug. Kristin accepted the gesture.

They stayed like that for a second longer. A hug between good friends.

When they broke, James said, “Here’s what I’ll do. I’ll go through everything again, and I mean everything, and give this another shot. I’ll come by if I have any updates, and you work on helping Shiori, and yourself. You have family, you know. You need to be there for them, too.”

“Shiori is family, and you are, too. You take care of yourself, too.”

“I am, by doing this. Even when I’m overworked, I need more work.”

More distractions.

“I’m sorry for being hard on you,” Kristin said.

“I deserve it,” James said. “I’m not doing good enough by you. And you’re a good person, one of the few I know left.”

“Thank you, James. Can I ask you for one more favor?”

“Anything.”

“Can you check on Katy?”

“She’s here?”

“Upstairs, in her room. Just knock. I’m sure she’d appreciate you swinging by.”

“Hope so, but of course.”

James didn’t leave right away. Kristin moved to step out of the kitchen, putting a hand on James’ arm as she left. James gave himself a break to drink his coffee.

Bitter.

He finished his coffee, placing the mug in the sink, and left the kitchen. From across the hall, he saw Kristin and Shiori.

They were on the couch. Shiori hadn’t budged since he left, and Kristin was sitting closer to her than he had been. The TV was on this time, judging from the angle Kristin held her head at, she was looking at something. Shiori, however, had her head down, silent.

If James had the power to save everyone, he’d do it in a heartbeat. But he didn’t, and he was still given that task. And it had broke him down years ago, back when the police chief at the time offered James the position, back when he took it, and back when the chief took him out to meet with the gangs that ran the city. Mrs. Carter, who was there to represent Mister.

Styx was there, too.

They told him he would have no real power at all. That all he had to do was play the part of a competent chief, while making sure the real checks and balances were in place. He was blocked before he ever had a chance to start.

His best friend was disappointed then, furious, frustrated. And he had used that frustration to go even harder with his campaigning, and it led to him finding Blank Face… leading to everything else.

James went up the stairs before his thoughts could beat him down any more. He still felt like he was being beat down, though, the aches were making themselves known as he moved. He hated that.

It was easy to find Katy’s room. He’d been up there before, when he was asked to babysit her during her kindergarten and elementary school years.

He knocked.

Katy wasn’t the one who got the door.

A girl, a teenager. Hispanic. Her hair was colored a lighter brown, and she was wearing a coat. It looked trendy.

“Hello,” James said.

“Hello,” the girl repeated.

Then, as if it was a delayed reaction, he remembered.

“Oh, you’re… Maria, am I right?”

“I am,” Maria said.

No mention of what she was doing here, or where Katy was. James recalled her being this flat during the questioning of what happened at the restaurant. She answered properly and honestly, but James recognized a innate distrust for police when he saw it.

“I,” James started, but he was interrupted by another voice.

“Uncle James, you can come in.”

That voice, he knew. Maria stepped to the side, and James took about three steps into the room. He was still close to the door.

The room hadn’t changed much since he last saw it. Then again, all girls’ rooms looked the same to him. An inherent girliness, that he didn’t quite understand.

Katy. She was sitting on the floor, by the coffee table in the middle of the room, phone in one hand, and a chess piece in another. Like Maria, she was also dressed for the outside.

James examined the board. There were more black pieces in play, but the white ones that were left were the tough ones, that could do more than just move up one square. The way the pieces were situated suggested that the white side was on the offensive, with black pawns in place to block the path of the white queen. But, it didn’t seem like the white pieces were after the opponent’s king. They were all being directed to another, specific piece.

“Did the rules change since I last played?” James asked. “I don’t recall taking out the queen being the way to win.”

“I’m just figuring something out,” Katy answered. With the chess piece she was holding, she flicked away a black piece, and placed that instead. A white bishop, four diagonal spaces away, with a direct path to the black queen.

As Katy took a picture of the board on her phone, she asked, “What brings you in, Uncle James?”

‘Uncle James’ answered. “Just checking in on everyone, like usual. I see that Shiori’s staying with you guys.”

“Yeah, it’s been fun.”

Her tone was so dry, he wasn’t used to that. If Katy hadn’t inherited her father and mother’s intelligence, her charisma would have brought her straight to the cheerleading captain position. But, life had other plans for her.

And that spark of life, he didn’t see it in her, and he didn’t hear it, either. She still looked down.

Still coping, dealing, with the greatest loss in her life, only for another, equally difficult loss to strike when she was at her lowest. Her father, and her best friend. James understood exactly how that could suck the air out of someone.

“Any good news?”

It was Maria that asked. She was standing over Katy, now, looking at James.

“None, I’m sorry. I already got it from your mom, Katy, but I deserve to get it again.”

“No, I can imagine my mom made you suffer through that for the both of us.”

James couldn’t tell if there was anger behind her words, lashing out at him.

“She did,” he said.

“I saw you on TV,” Katy said. “The other day.”

“Did you now? What’d you think?”

“Terrible. I don’t know why they keep inviting you.”

“I can count the number of times I’ve been on with one hand. It’s not like I get practice for that stuff.”

“Not that. I’m saying you should have been harder on Blank Face. Fuck Blank Face.”

Maria made a face, cringing at what Katy had said.

James wasn’t going to get into it, now. That wasn’t what he came up for.

“Okay, I’m just going to make this short, so you can go back to your game.”

“It’s not a game,” Katy said.

“Okay, I just wanted to see you all again. I’ll see you later, Katy, and it was nice seeing you again, Maria.”

“Come back when you have good news,” Maria said.

That was definitely the atmosphere, James could feel it thick in the air. He wasn’t wanted.

“Bye,” he said quietly, turning to leave. He reached for the door-

“Leave the door open.”

James turned back again. Katy’s focus was still on the board, rearranging the pieces, putting them back in their starting positions.

“We’ll be heading out after you,” Katy said, still moving pieces around. “So leave the door open.”

“Heading out?” James asked.

“Yes.”

That was all James got in regards to an answer. He recalled seeing another car out on the driveway. A teal Honda. Probably Maria’s.

“I’ll leave the door open. Bye, ladies.”

He got no response as he left the room, and went down the stairs. He felt the aches again.

He ran into Kristin as he reached the final step.

“How were they?” she asked.

“Didn’t want to give me the time of day, but they’re still young, going through things most adults can’t handle. If they need space, I’ll give it to them.”

Kristin’s expression seemed like she was expecting that answer. The girls had been like that for some time, now.

James couldn’t blame them for that.

“Are you leaving now?” Kristin asked.

“I think I will. Thank you again for the coffee.”

“Anytime.”

Kristin gave him a quick hug before he left the house. It was a gesture that showed that he was always welcome to come back and visit.

But, by the next time, he had better have fucking something to show.

The air was thick with a pungent smell. James almost tripped over himself, something sliding out from under him.

So many bullet holes, so many bullet casings, so many bullets.

James took one, slow walk around the perimeter, trying to take it all in. It was hard. Decades on the force, and he had the gall to assume that he had seen it all. Apparently, he hadn’t seen shit.

Morning, early morning. So early the sun hadn’t considered getting up yet. The basketball court in a neighborhood on the west side. Neutral territory between the Thunders and the Royals.

Nothing neutral about it now.

Chunks of concrete were torn out of the ground, debris thrown haphazardly across the court. Bullets were stuck in the ground, embedded in both the grass and dirt around the court and the court itself. Even the backboards were riddled by bullets, there were more holes than metal. It was like an actual warzone.

Around the court and the surrounding perimeter, everyone was working to collect as much info as possible, and clean up as much as possible. Wherever James looked, there was someone picking up bullets and casings to put into a bag, someone helping the injured into an ambulance, or someone trying to fix where the tall fence around the court had fallen over. Parts of the fence were torn and crushed, like it was trampled on by a stampede of elephants.

That was a good way to put it, in terms of animals. What had happened here, happened between animals. A raw, deep force that craved violence and rage. It had consumed the hearts of the people, and they didn’t see each other as people, anymore. Not as their fellow man, not as brothers. Humans couldn’t have done this, it had to have been some other cause.

Right?

James watched his step, careful to not slip again. There were too many things here that could catch him off guard. Debris, bullet casings, pools of blood. He kept a flashlight at his feet, to keep an eye on what was directly ahead. Normally, there would have been fixtures that lit up the court, but the power was out around the spot. It hadn’t come back on, yet.

Campbell followed him as he tried to get a sense of the whole situation.

“They’re going to want me on TV to talk about this, aren’t they?” James asked.

“Media’s starting to come in, but they’ve actually been a bit slow in getting here. Journalists aren’t used to coming down here.”

“That’s because they don’t have a reason to. They’ve gotten every story they could possibly get out of places like this. They squeezed it dry, and left it to rot in the sun. They’re only back now because, as it turns out, there’s still a little bit of juice left to sell.”

“Well, the perimeter’s about two blocks around the court. They’re not getting in here.”

“Let’s push it back another block, just to be safe, before the first few shoe-stringers get here.”

“Roger that, chief.”

Campbell reached for a walkie-talkie to relay the Chief’s words to the others. All around James, he heard the cries of affirmation, and the action afterward. Neither of the gangs had any relevance to the ones that had teeth in James’ police force, so James got to be the leading authority. Right now, for now, James’ men were his. They listened and reported to him, and they had no other bosses to answer to.

If only it was like that the whole time. His best friend would have loved that for sure.

James stopped his walk around the area, and headed straight to the middle. The middle of the court.

There was a shout, somewhere in the far back. “Power’s coming back!”

Small cheers sounded throughout, immediately hushed when the lights switched on, shining a harsh light on everything.

James squinted. For more than one reason.

He saw the edges of it before, but not a full view. This… This was harsh.

There were two bodies. Cut up, beaten, and bruised. Reduced to a bloody pulp, their bodies defiled and tampered with. The result was something less than human.

They were completely naked, cut skin touching the hard and cold concrete. They were situated, placed in a specific way, moved after whatever happened to them… happened. James noted the streaks of blood beside them, how they were dragged and then set to achieve the intended effect.

Arms and legs together, their feet meeting at a point. One body was on one side of the court, the other body was on the opposite side. What looked like larger brush strokes of blood were marked beside their appendages to make it read better.

It looked like a giant red ‘V.’

The men? The leaders of the relevant gangs. Darius and Marcus Jackson.

“God, who could’ve-”

Campbell stopped, or rather the scene was too visceral that he lost the words. He turned on a heel, so it was to his side, and he was facing James, instead.

“How can you even look, sir?”

“Part of the job,” James answered. He was looking at it, head on. Others were, too, collecting photographs and getting vitals on the bodies. A man bent down to get a pulse from Darius, another checked for signs of breathing on Marcus.

“But, even if you put it like that, this is just too much.”

“My job is to face the ugliest of humanity, and do what I can to put a stop to it. Clearly, humans are capable of much more ugliness than I ever thought, but the job stays the same.”

Campbell turned again, putting his back to the scene.

“I don’t know which is worse. This, or the school.”

“The school, unfortunately.” James looked at the medical staff working on EZ and Krown. They both gave him a thumbs up. A miracle.

“At least no one died, here,” James added.

“Sure, but we have dozens injured and two critically injured, and plenty aren’t going to walk away from this with all their limbs attached. Fuck, some literally will not be able to walk away.”

“Yeah.”

“I can’t look at this, I have to go.”

Campbell started to walk away from the scene. James couldn’t help but feel let down at Campbell’s weakened resolve. Everyone had a breaking point, and it seemed that this one was his.

James addressed the men in front of him.

“You have your pictures, so scoop these two up and get them into a hospital. Yesterday. And I want every gangbanger present to be accounted for, you know what that means.”

His men sprung to action, and James left them to work.

He caught up with Campbell as they left the court.

“What does that even accomplish?” Campbell questioned. He walked away, but his thoughts were still fixated on that. “Who would do something like that?”

“Either it’s a message,” James said, “Or a cruel joke. Either way, we’ll get to the bottom of it.”

They walked into the grass, James feeling the metal of the bullets and casings under his shoes, but they were walking on dirt, easier to step through bumpier terrain, here. James wasn’t afraid of slipping and making an ass of himself, needing Campbell to help him back up. He could do without an embarrassment.

James saw a tree by a concrete trail that would have led into an intact basketball court. The trunk was splintered and split open by bullets.

James saw someone approach, running out of the dark.

“James Gomez?”

He didn’t stop walking.

“James Gomez?”

He kept going.

“James!”

Not once did James break his stride.

A woman fell in step with him. Brown hair, thick rimmed glasses, beige coat and black tights. She looked like she was in her thirties, now. Time really did pass.

I really am getting old.

James didn’t want to admit that.

“I wanted to ask you some questions, James,” Natalie asked. “Actually, I don’t have anything to ask you, I have the answers, I just wanted some confirmation.”

Natalie Beckham. She was one of the top writers of the Stephenville Impact, the city’s number one news organization. Was. She had covered the local crime scene, back in the day, but the last time James had seen her around was almost seven years ago. He heard something about her moving to New York.

For whatever reason, she was back, now, and that only meant more complications.

James saw the cup in her hand. He wasn’t interested.

He didn’t entertain her. He just kept walking, Campbell on his right, Natalie on his left.

“I caught some of the gang members here as they tried to recount the events. The Thunders and the Royals had previously been operating in good faith in regards to a pact, but after too many incidents between the two groups, came here to settle the score. Is this true?”

James didn’t answer.

“And I heard that, right before the initial confrontation, there was a starting gunshot in the distance. Would you know that to be true?”

James didn’t answer.

“After that, was when the power began to cut out. In the dark, I’ve got multiple reports and a mysterious figure, cloaked in red, attacking members from both gangs. Could you confirm this?”

Red? Not blue?

James didn’t answer.

“Both gangs stopped their fighting and tried to go after this figure instead, but it was only striking in the dark, and they only had brief glimpses about its location during the seconds the power did come on. It was as though someone was toying with them.”

James and Campbell kept walking.

“When it was somehow established that this figure had gotten to both gang leaders, and when it proved fruitless to land a hit on this figure without shooting or stabbing someone else, everyone who could run, did.”

That was a decent summary of the events, but James wasn’t about to confirm that with her.

“Now, this part’s off the record since I don’t really like to speculate, I prefer facts, but given the recent activity in Stephenville, but do you believe this mysterious, cloaked figure could be related to the vigilante known as the Bluemoon?”

“Natalie,” James said.

“Finally, some life from the old man.”

“You’re not supposed to be here. The perimeter extends more than two blocks.”

“You think that’s going to stop someone like me?”

She had a point.

“No, but I am going to just leave you with a warning. I don’t want to see you around here again, and I’m done with questions.”

“I’m sad to hear that, James, you used to be so helpful before. What happened?”

That question, he would answer.

“I got old.”

He gestured to Campbell, and Campbell went over to Natalie’s side. He whisked her away, with her offering very little protest.

At least she could honor him on that. Natalie knew that she had what she needed, she just needed confirmation, for formalities.

What a good little journalist.

James continued until he reached the lot, seeing all of the men perform their proper duties. He’d probably give the whole area one more sweep, to see if he had missed anything.

Maybe get some info on this cloaked figure, as well.

His phone rang. He stopped.

James fished it out of his pocket, bringing it to his ear.

“Gomez,” he said, answering it.

Art studio, top floor. Eastern window facing the court. Come alone. Someone wants to see you.

He recognized the voice. It was that of a little girl.

Her?

“D,” James said, hard. “What the fuck do you have to do with this?”

The call ended.

James thrusted a hand in his pocket, putting his phone back. He hurried.

He was already facing the east, if this art studio had a clear view of the court, then it would be on the street just across from the court.

She said to come alone. Would he? Was it another trap, or one of D’s pranks?

Couldn’t be. Either D started getting bored of the same old tricks, and started escalating on her own – a dangerous notion – or she was a part of something else. Something bigger.

Did he need backup?

James slipped past some tape and his men. Everyone was too preoccupied to notice their chief pass them by.

He needed backup, but he had learned that particular lesson when he started this job. Bringing others in situations like this, when expressed not to, would only ever lead to disaster. James wouldn’t sacrifice good men like that.

If it was just him, just his life at stake, he was fine with that.

James found the art building, and checked the front door. It was unlocked.

Turning his flashlight on, he found the staircase on the side of the first floor. There were elevators, but James would rather take the stairs. At least to prove he still had a body he could use.

As he ascended, James made sure he had all of the essentials. Walkie-talkie, phone, and gun.

Check, check, and check.

James reached the fourth floor.

Art supplies, paint cans, canvases hanging on the wall. James wasn’t sure what he was expecting, perhaps another clue or body, but nothing here immediately stood out to him.

He saw the window. Light crept through the glass, lighting up a square shape on the floor of the art studio. He began to approach.

Slowly, carefully. James pulled his gun out, ready to fire. He kept his head low as he got closer to the glass. Last thing he wanted was to get sniped through a window.

James got in place. For long, agonizing seconds, he scoped out the scene below.

People working, collecting data from the basketball court and surrounding grass, helping victims into ambulances to send them off to the hospital, cleaning up wherever they could.

At the court itself, James saw that Darius and Marcus Jackson had been moved, but the blood remained. The broad strokes, and another pool that James didn’t notice before. A period. It was a message.

V.

“Thoughts?”

A voice from behind. James recognized it.

He turned around, his gun prepared.

From the shadows, a figure emerged.

A hood covered their head, but where the moonlight touched their face, James could only see the lower half, the mouth and chin. Everything from the nose up was covered. Flecks of blood dotted the figure’s mouth.

The rest of the figure’s shape was hard to make out. He couldn’t see its arms, the material draped over their body in such a way that it was difficult to make sense of it. They were wearing some sort of cloak or long robe, made of a flowy but heavy material.

From top to bottom, the cloak was red. The only other colors on the figure were the black shadows masking their face, the black pants they wore, and the snowy white skin of their mouth and chin.

A ghost, or a phantom, covered in blood. Or perhaps the Devil himself. Either way, James felt like he was being haunted. Cursed.

The only thing that was familiar about this figure was its voice.

“Blank Face?” he asked.

The figure twitched, as if offended by the suggestion.

“I wrote it out there for you to see,” the figure answered.

“V, then.”

“Yes.”

“But you were the vigilante known as Blank Face, am I correct?”

There was a pause.

“I was, unfortunately. Those days are behind all of us, now.”

James wasn’t sure what that was supposed to mean.

He asked.

“When you said you were rebranding, I wasn’t expecting this.” James put his arms to his side, including his gun. “Not exactly coming across as heroic with this new image. It’s a little too macabre.”

Another pause.

V spoke. “I’m only meeting with you now to give you a brief update on where things stand. This is probably the last time we’ll ever speak, like this.”

You ignored my comment.

James let that be.

“And you’re sure of that,” he said.

“I am.”

“Fine then, continue.”

“The Thunders and the Royals are out of the picture, now. I gathered them all here, and made a show of their leaders. While I had the majority of their numbers distracted, I had all of their assets and territories and cash seized. There are survivors, and they’ll probably want to retaliate, but they’ll find that they have nothing to go back to. It’s all been snatched out from under them.”

“That’s quite the workload for one person.”

“It certainly wasn’t easy.”

“I’m more inclined to believe that you had help. The call I got earlier, and with her reputation… Are you telling me a new gang is already moving in?”

The idea of that little girl working with a gang… It almost made James shiver. Before, she had always been something of a free agent, working by herself, enacting her own whims. Her irreverence for any structure or systems actually prevented her from being a legitimate threat. If she was content with being independent, she was actually easier to handle.

But to focus that destruction, aiming it with purpose? And throwing Blank Face – V – into the fold? James had already seen the results, out there on the court. It would be devastating.

“I’m telling you to stay away,” V said. “Let the dust settle where it does. You can clean up here, but after that, you’re done. I don’t want to see you in this territory again.”

He’d heard those words before, or something to that effect. Being ordered by the leader of a cartel or gang, by the enemy.

“You’re telling me what to do?”

“Yes, I am. You’re used to that sort of thing, aren’t you, being the puppet that you are.”

James was stunned.

Something must have snapped, in that mind of hers. She was but a child, just a kid.

“What the hell happened? Last time we met, you were asking me to help you find Benny.”

“And you refused, and I found her anyways. You’re useless, Gomez.”

“Then the fires on Eastside, that was you?”

A pause.

Ignored again.

“V,” James said. “Blank Face-”

V twitched.

“When you first came to my window, and we met on that roof, and you were asking me about finding Thomas, I knew then that you were the one he was working with. You see, Thomas never told me about his activities with you, but I knew him like a brother. He saw something in you, and he wanted to cultivate that. Shape you, despite himself. Part it was stress relief, since our plans weren’t going the way he wanted.”

V didn’t respond.

“So, I just want to ask you a few more questions, before you go, and I officially consider you as the enemy. Do you think Thomas would be proud of what you’ve become? What does ‘V’ stand for, to you? Vengeance, vendetta, villainy?”

V stood there, her head pointed to James. He couldn’t see her eyes, so he could only guess that she was staring at him.

For the third time, V ignored his questions.

“Don’t get in my way, or if you do, get a new office. You don’t want a third visit from me.”

With that final line, drawn in the sand, V took a step back, returning into the shadows.

James ran after her.

“Blank Face!”

He reached for his gun and flashlight. He pointed both around the room.

Nothing, no one, nowhere. V was gone.

“Shit!”

James turned back, going to the window. He watched the scene again, looking at the red letter that faced him, taunted him. ‘V’ was out there, free, and he was the one confined to these walls.

A cycle, revenge was. A vicious circle that turned good people desperate and cruel. Thomas had become desperate, and Blank Face had become cruel.

The number of good people in this city was getting smaller by the day.

James knew, now. It had always been like this, and they were doomed to fail from the start. And now, he was all alone, with nothing to show for his efforts.

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