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 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 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 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.
“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.
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.”
“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.
“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.
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.
- 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.
“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?”
“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.
“Natalie, you said Alexis Barnett was the one you really wanted to talk to. Why?”
It was now that Natalie Beckham went silent.
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.
Her name in print. It was like seeing a ghost.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
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.
“What is it?” Lawrence asked.
Styx’s expression changed. Twisted, vile really. It made me sick.
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?”
“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.”
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 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.”
“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.