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 assess 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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Interlude – Natalie

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“What is it you want, exactly?”

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

“I want the truth,” she answered.

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

But now I’m trying to get him in one.

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

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

“It’s not a law, Earl, not yet.”

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

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

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

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

Natalie proposed her next question.

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

Earl breathed again, deeper this time.

“Sure.”

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

“John Cruz?”

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

“Named in the memory of?”

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

Earl frowned. “Ah, that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The reaction was expected.

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

“Context?”

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

Natalie motioned to Oliver, then Earl.

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

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

“We can be on the same page.”

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

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

Then, he answered.

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

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

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

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

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

“No?” Natalie questioned.

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

The whole world.

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

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

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

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

Natalie paused in her writing. Thinking.

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

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

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

“And that is?”

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

“My whole life, basically.”

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

“I keep my ear to the streets.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Natalie applied that pressure.

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

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

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

Earl’s eyes were low, avoiding Natalie.

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

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

“I don’t.”

You’re lying.

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

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

“And why is that?”

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

Natalie took a second to let that sink in.

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

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

Natalie closed her notebook.

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

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

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

“You really are ruthless,” he said.

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

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

“We are.”

“Then, yeah, I can respect it.”

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

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

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

“Thank you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Because someone might send the hounds on him?”

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

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

Natalie agreed with that sentiment.

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

“I’m fucked,” she said.

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

“You think so?”

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

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

“I would love to know.”

They continued walking, Natalie continued thinking aloud.

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

“I know you do, Nat.”

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

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

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

“Yeah, you’re right.”

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

Natalie chuckled.

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

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

“Absolutely.”

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

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

“Is he even going to be of any help?”

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

Natalie pulled out her phone.

“I’ll just send a text…”

“Nat.”

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

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

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

“Hey.”

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

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

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

“That’s not terrifying,” Oliver commented.

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

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

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

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

“Ask James Gomez about Alexis Barnett.”

Another chill.

“Who?” Oliver asked.

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

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

Natalie then responded to Oliver.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Alexis Barnett, know anything about her?”

James’ brow furrowed.

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

“Anything about it that stands out to you?”

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

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

Natalie could feel the paper and rook in her pocket.

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

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

“Much appreciated, James.”

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

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

Natalie sipped her coffee before getting right to it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Has it been seven years, already?

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

“Hey,” Oliver said.

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

“Edison?”

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

A clank. Ceramic on wood.

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

“Sorry,” Natalie said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Natalie pleaded.

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

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

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

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

James faced her, his hands clasped together.

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

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

She started writing. Oliver started recording.

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

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

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

“Who, James, I need names.”

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

“Give me what you remember. Anything.”

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

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

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

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

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

Mister. Natalie almost dropped her pen.

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

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

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

“James…” she said.

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

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

“Thomas, too.”

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

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

It was just her and the truth, now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Blank Face, as in… as in the-”

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

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

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

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

James took a deep breath.

“No.”

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

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

“Wait. You met with the vigilante?”

James lowered his head.

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

“Why you?”

“I ask myself that question everyday.”

Natalie flipped the page, turning to a new one.

“Continue, please.”

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

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

Wait, she.

“Do you know her identity?” Natalie asked.

“I do not.”

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

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

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

“V?” Natalie offered.

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

She savored the taste, the flavor of this.

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

“No comment,” James said.

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

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

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

“Police reports? Records you can show me?”

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

“And Thomas? Blank Face?”

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

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

What else, then, what else?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay,” he said.

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

Natalie closed her notebook.

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

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

“I do.”

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

“I am aware.”

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

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

James set his shoulder and jaw square.

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

Natalie saw it in his eyes. He was serious.

She let him speak.

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

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

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

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

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

Natalie had to say something.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you for your time, James.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Nat.”

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

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

“Want me to order some pizza?”

“Is there any place open at this time?”

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

“Holy shit.”

“What?”

“Poggio’s is still around?”

“It is, Nat.”

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

“They close in an hour and a half.”

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

“You look fine like that.”

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

“Never will!”

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

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

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

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

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

“You thinking Pulitzer?” Oliver asked.

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

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

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

“A mess,” Oliver said.

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

“Heard anything from James?”

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

“Clearance?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Natalie.”

The whole name.

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

“Oliver,” she responded.

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

“Baffles you how?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And Blank Face?”

Natalie raised an eyebrow.

“What about her?”

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

Oliver coughed again.

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

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

“What is it?”

“James sent me an email.”

“Shit.”

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

“Anything?”

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

She muttered.

“Dammit, James.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strange, indeed.

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

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

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

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

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

“Thomas’ kid?”

“Stephenville High School.”

She traded a look with Oliver.

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

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

A heavy pause filled the air.

“You don’t think…” Oliver started.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We were going to him, anyway.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, it would harder for them to ignore us.

Natalie walked up to the door and knocked.

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

She was ready.

The door opened.

Natalie smiled.

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

The woman at the door was silent.

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

She observed this woman under her own merits.

The woman was short, thin, the oversized grey sweater and loose pajama pants serving to make her look even smaller. She looked tired, like how James looked tired, but not exactly. Drained, as if something that once propped her up was now missing, and it put more strain on all that remained. Like a building that had a section crumble into dust. It was still standing, but no one in their right mind would say it was structurally sound.

Her hair was lengthy, unkempt, frayed out past her shoulders. Loose strands fell out of the way when the woman blinked. Bags under her eyes. As if she had just been stirred awaken, unwillingly.

The woman responded, “This is she.”

“Hi, I’m Natalie Beckham, and this is Oliver Morgan, we’re with the Stephenville Impact, and we just wanted to ask you a few questions about your daughter, if that’s alright with you?”

Shiori opened her mouth, letting it hang. Her eyes widened a little, too. More seconds, more jitters.

“No,” she said, moving behind the door, trying to hide behind it.

“Mrs. Barnett,” Natalie said, leaning in but not inside, enough so that Shiori would have hit her in the face if she closed it all the way. Shiori didn’t.

Natalie took that opening.

“It’s been about four months since Alexis Barnett has went missing. She, along with three others, were taken from a Vietnamese restaurant in the middle of the day. She is the only one who hasn’t been returned to her home. That’s… people need to know that the police dropped the ball on this, on your daughter.”

Shiori spoke. When she did, it came out weak, wobbly.

“It will not help anything, anymore.”

She sounded so defeated.

“Mrs. Barnett,” Natalie said, “You look like someone with a lot of questions, and Oliver and I want to get those answers for you. If you would allow us, we’d like to get a better understanding of what happened, who your daughter… is, we can run a better story, and if we can do that, and if the public response ends up being vocal enough, we might be able to get the police to try again, try harder.”

Dangling hope in front of someone who so desperately needed it. Baiting them, almost, but it was a real possibility. If Natalie put enough time and effort into this as normal story, it could work.

For now, she’d play this straight.

Shiori continued to stare at them. She didn’t seem like a cold person, but she was hard to read.

Jitters.

Then, she spoke.

“Come in.”

Shiori took a step back, opening the door wider for the two. Natalie went in first, Oliver following.

Natalie couldn’t help but take stock of what she could see of the apartment.

It wasn’t big, but it looked lived in. Shiori led them to the living room, to a couch in front of a TV. Natalie noted the shelves and the dinner and coffee tables, the edge of the TV. Some dust had accumulated, enough that it should have been taken care of by now. There streaks of dirt and grime on some surfaces, especially the table in the middle of the room. She would have missed it if she wasn’t scrutinizing every detail, and with the lights being so dim, but it was like Shiori was trying to avoid seeing just how dirty her apartment was becoming. She saw a picture frame, two people standing in a field of bluebonnets, the saturation a little strong for her taste. An older woman and a child. Shiori and Alexis? Where was the father?

The picture was clean of any speck.

“Would you like some tea?” Shiori asked. While Natalie and Oliver had taken their seats at the couch, Shiori had kept going towards the kitchen.

“Um, yes please, thank you.”

It was better to accept whatever was offered by the host. Easier to build a connection that way, even if it was menial.

Natalie and Oliver prepared their equipment while Shiori prepared tea. Natalie got out her notebook, while Oliver got his phone, ready to record. He didn’t take out the camera for this one. A quick judgement call, but Natalie was with him on that one. Shiori was still apprehensive on doing an impromptu interview. Pulling out a big camera and tripod would be a sure-fire way to get kicked out.

They were all set up, Natalie and Oliver, and Shiori. She returned to the living room, handing Natalie and Oliver their tea, and went back to the kitchen to retrieve her own.

Shiori took her own seat at a chair on the other side of the room. A blanket was folded over one arm, she grabbed it and set it over her lap.

Cup in hands, blanket in lap, general disposition down, Shiori was as ready to talk as she’d ever be.

“Alright,” Natalie said, opening up a blank page, spinning a pen in her fingers. “How I’d like to start this is by-”

“How did you find me?”

Shiori had asked the first question.

It’s fine. Be transparent, be honest.

“We had spoken to James Gomez, Chief of Police for the Stephenville Police Department. He gave us the report on Alexis, your address was attached to your written statements.”

“James?”

“He mentioned that he knows you. Friend of a friend.”

“Oh.”

She didn’t say anything else. It would be Natalie’s turn, now.

“Alright,” she said, starting it up again. “This story is ultimately about your daughter, but I do want to get a full picture of who you are, as well. May I get your full name and occupation?”

“I am… Shiori Barnett. I work at a hair salon.”

“You’re a hairstylist?”

“I am.”

“And may I get your age?”

“Forty.”

“Wow, still pretty young.”

Add in some casual conversation, some compliments. Enough to make them comfortable to keep talking.

“I was young when I had her,” Shiori added. A neutral observation.

Natalie continued with her questions, continued with her writing.

“Going back to that time… is the father around today?”

She gauged Shiori’s reaction. There was none, but it was more like she didn’t have energy for one.

“He is not.”

“By natural causes or of his own choice?”

A delay between answers. A long one.

“Yes,” Shiori said.

“I don’t follow.”

Another delay.

“He… passed, not long after Alexis was born.”

“What happened? What was his name? How did you meet and how did it get to that point?”

It was tricky, to pry into someone’s personal life in such a manner. But, even if it could be trivial, it would help shape the story. After all, an entire parental unit was literally out of the picture, that had to have an affect on a child. And if Alexis Barnett had but a single strand in the web they were looking into, it might say a lot.

A third delay, Shiori used the time to drink her tea. Slow, drawn out movements.

“His name is Matthew. Matt. We meet about a year before I move to America. I was a singer back then, and he was working at nearby Navy base.”

“You were a singer?”

Shiori nodded. “Performer. Sing and dance, and play a lot of shows.”

“Wow, so you were famous?”

Shiori shook her head. “Not exactly. Maybe, if I stuck with it.”

“I’m guessing you had other ideas when you met your husband?”

Shiori had no discernable expression on her face as she recounted these memories. No warmth, but no callousness, either.

“He happen to pass by during one of my shows. He was… so nice. We start meeting, hiding from my agency and parents. They wouldn’t have approved.”

Natalie could feel the interview getting away from her a bit, but she’d allow it. She still had the reins, and she knew how to force things back on course, if she had to.

“Then,” Shiori said. “A few months pass, Matt had to be reassigned somewhere else, in America, and I did not want him to leave.”

“A few months?”

“We were young and it was… fun. Late nights, dancing and singing and drinking. I didn’t want to let that go.”

“So you went with him, to America?”

“I go with him, we get married, and then I was pregnant with Alexis. I leave my job and family to be with him here in Stephenville.”

All in the span of a year?

It was a neutral observation. She couldn’t judge.

Shiori continued without a prompt from Natalie. “The years here have always been stressful. Matt lost his job. No more dancing and singing, more drinking. Then, Matt… became sick.”

Natalie began to brace herself. She had heard these kinds of stories before.

“He was already so sick, so weak, when Alexis was born. She was born a month early, so she was a little weak, too. Then, before she was able to be strong enough to walk, Alexis became sick.”

“Life-threatening?”

“Not quite, but it was a scare. But… Matthew caught it, and he didn’t react very well. Not at all. He didn’t…”

Shiori had to put her cup down. Her hands were shaking too much.

“He passed, not long after Alexis was born,” Shiori said.

Natalie stopped writing. She hadn’t heard this story before.

“What did you tell your daughter when she got older?”

Shiori’s answer was as plain as it was simple. And yet, it felt like it was the cause of so many complications.

“I didn’t. I told her he left us before I gave birth to her.”

A silence fell upon the whole apartment. The dim light seemed to deepen into gloom.

For a long while, Natalie didn’t know what to say. She didn’t know what to write.

What the fuck, Natalie thought. Not Natalie the journalist, in all objectivity. But Natalie the person, wanting to shout at the universe at how could that situation go so wrong. Why?

“Nat…

Oliver whispered.

Natalie gripped her pen, hard.

Focus.

Holding the reins, Natalie forced things back on course.

“Moving on, could you talk about Alexis? What’s she like, what’re her interests?”

The harsh snap to another train of thought seemed to throw Shiori for a loop. She fixed her blanket, she rubbed at one eye.

“She… Alexis. She’s kind, energetic. So talented in sports, even with how weak she was as a baby. Her favorite was volleyball. Always bouncing, always the life of the party. She loved to be with her friends, always playing with them and going to their house for sleepovers. What is the phrase, again? Someone who is social and friendly with everyone they meet?”

“A social butterfly?”

“Yes. She is a butterfly.”

Natalie was finding it harder and harder to write.

Shiori’s hands fell into her lap, her hair falling over her face and eyes.

“You… were always so much stronger than me, so much braver. It doesn’t seem right that you are my daughter, that someone so beautiful could have come from someone like me. You always found it easy to smile. It made me afraid of you, sometimes, that I didn’t deserve to be your mother. I was so scared to live up to being your mother, but I try, I try anyways. Because you were worth it, because you have given me so much and I just wanted to return the favor. You made… me still being here… you made it worth it. You made me happy.”

Shaking, laughing. Weak. Wobbly. Sobbing.

Shiori’s hands covered her face.

“I’m sorry Alexis, I’m sorry Alexis, I’m sorry Alexis,  I’m so sorry… I love you…”

Shiori wept, Natalie let her. The moment stayed and lingered for long enough. The tea became cool.

Natalie closed her notebook. She set her pen down.

“I want… I want to thank you for your time, Mrs. Barnett. If you’d allow us, we’d like to contact you again in case there’s anything we want to follow up on.”

Shiori didn’t reply, couldn’t. She was still in the moment, lingering there, maybe even staying in it forever.

“We’ll see ourselves out, Mrs. Barnett. Thank you again for the tea.”

Natalie and Oliver packed up and left, being delicate about their departure. Shiori was dead silent by the time they were out the door. They stood right by the apartment for a time, hoping to hear a click as Shiori locked the door behind them. They didn’t.

“We should get going,” Oliver said.

“Yeah.”

They left the apartment complex, finding the stairs and heading down. It was a sobering walk back to the car.

“You cut it shorter than I expected,” Oliver said.

“I got what I needed out of her. I almost didn’t even need to ask. She’s holding in a lot of pain, the kind you don’t show to your closest friends or family. We have her statements in the reports, and we’ll follow up and do it proper, as usual. I just wanted to get a feel for where Mrs. Barnett is, right now.”

And a feel for what we’re getting ourselves into.

“What’s next?”

“Tomorrow we’ll talk with Susan Tilly, Alexis’ volleyball coach. A few of her teachers were willing to talk, too.”

“Cool. When we get back to your folk’s place I’ll start transcribing the interviews.”

“Thanks, Oli. I’ll cook this time.”

“What do you have in mind?”

“Hm, I’m thinking-”

Natalie stopped.

Right on the windshield, a folded note was stuffed against a wiper. A small wooden piece was tied around it with string.

Another one.

“They really like their theatrics, don’t they?” Oliver asked.

“It’s starting to annoy me,” Natalie said. “But, this means we have their attention, and we can poke at it.”

She grabbed the paper, unfolding it.

“Same handwriting,” Oliver observed. He held his phone up to the paper, using its light.

“Same piece,” Natalie said. She caught it as she untied the string. “Another white rook.”

“What do you think? Should we go?”

Natalie smirked.

“You ask as if you don’t already know the answer.”

Oliver stopped the car on a rough, uneven path. More rock and dirt than anything else.

The car’s interior lights turned on as Natalie opened the door.

“How do you want to play this?” Oliver asked. He was looking ahead, only able to see as far as the car’s headlights would allow him. It was late, and it was dark.

“By ear,” Natalie replied. She took one foot out the car, onto the dirt. Thinking.

“Do you want me to come with you? It’s your call.”

It was a tough call to make. With Oliver at her side, she’d feel more at ease, she’d have backup, but in case something went wrong, she’d need him at in the car for a quick getaway. Unlike her late father, she used the exercise equipment at home, and she went for regular jogs while in New York. And running around, chasing leads, that was its own exercise, too.

A tough call, but Natalie made her decision.

“Stay in the car,” Natalie told him. “Just keep an eye on my back.”

“No complaints there,” Oliver said.

Natalie eyed him.

Oliver raised his hands. “You have a good backside.”

She knew he was joking, but it did help. A little bit of confidence went a long way.

“Thanks, Oli.”

“Anytime and everytime.”

Natalie let herself smile as she got out of the car. She felt a light drizzle start. It wasn’t raining hard, but it would soon.

After checking the sky, she looked ahead, rereading the new note in her mind.

Braham Barn. Midnight.

The barn stood in front of her, standing on its last legs. A dilapidated structure, a decayed husk of what it was once. She knew of its history, the whole property was once held by a plantation owner, but now it was free range, the house now used by college kids for weekend parties, the barn itself being a decent, out of the way place for drug deals. It was a well-kept secret, but Natalie covered it back during her original tenure at the Stephenville Impact, and now it was largely abandoned, a place hardly used because it was too obvious.

If they were being led here, it had be something gang related. It was her best guess.

Natalie closed the car door, walking towards the barn and into the light. There weren’t any other cars here, but didn’t mean anything. There were plenty of other places to hide a vehicle. In the vegetation, or just farther up the dirt path.

With caution, Natalie approached the barn doors, then passing them. No more ambient lighting from the moon above, she only had Oliver’s car to guide her, now.

She was careful to only take a few steps into the barn. Looking around, she didn’t see anything or anyone that stood out to her.

But, Natalie didn’t have to wait long. They approached her.

Two figures emerged from the shadows, where the light wasn’t able to reach. They stopped at the edge of it, a distance away from Natalie, but within a reasonable earshot.

They were wearing masks, each with their own design. One was black all around, with numerous circular lenses, with an elongated beak that obscured the whole face. It gave the impression of a mutant raven, with more eyes than usual.

The other mask more closely resembled a face, but it wasn’t blank. Messy, dark splotches filled in large circles around the eyes, running down the cheeks in different lengths to resemble tears. Within the circles, white lines crossed into an ‘X’ in the corner. Red paint was applied across the mask’s mouth, shaping into a long smile that went past the edges of the circles. Grey brush marks in certain places gave the face more definition, making the cheeks and nose look more sunken in, more resembling a skull.

Aside from the masks, they were in identical clothing, and of similar height. They both wore grey, wool long coats. Fashionable, but in this context looked more like a uniform. They both wore shawls over their heads, covering the last bit of skin and hair, making it impossible to profile them.

Several seconds passed between the three of them. The sound of light rainfall.

Natalie decided to speak up first.

“This is awkward, you should have mentioned this was a costume party, I didn’t come prepared.”

The two masked individuals didn’t respond to that.

One of them spoke. From the distance, it was hard to tell who, but it did sound like a woman.

“Natalie Beckham, we are here to assist you.”

“Funny. I didn’t think I needed assistance. I’ve been on a roll lately.”

“We are the reason you went to James Gomez.”

“Please, I had every intention to speak with him again before I got your message. Don’t try to take credit for my work. Somehow, I doubt you even know of the testimony James had given to me, otherwise you wouldn’t have reached out to me again. You’ve been watching us closely, haven’t you, and I’m guessing you just don’t want me to write a gussied up piece on Alexis Barnett, no?”

“There’s more to the story than you’re trying to report. We want to guide you to the truth.”

“Coming from two people sending messages behind the shadows? Shows how much you know about the truth. How about this, why don’t you two take off your masks, and if you two are actually good sources, I might consider using what you give me.”

The two didn’t answer right away.

“You may refer to us as Machiavélique,” they said.

“Subtle,” Natalie said. “But this is child’s play. I prefer to not use anonymous sources. Unless you have something really, and I mean really good, I’m not going to consider anything you have to give me. I started the Alexis Barnett piece as a way to meet you, and now that we have, I can say that I’m not impressed.”

Catch them off guard, and keep them off their toes. In the case that they might be trying to derail me, I won’t let them.

They, Machiavélique, didn’t answer right away.

“Then I’m going,” Natalie said. “If all you want to do is waste my time, don’t contact me again.”

Natalie turned, ready to go, because she was. She was done with this.

“Alexis Barnett is Blank Face.”

Natalie turned back.

The one with the beak, the raven, was a few paces closer, more in the light. They spread their arms.

“This is where it all began, where she got her powers.”

“Where’s your proof?” Natalie asked.

Machiavélique paused.

“We’re gathering it for you as we speak.”

“That’s not going to be enough. Either give me something solid, or I’m walking.”

Inside, Natalie was fighting every urge to chomp at the bit. Someone, even under a pseudonym, was coming forward, willing to corroborate the hunch that Alexis Barnett might be the world’s first superhuman. Any reporter worth their salt would investigate this further. But, she had her integrity, and that mattered even more. She had do this right, she had to be sure.

Machiavélique spoke, “Thomas Thompson and Blank Face did work together.”

Natalie stood firm, facing them.

“And?” Natalie asked.

“What did James Gomez tell you about Blank Face?”

“Why do you want to know?”

“Because we can confirm it. All of it, and then some. We can guide you in the right direction. Like west?”

“West? The new gang in that part of town?”

“Yes. All you have to do is follow the blood. That’s where she is, now. Alexis, under a new name. V.”

That was it, the proof she needed that these two were legit. It was all starting to click, the story of a fucking lifetime.

Alexis Barnett is still alive.

“Okay,” Natalie said, “I’ll listen.”

“We appreciate it, Natalie Beckham.”

She reached into her pocket, taking out both chess pieces, holding it in a way that caught the light.

“If you wanted to involve me and my partner into this, I would have figured you’d use us as pawns.”

The raven indicated to the one with the clown mask. Reaching into their pocket, they grabbed something and tossed it to Natalie.

With her free hand, Natalie caught it. A black queen.

Not the king.

“The truth has a way of being blunt, forthright,” they said. “There’s no oblique angle or spin to approach it from. The truth is, and there is no running away from that. You and Oliver Morgan don’t need masks or trickery to take down the monsters. You face it head on, direct.”

“I’ve already agreed to play your game,” Natalie said. “No need to flatter me any more.”

“It’s not a game.”

“Isn’t it? But I have to ask, why? What do you get out of this?”

Machiavélique replied, and Natalie was certain it from was the raven.

“I get to see Alexis burn.”

So that’s what this is. Revenge.

It didn’t matter, shouldn’t. Machiavélique wasn’t the one reporting this, Natalie would know how to filter what they gave her, and how to present the facts as they were. The full and complete web. Mister, Styx, James and Thomas, Blank Face and V. Natalie and Oliver, they’d tear it down, wholly and fairly.

What is it I want, exactly?

Natalie smiled.

“Tell me everything you know about Alexis Barnett.”

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