105 – Check

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James Gomez was a lonely man. Only the shadows greeted him as he came in, but even then it was a cold and uncelebrated greeting. The shadows were wordless, and Gomez was wordless, too.

He sauntered in the dark. He didn’t even bother to go for any light. He seemed to know his way around without it.

The little light that did break in filtered through blinds, cutting into thin horizontal lines that sat across the living room.

He was as quiet as the place was dark, leaving nothing disturbed, with only the sounds of steps and breaths coming through, as faint as the light was thin. The walk of a dead man. Either that, or the world was dead to him, and he was just floating through it.

Gomez descended deeper into the dark, blending into it, haunting it. A familiar haunt, as he went straight towards the couch and sat at one end, slumping into the cushion. He slipped into the seat like how a hand might a glove.

Still in the dark, still keeping himself there. He did, however, let a little light come in.

Searching through his pockets, he procured for himself a lighter and a cigar. He took one to the other, and a soft orange glow cut a hole in the black around it, glowing brighter as he inhaled his first, slow, long drag. A trail of smoke left his lips, swirling into the air in front of him.

Time stretched, this single moment sat there with Gomez and stayed there with him, taking in the smoke that he let out. However, it wasn’t a depressing scene, Gomez didn’t sulk in the dark, he didn’t seem to curse it. In all actuality, it was exact opposite. This was where he seemed to be the most comfortable, where he could be the most at ease. This was his world. Where he knew where everything was, where everyone would be. Even in the dark, this was where he had the most control, even the light had to bargain with him, only a little bit at a time was allowed.

If anything were to intrude upon this desolate home of hopelessness, he would have known it. Past the heavy cigar smoke, he would have sniffed it out, and enacted a certain swift justice to snuff it out. He was a policeman, after all, he had the means to strike with a hammer and invite a sudden bang, a flash of light as fast as hitting the switch, then back to blackness with the same relative ease. It was his domain, where he had the most jurisdiction. Because the world outside refused to give that to him.

The moment passed, time having stretched as far as what was allowed, until it could stretch no more. Something, eventually, had to give. It would have to snap.

It snapped.

With a motion much more smooth and fast than when he went for his lighter and cigar, he drew a pistol and had it ready to fire a glow much brighter than any orange. He had the pistol aimed, pointing to a far corner of the living room, where the light didn’t cross, but he saw all the same. This was his domain, his one true territory.

I stepped out of the shadows, letting the horizontal lights fall on me.

“James Gomez,” I said.

“Get the hell out.”

No pleasantries at all.

“You’re not going to ask how I got in here?”

“Doesn’t matter. You’re not the first person to break in and threaten me in my own home… but there is a good chance you might be the last. But, I won’t take that chance, not tonight. So get the hell out.”

“You’ve got all wrong, Gomez, I’m not here to threaten you.”

Gomez made a noise, not unlike the smacking of lips or the clicking of the tongue, but that seemed too childish of a behavior for a man his age. It was his gun, then, that answered for him.

His gun clicked at me, its spittle as intense as its bark. And it was ready to bark.

“I’m not going to grace you with a third and final warning,” Gomez said. “I’ll just shoot you, dead.”

That, in and of itself, was his third and final warning, but he hadn’t yet fired. He was being graceful.

I couldn’t take advantage of it too much.

“You speak of warnings, but I had given you mine, first. You came back to the territory, I had eyes on you, last night. Did you already forget?”

“I have a job to do, a role to play. A duty I keep to. Do you seriously believe that my job is to just stay to the side and bow whenever you gangsters walk on by? Are you that arrogant?”

“Arrogant? Maybe, when I first started, but I got that knocked out of me. Eventually. Although, I suppose I’m still needing of a reminder, every now and then.”

Gomez didn’t respond. His gun didn’t, either.

I took that as him allowing me to continue.

Starting with a move, I craned my head, observing the room, my eyes peering through my mask.

“No wife, no kids. Or at least, you’ve been very smart not to put pictures of them around your own home.”

“You wouldn’t,” Gomez said. His arm was still up. His gun still pointed.

I cocked my head to the side.

“You’re right, Gomez, I wouldn’t. Would be the standard gangster thing to do, but I’m not your standard gangster, am I?”

I watched the gun, carefully. The hand that commanded it. Any slight movement, any indication.

Nothing.

An answer. It wasn’t loud, it wasn’t a bark. Gomez himself.

“I don’t know what the hell you are, Blank- V. You’re not the standard anything. I’d go as far as to say you have no standards.”

I forgave that near slip of the tongue. “I’ll take that. Not like I have much of a choice, granted, but it works all the same. But, with that being said, I’m not actually here about that. I’m not so petty.”

“Well, good for you.”

“The riot at Wellport, Gomez, what do you have on it? What can you tell me?”

A dry but low grumble. Wasn’t from the gun. It was something.

Gomez replied, “I can tell you very little, if I wanted to.”

“You’re a lonely man, James Gomez, if there’s nothing else I know about you it’s that. You might want to help but you can’t. Not by yourself. So you can help me, I’ll see if some of that goodwill can get back to you.”

“Goodwill. At this venture? Did you pick up a sense of humor the last time we spoke? Did you already forget, V? I know that was you, back at the Pupil. Campbell. Don’t even know what you did to him, because you broke more than just his collarbone. There were some other complications, but he didn’t want me to know. Imagine that. My best officer, and he doesn’t want me to see him. He doesn’t want me to bear the sight of him, not until he can walk on his own two feet again. Now tell me, where do you see me giving you goodwill? Tell me!”

I didn’t tell him.

Smoke filled the room. A soft orange glow.

Brighter. More smoke.

“People are dead, more are injured, but every single one of them bled. Their blood is soaked into the dirt and cement of my territory. It’s still wet in some spots, too, so you might want someone to clean your floor once I’m done here-”

“Stop, V-”

“I don’t want another mess, Gomez, I don’t want another mess. Things have gotten messy enough, and now people are bringing their own mess into my territory. My territory. And while that sucks for me, do you really want that to spread to the rest of the city? That mess?”

Mess, huh? Sounds like it’s not all tea parties in your little criminal wanderland.”

I gave him a pointed look, but my mask blocked his view of my stare.

“It’s never easy, and that’s just a general truth to life. But you don’t need me to tell you that, Gomez.”

I had to tell him something else.

“No, you don’t,” Gomez said.

“What happened at that park can’t happen again. We have less than twenty-four hours, maybe less than twelve, but if we let those hours slip by without doing anything, more blood might, no, is going to get spilled. We can prevent that.”

“I can prevent that by myself, V, it’s you who seems to have a habit of introducing this insanity in the first place. First, it was when you came to me about Solace, and I ultimately decided to help you then. And then Thomas Thompson died. Next, you come to me talking about wanting to get back at Benny. Remember that?”

“I do.”

“I knew better, or at least I thought I did, and I declined you then. Next thing I know East Stephenville is up in flames, and I can only imagine who was standing there, poking that pit. Then there’s the Thunders and Royals, and now look at us. Some new masked clown is doing his level best to bring this city down with a riot, disguised as a war.”

“Tiger,” I said. “He was wearing a tiger mask.”

“That’s not the goddamn point! Ever since you came onto the scene, everything has been getting worse, it escalates. Temporary solutions to a much bigger problem, and there is a breaking point, V, and we’re heading to it in a mad dash, faster and faster. I tried to stop us from getting to that point. But even then, you managed careen us closer to the edge. So, no. If I help you, that’s it. Past the point of no return, where it all breaks. If I help you, that point gets pushed behind us. Because luck just seems to run like that, in Stephenville. It runs out.”

So many points, but they all meant the same thing.

“I want to hear it from you, directly. If you’re not going to be of any assistance in this, tell me.”

Gomez’s arm had to be tired by now, forcing it up to hold the gun. It didn’t waver.

His breath blew out a puff of smoke. It dragged.

“Part of me will tell you no.”

“And the other part?”

“Still no.”

I grimaced. That, through the thin lines of light, he could see.

“We both want the same thing, Gomez. Our interests align more closely than you’d think.”

“No. They couldn’t be farther apart. Standing here, watching how you’ve changed, watching how everything changed, you want destruction. I wanted things to go how Thomas envisioned, before he saw you and twisted that vision. Bet he even took a mask for himself. But I bet if you weren’t ever in the picture, he would have still found his way there. Because that seed had always been planted in his mind. You’re just shit, V. Fertilizer. Maybe it’s all bullshit, this entire time.”

Harsh words from an angry, older man. Maybe I could understand where he was coming from. But they weren’t words I needed to hear at the moment. They wouldn’t help me get anywhere, achieve anything.

“That’s quite a shame,” I said. “But it’s no surprise, so I suppose I can’t fault you. Just know, when blood sheds again, and you show up too late, being reactive, that you could have been there before it happened. You could have helped stop the blood from being shed in the first place.”

“I have a role to play,” Gomez said, “A job to do. And that… that comes with the part. In other words… I’m just a piece on the board. I don’t have a say in where or how I get moved. I just get moved. And maybe… it’s the same for you.”

“I am trying to do something,” I said, snapping back, still aware that there was a gun pointed at me. “I’m the one in control, here.”

“Sure, Bluemoon, you are. Let me ask you something. What happened with Natalie and Oliver, was that you?”

“What?”

“Was that you, what happened with Natalie and Oliver?”

My single word question had been directed at Gomez’s first statement, but I was made to answer his second.

“I could ask you the same question.”

No answer. It said everything.

“Okay,” I said. “If that’s how you want to play this. Let me tell you what I know, then. The riot at Wellport? We have reason to believe that it’s orchestrated by a gang known as the Flood, when translated to English. Dong-Yul is the leader’s name, mostly likely the guy who was wearing the tiger mask, getting everyone riled up. We’re doing our own investigation right now, putting eyes on bases we know of, see if we can’t find any others, or where Dong-Yul’s hiding and what he has planned next. Proactive.”

Gomez was silent. Smoke circled him, a small dot of orange hovering at an angle above his mustache.

Stubborn, like how everyone seemed to be, lately.

I added, “If you had agreed to play ball, in other words, I could share with you the locations of those bases, and maybe you can go take a look for yourself. Get a warrant, do some searching and seizing of your own. A tip.”

Still. Nothing.

Still nothing.

“Last chance, Gomez. Or are you that lonely? Lost? Are you so far gone that you’ve given up completely? Not me, Gomez. Not me. Because, in the end, I know we both want the same thing. To solve this problem. But I haven’t given up, I’ll keep trying, I-”

Gomez, finally, answered. No warning.

Loud, able to split ears. Not from his mouth.

He fired at me, at the shadows. But, by the time the bullet spat out to the dark, I had already vanished.

I had wanted to apologize to Lawrence, for having made a move without him after all. But we needed to get something going, or we’d end up on the backfoot. And standing still was the worst thing we could do at the moment.

I wanted to apologize to Lawrence, but I couldn’t.

D twiddled with her thumbs, her legs swinging freely. Her hair was disheveled, sticking to her face in places, outlining and framing her cheeks. Made it rounder than usual, made her look young, or maybe as young as she had really been this whole time. It was quirk of hers, then. Stress didn’t age her. The opposite was true.

“Everything will be fine, D.”

I had to give her something. Even if I didn’t necessarily believe it myself. Not everything would end up fine. That was an impossible undertaking. Our job, then, was to save what we could. As much of it as possible.

We would try.

D kicked her legs together. She hummed. A minor melody.

“It better, or I’m gonna punch him! I’ll punch him really really hard.”

My eyes found their way to Sarah. How easy, it was, to let my gaze wander and to immediately spot her. Really made me believe that everything might be okay.

Then I opened my mouth. Sound came out, vibrated the air, and my ears picked it up. Reality.

“Sarah?” I called out.

“Yes, Voss?”

The look on my face must have said it all.

“Wendy.”

I smiled.

“Any word from Reggie?”

“Not yet. Still searching.”

“Jordan?”

“Still searching.”

Tone?”

“Still.”

Sarah punctuated that with a shake of her head. Which meant that anything I’d ask her would only get returned with the same answer.

Not everything was fine.

Lawrence hadn’t been seen or heard from since he left.

I still couldn’t wrap my head around that.

The Redhouse. Afternoon. Or so after the afternoon that, outside, the sun would be pressing right against the horizon, digging into it, digging deep and breaking through, the force of the impact breaking and scattering an insane expanse of burnt orange across the entire sky, leaving tinged clouds and facades of buildings and cars and other things with a coating of embers. The light had spread into here, the main lobby, with the wide windows fracturing the spectrum to make it, for that instance, almost blinding. It was combustion, standing in the middle of an explosion on pause.

The world on fire.

There wasn’t a lot of us in here. Just a small handful of the Fangs, the leaders and those who were allowed to stand close to that circle. We needed a place to convene that was out of the way, and the gang wasn’t so attached to. The Redhouse was both those things, now. By the time D, Lawrence, and I had secured our own bases, there was less of a need for this spot, now that we had moved a lot of the armory and cargo and equipment out to other places. We could have went to my base, first, but the church had seen too much heat in too many recent instances. Had to cool off somewhere else.

“Damn.”

A word. I wasn’t sure who said it, I wasn’t sure if I said it. My mouth was still open, though.

Summed it all up pretty well though. Everything.

“Hey,” D said, admonishing me, admonishing someone. Her legs were still kicking.

“We’ll hear from him, in time,” I said to her, said to everybody. “In time.”

D’s legs swung like a pendulum.

“Yeah.”

Sarah again. Couldn’t keep my eyes off of her.

“You’re sure you saw him get back to his place?”

“I’m positive, Wendy. Reggie and I followed him the whole way there. Straight. He didn’t waver, stop somewhere else, or get distracted. From D’s base to his place. Promise.”

It wasn’t that I didn’t believe her, it just wasn’t the first time I had asked her. Not the second or third, either.

“I believe you, Sarah.”

I just wanted her to know that.

“I know.”

This normally wouldn’t have been an issue, but nothing about any of this was normal.

Dong-Yul, or whoever it was in that tiger mask, hadn’t shown up again since the first initial riot, but it almost didn’t matter. Their presence was being felt all throughout Stephenville.

Smaller bouts, skirmishes that began to blip all over different parts of the city. People rising up, it seemed, against injustices they had been subjected to, and wanted to retaliate. Fighting fire with water. But people were getting burned.

They had started in the morning, after I had met with Gomez. Less than twenty-four hours, and even less than twelve. Didn’t take long. People were that pissed off.

None of the more recent outbreaks of violence were on our territory. No. Just the first and worst one. They didn’t last nearly as long, too, not nearly as bloody. Those smaller uproars weren’t for us to silence, but they did keep me up throughout the day. I hadn’t gotten any sleep since the last night.

I shut my eyes, hard, then peeled them open. Didn’t help. My eyes stung.

“When night falls, I can go out looking for him,” I said.

“Reggie and Tone and Jordan are out there doing just that,” Sarah said. “Most of the Fangs are. They’ll find him.”

Sarah glanced at D. “They’ll find him.”

D eyes were elsewhere. Down.

“I can search past the territory,” I said, looking at D, “I’ll keep a mask on, keep in the dark.”

Sarah replied. “That’s appreciated, and I’m sure the rest of the gang feels the same way, but we need you to be where you need to be. And that’s here.”

“We?” I questioned.

Sarah gave me a certain look.

“Me more than anyone else, Wendy.”

She wanted me to know that.

Over to D, she said, “I need you here too, D. So nothing crazy from you. At least, not the usual crazy.”

I tried to not get jealous over that.

D knocked her feet together. She had sat herself up on a counter in the lobby, with a forlorn expression on her face. She hadn’t gotten much sleep, either.

“Yeah,” D said. A small voice.

Her attention had wandered, seeming to be somewhere else. Not distracted, but tired.

I walked on over. Part of it was just to move, feel like I was getting somewhere. A larger part of it was to be next to D.

Getting to the counter, I leaned my back against it. I was close enough to take D’s hand, holding it. I did just that.

“Long day,” I said.

Ouais.”

“Are there any new leads?”

She shook her head. Very slow.

“Uncle J doesn’t want to help, and I couldn’t find anything at the restaurant club place Dong-Yul took y’all to. They dumped that joint the second they were able to. If they are behind this, they’re not the Flood. They’re something worse. Bigger.”

“A deluge?”

“Something like that.”

I breathed, looking out through the windows around us. The light dazzled.

“If anything goes down tonight, maybe I can do something. Keep the mask off this time, step into the light a little bit. Maybe I can find that Jasmine girl there. Get in that way.”

“You’re not getting in anywhere!”

Sarah called from across the lobby. I couldn’t help but take pleasure in her jealousy.

“I want to find Ellie,” D said.

There wasn’t much levity as it was, but D brought it down by a new notch.

“Lawrence can wait.”

Leaning up, still holding D’s hand, I looked from across the counter.

“Hey,” I said.

Isabella was there, resting against the counter on the other side. Looking bored, looking impatient.

“Lawrence can wait,” Isabella repeated. “People are out there now, flipping cars and breaking glass, and they’re doing it in other gang’s territory. You should be taking advantage of that, helping them cause a little more damage. Introduce some more anarchy.”

“We do any more, unprompted, we might bring everyone on our heads. The police, those gangs, and even Mrs. Carter and Styx. D’Angelo. Inez.”

“I’m not saying we need to, like, beat up anyone to find him! I just want to find him!”

I turned to D, “And I didn’t mean to say we’re going to give up on him. D… I need a break, girl, I’m admitting that now before anything else happens. It’s been a long day, and from everything I’ve seen the night is going to get longer so… we came here to regroup, while we can. Let’s just… let’s just do that, okay?”

D didn’t say anything. Then I turned to Isabella.

“Lawrence is waiting for us. The Fangs are out there looking for him and locking down the rest of our territory in the meantime, so what happens at Wellport doesn’t happen again. We should secure what we have, get our ducks in a row. Get a grip.”

“Get a grip, get a grip, get a grip.”

Isabella droned on and on.

“This is the start of everything you were working towards. This is it. Now, Wendy, now. This is the opening you need. You’re already at the table. If you let this get bad enough, if you nudge things so it gets that way, they’ll all get together, and you’ll be there, too. Maybe even Mister himself, if this gets to a certain point. Then, you go for blood. Right then and there. Don’t make it quick, either, make it slow, make it worth it. Make so you never need for another sip for the rest of you life.”

“Let’s not…” I started.

“Why not?”

It was D who asked that.

“Ellie’s been missing for an entire day, almost an entire day. One person shouldn’t be gone for that long. We can do more!”

Then Isabella took her turn.

“Let’s not what? Why are you waiting? Why do you need to delay when everything is right there, ready for you? The enemy- the enemies are out there, and when they stumble you need to be there, ready to strike! There’s no need to be clever, you’ve already done enough planning and scheming. Just do. This can be all over when you want it to be. Isn’t that what you want? What are you so afraid of?”

This can be all over when I want it to be.

What was I so afraid of?

I searched for answer, something that might sound appropriate. But whatever I would have came up with, it would have sounded like a lie.

An answer never came.

The doors bursted open. A commotion through everyone gathered like a conflagration.

It was Reggie. It was Lawrence.

Or the bloody, beaten, bruised, very ruined shape of Lawrence.

“Ellie!”

D’s voice broke with a crack. A deep crack that could split a girl in half.

We all converged on the two.

Lawrence had an arm around Reggie. It was a move to help him propped and standing, but from how he stood, that stance, there was no strength in it. More like he was being dragged by Reggie, who also didn’t want to get any of the blood and dirt to fall on his clothes or face.

However, it was too late for that.

Reggie started working to lower Lawrence, slow, cautious, as not to subject him to any more pain. Sarah got there first, helping Reggie.

D was crouched to his right, I was by his left.

This was sudden, this was scary. I needed a moment to process this.

What was I looking at? Who?

A bloody, bruised, beaten man. That man was Lawrence. He was still wearing the same clothes from last night, but they were soiled, dirty with grime and cut. His shirt was stained by a deep crimson. His face was cut across one cheek, swollen in the other. One eye was shut, too much blood for him to peer through.

When Reggie set him down, a long line of blood stretched and connected the two men, until it cut and the half-tendrils smacked and soaked into each of their shoulders. Then I saw why there was so much blood there.

I asked.

“Where’s his ear?”

Reggie looked as shocked and scared as I was.

“I found- I found him like that. At the… at an alleyway. No wait. I came over and I got him to-”

“Reggie, calm down.”

How Sarah was even able to say those words with that level voice, it gave me enough distraction from Lawrence that I could feel something that wasn’t fear. A longing.

And I saw Lawrence, and it was back to fear again.

“Lawrence… When I found him he was by an alley, leaned up against a dumpster. At the territory. Freaked me out, man, Lawrence, he-”

Reggie couldn’t gather his thoughts well enough to explain a proper thing.

No. Shit. That didn’t matter. Not now.

Now. We had to check on Lawrence.

D was already on it.

“I can barely feel a pulse.”

Her hands were on his, clasped together, fingers on his wrists. Feeling. Shaking.

“Is he responding?” I asked.

D was choking up.

“No. Barely. I can’t tell!”

“D…” Sarah said, in that same, level voice.

“He’s too weak,” Isabella said. “He’s not going to make it.”

“He’ll make it,” I said, snapping at her. I looked at D. “He will make it.”

D didn’t look convinced, but she was still clinging onto something. What bit of hope we have left for him.

Lawrence was clinging on, too. His hands were around D’s. Whether it was because of compassion or weakness, I didn’t know.

“He won’t,” Isabella said. It was like she tried to personify my paranoia. My despair.

Lawrence was gasping like a fish out of water. Pained intakes of breath, getting softer each time.

The breaths had a curve to it, however, trying to hit the ear.

“Hold on,” I said, “I think he’s trying to say something.”

Everyone went silent.

We listened to Lawrence as he hurt.

“Phil… Phil… Phil…”

Phil? Or fill?

“Lawrence, who is that?” I asked. I had to make my words clear, I said them slow. “Is that who did this to you?”

He wouldn’t answer, or perhaps he couldn’t. He just kept asking for that word, or that name.

“Please, Lawrence, who is-”

“It’s not a name.”

Everyone turned to D. She was clutching her choker, eyes welling up.

“He’s asking for pills.”

Lawrence, for his part, acted like he was responsive, breathing that word out more, harder.

“Phil, Phil, Phil…”

He couldn’t even say the word right. His jaw wasn’t closing right.

Breathing out the word.

“Does anyone have any?” I asked.

Reggie answered, “Searched his body and pockets already. Nothing.”

Lawrence threw out the last few pills he had. If he had any, would he be able to ride out the pain of a bit longer?

“Could we take him to a hospital?”

“I don’t know,” Sarah answered. “If we wanted to get him to one it’d have to be now. Like we’d have to be there already. With everything that happening in the city, the hospitals are going to be packed and busy. He might… he might not…”

Even Sarah couldn’t finish that.

“No! No no no!”

D yelled, squeezing Lawrence’s wrist. His one visible eye cringed.

“We can get something for him! I know where we can find a gang doc! He’ll make it!”

“Get a grip,” Isabella said.

“He doesn’t look good enough to be moved,” I said. “We’d have to bring someone here.”

“I can do that! I’ll get the van!”

“They’d have to be here already,” Sarah said, soft. Sorry.

Lawrence’s breathing was only getting worse.

“Phil… Phil, Phil…”

His light gasps of air were subdued. D’s sobbing began to mask them. Mask her hearing them.

It was starting to settle in, just how bad this was, just what exactly this meant. Seeing Lawrence like this.

When I breathed, it was shaky.

“I think… we have to look for a good place for him to… rest.”

D smacked me in the arm.

“No! No! We have to do something, try anything! Can’t you turn him, make him like you? There has to be a way!”

Looking down at Lawrence, I saw how his body had been broken, unable to support itself. How open and exposed his throat was. How, despite the ugliness, the aroma wafted into my nose.

Would it work? Could I even do that?

The possibility was there, but I didn’t know if that was how that worked. For all I was aware, I could simply end Lawrence’s life, right then and there. His blood on my hands.

No going back. Isabella’s earlier question echoed in my head.

D smacked me again. Smacked me back to reality.

“Wendy! Come on!”

I paused, despite myself and everything.

“D-”

Fuck!”

The word. I couldn’t place its owner, but the meaning was all too clear.

It was the sound that came first. Followed by the fury.

Glass shattered, a certain bark. Several. Something I had been hearing a lot of, lately.

Everyone was crouched over Lawrence, but we all ducked when we heard everything break around us.

A torrent of bullets tore through the Redhouse.

I took a quick glance to the entrance. A haze of lights, shades of people, standing in a line. As the glass broke and fell, I caught glimpses. Animals.

“You were followed?” I yelled into Reggie’s ear. “You were followed and you brought him here!”

Barely could hear his response. No or know.

Didn’t know?

Didn’t matter.

“Move!”

Everyone moved.

We were caught off guard, completely unaware. Fight or flight kicked in, and we weren’t equipped to do the former.

I scooped up D and started running. She wouldn’t stop kicking and screaming.

“Lawrence, Lawrence!”

I didn’t have the breath to argue, for several reasons. One, because a wasted breath meant wasted energy, and two, because my right shoulder blade spat out a bullet, and my teeth were grinding together, shut.

That didn’t stop D from fighting back.

“Lawrence! What the h-”

“Cars!”

I somehow threw out my voice. Sudden, raw. Am angry noise.

Yet, somehow, someone picked up.

“Back!”

I followed the voice, like how easy it was for my eyes to find Sarah. To the back hall. Exit there.

Everyone went that way. I hoped everyone did. I couldn’t keep eyes on us all.

Had D, heard Sarah. Reggie, for a brief but loud second. Isabella?

Lawrence.

My eyes were hot and streaming, but I kept running.

Then the-

Colors vibrant and hotter and more sudden than anything I had ever personally known. White and orange and red. Combustion, an explosion unpaused. The world was on fire.

The blast wasn’t too close, it didn’t knock me off my feet. Some did get knocked, though, as I saw their shadows pass before my eyes.

I ran, I ran.

Run run run run run run run run run run run run

My sight was violated, but it was my hearing that had gotten shot. A high and thin line, a tea kettle singing. I couldn’t hear anything else.

I couldn’t hear anything else, but the echo of a dying beggar.

Phil.

The building crumbled in places behind us. The word looped and consumed itself, like a snake eating its own tail. It consumed me in much the same way.

A whole gang of us gathered. But I never felt so stranded. Alone.

Dozens upon dozens of eyes, peering through me like how bullets could. Some were wet, many were bloodshot.

D’s eyes were the most wet.

Most of the Fangs were here, a lot of people. And yet, the shared silence between them all was eerie. The sounds were of D’s muffled sobbing, her face buried into the fuzzy back of a teddy bear.

Most of the Fangs were here. It was a lot of people, but it wasn’t everyone. This gathering was equal parts a funeral service, and just getting together to figure out what the fuck we we’re going to do next.

Maybe it was fitting, to do this at a church. Maybe it was one big fucking joke.

But when I looked at the faces, when I heard D’s soft sniffling, I knew there wasn’t anything funny about this.

“I’ll just get right to it,” I said, then I startled. Was that my voice?

One more time.

“Right… Get right to it. Lawrence is dead.”

I paused. I gave the moment and the man in question the levity they deserved.

Then I picked it back up.

“But what he started isn’t. What he built. This gang, the Fangs will continue to spread and grow, with more teeth and bite than he would have ever imagined. And I will…”

My eyes roved over the crowd.

I saw the many Fangs that scowled, the anger that shaped the line between their lips. I saw D, the waterworks still pouring. I saw Sarah, and how much I hated to see that kind of sadness on her face. I saw Tone, I hadn’t seen him since he decided to take a hiatus from Fang activity.

I didn’t see Reggie, however.

I had to pause, or else I’d break down again. I wanted to be right there with them, but I couldn’t.

“D and I will continue where Lawrence left off, and… I…”

This was too hard.

“Between the two of us, we’ll decide the Fang’s next move, while considering Lawrence’s intentions. For just now, though, I suggest we all take some time to have him in our thoughts. Thank… thank you.”

No one said anything.

Uncomfortable, clumsy. Couldn’t stay here.

I wasn’t sure of what else to do but bow, slight, and take my leave.

Didn’t stay inside the church. I retreated to the back annals of the building, going into the halls, down another, and entering an office room.

My office. It was supposed to be, anyways, but I hadn’t much to keep in here. It was empty, no real tether. That scared me. But I didn’t have anywhere else to go.

The door opened just as I sat down at the single desk at the far end of the room, lights turning on. So much for being alone in the dark.

Sarah and D. D’s teddy bear. Isabella.

“How are they taking it?” I asked.

Sarah answered. “Not well, obviously. I heard some of them talking amongst themselves. Some of them blame you for it.”

I frowned, my eyes stinging again. I adjusted my glasses. They slipped back down from the sweat and soot.

“Suppose I can’t blame them for it,” I said. “Do you? Blame me?”

“Course not, Wendy.”

I didn’t feel better, hearing that.

“D,” I said, seeing her.

Her head was still down, her bob of hair in her face.

“I know you’re mad at me for… I’m not so happy with myself, either, but…”

“I’m not mad,” D said, voice still weak and hurting. “I’m just sad.”

Sarah put a hand on her head. D let her. “I know, sweetie.”

I really hated seeing them like this.

“This is bad,” I said.

It was stupid, it was obvious, but it still needed to be said. Recognized.

D hiccuped.

I spoke. “Something happened to Lawrence, and somebody out there is responsible. And the only person who might know anything isn’t… here anymore. But, I saw who showed up at the Redhouse. People in masks. Same kind as the ones that were Wellport. That’s twice, now. During all this chaos, that’s twice they’ve done something against us. We can’t let them get us a third time.”

And that’s not including them using Alexis Barnett’s face and name.

“I’ve been keeping an eye on the news,” Sarah said. “There were similar attacks around the same time, in places suspected to be owned by gangs. It could be coordinated.”

“It could be coordinated, or it could be convenient. I don’t want to inherit Lawrence’s paranoia so soon, I have my own as it is, but we can’t let what happened to us stand. If this is Dong-Yul’s work, then he shouldn’t have signed it. We’ll find him, and make him regret it.”

“Wendy,” Sarah said. That was all she said.

“Can we not talk about stuff like that right now?” D asked. “Can we just… not?”

Another breath. If I was a smoker, it would have swirled the entire room by now.

“Sure.”

The silence lived within the shadows. Nothing else was in this room. Nothing else to discuss.

They left. Probably to process this by themselves. I needed to process this by myself.

“What’s their problem?”

Isabella turned from the door when it closed. It didn’t even close all the way, maybe Sarah and D were low in spirit that they could hardly manage that.

“Not now,” I said.

“But D knows what kind of world we operate in. This happens. It is what it is. Stick your neck out, you risk getting slashed there.”

“What happened to Lawrence… he didn’t deserve that. If we were harder on him, intervened more and made him give that stuff up earlier… maybe…”

“You were always going to use the Fangs as a stepping stone to tearing this city down. That includes Lawrence. Includes Sarah, too. D was helping you with that goal, if you really believe her. So she knew what that would mean for the rest of them.”

“We would have figured something out, when we’d get to that point. We’re just not there, yet.”

Isabella laughed.

“Why not? When will you ever? What’s the delay? Someone, if it’s not Dong-Yul, is out there right this second, fucking shit up and doing everything you claim you want. I say join them! You’re not going to get a better opportunity than this!”

Enough!”

I slammed a fist on the table. The surface cracked.

That didn’t stop Isabella.

“If you wanted this so bad, you’d be out there already. But you’re not. So why? What’s stopping you?”

“I said enough, Isabella.”

“Or is it that you want something else, instead? Something you can truly and honestly call yours and yours alone?”

I balled up a fist for another strike, threatening to break the table.

“What changed, Wendy? Or… maybe nothing changed at all, that’s why. Because you talked to Natalie, and saw her face all around you. That, no matter what you do, you can’t escape it? Her? Even after all this time?”

“You are not getting another warning!”

Before Isabella could learn her lesson, the door cracked open. Wider.

We both turned to the door.

It was D. A short break, so she wasn’t looking any better.

Her teddy bear was hanging from a hand. She wasn’t hugging it.

She wore an expression on her face. Concern, her brow furrowed, head tilted. Anxious. Apprehensive.

“Yes, D?” I asked. I set my arms on the table, trying to hide where I hit the surface.

D didn’t speak right away. She needed a moment to formulate her words. Consider them carefully.

And after some consideration, she asked a question. The words struck me like hot lead, through my ear than out the other side of my brain.

“Who are you talking to?”

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Interlude – Sarah

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The car was parked outside the apartment. It was running, kicking up in fits and starts, coughing out exhaust that trailed out a slow, hazy path. It was an old thing, but it still worked, which was just about the only reason why she was here. If it finally had the sense to die, she could have had an excuse, and she’d have no way of showing up.

Sarah shivered.

“Cold?”

Sarah looked over to her left. She smiled, nervously.

Hazel eyes stared back at her. They were usually so… mischievous, not unlike a cat about to pounce on an unsuspecting mouse, or even a ball or yarn. It bugged her to see them filled with such concern.

Sarah glanced ahead to the street. The break from her gaze didn’t last long, the urge to meet it again became too alluring.

Black hair, parted down the middle, exposing her forehead and reaching just past her neck. Lips just a dash deeper than pink, the color only really noticeable when contrasted against her pale complexion.

Not exactly goth, but goth inspired. A lot of black and even more accessories, but still presentable to those weren’t as fashion conscious. A thick grey flannel, a shirt sporting a metal band’s logo, with sharp, branching lines that extended out in every direction, and loose denim pants with rips in them.

Sarah would have preferred if she had went without the fishnet stockings, peeking just past the rips. But… whatever. They were here already.

She looked into those eyes again. No, that look was still too much for her. She searched around them, instead. The round frames of her glasses, the thin line of maroon that gave her eyes a deeper definition. All the more alluring, all the more unlikely that she could contain herself and not reach for her and-

Sarah swallowed.

“Freezing, Celeste,” Sarah finally answered. “I’m freakin’ freezing.”

Celeste gave a grin, her eyes shifting to match the expression. Smug. Mischievous. That feeling like she was being pulled along by a string. She tried not to mind that feeling so much.

“If you ask nicely, I can warm you up.”

Sarah raised an eyebrow.

“How nicely?”

Celeste made a purring noise. Along with the running engine, it made for a sensation that Sarah could feel.

The engine sputtered. A reminder that this thing might not last for much longer.

“If you have to ask,” Celeste said, still playful, “Then there’s nothing I can do for you.”

Sarah pouted. She wanted to play along.

“There’s always such a thing of being too nice. I just want to know where that bar is set.”

That only made Celeste double down, pulling on that string between them.

“Why don’t you take a guess?”

A challenge. She was up for that.

If it means not having to go outside just yet.

Sarah answered that challenge, not with words, but by leaning over the console between the seats. Tilting her chin up by an fraction. If she lost her balance and fell into Celeste, she didn’t care. Part of her kind of wanted that to happen.

Sarah inched closer, almost too close, almost too nicely. She pushed it, just a little bit more.

Celeste didn’t budge, keeping that smugness about her. One way or another, Sarah was going to get that look off her face.

She aimed for her lips.

“Whoa!”

Sarah jerked back, shaking her head. A hot gust of air struck her on the right side of her face.

Celeste took her hand off the knob, just below the car radio.

“Nice enough,” Celeste said.

“God, don’t do that,” Sarah said, rubbing her cheek. She reached over to adjust the knob again, so it wouldn’t keep blowing out hot air. “It’s going to fuck up the whole thing.”

“I thought you were freezing?” Celeste asked, already forgetting about it.

“Yeah, frozen in fear,” Sarah answered.

“What? Why?”

Sarah shot a look at her.

“You know exactly why. I haven’t seen my folks in two years. Haven’t talked to them for even longer.”

Since I left for college.

It was a touchy subject that she didn’t delve into a lot. She hadn’t even let Celeste in on all the details, just the broadest of broad strokes. She probably should have, now that Celeste was here, but part of her hoped that it wouldn’t have come to this, at all.

Even then, even now, she still didn’t want to talk about it. She didn’t even want to think about it. Maybe, if she was careful, everything would go smooth, and there wouldn’t anything to explain.

Sarah sighed.

Celeste crossed one leg over another, so her knee was sticking out from the rip that was there. She circled her finger around the hole, picking at her stocking while she was at it.

“Is that the only reason?” she asked, her eyes down.

Sarah frowned, but Celeste wouldn’t have seen it. She didn’t.

“Me and my family, I mean, of course I love them because of course. I sort of have to. But… that doesn’t mean we can’t have, um, disagreements, and that definitely doesn’t mean that those disagreements can’t get in between us and keep that distance, um, there.”

“But there’s a reason why you’re here, now, right? To try and close that distance?”

Sarah made a face.

“The only reason why I’m here is because you wouldn’t stop begging to come with me. And, because you were willing to drive my shitty car over here.”

“Oh, is that so?” Celeste laughed, but she sounded a little hurt, having heard that. Sarah immediately regretted saying it like that. “I just wanted to meet them, is that so wrong?”

“It can go wrong, if you’re not careful.”

“So I’m a problem?”

Another regret. Sarah fixed her hair, tucking it behind an ear.

“No, you’re…”

She couldn’t find the word. It seemed like anything she could say might come across as an insult.

“A disagreement?” Celeste offered.

Sarah sighed again.

“No,” she said. “You’re my roommate.”

Celeste mouthed that last word, not actually saying it. She looked out to the window past Sarah, over to the apartment complex. It wouldn’t even take a minute to get there from the car, but that was enough to make it feel like an eternity.

“Ugh,” she sounded, not much of a pur. “Sure, I get it, I really do. It’s fucking hard as shit to come out like this, doubly so if you haven’t been home in a couple of years. But… yeah, I guess I shouldn’t have expected anything.”

Sarah felt that invisible string between them loosen. Celeste wasn’t tugging on it anymore.

“You’re not wrong to have expectations, I think. Ugh, I wish I had your parents. They’re cool.”

“The coolest,” Celeste said, eyes still to the window. “But they weren’t the coolest for the longest time. It took a little. But now… they’re cool, and that’s cool.”

“Cool,” Sarah said.

Celeste turned, facing Sarah directly. Her lips curved at the corners. It reminded her of a cat.

“But if we actually did have the same parents, there’d be a lot more we’d have to explain, and I don’t think they’d be cool about that.”

“I bet,” Sarah said. She smiled, still nervous. “But I love Rosa too much to make the switch.”

“She’s great, but you can keep her. Being an only child can have its perks.”

“In what ways?”

“You know, you get doted on, you get all the presents. You get your own room.”

“I wouldn’t know about any of that,” Sarah said. Having a sibling meant having scarce amounts of privacy, if any. She had no time to herself, and growing up when forced to share space with someone just a few years behind made those growing pains ache that much more. It was equal parts living with a best friend, and living with an actual monster.

But Sarah didn’t bring any of that up.

Celeste flashed another one of her trademark smirks.

“Now though? I much prefer having someone to share a room with.”

Sarah felt a warmth in her face. It wasn’t from the car.

“Definitely different from sharing one with my sister.”

“Again, a lot harder to explain we had the same parents.”

“Can we not go in that direction again? Please?”

Celeste laughed. Completely genuine.

Sarah loved hearing Celeste’s laugh.

This… This wasn’t so bad. Sitting here, warmed up, just the two of them. It was all she really needed. It was all she really wanted.

It was the outside world, them, that she wanted to avoid. They were the others. Mom, Dad, if she let them inside, she was certain they’d break something. Somehow.

The car hiccuped yet again. Sarah sighed for the third time.

“What if I told you that a little bit of happiness leaves your body every time you do that?” Celeste said.

Sarah stared at Celeste. She opened her mouth and groaned, exaggerating it.

“And I thought I was the gloomy one,” Celeste said.

The car continued to rumble, continued to cough on occasion. It was as if the old thing was in its death throes.

“We’re still in here,” Celeste observed. “You want to keep choking the planet?”

Sarah had to fight the urge to sigh again. She didn’t want to make a habit out of it.

“It’s cold outside,” Sarah said.

“That’s not a good excuse to stay inside forever.”

“It kind of can be.”

“That wasn’t a real sentence.”

Celeste tapped the wheel, keeping her hands on it.

It would have been so easy – too easy – to ask Celeste to drive away, and Sarah could make up something on the way back home. Car broke down, the weather got too, the roads turned slick.

Celeste let her hands drop into her lap. Sarah felt her heart drop, too.

“It’s freezing outside,” Sarah said.

The hollow reverberations from the car was like static in the air.

“I know it’s hard,” Celeste said. “Believe me, I’ve been there. I totally, hundred- thousand percent get it. If it’s something you think they won’t be able to accept, then it can wait.”

“What if it never happens? What if this is the final thing that makes it, um,…”

It was hard to find the word right away. She hesitated.

Final,” Sarah said, finishing the thought.

“Then that’s their loss, and they can go fuck themselves about that.”

Celeste didn’t apologize for her vulgarity. Sarah wouldn’t ask for it.

“I appreciate the sentiment. The mental image I can do without, though.”

“What I’m trying to say… it’s all up to you, Sarah. Your call. Whatever you choose, I am absolutely and unequivocally here for it.”

She always seemed to know the right thing to say, the right buttons to push. Sarah almost loved her for it, if it didn’t come so easy for Celeste. It made Sarah feel like she was just a toy to her, something that could be pulled by a string and be moved along, accordingly. A kind of connection that only really went in one direction. A feeling she didn’t mind so much, but…

It was there.

It was a thought she only had in passing, but it was there. It came and went. And sometimes, it gave her pause.

Not today, though. Today, she liked that someone else was with her, in this. Someone else could hold her down. Pull her out if it got too bad.

It wouldn’t be fair to her family, it wouldn’t fair to her if she didn’t even try.

The window by her side fogged up. She had looked in the other direction without realizing it.

Another breath, another bit of happiness gone, according to Celeste’s theory.

Sarah talked, listlessly, “You’re awesome, you know that?”

“Oh, I know, but it’s nice to hear that without you screaming it in my ear for once.”

Sarah turned, jaw dropped, and reached over to smack Celeste in the arm.

“Oh my god, fuck you!”

Celeste gestured over to the general direction of the apartment.

“Sure, but your fam is expecting you, and these things aren’t tinted.”

Her jaw dropped lower. One more smack to the arm for good measure.

“Ow,” Celeste said.

“Freak,” Sarah said, but she might as well be speaking to a mirror, in that sense. And she was done with the self-deprecation, the self-harming.

Closure. That was why she was here. With or without Celeste, she’d get that. One way or another.

She held her breath.

The door cracked open. A chill crept through her.

Celeste turned the key in the ignition. The car was finally allowed to rest.

“Let’s not keep Rosa waiting,” Sarah said.

“Yes!” Celeste cheered, opening the door on her side.

They both stepped out, the cold folding around them like a hug they didn’t want.

Sarah looked to the apartment complex.

Celeste went around the car. Sarah wandered over to her side.

“Lucky,” Sarah said, “You’ve already graduated. If they weren’t pitching in for my tuition, I wouldn’t be here.”

“Keep feeding yourself bullshit,” Celeste said, bumping into Sarah, “No one’s going to want to ever get close to you.”

Sarah couldn’t help but smirk. If she tried to fight it, she’d probably look really stupid.

Instead, she rested her head on Celeste’s shoulder. Their fingers intertwined.

A split-second decision, but it didn’t feel wrong. Far from it. And if it didn’t feel wrong here, it might not be so bad there.

Right?

Sarah hoped.

“It’s a good thing I have you, already,” Sarah said. She squeezed Celeste’s hand, giving a soft sway. “You can’t go anywhere.”

“Ha. Don’t tell me you’ve gotten comfortable. Never forget, I have you.”

To illustrate her point, Celeste shifted her hand, fingers still together with Sarah’s. With her index, she traced some letters across the palm of Sarah’s hand. ‘I’ and ‘U.’

The sensation wasn’t unlike electricity going up one arm, bursting through the rest of her body.

Point taken.

“Yup,” Sarah said, resigned, not minding it as much as before. “By a string.”

As a pair, they started walking into the direction of the apartment. The walk was made a little easier, now that Sarah had someone she could lean on.

The door swung open, revealing several people that had already gotten started. Standing around, relaxing, beers in hand.

“Sarah’s here!”

She waved, pushing herself off the edge of the door frame she was leaning on. She came by herself.

“I am!” she said, cheery as she usually presented herself. She stepped into Casa Martinez, taking a quick scan around.

It didn’t take Sarah long to find who had called out to her.

Reggie and Tone were hanging around by the bar in the back of the restaurant. Reggie waved back, and Sarah started to make her way over there.

There was a small gathering of people between her and her friends, but she maneuvered through them without a problem. There wasn’t a reason to expect anything different. The overall vibe was pretty chill.

“Hey,” Sarah said, as she joined Reggie and Tone.

“Happy New Year,” Tone said, flat. “Do people actually say that?”

Tone passed Sarah a beer, sliding it across the bar to her. She caught it, taking a sip. Bitter, but refreshing.

Sarah let out a breath, smiling a little.

“You can say that,” she said.

“Still got a couple minutes before it’s official,” Reggie said.

Leaning against the bar itself, propping her elbows up, Sarah took another sip.

“God, hard to believe another year is about to pass.”

“Hard to believe we even made it through this one,” Reggie said. “Feels like this year was the start of the end times.”

“I take back my previous statement then,” Tone said, “Next year is probably going to be a lot more shitty.”

“Always the optimist,” Reggie said.

Sarah took yet another sip, tipping the bottle back a little higher.

“Damn, how fucked up are you trying to get before the year ends?” Reggie asked.

Pulling the bottle away from her lips, Sarah inspected the bottle, swirling the liquid inside. Three of what she considered to be sips, and there was only a few drops left.

She shrugged it off.

“I’m just trying to catch up to you guys,” she said. “Got here late.”

“Not that late, and this is still my first one.”

Reggie raised his bottle, showing that he only downed about half of it.

Tone interjected. “To be fair, this is my second.”

Sarah pointed at him. “See?”

“Yeah, but his girl can pick him up,” Reggie said. “And I arranged a ride for myself, too. How are you getting home?”

“I…”

She drove over here, parked in the back. She didn’t have that beaten up old thing, anymore.

The thought sobered her.

“I can take a taxi,” Sarah said, almost sluggish.

“Nah, how about we get this settled now before we forget about it later. Oh hey, we can talk to him about it.”

The trio all turned to where Reggie had indicated, watching as an imposing figure approached them.

Wearing a suit, but without the tie, the overall look was casual but still holding on to an air of authority. Standing somewhere between Reggie and Tone in height, he didn’t loom, but he definitely wasn’t someone to fuck with.

“What’s up?” Lawrence asked. He sounded somewhat distracted, as if he wasn’t expecting to be talking to the three of them. Then again, Reggie called him out as soon as he spotted their boss.

“Not much,” Reggie answered. “Great party by the way.”

“I’m not looking to bring the house down,” Lawrence said. “Mrs. Martinez will be coming in early to prep for the new year. So I don’t want anyone to get too crazy.”

“I wasn’t being sarcastic,” Reggie said.

Lawrence blinked. “Oh, right.”

“Anyway, we were just talking about rides. Sarah came without having designated a driver.”

Lawrence looked at Sarah. “You drove here by yourself?”

“Well, I mean…”

She couldn’t but feel like Lawrence was judging her.

Instead, he pointed to the people behind him.

“It’s fine, I accounted for that. I’ve got a few people here who are willing to drive anyone who gets too shitfaced for the wheel.”

Sarah set her bottle down. “Whoa, sir, I did not plan to go that far, tonight.”

Lawrence didn’t seem convinced. “Either way, you have options, and I suggest you take them.”

“How very responsible of you,” Tone commented.

Lawrence fixed his hair, slicking it back more. “Yeah, well, last thing I want is for any of you to get in trouble, or worse, get the police involved. The Ghosts are finally on an upswing, so the less chance of anything getting in the way of that, the better.”

“You’re really thinking ahead.”

“Call me paranoid, whatever, I don’t care. Just behave yourselves, and that goes for everyone.”

“Damn, we will,” Sarah said. “But, keep that up, and you won’t be able to enjoy your own party.”

“This is all for you guys, not me.”

Lawrence turned, his eyes searching across the restaurant. To the front door, it seemed like. No one was there, though.

“I’ll be around, if you still need anything from me,” Lawrence said, focus still somewhere else.

“And yeah, I’ll take one of your drivers,” Sarah said. “Don’t worry about me.”

“Alright,” Lawrence said, nodding. “There should actually be one more coming in soon, but… shit, I hate when people are late.”

“Definitely sucks!”

Lawrence nodded again, but he didn’t say anything. He just left, disappearing into the crowd.

“Interesting guy,” Tone said, then went back to finishing his beer.

“You’d have to be, in order to be in a position like his,” Reggie said.

“Somehow, I feel like he thinks he’s one of us,” Sarah observed. “Just a regular person.”

Tone laughed, setting his bottle down beside him. “Look where we are, Sarah, what we’re doing. We’re standing on the polar opposite of regular.”

Sarah and Reggie laughed along with him, but it wasn’t as spirited. As if to deflect and change the subject, Sarah smacked Reggie on the arm.

“The heck?” Reggie questioned, now massaging his elbow.

“Why’d you have to call me out in front of the boss?”

“I wasn’t calling you out, I was just looking out for you.”

“I would have been fine,” Sarah said.

“No, you’ll be fine now because we got it sorted out early. But, come on, do you really want to end the year with an argument, of all things?”

“And what’s that supposed to mean?”

Reggie grumbled, rolling his eyes a bit.

“I think you know exactly what I mean.”

It was Sarah’s turn to grumble. Another thing she didn’t want to recall. It was still ringing in her ears, like tinnitus. It had been that loud, that destructive. The growing emptiness that threatened to swallow her apartment… no amount of bottles or spliffs could ever attempt to fill it.

She turned, signaling the bartender for another drink. Taking it from a shelf behind him, the bartender then popped the cap and slid the bottle to her. Sarah caught it, swinging it up to her lips, smooth.

She would have argued with Reggie on that point, but she drowned those words with another swig.

“Fine,” she said, “I’ll let you off the hook this time.”

“I appreciate your benevolence,” Reggie said.

“So, y’all have any resolutions for next year?” Tone asked. Another change in the subject. “Do people actually make those?”

“They do,” Sarah said. “Whether or not they keep it is another matter, entirely.”

“Good point.”

“Resolutions,” Reggie mused. He was actually putting some thought into this. He set a hand across his belly. “Maybe I should work on cutting this down.”

“That’s a classic one,” Tone said. “Also the hardest one to keep. Good luck.”

“I did say maybe. What about you, then?”

“Me? I ain’t even bother with that shit. No point.”

“Good to know you haven’t changed in…” Reggie pretended to check a watch on his wrist that wasn’t actually there, “Ten minutes.”

Tone sipped and finished his second bottle. Sarah was about to catch up with him.

“You?”

Sarah breathed. She felt her breath getting thick and heavy.

“Sarah?”

Sarah looked at Reggie. “Huh?”

“You have any resolutions for next year?” Reggie asked.

A question she didn’t have an immediate answer to. Trying to form one was like wading through a haze, made more clouded by the added, seeping mist of drink.

Reflecting on the past year. Having to extrapolate on everything that happened and finding what she could do better.

But that meant sorting through memories she wasn’t ready to face, opening wounds that hadn’t fully healed yet. She had showed up tonight to try and get her mind off all that shit, not focus on it more, magnifying it with a glass full of alcohol.

And what’s the lesson to be learned, anyways? Don’t get cut like that again? Don’t put myself in a position to be cut so deeply?

No. Through the haze and miasma of the past year, one thing began to solidify. Something she could hold, control, pull and manipulate on her own.

Sarah finished the rest of her drink. It didn’t clear her mind, but it did give her something to say, and hearing it out loud might break through the ringing in her ears. Might make it real.

“I want to take control of something,” Sarah answered. “I don’t even care what that something is. Maybe my own damn self, finally grow up and take that back. I just hate either running away from connections or getting twisted up in ones that’s pointed in every direction that isn’t coming from me. For once… I want to be the one that’s holding the strings.”

“That sounds like a tall order,” Reggie said. “You up for it?”

“Honestly? I have no fucking idea on what I just said.”

“Then you need to slow down by a lot. There, that’s my resolution. To not be the one that’s dragging your drunk ass back home every time we go out.”

“Hey, I can handle my shit.”

Sarah tilted away from Reggie’s incredulous glare.

“I can learn how to control it,” she said.

His glare didn’t break. “Prove it by not having another drink, tonight.”

Her bottle slammed down when she went to set it aside. Harder than she intended.

“I give you the same challenge then!”

Reggie shrugged, a relaxed air about him. “My sobriety isn’t the one being questioned here, but sure.”

He set his bottle down. He still had only a few drops left.

“I’ll match you,” he said, cool.

She had nothing else to say to that. The only way to win this now was to beat him at this game of his.

There was stress in trying to win, though, and Sarah hadn’t come here to add more on her mind. As far as this night was going, it wasn’t, in a manner of thinking.

But, if she couldn’t even do this, then she’d might as well drink herself under the table now, render herself unable to get up to greet the coming year on her two feet. It would almost be fitting, letting the weight of the past year continue to drag her down. The top of the year introduced the cuts, the middle let those wounds run deeper, even tearing off completely in some parts, and now, if she chose to, Sarah could let herself crumble from growing imbalance. An emptiness she couldn’t find what to fill it with.

She could feel herself wanting to reach out, her hands waiting to brush against something, to grab it and pull it in, close. The bottle was right there.

Breathe in, breathing out was much less easy.

“You guys really know how to keep the party going,” Tone said. As though to taunt them, Sarah especially, he called over his third drink, and guzzled down the length of the bottleneck. He breathed out, satisfied.

“It was his idea,” Sarah said, pointing with both hands to Reggie. She paused, suppressing a burp. “I honestly don’t have a problem that’s worth addressing.”

“Well, if it’s really not a problem, then you’ll have no problem getting through the rest of the night without another drop.”

Reggie said that with a joking kind of inflection.

“You really are just fucking with me, aren’t you?”

Reggie was smiling, now. “Guilty as charged.”

It was Sarah’s turn to glare at him, but she couldn’t help but smile, too, even if it felt dumb.

She still have every intention to beat Reggie at this game. She could control it. Prove it to him, prove it to herself. That she was holding the strings on this.

Wanting to toss in another topic of conversation, Sarah was about to say something, but in a second all sound was stolen from the room.

The whole crowd inside the restaurant shifted, turning in one particular direction. Reggie and Tone did, too. Sarah was almost compelled by a universal force to turn as well. To be pulled as well.

At the front of the restaurant. Two people had come in. All eyes were on them.

One stood out immediately. A little girl with her hands around a box half her size, totally comfortable with where she was right now. Short hair framed her already small face, like the painted head of a doll. Choker around her neck, a heavy bomber jacket a few sizes too big, almost hanging over the hem of her skirt. Black leggings and boots covered her legs and feet.

That girl, Sarah knew. Or she knew of him. Her pranks and antics had sewn chaos among not just the Ghosts, but several other gangs that were within their weight class. Lawrence had made his disdain for her well known, he nearly lost his mind over it.

But, she was here, now. For once, her penchant for panic managed to help and turn things around for Lawrence and the Ghosts. By nearly blowing up East Stephenville into the sky, but it somehow worked out.

She was here, and her reputation was more than twice her height. It preceded her. And everyone was hit by a sudden tenseness that gripped them tight.

Sarah was more curious than anything else.

Lawrence was the one to approach the pair, being able to move while everyone else was frozen stiff. Maybe because he was getting to be on the same wavelength as them, now? He did agree to work with them, and that offer extended to this point in time. They weren’t just Ghosts, now, they were leading the rest. And it wasn’t like anyone could get a say in it.

The three of them were too far to catch anything Lawrence and the girls were saying. Lawrence pointed to the box, and she pushed it into his arms, fluffing up the bow on top. She laughed with little regard to who was watching her. A gap in her teeth.

Lawrence set the box down by the door, out of the way and mostly out of sight. Didn’t seem like it was a set up for a prank on an already suspecting crowd.

They continued conversing, and it soon became clear that they weren’t here to cause trouble, not directly. Everyone else, the normal people, did what they could to settle back to the equilibrium that they had before the pair’s intrusion. They didn’t get it quite right, but they could still find some way to relax.

“So that’s really them,” Reggie said, eyes still on them. “Crazy.”

Sarah’s eyes were still locked on them, too, but they found another target.

The other girl. Taller than D, older, yet less certain of her place, here. And from how she held herself, standing behind D, one arm folded over another, glancing around the rest of restaurant. She looked more like a lost kid than the actual kid who actually looked out of place.

Her hair was cut short. Black, reaching just past her jawline. Skin whiter than… Sarah would have connected it to snow, but it didn’t snow here much. Pale like… a wound that finally healed into a scar. A faint line. An old, faded thing.

Dark clothes, jeans that weren’t super skinny. It was a simple outfit, but it was more wearing her than the other way around. Like she still had to work on being conscious on what her style was going to be, in terms of fashion.

Still, though, she still looked cute.

“Is that…” Sarah started, but she didn’t need to finish. The others caught on.

“I think it is,” Reggie said. “The Bluemoon herself, or V, whichever she goes by now.”

Sarah watched V with even more intensity. The world’s first superhuman, having once been a superhero, was now going to join their gang as a leader? And that was what she looked like under that mask?

She felt her lips dry. She needed something to drink.

“I’m shocked that she can show her face here,” Tone said.

“Why not?” Reggie asked.

Tone brought his voice to a whisper. “She’s the reason the Chariot fell apart and why the Ghosts were struggling for a minute.”

“She’s also the reason why the Ghosts are starting to turn things around, now. Sure, I get it, but do we have a choice? And now that we know what she looks like under that mask, it’ll be harder to walk away. It’s like we signed a death clause the moment we saw her eyes.”

Her eyes. The girl was still blinking, taking everything in. Sarah wondered how she might look in glasses.

“What’s her name?” Sarah asked, still transfixed.

“I… don’t know actually.”

That’s fine. Should be easy to get.

“How old is she? Looks kind of young.”

“Don’t ask me. I think she’s Asian, and I don’t want to make it into a thing where I guess because I’ll just come across as-”

Reggie stopped.

“Sarah? Sarah no.”

She looked from V to Reggie. “What?”

“I know what you’re thinking, and let me be the first to tell you… it would be the worst idea you ever had.”

Sarah put her hands up. “I wasn’t thinking of anything.”

Reggie’s glare didn’t break. It went back to bearing into her.

“That’s our boss, now, Sarah. I’m telling you right now to just stop and set your sights somewhere else.”

She took a more defensive position, situating herself away from the bar. She moved her arms, forming a ‘X.’

“Hey, hey, enough with the presumptions. I was just curious, can I not be curious about our new super overlord?”

“Curiosity was what got you into your last mess,” Reggie said.

Hearing that was like a hit to the stomach. The instinct to grab her drink and finish it came back, hard.

She didn’t, though.

“Don’t bring her up,” Sarah said, a warning tone. “Don’t.”

“Alright, okay,” Reggie said. He slouched a bit, as though it was a gesture, a half-bow. “Just promise me you’ll leave this well alone.”

“I will,” Sarah said, rushed, not really considering her own words. “Gosh, is that how you really see me? I don’t pounce on every girl I come across.”

“That’s obvious, Sarah, I know that. I’m just looking out-”

“Well don’t, okay? Not now. Fuck, this isn’t how I wanted the year to end.”

“Good thing the year ended already.”

Sarah and Reggie both looked at Tone.

He met them with a bored look on his face.

“It’s past midnight. Happy new year.”

They both checked their phones. He was right. How did they lose track of time?

Sarah turned, her eyes somehow found her again.

V was with D and Lawrence, conversing about matters Sarah would never know the particulars of. V looked so… adrift, like she didn’t have a legitimate anchor to hold her down. There were no strings attached to her.

Sarah could feel a compulsion to reach out, her heart beating at the prospect, solidifying harder from a thing to a resolution. A hard pull.

But this time, the strings could be in her hands.

The car parked in front of an apartment. It was running, the engine humming a low tone. No troubles with this one, it was working fine, with a promise to last much longer than that old, broken thing she had before.

Sarah stretched her hands out.

“Thank you,” Wendy said.

“Of course,” Sarah said, like it was part of a routine. But it still came from a genuine place. As genuine as anything else.

She had followed her directions, turning where Wendy had indicated, heading to wherever she wanted. As if she was pulling the strings.

It wasn’t quite like that. It wouldn’t be. Not allowing some give would be too constricting, the balance wouldn’t be right. She had to give room for some slack, some room for things to breathe. Because if she didn’t, any added stress might cause too much tension, too quickly. It might snap.

Wendy asked her to take her to this place. Wendy, in very many senses, was her superior, but Sarah wanted to think that she this one over her. This string. That she let her pull it.

But, it wouldn’t have gotten this far if that connection wasn’t real, tangible. And, from what Sarah gathered from all the hints and flirts, she wasn’t being pushed away or shut down. She was here, sitting in her newer car.

That had to account for something.

It made her heart race faster than the drive that got them here.

Sarah caught herself taking another look at Wendy. She couldn’t stop herself.

As cute as ever, maybe even more so, if not very fatigued. But that was understandable. She had probably run herself ragged in executing this operation, among other… things. Sarah wasn’t there for the grittier details, she had been allowed to excuse herself.

She did have her involvement, though. Being there, in the crowd, while Lawrence put on his performance, Sarah acting as a spectator. In one sense, she really was one. She was able to watch these three as they worked together, observing from the sidelines as they concocted these plans and games, schemes. Plotting like how mad geniuses or villains would.

It was… funny, even, to see someone like Lawrence in their ranks now.

Lawrence had changed, and Wendy did, too. Or at least, Sarah was able to see the different sides of Wendy. Sides that no one else had gotten to see, maybe even sides of herself that Wendy might not be aware of. But that wasn’t a detraction, Sarah didn’t think any less of her. Rather, the opposite was true. It added to that attraction, the string that connect her to Wendy.

The thread that was becoming more red.

A loose sweater, jeans that had a hole across one knee, but that looked more from actual wear and tear, rather than being bought or made like that.

Wendy had glasses now. It served to make her look even more attractive.

Sarah would have kicked herself for seemingly having a type. But there was a difference, now. She was the older one, the taller one. She was the one with experience.

Sarah had her hands on the wheel. She was the one driving this time.

Sarah watched, entranced, as Wendy cycled through different motions. Fidgeting with her glasses, rubbing her hands and arms, licking and biting her lips. Looking up, looking down. Agitated. Nervous.

“Cold?” Sarah asked.

All Wendy did was nod. It took some time before she could say, “I am, actually.”

“I can fix that for you.”

Sarah fixed that for her, reaching to adjust the knob, and the temperature. It was slight, but the interior of the car heated up.

Wendy seemed to appreciate that. She wasn’t fidgeting as much, not being as anxious in her movements. Her eyes betrayed her, though, as they remained locked on a specific point up ahead, somewhere past the windshield.

There had been a dash of hope, that Wendy was inviting her over to spend the night, but as the drive continued and got farther away from the city, that possibility became less likely. Wendy wouldn’t have lived that far from the gang and the territory. She seemed the type to want to keep everything important close at hand, and distance having to travel meant time that could go to waste.

A small smile formed across Sarah’s lips. She liked that she was even able to venture a guess on Wendy’s thought process.

Setting her hands in her own lap, Sarah tried to follow Wendy’s gaze. Too many apartments, she could narrow it down but it wasn’t exact.

She decided to ask.

“So, where are we?”

Wendy bit her lip. Pink, with a subtle streak of red across the bottom. The contrast colors was made more apparent against how pale her skin was.

Sarah bit her own lip.

She had to wait for an answer. Having gotten closer to Wendy in recent weeks, and being sincere in learning every bit of what made her tick, she was starting to get an understanding of the different tells. The slight crease between her eyebrows when was deep in thought, the rapid blinking when she was put on the spot. She’d heard from Wendy before, how she wanted to be seen as a monster, but having seen those small, rare moments, it just made her so much more human.

Finally, Wendy did answer.

“Do you… remember when I mentioned that I wasn’t a fan of my past self? Who I used to be?”

Sarah answered, “You’ve brought it up, once or twice.”

Wendy rubbed her arms again.

“That’s it. There’s where that past self came from.”

Sarah tried searching through the gloom. It was late, and there were so many apartments it was hard to figure out which one she was indicating, exactly.

“Not sure I follow,” Sarah said. “I thought you got your powers at that barn we visited.”

“No, not that. Here. The apartment there on the left. That’s… that’s where I used to live.”

There, the apartment on the left. Wendy pointed it out and Sarah found it.

“That was the home of Alexis Barnett.”

“Alexis Barnett…”

The name wasn’t a familiar one, sounding foreign as it crossed Sarah’s lips. How it hit her ears, it didn’t make any sense at all. Who was Alexis to Wendy?

“This is where you came from?”

“In a sense,” Wendy said, despondent.

This was obviously a touchy subject, a sore spot, a raw wound that would burn at just the slightest brush of contact. Better avoided, if possible. Sarah wasn’t a stranger to that concept.

She waited some more, until Wendy was better able to approach that wound properly.

Wendy attempted her approach.

“While you and D kept an eye on Lawrence, I had a talk with Natalie Beckham. I tried to find out what she knew about John Cruz, on us, but she was more interested in revealing what she knew about her. Or, me.”

The fracture between those pronouns. That obvious division. It didn’t go over Sarah’s head.

“Natalie knew about this, too? But, hold on, I’m a bit confused on who-”

“Alexis Barnett was, she was an old name, an old self,” Wendy said, stammering through her explanation. “She was Blank Face, but after a time… it was something I knew I needed to get away from, because that wasn’t working. It was too… I can’t find the word.”

“Constricting?” Sarah suggested.

“That works.”

“What was Alexis like?”

“I…”

Wendy was fumbling. Her overall disposition, and as her hands dug into her pockets. She took out her phone, hands shaking as swiped her password, typing on the screen.

“That’s the thing,” Wendy said. “I had done my level best, trying to avoid an answer to that question, but I knew I wouldn’t be happy with anything I’d have to say… but…”

Wendy passed Sarah her phone.

Taking it, squinting as the screen was too bright, Sarah read the words on the screen, the spelling of the name. A short article about the girl.

A picture was attached in the article. She looked just like Wendy, which wasn’t surprising, she supposed. Her hair was longer, though, wearing a smile that was bigger than any she’d seen on Wendy. More often than not, her smiles were reserved ones, belying what she was really feeling on the inside. Which was as alluring to Sarah as it was disappointing, that Wendy couldn’t feel like she could be that open.

Sarah skimmed through the article. It was all news to her. She picked out a few details, how she was a student, that she played in the school’s volleyball team, quotes from her old coach and teachers. Her mother. How Alexis was a cheery girl, sociable, bright and kind to anyone she met.

She sounded so normal.

Sarah set the phone down. She stopped reading before the image in her head could shift and warp any further.

Wendy was the real one to her. It was her, that Sarah’s strings were attracted to. Wanting and working to be attached to.

“Now everyone can know,” Wendy said, voice cracking.

“This was just published?” Sarah asked.

“Right before Natalie… It was her final move. Her way of trying to put me in checkmate. Didn’t work.”

“I didn’t see any mentions of Blank Face or V or the Fangs. Just, um, Alexis.”

“Yeah. She knew all of that but she kept it out of the story. But I don’t know why. She refused to give that up.”

“No,” Wendy added, shaking her head. “She mentioned why. She was setting up for something, and it didn’t require her being here to set it off.”

“You sure about that? I only scanned it, but I didn’t see any mention of Blank Face in the story. From the looks of it, this is probably going to be forgotten in a week. The news cycle moves fast. Too fast, sometimes.”

“I’m certain of it,” Wendy said. “She was willing to die to put this out, before anything else. We might have taken them out as an immediate threat, but I don’t think this is the last time we’ll hear of their movements.”

“If you say so.”

She wasn’t going to question that line of thinking. That was Wendy’s job, to consider all those options, when enemies were everywhere, in the light and in the shadows.

But, that kind of thinking could break a person, the stress of it all weighing to heavy on the mind. Sarah worried.

“But what brings you here? What’s brought you back?”

There was a long pause from Wendy.

“I don’t know,” Wendy said. “It felt like I had to see it for myself, again. When she brought it up, it all came crashing into my head, like rush of water I was trying to hold back. Dammit. She asked me if all of this was worth it. I spend so much effort to make my own name and she keeps finding some way to intrude. Over and over. Fuck!”

Wendy put her hands into her face, rubbing her eyes. She had to adjust her glasses when she finished.

Sarah got it. She totally did.

“You came back, to see if you could walk away from it, still resolute. If you’ve grown from this place. I get it.”

Closure, Sarah thought.

“Part of growing up is being able to come back, right?”

The last time she tried that. Going home and taking Celeste with her. That terrible, terrible dinner. The first of the cuts that began to run deep, enough to snap a string into two.The worst Thanksgiving break of her life.

“It is,” Sarah said. “But you don’t have to force it. Everyone has their own pace. Rushing it can… it can lead to a mess.”

Holes you can’t fill.

“Maybe. You’re right. I’m sorry. I’m so tired.”

“Remember what Lawrence said? You don’t have to apologize.”

Wendy just kept shaking her head.

“You always know what to say, Sarah.”

Brief, but Sarah reminisced on another, earlier time.

“You have to hear it first before you can repeat it to someone else. Live it.”

“Could… I ask you another favor?”

“Anything,” Sarah said, meaning it.

“Could you just knock on the door? I want to see who answers.”

“You want me to do what? It’s pretty late.”

Wendy sighed, sounding jittery.

“You’re right, shouldn’t have mentioned it. I-”

“I mean, I can,” Sarah said, unbuckling her seatbelt, hand on the door. “Can’t promise if anyone will show up.”

“That’s fine, I just want to see.”

“Should I say anything?”

“You don’t have to.”

Sarah considered it. Didn’t take her long.

Keeping the key in the ignition to keep the car warm, Sarah got out of the car.

The walk was quick but uncertain. She couldn’t shake off the feeling that she was out of place. Because she was. But it was a feeling she’d have to fight.

She had the apartment in mind as she went up the stairs, able to find it when she reached the top level. She was sure this was it.

Quick but uncertain. She had to do this for her. She had to put some slack in again. To let the hook sink in.

Sarah knocked.

The wait was long. No surprise, it was late.

Sarah could sense where her car was parked, behind her. Wendy sitting inside. The pull of a string.

The lock tumbling out, first. The creaking of the door. Louder as the noise echoed into the night sky.

A woman stood before Sarah.

Short, shorter than Wendy. Uncanny. Disturbing, somehow, almost like seeing a vision of her, many years later. After all the stress and heaviness of life began to take its toll, leaving a broken constitution that no power could really keep up forever. For all her strength, that only meant that Wendy was pushing herself more than anyone should ask of themselves. Her body might be super, but her mind and spirit was human. It would have to be.

The woman’s shoulders were inward, her posture shrunk in, her hair long and disheveled, eyes red and baggy, carrying tears that had to have been wiped away just before the door was open. A bundle of blankets were draped over her, making her look even smaller.

There was still a beauty to her. It had to have been gotten from somewhere.

Sarah knew that pain. Deep, almost naked in its intimacy. She knew who this woman was.

Blinking, slow, laborious, the woman raised her head to look at Sarah.

Sarah had already considered her words. What she’d do.

It was what she should had done, that day.

Sarah took a step back, at an angle from the doorframe. So she wouldn’t be blocking the woman from being seen from outside.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Sarah said, having to play another part tonight. “Looks like I got lost, I’ll find my own way.”

The woman didn’t reply, probably still discombobulated from having been roused out of bed at an ungodly hour.

Sarah kept the act going, already backing up some more.

“I’ll leave you alone, have a good night.”

She lingered a second longer than she needed to, just so the woman could linger at the door a second longer.

This was the home she left behind. And that was what happened to it in her absence.

Sarah understood that.

Then, Sarah left. Slow, but certain, she went back to her car. The apartment door and the car door closed at about the same time.

Sarah returned to a different scene. A different side of Wendy.

Her face was buried in her hands. Body trembling, shoulders sinking in, folding into her emotions that were now rushing forward, overpowering her.

She was weeping. Maybe it wasn’t born from regret, but rather acceptance of a loss she felt she needed. A wound she was finally tending to.

Letting it out.

Sarah understood that, too. She wished she could have had that at a much earlier time in her life.

But, now, all she could take back was control.

Broken people, doing broken things to try and fix themselves. Jagged edges that rub against each other, as if they could smooth it all over. They’d try, they’d hope.

Like a strings reaching to finally tie them together, Sarah threaded her fingers around Wendy’s, lifting them up.

Gently, Sarah moved them away from her face. She leaned over, her lips brushing barely past hers.

Then she pulled, ever so slightly, until Wendy was pressed into her.

Light, enough to make one faint.

Wendy trembled again, but it was different, a more shocked reaction. This was fine. Sarah knew how to work with that. Sarah moved her hands so she could remove Wendy’s glasses. Tossed somewhere, she already forgot.

Soft touches passed like moments, momentary. They stole Wendy’s breath, letting Sarah get a better hold on how things were to go, on Wendy herself.

Tongue, a barely felt nibble. Lessons exchanged.

Sarah’s hands moved elsewhere, lower, over fabric. She was sensitive. She knew how to hold it in her hands. It had been a lesson exchanged, once before.

Wendy arched her back, surprising herself that she could even react like that. Sarah was craving for moments like that. She was wanting for something to drink.

Needed more.

They shifted, a little clumsy from the lack of space. Sarah managed to fit her knee between Wendy’s legs. Placing it there, firm, insistent, intent to teach.

Like a connection that was getting stronger, Sarah felt Wendy angle her hips.

A part of her was already satisfied. Everything she wanted, what she thought she needed. To be the one in this position, this time. To be able to lead, to have the strings and pull. To play.

A much larger part of was thirsty for much more.

Wendy continued moving her hips, Sarah kept her leg in place for her. The car didn’t cough, hiccup, burp, sputter. The sound that filled inside was a delicate moan, that Sarah promptly stole from Wendy with another kiss.

A moment was coming. No. Not here, it wasn’t enough. Not yet.

Sarah pulled back, and smiled as Wendy leaned forward, still wanting for more. Her tears had already dried. A trace of salt graced Sarah’s lips as she then licked hers.

Her fingers traveled down Wendy’s arms, to her hands and fingers, leading them down between her legs. She drew the letter ‘O.’

Wendy shuddered as she tried to make sense of everything. Everything.

“I don’t… I don’t know…”

Sarah stole that, too, taking her breath with yet another kiss.

“It’s okay,” she replied. “Let me lead the way.”

With just a nod, Wendy let her.

Then, by a thread, Sarah led the way.

Previous                                                                                               Next

096 – Stop the Presses

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There was an unsettling quiet that had settled in and around St. Elizabeth. A nebulous yet almost tangible barrier that felt thick to go through. Overbearing, making everyone who was coming in hold their tongues and work in silence. Which was something we didn’t need at the moment. We only had a limited amount of time to coordinate a plan, so communication was key. And I had just learned that we were severely lacking in that department.

Fangs were entering and exiting the church, bringing boxes in, taking splinters and broken glass out, and assessing the damage and cost of repairs. Cleaning out the blood. This was like a twisted version of stopping to smell the roses, even though to my nose, the smell was just as sweet. The last time I was here, I was in a mad rush trying to escape. I hadn’t been aware of just how much gotten broken in that escape.

I was always leaving messes like this? All this time?

Scary to think about, and I almost didn’t really want to. But, here I was, standing in the middle of it all, overseeing the clean up crew. I had to force myself to fight the instinct of just looking away. Put myself up close, put myself back.

Doesn’t mean I have to like it.

I walked across the altar, over to a group of my workers. They were putting some stuff back together, setting them into place. Heavy, fancy looking chairs, and a stone statue that had gotten knocked down, the head now missing. They were having trouble with the last one.

“Jordan,” I said.

A man turned, standing. Taller than me.

“Voss,” he replied, his voice deep. He wore a white shirt, baggy jeans. His hair was short, his eyebrows in a perpetual straight line. As if he was constantly bothered about something.

I tried not to bug him any more than I’d have to.

“Here, let me help with that.”

Jordan and the others moved out of the way. I crouched by the statue, hands hovering over it.

“So, where does this go?”

“Hell if I know. Never been in here before.”

“Oh yeah, right,” I said. “Guess I’ll just… set it somewhere, then.”

I grabbed the statue around its torso. I could feel the weight of it. Had to be a couple hundred pounds, easy, and it would be taller than Jordan when set upright.

The muscles in my arms tensed, and I lifted the statue off the ground.

My jaw was clenched, the muscles in my back were tight now, too, and I wobbled around trying to find a proper place to put this thing.

I adjusted my grip, so I could lift it without having to lean back so much, and shifted over to one end of the row of fancy looking chairs.

I set the statue down. The base of the thing landed with low thud, and it seemed to echo out throughout the rest of the church.

I stepped back, stretching, realizing that I was able to hear an echo.

Jordan and his group were standing a distance away, suspended in place, as if they had turned into stone. A few groups had stopped what they were doing, too, looking in my direction. Staring.

Ah, that’s right. The freak with the super strength.

I tried to play it off the best I could, hands down, walking to Jordan and his group. They remained frozen.

“Uh,” I started, “So you’ve been busy, talking with the others. What’s your take on getting everything back in working order?”

He someone managed to look even more bothered. He scratched his face, his hand in an awkward claw position. It looked stiff.

“Probably by tomorrow afternoon, maybe even before sunrise, if you were wanting to be an ass and work us to the bone.”

I took a glance for the reactions of the others. Not just his group, but everyone. Hunched over, not moving, and I knew they were all waiting for what I was going to say.

They weren’t being very subtle about it, but okay.

“I wouldn’t do that to you guys,” I told them, genuine. I had to raise my voice for it to carry across the church. “Take your time and do it however you need to. But, like, actually get it done though.”

I threw that last part in, haphazard. I was still working on that part of the job.

“Alright, Voss.”

He didn’t say or offer anything else.

Jordan and I stood there, his group just waiting around.

Okay.

“Alright,” I said, clapping my hands together, then setting them at my sides. I started backing away. “I’ll, uh, let you get back to it.”

“Alright.”

I went back in the other direction, turning around. I felt like an ass, regardless.

Darn it, Wendy, you need to be smoother than that.

I knew that much.

Standing on the altar, which was raised over the rest of the church, I scanned around at the different groups as they got back to work.

I saw Reggie leading one group, bringing in boxes, guiding people into a hall in the back of the church. Equipment and tools to fill in the armory, which was ours, now. I saw another group, sweeping dirt and shards into one corner to be scooped up later. People were working, mostly at their own pace, but if Jordan said they could get it done by tomorrow, I’d hold them to that. They set that timeline for themselves.

I also saw D.

She was sitting at the frontmost row, her arms around a stuffed bear, her head resting on top of his. Her feet barely touched the floor. Staring straight ahead, not looking at anyone or anything in particular.

I looked on, somewhat downcast. I wasn’t sure what to do with her.

A small shift in movement from one of the groups below. It caught my eye, and my attention.

Sarah was walking up to me, up some steps and over a few bullet casings. Hands together, careful and deliberate in her approach. Graceful.

“Hey Voss,” she said, joining me at the altar. Despite everything that had went down in the past few hours, she didn’t sound tired or out of sorts. It was admirable to hear. “I knew you were strong, but I’ve never seen up close before. You must have some pretty big muscles.”

I straightened out my clothes, trying to get out any folds or dust. Some crease remained.

“That’s where the super comes in, actually. I don’t have much under here. Probably less than when I first got my powers.”

“That’s something I’ll have to see for myself.”

“And Voss? Not you, too. I thought I had said something about that, already.”

Sarah gestured to the church around her.

“We are kind of on the clock, now,” she said.

I leaned back on my heels, hands set behind me, looking away.

“Oh, that’s right,” I mumbled.

Sarah moved over so she was standing beside me. She took her own scan of the building, observing everyone as they worked.

“So you’re going to use this place as your base?”

“Ah, yes, I am,” I said, fixing my posture. “It’s not a bad spot at all, and the church grounds cover a decent area. There are office buildings, places for storage, and the back area of the church itself has plenty of room, too, like the armory. And being here gives the Fangs more reach, as well. I don’t like how we got this place, but everything seems to check out.”

“But now you won’t be around as much anymore. I’ll miss you.”

I had no response to that. It even stunned me a little.

“It’ll work out,” I said, choosing to talk around it, instead. “I mean, it has to.”

“I’m sure it will. This place is going to be in good hands. With you being here, it gives me a reason to want to start going to church again.”

I almost laughed.

“Sounds like something Isabella would say,” I replied, absentminded.

Sarah didn’t comment or respond. There was a lull in the conversation.

Did I say something wrong? Did I focus on the wrong thing? Or was it how I said it?

I was beginning to think that I wasn’t very good at this kind of thing. Or, I’d have to tap into something I didn’t want to tap into. That experience, or connection.

Wasn’t Alexis better at more mundane things?

Not that this was a mundane situation or even conversation, but knowing how to navigate that might help me in other cases, like when dealing with gang leaders on a round table, dealing with Styx, or even just talking to Sarah. A reference point I could bounce off of.

“Someone call?”

Isabella was coming up the altar, joining us. Her hands tugged at her backpack straps, resting them there.

“What I meant was, I’m not used to being praised,” I said.

“Oh, but you should. You have a lot to be proud of.”

“You should learn to be more open to them, then,” Sarah said.

I shrugged.

“Maybe? It doesn’t feel… right, to me, since there isn’t much I’ve accomplished on my own. I’ve either needed help or I was trying to accomplish something by myself but I’ve needed to be, um, bailed out in the last second.”

Isabella groaned. I could imagine why.

“Looks like I’ll have to teach you how receive compliments,” Sarah said. She spoke with a certain, inviting inflection that caught my ear.

“Sure, shower me with praise. That should do it.”

“Sounds good. We can make a date of it.”

“A what?”

“We can make a day of it,” Sarah said.

“As if you have that kind of time,” Isabella said. “You don’t need more on your plate, Wendy.”

“Ugh, thanks for the reminder,” I said, sarcastic. I shook my head, and got a touch dizzy. The late hour was starting to affect me. “I’ve been so busy and everything has been so hectic that I barely have any time to breathe, anymore. Maybe I do need a break.”

Sarah smiled. “If it means anything, you definitely deserve one.”

“No,” Isabella said.

There was that doubt speaking, again. I’d learned to take stock in it, though. The moment I tried to relax might be the same moment it’d all fall apart, and I wasn’t ready to move. We worked in the underworld, and it was a cutthroat, volatile world, and we were among villains and violence. Which didn’t lead to much in the way of stability, so I always had to be diligent, always had to rely on others. Lawrence, D, and even Sarah and Isabella now, too.

But, it’d be nice to catch my breath, for once.

“We all deserve one, but we don’t get to have that luxury.”

That sounded like Lawrence. I looked back and saw him, coming out from the back, a door behind the altar. He joined up with us, making the group almost complete. We had one person sitting things out, right now.

“You should give up on the hope of ever sleeping eight hours again, and soon, or you’ll be very disappointed,” Lawrence added.

“Wow,” I said, “How doom and gloom of you.”

“That’s just how the world is, now, nobody gets enough rest these days. And if you are going to sleep, do it with one eye open.”

“Aye aye, captain,” Sarah said, joking. I noticed her trying to steal a glance at me.

I wanted to reply, mention how the lack of proper rest was factor in me fucking up the El Paso job. Losing some of the passengers we were transporting, almost losing Sarah and Isabella.

I didn’t bring it up.

Instead, I spread my arms, like I was showing off the church.

“So, Lawrence, you took a look around, what do you think?”

He surveyed the area.

“I think… it certainly suits you. Abandoned cathedral turned into gang headquarters, there’s an extended metaphor for sure.”

“Like what?”

Lawrence waved a hand.

“Something, something, former hero going bad, whatever. It’s too late for me to work my brain that hard.”

“Fair enough,” I said.

“Either way, it’s coming along, and it’s good you finally have your own base.”

“Not disagreeing with you there.”

I scratched the back of my head, thinking.

“But, there might be contention for this next part.”

Lawrence already knew what I was talking about. He looked past me, to the little girl sitting in the front pew, still hugging that stuffed bear.

“What are we going to do with D?” I asked.

“I thought we already discussed this.”

“That barely counts as a discussion. We reaffirmed where our focus needs to be now, and we moved here. We’re going to need specifics once we start getting together a proper plan on how to handle the journalists.”

Lawrence’s stare stayed on D, his expression hard to read. He breathed, hard.

“If you my honest opinion, I still wouldn’t want to bench her. D… she has her use, but she also has a tendency to act on her own, even if it goes specifically against what we had asked of her. It’s like she has a talent to make everything more complicated, and, as much trouble she had wrought upon me, I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for her. Can’t deny that. She is an asset.”

“Her and Wendy,” Isabella said.

“That just sounds off,” Sarah commented, “Referring to her as an asset. She is a person, you know. A kid.”

Lawrence paused. He breathed in, then out again.

“Fine, I get it. We’re just one big happy, circus freakshow of a family, aren’t we?”

Sarah smirked. “You said it, not me.”

“And D might actually feel better if you were to tell her that,” I added, part joking, part not actually.

Lawrence frowned.

“Are you serious?”

I answered, “Since you asked, sure, yeah.”

“I’m positive she’d appreciate it, especially if it came from you,” Sarah said. The ‘joking’ part was starting to weigh a little heavier on the scale, now, but we meant well.

“This is not what I came here to talk about,” Lawrence said.

I crossed my arms, and craned my head a bit.

“What did you come here to talk about, then?”

“Strategy,” Lawrence answered. “Not something haphazardly put together like earlier tonight, when we went to the meeting. I don’t want anymore unforeseen circumstances, not when we have a lot on the line. Reputation, momentum. If we nail this, we stand to gain so much.”

“Like a seat at the table,” I said. The same table that all those gang leaders sat at, and sat comfortably. I felt a stab of guilt, that Lawrence and I both wanted to be at that table, since we probably had very different ideas on what we’d do at that table once we got there.

I held my tongue.

Lawrence didn’t, though. “Exactly. So we need to get to planning and start making some moves by tomorrow morning. We start early.”

“It’s not like we’re going to be getting much sleep, anyways.”

“Take some caffeine pills if you need to.”

“Somehow I doubt that’ll work on someone like me.”

Lawrence shook his head. “Never mind. I have a few ideas we could start with, but it’s tough to when we can’t even meet with John Cruz, and we don’t even have proper invitations to the event at the art gallery, so we can’t even walk in.”

“Mrs. Carter doesn’t want any tangible connections to us, which makes sense, but yeah, it’s a pain in the ass. But you said you have something?”

“I have some things. Maybe. Being down at your new armory gave me some inspiration. But that’s why we’ll need D to get in on this.”

“You need D for help, or you want her?” Sarah said, teasing.

Lawrence didn’t look impressed. “What the fuck are you saying?”

Sarah motioned to the little girl in question. “I’m just saying. She’s in a funk right now, and while you can argue that it’s justified, she’ll need to be in top shape if she’s going to be the asset you claim her to be.”

“I thought didn’t like me using that word.”

“I don’t, but that’s not my problem. You want her, you’re going to need go over there pick her up. Be, you know, her knight and stuff.”

Lawrence shot a glare at me, as if I had something to do with this.

“Don’t look at me,” I said, “I didn’t drink at all tonight.”

Sarah hit me in the stomach. Her hand lingered for a second before pulling away.

“Whatever,” Lawrence said. He sounded irritated. “Wendy, come on.”

He was already walking without me, forcing to catch up. I looked back at Sarah and Isabella, and waved, apologetic. They didn’t seem to mind.

It wasn’t a long walk to D, but it felt like it. There was almost an aura of… uncomfortableness, that surrounded D, and it pushed against us as we approached her. It was hard to penetrate.

“D,” Lawrence said, with no warmth in his voice at all. So much for being a knight.

She lifted her head, slight. Her lips were set in a line, her hair partially in her eyes. None of the energy that I usually associated with her. That wasn’t right.

“Hm,” she sounded. No energy there, either. It sucked to hear her like that.

“We need to start talking plans.”

D didn’t reply right away.

“Okay. I’m game.”

“We only have a four days until the event at the art gallery, meaning we need to get things in motion soon in order to get ready for that, and there’s a shitton to consider. Like, who Natalie Beckham and Oliver Morgan are, and maybe even where they’re working from.”

“It might be possible that we can get to them before the art gallery event,” I said.

“There’s that, too. That could be ideal. But if that doesn’t work out, at least we know where they will be. We have a timeline.”

“And a clock to work against. So, Lawrence, what was it you had in mind, again?”

“Ah. Going from my earlier point, we might be able to get more information on them if we can find out if they have a base they return to, even on occasion. They might keep notes there, or tabs on who they’ve talked to, anything we could use.”

“Where do we start?”

“Based on what was in the folder Mrs. Carter gave us, they used to write for the Stephenville Impact. It was the biggest paper then, still is, so I doubt they’re somehow writing for someone else, much less for an independent blog.”

“So you want to walk right up to those offices and see if they’re in there?”

“I’m saying it’s a start. We probably shouldn’t announce our presence, or make ourselves known, but if we can get familiar with every point or possibility, there’s no way we can’t get this done. I’d want to visit the art gallery, too. I’m guessing the event is going to be some kind of exhibit, so there’ll be a lot of high profile people there. Politicians, businessmen. Mrs. Carter set this up for a reason. If we can completely control that space, we win.”

I was quiet. D was, too.

“Is that not good enough for you?” Lawrence asked.

I shook my head. “No, it’s not that. It’s… what does it mean to win, in this particular game? Think about what Mrs. Carter wants from us. She wants these two out of the picture. How far removed does she want them to be?”

The question hung over our heads, threatening to crush us with the sheer weight of it.

Lawrence managed to find an answer, or at least, one that pushed the question a little further away.

“Removed enough to satisfy her. For now, we focus on just isolating them. What happens after, we’ll figure that out when we get there.”

This is the world we operated in. A cutthroat, volatile one. And we’re the villains.

Not that any of this was supposed to be a surprise, but it wasn’t often we were faced with the reality of what we were doing, and what we had to do.

“We can’t kill them.”

Lawrence and I looked at D as she lifted her head, looking back at us.

“We can’t,” she reiterated.

I nodded, slow.

“Like what Lawrence said, we’ll figure it out later. For now, let’s just focus on how to get there.”

“Right,” Lawrence said. Then he turned to D. “Are you good to help us out?”

“I want to…” D said. It was like she wanted to say more, but she didn’t.

“There’s some shit we took from the Cobras that you might be able to work with. Flashbangs, smoke grenades, shit that hits a little harder than that. It kind of sucks that we took it all just to end up putting it back, but that’s not important. What is, though, is if you can take those apart and make something we can use.”

“Like what?”

“I can take you to the armory and give you a better idea. Is that okay?”

D hugged her bear.

“Hey,” Lawrence said. He paused. Then, before he spoke again, he moved to sit right next to her, closer than I’d ever seen him before.

“D… Yeah, you fucked up, there’s no debate there.”

“Good one,” I said.

Lawrence glared at me, then went back to D again.

But,” he emphasized, “If we can take this is as, as something to learn from, I think we’ll be in a much better position than we were before. I told the same thing to Wendy. She has value, and you don’t… not have that, too. So, if this is what it takes to get a better version of you, D, I can learn some forgiveness, on my end.”

“Aw, that was almost sweet,” I said.

Lawrence shot up from his seat, looking angry. It was kind of funny.

“God dammit. Must be this place, making me say all kinds of bullshit.”

“Yup, that’s it. Definitely.”

I heard a small snicker.

It was slight, but I saw D’s gap in her tooth. She was smiling a little, her lips parted.

“Thank you,” D said, her voice even smaller. Her chin nuzzled deeper into the bear’s head.

That seemed to catch Lawrence off guard.

“You’re, you’re welcome. Now come on, I have weapons to show you.”

D hopped out her seat, her hair bouncing. I reached over and fixed loose strands out of her eyes.

“You’ll be okay,” I said to her.

“I know,” D said in a breath, blinking. “What was it you’ll need, exactly?”

Lawrence answered that. “Tools, more info on these reporters, and a floor plan of the art gallery, a list of everyone attending as well. Oh, and one more thing.”

“What’s that?”

“I’ll need a costume of my own, too.”

I never thought just walking into a building could be so nerve-racking. Middle of the day, people all around, no mask, I never felt so exposed.

I walked through the revolving door, feeling nauseous, as though I was still spinning. I managed to get a few decent hours of sleep, but Lawrence meant it when he said early. Still groggy, still trying to get my bearings. The sun was barely rising, so it hadn’t dawned on me quiet yet, just how close we were about to cut it.

I went through the lobby of the building. The clean, white tiles reflected a harsh light into my eyes, as if I was walking on the a bulb of a spotlight, under an intense heat, my shadow swallowed up by the intense shine of everything. There was little room for any darkness, here, and that put me on edge.

I wasn’t wearing much cover, either. Just a black sweater with a white shirt peeking out underneath, black jeans and black sneakers. I was wearing a matching soft cap, but it didn’t seem like enough to block everything out. My eyes were squinting behind the glare of my glasses.

Normal clothes for a normal setting, yet the circumstances were anything but.

People in suits passed me by, off to handle their own business. On occasion, I had to check my surroundings, make sure I was heading in the right direction, but I still had to blend in, too. I couldn’t look so lost that I drew someone’s attention.

There it was. The elevators. Far side of the lobby. I crossed over, reading a sign by the long, mahogany counter that was the front desk, confirming the floor I needed to go on.

A receptionist raised his head, and I looked away before he could notice me.

I continued forward to a group of suits that had flocked to a nearby elevator. A lot of suits, but they were all huddled together, close.

I didn’t have to wait long before the doors opened up. A few people made their way out, but more entered than they did leave. I joined them, stepping inside the elevator.

There wasn’t a dedicated person to press the buttons, but someone was nice enough to stand by them and help out.

“Ten, if you will,” someone said.

“Sure.” The button lit up.

“Did someone press seven?”

“Just did.”

“Eighteen, please,” I said, adding my voice.

“Of course.”

The doors closed, and the elevator began to climb up. With every passing floor, every stop, my apprehension increased at every interval. I was cramped, with people all around me, my shoulders brushing against everyone else’s upper arm. There was a good chance that I was the youngest and shortest person in here, and that served to make me stand out even more. No one seemed to question my presence, though, being too absorbed with their own concerns.

By the time we past the tenth floor, enough people had filed out that I now had room to breathe. The effect was marginal, though, as I was getting more and more lightheaded as we ascended, higher and higher. I was able to see the window, now. The skyscrapers that made up the Eye dwarfed me, even as the elevator took me past some roofs.

A ringing sound, and the smooth sound of metal doors sliding open. The eighteenth floor. I stepped out.

The doors closed behind me. No going back now.

I bit my tongue as I arrived.

Another receptionist. A woman this time. Black, overweight. She noticed me.

“Hello,” she said, kind. Somehow, it surprised me.

I had to compose myself again.

“This is the Stephenville Impact offices, right?”

The woman gave me a look.

“You got this far and you still have to ask?”

I tightened up even more. “I…”

“Relax, sweetie, you’re at the right place. How may I help you?”

“I was wondering if Natalie Beckham was in at the moment? Or Oliver Morgan, if he was available?”

The reaction from the receptionist was subtle, but there. A slight lowering of her eyebrows, her expression more curious than welcoming.

“And what business do you have with them?”

I had the story straight in my head. I told it.

“I heard through the grapevine that they were doing a story on John Cruz. I might have some info that could be useful.”

The receptionist grabbed a notepad and a pen, and started jotting stuff down.

“Name and position?”

Shit, thought so. Cutting it closer and closer.

“Wendy, and I had an interning position at Mr. Cruz’s campaign office during the race.”

“Alright…” She kept writing.

“Are they around?” I asked, nervous.

She stopped writing, then turned her attention to me.

“Unfortunately, they are not, but I can take a number and have them call you when they get a chance.”

No, no.

“They don’t have an office here I can wait in?” I asked.

“They do not.”

That was telling. They didn’t have an office. Were they working from somewhere else? Where, then?

“Do they come here often?” I asked.

The receptionist jotted something down on the other side of the paper. Notes on me, probably, and that got me even more nervous, and I had already reached new heights.

“They do, when they have to meet with Mr. Edison. But, the best way for you to reach them is if you give me your number, and they will contact you when they are available.”

I couldn’t have that. One cut too close.

“Could I possibly stay here until they show up?” I asked.

She was steadily growing more annoyed with me. Fair, I was pushing my luck.

“Wendy, was it?”

Again, I bit my tongue. Harder.

“Yes,” I said, tense.

She set her notepad and pen to the side.

“You can have a seat there, behind you. Granted, they might not swing by at all, today.”

“That’s fine,” I said, “Thank you.”

I’m prepared to wait.

Moving to a row of chairs, I was able to take in the actual office of the paper. It looked utilitarian in design, like how I’d imagine a generic office interior to be like. Maybe it was a little more busy than the standard office setting, with almost everyone who was at a cubicle chatting with others, talking on a phone, or running from one end of the floor to the other, or straight to elevators. Reporters chasing leads, probably. The energy was so manic, it was scary to think the that kind of energy might be directed to us. As manic as it was precarious.

I wasn’t the only one sitting, waiting. Someone was across from me, a thin man with a bag slung across a shoulder. Young, maybe he was here for a job interview?

I had to shake my head. I was wandering. The early hour made it easy for my thoughts to get away from me.

Instead, I took out my phone. I already had a text typed in, ready to go. I read it over one more time, then sent it.

Then, I waited.

My fingers tapped against my thigh, my feet pressing into the floor. It was tough, to try and act normal. I wasn’t used to wearing that mask.

I picked up my phone again. I stared at a blank, black screen, tapping on it to give the impression that I was actually using it. I wouldn’t be able to focus on anything else. All I could do was pretend.

There were a few directions that this could have gone. For one, the reporters could have actually been here, and I’d have to talk to them. A frightening possibility, but a very real one. If things had went that way, I’d try to feed them disinformation, or act incompetent enough to throw off any suspicion while trying to see if there was anything I could get from them. That was a type of scheme I wasn’t really skilled at, but I’d have to step it up. Everyone was going to work even harder to pull this job off, and I had to match them in that effort.

And then, there was this. I wasn’t able to get what I needed, but I’d at least be able to provide support, even from sitting here, completely innocuous.

I had sent my text. Plan number two. In a sense, this was better for us in the long run. Better than me fumbling in front of two seasoned journalists, anyways.

Ten, fifteen minutes had to have passed. I waited some more.

The elevator doors opened. A man in a brown uniform stepped through, wheeling in a stack of boxes, with the same matching logos printed on the side. A bear. On top of the stack was an actual teddy bear, about two feet in height.

He went up to the desk, getting the woman’s attention.

“Teddy gram delivery,” the delivery man said, dry.

“Kind of late for Valentine’s, isn’t it?” the receptionist questioned.

“All I know is to send this thing, here.”

“May I ask who it’s for? Who it’s from?”

“Can’t say who it’s from, but it is for Janet Haugland in accounting.”

“We don’t have a Janet in accounting.”

The delivery man scratched his head.

“No? Is this not Langston and Associates?”

He was making it hard not to laugh. He was so stilted.

“This is the offices for the Stephenville Impact, sir.”

“Oh, well where am I supposed to go?”

“Langston is three floors down from here.”

“Three floors down… And what floor are we on, exactly?”

“We’re… we’re on the eighteenth floor.”

“So three down from eighteen. That’s fifteen, am I correct? Just want to make sure.”

She grimaced. It was too early in the day to already grimace at someone, but he got her to do just that.

“Is this a prank?”

I was so close to breaking into a nervous laughter, it was dangerous.

Before I could, the elevator doors opened another time. Another man, wearing sunglasses, this time with a dog. Walking blind, using the dog to guide him.

It was a big dog. Rottweiler. Short hair, big teeth, a lot of muscle.

Seeing it knocked any wind out of me. I tensed, and then the dog did as well.

Didn’t take long for chaos to erupt.

The dog locked eyes on me, and immediately snapped. It barked, growled, yelped, tugging against its chain, metal links clinking together. One animal made more noise than everyone else did on this on floor.

I backed up, hanging off the edge of my seat. He’d better have a handle on the dog.

The man with the sunglasses, pulled again, clearly struggling, yelling the barking.

“Russel, Russel! Ay cool it!”

The dog wasn’t obeying, tugging even harder, until it was choking itself against its collar. The dog struggled to break free and attack me, the man struggled to rein him in.

I got out of my chair, the dog was winning out in that struggle. I checked around.

The man was sitting across from me was standing, too, backing away from the dog. The receptionist was up as well, wary, unsure what her next move was supposed to be. A lot of eyes were on the scene, on me. Their focus and attention had been redirected.

I didn’t see the delivery man.

“Sit, Russel, sit!”

The dog wasn’t listening.

Okay, this was cutting it even closer. It wouldn’t be long until those cuts started landing.

More commotion. Coming from behind me.

People. Running up to us, to me. Pulling me away.

“Hey, get moving!”

Others were trying to get to the man, but his dog was putting himself between them, eyes and teeth still trained on me.

“Sir, could you get your dog out of here, maybe come back another time?”

“I’m sorry, Russel isn’t normally like this!”

“I understand that, sir, but if he can’t calm down, he’ll have to go outside. Or I’ll have to call security!”

Hearing that, the man pulled even harder to get the dog to turn around. He made some progress, but at the cost of twisting the dog around, more whimpering than it was growling, now. Still doing all that it could to get at me.

Someone led me back to the receptionist desk, putting more distance between me and the dog. More of a surprise, seeing people immediately jump to help another. The world I operated in didn’t call for much selflessness.

The dog, despite all its bark and its attempt to bite, eventually gave way to its owner, letting itself be dragged back to one of the elevators. The farther it got, the less feral it became.

“Sorry!” the man said, raising his hand to wave, before having to drop it again on the leash, the dog still tugging against it. “I’ll come back another time!”

The doors opened, and they both went into the elevator. The, the doors closed, leaving behind only ringing ears and pounding hearts.

I leaned against the receptionist’s desk, turning to the woman again. Everyone started to disperse as the situation cooled down.

“Wow,” I said, my eyes widened for effect. “Is there another place here I can wait so I’m not around when they come back?”

The woman’s eyes widened, too. Her hands dashed for her notepad and pen again. She scribbled.

“You know what, sweetie, here. That’s Ms. Beckham’s number. Use that.”

She tore the paper and handed it to me.

“Oh, are you sure?” I asked. I took it anyways.

“I am very,” she said.

From the corner of my eye, I saw the delivery man return. He still had the big teddy bear, but from the stack he had brought with him, a box was missing.

“Then, thank you,” I said. I gave the woman a curt nod, then took my leave. I followed the delivery man to the elevators. He pressed down, and I went in with him.

“Ground floor?” he asked.

“Yes, please.”

“Having a good morning so far?”

“I am now,” I answered.

The trip down was like an inverse of the trip going up. Less pressure, less stress as I went back down. It felt faster, too, to my actual relief.

When we got back to the ground floor, we went in different directions. The elevator filled with people as I left.

I found an exit on the side of the building. I was jogging to it as I got closer, pushing through the doors.

I practically growled a sigh of relief as I put the building behind me. Some people looked, it wasn’t ladylike, but I didn’t really give a shit.

I did it, we did it.

Taking the long way, turning more corners than I had to, I saw the parking garage. I picked up the pace now that I had my destination in my sights.

There were a few cars parked on the side of the road. A van, painted to look like a delivery truck.

A door slid open, and I slid right inside.

Sarah closed the door, and the van got started. D peeled us out of the parking spot, getting onto the road proper.

“Welcome back, Voss,” Sarah said. We were on the clock, but she did sound happy to have me back.

“I’m glad I managed to make it back,” I said.

In the passenger’s side, someone looked over. A man in a brown uniform, like he was off to deliver something.

“Good work, Wendy,” Lawrence said. “You played it cool, gave me an opening.”

“No, if it weren’t for Jordan this wouldn’t have worked out as well. And the-”

“Insurance? I followed D’s advice, I put them where no one would look, or question.”

“Awesome, and I got Natalie’s phone number. With D’s help, we should be able to track her down.”

“Yeah,” D said. “We, we should.”

“Fuck yes.” For the first time since I’d known him, Lawrence looked pleased.

“Then, that’s it,” I said. It was nearly impossible to believe. “Day one, and we got phase one locked down. What’s next?”

Lawrence answered. “Now, we need to start perusing some art. And see if there’s any we’d like to take for ourselves.”

Previous                                                                                               Next

091 – Parting Seas

Previous                                                                                               Next

“Thirty minutes before we roll out,” Lawrence said, standing straight, standing taller. “On the dot. I don’t want to lose a second because one of you got distracted doing something else. Keep the clock in mind, get busy.”

A shout of assent among the gathered Fangs.

“What he said!” D yelled out. The response was less enthused but there.

I didn’t even bother saying something. I could imagine the response I’d get.

About twenty or so of us at the Redhouse. This wasn’t everyone, not even close, nor should it have been. We weren’t preparing for a war, but we knew that this wasn’t going to be easy. We would have to prep, and meant getting together a decent sized group, take out certain equipment, and drafting a sound plan in a matter of twenty-four hours. We weren’t allotted much time after our visit with Mr. Onmon.

People worked, handing things out, writing things down. Not everyone would be armed, but those that did were assigned a weapon and had to sign the weapon out. If it got lost or misplaced, it would have to be reported. Most of our armory consisted of the shipment Benny had brought in for her gang. We had taken what we could for ourselves, but there was still a significant amount of those armaments circulating out there, in the city’s underworld. D had even set some of them off while we were trying to find Benny. As a gang, we had our teeth, and we’d have to take care of them. Couldn’t afford to have gaps form due to neglect or other circumstances. Unlike D, it wasn’t a cute look.

There was a lot to get through and get organized with, but we were making good time, even with the added bit of red tape. We’d be ready to roll out by Lawrence’s deadline.

“Everything looks to be in order,” I said. I adjusted my glasses. “Good work setting this up.”

Lawrence was standing straight, tall, up until he wasn’t. He shuffled to the edge, and gestured.

“Someone help me get off this thing.”

Reggie and Sarah answered the call, stepping up to lend a hand. Bending down, Lawrence took their hands and hopped off of the small crate he was standing on. He groaned all the way.

Gracias,” he said, grunting.

“You’re starting to sound like an old man,” D said. She added more energy and pep to her own voice, to contrast Lawrence’s weathered rasp. Then, she laughed, as if she couldn’t contain herself.

Lawrence, however, didn’t it as funny.

“Shut up, I’m still sore as shit. Everything hurts and aches and it freaking sucks.”

He muttered, keeping his complaints low, not letting the other Fangs pick up on what ailed him.

“I can’t have you on painkillers forever,” D said. “You’ll have to start relying on your own body to get you through the rest.”

“Fuck that, I feel like I’ll break some bones if I cough hard enough.” Lawrence looked at me. “Hey, you know any way you can give me some of your healing?”

“Me?” I asked. I shook my head. “Not that I’m aware of, no. And are you really saying you’d want my powers?”

“Not all of them, just the ones that are convenient to me.”

“Yeah, you don’t get to pick and choose, sorry. The bad comes with the convenient, and so does the fucking terrifying.”

Lawrence had an expression on his face, as though he was actually weighing his options.

“You can keep all that shit. I’ll tough it out…”

He muttered that last part, low enough that even I missed it. He scratched his neck.

“All of you need to learn how to take it easy,” Sarah said. “I don’t remember the phrase, but it had something to do with burning candles. What was it, Wendy?”

She was wearing baggy jeans and a bomber jacket, a bucket hat to top it off, complimenting lighter bottoms with a darker top. Her white shirt was cut short, hanging right above her ribs, showing off her midriff. Her skin was a natural tan, she wasn’t thin but she had a figure, which her relaxed fit didn’t hide, instead, it accentuated the shape. Maybe it was because the weather was still bad, or because she had been working, passing out equipment and helping with preparation, but some moisture was stuck the surface, making her skin glisten. She had been working hard enough that there was some definition there, too, and-

“Wendy?”

I snapped my head up. “What? I missed, what?”

“Don’t burn candles at both ends,” Reggie offered, “That’s more or less it.”

“Oh, right,” Sarah said. “Thanks.”

I looked back down, facing away from Sarah. Darn.

Sarah and Reggie had been asked to be a part of this operation. The offer was extended to Tone, but, he decided to sit this one out. I could understand him.

These two were here to help, not to play around. No distractions allowed.

I saw D, who met my eyes, her expression curious.

“You got all your gear ready?” she asked.

And like that, just one question was able to reorient myself. To get myself to focus. No more distractions.

I nodded, stern.

“All packed up and ready to go. I am not going to be the one that screws this up for everyone. Not this time.”

D gave me a small smile.

Sarah turned from Reggie, redirecting herself. To me. “Need any help carrying anything?”

I shook my head, stern.

“I’ll be fine, I’m not bringing that much stuff with me, anyways. I like to keep a light load on me. Easier to move around that way.”

“Bet.”

I glanced to the side, near the crate Lawrence was standing on before. A duffel bag with all my stuff. Mask, poncho, pants. Gloves and boots. I was already wearing the thermals. Another bag inside the bag, one I’d actually carry around with me when out in the field. Knife. Simple stuff.

There were some new items in my inventory, though, stuff I never thought I’d use, or need. Like a pistol. The Springfield XD, recommended by D, apparently it was a good gun to use for a beginner. She probably just liked it because the name looked like a huge smile.

I had it, I had some minor, last-minute training with it, but I prayed it wouldn’t have to come to me using it. Or anyone, even. Guns had a not so funny habit of making things escalate, just bringing them would burn a hole in pockets, begging to be fired. We had to bring them for this, but only as a deterrence, in case everything fell apart.

It’d get messy, and we’d need even more rain to that clean that up.

“I like when things are simple,” I said.

“What spurred that on?” Lawrence asked.

I shrugged.

“Just thinking out loud. Simple means easy, or at least easy to understand. And if it’s easy to understand, then it’s easy to plan for.”

“Not necessarily,” D said, interjecting. “There’s plenty of stuff that are easy to understand, but it doesn’t make them easy to deal with.”

“That’s a lot of ‘easy,’” Lawrence said.

“Like, for example, checkers or even chess. There’s a set amount of pieces or rules, and they all move simple enough, but put them all together and now you have a complicated mess of systems and mechanics. Heck, get a king pinned? It can be tricky to slip out of that.”

“If you’re in that situation, it’s easy to understand that you’re fucked,” Lawrence said.

D glared at Lawrence. “Or, like, if someone is being a real stubborn steakhead and won’t listen. That’s not easy to deal with at all.”

I pouted.

“You know what I mean, guys. Simple, easy. Clean. Point me to something, tell me to punch it, and then it’s done with. Stuff like that.”

“When has that ever happened, ever? That’s nothing but a fantasy,” Lawrence said. “There’s always going to be some fall out, no matter what you do. That’s why it’s smart to figure out what the potential consequences are for any given plan. If you can do that, plan for that too, or even use that to your advantage… shit, now you’re talking about things I like.”

I felt like groaning.

“I know,” I said, “Believe me I do. Darn, can’t a girl daydream without getting crap for it?”

Reggie and Sarah chuckled at our interaction.

Lawrence rolled a shoulder, leaning to one side, wincing.

“I ain’t got time to give anyone crap. So get your head out of the clouds, we’re leaving in twenty minutes.”

“Fine, twenty minutes,” I said, confirming it.

Lawrence rolled his shoulder again, his forehead creased. He turned.

“I’ll check on the others. You have nineteen minutes and some seconds.”

He walked off, going to the other Fangs. They all stood straight and alert when he approached them. Some, when they noticed me, gave stares that lasted a second too long. Or was I just being paranoid?

“There he goes, burning candles at both ends,” Sarah said, looking in his direction.

“Hey, you got it,” Reggie said. He was watching Lawrence, too. “I’ll go with him, in case the old man knocks something out of a socket.”

D laughed hard enough for Lawrence to turn back around. The rest of us shrugged at him.

Reggie went off to accompany Lawrence, leaving just the three of us.

“He’s really putting his all into this gang,” I said. I almost felt guilty, that my dedication to Los Colmillos wasn’t up to par with Lawrence. It wasn’t like I was lacking, though, I wouldn’t be here in the position I was in if I didn’t want to put the work in. But, in comparing myself to Lawrence, he was on another level.

“Good boy Lawrence,” D said. “I’m so proud.”

“For sure. Though, it’s probably because of you guys, that he’s able to work so hard.”

I turned to Sarah. “Meaning?”

Sarah made a sound, non-committal. “Hm, I won’t claim that I know him all that well, I joined with Reggie and Tone when it was just the Ghosts, but even then, he had a drive to keep going and be the one on top. He kept a circle with him. Charlie, Jonny, and Mels. They were closest things to ‘friends’ he had in this underworld.”

Those names sounded familiar, but I couldn’t put a face to them. They were probably around before I started working with Lawrence and the Ghosts.

They definitely weren’t around, now.

“I remember them,” D said, “They were nice. Well, not nice to me, but to Lawrence. So yeah, they were nice.”

“They were a big help, back when they were still in the gang,” Sarah said. “And Lawrence relied on them a ton. I’ll admit, the Ghosts weren’t at their best in those early days, with some pretty rough patches. If it weren’t for those three, there might not have even been a gang for you two to join.”

“They sound like real MVPs,” D included. “Shouts out to them.”

“Yeah, more hands like that on deck would be nice,” I said. I tilted my head a little. “Wait. So where are they now?”

Sarah shook her head a little.

“They’re gone. Charlie and Jonny, Mels too. Don’t know why, exactly, maybe they just had enough and walked away? I’m not really sure, and Lawrence isn’t the kind of guy to talk about that kind of personal stuff. And it’s not like anyone has to question it, ever since the two of you joined, things have been looking up, overall.”

Ever since the two of us joined.

I recalled the early tension from the Ghosts. Towards me, towards D. They weren’t very keen on joining forces. Heck, Lawrence had to be the least thrilled about that proposition. I managed to convince them, though, when I pointed to Benny as a common enemy, and ever since then… sailing hadn’t been smooth, not quite, but we could manage. There was always forward momentum.

But, I could still feel that bit of tension, and ever since I got back from El Paso, it seemed to get worse. It left me not wanting to rock the boat even further, to take every word, action, or even appearance with the Fangs with the utmost scrutiny. To plan for the fall out, to use Lawrence’s words.

It was all so fucking complicated. Hated it.

“You’re saying we’re replacements?” I asked, “Filling in that hole that those three left behind?”

All Sarah offered was a shrug, and the verbal equivalent.

“Who is to say, and I don’t want to spread gossip and assume. Maybe he’s trying to find in you what he had in them, or maybe he really is just that driven of a person.”

I was getting better at reading her face. Another idea was on the edge of her lips, ready to be let out.

“Or maybe?” I offered, wanting to tease it out of her.

“Or maybe he feels like he isn’t on your level, and he’s trying to compensate.”

“My level?” I asked, taken aback, slightly. A little surprised.

Sarah turned to face us. “You and Miss D. In the off chance you’re not aware, you two hold very special positions in, not just this gang, but this city, and in your case, the whole world.”

‘Your’ as in me. The whole world.

“D has her crazy tactics and antics, and you have so many amazing things about you, Wendy, powers excluded. If I had to be in a group with you two, I’d worry if I was pulling my weight or not.”

“You think he harbors some kind of insecurity?” I questioned.

“Don’t say that, now I feel bad,” D said. She exaggerated a pained look, lowering her head until she was bending over.

Sarah put her hands up. “I don’t want to think or assume anything. You lead me on a tangent and we have nineteen minutes to kill.”

“Oh, so this is my fault now,” I said, joking.

“Sixteen minutes,” D said.

Sarah rolled her eyes, a grin on her face.

“You’re funny. But, yeah, it wouldn’t be fair to talk about him behind his back like that. Let’s just… let’s just say I’m projecting a little bit.”

She winked. The cold outside had managed to creep into the building, requiring a light jacket and some manual labor to keep warm.

Wearing a light jacket, standing still, I felt warm.

Sarah fixed her hat, looking down, moving her hand so I couldn’t see her face anymore.

“Alright, I’ll get back to it. I’m not management so I don’t get to avoid actual work. Excuse me while I go join the normal folk.”

Sarah twisted around to go the other way, her hand still by her face.

“Are you saying we’re not normal?” I asked, still joking, but brief pieces of previous conversations flashed in my mind. Things she said that helped me, get a better view and grasp of myself. The RV, the barn. Maybe she meant it as a small joke, but it didn’t quite land right with me.

Sarah took a step, half-turning. Her hand and hat over her eyes.

“You’re as normal as the rest of us. You just have a special way of showing it.”

Then, she left, going to help with the rest of the preparations. It was just me and D, now. The normal people in special positions. Apparently.

D fixed her posture, standing up straight with her hands on her hips. She craned her neck to look up at me.

“Fourteen minutes and thirty seconds. How are you holding up?”

I made a small noise in the back of my throat before answering. Echoing Sarah.

“Hm. You should ask me that after we’re done here.”

“I’ll ask you then, that way I’ll have a better idea of how you’re doing. Before and after.”

“You’re really trying to keep tabs on me?”

“Of course!”

D made a face. Closing one eye, pointing to the other. She stuck her tongue.

“I… have… you!”

I had the sudden, strong urge to flick her on the forehead. Lightly.

She’s being extra goofy today.

It did make want to think about it, though. I thought about it.

“I’m okay, I guess. Doing better that I was this time last week. Which, maybe that’s not saying much. It’s hard to tell what’s supposed to be ‘normal’ for someone like me.”

“If you can lose a game and not be a sore loser about it, then you’re doing pretty good.”

“Oh yeah? You think we’ll lose this one?”

D shook her head hard enough for her hair to whip her face and the metal parts of her choker to rattle.

“No way. We have this in the bag. We’ll get that buffer zone and expand our territory and then we’ll have even more places to hang out and play. Because, like, I am so ready to start moving into my base and setting stuff up. It’s going to be so cool!”

“Right, your base. Where was it going to be again?”

D reacted, as if she had genuine terror over the possibility that I might have forgotten. Her jaw dropped, and her arms did too, dangling by her side.

“The Electric Place, remember? Duh. The bowling alley and arcade place we went to before? Remember?”

I remembered.

“Oh, right,” I said, snapping my fingers. “We sabotaged the Thunders and Royals there. Didn’t we-”

“We swapped bowling balls into different lanes, and man did they freak out. Clean up crews were still picking out bullets and filling out holes. One of my finer pranks, if I do say so myself.”

D lifted an arm. She actually patted herself on the back.

“You’re making there your base?” I asked. “After all the trouble you caused?”

“I know how to clean up after myself, Vivi. I’ve already got plans to spruce it up and make it even better and awesomer than before. More games, cabinets, pinball machines, renovated lanes, prizes… I’m going to put the second ‘A’ back into ‘palace!’”

“Sounds like you’re more interested in the idea of owning a game center than you are operating a business.”

D set her hands behind her, and she looked away, staring at something else.

“Um…”

Thought so.

It was good to hear her enthusiasm, it was even encouraging. D had other things she wanted to get to after this particular thing was over. This? It was just another box on the list to check off. Easy. Simple.

Good.

It wasn’t the two of us for very long. Isabella joined our ranks, standing beside me, situating herself between me and D. The closest she had ever been next to her, without it turning into a physical altercation.

“You’ll need to figure out where your base is going to be, too,” Isabella said. “You haven’t even decided yet.”

“I’m still thinking on where mine will be,” I said. “I’d rather keep my options open and see what comes up instead of settling down and I end up in a bad spot. I want to avoid getting pinned.”

“That’s fair,” D said. “We’ll get more places as we expand, and that’s why we each get our own base to begin with, so we don’t actually get pinned and lose everything in one fell swoop. Wherever you pick as your first, there’s no need to put so much stock in it.”

“I know. It’s just, this would be the first place I pick on my own, so I’d like to put some thought and effort into it. I barely have any decorations at my apartment. So much shit to figure out.”

“We have time.”

“You have ten minutes,” Isabella said. “Start getting everything together. Focus on the now. What’s right in front of you.”

“Sure, yeah,” I said. There was a lot to juggle, between business as a leader of a gang, the slow drag of trying to uncover any clues about what I was and what made my powers tick, and taking to just figure myself out. So many complicated matters, and I had to fight the urge to run away from all of them. “I’ll grab my bag.”

“And I’ll go get the van,” D said. She observed the rest of the lobby. “Looks like everyone else is about ready to go.”

“Good.”

D then skipped across the lobby, passing people, brushing against Fangs. They didn’t look too bothered as she bumped into them, instead just leaning out of the way and going back to what they were doing, as if they were used to kids running around. At this point, maybe they were.

I walked to my bag, patting the sides to feel if everything was in there. Felt like it. I picked it up and put the strap around my shoulder.

“Nervous?”

Isabella had her hands around the straps of her bag, too. They were tight.

I lifted a shoulder, half as a gesture and half to actually adjust the strap.

“There’s always a tiny pit in my stomach before I go out with the mask on. But it’s a tiny pit. Small as a seed.”

“Seed. Right.”

I tried recalling the easiest way I could articulate it. Not my experience.

“You know that feeling before you have to give a presentation, or right before stepping onto the court for the big game? It’s a lot like that.”

“I suppose,” Isabella said. “There’s no need to feel that way. You’ll kill it. Even without help.”

Her brazen confidence in me was almost laughable. I compromised with a smile.

“Thanks, coach, I’ll do my best.”

It was time to step out onto the court.

Night, or early morning, depending on the perspective. Either way, the hour was ungodly.

Which was funny, in a sense.

I stood across the street, facing a church. St. Elizabeth, a small cathedral at the edge of the Eye. Still wasn’t exactly a prime location, but it wasn’t terrible, and expanding our reach by circling around until we muscled into the Eye wasn’t such a bad idea.

My hood was up, keeping me dry from the light drizzle that touched ground. This feeling wasn’t unfamiliar. While slight, it bothered me on a fundamental level.

The connection was vague, but it was there. Looking at the winding stone and raised points that seemed to scratch at the sky, the gold outline that shimmered in the rain, it gave me a sense of imposing dread, to be back here again. Not me, but this body had been here before. Alexis. Couldn’t remember the exact circumstances, attempting to was like rubbing a raw nerve. I avoided it.

Returned like dust, then.

Her place wasn’t close, but it wasn’t that from here, either. I could get there if I was willing to take a very, very, very long walk. Too close for comfort, at least. But, I had a job to do, and I needed to keep myself on track. Other people were relying on me, and I needed to know that I could have even just a modicum of faith in myself. No more distractions.

I started crossing the street.

“Moving in,” I said.

Roger roger.” D. “Operation Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door is in effect!

I had to suppress a chuckle and let it get picked up on the earpiece.

Just give the word on when we can move in, too.” Lawrence. “We’ll be on standby until then.

“Sure thing.” I wasn’t V yet. I had my costume and general setup, but my mask was wrapped around my neck. I was in flux, in between two states of being. Ready to go when I had to, but for now I’d have to hold back.

I could imagine what Isabella would say about that.

Hopping over a small puddle, I got to the parking lot across the street, the cathedral larger and more imposing now. As far as architecture went, it wasn’t even that grand compared to others like it, and yet, here I was, feeling small in an even grander scheme. Just because I was at the center of the operation, it didn’t make me the centerpiece. Surrounded by other moving parts, just another cog in the machine. Which… I could find some comfort in only having some of the responsibility. A lighter load. A weird feeling, when not lifting to my full capacity. I felt as if I could be doing more.

But I know what happens when I push myself too much. I’m not as amazing as I’d wish to be.

When I was at my smallest, I was standing at the front of the cathedral doors. I tested the doors.

“Locked,” I said into the earpiece. “No surprise there.”

Any other way to get in? Did you see anyone around?” Lawrence asked.

“None that I saw. I’ll check around and see what I can find as far as an entrance goes.”

There’s a few other buildings you can look through too, like the offices or the maintenance sheds. Mr. Onmon there should be keys you can use to get in.

“I’ll give it a shot. I’ll search around the cathedral some more before I move elsewhere. Less places I search and leave a trace, the better. How’s it looking at your end?”

All quiet on my front,” Lawrence said. Where he was positioned, he was several blocks west. His van and another. Reggie. “Few police cars, but they were routine routes. They didn’t see us.

“D?” I asked.

All super here too.” She was at the opposite end of Lawrence. On the East, two vans with her as well. She was paired with Sarah. “Counted some black vans passing by, but they were going in the other direction from you.”

As things went, I was alone. Had to do this part by myself, no one was assigned to be with me. I would have taken Sarah if I had the option, but I wasn’t so blessed. I was the only one who could handle this portion, and so, I was out here, in the cold night, the light drizzle, breaking in the a church. Cool.

“Cool,” I said, forcing my brain to stay on track, to not dwell on what I did or did not have. Isabella was right, I had to think on what was right in front of me. Focusing on the now.

And what was right in front of me were the cathedral doors. They were locked. I’d need another way in. According to Mr. Onmon’s squeals, the small armory of the Cobras was located deep in the basement of the church. One of several.

“Going up,” I said, more for myself than for my two teammates listening in. Psyching myself up. I put on my mask.

I stepped back, looking up and around, scanning the architecture for holds I could use to haul myself to the high roof.

There, a rounded dome-like section, with a metal railing around it. A door there, probably.

With the route planned in my head, I jumped, scaling the side of the cathedral.

Not much was publicly known about the Cobras, other than the fact that they were one of the gangs brought whenever people talked about Stephenville on the news. Them and the AZ-Tec. So they definitely had a presence. More than Mister, who was still a complete enigma to me, a question mark that begged an answer. Like so many other things. Like me.

I huffed, throwing my arms up to grab a ledge, getting myself over.

Other than their notoriety, which seemed to exist separate from their actual existence, the Cobras have kept a low profile. Mr. Onmon wasn’t able to divulge much about their leadership or how the gang worked, only that he got jobs through anonymous texts, meeting with other… ‘volunteers.’ It reminded me how Solace operated. Most of the real work was being done in the shadows. Maybe that was how the professionals did it?

Mr. Onmon had given us the locations of the buffer zones, with St. Elizabeth being the most recent addition. It was a calculated risk, hitting here first. Their newest buffer zone, but it would be the least established. We could nab the armory and the surrounding territory and they wouldn’t blink an eye. Probably said something, that their scraps were crucial to our growth and survival, but everyone had to start somewhere.

One more leap, and I got somewhere. I made it to the top of the cathedral. I had to lean up against a raised stone wall to keep my balance along the slanted edge. It wasn’t flat here at all. A lot of points and slants.

Almost there. It took a few more hops to reach the rounded top of the building. One more, and I went over the railing and was walking on a flat surface.

“That was harder than I expected,” I said, more just talking to myself again. I walked around until I found the door. Locked with a chain and padlock. I held them in my hands, feeling the weight. “And… got it. Door’s open.”

You’re in?” D asked.

“I am.” The door lead into some stairs, winding down into the cathedral. I went down the spiral.

Careful, I chanced a look down. I could see the floor, moonlight as it fractured into colors through stained glass, a soft illuminated hue. Pews and statues and unlit candles. Paintings of people and images I had briefly believed in, in another lifetime.

The bottom of the stairs led to another door, leading to another area deeper in the cathedral. Where I wanted to go was down, though, and I didn’t want to waste by getting lost maneuvering through the back parts of the building. I knew what I was looking for was at the lower levels, and there was probably another door that led into the back from there as well. Needed to get there directly.

It was a bit of a squeeze, but I got through the railing, free falling for a second before landing. Crouched, I picked myself back up. A quick check around. I was inside the church. Dark, empty, seemingly abandoned. I was worried the creeping shadows might trigger some echoes of memories. It felt strong, standing here, less vague, a tug like testing a rope.

I was moving before I could dwell on it any longer.

Taking a set of steps onto the altar, passing the chancel, I found another door in a corner between the wall and a confessional. Looked promising enough.

Opening it, I went through.

Lights were off, but that was a good thing. I didn’t have to worry about finding a switch, and it meant that no one was around, guarding the place or looking out for potential intruders. The cathedral’s relative obscurity was its only line of defence, and it already been breached the moment we learned about it.

Peeking through every door and hall I stumbled across, only moving forward if I knew it would lead me more down. It wasn’t unlike going through a maze. It took up some time, but progress was being made. Which I really liked.

A stairwell. Leading to upper and lower levels. I descended even farther. Even further.

Then, I found it.

A switch by a panel right before the hallway opened up. From the cold air that passed through, the clean and sterile design of the metal walls and metal ceiling and metal floor, it was like I walked into a bank vault. This was a recent setup.

I flipped the switch.

Guns reflected the dull fluorescent light, tiny white dots on top of black and grey. All different shapes and sizes, lined up against the walls and on some metal tables. There were other cases, boxes of other equipment, but I didn’t want to touch anything. Not until I gave the signal, had everyone close in and secure the spot.

We were close though. Almost there.

“Found the armory,” I said. “Just like we were told.”

Good work,” Lawrence said. Getting praise from him… I wasn’t going to complain.

D didn’t say anything. I explored the rest of the armory, waiting until I heard from her.

The only thing that bugged me was that I felt small here, too. All I had on me was my knife and my gun, dwarfed in comparison to everything I saw on display here. Even the stuff in the boxes probably packed a bigger punch than what was on my person.

No. Something else, on a far table on the other end. The most it could do was a cut, and that was minor.

A manila folder, filled with a stack of papers.

I still didn’t want to touch anything, my paranoia keeping my arms at my sides, but I still had my eyes. The folder was labeled in bold. I read it out loud.

“Helter Skelter,” I said. “The heck is that?”

A voice came in, pushing those thoughts out of my mind.

Guys. Trouble.

D.

I snapped my head up, turning around.

What?”

I was in near-sync with Lawrence.

Got a group of black vans and cop cars moving in the direction of St. Elizabeth. From where I’m parked, it’s a long enough line that I know it’s a thing.

I cursed.

“Dammit, D, why didn’t you tell me sooner?”

I’m sorry! Sarah was out and just came back to confirm for me, but I’ve been trying to listen in to the police with my equipment and nothing. This is weird.

“Weird doesn’t begin to describe it. Dammit, dammit. Lawrence?”

Nothing since the last update. They’re all coming in from the other direction, probably.

Experimentally, I took a step.

“Any ideas?” I asked.

Has to just be a routine raid,” Lawrence ventured. “The Cobras are doing their rounds with the cops they have in their pockets, showing them the new forward base they have so the cops have something to report and make it look like they’re actually getting work done.

Yes. That exactly,” D said.

“So we wouldn’t have known,” I said. We were somewhat pressed for time after our visit with Mr. Onmon. As low on the totem pole as he was, someone would eventually notice that he hadn’t been doing his rounds with the buffer zones. If we were going to take this one, and then some more if we were daring enough, it would have to be immediately after learning about their locations. Doing stakeouts to learn the schedule was something we didn’t have the luxury for.

“You think they’re here now?” I asked.

Then, I got an answer, but it wasn’t from D, or from Lawrence.

Echoes from across a long hallway, then stairs. Steps. Voices.

They were already here, and they were coming this way.

I was pinned.

Previous                                                                                               Next

068 – Upward Mobility

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Hair neat, chin up, back straight, feet together. Hair washed, glasses clean, clothes fresh. Makeup applied. I was trying not to go overboard, but I wasn’t even sure where that particular line had been set. Had I gone too far, not far enough? What image, exactly, was I supposed to present, here?

Fuck me, I’m nervous.

My heart was pounding with anticipation. One false move, one wrong step, and this would be over before we could ever start.

We walked as a pair. I let him lead, let him take point.

Did I trust him? It didn’t really matter. He just needed to get the job done.

The weights behind us dragged.

I was wary of the eyes. The people watching, noticing. Even if they were mere glances, even if I didn’t register in anyone’s attention, I was still here, being seen. I wasn’t used to this. I preferred staying in the dark, keeping to the shadows.

The chandelier shined bright above. Exposing me, attacking me as if it was my natural enemy.

He stumbled. I stuck my hand out for support. And to lessen the chance of him falling, but it resulted in getting even more eyes on us, the stares lingering even longer.

All I wanted was to get in, and get out. It was all I had to do. For now. The hard part would come a little later.

For now, I just had to get through this. And this was not where my strengths were applicable.  He was the face, and I was the muscle. I had no use here.

Hair neat, chin up, back straight, feet together…

Fuck me.

We approached, and he stopped. I took my hand off of him. He was fine, now.

The lady smiled. Her hair was tied back, tight, not a single strand of hair was loose or out of place. Her cheeks were a rosy red, her lips cherry. Her makeup was better than mine. It looked professionally done.

And her eyes.

There was a thin, ashy black line that ran around her eyes, accentuating her lashes and giving her a fuller look. Pretty seemed like an understatement, and beautiful seemed overdramatic. Somewhere in between.

Appealing, then.

She asked us a question. He answered.

“May I have a name?”

“Lawrence Vazquez.”

She looked at me. I froze.

“And name?”

I felt my cheeks warm up by a significant degree. Rosier than hers.

Fuck me.

I answered.

“Wendy Vazquez.”

-had better knock him the fuck out.

Again, I found myself agreeing with him. We couldn’t drag this thing with Granon out any more than was appropriate or allowed. Doing so would paint the wrong image. That we couldn’t handle situations as they came up, however minor or pressing. Intruders, deals, relations with residents in territories. Word spreads, and anything negative or damaging could ruin our reputation. And our reputation was still developing. It had to be nurtured, helped along the way. If we fucked it up now, it could disrupt everything.

Seeds and roots. It all went back to that concept.

“I’m with you on that,” I said. “Any potential ideas?”

Not at the moment. That’s not my department.

I frowned, even though I was on a call.

“Not mine, either.”

But we both knew whose department it was, though. And they weren’t here, and they weren’t responding to our attempts to reach them.

The silence was disconcerting.

“I could try,” I said. “Worked out okay for me, just now.”

Tone turned his head, slow, giving me a prolonged stare. He still had a hand on Sarah, keeping her steady.

His look wasn’t one of contempt or distaste. It was a response, his way of bringing attention to what I had just done, or said. He seemed to have a way of getting a lot across with not a single word spoken.

“It… worked out,” I said, amending my previous statement, staring back at Tone.

Repeat that? I can barely hear you.

The rumbling to the back of us was getting louder. I had to speak up.

“I said we could try to come up with something, ourselves.”

Lawrence responded, but the rumbling overtook the first part of his sentence. I tilted back, getting ready to check behind us, after I concluded my call.

-so helpless without her, but we could use her input, too. Which requires her being here. Dammit. Still nothing?

“I’ve been talking with you this whole time. Nothing’s changed. I can try and give her another call after I hang up.”

Okay then, do that. I’m, ah fuck, still hurting here. Head back to the theater and we can sort things out.

“Will do,” I said. “Bye.”

I hung up.

I opened my mouth to give out another order, but the rumbling behind us swelled, and I could hear it move around us, to the side.

A vehicle, then. An engine?

I turned.

I could see him on the other side of the window. A man and his motorcycle. If I could even call him a man, and that thing a motorcycle.

The biker and his bike matched in color. A dark, smoky grey. It would have been black if the sun wasn’t out, beaming, letting the subtle shade show.

The color was all the same, but it was the form that twisted and snarled.

The bike itself had mechanical parts that twined together, running together, parts meeting and flowing into one another like sinew on muscle. Exhaust flowed out of the tailpipe, billowing out, to the point that no one could drive behind the bike without losing the ability to see. I checked the lane behind him, and it had thinned out. No one was following him.

Not a machine, it looked like a beast.

It wasn’t any normal bike.

The biker, too, had an aura about him that bordered on the fantastical.

Covered completely. Helmet, gloves, shoes. All matching in color and design. The rider was as sleek as the beast was not. Where the bike thrummed with power, rumbling, the biker was still, showing no sign that riding the thing was easy. Showing no sign at all. The face was obscured, only a black plate staring back at me.

With every inch of his body covered, it stripped away his identity, the person underneath. What remained was a new image, portrayed for the world to see. The rider and the beast.

No ordinary biker, and no ordinary bike.

I had a feeling I knew what was being portrayed. Or who it represented.

It was a uniform.

“Um.”

Reggie spoke, breaking the relative silence. The rumbling had only gotten louder now that the biker was riding in tandem with us.

“Should we do something?”

A good question. Were we supposed to engage, respond?

“He’s not doing anything,” Tone said, changing his gaze from eye to the biker. To the ferryman. “He’s just… looking at us.”

The ferryman stared, only taking the occasional glance ahead to keep himself steady. His helmet blocked our view of his face.

It felt odd, not being able to see what was usually so common. Another person’s face. We couldn’t figure him out, couldn’t parse why he would be here. Did other people feel that way towards Blank Face, V?

I didn’t appreciate having that feeling be directed back at me.

“Voss?” Reggie asked.

“Yes?”

“How’d you want to take this?”

Various things to consider. Was he here to sabotage us? Was he hostile? The longer we drove, the less likely that seemed. We were going down the highway, surrounded by other cars, many of them being the ones that were backed up by the blockade earlier. Getting into a conflict now would lead to an even bigger pile up.

We continued to drive, and so did the ferryman. If he had something planned, he would have done it by now.

But he didn’t.

Then, why was he here?

“Keep driving,” I said, careful. “I don’t think he has ill intentions.”

“Are you certain about that?” Tone asked.

No, but what else can we do?

“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah.”

Reggie kept the van at a steady speed, steering slightly as the highway curved. The ferryman kept up with us as we went along.

I was more curious than worried, now. Well, I still harbored a little concern. Having Styx’s Gang make a sudden appearance at this juncture could only lead to more complications. And we were trying to make things with Granon simple, and quick.

The ferryman raised his arm. I tensed, putting my phone away, watching him with a cautious eye.

Not to his side. He wasn’t reaching for anything.

Helmet gazing back, a hand off of the coiling metal handlebar. The beast crawled forward at a brisk speed.

He gestured.

“What’s he doing?”

It was Sarah that asked. She hadn’t turned to look, or perhaps she couldn’t, the impact of a van crashing into two cars was finally starting to get to her.

I really felt for Sarah. I wished I had come up with another plan, one that didn’t put her in danger.

I kept my eyes on the ferryman.

“Is he flipping us off?” Tone asked, angered.

I looked again.

It wasn’t that, the gesture was wrong. Unless he meant to flip himself off.

He lifted the other finger.

“Peace,” I said. But I had my own interpretation.

Victory.

That prompted a few ideas to formulate in my mind.

“Find a place to park,” I said, still watching him. “Somewhere out of the way.”

“I’m not so sure about that,” Tone said.

“He’s not here to pick a fight. Otherwise, he’d have tried something by now, and I’d personally see to it that he fails.”

“So, what?” Reggie asked.

“There’s something he wants, whether it’s from us or for us. Let’s find out what that is. Take the next exit.”

Reggie gave me a nod, and signaled that he was about to make a turn. The ferryman acknowledged us by slowing down, maneuvering around until he was back to tailing us again. Smoke trailed us as we made it off the highway.

In taking the time to decide what our course of action should be, we had gone a considerable distance. We were well beyond the scope of our territory, entering into another part of town I had never visited before. Another neighborhood, but there were more shopping centers and restaurants around.

I let Reggie pick where we’d stop. I wasn’t familiar with the area, and I figured that I needed to learn how to delegate. It was an important skill in being a leader, one I couldn’t lack. I’d get in the practice when and where it was possible.

We moved, and the ferryman followed.

The back of a strip mall, between two trailers that were unloading inventory. No one was around.

Reggie stopped the car, and I heard the rumbling finally stop, as well. The ferryman was here, too.

I got the door for myself. I glanced back, and saw that Tone was still tending to Sarah, going the extra mile to make sure she was okay.

They could stay, I wasn’t going to push them any further.

I got out of the van. Another set of footsteps joined me.

Reggie. I wasn’t shocked to see him here, but I did appreciate it. Every little bit would help.

So many problems, happening and presenting themselves one after the other. Granon, those girls, the blockade, and this, with the ferryman. Not to mention that D had simply disappeared on us, leaving us with nothing but silence.

A lot on our plate. A lot of work, running a gang.

We walked, and so did the ferryman. We met at a middle point.

I was the first to speak.

“Here we are. What do you want from us?”

The ferryman looked between the both of us. Or, to be more precise, his helmet faced me, then Reggie, then back to me. He hadn’t taken the damn thing off.

Not a word came from him. As if the contrast the rumbling of the beast he rode in on, he was exercising complete silence.

You’re making this harder for me.

I tried another question.

“What does Styx want from us?”

That elicited a response, if I could even call it that.

A tilt of his head, directed at me. His hand went to a pocket on the side of his leather jacket.

I waited, cautious.

It wasn’t a gun, or a knife. An envelope.

It could still have something dangerous inside.

He brought the envelope forward. To me.

There was a delay before I realized I was supposed to take it.

I took it.

I looked it over, flipping it around. Looking over my shoulder, Reggie was observing the envelope, too.

No markings. It was just paper, plain and white. I shook it, and felt weight redistribute inside. Something solid, thin.

I looked back up to the ferryman.

“I suppose you won’t tell me what this is?”

The lack of an answer was expected.

I had learned more about Styx, his gang, and his ferrymen as I sunk deeper into the gang side of things, deeper into the underworld. A neutral party in most respects, only in that they worked with every gang. Moving drugs, delivering supplies and messages, making sure everyone was playing by the rules. If our gang managed to grow, it would lead to us working with Styx’s Gang. It was a part of the process. It was how things worked.

But, we were still new, not established. Styx’s Gang had no business working with us yet. Which, with this ferryman being here, naturally begged a lot of questions.

And he doesn’t seem interested in answering any of them.

But I tried, regardless.

“Am I supposed to open this now?”

No answer. Of course.

Putting my other hand on the envelope, I pinched my fingers together. I breathed in, then out, slow.

“Take a step back,” I told Reggie. “Just to be safe.”

Reggie didn’t protest or question me. He took a step back.

No hesitation. I couldn’t show a sign of weakness.

I tore open the envelope.

Stuff fell out, I caught them out of the air, the shredded pieces of paper were lost in the process. They flew away, drafted by the wind, and I didn’t see the need to chase after them.

I got what I needed, however.

Four cards, split into sets of two. I flipped through each of them.

I saw Lawrence’s face. I saw mine. I did a double take.

Fake IDs.

Weird.

I already had one. Though, it was as real to me as the sky being blue. Look it up, and the information on that card would appear. It was as legitimate as it needed to be. For my part, I believed the information on there to be true. I was not lying to myself, there.

This card, the one in my hand, was a fake. Only slight-

A couple of details hit me all at once.

The photo itself. Identical to the one used on my actual ID. The exact same. How did Styx even get access to that photo in the first place?

The last name. Wasn’t my last name.

Vazquez.

I flipped to the card for Lawrence. I’d never seen his real card before, so I could only guess if his picture was the same. Probably was.

I read the name.

Lawrence Vazquez. Wasn’t his last name.

The fuck is this?

I turned my attention back to the ferryman.

“The fuck is this?” I asked.

I actually got something this time.

It was another gesture, though. The ferryman raised his hand to point.

The other set of cards.

I rearranged the cards to get a better look at them.

White. Black stripes at the bottom of one side. An arrow. The logo and name and number on the other side helped in piecing things together.

They were keys for a hotel room. Keys for the Lunar Tower.

My attention went back to the the ferryman, a curious expression on my face. Not confusion, but curiosity, I had an idea of where this was going.

“Why?” I asked, already knowing it would be useless. “Why are you giving this to me? Why is Styx helping us?”

Or, is he setting us up?

Nothing. He was starting to piss me off.

Could I beat the information out of him? Until he answered in squeals? It was possible, and I wouldn’t be above doing that, if it was absolutely necessary.

Possible, but not viable. If this gang were to continue and grow, we had to establish a decent working relation with Styx and his gang, and bringing harm to one of his own was a great way to have that not happen.

I couldn’t touch the ferryman, and he knew it. He could push me as far as he wanted, with no repercussions, not unless I wanted to ruin my own gang.

I didn’t want that. We had a good thing going.

A metallic clang, a distance away. We all turned in the direction of the noise.

A man, standing by one of the long trailers. Dressed like a trucker. He had a panicked look on his face.

A civilian, who had walked in on something he had no reason being around. Unsure if he should run, or if he even could.

With a hard jerk of his body, he decided to run. He disappeared behind the long trailer.

A small distraction. We returned to the business at hand.

“Thanks,” I said, putting the cards away. “We’ve got it from here. Tell Styx he doesn’t have to worry about us. We’ll prove our worth.”

The ferryman bowed his head. The most movement I’d ever seen from him.

He brought himself back up, and turned to go. I took that as my sign to leave, too. Had to wrap things up early after getting interrupted. That trucker might come back with other, even more unwanted guests.

Reggie and I returned to the van, the ideas starting to solidify.

I didn’t like the conclusions I was coming to.

“Shit,” I said, “Shit.”

“What did he want?” Tone asked. He was sitting back in his seat, now, next to me. Sarah was leaned back as well, the seat reclined. Her eyes were closed.

She was breathing, I could tell that much, and she didn’t appear to be in pain. I chalked it up to her just resting.

Reggie started up the van again as I talked.

“I think… This isn’t just between us and the People’s Hammer. Not anymore.”

“Elaborate, Voss.”

“Styx’s Gang literally gave us the keys to go straight to Granon. Considering how well connected they are, there’s a chance that there might be other eyes on us, now, other parties interested in how this unfolds.”

“You really think so?” Reggie asked.

I stuffed the cards into a pocket of my hoodie, switching them out for my phone.

“It’s one possibility. I’ll admit that it’s just a guess. What this does mean is that we’re in a fight that we can not lose.”

“As if we were going to lose at all,” Tone said. “This doesn’t change anything.”

“You’re right,” I said, nodding.

But this does make it complicated.

I dialed my phone, bringing it to my ear.

No answer from D.

Figures.

I had a sneaking suspicion, that D had something to do with this. And I was only able to consider that connection, because this wasn’t the first time a similar set of circumstances occurred.

That night, it felt so long ago. The night we burned down East Stephenville to find Benny. Another ferryman had made an appearance while I was making my way back to the restaurant, square one. That ferryman had made the same symbol too. Victory.

I would have questioned it more if things weren’t so hectic, if we weren’t in a rush to get Benny back. Now, it was starting to be a more pertinent issue. Not as pressing as Granon, but with these cards in my possession, I couldn’t just let it go, anymore.

Dial tone. She still wasn’t picking up.

D goes missing, and a few hours later we get a visit from Styx’s Gang, giving us access to where Granon is staying. And only one person could possibly get a hold of my ID. Hell, she was the person who made my new one.

I was starting understand Lawrence’s paranoia towards D.

I put my phone down, flipping through the address book to find Lawrence. I’d have to call him about this.

My finger was over his name, ready to call.

I put my phone away.

I’d give him an hour. Spare him the immediate stress.

It would help me, too. Instructions weren’t included in that envelope. Styx gave us the cards, but wasn’t going to tell us how to play them. That was for us to figure out.

An hour. I’d take an hour to think and plan on my own. Then I’d let Lawrence in the know.

And then I’ll find D and strangle her for not letting us in the know.

The door swung wide. I let Lawrence go first.

“Dammit, it’s gorgeous,” Lawrence said.

“I hate that I keep agreeing with you,” I said.

The room did look amazing. Better to call it a suite, in all honesty. Or maybe something even sweeter than that.

Not curtains, but drapes. Not just lamps, but candelabras, and another goddamn chandelier. The suite could be defined by having everything a normal room would have, but better. Fancier. Gaudier.

A blue and gold color palette gave the room a lax but extravagant feel. Unwinding in style. The couches and chairs had cushions that looked more fluffy than pillows, patterns of flowers on the walls and furniture gave everything a softer, natural touch. Silver grooves and engravings, to give just an extra dash of extravagance.

Otherworldly, almost. Surreal, in just how out of place I felt. This felt like a room for royalty. On the board, I was the queen, but being here stretched that definition.

Speaking of…

“They even have a chessboard here,” I said, pointing it out on the long, rounded table, with leather legs and raised gold dots at the edges. “And it’s made of glass.”

“So what?” Lawrence asked, walking more into the room, bringing his luggage with him. “We don’t have time for games.”

I shot a look at him, but his back was to me. I grabbed my bag and entered the suite.

“I know that, I was just thinking along those lines and I just saw it and I wanted to… You know what? Never mind.”

The board isn’t even set up properly.

I passed Lawrence, who had elected to fall into one of the couches, groaning as he went down. Every bit of movement must have ached, for him.

For me, I was just happy to be out of the lobby, and out of sight. I couldn’t get that lady’s face out of my head. How she watched as I tried to act like I belonged. If this institution really had a reputation of being a neutral ground for gangs, then she probably saw right through me.

Fuck me, this is why I wear a mask.

I headed to the double doors in the back of the suite. Wooden, but with gold wrapping around the edges of the frame like vines.

Had to be here.

I pushed the doors open. I blinked, an eyebrow raised. I blinked again.

“Ah hell.”

“What?” Lawrence asked, from behind.

For a second, I was lost on what to specify.

Keep it simple.

Fine.

“There’s only one bed,” I said.

What!”

I heard a rush of pillows and bags and chairs being knocked over.

Lawrence rushed past me, into the bedroom.

He groaned, probably both from the pain he was still recovering from, and the most recent discovery of this strange, strange situation we had found ourselves in.

“Ah, hell.”

The bedroom was its own section of the suite, but it was no less impressive.

It matched with the rest of the suite with its aesthetics, blue and gold, fancy light and decorations. And the bed itself was the crown jewel.

Framed by drapes, with a renaissance-style painting right above the head of the bed, mounted on the wall. The plant and flower motif continued in here, too, painted vines twisting along the wall and the side of the bed, smooth lines flowing around in an almost random fashion, like how I’d imagine actual plants to grow when left on their own. No one pattern or design was repeated, but nothing clashed or hurt the eyes. It was all so… relaxing.

Relaxing, yet somehow a slap in the face.

Something was waiting for us on the bed.

An oversized teddy bear, placed between the pillows. It was holding a box, shaped into a heart, probably filled with chocolates.

That confirmed my suspicions.

Still a slap in the face, though.

Only one bed, and there was only one night on the reservation. We had until we checked out at noon tomorrow to finish this.

Those were the rules of this game.

It did make things easier, in a sense. Having a deadline snap at the heels had a tendency to make a person run faster.

But, still…

“This is a joke right?” Lawrence asked, summarizing my own thoughts. “This has to be a joke.”

“It most definitely is,” I said, leaning one shoulder against the doorframe. “In a strange way, we can probably take comfort in that. The fake IDs, giving us the same fake surname, the fact that it starts with a ‘V,’ the single bed, even the chessboard and… the fucking teddy bear. This has her style written all over it.”

“Her…” Lawrence said, seething, the word sliding between gritted teeth.

“D,” I said, finishing his thought for him.

I saw Lawrence twitch, his head jerking around, as if looking for a fly that buzzing around him, or avoiding the gaze of the stuffed animal.

“You think she’s here?” he asked, gaze still darting, “Listening in on us?”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” I said, though I couldn’t help but wonder, despite myself. “Just think of this as another one of her pranks.”

“Pranks, right.” He trudged over to the bed, putting a hand on it for balance. “As if I needed to be pranked by her again. I thought that shit was behind me, now.”

With a sudden motion, he pushed the teddy bear out of the way and over the other side. He fell onto the bed, staring up at the ceiling. Another chandelier.

“Shows just how much I know,” he said, breathing out, barely audible. “I can hear her laughing, somewhere. It’s echoing. Constant. Ha, ha. Ha.”

I rolled my eyes.

“Don’t get so worked up over it,” I said. “Wherever she is, she’s just trying to help. It just so happens that she has a very particular idea of what ‘help’ means.”

Lawrence mumbled.

“Did it have to be like this, though?”

I took my shoulder off the frame, moving to get my bag out of the way of the door. “Like I said, stressing out over it isn’t going to benefit you any. You’ll never be able to get any rest, doing that. Just… you can take the bed.”

Lawrence sat right up, but he couldn’t stifle an aching groan.

“Huh?”

“I’m not about to share it with you. I can take the couch or floor or whatever, if we even get time to sleep.”

I was moving as I talked, setting my bag next to the couch. I didn’t bring a lot with me, I didn’t even have a lot to bring. An extra set of clothes, the necessities like a toothbrush and comb, my glasses case, and my costume… In case it would ever come to that. A small part of me hoped it wouldn’t have to come to that.

Though, would bringing it mean that I was expecting to wear it?

I nudged the bag, letting it roll an inch or two away.

I told myself that I would bring it as a precaution, but using it would probably make things worse. Not just for us and the People’s Hammer, but for everyone. And nothing good could be salvaged from that.

Maybe I brought it for security? That I had something to fall back to if this goes south?

I knew I was out of my element, here. I couldn’t resort to my old tricks, I couldn’t fall on old habits. Had to draw upon other stuff. Stuff I normally lacked.

I couldn’t doubt myself.

I opened my bag.

“I think I’ll head out,” I said, digging through my luggage. “Take a look around. Get a better sense of the building, and see where else it earns its five stars.”

Lawrence replied, shouting from the bedroom. He still sounded far away.

“Are you sure?”

No, but what choice do I have?

“Yes,” I said. “Though, actually, I would have you come with me, but the last thing I want is for you to bump into Granon. We know he’s staying somewhere here, but we don’t know where, exactly. They didn’t exactly make this easy on us.”

“They led us right to him, but bringing us here, where so many representatives of other gangs stay and rub shoulders… If we get into a fight, that’s not going to present the right image to everyone else.”

I nodded, saying, “It’s pretty much forcing us to try and cut a deal with Granon. Not a lot of elbow room to start swinging.”

“But Granon already tried to cut a deal with us, and we said no. How is it going to look if we go back on that?”

“Not good, but remember, the same thing applies to him. If he wants a spot in this city, he can’t make a mess of this place.”

There was a moment’s pause. The only thing I heard from Lawrence’s end of the room were bedsheets being tossed around.

“Do you want to cut a deal with Granon?” Lawrence asked, settling back in.

I was going to do my thinking aloud. “I don’t. Not if it means him being in our territory. The blockade alone was enough to show that he doesn’t care about the place or the people. The only thing he cares about is the growth of his own gang, and that means having a hold in this city, one way or another. He couldn’t get it through Mister, his proposal was rejected by his secretary, and I’m thinking there might be a reason why.”

“Like how we’re controlling what products are being sold in our territory? Tailoring our clientele?

“Something like that. Considering how little we interacted with Granon, and how volatile he proved to be in that short amount of time, if we didn’t want him, then the higher ups that run this city probably don’t want him, too.”

“We’re thinking like the big guys,” Lawrence commented. “I’m not sure if I should be happy about that or not.”

I found my knife, and stuffed it in a pocket on my side. I had enough room.

“It means,” I said, getting up, “That we have what it takes to be one of the higher ups, one day. The big guys. With Granon, the People’s Hammer does not. And that’s why we’ll be the ones to stop them from swinging. Remove any nails they might have.”

“Um, is that you being literal or what?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Okay,” Lawrence said, and I could hear him trying to get up from the bed, and then succeed after another try. “Hold on.”

I was standing back up, too, stretching my back, feeling and hearing it pop. Lawrence was walking out of the bedroom, meeting me by the couch.

“What is it now?” I asked. I was itching to get out and do something, even if it meant going through the lobby again, being out of my element.

Lawrence jammed his hands into his pockets, looking at me, but not making eye contact.

“I’m sure I’ve made it clear by now, but in case you haven’t caught on… I don’t like this, any of this. I don’t like how Granon is trying to muscle in, I don’t like how D is missing, I don’t like how convenient it is that a fucking ferryman gives you the keys to the Lunar, and I especially don’t like how I’m included in this shit. I don’t know what me being here even accomplishes. I mean, no one’s watching the territory. Fuck, I’m useless, here.”

If I was doing an okay job at hiding my anxiety about everything, then Lawrence was on the opposite end of the spectrum. He knew what him being here would – and did – accomplish, and he knew he wasn’t useless. He still felt the need to say that, regardless.

And I had to settle him down. It would better settle me down, too.

“Did you see the lady at the front desk? She would have snuffed me out in an instant if I tried to come in by myself, even if I had a reservation. I just don’t fit in with this kind of scene, or at least, I’m not used to it yet. Not used to having a lot of money or interacting with those who do. Nouveau riche, I guess you can say.”

I pointed a finger, setting it on Lawrence’s chest.

“You, from what I’ve seen with Granon and the lady, can act the part of a poised gangster. I’m… not quite there. You’re the face of the organization, I’m just the muscle. We each have a part to play. You had yours, and now it’s my turn.”

I flicked my finger. A gentle movement, from my perspective, but it was enough to knock him on his ass. He landed on the couch.

“So take a damn break. I can tell you’re still hurting from Granon’s beatdown, yesterday. I’ve got it from here. And about the territory, I trust that Reggie and Tone can keep things together for a night. And… As for D, and how Styx fits in this, let’s just take the convenience as it is, and we can move on to that after we’re through with the People’s Hammer.”

Lawrence adjusted his posture on the couch, getting himself in a better position.

“I guess a full twenty-four hours is too much to ask.”

I smiled. Slight, sympathetic.

“It is.”

Turning, I moved to leave the suite.

Lawrence called out. “You have your knife? Keys? Phone?”

“I do,” I answered. All three were in the pockets of my jacket. A dark blazer, a white buttoned shirt under that, and a dark skirt and dress shoes. They were the only pieces in my closet that wouldn’t put me out of place with the other guests and staff of this hotel. Coupled with the makeup, I never felt so awkward.

I could imagine Alexis wearing this outfit like a second skin. Me? Not so much. It was another costume.

“You have your wallet?”

I stopped at the door.

“I… do, why?”

“Get me something to eat. I want to taste that fifth star, if you know what I mean.”

“I’ll see what they have,” I said.

“And get yourself something while you’re at it. I’ve been meaning to bring it up for a while, now, but I haven’t seen you take a bite of anything, ever.”

Calling me out directly, was he?

“I can’t eat,” I said, turning the knob. “A drawback of my powers.”

“You can’t eat? Then what-”

“Good night, Lawrence,” I said, firm, opening the door. “Stay inside and rest. Call me if you need anything, or I’ll call you.”

I shut the door before Lawrence could reply.

Finally, I thought.

I was standing out in the hall. A warm glow from the lights above, a soft carpet with a constellation and moon imagery, and so many doors I almost felt dizzy. I had the key to the room, so I couldn’t get lost. Floor forty, fourth room. I’d never been in a building with so many floors, before.

And in one of these many floors, was Granon, and so many other gangs. Like looking for a needle in a needlestack. I couldn’t get myself, and by proxy, my gang, be riddled with holes as I search for him.

No big deal.

And, I couldn’t punch him when I see him.

Great.

Hands in my pocket, I started walking, heading to the elevators.

A lot of work, running a gang. And with how hard it was getting, I hoped that meant we were finally moving up in the world.

Previous                                                                                               Next

067 – Girl, You Gotta Carry That Weight

Previous                                                                                               Next

I walked into the Redhouse, a faint echo following every step I took.

No one was home. We still laid claim to the place, but we were able to move a lot of our inventory out to the new territory, our neighborhood. There was still some stuff in storage, either stuff that was too big to move, or not important enough that it needed to be close at hand. Extra funds, spare guns, and drugs we weren’t looking to deal. Once we were more settled, the plan would be for people to take shifts, essentially squatting at the location so it could remain within our jurisdiction. More territory meant more power, and we needed all the terrority we could get. But, for now, we needed everyone at the neighborhood, to help bolster our numbers and cement our presence there. Chances were good that we’d drop the place entirely, if we expanded even further, and found someplace better.

No, not if. When.

I needed to think along those lines, that we would succeed. If there was even a hint of uncertainty, then that could plant seeds in the mind. Seeds of doubt. And any setback or obstacle or difficulty faced, however minor, would only allow for those seeds to grow, the roots digging, until a final, decisive moment came, and I would be unable to act upon it, those roots already having me tied down.

I couldn’t afford that. I couldn’t afford failure.

And I wasn’t going to ever think that I could.

I walked into the Redhouse, the echoing growing louder.

Maybe this wasn’t the best place to…

To do what?

I looked around, even though I knew it was empty. Why had I come here, exactly? If I needed some time to think, I could have done it on the way to reconvening with D and Lawrence, and I needed to go somewhere secluded, having Sarah take me there would be defeating the purpose. I was wasting time and energy, going out of my way to come here.

And yet, here I was.

I wandered, each step less certain than the last. I scratched my head, played with my hair, fixed my glasses, straightened my hoodie, zipped it down, only to zip it back up again. I was wandering.

Going in circles.

My head was spinning, feeling dizzy for reasons I couldn’t explain or properly dissect. It all mixed together into a soupy mess, I couldn’t tell where one feeling ended and the other began. And trying to isolate any one thing brought a mess of other stuff with it. A mixture.

Fuck. I wanted to punch something.

“Did you find it?”

I turned to the door, startled.

Ah.

Sarah. She had followed me inside, the door closing as she came in.

It was the most complete view I had of her. From head to toe.

Her hair was a light brown, an even lighter shade as she stepped into the light, the sun coming from above. Her skin was tanned, from having spent so much time outdoors and it simply being her natural complexion. To contrast, she had on a white sweater that hugged her body snug, leaving only one shoulder exposed. Her jeans were black, slim, but loose by her ankles, with boots to match.

If it weren’t for the gun that was strapped behind her, Sarah looked like she could be a model.

There was a maturity to her looks that I could never hope to ever match or develop. Which only made the displacement of power between us all the more noticeable. She was a few years my senior, yet she answered to me. I told her to take me here. I gave her an order, and she listened. I was the leader, and she was my subordinate.

That’s how it’s supposed to be.

“Find?” I asked.

Sarah looked confused.

“Did you find what you were looking for?”

I remembered, now. I already forgot?

“Uh, no, I just got in.”

Sarah nodded, accepting that answer. She glanced around as she crossed the lobby, approaching me.

I had given a flimsy excuse when I told her to take me to the Redhouse, and I’d come up with something better by the time we got here. It didn’t happen, apparently, my thoughts were drifting elsewhere the whole trip.

Even now, I still felt…

I wasn’t sure how I felt.

Distracted? Listless?

Fuck.

I set my hoodie straight again, even though it was already fine. I was very aware of how the cloth of the jacket brushed against my stomach, the cold of the zipper touching me whenever I breathed.

Sarah spoke, breaking the spell of silence.

“At the risk of repeating myself, are you alright, Voss?”

“You are repeating yourself,” I said.

Sarah shrugged. “You didn’t answer me the first time I asked, so I had to follow up.”

My gaze went down to her boots.

“Give me a second to look around,” I said.

I moved, walking across the lobby, to the counter. I put my elbows on the surface, and leaned over, as if I was actually searching for something.

“You’re upset,” Sarah said.

A very pointed statement, that.

I didn’t turn to face her when I responded.

“I don’t think upset is the right word to use, here.”

“What is the right word, then?”

That was where I was stumped.

I set my lips into a line, staring at nothing in particular.

Fuck, I thought, for the third time in less than the same amount of minutes. I was starting to regret coming here, I wasn’t getting anything out of this. I didn’t even know what I had come here to get. Why, and for what reason? As though I was operating on some instinct that hadn’t been called on in so long, that it had forgotten how to function, and how to express and release that building… tension? Pressure? Whatever it was, exactly, it was spreading, growing, putting a strain on other stuff as it pressed against it, adding stress.

A broken connection, being forced to carry an impulse. A burden it might not be able to handle.

If I wasn’t careful, something could break.

I felt like I was about to have a migraine.

I breathed, remembering that I had to.

What is happening?

“It’s those girls, isn’t it?”

Sarah questioned, my back still to her.

Another pointed statement. Sarah seemed to have a talent for hitting right where it stung.

But, did it sting?

A minor wound, one that-

No, no. Thinking, picking apart my thoughts, alone. Going in circles. Wasn’t getting me anywhere.

I let my eyes close, and I opened my mouth.

“Not them, not entirely. I, it’s, more complicated than that.”

“You want to talk about it?”

I screwed my eyes tighter.

“That’s what I was trying to do.”

“Sorry, Voss, I didn’t mean to push you. Please, take your time.”

I took my time, trying to think of a decent place to start.

“Wendy,” I said.

“Yes?”

“It’s Wendy. Don’t call me Voss, not right now.”

There was a pause.

“Oh. Okay.”

“Yeah.”

That was a start.

“It’s not those girls, but they… I think I’ve realized something, about myself.”

A bit of time passed. I was expecting a response from Sarah, but I didn’t get one. Was she still wanting to give me space? Time?

It forced me to continue.

“I’m lacking, as a leader,” I said, matter-of-factly. “And I’m afraid that might reflect in other places, too.”

It felt as if I wasn’t even talking to her anymore. I was just talking aloud, and she happened to overhear.

Sarah responding diminished that feeling, though.

“I don’t understand.”

I wouldn’t expect you to.

“It happened with EZ and Krown,” I said.

“EZ and Krown? The Thunders and Royals?”

I nodded, but I still wasn’t facing her. “Before all this started, us moving into the neighborhood, D and I had gone ahead to check things out. We did some minor surveillance of the leaders of both gangs, on their turf, to get a sense of who they were and how they operated.”

“And something happened?”

I nodded again. “But, they knew we were outsiders, and they got the upper hand on us. On me. They lead me on, toyed with me, and made me look like a fucking idiot. I fell right into their tricks, and I had no idea I was being played.”

“And that made you upset,” Sarah said.

“More than upset. I was livid. I took that anger, that frustration, and focused it back at them. And look where they are, now.”

“Sounds like you did a pretty good job at turning things around.”

“But, that’s not my concern.”

Another few seconds of silence.

“What is your concern, then?” Sarah asked. She probably recognized that she was stepping on the time she had let me use to think. Probably not out of any disrespect, but to help guide me along to my point.

That was what I wanted to think, at least.

“My concern is… That, by myself, I’m not good enough, or well-rounded enough, to lead a gang. Twice, now, I’ve encountered a situation I wasn’t prepared for, or I wasn’t expecting, and I couldn’t… handle it.”

“You’re counting what went down with those girls as one of those situations?”

“I am. And what makes it worse is that they’re not even targets. I have no reason to seek them out again and make them pay. Nothing would come from it, nothing tangible.”

“I won’t ever say you’re wrong in feeling what you’re feeling, but you’re not alone. You’re not even alone as a leader. You have D, you have Lawrence. You have… the rest of us.”

I shook my head.

“I can’t keep relying on others. That time with EZ and Krown, I had D. This time with those girls, I had you, of all people. Strike one and strike two. What happens the third time around, when I’m at a critical juncture, and I fail? And there’s no one to help? Everything falls on me, and I won’t have the strength to keep it all up.”

“When you talk like that, you’re already assuming that you will fail. So stop that. And second, no one is asking you to carry that kind of burden, especially all by yourself. No one, even with super strength, can handle that. You can’t expect yourself to be bigger than life, all the time. No one is, and everyone has their shortcomings. That’s why people reach out, and rely on others in the first place.”

I slapped my hands on the counter, and turned.

I was facing Sarah, now, standing straight, feet planted firm.

Say it, become it.

“I know what I am,” I said. “I am bigger than life. I am a monster. I’ve done monstrous and ugly things, and I’ll continue to do monstrous and ugly things to get what I want. I have a power that no one else has, and I need to recognize that it puts me above, well, people.”

An arrogant thing to say, but, on a fundamental level, it was true.

But, I thought.

I spoke. “I am capable of so much more, and if I can’t reach those heights I know I can reach, then what am I good for? I can’t keep relying on others. Someone, a while back, had likened me to a gun, that others can use to point and fire. They direct me to where I need to strike, and they shoot. I can do that, I can be good at that. But that can’t be everything. There’s three of us, but we can’t stick with just our individual strengths and abilities. I know where I’m lacking, and that’s something they can’t help me with. It has to be me. I have to better than… this.”

Another silence. It lingered.

I brought my hand up, brushing my fingers through my hair. I adjusted my glasses.

“Am I even making any sense?” I asked.

I saw Sarah smile. Small, sympathetic.

“Not really, but that doesn’t mean what you’re feeling isn’t real. If that’s what you feel like you need to do, then do you, girl. Nobody can stop you. I’d love to see you grow and become a real leader. And, if it means anything coming from me, I think you’re doing a pretty good job right now.”

A warmth hit me. Not exactly like the one before, from my encounters with those girls. It wasn’t uncomfortable, awkward, or otherwise distressing. It was reassurance.

Which, in and of itself, sort of made it awkward.

“I… appreciate the sentiment,” I said, looking away. “You sound like you’ve done this kind of thing before.”

“I originally had gone to university to be a therapist. But, as I’m sure you know, life has a way of making things not go the way you want. And this ended up paying more, faster.”

She shrugged, spreading her arms.

“No big,” she said, smiling lightly.

I walked back across the lobby, heading to Sarah. My footsteps seemed to echo less than before.

“I’m sorry for taking up your time,” I said. “I didn’t actually have any real business here.”

“Don’t be sorry,” Sarah said, giving me a wink. Even that had a different effect from the wink I had received earlier. “I hope you found something worthwhile, anyways.”

“Maybe,” I said.

Sarah spread her arms again, wide.

“Do you want a hug?” she asked.

I considered taking a step back.

“I’m fine,” I said.

Sarah lifted her arms an inch higher.

“You sure?”

I considered.

But, I thought again.

“I’m fine. At the risk of repeating myself, I, um, appreciate the sentiment.”

Sarah replied. “You are repeating yourself, Voss.”

We both smiled.

Sarah dropped her arms to her side, and I took that as a signal to leave. But, before I could take a step, I got a call.

I grabbed my phone out from my pocket.

“Hey,” I said.

Where have you been?

Lawrence. Sounding as strained as ever.

“Sorry. I… took a detour.”

Took a detour? Where are you now?

“I’m at the Redhouse.”

What the fuck are- whatever, never mind. Look, we’ve got a situation.

I looked at Sarah. She must have noticed my expression. It was serious.

Lawrence sounded serious.

“What kind of situation?” I asked.

Granon’s making a move.

I felt my heart pound faster, my pulse quicken.

“Already?”

Yeah. On Boseman and Jordan. All I know right now is that there’s some traffic disturbance, and the People’s Hammer are involved.

That was right in our neighborhood, if not right at the edge of it.

Shit.

“You want me over there?” I asked.

No fucking shit. I’d, ow, shit, I’d come over there myself, but I’m still too fucked up to be of any use. I’m going to need your muscle on this one.

“I can do that.”

Then hurry. Hey-”

I was about to hang up, but I heard more from my phone.

“What?” I asked. “I missed that last part.”

I was asking if you’ve seen D.

If I’d seen D?

“Not since setting up at the theater,” I answered. “Why? I thought she was with you.”

She went out, she didn’t explain why, and she’s not picking up. I thought she went over to where you were.

Lawrence was right, this was a situation. Granon was taking action, in our territory, and D was not accounted for. She was our strategist, and she would have been useful in handling this. She would have planned something, and she would have made a game of it.

But, she wasn’t around, and we couldn’t afford to wait for her. Wherever she was, she had better show up, and soon.

Lawrence, too, was unavailable. Out of commission, still reeling from his one-sided fight with Granon. He could barely move, and I wouldn’t want him to. He had to be benched. He’d need to rest.

It was all up to me, now.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “D’s not here, but I can take care of it.”

Good luck. Bye.

“Bye,” I said. I turned to Sarah.

“What’s up, Voss?”

I blinked, feeling the pressure, like a weight on my chest. It was suffocating.

“This might be strike three,” I said.

I was running headlong into danger, knowing there was a chance that someone could get hurt, or worse, get killed.

So why did it feel like I was running away?

My feet stepped from road, to sidewalk, grass, sidewalk, and road again. I had turned corners, cut through alleys, and over gates. Past bystanders and onlookers.

I finally found a place to stop. Or, perhaps, more accurately, I let something stop me.

On the road, a car. People standing around it. Mine.

“Move!” I yelled.

They moved, out of the way, and right on time.

The side of my body collided with the car.

It absorbed most of the impact, stopping me and keeping me in place. The car skidded a foot to the side due to the hit.

Everyone shouted. Shocked, surprised at my sudden entrance.

“Holy-”

“Shit!”

“You dented my car!”

I pushed myself out and away from the car. A bone broke, but it had already mended by the time I settled everyone down.

“Guys, cool it! It’s just me!”

I had my arms up, hands high, as if physically making myself appear larger helped.

The initial confusion dissipated, and everyone’s focus was back, and on me.

I saw Reggie and Tone among the gathered group. I looked at them as I directed my questions.

“Any updates?”

It was Reggie who answered.

“Nah, it’s been like this for almost an hour, now. They’re still up there, blocking the access road.”

“Shit,” I said, barely hearing myself. Not just from all the running, but everywhere around us, every car was honking.

It was so fucking loud.

“Cops haven’t come in to move them yet?” I asked.

“You want them here? That’s asking for even more trouble. It’s not that bad, not yet.”

And I have to not let it get to that point.

Shit. Time was running out, and so were my options. I had to think, but I barely had any time for that, either.

Cover your bases, what’s going on right this second?

A lot of things.

Traffic stretched, going back several blocks. The People’s Hammer were situated right at the access road that merged into a highway. It was a major road for this part of the city, and in many respects, for a lot of people, it was their only way out of the neighborhood. People had jobs elsewhere, or they were looking to find some respite from the stresses of living here.

And Granon’s men were blocking everyone trying to get through.

To make things worse, the access road only went one way. Anyone who got stuck here was unable to turn back. A chokepoint.

The longer Granon’s men stayed in place, the longer the traffic became. It wouldn’t be long before the growing pressure bubbled, then boiled, only for everything to blow up in our faces. If we…

If I couldn’t deal with this, then we couldn’t continue as a gang at all.

Within me, the pressure started to bubble.

“Where’s Granon?” I asked. “Is he here?”

Tone turned to look, but Reggie answered.

“Haven’t seen him.”

Tone turned back. “Doesn’t rule him out of being here, though.

Reggie nodded.

“Anything else?” I asked. “Any fights that broke out, or any shots fired?”

Reggie shook his head.

“They’re just standing there, holding everything and everyone back. They’re probably strapped, though, with a few more in the trunk.”

“And you’re sure about that?”

Reggie shrugged.

“I just know that’s what I would do.”

I stepped to the side, to look past Reggie and Tone and the others, past the cars and other drivers who got out to get a look for themselves.

They were small dots from where I was standing, but I saw the black cars, and the black suits standing around them. Granon’s men. The People’s Hammer. I didn’t see Granon himself, but, if he was ever out here, I couldn’t miss him.

“At least they’re not actively doing any damage,” I said. “But they are making themselves known, here.”

“And they’re being annoying as fuck,” Tone said.

“Yeah,” I said, “That too.”

I let a few seconds pass as I stared off into the distance, looking at Granon’s men.

“You got any ideas, Voss?”

The question took me out of my thoughts. I looked between Reggie and Tone, trying to figure out who asked that.

“Thinking,” I said.

Tone spoke. “Well, think faster, Voss, this stalemate can’t last forever. Something’s gonna give, and it ain’t gonna be us.”

There were murmurs of assent around us, barely audible over all the car horns.

Not a lot of time to think, and I was being pressed to hurry.

What should I do?

Move in to attack, try to mitigate the damage done? Possible, but potentially messy, especially with all of the civilians around.

Move in to talk, get them to stand down? Less probable, but stranger things have happened. If I could appeal to them, somehow, drive home just how bad things could go if they stuck around? If I tried to be diplomatic?

The more I considered it, the more that idea seemed far fetched. They were here for a reason, and they’d only leave if they had anything worth reporting back to Granon. If they found anything useful, like a weakness in our group, or if they’d somehow managed to secure a win.

Right now, they were testing us, and it was a test we couldn’t fail.

Couldn’t engage, but words might fall on deaf ears.

Something in the middle, then?

“Spread out,” I said. “I’ll need eyes from as many different angles as possible. Let’s find an opening we can approach this from.”

I looked at everyone as they looked at each other.

“Spread out,” I said again, much firmer.

There was another slight delay before people started moving, going in different directions, going by themselves, in pairs, or smaller groups.

They listened, but they had to consider it, first. I didn’t have the command over them like Lawrence did. Not with everyone.

“Want us to come, Voss?” Reggie asked. He was still here, but he looked ready to move at any second.

“No,” I said. “No offense, but you won’t be able to keep up. Besides, I’ve got Sarah.”

Tone gave me a look of confusion.

“Yeah, wait, where is she, anyways?”

“She’s around,” I said, moving a foot forward. “Get going, and keep your phones at hand!”

I broke into a sprint, leaving them behind, heading to the blockade of Granon’s cars and men.

Dammit. I hated that I had to be on my own on this.

I didn’t have the capacity for scheming like D, and I didn’t have authority that Lawrence held, and I couldn’t do my usual thing, to boot. Brute force wasn’t the key, here, and I was forced into a position at playing the parts my colleagues usually handled.

Dammit.

Had to play it by ear, I figured I was pretty decent at doing that. I’d put the pieces on the board, get a layout of where the enemy was, and go from there.

It’s what D would do, but it would be my version of that approach.

Running down the street, between people and over cars, I got closer. I was moving fast. Fast enough to draw attention, but not fast enough to draw suspicion.

A crowd had formed near the blockade itself. Dense, packed with people, and I wouldn’t be able to get through unless I used a conspicuous amount of strength.

I found a nearby car, and climbed on top to get a better look.

Three black cars, six of Granon’s men. At least. There might be more on the other side of the cars’ tinted windows. Better to be paranoid and prepare for the worst, than to assume everything was okay and be blindsided.

Ten would be my conservative guess.

The cars were parked in a line, grill to bumper, blocking the opening into the highway. Granon’s men were also in a line, standing, making it very obvious that they were not to be messed with or approached. They were strapped, armed with rifles.

The guns weren’t aimed or directed at anyone in particular, but they were there. By their side, ready at a moment’s notice. Couldn’t let it get to that point.

Some of them noticed me, but they didn’t recognize me. I was standing out, literally.

I attracted the attention of some others, too.

“Hey! Get off my car, you asshole!”

Someone, from the gathered crowd that surrounded the cars and men, had turned and saw me. He left the crowd, me being where I was had become more pressing than the armed mobsters keeping him and dozens of people in place.

“I said get the hell off my car!”

I gave the man a cursory glance, and then it was back to the blockade.

Tools. I had my bag, my stuff inside. Knife, earpiece… costume.

Couldn’t use that. Bringing V into this would be like throwing gasoline where there was only cinders. A guarantee for disaster.

Had to do this as Wendy. Which was starting to feel like an impossible task. I ran all the way here, and I still hadn’t come up with anything.

I felt the roots dig.

I wish D was here. Lawrence. Sarah. Fuck, I’ll even take Reggie or Tone. Someone to-

“Hey, you!”

I looked down. It was that guy, walking faster to me.

“Are you stupid? Get off-”

It was enough for him to shut up.

I had made a face, twisting my expression. Teeth showing, eyes widening. A scowl, nearing a snarl. I stared hard, focusing my gaze into a single point on his neck. I wasn’t even looking at him as a person. Or perhaps, I was looking at him as a person, but something had changed from my end. My perspective.

The man stopped in his tracks.

“Fucking wait,” I told him, expression unchanging.

He waited. Standing there, staring back, mouth slightly agape. Perplexed, stunned. Unsure of what to do, or what he could do, next.

An odd exchange, but I’d take it.

He was disoriented for the moment, and I used that to get back to the task at hand.

Concentrate.

I couldn’t tackle this directly. I had to go about it in an oblique way.

From behind, then.

It was something.

I hopped down, feet on the ground, phone in my hand.

I walked to the crowd, about to walk through it.

I passed the man, his eyes still on me, still locked into whatever compelled him to stare.

Someone else was at his side, now. Someone new.

A woman, mid-thirties, she looked like. She had a yellow sweater, with a black cap on her head. Thick rimmed glasses. In her hands were a pad of paper and a phone, the phone was pointed and directed in a way that made me apprehensive.

“Oli, who’s that?” she asked, as I put them behind me.

The man barely got out a word as an answer.

“Nat, I…”

His breathy tone was drowned out by the continued shouting and horn honking. It seemed to get louder, more intense, more pissed off. As if it was a gauge on how much patience the people here had, and how much time we had left.

And we were running out on both.

I put my phone out in front of me as I started moving through the crowd. I was small, short, and I was able to find the small gaps between the people here, however small.

I started typing as fast as I could, getting out as many messages as possible.

Please let this work.

The phone went back into my pocket as I made it past the crowd. I was met with some protest, but a harder nudge from my direction made them give. Easier than I expected.

And then I was facing the blockade. Granon’s men.

They noticed me again, all of them facing me. Did they recall me from before, when I was standing on the car?

I continued forward.

I walked at an angle, so I was heading to the car on the far left rather than going to them directly. They positioned themselves to keep me in their sights. I saw their hands lower, to their weapons.

I raised my hands, stopping by one of them. He was dressed like his boss. All black, long coat, a wide brim hat. The spitting image of a mobster.

“Hi,” I said, putting my hands to my side.

“And you are?” he asked.

“Just a concerned citizen. I don’t mean to be rude, but you and your friends are in the way. The people here are trying to get through.”

“That is precisely why we are here. To be a thorn in this community’s side.”

At least he admitted that he was being an asshole.

“Well, congratulations, you guys are pricks. You think you can pack it up now?”

He glowered at me. His shoulders were straight, his hand physically on his gun. He must have made some other signal or gesture, because the other men started coming our way.

“We are here under explicit orders, little girl,” the man said, assuming a more assertive tone. “You do not get a say in what happens, here.”

“Yeah, and those orders are from Granon, right?”

The mere mention of his name gave them each a bodily reaction. A twitch, a shudder, a gesture in some way.

I had gotten right to it.

They closed in even more, now, all of them with their hands on their guns. Their rifles.

I’d considered it, perhaps getting them to run off with just a look, alone. From the looks they had, though, and the weapons they held, I had a distinct, gut feeling that it wouldn’t work.

Had to hit them from another direction.

The man who had been entertaining me spoke again. “You are lucky we did not shoot you as you came here. It would be easy.”

“Yeah, and thanks for not doing that,” I said. “Appreciate it.”

He grimaced.

“Are you playing us, girl?” he questioned.

Trying to.

Someone else from the group spoke, addressing the man I had been talking to. It was a language I’d never understand.

They conversed, briefly.

They all faced me again.

The man spoke again.

Leave,” he said, that one word carrying with it an accent that gave his demand even more weight. “I do not know who you are, but I will give you one chance to go, with no harm done to you as you turn your back. You have my word.”

“Wow, a gangster with honor, never thought I’d see the day. But, here’s the thing, I can’t leave, I sort of help run the place. And with you being here, doing what you’re doing, it’s not helping me take care of the neighborhood. So, yeah, I’m going to have to be the one that asks you to leave. All of you. Go back to Granon and tell him you’re no longer welcome or tolerated here.”

“And,” I added, “If I ever see any of you again, I’ll make it so you never see again.”

That got a reaction out of them.

They didn’t bellow or scream like their boss, but they fell back on his tendency to belittle and downplay.

“We are going to stay, just to show you what little power you really have,” the man said, speaking for his group. “And then, we are going to take over, just to make sure you know.”

“Big words for adults who don’t know how to park their cars,” I said.

The man glared.

“That was your last chance for mercy, child. I can surmise that you work for Lawrence, who I believe is still nursing wounds from our boss. Continue to run your mouth and waste our time, and I can see to it that you meet a similar fate.”

The group muttered amongst each other.

While they were briefly preoccupied, I glanced at the road behind the blockade of cars. I gulped.

“No need to get so pissy,” I said. “I’m going. And you will, too. Call it similar fates.”

“What are you-”

It happened in a sequence. First, the crowd, crying out as they saw it coming. Confused, Granon’s men tried to look at the crowd.

Then came the crash.

Thousands of pounds, sixty miles at least. A big block of metal on wheels.

A van barrelled through the blockade.

I’d put some thought in it. Where I stood, where Granon’s men was positioned. Where the van would be coming in from.

We were standing close to the bumper of the car on the very left, the grill of the car in the middle. There was a small gap, there, that the van forced itself through.

Everything and everyone jumped at the impact.

I did, hopping a step back to gauge the changing situation by the millisecond. Some of Granon’s men did, too, trying to get out of the way. Some didn’t make it.

The van slammed into them, and they flew, tossed a distance into the road or the dispersing crowd. The man I had been talking to was one of them.

The cars, too, skidded out from the impact of the van, providing more of an opening. An opening I could make wider.

The car closest to me continued to drift my way, and I hopped to get over the trunk to the other side of the vehicle. I leaned back until I fell, my shoulder blades pressing against the back tire, my feet pressed hard into the ground.

I pushed.

The car moved even more, until it was facing the direction it was supposed to, the grilling facing the highway. I pushed some more, until it settled into position.

I ran across the road, stepping over one of Granon’s men, crossing the gap to get to the other car. The one that had previously been in the middle of the blockade. I put my hands on the side of the vehicle, by a front tire, and pushed.

It moved, until it was situated properly on the road. It was facing the wrong direction, the road was only one way, but I was fine with that. It would do.

The gap widened. Enough so that people could get through.

And they did.

Cars immediately started going through the gap, taking advantage of the sudden opening. Not civilians, though.

Mine.

I caught a glimpse through the window of one of the first cars to pass.

Reggie. Not his car.

It was one of the orders I sent by text. An opening would be made, and with so many people out of their cars to go and yell at the People’s Hammer, they wouldn’t be prepared for any sudden and violent developments.

Get into any car near that opening, and get the ball rolling.

They wouldn’t steal it, that wasn’t their orders. Just to show the other people here that it was safe to go, to drive and go about the rest of their day.

I saw Tone pass by in a muscle car, close enough that my hair whipped past my eyes and into my glasses. Like Reggie, he’d have to stop and park the car on the side of the road, before the highway. The real owners of the vehicles could pick it up then.

I watched as others that weren’t in my gang start to get the idea. They got into their cars, and went through, before Granon’s men could get back up and try something again.

If they even could. About half of them weren’t getting up.

I edged along the side of the car I had just pushed, trying to avoid getting clipped by an oncoming truck. I made it out, and ran without missing a beat.

I went to the van that caused all this to happen in the first place. It was on the curb, a foot away from colliding with a light pole. It had stopped just before bigger disaster could take place. The van seemed to be intact, all things considered. There was some cracks the edges around the windshield, but that wouldn’t stop a van from running.

I opened a door on the side.

“Sarah! You okay?”

I heard a moan.

“Okay barely covers it.”

I saw her sitting in the driver’s seat, bent in a weird way, slouching over to one side. She responded and sounded okay, but I still feared the worst.

“Can you move?”

She moved an arm, to her side, where I couldn’t see. She moved her arm again.

She was holding a bear.

“We still have a bunch of these in here,” Sarah said, sitting straight. “They make for a great cushion.”

Yes, I thought, and I let myself breathe.

It was another order, another text I sent. The traffic was so bad that Sarah couldn’t take me all the way to the blockade itself, she dropped me off and I ran there. But I had her go around, find another way we could tackle this. It was just, at that time, she didn’t know that she would actually be tackling this directly.

I gave her that order, and she listened. She was willing to go that far.

“Thank you,” I said, getting in the van, sliding the door closed. I was in the row behind the driver’s seat. “I hate to ask, but can you drive a little more?”

“I think so,” Sarah said, but she groaned out the words. “I can try.”

“Okay, we just need to turn the van around and get out of here. We swing by to pick up Reggie and Tone, they’re just up ahead. We pick them up, and I can have them take the wheel from you.”

“I can manage that much, hold on.”

The van started to back up, getting on the road again. There was a bit of a wait, until someone let us get through the opening we made.

Two of Granon’s men were finally getting on their feet, scrambling to collect their colleagues and drag them away from the rush of vehicles. Their rifles were dangling, loose, at their backs. They wouldn’t, couldn’t use them now, or the situation would escalate too far for them to make an escape. They were the ones blocked from doing anything, now.

I can’t believe that actually worked.

It was messy, ugly, and all improvised, but I managed to cobble together a plan that diffused the situation. No one got seriously hurt, except for those who probably deserved it.

I zipped my hoodie down about halfway, feeling the heat from expending all that effort and strength.

The van drove up the access road, slowing and drifting to the side. I slid open the door.

We didn’t stop, but we had slowed down enough for Reggie and Tone to hop inside. The door was back to being closed as Reggie and Sarah shuffled around, switching places, as Tone helped Sarah settle into the passenger’s seat. The van meandered forward a bit as the switch was made, but Reggie got full control by the time we had to merge into the highway.

And then we were free. The blockade was opened, Granon’s men were humiliated, probably mutilated, and there were still some of my people staying behind to make sure the situation would remain all clear. And we would wrap around to double check.

I really did it.

“Ow, oh, ow,” Sarah muttered, as Tone aided her in getting the seat belt around her body. “Careful.”

“I am,” Tone replied. He wasn’t looking at me, but I could feel his words hitting me as he said, “Fuckin’ nuts, you’re fuckin’ nuts.”

I couldn’t look at Sarah properly. I felt bad for using her like that, like a pawn, especially after she had helped me to try and get my thoughts together back at the Redhouse. I’d have to find a way to make it up to her.

But, before I could think of how I’d go about that, I had to make a phone call.

I got my phone out and dialed. An immediate answer.

Yes?

“Lawrence,” I said. “Hey. It’s covered. Granon’s not going to be happy about it, but we were able to get him back before the day even ended.”

That’s not terrible news. Thanks, Wendy.

“Speaking of terrible news, have you heard from D?”

I noted the pause.

I haven’t. I was hoping you’d have something new to say about that.

I started tapping my foot.

“I don’t. Fuck.”

Dammit, where the fuck is she?

“Aw, sounds like you miss her,” I said.

Not a fucking chance in hell. It’s bad enough when she’s right next to me, but a D that I don’t have eyes on? That’s potentially a whole mess of shit I try not to think about. It keeps me up at night.

“You have to learn how to chill,” I said. This wasn’t the first time we had spoke on something like this. “Being on guard is one thing, but letting fear make you irrational? That’s what we’re trying to do to our enemies, not to each other.”

You say that like it’s as easy as flipping a switch.

“I told you she’s trying, Lawrence, you need to have some faith in her, if you want this to work.”

Sure, that’s all well and good, but can you tell me you’re not the least bit worried about her not being around right now, that there might be something else going on in the background that we’re not aware of? She’s gone, and she’s not answering, who knows what she’s up to?

I could hear it in his voice, even though he was on a phone. D had clearly done a number on him, in the past, and he was still finding it hard to shake off that fear.

But, I could sympathize, even if it was just a little.

The mere mention of a possibility like that made my heart skip a beat. There were few things I hated more than not being in control. To have some other plot run along concurrently with ours, with the potential to interfere and disrupt, made me want to question everything and everyone. It made me scared.

Better to be paranoid, and prepare for the worst.

But trust went a long way, as well.

The van rolled along, down the highway, and I heard a rumble grow louder from behind.

I said my thoughts aloud.

“We know D, we work with her, and she’s only been gone for a few hours. If she’s off doing something, it’s probably for our benefit.”

It had better be,” Lawrence said, “Because, as much as I hate to admit it, we need her. We need everyone. Granon isn’t going to take what just happened lightly. He’ll want to strike back, but we need to strike again before he gets that chance. And that next strike had better knock him the fuck out.

Previous                                                                                               Next

064 – The Illest Villains

Previous                                                                                               Next

The wait was excruciating.

Time seemed to stretch as Phil stared down at us, keeping us still, keeping us waiting.

If D had a reason for doing this, it had better be a very good one.

People were looking, watching our standstill. We were in a store, during the middle of the day. Peak hours, for a business like this. People were leaving, entering, noticing us as they went about their day. More eyes on us, more eyes on me and D.

Not the best way to go about scouting an area. Not exactly.

We couldn’t stay like this forever. Someone had to budge, to give in to the other.

And it wasn’t going to be us.

“The faster you hear us out, the faster we can be out of your store and out of your hair,” I said. That was my small push, to get the ball rolling.

Phil spoke, for the first time in what felt like an hour.

“Or, I have you taken out of here, by force. Jay and Ricky, they ain’t the only ones in here. I can make this real easy if I want it to.”

“The only thing you’ll be making this is, is… not… easy, bleh.”

D stuck out her tongue and spat, as if a bug had gotten in her mouth.

“Almost,” I said to D.

She shook her head, and tried again.

“You’re not making anything easier if you call for backup, you’ll be making a mess. Trust me.”

“Are you threatening me in my own establishment?”

“I’m not, but I am telling you how it will go down, if you take it there.”

Phil’s gaze hardened.

I couldn’t exactly defend or justify D, there. She was only giving him more reasons to be done with us, testing his patience until it whittled away to nothing. She seemed to have a talent for that.

I had to do something to mediate this.

“Phil, look,” I said, “Let’s not ‘make this’ into anything. We want to talk, and you want us out of the way. Help us, and you’ll be helping yourself, too.”

He didn’t react or acknowledge me, and I began to wonder if he was just that stubborn.

“Come with me.”

I heard him, and I saw him walk away, but it almost didn’t register in my head. We were so frozen in that moment for so long that I couldn’t comprehend that something happened.

And now I had to catch up.

D was already following him by the time I moved a foot. I looked over to the checkout counter as I walked. I saw the boy working, still bagging up D’s snacks. He noticed me, and I made a gesture, to stack our stuff on the side, somewhere. He nodded along, understanding what I meant.

Which left me free to go after D and Phil.

He led us to the back of the store, through a set of doors by the produce section. The sooner we were out of sight, the better, it seemed.

As we followed, I looked at D, and she noticed. She shrugged.

We needed information, and this man seemed to be in the know.

And the power of knowing was a very good power to have.

But, something about this rubbed me the wrong way.

Not with Phil, not exactly, but with D.

I had caught on to what D was doing, why she ran off, pretending to have lost her wallet. I just wished she had told me about it.

I told her that I hated being in the dark about things, and she still went off to enact her own plan, leaving me behind. Even if she didn’t need me to help, even if she just wanted to stay still and just watch…

I would have at least been in the know, but, in that moment, I didn’t know. I was powerless.

That bothered me.

Phil coughed, and it sounded harsh, rasp. It brought me back to the present. Where we were, what we were doing.

I took a breath.

Did it really matter, though? I had my qualms, but I knew better than to get worked up over it now, especially after what happened at the basketball court. D was trying to make a move on my behalf, our behalf. D took a risk, nearly starting a gun fight in a store, all to draw out this old man. She thought it was worth it, she had her reasons.

And I was willing to back her up on it.

Wasn’t worth getting worked up over, wasn’t worth bringing it up with her afterwards. There were more important matters at hand.

I kept walking.

Through doors and corridors, past crates and employees, we got closer to where stuff was stocked, stuff that wasn’t ready to be displayed out front. Like frozen meat, and vegetables, and snacks.

We got close, but that was as far as we were taken in that direction. Phil took a corner down another way, and we had to follow.

He was a step ahead of us, walking fast for someone his age. It was as if we weren’t even here. If we somehow had fallen behind, or had gotten lost, I doubted that he would have noticed or cared.

He walked until he reached a room, probably used for staff meetings. The blinds on the other side of the window were up, obstructing my view inside, and the door was closed.

Fishing out a set of keys from his pocket, Phil got the door opened. He didn’t say anything as he entered, not until we came in, ourselves.

“Take a seat, we can continue this in here.”

He flipped a switch by the door, turning on the lights. A small, round table was placed in the middle of the room.

We each took our own seat, Phil having left the blinds up.

“Continue what, exactly?” I asked. I had my own ideas about where this would go, but I wanted to make it clear. If he was trying to lure us into some sort of trap… I was ready to swing.

I had my knife, I had my strength, and I had learned my lesson. I wasn’t going to be played twice in one day.

“Our compromise. I’ve gotten you out of the way, but you’re still in my store. So, you can tell me exactly what it is you want, but I don’t necessarily have to be of any assistance, in that regard.”

“I think that’s a fair deal,” I said. I turned to D. “Right?”

“Sure,” she said, nonchalant.

Phil then added, “Oh, and my name’s Fillmore, with a ‘F.’ You don’t get to shorten it.”

“Alright, Fillmore, thanks for doing this much, at least.”

“Don’t thank me so soon,” Fillmore said. “I still haven’t heard you out, yet.”

“Fair,” I said again. “I’m Wendy, by the way, and this… little lady, is D.”

Fillmore blinked. The expression on his face, it was as if he didn’t believe those were our real names.

“Pretty name,” he then commented, though I wasn’t sure which name he was referring to.

D wasn’t about to shy away from taking the credit, however.

“Thank you,” she said, smiling.

“I’ll leave this to you, then, D,” I said. I decided that I’d concede the rest of the discussion to her. Not to be passive, I’d steer the talk along, rein D in if and when she needed it, and try to keep things civil. But, I trusted that she knew what she was after, that she knew what we needed, to get the job done.

“Cool cool cool,” D said, in quick succession. “So first off, Mr. Phil, I wanted to ask, just to confirm, that you’ve been around here for a long time. Is that true?”

“Damn near forty years.”

“Dang near forty years, right,” D repeated. “So, obviously, you know a lot about what’s been going on?”

“My ear’s close to the streets, yeah.”

“Then, you have to know about the gangs in the area.”

Fillmore tapped his finger on the table. “Get right to it. You’re asking about the Thunders and the Royals.”

“Well, will you look at that, you are no fool.”

Fillmore’s expression changed with a twitch. It was easy to read.

Already, I felt like I had to step in. Could she not go until her next breath before she ticked someone off?

Her style, her way of doing her. That kind of quirk was… an acquired taste, I’d admit, and not everyone had the patience to want to be acquainted.

“D,” I said, testing, warning.

She leaned forward, placing her elbows on the table, putting her hands together. Linking her fingers, she rested her chin there.

Anywho,” D said, “Let’s get right to it, then. I want to know what’s up with the Thunders and the Royals. We just came back from a… encounter, with them, and we learned that there’s a pact between the two gangs now. And, much like yourself, I like to think that I know a lot about these streets, too, so hearing about that was a pretty big shock to me. So, what’s up with that?”

Fillmore breathed, drawing it out to a long sigh.

“That’s what you want?”

“That’s it.”

“Of all the things you could be learning, like math, or why the sky’s blue, or quantum physics, and that’s what you want to know?”

“Math’s easy, it’s blue thanks to Rayleigh scattering, and I can learn that whenever I’m at the library. I can’t learn about this in a book.”

Why, though?” he questioned. He sounded genuinely confused as to why we cared so much about this.

“Like I mentioned, I pride myself on my knowledge about what goes on in this city. In order to do whatever I want, I have to know what everyone else is doing, and why. Keeping a pulse on the world around you is key to survival. And, it’s just fun for me.”

He closed his eyes, keeping them shut.

“I don’t suppose you’ll be using this knowledge for anything good?”

“My point is, it’s still not ‘good’ out there, even now. They have their pact, but it’s clear that doesn’t equate to any real peace. You saw it, didn’t you? It wasn’t hard. Tempers are still there, just below the surface, and it doesn’t take much to bring them right back up again. What if something happens, and you weren’t there to stop it? What if it was over something bigger than a cereal box?”

“And you’re saying you can do something about them? That you have a solution?”

“Definitely. You leave them and that alone, maybe you’ll have a month or two of relative calm, maybe. But something will happen, it always does, and then they both get snuffed out, burning down everything with them. But, if my colleague and I can do something about it, maybe we can lessen that damage, if only a little.”

Fillmore opened his eyes.

“You’re still talking damage,” he said. “Destroying them.”

“Are you really ‘destroying’ anything whenever you rid your house of dusts and pests? I like to think of it more as a controlled fire, to go back to the burning metaphor from earlier. We can mitigate the flames, not make them stretch as far and as wide, and, as an added bonus, we cast out the blanket and sit on it so no other sparks come up.”

I spoke. “You kind of lost the metaphor at the end there, D.”

“I did, but you know what I’m getting at, right, Mr. Phil?”

“I do,” Fillmore said.

Fillmore scratched his chin, closing his eyes again. He was silent for a time. That was about the extent he’d hear us out, it seemed. Now, it was up to him, whether we were done here or not.

Again, the wait…

It was excruciating.

Slow, he opened his eyes again.

“I do know what you’re getting at. Whatever I tell you about those two gangs, you’re going to use as leverage to take them out, and you move into their territory. My neighborhood. Is that right?”

“Just about,” D said, admitting it right then and there.

A bold move, and not one I agreed with. I would have stepped in to say something as the mediator, but D had already ran her mouth. The damage was already done.

“Then,” Fillmore said, and I held my breath. “I’ll tell you what I know, but I don’t promise to have all the exact details.”

I lifted an eyebrow.

“You’re telling… us.”

That last word came out funny, I wasn’t sure if I should have intoned it as a question or as a flat statement. I didn’t want to force my curiosity and have him rethink his decision, but I did want to know where he was coming from.

Fillmore sighed, with a distinct rasp as he finished.

“Always the same, ain’t nothing changed. It would be arrogant to believe that it didn’t apply to me.”

He gave himself a moment to pause, bringing his hands close, dropping them into his lap.

“It’s not as if I can stop y’all from poking your noses around here. I’m nothing but a withered, old man, filled with regret. Even if I refused, you’ll probably still get what you’re looking for. Might as well get it from a primary source.”

I felt like I needed to offer some sort of response.

“You’re not… withered.”

Good job, Wendy.

Fillmore met my eyes, and I saw just how tired he was.

“And you two, at least you’re upfront about your villainy. We don’t even know each other, and you’re already being real with me. Those two, EZ and Krown? I haven’t seen those boys in years, they send their crew here if they want something. That ain’t real, that’s pathetic.

“Years?” I asked. “Were you close?”

Fillmore shook his head, all he had to offer as a response.

D fixed her posture, putting her hands flat on the surface of the table.

“Get right to it, already!”

I glared at D. We were so close, and if D were to fuck it up now…

I, I don’t know, I’ll have to ground her, or something.

D returned a look at me, sticking her tongue out.

“Please?” she added, looking back to Fillmore.

He answered, sounding even more resigned.

“I’ll take you back, way back. Just promise me one thing?”

“What is it?” I asked.

“Go easy on them.”

It had gotten colder as we returned outside.

We left through the side door, taking us back into the alley where we first met Fillmore. A fitting metaphor, that. To avoid being out in the open, taking the less direct route. Staying in the shadows.

Sneaky? Sure. Underhanded. Probably. Villainous?

I’d keep the jury out on that.

We kept moving, cutting through the other side of the alley, putting the store to our backs. Fillmore still had work to do, and so did we.

I walked, my arms already straining. D made me carry the bulk of the plastic bags. She bought a lot of fucking snacks.

I had enhanced strength, and I was ready to drop these at the van.

D, however, had a sort of spring to her step as she paced ahead of me, humming along the way. Not any melody I knew, but she was out of tune.

“Excited?” I asked.

“I just can’t hide it,” D said, off-pitch. “I’m so ready to stuff your fridge, and my face.”

That’s what you’re excited about?”

“Heck yeah, I hate that you don’t have anything whenever I come over, and I hate that you don’t buy stuff yourself.”

“That’s because I don’t need anything, so I would only be getting stuff for you.”

“Exactly!”

“You’re unbelievable,” I said. “And I don’t think you ever asked permission to use my fridge.”

“What do you mean? You said I could.”

“When?”

“Yesterday. You told me to bring my own food to keep in there.”

Did I?

“I have no recollection of anything before our meeting with Lawrence yesterday. These past two days have been such a blur to me.”

“I know right? These gangs can wait, I want to watch a movie, eat some delicious tiramisu gelato tonight.”

“And where do you expect to be doing such a thing?”

“Where else? Your place, of course.”

“Oh no, you don’t,” I said. “We still have a lot of prep work to do.”

“But we don’t have to rush,” D said. “We can take our time.”

“I’m not disagreeing with you, I’m just saying you should hold off until we’re done. Save it as a reward for yourself, you could stand to learn a thing or two about moderation.”

“That doesn’t sound very exciting.”

“Learn,” I said.

“I’ll try,” she said, but I knew better than to believe her.

Maybe I’ll have to hide some of her snacks, keep it out of reach.

It was a thought, but a passing one. There were more important matters to think over.

Like Fillmore, and what he had to say about the Thunders and the Royals. EZ and Krown. The story between those two brothers.

It almost made me reconsider.

I observed our surroundings as we continued our walk. The later hour was accompanied by a subtle shade of orange that blanketed the streets and buildings. A certain familiarity, that wasn’t there before.

We crossed the street, moving from Barton to King Boulevard. We walked past Tita Lorene’s laundromat, then the deserted Wellport construction site, turned into a makeshift skate park.

The street corners had a history to them, their names had a meaning and reason. The graffiti and tags told their own stories, a mark left behind by someone who was once there.

The small crosses in smaller patches of grass. The flowers growing in the cracks in the ground. The smeared outline of chalk, the young boy that passed us on the sidewalk, headphones on, minding his own business. Everyone, and everything, had a story to tell.

This town was full of stories.

And that included EZ and Krown. Fillmore.

Not that I was already connected to this place on a deeper level. It was more like the feeling I had when I first checked out what ended up becoming my new apartment. Looking around, getting the feel of it. What it would be like to move in and live there. Getting used to the idea of calling it home.

There’s going to be a lot to take care of once we take over.

I spoke. “This really is going to be a lot of work, isn’t it?”

“That’s what I’m saying. I could use a gelato break.”

“No, not that. Leading the Ghosts, this neighborhood, our plan. I knew it was going to be tall order, but being here, in the thick of it? It really puts into perspective how big this project really is. It makes me wonder how far we’ll go.”

“Don’t ever wonder what’s ahead, just dive right into it. It’s more exciting like that.”

“Is it?”

“Oh, absolutely, you’ll never know where you end up, or what you run into along the way.”

“I’ll never fail to be amazed by your spontaneous approach to things,” I said, trying to be sarcastic.

“I’m going take that as a compliment,” D said, bouncing as we moved.

Maybe it was a compliment, it certainly was a trait I could admire. For my part, I preferred to be meticulous, to plan ahead of time, and have complete control of the finer details. To have real power.

Sweeter than any blood I had ever tasted.

Soon, I thought. Soon.

Reconnaissance. It wasn’t as fun a job as it sounded.

I sat in the van, waiting. Waiting for something, anything to happen.

I yawned.

D had slept over after dropping off her snacks at my place, stuffing my fridge and pantry with food. She wasn’t allowed to touch them, yet, not until we were done with the job. I was adamant about that.

She threw a fit, but she eventually came around. I never set a hard rule against using the TV, so I let her flip through channels while I sat next to her, browsing the internet, trying to get more info on the Thunders and the Royals, and their neighborhood. D left to get some Chinese food, came back, and fell asleep on the couch after eating, TV still on. I hadn’t gotten up the entire time.

Now, it was a new day, and break time was over.

I yawned again.

If I had it my way, I wouldn’t be sitting here, right now. But D explained that she had to work alone, for this one, small part. She had the experience, she knew what to look for. Having another person tag along would only slow her down.

I agreed to step back for this one, small part. D had a good reason, and she actually told me, this time. All without me saying anything about it. I was willing to comply.

But, there had to be a better way to spend my time than sitting in the parking lot of an arcade.

Not fun at all.

I’ve been here for an hour. When’s-

From the across the lot, the doors opened.

D was already pretty small, but from a distance she was miniscule. It was almost cute.

She hurried as she returned to the van, head down, not bothering to check for any moving cars, or wandering eyes.

The driver’s side door opened, and she hopped in.

“How was it?” I asked, ready to get right down to business.

D gave a short nod. “Mr. Phil’s info was legit. They’re in there.”

“Both of them?”

D nodded again. “Not EZ or Known, but members of both gangs are in there. They’re bowling.”

“There’s a bowling alley in there?”

“Yeah, and it’s big. We should go sometime, with Lawrence.”

“Next time,” I said, bringing her back to the task at hand.

“Anyways, come on. I just came back so I can get you.”

She opened the door again, getting out.

I got out of the van, too.

“Where we headed?” I asked, joining D. We were walking back to the arcade. Electric Palace was the original name, apparently, but the giant sign across the front of the building was missing the first ‘A.’ So it was just Electric Place, now. A little less grand.

“Around the back. Side route.”

“What did you see in there? Anything interesting?”

“I saw lot of things in there, and one very interesting thing.”

“Like?”

“The Thunders and Royals split themselves down the middle of the bowling alley, a lot like what we saw at the basketball court. But I know how to keep a low profile, they didn’t notice me. According to Mr. Phil, before their attempt to make amends, the gangs took turns hanging out at this spot. If the Thunders were in, then the Royals wouldn’t go anywhere near here, and vice versa.”

“So this is a new development?”

“Oh yeah, and you can feel it in the air, too, now that we know to look for it. They’re just barely tolerating one another.”

“Without either of their bosses, it might be harder to behave themselves.”

“Let’s hope so. Here.”

D brought me around the back of the building. A door. No one else was in sight.

“Sneaking through the back?” I asked.

“Sneaking through the back,” D said.

“Do we have to worry about getting caught?”

“Don’t think so. Service wasn’t great while I was inside. I’d be surprised if anyone cared to come back here on a regular basis.”

D moved, heading for the door.

“Why?” I asked. “What’s back here?”

D didn’t have to answer, I saw it for myself.

Machinery. Long, winding rods of metal. Large, heavy gears. Whirring, spinning things.

Loud. Lots of moving parts, hitting together. Clanging, rattling.

There was a lot to make sense of, all at once, I wasn’t sure if I could.

“Where are we?” I asked, as D closed the door. I had to raise my voice to be heard.

“This is what the back of a bowling alley looks like,” D said, voice raised.

Standing space was small, but long. To our right were the machines, autonomous, running as if each block of wires and gears and rods had a life of their own. To our left was a space to sidle along the wall, probably for mechanics to go and inspect the different parts of the system.

It felt like we were in the belly of a mechanical beast.

D led the way, putting her back to the wall, moving down the long hall. I was right behind her.

She explained more as we continued.

“These are the machines that spit the bowling balls back out, and reset the pins. It’s all done from back here.”

From the sound alone, that was easy enough to gauge. I could hear it echo down the hall. Pins being struck, bowling balls falling into the pit just past the lanes. But we were so close. I felt like I was about to get hit, every time a bang went off.

D kept sildling down, and I had to keep up.

“I kept a close eye on the gangs, the Royals especially. One of them, Darren, has his own special bowling ball that he always uses. Never goes bowling without it.”

“So?” I asked.

“So, we’re going to take it. We just passed by the lane the Thunders are using, lane fifteen. We take Darren’s ball, and we drop it into the other gang’s lane. Hilarity ensues.”

“You are literally a little devil.”

“Been a while since I heard that. Usually I get called much worse things.”

“Like what?”

“Ask Lawrence,” D said, grinning.

We advanced farther down the wall, until I started to get used to the sounds pins and the mechanical clacking, until I was no longer worried about getting my hair caught in what looked like spinning metal death traps.

“Here,” D said, stepping away from the wall, into another space between two blocks of giant machines, where those metaphorical mechanics would stand to do their work. I copied her, being mindful of the limited space. I wanted to avoid bumping into her, and having one of us fall.

Each block of machines were labeled by a number on top. Following D’s gaze, she was looking at a block labeled two. Lane two.

And the Thunders were all the way back at lane thirteen. Fuck.

“What a lovely device,” D said, seemingly admiring the mechanism. “Hasn’t aged very well though.”

“What am I even looking at?” I asked.

D started pointing. “There’s the pinwheel, and that’s the checkerboard. Pins go into that thing to fall into there, and gets collected and sent back up to the turret.”

“Got it,” I said. I didn’t get any of it.

“But we’re not here for pins, we’re here for balls.”

“Phrasing,” I said.

D moved in between block two and block three, squeezing through. Cautious, I peeked my head in to get a better look.

“See this conveyor belt?” D gestured to a metal rod, angled so that it pointed up to the ceiling. Parallel to that was a rubber conveyor belt, moving and spinning at its own, fast pace.

“I see it.”

“Those belts pick up the bowling balls and send them over the top, there, like that.”

D put a pause in her explanation, since I could see it for myself.

A ball had come through, getting picked up by the assembly of metal and rubber. The ball was accelerated up to the top, close to the ceiling, before going over a ramp and out of sight.

“Gravity sends it back to the players on the other end,” D said, explaining the rest.

D squeezed herself free, and I backed up to give her the room.

“So why am I being shown this?”

“Well, your job is to take out the ball before it goes over the ramp.”

“You want me to do it?”

“The ball goes too fast for me to grab, it’ll crush my fingers. But you have the strength to pluck it out. And if you mess up, I mean, you’ll heal.”

“We can’t turn off these machines?”

“And risk someone knowing we’re back here? Or having the Royals be suspicious before their ball goes missing? No way.”

I really wanted to protest her idea more, but she had a point. And I was itching for something to do, today.

But, at the risk of crushing my fingers?

Even with enhanced healing, I’d rather not have that happen to me.

But, I relented.

“Ugh, fine.”

D cheered me on as I slipped between the machines. If it was a tight fit for her, then I was about to be a claustrophobe. It was cramped.

I squeezed into position, finding myself in front of the whirring conveyor belt. Loud, dangerous. Not where I thought I would be, today.

A ball went through. Red, zipping up and over the metal ramp.

Fast.

“Hey wait!” I shouted. “What does the ball even look like?”

“Blue with gold engravings! You can’t miss it!”

I inhaled, but I held my breath. Blue with gold engravings. That damn ball had better come soon. I needed to be out of here, now.

Black. Red. Orange. Red. Purple. Green. Green. Black. Yellow.

I was losing my breath, and my patience.

Where the fuck is-

Right at the very bottom of the belt. Blue, a hint of gold.

Fast, but my hands had to be faster.

I breathed in as I threw my hands out.

A weight hit my fingers, my palms.

I pulled out.

Pluck.

“Ah!” I shouted.

“Yes!” D shouted. “Yes!”

I looked up. I was holding the ball above my head, arms outstretched. A sixteen pound ball. Blue with gold engravings.

I didn’t waste another second. I shuffled out of the space, D taking the ball out of my hands as I got myself free.

“I’ll take it from here,” she said. “Good job, Wendy.”

“Don’t,” I started. I was panting, tired. “No, you know what? I did do a good job.”

“That’s the spirit.”

We returned to the wall, hugging it as we went back down the way we came. D stopped at the thirteenth block to drop the ball off.

She returned, and we continued with our extraction. Looking at the numbers, there were twenty lanes in total. We passed the twentieth block, and made it to the door with no problems.

As the door closed behind us, over the machines and pins, I could have sworn I heard an argument break out.

The moon was out, and so was I.

We had taken the next day off, just to pace ourselves, but it was right back to work come nighttime. I didn’t mind the odd hours, it was why I uprooted my life in the first place. I had the freedom to schedule myself as needed. I could focus on the job, and nothing else. No room for superfluous things.

Unlike most people, I didn’t have a structure, and I could use that to my advantage.

No costume, but I was covered up. Balaclava, goggles, turtle neck with a jacket on top, gloves, jeans and boots with ankle-length socks. All black. Not a single inch of skin was showing.

I felt a thrill, starting from my head, racing to my toes as I wiggled them over the roof’s edge, adjusting my footing. It never got old.

I watched the people below.

Three people. One Thunder, two Royals. Taking part in some sort of exchange.

What they were doing, exactly, hardly mattered. It was what happened after that counted.

I waited as they went about their business. They stood around, talking for a while. I couldn’t catch what they were saying. I was too high up.

I had been following the Thunder since he left his base, a small tattoo parlor south of the basketball court. Fillmore spared no detail, however small.

Tailing him was easy. Stay back, stay quiet, and stay high. From all my time crossing rooftops, I had learned a thing or two. I learned how to gauge my strength, my speed. I learned how to make the jumps, to maximize distance without tripping up and losing momentum later. And, I also learned that people hardly ever looked up.

People, as a species, were limited in their spatial awareness. They knew to check what was directly ahead of them, and they knew to check their backs. Even their sides, they knew to keep in mind. But directly above? That was a blind spot I could occupy and exploit.

I didn’t have invisibility as a power, but this was a functionally close second.

From above, I watched.

There, movement. The two Royals walked away, leaving the Thunder by himself. He stayed behind, moving over to a wall on the other side. His hands were brought together, moving to his lips. Between his fingers, a small orange glow was produced, illuminating his face for a short time.

The glow lessened, and he brought a hand down to his pocket. On occasion, he drew his other hand away from his face, puffing out a winding trail of smoke.

He had no idea I was here, that I had my eyes on him.

This was but a sample of the control I wanted, the power. That upper hand.

My toes were positioned past the end of the roof. It only took the slightest lean forward to tip me off the edge.

I descended.

It didn’t even matter, that I landed right in front of him, that he had a brief glimpse of me. I was already moving, rushing him.

No knife this time. It wasn’t necessary.

I struck at his neck, palm open. I slapped him hard into the ground.

He barely saw me coming.

His body went down first, then the blunt he had in mouth.

I stepped on it as I leaned over the Thunder, flipping him over on his back. My other foot pressed into his chest. I searched his person. He was still reeling from the first strike, stunned. He couldn’t move or yell as I worked.

I emptied out his pockets. Gun, knife. A plastic baggie, white powder inside. A small tin container. I put it to my ear, shaking it. Filled with something. Weed, most likely.

I threw everything to the side. Not what I was after.

Found it.

Stacks of money, bound by rubber bands. Two, three stacks. He had more money than he did drugs.

Supplier, then.

“We’re taking our money back,” I said, trying to make my voice low, deeper than it really was. I was putting on an act, and I had to sell it, as much as possible.

The Thunder groaned, strained by the hurt and weight I was putting on him.

I had to make myself louder, in order to make the message clear.

“Oh yeah, and this is for trying to steal our shit back at the bowling alley.”

“We… never…”

He tried to get some words out of his own.

I struck him again, this time in the ribs. I heard a crack. He wheezed.

“Don’t fuck with us.”

He winced, trying to speak again.

“We-”

I struck him again.

“Don’t fuck with us.”

I stuffed the money in my pockets, keeping my foot on him, squeezing out any air he tried to draw in. I was quick, I couldn’t take too long, here.

I patted my sides, making sure I had gotten everything. I straightened myself, taking my foot off him. He didn’t have a stack of cash left.

“Don’t fuck with the Royals,” I said, and then I left him there. Down, hurting.

No dramatic exits was needed. I simply walked out of the alleyway, pulling the balaclava off my head, removing my goggles in one motion. I stuffed them into a pocket inside my coat, fixing my hair as I continued at a hurried pace.

It was late, and it was dark. No one saw me leave.

I walked for some time. If I had to divide the neighborhood by gang territory, I was deep in with the Thunders. And I needed to get over to the Royals, their territory.

South to north. It was easy to remember how it was divided. Using the basketball court as a point of reference, the side of the court that pointed south was claimed by the Thunders, and the northern half was claimed by the Royals. Simple as that.

And for us, we wanted to own the whole damn court. And we’d pick and choose who got to play.

That, on a grander scale.

Small steps, first.

I was deep in my thoughts as I crossed the street. The court was a block down, so I knew I was entering another territory, now.

It was almost overwhelming, how much work went into the gangs and mobs and cartels that ran this city. All the politics, the heated tempers. The alliances, the systems to keep it all in place. In Stephenville, crime was systemic. It was a structure that needed to be maintained in order for this city to run properly.

Which showed how deep the roots had gotten.

Being a hero meant fighting the system, fighting the established normal. It would be harder to fight it from the outside, pretty much impossible. It was misguided.

Better, to fight from the shadows, a less direct route.

But doing so made it much easier to slip.

Just have to be careful.

I watched my step as I crossed again, heading towards a restaurant. It was after hours, the restaurant was closed.

I met D in front of the building.

“How’d it go?” D asked as I approached. Her breath was visible as she spoke.

“Went well.” I tapped a pocket. “Some more change for the piggy bank.”

“Awesome.”

“How about you? I’m guessing no one caught you.”

“Nope. All clean. Wanna take a look?”

“Sure.”

D led me around the building, to the side. Not an alley, this time, there was just a field of dirt and mud. Bits of grass and weeds sprouted up, here and there. But it was otherwise desolate.

Nothing of interest. What D had to show me was on the wall.

Caught by the moonlight, a graffiti drawing of a robot. It was about as tall as D, and was detailed with colorful wires and light bulbs. Blocky, maybe a bit amateurish, but it was recognizable.

“You can’t draw with a pencil, but you can do graffiti pretty well?” I questioned.

“Quiet. It helps when I’m going off a reference.”

She held up her phone, flipping through pictures.

Robots, similar in design and style.

“Took these while snooping around the Thunder side of the neighborhood. From what I gathered, newbies have to come up with their own unique tag to represent the gang, while expressing their own individuality. It’s a neat exercise, if I do say so myself.”

“So, robots, going with the thunder or electricity theme?”

“Just about. Lil’ Nathan’s going to have some explaining to do when the Royals finds this, and these.”

D lifted her other hand, shaking a can of paint.

“Is that Nathan’s?”

“He really should keep an eye on his belongings. Like, they were right there.”

She tossed the can, and it landed at the base of the wall. There were other cans, other colors.

“And check this out.”

D pointed to the robot’s chest. In blocky letters was the word ‘LUCY.’ Bold, in all caps.

“Nice touch,” I said. “Fillmore’s going to hate that we’re using that.”

“Shh…” D responded, pressing her finger to her lips. She kept doing it, even as we left the scene, until her hiss escalated into a childish cackle.

“Here, and here. Oh, here’s good too. And maybe here, for good measure.”

“Don’t get too carried away now,” I said.

Sitting on the floor, working, getting in the way of others. We didn’t even have a table to set our stuff on.

We were in the Redhouse, early afternoon. Two days after our last visit to the neighborhood.

D had laid out a map of the area. A large, printed, detailed map. It had the street names and names of establishments. They were official labels, though, D and I had to fill in the blanks.

“We could hit this place, too,” D said, drawing yet another circle on the map. She was using crayon. Red.

“We don’t need to go overboard,” I said, having to remind her again.

“I’m just putting down some options. We don’t have to do all of these.”

She paused, smiling.

“It’d be fun, though,” she said.

I looked over the map as she kept drawing. We crossed out some labels, replacing them with the more locally recognized names. Fill Market was one, replacing it with ‘Philly’s.’ We circled key locations that were important to each gang. Bases, popular hangout spots, like the bowling alley. We also drew circles over places that weren’t officially labeled, but were important all the same. The basketball court was one, the skate park was another. Places like that were marked all over the map. And D kept adding on to it.

“Any particular reason why you circled three different sandwich shops?” I asked. “I haven’t heard of these places. Are they relevant?”

“Just saw them now. Those are, um, for me.”

“D,” I said.

“I’m using a different color, see? So I can distinguish them!”

She circled them again for emphasis, using a purple crayon. But her lines were thick, and she had kept drawing and writing all over the map. It was getting harder and harder to read.

“You just had lunch, how are you already thinking about food?”

“I just don’t want to forget, okay? I want to check them out after we’re all done. You’re not letting me eat my snacks, so I’m going crazy thinking about food.”

“Hold out for a little longer, we’re almost there.”

D whined, but I knew that she was overacting. She tossed her crayon to the side, and it knocked into the other crayons she had taken out. They scattered.

They didn’t go far, but they spread out across the lobby of the Redhouse. I was well aware of the other Ghosts standing around, with nothing else to do.

It was D’s idea to sketch out a plan here, and I understood her reasoning. The Ghosts, as a whole, were still wary of us, so we needed to show that we were working towards the benefit of the gang, working with them in mind.

But, sitting like this, on the floor with crayons, it looked like we were just playing around instead.

I got up to go after the crayons, leaving D to color in peace. I could sort through labels and circles later.

It was… awkward, having to go around and collect them while others watched. As if I was too old to be chasing after crayons. We were getting work done, but it probably didn’t seem like that to them.

Working with D, trying to prove myself to the Ghosts, all thanks to an old reputation from a past life. It sucked, to say the least. But, if it was necessary to facilitate progress, then so be it. Best to assuage their worries now, while we were still getting started.

I just hoped we could convince them that we were the real deal, and soon.

I followed the path of one of the last crayons. It had stopped right at someone’s foot. I dreaded having to look up.

But I did anyways.

“Oh,” I said. “Hey.”

It was Lawrence. Standing over me, wearing a shirt with a collar, with a blazer on top. Black dress pants completed the look. It was form fitting, and upon closer inspection, made me realize that he did, in fact, work out.

“Hey,” he said, as I picked up the crayon, rushing to stand up. “What are you doing?”

I found that I needed a moment before I could answer. I had moved too fast in getting back up. My glasses were crooked.

I fixed them, and managed a single word. “Trying.”

“How’s your plan going?”

That was easy to answer. I looked back, and saw D. She was flat on her stomach, legs kicking, still coloring and drawing. She looked completely absorbed in what she was doing.

“It’s going great,” I said, looking back at Lawrence. “Everything’s moving along smoothly. There was a bit of a hiccup right at the beginning, but there hasn’t been any issues since. We’re in the final stages right now. If all goes well, then it should inspire some confidence, moving forward.”

“No pressure, then. Which gang?”

“Two, actually. The Thunders and the Royals.”

“Those assholes? Just wait long enough, and they’ll take each other out.”

“That’s what we originally thought, too, but apparently they’ve been trying to work things out. They’re pretty much best friends, now.”

Lawrence’s brow creased. “That’s worrying.”

“I’m kidding. Yes, they have a pact, but it’s still complicated between them. It’s more just a united front against an enemy they can see.”

I spread my arms and added,  “And they won’t see us coming.”

He nodded. “How devious. D is rubbing off on you already.”

Was she? I had hoped it would have been the other way around, instead.

“I’ll have to take that as a compliment,” I said.

He nodded again, looking past me.

“How’s she doing? I only ask because I want to be in the loop about things, and that includes being the loop about her.”

I turned again to get a glance at D. Still engrossed with her coloring.

I wasn’t sure if Lawrence was genuinely concerned about D’s well-being, or if his paranoia was getting the better of him.

In a way, though, I understood where he was coming from.

“She’s doing fine,” I answered. “She’s been really engaged throughout this whole thing, and she really wants to do a good job. I’ve been letting her go loose with her pranks, and… well, it’s been something, alright. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like she wants you all to like her.”

Lawrence made a face.

“I don’t know why, but the prospect of that feels very harrowing to me.”

“She’s trying, Lawrence, and liking should be a two-way street. She wants to be on our side, and I want her to be here, too. We shouldn’t push her away. The last thing we need is a D that’s pissed, with that anger being directed at us.”

Lawrence waved a hand, cringing. “Yeah, I get it. But please never talk about angrily pissing D’s again.”

“What?” I questioned, but then I got what he meant. I felt flustered. “Ew, no, what? No.”

“But alright, fine, I see what you’re getting at, and I’ll give it a shot, too. Is there anything you need?”

“Oh, I think we have it covered,” I said.

“You sure? I’m not doubting you guys, but maybe we can provide some extra manpower? With the full force of the Ghosts behind you, we can knock the Thunders and Royals flat on their ass.”

I shook my head. “That won’t be necessary. I want to keep this a small operation. As much as possible, anyways.”

“How about cash? Anything you need ordered? Like a gun or knife, or some costume parts? No one owes me any favors, but maybe I can call around and-”

“Lawrence, I appreciate the gesture, but we want to be able to bring something to the table, just the two of us. We can’t exactly prove ourselves if we get help from the Ghosts. And about money and costume, we picked up some loose change while working this job. It’s covered.”

“Fine, I can back off about the costume, but I still think you could do with some extra hands on deck. I’ll bring it up to Reggie and Tone. Sarah, too. See if they want to give you the assist.”

I was about to object, but I didn’t want to fight Lawrence on this. A two-way street, and he was trying to meet me halfway.

And, it was those three, and they were cool. I was willing to compromise if it meant working with them again.

“Sure,” I said. “Thanks Lawrence.”

“You don’t have to thank me, it feels weird.”

“Get used to it,” I said, giving him a smile.

Okay, it does feel weird.

Lawrence took a step, checking his wrist. He was wearing a watch. It looked expensive.

“I’ve have to go, got some rounds to do.”

“Go,” I said. “We’ll get us a win. Bet on it.”

“I will. Good luck.”

Then, he left, crossing the lobby, giving out the occasional order to the Ghosts he passed. They moved in response, finally having something to do.

I saw his exchange with D as he approached her. She stopped what she was doing and craned her neck to look at him. She smiled, giving him an enthusiastic wave. He responded with a curt nod, but he waved back, before taking his leave through the double doors.

I went back to D and the map, having picked up the remaining crayons. I could barely see the actual map underneath, now.

“You got carried away,” I said.

“I did.”

I paused.

“Yeah, a little help isn’t going to hurt.”

The ride was smooth, the van speeding along. There was some light, easygoing music that helped ease some of my anxieties.

It was night again. About a week had passed since we met Fillmore.

Five of us in the van. D was driving, and I was in the back, sitting with Reggie, Tone, and Sarah.

Everyone, me excluded, was decked out in all black. D wore her usual style, while the others were more appropriately covered. I was in costume.

“Nervous, Voss?” Sarah asked. She was sitting closest to me.

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t,” I answered. “But it’s nothing to worry about.”

“It’s okay. Even Olympic athletes get nervous.”

“This is a little more life-or-death than any sport I know.”

Tone interjected. “So what was it you did again? You did what with a bowling ball?”

“That’s not even the best one,” D said, taking a peek at us through the rear-view mirror. “V, you should tell them about the hot dog one!”

“Hot dog one?”

“Oh god.” I started shaking my head. “It was such a mess. I’ve never seen that much ketchup cover a wall before. It was like someone died in there.”

“Whoa, what? You have to tell me.”

“Wait,” D said. “We’re coming up to the spot. Get ready, V.”

“Sorry, Tone,” I said, apologetic. “Seems as if it’s going to have to wait.”

He jabbed a finger at me.

“You owe me a story after this. It better be good.”

“It’s a damn good story, you’ll like it.”

Satisfied, he leaned back into his seat. Reggie muttered something to him, and he chuckled as a response.

“Looks like you’re up,” Sarah said.

“Looks like,” I said.

I checked to make sure I had everything. Costume was on, bag underneath, earpiece in. I had my knife, extra ammunition. Not that I had any real intention to use it, or for things to do so far that I needed another clip, but Sarah wouldn’t let me out of the van unless I had it on me.

Another compromise.

I threw the hood over my head, fixing it so it stayed in place, properly covering my face. I adjusted my mask, feeling leather as my gloves brushed against my cheeks. I played with the heavy fabric so it flowed better around my sides.

Just about ready.

“Here,” Sarah said, giving me the final piece. A handgun. Forty caliber. Standard-issue pistol given to police.

“Thank you,” I said, taking it. She didn’t pull her hands away after giving it to me. Instead, took my hands into hers, giving a soft shake.

“Hit them hard, but stay safe.”

“I can’t do one without forgoing the other.”

“Try,” she told me.

I pulled away.

“I’ll try.”

“Almost there!” D announced.

I gave myself a moment to compose myself. A week ago, I faced up against EZ and Krown for the first time, and they won. It wasn’t exactly fair and square, but they beat me. Now? It was my turn to return the favor.

For the past week, we had been striking from the shadows, using the dark to our advantage. From small pranks, to sabotaging big deals, setting them up against each other, even with a pact. All to sow seeds of doubt, which would grow into distrust at the worst yet most critical of times. Would one come to the aid of the other, when their shaky bond had been drilled and needled until it was reduced to a single, thin thread?

We’re about to find out.

For the past seven days, we struck at what was important to the Thunders and the Royals. Their belongings, their territories, their pride, even their wallets. Now, the next strike was going to be the last.

We were going to strike their hearts.

“Now!” D yelled.

Sarah got the door, I hopped out.

The wind and cold whipped in my ears. The van didn’t slow, but my momentum was maintained.

It was in the distance. The basketball court. A group was gathered within.

I sprinted past tagged buildings, small crosses. Streets I knew the nicknames of, places I was familiar with.

A town full of stories. And I would be bringing about the end for so many of them.

Time to tear off the bandage. Make them bleed.

I ran straight, raised my arm, and I fired my gun.

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