Papa was mad again today.
Mama ushered Bernadette into the closet, then shut it behind her.
They both knew the drill, it was a lot like an earthquake. Find cover, stay low, keep your head down, and pray that it would end sooner rather than later.
They’d been through very many earthquakes.
Sometimes, they weren’t so bad. Just tremors, and they wouldn’t last long. Other times, not so much.
And sometimes, there were aftershocks.
Papa yelled, but Bernadette couldn’t understand it. A loud crash followed, the breaking of glass. Bernadette threw herself into the corner of the closet, pulling her legs to her chest. Boxes carefully stacked were knocked around her as she moved with haste.
From there, she heard Mama rush back out into the hall, trying to talk to Papa. It wouldn’t work, it never did.
But it was part of the drill.
Mama’s shouting crashed against Papa’s, and sounded like when the dogs barked at night. Her high shrieking and Papa’s low roar, Bernadette put her hands to her ears. It barely helped.
More yelling, more sounds of fighting. More glass breaking, more shelves falling over. Just… more.
Bernadette forced her eyes shut, the tears welling up again. She tried to retreat somewhere in her head, think of something happy. A fond memory. Waking up early to help out Papa on the ranch, gathering eggs from the chickens, cleaning some of the equipment. Mama preparing dinner after they were done, eating together at the table.
Mama’s terrible jokes, the fact that Papa laughed anyway.
It didn’t work.
I hate this.
She hated that it happened, she hated that it kept happening. She hated that it was allowed to happen. Just because Papa was friends with Pedro, he had the money and power to get away with whatever he wanted. The ability. She knew that much. Papa was but a simple rancher, and she felt pride in being the daughter of a rancher, but that wouldn’t be enough to live in the house they had. There needed to be more, and that more had to come from somewhere.
Take, take, take.
The nice house, the cars, the wine… the girls, Papa was allowed to take whatever he wanted. Papa could afford to be as good and as bad as he wanted. She hated it. It wasn’t fair. Papa wasn’t playing by any rules, so there were never any consequences.
Papa was cheating, and Bernadette hated it.
Another crash, and Mama’s yelp followed. It went quiet for a second.
Then Papa yelled again.
This time, she could understand it.
He was calling for her.
“Bernadette!” he roared. “Come clean up your mother!”
Her pulse was speeding until it might go flat, but she had to stay still. She sat in the dark, curled up even tighter, heart in her throat. Shaking.
“Bernadette!” he called again, much angrier, now. It startled her, she jumped.
Her arm bumped into a stack of boxes beside her, knocking some over.
She started to sweat.
She didn’t hear him call out again, just the footfall and booming that followed.
Stick to the drill, the drill.
She looked around, in the dark, looking for anything she could use.
Not sticking to the drill.
He was coming closer, faster.
She uncurled herself, and shifted around in the gloom.
Her hands touched something metal.
Her fingers wrapped around it, feeling the metal, the weight of it. She gripped it, her fingers finding their place on the weapon.
She tried to gulp, but found her throat dry.
The closest door flew open.
Bernadette let out a shriek, despite herself, and threw her hands out in front of her.
She had a brief second to face her father.
Shadows fell over his face, hiding his eyes. Her dread and horror warped her image of him even further. A wild look to his eyes, bloodshot, like he was hunting for something. His hair wasn’t long, but it was unruly, unkempt, standing up in places. His teeth bared. Sharp.
She kept shaking.
Papa had gotten down on his knees, arm reached into the closet to grab her. He stopped though, when his eyes fell on what was in her hands.
He smirked, and it freaked her out, just from how wrong it was.
His hands moved fast, seizing Bernadette by her shirt, dragging her out of the closet.
She shrieked again as she was tossed out, her fingers squeezing together.
Nothing fired, despite that.
Bernadette would have stopped to consider why, if it weren’t for her being hurled out of her parents’ room and into the hall. Her attention was elsewhere.
Light flooded into her eyes when she was taken out of her room, a temporary blindness. She was on the floor, finding it hard to get herself to stand.
Fingers grabbed at her hair, twisting, then pulled, and Bernadette was dragged out of the hall. She couldn’t find her footing, Papa kept his hand by his hip, and she couldn’t raise her head any higher without her hair being pulled at even more. Dragged.
Instant regret. She berated herself for not keeping to the drill. For not keeping her head down.
She screamed again as her head was whipped in another direction, her body then coming with. It wasn’t a clean fall. Strands of hair had wrapped themselves around Papa’s fingers, going taut, yanking her head back, before being ripped of her scalp and letting her continue down. It added to the pain.
She landed on her shoulder.
She had to blink a few times to make sense of what she was seeing. The kitchen. She was on the floor, the cold tiles. She pushed herself up.
Her head pounded from being yanked around. Her heart pounded faster when she saw the blood.
Not her own.
It wasn’t a lot, but the fact that there was any at all, the wrongness of it. The smeared line, the red handprint, it resembled an upside-down exclamation point.
She glanced in different directions, peeking into another hall on the other side, the living room at another end, the glass door to the patio that led out into the dark. No one. She didn’t see Mama.
Bernadette looked at her hands. It wasn’t there.
A smack to the back of her head announced Papa’s reentry into the kitchen. She went down, hard.
“You wanna kill me, is that it? After everything I’ve done for you? After… after everything I gave you?”
She could smell his breath from here. Alcohol.
Bernadette had to reorient herself, but the yelling and the hurt and the questions threw her mind and focus in every direction.
A clack sounded off by her ear, and she flinched. But no pain came after.
She moved her head again, and saw the gun. The gun she had taken from the closet, hidden under boxes and boxes of stuff.
“There, found the bullets for you. Do you want to kill me, huh?”
Papa was yelling enough to hurt his voice, a harsh rasp scraping out the end of his words. Like he was screaming just to scream.
Bernadette turned to see him. Papa. He was standing over her, towering, blocking light. She tried backing away, and found that she could. He’d let her.
No fair. Flexing power over those much weaker. Playing with them. That’s cheating.
As though her hand moved on its own, she grabbed for the gun at her side. Much heavier. She fumbled with it, then set it between her legs.
She felt like she was about to wet herself.
She looked back at Papa, and he had his arms raised, leaving himself open. Making himself open.
“Do it, I dare you, let’s see how you are without me.”
Tears rolled down her cheeks. She wanted someone, anyone else. Mama, one of the maids, even one of Papa’s girls. She couldn’t do this on her own, by herself. She needed someone.
The gun was heavier in her hands, like it was crushing her fingers.
“Do it!” Papa bellowed.
No use. The gun wouldn’t budge. Even if she wanted to. And, being pushed this far, this fast, a large part of her did want to.
And that frightened Bernadette.
She heard Papa draw in yet another breath, to yell again. Bernadette braced herself.
A crash. Then more.
People stormed into the room.
They took over. One of them went right to Bernadette’s father, and struck him hard on the chest. He went down easy.
More people, more than the kitchen should reasonably fit. Some had guns trained on Papa.
The noise and shouting ratcheted up to another level.
Bernadette needed some more time to get a sense of what was happening.
Many of them. All men. Most were in regular clothes. Baggy jeans, white T-shirts, a sombrero or hat. Others wore more protective gear. Vests, armor, masks.
The sudden intrusion and activity only gave her more questions, more things to wrap her head around, but she was far too disoriented.
The group of men weren’t in any formation, but they moved, the group splitting down the middle.
Bernadette saw the patio door slide open.
A man stepped into the kitchen.
Just from the posture, how everyone moved out of the way for him, Bernadette knew this was a man who had power.
His hair looked recently cut, combed, and had a certain style to it. No beard or mustache. Young, for sure, maybe a decade younger than Papa. He wore a faded pink shirt, buttoned up, and khaki pants. A complete contrast to the other men here, even Papa. As if he wanted to make himself known, to stand out.
Bernadette just sat there, trying to take everything in.
The man walked down the length of the path his men – she assumed it was his men – set for him, and stopped halfway. He turned, looking down at her Papa. Papa was sitting, cross-legged, looking back up at the man. Other men all around him had guns trained in his direction.
“Who the fuck are you?” Papa asked.
“Your new boss.”
The man had answered, and his Spanish was smooth, condescending. To the point that Bernadette almost forgot where she was, what just happened, and felt insulted, herself. Someone talking to Papa like that?
Bernadette had to stop herself from going down that line of thinking. Focus on now.
“What happened to my old boss, then?”
A single word, and it sent chills through her whole body. Bernadette was young, but she wasn’t ignorant. She’d only seen Pedro on a few occasions, when he came to visit, and Papa would take him out to the ranch to talk. Bernadette wasn’t allowed to go outside during those times.
She had seen the dots, and made the connections. She knew who Pedro really was, and what that meant for their growing town.
Hearing that single word, for Bernadette, changed everything.
“You’re lying,” Papa said.
“We have his head, along with the heads of those who stayed by his side. Enrique?”
That mention of a name, and Papa put his head down.
The way the man broke the news, his nonchalant manner of speaking, it made Bernadette wish he was lying.
The man made a gesture, and his men made Papa return to his feet. The man put his hand on Papa’s cheek, stroking his face.
“This city is mine, now, and so is La Rueda. It’s mine for me to steer. I was going around to Pedro’s constituents, and letting them know of the change in management… only to find this.”
The man spared a quick glance at Bernadette. She froze.
He faced Papa again. “I don’t know about Pedro, but I refuse to let swine freely bathe in their own shit and mud. Women and children? I will not tolerate those in power abusing those who do not have the power to fight back.”
He then turned his head, looking back outside. “Take him out.”
Three words, vague. The man’s workers took Papa, grabbing him, much like how Papa had grabbed Bernadette. Papa yelled, trying to fight back, but he was too drunk, out of sorts, and outnumbered to retake any freedom.
Bernadette watched as Papa was escorted out of the kitchen. She opened her mouth, but no sound came out. Maybe if she said something, he could stay, and he might not be taken out.
Bernadette closed her mouth.
The man turned yet again, this time facing her. He continued down the length of the kitchen, stopping right at her feet.
“Put the gun down, mija.”
She just realized that she still had it in her hands. She stared at it. The tingling numbness came from the gun that weighed her hands down. Even with this in her hands, she couldn’t do anything. She couldn’t protect Mama, or herself.
She opened her hands, and the gun fell to the side.
The man crouched, meeting Bernadette at eye level.
His eyes. Something about his eyes…
“What’s your name?” he asked, soft. Nearing a whisper.
A sense of shame came upon her after saying that name. She didn’t know where it came from, or why.
The man nodded, as if he was sympathizing with her at some level.
“Hello, Bernadette. I’m Fransico, but you can call me Paco. May I call you ‘Benny?’”
She didn’t have any particular objections to that. She did a gesture, a nod and a shrug at the same time.
“Gracias. Tell me, Benny, do you love your papa?”
The question struck her as funny. Like, bad joke funny. Of course she liked Papa, he played with her, gave her toys and phones, games, he’d let her help sometimes with the chickens.
But then she thought about the bad times. The drills. The here and now.
Not his fault, Papa just gets that way sometimes. Maybe… Mama and I just have to watch what we say and do.
Like? Maybe. Love…
She decided to answer how she felt right there, right now.
“No,” she breathed. It hurt to admit.
“Gracias. No need to worry, Benny. I won’t hurt you or your mama, like he did. I’m here, now, and I will protect you. Your mama is fine, okay? I protected her already. She’s right outside, would you like to go see her?”
The girl nodded. She did want to see Mama.
“Gracias. Let’s get you up.” Paco snapped his fingers. “Roland?”
Someone approached, a boy, in the white shirt and jeans. He didn’t look much older than her, maybe mid-teens, while she wouldn’t be there for some years.
He held out his hand for her.
She wasn’t sure if she could trust Paco completely, whether or not he’d actually protect her and Mama in the future. But she was tired, confused, scared. She wanted something to believe in.
And she didn’t believe in herself. Not Bernadette.
Benny took the helping hand.
The sun beat down.
“Move,” Benny ordered, and they did.
Roland led the men out of the van, and onto the dirt road. They walked in a line, without a word of resistance. To do so now would be useless. Foolish, even. It might cost them their lives.
Three men, all blindfolded, walking with caution. Roland had them stop before another group, another black van.
Benny followed, but walked past them to meet with the head of that group. A man, bald, tall. The men behind him had guns. Semi-automatics. None were pointed, but the message was clear.
She stood firm.
“You wanted them, here they are,” Benny said.
“Why the blindfolds?” the man, Javier, asked.
“Where’s El Tunante?” he then asked. Grovely.
“He’s attending to another matter. I assure you that your deal was handled with the best of hands. My own.”
His expression changed from flat to another. Uncertainty.
“I harbor doubts about that,” Javier said.
“Is it because I’m a woman?” Benny questioned.
“It is because you are a child. I feel personally insulted that El Tunante would skirt this responsibility and hand it off to someone so… small.”
Benny let herself grin. “You wanted these men out of prison, and El Tunante was willing to go a more direct way to go about it. I preferred for something cleaner.”
“We made a deal of our own with the warden. We capture and bring in three other, probably more terrible scumbags, they’ll be willing to make an exchange. Along with a little cash to make it run more smoothly, everybody gets what they want. The public gets the real bad guys off the streets, the prisons get a little pocket cash along with some new goods, and you get your sons back.”
Javier’s face switched back to unreadable, again.
He signaled, and the men behind him moved, taking hold of the blindfolded men, and escorting them to Javier’s van.
“And you’ll still hold up your end of the bargain?” Benny asked.
“I’m a man of my word, child, of course I will. I’ve already made the proper arrangements. El Tunante is allowed to take over the property and territory I have in the States. It’s his now.”
“Hm, I only wish him luck.”
Javier spun on his heels, and returned to his van. Benny and Roland did the same.
They went into the back seats, sitting next to each other.
The driver prepared to turn them around.
“Good job, Benny,” Paco said, sitting in the passenger seat. “I’m very proud of you.”
The windows in the van were tinted black.
Benny released all of the tension in her body, going limp in her seat. “Oh my god, I thought I was going to die.”
“You weren’t going to die,” Roland said, “I would have had your back.”
“Duh, don’t be silly.”
Benny smiled a bit. ‘Silly’ was a silly word.
Paco interjected. “As did I, Benny. Your way might have asked for more trouble on our end, but it worked out. No one got hurt, and you did it fair. Again, very proud.”
“Stop, you’re going to make me blush and stuff.”
All three of them laughed.
“So it’s settled, then?” Paco asked, after the levity died down a tad. “We have it?”
“He confirmed it. His territory is ours, now. We just have to go through the necessary channels, make sure the Americans are aware of the new tenants coming in.”
“Yes. It’s not much, but it’s a start, and we need all we can get if I want this empire to spread. If you can make it there, then you’re the real deal.”
Paco paused. The van rocked from the uneven surface of the road.
“That’s why I want you, Benny, to oversee the new American branch.”
Tension quickly returned to her body.
“Yes, you. The rules are different in America, they operate under a different code. I’m too set in my ways to try and bend to them, and I have too much to keep tabs on here in Mexico. You, on the other hand, you’re willing to take other approaches, less bloody ones, even ways that would greatly benefit other partners, whereas I might look for something decidedly one-sided. That sort of thinking will benefit us in the States, give us a good reputation, and help us expand fast and clean.”
Benny still couldn’t fathom it. Her, a leader of her own gang, representing El Tunante? Real authority and power, exercised by her vision? It was a dream she never thought would actually be realized.
“Why me?” Benny question. “Why not Roland, he’s your nephew!”
“Roland will be accompanying you, along with some others. They’ll be your eyes and ears. But I’m not asking Roland, I’m asking you.”
She looked at him, and Roland. He looked back, happy for her.
Stop being so good-looking.
It was something she’d only noticed in recent years, but Roland’s boyish features were really giving way to a more chiseled, masculine look. He could’ve modeled if he wasn’t working for a cartel.
Which made it even more weird, because they’d been through enough for her to think of him as an older brother.
Benny asked, “Are you okay with this, Roland?”
“Yeah, I am. I’d prefer it, honestly. You’ve always been more of the planner, and I don’t mind getting my hands dirty every now and then. That part of the job doesn’t quite suit you.”
A small flash of a painful memory. Benny pushed it aside.
Paco interjected. “See, even Roland approves, as do I. He believes in you almost as much as I do. So, what do you say?”
Benny sat back, looking out the window, the trees as they passed.
She considered it.
“You really sprung this on me, no idea that was in the cards.”
Her gaze then shifted to meet Paco’s, who turned back in his seat to face her.
Paco and Roland beamed.
“I’ll go to Stephenville.”
Paco and Roland, even the driver, cheered for Benny.
Who the hell are you?
Benny stared at the creature, and the creature stared back. Its body was blue, but the edges of its body were like smoke. Not an outline, but rather a suggestion. The edges seemed to eat away at the light around it, until it was wrapped in a sort of darkness, distorting the image even further.
And its face. Very human, but so wrong. Featureless, white as the moon, its expression blank. It unsettled her, it was uncanny. Its eyes piercing her with a look. Like it wanted something, a desire. A sort of lust.
The creature stood there, twisted and warped. And Benny was powerless to do anything.
No fair, no fair.
The creature spoke, though its lips didn’t move. The voice was strangely high.
“Shoot me instead.”
Benny tilted her head.
“Shoot me instead. Leave them alone.”
Benny had to rattle her mind to find the context. Staring at the creature, trying to figure it out, made her lose connections to other things.
“How do you know I won’t just shoot you first, then kill him and his girl?”
She spoke as if on autopilot.
“Then fine, you can do that. As long as you shoot me first, then we have a deal.”
Something off about that, that concession. Benny had the power, here, not that thing. Why?
“Sounds like a trap,” Benny said.
“Not a trap. Like you said, I don’t have a legitimate threat against you, not with me standing here, with only a knife. And it wouldn’t be fair if I went unpunished. I was a part of Eduardo’s scheme, I deserve a bullet.”
Benny knew the creature was lying. It was taunting her, it had something up its sleeve. Playing her for a fool.
You’re not even supposed to be here.
“What are you?” Benny questioned, trying to mask her irritation.
The creature didn’t offer anything.
An ugly pause. And it stirred an even uglier memory within Benny. Papa.
Benny was sweating bullets. Darkness was creeping in from everywhere, and in her most base senses, she knew this was it. Over. Either she would die right here, or she would suffer something far worse. All because of this thing, this creature. It had to come in and ruin everything.
And it just stared, with those eyes.
Die die die die.
“Only because I want you to shut up,” Benny finally said, “You have your wish. I’ll kill you first.”
She lifted her hand, and found a gun there. The same gun she should have shot Papa with.
Benny didn’t get to pull the trigger.
The creature moved in a flash, disappearing from her sight. Before she could react, she folded in, getting slammed in the stomach.
A blunt force, but it also tore through her. Like being hit by a bullet the size of a volleyball, with a knife attached at the end.
Something went through her, sliding through muscle and meat. It electrified.
The creature’s claw? It vanished, and attacked. It was hiding something.
No fair no fair no fair.
Benny was down, and she felt a cold come in with the darkness. It didn’t take long for her eyes to feel heavy.
The last image in her mind before she opened her eyes again was being back in the closet.
She startled herself awake.
White ceiling. A touch too bright. A constant, regular beep. An eerie quiet.
She inspected herself. In a bed, scratchy pillows and blankets, tubes in her arms, tubes in her nose.
Benny shifted to sit herself up, but a harsh sting rushed through her body, and she had to stop. She exhaled, slow, sitting back down.
“Don’t move too much.”
Her eyes roved towards the direction of the voice. A sight for sore eyes.
He didn’t have his suit jacket, but he was wearing the same clothes from the last time she saw him. Presentable, but not good.
He stood by the window, close to the bed and the beeping machines. Some natural light was allowed in, but it was overpowered by the artificial lights from above.
“Doctor says you can’t move too much, not so soon. Might tear your whole stomach open.”
Smiling, he then added, “So much for kids.”
A joke, obviously, but he didn’t sell it very well.
“How long have I been in here?” Benny asked.
“About a day, you were out of it for the whole time. Sleeping.”
It didn’t feel like sleep. There was lucidity to her rest, her brain running while her body didn’t. Memories looped, trying to parse and figure things out, until the images rotted over time, bastardized memories becoming nightmares.
Maybe she was out for the whole day, but she got no benefit from it.
“Is it bad?” Benny asked. Had to rip off the bandaid sooner than later, metaphorically speaking.
“Huh? No, what I said before? I was kidding.” Roland appeared a bit red at that.
“I know, don’t be silly. Is it bad?”
“Um, no. Nothing vital was damaged. Just don’t do anything strenuous for a month or two, and you should be good.”
“Good. My next question, then. Which hospital is this?”
That particular question shut Roland up. His eyes shifted elsewhere.
“You’re in our hospital, Benny.”
Another voice. Benny’s neck creaked when she turned.
A woman, standing at the edge of the hospital bed, hands behind her back. Gringo. She was dressed professionally, all black, Benny would have pinned her for a lawyer. Her blonde hair was up, tied into a bun. Prim and proper.
“And you are?” Benny asked.
The woman fixed her glasses.
“Mrs. Carter, I do believe I’m a few years your senior.”
Benny squinted. She didn’t look it, but there was no point in thinking otherwise.
She had to go along with it.
“Okay, Mrs. Carter, I can only assume you’re here for something, and not because you want to wish me a speedy recovery. Which you haven’t yet, by the way.”
Benny felt an impulse to dig into her a little. To not keep herself in too low of spirits.
“You assume correctly, and I do wish you well, Benny.”
Mrs. Carter put her arms in front of her, and Benny saw the tablet she was holding. She tapped at it, swiping, before addressing Benny again.
“I’m here to give you some, um, news,” Mrs. Carter said.
“Good news, or bad news?”
A grin formed across Mrs. Carter’s lips.
Benny didn’t like the sound of that.
A short pause. A prompt, in and of itself, for Mrs. Carter to continue.
“I’ll give things to you as it is, and you can determine which is which. You see, I represent Mister, and-”
If Benny’s stomach wasn’t cut, it would have dropped.
She kept her lips shut.
“- he regrets to inform you that The Chariot’s presence in the city is over.”
That is certainly not good news.
“What do you mean by that?” Benny asked. She eyed Roland, and he didn’t seem thrown off in any meaningful way. Just still.
Was he already filled in?
Mrs. Carter answered, “Meaning you’ve accrued one too many strikes too fast, and Mister isn’t very pleased with you. There’s a delicate balance that has to be maintained, between all the different groups we have stationed in Stephenville. We can’t exactly tolerate you smuggling so many weapons into the city.”
Benny went still. The weapons Paco had delivered to her, to spur her into making biggers moves, to become a larger presence in Stephenville. And Benny was well aware of the underlying feeling behind the gesture.
Paco had trusted her in this, over his own nephew. She was supposed to make headway in the South, and build upon the empire Paco had created. It was supposed to be growth, not only for the cartel, but for her as well.
Years passed, and not much was gained in terms of expansion.
She thought about the people she attracted, the first batch of members that she had join just so she could get a footing in the city. Kids, teenagers. Stoners who were more interested in a quick fix than getting any work done, wannabes who were looking to indulge in ultimately empty power trips. Not that she expected much out of them, but it would have been nice to see some cream rise from that crop.
But, no. All the good guys had already found their place in the other gangs, and Paco was growing impatient. Then he sent his message, in the way of some firepower.
If you couldn’t get yourself through the door, break it down.
But Mrs. Carter, who represented Mister, found out about the weapons, and their plan.
“What happened to them?” Benny asked. “My guns?”
“They’ve been seized by the police. By our police, so we’ll be keeping an eye on them, and to keep the media’s nose out of this.”
“You’re- He’s taking them, why?”
“It’s for your own good, keeping this quiet means less people know about what you were trying to pull, meaning less people are pointing guns in your direction. And, it puts us in a better position to give you our terms.”
Benny and Roland repeated that word at the same time.
“Yes,” Mrs. Carter said, tapping more on her tablet. “As far as you’re concerned, you’re blackballed, now. You and yours no longer have any hold in the territory we let you take. The word’s already out. It’s officially open season there, now, up for grabs to anyone who can hold it. It’s not the most prime location, so Mister’s willing to accept whatever the fallout ends up being.”
All that work, the deals, the close calls, down the drain. All because some bad luck.
And that creature.
“We’ve already had a discussion with El Tunante, and gave him our side of the story, and a warning for breaking the rules. He’s not happy, obviously, and I think he’ll be less happy if he sees you again soon.”
She didn’t know what a ‘warning’ entailed…
If it weren’t for the cut in her stomach, she would have leaped out of her bed and strangled that bitch right there.
“You’re lying,” Benny said.
“Sure, call him up, or you can cross the border and see him yourself. Just keep in mind that everything that The Chariot claimed will be compromised. Your territory, your money, your product, your weapons. It must have been a large investment to come here and do business, and to lose all of that… It’s a shame that I can’t see your face when El Tunante beheads you for your failures.”
Benny lost herself. She screeched, getting up from her bed, reaching out for Mrs. Carter’s throat, cut in her stomach be damned. Roland had to pin her down, pressing her shoulders.
The beeping hastened.
“How dare you say that! You don’t know shit, you fly!”
Mrs. Carter remained there, unfazed. It infuriated.
Benny spat out more curses, in Spanish, before the pain got the better of her, and she had to back down. With a push, Roland put her back in bed.
She was breathing hard, scowling from both her cut and the insinuation that Paco would have her killed for this.
Paco wouldn’t be like that, would he?
Mrs. Carter put her hands back behind her.
“I tried detailing it as much as I could, but you’re effectively out of the picture, Benny. As you are, in that bed, you don’t have anyone to turn to. Which brings me to why I’m here…”
“Finally,” Benny muttered, while still full of spite.
“Yes, the terms. Under these circumstances, this is an offense that is punishable by death, but Mister is willing to make an exception.
Benny and Roland exchanged looks.
“Exception?” Benny repeated.
“In exchange for you… not dying, you work for him.”
“Excuse me, what?”
“Well, not like how I work for him, but as some extra for some work, when the time is right.”
“Why me? Is Mister more short-staffed than I thought?”
“Of course not, but you, and your connections and assets, can be of use to him.”
“What connections and assets? You made it quite clear that everything I built up here is gone.”
Everything, in about a day. All because of that.
Mrs. Carter shook her head. “I think I made it quite clear that it will happen, it hasn’t happened yet. It’s only been a day. Your crew that you brought with you across the border, will they still follow you, after all of this?”
Her thoughts went to her crew. The select few that she could trust, handpicked by Paco. Samuel, Sofia, Christian… Roland. The best El Carruaje had to offer.
More people she let down.
She looked at Roland. He nodded, slowly.
She looked at Mrs. Carter. “They will follow.”
“Swell. I suggest gathering them, along with any resources you can pick back up, before it gets lost in the fire. All that will be needed for when you’re needed. And when that time comes, we might even allow you access to your gifts from El Tunante, again. An added bonus.”
Benny was bewildered by offer. Changing hands to Mister? Getting the weapons back?
“Why? What’s Mister planning?”
“That’s not for me to tell you,” Mrs. Carter said. “Actually, I don’t even know myself. But, knowing him as long as I do, I can guess he’s doing the same thing you should be doing, gathering up resources.”
“I’m just a resource to him, then? Maybe even expendable?”
“And if I refuse?”
Mrs. Carter gestured, facing Roland. “We should still have plenty of unoccupied rooms, here. Shall I see to it that you get your own… accommodations?”
Roland glared, lips pressed to a line.
“You’re not leaving me with much of a choice,” Benny said, scowling again. “Putting power over those in a much weaker position.”
“Isn’t that how power works? I’m not hearing a ‘no.’”
Benny stared daggers at the woman. She’d very much like to stab daggers into her.
“I’ll accept those terms.”
Mrs. Carter smiled, seemingly genuine. “Fantastic. Then, my work here is done.”
She started to turn, heading out.
“Wait,” Benny said, “When will Mister be calling?”
“We’ll call you when we call you. Just be prepared. Like I said, I do wish you a speedy recovery.”
“Wait,” Benny said again, before she could turn again. “Just a few more. The officer who handcuffed me, who was it?”
Mrs. Carter made a face. “I don’t see how that pertains to this.”
“I remember how I got here. I wasn’t taken here in an ambulance, I was handcuffed and stuffed in the back of their shitty car. Who was it?”
Mrs. Carter made another face, still not getting why it mattered. “I can look into it.”
“And lastly. That creature…”
“That fucking thing that stabbed me and ruined me and sent me here! Who is that, one of yours? A saboteur?”
Mrs. Carter fixed her glasses.
“The world doesn’t know what that ‘thing’ is. If it chooses to be a problem, we will respond accordingly. Now goodbye.”
She threw that last bit in before Benny could find another reason to keep her. Better for it, Benny had wanted her gone, already.
The door shut behind Mrs. Carter, and it was just Roland and Benny.
A constant beeping.
“Would Paco…” Benny started.
Roland finished, “Would Paco kill you over this? You know him as well as I do.”
“That woman could lying about how angry mi tío really is, to make you feel more cornered to taking her deal.”
Benny fell into her bed, sinking her head into the pillow. Scratchy.
“Games, great. More cheating.”
“I can call him, see for ourselves.”
“You can if you want but… I can’t face him, not like this.”
The cut wasn’t lethal, but the shame that came with losing everything…
“Now what?” Roland asked. He sat back in a chair by the bed.
Benny moved her head so she could see him. She took out her hand, hanging it over the side of the bed. Roland took it.
“We’re resources, now, Roland, and as much as I hate to follow that bitch’s advice, we need to get the others. And whatever scraps are left of El Carruaje.”
“Shouldn’t be hard. I’ll get right on it.”
Benny had to fight the urge to cry. “I’m sorry I dragged you into this.”
Roland put his other hand on hers.
“For you, anything. It’s the same for the others, too.”
A tear finally rolled down.
“Anything? If there’s anything I want, it’s revenge.”
Benny stepped through the door, amid the cries and confusion.
Everyone was in place.
The apartment was dingier than she expected, but she’d seen worse conditions. Lived through worse.
It was more a hub than it was a place to live. Tables lined up against walls, computers on every one. Posters damn near covering every square inch. Bands she’d never heard of, movies she hadn’t had the chance to watch yet. A big television in one corner, a game system with controllers and wires sticking out of it. Action figures of cartoon characters lined up on any available surface.
A teenager’s haven. And Benny and crew just intruded upon it. Computer monitors were knocked over, a poster was torn where someone had their back on it, and the television was broken. The figures were strewn about on the floor, disorderly, like their human counterparts.
No problem. We go in, see if they have anything. Probably not.
If they do…
Benny walked over to Sofia, who had a boy down on his back, gun trained on him. She stood over him.
Benny had a pencil skirt on, but if the boy was more concerned over that, then he wasn’t in enough danger.
Benny looked down at him.
“The Bluemoon Club, am I correct?” she asked.
The boy was shaking, hair falling into his eyes. Trembling.
“Y- yeah, we are, we are.”
She had seen the flyers, the website itself when she would scour the internet for more information about that pest. The Bluemoon Fan Club, they called themselves, and it was almost an affront to her senses.
They were among the ‘other,’ the fanatics who were fascinated with the existence of a superhero, rather than terrified of someone who defied all previous logic. They posted ridiculous content on every social media feed, usually of humorless, low quality pictures the Bluemoon’s mask on cats, or pictures of themselves in places where the Bluemoon was last sighted. They’d engage with others online, defending the hero’s actions no matter what it was. A kind of idol worship Benny thought was only designated to pop stars and other celebrities.
Different strokes, different folks.
She still didn’t like it.
One way they would try for more attention was to ‘sell’ what sliver of information they had for more ‘follows.’ A thousand follows and they’d share what brand jacket the Bluemoon wore. A thousand more, and they’d post an exclusive picture that a member managed to snag. The fanfare was enraging enough, but the fact that there were people out there that ate it up?
It ate at her.
“I have some questions I’d like to ask you. Answer them, and you can live to post shit for another day.”
The boy nodded fast.
I can’t believe I’m about to ask this.
“At one hundred thousand follows, your club claimed you’d share something personal about the Bluemoon. Something no one else knows. You’re only at forty thousand, but I’m here to collect that information, now.”
“I don’t know that, and we’ve deleted that tweet since.”
The boy’s voice was quivering.
“You deleted it, why?” Benny asked. “Because it was true, and you didn’t want to compromise the person behind the mask, if you reached that number?”
The boy went mute.
“Is it true?”
She gestured to Sofia. “Make it quick.”
Sofia readied her gun. Click.
Multiple teenagers cried out.
Benny caught one sentence, in that.
She faced the source.
“What was that?”
A girl, hands up, her back against a wall. Samuel had her. Her hair was odd. Purple, and it moved whenever she breathed.
“It’s true, please don’t hurt him!”
The boy on the floor called out, “Steph, don’t!”
“She was going to kill you, Robby!”
Benny crossed the room, going to Samuel and ‘Steph.’
“Tell me what it is, and I promise that no one here, Robby or whoever, gets hurt.”
The girl’s face changed across many different expressions. Wincing, biting her lip, her tongue, closing her eyes.
Finally, she gave up, spilling it. “The… Bluemoon, she’s a girl. Asian. Vietnamese, Chinese, I’m not sure. She-”
The girl stopped herself, biting her tongue again. Perhaps for a reason.
“Is there more?” Benny intoned.
The girl tried to keep still. More trembling.
“Sofia,” Benny said, not taking her eyes of Steph.
“Stephenville High School!”
It was as if air was sucked out of the whole room.
Something. Finally, something.
Benny was elated, but she had to hide it for now.
“And how do you know that?” Benny asked.
The girl answered in between takes of crying. “I’ve… seen her up close. She was pretending, but I knew it was her. We’d seen her before, before she had a mask. She… was wearing a jacket that day, it had the school’s mascot on it. Please, I have friends that go to that school, I-”
Benny slapped her to shut her up. She shut down.
Benny looked right at Samuel.
They’d failed at city hall. A mishap during an altercation, and the bomb that lawyer wore went off. The plan wasn’t seen all the way through. Benny failed.
Styx was the one to tell her, after the fact. She was done, officially. Taken off the Solace project. Her blackballed status remained. Others would be going after her, now. After her and her crew. She didn’t have Mister’s deal to protect them, not anymore.
And she wasn’t the only one to suffer for their loss. Roland was in the hospital, this time, his arm shattered in four different places.
No choice but to run back to Mexico, to Paco. Tail between her legs.
But, before they left, Benny wanted to leave a parting gift to the hero that made her lose all that made her Benny.
“You know,” Benny told Samuel, “I never got to swing by and see Maria. How about we pay her a visit, too?”