Interlude – Lawrence

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Lawrence blinked blood, sweat, and a single tear from his eye.

Everything hurt. Everything.

His head, his face, his neck, his chest, his stomach, his side, his legs, his feet. Everything.

He let himself collapse onto the tile. It wasn’t a very soft landing. He would have howled in pain if he could draw in the proper air into his lungs.

Not so much, right now.

Of everything that was hurting, his neck had the worst of it. He could still feel Granon’s grip, his heavy and huge and rough fingers wrapping around him, choking him. The very real possibility that he was going to die.

He had retreated, the pain fading, turning it into a white noise that buzzed throughout his entire head and body. A certain, very specific kind of numbness.

The kind of numbness that would have made him complicit in his own death if he submitted to it, did nothing.

Fuck that shit.

He’d do what he had to. And in that, the buzzing, he found the last remaining slivers of strength, and used it.

Fight or flight, and Lawrence had chosen the former.

But now, he didn’t have the strength to pick either option, if he had to do it again. He was spent.

The buzzing continued. His head pounding, his vision fuzzy. If he were to somehow slip away, now, after giving everything he had to survive

He would have laughed. Somehow. He’d find a way.

Now, he just had to make it to the next minute. And the next one. And the one after that.

His part was done.

It was all up to her-

A shot rang out. Lawrence flinched, and all the pain in his body ratcheted up again. Flaring, searing. Screaming.

It would have been so easy to just fall back and sleep. To give in, and just let the natural flow of things take him and drag him away into nothingness. Into the gloom.

Hell fucking no.

Rolling off the momentum of the flinch, the pain, Lawrence used to that to keep moving, dragging himself over the Granon. Granon’s body.

The man was huge, like a wall of muscle, vaguely shaped as a human body, the outline wide. The strength of a bull, and just as stubborn. A pain in the ass, really. Of all the problems Lawrence had in the twenty-something years of being on this planet, Xander L. Granon was absolutely the biggest one. Figuratively and literally.

And Lawrence had just taken care of that problem.

Granon was still, unmoving. His head was tilted to one side, his arms and legs spread out around him. Eyes half-open, the tip of his tongue sticking out. If he wasn’t dead, Lawrence would have died from shock, himself. It would be like if Goliath had gotten up after David struck him with a rock and a sling. All that effort would have been made meaningless.

He didn’t move, though, to Lawrence’s relief. After all the boasting and gloating, after all the condescending, Granon was still human. And humans were so very fragile.

Shots continued to fire, and Lawrence continued to move over to Granon’s body. He needed cover, and, even on his back, Granon was big enough that Lawrence could use him as a shield.

All the chaos and bloodshed of a war zone, condensed into a single, small hallway. Confusion, disarray, violence. Lawrence’s part was over, but he still wasn’t safe. The battle continued.

Lawrence got closer to the body, his arms and sleeves getting soaked in the blood and other junk. He could sense the stench of it hit his nose, making his stomach jump in revulsion. It made him want to throw up again.

He couldn’t believe he had to stoop so low. That he had to play dirty in order to win. But, he did what he had to, and Lawrence wasn’t ashamed that he had to pull that card. It was…

The fact that the situation even called for a play so dirty, so low.

He would have never predicted his life ever getting to this point.

As if to punctuate his thoughts, another shot was fired.

Lawrence got into position, taking cover behind Granon. His body ached with every heavy beat of his heart.

The shots continued, but the gap between each one began to widen. More sporadic, random. What filled the spaces in between were screams.

No, not screams. Shouts.

Pleading, begging.

On both sides of Lawrence and Granon, people ran by, passing them. Granon’s. They didn’t seem to care that they were leaving their boss behind, and the man that might have very well killed him, in the most unfortunate and humiliating manner.

More of them ran past Lawrence, screaming.

Something else had taken over. Their focus wasn’t on regaining the upper hand, anymore, it was something more primal. Like what he had experienced, just now.

Fight or flight. And they chose to flee.

Then Lawrence saw what they were trying to flee from.

It came by in a flash. Not to his left, or his right, but above. Jumping over Lawrence and Granon’s body.

It landed, head down, on all fours. Shoulder blades stuck out of its back, as if it would break through the skin itself. The visual reminded him of a tiger, or some other creature.

It pounced before Lawrence got a longer, better look at the thing. Diving, then crashing into the group of Granon’s men, several of them falling down with her.

Her. The realization dawned on him.

The crash left only a few standing, those on the outside of the group managing an escape by stepping over their comrades and staying close to the walls. They broke into a run as soon as they had the clearance to, then turning the corner to run down another hall. They were gone, leaving their boss and their friends behind.

The less fortunate were at the mercy of her. And she didn’t seem to be in the mood.

From the pile of fallen, bodies started to fly. Thrown with abandon, only stopping when they slammed into the wall, or the corner where the wall met the ceiling. Bodies landed funny as they hit the floor, assuming awkward positions, not moving afterwards. Broken bones, if they were lucky. Anything worse, and they might not ever get up again.

Others tried. The ones who hadn’t gotten thrown crawled and grabbed for purchase, anything that could get them back up to their feet. They were fighting each other as much as they were fighting her.

It was a mess, in every sense of the word. From the blood and junk, to the weeping, to the gnashing of teeth. It was hell.

A body was thrown. It a direct crash into the ceiling, knocking out a light. A shadow was cast on the panic and disorder.

Back on all fours. She was above them. One hand on someone’s head, keeping them down. Her feet were at different angles, pressing into two different bodies in the pile. Her other hand…

Her other hand kept going up and down, back and forth from her chin to something in the pile. It was hard to tell. Her back was to Lawrence.

The trail that would follow as she raised her hand up made Lawrence want to hurl again.

This is who she really is.

Lawrence had seen it when he arrived. He still couldn’t believe it.

All the damage, the destruction.

He’d never seen so much blood before.

It divided the hallways, from her side to his. The victims were on her side, not moving, Granon included. Dead or alive, he wasn’t sure at the time.

And there she was.

She had been out of it, in a daze, staring at him as if she had no idea what the hell she did. Maybe she didn’t.

That still didn’t excuse how horrific it all looked.

The streaks of red had length to them, stretching and splashing out to every portion of the hall. Walls, floor, ceiling. There was a general path to the color, too, a sort of loose line that extended out and down the hallway, until it trailed off at the end. A spiral.

There was still more to it.

The cuts and scrapes that clawed into the different surfaces of the hall, scratches that had carved lines, breaking the tile and the brick and some of the light fixtures. There wasn’t anything in her hands when he found her. Lawrence couldn’t even begin to guess where the marks came from.

Had she even noticed? The daze she was in, the lack of response and her inability to speak properly when he questioned her made him think she was in shock over something. Something had happened, and she might be as lost as he was.

Do I even want to know?

A graphic scene, with graphic details. They wouldn’t ever leave Lawrence’s mind.

Neither would this.

The damage had continued, the destruction still being wrought.

Some got a second chance of luck, one finding themselves able to break free and run around the corner, while others ran back the way they came, passing Lawrence one more time. ‘Run’ and ‘ran’ were inaccurate words, however, as none of them could manage a full sprint. Every one of them were comprised or hurt in some way.

One that chose to book it for the corner turned, looking back at her, still over his comrades. He lifted his arm. He had a gun.

He fired the second another person ran past him, bumping into him in the process.

She was thrown back, sent spinning off the people she had pinned below.

That was the reason why the shots started being less frequent. It was dangerous and idiotic to fire any guns in such a narrow space, with a lot of people, in close range. She had gotten in close, when what they needed was distance.

One of them got that distance, and was idiotic enough to give it another try.

Lucky you, Lawrence thought.

The screams turned into shouts, more organized in their message, though it was still simple. Run.

Those who could get up, did, and those who could not were either never moving again, or they stayed there, playing dead, praying she would not return to investigate.

She returned.

Everyone who could scatter, scattered.

She was standing, now, though she leaned to the side, massaging a shoulder. She gave her hand a hard shake, like her arm had gone asleep, and then stretched both arms. She was fine.

A bullet had merely given her pause.

She turned, facing Lawrence.

His own blood ran cold.

She was looking right at him.

From the nose down, her entire face was red. Not in being flustered, but of blood. He saw that she’d gotten kicked in the teeth, when Granon inexplicably stood back up, but her teeth were red, too. That was recent, that just happened right now.

Lawrence didn’t know what to expect, and what he got still horrified him. He would have never expected that.

Clothes torn, hair wild. Her glasses were crooked, bent at an angle. Her eyes, not a human’s eyes. Animalistic, primal.

But, then why is she crying?

Her expression was the opposite of blank. Even with his vision not being what it should be, he could still see how her face was screwed up, scrunched, forehead and space between the eyebrows creasing. Clear lines ran down her cheeks, washing some of the red liquid. The way she was shaking, hiccuping.

She was crying.

Like she’s coming down from her high.

Lawrence had seen that before, those symptoms, but he wasn’t sure if the same principle applied, here. This was too alien, too foreign for probably anyone to understand.

She lumbered forward, a single step, and Lawrence started to feel a panic grip him.

Fight or flight. He had to choose again.

I don’t have have the energy to.

She continued to stumble towards him, shaking her head, hitting her head with the palm of her hand.

Delirious, insane.

This isn’t real.

Both of her hands were brought up to her face, now, covering them. Still trembling. In her distraction, all of Granon’s men who were capable had made their escape. It was just Lawrence, now.

He tried to move, but found himself too exhausted, too heavy. He could barely move his legs, or lift his arms. His throat was still on fire, no sound was coming out.

Couldn’t move, couldn’t scream for help. Lawrence was helpless.

Snapping her head back, she yelled. The noise was rough, raw, frayed at the end. An inhuman sound.

Twisting, writhing, it was like something was right under her skin, trying to dig its way out. And she was suffering for it.

She swung an arm, hitting the wall. She left a dent, chunks of brick flying out.

Her hands went back to her face, her raw howl filling Lawrence’s ears.

Someone, please, help me. Help her.

Then, she turned, back in Lawrence’s direction. He was still frozen.

She moved to him again, but she didn’t falter. She headed straight to Lawrence. Faster.

No.

No no no fuck no no fuck fuck no no shit fuck

She dropped to her hands, getting into a position. Pushing with her feet, she jumped over to Lawrence.

She threw Lawrence against the wall, a sharp edge jabbing into his back.

He opened his mouth make a sound, but that only gave her more of an opening.

Her lips pressed against his, and he felt her tongue. He didn’t have much a choice expect to push back with his own.

They stayed in the moment for a while, until Lawrence was able to convince himself that he enjoyed it.

She was pretty, she smelled nice, and she was making all the right moves. Nibbling at his lip, making small noises, running her fingers through his hair, pulling at it ever so slightly. It was good. Good.

It was a good distraction.

“El!”

Torn away, too fast, sudden. Her tooth clipped the underside of his lip.

Ah!”

Lawrence jolted, letting out a harsh grasp. Then again, as his back was jabbed again.

“Fuck!”

Charlie was the culprit, the one who had spoiled the moment. Very firm, she moved the girl away from him, and pushed her back into the crowd of people. The girl didn’t seem all that bothered by the interruption, though, as she simply moved on, going elsewhere, soon disappearing into the mass of dancing and partying.

Lawrence shot a quick glare at Charlie, who only rolled her eyes.

“I was in the middle of something,” Lawrence told her.

Charlie shot back with a look of her own.

Long but wild hair, sharp eyebrows, and a dash of freckles across her face, Charlie had a unique look that made her expression more defined. She knew how to make Lawrence feel like shit, as if he actually did something wrong.

But, Lawrence had gotten that look enough times that the effect had diminished.

He rubbed the corner of his mouth, licking his lips.

“Man, you’re killing my vibe,” he said, shrugging it off.

“We’re not here to party, El, we have a job to do. I thought you were going to take this seriously.”

“I am taking this seriously. I’m fucking nervous as shit, Charlie, I need a distraction.”

“What are you so nervous for?”

Lawrence scratched his arm, then pushed himself off the wall. He felt what was poking him earlier. The side of a drawer.

That’s what that was.

“This is our first drop off,” Lawrence said, “And our first real meeting with the big guys. So of course I need something to take my mind off that. And you ruined it by kicking her out. I kind of liked her, you know.”

Charlie didn’t look impressed in the slightest.

“What’s her name?”

Lawrence grinned, sly. It only prompted a harder eye-roll from Charlie.

“You are an ass,” she said.

“Whatever, I’m back in the now, no thanks to you. Let’s just count up the funds, did we reach the quota?”

“I’m one-thousand percent sure we did, but I want to get the others first, so we can pile everything up into a final count. I’ll go grab them?”

Lawrence nodded. “Por favor.”

Charlie nodded back, and left Lawrence, and the kitchen, to go grab the others.

Lawrence put himself back against the kitchen counter, being careful, so the drawer wouldn’t jab him again. He crossed his arms and waited.

Everything was going according to plan. It should. The plan was rather simple.

They were at a house party, in the suburbs. It wasn’t their house, but they brought the party.

Drugs. Not the hardcore stuff, but moderation was always a good policy for anything. Weed, molly, xannies, anything these kids needed to make a good time better. They were to sell the whole stash, and make a profit when they return to their bosses. Maybe recruit a few who might be interested, in the process. Some more muscle.

A lot of work, being a part of a gang. But it was easy work, and it was even fun work.

If I’m going to go to these parties and make out with girls, I might as well get paid while doing it.

An easy gig. He wouldn’t have it any other way.

For now.

The lights were dim, the music boomed, and more people filled into the space to dance closer together. They were in the kitchen, of all places. Couldn’t they get hyped up somewhere else?

But it was nothing to Lawrence. He liked how crazy it could get, at one of these parties. Anything could happen, and it never got boring, if done right. Lawrence knew how to do it right, or at least pick the right parties to go to.

From where he was in the kitchen, Lawrence could see into the living room. A television was playing an old Kung Fu flick. It was a classic, one of Lawrence’s favorites.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Good taste.

Stoners were on the couch across the screen, watching, enraptured with the fights. Lawrence was right there with them.

The moment he saw what was on the screen, he knew this would a good party, for both fun and for funds. Turned out he was right.

Lawrence watched the movie, passing the time while keeping close to the stash. A duffle bag on the counter behind him. One of the straps was wrapped around his arm.

“Yo!”

Lawrence turned, then realized he had to move his line of sight down.

A girl. A kid.

Much younger than anyone else here, but she wasn’t out of place with her styling. A short bob, eyeliner and lipstick. A loose cream cardigan sweater and denim shorts, with black tights covering her legs. She had a choker around her neck.

It was odd, seeing someone seemingly on the younger side here, dressed like that. It was more odd that she had to be standing so close.

Close. Uncomfortably close, even with all the people hanging out and dancing. There was enough room that she could stand a foot away, if she wanted to. She apparently didn’t want to.

Pressing up, close, looking up, smiling. A full set of teeth.

“Mind if I light it up?”

The odd girl asked him an odd question.

Lawrence tilted his head, unsure if she meant what he thought she meant.

“Like, you looking to score?”

The odd girl gave a shrug, non-committal.

“Sure.”

Lawrence squinted at her. Something wasn’t right, here.

“Do you live here?” he asked.

“No. Why?”

“I mean, I’m just trying to think of any reason why you might be here. Are you… a cop?”

She laughed. Sincere, but loud, for her size. She touched his arm.

“I’m not cop, silly! I can’t go to parties to have fun? Isn’t that what parties are for?”

“I suppose.”

“What’s your name?”

Another odd question.

“Um, my friends call me El.”

I’m not about to give anyone here my real name.

The odd girl dropped her jaw, an exaggerated gesture. She hit him in the arm.

“El? That’s kind of like my name!”

I don’t know what that means.

“Are you looking to score or nah?” Lawrence questioned. “I’m about close my shift, if you know what I mean, and I can’t accept any more payment after I’m done. It fudges up the numbers when people do the audit, later.”

“Wow, sounds like a lot of work.”

“It’s not my job, but I don’t want to make it harder for the next guy. It makes it harder for me, later, and then I can’t reap the other benefits as much.”

“What other benefits?”

Like making out with hot girls.

“Being able to get paid while chilling with friends,” Lawrence answered. “But, you know what, I’m closing up shop, now. I’m not about to do business with a kid, sorry. Not like this.”

The odd girl pouted. She really did come off as disappointed.

“That so? Ah, too bad. I am looking to score, by the way.”

“Sorry, maybe you can try your luck with my other buddies, but not me.”

She shook her head.

“No. I think I like you, so I’ll give this another shot later.”

Later?

Gentle, she put her hand on his arm, brushing it up. Lawrence flinched, backing up even though he couldn’t, allowing himself to get jabbed again.

The odd girl brought her hands back, giggling. She retreated into the crowd.

“You’re funny. Bye, El.”

She was gone before he could make any sense of it.

Fuckin’ weird.

He did his best to forget about it, hoping no one else saw that interaction. He spent the rest of his time waiting, watching the movie over in the living room.

A sharp whistle hit his ears. That pitch.

Lawrence noticed Charlie motioning for him. She had gotten the others. It was time to count up the funds. He gave her a gesture in acknowledgement.

Time to get ready.

They were coming, and he’d meet them soon.

He braced himself for the meeting.

No strength, no will to fight. Lawrence closed his eyes and prayed that his end would be a swift one.

He wasn’t particularly religious, but he prayed.

And prayed.

And prayed some more.

The end wasn’t coming.

Slow, unsure, Lawrence opened his eyes again.

She wasn’t here.

Lawrence darted his eyes around, surveying the scene.

He didn’t see her. She wasn’t here.

Where?

A noise, coming from behind, where he couldn’t see. A bang. Several more.

That wild, frenzied scream again, fried yet raw at the end.

Then, a sharp decrease in intensity and volume. The scream began trail, losing steam, until all he could manage to pick up was a low moan, and that trailed off as well.

Until he couldn’t hear anything. It was silent. Lawrence almost considered that he’d gone deaf.

Almost. Heavy boots hitting the tile, hitting liquid, dashed those concerns.

But now he had more.

The steps went around him. With only his eyes, he followed the man as he strolled around, stopping in front of Lawrence, looking down at him.

Lawrence managed to find the breath to produce a sound in response to the presence above him. A word. A name.

“Styx.”

Styx smirked. It unsettled.

“Pale as a ghost,” Styx said, before letting out a deep, warped chuckle.

Much to Lawrence’s confusion, the man bent down, and extended a hand. In his other a hand was a handgun, a distinct lengthy attachment at the end of it. Lawrence was too tired to piece together what it was, exactly, and what that meant for the situation as it stood.

Couldn’t stay here forever, though. His hand was forced, and he had to muster up the strength to lift his arm.

They shook hands.

Lawrence broke away from the man, wanting to wipe his palm on his jeans. He hated that he was sweaty. Nervous, knees weak. Arms heavy.

It took all of his effort to come off as calm and ready. It was all surface level, though. Just appearances.

The man, Roland, scanned the rest of them with a very careful eye.

They were all present and accounted for, standing outside on the expansive lawn of the suburban home. The party had spilled outside of the house, so a group of people situated in a circle was nothing out of the ordinary, here. There were other, smaller circles around as well, the occasional puffs of smoke billowing out like chimneys.

“I see our customers are making quick use of our products,” Roland said.

“They are,” Lawrence said, trying to hide the dry, scratchy tone in his voice. Short sentences helped. “It’s been easy.”

“Good,” Roland said, scratching his chin. Cool.

He was the best dressed of anyone here, of ravers and gang members alike. A nice dress shirt, the brand was probably some Italian name he couldn’t pronounce. Thin wire glasses that gave him a more sophisticated touch. Beige, slim khakis. He looked more like he was ready to present at a conference than meet with some low-level thugs.

A handsome, but still chiseled look. Rugged and tough. He could fit right at home on the front cover of a magazine. Lawrence could admit that much.

It contrasted against Lawrence’s own outfit. A basketball jersey over a baggy white shirt and baggy jeans. Lawrence made a mental note in his head. To use him for inspiration, one day.

As good as he looked, he also wasn’t a guy to mess with. Lawrence wouldn’t dare try.

“Has it been easy for everyone else?” Roland asked.

Everyone else. It was all the new guys, and the even newer ones.

Standing in a circle. It was Lawrence, Charlie, Jonathan, and the most recent members Melissa and Eduardo.

Melissa had a strong resemblance to the girl Lawrence had just been blowing off some steam with. She wasn’t a ten, not even an nine, but she could be a strong eight on a good day, and today was a good day. Straight brown hair, hazel eyes, and a tight shirt that showed her rather large chest. Lawrence actually preferred them on the smaller side, and he was more of a waist and butt guy, but he could see himself make an exception when it came to her.

But, she shot him down rather quickly, and he accepted the rejection with grace. She simply wasn’t into guys like that.

Eduardo, however, was on the opposite end of the spectrum. Something about him bugged Lawrence. He was tall, lanky, awkward in his gait. Hair combed back, the sides shaved. With the denim jacket he wore, and the way he kept checking the house behind him, he couldn’t be across as any more of a punk if he tried.

That, and his face looked a little punchable.

He wasn’t used to being in a gang, yet.

He wasn’t used to being in this country yet.

Charlie was the one to answer his question.

“It’s been a profitable night, sir, these kids really think they need this stuff to have a good time.”

“To be fair,” Jonathan said, “They do.”

“It helps,” Lawrence offered. “Helps us, helps them as well.”

Roland nodded, taking it all in.

“Did we recruit anyone?” he asked.

Everyone shook their heads. Though, Eduardo casted another glance at the house.

Roland was willing to accept that.

“Not a problem, and Charlie? No need for the sir, we’re still small, so we’re trying to build a close, familiar dynamic between us and you. Though, that form of respect will still need to apply to my boss, should you ever address her directly. La Señora.”

“Oh, okay, um, Roland. Thanks.”

Roland grinned.

La Señora. Benny. Lawrence hadn’t gotten a chance to meet her, but it was a goal to reach, one day. He’d wanted to be in the upper echelon, one of the big guys. Going to these parties, making bank, it was good, enjoyable work. Fun and games. But it was just that. Fun, and games. This kind of life wouldn’t sustain him forever. Lawrence knew that he had to look and plan ahead, and that meant he couldn’t be on the lower rung forever.

Money. It was all about the green.

He wanted to find a way to get noticed by Roland, by Benny. To impress them.

One day.

He had to step it up.

“We just finished counting the revenue, matching it with the product sold. We didn’t sell everything, but it all adds up properly, and we’re in the green, too. It’s all good.”

“That’s what I like to hear… Lawrence, was it?”

“Right, sir, I mean, just Roland, right.”

Lawrence shook his head, feeling like an idiot.

The group, minus Lawrence and Roland, erupted in laughter.

Lawrence rolled his eyes, trying to keep a relaxed expression. He could roll with the punches, he was good at that.

The laughter didn’t last long, and it wasn’t even really to bully or humiliate him. It was a playful sort of teasing.

“Another for ‘L’ for El,” Eduardo commented.

Lawrence couldn’t help but be bothered by that.

We’re not friends, Eddie.

The laughter kicked back up again, to Lawrence’s chagrin. He was that much closer to putting some hands on the punk.

Roland raised a hand, and that was enough. The group was silenced.

“Levity is fine, but let’s stay on the task at hand.”

Eduardo answered for them, as if he was allowed to speak for Lawrence.

“Okay, and sorry, El.”

Don’t fucking call me that.

Roland gestured. “May I see the money?”

It was Charlie that had the bag. She walked over to Roland, breaking the circle of people, to hand the money over.

A light in Lawrence’s eye. He blinked, and started shaking his head.

The bag was black, so why was there red and blue bouncing off it it?

It hit Lawrence.

Someone else called it out.

“Pigs!”

Everyone bolted.

It wasn’t even a matter of being organized in their escape. It was about survival. Move somewhere that wasn’t here.

Lawrence ran, and didn’t get three steps before he was interrupted. Someone had bumped into him. There was a second of panic before he saw that it was Charlie.

“Faster!” she yelled.

You don’t have to tell me that.

The sentence would have came out if he had the time to ask. Instead, confused, he breathed out, hard, and kept running towards the house. It was the only place he could think to go, or at least to go through.

The house was big, multiple stories, but the number of ways getting in were limited. The front door was wide open, but the entry way was choked, with number of people all having the same idea as Lawrence and Charlie. Pushing, yelling, general panic.

Lawrence stopped, and brought an arm out to stop Charlie. He stole a quick glance back. The cars, the lights, the men in uniform chasing after the kids.

Shit,” Lawrence whispered.

“Why are we stopping?” Charlie said, “They’re coming this way!”

Scanning, thinking, Lawrence replied. “We’re going to get stuck among all those people if we run right into it now. We can’t get stuck.”

“Where then? Around to the fence?”

“Can you jump?”

“I can try, but-”

“We don’t have time to try, Charlie, we have to do shit.”

“Then no go on jumping the fence. Plus, I have some added weight, literally.”

Lawrence looked at what Charlie was talking about. The strap around her side.

“Why do you have the bag?”

“Fuck, they’re coming this way, El, here.”

Charlie moved without giving Lawrence a proper answer. They weren’t going through the group at the door, they went around.

Windows at the front of the house, as tall as they were wide. When Lawrence first arrived at the house, he was able the see the dining room, the tables and silverware on the other side. Now, something was blocking the view. Something murky.

It almost gave Lawrence pause from wanting to go in.

“Sure about this?” Lawrence asked.

“Nope,” Charlie said, “But we’ve got no choice. We’re deep in this shit, now.”

Charlie grabbed a rock from a border of a small garden at the base of the window. She grabbed another, crushing flowers and leaves as she went back over to hand it over to Lawrence.

“Shit,” Lawrence said.

No more words, just an agreement on what they had to do. Lawrence was willing to go that far.

They threw the rocks.

Struck home, hitting the base and perimeter of the windows. It shattered, making an opening for them. The edges were jagged, but they were covered up well enough.

Grey smoke blew out of the hole.

Shit,” Lawrence said, with emphasis.

“Too late to back down now,” Charlie said. “Come on!”

They ran, before anyone else had caught on to what they just did.

Lawrence covered his mouth with his shirt, squinting hard, eyes watery and lungs irritated. The effect was immediate.

Too late to back down now.

Escaping into the darkness, Lawrence let it envelop him.

Lawrence coughed out, hard. Everything hurt again.

It was dark when he went in, but the sudden light filling in the room felt like an assault on his existence. He lurched, groaning again from the harsh movement.

He would have fallen over if he wasn’t already sitting, being rolled into the room.

Lawrence couldn’t fight back, even if he wanted to. He was entirely at the mercy of Styx. Which was worse than being helpless.

“Take it easy, lil’ boy,” Styx said. His voice was unnatural for him. Soft, sympathetic. Understanding. Lawrence had dealt with Styx before, back when it was just him and his Ghosts, he’d never heard Styx sound like this. It was unnatural.

Lawrence couldn’t see him, with Styx pushing him as he sat in the wheelchair. Only being able to hear his voice, while still being at the whim of where Styx wanted to take him, while not being able to see Styx, made for an odd, out of body experience.

Maybe it’s a metaphor for everything that’s happened in this fucking hotel.

Blinking, Lawrence started getting a better picture of the room he was a rolled into.

A conference room, not for guests, but for the staff and management related to the hotel. Only accessible by going through the back parts of the building, where guests weren’t allowed. It wasn’t as fancy or as decorative, compared to the other parts of the hotel he’d seen. More particular, utilitarian in design. Bland, brown walls with nothing on them, a long conference table, enough for at least twenty people, judging by how many chairs there were.

An ambient light had dimmed to a low settling, seemingly on its own. Lawrence could see himself falling asleep here.

Could. With Styx here, Lawrence couldn’t afford to get any shut-eye.

Even though his body and spirit were begging more rest, Lawrence had to keep going. Keep staying up.

Pushed along, Styx moved him to the end of the conference room, the other end of the table. Styx stopped there, turning Lawrence around, then pressing the locks at the wheels. Lawrence wasn’t able to move, regardless, but Styx just wanted to make sure.

Styx put his attention on the chair itself, moving himself over to it.

It was a simple thing to do, to just pick a chair and move it. Styx apparently thought that simple was too boring.

He kicked, and the chair was sent sliding, skidding, until it fell over and collided with the wall. A violent crash.

Lawrence startled, and he was wracked with pain yet again.

Styx chuckled.

There it was, Lawrence thought, That’s the Styx I know. The one I’m familiar with.

Familiar didn’t exactly mean better, though, not in this case.

Leaving the chair fallen over, Styx rearranged more stuff. He put Lawrence’s wheelchair in place of the old one, and Styx himself grabbed a seat at the closest chair next to him, to Lawrence’s right.

He fell into it, staring at Lawrence. His eyes were wide, and a little wild.

Leather jacket, no shirt, black skinny jeans. The whites of Styx’s eyes, the yellow of his teeth, contrasted against the melanin of his skin. He wasn’t her, but he looked like he could eat him at even the slightest provocation.

Lawrence was stuck in a room with this man.

The bewilderment, the disorientation, was reaching new heights.

Styx smiled at him. Lawrence was starting to hate that look.

“Hi,” he said.

Lawrence responded with a blink.

“Quite the day, isn’t it?”

Lawrence wanted to throw up, but there was nothing in his stomach, now.

Styx crossed his legs, settling into his seat. He looked as comfortable as Lawrence wasn’t.

“Hi,” Styx said again.

Lawrence wasn’t sure how to respond. Styx greeted him a second time.

The man crossed his legs the other way.

“Hi.”

The third time. As if Lawrence needed any more stress.

Styx sneered.

“You’re Lawrence. I bet you’re wondering how you got into this situation. The choices you took that led you here, the thoughts in your head that made you make certain decisions, molding you into the person you are today. Were they the right thoughts? Did you end up where you wanted to go? Was it worth it? Would you do it all over again?”

A specific, ugly emotion was beginning to stir and rise to the surface. One that he’d tried not to think about or consider for years. Lawrence pushed it down, harder, farther than before. It hurt.

“What do you want, Styx?” Lawrence asked. It strained, but he couldn’t just be a passive actor in this.

“That, right there. That face. Faces.”

“What?” Lawrence breathed the question.

“I wanted to see your face, how you look at your lowest moment. I want to savor whatever it is that brings those expressions out, for the world to see. It makes me vibrate.”

Sickening. It was twisted.

“Fuck you, Styx,” Lawrence said, even though it was probably the single worst thing he could say, at this juncture.

Styx’s expression didn’t waver.

“You’re welcome. And you look great, by the way.”

Lawrence wanted to move, to leave, to figure this out another time, to get back with his crew and be back at the territory, his apartment, his bed. All he needed was rest.

But he couldn’t. Helpless.

It probably showed on his face. The face that Styx was delighted to be able to see.

It just served to make Lawrence that much smaller.

Before Lawrence ventured further into dangerous emotional territory, the doors opened with a burst.

“Styx! Styx!”

Lawrence knew that voice. It was a very specific pit in his stomach.

Styx fell back into his seat, leaning over, turning somewhat to face the new party.

“Yeah?”

D stomped over to them, but she directed herself to Styx.

She smacked Styx on the arm. Not a playful hit.

Styx had little to no reaction. He just shifted around to have her in view.

“Yes?”

“How many rounds did you pump into her?”

“Enough.”

“I told, you just needed one. I put in the appropriate dosage for you ahead of time. I gave you the extras as a precaution.”

“Everything about handling this was a precaution.”

“You didn’t need to hit her with everything!”

“I was being ‘pre-cautious.’”

She started wailing on him, punching him in the same spot on the arm. Styx didn’t flinch or try to defend himself.

“You jerk, you big dummy! Idiot! Loser!”

After the tenth punch, Styx finally made a move. He used his other arm to grab D by the shoulder. He threw her off him with a single push. She was just a little kid, after all.

“For your information, I was being careful for her sake. I loved it, truly, the image she painted with Xander was exquisite, but the others don’t appreciate that kind of art. You do, but not them. If I let it get out of hand, then it becomes a problem for me, okay? So I put a stop to the shitshow.”

D put her hands on her hips, sticking her tongue out at Styx. Styx, of Styx’s Gang, the leader of the gang that had connections and relations with every major player in Stephenville.

“Dummy,” she said.

Lawrence had been through enough shit that he could actually believe what he was seeing.

I swore that I’d come up with something, the next time I saw you. But I don’t even care about that anymore.

Lawrence tried sitting up in the wheelchair, but he was too weak to move. The chair creaked and wobbled a bit, and that got their attention.

D and Styx turned to look at Lawrence.

“Explain,” Lawrence said. “Now.”

D inhaled, making it deep. D exhaled, and walked over to Styx’s chair. She sat on the armrest, her own arms folded.

Lawrence hadn’t seen her for over twenty-four hours. He had been worried about her disappearance, paranoid over what she could possibly be doing.

Getting a call by the girl herself, it confirmed his fears. In a frenzied tone, she told him to run down to the casino. Wendy was in trouble, and he couldn’t just stay holed up in the hotel suite and do nothing. It added to his fears. How did she know that Wendy needed help? How did she know that Lawrence was still in the room?

And then he found Wendy, in that hall. Granon. Everything that followed.

Lawrence learned that his paranoia was wholly, completely justified.

D explained.

“When Granon first came on to the scene, and started nudging into our territory, I did what I usually do. Research. You can never be too careful. In this case, if there’s a new gang in town, the first person who’d know anything about it would be Styx.”

She gestured over to the man in question.

D continued.

“Granon was just one branch of his employer’s organization, but we all knew this wasn’t a feud that we could just drag out. We’re still new, relatively small. If we got stuck on dealing with the People’s Hammer, or if it got messy, it wouldn’t present the best image of us if we were able to move forward after that.”

D breathed in, taking her time.

“So I called in another favor with Styx.”

There was a particular word in that sentence that Lawrence didn’t like.

Another?”

D nudged the floor with her foot, causing her to sway a bit on the chair. Styx moved as well.

“Back when we were just starting our alliance, while we were still hunting Benny, I knew what we were doing was super duper messy, blowing up gangs and their bases with the weapons I found. It sort of fudges up what Styx had taken decades to set up. So I let him know what we were up to, as a courtesy. And Styx offered to do some damage control after the fact, so nothing unforseen can blow up in our faces, later.”

“You have got to be fucking kidding me,” Lawrence said.

D shook her head.

“I’m not kidding, sorry El.”

Lawrence was shaken to the core.

“And this?” he asked. “How exactly does Styx fit into this?”

“I came to him for help, and, using his connections, pulled some strings and gave you and Wendy a reservation to stay at the Lunar Tower, with fake IDs so the staff will know that you’re legit and that the room’s already covered.”

“You’re welcome,” Styx said. He couldn’t have sounded anymore pleased.

Lawrence needed a moment to compose himself, gather his thoughts. He gave himself that moment.

When it came time to speak his mind, the result was still disorganized.

“Why Styx? Why me and Wendy? Why like this? Why… why?”

Just why?

“Styx and I… we go way back.”

Styx gave D a look, though D didn’t turn to give him one.

Lawrence wasn’t about to pick apart that answer with a ten-foot pole.

“And about this setup itself, it was Styx’s idea. He-”

“-wanted to get something out of giving this little rascal and her super friends a handout. I gave her conditions that made it interesting for me. One, she couldn’t help you directly. Two, it had to be done in this hotel, and three, you were supposed to handle the bulk of the work done here.”

Styx pointed at him.

Stunned. As always.

“Me?”

“Yeah, bitch. As I understood it, you’re supposed to be the face of this group, and I know the kind of muscle that girl brings. You were supposed to handle business with Granon like how everyone else handles their shit here. With class, and diplomacy. Instead, you spent most of your stay up in that room, and when you do confront Xander on his bullshit, you vomit on his shoes. Though, I fuckin’ loved it, so thank you for that.”

Speechless.

“It’s something I learned very quickly,” Styx said. “If you want to be in this business, you can’t just do whatever you want, and think you can get away with it. I can, of course, because I earned the right to do whatever the fuck I want, whenever the fuck I want, however the fuck I want. But you? No. Delegating is good, but it’s better to stick your own neck out, sometimes, show bitches you mean business. You wanted to prove yourself to me, and to the rest of the gangs? This performance doesn’t cut it.”

D kept shaking her head, tugging at her choker.

“I win this round,” Styx said, looking at the back of D’s head. “Better luck next time.”

Styx stood from his seat. D jumped to get out of his way.

“That’s three favors, D, now it’s my turn. Three for three. I’ll be coming by to collect the first one,” Styx said, ruffling D’s hair. She reacted, pushing him off to fix it.

Styx continued. “It’ll be sooner, rather than later. Could be tomorrow, the next day, or the next week, so I suggest you get yourself together before then. Show me you’re as promising as D pitched you to be.”

Styx started to take his leave.

“It’ll be fun, I promise. I’ve got plans for all of you. D? Thanks for stopping by to visit, you really do have a talent for making things interesting. Do come by again. You know, this body’s getting older, man, I need more excuses to relieve some fucking stress. And, one more thing, don’t worry about the mess, we’ve got guys for that.”

Lawrence or D didn’t respond as he left, the door clicking as it closed. A heavy silence hung in the air.

When Lawrence broke it, it felt palpable.

“What was the third favor?” Lawrence asked.

For a third time, D shook her head.

“Alright, fine, another question. Why the fuck didn’t you tell us any of this beforehand?” Lawrence asked.

D was able to answer that.

“It was part of Styx’s conditions. I couldn’t help you directly. But I was watching, and things weren’t going the way they were supposed to. Wendy was out, and you were there, taking a nap. And when Wendy was being followed, I panicked, and I thought I had to do something. I broke one of the conditions.”

“Fuck,” Lawrence said, “Fuck. I was going to insist that I’d help, do my supposed part, but Wendy wanted me to stay up there, she wanted me to rest. How was I supposed to know I had a bigger part to play?”

“I don’t know. I thought it would work out a different way. I know you aren’t the kind of guy who likes to stand still. Even if you had gotten hurt from your first fight with Granon, you’d push yourself to do more, after that. You’ll do anything to take that next step.”

“Wendy didn’t want me to do that. She would have rather pushed herself.”

“And look where that brought us,” D said. “Fudge.”

D dropped herself into the seat that Styx had just occupied. She brought her feet and legs up, and she hugged her knees.

“What’s next?” Lawrence said, wanting to get to it.

“Either I, or someone from the medical staff will give you a proper checkup, clean your wounds and make sure nothing broken or permanently damaged. Then, you can rest, for real this time. Still supposed to be out of the room by noon, though.”

“That’s enough time to take it easy.”

“You never needed much,” D said. “And after that, we put this mess behind us.”

Lawrence put his hands into his lap, making fists, feeling each cut.

“Speaking of messes,” Lawrence said. “Where is she?”

D had paused before answering.

“I was looking after her, earlier, making sure she was still breathing and had a pulse after being filled up with pentazemin. She up in the room, now, out cold.”

“Pentazemin. Isn’t that a muscle relaxer?”

“Benzodiazepine class. Antidepressant. It’s easy to get if you know what you’re looking for.”

“How’d you know that would work?”

D shrugged.

Lawrence made a noise, the aches and pains coming back to haunt him.

“Dammit, D,” he said. “I wish you told me. Not just about this, but about her, too.”

“I wish I could,” D replied. “But my hands were tied. I tried to have some fun with it, giving you signs that I was around, that I was helping, but I guess it only served to make it worse.”

D looked genuine in her remorse.

“And, about Wendy, I don’t think anyone knew what happened there. I don’t even think she did. Darn, it wasn’t supposed to be like this.”

“It got messy,” Lawrence said. “Maybe it wasn’t public, but there’s blood on our hands now. She mutilated people, ruined them. I killed someone.”

“He has a pulse,” D said, “Not like he’s getting up any time soon.”

Lawrence no longer had the will to be shocked.

“Same difference.”

Lawrence wanted to say more, but the hurt was getting to him more, now, making its presence known. He couldn’t just fight past it forever.

“Wheel me over to get checked up on. If you know what you’re doing… I don’t mind if it’s you, I guess.”

D seemed to brighten up a little, hearing that. “Really?”

“Don’t make me regret it.”

“You won’t, promise. I know what I’m doing.”

“Alright. Then, we deal with the rest of this tomorrow, or whenever she wakes up. We need to be in sync, if we want this group to continue and thrive, having her go off on her own and try to do everything herself isn’t that. We can’t just hit her with antidepressants forever. It might even make things worse in the long run.”

“I don’t want that,” D said.

“Me neither.”

D threw her head back, making a croaking noise. She stared at the ceiling.

“Uuuugh, this sucks.”

“Might not be the best word to use.”

D looked back at Lawrence.

“How about you? How you handling this?”

Lawrence gave his thoughts.

“This is fucked. We’re fucked. Everything about this is fucked.”

Lawrence would have added more, but he didn’t want more smoke in his lungs. He was close to coughing them out.

They were in the clear, for the moment. Out of the smoke, out of sight of anyone who might be looking for them.

Charlie had given him the rundown, and the bag. Roland had shoved the bag in Charlie’s arms, forcing her to take care of it. So there was nothing that could pin him down, Charlie had guessed.

But now it was Lawrence’s responsibility. There was another meeting point they had planned, just in case, a couple blocks away. No specific order was given to meet there, but that was why they had designated a location in the first place. This was that case.

The spot itself was fine. It should be. It was getting there that was the problem.

Smoke, everywhere. The house was trashed, more so that Lawrence had realized. And they were sitting still, while there might be cops right outside the room and hall.

And they had a bag of money and drugs. It was all collected into one bag when they counted everything up. Made for easy transport, but if they got caught, then it was all over.

Couldn’t let this be over.

Lawrence had convinced Charlie to let him carry the bag. He was faster, and if it came down to it, more willing to do what have to be done. For survival, he’d shoulder that burden for the both of them.

“How is it?” Charlie asked, keeping to whispers, keeping it short.

Lawrence peeked through the crack of the door. He tested his luck a bit by sliding his hand over, opening it some more.

“No one,” he answered, voice low. “But that could change in any second.”

“Right,” Charlie said.

They had heard footsteps earlier, rushing in this bedroom to evade any potential pursuers. Nobody followed, but that didn’t mean they were in the clear. They weren’t familiar with the layout of the house, they didn’t know what the situation was in either the backyard or the street past that. They had to leave, but rushing without thinking would be an even bigger mistake.

“Let’s give it a few more seconds, then we move over to that room on the other side of the hall, and check out the window. There.”

“I can’t see it from this angle, El.”

“Oh. Uh, it’s over there. Just follow me when it’s time.”

“Alright.”

Lawrence raised a hand. With the other, he widened the opening a little more, inch by inch.

He threw his hand down.

Now!”

Lawrence got to his feet and booked it. Charlie was right behind him.

It was a rush, from both the adrenaline coursing through his veins and the speed at which he crossed the hall. There wasn’t anyone around to catch him, but, if there was, he would have liked to imagine himself like a ninja, slipping away at the last second. The image fit, somewhat. Mouth covered with his shirt, bag slung over his back. Like a modern reboot of those movies he watched all the time.

The door had been cracked open on the other side, as well. It made for an easy escape out of the hall, and back out of sight, into the safety and shadows.

Charlie closed the door behind them, but not all the way. She kept low, staying next to it, blocking it, in case someone else tried to get through.

Yes!” she said. She lifted her hand, and Lawrence returned the favor with a high five.

“Almost there,” Lawrence said. He kept moving, putting his back on the vanity set across the room, away from the door.

“Move,” he said. “We can still hide if anyone wanders in. If the door gets blocked, then they’ll know for sure.”

“Good point.” She listened, crossing the room. She didn’t hide right away, though, instead checking through the window, facing the outside world.

“What’s it look like out there?”

“Promising. Los policías are mostly busy dealing with all the kids outside. Gathering them up, making sure they’re away from the house and out of trouble.”

“Is it everyone?”

“I… don’t see Jonathan or Melissa, or Eduardo. Definitely don’t see Roland.”

“We might be the only ones in here, then. Which is a good thing.”

“Might be. Keep in mind we’re the ones stuck in a burning house.”

A burning house.

“About that,” Lawrence started.

“What?”

“Don’t you think this seems all… off?”

“Meaning?”

“There’s smoke, but it’s not killing us, and it’s thinned the deeper we got into the house. And, haven’t you noticed that we never came across anything that was burning?”

“This was all staged,” Charlie said, her eyes wide, mouth agape. “Someone set up some smoke and called the cops?”

“Do you see firefighters out there?”

Charlie checked out the window again. “I don’t.”

“They’d be here by now if this was legit.”

“So if it’s not a fire, then what?”

“That, I can’t answer. Right now, the main concern of the police is just getting everyone out of the house, and they sort it out from there.”

“What if we’re stuck in this house and there’s a bomb.”

“There’s no bomb,” Lawrence said. He considered it. “There’s no bomb.”

“Should we just ditch the bag and go outside? We might not get in trouble. There’s so many kids out there, we can just slip away and meet with the others.”

Again, Lawrence considered it.

“I want to try,” Lawrence said. “If we get out of this, with the money and drugs, Roland’s going to know we’re the real deal.”

He’s going to know I’m the real deal.

Very little time to argue, and there was no doubt in Lawrence’s voice. Charlie went with it.

“Sure, okay, let’s try.”

Gracias, Charlie. Now get over here.”

Charlie crossed the room again, meeting with Lawrence. She got on her knees.

“We’re close to the back,” Lawrence told her. “We’re so close I can almost fucking taste it. Past the backyard is that service road. They can block it, but not without fucking up traffic there, and with the majority of the smoke coming from the front of the house, that’s where they’ll focus their attention on. As long as we can get to the back and make sure things are quiet, we’ll be alright.”

“Alright, I like that. Taking advantage over someone else’s scheme. It’s great.”

Lawrence felt a hint of pride, hearing that.

“Whoever got the ball rolling on this knew what they were doing. I’d be impressed if it didn’t actively fuck up our night.”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah,” Lawrence said. “Okay. Get ready. Same thing as before, except now, we head straight for the back.”

“Right behind you.”

As silent as possible, Lawrence crawled over to the door. He opened it.

Clear.

Lawrence made the appropriate gesture.

They ran for it.

The path was unobstructed. All clear. Clear.

They passed the TV, the movie was still playing.

No distractions.

Ears pounding, muscles aching, heart beating heavy in his chest, but it didn’t matter. Lawrence saw the way forward. It was right there. He could make it.

They were so close.

“Hey! El, El!”

It took several seconds for Lawrence to switch mental tracks. In the meantime, he turned his head.

Eduardo, and a girl he’d never seen before in his life.

“Where you going?” Edurado asked.

“Where the fuck else? Meeting the rest at the safe spot!”

“Are the rest there?”

We will be!”

“Sounds good.” He looked to the girl, grabbing her hand. “Come!”

The girl only ran, keeping up with the rest of them. She looked too puzzled to make a proper response.

You better not be dead weight.

The backyard. The sliding glass door was already opened, and there was a pool just ahead. They’d have to go around, but the coast looked clear.

So close.

Lawrence picked up the pace, running harder, faster. Charlie didn’t lose any speed.

They formed a line out the door. Lawrence, Charlie, Eduardo and the girl.

A crumble and shouts.

“El!”

Lawrence turned. It took him several seconds to figure out what exactly he was looking at.

Blue, and long. Wispy in quality. A vague, human shape, bending and twisting in unnatural ways. Like it was trying to break out of itself, but it struggled, trapped by its blue and glossy skin.

Lawrence wanted to slap himself.

It wasn’t a monster. Monsters weren’t real.

It was the girl that Eduardo brought with her, wrapped in what looked like a pool tarp.

She shouted some more, tried moving some more, before falling to the ground. She kept fighting all the way, but it only made her more stuck in the thing.

“Maria!” Eduardo shouted. He ran over to try and get her out.

He tugged, but the tarp was heavy, and the girl kept moving too much. It wasn’t a good combo.

Eduardo looked at Lawrence, Charlie. His eyes were pleading.

“I need help!”

“Okay!”

Charlie went over without any hesitation.

In contrast, Lawrence was still.

They both worked together to get the girl out, but they weren’t making much progress.

Eduardo called out for Lawrence again.

“El! Get over here!”

“Who is she?”

“She’s… she needs help!”

“Are you recruiting her?”

“I… maybe?”

Maybe?

“Just help me get her out of here! The tarp is huge, and if it gets in the water, it might drag her in!”

“The pool is right behind me! It’s not going anywhere near her!”

“Just help!”

Eduardo was freaking out more than the girl was, and if he didn’t shut the fuck up…

Lawrence went to them.

He put his hands on the tarp, yanking it, coordinating with the others so it would end up being worse.

A lot of moving, jostling around. The bag slipped over his shoulder, bumping into him and Charlie, Eduardo.

It was getting in the way.

“Fuck!”

Lawrence threw the bag off his shoulders.

There, he had more to move. To breathe.

It was easier, now, to get the tarp off the girl. It slipped out faster, not going taut as much. It was working. Lawrence was able to see parts of her face as they continued.

“Whoa, hey, wait!”

The cry came from Charlie. It was angry, confused, and pointed.

It got Lawrence’s attention, and he turned to look.

Someone was running off with the bag.

The drugs. The money.

Lawrence immediately left the rest behind to give chase.

Around the pool, to the grass, over the goddamn garden gnome. The fence.

Fuck, Lawrence thought.

He was too late.

Not that he was too slow, but she had gotten too much of a head start.

She was sitting on the stone fence, legs hanging over on the other side. The bag around her shoulders.

The odd girl.

Lawrence was still running, and she had time to monologue.

“Told you I’d come back to get my score. See? Nothing a few online tutorials and a little improv can’t solve.”

He opened his mouth to say something, anything, but he was losing the breath, and he was just at a loss of words.

So close to the fence.

“Oh, I like that expression, it’s nice. You’re fun, you know that? I might come around to see you again. But for now, so long, El… boy!”

She ducked, and disappeared from behind the fence. Lawrence’s blood was hot and pumping. He kept running-

More shouting stopped Lawrence in his tracks.

Charlie’s, and Eduardo’s.

Lawrence wheeled around.

Cops had made it to the scene, forcing them both back. Charlie had her hands up, and so did Eduardo. They backed away, slow.

None of the cops looked as if they had any attention to shoot, but no one was going to give them a reason to. All control of the situation was deferred to the cops, now.

One got down on a knee, over the tarp. The girl – Maria – still hadn’t got out yet.

Lawrence fell down on his own. On his knees.

He lost.

Charlie and Eduardo saw Lawrence, and a cop followed their gaze. He stalked over to Lawrence.

Lost.

That odd girl had run off with the bag, so the three of them were nothing but kids at a party, now. No different than the rest that were here to drink booze and smoke some pot. They’d get escorted out, and like Charlie had suggested, they’d slip away from the scene.

But there was more to it than that.

They had a job to do, there was a responsibility that Lawrence shouldered, but he failed. He couldn’t do it. He had let down Roland, Benny, the rest of El Carruaje.

What’s going to happen to me now?

He might as well be done.

Lawrence met Eduardo’s eyes, and pushed with hatred, seething with it. Eduardo broke away from the glare.

He’ll pay for this. Someday, somehow. That fucker.

It wasn’t supposed to end like this. He wasn’t supposed to lose. He wasn’t supposed to be the small fry.

Cops were approaching him. He didn’t care. He had emotions, and he needed release.

Frustrated, livid, Lawrence raised both fists and-

-gently placed them at the foot of the bed.

Lawrence looked over Wendy as she slept.

Back in the hotel room. Dark, but the hour was sometime in the morning. Lawrence wasn’t sure of the exact time.

He hadn’t gotten much sleep. He’d like sleep, and he knew he needed sleep, but it wasn’t in his nature to rest when there was other shit to deal with.

Still in the wheelchair, but he could move on his own. It was a slow process, but he could manage. He just had to be careful in his pushing, or he’d ruin the stitches and bandages that wrapped his body up. Funny, in a way. He was still alive, but he felt entombed.

Lawrence had to shift his whole torso to turn. He had a basic, soft neck brace on. A precaution.

“Who in the fuck are you?” Lawrence asked her, his voice barely above a whisper.

Wendy didn’t respond. Well, she couldn’t.

Lawrence couldn’t help but find it a little funny. Must be the late hour.

“I thought I asked you something.”

Wendy kept sleeping.

She was tucked in the bed, the same one she had offered to Lawrence, but he didn’t mind. She needed it more than he did.

Glasses off, folded on the nightstand beside her, dressed in pajamas that she had brought herself. D was the one who helped her on that front. She was already like that when he arrived, just a few minutes ago. No one else was allowed access to her, or even be in the same room.

After wheeling Lawrence in, D had taken some more numbers from her, mostly beats per minute. Everything seemed to have stabilized, whatever that meant for someone like her.

She explained that Wendy had a powerful regeneration ability. Lawrence had seen it firsthand. There was a chance that the antidepressant would run its course faster than normal, and that she would be getting up soon.

Lawrence didn’t care either way.

Then, D left, and it was just Wendy and Lawrence.

He continued to watch her sleep, unsure of how to feel about this. Unsure about everything. Himself.

“Forgive me for coming off as creepy, right now, I get it, but I wanted to see you. I want to see if you’re still the same Wendy and V I thought I knew. Who knows? I might see you as someone completely different once you wake up.”

Wendy didn’t stir or respond.

“To be fair, out of all us, you are the creepiest motherfucker. Ever.”

Silence.

“I wonder if you remember the first time we crossed paths. I definitely do. You were the Bluemoon, then. Crazy, how things changed.”

He gripped the blanket, feeling some resistant from the bandages on his fingers.

“You were trying to protect me, weren’t you? I saw it, in that hall. Styx was there, but I couldn’t see him, and, in whatever fucked up headspace you were in, you deemed him as a threat. But not me.”

Lawrence paused.

“At least, I’d like to think of it that way. It’ll make tomorrow easier, and the next day.”

A flutter of the eye. Lawrence thought that she’d awaken, but a minute passed, and there was no other activity.

It was a stark contrast, from what he’d seen before. Wendy looked so peaceful, in her sleep. The soft breathing, the relaxed expression. The fact that D had washed her body, getting her cleaned up. The full treatment, and she was asleep throughout all of it.

The setting of the room, the fancy and beautiful design. It made him think of something like a movie. His mind went those flicks he liked, then to fairy tales.

Must be the late hour.

Was she the sleeping beauty, waiting for the prince to save her? No, didn’t seem right, didn’t seem to fit. Not for her.

Then, was she the evil queen, with the power to turn into a dragon, only resting after expending so much strength?

Lawrence wasn’t sure.

If she was, then he wondered where he fit into all of that. If he was supposed to even fit in at all, or if he just stumbled into something he had no business being a part of.

Charlie and Jonathan and Melissa were gone, leaving the Ghosts after V and D officially joined. It had gotten to be too much for them, the stress of always watching their backs, it wasn’t the reason why they got into this life in the first place. It had gotten too hard.

Now it was just him. The normal one. Stuck with the Styx’s and D’s and the V’s of the world. The creepy and the crazies.

He used to think that the sacrifice was worth it. That the glamour and power that came with this life was a good goal to strive towards. Being one of the big guys. Thinking about it gave him pause, now.

But it was too late for that. He was too deep into this shit.

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Interlude – Thomas

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Peru – Sixteen years before present

The waves slid across the sand, white foam bubbling in its wake.

Thomas let the cool waters run across his feet.

Sunlight beat down on his face. Bright, hot. He was going to get a sunburn if he stayed like that for another minute.

I can’t remember the last time I was this happy.

A hand gently landed on his shoulder. Warm, comforting. Inviting. It was a touch he wasn’t quite used to, not yet, but at the same time, he didn’t want to lose that spark. That electricity. It was all so new to him.

Even with plenty of space on the beach, he still sidestepped to let his girlfriend stand beside him. They held hands.

They watched the waves come to them, then away.

They watched, then watched some more.

This was a moment, and they were in it.

“Already trying to go out and get cigarettes?” Kristin asked.

Thomas kept his eyes on the water. He smiled.

“You know I don’t smoke.”

“That doesn’t exactly answer my question.”

“I’m not going anywhere. Not now, not ever.”

“Is that so?”

“One hundred percent.”

Kristin bumped her shoulder against Thomas, only getting right above his elbow. She interlocked their fingers.

“Big words. Only time will tell.”

They were big words, but Thomas was up for it, up for the challenge. If not just to surprise himself, but Kristin especially. Scary? It was terrifying, down to the bone. Commitment was heavier than anything even Atlas could carry.

Thomas closed his eyes, seeing red from how bright it was out here. When he opened them again, he was staring right at Kristin.

At Kristin, and at her.

“Are we crazy for this?” Thomas asked, though he already knew what Kristin would say.

She kept her eyes to the ocean.

“We are crazy, and we get crazier with every passing day. Every passing month. We are long past the point of takebacks.”

A door closed, but Thomas didn’t think of it in that way.

“Good, good. I wouldn’t want to.”

She made a sound. A hum. Barely audible over the waves.

“You keep talking like that, I’ll start to think the opposite.”

Thomas put his hands behind his head, stretching. “What would it take to convince you, then?” He gulped. “A ring?”

Kristin made a face. A playful shock.

So cute.

“Slow your horses there, cowboy.” Kristin then shook her head. “But who am I to talk?” Delicately, she pressed her hand against her stomach. Through her shirt, a noticeable bump.

“Another day then?” Thomas suggested.

“Another day.” Kristin agreed.

He left it at that, satisfied.

Amongst the waves, Thomas watched her listlessly.

He didn’t know how many minutes passed when she finally noticed him.

She blushed.

“Stop.”

“Stop what?”

“Stop being such a loser.”

“If I’m a loser, then what does that make you?”

Kristin puffed out her chest.

“A winner. I’m the one who scored.”

Thomas almost snorted. What kind of logic was that?

“You certainly think highly of yourself,” Thomas said.

“I do. Get used to it, or you’ll be in for rough ride.”

Thomas rubbed his cheek with his free hand. “But, rough rides can be good.”

Kristin bumped him again, this time harder, more force.

He swayed one way, then back.

“Am I going to have to get used to that, too?”

“Keep getting smart with me, you just might.”

Chuckling, Thomas let go of her hand, and put his arm around her. He brought her close, tight, before falling to his side, bringing her with him.

She let out a high, shrill squeak as they dropped, water splashing around them.

Kristin was in the water, Thomas on top of her. Both wet.

“And you’re going to have to get used to that,” Thomas said. He couldn’t come up with a better comeback.

“Don’t do that!” Kristin said, scolding him. Salt water splattered from her lips to his face. “This isn’t some dumb movie where you can just do that!”

Smooth, Thomas. But Thomas was sure that a small part of her appreciated that kind of gesture.

I think.

Maybe it was a very small part of her that appreciated it.

“Now I’m wet,” Kristin said, complaining about the obvious. She propped herself up to get the water out of her hair. She groaned.

“That reminds me, Spacey wanted you back at the headquarters in ten minutes. You’re due an extra shift.”

Thomas grinned, almost vulpine. “He should know by now that if he sends you, we’re both going to be late.”

“Don’t joke about this. I can tell his patience with you is thinning.”

Thomas’s thoughts went to his boss, though he didn’t want them to. “I suppose I can’t fault him for feeling that way. A six-month volunteering program and I just… fooled around for most of it. Really, you did this to me.”

“Excuse me?”

“Yes, distracting me with your feminine ways.”

“I don’t think so, buddy. You don’t get to be absolved from this.”

“Oh, so I’m just a buddy to you?” Thomas asked. He mouthed various positions, moves, references. “Do you give those out to all your buddies like party favors?”

Kristin pouted. “Don’t be so base. I only do that for pals.”

Thomas frowned. “When you talk like that, it’s hard to tell if you’re serious or not.”

“Then don’t change the subject. And get off of me.”

Before he let her go, Thomas kissed the top of her head, then he moved, letting her free. Though, neither of them moved to leave the beach. They stayed, sitting in the water.

“I thought we were leaving now,” Thomas said.

“Yeah, but it did take a long time to find you, and it’s so damn hot. I think Spacey can wait while we cool ourselves off.”

Thomas didn’t object to that. They still had some weeks of the program left, he’d pick up the slack then.

And, more time alone with Kristin was never a bad thing.

Never.

I’m so glad I met you.

“What do you want to talk about?” Thomas asked her, already lost in her eyes.

“We don’t have to talk about anything,” Kristin said, twisting her hair, getting water out. “We can just sit here.”

“We can, and while I agree that nothing’s more pure and beautiful than these silent, unspeakable memories, I like to talk.”

“That you do.”

Thomas took her hand, submerging it into the water between them. She leaned on him.

“I thought of a name.”

“You have?”

“Couldn’t help it. It’s a girl, right?”

“Right you are.”

“Since it’s a girl…”

“Wait, let me guess.”

He paused, tilting his head. Waiting.

“It’s Katy, isn’t it?”

He smile widened. “You are good.”

“Get used to it,” she said, melodically.

He could feel himself falling for her even more. Deeper and deeper.

“Can you guess why?” he asked.

“I’m not a mind reader. I may think highly of myself, but you’ll need to have more realistic expectations of me.”

“Ah, that’s no fun.” Thomas squeezed her hand. “I picked ‘Katy because, it’s like the ‘K’ from ‘Kristin,’ and the ‘T’ from my name. Also, ‘K.T.’ would be her initials, as well.”

His explanation hung in the salty air. A breeze cooling them.

Kristin didn’t offer up a response. She just snickered.

That snicker grew into a heartier laugh.

“Oh my god, you are such a loser!”

Dumbfounded, stupefied, and dismayed. Thomas hadn’t expected that response.

“Hey, if you hate it, you can just say so!”

In between her fits of laughter, Kristin tried to get words out. Her body was shaking.

“No, I don’t hate it… I love it.”

He felt like he was being thrown for a loop. “You what?”

“I said I love it.”

“Do you actually?”

Yes,” she said, now stern. “I had my own ideas for names, but I adore that reasoning. I really want to use it.”

Thomas sat back, shocked that he could even be more satisfied. Katy. The name rang in his ears like a bell. Clear and bright. Like the sky above him. Endless possibilities. But there would be two constants in his future, now. He felt unstoppable.

“Katy.” He said it out loud, to make the idea solidify even more in his mind. He was going to be a father.

“My folks are going to love you,” he said.

“Of course they will. I’m me.” She pressed more of her weight onto him, leaning on him more. Relying on him more.

He couldn’t stop smiling like a big dumb stupid idiot.

“I love you,” he said to her, for the hundredth time.

“I know,” she said to him, for the hundredth time.

Stephenville – Ten years before present

Thomas stood tall, firm. Confident. And he exuded that confidence because he knew. He had all the facts, the statements, and the jury would be eating out of his hand once he was fully through with him. This wasn’t going to end well for the other guy. Or the other guy’s other guy.

It wouldn’t be easy, but Thomas would have been disappointed if it was.

The homestretch.

He was going to have some fun.

“Good morning,” Thomas said, apt. He stayed at the podium. Weren’t supposed to move around and make a show of things like in shows or movies. These proceedings were usually slow, laborious. A lot of patience, waiting, and listening. For the audience, anyway. For Thomas, he might as well be skydiving.

“Morning,” the witness said back, with no life at all. She was in a suit of her own, drab colors, sitting at the stand. Her hair was tied, but it was done poorly, strands sticking out. There was a microphone situated in front of her, but she was sitting away from it. She didn’t look like she wanted to be there.

Who did?

Thomas started.

“Ms. Jessica Quinn, how long have you been the CEO of Tate and Mono Construction?

“Seven years, give or take.”

“So, relatively new at the job?”

“Relatively, yes.”

“Thank you, ma’am. Just double-checking for myself, I apologize that I’ll have to continue like this for a few more questions. Feel free to relax while I gather my thoughts.”

Jessica didn’t relax. Thomas continued with his questioning.

“Okay, Ms. Quinn, you spearheaded the construction projects in King District, am I correct?”

“Yes.”

“For how long, and what were the projects, exactly?”

“Different housing projects, apartments, homes, offices. My men loaded stuff, dumped stuff, put the hammer to the nail. The whole shtick. And about six months.”

She answered the questions, just not in the right order.

I see.

“And thank you for giving me the whole shtick. Now, as well all know, the reason why you are called up there today is because your ‘whole shtick’ hasn’t gone through the usual procedure, disturbing many residents and businesses, and some of those resident and business happen to be our clients.”

Thomas tapped his fingers on the podium.

“They filed a complaint to you, and not much has been done in the wake of that. Now, here we are.”

Quinn didn’t react to anything Thomas was saying. And he was loving it.

“Ms. Quinn, what was King District like, before Tate and Mono came to do its business?”

“Decent.”

“Decent? Do you mind expanding on that?”

“I can’t explain it, it was just decent. That’s not too hard to grasp.”

“I’ll need a proper answer if only to get a better picture of the situation.”

“Fine, it was fucking Candy Land.”

Some in the audience behind him found that humorous. Thomas, not so much.

“Permission to treat the witness as hostile?”

Judge Edgar Brown hardly gave it a thought. “Granted.”

Thomas kept questioning, but now he could ask leading questions. “Streets were clean, people were friendly, a little rough, but what neighborhood doesn’t have an issue or two? Would you say that’s an accurate description of King District, Ms. Quinn?”

She yawned. “Yeah.”

He glanced at Phillips, Quinn’s lawyer, who was biting the end of his pen.

Cool it, Thomas. Don’t get too excited.

“And what was King District like during Tate and Mono’s time in the area?”

She didn’t say.

“Streets weren’t as clean, the people were hesitant to go outside, rougher overall. Would that be accurate to your experience there?”

“I guess.”

Thomas nodded. “One particular bad apple started making roots around that time, right? The Path, a branch of a Japanese mafia group. The Yakuza. Their men have been causing quite the ruckus in the district since Tate and Mono started their construction, with reports that the Path’s men have been coming and going through buildings your company were responsible for, is that correct?”

“Objection,” Phillips said, “That’s speculation.”

“All the evidence is here, sir,” Thomas pointed to his stack of papers at the folder, “Numerous arrests close to these buildings, drugs, weapons found nearby. This is all written down and documented stuff, and this is more than just some noise complaints. I thought you knew this, Phillips?”

“Alright Thomas, enough,” Judge Brown said. “Do you have a point?”

“One I’m eager to make.”

With little enthusiasm, the judge said, “Overruled.”

Thomas tapped his fingers again, faster. “Ms. Quinn, among noise complaints, have these other more, serious grievances have been brought to your attention?”

Thomas could see her neck glisten under the fluorescent lights. Sweat?

“Keep in mind that you are under oath, Ms. Quinn,” Thomas said, reminding her.

“They have,” she answered.

“And what has been done about it?”

“We never encountered any issue with any outside party or the like, and our construction sites were clean of any illicit materials or contraband.”

“So, nothing?”

“Nothing.”

“Thank you, Ms. Quinn. To switch gears here, you’re still a small company, relatively speaking. This is a big project you’ve undertaken, who’s employed you for these buildings?”

A noted lapse.

“Ishida Hitoshi,” she answered.

“That’s a big name, a big name for a big company overseas.”

Quinn didn’t comment or respond.

And now, the clincher.

“That’s also I name I recognize as part of a big controversy in Japan, with rumors that he has very strong connections with the Yazuka, and-”

“Objection, this is hearsay!”

Phillips leaped out of his chair, furious. “That has nothing to do with this case.”

“I think it has everything to do with this case,” Thomas argued. “If those connections are true, it lines up with what we’re hearing about the buildings Tate-”

Judge Brown stopped them. “Both of you, here.”

They both approached the table. Thomas was ready for what was to come, what could come.

The judge leaned closer, whispering, “Thomas, what are you trying to pull?”

“I’m simply raising an important detail that should be relevant in this case. If Ishida Hitoshi is in league with the Yakuza, people should be looking into what the hell he’s doing in Stephenville.”

If,” Phillips nearly spat the word. “If that’s true, but any claims about that here are unsubstantiated, you have no evidence, and it’s not relevant, and you didn’t submit any of this. You’re making a mockery of this court and this case.”

“It is relevant, Phillips. The writing’s on the wall, yet no one is willing to read it, and I’m left wondering, why? And if you want evidence, look to the countless victims that have been coming forward in the last three years. Also, I can bet you Randolf and his boys can find a connecting thread if they decided to show some initiative. The only one making a mockery of this court is that woman on the stand.”

“Shut it, Thomas,” Judge Brown said. “I’ll be the one to decide if there’s any mockery here. Thomas, let’s say this is looked into, and what you’re saying is true, then this whole case turns into something else entirely, and you are out of here. Is that what you want?”

Thomas was beaming on the inside, but he couldn’t show it, not here. “Criminal activity is a factor here, and I want that recognized. I’ll throw the Hail Mary, someone else can score the touchdown.”

Phillips was fuming. “This is unnecessary.”

Judge Brown wasn’t looking pleased with Thomas. “You better know what you’re doing, or this is it for you. Go back.”

They left the judge. Thomas did know what he was doing, because that probably was it for him.

Stephenville – A week after Loving v. Tate and Mono Construction

“Thomas.”

A man stood next to him, holding a beer. James Gomez. Shorter than Thomas, more stout, but with more muscle than him. A head full of hair, a thick mustache. Both were in fashionable, yet casual wear.

“Thanks for coming,” Thomas said.

“Thanks for… inviting me.” James had to duck when a ball flew too close to his head. He was more concerned over not spilling a drop than he was about the kid who threw said ball. “I’m not a huge fan of children’s birthday parties, though.”

“I invited you, you knew what this was, and you showed up, regardless.”

“At this point, I’ll take anything to get out of the office.”

“Even to arrest me for malpractice?” Thomas asked. “A two-for-one deal? I give you a beer, and you give me handcuffs.”

“No, I wouldn’t do that, but I should. That was a dumb stunt you pulled back there. I heard about it through the grapevine.”

“My bosses are breathing down my neck, drowning me in mindless work. Death threats, many of which are written in Japanese. An earful from the wife, which was the worst of it.”

“God damn,” James said, his voice lowered. There were kids around. “You gonna be okay? With your wife and kid, you have to look out for them, too.”

“It’s nothing but big talk on the gang’s part. They do anything, it’ll implicate them, and then the Path is done for. They’ll keep their distance.

“You sound rather confident about that.”

“I have to be. I’ll admit, it was dumb, but it’ll be worth it soon enough?”

Thomas said it like it was a question.

“I can’t give any details,” James said, “But we’ve traced the money. You were onto something.”

Thomas let himself show the emotion inside him. Gratification. He was beaming.

“But why’d you have to go about it that way?” James asked. “You could have just sent in a tip, or better yet, tell me.”

“Tips are too slow. You’re good, James, but your position isn’t. You’re still new, like me. You don’t have the pull to launch an entire investigation. I saw the circumstances, saw my chance, and I took it. Putting it out like that really got things moving, didn’t it?”

“At the cost of your credibility and reputation?”

“If you’re good at what you do, you can get credibility back, and I’m great. And my reputation is with the people.”

“Why be a corporate lawyer then? If that’s the way you think, you’d be better off in the DA’s office.”

Thomas watched the kids play.

“Big companies mean big money, and big money means more for the little guy. I’ll come down, when the time’s right.”

“When? When I’m police chief?”

Thomas nudged him. “Probably.”

“Whoa there, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”

“Why not? Dream big, do bigger. You’ll be the new police chief, and I’ll be the new district attorney. Together, we’ll rule Stephenville as…”

“Friends?” James ventured.

“I was going to go with pals.”

James didn’t get it, taking a swig of his drink, instead.

“Could be interesting,” James said.

“Could be real,” Thomas said, correcting him. “This city means a lot to me, you know that more than anyone else. It kills me every time someone asks why I haven’t left yet, why I haven’t packed up and moved. I want them to see what I see in it. It’s not perfect, but I can help, I know I can.”

James drank some more, then said, “Real powerful words there, pal, but don’t beat yourself up over it. You’re not a hero, you can’t put all that weight on your shoulders.”

Thomas agreed, “You’re right, I can’t. I’ll need people. People like-”

“Daddy!”

Katy came running to him, her face twisted up, and she was wailing.

“Yes sweetie?” He had to crouch to meet her at eye level. The way she was acting, it was unbecoming of her pretty pink dress. He had to get to the bottom of this, pronto.

“Alexis took my gun and she keeps shooting me but I told her to stop but she keeps doing it and I’m-”

“Hey hey, hey there.” Thomas had to rub her back, calm her down. She was hiccupping.

“I’ll have a talk with her, I’m sure she’s just gotten too excited again. She doesn’t mean anything by it.”

Katy was shaking her head, rubbing her cheeks with fists.

“I wanna get her back, I wanna get that gun back.”

Where do kids come up with this stuff?

Thomas massaged her again. “That’s not what I’m trying to instill in you. Go get some cake, and you’re making up with Alexis. No one gets that toy gun until this party’s over. Understand?”

She hiccuped. “Understood.”

“That’s my girl.” He let her run off to get cake, and he stood, his back hurting a little.

“Kids these days,” James said.

“You’re telling me,” Thomas said. “Sorry about this, James.”

“Go do your thing, I’ll go have another one of these, and I should be up to hear about Kristin’s summer in India one more time.”

“Make sure she mentions the story about the-”

“The Yamarāja. I know, I know.”

He shook hands with James, then excused himself.

Stephenville – Three weeks before present

“Car chase going into Williamson Avenue. It’s red, and the only one going that fast. Police might lose it if this goes for any longer. What do you think about lending a helping hand?”

I’m thinking I’m done with the warm ups. Time for some real action.

Hleuco grinned to himself. He liked it whenever Blank Face showed some enthusiasm, even if it was behind a layer of playful arrogance. It meant that she was getting something out of this. And it meant that she wasn’t completely doom and gloom.

He shifted in his seat, moving away from the complicated connected system of scanners and laptops, to the wheel in front of him. The van started.

With the different channels yelping into his ear, he got out of the parking garage, and drove.

The equipment was outdated, but it was functional, and it served a purpose. Gifts from Gomez. Whenever new stuff came in, the old stuff had to be taken out to make room. And James knew how much he liked antique trinkets.

The van was old, too. Unmarked, bought with cash, kept away in a location disclosed only to Blank Face. He knew the city, the ins and outs. Learned from the best, and the worst, when it came to hiding things. It was a hassle to have to walk there every night he needed to use it, but its purpose was well worth a little pain in his legs.

His foot was heavier on the gas pedal than usual, and not because he was too sore to lift it up more. He needed to keep up with the car, and keep up with Blank Face, so he could be in a good position to pick her up and make a getaway. It was imperative that they kept things as simple as possible, as clean as possible. They weren’t attempting to save the world, they were just attempting to make it nicer. Even if by a margin.

And the girl has school tomorrow, can’t let her be out too late.

“Update, please,” Hleuco asked.

Can’t see it yet, but I do see the cars tailing it. Fuck me, they’re fast.

Please don’t say ‘fuck me,’ Hleuco thought.

“Can you get to it?”

Yeah, if it would turn to the right, I could intercept it from up top.

Hleuco kept an ear out for anything interesting. Anything new.

He relayed what he was hearing.

“Police are setting up a blockade, it can’t make a right anymore.”

Fuck me.

Hleuco shook his head as he drove, knowing she couldn’t see him.

Please be quiet.

“They’re attempting to trap the car on Williamson. They’re mobilizing faster than I thought.”

What does that mean for me?

“Seems to me they might actually have this one under control now. I’m impressed.”

Great. So all I did tonight was just get some exercise?

“Don’t sell yourself short. Mrs. Azikiwe wouldn’t be sleeping soundly right now if you hadn’t gotten her cat out of that tree.”

I won’t stop selling myself short.

Hleuco took the comment in stride. He sped down the street he was on, still mindful of the speed limit, other cars, and lights. It’d slow him down in getting to Blank Face, but she could make up for that with her own speed and mobility.

The fact that she even had that type of speed and mobility…

He was still having trouble wrapping his head around it. Blank Face had powers, strength beyond compare. No one had seen anything like it, ever. The world was still reeling from the revelation, what it meant, what was to come. How, and why.

It was a day that wouldn’t ever fade over time. It had become something of a pop culture lexicon. A meme, as the kids put it. ‘Where were you when the first superhuman made themselves known?’

Hleuco, Thomas knew. He was in his office, watching the whole thing unfold. Watching the potential.

A hero, here, in Stephenville of all places.

And he was able to work with her on this. On being an actual hero. Providing guidance. He would have felt privileged about the partnership, if the sheer coincidence didn’t shake him to his core.

With something so big, they had to take small steps. That meant limiting her shifts to more manageable times throughout the week, picking and choosing what petty crimes she’d handle, and monitoring police activity so they wouldn’t be in her hair as much. All to help instill the idea that her great power should be married with a greater sense of duty.

To better steer her in that direction, establishing rules was important.

Exercise extreme caution. Avoid overextending power for oneself or unto others.

Constant communication is necessary. Updates should be regularly provided and orders must be promptly followed.

Anything else was common sense.

He thought those rules were simple enough when he came up with them, but establishing them early was crucial. This had never been done before, there was no precedent. Blank Face was strong, and by her own admittance, already stabbed someone. Accident or not, that needed to be curbed, avoided in the future. He worried that she might want to escalate if things weren’t in check.

Which was why he also invested in precautions. Pentazemin rounds. He prayed he never had to use them.

There were many kinds in Stephenville. Those who were good, those who weren’t so, and those who turned and became lost. He only wanted Blank Face to be the former.

Thomas didn’t want another one in that last category. Not again.

Hey, Hleuco, you still thirsty for an update?

Her voice brought his conscious attention back to the road. He clicked the left turn signal, then turned.

“Always.”

I’m on Williamson now, but the car keeps tearing through blockades.

He tuned his ear to the police broadcasts. She was right.

“The car’s modified?”

It’s going fast as fuck, everyone’s jumping out of the way since it’s just plowing through everything. Cars and vans. I think the front’s been reinforced.

“Where are you right now?”

I’m ahead of everyone, so I’m seeing it all, it’s just…

A pause.

Fuck!

“What’s wrong?”

It broke through the last blockade. A… a bus is coming from the left at an intersection. A school bus.

“At this hour?”

Anyone could be in there! Shit, at this rate they’re going to collide.

Again, a pause.

I’m going.

Hleuco almost stomped on the breaks, but there were others around him. He had to keep driving.

“That’s a big no, Blank Face. You’re going to come back here right now.”

And let people die? I can stop the car, there’s still time.

Hleuco threw caution to the wind, listening to the police and getting a better sense of where to go.

He stomped on the gas.

“Blank Face, if you’re even thinking about it-”

I don’t have time to argue. I’ll update you in a bit.

He passed up a car, crossing a red light. The city flew past him.

“Blank Face!”

He kept driving, and the police kept blabbering on. He punched the button to shut them up. He only wanted to hear Blank Face.

But there was no one on the other end.

Fuck me, Hleuco thought.

With another turn, he was close as he could get to Williamson Avenue. The police blockades worked both ways. He drove down a street that ran parallel.

Sweat dripped down the steering wheel. His heart beat so hard it hurt.

The machines beside him whirred, the van’s tires rolling down the concrete. A screaming sound.

Silent.

He drove.

Quiet.

Still no answer.

It was maddening.

Hleuco started slowing down.

Not another one…

Not another regret.

He moved a finger to turn on the police-

Hleuco? I’m at-

Hleuco went to a full and complete stop. The van and everything inside it rocked. Cars honked as they passed.

He ran his hand through his hair, nearly pulling strands out from the root. He was so happy he was mad.

“Repeat that, Blank Face?”

I’m at an alley over on Baxton, by a pharmacy. Is it a good pick-up spot?

That was a block down, secluded enough. It worked.

“It works,” Hleuco said slowly, “Stay there, don’t move. Be there soon.”

I hear you.

Now you hear me, he thought. But he drove to get her.

His chest wouldn’t ease up.

Before he got to the spot, he reached back to the seats behind him. He put on his mask as he went. A memento from his time in Europe.

He needed an identity too, some gesture to make Blank Face feel less alone in her role as a hero. Hleuco. From the name haliaeetus leucocephalus. The bald eagle.

He needed a mask, too. She couldn’t see his face as it was now. Not now.

The door slid open. Blank Face stepped in. They left.

“I’m back,” she said. It was good to hear her voice without the mechanical filter. That was what he wanted to hear.

“Count your blessings,” he said, “You’re lucky you made it out of that okay. But don’t push that luck.”

“I’m with you on that.” She was breathing hard, panting. Whatever she did took everything out of her. “My arms are killing me.”

How strong are you, Alexis?

The van rolled on, and Thomas was ready to call it a night.

Present

He checked to see if he had everything on him. He did. Wallet, phone, keys.

Thomas got into the car, Jeffery closing the door for him.

The vehicle pulled out of the driveway, and they went.

Jeffery was usually more talkative, but he was mute, now. Thomas wasn’t that lively, either.

Solace got Edgar. He’s dead.

He was at his wit’s end, but he was too sick of everything to exert effort for a reaction.

He just sat.

Solace got Edgar, and he was dead. Because Blank Face and Hleuco pushed too hard, pushed the gangs too far, too fast, and Solace was born from their desperation. He thought he calculated it right, he thought they were disrupting just enough that it would not come to this.

Thomas was cognizant of the fact it would have been an uphill battle. Public opinion of Blank Face was plummeting, and they hadn’t yet reestablished her name as being Blank Face.

Uphill, but he didn’t expect it to become this steep.

No, these criminals are superstitious, cowardly. Especially in the face of an actual threat. I should have taken that into more consideration.

His thoughts poured over every detail, every bit of information in the past forty-eight hours. What connected, what made sense, what was a legitimate clue?

Thomas made a fist with each hand.

He had to give it up to Solace, they were thorough. Nothing came up when they investigated the event staff, and of course nothing came up when they went to Kristin. The only lead was the apartment they traced the signal back to. Nothing but bricks and wood.

Except a message to Blank Face.

Blank Face – Alexis – was positive the message was directed to her, by the leader of El Carruaje, a now-defunct gang, and Blank Face’s first foe. When she informed him of this, he tried to inquire about the woman who ran that gang, Benny. Her record, whether or not she was actually incarcerated.

Of course, everyone was scrambling over Solace. Of course, they were too busy to look into a small fry.

Thomas wasn’t the district attorney, not yet. He could only do so much as he was. No one answered to him, they would only consider what he had to say.

After forty-eight hours, all any of them could do was try and prevent this. But it didn’t work.

Lost in his thoughts, Thomas caught a glimpse of an intersection as they passed it. The sign.

Gomez’s office isn’t this way.

“Jeffery, are we meeting with Gomez elsewhere?” Thomas asked.

Jeffery kept driving.

“Jeffery? I-”

The officer whipped his arm back, pointing a gun to Thomas.

Thomas backed up as far as he could, which was hardly at all. His hands went up.

“Just, just be quiet, or I’ll shoot. Not another word. And if you do anything else except sit there and keep those hands up, I’ll shoot.”

Thomas didn’t try him. Jeffery’s finger was already on the trigger. Thomas put his hands above his head.

Behind the car, a resounding, deep grumble rocked Thomas’s ears. He would have liked to turn and investigate, but there was no need to set off Jeffery.

Looking wasn’t even needed. He could see from the rear view mirror, and that distinct tone of that sound.

It was Styx’s bike. Styx was here.

So this was how…

And he considered Jeffery a pal, too.

He was fucked.

Previous                                                                                               Next

Interlude – Styx

Previous                                                                                               Next

The music was loud. Loud enough that he didn’t hear the chair collide with the wall, tools scattering into the air, then banging onto the floor.

Styx roared.

It was a sort of rage that was utterly recreational. A push, and that was all that was needed for him to go off. Like his moods lived on a swing. All it took was a simple push.

Recreational, yet fulfilling. He needed this. Craved it. The freedom to do, the freedom to be. Addicting, and he was his own supplier.

And here? He also had the freedom to destroy.

Everything in the garage was his. The sports cars, the vintage motorcycles, the guns. Organized according to manufacturers, then year. Everything in the condominium was his. To be precise, he owned the whole building. The crown fruit of his decades of hard labor. Building an empire wasn’t easy, but it certainly was rewarding.

The vehicles were clean, the walls white, the area well-lit. A complicated sound system blasted the music throughout the garage, a deep bass rumbling mirrors and windows. Guns rattled where they were situated on a wall, but they wouldn’t fall. The cleanliness didn’t necessarily fit Styx’s nature, but it didn’t have to. He had the means to afford it, and the means to indulge himself in it.

However, despite the otherwise well-kept status of the garage, there was one third of the space that he allowed to be dirty. The innermost section of the garage. His workstation, where he kept his projects and other endeavors. Here, was where he was most free. Tools and knives and guns were strewn about, dirt marks were streaked across the floor and walls. Dark splotches of paint and blood touched the ceilings. Various tables with various tools and gadgets, randomly placed, unlike how his cars and motorcycles were lined up. He liked the contrast, how things didn’t necessarily go from one to the other.

He liked the chaos.

Again, Styx roared. It strained.

As he let himself come down from his fit, he grabbed a towel off of a table, wiping sweat off of his body. He was shirtless, wearing only black skinny jeans and black boots. Tattoos of different images were sketched across his chest, torso, and arms. Pagan, tarot, Lovecraftian.

Styx bent down where the chair had landed. He picked up a wrench, gripping it tight in his hand. He turned, then stopped.

Acknowledgement.

He went to another metal table, where other tools laid, available. A remote was there, too. Without having to lift it, he pressed a finger on a button. The music was immediately cut.

“Victor,” Styx said, but he didn’t hear himself. A high ringing had replaced the noisy, industrial instrumental.

‘Victor’ answered with a lift of his chin.

His clothes were simple, but it was all he had time to procure. Things were moving, quickly, and Victor had little in the way of leisure time. A white shirt, tucked into blue denim jeans. Light brown boots. Round, large sunglasses adorned his face.

He ran his fingers through his hair, despite the bandages wrapped around his palm. Though, there wasn’t much there, thanks to his buzz cut.

“I’m surprised you haven’t blown out your ears yet,” Victor said, having to raise his voice for Styx to hear. The proper security measures were set up across the building, even though it wasn’t necessary. Anyone who knew, knew to stay away.

After one of Styx’s men escorted the two back to the condo, and after the two spent some time catching up, Styx had told Victor the different words and numbers necessary to let himself in. Told. Styx trusted he wouldn’t write it down, and was confident in Victor’s ability to memorize a few letters and digits.

Victor had taken the wooden stairs down to the garage, the glass door behind him. A large, brown paper bag sat at his feet.

“You were okay with being out in the open?” Styx asked instead, as if Victor’s concern wasn’t worth addressing. “No issues?”

“None. I know how to keep my head down.”

“Don’t want to spoil your arrival to the Feds?”

“Oh yeah, I prefer being the uninvited guest. Makes things interesting. Especially if I bring gifts.”

Styx nodded. His brow was still furrowed, his eyes wild, like he was still maintaining a hold on the anger that gripped him not too long ago. He creeped over to the middle of the garage, towards his bike, to actually get some work done on it.

“It’s just a few scratches, Styx, I don’t see why you need to tune up the whole-”

Styx cut him off.

“They fucked up King of Pentacles!” he bellowed at the top of his lungs, referring to his bike. “I’ll whip the bitch who did it!”

King of Pentacles. The motorcycle was a mechanical embodiment of Styx’s career in the underground. Originally a used bike he stole almost thirty years ago, he’d built upon it, adding where it was needed, stripping away where it was least efficient. Now, it was a bike that perfectly represented his status in the city. Not how he viewed himself, necessarily, but how others should view him.

An all-black custom chopper. Sleek, elegant, but with a edge to it that made people steer clear of it, turning another way if they simply saw it parked, somewhere. Styx preferred functionality over aesthetics, but it worked, here. The large engine at the bottom resembled something of a ribcage, and the headlight was encased in a plating that resembled Cthulhu. Asymmetric slits allowed light to bleed through, with tentacles reaching forward to hold the front tire. It had a form, but nothing definite, concrete. It left things to the imagination, and most didn’t want to be around to ponder over it.

And Styx saw where scratches defiled the bike, where dents fucked up his handiwork. Though few, and negligible, it make his blood boil.

Angrily, Styx went back to finishing the final touches on his bike. If anyone could work the nuts and bolts of a motorcycle with anger, it was Styx.

“We’re not even taking King of Pentacles to the meeting,” Victor said. “You can fix it later.”

“This is my bike,” Styx replied, in a much more reserved manner. “You know that.”

“And you know I know that, I’m just telling you that it can wait. The meeting’s in an hour, and you’re the only one with clearance to take me.”

Styx twisted with the wrench, making more adjustments. “I don’t give a fuck. Everyone can wait. You, Mister, and those fucks. My shit takes precedence over their shit.” He yelled, as though to verbally form an exclamation point. It rang throughout the garage. That, he heard.

“Then I have no choice but to wait.” Styx heard Victor walk through the workstation, picking up the chair that Styx had thrown, and sat in it.

“Man, this city hasn’t really changed much since I left,” Victor said. “More of the same. Except, there’s actually more. More gangs, more drugs, more shit. I commend you for keeping things together.”

“It’s easy,” Styx said, keeping it short.

“I’ll say. You’re living lavish. I’d comment and suggest that the wealth has made you soft, but it clearly hasn’t.”

Styx didn’t respond, focusing too much on King of Pentacles.

From behind him, Victor murmured, or spoke at a normal enough volume that Styx couldn’t pick it up. The ringing was only now starting to subside.

“Yeah?” Styx questioned.

“Right, the music. I was talking… there’s one new player in all this, huh?”

Styx knew exactly what he was talking about. Who, to be precise.

“Yeah.”

“‘The Bluemoon.’ Or, didn’t you mention another name?”

“Yeah, Blueballs?”

“Your humor is still on point, Styx. No, I mean an actual name.”

“Last night, when I got a call from a police station that I’m good with. John told us everything. Told us it went by ‘Blank Face.’”

“That was it. If it went by another name, couldn’t it just be another super… thing?”

“That’s a whole different question. All I know is, that’s the same one that came by the yard. The physical description matched up. It was a good thing I kept watch, in the distance.”

“Blank Face, huh.”

Then, Victor laughed, without warning. Styx kept working.

“The hell? I’m not impressed at all!” Victor exclaimed. “I was thinking it’d be some terrifying figure, but all I saw was some clown with a limp arm. What kind of hero can I just kick out the back of a truck, and you come in to break their arms. What a little bitch.”

Styx giggled to himself. It was manic, uneven in pitch. “Heh, lil’ bitch.”

“That’s why I had to ask if that really was The Bluemoon I’ve seen on TV. It shouldn’t have been that easy.”

“That was our Blueballs for sure, but does it really matter? The meeting is still happening, they still want to talk about this.”

Victor sighed, letting out another chuckle. “Hah, I get it, though. There’s more to it than that, and that’s what they’re pissing themselves over. We’ll all go over it then. But, I’m not going to say it didn’t take the wind out of my sails, even just a bit. I sit for thirty-six hours in the back of a truck, smelling like shit, only for it to be almost unbelievable easy to take the hero out. Do you see what I’m getting at?”

“Yes.”

“Maybe being a ‘hero’ isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.”

Styx pulled away the wrench, and patted the leather seat of the bike. He stood, facing Victor. “Don’t get ahead of yourself. If taking out Blueballs was all he needed you to do, Mister wouldn’t have asked for you. And what you perceive to be a minor threat is still a threat. You don’t get to where I am by underestimating bitches.”

Victor lifted his hands, placating. “I know, I know. I’ve got work to do.” He groaned.

Victor casted a glance at Styx. “What about you? You scared of this, thing? It escaped, went after your guys, last night.”

Styx answered plainly, truthfully. “Me? Nah. If anything, I’m curious.”

“Nice.”

Victor stared at Styx, and he stared back. Blankly.

Victor dropped his shoulders, grumbling, and lazily pointed to a corner of Styx’s workstation. “Um, I was trying to find a way to bring this to your attention, but… Aren’t you going to introduce me?”

Styx looked, and remembered that the man tied to a chair was there.

He was blindfolded, with no clothes, save for his underwear. Twitching, shaking. His mouth shuddered, but no sound came forth.

He dripped of blood and sweat and tears, his blindfold most dark where his eyes should be. His chair was placed on top of multiple mats, placed into a large square. Normally used for dogs, the mats caught the blood and urine that slid down the chair’s legs.

Styx shrugged.

“My payment for agreeing to see through you crossing the border. You might recognize him, you sat by him for thirty-six hours.”

Victor frowned. “This is why society agreed to put value into things like green paper.”

“So?”

Victor shifted in his seat. Not because he was alarmed, Styx knew, but because he went to reach for his phone. Styx took that as a chance to check his, too.

“Bored?” Victor asked, looking at his phone.

“Stress reliever,” Styx replied, while looking at his, “And practice for when I get that bitch who fucked King of Pentacles.”

“The more things change, the more they stay the same, then.”

“Aye aye.”

The man was becoming audible, now, but no one paid heed to him. The man whimpered while Styx checked his phone.

Victor put his phone away. “So, you almost finished, here? I’ll leave a better impression if I show up early. You know, like an actual professional.”

“Eh.” Styx put his phone in his pants pocket. “Let me get my stuff, then.”

Victor griped again, as he got out of the chair. “Styx, if you’re so bored being here, in this city, why haven’t you left, yet? You could’ve visited me.”

“That again?”

“Yes, again. Nothing’s honestly tying you down, you could leave anytime you want, let the city burn behind you while you see the world.”

“Like what you did?”

“Yes.”

Styx looked to Victor, his chin tilted up some to make up for the height difference. He had no expression. “That’s what makes us different. You wanted to see the world, I wanted to make my own.”

Victor smiled. “And that’s the only difference?”

Styx’s lack of expression stayed.

Victor then nodded, as if taking it all in. “I suppose that still makes me Remus, and you Romulus,” he said.

“Careful, I haven’t killed you yet.”

“If it ever comes to that, you’ll die, too,” Victor said. “Of boredom.”

Styx actually cracked something of a smile to that, though twisted, unhinged.

Before Styx could let the moment get the better of him, he turned, retrieving his leather jacket, putting it on over his bare torso. He didn’t bother to bring a gun. His presence would be enough. Victor followed, taking the paper bag he brought in with him.

“You can pick which car we take,” Styx said.

Styx took to a corner of the room. Fitting, to how much of a role he played in this. A willing, listening participant, but not necessarily an active one.

Others began filing in, sitting around a round table. Some were in more casual wear, but most elected to wear suits. Mostly men, but two women were in attendance, already waiting.

Styx rested his tongue on his upper lip.

Victor sat next to him, watching as the rest came into the high-rise restaurant. The room was dimly lit, sensual, if Styx wanted to be poetic, which he sometimes liked to be. A light jazz tune wafted about the area, almost as if the room had housed the essence of this music, and the building, the floor, the room, was built in accommodation to it.

Poetic.

Styx looked at them all, uncaring. They weren’t even a third of the gangs that had a hold on the city.

He listed the names of the different mobsters. Arthur, Brian, Cassius, D’Angelo, Edward, Forest, Gary, Hayden, Inez.

All separate, yet connected by a single thread…

And they were completely oblivious.

“Is Mister gonna make it, Styx?” It was D’Angelo, calling from across the room. Leader of one of the Italian mobs.

“No,” Styx replied, at half the volume. “He’s sitting it out. I can fill him in, if he wants.”

D’Angelo motioned to the whole room, as everyone took their seats. “This isn’t enough for him to show? This isn’t important enough to appear in person, for once?”

“It may look that way to stupider eyes, but I am not his keeper. If he found a more pressing matter to deal with instead, that’s on him.”

“He called the meeting!”

“Calm down, D’Angelo,” Inez said, ushering him to sit. “We can still have a discussion and act without him. So let’s try to be punctual.”

D’Angelo sat, and Inez looked pleased with herself. The leader of a cartel on the south side. A real cougar with the power to dominate. So badly, Styx wanted to fuck that grin right off of her face.

He tried to keep still.

“Let’s getting started then, brother,” Forest said, pointing to Victor. “Man of the hour.”

Victor took that cue, leaving his seat to approach the circle. He brought his bag with him.

“That’s what I am. ‘Kay, I’ll make the introduction short. Most of you, we go way back, and it’s nice to see you all again.” He gestured with a small bow to the table.

“The rest of you who are not familiar, I’m probably the reason why you’re​ at this table, today, and absolutely the reason why Mister can afford to miss such a meeting. To be cocky, I produce results.”

Some of the mobsters exchanged glances. The ones who didn’t know him.  The naïve ones.

“To all you new folk, don’t waste the energy trying to decide whether or not I’m the real deal. I am. Let’s all just accept that, and we’ll all be a lot richer for it, in the end.”

Victor set the paper bag down on the table, next to Arthur. Arthur pointed to it, and Victor motioned, letting him take a peek inside.

Styx leered to himself when he saw Arthur’s reaction.

“Are you mad? What are you thinking, bringing-”

“Now, now,” Victor interrupted. “Let’s not get so irritable so soon. You’ll find that it may come in handy, one day.”

Arthur grumbled, and passed the bag down for Brian to look inside. His reaction was more understated, Styx saw, but he couldn’t quite hide the fear. Brian passed the bag down, and the bag made its round trip. The ones who already had a rapport with Victor masked their trepidation well. The others did not.

Styx knew Victor was making a show of things, but it was only because he had to confidence to do so. The repertoire.

“Let’s start with the obvious, yeah? Why are we all here, today, having a meeting over a light breakfast?”

The mobsters looked amongst each other.

“Tough crowd,” Victor said. “Then, I won’t tiptoe around it anymore. The Bluemoon. Or ‘Blank Face,’ from what I’ve heard on the streets.” Victor put his hands into air quotes when he said ‘Blank Face.’ “A very indecisive individual, this one.”

Victor started snapping his fingers, looking expectant.

“What do we want to call this individual? Bluemoon, Blank Face, hero, vigilante, monster…”

“Lil’ bitch,” Styx yelled out.

“Thanks for that, Styx, but I’ll just go ahead and use ‘Blank Face.’ If that’s what they want to be called, then I’ll respect their wishes.”

Hayden, the other female mob boss, leaned in with her elbows on the table, her chin resting on her hands. “Are you going to at least pretend that you’re taking this seriously?”

Styx squinted. One of the naïve ones.

“Oh, I am. Wouldn’t want to waste a perfectly good sightseeing opportunity. Yes, this Blank Face has been causing some trouble for the lot of you. Even its very existence raises some issues. Coupled with the fact that the National Guard might sweep the streets to find the vigilante, and not to mention all the media coverage placed on the city because of it, that’s a lot of eyes on things we don’t want to be looked at, no?”

Hayden fell back into her seat. Styx couldn’t see it from his view, but he read that she crossed her legs.

Victor kept going. “This may be unprecedented, but we’re not blind and in the dark. There are some things we do know about Blank Face. I’m sure all of you have heard by now, but Blank Face decided to pay me a visit, last night.”

A few had worried expression. Styx knew what that would imply, that he was incapable, or vulnerable, to an assault by Blank Face or another party. That he somehow slipped up, able to be taken advantage of. He hated that implication. He could have pushed, and killed any one of them for thinking that, if he wanted to.

He didn’t.

Styx had an outlet for his frustrations at home.

A feeling stirred within Styx.

Arthur spoke. “Is that why you’re trying to act so nonchalant about this? To save face after seeing the devil?”

Several laughed.

Victor was motionless, not responding to that comment.

“We were close to capturing it,” Victor said, fixing his sunglasses, “Maybe even closer to killing it, last night. I was able to subdue it and distract it enough for Styx to do his thing. Two broken arms, strangulation, at least. Who knows what we managed internally. Blank Face managed to walk away from that.”

Suddenly, there was no room for levity. The table was dead quiet.

“How, how are you so sure?” It was Cassius who had to balls to say something.

Styx spoke. Everyone turned their heads. “Our transport of Blank Face was interrupted, and it got away. My men told me afterwards that Blank Face was soon active, moving like nothing ever happened.”

Victor gave Styx a thumbs up. “Which brings me to my next point. Bla-”

“You’re fucking telling us that thing can’t die!”

The voice was too on edge, too shrill, to point to a source. Panic was rushing into the hearts of the mobsters, at the revelation. Styx took a glance at his phone.

“Everyone, please, settle yourselves!” Victor had to raise his voice to be heard above the uproar. “You’re going to scare our hard working servers!”

Some turned, Styx did, too. A small team of young waiters stood, flustered at what to do. One had a platter of crepes and omelets. Another had his hands around an intricately designed cart, with pancakes and cups of coffee on it. But he was still.

Styx silently judged as the mobsters started to right themselves, straightening their backs. Victor gave the servers the okay to approach.

“To address the table’s concerns,” Victor said, “It appears that Blank Face has some sort of improved healing. But, do not let that scare you. Blank Face can be taken down, and it may be easy for it to get back up, that point remains. We just need to hit back, hard. Harder.”

“And how do you propose to do that?” someone asked. Styx couldn’t tell.

Victor, now, had started walking around the table. Styx only saw the back of his head, but he knew what his expression would be. He mouthed it in time with Victor.

“I’m working on it.”

“You’re… working on it?” Forest.

“Yes, my man, working on it. I’ll give you the proper pitch when I have it more developed, probably by later tonight, so I’m hoping I’ll have your… support.”

“We’ll see if it’s good enough for that.”

“Thank you very much. I don’t want to spoil what I have right now, but I’m thinking something theatrical? We have people in masks, now, performing magic and tricks. I suggest we play into that a bit.”

“Wait, people?” Inez questioned, stressing that second word.

“Oh, I almost forgot! Everyone was losing it a moment ago…” Victor scratched his throat, before saying, “Blank Face isn’t working alone.”

Styx could feel it in the room, the panic coming back, but no one wanted to fall into it. Not anymore. Styx remained calm.

“You’re joking.”

“‘Fraid not. One of Styx’s Ferrymen were interrupted by Blank Face, earlier in the night, before it came to us. A van came to get him. A man in a bird mask accompanies Blank Face.”

The two women went pale. Styx, instead, seethed at the mention of the van. “There’s… there’s more of them?”

Victor shook his head. “That’s one of the things we don’t know. I’m inclined to say yes, just to be careful.”

Murmurs among the mobsters, unsure of what to make of the possibility of at least two superhumans working against them. Styx couldn’t help but think of ways to rip them apart, instead. And if they could recover from that, then more fun for him.

“What more do we know of this man in the bird mask?” Inez asked.

“Not much, but they were probably in constant communication with each other.”

Styx had realized that Victor never mentioned how they got interrupted by the van, how it crashed into King of Pentacles. At this meeting, too many details were coming out that were frightening the mobsters. It wouldn’t do to have them completely chicken out and not want to hear Victor’s plans. Or was it better that he play into that, getting more support?

Or, was Victor trying to protect Styx’s rep? As if he needed it, but, if so, Styx appreciated the effort.

D’Angelo cut into his pancake, then ate, chewing slowly. After washing it down with coffee he asked, “And you think you can take them on, not knowing what you don’t know?”

“Oh, I can. The battle isn’t as uphill as you’re insinuating it be. The whole world is even more fearful of Blank Face. By the by, I love the riot idea. I say we do more of that, while we’re at it.”

The different members of the table nodded. Styx loved the idea, too.

“If we play our cards right, this might turn out to be a problem that solves itself. Again, more details to come.”

Forest raised his cup, looking around for a waiter. “Ah, man, that’s enough of the Blank Face talk, for now. Getting me sick to my stomach. Brother, we’ll patiently await your pitch.”

Victor had wrapped around the table, his back to Styx. He brought both hands up. Peace signs.

“Super.”

While the others got to their breakfast, Hayden asked, “Is there anything else we want to bring up?”

Arthur set down his fork. “There’s one thing.”

Victor leaned close. “Hmm?”

“Thomas Thompson.”

“Don’t know the name, sorry.”

“He’s a lawyer. Pain in the ass, with the potential of becoming a bigger one.”

“I’m listening.”

“Elections for the next DA are coming up, and it looks like he’s going to take it. We had our guy, John Cruz, but the public adores Thompson. He’s squeaky clean, going on a platform of ‘hope’ and ‘courage’ in the face of adversity. ‘Wander no more,’ he says. It’s bullshit, but they’re eating it up.”

Victor fixed a sleeve. “Squeaky clean does present a problem.”

“Him being in office isn’t going to help us any. Harsher punishments on any alleged corruption in the police force, and he’s advocating for harsher punishments for any possible connection to any gang activity, however minute. He was instrumental in bringing down one of the Cobras. They’re still shaken up about it.”

“Sebastian?”

“Yes.”

“No.” Victor looked legitimately disheartened, hearing that. He brought a finger to his chin, thinking.

“So you understand why I brought it up? If he can do that much without holding an official office…”

Victor snapped his fingers. “Say no more, I can take care of it.”

No one did say more, seemingly satisfied. Everyone continued eating. A minute with only small talk, then Victor walked back to Styx, bringing his bag with him.

“Doing okay?” Victor asked.

Styx grunted, non-committal.

“Hey, I’ll need your help in this, in all of this.”

“As long as you keep it entertaining.”

“I’ll plan around it.”

They both smiled, Styx’s much more menacing. Victor was a man of his word, and he was looking forward to it as much as he was.

Styx was ready to push.

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028 – Course

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I didn’t scream. Couldn’t, due to the chain. A shaky, pathetic gurgle was all I could produce.

My left arm broke from the impact. If I had a hard time moving before, it was completely impossible now. It went limp at my side, attached like dead weight.

It was just dislocated, not too long ago.

Out of the frying pan, and into Hell itself.

Naturally, my arm went right to healing itself, but it was delayed, slow. It wasn’t healing as fast as it should, as fast as I had seen it heal before. The wounds weren’t mending like they should.

It was obvious why. Like a car running low on fuel, it wouldn’t work properly.

I needed blood.

For my part, at least the sleeves covered up my arms, so no one could see what was actually happening. They couldn’t peek under the hood, so to speak.

I just prayed that man would not hit me again.

My eyes were already full of tears, sliding down the sides of my face until they stopped where the mask touched my cheeks, tracing a perimeter of wetness. My vision was compromised.

Breathing was a challenge, a faint inhale was all I could muster.

“And one more for the road,” I heard from the man standing above me, the sound of the metal bat cutting through the air.

If I could see, everything would have went black and white. I croaked, drool starting to trail down the corners of my mouth.

The man hit me again.

But I prayed about it.

My right arm, shattered at the elbow.

The rest of my body twisted and shuddered at the pain. I couldn’t vocalize, so my body had to express the pain I was in for me.

“Styx, it’s good to see you again,” someone else said. “Been well?”

“Well as I can be. Thanks for the help, but we can pick up on the pleasantries later.”

“Then, this is the infamous superhero, am I right?” that other person asked. “Looks like I wasn’t needed after all, if we’re already taking care of this, now.”

“Don’t go planning your vacation just yet. He still has work for you to do, here. Mister.”

A second voice, a second player. This talk about a ‘Mister.’ Vaguely familiar, like I’d heard mentioned in a dream, somewhere, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

Metaphorically and physically.

My brain wasn’t letting me piece any bits of information together. I was simply unable to do much of anything. Rendered useless.

I shut my eyes, then tried to blink away the water. I needed to see, needed to find a way out.

The second voice spoke again. “I’d be wary, though, may have a partner, this one. Was talking to themselves. That, or this is one crazy motherfucker.”

“Yeah? If Blueballs here makes it all the way back home alive enough, we can try asking a few questions.”

“Ha. I have to say, Styx, you know how to entertain your guests. This should be fun.”

“Doing this for so long, you have to keep things interesting. Otherwise, you’re fucked.”

The rough voice of that biker, I had to assume he was ‘Styx.’ He raised his voice to address others here.

“Aye aye! We’re rolling out. Gather up the others, they’ll be sorted out later. He, and this… They come with me.”

Roars of assent, then the sound of movement, activity. People were moving, getting things together. Several engines rumbled to life.

One behind me was the loudest. The sound banged in my head.

My arms weren’t healing fast enough. Still couldn’t move them.

Could barely hear. Could barely breathe.

This might be it.

The loudest engine roared again, and I felt the ground move beneath me. The chain tightening yet again.

This scenario, something familiar about it.

I was being dragged by a motorcycle, with a metal chain around my throat.

My whole body was limp, unable to move a finger or toe as the motorcycle approached a faster speed, getting out of the trailer yard. As we exited, I saw that the gate was open. It was locked shut before, preventing Hleuco from getting in with me.

I was brought onto the road proper, where the ride became even more bumpy. Tiny, pointed pebbles were kicked up as I was dragged, the occasional cracked chip of concrete slipping into through the collar of my clothes, scratching the skin off of my bare back.

My eyes were rolling upward. Buildings rushed above me, speeding by as I was forced past them.

Street lights, traffic lights, no matter the color, we maintained speed. No other cars to impede the bikers, too. Styx’s Gang likely had complete control of the roads.

An elbow bumped against the road again, but it was less painful, that time.

Every feeling and sensation in me was already fading, but I felt the occasional kick of my leg as my foot bounced against the road, the stimulating sharp pain as a broken elbow scraped along concrete. We were going fast, now, and I was soon to pass out, and dying right after.

This was how I was going to die, wasn’t it? Reduced to a bloodied, beaten ragdoll, flopping pitifully, like I was being toyed with by a child. I’d die before my healing could catch up. I’d fall unconscious before I could lift any appendage.

I shifted my gaze ahead of me.

A handful of small, white dots were trying to pierce the dark that already blanketed my eyes, floating up and down, but largely staying in place. The outer edges of the lights were blunted by the overcast gloom that befell me. Hazily, I tried using the lights to focus, keep my mind active, and figure out what exactly they were.

I sensed that Styx had made a turn, because the ground under me shifted, and I was swinging to the right. It was a wide turn, which translated into me hitting the side of a curb, before being pulled along a straight course again.

I gagged.

Over the loud engines, cackling and whooping sounded off all around me.

The engines, the laughing and cheering. The lights… The lights in front of me were from other motorcycles. Others from Styx’s Gang. I was surrounded. Even if I could miraculously get myself out of these chains, there were threats in every direction.

I had no sense of time, place, or direction, or even an idea of who I was. Just an ever-encompassing hurt. I was lost. I was losing.

I was broken.

-ace… ear me… Co-

Among all the racket of the machinery and running concrete, a low, mechanic hissed tried to reach out to me.

-most… from be-

I opened my mouth, or rather I let my jaw hang as much as the chain would let me, and found my lips, tongue, and throat to be dry. A fish out of water. A vampire without blood.

The straining, the struggle, the fight within me was all but depleted. I was running out of fucks to give.

Styx’s motorcycle turned again, because I hit another curb, and I, in effect, bounced.

The hit was enough for me to let my eyes wander around, then gently close, languid. The motorcycle lights dimming all the more.

I was ready to give up.

But, a light here, a light there, spun. Then, they blinked away.

Two, much brighter lights, had cut through the individual lights, knocking them away. The crunch and scraping of metal followed, along with more shouting.

The two lights were moving in unison, together, picking up more speed, catching up to me. It was starting to get close, too close, then swerving to pass me up. With the last of my receding vision, I saw where light reflected off the otherwise black surface.

A van.

Get read- Stick with… self!

Words. In my ear, again.

Who?

Help?

H…

Hleuco?

The black van sped off again, and while I couldn’t see what exactly went down, I certainly heard it.

And was forced to deal with the aftermath.

Metal banged and crashed together, and the chain went even more taut. I was yanked another direction, towards the sidewalk.

My long, agonizing ride through Hell ended with an abrupt halt.

It took some time for me to finally realize it, but I was able to take breaths, to inhale oxygen. The chain had slackened enough, and I was no longer dragged away.

I was dizzy, if nothing else. Rolling and sliding and tumbling, every turn and direction. It wouldn’t leave me. Whiplash.

Damage to my neck? Probably. I was tugged by there for so long. Permanent? Probably not, but the healing would be slow there, too. It throbbed, like someone was still pulling at the chain at consistent intervals, and it wasn’t getting any better. I fought the urge to vomit.

Involuntarily, an arm suddenly twitched. I could move it. I had finished healing, there. With the little energy I had left – energy I was surprised I still had  – I worked to uncoil the chain around my neck.

I worked as fast as I could, which was still slow, and the chain fell beside me, and I was free. Finally.

Working to get to my feet, however, was another hurdle entirely. That meant my entire body working together to a common goal, and I absolutely did not have the capacity for that. But, I had to move, to get moving. Escape, and find a place to hide and lick my wounds in peace. Catch up with… with someone.

But first… first…

I needed blood.

The pounding around my throat, my windpipe. I let it get to my head.

Operate, first instincts.

As fast as my newly-mended arms would allow – which was not at all – I pulled down at the metal chain that once ensnared me. And kept pulling, passing the chain past me, alternating hands. Like I was climbing a rope in gym class, except on my side, and instead of going up to the ceiling, I was trying to get to the motorcycle.

Eventually, I got through the excess chain, and the metal links straightened out again. I was able to make progress.

Dissonant. Jarring. Shouting. Tires. Just noise, everywhere. Panic. Making sense of it could come later.

I pulled, tugged, and pulled again. I made it to the motorcycle, arms aching all the way.

Tapping into my last reserves of strength, I pushed myself up, and crawled on top of the vehicle, which was on its side, but still humming, engines on.

Ah, shit.

They weren’t here. Styx, or the owner of that other voice. Male, if the haze in my brain could clear up a little, and let me remember properly.

They aren’t here. Not anywhere around. Did they run off? Take another bike?

Wait… What was I going to do, if they were here?

That thought, that idea, I had to push it aside. Just for now. Search. Look elsewhere.

I sat up, but I was slouched over. I removed a glove, feeling around the bike, being mindful of where the bike was at its hottest.

If they crashed…

There.

My fingers ran across something wet. I looked at my hand, the way it glistened, how it smelled.

Not oil.

Blood.

Yes.

Getting my mask off was the next course of action. Using only one hand was proving tricky, and I was becoming impatient with how hard it was to unfasten the different straps and pieces to it. I was tempted to just rip it off, but that would only cause more problems in the immediate future.

Patience, Blank Face, give yourself just a small amount.

I did, and I managed to loosen the mask. I pushed it up, scrunching it, putting the filter over my eyes.

I didn’t waste a fucking second.

I thrusted my fingers into my mouth, and licked.

A surge, a short burst of energy, coursing through my veins.

But it was not enough.

It was not enough to satiate me.

Like a brief charge to a battery, I was now at about ten percent. I needed more. I wanted more.

I rose, getting over the bike, and onto my feet. I fixed the glove back over my hand, fit the mask back properly on my face, and adjusted my hood.

Time to find Styx.

I ran onto the sidewalk, trying to look for a good path to maneuver myself upwards, to a roof.

I leaped up to get onto a single story building, crossing the roof to observe the street below.

A line of motorcycles were continuing their drive. Some bikers had helmets, some had bandanas. I couldn’t locate the van that knocked itself into Styx’s bike. But there was another vehicle, among the motorcycles.

A red pickup truck, carrying seven people in the back. They were in white. A boy among them.

With little thought entering my mind, I went back down.

As I descended through the air, I threw a hand into a pocket of my parka, and drew out a handle of a retractable police baton. I clicked a button on the side, unsheathing it. A little over a foot long.

The baton… I recalled getting it earlier in the night. Exchanged for something I couldn’t remember right this second. Something about… safety.

I had aimed with my jump, landing a distance ahead of the truck, but with a few bikers close by.

Within reach.

I swung, wide, attempting to clip a biker off their ride as they passed. I connected, and a biker in a helmet got knocked back off their bike.

The truck was advancing, even closer now, and there was little chance in avoiding me with a sharp turn, considering its load. I had to perform a small hop, and the top of the truck just grazed past the bottoms of my shoes.

It had avoided me, but the truck had veered, then stopping the moment I touched back down. The people in the bed of the truck fell forward, from the momentum of the sudden brake.

Now, I had options, but I went straight for the closest person, to make the decision easy. The downed biker.

I retracted the baton, slipping back into a pocket, and picked up the man by the collar. Either he was lighter than I thought, or I was starting to get some strength back.

I ripped apart his leather jacket down the zipper. He had a sweater underneath, and a scarf around his neck.

Come on.

I’d be momentarily stalled in getting his neck exposed. The impatience was eating at me, hastening my movements, becoming more wild. Couldn’t wait for more blood. Now. Now.

A blow to my side, and I was back down. Swiped by another passing biker. The thick parka took the brunt of the hit, but I instinctively knew that a bruise was left behind. Maybe a broken rib, if I was unlucky. It’d heal, but a significant wind was knocked out of me.

Too many people, here. Gang members, innocents, witnesses. Needed to get one, needed to get to a far away place where I could feed in peace.

Yeah, yeah.

I had to move as soon as I straightened myself up, and get out of the way of bikers and other such obstacles. Slower, easier targets. Weaker.

A hiss in my ear. I brushed it off. It was easy to drown it out with all the incoming sirens.

My jaw twitched. I licked my lips.

A short building, old, with ruined bricks and grooves that defaced its surface. I scaled it, my hands and feet reaching into holes for support and footholds. I got over in no time flat.

I skittered down the side of the building, running while keeping an eye on the street I just left. The truck was just now getting into gear, a ring of bikers surrounding it. Still supervising a transport, or were they trying to protect the immigrants from a certain group, or individual?

Me?

Good luck with that.

I kept a hand close to the pocket where I returned the baton, ready to use, ready to strike. Had to think of a way around those bikers. To throw them off, or eliminate them entirely. They could fight back, they had strength in numbers.

The people in the truck? They had numbers, but not strength. They had been travelling for days, probably, and they were drained, spent, weak. I could use that. Should.

What I needed to figure out was how to separate them from the bikers, then each other. Pick them apart.

One. I only needed one. Two, if things fell in my favor.

Apples. Strawberries. Jam.

Let’s jam.

I went back down, but not onto the street. I was ahead of that group of vehicles, in wait. It had gotten late enough that there wasn’t a single person here on the sidewalk.

I ran until I got to the corner, where the street turned into an intersection. A metal newspaper vending stand, full of paper. I lifted it up over my head, and tossed it at the truck as it sped closer.

It slammed into the hood of the truck, hitting the windshield as it got knocked away, papers flying, twirling down.

The bikers stopped when the truck did. The truck was probably still operable, but some of the truck’s passengers were choosing to abandon it, instead. They scattered, running past the bikers and into alleys and other streets, but not in my direction.

The bikers themselves split up as well, shouting contradicting orders. Some fled entirely, while a select few actually parked their bikes and got down.

Challenging me?

No time to play.

I jumped across the street, avoiding them all. No time to waste. My stomach grumbled, my throat flared.

We were well out of King District, but a lot of the buildings here were either under construction, scheduled for demolition, or abandoned completely. A lot of dark corners, a lot of places to hide.

In reality, a lot of places for people to corner themselves.

I headed straight, into an abandoned building. It was easy to glean from seeing inside the skeletons of other structures. No one had run inside. Too easy to be seen and found out. They had the right idea, but it would only them take so far.

With my mouth starting to salivate at the thought of sustenance, I jumped again, going through an open windowsill.

The clamor outside was immediately taken down a notch. I was in a hallway of an empty hotel, it looked like, judging from the doors that were lined down the length of the hall.

Halls, doors, under stairs, rooms, closets. More places to hide than I expected. This could be harder than I thought.

But that didn’t slow me down. I only needed one.

One. Only one. Needed.

I decided to work my way down, investigating every floor, every possibility, before moving to the next one, below. From checking the numbers on the doors, I was on the fourth floor. If the door was locked, I didn’t try to open it. If it wasn’t, I’d peek my head inside.

Nada.

I moved on, down the winding stairs at the end of another hall, same floor. I didn’t take the stairs, exactly, I hopped down, passing all of the steps, stopping when I banged my shoulder against the wall on the other end. I turned, and repeated the process again to make it to floor two.

The second floor.

Haste made waste, and I was starting to worry that my hurrying was making me clumsy. That I had missed a person, somewhere, or skipped over a locked door when I shouldn’t have, with someone hiding inside. Maybe I could backtrack if I ended up coming up short by the time I reached the lobby. The longer I took meant people were getting away. Food. Drink. Apples.

I combed through the second floor. Rooms, bathrooms, I was checking under beds, now. I pulled open a drawer, staring at a ziplock bag of colored tablets and syringes, and I had to force myself to realize what I was doing, and why it didn’t make sense. Desperate. My throat was on fire.

I got back out into the hall, and looked for the next set of stairs.

In the gloom, I didn’t notice a plank of wood on the floor. My foot got caught on it, and I tripped.

However, I kept my momentum, putting my hands out and catching myself, rolling forward. On all fours, I crawled a foot or two towards the stairs.

I froze.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

A small boy. Probably not over thirteen years old. He slowly drew back, taking small steps, down the stairs. Hair messy, disheveled, stuck up in places. Clothes white, but dirty. Hands to chest.

Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah.

Lost boy.

“Miguel,” I said, and that was it. No statement, question, or other comment. I just said a name.

He didn’t give me a response, not that he needed to. He turned on a dime, taking the stairs two and three steps at a time, disappearing from my sight.

I didn’t take the same tactic down as before. I bounded towards the railing, vaulting over to reach the final floor. Floor one.

The first floor, I mean.

Miguel was fast, I had to give him that. He was already hiding somewhere, I figured. He was nowhere in sight when I made it into the lobby. I walked, taking my time. I could catch up to him with a single move if and when I had to.

I didn’t find him by the front counter, but I glanced at a dusted brochure that sat atop it. I picked it up, feeling inclined to read it.

“The Burne-Jones Hotel? A-already going sightseeing, Miguel?”

No answer, not like I expected one. I set down the brochure, and searched elsewhere. It was quiet in here, and when I wasn’t walking on carpet, my steps carried. I would have heard it, if he had opened an exit door, or any door, for that matter.

Bang. The sound of a metal door, down the hall behind me. I hurried in that direction.

He wasn’t here, and door wasn’t closing behind anyone. Dammit. A rock sat inert close to the bottom of the door, a white mark left a foot above it. A trick?

More sounds, again from behind. This time, footsteps.

I picked up the rock before I turned around. Briefly, I saw a figure run down the length of the hall. Another exit was at the end, there.

“Mi-Miguel!” I shrieked, my voice reaching a higher pitch. My head was pounding, my thoughts singular, narrow, too focused. Feed. Fruit. Juice. The smallest of fries.

I can feel myself losing it.

And I am okay with that.

Going after people was…

I wound up the rock like a baseball, then threw it at the boy.

Twice in one night, I struck my target. The rock flew down the hall, striking Miguel in a calf. He didn’t fall, but hobbled away to a nearby door. Changing course?

I followed him, taking long, fast strides, nearing a jog. Windows near the door revealed a pool area. I got to the door, and went through.

The pool itself was drained, and it was easy to spot Miguel in here. He was standing awkwardly at the other end of the empty pool, holding​ a metal pipe. Shivering.

Fool. He had cornered himself.

Like a dumb, scared rabbit.

I dropped into the pool, my landing echoing through the room. Carrying.

With every step forward, he took three back. But his back soon hit the pool wall behind him.

It was dark in here, dark throughout the entire hotel, but I had no issue on that front. For Miguel, he wasn’t allowed that advantage. Moonlight had pierced through the windows that faced the outside, casting blotches of light on the floor of the pool.

What did Miguel see, right this second?

My voice croaked out, completely unrecognizable.

“Migueeeeel, you s-set meee up against Styx Gang, r-riiiiiiight?”

It seemed like so long ago, but I remembered being ambushed back in the trailer, taken by surprise. I had no evidence, no reason to claim what I was claiming, but my brain was taking any train of thought that came to it and rode it all the way. Derailed.

He yelled, as if trying to appeal to someone he knew. But that person checked out some time ago.

Slurred, panicked Spanish. I was barely decent speaking at normal pace in class. All of his words were lost on me.

Alright, no more delay.

Okay.

I practically skipped the rest of the way. My leg strength took me the rest of the way in three steps.

Miguel tried to swing, to retaliate, but it would be of no use to him. I caught the metal pipe with one hand, twisted, and it was enough for him to let go of his makeshift weapon.

My other hand went for his throat.

He was stuck, choking, with my thoughts speeding towards one eventuality, pushing me to take the appropriate action.

“Juice,” I wheezed, trying to suppress a cough. “Let me drink. M-make it easy for me. Give me juice. Use my knife, give me your juice. I j-just want something to drink.”

I thought again. Did I have my knife?

No, I don’t.

Someone had me give it up for… something else. It was in my pocket right now. Would that work, instead?

I had a feeling it wouldn’t.

My fingers tightened some, and the boy was turning red. Like an apple.

Just needed the juice.

Soon…

I was excited.

“A—–…”

A word, maybe more. A sentence? I couldn’t understand, but whatever was said compelled me to wheel around.

Part man, part bird. Tall. Two, dark circles for eyes stared back at me. Haunting.

He brought an arm out. Holding something. Pointing something.

At me.

Who-” I started, but two sharp pricks poked into my leg, stopping me. Another prick.

Whua…

Sluggishly, I drooped, an intense weariness overwhelming me. I stumbled, and the boy slipped out of my grasp. My eyesight was beginning to swim, and a heavy, forceful comfort took over my whole body and sense of self. With my eyelids heavy, and a long breath, I blacked out.

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