Epilogue – Katy

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She started with the most important things. Hair, makeup, outfit. Getting herself ready, and making sure everything else had been set up and perfect.

Because, if just one thing was off, just one, the whole night would be ruined.

And we can’t have that, can we?

Not a chance.

It was first things first, though. She checked herself in the mirror.

Hair was on point. Of course it was. She had done it herself. Tied in a French braid, not a single strand was loose or out of place.

Makeup. From the foundation to the baking itself, the final result had given her life. It was totally worth putting in the time to touch it up after rushing back here so she could work on everything else. A few seconds to spare made all the difference.

Then, her outfit. There was no way she was going to spend an entire school day sitting around, walking to different classrooms, bumping into other students in the halls, getting her best clothes all frumpy and wrinkled. That was like the last thing she wanted.

No, the last thing she wanted was for the night to go poorly. She had trust in herself, that she would be coming correct, but her responsibilities didn’t stay with just her. She had others to look out for, make sure they were alright. It was important. It was crucial.

But, for now, her outfit.

An olive green baggy field coat, the color going great with her eyes. A black sweater, the brand name stylized and on fire. Her skirt was denim, loose, hanging around her knees, ripped in certain places so the threads would hang. Then her kicks, simple off-white skate shoes, grey striped long socks that she purposefully bunched around the knees. It was a simple look, but it gave her the confidence she needed, that she could actually pull this off.

That confidence was already there, though, but more wouldn’t hurt, especially when it came from coordinating a cute fit. She knew that she wouldn’t be alone, either. She had others to look out for, but they were looking out for her too.

And together, they were going to get this done right.

Fixing her hair one last time, she set it into place before checking her phone. It was blowing up. No way she could respond to all of them.

But she found the ones that absolutely needed a reply. A group chat. She read through the most recent texts then sent a few of her own. Immediately, her replies were sent scrolling past the top of the screen. It was like they didn’t even read them.

But she got another text. Outside of the group chat.

Maria.

Asking if there was anything extra they’d need to bring for tonight. She thought it over.

Nope.

She sent her reply. She had it covered. The only thing she needed from Maria was to scope the place out before they’d get there.

Maria replied. She was on it.

She smiled.

Everything is coming together. The pieces are moving into position.

Checking herself in the mirror one more time, she liked what she saw. The final piece.

No, there was one more.

The queen.

And she was about to go collect her.

Grabbing her bag and keys, she headed out of her room.

But not before catching her mom on the way down the stairs.

“You’re heading out too?”

Already at the door, stepping into a pair of white heels. They weren’t cute, but they were classy.

“I am. I thought I told you this. Rehearsal dinner at the hotel?”

“Oh I know, but it’d be weird if we just passed each other without saying anything.”

“Then come up with something better to say.”

“Wow.”

Her mom stood straight, stamping her foot down. The heel clicked. She was smiling.

“You’re welcome to come with.”

“I’d rather go for spontaneity on the night of. Besides, I have my own-”

“Oh, tonight?”

“Yeah.”

“Well tell her I said-”

“I will.”

“But don’t be out too late. I want you home on this side of midnight.”

She nodded.

“Sure Mom.”

She gave her a look.

“Did you tell Dad that you’d be out?”

She gave her a look. A beat.

“Dad’s not here.”

“If you tell him he’ll hear you.”

Her mom got the door, opening it.

“Shoot, I’ll be late. You stay safe, and keep an eye on your friends.”

“Why do I have to?”

“Because Lord knows someone has to.”

Her mom winked, then reacted as if she was still surprised that she hadn’t left yet.

“Oh! Alright I’m off, you stay-”

“I know Mom, and I’ll do the other thing too!”

They both left the house, both eager to start their nights.

Katy sat with one foot flat on the floor, the other crossed over her leg. Deep in thought, so deep that she could drown.

To keep herself afloat, she kept an eye on the things around her.

The window beside her, watching as people passed, walking by, faces down, wholly engrossed in their world and concerns, their troubles and tribulations weighing heavy on their mind, turning their focus narrow and inward. Passing by, passing each other, only being aware enough of their surroundings as to not collide with anyone else. Minding their own business.

The entrance of the place, watching as people entered, coming in, faces up, looking at the menu above them, their attentions directed outward for but a brief moment. They’d speak with the girl at the front, who had to be entering the last hour of her shift, judging from how she kept scratching her neck, tapping her fingers on the register, and by the time she punched in their order, having to wait for it, and collect it once their name was called, those people would have already retreated back into their own worlds again, taking small sips, as if they were satisfied with their limited scope on everything. Their minds back to their business.

That was the problem, Katy figured. People were so easy to be absorbed in only their own concerns, that they would hardly, if ever, peek out of their shells and question just what the hell was going on around them. If everyone kept their eyes closed, then whatever they couldn’t see would be considered as normal.

But this wasn’t normal, it was just easy to pretend. The world was on fire, and nobody seemed to care.

The last thing Katy kept an eye on was her own reflection in her coffee, swirling in the black. Twisting. Spiraling.

Sitting alone, in several respects, it seemed.

Then the front door swung open, loud, and her eyes and the eyes of others darted up.

They had bursted in with little regard for anyone else, skipping light on their feet, skipping right to the front of the line, to the girl who had stopped tapping her fingers on the register, surprised at this person’s sudden entrance and approach.

Some raised their voices to complain, but more looked to see if there was a parent or guardian around to claim them… this kid. There wasn’t.

The kid had her arms propped on the counter, hopping up and down. She was already speaking over any complaints others might have.

“Hot chocolate please!”

The girl working the front punched in the order. The faster she got this kid out of the way, the sooner things would smooth back over. For Katy, just she found the whole thing funny.

Because to them, she really was just a kid.

“And do you like have marshmallows too?”

“Yeah.”

“How many can you put until you can’t see the drink anymore?”

“Enough so you can’t see the drink anymore.”

“Okay, how much-”

“Don’t worry about it.”

The girl started tapping again.

“Oh are you sure?”

The kid asked too loudly.

“I’m sure.”

The kid then smiled, wide enough to notice a gap in her teeth.

“Thank you!”

For courtesy, the kid… Doris, no, D, tossed out some cash anyways, then skipped to the side to wait for her drink. She caught Katy’s eye, smiled wide again, and turned around, hopping in place.

Katy couldn’t let herself get too mad at D, it was as useless as getting worked up over the weather. It was simply out of her control.

That didn’t stop her from giving D a slight glare, even with her back to her, ready for when-

D turned back around, drink in hand, rushing over to the booth. If D had noticed Katy’s expression, she didn’t acknowledge it. She skipped on over, not spilling a single drop from the ceramic saucer and cup.

“Yo!” D said, finally giving Katy a proper greeting. If that could even be considered proper. “Mind if I sit and oppose you?”

“You mean opposite me?”

“Okay,” D said.

Katy took a sip of her own, then said, “The more things change.”

“Hey, that’s not fair, I let the lady keep the change.”

Katy rolled her eyes at that.

D spun her cup so she could better see the logo. She glanced at the people sitting around them. Only now, did she try to take stock at what was around her.

“Cafe Sharktooth, what’s with this place?”

Katy set her cup down, into the saucer. It made a light clanking sound.

“There’s nothing with this place. It’s just convenient. I needed somewhere we can meet, and I thought of here. That’s it.”

D shrugged, still staring at her cup. Her drink.

“Yeah, they should have put more marshmallows.”

Katy pursed her lips together. She drew a breath across the top of her coffee. The image of her rippled.

A lot was on Katy’s mind. Concerns. Troubles. Her own business. But she knew to keep her eyes open to her surroundings. Stay alert. Stay diligent.

“Bitter?”

Katy looked at D again, a slight shake of her head.

“Over what?”

D pointed with her lips.

“I’m asking if your coffee is bitter. You didn’t put anything in it?”

“I didn’t really want to.”

“Whoa,” D said, “Whoa whoa. The world of grown-ups sounds pretty spooky.”

“Don’t put so much thought into it.”

“But there has to be a reason, right? There has to be a reason for everything.”

“That? Coming from you? I thought people who need a reason to do things are trash in your eyes.”

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say that,” D said, smiling with her eyes closed, “It’s just more fun that way. My way. But that’s why I asked.”

“And that’s why I told you not to put so much thought into it.”

“Oof, you sure you don’t need some sugar?”

Katy breathed.

“If you’re not going to take this seriously, we can end this right now,” Katy said, “You don’t have to be here, and neither do I.”

D threw her hands up in an attempt to placate Katy. But it just looked like she was messing around some more.

“Whoa whoa whoa! What happened to you Big Sis? You did get so bitter. And cold. You should like really super lighten up, it’s already summer you know!”

Her only response was to raise her chin by a fraction. Katy was patient. She’d have to be, when dealing with someone like D. No, only when dealing with D, because there wasn’t anyone else like her.

She took the time to look out the window again. People passing. Minding their own business.

It was summer already.

Katy’s thoughts drifted to the time passed. The things lost along the way.

“So, any updates?”

Refocusing, Katy looked back at D.

She had a mouth full of hot chocolate and marshmallows, but made a point to finish it before adding, “I imagine that’s why I’m here.”

“You’re here because I need help, and I’m able to admit that and do something about it.”

“Sounds like a lot of work for me.”

“Depends on the work.”

D propped her elbows on the table. Katy considered saying something but didn’t.

“But before that… I want to hear from you, first.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s been forever. Yeah, come on. It’s summer, the sun’s out, I… we should be out there playing! So… enlighten me.”

Katy sighed. Listless. Drifting to that lost time again. Those things.

“There is… nothing worth mentioning.”

D pouted.

“Come ooooon, that can’t be true! You should tell me something. Anything.”

“And why should I?”

D tilted her chin down, slight, batting her eyes.

“Because we’re family, aren’t we? We’re practically sisters. And sisters basically share everything.”

“You have a severely skewed sense of sisterhood,” Katy said.

D shrugged.

“So it doesn’t have to be everything. That’s fine. Just give me something, anything.”

Then D grinned. Her ‘little sister,’ but they had something that ran deeper than any blood relation.

She was playing with her, Katy knew. To D, everything was a game. But that was fine too. Katy wasn’t unfamiliar with the rules. She played along.

“You tell me what you want to know, then.”

She watched as D put some serious consideration into it. Or, it was more likely that she was just messing around some more. Actually, knowing her, it was absolutely the latter.

“Oh!” D said. She jumped in her seat and snapped her fingers. “Let’s start with school. That’s always a good place to start. Yeah. School! How’s school?”

“You sound like Mom,” Katy said.

“Well, it’s been some time since I’ve last stepped into a classroom. I’ve forgotten what it’s like. Tell me about it.”

Katy answered. Not the actual question, but what D had implied instead. It was part of the game. D wouldn’t act so direct unless she was working at something else.

“What’s to say? It’s not like it changed since the last time you stepped in one. School is… school. The classes, the hallways, the textbooks. The… people. The uncomfortable silences, the uneasy tension, the lack of spirit, the passing whispers and stares. The plastered smiles. Everyone minding their own business. It’s all… normal.”

D tapped a finger on her chin.

“Hm. Sounds boring.”

“Like I said. Nothing worth mentioning. At least I don’t have to worry about it anymore.”

“There has to be something,” D said. She wouldn’t let it go. “Give me something juicy. I thirst for whatever is fun and interesting. That’s my vice. I’d ask you yours, but I think I already know it.”

Katy raised an eyebrow.

“And that is?”

D tapped her chin again, then wagged her finger. Back and forth.

“No way, Big Sis, I asked first.”

Katy fought the urge to gesture or react in any way. D was playing with her. Another move.

So Katy made a move of her own.

“Maria. You remember her?”

“For sure. When you brought up asking for help I was wondering where she was. I absolutely adored her mask. Wish I had the chance to talk with her about it.”

“You’ll have to hold your peace on that a little longer. We’re not exactly on speaking terms anymore.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah.”

“And by not exactly, you mean not at all?”

“Yeah,” Katy said, hating that she had to tip her hand further.

“And why’s that?”

Katy looked into her coffee cup. About half empty.

“Couldn’t say for sure. You’d have to ask her that. But, what I can say is that Maria doesn’t want to see me either, and that would include you, by extension. So don’t bother her, she won’t entertain you, like how I have the bad habit of doing.”

“I could do with a guess?”

“Don’t forget. If you’re not going to take this seriously-”

“Don’t pull that card! So lame! That’s like saying the only way to win the game is to not play.”

“Am I wrong?”

“Uh, yeah, you are. It’s not fun if it ends up being one-sided. As long as there’s a game to play, each side has a chance to win. So I’m on one side-”

D indicated to her cup of hot chocolate and marshmallows. Half full now.

“-And you’re on the other.”

D indicated to Katy’s coffee.

“So let’s play. And don’t be lame.”

Katy had her fingers around her cup, then she set them flat on the table, then underneath the table itself, resting between her legs.

“I don’t want to guess because I don’t want to do that to her,” Katy said. “I still see her as a friend, even if she literally doesn’t want to see me. I don’t know. Maybe she hated what I was getting her involved in, maybe she hated how it escalated, or that it had to escalate. Maybe she didn’t want it as badly as I did.”

Katy clenched her hands, forming fists. Where D couldn’t see.

“All I can do is guess. She ghosted me, after that night. And she’s never been one to be so open about herself.”

“Is that what you wanted help for? If she might talk?”

Katy shook her head.

“You want me to keep an eye on her now?”

Katy shook her head again.

“Nothing like that, no. If she’s done, then she’s done.”

She tried keep her voice from shaking in saying that. She didn’t try hard enough. She wasn’t even sure if she believed it herself.

D was staring. It made Katy want to look away.

If that was juicy enough for D, she didn’t mention.

Was that enough to win that round?

“You cut your hair.”

Katy looked up. It took a second for her thoughts to catch up, too.

“You only just now noticed?”

D brought the cup back up to her lips, half-drinking the hot chocolate, half-eating the marshmallows.

Katy frowned, but there wasn’t any actual hard feelings. She touched her hair like a habit, fixing it where it needed to be fixed. At its new length, new to D anyways, her hair barely brushed her shoulders.

D copied her, flicking her own hair and fixing her bangs. Playing it up.

“Looks just like mine!”

“As if.”

“You know,” D said, sitting back now, hair twirling around a finger, “She kept her hair around that length, too.”

It was as though D had twisted a knife. The weapon already sticking out of her side.

Katy flinched. She knew that D had caught that, but she kept her cool, or tried to, brushing her hair one more time.

She took another sip from her drink, thinking to herself, wondering just what the hell was she trying to accomplish now.

“I miss her, you know.”

Katy’s attention snapped back to the booth she was in. D sitting across from her, tugging at her choker.

“That’s the third time you said that,” Katy said.

“You don’t feel the same way?”

“Depends on who you’re referring to.”

“You know exactly who I’m referring to.”

“Fourth time,” Katy said, “And no, I don’t.”

D smirked. A slight show of her gap in her teeth.

Katy felt that twist again.

In order to put her mind on something else, Katy started reaching for the bag beside her.

“Don’t.”

Katy looked up.

“Can we do this somewhere else?”

Katy pulled her hand away.

“Did you have somewhere else in mind?”

Katy was trying to avoid that twisted feeling a third time.

“I do. I want to show you something.”

This wasn’t going according to plan. Not that she really had a plan in mind, but…

That was the point. She had business she wanted to tend to. And she needed help.

“Fine. We’ll go your way. For now.”

Lifting the cup, tilting it so the bottom pointed to the ceiling, D finished the rest of her drink. Slamming it down, her mouth was full of chocolate and marshmallows. Katy was afraid that D would speak and spray all over her face… but she didn’t. She actually had the manners to talk without her mouth being full.

“Then let’s go! Finally, we can go outside!”

Katy would have said something, that they weren’t going out to play… but she didn’t. She knew how D worked, or rather how she didn’t want to see things as work. If she wanted D’s help, she’d have to make it interesting, keep her interest. That meant giving her a game to play.

And if she had to see it like that, too… fine.

Maybe that was what this was, the whole time. A game.

Katy finished her drink and joined D when she hopped out of the booth, heading out of the coffee shop, getting ready for round two.

She sang along on the drive there. A rap song, and she knew every word.

The bass rumbled through the black BMW. Her father’s car.

She had her hands loose on the wheel, speeding a good ten miles above the limit. But she was taking the back roads, with not a single vehicle around. No one around to impede her. So she hit the gas a little harder, heard the engine growl, and felt the slight curve of the street underneath her tires as she swerved.

At the top of her lungs, she rapped as the song moved into the hook.

Drank in my cup, I ain’t seeing straight, blood in my mouth, I ain’t seeing straight!

The engine went harder as ten became fifteen.

One mo’ shot to the head, I ain’t seeing straight, I might die tonight, but I’m feeling great!

The higher speeds the car reached, the more she reveled in the mean, couldn’t-give-less-of-a-fuck attitude of the song. She turned the volume up.

The bass boomed, and she could feel it in her chest. Part of the reason why she liked using this car. It had a great audio system, and it paired well with the music she liked. The beat thumped against the speakers, making the sound more rich and full. The lyrics, too, were more clear, and made it more fun to sing along to.

She could drive like this all night, if the road allowed, getting lost in it all, without a single worry.

But, there was somewhere she had to be. Things she had to keep in mind. Important things.

She thought about what her mom said.

As the car went around a bend, she let it slow. She turned the volume down to a more acceptable level, too.

Stay safe and keep an eye on your friends.

She’d do that, in fact she was off to do that at this very moment. After all, what would they do without her?

Probably wander off and get lost, that’s what.

Her thoughts were getting away from her. Right now she had to focus on this. That was her primary concern.

She was going to pull this off, it was all going to come together.

Almost at the end of the road. No one was around. She signaled a turn anyways.

She was almost there. And she couldn’t wait.

D had arrived first, pushing the heavy doors open with all her might.

Katy followed her inside.

There was an absence of sound, so oppressive that it stole her voice away. The halls and aisles, they were as hallowed as they were hollowed.

St. Elizabeth had been gutted and ripped apart, and it had been left to rot.

Wooden rows were made into splinters, seat cushions and pages from hymnals torn and turned to shreds. Glass shards littered the floor, most of it swept to the side, but a lot was not. There was just too much of a mess, here.

Bullets and their casings too. Katy and D watched their step.

They walked deeper into the church. Their footsteps carried through the building, echoing out, showing just how empty this place had become. Desolate. Abandoned by God, and even the Devil.

D led Katy to the front row, still intact, somehow. The altar up ahead was crushed to pieces, and Katy saw the crucifix, the arms and legs were removed from the body. As if they had been sliced off.

She noticed deep marks were gouged into the tile and stone, almost like claw marks. When Katy checked behind her, she saw similar damage done to the floor, wall, and ceiling of the church. A spiral of destruction.

Katy took a seat first, setting some stuff beside her. D plopped down onto a cushion on the floor.

When Katy finally spoke, it was a near whisper.

“I remember the last church I visited. St. Francis Xavier. That one got trashed too. But not nearly as bad as this one.”

“This one was pretty bad,” D said. From where she sat, she looked around the church, Katy watching how her eyes traced a path, making a circle. Or a spiral.

“May I ask how bad?”

Katy asked, wary, watching her still.

D’s gaze was elsewhere, and Katy noticed a shine in the corner of them. Just a smidge of water catching what little light was in here. She blinked it away.

Finally, D answered.

“Pretty bad.”

Katy nodded. She wouldn’t pry that much. Even D had her boundaries.

She wondered, then, just why D chose this location to reconvene. What did she have in mind?

Katy wanted to ask, but there were more important things to get to.

But, D herself was important, too. Someone she wanted to keep an eye on.

“We can go somewhere else,” Katy said, “If this isn’t going to work for you.”

D tugged at her choker, blinking.

“No, it’s fine. I’m fine. I come here when I can, clean up here and there, but there’s just so much and… yeah.”

“I can see that.”

D kept looking around, gaze wandering. Katy let her take all the time she needed. She could be patient.

“I miss her.”

“You’ve already told me that.”

“But it’s true. The last time I saw her, it was here. The last time I could see her as a sister. Not as a plaything, but as someone to play with.”

“I told you what you were getting out of helping me that time. You knew the risks involved.”

“Of course I knew, but how could I have known that it’d come to this? I got more than what I asked for, and I had a lot of fun. But I also stood to lose a lot, too, and that scared me. Friends, people I started to see as family. Lawrence… and her. And then it happened, I did lose all those things, and now I’m here, and all I can do now is just… sweep the pieces away.”

“Are you saying you have regrets?”

“I’m too young to have regrets.” D leaned back, arms behind her, propping her up. “But I do wonder… just who the real winner is, in this little game of yours.”

Katy didn’t respond to that. She didn’t like where this was going.

D took in a deep breath, and exhaled hard.

“I’m curious, Big Sis, if I had to play with you again, what do I stand win?”

“Closure,” Katy answered, without missing a beat.

“Closure. Why? What more do you need?”

“I didn’t… She got away from me. That wasn’t supposed to happen. I wanted to see her, face to faceless. I wanted my eye on her.”

“For what? So you two could talk?”

“If it came down to it.”

“What would you have talked about?”

Katy answered without missing a beat. It was something that had been on her mind for a very long time.

“Why she ran away, why she left us all behind. Her friends, her mom. Maria. Me. Why didn’t she tell me. She was my best friend. I was supposed to look out for her, and she was supposed to have my back. And for her to just… fucking throw all of that away. I want to know why.”

D leaned to one side.

“Do you think she’s still alive?”

Katy missed that particular beat.

“She had better fucking be, because I’m not done with her yet. Even if it means dragging her out of Hell myself, even if it means becoming a monster. I will find her. And then, and only then, do I get to put her back there, and I leave her to burn.”

D’s gaze moved to Katy. There was a sadness in them, something that went beyond her age. Pity, too.

That angered her.

“How long has it been… No one’s heard anything since. And besides, who is to say the person you lost has been gone even before all this? You don’t know a thing about who you’re after.”

“You’ve kept me in the loop, you gave me updates.”

“I gave you what she was doing, you never cared about who she was. Did you ever? Or were you just wanting to satisfy your irresponsible sense of egoism?”

“Excuse me?”

“Let’s say you really do get what you want, and she’s sitting right here in front of you, right now. I think you might disappointed with what you end up getting.”

“That will be for me to decide.”

D maintained that look of pity. A slight smirk. It aggravated her.

“Funny, we’ve been talking about the same person, yet two very different people. The one you’re looking for… Alexis Barnett? Sorry to say, but I never met her. I don’t know her. The one I did know, Wendy, she didn’t want to have anything to do with Alexis. She hated her, rejected her. She wouldn’t, or couldn’t, tell you a single thing, she refused to look at that part of herself. And now they’re both gone.”

Katy crossed her arms.

Then, D moved her hand into her jacket again, pulling something out.

D continued.

“The last time I saw her was in here. I said… something, I don’t know, it was the wrong thing at the wrong time. But I saw it in her eyes. The very instant my Vivi winked out of existence. Everything that followed… There was no going back from that.”

D threw her hand out at Katy, something flying in her direction. Katy caught it.

A chess piece. A black queen.

“And there’s no point in trying to continue. The game is over, Big Sis. I suggest you give it up, too.”

Katy squeezed the piece in her hand, feeling it press into her palm. The sharp point of the queen’s crown could stab into her, if she put enough pressure. She was just shy of it.

“A simple no from the beginning would have sufficed.”

D shrugged.

“Bad habit.”

Katy glanced down at the stuff she had brought with her. The bags and files… things she didn’t have a chance to bring up and discuss, and D led her all the way here just to shut her down.

She clenched her jaw, teeth grinding together.

Giving it up… that was impossible. Even if it seemed easy, because everyone else had given up already. Maria was gone, Shiori had moved back to Japan, seemingly abandoning all hope of ever seeing her daughter again. Uncle J let himself deteriorate, close to meeting her father, and her own mother taken the first steps in a backslide… Everyone was giving up, everyone was acting like this was normal.

She couldn’t accept that.

It was all so…

D asked her, sudden, “Do you know what your vice is?”

“And what is that?”

“Frustration.”

Katy almost laughed. She could hardly believe how this was going now.

“Is that so?”

“That’s my assessment.”

Katy leaned back into her seat, arms still crossed.

She looked at the broken cross at the altar, she looked at the confessional past that, busted and collapsed in different places.

Katy thought about what D said.

“The only thing free in life… I bet he told her that, I bet she believed him.”

“And you?”

“It’s hardly free. In fact it cost me everything. But I’m willing to pay that price again.”

D reached for her choker again, tugging at it.

“Then I’m sorry I can’t help you a second time around.”

“I’m sorry too. I guess you have changed.”

“And you stayed the same.”

Katy opened her mouth.

By imposing too great a responsibility, or rather, all responsibility, on yourself, you crush yourself!

Katy and D both turned around.

The doors of the church were being thrown wide open, blinding daylight punching through the oppressive dark they were sitting in.

A long figure cut a hole in the light, standing with their arms out. They walked, holding that pose, trying to make their entrance more grand.

As they progressed down the aisle, more joined them, stepping into the church. From the outlines, Katy could see helmets. Biker helmets.

They filed out into the different rows, or where the rows would be, if the church hadn’t been made into temple ruins instead. They stood in position. Every row the first figure passed, was another row the bikers filled up with their numbers.

Katy stared at Styx as he and his gang infiltrated, intruding on her plans. What little plans she had left now.

They marched towards Katy and D, then to Katy herself.

Her heart pounded heavy as he hopped and spun and landed in the seat next to Katy. He crossed one leg over the other, and put one arm around her.

She couldn’t look at him anymore. It was too sudden. She tried to look at D, who as surprised as she was. Or was that another play as well?

Styx spoke close to her ear.

“An important lesson, a hard one to learn. Some manage to be lucky, like you and I…”

With a bony finger, he gestured between them.

“And other’s, well, they do get crushed.”

Styx then pointed ahead, to the ruined crucifix, the altar underneath.

“What the heck are you doing here?”

D asked when Katy could not.

Styx didn’t look at her, but he did answer.

“Just happened to be in your area, so I swung by to thank you all for… thank you, just, thank you.”

Styx was nodding, bobbing his head, eyes closed, whispering to himself. It was like he was crying. Katy was unsure of what to make of anything, anymore.

“Thank you, truly, because I would have never been able to bear witness to such a beautiful punchline if it hadn’t been for your setup. I would have never been able to do it on my own, seems like I still have some things to learn in my old age.”

Katy could feel the warmth from his arm, wrapped around the back of her neck. Like a serpent. She clutched the chess piece, feeling its sharpness dig into her skin.

“Mister and Mrs. Carter would like to express their gratitude as well. Because of you, everything went splendidly. Because of you, we were able to scale down our operations in light of the recent and increased attention on Stephenville. Because of you, we were able to develop an infrastructure that allowed us to continue at a sufficient level to this day. Because of you, I was able to laugh louder than I ever had in years. Because of Victor, because of John Cruz, because of Alma, because of Dong-Yul, because of the Thompson Act, because of you.”

“Don’t me throw me in with them,” Katy said, “You wolves thinned the herd yourselves.”

“No no, you did your part, looking after Blueballs, keeping tabs, with her being your eyes and ears.”

Styx pointed to D, now. D squirmed.

“And all that was left for me to do was nudge things here and there for the desired effect. My most perfect joke. What a lovely fool, I think I’ll miss her too.”

Katy was losing what little patience she had left. And she thought she had enough to spare.

“If you’re just here to sing your praises, then there. You’re welcome. You can leave now.”

The arm around her neck tightened in its grip. Katy shuddered. An instant regret.

Non, noir comme du jais, non. You see, you don’t have just my thanks, but my services as well. If you are up to the offer.”

Katy traded a look with D. Nothing.

“What services?”

Styx indicated to the bag beside Katy. “Looks like you have a lot to unpack, and D here refused to answer the call. All I’m saying is, you can ring me. Ring ring.”

Katy felt a prickling sensation, creeping up her spine. She wanted to move, but she couldn’t, knowing how dangerous someone like Styx was. This was a game she wanted to get out of.

“How did you even…”

“Open it. Show me.”

She briefly considered any other potential options. She squeeze the chess piece again.

Could she even refuse someone like Styx? She had seen his work before, she had seen how it lost her a father.

She wouldn’t make the same mistake as him. Or her. Styx wasn’t one to be underestimated.

Katy reached for the bag, setting it in her lap. With Styx’s wide stare on her, she pulled at the zipper.

Files, documents, photos. Notebooks. Even hard drives upon hard drives of stored information. Katy sifted through the work.

“This is everything Natalie Beckham and Oliver Morgan left behind. You remember them? Of fucking course, you had her kill them too. Every scribbled note, every recording, every bit of data, every interview, it’s all here.”

“Yes, the thought of that crossed my mind. Those two… ever the revenants, living on through their work.”

Katy considered that. Maybe revenant was the right word for all of this.

She sifted through the notes in front of her When she spoke again, she was thinking aloud.

“We warned them, that they would be targeted. And they’re not fools, or maybe they were in the end, but they had enough experience to know that themselves. They wouldn’t need us to tell them that the invitations to John Cruz’s event was a trap, but they went anyways. And we tried to mitigate things on our end, so they wouldn’t get killed.”

“We did,” D said, “I tried.”

“But they went anyways, and they got killed. And they left me with all of… this.”

Katy flipped through a page, and something caught her eye.

She pulled out that particular piece of paper, and her heart thumped. Almost as hard as the moment she learned that her father had passed away. Almost.

“Everything they had on her.”

Alexis Barnett’s smiling face. Wide, genuine, free. Not a care in the world. It haunted Katy, it taunted her. Made her all the more frustrated.

The queen stabbed at her even harder.

“I don’t know why, but they left me with the burden of the truth, as they knew it. But there’s still… there’s still glaring holes, and I need help filling them in.”

“You need help,” Styx said, “And I’m offering my wide-reaching tentacles.”

“You?” Despite her fear, Katy had to suppress the urge to scoff. “The last thing I need is to be used in another setup, or be made into your next punchline. Thanks, Styx, but no fucking thanks.”

Styx cackled. With him being so close, it startled her.

“You’re good, you really are. Smart. Just like your father.”

That fear turned into something much colder. Sharper.

She was already close, but then she moved even closer, past the leather jacket, past bare skin, and between the ribs.

Katy stabbed into Styx the pointed chess piece.

A shock ran throughout the entire church. Through D, through Katy, through the rows and rows of Ferrymen behind her.

The only one who wasn’t shocked was Styx himself. A low chuckle ran through him instead.

He pulled back, taking his arm off of Katy. He used it to pull back his jacket, looking down. He wasn’t wearing a shirt underneath, so thin lines of blood were free the trickle down from the wound. The base of the queen was barely sticking out. Katy had pressed in, and pressed in hard.

Styx kept chuckling.

Katy couldn’t bear to hear more of it. More of Styx, more of D, more of this sick, fucked up world.

“I am nothing like him. He, who made it his fucking business to try and shape this city, this world, into his own image. Fuck that. I want to burn this shit to the ground. This world, and the other one that’s out there, the one that stole Alexis Barnett from me and turned her into… something else entirely. It’s in the shadows, and I want to take a torch to that fucking world and set it alight.”

And then she added, just to hear herself say it, “And I’m nothing like her either.”

Styx was laughing harder now.

Frustrated, Katy got out of her chair, collecting the files that had spilled over during her sudden outburst.

She thought how useless this was, how pointless. Like she was being mocked for even trying to focus on the most important things.

She hated her old self, she rejected them. She didn’t even want to consider that past person and those past thoughts as herself, anymore. To think she had let herself fall into that trap, once before. To be like everyone else. To have given up and just be normal. It was pitiful. And she wasn’t about to make that mistake twice.

She gathered her things and got prepared, she looked at D. Her little-

No.

Katy spoke to her.

“I’ll find her, and with her the truth. I’ll fill in the blanks, and I’ll get it down the very letter. This is your last chance, D. Grow up.”

As she feared, D shook her head.

Adieu, Katy.”

Lesson learned. She’d do it herself.

Then she turned, running now, running away.

Leaving them all behind, Katy pushed the doors open, the light momentarily blinding her.

She used the moonlight to guide where she’d park. Avoid the lamppost, since they were too direct. The moon was a softer source, she could sit in the shadows and become imperceptible, especially from a good distance. The black paint of the car helped, too, blending in with the dark.

Those were the details she had to think about. Important details. She didn’t want to make it too obvious, just be careful, just to be safe.

See Mom? Just as you asked.

She smiled to herself.

Finding a decent spot, in a corner by some shrubbery, she moved the car into position and set it to park.

Turning the music down all the way, she took out her phone and sent out a text. Not to the group chat, and not to Maria either. Someone else.

Setting her phone down, the only thing left for her to do was wait. And she couldn’t wait.

Ugh, I am so ready to leave.

Tapping her foot, shaking her leg, looking out from across where she had parked.

Such a slowpoke.

She groaned, already impatient. She wanted to turn her music back up, but she felt that might jinx things somehow. That she might attract some unwanted attention, that she might get caught. Better to play it safe.

To pass the time, she went through everything in her head one more time. Just to make sure she had everything in order, so tonight would go perfect.

She put to mind her own business.

Drinks? Got that covered. There’s gonna be more there too. Music? Got that covered too. Everybody’s got their invites… Him? Check. And her? Waiting on this bitch to hurry up and get in here.

She checked herself in the rearview mirror. And again.

Hell yeah. This is gonna be great.

More than great. Perfect.

She really couldn’t wait.

Then, before her patience could wear any thinner, she saw her.

Running across the length of the parking lot, staying close to the shadows, only the faintest of glimmers falling on one side of her body. A fitting sweater, and… was that a new skirt? It looked cute on her.

Her long hair ran free in the light wind. She raised a hand to fix it, then waved in the direction of the car.

The queen herself.

Hurrying over, the passenger side opened, and she hopped in.

“Present,” Alexis said.

“You definitely look like one, birthday girl, should have put a bow on you too.”

“Shut up, we’re still a few hours out from that.”

“Shit, what time is it?”

Alexis raised her hand again, pulling back a sleeve. A black watch adorned the wrist. A simple and sleek design, the face was blank, no numbers or markings, with only thin gold lines used to mark the time.

“Three hours until the big day,” Alexis said.

“I’m liking that watch, early birthday gift?”

“Yeah, my mom couldn’t wait until tomorrow, so she gave it to me before I went to school.”

“That is so sweet. But hey, speaking of…”

“It’s cool. She’s still at work. I think she wanted to have dinner with me tonight, but we should be good.”

“And you’re certain she won’t be mad at you for skipping?”

Alexis paused for a beat.

“Of course she’ll be mad, but with how late it is already, I’m more certain that she’d rather just go straight to bed when she does get home. She probably won’t notice that I’ve been out, and we can just have dinner over the weekend.”

She put the car in drive. “If you say so.”

“We’ll be fine. I’m not missing this party for the world.”

They both smiled.

“Not to hype you up or anything, but I pulled out all the stops so this night would go perfect. Maria’s scoping out Braham Barn as we speak, she’s got the cake already, and a good number of your volleyball friends are on route right now. Not to mention all the college kids that’ll be there just because it’s the weekend. It will be lit.”

“If that was you trying to temper my expectations, then you did a terrible job.”

“I’ll do you one worse then. He is going to be there.”

“He who?”

“You know who.”

Even in the dark, she could see Alexis start to blush.

“Oh fuck, Katy, you didn’t.”

“I so did.”

“No, that’s it. I’m getting out of here. I’m going home.”

She peeled out of the parking spot. Tires squealing.

“No way, Lexi,” she said. “Brandon will be there, you will be there, and you two will hit it off and it is going to be-”

“Perfect, I know,” Alexis said, a nervous smile on her face.

“Then get yourself together, Lexi, this is all for you. So, are you ready to go in there and party your ass off or not?”

The car hit the road, speeding off. She glanced at her best friend.

Alexis took a deep breath, as though she was about to dive head first into something crazy. Because she was, absolutely, but she wouldn’t be alone. There would always be someone watching over her, keeping an eye on her, reading her.

But for now, she was going to have some fucking fun.

“Yeah,” Alexis said, nodding, smiling wider. “I’m ready. Let’s give them hell!”

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Interlude – D

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A loose circle had formed around the gathered gangsters. Loose, because not everyone showed up, leaving very little yet very noticeable gaps in the lineup.

A certain little girl attempted to fill one of those gaps, but it was still too wide, the space around her still too noticeable. She stuck out like a really really really sore thumb. But, with it being her, who had a unique tendency to stand out as it was, her presence alone was enough to raise both questions and eyebrows.

A man, Arthur, asked, “Who the hell is this?”

Showtime.

“Yo! Mind if I disrupt- I mean interrupt?”

D grinned, mouth open, showing off her own gap. The one between her teeth.

The man was perplexed to the point of being offended. He looked across the loosely formed group and questioned the whole thing.

“Please tell me you ain’t serious with this, Mrs. Carter.”

The woman, standing across from her, at the opposite end of the not really circle, stared D down hard behind horned spectacles. D wasn’t nervous. In fact, it gave her a thrill that she craved. She couldn’t get enough.

Like bubble gum or lollipops or cotton candy or jelly donuts!

The woman, Mrs. Carter, kept staring.

“I’m very serious, Arthur, but I don’t know what this is. Or rather, who.”

D watched the woman’s movements, or the seeming lack thereof. Nothing obvious, very subtle. The slight angle of her chin. Up, eyes lowered by a fraction. Fingers tensed, grip tight on the binder she was clutching. Shoulders raised in a straight line, her back perpendicular. Poised, but there was an energy behind it. Ready to charge, needing just the exact provocation.

Everyone had a breaking point. D knew that all too well. And, after spending her smaller and small and formative years doing this, being this, D knew just how to tease it out. It was something she could intuit.

She knew now, though, to not reach for that impulse so… impulsively. If this was a year ago, she totally would have. She had learned some self-control. But not now. This was too important.

From her smaller to small years, to now.

Maybe I am growing up.

The thought freaked her out a little.

“I’m D,” D said, as though to reaffirm herself as well, “Like the letter!”

It was like a routine, by this point. A series of certain words and actions that brought out certain reactions, reactions she could use. Like playing a piano, pressing certain produced certain notes.

And, for what it was worth, D was a pretty decent musician.

She watched with a keen eye, and got exactly what she expected. Mrs. Carter and the other gangster’s guards were up, but not by much. They were wary of her, but they were underestimating, and she knew it was because of her age and stature. Nobody ever took her seriously, and she liked that. Knowing that was as comfy as a big warm sweater, or a fuzzy teddy bear.

She didn’t have one on her now, but D wished she did.

She wasn’t nervous at all.

“Reduced to nothing but.”

A dry chuckle followed after those words. A noise that grated. A sound that echoed from a not too distant past, but it haunted all the same.

Shuffling next to Mrs. Carter, Styx crept up to the circle, filling in another gap. He was slouched over, his arms hanging limp by his side. His eyes were wide, as he took everything in, darting around like he was on something. But he wasn’t on something, Styx wouldn’t be that dumb. Manic, but not dumb.

When he locked onto D, his eyes were wider, somehow, his mouth yawned to an exaggerated smile. That chuckle emanated out of him again as though it was possessing him. But, nope, it was Styx that was in control. Always.

It was something she admired about Styx. It was also something that freaked her out a lot.

He really found all of this funny.

Mrs. Carter remained as still as a statue.

“Would you know anything about this, Styx? Her?”

Styx stretched, his limbs groping and twisting through the air around him like the legs of a spider. Feeling for the webs he had spun, long ago.

With an odd pitch that spiked up, Styx’s laughter crescendoed, then stopped. A shrill noise that unnerved everyone in the circle, D excepted, maybe Mrs. Carter, too. But for D’s part, it was a song she had heard before.

Styx finally spoke.

“It’s a surprise to me, but very welcome one. She’s free to be here.”

Styx had spoken. No one would dare challenge him on that.

Which gave D the chance for her to rub it in. Styx totally gave that to her.

She’d take it though.

“Yup, I’m with the Fangs,” D said. “Hello again!”

Another one from the loose circle said their piece. A woman, this time. Hayden.

“Never seen her before. Weren’t there other Fangs? What happened to them?”

That last question in particular almost pierced through D. Almost. She plastered a goofy looking expression on her face. Not really a frown, but she opened her mouth and showed off the gap in her tooth again. Sulking in a way that only a kid could.

Wearing the expression like a mask.

D answered.

“Same thing that happened to D’Angelo, or Edward, Gary or Inez.”

That answer rippled through the others in a similar way, hitting them, but they weren’t as good at hiding it. Worried looks were cast, concern falling over everyone, oppressive like the dark that surrounded them.

Everyone except Mrs. Carter and Styx.

“No, no! I refuse to fucking believe that this little girl is coming here to announce the end times. Not for a fucking second!”

“Nothing is ending, Cassius. You will be fine.”

Mrs. Carter sounded so cool. Calm.

Cassius sounded rather uncollected when he bursted out again.

“Don’t give me that crap! How could you look at the situation we’re in and not be even a little concerned? Shit, I mean- Inez is dead, Gary is dead! Fuckin’ D’Angelo! And now we can put those two new fuckers on that list!”

With each name bellowed, their respective absence among the group was made painfully and painstakingly clear. Little gaps, but they were there. And for D in particular, the gap at each side of her felt as wide as a canyon and as deep as a cliff. There was no avoiding the feeling it gave her. Right there, a knot in her tummy.

“They had names,” D said, mimicking Mrs. Carter’s tone of voice. “Lawrence and Wendy.”

“Cassius is right, if I may be so bold.” That had come from Hayden. “Too much is happening, and too quickly at that. Several of our own are dead. We couldn’t even rendezvous in our usual location. We have to move here, to a place hardly more elevated than a garbage lot. I’m not asking you to lie to us, Mrs. Carter, but at least pretend that some alarms need to be raised.”

“And where the hell is Mister?” Brian asked. “This ain’t important enough for him?”

Mrs. Carter didn’t crack, however, her composure still composed, maybe even detached. The only thing alarming was how much Styx seemed to enjoy watching the scene unfold.

“What would you say then, Hayden, if I did indulge in your wishes for panic? Would you feel more at ease if I succumbed to fear like all of you seem to have? I have no time for such things. I’d much rather hold this meeting to achieve something tangible. If you would all prefer a therapy session, please, do so at your own time. But not mine.”

No one seemed to have any objections to that. No one said anything.

“Good,” Mrs. Carter then said, as though she was pleased with that response, or lack thereof. She then continued, and took back control of the space.

“With that being said, I do understand where you concerns are coming from. They are legitimate, but not cause for panic. As long as you stay here, you are safe. None of you have any obligation to stay here, however, and you are permitted to come and go and see to your respective gang’s activities. Just take the usual precautions, do not be followed. Does that sound agreeable?”

No objections. There were nods all over.

“And, as for Mister, he is well aware of the situation, and hopes that we can bring this to a satisfying resolution. Now, shall we have a proper discussion, then?”

“Please,” someone said. It wasn’t a voice within the circle.

Everyone turned. D did, too, following the act.

From the dark, two figures emerged. Covered completely, even wearing masks. A raven and a clown.

They approached the circle, moving like they belonged. They didn’t.

Everyone who wasn’t D or Styx or Mrs. Carter reacted with alarm. Tensed up.

“Who the fuck are you?” Arthur growled.

The masked pair stopped. The raven raised her hands. A gesture, before things could heat up.

“We are Machiavélique,” one of them said. Came from the raven.

“And how the fuck did you get in here?”

“That shouldn’t be a concern.”

“Well I fucking think it should be. I thought this place was supposed to be cool.”

“It is,” Mrs. Carter stressed. She looked over the masked pair. “Consider yourselves fortunate that I haven’t had you immediately shot for trespassing. Explain yourselves.”

“You came here for a discussion. We would like to participate. We believe our interests may align.”

Mrs. Carter was silent. A sign for Machiavélique to continue. The raven continued.

“As you all are aware, there have been some… complications that have popped up in the last few days.”

“Understatement of the fucking century,” Arthur said. “The city is on fucking fire, and, because this bears repeating, nearly half of us are fucking dead because of-”

“I’d advise you to check your math again, Arthur,” Mrs. Carter said.

“That’s one way to put it,” Machiavélique said, “But it carries the appropriate weight. Complications. The riots all over the city, and V.”

“V?” Forest asked.

“The Bluemoon,” Machiavélique corrected. The clown.

From the gestures and ticks, D observed as a chill looped through the circle.

“Well then,” Forest said. It was all he could say.

“The problems aren’t separate from one another, but let’s peel away the layers a bit. First, the riots. They’re tearing into the city, they’re growing in magnitude, and they’re believed to be targeted. Several of you have reported attacks on your own bases and buffer zones, is that correct?”

Everyone nodded, D included.

“In regards to your own equipment, manpower, your capacity to fight back, this shouldn’t be an issue, but with the very… politically charged nature of them, it makes the situation quite, again, complicated. Volatile. They are a minority, but they are a loud minority, and they are, at the end of the day, civilians. When they hit, they think they’re fighting against a world that has wronged them. A system. If you hit back, it shows the world that they’re right. That the system exists and needs to be addressed. And that will mean a larger response, and a brighter spotlight, on all of you.”

“Meaning?” Forest asked.

“Meaning that, once you go out to defend yourself, you also put yourself out there as a problem that needs solving. What those riots are really about exists on a deeper, fundamental level, a black thread that has stitched itself through the fabric of society itself. It can’t truly be cut or washed out. However, through either military intervention, or increased media coverage, the second any one of you gets pinned as a potential scapegoat, it’s over. Everyone that isn’t a part of your industry will be against it, and they will not be satisfied until you’re liquidated of all of your assets. The underlying problem would still persist for these people, but for that fleeting, pitiful moment, they will be satisfied. We assume that you’d all be against that.”

“What do you suggest we do, then?”

Mrs. Carter asked.

Everyone waited for Machiavélique’s answer. Even D was curious… at how Machiavélique would word it.

Machiavélique, the raven, raised her head, then her hand. A victory sign was made with her fingers.

“Layer two. V.”

Those chills again. D liked watching them squirm. It was funny.

“During the chaos of all the riots, she’s been targeting you, too. In the past few days, she’s already taken out a decent chunk of this group, here.”

Machiavélique didn’t have to mention their names again. Their lack of presence was felt. The lack at D’s sides.

Names she couldn’t bear saying again.

“The super villain thinks she’s being clever, taking advantage of the widespread panic she’s partly a cause of, but she doesn’t realize that she’s putting herself out in the open, too. You can’t really fight mass hysteria, but you can take down one person, even if they have powers. Prop V up to be the scapegoat, take her out, and the fires will quell.”

“And you truly believe that will work?” Mrs. Carter questioned, “That it will be that easy?”

“Might not be easy, but it is simple. If we all work together, I think we can accomplish something very special.”

The gangsters conversed with one another. It wasn’t an immediate rejection.

Mrs. Carter continued to stare at Machiavélique.

They’re doing well, D noted. It was kind of scary.

Forest had a question.

“Why should I believe any of this? Why should we believe you? I left Las Estrellas because of a similar incident, and that was damn near twenty five years ago. Now it’s happening all over again, except now you have these masked fools running around, taking bigger, messier shits. I heard some other fool in a mask is leading the riots. A gang going after other gangs.”

“The Flood, Dong-Yul being their leader. From what I’ve heard, he’d have the motive.”

Forest spread his arms, as if to say ‘I hecking told you so.’ D thought that in her head.

“But Dong-Yul is human. He’s only human. If he gets taken out, it won’t change anything. You’ll need to go after someone bigger. A monster. V. She is the beast you need to slay.”

“And you know how to slay this beast?” Hayden asked.

“We have a plan,” Machiavélique answered.

“Why? You two come out of nowhere, making this proposition. I don’t think you’re in a gang. So what’s your stake in this?”

Machiavélique paused, considering.

“No stake. Just… it’s just. Now, will y’all consider helping me?”

D observed with a keen eye. They were all considering it. Mrs. Carter, for her part, was allowing the discussion to continue, and Styx was having the time of his life. About to crack up. Ready to hear the great punchline of it all.

D didn’t find it funny, though, but she didn’t have a choice but to consider it, and go along with it. She didn’t have a choice at all.

D was no longer free.

“Break it down, I guess. Reduce it, right down to the letter.”

“Okay.”

Doris followed the instructions, right down to the letter. She was good at that, good at listening. And she liked that he liked that she was so good at following instructions.

Dad ruffled her hair, leaving it messy.

“Very good. You need anything else?”

Doris shook her head, both as a gesture and also to get her long hair out of her face.

“Nuh uh. I think I’ll be okay.”

“That’s my girl. I’ll be over in the living room. If you need me, just holler.”

“Okay!” Doris hollered.

That prompted Dad to ruffle her hair again, leaving it even more messy.

Giggling, Doris had to put the homework on pause to get some bunched up hair out of her eyes. Her pencil went flat on the table, her hands and her attention elsewhere. It took her some time, because she was so uncoordinated, and her hair was so long. It went past her lower back, as long as it was nutty brown.

She finally got everything sorted out, pushed back, and she was free from her tangle to get back to the homework.

Simplifying functions. Easy stuff.

Doris saw a lot triangles and X’s and tiny twos that liked to hang out in the upper right of the letters. Divided and separated into fractions. Doris knew fractions, she learned that in Ms. Gibbons’ class.

She went to work, doing it like how Dad showed her. She was just following after the steps, but it still came easy to her, she could feel that it was all coming together, everything either being broken down or reduced. She just had to keep plugging at it.

Crossing out X’s, canceling stuff that looked the same. Taking out those tiny twos when she didn’t need them anymore.

And… there. Just a two and a ‘X’ standing together like buddies.

She found the derivative.

Down to the letter!

It was easy to feel proud of herself. Dad said this kind of thing was hard, but she did it just like that. Well, she needed instructions, but even Dad admitted that he didn’t really understand this stuff, he was just reading words off of the page. But she still figured it out, and she liked to think that Dad had a hand in that.

Smacking her pencil down again, a loud clack, Doris pushed her chair away from the table. Her chair rolled back.

“Dad!” Doris hollered.

She didn’t hear an answer. Weird.

He said he’d be in the living room, right?

“Dad?”

Again, nothing.

Doris hopped out of the chair, gathering her pencil, paper, and textbook. She hugged them into her arms and stalked her way out of the kitchen.

Before she could step out on her own, a heavy hand guided her.

“Come on little one, this way.”

“Hey!”

A bit of fear rose within her, but that was nipped in the bud, after having realized who it was.

“Dad!”

She could only go for one word responses.

“Go to your room and stay in there for now.” Her dad took a pause. “And no, you’re not in trouble.”

Doris was rushed down a hall to her room, her bare feet barely keeping up with her dad’s longer strides.

“Why?”

“Nothing to worry about,” Dad said, but with the way he was acting, how he was hurrying, it made her worry anyways.

“But-”

They got to her room. Her dad opened it for her, nudging Doris inside. Not a push, but the implication was there. She felt it on her back.

Doris spun around, her things shaking in her arms.

“I finished your homework!” Doris said, louder than she had meant it to.

Dad smiled. It was something in his eyes, the corners of them. A little sad.

“That’s my girl. Thank you. Now just stay here. Go read something.”

Dad closed the door before Doris could get even another word in.

Frowning, Doris turned around and looked at her room.

It was a simple room, but Doris and Dad had always lived by simple means, and there was nothing bad about that.

The walls were a soft yellow, the sun as it filtered through the shutters made it brighter. A bed and some stuff animals in one corner, a dresser with maybe five different combinations of outfits in another. No closet in here.

Along one wall was a shelf, filled with books of different types. Dictionaries in different languages, encyclopedias, biographies of prominent anarchists, and coloring books. Not a lot of fiction stuff, Dad didn’t want her head to be filled with ‘fantasy crap.’ Doris didn’t really get it, but she wouldn’t complain over what they didn’t have. She knew better.

She had more books than clothes, and she was fine with that. More than fine, really.

Doris moved along to the shelf, setting her things there. Pencil, paper, and textbook. Her dad’s textbook.

It was Dad’s idea, but she wanted to help where and when she was able. Doris was more than happy to do it.

Dad had just went back to school, a local community college. Studying… Doris wasn’t sure exactly, but Dad needed to go through the core subjects first. That included stuff like math, stuff Dad wasn’t so good at.

Doris was a willing learner, and a fast one at that. So Dad let her in on it. Whatever he couldn’t wrap his head around, he’d try to teach her and have her take a crack at it. And then, he would get a good grade and pass and Doris would get an early and free college education.

It was a good idea, and it made sense to Doris. She just wondered if Dad was learning anything.

She picked up voices on the other side of the door.

This apartment was her home, but it was more like a tenement, to borrow from one of her dictionaries. The walls were thin, and someone didn’t have to be very loud to be heard. Doris was well aware of that.

Moving back to the door, she sat with her own back resting on it. She listened.

“… from his office. Nothing big, a quick meeting. How are you holding up, Carl?”

She didn’t know that voice. A man, maybe around Dad’s age, but it was hard to tell from voice alone.

“I’ve been doing everything you’ve asked. Twiddling my thumbs.”

That was her dad. Carl.

“You’ve been calm during this whole ordeal. That’s good. That’s, um, you’re doing a great job, I can say that much.”

She heard good, she heard great. That had to be a good thing, right? Maybe they were talking about planning a surprise birthday party for Doris or something.

Doris reconsidered. But her birthday wasn’t for another few months.

“I don’t like how you’re talking there, though.”

“I… it’s not good, Carl.”

Oh no. Not good wasn’t good. It was not good.

She heard her dad make a noise. Something like a moan or a groan.

“Damn- come on, man, I thought you said you’d help me out, here!”

Dad tried to keep his voice low, but it didn’t work.

“Like I told you the first time, Carl, I’m doing what I can, but what I can’t do is promise you anything. I talked with the company that’s looking to buy the building, Tate and Mono Construction. They’re pretty adamant about getting this property, and several others, for their planned, shall I say, aggressive expansion. And, this was supposed to be between me and their lawyers, but they are putting together a deal, a payout to anyone who is willing to leave by a certain date.”

“Payout? How much?”

“Ten thousand.”

“Each?”

Doris didn’t hear the answer, but she definitely heard the response to that.

“I can’t take that! That’s bull- that’s peanuts to the peanuts I’m making now! If I take that, where else am I gonna go? I- We can’t afford to live anywhere else.”

“And I understand that, Carl, but there’s only so much I can do. I’d love to take you on as a client and go after these bastards, but there’s the whole matter of…”

“I can’t afford you?” Dad asked.

“As you are, the firm I represent doesn’t see a need to take you on. Me? You can always come to me.”

“I’m coming to you now, please. If I have to beg, then I’ll beg.”

“There’s no need, but this is all I have for you. Any more and it becomes a thing, and you know how it is. My firm is rather selective with its clients, and… well, the more I talk the more I’ll demoralize you, so I’ll stop right there.”

There was a long pause. Doris almost thought that she had lost her hearing.

Then the man spoke again.

“I’m not officially your legal counsel, so I won’t advise to take the money, but as a friend, I’d think about it.”

“My daughter won’t have a home-”

“Think about it. In the meantime I can start looking for some other places for you and Doris. Public housing. The programs haven’t been properly funded for some time but I’ve been getting to know the people who run it. They’re good folk, they’ll set you two up and make you comfortable.”

Another lengthy pause.

“That still doesn’t give me a lot of time. And, it’s not like I want to stay here, but, I can’t go anywhere else, man. You know what I do, what I did. I’m trying to get out of that game, but I leave now they’ll… I just need some time. And money, but if I have time I can get money, and I want to do it the right way, do it clean. I’m just… I want to do things right by her, cause I know I ain’t do squat for her mother.”

Her mother. Doris felt a breeze run through her. A large and noticeable hole that she had grown to live with, but sometimes, she’d feel that cold, how it touched the edges. She shivered.

Dad continued to plead. Beg.

“Please, man, I’m not going to ask you for money but please just buy me some time.”

A third, much longer pause. She really thought she went deaf that time.

“I’ll tell you what,” the man then said, “Something about those lawyers at Tate and Mono, they were serious about securing this spot for them. I don’t know why, no offense Carl, but it isn’t exactly prime location for a large overseas company, looking to dig some roots into American soil.”

“Thanks.”

“What I meant was, Tate and Mono are desperate to get their footing in Stephenville. I can only guess as to why, so I’ll have to do some more digging. But, their lawyers did briefly mention that they were looking into some other buildings in the area as well, buildings my firm’s clients happen to own. I’ll keep an eye on this, and if they try to make a move on another building, and it lines up, I can encourage them to take action, and your testimony will help when it comes time to that.”

“You’d do that?”

“I’ll try. Until then, just sit still, twiddle your thumbs for a bit longer. I’ll get you the time you need. No promises, though.”

“Ah god, thank you, seriously. Thank you, Th-”

The door cracked and bent off the hinge. The door, the whole apartment, was old and rickety, and Doris had leaned on it for too long.

She fell back into the hallway, making a dumb sounding grunt as she did so.

Hurrying, Doris jumped back onto her feet, her hands going to the door to fix it. Shake the hinges back into place so she could close it, but that only made more noise. Loud, so super duper obvious noise.

“Doris?”

She froze.

Turning to look down the hall, she saw her dad, staring back at her. He wasn’t mad, but he was confused, maybe a little embarrassed.

She saw the man standing behind him.

Tall, wearing a suit. Handsome, fit. Dark hair, slicked back. He looked nice. The opposite of Dad. Except the nice part. Dad was nice, too.

But looking at that man, Doris felt her face get all warm. Definitely more than a little embarrassed.

She forgot about the door. She ran back into her room, diving onto her bed, her tiny arms being greeted by fuzzy ones. She hugged a huge teddy bear. The only thing she had could come close to filling that hole that had always been there.

Doris hugged it tight, eyes shut just as heard.

Still though, she couldn’t help but listen.

“That her?”

“It is.”

“Cute kid. Hey, if she wants to make a new friend, I know someone who would love to get to know her.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Sure, why not? It might make my next visit less depressing, depending on how things go. And if anyone deserves some good, it should be her, right?”

“Right, exactly.”

Doris only hugged the bear tighter.

She wasn’t quite sure what they were talking about, she didn’t understand it. She got that last part, though, that she might make a new friend. Or someone closer than friends. Like family.

It was hard for her to get along with the other kids in class, and she didn’t know why. Maybe it was because she was too short, or they didn’t read the same books as her. But maybe someone new would like her, someone different.

Doris wasn’t so worried anymore. In fact, she was thinking of some encyclopedias to recommend right now.

The old but grand building stood tall in the distance. A hangar in an airstrip, once passed between corporations, it was now owned a single, sole, private entity. In any case, it was away from the city. it was secluded, it was safe.

Even then, D still felt like they’d be fish in a barrel.

Them, not me.

Get far enough out of the city, the sprawling cityscape would give way to something more sparse, rolling hills and long stretches of road. The hangar on the very edge of that. Far enough to escape the heat, but the smoke was still very visible from the rearview mirror.

D drove down the long road. She was by herself. She had been used to that for some time now, but, ever since she returned to Stephenville, she became very busy. That meant meeting new people, making new friends. Even new family. Not a lot of time to be on her own, anymore.

But, for the moment, for this drive, she was alone. A brief respite.

Time alone, time to think.

The van sped along, speeding, really. D wasn’t concerned over any cops or other drivers. It was that late, or it was that early, depending how one considered it. It was a weird time. It was a weird time for everybody.

D took a glance at the mirror, checking the road behind her. The city was but a small dot in the back. It glowed, though, stinging if she looked at it for too long.

Her eyes stung.

She blinked away coming tears. Dangerous, being on the road. Doubly so if her mask cracked during the meeting. She’d have to get a grip on herself, now. D was good at that, and being alone helped, but it had gotten harder, since she came back.

Everything had gotten harder since came back.

D could remember a time when it was easy, when it was fun. When it was all about doing whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted. Pranks and just scraping by to do more pranks. And if she fell or failed, it wouldn’t matter, because nothing did. No one would have missed her.

Now, it sort of did kind of mattered. There was people she missed, now, so the inverse had to be true. Now, if she fell, the descent was slowed, the inevitable crash hurting all the more.

No longer instantaneous.

Don’t think of their names. Don’t even say them.

In the instant that thought flashed in her mind, a light flashed behind her.

D checked the mirror.

A pair of lights. Bright. They hadn’t been there before.

Not a cop. No color. Just white.

Blinking. Hazard lights. Signaling.

D looked ahead, and saw a tree off to the side of the highway. Secluded, safe.

The van skipped as it changed terrain. In the back, a pile of teddy bears fell out of their seats. Tires had to work harder to climb up the slight incline, dirt kicking and sliding out under the rubber, but she managed to get up there.

On her tail, the lights followed.

D put the van in park, turning her hazard lights on for a second.

The other car’s lights got cut. Then D’s.

She hopped out of the van. She was able to see the car now. A teal Honda.

Without breaking a stride, D walked, calm, over to the tree. The hangar, the meeting place, was still way over there.

D turned. She didn’t want to think about that now.

Leaning against the tree, she watched doors opened on each side of the teal car. Two figures emerged.

They approached, walking in step with one another.

The moonlight was dim, but D could see their faces. Or rather, she couldn’t. They were already wearing their masks. One more closely resembled a human face, with colors and shapes painted across it like a clown. The other looked like a raven with more eyes than it needed.

D wasn’t perturbed. Just a little cold.

Ça fait longtemps, dis donc,” D said, lively. Any other negative emotion was kept locked down, it wouldn’t be allowed out, kept below her choker.

Neither replied.

Quoi de neuf?” D tried.

The clown and the raven stopped. They stood in a triangle.

D and Machiavélique.

“If you have to ask, then you’re not taking this seriously.”

Quothed the raven.

D shrugged. Acting cool, staying cool.

“I’m taking this very serious. For real.”

If any of those eyes could react, they would all be squinting at her. They remained wide and open. All-seeing, but not all-knowing. That was what D was for.

“Is that it?” Machiavélique asked. The clown half. “The huge building building over there?”

There was only one huge building around.

“Yup yup! Meeting’s moved to the outskirts. Precautions. You can imagine why.”

D would have punctuated that with a laugh or giggle, but she didn’t want to push it. A simple crack, or if she got the delivery wrong, would have given away everything.

Getting a hold of herself. The real test would be in there.

“God damn,” the clown said. “This is getting out of fucking hand.”

“It’s been out of hand for a long time now,” the raven said. “But that’s what we’re here for, to take it back. To set things right.”

“Be prepared for it to get a heck of a lot worse right before it gets better,” D said. “That’s how stuff like this usually goes. That’s how everything goes, always.”

“We’re ready,” the raven said, answering for both halves of Machiavélique. “You came alone?”

“I did. I thought Sarah might try to come, since she was there for the other meetings, but she dipped, instead. Didn’t like how things were going. What the other Fangs wanted to do.”

“So it’s really just you now?”

“It really just is.”

“That doesn’t scare you?”

It was the clown that asked her.

D shrugged again, exaggerating it on purpose.

“Nah. What does scare me is the responsibility. I was used to staying on the side, doing the fun stuff for the gang, but now I have a bunch of underlings who they have to take orders from. And while I like them a bunch, I know they don’t like me. They prefer me on the side, and I work better from there, honestly. I don’t belong on the stage. I’m more like the stagehand, I rig things.”

“You won’t be on stage for long,” the raven said. “And you shouldn’t have to worry about the other Fangs. Play these next few moves right, this should be over very soon.”

D thought about the prospect of that. Reaching endgame, even if Machiavélique didn’t like to think of it as that. A game.

Yet there were moves to make.

“My Fangs are already down, so if you can manage to get everyone in there to work together, then you might be right,” D said. She looked up, gauged the position of the moon, its light dancing between the gaps in the leaves. “Let’s get going, everyone else should be there by now, and I don’t like to keep Styx waiting. Really don’t like to. Leave your car here, and I’ll sneak you in with the van. I stuffed like the biggest pile of teddy bears in the back, so you can hide among all of them if they decide to do a search through.”

“You and your bears,” the raven said.

D grinned, gap showing. That was genuine.

“Yeah, let’s go,” the clown said. “I’m shaking as it is, and it’s not because it’s cold.”

“Let’s,” the raven replied, and that word got them all to move. They went back, all heading to D’s van. A new van. The old one with some sentiment value had been sacrificed. A worthy cover.

D felt something well up in her throat, under her choker. Pressure boiling, punching against a lid. She knew she had to relieve some of it, or she might burst at the wrong time.

She spoke, only for the raven to hear.

“You say I don’t need to worry about the Fangs, but I quite like them. I like those two, too. Liked.”

“I know you do,” the raven said. “I also know that you recognize that they cannot be allowed to continue. Her especially. We take her down, and this madness ends.”

Or you finally get your petty, selfish revenge.

But D managed to keep that thought down, below the choker. She knew better than to talk back to an elder. Besides, D was still here, she was still helping.

And that choked her up inside.

Tugging her choker, relieving some of that pressure, D replied with only a soft, “D’accord.”

“Nor… Nordisk, no disc family book, what?”

The older girl inspected the book with a mild curiosity, but the expression on her face was mostly confusion.

Nordisk familjebok,” Doris said, without the trace of an accent. “It’s an encyclopedia from Sweden. That one is the Uggleupplagan, or the owl edition, because there’s an owl on the cover.”

The older girl ran her hand across the cover. She never cracked it open, though, instead sliding it right back into the shelf. Her hand floated through the other options, ready to pick out a new one like fruit.

“You don’t have any book series or anything,” the older girl said, a little disappointed.

Doris pointed, her arm and finger fully straight. “Noooo! There in the corner! The complete history of motorcycles, from the Reitwagen to the right now!”

The older girl laughed.

“Noooo,” she said back, imitating Doris. “I’m talking about book books, with characters and stories. Things like that.”

“Oh,” Doris said, a little disappointed. “My dad doesn’t want me to read those kind of books. Book books.”

Book book books.

“Why not?”

“I dunno. He says I should read to learn so that’s why we have all these.” Doris motioned across her shelves.

“That’s crap, you can learn from anything you read. Say, would he get mad if I got you something, as a gift?”

As a gift? Doris thought about it.

“I don’t think he’d get mad. He also says you should never not accept a gift.”

“Cool.” The older girl smiled. “I’ll bring something next time.”

“Next time?”

That smile grew brighter. “Sure.”

Doris squeezed her fists, shaking them a little. This girl just got here, and she was already talking about a next time. That made Doris super duper excited.

With even more awe in her eyes, Doris watched as the girl perused her humble library and its offerings.

The girl was older than her, as Doris kept noting, and while it was only by a fistful of years, the older girl already looked so much more mature than her. Taller, her darkish blonde hair done up, her outfit more stylish than Doris had ever seen in a magazine or TV.

She looked cool, and she seemed cool because she was nice. Doris appreciated that.

“What kind of books do you like?” Doris asked.

“I like… um,” the older girl took out something and skimmed the pages. A French dictionary. She stopped at a page and gave the book to Doris, leaving a finger on the thing.

“Those kind,” she said.

Doris followed to where her finger pointed. She read the word with ease.

“What’s noir?” The dictionary definition by itself didn’t make any sense.

“Crime stories. Pulp fiction. Cops and robbers and detectives and the like.”

“Oh. Cool.”

Doris knew what those things were but she didn’t see the appeal in them.

“My dad is a lawyer so it’s like the same thing. Well, not actually but I still like it.”

“Oh. But that is cool. Like actually.”

Doris didn’t want to be misconstrued.

“Thanks,” the older girl said, a funny tone. Like she meant it, but she was also joking somehow. It was weird.

“Why do you like it?” Doris asked. She really wanted to know more about her.

The older girl leaned a bit, eyes to the ceiling. Thinking.

“Why? That’s a weird question.”

“Is it?”

“Kidding. I’ve just never been probed on why I like a thing, before. Not weird, just different.”

Not weird. Different.

“Why do I like them? Uh… I dunno, I like bad guys when their just desserts. But, I guess, in those kinds of stories the main character isn’t usually such a great person, either.”

“So what happens when there aren’t any good guys?”

The older girl put some serious thought into it.

“In that case, you just have to go with the lesser of two evils.”

The lesser of two evils.

“So you like it when the bad guy is beat? Or the bad bad guy?”

“Worse than beat. When they’re beat so bad they can’t run away and do more bad.”

“Oh,” Doris said.

“Anyways, let’s not get into that,” the girl said. She took the book back and set it into its proper place on the shelf.

“Why?”

“It’s depressing, and I’m not about to mess up a little kid I just met.”

“Okay,” Doris said, accepting that answer. “But promise when you come back you’ll bring me a book you like.”

“Hmmm. I shouldn’t make any promises, but sure.”

Doris made little fists again.

“For now though,” the older girl said, “Wanna play a game?”

“Yeah!”

Crawling a few feet across the floor, she reached over for a small purse. She pulled out a tablet.

“Um, do you know how to play chess?”

“Yeah!”

The older girl tapped on the screen, setting the game up, and then placed it on the floor between them.

Doris hadn’t gotten a lot of chances to use a device like this before, her family never had one, but she figured it out fast.

The older girl went first. She was white, then it was Doris’ turn.

Pieces started moving around. They talked as they played.

“So, uh…”

“Try to remember it, will you? Name’s-”

“Can I call you Big Sis?”

A pause.

“That’s another weird question.”

“Is it?”

“Kidding again. Um, alright, why not?”

Yes, Doris thought.

“Big Sis. Your dad is a lawyer?” Doris asked. Pawn to C5.

“Yes ma’am,” was the answer. Knight to F3.

“Is he going to help my dad?” Knight to C6.

“As much as he can, I guess.” Pawn to D4. “Do you know what he needs help with?”

Pawn over to D4. Pawn taking pawn. Knight to D4. Knight taking pawn.

“No,” Doris said, down. “I’m scared that he needs help because he’s a bad guy.”

“Why would you say that? Do you think he’s a bad guy?”

“No,” Doris said.

Pawn to G6. Bishop to E3. Bishop to G7. Pawn to C4.

“I know we just met, so it might not mean anything, but, if my dad is willing to help yours, then he can’t be such a bad guy.”

“Okay,” Doris said.

“Those are just stories, they’re not like real life.”

“Okay.”

More pieces moved. Pieces taken.

“Not bad,” Big Sis said.

“I want to help him but I don’t know how.”

The words blurted out of her mouth.

She couldn’t stop thinking about it, though. Dad and her dad were out there, in the living room, talking about matters that Doris couldn’t fully understand. It was grown up stuff. But Doris could understand that Dad got really stressed, that he lost lots of sleep and wouldn’t be able to finish his homework by himself. Dad got sad a lot, and that made Doris sad. Kids and adults could understand that feeling.

Doris wanted to help Dad like how her dad was, but she didn’t know how.

Big Sis’ turn. Rook to F5.

“Hey,” she said. “You’re a kid, so you shouldn’t worry about it so much. But hey, I say that, but I worry about my dad, too.”

“How?”

“He really wants to get this… your whole situation straightened out, and he hates that he isn’t in the right position to make the right moves. He talks about this with my mom after dinner. He thinks I can’t hear him but I do. My dad’s the type to give it his all to his work, so when something doesn’t work out…”

Big Sis paused. Doris was quiet too.

It was Doris’ turn. Pawn to rook. F5.

Big Sis’s turn again. Bishop to F7.

“… he gets frustrated.”

Doris couldn’t quite place the feeling in the air with a word, but it was probably not what either of them intended for this playdate.

Doris was stuck. On what to say and on what move to make. Her king was stuck in a corner.

Doris tried, though.

“Maybe, if we can have fun today, would that be enough for them?”

Queen taking pawn. B2.

She looked at Big Sis.

Big Sis smiled.

“That could work.”

Then, she made her move. Bishop to F8.

Doris let her mouth open so long it got dry.

Check and mate.

Big Sis smiled even wider. Doris knew the word for that one for sure. Smug.

Doris smiled back.

“Who are you talking to?”

D was worried. It was a genuine concern. No smiling here.

Wendy had her arms flat on the desk in a vain attempt to cover up something, but D could see how the table bent inward, like there was a crack down the middle. Wendy was never very good at hiding things. Not at all.

But this was different. This was concerning.

Wendy was talking to someone, but D didn’t remember leaving anyone else in the room with her. And she sounded mad.

Clutching her teddy bear, D took stock of the office. Right. No one else in here.

No. Wait. No one else in here. That wasn’t right. That was so very wrong.

Wendy stared at D, and it was almost like looking back at the abyss. There was simply nothing within those pools of wide blackness.

Her mouth dropped open, and an hollow sound echoed out.

“Huh?”

It wasn’t even a word.

D was good at hiding what she felt, deep down. She could keep it from sounding out when she spoke, disguising it as something else. Chipper. Hyper. Nothing would go above the choker she wore.

Crying was different. That was real, and it fit, made sense for this situation.

But now, a certain emotion threatened to bubble up and burst out of her mouth. One she didn’t want to show. Fear.

Had to suppress it when she asked again.

“Who are you talking to?”

The lights never seemed more harsh and oppressive, the glare catching Wendy’s lenses and glazing over the eyes themselves.

Then, Wendy moved her head slow, almost like how an old person would, and they had forgotten where they were or how they got there. Her arms, resting on the desk, had relaxed.

“Isabella,” Wendy said, looking off to some far distance, somewhere D couldn’t see. “She’s right there.”

D looked. But, no. Try as she might, the corner, the walls, the ceiling. Nothing there.

She was scared to report that.

D didn’t risk it. Stayed quiet.

But that only made Wendy more dazed.

“You alright?”

D wasn’t sure if Wendy was talking to her or not.

But she didn’t answer regardless.

Wendy closed her eyes, then opened them again. A slow blink?

“D?”

So much was happening, so much had happened. D was reeling from one thing, already. Lawrence was dead. She wasn’t prepared for this.

“Yeah?” she asked, getting ready to take a step backwards, to the hall. She already regretted coming back in here.

“You… alright?”

Wendy’s speech slurred there a bit.

This… D couldn’t save this.

She couldn’t bear to answer. She couldn’t say.

D bit her tongue.

Wendy broke her stare from D, and looked into the distant nothingness again.

“It’s not up to me, we have to come to a decision together.”

D only hugged the bear tighter. If it could breathe, she was strangling it.

She still couldn’t say anything.

Wendy looked back at D, and blinked again. Blinked some more. And blinked. Blink blink blink.

D was scared. But she couldn’t say that.

“Isabella asked you something.”

A knot went up into D’s throat.

Have to say something.

D nodded, glancing to a vague direction within the room. Leaning back.

Choking, D said, “I’ll have to get to back on you with that… Isabella.”

Wendy motioned for D. “Hey-”

An arm was lifted off the desk, and there was nothing to hold it together anymore. The desk was split into two, dropping into place and making a thud.

But it might as well have been a crash.

D leaped, despite herself, and like an animal that hunted for its food, Wendy didn’t respond well to that.

Wendy jumped up, too, away from the collapsed desk. Her head and eyes darted around, searching for something, hunting for it, until the gradual realization came down like the setting sun. That nothing was there.

And then something rose. Something much darker.

D couldn’t stick around to find out.

She bolted out of the room.

Down the hall, a corner, a corner, then-

The quick panic made her temporarily lost. Dark. Couldn’t see.

No delay, but fear had her. Delay.

Pause. Panic.

Turn.

Run.

So much running.

Crash.

Disoriented, D shook herself off. She found herself on the floor, on top of Sarah. It was Sarah.

“Sarah,” she said. Glad to see her.

She was on the floor too, having been knocked into by D. She grunted.

“You alright?”

“Please don’t ask me that, we need to get out of here.”

“What-”

What followed wasn’t Wendy herself, but her howl, the moon just outside.

D picked her and Sarah up, rushing her.

“We need to get everyone out of here.”

Sarah snapped to action, but she still wasn’t sure of what was happening. Then again, neither did D.

But it almost didn’t matter. It immediate goal was simple enough to understand.

Leave.

Both getting to their feet, they ran together down a hall. D let Sarah take the front, because she was older and because she was faster overall.

The howl grew in both intensity and volume, seeming to bounce off the cold steel walls around them. Imprisoned by metal and sound. More crashes and bangs.

“… going on?”

Sarah yelled out maybe less than half a question, but D got the meaning.

“I don’t know, Vivi’s having another episode!”

“Again?”

More howls and crashing answered that for her. Louder. Closer.

“There isn’t anything we can do for her?” Sarah asked.

“For her? That’ll have to wait. Now? Gotta-”

D could have sworn she heard metal snap.

“Go!” D finished.

They ran, and D’s legs were already hurting. The Redhouse had been blown up only two hours ago, and now she was fearing for her life again. Wendy carried her to safety that time, now they were running from her.

This wasn’t how it was supposed to be.

The doors.

Bursted open.

“Every-”

D couldn’t finish the word.

Wood splintered and cracked and fell apart. Somewhere above her.

She couldn’t even begin to consider how, but Wendy had gotten out another way, crawling out from somewhere that led back to the main area of the church. A sizable hole was left in a wall above where the priest would have sat, dirt and debris dropping down.

D looked, and saw the moonlight frame the girl. More shadows than anything else. The outline vaguely human.

The vague outline that was supposed to be her new big sis, and Sarah’s new partner, leapt from her post and into the crowd. Her fangs met her Fangs.

Chaos ensued. More than D had ever seen or caused.

Everyone rushed to get out of there seats and aisle, spilling out to the sides, trying to find an exit. Screaming things too rude for D to repeat.

This wasn’t good.

She wasn’t considering that these were her own men. She was going through them, taking them down, one by one by one by one. She would leap into the air, landing on top of them. D lost visual on them as they fell behind one of the wooden seats.

She’s going to tear them apart.

And we led her right to them.

D had to come up with something. Couldn’t let this last any longer.

Too dark, too crazy in here. Her voice was too small to direct them to proper exits.

D took a quick scan of the church. Wendy’s base. Probably not her base anymore.

“Don’t go into the crowd yet!” D yelled to Sarah, “Stay out of the way.”

“But Tone-”

“Stay out of the way!”

D shoved the teddy bear into Sarah’s arms and ran.

Over to the other end of the church. Exactly where D told Sarah not to go.

The crowd was dispersing, being cut down to size. D couldn’t make out the scope of the destruction. Just screams and people bigger than her running for their lives. It was hard to squeeze through, but she had to move.

Too much was happening to the Fangs, one after another. The riots starting at Wellport, and then Lawrence… they couldn’t even give him a proper burial. And now this. Wendy snapping and lashing out at the nearest things around her.

So much pressure had been building up, and now it was blowing up.

D couldn’t let the Fangs fall apart. She still needed them.

Had to keep it together. For the endgame.

Someone knocked into D. She would have fallen over, if she hadn’t knocked into someone else. She pushed and kept going.

Another super loud sound. Shots. People were trying to shoot their way out now.

Or at her.

Keep running keep running keep running.

There. She could reach it now.

On a wall in a small pocket by where the choir would play. A panel that controlled the sound equipment.

D went right to work crossing wires and plugging things in. Power still ran through here. She could use it.

She heard a static click of a speaker turning on.

Spinning around, she searched for a mic. There, on a chair. It was dusty and old but it would work.

She grabbed for it, fumbled with the wire, then yelled.

“Exits to the side, not just the front!”

The roar of the crowd dampened at the sudden sound, but there was no clear response. D did see, however, Fangs start directing themselves to where D had indicated. The chaos was still there, but it was beginning to thin out.

But Wendy was still there, too.

Blood and splatter arced through the air. D wasn’t able to count how many of her own teeth Wendy was pulling out.

I have to stop her.

D yelled again.

“Vivi!”

A head popped up. Tilted and bent and crazed and covered in blood.

There were no words. Just anger and aggression.

D clapped her hand against the mic, making another loud sound. She tapped it.

The speakers were at the head of the church. Less people there. If D could direct it- her-

Wendy, Vivi, Sis

It jumped, soaring through the air, towards the front of the church.

D was almost disappointed at how easy that was. But that wasn’t Wendy right now. Something else had taken over.

Shots followed after Wendy, missing, but they kept trying. They kept shooting at their own Voss.

Wendy landed on top of the altar, on all fours. She stumbled and staggered when the occasional stray bullet tagged her, but she didn’t fall.

She didn’t go after D, just the sound of her voice, coming from somewhere else. All D had to do was keep Wendy away from the rest. Then, how to get the heck out of here.

Shots continued to zip by. Most of them missed. But not all of them were aiming for her directly.

Some of the Fangs were working together, now, shooting above Wendy, what was overhead. And what was overhead was a crucifix, held suspended in the air by old cables.

One stray bullet wouldn’t do. Several hitting the mark could. And then it did.

“No!”

D’s scream reverberated throughout the whole church, then swallowed by the crash. Nails to teeth.

She saw how the sudden weight tore through her new big sister. A beam of wood caught her at the shoulder, severing the arm. Crossing her, cutting her, the weight sliced the limb.

It-

D recalled a conversation with Wendy. What had happened in the Lunar Hotel against Granon. Lawrence saw the aftermath there. She had seen it for herself, too, when they visited Braham Barn on a rainy day.

A spiral of destruction.

Then, now, D finally was able to witness the leading suspect.

A burst of mass and blood. Black and slick and huge. Lengthy, it stretched and twisted of fibers and muscles. Sinew.

Obsidian tendrils whipped around in a circle, taking out everything in its path. The crucifix had its turn to be cut in two, and many more pieces.

Long and powerful, the tendrils sprouted from the place where her arm was supposed to be. They had reach.

Spinning out of control, they sliced and slashed the poor unfortunates who tried to take the side exits D had pointed out. Some still made it out, some were able to turn back, the rest weren’t able to do either.

Lucky bullets hit a long black target. It was like steel. Bounced off.

Just more destruction. A spiral of it.

Moving on its own volition. This was that something else.

The screams spun around D. It was a blur and a rush.

Then, the whirlwind stopped, the debris allowed to settle in place.

It happened fast. Or, it took long for D to realize that it was over.

From behind a chair in the choir section, D climbed back up to her feet. She didn’t even remember ducking for cover.

A church was in disarray. People picking each other up. Less than before. Some got out. But not everyone did.

Wall, ceiling, wall, floor, wall, ceiling, broken window. D could follow a path of destruction, of self and otherwise. But she wasn’t here anymore.

Horror show. Horrible.

D walked to the altar. Sarah was there, standing up, by the broken wood and metal and marble. She was still holding the teddy bear.

No one was at the altar. No arm, but D was certain it had been lobbed off. She found a torn piece of cloth in the wreckage. A sleeve.

Sarah was speechless, all words robbed from her. D was just as broke now, too. But she’d need the words soon, because it was time to make that call. That move.

The queen had moved into position. The beginning of the endgame.

Doris was scared, and she couldn’t do anything.

Scared for herself, scared for Dad.

A voice taunted on the opposite side of the door, across the hall. Menacing.

“Should have taken the money right then and there, Carl man. You see, those good people need this property. For good reasons. Good for my business.”

“Please, don’t!”

“And your testimony put a stop to that. You and your lawyer friend. That’s not ace.”

“God, please!”

“No, Carl, no deities here. I could take you to them, though.”

“Stop!”

She tried to cover her ears with her teddy bear.

Tried, but the walls were thin, Doris heard every struggle, every strained scream. Her dad’s. The other voice was like nails on a chalkboard.

Blocking her hearing didn’t work, her only line of defense now was staying under her bed.

“Shh, shh, it’s okay, don’t move. Here, here. When you go see the doctor for this, tell them you took a trip down the stairs as you were moving out of here.”

“No, no, stop, please, no-”

Dad scream was so loud it scared her. But it was the laughter over it that terrified her.

It was all so sudden. Doris couldn’t even remember what she was doing before it happened. Probably something mundane. Probably reading the newest book her big sister gave her.

Dad’s descended to a whimper. Doris couldn’t hear him anymore.

She heard nails on a chalkboard, though.

“Search the rest of the apartment. Take anything they don’t need. Lighten the load for when they leave.”

Footsteps. Up and down the hall. Things breaking.

Hinges squeaking.

The footsteps were closer now. In her room.

Boots walked to the foot of the bed, stopping there. Unmoving for a time.

Then, they turned, but instead of walking away, rusty bed springs bent and creaked together. They were sitting on the bed, right on top of her.

“Hi.”

Doris kept every emotion and word in her throat.

“What’s your name?”

No escape. Stuck here. No choice.

She looked at the man’s boots. Boots with sharp things coming out the bottom of them.

“Doris…”

“Hi Doris, I’m Sticks.”

“Sticks?”

“Like the river. Anything I can get you? Thirsty?”

Salty tears were already streaming down her face. She wasn’t in need for water.

“Styx, did you hurt my dad?”

“I did. He wouldn’t listen otherwise.”

“Are you going to hurt me?”

“Not up to me. Offer still stands.”

Doris didn’t, couldn’t get another word out, even though her throat was dry.

“Well,” Styx said, “Just so you know, the offer will always stand. Always. No matter what. If you need me, for anything, just come and find me, and we’ll figure something out. And in fact, I insist. Please. Do me that favor, from you to me.”

He then chuckled.

Doris didn’t really get it, at all. She was still too scared to connect any thoughts.

“Why are you doing this?”

That was the only question she could think of, her confusion like a haze in her mind.

“Why? Because I can. I can do whatever I please. I didn’t have to do this, but I felt like it this time. Seems to me like it was worth it.”

“So you’re a bad guy?”

Sticks, Styx paused.

Dumb question. Stupid. Stupid. But she wasn’t really thinking.

“Bad?” Styx asked back, “I do what I want in a system that allows me that freedom. I’m free, in every sense of word and existence. Is that so bad?”

Doris didn’t have an answer for that.

“Tell me, Doris, do you feel free here?”

Through the haze, Doris thought about it. Here, with Dad, doing his homework, playing with big sis whenever came over, she was content, hardly sad, but free? Within these walls? Maybe not. But that had never been a detriment, something that Doris complained about, under her breath.

“No,” Doris answered.

“Oh wow! Doris! You should really try it sometime! Most people go their whole lives, letting themselves get shackled to things. But true freedom is liberating, it’s honest, it’s real. And that, my Doris, is a very good thing.”

Somewhere deep in the core of her, where she wasn’t or would ever be conscious of, those words struck like a bell, and rang throughout the rest of her being.

She sounded, “Oh.”

“I’d best get going then. Remember, offer. Favor. See you then.”

The bed springs retracted to their neutral positions, creaking along the way. Styx’s boots walked their owner out of her room.

Her heart was in her throat. Pounding. That sensation reached her head.

She’d always wanted to help Dad. She even thought she was helping by playing with her big sis, having fun, being happy. But Dad still got hurt. She couldn’t do anything at all.

Her heart was pounding so hard it was breaking. That sensation matched what was happening in her mind.

It didn’t work. Nothing she had tried worked. Now, those feelings of wanting to help that broken whimpering man kept her down. Very much like shackles.

Freedom didn’t sound so bad.

The van had slammed into a sudden stop, and D’s bones were rattling. She couldn’t even shake it off, because of how hard the impact thrummed through her body.

Nothing broken, so go me. Yay.

D still felt as if her atoms were splitting apart though.

Testing, she moved an arm, and found that she could. A huge relief, that she was able to move over some of the stuffed teddy bears. Stuffed with stuff. Made for a decent cushion.

Her head rattled, and so did her thoughts. She took a second to collect them, remember what just happened.

Oh, right. She was being chased. A car chase, except she was driving a van. And she was being chased by a taxicab, of all things.

And then someone climbed out onto the top of the taxi while it was speeding down the street, she definitely remembered that. It was like a stunt from a movie.

Then they jumped over onto her van.

D did what she could to shake them off, but their grip was like steel. Impossible.

Then a crash happened, somehow, and D forced the van to a halt.

Cracks ran across the windshield like a web. Hard to see through, but she could still drive with it like that. It’d just be really really hard.

Rearview. The taxi was there, lights on. No movement.

Before D could check the windshield again, the door to her side flung open.

Middle of the road, but D didn’t crash into another vehicle. Not even the taxi. She was too good of a driver for that.

Something else had stopped her, someone.

A person crashed her van to a skidding stop.

That person.

Shorter than D had expected, but still taller than her. Covered from head to toe, even the face was hidden behind a mask.

A red phantom. Not a blue moon, but the phenomenon was just as rare.

It has to be you.

Their head was tilted as they inspected the van’s interior. The reaction was expected, everything was. Staking out the factory, waiting. The chase, the run-around, the van and the teddy bears, all to throw them off and make them not suspect a thing. Her.

My new big sister.

All D could do was smile, big and wide. Goofy, but only because she was so excited.

“Yo!”

“Dad says you’re moving out soon.”

Doris moved a bishop. No word.

“He also said you can sleep over in my room in the meantime, while he helps your dad find a new place. I’m totally cool with that, by the way. I don’t have to keep bringing my board and pieces here all the time.”

A rook. Still no word.

“Do you, do you wanna sleep over at my place?”

Pawn. Doris said nothing when she let a pawn go.

“Hey, you listening? You’re not even playing-”

Wordless, D only replied with chess moves. Putting her heart and thoughts into each one. Her intent. Things she couldn’t bear to say, but had every sense to follow through. She hoped her sister would understand.

She did. Replying with counters, responding by the certain placement of a certain piece. A developing language, spoken only on the board, the message only fully fleshed out by the final position of the remaining pieces.

Doris had sacrificed her black queen early in the game for an opening. A risky move, but it played out well in the long run. Queen’s gambit.

Checkmate.

Doris had it. With but her king and bishop left, and putting as much distance between the pieces as possible, she was able to finally beat her big sister.

She won. She’d be free. She almost wished she wouldn’t be.

Her eyes were hot, wet in the corners, her throat locked up again.

Words failed her big sister, too, because it was too late. Nothing she could do or say would stop her now.

“Got your message, sis.”

D sat atop of an impressive height of teddy bears, almost like a throne. Looking down. Her smile was gapped.

Three of them total. Two people at the bottom. One response.

“You ran away from family but you’re still calling me that?”

“All of the fun but none of the work. It’s great!”

She had paused. Looking up and down the pile again.

“A lot of bears. How heavy is the weight?”

“Enough,” D said, “These gang leaders need better number crunchers. I’d offer my services, but… it’s work.”

“Katy, this is crazy.”

The other girl spoke up. Maria, her sister introduced her as. A new big?

No, she doesn’t seem into the idea.

How disappointing.

Maria was ignored.

“Doris,” her sister called out, “Get down here!”

She complied. She’d only be allowed to tease her for so long.

Slipping out, D slid down the pile. The friction on her legs was warm and fuzzy.

She reached the bottom and fixed her skirt. It had been a minute since she last saw her sister. They had all gotten taller.

“I think you’re asking for someone else,” D said, “But… mais je divague.”

“Here.”

D cupped her hands. Something dropped into it.

A black queen.

D started tossing it up into the air, catching it. Playing with it.

“Who is it?”

“I don’t know who it is exactly, but I know the name it’s using. Alexis Barnett.”

“Alexis. Ah-leck-sis.”

D giggled.

“Keep an eye on her for me. Doesn’t matter how. Follow her, befriend her. Be her personal bodyguard for all I care.”

Maria spoke, “You’re seriously just a kid. Katy, she’s just a kid. Do you know what you’re asking of her?”

“That’s all I need for now. Give me constant updates. Don’t let her go too far.”

“Can’t promise that last part,” D said.

“Then if she does, we’ll go from there. Just be my eyes and ears.”

“Sounds like a lot of work. Responsibility. What’s in it for me?”

Her older sister gave D a look.

“You’ll have someone new to play with.”

D shivered when she heard that, starting from the very bottom of her spine, shooting up.

Spinning the chess piece between her fingers, D grinned, excited and silly. She didn’t have to say any more.

“Doris.”

Knock.

“Doris?”

Knock knock.

“Got some math problems for you. They’re a little out of my league. Want to take a crack at it?”

Nothing.

Nothing.

Her mouth was full, her tummy fuller.

D for donuts.

The car spun wildly out of control, music blasting from loud speakers and open windows. Hard to hear anything else, except when the back parts collided into the other cars in the lot. She’d skid a bit, then she’d kick the engine back into full gear.

Spin spin spin.

A loud and distinct blare. Police.

D let the car collide into another to get to a stop.

Music down, windows up halfway. She waited.

The officer approached the car. Driver’s side.

“Do I have to tell you why-”

He lost his remaining words. She was good at that.

“Yo!” D said, giving the office a full smile, showing all her teeth. Bits of jelly dripped out a corner of her mouth.

The officer looked so stunned, and his huge mustache made him look so funny. She’d never had an uncle, but this guy kind of looked like one.

Before he was able to find those words again, D spoke up first.

“Mind if I practice my driving here? I’m still getting the hang out it. Better yet, how about a race!”

D stood up from her seat, stomping on the gas.

The car tore through the parking lot, leaving the cop and his car behind in head start.

The window was half open. She felt the wind in her hair as it flew around. Free.

Finally.

It was time.

From one life to the next.

Doris stood at the edge of the hall. Her room behind her. Nothing but the clothes on her back, and her favorite teddy bear.

She hadn’t packed anything else. There was nothing to bring.

She was supposed to go to school today. She instead waited at the corner of the bus stop, and waited some more. The bus left without her.

Dad should be at work by now, thirty minutes late after having to hobble there in crutches. A while to get there, a while to get back.

Time alone, time to think.

This was it. A hurdle to step over, and then there was no coming back here.

Doris started walking.

The hall, where the walls were etched in crayon but Dad never got mad. The living room, where they would sit on the couch and watch public access television, or run around the rickety coffee table in a game of tag.

The kitchen, where she would sit and do her homework as fast as possible so she could move on to Dad’s.

The apartment was mostly empty, now, everything had been packed and ready to go. The plan was for them to move into the project housing by the evening. Mr. Thompson would come and pick them up and take them there.

That was their plan. But she had other plans.

Doris went to a drawer, and drew out a big knife.

Silent, she moved over the dining table. Where she’d do their homework. Where she tried to help and make her Dad happy. Where, even if she got every problem right, there was one she wasn’t ever able to solve.

And she was done solving problems.

Frustrated, she kicked one of the legs, and her foot hurt. Feeling worse, she pushed the table around until it fell over, and she pushed it some more until she got it halfway across the living room.

Kick. Kick. Kick.

Doris was useless, Doris couldn’t do anything. She wasn’t free at all.

But I will be.

Her arms seemingly moved on their own as she brought the knife to the underside of the table, carving into it. The table was old, bought secondhand or thirdhand from somewhere. Other people before her had left their mark. Most of them were mean messages. But Doris wasn’t writing something mean, it was something true.

She poured what was left of her heart and self into the blade tip, leaving them there, leaving it here, within these walls.

She got up to inspect her work, pushing her wild hair out of her face. No good. She’d have to get it cut.

The inscription, the epitaph.

Doris is here.

Doris would stay here, like she always did. Trapped. And now, she was free to go.

And she knew just who to see first.

D turned around and never looked back.

Previous                                                                                               Next

102 – Wings of Wax

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Wind brushed through my hair, sweeping it past one ear. Sarah was right, my hair had gotten long.

I fixed it myself, brushing a loose strand away from my face. A nibbling want in the back of head was asking for Sarah to do it for me.

And I could have. She was right there.

Seemed like it would have been too much, though.

The sun shined without a single cloud to block its rays. A week had passed since the rain and clouds greyed the skies. Now, it was a clear blue that pierced through.

Outside, sitting by the storefront of a cafe. I was exposed to the elements, but it was something I could weather.

Cold air nipped, but it didn’t bite. I could still feel the tip of my nose, my face as it got warm when I looked. Outside, but I hadn’t gone numb. Just the opposite, really. I was in a flutter.

“Is this a good spot?”

I was already looking at her when she asked.

A bright red hat, or a beret, whatever she called it. It was petite in size, and it didn’t look goofy when she wore it. I could imagine it looking stupid on me.

She had round shades that framed her face, a scarf that bundled around her neck. A black sweater and coat made her outfit even more trendy and chic. She didn’t have to go all out today, but she did, but it was hard muster any disappointment when she looked that good.

A pair of jeans had completed the look, but I couldn’t see them from where I was, across the round metal table chair we were sharing. But I had already stolen a glance or several on our way over here.

Oh right. There was a question I had to answer.

“Should be,” I said, finally getting to it. “It’s not like we can move now. You already got a coffee.”

“We can move,” Sarah said. “Do you want to move?”

“We don’t have to. This can work.”

“But it can be better. If you want to, we can go somewhere else.”

“I said it’s fine.”

“I want to do what you think works best.”

I glanced up at her, trying to wear the most annoyed expression on my face. Trying, because it was only an attempt.

Sarah was across from me, holding her cup, covering her mouth with it, as if she was hiding behind it. From how her eyes crinkled at the corners, I could tell she was wearing a knowing smirk. It immediately broke through any facade I had.

As I thought, it was only an attempt.

Me. Sarah. The very idea that we could even fit in the same sentence. Sarah and I.

A week, and I still couldn’t wrap my head around it.

That slow day had been extended into seven more, marked with late nights and later mornings, waking well after the sun had already gotten up. It was a routine of sorts, and I wouldn’t have minded if it actually became routine. I could absolutely get used to the pattern we were falling into.

It did leave me with a nagging thought, however, like how fragile everything was, or how fragile I perceived everything to be, and how that affected my approach in things. This. The longer this went, the more scared I was that this could get ripped away from me. My whole existence, I felt, was a shaky and tumultuous one, not exactly the best foundation to start building… anything. At the very end, it might be akin to stacking a house of cards. It would be easy, for this to crumble.

I didn’t want this to crumble.

It made me second-guess myself. Just how serious was I supposed to take this? Was this a real thing, or was this just the current state of affairs?

Where did Sarah stand? Did it matter? Did I want it to?

Why was I always overthinking things?

I looked at Sarah again, like a habit, a routine. I thought it would a certain effect, but I found the opposite. My heart raced even faster.

From behind that cup, I could see the edges of her expression, the corners of her lips, turned up. So bright that there needed to be something to block it. Couldn’t be faced straight on.

But, at least in this very moment, those concerns seemed to melt away. There was only this, and if I could get myself to sit here and enjoy this, I might be able to relax.

It was a promising dream.

Sarah placed her cup back into the saucer. It was a smooth, practiced movement. Cool. Something I could never hope to replicate, myself.

What wasn’t cool, was when the wind tried to intrude on us again, blowing stray strands into my eyes. I had to fix my hair and glasses both.

“Let me get that.”

A hand reached for me, fingers brushing into my hair, pushing it to one side. It didn’t seem to help much, as the wind came back to try and undo most of the work. Maybe Sarah had the right idea, wearing a hat today.

I wasn’t about to complain. I didn’t even have to ask, that time. I’d let her take the lead. A small part of our routine.

Finally, the wind relented, and Sarah could start making some progress on me. Or my hair, rather. I angled myself forward, so she could have an easier time with it. It was only a few stray, but she fussed over it for much longer than she really had to.

Again, no complaints there.

“There,” Sarah said, seemingly satisfied with the results. She sat back into her seat. I was still sitting forward, lingering there, with something on the tip of my tongue, that nibbling want returning. I was hoping she would get that, too.

She didn’t, but I couldn’t fault her for it.

It hit me, where we were again. Outside, sitting at a cafe, people watching. Meaning that there were people around us.

Was I being too obvious?

I sat myself back, feeling a touch flustered over it. Stupid.

“Wendy.”

She was watching me, now. Or maybe she had been, this whole time.

“Yes?”

“Enjoying yourself?”

I could answer that honestly.

“Of course I am. Of course.”

I touched my hair. Then I realized it was the third time I had done that.

“But?” Sarah ventured.

I let out a breath.

“It’s not, it’s not any one thing, there’s just a lot on my mind, right now. But hey, isn’t everyone like that?”

“Sure, but you are not everyone. You are you.”

“I guess I am. But there’s more to it than that. I, um, sorry, I’m not trying to be lame right now.”

“We have time for lame.”

I really wasn’t trying to get into this now. But, we did have the time, I supposed. And we had to fill it with something. I supposed.

Sarah knew how to draw this stuff out of me. It was a dangerous power.

I started with a question.

“How does it taste? Your coffee?”

Sarah’s reaction was crucial. I watched for it.

There wasn’t one. Too muted and understated. She took it completely serious.

I found some comfort, in that.

Another part of our new routine. Whatever she tasted, she would share with me. We couldn’t exactly share a meal, so this was the closest thing we had.

Sarah lifted her chin, slight, lifting a finger to tap a steady rhythm as she thought. She was playing it up, I knew that much, even that was crucial to me. Sarah wanted me to know that she was putting in that effort. And that said so much to me that I couldn’t even begin to translate it. I knew how it made me feel, though. It made my eyes all watery.

Good nights, better mornings.

“Well, according to the menu, these beans were from South America. Columbia. So it has a tendency to be more sweet, not so acidic. But, it can have a nutty hint to it.”

A soft chuckle. “Nutty, huh? Sounds nutty.”

That prompted something similar from Sarah. “Sure is.”

“What else?” I asked. “You added, like, sugar and cream, right?”

I wanted to know more, demanded it. I wanted to savor every detail she could give me, I wanted to be selfish.

She said we’d have the time. She would have to indulge me.

“I did. There’s a natural sweetness to it, but, coffee is coffee. It’s always going to be bitter by itself. I had to punch it up with some sugar, some cream. Not too much, though, I didn’t want to spoil its original taste.”

“Can’t have that,” I said. “But I know how much of a sweet tooth you have.”

“I guess you do,” Sarah said. Then she smiled. “Am I describing it right? Or am I just boring you?”

“Not at all,” I replied. “I can’t get enough, really.”

“You are you,” she said, as if it was a matter of fact.

“And coffee is coffee,” I said, in much the same way. “Thank you so much, Sarah. I probably wouldn’t have been able to make it through this week if it weren’t for you.”

Sarah’s smile was warmer than the weather.

“I think you’d do just fine. But you know, not as fine if I wasn’t around.”

Her smile turned into a smirk. That effect had yet to diminish on me.

“I will not disagree with you there,” I said.

Our surroundings stirred, passing us by. People, cars in the distance, the wind. But there wasn’t anything to be concerned over. Not for a little while longer. It was just us, sitting here, stationary and completely in the moment. It was almost like nothing else mattered. That I could just… be here, and do this. With Sarah.

This, this right here? It wasn’t for V, and it sure as hell wasn’t for Alexis Barnett. This was mine, and mine alone. Wendy.

I knew it would be fleeting, and would escape from my grasp like sand from an hourglass. But for now, I’d use every ounce of my enhanced strength and hold on for as long as inhumanly possible.

“Once things start picking up again, it’s going to get harder to slip some time in during the day,” I said, “For stuff like this.”

“You’re right,” Sarah said. “It will be a hassle. But I doubt it’ll turn into a mess.”

“I hope not.”

“Which means I probably shouldn’t be coming over as often.”

I frowned at the prospect of that.

“That doesn’t sound fun at all.”

Sarah frowned, too, but it was a sympathetic one.

“I know, but there’s fun and there’s being realistic. People are starting to ask questions.”

“People? Who?”

She lifted a shoulder, nothing too committal.

“I’m kidding. Well, Reggie, even Tone. There’s only so many times they call me up for drinks and I’m not available, and I’m running out of excuses.”

“Just say work has been holding you up or something.”

“I don’t think that will fly so far when we all work for the same boss.”

“Well that sucks,” I said, plainly. There was a bit of sadness in those words that I didn’t expect, and I hoped they didn’t ring out, clear enough for Sarah’s ears to pick up.

I wanted her, I wanted this. And it sucked how fragile and how easy this could slip out of my hands. Or like it could get yanked away by a string.

I pressed my lips together and huffed. Hard enough to mess up my bangs, my hair.

I was overreacting.

“We’ll just have to pace ourselves,” Sarah said. As though she knew what was on my mind. “I’m still coming over tonight.”

I tried to stop myself from showing something on my face, but I didn’t have a cup to block Sarah’s view of me.

Darn.

From what she showed on her face, she saw. Darn. But whatever. I didn’t really care.

“Sweet,” I said.

“It is.”

This… I could have spent the rest of the day doing this. Another thirty minutes here, just chatting, then we could go to the Realm and look at clothes, maybe do some shopping. Then we could either go for dinner at the food court there, or a nearby place, or just take something and bring it back to my apartment. We’d watch a movie, maybe two, and just hang out until it got too late for Sarah to try and drive back home.

And then we would…

We’d do other stuff.

Thoughts crystallized in my head as they came to me. Too much to say out loud.

Before either of us could say something else, though, a new scene arrived. Not to pass us by, but to interrupt.

A car squealed as it swerved around a corner, music booming out of the open windows. Loud enough to turn heads, even ours, and I recognized it in an instant.

The gears turned in my head. Like I had put on my mask. The objective reason why I had come out, today.

“They’re here,” I said.

I remained seated, only watching as the car straightened onto the new street. The street the cafe was on. It was a silver muscle car, with black stripes running along the edges of the machine. It sprinted down the length of the street, squealing again as it came to a halt. The front of a general store on the other side.

The muscle car sat in park for a minute, rumbling with power, as if to flex what it had. They definitely weren’t shy about their presence.

Other people started to move on, going about the rest of their day. For me and Sarah, this was part of our day.

Doors on each side opened, people getting out. Four of them, not the driver, the car was still rumbling, alive.

They circled around, going into the store. It was a small detail, hard to see from a distance, but I saw it. A sign on the store’s entrance flipped to ‘closed.’

“I hate those guys already,” Sarah said. I heard her fingernail tap against her cup, irritated. “Cutting into our date like that?”

“Don’t worry,” I told her, kind of happy to hear Sarah call this a date, “If anything, we’re the ones that’ll do the cutting. We were waiting for them.”

“Figured that much, but what should I look out for?”

“You don’t have to do anything. We’re just here to confirm things.”

“And that’s it? Just for that?”

Sarah had raised the pitch of her voice. It made my face get all warm and dumb.

“And our date, of course,” I stammered.

“That’s all I wanted to hear.”

“Lame,” I said. “So so lame.”

We both shared a small laugh.

I kept my watch on the car ahead, though, the store. Nothing we could glean from this position, but we weren’t here to find out what they were up to. We just needed to know that they were here in the first place. Our territory.

According to D, who had gotten it from Nathan, some of youth who happened to live within our borders were becoming more and more… displeased with the changes happening around them.

Looking at it from their perspective, I could see it. The Thunders and the Royals had been rooted in the community, they had grown from it. And, from somewhere in the dark, those roots were ripped out, and another group moved in to fill in the cracks and gaps. How we operated was different than how they worked, pushing different weight, tagging different tags, and stamping out threats in different ways. My way.

It would make sense for the younger ones to want to rebel. With everything that was going down in the city, not unlike a downward spiral, their home was the last the place they wanted to start breaking apart, not making sense. They’d work to take it back, or they’d try, at least. I could give them that.

But that was as much as I’d give them.

Whatever it was they were planning, they wouldn’t get far. The Fangs were already onto them, ready to bite. We just had to keep an eye on them, wait until they were about to make a move, then we’d would go and pay them a visit. Give them a good enough scare as V so they wouldn’t try anything again.

It was a simple plan, but this was a simple problem. Just part of the process of holding onto a territory. Mundane, in all honesty.

I looked at the sign above the store and tried to read it. Tried, because I couldn’t read those characters.

Chinese, definitely not Japanese. But it was a store owned by someone from the Asian community.

A small detail, but it was too early to draw any conclusions with that.

For now, I’d watch. With Sarah.

“Any thoughts so far?” Sarah asked.

“Thoughts? I think we’ll be able to handle this. It just some unruly kids. Nothing I haven’t dealt with, myself.”

I thought of D when I said that. Not so much Isabella.

“I can imagine,” Sarah said.

“Yeah, and it looks like you picked a good spot for us, after all. We have an eye on them, and we’re at a safe distance. And I can hear all about your delicious coffee.”

“You still haven’t had enough?”

“I am always up for more.”

“Well, you know, I’m just trying to do my part.”

She sounded pleased with herself.

“And you’re doing great,” I said.

“Are you referring to anything in particular?”

“Everything,” I said.

It was a moment that ultimately came and went, but I managed to get a hold on it, if only for a short moment.

The moment passed, and then it was back to work.

My phone buzzed in my pocket. I kept my eyes on the store and the car as I got it out, only glancing to check the new message.

My heart skipped a small beat.

“Done with your coffee?” I asked Sarah.

“Just about,” she said. “Why? We’re heading out?”

“Just about,” I answered. “Got a text from Lawrence. Looks like the committee has come to a decision, and they’re ready to tell us.”

“Meaning?”

“We’re about to see if we’ll get a seat at the round table, and be among the leaders of the biggest gangs in Stephenville.”

“That’s exciting.”

“If it works out, sure,” I said. “Lawrence must be freaking out over it.”

I am, too, but I can’t tell you about it.

Pangs of guilt. There had been one when I considered Lawrence, but now…

I hated the thought of hiding this from Sarah. My real plan with the city and the Fangs. She was in the dark about all of it, and it hurt.

Was there a way of getting her out, before it was too late? Bring her with me? Would she even want to be there, when it all fell down? At my side?

It hurt, thinking about it.

There was still this, though, this moment. If I could hold it…

“We should get ready for when Lawrence calls for us again,” I said, “No need to stick around anymore.”

“We got what needed from here?”

“We did.”

The two of us prepared to leave, gathering our belongings, and for my part, gathering my thoughts.

The Fangs, the table, Lawrence, Sarah. When all was said and done, what would be left? Who would still be around?

The thought of being alone, it froze me cold. Worse than the weather around us.

“So the rest of our day is put on hold?” Sarah questioned. Disappointed.

I was, too.

“Doesn’t have to be,” I said. “We should have some time before then.”

Sarah looked relieved to hear that, in a way that set me at ease.

“Then let’s not waste any more time.”

I nodded, unable to suppress a coming grin. I’d let it get plastered on my face, even if it looked stupid. Because with Sarah, it was the only time I could show some stupidity, without any real consequences.

“If it’s you,” I said, “I don’t want to waste a second.”

“You’re right on time.”

Mrs. Carter didn’t sound impressed as she addressed us.

“Not a second late,” Lawrence said. “Wouldn’t miss this for the world.”

This was it. The moment of truth.

Ironic, since we had to cover up the truth to get here.

We were back at the table. It was round, yet Mrs. Carter somehow managed to find the head of the table and position herself there. Part of the effect could have been attributed to the fact that she was standing, angling herself so she looked down on everyone, even Styx, but I figured it was more simple than that.

She just commanded presence.

Everyone was on edge. Or, it was either that, or I was so on edge that I projected that onto everyone else. Every scratch, itch, cough, shake of the head. Every low chuckle from Styx.

I could feel my stomach twist into knots. Knots into knots. The tension was so tight that it might snap.

It probably would, if this went on for any longer-

I nearly jumped out of my seat.

Something tapped my leg, by my thigh. Stiff, I looked in that direction.

Sarah passed me a glance. It was only through her eyes, there were too many others on us for anything else to be shared.

I’d take it, though. It helped.

My eyes went back up to Mrs. Carter, and I scrounged up the confidence needed to just shut up and let Lawrence do the talking.

Lawrence did the talking.

“So should we move along with the… with the proceedings? It would be naïve of me, us, the Fangs, to assume that this is the most important part of your night. This meeting.”

“Naïve, yes, but this does deserve the appropriate weight. To not do would be rather… ignorant of us.”

Styx chuckled again, from his far corner. Off to the side, but his presence was still known. It seemed fitting. His voice had a harrowing note to it.

Lawrence nodded. It was shaky, uncertain.

“Then, what’s the verdict? The suspense is, uh, killing me.”

“It’s not suspense that’s going to kill you, boy!”

Styx hollered from across the space. The crackling noise rattled my very bones.

Mrs. Carter remained cool and calm. It was wonder that they seemed to work together, that she even tolerated him at all. They were the polar opposites, representing the different parts of the crime that gripped Stephenville. From the grime of Styx’s domain, to the upper echelon that I could associate Mrs. Carter with. And yet, there wasn’t any friction, not from what I could see. Then again, I didn’t exactly have a good view on things. Not from this seat.

She let Styx settle before she took back control of the room again.

“What he is implying, is that we operate in a volatile world, where nothing is guaranteed. This whole time, you’ve only had a taste of just how changeable it really is. Complacency is the enemy of survival. Even I believe you all need a reminder of that. Everyone at this table.”

Everyone at this table exchanged looks. Not to us, though. Everyone who was here to represent the Fangs were too frozen to move.

Mrs. Carter was still facing forward, eyes trained on us.

“But, it’s a lesson we will all learn. As part of this table.”

There was a pause. Lawrence was supposed to say something, but he didn’t.

He let the moment hang. The appropriate weight.

“As part of this table?” Lawrence repeated.

“Yes,” Mrs. Carter said. “Everyone here, me and Styx excepted, have already taken their vote. Those seats you’re sitting in now? You’ve earned them. Congratulations.”

We heard that word, that confirmation. It still didn’t feel real.

I almost couldn’t believe it.

“We’re in?” I asked. The first words I’d spoken since walking into this building.

“Yes. Of course, there’s still a significant discrepancy between yourselves and the rest, but nevertheless, you now share common ground.”

You now share common ground.

I noted the distinction. Separating herself from everyone else at the table. Mrs. Carter wasn’t seated, she was looking down at us. On us.

But I could forgive that. Because we got it, we were here. The Fangs were now considered among the top gangs of the city. The snake was allowed among the rats.

“That, well, that’s… that’s good news,” Lawrence said, breaking his own silence. His own voice broke a little.

“Don’t let the new height you’ve reached make you dizzy,” Mrs. Carter said. It sounded like something of a warning. “As I mentioned, there is a difference in might between you and the rest here, and it is very real.”

“We’ll keep that in mind.”

“And you were put here on a vote. And it wasn’t unanimous. In fact, it results were more narrow than the initial one.”

That was worth noting. I looked at the faces around us. D’Angelo. Arthur. Inez.

Of everyone here, D’Angelo seemed the most pleased about this development. Could we have counted on him to have voted in our favor, again?

Wait. D’Angelo had helped in swinging the vote our way, last time. It couldn’t have gotten more narrow than that. If we had somehow cut it that close, then who had broken the tie, this time?

Styx chuckled, low. It was like he thrived on keeping me on my toes, unsettled.

No, not like. He absolutely did.

“Then we still have a lot of work ahead of us,” Lawrence said.

“Yes, you do,” Mrs. Carter said. “We all do.”

“I don’t suppose those results are confidential? We were here for the initial round of voting.”

Mrs. Carter gestured, spreading her arms.

“You’re here now, aren’t you? As a word of advice, I would just focus on that work you ahead. Work produces its own results. Use that.”

“I suppose we will. Is there, is there anything else you need from us?”

“At this juncture, I do not. For now, just work on getting yourselves in good standing and position here, and I can handle the rest.”

What ‘the rest’ was, Mrs. Carter didn’t share. If I wanted things to go my way, we would have to get ahead of her, too. Find out what her plans were.

Added to the pile of work ahead of us. But the results would be worth it.

“We can definitely do that,” Lawrence said. It was the most certain he had sounded all night.

“Good. Then the only word I have left to say is… welcome.”

With another gesture, and a step back, Mrs. Carter was done. She relinquished control of the room, and the whole table was free to move about.

People got up from their seats. Some went to chat with each other, mingling, while others kept their focus on us, guarded, as if we were liable to strike at any moment.

We would, just not in any way that would be clear to them.

Lawrence stood. Sarah and I joined him.

“Shit,” Lawrence gasped. He exhaled the word. He leaned away when he scratched the side of his neck.

“Shit,” I said.

Sarah commented. “What you guys said. You did it.”

“You had a part in this too, Sarah,” I said. “Don’t count yourself out.”

“I guess I can’t then.” Sarah smiled. “Shit.”

I would have smiled, too, looking at her, but the pangs were even sharper, now that I was getting so close.

“I think I’m about to have a panic attack,” Lawrence said.

We had gotten good news, the best turn our gang had taken since getting started. Upward mobility, as D had mentioned once, a long while back.

Good news, and Lawrence looked like he had been told that a close friend had passed.

He was sweating, his forehead glistening, dots of white reflected from the lights above us. For his part, he was smiling, but it was weak, underselling how relieved he must have really been on the inside.

Lawrence was dressed sharp, but he still wasn’t looking his best. It had been a week since he gave us a scare, and he didn’t seem to like like he had improved. He was going through his own pangs.

“Next thing on our list is going to be an intervention,” I said. I had to keep my voice low. “You can’t keep going like this, Lawrence. This isn’t healthy.”

“I can manage,” Lawrence protested. He coughed, despite himself.

“That is a dangerous game you are playing, Lawrence. You said it yourself, you hate half-hearted bullshit. You loathe it, to use your own words. You have to put in the proper effort, or we might end up losing everything.”

“Yeah? Like how I asked you to keep digging into the source of your powers? What’s inside you? How is that going?”

Those questions were like a slap in the face. Too stunned to give a proper reply.

But Lawrence continued.

“Just as I thought. Motherfucker. Unless you have a real answer for me, I really don’t want to hear it.”

Sarah pleaded. “Guys, not now.”

Lawrence didn’t stop.

“And you know, you’re so certain that it was someone else who gave you your powers. Another monster, another vampire. Where are they now? Did they fuck off and go into hiding? Or did they get hunted? What if someone got to them? And what happens when that someone decides that it’s your turn to be hunted? It would only be a matter of time, Wendy.”

“Lawrence!”

Sarah hissed at him.

“This isn’t the time, and it definitely isn’t the place. So please, just leave it be.”

Sarah was sticking up for me. I couldn’t even speak for myself.

The idea of being hunted…

Lawrence stared at Sarah. There was a mad look in his eye, like he had to process the fact that she was even here at all.

He wanted to say more, I could see that, too, but we were interrupted.

“Wendy!”

D’Angelo was as flamboyant as ever, walking with his cane, using his limp to give more swing in his stride. As he grinned, I could have sworn it was brighter than lights reflecting off Lawrence’s skin.

“Yes sir,” I said, not wanting to show any hint of the previous argument. No one needed to hear that.

“I just wanted to personally congratulate you all for passing the test. You did good work, and it you were rewarded for those efforts.”

“Thanks. Feels like we barely made it, though.”

“There’s nothing else to feel at the moment but pride.”

Can I really be proud over having seen to the deaths of two journalists?

I’d let that question remain a passing thought. The pangs were sharp enough as they were.

“Would it be safe to assume that you casted your vote for us?”

Lawrence went straight to it.

D’Angelo laughed, a hearty timbre.

“You would be, but I’d rather not speak for anyone else. Trust is a rare commodity, in our line of work, and betraying that is akin to a death sentence.”

“Noted,” Lawrence said.

Tapping his cane, D’Angelo pointed in the direction of others.

“Why don’t you ask them yourselves? You are one of us, now.”

I examined the faces across from us. Arthur and Brian were conversing with one another, Cassius, Edward, Forest and Gary were holding their own discussion as well. Hayden was on her own, and Inez was, too, looking right at us. Firm.

None of them looked particularly… inviting.

Lawrence lowered his head, seemingly bowing at Inez, and she turned to Hayden, saying a word to her.

From here, it was hard to tell who voted which way. But I could venture a guess for some of them.

“We’ll introduce ourselves on our own time,” Lawrence said. “I’m more interested in what it means to have a seat at the table. Mrs. Carter didn’t exactly make that clear.”

“To help maintain an equilibrium,” D’Angelo explained. “Crime, like business, is a fine art, and is supported by many people who not only work for their own interests, but for the longevity of the game. There’s a reason why feuds can be dangerous, they can threaten the whole system that’s been set in place. Are you aware of a Xander L. Granon?”

“Still in my nightmares,” Lawrence said. “Our gang had gone up against his. We beat him, somehow.”

“So I’ve heard. See, Mr. Granon tried to muscle into our arrangement by violence and force. He wanted to come in and crash everything around him, and rule over the debris. You, on the other hand, have certainly made an impact, but I find your approach more… respectable.”

“I appreciate the kind words,” Lawrence said.

D’Angelo gave him a nod. “So, with Mrs. Carter and the likes of Styx, we officially maintain the delicate balance that keeps this city standing tall.”

“And Mister?” I asked. “Are we ever going to meet with him?”

D’Angelo smirked.

“That would be for him to decide.”

So close, yet he kept us at a distance. We’d- I’d need Mister, in order to fully and completely destroy that balance we now had some responsibility to maintain.

“Hopefully it’ll be soon,” I said.

“For your sake, maybe,” D’Angelo said. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll have to take my leave. And once again, congrats.”

“Thanks again,” I said. “Really appreciate it.”

D’Angelo tapped his cane again, and gave us one more smirk before taking off.

Of all the gang leaders that I’d come across, D’Angelo seemed to be the most eccentric, yet the most… agreeable. It was almost a shame, that I’d have to bring him down, too.

It was back to the three of us. We reconvened.

“Well, we got what we came here for,” I said. “We ready to head out?”

“I am,” Sarah said.

“Sure, I think,” Lawrence said. “Any ideas on our next move?”

“Wendy and I had plans to watch one or two if we had some time left. I wasn’t aware you wanted to join us.”

Lawrence looked at Sarah.

Sarah’s eyes went wide.

“Oh. I thought you said movie.”

“Are you fucking kidding me?”

“Hey,” I said, voice back to being low, “Let’s… not. How about this? We’re at the table, but we still need to establish an individual rapport with each of them. D’Angelo? He’s a good start.”

“That’s not a bad idea,” Sarah said.

I continued. “Not everyone voted for us to be here, so we should find out who they are, see if we can’t convince them that we’re the real deal.”

“Do you think that’ll work?” Lawrence asked.

“It’s better than them continuing to doubt us,” I said.

And it gives me an idea on who to go after, first.

“Okay, I don’t hate that.”

“Good. So we’ll catch up with D, gather all the info she got on each of these guys from the past week, and we’ll go from there.”

“Okay,” Lawrence said.

Wary, I looked up at the ceiling, past that lights. I wore that expression, made it obvious.

Then I saw Styx, watching him watch me.

By the huge windows that overlooked the city, where water had cascaded down the glass the last time we were here. For someone who could stick out like a blade in my back, Styx could blend into the background just as well. A ghost in the shadows.

His face twisted up, and I could hear that sound in my head. A low cackle.

He looked up, too, at the ceiling, then back to me. He brought a finger to his lips, face still twisted. Still cackling.

No one else saw that. It was for me only.

Me only, because D wasn’t actually here. Like we’d risk putting her in the same position as last time. I had to learn from some of my mistakes.

D got what we needed from our first visit here. It was time to use that information.

We’re at the table. Finally. Now we had to prep the fire.

Previous                                                                                               Next

100 – Blood to Let, Peace to Make

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Alexis Barnett.

Alexis, Barnett. Alexis. Barnett.

Alexis Alexis Alexis, Alexis, Alexis Barnett? Alexis Barnett.

Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis Alexis Barnett, Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis Barnett. Alexis Alexis.

Alexis Alexis Alexis Barnett, Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis. Alexis Alexis Alexis Barnett Alexis Barnett. Alexis Alexis Alexis Alexis. Alexis Alexis Alexis Barnett, Alexis Barnett. Alexis Alexis Alexis Alexis. Alexis. Alexis Alexis Alexis, Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis Alexis Alexis Alexis. Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis Alexis Barnett? Alexis Barnett Alexis Barnett. Alexis Alexis. Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis, Alexis Barnett. Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis Alexis Barnett. Alexis. Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis Alexis Barnett, Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis Barnett. Alexis Alexis.

Alexis Barnett, Alexis Barnett.

Alexis Barnett.

Alexis Barnett Alexis Barnett. Alexis Alexis. Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis, Alexis Barnett. Alexis Alexis. Alexis Barnett Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis Barnett. Alexis, Barnett, Alexis Barnett. Alexis Alexis Alexis Barnett.

Alexis?

Alexis Barnett.

Alexis. Alexis Alexis. Alexis Barnett. Alexis, Alexis, Alexis Barnett. Alexis Barnett Alexis Barnett. Alexis, Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis. Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis, Alexis Barnett. Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis Alexis Barnett. Alexis. Alexis Alexis Alexis Barnett Alexis Barnett, Alexis Barnett.

Alexis. Barnett. Alexis.

Alexis.

Alexis, Alexis, Alexis Barnett. Alexis Barnett Alexis Barnett. Alexis, Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis. Alexis Alexis Alexis, Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis Alexis? Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis Alexis Alexis Alexis. Alexis Barnett. Alexis Alexis. Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis, Alexis Barnett. Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis Alexis Barnett. Alexis.

Alexis Barnett.

Alexis.

Alexis.

Alexis.

Alexis.

“I don’t know who that is,” I said.

“I can’t even entertain that possibility for a second. I’ve done my research, I know who you are, Alexis Barnett.”

That voice… it was taunting me, mocking me. An upper register that I despised.

Alexis Barnett.

Fuck no. I tried to not think about that name. Ignore it, block it out. Deny it.

Alexis. Alexis Barnett.

I gritted my teeth until it hurt. Fuck this. Fuck no.

Through those gritted teeth, sharpened fangs, tongue pressed against them, I pushed out the words.

“My name is Wendy.”

I told her that, and I also told myself that.

“Maybe that’s the name you’re using now, but it’s nothing more than an alias. A mask. A lie. And you can’t lie to me, Alexis.”

My hands were clenched tight, fingernails digging into my palms. Pinpricks.

“You can think what you want, Natalie Beckham, but that doesn’t change the situation you’re in. It doesn’t change the now. You’re still stuck in here, you still might die.”

I stared at the thin wall that divided us. The outline of Natalie Beckham was still, unmoving.

“That very may well be the case,” Natalie said after a time, “But that still cannot change the underlying truth, here. You’re still Alexis Barnett, you’re still-”

I punched the wall. Natalie startled.

Not enough break through, but enough to let her know that I could.

I let silence come into the booth with us. I let it hang.

And just as I let the silence in, I also destroyed it. A show, a display. It was also a reminder.

For her, and for me.

“No matter how hard you dig, there isn’t anything else. Nothing. Just me. Just Wendy.”

“That’s so sad,” Natalie said. “Sadder still that it’s a lie.”

I wanted to punch the wall again, but I couldn’t guarantee that it would stay up after a second hit.

God, fuck this. Fuck.

I couldn’t get away from this, couldn’t get around it. Natalie was saying her name, invoking it. And I needed to find out the why and how. It was one of the other things Mrs. Carter had asked of us, to interrogate Natalie Beckham and Oliver Morgan. Figure out what they know, who they had talked to. Assess the damage they would have caused if they hadn’t been stopped.

This was part of that assessment. This. Alexis fucking Barnett.

I cringed. I unfurled my fists, my nails having dug in too deep. I stared at the palms of my hands. Tiny crescent moons of crimson. Red against white. They almost looked like paintings.

The image didn’t last, though, the white eventually wiking out of existence, leaving nothing but blankness. It unsettled, leaving a nauseating impression that sat heavy in my stomach.

I sat here in this booth. I was sitting in this booth.

I’m stuck in this booth.

Lifting my head up, then my eyes, everything was weighing me down, making even the most incremental movements feel sluggish, listless. There wasn’t a shred of confidence in them.

I opened my mouth, or rather, I tried to relax the building tension in my jaw. It instead felt like I was prying it open. When I did speak, my voice was dry. I was thirsty.

“Believe what you want, it won’t change anything. Like I said before, you’re stuck in here with me, and you have a lot to answer for.”

“As do you,” Natalie said.

She didn’t sound scared, nervous, or uneasy in any capacity. It was almost the opposite. She sounded intrigued.

“I know you’ve been looking into John Cruz, and that you’ve sneaking around the Fang’s territory, too.”

“Ah,” Natalie said.

“So how much do you know, already?”

I went right to the questioning. The doubt was there, as if it was sitting right next to me, or like Isabella, who would standing right outside the door. The doubt was there, but I had to put that divider between me and that, too.

“I only know what I know. It’s not everything, but if you had given me enough time…”

“Well, don’t plan on it anymore. We’re cutting you off right now. Speaking of, I need to know where Oliver is, too. Where is he?”

“No, no, Alexis, that’s not how you do it at all. You stay on topic, hammer it in if you have to. Don’t lose track of the interview, because that’s the fastest way for the interviewee to lose their confidence in you. They might shut down, get frustrated, and it’s not going to lead you to getting the most accurate information out of them. And there is nothing worse than being inaccurate.”

“Answer my fucking questions,” I said.

“Now, see, which one? You’ve already lost me. That’s no good.”

I brought my hands together, wringing them, as if I could crush the very air between my palms.

I could just kill her right now. I could just lie, say she didn’t have much on anyone, and kill her. Leave her corpse out rotting as the sun rises and draw Oliver out using it.

I cracked a knuckle.

No, I couldn’t. I put up another divider between me and that urge, too.

This isn’t working.

Walls were being raised up all around me, leaving me with less and less room to breath. Like being in a confessional wasn’t constricting enough. I couldn’t even stretch my arms out to their full length.

“Tell me,” I started, but I paused. Had to set my everything straight in my head, what I needed to ask, what was pertinent to know.

One thing kept coming to mind, one name.

“Alexis Barnett,” I said. Her name tasted bitter in my mouth. I cringed again. “How do you know that name?”

My heart was pounding, on the precipice, about to drop. I was waiting for an answer that I didn’t want to hear. An answer I was scared to hear.

“How? I’m a journalist, that’s what I do. I search through records, I follow up on what’s happened before, I see the patterns and I make the connections. Then, I report it, but I haven’t gotten to that part. Not yet.”

“And you won’t get to,” I said.

Natalie clicked her tongue. “Another thing you shouldn’t do? Jump to conclusions.”

I grunted, nearing a growl. She was testing my patience. Challenging my authority.

The former was already so thin. I didn’t want the latter to fall in the same way.

“You clearly want something,” I said, trying to get at this from another direction, despite her advice. “I’m beginning to suspect that you… planned to be in here with me.”

Bringing that idea up… it came with a risk. It was the equivalent of my sticking my chin out while trying to get in close for a better shot. Or something along those lines. Either way, I metaphorically stood to lose some ground. The dynamic wouldn’t shift too hard in her favor, she was still bound and stuck in that booth, I could always walk away.

But if I did… would that equate to me forfeiting the fight? Losing to someone who had a handicap?

I shook my head, and I was only one in here. I adjusted my glasses.

Natalie Beckham answered me.

“Planned? I’m not so cunning, it just worked out like this. But, after years of having to gather info after the fact, working my way backwards, I can’t help but feel like this was always meant to happen. You and me.”

“Yeah?”

“Lorene informed me of someone coming to office, asking for me and Oli. She gave them my number, and gave me their name.”

I clicked my tongue. So much for that.

“I saw an opportunity and I took it. Though, I admit it’s not my smartest move.”

Natalie chuckled. I noticed some trepidation had managed to creep into her voice.

“But it wasn’t really my move to make.”

“What do you want?” I asked her, knowing I was switching topics again, moving from Alexis to this. Fuck.

“Same thing I always want,” Natalie answered. “The truth. You think I’d pass a chance like this up? An interview with the world’s first superhuman? That’s the story of the lifetime, and I only have the one.”

“You must be fucking delusional,” I said, “If you think you’ll be able to report anything I give you. You’re done, Natalie. You’ve lost, or you’re being cornered and running out of moves to make. In any case, the game is entering its final rounds.”

“In any case,” Natalie repeated, “I still have some moves left, it’s not over. There are still pieces on the board, more than you might even be aware of.”

“Like Oliver Morgan?” I questioned. I hated how this conversation was going. Too circular, looping the same few topics, without making much headway between any of them. It was starting to make my head ache.

“He’s one of them,” Natalie said.

We had pieces in play, too, but I didn’t dare mention them. The insurance. We could use them if we had to, and with how things were going, it might go that way.

“I need to know where he is,” I told her. “Me and my gang were tasked to take you both in. We’ll get what we need out of you, and then Oliver will get to have his turn, too.”

“Why? So you can kill him once you’re done with him?”

“So I can cross-reference with him what you tell me.”

“You didn’t answer my second question.”

“You’re not even in a position to ask,” I said. I breathed. “I’ve been very patient with you, to the point where I’m testing my own limits. Do not push me.”

There was a break in the already broken conversation. It wasn’t even so much a conversation as it was a battle, but we weren’t trading blows, just words. And I was struggling to keep on a grip on things.

I made fists with my hands again, as if I could actually take the reins of this nebulous concept.

Dammit. If only I had D, here, even Lawrence. Sarah. She could just be close and that would be enough to put my mind at ease. Now, though? It was just me, my thoughts, and the walls around me. I told the others that I could handle this part, but my track record when doing things by myself, it only made the walls start closing in even more.

I couldn’t do this by myself, but I didn’t have to.

“You know what?” Natalie started, “You’re right, I do want something. So how about this? I’m here, now, you have me. I can’t do much else. All we can do at the moment is talk. Let me ask you some questions, and I can answer whatever you ask me.”

“That’s not an offer you can give me,” I said. “You were always going to talk, no matter what. That hasn’t changed.”

“I know, I get that. But, please, would you indulge me?”

“In my world, words like that lead me to think that it’s a trap.”

“Trap? If I’m delusional, then you’re being paranoid.”

“Paranoia is a warm blanket. You need it when shit gets bad, and it does. Often, and fast.”

“Seems lonely,” Natalie commented.

I didn’t comment.

Natalie spoke. “I can go first, then. Something of a peace offering. John Cruz? I know he’s dirty, that he’s been secretly been sponsored by the mob, propped up as the new district attorney, so he can make their claws sink in that much deeper. But it doesn’t take loose lips to figure that out. When in doubt, follow the money, and there’s always a paper trail. Is that a good start for you?”

I didn’t comment. Not for a time.

It took some serious willpower to get me to unclench again, even though that manic energy was still kicking inside of me, still begging for an outlet. I adjusted my glasses, and found that my fingers were shaking as they moved.

I breathed, my voice hissing at the end of it.

“It’s a start,” I said. “You want to talk? Fine, let’s talk. I can entertain your curiosity. For a moment.”

Until Lawrence can get back on his feet, and we can all work together towards interrogating you, properly.

I tapped my foot, then grabbed for my phone. The sudden light from the screen blinded me. I sent a text to D, to update me on Lawrence’s condition, and when they’d be able to come back to assist me in questioning Natalie.

I put my phone away, ready to talk.

“Remember where you are right now,” I said, reminding her, reminding myself. “Your… predicament.”

“Kind of hard to forget.”

My ears picked up a faint clinking of metal on the other side. Handcuffs, most likely.

I didn’t start things off, instead letting the silence back in. I’d let her be the one to break it, this time.

“Let’s start with your name. Who are you?”

“I already told you. It’s Wendy.”

“But I want to get to the heart of things.”

I didn’t answer that, but my silence sent its own message.

Then, Natalie started.

“Alexis… to Wendy. Blank Face to V. The world’s first superhero, to its first supervillain. That has to be quite the journey, to go from one extreme to the other. I’d like to get the full picture, as you understand it. Paint it for me, would you?”

The full picture.

“The full picture,” I repeated. “That’s something I can’t even get for myself. I’m still, you know, working on it. And it’s a picture I didn’t even start. Painting over things, using different colors, endlessly unsure if my technique is any good, or if it’s even right. As I understand it? I barely had the chance to take a step back and take in everything I put to the canvas.”

I blinked when I referred to myself. I. Me. Wendy.

“Alright, we can frame it another way, then. What does Alexis Barnett mean to you?”

Alexis Barnett. Alexis Barnett-

“Weakness,” I said, before my thoughts could loop and my head start achining even harder. “She struggled and couldn’t handle it, couldn’t keep standing. She buckled, and there wasn’t anything there to prop her back up. So she submerged, stayed there. At the bottom.”

“So what keeps you standing? Wickedness?”

The wording of that reminded of something Fillmore had said, once.

“Something along those lines, yeah.”

“And you retreated into that wickedness, decided to be the villain, instead.”

“Sure,” I said.

“That’s… rather self-destructive of you.”

I shrugged, knowing she couldn’t see that.

“I don’t expect you to understand what we’re doing, here,” I said.

“That’s why I ask questions, gather context. All I want to know is, why? Why did you have to go down this road?”

Some time ticked away. I didn’t know how much, but it did.

After some more passed, Natalie said, “You haven’t asked yourself these questions, have you?”

“I have,” I said, a touch defensive. “Plenty of times.”

Plenty of times, mostly just in my own head. But I haven’t really… talked it over with someone else. Not too often.

I left it at that.

Natalie continued her questioning.

“Okay. Whatever your motivations were, they led you down that road. You got your start fighting gangs, and now you lead one yourself. Why? What’s your ultimate goal, doing this? What could you possibly hope to accomplish?”

“You’ve stuck your nose in my territory, you tell me.”

“Well, comparing you to the previous gang, the Fangs aren’t as ingrained in the community, but I’ve noticed the effort. Pushing out the harder drugs, clearing the streets of more troublesome individuals. It’s like you’re actually trying to make that neighborhood a better place than you found it.”

“Getting warm,” I said.

“Is that it, then? You couldn’t make the difference you wanted to as a hero, so you turned yourself into some other thing, entirely?”

“Warmer, but not quite there.”

“Then what is it?”

That trepidation was still in her voice, but there was another emotion mixed in there, now. Not excited, exactly, but as if she was sitting at the edge of her seat, thirsting over an answer. The truth.

I could feel a strange sense of comfort, in that. Being able to talk to a dead person. Any secrets shared would get buried with them.

My heart pounded, my head ached. The walls fell away a bit.

If I answered her, she would die.

“Peace,” I said. “I want solace.”

I answered her.

Sorry, D.

“And setting the city on fire is your way of getting that? I heard the sirens. Shit, I heard the explosions. And this isn’t the first time smoke was raised over Stephenville. You’re going to end up burning everything to the ground.”

“Exactly,” I said. “This is a fucked up city, and an even more fucked up world. I just want to take over everything and burn it down with me. And then, I can lay in the ashes and rest.”

I massaged my hands, rubbing them together. I had set them between my thighs, the cold starting to get to me. I felt the friction begin to heat me up.

That had been the plan, all along. What I was striving for this whole time. To build the Fangs up into a force that could sweep over the whole city like a wildfire. D was the only other person who was playing along, helping set everything up for me to knock down.

But what we were building, we were building with Lawrence. And he had different aspirations, what he was building, he wanted it to last. I could see it as we were getting further along, after being approached by Mrs. Carter. He worked so hard to plan this art heist, to put on a show, not just to throw smoke over our actual plan, but to impress the upper echelon of gang leaders.

The table was within reach, but we had different ideas of what we would do when we got there.

Sorry, Lawrence.

Natalie had paused. Or rather, she hesitated.

“That… sounds more like revenge than solace,” she then observed.

“Call it what you want. Doesn’t change anything.”

“I think it does. Revenge is a cyclical thing. A vicious circle. You think by doing this, you’re taking control of the things around you? I’ve seen it time and time again, working the crime beat, reporting on it. It’s a cycle. Someone gets wronged, they get burned hard, and they’ll come back with their perverted sense of how to make things right, again. It’s a spiral that does nothing but destroy everyone that chooses to go down that path, that road. That will include you, Wendy. It’s like clockwork.”

“I can bounce back,” I said. “Perks of being a monster.”

“You burned a lot of bridges to be where you are right now, from Alexis to Wendy. That means a lot of enemies. I suspect… you’d actually stand to gain much more agency if you were to just stop, and walk away from all of this.”

I shook my head again. I was still the only one in here.

“It’s too late for that,” I said. “It’s too late for me. Like you mentioned, I burned those bridges already. This is where I have to be. I don’t have those connections, anymore.”

I could only imagine the look she had on her face. Was she frowning? Disappointed? Or was she just happy that she could satiate her thirst?

On that level, I was envious of her.

When Natalie spoke again, it nearly took me by surprise. I would have figured she was done.

“You really hate that part of your life that much? To just throw it all away?”

I told myself as much as I told her, “It was a necessary bit of evil.”

“Is that what powers do to you? I wouldn’t know for myself.”

That was a question that hit my core, in a way I didn’t expect. My powers… they changed how I saw the world, and how Alexis had fit in it. If she never had gotten them, if she had never went out that day, I wouldn’t be here, I wouldn’t want to burn.

“Having powers like mine is like having anything else. It’s how you use it, or how you let it use you. It’s a delicate balance, and I’ll admit, I haven’t been very good at maintaining it. But that’s just another thing for me to work on.”

“How could you possibly find that balance when you’ve let your powers, your predicament, veer you to such an extreme course of action? Tell me, if you think Alexis Barnett to be so weak that you’d sooner disown her, then who are you even getting revenge for?”

Another hit to the core. A question for which I didn’t quite have an answer.

One was forming, on the tip of my dry tongue, but the words weren’t coming out.

  1. Me. Wendy.

But who was I actually? What was I really?

I remembered the Lunar Tower, I remembered the barn. There were spirals there, too. Spirals of destruction.

It was supposed to be easy. The answer was supposed to be right there.

Wendy. Me. I.

Alexis Barnett.

“For myself, and myself only,” I answered. I sounded more defensive. I sounded more irritated.

The more I doubled down…

“Is that something you can claim for yourself? That vengeance?”

“I will.”

“Another thing for you to work on?”

I wanted to stand up, but I didn’t have room for even that. Constricted, constrained. I clenched my hands again, fingernails digging.

“We’re done here,” I said. “You keep saying her name, Alexis Barnett. But no matter how many times you bring her up, it’s not going to bring her back.”

“It’s not about bringing her back, it’s about not making her forgotten.”

“Some people prefer to be left alone,” I said.

I felt my phone, heavy in my pocket. I was ready for it to vibrate, inform me that a response had come. It hadn’t.

I tapped my foot again.

We needed to know more on what she had on John Cruz, and Oliver Morgan was still out there, too. But I wanted to avoid doing anything drastic while it was just me here, watching Natalie. Better to play it safe for now, and there was no need to for us to rush.

But, there was one thing that I could look into on my own. I wouldn’t need D or Lawrence or Sarah for this.

In my head, her name echoed, calling out to me from the very bottom. Again.

Damn you.

“Natalie, you said Alexis Barnett was the one you really wanted to talk to. Why?”

It was now that Natalie Beckham went silent.

“Remember-”

I was interrupted by a metal clinking. More deliberate.

“Still haven’t forgotten,” Natalie said. “You’re asking why I did this, it’s like asking why a moth goes to a flame. It’s in their nature.”

“That’s rather self-destructive of you,” I said, throwing those words back. “Get close to fire, you might get burned. That’s the risk you run the second you started getting into our business.”

My business, I thought.

“You don’t have to tell me. I’ve been at this for a long time.”

“Then what? Are you afraid?”

“Afraid? No. Doing what I do, I knew this might happen eventually, getting swallowed by the very light I’m so attracted to. So with me here, now? Might as well make something of it. It’s a shame I can’t tell your story, Wendy. Despite everything, I wouldn’t want you to be forgotten.”

“I prefer the shadow,” I said. “Now enough with the misdirection. Tell me what you have on Alexis Barnett.”

I was done with this fight. Trading words, worrying over everything that had been said. I was going to get what I needed out of her, and I could finally be done.

Natalie breathed, shaky, and then finally got to the point.

“Sure, but, instead of telling you, how about you read it for yourself?”

I tilted my head.

“I don’t understand.”

“Go to the Impact’s website. Early edition section. Should be up by now.”

I reached for my phone, which felt as heavy as a brick in my hand. No replies from D, yet.

Light violated my eyes as I unlocked my phone. I went to the website of the Stephenville Impact.

I froze.

Her name in print. It was like seeing a ghost.

Alexis Barnett-

I couldn’t even read the rest. I just saw the name. I saw the face.

Alexis, Barnett. Alexis. Barnett-

My hands were shaking, my vision going red. The walls were starting to crack and my throat flared in thirst.

Alexis-

I snapped. It wasn’t even hard. It was right there, the whole time. Bubbling inside of me, ready to burst.

The walls fell around me. The divider between us splintered into pieces.

I clawed through the wood and mesh. My hands found their way to Natalie’s neck.

It was the first time I saw her in person. I didn’t have to guess at her expressions anymore.

Fear. Her eyes were wide and darting. It had been dark in both booths, so she couldn’t see what just happened. Her hands were tied behind her, she couldn’t fight back as I threw her back into the wall, pushing her up until her head hit the short ceiling above her.

She tried to kick, wiggle around. It wouldn’t work. The space was too tight, and I already had her. She wasn’t going anywhere.

“I told you not to test me,” I growled.

Natalie struggled to speak. Some strands of her hair had whipped around, getting in her mouth. She spat before she could articulate anything.

“What the fuck did you do?”

I growled again.

Natalie gagged. “I told- I told the truth!”

I slammed her into the wall. The wood cracked in places.

“You wrote your own death sentence!”

“It’s- It’s not everything. It’s just the lede. Alexis Barnett the- the teenage girl who loved volleyball and being with her friends-”

I tightened my grip around her throat.

“Shut up! Shut the fuck up!”

I was contradicting myself. But I was panicking. Scatterbrained. Everything about this was cracked and broken and fucked up.

“What did you write? What the fuck did you put in there?”

“Nothing about the Fangs, or John Cruz. That- That was to come later, once I have everything. I don’t have everything!”

“I’ll kill you!”

“You kill me, you don’t get anything!”

I willed myself to release her, to just pull my fingers back and let her drop, but my hands weren’t moving. Something else was taking over. A lust for something more than blood.

Against that, though, Natalie still managed to gasp out some more words.

“Journalists have… a responsibility to seek the truth… report it… but how it’s presented is just as important. People… won’t understand if it hits them all at once. The truth is a… difficult thing to handle. That’s why I had to do it like this, they need… context.”

“You’re not making any fucking sense!”

I threw Natalie back into the wall. She didn’t go through, instead slumping down, into her seat.

The force of it threw me back, too, landing somewhere between the two booths, on top of the broken wood and torn mesh.

This wasn’t working.

I scrambled for purchase, mentally and physically. Cracked and broken and fucked up.

Natalie was useless, she was playing me the whole time. Needed someone else.

“Where’s Oliver, you get him over here now!”

I crawled over the debris to get to Natalie.

She was human. I was not. She couldn’t take the kind of punishment I could dish out.

Natalie slouched, head hanging. Breathing was light, but she was still alive.

My hands didn’t go for her throat, not this time. They went around her collar, to the clothes.

Like tearing up paper. Her clothes were in tatters.

Bare skin presented itself to me.

“Tell me how to contact him.”

Natalie was quiet.

I reached for her hand and squeezed it. Breaking every bone in it.

Natalie’s screams filled my ears.

“Pocket! In my pocket!”

I felt around, searching her body. Something on her dress, by her hip.

Finding her phone, I took it out and put it to her face.

“Call him,” I said.

Natalie looked up, weak, breathing harder now. Her phone had to be one of the newer types that could recognize faces, because the screen lit up. I could see the tears stream down her face.

She did this to herself.

Natalie muttered, but it worked. The phone beeped and dialed. It had recognized her voice, too.

The call was picked up, but it was quiet on the other end.

I reached for her other hand.

“Oli,” Natalie gasped, terrified.

A faint voice replied.

Nat? That you?

“It’s me, Oli, it’s-”

She screamed again. I had squeezed her hand.

Natalie!

I moved the phone around, holding it in both hands. I set it to speaker.

“That’s both hands already, Oliver Morgan. There’s twenty-seven bones in each. That makes fifty-four, so I still have a hundred and fifty-two to go through. Shall I go through them individually?”

Juvenile. You fucking kids think you can treat us like pawns?

Natalie murmured. I barely picked it up, but I caught the word ‘rook.’

I spoke over them both.

“Whatever you’re planning, it ends, now. Give yourself up, Oliver, it doesn’t have to get any worse for her.”

Fuck you. Coward.

I made a noise, somewhere between a growl and a snarl.

Why were they fighting me on this? Too deliberate. It was like they had some sort of contingency, in case either of them got tortured or killed.

If they had accounted for that…

“Oliver,” I said into the phone. I surprised myself by how calm I sounded there. Calm enough that Oliver was quiet on the other end.

I continued in that tone.

“What if I propose this, instead? It doesn’t get worse for her. In fact, it gets so much better.”

What the hell are you saying?” Oliver questioned.

“You’ve been looking us, me, Alexis freaking Barnett. So you know I have powers. One of them includes the ability to heal from any wound, no matter how serious. Even from a shot to the head. Are you following me?”

I don’t,” Oliver said.

“I’ll spell it out for you then. Give yourself up, and I don’t drink her blood, turn her into a thrall, and sic her on you?”

I wasn’t touching Natalie, but I could sense her go cold, frozen stiff at the mere suggestion.

You’re lying.

“I’m not,” I said, very much not sure if that was the truth at all.

Could I even turn someone into… whatever the hell I was? It hadn’t happened before, but I never really experimented with my abilities with any meaningful capacity. Was that a possibility?

Maybe, possibly, but I wasn’t about to test that with her. This would be her last night alive.

I kept that close to my chest. Along with everything else.

I had let the threat hang in the air. Static in my ears and my head.

The silence broke.

Fine.

“Follow my instructions, by the letter. Go where I tell you, go alone, and neither of you have to get hurt more than what you’ve already inflicted on yourself.”

I gave Oliver an address, the same address that was attached to Natalie’s phone number. Reggie was already there, he’d intercept Oliver the moment he came into view.

Oliver agreed, and the call ended.

I dropped the phone, tossing it by Natalie.

“It’s over,” I said to her. “It didn’t have to get this bad, but you forced my hand.”

Natalie was getting weaker by the second. Both of her hands were broken. She couldn’t move.

She still found it in her to run her mouth.

“Everyone’s hands were forced, Wendy. That’s what happens when you allow yourself to get caught in that spiral?”

“Yeah? But you and Oliver are the ones that are going down, first.”

“Burn enough bridges, Wendy, there’s nowhere else for you to run. It might be us now, but who’s to say someone won’t try to corner you?”

“Like I said, I’ll bounce back.”

“Wendy… Alexis… please… you don’t have to be stuck here. You can turn around, go back. Your mother misses you.”

A cold fear pierced through me. Right through my heart.

I lowered myself, hovering over Natalie.

“You what?”

“She’s in the story, I talked to her, about Alexis. I can’t lie, she isn’t looking very well, but if you went back-”

I slapped her with enough strength to probably knock a tooth out. I went to searching through the chipped wood at the confessional.

I found my phone, opening a program.

I showed Natalie the phone.

“When I visited the office, looking for you? Boxes of teddy bears were delivered on the same day. Most of them were clean, but some of them were packed with enough thermite to burn down the entire floor of the building.”

Natalie didn’t react. Maybe she didn’t have the energy to.

“It was our insurance, if you didn’t comply, and you didn’t. But it’s fine, now. I don’t care.”

I tapped my screen. It vibrated, then beeped, sending a remote signal to detonate the explosives.

“You… can’t last like this forever.”

She winced as I lifted her up. Her collar was still exposed. Gleaming, appetizing.

“Is this peace you’re after… worth all this violence and vengeance?”

“If we ever meet again, I’ll let you know.”

I didn’t give a warning. I just brought her to my teeth, and had my fill.

She twitched as I drained her, as the front of my lips to the back of my throat sang with the sweet flavor.

I didn’t go all the way. I wasn’t trying to be greedy. Just enough to satiate my thirst.

Natalie dropped in the seat again, falling over to her side. She was wheezing, her breaths slow.

If she’d end up turning, I wouldn’t know. She’d be dead before that ever happened.

I stepped out of the confessional. I didn’t feel good, but I did feel better.

Isabella greeted me. She was smiling.

I rolled my eyes and wiped my mouth.

Putting my phone to my ear, I dialed a number that finally managed to reply.

“I’m sorry, guys…”

“… accepted,” Styx finished with a grin. He zipped up the bags.

Styx grinned again, wider. “I can definitely accept this.”

“Was it worth seeing us again?” Lawrence asked.

I didn’t know Styx could grin any wider, but he did.

“Definitely.”

Smoke billowed behind him, blackening the sky above us. Some spilled out down the building, dissipating onto the ground and bits of debris.

The Stephenville Impact burned to ashes.

We had all convened at the parking garage we started the operation from. The top level was high enough to see the city’s skyline, and close enough to be able to observe certain things at a decent distance.

Firefighters were working to put out the smoke and its source, but the problem was that the office was on a higher floor, making it harder for people on the ground to try anything. From where I could see, I wasn’t able to see what they were doing about it, exactly, but that was their problem to solve. That was their job.

Me, D, Lawrence, Sarah at my side. Styx and his Ferrymen, across from us.

It was the first time I’d ever seen Styx’s Gang with anything bigger than a motorcycle, but it’d make less sense if they limited themselves in that capacity. But when they had to go big, they went there.

Styx indicated the two black bags and the huge armored truck. It looked like something banks would use to transport money around. Ferrymen moved, dragging the bags across the pavement, over to the open truck. I saw the Ferryman with helmet and the one with his hair tied back, waiting to help lift the bags inside.

Even covered up, I could make out their shapes.

“So,” Lawrence said, “What’s the verdict? Did we do good or no?”

Styx ran his fingers through his bread.

“You certainly put on a show. I definitely enjoyed it.”

“And Mrs. Carter?”

“Can’t speak for her, but you did what she asked of you, in a roundabout way. How she judges this is up to her. I just get to watch how it goes down.”

Lawrence nodded. I knew that he hated having to wait. As if it was a nervous tick, he scratched at his wrists, fixing the cuffs. I saw the stains on his sleeves. He hadn’t gotten all the blood out.

Styx turned and climbed on his bike. King of Pentacles.

“You roused me from an early grave, so I might as well go on an early haunt. Oh, and before I forget again, how about another piece of advice?”

What was the first advice? I thought. I tried to remember.

Cut ties?

“What is it?” Lawrence asked.

Styx’s expression changed. Twisted, vile really. It made me sick.

“Laugh!”

His bike then started up, rumbling with life. Exhaust swelled out from the metal veins of the mechanical beast.

Styx drove off, the armored truck and the other Ferrymen tailed him. The ones who were keeping watch of the different paths up to the top level got on their bikes and went with.

Another truck came into view, following suit. John Cruz and the other decoy hostages. We’d hold onto the other truck, the one with the paintings.

The loud engines fell into the distance, and then it was just us.

Lawrence shook his head, leaning back onto the hood of his car.

“Fucking hell, that guy creeps me the fuck out.”

“He’s out of our hair now, now what?”

D asked.

“We wait for Mrs. Carter to approach us again, so we give her over everything Oliver Morgan told us. Until then, though? We get our ducks in a row, focus on our territory again. Because if this goes the way I hope it does, we’re about to have a lot more territory to focus on.”

“Not just the territory, Ellie, we need to focus on ourselves.”

Lawrence leaned more onto his car.

“We can’t have another scare like that. You need to start tapering off your painkillers.”

“I will, in time. Just needed one to hold me over for tonight.”

“You better, or I’ll kick you in the shins, or I’ll get Vivi to do it. Right?”

D turned to me. All I did was offer a nod.

Lawrence scratched his wrists again. Still nervous? He shook his head again. Harder.

“There’s still some stuff about this that bugs me.”

“Like?”

Lawrence looked at D. “Like, why did they both not go to the event? There was no reason for them to split up. Oliver wouldn’t say, and even after I gave him his middle finger, I’m not sure if I believe what he told me. Their notes, too. It was all just public records on Cruz, hardly anything substantial. They were looking in him because they thought he was dirty, but they hadn’t collected any evidence to prove that claim. Why go after him then?”

D didn’t try to offer anything. I didn’t have an explanation.

“It’s like some weird, twisted murder mystery.”

“Doesn’t matter, right?” D asked, somehow hurried. “The real goal was to stop them, and we did. And look…”

She pointed to the sky, the smoke as it continued to pool upwards.

“That’s warning enough to anyone else who tries to go against us.”

Lawrence shrugged, shaking his head a little. Scratching his wrists.

“That’s big talk for a little girl. Not sure if I believe that, too.”

Before anyone could get another word in, Lawrence pushed himself to his feet, grunting from the effort.

“Whatever. We did what we were asked. No one can dispute that. In this world, that’s as close to a win as we’re going to get.”

He walked around his car, keeping a hand on it to keep his balance.

“I’ll text when something comes up. And Wendy?”

Everyone had turned to me. I lifted my head up.

“I’m-”

“I heard it the first time. You don’t have anything to apologize for. She was being… difficult, and you corrected that. It’s leave it at that, okay?”

Reluctant, I nodded. “Okay.”

Lawrence had nothing else to say. He got in his car, and left.

Me, D, and Sarah at my side.

D was on her phone, now, texting. She glanced at me. Hesitant, and a little pitiful. Not for herself, but for me.

“Sorry it didn’t go the way you wanted,” I said.

“It’s… I’m not mad, Vivi.”

“Just disappointed?”

“Not even that. I’ll… I really want to stay here with you, but…”

“It’s fine, you can go.”

She touched my hand, giving it a wag.

Leaving it at that, D walked over to her van. The next to leave.

Me, and Sarah at my side.

“Wasn’t D your ride?” Sarah asked.

I turned to face Sarah.

She wasn’t wearing the mechanic outfit, but the blouse and skirt she had on underneath. The only light here was artificial, from the light pole above, but she still somehow basked in it.

I was confused. My heart was pounding and my head was aching.

I reached for her hand, I gave it a squeeze.

I asked her for something I should have asked for a long time ago.

“Would you mind coming with me?”

Sarah looked like she was about to speak, but she didn’t. Instead, her lips were set together, bright and red.

Sarah’s expression was answer enough.

Previous                                                                                               Next

095 – Cutthroat

Previous                                                                                               Next

Lawrence checked his phone for the third time in two minutes. One more for good measure.

“She’s late.”

He was mumbling to himself, but we all heard him.

There was a low rumble as the car was set to park, music just barely above the noise. It was Lawrence’s car, but it was Sarah’s music. Similar in style and genre from what she had shown me before, and I had grown to like it under its own merits. My head bobbed, and my fingers tapped to the rhythm.

It reminded me of the first time I rode with Sarah. On the way to El Paso, we talked about various things, and put those things into a new perspective. One of the few moments I could look back on with any kind of fondness. We were westward bound, but the trip went south, in a manner of speaking.

There were a few key differences, this time. For one, Lawrence was here, and that changed the dynamic. With the constant phone checking and mumbling, there seemed to be less room to relax or have any sense of calm settle in. It fit for someone like Lawrence, though. I hadn’t ever known him to be someone who could take it easy.

The second difference was that I wasn’t sitting in the passenger’s seat. I was in the back, unable to shake off the feeling that I was the third wheel, even if that wasn’t the case at all. If anything, Sarah would have a reasonable stake to that claim, and she seemed to be handling herself just fine. I was the one who had trouble keeping it cool in that situation, and I hadn’t even drank anything.

Maybe it was having to be here, seeing the sides of their face and the nape of their necks. A small but noticeable distance, but there was a degree of separation, there.

Lawrence’s car, Sarah’s music. And me, hanging on in the back.

I wished I had something to contribute, to feel more involved in things. I wished I was sitting next to Sarah.

I tried saying something, to add my voice and input.

“Just give it some time, they’ll be here soon enough.”

“They?” Lawrence questioned. “All D has to do is get out of the building and come meet us here, it shouldn’t take her that long.”

“You say that like sneaking into a skyscraper and having to find and climb and crawl through the appropriate vents is as fast as taking the elevator. Not to mention having to sneak out.”

“If anyone could do it and do it fast, it’d be her. She freaks me out with what she’s able to do, but, I can’t say she doesn’t have her use.”

“Aw,” Sarah said, making a tune out of the sound. “Is that your way of complimenting her?”

Lawrence made a sound, but it was more noise than melodic.

“No. Put it like that and you’ll make me sick.”

Sarah laughed. It had such a light, breezy tone to it, yet it made something in my chest seize up, tight. I wasn’t sure what to label that feeling as or where it was coming from.

“Y’all are funny,” she said, and the way she phrased it made me think I was included in that, too.

“Funny how?” I asked.

“I was just saying…” she said, but she left it at that.

I didn’t believe her.

I brought my arm around the seat, trying to poke at Sarah.

“No, tell me.”

Sarah wiggled around, trying to get away.

“Ow, what?”

“I said tell me.”

“It’s not, hey, I didn’t mean, quit it!”

I kept poking at her, and she kept twisting, leaning forward in a futile escape. It was probably just reflex, but she was laughing, ticklish, and that only made me want to do it more. Her voice reached a high pitch.

Lawrence cleared his throat.

“Guys, really?” he questioned, stern. He wasn’t looking at us, though. He checked his phone again, then flipped through another page in the folder. “You should be looking through this too, Wendy.”

I backed up from Sarah, leaving her alone. She was panting, her laughter dying down in fits. I kind of wanted to rev her up again.

But, I refocused my attention as I said, “I’ll sort through it with D when she gets here.”

Lawrence grunted. Another mumble, but it slipped past me, that time.

I added, “Hey, it’s not my fault there’s only one copy to pass around.”

“Should have asked for it while I was driving.” He flipped through some more pages, taking them out of the folder. “You know what, here.”

He handed me the pages. I took them from him, starting off with a cursory glance. Better to not meet with D and be completely blind to what we were up against. It was material I needed to familiarize myself with, because it was a job that was assigned to us, and I wouldn’t want to be the reason why it got botched. No, I’d have to do this properly, it was only fair to D and Lawrence. Even to Sarah, now that she was here.

Natalie Beckham and Oliver Morgan. Two journalists who were trying to disrupt Stephenville’s underworld, to dig it up and expose it to the light. Not unlike what I had in mind, but I’d go for something that burned a little brighter than just mere light.

If these were the same journalists that Lawrence was worried about, then our interests did align with Mrs. Carter’s, as she had put it. They were poised to disrupt our plans, too, if they were allowed to continue. We couldn’t let them get that far, wouldn’t. And to do that, I’d have to read up on our enemies. A very rare opportunity, and I learned to not let that go to waste.

I read through the bylines, the articles written by Natalie, photos taken by Oliver. It seemed like they covered local crime in Stephenville years ago, occasionally writing stories on gang leaders who were looking to sink their teeth in the city. They hadn’t managed to take down the larger, more established gangs, though. Not even Styx, and he was more… out there, than the rest.

It wasn’t for lack of trying, though. Attached were several drafts, printed out with some notes scrawled in the margins, most of them dating back to about a decade ago. Some of them concerned the larger gangs, but there wasn’t much detail, just some speculation and suggestions on leads to follow. Styx was brought up on several occasions. This could have been a gold mine for us, but there wasn’t enough to extrapolate anything. It felt so… curated. But, considering who these articles were provided by, it’d make sense not to give up something that had the potential to incriminate. It was just for us to get a feel for these two and their reporting.

Outside of that, though, how did Mrs. Carter get a hold of these? What was her line of access? How much did she actually know?

I saved my questions for later. We’d have a proper discussion once D got here. Which I hoped was soon. I was starting to worry.

“Any word from D yet?”

Lawrence looked at his phone.

“No. I thought you were the one who told me to be patient? Now you can’t wait anymore?”

“Geez. I can’t catch a break with you, can I?”

“Nope.”

I breathed out loud, making it obvious on purpose. Sarah snickered to herself.

“Before then, is there anything that sticks out to you?” I asked.

“Everything,” Lawrence answered. “This whole thing makes me uneasy.”

“Glad to know I’m not the only one.”

“That doesn’t make me feel any better.”

“Sorry.”

“No it’s… I’ll text D again.”

The phone buzzed in my pocket. I wouldn’t bother taking it out until I felt another one.

There was a lot of waiting, and there wasn’t much time.

Maybe we shouldn’t have left D alone, or at least have her sit this one out. It wasn’t like we could just have her sitting with us at that table. As far as image went, having D there would contrast the other gang leaders to the point of absurdity. There probably would have been more ‘no’ votes if they knew, exactly, who they were saying no to. But, at the same time, was this something we wanted assigned to us?

Styx was there. I wasn’t aware of that when went in. It was good call to have her not be within the walls of that room…

D did suggest that she’d sneak around and try to give us an advantage. Did she know that Styx would be there?

I flipped through another article. I breathed out, more quiet that time.

Couldn’t let my thoughts wander.

It was a bad habit, staying in my head for too long, mulling over what had happened and what it could all possibly mean. Dangerous, even. And I was supposed to be getting away from that, to not slip in the usual spots, to be better.

D needs to be here, already.

I reached out.

“Uh,” I started, just wanting to say something, but I didn’t have a proper thought prepared.

“Uh,” Sarah repeated, doing an impression of me. From just a small noise, it sounded pretty close.

“Huh?” Lawrence sounded almost incredulous.

One upside to being in the back. No one saw me when I smiled, feeling dumb, at the fact that Sarah had responded first.

“Nothing,” I said. I leaned over, resting my forehead against the back of Sarah’s seat. Putting more of my face into the shadow.

“I’d reach over and poke you if I could,” Sarah said.

“I’d like to see you try,” I said.

“Are you serious?” Lawrence questioned. My phone buzzed. “Fucking finally, christ. Come on.”

Lawrence pushed a button where the ignition was supposed to be, and the car stopped its rumbling. He opened the door. A chill came in, and he got out.

Sarah and I followed him outside.

The rain wouldn’t let up, but it had eased off as it got darker, later into the night. Not strong enough to really need an umbrella, but I really didn’t like getting wet.

Lawrence went without his umbrella, but Sarah had taken it for her own use. Without me saying anything, Sarah moved to my side, holding the umbrella above our heads. She walked in step with me, Lawrence ahead of us.

There were much more important matters to consider and think on, but they were all drowned out by my internal screaming.

“You can hold your liquor pretty well,” I commented. “Everything considered.”

“Oh yeah?” Sarah said, just barely over the rain, tapping on the umbrella. “To be perfectly honest, I’m freaking out.”

Was that an admittance or a joke? Somewhere in the middle?

“Me too,” I said, at the same volume, with the same kind of vagueness.

We walked across the lot, to the park. Peace Phoenix Plaza. Still in the Eye, but it was close and out of the way enough, and we needed to meet up as soon as we could. Though, if D was going to take forever in getting here, we could have just went over to the church, instead, using the keys that-

Thrown at me by Styx.

Maybe it was best if we stayed away for now. Could be a trap. It sort of was one the last time we were there.

I shook my head. My thoughts were getting away from me, again.

Reaching again, this time for my phone. I wanted to read D’s text. Her van wasn’t anywhere to be seen as we crossed the parking lot.

Orange lamplights illuminated the path ahead of us, making it easier to walk forward while my eyes and attention were elsewhere. Having Sarah huddled close helped too, in other ways.

Rain thumped on plastic, then hair. Sarah went a few steps ahead of me before she turned.

“Everything okay?”

I left a pause before I answered.

“I don’t think so.”

That caught Lawrence’s ear. He turned back and walked closer to Sarah.

“How?”

I showed him my phone. The message log of our group chat.

“Did you read D’s text?” I asked.

“Yes, we have to go over to the bridge at the south end of the park. D parked over there.”

I flicked the screen. The chat scrolled up towards earlier texts.

“Read it again, D doesn’t text like that.”

Lawrence looked at the screen, then his own. Comparing the most recent message with the ones D had sent before.

“It’s different,” Lawrence observed. “It’s off.”

“D doesn’t really bother with stuff like grammar or spelling.”

“You’re… yeah. It didn’t take me a second longer to know what she actually meant.”

Then Lawrence looked at me directly.

“You think D didn’t text us?”

“I’m saying I have doubts, and we need to be careful moving forward.”

“Got a plan?”

I nodded. “I’ll go ahead, scope things out. I’ll call or text you if it’s all clear.”

“That’s it? You don’t even have a knife on you.”

“I don’t want you to get hurt,” Sarah said.

I raised my other hand, palm facing forward.

“I won’t do anything hasty. I’ll just go first and take a look, just in case. If it’s nothing, great-”

“And if it’s something…”

Lawrence trailed off, and I didn’t want to continue the thought from there.

“Okay,” he then said, without much deliberation. Not much time for that. “Go. Be quick, but be careful. We’ll wait here.”

I started moving, passing Lawrence. There was a shock between my fingers.

My hand flinched. I had passed Sarah, her hand had brushed against mine. Nothing else was exchanged or said.

Oh shit.

Was that something I needed to address? There was so much on my plate already.

I concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. I was so dizzy.

That sensation lessened the farther I got away from Sarah and Lawrence, swallowed instead by doubt, but at least that was a feeling I was familiar with. I could work with doubt.

I started jogging down the path, passing others who were out on a stroll. Some were by themselves, some walked as a couple.

How nice, to see something normal.

I blinked as water went past my glasses and into my eye. I picked up the pace.

A fountain came into view. I went around it, passing a statue of a large bird of prey and an assortment of different art installments. One was a series of rings, interconnected and intersecting, until it looked like a web of wires and metal, an entangled mess than anything resembling art. I didn’t quite get it, myself, but I didn’t have to. I walked right past it without a second thought.

Turning to another section of the park, I hurried down the path, looking for anything or anyone that I could recognize, ally or not. At least I’d know I was getting somewhere.

I stopped.

There.

I saw Isabella, by a path that went under a bridge. She had originally gone with D to ride around the club we were meeting that other gang at, then offering to watch the van while D was out. Knowing that Isabella was there helped me feel better about D being where she was, even when Styx turned out to be there, too. A sort of solace I could fall back on.

There she was. I looked ahead and saw D, too. And then Styx.

My blood ran cold.

Under the bridge, as if they were hiding in the shadows, Styx was closer to D than he was to Isabella. Within arm’s reach, because he had an arm around her, holding and keeping her at his side. I was close enough to see D’s reaction to the whole thing. It was a bodily one, trying to get out of his grip, squirming.

I felt it as much as she seemed to.

Moving to the edge of the path, by some hedges, I was being tugged between two different urges. To lunge right at Styx and tear him apart, or sit back for three seconds and text Lawrence.

An almost impossible decision that took over four seconds of deliberation, and I had used up enough time that I might as well have contacted him.

Or was that me learning from past mistakes? To not rush in, headlong?

Couldn’t pat myself on the back, though. Didn’t feel right.

Lawrence replied. Faster than my hesitation. Bless him.

A short message. It was a blur as I skimmed through it. The brevity of it and the few letters I caught was enough for me to make a move in confidence.

Fuck him up.

I lunged.

I went off the path, going around the bushes and trees. Staying out of the light, staying in the dark. A rush went through me, like all my anxiety was being burned into something I could use. Fuel. A kind of bloodlust.

I blinked, and it was sudden. Styx was against the underside of the bridge. There was a curve to it, so Styx was pressed into it at an awkward angle, his back at an arc.

Sounds popped off around me. Isabella’s cheer, D’s surprised shriek, and Styx’s hard grunt into a strained but still raucous laughter.

“Hey! Look at you go!”

Shut up, I willed, then pressed him more into the brick bridge. I had pounced on him, fast, abrupt. Something should have been broken or cracked, but from the way he wouldn’t shut up, it didn’t seem like I had done a thorough enough job.

“Who took the leash off of you? Because I’ll have to thank them for finally making you so interesting.”

“Unless you’re willing to answer my questions, you’d best shut the fuck up.”

Styx cackled, and it only served to piss me off even more.

“Wendy.”

I turned my head, still pushing into Styx. It was D, her hands together, her eyes downward, staring at my feet rather than my face. Isabella walked closer, looking between D and Styx. Concern for her, contempt for him.

Styx managed to shift his head, too, looking in their direction.

“Ah, yes, if you want answers, why don’t you ask her? I’m sure she has something you’d like to hear.”

“I’m not asking her. I have you now, and you can still talk.”

“There’s no fun in that, I’m just an old man!”

“You’re not giving yourself much reason for me to keep you alive.”

“Oh, there’s plenty of reasons, believe me, but how about we go with the one that’s most fun. Come on, ask her, ask her!”

Styx growled the words, as if he was the one with the power in this situation.

I checked around me one more time. Isabella, D. No one else here. Might not stay like that for long. Random civilians, or maybe even Sarah and Lawrence.

D was still wasn’t looking at me.

“D,” I said, as a test, as a reach.

D’s gaze flicked upward, but not meeting me directly.

“What the fuck is he talking about, D?”

She wasn’t answering. I glanced at Isabella, who only offered a shrug. She was as lost as I was.

D,” I intoned, and it wasn’t a question or a suggestion. A command.

She flinched, her fingers twisting together. She opened her mouth, or rather, she let it hang.

“Styx was waiting for me when I got out of the vents. He caught me.”

“Why was he looking for you?” I asked D.

She went silent again.

Styx spoke, even when he wasn’t being spoken to. “I was wondering where she was, didn’t take me long to figure it out. You know, Mrs. Carter requested that everyone show up for the interview, evaluation. She’s not going to be very pleased if she finds out the Fangs were short a tooth.”

“Why were you looking for her?” I asked Styx.

“Wendy-”

“No!” Styx hollered, before cackling again. “I’ll take this one, lo, since you’ve elected to keep yourself choked up.”

He twisted himself around even more, so I could see the wide white of both of his eyes. The sort of flexibility that looked painful, yet he did it with a twisted grin on his face.

“I just wanted to say hi.” He said it like he was taunting me.

With how he was overextending the limits of his spine, and with my hands forcing him more into the brick, it would have been so easy to snap him in half. Wouldn’t need a knife or gun to do it, too.

“What?” I questioned.

“It’s been a minute since I’ve seen you all, seen D, and I was so disappointed that she wasn’t at the table. I just wanted to say hi, catch up.”

Been a minute, been a while…

Didn’t we ask D to check up with Styx after coming back from the church? That was only a few nights ago.

“D,” I said, at a lower register. I watched her. So stubborn.

D!”

I snapped at her.

Her eyes snapped upward, finally meeting mine. It took that much work to get something out of her.

“Did you do like we asked?” I tried to phrase it so only D could catch the actually meaning, but I was afraid that Styx already had us beat.

The reactions were about what I had come to expect, which didn’t inspire a lot of confidence in me. D was quiet, and Styx wasn’t.

I let go of Styx. He slid down the curved wall of the bridge, the side of his face against brick. He twisted himself around so he was leaning up on the wall, supporting himself, his laughter still ringing in my ears.

“Shut your mouth,” I told him, “Or I’ll lock it shut with the keys you gave me.”

“Oh, that’s a good one. Shows creativity.”

I scowled at him, but that only served to make him more elated.

I turned my ire to someone else, instead.

“The last fucking thing I want is for this guy to be right, D. So if you’re not going to talk, you better give me something.”

That something was delayed, as footsteps came up from the path behind Isabella and D. Sarah and Lawrence, they had caught up.

Everyone turned and reoriented themselves in the moment.

“The fuck are you doing here, Styx?” Lawrence asked. He was fully incredulous, that time. He probably only had the confidence to speak like that because Styx was several feet away, on the ground, scratched and bleeding on some parts of this face.

Sarah moved around Styx, like there was an invisible barrier around him. She beckoned for Isabella and D, to get them under her umbrella. They took slow, reluctant steps to her, still facing Styx like he was an animal that could attack at any moment. Maybe he could. Styx’s Ferrymen could be out there, somewhere, waiting for a signal from their leader.

I should have felt better that Sarah was here. Lawrence, too. I didn’t. There was a rotten feeling in my stomach and gullet, and it wouldn’t go away.

We’ll focus on D, later.

“Just here to congratulate all of you,” Styx said. He had been laughing so hard and for so long that his voice started to sound hoarse. “I would have done it up there if you had all been present. I just really wanted to.”

“You know damn well that we don’t need your goodwill,” Lawrence said.

“Oh, you don’t? Because you wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for me, boy.”

“I wouldn’t have been beaten half to death if it weren’t for you, either.”

Styx made a face, as if he had to think about it.

“Ah, that’s right.”

The man laughed again, more rough than ever.

This isn’t it. This isn’t right.

When I spoke, that taste was still there. I felt like spitting bile.

“Styx, I really don’t believe that’s all you’re here for. We already got we needed from Mrs. Carter. You being here is just keeping us from doing our job, and with how important it seems to be to her, fucking it up for us probably isn’t in your best interests.”

The laughter immediately stopped. The sound of light drizzle reigned. It was eerie.

“Do you think you have control here, Voss? That, because I’m down here, you have something you can hold over me? Real power?”

He sprung to his feet. A surprising swiftness that I wasn’t expecting.

Styx loomed over me. He was tall. He was bleeding, but it didn’t seem to bother him one bit.

“Because I can assure you, blueballs, that could not be further from the truth, which is something you continually turn a blind eye to, little Dolly won’t speak on, and El doesn’t actually want to hear. Fitting, since you were tasked to kill it. It’s actually very funny, I applaud Mrs. Carter.”

“Excuse me?”

Styx turned to Lawrence.

“I’m just here to set y’all straight before you tackle the big job. Help you get on the same page, or else you’ll all get torn apart from the inside. And as fun as that to observe from the side, I have bread to make. Haven’t set every duck in a row to operate on a smaller scale. Not yet.”

He fixed his leather jacket, tilting his head until I heard something pop.

“And until that happens, I’ll guide you along. I’ll just have my fun in seeing where I can take you.”

That didn’t sound foreboding at all.

“So the church really is good to use?” I asked.

“Good as holy water,” Styx said, but nothing he said gave me any assurance. He didn’t have the tone or even the context for it.

“Not a single bit of this feels right to me,” I said. “Mrs. Carter, the table, this job, you. Why the hell would we believe that you’re approaching this with any kind of goodwill?”

“Doesn’t that give you the best kind of thrill? Thinking that you have to make that gamble? How about this, let’s make it my second favor, that you have to take me on my word.”

I wanted to throw him into the brick again, paint this whole section of the bridge in red.

His second favor, meaning there was still one more.

“This is just one big joke to you, isn’t it?” I asked.

“Life is just one perspective shift away from being a tragedy or a comedy, and I prefer a longshot.”

“God dammit, Styx, if this is another trap I swear I’ll break your bones.”

“Not a trap, promise.” Styx grinned, wide. “The people voted you in for the position. I didn’t have a say in it, neither did Mrs. Carter. You got lucky with Santino. See? That just makes it all the more interesting for everyone involved. I’m on the edge of my seat, and I’m vibrating.”

“You tried to get Wendy killed! Everything with Solace is because of you!”

I didn’t expect Sarah to jump in and back me up, but I wasn’t opposed to it.

“I didn’t try to do anything,” Styx said, still looking at me. “I had a job to do, and so did Victor. Sometimes, those tasks overlapped, other time, we tried to have our fun when and where we could. It can hard, working different shifts.”

Every word that slithered out of his mouth offended me, making my head ache all the more. Nothing seemed to make sense, as if everything was a riddle, but only Styx knew what he was getting at, and what the possible answer would be, if there even was one. There was a chance he was saying things just to throw me off.

Paranoia and doubt. I knew more of those things than I did peace and quiet.

Styx had continued while I was sifting through my thoughts, somewhat distracted. “In the end, I did give Victor over to you, didn’t I? It’s a gesture, much like the keys. A sign of… well, is faith nothing more than just an illusion?”

The whites of his eyes and teeth seemed to take up more and more real estate on his face. It disturbed.

“Victor, Remus… Solace, he set it up so he could sabotage the transport. People died. He tried to kill me.”

“He had his job to do.”

“You knowingly put a wolf in sheep’s clothing and hid him in the herd. What happens afterwards is still on you.”

“Maybe it is.”

Maybe it is.

Enigmatic, cryptic. It was everything I despised. Everything I didn’t want to think about.

Styx adjusted his jacket again, brushing dirt off of his shoulders.

“Well, it looks to me I’m not wanted, here, so I’ll take my leave. Like I mentioned, I just wanted to see your faces one more time. Who knows, it might be my last chance to savor it.”

He had the audacity to take a step back and start walking away.

“And you think you can just go, just like that?” Lawrence asked.

“I know I can, El, so I will. Maybe if you weren’t tweaking so hard, your senses would be working properly.”

Lawrence didn’t respond, and I didn’t get to see the reaction on his face. I was transfixed on Styx, as he walked to the other side of the bridge, chuckling to himself.

“I’ve said too much, then. I’ll let you all sort yourselves out. It was good seeing you all again, especially you, D. Please actually come by again, don’t be a stranger.”

No response from D, either.

I’d tell you to go to hell, Styx, but you already take regular trips.

I wanted to say that, I wanted to spit that at him with venom.

Styx got farther away, and hardly a breath passed my lips.

I clenched my teeth and my fists, until fingernails dug into my palms, until my jaw was tense.

Styx turned, walking backwards. Grinning.

“Oh! Before I forget, I wanted to leave you all with a word of advice. The real reason I was here. Nat and Oli? You should know better than to underestimate them. They’re good. So all I wanted to say is, I hope you’ve cut enough ties, so they don’t come back to choke you.”

Then, with his back to us now, Styx raised his hand, waving. He stepped out from under the bridge, to the other side of the path. From each side of that particular opening, bikers emerged, as if from the shadows, stalking over from the bridge to Styx, forming a mob until I couldn’t see Styx anymore.

His other Ferrymen. His actual insurance.

Goddamn you, Styx.

There was so much I wanted to get out of him, but he knew how to keep us at a distance, while standing on that line. Laughing about it.

I watched as they all disappeared into the distance. When enough time passed that we were certain that they were gone, we regrouped, taking cover from the rain under the bridge.

This part wasn’t going to be any easier.

Lawrence was the first person to say something.

“Shit.”

Yeah.

He looked down at D. “Did he do anything to you? Did he… do anything else?”

D shook her head. It was a while before I was going to hear her voice again, it seemed.

“Are you two going to be okay?” Sarah asked, setting her umbrella down. Her eyes went over me, Isabella, and D.

“We will be,” Isabella answered. “Maybe. Should have done more to Styx when you had the chance, Wendy.”

I glanced over Isabella to D. “Now’s not the time for that.”

“Then what?” Sarah asked. She sounded almost hurt, at that. It pained me, too.

“What? Right now, we need to focus on D. What happened, or rather, what didn’t happen.”

D fidgeted.

“What do you mean?” Lawrence asked.

D fidgeted some more.

I put my hands on my hips, and gave the girl a stern look.

“D, tell Lawrence. Now.”

I felt like a mom, or maybe an older sister. Either way, I felt disappointed.

My harder tone was enough of a nudge for D, and she finally found it within herself to speak.

“I… I didn’t go to Styx like you asked.”

Eyes were on Lawrence. Waiting, wondering what his reaction would be. Even D looked like she was bracing herself, and she had crashed a bus on the poor guy.

Lawrence took his time with it, as if he was considering his options on how to handle this.

“Where did you go when you left that night?”

He sounded calm. Which was somehow worse.

D was much less so. I had never really seen her like this. Her eyes darted, her words fumbled over, her fingers tugging at her choker.

“I went around the territory surrounding the church instead, assessing the damage done and the Cobras’ reaction.”

“And? Did you at least get anything?”

“Yes. I was able to get a name of their leader. Manny. They pulled out of the territory because they were afraid of a similar incident happening again, incurring more loses. Like Manny’s son.”

Manny’s son. Was that the guy who got killed in the armory? Was that why the cop paused and got so scared and angry. I could see it in his eyes. It was a loss for their side.

“They’re keeping everything under wraps because they don’t want it to affect their other business proceedings,” D said.

“But you didn’t go check if they went to Styx.”

“No.”

Lawrence was still putting on a calm veneer.

“Why?”

D bit her lip, and-

“Fucking speak, D.”

D’s head snapped up.

There it is.

“I didn’t… I don’t know,” D stammered. “I didn’t want to risk tipping him off, or getting roped into one of his schemes, like, like last time. I figured I could work around him, but I didn’t know Styx would show up with… this.”

She was small before, and she only looked smaller, now. It broke my heart to see.

Lawrence scratched the back of his head. His eyes scrunched, and he did it for long enough that it seemed like he was pulling hair out or otherwise trying to hurt himself. His eyes looked bigger than usual.

For once, D tried to speak without being prompted to.

“I’m sorry, I wasn’t trying to-”

“No.”

Lawrence stopped her.

Just… no.

D was frozen. I was, too. Sarah and Isabella were tense.

Lawrence started shaking his head. He brought his hands back down, reaching into his pocket. He took out a small bottle, inside it were smaller pills. He took several, swallowing them dry.

No one said a thing. He wouldn’t want to hear it.

He put the bottle back. When he talked again, his voice was dry.

“I’ll put the blame solely on myself for this one. I should have known better than to send D to Styx. He’s a scary motherfucker, I get that, and you probably get that more than me, D. You have some history with him, but there’s a reason why he walked away and you’re still here, right?”

D didn’t answer.

“Right,” Lawrence said, answering his own question. “We can’t get held up on this any longer. Did you at least get what we needed at the meeting?”

“I… I did. Got pictures of all the different people at the table. Recorded the whole thing, too. With enough time I can put names to those faces, save D’Angelo and Manny.”

“Does Styx know what you were up to, exactly?”

D answered right away. “He doesn’t, I promise.”

“A promise from you doesn’t really hold much weight anymore.”

It was like Lawrence had slapped her. Everyone had a visible reaction. There was some moisture gathering in D’s eyes.

Lawrence made a sound. Noise.

“Whatever. I fucking hate to admit it, but Styx is right. I don’t know what he’s trying to do, but if this is his way of trying to mess with us, we can’t give him that satisfaction. They gave us a job to do, and we’re not going to let this, or anything else fuck it up. Okay?”

“Okay,” D said, quiet.

“Of course,” I said, throwing my voice into the mix, so D didn’t feel so alone.

“Then we’ll put a pin on this for now. Styx can wait. This Natalie Beckham and Oliver Morgan, they’re the real targets.”

D nodded, slow, stiff.

I put a hand on her shoulder. I tried to be as gentle as humanly possible, as if that specific sentiment could mean anything, coming from me.

“Let’s go,” I said. “We have work to do.”

Everyone could agree on that. The awkward part was that D had parked at another section of the park. The instant we were all on the same page, we had to split up.

“We’ll go with D to her van,” I told Lawrence. “We can meet back up with you at the car or we can drive with her.”

“Either way is fine by me,” he said.

We’d figure it out as we went, then. We went our separate ways. Sarah and I, Isabella and D. Lawrence.

We followed the path Styx had taken earlier. There wasn’t anyone around now, but we still walked with some trepidation.

D had gone ahead, leading us. Out of the cover of the umbrella, head down.

I felt for her, because, more often than not, I would be the one in that position.

“Thoughts?” I asked, reaching out again.

“Who, me?” Sarah asked. She was close enough to hear my whisper. “Does my opinion even matter?”

“I think it does. I want it to.”

Sarah shifted the umbrella, so it could provided better cover. “I think… Styx is a bully, and D is just a kid. It’s not fair that he’s allowed to do whatever he wants, and it’s also not fair to expect her to be all there, as far as maturity goes. Kids rebel, they don’t listen, or they’ll find a way around doing something.”

“But like this, though?”

“It’s no laughing matter, but, everyone needs something, or someone, that can center or anchor them. Maybe Styx has learned to work without that, but D is too young to be trying to swim on her own.”

“She’ll be fine,” Isabella said. “You’ve been fine without that kind of thing, Wendy.”

Have I been? It sounded good, but it also didn’t sound right. It just gave me more doubts to work with.

“Are you saying we shouldn’t have D around?” I asked

“Not saying that, that could just make it worse,” Sarah said. “Lawrence, D, you, Wendy. Someone needs to hold you down. Watch your back.”

“Sounds like a chore. You up for that?”

I felt a shock near my fingers again.

“Sure, I might need to focus on one thing at a time, though.”

The prospect of that gave me a sinking feeling, yet it was a calm, soothing descent. A selfish request wanted to come out, bubbling up inside.

I held my breath.

Previous                                                                                               Next

Interlude – Dong-Yul

Previous                                                                                               Next

Finally, I’m back home.

Dong-Yul moved into his apartment, or rather, he was carried into it. He couldn’t operate under his own strength.

A whole crew was waiting for him, having gotten there well before he did. Through squinted eyes, Dong-Yul saw how they had shuffled around the furniture to better accommodate the crowd and then some. Chairs and coffee tables and designer pieces were placed into corners above him, and people were walking along the ceiling to get out of his way as he was led through.

Everything had been flipped upside down. No, wait. It was just him.

It was bright, as if it hurt to see. Before letting his eyes close, Dong-Yul tried scanning for a place he could be set down. It was hard, though, considering that everything was reorientated and it just plain hurt to try. His vision swam.

Dong-Yul gave up, letting his eyes drift, closed. He’d let whoever had him take point in that.

He groaned.

It really fucking hurt.

With the way he was being carried, Dong-Yul could tell that they were doing their level best to not make it such a bumpy trip. But, even with the tiniest of movements, a cut would get pressed into, or his clothes would brush against a scrape, or a wound opening a pinch more, he’d flinch at how much it all hurt…

It really fucking hurt.

The pain was enveloping, making his whole body feel like it was throbbing, feel like it was somewhere else. It was so bad that Dong-Yul could almost distance himself from it, a sensation so deep that it dulled the senses, in an abstract way. Like being submerged underwater. Hard to feel wet when the water was everywhere.

Almost, though. Pain had a funny way of giving reminders. But Dong-Yul wasn’t laughing. Couldn’t.

Like being in a dream.

Crossing the living room, Dong-Yul practically floated as he was taken somewhere to rest. He slowed, and people worked with his momentum to slide him into a-

Dong-Yul’s eyes cracked open. Bright. He groaned, loud.

There it was. That reminder.

His back was propped up against soft cushions, but throbbing and stinging made it feel anything but. The aches hammered at his body and mind. Until it consumed his focus.

It took genuine and concentrated effort to get himself out of the headspace, to think of anything else that wasn’t the hurt, that wasn’t the cuts and scrapes and aches and bruises and pangs. Considering how upfront they all were, it was a challenge.

“Sorry, Donnie.”

Dong-Yul recognized that voice.

“No, it’s…”

He wanted to make himself comfortable, but he didn’t have it in him to move. Comfort was too far a shore to reach. Off in the distance, into the horizon.

“It’s shit, Jackie,” Dong-Yul said, hoarse. “I feel like- ow, shit.”

“Yeah.”

Dong-Yul fell back, and the regret was immediate. His back had taken a pretty serious hit, when Styx had flipped him and slammed him down onto the hard surface of a table. Second only to his face. That motherfucker had really gone to town, there. Even now, just an hour or so later, he could still hear the squelching.

How many stitches? How many painkillers did Styx’s men hook him up on? His entire body flared, but a stilling effect would wash over him in occasion. It took the edge off, and while it was only by a margin, it was a godsend compared to tackling the full brunt of it all. He only wished that they had given him more, because the little bit of relief he was desperately clinging onto wouldn’t last forever.

But, for now, he could manage, he could deal. And he was able to communicate without it killing him.

“What’s… up?”

It was a start.

“You’re at your place, in case you weren’t aware. Tried to gather as many of us as I can, but there’s only so much space, and there is a lot of us.”

If Dong-Yul could smile, he would have. But the sentiment was there.

“Army,” he said.

“Just focus on getting some rest right now, Donnie. If we try to discuss anything now you might not remember it in the morning.”

“Just… catch me up then.”

Through the throbbing and faded sensations, Dong-Yul heard Jackie grouse at him. Dong-Yul had known Jackie long enough to decipher the different mumbles and non-words that would come out of him on occasion. Though, it would be more accurate a claim that Jackie knew Dong-Yul for even longer. He was one of Bruce’s best friends.

Was.

Bruce and Jackie went back, way back, to even before they were born. Their respective parents having met when they first moved into the city, the country. Immigrated. The parents had become good friends over the years, and when they had their own children around the same time, it was only natural that those kids would get along well. By the time Donnie had moved up from crawling to walking, Jackie was already like another older brother to him. A brought from another mother tongue.

Now, Jackie was the only family Dong-Yul had left.

In a gang, connections mattered, and real, tangible ones could make all the difference. Life and death. Dong-Yul knew not to put so much strain on this, particular one. It was like walking on a tightrope. A delicate balance, and all it took was a hard enough push to send him down, that connection slipping far and away, then gone.

Dong-Yul could feel that tension now. Wobbly. He was pushing it.

“How’s everyone?” he asked, pushing the words through puffy cheeks. He screwed his eyes open.

Not just Jackie. Other concerned faces stared him down, too.

Making another sound, Jackie took his eyes off Dong-Yul, his gaze going around the room looking at the other faces. Some words were exchanged, Dong-Yul saw Jackie’s mouth move, but the words just missed his hears. The pounding aches overtook the sounds.

The words continued to be exchanged, Jackie nodding and shaking his head, then directing himself back to Dong-Yul.

“We’ve got a lot of people that managed to come up here, but we also got a lot of those who can’t. We got fucked, Donnie, this night didn’t at all go how you, we, planned it.”

It was Dong-Yul’s turn to grouse. Words were hard.

Tonight. They had plans for tonight. And, if there was one thing Dong-Yul hated the most, it was when things didn’t go according to plan.

It should have been easy. In the recent weeks, Dong-Yul had been getting more and more reports about a new gang in town, one that had risen from the ashes of The Chariot, having come back from near death as the Ghosts. They were gaining momentum, fast, with a lot of eyes on them, even international ones. There were rumors that some Eastern European mobs had been meeting with them for… something. No one knew for sure. Possible joint ventures, vying for their territory? Whatever the case, this reborn gang, Los Colmillos, the Fangs, had momentum, and people were wanting to hitch a ride up.

Dong-Yul didn’t want that opportunity slip by. He wanted to ride that wave.

It should have been easy. He knew Lawrence, maybe they weren’t brothers, but they were acquainted well enough. They had met back when they were still nobodies in their respective gangs, and they had bonded over that. Somewhat. A slight connection, but it was enough that the Kung Fools could go to the Ghosts when they were selling goods for cheap. To help out a friend in need, so the favor could be returned later.

Sure.

This world was one of dogs, vicious animals that would tear the other to shreds to stay on top. Donnie was never one of the top dogs, but Dong-Yul would be, in place of his older brother. He had his own fangs to use, in the form of his recent swell of volunteers. He didn’t know what Lawrence’s secret was, but he didn’t have the numbers, not like Dong-Yul.

It should have been easy.

He thought he had them, Los Colmillos, cornered when he led Lawrence and his girl to the club in order to pay back his debt and float the idea of working together. It was all a lie, of course, a trap to capture Lawrence and use him as leverage to take that momentum by force. The girl would have been for more leverage, another way to twist Lawrence’s arm, to force him into complying.

Dong-Yul had no idea that the night would go down like this.

“Some of our… volunteers didn’t make it.”

Dong-Yul might as well have gotten another hit to the face. The same type of pain, but it struck another part of him. Something more raw.

He must have reacted in some noticeable way, because Jackie went right to correcting himself.

“No, no one died, but a lot of them did get fucked up. Some might not be able to stand, ever again. Or breathe properly without some kind of machine. It’s not pretty. Oh, and I’m okay, thanks for asking.”

Dong-Yul wanted to make a quip, that he didn’t look pretty, too. But this wasn’t the time for jokes.

“It got ugly down there, Donnie. We were just sitting there, in the basement lounge, I was waiting for you signal, when the lights were cut without warning. Then, it all went to hell.”

Another metaphorical hit to the face. Through the haze of his drug-addled memory, Dong-Yul could recall his disposition earlier in the night. The confidence, the swag. Having Jess and Yuri at his side, helping him give off the air of the cool gangster. Like Bruce.

A mask.

Then, the fact that, while he was up in the restaurant above the club, acting suave while his boys, his last remaining real connection, were being terrorized below his feet, all without him knowing any better…

More hits to the face.

I should have known something was up when that girl left the table.

“Her…”

It was all Dong-Yul managed to get out. He could sense that the drugs would be wearing out. Not now, and not for a several more hours, but they would. Whatever he had over the counter wouldn’t be enough. Wouldn’t be strong enough.

When those wore off, he would be Donnie again.

Couldn’t have that, didn’t want that.

He needed something to hold on to.

Dong-Yul pushed.

“I saw her, down there. With Lawrence, and Styx. Someone else too, but I can’t remember it very well. I know they were short.”

Jackie was frozen as Dong-Yul spoke, as if he was shocked to hear him go for that long. Maybe he was. It took a bit longer for Jackie to respond.

“That… I know who you’re talking about. And don’t push yourself too much, Donnie. You’ll regret it.”

Not Donnie.

Dong-Yul grumbled the thought.

Jackie picked up on it. He smiled, slight, in a way that made Dong-Yul think he was pitying him. That look.

Her,” Dong-Yul said, stressing the word. “I think it’s her. The Bluemoon.”

The room was already packed with people, anxious in atmosphere. The mere mention of the name screwed everything that much tighter. People huddled closer, more faces looking down on Dong-Yul. Breaths were held.

Dong-Yul released his.

“I mean, she has to be. She, ow, that girl Lawrence brought with her. They had something, agh, planned against us from the start. A counterattack.”

“But it was hectic down there, I couldn’t see shit for a while. But, yeah, I think you’re right.”

As if to punctuate his conviction, Dong-Yul nodded, despite his body. If it weren’t for the drugs, he wouldn’t be able to move at all.

“Then, that woman, I think… I think her name was Wendy, but I don’t remember her last name. She’s the Bluemoon, or V, or whatever that other freak announced itself as. She’s their secret weapon. No… doubt about it.”

Silence came in like an unwanted visitor. And Dong-Yul didn’t want anyone he couldn’t trust in here with him.

He continued.

“Doesn’t anyone here get it? We have that, now. We know. We tried to take them out, they tried to stop us, but Styx got in the way of that, because we were the bigger threat. Over them, her. And now we know their secret weapon and its name. Don’t you see? It’s leverage.”

With his words, Dong-Yul tried to kick silence out the door. But, after a time, it found its way back in.

He closed his eyes, slow, letting himself float there for a moment, before opening them again.

Why?

Jackie answered that thought.

“Not that I don’t believe you, Donnie, but… I want to believe you. But what’s your proof?”

Proof?

“Proof? What else do you need? I saw her, she was right there! She, I…”

Various memories started coming through the haze.

Wendy choking on food, leaving the table, Styx coming up to interrupt the dinner, and his plans. Forced to… hold hands with Lawrence, of all things, and being sent down to the basement lounge to find-

The Bluemoon, V, or whatever she decided to call herself. She was there. In the mask and hood and everything. His men scrambling all over the wet floor, broken and battered and bruised.

She was there. Wendy. V. That had to be her.

But, proof. What else did he have besides a hunch?

“Just trust me,” Dong-Yul said, with confidence than before. Sounding like Donnie.

“That’s a big accusation to throw out there,” Jackie said, matching him in faith. Or lack thereof. “Do you want a witch hunt? Because that’s how you get a witch hunt. Cast that girl to the fire without evidence, and you’re no better than everyone who participated in those riots and attacked those that look-”

“Don’t fucking finish that sentence.”

His whole body had been flaring up, and now he was on fire.

“Don’t put me in with them, I’m not like that. I’m just-”

“Doing the exact same thing? I’m not against the concept of what you’re proposing, Donnie, but you need to think this through. If you’re working on a feeling, and that feeling is compounded by stress and adrenaline and a plethora of painkillers that no one here knows the exact mixture of, then you’re not in the right mind to make any decisions, not for some time, anyway.”

That was a lot of words. Dong-Yul didn’t like the sound of them.

“What are you saying?” he questioned.

Jackie breathed and backed away, his face dipping out of Dong-Yul’s view. The space where he used to be got filled by others.

Dong-Yul tried to gather strength in his body, but couldn’t. Could barely form fists with his hands.

He bit his tongue, pushing himself more. He bit his tongue harder, until it felt as though his teeth would cut through, but he didn’t care. The drugs dulled the feeling, allowing him to push that much more.

Pressing his hands into the leather, Dong-Yul pushed his body up, leaning against the cushions. He didn’t even raise himself by that much, but his head felt light, a wave of nausea coming over him. It took every bit of his concentration to not make more of a mess of himself, in front of everyone.

Searching past the faces, he saw Jess and Yuri. They had that same look. Pity. He used his anger to ignore them. Hard.

He found Jackie, sitting across the living room, in one of the older, more expensive pieces of furniture in the apartment. It was here before Dong-Yul moved in, after Bruce no longer needed the place.

Donnie had debated on whether or not he’d get rid of all that stuff. He compromised, getting rid of less important items, like toothbrushes or old clothes, and keeping what at least held some sentimental value. Like the chair that Jackie was in right now.

I should have thrown it out with everything else.

With his eyes back on Jackie, Dong-Yul let him explain himself.

“We’re not in a good position to do anything crazy. Not anymore. And with you needing to rest, I’m…”

“You’re what?”

“I was never good at this leadership thing, that was more Bruce’s talent, and I wasn’t going to get in your way when you stepped up, but, I can take over while you recover, if you want.”

More words. More, did Dong-Yul not like the sounds of them.

“No, I do not want that.”

Jackie frowned.

“It was more of me putting my foot down than a suggestion, really. I don’t want you doing anything rash because you think we have something to prove.”

“We do. Now isn’t the time to lie down and do nothing, or we risk killing any hype we-”

Dong-Yul’s eyes went wide, a pang in his back.

Jackie got a word in before Dong-Yul had a chance to.

“Maybe you missed what Styx told us, but I didn’t. We’re done. This war you want, to pit us against them, you against the world? Styx already put a stop to that.”

Styx.

Dong-Yul recalled something along the lines of that, but he refused to believe it.

“We go deeper into the shadows,” he said, “Where not even Styx can see. People are still coming to us, they won’t stop coming to us and we can-”

“Donnie, no!”

Every face turned from Dong-Yul to Jackie.

Out of the chair, Jackie was standing, now. Dong-Yul was finally able to take him in, full view.

His vision was still blurry, but he knew that man’s outline. Tall, broad shoulders, a physique that Donnie could never match, and Dong-Yul would never get near, despite his efforts.

Wearing half of a uniform, Jackie had his blazer off, hanging on the armrest of the chair, his shirt unbuttoned halfway down. The lights inside were set to low, probably to spare Dong-Yul’s eyes, but he could see how Jackie’s skin glistened. He had been sweating, working to carry Dong-Yul’s limp body up to the apartment, and that was after being thrown into a fight with the Bluemoon herself, the sprinkler system working against him as part of her sabotage.

He was still standing, and Dong-Yul was still Donnie.

“Just, no,” Jackie said. “That’s not what we need right now, that’s not what this city needs. We can’t, shouldn’t, fight fire with fire, that just leaves everyone burned. That includes us.”

“Water,” Dong-Yul said, feeling like he was floating, again.

“What?”

“We flood them out with our numbers. Everyone who’s been antagonizing us since this whole thing started. We’re a growing tide, Jackie, you can’t just plug a hole and hope we go away. It won’t work like this.”

Jackie shook his head.

“Then, it’s going to have to. Until you’ve recovered and you’re in the right mindset, Hóngshuǐ is on ice.”

Dong-Yul cracked.

“Get out.”

No one moved. It was like they didn’t even hear him.

Dong-Yul mustered all the remaining strength he had, and spat it out at them.

“Everyone get the fuck out!”

A long stretch of time passed before it settled that everyone meant everyone.

One by one, Dong-Yul saw the faces as they disappeared, out the door, leaving him alone. Jess and Yuri lagged behind, but they left, taking their pity with them.

Good, he didn’t need it. He didn’t need this.

Dong-Yul looked, and saw that Jackie was still standing there.

“What did I say?” Dong-Yul asked.

Jackie shook his head again.

“What did Bruce say? I promised him I’d look after you. I’m not leaving. Sorry, Donnie.”

Another slap across the face. Dong-Yul fell back down, into the couch. He didn’t care how much it’d hurt.

He blanched.

Regret. It did hurt.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

This wasn’t fair.

Dong-Yul was supposed to be the one to dole out the pain, the hurt. There was a reason why he forced himself to step up after Bruce passed. Forced himself and the gang to change. Donnie was weak, he wouldn’t have been capable of leading. Dong-Yul, though, he would.

That was the image he wanted to project. The mask he wanted to become. The dyed hair, the streetwear, the flexing, the strength.

He looked at Jackie again. He remembered how Jess and Yuri looked at him.

So, why does everyone keeping looking past all that?

Dong-Yul watched as Jackie moved, approaching him. Delicate, Jackie landed a hand on a shoulder. More stings.

Cold, like ice.

Time wasn’t the all-encompassing healer it was advertised to be. If anything, it had made everything worse.

Dong-Yul could stand, now. He had that at least. That still put him at sixty percent of what his ‘normal’ should be, and it would take even longer before he could get to that point.

The stitches made his face a little puffy, the bandages that patched his body together made him feel like a mummy. If he took a moment to rest, he was afraid that he’d drift off to another, far deeper slumber.

No. There was too much to do. He had to make up for lost time.

Dong-Yul looked across the room, and addressed the new recruits.

“Everyone, thank you for being here today, for deciding to-”

Dong-Yul coughed.

“For deciding to finally stand against those who-”

Dong-Yul coughed. His whole body shook.

“Against… against those who have tried to silence us and keep us down. We will-”

Dong-Yul coughed. His whole body shook. He tried to suppress a groan and he couldn’t.

He had wanted to express his frustration, he had written it all down. And he couldn’t even deliver the words with the gravitas they deserved, and he couldn’t even express the frustration he had with himself.

These over the counter knockoffs. These drugs weren’t good enough.

Whatever Styx had given him, he needed more. Couldn’t get through this assembly without them.

He would have to try, though. No other choice.

Dong-Yul tried again, his words coming out in a sputter.

“We will show… agh, show the world that we…”

He had to stop before he started shaking again. Convulsing.

“What Dong-Yul wants to say is, he appreciates you coming to us when you needed help, and we’ll be sure to make you useful.”

Dong-Yul felt hands placing themselves on his shoulder, pressing him down. Jackie.

With little energy to protest, he found the chair in front of him and sat. Falling into it, really.

He grunted as he sat down, as though he was an old man.

Looking across the room again, he gauged the reactions of the new recruits. There weren’t many in here, ten of them, but this was only the first round of the new batch. There were plenty more to go. He had wanted to address them as close to individually as he could, to make a deeper bond, to show that he cared about their struggle. It would take longer, but in turn, they’d fight for him that much harder.

There were looks of concern, worry. Maybe even pity.

No.

Dong-Yul, above anything else, knew that appearances mattered. They could be used as a symbol, to shape how others perceived it when viewed. From hope, to even fear. Dong-Yul, from his name to his face, wanted to be a symbol.

And Styx had taken that away from him.

He did what he could. He dyed his hair another color. He wore a black face mask, which was a decent fashion statement by itself. It covered most of the stitches and the puffiness around the face and cheeks. His full fit, with each individual piece of clothing a grail item to another person’s closet, covered all of the bandages and wrappings that coiled around his body. He didn’t like what he saw in the mirror, a beaten, bruised version of the symbol he had in mind. Even a dent in symbols could mean a huge difference, given the abstract nature of it all. Dong-Yul wondered what the dents meant to the recruits.

“You,” he said, looking at one in particular.

The recruit tensed, Dong-Yul could tell by how his shoulders went up.

“Your name, Justin, was it?”

The recruit, Justin, nodded. A kid, no older than a high school senior, most likely. Vietnamese. Thin, more lanky than he was a soldier.

But, he’d do. He could make it work.

“What brought you here today? To me?”

Dong-Yul had to be careful to not strain himself again. He spoke slow, deliberate.

Justin answered, “Um, everything, really. Figured I had enough. Getting shit from random strangers, threats on me and my family, even my-”

Justin choked, sounding strained at the end.

“Your?” Dong-Yul offered.

Justin looked pained that he had to continue.

“My girl, or she was. Not threats, though, actions. And I’m tired of people getting away with shit.”

There it was. The wound. The thing he needed to press into to turn that hurt into something more.

Dong-Yul pressed.

“What’s her name?”

Justin flinched. He didn’t answer.

“What was your girl’s name?”

He heard Jackie, to his right. A whisper.

“What are you doing?”

Dong-Yul didn’t answer him, he just waited for his own from Justin.

Don’t make me ask again, he willed.

Then, Justin did answer.

“Emily.”

“Emily,” Dong-Yul repeated. Slow, he brought his head down, slight, almost a bow.

He wouldn’t ask for the specifics, but he would request something else.

“You remember Emily, and you hold on to that feeling of losing her. Take that loss, that anger, and you turn it to the rest of the world. Make them feel what they did to you, so they can understand their injustice. Do you understand?”

“Don- Donnie.”

Another whisper. Dong-Yul raised his hand. So sore.

“Do you understand?”

Repeating himself, but every syllable was delivered with care and intent.

He watched the gears spin in Justin’s head.

“I, yeah.”

Satisfied, Dong-Yul turned to the other recruits around him.

“Same goes to you, too. Find your Emily, let that anger fuel you, and direct it to where I point. If you can do that, then we won’t have any problems.”

The recruits, Justin included, all responded in unison.”

“Yes sir!”

“Dismissed.”

They took their leave at that last word, filing out of the door at the corner of the space.

The backroom of a bar and casino, specializing in Chinese cuisine. Jackie’s father once owned the place. Past tense.

The space was well furnished and expensive, in both price and actual appearance. Kept in a low light by paper lanterns, red and orange light reflected into soft hues off the wood and gold that lined corners and edges. A chic, modern twist on something more ceremonial, Jackie’s additions on top of what his family had built before him.

“What are you doing?” Jackie asked, as they watched the last of them leave, the door closing behind them.

Dong-Yul leaned forward, resting his arms on the table in front of him. Green, with a wooden border around it. A table for mahjong.

“You know what I’m doing. You’re just questioning it because you don’t like it.”

“Then, why?”

“I know what I’m doing. You don’t want me to touch the Fangs for now? Fine. But there’s no rule against getting more people to join us. I just won’t make a show of things. Which is why I’m introducing myself to them in this way. It’s not efficient, but it pads out enough time to get another plan going, one Styx won’t be privy to.”

“You’re an idiot if you think Styx won’t know about this. That’s why I-”

“I know ‘that’s why you,’” Dong-Yul said, mocking. “I just don’t want to hear it. I’m the leader of this gang, it’s my decision and it’s final.”

Another grumble from Jackie. And he just said that he didn’t want to hear it.

“Bruce wouldn’t have done this.”

Dong-Yul would have slammed his fists on the table, if he had the strength.

“Yes he would have. He was, before…”

He trailed off, letting the sentence die out. It reminded him of how he saw his brother go.

“Not like this. Not this aggressive.”

Dong-Yul settled for a light tap on the table.

“Bruce isn’t here. I’m just picking up the slack and running with it. Your input is appreciated, bro, but I’d rather not get another word about this from you.”

One more sound from Jackie, this time a breath. Dong-Yul knew the meaning.

For now.

The door opened before either of them could get another word in.

A fat, Vietnamese man entered. With a very visible look of dread on his face.

Dong-Yul frowned, even though he was wearing a mask.

“Sunny, what’s wrong?”

Sunny, the lead security for the bar, was a wide man, so it took until he was completely out of the doorway before Dong-Yul could see who followed him in.

A cold, prickling feeling crept up the back of his neck. Hair standing on ends. The pain of his entire body flaring up in anticipation, in fear.

No, not you. Not again.

Styx.

It was like he hadn’t changed in the week Dong-Yul saw him last. The leather jacket, the skinny jeans, all black. The wild look in his eye, like a feral animal. That anything could happen with a snap.

Dong-Yul did not, under any conceivable circumstance, want that snap.

The contrast between the two men was as wide as Sunny’s build. Where one man was built more like a ball of pure muscle, the other was more lean and cut. One was pale, the other much less so. Though, Sunny had a good reason to have much color in his face, at the moment.

Styx wasted no time in making himself comfortable.

“Man man man, I just can’t keep doing this! Always running around, always so busy!”

He slapped Sunny’s back, and Sunny leapt, yelped. Dong-Yul had never seen him be like this.

Not that he blamed him.

Styx then walked around Sunny, his finger tracing from his back to his shoulder, sliding off as he walked across the room, leaving him there, frozen. Sunny looked like he wanted to crawl out of his skin.

“And you, my friend, suffer from the same ailment.”

A disconcerting quiet lingered, threatening to stick around for more. Did Styx want him to respond?

“And… what is that?” Dong-Yul said, wary.

Styx smiled, baring teeth, and Dong-Yul felt a freeze run through him.

“Stubbornness.”

“Stubbornness?” Jackie repeated. His way of interjecting himself into the conversation. His way of trying to deflect Styx’s attention, his way of protecting Dong-Yul.

Dong-Yul didn’t think he’d need it. Donnie might, though.

Styx kept his eyes forward, at Donnie. Like a hawk.

“Everyone has something they’re stubborn about, a vice they can’t quit. People are… single-minded, like that. Try to tear it out of a man, and they go batshit. And if you do manage to take it away, and cut off all ways to reconnect, you get…”

Styx inhaled, deep, eyes closed, lifting his head so he was facing the ceiling, then Sunny behind him. He kept tilting his head back, until it looked like he was about to fall.

Then, he snapped.

Styx threw his head forward, like an even more hardcore version of a headbang. He exhaled, but it sounded more like a scream.

“Disorder,” Styx said, smiling.

Dong-Yul didn’t know what to make of anything.

He didn’t have any exits, Sunny was supposed to be guarding the only entrance into this room. And if Styx’s Ferrymen were right outside…

Donnie prayed for his life.

Styx tilted his head.

“You look swell,” he said, twisting that smile again.

Dong-Yul’s face throbbed.

“I saw the new boys out there. Good meat, they really hold themselves well in a fight.”

This was the absolute worst time Styx could have showed up.

Styx lifted his hands. A placating gesture.

“Relax, you already know the proper meaning of a beatdown. I’m just here to mediate.”

That didn’t answer what he did to the new recruits, and Dong-Yul was already too afraid to ask.

Dong-Yul lifted an eyebrow, instead.

“Mediate? I didn’t know you were capable of keeping the peace.”

Stupid. Wasn’t thinking.

Last time I questioned this psychopath he nearly killed me.

With his hands still raised, he shrugged.

“I’m capable of anything. I just said goodbye to solace not too long ago. Disorder.”

Styx grinned.

Any possible meaning was lost on Dong-Yul.

Styx put his hands down, looking at Sunny. Dong-Yul gave an order before Styx could force his own command.

“You can leave, Sunny, it’s okay.”

Sunny was a decent friend, a good man. Dong-Yul had never seen him move so fast.

Before he could clear out, though, he was stopped at the door by another person.

A woman.

She was well-dressed, in a suit, her blonde hair tied up into a bun. She looked more in place in a boardroom, meeting with executives, than she was being here, in a den with gangsters. She was as prim as she was proper.

Sunny jumped out of the way, letting her get through, he ran to his escape, the door closing behind him.

The woman started walking as everyone’s eyes fell on her. With an elegance and grace that also contrasted with Styx’s wild, unpredictable nature.

“I hate to be kept waiting,” the woman said, eyeing Styx as she passed him, stopping right at the front of the table.

“Take pity on a grieving old man,” Styx said.

“I’m not here to be concerned about your personal life.”

“It was both, this time. Business and personal.”

“Not my concern, Styx.”

“Ah, but in this case, it is half of it.”

“Excuse me, but who are you?”

The woman directed herself back to Dong-Yul. Adjusting several items she had in her arms, she also adjusted her glasses.

“You can call me Mrs. Carter.”

With that, Mrs. Carter took another step to the table, taking the seat across Dong-Yul. She set her belongings down. A tablet, and a binder full of documents. Styx moved as well, taking the seat to his right.

“May I?” Styx asked.

It wasn’t like he could say no. Dong-Yul nodded.

“Mahjong,” Styx said, settling in. “Been a while since I played, but my Mandarin is rusty.”

“It takes at least three to play, four is ideal,” Jackie said, still standing at Dong-Yul’s side. “And I’m not in the mood for games.”

“Same,” Mrs. Carter said, looking straight at Dong-Yul. She didn’t at all sound or look delighted to be here.

“Another game, then,” Styx offered instead, grinning.

Mrs. Carter breathed, audible for it to have meaning. She fixed her glasses.

“I’d like to start, now.”

Styx gestured. “By all means.”

Dong-Yul turned to Jackie, tilting his head, indicating towards the table.

Reluctant, he could tell, but Jackie complied. He sat.

Dong-Yul turned back to the other two.

“What’s,” he started, flinching at a sudden spike in pain. “What’s this about?”

“A lot of things,” Styx said. “About you, me, the entire city. If we want, we make this to be about the whole world.

What?

Dong-Yul couldn’t help but feel like he was being played for a fool.

“Let’s keep the focus to what’s in this room,” Mrs. Carter said, sounding tired. “And please, Styx, allow me to speak.”

“Go ahead.”

She was treating him like a unruly kid. The fact that someone could even get away with that…

Who is this woman?

Mrs. Carter finally got to speak, but she was tapping at her tablet, swiping, while addressing Dong-Yul.”

“I represent Mister, and I’m here to provide a proposal that was just recently drafted, with my input and… his.”

She glanced at Styx.

This woman represented Mister.

Excitement and fear coursed through Dong-Yul.

“Mister, and Mrs. Carter,” Jackie said, “Am I supposed to ignore a possible connection there?”

“The proposal, as it stands, is a simple one, but I find that it will prove to be a good opportunity for you and the Kung Fools.”

The way she said that name, she sounded disgusted.

Hóngshuǐ, now,” Dong-Yul said. He couldn’t help but correct her. “We’re under new management.”

“Yes. So I’ve heard.”

“So what’s this proposal then?”

Tapping the tablet one more time, Mrs. Carter moved her attention over to the binder, turning it around and sliding it across the table. Dong-Yul caught it.

Opening it, he skimmed through the documents. Plain English, but with the sudden arrival of Styx, this woman, the mention of Mister, and the general amount of pain and stress he was under, it was hard to focus on any particular word and its meaning.

“Explain the general idea,” Dong-Yul said. He lifted his eyes to meet Mrs. Carter’s glasses. A glare had caught the lenses. “Please.”

“Mister is offering to back you in the growth and general operation of your gang, Hóngshuǐ.”

Stunned. Dong-Yul and Jackie exchanged looks.

“Mister?” Dong-Yul repeated.

“In exchange for your resources and capabilities, you will work for him.”

“Congratulations,” Styx said. “You want a sponsor? You can’t ask for a better one.”

Dong-Yul couldn’t believe a word they were saying. Not because he thought they were lying. Styx’s presence, in a way, officiated the offer. He wasn’t sure about Mrs. Carter, but she seemed serious enough.

“Can’t say the offer intrigues me.” Dong-Yul looked from Styx, then back to the papers in the binder. “Though, I wonder how much room I have in this deal. Is there even an option to refuse?”

“You can, though it would make this your second biggest mistake.”

“Second?”

“The first was refusing to listen to me the first time.”

Styx grinned, and Dong-Yul understood. He had no room, unless he wanted to reopen stitches and break more skin.

“Okay,” Dong-Yul said. “What’re the particulars of this… sponsorship?”

Mrs. Carter swiped at her tablet again.

“You have recently been reaping the benefits of the political uproar in the city, the increased violence against Asian Americans have brought many of their youth to you, either for protection or willingness to strike back against those that wronged them through no fault of their own. Your numbers have swelled, and continues to swell, which is always impressive, but it isn’t sustainable.”

“No?”

“It isn’t. How do you expect to pay all your new people, or provide the protection, the reason they joined in the first place? You had a decent sized territory before, but it won’t be enough to properly accommodate everybody. You would need growth in those other departments in order to catch up, but, I suspect you haven’t been growing fast enough?”

She was right. For a time since the first wave of new recruits, Dong-Yul had a worry in the back of his mind, on how he’d take care of everyone that went to him. They hadn’t been hurting before, save for the loss of Bruce, but they had never been making much in the way of waves under his tutelage, and when the tides started to turn and rise, Dong-Yul had to cut some corners where he could, like shaking hands with Lawrence, while hiding a knife behind his back with the other.

But, that wouldn’t be sufficient enough. The logistics weren’t there. As much as he wanted to, he couldn’t provide for everyone. People like Justin.

“And you’re saying that Mister will give me that growth in those departments?”

“He is able and willing,” Mrs. Carter said. “Warehouses, equipment, cars. Weapons. We still have plenty thanks to an acquisition made last year, in the fall.”

“The wheels turn and turn,” Styx said.

“Mister will invest in your proper growth,” Mrs. Carter said. “Giving you assets to turn you into a better one.”

Dong-Yul flipped through another page, the words hardly registering to him. What he read, what he heard.

“Why?” he questioned. “Why the sudden interest?”

Too good to be true.

“That’s not for me to say. I wouldn’t delve into the particulars, in that regard. Accept the terms, and let him round out the edges for you.”

“May I meet him, ask him myself?”

“You may not.”

Mrs. Carter answered a touch too quickly.

Dong-Yul closed the book. He looked up at the woman.

“What’s the catch, then?”

He knew there had to be one.

Mrs. Carter took her time in answering.

“It’s spelled out in more detail in that binder, but, in accepting the vested interest of Mister, you will have to put a freeze in any and all movements toward enacting a retaliation against the forces that brought you those swelled numbers in the first place.”

Her wording made Dong-Yul take a moment to parse everything. He didn’t get what she meant at first.

Jackie caught on a second before he could.

“You want us to stop building our army.”

Dong-Yul tapped the table, his body flaring up again. Pain.

“No,” Mrs. Carter said. “The opposite, in fact. As it stands, Hóngshuǐ is an asset, one Mister would like to put in his pocket for the future. He would just like if you didn’t dry yourself up before that time comes.”

There. The catch. Dong-Yul knew there’d be one.

“You want me to sell my revolution?”

It was Mrs. Carter’s turn to raise an eyebrow.

“Just don’t cause any fires where we don’t need them.”

“Not fires, a tsunami. Because you know that it’s going to flood, hard, and you want to buy as much property as you can so you can claim the insurance.”

The woman smiled. Pity again. If Dong-Yul had the strength, he’d tear her lips off her face.

“I assure you that will not be the case. It’s a simple stipulation.”

Dong-Yul was done.

“Then I refuse Mister’s sponsorship.”

“Donnie-”

“No, no Jackie. These people, they don’t understand why I’m doing this, and I don’t think you even know, now. Every goddamn day, I get stories from Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese people telling me all the shit they go through now because of a select few.”

The select few. Harrian Wong. Blank Face, V. Wendy.

Dong-Yul continued, saying, “They’re tired, Mrs. Carter, Styx, there’s a restless undercurrent that’s bubbling, and it won’t be long before things overtake. I’m not sorry Styx, but I’m ready to accept the consequences of my second biggest mistake.”

Styx lifted himself, brief, to adjust his chair to better face Dong-Yul. For a second, his heart leapt, thinking that Styx was about to snap.

He didn’t.

“Hate to break it to you, buddy, but this revolution of yours? It was never going to work. Not really.”

Dong-Yul stared at him, hard.

“You and Bruce, Jackie, Justin. You all have your differences, your different cultures that define you. And they’re very well defined and unique in their own way. And each of you, I know, take pride in that.”

Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese.

“Your point,” Dong-Yul said.

“Maybe you band together on this one thing, the pressure from the other, because they all think you all look the same, that those differences aren’t there. Say you do win, this war of yours goes the way you want. Then what? Do you truly think you’ll stay as one group forever? All of you know you really aren’t, there is no amalgamation. Eventually, those differences become borders, and your sovereign nation becomes split.”

Dong-Yul breathed, measured.

Asian people and cultures weren’t one entity, it didn’t work like that. It was tricky. Dong-Yul knew that, recognized it. But, he didn’t like hearing it being spelled out for him. Having Styx poke holes, enough that it might make the whole plan sink.

“Take it from me,” Styx said, in a tone that Dong-Yul had never heard before. A normal one. “You all still have your identity. For me? This country took away mine when my ancestors were taken here on ships. I never got to learn about my tribe. That’s why I had to go make my own.”

Dong-Yul hesitated to answer, unsure what to make of anything, at this point.

“You’re building something with them, together, and there’s something to be said about that accomplishment. Just keep in mind that you’re not going to last if you get to where you want with this. Take this sponsorship, and you’re in the big leagues, you’re at the table. Your people get taken care of, and you can continue to grow and help them, too. All we’re asking, is to temper things in exchange, throw some water on the fire.”

Then, Styx shrugged.

“And, when the time comes, and it will, I will personally give you oil.”

Dong-Yul started shaking his head.

“It’s not a bad deal, Donnie,” Jackie said.

“Why? What’s Mister planning?” Dong-Yul asked. “Why does he want us?”

“That’s not for me to tell you,” Mrs. Carter answered. “To be honest, I don’t even know myself. But, knowing him for as long as I have, I can guess he’s doing the same thing you should be doing, gathering up resources. People.”

“He wants to use my army,” Dong-Yul said. “Why? Is it because of V?”

The quiet that followed said so much. So did Styx’s grin.

“She was there. At the club. You, ow, remember, right?”

“I do.”

“Why didn’t you do anything then?”

Styx’s grin went wider. Wilder.

“I did, actually, right after I had you removed from the scene. You aren’t the only cog in this machine.”

“What’d you do?”

“I had a laugh.”

Cryptic. Which was normal for the psychopathic biker.

“I know her name.”

Dong-Yul said it like a threat.

The statement felt like pulling out a gun, a way to escalate. As if he needed leverage to use.

Styx’s expression became more neutral.

“About that,” Mrs. Carter said. “That would be part of the deal we offer. Whatever you think you know, don’t act on it, because it’s the same thing as you going forward with your quote unquote ‘war.’ We don’t need any more trouble, and especially any more with her at the root of it. In summary, you are not to approach V or the Fangs until explicitly ordered by Mister.”

Styx winked at Dong-Yul.

Even though we still have a score to settle.

It was neither a confirmation or denial. Dong-Yul still felt like he was onto something, though.

Again, he exchanged looks with Jackie. His stomach turned.

Almost everything he wanted. Recognition, power, a seat at the table, and a way to prove that he had surpassed his late older brother. But, at the same time, it didn’t feel right, it felt too easy. Cheap. Like he was selling out.

Proof, but not on his terms. A way to ride the wave up, but not his own current.

But, could he really refuse?

“Fine,” Dong-Yul said, “I’ll accept those terms.”

Mrs. Carter smiled. It seemed genuine. “Swell. Then, my work here is done.”

She scooped up her tablet, then got up, fast, and proceeded to cross the room.

“I’ll leave that with you,” Mrs. Carter said, referring to the binder. “I’ll be in touch. Styx or one his Ferrymen will monitor you to make sure you keep your end of the deal.”

“I can do it myself,” Styx said. “Consider it a personal favor.”

“That’s your choice.”

With those words, Mrs. Carter left the room. She was gone.

Styx then rose to stand, but he was slower, more relaxed.

“Ah, finally, I hate meetings. So much busywork.”

Dong-Yul couldn’t find any words. He needed to process this, how he was going to move forward from here. Now that his main goal was officially put on ice.

He heard a crinkling of plastic, and a rattling that fell onto the table.

Looking up, he saw that Styx had tossed a bag. Plastic, transparent.

Bottles atop bottles of pills.

“Consider this a welcoming gift,” Styx said. “Strong shit, I take it you’ll need it as you recover, you’re not quite there yet.”

No thanks to you. Asshole.

“Yeah, sorry about that. I was just feeling it, is all.”

Styx spoke as if he had heard those thoughts. “But there’s plenty more where that came from, if you behave.”

Giving a salute, Styx started to turn, heading out. With his handle on the door, he spoke one more time.

“Bruce would have wet himself, he’d be so proud of you. So don’t screw this up. No need to be stubborn.”

“안녕,” Styx then said, in perfect Hangul, and with a twisted, ugly, cackle, Styx left the room. The sound seemed to echo in Dong-Yul’s head as he stared at the pills. The pain of everything stacked against his body and mind. His spirit.

The pills looked appetizing.

“Hey, Donnie,” Jackie said, after what felt like ten minutes. It probably was. “You okay?”

The question was too easy, the answer obvious.

Donnie was weak, his whole life was spent being protected by the likes of Bruce and Jackie. And the one time Bruce actually needed him, he wasn’t there to protect his older brother. Now, he was gone.

Dong-Yul wasn’t supposed to be weak, he was supposed to be the older brother for everyone else. To look after those that came to him, in these troubled and confusing times. Protect them, teach them to fight for themselves, and hope they’d learn, like how his older brother did before him.

And now, backed into a corner, beaten and bruised and bloodied and scared, he had to take those promises away. He didn’t have the strength to fight back. Not for himself, not for them.

The answer was obvious, the question too easy. No need to say it, hear it out loud.

His eyes were still on the pills.

“Get me some water,” Donnie said.

Previous                                                                                               Next

076 – Burdened by Obligation

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I yawned, wanting to rub an eye, but I was too lazy to take off my glasses. Too much work.

One new thing I learned about myself. I wasn’t much of a morning person.

The early hour brought a certain chill. The sun wasn’t out yet, and while the months were getting closer to what was supposed to be spring, the weather could still dip below sixty when it wanted to. To someone else, that was probably laughable, but I had gotten used to the warmer temperatures that came with living in the South. Anything that dropped past a certain threshold was liable to make me shiver.

And with a certain static in the air, I shivered even more.

I zipped my jacket up higher, flipping the hood up.

It felt weird, wearing a hood while not in costume. It hadn’t occurred to me how much of a regular thing I turned… not regular. I had come to associate wearing something over my head, my face, with activities involving being V, the other me. Getting into a scrap, taking out people, putting on another identity. It put me on edge. Which would help, if I was actually in a scrap, but I wasn’t in any implicit danger. Not here, not now.

I walked between the different groups of people. There was space between the clusters, but there wasn’t any real order in the placement or space, so my path snaked around as I moved and observed. The people were all busy tending to themselves or their groups, not really paying any mind to me as I passed. Some gave me passing glances, but they didn’t last, and they went back to getting ready. All were sitting down, some had cut-up tarps to sit on, some only had the cold concrete.

The total count was one hundred and three. Men, women, children.

It felt weird.

Their faces were ones of… despair. Maybe with it being so early, my perception of things were exaggerated. I couldn’t exactly have coffee to perk me up. People looked tired, worn out, worn down, and despondent. There wasn’t any hope or glimmer of life in their eyes.

Again, it was probably because the sun wasn’t up yet.

One of them glanced, but it wasn’t in passing. I caught it.

A little girl, sitting on concrete. She looked to be about D’s age. She wasn’t with a group, and there was no one around looking after her. She was completely alone.

Well, not completely.

She had a teddy bear, which made me think of D again. It sat in her lap, her arms wrapped around it. She hugged it tight.

Her eyes stayed on me. A blank expression on her face.

It made me stop, staring back. Fighting my natural inclination to keep going and look away.

The girl didn’t, or wouldn’t, break her gaze. Did she want something?

Before I could think of any possibilities, the girl waved by moving the bear’s hand.

It was a cute little gesture. I caught myself waving back.

Darn.

I was trying to avoid this sort of thing.

Because what was left of these people’s lives were in my hands.

“Cargo?” I repeated.

Styx nodded. He smiled. Probably a cause for concern.

“What kind?” I asked.

Styx smiled wider.

“I’m still getting them together. Final count’s at the end of the week. You’ll know by then.”

He avoided answering directly.

Meaning he’s got something up his sleeve.

Definitely a cause for concern.

Styx lifted a finger, pointing upward.

“So, let me break it down for you, and set it straight. I’m preparing some cargo that’s to be sent across the border, to Mexico. Mexico City, to be exact, with some drop offs going as far south as Oaxaca.”

“You’re telling me we’re going to-”

“Did I fucking say you could talk!”

Styx bellowed. I shut my mouth.

He cleared his throat before starting again. It was a scratchy, rough sound.

“You’re going to be supervising the transport of that cargo, making certain it gets to the border in one piece, and in tact. If even one fucking thing ends up missing, I’ll fucking vomit in anger.”

That… was certainly one way to put it.

“And you don’t have to go down that far,” Styx said. “I’ve got a guy. Marco Montez. You’re going to meet him at the border.”

Styx spun his finger. The helmeted and long-haired Ferrymen moved, and moved fast. By the time Styx stabbed his finger onto the surface of the table, they had materialized a map, unfolded it, and placed it on the table to face us. His finger hit exactly where he meant it to. The border between us and Mexico. But it was more to the left, farther than I expected.

“He’ll take over things from there,” Styx said.

His finger moved again, sliding across the map. Over to where we were, right now. Stephenville.

Styx kept moving his finger back and forth between the two points. His nail started scraping and tearing a hole through the paper.

He continued, regardless.

“The trip will be taking you west. El Paso, to be exact. About seven hundred miles, or eight to ten hours, give or take. I suspect it’s going to take you longer than that, though, given that you’re not speeding off to a vacation. You’ll have to be deliberate, doing periodic stops, checking on everything, making sure the path ahead of you is clear and the path behind you isn’t being picked up on. Keeping the work of this in mind, I’ll give you twelve hours, thirteen hours tops. Take however long you need to get back.”

Styx took his finger off the map. He had torn a line between Stephenville and El Paso, and I could see the surface of the table underneath. A black line marked the path we’d have to take. The long journey we’d have to embark upon.

Just the sudden prospect of going on a road trip, it gave me pause.

I tried to gauge D and Lawrence’s reactions. D was hard to read, and Lawrence was harder still. But, to be fair to him, he was sort of preoccupied with that beatdown he gotten from Styx, earlier. I’d cut him some slack.

I would have tried to glean anything from Styx’s face, but it would be like trying to read a foreign language. I’d, more likely than not, be completely off base, and I’d most likely offend.

There was a slight opening in the conversation. If I was talking with anyone but Styx, I would have taken it.

“Now would be the time for questions,” Styx said.

Oh.

“What’s the cargo going to be transported in?”

Lawrence asked that question. I had ruled him out, but he managed to contribute something. I didn’t consider how much of a fighter he was.

“I got trucks for you to move the stuff with. Eighteen-wheelers. You probably only need one but I’m ordering at least two just in case. Standard dimensions, about forty feet in length, ten feet wide, and about twelve feet high. Doesn’t really matter, but I’m just giving you an idea of how big this thing really is.”

To illustrate, Styx got up from his seat, and set his hand on his crotch. I was about to avert my eyes before he moved his hand out, in front of him.

I realized he was making his point with a rude gesture.

“It’s really fucking big,” Styx said, spelling it out.

The gesture was unnecessary, but, in a sick and wrong way, it did give the job a sense of weight. This was serious, apparently. A long road trip to the border? And what were we transporting? Drugs, weapons? Some other kind of contraband? I couldn’t begin to guess what it could be, but with Styx telling us the dimensions of a standard trailer, it told me that there was going to be a lot of it.

Really fucking big.

“And drivers?” Lawrence asked, “It takes a different kind of license to drive one of those things. And it’s going to take time before any of us can get one.”

Dammit, I really needed to learn how to drive.

Styx pointed to the person sitting between us.

“She can drive one.”

He said it like it was so obvious.

“Are you-”

Lawrence tried, but he shook, going into a coughing fit, and every cough made him hurt more. D rubbed his shoulder as he attempted to settle back down.

“As Lawrence was trying to say,” I said, having found my opportunity to get a word in, “You’re asking for us to get pulled over if D gets behind the wheel of something so big. If that happens, we’re done for, and whatever you want us to supervise the transport of gets lost.”

“I know how to drive one,” D said.

I looked at her.

“I don’t doubt your ability to, but that’s still too much of a risk, and it’s really unneeded.”

Turning back to Styx, I said, “And I know you were probably kidding when you brought that up, but there’s no way any of us will be capable of driving across the state in an eighteen-wheeler, much less getting the license in time.”

“I know how to drive one,” D said again, which much more emphasis.

I didn’t look at her this time.

Styx looked disinterested, bummed out, as if he was expecting a certain reaction but didn’t quite get it out of us. As long as it wasn’t a lead up to more violence, because that violence would only find its way to one other person. I couldn’t get any lasting damage, and it didn’t seem like he would touch D.

Or… maybe he would, or did, but that was a can of worms I was trying not to open or even get close to.

I had to work this conversation in a way that didn’t lead to another beatdown on Lawrence.

“Then find drivers,” Styx said. “Or I’ll… fucking find someone, fuck, you were supposed to play along, there. D, I thought you had my back?”

“For your information, Styx, I’m sitting on this side of the table, this time. I’m not here to play with you.”

Styx made a face. Was I supposed to interpret that as being disappointed?

“Is that so?” he asked.

“It is.”

“Well then, I guess I really will be on my own from now on. How sad.”

His expression changed again. At this juncture, I couldn’t trust that any tell or sign from Styx was genuine. It all had to be a trick to keep us on our guard. Constantly putting us on our back foot.

Styx breathed, fixing his jacket.

“Any other questions?”

Lawrence spoke.

“Not questions, but concerns. I’m just failing to see why you’d want us to take on this job, even outside of it being one of your favors. Wouldn’t it be too much of a risk, sending us out on a job we don’t have any experience in? From the sounds of it, this cargo has to be a big deal, so trusting us with taking care of it seems like throwing caution to the wind. I don’t know, but this seems too heavy a responsibility for us to carry. Plus, isn’t this your forte, Styx? You do this sort of thing all the time, why put this particular job on us, now?”

It wasn’t surprising, that Lawrence would have reservations about the nature of this favor. They weren’t bad points to raise. And with this favor coming from Styx, it was even more cause for worry.

Styx put his hands on his hips. He looked downward.

“You’re right. This is a big fucking deal. The biggest, actually. And it’s compounded when you consider that, after the first hour of your trip, you’ll be in no man’s land. The same protections and safeguards that helped shape this city won’t be granted to you once you leave it. Cops out there have no reason to look the other way. In fact, they’ll be closer to bloodhounds, and they’ll sniff you out the second they catch a whiff of anything. And it will be even more arduous once you get to El Paso. The pigs there know the game, and they know what to look for, what to smell for. There is a trick to it, but it would only come through having done this route several times, learning the ins and outs. Experience.”

He took a second, and everything settled in.

Even more points as to why this job was such a risk. We weren’t ready to handle a task like this. It was too dangerous, too risky, our necks sticking out too much. The last thing I wanted was to screw this up and fuck up everything. There would be a lot riding on this, on us, if we were to undertake the job, not just the cargo. Styx’s work could be in jeopardy, our gang could potentially lose a lot of its momentum and a chunk of its leadership, depending on who we sent out. And Stephenville’s underground would get yet another shock to its foundation, after so many already.

And with us, me, being at the center of it, I might not make it out of the fallout.

These were seeds of doubt, for sure, but Styx might realize that we would be in over our heads if we took this.

Styx, with his hands still at his hips, lifted his head, and faced each of us down.

“I still want you to go.”

Hearing that hit harder than any punch I could have delivered. Good thing I was already in a seat.

“You… what?” Lawrence questioned, the confusion in his voice said it all.

Styx answered like the concerns Lawrence raised, and the ones Styx himself brought up, weren’t valid.

“I know what I’m doing. I have to prep for my setup, so I can have my final and ultimate punchline. One last joke, then it’s off into the sunset. Wow, I really am getting sentimental in my old age.”

“You’re quitting after this?”

“I don’t quit, I never quit. But it will be quite… boring, for some time, after this. I suppose you could call it a form of death.”

“You still want us to do this? Why do I get the feeling that this is some trap?”

I wanted to get to the heart of the matter, and call Styx out directly. If he was adamant about this, there had to be a reason.

Setups, punchlines. Jokes. Styx wasn’t even trying to hide that he was leading us into… something.

“Not a trap,” Styx said. “If all goes smoothly, which it should, and if you plan it well enough as you go, I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t be back by the end of the day, or early morning of the next, depending on traffic. You’re not even doing the hard part of the job, once you meet with Marco, he’ll take the cargo off your hands, and it’s an easy ride back home. And it’s not as though you’ll be completely out of your element.”

Styx pointed to D again.

“She knows, I’ve taken her on this route hundreds of times.”

She has?

I knew I shouldn’t be surprised, but that only raised more questions.

“She should know the trick to it, otherwise I’ve been a terrible teacher.”

“That doesn’t excuse the fact that the nature of this job brings too much risk on it’s own, no matter how many tricks you throw into it,” Lawrence said. “And do you really expect to put this much of an obligation on a little girl?”

“I can do it,” D said.

“There has to be something else you could get us to do-”

It was like a switch flipped in Styx’s head. He jumped, not unlike how I would jump, using my power. He used his, getting up high enough to put himself over the table. He slammed both feet down, hard.

The table flipped.

My arms were resting on the surface, Lawrence had his arms there, too. The kick of the table forced our arms up, and I had to push my chair back so the wooden edge wouldn’t clip my chin. Lawrence wasn’t as fortunate to have the strength to move so fast.

Lawrence’s chin was sent pointing upward, his chair leaning back too far. With a gurgled noise, Lawrence fell to the floor.

“Styx! You, ugh!”

D dropped out of her seat to fall right beside Lawrence, tending to him once again. I stayed in my chair, but my mind and body were kicked into another gear, in case another fight broke out. Adrenaline was pumping through me, and I was ready to flow through it.

The table was flipped on its side, leaning over. I couldn’t see Styx from my point of view, with it being raised.

Then, I heard grunts, the sound of other people moving.

Styx’s head reappeared, popping up. He was being helped by his own men.

He got to his feet. In his hand was the map, or part of it. It had been torn to pieces after Styx… blew up. It was a larger portion of it, with the line Styx scratched out still there. It had torn wider, though, tearing through most of the country. A hole, instead of a line.

“You lot are so arrogant, thinking you can keep breaking the rules that bind you. The rules I set. Mother Hydra, Father Dagon, Cthulhu, let’s see if you deep croaking fucks can fathom that. Break those binds.”

Back on his feet, Styx started tearing up the map even more, tossing the pieces across the fallen table, sprinkling them on Lawrence. The bits of paper stuck to blood.

His chin had been split open.

“You came to me for help, and I provided it. On multiple occasions. And now, when I want to call in those favors, what I’m owed, you want to back down? I really don’t fucking think so.”

Of the three of us, I was the only one who was paying any attention to Styx. Lawrence was out, and D was screaming and panicking over the rush of blood flowing from the lower half of Lawrence’s face. She patted it with her shirt, her jacket, Lawrence’s shirt and jacket, the red seeping through everything.

Someone had to be here, in the moment, with Styx. I was the only one available.

“Fine,” I said, raising a hand to placate him. “We’ll do it.”

“There is no permutation that will let you get away from this, Vampiregirl. The consequences will catch up to you. You wanted my help, now I get what I’m owed in return.”

Vamp- what? What kind of name was that?

Styx tore up the last of the paper, then made a thing of wiping his hands and showing he had no more scraps left, making his palms face us. D kept picking the bits of the map off of Lawrence’s cheek and his upper lip. Some collected by his chin, but she seemed too scared to put her fingers anywhere near it.

A hard clap sounded throughout the room.

“Stitch him up,” Styx said, hands together.

More Ferrymen moved, breaking from the perimeter that surrounded us. Again, in silence, they worked fast and in sync with one another, there was a system to it. One of them took Lawrence, two others went for D, in case she started kicking, which she did, and more pulled out medical kits and towels and other equipment to clean Lawrence up.

Styx stared at me the whole time. I couldn’t avoid it for very long. For all my strength, I couldn’t move a muscle.

I stayed there, sitting, letting Styx do whatever the fuck he wanted.

Styx beamed.

“Okay then, looks like everything’s straightened out. I’ll get you in touch with Marco so you two can coordinate, and I’ll contact you again once I have the cargo in full and ready to go. Good luck.”

Nothing good or lucky about this.

I put my hand down, putting both in the pockets of my hoodie. I looked away, and walked elsewhere, trying to act like that small exchange never happened. I tried checking on the other people, but my eyes wanted to wander back over.

It was hard to touch on why, exactly.

Putting my focus somewhere else, I watched people from my gang work and get everything prepared. Fueling the truck, checking the air of each and every tire, testing the brakes and axles, cleaning the interior of the trailer, and starting to hand out brown paper bags to those sitting down. Every individual got one, every child under ten was allowed another depending on how many was left before we departed.

Their lunch. It was my idea.

The people turned when shadows were casted over them, their gazes following up until they saw my people, bags in hand. I found Sarah among those passing them out. She handed the bag over, and I saw a little bit of light glimmer back into their eyes. Parents opened their bags and showed a chocolate bar to their child. The child’s eyes lit up, too.

Maybe it was a stupid, simple sentiment, but it made me smile.

It was a fucked up situation, and one I could imagine Styx having orchestrated just so he could see the looks on our faces when we found out what kind of ‘cargo’ we were transporting. I could still hear his cackling, ringing in my head. Was this his final, ultimate joke? It wasn’t very funny, and I certainly wasn’t laughing along.

For one reason or another, these people had went through the grueling effort to illegally immigrate into this country, and now, for one reason or another, they had to go back. More grueling effort. More sitting in the dark, more sweltering heat from being pressed against other sweaty people, more stress of getting caught by police or border patrol. And that was only the first part of their journey. They still had to cross the border back into Mexico, and it wasn’t like it was any safer for them, there.

And I had to ensure a safe passage for them. All one hundred and three of them. Lawrence had told me that up to two hundred people could fit into one of those trailers. But that was for coming into the country. Much less would want to leave after going through all the effort to get there.

Yet, here we are.

I wasn’t going to judge, to pry or ask. I just had to get the job done.

Sarah had a whole cardboard box of bagged lunches. She made her way to me as she kept passing them out.

“Hi Voss,” she said.

“Hey.”

“Kind of weird, to be in this position, don’t you think?”

“I’m thinking a lot more things than just weird.”

“Like?”

“Can’t say. There are kids around.”

“Ah.”

Sarah handed out another bag.

“Nervous?” she asked.

“I guess,” I said.

“You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to. There’s still some time to switch the plan around, somewhat.”

“No there isn’t. This is happening, and it’s happening now. There’s no one else that can do this. It has to be me.”

“But…”

“No ‘buts’ about it,” I said. “Take it from your Voss.”

Another bag passed.

“Yes ma’am.”

“Besides,” I said, walking up to Sarah, reaching into the box. “It’s not like you’re not coming.”

I grabbed a bag and left, maneuvering between the spaces of people.

Difficult, to put a finger on what compelled me to move to where I was going. But I walked, bag in hand.

“Morning,” I said.

I had walked up to the little girl I saw earlier.

Hispanic, her hair dark and long, in pigtails. She was wearing a leather jacket, and with the teddy bear she was holding, it drove the D comparison that much stronger.

Something about her…

Her face didn’t have any of that youthful energy or naivety that I’d expect from a kid. Rather, she looked downcast, tired. Part of that could be from it being so early, but it looked like it went… deeper, than simply the time of day.

All by herself. She didn’t have a parent or guardian around.

“Morning,” she said.

Despite her looking so down, she was looking up at me, her eyes squinted, her brow furrowed. As if she was studying me.

Being under a large amount of scrutiny, by someone so small, it felt weird.

Just give her the bag and be done with it.

“Here you are,” I said, giving her the paper bag. “Your lunch. There’s some candy in there, but, don’t tell anybody.”

She took the bag, taking a peek inside. She closed it, looking back at me.

I couldn’t tell if she appreciated it.

Gracias.”

I’d put that towards a ‘maybe.’

Breaking her stare, the girl put the lunch bag away, in a backpack that was placed beside her.

Zipping it back closed, she resumed her staring.

She definitely wants something from me.

“Anything else you need?” I asked.

“Um…”

She drew out the sound. I could hear the youth in her voice, in that.

“Wendy?”

A chill went through me. Wasn’t the weather.

“Do, do I know you?” I asked, feeling a certain trepidation.

“So you are Wendy, I thought you looked familiar. But you were in the distance, and I didn’t want to call you over because it might have been awkward, but then you came over and started talking and then I knew for sure. You cut your hair and got glasses, and it looks cute by the way, but it’s definitely you. Oh my gosh.”

Why was I feeling legitimate fear? From a little girl?

“Do I know you?” I asked, forcing myself to sound level.

The girl frowned. “Oh, you don’t remember?”

Again. For a third time.

“Do I know you?”

The girl held the bear, pulling it closer.

“I’m Isabella.”

The name hit, and I hadn’t braced myself. It was like smelling a fragrance that could take someone back to an earlier time in their life. The sights, the sounds, it all came back like a cancer. Something clicked, and a connection was made.

My eye flickered.

I scratched around my eye, avoiding smudging my glasses.

“Isabella?” I repeated. I had to hear the name come out of my own mouth. I still couldn’t believe it.

“You helped me get away from the Ghosts, back when they were forcing me to do those messed up initiation games.”

“Yeah, I hear you.”

I moved my hand from my eye to my temple, rubbing it hard. A headache.

“I remember,” I said.

I fucking remember.

“What, what happened? You didn’t leave the city?”

“It, uh, it was a long story. Or maybe it wasn’t that long, but that happened a long time ago.”

She brought her hand to her hair, pushing her bangs up. I saw a smooth white line that contrasted against her tan skin.

“It didn’t work out,” Isabella said.

The details were still muddied, but I recognized the broad strokes, and that was a problem, in and of itself. I thought I had taken myself out of that headspace, and out of that world entirely. But Isabella was here, and, through no real fault of her own, she had given me a grim reminder.

That world had a possibility of rearing its ugly head at any given time. That identity.

Isabella put her hand down, fixing her hair. Then they went around the stuff bear again.

“So you’re going back to Mexico?” I asked. I immediately recognized how dumb it was to ask that. Of course she was, otherwise she wouldn’t be here.

Isabella took it in stride, anyways. “I tried, believe me, I did. But it…”

Her voice cracked. A glimmer in her eyes, but it wasn’t from any happy feelings. Her eyes were wet.

“It just didn’t work out,” I said, finishing the thought for her.

Isabella nodded, her face in her sleeve.

I gave her the time she needed. It would be awful to walk away now.

Isabella lifted her head, a little bit of red around the eyes. She ignored it as she continued the conversation.

“I’m surprised to see you here. I thought you said you weren’t part of a gang.”

Did I say that?

I rubbed my cheek, and scratched the back of my head.

“Um, right, about that…”

Before I could come up with anything to say, another voice cut through the awkward silence.

“Vivi!”

I turned in the direction of the voice.

D came running at me, her feet clapping against the cement, cutting it too close when she turned corners around people. If she wasn’t being careful, she would have tripped over someone or kicked their lunch bag. Thankfully, she arrived while avoiding disaster.

“There you are! We were looking for-”

D stopped, and turned.

Isabella was standing, now, and any semblance of brooding she had before was dashed. She was animated, shaking, her jaw and her bear was dropped. Wide eyes were getting wider.

She was attempting to get words out, but all I heard were strained whimpers.

“You, I, you, you-”

“Yo…” D said, but it was without the usual fervor that I’d come to associate with that greeting. She was probably just as confused as I was.

Isabella jumped out at D, and they both fell.

A small scuffle, with Isabella on top of D, shaking her. She had her by the collar of D’s jacket. Isabella snapped, and she was trying snap D.

“You bitch! You’re the one who robbed me! You made me get into that shit and you crashed that fuckin’ bus! Bitch!”

She screamed more, but it was in Spanish. I missed the rest of it.

D flailed back and forth, her eyes rolling back, her tongue hanging out. That was how I knew she wasn’t taking any of this seriously.

People’s attention shifted to us. More than we needed.

I swooped in before it could get any worse.

“Whoa there,” I said, picking up Isabella by the back of her jacket. I only needed one arm to get her away from D.

“Hey, hey!”

Isabella tried a kick, but it hit air, and she stopped then and there, letting her arms and legs dangle. It was as if I was holding a cat by the back of its neck. She had completely shut down.

“Cool it,” I said. “Now’s not the time.”

Isabella groaned.

“Got it?”

“Okay,” she answered, voice small.

I set Isabella down, back on her feet. D was getting back to hers in the meantime.

Crossing my arms, I said, “Now, what was that all about?”

Isabella paused, she seemed like she needed a moment before she could respond. I gave it to her.

“I ran into that girl, right after we split up. I still remember that day. She was on the bus that the Ghosts attacked, and she roped me into helping her get out of it. And then she crashed that bus!”

The infamous bus crash. I’d heard it from Lawrence. This girl was there for that, too.

“And then she stole the money you gave me!”

I didn’t recall that.

“How much money?” I asked.

Isabella brought her voice to a whisper, but she still sounded heated.

“One thousand dollars.”

Shit. Alexis was balling, back in the day.

I looked at D.

“Is this true?”

D was fiddling with her fingers, avoiding eye contact.

“I mean, it could be, it sounds like something I would do.”

I rolled my eyes.

D,” I intoned.

She let out a nervous chuckle.

I adjusted my posture, crossing my arms again.

“Isabella,” I said, focusing on her. “I know it’s probably too little, too late, but D? You should apologize.”

D grabbed the front of her skirt, twisting it a bit. Nervous.

If she needed time, I’d give her that luxury, too.

“I… I’m sorry, Isabella.”

D bowed, her head low, almost comically so. The gesture was exaggerated.

“I’m sorry!”

She stayed that way for a long time. It started to get embarrassing.

“That’s quite enough,” I said. I lifted her back up with one arm.

“Whoa, head rush.”

Isabella looked at D, then me, and the D again. Now it was her turn to be confused.

“So, you two know each other?”

“Oh yeah!” D grabbed for my arm, getting closer to my side. “Vivi and I are practically sisters.”

“Stop,” I said, pushing her off, my hand in her face, messing with her hair. “Goofball.”

“Bleh.”

“What?” Isabella asked. “Wendy, I just, what? You’re part of a gang, and you’re working with her?”

“I suppose it’s a lot to take in,” I said. “Long story.”

I could almost see the gears turning in Isabella’s head. It still hadn’t sunk in for her, not yet.

“But why? I don’t get it.”

Isabella looked really disappointed about this revelation.

“What, are you jealous of me and Vivi?” D asked.

I nudged D with my elbow.

Isabella was exasperated, that much was obvious.

“No,” she said, but I noted a hint of something there, regardless. “And why are you calling her ‘Vivi?’ Her name is Wendy.”

“It’s a nickname,” D said.

“But that doesn’t even make sense.”

“Oh yeah it does. ‘Wendy’ starts with the letter ‘W,’ but in Spanish, it can be pronounced as either doble u, or-”

Doble ve,” Isabella finished.

“See, now you got it.”

“I didn’t even know that,” I said. “That, I guess that’s clever.”

“Ha, thank you.”

“Oh my god,” Isabella said, “Oh my god.”

“Now I feel like I have to apologize,” I said. “It seems like I’ve let you down.”

Isabella looked flustered. She stepped back, and picked the teddy bear back up.

“Maybe you did? You really helped me, back there. I thought I was going to die, if I didn’t finish that initiation game in time. But you showed up, and you beat up those guys. It was, it was awesome. You saved my life, Wendy. And now you’re here, a part of this gang. It’s, I don’t know.”

“Well, she’s not a part of the gang,” D said.

“She’s not?” Isabella looked my way. “You’re not?”

My turn to look away. I stammered.

“It’s not that. It’s not like I’m a part of it, so much as I’m-”

“Wendy.”

Yet another voice.

It was Lawrence, he approached with a careful, measured step. Every inch of progress came with a metallic series of clicks and snaps. Lawrence was using crutches.

“Don’t make me raise my voice to find you,” he said.

I took a glance to Isabella, to see how she was handling this.

If her initial reaction to seeing D was to tackle and beat her up, then it was the complete opposite with Lawrence. She backed up even more, her foot hitting against the backpack behind her. Shaking, scared. Subdued.

“You really have to be fucking kidding me,” she whispered.

Hearing her curse, it was jarring. Comparing Isabella with D again, the latter was a saint, in that regard.

“Oh,” Lawrence said. “I remember you. Long time no see.”

Isabella brought the bear up, nearly covering her face, putting it between her and us.

“I think this is the worst day of my life,” she said. “I think I’m going to throw up.”

“Please don’t,” Lawrence said, “We just finished cleaning the trailer.”

Her face turned green anyways.

“This whole thing is being run by the Ghosts?” Isabella asked. “Do you still do those initiation games?”

Lawrence looked at me and D, then Isabella.

“The Ghosts are long gone. Spirited away. We’re operating under a new name, now. Los Colmillos.”

Los Colmillos? The Fangs?”

“Yup!”

D struck a pose, forming a sign with both hands, two victory signs. She put them close to her face, her mouth.

“See, now they look like fangs, and one’s a ‘V,’ and another ‘V!’”

She shook each hand as she made her point.

“Vivi!”

Lawrence spoke, ignoring D.

“And as for those games, those were during a more desperate point in my career, my life. We don’t play like that anymore.”

Isabella only shook her head in response.

I wanted to reach out and put my hand on her shoulder, or something, but it didn’t seem appropriate.

“It’s a new name, a new operation. We’re not like those other gangs, trust me.”

Isabella looked back at me, truly appearing distraught. Like I had told her Santa wasn’t real.

She muttered something in Spanish, and finished off with, “This is the worst day of my life.”

More metallic clicks, and Lawrence shuffled over to me. He tapped the wristwatch he was wearing..

“No time for no crime,” he said.

I nodded, understanding him.

“Hey, Isabella?”

“Yeah?”

She sounded so down.

“I have to go, we can catch up a bit more later, okay?”

“I doubt I want any more updates. Just get me in that trailer, already.”

That… well it didn’t feel good, having to hear that.

“Catch you later,” I said. “D?”

“What? Oh.”

D didn’t sound very enthused to go, either. All that energy she just had was gone. She looked like she had something to say, but she decided against saying anything.

With my two partners beside me, we moved as a group, taking Lawrence’s walking speed into consideration. When we got far enough, I took a glance back, and saw Isabella sitting back down on the cold cement, teddy bear on its stomach, tossed a foot away.

Her eyes glimmered.

The light was snuffed, disappearing as I stepped through. Dark. I had to lead the way.

I kept the door open as D helped Lawrence into my apartment.

Our meeting with Styx had concluded, leaving us free to gather our thoughts, plan accordingly, and in Lawrence’s case, to lick wounds.

D had brought the van around, and we went straight here. From the Gonnishi, my place was closer than the territory, and we didn’t have time to waste. Lawrence needed to be looked at one more time, and we needed to discuss this.

I found the switches by the wall, and flipped them for D and Lawrence. Better lighting than the ones from the hallway.

D took the lead, now, taking Lawrence over to the couch in the living room. The steps were slow and careful, D making sure Lawrence wouldn’t hurt himself, or worse, open up those stitches again.

She set him down, being ginger. Lawrence grumbled and groaned, regardless.

I circled around the couch, standing across D and Lawrence. I tossed my bag with my costume in it, landing on the floor, by the couch.

I spoke first.

“Shit.”

It was the first word uttered between the three of us in a hour or so.

“Shoot,” D said, agreeing with me, but her attention was still on Lawrence. She checked the stitches.

A rough line, running from one corner of Lawrence’s mouth, crossing down to the other side of his chin. The immediate area around the wound was clean, Styx’s men really did know how to clean up a cut. Was it experience from having to deal with such an insane boss like him?

The cut and stitch work were clean, but I couldn’t say the same for everything around it.

Blood stained his collar and shirt, with red flecks on his nostrils and cheeks, small bits the Ferrymen missed. There were darker splotches farther down his clothes and neck, but it wasn’t anything a wash couldn’t get out. I hoped. Lawrence was really getting beat down, lately. It would be like salt in those wounds if he couldn’t salvage his clothes after this.

D had some of Lawrence’s blood on her clothes, too. She didn’t seem to care.

“So…” I started, but it was hard to find the words needed. How was I supposed to lead this conversation, when one of us was rendered unable to talk? D was still here and able, but I was the next oldest after her, I felt as if I had some responsibility, there.

“How you feeling, Lawrence?”

I asked something else instead. For now.

Lawrence’s head was hanging down a bit, his chin pointing down. Despite that, he still gave me a thumbs up.

D spoke for him, too.

“He’ll be fine. Just don’t talk for a while, okay?”

Lawrence responded by opening his hand, palm facing the floor. He shook it.

“No talking.”

“Maybe not him, but we have to talk about this,” I said. “About Styx.”

D got in one more look at Lawrence. She sat back into the couch, next to him. Her feet were up, her shoes were still on. I didn’t care.

“Then let’s talk.”

“Please, please tell me he was so hocked up on crack or something and he’ll forget all about this tomorrow.”

D shook her head.

“Believe it or not, you’ll never meet a more sober guy than me.”

D was right. I couldn’t believe it.

I lowered my head, fixing my glasses. My hand twitched as I tried to cool myself.

“Then, there’s no getting out of this, Styx called in his favor, and we have to do it. Thing is, how?”

“He laid it out pretty clear for us. A long road trip.”

“A whole day of travel,” I said.

“Have you ever been to El Paso?” D asked.

“I haven’t. You?”

“It’s alright. It’s dry.”

“You mean like weather or that’s the kind of place it is?”

“Yes.”

I tapped my foot. I wasn’t irritated at D, but this fell into my lap, and it was so sudden. The idea of a road trip. Going elsewhere, when so much of my time and energy was spent and focused here.

“I just don’t like how this was sprung up on us,” I said. “I knew that Styx would pull something, and I knew it would be soon, but like this? This sucks.”

“That’s just how he is. You can’t so much predict what he does next, you just have to roll with whatever he throws at you. Even I get caught off guard with him, after all this time.”

I dreaded asking, but it was too strange to not question.

“Yeah, about that. What’s the story between you two, anyways?”

I didn’t miss that D turned away. She didn’t even turn to check on Lawrence. Then, as if she realized it herself, turned the other way.

“I asked a question,” I said.

“Is it relevant?” D replied back, still examining Lawrence. Intently, closely.

“You tell me. Is it? You went to him when we were going after Benny, and again when we had to deal with Granon. And some other third time that I don’t know what for.”

“Not relevant,” D replied. She still wasn’t facing me.

“D, we owe Styx three favors because of you. This is only the first one. I can’t even begin to imagine what else he has in store of us. Sure, his help ended up being instrumental in putting us where we are today, but we’ve accrued some debt from that, and I didn’t even know we were in debt with Styx because you never told us about it. We were almost blindsided with this.”

“But we weren’t!”

D snapped. She faced me.

“We knew Styx would be coming, and like I said, you can’t predict what he’ll do, but we knew he’d do something. We weren’t blindsided. And you said before that you didn’t give a flip about why I know him. No excuses, just do better next time, remember? So why do you care about it now?”

“That was a different principle, a different matter.”

“No it literally isn’t.”

“That was before I saw it for myself. The way you got right up to him, hitting him like some annoying sibling would, and he wasn’t doing anything to stop you, I don’t know. It just begged so many questions, and I couldn’t help but ask one of them.”

Her lips pressed, firm. She was wearing a choker, and she kept playing with the metal loop, pulling at it.

“Getting to El Paso won’t be easy. Styx is right, it’s going to be tough as heck if you don’t know what you’re doing.”

“Hey,” I said.

D grunted, and I sensed real anger.

“My history with Styx doesn’t have any relevance here. I still would have went to him anyways, since I’d still be in the position I’m in, and he’d still be in the position he’s in. That’s just how it works, in this city. That other stuff is completely ancillary. Honestly.”

Wow. She really didn’t want to get into it.

“It is going to be tough,” I said.

I conceded. In the now, there were more important matters that needed urgent attention. I didn’t need a history lesson. Maybe later, but not now.

“Any idea what the cargo might be?”

D let the metal loop slip between her fingers.

“It could be anything, and I mean anything. Drugs, guns, maybe shipments of both. That’s usually what Styx handles. But if it’s that route, and he’s making us do it as a favor… I wouldn’t be shocked if it’s people.”

People. The possibility hadn’t even occurred to me.

“Do you really think he’d put that on us?”

“Really? Yes, I do. Just don’t be surprised if he does.”

I breathed in.

“I’ll try not to.”

People complicated things, even if they didn’t mean to. If that was what the cargo really was, then that made this favor even more tough. It was exactly the kind of thing Styx would pull for a laugh, I’d bet.

A big fucking deal.

I’d put that on the side, for now. Consider everything else.

“Styx mentioned you’ve taken this route before? And apparently you’ve been over to El Paso.”

“I have, it’s been some time though. I’d need a refresher, or I could just remember stuff along the way.”

“Okay,” I said, nodding. “You’ll have to fill me in as I go. Make sure to keep your tablet with you all day, that day.”

“I won’t have to if I’m… Wait, wait no. Wendy, no.”

She realized what I meant.

“I’m the only one who can do this,” I said.

“But you’re not, you’re literally not.”

“Lawrence can’t make the trip, no thanks to Styx, and I know you’ll want to look after him until he’s one hundred percent. And if this route is everything Styx described, and you corroborating, then there’s always a risk of something going wrong, and I can’t guarantee your safety if you’re around, as much as I’d want to. You’ll be better off here, in Stephenville.”

“Wendy, I can-”

“This part of the plan is final,” I said. “I’m serious. We need someone taking care of business back in the city, in our territory, and we can’t do that if two of us are out on a trip, and the other is temporarily out of commission.”

Lawrence groaned, shuffling around in the couch. D put a hand on his chest, and that was enough to get him to stay down.

“Quit it,” D warned.

“Point stands,” I said. I felt bad, using Lawrence’s various injuries to prove a point, but they weren’t bad points.

“How are you going to know what you’re doing out there? You’ve never even been out of Stephenville, before.”

“It’s not like I won’t have you. Keep your tablet with you and charged, we can keep a call going that lasts all day. I’ll provide you updates as I move along, and you can give your input from there. If there’s anything I’ll need to look out for, or, knock on wood, if anything happens, what to do in case of that. D, you work best when you’re elsewhere, at a distance. Let’s take advantage of that.”

“What about drivers?”

“It’s not like you can drive down all those miles on the interstate and have no one bat an eye. There has to be someone in the gang with the proper license. We’ll find them.”

“And you? You’re just going to sit shotgun the ride there?”

I tilted my head a little. “Is that not good?”

“No, Wendy, if you’re supervising cargo transport, don’t put yourself so physically close to it. If the truck gets pulled over or something, you’re going be stuck, and you’re done for. You have to take another vehicle, like a RV or camper, so you can run interference if you have to. Actually, you know what? That’s exactly what we’re doing. I’ll rent a RV, and you go in that. If you don’t want me around, let me do that, at least.”

“It’s not that I don’t want you around, D. You’ll just be at your best back here.”

D punched one of the couch pillows beside her. Not near Lawrence.

“Why are you actually like this!”

It took me a second to process that outburst. It had echoed throughout my apartment, and in my head.

I opened my mouth.

“She’s… right.”

We both looked at Lawrence.

He was struggling to sit up properly, lifting his head, his chin. Pushing himself with his arms.

“Lawrence-”

“D’s right. You… keep doing… this.”

“Doing what?” I asked.

“Darn it, Lawrence,” D said, dropping the anger she had just displayed. Concern, now. “You’re opening your stitches. Please, for once in your life, take it easy.”

Lawrence closed his eyes, and when he opened them, he was looking at her.

“As if you’d really let me.”

D got up from the couch.

“I’m getting a towel, and some ice. You’re about to start bleeding again.”

D walked, or maybe she stormed off, heading back farther into my apartment.

It was just me and Lawrence.

There was a growing silence, and I didn’t want it to be there.

I placed myself on the couch, where D had been sitting.

“Feeling better?” I asked.

When Lawrence answered, it was muttered, pained. His face was starting to swell.

“Give me more painkillers.”

I gave a slight smile, sympathetic.

“I’m right, though,” I said. “You know I’m right. Lawrence, you can’t expect to go on this trip in that condition, and D is competent, more than competent, but there’s a risk in bringing her, too. She’ll be a bigger help if she stays back. Taking care of the gang and the territory is more important. If I fuck this up, which I pray I don’t, we can go from there. But it doesn’t make sense to put too much of our manpower on something that should just be a side thing. A distraction.”

Lawrence gave me the same look he gave D. Eyes closed, then, when opened, staring right at me.

“Just… please don’t make this a thing. It’s a bad habit.”

“What is?”

Eyes closed, opened, looking elsewhere.

“So this is your place.”

A non sequitur. D had given him some painkillers on the way here, but how drugged up was he? Or was it finally starting to kick in?

“It is,” I said.

“It’s… empty.”

“Empty? No, there’s stuff around.”

“Where? I don’t even see a painting. Just that black, void looking one.”

“That’s because you’re staring at the TV, and it’s off.”

“Oh.”

Lawrence made a noise. Shaking, wincing, but his lips were curled upward. Was he trying to laugh?

“What else do you have here?”

“There’s my room, back there, some food in the kitchen if you want any. I’m not sure if you should try opening your mouth that wide, yet.”

“But you don’t eat food. Don’t need food.”

“It’s all of D’s candies and snacks. I let her fill up my fridge and pantry as long as she’s paying for it herself.”

“D… picked this apartment for you…right?”

“She did, yes.”

“The TV and furniture too?”

“Yeah, why?”

“Is there anything here that’s yours?”

“I-”

“Wendy?”

D.

I looked, and saw  D in the kitchen. She was holding a towel, and a pack of ice.

“Can I get your help in here please?”

“Sure.”

I left the couch, and Lawrence, and went into the kitchen.

D pointed to a shelf. “I need a glass, I can’t reach it.”

“Sure.”

I reached up, grabbing it. I had to get on the tips of my toes, though.

“There,” I said.

“Fill it with some water? Lawrence needs something to drink.”

“Got it.”

I went to the fridge, taking out a pitcher of water. I filled the glass.

“Don’t make Lawrence talk when he doesn’t have to,” D said.

I set the glass and pitcher down on a counter.

“Sorry. He’s talking all sorts of crazy though. I think the drugs are starting to get to his head.”

“He’s hardheaded to begin with. Stubborn. You’re pretty similar, too.”

“Similar how?”

“You don’t have to shoulder everything all on your own,” D said. “I thought I told you this already.”

“Did you? Sounds vaguely familiar.”

“I’m serious.”

D, being serious?

“I’m kidding,” I said. “But no one else is available to do this part of Styx’s favor. And it’s not like I’ll be completely by myself. Everyone will be helping, it’s just that I’m the only one who can handle that particular part. And I’ll only be out for a day. It’s a favor for Styx, but if all goes well, we’ll be done with it like that, and it’s on to the next thing.”

I snapped my fingers as I said the word ‘that.’

“Don’t be stubborn, Wendy, people don’t like that. And some people really really don’t like that.”

Somehow, that came off as a threat.

“It’s not stubbornness if the circumstances force certain actions,” I said.

D sighed. She opened her mouth.

“After we handled the thing with Dong-Yul, I was hoping we’d take a visit to that barn, see if we couldn’t find any clues.”

Barn?

Braham Barn.

“We can still do that,” I said, partly dismissive. “We’ll just have to put it off for now. Something did get in the way.”

A distraction, I thought.

D shook her head. “How many things are you going to let get in the way?”

That sounded very pointed.

“Just this one, I promise.”

I bit my tongue afterwards.

D wrapped the towel around the ice pack.

“I’ll do one more look at Lawrence, and we can start. I’ll make some calls, rent that RV, and get our people moving. I’ll brief you on what to look out for while on the road and in El Paso. We get in contact with this Marco guy, and when Styx comes back to us with the cargo, we’ll be ready.”

“Sounds like a plan,” I said.

I picked up the glass of water, and walked with D, back to Lawrence. Plans were in motion, now, and things would be moving very soon.

Things were moving now. People and vehicles. It was almost time.

D, Lawrence, and I were standing in the back, watching as our men opened the back door of the trailer.

Starting with the larger groups, families, then to individuals. That way, we could guarantee that everyone who needed to stick together were able to, and those going by themselves weren’t in anyone else’s way. Though, that last part would be pretty much impossible, given the limited space.

Everyone started filing in, being led and directed by our people. Herded in like cattle.

“This really puts it into perspective,” I said.

“Styx wasn’t lying when he said it was a big fucking deal,” Lawrence replied. He still had the stitches, but he was able to talk more clearly. Or he was just fighting through the pain better.

“One hundred and three people. And I can’t let even one of them get hurt, or get caught, or worse. I hope a fight doesn’t break out in there.”

“Right. So don’t fuck this up.”

I would have hit him with my elbow, but he’d suffered enough, already.

“Last chance to change your mind,” D said. She was cheerful before, when Isabella was here, but none of that was present, now. “I can come with you.”

I shook my head.

“I’m not changing my mind. It’s been settled. I need you here.”

D muttered. “Stubborn dummy.”

I didn’t offer a response.

“We’ll hold it down from here,” Lawrence said. “D and I. Trust us to do that, and we can do the same for you.”

“That’s all I ask,” I said.

“I’m surprised Styx isn’t here, actually. I had a feeling he’d swing by to see this, maybe say a few more words to freak us out.”

“Good thing he’s not, then.”

“But now I’m left wondering where he could be, and that freaks me out.”

“Take it…”

I stopped myself.

“You already know.”

“Same goes for you.”

D had spoken.

“Yeah.”

More people were getting into the trailer. It had gotten to the point that it looked like we reached max capacity, but there was a sizable group left to go. A little less than half.

The rest started squeezing in, people pushing into one another. I saw some trying to protect their lunch bags, only for it to get flattened by the oncoming crush of bodies. I frowned.

“Hopefully it doesn’t rain today,” I said, checking the sky. The clouds were darker than when I last saw them. Darker than the sky above them.

“It’ll rain,” Lawrence said. “Definitely.”

“Boo,” D said. “You’re being a stick in the mud.”

“What I mean is, it’ll probably rain later in the day. Afternoon, probably. And it’s only in Stephenville. Weather’s supposed to be clear everywhere west of us. It’s the other side that’ll get drenched.”

“Good timing,” I said, sarcastic.

About a quarter of the people left, mostly the individuals, now. A woman, with only the clothes on her back. A tall man with a buzz cut… and Isabella. She had her backpack, the head of the teddy bear sticking out. The bag wasn’t huge, but it protruded, and anything inside would be getting mashed together by the tight fit of people.

And she was the only kid going on this journey all by herself. Every other kid I saw had someone with them. But not Isabella.

“D,” I said.

“Wendy.”

“Grab Isabella, bring her here.”

“Why me?”

“Just go, before she gets in there. And don’t be obvious about it.”

I sensed that D had her reservations, but she didn’t voice them as she ran, catching up to Isabella and tapping her on the shoulder. Isabella turned, and D pointed our way.

I waved.

Grabbing her by the wrist, D brought Isabella over. No one else noticed.

“What, what is it now?” Isabella asked, sounding more tired than ever. Sleepy.

“The three of us had to put this transport together, but I’m the one that will be supervising the actual moving of you guys. I’ll be in a separate vehicle. It’s a RV. If you want, you can ride with me.”

She lit up, hearing that.

“I can?”

“Of course.”

“Oh my gosh, that is so much better than being in that smelly thing. Thank you, Wendy, you’re a lifesaver!”

It was still chilly out, but I felt a little warmer.

“Hey, we cleaned those, just so you know,” Lawrence said.

“Come on, let’s get going.” I turned to Lawrence. “Before they close the doors, let them know they’ll be down one in the trailer, but not to worry. Tell Tone, too.”

“Will do.”

I motioned to Isabella. “Come on.”

Isabella and I walked over to another part of the lot. D followed. There were other trailers, but they were in park, not attached to a truck, and not in use. The RV was parked somewhere in between two trailers, out of view from everyone else.

“Hey, Isabella?”

“What?”

“I wanted to say, before you left, I think it’s cool you still have the bear and jacket I gave you.”

“Oh, this? I thought about getting rid of them after meeting you again, but it’s still cold, even with all those people, and I already made this thing my own.”

Isabella pointed at the bear behind her, using her thumb.

“Ah, that’s super sweet of you.”

“Be quiet.”

We arrived at the RV. It was a rental, so it wasn’t extravagant, but it would work. Inside, it had the essentials. Chairs, a bed, a sink and microwave and fridge, among other things that I probably wouldn’t need. The exterior was white, with blue stripes running across the sides of the vehicle. It was on the smaller end, but it was originally going to be just for me… and Sarah. We had room for one more.

I approached Sarah at the side door of the RV.

“We got one coming with us,” I told her.

Sarah lifted a walkie-talkie. “Just heard it from Tone, we’re good to go. Hello there.”

“Hello,” Isabella said.

They shook hands, exchanging some words in Spanish.

“Alright, other than that Voss, we’re ready. All we need is your word.”

I nodded.

Sarah took over things from there, helping Isabella get into the RV. I turned back to D.

“How come I can’t come with you but she can?” D asked.

“I think you know why,” I said.

D pouted.

“I know, it’s still not fair.”

I put my hand on her head. She knocked it away before I could ruffle her hair like I usually do.

She was still mad.

Lawrence showed up, swinging forward with his crutches.

“Everything’s good. Ready when you are,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Any last words?”

“Don’t phrase it like that.”

“Whatever.”

“Um, if there is anything, there’s this kid, Nathan, back at the territory. I was supposed to meet with him about tagging certain places with our sign, marking things as officially ours. That’s not until, when was it?”

“Not for a few days, but I’ve got it covered,” D said.

“Okay, thank you.”

“Anything else?” Lawrence asked.

“Then, that’s it, I think.”

I breathed out, hard.

“I’m off to El Paso, guys, see you soon.”

“Good luck, Wendy, you got this.”

It was nice, getting encouragement from Lawrence.

“Bye.”

That brought me down a few notches.

“I’ll call when I get out of city limits.”

A pause.

“D?”

“I heard you.”

No point in sticking around, then.

Feeling bummed, I waved, and I got into the RV.

I saw Isabella, who made herself at home, sitting in one of the padded chairs at the back, eyelids heavy.

I crossed the length of the RV, meeting Sarah at the driver’s seat.

“I’m ready,” I told her.

She nodded, and started the RV. She relayed the message into her walkie-talkie. Tone replied back, a mechanical tone.

We started moving.

I moved myself back to the other side of the RV, where Isabella was. I found another seat by her, and sat.

I found my bag of stuff that I packed for the trip. Less than when I stayed at the Lunar, but I did have my costume.

The RV got off the lot, onto the street, and it was a longer drive until we got onto the highway.

Curiosity getting the better of me, I stood, and checked the back window. Isabella roused.

The eighteen wheeler.

It followed us. Seeing Tone driving the truck, and knowing who was inside the trailer, and being out in the open, made that feeling of trepidation come back even stronger.

Then the heavy sound of a motor.

I froze.

From my left, the right side of the truck, a motorcycle appeared. Black, the fringes of it appeared monstrous in nature. I saw the rider.

He motioned with a salute, then making a victory sign with hand.

Styx beamed, and I stepped away from the window.

That’s how he wants to see me off?

He was fucking with us.

Isabella managed to sleep through the rumbling of the engine, but it kept me up until we officially left the city. After what felt like an hour or more, the sound faded into the distance, Styx probably taking an exit somewhere along the highway. I could hear Styx cackling in my head, laughing at a joke I wasn’t in on.

Then, we left Stephenville. It was half past three in the morning. Seven hundred miles, ten hours, give or take, to the west. El Paso. And there was still the trip back.

I breathed, feeling shaky, but at the same time, there was an eerie calm, too.

Putting dark clouds, and darker sentiments behind me, it almost felt nice, to get away from the city, to take a break from it all.

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