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 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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075 – Whatever I Want (Fuck Who’s Watching)

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Styx took his sweet time, surveying the room, looking over everything and everyone. His arms were outstretched, as if he was presenting the scene that he saw before him. He studied every face, observing every detail he could soak in.

Then his eyes fell on D, and then me.

Wide, widening I saw more the whites of his eyes than the pupils. He was still beaming, harder than ever, and his fingers twitched. He balled up his hands, releasing, balling them up again. Releasing. Like electricity coursed through his body. He shuddered.

His eyes were still trained on me.

He looked nearly frantic, like he couldn’t contain himself. Excited.

I shuddered.

“Remain calm,” Styx said, looking anything but. “I only plan to do… whatever I want.”

‘En garde,’ and then ‘remain calm?’ Was he aware that he was inherently contradicting himself?

No one moved, no one made a sound. Nothing was stopping me from doing anything, I had the weight and the power to throw around, but…

Something was compelling me to fall in line. To listen, just like everyone else. Being brought down to their level. And to concede this moment to Styx.

I hated that I didn’t have that control.

But, it was either that, or pulling something that might put D at risk. We were surrounded before, and now those numbers, and the amount of threats, had swelled. Trying anything now would, more likely than not, lead to a disaster, especially when I was down and I had to get myself up. To the higher ground. D’Angelo’s words.

I can’t even circle about, here.

I lowered my head more. My hood should have obscured my face from everyone else but D and Styx. For Styx’s eyes only, I gave him a heated glare.

That seemed to make him beam even more.

“Hi,” he said.

I refused to grace him with a greeting back.

He didn’t drop his expression as he broke his gaze, letting it wander again, getting one more look over.

Everyone – that wasn’t with Styx – was frozen, unsure of what to do next, or what was about to happen. Dong-Yul’s men were petrified, still reeling from the attack in the dark, and now seeing their boss, and their plans, compromised. Nobody dared to move.

Seemingly satisfied, Styx turned around and motioned to the men behind him. To Lawrence and Dong-Yul.

They were still holding hands.

Styx motioned with his hands. A number of his men took their backs off the wall to join him. He motioned again.

Following Styx’s orders, his Ferrymen pushed Lawrence and Dong-Yul forward. Styx stepped to the side, letting them take center stage.

Styx still had command of the room, though.

“See? We all can get along!”

His face must have hurt by now, smiling as much as he was. Yet he kept at it. I would have been impressed if it weren’t so sickening.

“Isn’t it beautiful?”

Clearly he was enjoying himself.

There was movement as Lawrence took a step to Styx, and his Ferrymen bristled. They all tensed, ready to pounce on anyone who would dare touch their master, let alone speak against him. That was how I interpreted it, anyways.

“Dammit, Styx, quit fucking around and quit fucking with us!”

There wasn’t even a moment to react or process. Lawrence was on the ground, curled up arms covering his face and head, and Styx was pounding on him, stomping at him with heavy steel-toed boots. Dong-Yul had tripped over, on his knees, after whatever force sent Lawrence down hard.

“Do. Not. Fuck. King. Speak. While. I. Am. Feeling it!”

Styx punctuated every word, every syllable, with a kick to Lawrence’s side or arm. With the way Lawrence’s head jolted back, Styx probably got a good hit there, too.

I winced, feeling for Lawrence, feeling terrible. He couldn’t seem to catch a break.

D stirred, then she bursted out of my arms.

“D!”

I tried to grab her and pull her back, but she was running hard, running fast. She pushed past some of the men in suits, and some of the Ferrymen who hadn’t gotten into position around the walls.

They didn’t stop her, giving D a straight line to Styx. Would they have stopped me if I ran, instead?

“Styx!”

D jumped at Styx, her arms wrapping around his shoulders, her feet off the ground as she secured a hold. Styx didn’t look all that muscular, maybe closer to being spindly, but he stayed his ground while D was swinging, trying to throw her weight around. It didn’t work, he hardly budged, still kicking down Lawrence.

D kept at it all the same.

“Dummy! Stop it! You jerk!”

Bless her, she tried, but she couldn’t get Styx to stop, or ever falter. Even with the floor being wet. He only did because of his own volition.

Styx rolled his shoulders, forcing D to drop back down. He turned to face her.

D punched him in the arm.

“Dummy!” she shouted again.

I watched for the reactions of the Ferrymen. None of them budged.

“Are you done?” he asked, in a casual manner that stood out to me. That tone, that response to a kid. It wasn’t really in that patronizing manner that one would use when talking to someone younger. It went deeper than that, an implication of some familiarity, and, at least on some level, respect.

Lawrence had mentioned that Styx and D went way back, but to see it with my own eyes, with D yelling at Styx, hitting him to get him to stop, and with him addressing her in that casual manner…

Even seeing it with my own eyes, it was still hard to believe.

D crossed her arms, and stomped her foot. I could only see the back of her head, but she looked indignant.

“Are you?”

She was talking back to Styx, of all people. And he was letting her.

“I am now,” Styx said, dismissive. He shifted his balance, so he wasn’t standing over Lawrence, with his foot still hovering above him.

“Get off!” D shouted, shoving Styx away. One last try at getting him to fall. It still didn’t pan out.

Styx rolled with it, stepping over Lawrence before catching himself, smooth. He fixed his jacket with a hard tug.

“There,” he said, “Happy?”

D didn’t answer, instead kneeling over Lawrence, tending to him. As she worked, her back to me, I stole another glance ahead.

Styx was standing still, without the energy from before, almost deflated after D rudely interrupted him. Dong-Yul was picking himself back up, careful, as if to not set off Styx again.

He tried to get his bearings as well, looking over the whole lounge, and then his eyes fell onto me.

“Styx, what the fuck is all of this? Who the fuck are you?”

He was asking about me.

I stayed still, crouched low, refusing to acknowledge him, ignoring his questions.

Styx addressed him instead.

“You are not allowed to talk here, Donnie.”

He recoiled, flinching at the admonishment. To Dong-Yul, Styx was speaking to him like he would a child.

Dong-Yul didn’t look at all happy about it, but he had no choice. He went silent.

“Good,” Styx said, “Now where was I?”

Again, he took back control of the room. The situation.

“Ah yes, getting along. It’s as beautiful as I was told it would be.”

He clapped his hands together.

“It’s like a white canvas. Can’t say it’s my thing, personally, but that is what tastes are, and I’d like to think I’m the kind of person who tries to acquire as much as I can. White, though. For me, I’d much prefer a splash of red. But I digress.”

I had no idea what he was talking about.

He continued to address the room. Or more like he was talking just to talk.

“Some people can be so blind. Seeing only what they want to see, liking only the colors they like. They never see what else is out there for them. Sometimes, it’s better than what they were looking at and searching for. Other times… you should be aware of your surroundings.”

His wide, too-white eyes landed on me again.

“Gonnelli! Can you see the scene you sculpted with your very fingers?”

I thought he was talking about painting. Now sculpting?

Now I was officially and totally lost.

What was Styx doing here to begin with? Why did he have Lawrence and Dong-Yul? What the fuck was he talking about?

Too many questions, and I wasn’t really in a position to ask.

But, he was talking to me, directly. Styx. It would be wrong to ignore him.

I stood.

“I didn’t know you were a fan of my work,” I said, playing along. I tried deepening my voice, masking that as well.

“It still needs some refining, but I do think you’re onto something. Experimenting and seeing other methods to craft your art, will make for much more dynamic pieces in the future. I’m looking forward to it.”

He beamed again.

Yeah. Officially lost.

I wasn’t sure how to go about dealing with a guy like Styx. He seemed like he could snap at any second. He certainly snapped at Lawrence after just talking out of line. It wasn’t like he could beat me up, I wasn’t in his reach, and he didn’t have that kind of strength, but he did have the command of his men, and the room, and the situation. If he so desired, he could fill this place with more holes and lead than people.

He seemed to be keen to madness. I’d have to lean into that, appeal to that side of him. Appeal to that side of myself.

If I want to sell it properly and get out of this with everyone intact.

“I’ll look into it,” I said, “Art is ever-evolving, anyways.”

“Yes, it is.”

Where the hell is this conversation going?

“Now, Styx,” I said, cautious, “If I may be so bold as to steer this talk a little bit…”

I trailed out at the end, to test Styx in a way, to gauge his reaction. Would just that much be enough to make him flip?

I watched for the slightest of movements, any sign, however subtle. I couldn’t catch a thing.

Damn, it was so hard to get a read on the guy.

It was only when Styx spoke did I get any indication.

“Enough with the posturing, get on with it.”

Fucking what?

I was more envious of D’s ability to smack Styx without repercussions than I was perplexed. And it made me unsure of what my next move should be. If I should even have a next move.

Styx jumped to whatever was next on his twisted agenda.

“Get him up.”

Some of Styx’s Ferrymen moved, going to D and Lawrence. She was still taking care of him, making sure he was okay.

D noticed that they were approaching. She didn’t like it.

“Get away! Back off!”

They continued.

“I said get back! Or I pinky promise I’ll do something! I’ll spill rats down a wire cage attached to your faces! I’ll steal all of your personal info and passwords and upload them online! I’ll tape papers with bad words on them to your backs!”

Despite the warnings from a little girl, they continued. They worked together to split the pair apart.

One of them went for D, and she struck, swinging her fist to hit them across the temple. It connected.

He didn’t keep his balance like Styx did, but he didn’t completely fall to the ground. He wobbled, but he was still able to sweep D up with his arms, more prepared to hold her back when she kicked and hollered. It was the helmet that he was wearing that softened the blow.

I’ve seen that helmet before.

It was the same Ferryman that had given me the keys to the Lunar, the fake IDs.

I searched around. I didn’t have to look far.

The other Ferryman. The one I’d encountered during our burning of East Stephenville. The biker with long brown hair, tied back, looking almost as crazy as his boss. He was working on getting Lawrence back to his feet, propping him up when Lawrence was unable to stand straight on his own. Parts of his face and clothes had gotten wet from being in contact with the slippery floor.

So badly did I want to fly across the room and break them apart. To get Styx’s people away from mine. But they were already too tangled up, and Styx was so unpredictable that I couldn’t plan for any possible reaction on his part to counter. I didn’t want to make a move that I couldn’t follow up on, if I couldn’t guess what the opponent’s counter would be. It was all a gamble with Styx. And unless the odds were stacked in my favor by a large, large margin, I hated gambles.

“Grab El, he is to hold hands with-”

“Styx, god dammit, stop fucking around and explain yourself-”

Stepping forward, interrupting Styx. Dong-Yul was willing to make that gamble. It didn’t work out for him.

He crashed into a table, toppling over with him. Styx ran and tackled him with such an intensity and disregard for his own body and safety that bordered on manic.

Styx got up first, and Dong-Yul followed, as Styx lifted him with straps and latches that made up his jacket. A certain number Ferrymen sprung to action without an order from their boss, running from their different positions at the perimeter, fixing the table and holding it down.

He slammed Dong-Yul back down to the table. It didn’t topple this time.

Not kicks, but fists. Styx laid into Dong-Yul with every word echoing.

“What. The. Fuck. Did. I. Tell you!”

Each fist was made more red as Styx pulled out from his face, thin trails of blood following the knuckles, connecting the two of them like threads. Deeper, more red, the color darkening.

I looked away.

Tell me, what the fuck did I say?”

Punch. Squelch.

“The fuck did I say! Tell me!”

Punch. Punch. Squelch.

“Tell me! Tell me! Tell me!”

Squelch. Squelch. Squelch.

It was like the sound of raw meat slapping against a marble slab. It nauseated. And was what worse was the sweet smell that began to waft from that direction.

I heard more noises, more movement. Like something cutting through air, and then another crash. I could only use my imagination, and I didn’t really want to.

He must have flipped him to the other table, the Ferrymen holding that one, too.

More punches, more squelching.

Styx and Dong-Yul went silent, both for very different reasons.

The silence stayed for some time.

“Clean this up.”

More sounds of activity. None of the wet noises from before.

I chanced a look.

The Ferrymen were working on cleaning ‘this’ up. They each were taking out rags from their leather jackets, setting the tables back to where they belonged, cleaning the surfaces and spraying away the blood with water. They kept pulling supplies from their jackets, sharing with one another whenever any of them needed something. One group of Ferrymen would spray the tables, another would wipe and dry, and another was setting Dong-Yul down to do whatever it was they were going to do with him.

A final pair of Ferrymen had towels, washing Styx’s hands as he talked once more.

“Now I hope you’ve learned the lessons you needed to learn. Do take Donnie here as another lesson as to what happens if you don’t get the simple things through your skulls. It’s so simple.”

I couldn’t make sense of anything that was happening, or what had happened leading up to this. Something about a fight in the dark? It wasn’t even anything directly involving me, yet, somehow, Styx created a situation so twisted and illogical and wrong that I couldn’t keep up. I tried to keep up, but it he was seemingly on another plane of existence.

I was discombobulated.

I watched Styx as he continued. It was all I could really do.

“I know all of your faces, and if I need to, I can learn all of your names. Your little crusade ends here. This war you think you were preparing for, it’s over. Your army has been stripped away and dismantled. You no longer are allowed access to those uniforms. And if you so much as look at a shirt with buttons on it… I’ve given you several examples.”

Gesturing behind him, to Dong-Yul. I realized that Styx was looking at each and every one of Dong-Yul’s men in the face.

He gestured again.

“There’s two elevators. If I may be so bold as to ask you all to take your leave, it would be much appreciated.”

Using my words, or some of them. Posturing. He really was just doing whatever the fuck he wanted.

After everything that just happened, everything Styx had done, I couldn’t blame anyone for taking long to start moving. Realizing they were allowed to, given that privilege by someone above them.

Dong-Yul’s men started walking. Slow, going together, filling the elevators that a Ferryman called for them. Most of them stared me down as they passed. For them, I was right there, like how Styx was right there, but they were powerless to do anything about it.

It took minutes, to get everyone in and out of the lounge, with Dong-Yul getting his own elevator to himself. Two Ferrymen carried him by the arms and legs, moving him with the utmost care so he wouldn’t bump into anything. Where Styx was capable of such violence, his men knew how to counter that.

I couldn’t see Dong-Yul’s face. His dyed hair was stained red.

Then, and only then, when the doors closed and what was left of Dong-Yul was out of sight, did I realize that Lawrence, D, and I were still stuck in a room with this biker psychopath and his merry band of other psycho bikers.

My heart started beating so hard I felt my body ache.

It was just me, Lawrence, D, and Styx’s Gang now.

Fuck me. Fuck us. Fuck all of this.

Styx clapped one more time, his hands now clean and dry. One of his men started collecting the red, soddened rags into a plastic bag.

“Onto the next one,” he said, somehow sounding bored.

We’re next, I thought.

With more gestures and motions, he ordered his men to come closer. The ones were still standing around the room began to walk forward, in unison, making the perimeter smaller.

They were closing in on us.

I wanted to avoid them, didn’t want them to touch me. I didn’t even want them to be near me, but I had no choice in that regard.

I walked over to the center of the lounge, the center of the perimeter Styx’s men were making.

I met D there, she’d been released by the helmeted Ferryman. Lawrence was now being supported by him and the other Ferryman I had met before.

D went to my side, hugging me. I put an arm around her.

Lawrence… wasn’t looking too hot. He was better than Dong-Yul by miles, but he was still taken up to a threshold of pain that certainly was not comfortable. He was hunched, cradling an arm, more bandages on his face. His expression was one of hurt. It hurt to look at him.

I couldn’t bear it anymore.

“Styx,” I said, facing him head on. The whole front of my body was pointed in his direction. Shoulders straight and square. Head held high. He was much taller than me.

What?” he asked, with that disinterested demeanor. It was like all the fight in him had left his body, and he was the only one doing the fighting.

This was him. Styx. I was face to face with the man who was connected to the Solace conspiracy, how Benny fit into all of that, and Mister.

He had been active in trying to take Blank Face out, and had a hand in Hleuco’s disappearance. That, I would never be able to forget.

And yet he was also the man who pulled strings to get us into the Lunar Tower, giving us a direct line to Granon in order to stop his group.

So many contradictions.

There was so much I wanted to ask him about, to interrogate or even beat that information out of him if I could. But, I wasn’t holding the reigns, here, and I’d have to start from the most pressing matter, first.

I readied myself.

“You better seriously fucking explain yourself with this. I, we, were in the middle of something, and you went ahead and… you didn’t throw a wrench in it, you broke the whole fucking machine.”

Styx leaned his head one way, with a soft grin. “Ah thank you.”

I clenched my hands. If I didn’t have my gloves on, my fingernails would have punctured the skin of my palms.

Styx fixed his jacket again, stroking his beard, straightening wiry hairs.

“Seriously? Seriously. If fucking anything, I was the one in the middle of something, and you meddling kids and your little bitch came in with the wrench to throw. But actually, you are right, I was the one to break the machine, so thank you again for the opportunity. I managed to salvage some fun out of it.”

“You knew about Dong-Yul and his volunteers?”

Styx looked legitimately offended, which was not a good thing.

“Bitch, I have been knowing. I’ve been following Donnie’s movements ever since his brother got offed and he took over, watching as he formed his army and tried to start his new cause. I was going to wait for the moment he was going to try something with them, I even knew what he had planned and where he had in mind. And you came and got ahead of me. I’ll have to keep a note of that, your enthusiasm. It would be impressive if it hadn’t gotten in my way.”

“You didn’t have to do that to Lawrence, you jerk.”

D spoke up, popping her head out from under my poncho.

“Dummy.”

“I had to set an example for Donnie and his boys, otherwise they wouldn’t get the message. Relax, D, I didn’t go for anything vital, and I know I didn’t break anything. I have self-control. You know that more than anyone here.”

He does?

“So that was just for show?” I asked, “All of it?”

“Not all of it. I do get enjoyment out of my work, I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t. But, I did have to deter them from their original course of action. I can’t have them conducting business in a way that interferes with my business, because my business is everyone’s business.”

“If Donnie started up trouble with tensions being what they are, it would make things even more complicated for this city, and everyone in it.”

“Effects ripple, leading to unforeseen circumstances. As fun as those can be, it allows room for disaster if you’re not careful, being blindsided. I detest that.”

He said those last three word with such clarity, it resonated within me. Because I was much the same way.

“I…” I started. “That can be a hassle.”

“Mass hysteria, something you seem to have a knack for causing.”

I couldn’t tell if Styx was criticizing me or commending me. Or maybe a little bit of both?

Then Styx directed himself to me. Like how I did to him.

“Hi,” he said again.

My response was the same as before.

“You’re looking much better than the last time I saw you. You were positively vibrating, then. If there’s more where that came from, I can dig this update very much.

My response was the same as before. Mostly because I had no idea how to begin to touch that.

“What do they call you, back at home base?” Styx asked. “Voss?”

I was glad that I still had my mask on, and that my skin had turned so white, over the months of having powers. He couldn’t see my expression change to dread and shock, and there was no color left to drain from my face.

I felt D tug tighter around the fabric of my poncho.

“So you do know,” I said, doing my best to drum up the confidence. To not look shaken. Fake it if I had to. And I had to. “Did D give you my warning?”

“She did. I considered it, as the courtesy as it was, but I’ll be riding on King of Pentacles long after everything’s said and done. I’m not sweating it.”

“No?”

“Eh.” Styx shrugged. “Death’s been waiting for me with a rope in hand, but she knows I can’t leave just yet. Too many people are standing on my shoulders. If I ever fall into a casket…”

“Unforeseen circumstances?” I asked.

Styx smiled in response. It made my skin crawl.

“You catch on quick. That’s funny.”

Funny?

“But you’re still the fool I remember from back then.”

“Fool?”

That word, I repeated back to Styx.

“You don’t remember? It was the first time we met. I can still see it in my mind’s eye, that image of you flailing with a chain around your neck. And what did I call you then. Oh yeah, the Blueballs.”

Several images flickered, as if someone had shined a strobe light into my eyes. I shook my head.

“Oh yeah, and I believe I had broken both your arms then, too. Yet here you are, as if it never happened. It’s not a good look for me, you know, when people think I can’t finish what I start. I have a reputation to keep.”

I tried to breathe, but it hitched.

Even if I couldn’t remember that exactly, I could feel a intense pressure begin to coil around my neck. Hard to breathe, hard to stay composed. Connections trying to come back online, after I had already put them down and laid them to rest.

I felt the beginnings of a headache.

It physically hurt to regain an equilibrium, and I had to do it while standing my ground here with Styx, and not giving any tells. Shit.

I hadn’t felt something like that since I left that old life behind.

“That was so long ago,” I said, voice sounding more dry than I wanted it to. “I’d like to think I’ve gotten better since then.”

“Or you could have just gotten better at hiding your flaws. From everyone and yourself. As foolish as ever.”

“You’re off the mark,” I said, but I was unsure if I was saying that more for him or for myself. “Totally off the mark.”

“I admit I could be, our interactions have been very limited. But, I seen crazy shit, man, seen crazy shit, and I know how to call it when I see it. And I can see-”

He raised a hand, wagging a finger, as if accusatory.

“-what you refuse to.”

The playing yet warning tone, the toothy sneer that came with it. He was toying with me.

D tugged even tighter. She’d crinkle the material if she kept that up.

“Lo, little Dolly,” Styx said. He was talking to her now. “It’s been fun seeing this side of you, thirsting so desperately for blood when all you need is water. I’m sorry to say, but you won’t be finding it in these two. They’re the dummies, and you’re grasping for straws, and stuffing them with it. I thought you grew out of this, already?”

“Hush, Styx, I don’t have to explain myself to you. Not anymore.”

“Of course you don’t. And I will respect that.”

Dolly. I hadn’t heard that one. That wasn’t the name she told me. A nickname?

Lawrence had mentioned that D and Styx went way back.

“What is this, really?” I questioned. The question ended up being more universal than specific. “Between you two. It bothers me, with you being so familiar.”

“Does it? Do I sense of hint of jealousy?”

“Curiosity, is all.”

“I… don’t even think I want to hear it.”

Lawrence. He struggled to get out his piece in this stilted conversation.

“There’s a legit chance it might be worse than anything I want to guess.”

I looked at D and Styx again.

“You two… You couldn’t have possibly…”

I didn’t finish the thought, not out loud. I wasn’t even sure if that was a thought I wanted to finish.

D didn’t say anything. Styx did.

“I am not a vain and cruel wretch, nor am I a hateful person. I chose to see past what she reduced herself to. Past the letter.”

He didn’t confirm or deny. Confirm or deny what, though? I had never finished the thought.

Maybe I didn’t want to know. I was with Lawrence on this one.

“Anyways,” I said, feeling more tired from just a conversation, ignoring the fight I had just gotten into earlier. “What else are you here for, Styx? We inadvertently got ahead of your plans, sure, but you couldn’t have come here just to give us a warning, too. We aren’t like Dong-Yul’s gang, and I think on some level you know that.”

Styx laughed, too hard for whatever he found funny.

“Actually, I did come here to do exactly that. But it’s two-fold. I really did want to see El and Donnie holding hands, getting along. Because, for humans, peace is an acquired taste, and they have to force themselves into it. It’s important to be reminded of that for my job, and I cannot ever slack, and the moment I slip up, even for a second, it all falls apart, and that’s on me. It’s weight on my shoulders, that only I can carry.”

I really fucking hated how much I got that.

Styx moved over to one of the tables. He pointed to some of the men at the perimeter, and they broke formation to prepare chairs.

“Come, sit,” he said. “Watch, speak, listen.”

I detested how hard it was to get my bearings with Styx. Every other minute, it seemed, he would do or say something that caused me to step back and try to understand it, only for everything to stack and I’d end up falling behind. It was so unfocused, scatterbrained, but not like how Dong-Yul and his gang’s structure was. This was… This had to be deliberate. This had to be a tactic. To keep himself ahead of everyone else, to maintain power and control.

Not a bad tactic, but I didn’t have to like it when it was used against me.

We went to the table, silent. D helped Lawrence settle into a chair, taking the chair between us when she finished. The helmeted and the brown-haired Ferrymen didn’t take seats beside their boss, rather they stood right behind him, one to his left and right. Were they his lieutenants, or something to that effect?

This was the worst reunion ever.

More seconds of silence. We had to wait for Styx to start.

Styx started.

“I came here to stop Donnie, he was prime to cause a fuckton of trouble, but the truth is, you all are much worse. With the three of you working together, with the capabilities you each bring to the table, your gang is liable to leave a much bigger and far wider impact than any gang in Stephenville. That can either be a good thing, or the destruction of everything I worked to build. Both ways sound entertaining, but I’m not ready for a grand finale, not yet.”

Sweat began to form around the back of my neck. How much did he really know?

“So, it’s up to me to steer you in the right direction. Which was one of the many, many reasons why I elected to help D the three times she came to me about this.”

Three times?

The third favor that D refused to talk about.

“Of course, I have to have my own fun with it.”

Styx beamed again. Seeing it so wide and free, it filled me with disgust.

“So you’re here to…” I started, but Styx interrupted.

“You do catch on quick. Very good! Yes, I’m here to cash in my first favor.”

One out of three. It had already begun. We stuck to our original plan, and Styx had showed himself, and it was up in the air how ready we really were.

Previous                                                                                               Next

074 – Bring da Ruckus

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“No way, D, no fucking way.”

“Yes way, Wendy, yes… um, flipping way.”

I took another look at the picture.

The tops of heads. Men. More than I could reasonably guess. With the suits they were all wearing, and with the situation being what it was, and everything Dong-Yul had been espousing, the context clues made me think mercenaries.

They were gathered, different groups of them sitting at different tables in what looked like a large waiting room. The colors of the wall and floor, and some of the decor, brought to mind the club we were in right now.

The angle of the picture itself stood out to me. For one, I could mostly see the tops of their heads and their shoulders, and there were thin, blurry lines that ran down the length of the image.

From above, behind some bars. Where did she take this from?

But, looking closer, none of them seemed particularly ready to jump the gun, and many of them were in the middle of having drinks, conversing, or just taking it easy. If I had to deal with them, I had some time.

But, they were there, they were in uniform, and they would be a problem.

“Is that what I think it is?” I asked, still looking at the picture.

“It is,” D said.

“Okay,” I said, before a brief pause. “Is this going to be my problem?”

“It’s going to be everyone’s problem if we don’t take care of it.”

“What I mean is, is it going to be my problem to solve?”

D patted me on the shoulder, her hand reaching over her head to get me.

“There, there, you’ll be fine.”

I grunted, starting to unzip the bag that D handed over. My bag. My costume.

“Wait, I’m just kidding, of course I‘m going to help. Geez. You overachiever.”

I looked over the contents of my bag, checking and double-checking that everything was there. And it had better be, I gave her everything before we left.

It was.

Maybe I was being too clingy with my stuff, or even attaching too much sentiment to material things, but knowing my mask and hood and knife were all accounted for, made me feel a little more at ease. It made me feel like I could take on anything.

I zipped it up partway, so nothing would spill out.

“Okay,” I said. “If you’re going to help-”

“I am.”

“-then I need as many details as possible. I don’t want to go into this blind.”

“I know you don’t, which was why I did as much as I could before you came by here, and I got some stuff ready beforehand. If we’re going to do this, we’re going to do this right.”

I liked the sound of that.

“I like the sound of that,” I said, “What do you have?”

D grinned.

“To be more or less accurate, there isn’t like, a hundred guys in there, there’s probably about forty, maybe fifty, but I tried to get as many people in the shot as possible, and that’s just me being zealous, I’d rather overestimate than underprepare. But yes, fifty would be my best guess.”

After a pause, D then added, “More or less.”

“Somehow, even with you cutting that number down by half, it still doesn’t make it any easier,” I commented.

“We should be fine.”

“Should be?”

D gestured with her tablet, as if she was waving me away.

“The beauty of this is we don’t have to beat all of them up, or hurt them in any lasting way. We just… need to keep them occupied until Dong-Yul needs them, and they don’t show.”

“You call that beauty?” I asked.

“There’s an art to chaos,” D answered, “I find it very appealing.”

I was about to comment further, but there wasn’t any time to discuss other things. We were on the clock.

I moved the tablet back, so I could a better look at it again.

“And where are all of these guys?” I asked, realizing that I hadn’t gotten that yet. That should have been the first, if not the second, maybe third, thing to be clear on. Maybe aside from an exact number, but we could be a tad flexible on that.

We couldn’t do anything about the mercenaries if we didn’t know where they were.

“There’s a bottom level of the club. What Dong-Yul didn’t make clear is that he owns the place, or rather, his brother did. It’s a decent headquarters for the Kung Fools, or the Hóngshuǐ, now that they’ve rebranded. Forty or fifty dudes, more or less, all hanging around a few stories below our feet.”

I let go D’s wrist, giving the tablet back to her.

“Any guesses as to what they’re doing here, and what Dong-Yul needs them for?” I asked.

“No guesses needed, you even heard it yourself. Using his surplus of recruits, gathering numbers. He’s preparing for a war, and to do that, he’s building an army.”

“What does that have to do with us, and why they’re here at the Gonnishi?”

“Because Dong-Yul doesn’t actually intend to make any friends. Especially with us.”

I could have laughed, but I didn’t want to make too much noise. I was spending too much time in the restroom as it was, getting briefed on the situation.

“He isn’t, of course he isn’t. He thinks he can lead us into a trap?”

“Looks like. It’s for very different reasons, but, like him, our gang has been growing pretty quickly, too. We’ve both been getting a lot of attention, making waves, as they say. So, what happens if two hot rookies are pitted against each other?”

“The winner gets the combined hype of both,” I said. “They get momentum.”

“Exactly. Which gives him more clout to do… whatever it is he wants to do. And, considering the rhetoric, it’s probably not very good.”

“Probably. What good does he think he’ll accomplish with a war, though?”

“Maybe he doesn’t want to do any good. Maybe he just wants to watch the world drown. Hóngshuǐ does mean flood, in case you didn’t know, but you probably did.”

I raised my chin, feeling compelled to wrap my head around that.

It was hard, trying to make sense of Dong-Yul and his actions. His attire, his attitude, the girls, the fact his gang’s name was in Chinese, structured like it wanted to be a triad, yet he owned a Japanese club and restaurant, all while having adopted a Korean name.

The whole setup of it felt all over the place, scatterbrained, cultures blending and mixing in a way that seemed forced, pushed to fit a vision of someone who might not understand what they were getting themselves, and others, into. He wasn’t even one to get his hands dirty.

And, apparently, according to Lawrence and Jess and Tiffany, there used to not even be a Dong-Yul. It was Donnie. Something had to have happened.

I shook my head.

But, I didn’t necessarily need to understand that, understand him. He just needed to be stopped.

“We can’t have floods,” I said. “Kind of puts a damper on what we’re trying to do.”

“A little bit,” D said, with a sly look in her eyes.

“Alright, then let’s get on with it, I actually don’t want to hang around a restroom and just talk.”

“Why not? It’s private, it’s clean, relatively. Can’t find a better place to converse up in da club.”

With a finger, I tapped D on the forehead. She made a noise, closing her eyes as a reflex.

“Focus,” I told her. “What’s the plan? You said we keep them occupied? How?”

D rubbed her forehead as she answered, “Mm, we distract. During dinner, Dong-Yul is going to want to play that card and sweep the rug under us, calling those men into the restaurant and overwhelm with numbers. He’d reveal his true colors, then. Dong-Yul might wait until you get back, but since you will be invariably taking your time, he might just go and rush it, or I can have Lawrence push harder with any negotiations and force Dong-Yul’s hand. Either way, we need to make sure he thinks he still has the upper hand, but in reality, we’re sweeping the rug from under him.”

“Conniving, but it can work. Give me more details.”

“Oh, the details are the best part, Wendy. I’ll go back up where I came from, through the ceiling. Access is somewhat limited, but I can get to what it matters. Like where the power comes from, for one. I can get in there and really start messing with some stuff.”

“And me? How am I getting down to the bottom levels?”

“The back lounge area that you just passed has two elevators. It’s employee access only, but I already went ahead and nabbed a key for you. It’s here, in your bag.”

D touched the side of my bag, the one pocket I hadn’t checked yet.

“What you do is call both elevators, but only get into the one on the left. That’s like, super important. Then, you’ll be going through there as Wendy, but you’re leaving as Vivi.”

“Is that going to work?” I questioned. “What about cameras, or the fact I’ll be immediately boxed in once those doors open again?”

“No need to worry. Power flows through the building in sections, meaning I can isolate certain chunks of the building from one another. By floor, elevator, and room. It’s a quirk in the design of the club. And we’ll be using, or abusing, every bit of that quirk to pull this off.”

“So I call both elevators, but only get into the left one…” I started.

“And I’ll have to shut power to the camera room to let you change. Wait for my text for the go-ahead to do that. And make sure you have your earpiece on after so we can coordinate from there.”

“Roger,” I said, musing. It felt like a ‘D thing’ to respond with.

“And then, the elevator itself. You’ll have to drop down the rest of the way to make it to the bottom. I hope you’re okay with that.”

“I’ll deal,” I said. “Large drops don’t faze me much, you know that.”

“Sweet, just making sure. And you’ll need to open the elevator doors at the bottom, yourself. Just so you know.”

“Doable.”

“Sweet sweet. Next would be the floor. I can’t mess with the power too much for too long, otherwise people will get onto us faster, but by the time you get those doors open, all power and lights and such to that floor should be cut. Then you do your thing.”

“Fuck them up like I did EZ and Krown?” I suggested, joking.

D huffed air out of her nose. “Maybe a notch or two shy of that.”

“We have an exit strategy?”

“Yeah, back the way you came. I can work on covering our tracks the best I can. I’ll let you know when you’re good to pull back. If we do this right, they will never know what hit them.”

“Man, this sounds crazy, but it might actually work.”

“It is crazy, I had to cobble this together on the fly. But that’s fine. Thankfully, we’re able to play this pretty loosely, by ear, so we have room to switch things around and improvise if we have to. As long as Dong-Yul isn’t able to do what he had planned to do, we’re good.”

“Sounds solid to me,” I said. “Elevators. Costume. Fuck them up from the shadows.”

“You got it, Voss.”

D slipped her tablet between her arm and her side, holding it there, while passing me to get closer to the toilet.

“If you keep your head straight and act like you know where you’re going, you should get to the elevators A-okay. That’s honestly the hardest part. Everything else should come naturally.”

Naturally. That word stuck out to me with a certain melancholy. And I couldn’t exactly place why.

“And Lawrence?” I asked.

“I’ll text him to keep him in the loop. If this goes well, he shouldn’t be in any danger at all. He’s a fighter, so he can hold his own in the meantime.”

D set the toilet seat and cover down with her foot, propping herself on top of it.

“Help me up?”

“Sure,” I said, moving.

Getting closer, I put my hands out for her to use as a foothold. She stepped, and I used my strength to lift her, almost tossing her up to the ceiling. She moved the panel and got through before she could bump her head.

“Arigatou,” D said. She fumbled around, and turned back so she was facing me again, like she was before she dropped down. Shadows obscured parts of her face.

“I’ll be off. Wait for my text in about… five minutes?”

“Five minutes,” I repeated.

“Hey,” I added, thinking. The lines going down the image. How she was getting around in the first place.

“How did you even get that shot, anyways?”

“What shot? The picture of the dudes I showed you?”

I nodded.

“Air vents that lead around the building, duh.”

“Don’t they make those too small to get through, even for kids?”

“They actually made them wider here, they have a lot of smoke they need to vent out. Weed, cigarettes, those weird scent machines that periodically spray stuff to make people feel good. Hotels have it too. It’s still a bit of a squeeze.”

I felt a pang of concern.

“That can’t be good for you,” I said.

“It’s not that bad, as long as I suck in my gut, I can fit anywhere.”

I looked at her, eyebrow up.

“That’s not what I meant. Being up in those things while they’re circulating out so much shit, that can’t be healthy.”

I saw D fumble about again. She removed a clump of cloth and unfurled it, dangling it from a strap.

She set it around her ears, covering her mouth, muffling her voice.

“Don’t sweat it, I use protection.”

I ignored her phrasing.

“Just don’t get stuck in there,” I said.

“I won’t, I’ll be in and out,” D said. “Like a ninja.”

I exhaled the word. “Ninja, right.”

It fit, with D’s sense of humor, and the fact we were in a Japanese-themed nightclub, about to take on fifty mercenaries, more or less.

Maybe I could laugh about it later. But not now.

“Alright little ninja,” I said. “Let’s do this.”

“Let’s.”

“Stay safe,” I said, but D’s face had already disappeared into the dark. She probably missed it.

I did more searching through my bag, finding, and taking out the employee card D had slipped into the side. I moved it from the bag to my pocket.

Zipping the bag back up, and putting it around my shoulder, I finally left the restroom.

The air was clearer as I stepped out, but it was only relative. The faint traces of sweat and flavored smoke filled my nose as I went down the hall, taking a turn that took me away from the restaurant.

I found myself in the lounge.

Different, from the one at the Lunar Tower, but only in aesthetic and atmosphere. The lighting was moody, dim, and the walls were dark, the edges of the tables and the bar were fuzzy with a neon glow. People were lazing around in some drug-induced haze, either by a drink or something smoked. The music had a heavy bass and bounce to it, the hi-hats stuttering.

It gave me a strong, strange sense of déjà vu, not because I was in another lounge, on my way to take care of another gang, but this atmosphere, this aesthetic. Like I had been at this kind of scene before…

Like…

No. I knew the time, it wasn’t midnight yet. I discarded the fleeting thought and moved on.

The lounge wasn’t full or cramped like what I had seen on the dance floor. People probably paid top dollar to enjoy themselves up here, above everyone else, so there was some exclusivity, in the lounge and the restaurant. Walking across the area, with purpose, no one paid me any mind.

I used what I had learned at the Lunar, how to blend into the background, how to act like I belonged.

I reached the elevators.

I saw a reader for the card, by the buttons. I got the card ready, and swiped without missing a beat.

I pressed to call both.

The elevators beeped, the doors sliding open.

I got into the one of the left, the doors sliding closed. I kept my head low and my face hidden.

That wasn’t hard at all.

I checked my phone, waiting for a text from D.

It didn’t take long for it to come.

Camera’s down. Change.

I changed.

I went quick, taking everything out first before putting on just what I needed. The essentials. Mask, outer layer, gloves, knife. Hood up. I wouldn’t have time to change to my proper pants or thermals. But if we only needed to provide a distraction, then I was ready.

I had finished changing.

Responding to D’s text, I put the earpiece in last.

The call came in.

Hear me, Vivi?

“Loud and clear,” I replied.

Nice. Hit the button that says B-Three.

I found the button. I hit it.

The elevator started moving.

Do you see the door to get out from the top?

I looked up, searching.

“There, in the corner.”

You’re going to need pull the latch to get it open, and make sure to close it behind you. I won’t be able to keep power away from the cameras and elevator forever, so in case someone else needs to use the elevator, it’ll be there for them, and that means less suspicion.

“Sure.”

I watched as the glowing numbers ticked down. I passed the first floor, getting to B-One.

Thinking of it as a timer, it did make me a little nervous. Just a little.

The elevator shuddered to a halt before going down another level.

And… There you go, power’s knocked out on the elevator. Same should be for the bottom level once you get to it.

“Should be?” I asked.

Will be.

Without any other words, I got moving.

The space inside the elevator was rather expansive, enough to fit a crowd if it had to. It took a few hops, but I was able to undo the latch, and with two more hops, I pushed the door open, clanging, and I got out of the elevator box from the top.

What immediately got my attention was the echo, and the pitch blackness of the chasm I was in. The elevator shaft was as long as it was dark.

Upon being greeted by the cold air, I immediately understood why D wanted me to bring up both elevators. Both elevators needed to be called up so I could have clearance to drop down once I was lowered enough. If I hadn’t, then I’d jump and get stuck, partway through. Then I would be fucked.

It was a good thing D knew to account for something like that.

The fact that she was so capable, it was kind of creepy, the more I thought about it.

I tried not to think about it.

I dropped down, feeling a split second of the jitters when the fall lasted just a second longer than it should have.

I landed, a thud echoing up and down the elevator shaft.

“Here,” I said, hushed, the sound still carrying.

And… done. Power’s cut for that whole floor.

I put my hands on the doors. I could hear the panic and confusing rising from the other side.

There were a lot of people on the other side of these doors.

“And if they try to communicate with Dong-Yul?” I asked.

Doesn’t really matter. They’ll all be down there with you so it’s not like Dong-Yul will be able to do anything about it.  Now go, I’ll keep you updated on my end. Do your thing. Operation Floodgate is in effect!

“Thank you,” I said. “I really do appreciate it.”

There was a stutter at D’s end. A connection issue from being in the elevator shaft?

And… I did hear you, by the way. You stay safe too.

I smiled.

It was such a small thing, but that gave me enough assurance that I could do this on my own. By myself.

I let the sounds of their panicking flow through me as I wiggled my fingers between the cracks of the doors. It turned into a thrill as I threw the doors open.

I rushed into the gloom, and began my ambush.

I pushed into the first person my arms fell into. He tumbled in an instant, and the force I used was enough to knock down others as he tried to grab anything in reach for purchase. They fell like dominoes.

I jumped, to get my bearings and distance. I used the few seconds I was airborne to get a scan of the room.

The layout was similar to the lounge area above. Round tables placed about, a private bar area that wasn’t manned, but open for everyone who was allowed to be in here. There was a set of lockers on the opposite side of the room, long, some open. I saw the weapons that were placed and displayed within. Guns and models of stuff I hadn’t learned the names of yet.

I took note of any doors and exits, anything they might use as a means of escape and getting help.

I couldn’t let anyone get closer to the lockers or the exits.

Another scan… Fifty suits. Seemed about right. More or less.

I began to descend, and I put my feet out, preparing to get a kick in before I could touch ground.

My feet crashed into someone’s face, and they crashed into more people. The chain reaction that followed to several more out of commission.

Was it too early to think that this was going well? Because it was.

No one could see me, and everyone was confused as to what was happening. It was just chaos, pandemonium. I kept myself shrouded in the dark, keeping quiet as everyone else screamed and shouted for anything that could help them understand, but there wouldn’t be anybody that could offer any help.

I was causing terror, doing quick damage.

Wild, in a frenzy, someone started swinging, arms flailing. I ducked, getting out of the way, swinging at him when I found the chance. It connected, and he flung across the length of the room, making a heap of those he slammed down into.

Close to one of the exits.

Hurrying, I leapt over the crowd to get over to that side.

I struck again as I landed, hitting someone square across the jaw. Maybe the same person I had sent flying, earlier. My arm extended to its full length, and I felt something give.

Not me, someone else.

I probably just broke someone’s jaw.

I-

A smack to the back of my head, forcing me to stumble in another direction. The angle was awkward, and I would have tripped if I didn’t grab for the edge of a table.

I righted myself, and jabbed, striking one of the mercenaries right in his ribs. I felt something give there, too.

A howl, and he fell over.

Dammit. I almost lost myself in the moment. Getting too swept up in the disarray and disorder of everything. I couldn’t let myself drift, or someone could get a lucky shot it.

Throwing my arms out, pushing and shoving, I tore through the crowd, hurting more to debilitate than anything lasting. As long as they were out of the picture, as long as they were distracted, and as long as Dong-Yul was unable to get any use of these mercenaries.

Maybe mercenaries isn’t the right word, I thought, as I backhanded a man into a group of his friends, one of them splitting their chin at the end of a counter. They were more like glorified volunteers.

I had to ease off on the action, hold myself back. One reason why, even though I had my knife at the ready, I wasn’t going for it right away. It didn’t need to get any worse.

“D,” I said, over the continued confusion. I kept moving towards the nearest exit, tossing anyone who even had the thought of leaving.

Yes?

“Any other tricks up your sleeves? It won’t be long until someone does get out of here, I can’t keep it contained to here forever.”

I was working on that. Let me see… here!

I heard a series of hard clicks, scattered across the ceiling.

I heard a series of hard taps, pattered down on my hood.

Water?

Sprinkler’s on.

Using my shoulder, I shoved one suit into another, causing yet another chain reaction. Doing it like this, attacking from the dark and taking advantage of everyone being discombobulated. Unless I jumped, I wasn’t allowed much leg room to kick, but shoving people around was getting the job done. I’d stick with that strategy until the circumstances changed.

People fell, and they slipped as they tried to scramble back up. The floor was collecting water in some places. It was working.

Have to watch my step, too.

I made my way over to the closest exit, clawing my way through. I saw a thin line of light as someone cracked the door open.

I grabbed his arm, twisting it. The line disappeared. I threw my arm back, and him with it.

Putting my hands on the metal bar, I pulled the handle off the door.

A blunt hit right between my shoulder blades. It was more the weight of the hit than the actual pain that caused me to slam into the door, cheek pressed up on the metal surface.

I could feel hands trying to get at me, reaching and pulling for the hood and flowing sides of the poncho of my costume. They’d snag a hold, but it wouldn’t last, their grip slipping away. Was it the water, making me harder to pin down?

With the metal handle still in my hands, I pressed it back on the door, and I hopped, bringing my feet up as well. With a kick, I sent myself flying back. The door didn’t crack open.

Sending my full weight behind me, I shoved the portion of the crowd back. They collapsed and landed in a pile, with me at the top.

I stepped over bodies, heads and hands to climb out of the pile and get back on my feet.

I jumped to reach another part of the room. The tapping of water momentarily got stronger when I got closer to the sprinklers above.

Crowd control. Had to keep everyone inside, and everyone occupied, for as long as possible.

I underestimated the strength of my jump, my shoulder bumping into a locker to stop myself.

A group of suits had the dumb idea to grab for some guns. Couldn’t let that happen.

One of them grabbed for a rifle, hanging from an open locker. I put both hands on the metal handle I had gotten from the door.

I swung down, hitting an arm. Another underestimation, another howl. He recoiled, hugging his arms close and collapsing to his knees.

More people with the same dumb idea. I hit them with the door handle so they could reconsider.

Being in the dark, with so many people and so many things happening all at once, it would be so stupid to grab for a gun and start firing in here. People wouldn’t shoot if it meant friendly fire.

I swung again, and I was blocked.

A man in a suit, towering over me, using the gun as a blunt weapon.

He tried to fight me on this.

Pressing his arms, and the gun, down, he tried to overpower me and get me to heel. I could see the veins on his face and neck, I could see the effort.

My makeshift weapon was locked with his manufactured killing machine.

A light thrust. That was all it took to get him off of me and onto his ass.

I did one more sweep of the lockers, closing each one I came across, kicking other guns under counters and tables to prevent any searching hands from getting lucky.

There. That was one problem literally swept away. It would have to do.

What more could I do? There had to be something.

“D,” I said. “How is it on your end? And Lawrence?”

It took a moment before I heard anything from her. I had to get back at working on crowd control while I waited.

Then came her reply.

Hold on, hold on!

“D…” I said, huffing out the name. My focus was split between trying to talk and trying to fight.

I’m not at that room right now! They, I, it’s gotten a little complicated!

A little complicated?

I wanted to press for more info, but the amount of energy I was exerting was beginning to take a toll. I wasn’t getting too tired, but I was feeling like I had just completed the first significant stretch of a marathon. I couldn’t talk at the moment, but I could exhale out the words if I really wanted to.

Shoot, they’re here, crap crap crap!

I was worried to have to hear her cries for help, and I couldn’t do anything about it. I wanted to go up there and get her, but I still had a job to do, here.

I lunged, kicking. Several more people dropped at the wake of my hit.

Yeah uh okay this isn’t working Vivi get ready I’m heading-

I couldn’t hear the last part.

What I did hear was much, much louder.

Snapping, cracking, stuff crumbling out of place. The ceiling gave way at one part, leaving a hole where something broke through into the room.

Or someone.

There was a short pause in the action, as people tried, and failed, to make sense of anything that was happening.

V!” I heard from both the earpiece, and in that momentary pause. From across the room.

Across the room, with about fifty people between us, thirty or forty of them still standing. I had to get over there.

Getting there, and crowd control. I could do both at the same time.

I went to work.

I lashed out, swinging with the metal bar, going for limbs, making them fall. Breaking bones, if I had to. I just needed get to D.

Watching my footing, I walked over fallen mercs, hurting and whining over the various injuries I had given them.

I brought another foot-

Being in the crush of bodies, I felt a wave of movement. I almost tripped, if not for someone being right next to me.

People were pushing into me.

Maybe they were finally getting their bearings, coordinating with one another. Maybe they were finally catching on.

I can’t let them.

Powering through, I fought against the current, grabbing a hold of anything I could use-

I saw a fist coming at me. I didn’t have the room to dodge.

I threw the metal bar.

It hit him across the head, I heard a clang, and dropped limp onto a nearby table.

Anything I could use.

I grabbed edge of the table. It was round, so I had to bring out my arms to get a better grip on it.

I lifted.

People had gotten up on some of the tables, trying to get a better vantage point to see everything, despite how black it was. Some even managed to get out a phone or flashlight to try and find an answer.

The table turned, leaving the ground, and I flipped them off, back into the gloom.

I waved the table like I would a fan, if the fan was large, circular, and wooden. I swung it at people, literally swatting at them like flies. People scattered, clearing a path for me.

I threw the table, and it crashed into a corner of the room. Maybe it hit someone, maybe it didn’t.

I saw D.

She was being held up by another guy, picking her up by a headlock, properly restraining her. D tried to kick, but her legs only struck the air in front of her. Struggling, but it’d be useless.

I drew out my knife.

Without any real thought, just instinct, I sprinted forward. And with just a light spring in my step, I was going through the air.

I went over the man that had D, grabbing him by the hair. He tumbled back when I hit ground again.

I was on the floor, and him with me. Just him. D was free.

I stabbed with my knife. Arms and legs.

Didn’t care about inflicted pain, didn’t care about the screaming.

I kept going until he no longer-

Hands grabbed at me, pulling me back. I turned back and raised my arm to-

It was D.

She put her hands to my face, squishing my cheeks together. The sprinkling water made her hair stick to her face and forehead. Her clothes were damp.

“I’m not worth going that far for,” she said.

I blinked, water seeping into my mask, wanting to argue.

I didn’t get the chance to argue.

“So… plan’s changed,” D said. “Any ideas on how to get us out of here?”

I didn’t have any.

“That’s alright. We’ll stick to what we can control, let’s have you focus on-”

D didn’t get the chance to finish.

The lights cut back on, the sprinklers turning off.

I squinted, having to readjust.

This was not ideal.

I no longer had the dark to hide in, the shadows now too small to make useful. I was out in the open, and very visible.

I was able to assess part of the damage I had done.

About half of the glorified volunteers were down and out. The rest were huddled into groups of two or three, helping each other up, or trying not to slip with the floor being as wet as it was. Some did slip, only adding to the number of those who were out of commission.

There was still a sizable amount of those who were not, though. And they all had their sights on me, now.

I shifted, keeping low, head down, using part of my poncho to conceal D and keep her close.

“Change of plans, huh?” I murmured to D.

She didn’t respond.

I fidgeted, feeling for my knife, making sure I had it in hand. If I made the first move, now, I could still catch a few more by surprise.

I made the first-

An elevator made a ding.

Everyone had turned, so disoriented that any external stimuli could override their attention and focus.

I turned as well.

The doors opened.

“Oh flip me,” D said.

A man got out of the elevators, clapping. Biker’s attire, leather jacket, skinny jeans. All black, from skin to clothes.

More men filed out of the elevator. They were dressed in a similar style. As far as the gangs represented, they outnumbered us, but the glorified volunteers had them beat.

But only one group had the swagger to move about here, now.

They lined up around the perimeter of the room, and a few feet or paces across, until they had the whole lounge filled out.

The man was still clapping.

From behind him, Lawrence and Dong-Yul walked out, hand in hand. Neither of them seemed particularly pleased to be doing so. They stopped, still behind the still-clapping man.

D and I had control of the situation, earlier, and now I was brought down to the same level as those volunteers.

I had never seen the man before, not personally, but with the group he brought in with him, the uniforms, two in particular standing out by a lot, I felt like I could accurately guess who this was. Who else could it have really been?

A grand entrance, and he had made everyone watch.

He finally stopped his clapping, and beamed, his teeth shining, too white and too bright. He spread his arms out even more.

En garde,” Styx intoned.

Previous                                                                                               Next

Interlude – Lawrence

Previous                                                                                               Next

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

Everything hurt. Everything.

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

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

Not so much, right now.

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

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

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

Fuck that shit.

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

Fight or flight, and Lawrence had chosen the former.

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

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

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

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

His part was done.

It was all up to her-

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

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

Hell fucking no.

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

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

And Lawrence had just taken care of that problem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, not screams. Shouts.

Pleading, begging.

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

More of them ran past Lawrence, screaming.

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

Fight or flight. And they chose to flee.

Then Lawrence saw what they were trying to flee from.

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

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

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

Her. The realization dawned on him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is who she really is.

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

All the damage, the destruction.

He’d never seen so much blood before.

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

And there she was.

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

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

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

There was still more to it.

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

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

Do I even want to know?

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

Neither would this.

The damage had continued, the destruction still being wrought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lucky you, Lawrence thought.

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

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

She returned.

Everyone who could scatter, scattered.

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

A bullet had merely given her pause.

She turned, facing Lawrence.

His own blood ran cold.

She was looking right at him.

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

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

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

But, then why is she crying?

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

She was crying.

Like she’s coming down from her high.

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

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

Fight or flight. He had to choose again.

I don’t have have the energy to.

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

Delirious, insane.

This isn’t real.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Someone, please, help me. Help her.

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

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

No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was a good distraction.

“El!”

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

Ah!”

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

“Fuck!”

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

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

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

Charlie shot back with a look of her own.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you so nervous for?”

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

That’s what that was.

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

Charlie didn’t look impressed in the slightest.

“What’s her name?”

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

“You are an ass,” she said.

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

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

Lawrence nodded. “Por favor.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For now.

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

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

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

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Good taste.

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

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

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

“Yo!”

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

A girl. A kid.

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

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

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

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

“Mind if I light it up?”

The odd girl asked him an odd question.

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

“Like, you looking to score?”

The odd girl gave a shrug, non-committal.

“Sure.”

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

“Do you live here?” he asked.

“No. Why?”

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

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

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

“I suppose.”

“What’s your name?”

Another odd question.

“Um, my friends call me El.”

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

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

“El? That’s kind of like my name!”

I don’t know what that means.

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

“Wow, sounds like a lot of work.”

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

“What other benefits?”

Like making out with hot girls.

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

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

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

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

She shook her head.

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

Later?

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

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

“You’re funny. Bye, El.”

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

Fuckin’ weird.

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

A sharp whistle hit his ears. That pitch.

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

Time to get ready.

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

He braced himself for the meeting.

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

He wasn’t particularly religious, but he prayed.

And prayed.

And prayed some more.

The end wasn’t coming.

Slow, unsure, Lawrence opened his eyes again.

She wasn’t here.

Lawrence darted his eyes around, surveying the scene.

He didn’t see her. She wasn’t here.

Where?

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

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

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

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

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

But now he had more.

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

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

“Styx.”

Styx smirked. It unsettled.

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

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

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

They shook hands.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That, and his face looked a little punchable.

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

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

Charlie was the one to answer his question.

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

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

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

Roland nodded, taking it all in.

“Did we recruit anyone?” he asked.

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

Roland was willing to accept that.

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

“Oh, okay, um, Roland. Thanks.”

Roland grinned.

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

Money. It was all about the green.

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

One day.

He had to step it up.

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

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

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

Lawrence shook his head, feeling like an idiot.

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

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

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

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

Lawrence couldn’t help but be bothered by that.

We’re not friends, Eddie.

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

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

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

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

“Okay, and sorry, El.”

Don’t fucking call me that.

Roland gestured. “May I see the money?”

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

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

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

It hit Lawrence.

Someone else called it out.

“Pigs!”

Everyone bolted.

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

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

“Faster!” she yelled.

You don’t have to tell me that.

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

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

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

Shit,” Lawrence whispered.

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

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

“Where then? Around to the fence?”

“Can you jump?”

“I can try, but-”

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

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

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

“Why do you have the bag?”

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

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

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

It almost gave Lawrence pause from wanting to go in.

“Sure about this?” Lawrence asked.

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

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

“Shit,” Lawrence said.

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

They threw the rocks.

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

Grey smoke blew out of the hole.

Shit,” Lawrence said, with emphasis.

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

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

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

Too late to back down now.

Escaping into the darkness, Lawrence let it envelop him.

Lawrence coughed out, hard. Everything hurt again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Styx chuckled.

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

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

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

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

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

Lawrence was stuck in a room with this man.

The bewilderment, the disorientation, was reaching new heights.

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

“Hi,” he said.

Lawrence responded with a blink.

“Quite the day, isn’t it?”

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

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

“Hi,” Styx said again.

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

The man crossed his legs the other way.

“Hi.”

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

Styx sneered.

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

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

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

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

“What?” Lawrence breathed the question.

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

Sickening. It was twisted.

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

Styx’s expression didn’t waver.

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

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

But he couldn’t. Helpless.

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

It just served to make Lawrence that much smaller.

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

“Styx! Styx!”

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

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

“Yeah?”

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

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

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

“Yes?”

“How many rounds did you pump into her?”

“Enough.”

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

“Everything about handling this was a precaution.”

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

“I was being ‘pre-cautious.’”

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

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

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

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

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

“Dummy,” she said.

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

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

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

D and Styx turned to look at Lawrence.

“Explain,” Lawrence said. “Now.”

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

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

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

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

Lawrence learned that his paranoia was wholly, completely justified.

D explained.

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

She gestured over to the man in question.

D continued.

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

D breathed in, taking her time.

“So I called in another favor with Styx.”

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

Another?”

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

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

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

D shook her head.

“I’m not kidding, sorry El.”

Lawrence was shaken to the core.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just why?

“Styx and I… we go way back.”

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

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

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

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

Styx pointed at him.

Stunned. As always.

“Me?”

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

Speechless.

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

D kept shaking her head, tugging at her choker.

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

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

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

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

Styx started to take his leave.

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

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

When Lawrence broke it, it felt palpable.

“What was the third favor?” Lawrence asked.

For a third time, D shook her head.

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

D was able to answer that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s enough time to take it easy.”

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

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

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

D had paused before answering.

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

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

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

“How’d you know that would work?”

D shrugged.

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

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

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

D looked genuine in her remorse.

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

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

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

Lawrence no longer had the will to be shocked.

“Same difference.”

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

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

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

“Don’t make me regret it.”

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

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

“I don’t want that,” D said.

“Me neither.”

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

“Uuuugh, this sucks.”

“Might not be the best word to use.”

D looked back at Lawrence.

“How about you? How you handling this?”

Lawrence gave his thoughts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Couldn’t let this be over.

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

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

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

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

“Right,” Charlie said.

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

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

“I can’t see it from this angle, El.”

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

“Alright.”

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

He threw his hand down.

Now!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s it look like out there?”

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

“Is it everyone?”

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

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

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

A burning house.

“About that,” Lawrence started.

“What?”

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

“Meaning?”

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

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

“Do you see firefighters out there?”

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

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

“So if it’s not a fire, then what?”

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

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

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

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

Again, Lawrence considered it.

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

He’s going to know I’m the real deal.

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

“Sure, okay, let’s try.”

Gracias, Charlie. Now get over here.”

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

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

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

Lawrence felt a hint of pride, hearing that.

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

“Yeah.”

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

“Right behind you.”

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

Clear.

Lawrence made the appropriate gesture.

They ran for it.

The path was unobstructed. All clear. Clear.

They passed the TV, the movie was still playing.

No distractions.

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

They were so close.

“Hey! El, El!”

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

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

“Where you going?” Edurado asked.

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

“Are the rest there?”

We will be!”

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

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

You better not be dead weight.

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

So close.

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

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

A crumble and shouts.

“El!”

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

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

Lawrence wanted to slap himself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I need help!”

“Okay!”

Charlie went over without any hesitation.

In contrast, Lawrence was still.

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

Eduardo called out for Lawrence again.

“El! Get over here!”

“Who is she?”

“She’s… she needs help!”

“Are you recruiting her?”

“I… maybe?”

Maybe?

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

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

“Just help!”

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

Lawrence went to them.

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

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

It was getting in the way.

“Fuck!”

Lawrence threw the bag off his shoulders.

There, he had more to move. To breathe.

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

“Whoa, hey, wait!”

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

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

Someone was running off with the bag.

The drugs. The money.

Lawrence immediately left the rest behind to give chase.

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

Fuck, Lawrence thought.

He was too late.

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

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

The odd girl.

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

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

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

So close to the fence.

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

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

More shouting stopped Lawrence in his tracks.

Charlie’s, and Eduardo’s.

Lawrence wheeled around.

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

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

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

Lawrence fell down on his own. On his knees.

He lost.

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

Lost.

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

But there was more to it than that.

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

What’s going to happen to me now?

He might as well be done.

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

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

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

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

Frustrated, livid, Lawrence raised both fists and-

-gently placed them at the foot of the bed.

Lawrence looked over Wendy as she slept.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I thought I asked you something.”

Wendy kept sleeping.

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

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

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

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

Lawrence didn’t care either way.

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

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

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

Wendy didn’t stir or respond.

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

Silence.

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

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

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

Lawrence paused.

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

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

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

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

Must be the late hour.

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

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

Lawrence wasn’t sure.

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

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

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

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

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

Previous                                                                                               Next

Interlude – Thomas

Previous                                                                                               Next

Peru – Sixteen years before present

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

Thomas let the cool waters run across his feet.

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

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

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

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

They watched the waves come to them, then away.

They watched, then watched some more.

This was a moment, and they were in it.

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

Thomas kept his eyes on the water. He smiled.

“You know I don’t smoke.”

“That doesn’t exactly answer my question.”

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

“Is that so?”

“One hundred percent.”

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

“Big words. Only time will tell.”

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

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

At Kristin, and at her.

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

She kept her eyes to the ocean.

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

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

“Good, good. I wouldn’t want to.”

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

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

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

Kristin made a face. A playful shock.

So cute.

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

“Another day then?” Thomas suggested.

“Another day.” Kristin agreed.

He left it at that, satisfied.

Amongst the waves, Thomas watched her listlessly.

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

She blushed.

“Stop.”

“Stop what?”

“Stop being such a loser.”

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

Kristin puffed out her chest.

“A winner. I’m the one who scored.”

Thomas almost snorted. What kind of logic was that?

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

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

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

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

He swayed one way, then back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Excuse me?”

“Yes, distracting me with your feminine ways.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Never.

I’m so glad I met you.

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

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

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

“That you do.”

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

“I thought of a name.”

“You have?”

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

“Right you are.”

“Since it’s a girl…”

“Wait, let me guess.”

He paused, tilting his head. Waiting.

“It’s Katy, isn’t it?”

He smile widened. “You are good.”

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

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

“Can you guess why?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

That snicker grew into a heartier laugh.

“Oh my god, you are such a loser!”

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

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

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

“No, I don’t hate it… I love it.”

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

“I said I love it.”

“Do you actually?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephenville – Ten years before present

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

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

The homestretch.

He was going to have some fun.

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

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

Who did?

Thomas started.

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

“Seven years, give or take.”

“So, relatively new at the job?”

“Relatively, yes.”

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

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

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

I see.

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

Thomas tapped his fingers on the podium.

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

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

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

“Decent.”

“Decent? Do you mind expanding on that?”

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

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

“Fine, it was fucking Candy Land.”

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

“Permission to treat the witness as hostile?”

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

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

She yawned. “Yeah.”

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

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

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

She didn’t say.

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

“I guess.”

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

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

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

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

“One I’m eager to make.”

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

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

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

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

“They have,” she answered.

“And what has been done about it?”

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

“So, nothing?”

“Nothing.”

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

A noted lapse.

“Ishida Hitoshi,” she answered.

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

Quinn didn’t comment or respond.

And now, the clincher.

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

“Objection, this is hearsay!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phillips was fuming. “This is unnecessary.”

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

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

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

“Thomas.”

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

“Thanks for coming,” Thomas said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You sound rather confident about that.”

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

Thomas said it like it was a question.

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

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

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

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

“At the cost of your credibility and reputation?”

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

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

Thomas watched the kids play.

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

“When? When I’m police chief?”

Thomas nudged him. “Probably.”

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

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

“Friends?” James ventured.

“I was going to go with pals.”

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

“Could be interesting,” James said.

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

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

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

“Daddy!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where do kids come up with this stuff?

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

She hiccuped. “Understood.”

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

“Kids these days,” James said.

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

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

“Make sure she mentions the story about the-”

“The Yamarāja. I know, I know.”

He shook hands with James, then excused himself.

Stephenville – Three weeks before present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Update, please,” Hleuco asked.

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

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

“Can you get to it?”

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

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

He relayed what he was hearing.

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

Fuck me.

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

Please be quiet.

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

What does that mean for me?

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

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

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

I won’t stop selling myself short.

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

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

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

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

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

A hero, here, in Stephenville of all places.

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

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

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

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

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

Anything else was common sense.

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

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

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

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

Hey, Hleuco, you still thirsty for an update?

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

“Always.”

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

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

“The car’s modified?”

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

“Where are you right now?”

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

A pause.

Fuck!

“What’s wrong?”

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

“At this hour?”

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

Again, a pause.

I’m going.

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

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

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

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

He stomped on the gas.

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

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

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

“Blank Face!”

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

But there was no one on the other end.

Fuck me, Hleuco thought.

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

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

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

Silent.

He drove.

Quiet.

Still no answer.

It was maddening.

Hleuco started slowing down.

Not another one…

Not another regret.

He moved a finger to turn on the police-

Hleuco? I’m at-

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

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

“Repeat that, Blank Face?”

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

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

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

I hear you.

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

His chest wouldn’t ease up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How strong are you, Alexis?

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

Present

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

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

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

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

Solace got Edgar. He’s dead.

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

He just sat.

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas made a fist with each hand.

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

Except a message to Blank Face.

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

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

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

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

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

Gomez’s office isn’t this way.

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

Jeffery kept driving.

“Jeffery? I-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was Styx’s bike. Styx was here.

So this was how…

And he considered Jeffery a pal, too.

He was fucked.

Previous                                                                                               Next

Interlude – Styx

Previous                                                                                               Next

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

Styx roared.

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

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

And here? He also had the freedom to destroy.

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

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

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

He liked the chaos.

Again, Styx roared. It strained.

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

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

Acknowledgement.

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

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

‘Victor’ answered with a lift of his chin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Styx cut him off.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah?” Styx questioned.

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

“Yeah, Blueballs?”

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

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

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

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

“Blank Face, huh.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Nice.”

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

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

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

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

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

Styx shrugged.

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

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

“So?”

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

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

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

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

“Aye aye.”

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

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

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

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

“That again?”

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

“Like what you did?”

“Yes.”

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

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

Styx’s lack of expression stayed.

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

“Careful, I haven’t killed you yet.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Styx rested his tongue on his upper lip.

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

Poetic.

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

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

All separate, yet connected by a single thread…

And they were completely oblivious.

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

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

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

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

“He called the meeting!”

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

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

He tried to keep still.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The mobsters looked amongst each other.

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

Victor started snapping his fingers, looking expectant.

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

“Lil’ bitch,” Styx yelled out.

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

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

Styx squinted. One of the naïve ones.

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

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

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

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

He didn’t.

Styx had an outlet for his frustrations at home.

A feeling stirred within Styx.

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

Several laughed.

Victor was motionless, not responding to that comment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m working on it.”

“You’re… working on it?” Forest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re joking.”

“‘Fraid not. One of Styx’s Ferrymen were interrupted by Blank Face, earlier in the night, before it came to us. A van came to get him. A man in a bird mask accompanies Blank Face.”

The two women went pale. Styx, instead, seethed at the mention of the van. “There’s… there’s more of them?”

Victor shook his head. “That’s one of the things we don’t know. I’m inclined to say yes, just to be careful.”

Murmurs among the mobsters, unsure of what to make of the possibility of at least two superhumans working against them. Styx couldn’t help but think of ways to rip them apart, instead. And if they could recover from that, then more fun for him.

“What more do we know of this man in the bird mask?” Inez asked.

“Not much, but they were probably in constant communication with each other.”

Styx had realized that Victor never mentioned how they got interrupted by the van, how it crashed into King of Pentacles. At this meeting, too many details were coming out that were frightening the mobsters. It wouldn’t do to have them completely chicken out and not want to hear Victor’s plans. Or was it better that he play into that, getting more support?

Or, was Victor trying to protect Styx’s rep? As if he needed it, but, if so, Styx appreciated the effort.

D’Angelo cut into his pancake, then ate, chewing slowly. After washing it down with coffee he asked, “And you think you can take them on, not knowing what you don’t know?”

“Oh, I can. The battle isn’t as uphill as you’re insinuating it be. The whole world is even more fearful of Blank Face. By the by, I love the riot idea. I say we do more of that, while we’re at it.”

The different members of the table nodded. Styx loved the idea, too.

“If we play our cards right, this might turn out to be a problem that solves itself. Again, more details to come.”

Forest raised his cup, looking around for a waiter. “Ah, man, that’s enough of the Blank Face talk, for now. Getting me sick to my stomach. Brother, we’ll patiently await your pitch.”

Victor had wrapped around the table, his back to Styx. He brought both hands up. Peace signs.

“Super.”

While the others got to their breakfast, Hayden asked, “Is there anything else we want to bring up?”

Arthur set down his fork. “There’s one thing.”

Victor leaned close. “Hmm?”

“Thomas Thompson.”

“Don’t know the name, sorry.”

“He’s a lawyer. Pain in the ass, with the potential of becoming a bigger one.”

“I’m listening.”

“Elections for the next DA are coming up, and it looks like he’s going to take it. We had our guy, John Cruz, but the public adores Thompson. He’s squeaky clean, going on a platform of ‘hope’ and ‘courage’ in the face of adversity. ‘Wander no more,’ he says. It’s bullshit, but they’re eating it up.”

Victor fixed a sleeve. “Squeaky clean does present a problem.”

“Him being in office isn’t going to help us any. Harsher punishments on any alleged corruption in the police force, and he’s advocating for harsher punishments for any possible connection to any gang activity, however minute. He was instrumental in bringing down one of the Cobras. They’re still shaken up about it.”

“Sebastian?”

“Yes.”

“No.” Victor looked legitimately disheartened, hearing that. He brought a finger to his chin, thinking.

“So you understand why I brought it up? If he can do that much without holding an official office…”

Victor snapped his fingers. “Say no more, I can take care of it.”

No one did say more, seemingly satisfied. Everyone continued eating. A minute with only small talk, then Victor walked back to Styx, bringing his bag with him.

“Doing okay?” Victor asked.

Styx grunted, non-committal.

“Hey, I’ll need your help in this, in all of this.”

“As long as you keep it entertaining.”

“I’ll plan around it.”

They both smiled, Styx’s much more menacing. Victor was a man of his word, and he was looking forward to it as much as he was.

Styx was ready to push.

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028 – Course

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I didn’t scream. Couldn’t, due to the chain. A shaky, pathetic gurgle was all I could produce.

My left arm broke from the impact. If I had a hard time moving before, it was completely impossible now. It went limp at my side, attached like dead weight.

It was just dislocated, not too long ago.

Out of the frying pan, and into Hell itself.

Naturally, my arm went right to healing itself, but it was delayed, slow. It wasn’t healing as fast as it should, as fast as I had seen it heal before. The wounds weren’t mending like they should.

It was obvious why. Like a car running low on fuel, it wouldn’t work properly.

I needed blood.

For my part, at least the sleeves covered up my arms, so no one could see what was actually happening. They couldn’t peek under the hood, so to speak.

I just prayed that man would not hit me again.

My eyes were already full of tears, sliding down the sides of my face until they stopped where the mask touched my cheeks, tracing a perimeter of wetness. My vision was compromised.

Breathing was a challenge, a faint inhale was all I could muster.

“And one more for the road,” I heard from the man standing above me, the sound of the metal bat cutting through the air.

If I could see, everything would have went black and white. I croaked, drool starting to trail down the corners of my mouth.

The man hit me again.

But I prayed about it.

My right arm, shattered at the elbow.

The rest of my body twisted and shuddered at the pain. I couldn’t vocalize, so my body had to express the pain I was in for me.

“Styx, it’s good to see you again,” someone else said. “Been well?”

“Well as I can be. Thanks for the help, but we can pick up on the pleasantries later.”

“Then, this is the infamous superhero, am I right?” that other person asked. “Looks like I wasn’t needed after all, if we’re already taking care of this, now.”

“Don’t go planning your vacation just yet. He still has work for you to do, here. Mister.”

A second voice, a second player. This talk about a ‘Mister.’ Vaguely familiar, like I’d heard mentioned in a dream, somewhere, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

Metaphorically and physically.

My brain wasn’t letting me piece any bits of information together. I was simply unable to do much of anything. Rendered useless.

I shut my eyes, then tried to blink away the water. I needed to see, needed to find a way out.

The second voice spoke again. “I’d be wary, though, may have a partner, this one. Was talking to themselves. That, or this is one crazy motherfucker.”

“Yeah? If Blueballs here makes it all the way back home alive enough, we can try asking a few questions.”

“Ha. I have to say, Styx, you know how to entertain your guests. This should be fun.”

“Doing this for so long, you have to keep things interesting. Otherwise, you’re fucked.”

The rough voice of that biker, I had to assume he was ‘Styx.’ He raised his voice to address others here.

“Aye aye! We’re rolling out. Gather up the others, they’ll be sorted out later. He, and this… They come with me.”

Roars of assent, then the sound of movement, activity. People were moving, getting things together. Several engines rumbled to life.

One behind me was the loudest. The sound banged in my head.

My arms weren’t healing fast enough. Still couldn’t move them.

Could barely hear. Could barely breathe.

This might be it.

The loudest engine roared again, and I felt the ground move beneath me. The chain tightening yet again.

This scenario, something familiar about it.

I was being dragged by a motorcycle, with a metal chain around my throat.

My whole body was limp, unable to move a finger or toe as the motorcycle approached a faster speed, getting out of the trailer yard. As we exited, I saw that the gate was open. It was locked shut before, preventing Hleuco from getting in with me.

I was brought onto the road proper, where the ride became even more bumpy. Tiny, pointed pebbles were kicked up as I was dragged, the occasional cracked chip of concrete slipping into through the collar of my clothes, scratching the skin off of my bare back.

My eyes were rolling upward. Buildings rushed above me, speeding by as I was forced past them.

Street lights, traffic lights, no matter the color, we maintained speed. No other cars to impede the bikers, too. Styx’s Gang likely had complete control of the roads.

An elbow bumped against the road again, but it was less painful, that time.

Every feeling and sensation in me was already fading, but I felt the occasional kick of my leg as my foot bounced against the road, the stimulating sharp pain as a broken elbow scraped along concrete. We were going fast, now, and I was soon to pass out, and dying right after.

This was how I was going to die, wasn’t it? Reduced to a bloodied, beaten ragdoll, flopping pitifully, like I was being toyed with by a child. I’d die before my healing could catch up. I’d fall unconscious before I could lift any appendage.

I shifted my gaze ahead of me.

A handful of small, white dots were trying to pierce the dark that already blanketed my eyes, floating up and down, but largely staying in place. The outer edges of the lights were blunted by the overcast gloom that befell me. Hazily, I tried using the lights to focus, keep my mind active, and figure out what exactly they were.

I sensed that Styx had made a turn, because the ground under me shifted, and I was swinging to the right. It was a wide turn, which translated into me hitting the side of a curb, before being pulled along a straight course again.

I gagged.

Over the loud engines, cackling and whooping sounded off all around me.

The engines, the laughing and cheering. The lights… The lights in front of me were from other motorcycles. Others from Styx’s Gang. I was surrounded. Even if I could miraculously get myself out of these chains, there were threats in every direction.

I had no sense of time, place, or direction, or even an idea of who I was. Just an ever-encompassing hurt. I was lost. I was losing.

I was broken.

-ace… ear me… Co-

Among all the racket of the machinery and running concrete, a low, mechanic hissed tried to reach out to me.

-most… from be-

I opened my mouth, or rather I let my jaw hang as much as the chain would let me, and found my lips, tongue, and throat to be dry. A fish out of water. A vampire without blood.

The straining, the struggle, the fight within me was all but depleted. I was running out of fucks to give.

Styx’s motorcycle turned again, because I hit another curb, and I, in effect, bounced.

The hit was enough for me to let my eyes wander around, then gently close, languid. The motorcycle lights dimming all the more.

I was ready to give up.

But, a light here, a light there, spun. Then, they blinked away.

Two, much brighter lights, had cut through the individual lights, knocking them away. The crunch and scraping of metal followed, along with more shouting.

The two lights were moving in unison, together, picking up more speed, catching up to me. It was starting to get close, too close, then swerving to pass me up. With the last of my receding vision, I saw where light reflected off the otherwise black surface.

A van.

Get read- Stick with… self!

Words. In my ear, again.

Who?

Help?

H…

Hleuco?

The black van sped off again, and while I couldn’t see what exactly went down, I certainly heard it.

And was forced to deal with the aftermath.

Metal banged and crashed together, and the chain went even more taut. I was yanked another direction, towards the sidewalk.

My long, agonizing ride through Hell ended with an abrupt halt.

It took some time for me to finally realize it, but I was able to take breaths, to inhale oxygen. The chain had slackened enough, and I was no longer dragged away.

I was dizzy, if nothing else. Rolling and sliding and tumbling, every turn and direction. It wouldn’t leave me. Whiplash.

Damage to my neck? Probably. I was tugged by there for so long. Permanent? Probably not, but the healing would be slow there, too. It throbbed, like someone was still pulling at the chain at consistent intervals, and it wasn’t getting any better. I fought the urge to vomit.

Involuntarily, an arm suddenly twitched. I could move it. I had finished healing, there. With the little energy I had left – energy I was surprised I still had  – I worked to uncoil the chain around my neck.

I worked as fast as I could, which was still slow, and the chain fell beside me, and I was free. Finally.

Working to get to my feet, however, was another hurdle entirely. That meant my entire body working together to a common goal, and I absolutely did not have the capacity for that. But, I had to move, to get moving. Escape, and find a place to hide and lick my wounds in peace. Catch up with… with someone.

But first… first…

I needed blood.

The pounding around my throat, my windpipe. I let it get to my head.

Operate, first instincts.

As fast as my newly-mended arms would allow – which was not at all – I pulled down at the metal chain that once ensnared me. And kept pulling, passing the chain past me, alternating hands. Like I was climbing a rope in gym class, except on my side, and instead of going up to the ceiling, I was trying to get to the motorcycle.

Eventually, I got through the excess chain, and the metal links straightened out again. I was able to make progress.

Dissonant. Jarring. Shouting. Tires. Just noise, everywhere. Panic. Making sense of it could come later.

I pulled, tugged, and pulled again. I made it to the motorcycle, arms aching all the way.

Tapping into my last reserves of strength, I pushed myself up, and crawled on top of the vehicle, which was on its side, but still humming, engines on.

Ah, shit.

They weren’t here. Styx, or the owner of that other voice. Male, if the haze in my brain could clear up a little, and let me remember properly.

They aren’t here. Not anywhere around. Did they run off? Take another bike?

Wait… What was I going to do, if they were here?

That thought, that idea, I had to push it aside. Just for now. Search. Look elsewhere.

I sat up, but I was slouched over. I removed a glove, feeling around the bike, being mindful of where the bike was at its hottest.

If they crashed…

There.

My fingers ran across something wet. I looked at my hand, the way it glistened, how it smelled.

Not oil.

Blood.

Yes.

Getting my mask off was the next course of action. Using only one hand was proving tricky, and I was becoming impatient with how hard it was to unfasten the different straps and pieces to it. I was tempted to just rip it off, but that would only cause more problems in the immediate future.

Patience, Blank Face, give yourself just a small amount.

I did, and I managed to loosen the mask. I pushed it up, scrunching it, putting the filter over my eyes.

I didn’t waste a fucking second.

I thrusted my fingers into my mouth, and licked.

A surge, a short burst of energy, coursing through my veins.

But it was not enough.

It was not enough to satiate me.

Like a brief charge to a battery, I was now at about ten percent. I needed more. I wanted more.

I rose, getting over the bike, and onto my feet. I fixed the glove back over my hand, fit the mask back properly on my face, and adjusted my hood.

Time to find Styx.

I ran onto the sidewalk, trying to look for a good path to maneuver myself upwards, to a roof.

I leaped up to get onto a single story building, crossing the roof to observe the street below.

A line of motorcycles were continuing their drive. Some bikers had helmets, some had bandanas. I couldn’t locate the van that knocked itself into Styx’s bike. But there was another vehicle, among the motorcycles.

A red pickup truck, carrying seven people in the back. They were in white. A boy among them.

With little thought entering my mind, I went back down.

As I descended through the air, I threw a hand into a pocket of my parka, and drew out a handle of a retractable police baton. I clicked a button on the side, unsheathing it. A little over a foot long.

The baton… I recalled getting it earlier in the night. Exchanged for something I couldn’t remember right this second. Something about… safety.

I had aimed with my jump, landing a distance ahead of the truck, but with a few bikers close by.

Within reach.

I swung, wide, attempting to clip a biker off their ride as they passed. I connected, and a biker in a helmet got knocked back off their bike.

The truck was advancing, even closer now, and there was little chance in avoiding me with a sharp turn, considering its load. I had to perform a small hop, and the top of the truck just grazed past the bottoms of my shoes.

It had avoided me, but the truck had veered, then stopping the moment I touched back down. The people in the bed of the truck fell forward, from the momentum of the sudden brake.

Now, I had options, but I went straight for the closest person, to make the decision easy. The downed biker.

I retracted the baton, slipping back into a pocket, and picked up the man by the collar. Either he was lighter than I thought, or I was starting to get some strength back.

I ripped apart his leather jacket down the zipper. He had a sweater underneath, and a scarf around his neck.

Come on.

I’d be momentarily stalled in getting his neck exposed. The impatience was eating at me, hastening my movements, becoming more wild. Couldn’t wait for more blood. Now. Now.

A blow to my side, and I was back down. Swiped by another passing biker. The thick parka took the brunt of the hit, but I instinctively knew that a bruise was left behind. Maybe a broken rib, if I was unlucky. It’d heal, but a significant wind was knocked out of me.

Too many people, here. Gang members, innocents, witnesses. Needed to get one, needed to get to a far away place where I could feed in peace.

Yeah, yeah.

I had to move as soon as I straightened myself up, and get out of the way of bikers and other such obstacles. Slower, easier targets. Weaker.

A hiss in my ear. I brushed it off. It was easy to drown it out with all the incoming sirens.

My jaw twitched. I licked my lips.

A short building, old, with ruined bricks and grooves that defaced its surface. I scaled it, my hands and feet reaching into holes for support and footholds. I got over in no time flat.

I skittered down the side of the building, running while keeping an eye on the street I just left. The truck was just now getting into gear, a ring of bikers surrounding it. Still supervising a transport, or were they trying to protect the immigrants from a certain group, or individual?

Me?

Good luck with that.

I kept a hand close to the pocket where I returned the baton, ready to use, ready to strike. Had to think of a way around those bikers. To throw them off, or eliminate them entirely. They could fight back, they had strength in numbers.

The people in the truck? They had numbers, but not strength. They had been travelling for days, probably, and they were drained, spent, weak. I could use that. Should.

What I needed to figure out was how to separate them from the bikers, then each other. Pick them apart.

One. I only needed one. Two, if things fell in my favor.

Apples. Strawberries. Jam.

Let’s jam.

I went back down, but not onto the street. I was ahead of that group of vehicles, in wait. It had gotten late enough that there wasn’t a single person here on the sidewalk.

I ran until I got to the corner, where the street turned into an intersection. A metal newspaper vending stand, full of paper. I lifted it up over my head, and tossed it at the truck as it sped closer.

It slammed into the hood of the truck, hitting the windshield as it got knocked away, papers flying, twirling down.

The bikers stopped when the truck did. The truck was probably still operable, but some of the truck’s passengers were choosing to abandon it, instead. They scattered, running past the bikers and into alleys and other streets, but not in my direction.

The bikers themselves split up as well, shouting contradicting orders. Some fled entirely, while a select few actually parked their bikes and got down.

Challenging me?

No time to play.

I jumped across the street, avoiding them all. No time to waste. My stomach grumbled, my throat flared.

We were well out of King District, but a lot of the buildings here were either under construction, scheduled for demolition, or abandoned completely. A lot of dark corners, a lot of places to hide.

In reality, a lot of places for people to corner themselves.

I headed straight, into an abandoned building. It was easy to glean from seeing inside the skeletons of other structures. No one had run inside. Too easy to be seen and found out. They had the right idea, but it would only them take so far.

With my mouth starting to salivate at the thought of sustenance, I jumped again, going through an open windowsill.

The clamor outside was immediately taken down a notch. I was in a hallway of an empty hotel, it looked like, judging from the doors that were lined down the length of the hall.

Halls, doors, under stairs, rooms, closets. More places to hide than I expected. This could be harder than I thought.

But that didn’t slow me down. I only needed one.

One. Only one. Needed.

I decided to work my way down, investigating every floor, every possibility, before moving to the next one, below. From checking the numbers on the doors, I was on the fourth floor. If the door was locked, I didn’t try to open it. If it wasn’t, I’d peek my head inside.

Nada.

I moved on, down the winding stairs at the end of another hall, same floor. I didn’t take the stairs, exactly, I hopped down, passing all of the steps, stopping when I banged my shoulder against the wall on the other end. I turned, and repeated the process again to make it to floor two.

The second floor.

Haste made waste, and I was starting to worry that my hurrying was making me clumsy. That I had missed a person, somewhere, or skipped over a locked door when I shouldn’t have, with someone hiding inside. Maybe I could backtrack if I ended up coming up short by the time I reached the lobby. The longer I took meant people were getting away. Food. Drink. Apples.

I combed through the second floor. Rooms, bathrooms, I was checking under beds, now. I pulled open a drawer, staring at a ziplock bag of colored tablets and syringes, and I had to force myself to realize what I was doing, and why it didn’t make sense. Desperate. My throat was on fire.

I got back out into the hall, and looked for the next set of stairs.

In the gloom, I didn’t notice a plank of wood on the floor. My foot got caught on it, and I tripped.

However, I kept my momentum, putting my hands out and catching myself, rolling forward. On all fours, I crawled a foot or two towards the stairs.

I froze.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

A small boy. Probably not over thirteen years old. He slowly drew back, taking small steps, down the stairs. Hair messy, disheveled, stuck up in places. Clothes white, but dirty. Hands to chest.

Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah.

Lost boy.

“Miguel,” I said, and that was it. No statement, question, or other comment. I just said a name.

He didn’t give me a response, not that he needed to. He turned on a dime, taking the stairs two and three steps at a time, disappearing from my sight.

I didn’t take the same tactic down as before. I bounded towards the railing, vaulting over to reach the final floor. Floor one.

The first floor, I mean.

Miguel was fast, I had to give him that. He was already hiding somewhere, I figured. He was nowhere in sight when I made it into the lobby. I walked, taking my time. I could catch up to him with a single move if and when I had to.

I didn’t find him by the front counter, but I glanced at a dusted brochure that sat atop it. I picked it up, feeling inclined to read it.

“The Burne-Jones Hotel? A-already going sightseeing, Miguel?”

No answer, not like I expected one. I set down the brochure, and searched elsewhere. It was quiet in here, and when I wasn’t walking on carpet, my steps carried. I would have heard it, if he had opened an exit door, or any door, for that matter.

Bang. The sound of a metal door, down the hall behind me. I hurried in that direction.

He wasn’t here, and door wasn’t closing behind anyone. Dammit. A rock sat inert close to the bottom of the door, a white mark left a foot above it. A trick?

More sounds, again from behind. This time, footsteps.

I picked up the rock before I turned around. Briefly, I saw a figure run down the length of the hall. Another exit was at the end, there.

“Mi-Miguel!” I shrieked, my voice reaching a higher pitch. My head was pounding, my thoughts singular, narrow, too focused. Feed. Fruit. Juice. The smallest of fries.

I can feel myself losing it.

And I am okay with that.

Going after people was…

I wound up the rock like a baseball, then threw it at the boy.

Twice in one night, I struck my target. The rock flew down the hall, striking Miguel in a calf. He didn’t fall, but hobbled away to a nearby door. Changing course?

I followed him, taking long, fast strides, nearing a jog. Windows near the door revealed a pool area. I got to the door, and went through.

The pool itself was drained, and it was easy to spot Miguel in here. He was standing awkwardly at the other end of the empty pool, holding​ a metal pipe. Shivering.

Fool. He had cornered himself.

Like a dumb, scared rabbit.

I dropped into the pool, my landing echoing through the room. Carrying.

With every step forward, he took three back. But his back soon hit the pool wall behind him.

It was dark in here, dark throughout the entire hotel, but I had no issue on that front. For Miguel, he wasn’t allowed that advantage. Moonlight had pierced through the windows that faced the outside, casting blotches of light on the floor of the pool.

What did Miguel see, right this second?

My voice croaked out, completely unrecognizable.

“Migueeeeel, you s-set meee up against Styx Gang, r-riiiiiiight?”

It seemed like so long ago, but I remembered being ambushed back in the trailer, taken by surprise. I had no evidence, no reason to claim what I was claiming, but my brain was taking any train of thought that came to it and rode it all the way. Derailed.

He yelled, as if trying to appeal to someone he knew. But that person checked out some time ago.

Slurred, panicked Spanish. I was barely decent speaking at normal pace in class. All of his words were lost on me.

Alright, no more delay.

Okay.

I practically skipped the rest of the way. My leg strength took me the rest of the way in three steps.

Miguel tried to swing, to retaliate, but it would be of no use to him. I caught the metal pipe with one hand, twisted, and it was enough for him to let go of his makeshift weapon.

My other hand went for his throat.

He was stuck, choking, with my thoughts speeding towards one eventuality, pushing me to take the appropriate action.

“Juice,” I wheezed, trying to suppress a cough. “Let me drink. M-make it easy for me. Give me juice. Use my knife, give me your juice. I j-just want something to drink.”

I thought again. Did I have my knife?

No, I don’t.

Someone had me give it up for… something else. It was in my pocket right now. Would that work, instead?

I had a feeling it wouldn’t.

My fingers tightened some, and the boy was turning red. Like an apple.

Just needed the juice.

Soon…

I was excited.

“A—–…”

A word, maybe more. A sentence? I couldn’t understand, but whatever was said compelled me to wheel around.

Part man, part bird. Tall. Two, dark circles for eyes stared back at me. Haunting.

He brought an arm out. Holding something. Pointing something.

At me.

Who-” I started, but two sharp pricks poked into my leg, stopping me. Another prick.

Whua…

Sluggishly, I drooped, an intense weariness overwhelming me. I stumbled, and the boy slipped out of my grasp. My eyesight was beginning to swim, and a heavy, forceful comfort took over my whole body and sense of self. With my eyelids heavy, and a long breath, I blacked out.

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