Interlude – Sarah

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

Sarah shivered.

“Cold?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah swallowed.

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

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

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

Sarah raised an eyebrow.

“How nicely?”

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

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

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

Sarah pouted. She wanted to play along.

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

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

“Why don’t you take a guess?”

A challenge. She was up for that.

If it means not having to go outside just yet.

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

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

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

She aimed for her lips.

“Whoa!”

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

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

“Nice enough,” Celeste said.

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

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

“Yeah, frozen in fear,” Sarah answered.

“What? Why?”

Sarah shot a look at her.

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

Since I left for college.

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

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

Sarah sighed.

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah made a face.

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

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

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

“So I’m a problem?”

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

“No, you’re…”

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

“A disagreement?” Celeste offered.

Sarah sighed again.

“No,” she said. “You’re my roommate.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Cool,” Sarah said.

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

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

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

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

“In what ways?”

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

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

But Sarah didn’t bring any of that up.

Celeste flashed another one of her trademark smirks.

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

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

“Definitely different from sharing one with my sister.”

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

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

Celeste laughed. Completely genuine.

Sarah loved hearing Celeste’s laugh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s cold outside,” Sarah said.

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

“It kind of can be.”

“That wasn’t a real sentence.”

Celeste tapped the wheel, keeping her hands on it.

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

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

“It’s freezing outside,” Sarah said.

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

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

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

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

Final,” Sarah said, finishing the thought.

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

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

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

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

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

It was there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh my god, fuck you!”

Celeste gestured over to the general direction of the apartment.

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

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

“Ow,” Celeste said.

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

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

She held her breath.

The door cracked open. A chill crept through her.

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

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

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

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

Sarah looked to the apartment complex.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right?

Sarah hoped.

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

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

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

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

Point taken.

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

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

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

“Sarah’s here!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah let out a breath, smiling a little.

“You can say that,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

“Always the optimist,” Reggie said.

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

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

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

She shrugged it off.

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

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

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

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

Sarah pointed at him. “See?”

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

“I…”

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

The thought sobered her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lawrence blinked. “Oh, right.”

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

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

“Well, I mean…”

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

Instead, he pointed to the people behind him.

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

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

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

“How very responsible of you,” Tone commented.

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

“You’re really thinking ahead.”

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

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

“This is all for you guys, not me.”

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

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

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

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

“Definitely sucks!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I would have been fine,” Sarah said.

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

“And what’s that supposed to mean?”

Reggie grumbled, rolling his eyes a bit.

“I think you know exactly what I mean.”

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

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

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

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

“I appreciate your benevolence,” Reggie said.

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

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

“Good point.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You?”

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

“Sarah?”

Sarah looked at Reggie. “Huh?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, I can handle my shit.”

Sarah tilted away from Reggie’s incredulous glare.

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

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

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

“I give you the same challenge then!”

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

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

“I’ll match you,” he said, cool.

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

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

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

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

Breathe in, breathing out was much less easy.

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

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

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

Reggie said that with a joking kind of inflection.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah was more curious than anything else.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still, though, she still looked cute.

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?” Reggie asked.

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

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

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

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

“I… don’t know actually.”

That’s fine. Should be easy to get.

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

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

Reggie stopped.

“Sarah? Sarah no.”

She looked from V to Reggie. “What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She didn’t, though.

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

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

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

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

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

“Good thing the year ended already.”

Sarah and Reggie both looked at Tone.

He met them with a bored look on his face.

“It’s past midnight. Happy new year.”

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

Sarah turned, her eyes somehow found her again.

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

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

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

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

Sarah stretched her hands out.

“Thank you,” Wendy said.

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

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

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

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

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

That had to account for something.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The thread that was becoming more red.

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

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

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

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

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

“Cold?” Sarah asked.

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

“I can fix that for you.”

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

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

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

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

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

She decided to ask.

“So, where are we?”

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

Sarah bit her own lip.

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

Finally, Wendy did answer.

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

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

Wendy rubbed her arms again.

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

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

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

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

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

“That was the home of Alexis Barnett.”

“Alexis Barnett…”

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

“This is where you came from?”

“In a sense,” Wendy said, despondent.

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

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

Wendy attempted her approach.

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

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

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

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

“Constricting?” Sarah suggested.

“That works.”

“What was Alexis like?”

“I…”

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

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

Wendy passed Sarah her phone.

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

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

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

She sounded so normal.

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

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

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

“This was just published?” Sarah asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“If you say so.”

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

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

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

There was a long pause from Wendy.

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

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

Sarah got it. She totally did.

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

Closure, Sarah thought.

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

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

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

Holes you can’t fill.

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

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

Wendy just kept shaking her head.

“You always know what to say, Sarah.”

Brief, but Sarah reminisced on another, earlier time.

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

“Could… I ask you another favor?”

“Anything,” Sarah said, meaning it.

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

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

Wendy sighed, sounding jittery.

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

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

“That’s fine, I just want to see.”

“Should I say anything?”

“You don’t have to.”

Sarah considered it. Didn’t take her long.

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

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

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

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

Sarah knocked.

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

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

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

A woman stood before Sarah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was what she should have done, that day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah understood that.

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

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

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

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

Letting it out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Light, enough to make one faint.

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

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

Tongue, a barely felt nibble. Lessons exchanged.

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

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

Needed more.

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

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

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

A much larger part of was thirsty for much more.

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t… I don’t know…”

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

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

With just a nod, Wendy let her.

Then, by a thread, Sarah led the way.

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100 – Blood to Let, Peace to Make

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Alexis Barnett.

Alexis, Barnett. Alexis. Barnett.

Alexis Alexis Alexis, Alexis, Alexis Barnett? Alexis Barnett.

Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis Alexis Barnett, Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis Barnett. Alexis Alexis.

Alexis Alexis Alexis Barnett, Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis. Alexis Alexis Alexis Barnett Alexis Barnett. Alexis Alexis Alexis Alexis. Alexis Alexis Alexis Barnett, Alexis Barnett. Alexis Alexis Alexis Alexis. Alexis. Alexis Alexis Alexis, Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis Alexis Alexis Alexis. Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis Alexis Barnett? Alexis Barnett Alexis Barnett. Alexis Alexis. Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis, Alexis Barnett. Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis Alexis Barnett. Alexis. Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis Alexis Barnett, Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis Barnett. Alexis Alexis.

Alexis Barnett, Alexis Barnett.

Alexis Barnett.

Alexis Barnett Alexis Barnett. Alexis Alexis. Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis, Alexis Barnett. Alexis Alexis. Alexis Barnett Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis Barnett. Alexis, Barnett, Alexis Barnett. Alexis Alexis Alexis Barnett.

Alexis?

Alexis Barnett.

Alexis. Alexis Alexis. Alexis Barnett. Alexis, Alexis, Alexis Barnett. Alexis Barnett Alexis Barnett. Alexis, Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis. Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis, Alexis Barnett. Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis Alexis Barnett. Alexis. Alexis Alexis Alexis Barnett Alexis Barnett, Alexis Barnett.

Alexis. Barnett. Alexis.

Alexis.

Alexis, Alexis, Alexis Barnett. Alexis Barnett Alexis Barnett. Alexis, Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis. Alexis Alexis Alexis, Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis Alexis? Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis Alexis Alexis Alexis. Alexis Barnett. Alexis Alexis. Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis, Alexis Barnett. Alexis Barnett Alexis Alexis Alexis Barnett. Alexis.

Alexis Barnett.

Alexis.

Alexis.

Alexis.

Alexis.

“I don’t know who that is,” I said.

“I can’t even entertain that possibility for a second. I’ve done my research, I know who you are, Alexis Barnett.”

That voice… it was taunting me, mocking me. An upper register that I despised.

Alexis Barnett.

Fuck no. I tried to not think about that name. Ignore it, block it out. Deny it.

Alexis. Alexis Barnett.

I gritted my teeth until it hurt. Fuck this. Fuck no.

Through those gritted teeth, sharpened fangs, tongue pressed against them, I pushed out the words.

“My name is Wendy.”

I told her that, and I also told myself that.

“Maybe that’s the name you’re using now, but it’s nothing more than an alias. A mask. A lie. And you can’t lie to me, Alexis.”

My hands were clenched tight, fingernails digging into my palms. Pinpricks.

“You can think what you want, Natalie Beckham, but that doesn’t change the situation you’re in. It doesn’t change the now. You’re still stuck in here, you still might die.”

I stared at the thin wall that divided us. The outline of Natalie Beckham was still, unmoving.

“That very may well be the case,” Natalie said after a time, “But that still cannot change the underlying truth, here. You’re still Alexis Barnett, you’re still-”

I punched the wall. Natalie startled.

Not enough break through, but enough to let her know that I could.

I let silence come into the booth with us. I let it hang.

And just as I let the silence in, I also destroyed it. A show, a display. It was also a reminder.

For her, and for me.

“No matter how hard you dig, there isn’t anything else. Nothing. Just me. Just Wendy.”

“That’s so sad,” Natalie said. “Sadder still that it’s a lie.”

I wanted to punch the wall again, but I couldn’t guarantee that it would stay up after a second hit.

God, fuck this. Fuck.

I couldn’t get away from this, couldn’t get around it. Natalie was saying her name, invoking it. And I needed to find out the why and how. It was one of the other things Mrs. Carter had asked of us, to interrogate Natalie Beckham and Oliver Morgan. Figure out what they know, who they had talked to. Assess the damage they would have caused if they hadn’t been stopped.

This was part of that assessment. This. Alexis fucking Barnett.

I cringed. I unfurled my fists, my nails having dug in too deep. I stared at the palms of my hands. Tiny crescent moons of crimson. Red against white. They almost looked like paintings.

The image didn’t last, though, the white eventually wiking out of existence, leaving nothing but blankness. It unsettled, leaving a nauseating impression that sat heavy in my stomach.

I sat here in this booth. I was sitting in this booth.

I’m stuck in this booth.

Lifting my head up, then my eyes, everything was weighing me down, making even the most incremental movements feel sluggish, listless. There wasn’t a shred of confidence in them.

I opened my mouth, or rather, I tried to relax the building tension in my jaw. It instead felt like I was prying it open. When I did speak, my voice was dry. I was thirsty.

“Believe what you want, it won’t change anything. Like I said before, you’re stuck in here with me, and you have a lot to answer for.”

“As do you,” Natalie said.

She didn’t sound scared, nervous, or uneasy in any capacity. It was almost the opposite. She sounded intrigued.

“I know you’ve been looking into John Cruz, and that you’ve sneaking around the Fang’s territory, too.”

“Ah,” Natalie said.

“So how much do you know, already?”

I went right to the questioning. The doubt was there, as if it was sitting right next to me, or like Isabella, who would standing right outside the door. The doubt was there, but I had to put that divider between me and that, too.

“I only know what I know. It’s not everything, but if you had given me enough time…”

“Well, don’t plan on it anymore. We’re cutting you off right now. Speaking of, I need to know where Oliver is, too. Where is he?”

“No, no, Alexis, that’s not how you do it at all. You stay on topic, hammer it in if you have to. Don’t lose track of the interview, because that’s the fastest way for the interviewee to lose their confidence in you. They might shut down, get frustrated, and it’s not going to lead you to getting the most accurate information out of them. And there is nothing worse than being inaccurate.”

“Answer my fucking questions,” I said.

“Now, see, which one? You’ve already lost me. That’s no good.”

I brought my hands together, wringing them, as if I could crush the very air between my palms.

I could just kill her right now. I could just lie, say she didn’t have much on anyone, and kill her. Leave her corpse out rotting as the sun rises and draw Oliver out using it.

I cracked a knuckle.

No, I couldn’t. I put up another divider between me and that urge, too.

This isn’t working.

Walls were being raised up all around me, leaving me with less and less room to breath. Like being in a confessional wasn’t constricting enough. I couldn’t even stretch my arms out to their full length.

“Tell me,” I started, but I paused. Had to set my everything straight in my head, what I needed to ask, what was pertinent to know.

One thing kept coming to mind, one name.

“Alexis Barnett,” I said. Her name tasted bitter in my mouth. I cringed again. “How do you know that name?”

My heart was pounding, on the precipice, about to drop. I was waiting for an answer that I didn’t want to hear. An answer I was scared to hear.

“How? I’m a journalist, that’s what I do. I search through records, I follow up on what’s happened before, I see the patterns and I make the connections. Then, I report it, but I haven’t gotten to that part. Not yet.”

“And you won’t get to,” I said.

Natalie clicked her tongue. “Another thing you shouldn’t do? Jump to conclusions.”

I grunted, nearing a growl. She was testing my patience. Challenging my authority.

The former was already so thin. I didn’t want the latter to fall in the same way.

“You clearly want something,” I said, trying to get at this from another direction, despite her advice. “I’m beginning to suspect that you… planned to be in here with me.”

Bringing that idea up… it came with a risk. It was the equivalent of my sticking my chin out while trying to get in close for a better shot. Or something along those lines. Either way, I metaphorically stood to lose some ground. The dynamic wouldn’t shift too hard in her favor, she was still bound and stuck in that booth, I could always walk away.

But if I did… would that equate to me forfeiting the fight? Losing to someone who had a handicap?

I shook my head, and I was only one in here. I adjusted my glasses.

Natalie Beckham answered me.

“Planned? I’m not so cunning, it just worked out like this. But, after years of having to gather info after the fact, working my way backwards, I can’t help but feel like this was always meant to happen. You and me.”

“Yeah?”

“Lorene informed me of someone coming to office, asking for me and Oli. She gave them my number, and gave me their name.”

I clicked my tongue. So much for that.

“I saw an opportunity and I took it. Though, I admit it’s not my smartest move.”

Natalie chuckled. I noticed some trepidation had managed to creep into her voice.

“But it wasn’t really my move to make.”

“What do you want?” I asked her, knowing I was switching topics again, moving from Alexis to this. Fuck.

“Same thing I always want,” Natalie answered. “The truth. You think I’d pass a chance like this up? An interview with the world’s first superhuman? That’s the story of the lifetime, and I only have the one.”

“You must be fucking delusional,” I said, “If you think you’ll be able to report anything I give you. You’re done, Natalie. You’ve lost, or you’re being cornered and running out of moves to make. In any case, the game is entering its final rounds.”

“In any case,” Natalie repeated, “I still have some moves left, it’s not over. There are still pieces on the board, more than you might even be aware of.”

“Like Oliver Morgan?” I questioned. I hated how this conversation was going. Too circular, looping the same few topics, without making much headway between any of them. It was starting to make my head ache.

“He’s one of them,” Natalie said.

We had pieces in play, too, but I didn’t dare mention them. The insurance. We could use them if we had to, and with how things were going, it might go that way.

“I need to know where he is,” I told her. “Me and my gang were tasked to take you both in. We’ll get what we need out of you, and then Oliver will get to have his turn, too.”

“Why? So you can kill him once you’re done with him?”

“So I can cross-reference with him what you tell me.”

“You didn’t answer my second question.”

“You’re not even in a position to ask,” I said. I breathed. “I’ve been very patient with you, to the point where I’m testing my own limits. Do not push me.”

There was a break in the already broken conversation. It wasn’t even so much a conversation as it was a battle, but we weren’t trading blows, just words. And I was struggling to keep on a grip on things.

I made fists with my hands again, as if I could actually take the reins of this nebulous concept.

Dammit. If only I had D, here, even Lawrence. Sarah. She could just be close and that would be enough to put my mind at ease. Now, though? It was just me, my thoughts, and the walls around me. I told the others that I could handle this part, but my track record when doing things by myself, it only made the walls start closing in even more.

I couldn’t do this by myself, but I didn’t have to.

“You know what?” Natalie started, “You’re right, I do want something. So how about this? I’m here, now, you have me. I can’t do much else. All we can do at the moment is talk. Let me ask you some questions, and I can answer whatever you ask me.”

“That’s not an offer you can give me,” I said. “You were always going to talk, no matter what. That hasn’t changed.”

“I know, I get that. But, please, would you indulge me?”

“In my world, words like that lead me to think that it’s a trap.”

“Trap? If I’m delusional, then you’re being paranoid.”

“Paranoia is a warm blanket. You need it when shit gets bad, and it does. Often, and fast.”

“Seems lonely,” Natalie commented.

I didn’t comment.

Natalie spoke. “I can go first, then. Something of a peace offering. John Cruz? I know he’s dirty, that he’s been secretly been sponsored by the mob, propped up as the new district attorney, so he can make their claws sink in that much deeper. But it doesn’t take loose lips to figure that out. When in doubt, follow the money, and there’s always a paper trail. Is that a good start for you?”

I didn’t comment. Not for a time.

It took some serious willpower to get me to unclench again, even though that manic energy was still kicking inside of me, still begging for an outlet. I adjusted my glasses, and found that my fingers were shaking as they moved.

I breathed, my voice hissing at the end of it.

“It’s a start,” I said. “You want to talk? Fine, let’s talk. I can entertain your curiosity. For a moment.”

Until Lawrence can get back on his feet, and we can all work together towards interrogating you, properly.

I tapped my foot, then grabbed for my phone. The sudden light from the screen blinded me. I sent a text to D, to update me on Lawrence’s condition, and when they’d be able to come back to assist me in questioning Natalie.

I put my phone away, ready to talk.

“Remember where you are right now,” I said, reminding her, reminding myself. “Your… predicament.”

“Kind of hard to forget.”

My ears picked up a faint clinking of metal on the other side. Handcuffs, most likely.

I didn’t start things off, instead letting the silence back in. I’d let her be the one to break it, this time.

“Let’s start with your name. Who are you?”

“I already told you. It’s Wendy.”

“But I want to get to the heart of things.”

I didn’t answer that, but my silence sent its own message.

Then, Natalie started.

“Alexis… to Wendy. Blank Face to V. The world’s first superhero, to its first supervillain. That has to be quite the journey, to go from one extreme to the other. I’d like to get the full picture, as you understand it. Paint it for me, would you?”

The full picture.

“The full picture,” I repeated. “That’s something I can’t even get for myself. I’m still, you know, working on it. And it’s a picture I didn’t even start. Painting over things, using different colors, endlessly unsure if my technique is any good, or if it’s even right. As I understand it? I barely had the chance to take a step back and take in everything I put to the canvas.”

I blinked when I referred to myself. I. Me. Wendy.

“Alright, we can frame it another way, then. What does Alexis Barnett mean to you?”

Alexis Barnett. Alexis Barnett-

“Weakness,” I said, before my thoughts could loop and my head start achining even harder. “She struggled and couldn’t handle it, couldn’t keep standing. She buckled, and there wasn’t anything there to prop her back up. So she submerged, stayed there. At the bottom.”

“So what keeps you standing? Wickedness?”

The wording of that reminded of something Fillmore had said, once.

“Something along those lines, yeah.”

“And you retreated into that wickedness, decided to be the villain, instead.”

“Sure,” I said.

“That’s… rather self-destructive of you.”

I shrugged, knowing she couldn’t see that.

“I don’t expect you to understand what we’re doing, here,” I said.

“That’s why I ask questions, gather context. All I want to know is, why? Why did you have to go down this road?”

Some time ticked away. I didn’t know how much, but it did.

After some more passed, Natalie said, “You haven’t asked yourself these questions, have you?”

“I have,” I said, a touch defensive. “Plenty of times.”

Plenty of times, mostly just in my own head. But I haven’t really… talked it over with someone else. Not too often.

I left it at that.

Natalie continued her questioning.

“Okay. Whatever your motivations were, they led you down that road. You got your start fighting gangs, and now you lead one yourself. Why? What’s your ultimate goal, doing this? What could you possibly hope to accomplish?”

“You’ve stuck your nose in my territory, you tell me.”

“Well, comparing you to the previous gang, the Fangs aren’t as ingrained in the community, but I’ve noticed the effort. Pushing out the harder drugs, clearing the streets of more troublesome individuals. It’s like you’re actually trying to make that neighborhood a better place than you found it.”

“Getting warm,” I said.

“Is that it, then? You couldn’t make the difference you wanted to as a hero, so you turned yourself into some other thing, entirely?”

“Warmer, but not quite there.”

“Then what is it?”

That trepidation was still in her voice, but there was another emotion mixed in there, now. Not excited, exactly, but as if she was sitting at the edge of her seat, thirsting over an answer. The truth.

I could feel a strange sense of comfort, in that. Being able to talk to a dead person. Any secrets shared would get buried with them.

My heart pounded, my head ached. The walls fell away a bit.

If I answered her, she would die.

“Peace,” I said. “I want solace.”

I answered her.

Sorry, D.

“And setting the city on fire is your way of getting that? I heard the sirens. Shit, I heard the explosions. And this isn’t the first time smoke was raised over Stephenville. You’re going to end up burning everything to the ground.”

“Exactly,” I said. “This is a fucked up city, and an even more fucked up world. I just want to take over everything and burn it down with me. And then, I can lay in the ashes and rest.”

I massaged my hands, rubbing them together. I had set them between my thighs, the cold starting to get to me. I felt the friction begin to heat me up.

That had been the plan, all along. What I was striving for this whole time. To build the Fangs up into a force that could sweep over the whole city like a wildfire. D was the only other person who was playing along, helping set everything up for me to knock down.

But what we were building, we were building with Lawrence. And he had different aspirations, what he was building, he wanted it to last. I could see it as we were getting further along, after being approached by Mrs. Carter. He worked so hard to plan this art heist, to put on a show, not just to throw smoke over our actual plan, but to impress the upper echelon of gang leaders.

The table was within reach, but we had different ideas of what we would do when we got there.

Sorry, Lawrence.

Natalie had paused. Or rather, she hesitated.

“That… sounds more like revenge than solace,” she then observed.

“Call it what you want. Doesn’t change anything.”

“I think it does. Revenge is a cyclical thing. A vicious circle. You think by doing this, you’re taking control of the things around you? I’ve seen it time and time again, working the crime beat, reporting on it. It’s a cycle. Someone gets wronged, they get burned hard, and they’ll come back with their perverted sense of how to make things right, again. It’s a spiral that does nothing but destroy everyone that chooses to go down that path, that road. That will include you, Wendy. It’s like clockwork.”

“I can bounce back,” I said. “Perks of being a monster.”

“You burned a lot of bridges to be where you are right now, from Alexis to Wendy. That means a lot of enemies. I suspect… you’d actually stand to gain much more agency if you were to just stop, and walk away from all of this.”

I shook my head again. I was still the only one in here.

“It’s too late for that,” I said. “It’s too late for me. Like you mentioned, I burned those bridges already. This is where I have to be. I don’t have those connections, anymore.”

I could only imagine the look she had on her face. Was she frowning? Disappointed? Or was she just happy that she could satiate her thirst?

On that level, I was envious of her.

When Natalie spoke again, it nearly took me by surprise. I would have figured she was done.

“You really hate that part of your life that much? To just throw it all away?”

I told myself as much as I told her, “It was a necessary bit of evil.”

“Is that what powers do to you? I wouldn’t know for myself.”

That was a question that hit my core, in a way I didn’t expect. My powers… they changed how I saw the world, and how Alexis had fit in it. If she never had gotten them, if she had never went out that day, I wouldn’t be here, I wouldn’t want to burn.

“Having powers like mine is like having anything else. It’s how you use it, or how you let it use you. It’s a delicate balance, and I’ll admit, I haven’t been very good at maintaining it. But that’s just another thing for me to work on.”

“How could you possibly find that balance when you’ve let your powers, your predicament, veer you to such an extreme course of action? Tell me, if you think Alexis Barnett to be so weak that you’d sooner disown her, then who are you even getting revenge for?”

Another hit to the core. A question for which I didn’t quite have an answer.

One was forming, on the tip of my dry tongue, but the words weren’t coming out.

  1. Me. Wendy.

But who was I actually? What was I really?

I remembered the Lunar Tower, I remembered the barn. There were spirals there, too. Spirals of destruction.

It was supposed to be easy. The answer was supposed to be right there.

Wendy. Me. I.

Alexis Barnett.

“For myself, and myself only,” I answered. I sounded more defensive. I sounded more irritated.

The more I doubled down…

“Is that something you can claim for yourself? That vengeance?”

“I will.”

“Another thing for you to work on?”

I wanted to stand up, but I didn’t have room for even that. Constricted, constrained. I clenched my hands again, fingernails digging.

“We’re done here,” I said. “You keep saying her name, Alexis Barnett. But no matter how many times you bring her up, it’s not going to bring her back.”

“It’s not about bringing her back, it’s about not making her forgotten.”

“Some people prefer to be left alone,” I said.

I felt my phone, heavy in my pocket. I was ready for it to vibrate, inform me that a response had come. It hadn’t.

I tapped my foot again.

We needed to know more on what she had on John Cruz, and Oliver Morgan was still out there, too. But I wanted to avoid doing anything drastic while it was just me here, watching Natalie. Better to play it safe for now, and there was no need to for us to rush.

But, there was one thing that I could look into on my own. I wouldn’t need D or Lawrence or Sarah for this.

In my head, her name echoed, calling out to me from the very bottom. Again.

Damn you.

“Natalie, you said Alexis Barnett was the one you really wanted to talk to. Why?”

It was now that Natalie Beckham went silent.

“Remember-”

I was interrupted by a metal clinking. More deliberate.

“Still haven’t forgotten,” Natalie said. “You’re asking why I did this, it’s like asking why a moth goes to a flame. It’s in their nature.”

“That’s rather self-destructive of you,” I said, throwing those words back. “Get close to fire, you might get burned. That’s the risk you run the second you started getting into our business.”

My business, I thought.

“You don’t have to tell me. I’ve been at this for a long time.”

“Then what? Are you afraid?”

“Afraid? No. Doing what I do, I knew this might happen eventually, getting swallowed by the very light I’m so attracted to. So with me here, now? Might as well make something of it. It’s a shame I can’t tell your story, Wendy. Despite everything, I wouldn’t want you to be forgotten.”

“I prefer the shadow,” I said. “Now enough with the misdirection. Tell me what you have on Alexis Barnett.”

I was done with this fight. Trading words, worrying over everything that had been said. I was going to get what I needed out of her, and I could finally be done.

Natalie breathed, shaky, and then finally got to the point.

“Sure, but, instead of telling you, how about you read it for yourself?”

I tilted my head.

“I don’t understand.”

“Go to the Impact’s website. Early edition section. Should be up by now.”

I reached for my phone, which felt as heavy as a brick in my hand. No replies from D, yet.

Light violated my eyes as I unlocked my phone. I went to the website of the Stephenville Impact.

I froze.

Her name in print. It was like seeing a ghost.

Alexis Barnett-

I couldn’t even read the rest. I just saw the name. I saw the face.

Alexis, Barnett. Alexis. Barnett-

My hands were shaking, my vision going red. The walls were starting to crack and my throat flared in thirst.

Alexis-

I snapped. It wasn’t even hard. It was right there, the whole time. Bubbling inside of me, ready to burst.

The walls fell around me. The divider between us splintered into pieces.

I clawed through the wood and mesh. My hands found their way to Natalie’s neck.

It was the first time I saw her in person. I didn’t have to guess at her expressions anymore.

Fear. Her eyes were wide and darting. It had been dark in both booths, so she couldn’t see what just happened. Her hands were tied behind her, she couldn’t fight back as I threw her back into the wall, pushing her up until her head hit the short ceiling above her.

She tried to kick, wiggle around. It wouldn’t work. The space was too tight, and I already had her. She wasn’t going anywhere.

“I told you not to test me,” I growled.

Natalie struggled to speak. Some strands of her hair had whipped around, getting in her mouth. She spat before she could articulate anything.

“What the fuck did you do?”

I growled again.

Natalie gagged. “I told- I told the truth!”

I slammed her into the wall. The wood cracked in places.

“You wrote your own death sentence!”

“It’s- It’s not everything. It’s just the lede. Alexis Barnett the- the teenage girl who loved volleyball and being with her friends-”

I tightened my grip around her throat.

“Shut up! Shut the fuck up!”

I was contradicting myself. But I was panicking. Scatterbrained. Everything about this was cracked and broken and fucked up.

“What did you write? What the fuck did you put in there?”

“Nothing about the Fangs, or John Cruz. That- That was to come later, once I have everything. I don’t have everything!”

“I’ll kill you!”

“You kill me, you don’t get anything!”

I willed myself to release her, to just pull my fingers back and let her drop, but my hands weren’t moving. Something else was taking over. A lust for something more than blood.

Against that, though, Natalie still managed to gasp out some more words.

“Journalists have… a responsibility to seek the truth… report it… but how it’s presented is just as important. People… won’t understand if it hits them all at once. The truth is a… difficult thing to handle. That’s why I had to do it like this, they need… context.”

“You’re not making any fucking sense!”

I threw Natalie back into the wall. She didn’t go through, instead slumping down, into her seat.

The force of it threw me back, too, landing somewhere between the two booths, on top of the broken wood and torn mesh.

This wasn’t working.

I scrambled for purchase, mentally and physically. Cracked and broken and fucked up.

Natalie was useless, she was playing me the whole time. Needed someone else.

“Where’s Oliver, you get him over here now!”

I crawled over the debris to get to Natalie.

She was human. I was not. She couldn’t take the kind of punishment I could dish out.

Natalie slouched, head hanging. Breathing was light, but she was still alive.

My hands didn’t go for her throat, not this time. They went around her collar, to the clothes.

Like tearing up paper. Her clothes were in tatters.

Bare skin presented itself to me.

“Tell me how to contact him.”

Natalie was quiet.

I reached for her hand and squeezed it. Breaking every bone in it.

Natalie’s screams filled my ears.

“Pocket! In my pocket!”

I felt around, searching her body. Something on her dress, by her hip.

Finding her phone, I took it out and put it to her face.

“Call him,” I said.

Natalie looked up, weak, breathing harder now. Her phone had to be one of the newer types that could recognize faces, because the screen lit up. I could see the tears stream down her face.

She did this to herself.

Natalie muttered, but it worked. The phone beeped and dialed. It had recognized her voice, too.

The call was picked up, but it was quiet on the other end.

I reached for her other hand.

“Oli,” Natalie gasped, terrified.

A faint voice replied.

Nat? That you?

“It’s me, Oli, it’s-”

She screamed again. I had squeezed her hand.

Natalie!

I moved the phone around, holding it in both hands. I set it to speaker.

“That’s both hands already, Oliver Morgan. There’s twenty-seven bones in each. That makes fifty-four, so I still have a hundred and fifty-two to go through. Shall I go through them individually?”

Juvenile. You fucking kids think you can treat us like pawns?

Natalie murmured. I barely picked it up, but I caught the word ‘rook.’

I spoke over them both.

“Whatever you’re planning, it ends, now. Give yourself up, Oliver, it doesn’t have to get any worse for her.”

Fuck you. Coward.

I made a noise, somewhere between a growl and a snarl.

Why were they fighting me on this? Too deliberate. It was like they had some sort of contingency, in case either of them got tortured or killed.

If they had accounted for that…

“Oliver,” I said into the phone. I surprised myself by how calm I sounded there. Calm enough that Oliver was quiet on the other end.

I continued in that tone.

“What if I propose this, instead? It doesn’t get worse for her. In fact, it gets so much better.”

What the hell are you saying?” Oliver questioned.

“You’ve been looking us, me, Alexis freaking Barnett. So you know I have powers. One of them includes the ability to heal from any wound, no matter how serious. Even from a shot to the head. Are you following me?”

I don’t,” Oliver said.

“I’ll spell it out for you then. Give yourself up, and I don’t drink her blood, turn her into a thrall, and sic her on you?”

I wasn’t touching Natalie, but I could sense her go cold, frozen stiff at the mere suggestion.

You’re lying.

“I’m not,” I said, very much not sure if that was the truth at all.

Could I even turn someone into… whatever the hell I was? It hadn’t happened before, but I never really experimented with my abilities with any meaningful capacity. Was that a possibility?

Maybe, possibly, but I wasn’t about to test that with her. This would be her last night alive.

I kept that close to my chest. Along with everything else.

I had let the threat hang in the air. Static in my ears and my head.

The silence broke.

Fine.

“Follow my instructions, by the letter. Go where I tell you, go alone, and neither of you have to get hurt more than what you’ve already inflicted on yourself.”

I gave Oliver an address, the same address that was attached to Natalie’s phone number. Reggie was already there, he’d intercept Oliver the moment he came into view.

Oliver agreed, and the call ended.

I dropped the phone, tossing it by Natalie.

“It’s over,” I said to her. “It didn’t have to get this bad, but you forced my hand.”

Natalie was getting weaker by the second. Both of her hands were broken. She couldn’t move.

She still found it in her to run her mouth.

“Everyone’s hands were forced, Wendy. That’s what happens when you allow yourself to get caught in that spiral?”

“Yeah? But you and Oliver are the ones that are going down, first.”

“Burn enough bridges, Wendy, there’s nowhere else for you to run. It might be us now, but who’s to say someone won’t try to corner you?”

“Like I said, I’ll bounce back.”

“Wendy… Alexis… please… you don’t have to be stuck here. You can turn around, go back. Your mother misses you.”

A cold fear pierced through me. Right through my heart.

I lowered myself, hovering over Natalie.

“You what?”

“She’s in the story, I talked to her, about Alexis. I can’t lie, she isn’t looking very well, but if you went back-”

I slapped her with enough strength to probably knock a tooth out. I went to searching through the chipped wood at the confessional.

I found my phone, opening a program.

I showed Natalie the phone.

“When I visited the office, looking for you? Boxes of teddy bears were delivered on the same day. Most of them were clean, but some of them were packed with enough thermite to burn down the entire floor of the building.”

Natalie didn’t react. Maybe she didn’t have the energy to.

“It was our insurance, if you didn’t comply, and you didn’t. But it’s fine, now. I don’t care.”

I tapped my screen. It vibrated, then beeped, sending a remote signal to detonate the explosives.

“You… can’t last like this forever.”

She winced as I lifted her up. Her collar was still exposed. Gleaming, appetizing.

“Is this peace you’re after… worth all this violence and vengeance?”

“If we ever meet again, I’ll let you know.”

I didn’t give a warning. I just brought her to my teeth, and had my fill.

She twitched as I drained her, as the front of my lips to the back of my throat sang with the sweet flavor.

I didn’t go all the way. I wasn’t trying to be greedy. Just enough to satiate my thirst.

Natalie dropped in the seat again, falling over to her side. She was wheezing, her breaths slow.

If she’d end up turning, I wouldn’t know. She’d be dead before that ever happened.

I stepped out of the confessional. I didn’t feel good, but I did feel better.

Isabella greeted me. She was smiling.

I rolled my eyes and wiped my mouth.

Putting my phone to my ear, I dialed a number that finally managed to reply.

“I’m sorry, guys…”

“… accepted,” Styx finished with a grin. He zipped up the bags.

Styx grinned again, wider. “I can definitely accept this.”

“Was it worth seeing us again?” Lawrence asked.

I didn’t know Styx could grin any wider, but he did.

“Definitely.”

Smoke billowed behind him, blackening the sky above us. Some spilled out down the building, dissipating onto the ground and bits of debris.

The Stephenville Impact burned to ashes.

We had all convened at the parking garage we started the operation from. The top level was high enough to see the city’s skyline, and close enough to be able to observe certain things at a decent distance.

Firefighters were working to put out the smoke and its source, but the problem was that the office was on a higher floor, making it harder for people on the ground to try anything. From where I could see, I wasn’t able to see what they were doing about it, exactly, but that was their problem to solve. That was their job.

Me, D, Lawrence, Sarah at my side. Styx and his Ferrymen, across from us.

It was the first time I’d ever seen Styx’s Gang with anything bigger than a motorcycle, but it’d make less sense if they limited themselves in that capacity. But when they had to go big, they went there.

Styx indicated the two black bags and the huge armored truck. It looked like something banks would use to transport money around. Ferrymen moved, dragging the bags across the pavement, over to the open truck. I saw the Ferryman with helmet and the one with his hair tied back, waiting to help lift the bags inside.

Even covered up, I could make out their shapes.

“So,” Lawrence said, “What’s the verdict? Did we do good or no?”

Styx ran his fingers through his bread.

“You certainly put on a show. I definitely enjoyed it.”

“And Mrs. Carter?”

“Can’t speak for her, but you did what she asked of you, in a roundabout way. How she judges this is up to her. I just get to watch how it goes down.”

Lawrence nodded. I knew that he hated having to wait. As if it was a nervous tick, he scratched at his wrists, fixing the cuffs. I saw the stains on his sleeves. He hadn’t gotten all the blood out.

Styx turned and climbed on his bike. King of Pentacles.

“You roused me from an early grave, so I might as well go on an early haunt. Oh, and before I forget again, how about another piece of advice?”

What was the first advice? I thought. I tried to remember.

Cut ties?

“What is it?” Lawrence asked.

Styx’s expression changed. Twisted, vile really. It made me sick.

“Laugh!”

His bike then started up, rumbling with life. Exhaust swelled out from the metal veins of the mechanical beast.

Styx drove off, the armored truck and the other Ferrymen tailed him. The ones who were keeping watch of the different paths up to the top level got on their bikes and went with.

Another truck came into view, following suit. John Cruz and the other decoy hostages. We’d hold onto the other truck, the one with the paintings.

The loud engines fell into the distance, and then it was just us.

Lawrence shook his head, leaning back onto the hood of his car.

“Fucking hell, that guy creeps me the fuck out.”

“He’s out of our hair now, now what?”

D asked.

“We wait for Mrs. Carter to approach us again, so we give her over everything Oliver Morgan told us. Until then, though? We get our ducks in a row, focus on our territory again. Because if this goes the way I hope it does, we’re about to have a lot more territory to focus on.”

“Not just the territory, Ellie, we need to focus on ourselves.”

Lawrence leaned more onto his car.

“We can’t have another scare like that. You need to start tapering off your painkillers.”

“I will, in time. Just needed one to hold me over for tonight.”

“You better, or I’ll kick you in the shins, or I’ll get Vivi to do it. Right?”

D turned to me. All I did was offer a nod.

Lawrence scratched his wrists again. Still nervous? He shook his head again. Harder.

“There’s still some stuff about this that bugs me.”

“Like?”

Lawrence looked at D. “Like, why did they both not go to the event? There was no reason for them to split up. Oliver wouldn’t say, and even after I gave him his middle finger, I’m not sure if I believe what he told me. Their notes, too. It was all just public records on Cruz, hardly anything substantial. They were looking in him because they thought he was dirty, but they hadn’t collected any evidence to prove that claim. Why go after him then?”

D didn’t try to offer anything. I didn’t have an explanation.

“It’s like some weird, twisted murder mystery.”

“Doesn’t matter, right?” D asked, somehow hurried. “The real goal was to stop them, and we did. And look…”

She pointed to the sky, the smoke as it continued to pool upwards.

“That’s warning enough to anyone else who tries to go against us.”

Lawrence shrugged, shaking his head a little. Scratching his wrists.

“That’s big talk for a little girl. Not sure if I believe that, too.”

Before anyone could get another word in, Lawrence pushed himself to his feet, grunting from the effort.

“Whatever. We did what we were asked. No one can dispute that. In this world, that’s as close to a win as we’re going to get.”

He walked around his car, keeping a hand on it to keep his balance.

“I’ll text when something comes up. And Wendy?”

Everyone had turned to me. I lifted my head up.

“I’m-”

“I heard it the first time. You don’t have anything to apologize for. She was being… difficult, and you corrected that. It’s leave it at that, okay?”

Reluctant, I nodded. “Okay.”

Lawrence had nothing else to say. He got in his car, and left.

Me, D, and Sarah at my side.

D was on her phone, now, texting. She glanced at me. Hesitant, and a little pitiful. Not for herself, but for me.

“Sorry it didn’t go the way you wanted,” I said.

“It’s… I’m not mad, Vivi.”

“Just disappointed?”

“Not even that. I’ll… I really want to stay here with you, but…”

“It’s fine, you can go.”

She touched my hand, giving it a wag.

Leaving it at that, D walked over to her van. The next to leave.

Me, and Sarah at my side.

“Wasn’t D your ride?” Sarah asked.

I turned to face Sarah.

She wasn’t wearing the mechanic outfit, but the blouse and skirt she had on underneath. The only light here was artificial, from the light pole above, but she still somehow basked in it.

I was confused. My heart was pounding and my head was aching.

I reached for her hand, I gave it a squeeze.

I asked her for something I should have asked for a long time ago.

“Would you mind coming with me?”

Sarah looked like she was about to speak, but she didn’t. Instead, her lips were set together, bright and red.

Sarah’s expression was answer enough.

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099 – Keyword

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An intense rush went over and through me. Hitting against my chest, forcing me to steel myself and keep an iron grip on the van’s cold, metal roof. A hard wind that sent shivers across my whole being.

It probably said something, that this kept my focus, centered me, to the point that I could get lost in it, because I had done that before. Danger, destruction. A void that I had come from and could easily slip back into.

The wind hit, and I shivered again. I smiled.

Speeding out of the alley, the vans immediately disrupted the oncoming traffic, tearing up the road and causing chaos. Cars swerved out of the way, tires screeching, people screaming. The drivers were good, they didn’t hit anyone or crash into anything, but they did leave behind a mess.

Over the initial wave of pandemonium, I yelled into the earpiece.

“We’re en route! The vans, or the hammers, are splitting up as we speak!”

I could hear D’s tiny voice in my ear.

I can hear it from here. Could you not be so obvious about it, though? We need to leave through the same alley, too.

The van drifted through an intersection, hardly losing any speed. I held on hard enough for the metal to bend.

“And you’ll get that, don’t worry!”

I almost heard the start of a whine, but a sharper horn cut through that, instead.

Cars practically leapt to safety, even if it meant endangering other people. The van I was on snaked between the different obstacles, sometimes just skirting past the metal of other vehicles, almost trading paint. It was so easy for this to go so wrong. A turn made too late, a driver panicking and skidding right into us… a collision would send me soaring before I crashed, myself. It was something I could walk away from, but that meant losing precious time, time that could be spent raising even more hell.

I wasn’t planning on staying on the roof of this van, however, I’d have to split up again. That was the point. But I needed more distance, we had to spread out more.

Another corner, turning even when the light was red. The squeals of tire on rubber pierced my ears as the van veered through everything and everyone. Another street.

The traffic was thinning out as we got farther away from the gala, moving through another part of the Eye. The metropolis still sprawled out, so we all had plenty of cover from buildings and alleys, back roads and some even improvised paths if we had to brute force it.

A benefit of being able to operate in the city, we were given a lot of room to work with. The vans and trucks would have the streets, while I had the rooftops. The verticality.

It wasn’t unlike having a canvas to paint on. We were in the process of making a picture. I had in mind a piece that Sarah had singled out, while we scoped out the gala ourselves. The image of anger, of broken fractals and harsh colors. Fire.

With the Fangs, I didn’t need a painting like that in my apartment. We could paint an even more vivid picture.

The van accelerated, and I didn’t budge or sway. I did, though, start to lift myself up, pushing so my feet were pressing more into the roof. My legs tensed, my arms tightened, my whole body coiling up and getting ready to spring.

I waited. People and cars scrambled to get out of our path, risking other lives to save their own, creating a sort of lawlessness that branched out and spread by itself, almost like a wildfire. The high pitched screams and squeaks were like the embers of a great flame.

One more turn, and then it was just us. The van, and me on top of it. The others were taking their own routes, forming their own branches. And I was to add to that, as well.

I yelled into the earpiece.

“I’m about to start! How’s Sarah and Lawrence?”

D answered.

Same as you. About to start. The Fangs are right at the door, and Lawrence is about to signal them in. He’s got visual on at least one of them.

Hearing that almost made me stumble off the van and onto the pavement.

“At least one of them?”

The reporters. I can’t get anything else from Lawrence since he’s about to start. We’ll just have to make do.

Words I didn’t want to hear so early on in this. We needed both reporters in order to consider this job complete, we couldn’t let either of them slip past us. And Lawrence only pegged down one of them?

I wanted to turn back and help Lawrence, maybe even protect Sarah if she’d need it. I wanted to, but I recognized that I couldn’t. That wasn’t what the job called for. If it was, I’d be there instead, hiding in the crowd, being another pair of eyes for Lawrence, bringing in some muscle if the situation called for that.

No. I could only help by doing my part, and that was here, away from the gala, leaving as much disorder as I could in the distance between us. And that distance was growing.

A lot of work to do.

“That’s fine,” I said into the earpiece, “We’ll make it work, we always do.”

Do we? I’m kidding. Alright, cameras are on a loop and… there. Their communications will be all scrambly for a little. The Fangs are about to bite.

Lawrence was looped into the call as well, but he couldn’t actively participate in our conversation. He was about to get on stage, ready to perform.

And so was I.

Now.

It was a synchronized moment in three parts. The van took a sudden turn, Lawrence shouted, and I took to the air.

I heard it in my ear, over the wind as I through it.

A harsh, digitized burst of noise, like static. The single warning shot of a gun.

And then Lawrence.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are your entertainment for tonight.

His voice sounded a touch more distorted than before, when he was among the attendees, mingling with them, pretending. If I got the timing of everyone’s part right, one of the Fangs would have passed him his mask by now.

First a costume, now a mask. Was he trying to give me competition?

The question soon passed from my mind as I headed to terra firma.

I hit the ground running.

We’ll be putting on an amazing show for you, and we’re about to get right to it. But, before we do, may I ask for some volunteers?

I jumped again, clearing more of the street, until my feet hit the sidewalk, running and pushing through a small group of passersby.

I couldn’t remember the last time, if ever, that I had brought myself down to this level while I was in the city, in my costume. Wearing the mask, being active, being so close to people who couldn’t even comprehend what I was capable of. Alexis and Blank Face, maybe, but not me, not V.

I remembered the Thunders and the Royals, when I had made my debut as V. It was a show for EZ and Krown, and for Gomez, when his cops came to clean them up. A warning, that we weren’t to be messed with, that we’d play, we would play for keeps.

Now, we were going to send out another warning. This time, it was for everyone else.

Confusion gripped the men and women I knocked over, stunned at what was happening and what to do in response of it. Perfect. Cause a big enough mess, and people would take too long in making sense of it all. Reports would conflict, the point of origin would be harder to pin down, and first responders would be slowed by a significant margin, forced to tackle things at the edges of that mess, first. By the time the smoke cleared and the glass got swept away, it would take even longer to find what started it all, to find any connection.

Cause a big enough fire, and the source gets swallowed up, too.

Finding an alley, I dipped into it, jumping up a fire escape to I hauled myself over a building. I crossed the roof, then the street, then another roof.

Lawrence continued with the show as I moved.

No one wants to step up? That’s… that’s quite alright, I can just call on you from the audience. Let’s start with, Alan Gordon!

Lawrence started listing names. We didn’t have access to a guest list, but we didn’t need one. Sarah and Lawrence were able to pick out a few names from just talking with people, getting acclimated with that environment. They only needed a handful, just enough to make it seem random.

Congratulations, Mr. Gordon, you’re the first to join us, but we’re not done yet. Do we-”

Lawrence coughed, the static fuzziness in his voice clipped.

Do we have a John Cruz in here as well?

As I ran, I kept an ear on Lawrence, and another on the city around me. Sirens, now, joining the growing cacophony. Music, really.

And just a reminder,” Lawrence buzzed, “Please, no flash photography, getting up during the show, or talking with others during the show. We take your safety very seriously, so don’t make us put it in jeopardy!

Yes, Ellie, you are totally selling it.

“Now is not the time for new nicknames, D.”

She groaned as I hopped another roof, maneuvering down the length of a street. I saw a structure in the distance, a building that hadn’t been fully constructed yet. The marker.

I plotted my path in that direction.

Thank you,” Lawrence said, as if to address both his captive audience and D as well. “Back to the show. Still need just a few more lucky volunteers. Let’s see…  do we what have a Natalie Beckham and Oliver Morgan?

All my attention started to narrow towards my earpiece. I was running without any conscious thought for the steps ahead of me, my body moving on its own. Muscle memory. I climbed over vents and metal railings, flew over alleys in a single bound. There was one building with people lounging on top, eating. Probably a rooftop patio. I ran along the edge, running harder. Before people could turn and realize who I was, I had already moved on.

People would catch glimpses of me, maybe enough to try and piece together a picture. But they wouldn’t get the full thing, they’d only have enough to make them scared.

And Oliver Morgan?

Lawrence asked again, then coughed again. Was Lawrence not able to find him?

I couldn’t get an answer. I couldn’t ask, the extended exercise of having to parkour across rooftops left me with little breath to speak. I’d have to stop, and I couldn’t.

The hollow husk of a building loomed overhead as I got closer.

Lawrence continued. The show had to go on.

Alright, and just one more before we can start. Last but certainly not the least, Martin Bolland!

My legs were pumping hard, muscles straining as I pushed myself to run faster. Lawrence seemed to be doing alright, D had things under control, and I needed to stoke the flames. I couldn’t let doubt slow me down, not at this juncture.

I jumped again.

D, being Miss Director, directed things along.

Better wrap it up soon, Ellie. Silent alarm has been tripped. It’s still gonna take the cops a while to get there, and Vivi is working to slow them down, but we can’t stick around for too long.

“What she said,” I said. It came out strained.

I got over to the other side of the street and ran.

Okay then,” Lawrence said, as if speaking to us and the audience, “Time to get on with the show. What we have for you tonight is a magic trick, actually. Watch closely as we make half this fucking room disappear!

I smiled as I closed in on the building. Lawrence was really playing it up.

It was easy to see it in my head, the picture clear. Lawrence standing at the head of the exhibit hall, masked, with the Fangs spread out through entire space, controlling the crowd. Everyone else would be crouched or on their knees, not daring to try and pull any tricks of their own. Sarah, being an extra pair of eyes, wearing her complete outfit in that white blouse and fitting skirt. Easy to see how good it looked on her.

The people Lawrence called out would have been pushed together, forming a small herd, surrounded by Fangs. John Cruz. Natalie Beckham and Oliver Morgan both, hopefully.

Other Fangs were moving now, too, taking different paintings off the walls.

Someone would protest, despite themselves. One of the art curators. They’d risk their lives over some art.

No, no, we can’t have that.” I heard Lawrence. “We already gave you a warning!

Through the earpiece, I heard a more faint sound. A cry. Did someone actually try to fight Lawrence and the Fangs?

If I was there, I’d go for the hand, because they tried to take the paintings back, or maybe the leg, because they got up and ran. Break them, set an example for the rest, a further warning.

It was important, posturing in that way. The image of power was just as crucial as having it. Lawrence understood that more than anyone.

My dear audience, it is time for the trick, and then we will close our show. I do hope you had a good time, or at least a memorable one. In any case, so long, and we vanish!

We’re starting the trucks now,” D said. “We’re open and ready to load!

“And I’m almost at the marker!”

There was a courtyard tucked between some buildings, between me and a large, unfinished structure. A skeleton of a building. The marker. My real destination was just below.

I did a cursory check before I would drop down. I saw them.

Two groups, meeting at the fountain, in the middle of the courtyard. Two gangs.

Six to seven on each sides, the heads of each group were speaking to one another. Each indicated to a member behind them, and they went around to hand the leader a bag. After inspecting the contents between them, the bags switched hands.

Some kind of deal.

I knew the gangs that were just below. We moved them there.

One of the groups were decked out in blue, hoods that covered their heads. Styled after a long-abandoned identity, but it just made it easier to know where their loyalties would lie. Lawrence had already gone to them and held that meeting. Instead of paying back the funds they owed us, they’d work for us instead. Manpower over money.

Or pawns, really.

The other gang was in a similar position, but they wouldn’t get the same grace as the blue hoods. They were another gang that owed us, another set of pawns that we could move and manipulate.

The blue hoods would call the other gang, hoping to cut some sort of deal. Meet in a secluded location, discuss the details there. All from Lawrence’s suggestion. The blue hoods had no choice but to comply.

The pieces were on the board. I could move freely.

I moved.

Dropping down, I descended several stories, sticking a foot out. Several lampposts illuminated the courtyard, with one being directly above the two gangs, overlooking the deal as they proceeded.

I went at an angle. The heavy sole of my boot crashed into the lamp itself, casting the gangs in darkness and shattered glass. They fell back, shocked, as I pounced on one of them. The leader that wasn’t in a blue hood.

He went down, stayed down, without a fight. He didn’t even know there would be one.

I heard screams, I heard clicks. I heard gunfire.

Ducking close to the ground, I crawled over the man I had laid out flat, keeping low to avoid getting hit. Bullets zipped by, but they didn’t go anywhere near me or anyone else. Warning shots, to try and scare off the sudden ambush. But I wasn’t going anywhere. I was right where I needed to be.

With something as loud as a gun, it brought with it attention. Sirens were already incoming, I could hear them blare. They had been out, red and blue lights searching for a source of trouble, and I was able to lead some of them this way.

I just had to lead even more.

Springing back up, I tackled another in the ribs, feeling them crack. I rolled, keeping my momentum, stretching out that momentary shock as far as I could. Until it snapped.

Two were advancing on me as I got up, square on my feet. One was armed with a pistol, the other with a knife.

I had both on me as well, but I didn’t go for them. They were substitutes, tools as I wasn’t as intimately familiar with, having lost the originals during the initial raid of the church.

Still need to see if I can find them again. They should still be there. Another thing on the list I-

Cold metal slid right through my arm, tearing past the meat and getting caught in the bone. I winced, my thoughts escaping me, and I twisted around to avoid more hurt while still keeping some momentum.

Fuck. Got stabbed. Had to keep my priorities straight.

It was fine. I could keep going. Focus, focus.

I struck out, going for the guy with the gun. The other guy already lost his weapon, with it being stuck in me.

The gun got knocked out of his hands. I threw my arms forward, grabbing his wrists, twisting them until they couldn’t move again.

His screams gurgled as he went to the ground, arms still braided in front of him. More shock, more confusion. More momentum.

I went without my weapons because I didn’t need to kill. Maim, maybe. The message would be about the same.

That was about half of the other gang, already. I wasn’t tearing through them, not exactly, but I very well could, and everyone here knew that, now.

Before anyone could get their bearings again, we were flooded by red and blue lights.

Police yelled orders as they ran out of their cars, guns pointed. Everyone who was able to, scrambled.

I started to move, but I noticed one of the blue hoods. He was standing still, frozen, staring at me. The leader of his particular group.

For reasons I wouldn’t try to understand, this gang had decided to change their entire look around Blank Face. Whatever. I didn’t care.

But, he wasn’t running. The cops were getting closer.

Someone from the other gang was running, though, to him. He had a knife too, ready to slow another down in order to buy him some time.

I started to move.

It didn’t even take a second. In one smooth motion, I lowered myself and scooped up a handful of glass. I threw it.

The shards flew right into his face. He was down before I even fully crossed that distance.

I didn’t slow when I passed. I indicated to a path behind the blue hood, a way out through the courtyard.

“Go,” I said, “Don’t waste this chance I gave you.”

I wasn’t even sure if he heard me. I didn’t bother to check. I was already out of earshot. Running, but in a different direction.

Someone fired. The cops fired back. They tried to go after everyone. Me.

I could let them get close, but I wouldn’t let them catch me.

There was a short wall that divided the courtyard and the unfinished building on the other side. It only took a short jump to scale the thing. But it was more than enough for the cops to stop what they were doing and direct themselves to me.

Cars rumbled back to life. Sirens blared again.

I ran.

Bullets followed me as I went over the wall, landing in a patch of grass that stretched to the building proper. Maybe proper wasn’t the right word, since it wasn’t a proper building, yet.

I ran inside, or rather, I used the place as a cover.

The building was tall enough to see from a distance, so stairs had already been installed to get to the higher levels. I rushed over to them, the sirens and gunfire never that far behind.

I tripped over a stray brick, catching myself on the metal railing that wound up and around the staircase. Hasty.

The near fall gave me pause. I had to catch my breath. It was so loud.

“Updates?” I breathed.

Everything’s been loaded in the trucks. D has supervising the art, and I’m keeping my eye on our passengers.

I wanted to be with you!

As if. We’ve already left the gala.

“And the cops?” I asked.

All part of the plan,” Lawrence said. “Got delayed in showing up, and they don’t have enough of a force to stop us, not with everything that’s been happening. Will happen.

“You’re welcome. I think they’re converging on my position.”

Good. Keep them coming. We’re almost… we’re almost home free.

“Yeah, but I’m not.”

Deal with it.

“Thanks.”

The hammers are loaded with enough firecrackers to make the new year come super early,” D said. “You’ll have an opening.

Sounds were getting louder. Couldn’t stick around any longer.

“I hope it’s a big enough opening,” I said. “Better send one of them over to me now.”

On it,” Lawrence said.

“Alright, I’ll catch up with you in a bit.”

You can do it!” D cheered, so loud that it clipped.

I couldn’t delay another second, but I needed one in order to pull the knife out of my arm. It immediately went to healing itself. The wound sealed up, I saw as the individual fibers groped out across the gap to join back together, mending.

I pulled the sleeve back down. Did not to see that, right now.

I went back to getting the fuck out of here.

The stairs took me higher and higher up the building. Winding, spiraling. I grabbed the railing, using it to pull myself farther and hop over more steps. I lost count at how many floors there were, but it didn’t even take me a minute to reach the very top.

It wasn’t much of a roof, rather just another floor with nothing else above it. Steel beams spiked up, exposed, cement blocks and other building materials were strewn about. I had to be careful to not trip over anything.

I ran until I got to the edge of the surface. It was a long fall to the bottom.

I turned, and I waited.

The building was unfinished, there were only so many available means of getting up here. The stairs, in turn, became a choke point. The cops would be forced to take them. I left them with no other choice.

I gripped the knife, tight. The one I had pulled out from my arm. I gripped it even tighter.

My heart was beating heavy and hard. My knees were shaking, my ears ringing. My head.

That doubt seeped back in, again. No, not again, it was more like that doubt reminded me of its presence. That it never really left.

There was a chance that I wouldn’t make it back. I might die instead.

I could see how funny that was. I could laugh. I almost did.

Instead, I settled with a wide smile. It’d give the approaching police a more startling image, at the very least.

Everyone converged at once. The footsteps of the gathered police force came as a stampede, and I was basked in a sudden, blinding light, with a hard thrum that droned overhead.

It was a sensory overload, but I wouldn’t let it overwhelm me. I couldn’t let it. Doubt held me, but I had to fight to prevent it from seizing.

Ah, I want to get back to Sarah.

A flood of people came rushing from the stairs. Bigger guns and bigger equipment. Armor.

They saw a chance, and they were going take that shot.

Taking their formations, the SWAT team circled around me. They were fast, no surprise there.

I expected them to start barking orders, screaming for me to put my arms up, put them down, drop my weapon, to not move, get on my knees. They didn’t. They were silent.

As a collective, they took one large step forward, closing the circle. They took one more. They should have known that this wouldn’t go their way, but they tried, regardless. I could admire that.

I stood my ground. Just another second. Just long enough that they thought they could stop me. The more time they spent being here, the bigger the opening for the Fangs. Less of a force available to go after them.

One more step. One more second.

The circle tightened.

I swallowed.

Strangling.

Now.

It was my turn to rush them. Forward, to the stairs I had just came from. Fast enough that I caught them by surprise.

I had a few moments before they could respond. I used that, throwing the knife. The blade spun, striking the one of the SWAT team members in the faceplate. It didn’t break through the hard plastic, but it did hit hard. The man was knocked back, falling into the men behind him.

There wasn’t a moment I wasted. Running into that part of the circle, I pushed further, flattening him. The effect rippled to the me around me.

I had to squint as I glanced around. Bright.

Everyone leaped into action. I did, as well.

Again, I ducked low. I was surrounded by armed men, they were basically soldiers. They were trained, unlike random gang members, they wouldn’t shoot when the target was among their own. I used that against them, hid among their numbers. It bought me a little more time.

Getting lower, my hands touched the ground, searching for anything else I could use. The knife again, maybe even shards of glass, somehow. My hands found something else.

I picked it up, felt the weight of it, and swung.

The metal pipe was twice my height, and it wasn’t light, and I didn’t have much room to actually toss it around. I powered through it, though. Literally.

My arms tensed as I swung a complete arc, using the pipe to clear out a circle. I relied on sheer strength more than speed, pressing them down rather than a push. I didn’t waste time to breathe as I threw the pipe itself, the horizontal bar slamming into the another part of the group across from me.

And then I booked it.

I bought them enough time. Sarah and D and Lawrence would make it out okay. Now I just had to do the same for myself.

Bullets flew past me as I went straight to the edge of the roof.

“That hammer better be here already!” I could barely hear myself over the gunfire.

It’s-”

I wasn’t sure if that was D or Lawrence. The sound that swallowed the rest of it.

The sound came first, then the fury. A deep rumble that shook the foundation of the building. It was enough to make me stumble.

A bullet caught me in the spine.

Fuck.

I stumbled, the ledge only a step away. I lost any momentum I might have had, and I plunged, instead.

The wind hit, and I couldn’t move. I was paralyzed.

An out of body experience, it felt like, as I fell deeper and deeper. I couldn’t feel anything, couldn’t hear much outside of the wind that whipped past my ears. I was watching my body as it tumble, my limbs lazily dragging around me.

A fall that could very well kill me.

I would have smiled if I could.

Instead, I just crashed into a fire escape attached to the building across an alley. It broke my fall into the alley itself.

I wasn’t moving. Couldn’t. My healing kicked into high gear, my entire body overwhelmed by an intense warmth. Bones came back together, cuts sealed, bruises lost their color.

Normally, I would have let the healing go through its motions, get as close to better as I could before I got going again.

Didn’t have that luxury.

Through the pain so hot it was like I was on fire, I crawled, weak. The bullet was still lodged in my back, the bone and muscle feeling like it was massaging itself in order to push the foreign object out. Until then, I had the relative strength of a child learning to walk for the first time.

My fingers found a tiny thing of plastic. My earpiece. It had fallen out when I crashed landed.

I pressed it into the side of my head, not being ginger with it at all. Everything hurt so much it was as if I couldn’t feel a damn thing.

I gurgled. It was the only sound I could produce.

V?

Whoever that was, it sounded like a test.

I couldn’t answer.

My healing finally started to turn things around. I was able to move a bit better, crawling on my knees, then dragging myself over to a dumpster, using it to pull myself up. I leaned against it, catching my breath. My mouth was filled with a nauseous stench from the trash beside me.

I coughed.

“I’m… still alive, somehow.”

Oh my god, you totally had me freaking out, there.

“Sorry, I just need to stop getting shot in the back.”

I took a breath. Sour.

“I don’t know where I am.”

Where are you, then?

No. I wasn’t being pursued at the moment. I checked my surroundings.

On another side of the unfinished building. The SWAT team had stationed themselves through at different levels of the construction site, mostly near the stairs. Most of their force was dedicated to the building itself, not the narrow sides where most cars couldn’t fit through. I was in the clear.

For now.

They saw where I had fallen. A helicopter’s spotlight was searching down the alleyway behind me. It would find me if I didn’t move.

I moved.

Bones popped into place as I put my weight on them, cracks disappearing. I had a limp, but it lessened as I tested my body.

I was healing, but I was becoming thirsty.

Checking for the spotlight behind me again, I saw what had caused that deep rumbling. Or what was left of it.

At the foot of the building, where the front entrance would have been when the thing was completed, a hollow shell of a van burned, smoke billowing out. It was among the gathered police force, near their vehicles, burning as well.

Accelerating until it couldn’t be stopped, the van careened right into the police blockade, exploding with enough of an impact that I could have felt it from all the way at the top. The police were nails, and that was our hammer.

“Christ, D, those are not fireworks,” I whispered.

It’s fine,” I heard her say, even when it clearly wasn’t. “The driver aimed the van and got out in time, and if the police were smart enough to realize they couldn’t stop it they were smart enough to jump out of the way. Where are you?

I answered while I limped.

“East? No, west. Dizzy. Side alley by the marker. Blue hoods brought in the bait, now that’s two gangs that know not to mess with us anymore. Cops should be sufficiently distracted by now.”

Yes they are,” Lawrence said. “The other hammers went down, so now their forces are divided again to try and clear up all the smoke. Now’s your chance.

Right! Yes! The driver got picked up already, so I’ll tell them to go your way and you get out of there already.

“Will do,” I said. That intense rush was still there, and I sensed that focus still guiding me. Just had to use that to guide me that back to the base.

Once you’re secured, everyone’s home free. Good work.

I was walking now. I actually smiled.

“Too soon to be talking like that,” I said.

Fair,” Lawrence replied, as I found a window in the alley. A storefront. Clothes and stuff.

Surreal, that after everything that had happened, this was the easy part. I broke the window, letting myself in. I picked and switched clothes as I moved, bundling up my costume into my arms. It didn’t take long to find my ride.

By the time there was a spare police officer who could investigate the break-in, I was already gone.

I was the last to get to St. Elizabeth. The Fangs already had everything set up, so it was just a matter of me getting back, and getting the updates.

I strolled down the main aisle to reach the altar.

“You’re late,” Lawrence said. On the altar, he was sitting where the priest would. Leaning back, slumped. D was seated in the chair next to him, arms hugged tight around a teddy bear.

“I’m fashionably… whatever. I’m here now, I’m ready to go.”

“You sure, Wendy? D told me you took a pretty nasty fall.”

Sarah was here, too. It was so easy to find her. Standing by Isabella.

Seeing her made me feel more relaxed and not, all at the same time. A weird feeling to properly parse.

“Yeah,” I said. “Still feel some lingering aches, but I can still walk.”

Sarah frowned. Her concern over me made my stomach twist up.

“If you ever need a massage, just hit me up.”

I really, really wanted that, but now wasn’t the time.

I nodded. “Of course.”

I stepped up to the altar, meeting her there. Turning to Lawrence, I asked, “Are they in there?”

Lawrence tilted his head. A half-gesture. Not a nod, not a shake.

“Not they, just she.”

She.

“Natalie? Where’s Oliver?”

My stomach twisted again, but not in a good way.

“I wanted to wait until we were all here to talk about it. I didn’t see him at the event.”

“There were a lot of people there, maybe you didn’t-”

“I did, I was thorough. Ask your girlfriend. She didn’t see him there, either.”

Sarah gave the same half-gesture.

I felt like I had to dispute that other comment, but there were more important things to discuss.

“We need both of them,” I said. “That’s the job we were given.”

“And we’ll get them both,” Lawrence said. He pointed to a section of the altar behind him and D. “Tied and stuffed her back there, in the… confessional, I think it’s called. We’ll just ask her.”

Could have done that before I got here, I thought, but Lawrence probably wanted to do this as a team. Nothing behind any of our backs.

I frowned, guilty.

“Sure,” I said.

I headed to the confessional. Natalie was in there, at least. We were halfway there.

Lawrence started to get up, but he faltered. He went to his knees, and it didn’t look like he was trying to pray.

“Shit…” he muttered.

D jumped out of her chair to help him stand. She tossed her bear to the side.

“Ellie…”

Lawrence stiffened, but he didn’t push her away. “Stop calling me that, will you? Fuck…”

I walked over to Lawrence instead. Sarah did too.

“Is everything alright?”

A quick look told me it wasn’t. Up close, Lawrence was sweating, and it wasn’t because he was in a suit. The inside of an abandoned church wasn’t known to be keep warm in the early months, and yet his skin glistened.

Lawrence shook his head.

“It’s just… it’s just my painkillers. I usually take them at a certain time but… had that whole art heist thing. Kind of got in the way.”

“That’s why I told you to taper off of them already,” D said, berating up.

“I don’t want to hear it.”

“You look like you’re about to pass out,” I said. “D, go with him, make sure he gets some rest.”

“No.” Lawrence tried to stand again, but he fumbled with it.

“I bet you can’t even stand without assistance.”

“I am fine, I just need to catch up on my dose.”

“I can handle this part. D, listen to me and go with Lawrence.”

D, still holding Lawrence, craned her neck to look at me.

“But I don’t want to go. I don’t want you to-”

I raised my hands. “I won’t do anything drastic until I’ve discussed it with you both. But right now, Lawrence won’t be able to walk or talk if he pushes himself any more. Sarah?”

“Voss?”

“You go, too. Make sure D listens.”

“Okay.”

Sarah went to D, helping Lawrence get to his feet. Reluctant, he put an arm around Sarah. Not so much D, considering the height difference, but she did stay by his side as they got down from the altar, walking across the aisle.

D looked back at me. I raised my hands again.

That seemed to be enough for her, but already made her reservations clear. They were ringing in my head.

We can’t kill them.

On that thought, I turned, to the confessional. Isabella joined me.

“You know you’ll have to,” she said.

I didn’t respond.

One side of the confessional was propped open. The other wasn’t. I slid into the empty booth and closed it.

The space was limited, but it wasn’t uncomfortable. A wood box, like a coffin I could sit in. Eerie, in that respect.

Vague connections made themselves known. I’d been here before. Alexis. Except this time, I was sitting on the other side. I wasn’t the one being questioned.

“Natalie Beckham,” I said.

There wasn’t an answer. But I knew she was there. Through the cross-shaped pattern and faint black mesh that divided us, I could make out a woman’s outline. Natalie was here.

“It all depends on you, Natalie, but you could either see the sunrise in peace, or in pieces. All up to how you want to play it.”

“Play, huh?”

“Hm?”

“This is all just a game to you, isn’t it? Playing at the hero, now the villain. Pulling off fake heists just to get to me. It’s all pretend, there’s no truth to what you’re doing at all.”

“I assure you this is all very real,” I said.

“Where are the others? The paintings, John Cruz?”

“No,” I said. “You don’t get to ask the questions, here. And it’s precisely why you were asking about John Cruz that got you into this predicament in the first place.

There was a pause.

“That may be the case,” Natalie Beckham said. “But now I’m in this predicament because of something I find much more interesting. The one I really want to talk about is you, Alexis Barnett.”

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098 – Lie, Cheat, Steal

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I had a lot on my mind, a long list of things that only kept getting longer and longer. And I was afraid that the points that were getting pushed lower on the list would begin to fester. Rotting until the stink and stain began to taint everything else that needed my attention. A kind of corruption that trailed up. So it wasn’t a surprise that the thing at the very bottom was also the most decayed. Not surprising, but it was disconcerting.

What am I really, and what is the source of my powers?

The first question, buried by everything that came after it, that came because of it.

It was strange reversal of priorities. Lowest on my list, yet it could cast a shadow over the rest. The Lunar Tower incident came to mind, where my lack of understand over my own body had left behind a literal spiral of destruction. It was… embarrassing, to vastly undersell it, but, as much as I wanted, needed, to avoid a similar situation from happening again, too many obstacles kept getting in the way, kept stacking on top of the list, that the Fangs and I needed to tackle that before getting back to the rest. And that gave a lot of room for doubt.

Would this current point on the list become tainted by the very bottom? When? A sudden turn of events, caught in a corner and then I’d snap? I didn’t want a repeat of that, but I barely had any time to dig that deep, investigate any further. Hell, I hadn’t had the chance to follow up on D’s findings on the police reports, if anything out of the ordinary was missing or covered up, on the night Alexis got her powers, got mauled. My time and energy kept getting pulled in different directions, and it was easy, even a little comforting, to get that distracted.

I was nervous. Things could go wrong, and they had. I was scared of another failure, and I was scared of letting the Fangs down again. Lawrence, D. I was scared of losing Sarah.

I cracked the knuckle of my middle finger. Right hand.

“How are we on time?” I asked. My foot kept tapping by itself.

“Everything’s on point,” Lawrence said. “Following the schedule, they won’t be letting people in for another twenty minutes. We’re good.”

“The other kind of good,” D said. “We’re not about to win any peace prizes with this one.”

“But they’re gearing up to disrupt a lot of the operations in this city, ours included. We can’t let them continue. So it’s probably for the best, that we’re the ones that get to handle this. It’s in our hands.”

“I don’t want blood on them, though,” D said.

Lawrence passed me a quick look, unnoticed by D. He took advantage of her height, or how tall she wasn’t, to try and communicate something to me. I felt like I got the message.

D wasn’t exactly being subtle about her misgivings about the job, more specifically the endgame. How far were we willing to go with the two journalists? Were we going to scare them away, or resort to something more final? What would be enough to satisfy Mrs. Carter? We still hadn’t come to a consensus. We were minutes away from executing the plan, and we weren’t sure if this plan would even include an execution.

It reminded me of the first time the three of us worked together, when we were hunting Benny. When I finally had her in my grasp, I was initially lost on what to do with her. Initially. What followed perhaps gave me the most clarity I’d ever have, on what I wanted to do moving forward. Joining the Ghosts, forming the Fangs. That table and Mister in my sights. All because I had put Benny behind me.

For her part, D did not want to go that far, and for his, Lawrence was willing to go that distance. Which left me at a crossroads. I could go in either direction, and that decision might very well alter the course of the Fangs forever. More weight on my shoulders, that sinking feeling, again.

I had that long list in mind as I said, “Once we’re done with this part, everything will get straightened out. Let’s just focus on putting on a good show.”

“Yes,” Lawrence said. He clapped his hands together, rubbing them for warmth. It wasn’t that cold, but weather still had a tendency to dip at times. Only a few more weeks until we’d see spring.

I wondered where the gang would be by then. What would the city and its underworld look like? A status quo hardly meant anything, anymore.

“We should probably get a move on,” Lawrence said. “Sarah, double-check your stuff, so you don’t accidentally forget something.”

“Will do.”

Sarah leaned past me in order to reach her bag. She didn’t have to, there was plenty of space here, but she got close enough for me to smell her perfume. Lavender, again. Close enough that I could note how the shadows fell down the low cut of her blouse. I chanced a look and stole it.

Fitting, in a sense.

She reached some more, until her bare shoulder almost brushed my cheek. I lost my balance and I fell back, landing next to D, who had been sitting in the back of the van, the trunk doors open.

“Oof,” D said, as I bumped into her.

“Woops,” I said.

“Could you not goof off right now?” Lawrence asked, annoyed.

Sarah pulled the bag to her, opening it, and checking over the contents as second time. She was half-dressed, in that she was wearing the top half of one outfit and the bottom half of another. For her top, she had on a white, very loose blouse, perfect for any occasion, even a formal engagement. To complete that half of her outfit, she’d need something like a black skirt, and she would look great in it.

She wasn’t, however, wearing one at the moment. She was instead wearing beige and baggy cargo pants, with pockets and tools strapped to her hip. Instead of heels, she had on boots.

As it was, her outfit clashed, hard, and it didn’t take someone like me, someone who was still developing their tastes, to see that. But that wasn’t the point. One was supposed to be worn on top of the other. A disguise on top of another.

Lawrence was already rocking his, top to bottom. A heavy brown fleece jacket, and pants that matched with Sarah’s. The only thing that didn’t mesh all that well was his hair, combed up, styled. Sarah was similar in that regard, too. Eyeliner and blush, with lips as red as blood. Sweet, if I could taste them.

“Got everything I need,” Sarah said. She pulled out a bundle of clothes and zipped up the bag. “I’m as ready as you are.”

“You’ll be as ready as I am when you put on your jacket,” Lawrence said. His arms were crossed, standing a distance away from the van. His bag was at his feet, ready to be picked up and taken with him.

“Yeah, yeah,” Sarah said. She started putting on the jacket, covering up her blouse.

Too bad, I thought.

Sarah put her arms through the sleeves, zipping the front up to her collar to hide what she had on underneath. She fixed her hair so it wouldn’t get stuck to her neck.

The nape of her neck, I thought.

She caught me as I watched. She smirked, as if she had her own plan and I was falling right into it. Maybe I was. Maybe that wasn’t so bad.

I swallowed, and I felt the inside of my throat scrape. I was getting thirsty.

Sarah stepped back from the van, bag around one shoulder. She joined Lawrence, and I clenched my jaw. Involuntarily.

“Wow,” D said. “You two are the most devilishly pulchritudinous mechanics I have ever seen in my life.”

“Why, thank you,” Sarah said. She looked pleased to hear it.

“Whatever,” Lawrence said.

I was struck with the urge to say something, too. Say something to Sarah.

“No, yeah, you… you look great.”

My compliment paled in comparison to D’s.

Sarah still looked just as pleased, maybe even more so.

“And thank you, Wendy.”

“Holy fucking shit, can we get moving already?”

Lawrence was not having it.

D hopped out of the trunk, fixing her skirt. I stepped out as well, so I wouldn’t get hit the doors as she closed them.

We gathered together, standing around in a loose circle. At the top level of a parking garage, with only a few empty cars parked nearby.

“I’ll go and make sure everyone else is in place,” D said, twirling a ring of keys around a finger. She flicked her hand, tossing the keys in the air. Catching them, she swung her hands behind for back for a second, then threw her hands out again, juggling her keys and another thing.

She tossed the thing to me, and went back to twirling her keys. A small device, a button, the kind that could open a garage door or something. I put it in my pocket.

“When you’re ready, Vivi, we’ll all swing by.”

D wasn’t subtle with her objections to the ends, but she was still helping through with the means. We needed all of the Fangs in order to pull this off, and D seemed to be, by all accounts, pitching in. We asked her to pull her weight, and she tried to pull more than that. Getting a copy of the art gallery floor plan, setting up, getting what she could from Natalie Beckham’s phone number…

There wasn’t anything or anyone of note at the address that was attached to the number. Just a studio apartment, a single man with a dog. With no knowledge of the tenant who lived there before him. That was what Reggie reported, anyways. A potential lead, but it came up empty. But that was what covering our bases meant, we had to be thorough.

It made me wonder if the number was a fake to begin with. Maybe there was a reason why the reporters didn’t go to the office that often.

I kept Reggie on standby, there, anyways. An order from me to him, it hadn’t been heard by anyone else. Not D, not Lawrence.

Just to be sure.

The lead came up empty, but D was still trying. That accounted for something.

And then, there was this. The night of the John Cruz’s event. It was time, and there was no room for trying, we had to complete the job was forced on us.

I looked at D, and ruffled her hair. She scrunched up her face and knocked my arm away.

“Hey, quit it, ugh.”

D shook her head, her hair whipping around, until it settled back into place. She twirled her keys again.

I couldn’t help but crack a small laugh. She was fun to mess with.

“Got it,” I said. “I’ll give you a call. See you later, D.”

D waved as she left, keys jingling in her hand. She went over to the driver’s side to get in. I looked, and saw Isabella, waiting by the passenger’s side. She gestured.

V for victory.

The van started as I rejoined Sarah and Lawrence.

“Alright, let’s clear a way for you two,” I said to them.

“Finally,” Lawrence said. “Because I’m ready to put on a show.”

The Mazzucchelli Art Gala stood tall. The building from the outside had a peculiar shape to it, as if its architecture was an art piece, in and of itself. There was no definite shape to it, rather a mashing of different shapes put together, with sharp corners that jutted out, to cylinder structures that rounded things out, providing contrast. It wasn’t an eyesore, but it was hard for me to wrap my head around its form. Couldn’t say I was a fan, but I was still figuring out what I was a fan of.

Exterior lights shined bright on the metal letters that spelled out the gala’s name on the only flat surface of the building, the front part. City lights provided some more ambience. Like some kind of flame, small dots were flocking to it. People.

We weren’t among those people, but we would be soon enough. The stage was set, the props and actors in place. The lines were practiced, but with some room for improvisation. We were as ready as we were ever going to be.

“This way,” I said, leading Sarah and Lawrence across the street. We kept to the peripherals as we approached, walking by the line of guests that were waiting to be let into the gala. The line was long, but it was moving quickly. The event organizers were really on the ball for this.

I didn’t see Natalie or Oliver in the line, but I knew they were here. They had to be.

Keeping my pace, I took Sarah and Lawrence around the gala, around its irregular shape. Turning a corner, I found the alley between the gala and another building. Wide enough to drive a truck through. There was a dense set of sounds from the city’s bustle and the lively chatter of the people we passed, which deadened the moment we turned, going deeper into the alley.

D had laid out the path for me to show them. Through the back parts of the building, where D had taken the floor plans, was where Sarah and Lawrence would infiltrate from, as well.

“God, I can’t believe D walked through here by herself,” Sarah said. Despite all the noise behind us, Sarah’s words rang out with a slight reverb. The lights were more dim, here, the shadows more oppressive. Trash and dead leaves littered the ground we walked on.

“Why?” Lawrence questioned. “It was the middle of the day, the last time we were here.”

“Maybe it’s different for guys, but I’d think twice before I took a shortcut like this, even when the sun is up. Sometimes I’d have a piece on me for some peace of mind, but even then…”

Lawrence grunted. “I guess.”

“You ever feel that way, Wendy?”

I wasn’t surprised, but I wasn’t expecting the conversation to move over to me. My mind was elsewhere, to the steps we hadn’t taken yet. Bringing my focus back to here took a certain kind of shift, a repositioning of the points on my list. Sarah shot back up to the top. I found that it was easy to put her there.

I answered the best I could.

“I don’t think so? Not really. Doesn’t really cross my mind that much, but I guess I can afford to do that since I have… you know, powers and stuff.”

“Fair,” Sarah said. “I should just start walking around with you, then. It’d be better than having a gun on me all the time.”

“How?”

“Well, I mean, I can’t walk down the street with a gun in my hand, much less go in to a restaurant or a movie theater. Kind of super illegal.”

“But it’s not like you have to be obvious with it, unless you’re saying that you’d rather-”

I stopped.

Oh.

That’s what she meant.

I didn’t finish that thought, instead putting them elsewhere again. Forward. Back to the steps we had yet to take. Back to the plan.

“I’m saying that exactly,” Sarah said. There was a tune to her voice that was inviting, but I forced myself to keep looking forward, down the alley instead.

“Can we not do this right now?” Lawrence questioned. “God, you two…”

He trailed off, as if he was leaving the thought behind. I was of the same mind, which was weird, because it was Lawrence. To think our work relationship managed to get this far.

The alley widened as we approached the other side, the gala curving away. We followed the curve, circling around to the back of the building, to a deep part of the city inaccessible to normal civilians. And right now, we weren’t that. We had a different role to play.

I could see the storage trucks, parked beside one another, several drivers and workers were huddled together for a smoke break. Five in total, all bulky. They’d have to be, if their job was to carry large boxes around.

Across the small lot was a set of double doors. They swung open, letting others through, going back and forth as they unloaded boxes from the trucks and brought them inside.

Some of the drivers and workers noticed us, but that was all. From the uniform and bags and tools, Sarah and Lawrence looked like any random, miscellaneous members of the crew. I wasn’t dressed like them, but I wasn’t standing out, either.

We kept walking.

The doors swung open again, but more people were heading out, not going back inside. From how empty the backs of the trucks looked, they were almost done unloading.

Right on time.

I jogged ahead, getting to the doors before they could close and lock. A man was walking up to them, his arms around a box, struggling to keep an even pace. He wouldn’t have gotten to the doors in time.

“Here,” I said, my voice light, friendly. I caught the door and pulled, holding it for him.

The man made a noise, too indistinct to be a word, but he seemed to appreciate the assist. He passed through, still having trouble with the box, but he managed.

I kept the door open as Sarah and Lawrence caught up with me.

Lawrence was quiet as he passed, eyes straight ahead. He was in the zone, now, ready to play his part.

Sarah was right behind him, and she wasn’t as calm. Her eyes darted from me to the door, a hand digging in a jacket pocket, tight lines in the material from how hard she kept digging.

I touched her arm.

“You’ll be fine,” I said as she walked by, “Go bring me some stuff.”

Sarah managed a smirk, her pursed lips betraying her nervousness. It was so cute.

Then, they went inside, into the gala, disguised as technicians ready to fix up what issue they had made up. That was for them to decide. D told them the path, how to snake through the building to find an appropriate place to hide and change, and then how to get to the main exhibit hall from there. All while remaining undetected.

They could do it. I knew they could. As much as I knew I could do this part.

The hard part.

I let the door close. It shut, the sound almost delayed in my head. My felt my lips pressed into a firm line. I was right there with Sarah. Nervous.

Putting a hand in a pocket, my hand made a fist. I felt a click.

I drew out a long breath.

Now to buy some time.

The drivers were still on their break as I walked to them. Eight, now, having finished their work. Smoke trailed a lazy path into the air, not unlike how I approached, to give an air of being natural. Acting natural.

“Long night?”

I started with a question. It would be easier to get their attention now, and direct it from what I was even doing here in the first place. Something I had picked up from D.

One of them turned, facing me. As he moved, he left an opening for me to fill. I leveraged it.

“It has been, yeah,” the man said.

“Almost done with the boxes?”

“Just about. Got one or two left but other than that, we’re about to wrap up. What’s it to you?”

“Just here to check on- what were in the boxes again?”

I sped through that first part, push it past their attention and taking it again with something else.

“The boxes? They’re for an exhibition those art snobs are setting up. Part of the reason why the gala’s closed to the public, tonight. The timing just worked out. Who are you again?”

People took a puff of their cigarettes, and started glancing my way. The drafts of smoke blew in my direction. Not in my face, I wasn’t that close, but they definitely gave me the impression that they were trying.

Diverting their attention would only get harder from here.

I did it a third time.

“Just checking how things are going around here, you know, making sure everything’s running smooth. How’s the security throughout the building?”

“How the hell should I know? Who the hell are you?”

Behind me, I heard the door swing open. I turned, craning my neck and moving my shoulders, making the motion obvious. It got people to look in that other direction, stealing their focus one more time.

The man from before, who I had gotten the door for. He was coming this way.

“Hey, Fin. I thought I told y’all, I hate it when you take your breaks without me.”

“Maybe if you worked a little faster, Miller, we wouldn’t have to do this.”

So the guy I was talking to was Fin, and the guy I helped was Miller. I could use that.

“Miller. Yo,” I said. I gave him a wave. “Mind if I kill your time for a bit?”

Wow, that was such a D thing to say.

Miller gave me a puzzled look, but still said, “Sure. I need a break.”

“Was that the last of the load?” I asked.

“Hm. Should be.” He looked over the trucks as he passed them, then to us, “Yeah. Everything and everyone. And you are?”

“That’s what I’ve been trying to find out,” Fin said. His voice sounded gruff, more than a touch pissed. I was grating on him, now.

All eyes fell on me. Hard stares. I didn’t meet them. Because the sense I was honing in with was my hearing.

The incoming hum of rubber on road. Made slick by the recent rain. The weather was forecasted to improve after this, so I hoped things would change soon, too. I hoped they would be changes for the better.

Then, and finally, I answered and stole their attention, to distract them for a final time.

“I’m no one in particular,” I lied. “I was just killing some time.”

Three white vans in a line drove into the lot. We were surrounded by buildings that towered, that imposed over us. An urban pocket, a corner they were trapped in.

They. Because I had just brought in the snare.

The vans skidded to a halt right in front of the workers. Those doors opened, and guns spilled out onto the lot, the people carrying them aimed and fired words, throwing out chaos and panic.

I could see the men collectively jump out of their skins. The image itself would be enough to paralyze. I did what I could to heighten that level of fear. Taller than the towers themselves.

Leaning in, I put a hand on Fin, and before he could look over to see who had touched him, I threw him, and his body crashed into Miller’s, sprawling limbs knocking and slapping into the nearby faces of their pals. They landed into a heap by a truck.

Several stumbled back, others were frozen by the advancing guns. I was walking, hopping over Fin and Miller, meeting the people from the vans halfway. I gave them a wave, too.

“You kept me waiting,” I told them. “Can’t do this without you all. Can’t bite with no teeth.”

Most passed without paying me any heed. Which was fine. They had jobs to do.

To contrast the white on the vans, the Fangs were decked in black, wearing masks. It didn’t really fit as far as a metaphor went, unless I was trying to suggest my teeth had rotted completely, but I needed to sacrifice theatrics for practicality, in this particular department.

Besides, the real show would be in there. In about thirty minutes.

The last of the Fangs got out of the vans, save the drivers, and they were working to take over the lot. They were rounding up the workers, securing their trucks and taking their keys.

D hopped out from one van, leaving the key in the ignition. Instead of twirling keys, she had a bag of her own this time.

“Hiya,” she said. “Been some time.”

“Sure, some,” I said. “Everything’s been running smooth.”

D handed me the strap of the bag. I held it up for her as she took something out from the side. A tablet.

“We’ll just see about that.”

She tapped on the screen, walking, and I matched her pace. We went back to the trucks and workers as they got rounded up by the Fangs.

They weren’t going down without some kind of protest.

“Who the hell are you? What is this?”

They were yelling.

“Quiet,” I said, still focused on D’s screen. I heard a crack, then a slow, deflated breath. The butt of a gun met the man’s jaw, sending him back to the pavement.

“What the Voss said,” the Fang commanded.

D tapped the screen again, loading up a program. After a short wait, a grid of small boxes filled the screen, each showing a different picture. An empty hall, a corner as people in suits and dresses passed, others standing around, watching, hands placed in front of them.

“They don’t very many cameras out in the main exhibit areas,” D explained. “Too boorish. But we can get a better picture of things if we look around the edges…”

Another tap.

“And if we keep our ears open!”

From the tablet’s speakers, a voice came through. It wasn’t the best quality, but I could make out who it belonged to.

Oh, sir, fancy seeing you, again. Didn’t know you were overseeing things.

Yes, I… Hello, sir.

I told you I had a date tonight.

It was Lawrence, and Sarah had to be at his side. I felt the muscles on my face tense up, and I realized I was frowning.

I tried to relax.

D and I went around one of the trucks, where it’d be harder for the workers to listen in or try anything.

“They’re in, and it sounds like they’re doing good,” D said. “Good.”

“Yeah, good,” I said. “How long until we move in?”

“Soon,” D said. “We keep listening for the keyword and I’ll send them in.”

“Alright. I’ll get prepared.”

A single hop got me on top of the truck. I had the bag with me. Opening it, I found my face staring back at me.

I changed quick. As the mask fit my face, I could feel myself settle. The clouds fell away from my mind and my eyes, and everything seemed so much more clear. The objective, the want to burn and burn out. It was all so tactile, the warmth on my face like a low fire. I let it crackle.

A single hop got me back down. I had the bag in my arms, crumbled, now that it was empty. I tossed it into the back of one of the storage trucks.

D was still watching the different camera feeds, listening to Sarah and Lawrence as they mingled among the elite, getting into position.

“Any updates?” I asked.

“Noooo,” D said, shaking her head.

“I’ll do a quick check on the rest, then. We have time.”

“Sure, but I’m about to set the cameras on a loop. You’re almost up.”

I offered a nod, but D didn’t see it. Too busy with her work, like how I needed to be with mine.

I got to it.

I did a quick check on the rest, seeing how the Fangs were doing. Pretty well.

They had already rounded up the workers, stuffing them in the back of one of the trucks. And we still had plenty of space to work with.

Some Fangs had already taken seats in the trucks, having gotten the keys from their original owners. I tapped the windows, and they signaled. Good to go.

Good to know.

“Vivi!”

D called for me the moment I had wrapped up.

I hopped back over the truck, clearing the whole thing. More for warming up than anything else.

“It’s showtime,” D said. She walked, and I walked with her.

The Fangs were waiting for me to give the word.

Those who weren’t securing the workers and trucks had been mobilizing, positioning themselves to the door leading into the gala. Guns pointed, shoulders square. Ready to move on my order.

A different kind of power from my super strength and healing, but power all the same. It felt good.

“Lawrence is about to take center stage,” D said. “The extras here will help fill out the place, make the show feel bigger.”

“And Sarah?” I asked.

“Gosh, Sarah, Sarah, it’s always her with you, lately.”

A warmth hit my face. A different kind.

“I-”

“I’m just kidding,” D said, flat. “She’s doing fine. Gauging audience reaction, making sure they’re into it.”

“Ha ha, Miss Director,” I said, sarcastic. “Did you want to do the honors, instead?”

D started bouncing a bit. “Wait, can I actually?”

“You can actually.”

“Yes! Okay, go! No wait, action!”

The Fangs had moment’s hesitation after the confusing way that came out, but it was only for that moment. They sprung to action, pushing through the doors and entering the gala.

D and I moved again, faster.

“You got your earpiece?” D asked.

I fished for it out from a hidden pocket of my bag. The strap around me was firm. It wouldn’t whip around in the wind.

“It’s in,” I said, tapping the button on the side. It turned on, and Lawrence’s voice entered my ear. It sounded fuzzy.

I’m curious what you think of this painting…

I caught the image of our Fangs as they maneuvered through the gala’s back halls. They had been briefed on the path, too, how to get through with minimal chance of running into trouble.

They appeared as small black dots on the grid, popping in and out as they passed different cameras. D had set up a loop through a transmitter, so they’d have a bit more cover getting in.

And that was only the first half. Getting in. Getting out? That was my part.

My turn.

“Everyone’s in place!” D called out, her voice raised. It would never be entertaining to hear her address gangsters like this. “Operation Smoke and Mirrors is in effect!”

D and her nicknames. At least she was having fun with it.

I jumped, crossing the lot, landing on the roof of a white van. I gave the side door a hard tap.

“Let’s move!” I ordered.

Tires squealed as they tried to get traction, then peeling out from the lot. If I didn’t already have a firm grip, I would have tumbled off the van.

Three white vans tore through the alley, ready to pierce the road on the other side. In my costume, masked, I held onto the roof of one of them.

It was time. Through the smoke and mirrors, we’d get Natalie Beckham and Oliver Morgan.

We were going to stage an art heist.

Previous                                                                                               Next

097 – Entangled Mess

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“Oh, that’s a cute one. You should totally get that for your apartment, Wendy.”

“I don’t think cute is even my thing, though. Not really.”

“It can be. I think it is.”

I gave Sarah a sidelong glance. “Now you’re just messing with me.”

Blood-red lips turned from a line to a smirk. I caught her in the act.

“Guilty as charged,” Sarah said, smiling now.

I couldn’t help but smile, too, even if it felt stupid to do so. My eyes moved back to the art again. The other art.

In front of us, a painting was framed, and the visuals, from the brush strokes to the colors to the shapes those two things formed, it was like they were fighting to break out. The painting wasn’t portraying any particular subject, being more abstract in design. Sharp angles, breaking into fractals, splintering off and going up the canvas like cinders, small and quick dashes of white and yellow against a red backdrop to simulate an intense flare. An angry image, jagged shapes stabbing into the thin, dark blue frame, trying to tear itself free from its bindings. It couldn’t, though, being a still image, forever constrained by the border it was encased in. Anger, but I drew some sadness from the painting, too.

Taking a step back, the whole thing looked like a city on fire.

“You call this cute?” I asked, soaking in the image. “Looks… sad, if anything else.”

“But look here,” Sarah said, pointing to a set of shapes on the lower right corner of the canvas. “Doesn’t it look like a puppy?”

“That… wait.”

A full stop. I didn’t want to admit that it actually did look like a puppy.

Sarah lightly jabbed me with her elbow. “I’m right, aren’t I?”

“You’re… that’s not… shut up. I’m going somewhere else.”

I did just that, moving along from the painting and going to another part of the gallery.

The Mazzucchelli Art Gala. It was an expansive space with wide, white walls and bright lights, the perfect setting to display all the paintings and sculptures and photographs blown up to absurd dimensions, some taking up a whole wall to themselves. The majority of the art presented looked to be more modern stuff, with brighter colors and more abstract approaches to the design and composition and illustration. Very little of the skilled depiction of old people doing old people stuff, which was my initial expectation. I had never been in an art gallery before.

I explored the space, my eyes passing over works that must have taken hundreds of hours of effort to create, and I only gave myself a second to take them all in. But none of them were really catching my eye in the first place. But, I had no reference as to what I, Wendy, liked. What specifically would appeal to me.

Everything looked expensive, I could gather that much.

I stopped at another painting. A smaller canvas than the last one, I could imagine it being set on a wall in my apartment. Maybe as a centerpiece in the living room. Maybe.

It was an easier piece to wrap my head around, too. There was a central subject, for one, and the colors weren’t so… violent to my eyes. They were still bright and vibrant, but there was an order to them, filling in the lines and shapes rather than trying to break and bleed out of them. A face, a woman’s face, smiling wide enough that her teeth was showing, her face peeled back in a way that seemed genuine. Shades of lime green around her eyes suggested makeup, giving her a mature look that I could never hope to match. Pink highlights in her hair and cheeks gave the image more life. Just one girl, with a lot going on and around her, yet she was smiling, she was okay.

I gravitated towards the image. My feet stayed in place, my eyes locked on the painting, not passing it over after a second.

“So this is more to your tastes, then?”

Sarah had followed me, moving back to my side. Returning to it.

I shrugged. “I don’t know if I have any taste, honestly. Haven’t taken the time to stop and look at stuff to develop anything. Like, does this suck? I have no idea if this sucks, and I’d hate to put this up somewhere, and, on the off chance I have people over, they come in and see this and they don’t like so they judge my tastes, judge me.”

“You’re thinking too much about it,” Sarah said.

“I don’t think I think enough,” I said.

“Fair enough.” Sarah took a longer look at the painting. “If it means anything, I like it.”

“Do you really, or only because I might?”

“Yes,” Sarah said. She smiled again. “No, but seriously, you could go for worse. This is a pretty modern style, but it’s not too distracting. I could see it hanging up on a wall somewhere, giving the room some color. I wouldn’t judge you for it. But that’s just me. Whatever you get for your room, I’d love to see it no matter what.”

“My room? If I’m getting anything, it’d be for the living room.”

“Oh. I see. I’d still, I’d still like to see your room, though.”

“Why? I don’t have anything remarkable there.”

Sarah touched my shoulder. Her hand traced down to my forearm. The tiny hairs on the back of my neck spiked up.

“Just… invite me over next time. I can bring some stuff.”

“Like what?” I asked.

“Just stuff,” she answered, coy. “It’ll be great. Trust me.”

Something about that begged for more questioning, but I wasn’t here to mess around. I had to get a sense of the gallery, the space, how many people would be going through here at any given moment. John Cruz’s event was in three days, Natalie Beckham and Oliver Morgan were going to attend, and we had a stage to set. We knew ahead of time where everyone was going to be, and we’d use the coming days to prepare and coordinate until we had full control over the situation, until we could pull the strings, with nothing that could come and cut them. To toss in another metaphor, we had a board, and we knew where the pieces would be. Now, we just had to plan our moves, the play we would make.

Sarah, though? That was a different kind of play, one I didn’t have time for. A small but growing part of me wished that I did.

“We can put that off for another day,” I said, eyes on the art. “But, not too far off. Hopefully. If that’s alright with you.”

Sarah was smiling. “That’s great with me.”

Then, I took off to another part of the gallery, Sarah following without a word or any other indication from me. I could almost let myself feel okay, because I was starting to get a better picture of what it was I wanted.

We took one more walk around the gallery, making note of any exits, vents, windows, stairs. It was a lot to take in, though getting a more detailed floor plan was in the works. But, until D came back with those, we could spend some time getting a look around. Exploring our options.

The gallery was big enough to hold a lot of people, it definitely didn’t have a shortage of artwork. We had to, at the very least, gauge how many people were going to be in attendance, and see how they and their numbers would factor into our plans. Crowd control, and we had to know how big the crowd was going to be, and who would be in it.

I spotted Lawrence, not wearing a uniform, talking with an elderly man in a nice looking suit. He was getting that information for us.

“You’re closing the gallery in a few days? I wasn’t aware of that. I had plans to bring a date here, so I was checking this place out ahead of time.”

“We appreciate your interests in the arts, sir, but yes, we will have to close our doors to the public, but only for a short time.”

“What’s happening that you’d need to shut everything down? Maintenance?”

The elderly man looked offended at the suggestion that anything had to be maintained. “No. We’re holding a private event for some very important people. More high profile than a date.”

“Oh? That’s cool, then. What kind of event? Who’s going?”

“Beneficiaries to the gallery and donors to Mr. Cruz. He the one who is planning this event together.”

“As in John Cruz, the district attorney?”

The elderly man looked at him again. “Yes. He is inviting some of his biggest backers, the city’s elite, partly in celebration of his recent win with the election, but also to touch base and introduce some legislature and garner some support for it.”

“Lotta big names, it sounds like. Is it going to be packed?”

The elderly man gave him a third, more curious look.

“More people than we normally get when let this gallery be open to the public.”

He managed to spit out that last word, as if a bad taste was left on his tongue as he said it.

Lawrence twitched, and rubbed his cheek with a hand. Did the old guy actually spit on him?

“Good to know,” Lawrence said. “Thank you for explaining the expressionist piece, and for indulging me for the other stuff. I can take it from here.”

“Of course,” the elderly man said. He nodded. “Have a good rest of your day. And best of luck for your… date.”

“Oh, thank you. Yeah, she’ll definitely love all the art here.”

Lawrence walked away before the elderly man could say anything else, acting like another sculpture grabbed his attention. The elderly man looked as if he was going after Lawrence, but someone else asked for him, and his focus was redirected. Lawrence got away.

Sarah and I kept walking around, studying the art, making brief comments about them, until Lawrence bumped into us while we were standing in front of an installation piece. Long threads of different colored rope were tangled into a mass on the floor. I wasn’t sure if it was legitimate art, or if someone, somehow, left a mess behind.

The encounter was completely on accident. Looked like it, anyways.

“Excuse me,” I said.

“No problem.” Then he dropped the act. “They’re expecting a full house.”

“We heard. It’s going to be tight.”

“Real tight. With so many people, there is that much of a chance for everything to get fucked. More people, more factors to account for.”

“If you’re having doubts, we don’t have to do it like this. We have Natalie’s phone number. We can give her a call and lure her and Oliver somewhere else, and get at them that way.”

Lawrence was staring hard at the art piece in front of us, or rather, he was staring past it. His thoughts were somewhere beyond that.

“No. If we try to pull them somewhere else, it might raise their suspicions. They might try something, too, move with precaution. We could try to work around that, but… I think Mrs. Carter gave us this art gallery for a reason. Remember, they’re investigating John Cruz. If we do anything before this event, they, and anyone those reporters talked to or worked with, are going to start asking questions of their own, many of them directed to Cruz. If we do something during, though…”

“It would be harder for anyone make a connection,” I said. “No, yeah, you’re right about that.”

“With enough smoke and mirrors, we can blur the lines, put the devil in the details, and hide you in them.”

“That was a lot of phrases in a short amount of time,” Sarah said.

“Hush,” Lawrence said. “The point is, we’ll use this space, and the insurance is just that, a last resort. But we make sure we can pull this off, without a hitch, because that would look a lot more impressive to those who know what to look for.”

“You really want to have a seat at that table,” I observed.

“And you don’t? This is everything we’ve been working towards, Wendy. Most gangs never get a chance to move up, to expand their operations. And we’ve been doing that on our own, with no sponsors, and we’ve been doing it fast. Mrs. Carter was right, there have been a ton of changes happening in the city, especially once you came onto the scene. And now, the Fangs are an embodiment of that. Donnie’s gang, too, if Styx hadn’t… slammed him through multiple tables.”

Lawrence paused. He reached into a pocket. A small bottle. He popped another pill. Lawrence massaged a shoulder, grunting, before he could talk again.

“What I’m trying to say, is that we have a chance to be the real face of that change. Represent it. And if we can do that, our seat suddenly becomes worth a lot more. Because change will keep coming, and with it, a lot of power.”

That stab of guilt again, this time through the heart.

“Change,” I said, at the appropriate volume for an art gallery. “Yeah. You’re not wrong about that.”

Lawrence reached into his pocket again. His phone, this time. He raised it, and took a photo.

“D just texted. She’s secured the floor plans.”

“I can go get the van and go around the back for her,” Sarah said. “I’ll pick you two up afterwards?”

“Do that,” Lawrence said, putting his phone back. “Best if we leave separately.”

“Okay. I’ll be right back, Wendy.”

Sarah touched my arm again, then left to go get D.

I had my reservations on leaving D to her own devices again, and so soon, especially considering the last time we had asked her to go off and do something, she didn’t. It was part of the reason why I wanted Sarah to come along with us this time, so we could have someone watch D when we couldn’t. Not a matter of distrust, just accountability. But, D really wanted to set things straight with us, with Lawrence, and D was the only person we had available who could tackle this job, and after texting Lawrence, she proved herself again.

Sarah left to go get D. I could still feel where she had touched my arm.

I rubbed my arm.

“When you said ‘date,’ who were you thinking of bringing?”

Lawrence didn’t answer right away, and when I looked for him, he had already started to walk elsewhere, having only stopped because I had spoken up. He was facing me, half-turned.

“Date?” he asked. It didn’t sound like a word when he repeated it back.

I frowned a bit. “You won’t be able to go around by yourself, you’ll need someone with you, to give some more cover, make it more, uh, believable.”

Lawrence turned back.

“Are you going to be mad if I ask Sarah?”

That was blunt. I threw me off, made me take longer to formulate a response.

Lawrence spoke up before I could.

“Look, Wendy, sometimes I forget you’re only a teenager, so believe me when I tell you that… I don’t give a shit. Seriously. Outside of this, the job, you can do whatever or whoever you want. Doesn’t matter to me. I’ll probably need to ask Sarah if she’s up for it. It was bad enough that you had to share my last name when we went to the Lunar Tower. I wouldn’t entirely hate it if you were joining me instead, but again, you’re closer in age to D than you are to me, so, no. And, besides, I’ll need you elsewhere.”

“That wasn’t… that wasn’t what I was getting at,” I lied.

“Sure it wasn’t,” Lawrence said. He turned back. “I’m heading out first. Give it five more minutes, and then you can leave. Tonight-”

“Tonight,” I said. “Yeah. I’ll keep an eye on her.”

“Cool.” Lawrence paused. “You’ve been doing good, lately. Keep it up.”

I wasn’t used to hearing that from Lawrence. Maybe there was more change going on that I had thought.

I gave him a victory sign with my fingers.

“Will do,” I said.

Lawrence was already walking away, leaving the gallery. He wasn’t used to giving out praise.

Then, I was by myself. Alone. Something I wasn’t unfamiliar with, but I didn’t miss it, either.

Five minutes. I waited, my thoughts more tangled than the art piece in front of me. I rubbed my arm again.

D bumped into my shoulder. I had to put my hands back down for balance, or else I would have tumbled over the roof and onto the cold, slick cement.

“Watch where you’re going,” I warned, more for her than for me. If I fell, I would have been able to walk away just fine. D… wouldn’t be as lucky.

“Sorry, woops.”

D repositioned herself so she was perched over the edge of the building. She sat, instead, setting her butt down and letting her legs dangle freely. We were several stories up, watching people as they went about their business, maneuvering through hallways with wide windows, going through the doors at the front of the building. More left than they entered, which would make sense, given the late hour. As the police started to clock out, we were getting ready to start.

The Pupil. It was a nickname for the new police headquarters that was built a couple years ago. Housing the newest equipment and technology for forensics and other criminal investigations. One of the biggest and most expensive tool boxes the Stephenville Police Department had at their disposal, and we were going to get a chance to play with those tools ourselves.

The building itself wasn’t that big, the old police headquarters was more impressive in scope, but it was the Pupil that had all the good stuff.

“So this is where you tracked your texts to Tone?”

“Yes. Right there. That place. Over yonder. The building you’re pointing to right now.”

“I’m not pointing at anything,” I said.

D made a squeaking noise, then coughed. Her legs knocked together as the breeze kicked up some more. We were high up, after all.

“You sure you’re up for this, D? We still have a few days left, we can give this another night.”

D crossed her legs so the constant knocking wouldn’t bother her.

“It’s fine,” she said. “It’s better we get this done now so we can concentrate on other stuff later. Once we start finalizing the details of what we’re going to do for the art gallery, it’ll be harder to walk away to tackle a side thing.”

“A side thing,” I said. “If we can track Natalie Beckham now, that’ll save us a hell of a lot of trouble. Lawrence might want to put on a show for Mrs. Carter, but I’d prefer we actually get this done rather than try to look good while doing it, then failing. And if nothing else, we have that much more insurance.”

“Insurance. Right.”

D shuffled next to me. She leaned in, then forward, her hands gripping the edge. She leaned so much that it scared me. Her bangs fell to the front of her face.

I reached and pulled her back, hard. Harder than I’d needed, because she fell and landed on her back, facing the sky. But she had tested her balance too far for my comfort. I reacted like any sister would.

“D, what the hell?” I said, admonishing her, like any sister would. “I know it’s late, but you need to stay alert.”

D stared at the sky, dark clouds in her eyes. The rain had finally taken a break, but from the expression on D’s face, it looked like the water might start falling again.

“If I fell, no one would miss me. It used to be like that for the longest time.”

There was no life in her words. Hollow. It scared me in a different kind of way.

“What are you saying?”

“But now, it’s not like that anymore. It’s not easy. There are too many things that keep me here. So many that it would start to slow my fall, now. El-Boy, you…”

D’s mouth was hanging open, like she was going to say another name. She didn’t. She did, however, keep going.

“If I fall, it wouldn’t be easy, or quick, or painless. I’d break first, and collapse there. Hurting. Cold, getting colder until the hurting stopped. But it would be like that for the longest time.”

“D,” I said, unsure of what to make of this or where it was coming from. It seemed like a tender, raw topic, because it was, but I wasn’t prepared or even equipped to handle something like this. It wasn’t what I came here to do. But it was the most important thing now.

“D,” I said again, still unsure but with a conviction I thought we both needed to hear. “If you ever fall, I’m going to catch you. And that’s not a promise. That’s what will happen.”

D blinked. Her face contorted into an expression I didn’t want to look at. It wasn’t the D I had come to know.

Rain started again, falling down the side of her face. Her cheeks.

“Come on,” I said, putting a hand on hers. She didn’t grab it, but she did let me intertwine our fingers. “We’ll both get soaked if we stay out here.”

She accepted my tug as a gesture to get back up. We both moved, getting to our feet, and into position. I shifted so I could balance on a knee. D was behind me, her arms wrapped around my shoulders, her hands close to my neck.

“I’m sorry,” D said. She hopped onto my back, holding on with a tight grip. Her full weight was on me, but I had the strength to support her.

I remembered what Sarah had said. D wasn’t an asset. She was just a kid. A kid in a world of mobsters and monsters. Of Styx and me. This was no place for a kid, yet she was here, having her fun, before I had ever even become aware of it.

It should have occurred to me much sooner then, that it wouldn’t always be fun and games. Like with powers, being super, it allowed for higher reaches, to scale taller heights. But the inverse was the same, as well. The valleys were much lower, the shadows more deep and more dark. D was just as super as I was, but in a different but still very real way.

I had to keep that in mind. Another thing to keep in mind. The gang, Mister, what I really was, Sarah… That list kept growing. I could see the cracks starting to form. The doubts, as they took deeper roots.

“You’ve apologized enough. You don’t have anything to be sorry about anymore,” I said. “Now hold tight, it might get slippery. Are we good to go?”

D’s head bumped into mine as she looked ahead. “We are.”

I took a leap. It was enough to get me moving.

Wind blew into my face, and I could feel how it made my mask cold, how it flapped my hood into my ears, knocking out any other sound. It was soothing, to have one of my senses dulled like this, in a way that didn’t put me on alert or on edge. I could focus on other things, rely on other sense, putting me in a more level, meditative mood. A flow I could get into to just take me to where I needed to go, without worries or doubts to bog me down. D was on my back, or rather she had it, giving me an anchor so I didn’t lose myself completely.

The leap took us across the street, across the roof of an office building. Then, the old police headquarters. It was a larger building, so it was a longer distance to cross. I crossed it in only a few steps, the strength of each individual stride getting me there rather than speed. We weren’t in a rush, and I wasn’t trying to make D sick.

I could recalled the time I had met with Gomez, here. I had asked for his assistance in helping me find Benny. He refused, and I met with D and Lawrence soon after. Now, he was hardly a consideration, a factor in our plans. If he was still in his office, it didn’t matter, and he wouldn’t ever know that we were here.

More roofs, alleys and streets, until we made it over to the Pupil. Funny, that we were about to break into a place with that name, undetected.

My feet hit the roof, a firm impact. I stopped to lower myself and set D down. No one else around.

D got a move on.

“Through there,” she said, pointing. She indicated a roof access door.

“How hard are we expecting this to be?” I asked.

“Not hard at all. I did this by myself, last time, and that was in the middle of the day. But now that you’re here, and so is the moon, this should be a walk in the park.”

I didn’t comment on her choice of words, there, but if she was willing to make a joke, I wouldn’t begrudge her of that.

“Alright,” I said. I grabbed her hand and took the lead. “You still have to stay close. Let’s not take any chances.”

“Okie.”

We took to the door, finding it unlocked. We descended down some stairs, until we reached a corner, leading into a short hallway. Harsh lights hit my eyes, harsh only because they took away any cover I could have used. We were out in the open, immediately spotted should someone be unlucky enough to make the wrong turn.

D went first, peeking her head into the hall, checking both sides. She jogged to the left.

“No one’s around, here!”

I dashed out into the hallway after her. I still had to keep an eye on her.

She stuck to one side of the hall, as far away from the windows as possible. I followed suit, staying close and staying low.

We didn’t have to go far to get where our destination. D stopped at a metal door, while pulling her hand out of her bomber jacket. She had a keycard in hand.

“And there we go,” she whispered, pleased with herself as she swiped the card into the reader by the door. A light by the reader turned green, and metal locks tumbled out of place, allowing us in.

D pulled the door open for me. This time, I went through first.

The room was dark. A lab, upon closer inspection. Devices and machines sat there, quiet, with only the soft whirring of a computer or the occasional beeping lights of some equipment I wasn’t familiar with and definitely didn’t want to touch. I’d let D handle that part.

I saw some microscopes, boxes that were labeled for test tube storage. I could probably use a place like this to study my own blood or something.

“All clear,” I called out. Had to keep moving. D let the door shut behind her, following me into the lab. She immediately passed me, heading elsewhere. She knew where she was going.

D pushed a chair from one table to another, letting it roll over. She plopped herself into the seat, pulling the lever adjust the height. The chair lifted her up more, her feet leaving the floor, and I didn’t think that was her intention. She swiveled around in an attempt to move closer, but all she did was spin in place.

I pushed her the rest of the way.

“Thanks,” she said, getting right to work. She moved herself over to a computer, moving the mouse, the screen waking up. A green flash hit us in the face, and the rest of the lab behind us, with it being the only source of light. I checked behind us. There weren’t any windows peeking into the halls on the opposite side of these walls, so we were still good.

Good, in the sense that we hadn’t gotten caught. Breaking into a police headquarters and using their very expensive equipment without any permission was absolutely outside of anything that could be considered good.

The screen displayed fields for usernames and passwords. Every tapped key clacked as D filled them both in. She logged in without any issue.

“I’m… I’m in,” D said. “You have the number?”

“I do.”

I slipped my hand into the side of my bag I had strapped to my back. Part of my costume. I got the slip of paper with Natalie’s number on it. I gave it to D.

D was clicking through folders, as she said, “Could you… keep a lookout for me? I can handle this part from here.”

“I told Lawrence that I’d keep an eye on you. I can’t do that if I’m not… looking at you,” I said. “That came out weird.”

“I’ll be right here,” D said, hurried. “It’s not like I can go anywhere else. Come on Vivi, pleeease.”

She was pleading with me, but she was using that higher register tone that I was familiar with. I didn’t hate having to hear it.

I sighed.

“Alright, You win,” I said. I turned to go to the other end of the lab, where we had come in from. “You better behave yourself!”

“I, I will!”

I took her at her word. I had no other choice.

I moved into position, crouching by the metal doors that let us in here. D was right, I wouldn’t be much of help to her, not with the technical side of things. But if anyone were to wander in here, I could work to subdue them.

Which made me wonder how D managed to assist me with finding Tone and our passengers when they were taken by the cult. It was the middle of the day. How did she not get caught?

“D?” I called out. I had to keep myself hushed, but she was still able to hear me.

Oui?”

“How’d you get in here the first time?”

“It definitely wasn’t easy. I had to sneak into the back instead, the roof would be impossible to get to by myself. At first, I was a teensy bit nervous because I could’ve ran into a officer I pulled a prank on once before so that was really scary but it turned the few I ran into thought I was just some lost kid so I’d ask where the nearest restroom was so then I just ping-ponged my way down different halls and restroom until I got to where I needed to go. Just like that!”

“Right,” I said. “Just like that.”

“Why, that wasn’t believable enough for you?”

“No, it was, I mean I don’t have any real reason not to believe that.”

“Oh. Okay. Cool.”

This was more of what I was used to. D being weird, me accepting that weirdness and going along with it anyways. Familiar, routine even.

And of I could keep her talking, I could keep tabs on her, even from here.

“D,” I said, reaching for her voice. Not because I needed to hear it, but because she needed to hear mine.

“Vivi.”

“Do you like… doing this?”

“Doing what, you need to be more specific.”

“This, D, the gang stuff, leading one. I know you’ve been playing around in this world for some time now, but I’m guessing you never had a direct hand in things, not like how we have it now. I was just curious, now that you’ve had time doing both, if you do prefer being on your own or not.”

No answer, not immediately. Just the clacking of keys. Clicks.

“It can be fun. It has been fun. It’s been getting a little harder to find that fun, though.”

Ah.

“It can’t always be like that,” I told her. “We’re in a position that requires us to get work done. There might be some fun to be found during that, but a lot of it is just that. Work.”

“I know that. I’m just not…”

“Not what?”

“I’m not very used to it.”

“You’ve been doing pretty well so far, better than me.”

“But we both know this won’t last forever. And I don’t want Lawrence to hate me, because I like him. And I like you too, Vivi.”

This wouldn’t last forever. We both knew that. D was feeling that guilt, as well. Lawrence.

“And I like you, D, that won’t ever change. Can’t speak for Lawrence though.”

That part was mostly a joke. Mostly.

I continued.

“We’re doing this so we can get to that table. If you want to rethink what we do when we get there, we can do that then.”

“Like how we’re putting off what we’ll do to Natalie and Oli when we get to them?”

No answer. Not immediately. I let the question hang.

“We can’t kill them, Wendy,” D said. “We can’t.”

“We have a job to do,” I answered. “Let’s focus on that.”

“Oh,” D then said, in a way that suggested a change in topic. I took it.

“What?”

I went back to D. She was still at the computer, still typing. I watched as she scrolled down on some program.

“The number, all I’m getting from it is an address.”

“An address? You can’t text the number and see where it leads from here?”

“I…” D started, then she lifted her phone to show me the screen. A message log with only one text. “I sent a test one that looks like a spam message, but nothing. I don’t want to send more or else it’ll look too sketchy.”

“Why isn’t it working this time?”

D tugged at her choker, then moved her mouse again. She closed the program.

“I don’t know. Could be a glitch, or, with it being so late the system might be doing some background maintenance. I don’t know.”

“Do you have time to restart it?”

“I don’t know. Maybe? I took a picture of the address, so maybe-”

The one time I turned away from the door, it opened.

I grabbed D and yanked her out of the chair, scurrying to hide under a nearby table. I pushed her head lower so she wouldn’t get clipped by the corner of the table as we rushed.

“Ow, my head still hurts,” D whined.

“Hush.”

The metal door made a lot of noise as it opened, and we were able to use that brief moment as cover. The rolling chair had banged on the side of the desk D was using when I grabbed her, but the intruder didn’t seem to hear it.

Then, the door closed, the same noises again, and I used that to get lower and push the tangle of wires out of the way so I could peek through. I saw legs.

From the angle we were at, the desk and the door, there had been enough equipment to block their view of us as they entered. From how they were walking, they didn’t seem alarmed.

They were, however, walking over to where we had been, seconds ago.

“I’m back in, but I can’t take too long.”

Talking, but not to us. It sounded like a man, a voice I’d heard before.

“I’ll see if there’s anything else I can find on him.”

It’s James Gomez.

I exchanged a glance with D. That was enough to confirm it.

What was he doing here?

He continued to talk to no one. He had to be on the phone, then. He didn’t turn the lights on as he came in, was he trying to sneak in as well?

What the hell is he doing here?

“Hold on, let me… No, it’s nothing. It’s this damn chair. I think someone was just in here. Close call.”

I held my breath. From how still D went, so did she.

James Gomez was in here, in this lab. We weren’t supposed to be in here, and from what I could gather and guess, neither was he. Which only made me repeat the question in my head a third time. What was James Gomez doing here?

We were in the dark, hiding in the shadows. He didn’t know we were in here. If we stayed long enough, me might be able to find out what Gomez was after.

D tugged at my arm.

Careful with my movements, so I wouldn’t bump into anything and make sound, I shifted to look at her.

D pointed to the door, stabbing a finger in its direction.

She wanted to leave? Now?

It was a risk, sticking around. But if Gomez was up to something, it wasn’t a bad idea to learn what that might be.

D kept pointing to the door, bumping into me to nudge me forward. I hesitated.

“Give me a second, I’m not really familiar with the system. And… there. What did you want me to cross-reference again?”

Shit.

I hesitated for too long, apparently. D burst out from the underneath the table, sprinting to the door.

Shit.

Panicked, I got out from the cover, going after her.

The door wasn’t that far, D was already opening it, pushing all her weight into her shoulder to open it faster. I caught up with her as soon as she slipped through the crack, the light.

“Hey!”

Not my voice.

I picked D up as I kept running, throwing her over my shoulder. It wasn’t a comfortable position for her to be in, but she left me with little choice.

A corner, then the stairs to the roof. We weren’t that far.

A cop.

A cop that looked vaguely familiar. Young, caucasian. Maybe someone I had acquainted myself with in a previous life. Was he on lookout for Gomez?

He was standing between us and the stairs. Just one cop, and we were free.

I was running fast, his reaction was one of surprise, but delayed compared to my speed. I reached out with my hand.

No time to go for a knife. I swiped at him.

I aimed for his collarbone. Under his uniform, I felt as the bone shifted, depressing into a lower position, into his body.

The man winced, the pain sudden and too debilitating, and he folded over, letting us go free.

“Campbell!”

Still not my voice.

We were up the steps and out the door in a flash. The door almost flung from the hinges from how hard I pushed it.

I turned, jumping. To the other side of the access door. I set D on her feet. She gripped her stomach. She looked nauseous.

“D,” I said, stern, “Now that I don’t like-”

“This was just a side thing,” D snapped, “We didn’t get want we wanted but I did get an address, that might work, but we’re still on track for the art gallery. Now hurry, or Uncle J is gonna catch up to us!”

I couldn’t argue with that. I wondered if she was purposefully not giving me room to argue.

Silent, I put D onto my back, and took off into the night, escaping. The weight on me felt different, now. Less of an anchor, and more of an overall sinking feeling.

Previous                                                                                               Next

096 – Stop the Presses

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

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

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

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

Doesn’t mean I have to like it.

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

“Jordan,” I said.

A man turned, standing. Taller than me.

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

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

“Here, let me help with that.”

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

“So, where does this go?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Alright, Voss.”

He didn’t say or offer anything else.

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

Okay.

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

“Alright.”

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

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

I knew that much.

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

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

I also saw D.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah gestured to the church around her.

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

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

“Oh, that’s right,” I mumbled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I almost laughed.

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

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

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

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

Wasn’t Alexis better at more mundane things?

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

“Someone call?”

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

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

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

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

I shrugged.

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

Isabella groaned. I could imagine why.

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

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

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

“A what?”

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

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

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

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

“No,” Isabella said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I didn’t bring it up.

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

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

He surveyed the area.

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

“Like what?”

Lawrence waved a hand.

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

“Fair enough,” I said.

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

“Not disagreeing with you there.”

I scratched the back of my head, thinking.

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

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

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

“I thought we already discussed this.”

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

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

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

“Her and Wendy,” Isabella said.

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

Lawrence paused. He breathed in, then out again.

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

Sarah smirked. “You said it, not me.”

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

Lawrence frowned.

“Are you serious?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I held my tongue.

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

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

“Take some caffeine pills if you need to.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We need to start talking plans.”

D didn’t reply right away.

“Okay. I’m game.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Where do we start?”

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

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

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

I was quiet. D was, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We can’t kill them.”

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

“We can’t,” she reiterated.

I nodded, slow.

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

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

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

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

“Like what?”

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

D hugged her bear.

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

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

“Good one,” I said.

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

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

“Aw, that was almost sweet,” I said.

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

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

“Yup, that’s it. Definitely.”

I heard a small snicker.

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

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

That seemed to catch Lawrence off guard.

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

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

“You’ll be okay,” I said to her.

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

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

“What’s that?”

“I’ll need a costume of my own, too.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ten, if you will,” someone said.

“Sure.” The button lit up.

“Did someone press seven?”

“Just did.”

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

“Of course.”

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

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

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

The doors closed behind me. No going back now.

I bit my tongue as I arrived.

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

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

I had to compose myself again.

“This is the Stephenville Impact offices, right?”

The woman gave me a look.

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

I tightened up even more. “I…”

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

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

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

“And what business do you have with them?”

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

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

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

“Name and position?”

Shit, thought so. Cutting it closer and closer.

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

“Alright…” She kept writing.

“Are they around?” I asked, nervous.

She stopped writing, then turned her attention to me.

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

No, no.

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

“They do not.”

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

“Do they come here often?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Wendy, was it?”

Again, I bit my tongue. Harder.

“Yes,” I said, tense.

She set her notepad and pen to the side.

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

“That’s fine,” I said, “Thank you.”

I’m prepared to wait.

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

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

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

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

Then, I waited.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The delivery man scratched his head.

“No? Is this not Langston and Associates?”

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

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

“Oh, well where am I supposed to go?”

“Langston is three floors down from here.”

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

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

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

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

“Is this a prank?”

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

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

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

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

Didn’t take long for chaos to erupt.

The dog locked eyes on me, and immediately snapped. It barked, growled, yelped, tugging against its chain, metal links clinking together. One animal made more noise than everyone else did on this on floor.

I backed up, hanging off the edge of my seat. He’d better have a handle on the dog.

The man with the sunglasses, pulled again, clearly struggling, yelling the barking.

“Russel, Russel! Ay cool it!”

The dog wasn’t obeying, tugging even harder, until it was choking itself against its collar. The dog struggled to break free and attack me, the man struggled to rein him in.

I got out of my chair, the dog was winning out in that struggle. I checked around.

The man was sitting across from me was standing, too, backing away from the dog. The receptionist was up as well, wary, unsure what her next move was supposed to be. A lot of eyes were on the scene, on me. Their focus and attention had been redirected.

I didn’t see the delivery man.

“Sit, Russel, sit!”

The dog wasn’t listening.

Okay, this was cutting it even closer. It wouldn’t be long until those cuts started landing.

More commotion. Coming from behind me.

People. Running up to us, to me. Pulling me away.

“Hey, get moving!”

Others were trying to get to the man, but his dog was putting himself between them, eyes and teeth still trained on me.

“Sir, could you get your dog out of here, maybe come back another time?”

“I’m sorry, Russel isn’t normally like this!”

“I understand that, sir, but if he can’t calm down, he’ll have to go outside. Or I’ll have to call security!”

Hearing that, the man pulled even harder to get the dog to turn around. He made some progress, but at the cost of twisting the dog around, more whimpering than it was growling, now. Still doing all that it could to get at me.

Someone led me back to the receptionist desk, putting more distance between me and the dog. More of a surprise, seeing people immediately jump to help another. The world I operated in didn’t call for much selflessness.

The dog, despite all its bark and its attempt to bite, eventually gave way to its owner, letting itself be dragged back to one of the elevators. The farther it got, the less feral it became.

“Sorry!” the man said, raising his hand to wave, before having to drop it again on the leash, the dog still tugging against it. “I’ll come back another time!”

The doors opened, and they both went into the elevator. The, the doors closed, leaving behind only ringing ears and pounding hearts.

I leaned against the receptionist’s desk, turning to the woman again. Everyone started to disperse as the situation cooled down.

“Wow,” I said, my eyes widened for effect. “Is there another place here I can wait so I’m not around when they come back?”

The woman’s eyes widened, too. Her hands dashed for her notepad and pen again. She scribbled.

“You know what, sweetie, here. That’s Ms. Beckham’s number. Use that.”

She tore the paper and handed it to me.

“Oh, are you sure?” I asked. I took it anyways.

“I am very,” she said.

From the corner of my eye, I saw the delivery man return. He still had the big teddy bear, but from the stack he had brought with him, a box was missing.

“Then, thank you,” I said. I gave the woman a curt nod, then took my leave. I followed the delivery man to the elevators. He pressed down, and I went in with him.

“Ground floor?” he asked.

“Yes, please.”

“Having a good morning so far?”

“I am now,” I answered.

The trip down was like an inverse of the trip going up. Less pressure, less stress as I went back down. It felt faster, too, to my actual relief.

When we got back to the ground floor, we went in different directions. The elevator filled with people as I left.

I found an exit on the side of the building. I was jogging to it as I got closer, pushing through the doors.

I practically growled a sigh of relief as I put the building behind me. Some people looked, it wasn’t ladylike, but I didn’t really give a shit.

I did it, we did it.

Taking the long way, turning more corners than I had to, I saw the parking garage. I picked up the pace now that I had my destination in my sights.

There were a few cars parked on the side of the road. A van, painted to look like a delivery truck.

A door slid open, and I slid right inside.

Sarah closed the door, and the van got started. D peeled us out of the parking spot, getting onto the road proper.

“Welcome back, Voss,” Sarah said. We were on the clock, but she did sound happy to have me back.

“I’m glad I managed to make it back,” I said.

In the passenger’s side, someone looked over. A man in a brown uniform, like he was off to deliver something.

“Good work, Wendy,” Lawrence said. “You played it cool, gave me an opening.”

“No, if it weren’t for Jordan this wouldn’t have worked out as well. And the-”

“Insurance? I followed D’s advice, I put them where no one would look, or question.”

“Awesome, and I got Natalie’s phone number. With D’s help, we should be able to track her down.”

“Yeah,” D said. “We, we should.”

“Fuck yes.” For the first time since I’d known him, Lawrence looked pleased.

“Then, that’s it,” I said. It was nearly impossible to believe. “Day one, and we got phase one locked down. What’s next?”

Lawrence answered. “Now, we need to start perusing some art. And see if there’s any we’d like to take for ourselves.”

Previous                                                                                               Next

095 – Cutthroat

Previous                                                                                               Next

Lawrence checked his phone for the third time in two minutes. One more for good measure.

“She’s late.”

He was mumbling to himself, but we all heard him.

There was a low rumble as the car was set to park, music just barely above the noise. It was Lawrence’s car, but it was Sarah’s music. Similar in style and genre from what she had shown me before, and I had grown to like it under its own merits. My head bobbed, and my fingers tapped to the rhythm.

It reminded me of the first time I rode with Sarah. On the way to El Paso, we talked about various things, and put those things into a new perspective. One of the few moments I could look back on with any kind of fondness. We were westward bound, but the trip went south, in a manner of speaking.

There were a few key differences, this time. For one, Lawrence was here, and that changed the dynamic. With the constant phone checking and mumbling, there seemed to be less room to relax or have any sense of calm settle in. It fit for someone like Lawrence, though. I hadn’t ever known him to be someone who could take it easy.

The second difference was that I wasn’t sitting in the passenger’s seat. I was in the back, unable to shake off the feeling that I was the third wheel, even if that wasn’t the case at all. If anything, Sarah would have a reasonable stake to that claim, and she seemed to be handling herself just fine. I was the one who had trouble keeping it cool in that situation, and I hadn’t even drank anything.

Maybe it was having to be here, seeing the sides of their face and the nape of their necks. A small but noticeable distance, but there was a degree of separation, there.

Lawrence’s car, Sarah’s music. And me, hanging on in the back.

I wished I had something to contribute, to feel more involved in things. I wished I was sitting next to Sarah.

I tried saying something, to add my voice and input.

“Just give it some time, they’ll be here soon enough.”

“They?” Lawrence questioned. “All D has to do is get out of the building and come meet us here, it shouldn’t take her that long.”

“You say that like sneaking into a skyscraper and having to find and climb and crawl through the appropriate vents is as fast as taking the elevator. Not to mention having to sneak out.”

“If anyone could do it and do it fast, it’d be her. She freaks me out with what she’s able to do, but, I can’t say she doesn’t have her use.”

“Aw,” Sarah said, making a tune out of the sound. “Is that your way of complimenting her?”

Lawrence made a sound, but it was more noise than melodic.

“No. Put it like that and you’ll make me sick.”

Sarah laughed. It had such a light, breezy tone to it, yet it made something in my chest seize up, tight. I wasn’t sure what to label that feeling as or where it was coming from.

“Y’all are funny,” she said, and the way she phrased it made me think I was included in that, too.

“Funny how?” I asked.

“I was just saying…” she said, but she left it at that.

I didn’t believe her.

I brought my arm around the seat, trying to poke at Sarah.

“No, tell me.”

Sarah wiggled around, trying to get away.

“Ow, what?”

“I said tell me.”

“It’s not, hey, I didn’t mean, quit it!”

I kept poking at her, and she kept twisting, leaning forward in a futile escape. It was probably just reflex, but she was laughing, ticklish, and that only made me want to do it more. Her voice reached a high pitch.

Lawrence cleared his throat.

“Guys, really?” he questioned, stern. He wasn’t looking at us, though. He checked his phone again, then flipped through another page in the folder. “You should be looking through this too, Wendy.”

I backed up from Sarah, leaving her alone. She was panting, her laughter dying down in fits. I kind of wanted to rev her up again.

But, I refocused my attention as I said, “I’ll sort through it with D when she gets here.”

Lawrence grunted. Another mumble, but it slipped past me, that time.

I added, “Hey, it’s not my fault there’s only one copy to pass around.”

“Should have asked for it while I was driving.” He flipped through some more pages, taking them out of the folder. “You know what, here.”

He handed me the pages. I took them from him, starting off with a cursory glance. Better to not meet with D and be completely blind to what we were up against. It was material I needed to familiarize myself with, because it was a job that was assigned to us, and I wouldn’t want to be the reason why it got botched. No, I’d have to do this properly, it was only fair to D and Lawrence. Even to Sarah, now that she was here.

Natalie Beckham and Oliver Morgan. Two journalists who were trying to disrupt Stephenville’s underworld, to dig it up and expose it to the light. Not unlike what I had in mind, but I’d go for something that burned a little brighter than just mere light.

If these were the same journalists that Lawrence was worried about, then our interests did align with Mrs. Carter’s, as she had put it. They were poised to disrupt our plans, too, if they were allowed to continue. We couldn’t let them get that far, wouldn’t. And to do that, I’d have to read up on our enemies. A very rare opportunity, and I learned to not let that go to waste.

I read through the bylines, the articles written by Natalie, photos taken by Oliver. It seemed like they covered local crime in Stephenville years ago, occasionally writing stories on gang leaders who were looking to sink their teeth in the city. They hadn’t managed to take down the larger, more established gangs, though. Not even Styx, and he was more… out there, than the rest.

It wasn’t for lack of trying, though. Attached were several drafts, printed out with some notes scrawled in the margins, most of them dating back to about a decade ago. Some of them concerned the larger gangs, but there wasn’t much detail, just some speculation and suggestions on leads to follow. Styx was brought up on several occasions. This could have been a gold mine for us, but there wasn’t enough to extrapolate anything. It felt so… curated. But, considering who these articles were provided by, it’d make sense not to give up something that had the potential to incriminate. It was just for us to get a feel for these two and their reporting.

Outside of that, though, how did Mrs. Carter get a hold of these? What was her line of access? How much did she actually know?

I saved my questions for later. We’d have a proper discussion once D got here. Which I hoped was soon. I was starting to worry.

“Any word from D yet?”

Lawrence looked at his phone.

“No. I thought you were the one who told me to be patient? Now you can’t wait anymore?”

“Geez. I can’t catch a break with you, can I?”

“Nope.”

I breathed out loud, making it obvious on purpose. Sarah snickered to herself.

“Before then, is there anything that sticks out to you?” I asked.

“Everything,” Lawrence answered. “This whole thing makes me uneasy.”

“Glad to know I’m not the only one.”

“That doesn’t make me feel any better.”

“Sorry.”

“No it’s… I’ll text D again.”

The phone buzzed in my pocket. I wouldn’t bother taking it out until I felt another one.

There was a lot of waiting, and there wasn’t much time.

Maybe we shouldn’t have left D alone, or at least have her sit this one out. It wasn’t like we could just have her sitting with us at that table. As far as image went, having D there would contrast the other gang leaders to the point of absurdity. There probably would have been more ‘no’ votes if they knew, exactly, who they were saying no to. But, at the same time, was this something we wanted assigned to us?

Styx was there. I wasn’t aware of that when went in. It was good call to have her not be within the walls of that room…

D did suggest that she’d sneak around and try to give us an advantage. Did she know that Styx would be there?

I flipped through another article. I breathed out, more quiet that time.

Couldn’t let my thoughts wander.

It was a bad habit, staying in my head for too long, mulling over what had happened and what it could all possibly mean. Dangerous, even. And I was supposed to be getting away from that, to not slip in the usual spots, to be better.

D needs to be here, already.

I reached out.

“Uh,” I started, just wanting to say something, but I didn’t have a proper thought prepared.

“Uh,” Sarah repeated, doing an impression of me. From just a small noise, it sounded pretty close.

“Huh?” Lawrence sounded almost incredulous.

One upside to being in the back. No one saw me when I smiled, feeling dumb, at the fact that Sarah had responded first.

“Nothing,” I said. I leaned over, resting my forehead against the back of Sarah’s seat. Putting more of my face into the shadow.

“I’d reach over and poke you if I could,” Sarah said.

“I’d like to see you try,” I said.

“Are you serious?” Lawrence questioned. My phone buzzed. “Fucking finally, christ. Come on.”

Lawrence pushed a button where the ignition was supposed to be, and the car stopped its rumbling. He opened the door. A chill came in, and he got out.

Sarah and I followed him outside.

The rain wouldn’t let up, but it had eased off as it got darker, later into the night. Not strong enough to really need an umbrella, but I really didn’t like getting wet.

Lawrence went without his umbrella, but Sarah had taken it for her own use. Without me saying anything, Sarah moved to my side, holding the umbrella above our heads. She walked in step with me, Lawrence ahead of us.

There were much more important matters to consider and think on, but they were all drowned out by my internal screaming.

“You can hold your liquor pretty well,” I commented. “Everything considered.”

“Oh yeah?” Sarah said, just barely over the rain, tapping on the umbrella. “To be perfectly honest, I’m freaking out.”

Was that an admittance or a joke? Somewhere in the middle?

“Me too,” I said, at the same volume, with the same kind of vagueness.

We walked across the lot, to the park. Peace Phoenix Plaza. Still in the Eye, but it was close and out of the way enough, and we needed to meet up as soon as we could. Though, if D was going to take forever in getting here, we could have just went over to the church, instead, using the keys that-

Thrown at me by Styx.

Maybe it was best if we stayed away for now. Could be a trap. It sort of was one the last time we were there.

I shook my head. My thoughts were getting away from me, again.

Reaching again, this time for my phone. I wanted to read D’s text. Her van wasn’t anywhere to be seen as we crossed the parking lot.

Orange lamplights illuminated the path ahead of us, making it easier to walk forward while my eyes and attention were elsewhere. Having Sarah huddled close helped too, in other ways.

Rain thumped on plastic, then hair. Sarah went a few steps ahead of me before she turned.

“Everything okay?”

I left a pause before I answered.

“I don’t think so.”

That caught Lawrence’s ear. He turned back and walked closer to Sarah.

“How?”

I showed him my phone. The message log of our group chat.

“Did you read D’s text?” I asked.

“Yes, we have to go over to the bridge at the south end of the park. D parked over there.”

I flicked the screen. The chat scrolled up towards earlier texts.

“Read it again, D doesn’t text like that.”

Lawrence looked at the screen, then his own. Comparing the most recent message with the ones D had sent before.

“It’s different,” Lawrence observed. “It’s off.”

“D doesn’t really bother with stuff like grammar or spelling.”

“You’re… yeah. It didn’t take me a second longer to know what she actually meant.”

Then Lawrence looked at me directly.

“You think D didn’t text us?”

“I’m saying I have doubts, and we need to be careful moving forward.”

“Got a plan?”

I nodded. “I’ll go ahead, scope things out. I’ll call or text you if it’s all clear.”

“That’s it? You don’t even have a knife on you.”

“I don’t want you to get hurt,” Sarah said.

I raised my other hand, palm facing forward.

“I won’t do anything hasty. I’ll just go first and take a look, just in case. If it’s nothing, great-”

“And if it’s something…”

Lawrence trailed off, and I didn’t want to continue the thought from there.

“Okay,” he then said, without much deliberation. Not much time for that. “Go. Be quick, but be careful. We’ll wait here.”

I started moving, passing Lawrence. There was a shock between my fingers.

My hand flinched. I had passed Sarah, her hand had brushed against mine. Nothing else was exchanged or said.

Oh shit.

Was that something I needed to address? There was so much on my plate already.

I concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. I was so dizzy.

That sensation lessened the farther I got away from Sarah and Lawrence, swallowed instead by doubt, but at least that was a feeling I was familiar with. I could work with doubt.

I started jogging down the path, passing others who were out on a stroll. Some were by themselves, some walked as a couple.

How nice, to see something normal.

I blinked as water went past my glasses and into my eye. I picked up the pace.

A fountain came into view. I went around it, passing a statue of a large bird of prey and an assortment of different art installments. One was a series of rings, interconnected and intersecting, until it looked like a web of wires and metal, an entangled mess than anything resembling art. I didn’t quite get it, myself, but I didn’t have to. I walked right past it without a second thought.

Turning to another section of the park, I hurried down the path, looking for anything or anyone that I could recognize, ally or not. At least I’d know I was getting somewhere.

I stopped.

There.

I saw Isabella, by a path that went under a bridge. She had originally gone with D to ride around the club we were meeting that other gang at, then offering to watch the van while D was out. Knowing that Isabella was there helped me feel better about D being where she was, even when Styx turned out to be there, too. A sort of solace I could fall back on.

There she was. I looked ahead and saw D, too. And then Styx.

My blood ran cold.

Under the bridge, as if they were hiding in the shadows, Styx was closer to D than he was to Isabella. Within arm’s reach, because he had an arm around her, holding and keeping her at his side. I was close enough to see D’s reaction to the whole thing. It was a bodily one, trying to get out of his grip, squirming.

I felt it as much as she seemed to.

Moving to the edge of the path, by some hedges, I was being tugged between two different urges. To lunge right at Styx and tear him apart, or sit back for three seconds and text Lawrence.

An almost impossible decision that took over four seconds of deliberation, and I had used up enough time that I might as well have contacted him.

Or was that me learning from past mistakes? To not rush in, headlong?

Couldn’t pat myself on the back, though. Didn’t feel right.

Lawrence replied. Faster than my hesitation. Bless him.

A short message. It was a blur as I skimmed through it. The brevity of it and the few letters I caught was enough for me to make a move in confidence.

Fuck him up.

I lunged.

I went off the path, going around the bushes and trees. Staying out of the light, staying in the dark. A rush went through me, like all my anxiety was being burned into something I could use. Fuel. A kind of bloodlust.

I blinked, and it was sudden. Styx was against the underside of the bridge. There was a curve to it, so Styx was pressed into it at an awkward angle, his back at an arc.

Sounds popped off around me. Isabella’s cheer, D’s surprised shriek, and Styx’s hard grunt into a strained but still raucous laughter.

“Hey! Look at you go!”

Shut up, I willed, then pressed him more into the brick bridge. I had pounced on him, fast, abrupt. Something should have been broken or cracked, but from the way he wouldn’t shut up, it didn’t seem like I had done a thorough enough job.

“Who took the leash off of you? Because I’ll have to thank them for finally making you so interesting.”

“Unless you’re willing to answer my questions, you’d best shut the fuck up.”

Styx cackled, and it only served to piss me off even more.

“Wendy.”

I turned my head, still pushing into Styx. It was D, her hands together, her eyes downward, staring at my feet rather than my face. Isabella walked closer, looking between D and Styx. Concern for her, contempt for him.

Styx managed to shift his head, too, looking in their direction.

“Ah, yes, if you want answers, why don’t you ask her? I’m sure she has something you’d like to hear.”

“I’m not asking her. I have you now, and you can still talk.”

“There’s no fun in that, I’m just an old man!”

“You’re not giving yourself much reason for me to keep you alive.”

“Oh, there’s plenty of reasons, believe me, but how about we go with the one that’s most fun. Come on, ask her, ask her!”

Styx growled the words, as if he was the one with the power in this situation.

I checked around me one more time. Isabella, D. No one else here. Might not stay like that for long. Random civilians, or maybe even Sarah and Lawrence.

D was still wasn’t looking at me.

“D,” I said, as a test, as a reach.

D’s gaze flicked upward, but not meeting me directly.

“What the fuck is he talking about, D?”

She wasn’t answering. I glanced at Isabella, who only offered a shrug. She was as lost as I was.

D,” I intoned, and it wasn’t a question or a suggestion. A command.

She flinched, her fingers twisting together. She opened her mouth, or rather, she let it hang.

“Styx was waiting for me when I got out of the vents. He caught me.”

“Why was he looking for you?” I asked D.

She went silent again.

Styx spoke, even when he wasn’t being spoken to. “I was wondering where she was, didn’t take me long to figure it out. You know, Mrs. Carter requested that everyone show up for the interview, evaluation. She’s not going to be very pleased if she finds out the Fangs were short a tooth.”

“Why were you looking for her?” I asked Styx.

“Wendy-”

“No!” Styx hollered, before cackling again. “I’ll take this one, lo, since you’ve elected to keep yourself choked up.”

He twisted himself around even more, so I could see the wide white of both of his eyes. The sort of flexibility that looked painful, yet he did it with a twisted grin on his face.

“I just wanted to say hi.” He said it like he was taunting me.

With how he was overextending the limits of his spine, and with my hands forcing him more into the brick, it would have been so easy to snap him in half. Wouldn’t need a knife or gun to do it, too.

“What?” I questioned.

“It’s been a minute since I’ve seen you all, seen D, and I was so disappointed that she wasn’t at the table. I just wanted to say hi, catch up.”

Been a minute, been a while…

Didn’t we ask D to check up with Styx after coming back from the church? That was only a few nights ago.

“D,” I said, at a lower register. I watched her. So stubborn.

D!”

I snapped at her.

Her eyes snapped upward, finally meeting mine. It took that much work to get something out of her.

“Did you do like we asked?” I tried to phrase it so only D could catch the actually meaning, but I was afraid that Styx already had us beat.

The reactions were about what I had come to expect, which didn’t inspire a lot of confidence in me. D was quiet, and Styx wasn’t.

I let go of Styx. He slid down the curved wall of the bridge, the side of his face against brick. He twisted himself around so he was leaning up on the wall, supporting himself, his laughter still ringing in my ears.

“Shut your mouth,” I told him, “Or I’ll lock it shut with the keys you gave me.”

“Oh, that’s a good one. Shows creativity.”

I scowled at him, but that only served to make him more elated.

I turned my ire to someone else, instead.

“The last fucking thing I want is for this guy to be right, D. So if you’re not going to talk, you better give me something.”

That something was delayed, as footsteps came up from the path behind Isabella and D. Sarah and Lawrence, they had caught up.

Everyone turned and reoriented themselves in the moment.

“The fuck are you doing here, Styx?” Lawrence asked. He was fully incredulous, that time. He probably only had the confidence to speak like that because Styx was several feet away, on the ground, scratched and bleeding on some parts of this face.

Sarah moved around Styx, like there was an invisible barrier around him. She beckoned for Isabella and D, to get them under her umbrella. They took slow, reluctant steps to her, still facing Styx like he was an animal that could attack at any moment. Maybe he could. Styx’s Ferrymen could be out there, somewhere, waiting for a signal from their leader.

I should have felt better that Sarah was here. Lawrence, too. I didn’t. There was a rotten feeling in my stomach and gullet, and it wouldn’t go away.

We’ll focus on D, later.

“Just here to congratulate all of you,” Styx said. He had been laughing so hard and for so long that his voice started to sound hoarse. “I would have done it up there if you had all been present. I just really wanted to.”

“You know damn well that we don’t need your goodwill,” Lawrence said.

“Oh, you don’t? Because you wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for me, boy.”

“I wouldn’t have been beaten half to death if it weren’t for you, either.”

Styx made a face, as if he had to think about it.

“Ah, that’s right.”

The man laughed again, more rough than ever.

This isn’t it. This isn’t right.

When I spoke, that taste was still there. I felt like spitting bile.

“Styx, I really don’t believe that’s all you’re here for. We already got we needed from Mrs. Carter. You being here is just keeping us from doing our job, and with how important it seems to be to her, fucking it up for us probably isn’t in your best interests.”

The laughter immediately stopped. The sound of light drizzle reigned. It was eerie.

“Do you think you have control here, Voss? That, because I’m down here, you have something you can hold over me? Real power?”

He sprung to his feet. A surprising swiftness that I wasn’t expecting.

Styx loomed over me. He was tall. He was bleeding, but it didn’t seem to bother him one bit.

“Because I can assure you, blueballs, that could not be further from the truth, which is something you continually turn a blind eye to, little Dolly won’t speak on, and El doesn’t actually want to hear. Fitting, since you were tasked to kill it. It’s actually very funny, I applaud Mrs. Carter.”

“Excuse me?”

Styx turned to Lawrence.

“I’m just here to set y’all straight before you tackle the big job. Help you get on the same page, or else you’ll all get torn apart from the inside. And as fun as that to observe from the side, I have bread to make. Haven’t set every duck in a row to operate on a smaller scale. Not yet.”

He fixed his leather jacket, tilting his head until I heard something pop.

“And until that happens, I’ll guide you along. I’ll just have my fun in seeing where I can take you.”

That didn’t sound foreboding at all.

“So the church really is good to use?” I asked.

“Good as holy water,” Styx said, but nothing he said gave me any assurance. He didn’t have the tone or even the context for it.

“Not a single bit of this feels right to me,” I said. “Mrs. Carter, the table, this job, you. Why the hell would we believe that you’re approaching this with any kind of goodwill?”

“Doesn’t that give you the best kind of thrill? Thinking that you have to make that gamble? How about this, let’s make it my second favor, that you have to take me on my word.”

I wanted to throw him into the brick again, paint this whole section of the bridge in red.

His second favor, meaning there was still one more.

“This is just one big joke to you, isn’t it?” I asked.

“Life is just one perspective shift away from being a tragedy or a comedy, and I prefer a longshot.”

“God dammit, Styx, if this is another trap I swear I’ll break your bones.”

“Not a trap, promise.” Styx grinned, wide. “The people voted you in for the position. I didn’t have a say in it, neither did Mrs. Carter. You got lucky with Santino. See? That just makes it all the more interesting for everyone involved. I’m on the edge of my seat, and I’m vibrating.”

“You tried to get Wendy killed! Everything with Solace is because of you!”

I didn’t expect Sarah to jump in and back me up, but I wasn’t opposed to it.

“I didn’t try to do anything,” Styx said, still looking at me. “I had a job to do, and so did Victor. Sometimes, those tasks overlapped, other time, we tried to have our fun when and where we could. It can hard, working different shifts.”

Every word that slithered out of his mouth offended me, making my head ache all the more. Nothing seemed to make sense, as if everything was a riddle, but only Styx knew what he was getting at, and what the possible answer would be, if there even was one. There was a chance he was saying things just to throw me off.

Paranoia and doubt. I knew more of those things than I did peace and quiet.

Styx had continued while I was sifting through my thoughts, somewhat distracted. “In the end, I did give Victor over to you, didn’t I? It’s a gesture, much like the keys. A sign of… well, is faith nothing more than just an illusion?”

The whites of his eyes and teeth seemed to take up more and more real estate on his face. It disturbed.

“Victor, Remus… Solace, he set it up so he could sabotage the transport. People died. He tried to kill me.”

“He had his job to do.”

“You knowingly put a wolf in sheep’s clothing and hid him in the herd. What happens afterwards is still on you.”

“Maybe it is.”

Maybe it is.

Enigmatic, cryptic. It was everything I despised. Everything I didn’t want to think about.

Styx adjusted his jacket again, brushing dirt off of his shoulders.

“Well, it looks to me I’m not wanted, here, so I’ll take my leave. Like I mentioned, I just wanted to see your faces one more time. Who knows, it might be my last chance to savor it.”

He had the audacity to take a step back and start walking away.

“And you think you can just go, just like that?” Lawrence asked.

“I know I can, El, so I will. Maybe if you weren’t tweaking so hard, your senses would be working properly.”

Lawrence didn’t respond, and I didn’t get to see the reaction on his face. I was transfixed on Styx, as he walked to the other side of the bridge, chuckling to himself.

“I’ve said too much, then. I’ll let you all sort yourselves out. It was good seeing you all again, especially you, D. Please actually come by again, don’t be a stranger.”

No response from D, either.

I’d tell you to go to hell, Styx, but you already take regular trips.

I wanted to say that, I wanted to spit that at him with venom.

Styx got farther away, and hardly a breath passed my lips.

I clenched my teeth and my fists, until fingernails dug into my palms, until my jaw was tense.

Styx turned, walking backwards. Grinning.

“Oh! Before I forget, I wanted to leave you all with a word of advice. The real reason I was here. Nat and Oli? You should know better than to underestimate them. They’re good. So all I wanted to say is, I hope you’ve cut enough ties, so they don’t come back to choke you.”

Then, with his back to us now, Styx raised his hand, waving. He stepped out from under the bridge, to the other side of the path. From each side of that particular opening, bikers emerged, as if from the shadows, stalking over from the bridge to Styx, forming a mob until I couldn’t see Styx anymore.

His other Ferrymen. His actual insurance.

Goddamn you, Styx.

There was so much I wanted to get out of him, but he knew how to keep us at a distance, while standing on that line. Laughing about it.

I watched as they all disappeared into the distance. When enough time passed that we were certain that they were gone, we regrouped, taking cover from the rain under the bridge.

This part wasn’t going to be any easier.

Lawrence was the first person to say something.

“Shit.”

Yeah.

He looked down at D. “Did he do anything to you? Did he… do anything else?”

D shook her head. It was a while before I was going to hear her voice again, it seemed.

“Are you two going to be okay?” Sarah asked, setting her umbrella down. Her eyes went over me, Isabella, and D.

“We will be,” Isabella answered. “Maybe. Should have done more to Styx when you had the chance, Wendy.”

I glanced over Isabella to D. “Now’s not the time for that.”

“Then what?” Sarah asked. She sounded almost hurt, at that. It pained me, too.

“What? Right now, we need to focus on D. What happened, or rather, what didn’t happen.”

D fidgeted.

“What do you mean?” Lawrence asked.

D fidgeted some more.

I put my hands on my hips, and gave the girl a stern look.

“D, tell Lawrence. Now.”

I felt like a mom, or maybe an older sister. Either way, I felt disappointed.

My harder tone was enough of a nudge for D, and she finally found it within herself to speak.

“I… I didn’t go to Styx like you asked.”

Eyes were on Lawrence. Waiting, wondering what his reaction would be. Even D looked like she was bracing herself, and she had crashed a bus on the poor guy.

Lawrence took his time with it, as if he was considering his options on how to handle this.

“Where did you go when you left that night?”

He sounded calm. Which was somehow worse.

D was much less so. I had never really seen her like this. Her eyes darted, her words fumbled over, her fingers tugging at her choker.

“I went around the territory surrounding the church instead, assessing the damage done and the Cobras’ reaction.”

“And? Did you at least get anything?”

“Yes. I was able to get a name of their leader. Manny. They pulled out of the territory because they were afraid of a similar incident happening again, incurring more loses. Like Manny’s son.”

Manny’s son. Was that the guy who got killed in the armory? Was that why the cop paused and got so scared and angry. I could see it in his eyes. It was a loss for their side.

“They’re keeping everything under wraps because they don’t want it to affect their other business proceedings,” D said.

“But you didn’t go check if they went to Styx.”

“No.”

Lawrence was still putting on a calm veneer.

“Why?”

D bit her lip, and-

“Fucking speak, D.”

D’s head snapped up.

There it is.

“I didn’t… I don’t know,” D stammered. “I didn’t want to risk tipping him off, or getting roped into one of his schemes, like, like last time. I figured I could work around him, but I didn’t know Styx would show up with… this.”

She was small before, and she only looked smaller, now. It broke my heart to see.

Lawrence scratched the back of his head. His eyes scrunched, and he did it for long enough that it seemed like he was pulling hair out or otherwise trying to hurt himself. His eyes looked bigger than usual.

For once, D tried to speak without being prompted to.

“I’m sorry, I wasn’t trying to-”

“No.”

Lawrence stopped her.

Just… no.

D was frozen. I was, too. Sarah and Isabella were tense.

Lawrence started shaking his head. He brought his hands back down, reaching into his pocket. He took out a small bottle, inside it were smaller pills. He took several, swallowing them dry.

No one said a thing. He wouldn’t want to hear it.

He put the bottle back. When he talked again, his voice was dry.

“I’ll put the blame solely on myself for this one. I should have known better than to send D to Styx. He’s a scary motherfucker, I get that, and you probably get that more than me, D. You have some history with him, but there’s a reason why he walked away and you’re still here, right?”

D didn’t answer.

“Right,” Lawrence said, answering his own question. “We can’t get held up on this any longer. Did you at least get what we needed at the meeting?”

“I… I did. Got pictures of all the different people at the table. Recorded the whole thing, too. With enough time I can put names to those faces, save D’Angelo and Manny.”

“Does Styx know what you were up to, exactly?”

D answered right away. “He doesn’t, I promise.”

“A promise from you doesn’t really hold much weight anymore.”

It was like Lawrence had slapped her. Everyone had a visible reaction. There was some moisture gathering in D’s eyes.

Lawrence made a sound. Noise.

“Whatever. I fucking hate to admit it, but Styx is right. I don’t know what he’s trying to do, but if this is his way of trying to mess with us, we can’t give him that satisfaction. They gave us a job to do, and we’re not going to let this, or anything else fuck it up. Okay?”

“Okay,” D said, quiet.

“Of course,” I said, throwing my voice into the mix, so D didn’t feel so alone.

“Then we’ll put a pin on this for now. Styx can wait. This Natalie Beckham and Oliver Morgan, they’re the real targets.”

D nodded, slow, stiff.

I put a hand on her shoulder. I tried to be as gentle as humanly possible, as if that specific sentiment could mean anything, coming from me.

“Let’s go,” I said. “We have work to do.”

Everyone could agree on that. The awkward part was that D had parked at another section of the park. The instant we were all on the same page, we had to split up.

“We’ll go with D to her van,” I told Lawrence. “We can meet back up with you at the car or we can drive with her.”

“Either way is fine by me,” he said.

We’d figure it out as we went, then. We went our separate ways. Sarah and I, Isabella and D. Lawrence.

We followed the path Styx had taken earlier. There wasn’t anyone around now, but we still walked with some trepidation.

D had gone ahead, leading us. Out of the cover of the umbrella, head down.

I felt for her, because, more often than not, I would be the one in that position.

“Thoughts?” I asked, reaching out again.

“Who, me?” Sarah asked. She was close enough to hear my whisper. “Does my opinion even matter?”

“I think it does. I want it to.”

Sarah shifted the umbrella, so it could provided better cover. “I think… Styx is a bully, and D is just a kid. It’s not fair that he’s allowed to do whatever he wants, and it’s also not fair to expect her to be all there, as far as maturity goes. Kids rebel, they don’t listen, or they’ll find a way around doing something.”

“But like this, though?”

“It’s no laughing matter, but, everyone needs something, or someone, that can center or anchor them. Maybe Styx has learned to work without that, but D is too young to be trying to swim on her own.”

“She’ll be fine,” Isabella said. “You’ve been fine without that kind of thing, Wendy.”

Have I been? It sounded good, but it also didn’t sound right. It just gave me more doubts to work with.

“Are you saying we shouldn’t have D around?” I asked

“Not saying that, that could just make it worse,” Sarah said. “Lawrence, D, you, Wendy. Someone needs to hold you down. Watch your back.”

“Sounds like a chore. You up for that?”

I felt a shock near my fingers again.

“Sure, I might need to focus on one thing at a time, though.”

The prospect of that gave me a sinking feeling, yet it was a calm, soothing descent. A selfish request wanted to come out, bubbling up inside.

I held my breath.

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