James Gomez was a lonely man. Only the shadows greeted him as he came in, but even then it was a cold and uncelebrated greeting. The shadows were wordless, and Gomez was wordless, too.
He sauntered in the dark. He didn’t even bother to go for any light. He seemed to know his way around without it.
The little light that did break in filtered through blinds, cutting into thin horizontal lines that sat across the living room.
He was as quiet as the place was dark, leaving nothing disturbed, with only the sounds of steps and breaths coming through, as faint as the light was thin. The walk of a dead man. Either that, or the world was dead to him, and he was just floating through it.
Gomez descended deeper into the dark, blending into it, haunting it. A familiar haunt, as he went straight towards the couch and sat at one end, slumping into the cushion. He slipped into the seat like how a hand might a glove.
Still in the dark, still keeping himself there. He did, however, let a little light come in.
Searching through his pockets, he procured for himself a lighter and a cigar. He took one to the other, and a soft orange glow cut a hole in the black around it, glowing brighter as he inhaled his first, slow, long drag. A trail of smoke left his lips, swirling into the air in front of him.
Time stretched, this single moment sat there with Gomez and stayed there with him, taking in the smoke that he let out. However, it wasn’t a depressing scene, Gomez didn’t sulk in the dark, he didn’t seem to curse it. In all actuality, it was exact opposite. This was where he seemed to be the most comfortable, where he could be the most at ease. This was his world. Where he knew where everything was, where everyone would be. Even in the dark, this was where he had the most control, even the light had to bargain with him, only a little bit at a time was allowed.
If anything were to intrude upon this desolate home of hopelessness, he would have known it. Past the heavy cigar smoke, he would have sniffed it out, and enacted a certain swift justice to snuff it out. He was a policeman, after all, he had the means to strike with a hammer and invite a sudden bang, a flash of light as fast as hitting the switch, then back to blackness with the same relative ease. It was his domain, where he had the most jurisdiction. Because the world outside refused to give that to him.
The moment passed, time having stretched as far as what was allowed, until it could stretch no more. Something, eventually, had to give. It would have to snap.
With a motion much more smooth and fast than when he went for his lighter and cigar, he drew a pistol and had it ready to fire a glow much brighter than any orange. He had the pistol aimed, pointing to a far corner of the living room, where the light didn’t cross, but he saw all the same. This was his domain, his one true territory.
I stepped out of the shadows, letting the horizontal lights fall on me.
“James Gomez,” I said.
“Get the hell out.”
No pleasantries at all.
“You’re not going to ask how I got in here?”
“Doesn’t matter. You’re not the first person to break in and threaten me in my own home… but there is a good chance you might be the last. But, I won’t take that chance, not tonight. So get the hell out.”
“You’ve got all wrong, Gomez, I’m not here to threaten you.”
Gomez made a noise, not unlike the smacking of lips or the clicking of the tongue, but that seemed too childish of a behavior for a man his age. It was his gun, then, that answered for him.
His gun clicked at me, its spittle as intense as its bark. And it was ready to bark.
“I’m not going to grace you with a third and final warning,” Gomez said. “I’ll just shoot you, dead.”
That, in and of itself, was his third and final warning, but he hadn’t yet fired. He was being graceful.
I couldn’t take advantage of it too much.
“You speak of warnings, but I had given you mine, first. You came back to the territory, I had eyes on you, last night. Did you already forget?”
“I have a job to do, a role to play. A duty I keep to. Do you seriously believe that my job is to just stay to the side and bow whenever you gangsters walk on by? Are you that arrogant?”
“Arrogant? Maybe, when I first started, but I got that knocked out of me. Eventually. Although, I suppose I’m still needing of a reminder, every now and then.”
Gomez didn’t respond. His gun didn’t, either.
I took that as him allowing me to continue.
Starting with a move, I craned my head, observing the room, my eyes peering through my mask.
“No wife, no kids. Or at least, you’ve been very smart not to put pictures of them around your own home.”
“You wouldn’t,” Gomez said. His arm was still up. His gun still pointed.
I cocked my head to the side.
“You’re right, Gomez, I wouldn’t. Would be the standard gangster thing to do, but I’m not your standard gangster, am I?”
I watched the gun, carefully. The hand that commanded it. Any slight movement, any indication.
An answer. It wasn’t loud, it wasn’t a bark. Gomez himself.
“I don’t know what the hell you are, Blank- V. You’re not the standard anything. I’d go as far as to say you have no standards.”
I forgave that near slip of the tongue. “I’ll take that. Not like I have much of a choice, granted, but it works all the same. But, with that being said, I’m not actually here about that. I’m not so petty.”
“Well, good for you.”
“The riot at Wellport, Gomez, what do you have on it? What can you tell me?”
A dry but low grumble. Wasn’t from the gun. It was something.
Gomez replied, “I can tell you very little, if I wanted to.”
“You’re a lonely man, James Gomez, if there’s nothing else I know about you it’s that. You might want to help but you can’t. Not by yourself. So you can help me, I’ll see if some of that goodwill can get back to you.”
“Goodwill. At this venture? Did you pick up a sense of humor the last time we spoke? Did you already forget, V? I know that was you, back at the Pupil. Campbell. Don’t even know what you did to him, because you broke more than just his collarbone. There were some other complications, but he didn’t want me to know. Imagine that. My best officer, and he doesn’t want me to see him. He doesn’t want me to bear the sight of him, not until he can walk on his own two feet again. Now tell me, where do you see me giving you goodwill? Tell me!”
I didn’t tell him.
Smoke filled the room. A soft orange glow.
Brighter. More smoke.
“People are dead, more are injured, but every single one of them bled. Their blood is soaked into the dirt and cement of my territory. It’s still wet in some spots, too, so you might want someone to clean your floor once I’m done here-”
“I don’t want another mess, Gomez, I don’t want another mess. Things have gotten messy enough, and now people are bringing their own mess into my territory. My territory. And while that sucks for me, do you really want that to spread to the rest of the city? That mess?”
“Mess, huh? Sounds like it’s not all tea parties in your little criminal wanderland.”
I gave him a pointed look, but my mask blocked his view of my stare.
“It’s never easy, and that’s just a general truth to life. But you don’t need me to tell you that, Gomez.”
I had to tell him something else.
“No, you don’t,” Gomez said.
“What happened at that park can’t happen again. We have less than twenty-four hours, maybe less than twelve, but if we let those hours slip by without doing anything, more blood might, no, is going to get spilled. We can prevent that.”
“I can prevent that by myself, V, it’s you who seems to have a habit of introducing this insanity in the first place. First, it was when you came to me about Solace, and I ultimately decided to help you then. And then Thomas Thompson died. Next, you come to me talking about wanting to get back at Benny. Remember that?”
“I knew better, or at least I thought I did, and I declined you then. Next thing I know East Stephenville is up in flames, and I can only imagine who was standing there, poking that pit. Then there’s the Thunders and Royals, and now look at us. Some new masked clown is doing his level best to bring this city down with a riot, disguised as a war.”
“Tiger,” I said. “He was wearing a tiger mask.”
“That’s not the goddamn point! Ever since you came onto the scene, everything has been getting worse, it escalates. Temporary solutions to a much bigger problem, and there is a breaking point, V, and we’re heading to it in a mad dash, faster and faster. I tried to stop us from getting to that point. But even then, you managed careen us closer to the edge. So, no. If I help you, that’s it. Past the point of no return, where it all breaks. If I help you, that point gets pushed behind us. Because luck just seems to run like that, in Stephenville. It runs out.”
So many points, but they all meant the same thing.
“I want to hear it from you, directly. If you’re not going to be of any assistance in this, tell me.”
Gomez’s arm had to be tired by now, forcing it up to hold the gun. It didn’t waver.
His breath blew out a puff of smoke. It dragged.
“Part of me will tell you no.”
“And the other part?”
I grimaced. That, through the thin lines of light, he could see.
“We both want the same thing, Gomez. Our interests align more closely than you’d think.”
“No. They couldn’t be farther apart. Standing here, watching how you’ve changed, watching how everything changed, you want destruction. I wanted things to go how Thomas envisioned, before he saw you and twisted that vision. Bet he even took a mask for himself. But I bet if you weren’t ever in the picture, he would have still found his way there. Because that seed had always been planted in his mind. You’re just shit, V. Fertilizer. Maybe it’s all bullshit, this entire time.”
Harsh words from an angry, older man. Maybe I could understand where he was coming from. But they weren’t words I needed to hear at the moment. They wouldn’t help me get anywhere, achieve anything.
“That’s quite a shame,” I said. “But it’s no surprise, so I suppose I can’t fault you. Just know, when blood sheds again, and you show up too late, being reactive, that you could have been there before it happened. You could have helped stop the blood from being shed in the first place.”
“I have a role to play,” Gomez said, “A job to do. And that… that comes with the part. In other words… I’m just a piece on the board. I don’t have a say in where or how I get moved. I just get moved. And maybe… it’s the same for you.”
“I am trying to do something,” I said, snapping back, still aware that there was a gun pointed at me. “I’m the one in control, here.”
“Sure, Bluemoon, you are. Let me ask you something. What happened with Natalie and Oliver, was that you?”
“Was that you, what happened with Natalie and Oliver?”
My single word question had been directed at Gomez’s first statement, but I was made to answer his second.
“I could ask you the same question.”
No answer. It said everything.
“Okay,” I said. “If that’s how you want to play this. Let me tell you what I know, then. The riot at Wellport? We have reason to believe that it’s orchestrated by a gang known as the Flood, when translated to English. Dong-Yul is the leader’s name, mostly likely the guy who was wearing the tiger mask, getting everyone riled up. We’re doing our own investigation right now, putting eyes on bases we know of, see if we can’t find any others, or where Dong-Yul’s hiding and what he has planned next. Proactive.”
Gomez was silent. Smoke circled him, a small dot of orange hovering at an angle above his mustache.
Stubborn, like how everyone seemed to be, lately.
I added, “If you had agreed to play ball, in other words, I could share with you the locations of those bases, and maybe you can go take a look for yourself. Get a warrant, do some searching and seizing of your own. A tip.”
“Last chance, Gomez. Or are you that lonely? Lost? Are you so far gone that you’ve given up completely? Not me, Gomez. Not me. Because, in the end, I know we both want the same thing. To solve this problem. But I haven’t given up, I’ll keep trying, I-”
Gomez, finally, answered. No warning.
Loud, able to split ears. Not from his mouth.
He fired at me, at the shadows. But, by the time the bullet spat out to the dark, I had already vanished.
I had wanted to apologize to Lawrence, for having made a move without him after all. But we needed to get something going, or we’d end up on the backfoot. And standing still was the worst thing we could do at the moment.
I wanted to apologize to Lawrence, but I couldn’t.
D twiddled with her thumbs, her legs swinging freely. Her hair was disheveled, sticking to her face in places, outlining and framing her cheeks. Made it rounder than usual, made her look young, or maybe as young as she had really been this whole time. It was quirk of hers, then. Stress didn’t age her. The opposite was true.
“Everything will be fine, D.”
I had to give her something. Even if I didn’t necessarily believe it myself. Not everything would end up fine. That was an impossible undertaking. Our job, then, was to save what we could. As much of it as possible.
We would try.
D kicked her legs together. She hummed. A minor melody.
“It better, or I’m gonna punch him! I’ll punch him really really hard.”
My eyes found their way to Sarah. How easy, it was, to let my gaze wander and to immediately spot her. Really made me believe that everything might be okay.
Then I opened my mouth. Sound came out, vibrated the air, and my ears picked it up. Reality.
“Sarah?” I called out.
The look on my face must have said it all.
“Any word from Reggie?”
“Not yet. Still searching.”
Sarah punctuated that with a shake of her head. Which meant that anything I’d ask her would only get returned with the same answer.
Not everything was fine.
Lawrence hadn’t been seen or heard from since he left.
I still couldn’t wrap my head around that.
The Redhouse. Afternoon. Or so after the afternoon that, outside, the sun would be pressing right against the horizon, digging into it, digging deep and breaking through, the force of the impact breaking and scattering an insane expanse of burnt orange across the entire sky, leaving tinged clouds and facades of buildings and cars and other things with a coating of embers. The light had spread into here, the main lobby, with the wide windows fracturing the spectrum to make it, for that instance, almost blinding. It was combustion, standing in the middle of an explosion on pause.
The world on fire.
There wasn’t a lot of us in here. Just a small handful of the Fangs, the leaders and those who were allowed to stand close to that circle. We needed a place to convene that was out of the way, and the gang wasn’t so attached to. The Redhouse was both those things, now. By the time D, Lawrence, and I had secured our own bases, there was less of a need for this spot, now that we had moved a lot of the armory and cargo and equipment out to other places. We could have went to my base, first, but the church had seen too much heat in too many recent instances. Had to cool off somewhere else.
A word. I wasn’t sure who said it, I wasn’t sure if I said it. My mouth was still open, though.
Summed it all up pretty well though. Everything.
“Hey,” D said, admonishing me, admonishing someone. Her legs were still kicking.
“We’ll hear from him, in time,” I said to her, said to everybody. “In time.”
D’s legs swung like a pendulum.
Sarah again. Couldn’t keep my eyes off of her.
“You’re sure you saw him get back to his place?”
“I’m positive, Wendy. Reggie and I followed him the whole way there. Straight. He didn’t waver, stop somewhere else, or get distracted. From D’s base to his place. Promise.”
It wasn’t that I didn’t believe her, it just wasn’t the first time I had asked her. Not the second or third, either.
“I believe you, Sarah.”
I just wanted her to know that.
This normally wouldn’t have been an issue, but nothing about any of this was normal.
Dong-Yul, or whoever it was in that tiger mask, hadn’t shown up again since the first initial riot, but it almost didn’t matter. Their presence was being felt all throughout Stephenville.
Smaller bouts, skirmishes that began to blip all over different parts of the city. People rising up, it seemed, against injustices they had been subjected to, and wanted to retaliate. Fighting fire with water. But people were getting burned.
They had started in the morning, after I had met with Gomez. Less than twenty-four hours, and even less than twelve. Didn’t take long. People were that pissed off.
None of the more recent outbreaks of violence were on our territory. No. Just the first and worst one. They didn’t last nearly as long, too, not nearly as bloody. Those smaller uproars weren’t for us to silence, but they did keep me up throughout the day. I hadn’t gotten any sleep since the last night.
I shut my eyes, hard, then peeled them open. Didn’t help. My eyes stung.
“When night falls, I can go out looking for him,” I said.
“Reggie and Tone and Jordan are out there doing just that,” Sarah said. “Most of the Fangs are. They’ll find him.”
Sarah glanced at D. “They’ll find him.”
D eyes were elsewhere. Down.
“I can search past the territory,” I said, looking at D, “I’ll keep a mask on, keep in the dark.”
Sarah replied. “That’s appreciated, and I’m sure the rest of the gang feels the same way, but we need you to be where you need to be. And that’s here.”
“We?” I questioned.
Sarah gave me a certain look.
“Me more than anyone else, Wendy.”
She wanted me to know that.
Over to D, she said, “I need you here too, D. So nothing crazy from you. At least, not the usual crazy.”
I tried to not get jealous over that.
D knocked her feet together. She had sat herself up on a counter in the lobby, with a forlorn expression on her face. She hadn’t gotten much sleep, either.
“Yeah,” D said. A small voice.
Her attention had wandered, seeming to be somewhere else. Not distracted, but tired.
I walked on over. Part of it was just to move, feel like I was getting somewhere. A larger part of it was to be next to D.
Getting to the counter, I leaned my back against it. I was close enough to take D’s hand, holding it. I did just that.
“Long day,” I said.
“Are there any new leads?”
She shook her head. Very slow.
“Uncle J doesn’t want to help, and I couldn’t find anything at the restaurant club place Dong-Yul took y’all to. They dumped that joint the second they were able to. If they are behind this, they’re not the Flood. They’re something worse. Bigger.”
“Something like that.”
I breathed, looking out through the windows around us. The light dazzled.
“If anything goes down tonight, maybe I can do something. Keep the mask off this time, step into the light a little bit. Maybe I can find that Jasmine girl there. Get in that way.”
“You’re not getting in anywhere!”
Sarah called from across the lobby. I couldn’t help but take pleasure in her jealousy.
“I want to find Ellie,” D said.
There wasn’t much levity as it was, but D brought it down by a new notch.
“Lawrence can wait.”
Leaning up, still holding D’s hand, I looked from across the counter.
“Hey,” I said.
Isabella was there, resting against the counter on the other side. Looking bored, looking impatient.
“Lawrence can wait,” Isabella repeated. “People are out there now, flipping cars and breaking glass, and they’re doing it in other gang’s territory. You should be taking advantage of that, helping them cause a little more damage. Introduce some more anarchy.”
“We do any more, unprompted, we might bring everyone on our heads. The police, those gangs, and even Mrs. Carter and Styx. D’Angelo. Inez.”
“I’m not saying we need to, like, beat up anyone to find him! I just want to find him!”
I turned to D, “And I didn’t mean to say we’re going to give up on him. D… I need a break, girl, I’m admitting that now before anything else happens. It’s been a long day, and from everything I’ve seen the night is going to get longer so… we came here to regroup, while we can. Let’s just… let’s just do that, okay?”
D didn’t say anything. Then I turned to Isabella.
“Lawrence is waiting for us. The Fangs are out there looking for him and locking down the rest of our territory in the meantime, so what happens at Wellport doesn’t happen again. We should secure what we have, get our ducks in a row. Get a grip.”
“Get a grip, get a grip, get a grip.”
Isabella droned on and on.
“This is the start of everything you were working towards. This is it. Now, Wendy, now. This is the opening you need. You’re already at the table. If you let this get bad enough, if you nudge things so it gets that way, they’ll all get together, and you’ll be there, too. Maybe even Mister himself, if this gets to a certain point. Then, you go for blood. Right then and there. Don’t make it quick, either, make it slow, make it worth it. Make so you never need for another sip for the rest of you life.”
“Let’s not…” I started.
It was D who asked that.
“Ellie’s been missing for an entire day, almost an entire day. One person shouldn’t be gone for that long. We can do more!”
Then Isabella took her turn.
“Let’s not what? Why are you waiting? Why do you need to delay when everything is right there, ready for you? The enemy- the enemies are out there, and when they stumble you need to be there, ready to strike! There’s no need to be clever, you’ve already done enough planning and scheming. Just do. This can be all over when you want it to be. Isn’t that what you want? What are you so afraid of?”
This can be all over when I want it to be.
What was I so afraid of?
I searched for answer, something that might sound appropriate. But whatever I would have came up with, it would have sounded like a lie.
An answer never came.
The doors bursted open. A commotion through everyone gathered like a conflagration.
It was Reggie. It was Lawrence.
Or the bloody, beaten, bruised, very ruined shape of Lawrence.
D’s voice broke with a crack. A deep crack that could split a girl in half.
We all converged on the two.
Lawrence had an arm around Reggie. It was a move to help him propped and standing, but from how he stood, that stance, there was no strength in it. More like he was being dragged by Reggie, who also didn’t want to get any of the blood and dirt to fall on his clothes or face.
However, it was too late for that.
Reggie started working to lower Lawrence, slow, cautious, as not to subject him to any more pain. Sarah got there first, helping Reggie.
D was crouched to his right, I was by his left.
This was sudden, this was scary. I needed a moment to process this.
What was I looking at? Who?
A bloody, bruised, beaten man. That man was Lawrence. He was still wearing the same clothes from last night, but they were soiled, dirty with grime and cut. His shirt was stained by a deep crimson. His face was cut across one cheek, swollen in the other. One eye was shut, too much blood for him to peer through.
When Reggie set him down, a long line of blood stretched and connected the two men, until it cut and the half-tendrils smacked and soaked into each of their shoulders. Then I saw why there was so much blood there.
“Where’s his ear?”
Reggie looked as shocked and scared as I was.
“I found- I found him like that. At the… at an alleyway. No wait. I came over and I got him to-”
“Reggie, calm down.”
How Sarah was even able to say those words with that level voice, it gave me enough distraction from Lawrence that I could feel something that wasn’t fear. A longing.
And I saw Lawrence, and it was back to fear again.
“Lawrence… When I found him he was by an alley, leaned up against a dumpster. At the territory. Freaked me out, man, Lawrence, he-”
Reggie couldn’t gather his thoughts well enough to explain a proper thing.
No. Shit. That didn’t matter. Not now.
Now. We had to check on Lawrence.
D was already on it.
“I can barely feel a pulse.”
Her hands were on his, clasped together, fingers on his wrists. Feeling. Shaking.
“Is he responding?” I asked.
D was choking up.
“No. Barely. I can’t tell!”
“D…” Sarah said, in that same, level voice.
“He’s too weak,” Isabella said. “He’s not going to make it.”
“He’ll make it,” I said, snapping at her. I looked at D. “He will make it.”
D didn’t look convinced, but she was still clinging onto something. What bit of hope we have left for him.
Lawrence was clinging on, too. His hands were around D’s. Whether it was because of compassion or weakness, I didn’t know.
“He won’t,” Isabella said. It was like she tried to personify my paranoia. My despair.
Lawrence was gasping like a fish out of water. Pained intakes of breath, getting softer each time.
The breaths had a curve to it, however, trying to hit the ear.
“Hold on,” I said, “I think he’s trying to say something.”
Everyone went silent.
We listened to Lawrence as he hurt.
“Phil… Phil… Phil…”
Phil? Or fill?
“Lawrence, who is that?” I asked. I had to make my words clear, I said them slow. “Is that who did this to you?”
He wouldn’t answer, or perhaps he couldn’t. He just kept asking for that word, or that name.
“Please, Lawrence, who is-”
“It’s not a name.”
Everyone turned to D. She was clutching her choker, eyes welling up.
“He’s asking for pills.”
Lawrence, for his part, acted like he was responsive, breathing that word out more, harder.
“Phil, Phil, Phil…”
He couldn’t even say the word right. His jaw wasn’t closing right.
Breathing out the word.
“Does anyone have any?” I asked.
Reggie answered, “Searched his body and pockets already. Nothing.”
Lawrence threw out the last few pills he had. If he had any, would he be able to ride out the pain of a bit longer?
“Could we take him to a hospital?”
“I don’t know,” Sarah answered. “If we wanted to get him to one it’d have to be now. Like we’d have to be there already. With everything that happening in the city, the hospitals are going to be packed and busy. He might… he might not…”
Even Sarah couldn’t finish that.
“No! No no no!”
D yelled, squeezing Lawrence’s wrist. His one visible eye cringed.
“We can get something for him! I know where we can find a gang doc! He’ll make it!”
“Get a grip,” Isabella said.
“He doesn’t look good enough to be moved,” I said. “We’d have to bring someone here.”
“I can do that! I’ll get the van!”
“They’d have to be here already,” Sarah said, soft. Sorry.
Lawrence’s breathing was only getting worse.
“Phil… Phil, Phil…”
His light gasps of air were subdued. D’s sobbing began to mask them. Mask her hearing them.
It was starting to settle in, just how bad this was, just what exactly this meant. Seeing Lawrence like this.
When I breathed, it was shaky.
“I think… we have to look for a good place for him to… rest.”
D smacked me in the arm.
“No! No! We have to do something, try anything! Can’t you turn him, make him like you? There has to be a way!”
Looking down at Lawrence, I saw how his body had been broken, unable to support itself. How open and exposed his throat was. How, despite the ugliness, the aroma wafted into my nose.
Would it work? Could I even do that?
The possibility was there, but I didn’t know if that was how that worked. For all I was aware, I could simply end Lawrence’s life, right then and there. His blood on my hands.
No going back. Isabella’s earlier question echoed in my head.
D smacked me again. Smacked me back to reality.
“Wendy! Come on!”
I paused, despite myself and everything.
The word. I couldn’t place its owner, but the meaning was all too clear.
It was the sound that came first. Followed by the fury.
Glass shattered, a certain bark. Several. Something I had been hearing a lot of, lately.
Everyone was crouched over Lawrence, but we all ducked when we heard everything break around us.
A torrent of bullets tore through the Redhouse.
I took a quick glance to the entrance. A haze of lights, shades of people, standing in a line. As the glass broke and fell, I caught glimpses. Animals.
“You were followed?” I yelled into Reggie’s ear. “You were followed and you brought him here!”
Barely could hear his response. No or know.
We were caught off guard, completely unaware. Fight or flight kicked in, and we weren’t equipped to do the former.
I scooped up D and started running. She wouldn’t stop kicking and screaming.
I didn’t have the breath to argue, for several reasons. One, because a wasted breath meant wasted energy, and two, because my right shoulder blade spat out a bullet, and my teeth were grinding together, shut.
That didn’t stop D from fighting back.
“Lawrence! What the h-”
I somehow threw out my voice. Sudden, raw. Am angry noise.
Yet, somehow, someone picked up.
I followed the voice, like how easy it was for my eyes to find Sarah. To the back hall. Exit there.
Everyone went that way. I hoped everyone did. I couldn’t keep eyes on us all.
Had D, heard Sarah. Reggie, for a brief but loud second. Isabella?
My eyes were hot and streaming, but I kept running.
Colors vibrant and hotter and more sudden than anything I had ever personally known. White and orange and red. Combustion, an explosion unpaused. The world was on fire.
The blast wasn’t too close, it didn’t knock me off my feet. Some did get knocked, though, as I saw their shadows pass before my eyes.
I ran, I ran.
Run run run run run run run run run run run run–
My sight was violated, but it was my hearing that had gotten shot. A high and thin line, a tea kettle singing. I couldn’t hear anything else.
I couldn’t hear anything else, but the echo of a dying beggar.
The building crumbled in places behind us. The word looped and consumed itself, like a snake eating its own tail. It consumed me in much the same way.
A whole gang of us gathered. But I never felt so stranded. Alone.
Dozens upon dozens of eyes, peering through me like how bullets could. Some were wet, many were bloodshot.
D’s eyes were the most wet.
Most of the Fangs were here, a lot of people. And yet, the shared silence between them all was eerie. The sounds were of D’s muffled sobbing, her face buried into the fuzzy back of a teddy bear.
Most of the Fangs were here. It was a lot of people, but it wasn’t everyone. This gathering was equal parts a funeral service, and just getting together to figure out what the fuck we we’re going to do next.
Maybe it was fitting, to do this at a church. Maybe it was one big fucking joke.
But when I looked at the faces, when I heard D’s soft sniffling, I knew there wasn’t anything funny about this.
“I’ll just get right to it,” I said, then I startled. Was that my voice?
One more time.
“Right… Get right to it. Lawrence is dead.”
I paused. I gave the moment and the man in question the levity they deserved.
Then I picked it back up.
“But what he started isn’t. What he built. This gang, the Fangs will continue to spread and grow, with more teeth and bite than he would have ever imagined. And I will…”
My eyes roved over the crowd.
I saw the many Fangs that scowled, the anger that shaped the line between their lips. I saw D, the waterworks still pouring. I saw Sarah, and how much I hated to see that kind of sadness on her face. I saw Tone, I hadn’t seen him since he decided to take a hiatus from Fang activity.
I didn’t see Reggie, however.
I had to pause, or else I’d break down again. I wanted to be right there with them, but I couldn’t.
“D and I will continue where Lawrence left off, and… I…”
This was too hard.
“Between the two of us, we’ll decide the Fang’s next move, while considering Lawrence’s intentions. For just now, though, I suggest we all take some time to have him in our thoughts. Thank… thank you.”
No one said anything.
Uncomfortable, clumsy. Couldn’t stay here.
I wasn’t sure of what else to do but bow, slight, and take my leave.
Didn’t stay inside the church. I retreated to the back annals of the building, going into the halls, down another, and entering an office room.
My office. It was supposed to be, anyways, but I hadn’t much to keep in here. It was empty, no real tether. That scared me. But I didn’t have anywhere else to go.
The door opened just as I sat down at the single desk at the far end of the room, lights turning on. So much for being alone in the dark.
Sarah and D. D’s teddy bear. Isabella.
“How are they taking it?” I asked.
Sarah answered. “Not well, obviously. I heard some of them talking amongst themselves. Some of them blame you for it.”
I frowned, my eyes stinging again. I adjusted my glasses. They slipped back down from the sweat and soot.
“Suppose I can’t blame them for it,” I said. “Do you? Blame me?”
“Course not, Wendy.”
I didn’t feel better, hearing that.
“D,” I said, seeing her.
Her head was still down, her bob of hair in her face.
“I know you’re mad at me for… I’m not so happy with myself, either, but…”
“I’m not mad,” D said, voice still weak and hurting. “I’m just sad.”
Sarah put a hand on her head. D let her. “I know, sweetie.”
I really hated seeing them like this.
“This is bad,” I said.
It was stupid, it was obvious, but it still needed to be said. Recognized.
I spoke. “Something happened to Lawrence, and somebody out there is responsible. And the only person who might know anything isn’t… here anymore. But, I saw who showed up at the Redhouse. People in masks. Same kind as the ones that were Wellport. That’s twice, now. During all this chaos, that’s twice they’ve done something against us. We can’t let them get us a third time.”
And that’s not including them using Alexis Barnett’s face and name.
“I’ve been keeping an eye on the news,” Sarah said. “There were similar attacks around the same time, in places suspected to be owned by gangs. It could be coordinated.”
“It could be coordinated, or it could be convenient. I don’t want to inherit Lawrence’s paranoia so soon, I have my own as it is, but we can’t let what happened to us stand. If this is Dong-Yul’s work, then he shouldn’t have signed it. We’ll find him, and make him regret it.”
“Wendy,” Sarah said. That was all she said.
“Can we not talk about stuff like that right now?” D asked. “Can we just… not?”
Another breath. If I was a smoker, it would have swirled the entire room by now.
The silence lived within the shadows. Nothing else was in this room. Nothing else to discuss.
They left. Probably to process this by themselves. I needed to process this by myself.
“What’s their problem?”
Isabella turned from the door when it closed. It didn’t even close all the way, maybe Sarah and D were low in spirit that they could hardly manage that.
“Not now,” I said.
“But D knows what kind of world we operate in. This happens. It is what it is. Stick your neck out, you risk getting slashed there.”
“What happened to Lawrence… he didn’t deserve that. If we were harder on him, intervened more and made him give that stuff up earlier… maybe…”
“You were always going to use the Fangs as a stepping stone to tearing this city down. That includes Lawrence. Includes Sarah, too. D was helping you with that goal, if you really believe her. So she knew what that would mean for the rest of them.”
“We would have figured something out, when we’d get to that point. We’re just not there, yet.”
“Why not? When will you ever? What’s the delay? Someone, if it’s not Dong-Yul, is out there right this second, fucking shit up and doing everything you claim you want. I say join them! You’re not going to get a better opportunity than this!”
I slammed a fist on the table. The surface cracked.
That didn’t stop Isabella.
“If you wanted this so bad, you’d be out there already. But you’re not. So why? What’s stopping you?”
“I said enough, Isabella.”
“Or is it that you want something else, instead? Something you can truly and honestly call yours and yours alone?”
I balled up a fist for another strike, threatening to break the table.
“What changed, Wendy? Or… maybe nothing changed at all, that’s why. Because you talked to Natalie, and saw her face all around you. That, no matter what you do, you can’t escape it? Her? Even after all this time?”
“You are not getting another warning!”
Before Isabella could learn her lesson, the door cracked open. Wider.
We both turned to the door.
It was D. A short break, so she wasn’t looking any better.
Her teddy bear was hanging from a hand. She wasn’t hugging it.
She wore an expression on her face. Concern, her brow furrowed, head tilted. Anxious. Apprehensive.
“Yes, D?” I asked. I set my arms on the table, trying to hide where I hit the surface.
D didn’t speak right away. She needed a moment to formulate her words. Consider them carefully.
And after some consideration, she asked a question. The words struck me like hot lead, through my ear then out the other side of my brain.
“Who are you talking to?”