071 – 三猿

epy arc 11 ride

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“Rise and shine, Wendy.”

I opened my eyes.

White.

Blinding.

A bodily reaction. I twitched.

Instinct. I drew away, retreating.

A fading dream.

Only had the broad strokes, even then, they were being erased. A room. Chairs, strewn about. Limbs, too. Chaos there.

Black and white checkered pattern.

Eyes.

So many of them. Appearing in every square. Watching, observing.

Not a dream, a nightmare.

The gazes make my skin crawl.

Couldn’t find comfort in sleep, yet it hurt to face the light.

No choice.

I tried opening my eyes again. I took my time with it, going slow, letting myself adjust to the light, little by little.

I didn’t have the energy or will to rush myself.

The light gave way to details, and I was able to start piecing together where I was, what I was looking at, and the general state of things around me.

Drapes, pulled away from the window, the main source of all the light. As I adjusted, other stuff starting coming into view, more clear. The ceiling, blue with gold highlights, the lines coiling and winding like vines. There was an ambiance to it, as what I assumed was the morning hours bouncing off the colors, giving a soft, warm glow.

It was all so relaxing.

I moved my head. Stiff. I hadn’t stretched or used my muscles in some time, apparently. I put for effort into my fingers and toes, arms and legs, and found that it was tense there, too.

Brushed against heavy blankets. Warm, and somewhat wet. A certain fear began to manifest, until I realized that I had just been sweating.

I pushed myself, and the blankets off my body. I felt how fabric stuck to my skin, how my hair felt damp against my forehead. I pulled my arms free, using them to sit up on the bed.

Bed.

Wasn’t my bed.

Where exactly was I?

“Took you long enough.”

Feeling an itch in my eye, I rubbed at it, but with the other, I searched for the owner of the voice.

Lawrence.

Accompanied by D, sitting at either side of the foot of my bed. If I was groggy from too much rest, then Lawrence was groggy from too little. Bags under his eyes, color gone from his face. His hair, usually neat and combed, was clumped together and standing in some places, as he meant to spike it up. He wore a soft, padded brace around his neck. He was sitting, but I noticed that he was in a wheelchair.

D, however, looked the best out of all three of us, but that wasn’t saying much. She looked tired as well, not so much blinking as she was letting her eyes close, then opening them for brief intervals. She was dressed, though, in her usual style, her hair was sticking together, wet, as if she had just gotten out of a shower. If something were to happen, she’d be the most prepared to handle it.

I tried to speak, but there was a hitch in my throat, and I produced a light cough, instead. It didn’t escalate into a full-on fit, but it did bother me, how dry it sounded.

I cleared my throat, and tried again.

I spoke.

“Yo.”

Being succinct. It helped.

D smiled, soft, with none of the impish or vulpine quality I had come to associate with her expression. It looked as real as I hoped it was.

“Good to have you back,” she said.

Testing myself, I set my back straight up against the pillow, until I was sitting more upright. The bones in my back popped.

“Can’t say it feels good to, ah, be back,” I said.

“Careful,” Lawrence said, “Can’t have you overextending yourself again. Last time that happened, well, you ended up there.”

“Overextending… myself…”

I ran my fingers through my hair, my bangs, getting strands out of my eye.

“I don’t really, I mean, it’s all kind of fuzzy.”

“Take it easy, Vivi, let’s just take it easy, and take it slow. How are you feeling?”

Testing myself, I made a fist, with both hands.

All ten fingers…

“I feel like, I feel like shit. Like I overslept and lost any benefit of sleep to just go around and be tired again.”

“That’s because you did oversleep,” Lawrence said. “It’s been two days.”

My heart leaped in my chest, a small yet potent burst of energy that woke me up even more.

“Two days?”

“I wish it was a joke, but yeah,” D said, as if she was apologizing.

“You and I were supposed to be out of here yesterday,” Lawrence said, “But you slept right past that. We had to pay for an extra night, out of the gang’s pockets. Do you know how fucking expensive it is for just one night?”

“No,” I said.

Lawrence shook his head.

“If I hear that number one more time, I think I’ll lose it. So, never mind.”

D looked at Lawrence.

“You take it easy, too. Don’t give yourself any more stress.”

“Too late.”

She looked back to me.

“It doesn’t set us back that far. We’ll be fine.”

“We’ll be fucked, that’s what it means.”

Lawrence!”

D shot a hard expression at Lawrence, one of disapproval. He only waved her off.

“I didn’t know I was out for so long,” I said. I put my hands together, resting right in front of me, on the blanket.

I broke all three rules I set for myself, I thought.

Causing problems, being an inconvenience. I didn’t like how much trouble I was causing for Lawrence and D, to the gang, and myself. Like taking steps forward, but always taking one less back. I would be making much more headway if I didn’t keep finding ways to stunt that progress.

D patted the blanket, right above my feet. I looked and met her eyes.

“Back to what I was saying,” D said. “Taking it easy and slow. How much do you remember, before you woke up here?”

Before I woke up here.

My thoughts and memories were like peering through a fog. Thick, muddy, unclear. Difficult to parse. Even the dream I just had was already lost.

Lost, but I felt a certain discomfort.

“I haven’t been very good at remembering things,” I answered, telling the truth. “Asking me now would be like, I don’t know, turning water into wine.”

“Crazier things have happened,” Lawrence commented.

D gave him a glance.

“What happened?” I asked. I was almost afraid to ask, considering a sizable chunk of my memory was missing. I had blacked out, blanked out, lost all sense of self and what took place in the interim. Picking up the pieces without being aware of what knocked those pieces down in the first place…

I was almost afraid to ask, but I was more afraid of the picture I might end up with.

Still, it was something I needed to know. Rather that, than be out of the loop.

“You really don’t know?” Lawrence questioned.

“It’s fuzzy,” I said. “It’s hard.”

“Try.”

I tried. Searching for anything I could use to glean even a piece of what was missing. To latch onto something.

A dream. It was already escaping me, but I held on to what I could. Lawrence wanted an answer, and I had to find one.

“White. I remember being followed by Granon’s men, but, I think it was more me leading them. I brought them to that hallway, I remember that and how white it was…”

“Wasn’t like that when I saw it,” Lawrence said.

D’s reaction was expected. I continued.

“After that, it all goes blurry. I remember it being really hot, and…”

I trailed off. I massaged my fingers, working much longer on one in particular.

I remember how loud it was.

Even now, apparently two days later, the impression of it hadn’t gone away. A very distinct echo, still ringing in my head. Voices, distorted and raw. Pained, hurting, begging. I had a distinct feeling as to who those voices belonged to.

And a pounding. Though, that was much harder to place. I chose not to concentrate on it.

I stopped, letting the silence that followed be a sign that I was done, that I had divulged all that I could recall.

“That’s fine, you did what you could,” D said.

“I could be doing more, it’s just not coming to me. Dammit.”

It was frustrating, not knowing, but in this case, there was almost a comfort, in that.

Maybe I don’t want to know, after all.

“Has this happened before?” Lawrence asked, pulling me away from my thoughts. “You blacking out?”

“I, it’s… the first time.”

“It is?”

I didn’t respond right away.

It was a lie of the partial sort. She had moments when she lost herself, Alexis, but I didn’t claim those experiences as my own. They weren’t regular occurrences, and if this recent incident was bad, then it was impossible to recall anything of those times back then. Only that they happened.

“Do you know what caused it?” Lawrence asked. “Why?”

Don’t know. Don’t want to know.

“I wish I knew,” I said.

“That’s not inspiring a lot of confidence.”

All I could do was shrug.

Lawrence looked like he wanted to say more, but he deferred to D, instead, saying, “You’re up next, D.”

D pointed to a nightstand by the head of my bed.

“There weren’t any cameras in that area, I took some pictures of the hall after everything… happened. You want to see?”

The reaction was instant. My stomach was tied up in knots at the thought of it.

“No thanks, I don’t want to see it.”

“Maybe later, it is pretty important that you look at it.”

“Sure,” I said, trying to put my mind on other stuff. “Later.”

Lawrence sat back and folded his arms.

“Don’t dodge, D. Tell Wendy why and how we’re even here to begin with.”

D winced, as if those words had a weight to them, and Lawrence just hit her.

D, right. She was here, present, being active. It had just occurred to me that I was talking with her, seeing her.

When was the last time we talked, face to face? It felt like ages ago.

D twiddled her thumbs.

“That’s, uh, a much deeper conversation than I’m qualified to have, and personally I believe that everyone should find their own meaning and purpose in life, and-”

D cut off when she saw me.

“Please,” I said. “I hadn’t seen you for a while. I missed you.”

D reacted, making a face and adjusting her choker.

“Missed you too, Vivi.”

I would have expected Lawrence to make another comment, but instead, he just stayed back, watching, as if he was letting this happen.

Then, D gave her explanation.

“Alright, let’s back this up a bit. As I’m sure you might have guessed, but Styx did have a hand in this.”

“Styx,” I said, breathing the name. I let it sink in. I had never met the man before, not me, not personally, and yet he had played such a pivotal part in putting us in this situation.

It was a mixture of emotions. Anger being one of them. Rage, really. Forlorn, too, that I wasn’t doing enough to regain my own hold on things I didn’t like how events in my life were being arranged by people I’d never interacted with. That wasn’t freedom, it wasn’t peace.

D nodded, saying, “He helped because I came to him for help. And it wasn’t the first time. When we were tackling the whole Benny thing, he had his Ferrymen, um, contain the fires that we started in Eastside, so to speak. If it weren’t for him, we’d have a lot more enemies on our back, and we probably wouldn’t even last long enough to have Granon as an enemy. He’s had a hand in this, in our growth, and in our ability to maintain.”

I was in bed, but I still felt I had been knocked down.

My memory was hazy, but that was only for recent events. I remembered the Ferryman that I had encountered when I was making my way back to E-One, where Lawrence reported on the earpiece that he had Benny. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but, coupled with this, the other Ferryman that gave us the keys into the Lunar, maybe I should have.

D going to Styx… It made sense, but I almost wished it didn’t.

“How did you even know to go to Styx?” I asked, but I felt as if I already knew what the answer would be.

“Styx and her go way back.”

It was Lawrence that spoke, giving D an accusatory look. D, however, didn’t look back at him. Her focus was still on me.

She didn’t have anything to say.

I’d have to get it out of her.

“You could have told us,” I said. “Keep us in the know, keep me in the know. Maybe I hadn’t told you this before, but I absolutely detest being kept in the dark about things, being led around, manipulated, and played with. You were there, when EZ and Krown got the better of me, you know how it… irks me.”

D had a dour expression on her face, eyes down. She tried to make herself look small, bringing her shoulders down, inward.

But she was still there, I could still see her.

I asked her again.

“Why didn’t you tell me about this?”

D stammered out her reply.

“I, he, it was one of Styx’s conditions. I couldn’t directly help you guys, but I did what I could to work around it, bugging rooms and getting access to the security and cameras in the hotel. I was always keeping an eye on you guys, making sure things were running smoothly, and also I-”

I interrupted.

“I don’t give a fuck about that, D, that’s not what I’m getting at. I’m talking about before any of this shit even started. You could have told me about Styx’s involvement in our plan of getting Benny, you could have gotten ahead of this. I’m talking about the principle of the matter. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

It was a slow, barely perceptible movement, but D nodded her head.

“I do,” she said, sounding hushed and apologetic. She either meant it from the bottom of her heart, or she was playing up the little kid angle. It was hard to tell with her.

D continued.

“It was just, we were just starting, everyone was still getting used to the idea of working together, like Lawrence and the Ghosts, and us. I thought something like that would be so fun, and I didn’t want to mess it up, so I kind of played my own card, to ensure that everything would go smoothly. And then it worked, but like, I could tell that the other Ghosts were still kind of wary about me and Wendy, so I kept-”

I raised a hand, palm facing outward. D stopped.

I set my hand back down, and I noticed that I had been gripping the blanket tight. I had to pry my fingers out from the fabric before I could use them properly.

“No excuses,” I said, “I’m not in the mood for them. I just want things to get better. Can you do that?”

“Yes.”

“Thank you, I’m holding you to that.”

D blinked, quiet, nodding as well.

It wasn’t great, and I was still feeling that mix of melancholy and anger. I wasn’t at my best, but it would have to do, for now.

But, shit.

So much to consider, now. Too much, even. It was overwhelming.

Take it apart, compartmentalize it. Discard what isn’t needed.

Not a bad way to start.

“Now,” I said, changing the course of the conversation, “There’s a lot we need to get through and figure out. Like what the fuck are we going to do now?”

I tossed the covers off of my body, swinging my legs over the edge of the bed. Heavier than I expected. I really had been out for a long time.

I took the next part easy, planting my feet on the floor, getting up slow. D got up from her chair to help me to a standing position. I didn’t stop her.

“Let’s move while we talk,” I said. “It should help me think clearly again, get all my gears moving.”

D helped me with my first step, allowed me to test myself with the second, and I was under my own power by the third.

I was still sluggish, but damn, it felt good moving around again.

What didn’t feel good, though, was how greasy and oily and sweaty my skin against my pajamas. I couldn’t wait to hop into the shower after this.

D went to Lawrence, turning him around in his wheelchair. She pushed, and they had passed me as we moved the discussion over to the living room area.

“Lawrence,” I said.

“Wendy.”

“How long are you going to be in that?”

Lawrence grunted.

“She’s been making me stay in this thing until we’re out of this hotel. But I’m fine.”

“You’re not fine,” D said. “I just want to make sure you will be.”

Lawrence made a hand signal, lifting a finger and traced a circle in the air. D spun around so they could both face me.

“As soon as we get out of here, I’ll be better than fine. I’ll be okay.”

“Soon,” I said. “When are we supposed to be leaving again?”

“Technically, twenty-two hours ago.” Lawrence let out a small chuckle.

“Noon,” D said, correcting him.

“So, we’ve got two hours? That’s enough time to iron things out.”

I put my hands on the ornate couch in the living room, using it for balance. I started.

“Let’s start with what we do know. Granon and the People’s Hammer?”

“Summarily fucked,” Lawrence offered. “You did your… thing, and I did mine. They’re not going to be a problem anymore, especially Granon. His employer might want to try branching into Stephenville again, but that won’t have anything to do with us. Probably.”

“Is he…” I paused.

“Dead? He’s not, but he is fucked. He’ll need a tube up his ass to take a shit, now.”

“Language,” D said. “Gosh.”

“I curse all the time.”

“Yeah, but you’ve been doing it too much, lately.”

“It’s how I deal. Deal with it.”

D grumbled.

“Deal.”

“Next,” I said, “Styx. Is he still a factor?”

I would have asked about Granon’s men, if they had met a similar fate or not. But, this was one of those very few, very rare instances that I’d rather not know.

Killing was a hard line to cross, different from maiming or hurting. A very definite step above. I didn’t see myself as a killer, even with having handled knives and guns in the past. I’d hurt people, and I’d put them at the brink of death, but I had never pushed someone over the edge. I didn’t have a particular rule against it, but it would brand me forever, the second I crossed that line. Murderer. Killer.

Even Benny, whose life I was more than willing to take, I shied away from that particular edge at the last second. It didn’t feel right, in that instance.

Much like how it didn’t feel right, in this one.

If those men were gone forever, never to wake up again, I… couldn’t see me as being wholly responsible. I had lost control of both my mind and body, whatever happened wasn’t anything I intended to do. Maybe people did die, but it wouldn’t have happened if I could help it. And I couldn’t.

It doesn’t count.

“Styx will always be a factor,” Lawrence answered. “He was here before Stephenville became a sanctuary city for gangs and cartels, and he’ll probably be here even after nuclear war wipes the rest of us out. He’s a fucking cockroach.”

D answered the question properly, saying, “He sees me, or us, as being in his debt for all the assistance he’s provided. He’s going to want to cash in those favors. When? It’s anybody’s guess.”

“It’s going to be soon,” Lawrence said, as if it was a premonition. “It’ll be some sort of test, I’m guessing, he mentioned that we should get our shit together. But, whatever it is, I’m not looking forward to it.”

“Mentioned?” I asked.

“As in, he fucking told us.”

“Ugh, language,” D said, quiet.

“Ah,” I said, “Duh.”

Two potential tests.

At worst, they’d derail the gang’s progress. At best, it could be Styx’s way of helping us even more, but I doubted the man’s benevolence.

“Well, if he helped us twice, now, he probably wants to get something out of it,” I said.

“Three times,” Lawrence said, correcting me. “Three.”

I tilted my head.

“What was the third thing?”

Lawrence jabbed a thumb at D. She, in response, went stiff, her lips in a hard line.

“D,” I said.

“It’s not relevant,” she said, avoiding my eyes. “It doesn’t pertain to the gang.”

“I told you, D, I don’t like-”

“It’s not relevant!”

D shouted, sudden, so loud that I flinched, and I could have sworn the scene around me briefly change. White. Chairs strewn. Red splotched everywhere. I blinked, and I was back in the suite, in the living room, that incident already fading from my memory.

“Uh,” I said, unsure of how to respond, if I even should.

D had screwed her eyes shut. She wasn’t holding onto the wheelchair’s handles, her arms were straight down, hands balled up.

There was no act to it, no pretending. D was a kid, and she reacted like how a kid would.

She doesn’t want to say.

Lawrence gave me a measured, careful look.

“Hey,” he said, “If it’s not relevant, it’s not relevant. Right?”

“Yeah,” I replied, with care. “Not relevant.”

D took her time in composing herself, unwinding. She played with her choker.

I put my thoughts elsewhere.

I was standing, lifting a leg up to stretch and get blood flowing. I still felt fatigued, thoughts and ideas weren’t connecting as well as they should have been.

Delayed, I was finally hit by a harrowing realization.

I opened my mouth, speaking slowly.

“Does… Styx know my secret identity?”

Heads turned.

I saw their expressions. I knew.

“Fuck,” I said.

“It’s just a feeling,” Lawrence said, “But I have my doubts that he’d do anything with that. It’s his business to know things. It’s how he got to where he is today. If he let slip every piece of information he has, then his gang wouldn’t exist, or not to this capacity.”

“But he was a part of the Solace conspiracy,” I said. “He was directly involved with trying to take me out of the picture, during my Blank Face days.”

Lawrence spread his hands.

“I wouldn’t know about that. You’d have to ask her, she’s the one that’s chummy with the guy.”

I looked at D. She didn’t look at me.

“Styx isn’t going to do anything with that information,” D said. Her voice wasn’t firm, but it didn’t falter.

“You had better know for sure, or I’ll make it so he can never ride his bike again.”

For a moment, D set her jaw, lips pressed together.

Then, she replied.

“I’ll be sure to tell him that.”

Covered, but not concluded. Styx’s actions, as I understood it, were completely contradictory. Sabotaging me as Blank Face, but willing to help now that I was V. It didn’t connect, not from where I was standing, not with the limited information I had on him.

I’d have to seek him out, one of these days. Get a proper dialogue going. If anything, it would interesting.

“So we’ll keep Styx in the back of our minds,” I said. “We still have our own priorities, and we can’t have him looming over our heads. We stick with our original plan, and whenever he shows himself again, we’ll be ready.”

Lawrence replied. “And our priorities are?”

“Maintenance and expansion. We touch base with our territory, and we start picking through other gangs that had a debt with the Ghosts. That plan is still in effect. That doesn’t change.”

“Hit the ground running, then? I’m down.”

“Same here.”

D had responded, though with less enthusiasm than before. She was still shaken from her own outburst from earlier.

I nodded, glad that we were in agreement. Even though it was on varying levels.

“Anything else?” I asked. Every pertinent item was addressed, but I wanted to be thorough, to cover all of our bases.

Lawrence didn’t hesitate to offer another topic.

“Yeah. You.”

I paused.

“Me?”

“You heard me. All this talk about knowing this and knowing that and staying in the loop, yet you’ve never told me a damn thing about how your powers actually work and what fuels it.”

“Fuel?”

“You mentioned that you don’t eat, that it was a drawback of your powers. What you failed to mention was, while you may not eat, you do drink, and I’ve seen what you’re like when you’re thirsty.”

I swallowed, hard.

“You saw?” I asked, my voice breaking a little bit.

“You’d have to be blind to miss it.”

It was my turn to avoid the stares. I glanced elsewhere, keeping my eyes down. I moved my hands to my side, but I found that my pajamas didn’t have any pockets.

I was in an awkward position.

“It’s not relevant,” I said.

“Bullshit. The only reason why things turned out like this is because you ran off and went berserk on Granon and his men. It’s why we had to stay an extra night to wait while you were recuperating. That is absolutely something I should know about. If I did, then maybe this entire thing would have went down different. Less messy.”

“It’s…” I started to say, but I wasn’t sure what point I wanted to make. What I point I wanted to refute.

Lawrence raised his hand again, using his thumb to point at the little girl behind him.

“Did she know?”

A simple question. A simple answer.

I gave him the truth.

“She does,” I said.

Lawrence frowned. And in his eyes, I could almost ascribe it to the same feeling I had now. That mixture.

“Let me ask the same question you asked her. Why the hell did you not tell me about this?”

My gaze was to the couch, down, unsure of what to say.

What was I supposed to tell him?

That I had once thought of him and his Ghosts as expendable? Pieces that could be sacrificed for a move or a play? No one ever liked hearing that they were expendable.

“It’s not something that is a direct concern for the gang,” I explained. “I have my condition, and I’m usually good at taking care of it on my own time. It doesn’t have anything to do with you, and I only told D because she asked.”

“So it’s my fault I didn’t consider that you might have a condition. How idiotic of me, then.”

“The less people know, the better. Just as a rule. Could you imagine what might happen if it got out? People were already freaking out and rioting over the fact that I exist. That would only get worse if they learned what I needed in order to sustain myself.”

“Panic is panic is panic. And you think I’m a snitch? That I’d go off and run my mouth to anyone who would listen?”

“Course not,” I said. “It’s just a rule. Did you want to know, Lawrence?”

His response was immediate.

“I don’t give a fuck.”

Now I was confused.

I brought my eyes back up, meeting his.

He doesn’t want to hear it.

“Then why bring it up?” I asked.

“I had some time to think about it while you were resting. It’s not about me knowing, it’s about you not knowing. Because, it seems to me like you are completely unaware about who and what you are, and you’re letting your ignorance blindside you, and you’re not in a position to be tripped up like that. It’s dangerous, and more importantly, it’s stupid. My life is already crazy enough, I can do without your baggage.”

“What is it you want from me, then?”

He straightened up. I could see how he tried to mask the aches, his effort to maintain a neutral expression. It didn’t really work.

“I want you to get yourself together. And fast. We can’t bail you out everytime a screw gets loose in your head. If you become a liability, then that puts everyone in the gang at risk. Me, D, and all the rest. It’s like having nukes. Ideally, it should be used as deterrence against our enemies, and if we have to use it, then so be it. It shouldn’t break down and give the rest of us radiation and turn us into mutant-vampire-demon-things.”

“I doubt that’s going to happen,” I said.

“But do you know for sure? Like, how did you put it, it’s the principle of the matter. Understand, exactly, how you tick, and why. If you’re going to be our muscle, you can’t just come in, wildly and blindly swinging, hoping for something to connect. You have to think what your next move is going to be.”

Lawrence continued, “So instead of this-”

He mimicked what he had mentioned earlier. He swung his arms around, flailing them.

“Be more like this.”

He stopped, his arms out in front of him. He lowered them, posing, assuming a fighting stance.

“A Shaolin warrior.”

An odd sort of silence settled in, as Lawrence kept his fists up, and I stared, trying to make sense of the point.

It lingered.

D was the one to break it up.

“Wow! Where’d you pull that from? That’s so dorky!”

D started cackling, tossing her head back, making herself louder.

Lawrence turned red. Even his ears.

Then, he slammed his hands down, grabbing for the wheels of his chair, and he pushed himself away from D.

“Fuck this, fuck all y’all! You’re not taking this seriously!”

D tried to chase after him, but she had found it way too funny, having to lean on a leather chair for balance. She tried to call out to him between her fits of laughter.

“Wait, L- I am, we are taking this seriously, promise! Right Wendy?”

Despite how tired I was, how bombarded I was with every new update I had gotten, I broke, and cracked a smile.

“We are, Lawrence.”

It was a brief respite, considering I had just woke up, shaken, and immediately had to deal with the fallout of the fight with Granon. A little bit of levity could go a long way.

He stopped in his tracks, though he was pretty close to the door. It made me wonder where exactly he was trying to go.

Lawrence sighed, twisting his wheelchair around. D was cooling down, now, reduced to giggles. He spoke over her.

“But you do get my point, right?”

I did.

“I do,” I said, rubbing my eye, stifling a yawn. “I’d rather focus on this, the gang, but I can start that on the side… or something.”

“And whatever you do find, you can spare me the details, honestly. As long as you’re moving forward with it.”

“Yeah… no, yeah, that’s fair.”

“And I can help,” D ventured. She gave me a victory sign.

“If I need it,” I told her.

“No way, you don’t have a say in this, actually.”

“I don’t?”

“Nope. You shouldn’t keep trying to do everything yourself. Even if you have super duper strength, you still have your limits. Obviously. I’m just curbing this before it becomes a bad habit.”

I rubbed my eye again. “I can live with that. Sure.”

Before either of them could get another word in, I continued. “I see where you’re going with this, and I… agree. Is it safe to say that we’re all in sync, now?”

Lawrence’s head perked up, and I swore I saw him smiling.

“More or less. It’s a start.”

I nodded, satisfied.

“Awesome. Good, now we can actually start making some moves. And our first one should be getting out of this fucking hotel.”

“I’m definitely with you there, girl.”

“Same.”

I clapped my hands together, finally able to stand for an extended amount of time on my own two feet. “Then let’s move. Hit the ground running.”

After a shower.

Of course.

With everyone on the same page, we split up, each doing our own thing in order to get ready to leave.

I was ready to go.

Ready to get back to the territory, ready to make that territory larger, ready to work on other stuff that I’d have to pick and choose from.

I returned to the big, fancy bedroom, finding my luggage set aside in one corner. I worked on getting some fresh clothes to change into.

Part of me wanted to change into my costume, my mask was right there. I liked the way it fit on my face, the way it covered my eyes, how comforting it was to wear.

“Hey, Vivi?”

I turned as I closed a zipper, collecting a shirt and jeans instead.

It was D, standing over me with her hands behind her. Weird, to have her looking down at me.

I stood, and the perspective immediately switched. She moved her head in turn.

“What’s up?” I asked.

D moved her hands to her neck, tugging at her choker again.

“I wasn’t sure if I should say, but, I know that things got a little crazy, back there, and maybe you’re feeling super anxious about yourself and your powers and maybe even your body but that’s why I said I was going to help since you know it’s tough to try and do everything by yourself and I’d-”

I put a hand on her head, ruffling her hair. She stopped rambling, and dropped her arms to her sides. It was easy to forget just how young she was, sometimes.

“There’s no need to worry about me,” I said, “I’ll be fine.”

“But-”

I brought that hand up to my eye, rubbing it some more.

“But you don’t have to shoulder everything all on your own,” D said.

Still getting at that itch, feeling the eyelid flicker, I tried to assuage her concerns.

“Honest,” I said, lying, “I’ll be fine.”

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Interlude – Lawrence

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

Everything hurt. Everything.

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

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

Not so much, right now.

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

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

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

Fuck that shit.

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

Fight or flight, and Lawrence had chosen the former.

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

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

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

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

His part was done.

It was all up to her-

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

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

Hell fucking no.

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

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

And Lawrence had just taken care of that problem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, not screams. Shouts.

Pleading, begging.

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

More of them ran past Lawrence, screaming.

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

Fight or flight. And they chose to flee.

Then Lawrence saw what they were trying to flee from.

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

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

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

Her. The realization dawned on him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is who she really is.

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

All the damage, the destruction.

He’d never seen so much blood before.

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

And there she was.

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

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

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

There was still more to it.

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

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

Do I even want to know?

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

Neither would this.

The damage had continued, the destruction still being wrought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lucky you, Lawrence thought.

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

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

She returned.

Everyone who could scatter, scattered.

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

A bullet had merely given her pause.

She turned, facing Lawrence.

His own blood ran cold.

She was looking right at him.

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

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

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

But, then why is she crying?

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

She was crying.

Like she’s coming down from her high.

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

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

Fight or flight. He had to choose again.

I don’t have have the energy to.

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

Delirious, insane.

This isn’t real.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Someone, please, help me. Help her.

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

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

No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was a good distraction.

“El!”

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

Ah!”

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

“Fuck!”

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

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

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

Charlie shot back with a look of her own.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you so nervous for?”

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

That’s what that was.

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

Charlie didn’t look impressed in the slightest.

“What’s her name?”

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

“You are an ass,” she said.

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

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

Lawrence nodded. “Por favor.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For now.

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

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

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

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Good taste.

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

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

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

“Yo!”

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

A girl. A kid.

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

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

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

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

“Mind if I light it up?”

The odd girl asked him an odd question.

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

“Like, you looking to score?”

The odd girl gave a shrug, non-committal.

“Sure.”

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

“Do you live here?” he asked.

“No. Why?”

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

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

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

“I suppose.”

“What’s your name?”

Another odd question.

“Um, my friends call me El.”

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

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

“El? That’s kind of like my name!”

I don’t know what that means.

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

“Wow, sounds like a lot of work.”

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

“What other benefits?”

Like making out with hot girls.

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

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

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

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

She shook her head.

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

Later?

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

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

“You’re funny. Bye, El.”

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

Fuckin’ weird.

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

A sharp whistle hit his ears. That pitch.

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

Time to get ready.

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

He braced himself for the meeting.

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

He wasn’t particularly religious, but he prayed.

And prayed.

And prayed some more.

The end wasn’t coming.

Slow, unsure, Lawrence opened his eyes again.

She wasn’t here.

Lawrence darted his eyes around, surveying the scene.

He didn’t see her. She wasn’t here.

Where?

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

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

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

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

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

But now he had more.

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

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

“Styx.”

Styx smirked. It unsettled.

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

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

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

They shook hands.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That, and his face looked a little punchable.

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

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

Charlie was the one to answer his question.

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

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

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

Roland nodded, taking it all in.

“Did we recruit anyone?” he asked.

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

Roland was willing to accept that.

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

“Oh, okay, um, Roland. Thanks.”

Roland grinned.

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

Money. It was all about the green.

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

One day.

He had to step it up.

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

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

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

Lawrence shook his head, feeling like an idiot.

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

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

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

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

Lawrence couldn’t help but be bothered by that.

We’re not friends, Eddie.

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

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

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

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

“Okay, and sorry, El.”

Don’t fucking call me that.

Roland gestured. “May I see the money?”

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

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

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

It hit Lawrence.

Someone else called it out.

“Pigs!”

Everyone bolted.

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

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

“Faster!” she yelled.

You don’t have to tell me that.

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

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

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

Shit,” Lawrence whispered.

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

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

“Where then? Around to the fence?”

“Can you jump?”

“I can try, but-”

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

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

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

“Why do you have the bag?”

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

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

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

It almost gave Lawrence pause from wanting to go in.

“Sure about this?” Lawrence asked.

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

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

“Shit,” Lawrence said.

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

They threw the rocks.

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

Grey smoke blew out of the hole.

Shit,” Lawrence said, with emphasis.

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

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

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

Too late to back down now.

Escaping into the darkness, Lawrence let it envelop him.

Lawrence coughed out, hard. Everything hurt again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Styx chuckled.

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

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

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

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

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

Lawrence was stuck in a room with this man.

The bewilderment, the disorientation, was reaching new heights.

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

“Hi,” he said.

Lawrence responded with a blink.

“Quite the day, isn’t it?”

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

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

“Hi,” Styx said again.

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

The man crossed his legs the other way.

“Hi.”

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

Styx sneered.

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

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

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

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

“What?” Lawrence breathed the question.

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

Sickening. It was twisted.

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

Styx’s expression didn’t waver.

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

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

But he couldn’t. Helpless.

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

It just served to make Lawrence that much smaller.

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

“Styx! Styx!”

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

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

“Yeah?”

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

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

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

“Yes?”

“How many rounds did you pump into her?”

“Enough.”

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

“Everything about handling this was a precaution.”

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

“I was being ‘pre-cautious.’”

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

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

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

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

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

“Dummy,” she said.

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

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

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

D and Styx turned to look at Lawrence.

“Explain,” Lawrence said. “Now.”

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

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

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

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

Lawrence learned that his paranoia was wholly, completely justified.

D explained.

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

She gestured over to the man in question.

D continued.

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

D breathed in, taking her time.

“So I called in another favor with Styx.”

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

Another?”

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

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

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

D shook her head.

“I’m not kidding, sorry El.”

Lawrence was shaken to the core.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just why?

“Styx and I… we go way back.”

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

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

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

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

Styx pointed at him.

Stunned. As always.

“Me?”

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

Speechless.

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

D kept shaking her head, tugging at her choker.

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

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

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

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

Styx started to take his leave.

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

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

When Lawrence broke it, it felt palpable.

“What was the third favor?” Lawrence asked.

For a third time, D shook her head.

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

D was able to answer that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s enough time to take it easy.”

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

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

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

D had paused before answering.

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

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

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

“How’d you know that would work?”

D shrugged.

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

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

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

D looked genuine in her remorse.

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

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

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

Lawrence no longer had the will to be shocked.

“Same difference.”

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

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

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

“Don’t make me regret it.”

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

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

“I don’t want that,” D said.

“Me neither.”

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

“Uuuugh, this sucks.”

“Might not be the best word to use.”

D looked back at Lawrence.

“How about you? How you handling this?”

Lawrence gave his thoughts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Couldn’t let this be over.

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

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

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

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

“Right,” Charlie said.

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

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

“I can’t see it from this angle, El.”

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

“Alright.”

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

He threw his hand down.

Now!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s it look like out there?”

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

“Is it everyone?”

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

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

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

A burning house.

“About that,” Lawrence started.

“What?”

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

“Meaning?”

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

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

“Do you see firefighters out there?”

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

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

“So if it’s not a fire, then what?”

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

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

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

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

Again, Lawrence considered it.

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

He’s going to know I’m the real deal.

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

“Sure, okay, let’s try.”

Gracias, Charlie. Now get over here.”

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

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

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

Lawrence felt a hint of pride, hearing that.

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

“Yeah.”

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

“Right behind you.”

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

Clear.

Lawrence made the appropriate gesture.

They ran for it.

The path was unobstructed. All clear. Clear.

They passed the TV, the movie was still playing.

No distractions.

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

They were so close.

“Hey! El, El!”

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

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

“Where you going?” Edurado asked.

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

“Are the rest there?”

We will be!”

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

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

You better not be dead weight.

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

So close.

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

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

A crumble and shouts.

“El!”

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

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

Lawrence wanted to slap himself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I need help!”

“Okay!”

Charlie went over without any hesitation.

In contrast, Lawrence was still.

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

Eduardo called out for Lawrence again.

“El! Get over here!”

“Who is she?”

“She’s… she needs help!”

“Are you recruiting her?”

“I… maybe?”

Maybe?

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

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

“Just help!”

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

Lawrence went to them.

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

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

It was getting in the way.

“Fuck!”

Lawrence threw the bag off his shoulders.

There, he had more to move. To breathe.

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

“Whoa, hey, wait!”

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

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

Someone was running off with the bag.

The drugs. The money.

Lawrence immediately left the rest behind to give chase.

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

Fuck, Lawrence thought.

He was too late.

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

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

The odd girl.

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

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

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

So close to the fence.

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

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

More shouting stopped Lawrence in his tracks.

Charlie’s, and Eduardo’s.

Lawrence wheeled around.

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

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

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

Lawrence fell down on his own. On his knees.

He lost.

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

Lost.

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

But there was more to it than that.

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

What’s going to happen to me now?

He might as well be done.

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

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

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

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

Frustrated, livid, Lawrence raised both fists and-

-gently placed them at the foot of the bed.

Lawrence looked over Wendy as she slept.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I thought I asked you something.”

Wendy kept sleeping.

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

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

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

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

Lawrence didn’t care either way.

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

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

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

Wendy didn’t stir or respond.

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

Silence.

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

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

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

Lawrence paused.

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

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

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

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

Must be the late hour.

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

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

Lawrence wasn’t sure.

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

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

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

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

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

Previous                                                                                               Next

070 – All Along the Watchtower

Previous                                                                                               Next

What the hell did I do?

I had no clear answer to give.

The blood was still there, dripping now, down the wall and from the ceiling. It wasn’t an illusion, or a trick of the eye. So very real, and so very wrong.

My attention was divided, trying to make sense of the situation, finding how to address Lawrence, and figuring out what to do next. I wasn’t making much progress in any one of those avenues.

Couldn’t think? Then move. I had to make progress somewhere.

I crawled, on my hand and knees. I wanted to use my other hand to go faster, but it was still burning. The one finger.

I didn’t get far. I wasn’t trying to. I made it to the base of the wall and sat, letting myself fall and letting the wall keep me propped up.

My eyes roved over everything again. Worse than before. Not only in how visceral it was, but in my actual ability to see.

Shadows flickered around the edges of my vision, making whatever images I saw to be blurry and undefined. The intense light reflecting off the white walls and tile didn’t help, making it even more of a burden to understand anything. It hurt to look, and it hurt to try and look.

The bodies weren’t moving.

They were just dark shapes, now, but they weren’t moving, trying to get up or showing any other signs of life. Strewn about, torn apart, spilled everywhere. So much blood, and none of it was mine.

Okay, not true. I did have some blood on my hands, when Granon had cut my finger…

When Granon had cut my finger clean off.

My head was down, looking at my hands, palms open. All ten fingers were there.

But there was nine, if only for a brief moment. I had felt the knife cut through the skin, muscle, bone, then muscle and skin again. There was no mistake about that. Everything happened so fast, but that one moment seemed to stretch, as every fiber and piece of my finger was ripped away by the sharp edge of a cold knife.

And then the fire.

It contrasted against the cold blade that had cut me. A sudden burst of heat, then numbness…

Trying to piece together what immediately followed was impossible.

I fell to the floor, Lawrence arrived…

And here I am, now, failing to fill in the blanks.

My thoughts caught back up to me, and I hadn’t learned anything new. Nothing to report to Lawrence.

Hold on, Lawrence.

He had arrived, Lawrence was here.

How, why?

“Lahw-” I started, but a rough edge scraped my voice away. It was dry. The realization that followed was immediate and clear.

I was thirsty.

I failed to properly address him, but Lawrence was spurred to action anyways. He hurried over to me.

“What, you can’t get up? Here.”

He didn’t bring both hands forward, instead keeping one pressed against the side of his head. He seized me by the arm.

His hard tug sent a surge through my body. I shut down again.

Lawrence pulled up, but all he managed to do was hold my arm up. I was still down, back to the wall, hunched a bit, coddling my other arm, my hand and finger throbbing, now.

“Wendy, come on. Um, I don’t know what happened, and she doesn’t seem to be in the mood to talk. Hey, Wendy, get the fuck up!”

He pulled and tugged even more, until he started yanking, but it was fruitless. I wasn’t complying.

“Shit, hold on, let me get her up first.”

Another hand touched me. That only made things worse.

I felt myself getting lifted, my back getting dragged up the wall.

I resisted, pulling back, trying to shake him off. I didn’t want to be here, but I was still out of it, but I didn’t want help. I didn’t want anyone touching me.

“Hey, hey!” Lawrence said, struggling to get me on my feet. “We don’t have time for this. We need to get going!”

I was of two minds. I recognized that it wasn’t a good idea to stick around, that someone would be coming to investigate or happen upon this very soon. I also understood that fighting Lawrence on this now wouldn’t do us any favor as far as the dynamic of the gang.

But, on the other hand, fuck everything and fuck everyone.

“Let,” I started, feeling the itch in my throat, the coarse, scraping noise that was my voice, “Go!”

I threw out my arm, the one Lawrence had been pulling at. He went from him trying to move me, to him doing what he could to hold on.

Useless. I was too fast, too strong.

Lawrence grip gave out, and he slipped, flung away to the other side of the hall.

He crashed bodily into the wall, not making a sound at the initial hit or when he collapsed to the floor. His back was to me, I couldn’t see if he was breathing or not.

The regret I felt was instant.

I fell, too, sliding back down the wall. Still watching Lawrence, hoping he’d move or give me some notion that he was okay.

Then, he coughed, hard. It gave me relief.

“You… zombie bitch,” he said, breathing out the words, “I told you… we don’t have time for… this.”

I was blinking, erratic, eyes stinging from sweat getting in and how much it ached to look at anything.

Blood, I needed blood. But I didn’t want to go after Lawrence for it, and I didn’t want him to see me use the other bodies, instead.

Why?

Everything I was feeling was hard to parse. It all mixed together.

I was confused, hurt, and on a more worrying note, scared. I had no angle to approach this, no way to wrap my head around it. I had been betrayed by my own body, it doing something behind my back. All I had was the aftermath to gather any clues about it, and it was almost too hard to look. I couldn’t accept any of this.

Horrid, an ugly feeling that sat heavy within my chest. Pressure. It was suffocating, both physically and mentally. I couldn’t breathe, and I couldn’t focus on anything that wasn’t the confusion and the hurt and the fear.

This wasn’t like me. I wasn’t supposed be like this. This wasn’t part of my design.

Wendy, V, we had to be the antithesis to what came before us. Stitched together by a different fabric, made to hold, no matter what outside pressure tugged and needled. I wouldn’t come apart, I wouldn’t pull back, I’d press forward.

Don’t count me out just yet.

I raised my head, trying this one more time. I wouldn’t rely on Lawrence, or anyone, not here. No one else could help me with this. Had to do it on my own.

I lolled, letting my upper body hang. Before I could falter and split my chin open on the cold, hard tile, I brought my hands forward, catching myself. Both hands.

That middle finger was stinging, pulsating at the miniscule amount of pressure and weight I was putting on it. I could have relented, lifting that hand back up, but I pushed through it, letting the hurt of it fuel me to spur a change. To move.

I brought a foot under me, wincing as I did it. I wasn’t used to this, the pain, the fact that I had an injury and that feeling persisted. I didn’t get hurt, I didn’t succumb to damage, I had powers that put me above people. This… this was bringing me down, to that level, their level. People.

A hard thrust with my foot, and I lifted myself back up, using my other foot for regain balance. I wasn’t standing completely straight, I was still hunched, my body a bit sore, my hand feeling as if I had stuck it in a fire. Wasn’t at my level best, but being that was a luxury, now.

As if to touch base with myself, using the hand that wasn’t fucked up, I ran my fingers down my back and around my waist, right above the hip, feeling where the bullet and gone through me. There was a small hole at both ends, ruining my jacket and the shirt underneath. I poked a finger through the hole at the back, touching skin. No tears or rips or anything broken, nothing protruding.

I drew my hand away, seeing the blood at the tip of my finger. My blood.

That, I was used to. That, I was fine with. I’d been shot at before. It still discombobulated, and it was hard to shake off, but I’d manage to walk away, debatably alright. I could deal.

This, though, this was nothing I’d ever experienced. The lack didn’t even apply here, this was too foreign for anyone to comprehend. Too off, too wrong.

It was all wrong.

A rough, scratchy sound tore me away from constant, looped thoughts. Lawrence. He was moving as well, hands pressed to the wall behind him, using his legs to slide up to a standing position. He managed about as well as he could, still hunched, his legs not all the way straight.

He looked right at me, and I looked right at him.

Sorry.

I willed the sentiment at him, knowing he wouldn’t actually pick that up. My throat was too dry to talk.

Lawrence opened his mouth, but he didn’t speak, instead putting a hand into his pocket. His hand came back up, an object in his hand, lifting up to his head.

“Yeah,” Lawrence said, eyes still on me, but it didn’t seem like he was addressing me. “She’s here. V has come to.”

Lawrence dropped his arm, and swung, letting go of the object. It finally clicked to me what it was as it made an arc through the air, across the hall.

I caught the phone. It hit my finger, and it flared up again. I was almost sent back to the floor from the intensity.

I tried to keep my focus on Lawrence, though, to try and dull out the throb and burning. It hardly helped.

“She wants to talk to you.”

He added another piece, but I couldn’t catch it, him muttering under his breath. Wasn’t a pleasant mutter, though.

One of my hands was useless for picking up and grabbing at the moment. Fumbling around, switching grips while not properly standing or balanced, made for what should have been a simple task, into an arduous and frustrating process.

I got it, but it took some bending, an awkward lean. Through my foggy eyesight, I could have sworn I saw his lips curl up.

This isn’t funny.

“Hehk-” I tried, but my voice was locked up, my throat begging for sustenance. I coughed, even though it sent sudden aches throughout my whole body, making me shudder, shake.

Oof, that doesn’t sound good. You holding up, Vivi?

I knew that voice. I hadn’t heard it in quite some time.

I wasn’t sure if I should be relieved or pissed as all hell at hearing it.

“Deh…”

A simple letter, and I couldn’t even do that right.

Um, right. L-Boy was trying to explain to me what he’s seeing at your end, but I’m kind of having trouble visualizing it. Think you can help?

“Nuh…”

It was pointless, but I tried anyways. As though the third time would somehow be a charm. Or maybe repeating the same thing over and over said something about me.

Hm, doesn’t seem like this is going to work. Can you give the phone back to Lawrence, please?

I listened without putting much thought into it. I hardly wanted to think at all.

I tossed the phone. I was out of it, weak, but the phone flung out of my grasp in a blur, hitting one of the lights above. It made a loud noise.

Not weak, rather my control was compromised. Which, for me, was even worse.

Lawrence had to step forward to catch the phone, getting his back off the wall. The phone had bounced off the ceiling, spiraling down.

It fell into his palms, catching it like he would a baseball. He stopped with one foot ahead of him, and set himself straight again, standing. Despite all his injuries, everything that was inflicted upon him, he was still able to move under his own volition. He wasn’t useless. And he was only human.

Lawrence put the phone back to his ear, watching me, being careful. I saw the concern in his eyes. For himself? For me?

“I told you she’s being weird. No, I don’t know what the fuck I’m looking at here. Yes, I fucking hate both of you for putting me through this. You all suck.”

It wasn’t coming, it was already here. It had been here. A massive headache.

The burning sensation from my middle finger seemed to spread throughout the rest of my body, like a cancer or disease. As if my body giving me message, loud and clear.

To go fuck myself.

I had very little grasp of anything that was going on, I couldn’t make anything connect. And any attempt was met with the equivalent of getting kicked in the head. Separating, taking everything apart, compartmentalizing, only did so much.

The bloodied hallway, the bodies… something I wasn’t willing to touch upon, anyways, but it was worth putting on the mental list.

Lawrence and D. Lawrence was here, and while D wasn’t physically present, she was on the other end of that call. I could reach her, if I was able. But I had my own plethora of personal issues plaguing me at the moment.

I need blood.

As I sifted through my thoughts again, Lawrence continued his conversation with D.

“You better stay on the line, D, or I swear to god I’ll, fuck, I’ll come up with something next time I see you, and it better be soon. No, I didn’t fucking miss you!”

Lawrence was going around, pacing, avoiding the blood and avoiding me, seemingly, he wasn’t trying to approach me.

He would, on occasion, look over me, presumably to make sure I was okay. I wasn’t, but it was the thought that counts, I supposed.

“Hold on,” Lawrence said, observing me, “I need to check on Wendy, first. She’s freaking me out. Her eyes are huge but she’s staring off into nothing, and she’s all bent over and breathing hard. The fucking murder hall I found her in doesn’t help, either. D? D. She looks like a goddamn zombie.”

Did I really look that bad? I probably did, if I looked as bad as I felt, and I felt like shit. I was doing everything I could to keep myself together, but it clearly was not enough.

Shit. I hated this, not being in control, not knowing, not being aware. This was all of my fears and anxieties being rolled into one, and, for added salt on the emotional wound, I was the root cause. Who was I supposed to direct my anger and frustration to? I had no outlet, no method of release, and I was afraid that, if I tried, something might happen again. Something even worse.

Shit. Had to prove Lawrence wrong, that I was fine. I had to make myself believe that.

With the phone still to his ear, Lawrence had stopped pacing, taking measured, slow steps to me instead. I swayed, ready to move and keep trying.

“Wendy, hey,” Lawrence said. I didn’t like the tone he was using. Too calm, patronizing, condescending. Like he was talking to a creature, instead. “Let’s try this again. Can you move? Like, under your own strength?”

I swayed again, leaning one way, tipping my weight so I was forced to move a foot forward to stabilize myself. A step. It was the best I could do without just simply vocalizing an answer.

“Okay, so you can move. Not well, but you can move. Wendy, I know you’re pretty stressed out right now, but I need you to take some of that fire you used to throw me at the wall, and kick yourself in the ass because we need to get going. We’re going to have to catch each other up on the way, because I know you have questions, and I… I want to know what the fuck this is.”

Questions.

So many questions, and I had zero answers. Didn’t matter how many times I repeated the last few minutes in my head, over and over and over again, I couldn’t come up with anything worth saying, anything of value.

And I couldn’t even speak. My voice was robbed by my thirst.

Nothing to say, and no way to say it.

“What’s wrong?” Lawrence asked. A very, very good question. “What the hell is holding you back?”

I couldn’t even begin to answer that.

I opened my mouth, letting it hang, and stumbled forward. I was fighting the urge to leap at him and tear his neck out, juice spilling between my teeth and past my tongue. I was also fighting the urge to dive for the other bodies to get my fill there, too. I didn’t want him to see, I didn’t want him to know.

But, why?

D had seen me, D knew. I was upfront with her about that. What was stopping me now?

Embarrassment? Shame?

I wasn’t aware that I felt those things.

Whatever it was, it gave me pause, it held me back.

I stumbled again, to the side, in the direction of the blood and bodies. I wasn’t sure on what I was trying to accomplish, but I was still operating on vague directives. Prove Lawrence wrong, make myself believe that I was okay.

It was so hard.

Lawrence pulled the phone away from his ear, his expression unreadable, but it wasn’t a pleasant one.

“Here, I’m getting nowhere with her. You’re on speaker phone, D.”

Another, digitized voice filled the hall.

Man, this took a sudden and not very awesome turn. Okay, fine, I guess we have a couple seconds to spare. Wendy? Hi.

“She just looked at me. I think that’s a response.”

Let’s just go with that. As far as I was able to gather, it’s not looking so pretty over there, is it?

“That is a severe understatement.”

You said Granon was there? Is he alive?

“I don’t want to look, D. I, I’m doing everything I can to not throw up here.”

It’s kind of important. If he’s no longer a problem, whatever that entails, we need to provide proof to show that we won.

“The fuck did you set me and Wendy up for?”

I gave us an opportunity. Now hurry and find him. Take a picture if you have to. There must be some kind of way out of here, right? I’m sure you’re thinking along those lines. Just take it a step at a time.

“What about Wendy? She hasn’t moved or responded. I’m worried it might be some kind of trauma or something.”

Yeah I’m, I’m thinking. I’m only working off what you’re telling me. Um, I can only guess, but, Wendy? Are you thirsty?

I am.

I am so thirsty.

“What does that have to with anything?”

It might have to do with everything. Wendy, I know I don’t have to tell you this, but go ahead and drink. Lawrence, you’re probably scaring her so turn around and don’t look at her until she’s done.

“Done with what?”

Don’t tell me you watch a lady while she eats? How rude.

“D, you have a lot to answer for, I swear to-”

And promise I’ll give you the proper context. Right now, just listen, please?

A warped sound, not from the device. Human, closer.

The man turned, his back turned, his face obscured.

Free, unshackled. No longer bound by the man’s gaze.

Movement, not a smooth or elegant.

Rough.

On the floor, crawling. Insect. Insect. Wrestling control from more base instincts. The man was not a threat. Here to help. Back turned, meaning submission. Free to move. Indulge.

Fingers wet. Arrival.

No hesitation.

Fingers met lips. Tongue. Swallow.

Electricity.

Oh yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah

I came to.

The effect was instant. The shadows digging and blurring my eyesight fell away, disappearing, like a veil being pulled off of my face. A wave of calm washed over me, and the finer controls over my own body were being returned to me. The burning and the fever was going away. I could see, again, and I could feel things that weren’t just abject dysphoria.

I sipped, not concerned over cleanliness or decency. Lawrence wasn’t watching, I was free to consume how I needed to. No reservations, no qualms about what I was doing.

I slurped, licking my fingers down to the knuckle, thrusting my fingers back into the puddle of red to scoop up some more, making it collect into my palms. I was still aware of that the bodies were there, so I maintained a distance, trying not to think about them as much as possible, blocking it out of my mind’s eye. I blocked out the deep grooves and scratches in the tiles, at the bottom of the puddle, I’d rather not consider where those might have came from.

I could see, but I closed my eyes regardless, to savor the taste, lose myself in the moment. To forget about everything that weighed on my mind. I had almost forgotten this, how good and sweet the taste was, how it seemed to cleanse my palate, how it-

It hit me like a kick to the teeth.

I was kicked in the teeth, sent back from the sudden and blunt impact to my face.

I heard a shout. Then I heard several.

On my back, eyes rolled back, mouth filling with blood. My blood.

My jaw had been forcibly shut, fast, tight. My tongue was out, between my teeth. I nearly bit it right off.

I started choking, convulsing from confusion and trying to cough the blood out. I sputtered, with some drool and blood trailing down my cheeks.

A high ring was singing in my ears again, but I picked up the other noise that were happening around me. Shouts. Footsteps.

“How the fuck are you still standing?”

“A real man does not let such setbacks stop him.”

“There’s a fucking hole in your shoulder!”

“I sense fear in your voice, boy, I see you tremble. Was our prior meeting an act? A show, to give me a false impression of you and your group?”

“Damn right it was! Jesus-fucking-Christ, this is insane, this isn’t real!”

“This is real, boy, and it’s also about to be over.”

The footsteps swelled in volume, and something told me the growing commotion couldn’t be ignored. This wasn’t like earlier, with the tension in the air, but Lawrence still being patient with me. This was much more pressing, much more urgent.

“Wendy! I kind of need you on this!”

Right. That was a good indication as well.

I put a hand to my face. I was healing, feeling things shift.

My nose had been broken, with blood spilling out onto my face. My tongue was cut, split almost in half by the teeth, with even more blood for me to cough and spit out. The muscles in my face and mouth pulled, setting things back into place, taking things out where they shouldn’t. That shifting feeling, hot, like magma moving under my skin. Bones mending, skin and muscle coming back together. Teeth pushed back into place.

I moved as I healed, as fast as I was capable. I had gotten some blood, but it wasn’t enough to cover everything, I wasn’t recovering fast enough.

But it would have to do.

I scrambled to my feet. I opened my eyes, trying to get my bearings. I fixed my glasses, surprised to see that they still fit on my face.

Fuck.

There was a lot of bearings to get.

People. A lot of people, not just me and Lawrence and…

And Granon.

Granon was here, that much I knew, but he was still standing. How?

He was there, towering over me, blocking the light, but his attention was squarely on Lawrence, who was on the opposite side of him, several feet away. Granon, though, was stealing the attention of everyone else.

He had a buttoned shirt, but it was undone, not due to any effort on his part, but there were so many hole and tears and tatters that it left little to the imagination.

Under his shirt was body armor.

Of course he has body armor.

But, whatever happened, whatever it was I did, it would only do so much in protecting him, now. He was clutching a shoulder, the fabric reddening around the area. I would have thought that he couldn’t use that arm anymore, but the way he formed a fist, and the way his muscles tensed, led me to believe otherwise. The armor, too, had seen some damage, hanging together by a thread. It looked like it would fall apart if he took another step. It certainly wouldn’t hold if he were to get into a fight now.

And it looked like we were all about to.

Others filed into the hall, moving in groups, holding firearms. I turned so my back wasn’t an easy target. More of Granon’s men, and part of me prayed it was the rest of them. If we made it out of this on top, then there wouldn’t be any stragglers left to deal with. And if Granon was going to make this his last stand, then so would we.

But… shit. We were outnumbered, outgunned. I could heal, but that didn’t mean that I’d survive this.

Their presence alone was enough to keep me and Lawrence still, waiting to see how all of this would play out.

Granon bellowed, and his men positioned their guns. At me, at Lawrence, meaning Granon was in their sights, too.

Where was everyone else? Hotel staff, security? D? Who was letting this happen, letting this situation escalate in the back of the Lunar Tower? What happened to this place being a neutral zone?

Granon bellowed again, gripping his shoulder even tighter. He swung with that arm, removing his shirt and armor in one motion. The body armor thudded against the wall. I could sense the weight of it by how the thing dropped to the floor.

Granon’s torso was like a wide canvas, colored in different shades of red, varying strokes of gashes and cuts. From smaller nicks to wounds that looked worrying, Granon stood as if he didn’t feel a thing.

His body was a result of something I had done, after he cut off my finger. I’d get another headache if I tried to remember what that something was, looping my thoughts again.

Granon stretched, and clapped his hands together. He really was a beast of a man.

“Come, boy, you come all this way to where I’ve been staying, where would my manners be if I do not provide some hospitality? We’re face to face, now, so let’s make a deal! Let’s settle this like men!”

Lawrence looked equal parts annoyed, scared, confused, to the point that he could laugh.

“Am I a boy or a man? What the fuck is happening?”

“Winner gets to decide. Come!”

Granon charged at Lawrence, as though he hadn’t taken a piercing wound through the shoulder, and other injuries across his body. He rushed with the strength of a bull.

And Lawrence was the matador, but he was wholly unequipped and unprepared.

Lawrence dashed to the side, just narrowly dodging his tackle. He bumped into the wall, and I saw him make a face. In pain.

“Wendy! Get over here and help! You don’t get to stand there and do nothing anymore!”

Granon turned, and pointed at me. He yelled in his native tongue, then gave us the general message.

“She does not move, and she does not speak! I will settle this with the boy, and then I take care of her! If she so much as coughs, you will turn her into shreds!”

Granon’s men responded by turning their weapons on me. Every single one of their guns.

It was risky, stupid show of power. If I actually did move, and they fired, there was no guaranteeing anyone’s safety, not even Granon’s. A bullet could ricochet, or someone’s poor aim could hit him directly. He knew that he’d put himself in harm’s way, giving that order. Yet he gave it, in spite of that.

Risky, stupid, but I complied. I didn’t move.

Various reasons. I didn’t move because I couldn’t. My entire body was screaming for more blood, fuel for healing. I hadn’t gotten enough to quench my thirst, and I had been interrupted by a boot to the face, requiring more healing there, too. I was tired, rattled, and afraid.

Afraid. Another reason why I didn’t move. I was afraid of getting shot. The loudness of it, the shock, the pain that followed. Powers or no, healing or no, the fear of it never went away. Especially not when there was the very real chance of a bullet going through my head, and I wouldn’t be the one that came back. Everything that I had tried to build would disappear, everything would have been for naught.

I don’t want to disappear.

With that fear seizing me tight, with my self-hatred boiling, I didn’t move a muscle.

Leaving Lawrence and Granon to fight it out themselves, Man to man. Face to face.

It was all on him.

We were going to lose everything.

Lawrence jumped away again as Granon charged.

The difference between the two was obvious. Lawrence was one man, but Granon was easily the size of two, with plenty left over. Breeds of a different kind, and Granon was built for fighting.

In dodging, Lawrence had managed to put some space between them, and he tried his first move. A kick, to where there was a decent cut on Granon’s side.

Hardly anything. Granon roared, either in actual pain or for some other psychological effect. For Lawrence’s part, all he accomplished was pushing himself off Granon, like being launched off a platform. The force of the kick made him stumble when he landed, a critical mistake.

Granon stalked over to Lawrence while he tried to get back on his feet, moving with an incredible stride for someone already so bloodied.

A sweep of his leg, his foot into Lawrence’s ribs. Lawrence would scream if he could.

Large hands then went out, and grabbed Lawrence by the collar.

He threw, but he didn’t let go. Lawrence was swept off his feet, his back shoved into a red portion of the wall, his feet kept above the floor. Lawrence hacked and coughed, then gasped for breath as sausage-like fingers wrapped around his throat.

Granon began to choke the life out of Lawrence.

My heart sank.

Lawrence tried to wrestle out of Granon’s chokehold, kicking, twisting, but all it amounted to was him flailing uselessly as Granon held him in place. He had already gone through so much punishment in recent months, weeks, days. From surviving a bus crash, to getting shot, to his now two fights with Granon. A human body could only take so much punishment, and Lawrence had reached his limit a while back.

The kicking started to have less kick in them, the energy behind the twisting dropped. Lawrence started to give out, the colors of his face turning white, his eyes bulging out of his head.

I formed a fist so tight I made crescent moon shaped imprints into my palms. Blood moons.

Fuck, fuck.

How could I be so frozen in my fear? Lawrence was dying, forced to risk his life in fight he had little chance of winning, and he was still fighting to the end. He didn’t have powers, didn’t have the ability to heal, and yet he didn’t run away. He was trying.

He had yelled for me, and I was standing here, doing nothing.

This wasn’t the lack, or any missing connections. This was me being a coward, running away when it actually mattered.

The realization choked me.

I want my costume, I want to wear my mask. Hide. I want to hide.

I inched forward, the feeling of bile rising in my stomach. My fingers dug into my palms even deeper.

Then, a burst.

It wasn’t from me. Lawrence.

He didn’t kick. With the last of his breath and strength, he lifted a leg, and thrusted. He didn’t remove his foot or pull away though. He kept it there, pushing, digging the heel of his boot in more and more.

Into the hole in Granon’s shoulder.

Granon shouted in another language, and seemed to double down, twisting his fingers around Lawrence’s neck, straightening his arms. Lawrence only returned the favor by pressing his heel into the wound even harder, faster, more desperate.

A sick game of chicken. Until either Granon let go, or if Lawrence died.

One of them gave.

Lawrence dropped down the wall, slumped.

Granon backed away, holding his shoulder, grunting all the way.

There was a pause.

And then Lawrence blinked.

A small thing, but I noticed it. I was looking for it, praying for it.

He was still alive, he still had a chance.

I tried to inch closer again, but a click behind me made me reconsider.

Damn me.

Lawrence began to dry-heave, body jerking, wild, tears streaming down his face. Granon’s attention had remained on his shoulder, having not noticed Lawrence. Was that a potential weakness? An exploit? If Lawrence could focus on that shoulder, or hammer on other deep cuts, then he might be able to pull this off.

He’d have to get control back of his body, though.

Shaking, heaving, Lawrence did what he could to slump forward, head hanging down. Slow, he brought his hand to his lips. His fingers disappeared into his mouth.

I sympathized.

A sudden, hard shake, and Lawrence retched, and a stream of bile flew out of his mouth. Violent, harsh, fast, a brown and green mass of liquid waste was flung, far and strong enough that it curved in the air.

Projectile vomit.

Everyone had a reaction. Granon’s men blanched, taking steps back, even though they were nowhere near him. Even I was granted permission to move.

Granon reacted as well, but with his attention having been elsewhere, it was delayed. He craned his neck to look, and leapt in surprise.

Agh!”

Anyone would have acted similarly to seeing such a sight. Women, children, men like Granon. But his response was a second too late.

Lawrence had been purposeful with his attack. He had intent. He had aimed right for Granon’s feet.

Granon attempted to swing his feet back, to avoid the vomit. But he had seen it a second too late, the floor already compromised by all the blood. Vomit splashed right under him, mixed with the blood, and coupled with his size and momentum, he slipped the second his feet returned to terra firma.

Bigger they are…

Legs over his head, his neck bore the brunt of the impact. I heard a very audible crack.

His arms fell beside him, his feet landing and pointing in different directions, outward. A stretch of nothing, a pause as it settled in that Xander L. Granon wasn’t going to be moving ever again.

Time seemed to have all but stopped, inside that hallway.

Both on the floor, only one of them still breathing. It wasn’t a possibility the majority of the people here saw as actually feasible.

Lawrence didn’t turn his head, but he moved his eyes. I met them.

A passing of the torch.

My turn.

I turned. Facing the crowd of gunmen, all dazed, confused, and soon, very angry.

There weren’t any that had come the other way, from where I had turned when I was being followed. Maybe it was part of Granon’s ego, his arrogance, that led to his downfall. He assumed he would win, he thought he had power over us, and tried to use that to orchestrate a situation that would illustrate that to everyone present. A way of gloating. He ended up drawing up a different point, instead.

I took a step to them. They took a step away.

Lawrence had went above and beyond, not just for his own survival, but for my own, and for the gang. He could have been killed by Granon’s hand, but he fought back. He tried.

I had no excuses.

I had operated under three rules, the moment I walked into this hotel. They limited me, made me bend in ways I wasn’t meant to bend. A shape I wasn’t meant to fit.

I had broken the first and the most important rule, despite my best efforts. Now, I wasn’t going to let anything limit me, anymore.

Barriers fell and crumbled, inhibitions lifted. Something else was taking over. Something distorted.

Diving into the mob, diving back into the madness. But this time, it was an intentional descent.

Previous                                                                                               Next

069 – Diplomatic Immunity

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Rule one, fighting was prohibited. We were indoors, in a fancy hotel, filled with prim and proper people, and those whose business was very much not, but still kept up their appearances. Getting into an altercation here would be career suicide. And, frankly, it was just plain rude.

Rule two, we had until tomorrow to conclude this, noon at the latest. We had to check out by then, and if we hadn’t gotten this sorted out, blood would begin to spill, and it would spill out onto the streets. I wasn’t exactly opposed to that, but only if the damages were incurred on Granon’s side of the board. I was not about to lose any of my own people.

Rule three, and perhaps the most critical, was that I could trust no one. There was Lawrence, but he wasn’t at his best, and I’d hesitate to have him out and about with Granon being around. If he had, somehow, gotten to Lawrence first, rule one would have been thrown out the window, and we would have lost right then and there. D… was a whole other thing, and with her being out of the picture yet seemingly having a hand in these events put a large question mark over everything. Couldn’t trust anyone around me, and I fought the urge to not trust in my ability to handle being on my own. I had to believe I could do this, as much as I actually had to do this. Win.

So I was limited in my options, pressed for time, and I had no allies to rely on. I was on my own.

Fantastic.

Granted, these rules were largely self-imposed, and it wasn’t as if Granon had to follow them as well. But, we did have a reputation to develop for the future, and if we could clinch a victory without needing to resort to violence, then it would reflect well on our performance as a gang.

I had to do my best.

The doors moved on their own. It had been a long way down.

The lobby opened up before me. Somehow, it looked nicer than the last time I was here, only minutes ago.

Cast in a soft, golden hue, the space was wider than it was tall, but it was still impressive in its scope. Shaped into a rotunda, though the ceiling wasn’t curved, the lobby was filled with people going about their business, or waiting for others so they could conduct business together. People checking out, checking in, everyone dressed like they had somewhere important to go. Chairs made of fine leather, countertops and tables crafted with intricate detailing, almost to the point that they looked more like decorations than anything functional.

I noted the chandelier again, segmented into fractals, but assumed the shape of the moon. From where it was attached to the ceiling, more painted vines and leaves and fruits branched out, stretching and twisting until they weaved an intricate arrangement of color, even more vibrant from the light of the chandelier.

Dang. I could get distracted, just by looking around. I was in a high-class, luxury hotel, so the interior was nothing I had ever seen before. Maybe it was a bit too flashy, ostentatious for my tastes, but then again, what did I know? My tastes weren’t anything near developed.

I walked to cross the lobby, moving around people, trying to find a good place to start, while trying not to stand out by looking lost.

I didn’t get very far.

“Hello, ma’am.”

I knew the voice. I’d heard it just recently.

I glanced to the side, noticed, realized, then stopped.

The lady from the front desk, but she wasn’t at the front desk.

She was out, by an arrangement of chairs around a small table. On the table was a cup of coffee, half empty, with no owner to speak of. The chairs were unoccupied, the lady moving one of them back into place. She must have noticed me as I walked by.

Though I wished she hadn’t said anything.

I turned my shoulders, but I was still leaning forward, putting some weight on the foot ahead of me. A subtle signal that I wasn’t here for an extended chat.

I made a sound to prompt her. “Hm?”

“Did you find everything in your room to your satisfaction?”

She’s just asking if the service has been good so far.

I answered quick, already shifting my weight to move again.

“Everything’s great, thanks.”

“Did your husband find everything great as well?”

The question made me stop again, resulting in an awkward half-jerk, half-skip forward. I turned back.

“My what?”

She blinked twice, her smile restrained by her lips being pressed together, head tilted, slight. A professional demeanor.

“I assumed incorrectly. I do apologize.”

I figured I had to do some damage control.

“Oh right. No, he loves it, he’s taking a nap up there right now.”

The lady’s expression remained.

“That’s great to hear. I do hope you enjoy the rest of your night.”

There were a few different ways to interpret that. I choose not to consider any of them.

“Thanks,” I said. This particular interaction was already starting to drag, I didn’t want to be around her any longer than what was absolutely necessary. Her poised, polite disposition creeped me out to say the least. It was a reason why I let Lawrence talk with her as we checked in. I’d feel more comfortable if her focus wasn’t on me. That, if she looked just a little harder, she’d realize just how much I didn’t belong.

The other reason was that she worked here. This hotel had a very specific reputation, and it had to be next to impossible for her to not notice the true nature of her guests. I had to keep rule three in mind.

One, two steps. Then the third, when I was stopped yet again.

“Mrs. Vazquez.”

I had to face her directly. No half-turn, no signal that I had to go soon.

Fine, fine. If she really wanted my attention, so be it. She’d get it.

“Yeah?” I asked, blunt.

The lady took her hands off the chair, and clasped them together. She positioned herself so her posture was nice and proper.

Her civility never left her.

“If you’re looking for something to occupy your time for this evening, may I perhaps recommend the lounge and casino? I’m sure you’ll find some entertainment waiting for you there.”

The wording, I didn’t like that there were multiple ways I could take it. A clue to Granon? A good place to start? Did it mean that she actually knew who I really was, this whole time?

Or was it another set up?

But I couldn’t ask any of those questions.

“Which direction is the lounge?” I asked instead. There wasn’t much else I’d want get out of her.

She gestured, her arm out in front of her.

“It’s directly behind you, on the other side of the lobby. Just take the stairs up to the second level. The lounge will be to your left and the casino will be to your right.”

I nodded, playing along. Couldn’t show my unease on my face. I had to be just like her. Poised, polite.

“Thank you,” I said. Then I moved to leave, for the final time.

“Do enjoy your stay, Mrs. Vasquez,” she said, with that light tone. “And good luck.”

Those last three words hit me like a bucket of ice water. A cold, prickling sting that ran down my neck.

You have got to be shitting me.

I crossed the lobby, lumbering in my steps. I held onto the handrail as I went up the stairs.

Rule three. I didn’t trust that lady, but I also didn’t have any leads. I wasn’t following up on her suggestion in good faith. This wasn’t like previous times, I wasn’t going into this blind. I knew what the risks were, and I knew to take anything I get with a healthy dose of paranoia.

It was a conflicted feeling that I couldn’t shake off. Was I playing a game, or was I the one being played? Every new development, it seemed, would give me more reasons to watch my back, to keep my knife close by.

And my feelings on that were very well established. Especially to D. I fucking hated it.

Heated. Had to force myself to cool off, or I might tear the rail off the wall with just my hand.

Was this really what it would be like to lead a gang? The constant second-guessing, problems stacking one on top of the other, being pulled in every direction, always needing to improvise? I could see how Lawrence had trouble maintaining operations when we first met, and I could almost understand how the stress of the position weighed on Benny, causing her to snap at the worst possible place at the wrong people. Everything was so unstable, anything could happen at any time, and it required some ingenuity and imagination just to maintain a status quo. Not everyone could keep up, and some were dragged even lower in the process. And trying to move up was another matter entirely.

Couldn’t let myself be dragged, wouldn’t let that happen. I had to be the exception.

If we were to succeed, I had to stay focused, and concentrate on one problem at a time. And the biggest one hadn’t changed. It was still Granon.

I had to find him.

The stairs ended, and I was on the second level.

The lounge and the casino. I saw them both.

The lounge was open, filled with smoke and people. More tables and chairs, but these had occupants, conversing and enjoying the ambiance of the soft light and even softer jazz music. There was a bar farther back, but I wasn’t particularly thirsty. Not for alcohol, anyways.

For the casino, however, there was a glass wall separating here and there. There was an entrance, but someone was standing in the way, barring the way through. A small line had formed, with people waiting to go in and try their luck. On the other side of the glass were the bright, beeping slot machines, and tables, people playing with chips and cards and cash. The sounds and the sights were harsh, even with a literal barrier to entry.

I’d start at the lounge. It was free to get in, while getting in line for the casino ran the risk of me getting stopped by the guy there. If I wanted to keep a low profile, I’d have to avoid that kind of gamble.

I moved.

I stepped from tile to carpet as I entered the lounge area. The lighting immediately dimmed, smoke and music making my senses swim. The atmosphere was thick, intoxicating, the desire to sit down and unwind was almost enticing. Almost, though. I wasn’t about to take it easy, now. I had a job to do, and I had to do it fast.

Moving, keeping out of the way, I observed the lounge.

No one that looked like Granon, or any of his men. I was confident that I’d see him if he was here, he wouldn’t be hard to miss. Everyone here was much… smaller, with less imposing frames. And no one looked as though they wanted to wreck the place, or had the temperment of a bull. It was exactly how it appeared, a place to relax, to smoke and drink the night away. With class.

No luck.

Sticking close to the perimeter of the lounge, I traversed a wide arc around, just to cover my bases. I didn’t see Granon, but I still wanted to be thorough.

I maneuvered around leather chairs and velvet couches, the guests sitting, trying to get as close as possible without alerting them to my presence. Studying faces, catching words.

I wasn’t picking up much.

Investments, details of private dealings, recent trips to Asia. The minutia of people’s daily lives, that I’d never fully learn the context of. In short, nothing of value.

Nothing of worth. Just pointless chatter.

Was this really the best I could come up with? Walking around, aimless, hoping to catch anything of worth towards finding Granon, if not finding Granon himself.

And, was Granon even in the building right now? He might be staying here, but that didn’t mean he was currently here. I might have to change my approach, and go after his men instead, have them lead me to him. But would I be able to pick them out if they weren’t making themselves obvious?

Too many things I was unsure of, too many things I didn’t know. I hated being blind.

Anymore of this, and I might just try to torch the hotel to the ground, smoke him out that way. It had worked once before.

I finished my loop around the lounge, coming up with nothing. The idea of playing with fire seemed to burn that much brighter.

Fuck, nothing or no one stood out.

If not here…

Then somewhere else.

Time to get in line.

I left the lounge, moving over to the other side. The casino. The lounge was too placid for someone like Granon. If he was going to be anywhere, it would be where it was loud, flashy, and active.

I settled into the back of the line. My pulse quickened as everyone moved, as I joined in step, and as someone fell into place behind me.

The opposite of standing out, but it achieved the same effect. I didn’t look like D, body-wise, but I was standing around fully grown adults, several heads taller than me. They all had a natural, relaxed about them, exuding confidence, while I was trying my damndest to not be noticed at all. It was such a minor detail, but I could imagine getting tripped over the most irrelevant thing.

Which would be sad, but not impossible.

But I wasn’t supposed to be doubting myself.

The line progressed forward, and I went along. And then some more. And even more. The line was moving faster than I initially expected.

My heart raced, and I swallowed, hard. I made a mental note of where my wallet was in my jacket.

And then it was my turn.

The security at the door. It was just one guy, but the hotel management clearly thought that would be enough. He was huge. Bigger, wider, taller than even Granon. Built like a square, his head shaved, jaw set, eyes peering into me. If I didn’t possess the unnatural level of strength that I had, his physicality would have given me pause.

It didn’t. But something else did.

Strength wasn’t the factor at play, here. It was credentials. I couldn’t punch my way into the casino.

He stared, and I did everything I could to be able to stare back.

One word, two letters. Several notches deep.

“ID.”

I flinched a little as I responded in turn, fishing my wallet out of a pocket. I flipped it open to slide the card out.

I’d already showed it once before, and it worked out alright. It had better do the trick again, here.

He grabbed it out of my hand, with more force than he needed. He brought the card close.

He looked at the card, then at me, then the card, me, and back again.

When his eyes looked over me the final time, he took his time. Everyone that was ahead of me just waltzed right in. Already, I knew that my entrance wasn’t so graceful.

He spoke, his voice deep, and I felt it in my chest.

“You twenty-one?”

Called out on the spot, and he was being loud enough that he could probably be heard halfway down the line. It was a move, getting other people involved without having to make them active participants. Letting them know what was going on, making me stand out even more.

I swallowed.

“That’s what it says on the card, right?” I asked him.

The ID was a fake, key details that entirely falsified, like the surname… and the year of birth. The card had dropped mine down by a few years, but the month and day were the same. November the twenty-eight. An important day, on several levels.

I had to try and sell that image, somehow. Act the part. Being standoffish could be a substitute for maturity.

His stare maintained, he frowned, slight.

I reciprocated with a level stare of my own, standing tall… as much as I possibly could. I quickly learned that I wasn’t as good at this as Lawrence. Not at wearing this kind of mask.

He wasn’t budging. That wasn’t a good sign.

“Hm, ma’am,” he said, eyes still trained on me, “You’re going to step to the side, now-”

It wasn’t a word that interrupted him, but an action. And it wasn’t even an action done to him.

A hand slid down the small of my back, staying there, the fingers wrapping around my hip.

Shock coursed through me. I was stunned.

My eyes widened. I hadn’t broken eye contact with the security. As if I wanted his help, now.

Someone was standing right beside me. Someone I couldn’t see.

Touching me. I was very aware of that.

A new voice. A male voice.

“She’s with me.”

The security guy changed directions. Not just in who he directed himself to, but how he directed himself. Poised and polite.

“Of course, sir. I’m sorry for the confusion.”

“As you should be. I’ll be sure to let management know about this. Tell Mrs. C…”

Sounds and sights and smells were fading. Like I wasn’t even present at the scene, just observing from a distance. And even then I couldn’t quite catch everything.

I couldn’t move.

I was reminded of the incident with those girls, Dani. Uncomfortable, an assault on something I preferred to remain unmolested.

Something squirmed under my skin.

More words, but they were warbled utterances, now.

The hand removed itself off me, but it was a momentary relief. It came back, faster and harder. A sharp pat, right above my butt.

I stumbled a bit, catching myself, reminding myself that I had legs to use. They were weak, my waist down feeling numb.

The security guy stepped aside, not unlike a heavy door being swung open.

I was pushed through. And I had wanted to go in.

I did my best to not trip as I was ushered down the steps leading to the central area of the casino. Eyes forward, concentrating on walking, instead of the slot machines and the people playing them.

He talked as he brought me down. Like this was nothing.

“I have to say, it’s a relief that Mr. Hitoshi is willing to try and collaborate with us again. Please tell him that I still deeply regret my decision about deciding to hold our meeting at one of my clubs. If I truly did not want to be… interrupted, we should have just met here. And I also understand his decision over not coming in person, but I will appreciate his business all the same.”

Even if I knew what he was talking about, I couldn’t find it in me to reply. All my focus was going into putting one foot ahead of the other. Trying not to feel the pressure on my back.

I found another handrail, my fingers sliding over it for purchase. Had to wait until I got off the steps.

My back was feeling damp, now, my shirt sticking to skin, and I led away from my main task, forced into a new problem.

I had to tear myself away.

Reaching the last step, I gripped the handrail, feeling the metal give. I planted my feet down, and the hand pressed more into my back. That ugly feeling spiked, but I stood my ground.

The person who took me kept on forward, then stopping to face me. He hand slipped off me and returned to his side.

No one I knew.

A man, thirty at least, wearing a suit. But it wasn’t dark or monotone in its color. Flashy, loud, if an outfit could even be loud. Red jacket and dress pants, with a white shirt, the top button left undone. His hair was neat and recently cut, with some length that was styled and combed on the top, shorter around the sides and around the ears. A youthful look, though that youth would escape him in a few more years.

He had a cane as well. Black, with gold engravings running up the length of the thing, stopping at a gold handle that his other hand had a grip on. But, I noticed how he was standing, how he seemed to favor one side, using the cane as support. It was just as functional as it was for show.

I started to connect the dots, but I still felt like I needed a shower.

He had a look of confusion. Whatever I was feeling must have showed on my face.

Tension was stirring inside me, begging to come out. And I couldn’t throw a punch for release.

I directed it into my words.

“Who the hell are you, you fucking creep?”

I had raised my voice, second only to the added volume of the crowd and machines cheering and ringing alike. Some people spared a glance at us, at me, but they were either too preoccupied, too inebriated, or they just didn’t care to help.

Not that I needed their help, now. I was free, and I still had some tension left to spare.

“You better keep both hands on that cane, or else I’ll-”

Wait, stop.

I couldn’t even do that.

I was in the middle of the casino, in one of the many beating hearts of the beast that was the criminal world of Stephenville. And if I didn’t want to get eaten alive, I’d have to not make a mess of things. To ostricate myself and the group I was representing.

I breathed in, deep.

It was fucking shitty, but I had to keep that tension down, for just a little bit longer. I had to be diplomatic.

Something Lawrence learned from his old boss. I had to try to learn the same lesson, too.

I fixed my stance, removing my hold off the rail. There was a small handprint left behind on the metal.

“I… shouldn’t have done that,” I said, eyes downcast. “Sorry about that.”

The man shifted his weight, lifting his cane and setting it back down in front of me.

“No, please, it was my fault. I mistook you for someone else. You can go. I, here.”

The man brought his hand out, the same hand he used to touch me.

“Santino D’Angelo.”

That name sounded familiar, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I almost didn’t want to. The connection was a little weaker, there.

I didn’t want to shake his hand. I didn’t want to touch it.

Diplomacy first.

Fuck that.

I shook his hand. I touched it.

“Wendy,” I said. If I had tried to say my surname, fake or otherwise, my voice would have certainly cracked.

I hadn’t felt this much vitriol before, not even towards Alexis. But it was there, now, and that intensity was directed right back to me. It squirmed. I so badly wanted to direct that intensity elsewhere. Out. To everyone else. Not me.

We broke, my arm falling limp at my side. I only barely had a faint idea about what I was here to do.

An awkward pause followed. I was supposed to leave, he said I could, but I hadn’t. I was a few flickers away from burning out.

So many things I lacked. Experience. Memories. Connections.

Santino D’Angelo… D’Angelo seemed to take notice of me still sticking around, and commented, saying, “If you need to take a seat, there’s a decent spot in the back. Would you like to accompany me?”

He shook his head, then added, “It’s only for a moment, and only if you’re comfortable with the idea. I’m actually supposed to meet someone, and I’m not about to wander around looking for them. If we’re to talk, they’ll have to come to me.”

It took a considerable effort to shore back up some composure, maintain it, and answer properly.

“I’m fine with that. I’m actually trying to look for someone, and I’m tired of wandering.”

D’Angelo seemed to relax, hearing that.

“Splendid. Come.”

He went off, and I came with. Ushered again, but not by a gesture.

I needed a breather.

He pushed through the party of people moving about, from slot machine to slot machine, from game to game. I stayed back, twisting around so I wouldn’t hit or bump anyone as I walked. The casino was large, I had followed D’Angelo for some time, until he eventually stopped at one of the round tables at the far back.

They were booths, made of velvet, D’Angelo slid into one side, and I moved into the other. I kept my distance, staying on the edge of my seat, scanning more faces.

It hadn’t even been thirty minutes since I left Lawrence in the hotel room, and already, there were so many left turns that it made me dizzy. I could get lost, just reeling from each and every one.

I had to focus, but it was getting so much harder to.

“You do seem a little too young to be hanging around here.”

My head whipped around. D’Angelo, talking to me again.

“But something tells me you’re not just here for some thrills.”

I replied, and it wasn’t as hard, this time.

“I’m not here for pleasure. Just business.”

D’Angelo cocked his head slightly.

“Business, here? That word has a very specific connotation, if spoken under this roof. May I ask who you’re with? Do you have a card?”

“Card?” My thoughts went to cards we got in that envelope. The room keys and fake IDs.

D’Angelo didn’t look impressed. “Business card.”

Gangs use business cards?

“I… just gave out my last one,” I said, thinking on the fly.

He nodded, unconvinced.

“Nice save, but I know a newbie when I see one. Here, I’ll give you mine.”

He pressed something on the underside of the handle of his cane. A paper slipped out.

He handed it to me. I took it, slipping it into my jacket after only giving it the smallest of glances. The name matched, at least.

“May I still get a name?” he asked.

Rule three. I wasn’t about to tell him.

“Personal business,” I said.

D’Angelo tapped his cane against the table.

“Listen, Wendy was it? It’s an amateur move, that. It’s a privilege, just to make it through the front doors. As long as you abide by the rules and keep it civil, you’re free to use the Lunar Tower as a place for discourse and refuge. A safe haven, if you will.”

I tried to loosen up, but it was useless, given the task and company at hand. I was still sitting where I was in the booth, ready to jump if I got even the slightest glance of Granon.

“We’re still making a name for ourselves, at the moment,” I told him. “We hold territory, and we have momentum, though we’re still getting our ducks in a row. But, just you wait, everyone will know who we are.”

“So I’ll be hearing about you very soon. I’m looking forward to it.”

We didn’t actually have anything planned, aside from the plans we already had in motion.

That was a move, as well. I still didn’t trust him, the third rule still in effect, so if anything were to happen in the next few weeks, I knew who to look for, and who to punish, if need be. It was a test for both him, and this establishment.

If nothing else, we might be able to use him in the near future, too.

“Well,” D’Angelo said, “You gave me some info, it’s only fair I divulge some of my own. I like balance, and if you are going to be as promising as I think you’ll be, it should be a worthy investment.”

“Fair?” I questioned, “You’re a larger gang, you can afford to give up some scraps of info here and there. It’s hardly an equivalent exchange.”

“You’re saying you’d use whatever I tell you?”

I didn’t gesture, or make any indication of what I was thinking.

D’Angelo tapped his cane again. He was smiling.

“You may be an amateur, but I know promising when I see it. It takes a lot of fucking guts to walk in here, especially with fakes, and try to get in on the action. That’s dedication, right there, that’s initiative. If you want a spot at the top, you have to take it. That’s straight out of our playbook, Wendy, you’re a natural at this.”

Hard to tell, if he was actually impressed or if he was just flattering me for other reasons. To take something else.

But, either way, I had to take it. Maintain diplomacy.

“You flatter me,” I said, voicing my thoughts from earlier, “But thank you.”

Nodding, looking elsewhere, D’Angelo lifted a hand.

“Not flattery, just mere observations. Oh, here she is! I won’t make the same mistake twice!”

He got up, pushing himself to his feet with his cane. He moved out of the booth to greet another person.

A woman, Asian in her features. Japanese, to make an educated guess. But she looked nothing like me, or even Shiori.

She was tall, towering over D’Angelo, though she did have heels. Slender, too, her waist smaller than mine, and I hadn’t had proper food… ever.

Her dress was fitting, proper for the setting, her skin a shade brighter than the pearls that adorned her neck. Hair done up, lips full, eyelashes long and smoky.

Standing by these adults… I felt as fake as the ID I used to get in here.

D’Angelo embraced the woman, still greeting her. It was brief, and they broke, talking.

“Hello, Mr. D’Angelo,” the woman said, her accent noticeable. Courtily, she placed her hands together in front of her. “Hitoshi-san is anticipating good things to come from this meeting.”

I watched as D’Angelo’s hand dropped, to her hip. Then, a twitch, and his hand recoiled to the handle of his cane.

“Hello to you too, Miss…”

“Kimiko.”

“Lovely name. And yes, I assure you the Path will be steered in the right direction with me. Ah, excuse me, but this is a colleague of mine, Wendy. She won’t be joining us, but she is someone to look out for, believe me.”

Miss Kimiko turned her gaze to me, and I wanted to jump out of my skin. I was so out of my league.

“Cute,” she said, with a grin.

Cute? Was that all I was here?

All I could do was grin back in return, tapping my teeth with my tongue. Ready to snap.

“I should get going,” I said, “You two can get down to business. I still need to find my person.”

D’Angelo motioned with his cane, nudging it forward.

“You want a tip? If you want to show that you have power, even if you don’t actually have any, you don’t seek them out. Make them come to you.”

“I’m not exactly in a position to do that,” I said.

“Then put yourself in that position. Circle about, get yourself the high ground. Now you have power.”

“I’ll… keep that in mind,” I said. Though the whole point was to approach Granon while he was unaware.

“Do that, and you’ll see results. It… ended up being nice to meet you, Wendy. I’m expecting big things from your group.”

For a third time, D’Angelo tapped his cane, and he left, Miss Kimiko at his side, taking his arm. They conversed, discussing matters that I’d probably never learn the specifics of. Our paths split apart from there.

And I had to go on my own.

I went through the other booths, heading back into the main area of the casino. I wasn’t examining every detail of every face I saw, rather I was just making myself aware. Intaking the surrounds, absorbing the culture, learning whatever I could pick up. Not hiding, drawing away from other eyes, I was here, making myself present, acting like I knew what I was doing, where I was going. Like I belonged.

The lights from the chandelier seemed less harsh, the melancholy feeling of insecurity diminished. It wasn’t completely gone, but it lessened in increments. Better than going the other way.

A creep, but maybe D’Angelo had a point.

Still didn’t trust him.

I turned at the end of a row of slot machines, and something on the glass of the slots caught my eye. It took turning at another row to see it again and know for sure.

I was being followed.

Four, maybe five men. I tried getting a glimpse of them by tilting my head, reflecting off my glasses. Nothing clear, but I doubted this was hotel security.

I grabbed my phone out of my jacket, trying to get a look that way. Oh. Several missed calls from Lawrence. He’d have to wait.

I didn’t get a look at them. I put my phone back.

Still moving, I searched for options.

A door, at the far end of the casino. Unmarked, large, green with a gold outline. A backdoor to a maintenance hall?

I’d head there.

I picked up the pace.

I reached the door. Didn’t bother to look around, check behind me. Had to work fast.

Door was locked, needed a card. I didn’t have one.

It didn’t matter.

I grabbed the handle and pulled.

The door broke free from the lock. No alarm sounded, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’d be silent.

That was fine. I’d roll with it.

I slipped through the door, into a hallway, walls white. Maintenance hallway. Even for a place that was off limits and not to be seen by guests, it still looked nice. The walls and floors were smooth, not a speck of dirt.

I was already partway down the hall when I heard the door open again from the back. I had put some distance between us, but they were starting to gain, now that there wasn’t anyone else around.

I didn’t find them. They found me. But I could use that in my favor. The higher ground. They’d have to wait for me to act first, make the first move. I was the one being pursued, but I still had the power, here. And I’d use it.

The hallway continued, but a path also opened up to the left and right. I didn’t hesitate as I banked left.

There were cameras above the door and on of the other side of the hallway, had I continued straight instead. None here. Good.

Rules were still in effect, but in the off chance I had to break them…

I stopped on my heels, spinning back. I waited with my hands behind my back.

Finally, they turned the corner. Three men, actually. Probably miscounted.

They stopped at a distance. The sight of me standing here must have given them reason to pause.

None of them looked armed. Then again, so did I. I kept rule three in mind as I said, “Kept you waiting, huh?”

The man on the right stepped forward, and responded, “So you are the one that interrupted our plans yesterday.”

So they are with the People’s Hammer.

I couldn’t tell if any of these guys were a part of the blockade, but I supposed that was hardly relevant. Any group worth their salt had to be, at minimum, decent at communication.

“You guys were the ones interrupting us. It would have gotten worse if I hadn’t done something about it.”

“How? You have injured a handful of my comrades.”

“And do you want me to include you in that number?”

He shifted. His two ‘comrades’ watched us both, carefully.

“We noticed you walking around the casino,” he said.

“Yeah, I was kind of being obvious about it.”

The man’s expression was cold.

“Why are you even here? You have no reason to be at this hotel.”

“I have every reason to be at this hotel. I need to speak with Granon.”

I needed to direct the conversation to that as soon as possible, use that control while I still had it. Or they might somehow wrangle that away from me.

He dismissed the request right there, on the spot.

“Granon has no need to speak with you. He, we, intend to take your territory and start our tenure in this damn city. We demand our seat at the table.”

“You’re not going to get that by going through us,” I said. “Because it’s just not going to happen. Take me to Granon. I speak for my gang, and I’m willing to extend another hand to you if it means him calling off all attempts to encroach upon my territory and challenging our authority. Let’s handle this diplomatically.”

“That will not happen.” He then said a short phrase in another language. “-for him when I say he is not open for any discussions. And, even if he was, it would not be with you. That discussion is for him and that Lawrence, and for them alone.”

I wasn’t surprised, there. Maybe it was his ego, or perhaps some other prejudice, but it did seem like a shot in the dark that I’d be the one to talk with him. Then again, they weren’t aware the leadership was split into three, with Lawrence being the face presented to everyone else. The least I had wanted to accomplish was convince Granon to back down from this fight. If Lawrence had to take it from there, then fair enough, I could concede that part to him. I just needed this to work out.

These guys weren’t willing to work with me.

I spread my arms a little.

“What? Is Granon too shook to seek a dialogue with me? Did I rattle him too hard?”

“No. The only one who will do any shaking, is you.”

“Great comeback there, buddy, just-”

I heard it before I felt it.

The pop, then the ring. Stunned again, the white lights and tight, close walls threw me to being back at the school. It debilitated.

Hot metal passed through me like I was made of paper.

I was falling before I realized what was happening. I was on the floor when it settled in. I’d been shot.

I’d been shot. I’d been shot.

Shot. Shot.

Shot.

I had been shot down, I was shut down, my mind going somewhere it didn’t want to go, reminded of something it’d rather forget. I was blank.

Writhing, squirming. My insides were hot, screaming to get out.

Worse than Dani, worse than D’Angelo.

They reached out, groping, manhandling me.

I was wrong. This was so much worse.

The lack the lack the lack the lack-

My head hung as my waist mended. From the back, through the muscle and bone, and out to the other side.

A clean shot.

Shot. Shot.

A hot breath steamed my cheek as a voice spoke.

“Who is shaking now?”

It was Xander L. Granon. He had me in his grasp.

My ears were ringing, his voice just barely able to be heard. Ears ringing.

Kids screaming, crying.

She lunged for Harrian and

“The same scheme as you, yes? Except this time, you are blockade.”

Couldn’t move, couldn’t respond, even though it was well within my power to do both. I didn’t know why, I couldn’t think.

“I will take your territory, and I will build my employer’s empire from there. That is, as you say, an inevitability.”

Multiple hands, grabbing at me, moving me. My arms were pushed up against my back, drawing my hands close to my shoulder blades, restraining me. A sharp pain.

Something cold slid against my fingers. Something cold.

“However,” Granon said, still breathing down my neck. “Perhaps I can negotiate a deal with that boy once the territory switches hands. Have him pay rent and taxes. Suffer infractions.”

The cold edge cut into a finger, sliding back and forth. I felt a pang.

If I moved now, I’d lose more than just my faculties. I was forced to stay still.

The tension from before was coming back, even more intense, wanting even more to explode.

“You want to talk? To negotiate? The only thing worth discussing is how many pieces he wants sent back to him. And let us start with this, your finger.”

I can heal I can heal I can get through this and slip out and figure something out

Cut.

It was all wrong.

Pain. Fire. Excruciating.

Screaming. Crying.

Not just me.

All wrong.

Growls and shrieks, over the sound of the air around me being sliced. Hands pulled away from me, and I started to collapse.

My hand, where my finger was supposed to be. Numb, yet it was on fire.

My descent felt slow and gradual. But I felt so heavy. It would be a long way down.

When I hit tile, I fell in blood.

A sweet taste splattered into my mouth, hanging open from the sudden energy being sucked out of me. Drained.

It took a long time for me to get moving again, bringing my hands forward to push myself up.

I drew in a breath, pained.

My hand, my right hand. All five fingers were there. My back and hip were fine, too. But the middle finger… It felt like it was burning. White hot. Like I had touched heated metal. It wasn’t diminishing.

Bringing that hand close, I used the other for support. I had all five fingers there. I crawled, getting out of the blood, which was still pooling.

I turned my head, and through the creeping shadows in my vision, I saw why.

Blood, everywhere.

Splashed and splattered across the walls, floor, and even the ceiling. Entire lines and streaks, then specks. There was distance to it.

And the direction.

Haphazard, but it wasn’t random. The blood went in one general direction, pointed one way. Out, away from the bodies and where I had my back turned.

Wait…

The bodies?

Bodies. Five of them, collapsed, limbs splayed and unmoving. One even had his face buried in the nook where the floor and wall met, flat on his stomach, head bent at an awkward angle.

I couldn’t see Granon. Would I even recognize him among all the red?

Are…

I scratched at an eye with my good hand, trying not to get blood on my glasses. My strained vision persisted. The scene still looked grim.

Are they all dead?

Footsteps, hurried. Coming closer.

My eyes were locked at the destruction before me. But there was no sense to make of this. There was nothing to understand.

“Wendy!”

I pulled away from the scene. I looked up, my expression blank.

Lawrence. He was keeping a distance, but he was here.

My mouth hung open, as if I had anything to say.

“Wendy,” he said in a breath, eyes wide, in shock. “What the hell did you do?”

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068 – Upward Mobility

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Hair neat, chin up, back straight, feet together. Hair washed, glasses clean, clothes fresh. Makeup applied. I was trying not to go overboard, but I wasn’t even sure where that particular line had been set. Had I gone too far, not far enough? What image, exactly, was I supposed to present, here?

Fuck me, I’m nervous.

My heart was pounding with anticipation. One false move, one wrong step, and this would be over before we could ever start.

We walked as a pair. I let him lead, let him take point.

Did I trust him? It didn’t really matter. He just needed to get the job done.

The weights behind us dragged.

I was wary of the eyes. The people watching, noticing. Even if they were mere glances, even if I didn’t register in anyone’s attention, I was still here, being seen. I wasn’t used to this. I preferred staying in the dark, keeping to the shadows.

The chandelier shined bright above. Exposing me, attacking me as if it was my natural enemy.

He stumbled. I stuck my hand out for support. And to lessen the chance of him falling, but it resulted in getting even more eyes on us, the stares lingering even longer.

All I wanted was to get in, and get out. It was all I had to do. For now. The hard part would come a little later.

For now, I just had to get through this. And this was not where my strengths were applicable.  He was the face, and I was the muscle. I had no use here.

Hair neat, chin up, back straight, feet together…

Fuck me.

We approached, and he stopped. I took my hand off of him. He was fine, now.

The lady smiled. Her hair was tied back, tight, not a single strand of hair was loose or out of place. Her cheeks were a rosy red, her lips cherry. Her makeup was better than mine. It looked professionally done.

And her eyes.

There was a thin, ashy black line that ran around her eyes, accentuating her lashes and giving her a fuller look. Pretty seemed like an understatement, and beautiful seemed overdramatic. Somewhere in between.

Appealing, then.

She asked us a question. He answered.

“May I have a name?”

“Lawrence Vazquez.”

She looked at me. I froze.

“And name?”

I felt my cheeks warm up by a significant degree. Rosier than hers.

Fuck me.

I answered.

“Wendy Vazquez.”

-had better knock him the fuck out.

Again, I found myself agreeing with him. We couldn’t drag this thing with Granon out any more than was appropriate or allowed. Doing so would paint the wrong image. That we couldn’t handle situations as they came up, however minor or pressing. Intruders, deals, relations with residents in territories. Word spreads, and anything negative or damaging could ruin our reputation. And our reputation was still developing. It had to be nurtured, helped along the way. If we fucked it up now, it could disrupt everything.

Seeds and roots. It all went back to that concept.

“I’m with you on that,” I said. “Any potential ideas?”

Not at the moment. That’s not my department.

I frowned, even though I was on a call.

“Not mine, either.”

But we both knew whose department it was, though. And they weren’t here, and they weren’t responding to our attempts to reach them.

The silence was disconcerting.

“I could try,” I said. “Worked out okay for me, just now.”

Tone turned his head, slow, giving me a prolonged stare. He still had a hand on Sarah, keeping her steady.

His look wasn’t one of contempt or distaste. It was a response, his way of bringing attention to what I had just done, or said. He seemed to have a way of getting a lot across with not a single word spoken.

“It… worked out,” I said, amending my previous statement, staring back at Tone.

Repeat that? I can barely hear you.

The rumbling to the back of us was getting louder. I had to speak up.

“I said we could try to come up with something, ourselves.”

Lawrence responded, but the rumbling overtook the first part of his sentence. I tilted back, getting ready to check behind us, after I concluded my call.

-so helpless without her, but we could use her input, too. Which requires her being here. Dammit. Still nothing?

“I’ve been talking with you this whole time. Nothing’s changed. I can try and give her another call after I hang up.”

Okay then, do that. I’m, ah fuck, still hurting here. Head back to the theater and we can sort things out.

“Will do,” I said. “Bye.”

I hung up.

I opened my mouth to give out another order, but the rumbling behind us swelled, and I could hear it move around us, to the side.

A vehicle, then. An engine?

I turned.

I could see him on the other side of the window. A man and his motorcycle. If I could even call him a man, and that thing a motorcycle.

The biker and his bike matched in color. A dark, smoky grey. It would have been black if the sun wasn’t out, beaming, letting the subtle shade show.

The color was all the same, but it was the form that twisted and snarled.

The bike itself had mechanical parts that twined together, running together, parts meeting and flowing into one another like sinew on muscle. Exhaust flowed out of the tailpipe, billowing out, to the point that no one could drive behind the bike without losing the ability to see. I checked the lane behind him, and it had thinned out. No one was following him.

Not a machine, it looked like a beast.

It wasn’t any normal bike.

The biker, too, had an aura about him that bordered on the fantastical.

Covered completely. Helmet, gloves, shoes. All matching in color and design. The rider was as sleek as the beast was not. Where the bike thrummed with power, rumbling, the biker was still, showing no sign that riding the thing was easy. Showing no sign at all. The face was obscured, only a black plate staring back at me.

With every inch of his body covered, it stripped away his identity, the person underneath. What remained was a new image, portrayed for the world to see. The rider and the beast.

No ordinary biker, and no ordinary bike.

I had a feeling I knew what was being portrayed. Or who it represented.

It was a uniform.

“Um.”

Reggie spoke, breaking the relative silence. The rumbling had only gotten louder now that the biker was riding in tandem with us.

“Should we do something?”

A good question. Were we supposed to engage, respond?

“He’s not doing anything,” Tone said, changing his gaze from eye to the biker. To the ferryman. “He’s just… looking at us.”

The ferryman stared, only taking the occasional glance ahead to keep himself steady. His helmet blocked our view of his face.

It felt odd, not being able to see what was usually so common. Another person’s face. We couldn’t figure him out, couldn’t parse why he would be here. Did other people feel that way towards Blank Face, V?

I didn’t appreciate having that feeling be directed back at me.

“Voss?” Reggie asked.

“Yes?”

“How’d you want to take this?”

Various things to consider. Was he here to sabotage us? Was he hostile? The longer we drove, the less likely that seemed. We were going down the highway, surrounded by other cars, many of them being the ones that were backed up by the blockade earlier. Getting into a conflict now would lead to an even bigger pile up.

We continued to drive, and so did the ferryman. If he had something planned, he would have done it by now.

But he didn’t.

Then, why was he here?

“Keep driving,” I said, careful. “I don’t think he has ill intentions.”

“Are you certain about that?” Tone asked.

No, but what else can we do?

“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah.”

Reggie kept the van at a steady speed, steering slightly as the highway curved. The ferryman kept up with us as we went along.

I was more curious than worried, now. Well, I still harbored a little concern. Having Styx’s Gang make a sudden appearance at this juncture could only lead to more complications. And we were trying to make things with Granon simple, and quick.

The ferryman raised his arm. I tensed, putting my phone away, watching him with a cautious eye.

Not to his side. He wasn’t reaching for anything.

Helmet gazing back, a hand off of the coiling metal handlebar. The beast crawled forward at a brisk speed.

He gestured.

“What’s he doing?”

It was Sarah that asked. She hadn’t turned to look, or perhaps she couldn’t, the impact of a van crashing into two cars was finally starting to get to her.

I really felt for Sarah. I wished I had come up with another plan, one that didn’t put her in danger.

I kept my eyes on the ferryman.

“Is he flipping us off?” Tone asked, angered.

I looked again.

It wasn’t that, the gesture was wrong. Unless he meant to flip himself off.

He lifted the other finger.

“Peace,” I said. But I had my own interpretation.

Victory.

That prompted a few ideas to formulate in my mind.

“Find a place to park,” I said, still watching him. “Somewhere out of the way.”

“I’m not so sure about that,” Tone said.

“He’s not here to pick a fight. Otherwise, he’d have tried something by now, and I’d personally see to it that he fails.”

“So, what?” Reggie asked.

“There’s something he wants, whether it’s from us or for us. Let’s find out what that is. Take the next exit.”

Reggie gave me a nod, and signaled that he was about to make a turn. The ferryman acknowledged us by slowing down, maneuvering around until he was back to tailing us again. Smoke trailed us as we made it off the highway.

In taking the time to decide what our course of action should be, we had gone a considerable distance. We were well beyond the scope of our territory, entering into another part of town I had never visited before. Another neighborhood, but there were more shopping centers and restaurants around.

I let Reggie pick where we’d stop. I wasn’t familiar with the area, and I figured that I needed to learn how to delegate. It was an important skill in being a leader, one I couldn’t lack. I’d get in the practice when and where it was possible.

We moved, and the ferryman followed.

The back of a strip mall, between two trailers that were unloading inventory. No one was around.

Reggie stopped the car, and I heard the rumbling finally stop, as well. The ferryman was here, too.

I got the door for myself. I glanced back, and saw that Tone was still tending to Sarah, going the extra mile to make sure she was okay.

They could stay, I wasn’t going to push them any further.

I got out of the van. Another set of footsteps joined me.

Reggie. I wasn’t shocked to see him here, but I did appreciate it. Every little bit would help.

So many problems, happening and presenting themselves one after the other. Granon, those girls, the blockade, and this, with the ferryman. Not to mention that D had simply disappeared on us, leaving us with nothing but silence.

A lot on our plate. A lot of work, running a gang.

We walked, and so did the ferryman. We met at a middle point.

I was the first to speak.

“Here we are. What do you want from us?”

The ferryman looked between the both of us. Or, to be more precise, his helmet faced me, then Reggie, then back to me. He hadn’t taken the damn thing off.

Not a word came from him. As if the contrast the rumbling of the beast he rode in on, he was exercising complete silence.

You’re making this harder for me.

I tried another question.

“What does Styx want from us?”

That elicited a response, if I could even call it that.

A tilt of his head, directed at me. His hand went to a pocket on the side of his leather jacket.

I waited, cautious.

It wasn’t a gun, or a knife. An envelope.

It could still have something dangerous inside.

He brought the envelope forward. To me.

There was a delay before I realized I was supposed to take it.

I took it.

I looked it over, flipping it around. Looking over my shoulder, Reggie was observing the envelope, too.

No markings. It was just paper, plain and white. I shook it, and felt weight redistribute inside. Something solid, thin.

I looked back up to the ferryman.

“I suppose you won’t tell me what this is?”

The lack of an answer was expected.

I had learned more about Styx, his gang, and his ferrymen as I sunk deeper into the gang side of things, deeper into the underworld. A neutral party in most respects, only in that they worked with every gang. Moving drugs, delivering supplies and messages, making sure everyone was playing by the rules. If our gang managed to grow, it would lead to us working with Styx’s Gang. It was a part of the process. It was how things worked.

But, we were still new, not established. Styx’s Gang had no business working with us yet. Which, with this ferryman being here, naturally begged a lot of questions.

And he doesn’t seem interested in answering any of them.

But I tried, regardless.

“Am I supposed to open this now?”

No answer. Of course.

Putting my other hand on the envelope, I pinched my fingers together. I breathed in, then out, slow.

“Take a step back,” I told Reggie. “Just to be safe.”

Reggie didn’t protest or question me. He took a step back.

No hesitation. I couldn’t show a sign of weakness.

I tore open the envelope.

Stuff fell out, I caught them out of the air, the shredded pieces of paper were lost in the process. They flew away, drafted by the wind, and I didn’t see the need to chase after them.

I got what I needed, however.

Four cards, split into sets of two. I flipped through each of them.

I saw Lawrence’s face. I saw mine. I did a double take.

Fake IDs.

Weird.

I already had one. Though, it was as real to me as the sky being blue. Look it up, and the information on that card would appear. It was as legitimate as it needed to be. For my part, I believed the information on there to be true. I was not lying to myself, there.

This card, the one in my hand, was a fake. Only slight-

A couple of details hit me all at once.

The photo itself. Identical to the one used on my actual ID. The exact same. How did Styx even get access to that photo in the first place?

The last name. Wasn’t my last name.

Vazquez.

I flipped to the card for Lawrence. I’d never seen his real card before, so I could only guess if his picture was the same. Probably was.

I read the name.

Lawrence Vazquez. Wasn’t his last name.

The fuck is this?

I turned my attention back to the ferryman.

“The fuck is this?” I asked.

I actually got something this time.

It was another gesture, though. The ferryman raised his hand to point.

The other set of cards.

I rearranged the cards to get a better look at them.

White. Black stripes at the bottom of one side. An arrow. The logo and name and number on the other side helped in piecing things together.

They were keys for a hotel room. Keys for the Lunar Tower.

My attention went back to the the ferryman, a curious expression on my face. Not confusion, but curiosity, I had an idea of where this was going.

“Why?” I asked, already knowing it would be useless. “Why are you giving this to me? Why is Styx helping us?”

Or, is he setting us up?

Nothing. He was starting to piss me off.

Could I beat the information out of him? Until he answered in squeals? It was possible, and I wouldn’t be above doing that, if it was absolutely necessary.

Possible, but not viable. If this gang were to continue and grow, we had to establish a decent working relation with Styx and his gang, and bringing harm to one of his own was a great way to have that not happen.

I couldn’t touch the ferryman, and he knew it. He could push me as far as he wanted, with no repercussions, not unless I wanted to ruin my own gang.

I didn’t want that. We had a good thing going.

A metallic clang, a distance away. We all turned in the direction of the noise.

A man, standing by one of the long trailers. Dressed like a trucker. He had a panicked look on his face.

A civilian, who had walked in on something he had no reason being around. Unsure if he should run, or if he even could.

With a hard jerk of his body, he decided to run. He disappeared behind the long trailer.

A small distraction. We returned to the business at hand.

“Thanks,” I said, putting the cards away. “We’ve got it from here. Tell Styx he doesn’t have to worry about us. We’ll prove our worth.”

The ferryman bowed his head. The most movement I’d ever seen from him.

He brought himself back up, and turned to go. I took that as my sign to leave, too. Had to wrap things up early after getting interrupted. That trucker might come back with other, even more unwanted guests.

Reggie and I returned to the van, the ideas starting to solidify.

I didn’t like the conclusions I was coming to.

“Shit,” I said, “Shit.”

“What did he want?” Tone asked. He was sitting back in his seat, now, next to me. Sarah was leaned back as well, the seat reclined. Her eyes were closed.

She was breathing, I could tell that much, and she didn’t appear to be in pain. I chalked it up to her just resting.

Reggie started up the van again as I talked.

“I think… This isn’t just between us and the People’s Hammer. Not anymore.”

“Elaborate, Voss.”

“Styx’s Gang literally gave us the keys to go straight to Granon. Considering how well connected they are, there’s a chance that there might be other eyes on us, now, other parties interested in how this unfolds.”

“You really think so?” Reggie asked.

I stuffed the cards into a pocket of my hoodie, switching them out for my phone.

“It’s one possibility. I’ll admit that it’s just a guess. What this does mean is that we’re in a fight that we can not lose.”

“As if we were going to lose at all,” Tone said. “This doesn’t change anything.”

“You’re right,” I said, nodding.

But this does make it complicated.

I dialed my phone, bringing it to my ear.

No answer from D.

Figures.

I had a sneaking suspicion, that D had something to do with this. And I was only able to consider that connection, because this wasn’t the first time a similar set of circumstances occurred.

That night, it felt so long ago. The night we burned down East Stephenville to find Benny. Another ferryman had made an appearance while I was making my way back to the restaurant, square one. That ferryman had made the same symbol too. Victory.

I would have questioned it more if things weren’t so hectic, if we weren’t in a rush to get Benny back. Now, it was starting to be a more pertinent issue. Not as pressing as Granon, but with these cards in my possession, I couldn’t just let it go, anymore.

Dial tone. She still wasn’t picking up.

D goes missing, and a few hours later we get a visit from Styx’s Gang, giving us access to where Granon is staying. And only one person could possibly get a hold of my ID. Hell, she was the person who made my new one.

I was starting understand Lawrence’s paranoia towards D.

I put my phone down, flipping through the address book to find Lawrence. I’d have to call him about this.

My finger was over his name, ready to call.

I put my phone away.

I’d give him an hour. Spare him the immediate stress.

It would help me, too. Instructions weren’t included in that envelope. Styx gave us the cards, but wasn’t going to tell us how to play them. That was for us to figure out.

An hour. I’d take an hour to think and plan on my own. Then I’d let Lawrence in the know.

And then I’ll find D and strangle her for not letting us in the know.

The door swung wide. I let Lawrence go first.

“Dammit, it’s gorgeous,” Lawrence said.

“I hate that I keep agreeing with you,” I said.

The room did look amazing. Better to call it a suite, in all honesty. Or maybe something even sweeter than that.

Not curtains, but drapes. Not just lamps, but candelabras, and another goddamn chandelier. The suite could be defined by having everything a normal room would have, but better. Fancier. Gaudier.

A blue and gold color palette gave the room a lax but extravagant feel. Unwinding in style. The couches and chairs had cushions that looked more fluffy than pillows, patterns of flowers on the walls and furniture gave everything a softer, natural touch. Silver grooves and engravings, to give just an extra dash of extravagance.

Otherworldly, almost. Surreal, in just how out of place I felt. This felt like a room for royalty. On the board, I was the queen, but being here stretched that definition.

Speaking of…

“They even have a chessboard here,” I said, pointing it out on the long, rounded table, with leather legs and raised gold dots at the edges. “And it’s made of glass.”

“So what?” Lawrence asked, walking more into the room, bringing his luggage with him. “We don’t have time for games.”

I shot a look at him, but his back was to me. I grabbed my bag and entered the suite.

“I know that, I was just thinking along those lines and I just saw it and I wanted to… You know what? Never mind.”

The board isn’t even set up properly.

I passed Lawrence, who had elected to fall into one of the couches, groaning as he went down. Every bit of movement must have ached, for him.

For me, I was just happy to be out of the lobby, and out of sight. I couldn’t get that lady’s face out of my head. How she watched as I tried to act like I belonged. If this institution really had a reputation of being a neutral ground for gangs, then she probably saw right through me.

Fuck me, this is why I wear a mask.

I headed to the double doors in the back of the suite. Wooden, but with gold wrapping around the edges of the frame like vines.

Had to be here.

I pushed the doors open. I blinked, an eyebrow raised. I blinked again.

“Ah hell.”

“What?” Lawrence asked, from behind.

For a second, I was lost on what to specify.

Keep it simple.

Fine.

“There’s only one bed,” I said.

What!”

I heard a rush of pillows and bags and chairs being knocked over.

Lawrence rushed past me, into the bedroom.

He groaned, probably both from the pain he was still recovering from, and the most recent discovery of this strange, strange situation we had found ourselves in.

“Ah, hell.”

The bedroom was its own section of the suite, but it was no less impressive.

It matched with the rest of the suite with its aesthetics, blue and gold, fancy light and decorations. And the bed itself was the crown jewel.

Framed by drapes, with a renaissance-style painting right above the head of the bed, mounted on the wall. The plant and flower motif continued in here, too, painted vines twisting along the wall and the side of the bed, smooth lines flowing around in an almost random fashion, like how I’d imagine actual plants to grow when left on their own. No one pattern or design was repeated, but nothing clashed or hurt the eyes. It was all so… relaxing.

Relaxing, yet somehow a slap in the face.

Something was waiting for us on the bed.

An oversized teddy bear, placed between the pillows. It was holding a box, shaped into a heart, probably filled with chocolates.

That confirmed my suspicions.

Still a slap in the face, though.

Only one bed, and there was only one night on the reservation. We had until we checked out at noon tomorrow to finish this.

Those were the rules of this game.

It did make things easier, in a sense. Having a deadline snap at the heels had a tendency to make a person run faster.

But, still…

“This is a joke right?” Lawrence asked, summarizing my own thoughts. “This has to be a joke.”

“It most definitely is,” I said, leaning one shoulder against the doorframe. “In a strange way, we can probably take comfort in that. The fake IDs, giving us the same fake surname, the fact that it starts with a ‘V,’ the single bed, even the chessboard and… the fucking teddy bear. This has her style written all over it.”

“Her…” Lawrence said, seething, the word sliding between gritted teeth.

“D,” I said, finishing his thought for him.

I saw Lawrence twitch, his head jerking around, as if looking for a fly that buzzing around him, or avoiding the gaze of the stuffed animal.

“You think she’s here?” he asked, gaze still darting, “Listening in on us?”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” I said, though I couldn’t help but wonder, despite myself. “Just think of this as another one of her pranks.”

“Pranks, right.” He trudged over to the bed, putting a hand on it for balance. “As if I needed to be pranked by her again. I thought that shit was behind me, now.”

With a sudden motion, he pushed the teddy bear out of the way and over the other side. He fell onto the bed, staring up at the ceiling. Another chandelier.

“Shows just how much I know,” he said, breathing out, barely audible. “I can hear her laughing, somewhere. It’s echoing. Constant. Ha, ha. Ha.”

I rolled my eyes.

“Don’t get so worked up over it,” I said. “Wherever she is, she’s just trying to help. It just so happens that she has a very particular idea of what ‘help’ means.”

Lawrence mumbled.

“Did it have to be like this, though?”

I took my shoulder off the frame, moving to get my bag out of the way of the door. “Like I said, stressing out over it isn’t going to benefit you any. You’ll never be able to get any rest, doing that. Just… you can take the bed.”

Lawrence sat right up, but he couldn’t stifle an aching groan.

“Huh?”

“I’m not about to share it with you. I can take the couch or floor or whatever, if we even get time to sleep.”

I was moving as I talked, setting my bag next to the couch. I didn’t bring a lot with me, I didn’t even have a lot to bring. An extra set of clothes, the necessities like a toothbrush and comb, my glasses case, and my costume… In case it would ever come to that. A small part of me hoped it wouldn’t have to come to that.

Though, would bringing it mean that I was expecting to wear it?

I nudged the bag, letting it roll an inch or two away.

I told myself that I would bring it as a precaution, but using it would probably make things worse. Not just for us and the People’s Hammer, but for everyone. And nothing good could be salvaged from that.

Maybe I brought it for security? That I had something to fall back to if this goes south?

I knew I was out of my element, here. I couldn’t resort to my old tricks, I couldn’t fall on old habits. Had to draw upon other stuff. Stuff I normally lacked.

I couldn’t doubt myself.

I opened my bag.

“I think I’ll head out,” I said, digging through my luggage. “Take a look around. Get a better sense of the building, and see where else it earns its five stars.”

Lawrence replied, shouting from the bedroom. He still sounded far away.

“Are you sure?”

No, but what choice do I have?

“Yes,” I said. “Though, actually, I would have you come with me, but the last thing I want is for you to bump into Granon. We know he’s staying somewhere here, but we don’t know where, exactly. They didn’t exactly make this easy on us.”

“They led us right to him, but bringing us here, where so many representatives of other gangs stay and rub shoulders… If we get into a fight, that’s not going to present the right image to everyone else.”

I nodded, saying, “It’s pretty much forcing us to try and cut a deal with Granon. Not a lot of elbow room to start swinging.”

“But Granon already tried to cut a deal with us, and we said no. How is it going to look if we go back on that?”

“Not good, but remember, the same thing applies to him. If he wants a spot in this city, he can’t make a mess of this place.”

There was a moment’s pause. The only thing I heard from Lawrence’s end of the room were bedsheets being tossed around.

“Do you want to cut a deal with Granon?” Lawrence asked, settling back in.

I was going to do my thinking aloud. “I don’t. Not if it means him being in our territory. The blockade alone was enough to show that he doesn’t care about the place or the people. The only thing he cares about is the growth of his own gang, and that means having a hold in this city, one way or another. He couldn’t get it through Mister, his proposal was rejected by his secretary, and I’m thinking there might be a reason why.”

“Like how we’re controlling what products are being sold in our territory? Tailoring our clientele?

“Something like that. Considering how little we interacted with Granon, and how volatile he proved to be in that short amount of time, if we didn’t want him, then the higher ups that run this city probably don’t want him, too.”

“We’re thinking like the big guys,” Lawrence commented. “I’m not sure if I should be happy about that or not.”

I found my knife, and stuffed it in a pocket on my side. I had enough room.

“It means,” I said, getting up, “That we have what it takes to be one of the higher ups, one day. The big guys. With Granon, the People’s Hammer does not. And that’s why we’ll be the ones to stop them from swinging. Remove any nails they might have.”

“Um, is that you being literal or what?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Okay,” Lawrence said, and I could hear him trying to get up from the bed, and then succeed after another try. “Hold on.”

I was standing back up, too, stretching my back, feeling and hearing it pop. Lawrence was walking out of the bedroom, meeting me by the couch.

“What is it now?” I asked. I was itching to get out and do something, even if it meant going through the lobby again, being out of my element.

Lawrence jammed his hands into his pockets, looking at me, but not making eye contact.

“I’m sure I’ve made it clear by now, but in case you haven’t caught on… I don’t like this, any of this. I don’t like how Granon is trying to muscle in, I don’t like how D is missing, I don’t like how convenient it is that a fucking ferryman gives you the keys to the Lunar, and I especially don’t like how I’m included in this shit. I don’t know what me being here even accomplishes. I mean, no one’s watching the territory. Fuck, I’m useless, here.”

If I was doing an okay job at hiding my anxiety about everything, then Lawrence was on the opposite end of the spectrum. He knew what him being here would – and did – accomplish, and he knew he wasn’t useless. He still felt the need to say that, regardless.

And I had to settle him down. It would better settle me down, too.

“Did you see the lady at the front desk? She would have snuffed me out in an instant if I tried to come in by myself, even if I had a reservation. I just don’t fit in with this kind of scene, or at least, I’m not used to it yet. Not used to having a lot of money or interacting with those who do. Nouveau riche, I guess you can say.”

I pointed a finger, setting it on Lawrence’s chest.

“You, from what I’ve seen with Granon and the lady, can act the part of a poised gangster. I’m… not quite there. You’re the face of the organization, I’m just the muscle. We each have a part to play. You had yours, and now it’s my turn.”

I flicked my finger. A gentle movement, from my perspective, but it was enough to knock him on his ass. He landed on the couch.

“So take a damn break. I can tell you’re still hurting from Granon’s beatdown, yesterday. I’ve got it from here. And about the territory, I trust that Reggie and Tone can keep things together for a night. And… As for D, and how Styx fits in this, let’s just take the convenience as it is, and we can move on to that after we’re through with the People’s Hammer.”

Lawrence adjusted his posture on the couch, getting himself in a better position.

“I guess a full twenty-four hours is too much to ask.”

I smiled. Slight, sympathetic.

“It is.”

Turning, I moved to leave the suite.

Lawrence called out. “You have your knife? Keys? Phone?”

“I do,” I answered. All three were in the pockets of my jacket. A dark blazer, a white buttoned shirt under that, and a dark skirt and dress shoes. They were the only pieces in my closet that wouldn’t put me out of place with the other guests and staff of this hotel. Coupled with the makeup, I never felt so awkward.

I could imagine Alexis wearing this outfit like a second skin. Me? Not so much. It was another costume.

“You have your wallet?”

I stopped at the door.

“I… do, why?”

“Get me something to eat. I want to taste that fifth star, if you know what I mean.”

“I’ll see what they have,” I said.

“And get yourself something while you’re at it. I’ve been meaning to bring it up for a while, now, but I haven’t seen you take a bite of anything, ever.”

Calling me out directly, was he?

“I can’t eat,” I said, turning the knob. “A drawback of my powers.”

“You can’t eat? Then what-”

“Good night, Lawrence,” I said, firm, opening the door. “Stay inside and rest. Call me if you need anything, or I’ll call you.”

I shut the door before Lawrence could reply.

Finally, I thought.

I was standing out in the hall. A warm glow from the lights above, a soft carpet with a constellation and moon imagery, and so many doors I almost felt dizzy. I had the key to the room, so I couldn’t get lost. Floor forty, fourth room. I’d never been in a building with so many floors, before.

And in one of these many floors, was Granon, and so many other gangs. Like looking for a needle in a needlestack. I couldn’t get myself, and by proxy, my gang, be riddled with holes as I search for him.

No big deal.

And, I couldn’t punch him when I see him.

Great.

Hands in my pocket, I started walking, heading to the elevators.

A lot of work, running a gang. And with how hard it was getting, I hoped that meant we were finally moving up in the world.

Previous                                                                                               Next

067 – Girl, You Gotta Carry That Weight

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I walked into the Redhouse, a faint echo following every step I took.

No one was home. We still laid claim to the place, but we were able to move a lot of our inventory out to the new territory, our neighborhood. There was still some stuff in storage, either stuff that was too big to move, or not important enough that it needed to be close at hand. Extra funds, spare guns, and drugs we weren’t looking to deal. Once we were more settled, the plan would be for people to take shifts, essentially squatting at the location so it could remain within our jurisdiction. More territory meant more power, and we needed all the terrority we could get. But, for now,  we needed everyone at the neighborhood, to help bolster our numbers and cement our presence there. Chances were good that we’d drop the place entirely, if we expanded even further, and found someplace better.

No, not if. When.

I needed to think along those lines, that we would succeed. If there was even a hint of uncertainty, then that could plant seeds in the mind. Seeds of doubt. And any setback or obstacle or difficulty faced, however minor, would only allow for those seeds to grow, the roots digging, until a final, decisive moment came, and I would be unable to act upon it, those roots already having me tied down.

I couldn’t afford that. I couldn’t afford failure.

And I wasn’t going to ever think that I could.

I walked into the Redhouse, the echoing growing louder.

Maybe this wasn’t the best place to…

To do what?

I looked around, even though I knew it was empty. Why had I come here, exactly? If I needed some time to think, I could have done it on the way to reconvening with D and Lawrence, and I needed to go somewhere secluded, having Sarah take me there would be defeating the purpose. I was wasting time and energy, going out of my way to come here.

And yet, here I was.

I wandered, each step less certain than the last. I scratched my head, played with my hair, fixed my glasses, straightened my hoodie, zipped it down, only to zip it back up again. I was wandering.

Going in circles.

My head was spinning, feeling dizzy for reasons I couldn’t explain or properly dissect. It all mixed together into a soupy mess, I couldn’t tell where one feeling ended and the other began. And trying to isolate any one thing brought a mess of other stuff with it. A mixture.

Fuck. I wanted to punch something.

“Did you find it?”

I turned to the door, startled.

Ah.

Sarah. She had followed me inside, the door closing as she came in.

It was the most complete view I had of her. From head to toe.

Her hair was a light brown, an even lighter shade as she stepped into the light, the sun coming from above. Her skin was tanned, from having spent so much time outdoors and it simply being her natural complexion. To contrast, she had on a white sweater that hugged her body snug, leaving only one shoulder exposed. Her jeans were black, slim, but loose by her ankles, with boots to match.

If it weren’t for the gun that was strapped behind her, Sarah looked like she could be a model.

There was a maturity to her looks that I could never hope to ever match or develop. Which only made the displacement of power between us all the more noticeable. She was a few years my senior, yet she answered to me. I told her to take me here. I gave her an order, and she listened. I was the leader, and she was my subordinate.

That’s how it’s supposed to be.

“Find?” I asked.

Sarah looked confused.

“Did you find what you were looking for?”

I remembered, now. I already forgot?

“Uh, no, I just got in.”

Sarah nodded, accepting that answer. She glanced around as she crossed the lobby, approaching me.

I had given a flimsy excuse when I told her to take me to the Redhouse, and I’d come up with something better by the time we got here. It didn’t happen, apparently, my thoughts were drifting elsewhere the whole trip.

Even now, I still felt…

I wasn’t sure how I felt.

Distracted? Listless?

Fuck.

I set my hoodie straight again, even though it was already fine. I was very aware of how the cloth of the jacket brushed against my stomach, the cold of the zipper touching me whenever I breathed.

Sarah spoke, breaking the spell of silence.

“At the risk of repeating myself, are you alright, Voss?”

“You are repeating yourself,” I said.

Sarah shrugged. “You didn’t answer me the first time I asked, so I had to follow up.”

My gaze went down to her boots.

“Give me a second to look around,” I said.

I moved, walking across the lobby, to the counter. I put my elbows on the surface, and leaned over, as if I was actually searching for something.

“You’re upset,” Sarah said.

A very pointed statement, that.

I didn’t turn to face her when I responded.

“I don’t think upset is the right word to use, here.”

“What is the right word, then?”

That was where I was stumped.

I set my lips into a line, staring at nothing in particular.

Fuck, I thought, for the third time in less than the same amount of minutes. I was starting to regret coming here, I wasn’t getting anything out of this. I didn’t even know what I had come here to get. Why, and for what reason? As though I was operating on some instinct that hadn’t been called on in so long, that it had forgotten how to function, and how to express and release that building… tension? Pressure? Whatever it was, exactly, it was spreading, growing, putting a strain on other stuff as it pressed against it, adding stress.

A broken connection, being forced to carry an impulse. A burden it might not be able to handle.

If I wasn’t careful, something could break.

I felt like I was about to have a migraine.

I breathed, remembering that I had to.

What is happening?

“It’s those girls, isn’t it?”

Sarah questioned, my back still to her.

Another pointed statement. Sarah seemed to have a talent for hitting right where it stung.

But, did it sting?

A minor wound, one that-

No, no. Thinking, picking apart my thoughts, alone. Going in circles. Wasn’t getting me anywhere.

I let my eyes close, and I opened my mouth.

“Not them, not entirely. I, it’s, more complicated than that.”

“You want to talk about it?”

I screwed my eyes tighter.

“That’s what I was trying to do.”

“Sorry, Voss, I didn’t mean to push you. Please, take your time.”

I took my time, trying to think of a decent place to start.

“Wendy,” I said.

“Yes?”

“It’s Wendy. Don’t call me Voss, not right now.”

There was a pause.

“Oh. Okay.”

“Yeah.”

That was a start.

“It’s not those girls, but they… I think I’ve realized something, about myself.”

A bit of time passed. I was expecting a response from Sarah, but I didn’t get one. Was she still wanting to give me space? Time?

It forced me to continue.

“I’m lacking, as a leader,” I said, matter-of-factly. “And I’m afraid that might reflect in other places, too.”

It felt as if I wasn’t even talking to her anymore. I was just talking aloud, and she happened to overhear.

Sarah responding diminished that feeling, though.

“I don’t understand.”

I wouldn’t expect you to.

“It happened with EZ and Krown,” I said.

“EZ and Krown? The Thunders and Royals?”

I nodded, but I still wasn’t facing her. “Before all this started, us moving into the neighborhood, D and I had gone ahead to check things out. We did some minor surveillance of the leaders of both gangs, on their turf, to get a sense of who they were and how they operated.”

“And something happened?”

I nodded again. “But, they knew we were outsiders, and they got the upper hand on us. On me. They lead me on, toyed with me, and made me look like a fucking idiot. I fell right into their tricks, and I had no idea I was being played.”

“And that made you upset,” Sarah said.

“More than upset. I was livid. I took that anger, that frustration, and focused it back at them. And look where they are, now.”

“Sounds like you did a pretty good job at turning things around.”

“But, that’s not my concern.”

Another few seconds of silence.

“What is your concern, then?” Sarah asked. She probably recognized that she was stepping on the time she had let me use to think. Probably not out of any disrespect, but to help guide me along to my point.

That was what I wanted to think, at least.

“My concern is… That, by myself, I’m not good enough, or well-rounded enough, to lead a gang. Twice, now, I’ve encountered a situation I wasn’t prepared for, or I wasn’t expecting, and I couldn’t… handle it.”

“You’re counting what went down with those girls as one of those situations?”

“I am. And what makes it worse is that they’re not even targets. I have no reason to seek them out again and make them pay. Nothing would come from it, nothing tangible.”

“I won’t ever say you’re wrong in feeling what you’re feeling, but you’re not alone. You’re not even alone as a leader. You have D, you have Lawrence. You have… the rest of us.”

I shook my head.

“I can’t keep relying on others. That time with EZ and Krown, I had D. This time with those girls, I had you, of all people. Strike one and strike two. What happens the third time around, when I’m at a critical juncture, and I fail? And there’s no one to help? Everything falls on me, and I won’t have the strength to keep it all up.”

“When you talk like that, you’re already assuming that you will fail. So stop that. And second, no one is asking you to carry that kind of burden, especially all by yourself. No one, even with super strength, can handle that. You can’t expect yourself to be bigger than life, all the time. No one is, and everyone has their shortcomings. That’s why people reach out, and rely on others in the first place.”

I slapped my hands on the counter, and turned.

I was facing Sarah, now, standing straight, feet planted firm.

Say it, become it.

“I know what I am,” I said. “I am bigger than life. I am a monster. I’ve done monstrous and ugly things, and I’ll continue to do monstrous and ugly things to get what I want. I have a power that no one else has, and I need to recognize that it puts me above, well, people.”

An arrogant thing to say, but, on a fundamental level, it was true.

But, I thought.

I spoke. “I am capable of so much more, and if I can’t reach those heights I know I can reach, then what am I good for? I can’t keep relying on others. Someone, a while back, had likened me to a gun, that others can use to point and fire. They direct me to where I need to strike, and they shoot. I can do that, I can be good at that. But that can’t be everything. There’s three of us, but we can’t stick with just our individual strengths and abilities. I know where I’m lacking, and that’s something they can’t help me with. It has to be me. I have to better than… this.”

Another silence. It lingered.

I brought my hand up, brushing my fingers through my hair. I adjusted my glasses.

“Am I even making any sense?” I asked.

I saw Sarah smile. Small, sympathetic.

“Not really, but that doesn’t mean what you’re feeling isn’t real. If that’s what you feel like you need to do, then do you, girl. Nobody can stop you. I’d love to see you grow and become a real leader. And, if it means anything coming from me, I think you’re doing a pretty good job right now.”

A warmth hit me. Not exactly like the one before, from my encounters with those girls. It wasn’t uncomfortable, awkward, or otherwise distressing. It was reassurance.

Which, in and of itself, sort of made it awkward.

“I… appreciate the sentiment,” I said, looking away. “You sound like you’ve done this kind of thing before.”

“I originally had gone to university to be a therapist. But, as I’m sure you know, life has a way of making things not go the way you want. And this ended up paying more, faster.”

She shrugged, spreading her arms.

“No big,” she said, smiling lightly.

I walked back across the lobby, heading to Sarah. My footsteps seemed to echo less than before.

“I’m sorry for taking up your time,” I said. “I didn’t actually have any real business here.”

“Don’t be sorry,” Sarah said, giving me a wink. Even that had a different effect from the wink I had received earlier. “I hope you found something worthwhile, anyways.”

“Maybe,” I said.

Sarah spread her arms again, wide.

“Do you want a hug?” she asked.

I considered taking a step back.

“I’m fine,” I said.

Sarah lifted her arms an inch higher.

“You sure?”

I considered.

But, I thought again.

“I’m fine. At the risk of repeating myself, I, um, appreciate the sentiment.”

Sarah replied. “You are repeating yourself, Voss.”

We both smiled.

Sarah dropped her arms to her side, and I took that as a signal to leave. But, before I could take a step, I got a call.

I grabbed my phone out from my pocket.

“Hey,” I said.

Where have you been?

Lawrence. Sounding as strained as ever.

“Sorry. I… took a detour.”

Took a detour? Where are you now?

“I’m at the Redhouse.”

What the fuck are- whatever, never mind. Look, we’ve got a situation.

I looked at Sarah. She must have noticed my expression. It was serious.

Lawrence sounded serious.

“What kind of situation?” I asked.

Granon’s making a move.

I felt my heart pound faster, my pulse quicken.

“Already?”

Yeah. On Boseman and Jordan. All I know right now is that there’s some traffic disturbance, and the People’s Hammer are involved.

That was right in our neighborhood, if not right at the edge of it.

Shit.

“You want me over there?” I asked.

No fucking shit. I’d, ow, shit, I’d come over there myself, but I’m still too fucked up to be of any use. I’m going to need your muscle on this one.

“I can do that.”

Then hurry. Hey-”

I was about to hang up, but I heard more from my phone.

“What?” I asked. “I missed that last

I was asking if you’ve seen D.

If I’d seen D?

“Not since setting up at the theater,” I answered. “Why? I thought she was with you.”

She went out, she didn’t explain why, and she’s not picking up. I thought she went over to where you were.

Lawrence was right, this was a situation. Granon was taking action, in our territory, and D was not accounted for. She was our strategist, and she would have been useful in handling this. She would have planned something, and she would have made a game of it.

But, she wasn’t around, and we couldn’t afford to wait for her. Wherever she was, she had better show up, and soon.

Lawrence, too, was unavailable. Out of commission, still reeling from his one-sided fight with Granon. He could barely move, and I wouldn’t want him to. He had to be benched. He’d need to rest.

It was all up to me, now.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “D’s not here, but I can take care of it.”

Good luck. Bye.

“Bye,” I said. I turned to Sarah.

“What’s up, Voss?”

I blinked, feeling the pressure, like a weight on my chest. It was suffocating.

“This might be strike three,” I said.

I was running headlong into danger, knowing there was a chance that someone could get hurt, or worse, get killed.

So why did it feel like I was running away?

My feet stepped from road, to sidewalk, grass, sidewalk, and road again. I had turned corners, cut through alleys, and over gates. Past bystanders and onlookers.

I finally found a place to stop. Or, perhaps, more accurately, I let something stop me.

On the road, a car. People standing around it. Mine.

“Move!” I yelled.

They moved, out of the way, and right on time.

The side of my body collided with the car.

It absorbed most of the impact, stopping me and keeping me in place. The car skidded a foot to the side due to the hit.

Everyone shouted. Shocked, surprised at my sudden entrance.

“Holy-”

“Shit!”

“You dented my car!”

I pushed myself out and away from the car. A bone broke, but it had already mended by the time I settled everyone down.

“Guys, cool it! It’s just me!”

I had my arms up, hands high, as if physically making myself appear larger helped.

The initial confusion dissipated, and everyone’s focus was back, and on me.

I saw Reggie and Tone among the gathered group. I looked at them as I directed my questions.

“Any updates?”

It was Reggie who answered.

“Nah, it’s been like this for almost an hour, now. They’re still up there, blocking the access road.”

“Shit,” I said, barely hearing myself. Not just from all the running, but everywhere around us, every car was honking.

It was so fucking loud.

“Cops haven’t come in to move them yet?” I asked.

“You want them here? That’s asking for even more trouble. It’s not that bad, not yet.”

And I have to not let it get to that point.

Shit. Time was running out, and so were my options. I had to think, but I barely had any time for that, either.

Cover your bases, what’s going on right this second?

A lot of things.

Traffic stretched, going back several blocks. The People’s Hammer were situated right at the access road that merged into a highway. It was a major road for this part of the city, and in many respects, for a lot of people, it was their only way out of the neighborhood. People had jobs elsewhere, or they were looking to find some respite from the stresses of living here.

And Granon’s men were blocking everyone trying to get through.

To make things worse, the access road only went one way. Anyone who got stuck here was unable to turn back. A chokepoint.

The longer Granon’s men stayed in place, the longer the traffic became. It wouldn’t be long before the growing pressure bubbled, then boiled, only for everything to blow up in our faces. If we…

If I couldn’t deal with this, then we couldn’t continue as a gang at all.

Within me, the pressure started to bubble.

“Where’s Granon?” I asked. “Is he here?”

Tone turned to look, but Reggie answered.

“Haven’t seen him.”

Tone turned back. “Doesn’t rule him out of being here, though.

Reggie nodded.

“Anything else?” I asked. “Any fights that broke out, or any shots fired?”

Reggie shook his head.

“They’re just standing there, holding everything and everyone back. They’re probably strapped, though, with a few more in the trunk.”

“And you’re sure about that?”

Reggie shrugged.

“I just know that’s what I would do.”

I stepped to the side, to look past Reggie and Tone and the others, past the cars and other drivers who got out to get a look for themselves.

They were small dots from where I was standing, but I saw the black cars, and the black suits standing around them. Granon’s men. The People’s Hammer. I didn’t see Granon himself, but, if he was ever out here, I couldn’t miss him.

“At least they’re not actively doing any damage,” I said. “But they are making themselves known, here.”

“And they’re being annoying as fuck,” Tone said.

“Yeah,” I said, “That too.”

I let a few seconds pass as I stared off into the distance, looking at Granon’s men.

“You got any ideas, Voss?”

The question took me out of my thoughts. I looked between Reggie and Tone, trying to figure out who asked that.

“Thinking,” I said.

Tone spoke. “Well, think faster, Voss, this stalemate can’t last forever. Something’s gonna give, and it ain’t gonna be us.”

There were murmurs of assent around us, barely audible over all the car horns.

Not a lot of time to think, and I was being pressed to hurry.

What should I do?

Move in to attack, try to mitigate the damage done? Possible, but potentially messy, especially with all of the civilians around.

Move in to talk, get them to stand down? Less probable, but stranger things have happened. If I could appeal to them, somehow, drive home just how bad things could go if they stuck around? If I tried to be diplomatic?

The more I considered it, the more that idea seemed far fetched. They were here for a reason, and they’d only leave if they had anything worth reporting back to Granon. If they found anything useful, like a weakness in our group, or if they’d somehow managed to secure a win.

Right now, they were testing us, and it was a test we couldn’t fail.

Couldn’t engage, but words might fall on deaf ears.

Something in the middle, then?

“Spread out,” I said. “I’ll need eyes from as many different angles as possible. Let’s find an opening we can approach this from.”

I looked at everyone as they looked at each other.

“Spread out,” I said again, much firmer.

There was another slight delay before people started moving, going in different directions, going by themselves, in pairs, or smaller groups.

They listened, but they had to consider it, first. I didn’t have the command over them like Lawrence did. Not with everyone.

“Want us to come, Voss?” Reggie asked. He was still here, but he looked ready to move at any second.

“No,” I said. “No offense, but you won’t be able to keep up. Besides, I’ve got Sarah.”

Tone gave me a look of confusion.

“Yeah, wait, where is she, anyways?”

“She’s around,” I said, moving a foot forward. “Get going, and keep your phones at hand!”

I broke into a sprint, leaving them behind, heading to the blockade of Granon’s cars and men.

Dammit. I hated that I had to be on my own on this.

I didn’t have the capacity for scheming like D, and I didn’t have authority that Lawrence held, and I couldn’t do my usual thing, to boot. Brute force wasn’t the key, here, and I was forced into a position at playing the parts my colleagues usually handled.

Dammit.

Had to play it by ear, I figured I was pretty decent at doing that. I’d put the pieces on the board, get a layout of where the enemy was, and go from there.

It’s what D would do, but it would be my version of that approach.

Running down the street, between people and over cars, I got closer. I was moving fast. Fast enough to draw attention, but not fast enough to draw suspicion.

A crowd had formed near the blockade itself. Dense, packed with people, and I wouldn’t be able to get through unless I used a conspicuous amount of strength.

I found a nearby car, and climbed on top to get a better look.

Three black cars, six of Granon’s men. At least. There might be more on the other side of the cars’ tinted windows. Better to be paranoid and prepare for the worst, than to assume everything was okay and be blindsided.

Ten would be my conservative guess.

The cars were parked in a line, grill to bumper, blocking the opening into the highway. Granon’s men were also in a line, standing, making it very obvious that they were not to be messed with or approached. They were strapped, armed with rifles.

The guns weren’t aimed or directed at anyone in particular, but they were there. By their side, ready at a moment’s notice. Couldn’t let it get to that point.

Some of them noticed me, but they didn’t recognize me. I was standing out, literally.

I attracted the attention of some others, too.

“Hey! Get off my car, you asshole!”

Someone, from the gathered crowd that surrounded the cars and men, had turned and saw me. He left the crowd, me being where I was had become more pressing than the armed mobsters keeping him and dozens of people in place.

“I said get the hell off my car!”

I gave the man a cursory glance, and then it was back to the blockade.

Tools. I had my bag, my stuff inside. Knife, earpiece… costume.

Couldn’t use that. Bringing V into this would be like throwing gasoline where there was only cinders. A guarantee for disaster.

Had to do this as Wendy. Which was starting to feel like an impossible task. I ran all the way here, and I still hadn’t come up with anything.

I felt the roots dig.

I wish D was here. Lawrence. Sarah. Fuck, I’ll even take Reggie or Tone. Someone to-

“Hey, you!”

I looked down. It was that guy, walking faster to me.

“Are you stupid? Get off-”

It was enough for him to shut up.

I had made a face, twisting my expression. Teeth showing, eyes widening. A scowl, nearing a snarl. I stared hard, focusing my gaze into a single point on his neck. I wasn’t even looking at him as a person. Or perhaps, I was looking at him as a person, but something had changed from my end. My perspective.

The man stopped in his tracks.

“Fucking wait,” I told him, expression unchanging.

He waited. Standing there, staring back, mouth slightly agape. Perplexed, stunned. Unsure of what to do, or what he could do, next.

An odd exchange, but I’d take it.

He was disoriented for the moment, and I used that to get back to the task at hand.

Concentrate.

I couldn’t tackle this directly. I had to go about it in an oblique way.

From behind, then.

It was something.

I hopped down, feet on the ground, phone in my hand.

I walked to the crowd, about to walk through it.

I passed the man, his eyes still on me, still locked into whatever compelled him to stare.

Someone else was at his side, now. Someone new.

A woman, mid-thirties, she looked like. She had a yellow sweater, with a black cap on her head. Thick rimmed glasses.  In her hands were a pad of paper and a phone, the phone was pointed and directed in a way that made me apprehensive.

“Oli, who’s that?” she asked, as I put them behind me.

The man barely got out a word as an answer.

“Nat, I…”

His breathy tone was drowned out by the continued shouting and horn honking. It seemed to get louder, more intense, more pissed off. As if it was a gauge on how much patience the people here had, and how much time we had left.

And we were running out on both.

I put my phone out in front of me as I started moving through the crowd. I was small, short, and I was able to find the small gaps between the people here, however small.

I started typing as fast as I could, getting out as many messages as possible.

Please let this work.

The phone went back into my pocket as I made it past the crowd. I was met with some protest, but a harder nudge from my direction made them give. Easier than I expected.

And then I was facing the blockade. Granon’s men.

They noticed me again, all of them facing me. Did they recall me from before, when I was standing on the car?

I continued forward.

I walked at an angle, so I was heading to the car on the far left rather than going to them directly. They positioned themselves to keep me in their sights. I saw their hands lower, to their weapons.

I raised my hands, stopping by one of them. He was dressed like his boss. All black, long coat, a wide brim hat. The spitting image of a mobster.

“Hi,” I said, putting my hands to my side.

“And you are?” he asked.

“Just a concerned citizen. I don’t mean to be rude, but you and your friends are in the way. The people here are trying to get through.”

“That is precisely why we are here. To be a thorn in this community’s side.”

At least he admitted that he was being an asshole.

“Well, congratulations, you guys are pricks. You think you can pack it up now?”

He glowered at me. His shoulders were straight, his hand physically on his gun. He must have made some other signal or gesture, because the other men started coming our way.

“We are here under explicit orders, little girl,” the man said, assuming a more assertive tone. “You do not get a say in what happens, here.”

“Yeah, and those orders are from Granon, right?”

The mere mention of his name gave them each a bodily reaction. A twitch, a shudder, a gesture in some way.

I had gotten right to it.

They closed in even more, now, all of them with their hands on their guns. Their rifles.

I’d considered it, perhaps getting them to run off with just a look, alone. From the looks they had, though, and the weapons they held, I had a distinct, gut feeling that it wouldn’t work.

Had to hit them from another direction.

The man who had been entertaining me spoke again. “You are lucky we did not shoot you as you came here. It would be easy.”

“Yeah, and thanks for not doing that,” I said. “Appreciate it.”

He grimaced.

“Are you playing us, girl?” he questioned.

Trying to.

Someone else from the group spoke, addressing the man I had been talking to. It was a language I’d never understand.

They conversed, briefly.

They all faced me again.

The man spoke again.

Leave,” he said, that one word carrying with it an accent that gave his demand even more weight. “I do not know who you are, but I will give you one chance to go, with no harm done to you as you turn your back. You have my word.”

“Wow, a gangster with honor, never thought I’d see the day. But, here’s the thing, I can’t leave, I sort of help run the place. And with you being here, doing what you’re doing, it’s not helping me take care of the neighborhood. So, yeah, I’m going to have to be the one that asks you to leave. All of you. Go back to Granon and tell him you’re no longer welcome or tolerated here.”

“And,” I added, “If I ever see any of you again, I’ll make it so you never see again.”

That got a reaction out of them.

They didn’t bellow or scream like their boss, but they fell back on his tendency to belittle and downplay.

“We are going to stay, just to show you what little power you really have,” the man said, speaking for his group. “And then, we are going to take over, just to make sure you know.”

“Big words for adults who don’t know how to park their cars,” I said.

The man glared.

“That was your last chance for mercy, child. I can surmise that you work for Lawrence, who I believe is still nursing wounds from our boss. Continue to run your mouth and waste our time, and I can see to it that you meet a similar fate.”

The group muttered amongst each other.

While they were briefly preoccupied, I glanced at the road behind the blockade of cars. I gulped.

“No need to get so pissy,” I said. “I’m going. And you will, too. Call it similar fates.”

“What are you-”

It happened in a sequence. First, the crowd, crying out as they saw it coming. Confused, Granon’s men tried to look at the crowd.

Then came the crash.

Thousands of pounds, sixty miles at least. A big block of metal on wheels.

A van barrelled through the blockade.

I’d put some thought in it. Where I stood, where Granon’s men was positioned. Where the van would be coming in from.

We were standing close to the bumper of the car on the very left, the grill of the car in the middle. There was a small gap, there, that the van forced itself through.

Everything and everyone jumped at the impact.

I did, hopping a step back to gauge the changing situation by the millisecond. Some of Granon’s men did, too, trying to get out of the way. Some didn’t make it.

The van slammed into them, and they flew, tossed a distance into the road or the dispersing crowd. The man I had been talking to was one of them.

The cars, too, skidded out from the impact of the van, providing more of an opening. An opening I could make wider.

The car closest to me continued to drift my way, and I hopped to get over the trunk to the other side of the vehicle. I leaned back until I fell, my shoulder blades pressing against the back tire, my feet pressed hard into the ground.

I pushed.

The car moved even more, until it was facing the direction it was supposed to, the grilling facing the highway. I pushed some more, until it settled into position.

I ran across the road, stepping over one of Granon’s men, crossing the gap to get to the other car. The one that had previously been in the middle of the blockade. I put my hands on the side of the vehicle, by a front tire, and pushed.

It moved, until it was situated properly on the road. It was facing the wrong direction, the road was only one way, but I was fine with that. It would do.

The gap widened. Enough so that people could get through.

And they did.

Cars immediately started going through the gap, taking advantage of the sudden opening. Not civilians, though.

Mine.

I caught a glimpse through the window of one of the first cars to pass.

Reggie. Not his car.

It was one of the orders I sent by text. An opening would be made, and with so many people out of their cars to go and yell at the People’s Hammer, they wouldn’t be prepared for any sudden and violent developments.

Get into any car near that opening, and get the ball rolling.

They wouldn’t steal it, that wasn’t their orders. Just to show the other people here that it was safe to go, to drive and go about the rest of their day.

I saw Tone pass by in a muscle car, close enough that my hair whipped past my eyes and into my glasses. Like Reggie, he’d have to stop and park the car on the side of the road, before the highway. The real owners of the vehicles could pick it up then.

I watched as others that weren’t in my gang start to get the idea. They got into their cars, and went through, before Granon’s men could get back up and try something again.

If they even could. About half of them weren’t getting up.

I edged along the side of the car I had just pushed, trying to avoid getting clipped by an oncoming truck. I made it out, and ran without missing a beat.

I went to the van that caused all this to happen in the first place. It was on the curb, a foot away from colliding with a light pole. It had stopped just before bigger disaster could take place. The van seemed to be intact, all things considered. There was some cracks the edges around the windshield, but that wouldn’t stop a van from running.

I opened a door on the side.

“Sarah! You okay?”

I heard a moan.

“Okay barely covers it.”

I saw her sitting in the driver’s seat, bent in a weird way, slouching over to one side. She responded and sounded okay, but I still feared the worst.

“Can you move?”

She moved an arm, to her side, where I couldn’t see. She moved her arm again.

She was holding a bear.

“We still have a bunch of these in here,” Sarah said, sitting straight. “They make for a great cushion.”

Yes, I thought, and I let myself breathe.

It was another order, another text I sent. The traffic was so bad that Sarah couldn’t take me all the way to the blockade itself, she dropped me off and I ran there. But I had her go around, find another way we could tackle this. It was just, at that time, she didn’t know that she would actually be tackling this directly.

I gave her that order, and she listened. She was willing to go that far.

“Thank you,” I said, getting in the van, sliding the door closed. I was in the row behind the driver’s seat. “I hate to ask, but can you drive a little more?”

“I think so,” Sarah said, but she groaned out the words. “I can try.”

“Okay, we just need to turn the van around and get out of here. We swing by to pick up Reggie and Tone, they’re just up ahead. We pick them up, and I can have them take the wheel from you.”

“I can manage that much, hold on.”

The van started to back up, getting on the road again. There was a bit of a wait, until someone let us get through the opening we made.

Two of Granon’s men were finally getting on their feet, scrambling to collect their colleagues and drag them away from the rush of vehicles. Their rifles were dangling, loose, at their backs. They wouldn’t, couldn’t use them now, or the situation would escalate too far for them to make an escape. They were the ones blocked from doing anything, now.

I can’t believe that actually worked.

It was messy, ugly, and all improvised, but I managed to cobble together a plan that diffused the situation. No one got seriously hurt, except for those who probably deserved it.

I zipped my hoodie down about halfway, feeling the heat from expending all that effort and strength.

The van drove up the access road, slowing and drifting to the side. I slid open the door.

We didn’t stop, but we had slowed down enough for Reggie and Tone to hop inside. The door was back to being closed as Reggie and Sarah shuffled around, switching places, as Tone helped Sarah settle into the passenger’s seat. The van meandered forward a bit as the switch was made, but Reggie got full control by the time we had to merge into the highway.

And then we were free. The blockade was opened, Granon’s men were humiliated, probably mutilated, and there were still some of my people staying behind to make sure the situation would remain all clear. And we would wrap around to double check.

I really did it.

“Ow, oh, ow,” Sarah muttered, as Tone aided her in getting the seat belt around her body. “Careful.”

“I am,” Tone replied. He wasn’t looking at me, but I could feel his words hitting me as he said, “Fuckin’ nuts, you’re fuckin’ nuts.”

I couldn’t look at Sarah properly. I felt bad for using her like that, like a pawn, especially after she had helped me to try and get my thoughts together back at the Redhouse. I’d have to find a way to make it up to her.

But, before I could think of how I’d go about that, I had to make a phone call.

I got my phone out and dialed. An immediate answer.

Yes?

“Lawrence,” I said. “Hey. It’s covered. Granon’s not going to be happy about it, but we were able to get him back before the day even ended.”

That’s not terrible news. Thanks, Wendy.

“Speaking of terrible news, have you heard from D?”

I noted the pause.

I haven’t. I was hoping you’d have something new to say about that.

I started tapping my foot.

“I don’t. Fuck.”

Dammit, where the fuck is she?

“Aw, sounds like you miss her,” I said.

Not a fucking chance in hell. It’s bad enough when she’s right next to me, but a D that I don’t have eyes on? That’s potentially a whole mess of shit I try not to think about. It keeps me up at night.

“You have to learn how to chill,” I said. This wasn’t the first time we had spoke on something like this. “Being on guard is one thing, but letting fear make you irrational? That’s what we’re trying to do to our enemies, not to each other.”

You say that like it’s as easy as flipping a switch.

“I told you she’s trying, Lawrence, you need to have some faith in her, if you want this to work.”

Sure, that’s all well and good, but can you tell me you’re not the least bit worried about her not being around right now, that there might be something else going on in the background that we’re not aware of? She’s gone, and she’s not answering, who knows what she’s up to?

I could hear it in his voice, even though he was on a phone. D had clearly done a number on him, in the past, and he was still finding it hard to shake off that fear.

But, I could sympathize, even if it was just a little.

The mere mention of a possibility like that made my heart skip a beat. There were few things I hated more than not being in control. To have some other plot run along concurrently with ours, with the potential to interfere and disrupt, made me want to question everything and everyone. It made me scared.

Better to be paranoid, and prepare for the worst.

But trust went a long way, as well.

The van rolled along, down the highway, and I heard a rumble grow louder from behind.

I said my thoughts aloud.

“We know D, we work with her, and she’s only been gone for a few hours. If she’s off doing something, it’s probably for our benefit.”

It had better be,” Lawrence said, “Because, as much as I hate to admit it, we need her. We need everyone. Granon isn’t going to take what just happened lightly. He’ll want to strike back, but we need to strike again before he gets that chance. And that next strike had better knock him the fuck out.

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Omake.04 (Bonus)

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*These are to be read right to left, then from top to bottom. Click them to see a larger version. Enjoy!

4koma interlude 4 part 1

4koma interlude 4 part 2

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