I’m silent now as I ever was, running through the bushes and overgrown grass the chain-link fence that wraps around Gerard’s warehouse. A little trick I learned early on was to individually wrap my equipment in small towels to dampen the sound of metal clinking together. The setup and teardown are longer, and your bag needs to be a bit bigger, but when even the slightest sound is the difference between life and death, you’ll take whatever advantage you can get.
I’m at the fence, sitting in the shadows, observing two pairs of guards as they swap watch. Maria’s knee is aching from the run, but the rest of her body feels strong.
“Anything new out here?” one of the new guards says after firing up a cigarette.
One of the guards whose watch is over, a slim, balding man, responds. “They make us freeze our asses off all night for nothing.’
The cigarette man takes a long puff, his feet shifting uneasily in the dirt. “He’s paranoid. Why else would we guard our hideout all night less than a week after moving it?”
“Is it just paranoia, or should he really be scared of Albert or Oswald coming to find him?” the slim guard says. The other two shrug their indifference.
“He made them, he can kill them,” the cigarette man says, blowing a couple lungs full of smoke out in the process. “I think he’s more scared of when the Extended Family comes knocking on the door, if you know what I mean.”
My ears perk up as I’m cutting a hole in the fence with my bolt-cutters. “So we’re all stuck out here because our fearless leader ain’t so fearless?” another man asks, his sweater tight over a broad chest.
“Only half of us,” the slim guard says with a laugh.
My bolt cutters click one last time and the hole is big enough for me to crawl through. A few moments later, I’m silently running across the pavement.
“Hey, everyone else had to do it when they started,” the smoking man says in the distance. “Doesn’t matter what we’re guarding, everyone starts on guard duty.”
“But what are we even guarding? A few rooms full of guns and drugs?”
The cigarette man takes a final, long puff, then squashes his cigarette in the dirt. “We don’t know what’s down at the bottom. They’ve never let us more than a couple floors down.”
I halt behind a bush to listen, shrouded in shadows and out of sight.
“That’s where the stairs end,” the muscular guard says.
“But there’s another staircase on the other side of the room that’s always locked.” The cigarette man is fiddling with his hands. He looks like he could already use another cigarette, and only a few seconds later he pulls one out.
“Why don’t they let us down there?” the slim man questions
“Because we haven’t taken the pledge yet,” the cigarette man says. There’s a long, drawn out silence while he takes a pull of the cigarette. “Look, I don’t make the rules, I just follow them.”
“You know, you gotta stop smoking,” the muscular man says. “It’ll kill you one of these days.”
They stare at each other for a long moment before the entire group breaks out into laughter.
“Won’t ever get that far,” the cigarette man says. “If it all goes well, I’ll be long gone from this body before that ever happens.”
“If it all goes well,” the thin man says as I slink out of the bush toward the building. “If we don’t die of boredom before then.”
“You’ve seen what they can do, the full-on members,” the cigarette man says, shifting in his stance and looking off into the darkness beyond the fence in the opposite direction as me. “Just think about that when you’re stuck out here shivering.”
“They’re powerful, but sometimes—” The thin man cuts himself off, looking around to make sure it’s just the four of them outside. “—sometimes, fuck ‘em. They’re assholes.”
The whole group erupts in laughter. I hold back a chuckle of my own as I take the opportunity to tip-toe the last few steps to the side of the building. “You don’t have to like them,” the muscular man says once the laughter dies down. “You just need to be able to work with them to get shit done. After hours, you can do whatever you want.”
“I swear I’m going to strangle Catarina the next time she makes fun of my hairline,” the thin man says.
I’m at the base of the building, around the corner from the guards, the end of a leather belt between my teeth. It’s dead-quiet, so I can still hear them even though I can’t see them.
“Look man,” the cigarette man says, “you won’t have to worry about that once they give you the Gift. You can have any hairline you want. Any body.”
“Any cock!” a new voice chuckles. I can’t see him, but it must be the fourth guard, the rotund man. I imagine his chins jiggling at the sound of his own joke. The group joins in.
Doesn’t surprise me coming from a group like this, Rebecca groans in my ear. The resignation in her voice comes from a lifetime of dealing with men who smile to her face and then act exactly like this when she’s not around.
I’m sure not everyone is like this, Ally says as I begin my climb. To hear them even disgrace Gerard is… surprising.
Are you really defending the type of people who want to join Gerard? Isabel questions after a few moments of climbing in which my knee begins to ache.
Hey, look, not everyone is like that, Ally says. They can’t be. Victoria even had sex with one of them.
Yes, and he was just trying to use me, I grunt, still pulling myself upward. I wouldn’t do it again.
Look, all I’m saying is you can’t judge the entire Family by these few outcasts.
I’d like to fire back that the leader reflects the entire group, but I’m a little preoccupied, so the conversation recedes and is replaced by more laughter from down below. Maria’s knee aches as I climb, but the pipe doesn’t utter a single squeak under my weight.
“I think I’ll jump into the guy who owns the Ferrari down the street from me first when they give me the Gift,” the thin man says from around the corner. “I’ve always wanted to drive one.”
Such a mundane desire catches my attention. You’re chasing the power to literally be whoever you want as often as you want, and you set the bar that low for your first time? Though I cannot see him, I glance in his direction in disgust.
Looking down is a terrible choice. I freeze where I’m at, unable to move, even letting out a quiet squeak of terror at the sight. It’s dark, nearly pitch-black, and from this high it’s like I’m staring into a bottomless ocean of black nothingness. I suddenly feel a weightless sensation, like I’m already falling.
Lightheaded, I squeeze the pipe as tight as I can. Come on, Victoria, Isabel urges. You were doing fine until you looked down!
But then I did, I say, my voice trembling. God dammit, why did I have to look down?
Just keep going! Rebecca says. Forget about it!
I squeeze my eyelids closed and bite deeper into the belt. Hayley’s last moments flash behind my eyelids, followed by Isabel’s, repeating over and over in a loop. Somewhere in the struggle, the pipe finally squeaks under my weight.
The crowd below and around the corner immediately stops. “Did you hear something?” one of the voices demands of the others.
Oh shit! Isabel screams. Go, go, go!
I gulp and take a deep breath. There are two stories left to the roof.
“I think it came from around the corner,” the muscular man says.
You can do this! Isabel screams. You have to!
The deaths of Britney and Rebecca flash behind my eyes. Ally’s. Vivian’s. Jordan’s. Even Yvonne’s, as embarrassing as it was. I pull myself upwards a few inches. My left foot finds a new home. Then my right. Then my hand again. I can do this. Teeth cutting into the leather belt, I repeat, and then once more, and again, faster with each cycle, until I’m practically running up the side of the building, knee pain be damned.
The climb is over, and I’m gasping for air on a narrow ledge atop the roof.
A few minutes later I’m ready to keep going. There are windows along this ledge of rooftop, periodically spread around the building. A rush of warm air hits me on my way in and I close the window as soon as I find footing on the other side. I’m panting, covered in sweat, and wincing with every movement, but at least I’m alive and, honestly, a little impressed with the work this body can handle. Maria is strong and quick; a little more conditioning and a little less knee pain and she would have been an amazing accomplice. Maybe weaker morals, too. I don’t know, I never had the pleasure of actually meeting her.
The warehouse interior is vast and open. It’s not well-lit, so it’s difficult to tell just where it ends, but I can see enough firearms and narcotics piled up along the walls beneath me to keep a cartel going for weeks.
There’s a couch in the middle of the room, surrounded by a few tables, some chairs, and absurdly large flat-screen situated in the center with its back toward the door, presumably so that lazy henchmen can keep their eyes on the entrance and the screen at the same time. Off in the corner is what appears to be a dimly-lit office with the shades on the windows pulled shut. I surmise the crew leader must set up shop in there, while the rest of the crew, whoever is manning the building, is relegated to watching TV or playing cards to pass the time. There’s not another person inside until the slim and rotund guards come in. They make small-talk and lounge and flip to the late-night edition of Sports Center. Turns out even the henchmen of a supposed god still need to unwind after a long day.
Yvonne is a cloud of turmoil somewhere within me, at once both aroused and terrified of all the narcotics surrounding us. Her soul makes me shudder; this is the first time I’ve felt her since I was in her body. Half of her yearns to put as much of the drugs inside her as possible, while the other half hates her for even considering and is fighting as hard as she can to pull my legs back toward the window.
A door I hadn’t seen in my initial scan opens directly beneath me and a woman whose face I can’t quite make out walks in.
“How are you boys doing this evening?” she asks.
The thin one looks up, but just for a moment, before redirecting his eyes back to the television. The other man won’t even look at her.
“We’re doing fine, thanks,” the thin man says. There’s an unmistakable chilliness in his voice, accompanied by a fear he’s making a poor attempt at hiding.
The woman takes a seat on the end of the couch. The other man, his eyes still transfixed on the TV, slides as far as he can toward the armrest.
“It’s nice to see people still watch sports after all these years,” the she says, apparently to herself.
“It’s one of the only constants, eh?” the thin man says.
She leans back, her hands behind her head. “Yes, I suppose so. Even sports get boring eventually, though.” She stares over at them. They’re visibly uncomfortable. “Other than hunting.” She licks her lips. “Hunting is always fun.”
The two guards exchange nervous eye-contact. I can see her face clearly now that she’s under the lights. It’s not a face I recognize, though the expressionless eyes matched with the too-proud smile would give it away if her words had not. Catarina.
I’m feel myself being pulled in multiple directions. I’d love to sit here and observe the awkward small-talk, both for my own amusement and to pick up any intel she may let slip, like, for instance, why Gerard moves bases to avoid the rest of Morta’s Children if he’s so powerful he fancies himself a god. Then again, the door she left open is creaking ever-so-slightly beneath me and is shrouded in darkness. I’m not going to get a better opportunity than this.
I rifle through my bag and retrieve the heaviest thing I can find, a crowbar I brought with just in case I had to break in or get a little dirty fighting off guards. After tying my rope around the rafters and quietly placing the crowbar on the platform beside me, I hang a few feet down to give myself room to move. My grip tightens when I feel Hayley’s fear of heights threatening to close in again.
The crowbar is heavy and hard to throw and only goes about half as far as I’d hoped. It hits a pile of firearms a quarter of the way up, clanking across the ground and sending them cascading to the concrete floor below.
Both guards spring to their feet and walk over to investigate. Catarina merely glance over her shoulder before returning to the television.
The rope snaps tight about ten feet from the ground. Maria’s knee almost gives out. I bite back a groan.
The thin guard gestures to the other, holding my crowbar in his hand. “Hey, dude, look at this.”
The other waddles over to investigate. I slowly back my way to the door, my eyes fixed on the three people before me, praying they don’t look my direction.
“A crowbar?” the other man says.
I’m at the door, feeling around for the handle. In my haste, I nudge it in the wrong direction and a soft but unmistakable door latch clicks behind me. My heart leaps into my throat at the sound. I stop dead.
The moment hangs for an eternity. I could take one of these people easily if I wanted. Probably all three if I was feeling particularly spry. However, fighting means they’d know I was here, and getting to Gerard seems next to impossible already without them being aware of my presence.
“Did we have a crowbar hanging from the roof?” The thin man looks up toward the rafters. “Was someone working up there today?”
The door opens with excruciating slowness. No one notices.
I take one step back.
I’m staring at Catarina.
I’m in the doorway now, swinging it shut.
The door is halfway closed when she looks. As if on cue, her head swivels to me. Like an owl: no body movement other than the unnaturally slow and unnervingly smooth neck swivel.
Isabel and Rebecca gasp as my blood runs cold. I’m frozen. My feet are concrete.
We stare at each other. A chilling grin creeps across her face and she gives me a slow nod. The wink that follows almost knocks me dead, sending a tremor through my spine. She then turns back to the television as though it never happened, even changing the channel and shifting in her seat to get more comfortable.
I pull the door closed. My heart is beating so loudly I hear it in my ears. In fact, it’s all I hear. That and my breathing. I stand there for several seconds trying to slow both down.
Subscribe to get each chapter as soon as it’s posted!