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38. Train Derailed

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So here we are. Body count? Requiem, Vagrant, Grey and Mr. Draven Riddle, the legend himself, were dead. In a matter of mere days. Isn’t that something? How can your entire world take such a drastic shift in a matter of days…hours…mere minutes? Everything you ever knew is suddenly gone. Changed. Over. Half of our family was dead. And now we had a real family to tend to. Babies. The future. The new generation of dysfunction.

Requiem and Vagrant had proper funerals this time. The entire street extension of the gang knew what had happened. The cover story was that rivals in the business had committed the act. Sylum even managed to arrest someone to take the fall. Everything fell into place perfectly. We couldn’t have asked for better planning. Grey would have a proper service as well. Draven’s death was something we weren’t sure of. Pandora consented that he should have a proper burial. And due to conflicting interests, they were held in a row. Requiem and Vagrant together, Grey the next day, Draven the last. We all went to all four services. As a family.

The babies went with us. They tasted death from the moment they were born. Four funerals – they handled them perfectly. For children so young, it was definitely a shock. Everything was routine, the same people came to the first three services. It was the fourth’s, Draven’s, which brought out a different crowd.

Looking around, Saint was easy to spot, a hand holding on to Angyl’s smaller one tightly. She was looking around wide-eyed, typical of her childish nature. He bent down to explain things to her every time something changed. Next to them was Klyde, covered completely in black, as always. And next to him were two figures that matched, uniformly in black from head to two. Two pairs of eyes shone out from the depths – they mixed with the fog that had set in. But in the end, they were there, or so it seemed. I couldn’t be too sure. There were another group of faces I didn’t recognize – there seemed to be a small congregation of people that had come out to see Draven put to rest. Ironic – all those people showed up and nobody brought flowers.

I took my turn, passing the casket. A boy took a step next to me – the new street boss. This was Cassidy and Grey’s replacement. He was decked in black, as he usually was. He had a line of tattoos stretching his body, running down his arms. He had words, quotes, lyrics, in pivotal locations – his knuckles and the like. He had tattoos on his face, emphasizing his eyes, making him appear more sinister. He looked over at me and smiled. I bowed my head and edged off as quickly as I could manage, feeling Serkis and Layne step in behind me.

“Stay away from that one. He’s trouble,” Serkis whispered in my ear. I turned around to catch a departing look at him. Serkis caught me and elbowed me to keep going. “The bad kind of trouble. Trouble that takes years of practice to smile your way out of. And even then, it’s debatable.”

“Who is he?”

“Lucidius. He’s the new gang boss,” Layne whispered. The tension would be a problem, considering that Layne was the new drug lord of the area. He’d subconsciously taken Vagrant’s place. Him and Serkis would run the empire arm in arm.

“What’s with the warning?”

“His methods aren’t…” Serkis’ voice trailed off.

“Remember Cicero? Vince?” Layne whispered. I nodded. “He looks up to them. Put him in the mix and you’d lose him with them. We haven’t seen one that bad in ages.”                                    

“And the gang follows?”

Serkis moved to my side and caught me in the eye. “What other choice do they have? He’s already shot a handful of…disloyal followers.”

And we walked to the car in silence. Pandora was on her own end, silent throughout the whole ordeal. We didn’t really expect her to say anything. She had her baby in her arms and Serkis had the other one. I don’t know. It was tough. We did three days of services – they were all tough. But there was something…unsettling about Draven’s death and burial, something that sent chills down your spine.

She knew that we were there for her, but we didn’t push the issue more than we had to. She had enough on her mind. We understood that. And we’d be here for her if she needed us. We all vowed to keep a careful eye on her, just in case. She’s been known to have her episodes, but nothing severe. Pandora was usually calm and collected. She put most of her grudges behind her through the years – something her father could never do. She didn’t try to cover the bruises from the fiasco. And we didn’t push her to talk about that either. Whatever happened…happened. And it was as simple as that.

We went home and sat around in silence. The hours turned into days and we resumed our lives. We made the best of things. Layne took his place at the top of the ladder, monitoring the comings and goings of the business. Sylum stayed around to help. Serkis helped Layne stay on task. They, along with Pandora, took care of both children. Lucidius stopped by a few times, but they tried to keep him as far away as possible more often than not. I don’t know what it was about him, but it set their nerves on edge.

Lucidius was a study in himself and I spent a lot of time studying. He got a job at the bar with me. He was my age. I hadn’t seen him around sooner because he was just released from…wherever they’d kept him. Whether it be prison or an institution or whatever, he was elsewhere. Although the family didn’t approve of keeping him as close as they did, we didn’t have much choice. We were shorthanded; the recent losses had taken a great toll on our ranks. He was the best we had. Pandora was out of work for a while as well, leaving me in charge of the bar for the most part. She still interviewed the new workers, just in case, she told me. To ensure my safety. She didn’t want me there with people who posed a danger to my health. I was grateful to her for her concern, but I felt…childish. I was big and bad enough to run the bar without her, but I couldn’t make any sort of important decisions for myself. Ironic, huh?

Lucidius’ tattoos were all done at a nearby shop – the Black Dragon. It was where everyone went to get anything important done. The designs that spanned most of his body were related to one other of such intricate work – Harvey Hunter. Her tattoos are legend – her design gave the shop its name. There were connections, past and present, everywhere. The shop was run by Pike and Syn now, they’d run it for years. They were a bizarre pair, but they ran the place nonetheless. Some of the best artists could be found there.

The bar and the tattoo shop shared patrons for the most part. There was always a good close link between them. They brought us business and vice versa. Benefitted both sides. I thought I did a decent job, running a bar on my own, being young. I was still 18 when all of this happened. I wouldn’t see 19 for a while yet. It didn’t really bother me much. Getting older isn’t the greatest thing in the world. We had a family now. I had to be responsible and take control of my life. They wouldn’t lead things for me anymore. We had babies to tend to. I would have to do as they asked and do it better. I ran the bar. I checked in on the circus from time to time. They had elected new attractions, as expected, but when I came in, I was still the ringleader. And I always would be. I was handpicked by Serkis herself. I would always be as I was in their eyes. If only their eyes reflected the world.

They had their family, but I still felt left out. I couldn’t explain it – I couldn’t make them understand. I was the child, but I’d been replaced – with real children. I wasn’t jealous – I was more than happy for them. But there was just something…unnerving. For the first time in a long time, I found myself thinking of Art. And for the first time…I missed him.

Love’s a funny thing. There’s…how can I explain? You don’t understand what’s wrong until it’s tragically late. Not even when it’s a moment too late. When it’s days, months…years. When so much time has passed that all you can do is hate yourself more for it. There’s nothing to be done to remedy the past. He was dead. He’d been dead for some time now. I had killed him. And only now, when the smoke settled and the dust cleared, did I hurt. I hurt because I had been through Hell and back. I hurt because I never dealt with things right the first time. Instead of venting, I housed my emotions. And I killed the source. And this was the cost.

I killed him. Art. Gothik. My best friend. The talented artist that he was. And I destroyed him. Why?  Because he changed. Because he was turning into Doyle. Because he was power hungry. Because he didn’t care about me like he should have anymore. He treated me as a possession, as property. And I allowed it. I trusted him and would have done anything for him. But I was just one of a crowd. I did above and beyond for him, but nothing was good enough. And I mean nothing. I slept with him. He had other girls to sleep with. I trusted him. He had others. I became a face in the mob. Just another part of the show. Our relationship was an act. I took it too far – I reacted too harshly. I should have told someone. But I couldn’t bear it. I put up with him and all he did was drink more and remind me of the failure I’d be. He was killing me, slowly, torturously, from the inside out. So I killed him. It was just in my mind. At the time. But now? Was I truly justified?

I think that, above all, bothered me. I had killed a man. There was a difference in helping to distract while someone else pulled the trigger…and actually doing it yourself. I killed him to destroy the chains that bound me to my misery. But even without him, I was the same. If not worse. I kept these things to myself. I wrote them down to get them out. One way of another, I got things done. I got them out in the ways I saw fit.

And that’s how I got involved with Lucidius.

I didn’t do it intentionally or anything. I was as kind as I could be to him. He was always a bit too close or too friendly for me and I tried everything to warn him subtly to back off. He wouldn’t take my warnings into consideration. I was curled up in the back one day, writing idly, venting my frustrations. I don’t know how much time had passed – I didn’t even notice the shadow lingering over the page. I was mid-sentence, searching for a word when he spoke up to give me one. I nearly fell over.

“Sorry,” he whispered. He had a tone that said he didn’t care, he wasn’t truly sorry. But he smiled anyway and put a hand on my shoulder to steady me. I shook more. I closed my book abruptly and moved to sneak off.

“It’s fine.”

“I didn’t mean to scare you,” he said. I looked him over. He meant to scare everyone he came across. Everything he said I interpreted as something else. It was evident in his body language, his eyes and motions. He was well versed in his art. I nodded and moved to walk away. He took a few steps after me.

“Hey, come on, I’m sorry. Let me get you a drink or something, calm the nerves?”

I stopped walking and turned around, my book in my coat’s depths. He had a valid point, but…this was trouble. I shook my head and kept going.

“I can tend to myself.”

“Can you?”

I wheeled around and stormed back to him. “Who the hell do you think you are?”

He smiled and put a hand out to me. “Lucidius Mason. Charmed. I believe you’ve heard of my family?”

I shook his hand sheepishly. “No, actually…”

He pretended to be offended, but he was smiling too much. I was still apprehensive. He smiled wider. “Marcellus and Dev…”

“They’re your…?”

“Siblings. I’m the baby.”

“I see…”

I turned back around and walked away from him. He thought he knew so much and that he was special – he was just another street demon. He was just another name, another face; he’d be replaced by the latest, greatest model soon enough. He was just a trend, a fleeting moment. Blink and you’d miss him. He was still behind me as I walked away. I stopped short to catch him.

“Can I help you?”

“I’m making sure you get a drink to calm those nerves of yours.”

“I’m fine.”

He thought about it for a while, then reached out and tried to poke me. I jumped back as much as I could manage. He laughed. I glared at him. “Jumpy?”

I would have stayed to glare at him longer, but I decided to just walk away from it and let it go. I could hear Lucidius’ steps echo my own as I tried to walk away.

“Don’t you have a home?” I said. I refused to stop or turn around. I was locking up as I went, closing things here and there. There was nobody else in the place. The loneliness of it got to me. I locked everything up, checked the place was empty. He was still lurking around. He was wandering around idly. I heaved a sigh.

“Go home.”

“I am home,” he whispered. He had such a weird look on his face. I shook my head.

“No. Real home, you know, that place where you sleep?”

He wouldn’t move, so I pulled the chair out from underneath him. He got up with a start and watched me finish up.

“You’re the feisty one.”

I grabbed hold of him by the front of his coat and brought him down to my level. He looked shocked but not overly annoyed.

“Listen to me. You’re just the latest model of street demon. You’ll get too cocky one of these days and someone will come along and blow you away. Right now, you’re in the way of me going home. You’re beginning to bother me. Go home. Please? This is the last time I’ll ask.”

He smiled, and pulled my hands off of him. He gave me a kiss on the cheek and straightened up again. “So what happens if I don’t leave?”

“Do you want me to call Layne and tell him you’re being difficult?”

He let go of me and ran over to the bar and grabbed the phone, holding it out to me. “Would you like to dial or should I?”

I muttered a few things under my breath, slammed the phone back where it belonged, and glared at him. He was impossible. And he knew it. I had everything locked up, the key in hand. I was just waiting on him to get out. We stood there and kind of stared at each other for a while, but he finally consented and let me lock up. He stood on the street, arms folded, waiting for me.

“Lucidius, go home. I’m going now.”

He kind of smiled and I walked away. There was a tension that followed me all the way to my apartment. It stayed with me and was amplified by the fact that I lived alone. I shook it off and decided to deal, being as how I had very little choice. I changed and went to sleep, my mind wondering about the recent developments that we’d made. Time flies.

37. An Ongoing Riddle

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We settled into the place. The bar was ran by an almost entirely new crew. I dropped by the show every now and again, but more often than not, I was never there. I would make appearances from time to time, but nothing major. The crowd took care of itself, elected new leaders, found new acts. They preached the divine gospel of the Timeless. After the stories surfaced and started to make their way through the streets, things weren’t the same. Talk ran rampant. I began to wonder if we’d made the right choice in letting it loose.

We now had a Ransom and Merrick child. Living in the same apartment. They’d be raised together. What would we do to keep them apart? How would we explain their families to them? Pandora was there for her child. But the other was an orphan. The Ransom was alone. I thought about it for a while. As was the Hunter. In time, their paths would cross. As they were meant to. One family had killed the other – there was a valley of blood between the families. There would never be a united clan. And if there were, who would have to die for it?

I brought this question to Serkis and Layne. Pandora was still trying to get settled in, get used to being home again. They looked at each other, around the room, back to me. They weren’t sure. The stories were running on the loose…they’d find out. The kids in school would know. It was decided that they’d be home-schooled. They’d deal with that when it came up. They didn’t want to get into paperwork and the legality of it. But they were playing this by ear. And I wasn’t surprised. How can you plan things like this?

We got accustomed to the surroundings, a few weeks passed, the kids got used to us. I stayed there for the first few weeks, living off of the couch, eager to lend an extra hand. On days when he didn’t have to work, Sylum would stay as well. He usually slept on the couch and I would curl up elsewhere. On nights where the floor was especially cold, I’d creep up and curl up with him. If anyone else knew, they allowed it to pass. I didn’t care – I was warm.

Things had been settled down for a while. Peace. Calm. But such things don’t usually last. Nothing that good lasts. Ever.

I was curled up in Sylum’s arms on the couch, comfortable and warm when I heard the steps. I opened an eye apprehensively to find a pair staring back at me. I moved to scream but found a hand clamped over my mouth, the figure crouching down at my level. I could feel a cold blade to my throat.

“Shush,” he whispered. “We don’t want you to wake the dead.”

I couldn’t breathe. There was light sneaking in through the blinds from the moon and his face was turned. When he turned back to me, I recognized Mr. Riddle. Pandora’s father. Draven. He looked around the place.

“Nice work they’ve done here. I’m sure they don’t mind if I take over, right?” He looked around the place carefully. “And you’re still mixed up with this mob? I’d have thought you would have known better.”

I was dragged carefully out of Sylum’s arms and brought to my feet. I could feel his cold hands holding onto me as we moved away from Sylum. I was dragged into the kitchen and shoved against a wall, the knife’s blade still securely against my throat. I could feel a bit of blood dripping from the tip.

“Listen to me. I’ll take my hand away. I have some things I need you to respond to. But if you try to scream, you’ll be dead before the sound gets out. Understand me?”

I nodded carefully, mostly up, away from the knife. He pulled his hand away as promised and I let out a deep breath.

“Now, who’s where?”

“Why?” I whispered. He pushed on the knife.

“If you don’t mind, I’ll be asking the questions. I’ll be specific. Where is my daughter? And where is that bastard child?”

I refused to answer – he rolled his eyes. “I don’t want to have to repeat myself. Come on, Hadley. You’re a good kid. Help me out and you won’t get hurt. I promise.”

“Are you going to do damage?” I whispered.

“My best behavior. Trust me.”

“Then let me go.”

And he did. He pulled the blade away but held a hand to my throat instead. I pointed in the direction of Pandora’s room, hoping she’d hear him coming. He smiled at me.

“Good girl.” And he hit me. Hard. Across the face. And he pulled me over to one of the exposed beams in the place and handcuffed my hands behind me, around it. He’d taken them from Sylum. He looked me up and down as he stepped back.

“Now, be good and quiet for me. The screamers always die slow.” He winked at me – I wanted to kill him. I dropped to the ground and curled up. He looked behind him at the sleeping Sylum. “You wake him up, and he’ll die. And my word is as good as gold.”

He patted me on the top of the head and crept away toward Pandora’s room. I sat and listened to the muffled sounds of a struggle, waiting, waiting. The door burst open and Grey ran in. Pandora let out a yell of some kind and the whole house was up. Sylum came over and freed me from where I was. We all tore into the bedroom.

Draven was giving his girl the good once over. She was bleeding from…God only knows where. But she was in bad shape. I don’t know if it was because he was her father or what…but she wasn’t fighting back half as hard as she should have been. Grey burst in and went to grab him. Draven wheeled around and stabbed him hard in the stomach. Layne rushed to his brother’s side. Serkis and I stood shocked in the doorway, Sylum behind us. Pandora was getting up off the floor. The kid was crying. So was the other one. Draven raised his ear.

“That sounds like another brat.”

He looked around at us. “Why are there two of them?” His knife was stuck in Grey; he’d shoved then turned. Grey was on the floor bleeding to death. Sylum was searching his person for something. Draven laughed.

“Lose something, Officer? Like…your gun?” He produced it and aimed it at us at random. He laughed. “No. That won’t do. None of you care.” He turned and aimed at Pandora. “I know you don’t want to watch me shoot my own child.”

“You wouldn’t do that,” I muttered. Draven turned and smiled at me.

“Oh, no? After the whore she’s become, the bastard child she allowed in this world? A Merrick no less? A Merrick killed her mother. Don’t any of you remember? You read it. It’s there, black and white.”

“That was then,” I muttered.

“Who is the other brat?”

Serkis spoke up. “Mine.”

Draven looked at her and leveled the gun on me, taking a step closer. “Do you swear…on her life?”

Serkis looked over at me. Then back at Draven. He clicked the safety off. Her eyes hit the floor. “No. I don’t.”

He stepped closer to me. “What kid is it? Tell me.”

“Ransom.”

And he burst out laughing. Wildly laughing. I thought he was going to fall over – he couldn’t even stand straight. “Are you all insane? The two great families, and you all allowed them to continue? They were dead, gone, over…and you let it go on? Kill them now, while they’re young and weak and innocent.” Nobody moved. “Or I will.”

I looked over to the floor. Grey had stopped moving. Layne was soaked in his blood. Layne got up to face Draven.

“Stay back, junior. All of you. This is between me and my girl.”

Serkis stepped up. “No. This is a family. You want to beat up on her, you can try your hand with all of us.”

Draven looked around real calm for a moment. “Alright. Sure.” And he tucked the gun in his waistband and took a swing at Serkis that landed her on the ground. Layne and Sylum jumped up to take the hits. I ran to Pandora on the floor.

“Are you okay?”

“Get the baby. I’m fine.”

And I did. As I was told. I ran over and grabbed Maven from her crib and helped Pandora into the other room, where she locked herself in. She could hear the fighting from there. I ran back to the scene to get the latest. Sylum was curled up in the corner on the floor, bleeding from a few places. I crawled over to him.

“What happened?”

“Shot. I wasn’t quick enough. Try and keep him distracted.”

I got up. Layne and Serkis were having a tough time of it, taking hits as they did. Draven was working off of determination, desperation…he had nothing else left. This was to be his last…anything, and he knew it. Serkis was thrown into a wall – she landed on the ground with a thud. I went over to her. She was bleeding here and there as well.

“Harley, be careful.”

The two boys were having it out. Draven was bigger, older…more experienced. But Layne was smaller, faster, and stronger at points. It was a close fight. He hit Layne hard and he went into the wall and dropped too. Draven laughed as he looked at the pair; I had crept over to his blind side. He clicked the safety off again.

“Look at that, the two great lovers. If that doesn’t remind me of Darius and Raine…” and he moved to level his shot at Layne. “You first.” He shot a glance over to Serkis. “Don’t worry, I got one with your name on it too.” Layne was halfway standing when Draven had the shot locked to him. I counted in my head. Pulling the trigger…now…so…grab.

I ran and pulled his arm back, the shot landing in the wall shortly away from Layne. Draven wheeled around and hit me hard with the hand holding the gun.

“You’re smarter than this, you should have gotten out when you had the chance.”

“Smart has nothing to do with it. And I never had the chance.”

Draven smiled a little, looking over the three of us. He laughed. “There’s always three.” He had the gun pressed to my throat; I was close enough so he could hold me there. “Any last words kid, to the family who protected you so well?”

“Hey, Draven!” Layne yelled.

Draven held me against a wall with one hand, the one with the gun dropping idly when he turned. “What?”

Thunk. The grip on me tightened for a moment before loosening. I slipped away from him when I could. He looked at me in a shocked expression. Layne smiled as he slipped over.

“Say hello to my brother for me?”

Draven’s whole body shook – he wouldn’t go down. He’d survived too much, been around too long, he wouldn’t let this little punk take him out of the game. But the more blood he lost standing there, the truer it became. He dropped to his knees, the knife he’d used to kill Grey deep in his own gut. Fight fire with fire. Serkis crept over to him as he was dying.

“This is what family is. What you did was a mockery of the term.” As she spoke, she twisted the blade ever so slightly.

“We are what we are. We are Eternity. We will keep the stories alive. We will live by their lessons. And we will make up for where you fell short. You were out of date a long time ago, but you wouldn’t lie down and let go. So we’re letting you go.” Every statement brought another twist with it. The last twist brought a small tear that slid down Draven’s cheek.

“Your abuse is over. Of Pandora. Of us. Of anybody. The lives you took, the innocent blood you spilt, all avenged. Here. Now. You deserve to suffer as much as they all did. To die slowly and painfully for your crimes. But I can only kill you this once.”

He locked hold of her hand, the hand on the blade. He coughed a few times, coughs that were laughs. Or laughs that were coughs. “I’ll be seeing you,” he whispered.

She smiled and kissed him softly as she pushed the knife in to the hilt. “Not soon enough, darling. Give the rest of the lost my regards, will you?” She let go. And he dropped.

The late, great, Draven Riddle. Thank you for coming to the show. We all looked around in shock. Serkis got up and simply walked out. Sylum decided to take himself to a doctor. He edged out quietly, promising to return to care for the mess. I looked at Layne in silent reverence.

“I didn’t know you could throw a knife like that.”

He looked at me with a smile. “I didn’t either until just then.”

36. Long Live the King

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I woke up and stretched out. There wasn’t much that was new or interesting that I could tell immediately after getting up. I looked around. Nothing was different. I was in the same place

I was when I went to sleep. I got up and walked around. I should probably go and check in on people. The family would be around. It was a bit too quiet to get excited.

I walked slowly, looking around to get the feel of my surroundings. It was a new day. Serkis was pacing around, bouncing the baby – Layne was passed out on the couch. Sylum was probably off at work – Grey would have things to do. Poor Layne, I couldn’t help but laugh. He had no idea what was going on or how to deal with it. Serkis smiled at me when she caught my eye as I edged into the room. The kid was calm, sedate. Serkis was cut out for this a little better than she cared to think. It was funny in a really weird way.

“Good morning, kid,” she said. She motioned over to the kitchen. “Coffee’s hot.”

“Is it any good?”

She raised an eyebrow. “I made it myself.”

I laughed. Course it was good. She could make the world’s best coffee, and she could do it with half of nothing. That girl had all kinds of talent. It really was something else. I went off and got myself a cup, filling Serkis’ as well. I brought it back with me and sat down in a chair near the couch. Layne was still out cold.

“Isn’t he something?” Serkis asked. I put her cup on the table for her as she nodded her thanks. I laughed. He had this childish quality to him when he slept. It was something worth watching, saving, knowing. I didn’t have a camera or paper to sketch on. She was right though – it definitely was something.

“Yeah. He looks so…”

“Exhausted. But he looks peaceful and all that other stuff too. He always looks like that.”

“Always?”

She smiled. “Yeah. No matter what.”

I smiled back at her. “You would know.”

She laughed, still bouncing the baby. “Yeah, I would, wouldn’t I?” The child was calmer now, sedate, probably fed and taken care of. Serkis was happy enough. She kept at it for a while longer. “Want to hold him?”

“Sure,” I replied, shrugging. I put my cup down and held my arms out for him, which she handed over carefully. I cradled him in my arms, just as she showed me, careful of his head, making sure he was all right. It was…there’s something about holding a child that small, that young, that…innocent. Something that none of us were anymore. Not even me.

Serkis took her cup and collapsed next to Layne. She’d been up awhile – it was obvious. She just barely brushed up against him when his eyes fluttered open a little. He wrapped an arm around her, she curled up closer to him, and he went right back to sleep. He came out of a state of unconscious peace just to be with her. Serkis was all smiles.

“Now this is a family,” she whispered, taking a few more sips of coffee before resting her head on Layne. I held onto the kid until she dozed off, until Sylum came home.

He walked in, took a look at the scene and laughed. I shushed him as much as I could.           “What’s so funny anyway, Mr. Bishop?”

“The kid with a kid.”

“I’m eighteen years old. I’m barely still a kid.”

He roughed up my hair as he walked by, taking the baby from me. “A kid nonetheless.” He turned his attention to the baby. “And how’s our young prince?”

“He’s hardly a prince, but I’ll grant that he is young.”

Sylum laughed. “So when did those two quit?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. They needed the rest – I wasn’t going to stop them.”

He nodded and walked around a little with the baby. My mind was wandering through the ironic beauty of the moment. “How’s Pandora?”

“She’s good. Grey’s with her. She’ll be coming home today.”

“Today?”

“Yeah. Hospitals don’t like people hanging around anymore. I’ll be relocating you all to her place in a little while…or whenever those two wake up. I really hate to have to disturb them. They look so…”

“Cute?”

He laughed. “You can only get away with that when they’re both out cold, you know that, right? Otherwise, they’d kill you.” He glanced over at them. “I almost thought they’d wake up special to kill you.”

I laughed. “They can’t kill me. Family, remember?”

Sylum laughed hard, smiling at the baby. “That never stopped them before, now, did it?”

He was right, but I let it pass. We had more important things to be worrying about. I got up, stretched, yawned, finished my coffee and looked around.

“So, now what?”

Sylum stopped to think about it. “Your stuff should be in the room there. Change…if you want to get an early start on things, take my car, go down to the hospital and spend time with Pandora. Grey’s got enough to do. When they’re ready to let her out, drive her home. Hopefully we’ll be set up there already. If these two ever wake up.”

“Let them sleep. They’ll need it.” I got up and went off to change, shower, and go back to the hospital. Sylum had told me to take his car. That meant he wanted me to take his squad car. He knew that nobody would stop me. But just in case, I was directed to take his hat and coat. They were all types of big on me, but he hoped that driving, nobody would stop me. And he was right. Nobody did.

I got up to the hospital, gave my name, and jogged over to the elevator. I was feeling better, I don’t know why. Just…better. A new start I guess. A new day. Just…the typical clean slate. Layne would take Doyle’s place. Take Vagrant’s place. I got to my floor and jogged down the hall to Pandora’s room. Grey was sitting beside the bed, dozing off. Pandora was halfway awake herself. I held my arms out as I came in.

“Congratulations on a brand new bouncing baby girl. Sorry I forgot the flowers.”

Pandora smiled at my attempt. “Flowers aren’t necessary. Drugs would’ve been nice though, lots of them. Kill the pain.”

I laughed – she was joking. I couldn’t understand what she’d been through and I couldn’t pretend to try. And she knew I wasn’t going to. Grey laughed a few minutes after the fact – he was definitely tired. I patted him on the back.

“Go on, go do what you have to and go home. Sleep is good.”

He muttered something in response, nodded, and left. I took his seat at Pandora’s side. She looked over at me.

“So when are they letting me out of this hole?”

“A few hours.”

“They sure get rid of them quick these days.”

“Yeah…”

“So what’s the latest?”

I was confused. “Nobody’s told you?”

“Told me…what? Grey was halfway conscious the whole time he was here and Serkis said she didn’t want to stress me out. I’ll be dealing with it when I get home anyway, might as well just tell me.”

“Requiem had her son right before you. She was in a room down the hall.”

“Was?”

“She’s dead.”

Pandora sighed and tried to lay back a bit. “Again?”

“No. Really dead this time. Layne killed her.”

“And the kid?”

“Grey took it. It’s at Sylum’s as we speak, with Serkis and Layne.”

“The Ransom boy. And my Merrick daughter.”

“Yes.”

“They should have left him. Or killed him.”

“They figured that by taking him themselves, they would undo the damage that would have been done otherwise. It had nowhere else to go.”

Pandora sighed again. “Vagrant just so happens to be dead too?”

“Yeah. Serkis.”

“I should have known. I’d rather appreciate it if you people would kindly inform me to the goings-on of the family here on in. Okay?”

“Well…they’re moving in with you…”

She all but fell out of the bed. “Excuse me?”

“Serkis and Layne. Sylum’s bringing them over to settle in. They should be there when we get there. And they’ll raise…Rev and they’ll help you raise….?”

“Maven.”

“Right. That’s close to…”

Pandora nodded. “My father’s name. I know.”

And we sat in silence for a little bit. Pandora was staring off into space. I wasn’t sure what to say to comfort her.

“I’m sorry for being short with you. I know you’ve gone through a lot lately. I’m just…I’ll get better. It’s a hard time right now, that’s all. I’m just paranoid. I’m sorry to take it out on you. You’re just doing as you were told.”

“Yeah.”

Her words sank in. As I was told. Did I do anything that I wasn’t told? Did I have a free mind, spirit, or soul? Was I independent at all? Would I ever be free? The questions got to me for a while. As I sat there going over them in my mind, a doctor came in. He checked the machines, her charts, everything that he’d need to write down to release her. He looked at me and at Pandora.

“Should I let your…sister…take the baby?”

Pandora nodded her consent before I could correct the doctor. She got up to change as I was led off to collect the child. It was the same size as Rev, not that I was surprised, but it was different. Whether it was because it was a girl, or because it was Pandora’s…there was just something different about it. I held her more carefully, closer, watchful in all directions. She

seemed more fragile. Weaker. I can’t explain it. Or maybe I just felt frailer in this place. My strength had been lowered since leaving my salvation. My safe haven.

I met up with Pandora in the wheelchair on her way down – I carefully passed her daughter into her arms. The child was a mirror image of herself, with very little of Doyle’s presence. When it grew older it might carry more traits of its father, but for right now I was glad. It was Pandora’s. She was a good kid and this would be a good kid. No matter what.

We got out of the hospital, everything signed out legal and proper, and she was helped into the car. I put the coat and hat back on for the drive. She couldn’t help but laugh at me. I laughed a bit myself. The child was quiet the entire time. Peaceful.

“I heard about the fiasco a bit yesterday. After things settled down. Let me guess, the fire drill – that was you?”

I nodded as I was driving, careful of other cars, taking my turns slower, being sure to signal well in advance.  It took us twice as long to get to Pandora’s as it normally would. I was out of the car and around to her side before she could even consider moving. It wasn’t until after the door slammed shut and I turned around that I realized that Sylum, Serkis, and Layne were standing there waiting for us. Not one of them smoking. For the kids. The real kids.

Rev was cradled in Serkis’ arms. Pandora came over and nodded her greeting, starting the way in and upstairs. The usual congratulations would be held off until we got in, comfortable, settled. It took awhile to get there, but everything was set up, as promised. They really did a great job of it too.

Pandora was moved into her father’s room – a crib had been set up in there with her for her daughter. Her old room was set up for Layne and Serkis with a crib set up in there for Rev. It was decided that they’d keep things separate for awhile, and if things changed along the way, they’d put the kids in their own room, Serkis would stay with Pandora and Layne would take the couch. They had plans and backup plans. They had everything you’d need to raise multiple kids for months at a time. They really had put a lot of effort into this. And they’d actually pulled it off. I was all types of proud. This was my family. Always.

35. Flirting with Disaster

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Vagrant stepped aside and made a sweeping gesture with his hand, allowing us both entry. Serkis stepped aside and let me pass, then moved in behind me. Vagrant waited for us both before clicking the door shut. He moved around to face us.

“And what brings you girls to my end of town?”

Serkis smiled, I could feel it from behind. “Actually, we were kind of wondering what you were doing here, being a new father and everything.” Serkis had a hand on my back, edging me closer to him. He smiled in response.

“I’m a very busy man.”

We both looked around. Serkis laughed a little. “Looks like it. Doesn’t it, Harley?”

I stepped away from her. “You’d think that a busy man like you could find time for his family? Isn’t family the most important thing to you?”

He smiled back at me. “Sometimes. Depends. When things need to be done. Well, you know how it goes. There are other people that require my attention.”

“Like who?” I asked.

He looked me over. “Like…you, for instance. What if I wasn’t here right now? You couldn’t come over here to see me.”

“Very true. And that would have been a tragedy.”

He laughed a little and moved away to get a drink. He looked us both over. “Like one?”

Serkis made a request of him, moving to my side, a hand on my shoulder. “And she’ll have the same.” I looked at her. Vagrant smiled wider. But his smiles weren’t smiles – they were wicked grins. He was working on his own drink.

“Isn’t she a bit young to be playing with the big boys?”

I stepped away from her, took a few steps over to him. “I think you should be more worried that I’m too old to be playing games.”

He laughed. “Depends on the game, kid.” He held out the two glasses, both of which I took. I reached back and handed Serkis hers, keeping mine close, sipping in front of him. He watched closely, his eyes moving from one to the other.

“You girls still haven’t told me what brought you here.”

I stepped closer. “We just…missed you. You’ve been so distant lately.”

He came around to me; he was less than a foot away from me. “I guess I’ll have to work on that. I’d hate to have you think I didn’t like you.”

I took a step back to find Serkis’ hand on my back. She was letting me know she was there. She wouldn’t let it go too far. I had to keep him smiling. Keep him happy. Make him look one way while she got him to look another. She wanted a good clean kill. One shot. Point blank. And then they’d blame a competitor. She had the silencer on the gun, tucked into her own waistband in the back. She was moving away a little, to the side, to line up her shot. To escape his point of vision. I stepped back to where I was.

“I’d never think something silly like that.”

He smiled. “Sure you would. You’re just a silly little girl.”

“Am I?”

His eyes hardened. “Yeah. You are. You’re a silly little girl who is trying to play with the big boys. And all you’re going to get is trouble. Go home. And stay there. Let the big bad take care of themselves.” He shot a glance over to Serkis; she’d pulled the gun out and left it at her side. I jumped forward and kissed him to get his attention elsewhere. His whole body froze for a minute then he loosened up and tried to hold on to me. I pulled away. His eyes were still locked on me. I pulled back, breathing hard.

“Just think – a silly little girl did you in.”

Freeze. That deer in the headlights look. That infamous “huh?” expression, seconds before it happens. They don’t know. They can’t think or move. He looked at me not with contempt but with admiration. There was a sense of respect. I had thrown him off track. He wheeled around to Serkis. She smiled, the gun leveled in her hand.

“Goodbye, lover.” Click.

“You…bitch,” he muttered. Bang.

Serkis dropped her arm, the gun still smoking. She looked at him as his body locked up, dropping eventually. “Yeah…I guess I can be. Don’t tell anybody though, huh?”

She looked around, finishing her drink and motioning for me to do the same. I think we both knocked them back in a single drought. Serkis looked around the place, moving over to the window. She took my glass and hers and dropped them out. We watched them fall for the few seconds, listening to the distant crash. I didn’t understand until I saw a bunch of guys arrive to investigate. She grabbed my arm and dragged me out the door. And we ran. Like Hell.

We got back to the street and took off for the car, which I drove back to Sylum’s. We sat in it for a while, parked, the motor shut down. Serkis touched me again, to get my attention. I felt miles away. Like I wasn’t part of the waking world anymore. I jumped and looked at her.

“Hey.”

“Hey, kid. Listen, I’m here to talk, if you want, about all this, what happened. You know? We’re all here for you. Anytime. No matter what. This’ a family.”

“Some family. Taking out its own.”

She sighed. “You need sleep. You’ll feel better, come on. It’ll do you good. I’ve got to get back to Pandora. She’ll be home in a few days. You go up there and help the boys, will you? Please? And if you can’t do it, go for a walk. Okay? I’m sorry and we’re here for you and we love you. Alright?”

I was trying desperately to zone in. She’d pulled out the big guns when she brought love into it. She loved Layne. Loving me was something different. I don’t know. It was something that we knew and felt and understood but seldom ever said. I nodded to her and got out of the car. She came around to me. I couldn’t look at her.

“Listen, it’ll be better now, okay? We got babies to look after. Come on, the boys are probably burning the place down up there. I need you to be the grown up.” She poked me and I looked at her, smiling. Serkis knew how to get to people sometimes. I nodded, even though I didn’t care too much.

“Yeah. I’ll see you later.” I moved to walk away. To check on the boys. To sleep. To do whatever I was told to. Whatever they decided for me. She grabbed me before I could go and hugged me, holding me close. I didn’t feel confined or captive, I didn’t want to scream or tear away. I wanted to stay there because it was safe. No matter how bad it was, if Serkis told me that it would be okay, it would. I don’t know why I believed her, or why her words sunk in and stayed when nothing else did. But that’s how things worked. She held onto me until I wasn’t cold anymore. And she knew it.

“Come on. Sleep will make it better, okay? We’ll talk later if you want. I’ll meet up with you all in a little bit. I want Pandora to be on the same page. And we’ll talk to Sylum and see if it’s okay for everyone to go home. Layne and I intend to move in with Pandora and we’ll all work on raising these kids. And you can come stay awhile if you want – it’s a big place, if you ever get lonely, you know, stay a few nights. We’ll work it out, okay? Sylum should be over in awhile. Talk to him. I’m going to go on the rounds though, I’ll be back soon, I promise.”

She pulled away a little, but held onto my arms. She kissed me on the cheek and let go. And she walked away, looking back every little bit to make sure I was still there. Even when I’d turned to go into the building, I could feel her eyes searching for me. I was devoted to her. I was devoted to her and Layne. And whatever they were devoted to. I was the child. Until now. Because now there were real children.

An empire without a king. Streets with a barely broken-in boss. Trouble was brewing. Or had we already come past it? I trudged up the familiar stairs to Sylum’s apartment, knowing it would be locked, knocking carefully on the door. I waited a few seconds, knowing I wouldn’t be able to hear anything on the inside. Layne opened the door, his face flushed. With the open door came a wave of sound, mostly the screaming child. I was dragged in and the kid was almost thrown at me by a frantic Grey. I looked around to find ashtrays all over, nearly overflowing in some. Poor Grey. I would’ve laughed if he hadn’t charged out of the place so abruptly. Layne was pacing around after closing the door behind him.

“I’m sorry…we just don’t know what to do with it. It just won’t stop,” Layne’s voice was panicked, like he jumped off a plane without a parachute. I smiled at him, the frantic look in his eye, searching for more smokes. I bounced the kid on my hip a few times and shushed it as much as I could. In about ten minutes it was quiet. In about twenty it was asleep.

Layne had collapsed on the couch. I went over and sat next to him. He was exhausted, his head back, eyes on the ceiling.

“Now, how the hell did you do that?” he muttered. I smiled and laughed softly.

“I’m a girl.”

He laughed to himself. “Figures. We tried everything, and all this time, that’s what we were lacking. Figures.”

I glared at him. “Should I be insulted?”

He looked over. “Nah. But it goes to show you exactly how helpless we are without you around. And our girls kick ass to boot. Now that’s a plus.”

I laughed softly, holding the baby close. When I was fairly confident that it would be okay, I asked Layne if he wanted it back. He shook his head, but after awhile of convincing, he took the kid from me.

“Do me a favor, huh? Don’t call the kid an “it” no more, huh? It’s a he. Thanks.”

I laughed as I got up to stretch. “Sure thing.”

I walked around a little bit, getting reacquainted with the place. Everything was as I remembered. I went back and checked the little room I used to stay in. It was untouched. I didn’t really expect it to be any different, but it was worth checking. I looked around. Layne wasn’t having any serious problems. I curled up on the mattress to collect my thoughts, to clear my mind. To let go of whatever was bothering me. But soon enough, I was out cold too. Sleeping to make up for the madness, the blood and tears lost. The lives ended. Would consequence come? Or would we get away with it? I didn’t truly care. I went to sleep. The family would take care of itself. It always does.

34. Surviving Captivity

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Six months is a long time, but it’s not really that long when put to practice. Nothing of interest happened until shortly before I was slated to leave. It was the last week – I had never truly settled in, so I didn’t have serious packing to do. Saint came and went less and less, I took charge of the little girl in his absence. She was perceptive, clever, sweet…highly observant. Grey spent a lot of time with me, so I wouldn’t feel alone, neglected, shunned. He brought letters from the others with him. Details on finding the story and what it contained. They had it. They had what they wanted and now it would spread. They would make copies and get the word out. The circus turned into a production company. It started with us. And then with them. And soon everybody knew. Everyone had heard.

The stories were topics of debate, they were uncertain. There were skeptics that said they were nothing but fiction. They were an underground craze, available only through the family. But still, it spread, as it was meant to. Grey told me that Requiem was furious. Serkis had overthrown her authority with this. Vagrant was thought to have given the order for its release. He didn’t care half as much; he shrugged it off. But Requiem wanted heads to roll for this. Vagrant put up with her less and less, spending more time on the streets, staying away from her the more irritable she became. I knew this because Grey told me. He was a good source of information – I trusted him and he trusted me. He treated me like an equal and I respected him that much more for it. I didn’t have to play games with him for the answers anymore.

Times were tough, but nobody died. Tensions were high. Pandora and Requiem were expecting – their dates would coincide. Serkis and Layne were doing their best, running back and forth, keeping watch on both sides. The more Vagrant abandoned her, the more she asked of Serkis. Requiem still had her soft points, but not enough to make her forgivable. She had sinned, and until this child was born, she would be safe. After that, her sorrow wouldn’t save her. Serkis was supportive, as family tends to be. But she knew, as we all did, that once this child was born, Requiem wouldn’t be necessary anymore. Her life posed a danger to us all. The child posed a danger as well, but it was still innocent. There was hope, as always.

The months turned to weeks, weeks to days. I woke up one morning to find Grey pacing around the place, talking rapidly to Saint. I rubbed my eyes and looked at them both.

“Good, you’re awake. It’s started.”

“What?”

“The kids. Requiem’s is already born and Pandora’s working on it. We should get back there. Soon, well…we’ll leave as soon as you’re ready.”

I changed and returned to him in ten minutes, my bags over my shoulder. “Let’s go.”

He shook Saint’s hand and we left. I shook Saint’s hand as well before leaving. I didn’t really understand why, but he was providing a service of some sort. We had hijacked his life. He was someone to be respected for his duty. I didn’t expect to see Klyde again. He’d have enough to deal with. I got in the car and we took off. Simple as that.

“I don’t understand something, Grey.”

He glanced over. “Just one thing?”

“Well…maybe. How is it that the girl can be a Hunter?”

“Oh man, sit tight kid. You heard the stories, right?”

“Right.”

“And you read the Cycle when I brought it to you a few months back, right?”

“Yeah. Harvey and her sister were the only Hunters, right?”

“Wrong.”

“Who else?”

“Entropy.”

“You mean Elysium’s other half? Elysium’s Entropy?”

“The one and only. He was a Hunter before his life was hijacked.”

“How do you know?”

He glanced over at me. “Careful research.”

“Research? Or you were told, by Serkis, and she was told by…?”

“Klyde. He filled in all the gaps when he handed the stories over. So we would never have to be a bother to him. We wouldn’t go looking and he wouldn’t have to come find us.”

“This doesn’t seem to add up.”

Grey laughed. “No, it doesn’t, but that’s just how it is.”

We drove the rest of the way home in silence.

I sat there and thought about everything that had come to pass. The madness that had suddenly started. Where do we go from here? Did the rest of the family fully understand what they were getting themselves into? For our sake, as a whole, I hoped so.

We got home in record time, the car screaming to a halt outside the hospital.

“Go up there, they’re waiting on you, I’ll park and be right behind you.”

I jumped up and jogged to reception, explaining what floor I needed, who I was looking for, and why in a matter of sentence fragments. They nodded and sent me on my way. Up we go. I got up there in a matter of seconds, though my body felt like it was frozen. I had the momentum frozen in my bones, the constant movement being arrested. I jumped out of the elevator the moment the doors opened, finding myself lost. I looked up and down the hallways, catching sight of a pacing Layne. He jogged over.

“Hey, it’s already done, she’s down the hall, resting. You know…rough time…or…well…she’s sleeping. I was just in there.”

I laughed. He seemed…uncomfortable. The whole idea of girls…women and having children and the whole works got to him. Unless it was something else. I couldn’t tell. He looked behind me, up and down the halls.

“Where’s Grey?”

“He said he’d be up right behind me, why? What’s the rush?”

“Oh, nothing, come on, we’ll go check on Pandora.”

“And Requiem?”

He smiled a fake little grin. “Her too.”

We went into the room, its atmosphere sedate and calm. Pandora was sleeping with Serkis sitting idly by, half conscious. She got up when we stepped in, hugging us both close, kissing Layne. He held her for a minute before leading her back to sit.

“Go back to sleep, we’ll take care of things.”

She nodded and dozed off again, keeping her watch for as long as she could keep her eyes open. Grey came charging in as we slipped out.

“Hey, what’s up?” Grey said, as casually as he could manage. We stood around outside the doorway; Layne closed the door carefully. I looked around. Layne whispered a few things to Grey, patted him on the back, and sent him on his way. He watched him go and looked over at me. I didn’t understand.

“Listen to me, things are going to move fast, okay? I need you to do me a really big favor, okay kid? I want you to go to the bathroom, there should be one down the hall there. And I want you to count to ten. Take this lighter. And I want you to set off the fire alarm.” He pressed his lighter into my open palm, covering my closed hand with his. He looked around. “And as soon as it’s done, run, okay? Run down the stairs, we’ll meet you in the garage. Okay? Do me this favor? I’m depending on you.”

The last words hung in my mind, echoing over and over. He needed me. I nodded quickly, starting to walk away. I looked around, yelling back at him before he was too far gone.

“Where are you going?”

He smiled at me, something wicked, something I wasn’t used to. “To pay a dear friend her last respects. You know, a requiem for the lost?” And he walked away, leaving me with the fading shape of his body as he moved. I went in my own direction, going off to do my own work. I had a job to do. I had a duty to fulfill.

I went off to the bathroom, looking around. Shining white. The whole hospital was shining white. It drove me crazy. The institutional white. It reminded me of my youth, I couldn’t

figure out why, but it did. I got in there and turned a few times then stood still, staring at the ceiling. Layne’s lighter was silver, square…gorgeous. It had an engraving on it, I wasn’t sure of it. I’d ask him to see it later. I was counting in my head from the moment I got in here. I got into one of the stalls and stood for extra height. I held my arm out to the sprinkler.

Five. Four. Three. Two. Flip. Click, click…burn. One.

And…let there be rain. Because when it rains, it pours.

I jumped down and ran out the door, assaulted by the rush of people and the sound of screams. I looked around; half the people weren’t leaving – they were tending to the sick. I saw Grey come tearing through, Layne and Serkis together. I jumped ahead of them and tore down the stairs, winding my way through people. We passed a group of cops on our way down, hurrying up. I ran until I got down, waiting outside the doorway. Layne came charging through next, he grabbed hold of me and shoved me forward.

“Go, the car’s that way, get it started, will you?”

I took off running while he turned and waited for Serkis. I got to the car and started it like I was told. I looked over my shoulder to see them running, Grey holding his coat bundled up in his arms. Layne opened the door for him and he plowed in the back with Serkis as Layne slid in next to me. They forgot for a moment that I was there.

“Get us the hell out of here!” Grey yelled. I floored it and tore out of there, driving blind. I looked from one to the other, realizing for the first time that there was a screaming cry. I turned back in my seat to Grey.

“Where the hell did that kid come from?”

They looked at me like I had just appeared there. “Just drive, okay? We’ll explain.”

“Where to?”

“Drive to…”

Silence set in, they didn’t know where to go. Layne dug out a cell phone and dialed a number, made some quick arrangements. “Head to Sylum’s,” he told me. I turned the car and set out, trying to make time without drawing attention. We passed the fire engines on our way. I slowed down when we were halfway there.

“So who is that?”

Grey had handed the kid over to Serkis, who was working on quieting it down. He breathed a sigh of relief. “This is young Mister Revere Ransom. Rev for short.”

I turned in my seat. “You stole Requiem’s child? Are you crazy? Heads will roll for this!”

Grey smiled an evil little grin, shooting his brother a glance. “I don’t really think that’s going to be a problem.”

I looked around as much as I could while driving. “What the hell is that supposed to mean? Well? Someone answer me.” I couldn’t yell because of the child, but I was frustrated. Layne was looking out the window absentmindedly when he replied.

“She’s dead, Harley. Requiem’s dead. For real this time.” He looked over to me. “I swear. There’s no coming back this time.”

“Holy shit, are you, are you all insane? Vagrant will have our necks for this.”

Layne put a hand on my shoulder. “Calm down and drive. Don’t worry about it. Okay? We need you to stay together – we need you not to fall apart right now, okay? It’ll work out, trust us, please? Just, drive.”

And I did. I drove them to Sylum’s, pulling to the curb to find the good man waiting for us. Sylum helped everyone out of the car; I was attached to the steering wheel. He opened the door on my side.

“Coming?”

I looked at him in awe, like he was somewhere else. He didn’t belong here. I remember shaking my head. He looked at the others and came back to me.

“Come on, please get out of the car, we have things to do. Please?”

I shook my head again, still frozen in the car. He looked around. They’d need a new plan, because I couldn’t move. I just couldn’t. Serkis handed off the kid to Layne, kissing him as she moved away. She ushered the boys indoors. I heard her send Sylum back to the hospital, to take charge of the investigation before someone else took over. He rushed off to his own car. When everyone was in motion, she slid into the passenger seat.

“Come on kid, let’s go for a ride.”

I pulled out into traffic and went. I don’t know why. I don’t know why I could go with her, why I couldn’t get out of the car when they asked me to. But I went. I drove, for her. And only for her. And Layne. I had taken part in this for them. Risked everything, for them. They had killed Requiem, stolen her child, and we were now on our way to kill Vagrant. And I couldn’t feel it. I didn’t care. I could feel Serkis watching me, trying to draw a response from me. But she couldn’t. She didn’t have a plan. Vagrant was suspicious of us from the start. She was still working on the details.

I jumped suddenly, looking over. She was drawing her hand back from me. I shot her some kind of look.

“What were you doing?”

“You’re cold.”

“And?”

She shrugged. “You shouldn’t be. Ever.”

And we rode some more in silence. It wouldn’t be long now. She opened the glove compartment and took out a handgun, made sure it was loaded, clicking the clip back in. She looked over at me. I kept driving.

“You know what we have to do, right?”

“Yes.”

“I’m going to kill Vagrant. Do you understand why?”

“Yes.”

“No, really, do you?”

“Because he’ll kill us. For treason.”

“Good girl. Now, he doesn’t like me. Do you understand why I need you to get in?”

I looked over at her. “What?”

“I need you to go in ahead of me. And I need you to stay ahead of me…to keep him off task. Distract him.”

“You mean you want to use me as a human shield.”

“He won’t hurt you. He likes you. He always has. You’re young and cute and innocent, you’ve got that look, that…deer in the headlights, that look that says you don’t belong. You’re the child. You always were. He knows this. And he respects you for being as strong as you are, being raised in this. I want you to go in and charm him, that’s all.”

“You trust him enough, you want me to risk my life…you’re sure this will go your way?”

She smiled and produced another gun from the glove compartment. “I wouldn’t ask you to do it if I wasn’t sure.”

“You’re the gambler. You bet with lives, remember?”

She nodded. “Sometimes. But never yours. Never anyone else’s. Only mine.”

And we arrived. She looked the building up and down. “His people will tell them that I am here. I’ll go in with you, tell him that I’ve brought you to see him. You just be…you know…how you get…keep his mind off of the tiger behind you, okay? I know you can do it. I have faith in you. Okay?” We pulled into a spot, got out of the car and looked the place over again. She stood in front of me and held me by my shoulders. She shook me loosely.

“Come on, breathe. Relax. It’ll be just fine, okay? I would never let anything happen to you. Trust me.” She put the gun in my hand just as Layne had passed me the lighter. I tucked it into the waistband of my pants in the back. I slipped away from her and stood next to her, breathing out whatever doubt was in my mind. She put an arm around me and held me close to her, at her side.

“Let’s go,” I muttered.

“That’s my girl.”

And we started up. We were on our way to change everything, the chain of command, everything. Grey had taken over Cassidy’s job as street boss. But now we were going to empty the position of street king. We walked up the few floors, taking our time. Serkis knocked on the door slowly, marking in her mind where we’d passed Vagrant’s men. He opened the door slowly, looking around.

“Hello, darling,” she whispered. “Going to let us in? We’re absolutely dying for a rest.”

33. The Project

33 - ch33

Assignment: Find the Timeless Martyrs Cycle.

Where? How?

Good questions. I’ll get back to you on that.

Slow down. Explain. What is the Timeless Martyrs Cycle?

The Timeless Martyrs Cycle is a collection of stories, five volumes to be specific. It spans three decades, generations upon generations of stories, fictions and delusion. The stories, all together, have about…just shy of two-dozen different authors. It spans the lives and deaths of about 70 individuals, give or take. It is the holy grail. It is all the legends put together, in comprehensible format. Now and forever. Always and never. It is everything.

The Timeless Martyrs Cycle is the greatest legend of all. The ongoing fairy tale. But there are pieces that don’t add up. There are selections missing. There are fragments that prove its existence. Mr. Draven Riddle for one. Pandora, for another. Vagrant…the list goes on and on. The elders – the ones who predate the circus. They were there. They knew. They were raised with

the truth. We, the rest, the new, the young – we were sheltered. After the ensuing madness, it was decided that the truth would die and be buried. Until now.

As the advice goes – you can’t kill something that doesn’t want to die, and you can kill a man but you can’t kill an idea. As long as there are people around to believe in it, it will live on. And with this, there was an entire generation. An entire clan, so to speak. And there always

would be. These were stories that had become so distorted in the telling and retelling that the only way to make amends was to start fresh.

I got to New Paltz in record time, my life on my back. I got off the bus haphazardly, squaring my shoulders to take the burden. There was a figure all in black, a long trench-coat hiding most of his frame, leaning against a side of the building. He was smoking idly – what was it with these people and the dramatics? He pushed away from the wall with his elbows and sauntered over to me. I had my guitar and a small bag of clothes, which he reached out and took from me without a word. I fell in step behind him blindly.

“I take it you’re Saint.”

“Mr. Crowe,” he muttered.

“What?”

“The name, it freaks most people out. You can call me Crowe if it makes you feel any better. I don’t really care either way. Come on, my car’s over here.”

“But I have a ticket? I have an appointment to catch.”

He turned around to face me, pulling the smoke from his mouth. “Yeah? You’ve caught it, kid. Or it caught you. However you want to see it.” And he kept walking.

“I don’t get it?”

“You wouldn’t. I’ll explain later. For right now, we need to get the hell out of here.”

And we walked on in silence. I threw my stuff in the trunk and slid in the passenger seat next to my cheery compatriot. We were on the road for an hour before he said anything at all to me. I was shaken from my world of daydreams when his voice sounded.

“The ticket was a cover. If anybody figured anything out, you were leaving from New Paltz to…wherever the ticket says. In case you were stopped. And you were visiting family up in that direction or you were sent on vacation – whatever cover story came to mind. It was a just in case. Okay? With me so far?”

“Yeah. You don’t have to be so short with me, you know. I’m not as ignorant as you’d like to think.”

He sighed. “I’m sorry. My name is Saint Crowe. And I’ve been out of this game for a while now. Being called out of retirement kind of…irks me.”

“How did they call you in?”

He looked at me while he was driving. “I was connected with Vagrant. I’m one of the lost living legends. Word of me traveled; Serkis asked me to look after you for now. You’re going to help me with my project while she works on hers.”

“What’s going on?”

He looked back over. “What did she tell you?”

“She told me about Requiem having a kid. About Vagrant being in the way. She told me that there would be a match…the two great families…I don’t understand?”

He heaved another sigh, fumbling to light another smoke as he drove. I helped him as best as I could. “Thanks,” he muttered. He drove on for a while in silence before speaking again.

“Saint, please, just tell me the truth?”

“You’re going to help me play babysitter. Okay? As a favor to another important friend. Grey will be coming up tomorrow and he’ll take care of you up here. I have my own business to attend. I’m sorry for being short, I’m just too…there’s too much going on to care or go through it, you know? Maybe someday, someone will enlighten you. But today’s not that day, and that someone sure as hell ain’t me, kid. Sorry.”

And we remained in silence. The ride carried on and we pulled up to a broken down house in the most desolate part of nowhere that I think they could find. He got out and waited for me to pack up and trudge in behind him. He gave me the general tour.

“Sorry it’s not much, but it’s all I’ve got right now.”

“It’s fine. Really, it is.” I walked around, dropping my stuff in what appeared to be the living room. It was desolate but had this definite air of a homey nature. I was almost content.

The rapid ring of footsteps echoed through the place. I wheeled around to see a small girl come bursting out of the shadows and spring herself upon Saint. He displayed the most warmth to that child than I’d ever seen in my life. I stood there watching, forgetting for a moment that I was there at all. I think they found me invisible for a moment too, until the child stopped moving

and gestured toward me. Saint led her over to me by a small hand, bending to her level and motioning for me to do the same.

“I’d like you to meet a friend of mine. This is Miss Angyl Hunter. She’ll be staying here with us. She’s very important to me.”

The child hid her eyes from me, turning to hide her entire face in Saint’s shirt. She was young, maybe about…four or five? She could have been ten or twelve – I’m terrible with children’s ages. I always was. If I didn’t know for certain that I was 18, there might be a problem. Never can tell these days.

“The name’s…cute.”

Saint smiled. “Isn’t it? I’d love to take the credit for its irony, but that achievement belongs to her parents.”

“And they are…where?”

He kissed the girl on the cheek and sent her off to play, watching her go. He turned back to me as he started to stand and I rose with him. “Dead.”

“I’m sorry…”

“She’s in my care for right now. Since the investigation.”

“Investigation?”

He looked at me hard. “You really don’t know, do you?”

“Enlighten me.”

He heaved a sigh and motioned for me to sit down somewhere, which I did. He moved over and sat down with me. “Have you ever heard of the Timeless Martyrs Cycle?”

I looked at him. Was he truly serious? The Cycle was a legend, a story, a fairy tale. Nobody could prove its existence. They couldn’t disprove it either…I focused my attention.

“Yeah. But it’s only a story. There’s no proof of the past. Who’d be foolish enough to write down the history of these streets? Who would put to paper the pain? And how could something that important simply…disappear?”

“First off, they’d like you to think all that. And you have. So hence, they’re doing a good job. It does, in fact, exist. In its entirety. I know who possesses it. There’s a small circle of people who know what it is and where to find it. There have been fools along the way who’ve tried…but all resulted in failure. Until now.”

“Why now?”

“Your…great family desires it. And we’re going to let them have it this time. We’re going to let it out. Let it go free.”

“Why?”

“The two legendary families will merge, in time. Nobody understands why we must keep them apart, no matter the cost. Nobody knows what brought us to this point. They have to understand the cost, the price paid over the years. So that we may avoid collapse.”

“So why all this? Why the covert?”

“To make sure it falls into the right hands. Your dear family is divided. We want to make sure that Serkis gets it. If Requiem got hold of it first, she’d destroy it.”

I looked around, collecting my thoughts. “And the child here?”

“She’s part of it. She used to stay in the city, with the stories. But since Requiem’s recent homicidal tendencies, and the seat of power she now possesses, we’ll be keeping her here.”

“We?”

“Saint and myself.”

I wheeled around to find another man standing in the room. Older, but still bearing a youthful burning in his eyes. He was smoking too, looking around the place, making a careful inspection of myself. He took a few steps closer. “My name is Klyde. The pleasure’s yours, I’m sure.”

I stopped breathing for a moment. He smiled and walked away, off to check on the child. I watched him go. Saint smiled.

“Yeah, he does that to people sometimes.”

“He’s…that’s…a legend…”

Saint laughed. “Yeah, some of us are still standing. Who knew?” He lit up a fresh smoke, holding the pack out to me, which I took unconsciously. “You’ll stay here for awhile, Grey will come up tomorrow and update you. He’ll get information back and forth. When things cool down, you’ll go home.”

“And what about you?”

“I’ll stay here. Klyde will stay in the city – keep watch. He’ll make the actual drop of the story. He’s in charge of it.”

“I don’t understand…how is it that Serkis got in touch with him?”

He smiled. “She’s got influence and charisma like you wouldn’t believe.”

I laughed. “Yeah, she is rather convincing.”

“And besides, the truth must be told sooner or later.”

“And now’s a perfect time to set the record straight?”

Saint took a hard pull on the smoke and exhaled. “No. It’s just now…we have people who might actually…appreciate the record.”

I looked around. I was getting used to this house arrest crap. That’s kind of sad. But at least there was a kid. I didn’t have a particular hatred of kids – they kind of peaked my curiosity. And this specific kid was very, very special. Saint took a few more pulls on his smoke and got up to walk away.

“If you’ll excuse me, I have business to attend to. Make yourself at home, there’s a room set up for you in the back. I know you’re not thrilled with this, neither am I…but it keeps you out of the crossfire.” He moved to walk away.

“When are they due?”

“Excuse me?” He stopped moving.

“The girls. The kids. When are they due?”

He looked around, thought about it, crunching numbers in his head. Months had been passing and I didn’t even realize it. He thought about it. “Six months?”

“I have to stay here for six months?”

He laughed. “Come on, it’s not all bad. You get to spend time with Angyl and me. Sounds fun, right?” He laughed himself right out of the room.

Fun? Oh man. I looked around. Home sweet home, right? I’d learn to deal. This was for my own good, for my own protection – I understood that. But I missed my job. My life. I trudged

to the room I’d been assigned and wrote until I lost feeling in my hand. And when I lost feeling, I sat and played guitar. This would be interesting to say the least. And at the moment, the least was all that could be said.

32. Nearly Silent Screams

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There’s questions that need answering, naturally. Just a few simple questions along the way. First off – Sylum.

Officer Sylum Bishop had a history with Doyle. There were close and watched each other’s backs for ages. They owed each other in ways we could only imagine and they had a bond beyond words. Whatever happened between them was between them, that’s all. And with Doyle dead, and Sylum’s lips sealed, we were left to speculate. So why was he still on board? Think about it. Requiem went to…interesting lengths to renew his loyalty. Which is kind of

funny considering that Doyle and him already had a tight bond, unbeknownst to us. He sent her to him just to see if she’d do it. Do him. For the family. And she did. Sylum was always on our team.

And what about the history with Serkis? Being with the law, don’t you think him and her had a run in or two from time to time?

Requiem returns – Sylum knew she wasn’t really dead. He never had a body to get rid of. So he always knew. And was he going to screw her over? He knew what she was capable of. He knew her limits from afar. And he wasn’t going to be named traitor. So he swore allegiance to Serkis. Why? Because she was truly loyal. Despite the cost. It was safer with Serkis than it was with Requiem. The lesser of the two evils. Though both were ruthless, there was a defining factor that separated Requiem – she was clinically fucking insane. Case and point.

I worked a few nights, as usual, getting back into the routine. Returning to my roots. I didn’t see the others for a while. They had to know. But they had no idea of what I’d seen. I wrote it down when I got home from work that night. I wrote it down. I drew pictures. I did everything I artistically could to get it out. And nothing was good enough. I couldn’t put to terms what I knew, what I remembered. What I’d never forget. I tried like hell but everything fell short. I worked harder, moved faster, but the result was still the same. I would simply have to live with this. I’d deal. As expected.

I was on my way back from the bar when I came home to find Serkis standing around. She was alone. She had a sheet of paper in her hand; she dropped it back on the table absentmindedly. It was one of a series of vent sheets. One of the several scattered pages that had the truth scrawled all over them. She turned to face me.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered. The sound of her voice echoed in the apartment, even though the initial statement was low enough that I was sure if I didn’t know she’s spoken, I would’ve missed it. I stood there for a moment, subconsciously dropping my keys on the table next to me, emptying my pockets. I took a few steps toward her.

“Why?”

She shrugged. “This isn’t your fight. This is…”

“Family business, right?” I finished her thought. She looked down to try and catch the momentum I’d tripped up.

“You should get out of town for awhile. You know, until this settles out.”

“You want me to run?” I was edging closer to her; she held her ground. “You want me to turn my back on all I’ve got left and take off? Just like that? And go where? Huh?”

“We know people. We’ll find you a place. You’ll never be without a safe haven.”

“Are you so certain?”

She looked me dead in the eye, her own eyes moist. She closed her lips hard, forcing the tears back, holding them down until it hurt. “She’s pregnant, Harley. Requiem is pregnant. I’m going to be an aunt. And she’s going to tear what’s left apart. If we don’t get to her first. We have work to do. And I don’t want you caught in the crossfire anymore.”

“Oh, it was okay before, but now it’s a problem? Sorry to be a pain in the ass.”

Her whole body shook as she held everything back. The scream got caught in her throat and she held it down. She dug in her pocket and produced a bus ticket. She held it out to me. I refused to touch it or her.

“Take it.”

“No.”

She heaved a heavy sigh. “Take the ticket. Get out of here.”

“What are you going to do?”

And Serkis smiled a wry grin at me. “Containment.”

I looked away to collect my thoughts. She wouldn’t quit and I knew it. It wasn’t in her nature to walk away. When she set her mind to something, nothing would pull her back. Nothing. I stood there, considering my options.

“Who first?”

She coughed. “Excuse me?”

“Who are you going after first? Vagrant? Or Requiem?”

Serkis took a step back, deciding to sit when standing became too difficult. She rested her elbows on her knees and cradled her head. I took a few steps toward her, dropping to my knee to get down to her level. I put a hand on her arm, anything to get a response. She was cold. Distant. Like I wasn’t here. Or she wasn’t.

“Serkis, answer me.” I wouldn’t let this one slide. She looked up, locking eyes with me.

“Do you honestly expect me to kill my own true blood family? And my nephew?”

“Nephew…?”

She smiled. “It’s a boy.” You could feel the pain in the smile, the choked sobs suppressed into silence in her throat. “Revere,” she muttered.

“How do you know all this?”

“She might hate me, but she still needs me. Who else is she going to tell? Vagrant likes power, but his ideals on children are…uncertain. Requiem’s insane. But she still wants an audience from time to time. And a safety net is always nice.”

“And you’d save her? After all this?”

Serkis looked away from me, to gather the strength to sound credible. “Family…it’s only loyal to itself. I’m sorry.”

“So what’s going to happen now?”

“We’ll wait. Vagrant is slated for removal while he’s still new in office, soft…vulnerable. And Requiem…if she doesn’t grow out of this…steps will be taken later on.”

“After the wheel turns again?”

She nodded.

“Let me guess – her and Pandora are due at the same time?”

She nodded again.

“Cute.”

“Don’t you see? The two great families live on. The match made in Hell is in the works as we speak. Don’t you see? Our worst nightmare is coming into play.”

“How do you know for certain?”

“Revere Ransom. And Maven Merrick. A boy. And a girl.” She laughed. “Like I said, a match made in Hell.”

“And you expect me to skip town, now?”

“Yeah. I do.”

I got up and paced around. “So who gets to take down the boss this time?”

She didn’t answer me. Just like I knew she wouldn’t. But I had to try. I had to be sure. Her silence was my answer. I knew what Layne meant earlier in the conversation. I smiled as I paced, holding the laughter in. She got up to face me, to be on the same level. She stepped forward and grabbed me abruptly. She shoved the ticket in my pocket and held me close.

“Things are going to Hell, and fast. Take this. Get on the bus. Go. Trust me, okay? I’ll go and collect you. Just do me this favor, please? It’s all I ask of you. Go there, a guy will meet you at the station. His name is Saint. Okay? Please. Do this for me?”

I pulled away from her, shaking my head. She had desperation in her tone. I hated to refuse her but I couldn’t go. This would make her better – this would take a weight off her mind. I wanted to hug her and tell her I’d do anything she asked of me. But I couldn’t lie to her.

“And what about you?”

“That’s not your problem.”

“Since when? Family, remember?”

She looked away and back at me. “Do it or don’t. I’m warning you now – the wheels are turning. And I can’t protect you for this round. I’m sorry.” And she was gone.

She walked out the door and let it slam behind her. I couldn’t be mad or upset. I couldn’t scream and yell at her. She did what she had to. I turned the ticket over in my hand. Departure time? Three hours. Place? New Paltz. Don’t you just love New York?

I looked around. I had a show tonight. I had a job here. She was sending me where I had picked up Vagrant. The irony of everything was beginning to bother me. But I’d go there. I’d do

as she asked. Because she asked me to. She didn’t order me to. She didn’t demand. Serkis Draft had kindly asked me to do something that was in my power to do.

I packed some clothes, slung the guitar over my back and walked out of the apartment. The irony of it got to me. This was how Requiem had come to us. Ain’t that something?

And I set out, on foot. I would catch a bus from here to there. And I’d wait. And we’d see what kind of a Saint I’d find up there. This should be fun. I guess I could be grateful – I get a vacation. A temporary escape from my familiar madness to a place of distant and incomprehensible madness. God, I love the cyclical nature of this.

To Hell and Heaven. Whatever comes first.

31. Coronation

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There was a new king in town, ladies and gentlemen. A new center ring. A new main attraction, if you will. The new kid in town happened to be the top dog.

Presenting, the one, the only – Vagrant Ransom.

And the crowd goes…wild. The last remaining Ransom. Everyone knew the stories – everyone talked about the infamous family. Doyle was the last of the Merrick family, but he was easily replaced with the last Ransom. The Ransoms were bigger, better, they were just that much…cooler. The Merrick family had the dark shadow over their name, the dark spot that never washed clean. The Ransoms covered it with cool. They were damn good at what they did. They were illusionists by nature; by virtue of necessity – they survived by it.

But you can’t just step up and take the reins. Even if the old guy mysteriously turns up dead. Even if you’re a Ransom. Even if there’s nobody else. You have to prove something. Requiem’s “death” was Cassidy’s proof of devotion; but that doesn’t mean that it was accepted. This was Serkis’ test. Whether Requiem was in on it was debatable. She stayed hidden because she was planning with Vagrant. There’s just a lot that’s very sketchy about the whole deal. But I think it’s supposed to be that way.

I worked, as usual. I dealt with Cassidy more and more, due to Pandora’s absence. Nobody told him that dear old Requiem was back in town. And I wasn’t going to be the bearer of bad news. No thanks. Every so often I value my life.

He had to know…then again, denial’s fun. But he had to know. He just had to. Requiem’s not the easiest person to hide. It was a typical day at work with Cassidy, a typical night shift on a slow night. Serkis and Layne were there. They were playing music, on and off, Serkis singing half-heartedly. Very little had been said all around lately. Communications had been shut down. I hadn’t seriously talked to them since dealing with Requiem. But they had people outside my

door at night. They tried to make it covert, tried to keep me calm, but I knew. There were times when I was sure Sylum was out there. I’d bet my life on it.

The door opened and we all looked up. Requiem walked in, nonchalantly, wrapped into Vagrant. They walked in with the attitude of a king and queen, surveying their subjects. Their loyal subjects. We all looked up, at the same time. And we all looked away together. Layne played harder, Serkis sang louder, her tone completely shifted. I cleaned my glass until the squeak was a scream tearing through my head. A glass shattered. I looked over – Cassidy had dropped the one he’d been cleaning.

The pair came right up to the bar and sat down, as if nothing was wrong. As if this was typical. Cassidy moved off to help someone else, then rethought his motion, and went over to Serkis. He almost dragged her away from where she was. I watched Requiem watch the scene. She smiled cruelly, turning her attention to catch me. I couldn’t look away fast enough. She whispered in Vagrant’s ear then turned her attention back to me.

“Dead man walking,” she muttered, her words nearly incomprehensible. Vagrant had an arm around her, carefully keeping her in check. He was calm. Silent. They were waiting for him to come back. They were waiting to hijack him from his life. To bring their wrath down on him.

And he didn’t have a clue. The question that was really getting to me was – would Serkis warn

him? Would she? Or wouldn’t she? To which family was she truly loyal?

They weren’t gone long. I didn’t bother going to either to ask what was said – they wouldn’t tell me anyway. Why waste my breath? I went about my business, did what was expected of me. Nobody bothered me or stopped me in any way. Cassidy was on his way back around behind the bar when Requiem grabbed hold of him. She had to detach herself from Vagrant to do it, but she did. A few whispered words, a few short smiles, a kiss on the cheek, and she led him out the door. Vagrant looked as she went, carelessly watching her back move toward the door. He shrugged and went back to his drink.

“You’re going to just let her go?” I said involuntarily. I swear I’ve lost control of my mind. He looked up at me, surprised to hear that I still had a voice.

“Let? You should know above all that nobody “lets” that girl do anything. She is herself. Always. You know that.”

“Yeah,” I muttered, turning to go back to my work. He reached out and grabbed hold of my arm. I froze, my eyes darting around to Layne, to Serkis. This was the new boss. They wouldn’t fight his decision. They wouldn’t jump up and intervene in him talking to me. It would seem…suspicious. I could feel their eyes locked onto the scene. Vagrant looked over his shoulder, around the place, then at Serkis and Layne. I saw him wink at them nonchalantly then turn back to me.

“Come with me, we’re going on a field trip.” With that he led me away from behind the bar, his hand still on my arm. He pulled me in front of him, “helping” me to the door, a hand firmly planted on my shoulder. He took the rag I still held in my other hand and threw it to Serkis. She glared at him.

“Take care of the place while we’re gone, will you?” He said it with a tone that spoke daggers, a tone that cut through Serkis’ entire person. Layne sat frozen, the guitar sitting still in his lap, the echo of its last sounds long dead. But she wouldn’t intervene. Neither one of them

could. They knew the situation. Grey came in as we walked out, a bewildered look on his face. Vagrant merely nodded to him. I could still hear the tone of his voice as we left.

“What’s going on?” he’d said, looking around for a rational answer. And I can imagine Serkis’ answer – I can imagine her nonchalant tone and casual shrug.

“Business.”

Because when you break it down, that’s all it is. Business. Family that it may be, it’s still a business nonetheless. I was being brought along because I was powerless. Because there was

nothing I could do. I was taken along as a witness. Because I’d remember. I’d write it down. I’d tell the others after it was too late. I was being taken along because I was the child. Because I didn’t completely understand what I had gotten myself into. Because I was naive. Because I was innocent for the most part. It felt like years had gone by since I’d killed Art. It was weeks mostly. It could have been days and I wouldn’t be sure. My mental determination of time was very…questionable. As were a lot of things these days.

Vagrant’s arm was around my shoulder, his fingers digging in. The pain was there – it was always there. It always hurt. But I swallowed it down and dealt with it because I had to. We walked in silence. I expected as much. We walked for a while until we got to a random doorway. There was nothing but shadow covering it. Vagrant unlocked the door and pushed me ahead of him in the dark. I could hear noises that I tried to deny were real. I tried as hard as I could. If I couldn’t see it, it wasn’t real. Reality is debatable anyway. Right?

He flipped the switch and perception deepened. Requiem was standing around, smoking. She smiled when we came in.

“Welcome to the party.” She snuck over to Vagrant, as close as she could manage, and kissed him. I think they were together for as long as they could manage before dying due to lack of oxygen. I turned away from them. They parted and looked me over.

“We’ll see where your loyalties lie,” Requiem muttered, moving away. There was a chair set in the middle of the room, to which Cassidy was attached. He was bleeding all over, mostly slumped where he sat. Another chair was set up a few feet away. I was led there and gestured to sit. Vagrant kept his hands on my shoulders, holding me down. I wanted to scream and found there was no sound. Requiem crept back over to me.

“You’re my sister’s favorite of the family I think, second only to Layne. She set up Cassidy’s little test, my death, to test his devotion to the family. The thing is…I screwed with the works. They had to tell you I was dead because they weren’t sure about your moral…placement on the issue of leading the dear boy astray. And I was supposed to reappear immediately after. An overnight stunt. But it backfired. I stayed away. And I killed the king. I took charge. Serkis’ lost control, my dear. And you’ll see, firsthand, the price of betrayal. Welcome to my family.”

And she went back to Cassidy, who sat in the chair motionless. His arms were pulled behind him, bleeding from the wrist. You name it and she did it to him. Anything and everything imaginable. And Vagrant held me there so I could watch. So I would know the cost. I would know the price and the punishment…of betrayal. Cassidy was doomed to die when he loved her. He was doomed to die when he tried to kill her. When he wanted in. He was a street demon. He was condemned from the start. And at this point, I don’t think he cared. Anything would be a pleasant release from this.

It might have been minutes. It might have been hours. But she killed him the same way she’d killed Doyle. Slowly…and painfully. Vagrant never said a word the entire time. I could feel

myself shaking, my fingers curled around the arms of the chair. After enough time passed, Cassidy didn’t make noise either. There was just the shallow echo of his breathing in the open room. He wouldn’t go down. He wouldn’t just lie down and die.

When he wouldn’t respond half as much anymore, she got on top of him to tick him off. I could see her smile from here. From here, you could almost feel and taste the blood dripping off him. She pulled his head up to look at her. He narrowed his eyes.

“Anything left to say to me, lover?”

He coughed a few times and spit in her face. “Faster, babe.” He smiled with every last bit of anything left in him. “See you in Hell.”

She swallowed her pride hard on that one but smiled nonetheless. “Not before you.” And she pulled a knife from wherever she’d had it and stabbed him in the stomach. He didn’t move or flinch. He smiled at her the whole way. Until the very last moment. She got off of him and he was still smiling. You could feel the anger rise in her.

And I laughed. Yeah, I know…stupid. But I couldn’t help it – a small hiccup of a laugh escaped me before I could help it. And she shot me such a look. She came over and dragged me up to my feet by my throat, right out of Vagrant’s grip.

“What’s so funny, darling?”

“Nothing.”

“Because I don’t quite understand what you’d find even remotely humorous. Being as how a man was just killed right in front of you. A part of the family.” She smiled slowly. “Just like you.” She let go and I stumbled back; Vagrant caught me.

She lit a fresh smoke and walked out the door, pulling her coat off an invisible hook. She looked at me again, winked quick and swept out the door. “I’ll be seeing you,” she said as she

went out the door. Exit cue on Mrs. Ransom.

Vagrant helped me to stand on my own, letting go. He surveyed the scene quietly, thinking to himself. He dug through his pockets, producing a pack of his own. He pulled out a smoke to light up, holding the pack out to me. I took one and he held out a light. He put lighter and pack back in his pocket, shrugging his own coat on. I didn’t remember him taking it off, but there’s a lot I couldn’t remember lately.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered. I couldn’t look at him. I brought the smoke into my lungs as deep as I could pull it.

I shook my head. “No, you’re not.”

He smiled. “Can’t put anything past you, can we?”

I shook my head again and looked up at him. “No. You can’t. Am I done here?”

He nodded. “Yeah. I’ll clean things up here. You go on home. I’m sure you can find your way. You’re not too far gone.”

I exhaled smoke. “I’m never too far gone.” And I walked out, the door slamming defiantly behind me. I left Vagrant standing there aimlessly. And I headed home.

I went home. And I changed. I changed into my uniform. I changed into role. My part of the show – I became the ringleader. I became whom they’d made me into. When this started. When it all began. And I went to them. I went where they’d brought me. When it started. I went there and I got to where everything had started. I looked around backstage. Where I’d talked with Serkis all those times. Apprehension the first time I’d gone out.

And I stepped out. Into the light, into the truth. I looked around and brought air into my lungs, I brought power and life. I took the audience’s anticipation. I took my fear, my pain. I took it all and brought it in, deep down. And I let it out. And I came full circle. And I didn’t care. I would be here. I’d go back to the start. I’d make sense of the result. And I’d take it back. By force. I’d smile and laugh on cue.

“Welcome,” I yelled, my voice echoing in the open, back to my mind, ringing in my ears. I got my response. I smiled right on cue.

“Do you feel alive?”

30. On My Honor

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I had been sleeping on and off for ages. I got up, went to work, did my job, went home, slept…I slept a lot. I dealt with the family very little. I had a lot on my mind, a lot to consider. I had just woken up from a late afternoon nap when I saw her standing there. She was leaning casually against the wall, blowing smoke idly. She turned her head to see me, then gazed off into space. I thought for a while about what I was seeing, considering if it was merely a delusion or if it truly was real. I crawled off the couch shakily.

“Welcome to the waking, sleeping beauty.”

“Welcome home, Requiem. Or should I say – Mrs. Ransom?”

She looked away from me, smoke sneaking out of her mouth. “You know what the most powerful thing is, the most influential thing you can do to someone?”

“What’s that?”

“Make them believe you don’t exist. Why do you think the Devil is such a trend?”

“You believe in the Devil?”

She looked at me curiously. “If I didn’t, who gave me the ticket back from Hell?”

I crept over to her, she handed a smoke to me before I was close enough to bring myself to ask. She held out her lighter as well. I took a few pulls and leaned on a doorway nearby. She was nonchalant overall.

“So what brings you here?”

“Figured I’d say hello, you know, proper courtesy and all.”

“Well…hello.”

She smiled a wicked little grin as she stared intently at me. “All the sleep you’re getting and you still look tired. And don’t bother bringing me up to date – I know all the highlights.”

She smoked in silence for a while, and I with her. We looked around idly. I got up my nerve or as much of it as I could muster.

“You knew them, didn’t you, the others, the Ransoms? You met them?”

She shrugged. “Yeah. Once upon a time. That was a long time ago. Longer than it seems. But yeah, I was around.”

“So what’s Vagrant’s plan?”

“He’ll set up shop. Clean up loose ends, establish ranks where he wants them. Possibly import some of the contacts he’s acquired over the years. Good people. Loyal to the bone.”

“And you?”

She smiled at me, smoke sneaking between her lips. “Me? I’m Mrs. Vagrant Ransom. I think that’s fairly self-explanatory.”

“No. You’re Mrs. Requiem Ransom. You’d never refer to yourself as his. And you know it. No matter what, you’ll always be Serkis’ baby sister.”

“We’ll see. I’m a Ransom. Something she could never be. She’ll always be as she is. If anything, she’ll be a Solace. I’ll be a legend – I’m carrying on a nearly extinct line. Serkis will never have this. She’ll never be me.”

“Would she want to be?”

Requiem looked away for a moment to hold her anger, to house her emotion. She looked back at me. “No. There’s nobody to be me when I’m gone. It doesn’t matter.”

“So why the big comeback, why all covert?”

She smiled, stepping away from the wall, out toward me. “Because I can. And because there are amends not yet made. Prices not yet paid.” She blew a thin stream of smoke at me; I coughed from the shock. She was too close – I was uncomfortable. And she knew it. She was screaming her challenge to me, here, in my own home, at the top of her lungs and I took it and made it silent and kept it in my heart. I was Serkis’ right hand. Not Requiem’s. And I would never be as close to her as I was with Serkis. And it bothered her.

“Get out,” I whispered. Requiem merely smiled wider.

“You’re throwing me out? You?”

“Get. Out. I don’t think there’s anything to misunderstand. Now.”

Requiem exhaled the last of the smoke from her cigarette before throwing it down and pushing it into the carpet with the heel of her shoe. I watched silently. She smiled wider at me and crept closer. I was against a wall, in a corner. Nowhere to go. She slammed her palm next to my head, closer still. I could feel her breathing on me. I wanted to scream. Too close…too close. She pressed her head to mine.

“Listen to me, real well, because I’m only going through this once. Okay? You don’t ask the questions, I do. I’m the illusionist and I’ll do as I please. My name is Requiem Ransom. And you can scream it at the top of your lungs forever until there’s nothing left in you. But even then, it wouldn’t change the inevitable. I will be something. You’re just another name and face on the line. Just like my darling sister. Don’t ever forget your place. Understand?”

I couldn’t move. She had a hand next to my head and the other under my chin, nodding my head for me as I gritted my teeth to stop the pain. She was getting to me, I had a migraine, and this madness just would not…stop. I wanted to take a swing at her, put her back in her place.

She was trying to take over. Serkis set this all up. And now what? Who’d pay the price for this? I couldn’t pull away. Just make this go away. Make her go away.

She pulled back a little bit, kissed me on the cheek, and shoved me sideways so that I hit the floor. I looked up at her and all she could do was lock her jaw. She looked at me in a mix of contempt and…betrayal. It didn’t add up. I wasn’t hers in the first place. I never was. I got up on hands and knees, looking up at her. She was enjoying her seat of superiority. It was evident in

everything she did, how she conducted herself…everything. I wanted to tear her throat out. She just smiled down at me, laughing wickedly.

“That’s where you’ll always be, kid. At the bottom. Might as well get used to it down there; nowhere else to go but six feet deeper.” And she turned on a heel and walked out, leaving me on the floor, still gasping for breath from the shock of it. What the fuck just happened?

She truly was Serkis’ baby sister. If we ever doubted it before, it was set into stone now. No two ways about it, what so ever. Nope.

* * *

            I went to work the next day like nothing ever happened. There was no point in running scared to the rest of the family – they set this up, they had to know what was going on. I don’t know if they completely realized that Requiem had gone insane. She wasn’t just…insane…she was completely homicidal. She killed Doyle – that much was obvious. She sold herself off as the good, loyal servant, and when he least expected it, she killed him. How do you guard yourself against a ghost? Remember – she’s already dead. How was Doyle supposed to know? I can imagine the look of sheer shock on his face when he saw her.

But why? What was her true motivation? I thought about it for ages. What would make her risk what she did? First off, it emptied the throne for Vagrant to take his place at the top. And second, it ended the Merrick line. It ended the legendary line of madness. But she was too late. The wheel had been put into motion yet again. But did she know it yet?

If she did know, Pandora would be at risk. But how would she? We didn’t announce anything big, she just quietly came out of work. They probably had people keeping watch anyway, just in case. My mind was fighting with the chances though – I took a walk to Pandora’s. I hadn’t been there in ages; she spent so much time at Doyle’s. Doyle’s…which was now Vagrant and Requiem’s. Aren’t they sweet? Don’t you want to just…die?

I entered the building, feeling eyes watching me the whole way. I could hear steps echo my own as I moved. They were following me. I walked evenly, without looking back, without trying to catch them watching me. I just kept going. Reaching her door, I found a familiar face standing guard nonchalantly.

“Hello, Officer Bishop.”

“Hey kid, what’s doing?”

His voice was neutral, as if he’d just met me; I could have been anyone. Anybody. And it wouldn’t have made any difference to him. Eyes that saw nothing – no distinction. I wasn’t Harley. I wasn’t. I was Hadley somewhere deep down. Somewhere. I’d just forgotten where. His eyes traveled to mine for half a second before looking away. I forgot I was there for a moment. It didn’t really matter. I wasn’t significant to him. I tried not to let it bother me, I tried to lock it out but it played over and over in my mind. Repeating until the sound was deafening; I held the scream in my chest, suppressing the madness and sense of…betrayal in my heart. He smiled the usual fake smile that all the cops have in their inventory.

“Is she in? I kind of wanted to say hello.”

He nodded at me again, simple, uniform. He took a step aside and opened the door for me, ushering me in. “Don’t get her too upset, okay?”

“Sure thing, sir.” I made a mock salute toward him and sauntered in, listening for the door to click shut quietly behind me. I moved a few steps in and looked around. Pandora was sitting at a table, a camera in pieces in front of her, cleaning the parts delicately.

“Hey,” I whispered. She looked up at me awkwardly.

“You’re out of place.”

“Don’t you mean – out of line?”

She thought about it for a moment then shook her head resolutely. “No, out of place. You’re not out of line; there is no line. You are out of place because you don’t belong here.”

I looked around. The place was flooded with light from all directions, flawless, perfect…it was…protected. She was safe here. And I was dark, brooding, dressed all in black, my eyes wild and misplaced…no, I didn’t belong here. My standing here was impossible to hide. I was attempting to be inconspicuous. I failed miserably. There was no way I could lay down and lose myself in the brightness. There was no way that the shadows would bend to the influence of the garish sun. She was right. I just nodded to her after considering it.

“How are you doing?”

She looked around, contemplating her response. “Fine.”

“Are you really?”

She shot me a look. “What do you think?”

“I don’t. I’m asking you to tell me. Now, again, how are you?”

She got up from where she was sitting and crept over to me, arching her back into a straight line as she got up. I watched her creep closer, stepping back a little as she approached. She got close enough so I could understand her whispers.

“The father of my child is dead. The family he founded is slowly deteriorating. I am not being permitted to work because my life could be at risk since Requiem’s homicidal rebirth. So I get to stay locked away up here, alone, no, with child. And that’s a whole other world of sickness. So you tell me, how do you think I am?”

I stepped back from her. “I’m sorry. I was…worried.”

She raised a brow in question, looking around her apartment. “Worried? What in the hell for? Or about? You saw what’s it like getting in here. Worried. You’re the child. You’re not allowed to worry about the adults. It’s our job to worry over you.”

I found myself sitting, even though I didn’t remember finding a chair. I wanted to curl up and cry. No matter what I did, no matter how hard I tried, I’d always be the child. They’d never see me as the equal that they claimed I was. I would always be smaller, weaker, slower – I’d never be on the same level that they were. They were smarter, bigger, stronger – they’d been through more and survived to tell the tale. I was ignorant. And I would always be ignorant.

Pandora came over and put a hand on my shoulder. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you. Come on kid, I didn’t mean it. I’m just irritable. Come on, I’m sorry. Harley, please?”

“My name is Hadley.”

Pandora looked away to collect her thoughts before coming back to me. “Of course it is, Hun. But come on – listen to me. We love you and we care and I’m sorry. I’m just…there’s a lot going on. I’m sorry. Okay? You can come by whenever you want, okay? I’d like that. There’s nothing for me here. Is that all right?”

She’d come down to the ground, crouching so she could jump back up. I nodded at her and she smiled. She started to get up, kissing me on the forehead as she did. I got up when she was standing and moved to walk away.

“I should get home,” I muttered. She moved away from me for a moment and called out to me when I was at the door.

“Hey! Smile!”

Click.

The disassembled camera was together, I heard the click echo in my mind. I closed my eyes for a moment, trying to blank it out. Pandora laughed a little bit.

“You okay? You don’t do pictures much, do you?”

I shook my head apprehensively, my hand still firmly planted on the doorknob. I turned it with the intent to leave.

“Why the hesitation with cameras?” she called after me. I turned to her.

“They steal your soul.”

She smiled a wicked little grin and I left. Anyone who’d seen the picture would have seen it. My hand on the door, the light creeping out into the dark hall. Sylum’s form standing straight and tall right next to the doorway. And me. With my eyes to the ground, not looking at what I was doing. I just knew I had to be gone. And if you look really close, and think about it really hard, you could find the tear on my cheek.

My soul had been stolen. As I started the walk home, I began to wonder if I even had one anymore. It’s a topic that I try to stay away from. Can you steal what’s already been sold?

29. Operating Blind

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A side note for the reader…it’s very hard to operate when you’re on a cloud. Just so you know, as a…just in case, for future reference. Thanks.

I wasn’t there too long when things got very bizarre very fast. I wouldn’t say interesting…but definitely something. I don’t know. The effects weren’t the same, and I can’t say if it’s because I was alone or that I’d done it myself. I don’t know. I remember vaguely hearing the door open and Serkis came in. It might have been Layne. And I remember being dragged out, laughing like a fiend the whole way. I remember parts and pieces of the sewers, our sanctuary.

And everything after that is black. Just pure, plain, comforting black. I just nodded off and went to sleep. There was nothing more to know. Or remember.

I woke up in a hospital. I looked around apprehensively. It was family policy to never, ever resort to a hospital unless something was extremely severe. Meaning – unless there was an issue. Unless there was the risk of death. Only then would we resort to risk, to exposure. Only then would steps be taken. And even then, it was debatable. Everything was debatable. There

was nothing but white, typical, insane asylum white. Nothing else. I turned in the bed and looked around, finding nothing to comfort me. I was alone in the room, light kept out by blinds closed carefully. I thought of people bustling around busily. I thought of doctors creeping in and out as I slept. And yet, I was alone.

The door opened quietly, a doctor came in and checked on the machines, scrawling a few random numbers on charts as he went. He didn’t say a word to me, walking out briskly. I couldn’t have asked him anything if I’d wanted to. I reclined back again, trying to focus my eyes on a specific part of the ceiling, trying to zone out. The door clicked open again and Serkis slid in, with Layne in careful tow. If the room hadn’t been so silent, and I hadn’t been so sedate, I never would have noticed. They crept in and sat down at my side. I looked over at them.

“What happened?” I whispered, my voice shaky. They looked at the ground before coming back up to me.

“You overdosed.”

“That’s…”

“Bull?” Serkis questioned, finishing my statement. I looked at her as sharply as I could. I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t remember. I couldn’t dispute this and they both knew it. I was here. They had all the proof they needed. Like I said, I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t real.

“I still don’t get it.”

“You’re not supposed to.” Serkis got up, looked around quietly, and put a hand out to me. I sat up in bed. “You need to get out of here. And we’re taking you.”

“Why the rush?” I whispered. I found that I couldn’t get out of the bed – I couldn’t get up as simply as it seemed. I felt like I was frozen, moving in slow motion. Layne bent down and scooped me up.

“You stay here, they’ll send the shrink in. This’ a drug related case. You’re young and you have no history. You’re not the typical junkie. They’ll put you away.”

“What evidence do they have to put me away? I’m not sick.”

Serkis raised a brow. “You’re not?”

And not another word was said the entire way out. Layne carried me close to his chest, wrapped up in his coat, tight, like a child. Serkis led the way, giving anyone who raised objection such a look that made them second-guess their actions for the rest of the day. She just

had something to her that could scare the life out of people. I don’t know if it was an acquired

talent or she was just born that way. But it was definitely something to see.

I was brought back to the sewers, where Serkis lived. Where Layne lived. I wasn’t sure where the hell Grey stayed, but he was a big boy, they let him take care of himself. Layne would know where he lived. Between them, Layne and Serkis knew everything. I was laid down and bundled up, put to bed as soon as I got there. Nothing else was really said. I couldn’t defend my actions and they wouldn’t make up excuses for me. I screwed up. I’d risked exposure. The whole family had been put to the test. And what was I supposed to say? They put themselves at risk. They were the ones killing people. I wasn’t half as guilty as they were. Right? I found myself wanting as I tried to justify my thoughts.

No matter how hard I tried to sleep, I just couldn’t drift off. I was coming back, down off the chemicals, off what the hospital had me on to stabilize my system. I was just here, with them. One of them stayed with me at all times, not a word uttered for hours on end. By around midnight I had the both of them back, curled up in each other. They were dozing off, watching

me as they slipped into slumber. I wanted them to see my remorse, to understand how bad I felt about the whole ordeal. But they’d see my mistake. It was late when Serkis spoke to me.

“I’m sorry. For this. Cassidy’s been dealt with. I’m sorry we hid things from you. We were…we did what we thought was best for you.”

“Since when am I too small to make my own decisions? I’m an adult in the eyes of the world. I thought I was big and bad enough to make my own choices.”

“Yeah? Look at the good job you did.” Serkis’ words were abrupt. She didn’t mean it, I could tell by the sharp inhale at the end of her statement. But the words had slipped out nonetheless.

She was right. I had screwed up when left to my own devices, but what else was I supposed to be left with? I heaved a sigh. She looked at the ground.

“Try to sleep, please?”

And with that, I was gone. To sleep, that is. I don’t know whether it was because I was honestly tired, or because of the pleading tone of her voice, but one way or another, I went to sleep. I don’t know. Serkis has a strange power. I take it she had the shit kicked out of Cassidy for his…stupidity. But it wasn’t entirely their fault and they knew it. They were more annoyed

with me because it was diverting their attention from Pandora. And Requiem. How the hell…no. Sleep. I’ll sleep now and consider more…pertinent matters later.

I woke up in the same place, a clean change of clothes left at my side. Layne was sitting on a chair, practicing guitar quietly. He looked over at me as he played, as I stirred.

“Welcome back.”

“That’s what they say in all the movies.”

“Huh?”

“In hospitals. When people wake up from anything, they always say that.”

He thought about it for a while, strummed a few more chords, and laughed. “Yeah, I guess they do. What would you like me to say?”

I got up shakily, grabbing my clothes stubbornly. I looked around for somewhere to trudge off to so I could change. Layne was being little to no help. So I trudged around on my own to look. I found myself a corner out of eyesight. Layne, being a brat, decided to try and start a conversation as I did so.

“So, you feeling better?”

“Yeah. Fine.”

“Ouch, you don’t sound fine. You mad at Serkis?”

“Why would I be mad at Serkis?”

He strummed a little, thinking. “I don’t know. She was being kind of harsh. I’d be kind of annoyed with her if I were you. You know?”

“No, I don’t know. And I’m not you.”

He laughed again, playing fast or slow to match the mood or conversation speed. “Well, obviously not…but you know. Just making sure.”

“Why don’t you ask her?”

He laughed again. “Why don’t you ask the moon why it shines?”

“Excuse me?” I muttered, creeping out from my corner. He was smiling, the guitar resting across a knee. He looked around sheepishly and then back up at me.

“She tells me about as much as she tells you. The rest of it I have to read.”

“From?”

“Her silence.”

I sat down across from him, watching him stare into space. “I’m sorry.”

Layne looked up at me suddenly, as if he’d forgotten I was there. “Nothing to be sorry

for. You’d be surprised…all that you can learn from silence….everything spoken through being unspoken…I don’t know. It’s something.”

“Talent.”

He laughed at me and resumed his playing. “Nah, it’s just pure dumb luck.”

“So are you going to explain what happened with Requiem?”

He heaved a sigh, playing as he went, trying desperately to lose himself in the sound. He couldn’t even lose me. But he tried like hell, but it only got shaky, more fragmented, the harder he tried. He eventually gave up and let the instrument rest on his knee, the strings still shaking. He cocked his head to the side and looked me dead in the eye.

“We run a show here, right?” Layne asked. I nodded. He continued: “We are masters of the art of illusion. Deception. Requiem’s…disappearance was our most impressive of talents.”

“How?”

He grinned. “Now you know a magician never shares his secrets.”

“Layne, I’m sick of being beaten around the bush. I want the truth. The answers. No more lies. No more games.”

“We run a show, kid. You know that. You passed out last night in the center ring. But think about the past, what it is, to the roots. All it is…is us. Nothing more. We do and we try and when we die, either someone else will keep it alive or it’ll go with us. We can’t be sure now. But it’s just a trick of time. Everything’s a trick, everything’s a clever deception.”

“Then why?”

“A family’s only loyal to itself. Right? Cassidy wanted in from the outside. We had to put his…allegiance to the test. Serkis came up with the only true test of his devotion – to kill the one he loved. Or to believe her dead. In my mind, that always comes up backwards, but it makes perfect sense to her. So she went to him and explained all this, telling him to prepare a special

batch for the family. But they switched. Requiem never got hers. She got the same as everyone else. Ta-da.”

“How?”

He smiled. “The hand is quicker than the eye, always. And you’re working with some of the best illusionists in town.”

“So if they switched…who got the real stuff?”

“Serkis.”

“But she’s alive?”

“Of course she’s alive. She’s got tolerance like you wouldn’t believe.”

“How? She’s not a…”

“Junkie?” He smiled. “Are you so sure?”

And I wasn’t. I merely smiled stupidly, pretending that I knew this all along. He knew I was clueless, he knew I was sheltered. Just like he knew she was using. And he allowed it. No. He didn’t allow it. He couldn’t stop her. Nobody could. And at the pace she was moving, and the way she did it…do you think anyone would really want to?

“Why did she take that risk? Why didn’t she just…not do it? She went last, it’s not like anyone would have noticed.”

He laughed again. “As much of a cheat and a trickster that Serkis is sometimes, she’s still loyal to her word when it counts. You did it. Hence, she did it.”

“Because I did it, she risked her life?”

“You didn’t have to do it. You shouldn’t have. We wouldn’t be here now. You don’t get it, do you? You are a younger version of herself. She sees her own mistakes in you, but before they’ve taken hold. There’s still time to make the wrong things right. And she’s trying her damnedest to make it work. She does love you, and that’s something.”

“She loves you.”

He shook his head, seemingly frustrated in a calm way. “No. It’s different with you. She loves you as a child, as her daughter, as the image of what she could have been. She’s failing with you and it kills her that she has to watch. I knew you’d come into your own, you’d stumble into bad habits…it’s impossible to avoid in a family like this. But I’m more comfortable with giving you room because we’re right there to catch you, 24/7. And we’re always braced and ready for a fall.”

I could feel a tear sneak down my cheek. It scared me when he reached out to wipe it from my face. He kissed me on the cheek. “Come on now. You wanted the answers – you got them. You nearly died for them. What’s the point in crying now?” He had a wide smile on his

Face; the guitar had been leaned against the chair he’d been in. He’d crept over to me quietly.

“Come on. You have people who care about you – can’t you see that? Yeah, times are

tough and we’ve been through all manner of stuff, but we got things to look forward to. Requiem will keep Cassidy in check. And Pandora’s pregnant. And Vagrant will take charge – he’ll pick up where Doyle left off. All right? It’ll work out.”

“I don’t understand something though, about Requiem….and Vagrant?”

Layne backed down – he was kneeling in front of me, a hand on my knee to steady himself. “You mean, how is it that Requiem Draft became Requiem Ransom?”

“Yeah…”

“Well, a long time ago, there was these two people and they had a baby girl and they named her Requiem…” he was talking all types of slow and foolishly. I went to take a swing at him and he laughed. “Come on, lighten up. Ha, the girl smiles after all.” I couldn’t help laughing – he was being weird in a time of severity. I needed him to stop smiling, to try and understand. And here he was being weird.

“Come on, Layne, the real story, please? You can be a weirdo later.”

“Weirdo?” He dropped down onto the floor, sitting Indian-style. “I might be offended.”

“Aw, come on, don’t be such a jerk.”

“A jerk too? Don’t you know when to quit? Kickin’ a guy when he’s down, I see how it is. You little beast…” He was pretending to pout and be real upset, I kicked him softly in his knee to get his attention. When he had enough of my kicking, he leapt off the floor and dragged me to the ground, tickling me like a fiend. I laughed until it hurt, until he stopped. Layne had turned into a child in front of my eyes. Every so often, I could understand what they were saying. Everything was always serious, there needed to be room for…release.

“They met ages and ages ago, before the show traveled. Vagrant used to be a part of it. Him and Doyle were good close friends for a spell – their families were close or something. Requiem idolized him; she modeled a lot of her life after him. Vagrant Ransom and Serkis were probably her biggest influences. The show traveled a lot though, when I disappeared…well – times are shifty. Somewhere along the way, her and him started going out. And one thing led to another and they got married. To keep the family name going, he said. It turns out that Doyle and Vagrant were both the last remaining namesakes of two great families. Ain’t that something?”

I nodded at the end of the story. It made sense that they’d find comfort in each other. I knew about the great families, there was a history of them written in blood, sweat, and tears. The volumes existed – they were the greatest legend of the streets. The infamous cycle, the tale of the fallen. It was there, in black and white, somewhere. “The Timeless Martyr Cycle,” it was called, a series of five pieces that comprised the history of thirty years of our home. Thirty years put into written word for us to see, an attempt to understand the differences made in that time. The history of leaders, the evolution of street demons…the whole works. Nobody alive had seen it, or if they had, they didn’t know where to find it. It was something that entire groups spent ages searching for, the value of which being infinite. But they were gone, or carefully preserved, protected…I wished that our legacy would live on to such an extent. But I knew I was just being…childish. Idealistic.

Layne got off the floor and helped me up carefully. I took his hand and dusted myself off. He looked me over, top to bottom. “Feel better now?”

I looked around, thinking about it. Layne was the most straightforward with me out of the entire crew. He had a hand under my chin, holding my face up to see my eyes. I nodded slowly. He kissed me on the cheek again and ushered me off.

“Thanks,” I muttered.

He was still smiling. “Go on home. There are bigger concerns at hand. Requiem should be making her grand reappearance soon. I’ll send Grey over to check in later. Just…stay away from chemicals, okay? Please? We love you – we don’t want to lose you. Ever. Okay? Ever. Just…remember that for me? For the family?”

I looked at him, his pleading eyes and almost desperate expression. He was praying for something, to a god that wouldn’t listen and didn’t care. I turned back and hugged him, losing myself in his depths. He wrapped his arms around me tightly.

“I promise,” I whispered. He kissed my forehead and sent me on my way again, seeming more satisfied with his answer. I went out the door with a lighter step and a heavier heart. I did matter – I wasn’t just a name or a number, not just facts on a stone. They would be affected

without me. Not because I was the ringmaster of their little show. But because I was family. Because they loved me. And I loved them. We all needed each other. “Need” is such a…superficial word…but it’s the only thing that comes to mind. No, we were devoted to one another. Now and forever. Always. Until death do us part.

Here’s to the marriage of interests. Of personalities. Of persons.

A new start. An enlightened beginning. A more obvious prologue.

As things go…I’ve been dying to live and living to die.

Here’s to living…to live.