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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?”

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