Remnant (Volume I) – Chapters 5-7

Remnant Highlighted

Apologies for neglecting to post a chapter the past 3 Saturdays. Here are chapters 5 through 7.

THEIA

What do you want, girl?” asked the biggest one of the group. Theia was still approaching as he spoke to her.

Can I come with you guys?” she asked gently after reaching them.

Where?” the same kid responded.

I don’t know… anywhere.” She already couldn’t help but dislike the boy. He had scars covering his face, and his teeth were crooked in addition to a severe underbite. Everyone else wore hoods, whether they wore sweatshirts or coats, but this guy wore a black cap, and wore it backwards. None of his physical features were a problem, it was his attitude. Of course, his appearance didn’t help any. “Where are you guys going?” she calmly asked.

We’re hungry,” said the kid who wore glasses. He wore a maroon sweatshirt with a strange logo over what appeared to be three layers of shirts.

So, food then? You’re looking for food?” asked Theia nervously.

Yeah, are you?” said the older one.

I guess…” Theia reluctantly said. “I don’t know what’s going on. Who are you guys?”

I’m Chase,” the bigger kid finally said. “I’m fourteen, and I’m the leader. Everyone looks up to me and follows my orders. Do you want to be part of my group, girl?

Whatever I can take. “I guess,” she said. She nearly asked the names of the others, but Chase was already talking again.

Okay, then. First, strip for us, and dance while you do it, too.” His eyes widened. The other boys laughed.

No.” Theia asserted herself fervently.

Fine, then you can’t be part of my group.”

It struck her with rage. She refused to be exiled merely for keeping her dignity. “I could beat you up!” As soon as she spoke, she regretted her words. Dad would kill me if he heard me say that…

Oh?” Chase smiled arrogantly and walked toward her, his head bouncing like a bird. “You’re small, even for a girl. You really think you could take me?” Theia did nothing when he stepped two inches in front of her. “Yeah, I thought so.” He started to walk away, then he turned and punched Theia in the jaw. Theia fell onto her back and Chase started writhing, holding his hand between his knees. “Shit! Shit!”

Why’d you do that?” asked the one with glasses. “It’s fucking cold out here! Shit hurts more when it’s cold.”

Fuck you!” screamed Chase. Theia was more in shock than pain. She refused to cry, though couldn’t help grimacing and holding her jaw as she lay on the pavement. “Go ahead. Cry like a baby. Nobody can take me on!”

Deal with it, deal with it, deal with it. Theia eventually stood up.

Go ahead. Give me your best shot, girl.” Theia shook her head, keeping her head lowered to appease him. “Yeah, that’s what I thought!”

I just need…”She paused, cringing at the pain. “…friends,” she finished softly. She clenched her fists tight. “But I’m not going to take off my clothes.” Chase and the others laughed hysterically. All but one of them.

Whatever,” said Chase, bumping Theia’s shoulder as he passed her. The other four followed.

Theia waited until she could see everyone’s back before joining them. Though behind them, she felt no safer, from harm or criticism. She knew her place, but that did not disturb her. They were older than her, but were as mature as kids half their age, so she felt. No one spoke about where Chase was leading them, but not because he failed to tell them. It seemed no one cared. The boys were exchanging puerile jokes, personal jabs, and comments on their surroundings. Primarily, their favorite subject of discussion was all the places they had been and all the people they stole from, escaped from, or assaulted. The end of the world seemed like the perfect place for them. Theia felt lucky they didn’t try to harm her any more than Chase already had. It wasn’t the best company, but it was company nonetheless.

Listening was the sole available activity, apart from walking, which bored Theia. More than anything, she simply wanted to know their names. Maybe I just need to get to know them, she thought when thinking about their immature personalities, particularly Chase’s alpha male complex. She followed them further down the street, finally catching desired information when she heard one of the boys say, “-but my mom was just a junkie.”

Spencer, your mom wasn’t just a junkie. Your mom was a hot junkie,” said Chase.

Theia took note that the kid with glasses was Spencer. He seemed to be Chase’s favorite.

Are you guys making another stupid ‘your mom’ joke?” Spencer replied.

No, I’m totally serious. I’d bang her,” said Chase.

Theia knew what that word meant, and it disgusted her. She was growing increasingly uncomfortable, regretting to have even started listening at that point. Nothing the boys exchanged meliorated her opinion of them. Only one of them kept to himself, rarely speaking – the bigger kid wearing a brown, oversized shirt who was only an inch shorter than Chase. That one appeared to be her age. His silence virtually made him invisible to her before.

She heard Chase continue the subject. “Dude, Josh, how old’s your mom? She’s like super young right? How old was she when she popped you out? Seventeen, eighteen?”

Sixteen,” said Josh sounding ashamed. He seemed to be nearly as shy as the bigger kid wearing brown.

Oooh!” two of the other three boys screamed. Chase commented, “So, she’s only like twenty-something now!”

Theia struggled to concentrate. She forgot where they were, and even forgot that it was raining. “You weren’t supposed to be born!” echoed throughout her mind.

I wanted you aborted.”

Why can’t you get anything right?”

Her failures, her mistakes, her shortcomings; they all came crashing down on her, riddling her with guilt and shame. Admittedly, she never understood what she did wrong. She always had good grades in school, and she never hurt anyone, but it was never good enough. “I don’t want her anyway.” That was the last thing she heard her mother say to her father before he went away; the last time she saw him.

Then, she snapped. “Can you stop talking about your mothers! It’s sick!”

The boys stopped, looking at her with surprise. Chase laughed condescendingly. “Well, all right then. The lady said stop, so I guess we have to stop.”

He had them continue onward, aimlessly, it seemed. After a couple minutes of walking, they encountered a massive gathering of pigeons, all eating old food scraps in peace. Chase charged at them with delight, causing them to fly away, but they returned to the ground once he walked back to his group.

They neared an apartment building over fifteen stories high. “Let’s check this place out.” Without knowing why, Theia feared Chase would lead her to the top and throw her off.

The boys ran ahead, Theia reluctantly with them. “Wait!” she called. But they didn’t hear her. Chase was the first to reach the walls of the building. Once the others reached it, he ran around the corner and kicked in the entrance glass doors. At least, he attempted to. The glass only deflected his foot. He tried one more time, and his foot finally broke through, shattering a hole scantly large enough for his head to fit through. The others laughed and didn’t try to hide it. “The hell is so funny?” he shouted at them.

Look at the other door, dumb ass,” said Spencer. Then Chase looked, and saw the other door was already completely shattered. He growled at them, but said nothing, and instead ran inside without waiting for the others.

Theia was offended for Chase, despite what she thought of him. People miss things sometimes! she wanted to explain to the others. The big kid in brown didn’t run inside as the others did; he first waited politely for Theia to enter. “Thank you,” she said to him, but he said nothing back.

Shhhh!” The hush came from Chase.

Everyone crouched behind corners and under the lobby’s desks, keeping out of the line of sight of the main entrance. Theia hid by herself under a desk, though she wanted to have company; specifically the brown shirt boy, who seemed least likely to throw her in the way of danger to escape. She peeked her head up from the desk and witnessed what seemed to be a family of five – two older boys walking on each side of their little sister, with a mother and father guiding them. “It’s just a family,” Theia whispered to her companions.

Shut up!” one of them ordered. That was probably Chase, she thought. Even if it were Chase, she felt no obligation to hide from an innocent family that could possibly help them. She stood quickly and ran toward the family, but at the same time, Chase caught her, forcing her close.

Don’t. Move. A muscle!” He whispered in her ear close enough she could feel his teeth.

It’s just a family. They would never hurt-”

Shut up, bitch!” She could feel the threat in his voice as his arm choked her. To avoid finding out if he was prepared to slit her throat, she relented, raising her arms in surrender. Then Chase ordered she return to her hiding place, and Theia obeyed.

They waited until the family was completely out of sight, then Chase approached Theia again, this time with Spencer behind him. “Stand up.” He ground his teeth. “Stand the fuck up.” Theia rose too slowly. “I’m in charge here, get it? You listen to me!” Theia nodded. “Good.”

Theia stepped back, retreating to solitude as Chase commanded his subjects to start moving upstairs. Spencer stayed behind when he noticed Theia stood idle. She moved at once after seeing him watch her. Behind her, the kid in brown waddled along. It was the first she recognized his large frame prevented him from walking normally. Theia made sure to keep close to him as the kids ascended the stairs. They stopped at the second floor, and Chase chose the apartment door nearest him to break into. The door was locked, so Chase attempted to kick the door in, but he had nowhere near the necessary strength. It again invoked anger in him. He tried the apartment immediately across, then down and down until he finally found an unlocked door at the end of the hall. The group followed him in, Theia being the most apprehensive. She entered with great caution, praying not to find a corpse inside. Would Chase even care? she asked herself.

All right, bitches, we’re gonna stay the fuck here tonight,” said Chase, plopping himself on the only bed there, which was a mold-drenched mattress on the floor. Theia was already sick of his cursing.

She paused, having heard something unusual. They won’t be quiet if I asked, she thought, so she decided to investigate herself. She first probed the window. As always, there laid nothing but the ruins; nothing but a dead city as static as a picture. Someone’s crying, she thought of the sound. She stepped over and around the rowdy kids she had the shame of calling her friends. She checked the bathroom, nearly throwing up when her eyes caught a glimpse of what was in the toilet. Then she checked the closet; still nothing. That couldn’t have been wind? Maybe it’s someone in another room. Assuming that being the case, she chose to ignore what she heard. She claimed an empty corner to sit in.

So, what’s your name, girl?” Chase inquired.

Theia.”

Chase’s face displayed disgust and confusion. “What the hell kind of name is that?”

The one my parents gave me…” She meant no sarcasm or disrespect, but it was her only answer.

Chase’s face sank. “Are you sassing me? You fuckin’ sassin’ me?”

No, I’m just saying.”

You sassing me?”

Chase seemed want to appear intimidating but he was only annoying her. “No,” she repeated. “I was just saying. My name means –”

Nobody cares,” said Spencer.

How come you guys never let me talk?”

Shut up,” said Chase. It amused the other boys. Chase climbed on the mattress and starting jumping.

Theia would have been offended to be silenced, had she not heard that peculiar sound again. More than the first time, she was certain she heard something. Where else is there to look? She was lost in thought for a moment until she finally realized the one place she had not looked was under Chase’s bed. She had a history of being terrified by things under her bed, but despite this, she slowly peered under the mattress, and saw someone. It was a woman. An old woman who was lying on her belly, her hands over her ears and her mouth buried in the carpet. Theia panicked, screaming, “Oh my god!” and fell backward.

Chase followed her eyes, leaping off the bed and finding the woman under the mattress he had been crushing. “Holy shit! Holy fucking shit!” He was laughing hysterically. “Look what I found, bitches!”

Chase ripped the woman out by her hair. “Stop it!” screamed Theia. Out of reflex, she nearly ran to save the woman, who was crying in pain.

Chase dragged her to the door then threw her out before saying, “Get the fuck out’a here.”

Theia snapped. She went to help the old woman, but Chase gripped her in a headlock, and threw her back inside.

My god, you just don’t get it!” How many times- He stopped himself. Chase crouched in fear and started collecting his things. “Go! Go!” he told the other kids. “Spence, grab what’s-her-name.”

Theia was gripped by the arm before she knew what was happening. When Spencer dragged her into the hall, she saw the entire angry mob that had poured out of their apartments to defend the old lady. Chase ran as hard as he could; the people were attempting to seize them, but were failing. He heard them coming, she realized. At least she’s safe, she thought of the old woman.

Spencer finally relinquished Theia when they escaped. Chase led the group sprinting into the streets as if being closely pursued. They fled down the adjacent road until Chase ran out of breath, which wasn’t far. Spencer turned to Chase after they spent a moment catching their breaths. “Look, a food joint.”

We’ve already checked that one out,” panted Chase.

We did?” Spencer couldn’t have looked more confused. “Well, it’s somewhere to crash for the night.”

Chase looked at the sky. “It’s not even very… Actually, you’re probably right. Let’s crash here. If anyone’s hiding inside, we’ll fucking deal with them.”

Does he mean kill them? He thinks it’s okay to kill people? He won’t even feel bad… Theia thought. Everyone followed their leader into the restaurant – a round delicatessen building. Nobody was found inside. Not yet, she thought.

Chase stretched as everyone dropped their belongings. “Hey, uh, girl with the weird name.” She looked at him grudgingly. “The hell was that all about? Why’d you go after that old fart?”

You were hurting her.”

Even Sam smirked. “So, what? She was all up in our shit.”

Theia was annoyed a second time by the creep. “No, she wasn’t.”

Chase slammed his fist on the counter. He stomped toward Theia. “You know what? You’ve been nothing but a fucking pain in my ass since you showed up-” When Chase had gotten close enough, Theia didn’t hesitate to punch him with a straight arm in his nose. “Aaah!” He screamed, “Fuck this bitch! Grab her!” Sam and Spencer jumped in, pinning Theia down to the floor. Chase remained calm and knelt down at Theia. Just then, someone stood in their way, raising his arms up in silent protest. It was the big kid in brown. “Benny…? You can’t be serious.”

Just this once, don’t be an asshole,” said Benny.

From what Theia saw, Chase was actually intimidated by Benny’s size. It’s probably why Chase keeps him around, she thought. Benny stood his ground, showing no fear of any retaliation from his leader. To her greatest surprise, Chase stood down.

Go fuck yourself. Both of you,” said Chase.

Everyone was silent for a while. For once, Chase and his loyal dogs seemed to have nothing to say, with nothing perverted to banter about and nothing around to threaten except each other. Theia had thanked Benny for standing up for her, but he shyly avoided her still.

She retreated alone to the back kitchen. There was, as expected, no food available to eat except rotten vegetables and seasonings. She decided to sleep in the walk-in refrigerator, which made for good concealment. What if someone locks me in? she thought before opening the door. The thought was brushed aside because Chase would need the lock to do so, and she was certain he’d never have the motivation, or wit, to find it.

A few minutes after she had closed the door, laying down to fall asleep, she was visited by Benny, who joined her in there silently with a blanket in hand. “Hi,” she greeted. “You don’t want to be alone?”

I guess,” he said. His voice was surprisingly light-pitched for someone his size. She liked it; it nearly made her chuckle.

Thanks, again.” She felt rue that she could think of nothing else to talk about.

Chase doesn’t have to be a prick,” said Benny. Wow, he actually responded, Theia thought. Benny’s eyes drifted all around their confined room, but avoided her. “He wasn’t always a bully.”

I’m surprised. He acts like he was born that way.”

I think he just likes being in charge.”

Ya think?” remarked Theia. She paused. “Sorry, I didn’t mean for that to sound like that.”

It’s okay.” Benny actually laughed a little. “Me and Chase went to school together.” ‘Chase and I’, she corrected in her mind, thinking of what her mother would say. “When everybody started killing each other, he said that I had to stay with him. But he didn’t tell me why.”

Because he wanted a big guy protecting him,” said Theia. “He only thinks about himself and one day it’s going to come back to bite him. Did you see how he screamed like a baby when he thought everybody was coming to get him?” Benny didn’t seem to understand her reference.

What happened to you? You were all alone back there?” asked Benny with more sincerity than she thought she’d ever hear from him.

I was at… home… and, well, I don’t really wanna talk about it. Maybe later.”

Okay. You can tell me later.” He smiled at her, which warmed her heart a little.

Benny spread out his blanket, offering half to Theia even though there wasn’t much to share. He didn’t say anything else, which disappointed her. She always enjoyed conversation, but despite Benny’s good nature, they didn’t have that in common. Sharing a sleeping space with someone was odd for her, too. She had only done that with her parents, but only occasionally, and only when scared. Theia was adaptable, and she knew it was time to adjust to her parents’ absence. She couldn’t run to them anymore. Maybe she never would again. Going to bed next to a friend might not be so weird? she thought. Goodnight, Dad, she said in her mind to avoid perhaps appearing strange to Benny. That night, she would not say goodnight to her mother.

Theia had begun to dream about being in a park with her father. Only the two of them. He was standing in front of her as she sat on a swing. “Dad, push me!” she whined.

You gotta swing by yourself, baby,” he told her, laughing.

But I don’t know how!”

I know. That’s the point.” Her father waited a moment, but she didn’t move. She wasn’t even willing to try yet. Playing was no time to learn anything. But her father finally stepped closer to her. “Reach down with your legs. Touch the ground with your feet.” She accepted that he wasn’t going to push her, so she listened to him. “Now push off the ground, baby.” She did as she was told. “Don’t let the swing stop!” He was the more excited one. She didn’t try to pump her momentum and eventually stopped. “Theia…” began her father as he crouched in front of her. “If you learn how to swing yourself, I’ll swing with you every single time we come to the park.”

Theia smiled. “Reeeeeally?” she asked, and her father nodded. “Grown-ups don’t swing.”

Who wrote that law?” They laughed together. “The best things come when you are patient, and when you learn how to achieve them,” he told her.

What’s that word mean?”

‘Achieve?’ It’s when you-”

Theia was forced awake when she felt someone pulling her up by her hair. She flailed to break free, but then other hands forced her still. She saw Chase and Josh beating on Benny. “NO!” she screamed. They were beating him viciously, relentlessly, until he struggled no more. His cries of pain were quickly silenced. “Nobody tells me what to do anymore,” he told the fading boy. “You won’t believe what I found on someone’s body. They died in the bathroom from getting shot a thousand times.”

Theia saw what he was referring to: a set of brass knuckles. She knew exactly what those were. “NO! Stop, Chase! Please!”

Chase didn’t acknowledge. He proceeded to beat Benny’s face in until he broke through his skull, and even continued then. Theia forced herself to look away as she cried in agony. “Okay, girl,” Chase said turning toward her. She forced herself to look. Benny wasn’t recognizable anymore. He was reduced to less than a corpse. “I asked you to strip, remember?”

Theia struggled, but Sam and Spencer’s grip was too strong. Chase removed the brass knuckles, not minding the blood still covering his hands. He pulled off her glasses, dangled them before her, then threw them on the floor. He stomped on them, watching her reaction with a smile as he rubbed the sole of his shoe on the shards.

She remembered something her father taught her… Struggling was something she knew Chase wanted, so she relaxed her body. The kids pinning her down started to tear open her shirt and force down her pants. They paused to stare when they saw her privates, and that was when she chose to act. She forced Spencer’s head down, slamming it into the floor. When Sam attempted to grab her again, she punched straight into his throat with a scream. Chase looked at her with shock. She ignored him since he wasn’t moving at her. She pulled up her pants and straightened what remained of her shirt before trying to run out.

No!” growled Chase, grabbing her before she could escape.

Theia didn’t know what came over her… She twisted her body so that Chase lost his grip, then she proceeded to punch him in the groin and kick one of his knees, breaking it. When he fell onto his back, she took the brass knuckles from the floor and pummeled his face in until he hardly had a face left. She stopped herself before he wasn’t breathing anymore. She couldn’t bring herself to kill him, but the enticing thought was almost too appealing to resist satisfying.

Theia ran out of the refrigerator, through the dining area, and out of the building. With the smell of blood still fresh in her nostrils, she vomited while weeping bitterly. “No!” she repeated over and over. “No! Noooo!” She let herself collapse there, once again finding herself wishing she would die there in the cold, alone. “Dad, please,” she whispered, her voice too weak for even her to hear anymore.

I need you.

MERCY

Broken, tear-soaked and fallen to her knees, Mercy was forced to accept the sight before her. Haley was dead. Her blood was still warm and wet on Mercy’s hands.

Mercy could not move. She could not cry, and could barely breathe. It was such fulminant agony, shrouding a curse over her that would plod her feet and erode her heart – a cut that would bleed forever. From her knees she fell onto her back, never intending to stand again.

That’s too bad,” said one of the men surrounding the body. “Well, what should we do with this, Shane?”

Mercy lifted her head, fixing her eyes on the men who failed to save her niece. The man addressed as Shane appeared around thirty, the same age as everyone else in the room. The man answered. “Toss her in the pile, I guess.”

Pile? questioned Mercy. She refused to tolerate hearing the word. From surrendering her will to live, within a matter of seconds she returned to her feet and confronted Shane. “You won’t throw my niece into some pile!”

The girl’s dead,” said the man. “Would you prefer a back yard to bury her in?”

Yes. I would prefer that.” Her response was cold, glaring and fearless.

His very appearance disgusted her. From the indistinguishable tattoo on his neck, she judged Shane’s skin was covered from chest to legs with ink. Were it not for winter, she imagined he’d wear a wife beater with a bandanna. He carried himself so arrogantly. He only had apathy for Haley from the moment the others brought her inside.

Then, feel free to. We won’t stop ya,” he said to Mercy. He looked at his men. “Leave the body.”

Your men are going to help.” Shane only laughed, the others with him. “Look, I’m only asking for this one thing. What are you doing here, anyway? This is a church.”

More like a chapel,” retorted one of Shane’s men.

Then the boss added, “Sorry to have misled you. But the world’s gone to shit, in case you didn’t notice.”

Mercy tried to retain composure, but as the moments passed, the reality seethed its way further into her mind. Haley’s gone. Gone… Perhaps it was denial at first, like it was with their family. She had forced herself to be strong for her innocent niece. All the months hiding underground, and not once did she permit Haley to cry, nor herself. There was promise on her part that the time would come for them to mourn, but it was not then. It was not until their country, their people, or perhaps even the whole world, returned to order. Haley was her strength to remain composed, to remain sane, and to remain alive. Now without Haley, it seemed all her strength had gone. Even her legs were scarcely capable of holding her up.

Without another word to them, Mercy tucked her hands under Haley’s body and started to lift. The others watched as if it were a show, placing bets that she would fail lifting a body nearly as long as her own. And she did, losing her balance and falling backward, striking her forehead against the edge of a pew. Haley’s body fell hard on the carpeted floor. Mercy was reduced to tears again, being consumed with shame. As the men around her laughed, she attempted a second effort. Though a sharp pain stung her lower spine as she stood, she ignored it, and managed to stand fully with her niece in her arms. She stepped once, then again. With each passing moment she could feel her strength fading, knowing she would have to set Haley down before long.

Haley’s head fell back over Mercy’s arm. Against her better judgment, Mercy tried bending her elbow forward to lift the head, but it only strained her muscles more. She reached the front doors, further than she expected. As she stepped just a foot from them, she had to lower herself and rest. Still, she never ceased cradling Haley’s head like an infant.

The chapel doors flung open from the outside. Mercy looked up, seeing a fairly large figure wearing a trench coat entering, an indignant expression on his face. Once stepping inside, he paused when seeing Mercy and the little girl in her arms. His strong expression faltered for that brief moment.

Well, if it isn’t the Ghost himself. Hello, friend,” said Shane.

Who the hell is this?” the tall man asked, still looking at them.

I don’t know, Ethan. They just … showed up.”

Ethan, Mercy mentally noted, ignoring the first name Shane called him. Is he their boss or something? He doesn’t look any older than Shane. Whoever Ethan was, he was tall, carrying a heavyweight build. He’s obviously not starving, she substantiated. He had dark brown hair that almost looked black;probably more dirty than natural. Ethan wore no colors; only black, from the collar of his long leather coat to his boots. He was far more serious than the others. She wasn’t sure if he lacked emotions, or was just chronically pissed off. His all-business dress and attitude gave away his position. Who else would speak to Shane like that other than a man with authority? Who else could enter and start demanding information?

Ethan walked further into the church, glancing again at Mercy and the deceased girl in her arms. “What’s a woman and a dead girl doing here?” spat Ethan. Blood soaked into his gloves as he brushed his hands across the table, walking toward Shane, whose men kept their distance. “Better yet, what are you doing here? Is there something of value in this chapel?”

The Lord Jesus,” remarked Shane. “We’ve prayed a lot, hoping the good Lord would conjure a huge pile of red meat and some pussy. We got one wish…”

Hilarious, Stauffer. Your boss sent me to have you report to her.”

Shane paused, his arrogant demeanor shifting to vulnerability. “Why? What’s she want?”

An explanation for why you’re in a church.” Ethan sighed. He turned toward Mercy and the body she held. He paused for a moment, observing them intently. “Who are they?” he asked again.

Shane snapped his fingers, gesturing his men to leave the building. As they moved to exit, he stood close to Ethan to give his answer. “I’ll tell the boss. If you really care to know, stay and listen.”

She. The word echoed in her mind. ‘The boss?’ ‘Scarlet?’ What kind of group is this? … Is Scarlet the boss, then? She held Haley close as the others walked out one by one, imagining one of them, particularly Shane, would kick or stomp or spit on Haley as they passed for their own sadistic amusement. The fact they were leaving her alone with Ethan was no consolation to her.

You two, wait outside,” Ethan said to Shane and one other just before they stepped out. With Shane closing the doors behind him, Ethan knelt beside Mercy, looking closely at Haley’s face. Then, at Mercy. “Did they kill her?” he asked. Mercy shook her head slightly. “Were you leaving to bury her?”

Yes…” reluctantly answered Mercy.

Then what? Run away? Maybe say a prayer first?”

I didn’t think that far ahead. I don’t really pray.” She could not discern any sincerity in Ethan. His questions felt devoid of emotion, like how he seemed as a person.

The boss will want a word with you, too.”

Please,” she begged. “Can I bury my niece first?”

Wouldn’t it be more dignifying to leave her on the floor in this church? The worms would take longer to find her. Or, would you rather feed them sooner?”

Then the flies would eat her.”

What makes flies worse than worms?”

Mercy was silent from pure disgust. Has he even seen who I’m holding? My own family! My dead niece. He still tells me to leave her on some floor? Ethan’s question was not worth a verbal response. She turned her face away from him, burying her nose into Haley’s hair and smelling her essence before time permanently diminished it. She closed her eyes, trying to pretend the little one was still alive somehow.

You can come back when my boss is done with you.”

Mercy removed her face from Haley’s scalp then shot a spiteful glare at Ethan. “Just a few minutes,” she said, nearly demanding it, with implied consequences.

Ethan already lost patience for the conversation. He flung open the doors, snapping his fingers to order the men beside Shane to remove her. They stepped up to Mercy, who started throwing punches at them. She did not manage to injure them, but kept up the struggle long enough for Ethan to step behind her and lock his arms around her neck, making it feel as if it would kill her. Before she lost consciousness she relented. With her fists relaxed and her arms raised (as much as she could), she surrendered entirely. Ethan relinquished his hold, dropping her to the floor as she gasped for air. The henchmen each forcefully lifted her by an arm, and Ethan led the way out of the church.

Mercy was too far away to look back by the time she regained enough oxygen to be fully conscious. Maybe it’s better that I don’t see her just left on the floor like that. They’ll let me go if I cooperate. If I don’t see you again, Haley, I’m so sorry.

The building Ethan was leading them to was the one she saw upon arrival to the area. It was faintly lit all over and was the largest building in sight. She could tell she was in an ordinary neighborhood, which made it apparent in her mind that they were approaching a former school. She tried to find street signs or a sign positioned on or around the building saying its name, but found nothing.

Roads that were not lit from lamps, traffic lights, cars or buildings were still something she needed adjusting to. It seemed her escorts were fully adjusted to the darkness; as if they learned to see without their eyes. She admired how they could walk any distance without lights. Twice they flawlessly stepped over and off edges that had caused Mercy to trip, not knowing to expect the obstacles. She wondered where inside they were taking her; if there would be any light to see, or any other prisoners to share space with.

She could see Ethan more clearly the closer they got. The walk was only a couple hundred feet, but the anticipation had its own way of extending the time it took to arrive.

Ethan walked with a slight hunch, indicating to Mercy that he was not as confident as he first seemed. The way he approached the building was as if it bored him – or pained him. Somehow the sight of him eased her fear. There stood two shadowy figures at opposite sides of the main doors to the building, standing guard with rifles long enough to use as canes. Who are these people? The question was far more prevalent in her mind than anything else. No one dressed, spoke or carried themselves like military or government agents, but they were highly organized. The Uprising tore the country down only three months prior; hardly enough time to establish some sort of network everyone understood. They had been a clan or secret society for some time.

Who’s she?” asked the guard to their right.

More baggage,” replied Ethan.

Mercy half-expected to be frisked at least, but she wasn’t examined at all. Upon entering the building, she saw the main hallway lit with candles. Some men used flashlights. No less than a dozen, she estimated were in that hall. Likely a lot more throughout the building. They forced her down to her knees, the guide to her right relieving himself from managing her while the one to her left kept his grip on her shoulder.

Ethan paused amid everyone, scouring every direction of the building he could see. “Where’s Shane? I was right behind him,” he said loudly, seeming to be addressing everyone.

Upstairs talking to the boss,” Mercy heard someone answer. She attempted to lift her head enough to see who was conversing, continuing to keep tabs as much as possible on everyone she was encountering. “She wants you up there too,” he added.

The girl is Shane’s responsibility. Should I leave her with the others?”

For now? Probably,” answered the same man.

Mercy’s escort forcefully lifted her back to her feet. Ethan walked ahead of them as Mercy wondered every possibility of what ‘others’ meant. Other prisoners? Just other women? There’s only men here. It could just be the other women. If he meant prisoners… Ethan led them to the other end of the hall, to the last room on the left. He unlocked the door and Mercy’s escort threw her inside. She heard the door lock again as she found herself in a room of unknown size or layout, completely devoid of light.

She said nothing, waiting.

Through the darkness, she finally heard someone speak to her. “Hey…” said a man with a soft voice. “What’s your name?” She had only been thrown in a minute before, and already someone in the room wanted to get to know her? Neither responding, or refusing to respond, seemed appropriate. What’s answering going to do? Did he see that I’m a woman? Then her company spoke again, asking, “What got you in here?”

Perhaps it was futile not to answer. “My niece was dying,” she said equally as soft as the man.

A woman!” said another voice, this one much deeper than the others. “I told you! Now pay up.”

The softer voice replied, “I’m out of cigarettes, and I’ve been out of matches even longer than that.”

Can they see around the room? How could they bet on cigarettes? And what do I have to do with this bet? Mercy could hear someone stand and walk somewhere in the room. She moved herself toward her left to get out of way of the door. They probably know where the door is, at least. The footsteps were not coming closer, she could hear. She kept her eyes open despite not being able to see.

So, where you from, baby?” said the deeper voice.

Mercy said nothing. She inched further to her left, intent on being untraceable. With two men in the room, both showing interest in her without as much as seeing her face, she chose to take no chances.

What’s wrong? Don’t be afraid, baby.” He sounded happy for a prisoner. “We can see you moving, so don’t try to hide.”

Mercy stopped in her tracks. How can he see me? Call his bluff? Don’t call his bluff…? She ultimately decided to remain completely still; it was likely her best hope. Her eyes were adjusting slowly – she could distinguish some outlines – which was better than nothing. She was hoping some debris, preferably objects as large as furniture, were residing between her and the men.

You said your niece was dying. How is she now?” asked the same voice.

Mercy tensed up, never answering him.

A few days ago, before I was brought here, I found this little girl, no older than ten, crying in the street. She was missing her brother.” The man’s voice was welcoming. A ploy, she thought. It was difficult, though, to resist speaking back, because he was not intimidating her. Still, she refused to take the chance of looking vulnerable. Admitting why she stumbled into the turf was already excessive. “I asked the little girl what happened to her brother. She said her brother was looking for their parents and a man found him. She saw the man take her brother into a car across the street, and a few minutes later he walked out of the car and disappeared. When her brother never came out, she ran to the car and found him without any pants on. A blade was pinning him to the seat through his neck.”

The deeper voice had a sincerity to it. Whoever was speaking to her, she could hear some pain in his voice. Listening to him consoled her enough to relax her body, making her recognize how tense she was without knowing it.

The little girl told me she was sitting across the street from where her brother was,” he continued. “She pointed at the car his body was in. She couldn’t understand why his pants were off; she couldn’t understand why the man killed her brother. And she still didn’t know where her parents were.” The man paused. Mercy was envisioning the horrific story. “I invited the little girl to come with me, but she refused. I thought maybe I should make her come with me before someone else came along and did the same to her that happened to her brother. I asked myself if that would have been wrong. After all, I could barely feed myself, and half the reason I was out in the street was to find some pussy. It didn’t make me any better of a person that I was willing to force myself onto a woman versus a little girl.”

Mercy caught herself humming an acknowledgment. “You’re blunt,” she said endearingly. She regretted her words as soon as they left her mouth. Why did I talk? she repeatedly scolded herself.

I’m not a secretive man,” he replied.

Then it dawned on her. As she was listening to the man’s story, she forgot there was a second person in the room. The first voice to speak to her. Where’s that one? Why hasn’t he been speaking? The possibilities crossed her mind: the other one could be creeping up on her while she was distracted. Her first impression of both men was that they got along fine, probably well enough to share their toys whenever one was tossed in for them. She kept her guard up, listening for any nearby steps.

What’s your name?” the deeper voice asked.

What’s yours?” said Mercy.

Karl. They captured me hours ago.”

Though almost too nervous to speak of, Mercy asked, “Who’s your friend?”

To which, Karl simply answered, “I don’t know.” That sounded like a lie.

Where is he?”

In here somewhere. Hard to see.”

Exactly as she feared; either he wasn’t telling, or he was honest. She was torn in half between feeling threatened and feeling she might be a bit paranoid. Neither Shane nor his men made any attempt to harm her; nor had Ethan. For a moment, Mercy was silent. After catching herself being silent, she spoke the first thing that came to mind to avoid appearing fearful. “Did you take that girl with you?” she asked Karl.

The faint light of the hall poured into the room as the door opened, illuminating more of the room than Mercy’s eyes would have ever detected. Ethan stood there, with half a dozen others. Most of them were armed with rifles, a few were armed with machetes. They poured into the room, taking everyone inside. Mercy was apprehended by the same man who brought her to the building. She saw Karl for the first time, seeing he was a tall, dark-skinned man with big lips. Karl appeared about her age, maybe a year or two younger. The other one appeared to be a boy no older than high school age.

The men dragged everyone into the hall. Mercy saw an older woman standing amongst over a dozen men, not including those dragging her out there. Scarlet, the boss, she determined. She was apparently the only woman in the building. The different one is always the one in charge, she thought. As Mercy was forced to her knees with the other prisoners, the woman started walking along the line. Mercy was the only one who dared to look up at her, disgusted by the sight of the fat hanging out her sweater, and her greasy hair. She guessed the woman was in her sixties. Despite the woman’s grotesque appearance, she waddled about with pride, which Mercy gave her some credit for.

Scarlet looked straight at Mercy. “You’re not afraid of me, young lady.”

Clever observation, thought Mercy. She verbally replied, “Why should I be afraid of you?”

Most people are. Particularly in recent months.” Mercy saw the fat woman look up at Ethan, then back to her. “I’m Scarlet Lancaster. I run the place. Not just this building, but the whole turf. My nephew tells me you came running to Shane with your dying niece?”

Mercy rose. She looked Scarlet in the eyes. Her bodyguards nearly forced her back down, but Scarlet waved them off. “Yes… Scarlet.”

Ethan stepped into Mercy’s view from behind. “’Ma’am,’” he corrected like a hiss.

Mercy took the liberty of looking at Ethan again. She couldn’t stop staring at his eyes, observing very subtle facial expressions that probably no one else could read. Before getting overly distracted, she replied to him, though more addressed Scarlet. “I saw my niece die tonight. I’ve done nothing wrong. I don’t need to be punished by being lowered to the floor like a dog and forced to respect some woman I’ve never met.”

You’ll respect her regardless,” said Shane, who stood just out of Mercy’s peripheral left.

Mercy looked at Shane with a scowl. You just watched her die. I’d be justified in killing you, if it were in me. The words nearly came out of her mouth.

I saw my sister die,” said Scarlet, seeming to make a pathetic attempt to sound sympathetic. “There are few things more painful than seeing family killed before your eyes. But that’s life, girl. What’s your name? Mercy?”

Yes, it’s Mercy.”

You crossed into our turf, Mercy, and we’ll deal with you as we wish. My men will see if you can be of any use to us.”

And if I refuse to cooperate?”

Shane lifted his rifle, a 12-gauge shotgun. Mercy fearfully turned to see it as he cocked the weapon. “We’ll kill you if you don’t cooperate. It’s that simple, sweetheart.”

Mercy shook her head, looking now at Scarlet. “You kill people who haven’t wronged you? Nothing is more shameful.”

Strong. I like that a lot,” said Scarlet. “We’ve killed innocents before, young girl. I’ve never compromised my territory. It keeps the Army off my back. In the past, it kept the cops and Feds off my back. For your own good, I recommend you cooperate. I promise I’ll let you go if you do.” Scarlet’s words were hollow, but Mercy could sense some truth to them. It was obvious that Scarlet kept the Army away by keeping innocent hostages, and killing them if necessary, but certainly not killing them outright. She probably has a room full of prisoners. She heard Scarlet sigh heavily. “Frankly, I’m too tired for this shit. Ethan, deal with this.” The boss waddled away with a yawn, her guards silently followed.

The man approached her, standing out from the others like an alpha wolf. “Yes or no, woman,” he said.

Mercy fearlessly looked him in the eyes. “No.”

Ethan gripped Mercy by her hair and began to drag her down the hall. She screamed as she tried to resist, but when she tried to remain in place, Ethan only continued to pull. She smacked his arm, then dug her nails into it, but none of it fazed him, even after drawing blood. Ethan dragged her to the main entrance doors; the guards stood aside as he opened them and continued to pull her down the steps onto the parking lot.

He finally relinquished her when they were in the middle of the lot. Mercy wasted no time, stumbling onto her feet and attempting to flee. Ethan caught up to her and kicked the back of her knee, causing her to lose balance and fall hard on her face. Ethan stomped a foot on her face, pressing down as if to flatten it. “You done?”

Mercy stopped struggling.

Good. Stand up.” She obeyed, but first rubbed the filth and pebbles off her face. “Take it off,” he said.

Mercy quivered. “What?”

Take it off. All of it.”

Now her dignity was to be exscinded. Refusing would have been stupid. She already knew Ethan too well. He was Scarlet’s most loyal, most adamant dog. She nearly reconsidered her decision just to avoid the embarrassment, but she was certain it was too late; Ethan would force her to do this even if she had changed her mind, merely as punishment. When she lifted her shirt, the cold air chilled her belly like being touched by ice. Doing it slowly proved to make it worse, so she stripped quickly. First the top, then the bottom, until all her skin was completely bare. “Can I keep my shoes?” she asked, clenching herself and starting to shiver. She couldn’t feel her feet anymore.

Ethan kicked her clothes aside, including her shoes. “Scarlet has a specific job for you. A woman’s job. She won’t let you go until you submit. We can make this quick, or I can let you freeze.”

Mercy held herself as tightly as she could. “Then, I’ll freeze,” she said.

She bent her legs to sit, but Ethan commanded, “You’re not sitting.” Mercy obeyed, though she knew it didn’t matter if she had or hadn’t. “I’ll ask once more. Will you-”

No, I won’t.”

All right.” Ethan stepped forward, ready to strike her.

Before you beat me, tell me something.” Much to her surprise, Ethan paused. “Did you lose someone too?”

…What?”

I saw the way you looked at Haley. It pained you, didn’t it? You’ve been thinking about it since. I could see it in your eyes.” Despite her chattering teeth, she was still able to speak somewhat fluently, but knew it wouldn’t last much longer. Part of her was ready for the cold to kill her. All that was left to do in life was satisfy this last bit of curiosity.

She was a child. No child should die like that.”

Was th-th-that the first time you saw a d-dead child?”

Ethan said nothing.

I th-thought so.” For only a moment, there was silence between them. Ethan continued to stare at her. Despite her nakedness, Ethan only ever looked at her eyes. It provided some comfort that he did not seem interested in her body. He could have raped me in the hall, and no one would have cared, she thought.

Ethan slowly walked over to her clothes and kicked them back toward her. She looked at him, asking with her eyes, and he nodded. She put on everything just as quickly as she had removed it. The cold was still far from gone, but she would at least live a little while longer. “Why so interested?” the enforcer asked.

You don’t seem like s-someone who would care. No one else looked at her the way you did.”

What’s your point?”

Mercy thought for a moment. “I don’t know. I guess it’s nice to see someone around here with a heart.”

Fine, perhaps I have a heart, perhaps I don’t. What does it prove?”

Mercy lowered her head. “Nothing, really.”

It’s not relevant to your situation in the slightest. I’ll let you die if I must.”

Yeah.” She looked away, out at the neighboring houses, some of them showing candlelight.

Who was that girl?”

Haley, my niece.”

The last of your family?” She nodded slowly. “Then what’s it matter what I think? You have no one left, and my feelings toward the matter wouldn’t bring her back to life.”

Mercy bit down, feeling some anger. “I know. Do you have a family, Ethan?”

He said nothing.

Is it Scarlet? She said you’re her nephew. Is it these criminals? These sociopaths?”

They’re more of a family than you could ever understand.”

Mercy paused. “They?

Ethan sighed. “Scarlet is my aunt, but this is her clan, not mine. If you must know.”

You’re not a member? That doesn’t make sense. Then what are you doing here? How does Scarlet trust you?”

Lilith Krohn. Heard of her?” Mercy shook her head. “She’s my sister. Scarlet keeps me as assurance that my sister will remain allies with her. Scarlet’s my aunt; she’s known me since I was a child.”

Why are you different clans if you’re so closely related?”

Ethan rolled his eyes. “That doesn’t concern you. You ought to pay more attention to your current situation, and look at it more realistically. I won’t give you all night to reconsider. You’d be wise to put all that out of your mind. Forget what’s happened, and move forward, or let it kill you.”

As long as I’m alive, I can still hope.”

Hope for what?”

…A family.”

Ethan sighed through his nose, rolling his eyes. “Your family’s dead.”

I can still have one again someday. There’s nothing wrong with hoping for that.” By then, Mercy could no longer feel her arms. Having clothes on again only slowed the freezing rather than reversing it. For a time, there was complete silence between them, which she failed to notice for a while. She looked up, thinking perhaps Ethan left, but he was still there, standing idly, staring at her. “What?” she had to ask.

Ethan was looking at her as if studying. His posture was more relaxed. She heard a gentler voice when he finally said, “You should stay. For your own good.”

Mercy was taken aback by his sheer tone. Is he asking me now? From demands to helpful hints in just a few short minutes. It was difficult to comprehend. She felt herself soften up a little. Haley… Mercy thought. She would have died for nothing if I just give up. Before excessive thinking could change her mind, she told Ethan, “Okay, I’ll do whatever Scarlet wants.”

Ethan looked at her. After shivering another minute, she looked back at him. There was an enigmatic look in his eyes, one that she couldn’t read. It was neither of hatred nor acceptance; neither joy nor sadness. Then he abruptly started walking back to the building, gesturing for her to follow. Once inside again, he turned to a hallway patrol. “Keep her locked up for now.”

What?” Mercy cried. As Ethan walked away, without looking at her, the patrolman took Mercy by the arm, unlocked the cell room, and shoved her back inside. “What about Haley? You said I could bury her!”

ADAM

He had not dreamed for a long time. For the past three nights, since he had taken part in the mission with Ethan Krohn, he had merely lain on the mattress with his eyes closed, more attentive to his surroundings than allowing himself rest. The cold seethed through both blankets as it regularly did that winter, and he kept himself warm by being completely submerged under them. If he had fallen asleep, he never felt it, because next he knew, someone was beating on the door. He leaped from the mattress into the freezing air, tripping over his blankets as he tried to drop them. Fearing for his life, he cautiously opened the door.

The hell are you doing?” scorned Ethan. He looked uglier now that Adam had lost respect for the man.

I… Sorry, sir. I was sleeping. Was I supposed to be somewhere?”

The meeting…”

Adam even feared the annoyance in Ethan’s voice. “Sorry, sorry!” He sped across the room, gathering his necessities, including pens, a binder, and his coat. “Is the boss awake?”

Hope that she isn’t,” said Ethan.

Adam hurried as if he had been set on fire. The boss’ quarters were fortunately a short distance down the hall from his own. As he ran, Ethan followed in a slow walk. The moment he passed the guards, he saw Scarlet awake, seated at the end of her bed. He never paused or slowed down. As he entered, he aimed straight for the closet and picked out something for her to wear.

Shut the damn door,” she said.

Yes, boss!”

Move your ass. I’m cold.”

Adam dressed her one leg and arm at a time at record speed. Though he selected her shirt at random, it was nearly identical to the one she wore the previous day: black, with the emblem of a salivating, decayed dog’s head against a red background. Distasteful imagery to Adam. Then he started the last part – her shoes – which meant he could slow down. As he fitted them, he noticed everything was darker than usual. Glancing outside, he saw rain covering the windows, which were opaque from fog. Though he resented rain, it meant, at least for a time, that the air would be a little warmer.

Ethan opened the door a pinch. “It’s me,” he said, knocking. “You dressed?”

Yeah. What?”

He pushed the door open enough to show his face. “Karl’s people are already moving against us. They attacked the south wing.”

Is it a problem?” asked the boss.

Not at the moment.”

Adam finished tying Scarlet’s last shoelace as she replied to Ethan, “We’ll discuss that, too.”

The meetings were always held there in Scarlet’s room. Adam recalled their original setting in the gymnasium, when there was more space in the building, and still preferred they had remained there. Her quarters were unimpressive; teens going through their insecure, hormonal phases had more interesting style to their rooms than the boss of the Lancaster family. It seemed that she kept her quarters barren to be in a constant state of preparedness, should her enemies drive her out again. Adam always reminded himself that the building was not the original home of the Lancasters. Wherever it was, it was permanently in ruin when the troops and their loyalist civilians overran it. Scarlet was believed to be dead, but her own loyalists had escorted her to safety, settling in the school she now called home. Why she was targeted, he never had the courage to ask about.

Adam set up the three tables close to the whiteboard in a triangle formation, away from Scarlet’s more valuable possessions. The boss’ seat was farthest from the board, since she rarely stood. Last night, he had helped prepare all of the boss’ notes into a binder, and once the tables were set up, he took that binder from the shelf in the corner and kept it in hand. Her captains entered and seated themselves at 8 AM sharp. Though Ethan was already present, he was the last to enter, and shut the door behind him.

Can any of you explain who tried to kill me?” asked the boss as her men took their seats.

Silence.

Well then… I trust you’ll make yourselves useful and find out.” She sighed. “We have something important to discuss, so let’s begin with the smaller shit first,” said Scarlet.

Adam remained at the whiteboard, since Ethan chose to stand just behind the boss. Emilio was the first to speak. “Troops have been spotted setting up camp on MLK a quarter mile north of here.”

I said less important matters first,” sighed Scarlet. “Any hostilities with customers?”

Always, ma’am,” the captain answered, lighting a cigarette. “Alexander has become far more aggressive as of late. The General’s inching through our perimeter more every day.”

He clearly wants me out of the way. Alright, then what have you been doing about it?”

Much of the resistance has come from civilians, ma’am. I have been arming them without trading.”

Scarlet nodded. “As long as they don’t point their weapons at us, I’ll allow it. Perhaps we should continue flirting with the troops – it keeps the peoples’ attention on them rather than us.” Scarlet turned to her younger captain, who by contrast to Emilio seated beside him, looked like he could be Emilio’s son. “Shane,” the boss began with an annoyed tone, “Ethan tells me you camped in your hut last night. Why weren’t you in covering your turf?”

Half my men were, ma’am,” answered Shane. “The troops are pushing us back, too.” The way Shane swayed his head when speaking to them, Adam assumed he might be drunk. “We laid a trap for them. Unfortunately, it failed.”

So, you stayed at the church?” asked Scarlet.

We were caught in the act. Retreat was our only option.”

Scarlet slumped her weight forward, glaring at Shane. “Next time, you keep your men in the streets, and you push them back. I don’t want to find you responsible for the troops getting close again. Last time that happened, I lost a home and had to settle for a derelict school I still have to live in. We can’t repel them a second time.”

Much to Adam’s surprise, Ethan lowered his crossed arms and spoke. “When did you get back this morning, Emilio?”

About twenty minutes ago. Why?” the chiseled capo asked.

Shane found a nanny for the children you brought in.”

Children? Adam’s mind screamed. Words vomited from his mouth against his will: “What children?” When the other, more important people in the room stared at him in shock, he apologized. “Sorry, I just, uh… I didn’t hear anything about children.”

Scarlet replied, a slight chuckle in her tone. “Emilio found six. Pulled them from a basement, nearly starved to death. Which reminds me. Ethan, I want you to check on their babysitter after the meeting. See that she’s doing her job. Make sure they’re fed and unharmed. Products need to sell.”

Who was taking care of them before?” asked Adam.

No one,” Emilio replied.

Adam then asked, “Well… why were they in a basement?” but he got no reply from anyone.

Is that all?” asked the boss to her men. They gestured that there was nothing else to say. “Very well. Adam…” The butler placed the binder in his hands on the table before Scarlet. “As Ethan already made mention of, we have six children here. I will exchange them for food, and more importantly, to forge an alliance.”

An alliance with whom?” asked Emilio.

Marcus Solomon.”

Emilio’s eyes opened wide. Adam was eager to finally learn what that name was about. “Solomon? I thought they were exterminated.” He looked at Shane, then back at Scarlet. “I mean no disrespect, ma’am, but do you think this is wise? Never do business with a Solomon; everyone knows that.”

Shane stepped in. “I’d have to agree, ma’am. Is it wise to align with a family that’s wanted you dead for forty years? And with the other families out of reach – the Marsdens, the Krohns…”

Ethan interrupted. “My family is still your ally.”

Yes,” said Shane. “But Phoebe is not in charge anymore. When your mother died, the Krohns ceased to be a reliable ally. When was the last time Lilith contacted us, or you? Not once since she took the reins. Not once. We can’t rely on your sister.” Shane turned to Scarlet. “If we can’t rely on the other families for support, we risk too much trusting the Solomons.”

What would you two suggest?” she asked both Shane and Emilio.

Don’t make any deal,” said Emilio.

Adam took a moment to assess something he had just heard. As the others continued to talk, he noted what Shane said. Sister… Adam knew Ethan didn’t officially belong to Scarlet, but he never knew who Ethan was in the Krohn family. Lilith is his sister? Despite finally learning the truth, it raised more questions in his mind than it answered. Most prominently: Why is Ethan even here? He’s been here for months without leaving the area even once. Scarlet can’t just be borrowing him…. He thought deeply, eventually remembering that Phoebe, the original boss of the Krohn family, was Scarlet’s sister, which made Ethan Scarlet’s nephew. But that understanding failed to explain anything about Ethan being there. It explained how Scarlet trusted him, being a non-member. Family and business, he thought. A poisonous mix. Scarlet Lancaster and Phoebe Krohn were two enterprises among the same relatives. He wondered how they were able to successfully achieve that for forty years.

Hello? Adam!” the boss nearly screamed.

Sorry! Yes, ma’am?”

The door!” Adam’s head pulled itself in the direction of the entrance. Someone was standing there, with a small slip of paper – a messenger Adam saw on occasion. He approached the man and took the paper, then provided it to Scarlet. She read the lengthy paragraph for a moment. “Late afternoon,” she said, tearing it up. “Marcus will arrive late afternoon. Scouts report trouble on the road.”

What kind of trouble?” asked Shane.

The troops. Apparently they’re everywhere in Northeast now. Taking prisoners, raiding houses, shooting civilians, blah blah blah…” She sighed. “Report back to me at three o’clock, unless the scouts report Marcus will arrive sooner.” She slowly stood up. Her two captains swiftly rose first, nodded toward her, then proceeded out of the room.

Adam helped his boss straighten her legs. I’m going to develop back problems doing this much longer, he thought. Once she was standing, her eyes locked onto Ethan, who had not moved at all. “You may leave,” she said.

Adam, find me the clan’s records of the past six months,” Ethan said.

As Adam took a step back to obey the order, Scarlet grabbed his arm then looked at Ethan again. “Excuse me? What for?”

Something important.”

And that is…?”

Ethan made no reply.

The answer’s no. You’re pulling nothing for him, Adam.”

Scarlet, I need to see those records.”

Her glance turned to a glare. “You won’t refer to me by my name again, Ethan. Not unless you want me to ship you back to your sister in a box, piece by piece.”

Scarlet waddled away. Adam could see Ethan look at the back of her head, feeling his rage. He never knew Ethan to ever want anything but solitude. How could a stack of papers be so important? Then he heard the boss speak. “Ethan, I gave you an order. If I have to remind you of anything again, I’m replacing you. Now out, both of you!”

Ethan sighed. He left the room in silence.

In the hall, Adam asked Ethan, “Are you going to check on the kids? I’ll do it for you.”

Ethan examined him. “Why not…”

Adam would have run but he felt some obligation to wait. When Ethan started leaving, silently and probably still angry, Adam walked the other direction, nearly stumbling into a guard. He made his way across the building to the room where he would find ‘the merchandise.’

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