Verene was every shade of pissed, but Lakhela was just grateful they’d parked in the back. The front of the parlor sported a gaping hole large enough for a car to drive through – as Wynn had just done – and the rain was seeping in to dampen what remained of the carpeting. The girls escorted Fia back to the car whilst Verene had to talk down the elderly, understandably grouchy funeral director. When she didn’t come back for a surprisingly long while Lakhela knew she must have been either committing a rather grisly murder or writing a very big check, though when she returned with a weary expression and without any new bloodstains on her clothing Lakhela assumed the latter.
The already residing blood was her own – she’d been the worst injured of them all and Fia, despite her difficulty breathing, had pulled the first aid kit from the trunk and was wiping all the cuts on her arms with astringent during her mother’s absence. That stupid little table the bomb had been sitting on had torn off quite a bit of her, and as the initial shock and pain subsided she grew annoyed with the amount of explosions she was becoming involved with. But as Verene got into the driver’s seat and turned to Fia she let that temper wane in favor of duty.
“How are you feeling, honey?” She asked her daughter, who smiled politely.
“I’m okay, mom.” She answered with her very frequent reassuring tone. “It’s okay.”
“What about the rest of you girls? Lakhela?” She asked with a look that didn’t quite believe those last words, and they all borrowed a page from Fia’s book and nodded politely, drained and concerned about Verene’s reaction. It was likely to be so explosive that not even Colette was egging her on.
“Khel has a boatload of splinters but there’s no tweezers in the first aid kit.” Fia said, her friend’s health her primary concern. “We should get home where we can help her out properly.”
Lakhela felt a twinge in her stomach as she wondered a moment how safe that home was, but Verene only nodded and started up the car. The car ride was tense and silent for a few minutes.
“Did you kill him?” Colette finally asked, and Verene sighed. Apparently she just couldn’t resist.
“No. I told him I’d pay the damages if he handed over security footage, but he only had a camera in the prep room and all the footage was wiped. I’m covering it anyway.” She sighed again and drummed her fingertips against the steering wheel. “Really didn’t think this was going to cost me so much.”
“It’s going to be okay, mom.” Fia reassured her, standard procedure, and Verene nodded.
“I know it is. Don’t you think I’ve given up darling.” She said, and eyed the rest of them in the rearview mirror. “And the rest of you better not either.”
“I’m not even close.” Colette said, her tone dark. “But ‘giving up’ and ‘taking a break’ look pretty similar.”
“We’ll be doing no such thing.” Verene spoke fiercely. “What happened today is actually a good thing. Now who can tell me why?”
Teonnie’s hand shot up so quick it hit the roof, and Colette snorted and mumbled what sounded like ‘teacher’s pet’ beneath her breath.
“We know what she looks like now.” She said, and Verene nodded. “Which is more than just Fia’s description.”
“You didn’t recognize her, did you?” Fia asked her mother, but she shook her head.
“Just some blonde. Honestly if I’ve met her before it would be easy to forget unless I spotted all that anger on her.” She answered. “But yes, seeing her is to our benefit.”
“We’ve seen her skills, too.” Lakhela said, and Fia paid rapt attention – it was clear she was taking mental notes. “Those bombs, that car –”
“So now we have a better idea of what we’re up against.” Colette cut her off, and Lakhela knew it was more for Fia’s sake than any sort of guilt. She’d only done her job after all, but the fact that Wynn rode in in that car of all things seemed to be an attempt to shame the other woman. That made Lakhela angry – for all the wrong they’d done they had to be infinitely better than this woman who kidnapped children and desecrated the dead.
“Absolutely. And now that we do we’re going to kick her ass.” Verene said, then pulled into the driveway with a steadfast look of determination. They all got out, Fia thankfully unassisted, and limped and trudged and meandered their way back into the mansion. Fia demanded Lakhela sit in the bathroom and wait for her to help patch her up with impressive Mom Friend authority for a kid ten years her junior. Lakhela did as she was told until Colette kicked her out of the bathroom, and she didn’t feel too sore about it when she saw the burnt patch of hair at the back of her head.
Instead she met Fia in one of the second floor bathrooms, where they both grabbed tweezers and pulled little bits of wood from her legs. For awhile everyone was separated and doing their own thing, which was probably the way Lakhela liked it best, second only to a massive team-up where they all took someone down: it was just that usually their enemies were easier to tackle than this one.
“Lakhela.” Fia began in a soft, thoughtful tone when they were finally done and covering her with Hello Kitty bandaids that Fia had obviously picked out. “I know Colette killed those cops on my mother’s orders.”
Lakhela hummed in response, unsure of what to say. Fia knew her leanings, so she was clearly coming to her on something she wouldn’t take to Verene. But Fia was always so sweet and kind and sure, she learned to use a gun as a toddler but there was always concern about her desire to wield one. She took to her mother’s leadership lessons so well the issue hadn’t reared its head in ages, and yet Lakhela was suddenly nervous.
“And then Wynn showed up in their car. The one that sat outside our house for two days. She was only a few blocks away.” Fia said thoughtfully. “She chose it to screw with us. To upset Colette, maybe to upset me.”
“She’s evil. Don’t let it get to you.” Lakhela said, but that seemed hopeless so she tried to interact properly instead. “We already knew she was close to the house, Fee, that doesn’t mean we’re in danger here.”
“That’s not –” She sighed. “I wouldn’t have killed those men. That’s what Wynn made me think of, and I just wonder if she knew that. If she understands that if I ever had half a chance to lead us I would make different calls.”
“When you lead us you’ll take your mother’s advice to heart and do what you think is best.” Lakhela said, but as the words came she understood what Fia had meant. That one fact Verene ignored with a passion, the one Fia was so good at politely avoiding, the uncomfortable truth of her frailty. Wynn was waving it in her face, maybe hinting at something darker. What, that she would kill Verene and her replacement would be unable to handle things? That this wasn’t a fight Fia would live through?
“It’s a chance I want.” Fia looked down at her shoes. “But I’d rather us do the job right than be over-protective of a false heir.”
“How do I look?” A voice called from the doorway, and Lakhela’s head snapped up to see Teonnie stood there oblivious, a wide smile on her face as she pointed up to her short, tight coils. They were lavender now, the work of the hair chalk Fia had gotten her for Christmas. She’d insisted back then that she preferred the vibrancy of the wig, but clearly these were desperate times. Fia smiled so warmly Lakhela thought she ought to leave all this crime behind and go into acting.
“Beautiful! And very purple.” She said, and Teonnie let out a sound of delight.
“I agree.” Verene called as she walked over, and Lakhela took that as a cue that their conversation was over. There was nothing more she could do to ease Fia’s worries in that moment, but even if she had the chance she wasn’t sure what she would say – or how much she could disagree. “How are we all recovered?”
“Lakhela has seventeen pink cat bandaids on her, so I’ll say well.” Fia said, and Verene smiled fondly. “Has anyone seen Colette? Is she alright?”
“She’s still fixing her hair.” Verene answered. “I suggest we join her in the bathroom. We have much to discuss.”
They all made their way up to the third story bathroom, where Colette was sitting on the tub’s ledge slathering her head with coconut oil – Lakhela didn’t envy her. When the girls walked in she began to tidy the hair she’d chopped, a few inches that were curled and blackened in places. Fia helped her scoop it into the trash as her mother addressed the group.
“First and foremost, there will be two new officers keeping watch tonight.” She said, and Fia dropped the hair she held.
“What went down today wasn’t enough to cause issues, was it?” Teonnie asked, and Verene looked thoughtful.
“Not quite, but it was still a greater hassle than I ever anticipated, which insofar seems to be Wynn’s specialty. She left the bodies in the road and some civilians found them.” She said, and Fia paled. “I know, not ideal. We’ll have to see if they’re the type to take a little sympathy gift, it’s always best not to have bad press.”
“Are the cops pissed then?” Colette asked. “You still have them under your thumb, don’t you?”
“Yes, of course. They’re just angry at the scene that’s been caused. I had to talk down the commissioner for twenty minutes.” She gave them a flat look that showed her enjoyment. “It’ll blow over when we solve this issue with Wynn, and we’ll be solving it quite soon. Before she had prudence, I’ll give her that. The foresight to hit us where it hurts.”
Lakhela stole a glance at Fia – she was looking down at the ground, done helping Colette, but she knew for her young friend the words had a great heft to them.
“But now that it’s a volley she’ll be destroyed.” Verene continued with a clenched fist. “We have the upper hand because we’re us. We’ve seen her techniques – big and brash and technical. We can fight it now that we’re familiar with it.”
“Did you notice that the bombs she had today were remote controlled?” Teonnie asked with an avid expression now that they’d gained some confidence. “All she had to do was get in range. You think she tinkered with that herself or bought some tech?”
“Either way we know she has some impressive tools.” Lakhela said. “Those smoke canisters at the graveyard were surely remote controlled. All she had to do was sneak in somehow to plant them, drive past later, set them off, and find my car.”
“That car bomb didn’t kill us, but with all she’s done since then I’m starting to think that wasn’t the point.” Fia suddenly looked thoughtful. “I bet it was timed for us to witness and be intimidated – and inconvenienced, again.”
“So she drove to see us in the bar afterwards. She had to come in, right?” Teonnie asked uncertainly. “The fire alarm went off at the perfect time, so did the speaker.”
“Maybe, but I didn’t see her.” Colette put a hand to her chin and ended up covered in oil, then pulled away with a frown. “No, not maybe. How did she know you guys would go to the cemetery? How could she have possibly known we’d go to Bourbon Street, let alone visit that bar first?”
“She knows us. She knows us so terrifyingly well.” Fia said, and from the almost perfectly concealed unease on her face Lakhela wished she weren’t as bright as she was to have figured that out. “She knew where we’d go before she ever murdered my step-dad. That’s what makes her dangerous.”
“Made. Past tense.” Verene said. “She’s at a disadvantage now, and will be even further once we properly find out who she is. Teonnie, it’s time for a little research.”
“Joy.” Colette said flatly, but Teonnie only nodded. Lakhela didn’t think that would be too bad and was ready to volunteer a helping hand before Fia spoke up.
“Can I help?” She asked, and Verene nodded easily. “Good, I want us to move forward in a way that doesn’t involve almost being blown up.”
“That’s generally the preferred method.” Teonnie smiled a little. “We should go back to my place and hop onto my computers. Vee, you mind a sleep-over?”
“Not at all. We have our own work to do.” She allowed, and Fia bounced out of the room to pack an overnight bag. “Colette and Lakhela, we have to plan what comes next. Set a trap for her.”
“No more business as usual, huh?” Colette asked, but her half-grin faltered at Verene’s serious look.
“On the outside we’ll try our best to make it look that way. She won’t be so prepared then.” She said, and Lakhela saw the rage Verene was working to suppress. She could hazard a guess that it was mostly for her own sake so Wynn wouldn’t get to her too much, but it was far too late for that. The moment she took Fia it was too late. “But we’ll be secretly gearing up to take her down hard.”
“We just have to figure out how first.” Lakhela said, and they had a moment of pensive silence before Fia skipped back in with her bag, a big smile plastered on her face. Despite her earlier mood she could always be distracted by a fair bout of crime.
“Come on Tea, I have a laundry list of ideas.” She said, and Verene looked pleased.
“Make sure you eat something.” She ordered, and Fia nodded obediently. “And get plenty of rest and don’t do anything rash. Remember, you’re just researching.”
“I know, I will.” She said patiently. “Love you mom! See you guys later!”
And with that she took Teonnie by the hand and dragged her from the room. She laughed and allowed the girl to pull her away with a meager wave to the rest, but Lakhela was quite displeased she’d failed to meet Fia’s eye. Their earlier conversation was left unfinished, and even if she couldn’t quite grasp a solution she still wanted to know what Fia was thinking before they threw themselves into two separate missions. At any rate, she’d quickly vanished, probably a smooth avoidance maneuver, and Teonnie had to take the Jaguar so there was no getting back to the pair any time soon.
“I need to change.” Was all she could manage after those thoughts, and Verene allowed it before they continued. Her kaftan had been torn so viciously she was now wearing a mini dress, so when she returned to her guest room she threw on a shirt dress in a beige batik print her parents brought back from their last trip to Nigeria that she suspected would also serve as pajamas for a long night of planning and organizing. After she threw the old kaftan away and left the room she spotted Colette and Verene headed down the stairs and followed suit.
They met in Verene’s study, a modestly sized room on the first floor all paneled in mahogany. Behind the desk built-in shelving held a great deal of books, mostly non-fiction on the culture, history and economics of New Orleans plus a few biographies of Al Capone, Bugsy, Bonnie and Clyde and other such icons to admire. In one corner a stack of Dr. Seuss revealed a young child and a soft side, but when Verene sat behind her desk her expression was beyond firm. Lakhela sat in the chair opposite and Colette drifted towards the window as she usually did. ‘So this doesn’t feel like another trip to the principal’s office,’ she’d remarked once, though Lakhela found it hard to draw parallels with a gun on the desk and a glint of wickedness in their boss’ eyes.
“First things first, we need to tighten the reins on our contacts.” Verene began. “Make sure no one’s aiding her willingly and alert them to possible wrong-doings.”
“To make sure she doesn’t hurt anyone else.” Lakhela caught on. “Interrogate or imprison any of them.”
“And to keep up pretenses about all our close ties.” Colette said as she looked out into the distance. “Makes us look better and makes them think twice about betraying us when they have the opportunity.”
“I’m sure research will lead Teonnie and Fia to question a few arms dealers, smugglers, what have you.” Verene continued. “Having them on patrol will only aid in that.”
Lakhela nodded. That would be best for everyone, the thing to keep people safe.
“We’ll have to coordinate something to draw her to us.” Verene said. “Something public but nothing grandiose enough for her to sniff out the trap.”
“Anything that looks like we’re at some tactical disadvantage – maybe poor visibility or somewhere that boxes us in.” Colette said thoughtfully. “And personally I’m done with all this gun nonsense, it’s not doing anything for us. I want to take her down with my bare fists.”
Lakhela’s thoughts headed in the opposite direction. “Do you think Wynn knows I’ve dabbled in sniping? I can take her out without her even realizing, all I need is a clear shot.”
“She hasn’t seemed concerned with it yet.” Verene hummed to herself. “But perhaps that’s because so far she’s always known where you are. We’ll have to see about that.”
“I think it would be the best thing to do.” She pushed earnestly. “There’s far lower risk.”
“I can suffer risk just fine.” Verene frowned, but Lakhela would wager they were both thinking of the same girl they didn’t want touched by such a gamble. “The risk of failure concerns me most. We need to throw all our weight into this one.”
“I’ll provide the majority.” Colette said, and Lakhela snorted. “So to be clear we need something public enough that she’ll find it but not enough to think it’s a trap, enough fire power to take her out, and either a ton of guns or none at all.”
“In a location that’s safer to us than it looks with a line of sight for Lakhela to shoot Wynn. Or at least if we can fit that in.” Verene noted, and Colette reached for her cross necklace. She’d taken it off earlier and only grabbed at fabric now. If either girl were devout Lakhela would have prayed, but she didn’t concern herself with God and Colette seemed to regard the bible itself far more than its contents.
“Then let’s start brainstorming.” She offered instead at the start of what she knew would be a very long night. “We’ve got ass to kick.”