Right on time only 36 hours late!
Teonnie and Fia had a whole host of work to do, and as soon as they left the house Fia suggested they ask around the community, which meant everyone: their contacts in every neighborhood, every business, every field of criminality. Verene wasn’t the boss of them all, but she was a beacon in the city’s corruption and tended to be listened to. They drove out near the Mississippi River Bridge in West Riverside in a car that Fia had last been in after the cemetery incident, and before about a year ago the last time her step-father bought them both ice cream. He was stiff and awkward with anyone below the age of twenty one, but made half an effort for the sake of politeness, so given how happy he made her mother Fia tolerated him just fine. That day though he’d been fishing for information on Verene’s business with hopes to climb the social ladder one way or another: she changed the subject as politely and often as she could. It was funny how two days ago she was so convinced that had been his undoing – turned out Wynn didn’t care one bit about the man now spattered onto Fia’s jeans.
The hunt for knowledge of this mysterious Wynn was basically fruitless. They first spoke to a black market art dealer, then a sketchy pawn shop owner, then a man who made fake IDs, none of whom had any idea who she was. When Teonnie handed Fia her phone and told her to get in touch with a crooked cop she could hear his voice waver and discovered that her mother in all her wisdom was shaking down their contacts as well.
“That’ll make our job easier.” Fia explained after she thanked the officer despite his uselessness and hung up. Teonnie nodded attentively, which always pleased Fia – she got a lot more respect than the average fourteen year old, at least that’s what she figured when school was in. Of course she was aware that it was mostly her mother’s influence, but from Teonnie and the girls it was all love.
“I’ve got an idea. This one will most definitely get us some answers.” She said. “But just in case we’ll make a few stops along the way.”
They headed west and met with a hitman whom Wynn had never hired, an arsonist she’d never worked with, a career criminal who was grumpy when they interrupted her vacation. Still, no one knew this stranger that had come for all their lives, and Fia was starting to lose hope until they arrived at Teonnie’s intended destination. Not the older girl’s favorite place in the world, but one she was clearly willing to work with if it meant taking down Wynn. When Fia gave her a cautious smile she returned it and the girl took it as permission to be cheerful.
“Ooh.” She practically bounced in her chair from the excitement. “If anyone knows a new girl they’ll be here. Smart thinking, Tea.”
“Thanks.” Teonnie beamed with pride and concealed a flash of misgiving in her eyes as she looked around. “Now I just have to find a parking spot.”
Then she turned into the Louis Armstrong Airport. She and that building had a long and troubling history, Fia knew: this was where the Coast Guard dropped off hundreds of people after they were plucked off their rooftops, pulled from debris, caught like fish swimming down the streets. Teonnie and her parents had lived in that airport five days until they were moved to a shelter in Houston, then eventually back to her aunt’s relatively undamaged home. She couldn’t comprehend how hard that must have been, but Teonnie was too strong to let it phase her now as she drove with a hardened expression, and she could only keep an eye on her and make sure she was alright as she sat in the passenger seat, giddy still at the thought of finally getting the information they needed.
Teonnie navigated the crowded parking garage, found a spot, and walked her to the main entrance. Once inside they found the place absolutely bustling and Teonnie was quick to take Fia’s hand as she walked along the check-in counters, likely for both their sakes. Fia watched her eyes scan the clerks as she paced quickly on long legs – she struggled to keep up until finally Teonnie found who she was looking for and rushed over to a man behind the counter handing a group their tickets. At the sight of her he did the same double take many had that day, unused to a Teonnie in black. He seemed to take it as an omen and went pale as he shooed away the people he was serving.
“This station is closed.” He called to the line behind them, and when people grumbled raised his voice. “Move to another line please, there’s important airport business here!”
“Bet they always eat that one up.” Teonnie said, maybe a bit harsh. “This is Fia Beaumarchais.”
He just seemed to realize she was there and his eyes went wide when he heard the name, which was unsurprising but still flattering nonetheless. She smiled and Teonnie seemed to deem his own introductions unimportant before she jumped right in.
“We need a passenger look up.” She said, very business-like. “First name Wynn, last name unknown, female, possible military but I doubt it.”
“Give me a minute.” He said, and began to type into his computer. They gave him that and more as he tried different spellings of the name across every airline, but to his absolute terror he’d found nothing. Teonnie clicked her long purple nails against the counter just to show him how she felt about that. Fia was nervous herself – she’d been certain this was their lucky break, and Teonnie was clearly trading anger for discomfort.
“What about her equipment? That speaker was big, it would be hard to bring that in without anyone noticing.” She suggested, but wasn’t very hopeful that she’d come through security with a massive piece of military appliance.
“Not sure. This airport doesn’t do luggage storage.” The clerk said with an apologetic look that turned to cowering when Teonnie stared him down. “I can give you military personnel data for recent fliers and you can look through that.”
“Yes, do that.” Teonnie said. “For the past two weeks, and if that’s manageable the full month.”
“I guess security footage would be a bit much, wouldn’t it.” Fia said as she looked around the crowded airport, and the clerk lowered his voice to reply.
“I can give you footage from the TSA’s private screening area, but there’s a low chance she was pulled aside there.” He said, and Fia agreed but requested it anyway. He excused himself and disappeared for a few minutes, presumably to bribe someone in charge of the monitors, and Teonnie yawned and complained of being hungry the whole time by way of distraction. Fia’s stomach was grumbling too, but she wasn’t sure how much she could eat with such disappointing results. Finally he returned with a massive stack of papers and a usb and wished them both luck, which Teonnie wasn’t thrilled with.
“You really oughta hope so.” She said in her most threatening tone, but Fia knew she wouldn’t waste her time exacting revenge on an innocent, so she patiently waited for the man to stop squalling in terror and the pair went on their way. On the ride home Teonnie griped as much as she felt she deserved and then pulled into a drive-through for burgers. Fia picked at the fries distractedly on the way to Teonnie and Lakhela’s place, a little beige bungalow not far from the garden district, under a mile from the Mississippi river. ‘Within smelling distance,’ Teonnie had once said, but it was nearby and affordable and she and Lakhela decorated the place to their liking – accented half with sleek shades of purple and half with comfortable, homey brown.
When they approached the porch steps Fia idly wondered if it reminded Teonnie of the safe house Wynn had flooded with its similar facade, if her friend saw floodwater whenever she came home. That dismayed her, and when she then spotted Teonnie delicately balancing the hefty stack of papers they’d gotten as she fumbled with her keys she was further disheartened. Once inside it was clear who the house belonged to; the paint was all warm shades of amber and terra cotta, the living room couch was eggplant, the pictures on the walls a combination of old photos of Lakhela’s parents and both their homes uptown and in Lagos, Nigeria and newer scenes of Verene and the girls complete with baby photos of Fia that she hated but didn’t have the heart to complain about.
Teonnie set the papers on the couch, put the take-out bags on the kitchen table, and dug into her burger as she walked around the house getting ready to work. When she set her laptop beside the food on the table and spotted how Fia’s burger sat untouched she frowned.
“What are you so mopey about? We have work to do.” She sat down, opened her laptop, and gave her a little grin of encouragement. “And isn’t that half the fun?”
Fia smiled back – it was, and she liked the way Teonnie thought of that right away. She picked up her burger and took it to the couch, then scanned the top piece of paper. It was the date and time of a flight, the airline, the military serviceman’s name, and their date of birth.
“Do you have a highlighter?” Fia asked, and Teonnie nodded and walked over to her kitchen junk drawer. “I’m going to look for anyone around your age, highlight, then hop onto Facebook and stare down profile pictures.”
“Ooh, sounds monotonous.” Teonnie tossed her a green highlighter. “I’ll go through all the videos I can. At some point we’ll switch, just tell me when you’re tired of that.”
“Likewise.” She said, and couldn’t imagine who was about to be more bored. Security footage had sounded exciting to her when she was young, but just like a stakeout it was mostly groaning, sighing, and – when Colette was supplying treats – snacking.
There was a lengthy period of silence as they worked on their separate projects, Fia on highlighting her occasional names and Teonnie clicking videos, squinting, and shaking her head. She highlighted less than she thought she would, only one on this page, two on another, and was halfway through the pile after an hour when she had to pause and turn on all the lights. Teonnie was staring so intensely at her screen that she didn’t even notice, so Fia took pity and suggested they switch.
“My hand’s cramping.” She complained with a whine, and Teonnie agreed to take a break with distant, fuzzy eyes. They switched places, Fia at the little kitchen table in the stiff high-backed chair, Teonnie slumped over on the couch. She clicked her first video to see a man ushered into a room, sighed, closed it, clicked another. Clicked another, another, another, and – holy crap, what a shock – another. There were no words to describe how tedious those next twenty minutes of her life were. But then she clicked a video and sucked in her breath: after all these dead ends a blonde had come into frame and she leaned in to get a better view. For a moment she was all hope, but no, it was some other woman twice Wynn’s age on a suddenly frozen screen.
“Teonnie?” She looked over to see her friend’s head in her hands as she stared down the sheet of paper with the most tired look of hatred she’d ever seen. When Teonnie glanced up it seemed that it was an effort to physically lift herself. “I think I messed something up.”
She blinked, rubbed her face with both palms, and stretched before she got off the couch and trudged her way over. When she got to the laptop Fia hit escape a few times, but nothing happened. They shared a look of concern, Fia’s laced with a far greater amount of panic, and Teonnie wordlessly ushered her out of her chair – when she took her spot back she hit a few keys.
“I’ll just open task manager.” She muttered to herself. Fia didn’t understand anything more complicated than opening a new tab and only nodded, but the way Teonnie stared at the screen didn’t seem too great. They waited a long, tense moment but nothing happened and Fia felt a twinge of nerves. “Welp.”
“Welp? Bad welp?” She asked, and Teonnie nodded stiffly and pulled the USB from her laptop. The image remained a moment longer before the screen went black. “Wait, what happened?”
“There’s a virus on this.” She said, her voice restrained, but when her fist closed around the flash drive her hand was stiff and tight and her knuckles went pale. “My laptop’s dead.”
Fia was stunned into silence a moment. Teonnie set the drive down and went to the couch to grab her phone. Her exhaustion was clear with every groggy movement, but still she tried to muster up the conviction which Fia had a rare lack of. A few unpleasant thoughts crossed her head as she pieced everything together.
“It’s okay. I think. We’ll get someone to clear it up and check it again.” Teonnie said, fatigued and distressed and still somehow ready to take on the challenge. As much as Fia admired it she had to shake her head.
“That would be a waste of time. She didn’t come in through the airport.” She said, and with the open acknowledgement the defeat settled in. When Teonnie gave her a questioning look, she elaborated with a heavy sigh. “Wynn knew we would check there. She drove or took a train from wherever she’s from and planted this for us to find.”
“But we have a guy on the inside.” Teonnie argued, then looked furious. “That traitorous snake –”
“No, no. He didn’t do anything wrong. He was just some hapless pawn.” Fia said as she shook her head once more. “Who had to rely on others. Who could’ve been bribed, who could’ve gotten the wool pulled over their eyes.”
“That would be a major operation. An insane amount of effort.” Teonnie said with a look on her face like she couldn’t quite fathom it. “How? Why?”
“Does it matter after we’ve already fallen for it? After your computer’s been destroyed?” She slouched back into the uncomfortable chair. “Wynn was just trying to waste our time.”
“That’s why the virus didn’t go live until we were so far into the videos.” Teonnie realized, then scowled. “Damnit.”
“I’ll try to boot up your computer.” Fia offered, her voice so bitter and glum it came out completely monotone. They were trying to crack the case with hard work but instead they’d just spent most of the night playing into their enemy’s plans perfectly: she was burning at the thought of being the victim again. Teonnie sensed her foul mood and quietly stepped away, which left Fia alone to plug in the laptop and click around.
At first it refused to turn on and there was no indication it was charging, but after she clicked a few times it slowly shuttered to life. After that she hit the keyboard idly a few times, but all she got were loading symbols and security pop-ups that wouldn’t go away, so she was quick to put her head in her hands. She felt humiliated even though Wynn wasn’t around to gloat, almost as though she could hear her voice and see that terrible fire in her eyes. Again she was the sick little kid, weak and naive and foiled by this woman she still knew nothing about, and she was nothing but scared and guilty even though she’d done no wrong and had been assured by the entire family that they were safe. Only now that little nagging voice in her head that told her otherwise was getting louder and louder.
She nodded off a few times, still sat in that chair with her head in her hands, then against her forearm, then the hard table. By the time she’d properly woken up morning light was streaming in from the blinds, the first rays of sunlight for the day, and someone had a hand on her shoulder to rouse her.
“Fia. Fia, wake up.” She vaguely registered Teonnie say and groaned. “Lovely girl, c’mon.”
“Wha.” She replied, then opened her groggy eyes just in time to see a shadowy figure stand back and open her arms in presentation. She blinked, then sat up straight, then felt a grin spread across her face.
Teonnie was wearing an emerald green maxi dress, breezy from the chiffon, with neon green fingernails, bright green eyeshadow against dark green liner, and a short lime green wig to complete the look. The sunrise was faded pink behind her, a contrast to her radiant attire and cool dark skin. She and Fia matched smiles.
“We’ll live.” She said fondly. Teonnie was always so strong that it made Fia hate those moments she forgot. “We will, Fee. All this doom and gloom is for nothing.”
And suddenly it felt that way, too. Not that their long day of burdens disappeared, not that Fia would forget the burning bits of her stepdad’s corpse or her friends’ injuries any time soon, but the world weighed just a tad bit lighter as it sat now enduringly her shoulders. Teonnie was there, light and young and beautiful to ease her worries just out of love, and that made the hunt for their enemy and hers for them a little less trying.
“You’re green again!” She jumped from her chair, fully awake in a moment. “Teonnie, you’re stunning! But why?”
“For you.” She couldn’t keep the grin off her face. “I never see you down in the dumps, but generally when one is they need a change. A bit of vitality always gets me moving.”
Fia knew most of that had to be for herself, that she was just as stressed (her laptop was whirring at a dangerous volume behind her), but it was dedicated to her, and that made it perfect.
“I think you should shower and change.” Teonnie said, and gestured to the cami and skinny jeans Fia was still wearing. “And then get some rest. You’d feel a lot better.”
“I would.” Fia admitted. Her jeans were starting to itch and she wondered if that was the blood drying and irritating her skin. A phone buzzed somewhere in the house, and she gave Teonnie a look. “But something tells me it’ll just be the shower.”
Teonnie rushed to find her phone buried somewhere in the couch, and Fia snorted as she pulled up the cushions. She reached it just in time and greeted the caller in a rush. For a moment, she only listened, then turned to Fia.
“It’s your mother.” She said, and smiled again. “We’re needed.”