Verene’s study was dim, lit only by the small desk lamp that illuminated a pile of mail, a city map and an unfinished grilled cheese. She was reexamining everything they’d went over thus far as Lakhela leaned in the doorway and ate her own sandwich. Upstairs the shower had stopped running awhile ago so she knew Colette would join them soon, but for now she only stared down what they’d spent several hours arguing about, long enough to see the sun set and the sky fade to black.
This needed to work. She was doing a fair job fighting off some slight anxiety and she’d done all she could to keep moral up without lying or minimizing the importance of the situation, but she could tell she was losing this unending fight with her desperation. Wynn had kidnapped her daughter, blew up her dead husband’s corpse in front of her family, threatened all their lives, and throughout all that she was a complete enigma, troublesome and dangerous and deadly to someone unimportant only because she felt he was significant to her. Whatever card they dealt next needed to be their last, or Verene would be at her wit’s end.
“We’re twinning, Vee.” Colette said as she walked in the door. Her hair had been conditioned, washed, pampered, dried, and now she was enveloped in a poof of tight curls. Her hair was very dark brown, almost black, and didn’t perfectly match Verene’s lighter, warmer shade, but her boss smiled nonetheless. “Au naturale and I’m loving it.”
“As am I. You look beautiful. Have you eaten yet?”
“I took a bag of chips into the bathroom.” She nodded. “Because I’m so healthy.”
“I’m eating a pile of melted cheese.” Verene waved a hand towards her grilled cheese, then sighed. “Let’s go over this again, if you’re ready.”
“Are we sure we’re saying no to Canal Street?” Colette asked. “Lots of tall buildings for Lakhela to hide on and snipe off.”
“It’s too public.” Lakhela spoke up. “Ideal for me, but too many civilians. That no is final.”
“I still liked that idea about a wide open theatre with Khel hidden in the rafters.” Verene mused. “But something tells me Wynn would enjoy a stage just a little too much, so that’s out.”
“Still, this location is a risk.” Colette walked fully into the room and over to Verene’s desk, where she pointed to a big green patch. “I just don’t grasp why we’re doing it here.”
“One of the old elite families is hosting a fundraiser for Mardi Gras and they asked me to pop in.” Verene reminded her with a nod towards an opened letter and an invitation. “I had planned on skipping, but it’s just the right combination of public and remote. No out-of-towner is going to think of carnivals and parades eight months ahead of time, but she’ll still find us if she needs to.”
“We are putting the party in danger.” Lakhela said hesitantly, and Verene knew she wasn’t in love with the plan. She herself wasn’t ecstatic about potentially pissing off important city-goers, let alone getting them inadvertently killed off in a fight with a super villain. At the end of the day she just had to trust in her power and influence to sway them to forgiveness with either bribes or further punishment.
“It’s remote. That was the part we liked, remember?” Verene pointed out. “The fountain in an obscure part of City Park surrounded by woods. We’re pulling her in and it’ll be hard for her to crawl out.”
“And there’s fewer civilians running around.” Lakhela agreed, which put Verene at ease a moment. “But I still have to hide in a tree.”
“I don’t know how you’ll go on, Bill Murray.” Colette snorted, and Lakhela crossed her arms. “It sucks, I get it, but there’s nowhere else for you to go.”
“The nearby venue isn’t ideal. The roof is flat and white, she’d spot you a mile off.” Verene said, and concealed a little grin at the thought of her dear friend balancing on a top branch. “But you’ll be there with your sniper rifle, Colette will have her brass knuckles, I’ll have my colt.”
“That leaves Fia and Teonnie. If we’re giving them an invite.” Colette said, a rare note of caution in her voice, and Verene sighed. She didn’t want Fia anywhere near Wynn, especially at the big face off, but hiding her away had already done more harm than good and she didn’t want to raise the poor thing to always be afraid of her adversaries, even the especially tough ones. No, she wanted her daughter to learn proper fear for herself, not take cues from a nervous mother.
“It’ll look staged if Fee isn’t there.” She said after a long moment of silence, which was very true and another reason to bring her along. “Wynn will sniff us out otherwise. We’ve got no option.”
“I don’t like it.” Lakhela said quietly, almost to herself. “It almost feels like bait.”
The word almost made Verene shudder, but she suppressed it and stared down determinedly at her map. Wynn seemed to have a very keen interest in Fia, which of course worried Verene beyond compare – if Fia hadn’t already disproven it and if she didn’t know where her biological mother was at that very moment she would be a bit suspicious. But it seemed more likely that Wynn’s obsession with causing her pain and killing those she loved was causing her to turn her attention to another innocent.
“So I guess it’s decided.” Colette said after a moment’s silence. “Should we call them in the morning?”
“It is morning.” Lakhela responded with a yawn, and Verene noticed the office was a little lighter than it had been a few minutes prior. She bet that the kitchen was lit up all orange and pink from the sunrise, that mellow rays of sunlight were softly illuminating the top floor as they streamed in through the cupola. Hopefully the pair were sleeping soundly, but it was more likely that they’d stayed up beyond late researching. She’d gotten wind they were shaking down regulars, anyone who could have worked with Wynn, but no phone call meant no important news.
“I’ll just call Teonnie now.” She spoke around a yawn and pulled out her phone. Lakhela disappeared from the room with an offer to make coffee as she dialed. After a moment, Teonnie picked up wordlessly. “Hey. We’ve got a plan figured out, it’s happening later today. I’ll need both of you with us.”
“It’s your mother.” She heard Teonnie say on the other end of the line and felt herself smile softly. “We’re needed.”
“Yay! Let’s do this!” Fia yelled vaguely in the distance, and it was enough to raise a tired Verene’s spirits.
“Relax for a while, take a nap if you can, both of you.” She told Teonnie. “But at noon meet us at the fountain in city park. Dress for a party.”
“Trust me, that’s covered.” Teonnie said, the smile evident from her voice. “What are we doing out in the middle of nowhere, boss? Will Wynn find us okay?”
“Don’t worry about that. I get the feeling she’ll track us down somehow.” Verene said. She was still unsure how Wynn was doing it – Fia’s theory that she knew them well enough to pick the exact bar they’d start their search for information in, amongst other things, was too horrifying for her not to secretly hope there was a homing device in her car. “Just be there at noon. Park close, I don’t want you two wandering around without security.”
“My glock is security enough.” Teonnie said, and Fia snorted loudly. “Okay though, Popp fountain, twelve o’clock.”
“See you then.” Verene said as Lakhela returned with two steaming mugs of coffee.
“That’s next to the dog park!” Fia yelled in the background as Teonnie hung up, and Verene moaned.
“Lakhela, do we have anyone on the city park board?” She asked as the coffee was handed to her, loaded up with milk. “Mm, thank you.”
“You want the mayor or the governor?” She asked, and Verene shook her head.
“Too big. Look through our records when you’re up to it, see if we have anyone on the board of directors.” She said, and Lakhela nodded. “We need them to close the neighboring dog park for the day.”
“That might tip Wynn off. Like we know we’re expecting all hell to break loose.” Colette frowned. “But I guess we don’t have a choice on that one.”
“Great. So I have to hide in a tree and we can’t pet any dogs.” Lakhela huffed. “This day is gonna be a nightmare.”
As she left the room, Verene sincerely hoped those would be the worst things the day would bring them, but since all she could do was hope and sip at her coffee she tried not to dwell on it much. Colette downed hers quickly and began to bustle around, so Verene decided to get up and do the same. The day wasn’t so bad: after her coffee she took a long shower and changed into something airy for a day meant to be sweltering, an indigo sundress with strappy sandals. By her second cup of coffee she had to tie up her hair, turn on the air conditioning, and fight an urge to wade into her pool.
“We’re still twinning.” Colette had said as she walked by with her hair tied up in a similar up-do, which left Verene with a begrudging grin.
Around ten Lakhela confirmed that the dog park would be cleared out immediately for ‘maintenance,’ which relieved her tremendously. Soon after they all sat around the kitchen table with a few bowls of cereal, tired but not openly stressed. It was a silent meal, not tense but not relaxed, and everything was in a terrible stasis that made Verene’s fingers twitch. She’d built herself up on knowing when to be patient and when to act based on what would be most efficient, but the stakes were high and she was a hair’s breadth from properly snapping.
After breakfast they all went their separate ways to work and dress, and half past eleven they all met in the foyer to go. Verene had been writing apology letters to every victim of Wynn’s nonsense and felt like she’d hardly made a dent when it was finally time to give up and reach for her keys with a feeling like her breath was permanently hitched. At the front door Colette was already waiting in a black crop top, black shorts and black gladiators and nodded to her without a hint of worry – she could only spot fierce determination in the younger woman’s eyes, which was so like her that Verene was nominally soothed. Lakhela bounded down the stairs in a romper she’d clearly made herself from the large, bold geometric pattern in shades of brown and golden honey. Her sniper rifle was slung over her back and Verene couldn’t imagine what else was hidden beneath the fabric.
When they left the house there was a new squad car at the curb with two new officers who bent their heads as Verene walked by, a similar pair to the last that she hoped would do their job better – with the poor standing she had with the force at the moment she really didn’t want to murder two more police. They took a relatively silent half hour drive to City Park and parked next to the building across the fountain, nice and close so Wynn couldn’t try anything before they got to the event. The trio walked around and found the event already in full swing; a jazz combo was playing a lively tune on the steps leading up to the massive fountain, a few dozen people were milling about making casual conversation, waiters were handing out drinks and appetizers. A man noticed Verene and approached with a look of pleasant surprise as Lakhela wordlessly slunk off to find a proper tree to climb, a gun slung awkwardly from her shoulder – Colette grabbed a passing canapé with a smirk on her face.
“Ms. Beaumarchais, so glad you could make it!” He said quite formally, a member of one of the old aristocratic families. She smiled thinly and hoped he’d still retain that sentiment by the end of the day. “How are you? How’s your daughter?”
“We’re both well, thank you. She’ll be arriving shortly, she had a sleepover.” Verene reported, and he smiled and nodded. At every moment she wondered if Wynn was in earshot, elated that Fia would be here for her to torment, and she suddenly felt quite vindictive at the thought of the woman’s impending death and some of her worry dissipated. “It’s very nice to see you.”
“And you! Don’t forget to sign up for our raffle, we’ve got prizes and if you choose to make a donation all the proceeds go to building floats.” He lowered his voice and leaned in. “I’ll tell you the theme as soon as we’ve picked it.”
“I eagerly await the news.” Verene said warmly, to keep the tone between them as friendly as possible before she and the girls put a damper on the party. Hopefully things wouldn’t be so bad, but given they were about to murder someone she had to guess she’d be paying for whatever funds he thought he’d earn today. The man took off after that to mingle with other guests, and Verene was about to suggest they do the same when she heard Colette gasp.
She wheeled around with thoughts of a vicious blonde in her head, but instead saw a bright green wig and a flowing green dress. Teonnie walked in with a proud smile, and Colette beamed likewise. Behind her Fia skipped over to them in a casual grey co-ord set and a floppy hat to shield her from the blistering heat. Her expression was light, but when Verene saw the determination boiling underneath she thought not for the first time that her daughter looked rather like herself. They assembled as a group and all shared a look that exuded different levels of the same elements – joyous, resolute, and above all ready.
“Okay, ladies –”
“Now let’s get in formation.”
“Be prepared for Wynn.” Verene continued as Colette looked pleased with herself. “Teonnie, you look beautiful. Call Lakhela and stay on the line with her.”
“Thanks, boss. I’m on it.” She pulled out her phone as Verene went on.
“We need Wynn to think all of this is genuine, so make sure you’re relaxed. Just socialize, don’t reveal all the weapons on you.” She said, and gave Colette a pointed look. “Fia, stay close to me, but not too close, not like you’re nervous.”
“I’m not.” Fia replied easily, and though it seemed only partially untrue Verene had faith in her.
“Lakhela, you ready?” Teonnie asked and held up the phone for the group.
“Yeah, I’m – Jesus, another ant! Why?” She replied, and Colette giggled.
“We can’t put you on the building, Lakhela, ya gotta suck it up this time.” She said, and Fia looked up at the plain white roof.
“I’m staying on the line with you, Khel. From here on out if you need something or spot some shit you tell me.” Teonnie said, then took her off speaker and looked to Verene as she put in a bluetooth earpiece. “I’ll signal to you somehow if there’s an issue.”
“Make sure you don’t give us away, Wynn can’t know this is a trap.” Verene said with a glance to the parking lot they’d all walked over from. “Keep your eyes peeled. I don’t know if she’s walking or driving.”
“Um,” Fia began simply, “Plane.”
“Plane. Close plane. Low plane, mom.” She pointed up to the roof, and Verene’s stomach dropped when she gained a very unpleasant understanding. A small plane, likely a one-seater, was flying low and fast right towards them. Verene’s brain started going at a thousand miles an hour as she stood frozen a moment and tried to convince herself that wasn’t Wynn, it was just a local flying too low, that of all the bullshit she’d seen this week this wasn’t something she would be adding to the list.
“Mom, what do we do?” Fia asked, and Verene bit her lip and tried to compose herself. “Should we take cover?”
“I don’t see any sort of turret or whatever it’s called. I doubt she can open fire.” Colette said, her tone cautious. But the plane drew nearer and nearer still, too horrifically close for comfort. The party guests had taken notice and began to mumble amongst themselves.
“She’s going to crash it.” Teonnie said, her expression drawn, and Colette made the sign of the cross. “She’s going to kill all of us and herself, that’s how she wanted it all along!”
And for one horrible moment Verene believed it until the plane roared overhead, so low she tensed up, then flew right past. But she didn’t even have a chance to sigh in relief before it stopped flying altogether and sailed into a thicket of nearby trees with an incredible crash of snapping wood and creaking metal.
“No!” Teonnie screamed so loudly it pained Verene’s ears and overpowered the sounds of the party-goers’ frightened cries. Verene’s heart slammed in her chest as she looked over to her wild-eyed friend, terribly aware of exactly what she was shouting about. “Lakhela!”
“Oh my god, was she over there?” Fia asked urgently, and Colette looked ill. Something in the back of Verene’s head kept saying composure, but if her friend was dead she wasn’t sure why she was obeying it. The jazz players had paused their work, and it had fallen silent enough that Verene heard several gasps from the crowd, but her eyes were glued to her panicked friend until Fia uttered a single-word warning in a shaky voice. “Mom.”
When she looked up she saw something so ridiculously horrible she wanted to laugh and sob at once: Wynn was there, not in the fiery wreckage of that plane, gently floating down with a parachute billowing behind her. Donned in a lacy white midi dress with rhinestone sandals, she smirked down at the crowd with several large metal objects clasped in her arms.
“Poor girl.” Verene heard someone whisper as she neared the fountain, and something in her jolted as she saw a guest rush forward to help her.
“Run! All of you, run!” She shouted at them, and for a moment several of them stared at her bewildered before she met eyes with the man in charge. “Run for your lives! Go!”
He at least knew her, knew how serious this had to be, and grabbed his wife by the hand and bolted onto the lawn. Others were quick to follow, and Wynn frowned and detached her parachute. It flew away as she fell the last few feet and landed in the fountain steady on her feet. When she stood straight she looked Verene dead in the eyes, her expression caustic with sheer rage and hatred. Then she lifted that big metal tube, pointed it at those who’d ran, and fired.
A large missile blasted out the end and flew towards them, and before Verene could even attempt to warn anyone there was a terrible blast, the ground shook the slightest bit beneath them, and an orange ball of flames engulfed the small group who’d dared try to escape.
“What the fuck?” Colette burst out. “Was that a rocket launcher?”
“Let’s not try that again.” Wynn called over to the crowd. Some went stiff, some collapsed to the ground in clear surrender, and Verene could only stare at her in abject horror. She set down the missiles she was holding on the edge of the fountain and reloaded, and when she returned the look her grin was positively fiendish. “And you know, I was none too impressed with that plane crash.”
She turned in the direction of that destroyed little plane, the twisted hull of metal with a few meager flames spreading to the trees, and fired. With another loud boom the whole area was engulfed in fire and smoke and Teonnie fell to the ground with an ear-piecing cry of anguish.
“Lakhela!” She yelled, her face all twisted as tears began to fall. Fia was on her knees beside her in an instant, her arms around her shoulders as she looked up between her mother and Colette with a questioning look on her face like she wasn’t quite sure she’d heard that right, like she didn’t want it to be real. Verene had no idea what her own face looked like, how her dull, pained shock reflected in her features as Teonnie choked out a sob. “She screamed . . . she screamed, oh god . . .”
“No! No, no, no.” Fia snatched the earpiece from her ear and held it close to her own. “Lakhela? Lakhela!”
Fia waited desperately for a long moment that didn’t seem to have an end, and even though Verene couldn’t have heard a response it was clear that there was none. The trees were fractured, splintered, and flaming, the plane a loose pile of crunched metal with parts flung haphazardly everywhere, and something animalistic in Verene wanted her to turn and run, just get away from that flaming hell, all the newfound hostages, her girls, Wynn. For a moment she longed to grab Fia’s hand and race out of there, but after the panic subsided she was able to get her head on straight. She wouldn’t leave, not without knowing where Lakhela was, not without keeping her family safe, not without that massive missile launcher removed from Wynn’s hands.
The fountain bubbled, the trees crackled as they burned, Teonnie sobbed, and Wynn laughed and laughed and laughed. Verene clenched her fists and looked up to her, to the hateful glee on her face, and tried as hard as she could to keep her resolve. For herself, her family, for everything because there was no way in hell she could do her job right if she lost her cool now. And this was one job that absolutely had to be finished. Her husband was mocked in death for nothing. Her daughter was kidnapped and terrorized. Her beautiful friend was murdered before their eyes. It was time for Wynn to pay.