Bad Town For A Pretty Face: New Orleans, Chapter Thirteen

Let’s see who gets unlucky.

When Wynn slammed the building Teonnie had jumped to her feet just as Fia ran. Everything was complete havoc for a few minutes after that; rubble rained down around her, people were screaming and dying, and Wynn was murdering her young friend. She was scared shitless and hated herself for it. Her legs had turned to lead and she could only stare on as Verene lay trapped, screaming her daughter’s name over and over.

She knew she was the only one able to help – or she guessed, because if Lakhela really was alive she wasn’t rushing out to save her – but when she stared at that sparkling water and listened to the splashing she wanted to curl up on the ground until it was all over. Finally she told herself she was being stupid, that she’d managed to walk through floodwater with Verene just fine, but here and now everything was so overwhelming that she could barely take that clumsy first step towards the fountain. Once she did, however, she could pick up speed, run and climb in.

Wynn didn’t even see her coming, too concerned with holding Fia down, though she struggled less now than she had a minute earlier. Her face was splattered with water and blood, her eyes tinged red from tears and rage as blood poured from her arm. Teonnie punched her so hard she instantly released Fia and reeled back, and from there she was too concerned with clutching her tiny friend in her arms that she didn’t care at all what Wynn did. Maybe that was a poor decision as she could’ve fished out that knife and slaughtered them both, but by the time she looked up from Fia coughing and sputtering up water a few minutes later she saw Wynn casually walking down the lawn and could only guess she’d done all she needed that day.

Fia wavered in and out of consciousness for however long Teonnie held her, with pink-tinged water constantly dribbling from her mouth. Teonnie didn’t want to think about how much of that blood was likely hers, not Wynn’s. Eventually Verene was at their side climbing into the fountain and gently combing out Fia’s tangled hair with her fingers. A few minutes later she heard a gasp and looked up: Verene was looking out to the lawn, where Lakhela was walking away from the remains of what had once been a forest and over to the collapsed building. She looked their way for a moment, covered in even more small scratches with a sniper rifle slung over her shoulder and gave them a solemn nod, then moved towards Colette, who was still on the ground with a very swollen ankle. Teonnie was relieved her earlier suspicion was confirmed whereas Verene seemed unable to summon the same feeling. Lakhela helped Colette over to the fountain as sirens began to sound, already close. Teonnie gave her boss an urgent look.

“Maybe we should get out of here.” She said. The police were always lenient with Verene, that’s what she paid them for, but to catch her gang in the middle of something like this might result in something brash. Verene nodded but remained motionless a long moment until Teonnie decided to stand and try to bring Fia with her.

“I’ve got her.” Verene said gently, and took her easily from Teonnie’s arms. She was light enough to carry herself even as she climbed back out of the fountain, and the group walked around what remained of the building and the people lying there either screaming or dead. In the parking lot they stumbled upon a few small spots of blood, and then a larger one next to an empty spot, presumably where Wynn had stood still a moment.

“She stole a car.” Colette said flatly, and Teonnie burned at the knowledge that Wynn had escaped their grasp yet again. She didn’t want to think of how much more damage the girl could inflict.

They carefully got Fia into the back with her mother and Lakhela offered in a very flat voice to drive the Jaguar back to the mansion. Teonnie handed her the keys without argument, helped Colette into the front seat and drove the group home in silence. When she checked the rearview mirror every so often she saw Fia drift in and out of consciousness, though she grew closer to them each time. As Teonnie pulled into the driveway she passed the two officers and felt a moment’s gratitude that they’d have some protection that night before Fia rubbed her eyes and groaned. Behind them Lakhela pulled into the driveway, her expression drawn but still obviously forlorn.

“Bathroom meeting?” She asked, her voice hoarse, and her mother hesitated before nodding. Teonnie was sure she’d rather let Fia rest and if it weren’t for what had occurred today she’d have a full week off, tucked in bed without any business to worry about. But after all that Wynn had said Verene owed the group some explanation and seemed to know it. Fia knew the same, which she made clear as soon as they’d all hobbled into the guest bathroom on the first floor, Colette’s ankle not allowing anything more.

“What was Wynn ranting about, mom?” She asked as Lakhela came in with a folding chair and set it next to the toilet. She seemed in better spirits than Teonnie thought she would be, but sometimes the chipper exterior was only a front for a misery she didn’t want to spread. “You killed her grandma.”

“Hush now. Save your breath.” Verene said softly as Fia sat down, but knew this was something that needed answering. “She made it sound so bad when she said it. That racist old bat deserved it.”

“So you assassinated her? What did she do?” Colette asked as she eased herself onto the rim of the tub. Lakhela left the crowded room, presumably to get a first aid kit, and Teonnie wondered what was wrong that she’d miss out on a dramatic story.

“Nothing, really. She wasn’t targeted beyond the fact that she was a dignified older woman whom I felt it would be easy to get close to.” Verene leaned against the sink and they all leaned forward in anticipation of a story. “You girls know how I began. Borrow, steal, lend, spread. Build up a network of semi-trustworthy individuals to work with who got that way through pain or favors. Control the money and you control the people.”

“And you control a buttload of both.” Colette said, admiration not absent from her strained tone as she examined her ankle. Teonnie had seen far worse and knew she’d only be off her feet a week or two. Verene continued with the ghost of a smile.

“But not always. I have humble beginnings, same as all of you. The way up was slow and never could have amounted to all of this in such a short amount of time.” She gestured around to her mansion, and then what could barely pass for a grin faded. “Until Hurricane Katrina.”

Teonnie squeezed her eyes shut, the memories unpleasant. The city drowned, filthy and stinking, people homeless and left with nothing. She recalled sitting on her roof with her parents waiting for help, her anger that they hadn’t left sooner when they were told to do so. She’d been lucky, but the most unlucky of the group – Lakhela and Colette’s homes were relatively spared, and in the aftermath Lakhela and her parents went to Nigeria for awhile and Colette did volunteer work with her church and met Verene. New Orleans was so much more than that one disaster, but the damage that storm dealt was an ugly black mark on its history.

“I was low-level in 2005, and when the hurricane hit I lost the small home my mother left me. I was a new mother myself, homeless and afraid, but I had agency others didn’t. So I fled.” She said. “Not out of fear, but for logic. For the sake of my two-year-old. I packed my bags and headed for Vegas.”

“Did you get to meet them?” Fia asked, and she didn’t have to clarify to whom she was referring. Verene shook her head and they all shared some mutual disappointment.

“It was too early for February and her crew, but the city was full of rich people and therefore criminal opportunity. I found Old Lady McAfee, faked some credentials and cozied on in.” She said, then frowned at the memory. “She was dislikable and had . . . old-fashioned views, let’s say . . . but I needed the cash so I just politely ignored all I could.”

“Something tells me the original plan didn’t involve killing her.” Colette said, and shrugged when Verene nodded. “I’m not too beat up over a little heat of the moment homicide.”

“Sounds like I missed the good part.” Lakhela said dryly as she returned to the room. She was holding a freezer bag of ice which she handed to Colette, the vibrating vest and machinery which she handed to Fia, and a first aid kit she kept for herself, her skin a motley of cuts and bruises. Verene continued as she set up the cords and Fia slipped the vest on.

“That family was filthy rich. They had a mansion with an airstrip they all used to land their planes on, I bet that’s where Wynn learned to fly. And there were huge charity balls, expensive shopping trips, just all around overkill spending.” She said, then looked thoughtful. Lakhela looked on idly as she reached for what was becoming a familiar bottle of astringent. “I only met ‘little Winnie’ a handful of times, mostly in passing, and she seemed a perfectly normal child.”

“It didn’t last.” Colette said, and Fia nodded as she coughed heavily, the sound terribly raspy as though she had a gallon of phlegm in her throat. Teonnie would have been repulsed had she heard it from a stranger on the street, but with her poor Fia she was used to the unpleasant details of her disease. Verene watched her carefully for a long moment, so long that Teonnie felt the need to prod her.

“But you didn’t stay in Vegas forever, you couldn’t leave your home behind. So you stole the cash, hid the body, and you and Fia came back.” She said, and Verene nodded. Lakhela turned on the machine and Fia fell silent to allow the water to be shaken from her lungs. “I assume they went bankrupt, their name was tarnished, all that fun stuff.”

“Exactly. Their billions were gone overnight, lining my wallet and filling my bank account, and the assumption was that the old lady stole everything.” She said. “They went from wildly rich to upper middle class in an instant.”

“Oh, what? We’re all fighting because a little rich girl is slightly less rich?” Colette shouted indignantly, and Verene gave her an unfortunate look of confirmation. “She murdered how many people over this?”

“Too many.” Lakhela frowned and began to pull a nasty splinter from her shin. Fia coughed vigorously a moment, then spat a load of mucus into the toilet, and Lakhela pressed forward uneasily. “What’s worse is that I know the end of this story. Boss comes home to a post-Katrina New Orleans, has more money than she could ever dream to spend, uses it to fund the city.”

“To fund our interests.” Fia corrected, her expression a bit sour as she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. Teonnie sensed her displeasure at Lakhela’s positive attitude, the one that overlooked who they really were and what they did for a living. “The criminal enterprise came first. But yes, my mom helped rebuild.”

“I’m glad you were too young to remember any of this, honey. Our beautiful city was a wreck. You should have seen the things they said.” She looked bitterly angry a moment. “From our hotel room I see reporters – real reporters, from big broadcasters! – talking about all the riots and looting, that hundreds were overdosing and raping in the Superdome. It was all wild rumor. The victims tell the truth – officers leaving their posts, officials blocking people from leaving the city, a complete breakdown of government. I returned home to a broke city, a disgraced police force, a new very white group of government leaders who no longer reflected the city’s demographic. So yes, I attended blood bank events, helped hand out food and water.”

“That’s how we met.” Colette recalled, and Verene nodded with a bit of fondness in her troubled expression. Teonnie knew the tale well: Colette’s father had the whole family hand out water bottles and pocket-sized bibles and Verene found herself with an unusual admiration for a rough-around-the-edges preacher’s daughter. She took odd jobs from the crime boss until yet another argument with her father prompted an interest in rehousing that moved her to the bedroom she’s occupied a decade since. All it took was a hurricane to give her a purpose in life, someone to look up to, a sister to adore. Verene continued as Teonnie watched Colette give Fia a sad little look.

“And I bought off cops. Worked around city officials who didn’t have certain people’s best interests at heart. The aiding was good and noble and yet it was still organized crime at its core.” She said, and Lakhela glanced down at her feet. “But that’s irrelevant. I wouldn’t be where I am today without what I robbed from Wynn’s family and she’s none too happy with that, hence this afternoon’s unpleasantries.”

“That’s a mild term.” Colette said in her commonly sardonic tone, but didn’t smile. “Which needs be discussed with certain idiots in this room.”

“Who’s an idiot?” Teonnie asked, then regretted it when Colette’s expression darkened. She gave Lakhela a look, and she paused in her tweezing to furrow her brows. When she opened her mouth to ask Colette was quick to answer.

“You could’ve come out and helped us, jackass.” She said, and Lakhela raised her brows. “You could have helped Fia when Wynn was trying to murder her.”

“I was looking for my rifle, I lost it when I fell out of the tree.” She replied stiffly, her jaw set. Teonnie had assumed it was something like that, and Verene didn’t seem bothered by the woman’s absence, only glad she was alive and well. “And I landed on my nine millimeter. Completely busted it.”

“So? Teonnie ran into the water and punched Wynn right in the face!” Colette said, her tone testy. She felt like a deer in headlights as Verene gave her an appreciative look, Lakhela gave her a cursory glance, and Fia started coughing again.

“Yes, while I was getting my rifle so I could kill her.” Lakhela replied impatiently. “That was the plan and I stuck to it.”

“Obviously you have to make new plans during emergencies, Khel.” Colette shot back, and Fia coughed up a terrible amount of blood, water and snot. Verene grabbed a paper cup from the medicine cabinet, filled it from the tap and passed it over. After she swilled and spat Fia looked up to Colette with an expression Teonnie couldn’t quite place – something determined, something sad, something else.

“It was my plan.” She said. “I told Lakhela to stay hidden until she could kill Wynn and I slowed her down.”

There was a moment of shocked silence as they all absorbed that. It was outside Fia’s usual ways simply because it would upset her mother if she were hurt, but she just did that the other day leaving the house, didn’t she? Things were changing, Teonnie could clearly see, though she was unsure if they were changing for the better and unsure how long this new Fia had been bubbling under the surface. Maybe years of humble silence and soft reassurances had finally brought her to her breaking point, though Teonnie could never have guessed that this would be the result.

“You – you what?” Verene asked, and Fia didn’t meet her eye. Colette looked furious. “Honey –”

“Idiot! You almost got yourself killed!” Colette cut in, then rounded on Lakhela. “And you aided her in it! You purposefully turned the other cheek and let someone you love try to throw her life away!”

“Because that was the plan! We almost had her!” Lakhela said, no longer calm and collected. “She was the only one I could contact!”

“So you immediately try to kill her?”

“Stop.” Fia spoke with such authority that Verene looked startled for a moment before a bit of pride snuck in. “I made the decision, let’s not make it sound like I’m not autonomous here.”

“Honey, this was not the right call.” Verene said calmly, then looked sullen. “We don’t try to throw our lives away to take out an enemy. When you’re in charge –”

“Mom, we need to be realistic. I’m sick. I’m not your heir, I won’t live long enough to replace you.” Fia said, her voice pained with determination, and the room went dead silent. Sometimes horrible facts got stepped around because they were too hard to deal with and ‘sometimes’ basically meant ‘always’ for this polite child, at least until now. Her expression was apologetic, but not too much, and Teonnie knew this was something she’d wanted to get off her chest for awhile. She began to cough again as they all stared at her, horrified and unsure of what to say.

“Fia, please.” Verene finally began, her tone noticeably strained, and Fia spat watery blood into the toilet and shook her head.

“I’m sick of acting like this. I’m sick of doing an inferior job because we don’t want to risk the inevitable.” She said.

“Darling, please don’t talk this way.” Verene urged her with a voice that was trying its damnedest not to break. Fia only gave her an exacting stare that made it clear just how done with this routine she was.

“I helped us, therefore I made the right call. End of story.” She began to cough again and they all fell into silence. Teonnie observed the group; Lakhela looked sad but with something akin to justification in her eye, firmly on Fia’s side, now a protector of her ideals more so than her life. Colette’s anger was almost entirely extinguished, and she flexed her swollen ankle with a hollow expression, guilty and uncomfortable. Verene’s eyes were red-rimmed and she was staring steadfast at the wall, maybe trying to drown out the sound of her daughter hacking up the mucus that clogged her lungs. It always seemed that Verene didn’t want to openly dignify her daughter’s illness with any fear, any admission that it could take Fia away. But her concerns were clear in her doting and it was obvious that what Fia saw as hard fact existed purely as Verene’s worst nightmare. For Teonnie herself she couldn’t quite place where she stood in all this – of course she didn’t like to limit Fia, but she was discomforted by the way they spoke of her future death so plainly. As terrible as it seemed maybe the best thing to do would be to respect Fia’s wishes even when they lead to something dangerous, but she couldn’t say with certainty or without a horrible discomfort.

Fia coughed up some phlegm and sighed. Though this wasn’t a topic she was going to budge on, the tense silence appeared to be too much for her sensibilities and she wiped the sweat from her brow before she spoke again.

“I’m tired of losing to this girl.” She said, her tone weary, and everyone nodded in firm agreement. Verene looked grateful for the change in subject, though Teonnie was certain she would bring it up with her daughter again when she wasn’t so fragile.

“This is the last time. We know who she is and what she wants. We have the advantage now.” Verene said thoughtfully, forcefully, the hatred she held for Wynn clear despite the fact that it was a very convenient distraction. “Her attacks are personal and cruel, yes, but they’re too brash. It’s clear by now her default feeling is anger and I think because of that her moves are head-strong enough to do a ton of damage.”

“Like today. We did so much planning and she just smashed it to bits with brute force alone.” Said Lakhela with a thoughtful look, but not a discouraged one. Teonnie felt a little smile form on her lips for all the business they had to look forward to. It would be dirty work, probably for the long haul, but that was always what excited her most, and this time it seemed that they would finally be able to destroy the woman who finally wasn’t a stranger.

“So that’s what we use to take Wynn down. We just have to count on her behaving just as she has before.” She said, and Colette perked up.

“Fight fire with fire?” She asked, and Lakhela rolled her eyes. “Match her brutality?”

“Perhaps. Let’s get ourselves cleaned up before we try to figure anything out.” Verene said with another worried glance to Fia, whose head was hung over the toilet. “We’re all pretty banged up.”

“Are we finally taking a break?” Colette asked, and Verene gave her a coy grin. “I heard it looks a lot like giving up.”

“We have the upper hand. Wynn should be the one considering that break.” She stood straight and looked determined. The fire in Teonnie’s gut was small and cool, but she got the sense it wouldn’t gutter any time soon. As Lakhela pulled out the box of Hello Kitty Band-Aids and Colette poked at her swollen ankle all she could do was hope they were sitting in the aftermath of the hardest moment and that somehow they’d be able to manage the rest.

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