Once they were out of the area Lakhela slowed down a bit, mostly because of the unending struggle that was taking place in the backseat. Wynn was forced to sit in Teonnie’s lap with no time to throw her in the trunk, and though she was thoroughly beaten and incapacitated, her hands trapped behind her back, she was still yelling incoherently and kicking everyone’s shins. From the passenger seat Colette, donned in a simple black t-shirt dress, wasn’t really helping by prodding their enemy with her crutch.
“Lakhela, do you have any duct tape?” Teonnie asked from beneath the furious blonde. Lakhela shook her head but procured a tissue to staunch her bleeding nose – with that and her green wig abandoned in the street poor Teonnie looked pitiful, though surely after the harried expression passed she’d be wearing one of vindication.
“Can’t we just kill her now and dump her on the side of the road?” Colette complained, and though Verene looked a bit lost she managed to shake her head.
“I just want to get home, we’ll kill her in the road in front of the house.” She glanced out the window, for more police as far as Lakhela could tell. “We can’t afford to stop.”
“Don’t need to stop to pull a Marvin.” Colette muttered, and Lakhela gave her a dry look as she turned onto the street where Verene lived. As they neared the mansion they saw the two patrol officers waiting dutifully in their cars, and Fia gave them a nervous glance.
“How much can we trust them?” She asked as Lakhela pulled into the driveway, but they only looked on with the same vague disinterest they always held.
“With our lives.” Verene answered as she pulled out her gun. Wynn paled once more, and there seemed to be a unified sigh of relief in the car: as soon as Verene opened her door and dragged the woman out she could finally shoot her and be done with it. “They’re not clean-cut like these other men, I pay them for their loyalty.”
Lakhela parked the car and they all steeled themselves and pulled out their weapons, ready in case Wynn tried anything brash. But she wasn’t going to run this time, nor would she put up any more of a fight, not one that mattered. She looked furious still and Lakhela wondered what humanity she lacked that even staring death in the face she couldn’t opt for a little humility. Verene gripped her gun, opened the car door, and pulled her out. And the two officers immediately jumped out of their own car.
“Oh, what now?” Colette shouted as she struggled with her crutches, and Lakhela jumped out the same time as Teonnie and Fia, the same time the officers reached for their weapons. For a moment Lakhela thought wildly of the first pair of officers and wondered if they’d betray them if they still lived.
“Stop!” Verene yelled and put her gun to Wynn’s head. “You’re my men!”
“We’re the police!” One shouted back, and Lakhela saw Verene silently regret not hiring someone a little more clever. “Hands up!”
“Gonna shoot us anyway?” Colette called over. The second raised his gun, and Teonnie and Fia crouched behind Verene and Wynn, who was again trying to wriggle out of her grasp. Lakhela only caught her look a moment, but it was the same smug expression she’d worn earlier in the day that sent a chill down her spine. Before she could think on it too much however she had to duck behind the car door as a shot fired and a bullet pinged on the metal. When she looked up she saw the officers advancing, their guns raised, and fired just as Colette did. They had a little bit of cover to give them the upper-hand, but there was no telling if the men had called for backup.
Suddenly Wynn managed to break free of Verene’s grasp and went running about two steps before Teonnie tackled her down again. It left their boss open as they struggled on the ground, and though Fia threw her knife with speed and precision it only stuck awkwardly in one man’s Kevlar. Lakhela saw a split second of quick thinking on Verene’s part: there wasn’t time to kill Wynn, they were under fire without the advantage of a hostage, and Fia was unarmed. Somehow she instinctively knew what choice her boss was going to make and continued to shoot at the officers as Verene picked Wynn up off the ground and held onto her with a shared effort on Fia’s part.
“We’re taking her into the house.” She said just loud enough for the group to hear, and Lakhela nodded as Verene and Fia dragged their captive a few steps behind her. It was the same plan they’d had before and could only hope it would work twice. Lakhela, Teonnie, and Colette remained behind the car doors as long as they could for a bit of shelter but Wynn was writhing so ferociously in their grip that she provided poor cover and the officers kept trying to aim their way when not distracted by the trio at the car. When Lakhela’s gun emptied she threw it aside and immediately began to fire with another as they backed closer and closer to the door and out of harm’s way.
“You first, Colette.” Teonnie said, and with only one crutch Colette nodded. “We’ll cover you as best we can and follow.”
“It’s been a privilege.” She replied, and Lakhela felt an unexpected tug at her chest as she gave Colette a nod and a sad smile. When Teonnie did the same she smirked at the pair. “See you in four minutes.”
Then she was off, fast as she could go with only one good leg and still shooting, though it was haphazard. Lakhela and Teonnie tried to draw fire from the officers, and after a moment as Colette almost reached the odd trio Teonnie got a man in the head and brought him down.
“Go!” She cried out, and Lakhela didn’t need to be told twice. The living officer was shouting in loss and rage and began to fire rapidly at the group as Lakhela and Teonnie ran to their family, who were finally nearing the front door. When his clip emptied he rushed them, and Fia’s shouted warning came too late – Lakhela raised her gun to fire but he slammed into her and grabbed her by the neck as they both fell to their knees. She still had the gun in her hand but it was shaking too much for her to shoot, and for a moment she could only stare into his wild eyes as he choked her.
And then in a heartbeat it was over. Teonnie slammed the butt of her glock over his head and he slumped over unconscious. Lakhela escaped his relaxed grip without a second thought, and they all met at the front door together, where everyone held onto Wynn as Verene fumbled with her keys. When the door opened they scrambled into the foyer and she slammed it behind them.
“Put her somewhere.” Verene ordered with a frazzled expression, breathless with her hair every which way.
“Let’s just shoot –” Colette began, but Verene cut her off.
“Put her somewhere! Anywhere!” She repeated on the edge of hysterical, and Wynn looked delighted. Lakhela understood easily: too much was going on, it wasn’t the right moment in Verene’s unusually anxious condition. Fia seemed to understand the same and held onto Wynn’s arm tightly as Colette released it. Lakhela grabbed the other arm and felt a slick of hot blood on her hand, and as soon as she was secured Teonnie let go and made a face. The pair marched her from the room as Verene took a massive breath and Colette patted her on the back, her own expression troubled.
Alone with Wynn, she was so tired out from all the fighting and kicking that it wasn’t too much a struggle to drag her somewhere they could use as a makeshift prison. Lakhela wasn’t sure where that would be until Fia led them to the pantry, a small room without windows that would temporarily house her easily. They threw her in and she landed on the tile with a groan, but when Lakhela went to shut the door Fia paused. Wynn managed to flip herself over and sit up, bedraggled and beaten down but ever angry.
“I – I can’t –” Fia began softly, then sighed. “Maybe in the beginning, if I were in control and you attacked, maybe I could’ve forgiven you.”
“You’re not and you never will be.” Wynn shot back in an instant. “And so what? I’ve done too much for you to forgive.”
“Yes, you have.” Fia said, though Lakhela saw some hesitation. Not that she wanted to offer said forgiveness, but she wanted the situation to be different so she could. That was maybe the biggest difference between her and her more ruthless mother.
“Then what do you want to say to me?” Wynn asked with a glare. Fia stared back a moment, her shoulders slumped.
“I don’t know.” She finally managed, and stepped back for Lakhela to close the door. She held it tight and Fia rushed over to the kitchen table and dragged it with some difficulty. When she was close Lakhela helped her place it in front of the door so Wynn couldn’t escape.
“She’s in handcuffs and it’s only temporary.” Lakhela said of the rather expedient prison, but her mind was on what Fia had said. She’d wanted a connection, a moment of humanity, and still Wynn wouldn’t give her one. That was the hardest part of their villainy – sometimes there was no cathartic moment, no reconciliation, no meaning amidst the chaos. Sometimes it was just kill or be killed days like this. In silence they returned to the foyer, where Verene and Colette still stood.
“. . . Supposed to be loyal to me. Only me.” Verene was saying as she wrung her hands. “Not only did they turn on us but so did every other officer in town.”
“Are we safe here?” Fia asked, slightly alarmed, and Lakhela knew it was the first time she’d ever had to question how much she could rely on the walls around her. The mansion was always a cornerstone of their empire, but to think of the two officers outside, at least one of them dead, complicated a very delicate situation. Verene looked worse than the group had ever seen her.
“I don’t know. Not for long.” She answered as Teonnie returned to the room, hands freshly washed. Colette tried to ease their very obviously frayed nerves.
“I said four minutes, didn’t I?” She asked, but no one could grin. “Right, bad timing. Let’s figure a way out of this, okay? Then we’ll be able to relax again.”
“I get the sense that’ll be ages away. When I think of all this I can’t help but wonder: was it all a ploy?” Verene asked, brow furrowed. “We finally realized Wynn is too brash to sit on her heels and her next move would be a kidnapping – I stayed up half the night thinking about it. We orchestrated things so she’d be walking into our trap.”
“We did it carefully, too. Lakhela snuck out the back to meet us, we parked around the block.” Fia continued. “We didn’t even tip Teonnie off so her surprise was genuine.”
“Good thing you can think on your toes.” Colette said in her almost sarcastic tone, then grew thoughtful as she picked up on Verene’s worried expression. “But you don’t think she could have anticipated all that too, could she?”
They all looked intensely worried, but Lakhela thought back a moment and shook her head.
“That was the first time I’ve seen her scared. There’s no way she planned this, she’s at a huge disadvantage now.” She said, but even as it came from her mouth she realized Wynn was in the house now. Was that what she wanted all along?
“The police though, surely she did something there.” Teonnie insisted. “And it must’ve been heinous if even the ones you’ve paid off are trying to jail us.”
Colette’s expression darkened. “I’ve got a hunch if one of you has a laptop.”
Verene led them to her office, where Colette sat down at her desk and opened up the browser on her computer.
“Never did this in the principal’s.” She said with a wry grin. Lakhela rolled her eyes for the sport of it. “I’m checking the local newspaper’s website.”
Verene stood over her shoulder as Lakhela and Teonnie stood on the other side of the desk as though awaiting orders. Fia eased herself into one of the chairs and Lakhela noted her exhaustion, seemingly worse than usual for less effort than what would usually put her in such a state. Her denim shorts and simple black blouse seemed to hang a little loosely on her as well. Verene must have been fretting over that quite a bit, but it was whatever came up on her screen that caused her to gasp and lean back.
“What?” Teonnie asked cautiously, and they shared a look that clearly expressed how neither wanted to know. Verene stayed silent in a moment of shock and Colette took it upon herself to read aloud.
“Millions in cash and goods stolen from charity event. Money, checks and physical donations such as tablets and computers nabbed from event hall following fundraiser.” She swore quietly to herself. “That was the one we went to.”
“They’re blaming us?” Teonnie asked, her voice high-pitched in alarm, and Verene rubbed her temples.
“Not in this article. Not publicly. But the cops know we were there and we’ve had such a rough relationship with them as of late.” She said, then her expression darkened. “Wynn did this. She pinned the whole thing on us.”
“That was her foresight.” Fia said quietly, her tone so near defeat it pained Lakhela to hear. “That even if we figured out the kidnapping plot we wouldn’t be able to exact revenge because order’s been restored. We’re wanted thugs now, up against the pretty little white girl.”
“Oh god, those poor kids. That poor charity.” Lakhela found herself saying, and Colette gave her a dry look. “Those were people we were meant to protect.”
“They were people we were ready to sacrifice in order to finally take Wynn down.” Fia said unexpectedly sharply. “Maybe they’re lucky this is all they got.”
“I meant our community.” Lakhela insisted. “Our city–”
“Yeah, our city. The one we own, not the one we defend. We’re not vigilantes.” She spoke forcefully and looked angry. Lakhela was shocked into silence; it wasn’t often Fia started a fight, though it seemed to occur with more frequency than ever as of late. “You’re too soft, Khel. Suck it up.”
“Suck it up?” She blurted with surprise, and Fia stood.
“That’s what I said, suck it up! We’re criminals. You’re a criminal. This is your lot in life. Get used to it.” She huffed. “Just like my CF, I get used to it.”
“Fia, she’s not –” Verene began, but seemed unsure of what to say. That was perhaps the biggest rarity of all, but in response to Fia acting out it wasn’t a huge surprise. Fia shook her head.
“I don’t care.” She said and rounded on Lakhela, who was suddenly incredibly intimidated by this girl two heads shorter than her. “You’re strong and you’re capable. Just work. Just be better. Stop letting useless crap drag you down.”
It seemed that Fia was speaking to more than just Lakhela, but she understood the gist. This wasn’t about her sympathies or allegiances, nor was it about her feelings for what they did for a living. It was about the way they all worked as a group, who they were at their core, and their efficiency. She felt an unexpected smile tug at her lips: Fia was doing what she never thought she’d get the chance to do. She was bossing them around.
“Of course.” Lakhela said, and Fia visibly relaxed and gave her a look that clearly showed they were on the same page. She nodded and turned to her mother, who was as unclear as the rest of them but newly changed. She was standing straight instead of stooped over the computer, and her worry had been pushed back so it again pressed just against the surface but couldn’t completely overpower her. Lakhela thought it was an art form.
“Wynn has just destroyed us.” She spoke as though the argument hadn’t happened in her typical authoritarian tone, the strain in it not missed. “It’s worse than just the fact that the entirety of the NOPD is gunning for us now. It’s our reputation.”
“We’re suddenly the people who steal from children.” Teonnie said stiffly. “No longer the organized crime gang with the cool cars, nice clothes and trophy husbands.”
Colette snorted. “Wynn certainly saw to that.”
“Yes, she did. She also saw to her own capture, though I don’t believe it was deliberate.” Verene said. “I think she genuinely slipped up there, but that’s not the point. The point is that we have her.”
“So this is it?” Colette asked hopefully. “We’re gonna kill her?”
“No.” Fia said, and everyone turned and stared. “We need to figure out what else is out there waiting for us. She may have laid more traps, set us up for more false crimes.”
“You want to question her.” Teonnie figured, but Colette’s grim excitement made Lakhela guess that ‘question’ was only a polite word for torture. “It’s a good thought.”
“It is,” Verene allowed, “But she’d never tell us a thing and we don’t have time to wring anything more out of her. Nor do I have the patience.”
“If we just get her to start taunting us–” Fia began, but Verene cut her off.
“I’m done with her taunts. I’m done with all her anger and I’m done with her kicking our asses in every fight we have.” As she spoke her anger grew. “This woman kidnapped you, almost drowned you, hurt my girls, destroyed the reputation I’ve worked at since Katrina, set the cops after us. She effectively ruined my life’s work and now she’s going to pay with hers.”
“Can’t argue with that.” Colette shrugged, but Fia stood with her fists clenched and her chin high. By now it seemed that she was fighting just to fight in Lakhela’s eyes.
“That’s not what I’m arguing! I know it’s time for her to die!” Fia said, but there was something more there, something she had to say. If Verene saw the look she ignored it and walked briskly past her daughter. “Mom?”
“It’s time.” She repeated Fia’s words over her shoulder and stepped out the door and down the hallway. Fia groaned and began to follow, but when the girls rushed to join her she paused in the doorway and whipped around, her expression resolute.
“Stay here.” She said to Lakhela, the closest. She understood: there was more chaos to come and things between Fia and her mother that needed to be said and done. When she nodded curtly Fia turned back and ran, her breath muddled and heavy. Lakhela turned back to Teonnie and Colette, ready to explain, but found both of them frozen in position. They’d recognized Fia’s authority same as her, not just for love and loyalty but for respect, for knowing who had the leadership skills needed to carry them through.
Fia was rising through the doom, the nightmare and the turmoil that she sensed was to come. Lakhela just had to hope her young friend would still be standing when the smoke cleared.