Our second-to-last chapter, can y’all believe it?
Verene walked briskly down the hall and over to the kitchen as her fists clenched and unclenched and blood pounded in her ears. With every step she grew closer to finally killing her greatest enemy, and though she knew it wouldn’t solve the fifty other messes she had going on it would at least stop more trouble from brewing and give her the satisfaction of knowing Wynn McAfee had finally met her demise. When she reached the pantry she pulled out her revolver just as Fia ran in.
“Mom, wait.” She wheezed, then doubled over and coughed. Verene clapped her on the back and she rushed to the sink and coughed up some mucus. She felt a frown on her face, but when Fia straightened and turned back to her she just looked serious – there was no point talking to her about her health when she was in such a state, Verene knew.
“Honey, please. I already told you we don’t have time to question Wynn.” She said, though she was unsure why Fia would press the issue.
“I know. You’re right.” She replied, and Verene’s confusion must have shown on her face. “What? I had an idea that was wrong and you guided me towards the better one. That’s what we do.”
Verene respected that well enough, but her words didn’t clarify everything. “So why did you run over here?”
“You don’t have to do this alone.” Fia said earnestly, and Verene felt unexpectedly touched. “Let me be with you.”
Verene nodded at that, and Fia smiled softly despite all her earlier irritability. There was nothing left to do but push the table out of the way, open the door and fire. She looked up to Fia and got an encouraging nod, then pushed the table quickly, certain Wynn would hear the noise and try to tackle them at the door or something. She raised her gun and stepped back as Fia held up her blade, then swung the door open.
The pantry was completely empty. Nothing was out of place, not a single box of pasta moved. It was as if Wynn had disappeared into thin air. Verene glanced over to Fia for just a split second to share an unbridled look of alarm before a white blur swung down. Verene registered a moment too late that Wynn had been pressed against the ceiling and was now swinging her way from the top molding of the door. It was so ridiculous it didn’t seem real, just like that idiocy with the parachute, but when she was slammed in the chest with a pair of feet it didn’t feel very laughable.
She staggered backwards as Wynn dropped to the ground with an expression of madness mingled with glory. When she reached for Verene’s gun she noticed the handcuffs weren’t even on her before she had the sense to pull the trigger, but it was too late and Wynn’s hand was wrapped above her own. Fia jumped forward and tried to slash at her torso, but Wynn anticipated the move and slid back, then pointed the gun at her.
“No!” Verene screamed as she jerked her hand. Wynn pulled the trigger and the shot went over Fia’s head into the nearby drywall. She pulled away and the gun fired into the ceiling as Fia returned with the knife. Wynn kicked her daughter in the shin just as Verene balled her fist and hit her hard in the jaw, but she only gripped the gun tighter and it fired into the ceiling again. When she tried to kick Fia again her daughter jumped back and Verene shoved her head and slammed it into the wall. Her grip on the gun thankfully loosened as she let out a cry of pain and Verene swung her arm so it flew out of reach and clattered on the ground several feet away.
Wynn was none too pleased with that and punched Verene’s shoulder with surprising strength. When she hissed through her teeth and stumbled back Fia tried yet again to attack the blonde, but she grabbed her by the shoulders and threw her into her mother. As they slammed into each other Verene felt a burst of pain in her side and collapsed to the ground. Fia tumbled down with her and on the white tiled floor they both looked at the source of that ache – Fia’s knife embedded just below her rib cage. Somehow it was instinct to give Fia a reassuring look despite the fact that there was a blade sticking out of her, but Fia’s fear was obvious and only increased when she heard a sound and turned to see Wynn run off.
“Block the door!” She screamed at the top of her lungs, then clambered off her mother. “Block the door!”
She looked down to the knife she’d accidentally plunged into Verene’s side, her face a jumble of nerves. Verene shifted and felt the wound burn but knew nothing vital had been hit. It wasn’t as if she’d never been injured before, after all: at this point her daughter’s concern hurt worse than the stabbing. Without a moment’s thought she grabbed the hilt and pulled it out. Fia gasped as she let it fall unceremoniously and tried to sit up.
“Mom, you shouldn’t have –” She began, but was cut off by the sound of two gunshots in the other room. After a moment a third sounded out, and Verene held out a hand. Fia understood and got to her feet, then helped her stand, wobbly and a little slumped over but all in one piece. They held eyes for a long moment, both concerned with the other but both keen on the task at hand, unsure if now was the time to try and heal or just run after Wynn again.
“She’s loose in the house!” A voice Verene recognized as Lakhela’s called out in the distance. “Someone help, she’s in the house! Damnit!”
“No!” Verene balled her fists and tried to rush past Fia, but her daughter stopped her and held her arm. Verene noticed her look to the wound beneath it, the one that was staining her mint shift dress a deep scarlet. “Honey, we have to go!”
“Not like this.” She said, her tone as commanding as Verene’s usually was. At the moment there was nothing she wanted more than to brush it off.
“I don’t care that I’m hurt, we need to stop her!” She felt anger bubble up almost manically and wondered if this was how Wynn felt all the time. “I will not have her escape us yet again!”
“But she will and she would if you were injured or not.” Fia said quickly, and as bleak as it was it was also true; though Wynn was unarmed so were they and their enemy had shown a knack for pushing their buttons. “There’s no use running around with the Benny Hill song playing in the background. We can end this now, but we need to do something big.”
“Then what? I have nothing, Fee, I don’t know what to do.” She admitted. In the distance someone yelled and another gunshot blasted, which did nothing to soothe her nerves. Fia’s expression remained steadfast.
“I have an idea, but you’re not gonna like it.” She said, then clearly chose not to let Verene argue the point. “Let’s finally do something she doesn’t expect.”
“She expects everything.” Verene argued anyway. “She got out of her handcuffs! Who even comes prepared for something like that?”
“Let’s burn the house down.” Fia said, completely serious, and Verene clamped her mouth shut. With shock incapacitating her a moment Fia took the chance to continue. “She would never expect someone so proud to destroy the last of their legacy, nor could she escape it with all of us keeping guard.”
“That would kill all of us. No, actually, that would just kill you.” She felt her chest tighten. “Your lungs could never take that smoke, especially after the fountain. You’re in too weak a state, darling.”
“Oh and you were so concerned with yourself and your stab wound twenty seconds ago.” Fia said bitterly. Verene opened her mouth to argue, but she cut her off. “We need to act fast and this is our best option. I’m not tip-toeing through life just because I’m sick.”
“You’re not tip-toeing.” Verene said, her tone more outwardly desperate than she wanted to be. She felt like she was coming apart at the seams. “Being careful and preserving yourself is the right thing to do. You’re my heir Fia, I don’t want anything happening to you to keep that from becoming reality.”
“Yeah, but that’s what’s happening mom, nothing. Nothing’s happening to me! And I’m not going to live to be your heir regardless!” She shouted, her expression pained. Verene felt a lump in her throat as she shook her head. It was a terrible thing to think, a nightmare she always suppressed to the best of her ability, but apparently it was at the forefront of her daughter’s mind. She was never one to argue like this and wouldn’t unless it were of the most dire importance. Another gunshot sounded in the distance.
“I can’t chase her on these damned crutches!” Colette bellowed from the other side of the house, and though Verene understood the urgency she wasn’t about to cut off this conversation, as awful as it was and as much as it pained her.
“Mom, I want to take charge and be heir. Now. I don’t want to sit on the side-lines waiting for a future I won’t get.” Fia continued, her expression pleading, and Verene couldn’t help but to reach out and brush through her little girl’s hair with her fingers. All she ever wanted was her daughter to achieve the greatness she was destined for but also live a safe and healthy life, and it seemed Wynn’s largest cost was showing her that Fia couldn’t have both. It was a fact the poor thing already knew but silently accepted, what she understood perfectly but never until this breaking point argued. And that was what made her more than just a sweetheart, more than a loving friend and daughter; it made her resilient, it made her strong, it made her ready.
“You’re the love of my life, you know that?” She asked her softly, and though Fia would usually smile or return the sentiment she only gave her a sad little look though it was determined all the same. She fought a sigh and tried to regain her composure as she’d been doing twelve times a day lately; this was going to be hard. “So you deserve the same as I do.”
“Where the hell is she?” Someone yelled in the distance, and Verene bypassed Fia’s hurried look a moment to finish untangling her hair.
“And just so you know, you’ll live to be my heir. You could outlive any bastard in this city if you put your mind to it.” She said, and though she’d always been too much of a mother hen she couldn’t deny her daughter’s strength now, nor her ambition or cunning. Fia reminded her so much of herself and she had enough self-confidence to easily bestow some to her daughter. At some level she seemed to understand that and nodded, though she couldn’t get very sappy given their situation.
“We need to act quickly.” Fia pointed out, and Verene nodded as well. She didn’t have a better plan than what was given, so she smoothed out her hair and said:
“Let’s burn this fucker down.”
Fia turned and ran through the kitchen and Verene followed, right on her heels. Lakhela was stood in the foyer with her gun out, and when they rushed in she looked startled, then relieved, but Fia didn’t allow her a chance to speak.
“Is she still in the house?” She asked quickly, a new power in her voice. Lakhela beamed.
“Yeah, we think she might be on the second floor.” She answered as she would Verene. “There’s no way she got to the armory, Teonnie’s guarding it. We ran around closing all the windows, too, but I guess she could’ve climbed out of one if she needed to.”
“She hasn’t.” Verene said, though she wasn’t sure why she was so certain. Maybe because Wynn had unfinished business, maybe because of what they’d theorized a few days ago that the house would be her grand finale.
“We’re burning it down.” Fia told her, and Lakhela stared in surprise. “All of it, now.”
And then she was off and Verene only gave Lakhela a nod of confirmation before she followed suit.
“Colette! Teonnie!” She yelled through the hall, and they spotted a green figure in the office’s doorway. “Burn it!”
“Burn it?” Teonnie called back.
“Burn it! Burn it all and burn it now!” Fia yelled as she rushed past. Verene could already hear the raggedness of her breath, but had no choice but to ignore it. “The whole house! It’s all coming down!”
A boom sounded out in the distance and shook the ground. Smoke filtered into the area followed by a hobbling Colette. There was a devious grin plastered onto her face and a grenade pin dangling from her hand, her crutch discarded in the mayhem.
“Hope you said burn.” She said cheerily, and Teonnie exited the armory with a red gas can and a belt of grenades.
“I kinda hoped not, but I’ll work with whatever you two give me.” Teonnie said. The fire alarm went off as she tossed Fia a matchbook. “Go nuts, kid.”
“Split up and move quickly.” Verene ordered. “C’mon girls, it’s an old house, thin walls. Let’s rinse through them.”
“I’ll go for the dryer lint.” Fia took off, and Verene went her way, though they separated when she got to the kitchen and turned the oven range on. The fire alarm was shrill and after a moment another boom sounded out and rattled the china, but she paid it no mind as she rifled through her cabinets. After a moment she procured a bottle of canola oil and a spray can of it – the first she spilled on every surface in the kitchen as she backed out of it, then finally onto the small flames of the gas stove. The effect was instantaneous as the whole kitchen lit up, the oil all aflame and her work soundly done. She moved to run for the stairs and call the girls: if they were going to trap Wynn like a rat she had to go up, same as them. Of course, that meant they were as caught as she was, but Verene preferred not to think of that for the moment. Before she could she heard footsteps and turned to see Fia, breathless with her sweaty face covered in soot. When she spotted the kitchen her eyes lit up.
“That was my next idea.” She managed between terrible, wheezing breaths that stabbed at Verene worse than any knife could. But she’d made her promises and made her bed, so she only tried to give Fia the most approving look she could, then turned and yelled down the hall.
“Girls!” She called to them, and even as she did she spotted Lakhela and Teonnie emerging from the smoky, shadow-filled hall. Colette was there a moment later with something in her hand. “Quick, up the stairs!”
“Fia, I got you some water.” Colette began, then noticed the kitchen. “Is that a grease fire?”
“Yeah, why?” She asked around a cough as Verene stood on the bottom stair with waning patience. Lakhela and Teonnie went up a few steps and waited obediently.
“You thirsty?” Colette asked, and Fia looked curious before she shook her head. Colette turned to the group with raised brows. “Then I suggest we run.”
She popped off the cap, threw the open bottle, and Verene grabbed Fia’s hand so firmly she thought she could’ve broken a bone. Colette knew as well as she did that you were never supposed to put a grease fire out with water, and all of them raced up the stairs before they could see why. Verene was sure they all felt it same as she did though: the resulting fireball sent a blast of heat against her back as she raced up the stairs, Fia in tow. Sweat dripped down the back of her neck like she’d been walking through a furnace – her house was almost entirely in ruins now.
As soon as her foot fell on the top stair to the second floor the ground shook with a grenade Teonnie had lobbed into her guest bedroom. Smoke seeped out as she caught a glance of a curtain fall and the remains of a dresser collapse onto the ground, and with a mournful look she handed Lakhela one and she did the same. Fire climbed the walls with ease, and she heard it crackle from the bathroom that rested a floor above the mud room. Fia’s work was already taking effect then and she got the sense they wouldn’t need to dedicate themselves to this floor long.
“Stand back, ladies.” She pulled the lid from the can of spray oil she was holding. “Fia, if you please.”
Fia’s eyes were watery and she was holding back a cough as she lit a match and handed it to her, then wisely did as she was told and took a massive step away as Verene pressed down on the trigger. The oil caught the moment it met the little flame and sent a massive plume of fire several feet ahead of her: she sprayed it along the walls and they began to catch immediately. When the match burned down too close to her fingertips she tossed it and Fia handed her another as Lakhela ran from a flaming bathroom with a handful of little votive candles.
“Oh man, those’ll help way more than the homemade flamethrower.” Colette said, and Lakhela gave her a firm look.
“What’s the plan here, that they’ll smell better than burning fabric and plastic?” Teonnie added. Fia giggled and it turned into a sputtering cough. Lakhela obviously caught Verene’s look of concern but shrugged to the girls by way of distraction.
“There was no room freshener, so sue me!” She said and made to go into another room, but Verene paused in her work and looked around. The fire alarm was absolutely blasting as the entire house grew from unpleasantly warm to blistering. She had to guess the temperature was over a hundred as the flames licked up the walls and melted away plaster and paint. It felt claustrophobic to the extreme and the haze of thick black smoke wasn’t helping matters any. Fia was coughing harder now, the sound absolutely harrowing but also a good indicator that there wasn’t much more to be done. The mansion was too far gone to be saved by any fire department now.
“Lakhela, leave it be.” Verene ordered, and Lakhela nodded. “Let’s go up a flight, our jobs are done here.”
They went back to the stairs and walked up to the final floor. Fia was still choking and even Colette was starting to cough. Verene had to admit the dry, smoky air was irritating her throat and could only imagine how her daughter was feeling. On the third floor they looked around; her bedroom was untouched, as was the bathroom and Colette’s, but flames had made their way into Fia’s room already, and for a moment she watched the clothes in the open closet sway and burn and flamed tore through them. The house groaned dangerously and a noise like popping corn began to go off in the distance.
“Bullets in the armory.” Teonnie said. Verene was reminded that Wynn and all their other enemies were still out there, only now she didn’t have the ammo to fight them back.
“It’s lit.” Colette said mournfully and bowed her head. Lakhela sighed as loud as possible.
“What now?” She asked. Verene had expected more doom and gloom in her tone, but when she looked to the girls they only seemed to be awaiting orders as always, faithful even as their home threatened to collapse over their heads. She stood straight and gave them a steely look.
“We have to figure out where Wynn is. She had to move up same as we did.” She said, and the trio nodded astutely as Fia looked thoughtful. “It’s possible she’s hiding in one of these rooms right now listening to every word we say. I don’t want that, I want her dead.”
“She’s not.” Fia said, her voice so weak it was barely audible over the crackling fire. She gave her daughter a questioning look, and she cleared her throat before she clarified. “I know exactly where she is.”
And she pointed up to the cupola above them.