This is it, guys.
She pointed up to the cupola and for a moment they all stared in silence at the open window Wynn must have made her escape from.
“How on earth.” Colette said flatly, and Verene shook her head with distaste.
“The same way she got out of our pantry. She just jumped and climbed up.” She said simply, and Fia nearly winced at the memory. Everyone gave them a questioning look, but she didn’t have the patience to explain at the moment; her first priority was getting to Wynn, and admittedly the fresh air sounded like the world’s greatest relief. Without waiting another second she quickly walked over to her step-dad’s room, grabbed the chair beside his desk and dragged it over.
They all looked to each other, their expressions varied levels of determination and a certain brand of readiness Fia was naturally fond of. Verene nodded to them and held out her hand for a volunteer, so of course her daughter took it in a heartbeat. She gave her a scared little look but was quick to force it away, and Fia knew she was learning to deal with all the risks she was finally allowed to take. It had to be hard for her mother, but not harder than her own imprisonment. And from the weight in her lungs she knew it wouldn’t be too hard for very long, but this wasn’t the time to worry about that, not when there was work to be done.
She stood on the chair and had to jump to get to the windowsill, but being the shortest of the group she was unconcerned with the others. She clung carefully with her legs hanging down, and though she was already weak from a long day and a tough fight with Wynn she managed to pull herself up and through the window to land on her stomach on coarse roof tiles.
When she looked up Wynn was the first thing she saw, a white figure against a bright blue sky full of smoke. Her back was turned to her as she looked out onto the Garden District – from up there they had a view of every beautiful mansion in the neighborhood. Though it was still a warm day and she was standing on top of a cinder pile the air felt much cooler, and she breathed in the smell of burning wood gratefully. The alarm wasn’t as loud outside, but she’d been quiet enough to hope Wynn hadn’t heard her yet.
She would have thought the next head to poke out the window would be her mother’s, but instead she saw Colette heaving as she tried to hoist herself up. She grabbed her and helped to pull her through, then realized they’d prioritized the girl with only one fully functioning leg. She’d lost her other crutch now too, and chose to sit next to the cupola as Teonnie came through with great agility, then Verene, somehow dignified whilst crawling out of a hole. Lakhela came last as she’d likely insisted with a similar grace to her roommate, and with everyone gathered Fia sucked in a breath, hoped for the best, and turned to Wynn once more.
She was staring at them all, just waiting, her rage clear even in the distance. Fia took a few steps closer and found her not to be as perfectly pale as she’d appeared; her skinned knees and bandaged arm were mottled red and brown with fresh and dried blood, and her white outfit had been tinged grey with ash in places. There was still that triumphant brand of murder in her eyes, as though somehow she’d won, but Fia had known it was over for Wynn the moment she chose to destroy her own home.
“Verene Beaumarchais. So nice of you to finally get here.” She smiled as though they were meeting for the first time all over again.
“Wynn.” Her mother allowed with a slight nod behind her. The others were further back but in positions ready to strike, Colette still sat but with fists almost comically raised, though Fia doubted anyone had a great deal of weaponry on them if any. Wynn chuckled.
“Always so regal, even in the face of your undoing. You can quit playing pretend and wallow in misery if you need to.” She flashed a malicious grin. “After all I did just destroy your entire livelihood like it was nothing, sent the police after you, caused you to burn your own mansion to the ground because it was the only way to be rid of me.”
“Like bedbugs.” Verene mused, and Wynn gave her a sharp look.
“You have lost everything because of me. You will spend the rest of your existence miserable because of what I’ve done to you.” She went on, and it seemed to Fia that she knew it was the last thing she’d do, that if she only had one chance to gloat she would take it like no one had before. “Best case scenario you’ll be jailed, estranged from a daughter who’ll die long before your release. Worse case you attempt to clean up this mess, your business, your reputation.”
“That’s worst case?” Verene asked calmly with a raised brow, and Wynn nodded gleefully.
“Oh, you’ll fail. I’ve done enough to create a very deep scar.” She assured them. “And you’ll pour all your stolen money into it, all of my family fortune, and it won’t be enough. My grandma’s riches and their grand finale: it’ll all be wasted, and then it’ll be nothing. Spread ashes, just like her and just like the women who found her.”
“So that’s the next best scenario for you.” Verene figured. “If you can’t have it no one can. If money can’t solve a problem it’s essentially worthless.”
“Exactly. I’ve won, Verene. I came here to crush you and I did.” She looked satisfied to an extreme degree, and Fia couldn’t help but reply to that.
“There’s a fatal flaw in your plan.” She said, and Wynn picked up on one word in particular.
“I’m not a fool. I understand the chances of lasting the day are slim.” She said, but somehow there was hardly a hint of sadness in it. Fia wanted to call her a lunatic, but she knew Wynn had arrived in New Orleans with a goal she’d considered fundamental to her very being. Of course she was prepared to sacrifice herself for it, of course she’d be content with her own death if it meant just a taste of satisfaction. It was a familiar feeling. “You really think I wouldn’t know something so simple?”
“No.” Fia said, and searched for something else, but there was nothing to add. Nothing but letting her down. “But that’s not what I meant.”
Wynn tilted her head just a fraction but still retained all her burning hatred.
“Money isn’t going to solve this problem. We are.” She said, and Wynn frowned. “In a pinch your grandma’s cash is irrelevant to us. We will carry ourselves back to greatness.”
“No. No you won’t, you can’t.” She said, but even then Verene stayed cool and a smidgen of doubt snuck onto Wynn’s face. “I’ve ended you. You’re defeated.”
“If ya gotta keep telling us I’m not so sure it’s true.” Colette called out, and Wynn scowled as Fia felt a small smile tug at her lips.
“My mom is too proud to ever be defeated. On some level you know that. Always did.” She said, and saw Wynn push back some unease. “You played a good game, I’ll give you that. Every attack was solid – brutal and unexpected.”
“Don’t say it like you’re about to hand me a consolation prize.” Wynn balled up her fists. “I nearly kidnapped you, I nearly drowned you. I murdered your step-father!”
“We’re still crying over that one.” Colette said from the ground. The house creaked below them and Fia was reminded that everything she’d ever known was disintegrating beneath her feet.
“Coe, chill on the heckling, Fee’s talking.” Lakhela said. Wynn looked nothing but furious at that, but Fia ignored her and spoke on.
“Yeah, you were bold. You were arrogant. You were head-strong. But my mother is an institution. She’s New Orleans itself.” She said, and glanced her way to see nothing but pride and affection. “You ever see Mulan? ‘No matter how the wind howls, the mountain cannot bow to it.’”
“Do you think I won’t get everything back?” Verene added. “A new mansion, new friends on the force? You think my piles of blackmail are suddenly worthless, that everyone who owes me a debt or their life isn’t going to take this rare and wonderful opportunity to kiss my ass?”
Wynn only stared at them. Fia only knew they were starting to get through to her from the way the anger was seeping from her features, leaving her oddly blank. If she knew the woman well enough by now it would shortly return tenfold. For the time being she glanced behind her to the girls; Colette showed no desire to attack any longer and only had a look of acceptance on her face, like she knew the story was over even before Wynn did. Lakhela had a half smile on her face as she surely thought of the justice they were about to serve and the aforementioned success they would soon regain. Ever the optimist and the protector, Fia knew her visions were swimming with a brighter New Orleans. Teonnie looked odd, her wig gone and her dress so covered in soot that she didn’t seem green at all, but still primed for a final battle, confident and collected.
She returned her gaze to find Wynn fuming on cue, her face all red and her fists clenched so tightly they shook. In a way her anger looked frantic as the fact that she’d thoroughly lost set in.
“All this – all this for nothing?” She screeched. “No, I won’t accept this! It won’t end like this!”
“It already has.” Verene said, and she stared daggers at her.
“It hasn’t! I’m getting out of this and I’ll come back. Back to this shell of a home, back to your nothingness. You’ll all die by my hand, you hear me?” She looked directly at Fia. “I will kill you.”
Fia grew hard at that.
“I can promise you, Wynn, you won’t be hurting anyone any longer.” She said, her voice cold. Wynn only smiled once more: her last, Fia already knew.
“Oh really? This is the end then? Which of you has the power to stop me?” She gave Verene a sharp look. “How do you propose to end my tirade, Verene? It’s only over because I’d assumed I’d die today. What if I choose not to, hm, what then?”
“I believe it’s only over because I figured out you would kidnap Teonnie. Who in turn beat the crap out of you.” Verene replied smoothly, and Wynn looked more frustrated than ever. Fia only gave her a grim smile.
“It doesn’t matter! What matters is that I’m not finished. Your future is a bleak one, Vee, because it’s just you trying to rebuild and me waiting behind every corner. Hunting you, slowly advancing, for the rest of our lives.” She clearly relished the prospect as her eyes shone. “You will run, you will hide, but you will always have a shadow.”
“It’s an intimidating threat.” Fia said. “Too bad it’s an empty one.”
“How is that?” Wynn asked in a dark tone. “How will this end today? Don’t tell me you’ll be the one.”
Fia nodded firmly and Wynn’s brows rose like all the thick smoke in the air around them.
“You, the sweet little girl? You’re going to kill me?” She asked doubtfully, almost as though she were entertained by it. Verene scoffed.
“How is it after all this time you still don’t really know us?” Verene asked. “All this foresight and intuition wasted on warfare.”
When Wynn looked at Verene Fia could see the question behind her eyes, clear as day: “What else would I use it on?” But she didn’t say it aloud, maybe because she understood it was a weakness. A sign that she wasn’t as sound as they were, an admission of emptiness. So instead she turned to Fia with a snarl and opened her mouth to say something more – another threat, most likely, but Fia was tired of that now. There’d been enough gloating and threatening for her and their soon to be collapsed home to tolerate, so without further ado she took one massive step forward, outstretched her arms, and pushed. Wynn’s eyes grew wide and she barely had time to gasp at the hands on her chest before she was sent flying, and in a flash she was gone. There one second, gone the next, Fia was simply staring into the distance now. She almost didn’t believe she’d done it, like she was only looking in the wrong direction and in a moment Wynn would be shouting at them all over again. Then her mother was by her side, a gentle hand on her shoulder. When she looked up she caught a reassuring little smile brimmed with relief.
“Holy crap, is it over?” Colette called out. Lakhela and Teonnie both helped her get to her feet, and Fia watched them all carry each other over until her mother took her hand off her shoulder and took a step forward. Precariously balanced, she peered over the edge a moment, then winced.
“Honey, you might not want to look.” She warned, but Fia took a cautious step forward to inspect the damage. It wasn’t as grisly as she’d thought it would be, less blood and zero brains, but it was plenty disturbing. Wynn’s body was sprawled out on the grass, her limbs at odd angles like a squished bug, her pale figure vibrant against the emerald lawn.
“She’s dead.” Fia spoke the obvious as relief began to trickle in. When she let out a sigh it felt like her lungs were heavy with smoke, but half a world of weight dissipated off her shoulders. Their battle with her was far from over, even in death; her reach was far and they had one hell of a mess to clean up.
“Good riddance.” Colette said, and when Fia turned to look at the girls she found them in a similar state, relieved though not yet completed. Her mother looked stronger, prouder, a proper leader, and Fia could only hope one day she’d emulate as much.
“Hey, here’s a question though. How do we get down?” Lakhela asked, and Fia looked around. In patches the roof had fallen in completely and flames were starting to jump up taller than she was. Most of the remaining tiles were melting away beneath them with an ooze of black sludge, and she imagined that if she were up there barefoot she’d be severely burned.
“We’ll do what Wynn didn’t. Skip the evil ranting and jump in the pool.” Verene answered, and pointed down to the pool, crystal clear and only around the corner from Wynn’s corpse. If she’d run and jumped none of them could have stopped her, though Fia didn’t know if she hadn’t seen it or just chose not to go on. At any rate, they all creeped toward that edge and prepared themselves, though the jump was relatively easy.
“If no one minds, I think I’ll take the honor of going first.” Colette announced. “I’d like to get off this stupid leg.”
Verene nodded and Lakhela and Teonnie released her. She took in a massive gulp of air and did a shaky, one-footed jump off the side to cannonball into the pool. After quite a long fall she made a monumental splash, then whooped when she resurfaced and swam aside. Teonnie chose a running start and held her nose, which they distantly heard Colette mock her for when she splashed in. Lakhela gave her boss a hesitant look, but Verene nodded towards the water and allowed her to go first. She mournfully ran a hand along her dreads a moment, already fuzzy and just a tad singed in the back, then hopped off and splashed down with ease. When she swam out of the way, Verene grabbed Fia’s hand.
“You can do this, right?” She checked, and Fia smiled.
“Would you rather I climb down the gutter again?” She asked, and Verene gave her a look. “On your mark, mom.”
“Ready, set.” She began, and Fia bent her knees. “Go!”
Her heart fluttered as she squeezed her eyes shut and flew through the air for longer than she’d ever had for a jump in the pool. It lasted so long for a moment she felt as though she’d never land and be stuck floating around forever, and then she hit the cold water feet first. It was a huge shock to her system, one she wasn’t supposed to and normally wouldn’t be allowed to risk. She sunk down with cold compressing her at every front, seeping her heat and courage away, but her mother’s hand was still entwined in hers and she kicked her feet and broke the surface sputtering.
“Atta girl, Fia.” Colette cheered, and Fia opened her eyes to see a bleary figure all in black, with sodden hair and a massive grin. She weakly returned it and swam to the shallow end where she could stand. She fought a cough the entire way but the relief was still there, for her and all the girls as they relaxed a moment, floated, and watched their massive home burn. It was nothing but bare bones now as big hunks of brick and wood were starting to fall off with an occasional crack and boom. It felt odd to know she’d lost everything and nothing all at once.
“My birthday gift didn’t happen to be in there, did it?” Verene asked, and Fia groaned.
“Just the money to pay for him.” She said, and Verene gave her a look. “Don’t worry, it’s a cat. We can pick him up from the shelter when things settle down a bit.”
“Gladly.” She smiled, and Fia knew he was the only new guy they’d need for a long while. There was a moment of silence as the house continued to burn.
“Starting from scratch, huh?” Teonnie asked, and Verene nodded without an ounce of worry. “Should be interesting.”
“We have our advantages.” Verene said peacefully. “And each other.”
“Aw. We’re all saps.” Colette said as she balanced on one leg. She swam over to Fia and tousled her hair with an affectionate grin, and gasped dramatically Fia stuck out her tongue. “Fee, please, how dare you tarnish this moment!?”
“I’m pure evil.” She replied in a faint voice, but still managed a smile and still received one in turn. Sirens began to wail in the distance, belated but not unexpected. It seemed the neighbors had been afraid to call 911 for them – the response likely came only after they spotted smoke.
“So what now?” Lakhela asked, and they all immediately looked to Verene. She smiled and gave them all an authoritative yet warm look that made Fia’s heart sing its admiration.
“Well first we have to get rid of that body.” She said, and in the distance Wynn’s corpse still rested in the grass. “Let’s not get accused of anything else. A rich out-of-towner, the FBI would be on us so fast our heads would spin.”
“Still punishing us.” Colette muttered and gave the remains a sour look.
“I don’t want to throw her in the fire, I’ll not have her burn with my own home.” Verene continued, and Fia nodded in agreement. “So someone’s gotta take her to our spot and bury her, Colette.”
“Augh.” She replied elegantly, but nodded regardless. Colette was usually the one to take these jobs because she knew all the prayers to say, though Fia suspected it was more for her benefit and closure than the dead’s. “I’ll need some help though, I’m very one-legged.”
“Congrats, Tea.” Fia said, and Teonnie made a similar noise of distaste.
“Ew, you know I hate corpse duty! What for?” She asked, and Fia smiled.
“We’re going to one of our safe houses, right?” She asked her mother, who nodded keenly. “We need a sniper to keep lookout. And because I said so.”
“You really are evil.” Teonnie groaned through a laugh. “But fine. C’mon Coe, let’s get moving before all the hunky firefighters arrive and we get arrested on the spot.”
“Arrested with a show.” Colette said, but waded carefully towards the steps as Verene handed Teonnie her keys.
“Take the Mercedes. We can fetch the Jag from your place later.” Verene said, and Teonnie gave her and Fia a grin before going over to assist Colette up the steps. She turned to Fia and Lakhela, ready to work, and though Fia suspected it was partially so they wouldn’t have to witness the macabre comedy of the pair hauling Wynn’s body away it still caused a fluttery feeling of excitement in her stomach. There were things to be done, after all, a whole host of them. “That car is going to be permanently damp.”
“Not permanently, no. Just awhile longer.” Fia said, and Verene smiled kindly and nodded. Lakhela took a break from her obedient straight-back demeanor to smile as well.
“Alright girls, we’ve got work to do.” Verene clasped her hands together. “Let’s get started.”