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“The green one. Definitely the green one.”
“Can I just—”
“Colette, I’m gonna kick your—”
“Guys, I really want—”
“Where are the shoes?”
“Colette, shut up!” Lakhela yelled. “She wants the green!”
“Teonnie wants the green!” Colette shouted back. “When obviously—”
“Obviously black is the ideal—”
“It’s not a funeral!”
“It’s an occasion!”
“Where are the shoes!? She needs shoes!”
“What is going on in here?” Verene asked from the doorway. Everyone paused and looked her way. Teonnie rifling through Fia’s closet, Lakhela half under the bed looking for shoes, Colette lounging on the vanity chair, and Fia curled up in bed, still in her pajamas and feigning politeness to an extreme.
“We’re getting ready.” Fia answered sweetly, and Lakhela felt a warm affection rise in her chest as she shoved a forgotten stuffed animal out of the way in her great shoe hunt.
“Does getting ready always have to involve yelling?” Verene asked, but with a bit of laughter in her tone. “What dress did you decide on, dear?”
“Teonnie’s trying to decide for her.” Colette said, and Lakhela tossed an old pencil case aside to see a shimmer — finally! She grabbed the silver-sequined ballet flats and pulled them out, then raised them triumphantly.
“I’m letting her pick, I’m just guiding her!” Teonnie retorted, and Lakhela sighed.
“Thank you for finding them.” Fia said quietly, and beamed when she looked her way. Lakhela nodded and set the shoes on the bed, then made the very conscious choice to remain on the floor.
“You’re picking what you like!” Colette began to yell in earnest now, and Lakhela rubbed her temples. “It’s an occasion! You wear black!”
“So you wore black to church every week?”
“Church is a different occasion! It has a theme!” She yelled, clearly prepared for a debate, and Verene ignored the theatrics to step further into the room. When she reached the closet Teonnie stepped dutifully out of the way and she calmly slid the hangers over until she reached a little gray dress that would look very cute on Fia, though with the Peter Pan collar it would make her look even younger than she already did.
“Didn’t you say you liked this one, sweetheart? It’s Mark Jacobs, remember?” She asked, and Fia nodded slowly. “So would you like to wear it, or look for something else?”
Fia glanced Teonnie’s way, and the girl in green seemed to remember herself and put her head down.
“It’s your choice, Fee.” She said, and after a long moment with a polite uncertainty on her face she nodded to her mother, who pulled the gray dress off the hanger and tossed it her way.
“I don’t mean to rush, but you still have to show up at the required time.” Verene tutted, and Fia got the hurry-the-hell-up message in her tone. “And ladies, shouldn’t you have left by now? You have a mission.”
“We do? Shit.” Colette said, and Verene shot her a look as Fia giggled. “My bad! You didn’t hear that, oh innocent child.”
“We’ll get going.” Teonnie assured her as Fia laughed heartily. “But of course we wanted to help her get ready! It’s not every day you graduate the fifth grade.”
“And we promise we’ll be back in time for the ceremony.” Lakhela said, and Fia nodded gratefully. “It’s just a quick tax collection and then we’ll rush over.”
“Shouldn’t take long. We just can’t let these people pay late again.” Teonnie said crisply. “Come on. Let’s leave Fia to dress.”
“And get this over with.” Colette said, then stood unceremoniously and made her way out. Teonnie and Lakhela followed and the trio descended the grand staircase, Colette wearing a wicked smile as they went. Lakhela suspected its meaning and began to grin herself. Teonnie seemed to understand as well.
“Girls day!” She cried out, and Colette whooped and ran down the stairs. Lakhela and Teonnie raced after her, and she flung herself down the last three steps to win with a rather ungraceful landing. “Cheater!”
“Just being resourceful.” Colette said, and took off for the armory. From a distance she called: “Who are we collecting from?”
“Some ritzy spa over in the Central Business District.” Teonnie called back, and Lakhela must have shown her surprise because Teonnie nodded. “I know. Those elitists don’t usually need our help. Maybe we’re just making our way up in the world.”
“Or it’s a bad spa.” Lakhela mused, and Teonnie snorted and pushed her green wig out of her face — it was a blistering June morning, the sky cloudless but the air muggy regardless, this being Louisiana after all. Lakhela could only hope the graduation ceremony would be held indoors. Colette returned and tossed Lakhela a pistol, and she caught it, though she made her annoyance at the casual loaded gun throwing clear. Teonnie gave her a look, and Colette gently handed her her own weapon with a look like a shamed dog.
“Come on. Lakhela, you’re driving.” Teonnie said, and Lakhela decided not to point out that she was the only one who owned a car. They left the mansion and met sweltering heat, then rushed to Lakhela’s little muscle car where she immediately blasted the air conditioning. The trip to the Business District wasn’t a long one — many of Verene’s wealthy neighbors worked there — and soon enough they located a spa within an upscale strip near a casino and other more touristy attractions. No wonder none of the trio had heard of it.
Lakhela parked between a Mercedes and an Audi and the three of them did a quick weapons check. She concealed her pistol in the waistband of her geometric patterned skirt, Colette did the same with her black shorts, and Teonnie stuck her own on a lime green garter beneath a matching sundress.
“Y’all know the drill. Colette on intimidation, Lakhela and I collect.” Teonnie said, and though Lakhela had heard it a thousand times she just nodded and opened her door. When they stepped out Teonnie looked genuinely offended by the heat, but they were quick to march through the asphalt parking lot and into a foyer done up in white tiles with a chandelier dripping crystals before the check-in counter. The girl on duty smiled and extended a tray of products to them — perfume, or maybe facial mists, Lakhela supposed — but Teonnie raised a hand with sharp green nails affixed.
“Manager, please.” She said, and the girl nodded like she was accustomed to a rude clientele and walked off. Lakhela glanced around a moment: the foyer extended into a wider room where she saw a row of chairs for mani/pedis and a few other doors that likely lead to private massage parlors and perhaps a sauna. It was a decent looking place for sure, but also seemingly empty, which would explain a need for borrowing funds. An older woman, blonde in her mid-fifties returned from whence the younger woman had come, and didn’t look too fazed by the menacing stare Colette had put on.
“Good morning, ladies!” She clasped her hands together in the way a dislikable person does. “Are you here for Ms. Beaumarchais?”
“Yes.” Teonnie answered with her chin raised like she’d sensed the same foulness Lakhela did. “We’re here to collect.”
“Okay, no problem. I have it here in full.” She started behind the counter and bent down to grab something. Lakhela raised her gun swiftly, though she doubted this soccer mom was packing heat. Sure enough, after a moment she took out a rolled up paper bag and placed it gently on the counter, and Lakhela tucked her gun away before she spooked the woman. Teonnie snatched the bag quickly, shook it, then opened it and peeked inside. Lakhela guessed everything was squared away, because she closed it, nodded, and took a step back.
“Thank you. Have a good one.” She said, and turned to leave. The manager’s face shadowed over for a split second.
“Oh, wait! I told Ms. Beaumarchais I would treat whichever lovely ladies came around to a free massage. To make up for being late last month.” She smiled in a slimy sort of way and everyone glared at her. “Come on, ladies, which of you would like to come back and meet a masseuse?”
“We’re good, thanks.” Colette said, her tone deadly, and the manager blinked.
“Oh, but I insist.” She said, and Lakhela took a step back. Teonnie tilted her head. “Or maybe you prefer a manicure? A facial? A wrap?”
“We’re good.” Colette said again, her expression hard as she slid back as well. “We’re just gonna get going.”
“Yeah.” Lakhela said, but Teonnie paused. She tried to telepathically let her know it was a bad pause, but she could tell exactly what the other girl was thinking: there was a real importance in diplomacy during their business dealings, but she was wrong to think now was the time. Lakhela was probably a bigger fan of said diplomacy than Teonnie anyway, it felt like a duty for her as a protector of this city, but for Teonnie it was part of the job and part of upholding Verene’s empire. Now was just a really bad time to think she needed to implement some kindness.
“A spritz of facial mist, then. At the very least.” The manager said, and held up the little tray the receptionist had greeted them with when they entered. Lakhela recognized one of the bottles now as Teonnie’s pricey facial mist, and Teonnie eyed it like it was the only thing in this building she could trust.
“Okay. Sure.” She finally said, and stepped forward without seeing the sheer alarm Lakhela knew had to be on her face, counter to the annoyance on Colette’s. “It’s the least I could do. It’s just that we have other places—”
The woman sprayed her in the face to only one person’s surprise, and that person was shrieking like a banshee as Colette fired off a shot that ricocheted off the cash register and cracked a window. The woman dove behind the counter as Teonnie doubled over, and Lakhela grabbed her arm in attempt to guide her back towards the door. Said door swung open immediately, and Lakhela pushed a blind Teonnie to the ground as a massive man barreled their way.
“Stop!” Colette yelled, and Lakhela saw a black blur out of the corner of her eye just as this strange man’s meaty fist swung at her face. She backed off and tried to throw a punch but missed terribly, distracted by Teonnie still screaming on the floor. It must have been mace, a set up from the very beginning. Likely she planned to take out Verene’s heavy hitters so she could stop paying up — she could’ve even waited for Verene to get down here and off her as well, the thought of which sent a shiver up Lakhela’s spine.
The big guy grabbed her by the arm and yanked it so hard she thought it would snap, but instead she slid across the floor and almost lost her footing. Teonnie was curled up in a fetal position, and her heart jumped up in her throat when she saw him bend over her, but he only reached his hand down to the paper bag she was still clutching, where Lakhela knew the money was still sat. She pulled out her gun and held it level with his shiny bald head.
“Freeze!” She yelled, and he looked at her like she was a trifling annoyance. “I don’t have to shoot you, you’re just some goon! Get out of here with your life while you can take it!”
He paused and considered this. Lakhela wondered why he didn’t have a weapon himself, how the manager couldn’t anticipate that they’d be armed. From the other room someone screamed, and she heard several shots fire in succession, like an automatic rifle. She wanted to turn and run, to ensure Colette was alright, but the goon gave her an odd look — superior in a way, like he knew more about this than they did. Like there was more in store for them. Another gunshot cracked, much closer, and suddenly the man came crashing down. It took Lakhela a moment to realize there was now blood spattered everywhere, red splashed across his gleaming forehead. On the ground Teonnie had one hand over her eyes and the other wrapped around a pistol.
“Oh my god. Are you okay?” Lakhela asked.
“No! I have fucking mace in my eyes!” Teonnie yelled, but attempted to sit up. She looked awful: her eyes were swimming with tears and practically swollen shut, the skin around them flaming red. In this state not even Colette would hit her with an ‘I told you so.’ Someone was yelling harshly down the hall.
“I’ll walk you to the car.” Lakhela said, but Teonnie shook her head. “You can call Verene—”
“She’s on her way to the ceremony.” Teonnie said, and with shaky limbs pulled herself to her feet. “Let’s kill the manager and get Colette.”
“We don’t have to kill her. Let’s ask the boss at least.” Lakhela suggested, but she knew it was to no avail. Teonnie walked with her arms stretched out, waving them like she was worried about hitting something, and Lakhela sighed and grabbed her. “We’ll get Colette and go.”
“Fine. Weapons out.” She ordered, and Lakhela made no remark about her being in no condition to shoot, though it took her a great deal of restraint. The two of them crossed the foyer and entered the larger room Colette and the manager had run into, where chairs for manicures sat amidst the smell of acetone. As the pair scurried through Lakhela strained her ears to figure out where their friend had gone until a sudden pain shot through her leg. When she yelped and looked down she saw a pair of cuticle clippers sticking out of her thigh, which was almost as odd as the sight of a woman crawling out from behind a chair with a gel lamp grasped in hand. She raised it as though preparing to crack Lakhela’s skull.
“Fu—” She twisted awkwardly and jumped back into an oblivious Teonnie, who almost toppled over again. The woman, practically a clone of the manager with her frizzled bleach blonde hair and excessive tan, dove for her, and Lakhela awkwardly squealed and pulled away. Teonnie fired at the attacker (or, Lakhela noted in a deep panic, in her vicinity) and cracked the plastic casing of the gel lamp.
“Did I get her?” She asked, and the woman let out a battle cry. She brought down the lamp with extreme force just as Lakhela shoved her chest as hard as she could, and she felt the plastic barely connect with her head before the woman staggered backwards and crashed to the ground. Dead or knocked out she didn’t know, but when the woman didn’t get up again she pulled the scissors out of her thigh with bared teeth.
“Maybe let me do the shooting.” She said, and Teonnie raised her chin and flipped her hair. Lakhela pressed onwards, down a hallway with several doors. Teonnie found the first handle and threw it open — empty save for a massage table. On her right Lakhela did the same — near empty, save for a massage table and a cowering masseuse. She gestured at the man to leave, and he nodded gratefully and ran past her, hands raised and face pale. The manager must have been an absolute terror: if Lakhela conspired with her employees to commit triple homicide she’d at least allow the reluctant to take a sick day.
A single shot rang out. Teonnie tensed and stepped forward too quickly, and Lakhela rushed to keep a hand on her arm. Both made a bad decision, because all of a sudden there was a lot less friction underfoot and Lakhela’s feet were sliding. Teonnie went down first and Lakhela toppled down on top of her like a cartoon. With a groan she climbed off her friend and landed on the white tile floor, which here and now had a disgusting feel to it, all cold and slimy.
“Eucalyptus.” Teonnie said, like her debilitated eyesight had increased her sense of smell, and Lakhela controlled an odd laugh. “We’re in massage oil.”
Lakhela tried to get on her hands and knees and slipped all over the place, and when Teonnie sat up her wig remained on the floor. When Lakhela burst into admittedly harsh laughter she ended up splayed across the ground Bambi-style. A heavy footfall caused a crick in her neck from turning it so fast, and the pair saw a meaty woman standing over them. She rolled up her sleeves and cracked her knuckles, and Teonnie brought her down with a shot.
“Stop shooting people!” Lakhela yelled. “We just found an innocent!”
“Did she look innocent?” Teonnie attempted to get up and fell back on her back. “This is it. This is my worst day.”
“Oh my god, just get up. Colette’s probably dead by now.” Lakhela said, and got on her knees and elbows to crawl forward a few feet. “That’ll be a fantastic fifth grade graduation gift.”
“Colette’s not dead.” Teonnie might have rolled her eyes if they weren’t swollen almost entirely shut, but didn’t argue with her. They were running late at this point, after all. The pair crawled through the oil (Teonnie groaned when she had to crawl over the dead masseuse and Lakhela felt vindicated) down the hallway until they finally returned to dry tile, then stood clinging to each other in order to keep balance on still-slimy feet. There was only one door left, and this seemed to be employees only as there was a keypad lock on it. Teonnie raised her gun to fire.
“Whoa! I’ll take this one.” Lakhela said, and she gave her general vicinity a scathing look. Lakhela ignored it and leveled her weapon, then sent three bullets into the keypad. Teonnie was seemingly unsatisfied with her lack of action and kicked the door in herself, and the pair stormed in just in time to hear Colette yell:
“Get the fuck out of the way!”
Lakhela wasn’t sure what the hell was going on, but she grabbed Teonnie and ducked just as she heard the shatter of glass and a stream of curses to her right. She rushed that way and found Colette sitting on the floor behind an overturned massage table, tired but not obviously wounded. She and Teonnie crouched with her and took a breath and a moment to look around — they were in a tight back room full of shelves stocked with aromatics, oils, nail polishes, and whatever other goods a salon needed. Wherever the manager was Lakhela didn’t know, but it seemed that she’d just thrown a bottle of perfume at them and it was strong enough to make her eyes water.
“Crying with relief?” Colette asked with a quirk of her brow.
“We thought we were finally rid of you.” Teonnie replied, and Lakhela shook her head but didn’t get involved. “It smells awful in here. Are there one thousand old ladies hiding somewhere?”
“We’ve been shooting a lot of scented shit.” Colette wrinkled her nose. “Where did your wig go?”
“Is she still in here?” Lakhela asked, and Colette got serious for a rare moment.
“For now. There’s a bay door on her side of the room but I’m pretty sure I’d hear if she opened it. Likely she was hoping to kill me then trap and kill the two of you. I’m just faster than she anticipated.” She returned to her usual cocky self, and Lakhela rolled her eyes in earnest.
“We need to draw her out. Lakhela, what’s in those pockets of yours?” Teonnie asked, and the trio donned matching wicked grins as Lakhela went through her geometric patterned skirt. A granola bar, some Starburst, a needle and thread, a lighter, some stick-on purple nails, a Swiss army knife, and a silk scarf. Teonnie smiled faintly at the nails, but took the scarf. “Colette, try to track her shot.”
Colette nodded, Teonnie waved the scarf, and a shot fired. Colette hit back so fast Lakhela could barely separate the two, but the piercing scream that hit the air was distinct. Lakhela crept out quickly, her gun raised, and crossed the small room in five steps. She found the manager immediately, still shrieking as she lie on her side clutching a bloody arm. A teeny tiny pink gun was clenched awkwardly in her hand, and Lakhela swooped down to throw it aside as Teonnie and Colette crept up behind her, both with their weapons raised.
“Idiot!” Teonnie said to the manager, who looked astounded by the insult. “Why didn’t you arm your lackeys? We’d be dead then!”
The manager looked incredulous. “You’re not supposed to shoot us! We’re paying customers!”
“You tried to kill us.” Colette said flatly. The manager was clearly floored by this reply.
“And? Haven’t you ever heard of word of mouth? It would be a bad look to go killing every reputable business owner over things like this. And you know, everyone assumes you people are violent at the drop of a hat anyways. You wouldn’t want to play into that.” She said simply. The trio stared at her. “Criminals, I mean. Prone to violence.”
“How are you reputable when you work with said criminals? Go fuck yourself, moron.” Teonnie said, at an end with her diplomacy for the day, and one shot ended the conversation. Unfortunately that one shot was made point blank by a half-blind woman and it slammed the target’s carotid artery with a horrific spray.
“AUGH!” Colette yelled understandably.
“Ew! Ew ew ew!” Teonnie yelled, also understandably. Lakhela checked her phone.
“We’re already late.” She said, and Teonnie wilted. Colette looked around, her breathing heavy.
“‘Go fuck yourself, moron?’” She finally asked, and Teonnie tried and failed to hide a smile. “You really lost your cool there.”
“My favorite facial mist.” She shook her head. “Khel, you still have our emergency clothes in the trunk, right?”
“We used them last week.” Lakhela reminded her. “We can’t stop and change, we’ll miss the whole ceremony.”
Teonnie paused a moment in deep and unsatisfied reflection. Colette spoke up after a moment to say: “Tea, you’re the only one who really got got, and it’s all on your face. We’ll get you a tissue and it’ll look like a ketchup spot.”
That was absolutely not true. The lime green of Teonnie’s sundress was now Pollock-ed with blood that looked brown against the vivid shade, and it would be pretty alarming to a venue full of civilians. Then again, what Teonnie didn’t know wouldn’t necessarily hurt her.
“Let’s go.” Lakhela grabbed Teonnie’s arm and Colette looked relieved. “We’ll wipe your face in the car.”
They had to go back through the hallway and were forced to crawl on their hands and knees through the massage oil, Colette howling with laughter the entire way through (and doubly when she plopped Teonnie’s wig back on with a schlopp sound and a deal of swearing from the wig-wearer). Once they got back to the main doors and out the building it was still disgustingly warm outside, which Lakhela thought was perhaps the worst part of their day, and she drove them at top speeds to Fia’s private school.
They ran from a crowded parking lot, down a path and around a bend until they finally reached the outdoor venue, rife with hats and pamphlets being used as fans. At this point Teonnie had the sense to slow down, and she walked with long strides towards the front, where they knew Verene would be waiting. Heads turned as they walked through, splattered with blood and oil, reeking of lavender, and sweating like lunatics, but Teonnie’s vision had hardly cleared up so she didn’t notice. Lakhela guided her towards three empty seats and hoped she didn’t hear the whispering gathering around them at incredible volumes. The three of them sat beside Verene, who gave them a long sideways glance.
“Yeah, we had to kill everyone in there.” Colette said way too loudly, and Lakhela elbowed her side as Teonnie practically leapt from her seat. Verene sighed and made a hand motion towards someone on stage, likely an administrator. He nodded, sweaty and pale with alarm.
“And our next graduate, Fia Beaumarchais!” He yelled, then waved his hand to little Fia as she approached the stage, adorable in her silver flats and Peter Pan dress. There was a smattering of claps throughout the audience, seemingly along with some confusion.
“I told them to bring her out again once you got here.” Verene explained, and Teonnie face-palmed.
“We’re that late?” She whispered, and waved back to a beaming Fia, who was wonderfully unfazed by the state of them.
“Her surname starts with a B.” Lakhela pointed out, and waved to Fia as well. Colette let out a whoop, and Verene clapped with mild amusement on her face. Lakhela leaned back in her chair and relaxed a moment: it was too hot to do much of anything else.
“That’s my girl!” Colette yelled as the family behind them whispered something like ‘what in the FUCK—’ and Lakhela snorted. Teonnie laughed, then blinked several times and looked down at her dress.
“Wait, this is so noticeable!” She cried out, and Fia departed from the stage with a sweet smile. “Colette! Damn it!”
“Yeah, Fia!” Colette yelled. Lakhela shook her head. At least Fia got her support team, even if they arrived a little late.
“I’m gonna kick your—”
“Woohoo, little grad!”
“I look like an insane person!”
“Congrats class of 2013!”
“And a beautiful dress! Not disgusting green like some people!”