Brienne was the first one up. Astor had promised a trip to 79th street for the weekly farmer’s market, and she’d awoken at seven so she wouldn’t make anyone wait on her. But she rose to five voicemails and a host of texts, all congratulating her and the team on an art theft presumably none of them committed, which she would’ve found strange if Eyana hadn’t been insisting someone had stolen her identity for the last two days. Now she felt bad for not believing her.
She showered and threw on a slouchy gray sweater before heading to the living room and curling up in the corner of the couch, playing the news so softly she could barely hear it. Golden rays of sun began to illuminate the room as Cleo entered silently, already dressed in a well-tailored tweed suit, and sat beside her to watch a reporter standing in Grand Army Plaza with an iconic hotel behind him. When Eyana entered a few minutes later she had the grace not to be smug, and as she went to the kitchen Brienne curled up tighter and waited for Astor to storm in. After a few minutes she heard her thundering down the stairs, her own formal entry announcement, and burst into the room with wild hair and fiery eyes.
“What in the shitting fuck?” She yelled, and Cleo burst into surprised laughter.
“For real.” Eyana called from the kitchen, where she was eating cereal straight from the box — Brienne absolutely hated that, but didn’t want to be rude and just hid her own box in the back of the cabinet behind the Swiss Miss. Astor flipped errant curls out of her face and glowered at the couch dwellers.
“I assume neither of you were out at three a.m. stealing an insanely valuable painting.” She said flatly, and both of them shook their heads. “What about you, Eyana? You join a Bizarro World version of your own gang?”
“Please tell me you’re being sarcastic.” She replied seriously. Her expression went dour when Astor tapped her foot mother-hen style. “Are you friggin’ kidding me? No, I didn’t go behind everyone’s back and join a new gang that straight up got cloned from the old one.”
“Security footage places all of us in the penthouse the whole night.” Cleo said helpfully, and Brienne wondered if they’d pulled up the footage alone in their room out of suspicion or to deter Astor’s accusations.
“We don’t know they’re clones.” She said thoughtfully. “We know people are assuming it’s us. So probably they gave us the credit to give the cops a false lead.”
“We know at least one of them is a ditto.” Eyana pointed out through a mouthful of Captain Crunch. “We should be asking ourselves why.”
“We should go over security footage. In an ideal world.” Cleo said, almost irritated. “They shut all the cameras off, we just have eye-witness testimony.”
“So they must not be exact copies. Not all of them.” Brienne reasoned, and Eyana nodded half-heartedly. She must have been more absorbed in this than the rest of them: it was her copy-cat in the bodega, after all.
“Good thinking. That’s why we need to get down there.” Astor said, her tone still sharp. “Everyone ready?”
“Can we eat?” Cleo asked, and received a burning look in return. “Will the world end if I stop for breakfast before investigating a scene?”
“Can we even investigate?” Brienne asked hesitantly. “I know we’ve worked with a few officers before, but this seems like a pretty big case.”
“Especially when we the prime suspects.” Eyana added fairly. Astor still looked peeved, but nodded understandingly: the amount of anger she took out on them had a limit.
“Tate made some calls, pulled some pretty big favors honestly.” She put a lot of weight to her words, and Brienne knew it was scaled accordingly. “Let’s go. Get your coats on, it’s windy.”
Brienne quietly put away her disappointment for no farmer’s market and threw on a simple peacoat, plain next to the bright red puffer Cleo got at Barney’s. The four of them hopped the metro for a short ride: the Upper West Side to Midtown, where reporters and spectators remained in hoards. Astor instructed everyone to keep their heads down as they slipped through the crowd to find the cop who was their contact.
“Cleo, Eyana, let Brienne and I do the talking.” She directed them, her anger diminished somewhat in her conciliatory tone, passed along to Eyana as she nodded with a stony expression. “Officer! Over here!”
Their contact exchanged some quiet words with the boss several yards from the hotel, where more officers and detectives crowded. Brienne didn’t hear much, her head down and the wind whipping her hair around, but when he gestured to a well dressed woman sitting on the hood of a nearby squad car she knew that was the nighttime receptionist. She rubbed her wrists like she’d been handcuffed, and had dark circles below her eyes visible even from a distance.
“Okay. Thanks.” Astor spoke quietly, and the officer departed with a nod, walked over to the receptionist, and said something to the two cops standing with her. Whatever it was it lead the three of them away, and Astor tapped Eyana’s shoulder to get her attention. “That receptionist claims you beat two guards and a bellboy unconscious last night.”
“Like I’d waste time on a bellboy.” Eyana muttered, and Astor bent her head towards the receptionist. Eyana strutted forward with a drag of her feet, leading the way with her agitated walk. When they got within five feet of the woman she looked up at them and screamed at the top of her lungs.
“Stop that.” Astor said, and she did. She had a mom presence and even though the woman was likely thirty, five years her junior, her mouth snapped shut the same as so many others’ did when Astor commanded them. “We just want to ask you some questions.”
“Just talking. That’s all.” Eyana confirmed, though the woman hardly seemed calmed by her brash tone. “You saw me knock out two guards?”
“No — I — I mean. . . I saw you walk in after. I saw the sniper rifle.” She said, and Astor waved her off before Brienne could question that.
“Cleo Reid. You check them in?” She asked, and the receptionist glanced their way and shook her head.
“The daytime receptionist did.” Brienne figured, and the woman jumped and recoiled at her words. “I’m sorry, did—”
“Don’t come near me!” She cried out and slid away from the outstretched arm Brienne had offered for comfort. “Don’t grab me again!”
“Whoa.” Eyana said just as Brienne startled and pulled away. “That girl was close enough to touch you and you think they’re one and the same? Shit. Now that’s a likeness.”
Cleo seemed less convinced. “Where are you from?”
The receptionist looked flabbergasted, but Brienne understood. She was blonde, blue-eyed, and had a middle American accent.
“Spurgeon, Indiana.” She said, and Brienne knew there probably not a great deal of Asian women in Spurgeon, Indiana.
“And did I have a nightmare zit on my forehead last night?” She asked calmly (despite the uncomfortable cystic acne sitting on her hairline) and the woman’s brow creased. She already knew the answer, but if she gave this lady a hint it may have helped ease her alarm, or maybe just her urge to approach an officer screaming the second they walked away.
“I don’t know.” She said after a moment’s thought. “But you had two on your chin that are just — just gone.”
“Thanks for your time.” She said softly, and Astor lead the group away. Back through the crowd, where she halted them with a quick grab of Eyana’s arm as their contact approached them quickly.
“We just found this.” He said breathlessly, an evidence bag clutched in his hands. “You can’t keep it, but I think you should have a quick look.”
He thrust the bag towards them, and Brienne spotted Eyana get on her toes to glance over Astor’s shoulder. It was a small piece of tech with some dirt on it, and though she didn’t recognize it at first something clicked within her after a moment — the receptionist hadn’t seen the guards knocked out just as she hadn’t seen the sniper rifle. She saw a laser.
“Thank you very much.” Astor said, and nodded to him as they parted ways. She walked without looking at any of them, all the way across the street and through the plaza. They sat on the steps of Pulitzer Fountain and people-watched the reporters and officers milling by for awhile before anyone spoke.
“The bodega burglary was a test run.” Eyana spoke obviously, the fountain spluttering behind her. “Whoever pulled this ain’t done.”
“It’s a threat.” Astor said, her expression dark and words biting. “Someone’s after us. Toying with us.”
“To what end?” Cleo asked as they pulled out their phone. “Paranoia? Or to make this city believe this is truly us?”
“They found a light-skinned Asian girl around my age to attack a white woman from Indiana and a brown girl in a certain type of clothing to rob a bodega where a white witness swore up and down he saw Eyana.” Brienne said, and clenched her fists. “I don’t like to jump to conclusions, but that sounds like a smear campaign to me.”
“It’s smart thinking, but I don’t think it’s that alone.” Astor leaned back on the steps and gazed into the distance like she was reminiscing. “Smear campaigns aren’t elaborate, they don’t need to be. It’s a simple idea: feed off hate or fear or both and do it loud enough to drown out detractors. Lie until the truth sounds silly, then call the truth unreliable and call honest people idiots.”
“It’s at least partially directed at us then. A warning? About the hotel, or the painting?” Eyana stopped and shook her head. “Never mind. I don’t got a clue.”
“It’s something.” Brienne said, and offered a little smile when Eyana glanced her way. At that she visibly unwound and Astor picked up the thread from where she’d dropped it.
“So what was the bodega thing about then? Was that specifically aimed at you or just practice? Was it sanctioned, or did that particular crew member go rogue?” She asked, and Eyana shook her head.
“It can’t be aimed at me. Nobody I know with beef is putting together something this big.” She said, and Brienne knew the word big was right, and somehow this was just the beginning. Cleo sat up suddenly and thrust their phone towards them.
“NYPD just released a still from hotel security earlier in the day.” They said, and Brienne squinted in the sunlight at a paused news livestream. The camera was overhead in the hotel lobby, which she loosely remembered from a visit from her aunt when she was little. She came for Christmas Eve and Day and got Brienne and her Queens native mother a room for themselves so her mother could cross it off her bucket list and she could feel like the girl in that painting for one night. They never could’ve paid for a room there otherwise. The interloper wasn’t facing the camera, but Brienne had a good idea of who they were supposed to be from the expensive clothing. “A beret! Can you believe that? As if I’d ever wear a beret.”
“Hair’s hidden.” Astor said, sharing Brienne’s thought. “No dreads? Or a different style? And sunglasses to keep them concealed. Gender indeterminate, we really can’t tell how many of them are women.”
“Well we know what they look like.” Eyana said with a dangerous quirk of her lip. “How much was that painting worth, anyway?”
“Depends on the buyer. It’s a nostalgic piece with a history in a famous building.” Astor said, then spat away hair getting blown into her face by a harsh wind. “I’ve been getting offers since this morning between five and thirty million.”
Cleo let out a low whistle, and there was a lengthy silence as Brienne mulled over all they’d seen so far. They left the laser behind, which meant they either didn’t care or didn’t have time to grab it. But why use a laser? Probably because they were up-and-comers and couldn’t afford a sniper rifle. But why not have ‘Eyana’ step in and threaten them directly? Did she need to get a car or subdue a witness or something? Why show up that prepared? Something didn’t add up.
“I see them gears turning.” Eyana said, and Brienne turned to find her smiling warmly. She gave her a soft grin in return — Eyana was such an angel when she wasn’t fuming, though Brienne didn’t mind that fuming so much either. She didn’t entirely understand her friend or her life, but she thought she deserved to fume.
“What if they used the laser pointer because they’re short on people?” Brienne asked slowly. “There’s only one to play Cleo and Eyana? That’s not much, but. . .”
“It’s something.” Eyana said now, and Brienne beamed quietly.
“I can ask around in regards to a team of three.” Astor said. “We don’t necessarily have genders but it’s well done enough to assume it’s not men. And we know one is a light-skinned Asian woman, one has dark skin, maybe black, and who knows if my double is actually Jewish, honestly.”
“I can check security footage in the area once we get home.” Cleo offered. “Maybe catch a license plate. We might be a step behind the police on that one.”
“I’m not overly concerned with that.” Astor said. They had a decent enough relationship with the NYPD, made clear by all the crimes they’d very obviously committed and were never charged with. They didn’t have a tight grip like Beaumarchais or something, but it was enough to keep them safe in the penthouse. Eyana always said it was the money that put them in an exclusive circle where crime was basically legal so long as the public didn’t make a fuss, and despite being somewhat of a menace no one had fought back against them just yet. “Maybe they’ll find something that’ll pull this investigation away from us. The chutzpa. Unbelievable.”
Cleo grinned but chose not to comment on that, likely to avoid stoking the fire. The wind whipped Brienne’s thin, dark hair around as the crowd around the hotel began to dwindle. Some kids were running around their parent’s legs and yelling on the grass a few feet off, and traffic crawled nearby. Her stomach grumbled loudly, and her face went red as she crossed her arms and folded in on herself.
“I heard that.” Astor grinned devilishly as Brienne grew even redder. “Come on, let’s go to Levain. We’ll get Eyana some good coffee. I’m sorry I didn’t believe you the first time.”
“I’m not.” Cleo said, putting an abrupt halt to Eyana’s emerging smile. “It looked just like you! Meanwhile my guy’s in a beret like I’m an old-timey French soldier.”
“That’s your first thought when you see a beret?” Eyana asked, brows raised, and Brienne giggled. “Not a mime? Not a douchey Hollywood type? Baby that don’t make no sense.”
“Okay, so I’m supposed to live my life like it’s the noughties and everyone in a dumb hat is an eccentric director?” They asked defensively. “Don’t take me back to those days.”
“Fuck you.” Eyana replied blithely. “Astor, you got my forgiveness. Let’s get some cookies.”
The four of them again hopped the subway for another short ride, then stood on the line outside Levain Bakery teasing Brienne for her loud stomach. When they eventually got in Astor treated them to a score of cookies, cakes and coffee all around. They stood on the sidewalk to eat and drink, cupping their coffee to keep their fingers from going numb. A few people peered at them suspiciously, but Cleo mercilessly mocked a man vaping nearby and eased the tensions considerably.
Everyone was full and chipper by the time they grabbed the train again, and it wasn’t long before they’d returned to the Upper West Side, where they heard the clip-clop of horse’s hooves echoing down the street. Central Park was gorgeous in orange and gold, and the air smelled sharp with cold and smoke. They were three blocks from home, but as they walked closer the smoke started to blacken the cloudless sky, and smell less like a fireplace and more so like something foul and suspicious. Astor stopped dead in her tracks in the middle of the sidewalk, something that would normally cause any New Yorker to start yelling, but Brienne only followed her sightline up to the penthouse and the thick smoke billowing out the windows.
“Oh my god.” Eyana said in a choked tone. Astor gulped audibly, and Brienne could see her mind racing.
“My rig! Boss!” Cleo yelled with unexpected alarm. “My whole system is up there! Everything, all of it!”
“Stuff we need?” Astor asked, and Cleo nodded fervently. “Secured information?”
“There’s so much shit I didn’t back up.” Cleo said, and Brienne knew it was all incriminating, either against them or what they were holding over someone else’s head. “I need to go up there.”
“You’re willing to risk your life for it?” Astor looked them square in the eye to really drive home the gravity of the situation, and Cleo nodded firmly, expression stern. “Go.”
“Let me come with you.” Brienne said, and Cleo hesitated. They were concerned despite that common outwards aloofness, and though Brienne knew that she was touched nonetheless. “Don’t worry about me! You’ll need an extra set of hands to carry stuff out anyway!”
“We’ll monitor the situation from the ground.” Astor reassured them as sirens began to blare, and Eyana nodded with a furious expression. “Don’t you fucking dare risk your lives for anything that isn’t necessary.”
“Gotcha.” Cleo said, then rushed off. Brienne was quick to follow, her heart racing. This place hadn’t been her home for long, she’d only joined up two years ago, but her childhood apartment was gone, and everything she owned and loved was burning. After a life of food stamps and second-hand clothes she clung to shelter, recognized the struggle and importance of having any, and now shelter had gone from her. She felt like she’d taken a large coat off and was a little more exposed now. As she ran off just behind Cleo, she heard Eyana speak, her words shaking with rage.
“First they steal art in our name, then they burn our house down? Who the fuck are these people?” And Brienne could only wonder the same.