The ferry ride was familiar. Salt and petrol lingered in the air as Astor sat next to Brienne at the front of the little orange ship, the wind whipping her curls and her friend’s pin straight hair. Cleo was at the stern within eyeshot of Eyana, who was stalking up and down the ship with a dark expression, ready to catch anyone following them to the second safe-house, and Astor didn’t envy anyone she might. Far fewer people knew about this seldom used run-down colonial a few blocks from Astor’s childhood home, unknown to her the past few years since her parents retired to Florida.
She wanted the solid location in her hometown to give her some comfort, distract her from the looming danger over her team. Something was threatening them, something big. Apprehension tightened the muscles in her chest and rooted her to her plastic chair when perhaps she should’ve been looking around for a tail just like Eyana. Instead she sat with Brienne, whose silence she valued at times like these, and whose sweetness she valued always.
The ride felt as long as the day, and the sun was low and warming one side of Astor’s frozen face by the time they got to port. She shielded her eyes from its orange glare as she and Brienne trailed out with the rest of the commuters, eventually finding the rest of the gang on the sidewalk admiring the city’s skyline in the distance, the way it glittered in the late-day glow. Astor stood beside them and took in the Verrazzano bridge anyone could cross if they wanted to avoid the gang on the ferry. Eyana shook her head in her direction, and wordlessly the group found a taxi and made their way to the heart of the island.
The brick colonial they walked to after being dropped off a few blocks away had one tree left after Sandy, and even that looked to be rotting. The gutters had all fallen off, there was moss on the roof, and the wooden stairs leading to the front door were weathered and caved in. Astor pulled out her keys and the rest of them pulled out their guns, and they walked through cobwebs that weren’t cotton like the neighbor’s to find even more dust inside than the last safe-house — it was seemingly undisturbed, but Eyana was quick to prowl through the living room as Brienne went up the stairs with Cleo. The blinds were closed and Astor kept them that way as she shut the door behind her and locked all three locks. She tested the faucet in the kitchen (no water) and waited for the three of them to return. When they did Brienne and Cleo had put their things down and Eyana looked nominally soothed by the lack of intruders.
“I’m not sure if we have power, but no one’s turning a light on anyway.” Astor set the small bag of food from the last apartment on the kitchen table. “We are way on lockdown. Let me know which of you gets tired first, because we’re sleeping in shifts.”
“We should be careful near the windows as well.” Brienne added. “No one can rule out a sniper.”
“Is anyone really going to kill us?” Cleo asked, echoing Astor’s thoughts. “Why burn an apartment you know is empty? Why chase someone when—”
“When you’re the least safe as you’re on the move. They could’ve finished the job the second we left.” Eyana finished. “Yo, I hear what you’re saying, but I ain’t about to rule out getting killed. They might take things too far without wanting to and kill us ‘cause they gotta.”
“Yous are both right. Be careful looking out the windows, but still check.” Cleo smirked at her accent — the Italian-American ‘yous’ took on a nasal ‘yuz’ quality in Staten Island — and Astor pinched the bridge of her pointed nose. “We gotsta protect ourselves on this one.”
“If there is power should I at least get back to that parking garage stuff?” Cleo asked without a great deal of confidence, and Astor shook her head.
“Check the Port Authority footage from when we got off the ferry today, if you can. See if anyone seems to be following us.” She said, and Cleo took off up the stairs. Brienne poked around in the kitchen cabinets a moment, then pulled out a roll of duct tape and gave Astor a playfully dry look as if she expected nothing less. She followed Cleo upstairs, and Astor could only suppose she would be taping towels and blankets over the windows to keep the faint glow of a monitor hidden.
“I’ll try to keep a lookout from all sides.” Eyana said, and crept over to the kitchen sink to peek through the window above it. She tested the faucet and found no water pouring from it. “Aight, guess we ain’t using toilets.”
“The water main’s at the curb, we can’t risk it.” Astor pulled out her phone: she was still getting messages about the hotel painting, an event that already seemed so far in the rear view it was like something she’d read in the news a week ago (and with the news lately a week felt like three). And there was a missed call with no voicemail from Tate. “I’m gonna make a call. I’ll help you look in a minute.”
She walked back past the stairs and into the dining room, where cobwebs fell eerily from the ceiling to a candelabra sat on an ugly remnant of the eighties, a massive dining table in too small a room. The chairs were pleather and peeling — she was only allowed to sit on them during the holidays, when they would light the menorah and rest it in the window where the draft would always steal their little flames. Her brother would say they went out faster than birthday candles. Those were the simple days, though somehow she didn’t feel any spectacular yearning to return to them, only an urge to tap her old friend’s name and listen to the dial tone.
“Look who’s finally calling.” She heard the grin beneath her faux-stern tone. “Bitch. Pick up next time you see my name!”
She might as well have gotten straight to the point — Tate would be pissed if she were messing around and then put out news like this. “We had to abandon the safe-house.”
“You what?” Tate yelped, then lowered her voice. “There was a threat?”
“We had people circling. They traced the location somehow.” She felt an angry heat rise in her cheeks — someone was terrorizing her gang, and annoyance was an automatic reaction for her. “We had to shlep our shit to the second safe-house.”
“Don’t say where.” Tate said quickly. “Check everyone’s phone. Check Cleo’s stuff especially.”
“I know, though I doubt anything could be tampered with. It had to be old fashioned tailing, I can’t imagine when someone would access our phones.” She said. “We’re keeping our eyes peeled for someone around the house.”
“Okay. What can I do for you guys?” She asked, and Astor smiled softly. “I can try and track some info down without getting too much attention. And we can get you out of the city. I can secure a safe-house anywhere on the coast, have Cleo send me an encrypted email where.”
“I don’t want to run. This has barely started.”
“Yeah, maybe it was a lost cause offering.” Tate sighed. “Want me to wire you some cash? Send an arms dealer to your vicinity? Hire a security detail? But I guess they wouldn’t be super trustworthy. Fuck. What if—”
“Worry wart.” Astor cut in, and Tate snorted. “Hold off on all of that until I figure out what’s going on, okay? I’ll give you any info as soon as I have it.”
“Okay. But please, please, please stay safe. Keep yourself well hidden and protect yourself above all else.” Tate said, the concern evident in her pleading voice. “And don’t be too brave, okay? See something, shoot someone. The ol’ unofficial motto.”
“Alright, don’t plotz on me now.” Astor waved a hand, and Tate laughed her smooth, even laugh. For all her brash and careless moments Tate was calm and thoughtful, a polar opposite and just the person she needed every once and awhile. They had a mutual kick-in-the-pants relationship that applied itself well in dire situation like this. “I promise I won’t die.”
“Why would you say that? Now you’re for sure getting murdered!”
“Me? They can try it.” She beamed alone in the dark room, sharp and confident. “I’ll call when I can.”
“Please do. I’ll investigate around here without making waves. Not even ripples.” Tate vowed, and the concern leaked back into her tone. “But I’m begging you, stay safe.”
“We will.” Astor said, and hung up. Momentarily calmed, she returned to the front room and flitted through blinds with Eyana.
“Found these on the sill.” She said, and handed Astor a faded pack of Marlboro menthols. Astor held the box up to her nose and took in the stale scent, though the mint still had some sharpness. “That’s how long it’s been.”
“Back when you didn’t take a loan out for a smoke. Damn De Blasio.” She threw the box aside before she could get tempted.
They took turns walking around the house peeking through windows, Brienne joining them as Cleo hunted down answers from behind a monitor. They all got together for dinner at the old dining table, eating cold canned chickpeas with a side of jellied cranberries that caused a severe argument in regards to canned versus fresh that induced a great deal of forceful whispering on Astor’s part. Eventually they took turns sleeping and spying, with Cleo joining in when they found no one following them off the ferry. The night was colder than any of them liked, but the heat stayed off as they bundled up, and when sleep found them it came with unease and a stiff neck.
Astor slept heavy, but she heard her name so clearly she hadn’t realized she was out of it until she opened her eyes and saw a hint of light play across Eyana’s tense expression. She bolted upright — Brienne was on the floor beside her biting her nails, and Cleo shared the look Eyana did, though without that instinctual anger. She crawled over and glanced out the window Eyana was beside.
“I saw movement at night, I just didn’t know if it was a possum or some shit.” She reported dourly. “She just popped out now. It’s my copy-cat, I goddamn know it.”
“She had to be in some derelict house nearby.” Brienne said quietly, obviously exhausted. “She crossed a few lawns to get a better view.”
“Smart enough not to walk in the street. Only reason I spotted her was because she stood in front of a lighted Halloween decoration for a second too long. Shit, if we miss Halloween over this drama—”
“We’re not missing Halloween.” Astor said firmly as she watched both Brienne and Cleo go crestfallen. “That’s over a week away and we can end this now. Eyana, do you see where she is now?”
“In that area. Either in that shed or near that inflatable skeleton.”
“Is it blown up? Those give off heat.” Brienne pointed out, and Astor looked at the frost accumulating on the crispy dead grass in the yard. “She’s petite and she’s been out all night. She’ll be colder and slower than we are.”
“I like that train of thought.” Eyana suddenly looked dangerous, almost feral. She looked at Astor like she was begging to be let off leash, and her proud boss wasn’t about to disappoint.
“We take her alive. Drag her back in here and interrogate her. Still keep an eye out for her cohorts.” She turned to Cleo, who’d been silent thus far. They didn’t seem to be in the mood to disagree.
“We need a real plan. I can’t have your backs watching security feeds, there aren’t any.” They said, discomfort clear. They weren’t used to such a residential area and Astor knew in times like this they could feel a little useless, even though they tried not to show it and barely seemed to sense said emotion, just a wriggling discomfort.
“Find a hiding spot for all your equipment. Anything sensitive you have.” She ordered, but Cleo didn’t leave just yet. “We’ll haul her to the crawl space once we draw her out. Maybe I can turn on the water main.”
“Nah, they’ll smell a trap. If you wanted to turn the water on you would’ve done it at night when no one could see. We should spread out and surround her.”
“We don’t know if she’s alone. She likely isn’t.” Astor pointed out, but Eyana didn’t back down, her whole body tensed up like when Astor used to stand at the ready: she thought of those days too often when she looked Eyana’s way.
“There!” Brienne said suddenly, and Astor snapped her neck to catch a blur in the distance. She’d climbed someone’s trellis and had ducked behind the peak of a roof at the far end of the street across theirs, but Astor noted the same thing Brienne likely did — she was facing the opposite direction. Whoever these people were they hadn’t yet figured out where the safe-house was, just the vicinity.
“Okay. Eyana, you’re right. Let’s go out the back door and circle around. She’ll see us coming from her vantage point though, and I assume she’s armed. Honestly I doubt we could shake her without waking up the house she’s on, and the last thing we want is some civilian calling the cops.”
“If I didn’t see them at St. George’s they drove here on Verrazzano. Which means there would be a car nearby.” Cleo said, and answered something unspoken from Brienne. “If they’re just guessing the vicinity of the safe-house they could’ve parked farther away and walked around for awhile.”
“Or abandoned it purposefully because she knows we spotted it.” Brienne said, now on the same track. “Or there’s someone else driving it.”
“Silver two-door. I can certainly take down the driver.” Eyana practically sharpened her teeth.
“Take a breather. We need to get her off the roof.” Astor raised a hand to her chin. “I bet there’s more than one abandoned house in this area. We could sneak out here and act like we’re walking into that one. Just hold up some keys and—”
“And get sniped.” Cleo said flatly. Brienne nodded. “There are so many reasons why they would locate us and not rush over.”
“We’re probably safer sneaking up to her position on the roof.” Brienne spoke reluctantly, like she knew Astor wouldn’t like to hear it. With great sympathy she added: “Anyone else watching likely wouldn’t have eyes on her, why would they need to if they can call or use walkies?”
“Oy vey.” Astor hid her face in her hands. “Okay. Fuck, okay.”
“I’ll sneak out the back, take a long walk around, and get to the roof.” Eyana planned, a fearless glint in her eyes.
“I can take the opposite route and look around for a car.” Brienne added helpfully.
“Then Cleo, you should hide your things and keep the house secure. I’ll rush her when Eyana does.” Astor looked her dead in the eye. “You understand that there won’t be backup before I get to you. That I can’t do much from the ground anyway.”
“You can duck. I’m throwing her right off the goddamn edge.” She practically growled, and the deathly glare in her eye told Astor that her fuck around levels were zero percent. Astor nodded, and Eyana stormed to the back door, her footsteps pounding away as Brienne rushed to follow. Astor nodded to Cleo, who rushed up the stairs, then paused a moment and headed back as well.
When she got outside it seemed ever lighter, with the promise that this would warm to be a satisfactory fall day. Her breath didn’t show as she followed the trail of melted dew that a pair of heavy boots had left, and by the time she reached the front of the house she already spotted Eyana on the side of someone else’s, deftly climbing a trellis covered in dead vines. She ran her way and stopped dead in the road just as Eyana reached the top, her gun raised even though she likely could never get a shot in. The peak of the roof concealed whatever was going on until the stranger popped up unexpectedly, pure shock on her face. It was hard to see what happened next, but there was a blur, a shout, some swearing on Eyana’s part, and then Astor discovered how serious she was about throwing this girl off the edge.
It looked so horrible it was almost funny, and she ran to the side of the house just as a petite figure slammed into two full garbage cans and fell over with a groan. Astor stared at her, maybe in disbelief, as Eyana swiftly climbed back down. She made no move to stop the woman — girl, she noticed now that she was closer — from getting on her feet, clearly just focused on how seriously she was hurt. She was lucky her ankles weren’t shattered, but Astor could tell from her bent angle that at least a rib had been cracked. They met eyes for a millisecond, the girl still completely floored and trying to avoid her gaze, and then Eyana hit the ground and prowled over. The girl looked ready to flee, so Astor grabbed her arm.
“Astor, no—” She began, and then Eyana tackled her to the ground. Her fist flew with a blur and sunk into the girl’s gut. She lost all her breath and Eyana slugged her again.
“Taking my fucking face — my fucking name! — Think that shit’s funny?” She hit the girl’s chest and her eyes bugged out as she went all red.
“She’s down.” Astor cut in swiftly, then looked around. “Let’s get her inside, everyone’s about to wake up.”
They each grabbed her by an arm and hauled her away, though not before Astor spotted a duffel bag next to the garbage and hooked it around her shoulder. She barely dragged her feet, unable to fight back, but she mentioned both their names in some incoherent whining on their way back to the house. Cleo opened the door as Eyana looked around, and the three of them shuffled through quickly, opened the door beneath the stairs and threw the girl into the concrete crawl space. Cleo and Eyana jumped into the small enclosure, where the former had already placed a dining room chair, and in a minute she was tied down. The pair hopped out, the door was slammed behind them, and the girl was left in the dark.
“The car was empty.” Brienne called from the front door. When she looked at them Astor knew they were all horribly disheveled. “Did I miss all the fun?”
“I might have one of those cigarettes now.” Astor said, then looked down at the duffel bag at her side. Something was emerging from the zipper, and she opened it and pulled out a curly wig. She stared for a long moment, those curls such a familiar shape, and Cleo stepped forward and fished something out of the piles of clothing — a bottle of white foundation. The four of them met eyes, and Astor found the same shock in them that rested in that young girl’s. “What the fuck?”