She hadn’t even seen Eyana coming. She was looking the other way at a black car she thought was now keeping a distance from Astor and the gang when the previous day it had gotten far too close to the first safe-house. Then a shadow loomed over her and she bounced to her feet just in time to get sucker-punched and thrown off the second story of a house. When she climbed off of two garbage cans, somehow alive despite a sharp pain in her side, The Astor Belladini (The! Astor! Belladini!) was staring at her with a faint amusement that burned her cheeks. Eyana kicking her ass shortly after didn’t help matters.
Satisfaction did come when they dragged her to the safe-house right across the street though. She was close! She had no idea where they’d hidden out and had spent the night zig-zagging through suburban roads until she spotted that black car. Whoever was hidden behind those tinted windows was smart enough to hang back this time (they couldn’t see the safe-house, but the gang would’ve had to pass them to get back to the ferry) so she got out of her car and walked around for awhile. She should’ve known they’d be staying someplace so forsaken — they probably hadn’t needed their backup place in years.
Cleo and Eyana tied her up in the crawl space, a small concrete area beneath the floorboards that smelled heavily of dust and mildew. Remembering Sandy made her dread the amount of mold she was likely breathing in, but she only sat in the dark for a few minutes before the door reopened. It was a drop down, you had to climb in and out, so Brienne dropped a chair down and Astor stepped in after, then rolled it in front of her. Eyana followed her boss in, glowering in her tracksuit and slamming her heavy boots against the ground. This close Wendy was still confident she nailed it, which pleased her incredibly despite all the shock, fear and embarrassment she was currently enduring.
“Okay. Let’s see here.” Astor sat down in front of her and gave her a matronly look of disappointment. “You’ve been a busy girl these last few days, huh? What’s your name?”
“Wendy.” Astor nodded patiently as Eyana glowered at her.
“Wendy. I have some questions for you, Wendy. And I admit, if you don’t answer them for me things are going to devolve in unpleasant fashion.” She said, and Wendy brightened and nodded.
“Oh, I’ll tell you everything you need. You guys have been through so much, I can’t imagine. I mean—” She flushed. “I can, I’ve been here the whole time, but still. Crazy.”
“Right. Yeah, it is crazy. We saw our friend here on the news and were pretty confused.” Astor nodded Eyana’s way, whose frown signified she was angrier about it than Wendy had anticipated. “And then we saw all of us on the news a little bit later stealing that painting. Kudos to your crew, kiddo, I’m getting big money offers on that one.”
“Offers you can’t collect on.” Eyana practically spat.
“Oh. Um, do you want it?” She offered meekly, and Astor tilted her head. “The painting? I kinda wanted a souvenir, but I guess you can have it. The experience was enough, actually. It was so much fun, I get why you guys take those so much. Like, that must be so much more exciting than blackmail and junk. Not that that’s tedious. I just mean—”
“Shut the fuck up. Tryna distract us or something.” Eyana leaned into her personal space, and she pressed her back against the chair and looked down. “You think your gang is gonna find you in here? You think they could fuck us up? In your dreams.”
“We need more names than yours, kid.” Astor said before Wendy could correct her. “A motive would be particularly helpful, too.”
“I — I don’t—”
“Why did you burn down our apartment?” Eyana asked, and Wendy slowly shook her head. “Fucking talk! We ain’t gonna be this nice for long!”
“I didn’t! Oh my gosh, of course I didn’t! Oh no, have you guys thought that was me this whole time?” She asked, and couldn’t bear to look at Eyana’s face to spot a reaction. “No! I was at the diner, I saw it on the news!”
“My — I don’t—”
“Your crew that fucking pretends to be us for shits and giggles—”
“Back off.” Astor ordered suddenly, and Eyana pushed Wendy’s chair into the wall, then took three steps back. She realized she’d been tearing up. “Yeah, see how overwhelming this can be? Now why don’t you tell us everything quick and neat.”
“I — I’m so sorry, I thought you wouldn’t care — or I hoped you’d be impressed, maybe. I don’t know. I saw I had a talent, I wanted to use it, I figured out a way to honor you guys with it. I’m just — I’m such a huge fan, I think you guys are so cool.” She stammered, and Astor gave her a look she couldn’t read. “I practiced with the bodega and thought the painting would be cool because it’s classic New York, just like you guys. Like the idea of gangs in this city, it’s so eternal and iconic it must be so cool being a part of that that I just wanted a — a taste? I don’t—”
“Okay, okay. The hotel. The painting. Who else was with you?” Astor asked, and Wendy paused. “The other members of the gang.”
“The other — no, I play all of you.” She said, and both Eyana and Astor stared at her in a too-familiar fashion. She wriggled beneath the ropes. “Are you mad? I was just trying to honor you. Have some fun. It’s — do you know what LARPing is?”
“LARPing?” Astor half muttered. The door opened suddenly, and Cleo leaned in to stare at her and say — in a flat tone that she believed she had in the past successfully replicated — “Live Action Role Play.”
“Role play? Is this a bit?” Eyana asked, and Wendy had no answer for her as Cleo retreated. “Listen. What is the fucking point of this? What do you get from copying us? Who is paying you? Who is playing with you?”
“No one, no one, nothing, to have fun.” She answered, her voice shaky, and the little room went silent. This was not the meeting she’d wanted. She wasn’t dumb despite past claims, she knew these women were the most dangerous in the city, but she’d hoped for more time to make tribute to them so they could fully admire it. They seemed to be insulted more than anything, a horrible disappointment. And since she’d seen their safe-house she could only assume she was about to be murdered, so she couldn’t even make it up to them. It was a little difficult to see the silver lining on this one.
“The white foundation. The curly wig. There was some other make-up, a fake nose, etcetera.” Astor said slowly. “You’ve been me? And Brienne? All in one go?”
“I cut the power. When it’s dark people don’t know. They wouldn’t think to suspect swap-outs.” Wendy explained easily. “You just have to plan it right. I’m good at that. I think things out when other people — I don’t know.”
“Think different.” Astor supplemented, and Wendy nodded. “You’re from Long Island? How old are you?”
“Can we talk for a sec?” Eyana cut in, and when Wendy glanced her way she was still fuming. Astor stood wordlessly and the pair climbed out and shut the door behind them. This time they left her longer and the darkness permeated into her eyes. It was maybe ten minutes before the door reopened and Astor returned with Brienne. She perked up slightly — Brienne she knew the least about, and it would be nice to quench some thirst for knowledge in what were likely her final hours. Hey, she found the silver lining!
“Hey Wendy. My name’s Brienne. You know, we were all really impressed by your last move. The painting. And now that we know it was just one person doing it we’re really blown away.” She said. Astor sat down with a blank face, and Wendy hoped they weren’t doing what she thought they were: talking down. Once people figured it out they often did. “But what happened after that? It was just coincidence that our apartment was arsoned?”
“I guess.” Wendy said, and Brienne gave her a long look. “You think I’m stupid.”
“I think you’re confused.” Astor said, and Wendy very unexpectedly felt tears in her eyes once more. “Maybe someone spoke to you, convinced you—”
“You think I’m stupid.” She said again, her cheeks warm. “People do. Or they think I’m like freaking Sheldon. Or that I’m a robot who can’t read emotions. Or a vaccine did this to me. Just because I’m autistic I don’t get to be a normal person? Sometimes I get overwhelmed by crowds or yelling or whatever else you freaks tolerate. What does that mean, I can’t commit my own crimes?”
“No, no — I — you’re right. You’re completely right, I apologize.” Astor was the one tripping on her words now, and yet it gave Wendy no satisfaction. She had that speech memorized, though often it was too exhausting to whip it out. But these women were her icons, this unpleasantry had to be done. Beside her, Brienne bent her head, her expression concealed by a curtain of dark hair. “But someone burnt down our apartment.”
“Probably the guys watching the house right now.” Wendy suggested tersely, and Brienne stared at her while Astor placed her head in her hands. A slam came from the other side of the door.
“Maybe you should have started with that.” Brienne recommended softly, but with a smile that made Wendy think she was holding back a laugh. “So this one’s compromised too, huh?”
“They’re keeping their distance this time. They can’t see the house, but they’ll know when you head back to the ferry.” She said, and Astor didn’t lift her head to speak again.
“And do you have any association with these people? Any clue who they are?” She asked, and Wendy shook her head. “Okay. I think that’s all the questions we have for now.”
She stood and Brienne followed her back to the door with a finality that cowered any questions Wendy wanted to ask in turn; ‘are you about to kill me,’ ‘do I have to die on Staten Island,’ ‘can I get an autograph’ being her main three. When the door opened Cleo gave her an apathetic glance, and when it slammed shut she strained her ears to learn something, anything of interest before she bit the bullet. Eyana was yelling (shocker) something like “I don’t trust like that” for a few minutes before Astor’s nasal tone came through with a string of swears that made Wendy redden. Then someone, maybe Cleo, ran up the stairs, and there were several lengthy minutes of silence. She didn’t expect the door to reopen so soon.
“—Would spot a taxi—” Astor was saying to someone behind her, then looked her way. “A mile down? Port-wards?”
“It’s bullshit, boss! She could be working with someone!” Eyana yelled from the hall. “This is a fucking setup!”
“Do not fucking dissent in front of the captive. Makes us look messy.” Astor snapped. “We can steal a car and circle around the island and hopefully get out undetected.”
“And leave us without a safe-house.” Brienne pointed out as she descended into the crawlspace. “Didn’t Tate say — never mind. It can’t be denied that someone’s after us.”
“Don’t try anything.” Astor said then, and stepped forward. Her hair tickled Wendy’s face as she bent behind the chair. In a moment of confusion and maybe too much hope she felt the ropes go slack and looked up to Astor’s expression, her brow knit with her typical temper. She would be a hard person to read with or without Wendy’s disadvantage, but she read the situation just fine when her wrists were grabbed and a click of handcuffs just like what she’d heard in the movies sounded in time with cold metal touching her skin. They were moving her when they could have shot her in the chair, which meant she wasn’t being killed, she was getting kidnapped! That was better than anything she could have asked for — a chance to watch the gang in action! And maybe even a shot at helping them.
“We’re taking my car?” She guessed, and Eyana stepped into the doorway and jingled her keys. The wicked grin on her face suggested to Wendy that she was getting thrown in the trunk.
“It’s very possible we — I mean, Wendy’s ‘we’ — weren’t the only ones after the painting.” Brienne continued quietly, in her own world. Astor looked Eyana’s way as she hauled Wendy to her feet, which was not difficult for a woman always running on rage-adrenaline.
“Have you done petty stuff before this?” She asked, and turned to the girls when Wendy nodded. “That’s how she got the first safe-house location. That guy we caught copying our keys.”
“Could he be following you?” She asked, and Eyana was the one to answer, her words short and sizzling.
“We killed that fucker ages ago. Took all the copies we believed existed. But that doesn’t mean there ain’t another gang tryna pull some shit.”
“Who owns that painting?” Brienne asked suddenly.
“Who owns the hotel?”
“Wealthy shareholders.” Astor caught her drift. “Maybe someone who got a call in the night and put out a hit in the morning.”
“Then we chalk all this not-murdering up to incompetence? I dunno if I buy that.” Eyana said as Cleo’s tread descended the stairs. But she took a deep breath and gave Astor a begrudging nod, an interesting note for Wendy’s mental legal pad. “But it’s a lead, so I’ll follow you to it.”
“I’ll help you with those, Cleo.” Brienne called, and retreated to the door. Eyana handed her Wendy’s keys and hopped into the crawlspace with a hard stomp of her feet.
“I’ll help you take her to the car.” She said, every word a threat, and Astor shoved Wendy her way, though with less force than she could have. “You’re sure about this?”
“She may have more to say. We’re not getting rid of our only source of information just yet.” Astor replied with great authority, and Wendy heard that just yet tacked on the end loud and clear. On the upside, they must have considered her either useful or a liability, and they were treating her like they would any other hostage. Equality didn’t seem the proper word here, but it fit enough to leave a bitter taste in her mouth.
Eyana dragged her by the elbow and pulled her through the house, which looked even more run-down than on the way in: she had to question how anyone could’ve found something so out of use without following Astor. Or worse, following her. She hadn’t seen anyone behind her on the bridge, but that didn’t mean they weren’t there. When the pair stepped out the door she found the day sunny and warm, the perfect fall weather, and that her coupe had been pulled up to the curb. Cleo and Brienne were loading up the trunk with boxes of CDs, USBs and whatever other tech Cleo needed to take out the power at the Met, 30 Rock, Lincoln Center, or wherever else the group might steal an expensive, soon to be sorely missed goodie.
“Trunk’s taken.” Eyana flashed her teeth and pushed her over the folded driver’s seat, then climbed in the back with her. Wendy’s arms were already mottled red and the pain in her side had never faded, though at least she could bend over now to accommodate it. “Guess you’re stuck in here with me.”
“With both of us.” Brienne climbed over the passenger’s seat and Wendy was sat between them, one looking murderous and the other curious with a paltry smile, not enough to assure any faith. She tried not to fidget in the unpleasantly cramped quarters. “Whom you apparently know much about.”
“No, not really.” Wendy said honestly, though if her words were bold they were contained by her fear of the menace to her left. “I know you’re from Queens. I know you’re good at your job. But you’re different somehow. You’re a stranger.”
Something passed on her face like carsickness, and Eyana went rigid, but quickly the front chairs were righted and Astor and Cleo hopped into her car to whisk her away to unknown places. They both glanced at her in the rearview mirror, with anger, curiosity, and other intents that Wendy just couldn’t place, and though they seemed unawares the atmosphere of the car suddenly felt just a few inches off-kilter.