Bad Town For A Pretty Face: New York, Chapter Eight

She wasn’t a thousand percent sure where she was headed when she pulled out of the gas station, but the answer presented itself eventually after a few blocks of random driving met some angry crowds. If she were paying attention she would’ve avoided Trump Tower given its pension to attract protesters, but as traffic crawled inspiration struck, and eventually she was able to get to a parking garage, grab their convenience store goodies and get out in the open. She needed a place to pace and the gang needed a moment to breathe, so the sidewalk outside Tiffany’s seemed to be a good spot.

“It’s already midday, and I know this isn’t bagels and schmear. . .” She began apologetically, but trailed off as Cleo took the bag and waved her off. They took some chips and handed it to Brienne: beside her Eyana was finishing her Arizona and Wendy’s jacket was awkwardly hiding the handcuffs linking her arms behind her back. A cop meandered by, looking at the protestors and not at them, and Astor watched idly as people walked past the Trump Tower, giving it the finger as they went. This was why she loved New York, why she couldn’t leave it even if Tate had a safe-house available to them.

Tate. What the hell were they going to do about her? There were too many variables, too many missing pieces to make any sort of accusations. One thing was for sure: Tate wasn’t herself, and this sudden cold shoulder was suspicious. And telling them to go back to the safe-house? When they’d just informed her it was compromised? It wasn’t like her to be so inattentive, so thoughtless. The gang’s safety was always her priority to the point Astor knew — no matter what nonsense had come between them — this wasn’t malicious, so something else must have been on her mind.

“I want to go over what we know so far.” She announced, and her team immediately looked to her for direction. “From the beginning. Wendy robbed the bodega in disguise as Eyana.”

“Then she robbed the hotel as everyone.” Cleo said through a mouthful of chips as Eyana crossed her arms and knit her brow at the memory — she always did hold a grudge. “Then we went to investigate in the morning and someone arsoned the penthouse while we were gone.”

“We’re missing something.” Brienne said as she fished through the bag, then turned to Wendy, who could hold nothing. “Why the hotel?”

“‘Cuz it’s smart.” Eyana cut in. Maybe she was too quick to realize she was complimenting the girl, but more than likely she thought the praise was due despite the bitter taste it left them all. “Fancy place, lower security than a museum, but they still got a high value target.”

“Yeah — I mean thank you for noticing — work smart, not hard, ya know?” Wendy giggled nervously as Astor put on her patient face. She normally did everything at a pace, including make conversation, but this suburban girl shared all her thoughts, even the ones that didn’t necessarily matter to the task at hand. And yet she was taking care to get used to it. “I mean, I thought of the hotel because I was thinking of one of the shareholders. I tailed him once and when I was picking up my pay I was thinking about it and the hotel and I couldn’t remember how you guys connected to him, but then I was just focused on how cool—”

“We don’t have a connection with any of the shareholders of that hotel.” Cleo cut in, and Wendy paused to think about that.

“You were picking up your pay?” Astor questioned, and Wendy nodded easily.

“For the bodega robbery.”

“Wait.” Eyana looked incredulous as the can of tea in her hand was crushed. “You were paid to do the robbery? That wasn’t your idea? Boss, I fucking told you this girl ain’t working solo!”

“He didn’t know who he was hiring!” Wendy said quickly, alarmed. “Me or you or whoever! I was going to practice anyway, I might as well practice and get paid.”

“It’s pretty common to hire a freelancer through the network not knowing who you’re gonna get, honestly.” Astor admitted. “And I’m guessing you don’t know who hired you and the number you contacted is probably already gone, a disposable burner changed out routinely.”

“Yeah. The only thing I knew was that you guys were protecting the place, and I didn’t know that until I was robbing it — sorry — and then I picked up the cash in an alley later and somehow it reminded me of the hotelier dude. But that was a different guy hiring me though.” Wendy said, all in one breath as Astor was quickly acclimating to, but she shook her head at that first part.

“We weren’t protecting that bodega.” Astor said, and Wendy opened her mouth not to argue, but maybe to defend herself. “It’s okay, you’re not in trouble, we just weren’t involved in that building. Maybe — I don’t want to say you’re confused—”

“The owner.” Brienne interrupted, though she was wont to do so. “He was confused. He thought you were a different girl from a different gang.”

Astor nodded after a moment, and Wendy looked visibly relieved, but something felt off about that. If she was dressed as Eyana, acting like Eyana, doing an admittedly very good job of it, why would a man think she was someone else, especially if other witnesses had identified her as a part of Astor’s gang? But everyone else was nodding — Brienne obviously just to be kind, Eyana maybe doing the same without realizing it, Cleo with great distraction. If it made sense to them she’d drop it for the time being.

“So that doesn’t help us at all.” Eyana said. “All we got is those dudes tracking us to the safe-houses, and if Wendy’s for-hire and don’t know shit about her jobs then we could be looking at the same shit with them.”

“Do you think maybe those two heists have some sort of hidden connection?” Brienne asked, and Astor felt a flare of annoyance at the word ‘maybe’ — she was rapidly getting sick of it. “Some importance none of us realize?”

“Something damning to Tate?” Cleo asked. “Something she was meddling in?”

“Do you think she could’ve arsoned the apartment?” Wendy asked, too curious to use caution with such a sensitive topic. A heavy silence made it clear how little anyone wanted to consider that. Their boss was distant by design, which meant that sure, maybe she could get into some shit without them knowing about it, but the thought of said shit being reckless or damaging — she knew her friend, knew her to take necessary risks, but in that they were usually a pair. It was hard to understand if Tate was going behind their backs or if she was in trouble or if they all were. 

“Tate would never hurt us.” She said, and clenched her fists as everyone else was quick to nod, save their observer/hostage. “Tate. Would. Never. Hurt. Us. We don’t know what’s going on, we don’t know what this is.”

“It’s not fucking good.” Eyana stated the obvious. “We don’t got a safe-house. All our cash is stuffed in your pocket. And, in case you ain’t fucking noticed, we’re still baby-sitting a hostage!”

A cop looked their way and everyone pointedly looked around, faux nonchalant to the extreme. Wendy stared at the ground with an intensity like she was psychically willing him to leave. After a moment he seemed to focus his attention back on the harmless protestors and Astor gave Eyana the only reply she could.

“Okay, so we don’t have a safe-house right now. We’re a little low on cha-ching. And Wendy’s still with us. Just because we’re kinda down doesn’t mean we’re at rock bottom.”

“We’re not completely, hopelessly fucked.” Cleo added, and a smile creeped onto Eyana’s stony expression. “I just wish there were something I could do. Usually I have more control.”

“We all do, I think.” Brienne said, and gently prodded Cleo’s arm. “You’re temporarily out of commission. You’re still the best of the best.”

“But what’s the plan?” Eyana asked insistently, her gaze hard and even. It was the only thing about her that made Astor initially suspect her of really turning her back on them, of knocking over that bodega when they had a rule against going solo. It wasn’t just her rough past, hell, they all had that to a degree — it was her strength, her boldness, her take-no-shit attitude. It was what made her so dangerous, made her such an asset.

“That depends on you.” She said, but looked to Wendy. When the girl looked up she knew she’d caught her meaning, and clearly mulled over her words a moment.

“You said Tate would never hurt you.” She shifted on her feet, trying to stand straighter, lift her chin, and almost meet Astor’s eye. “For different reasons, I wouldn’t either. No, I’ll do whatever I can to help. Whatever you’ll allow me to.”

“Oh, so now we’re keen on boundaries.” Cleo said flatly, and Wendy seemed to miss the smallest, teasing smile beginning to form, but didn’t bow her head. No one could say she didn’t have guts, or that she wasn’t a huge talent. Brienne looked at Astor in her understated way — not pleading, not judgmental, but like she knew exactly what needed to be done here and she was quietly encouraging her boss to make the proper choice. Beside her Eyana looked begrudgingly impressed and Astor knew the kid grew on her quickly, just like the rest of the team. Another reason to trust her: she knew a danger when she saw one, but she also knew an asset. An asset gelled with the rest of the gang; an asset was brave in the face of turmoil, the face of kidnappers and fallen idols; an asset didn’t underestimate Astor’s gang for a minute.

“Brienne.” She reached into her back pocket and tossed her a key she caught deftly. “Uncuff her.”

“Gotcha.” She reached behind Wendy’s back as she began to beam. Astor nodded her way with an unexpected sense of pride.

“You’re officially our consultation. Not a hostage. And you’ll be paid handsomely once you help us fix this.” She said, and a smile lit up Wendy’s expression. “And I believe you can.”

“We all do.” Brienne said quietly as she pulled the handcuffs away. Wendy rubbed her wrists appreciatively.

“I’m not a hundred percent.” Cleo admitted with a quirk of their brow. Brienne obviously fought a frown and Eyana shot them a look. “Ninety nine, okay? How’s that?”

“It’s enough.” Eyana said, and looked back to Astor, now as a leader to depend on, not to push. Astor took the cue and stood straight.

“Tate would never hurt us.” She repeated. “But she would weaken us. I know, we all know, that when she wants something accomplished she can get cold. And she can get risky.”

“Ew.” Cleo groaned.

“She said risky. Not risqué.” Eyana said, and Wendy appeared to be taking mental notes with rapt attention.

“Anyway.” Astor spoke up with a flourish of her hands. “I have a few ideas in mind as to how she would do that and a few more as to how we could counter it. Get in the car. We should find some place a little more private to discuss this.”

“I dunno, that pig didn’t mind the kidnapping remark.” Eyana said, but moved towards Wendy’s car regardless. Astor took a step forward, hesitated, then caught Brienne’s eye. She paused and seemingly understood the concern.

“Um — would anyone be mad if we stopped at a Duane Reade somewhere along the way?” She asked, and Cleo shrugged. “I’m just dying without a hair tie.”

“I have some in my duffel bag.” Wendy piped up. “And cleanser, makeup remover. Whatever you need.”

“We can stop.” Astor said and went for the driver’s seat. “You’ll all probably want toothbrushes at some point.”

“I’d sure as hell appreciate that.” Cleo said, and lead Eyana and Wendy to the back seat. “Brienne, take the passenger’s, we’ll chill out with the radio and the parking meter.”

“I’ll go in, too.” Astor said in a way she hoped seemed half to herself. “I need tampons.”

“You ain’t gonna offer those up?” Eyana asked, and Cleo cackled.

“Are you?” Wendy asked with a grin, and Cleo laughed harder.

They drove a block to Duane Reade, which was the usual distance required to access a Duane Reade. Astor parked by a meter and walked in with Brienne, trying to appear nonchalant. When they were alone in the small pharmacy Astor grabbed a shopping basket and turned to Brienne in order to make her concern clear.

“You gonna be okay?” She asked, and Brienne nodded. So small and well-mannered, but she wasn’t about to let her polite her way into a bad situation. “Don’t bullshit me, Bee.”

“I’m okay.” She insisted gently. “You need your gang. The whole gang.”

“If sending you off is the safest option—” She began, and Brienne looked away. She wasn’t one to argue, but this clearly wasn’t her favorite conversation. “I don’t want you unnecessarily endangered. Not now.”

“We’re all in danger.” She looked back up at her boss, her expression determined. “I’m not about to leave all of you and the new girl to it. You didn’t accept the Myrtle Beach invite and neither will I.”

“I could never leave New York.” Astor said, sadness tinging her tone. Brienne’s capable look faltered, but Astor knew the truth: this girl was good, as good as always and constantly getting better. And outside that sweetness, beneath that concern for her team, she had to know how big the coming storm was, how interesting a job they were about to pull. Brienne wouldn’t miss that for anything, her own health and safety be damned. “Okay. That’s fair.”

“Taking notes from Eyana.” She smiled weakly, and when she turned and went down an aisle Astor thought, for one gut-wrenching moment, she heard a sniffle. She wanted all this fixed and over. She wanted her team and their new consult safe so they could all move on with their lives, whatever direction they might go. She felt a rage she’d been lost without rise in her chest, an old friend come home. A rage against whatever was happening, against all outside forces against them, against Tate’s odd behavior, against the trepidation that faced them at every turn, the feeling that they needed to brace for impact.

They needed to be extreme. They needed to save themselves. And Astor was willing to funnel all of her power and all of her anger into just that.

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