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

South took them down to Tribeca, at which point she was directed east to City Hall, then south again to the Brooklyn Bridge and out over the water to Long Island. It was well into the evening when they finally stopped on a residential road in Queens, finally convinced they’d lost Tate’s goons in the traffic. They’d dumped all their phones a ways back, and Cleo was combing through the surviving tech from the apartment for bugs, but had thankfully come up empty thus far. The road was lined with cars, and they all sat quietly, heat blasting, until a man exited a nearby apartment building and unlocked the door of a nondescript Honda Civic.

“Drop the keys.” Astor hopped out, gun raised, and the guy sighed like this was just his luck. His breath fogged as he put his hands on the back of his head, the keys now on the ground. “You poor schmoe.”

The rest of them carried their things into the man’s car, and after a few minutes Astor handed him the keys to the bloody, shot up SUV they’d been driving, which probably didn’t placate him much. When they all got in Wendy took the driver’s seat, and they took Northern State Parkway for over an hour in complete silence, all the way east past Queens, past Nassau County, all the way through Middle Island to Calverton, a well-to-do town Astor wasn’t overly familiar with. She knew it wasn’t insanely wealthy like the Hamptons she’d have to go a little further to reach, but it was one of the cushier parts of the island. That became even more apparent when Wendy turned down a residential street filled with newer homes, the boxy kind with beige vinyl siding and elaborate Halloween decorations — whole hay bales and rows of jack-o-lanterns fanned by Indian corn.

“You must have gone to Splish Splash all the time when you were a kid.” Cleo said from the back seat, and the other two youths in the car oohed and aahed at the local water park.

“Not really.” Wendy squirmed in her seat. “It was always loud. I — I didn’t like when my mom put sunscreen on me.”

She turned onto a cracked asphalt driveway that didn’t match the street. The garden had clearly been full of weeds even before the frost took them, and there were no mums on the porch like all the other neighbors’. The siding badly needed a power-wash and the garage door hung crooked like it wouldn’t open with a remote, but it didn’t look entirely abandoned, so Astor said nothing as Wendy parked and helped collect their things. She lead them up creaky steps and opened the door to a dark house, then stepped in without turning the lights on. Astor would’ve asked if she’d been squatting if she hadn’t seen photos of her on the wall: slightly younger, in a gown with a diploma in hand, a pre-teen with a pretty woman who looked just like her, a little girl in a mermaid outfit in front of the house they stood in, only fresh and maintained. She followed Wendy further in, who set her duffel bag down on a couch that was as quaint and worn as the rest of the furnishings.

“Thank you for letting us stay here, Wendy.” Brienne spoke softly as Eyana shut the door behind her. “Do you live alone?”

“Of course.” Wendy lit a match from a box on the entryway table and set a candle alight. “I wouldn’t let anyone interfere with you guys’ business. Come on, I have some stuff in the kitchen.”

Astor was admittedly starved, so she followed Wendy to the kitchen after she dropped Cleo’s things on the couch. The flooring was a yellowy oak throughout, and the kitchen had dark cabinets and brown granite countertops that Astor remembered being fashionable twenty years ago. Wendy went straight to the cabinets and poked around until she pulled out a big tub of peanut butter, then went to the breadbox for a squishy loaf of white bread. Eyana, Cleo and Brienne sat on stools at the breakfast counter as Astor opened a few mostly empty cabinets to find a glass. When she went for the faucet she spotted Wendy eyeing it warily, then looking relieved when the water flowed freely.

“Oof.” Astor said after a sip. “Long Island tap water.”

“What the fuck are we gonna do?” Eyana asked as she slumped against the counter. “Those guys almost fucking killed us. Tate almost killed us.”

“Yes, well, she can be rash sometimes, can’t she.” Astor accepted a peanut butter sandwich on a paper towel and slid it down to the end of the bar, where Brienne quickly dug in. “But we can’t stay here long. I’m sorry, Wendy.”

Wendy paused and looked up, and she rubbed the back of her neck.

“I didn’t want to abandon your car. The police are gonna trace the plate back to you and Tate will use her contacts in the force to get your address. We have the night, at most.”

“Okay.” Wendy spoke slowly, deterred by this. “Okay. That’s okay. We’ll just find somewhere else to go. We’ll camp. Or go on a road trip. That could be fun, I like the car when it’s not crowded. I mean, it’ll be crowded with all of you guys, but that’s fine, I’ll deal with that — who wants a sandwich?”

“Me.” Cleo said, and Wendy passed it down. Astor’s stomach was in knots. This girl was going to lose her home because of the shit show she’d wandered into: every criminal’s prepared for it, but what the hell had she done wrong? Just crossing Astor’s path was enough. And she clearly wanted to play it cool, hope they ignore it and ignore that she didn’t have electricity and they couldn’t take their coats off. “I guess we can take Brienne out on the Port Jeff ferry.”

“I’m staying.” Brienne possibly said around a mouthful of peanut butter. “You need the manpower.”

“You’ll be putting yourself in a lot of danger.” Astor warned, and Brienne gave her a look. “Fine. You’ll be putting us in danger. You’ll be a target and if you get kidnapped Tate can use you as leverage with us or your aunt.”

“She’s staying.” Cleo spoke firmly. “I don’t have the tools to watch over her, see if she gets to Chicago safely. We’re gonna act like Tate’s reach ends at the city limits? She stays with us.”

“You’re right.” Eyana said, and looked to Astor to confirm. Astor gave the group a short nod — they were all right, not that that did anything to repair her foul mood. Really it only served to infuriate her further, which Eyana must have noted: in a length of silence Wendy passed her a sandwich, and she passed it to Eyana, who passed it back to her.

“She’s really screwing us over right now.” Astor pushed the sandwich back to Eyana. “And she’s screwing Brienne over way worse. You have a future ahead of you. You could run an empire.”

“We still have time.” Brienne said, but Astor knew it wasn’t much. A few weeks, maybe. And if MacNally called Brienne home she’d be contacting Tate, not them. She’d have no way of reaching her niece at all, and might write her off. She was fickle and moody and would likely be soured by rumors that New York had fractured.

“God damnit.” Astor pounded her fist on the counter. Wendy startled and dropped her butter knife. “Fuck her. Fuck her! I can’t believe she’s doing this to us. Forcing us to run, pushing us into a corner. Into this fucking house! An innocent girl’s home! Shit!”

She wheeled away, grasping at the air and holding back a scream. She heard some shuffling and suddenly Wendy appeared in her field of vision, handing her a worn dinner plate.

“Wendy. Do you have any cigarettes in this house?” Astor felt her hands tremble at the question. Wendy shook her head and Astor snatched the plate and threw it to the ground. It shattered, she shrieked, and Wendy ran and returned with another. She threw that one, too, but it wasn’t so satisfying.

“Boss.” She heard Eyana say as Wendy rushed back to her cupboard. “I know you’ll hate to hear it, but now’s the time to keep a level head.”

She didn’t nod, but she didn’t take the next plate Wendy offered her. Even in the cold her cheeks were red, and she felt she was quaking more than shivering. When she spoke she couldn’t turn back to look at them: wasn’t all her rage supposed to be guiding, inspired? She felt drunk in a bad way, a mess tripping over herself. 

“What the fuck am I supposed to do?” She asked, and hated the whine in it. “I’m supposed to kill my best friend?”

When no one answered it was clear that murder was not an unjust sentence in their eyes. And as the leader she was the one expected to make decisions like this, though normally if she were in a bind she could always call upon her dear friend for aid. Tate had done worse than betray her — she’d stranded her with all the hard choices she never wanted to make.

“We’re all really tired. It’s been a long couple of days.” Brienne offered up then. “Let’s get to bed early and try to work something out in the morning.”

“I’m good with that. More than good.” Eyana scrunched up her napkin. “Do you — uh, do you have hot water, Wendy?”

“Yeah. I just have to—” Wendy flushed. “I have to get the grill going. It’s charcoal so it’s — I don’t have to worry about — I’ll just go start it up. Blankets! I’ll get blankets. I just have the couches, but I can find pillows, too.”

“Thanks.” Cleo stood slowly enough to reveal their exhaustion. “I’m gonna find a corner to change in. Try not to check me out, guys.”

“You can use the office.” Wendy offered, and the group began to disperse before she could really say any more. Astor shooed her away and made herself a sandwich while the team bustled around the living room, then polished it off in a second. She made one for Wendy, too, then wrapped it in a paper towel and made her way to the living room looking for her. Only Cleo and Eyana were there, each in Eyana’s sweatpants and their coats. They both stared pointedly when she entered the room, and she diverted her eyes to see a familiar painting above the fireplace, one she’d been accused of stealing two — holy shit, two days ago.

“You need to talk to her.” Eyana spoke in a hushed tone, then gave Astor a look when she felt herself hesitate. “She don’t have heat, she don’t have lights, she’s in this big house all by herself. Where’s her ma?”

“Look who cares now.”

“Fuck you.” Eyana spat, and Astor crossed the room, avoiding her eye. “She’s an ally now. Shit’s changed. And her living like this just ain’t right.”

“Her? We don’t have a fucking apartment or a safe-house or anything.” Cleo pointed out, though Astor briefly considered that if Tate were taken care of they’d have all the safety they needed. “God, you’ve gotten soft.”

“Motherfucker.” Eyana grabbed a throw pillow and smacked them with it. “Some of us are nice.”

Astor burst into laughter, and after a moment Eyana joined her. Cleo fought a smile and failed, then rolled their eyes to compensate.

“I’ll go find her.” Astor said, then took off down the hall. She spotted a home office that most certainly didn’t belong to Wendy, not without any costumes or weapons — just a dusty desk with nothing on it; a few books on a shelf that appeared to be about, how exciting, analytics; a few more on an armchair in the corner about parenting an autistic child. The next door she passed was closed, but with candlelight seeping beneath, and she assumed that was the bathroom Brienne was in. 

The third was Wendy’s bedroom, evident at a glance: the walls were a soft shade of lavender, probably painted years ago, and they were littered with photos, some of friends, some of her mother, and one grainy, distant picture of a person that might have been Cleo, save for the dirty shoes they never would have worn. There were news-clippings, too, about Bravo’s gang mostly, but some of her own antics were on display. Wendy herself was sat on the floor, on a beige carpet that was probably once cream, going through an old dresser. At Astor’s footfall she looked up, then startled a moment.

“Sorry! I thought you were Brienne. She’s borrowing a pair of PJ pants.” She pulled out a pair of fleece pants that looked hardly worn. “I hope she likes these. I hate fleece, the texture is so icky. It rubs all wrong, they’ve been in the back of this drawer for ages.”

“Then why do you have them?” Astor sat on the foot of the bed, all covered in little pink polka dots. Wendy shrugged.

“I think my mom just couldn’t remember if I liked it or not. They were on clearance, I think.” She spoke slowly, and Astor laughed.

“My mom is like that, too.” She said. “As long as it’s a deal, right?”

Wendy smiled, but went back to the pajama drawer to avoid her eye — well, avoid it more than she usually did.

“What happened?” Astor asked softly. Wendy kept her back to her.

“What always happens. People are good and kind and take care of you, then they get sick, then they get fucked over. Then they die and it’s not good enough to drive a sick woman to her grave, you’ve got to hound her kid with hospital bills and a mortgage and—” Wendy paused and took a breath. “My mom went to Yale. She was a risk analyst for some big company. That sheltered us for a long time. My whole childhood. But as soon as she was down the world came to knock her out.”

They went quiet for a moment. Astor looked around.

“What’s the property tax on this house, eight grand?”

“Twelve.” 

Astor let out a low whistle. Twelve grand, plus a mortgage that was probably at least two grand a month, plus HOA fees she undoubtedly had in such a nice neighborhood. With medical bills on top of that, then her car insurance, a phone bill, and just feeding herself, she was surprised Wendy still had the house. There must have been mountains of debt.

“You’re nineteen, right?” Astor questioned, and Wendy nodded. “You don’t remember 9/11.

“That was — a difficult time, to say the least. That’s obvious. I was seventeen. We went home from school early, had to watch it on the news. Thousands of people — it was awful, there’s not much more I can say, or want to say. And then there was this wave of patriotism that I got all swept up in, and the president was saying all this shit. Next thing I know I’m at the academy with hundreds of other soon-to-be soldiers. Men, mostly. And me, and Tate.”

“You and Tate.” 

“Yeah, me and Tate.” Astor pinched the bridge of her nose. “It wasn’t romantic. It was just — sticking together. Surviving. But that didn’t work out, and after a couple years in Afghanistan we got our asses kicked back to New York. She’s a Manhattan girl, ya know, she doesn’t get discouraged. We made different plans. Bigger and better plans.”

She looked back to Wendy, who had turned to face her. They didn’t meet eyes, but Astor knew she was listening intently.

“I was, allegedly, serving my country. That didn’t stop them from fucking me over. You’ve figured out what few people have had the great fortune and misfortune to learn — that it’s better on the outside. That you can make a real life without any rich, white, straight, Christian, male morons trying to make one for you.”

“You can make your own community, too.” Although Brienne spoke softly from the doorway, both of them startled by her presence. She seemed to blush until Astor noticed her whole face was red already. “I left everything on the counter.”

“Is that why you were taking so long?” Astor smiled as Wendy handed Brienne the pajama pants. “Is now really the time to exfoliate?”

“I feel one coming in on my jaw. If you think things are bad now—” Brienne smiled slightly, then sighed. “I’m really tired. If you guys don’t need anything else I’m going to sleep.”

“Go ahead.” Astor said, and Wendy wished her goodnight as she left the room. The room suddenly went dark — the candle Wendy had on her nightstand sputtered out, leaving only a light from the neighbor’s yard to filter in through her blinds and create a faint, slanted light across her face.

“I figured it out awhile ago. I guess losing my mom, all her savings, every opportunity I could’ve had in life — I guess those were the last straws.” Wendy grabbed a pair of pants for herself, faded pink zebra stripes on flowy cotton, then closed her drawer and stood up. “Do what you have to do, Astor. I trust whatever decision you’ll make. And I’m not saying that as a fan, I’m saying that as someone who knows you.”

Astor nodded, mostly because she wanted to look more certain than she felt, and stood to let Wendy change.

“If you guys don’t have enough blankets let me know. I showed Brienne the linen closet, too.” Wendy said, and Astor nodded wordlessly. “Goodnight, Astor.”

“Goodnight.” She left the room, suddenly exhausted, but in this dark, cold house, far far from home, she wondered if she would get any sleep at all.

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