It was long dark before they reached midtown. The traffic had been brutal from the Halloween commute. Eyana, looking very cool in a pair of velvet pants Cleo definitely once owned before the fire but then very uncool in clown makeup and a red wig had volunteered to drive: Brienne couldn’t and Astor and Wendy were too obstructed by their masks for anyone to feel safe on the Williamsburg Bridge, and Eyana allowed Cleo in her tracksuit, green face and witch hat to quietly come to terms with how stupid they felt. And how worried.
Not that they’d admit it, of course. Because Eyana looked ferocious, Brienne so small but so hopeful, and both Astors wore burning eyes. They’d keep their own expression as cool as they usually would and keep from biting their nails or wringing their hands. They’d try to look as they did before all this crap went down, when they always knew what the gang was walking into, when they were all-seeing and all-knowing. Turned out they were so used to having an eye on the city they didn’t realize they were a control freak until all their resources vanished.
The car pulled over a couple blocks from the Waldorf-Astoria, still in Hotel Row but not within eyesight. When everyone climbed out Fake Brienne loaded the meter, likely to avoid a tow with literally all their earthly possessions in this stolen mini-van. It wasn’t so humid anymore, and the night was perfect for a group in a couple layers.
“Everyone know what they’re doing?” Fake Brienne questioned, and the rest of them sort of nodded. “That instills a lot of confidence.”
“Well it ain’t the most simple shit out there.” Fake Cleo said pointedly, and the Grim Reaper tilted her head. She forced her expression flat and turned her stiff posture into a nonchalant lean. “Whatever.”
“Just listen to everything I say. I’m the boss, after all.” The Grim Reaper Astor said. She was an obvious fake and she was meant to be, a distraction for Tate and a wrinkle in the plan, one Cleo would follow to the end if need be. They believed in it, and the Astors — that wasn’t where the nerves stemmed.
“It’s so personal.” Cleo muttered, and the group looked to them. “You were named after this hotel.”
“That’s what happens when you get conceived somewhere nice.” Astor said, and Fake Cleo groaned. “My sister isn’t named Jersey City, ya know.”
“Oh my god, let’s just go.” Fake Cleo attempted to walk away, but Freddy Krueger Astor grabbed her by the arm.
“Come on, pep talk. I see the concern here. In all of you.” Cleo lowered their eyes when Astor glanced her way. “I’m not gonna lie and say this’ll be easy or fun. Or that there won’t be bloodshed. Maybe from someone we love. But we’re here because we have to be, and we’re the best people to do this. So we will, okay? We will finish this tonight, no matter what.”
It wasn’t the most upbeat speech they’d ever heard, but it was the truth and it was good of Astor to tell them so. Even if she hadn’t Cleo knew deep down this would not be a good night. Blood was going to be spilled, and it was only down to who would be strong enough to do it. Probably not them, if they admitted it, they weren’t the sharpest shooter in the world, especially compared to their teammates. But it would be someone they love, for sure.
The group set down the street towards the closed hotel, and as they walked began to morph; Astor in her mask and straightened hair walked soft as Brienne did; Brienne in a stealthy black outfit clashing with a unicorn headband and pastel tutu worn over black tights; Cleo felt themself taking over Eyana’s stomping gait as she raised her head and lowered her shoulders, so she strolled instead of marched. Wendy’s white foundation wasn’t perfect beneath her big hood and she wasn’t quite tall enough, but that was by design.
“Cleo, I’m trusting you with this.” The boss said, and handed a single grenade to Eyana. Finding out that had been in her coat pocket this entire time had not been their favorite part of breakfast that morning, but it was the weapon they needed at a time like this. Not that it would be used for such a thing.
“I’ve got it, Brienne.” Pennywise replied as they slipped it beneath their waistline. “See if anyone tries to ask what’s in my pants now.”
“A bomb, motherfucker.” Cleo barked, and Brienne smiled beneath the Freddy mask. The group rapidly approached the street, the hotel looming over them, Tate likely on the very top floor, maybe even looking down at them. Halloween revelers lined the sidewalks: hotels were event spaces after all, and many parties were being held in the area as evident from the bright lights and the blast of music. Somewhere in the distance Monster Mash was clashing wonderfully with Thriller, and a group on the corner were forming a dance-off that would have been epic if everyone involved weren’t severely intoxicated.
“Just follow the plan.” Freddie Kruger said. “It’ll all be over soon.”
The gang separated then, off to their necessary positions. Cleo made a beeline for the emergency exit that she knew led to Track 61, eyes on the lone guard stood in front of the door. Likely Tate didn’t want to draw attention. More likely there were a dozen armed men just inside. Cleo stared him down in a way they hoped Eyana would, and he fidgeted.
“Maybe you should run.” They suggested, and a bang went off on the other side of the building. They didn’t look over, though, they looked up, to the few lighted windows that had now gone dark. The other Cleo was never meant to use that grenade as a weapon: the group knew the place was under construction, there were plenty exposed wires to fuck up. Eyana had found the right ones. The guard stared at them as he took a large step back, and they could have ran for the door if they wanted to, but it would frighten them more just to stand there, so they did. Stood like a soldier, stood like Eyana would, until they were needed for better or worse. No matter what.
. . .
The building rocked and no one noticed. Wendy grinned sharply to herself and the real Astor did the same as she led the way in the main entrance, which was unlocked and lead to a grand foyer that was likewise empty, the marble beneath their feet causing an echo.
“They’re converging on Cleo.” Astor as Brienne said, her voice soft and light. Those goons probably thought she’d be an easy one to pick off, though once they’d meet with Eyana they’d find themselves mistaken.
“Let’s go.” Wendy ordered, and the two of them bypassed the non-functioning elevators for an extravagant grand staircase. “Fucking presidential suite. Honestly.”
Astor probably wanted to tell her she didn’t say honestly like that, but in-character she couldn’t argue and instead had to follow Wendy up and up and up the stairs, a dizzying amount that clearly tested real Astor’s patience, so had to test fake Astor’s, too. She swore too loud and too Staten Island and noticed, as they neared the top, doors cracked open, and maybe faces looking out. These were the better trained goons, letting them pass so there would be no way back down. They would be surrounded in a matter of moments, but Tate knew well enough this was hardly a defense against Astor. It had to be merely the first step.
A door slammed. Footsteps sounded muffled on lush red carpeting, but they came from all directions and were unmistakably male in their weight and impatience. The Astors drew their guns and fired at every movement in the dark hallway, every quick blur and glint of gunmetal. Some men cried out: many more hit the floor in silence. There had been maybe a dozen, and when it was over neither of them made a sound but for slow, heavy breathing.
“Are you okay?” Brienne whispered in the dark.
“We shoulda brought a flashlight. Honestly.” Wendy replied all nasal, and then led the way up yet even more stairs. “Be prepared for more—”
Brienne silently shoved her out of the way with tremendous strength of character — it must have taken everything for Astor not to yell. A paint can on a string swung where their heads had been, sailed past, then flew off and splattered on the new rug. Someone was going to be pissed replacing that. Freddie Krueger’s brown fedora rose up in the darkness before Wendy swiftly pushed it back down and another can of paint went sailing by.
“Fuck.” The Grim Reaper grumbled on the ground. “She’s gone full Home Alone. This is gonna be rough.”
. . .
This was maybe not the best weather for scaling a building. Not that she could really complain, it was a gorgeous night to work outdoors, but the humidity of the day had made the stone slick and she was admittedly not one hundred percent confident in Wendy’s grappling hook. But this was what the boss asked her to do, and she believed in Astor more than anything, and hopefully enough to dispel the obvious negativity radiating off an uncertain Cleo. She understood that well enough too — they were doing dangerous work.
When the building shook and went dark she swung the hook above her head like a lasso and let it fly, then tugged when it landed a few stories above her to ensure its security. She was climbing in an awkward outfit: all black for stealth but ruined by pastel tule around her waist and attached to a unicorn horn on her headband. Hopefully enough of it draped over her face so no one could spot her pale skin, because other than that she felt she made a pretty good Wendy. She had climbed onto that roof Eyana knocked her off with a great deal of dexterity, and Brienne was doing a passable job of getting up the side of this skyscraper without falling to her death.
She’d been in this hotel, too. Aunt Monet liked to switch things up for the holidays, but only when she was young. The older she got the more mailed cards she received and her mother didn’t. The more struggling she had to watch and the more her mother warned her against an enticing lifestyle. She was obedient because of course she was, but then her mom got sick and she didn’t have to play by the rules soon after. From what she understood Wendy lived a life of similar circumstance, touching luxury but never grabbing it by the throat. To hold or strangle Brienne didn’t know, but as her dirty sneakers borrowed from Wendy slipped along the edge of this five-star hotel she felt she’d found a satisfactory middle ground, and with an odd flare of confidence she knew once she hit Chicago she’d find it there too.
The climb was arduous, but she made progress and she knew it when she started to get cold, then dizzy when she looked down. Throwing the hook while leaned against a window was the hardest part, and once or twice she’d heard the shattering of glass, but no one came to bother her so she continued upwards until a long rope fell past her. She didn’t even look up, not wanting her light skin to be reflected against city lights, and instead approached the nearest window and shattered it with a punch and Wendy’s keys between her fingers. She hopped into a hotel room and jumped over the bed to huddle next to a dresser, and a moment later shots sailed through the broken glass and hit all around her. The dresser splintered and a lamp tumbled over, but she squeezed into the corner and bit her lip when she felt a sharp pain in her ear. If she kept her head down she could convince anyone who poked their head in that she was Wendy.
After a while everything went still, and all was quiet when she cautiously raised her head and saw nothing but the rope her shooter had propelled down. When she approached the window and looked up and out she saw nothing, but when she looked down spotted a thin figure masterfully making her way down the rope. Only Tate would wear such a nice dress to scale a building, which meant she was making her way to Track 61. Brienne got back in the hotel room and rushed to the door, where she found the hallway empty, then found a staircase and ran up. In a few floors she found bodies, then cans of paint on strings. Then traffic spikes, walls blown open, dwindling flames, the eye-watering vestiges of tear gas, whatever Tate could throw at the Astors to slow them down. When she raced up her final set of stairs she found them both holding what appeared to be cabinet doors, using them as shields from an apparently recent spray of shrapnel that covered the walls and stuck into the Grim Reaper’s robe.
“Good thing Freddy wears jeans and boots.” She heard almost herself say in practically a whisper. She herself had to muster up the nerve to yell like Wendy would in this moment, and planted her feet firmly to cement herself.
“Guys!” She yelled down the hall, and both turned to her with clear surprise. “Tate’s headed downstairs!”
Doors slammed open so quickly Brienne’s hair fluttered. Men came pouring out of every hotel room, apparently lying in wait for the moment they realized their boss had taken to a more secure location. She raised her gun almost before she knew she was doing so and took aim. Shots fired, men fell and emerged again.
“Wendy!” Wendy yelled, her voice nasal but commanding. “Hold on!”
‘Wendy’ was closer to the stairs, so she watched as the Grim Reaper and Freddy Krueger fired all around them, inching their way ever closer to her. They didn’t need the stairs, it would be faster to take the same rope Tate had, but she wasn’t about to yell as much with all these men around her, so she turned and whacked a knife out of the hand of a nearby goon, then pushed him into another with all her strength and watched the pair collapse. She turned to shoot a third but he was too close and she fumbled when he backhanded her hard enough to see stars. It was only a moment, but when she recovered he was on the ground.
“Fucker!” Wendy yelled, and ‘Wendy’ shot her a grateful look before turning back to the nearest man and kicking him in the groin. He made a sound like a deflating balloon but grabbed her leg when she tried to do it again. She pulled back, but her small stature was a disadvantage, and the next thing she knew she was getting thrown like a rag-doll. Her back hit the stairwell railing and she gasped at an unexpected wave of pain before she saw the man charge her with his hands extended like he was ready to choke the life out of her. There was an anger in him that she knew instinctually was aimed at Wendy, rallied under Tate’s orders. For a quarter second she was proud she’d fooled him, but as there were obviously more pressing matters at hand she instead concerned herself with flipping over the balcony and grabbing hold of the railing on the next floor.
So she had escaped that debacle for a moment, but her back was on fire and even though she could cling to the rails just fine she was struggling to pull herself up. Gunshots were ringing out above her head, and in moments she heard men’s footsteps pounding down the stairs. When she craned her neck and saw them approach she dropped again, though this time when she caught the railing she banged her chin so hard she almost let go. Something crunched in her mouth and she winced as she adjusted her jaw, which thankfully didn’t seem broken, though it certainly would be if these goons just walked down one more flight. She looked up, fearing the worst, and in a way she saw it when the Grim Reaper was suddenly flying through the air, her cloak billowing behind her. She jumped from one side of the staircase to another like something out of Batman, and as Brienne watched her hop to the railing just below where she hung she understood and let go. Wendy caught her midair and they clung to one another as she dragged Brienne over the railing, then kept her hold as she attempted to walk with her. Her footing was a disaster, she was stumbling all over the place, but Wendy seemed very intent on moving.
“Where’s Brienne?” She asked loudly enough to keep playing her part. The taste of blood filled her mouth as the heat of it coated her neck — she’d forgotten she was nicked and imagined her ear looked gnarly.
“Same place we’re going, honestly.” Wendy answered, and kicked a door open. Brienne realized which side of the building they were on just as she saw a rope dangling outside the window. Wendy ran to throw it open and Brienne hobbled bent over behind her, her head starting to ache. She watched Wendy grab the rope, then turn and gesture for her to get on first.
“I hurt my back. I don’t—” She began, and Wendy pulled her to the rope.
“You don’t have an option.” She answered firmly, the way the real Astor would. Some curls were poking out beneath her hood, and her pale foundation was patchy, but Brienne found herself missing someone that was not too far away. Not yet. She grabbed the rope and climbed out into the cool air, then looked up and down to see herself below her.
“Do you need to leave?” She asked, softly and with great concern, and some odd part of Brienne wanted to laugh. Alone on the side of a luxury hotel Astor’s Freddy mask was starting to slip, she had to hold tight to her fedora, and with that serious look in her barely visible eyes she was more herself than she’d been all night.
“I can do this.” Brienne vowed, and found it was an honest answer. Astor slid quickly down the rope, aided by her Freddy glove, and Brienne followed as best she could, her legs criss-crossed around the rope as she scooted her way down. They needed to move quickly, so she did her best, but Astor still had to wait on the ground and the other Astor on the rope. They ended up in front of the restaurant where Cleo had been, but now as her feet mercifully hit the ground noticed they were nowhere to be found. There were bodies scattered everywhere, and with the Halloween music playing in the distance it was a wonder no one had found them. Or maybe drunk crowds passing thought all these corpses were decorations.
“Come on.” Fake Astor lead them past the restaurant, past the entrance, over to the emergency exit Eyana had been guarding, or at least guarding Tate’s guards. There was no one in sight, only a smear of blood against the stone facade of the building and a gaping door. Without power, without light, it looked like an abyss. Tate was waiting for them. The rest of the gang, too, and all the men they’d have to fight together. And the choice Astor would have to make. Their fates rested in this mysterious cavern below them.
All they had to do was step into the darkness.