The very end.
The restaurant had been crawling with Tate’s lackeys, but Eyana was stronger than they’d anticipated Cleo to be. She, in short, wiped the floor with them. And she was fairly certain they didn’t suspect a switcheroo: they were just paid bodies, after all, they likely wouldn’t have been informed that there was a copy-cat in their midst, and probably spent their last minutes alive furious that Tate hadn’t warned them properly of the danger here. Finally a retreat was made, and she followed them past the lobby, past the kitchens, and stopped at the maintenance hatch they all marched down into. That was one way down, but she’d rather meet with Cleo at the other. She rushed back to the front entrance and pushed the great glass door open without the force Cleo would not exert, then held her nose high and nearly meandered over to the emergency door Eyana and a guard were standing before. As soon as Eyana caught sight of her the guard was shot and crumpled to the ground.
“Should we bring him with us?” Eyana the Wicked Witch asked, and Eyana Pennywise shrugged.
“I left so many fuckin’ corpses back there it’s a fat chance they ain’t gon’ get discovered soon.” She answered, and the witch gave her a look. “Right. Dialect.”
They both braced themselves and turned to the brassy door, just waiting for them with hell behind it. Eyana half expected it to burst open while they looked at it and for all those retreating men to reappear for round two, but nothing happened until Cleo raised their gun and shot the padlock off. They stepped forward carefully and Eyana covered them, but when the handle easily turned and the door swung right open there was only dark stillness within.
“That easy, huh?” Eyana asked flatly.
“We oughta wait and see if anyone’s waiting on either side of this door frame.” Cleo said, their voice deep and blunt like Eyana’s. “Another grenade would’ve been great here.”
“We opened the door.” Eyana pointed out. “They already know we’re here.”
“Fuck it, then.” Eyana the Wicked said. “Let’s storm the joint.”
They raised their guns and rushed in, though Eyana wasn’t sure to expect. When they entered there was a small platform with railings to the left and right and a ladder directly ahead, and everything smelled like dust and mildew. The only light came from a distance, beams bouncing from flashlights to illuminate cobwebs and dour expressions. When they looked up and down the platform they found no one, and no one looked at them when the door opened.
“That easy, huh?” Eyana asked again. “Let’s drag that guy in here and shut the door before someone notices.”
Cleo rushed out and grabbed the guy by the feet, and Eyana grabbed beneath his arms and hauled him in, really doing most of the work. His blood remained an ugly stain against the wall, and Cleo mumbled something about it possibly passing for a Halloween decoration before dumping him onto the ground and swiftly closing the door. When the pair looked back out to the crowd beyond the platform they were still entirely ignored, so Cleo made a motion for Eyana to get down and the pair listened in on what seemed to be mostly — and unsurprisingly, for a group of men — complaining.
“She told us this would be simple.” One moaned. “But there’s gotta be forty, fifty dead up there.”
“—Threw a fucking grenade! Why did we not anticipate a grenade?”
“Dude, I’m about to leave. This isn’t worth fifteen an hour.”
“You’re making fifteen whole dollars!?”
“Let’s find a good hiding spot and let this play out.” Cleo said, always one to watch and wait, and in this case Eyana had to agree. They kept their heads down and moved to a corner of the platform some distance from the door, where a large iron pillar hid them from sight. The ceiling was unfinished, a blend of steel infrastructure, wires, and rotted wooden planks, so Eyana held out her hands and let the Wicked Witch get a boost to climb in with a grimace on their face. The boots were hard on her hands and she was temporarily struck with odd thoughts of putting them on in the penthouse, then watching someone else walk in them on a security feed, then watching that same girl teaching Cleo to stomp like she did, rage and demand more from the world. And this girl still called her a guardian angel, and Cleo still trusted her to lift them. They used the rivets as footholds and climbed up after, and the two awkwardly balanced on the loose grid of metal to wait and see. They did not have to wait long.
This time the door opened with a slam, and plenty of men looked up now. It was dark, but Eyana still recognized Tate’s slim figure, especially given she was the only one in a battle who would wear a slinky dress and heels. She left the door open and went for the ladder, which made Eyana think the rest of the team wasn’t far behind.
“So tell me.” Tate began as she descended the ladder. “Who was meant to be guarding this door?”
“A dozen men who’ve already taken off.” Someone answered gruffly. “Wise decision, I reckon.”
“We didn’t know they’d be this deadly.” Another man griped. “You could’ve warned us.”
Eyana couldn’t read Tate’s expression as she paused at the bottom of the ladder.
“You thought this would be easy? You’ve heard of me and heard of them and concluded this would be a piece of cake?” She asked in that airy, feminine voice of hers, clearly offended. “Try to use your brain, gentlemen.”
There was no rush to comfort anyone, ask what they needed, see what she could do for them. And then there was the obvious frustration, the stiffness in her posture, a physical distance between her and her guards. She was lonely. She was off her game. She needed the gang more than the gang needed her. Eyana realized she could kill her right then and there, but she made no move to grab her gun. She only felt a sense of calm that rarely came over her, maybe not even since she watched her pimp choke on his blood, since Tate shook her hand and welcomed her aboard.
“A few of you could at least try to watch the door.” She said, sounding grated and worn out. “I’ll be in the car if you need me, but seeing as there’s three dozen of you and five of them coming through one teeny-tiny door you should be able to handle yourselves.”
“Well whaddya want us to do?” An extremely Brooklyn man asked, and Cleo stirred beside her before shooting her a small look of amusement. “You said don’t hurt anyone.”
“So don’t.” She responded curtly, and retired to her car. Said car belonged to a train, not a highway, and was covered in grime. It had to be from the fifties, and was probably just as disgusting within, but it was a bulletproof cell in an impenetrable fortress and therefore, as Astor had guessed that morning, Tate’s best option. With all this overkill she must have thought they were coming to kill her, but still she didn’t want them hurt. She slammed the door behind her, and Eyana heard the men grumbling their dissent. There was no way they were going to follow her orders.
“We gotta give them some cover.” The other Eyana drew her gun in a moment of like-minded thought, and Eyana raised her own and pointed it into the crowd. “Try not to kill that Brooklynite, I have a soft spot for insane accents.”
“If I had the ammo I’d kill all of them.” She said, but there wasn’t enough to wipe out the small army Astor and the girls were about to face. “Wait for that door to open.”
The door slammed open in an instant, and Cleo and Eyana fired. Men shouted, further shots sounded off, and bullets ricocheted against metal ceilings and concrete walls. When Eyana looked back to the door it was closed and they were pitched into darkness, but there wasn’t a moment for Tate’s army to regroup as a yelp of pain sounded out and someone crumbled to the floor. Another sound echoed like someone threw a punch, and with the quick strobe of a moving flashlight Eyana caught a glimpse of tulle.
“Here.” She shoved her gun Cleo’s way. “You’re safer up here.”
“How can I shoot anyone if you’re all down there in the dark?” Cleo spoke obviously, and Eyana hesitated.
“Fuck, I dunno. I’m not a planner. Just uh — just don’t get yourself killed, okay?” She said, and left the gun on a rotting piece of wood in front of them. Cleo opened their mouth to say something more, but seeing as Eyana didn’t have any good answers she decided to grab a handful of wires and hope at least one would get her to the ground safely. She dropped through a hole in the ceiling and swung down into the darkness, then let go when she was positive a man was below her to break the fall — he groaned and crunched at the landing.
“Cleo?” Someone shouted in the distance, maybe Wendy or maybe Brienne playing her. She looked around and found nothing but a set of hands reaching towards her. It took everything for her to stop and think: she was Cleo, she had to play the part, especially now that Tate was likely watching. She ducked her head and rushed through the crowd, drawing her knife and slashing and pricking as she went. Some men swore and lunged at her, recognizing Cleo and thinking she’d be an easy target, others survived the restaurant and recoiled, likely confused. At some point she saw curls and heard an obnoxious command.
“Everyone stay tight! Keep your heads low!” The Grim Reaper yelled.
“You got it, boss!” Freddie Krueger replied in a small voice. The real boss, the one speaking, must have figured that Tate was listening in for certain now, which meant it was of the utmost importance to keep up appearances.
“Whatever it takes!” The unicorn she’d spotted before called supportively, just the way Wendy would.
“Are there enough dudes in here?” Eyana rolled her eyes for no one to see as she pressed against the wall to avoid a large man dropping to the ground. “She’s not so confident, is she.”
“Don’t worry about it, we can take ‘em, honestly.” Fake Astor encouraged the group. “We’ve got the chutpzah.”
This was maybe not the most natural integration of yiddish terminology Astor had ever used, but Eyana knew as she finally found Brienne in the dark and punched a man right behind her that that was the point. Tate would hear it, too.
“Thanks.” The unicorn said, and Eyana threw another punch. “Cleo, where’s your gun?”
“Uh.” Was not the most ‘Cleo’ response. Brienne tried to hand hers over, but Eyana waved it away. “I can handle myself.”
“Try mingling with the crowd, Wendy.” The Grim Reaper called to them as she neared, Freddy in her wake. “Cleo, try to get one or two hits in if you can.”
Wendy was unaware she was without a gun and couldn’t shoot her way out of things if they got too serious, and at the indication that Cleo wasn’t as much of a fighter as the rest of them the goons did what Wendy meant them to do and surged her way. Her fist flew as it had to: she’d be slaughtered otherwise. Momentarily she lost herself in the battle, her knuckles aching as she grabbed one man, kicked another, stuck her thumb in the eye of a third. At some point Brienne had found an empty bottle and smashed it over someone’s head, and an Astor was cheering them on in the distance.
“You’re doing great, ladies!” The Grim Reaper yelled, but was her voice just a little more nasal now? Had she grown an inch taller?
“Ya know, there’s not a lot of these goons left standing and I’m sure they’re not paid very much.” Freddie said now, quick and breathless and just Wendy. “If I were one of them and I had any sense I would just run.”
“One last push guys, come on!” One of them yelled, but looking around Eyana thought it seemed fruitless. There were far fewer men standing than when she’d first walked in, and what were they getting killed over, a paycheck? There was little loyalty amongst hired guns, and even with impressive numbers she could spot the queasy looks between them that put Tate at a disadvantage. A heavy thud broke her from her thoughts, metallic and echoing, and everyone stopped and looked around to discover the source.
“Actually,” Eyana declared, standing on top of the train car, “I think you should just stand down now.”
They held two guns, one pointed to the thinning crowd and another at the emergency hatch on the top of the car. It appeared to be closed, but if they were taking bets Eyana would put it all on Cleo getting it open and firing in long before these limited men could kill them, especially given that she had some protectors on the ground. The definite pause of battle made the defeat clear, especially as the Wicked Witch glared down at them all. Slowly, guns lowered until the door of the cab slammed open with a heavy clang. When Tate stepped out she seemed to avoid everyone’s eye, but remained cool and collected when she spoke to her remaining men.
“Ten thousand to every man who lives. Round them up.”
“No!” Cleo yelled, and leapt from the roof. She landed not quite on top of Tate, but enough to knock her over and make her screech. They wrestled for a moment and everyone stared before the spell of shock broke. Men rushed their way and practically tackled Cleo to get them off their benefactor, and those who didn’t looked to the tight-knit circle of the remaining gang in the darkness, likely with gleeful malice in their eyes.
“Stop this!” The Grim Reaper shouted before anyone made a move. Cleo was dragged away from Tate and she ran towards them both. “Tate, stop this, we’re your friends!”
“Wendy Pacada.” Tate spat, straightened, and smoothed out her dress. “You really think I don’t see through this? You think I’m an idiot? You’ve been a thorn in my side for far too long.”
She fired twice, and the Grim Reaper stumbled back. The unicorn yelped.
“I’d hoped I’d killed you in that hotel room, but I guess now’s as good a time as any.” Tate said, her voice lofty and boisterous. Brienne grabbed Eyana’s arm and pointed at her shoes: she got the message, bent down, and felt around in the darkness until she gripped a flashlight. When she lifted it and switched on the light it beamed to the cloaked figure’s pale hand, all coated red. It was Astor that lowered her own hood.
“Wait. Wait, I —” Tate stared at her, and Astor looked back like a ghost. “Holy — medic! Someone bring the medic! Astor, oh my god, I thought—”
There was a ripple of movement and a man with a medical bag emerged from the train car. Freddy Krueger shot him, then shot the man beside her and swore at his falling body.
“Stand down! What the fuck is wrong with you people?” Tate screamed. Astor began to stumble, and Tate ran her way and managed to guide her to the ground. “I thought you were that fucking copy-cat, oh god, I’m so sorry Astor.”
“You should’ve counted better.” Wendy said, then pulled off her Freddy mask and fedora.
“What — you’re—?”
“Yes, I’m the slasher. Brienne’s the unicorn.” She answered, and Brienne pulled the headband off and threw it to the ground.
“All switched up, yeah.” Eyana announced in her own voice, not Cleo’s cool and collected tone, though she wished she could remove the clown make-up as quickly as a mask. “For our safety, supposedly.”
“Tate.” Astor groaned and reached out a bloodied hand that her friend quickly grasped. “Is this really the state of our friendship?”
“No!” Tate cried out. “No, I thought you were—”
“Just some girl that I trust.” Astor said, and Tate’s strong lip faltered to a grimace. “You kept so many secrets. Lied so many times. You’ve done things that put all our lives at risk. The Beaumarchais would slaughter us if they knew the crimes you’ve committed.”
“I’m sorry! I wasn’t thinking! I just wanted — I’m a fucking greedy bastard, Astor, you know that!” She let out a loud and unexpected sob. Tears began to flow even if no one in the room could pity her for them. “I want to be the biggest and the best. I want power. I want us to be untouchable.”
“How’s that working out for ya?” Cleo asked dryly, but beneath that they could all hear how choked up they were.
“I’m sorry. I went too far. I should’ve prioritized you and I just — I don’t know, I’m fucking crazy, I’m stupid, I’m so insane. Why did I do any of this?” She cried out desperately, and Astor began to close her eyes. Wendy lowered her head as Tate grabbed her arms and tried to shake her out of it. “Astor! No! Stay with me, please stay with me—”
Astor opened her eyes, reached down to the wound in her gut, and squeezed. Blood exploded out and hit Tate directly in the face hard enough for her to be shocked out of tears. She sat there a moment, red and gaping, before stating in a distant and mystified tone what the gang had known all along.
“This is corn syrup.”
“You switched my gun out.”
“When I tackled you, yes.” Cleo responded.
“You knew I would try to kill Wendy.”
“No hard feelings.” Wendy answered.
“You’re not dying?” She finally asked the woman in her arms, her voice cracking.
“You were right.” Astor said softly. “You are stupid.”
Tate burst into tears all over again, and Astor pulled her into a hug and rubbed her back. Eyana was reminded that the pair were the same age, and when she looked at them she realized thirty five wasn’t really that old at all. Astor’s mom jeans be damned, they were practically as young and stupid as she was at a whole decade younger. And she wasn’t sure what that fully meant besides the fact that pity was now creeping in, and was maybe even severe enough to be called sympathy. Sympathy that could one day work its way into becoming forgiveness.
“Wait a minute.” The Very Brooklyn man said from somewhere in the crowd. “Yous are tellin’ me that these dames was actin’ this entire time?”
“I am so glad this dude survived.” Cleo whispered, and Eyana shot them the smallest of grins. Astor pulled away, her straightened hair dragging in the goop on Tate’s face, and she used a long black sleeve to wipe it away.
“But you’re not insane.” She said, her voice brimming with fondness. She was rarely so soft and affectionate: it was really only Tate that could calm her down or rile her up so intensely. “You’re not. I was over there too, remember? We saw a lot of shit. We didn’t come back right.”
“We came back better than we left the place.” Tate grumbled, and a dark cloud passed over Astor’s expression as she nodded.
“I just think you need some help. PTSD happens whether or not you have the wool over your eyes.” Astor pushed some sweaty hair from Tate’s sticky face. “Being so paranoid, isolating yourself? It’s hurting you and everyone around you. A therapist could help you deal with this stuff.”
“But that’s perfect!” Wendy blurted out, then covered her mouth. “I mean — sorry, like this is totally the wrong time, but group was super helpful for me and I would totally recommend it for everyone so this would be a great solution. Therapists aren’t even scary like you’d think they’d be!”
Tate didn’t even have it in her to glare at the girl she’d tried to murder twice.
“That would be a first step, of course.” Astor spoke pointedly, and Tate put her head in her hands.
“I thought you were coming to kill me.” She said, and Astor rubbed her shoulder.
“I came to strip you of your leadership. Obviously murdering my best friend wouldn’t have been ideal but again, we all almost died tonight so it would’ve been kinda fair.” Astor said, and Tate nodded begrudgingly. “I planned to tell you to step down and walk away, but I’ve had a change of heart.”
“Boss?” Eyana found herself asking, and Astor waved her off.
“Don’t worry, it’s not all forgiven. But if you want, you can stay on as leader. You’ll just be watched very, very closely. And you’ll have a lot of making up to do.” She spoke sternly, and Tate shrunk a little. “You need to make amends. You need to fix what’s been broken. Do that as our leader. Do that as the Head Bitch In Charge.”
Tate let out a watery laugh.
“You want a new penthouse, I take it.” She said, and Astor gave her a look. “Yes, of course. And some of the cash I’ve earned scamming people. And my confession? To the Beaumarchais?”
“I think we’d all be safer taking that one to the grave, actually.” Brienne spoke softly, and Tate studied her carefully.
“Right as always, my dear Brienne.” She smiled fondly. “Monet hasn’t called for you yet. But when she does of course I want to see you go to her. Rule Chicago with your not-quite-iron fist.”
“And Wendy.” Eyana interjected quickly, while they were still talking terms. Everyone looked to her in surprise. “Wendy joins the team.”
“I do?” Wendy perked up and looked to Tate, who sighed and nodded. “I do!?”
“Welcome aboard, kiddo.” Astor nodded. “Officially, that is.”
“I’m in the gang! I get to work with you guys! Oh my god, I’m in the greatest gang in New York!”
“Notice she didn’t mention Miami.” Cleo smirked, and Wendy vibrated with excitement.
“This is gonna be so much fun! We’re gonna do so many cool things, oh my god it’s a good thing I packed my dream journal because—”
“The parking meter!” Astor recalled suddenly, and scrambled out of Tate’s hug. “I’ll be right back.”
“Oh my god, Astor, really?” Tate called to her as she ran for the ladder. “I thought we were bonding!”
“Kiss my ass, Bahri, I’m not about to let someone tow the van!” Astor yelled distantly. When she threw the door open a faint light filled the secret room, illuminating vast amounts of dust. Tate grimaced, inspected the dirt on her nice dress, and stood gracefully in her heels. Somehow being in a room with their would-be killer wasn’t the most awkward.
“You gentlemen can leave us. Your checks will arrive by mail.” She said, then tossed her keys to one. “Be a dear and bring the town car around. I think we ought to have breakfast and hammer things out more clearly, and I certainly will not be going by van.”
“Town car? I thought you had a Range Rover. Unless you only drive the big car for when the whole gang’s around but they obviously haven’t been lately because you were hunting them — us, really, since I’m part of the gang now! Do I get paid for tonight?” Wendy asked, and Tate walked past her to the ladder. “Tate? Tate! Do I get paid? You’re my boss now, I have pressing questions!”
The group headed up and out onto the sidewalk, where so early in the morning the Halloween revelers had dissipated and only a few wobbly drunks remained. As Astor ran back the town car pulled up, and Tate dismissed her man. She hopped in the car and encouraged Brienne to take the passenger seat, which left a chattering Wendy and a visibly irritated Cleo climbing in the back discussing who had to sit on who’s lap. Eyana waited a moment for her boss, who stood heaving with her hands on her knees.
“You’re sure about this, right?” She asked quietly. “I ain’t thinking Tate’s a hundred percent trustworthy.”
“I know it’s gonna be rocky.” Astor stretched dramatically — Eyana remembered all the stairs she’d climbed overnight and snorted. “I know everything’s uncertain right now. We just have to watch her very closely and hope our efforts tonight have swayed her away from fucking us over ever again.”
“And if she does?” Eyana asked, and the look Astor gave her made it clear: her sympathy was still limited, she was one lion against another, she would still do everything in her power to protect her gang, and that everything that was to pass was now an uphill battle. This was not the end, not even a reprieve. This was a mess Astor had set herself to clean by any means, and Eyana knew without a doubt that she could. “Whatever you need, boss.”
Astor nodded and Eyana took the middle seat, next to Wendy as she explained all the omelet options of a nearby diner to the person she was sat on. In the front Tate was showing Brienne the turn signal and Brienne was mustering as much polite interest as she could. Eyana kicked the back of Tate’s chair.
“Are we getting some fucking omelets or what?” She yelled, and Tate grinned.
“I can’t impart wisdom?” She flipped on her turn signal for an empty road. “Okay, let’s get omelets.”
“Hurray!” Wendy yelled, overjoyed by her new position, oblivious to the storm ahead. But Eyana wasn’t going to worry about that just now. Astor had it under control, with their help of course. And she was hungry, after all.