“Sorry, I haven’t seen anything.”
“I’m not here to help you get your fix, lady.”
“Thomas didn’t do nothing, why you beefing with a man on his grind?”
“Just call the cops.”
“Fuck you! Rebecca killed my dad, you clone bitch! Get out of my face!”
Jessica groaned loudly, about ready to throw her notepad down the storm drain and take a job at Burger King. She wasn’t getting anywhere with these people. This was Blackburn, alright. No one saw anything and if they did, they wouldn’t tell you. The fact that some ignorant jackasses thought she was an acceptable target for their rage against her mother wasn’t helping matters.
“Hey, Jay, you holding up alright?”
That deep, masculine voice. Alex? Down the block, her old friend was standing outside the Cachaça. How long had he been watching her?
“Alex!” She quickly stuffed her notepad away, running up to greet him. “Hi, hey! Long time no see. How’s uh, how’s work been treating you?”
“Fine enough. Keeping my head down, keeping the bills paid. How about you? You seem frustrated.”
“Yeah, it’s just – Blackburn. You know. I’m on the case.”
“What’re you looking for?”
“Oh, that? It can wait. You got a few minutes? You know, to catch up and stuff.”
Alex glanced back into the shop, corner of his mouth quirking down. “Sorry, I got a pile of dishes to take care of. Don’t wanna keep pops waiting.”
Jessica craned her neck slightly, getting a view of the kitchen from the clear glass storefront. It couldn’t have been that bad – she couldn’t see any piles over the counter, at least. It was her turn to frown.
“Oh. Okay. Um, I’m looking for a man named Thomas. Tall, African-American, silver tooth. Seen him?”
Alex shook his head.
“Alright. Well what about any drug dealers, have you seen any?”
“Oh, of course. Some down by Fisher Avenue, some at the intersection of Kingston and Blake -”
“Any groups that sell anything, you know, odd? Unusual, not coke or meth?”
Alex pursed his lips, looking off into the distance. “Hmm… Actually yeah. I’ve heard word of some guy named Mitchell dealing in exotic drugs around Locksley Avenue, but I haven’t gotten around to, you know, shadowing him, if you catch my drift.”
“Don’t. I’ll take care of it.” She jotted down the location before looking back up at him. “Catch coffee tomorrow morning, maybe?”
“Maybe,” he replied, scratching the back of his neck. “I gotta get back to it. Stay out of trouble, Jay.”
Jessica half-heartedly gave a smile and a wave. Great, he still thought she was a punk too. But could she blame him? The only reason she didn’t end up just like her mother was chance. No, it was because of him. He had every right to run from the hideous person she was inside.
I told you I’m no hero, Isabella…
Sighing, she tucked her notepad away again and began walking back to her office. If she was going to get anywhere with this Mitchell fellow, she was going to have to let that hideous person take over for a while.
“Are you totally sure about this, Ms. Napier? I mean, I’ve done this sorta thing before, but, like… I really don’t wanna mess up your face.” Having returned to her office and summoned Isabella, Jessica sat in a chair while her new assistant hesitantly applied a cold putty to her face. “Oops, hair, one sec… Okay. I mean, like, why aren’t you just busting up the place as Shade? This seems riskier. Not that I know better than you!” she corrected herself hastily with a nervous laugh.
“Who do you think Mitchell is more likely to open up to? A potential client, or a vigilante with a reputation for feeding guys like him their own arms?” She shivered a bit at Isabella’s touch. “What is this stuff anyhow?”
“That’s a good point… Uh, Mimi taught me this spell. She used it a lot to get in and out of parties she wasn’t invited to, back in the day. She called it Argilla dell’Infinito. I don’t speak Italian, so I dunno what it means, but yeah. Um, do you want a different eye color? Also what color do you want your hair to be? And, like, the length…”
Jessica had to rack her brain for a moment. For as much as she had been teased for her bright orange hair, she never considered dyeing it. Gingers had a notoriously hard time with dye as it was.
“Uh. Hmm… Let’s go with blonde, I guess. It’s disarming.” She stuck a hand halfway down her stomach. “Let’s go to here. No one will suspect I’m disguising my hair by making it longer. And as for eyes, do green.”
“Can do. Let’s just raise the cheeks a bit… Uh huh. More pronounced brow. Less crook to the nose. Okay, that part’s done. Hold still. Like… don’t even breathe for a couple seconds, seriously.” Isabella put a finger to her forehead and chanted more gibberish. “Okay, cool. Can you tilt your head back a bit?” She focused her gaze on Isabella’s first two fingers, which hung poised over her head. Two droplets of emerald liquid appeared on her fingertips, summoned by a quick phrase. “Keep your eyes open, please.”
The drops splashed into her eyes, stinging terribly, but her vision cleared in seconds. Isabella had already moved on to her hair, gathering it up and working her hands through it systematically. “Straight or curly?” asked her assistant distractedly.
“Curly,” Jessica answered, wiping at her eyes. “Where did you learn all this anyways? I’m sure scientists would pay good money to learn how you make the laws of physics your bitch.”
“Learned it from here and there. From what I understand, it’s sorta like how the whole anomaly thing works, but… not? Mimi didn’t really speak very good English and a lotta what she told me was superstitious mumbo jumbo. Some people can use magic, some can’t. Some people shoot light beams from their eyes, some don’t. Most of the time, though, us spooky guys end up with our heads blown off for trying something too ambitions and, like, karma smacking us a good one.” A long strand of curly, blonde hair fell in Jessica’s face, though Isabella’s arm reached around to grab it again. “My parents really don’t like that I practice. ‘Your Mimi turned herself inside out for being too ambitious, mia figlia. Leave that stuff alone!’ But I figure if I got the touch, like, I should be using it for good, right?”
“Yeesh.” It certainly didn’t sound like any anomalous ability she’d ever heard of. Perhaps the workings of such things were beyond the scope of human knowledge for now. “Sorry about that. Was she a friend of yours or something?”
Isabella moved around her, grasping her chin gently and pulling away a thin mask from her face. Just like that, the hair in her periphery was red again. “Whew, it came off… Uh, yeah, Mimi was my gramma. We were super close.” She gestured to the mask, holding it back to Jessica. “Okay, it’s done. Any time you wanna change identities, just, like, put it on. It should come off when you want, too. Go check it out, see if I did an okay job with the face sculpt.”
Jessica nodded and headed towards the bathroom, trying to avoid looking at the mask as she went. It was beyond uncanny, like Isabella was some deranged serial killer cutting people’s faces off. When she got to the mirror she pressed the mask back on. Just like that, she was a totally different person.
“Impressive. You think you could use your magic to fix the rest of my mommy issues?” she shouted into the office space, tilting her head at different angles.
“Not if you wanna stay out of an insane asylum when your mind turns to mush,” came Isabella’s response, not at all joking in tone. “What was she like anyways? Your mom, I mean. All anyone knows about her is the crazy that the news portrays. Who was she for real?”
Jessica let out a long sigh at that. “Complicated. Mother never saw the good in people, so all she ever saw was criminals rotating in and out the system. She punched people down but they got right back up. She wanted things to be handled permanently, wanted it to be done. And she never considered the fact she’d have to apply her totalitarian ideology to everyone. Even me. I don’t know, maybe Scott just took his axioms for granted and that set a bad example for Chiro. You have to make the choice to follow your own principles every day.” Jessica shook her head and wiped at her eyes. “She has the rest of her life to think about it in prison. I just hope she finds peace.”
No response came from the office for a time, but eventually Isabella sighed. “Man, that’s rough. So all that stuff she confessed at trial was true? You were a soldier as a kid?”
“Yeah, I – don’t like to talk about that.”
“I get it. Or… well, I get why. You want a hug, dude? I know you’re my boss and all, but, like, rough is rough.”
“Oh, goddammit…” Jessica shut the lights off, shuffled over to her assistant, and let her hug her. “You’re fucking diabetes, you know that right?”
“Hey, man, at least I’m not stabbing you right now, right? I hate shots.”
Jessica squirmed away. “Speaking of which, I need to go find out what our boy Carl was shooting up. I’ll be back, hopefully in one piece.”
Slapping her forehead, Isabella rushed over to her canvas shoulder bag and pulled out a beat up old Nokia. “Hey, hold up. Before you go, lemme, like, give you my number. Call me if you need anything, you know?”
If there were any rules in Blackburn, the first you learned was this: at night, Blackburn becomes a different beast. The blinding light of the Florida sun hurried away, replaced by blue and green and orange neon signs advertising cars and jewelry and drink and body. The working men had thinned out, replaced with gluttonous masses overstuffed by material greed. It was easy to lose yourself amongst the crowd. If there was a second rule of Blackburn, it was that no one cared who you were. A blessing and a curse. No one bothered you, even if you lay dying in the gutter, gasping for your last breaths but choking on sewage. She’d seen it more than once.
Locksley Avenue had some of the least foot traffic in Midtown, situated close to Dixon Park. Jessica slipped into her third narrow alley of the night, this one lit solely by a liquor store. Tellingly, there were even less people here. Six men loitered by a back entrance on the left side of the alley, all holding bottles wrapped in brown bags. It was immediately an odd group since there was only one white guy, and he looked like he was either in charge, or holding everyone’s interest. One of his compatriots nodded over his head in her direction, a tall man with a forehead scar. That must have been Thomas.
“Lost, sweetheart?” called the white guy, pushing off the brick wall and approaching her casually. He was middle aged, didn’t work out enough, and had a receding hairline. Typical white dealer build. Definitely Mitchell.
“Oh, sorry, Carl must have sent me the wrong address,” she said, feigning annoyance as she glanced down at her phone.
Blinking in surprise, the man tossed a glance over his shoulder. Through some unspoken signal, the others plodded away, leaving him alone with her. “He never was good with directions. That’s okay. He say who he was looking for? I know the area pretty well, could probably give you the correct address.”
Jessica blew up a non-existent text. “Uhhh… Mitchell? Says he wanted to introduce me to an old friend.”
“Yep, wrong address. The place you’re looking for is between Stillington and Haylock. The old tennis court behind Edgeline Apartments.” The dealer, for there was no doubt that’s what he was now, took another swig of his beer. “You should swing by there tomorrow evening, around ten.”
“Ten, got it.” Jessica pocketed her phone, glanced over her shoulder, and left. Mitchell had bought it hook, line and sinker. If she could just get her hands on Mitchell’s product, the case would be a wrap. Sketchy? Maybe. Illegal? Definitely. Necessary? Absolutely.
The following night, at nine fifty-five, she made her way to Edgeline Apartments. Even before she got to the court, Jessica could tell something was wrong. It was too quiet, for one. Not enough foot traffic in the area. For two, the apartment buildings all had their curtains drawn. Every room that faced the court. Three, the corpse itself.
It was a grisly murder, that much she could discern even at a distance. Splatters of blood flecked the dull green surface of the court itself, as well as the concrete around it and even a few places on the wall. Based on body shape, she was able to discern that the deceased was Mitchell, but his head was a ruined mess of pulped flesh and skull fragments. Notably, the blood was still wet. It couldn’t have happened more than an hour ago, then.
She took a breath to focus herself before really buckling down to find relevant clues. The murder weapon was one of the posts from the net, which meant this was impromptu. A hot blooded crime of passion. Judging by the bend in the aluminum pole, the assailant had really gone at it. Jessica crouched beside the corpse to take better stock of the injuries. Right arm broken in three places, right knee shattered, several ribs. By tilting her head, she could see that there were signs of more trauma on the back as well. Mitchell’s clothes were splattered with blood, both from his wounds as well as left behind from being struck by the murder weapon.
Wasn’t this just lovely? With her lead as dead as Mitchell, her investigation needed to take a different approach. Sighing, she peeled off her mask, tucked it into her jacket, and called 9-1-1. Homicides were always police matters, and though she could assist, she was going to be outside of whatever they learned about Mitchell.
“9-1-1, what’s your emergency?”
“A homicide victim on the tennis courts behind Edgeline Apartments. Local drug dealer named Mitchell, looks like he got brained with a blunt object.”
“Are you or anyone else in any present danger?”
“No ma’am, not that I’m aware of.”
“Please stay nearby, officers will be responding to the scene shortly.”
And shortly it was. Not five minutes later a patrol car parked nearby, and two beat cops hopped out. Elliot and Lopez, their nametags read.
“Holy cow, Shade, is that you?” Lopez asked, adjusting his cap. “Wow, it’s such an honor to meet you! My father was on Vicio during the incident. You saved his life.”
“Hmph. Don’t mention it.” She gestured towards Mitchell – or what was left of him. “I didn’t witness the murder, but I know he was a bad dude. Might have been a hit.”
“Yeah, we heard. Major Cases are on their way. If you have anything, anything at all, talk to the responding detectives.” And with that, Elliot and Lopez began taping off the scene.
Five minutes after that, an unmarked police car rolled up beside the first. A 2018 Dodge Charger, from the looks of it.
Not as nice as my Lancer, but sheesh.
As chance would have it, the occupants were none other than Detectives Cardozo and Higgins, from the Incident. Dallas was dressed like he was straight out of Miami Vice, with a light jacket, hawaiian shirt and khakis. In stark contrast, Jeff wore a tan trench coat and matching fedora with suit pants.
“You boys get a promotion, huh?”
At the sight of her, Dallas stopped in his tracks, throwing up his arms.
“Aw, you’ve gotta be shitting me. We have to deal with the crazy redhead too?”
“Oh, come on, Dallas,” Jeff pleaded. “We’ve dealt with lots worse than this.”
“We’re not talking about the alligator rape case, Jeff.”
“I wasn’t even thinking of that. But that was a lot worse, you know, maybe we should both be thankful.”
Dallas fetched his own note pad, shaking his head. Never change, boys.
“So, you didn’t see anything, but you knew who this guy was. What are you doing around known drug dealers, Jessica?”
“It was for a client,” she insisted, putting her hands out. “Just keeping tabs on the guy.”
“Uh huh. You know how I can tell when you’re lying?”
Jessica frowned. “No.”
“When you do that. But, Jeff likes you, so I won’t inquire any further, de-tect-ive.” Dallas smirked when her frown deepened. “Blunt force trauma, Jeff?”
“Sure looks like it,” Jeff said with a nod, approaching the corpse. “Jeez, someone really wanted to kill that brain of his.”
“We got a murder weapon?” Dallas continued. Jessica gestured towards the pole. Dallas was taken slightly aback.
“Hey, uh, Jeff? Can you give me a guesstimate on how much that pole weighs?”
“Uh. A lot? Fifteen pounds?” Jeff suggested, gritting his teeth.
“And they just yanked it out, then beat this guy so hard it dented? We’re either dealing with someone really strong, or super strong.”
“I wouldn’t know about any of that,” Jessica remarked, “And I can’t disclose my client’s identity, but they may or may not be from South-East. And my case led me to finding out that Mitchell had clients of his own in South-East. If that makes a difference.”
Dallas raised an eyebrow before jotting it down. “So a bunch of brothers from the hood were buying from a middle-aged white guy in Midtown. You may be weird, but you’re not a liar. That’s… not a typical thing.” He snapped his fingers. “Let’s go see if we can’t find any witnesses, Jeff. And you.” He pointed a finger at Jessica. “Stay out of trouble.”
“That I can’t promise you, Cardozo.”