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“So, I have to ask,” Alex began over the swinging of surprisingly tasteful R&B. “You’ve never exactly struck me as the fun and flirty type. What’s with the sudden confidence?”
“Confidence?” Jessica balked. “Ha! I’m scared out of my mind right now. I feel more comfortable in a BDU than a dress, but this is called habituation.”
Alex raised an eyebrow, and she rolled her eyes, smiling.
“Psychology speak for diving into your fears, big guy.”
She wasn’t sure whether to be comforted by the fact they were lost in crowd, or worried that she was probably making a fool of herself and no cared to point it out. At least then she could get some constructive criticism and learn how to dance in a way that wasn’t just wantonly throwing her hips around to the beat. Alex, for his part, didn’t seem to mind.
“What about you, altar boy? You seem to be holding your own here.”
Alex shrugged, effortlessly spinning out of the way of a stumbling drunk. “I used to hang out with the guys after games. Until, you know, I blew my knee and suddenly I wasn’t so popular anymore. But hey, at least I learned how to not look like a dumb jock on the dance floor.”
“You know, Socrates said something along the lines of you’re only unwise if you fancy you know what you don’t know. Speaking of knowing…”
With a deft move that surprised herself, Jessica spun into Alex’s arms, offering up a coy smile. He didn’t miss a beat leading her into a second spin, but his face probably wouldn’t have looked any different if she had pantsed him in front of everyone.
“Uh. Speaking of… knowing?”
“Do you know what you want with me?”
Either Alex was really mulling over his answer, or he had nothing to say.
“Relax big guy, I’m not asking you to elope with me. I just wanna, hmm, see where we stand.”
He pulled her out of the way of an aggressive dancer.
“You should watch where you’re standing. But, we’re all good. Look, I trust you Jay. You’d be out there with Mouse again if you weren’t trying to better yourself.”
“That’s good,” she said with a nod. “Because you, and Izzy, and Quinn, and even Fritz… You’ve been my only real friends. As in, ever. And maybe I’m coming on a little strong here, but being alone sucks. I really do appreciate you guys.”
“Aw, that’s sweet,” he remarked with a laugh. “Fritz is going to hear that though. And, if you wanted to know, you do look good. Even with the…” he looked over her false face. “Yeah.”
“Tsk tsk, just looking at my face?” she teased. Leaving Alex with that thought, she began to take in the place in more detail. If the club had been trashy under prior ownership, it certainly wasn’t now. The place had been renovated in Hamilton’s (or Hades, whatever he was calling himself) image in record time, all black and orange with fire projections and gargoyles. On the overlook above she had only caught a glimpse of the man once, smoking a cigar in a dapper pinstripe suit and fedora. Couldn’t have been less obvious if he screamed ‘mob boss’ at the top of his lungs. Mouse was nowhere to be seen.
“Let me take a little look around,” she said, patting Alex’s arm. He muttered an ‘oh’ before she faded into the crowd. There were a few rooms in the back of the place, and what they were for she couldn’t say, but given they were guarded by four men it was probably something shady. They weren’t getting in there without a distraction. A flash of white hair caught her eye, off to the right. There, at the bar, was that…?
It was. A far cry from the disheveled, bloodstained drug lord she’d once been, her old gang boss had transformed into a member of the business elite. The albino stood by the bar in a well-fitted three piece suit, wearing a black shirt and dark magenta vest and tie. They locked eyes. Slowly, Mouse took a sip of her martini, then turned around to get the bartender’s attention. The way the man snapped to attention for her definitely made it clear that she wielded some form of power around the place. And that, combined with her gesture Jessica’s way and the bartender’s hasty nod, meant she’d probably just bought her a drink.
For the briefest of moments, Jessica seized up. Was Mouse – was she hitting on her? At least the disguise was working, but that was disturbing and not how she wanted this to go. It was an opening, through, and she couldn’t just pass that up. She fought through her reservation quickly and offered up a smile, then a finger. It placated Mouse, allowing her to slip back through the crowd and to Alex. She waved Isabella, who was regaling some very concerned patrons with an excitable story, over hurriedly.
“You good, Ms. Napier?” questioned the woman curiously. “Something come up?”
“Uh, yeah. I need to get this out fast, so – I’m going to occupy Mouse’s attention, by… flirting with her.” She sighed when Alex and Isabella exchanged a look. “Yeah. Dirty business. But I need you-” she pointed at the latter “- to use your voodoo nonsense to seek out any criminal documents of hers and you-” she pointed at the former “- to distract security if Izzy needs it. I need to go now so get to it!”
“Real quick, before you go… which one’s Mouse?”
“The one even more pasty white than me.” And with that, she hurried back over to Mouse. The bartender nodded to the screwdriver he’d left there. She looked at the drink hesitantly for a moment. When she felt Mouse’s gaze return to her, she took a breath and politely pushed it back.
“Thanks, but I don’t drink,” she said, turning to Mouse as she did. “Stomach problems.” Why did she have to pick the reason Hitler didn’t drink? “But, I could use some company…”
Mouse gave her a strangely genuine smile as she slid her empty glass to the bartender and signalled she didn’t want another. “I can respect that. Be true to oneself first and foremost, yes?” Offering up a hand, the executive nodded her head towards the club at large.
Jessica followed along, doing her best to mentally block out the fact that this was Mouse, and just let herself move with the music.
“Of course. You don’t get a lot of honesty here in Blackburn. So what about you? Is what we all saw during the Incident trials the real you?”
“Mm, a concerned citizen, then?”
“Something like that.”
“I can’t say I’ve lived the cleanest life, but I put my past behind me. I suppose the real question is: what do you hope to gain here? Knowledge? Status?” Mouse pulled her into a waltz grip, taking the lead position, and grinned crookedly. “Something else entirely?”
Man, oh man, did karma have a way of winning out in the end.
“A little bit of all of that, I suppose,” she replied, keeping her expression cool and collected. “This city brings out something special in us, doesn’t it? The good, the bad and the ugly. Frightening and liberating at the same time.”
“Mm, that is one way of looking at it. I rather like that, actually. Ah, but I’m really a terrible hostess. Might I get your name, madam?”
Oh my god this is so gay. She’s staring into my eyes, why?
“That… is something you I’ll leave you hanging on for now,” she purred back. That caught Mouse by surprise, though not in the way Jessica had hoped. It seemed to embolden her. She pulled them into the crowd, expertly weaving through the chaos towards the inner ring of the dance floor, where few people deigned to tread.
“As you say. Do you get out often? It may seem a little forward, but you don’t feel like the socialite type. I’m leading the dance, here, after all, maybe a little moreso than one would expect. Not that I mind, I find inexperience to be quite charming.” God, she had forgotten that Mouse could be such a creep. What the hell was with that expression? Smiling at her like they were three years into a relationship or something? “Then again, shyness is a desirable quality in a person, at times. The greatest thinkers are those who only share their opinions at the appropriate opportunity. Wouldn’t you say?”
Speaking of appropriate opportunities, they jostled slightly as Isabella bumped into Mouse’s back, dancing with Alex. “Oh, sorry! I’m, like, such a clutz. Sorry, sorry!” apologized the woman, hanging onto her dance partner, cheeks flushed in embarrassment. Mouse simply chuckled, shaking her head.
“So, tell me… Since you seem to be interested in the events of the past, what do you think about the sentence handed down from on high? Seems all of us involved got off pretty easy, no?”
Jessica exaggerated a crooked eyebrow. “Really now? If you ask me, the kind thing would have been to hang Rebecca. Having to live like she is, with the whole city burning her in effigy. A life sentence was a cruel mercy.”
That got a laugh out of Mouse. “An idealist. Maybe if we’d had more of your kind on the Department of Justice, we would have had a lot more executions. I get the feeling that you take more than a passing interest in current events. Are you, perhaps, a reporter? Looking to get some inside information from someone who’s been, well… on the inside?”
Could she have handed her a more perfect opportunity if she had asked for it?
“Observant. I wouldn’t mind if you let a few things be known.” Hardly had the words left her mouth than Mouse was dancing her through the crowd again. Once they’d breached the outer perimeter, she switched to linking her arm through Jessica’s, leading them to a back room. They sat opposite one another on the cushy leather couch that ringed the circular room. Unbuttoning her jacket, Mouse frowned slightly, patting herself down, but the expression passed in moments.
“Ask away. I have nothing to hide.”
“So, what have you been up to since the Incident?” she asked, trying to get more comfortable than she felt. “You’ve kept a low profile for an ex-gang leader.”
“I felt it wouldn’t be prudent to try and capitalize on the infamy I accrued thanks to my involvement in the Incident, unlike a few other people. I’m doing secretarial work now, actually. No one wanted to hire a criminal like myself until I received an extraordinarily generous offer from Mr. Hamilton. He understood that I have an adeptness when it comes to numbers and organization, as well as a certain drive for success. I hold no illusions that perhaps I was misusing my talents before. My current work is highly satisfying, however.”
“And this… Mr. Hamilton. Why do you think he chose you?”
Mouse shifted in her seat, lacing her fingers together in her lap. “Why do talent scouts choose anyone? I fit the job. Real estate is a cutthroat business, and he doesn’t have time to keep track of the little administrative deals when he’s slogging through the legal red tape at every turn. My duties have… grown, somewhat, but that’s to be expected as a business expands.”
“Grown,” Jessica repeated, trying not to snort. Were they even trying to hide it? “Hmph. Edgerrin Hamilton must be a special fellow. He can’t be anything but, given how he’s helped rebuild the city since the Incident. Tell me, what drives him?”
“Vision. The free market is a fickle beast. It takes one of especially illuminated foresight to handle it. I-” One of the security detail poked his head into the room, cutting her off.
“Ms. Verion, we have a situation you may need to attend to.” Mouse glared at the man, but stood nevertheless. She buttoned her jacket up again, hand lingering in the inner pocket, then smiled.
“Perhaps we can finish this another time. You know where to find me.” And then she left.
Before Jessica could even think of snooping around, the guard escorted her out. She didn’t need to. After a few minutes of loitering in a corner, waiting for Isabella or Alex, she got a text from the former.
<Izzy: hey were r u, time 2 go>
Thank fucking God. She hurried out the front door, grabbing her jacket off a coat rack as she went and not turning back. Across the street she spotted her friends signalling her to come.
“What’d you do, pull the old pickpocket trick on her?” she said as she approached Isabella, half-smirking.
“Yeah, Cousin Aurora showed me some cool stuff a while back. Suits are super easy. I dunno what all I got off there, but here you go, Ms. Napier.” Isabella held out a USB with a micro attachment on one end and a normal attachment on the other. “Courtesy of someone I know.”
“Uh.” She turned it over in the streetlight. “What’s this thing? I thought you took her phone.”
“I did. I, like, plugged that into her phone and it downloaded a copy of everything. You think I was just gonna take the phone with me? Her phone? Ms. Napier, I saw the kinda stuff that’s on there. No way, dude. It’s with the bartender. I may have, uh, dropped it in a glass of whiskey to cover my tracks.”
“So you cloned it, then?” She made a facial expression roughly equivalent to ‘hmph’. “That’s rather tech savvy, for you. Good work. What’d you find?”
Isabella shrugged. “Dunno, it was all really quick. Couple bits here and there I managed to catch were, like, all jumbled up. There may be some sorta torture porn on there, though… Saw a few photos of people, and they weren’t all put together, if you catch my drift. Uh, when you’re done with that, I’ll need it back clean, cuz it’s just on loan. Let’s go back to the office?”
At around eight that evening, Hamilton retreated to his personal quarters. The opening nights of the Styx had exceeded expectations. Clearly Blackburners welcomed the change of pace that came with a man of class operating a nightclub. When they were first cleaning the place out after strong arming it from Stenhouse, Buggy claimed to have found used condoms and lines of coke in the bathroom stalls. It was that sort of depravity that he had come to have very little patience for. He had enough of that for one lifetime.
A quiet knock on his door alerted him to someone seeking to gain entry. And since that someone knocked quietly, it was most likely Nisa. He hated how she did that. He tried telling himself that it had nothing to do with him, that she was so reticent because of the horrors Salazar had inflicted upon her, but he couldn’t help but feel something close to disappointment. Just give it time, he thought as he went for the door.
“Nisa, what’s up?” He waved her inside, gesturing at a plush chair in front of his desk. “Heading home for the night?”
“No, sir, I just wanted to stop in and congratulate you.” The woman set a bottle of wine on his desk with a smile, taking the offered seat primly. “It was a little rocky, but the Styx is now officially a successfully started business.”
“Failure ain’t in my vocabulary.” He retrieved two glasses from the nearby liquor stand and slid one her direction. “And it’s not hard to succeed when you open up an inventive venture. Limited supply creates great demand. Just one of those paradoxes that our world runs on.”
“Hardly a paradox, sir, it’s simple economics. ‘If you build it, they will come’.” Nisa uncorked the bottle, pouring them both a glass of crisp white wine. “Apologies for the relative weakness of the beverage, but it was the only one of sufficient quality I could find downstairs.” She sat back down, sipping at the glass with a distant look on her face. That was unusual, for her to wear any weakness on her countenance like that.
Nisa shook her head, brows slightly knit. “No, no. I’m just… Tonight was a little more eventful for me personally than I am accustomed to. Anymore, at least.”
For once, he wasn’t sure what to say. “Personally? I mean, it’s good that you’re being open with me, but – what happened?”
“Nothing too terribly exciting, sir. The event went off without a problem, which I suppose is just making me a little wary. I will need to replace my phone, but that serves me right for leaving it at the bar in the first place. Shouldn’t have let that reporter catch my attention…”
“Reporter?” He chuckled. “I hope you didn’t give them too much information. ‘Back of the Styx soon to be supervillain lair’. I can see the headlines now.”
Scoffing, the albino took another drink. “Hardly, sir. You know I don’t let pleasure come before business. She seemed… strangely familiar, though I’m sure I’ve never seen her before.”
He set his glass aside. “You sure? The look in your eye says otherwise.”
“I’m positive. I have a certain… penchant for women of her type, I would remember having seen her before. I…” She paused, uttering a quiet ‘hmph’ as if quoting someone. Her eyes widened. “Oh… That’s… no, that can’t be.”
“That bitch!” Nisa set her glass on his desk and leapt to her feet, heading to his office bathroom and washing her hands vigorously. “Goddamnit, how the hell did she do that? Son of a bitch, she was right there, I could have just… Gah!” The pale woman paced angrily murmuring under her breath. “I can’t believe it… Played like a damn fiddle!”
Hamilton caught himself laughing, if only in confusion. “What, some old flame of yours? I’m sure we can just buy you another phone.”
“No, it’s not the phone… It was her! All that talk about her whore of a mother and her ‘holier-than-thou’ attitude… Marcus had mentioned that Mitchell had arranged a deal with a blonde before I got ahold of him. It had to be her, but… her face was so different! Damn it!”
It didn’t take long for the puzzle pieces to come together quickly in Hamilton’s mind. Once again Shade had proven her skill, and gotten a step ahead of them. But he wasn’t infuriated. Instead, he found the situation just too damn funny.
“Hahahaha! Oh, oh wow, that’s fucking rich!” He wiped at his eyes merrily, nearly tipping the wine bottle onto the floor. “She knew exactly what you wanted, huh? Don’t tell me you kissed.”
Nisa nearly doubled over, gagging. “Edgerrin, that is not an appropriate comment to make! Jessica is my sister! I have no idea what she was doing there, but she must have been running a smokescreen operation. I’ll have to double security vigilance to ensure she doesn’t do anything rash. Ugh! Why doesn’t she just leave well enough alone?!” complained the woman angrily, stamping a foot.
All that did was provoke him further. His bellowing cackles stopped Nisa cold, but he really didn’t care. He couldn’t help but find himself impressed at Jessica’s cunning. And the thought of Nisa giving the dark vigilante puppy dog eyes was just hilarious.
“Haha, okay, okay, I’m done now! Oh, man. Come on, you gotta admit, that’s funny as fuck!”
Flopping into her chair, Nisa rubbed at the bridge of her nose. A slight grin cracked her visage, almost imperceptible. “A shame that trap didn’t go as planned…”
“Oh don’t worry, we’ll get her eventually.” He reached for his glass that was nearly knocked off the edge, choking back another bout of giggles. “Just double up security, chance will take her out sooner or later. She’s not that good, if she got beaten by her forty-something mother.”
“It’s not fair.” Nia drained her glass, sagging into the chair. “She knows I like blondes. Next time we catch her, I want the first hit.”
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