Vivian hung up her cell phone, returning to the black metal table in front of the small coffee shop at the Third Street corner of the Bastion mall.
“Sorry about that.” She said, resuming her place at the boutique patio. “No rest for the wicked.”
“Don’t worry, sweetheart.” Said Scarlett, gently sipping a cup of coffee. “I have no idea how hard things must be leading this group right about now.”
Vivian let out a sigh of agreement as she drew back her cup.
“I gotta admit.” Scarlett said. “I really admire all the work you’ve been putting into finding Mallory. I know the two of you weren’t always on the best terms.”
“Understatement of the year.” Vivian laughed. “Remember the debutante parties?”
Scarlett smiled. “I remember you falling asleep in the back hall at the manor.” She laughed.
“What, I was twelve and my mother introduced me to the French ambassador. That guy was a drag.” She said, stretching out the last word.
“Tell me about it.” Scarlett agreed. “It was just like you were in boarding school all over again.”
Vivian laughed, shaking as she leaned into the table. “Was anyone awake through Miss Victoria’s lectures?”
“You sure weren’t.” She said. “Although all those late nights we stayed up in college didn’t help.”
Vivian smiled. “No, I guess not.
“…Thank you – For everything, Scarlett.”
“Hm?” Scarlett looked up.
“…Things have been really hard since Azrael came into the picture.” She said. “That and the power transitions, Mallory’s disappearance amid all her projects… I worry that some of the other agents don’t have much faith in me.”
“You’re doing fine.” She said. “It’s a lot to go through.”
“Well I appreciate how much help you’ve been through the years.” Vivian said. “I was raised to do this. I took so long to get here.”
“Mallory was right to choose you.” She said. “You’ll do great things with the organization.”
“I hope so.” Vivian said. “I hope so…”
Zoe sat before a black table in a dark room, a blank-faced stainless silhouette sitting above it, her black overcoat slung across its shoulders. The moonlight spilled through a peaked skylight in the roof, thick glass panes refracting a grey glow over the black room.
A steel calligraphic Z shape hung behind it, a monument to the statue where the she often viewed the symbol of black terror.
She felt the weight of the black lapelled jacket over her shoulders, the cling of the leather gloves over her hands. This was where she belonged. Couture was the costume, but this was real. The Mask. The Legend.
She looked at the stand before her, steel shimmering beneath the moonlight.
The window in the ceiling shattered behind her as it crashed down to the floor.
“Smart move.” She said. “Here I was thinking you might be too stubborn to show up.”
“You didn’t give me much choice.” I said.
She turned her head to see me standing behind her. She had left the overcoat and cowl on the stand for a sleeker look with the tight-sleeved jacket and low-profile mask like mine. “No more tough guy voice?”
“I’m not here to fight you, Z.” I said.
“Well then I guess that means you’re here to die.”
She rolled over her back, arching both her legs up to kick at my chest to start the attack.
Fifteen years since I’d been on the other side. Even in the same room it felt even harder now than it did then.
I could feel her rage, her ferocity behind every strike.
Our blades clashed, echoing through the empty concrete room beneath the plastic-laden glass skylight.
“Zarra!” I said. “We can still work this out!”
“I’m done holding back, Azrael!”
We traded more parries between us, steel breaking the silent air.
“They have to pay for what they’ve done!”
“And they will!” I said. “We’re better than this!”
She cut low with her sword and forced me back.
“You don’t know, Azrael.” She said. “You don’t know the kind of hero I am, the things I’ve seen them do.”
“And all these months we’ve spent training, everything I’ve put into helping you do this the right way, that means nothing to you?”
“Shut the hell up.” She said, a silver revolver raised across the air. “That’s all you ever do. Talk. I need something better, Azrael.”
“Bloodshed isn’t going to end your fight with the Red Surenos.”
“Maybe.” She said. “But they’ll get what they deserve.”
The sound of our steel colliding split the air of memory to reveal the present as I blocked one of her strikes, pushing my shoulder up underneath hers as I threw her back.
“Fifteen years, and we’re right here, back at it again.” I said.
“Yeah.” She said. “And how’s the Spanish mob doing these days?”
“This city deserves better than blood.” I said. “Here I was hoping you’d realize that by now.”
“I stand by what I did.” She said. “And what I’m doing right now.”
Two high, arched kicks came up on either of my shoulders as I blocked them out, tearing forward and pushing her back the other way.
“I can still help you find what you’re looking for, Zoe.” I said. “Just give me the chance.”
“Are you going to stand there and talk all night, or put up a fight that’s worth my time?”
I rolled my shoulders. “You wanted this.”
I tore forward, knocking her defenses down and gripping the back of her neck, slamming my knee into her stomach before throwing her by the collar against the wall. She slid across the floor, planting the front of her foot as I advanced and shooting up from the corner. She pulled me to the floor by the shoulder, running off the hit and coming down hard with her elbow into my stomach.
Her knuckles cracked across my jaw.
“I didn’t forget…” She said.
She twisted the silver circle on my shoulder, wrenching open the series of metal plates on my shoulder pad and locking up the movement as she twisted it out of place.
“I remembered every spot.”
She put me in a lock from behind my back, twisting one of the plates on my shoulder blades up before dislodging the opposite shoulder pad.
I rolled it off, raising my arms to jump back into the fight, my motion withheld by the dislocated plate armor.
“Every crack…” She said. “Every weak spot.”
“Not every one.”
With a flick of my wrist a karambit knife spiraled through the air, tearing over her shoulder and cutting deep as I stripped the hyperextended shoulder plates from my arm, throwing forward hard into her opposite shoulder and doubling back to pound her into the wall.
She wrenched back my hand and shot under my arm, rolling across the floor and producing a pistol.
She unloaded the cylinder across the room, bullet holes tearing into the walls as she followed my motion, clipping the edge of my ribs as I flew across the wall.
I shot toward the center of the room, pinning her to the floor as I beat her head hard into it.
I looked up at the bullet holes.
“What do you have against drywall?”
“I got a lot of vendettas.” She said.
“Does one of those include counting bullets?” I taunted.
“Not exactly.” She said. “Vivian had a gift for you.”
“She shouldn’t have.”
“You say that.” She said. “But you haven’t met lucky number seven.”
She caught me off guard, leading my late dodge to get me a bullet straight through my upper arm.
Zarra used the opportunity to roll out of my grasp, twisting back around and drawing her second pistol to fire two more as I rolled off. I threw a knife across the room that glanced off the pistol, knocking off the third shot as the previous two caught the sides of my legs before she squared the sights on my head.
The action stopped as she pulled back the hammer.
“The mask, the mark, the bullet, the blade…” She said. “In the arms of justice shall my foes be laid.”
“Damn, sell out more, why don’t you?”
A bullet in the shoulder and I still didn’t regret that one.
“What?” She asked, almost jokingly. “Killing you is a comparatively big moment for me.”
“The hundreds of other people you’ve slaughtered didn’t get high school poetry?”
“No.” She said. “But they got what they deserved.”
There was a lapse.
“Fifteen years.” I said. “You did alright.”
She seemed surprised. “Really?”
“I guess so.” I said. “You stopped the Surenos. Got what you wanted. I’m sure Vivian’s got you convinced you’re doing some good. Maybe you found your place.”
“No thanks to you.” She said.
“I only wanted to help you.”
She halted, the silence filling the air again as the symphony of aggression stopped.
“Then why’d you give up?”
“…Because I was too blinded by my own rage to help you with yours.”
“…That’s the best you’ve got?” She asked. “Fifteen years, and that’s it?”
“Look, Zoe.” I said. “When I was young, I… Did a lot of things that I’m not proud of. You don’t just find who you’re supposed to be in some moment of clarity, you fight with it. For years. I still do. But back then I was new to… All this. I was still trying to figure out what was important, and… I guess I didn’t realize that it was you.”
She said nothing.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t be better for you.” I said. “I really am.”
“…I don’t know what I expected.” She said. “Fifteen years I hoped we could get something more out of this.”
“That’s all I can offer you.” I said. “I’m sorry.”
“Haven’t lost the sentimentality, huh?”
“Not a bit.” I smiled.
“Gotta admit, that high school poetry line was good.” She said. “Guess you’ve still got the sarcasm too.”
“Doesn’t sound like you lost it either.” I said. “Never did meet any other human who threw it back like you.”
“Learned from the best.”
“The truth comes out.” I smiled.
“Shut up.” She said, laughing it off.
The silence fell in again as she stared over the sight.
“I’m sorry.” I said. “I really wish I could offer you more.”
“I guess this’ll have to do.” She said.
She pulled the trigger.
The empty casing clicked as the knife hidden in my hand curved through the air, piercing her wrist and forcing the gun away as I pushed forward. I knocked her to the other side of the room, smashing her through the drywall and standing above her as she smiled, a crimson bead dripping from her teeth.
“Not bad.” She said. “How’d you pull that one off?”
“You think I throw knives just for fun?” I said. “Counted the shots, turned the barrel back.”
She looked at the weapon across the floor, noticing from the front how the bullet alignment had changed in the cylinder.
“Automatics don’t look so bad now, huh?” I said.
She laughed, clutching her ribs as she started to cough halfway through.
I extended my hand toward her as she looked up at it, staring with a strange wonder.
“Come on.” I said.
“…You’ve changed.” She said, grabbing my hand as I pulled her up.
“That’s the idea.”
I pulled her up and sat down on the table next to the armor stand.
“What about you?”
She looked hesitantly at me for a moment before stumbling toward the stand, stabilizing herself on the mannequin’s shoulder as she fell down into a seat.
I rotated my arm, stretching it out as I pulled the bands of my broken shoulder plate together.
I looked around the greyscale apartment, a wide, open area with floor-to-ceiling windows and skylights to let the moonlight in outside of the empty floorspace where the fight had taken place.
“Nice place, save this room.” I said, glancing around at the broken and bullet-laden drywall. “Hope you’re not depending on getting your security deposit back.”
“It works.” She said. “First place I’ve really settled in.”
I looked at the iron-wrought calligraphic Z behind the armor stand. “Guess you made it your own.” I said. “Saw the car’s out front, too. Still taking care of it?”
“Still treating it like my child.” She said. “Put in a new engine a few years ago. She’ll outrun anything they’ve got.”
“I bet.” I said. “Got myself one of the newer models from a few years ago. Plus Carolynn’s always finding new ways to upgrade.” I laughed. “Crazy. Like her dad.”
Zoe chuckled, pulling off her mask. “That’s good.” She said. “Most girls aren’t all about getting their hands dirty.”
“Not mine.” I laughed.
“Yeah.” She said. “How’s Gloria these days?”
I pulled my phone from my pocket, scrolling through to a picture of my youngest daughter and pointing her out. “She’s something.”
“She looks like you.” Zoe smiled.
“More like her mom.” I said. “Had to get her good looks from somewhere.”
She laughed. “She’s gorgeous.”
“Unbelievable.” I agreed.
“I’m sure they all are.”
We sat in silence for a few more moments as she rolled up her sleeves. I pulled off my hood and mask, unbolting my gauntlets and running my bare hands through my hair.
She put her hand over her jaw, moving it around and feeling out the damage.
“Didn’t knock anything loose, did I?”
“Don’t think so.” She said. “Been through worse.”
“I hear that.” I said. “You sure did a number.”
“Sorry about the shoulder plate.” She said.
“Not a problem.” I said. “Been meaning to replace them anyway.”
“Nice.” She said.
“Took a pretty solid hit, though.”
“Yeah, what were all those cracks about my aim again?”
“I could ask you the same thing.” I said.
“Better with age, I guess.” She smiled, brushing her hair back and wincing as she pulled on the cut on the side of her forehead.
“Here.” I said, reaching out to look at the scar and gently stretching out her forehead around it with my fingers. “Eh.” I shrugged. “It isn’t too bad. Just a distraction. But you should definitely get something on it sooner than later.”
“Probably right.” She said. “I got plenty of experience with getting beat up though, so I’ve got some stuff.”
She stood up and limped to the kitchen, throwing open a cabinet and pulling out a medical kit.
I stared at the gun on the floor before she came back in, setting it down between us in front of the armor stand. She placed a glass bottle of bourbon in my hand as she resumed her seat.
“Picked up some of my bad habits?” I smiled.
“If I drank like you I wouldn’t have made it this far, but maybe a little.” She chuckled.
“I figured you’d appreciate it a little more than me.”
I took a pull off of it before she grabbed it out of my hand.
“Didn’t say you could take all of it.”
She pulled off of it herself as she pulled open an adhesive strip, starting to treat the cut on the side of her temple.
“Here.” I said, smoothing the bandage over the cut.
“Don’t get any ideas about me not wanting to kill you.” She said.
“Course not.” I laughed.
“You should probably fix up that hole in your arm.” She said. “Wouldn’t want you bleeding to death before I take you out myself.”
“Of course.” I said. “But the blood loss might give you the advantage you need.”
I stuck a pair of pliers in my arm to pull out a copper shard, clacking into a steel bowl on the table.
“Man.” I said, wiping the blood off the wound. “Just like the old days, huh?”
“Just as many stitches.” She said. “…What happened?”
“Years.” I said. “Changes people.”
“Not like this.” She said. “Didn’t think so… Were you serious about everything you said?”
“About how I wish I could’ve done more? Absolutely.” I said. “I did some things I regret.”
“Yeah, who hasn’t?” She said.
“I only wanted to help you.” I said.
“I know.” She said. “Just didn’t work out.”
“I never really asked.” I said. “What happened with the Red Surenos?”
“…Finished them off.” She said. “Ran them out of here, finished off the ones back out west.”
“You moved back west?”
“For a while.” She said. “I was born in Juarez… Well, Ciudad Juarez. After my mom left we lived in and out of New Mexico for a while, but he always hoped he could move us to Austin where the film industry was bigger. After I chased the Reds out of Juarez, they split between here and Guadalajara, so after I left Bastion I found my way down there… Reds don’t exist anymore, and the upper Surenos all know what the Z means.”
“Not too bad.” I said. “After Guadalajara?”
“…Stuff. I tried to work a desk in LA for a couple years, but… Well, you never really stop, do you?”
“No.” I chuckled. “Not really.”
“I did what I could to keep the drug trade in check around Juarez, but… It wasn’t easy to stay there.” She said. “Too much history. I worked for a while in the Southwest in and out of the border, didn’t stay down too long. Eventually I was approached by some French woman from the back East, and found my way back to Bastion.”
“You don’t sound too thrilled.”
“Vivian’s alright, but all the debutante crap with her organization was never really my speed. A little too blue-blooded for someone like me, so she mostly had me on mission, considering what she’s seen of my skills.”
“So no more cartel?”
“Not for me.” She said. “But no more Reds. All I needed.”
“…What… Why them?” I asked. “Everything you did was driven by them for so many years. Why the Reds?”
She sighed. “I guess… I guess it’s time you knew.” She said. “My dad… My dad was the best guy I ever knew. Growing up, if I wasn’t watching westerns, I was chasing him around the apartment with a broomstick horse and a rope.” She smiled. “He thought all those people were heroes, but above all of the rest of them was Zorro. We watched every movie they ever made about him. Dad was actually the first person to call me Zarra.”
“That’s sweet.” I said.
“He was a good man.” She smiled. “Like I said, best I’ve known.”
“Yeah.” I said. “My dad walked out forever when I was twelve, so.”
“My mom did the same when I was about five or six.” She said. “But god knows my dad worked through it. He did some daytime stuff when I was young. Wasn’t great, but at least it was consistent work.
“Just a couple years before he started getting movies, then it happened.” She said. “The Black Bandit.”
“Wait, wait, wait.” I said. “That’s like… nineteen years ago… Was he in The Blade of Zorro?”
“The star. Don Diego de la Vega himself.” She said. “Did you see the movie?”
“I love that movie.” I said.
“It was the crown jewel of his career.” She said. “First time I saw him put on that mask, it was maybe the proudest moment of both our lives.”
“So what happened?” I asked.
“Apparently he borrowed some money to make it to LA for the audition.” She said. “Whole town came in to help him get there… But the Reds weren’t too happy about not getting their percent from them, which meant they weren’t too happy when we came back to Juarez…”
“I’m sorry.” I said.
“He kept a revolver in his car.” She said. “They ran us off the road.
“I learned a lot that day.”
I said nothing, taking in the gravity of what she said.
“He was my hero.” She said. “I wanted to make sure they knew.”
“I’m sorry, Zoe.” I said.
We sat in silence for a few more moments.
“…Did I… Did I screw up somewhere?” She asked.
“I don’t know, Zarra.” I said. “That’s for you to decide.”
“…Do you think I can still… come back?”
“I’ve seen the darkness, Zoe.” I said. “The worst the universe has to offer.
“But I’ve never seen anyone beyond saving, if they really want it.”
“You think so?” She said.
“I saw some good in you once, Z. That’s why I chose you.” I said. “Even after the Reds, you still did your best to find justice. I’m sure Vivian Malveaux convinced you that you were doing some good.”
“You think I can find it myself?”
“I think you shouldn’t rush to it.” I said. “Take some time off, dude. You’ve been at this nonstop for fifteen years.”
“Yeah.” She said. “I guess the years aren’t easy. I mean, look at me. Who goes grey before forty?”
I laughed. “It’s not so bad.”
“Maybe not when it was four shades darker. I look like a ghost.” She said. “You look like you’ve done better.”
“I find my ways.” I said. “You have to find something.”
“What should I do?”
“That’s for you to find out.” I said. “If you really wanted, I could point you the right way, but you’ll have to find it yourself.”
She sat in silence for a while, considering the options.
“I think…” She started. “I think I should leave.”
“I don’t know.” She said. “Away from Bastion, at least for a little while.”
“If that’s what you think is right.” I said. “Where next?
She stood. “I don’t know.” She said. “Pack everything up in the Stang and drive ‘til she runs out of gas.”
“Sounds good enough for me.” I said. “But if I can make a suggestion?”
“Here.” I said, passing her a card from my wallet. “I got an old friend in Cancun who bought a couple miles on the beach and started a nice little place. White sand and the sound of the ocean.” I smiled. “Tell him who sent you and he’ll set you up.”
“Thanks.” She said.
“Take some time for yourself.” I said. “As much as you need.”
“What about you?” She asked.
“I still have a lot of work to do here.”
“I guess so…” She said.
We both stood in silence for a few moments.
“Don’t underestimate Vivian Malveaux.” She said. “She’s more dangerous than you think.”
“I know.” I said.
“I don’t think you do.
“Vivian is the head of a very old and very dangerous organization called Couture. She has some of the best assassins in the world under her command.
“They front with a dress shop on second, and… She has big plans.”
“Thank you, Zarra.” I said. “Everything helps.”
“There’s one more thing.” She said. “If you stop her… I don’t think you know what’s coming, but there’s… A shadow. No one knows his name. No one knows what he looks like. But everyone in this city who knows he exists knows that they should be scared of him.”
“I don’t scare easy.” I said.
“Just be careful.”
“I will.” I said.
“…I guess this is it.”
“I guess so.” I agreed.
“…Thanks, Azrael.” She said.
“You’re welcome.” I said. “Can I count on you being here at the end?”
“…Not this time.” She said. “I’m too close to this one.”
“But… Maybe.” She said. “Maybe some other time.”
“Well.” I said. “I’ll be right here.”
She smiled. “Until next time, Az.”
“Until next time, Z.”
I spread my wings beneath the broken skylight, crouching before she stopped me.
“When I left the room… Why didn’t you take the bullets out of the gun?”
“I never gave you much trust back then.” I said. “Figured that’s an alright place to start.”
“You knew I wouldn’t shoot you?”
“I knew you’d do what you think is right.” I said. “Whatever that took.”
An empty black room stood before them, shades drawn closed beneath a shattered glass skylight. The cabinets hung open, laid bare of only the essential items, and a silver mannequin stood unclothed on the table at the back of the room, empty weapon racks on either side.
Vivian stepped with reverence into hallowed memory, the dark room ravaged from the battle and Zoe’s prompt departure.
She stared into the void of abandonment, her eyes landing on the silver statue at the end of the room.
The distress splashed across her face as she walked toward it, taking in the emotion of the abandoned apartment as she stepped past the ruined drywall. She stood in front of the statue, pulling the phone from her pocket and observing the text notification.
“I’m sorry, Vivian.”
The tendons rose on the back of her hand as she tensed her grip, cracking the glass before she threw the phone on the floor.
“God. DAMN IT.” She yelled through her teeth, throwing herself forward and sweeping the weapon racks off the table before grabbing the armor stand and throwing it across the room. She flipped the table, stepping on the back side through the opening in the bottom before tearing the top off. She threw it aside, a ninjato firing into her hand as she slashed deep into the back wall after splitting it with her fist.
“Vivian!” Scarlett called. “Vivian, stop.”
Vivian threw the sword behind her, collapsing to her knees and swearing at herself as she dissolved.
Scarlett walked up behind her, placing her hands on Vivian’s shoulders.
Vivian clenched her teeth as the tears started coming, holding her tensed hands to her face and closing her eyes tight.
Scarlett pulled Vivian’s head toward her, holding her close as she tried to console her friend.
“She was my friend.” Vivian sobbed.
“I know, sweetie.” Scarlett said. “I know.”
Vivian scowled over her the wet beads on her lashes.
“I’m going to kill him.” She said. “I am going to cut off his head and mount it on a goddamn spike. I am going to end him.
“And I am going to do it myself.”
© Josiah Delnay 2016