The Walkers

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Shirts Versus Skins

"Do you like chess?" Victor Chirac shrugged and made a move for Nergal's queen. In his previous life, he had been quite the aficionado when it came to the game of chess. Chess was to Victor a powerful status symbol of royalty.

Nergal didn't care about such things. His curiosity towards minds he couldn't read was limited to his enormous sense of self-preservation. Knowing whether or not Victor loved the game of chess was less important to Nergal than knowing whether or not he would betray him someday soon.

As such, these petty mind games were his only window into his thought processes. This felt merely like the springboard for his latest rant. "I admire chess for its royal elegance and demand for tactics and forethought but, believe me when I say this, it is a sorry substitute for real military strategy."

Nergal spread his hands and gestured across the chessboard. "Tell me. What do you see?" Victor shook his head. There was no point in playing along. "I'll tell you what I see. Artifice. Pieces of wood pretending to be armies."

Nergal paused a moment and made his move. "Chess is flawed in that it does not mimic life's most fundamental characteristic." Victor made his counter. Nergal smiled and made one move against him. "Unpredictability."

Victor looked down to see that he had already lost. "Checkmate." Victor conceded defeat. "You see, if you had been paying attention, you would have been able to notice how every one of your moves brought you into this trap." Nergal loved talking down to Victor as if he was a human infant.

Nergal grinned. "Not so in real life. Real life is much more complex. In real life, I could do everything perfectly and you might still find a way to escape. In fact, you might even be able to rewrite the rules to allow for an escape."

Victor had gotten used to Nergal's constant prodding. He was trying to say something without saying it. Judging by the subtext, Nergal had messed up somehow and was looking for an elegant way of asking for Victor's help.

"It is fortunate that we are, in fact, no longer enemies but allies united as one. Another thing that chess fails to simulate properly. The changing tides of allegiance. Black is black and white is white. No one ever changes sides in chess. Fortunately, we are not so limited. We are able to form alliances."

Victor Chirac was sure now that Nergal was preparing to ask him for help. In the conversations they had shared, flattery always presaged a request. Nergal was a clever demon who knew how to spin words into a beautiful tapestry of promises and reassurances to keep his lowly servants in check.

"I have recently lost key pawns in our glorious upcoming war." Nergal tilted his head. Victor knew this as the omen of a pointed question. "Have you ever heard of asuras?" Victor nodded. Disgusting creatures. "I had three of them at my disposal. Now, they are dead. I want you to find their killers."

Victor shook his head. "I have no time to settle your insipid vendettas. You promised the overthrow of humanity and we have not even gained a good foothold in our own city. I knew that demons lied but this is intolerable."

Victor felt an invisible hand clamp down on his throat and lift him off the ground. His lungs didn't need to breath but this was not an air choke. This was a blood choke. Victor was feeling faint. Nergal's famous ear-to-ear grin appeared on his borrowed human face. "I find your lack of faith disturbing."

Nergal allowed Victor's feet to touch the ground but did not let go of his neck. "And you are making the wrong assumptions as well." Victor hovered in and out of consciousness. "Vengeance is not my desire." Nergal released his grip on Victor. "Whoever killed them would make excellent soldiers."

Nergal turned his head to the tiny television set propped up against the wall in the break room of the J'Adore. "What is your opinion of these troubling world events?" Troubling. That was a strange word coming from a demon.

Victor Chirac did not think anything troubled a demon much less the promises of chaos and wholesale slaughter. "Don't get me wrong, I do enjoy the spectacle of violence as much as the next hellspawn but consider, if you will, our stake in humanity's little temper tantrums." Victor gritted his teeth.

Vampires and monsters didn't have a stake in humanity's reindeer games. It was the very reason that Victor had worked towards the collapse of human civilization. He would not have endangered anything that he had a stake in.

The world event Nergal was referring to was the rumblings between North Korea and South Korea. It had gone on for several months and Victor must thought that the denizens of Hell might have a hand in it. The demons did not or else Nergal, former secret police chief, would have known about it.

"Imagine what happens if North Korea releases its nuclear arsenal on South Korea. Each countries' allies would attack each other in kind. Then, when the last man surrendered to the treachery of radiation sickness, where would that leave us?" Victor didn't understand the question. Nergal obviously did.

"When was the last time you fed on cow's blood, Victor Chirac?" Victor had never fed on cow's blood. No vampire worth his fangs fed on anything less than human blood. Victor suddenly understood what Nergal was angling at.

"You see now. Vampires desire human blood to feed on. Hell is literally built on the degradation of human souls and us demons draw our powers from the depths of Hell in order to thrive. If mankind goes under, we all do."

Victor Chirac had never looked at it like that. Victor often judged his former species harshly for being a fat useless contented people but vampires were no different. They too had a standard of living dependant upon humanity.

"If destroying human civilization is our ultimate goal, we must do so as carefully as possible lest we destroy our own civilizations in the process." Nergal possessed an uncanny depth of wisdom even for a demon from Hell.

Pedro Espinoza knew he was finished. He could feel it in his bones. The Skins, his brother, had offered him up as a sacrifice to the Shirts. It didn't take but they still planned to kill Pedro nonetheless. His family would not raise a finger to stop it. They were hoping against hope that his death would serve as the basis for a treaty. Poor blind sons of bitches, Pedro thought.

Pedro had no regrets. Killing one of the Shirts was a honor for which death was a small price. He had shown the rest of his brothers that these gringos were far from the invincible man-hunters they portrayed themselves as.

Pedro spat in the air. Pedro remembered a time when the Skins had free rein over their territory. Ever since the Shirts muscled into town, the Skin Elders were wheeling and dealing behind the backs of soldiers out on the streets.

This gang was a family to Pedro, both figuratively and literally. Many members of the Skins were cousins and second cousins bonded by common blood. They were putting their lives on the line for the ideals of their gang.

Though the Skins were, in fact, a street gang, they were also a devoted band of vigilantes who protected the storied streets of their neighborhood against all comers, especially outsiders. The Shirts were the epitome of outsiders.

Hell-bent racists, the Shirts came to town gunning for the Skins. They killed women, children and the elderly to get to them, a modern-day massacre of the innocents. The brothers had really no choice but to play their sick game.

The game, as sick as it was, had rules. The Shirts wanted to live to terrorize other gangs and an all-out war on the Skins would end up their last stand. The Shirts met with Skin Elders to draw up the ground rules of their battles.

The Shirts enjoyed promoting the possibility of coexistence. It allowed them to stall for time. Killing all the Skins at all once wasn't going to happen without severe casualties. Killing them off one at a time though might work.

For the Skins, it was a weight lifted from their conscience to know that the neighbors would not be drawn from their hellish gang war. Those days when the Shirts were killing to get to them were devastating to the Skin Elders.

Pedro saw through their tricks with the clarity of a Skin Elder. The Shirts were here to destroy the Skins. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But soon. The Skins were falling over themselves to aid in their own demise.

The Skins had deceived themselves into thinking that the Shirts' diplomatic ways were genuine. The Shirts were biding their time. It was the same story. White invaders with their lies to dark natives. Only the names had changed.

In this stressful night of dying, Pedro thought to light a cigarette. Pedro lit the sucker and breathed it in. To Hell with the Surgeon General and printed warnings on the back of the pack. Pedro was going to die to lung cancer.

Pedro began listing off in his head all the ways he might buy in the end. A group of them might show up at his apartment and burn the place down with him in it. A Shirt might kidnap a relative of his to force a fatal rendezvous.

In all likelihood, Pedro Espinoza was going to die from someone killing in an alley somewhere on his own turf, no less. Knowing that he was marked for death hadn't settled in yet. Now, that fact was starting to get to Pedro.

Always one to put up a strong front, Pedro saw no point in indulging nostalgia. Now, he was free to be sentimental. He looked at the street corner where he had helped his little brother Jose get back his bike from a bully.

The school bully had belonged to a gang. Hence, only someone acting on behalf of an even bigger gang could get away with messing with him. Damn vato was bleeding from his ears by the time the Skins got done with him.

Pedro reached his pocket and pulled out his revolver. He gave it a spin. He felt like a gunslinger ready for a showdown at high noon. Sadly, it was seven-thirty at night so the heroic illusion was botched from the very start.

Still, Pedro Espinoza felt ready. He tipped his hat to a passing car full of women his age. They all laughed at him. To them, Pedro was just another wetback at the street corner pretending to be a vaquero to pick up chicks.

Caught up in an unanticipated moment of humiliation, Pedro didn't notice right away that he had retreated into the dead end of an alley flanked by red brick buildings. Pedro's heart raced. This was the last place he should be.

If his violent death had been waiting for the opportune moment to strike him down, Pedro Espinoza had handed it to him on a silver platter. This was the dark alley where bad things happened, even to street soldiers like himself.

The shadow of his killer felt upon him. He knew this Shirt. His name was Ulric. His brother, Thor, was the Shirt that Pedro had shot six times in the head. Ulric was a crazy man. He didn't his brother's death to fuel his anger.

Ulric was mean and, if he aimed to kill Pedro over Thor, the only question was whether Pedro was going to take him down with him. Pedro fired three shots. Ulric ran up to him and punched a hunting knife into his chest cavity.

A cherry top passed by as Ulric stood over Pedro's bleeding body to bloat. The cop drew his gun at Ulric. Surprisingly, Ulric dropped down to his knees and placed his meaty hands on his head. Ulric was turning himself in.

The last thing Pedro saw was unreal. This cold-blooded assassin stopped in the middle of a kill and surrendered to an overweight beat cop. He didn't struggle as the cop, winded by the light jog, slapped the cuffs on his wrists.

Officer Mario Lunetti was a good cop. A bit of an embarrassment for his lack of physical fitness, Officer Lunetti was nonetheless a cop's cop. He knew how to get his job done and no one ever took the heat for his mistakes.

Officer Bernard Walker enjoyed working with Mario a lot. Many other cops didn't share his high praise of him. A few officers even dared to call his pathological professionalism a symptom of brown nosing the commissioner.

Despite his glowing appraisal of his work, Officer Lunetti was no super-cop by any stretch of the imagination and the last one anyone expected to bring in a Shirt without a fight. And that was exactly what old Mario had done.

His report on the arrest only further strained credibility. Mario just happened to be in the right place at the right time. The vic, a Skin named Pedro Espinoza, was alive but incapable of anything besides mild brain activity.

The last beat cop to try to bring in a Shirt, Officer Todd May, was still on medical leave from the injuries sustained. Something didn't smell right. This guy, Ulric Eriksson, had given up when the rest of his gang had fought back.

A lesser man would have blamed Ulric's surrender to the three gunshot wounds in his chest but that was the strangest part of all. While the wounds were far from fatal, Ulric had barely acknowledged them during his arrest.

"It's just a flesh wound," as the Black Knight of Monty Python would say. Even if the guy wasn't dying, his pain threshold was off the scale. Even stranger, the drug tests didn't pull up anything in his system. Ulric was clean.

The Shirts were not ones to play nice with cops. The last Shirt had fought tooth and nail to avoid the insides of a jail cell. It didn't add up. Todd May had parts of his face bitten off and Mario Lunetti was without a scratch.

Bernard Walker knew the little game he was playing. He had buried himself up his eyes in casework. His boss hadn't singled him up for extra workload. Bernie knew how to keep his head down. The real reason was at home.

Worse than anything he could imagine, his personal life had splintered into pieces. Bernie desperately needed a reason to avoid reaching for a dust pan and tossing his life into a wastebasket. The situation needed time to cool off.

The rescue of the Goode family from the asuras of Agartha was a proud moment for the Walkers. Nothing beneath the earth or above it should have been able to ruin that. In saving Michelle from her sins, he learned of them.

Engulfed in the telepathic illusions, Bernie watched and learned. Bernie heard his wife confirm the terrible truth behind an old suspicion that had once narrowly destroyed his marriage.

Michelle, love of his life, had cheated him with another man.

While not yet willing to blame himself for his wife's infidelity, Bernard was self-aware enough to know he hadn't always been there for Michelle. A few times, it looked like their marriage would end in divorce rather than death.

Each time, Bernie had turned the tide of marital discord. He had gone above and beyond the call of the average husband to make her feel like a princess. Bernie would have fought a legion of demons to save this jewel of a union.

Nicholas Newton wasn't a name that had sent up any red flags. As far as he had known, he was just another one of Michelle's co-workers. Now, he knew the truth. The truth that Nick had been, at least on one occasion, her lover.

Lover. That word ailed Bernie in the mere act of thinking it. Bernie wanted to forgive her and sweep everything under the rug but that would just start the cycle all over again. Would she go back to Nick the next time she felt unappreciated? Would Bernie's forgiveness be license for future infidelity?

Questions like these tore at his mind. What hurt him even more than what he found out was how he found out. Did Michelle ever plan on telling him? Or did she plan to take the secret to her grave? Bernie was supposed to be cop.

There were signs he should have noticed a long time ago. Bernie's suspicion had been searching for a long-term affair. The thought of his wife engaging a one-off fling with a co-worker was the furthest thing from Bernard's mind.

Alejandro Ruiz, the police interrogator from the department, staggered into Bernie's desk and braced himself up on it. Ulric had dominated Ruiz in the interrogation room. Each attempt to build a rapport met by active resistance.

Ulric Eriksson was the nightmare suspect every police interrogator dreaded meeting. From the looks of things, Ulric had been running the show and that was an hour ago. Bernie shuddered to think what had happened since then.

"You won't believe this." Ruiz paced around him. "Our mystery man wants to talk to you." Ruiz was right. Bernie didn't believe him. "I wouldn't even to be entertaining the thought of this ridiculous charade if it wasn't for ..."

Bernie nodded. Ruiz didn't need to finish that thought. A rarity among cops, Ruiz lived in the neighborhood he patrolled, the same neighborhood gripped with fear by the Shirt-Skin gang war. Ruiz wanted it over and done with.

Still, interrogation procedures were quite clear about granting these kinds of request. Ruiz was flirting with a minimal suspension of at least six months. Ruiz was the pirate and Ulric was the stolen map to some buried treasure.

Bernard Walker knew that look of someone who just didn't feel safe anymore. Bernie had seen it on his own face in the bathroom mirror the night he had learned of Michelle's "indiscretion." Bernie could see it in his eyes. Ruiz was more than willing to put his badge on the line to end this.

It was just a question of whether Bernard Walker would join him in his quest. He nodded. He might be losing Michelle over this job and for what? Moving violations and preteen shoplifters? Bernard needed more than that.

Bernard Walker and Alejandro Ruiz positioned themselves in the interrogation room. Hollywood would have people believe that the average interrogation room looked big enough to house twenty or thirty officers.

Just another example of Hollywood hokum, Bernie thought. In real life, the room possessed utilitarian dimensions. The room took up enough space to accompany a desk, two swivel chairs and a crooked metal chair for the perp.

The cramp room was made that way by design, one of the ways that it increased discomfort on the part of the one being interrogated. Judging by Ruiz's distress by the interrogation's progress, Ulric wasn't being affected.

Bernie knew all this from his days as a cadet. Ulric Eriksson sat in a steel chair as comfortable as a Buddhist monk in deep meditation. "Evening, gentlemen," Ulric Eriksson said, unconsciously mimicking Hannibal Lecter.

Ruiz started in on the questions. "We know you killed Pedro Espinoza." That was a lie but Ulric didn't need to know the truth. "You were caught in the act and you will be doing life for the crime." Ulric smiled at that comment. "Did I say something funny?" Ulric's smile only widened.

"Doing life?" Ulric shook his head. "Don't you get it?" Ruiz didn't even respond. Police interrogators were trained not to answer any questions. The flow of information only went one-way. "We're all doing life." Ulric paused. "I'm just having more fun doing it than you two are."

Ruiz shook his head. "Cute. Real cute." Ruiz looked over at Ulric. "You asked to have Officer Bernard Walker present during questioning. Would you like to explain why?" Ulric shifted in his seat, not so much out of discomfort but as his way of showing his detachment from the situation.

"I don't want to." Ulric looked at Bernard. "I have to. You see, my brothers are interested in your family." Bernard's blood froze over. "We know who you are or rather what you are." Ulric rubbed his beard. "You are Benandanti. We are berserkers. We both hunt monsters for a living."

Ruiz couldn't hold back a laugh. "Hey, Chuckles. Halloween isn't until the end of the month." Ruiz lounged back in his seat. "You guys aren't anything special. You are just a bunch of killers. Plain and simple. Your rap sheet reads like a horror story. You guy are Sickos with a capital S."

Bernard read through the rap sheet. How could he have missed this? Everywhere they had been and everything they had done matched the pattern of monster hunters. The Toledo slayings last year read like a mass execution of du-sith. The Detroit killings the year before must have been hundrefolk.

"Alright," Bernie began. "Suppose you're right. Suppose we both hunt monsters." Bernie shrugged to make it seem to Ruiz that he was just going along with the gag. "Why not?" Bernie touched Ulric on the shoulder, invading his personal space. "What are we hunting this time, pal?"

Ulric gritted his teeth. "Skinwalkers." Ulric spoke those words like he did not care for its taste in his mouth. Bernard knew something was up. Skinwalkers were a harmless breed of shifters who lived as perpetual outcasts. They were only monsters in the sense they weren't strictly human.

A sigh escaped from Ulric. "Skins are slippery bastards. They know all of our tricks and we could use the extra muscle to bring them down." Ulric added as an afterthought, "I'd be willing to pay you out of pocket. I ain't got much but it is the least you deserve for your troubles."

Bernie shook his head. Interrogation or not, Bernie wasn't going to throw his hat in with these guys. "Listen, pal, the Skins aren't Boy Scouts but they are not monsters. If they have broken the law, it's something we humans needs to deal with on our own. You should just turn and walk away."

That maniacal grin returned to Ulric Eriksson's face. 'Spoken like a true race traitor." Ulric added as an afterthought, "By the way, your boy Noah got a beef with one of our new members. Ian was on about something and don't think your Noah stands a chance against him now."

Noah Walker pulled out one of his teeth. For the first time in his life, Noah didn't understand why he was trying an ass-kicking. Noah was channeling for dear life and Ian Rockwell was keeping up. Noah tried to dodge one of Ian's haymakers. The wild blow struck Noah in the nose.

Noah tasted his old blood. Ian had left the note for the fight in his locker this morning to meet on the football field after dark. Noah arrived to the obvious, Ian Rockwell with a cheering chorus of his thug friends in the stands. Instead of dog-piling him, Ian challenged Noah to single combat.

Noah had figured that Ian's only way of getting back his balls was to beat Noah the way Noah had beaten him. Noah thought it would be a short fight. He was right, after a fashion. This was going to be a short fight. Noah delivered his famous under-the-chin kick. Ian let the kick hit him.

Ian didn't even flinch. Even as he felt the chin buckle under the blow, Ian's gaze never felt from Noah's eyes. Thinking of the hundred and one Ian could have circulating in his system, Noah took a straight jab to the left side of his jaw. Noah fell to one knee caught Ian's kick in his hands.

Ian dropped his foot on Noah's hands. The bones in his palm fissured like an earthquake moving through an unopened fault line. A jab to the ribs splintered a bone or two. Noah was being ripped apart one bone at a time and there wasn't anything short of turning he could do to save himself.

Noah considered the possibility of finishing this in wolf form. Noah could have easily ripped his throat out but then he'd have to kill one of the spectators as well, some of them almost qualified as decent people. Then, he would have to hide their bodies. It was too much work for one fight.

Noah collapsed to the ground, thoroughly exhausted by the gnawing pain of his injuries. Ian's thugs swarmed down from the bleachers, carrying ropes and ladders. Noah was going to be strung upside-down from a goal post in the end zone and there wasn't much he could do about it.

"Your son is a very lucky boy." Doctor Gary Brandner looked over his charts. Bernard Walker and his entire family had arrived as soon as they got the call. A frightened groundskeeper had called 911 when he had found Bernie's son Noah Walker badly injured and hanging from a goal post.

"Admitting nurse reported far more serious injuries but that was obviously an error." Bernie couldn't tell the good doctor that the nurse was right. If not for the accelerated healing, Noah could be in a coma right now like Pedro Espinoza. This was what Ulric was warning him about.

Bernie thanked God that Ian, a newbie among the Shirts, hadn't thought to use silver on Noah. If he had, Noah wouldn't have had the benefit of his accelerated healing right now. Michelle walked up to him. "Honey." Then, she said the words every husband dreaded. "We need to talk."

Alyssa winced uncomfortably. Michelle wanted to have this conversation with him alone. "Ali, dear, can you get me a Sprite from the vending machine?" Michelle said all that without turning away from him. Armed with her flimsy excuse, Alyssa exited the waiting room. "I still love you."

Bernie dug his fingers into his forehead. The headache he was having overpowered his awareness of the many knots in his stomach. "Noah could have died today. Doctors could be one blood test away from finding out he's not human." Bernie sighed. "Michelle, now is not the time for this."

"When?" Michelle asked, a note of desperation hanging in her voice. "When is the right time?" Michelle sighed. "It'll never be the right time and you're just looking for a reason to see me as the bad guy." The words knocked the wind right out of here. Bernie couldn't believe all of this.

"Ever since I met you, you always had to be the hero. Careful not to show any pain. You didn't even cry when your parents were killed right in front of you." They weren't his parents. As cold as that sounded, it was the truth. "Whenever the hurt got too much, you buried it deep inside."

Michelle held his hands in hers. "I have tried everything to reach you." Michelle sighed. "Even things I shouldn't have." Bernie turned away. If this was a runabout way of justifying her cuckolding him with her co-worker, his heart had no desire being anywhere near this bombshell.

"Look." Michelle pointed an accusing finger. "You're doing it again. I'm spilling my heart to you and you are ignoring me. Hoping I'll disappear the moment you stop listening." Michelle looked down at the silvered knife he had snuck past security. "Hunting doesn't take any real courage."

Michelle gripped the sides of Bernie's face. "Facing the real monsters does." Michelle searched for an answer in Bernard's eyes. "I love you and I know you love me." His wife kept staring at him. "There was a time when you were so sure of that you even proposed to me. Twice. Remember?"

Bernie had learned the hard way a long time ago to control his emotions. Not just from his foster parents' death but from his courtship of Michelle. He had fallen head over heels in love with Michelle. Love at first sight. His heart fluttered each time she walked by. Each time she sighed and spoke to him.

Caught up in the adolescent rush of first love, Bernard Walker proposed to her on the nineteenth date. She declined. It took a year and a half to recover all the ground he had lost with Michelle. Then, only when he was certain that she returned his affections in kind, did he risk a second proposal.

Every twist and turn in life taught him an unforgiving lesson. Never lead with your heart. All the times he acted on instinct ended in disaster. Nothing born from his heart ever amounted to much. It was only in quiet cynical contemplation did he master life and gain its plentiful bounty.

"You hated that man who followed you around like a lovesick puppy. He asked you to marry him. You turned him down. Instead, you married me because I knew how to toy with your heart and make you feel for me. I can't go back to being that man again." He sighed. "I'd only lose you."

Bernard could feel the tears set to come down from Michelle's eyes. "You're losing me now. I didn't appreciate what you were to me back then. If I had known that this was how you really felt about that ..." He found himself struggling to breathe. This was turning into a helluva of a mess.

In a brief moment of clarity, the sight of Bernard's reflection in a glass window shifted. It was no longer his face there. Instead, Ulric was staring back at him, winking at him. Michelle could have been describing a berserker, a harsh unfeeling man-beast who never allowed himself to suffer.

Ulric Eriksson had seen past his Benandanti heritage. He had looked into his heart and saw a kindred spirit, a warrior devoted to being hard on the outside and dead on the inside. That was why the Shirts couldn't see the Skins as the harmless shifters they were. They chose not to care.

Michelle had done everything, including screwing a man she had no feelings for, in the vain hope of penetrating his impenetrable emotional hide. Bernard was still choosing not to care. It didn't excuse what she had done but he was far from blameless. Bernard grabbed Michelle and held onto her.

In that sudden embrace, Bernard finally let himself cry. Sudden choking sobs alternating with long wailing cries. The world was an unforgiving place filled with monsters who robbed people of their lives, their sanity and, often times, their humanity. He had to be better than this world.

Those who hunt monsters, Bernie thought, misquoting a German philosopher. "You're right." Bernie tilted Michelle's chin up. "We did need to talk." Bernie kissed her on the forehead. "I'm glad we did." In this tender moment of reconciliation, a discordant noise rang out from Noah's room.

Bernard and Michelle arrived at a terrible sight. The combined ranks of the Shirts and Skins had gathered in Noah's room. Bernard had seen the bodies outside the room. These two gangs were on the warpath and the location of Noah's broken bleeding body was the site of their next battle.

A couple of the skinwalkers had already transformed into spirit coyotes, waiting for an invisible signal from one of the elders to attack the muscle-bound Nordic monster hunters. Bernard held up a hand. "This has gone on long enough." Bernard spoke those six words in drawn-out breaths.

Bernie rolled his eyes. "You don't get it, do you?" Everyone shook their heads. "You're going to kill each other." Bernie looked back and forth. "Nobody is willing to back down, so nobody is going to win. Everyone will die. And for what? What reason could you have for wanting to die?"

Bernie looked at the Shirts. "So you can rack up a couple more monsters?" Bernie looked over at the Skins. "So you can have your heroic last stand?" Bernie looked over at Ian who had maimed his son, Noah. Then, he looked at his wife. "I'm willing to forgive and forget all of this. Are you?"

Bernard couldn't figure why his words resonated with these criminals. Perhaps, by unraveling one of the many knots in his marriage, he was granted an unprecedented degree of emotional intuition. Or, perhaps, both the Shirts and the Skins had just been looking for a way out all along.

One of the elders from the Skins walked up to the leader of the Shirts. The other Shirts recoiled from the approach. The leader extended a hand. The elder shook it. An uneasy air of unreality settled over the unspoken truce. This was a fragile moment subject to the careless whims of one rogue.

"No," Ian muttered. He looked at Noah, still unconscious from the beating he had received earlier. "You're not getting off that easy." Ian charged at him. Michelle ran up behind him, armed with Bernie's silvered knife. A stab to the back later, Ian's meaty legs gave out from under him.

Everyone in the hospital room nodded as if Ian Rockwell's last attempt of vainglory had sealed the terms of the armistice. "I can't feel my legs," Ian realized with horror as the two gangs got to work cleaning up the bloody mess they had created on the way in. "Why can't I feel my legs?"

A German military theorist once thought that war was diplomacy by other ends. Perhaps, then, diplomacy was war by other means. War didn't always have to be waged with bombs. Bernie had stopped two gangs from slaughtering each other with nothing more than a few well-placed words.

Bernie's daughter Alyssa walked into Noah's room as the last of the Shirts and Skins filed out of the room. She must have seen the bodies being carted away. Alyssa obviously didn't understand what was going on. Bernie looked at Michelle. Whatever it was, it was something truly amazing.

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