I enter the Rivera house a little after eight the next night with my trusty backpack in tow. Alexander is still notably absent which releases a bit of the tension that’s managed to build up in shoulders. Chris is making mac and cheese on the kitchen stove when I actually get into the house.
“There’s boss’s favorite runner,” Chris nearly shouts.
“That’s me,” I say sarcastically, rolling my eyes as I heft the Jansport backpack onto the counter before him. “Things have been a little rough since school ended, I tell ya, but turns out the most loyal customers also have equally addicted friends, so I’m all set.” I lie with ease, the words floating right out of my mouth with very little hesitation. I’ve never really struggled with lying before but it’s been harder around the Riveras since getting caught would mean a lot of people getting hurt, including myself.
“You are pretty smooth, kid, so I’m not really surprised,” Chris replies with an exaggerated roll of his eyes. Jeez. The kid’s in a strangely happy mood today.
I unzip the big pocket of my bag and pull out multiple envelopes of cash. He continues stirring the pasta in an awfully rusted pot.
“You know, it’s kinda sick how you guys can produce so much, right?” I say casually, shifting easily into mission mode. “It’s so hard to get that main component, right?”
“It really is,” Chris agrees, completely none the wiser as he sways side to side with nonexistent music. “We get it from this Staten Island chick, Dr. Holbach. She’s a real doctor or some shit, but I guess that job isn’t enough for her.” Words are flying out of his mouth faster than I’ve ever heard him speak.
I ingrain the name permanently into my brain: Dr. Holbach. Can it really be this easy? There can’t be many doctors with the last name “Holbach” in Staten Island. Chris may have just ended my whole undercover operation without even realizing it.
When I finally meet Chris’s eyes, his pupils are blown so wide they’ve nearly swallowed his irises. An elated smile is stretched across his face. I finally notice his jerky movements and the way he stirs the pot of noodles with vigor. He’s high. It looks more like coke than Valiant so I don’t have much to fear of him attacking me or anything.
Sober Chris probably wouldn’t have offered the doctor’s name without a second thought. He’s the closest to Alexander’s second-in-command that there is so I find it very hard to believe that he’d tell me such sensitive information no matter how smoothly I posed the question.
“Sounds like some privileged white bitch,” I say smoothly even though my heart is soaring with the high probability of this entire mission being over very soon. “Suburban life must not be doing it for her.”
Chris hums in reply before he dumps the pasta through a strainer in the sink. Steam rises high in the air as I place the envelopes on the counter before him.
“Chris, man, can I get kitted with another supply so I can be on my way? I gotta customer up my ass who’s been itchin for a fix since yesterday morning.”
“Yeah, yeah, sure,” he agrees, gesturing wildly to the hallway that leads to the supply room. “Grab your normal amount, no increase this week. Don’t try to stiff us cause we’ll hunt you and break your everything, got it, Ford?”
I nod and then disappear down the hallway to the most illegal room in the house. I cram bag after bag of the tiny baggies into my backpack and count as I go so that Chris or Alexander doesn’t come find me to break my spine.
I shout a quick goodbye to Chris as I leave the house. He replies with only a vaguely similar sentiment as I go. I head back to my temporary apartment with a little spring in my step, excited that I’m finally in the homestretch to finishing this shit show of a mission.
All I do when I finally get back to the apartment is place the backpack in its usually spot by the front door. I don’t really have much else to do here and there’s no use in trying to make it feel more homey when I’ll be moving out any time now. I’m not dumb enough to call, text, or video chat with Max and tell him what I’ve found out. The Rivera gang is obviously not one to fuck around with. I wouldn’t be shocked to find out out that all of my things are bugged.
I decide to start the packing process early. I drag the boxes that I used to move from school out of the hall closet by the front door and turn on the TV in the living room for some background noise. There aren’t many clothes in the dresser or bedroom closet since I didn’t bring much with me in the first place. I tuck most of it into the first box before adding the few personal things I brought along, as well. I tuck all of the boxes back into the closet once I’m done so as not to draw any curious glances if I were to have some unexpected guests.
I lay down for the night feeling lighter than I have in ages. Everything that happens after today is essentially out of my hands.
The tower nearly glitters in the sunlight on clear, bright days. It seems more beautiful than normal for some reason as I walk up the stone front steps and into the main lobby. I nod to Moon as I do so and smiles back as I waste no time making my way to the elevator. I take it up to the conference floor to see Max with my backpack full of illegal drugs in tow.
“You look real cheery today, huh?” Max says when his eyes first land on me. “Good news?”
“Very good news,” I reply before dropping the backpack onto the oak conference table with a resounding thud. “Dr. Holbach. A doctor in Staten Island. She’s their link.”
“Link to the main Valiant component?” Max says as his eyebrows quirk high into his hairline. “You already have the name?”
“Let’s call it being in the right place at the right time,” I say with a slight smirk. “Alexander’s second was higher than a kite on coke yesterday. Could barely keep his mouth shut. I didn’t even have to pry.”
Max nods as he pulls up the League database with a single swipe of his hand. The League has registries on just about everything under the sun: doctors, lawyers, nurses, you name it. Max looks pretty impressed as he types the woman’s last name into the holographic green search bar that’s suspended in mid air. The League also tends to have newer, better technology than the general public. While your average civilian is still using a normal smartphone, some League teams have access to things like HoloTech. The HoloTech has to be the coolest stuff: holographic keyboards and 3D diagrams that can be projected and accessed just about anywhere you choose to set it up.
“I’ve got a driver’s license, license to practice medicine, and multiple diplomas connected to one in Staten Island. Do you know anything else?”
“No,” I reply before shaking my head, “I didn’t want to make him suspicious by asking more questions.”
“Well, there’s luckily only one doctor with last name Holbach in Staten Island. Rebecca Holbach. She’s an oncologist. I think it’s safe to say she’s our supplier.”
“Does that mean I’m done?” I say in a quiet voice.
Max laughs a bit and shakes his head.
“Almost. I have to coordinate with D.C. first. We’ll keep you undercover long enough to get all of our ducks in a row. We want her in custody before we move in on the actual cells. Gotta cut this off at the source as much as we can.” I nod in agreement even though I’m really not thrilled with having to continue on pretending to be someone I’m not. I groan loudly before shoving the backpack in his direction.
“Fine,” I say grudgingly. “Fill me up and I’ll be on my way until you call me back in.”
Max sends me a sympathetic smile and does as I ask, sliding the bag back across the table to me once it’s filled with more money to deliver.
“You’re dismissed,” Max says, but it’s with a playful tilt to his voice as he types out confidential emails to D.C.
I wave to Mr. Moon after I take the elevator back down to the lobby of the building. I can’t help but feel incredibly deflated as I make my way down the street outside. I’m kind of pissed that I allowed myself to get my hopes up so high because I should really know better at this point.
My mind shifts abruptly to Rowan when I’m sitting on the train back to my apartment. These next few days will be my only chance to set things right with him before everything goes to shit. I am committing the ultimate betrayal right now. My actions will get Rowan and everyone he knows arrested and jailed for who knows how long. If anyone in their gang finds out that he was involved with me, he’ll be in serious danger.
I’m only back at my shell of an apartment long enough to eat dinner and watch the sun go down when I get a text from Rowan.
hey. wanna meet up to hang?, the text says. I consider it for only a brief second. I owe him that much.
yeah, sure :) I write back. lemme kno where to meet you
He tells me to meet him at the subway stop by his house I’ve met him at once before. He’s not at our normal meeting spot when I step off the train and onto the platform. I look around for a few seconds and then decide to just wait where he usually already is. He’s probably just running late.
I don’t even hear them coming. One minute I’m watching hamster videos on my phone and the next I’m being grabbed by multiple sets of hands. They drag me back with a hand firmly in place over my mouth. I get a quick whiff of familiar cologne before my head is smashed against the tiled wall and everything goes dark. Chris and some fellow buddies.
I’m surrounded by people who have started calling me their friend in the last couple of weeks when I wake up. Chris. Caleb. Sebastian. Hell, even Isaiah is here despite how obviously high he is. There’s a more heartbreaking group to their left: Rowan and his father. Beside Alexander is a group of other people I don’t know. Alexander doesn’t look happy to see me like he normally is.
We’re probably in the normal house I’ve been going to but behind one of the many doors I’ve never opened before. I don’t know if that makes me feel better or worse.
“Well, rise and shine, Lakey-boy,” Alexander practically coos. I cringe internally. I know what someone high on Valiant sounds like and he’s way up there right now. This won’t end well for me. “Just got a few questions about you and my boy, Rowan, here.”
My eyes dart to Rowan’s and back to his father’s face. This is absolute fucking mess. I swallow thickly. “Okay.”
“Just wondering, you know. This business is tricky. Gotta make sure we keep our employees in check, even our runners,” Rivera continues as he paces back and forth while his hands fly all over the place. “My boy says you two are just sleeping together and I just wanted your opinion on that. Relationships are not allowed.”
“Well, good thing we’re not in a relationship, then, huh?” I reply, keeping with the story Rowan has decided on. Nothing good will happen if I decide to deviate from whatever web Rowan has managed to spin. “Isn’t worth much more than his dick in my book, really.” I add the last bit just to reinforce my neutrality. I can see the words hit Rowan right in the face, though, and instantly feel bad. I’ll have to make it up to him somehow once we’re out of this mess and the mission is officially over. If I can, at least.
Rivera jumps back and claps his hands together so hard that I jolt in my restraints from the sound. I recognize the rope they tied me up with as the neon green nylon they keep in the kitchen for some reason.
“Alright, great, guess all that’s left is we have to prove it.”
I squint up at the man in confusion. Prove it? How the hell am I supposed to prove something like this?
“Oh, wipe that sour look off your face, Lakey-boy. The burden is on my boy,” Alexander chirps before gesturing for his son to come closer. “Rowan, son, just work your magic and burn him til we say stop. Don’t worry, we won’t get carried away. Just need to know he really doesn’t mean shit to you.”
The way he says it so casually startles me to my core. This nonchalant attitude can’t just be the Valiant talking. Alexander must truly be a bit wrong in the head.
“What?” Rowan sputters out before uncrossing his arms and taking a step back. Alexander rolls his eyes so hard that it almost looks like it hurts.
“You heard me, boy, light him up, huh? Then we can move on with our lives.”
Rowan sets his jaw, gritting his teeth and balling his hands into fists at his sides. There’s a long pause before he takes a step back towards me. So this is happening. I expect him to pull out a lighter or some matches from the pocket of his jeans but instead all he does is lay his palms on the bare skin of my arms. He’s breathing hard when he finally meets my eyes. He doesn’t do anything but just holds my arms and stares. There’s a strange pleading look in his eyes.
He’s asking for permission.
I nod minutely even though I’m still not entirely sure what he’s asking to do. There’s no lighter or fire source, so what is he trying to do?
Then, I feel it. There are suddenly flames licking the skin of my arms. Rowan’s hands are engulfed in them but he doesn’t seem to be affected by it at all. I start to understand just as the pain begins to set in. Rowan is enhanced. He’s a fire bender.
“Keep going,” Alexander says from somewhere behind his son. There’s the smell of smoke and I see the vague outline of a cigar hanging from the cruel man’s mouth. “Not convinced.” He smirks, then, like he knows something I don’t.
Rowan grimaces. The skin of my arms starts to burn off. The pain is impossibly inescapable. I bite my lips hard enough that I can taste blood to stop myself from making a sound. I don’t want to give Rivera the satisfaction of making me scream.
“Continue,” is all Rivera says before blowing smoke harshly in my direction.
The heat intensifies. It feels like it’s eating away at my inside. My skin is crawling. A pained whimper slips past my lips. Rivera hoots with excitement.
“Alright, alright,” Rivera says after what must be an eternity. “That’s enough.”
The flame emitting from Rowan’s hands disappears but the burning doesn’t. The smallest things like the disruption of air moving against the burns leaves me in near agony. It’s never ending. I’ve been cut, sliced, and carved before. I’ve been kicked, bruised, and thrown down the stairs. I’ve had broken and cracked bones as well as countless concussions, but I’ve never been burned. Slight burns, sure, like when the water is too hot in the kitchen sink or you grab a pot handle that’s simmering on the stove. I’ve never had something like this, though.
I immediately try to compartmentalize the screaming pain like I’ve done so many times before, but this is different. It’s almost impossible to simply ignore.
“Hit em, Chris,” Rivera says and there’s a sudden blow to my head before my vision cuts out once again.