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“You ever rode in a car before?” I ask Witch-Hazel as Larkspur leads us to their whip.

“No, I’ve ridden a horse before,” she offers.

“Cowgirl, huh? You ever ride one in reverse?” I chuckle to myself.

“Why would I do that?”

“I’m just making a dirty joke, don’t worry about it.”

“You’re so fucking gross,” Larkspur says. “You’ve never been in a car before, Hazel?”

“The town I’m from is...technologically stunted,” she answers.

“That sounds like hell to me. I couldn’t grow up in a small town like that.”

“It’s all I’ve ever known.”

“Fair enough,” Larkspur says, starting the car. They put a radar detector on the windshield, a device to alert us if cop cars are nearby. I get in the backseat with Witch-Hazel.

We take off and she looks out the window like this shitty city is fascinating. I’d point out the few interesting things but I’m too concerned with what I’m gonna say.

‘How do I talk my way out of this, while also learning who’s behind this?’ I don’t think she tried to have me killed. Because if she did, I’d definitely be dead regardless of any magic potion. She’d probably do it herself. Either way, I can’t rule out the possibility.

We get there faster than I thought we would. I open the door for Witch-Hazel and introduce her to the headquarters of the Bay Leaves. A huge, ancient and ornate Catholic church. Built by skilled masons back when this city was promised to be a beacon of religious devotion. Supposedly the American equivalent of the Vatican. A real long time ago. One too many scandals and grisly murders has left this particular church abandoned by the general public. That is, until we moved in. Augmented and renovated to fit our needs, this fortress is the main base of operations for the skilled killers I had the pleasure of growing up with.

“Welcome to my stomping grounds,” I say.

“Is that another dirty joke? Because I don’t get it,” Witch-Hazel replies. Larkspur snickers at the miscommunication.

“No, I grew up here. Learned everything I know here...most of what I know anyway,” I add.

“Stop with the innuendos,” Larkspur commands.

“Never,” I refuse. We walk up the long stairway to the church at the top we see a man knocking on the reinforced wooden door.

A middle-aged man who I’ve heard called “falecido” so much that I thought it was his name. There are a ridiculous amount of stories him getting shot and then being seen walking around the next day. I didn’t believe them until I saw him get shot four times in the chest by a delivery guy whose bike he was stealing. And then saw him the week after. No matter how much the world wants him to die, he doesn’t.

He’s knocking on our door, peddling the only business he’s ever been in; selling stolen bikes. He’s slamming the flat of his hand on the door, just screaming to get the attention of anyone ignoring him inside. The bike he has to offer is rusty and definitely belongs to a kid.

“Falecido, what happened to that $200 I gave you two days ago?” Larkspur asks. They believe that falecido isn’t worth the energy to hate or pity. Certainly isn’t worth the attention that killing him might bring. I disagree but it’s a moot point.

Falecido loudly mutters something incomprehensible. Larkspur takes out a few bills.

“Here’s $100. I don’t want to see you again.” Falecido scuttles away to sell his bike elsewhere. Hazel looks at him with an investigative eye, watching him scuttle away. She has something to say but chooses not to.

Larkspur enters the code on the keypad and the door unlocks.

We enter the revived church. The columns and ceiling are tagged with graffiti from the various denizens of our city who have broken in before we settled here. Where I assume stained glass windows once were are bricked up; this reduces possible points of entry.

Most of the pews have been refurbished into tables that now hold guns, knives, and other such instruments of pain. Numerous members of the Bay Leaves and potential recruits mill about with their business.

“Next time he comes around, I’ll shoot him in the fucking face!” I hear Kadupul yell from somewhere. Many of the Bay Leaves loudly agree in a chorus of praise.

“I got stuff to do, she’s in her office,” Larkspur says before walking off. I lead Witch-Hazel to the back and ascend two flights. When we get outside her door, I ask Hazel to wait there.

There's no need to knock, she knows I'm here. I push the dark wooden door and enter. I don't know if this was the original pastor’s office, but now it belongs to Tamara.

It reflects her, how her mind works, and what she thinks is important. The office is an eclectic mess. Trophies and trinkets she’s earned over the years are scattered and about the space with no real sense of design. These are things she’s taken from people who have given her trouble in the past. It’s a reminder to herself of her strength. There’s been a lot of people who wanted her weak, dead, or out-of-sight and she’s taken something from each of them after she’s taken their life. The office is crammed with these reminders.

I walk over to one of the two open seats on the other side of her desk. She sits there, her computer screen on, a laptop open, and her phone in her hand. She’s using all three, reading something from her phone and typing it into her laptop while occasionally checking her computer screen. I know better than to interrupt this process and wait patiently.

All the things I know for sure about Tamara can be written on an index card with space to spare. She’s white, European. I don’t know where she’s from but English isn’t her first language, but it’s one of many she knows. She sometimes slips into another without realizing it. When she came to this city, how she started all this, and why is a mystery I’ll probably never solve.

She doesn’t look like the head of an organization of assassins. She never wears suits, smokes cigars, or talk with a slow menacing voice. It’s what allows her into certain places and take advantage of situations. She’s short, enough so that people think she’s a small girl in a big city. It’s through the extraordinary acts of violence I’ve seen her commit with unrivaled ruthlessness that let me know the truth about her; she’s a big shark in a little pond. The only hints of danger you can see on her are the scar that slices through her lips and the tattoo on her arm. Hers is different than all of ours, the skull only cries bay leaves. That and all the muscle she could fit onto her tiny frame.

Tamara blows her long hair out of her face. I don’t know what color to call it, reddish-brown I guess. From this distance, you’d think the freckles on her face were dirt. She scratches her big pointy nose the way she does when she’s thinking.

Tamara finishes with whatever it is, putting away her phone, closing her laptop, and leaning back in her seat. The light from the only remaining stained glass window washes over her. I always thought it was odd that this window doesn’t have any religious iconography on it, instead, it has only a fig tree.

“Remind me to thank Larkspur later for dealing with falecido. I simply wasn’t in the mood,” she says. It’s moments like these that remind me that she's not that much older than me. When I was a kid I thought she was an adult but recently I realized she's only a few years older.

‘Not that I know how old I am.’

“Did you go see Digitalis?” Our de facto doctor.

“No need for Digit. I’m fine, besides the eye.”

“Oh yeah,” she examines my eye. “Get some ice on that.”

“Yep.”

“Why didn’t you call for backup?” I show her my destroyed phone. She laughs at my misfortune.

“Here, wait a sec.” She pulls out a phone from one of her drawers. “It’ll take a while to encrypt another phone so take that one. Just don’t look through the pictures.”

“Oh? What’s on there?” I reach for the device but Tamara grabs it first. She quickly deletes all the photos off the phone.

“It’s better if I remove the temptation entirely,” she says before she tosses the phone back.

Tamara folds her hands.

“So, tell me what happened.”

“I did the job. Easy. Two marks. When I went over to Scutch Ave to collect the money. They decided to double-cross me. Danny thought killing me would be a better alternative to paying. He’s not making that mistake again,” I explain. Tamara stares at me the way she taught me to look at people. She wants to know if I’m telling the truth.

“How many of them did you kill?”

“Seven. Three on the fourth floor, four on the way down.” The bodies should still be there, it’ll corroborate my story. “Few gunshots, rest were stabbed.”

“Quiet, doesn’t jam or run out of ammo. Just like I taught you.” I nod. “Why do you think they tried it?”

“Honestly, I have no idea. Thought we were cool with the Dead-Nettles,” I say.

“Not really, we’re not cool with anybody. The arrangement we have with every piece of shit in this city is that we don’t take sides...still you’d think they’d be more grateful considering how much they’ve hired us lately.”

“That’s what I’m saying! Didn’t they hire four of us for stuff?”

“Five,” Tamara corrects, pointing at me.

“You can’t think of anything else?” She asks.

“How much did they promise to pay?”

“Not much. It was a simple job, 15k,” I answer.

“Danny and them deal in girls. That’s couch change to them. They’d know that trying to kill one of us is worth more trouble.” I think back to that moment. Meeting in that office, I knew something was off, that maybe they wanted to hire me for another job. How easily Danny lifted up that briefcase. He said something before I heard the safety go off on one of his guys gun.

“Danny said something. Before they tried to kill me. He said ‘we have to reap what we sow’,” I recall. “I thought he was trying to make the occasion grander but now, I think he was trying to send a message.”

Tamara takes out something I’ve never seen her without. Copper brass knuckles, one of a twin set. She slips her fingers into them with practiced ease. Anyone who doesn’t know her would think this is an intimidation tactic. Anyone who knows her knows it is, but it’s also how she thinks about annoying situations. Her thumb plays over a tiny button that when pressed once releases a spring-loaded blade hidden in the base. Press again and the blade shoots out. As a kid she promised one day that she'd tell me the story of how she came by the unique weapons. She never did, but after I saw her kill five dudes twice her weight with them, I know it’s not a pretty story.

Tamara mutters something in what I think is Greek.

“As you know, I’m not a rash person,” Tamara begins. I once saw her kill a man because he blew smoke in her face, though she did warn him. “I’d like to shed some light on the situation before we do something regrettable. I can’t say what their plan was yet, but we don’t react, we act on intelligence!” Tamara slams her fist on her desk. She has that thousand-yard stare she always gets before setting on the warpath. “I’ll get a cleanup crew, then I’ll see what I can find out. If this was a message, I’ll send one right back. I’ll show every last bastard in this damn city, what happens when you fuck with one of the Bay Leaves!” It’s rages like these that I feared so much as a child. It doesn’t take much for her to kill a person when she’s perfectly calm, so who knows what she might do when she’s mad.

“If any dumb motherfucker gets the idea that we can be messed with; I’ll splatter their brains all over the-” she stops to do something much scarier. Tamara rolls her shoulders and her head, pulling back all her anger in an instant. She distills her fury, focuses it, clearing her mind for now. It’s one of several mental techniques she’s taught us, but I’ve never been able to do it that fast.

“I promise you that I’ll find whoever’s behind this,” Tamara says in a chilling voice. Even though it’s a promise to help me, I’m unnerved all the same. “And I’ll make them pay.”

“I know you will. So long as I’m there when you go after them.”

“Of course,” she agrees. She puts away the brass knuckles and assumes her normal demeanor. “Sorry, I forgot to ask how you made it out of there.”

“Almost didn’t. I would’ve died if not for Hazel,” I answer.

“Ahhh yes, this Hazel I’ve heard so much about. Tell her to come in.”

I walk over, open the door, and gesture for Witch-Hazel to enter. When we take our seats again, Tamara looks her over.

“Where are you from?”

“IronHenge,” she truthfully answers.

“Never heard of it.”

“It’s a small town, not even on the map.”

“Hmmm, I bet it isn’t. What’re you doing in our fair city?”

“Oh, just seeing what city life is like.”

“Bullshit.” Tamara says, surprising both of us. “You’re lying. No one comes to Oleander City unless they’re running or hiding from something or someone. Strange girl shows up on the same day someone decides to kill Holly. When shit like this lines up, it’s a sign of change. Things change all the time, especially in this city.” Tamara stands to emphasize her next point.

“Whether you’re a good or bad change is yet to be seen. But no matter what, me and mine intend to survive.”

Hazel opens her mouth to defend herself but Tamara raises a hand. “Don’t bother, it doesn’t matter. What does is that you saved one of my best killers. And you did it without knowing who we are, so that means you’re probably a good person. The world is in short supply of those.” Hazel and I exchange a look.

“Thank you,” she replies.

“Hollyhock and I owe you one. More her than me, but still. Whatever or whoever it is you’re running or hiding from, I’ll keep an ear out on the street. If someone...unusual shows up here, I’ll let Hollyhock know. Okay?”

“Okay.” Tamara sits down.

“The Bay Leaves owe you a favor. I hate owing favors. So if you need anything, say: someone killed, let us know and we’ll do it for free. Or at a heavy discount.”

“Oh, I’m sure I won’t need anything like that,” Hazel says.

“Don’t be so sure. Around here, a bullet to the head solves a LOT of problems. And if Holly here gives you any grief, let me know and I’ll smack her around. I raised her to have some manners.” I flip my middle finger at her. “See? A woman of sophistication.” Witch-Hazel laughs a bit.

“You’ll be the first to know,” she replies.

‘Great, last thing I need is these two ganging up on me.’

“Holly, here.” Tamara opens another drawer and takes out a roll of hundreds. She tosses it to me. “That should be about 10k. I want you to lay low for a while, and you should have some change in your pocket.” She nods to Hazel. “Take her somewhere nice when this is over.” Tamara opens her laptop and that’s our cue to leave.

“Thanks,” I say. “I will.” I hold the door open for Hazel.

“Hold up,” Tamara says. I hear keys flying through the air and catch them. “Take the green car, it’s too hot to be walking.”

I nod, “I appreciate it, Tamara.”

“Of course, I need my workers at their best. Dying of heatstroke prevents that,” she replies.

There are many things I’m thankful for when it comes to Tamara. She found me in that hellhole, taught me to survive, gave me a roof over my head, a cool tattoo, and a crew to rely on. But the thing I’m most grateful for is that she never did that creepy thing where she pretends we’re all family. She may have raised many of us, but she doesn’t act like she’s our mom. We’re investments and every job we complete are her efforts paying off. She could’ve, but I think having that aspect of honesty is what makes us so loyal. Clarity is a luxury in our world, so we all flock to her.

Tamara dismisses me with a wave, getting back to whatever it is that runs this operation.

I lead Witch-Hazel to the parking lot, which she desperately wanted to see for some reason.

“Your leader is an interesting woman.”

“Yeah, that’s a word you could use,” I remark. I’m about to crack another joke when I see a bizarre sight; three dudes who aren’t Bay Leaves hanging out in our parking lot. They gotta be drunk, high, dumb, or some combination of the three. Because no one in their right mind would be chilling here. They take notice of us, well, they notice Witch-Hazel since she’s wearing a big puffy dress and looks like a model.

“Damn, girl. You lookin’ real fine. Hotter than this weather,” one of them says.

“Wanna have a real good time with us?” Before the next stupid idiot says the next stupid thing, I interject.

“Do you guys know where you are right now? Or who you’re talking to?” One of them sucks his teeth.

“Ain’t no one talkin’ to you, with your busted up face.” As much as I want to cave in their skulls, I have much bigger fish to fry. These dickheads will have to get taught a lesson by someone with time on their hands.

“Yo baby, do the carpets match the drapes?” One of them has the nerve to say. I briefly wondered the same thing but I didn’t ask like an asshole. Witch-Hazel, who doesn’t know she’s being hit on, turns to me.

“What does that mean?”

‘Oh boy.’

“I’ll explain later.”

‘Probably not.’

“Look,” I address the trio of wasted carbon. “Don’t y’all have some other parking lot to disappoint your mothers and all of mankind in?”

“You want another black eye?” One of them puffs out his chest.

That’s it: saying something gross to Witch-Hazel, and threatening me is all it takes to convince me that these guys deserve the ass-whooping I’m about to give them.

Fighting three people, even when you aren’t sore and very tired, isn’t a good idea. But if you do have to, and I really do, you have to control the pace of your opponents.

“Can I see your belt?” I ask him. I find that in situations like this people are more likely to listen to odd requests. I don’t know why but they are and this guy is no exception. He takes off his belt and hands it to me. “Thanks.” I take a second before I whip it straight into his face, hitting him in the eye. He yells out in pain and holds his face.

“That’ll teach you to keep your eyes to yourself.” Then I notice blood dripping between his fingers. I look at the belt and realize I grabbed the wrong end and hit him with the buckle part. It’s not what I meant to do but it’s already done.

“Guess now you’ll really have to,” I say. His companions don’t absorb the message that I’m not to be fucked with from this minor display of unintended violence. They rush at me; I sidestep one of them, wrapping the belt around his arm. I step forward and pull, hearing the familiar POP! that lets me know I dislocated his shoulder. As he screams out in agony his other friend comes at me from the side. I kick his legs from under him, as he falls I bring my elbow to his face. When I turn around to ready my next attacks, I see Witch-Hazel calmly watching. With her hands behind her back, like she might intervene.

I unwrap the belt, use it to pull the same guy’s neck and slam my knee into his face. He falls back like a bag of bricks. The guy I just elbowed gets to his feet. He takes a boxer’s stance and tries to jab at me. I lean out of the way, hook my arm across his chest, and with all my force clothesline him onto the hot asphalt.

Surprisingly, the guy with the bleeding eye stands up. He pulls out a butterfly knife and points it at me.

“Really? You want to lose your other eye?” He tries to stab me in the gut, but thanks to his recently compromised eyesight he doesn’t come close. I grab and twist his wrist, he bends down to one knee. I aim the knife in his hand right at his good eye.

“I think we can both agree this isn’t how we wanted this interaction to go,” I say to him. He nods. “I bet this morning you thought you’d have two eyes by the end of this day.” Again he nods. “Now look, I have more important things to do than kill motherfuckers like you in parking lots.” I lean in closer and whisper “you’re only alive cuz I don’t want to kill in front of her. So consider yourself extremely lucky a bloody eye is all you’re getting away with.” He nods rapidly. I let go of his wrist, kick him in the chest, and throw his belt back on him.

I look around at my handiwork.

‘Could’ve been better.’

“C’mon Hazel.” She steps over the men and walks next to me. We get to the car Tamara lent me, it’s an awful green car. Low profile like everything else in the lot. We get in, I start the car and immediately turn on the A/C. Hazel is looking at me but isn’t saying anything.

“Yes?” I ask.

“Did you have to use such force?” She asks with more curiosity than I’d thought she would.

“Yes. And they got lucky, I’m still sore. Otherwise they really would’ve got it.” She stares at me for a bit.

“Okay,” she says, seemingly satisfied with my answer. Hazel leans back in the seat and lets the A/C cool off her skin.

‘She’s so...accepting.’ I pull out of the space and head to the road. In what is the least illegal thing I’ve done all day I pull out my phone and call Digitalis.

“Hey, Digit. There’s three assholes in our parking lot and someone beat the shit outta ‘em. One is missing an eye, another has a dislocated shoulder, the last guy might have some broken ribs I dunno.”

“Was that someone you?” Digit asks.

“Yes. Look either help them or kill them, really it’s up to you.”

“We’ll see. Bye.”

“Bye.” I hang up the phone.

“Where are we going now?” Hazel asks, not minding the last bit of my brief conversation.

“Somewhere...safe,” I answer.

It takes about 40 minutes to arrive. An apartment complex in the “nicer” part of Oleander City. We take the elevator to the 5th floor and I lead the way to room 546.

“After you.” I hold the door open for her. She enters and takes a look around. I kick off my boots and touch a switch that activates the A/C in here.

“What is this place?” She asks.

“This is my home.” I gesture around. “Welcome.” Her face lights up at the revelation, a wide smile springs forth. “It’s not much but you were living in a shithole.”

“True,” she replies.

“So if you ever wanna come over or something then-”

“Great! I’ll move in right away!”

‘Move in?’ Before I can say anything Witch-Hazel pulls out that strange necklace I saw before and chants something. In an instant, a bright light flashes and when it fades, all of Hazel’s stuff is here in my living room. She claps with joy and starts moving things around. I was inviting her to come over anytime, not move in with me. But now she’s got all her stuff and she looks so happy to be here that I can’t in good conscience tell her to move back to that abandoned apartment. So I guess she’s living with me now.

‘Things change indeed.’

Chapter 3 End.

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About the author

ThoughtsRoamGuy

Bio: I’m a young writer from NYC I want to be a professional writer someday and hope I look good while doing it. I like writing action and romance and even exclusively either. Follow me on Twitter and Tumblr for updates and bug me about my stories!

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