C18: Memory Lane

A forbidden suburban street. Forbidden for where it led: down memory lane.

Turning into the nicer part of town to Anja felt like Little Red Riding Hood skipping downtown after dark. The sinking feeling that she was driving herself deeper into trouble remained subtle until she turned left just past the wooden fence before the stoplight. She continued all the way down to the stop sign.

“What am I doing? What am I doing?”

Anja gripped the steering wheel for barring. If she didn’t look up, she wouldn’t know where she had driven to. She wouldn’t realize how close she was to him. The panic writhing in her gut wouldn’t surface, and she could remain entirely in control of herself.

“What am I doing? Why am I afraid?”

Anja raised her eyes to the windshield. She glanced to the left. Right down there, through the side streets, was Sal’s old burger job. The silver car flashed before Anja’s eyes. Sal getting out of the driver’s seat. Jennifer getting out of the passenger’s. Stung by betrayal, Anja’s eyes wet instantly. She looked back to her steering wheel.

“I can’t. I can’t. I can’t do this.”

BEEP! BEEP!

A horn blasted behind her.

“Oh. Sorry.”

Anja released off the brake, rolled into the street and turned right. She swung left on the next street and crept down a side road between two white houses. She steered into the empty
lot behind one of the white houses and parked her car.

“Just gotta turn around. I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to do this.”

Anja took deep breaths in and exhaled them through tight lips. Her hands vibrated on the steering wheel no matter how hard she gripped for control.

“Come on! Just go dammit. Come on.”

She sobbed and threw herself back in her seat. “I don’t want to see him. I don’t have to.”

C17: 13th Hour

Near downtown Geneva, just two blocks from the Novella Bridge, the nightclub 13th Hour served booze until two AM, supplied drugs bagged by the ounce, and sold to-go partners in leather and lace packaging. And on occasion, cursed slaves with demonic power.

All under Cobra’s command.

During the day, 13th Hour looked like a polished, but abandoned building under renovation. At night, Keitaro hadn’t seen much other than the dark, dank backside of the building. Illuminated by a lonesome lantern outside the basement door with a view of the abandoned strip mall across the street.

“That’s the cleaner’s van.” Victor nodded toward the unmarked white van parked outside the club.

From outside the closed down barber shop under the Novella Bridge, Keitaro safely assessed the nightclub. The parking available on the property’s lot exceeded no more than thirty spaces or so. Enough for the staff maybe, but not for the amount of guests the club could accommodate. Keitaro noticed an empty lot across the street; possibly a customer parking lot. The building was constructed like an expensive villa.

Embellished with elegant black trimming and eggshell-colored concrete walls. The structure resembles traditional yet subtle
styles that, with one glance, brought Mexico to mind.

“There are two fire exits?” Keitaro spoke toward his shoulder without taking his eyes off the nightclub.

“The entrance we can see from here, and the one by Cobra’s office that leads out back.”

“Okay. Here’s the plan. I need to know the building’s blueprints thoroughly, to judge distances and develop comfort in the environment. Go in as if you’re me, which means no walking through walls, no transporting yourself across two places.”

“You’ll be able to see what I see?”

Keitaro nodded.

“Can you hear my thoughts or should I speak aloud?”

“Speak, please.”

C16: My Mary Jane Watson

“There’s a new smile on your face.”

Anja flipped her phone face down. “Hm?”

The Latino woman across the table forked another bite of tamales into her mouth.

“You’ve been wearing that smile all day.”

“Have I?” Anja said as she rubbed her sore cheeks.

“Oh, come on, honey. You’ve checked your phone ten times since we’ve been sitting here. What’s the good news?” The seventy-five-year-old woman scooted out a chair next to the Latino woman.

Anja tucked her hands between her legs, scooted to the edge of her chair and whispered, “I’m waiting on a message.”

“From who?” the Latino woman said.

“A man?” the elderly woman said.

“A man, yes.”

“Oh. A potential boyfriend?” the elderly woman said.

“A person of interest for now,” Anja said.

“What’s he like?”

“Yes, dear, tell us all about him.”

“Well, I just learned from a friend of mine that he works at a restaurant, and he wants to take me out to dinner so he can ‘inspire envy in others’.”

“Those are his exact words?” The elderly woman flung a dramatic hand to her chest.

“Oh, Anja,” the Latino woman said. “He sounds dreamy.”

“He didn’t look very dreamy when I spoke to him. He looked like a homeless person. He was all beat up. His face was swollen. One of my friends who met him said he was mugged.”

C15: Axeman, Uncle, and Papa Shotgun

“What are we doing here?”

“Practicing.”

Keitaro skipped up the front porch stairs.

“Practicing what?”

“Before we go.” Keitaro pulled his hand away from the doorbell he almost pushed. “You should know how haunted this place is.”

“Why you telling me? You’re the one going in handicapped and unarmed.”

“I am armed. You’re my weapon.”

“Okay. So then how haunted is this place?”

“You can handle more than one opponent at a time. right?”

Victor turned and rested his shoulder against the doorframe. “Look, I know why that fight in the alley might make you think I need practice—”

“Fighting as a ghost is different.” Keitaro hesitated on the doorbell again. “It’s better.”

“Easier?”

“Not by a longshot. But it has perks. Self-healing, manifestation, teleportation.”

Keitaro pushed the doorbell. It chimed inside and Keitaro pressed his ear against the door to listen. Victor peeked around Keitaro’s back at the empty driveway, no garage.

C14: Work to Do

Bang-bang-bang!

Keitaro glanced at his wrist watch. A little early for room service.

Bang-bang-bang-bang-bang!

“Keitaro, it’s me!”

Keitaro tucked the rest of his button-down shirt into his pants and zipped them up. He opened the door a crack.

“Holy shit. Your face is…normal-ish.”

“I didn’t call for you,” Keitaro said.

“I know, sorry. But you got a special delivery.”

Keitaro heard the crunching of cellophane, but couldn’t fully see the package in Robert’s arms. He opened the door the remainder of the way. “What is it?”

“For you, man. From ‘the lady in the blue dress’, the card says.”

Keitaro moved like he meant to chase her down. “She’s here?”

“No. She dropped it off at the front desk.”

“You saw her?”

“What do you think I do all day? Wait by the front desk watching guests come and go? No, I’m in the back. I got chores to do, errands to run,” Robert said on his way into the hotel room. Keitaro accepted the gift and shut the door.

“I don’t know you, and you don’t know me, but one phone call can make history,” Robert read the card.

“It’s a care package,” Keitaro said with a smile that nearly broke his lip wound open. He untied the bow, unwrapped the cellophane and admired the trinkets inside.

“Aw, man. She got you the good stuff. Gummy band-aids. Classic. Think these are real?” Robert rattled the pill bottle.

C13: King Solomon

Then

“I got the job.”

Sal sat his cup on the TV stand, kicking his feet up onto the ottoman. “That’s great!” He scrolled through his phone, selected and scrolled some more. “How much does it pay?”

Anja hung her purse by the front door. “Eight an hour. But they already offered me a management position. Said I’m more than qualified for it. After thirty days I get a raise. I’m so excited!”

Anja hugged her arms to her chest, curling up as if to contain her giddiness.

Sal looked up from his phone. “I’ll get a job too.”

Anja lowered her arms slowly, her face dropping with them. “Why?”

“So we’ll have more money.”

Anja dropped into the cushion next to him. “But, bave, you don’t have to.”

“I know. I want to,” he said.

“But…You know what I love the most?”

“Me.”

Anja rolled her eyes. “Of course. But I love coming home to you. You’re already here and we can go to dinner together or watch movies together or fool around.”

Sal ignored her hand as it crept up his thigh. “Bave, eight dollars isn’t enough.”

Anja stopped flirting. “Well, it’s only temporary. Maybe a month.”

“Then you get what? Nine an hour. That’s not enough either.” He sat forward on the couch with his elbows on his knees. “Jennifer offered me a job back.”

“You want to go back to burgers?”

C12: All Coincidence

Towel-dried, still damp hair. Shirtless to let the brand breathe. Pajama bottoms and bare feet. Fragrant Old Spice coiling from the bathroom. Soft piano melodies playing from his phone. A tranquil hotel room. Lamps dimmed to their lowest setting. Bedsheets drawn, fluffed pillows beckoning a head in need of rest.

Keitaro combed his messy black hair from his forehead as he ambled to the wall window. Overlooking the romantically enchanted downtown, the glow of street lamps spotting the glass and the mystic moonlight from above, Keitaro fantasized the lady in blue. In his imagination, her fingers would brush the skin of his shoulders as she glided from behind him to face him. Empathetic eyes would gaze up at him. She would brush the back of her hand against his puffy face, gently, lovingly.

“My heart looked like your face.”

What kind of coward would hurt someone so defenseless? That she would understand Keitaro’s pain because she once experienced it…what a tragedy.

Even a greater tragedy that she slipped away. What had scared her? That apology in her eyes before she had turned and hightailed it had hurt Keitaro more than the crippling agony of his ribs. She wanted to stay with him, but something compelled her to go.

“What have I done?” she had whispered.

The gasp of shock, almost as if she had been caught with Keitaro.

The apology in her eyes as she abandoned Keitaro on the couch.

She was protecting me, he thought.

Protecting him from what? From who? The same villain who pummeled her heart?

If she’s protecting me, then she’s already in danger, he thought.

His blood got to pumping, his mind started racing. Don’t get worked up, he told himself.

Keitaro relaxed sideways against the wall, staring out the window for comfort to his curiosity-driven anxiety.

C11: Rory’s

“Maybe try it again?”

Dante rang the doorbell a third time.

“Is it working?” Anja said, cradling her bloody hand.

“I can hear it,” Dante said.

“Maybe she’s not home.”

“Her car’s here.”

“I hope we’re not waking her up. You know how cranky she gets,” Anja said.

“Well.” Dante sighed and stepped down from the front porch.

“Maybe we should go to
the hospital. I can’t have you standing out here all night bleeding.”

“They’ll do a blood test and know about the chloroform, Dante.”

Dante pulled his jacket back onto Anja’s shoulder after it started to slip off. “Well…” He marched back up the stairs. As soon as he reached for the bell, the door swung open. A beautiful blonde woman in her early twenties glanced Dante up and down.

“What up, slut?” she said.

Anja dropped her forehead into her good hand, shaking her head.

“Good to see you, Rory,” Dante said.

Rory left the door open as she moved through her house. Dante helped Anja up the stairs and inside. He shut the door.

“Sorry it took so long to answer. I was reading a book, had to poop, rushed to the bathroom and the damn turd wanted to play peek-a-boo for fifteen minutes,” Rory said.

“Lovely,” Dante said.

He guided Anja to a bar stool in the kitchen.

“Looks like you got a little blood on your hand,” Rory said from across the bar counter.

C10: Sorority Sisters

“You didn’t have to buy dinner, Anja.”

“It was my pleasure.”

Dante pat her hand as it was wrapped around his elbow. They meandered back to his SUV on the cobblestone path, guided by golden lamps and adorned with starlight. Babbling Seneca Lake muffled the traffic noises from nearby midtown.

“You should send him a care package,” Dante said.

“Oh, Dante. That’s a wonderful idea!”

“Fill it with a ton of stuff that won’t help him at all, but will—”

“Make him smile,” she finished.

“You know, those old pill bottles that are filled with mints, and what not.”

“And the gummy band-aids,” she said.

“A corduroy teddy bear.”

“Okay, but if we’re doing this, we should drop it off tonight,” Anja said.

“What’s the rush?”

Anja slowed her steps, sensing her surroundings. “Well.” She tuned into the air and how dense it had suddenly become.

“Anja?” Dante searched the thinned out crowd around them.

Passersby, nothing amiss.

“He didn’t have luggage,” she said as if snapping out of a trance. “He might not be staying more than tonight.”

“Definitely include your phone number then.”

“Dante.” Anja gasped and clung to him in panic.

“What? What is it?” Dante cuddled Anja close as if he could save her from the impending danger.

C9: Dinner with Dante

“Wow.”

Dante balled up his napkin and sat it on his dinner plate. He stood to welcome Anja to the table, taking her hands and kissing her cheek.

“You’re all dressed up,” he said.

“It’s a fancy restaurant, aren’t you supposed to dress up?”

“Sure, but Anja…”

“Is it too dressy?”

“It’s a date dress, honey.”

“You think I should have saved it?”

“I think”—he pulled her chair out for her—“with the two of us being together in these contexts, no morally righteous guy would approach you.”

“Oh, but Dante, please don’t say that we should start going places alone.”

“Anja, you’ll never have a romantic encounter with me around.”

“I’ll also not be safe going half the places I go in this city without you,” she said.

“The truth of that is surreal.”

“I have this funny feeling, Dante, that you think I’ll replace you with a boyfriend.”

Dante gulped down a mouthful of red wine. “I hope you do.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Anja waved her napkin to swat him.

“Nothing!”

“Am I holding you back from meeting Mrs. Right?”

“There is no Mrs. Right for me, dear.”

“There is somebody for everyone, Dante. Don’t be such a sourpuss.”