~~~

Diane woke to the sound of banging outside her trailer door. “Fuck me,” she hissed, realizing that she’d overslept. Her two-man escort had arrived with the latest shopping list. She rolled her eyes in frustration at another morning of pointless tasks assigned to keep up appearances, as well as at her own sluggishness for not being up and ready before now.

There was more banging outside the door.

“Give me a damn minute!” she barked. “I’m getting dressed!” Diane rushed out of bed and grabbed a light grey hoodie. She moved as fast as a one-armed woman could, trying to throw on the hoodie. Then she stopped. What if it’s not my escort this time? Her heart started to race as she tried not to picture Candyman’s men storming in at any moment to finish last night’s business.

She reached for her blade.

“Diane,” a woman’s voice called out. “I’m coming inside.”

Nadia? Diane immediately hid the knife beneath her mattress. What the hell is she doing here?

Before she could prepare herself, the trailer door opened. The tall slender woman with short-cropped blond hair stepped up into the trailer and smiled at her.

Diane sat back down on the bed, responding with a confused smile.

Nadia quickly closed the door and laughed, “You look like shit.”

Diane stared at the attractive woman’s long, one-piece strapless red dress, and said, “Yeah… and you don’t. What are you doing out here?”

“Relax,” she said, plopping down next to Diane on the bed. “We’ve got your escorts and mine out there waiting on us hand and foot. After last night, I thought you might need a friend today.” She stared at Diane’s morning hair, then down at her jeans and hoodie, and finished, “And by the looks of it, I’ve arrived just in time. Were you planning on going out dressed like that?”

Diane rubbed sleep from her eyes, yawned, and then looked down at what she was wearing. She shook her head and laughed. “I… just woke up. It was a rough night.”

Nadia grabbed her arm and giggled like they’d been friends since childhood. “Well, your wonderful new look just screams, ‘Lazy day on the couch with chips’.”

“Don’t forget the dip,” Diane added with a smile. She ran her hand through her disheveled morning hair. “Maybe this new look will catch on. I know it isn’t the ‘Nadia, who wakes up fresh out of the Barbie box’ look, but it’s way more comfortable. You should give it a try.”

Nadia snorted into her hand. “You’re a mess… but a delightful one. Tell you what, let me fix you up for your public appearance. We’ll make the rounds together and satisfy the rumor mill, then head back here. Then you can pull me out a comfy sweater from your college-dorm-looking pile of clothes and we’ll snack on chips and dips all damn day ‘till we’re wearing the crumbs.”

Diane laughed. “Don’t tease. That’s sound like heaven.”

Nadia picked up a brush near Diane’s bed and started brushing her hair.

The hunter tensed up.

“Settle down,” Nadia playfully said. “It’s just a brush. I know it’s been a while, but I think you can handle it.”

“Screw you,” Diane said with a laugh, allowing herself to relax.

“You okay?” Nadia asked. “After last night, I was really worried about you.”

“I’m better now, thanks to you. That could’ve ended a lot worse.”

Nadia frowned while stroking the hunter’s hair with the brush. “That was uncalled for,” she said. “Sometimes he forgets himself… and takes situations too far.”

“Yeah. I’d call humiliation followed by the threat of rape definitely ‘too far’.”

“I spoke with him last night,” Nadia said. “He won’t do that again. He listens to me… sometimes. I made him realize that what he did to you was beneath a man as great as he was.”

Diane laughed. “So… you stroked his ego a bit?”

“I definitely stroked something.”

“I didn’t need that visual.” Diane shook her head and swallowed the remainder of her pride. “Thanks again. I really mean that. If you hadn’t intervened…”

“Let’s not think any more about that unpleasantness.”

Diane nodded. “Okay.” She shifted gears. “How did you get away? Won’t that man miss you terribly?”

Nadia leaned back on the bed and laughed. “Don’t they all?” she teased, with a wink. “Candyman’s got a busy agenda today. No time for me, I’m afraid. So… it looks like your stuck with me.”

Diane gave her a crooked smile. “You’re seriously going to be bored as hell with me. In case you haven’t noticed, I suck at appearances, or pretending to give a shit about who’s watching me do what. I feel so ridiculous all dressed up and-”

“Looking like a woman?” Nadia teased. “I know you’re a fighter. I’ve seen it for myself. But it’s okay to let your hair hang down and be the woman, too.”

Diane turned away. “I’ll never be half the woman you are. And I’d still say that if I had both arms.”

Nadia rolled her eyes. “You mean you’ll never be half the tramp that I’ve become, right?”

“Oh, no!” Diane was quick to correct. “I didn’t mean… I wasn’t talking about that!”

Nadia laughed. “Relax, girl. I’ve got tougher skin then that.”

“What I meant was… well… someone like you lights a room up and commands everyone’s attention the moment you enter. I know I’m just a farmer’s daughter turned fighter, but I’ve seen enough to know that there’s a strength in you… in how you handle yourself… as a woman. I don’t possess that strength at all.”

Nadia sat up. She appeared genuinely touched. “I think that was the best compliment I’ve ever received.”

Diane scoffed. “Please… I’m sure you’ve heard it your whole life.”

“I wasn’t always like this, Diane. I had to work hard at it. I was much more like you. Awkward, timid, clumsy.”

“Ouch.”

Nadia laughed. “I’m talking about being a woman, and the grace and power that comes from knowing who you are in that regard. We all have it, girl. We just don’t all know what we have.”

“Well… you certainly do,” Diane said. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I’d rather you not join me out there today.”

“Why?”

Diane sighed. “It’s hard enough to dress like a woman… but I can fake that. But with you around, I’d be making a damn fool out of us both.”

“You’re worried that you’ll make me look bad?”

“I’m clumsy as a woman, remember? Besides, you intimidate the hell out of me in this arena. Hanging out with you in public would be like walking around for five minutes with a fashion model, pretending to be somebody, then realizing you look and act like the model’s aide.”

Nadia smiled. “Your precious, you know that? There’s a level of honesty about you that makes me feel comfortable letting my guard down. I can be… me… around you. That’s a strength, too.”

“If you say so.”

“Not to mention, you’re already a bad-ass,” Nadia said raising her fists.

Diane laughed. “You’re a bad-ass, too. You’ve mastered weapons I’ll never manage to wield. Just ask any guy who’s seen you move those hips.”

Nadia laughed at the jab. Then her eyes lit up. “Speaking of bad-asses, I have a hell of an idea!”

Diane looked terrified.

“No, you’ll like this. I promise.”

~~~

Opening at Ollie’s Oasis was the calm before the evening storms. It was too early for last night’s hangover victims to return for more abuse, and only a few dedicated drinkers frequented the bar this early, allowing Wendy time to process last night’s events. Most mornings, she was eager to grab a mop and clean up the putrid mixture of stale beer and vomit, just glad to have a distraction, but not today.

Herbie had joined her, keeping himself busy by restocking the bar and making it clear by his loud silence, that he was still pissed at her.

She’d done her best to avoid his notice, hoping he’d calm down enough to ask the million questions that vexed her.

Finally, it was Herbie who broke the silence. He leaned over the bar, took a deep breath, and wiped sweat from his brow. He glared at her and said, “That was the last time you do anything like that in my bar, do you understand me, girl?”

Wendy usually had something smart to say to counter Herbie’s grumpy moods, but wisely remained quiet instead, holding her mop and averting her eyes.

“Do you have any idea how much trouble you caused me last night, girl? And I don’t give a rat’s ass who that was… you don’t attack the customers! Not ever!” Herbie started mumbling under his breath while running a dirty rag across the bar counter. “That little shit could have cost me big time!”

Wendy could wait no longer. “What happens now?”

He stared at her and shook his head. “What do you mean? We get this shit-hole ready! I’ve still got a business to run.”

“But… what did you promise him?”

“Promise who?”

“Mr. Silver… you know… the man I attacked?”

He gave her an incredulous look. “What makes you think I promised that little weasel a damn thing? I remember who he is, the trouble he caused. I didn’t promise him squat!”

“So, he didn’t threaten to report you?” Wendy dared.

Herbie laughed. “Of course, he did! Once I cleaned up the bloody mess you made of his face, he couldn’t stop talking about all the problems he was bringing my way. Threatening to bring the Lunatics back in here and shut me down, how he was going to have you arrested for assault… etcetera… etcetera… blah… blah… blah!” Herbie went back to scrubbing down the bar.

Wendy was about to lose her shit. “And?”

“And what?”

“How did you keep him happy?”

“‘Happy’?”

She shook her head. “I don’t know! Isn’t that how things work in this fucked-up town? Someone has a grievance, they make threats, and then… and then deals are made?”

Herbie stopped and laughed. “Is that what you think I did? You think I made a deal with that little asshole to shut him up?”

“Well… didn’t you?”

“Not that it’s any of your damn business, but no, I didn’t!”

Wendy was confused. “Then, what happened?”

Herbie let out a heavy impatient sigh. “After… what did you call him? Mr. Silver?”

She nodded.

“Well, after he calmed the hell down, I pulled him aside and had a reasonable discussion with the man. Believe it or not, after we talked, he seemed eager to end the matter. He even wanted me to let you know that he held no hard feelings for what you did to him. Said he shouldn’t have pushed you like he did… and that he was sorry.”

“He said he was sorry?” Wendy laughed. “I’m calling bullshit on that one! You offered him something, didn’t you? Something that made him eager to end the matter?”

“What are you getting at?”

“What was it? Did you give him Sheila? And if you did, you better undo it real fucking quick! She’s deserves better than that.”

“Don’t tell me how to manage my affairs, little lady! You’re already in enough trouble.” Herbie’s face had turned beat red.

“You did, didn’t you?” Wendy pushed. “You couldn’t give him me, and I know that’s what he wanted, so you did the next best thing.”

Herbie’s temper deflated in a hurry, betraying his actions. He turned back toward the bar. “The matter is settled. Get back to work.”

Wendy was furious. She tossed the mop aside. “You know what he’ll do to her! How could you let that monster have her?”

“I said, the matter is finished! You’re right, okay! He wanted you… but I wouldn’t… I couldn’t do that!”

Wendy’s eyes watered up. “You’re a fucking asshole!” she shouted. “It wasn’t Sheila’s fault, it was mine! I’m the one who attacked him!”

“Yes, you did!” Herbie turned and pointed at her. “You caused this mess, and I had to clean it up! Sheila was the only option I had! And don’t you dare think it was an easy decision! I’ve been watching out for the girl for a long time!”

“Then… why?”

Herbie’s face softened. “Because, unlike you, Sheila can handle herself. She’s been out there and knows the game better than anyone. Trust me, Mr. Silver won’t harm a hair on that girl’s head. If he does, he’ll be answering to me. Chances are that asshole and his boys will get bored with her, then sell her to someone else. Hell, I’ll probably be able to buy her back in a little while.”

Wendy shook her head. “They’re going to kill her.”

“That’s crazy.”

“No… it’s not.” Wendy took a step forward. “They’ll kill her to get back at me. And then that asshole will come in here again to tell me about it.”

“What are you talking about?”

Wendy wiped fresh tears from her eyes. “Mr. Silver came in here to tell me what he did to my friend, Mark. He said… without saying it… that he went to one of those murder shops, found Mark, and payed to… to kill him.”

Herbie frowned. “He told you that?”

“He hinted at it. But it was clear.”

Herbie looked down. “And you think he’ll hurt Sheila just to get back at you?”

“Yes.”

“What set you off, girl? What was it that pushed you over the edge? I’ve never seen you like that.”

She frowned. “Right before I… attacked him. That evil man said he kept Mark’s teeth. He was reaching into his pocket to show them to me.” She turned away and started to sob.

Herbie was silent for a while, staring at the broken girl. Finally, he turned back to the bar. “I’m really sorry for your friend,” he said. “I had no idea he ended up in a place like that. If I’d known, I would’ve pulled whatever resources I could to get him out of there… and I mean that.”

Wendy turned and nodded. “Thank you.”

He started wiping down the bar again. “Now, why don’t you take a few minutes. Then get back to work, okay?”

“What about Sheila?”

“What about her?”

“Haven’t you heard a word I said? They’re going to kill her, asshole!”

Herbie smiled. “Not likely.”

“What?”

“Just get back to work. Let me worry about Sheila.”

Wendy had nothing left. She started to turn.

“Oh, and one more thing,” Herbie said.

She stopped.

“That idea you had… you know… the one about sneaking into the murder shop your friend was at?”

Wendy said nothing.

Herbie gave her a suspicious glance. “Yeah, that’s what I thought. Well, just forget it.”

“You knew about Mark all along. Did Sheila tell you?”

“Yeah, that girl was looking out for you in more ways than one. She told me all about your conversation last night.”

Wendy was stunned. “Then you know I have to go there… for Mark. I have to know for sure.”

“Oh, I know,” he said with a laugh. “That’s why we’re going together.”

“Excuse me?”

“But not right now. Later this evening,” he said.

Wendy was floored. “I don’t understand?”

Herbie put his hands to his hips. “Do I have to spell it out for you, girl? No one gets into the murder shops without an appointment. So… I made one.”

“You… made an appointment?”

“Yes. Tonight, you and I are going there to find out about Mark. But we’re doing it together. That means, you stay right fucking here until then, and keep my bar running. Understood?”

For once, Wendy felt something other than contempt for the fat barkeep. She smiled. “You’re the contact she mentioned, aren’t you?”

“Whatever,” he said. “I helped her before, when she needed some closure. Let’s leave it at that.”

“Thank you,” Wendy said.

“Don’t thank me, thank Sheila,” Herbie said, shaking his head. “Besides, you aren’t going to be thanking anyone for taking you to a despicable place like that… unless your one demented sicko.”

Someone entered the Oasis. A big man, wearing a cloak with the hood pulled up approached the bar.

“Shit,” Herbie hissed.

Wendy’s eyes lit up with recognition.

The big man sat down on a barstool and pulled down his hood revealing a tired face with faraway eyes.

“Tony!” Wendy said. “It’s good to see you!”

Herbie gave him a nod and said to Wendy in passing, “You two say what you have to say, then get him out of here! The Lunatics are watching him like hawks.”

“It’s good to see you again, too, Herbie,” Tony said with a frown. “You’ve been taking care of my friend?”

Herbie flashed him a fake smile and said, “You know that I’m doing all that I can for her. It’s insulting that you have to ask.”

Tony gave him a nod. “Okay, then.” He turned to Wendy with a warm smile. “It’s good to see you. How have you been?”

Wendy laughed. “It’s been… well… I’m okay. I won’t bother you with details right now. I know you can’t stay long.”

He nodded. “Yeah. Just wanted to stop by and tell you that we’re meeting today for lunch. I’ve got big news and I need everyone there.”

Wendy’s face got serious. She whispered, “You’ve found something?”

“More than that,” Tony said. “I don’t want to say anything else, not in here. Can you get away today?” He looked toward Herbie, directing the last at him as less of a question.

Herbie laughed, trying to stay out of their conversation. “I’ll arrange it,” he said. “Just, please… get the hell out of here.”

“I’m going,” he said with a scowl. He looked at Wendy and finished, “Noon. At the usual place.”

Wendy nodded. “Okay. I’ll be there.”

“I’ve already talked to Nine. He’s going to contact Diane and let her know.”

“It’s getting harder and harder for her to get away,” Wendy said. “I hope she can make it this time.”

Tony smiled. He leaned in and whispered, “If all goes well, this will be our last meeting on this side of these fucking walls. That’s a promise.”

A mixture of excitement and trepidation crossed Wendy’s face.

“I’ll explain at lunch,” Tony said, getting up. “Just be there and act normal.”

She smiled. “Got it. Just some old friends getting together for lunch out in the open for everyone to see.”

“Yep. See you at noon.” Tony exited the bar.

Herbie came back over. “What trouble is he about to start?”

Wendy shrugged her shoulders. “As long as it’s not in your damn bar, what do you care?”

Herbie shook his head, annoyed, and then stormed off mumbling to himself.

Wendy was on the verge of laughing and crying at the same time. She covered her mouth with her hands and took a deep breath. My God, she thought. Please let it be good news this time. I think we’re all about out of hope. The admission caught her off guard.

She turned, picked up the mop, and started cleaning.

~~~

The shopping district of New Cleveland covered a five-block area through the central hub of town. Vendors of all sorts lined up on both sides of the narrow streets, displaying their wares transported in shopping carts, wagons, or anything else they could find with wheels. There were a few wooden kiosks that were constructed and rented out to merchants, as well as a few trailers for vendors with larger shipments. They sold food (the non-perishable kinds), clothing, tools, spare parts, camping supplies, and an assortment of other useful items and non-useful trinkets. Vendors arrived and departed New Cleveland regularly, always bringing a variety of different items to sell in the outdoor marketplace. During the daylight hours, the shopping district was booming with activity.

Diane glanced about nervously, studying every face in the crowded marketplace.

“So intense,” the attractive woman teased, leaning in next to her. “You play your part perfectly.”

Diane smiled and relaxed a little. She looked over at Nadia. The tall woman made every outfit she wore stand out as she casually, but confidently, walked among the crowd, her head hung high as if she were royalty. Her strapless red dress flowed effortlessly around her slender body.

In contrast, Diane was amused at her own ensemble.

Nadia had tied her hair back into a tight braid, like how the ex-Shadow Dead, Alysa had worn her hair. The clever woman then borrowed a green camouflage jacket from one of her own mercenary escorts, to accompany Diane’s jeans. By the time Nadia had finished, the hunter had almost looked the part of one of her escorts, minus the weapons—the baggy jacket giving Diane a bit more bulk around the shoulders while hiding her feminine features.

“Feeling better?” Nadia said with a wink.

In truth, Diane felt comfortable in the mercenary clothes. Out on the open road, she often wore dark, baggy clothes to conceal weapons, and for other practical reasons, like warmth or concealment. It felt good to be dressed again and not paraded around town for the skin and gender she was born into.

“I’m having a great time,” Diane admitted. “I feel like your bodyguard. The dogs stare at you, of course, until they see me catch them. Then, they don’t dare look twice in our direction.” She then looked around for their own escorts. “Speaking of bodyguards, they know how to disappear, don’t they?”

Nadia laughed. “They’re paid very well to be discreet. But not to worry, they’re keeping an eye on us.”

“I wasn’t worried,” Diane said. “Do I look like I need protection?” she teased.

Nadia smiled. “No, you certainly do not. I thought you might appreciate a return to your previous look. Hell, your dark brooding eyes match your outfit perfectly.”

“I don’t ‘brood’?” Diane added, glaring at the tall woman.

This just made Nadia laugh harder as she nearly stumbled in her high-heeled red shoes.

Diane caught her arm. “Careful. You can die in shoes like that… if you can call them shoes.”

“I think you’re confusing me with your disastrous attempts with heels. My God, woman, when I first saw you in a pair, I thought you were going to sprain an ankle.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Diane said. “There’s nothing practical about walking in those things. What if you had to run from the dead? Aside from taking them off and using the heels as weapons, they’re useless.”

“Oh… but you’re so wrong,” Nadia said, stepping around to Diane’s left and hooking her arm in hers. “The height they add alone is enough to make them worth the trouble. One doesn’t master the art of wearing high heels to be chased through the streets. The clickity-clack along the pavement serves to announce your arrival, as you stop every man in their tracks. Then, they gawk up at you on your mobile platforms, like beholding an elevated goddess rising among the crowd. And all the while, you get to enjoy the stupid looks on their struck faces as their eyes pop out and their jaws hang down.”

Diane laughed and shook her head. “If you say so. I still prefer my heels firmly on the ground. It’s much safer that way.”

Nadia smiled. “You’re a gem, Diane. I’m glad we had a chance to hang out together.” She nodded toward the surrounding crowd oblivious in their shopping endeavors. “You have to admit, as dangerous as New Cleveland can be, times like this feel almost… normal. Don’t you think?”

“I can see how complacency could lull them all to sleep, if that’s what you mean. Just look at them. They act like nothing’s changed in the world.”

“Yes, but maybe that’s a good thing, Diane,” Nadia pushed. “Life is hard beyond these walls, as you know. Life can be just as hard in here. Without a few creature comforts from the old days, and some honest distractions, we’d be nothing more than just survivors.”

Diane raised an eyebrow at her. “I don’t call this surviving. It’s all illusion, just like that fucking illusion we all were living in before The Change. No one was ready for it. Many couldn’t accept it and died in the panic that followed. Others eventually took their own lives because they couldn’t handle that illusion being destroyed.”

“And still others have survived,” Nadia added, “finding places like this where the old ways are still preserved… because the illusion, as you say, might be all that’s left living for.”

Diane stopped them. “You don’t believe that, do you?”

Nadia’s face changed. She looked around at the busy crowd and started to frown. “I don’t know what I believe,” she finally said. “But I do know that, illusion or not, we need this. People engaged with people.”

“Not my kind of people,” Diane said in disgust.

“You know what I mean,” Nadia said. “Sure, New Cleveland is dark… you and I know this. But we still need each other. We weren’t designed to live our lives apart in some remote wilderness where the dead can’t find us… not if it means a life of isolation. That will kill us off faster than the dead or this shitty town.”

Diane stared at the woman. She didn’t expect something so insightful from someone so vain. And yet, hadn’t she already seen some depth in this woman she had judged prematurely? She backed down. “Maybe your right about some of it. Maybe we really do need each other. The Human Race, whatever’s left of it, certainly can’t survive if we live in fear of each other.”

Nadia smiled and placed a hand on Diane’s cheek. “At some point, we all need to take a chance and believe in one another again, despite everything we’ve suffered. I’m not saying that New Cleveland is it… but it could certainly be much worse.”

Diane left that alone.

“We took a chance on each other,” Nadia said, folding her arms and mocking Diane with a brooding look. “And I have to say that I’ve been pleasantly surprised, considering our differences. Wouldn’t you agree?”

Diane looked away and sighed. “Yeah… you’re alright… I guess.” She looked up and winked.

Nadia laughed and then let her guard down. “We took a chance on each other and I feel like I’ve made a new best friend.”

Diane shifted uncomfortably, caught off guard by the woman’s admission.

Nadia smiled. “Sorry. Too much?”

“Maybe for one day,” the hunter admitted. “You can’t expect me to wear those revealing dresses and my heart on a sleeve at the same time. I’ve been clumsy at both for a very long time.” She added a smile.

“Fair enough,” Nadia said, locking arms with her again and moving them forward. “I’m just… well… I’m glad we’re friends. It’s been a long time since I had a good one.”

Diane took a moment to connect with her own feelings on the matter. It had taken her a long time to let Nine gain access to that part of herself. And old habits died hard. “I consider… I consider you a friend, too,” she added, refusing to make eye contact with the woman as she brooded toward the crowd.

Nadia gently squeezed her arm and said nothing more on the matter.

Just then, a young girl with blue hair sprinted across their path, slipping in and out the crowd, and almost running right into them.

Both women stopped.

“Excuse me,” the girl blurted, turning her back toward the women before starting to move away.

Diane gasped. She immediately recognized the girl’s jacket.

“What a curious girl,” Nadia said, bemused. “Maybe you should consider blue hair-”

“Nadia,” Diane said, pulling the slender woman forward, “come with me!”

Nadia raised her eyebrows in surprise. “Okay, then. Where are we going?”

“After that girl,” Diane said, weaving in between the crowd to keep the girl in sight.

Nadia laughed. “I was kidding about the hair. Do you know the girl?”

“It’s the jean jacket she’s wearing. I… I want it. Can you cover me?”

“Talk about an impulsive purchase… but… okay. I’ll spot you.” Nadia was getting caught up in the minor adventure. “But you owe me a story because that old thing isn’t worth a broken heel.”

~~~

Nadia leaned up against the trailer door with her arms crossed, watching her new friend sitting on the bed wearing, and apparently, sniffing on the sleeves of the old jean jacket. The tall woman cupped a smile with her hand.

After they’d caught up with the blue-haired girl, Diane and the girl had exchanged a strange look that Nadia was trying to understand. It was as if they knew each other, and didn’t, at the same time. Diane had asked the girl what she wanted for the jacket. The girl had nodded at Diane’s borrowed mercenary coat and said, “I’ll take that one.” By then, Nadia’s curiosity about the whole affair had captured her attention. Diane had given her a glance.

Nadia, catching on, had waved dismissively. “Of course, give her the jacket. I’ll find my man another.”

The exchange had been brief. Diane and the girl had swapped coats, each trying the other on. The girl seemed pleased. She had nodded at Diane with a big smile, and then took off into the crowd.

Afterwards, Diane’s thoughts had been elsewhere, leaving Nadia with most of the talking on their way back to Diane’s trailer.

“Okay,” Nadia said, trying to keep from laughing. “I’ve got to know. What’s with the jacket? Did you know that girl?”

Diane looked up. “What was that?”

“Girl, you’ve been distant since you put that old thing on. It’s clear that it means a lot to you, but something tells me that it’s a little bit more than that.”

Diane was glowing. She smiled like a schoolgirl with a crush.

Nadia pointed at her excitedly. “It’s a man, isn’t it? Someone gave you that jacket? Come on, tell me? Boyfriend? Lover? One Night Stand?”

Diane laughed and stared back at the jacket. “Something like that,” she admitted.

“That’s all I’m going to get?”

“It’s my… my boyfriend’s jacket. Or it was. He gave it to me. It was his brother’s jacket originally, and it meant a lot to him.”

“Was it one of the young men you came to town with?” Nadia fished.

“Yes,” Diane said. “He’s the one working over at the casino.”

Nadia plopped down next to Diane and put her arm around her shoulder. “That’s fucking adorable,” she said, causing Diane to roll her eyes. “It’s like high school all over again, minus the letterman jacket.”

“Shut up,” Diane said with a laugh. “I’m just glad to have it back. I miss him. I miss him very much. Since we all got auctioned, it’s been difficult…” She wiped a tear from her eye. “Sorry. I’m turning into an emotional little bitch.”

Nadia’s eyes softened. “It’s okay. I’m glad you got the jacket back. It’s nice to see this side of you.”

“Which side is that?”

“The vulnerable side.”

“Well, don’t get used to it,” Diane said with a glare. “I’m just having a weak moment.”

Nadia nodded. “So, are you going to read it?”

“Excuse me?”

“The note?”

“What are you talking about?”

Nadia rolled her eyes. “Come on. You mean to tell me that your boyfriend went to all that trouble to get that jacket to you, and he didn’t bother slipping you a letter?”

Diane gave the woman a hard look. Finally, she sighed and said, “I’m going to trust you a little bit.” She reached into the front right pocket and removed a folded piece of paper.

Nadia clapped her hands delightedly. “Yeah! What’s it say?”

“Hold on.” Diane unfolded the note and read it. Her face was a stone.

“Well?” Nadia pushed. “Is he sneaking over tonight for a little late-night romance?”

Diane shook her head. “You’re relentless, you know that?”

“I try.”

“He mentioned how he found the jacket, and how he knew my shopping routine. So, he sent the girl—her name is Joe—to deliver it to me… and to let me know he’s thinking about me.”

“Aww,” Nadia teased. “He’s a sweetheart.”

“He has his moments,” Diane agreed. “And then he opens his mouth and ruins them.”

“Don’t they all?” Nadia said. “Come on, spill the rest. What else?”

“That’s about it,” Diane said with a guarded look. “Just some mushy stuff that I’m not repeating.”

Nadia frowned. “There’s more, isn’t there? You just don’t want to tell me.”

Diane gave her a pleading look.

Nadia raised her hand. “It’s cool. I get it. You’re worried about Candyman… and I am sleeping with the enemy.”

“It’s not like that.” Diane looked conflicted. “I trust you, Nadia. But-”

“You’re not going to trust me with you boyfriend’s life. Say no more. I get it.”

“Sorry.”

Nadia smiled. “What can I do?”

“What?”

“Does he want to meet you somewhere? Can I help arrange that? Just tell me… I want to help.”

Diane nodded. “He wants to meet me at midday. But, after last night, I don’t think I can-”

“You’re going,” Nadia said. “Don’t worry about Candyman. I’ll cover for you if it comes to that. How much time do you need?”

“An hour, maybe two,” Diane said.

“You’ve got it, girl.”

Diane was on the verge of tears again. She fought them back. “Why are you doing this?”

“Because my best friend misses her man. And… and I hate to see you hurting like this.”

“It’s that obvious.”

“Girl, you couldn’t be any farther away right now. You need this. And I’m going to make it happen.”

Diane glanced down. “Thank you.”

“No problem. You want me to get you something nice to wear? You know, something to make him stay up all night thinking about you?”

Diane laughed. “No… the jacket’s fine.”

“I thought you’d say that.”

“Can you… wait here for me?”

Nadia was surprised by the request. “Sure. I can do that. But you better bring back chips and dip, and maybe a romantic comedy on VHS.”

“Deal,” Diane said.

“Well, let’s at least fix your hair.” Nadia got up to grab the brush. “Maybe we can flip your bangs up, then soak ’em down with a can of Aqua Net to give you that 80’s retro look to go with the jacket. Oh, and maybe a dab of blush…”

While Nadia babbled on excitedly, Diane thought about the rest of Nine’s note:

…Tony stopped by. He wants to get together for lunch. Can you meet us in the usual place at noon? I love you and miss you.

Diane folded up the note and placed it back in her pocket. Her next moment alone, she would destroy it immediately.

~~~

Next Episode 51-3

Previous Episode 51-1

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 51-2: The Desperation Factor” Copyright © 2019 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Six: Mother. All Rights Reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission by the author.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

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Comments
  1. alikolino says:

    not if means a life of isolation

    not if *it* means a life of isolation

    Like

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