Serenity Vol. 2 Going Under Part 4

Walking into the dimly lit bar, Jia can feel Carly pull closer to her, practically hanging off her arm. This isn’t her normal kind of bar and while she seemed up for it earlier, now that she’s sobered up some she seems nervous. Jia’s spent enough nights in bars like this to feel comfortable and the bartender nods at her. Nodding back, she realizes how weird that feels without hair.

Dressed in torn jeans, a leather jacket and a shirt featuring her favorite band, Jia fits in. Her newly shaved head completes the look. Carly can’t stop staring at it. She oiled it after they finished shaving and it shines even under the low lights here. Jia feels lucky her head’s not a weird shape. She thinks she pulls the look off rather well.

Packed on a Saturday night, there’s no cute boys Carly wants to meet here. A few good looking stoner guys are in the back but they’re not her type. Most of the guys are older, bigger, with more tattoos than they have fingers. Heavy metal screeches off the jukebox and it plays so loud that conversations aren’t practical. The only noise that seems to fight through the music is the occasional breaking of balls on the pool table.

There aren’t any tables available so Jia leads the way to the bar. They find a couple open stools on the far side but a bartender isn’t quick to get to them. Carly gets right in Jia’s face so they can hear each other. “I hate you right now.”

Rolling her eyes Jia says, “Lighten up, it’s a new experience.”

“Why didn’t you tell me this was where you wanted to go? I stand out like crazy. Everyone’s staring at me. I could have dressed a little better if I knew.”

“Kind of figured you’d pick up on it from how I dressed. Look on the bright side, maybe one of the boys will ask for your number.”

“If they do you’d better kick their ass.”

The bartender stops by and Jia orders a whiskey. Carly orders a glass of wine but settles for a beer when the man stares at her like she’s made of fire. It’s too dark to see the back of the bar and Jia needs to find out if her target’s here. After the bartender drops their drinks off she pulls her friend close again. “I’m going to go see if I can find Jillian. Why don’t you stay here?”

“If you leave me alone in this place I’ll knife you and make you sleep on the street tonight.” With that decided, they grab their drinks and start worming through the crowds. Several times they bump into men neither would want to run into in a dark bar. They’re invariably stared at for a moment before the men wander away.

A lap of the place doesn’t yield results. There’s no sign of a pink mohawk which is the one thing about Jillian she’s confident would stand out. Jia tries to make out faces in case Jillian changed her hair but while it’s hard to be sure as dark as it is, nobody looks familiar. Carly’s already finished her drink so they return to the bar. Another beer’s quickly served up and Carly starts into it. “I wonder why nobody’s coming up to me. Do I look good?”

Jia eyes her friend up and down. She looks very good, if very out of place. A short pink dress, plenty of cleavage, great strappy shoes that make her three inches taller. “I already told you that you look awesome. You’re probably not their type. They don’t come here looking for blondes in pink mini dresses.”

“Maybe not, but some of them have to be into me, right?”

“I’m sure they are Carly, they probably think you’re with me.”

Carly’s mouth hangs open. “Wait, is this a gay bar?”

“What? No, do these guys look gay? Not to stereotype but a gay bar wouldn’t have this many bikers. I don’t think so anyway, I don’t go to a lot of gay bars. It’s San Francisco though. Plenty of gay people to go around.”

Calling the bartender over takes a few minutes since he just dropped a beer off for Carly but Jia’s finally able to order another whiskey. When it’s delivered she holds up a hundred dollar bill. “You able to answer a few questions?”

The man snatches the bill from her. “Depends what you want to know. I’ll listen to your questions for that.”

“That works to start. If you don’t answer you won’t get any more. I’m looking for a girl named Jillian. Pink hair, kicks some ass. You know her?”

He glances around the bar before answering. “I might have seen her around. She’s not here tonight though.”

“Where can I find her?”

“That’s going to cost you more.”

Jia reaches into her pocket and pulls out another hundred dollar bill. This time when he reaches for it she pulls it back. “Information first.”

“You’re in the wrong place to push your luck.”

“You’re talking to the wrong person to push yours with.”

He stares her down and for a moment Jia thinks they might fight. That’s the last thing she needs with Carly in tow. His eyes keep returning to the bill though and when she notices she knows she has him. “Fine, she’s not with them anyway. She’s been laying low the last few weeks since the cops picked her up. Bar fight, she started it. With how big her stomach’s getting I’m guessing she’s lucky the person she shoved had no clue how to handle themselves.”

“That’s nice to know but not what I asked?”

“I’m getting to it, cool your shit. She’s staying at an apartment over by the pier, I think a friend of hers lives there or something. No idea what apartment so don’t ask and no, I don’t know the friend’s name either. It’s above a place called Henry Fontana’s though. More laid back place. Very different vibe. A friend of mine said she’s been going in there a few times a week.”

Waiting to see if he’ll offer anything more, Jia extends the bill when she realizes he’s done. She drinks her whiskey and pays for their drinks. She doesn’t bother to leave a tip, what she paid him for information should be enough.

Grabbing Carly, she tries pulling her friend to the door. They’re almost separated by the crowd and she can see her friend’s eyes go wide. As she hails an Uber she tries to fill her in. It was so loud in there that Carly heard almost nothing they discussed. “We’ll stop in and see if she’s there. If she is, we’ll figure that out. If not we’ll head somewhere more your style.”

Their car pulls up and Jia goes to get in. Carly grabs her by the wrist though and signals to the driver that they need a minute. “Hold on, I did your thing with this place. What’s this next bar like?”

“No clue, we can look it up on the way.”

Carly gets a huge pout on her face. If she hadn’t accepted they were only friends years ago it might drive her crazy. “I don’t want to go to another place where I’m going to feel like a freak. Let’s go have fun somewhere. My kind of place. You know I pick good places. You can check that place out tomorrow night when I have to sleep. This is my one night and I need to have fun.”

She knows there’s no guarantee Jillian shows up any specific night, but she’ll feel stupid if she misses the woman. She also knows her friend needs this. She’s not doing well with the break up. She relents and agrees to let Carly pick the place. She gets a squeeze in response. She doesn’t hug her friend back.

Part 3

Part 5

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Serenity Vol. 2 Going Under Part 3

Screaming as she throws her door open, Carly wraps Jia in a hug. “I missed you so much. Get in here.” They walk inside and Jia’s jaw drops. “What do you think?”

This is quite possibly the fanciest apartment she’s ever seen. A crystal chandelier hangs from the vaulted ceiling. All the furniture looks incredibly fashionable and incredibly uncomfortable to sit on. The kitchen’s done in earth tones which look great with the stainless steel appliances which look brand new. There’s a seventy inch TV built into one of the walls. Another wall’s entirely made of glass which provides an amazing view of the city. “How much are they paying you?”

With a giant grin Carly leans in close. “A whole hell of a lot. They actually provide this place though, I don’t even have to pay for it. It’s an awesome place but you know I’d never pick out that chandelier.”

“I feel like I can’t touch anything.”

Carly practically skips into the kitchen. “Touch away, I’m not paying for it and I’m not even responsible if it gets damaged. The company handles all of it.”

“I should have been an analyst.” Jia follows her friend.

“Tried to tell you that five years ago. I didn’t expect it to go this well though. Let’s have a drink to celebrate.”

“What does Hank think of all this?”

Carly goes quiet and her smile slips away. “We can talk about that too if you want but then I really need a drink.”

Opening a bottle of Cabernet, Carly grabs two oversized glasses and splits the bottle between them. She takes a long swig of her wine and then smiles back at her friend. “Me and Hank broke up.”

Immediately rushing forward to offer a hug, Carly doesn’t hug her back. “Are you okay?”

“I don’t know, I was hoping to talk about it later.” Carly’s eyes close and her hand tightens around her wine glass.

“When did it happen?”

Finishing her wine, Carly pulls up a bar stool and sits down. She leans on the counter and puts her head in her hands. “A week ago. I knew it was coming when I decided to move out here though. We talked about it. He decided he didn’t want to be so far from work. We were going to try long distance but last week he decided that doesn’t work for him so I guess that’s that.”

Trying to restore their excited mood, Jia smiles and puts an arm around her friend. “Let’s go out tonight and party. I have a credit card burning a hole in my pocket. We’ll get drinks, you’ll meet cute boys, we’ll stay out late. It’ll be like the old days.”

“Will your girlfriend like you hanging out at bars picking people up?”

Giggling, Jia squeezes Carly tighter. “I’m not going to pick anyone up at a straight bar, I think she’ll be okay. I have a bar I need to check out anyway. It’ll be great.”

With a deep breath Carly gets to her feet. Her legs seem unsteady under her and for a moment Jia fears she’ll fall. She moves to catch her friend but Carly grabs the counter and steadies herself. “Okay, let’s do it. I’m willing if you are. Do you want to go now?”

Glancing at her phone, Jia frowns. “It’s two in the afternoon, we’ll seem pretty sad if we show up at a bar this time of day. We’ll go tonight. For now let’s drink some more wine and I’ll get settled in. Before we go there is one thing I want you to do for me though.” Before Jia can finish Carly lets go of the counter and tries to walk away. She slips and falls, landing hard on her side. She starts laughing almost immediately. Jia offers a hand to help her up. “That wasn’t the first glass of wine you’ve had today was it?”

“Not quite. I didn’t have to work today or tomorrow and I figured I should enjoy myself.” She takes the hand and once she’s on her feet she walks back into the kitchen.

“That’s fine tonight but drinking alone is sad. That’s something I’d do and even I’m not doing it now. No more until we go out. I need you to do something for me and you’re sure as hell not doing it drunk. I assume you have a coffee pot around here?”

Part 2

Part 4

Serenity Vol. 2 Going Under Part 2

The next afternoon after finishing work Jia pounds on her brother’s bedroom door. The plan was to meet up this morning to go over what she found but she spent the morning in bed cuddling with Cassie and they barely got her to the winery before opening. There was no time to talk. Now that her shift’s over she has all the time in the world.

Opening the door, he looks like he’s still waking up. “Are you asleep? It’s almost dinner time.”

He walks back into the room, finding a chair at his computer desk. He struggles to get into it without tipping it over. “I don’t really focus on time that much. Not a lot to do lately. I can’t find a job, dad won’t let me help at the winery and I can’t leave the area without worrying about dying. Sleep sounds pretty good comparatively.”

Rolling her eyes, Jia leans against the door frame. “Dad would probably let you help if you’d stop pouring full glasses for tastings. We’ll go broke with pourings like that.”

“I tried that and the regulars kept telling me it wasn’t enough.”

“Of course they do, they smell fresh blood. You have to tell them it’s plenty. Standing up to them’s half the job.”

He grumbles as he fails to enter his password for the third time. Holding his hands up, he shakes his head before trying again. “Seems like a lot of stress for a job I’m not being paid for.”

Entering the room, Jia closes the door and sits on the edge of Shin’s bed. Ignoring his comment she says, “So I got some good news last night.”

“Ew, you don’t need to tell me about that. I know you never came home.”

Jia’s face turns bright red. “Not that, that’s none of your business. I asked Cassie to look into Jillian for me and she may have found something.”

His eyes light up. “That’s amazing. I didn’t know you were still looking into it.”

Shrugging, she lays back on the bed. “Didn’t want to get your hopes up. She was questioned in San Francisco last week, something about a bar fight.”

Shin’s shoulders sink in on him and his eyes go dark. “Thought you said it was good news. She’s in the one place I definitely can’t go. Plus, my baby’s apparently getting into bar fights. Guess it shouldn’t be a shocker with me and Jillian for parents but I was hoping he’d start teething first.”

Pulling herself up, she leans over and sets a hand on Shin’s shoulder. “Come on, we know where she is, that’s a start. We just need to track her down now.”

Shaking his head, Shin finally unlocks the computer. “She’s only an hour away, she clearly doesn’t want to be found. No reason she couldn’t swing by, or at least call.”

“That’s not something we can control, but this is your baby too. You should be involved.”

He throws his hands up. “I can’t go there, they’ve got too many people in the bay area and too many of them know me. I’ll be dead about five minutes after I show up.”

“Someone else can go though.”

The room goes quiet. Shin stares her down, hoping she’s going to offer more. She doesn’t. “So are you offering?”

“Maybe. I’m a vigilante so anything I have to do, I have a built in excuse for. I could go track her down, try to convince her to let you be involved. I’m not doing it for free though. It could take some time to track her down and the city’s crazy expensive.”

Pulling out his wallet, Shin starts digging through a stack of credit cards. He tosses one to her. “This has over twenty grand free on it. Use it however you need. Go crazy if you want, I don’t care.”

Looking the black card over, Jia gives her brother a look of disapproval. “How are you ever going to pay that back? You don’t have a job.”

“The same way I’m paying all my other cards. With the money I still have stashed away. Once I run out I won’t be able to pay them anymore and they’ll all get shut down. I’m already past the point where that’s inevitable. Use it how you need to. Long term I’m screwed regardless.” He looks his sister up and down. “You sure you’re going to be okay? I know you’re just starting with that girl and I don’t want to mess your thing up.”

Thinking about Cassie puts a smile on Jia’s face. “We talked, it’s all good. She’s going to come visit if it takes too long. I’m going to track this girl down for you. Please don’t put me in a position where I have to do this again though.”

Promising to be more careful in the future, Shin gives his sister a hug. She slips the credit card in her pocket and leaves his room.

 

Packing a duffel bag with clothes and other essentials Jia hears a knock at her door. She turns to find her dad standing there with a slightly worried look on his face. “Hey kiddo, got a few minutes to talk?” She waves her hand to invite him in and he takes a seat on the bed. “So your brother said something about you taking a trip to San Francisco.”

“I was going to tell you before I left. Shin can cover my shifts. I know he’s not great at it but he’s not going to get better if you don’t let him try.”

“What’s your brother gotten himself into this time?”

There’s a long silence. Jia’s given her word that she won’t rat Shin out. “I don’t know what you mean dad. Carly moved to town and I want to catch up with her. I’ll be staying at her place for a few weeks.” She keeps her eyes on the bag as she stuffs more into it.

“I’m not stupid Jia. Shin doesn’t sit around in one place for months without a reason.”

She glances up at him, her eyes narrowed. “I don’t know what to tell you then, you should probably ask him.”

Her dad sighs and shakes his head. “I really didn’t come in here to argue. I know we’ve been doing that a lot lately. The whole vigilante thing’s hard for me. I didn’t want that life for your mom and I really don’t want it for you. You’re an adult though and I need to let you make your own choices. I’m going to try and be better. So whatever you’re doing in the city, that’s your business. Be safe though.”

Sighing, Jia’s disarmed by the sudden display of kindness. Walking across the room, Jia sits next to her dad and wraps an arm around him. “I’ll try really hard to be safe. I promise. If you want to know more about Shin, push him. It’s not my place to tell you but he probably should tell at least part of it. Try not to lose it when you find out though. It’s going to be okay.”

They hug and for the first time since she signed up under the Vigilantes Making Us Safe Act, Jia feels they’re going to be alright.

Part 1

Part 3

Serenity Vol. 2 Going Under Part 1

You’re late.

The text tells Jia Crawford what she already knows but it still makes her smile. It feels good to have someone willing to wait for her. Balancing her phone in one hand and handlebars in another, she tries to reply. Almost there. Sorry. Texting and biking isn’t the safest thing but the girl she’s meeting’s worth the risk.

Skidding to a stop outside the bar, she locks her bike to a tree and rushes inside. Her phone works as a makeshift mirror to make sure she looks alright. Taking a moment to fix her hair, everything else looks good. Entering, she scans the place for her date. Cassie Klein beams at her from a booth in the back corner. She makes note that the woman’s long blonde hair is shorter than the last time they saw each other and she’s wearing what is probably a new dress. It’s bright purple and very short. Jia likes it.

Walking up to the table, she leans down to give the woman a peck on the lips. “You look beautiful, I love your haircut.”

“It’s not that different. Just a trim.” Cassie smiles as she dismisses the compliment, brushing a few strands behind her ear.

“It looks great.” A waitress stops by the table with a notepad. Before the woman can even speak Jia says, “Scotch and soda. Easy on the soda.” Sliding into the booth, her leg brushes against Cassie’s and she feels electricity shoot through her. She’s going to miss this woman.

Their drink order’s followed by dinner. They discuss their days while eating. Cassie responded to a domestic violence call and had a woman spit on her when she tried to remove her from a store downtown where she was throwing a tantrum. Jia spent the day at her family winery dealing with drunks who wanted her to get drunk with them. She limited herself to drinking with the customers who insisted though which means she isn’t already wasted. There’s still time to fix that tonight.

Around the time Jia’s burger and Cassie’s chicken fingers arrive Jia takes the other woman’s hand. “So I don’t want to pry but were you able to look into those people I asked about? My brother’s starting to get worried.”

Nodding but looking down at her food Cassie says, “I actually did. You’re lucky you have an awesome girlfriend who’s willing to bend the rules for you.”

“C’mon, it’s not like you’re selling secrets to a criminal. I’m a registered vigilante. A lot of areas the cops are working with vigilantes.”

“Not here. If the sergeant found out I gave you this he’d at least suspend me. They’re pissed enough that I’m dating you. Just be glad you’re cute. Otherwise it might not be worth the fuss.”

Jia leans in closer until she can feel Cassie’s breath on her face. “I am, it comes in handy. You’re cuter though. Seriously, what’d you find.”

Reaching into her purse, Cassie pulls out a sheet of paper. “Nothing on Rocco, he’s wanted for questioning in a ton of cases over in San Francisco but there’s no sign of him recently. He’s got a couple minor warrants out but nothing major. After the bar he seems to have ditched Napa but I can’t tell you much beyond that. Jillian’s gone too but she apparently was questioned in a bar fight in San Francisco last week. They let her go. If your brother wants to find her, that’s the place.” A bar’s not somewhere Jillian should be hanging out but Jia tries not to let the news get her down or ruin their night.

They finish dinner and order a few more drinks. After Jia asks for the check Cassie puts a hand on her leg. “So, I know we’ve been taking it slow, but how would you feel about coming back to my place?” Her eyebrows raise and she looks so hopeful. It hurts Jia’s heart to crush that hope.

“I’d love to, but you know, I have my bike with me. Thinking about the words that just came out of my mouth hurts by the way. God I need a new car.”

“Don’t worry about that. We can fit it in my trunk, and god I just realized how dirty that sounded.”

Jia leans in and places a small kiss on Cassie’s lips. “That’s really sweet but riding home from your place in the morning would take a long time.”

“I can drop you off before work.” Cassie’s hopeful look’s faded but she’s not giving up. Her smile’s nearly gone but she’s fighting to keep it in place. “If you don’t want to, you don’t have to or anything. I figured maybe we’d have fun though.”

Guilt stabs Jia in the chest. This girl’s amazing and deserves so much better. “Listen, you’re great Cassie and what you want to do sounds really great but I feel like I’d be doing it under false pretenses. I was going to call and tell you so I didn’t ruin a nice night but Shin can’t go to San Francisco. He’s afraid the gang will kill him.”

“Okay, weird transition from what I was suggesting. What does your brother have to do with spending the night?”

Jia puts her hand over her mouth to stifle a laugh. “Nothing directly. Not what I’d want to think about while we were, well, together. Jillian’s having his kid though. That’s going to be my niece or nephew. If he can’t go find her, I need to do it. I don’t know how long I’ll be gone either. Hopefully only a few days but it could take longer. Maybe a few weeks. Hopefully not more than that, my dad will kill me if I’m not back by the time the busy season starts. I don’t know if we should do that for the first time right before I leave though. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to go back to your place.” She squeezes Cassie’s hand. “I’d really love to. I feel like that wouldn’t be fair to you.”

Taking a moment to process all Jia’s told her, Cassie squeezes her hand back. “It’s nice of you to be considerate but I’m an adult, you don’t have to walk on egg shells around me. Why don’t I come with you?”

Closing her eyes, Jia tries to think of reasons to say no. “That’s a bad idea. You have a job and besides, I don’t know what I’ll have to do to find her. I may have to go some places a cop really can’t go.”

Cassie stiffens. “Point taken. My offer’s still on the table though. It sucks you’re leaving but I get it, you have to help family. I think there’s something here though. So unless you don’t want me to be, I’ll still be here when you get back. I do expect you to call me while you’re gone though. Not text, call. If that sounds good, you’re still invited back to my place.”

The waitress approaches their table with the check, leaving it between the two women. Jia grabs for it and slips her credit card into the check holder without even looking to make sure the check’s correct. “Please run this fast.” Once the waitress takes it and walks away she turns to Cassie with a giant grin. “Let’s get out of here.”

Part 2

Serenity Vol. 1 Scale the Mountain Part 24

Coming home to her parents bloody and bruised goes about as well as Jia would expect. Her mom mostly takes it in stride and tells her to be more careful next time. Her dad flips out after suppressing his rage for weeks. He’s fed up with his daughter putting herself in this sort of danger. He actually threatens to kick her out of the house if she doesn’t quit being a vigilante but her mom talks him out of it.

About a week later her mom knocks on the door of her room to check on her. Jia’s sitting at her computer doing research and trying to heal. She hasn’t been out since that night. She’s refused to quit but she did promise her dad she’d at least take a break while she started to heal. “How’s your face doing?”

Jia rubs at her bandage. “It’s alright I guess, healing. Itches like hell though.”

“I know the feeling. Try a cold compress on it. Trust me, it helps. A bath can be a big help too with stitches but that won’t quite work on your face.”

Jia’s eyebrow raises. “Sounds like you know from experience.”

Her mom sits down on the edge of her bed behind her. She rolls her sleeve up and points at her forearm. There’s a faint scar there. “You see that? I got it when I tried to stop a crazy guy running around dressed like a dog. He stabbed me with fake claws.”

Jia stifles a laugh. “Why would anyone dress up like a dog?”

“Hell if I know, some people are crazy. Most of the eccentric types hung it up years ago. You used to see a lot more of them. I just wanted to check on you and let you know that when you’re ready, I have a few more techniques I’d like to pass on. I said you weren’t ready before but I think you’re getting there. I know you’re still healing but we’ll get to it when you’re better.”

“That sounds awesome mom, but I might have to take a trip for a little while. Not sure yet but I’m looking into some things for Shin.”

“Do I want to know what happened at that bar and why he was with you that night?”

Jia fidgets and looks away. “Probably not.”

“Let’s leave it at that then. Where would you be going?”

“Just San Francisco, maybe for a few weeks. It’s not a sure thing yet, still doing some research. If I go it probably won’t be for a few more weeks.”

Her mom gets up and walks behind her daughter. She gives her a hug from behind. “You’ll be ready. I’m going to make sure of it.”

Part 23

Volume 2 Going Under Starts December 21st

 

Serenity Vol. 1 Scale the Mountain Part 23

On her way back to the main area of the bar, Jia Crawford takes a minute to actually stop in the bathroom. Grabbing some paper towels, she looks at herself in the mirror. She‘s shocked at how awful she looks. The top left corner of her forehead is a giant bloody bruise, surrounded by cuts. A little blood’s still leaking out of them but it’s starting to clot. That won’t need more than a few bandages. The cut on her cheek’s a different matter. It’s deep and blood from it’s still flowing down her face. She looks like she emerged from a horror movie. There’s dried blood streaked everywhere. Looking down at her hands, she realizes they’re also caked with dried blood.

Horrified that Cassie saw her like this, she starts wetting paper towels and pressing them against the cut. It stings but hopefully it’ll help. With another paper towel she tries to clean the dried blood from her face the best she can. She realizes the hair near her wounds is even caked with blood. At least her dark hair mostly hides it.

When she finally looks remotely like herself she makes her way back out to the bar. She still has a paper towel pressed against her cheek to stop more blood from flowing. A new pair of people in suits are looking over the place and throwing evidence into bags. When Cassie sees her she makes her way over. Seeing that she’s watching the newcomers she says, ”Detectives. Feeling any better?”

“Not really, this is really starting to sting. If you need me to answer more questions I can but otherwise I’m probably going to text my brother and have him come get me. I hate needles but I think I’m actually looking forward to stitches.”

“Just a few, it won’t take long. Want to grab a table? You look a little unsteady, don’t want you falling over on me.”

Finding only a few tables in the place are still standing and have chairs in one piece, they settle in one in the far corner by the jukebox. “Who was this source who asked you to come out here tonight? We may want to question them.”

Jia shifts in her seat. “That’s going to be really dangerous for them. I don’t want to make your job harder but I don’t think that would qualify as making the public safer. They’re part of the public.”

Cassie’s smile wavers a bit but she doesn’t seem upset. “Okay, we can leave that out for now. You’ll have to make it up to me though. Can you identify any of the people who were here?”

“There was one guy named Rocco. My source told me he was in charge. Big guy, bald, looks like he’s had his nose broken a few dozen times. He was the one who sent the rest after me. He’s the only one I got a name from.”

Jotting something down in a notebook Cassie says, “Did he say anything that would give us a clue? We’ll run the evidence but I don’t think we have a lot to go on here.”

“He mentioned San Francisco, I think that’s where the group operates out of. The only other thing I can think of is he offered to let me live if I blew him.”

Suddenly shifting in her seat, Cassie looks uncomfortable. She stares at the ground, not meeting Jia’s gaze. “Well that’s gross.”

“Ya, wasn’t going to happen. He doesn’t have the parts I’m looking for.”

Now Cassie’s completely frozen, blinking a few times, but her smile starts coming back. “Noted, not into blowing bald dudes with bad noses.”

“Or anyone else for that matter.”

Shuffling through a few pages of notes, she seems to be trying to find a come back. “Well, I think I have everything I need.” She pauses for a moment but then she pushes her lips together and her eyes narrow. “That’s actually not true, I need one more thing. Can I get your phone number?”

She has to think about it for a moment. Jia never calls herself. “Sure. It’s 701-555-0138. If you have any other questions you can call me.”

“What if my question was if you’d get dinner with me?”

It takes a moment for Jia to realize what Cassie’s saying. When she does her mouth practically hangs open in surprise. Cassie’s getting so red that she almost matches the paper towel Jia still has against her cheek. When she finally recovers Jia says, “Really? I look like I climbed out of a horror movie and I smell like I drank everything in the bar.”

“Kind of. I still think you look cute though. If you don’t want me to I won’t call.”

Jia blinks a few times. “You know that’s kind of an inappropriate question for a police officer to ask a girl when she’s sitting here bleeding all over the place, right? Is this like, your move? Strike when they’re vulnerable.”

Looking upset Cassie no longer meets Jia’s gaze. “I wasn’t going for that. I’m sorry if I made you uncomfortable. I won’t bother you again.”

Grabbing Cassie’s hand, she stops her from standing. “Well I didn’t say that. Actually, I kind of like it. You can call me. Why don’t you shoot me a text now so I’ll have your number?”

Now it’s Cassie’s turn to have her jaw drop. “That was really mean you know.”

“I know, I’m mean sometimes. I’m nice a lot more often though. If you call I’ll have to make it up to you.”

“You’d better.”

A smile spreads across Jia’s face. “You just made tonight a lot better. Until now the best thing that happened to me all night was someone deciding not to shoot me.”

“Could be worse. The best thing could have been someone deciding to shoot you.”

“That would be worse. Then I wouldn’t have been asked out by a pretty girl. Or maybe I would have been, the cheek didn’t stop you. I’m going to text my brother and get out of here. I’m still bleeding and really need to get some stitches. If I bleed out I won’t be able to go on a date.”

With a smile the size of the moon, Cassie waves goodbye. Before she goes, Jia notices the bartender making her way back into the bar. The exchange a glance but nothing’s said. She calls Shin and tells him to get over here with the car so they can get to the hospital. At first he freaks out because he doesn’t want to pull right up to the cops. Then he notices she said hospital and he freaks out even more. She can hear his tires screech down the road and it isn’t long before he’s pulling into the parking lot.

As she slumps into the passenger seat of his car, Shin sees her holding the paper towel to her cheek and her busted forehead. “You said you and Jillian were okay. What the hell happened?”

“I got beat up. It happens. I am okay, I just need a few stitches. It’s bleeding pretty good. Just stop by the ER. They won’t be that busy this time of night. I should be in and out in no time and then we can get home. I have to work in the morning so let’s get moving.”

Soon they’re flying down the back roads toward the hospital closest to their house. It’s not that close, around ten miles away, but she’s not dying and the cool night air feels good against her face. The rest of her body which is still soaked with liquor likes it less. Shin keeps looking over at her instead of paying attention to the road. “Try not to bleed on the car. That’ll cost a fortune to get out and I don’t exactly have the money.”

“Getting the smell of booze out isn’t going to be cheap either.” He doesn’t respond. “You don’t get to say that to me right now by the way. I’m only bleeding here because you got yourself into this.”

Shin turns to face her and she points at the road, encouraging him to turn back. “I told you not to go in there! You’re lucky they didn’t kill you. Why’d they let you go anyway?”

“They heard the sirens. Someone called the cops, no clue who. I thought it was you at first but I don’t think the description they had was yours. At least it had better not be.”

“I didn’t call them. I thought about it but I was afraid that’d make it worse. Whoever did it though, I’m glad they did. Those guys are serious.”

“He made me an offer, but it was gross so I passed. Jillian said she thinks they’ll leave you alone for a while if you stay around here though. They might even forget about you if you don’t do anything stupid.”

“You talked to her?” He glances at her but now he’s mostly keeping his eyes on the road.

“She pulled up right before the cops showed and said she’d try to keep them off you as much as she could but that’d be a lot easier if you stay in Napa. I’m guessing after tonight they’re spooked and they won’t come around here for at least a few months. Just lay low. You can stay with mom and dad too. It’s not the worst thing.”

He groans. “I might disagree. I guess it’s better than dying though. Why was she still there? I thought you were going to warn her.”

“I warned her. Thought she was gone until she showed back up out of nowhere and attacked me. She’s the one who gave me this.” She points at the cut across her cheek.

His hand covers his mouth. For a moment he puts the other on his forehead before realizing at least one needs to be on the steering wheel. “She knifed you? I’m so sorry. I can’t believe she’d do that. I’d never have asked you to warn her if I thought she was going to do that.”

Jia manages to laugh, though it hurts her face. “No, she didn’t knife me. She threw me over the bar and I crashed into a bunch of bottles. A shard of one cut me. That’s also why I smell like I’ve been on a three week bender. I don’t think she was trying to hurt me. She told me to go with it and she went slow enough that she didn’t hit me until the end, right before she took off. I think she was trying to help. Before she jumped in they were all coming at me at once and they might have killed me. The others backed off once she came at me and it was just the two of us.”

Shin presses his lips together and somehow he looks more worried than before. “If they figure out she helped you, they’re going to kill her. We need to track her down.”

Shaking her head, Jia turns to face her brother. “She told us not to come after her Shin. It’s not your job to save her. We don’t even know that she needs saving. She’s part of this. The only reason she helped me was because she’s your friend.”

They quietly drive for a few minutes until they near the hospital. Shin finally breaks the silence. “How did she seem? You didn’t beat on her bad did you?”

“I only hit her a few times and they were all light punches. She got me way worse than I got her. She’s fine. Oh, by the way–” Jia reaches into her pocket and pulls out the paperwork she got. “The bartender gave me this. The only records you were ever in that place so the cops won’t be knocking on our door. I had to let her delete the other records to get it. You’re welcome.”

Shin snatches the paper from her and shoves it into his own pocket. “I didn’t even think of that. Oh shit, I don’t want to go down with those assholes. Don’t worry about the records. They’re leaving town anyway, who cares? You’re supposed to keep this area safe, right? I think getting those guys out of town counts. Don’t be so hard on yourself.”

As they park outside the ER, Shin stops his sister from getting out of the car. “To be clear, you got no good hits on her? None in the stomach or anything like that?”

“No Shin, I didn’t hit her in the stomach. She said not to.”

He nods a few times. “That’s good. I really need you to help me find her. I’d do it myself but apparently I need to stay around here to make sure I don’t end up dead. She’ll go back to San Francisco, I know it. I can tell you a couple of places to look for her.”

Her cheek’s burning now. “Why are you so obsessed with this girl? I know she’s your friend but she seems like she can handle herself. She sure punches like she can.” Taking in everything her brother’s said in the last few minutes an epiphany hits Jia. “Tell me the truth. Is she just a friend? You didn’t…”

“I don’t want to talk about that Jia. Let’s go in and get your face stitched up.”

“Oh god, you did. Shin you little moron.”

Crossing his arms, he looks down at the floor. “I told you that I needed you to find her. I wasn’t making it up.”

On her way back to the main area of the bar, Jia Crawford takes a minute to actually stop in the bathroom. Grabbing some paper towels, she looks at herself in the mirror. She‘s shocked at how awful she looks. The top left corner of her forehead is a giant bloody bruise, surrounded by cuts. A little blood’s still leaking out of them but it’s starting to clot. That won’t need more than a few bandages. The cut on her cheek’s a different matter. It’s deep and blood from it’s still flowing down her face. She looks like she emerged from a horror movie. There’s dried blood streaked everywhere. Looking down at her hands, she realizes they’re also caked with dried blood.

Horrified that Cassie saw her like this, she starts wetting paper towels and pressing them against the cut. It stings but hopefully it’ll help. With another paper towel she tries to clean the dried blood from her face the best she can. She realizes the hair near her wounds is even caked with blood. At least her dark hair mostly hides it.

When she finally looks remotely like herself she makes her way back out to the bar. She still has a paper towel pressed against her cheek to stop more blood from flowing. A new pair of people in suits are looking over the place and throwing evidence into bags. When Cassie sees her she makes her way over. Seeing that she’s watching the newcomers she says, ”Detectives. Feeling any better?”

“Not really, this is really starting to sting. If you need me to answer more questions I can but otherwise I’m probably going to text my brother and have him come get me. I hate needles but I think I’m actually looking forward to stitches.”

“Just a few, it won’t take long. Want to grab a table? You look a little unsteady, don’t want you falling over on me.”

Finding only a few tables in the place are still standing and have chairs in one piece, they settle in one in the far corner by the jukebox. “Who was this source who asked you to come out here tonight? We may want to question them.”

Jia shifts in her seat. “That’s going to be really dangerous for them. I don’t want to make your job harder but I don’t think that would qualify as making the public safer. They’re part of the public.”

Cassie’s smile wavers a bit but she doesn’t seem upset. “Okay, we can leave that out for now. You’ll have to make it up to me though. Can you identify any of the people who were here?”

“There was one guy named Rocco. My source told me he was in charge. Big guy, bald, looks like he’s had his nose broken a few dozen times. He was the one who sent the rest after me. He’s the only one I got a name from.”

Jotting something down in a notebook Cassie says, “Did he say anything that would give us a clue? We’ll run the evidence but I don’t think we have a lot to go on here.”

“He mentioned San Francisco, I think that’s where the group operates out of. The only other thing I can think of is he offered to let me live if I blew him.”

Suddenly shifting in her seat, Cassie looks uncomfortable. She stares at the ground, not meeting Jia’s gaze. “Well that’s gross.”

“Ya, wasn’t going to happen. He doesn’t have the parts I’m looking for.”

Now Cassie’s completely frozen, blinking a few times, but her smile starts coming back. “Noted, not into blowing bald dudes with bad noses.”

“Or anyone else for that matter.”

Shuffling through a few pages of notes, she seems to be trying to find a come back. “Well, I think I have everything I need.” She pauses for a moment but then she pushes her lips together and her eyes narrow. “That’s actually not true, I need one more thing. Can I get your phone number?”

She has to think about it for a moment. Jia never calls herself. “Sure. It’s 701-555-0138. If you have any other questions you can call me.”

“What if my question was if you’d get dinner with me?”

It takes a moment for Jia to realize what Cassie’s saying. When she does her mouth practically hangs open in surprise. Cassie’s getting so red that she almost matches the paper towel Jia still has against her cheek. When she finally recovers Jia says, “Really? I look like I climbed out of a horror movie and I smell like I drank everything in the bar.”

“Kind of. I still think you look cute though. If you don’t want me to I won’t call.”

Jia blinks a few times. “You know that’s kind of an inappropriate question for a police officer to ask a girl when she’s sitting here bleeding all over the place, right? Is this like, your move? Strike when they’re vulnerable.”

Looking upset Cassie no longer meets Jia’s gaze. “I wasn’t going for that. I’m sorry if I made you uncomfortable. I won’t bother you again.”

Grabbing Cassie’s hand, she stops her from standing. “Well I didn’t say that. Actually, I kind of like it. You can call me. Why don’t you shoot me a text now so I’ll have your number?”

Now it’s Cassie’s turn to have her jaw drop. “That was really mean you know.”

“I know, I’m mean sometimes. I’m nice a lot more often though. If you call I’ll have to make it up to you.”

“You’d better.”

A smile spreads across Jia’s face. “You just made tonight a lot better. Until now the best thing that happened to me all night was someone deciding not to shoot me.”

“Could be worse. The best thing could have been someone deciding to shoot you.”

“That would be worse. Then I wouldn’t have been asked out by a pretty girl. Or maybe I would have been, the cheek didn’t stop you. I’m going to text my brother and get out of here. I’m still bleeding and really need to get some stitches. If I bleed out I won’t be able to go on a date.”

With a smile the size of the moon, Cassie waves goodbye. Before she goes, Jia notices the bartender making her way back into the bar. The exchange a glance but nothing’s said. She calls Shin and tells him to get over here with the car so they can get to the hospital. At first he freaks out because he doesn’t want to pull right up to the cops. Then he notices she said hospital and he freaks out even more. She can hear his tires screech down the road and it isn’t long before he’s pulling into the parking lot.

As she slumps into the passenger seat of his car, Shin sees her holding the paper towel to her cheek and her busted forehead. “You said you and Jillian were okay. What the hell happened?”

“I got beat up. It happens. I am okay, I just need a few stitches. It’s bleeding pretty good. Just stop by the ER. They won’t be that busy this time of night. I should be in and out in no time and then we can get home. I have to work in the morning so let’s get moving.”

Soon they’re flying down the back roads toward the hospital closest to their house. It’s not that close, around ten miles away, but she’s not dying and the cool night air feels good against her face. The rest of her body which is still soaked with liquor likes it less. Shin keeps looking over at her instead of paying attention to the road. “Try not to bleed on the car. That’ll cost a fortune to get out and I don’t exactly have the money.”

“Getting the smell of booze out isn’t going to be cheap either.” He doesn’t respond. “You don’t get to say that to me right now by the way. I’m only bleeding here because you got yourself into this.”

Shin turns to face her and she points at the road, encouraging him to turn back. “I told you not to go in there! You’re lucky they didn’t kill you. Why’d they let you go anyway?”

“They heard the sirens. Someone called the cops, no clue who. I thought it was you at first but I don’t think the description they had was yours. At least it had better not be.”

“I didn’t call them. I thought about it but I was afraid that’d make it worse. Whoever did it though, I’m glad they did. Those guys are serious.”

“He made me an offer, but it was gross so I passed. Jillian said she thinks they’ll leave you alone for a while if you stay around here though. They might even forget about you if you don’t do anything stupid.”

“You talked to her?” He glances at her but now he’s mostly keeping his eyes on the road.

“She pulled up right before the cops showed and said she’d try to keep them off you as much as she could but that’d be a lot easier if you stay in Napa. I’m guessing after tonight they’re spooked and they won’t come around here for at least a few months. Just lay low. You can stay with mom and dad too. It’s not the worst thing.”

He groans. “I might disagree. I guess it’s better than dying though. Why was she still there? I thought you were going to warn her.”

“I warned her. Thought she was gone until she showed back up out of nowhere and attacked me. She’s the one who gave me this.” She points at the cut across her cheek.

His hand covers his mouth. For a moment he puts the other on his forehead before realizing at least one needs to be on the steering wheel. “She knifed you? I’m so sorry. I can’t believe she’d do that. I’d never have asked you to warn her if I thought she was going to do that.”

Jia manages to laugh, though it hurts her face. “No, she didn’t knife me. She threw me over the bar and I crashed into a bunch of bottles. A shard of one cut me. That’s also why I smell like I’ve been on a three week bender. I don’t think she was trying to hurt me. She told me to go with it and she went slow enough that she didn’t hit me until the end, right before she took off. I think she was trying to help. Before she jumped in they were all coming at me at once and they might have killed me. The others backed off once she came at me and it was just the two of us.”

Shin presses his lips together and somehow he looks more worried than before. “If they figure out she helped you, they’re going to kill her. We need to track her down.”

Shaking her head, Jia turns to face her brother. “She told us not to come after her Shin. It’s not your job to save her. We don’t even know that she needs saving. She’s part of this. The only reason she helped me was because she’s your friend.”

They quietly drive for a few minutes until they near the hospital. Shin finally breaks the silence. “How did she seem? You didn’t beat on her bad did you?”

“I only hit her a few times and they were all light punches. She got me way worse than I got her. She’s fine. Oh, by the way–” Jia reaches into her pocket and pulls out the paperwork she got. “The bartender gave me this. The only records you were ever in that place so the cops won’t be knocking on our door. I had to let her delete the other records to get it. You’re welcome.”

Shin snatches the paper from her and shoves it into his own pocket. “I didn’t even think of that. Oh shit, I don’t want to go down with those assholes. Don’t worry about the records. They’re leaving town anyway, who cares? You’re supposed to keep this area safe, right? I think getting those guys out of town counts. Don’t be so hard on yourself.”

As they park outside the ER, Shin stops his sister from getting out of the car. “To be clear, you got no good hits on her? None in the stomach or anything like that?”

“No Shin, I didn’t hit her in the stomach. She said not to.”

He nods a few times. “That’s good. I really need you to help me find her. I’d do it myself but apparently I need to stay around here to make sure I don’t end up dead. She’ll go back to San Francisco, I know it. I can tell you a couple of places to look for her.”

Her cheek’s burning now. “Why are you so obsessed with this girl? I know she’s your friend but she seems like she can handle herself. She sure punches like she can.” Taking in everything her brother’s said in the last few minutes an epiphany hits Jia. “Tell me the truth. Is she just a friend? You didn’t…”

“I don’t want to talk about that Jia. Let’s go in and get your face stitched up.”

“Oh god, you did. Shin you moron.”

Crossing his arms, he looks down at the floor. “I told you that I needed you to find her. I wasn’t making it up.”

Part 22

Part 24

Serenity Vol. 1 Scale the Mountain Part 22

Stumbling back inside to view the handiwork of her fight, Jia works her way over to the bar and picks one of the few stools still in one piece up. She struggles onto it. The bartender’s giving her a dirty look from across the room. The woman’s glancing around her bar, surveying the damage. Jia says, “I’ll leave you out of this if you don’t stand up for them. Your call. I’ll take a drink too if it’s all the same to you.” Grabbing one of the bottles that didn’t crash to the ground, the woman pours two glasses of whiskey. She slides one to Jia and downs her own in one gulp.

Checking her phone for the first time since the fighting started, she finds twelve texts and three missed calls from Shin. He’s apparently still close by and noticed the sudden exodus from the bar and the blue one toward it. He wants to know if she and Jillian are okay. Apparently Jillian isn’t answering his texts either. Each text seems more panicked than the last.

Assuring her brother she’s fine and so is Jillian, she manages to put her phone away as the first of the police enter. Whoever called must have sold this fight as a big deal because they’ve sent three squad cars worth of officers and they enter with their guns drawn. They seem surprised to find an injured girl drinking alone in a bar that looks like a tornado just went through. Finding no threat though, they do lower their guns.

As they stream through the busted door Jia recognizes one pair. It’s the same duo who showed up the other night after Shin broke into a family’s home. Officer Cassie Klein and her partner who isn’t a fan of vigilantes. The partner already looks in a bad mood when he walks in. Seeing Jia sitting there doesn’t do anything to help. “What the hell are you doing here? Why do we keep finding you when bad shit goes down?”

Dabbing at her bloody head with a napkin, Jia shakes her head at him. “Come on, you’ve run into me three times. Two of those were the same night, a few miles apart. Tonight I had someone call you.”

His hands go to his hips. “Really? So you had them call us and say a crazy lady came in here and was causing a scene?”

Jia frowns. “Okay, maybe that wasn’t my guy. If it was I’m going to have a talk with him. I wanted you here at least. I had a friend who was supposed to call you if things got out of hand. There’s a reason they’re all gone while I’m sitting here waiting for you. So maybe stop the attitude.”

Cassie looks happy to see her, at least until she gets a good look at her. While one of the officers starts interviewing the bartender and others start looking around, she’s the one who comes up to Jia. As she sees how bad the injuries are her smile turns to a look of concern. “That cut on your cheek looks bad. The scrape on your forehead isn’t much better. We should have a doctor take a look. You probably need stitches.”

Groaning, Jia leans back against the bar. “Ya, that sounds about right. Nice to see a friendly face at least. Too bad your partner had to come along.”

Glancing at her partner, Cassie turns red. “Sorry about him, that’s his deal. He’s good though, he’ll help figure this out. What happened?”

Carefully deciding what to share Jia says, “I got a tip that a gang was operating out of here and they’d have drugs on them so I stopped in to talk. Had a couple of drinks, just trying to check them out. After I talked to the leader and told him I was a vigilante, he told them all to kill me. So you know, a Thursday night.”

Cassie puts a hand on Jia’s shoulder. “You don’t need to put on a brave face. Were they armed? How many of them were there?”

Jia pounds the rest of her drink and looks to see if the bartender’s done yet so they can get her another. “Not that many, a dozen or so. Mostly men but a couple women too. They had guns but didn’t want to mess this place up. I guess they hang out here a lot and didn’t want to clean blood off the floors or fill in bullet holes. Lucky me. Still ended up making one hell of a mess.”

Looking her straight in the eye, Cassie says, “You’re lucky. You’re alive. Coming in here alone was stupid but I’m really glad you’re okay. Do you have someone to give you a ride to the hospital?”

Nodding, Jia glances between Cassie and her empty glass. “My brother drove me. He’s probably down the road. I’ll text him when we’re done and he’ll come get me.”

A small smile creeps across Cassie’s face. “I have to do some work but stick around. We’ll probably have a few more questions and I want to talk to you before you go, okay?”

Jia watches Cassie make her way over to her partner. As she walks away Jia can’t help but admire what she sees. She seems smart, nice, she’s definitely cute. Her first thought was to make sure Jia was okay which is really sweet.

Being left alone, she sees the bartender’s done being questioned and is heading to the bathroom. Her heart sinks, she was counting on another drink to help dull the pain in her head. After a minute though she realizes she didn’t hear either restroom door swing shut. She went in there before and the women’s room door isn’t quiet. Where else would she be going?

Making an excuse about going to the bathroom, the cops wave her away. She follows the bartender and sees a door at the end of the hall is slightly cracked. There’s a light on inside. Moving toward it, she tries to stay quiet. To avoid suspicion she pushes the women’s restroom open for a moment and then lets the door creak closed. There’s a shuffling in the room at the end of the bar but when the bathroom door gets loud it stops for a moment. After a moment it starts up again. When she gets to the door, a quick peek inside finds an office with only a lamp providing light. The bartender’s quickly searching through a desk for something, her hands full of papers.

Clearly surprised to see Jia walk in, she doesn’t bother to hide what she’s holding. “Shut the door behind you. Now.”

Doing as she’s told, she stares the woman down. She’s careful to leave no crack in the door but not to latch it. “What are you doing back here? I can ask the police to come and check this out.”

“You’re not going to do that.”

“Why not?”

Smirking, the woman waves the papers in front of her face. “If you do, your brother’s as screwed as I am. I’m deleting the security cameras for tonight and getting rid of the credit card records from the last few weeks. They’ll know everyone who’s been in here for at least the last month if I don’t. You may think that’s good for taking these guys down, but your brother’s on that list. He’ll go down as hard as anyone. You said you came here tonight to protect him. Do you care more about that or about nailing these guys?”

Slumping against a wall, Jia sighs. “Why are you doing this?”

The woman goes back to looking through her papers. “Because if I don’t I’ll lose pretty much all my customers. They’re already going to stay away for at least a few months but they’ll pay me enough to get by and eventually they’ll come back. Too many junkies here in town to stay away for long. Also, they’ll probably kill me if I don’t. There’s that too. Am I deleting this stuff or not? Your call, you can obviously stop me if you want to. I saw how you fought in there, I can’t take that on.”

The idea of helping these jerks makes her blood boil. Part of her wants to jump across the desk between them and snap the woman’s neck. She knows she can’t do that though. “Are you going to delete all of them? Won’t that look kind of suspicious.”

“Of course not, just the important ones. I keep them separate. The low level guys are going to have to take the fall tonight. Nothing I can do for them except delete the video.”

“My brother’s in the important file?”

“Not yet, but he can be if you let me do it. I need you to decide now. One of those cops out there’s going to come in here any second and I don’t have a good excuse for why we’re in here.”

Feeling like she’s going to pass out from blood loss, Jia doesn’t know what to do. She has two bad options. The thought she keeps coming back to is that Shin would do this for her in a heartbeat. He’d already be out of this mess if she hadn’t come along the other night when he was stealing what they wanted him to. She feels disgusted with herself for agreeing to it but she says, “Fine, do it. I want my brother’s records though. I don’t trust you to get rid of them. Once I have them I’ll go distract the cops long enough for you to do the rest.”

The woman hesitates. “How do I know you won’t betray me?”

“Because I gave you my word and you don’t have time to argue. You said I needed to make up my mind. Well now you do.”

Flipping through pages of records, the woman finds the receipts for Shin Crawford and tears them from the pile. Snatching it from the woman’s hands, Jia stuffs them into her pocket. Feeling ill, she slips out of the dark room.

Part 21

Part 23

Serenity Vol. 1 Scale the Mountain Part 21

When an unstoppable force meets an immovable object, eventually one has to give way. That sounds a lot nicer than saying when a girl’s head’s slammed into a wall, one of them’s going to break before the other. Jia Crawford’s really glad the wall gives way first, though not before bloodying her skull. A chunk of her hair’s torn away and her hand instinctively grabs at the wound.

Every time she tries to develop a strategy to face the dozen people forming to attack her it falls apart before she can get started. If she manages to isolate one or two of them and gain any sort of edge others grab her by her shoulders and toss her across the room. They don’t seem to have any guilt over winning a lopsided fight. The alternative’s losing one.

Pulling her head from the wall, blood’s already dripping down her face. She may have started a fight she can’t win; they have her completely surrounded. She tries to remember what her mother’s been teaching her in recent weeks about their family’s martial arts style. Stay calm, don’t rush in. Let your opponents make a mistake. A lot of times a fight isn’t decided by ability but rather by who can avoid an error the longest.

Two of them come at her at once but she spins away from the first and ducks under a punch from the second. Not ready to let her get an upper hand, another rushes her from behind. Leaping into the air, she catches them with a high backwards kick, knocking them to the ground.

One of the two girls in the group pulls a knife from her pocket and flicks it open. She starts advancing toward Jia who starts to backpeddle, looking for something to defend herself with. Rocco, the leader of the group, sees this and blocks the woman’s path. “No weapons, we don’t want to spill blood all over the place. We have to clean that up and we don’t know who’s going to walk in while we do it.”

The girl seems taken by surprise. She stares Rocco down but flips her knife upside down and drives it into a table next to them. Pressing her advantage, Jia rushes toward her, pushing past Rocco, and sends a kick into the center of her knee. Stumbling backwards, the girl somehow stays on her feet. Ending up in front of a booth, Jia keeps pushing forward and tackles her onto the table. She starts raining blows into the woman’s ribs but before she can get many in two sets of strong hands are grabbing her and throwing her aside.

Facing her opponents, she starts to feel this is a hopeless fight. There’s still ten of them and she’s starting to tire. There’s too many to take on at once even if they won’t shoot or stab her for fear of leaving evidence. Her eyes wildly glance around the room, trying to plan some sort of retreat.

Then Jillian’s coming at her, her eyes on fire and her red jacket gone. A friend of her brother Shin, she pulled the woman aside and warned her to get out of here before the fireworks started. Until now she thought her advice was taken. The kick flying at her chest says otherwise. She blocks the hit and deflects it into a chair but her poor odds just got even worse.

Sparring back and forth, it’s obvious she’s met the closest thing to an individual match she’s going to find in this dump. Despite her off the wall appearance, a pink mohawk and clothes filled with holes in a factory rather than through wear, her fighting style shows the discipline of someone with years of experience. She’s graceful and confident. The others back down when isolated, knowing they can only beat Jia with numbers. Jillian believes she can win on her own.

They push back and forth through the room, parrying blow after blow. Furniture splinters as they push it into each other. The two seem evenly matched. Over time though, Jia starts to gain a slight upper hand. Her recent training with her mother has taught her patience, how to let a fight develop before making her move. Her opponent has skill but Jia has more. The rest of the crowd has backed off at this point, clearly recognizing how much better equipped Jillian is to handle the situation. They cheer and shout their encouragement.

Coming in for a grab, Jillian’s eyes go wide as Jia counters and for a moment their heads are side by side. In that moment Jillian quietly says, “Just go with this and we’ll get out of here. Don’t hit me in the stomach either.”

They break apart as Jillian shoves her back into the bar. From then on though, Jillian starts telegraphing her moves. Not in a major way. Someone without fight experience wouldn’t notice. Jia knows what’s coming though and after realizing what’s happening she returns the favor. It’s enough to turn their fight into a ballet of fists and keep them both upright. Every time Jillian lands a blow the crowd cheers. Whenever she’s hit they boo. You’d think this was a sporting event.

As they criss cross through the bar the fight starts to drag. It gets easy, to the point Jia’s mind starts to wander and she wonders what their end game is here. They’re not getting anywhere and already the crowd’s growing restless, eager for blood. When they break for a moment she gets her answer. The faint sound of a police siren in the distance hits her ears and tells her help’s on the way. She just has to hold out until they arrive. Her distraction at the sound causes her to take a blow in the nose.

Shaking off the pain and giving enough warning that Jillian can prepare, she grabs the woman by the arm and tosses her onto a table. Jumping on top of her with a knee on either side of the woman’s hips, she winds a punch to the head up, but pauses long enough to give the woman beneath her a chance to dodge. She never gets the chance as a man grabs her by the shoulders and heaves her across the room. She slides through several bar stools and her head bounces off the bar.

Clearly annoyed, the bartender comes rushing out from behind the bar. “Careful with the equipment idiot. If I have to replace the bar itself it’s going to cost you a fortune.”

Rushing at the man who pulled Jia away, Jillian slaps him across the face. His head snaps back. “Stay out of my fight. I don’t need your help.”

A cleared throat silences the room. All eyes turn to Rocco. “That’s fine as long as you’re winning but get to it. We need to end this.” Through all of this Jia stays down, trying to catch her breath and gather the strength for a final push.

Jillian ignores Rocco’s words and comes her way again. Jia climbs back to her feet, steadying her legs. They resume their fight. This time though Jillian doesn’t seem to be telegraphing nearly as much. She has time to react but not enough to fully avoid some blows. A few hits don’t even give her that, landing with force and causing her to buckle. What’s changed? As she throws a high kick, instead of ducking under it as anticipated, Jillian grabs the leg and ferociously tosses Jia over the bar into a wall full of alcohol. Several shelves give way. Bottles shatter and glass sprinkles to the ground around her. A shard from one of the bottles bounces into her face and cuts a jagged line across her cheek. Fresh red blood once again runs down her face as liquid pools, soaking her clothes and making her smell like she’s ending a week long bender.

The sirens are close now and the bar starts reacting. A general panic starts rising among the crowd. One of the men asks, “What the hell are the cops doing out here?”

Another says, “Did the girl call them before this started? She knew she was coming here. This might get bad. I can’t go back to jail.”

“We all need to get out of here, right now.”

Trying to calm the crowd, Rocco pushes his way into the center of the room with his hands up. When the panic continues he grabs a bar stool and shatters it over the bar. That gets their attention. “Everyone needs to relax right now. We don’t have any reason to worry. A couple of you have warrants. Take off, now. The rest of you can calm down. We’re just hanging out in our favorite bar when some crazy chick jumps us. We haven’t done anything wrong, even if she is a vigilante.”

Walking to Rocco’s side, Jillian whispers something in his ear. He goes pale. “New plan guys, I want everyone out of here now. Get to the cars. Go wherever you need to but don’t get caught.”

Still in a lot of pain, Jia climbs to her feet. She didn’t go through all of this to let the group get away. Jillian comes for her again, circling behind the bar, and this time she’s not focused on technique. She just rushes her and tackles her to the ground, their bodies splashing among the liquid and glass. On top of her, she moves their faces together. “Stay down and pretend you’re unconscious. You can’t handle this many and they will shoot you if they don’t see another way out. You walk out of here alive if you stay down. Don’t be an idiot.”

A hard blow to the face takes the choice away. She doesn’t lose consciousness but the whole world starts spinning. A weight climbs off of her and by the time she can get back to her knees, the bar’s empty except for a shell shocked bartender. Trying to get up fast makes the pain worse. She struggles not to slip and fall again amongst the liquor.

After a minute she feels confident enough in her legs to stumble around the bar and past the wrecked furniture. She slams through the busted screen door leading to the front porch. The night air’s crisp and she can see fireflies in the newly empty parking lot. Her soaked clothes hit the chilly night air and she shivers. The last of the cars are gone but she can see police lights in the distance, though they’re still not that close. A bright green car comes roaring back from down the street.

Slamming on the breaks with a squeal, she can see Jillian sitting in the driver’s seat with her window down. Did she come back to provide a getaway? As Jia moves toward the car, trying not to move too fast because of the pain in her ribs, Jillian puts a hand up to halt her. “I did you a favor in there because your brother’s a friend. That’s a one time thing. I don’t stick my neck out for people. I scared Rocco enough that he’s going to get out of Napa. If your brother hangs around here they’ll probably leave him alone for now. That needs to be good enough. Don’t dig into this any further. You won’t like where it leads.” With that she stomps on the gas, roaring into the night, getting away before the police cars start pulling into the parking lot.

Part 20

Part 22

Serenity Vol. 1 Scale the Mountain Part 20

Jia decides she might as well actually use the bathroom before she gets into an argument with a scary gangster but a few minutes later she’s washing her hands and getting ready to head back into the bar.

Looking around, there’s no sign of Jillian. She seems to have actually taken the advice to get out. As soon as she walks back into the room, she has everyone in the place’s attention. This time she isn’t avoiding it. She walks right up to the table where Rocco’s sitting. At this point he’s got three other guys with him.

“I need to talk to a guy named Rocco.” She stares the man down.

The table immediately goes quiet. “You found him,” says the man with the messed up nose. “Not a lot of people walk in here trying to find me. Would you like another drink?”

“Sure. Scotch and soda.”

It takes a moment to get the bartender’s attention but when they see Rocco waving they rush over. “Bring my friend here a scotch and soda. On my tab.” He gestures for his men to make room for Jia to sit and they scooch in. “I’m always glad to meet such a beautiful young woman. What can I do for you?”

“I’m actually here about my brother, Shin Crawford.”

At the mention of Shin’s name, the table’s mood noticeably shifts. Everyone was already nervous but now these men are downright tense, ready to make a move at a moment’s notice. Rocco doesn’t seem worried though. “I guess you’re here about the trouble he’s found himself in then.”

“Something like that.”

Rocco smiles and places a hand on Jia’s. Now she tenses. She’d like to pull away but she wants to solve this diplomatically. He says, “Your brother’s a good young man. Great at fixing cars up. We actually lent him some money because he wanted to start a business tricking cars out. Didn’t work out and he hasn’t been good at paying us back. Very sad. We don’t want any trouble of course but it is a lot of money and we can’t have him skipping out on that.”

“You seemed to be willing to let it go if he did something for you last night.”

He shifts his eyes to each of the other men. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. If I did though, I can say that sometimes people can find other ways to pay us back. If he for example brought us things worth what he owes. Or if he were willing to work with us and provide a service to help pay off the debt. We could then possibly overlook things. You know, I was expecting to see your brother last night. He was going to stop by and talk about that debt but he never showed up. As someone trying to work with him, that worries me.”

Jia pulls her hand away. This guy’s creeping her out more by the second. “I know exactly what you were going to talk about. That’s why I’m here talking with you. I don’t want him involved in any of that anymore. There’s another way. Like you said, he’s great with cars. Why doesn’t he just fix your cars for awhile?”

Rocco’s eyes narrow. “That was kind of the idea actually. To work on our cars though, you have to be someone we trust. Someone we know can see certain things. We have an initiation for people and if your brother can’t pull that off, then we can’t have him working on our stuff.”

“Okay, then why don’t we just agree to pay you a certain amount every month. He’ll get a job, shouldn’t be a problem with his skill. How much does he owe you?”

Pulling a notebook out of his pocket, Rocco flips through a few pages. “Your little brother is into us for a little over a hundred grand. That’s not something he can pay off with his leftover cash at the end of each week. I’m maybe willing to give him time to try, but first he has to be made an example of. There’s no getting around that. If he’s willing to accept that then I can maybe see about what happens after.”

Gritting her teeth Jia says, “That’s not an option. What do you want? I’m willing to help you out to protect him.”

“Not quite sure how you can help us little lady. Well actually, I have one thing you could maybe help me with.” He turns to the other three men at the table. “Get lost for a little bit guys. I want to talk with the lady in a little more privacy.”

The other three don’t seem to like it but they grab their drinks and head to another table. Jia leans forward, wanting to hear what he can offer. “Just to be clear, when you talk about privacy, are you asking me for what I think you’re asking?”

Rocco grins ear to ear. “Depends on what you think. I’m not one to mince words. You’re cute. Suck my dick and I’ll give your brother a week. I’ll even take a hundred bucks off what he owes us. If you want more time, just make it good enough and we can maybe do this every week. How does that sound?”

“You’re offering to pay me for sex?”

“You can think of it that way if you want. I don’t really think of it as sex though. I have a girlfriend and I only sleep with her. This is to tide me over between trips home. I think I’m being pretty reasonable really. I could ask to fuck you, but I’m trying to be a nice guy and respect my lady. What do you say?”

She stands up and puts some space between them. “I say that I’m a licensed vigilante and you just committed a crime right in front of me. I’m fully allowed to take you in right now and I will absolutely do so. If you’re willing to forgive part of my brother’s debt and give him some time on the rest though, I’m willing to forget how disgusting you are.”

“No need to shit with me, we both know there aren’t any vigilantes in Napa.”

“There’s one.”

Rocco considers this for a minute or two before his eyes narrow. “You aren’t shitting me are you?”

“Afraid not, I’m pretty serious at the moment. I’m giving you an out.”

He smiles. “That’s awfully generous of you. Here’s the problem with that though. You are surrounded by my men. You picked a bad place to try and pull this shit.” Standing up, Rocco whistles to get the attention of everyone in the bar. “Listen up men, this little girl here is a vigilante and she knows way more than she needs to. She doesn’t leave here. Keep it clean though, no evidence.”

Well fuck she thinks. Probably should have listened to Shin, or Jillian, or her dad, or any of the people who told her this was a bad idea. Only one way out at this point. Time to take these guys down.

Part 19

Part 21

Serenity Vol. 1 Scale the Mountain Part 19

Cruising along in Shin’s beautiful blue convertible, Jia enjoys gazing at the twinkling stars above her. It’s a nice night and she’s comfortable in a tank top and jeans. They’re driving away from the city and there aren’t many street lights out here. It makes the starts really pop. She’s still working her brother for any details that could help her but he remains tight lipped. “Do you know who I need to talk to in this place? How many people am I looking at?”

Looking comfortable behind the wheel, Shin shrugs. “Depends on who shows up tonight. Around fifteen guys are there on an average night. There might be a few people who aren’t in the gang there but there won’t be a lot beyond the staff. They pretty much take over the place at night. Give it a few minutes and anyone who isn’t in the gang will be chased off. If you see a big bald guy with a nose that looks like it’s been broken a few too many times, that’s Rocco. He’s probably the best person to talk to. If he’s not there just ask the bartender who you need to speak with for business. They should point you in the right direction.”

This may be the nicest car Jia has ever found herself in. The seats are so soft she feels like she could get lost in them and she loves the feel of the wind whipping her face with the top down. “You know, I think this is the first time I’ve ever been in a convertible except with Carly in San Francisco a few weeks ago. I was too busy trying to keep her from killing us to enjoy it but this is nice. I don’t want to know how you can afford it, do I?”

“Bought it with my loan, nothing too terrible. Look, I can’t go in there or they might kill me on the spot. I’ll drop you off close and stay close though in case you need to get away fast. I have my phone. If you get a chance, look for a girl with a pink mohawk. That’s my friend Jillian. She’s there most nights. She’s cool and unlike most of the people in there, she doesn’t want me dead. She might help you. At the very least I’d appreciate her having a heads up so she can get the hell out of there. We’re getting close. I’ll cruise by and drop you off down the street.”

The bar they pass looks like it’s seen better days. It’s a wooden building in a part of town where you don’t see a lot of buildings, let alone businesses. The next building is a run down house probably a quarter mile away. The wood’s painted red but it’s starting to peel in spots as is the wood itself. One of the two windows on the front of the building is boarded over. There’s a sign hanging from a poll that says, “Have a Brew,” out front but there’s no sign of a name or anything else to tell you to come in and have a drink.

“They hang out here?” Jia asks her brother.

They slow down significantly so Jia can get a look. “Ya, it’s out of the way, not a lot of random people wander in. The few who do, if they just get a drink and go before long are mostly left alone. Anyone who lingers is told to get lost, at least at night. It’s pretty dead during the day so nobody cares what happens then but at night they prefer privacy. Maybe we should actually come back during the day.”

“I have to work and besides, the whole point is to talk to these guys. It’s not going to do me much good to show up when they’re not here.”

Shin speeds back up as they get further away. “Alright, I just don’t want you getting hurt because I’m an idiot. You don’t have to do this. I can try and straighten things out with them myself.”

“You’re going to do that how? You’re afraid to show your face around them.”

They finally park on the side of the road, not far from the bar. He shifts in his seat looking away from her. “I can try to get Jillian to help. I really don’t want to get her involved, but if it’s my only option we can give it a try.”

“Forget it, we’re here. I’m going in. Stay close and keep your phone on.” With that, Jia climbs over the side of the car and reaches into the back to get her jacket. Trying to appear confident, she heads toward the bar.

Reaching the parking lot, she counts nine cars. Maybe tonight’s a slow night. If things go bad she’ll be thankful for that. The screen door’s the only thing that needs opening but it sticks and makes a loud clang as she pulls it open. The screen itself has a number of tears in it and has definitely seen better days. The first thing that hits her as she walks in is the overwhelming smell of sweat.

Looking around the bar, there’s actually less people than she expected to find even from the cars. She sees a grand total of eleven people including the bartender who is half asleep behind the bar. There’s only three women among the group. The bartender’s the first, with the second being slumped in a booth in the back between two men wearing sun glasses even though the lighting in here can only be described as dim.

The third has to be Jillian. Jia can’t imagine there are two women with pink mohawks who hang around with this gang. It takes a minute but Jia recognizes her. She’s a fighter and they’ve faced off in competition a few times, though that was years ago before she went to college. In those days Jillian wasn’t rocking a pink mohawk but it’s definitely the same girl. She’s sitting with three large men in another booth in the back. One of those men fits Shin’s description of Rocco. Their whole table looks drunk and the stack of empty bottles surrounding them helps confirm it.

Making her way to the bar, Jia can’t help but notice that everyone in the place is staring at her. They try to look like they aren’t and most soon return to their drinks but they’re paying attention to this unknown girl. The sticky door didn’t help her stay incognito. The bartender perks up as she gets close. She doesn’t say anything at first, waiting for Jia to make the first move. She sits on a stool and leans forward. “Can I get a scotch and soda?”

The woman hesitates but nods and goes to make the drink. It only takes a minute. As she sets it in front of Jia the woman says, “Here you go. How’d you find our bar? We don’t get a lot of random people out here. Mostly just our regulars.”

“Just driving along and saw the sign. Figured I’d check it out. Big fan of little dive bars. Doesn’t seem to be much of a crowd for this time of night though.”

The woman grabs a rag and starts wiping the counter down. “It’s a slow night but we don’t get that much busier than this. Enjoy your drink. After you’re done though, it might be a good idea to move on. The regulars kind of like having this place to themselves. Some of the guys here are a little unpolished too. I don’t want you to have a bad night.”

“Sounds like a hard way to run a business.”

“Real good tippers. We’d do worse if they stopped coming in. Just offering free advice, take it or leave it.”

“Thanks, I’ll keep it in mind.” With that, the bartender goes to the end of the bar where one of the guys is standing wanting a couple more beers. Jia keeps her words in mind, but decides to make her drink last as long as she can. Sipping it slowly, she looks for an opportunity to get Jillian alone.

Twenty minutes pass and she’s getting tired of watching sports scores scroll by on the TV. Her drink’s starting to get low and what remains is watered down. She can feel eyes on her. Nobody has come up to her yet but the bartender isn’t making any move to offer another drink. She has a feeling that once this glass is empty she’s going to be handed her check.

Jillian hasn’t made any move away from her table. One member of their group got up and left but she’s still surrounded by two men and there’s no opportunity to get her alone and warn her. Even if she approached the bar this place is way too quiet to have a conversation without everyone else hearing. The people in the back seem to be practically whispering to keep others from hearing them. To keep her from hearing them.

Feeling a buzz in her pocket, Jia realizes her phone’s going off. She pulls it out to check who it is but realizes it’s just an email. The buzz gives her an idea. She shoots a text to Shin telling him to text his friend and ask her to run to the bathroom. That’s the one place here they might be able to chat.

With that text sent Jia chugs the remainder of her drink and gets the bartender’s attention. She puts a twenty on the bar. “Where’s the ladies’ room in this place? I need to go before I get out of here.”

The woman points her to a small hall in the far corner of the place but quietly says, “Once you’re done with that, I’d go. Some of the boys are starting to get antsy.”

A word of thanks later and Jia’s heading for the bathroom. The hall’s not short but there’s a room at the end with an office sign which is sitting slightly open. She makes her way into a stall and leans against the wall. A few minutes of standing around go by without anyone following her. She considers just heading back out and confronting Rocco. She tried to give the friend a warning. There’s not much else she can do. Just as she’s about to head out though the door swings open and under the stall she can make out a pair of leather military boots. Definitely not something the bartender would be wearing. That leaves only a few possible women who could be joining her.

Exiting the stall, Jillian’s standing there staring at her with a pissed look on her face. Jia tries to make a good first impression and offers her hand. “Hi, you must be Jillian. My name’s Jia. I’m Shin’s sister.”

Without missing a beat Jillian steps forward and gets in her face. She ignores the hand. “I know who you are. I knew as soon as you walked in this place. I was hoping you were smart enough to leave. You need to get out of here now before shit gets bad. The guys at my table are ready to jump you and throw you out the door.”

Jia frowns. She needs this woman’s help. “I actually need to talk to them. I want to work something out so they forgive Shin’s debt and don’t make him rob any more houses.”

Jillian frowns. “You know about that huh? Look, last night was his way out of the debt and he blew it. I don’t know what happened but he needed to steal that shit and bring it back to these guys. They’re not going to give him another chance. They want to make an example of him and beat the shit out of him.”

“I won’t let them do that.”

Jillian sighs. “Look, you don’t have to worry that much. They aren’t going to kill him as long as he agrees to make payments over time. He owes enough money that they aren’t going to throw that down the toilet if they think there’s a chance they can get it back. He’s going to have to take that beating though.”

“That’s not going to happen. I caught him in the middle of robbing that place. I’m a registered vigilante and had to stop him. He’ll make payments, I can promise that. I want to work it out so the beating part doesn’t happen though.”

Jillian’s jaw drops. “Now you really need to get out of here. If they find out you’re a vigilante and you know who they are, they might kill you. You don’t owe them any money. They’re not going to skip the beating anyway. Zero chance of that. He’s my friend and if I thought we could help him I’d already be doing it but Rocco’s a jerk.”

“I didn’t come here for permission. I promised Shin I’d try to warn you before I talked to Rocco in case things go bad. I’m just doing what I said I would. You should probably go out first and find an excuse to get out of here. Go outside and smoke or something. Is that Rocco you were sitting with out there?”

For a moment Jia fears Jillian’s going to jump her but slowly she nods. “You can talk to him if you want but it’s a really bad idea. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. I’ll make an excuse to go outside for a few but if things go bad and I have to fight, I will. I like Shin and want to help him but if it comes down to a fight, I’m going to back those guys up. They’re assholes but they’re my assholes and if I don’t, I’m going to end up just like your stupid brother.” She pulls a phone out and glances at it. “Wait a few minutes after I leave before you follow me out. I’ll make an excuse for why you’re still in here before I bail. That’s all I can do for you though.”

With that Jillian washes her hands and heads out. The door slams behind her.

Part 18

Part 20