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

 

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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

Serenity Vol. 1 Scale the Mountain Part 18

It’s a slow day at the winery. They’re having an uncharacteristically rainy season which is scaring off the tourists and day trips. A few regulars stop in for a drink but Jia’s glad that’s all she has to deal with. Enough people have commented on her eye for one day. It’s been called a shiner, eyeliner, raccoon eyes and a few names she never needed to hear. At least the regulars like her to drink with them and her eye gives her another excuse. She’s had at least half a bottle and she’s feeling pretty good.

As the morning gets late, Shin finally makes his way over from the house. She told him he had to help today but he never showed up and she couldn’t leave the winery alone to search for him. She stares him down, waiting for him to say something. He’s unable to meet her gaze. “Sorry it took me so long to sneak over. Mom and dad wouldn’t stop talking. How’s your eye?”

“Hurts like hell thanks to you.”

That gets his attention and he comes at her, looking up. “Come on. You can’t give me shit for that. You’re the one who asked me to punch you.”

“You didn’t exactly give me a lot of options. It was that or turn you over to the police. Be glad I was feeling nice. I should have turned you in. You need to give me more info about these guys you owe money. I’m not going to find you breaking into any more houses.”

He looks away again. “You really don’t want to get involved with these guys. They’re dangerous and they don’t play around. Leave it alone and let me take care of it.”

“Ya, that’s not happening little brother. I’m already involved.” She points at her eye. “This isn’t going to be for nothing. Tell me more about them or I will turn you in to mom and dad.”

He scans the store to make sure they’re alone. “Your funeral. Don’t say I didn’t try to warn you. Have you heard of the Delux Gang? They mostly work out of San Francisco but they’re all over the state.”

Rolling her eyes, Jia says, “Sure I stay up-to-date on all the gangs around here. Who knows, I might want to join one of these days. Of course I don’t know about a gang. That’s why I need you to tell me about them. Who are they, what do they do, where can I find them?”

“There really isn’t that much to tell. Drugs, guns, more drugs. You know, gang stuff. I got into a little too much debt to them and had to do an initiation last night.”

Her jaw drops. This isn’t the story he told her at first. “What do you mean an initiation? I thought they just wanted you to steal some shit. Were you trying to join their gang?”

“I mean, kind of. I don’t really want to join but I’m not sure I have much choice. I owe them enough money that there’s no way I can pay them back.”

Walking to the door of the winery, Jia locks the entrance. Any customers who show up will have to pound on the door so they won’t be caught off guard. “Why were you borrowing money from a gang? You really couldn’t see how bad that would end?”

Shin shifts between his feet and shoves his hands in his pockets. “I have a friend who’s a member and she told me awhile ago they could lend me money if I needed it. There’s a few projects I wanted to work on and I needed the funds. Things were going well for awhile but then I got behind and I just kept falling deeper and deeper into things. It seemed like joining was my only way out. They told me if I became a member and did some work for them they’d forgive my debt. To become a member, I had to go through their initiation which is just robbing a house they tell you to. It was a one time thing. I wasn’t planning to become a cat burglar or anything. I think I proved last night I’m not cut out for it.”

“You’re not joining a gang. Not happening.”

Laughing, Shin nods. “After last night, I think you’re right. Got any other suggestions so I don’t get killed by these guys? I’m all ears. After how last night went I’m pretty sure joining the gang isn’t an option anymore.”

”My idea is that I’m going to take care of it for you. Like always. Do they just operate out of San Francisco? I thought you were living in LA until recently?”

“I was but I’ve been all over. They’ve got members around the state but to get a loan I had to drive to the bay. It’s not that bad a drive for the kind of money they were giving me.”

“Where can I find them. Do I need go over to San Francisco? I’ll do so if needed.” She sighs. How’s she going to sell her parents on this one?

“Terrible idea. If you really want to talk to them the last thing you want to do is go there. That’s their headquarters. If you try rushing that place you’ll end up dead and that’s not going to do me any good. There’s actually a bar outside of town where a bunch of their members hang out. A lot of people in Napa build up a tolerance to the booze and need something harder. They do a ton of business here. There’s probably even someone there who can make a decision. Since it’s not quite as high profile, there’s a chance they don’t kill you on sight. Not a great chance, but a chance. It’s still a waste of time though. If you ask them to forgive my debt they’re just going to laugh you out of the place. That’s the best case.”

Grabbing her brother’s arm and putting it in an arm lock, she holds it for a moment before releasing it. He yelps but doesn’t fight back. As she releases him he rubs his wrist in pain. “I can take care of myself. Let me worry about what they’re going to do. Where do I find this bar?”

Shin doesn’t have an address but he’s able to give her a general location and describe the place well enough that she’s fairly certain she can find it. It’s a bit of a haul by bike so she demands a ride in exchange for her services. Shin has a nice car; she saw him driving it just a few days ago. He apparently left it a few miles away at an all night grocery before his attempted robbery though. She tells him to get on her bike and go get it. He can throw the bike in the trunk on his way back. He grumbles but does as he’s told.

With Shin gone, Jia can unlock the winery and go back to playing on her phone and drinking. Not a bad way to spend a day. She’s starting to get numb to the pain in her face when her mother makes her entrance. She walks behind the counter and without a word grabs a glass, pouring herself a drink. She jerks her head in Jia’s direction. “Nice eye.”

Jia puts her head in her hands, tired of every person commenting on her face. “Thanks, it really complements my haircut. I’m thinking I might keep it.”

Pouring a second glass, her mother hands one to her. Jia takes it without complaint, not mentioning how much she’s already had today. “Your dad said it was bad. He wasn’t kidding. Believe me, I know you can’t do this without getting hurt now and then. I’m not going to give you a hard time or anything. Can you try to keep it off your face though? He’s going to give me a hard time if you keep getting hurt.”

Jia shrugs, finishing her glass already. Her mother refills it and Jia has another sip. “I’ll try, but I didn’t exactly go out planning on getting punched in the face. It just kind of happened.”

“What’s your brother gotten himself involved in?”

Jia’s taken aback at this. Her mother has never voiced a negative thought about her brother in her life, at least not to her. He literally went two years without letting any of them know he was alive and she shrugged it off as a kids will be kids situation. She badly wants to rub this in her mother’s face, to prove he’s not the perfect child she acts like he is. Jia loves her brother though and she gave her word.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. What does Shin have to do with anything?”

Her mother gets closer, staring her down. “I’m not an idiot. I heard you and your brother show up at the same time last night. You come home with that and he shows up out of nowhere, without his car I might add. Where’s he at now?”

“He ran to get his car. He left it at a friend’s house not far from here apparently. He was over there drinking last night and got drunk. No big conspiracy. You should be glad he was smart enough not to drive. I ran into him on my way in last night. You should have more faith in your son.”

“Why did you tell your dad he wasn’t here when you got home then?”

She didn’t expect her mother to have heard that. It takes her a moment to come up with an answer. “Just giving him a hard time. Figured he wouldn’t want to tell dad about his drinking. Dad gives him a hard time about it.”

The older woman gets quiet for a moment before finishing her final half glass of wine in one large swig. She pours another. “Have it your way then. I expect you’ll both come to me if you need help though.”

“What would you even do mom, go put on your old costume and rough someone up? We both know that’s not going to happen.”

Her mother smiles as she starts on another glass of wine. “It doesn’t need to. You don’t do this without making some friends. Some of them still owe me favors. I wouldn’t have to lift a finger. But keep pretending there’s nothing to tell.” With that said, she walks out of the winery, taking her glass of wine and the rest of the bottle with her.

Part 17

Part 19

Serenity Vol. 1 Scale the Mountain Part 17

Seeing herself in her mirror makes Jia Crawford cringe. It isn’t due to a lack of confidence. Her left eye’s swollen, nearly to the point she can’t open it. Her brother Shin can throw a punch, especially when he knows the target won’t punch back.

Her dad’s been freaking over her signing up to be a vigilante; when he sees this he’s going to give her a reason to cringe. She considers locking her door and not leaving her room until it heals. She could subsist on half empty water bottles and crumbs from the bottom of chip bags. Her life isn’t stopping though so that’s not an option. All she can do is make her way downstairs and face what’s coming.

Entering the kitchen, her dad and Shin are sitting at the table enjoying breakfast. Each of them has a bowl of cereal and her dad’s working his way through his morning paper. It’s surprising to find Shin up this early, especially since they didn’t get here until the middle of the night. She expected he’d sleep the day away. During her night of vigilantism she caught him in the middle of robbing a family’s home while they were on vacation. She had to find an excuse to let him go, hence the swollen eye. The alternative was turning him into the police and she couldn’t bring herself to do it.

Shin’s so lucky she decided not to turn him in. She should have. For her generosity she gets a black eye, and he gets to sit here like it’s any other day enjoying his fruit cereal.

There’s no point trying to hide the injury. It’s so purple it’s hard not to stare at. Her dad turns to say good morning with a smile on his face but it’s gone in a moment, replaced by a look of horror. He gets to his feet. “What did you do to your face? Who did that to you?”

“Don’t lose it. It’s not as bad as it looks. Ran into a guy who was in over his head last night. Trust me, he’s feeling worse than I am today.” She stumbles to the cupboard to pull out a coffee cup.

Her dad follows after her, putting a hand on her shoulder. “You’re going to end up getting really hurt, or worse. You’re trying to use karate against people who have guns. That’s not going to end well for you soon enough. This has to end Jia. Now.”

Pouring a cup of coffee she says, “This guy didn’t have a gun dad. He was backed into a corner and he lashed out. He actually apologized after everything was over. Where’s your trust in me? I know what I’m doing, and I can handle myself. Please, just back off. I would have expected this sort of thing from mom but not from you.”

That shuts him up. There’s always been an unspoken competition between her parents over their children. Shin takes after their mother, while she has a special bond with their dad. She doesn’t want being a vigilante to ruin that. She’s not going to stop though and if he can’t accept her decision he’s going to have to work that out for himself.

Trying to change the subject, Jia turns to her brother. “What are you doing home? Thought you were staying in Sonoma.”

He’s clearly taken aback by the question. He can’t tell the truth and she knows why he’s actually home. After what she’s going through for him though, she wants to see somebody else squirm for a minute. He’s the one who should be in the hot seat. Unable to come up with a good answer, he keeps it simple. “Was in the area, thought I’d say hey.” He fills his mouth to avoid having to say more.

“You got in pretty late last night for someone just wanting to say hello. I don’t think you were here when I got home.”

He glares at her, chewing slowly before responding. “Yeah, I guess not.”

Annoyed at her dad’s judgment and her brother’s reluctance to take any heat off her, Jia grabs a pack of toaster pastries to go with her coffee and heads back to her room. She has to be at the winery soon enough. She doesn’t feel like fighting anymore. Before she heads to work, she wants a few moments of peace. That’s what the doctor ordered. Well, that and an ice pack.

Part 16

Part 18

Serenity Vol. 1 Scale the Mountain Part 16

Before long Jia finds herself peddling past the winery and toward their house behind it. Sneaking inside, she’s thrilled to find neither of her parents are awake. A glance at the clock reveals it’s almost four in the morning. Her mom would never be awake this late but she knows her dad’s worrying about her constantly. She’s already come home a couple of nights to find him waiting up.

She promised her mom she wouldn’t let him know she was a vigilante. That lasted about five minutes before he figured it out. Now both of her parents are mad at her. Tonight’s not going to help put her dad at ease.

Checking Shin’s room, she finds no sign that anyone’s disturbed it. He hasn’t lived here in four years but their parents still haven’t gotten rid of his room. The last time she asked her dad about it he said something about making sure he always knew he was welcome. Hopefully his not being here means she beat him home. She walks back outside and sits on the porch to wait.

It doesn’t take long. It’s dark out but in about ten minutes she can see a dark figure at the end of the driveway cautiously making their way up the path. When Shin finally gets to the house he won’t even look his sister in the eye. “I’m really sorry about this.”

“You should be. You’re lucky. The cops bought the story and they won’t look that closely into it since nothing was actually taken.”

“Lucky, right. You do know I’m going to get the shit kicked out of me again now, right?”

Smiling, she walks toward him. “Maybe when you tell them a vigilante already did it they’ll go easy. Seriously though, we’ll figure that out together. I promise. Hang around here a few days. I’ll tell mom and dad I found you in one of the bars downtown when I was patrolling and I stepped in to keep you from getting your ass kicked in a bar fight. It’ll explain why you’re here and why we both look like shit. If dad knows me being a vigilante saved you he might even lighten up on the whole vigilante thing.”

Shin’s jaw drops. “You mean you’re not going to tell them about me?”

“Why would I do that? If I was going to tell them about you, I wouldn’t have let you go. You think mom and dad would be okay with me not turning you into the cops tonight? You know them better than that. They’d have wanted you to get what you had coming. You’re lucky I’m the one who found you. Now come on, let’s get some sleep. I have to be up for work in like three hours. You’re coming with me to help explain this whole mess. Tomorrow’s supposed to rain, it’ll probably be slow. You can hang around and help me while we figure this whole thing out.”

Shin steps forward and gives his sister a hug. She considers squeezing him back but with how much of a beating he took earlier, that’s probably not a good idea. Instead she just lets him hug her for a minute before they both make their way inside and call it a night.

Part 15

Part 17

Serenity Vol. 1 Scale the Mountain Part 15

This wasn’t what tonight was supposed to be like. Nobody in Napa seems to care about the vigilante act. Why did Jia think signing up was a good idea? She bikes toward home, cutting down side streets and through neighborhoods every chance she gets.

She stays off the main roads as much as possible. Easier to avoid any drunks heading home. That’s easier said than done out here. It seems like you’re either in a downtown area, on a highway, or in the country where you can go miles without seeing much except grape fields. A few drops of water start falling which make her peddle faster. It’s light but could pick up any time. She has to get a car if she’s going to keep doing this. After tonight though she’s not sure she even wants to continue.

Riding through the last neighborhood before she’ll reach the highway her family’s winery sits on, Jia hears a crash in the distance. At first she dismisses it. Probably someone taking out the trash. It’s awfully late for that though. Then she hears it again. It sounds like someone hitting something. She hears glass breaking. This time of night that can’t be a good sign.

She could ignore it. She could even call the cops and let them handle it. There’s a squad car just a few miles away. Her confidence that she can handle this isn’t high right now. She’s not even confident she wants to handle it. She’s here though. By the time the cops show up whoever is doing this could be long gone. She registered as a vigilante to help people. Now’s her chance.

Deciding to get involved is only the first step. The difficult part is figuring out where that glass broke. She heard it ahead of her and to the right but there’s six houses in that direction. There’s only one street light on this stretch of road so she can’t make out many details. She listens, hoping to hear more noise, but whoever did the breaking has stopped. She thinks the noise came from one of the three closest houses but she can’t be sure.

With no other option Jia leans her bike against a tree and gets ready to start creeping into people’s yards, looking for any sign of broken glass. Her heart beats so fast she fears it might burst. It’s not a warm night but sweat’s pouring off of her.

Whoever’s behind this could have targeted any of these houses but they would have chosen one for a reason. She starts scanning for any sign or clue that would make one the best target. She notices two cars parked in the driveway of one of the houses. That probably means a fair amount of people are home. Not a great target. Another has their porch light on. It’s dim but might scare someone off. The other house doesn’t have any lights on, no cars out front, and nothing about it makes her think someone is there.

She creeps closer to this house. As she nears it, she sees the mailbox is open and overflowing with mail. That’s almost too easy. If nobody’s been home long enough for that much mail to build up the place is an easy mark.

It’s a one story ranch style house. Clearly the people who live here are at least fairly wealthy. Beyond the fact that they can afford any house in Napa this is easily the biggest house on the block. It’s got nice finishes and a big garage. It’s the kind of place anyone would want to live in and the kind of place any thief would want to rob.

Circling the building, Jia looks for any sign of broken glass. Nothing out front. All of the windows are in good shape. A quick glance through a garage window reveals there’s no vehicles inside. There are too many signs this place is empty. With nothing to go on she makes her way around the side of the house. There’s a tall wooden fence surrounding the back yard which she’ll have to make her way over. That’s not an issue in itself, she can climb a fence, but she really hopes it doesn’t mean she’s about to meet a nervous pet on the other side.

Hoisting herself over, she lands on her feet and is relieved to see no sign of a dog house or anything else suggesting a pet. A lot of people in the area only fence their yards if they have pets but maybe this family just likes privacy. The wooden fence is only along the front and back of the yard. In between she finds cheap wire fencing, allowing her to see into the yards of the neighbors.

Glancing at the next house over she can see the people there have their back porch light on but there’s no sign of anyone outside this late. That’s good, she doesn’t relish the idea of having to explain to a neighbor why she’s sneaking around in the dark.

Once again she considers calling the cops. Even if she’s going to investigate herself it might be a good idea to have backup on the way if things go bad. She dismisses the thought. She needs to handle this herself. She can’t call for help every time she gets a little nervous.

Half expecting to find the sliding glass door along the back of the house broken, she’s disappointed to find it seems intact. There’s two other windows back here but neither of them is broken either. With only one side of the house left Jia starts getting ready to move onto the other houses on the block. Maybe her detective skills aren’t as advanced as she hoped. Rounding the final corner of the house though, she changes her mind. Those Nancy Drew books she read as a kid may have taught her a few things after all.

There’s only one window on this side of the house but it’s wide open. Looking at the pushed up panel, she can see the glass is shattered and there are shards all over the ground. It looks like whoever did this only broke the window so they could unlock it. There’s no sign of anyone out here so whoever did this is likely inside.

Jia feels nervous standing around out here. Whoever is inside could come out at any time and there’s no way to know who they are or how dangerous they might be. Jia’s confident she could handle even an armed opponent up close and personal, but if they see her across a room, she isn’t magic nor is she bulletproof.

She takes a deep breath and starts to pull herself through the window but at the last minute she has a change of heart. Before she goes into the unknown she decides to call the cops. She needs to be able to handle herself but she has no idea what she’s walking into. She hates calling them the first time she stumbles on an interesting situation. If things go bad in there though she’ll feel a lot better knowing backup’s on the way.

Jia slinks back around the corner of the house as she calls. She keeps an eye on the window but doesn’t want to be standing right outside if the intruder emerges. They might not even exit through the window, but she’s trying to play it safe. The phone rings a few times before a tired sounding woman picks up. “Napa police department. How can we help?”

“Yes, there’s a robbery in process on the 200 block of Clinton Ave. I’m not sure of the actual address, it’s too dark outside to see. It’s a big house with a wooden fence around it though. I think it’s the only wooden fence on the street. They broke the side window and I think they’re still inside.”

“We’ll get an officer out there as soon as possible. Thank you for reporting this. May we have your name?”

“This is Jia Crawford, I’m a registered—”

She’s cut off before she can finish her sentence. “We know who you are Ms. Crawford. Please go home and leave this to the police. I appreciate you reporting it.”

“I’m actually going to investigate so I will very likely be in the house when your officers arrive. If they don’t see me out front, please don’t let them go in guns blazing. Thanks.”

She hangs up before the woman can respond. Without any other excuses to delay she heads back to the window. Watching out for glass on the ground, she pushes aside the curtains and peers inside.

There’s no sign of the robber. She’s staring at what appears to be an office, with a computer desk that hasn’t been disturbed. The door leading out of the room’s open. She pulls herself up and is able to quickly make her way inside. There’s a fair amount of glass on the other side of the window as well but she manages to avoid it as she hops in. She makes a little more noise than she likes when hopping over the glass and instantly freezes. Listening for any sign that she isn’t alone, nothing stands out. Maybe they broke the window then got scared and ran off. Hopefully she’s not about to stumble upon an angry homeowner who thinks she’s the robber. Especially not if they have a gun.

Finding no sign of anyone in the office she tip toes to the door and glances out. There’s a long hallway here that goes in both directions. To the left she sees a few more rooms and a dead end while to the right the house opens into a common area.

Putting her detective skills back to work, she notices a night light plugged into one of the hall’s wall sockets. It doesn’t give her much to go on but it’s just enough to make out a bit of water on the floor to the left. There’s no guarantee the thief didn’t come back and go the other way but it seems like a good place to start.

The door to the first room’s open but there’s no sign of anyone. It looks like a kid’s room with blocks spread all over the floor. Moving further down the hall she comes to a sudden stop. There’s noise coming from the next room. It sounds like things are being thrown all over the place. Like someone’s looking for something. Jia creeps closer and sees the door’s wide open. As she looks inside she can tell she’s found the master bedroom.

Amidst the darkness there’s a shadow rushing back and forth. It’s moving from a room off of the bedroom and then back to the bed where it throws it’s haul into a bag. Then it goes to the dresser and seems to repeat the process.

Jia’s breathing’s strangled. This is her last chance to back out. She can just sneak back out the window and head home. The cops will be here soon. Soon enough anyway. It might actually not be that soon. If she doesn’t do something these people might come home to a bunch of their stuff being gone. It’s not life and death but it probably matters to them. She can’t let that happen if she can prevent it.

Trying to stay in the shadows, Jia sneaks into the room. The dark prevents her from seeing anything about the robber, including if they have a weapon. She’s not taking any chances. They rush into what Jia can only assume is a closet. Jia positions herself just outside and flattens herself against a wall, just far enough to the side that their peripheral vision shouldn’t catch her, especially in this darkness.

As they make their way back to the bed, they don’t seem to realize they’re not alone. She uses that as her chance to strike. Rushing them from behind, she grabs their right arm by the wrist. She snakes her left leg in front of their right leg which leads to them being tripped off balance. They don’t fall to the floor but that was never the point. With them off balance Jia puts all her weight behind her and rushes forward, spearing them onto the bed. She could have thrown them clear across the room but she’s in someone’s home. She doesn’t want to destroy anything she doesn’t have to.

Jia flips them over and despite the dark she can tell they’re a man. She jumps on top of him, straddling him with her legs, trapping his arms to his body. At this point she starts pummeling him. Mostly body shots to the chest and gut to knock the wind out of him. She mixes a few strong punches to the face in to disorient him.

The man starts to whimper and cry. He tries to raise his hands to shield his face from more hits but they’re trapped by Jia’s legs. After an eternity of punch after punch the man finally manages to say, “Please stop. I give up. You’ve gotta believe me, I give up.”

The voice she hears fills her with electricity. It’s a voice she knows far too well. She can’t see well enough to confirm her suspicion but she has to find out. She delivers a few more strong body shots to keep the man down before climbing off of him and rushing to the room’s entrance. At this point she flips on the light.

Lying bruised and bleeding on the rumpled bed is none other than her little brother Shin. He’s clutching his face and there’s a lot of blood leaking from his nose. Jia hopes it’s not broken.

“You little idiot,” she says as she rushes to the bed.

Shin looks out of it, clearly dazed. He’s a short guy of only 22. He’s always been slender and wears his hair short. He’s wearing all black at the moment but no mask or anything to hide his identity. It seems the only thing he did to prepare to rob this place is put on some gloves. He seems to recognize her voice and when Jia tears her glasses off to get a good look at him he says, “Okay, now I know I have a concussion.”

“You might, but that’s not why you’re seeing me you moron.” Jia looks around for something to put on her brother’s nose before he gets blood on everything in this place. She can’t find anything so she reaches down to the bottom of her shirt and tears a piece off. “Here, put this on your nose.”

He does as he’s told. “Damp. Really hope that’s rain and not sweat. Why are you here? How are you here? Did you follow me or something?”

She frowns. Everything’s always about him. “Nothing so clandestine. I signed up to be a vigilante. Mom and dad would probably have told you if you ever called or came home. I was walking home tonight and I heard you breaking a window. You weren’t exactly a ninja on this one. I didn’t realize who I was beating on until you spoke up. I’d have probably beaten you up at least a little less if I knew it was you.”

“Gee thanks,” he says as he tries to stuff the piece of shirt up his nose. “Why would you want to be a vigilante? That seems dangerous and stupid.”

“Says the boy who just broke into a family’s house. Is that how you got that car I saw you driving awhile ago? Stealing crap? You’re better than that.”

He tries to stand but moans, putting a hand on his side. “It’s not like I wanted to. I got into debt with some guys who you don’t get into debt with. That’s how I got the car. I didn’t steal it. I couldn’t pay them as quick as they wanted and they told me I could either do this,” he says, gesturing to the bag of jewelry and purses on the bed, “or they’d hurt me and, well…”

“What aren’t you telling me?”

He sighs and lightly taps at his side. “Look, I decided to go the route that I thought would end with me not being beaten to a pulp. Apparently that didn’t work out so well.”

She throws her hands in the air and starts pacing. “You can’t just go stealing things. Why didn’t you go to mom and dad and ask them for the money? They’d have helped you. Hell, I’d have helped you.”

“Ya, so there’s one more thing dad can be upset with me about? I wasn’t going to do that. You don’t have the kind of money I needed anyway. I don’t know if mom and dad have it.”

Their parents do well for themselves. That tells her more than she wanted to know. “Why this place? Why are you only a couple miles from home? I thought you were staying out in Sonoma or something.”

“I am. I didn’t pick the place. The people I owe money to gave me an address and told me to come here. They said the family would be out of town and nobody would get hurt. I was just supposed to take the jewelry and purses and stuff. Figured it wouldn’t be that big a deal, their insurance would cover it. They picked it because it’s close to the family. That way if I got caught walking around the area I could just tell whoever caught me that I was going to visit family. I really need this stuff sis. You have to let me take it. You don’t know what they’ll do if I don’t.”

Shaking her head, she walks toward him. “You’re an idiot. I’m not going to let you steal from these people. I should turn you over to the cops.” As the words leave her mouth she remembers what’s coming. She puts her hand over her mouth and her eyes go wide. “You need to get out of here. Now. I called the cops before I came in here and they were sending a car out. Napa cops are slow but they can’t be that far away at this point.”

Shin’s hands go together in a begging gesture. “Please let me take the stuff. I promise you I won’t ever do this again. I’ll get my head on straight and be better. You don’t know what they’ll do.”

“I know what I’m going to do if you don’t leave. I’ll tell the cops you got away, just get the hell out of here. Go home, sleep in your old room. We’ll talk in the morning. I’ll be along as soon as I can and we’ll figure out your problem but I can’t let you take this stuff. You’re not a thief and I’m not letting you become one.”

He hesitates but stands and starts to head for the door. Jia’s glad to see no blood stains on the blanket. No real evidence. “Wait.”

Shin turns around. “What? The cops could be here any minute, right? I need to get out of here.”

“Ya, but you need your bag.” Jia dumps the bag he had been piling valuables into and some of it makes it’s way around the room. She’s careful to keep her hands on the bag. She doesn’t want anyone wondering why her fingerprints are all over this stuff. “You’re not leaving it here. That’s evidence. God you’re a terrible criminal.”

“Sorry I’m so bad at stealing.”

“You should be. There’s one more thing. I need you to hit me. Hard. In the face. I need a black eye or a bleeding nose or something.”

His eyes go wide and he shakes his head. “What? You already have a black eye. I’m not going to hit my sister.”

“Yes, you are. Otherwise they’ll be suspicious of how you got away. This,” she says while pointing to her eye, “is already a few days old. One good hit then out the back slider. You go over the back fence and cut through the field back there. Just keep going, don’t stop until you’re home. I’ll go out the front door and wave the cops down. I’ll say you went out the front. That should get you away without an issue. Now hit me.”

“There’s gotta be another way. I don’t want to hit my sister.”

“A little late for that thief boy. Besides, after that beating I gave you, you must want a little revenge. Tomorrow you’re going to a doctor and getting your ribs checked by the way.”

Subconsciously rubbing his ribs he says, “They’re fine, just a little sore. You aren’t strong enough to break my ribs.”

“We’ll see. For now though, just hit me and get out of here. I need to get out front to throw them off.”

Shin still hesitates. He’s never been the most assertive guy. He has to know she’s going to get him back for this, even though she’s basically demanding he do it. Still, she is insisting and she will need to explain why he got away. He balls up his fist and punches his sister right in the eye. He tries to at least avoid her nose and manages to do so. She’s still knocked back by the hit.

“Ow, you little moron.” She rubs her face and can already feel a welt. “I guess that’ll work. Didn’t know you had that punch in you. You owe me so bad.” Her hand moves to cover her eye. She wishes she had something cold to put on it.

“Are you okay?”

“I’ll be fine, just get out of here before the cops show. I didn’t take that hit for nothing.”

Shin nods and grabs his bag. He runs out of the bedroom and his sister follows him to the living room. They find the rear sliding glass door and Shin is about to run out it when Jia says, “Wait.”

“Come on, I really need to go.”

“Unlock the front door first and open it a crack for me. You have gloves on. If you don’t it’ll be weird when they find my fingerprints on the lock. If you ran out first, there’s no reason I’d have to unlock the door.”

“Good catch.” Shin does as he’s told but opens the door only a crack. With that he runs to the back door, opens the slider, and closes it behind him. Jia uses her clothing to push the lock back into place so she won’t leave a fingerprint on it. They probably won’t go so far as to fingerprint a break-in but it can’t hurt to be careful. She doesn’t want anyone asking questions she can’t answer.

With that done Jia heads out the front door and is glad to see no sign of the cops. She doesn’t want to explain why she’s just coming out if she already chased the robber off. She sits down on the steps and rubs the side of her face. It really hurts.

She wanted to help people, at least tonight she got to do so. She only had to become an accessory to an attempted robbery to do it. She stopped the theft at least. The stuff is still here. This family might come home to a window that needs fixing but they won’t come home to find all their valuables gone. She made things better. Hopefully that balances the scales from letting her brother go. She shouldn’t have. There should be consequences for his stupidity. He’s her brother though.

After a few more minutes she sees blue and red lights at the end of the street. They slowly make their way toward her and when they get close she gets up and walks toward them, waving her arm in the air to draw their attention.

The car stops and two cops get out. It’s the same two from earlier in the night. The older officer says, “You look like crap.”

“Maybe I wouldn’t if you guys didn’t take so long to get here. I had to handle this on my own. Which I did.”

“Did you get the guy who broke in?”

She looks down, not wanting to meet his gaze. “Not quite. I caught him off guard and got a few good shots in but he surprised me with this,” she says as she points to her face. “He made for the door. I chased him out the front but it took a minute to recover and by the time I got out here, I couldn’t see any sign of him. I made him drop the stuff though.”

“What stuff?”

“I think he was trying to take a bunch of purses and jewelry and stuff. I looked after I realized he was gone. He was piling it all on the bed and when I beat the crap out of him, it flew everywhere. I don’t know if any of it got damaged but it should all be there. Apparently he decided getting out of here was more important than stealing.”

The officer has his hands on his hips as he walks toward the house. “He got away. You didn’t handle it. I guess it’s good that nothing was stolen though. Any sign of the family or whoever lives here?”

She frowns. Hasn’t she earned more respect than that? “Not that I could see. No cars out front or in the garage. I think they weren’t here for some reason. Maybe that’s why the guy picked this place.”

“Could be someone they know. We’ll look into it. Good job or whatever. Next time you have to stick your nose into something, try to get the guy. He’ll probably just hit another house now.”

Jia wants to protest but she can’t let on that she knows who did this. “I’ll try to do better.”

“Do so. What can you tell us about the thief?”

“Not a lot. I didn’t turn the lights on until after he was gone. He was bigger than me so I wanted to get the drop on him. He’s taller than I am, probably by at least six inches. Definitely a guy, where I hit him, I’d have felt if it was a woman. Pretty fast, with a mean right hook. That’s about all I can say though.”

“Skinny? Fat? Their race? Right handed or left handed? You have to be able to give us something else.”

“In between I guess on weight. I didn’t get a good look at them like I said. They were wearing a mask and gloves, no clue on race. They had all black on. It was actually hard to see them except for when they walked by the window. They punched with their right hand, so maybe right handed. They broke in through the office window. That’s actually how I got inside too. That’s about all I can tell you though. Wish I could be more help.”

The second officer, the younger woman with long blond hair and a nice smile speaks up before her partner can. “It’s more than we usually have to go on. That helps a lot. Thank you for your help Jia.”

She steps back. “You know my name?”

The officer laughs and moves toward her, patting her on the shoulder. “We all know your name.”

“I keep hearing that. Apparently being the only vigilante in Napa is good for something. What’s your name?”

The older officer rolls his eyes and heads toward the house. His partner looks at the ground and says, “Sorry about him. He’s not a big fan of vigilantes. Most of the force isn’t I guess. Kind of feel like you’re coming for our jobs. I figure we can use all the help we can get though. I really appreciate you getting involved. I’m officer Klein. Cassie Klein. It’s nice to meet you.” She extends a hand which Jia takes.

“Nice to meet you too. I’d love to ask you some questions about why everyone hates me and what I might do to turn it around. Any chance you’d be up to giving me some pointers?”

Nodding, Cassie looks toward her partner who’s already entering the house. “Sure, just look me up on Facebook. First name with a c, last name with a k. I’d better get inside before my partner chews me out for wasting time. It really was good to meet you. I’ll look forward to your message.” She starts to walk away but after a moment she stops herself and turns around. She points at Jia’s face. “Also, I’d call it a night. Go home and put some ice on that.”

Cassie Klein hurries into the house and is gone. Jia considers following but decides she’s done enough here for one night. She turns and walks down the street until she finds the spot she left her bike. She jumps on and starts peddling for the winery. It’s still a few miles away and if she rides fast she can probably beat Shin there. If he doesn’t show she’s going to kill him.

Part 14

Part 16