“You got a what?”
Chiara stared at the Scrabble board, trying to decide what sort of word one could make with the letters q, g, and l with all the closed vowels already used. There was not much she could do.
“You got a what?”
There was the word squiggle, but there were no open e’s.
“Chiara Rose Dalton, you got a what?”
“Cut it out, I’m thinking!”
Holly blinked incredulously. “You got a Collective card and you’re thinking about a Scrabble word?”
Chiara straightened, frowning at her best friend. “Wait, you heard what I said, but you interrupted my tremendous thought to clarify? I got a Collective card, Holly. So what?”
“So what? Okay, I think you stayed up just a tad too late last night, because, last I checked, Collective cards were very, very bad things! You’re the one who told us all that after the kid jumped from the roof a month ago!”
“He didn’t die,” Chiara mumbled, rearranging her letters on her stand. Holly pointed at her emphatically.
“Because you were there to save him! Not everyone has such a directed moral compass as you, Cheech! Not to mention the fact that you’re from the Downs and they all kind of hate you.”
“Oh, yeah,” Chiara giggled sarcastically, finally deciding on her word and laying out the tiles. “There’s that! But, really, Holly, I’m not that worried. What can they do to me that the Downs hasn’t trained me for? If you’re not watching yourself and everyone else on the streets, you could get jumped, robbed, and possibly killed. I have no issues with watching everyone at this hoity-toity school like a thug.” She turned the board to Holly. “Your turn.”
Holly shook her head incredulously, finally looking down at her letters. “You’re not even fazed, are you?”
“I’m irritated; I’ll admit that. But worried for my life? Not as worried as I was when I first got the invitation. Now that I’ve seen everyone and been able to assess the threat, it’s not as scary as I first thought. Aw man, that spot with the open e would have scored me more points.”
“Is this your therapy?”
“Just figured that out?”
“Okay. Let’s finish and then go get ice cream.”
“It’s getting dark out.”
“You were going to go out anyway.”
Chiara stiffened in her place on the floor, her stomach tightening against the ugly carpet. She craned her neck to look into the kitchen. Her mom had taken another shift at the supermarket, dad was at another garage job, and Grant was at a friend’s house for the night. She rolled back to face Holly.
Holly rose her eyebrows. “You really didn’t think I’d notice? You’re always exhausted, you usually kick me out of the house right after your parents leave for work, and you’ve had to pump your bike tires four times already. You got a job delivering papers, didn’t you?”
Chiara dropped her forehead to rest on her forearm, feeling all tension drain from her system. She was really tired.
“Holly, my dear, you were born to be a private eye.”
“I know. Do you know how much school that requires, though? I might as well go be a doctor and earn twice as much. Why can’t people just be hired for talent?”
“In a perfect world, they would be.”
“In a perfect world, I wouldn’t be worried about you dropping dead of exhaustion one day because you’re working yourself too hard.” She glared at her friend unrelentingly. “We’re going for ice cream. I’m buying.”
Chiara smiled tiredly, nodding a little. “Okay. Thank you. Trust me, though, this shouldn’t last for long. As soon as this semester at the Globe is over, I’m going back to day jobs.”
Holly cocked her head. “You’re not planning on graduating from there?”
She shook her head, pushing herself to her feet. “Graduating high school is for the rich. You know that. You want anything from the kitchen?”
“Just water, please.”
Chiara got a glass from the cupboard and waited as water filled it from the sink. She looked across at the small refrigerator. A smile crossed her face. The only family picture the Daltons had ever taken hung from the ladybug magnet, faded and tearing at the edges, but much loved and cherished. Grant had been only three years old then, and Chiara eight. Gregory had had a steady job at a larger garage before they downsized. Angela had been working at a beauty parlor. Chiara vaguely remembered the day her parents had taken her and Grant to the Hudson River and let them play on the bank for a while. Gregory had taken the old camera and set it up on a timer, running around to join them in a wonderfully natural, candid pose. They looked happy.
The water overflowed and Chiara hurriedly shut the tap water off. She got herself a leftover pancake from dinner and rejoined Holly on the floor. Holly clapped her hands together in pride, gesturing to her new word. Chiara’s jaw dropped.
“‘Calzone’? Only English words, we agreed!”
“But American people like calzones, too! You put down taco!”
“Yeah, well, taco didn’t score thirty four points.” Chiara sighed and bit her pancake. “Drink your water now. I really want ice cream.”
Holly made a face. “You just don’t like losing.”
“Does anybody? Come on, I need to be on my run by midnight.” She moaned, making her way towards her bike where it was parked by the door. “I can’t believe it’s only Wednesday!”
“Well, you set yourself up for a long week. I hope you’re awake enough to do all the dodging you’re going to need.”
“I’ll figure it out. How subtle can they be?”
Holly got mint chip ice cream, and Chiara got strawberry lemonade, as always. Sitting there on the drugstore porch was a taste of normality, and Chiara almost relaxed again. Of course, it was dark in the Downs, and that was when those outside needed to be most on guard, but she felt almost untouchable in the pitiful glow of the store light.
Maybe things were not as complicated as she was constantly making them out to be.
Her stomach twisted.
Oh yeah. It was the Downs. Everything was complicated there.
She peered through the darkness as a character unfolded from the store corner, taking a long step into the light. Tall, broad, young, clad all in tattered black leather. The gloves that covered his hands were spiked with steel, as always.
Chiara slowly stood, leaning an arm against the table between Holly and herself. Her body was perfectly angled to protect her friend.
“What do you want, Armister?”
Alan Armister, the young director of the Manhattan Downs Black Market, an insistent rival of the Vaughan Black Market Exchange on the borders, smirked, his dark eyes glinting malevolently. Even when he smiled, he seemed to be holding a grudge. He made Jay Newhall look like the nicest guy in comparison.
“Oh, I was just making sure you girls were okay,” he drawled, lifting his hand to study his fingernails. “Gets dangerous after dark. You know that.”
Chiara’s eyes narrowed. “Sure. I’m not scared of you, though. You owe me too much.”
Armister chuckled, shrugging his shoulders emphatically. “Aw, but you just do me your favors out of the kindness of your heart, don’t you? That’s why the Downs loves you, Cheech! You’re just too good for it!”
“For real, Alan,” Chiara breathed. “What do you want?”
He sighed, rolling his eyes. “So serious! Fine. I got wind that you’re in a bit of trouble at your high-end school.”
Chiara crossed her arms, leaning back against the table. She felt Holly’s shins against the backs of her legs and was comforted. She could protect her.
“Yeah, don’t let it bother you. You know I can take care of myself.”
“Yeah, don’t I know it?” He winked. “I just want to make sure you don’t give yourself too much credit there. You’re from the Downs, Cheech.” He inclined his head meaningfully. “Best you remember that.”
Chiara cocked her head. “I’m not trying to forget it. We done here?”
He narrowed his eyes. “Sure. Go home. It’s getting late. That’s when all the baddies come out.”
He spun on his heel and sauntered back into the darkness. Chiara slowly cocked her head to the side.
She looked back at Holly. Her friend had curled up on the seat, her arms wrapped around her legs. Her eyes were wide, focused intently on the shadows of the alleys. Chiara frowned, sitting sideways on the table with her feet propped up on her friend’s thigh.
Holly's eyes flicked up to her. Her eyebrows were creased in irritation. “He’s so...creepy.”
Chiara sighed lightly, pursing her lips. “He’s got clearance for it, unfortunately. When you work the Downs like a...like an iron-fisted sleezebag, you get to be a creep.”
“He’s heading back to Leann’s, isn’t he?”
Chiara’s eyes narrowed. “Probably. I hate that she stays with him. I’ve told her that she can come to me, though. I’ll protect her.”
Holly sighed, pushing herself to her feet and dropping the remainder of her ice cream cone into the trash can. “I want you to be careful, Cheech. No matter what you think, you can’t protect everyone.”
“Well, I can try. I’ve got a rep in the Downs, with all the good guys and the bad guys. They know what I can do.”
“Still, he’s right. You’re at the Globe now. You have to be careful. And you know I’ve got your back, right?”
Chiara slowly nodded. “Yeah. Thanks.” She looked up at the sky. The smog had long since cloaked the stars, but the moon was a still a pitiful glow. “We should head back. I have to prep for that paper run.”
“Do you want help?”
She smiled gently. “No thanks. I’d want to pay you -”
“You don’t have-”
“I know. But I don’t need help.” She winked. “I’m Chiara Dalton.”