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Chapter 1

“Text Messages”

Sunset Boulevard

Hollywood, California

Relying on the belief that horrendous acts of violence only happen to other people, nine out of ten persons will not correctly identify a gunshot upon hearing one. The more common reaction is to explain it away as a car backfiring, a random bit of construction noise, or for the truly desperate: a clap of thunder on a perfectly sunny California day.

He never made that mistake and knew a damn gunshot when he heard one. He froze in place as the sound reverberated in and out the hilly offshoots of Sunset Boulevard past small groups of people showcasing their knowledge of car-backfires, toiling construction projects, and the rolling thunder of Southern California. Based on the number of times it echoed, he knew it had been fired less than two blocks away as the curvature of the boulevard would stifle the crack of the bullet from echoing too much.

Who was trying to kill him?

Alex Heton tipped the brim of his ragged fraternity cap tightly over his blonde curls and slipped a phone from his pocket, checking on his girlfriend. The inebriated patrons bounced from his shoulders as he pushed further down the street. There was little doubt in his mind that the next shot would be traveling in his direction. A successful escape, to the untrained eye, would not register as an escape at all but as a young man attempting to make a phone call.

Chloe wasn’t picking up.

She never picked up, he cursed to himself loudly and blandly enough to draw no attention from the people surrounding him. As with any twenty-something girls prowling the hedonistic streets of Los Angeles on a Friday night, Alex had a higher probability of running into Wes Anderson rocking a football jersey than his girlfriend answering his call. Texting would have to suffice despite his objections to that particular form of communication.

“It’s me, Alex. Are you close?” He typed out to ‘Chloe Freimont,’ careful to punctuate and capitalize his message as if it would someday hang in the Museum of Modern Art.

“u dont have 2 say ur name babe. it says it rite on the phone,” she rebutted with less careful attention to the urgings of Strunk and White.

Did Chloe still have the phone out from ignoring his phone call just ten seconds earlier? He knew she had and angrily typed out another message. “Okay, apologies. Seriously, I need you to get here as soon as possible. We’re in”. The message was not completed as he accidentally mashed the send button in lieu of the “D” key. The next word of the text was to be “danger.”

“where r u?”

“I’m going into that taco joint on San Vincente. Come here NOW.”

“b there soon k? <3”

Alex put the phone away and casually strolled into the restaurant. He grabbed the table closest to the counter, supplying him with full line-of-sight to both entrances and every window in the shop. He leaned back in his chair and pulled the collar of his jacket up, just above his ears. He knew he was presenting the world an erroneously douche-like exterior, but any assailant would have to take a moment for target recognition on such a high traffic avenue—a moment that gave Alex identification of his target first, and the upper hand.

Twenty minutes went by and no tacos were ordered.

The dented bell above the main door clanked twice as Chloe entered the taco diner and sped across the floor to the table against the wall. “What the hell is going on, Alex? You texted that we were in danger,” she barked in a hushed tone at her boyfriend.

His head dipped back as he raised an eyebrow, “I never said the word danger.”

Chloe rolled her eyes before taking an unwelcome sip from his glass of water. “Honey, you text me that we’re in danger, like, four times a month.”

“We are in danger like four times a month.”

She gently placed her hand over his, growing desperately tired of this familiar paranoia, and looked him square in the eyes. “Maybe it’s time we talk to somebody about this.  Karen has a friend in Burbank that specializes in delusional—”

“This isn’t a delusion, Chloe!” he cut her off, raising the ire of the man behind the counter. “This is going to sound like a bad spy movie, but there’s so much I wish I could tell you.”

“The girl always dies before the bone-headed asshole comes clean in those movies. Alex, are you into something bad? Drugs? Seriously, you can talk to me,” she urged while gasping back tears from falling on half-price taco night. “This isn’t a movie, Alex.”

The nightshift manager walked over to their table. They were the only two customers in the restaurant and their argument quickly aroused suspicions that something was amiss unrelated in any way to half-priced taco night. “Is everything okay over here?” His voice was soft and kind.

Alex leaned forward in his chair and gave Chloe an eyeful before turning to the manager on duty. “Yeah, we’re fine, thank you. I’ll have another glass of water.”

“Apologies, sir, but I wasn’t asking you,” the manager spoke before turning back to Chloe, his attention piqued.

She wiped a tear before it collected enough to fall from her eye. “Yes, thank you. We’re just having an off night.”

Alex snapped his head to the front of the diner. Had someone just been looking through the glass? He was almost certain a face had disappeared just before he turned to see it.

“If you don’t order something, I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” the manager said flatly, aggravated he had just been lied to twice.

Alex did not turn to speak face-to-face this time, steeling his gaze instead to the four massive panes of glass at the front of the store. “What do you have here?”

“The name of the place is ‘Taco Baron.’ We serve,” the manager sarcastically paused for a moment before completing the thought, “tacos.”

“Why Baron?”

“What?”

Alex slurped the icy puddles of water from the bottom of his glass. “Why Baron?” he repeated with unchanged condescension, eyes still fixed on the glass by the doorway.

Chloe kicked him under the table, “Just order some damn tacos, Alex.”

He was on autopilot, completing thoughts and speaking words as a means of distraction. “The Baron is the lowest member of English nobility. If I were naming a restaurant, I would choose something that spoke prestige or power.”

“Hey man, I’m just the night manager.” A pause. “Is there someone outside the window?” The man spoke back now more puzzled than angry that the young man could not return his eye contact. “You’re starting to freak me out a little.”

Alex ignored him. “Barons were generally fat assholes that were given land from someone of much greater nobility. They were also never referred to as ‘barons,’ but as ‘lords.’ So technically, the name of the establishment should be ‘Lord Taco,’ but returning to my earlier point, that’s just one step above ‘Taco Serf.”

She kicked him a second time.

The manager squeezed the two sides of his forehead together and let out a long sigh. “The Barbacoa is pretty good. How about four of those?”

“Sounds,” Alex sarcastically paused for a moment before completing the thought, “awesome.”

The manager skittered back behind the counter, which left the two alone to return to more serious topics. Chloe grabbed both of his hands and gave a loving, though admonishing, squeeze. This snapped his attention away from the window and back to her beautiful face. He loved the way she smiled when she was mad at him.

The bell above the door clanked the moment Alex looked away.

Chloe did not turn before the shot.

The bullet screamed past her right eyebrow, searing the flesh before shattering the window behind them.  She grabbed her forehead and fell to the ground screaming in pain before her brain could make sense of the cacophony or the blood.

A second bullet ripped through Alex’s collar as he lunged down toward a table in between him and the assailant. He bent low on his knees to gather the maximum amount of force before lunging back up from under the table, sending it tumbling at the man near the doorway.

Alex took account of the attacker’s dark skin tone and long black hair in the fleeting moment before impact. With a rushed consideration, he intuited the man to be a Filipino with poor taste in goatees.

The Formica surface smashed into the gunman’s face, sending him hurtling off balance into the swing-door trashcan behind him. A bucket of ketchup packets fell off and spread out across the tile.

Alex moved swiftly on his feet and formed a tense two-handed grip around the pistol still in the grasp of the attacking man. It fired twice into the tiled floor of the restaurant as the two combatants fought and struggled over the weapon.

He took two steps to his left in an attempt to leverage the grip he had over the Filipino man’s arm. He leaned back and threw the gunman with incredible force into the corkboard behind the counter, sending work schedules and hasty reminders floating down onto the front desk.

The gunman dazedly pushed up from the ground as a cash register collided into his face, sending the Glock-17 skipping across the kitchen floor. He gasped as a hand crushed down on his esophagus and picked him up from the ground. The next thing he knew, he was being  slowly dragged across the kitchen.

Alex looked back toward Chloe who helplessly glared back in his direction with one astonished eye that she was refusing to blink. He returned his attention to the man who had just tried to kill both of them and tossed the concussed heap toward the dishwasher.

“Don’t move.” Alex leaned forward and recovered the pistol from the floor. Without breaking eye contact, he popped the slide back and caught the ejected bullet in midair. He mashed the clip release and tossed both the remaining ammo, and the pistol itself, into a nearby deep fryer. The ejected bullet was carefully placed onto the flat grill where burned chicken and steak continued to sizzle around it. He turned the temperature control as far to the right as it would go.

He grabbed the man on the ground by his long black hair and forcefully shoved his face as close to the upward-facing bullet as possible. The heat coming from the grill was already causing the man to sweat profusely.

Muted pops began to send errant molten vegetable oil into the air a few feet away. The bullets were going off in the deep fryer. Alex could hear Chloe on the phone with someone in the other room. It was most likely the police, so it was in his best interest to make this interrogation go quickly.

The gunman looked down at the tip of his own bullet one inch from his retina as the metal casing began to redden on the four hundred degree surface. Alex spoke with barely audible menace. “At first glance, I thought you were from the Philippines.”

The gunman refused to answer his question or speak back in any way. He was simply waiting for the powder to blow and imbed the shrapnel of the bullet deep  into his skull. That would be a good death.

“But when I picked your ass up off the floor, it became pretty clear that you are Mongolian.” Alex grabbed the Mongol and tossed him to the floor. The attacker landed on his back and desperately looked around the kitchen for something to kill Alex with. “So, please forgive me if my racial acuity is low in life-threatening situations. I meant no offense when I thought you were Filipino.”

Ruptured shards of the bullet, and its casing, ripped through the air and ricocheted off pots and pans that hung over the stoves.

“I know who you are,” Alex sneered but remained careful to speak softly out of earshot of the nightshift manager curled up in the fetal position under the front desk and repeating Hail Mary’s ad nauseam.

“What do you know of who I am?” the Mongolian snarled back at the blonde youngster who had bested him, unarmed. “The vehicle may have changed, but we are all still part of a wheel.” The man spit in Alex’s face.

Alex leaned down into the face of the man on the floor of the kitchen. “Did someone send you after me?”

The man’s eyes dropped toward the floor in confusion. “Your arrogance survives to a new generation. What makes you think I was coming for you?”

Alex grabbed the Mongolian and slammed the back of his head into the dishwasher. “Khan, you will tell me of your aggressions or you and I will begin fishing for the remaining ammunition in the deep fryer,” he soured through gritted teeth.

The Mongol smiled, “you desperately cling to our titles of a bygone generation. I am no more a Khan than you are Great, Alex.”

Chloe’s ears perked up from the other room. The phone call no longer seemed relevant to her.

Alexander again slammed his attacker into the dishwasher. “Why are you coming after the ones who have returned?”

Genghis Khan looked back through his concussion into the eyes of a man who did not understand what was happening. “Alexander, you are trying to play from three moves behind—”

A blast sent Alex to the ground and left a deafening ringing in his ears.

He grimaced and slammed his eyes shut at the realization that a gun had fired at such close range. When he allowed his eyes to open once more, he could hardly stomach the sight of what was left of the face of a once great warrior.

Someone was speaking in muffled tones to his right.

Alex turned slowly enough to avoid startling the second gunman. His eyed widened.

The one holding the smoking gun was Chloe.

He realized the people on the phone with her were surely not the cops. This meant they were still five to ten minutes from arriving on the scene and Alex would be dead before they turned up dusting for prints on a gun they would wish he had not recently deep fried.

She slid across the counter and landed with a graceful thud a few feet away from the man she had just murdered. Alex could feel her eyes looking him over and deciding whether or not to put a bullet through his skull as well.

How had he missed it? Thoughts became a flurry in his mind. She was late because she had fired the bullet down the street, but into whom, and why? There was a strong possibility he would throw up momentarily.

Alex recoiled again as two more bullets were fired under the counter into the night manager’s chest. He died tightly clutching his wallet as photos of a widowed family crumbled in his other trembling fist.

Chloe rotated her gaze back to her startled boyfriend on the floor. “Can you hear me okay, Alex?”

He could make out what she was saying well enough but the deafening ring was showing little sign of dissipating. He attempted to stand up.

She raised the gun toward his face, “Please don’t move. There’s more going on here than you realize.”

He acquiesced and returned to the ground, never breaking eye contact with whoever the hell was pointing a gun at his face. “Chloe, what is—”

She cut him off. “Surely your arrogance has divined that my name is not actually Chloe, dude.”

“You used me.”

Chloe laughed. “You treated me like a hot young slam piece. Which doesn’t matter because I kept you alive, Alex.”

He thought back to all of the times he became annoyed that his girlfriend was not up to the conversation at hand. How stupid could he have been not to see it before this moment? So many people had died, some of them for the second time, and it was entirely of his error. “You know what I meant.”

Chloe walked past Alex to the back door of the kitchen—she kept the gun trained on him at all moments. She paused before exiting, “You guys took it upon yourself to find everyone that returned. Did none of you stop to think it was you leaking the information that lead to their deaths? The returners are more than you know.”

“So what happens now?” he prodded her decision on whether or not the fourth corpse of the evening would be his.

She smiled, “I never saw twenty. There’s so much to see and do in Los Angeles, you know? ”

“Who are you?”

She kicked the door open and back peddled away, “Soon.”

Minutes passed and Alex sat idly between two corpses in the Taco Baron kitchen dwelling on the events that had transpired. The red and blue flashes of police cars shone through the front window and he elected not to think on it anymore.

His pocket buzzed twice.

Alex pulled the phone from his pocket and saw the name “Chloe Freimont” dishonestly blinking on the lock screen. He slid his thumb over to find that she had texted him a single word. A name he had been chasing for months and never realized that this person was sleeping over three nights a week and consistently refused to eat Chipotle with him. He smiled like he was angry with her and said the name out loud.

“Joan.”

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