Content Warning: Contains talk/depictions of physical child abuse, talk of sexual assault/rape, suggestive images
Annette started the greenhouse garden for a patch of garlic. Picking it fresh sounded loads more appealing than buying old, questionable bulbs from the grocer. It extended to cucumbers and pear trees, and whatever else Annette could grow. But she kept it as a place for her and just her. That was, until she had something to share.
She kept a part clear for a staircase, down into a basement she never told the rest of the family about. But soon, she had a few things to tell one person about. She did it at sunrise, before anyone else could be bothered to wake up. Shark, however, woke up and got dressed for things that pertained to him. Such as what Annette had beneath the foundation.
“It’s kind of an odd layout down there,” she said. “Follow me, and please don’t run off to other rooms.”
They entered through a large wooden door, into a small and well-lit room. A glass orb watched them from the center and emitted a constant ambient hum.
“This is…kinda weird,” Shark said. “Though I guess it makes sense that you’d have a weird place. For you.”
“I don’t have that much esoteric bullshit. Just that one thing.” She gave a mocking glance to the glass and its reflection of the moon. “And I don’t even know what it does. My thought is messages from space, but for all I know, it just conspires with the moon. Either way, pretty neat.”
“Nice, but did you bring me here for those other things?” He pointed to a coffee table in the corner, littered with various items.
Annette approached the table herself, with a slight, wistful smile. “Yeah, for these.”
The scroll was hers alone, as it had an ancient recipe that she needed. The purple book, again, contained the rules she had to follow for her punishment. The rest? A box made of pale cherrywood, a ring box, and an envelope. All of those were legally Annette’s, but Shark more than deserved to see them.
His eyes brightened up once he got a closer look. “Is that one of Harwood’s boxes? It has the leaves on the side and everything!”
“You noticed those little things?”
“Well, I have a thing for his art, okay?” he said, with a nervous laugh. “But, I can’t believe you got one and hid it from me.”
“I kept it in a safe, but now I know what to do with it. He put this thing in his will long before he met either of us, and the only time he bothered to change the heir was before he hooked up with you. But that’s a little unfair.”
Shark got down on the floor to get a better look at the small jewelry box. It contained the amethyst ring that Annette tried to steal back when she first met Harwood, and that was a prize that she felt was hers. She rightfully stole the ring years before, and its significance was limited to that. It was Annette’s first stolen good in her new hometown. And what a legacy it started!
“He mentioned this before!” Shark said, beaming. “Did he ever tell you the story behind this ring?”
“I assumed he liked it because he got pissy after I stole it. Pretty harsh of him,” Annette said. “But nothin’ else. If I’m up at sunrise, I better learn something new for it.”
“I think this was back in the 1990’s, so a while ago, he lived in Muskana Point. You know, off coastal Middlesex?” Annette nodded.
“Basically. So we’re looking at the first state to legalize gay marriage, and his partner back then obviously thinks it’s a dandy time to propose. You can see that it didn’t work, but he said that he wanted to keep the ring and try to reclaim it for something better.”
“Cool story, but I know why you’re getting misty-eyed over it. I’m not a dumbass,” Annette said.
“Where did that come from?”
“I know you wanted to be his something better. You wanted to be the next person who got that ring.”
Shark sighed, still keeping his eyes locked on the gem in the center. “Of course I did. Not like it would matter in Terrebonne, but we could run off and elope in Renaissance City or something, couldn’t we? I still dream about it a lot.”
“Maybe someone will offer a better ring,” Annette said.
“I quite like this one.”
“Well, my stolen goods are for me. And I have a lot of good memories that begin that ring.”
“You wanna look through this box with me?” Shark asked her. “No one’s up and I just…it’s so tempting just to learn everything about him. I thought I knew everything, but I don’t.”
“Another day,” Annette said. “I don’t trust you here alone, and I’m not up at sunrise just to learn about my dead friend. One of my alive ones is in deeper shit.”
“Uncle Bill got on the sex offender registry? About damn time.”
“What? No! He hasn’t jacked off in front of anyone but me in years. It isn’t him either.”
She grabbed the envelope off the table and bolted once she escorted Shark back and locked the cellar doors behind her.
Annette hoped to never go inside the police station. Even if she lost her wallet and they had it, she would instead opt to replace her cards and start over. While she and Dudley ended up on better terms than she anticipated, he was retired. Scout was too. That left the highest operations of the Twinbrook Police Department to someone she had yet to butter up to.
Goodwin Goode used his muscle and zeal for the job to threaten where his baby-face couldn’t. Or that is what she heard from Amy, his old lifelong friend. But she said that after graduating from the police department, he stopped being fun. His sweet blue eyes brimmed with terror. But that was all she had to say. Better than what Shark did, which was “pretty hot, not gonna lie.” And he had a lot of power over Sinbad, when it came to them being roommates. As far as Annette knew, that was still a thing.
“I hear you have bail posted for Mister Rotter,” Annette said, with a hand on her hip.
He face grew harder. “I thought you’d leave that attitude off the job. Just be a man and break your lease if you feel so bitter.”
“Well, that’s the plan now. Let that fucker rot in the streets.” She never expected such words from Goodwin Goode, the angel of Twinbrook (description from some besotted police apologists).
“Not on my watch,” she grumbled.
Sinbad was curled up on the floor when they opened the door to his holding cell. A few days had passed, but as it seemed, the police department failed to provide him with even a prison jumpsuit. He still had his jeans and skull-print jumper on. Needless to say, he smelled like ball sweat and despair.
Annette caught him smiling for a split-second once he caught sight of her outside his open door, only to put on a frown for appearances. But as soon as he did that, she had wandered off to the cell next to his, just to confront an old friend.
She raised a middle finger to him. “Congratulations, Armstrong,” she said.
He sat cross-legged on the hard floor, with an unfocused, menacing gaze. As it seemed, they caught him while he was in Twinbrook on some business of his own. His list of crimes extended far past what Annette could prove too. He awaited trial for multiple counts of murder and kidnapping, and maybe they’d consider his vandalism of a local mosque if they had the time to. And he could blame his capture on none other than Annette ratting him out.
“We have rules against antagonizing detainees,” Goodwin said. “Get away from the cell, and take out your trash.” He pushed Sinbad towards her, throttling his small, slender body with ease down the hall. She got him to his feet and power-walked out of the building.
They were safer outside the doors. In the pouring rain, Annette stopped Sinbad to clear up the situation for her. “Mistakes happen, but what was with you that night anyways?” She rubbed her neck while he struggled with the response.
“Just, I dunno. It’s a pet peeve,” he muttered.
“You mentioned something about your mum, though. Maybe you could have told me what not to do, or maybe why? Contrary to what you believe, I’m not an asshole just for the hell of it.”
“You act like you’re fucking high and mighty. Like, I was legit panicking there. You made me panic! And you know what? You sound just like my mum with your pushy attitude. We’re peers, Annette, peers! I’m not your bitch!”
“Calm down before you get yourself in jail again,” she said. “Or pop a blood vessel. Both are pretty bad.” She felt her back pocket as she said that, grabbing at the envelope she stuck in there. She kept it downstairs not to keep a secret, but to control who read its contents and when. For a while, it sounded like it was a good time to let Sinbad in on what it contained. Especially because Annette had the gut feeling that she would save Sinbad from homelessness that morning.
But she stopped short of pulling it out. “So I guess you might be out of options for living. If you overheard your old roomie, he doesn’t care what happens to you. But I do!”
“Yeah, you might have something better than the back of my truck, I’ll admit it,” he said.
“But, I mean, we can look at alternatives too. I mean, your mum’s out of the question, but…you have a dad? A father figure?” He shook his head to both. Annette expected that.
“I wish. Sure would have beat having my mum!” he groaned. “Like, I don’t know who my father is, but doesn’t matter. He’s a sorry piece of shit for letting me grow up there with her. I’d fucking wring his neck before living with him now.” Annette took a nervous gulp.
“Well, your mum certainly can’t be worse than Goodwin,” she said.
“She’s far, far worse, and that’s considering that she offed herself a long time ago. Imagine how much worse she was alive. And the way she sounded…that’s just the tip of the iceberg.” He shuddered as his mind seemed to retreat into an awful place.
“So how bad was she?” Annette asked, feeling her back pocket again. The envelope was still there, hidden by her long tunic so it wouldn’t get wet in the rain.
“You think you have the fucking right to ask me that?!”
“Yes, Sinbad. Yes I do! Because the more we talk, the more I know you’ll be begging on my doorstep one day to live with me. And I need to know the baggage I’m dealing with.”
“I need to find my truck,” he said, in a seething, low voice. “Gotta have a place to sleep now.”
He parked it over at the sports stadium during the heist, but it got towed in the meantime. After getting back and exchanging one death glare with Annette, he drove off to find parking somewhere else for his new home.
But soon, in a nighttime rainstorm, Amy answered the door in her orange nightshirt, and Annette flashed a beaming smile from behind her. She forgot about how the doorbell distracted her from sexy times with Bill, hence her being at the door in a sexy push-up bra, but no worries. She won. Sinbad, dripping wet from the weather and still in that filthy jumper, had given in.
He gave Annette another glare with his exhausted, sunken eyes, but then collapsed in Amy’s arms to cry. Homelessness was horrible! And it came to the point where he would stay with a cultist before living in his truck for any longer.
“You almost never cry like this,” Amy said to him, in a soft tone. Still hard enough for Annette to hear, though.
“Aww, I do have a superpower after all,” said Annette. “Let’s clean you up, though.”
She raided Shark’s drawers for temporary clothes, even though the size difference between him and Sinbad was immense. Good thing Shark still had a thing for keeping Harwood’s old clothes. A long purple t-shirt of his and faded blue jeans fit Sinbad as well as if they were tailored for him.
“We’ll get you something great tomorrow,” said Amy, trying to comfort him.
Annette, with Rose on her lap (she followed her from Shark’s room, silly cat), looked over at Amy. “To be fair, I thought someone so high-strung would cry a lot. And it’s fine to do that, don’t worry. Just shocked he doesn’t.”
“Yeah, only twice in my life,” Amy said, leaned over with a look of tense sickness in her face. Sinbad seemed less than lucid, hypnotized by the telly. “The other, well…” The color drained from her face. “It was about his mum.”
“Hmm?” Annette wanted that story, sick as it was.
“So this is just what he told me, but she liked to drink and then smash the bottles as hard as she could against his face. Right as he bled on the floor.” As much as Amy’s mind seemed to retreat to a horrible place, Sinbad’s did even more as she said that.
He couldn’t even look at her. He doubled-over in agony and held his head to try and de-stress.
“Oh, right,” she said, blushing. “Sorry honey. It’s easy to forget what I shouldn’t tell people.”
“So now she knows. Fan-fucking-tastic,” he said. “Bet next time she’ll want to prod me about what it’s like having an absent father. That’d be perfect!”
“No need to be a dick to your landlady,” Annette said. She got a look at the coffee table, her eyes locked on one piece of paper.
Or an envelope. She had it out there, indecisive as to whether she should reveal its contents to anyone. She had read the contents already and had it sealed up again, so she knew what it contained. The “CONFIDENTIAL” warning on the other side would alert anyone else that they shouldn’t read it unless Annette, the intended recipient, gave them the OK. Because of that, she felt safe keeping it on the table until Sinbad took up residence.
She grabbed it before he could ask and put it back downstairs in her private room. At least the humming moon orb wouldn’t try to peek inside.
Soon after freeing Sinbad, she needed to finish the job they started together. She opened the door to the garage in the warehouse and drove a golden sports car out until half of it was outside the door. And she waited until an old black man in a vibrant purple shirt showed up with his big brown eyes locked on it.
“I knew you’d listen to me instead,” Annette said. “And here she is.”
“Alright, I usually don’t like going to the police, but this is kind of a lesser than two evils situation.” DeAndre kept his cool, thank goodness. Seeing his beloved car intact must have done wonders for his temper. “This is just confusing! Why would you do it just to return it to me? I know you’re just holding it for ransom, but for what? Can’t you just keep me hostage instead? At least it’s predictable.”
“I don’t work that way. And I’m quite good at this by now. But it’s a petty crime for a petty favor.”
“I usually dedicate songs when someone just asks me,” said DeAndre.
“Not that, but thank you,” she said. “You know Julienne, from across the street?”
“Sure do. Known her ever since she was a girl, basically.”
“Will that impact things like…love?”
“What are you…you’re tryin’ to imply something?”
Annette took him by the arms, and spoke to him in a tender voice. “She’s mentioned this to me before. The woman has had some rough relationships, but she’s had her eye on you for years now. Even if you are an old rockstar, you’re still a rockstar. To her.”
“She really means that?” he asked, looking a little misty-eyed.
“Yes, she really does. And it will get her mind off work for once. She needs that too,” said Annette.
“I’m flattered! And she’s just dreamy, can’t lie about that. Can’t lie about how often I see her heading to work either.”
“Bet she could use a new tune in her life.”
“As soon as you let me in the car,” he said.
Annette followed him when he made his move, watching the new couple from the Knacks’ covered porch. She intervened at the right time. With Julienne on the rebound and also reeling from her father’s recent death, there was no way that the promise of another loving embrace wouldn’t work.
Well, it worked on Julienne’s mood. She had a much nicer demeanor around the kitchen.
But as it turned out, Julienne planned her own wedding while doing food prep. She found the time to fawn over love and her fiance after closing, only to come back to open the kitchen the next morning.
So while Annette pretended to be thrilled at the prospect of sharing forced immortality with Gala the new vampire, she needed a new plan to distract Julienne from her job. A chance to get a bigger slice of the power pie. And maybe an extra mission to fill in the time.
Dennis might have retired, but that just meant delegating the last lingering jobs to someone younger. Annette needed to inspect a building and get it condemned. When she asked: Cooper Gentlemen’s Club, on the edge of town. That euphemism fooled no one back then either. Simply put, the Rackets owned a strip club. And that strip club hid something even worse in its underbelly.
As Dennis had mentioned to Annette when they first conspired together, he wasn’t keen on prostitution. It was enough so that he wouldn’t do any work in shutting it down either. The whole industry frightened him, but provided that his sister-in-law didn’t have any lingering trauma from her alleged days in the industry, she could do the job instead. Evacuate the building, turn the gas on. The fire department would work to get the building condemned in no time, and dismantling it would be a breeze. Plus, the last Racket to have a stake in the ownership was Max. It all seemed perfect for keeping their asses out of jail.
She brought Sagebear along for backup, with her hound following at her heels. Sagebear, due to being a dog, sniffed around while Annette faced something slimy. Thankfully, no physical slime, but the darkness of a place she never wanted to face again.
I didn’t strip, but I had been to places like that. Yeah, uh, stuffed in a private room for those who asked for the youngest girl they had. And I ran away to this shithole for a lot of reasons, but that was the best thing to leave behind. Sucking dick in a drugged haze.
And that’s what I married into anyways. Ha, ain’t that cool? Married the son of a man who probably got teens like me to do those nasty things to him. Having the chance to squash that myself was a true happy ending.
She mulled over those dark bits in the only light the empty club provided. A sign of offered drinks and snacks illuminated one of the bars. Annette leaned over the counter like a sultry, tattooed callgirl, maybe something she envied in the past. After all, they had a little more say than a troubled teenager.
The whole place was silent, save for the vigorous sniffing of one hunting dog.
“Sagebear, don’t smell too much in this beacon of sin,” she said to her dog. Sagebear’s nose was stuck to one of the poles on stage. But she followed Annette as they inspected each room. Empty. It was as if the business had dissolved by itself, but Dennis warned her that money was still coming into one of Max’s old accounts. It had to have been for the club.
There was one place left, beyond the poles and posters for callgirl services. A bit of light shone from a staircase, leading down to the basement. Therefore, Annette had to guard herself and hope for an equal opponent. Maybe someone like Max. After all, she almost got away from him.
She peered in past the open office door in the basement. Not only was Annette not alone, but the person who didn’t leave her alone was also not alone. A plain-looking white man in sunglasses enjoyed the beginning of a lap dance from an olive-skinned, tattooed lady.
Annette gave them a flat wave. “Hey, business partner here,” she said. The man lifted his sunglasses for a brief second, to reveal a stare of wide-eyed surprise.
“Brenda, is this your idea?” he asked the woman on his lap. “Who’d buy a demon like that? Half the guys here probably think she has teeth down there.”
“Not in that way,” said Annette. “I’m with the Rackets. Just need to talk with you. So, you’re Mr. Blanchard?” She read the name off the glass on the office door.
“Yep. I am kind of enjoying myself right here, though.” Brenda gave him a playful flick on the nose.
“Or I can actually do my job and clean up the bar and get you guys a drink while you talk finances or somethin’,” she said to him. “Doesn’t that sound like a better thing to pay me for?”
“But the erection in my jeans won’t soften itself,” he said, with a sly grin. She almost slapped him across the face, but drew back her hand and instead led Annette and her dog upstairs again.
Blanchard followed soon enough, leering at Brenda while she cleaned out the bourbon glasses. Annette tried to pinch him so that he’d look at her instead, and into her eyes, not at her chest.
“Ouch,” he said, in a flat tone.
“Now you know what growing up was like for me,” she said. “So we’re in a pickle, and I have executive power to shut you down and I’m using it.”
“This is how I make money!” Blanchard cried. “And what’s become of you Rackets now? You used to cherish this place more than your own home. You’d die defending it.”
“We’re a different family now.”
Something clamped around her neck, throwing Annette off her barstool. Her short body dangled off the floor, held up by a chokehold.
“I bet you did this to them, huh? Nagging those men into going soft and getting offended by their very heritage.” Blanchard snarled in her face, and tightened his hold for a moment. “I’m keeping this place alive for my best friend. You knew Max, didn’t you? He’d die defending this place, and now his family decides to send some washed-up daughter of Lucifer to shut me down? I ain’t going down!”
He let go of her neck, only to keep Annette restrained by the arms. She tried to struggle out of his hold, but it was no use. Blanchard was too strong and too young to overcome by her tiny self. All Annette did was wriggle as he squeezed her tighter.
“I bet I can turn you in to my buddies at the station, if you try to ruin this place. Stripping ain’t illegal, but I bet setting fire to me club is,” said Blanchard. “Why do you care so much? I know this is the best you guys did. You’re rolling in cash all because of me.”
“Maybe I’ll be a little kinder if you let me go, bastard,” said Annette, still flailing as much as she could. “This is my club too! And we all know what goes on under the radar.”
Brenda shrugged in the background. “She has a point, boss.”
“Why won’t you help me, then?” Annette yelled at her.
Brenda gave her a pout. “What the hell can I do? If you can’t take him down, I can’t either.”
Blanchard looked straight at her. “You’d betray me like that?”
“Yeah. Can’t say I like seeing high school grads pimped out either, man.”
He still kept his grip on Annette, who felt like the circulation to her arms had stopped. They both felt numb, and moving them became too much. Too much for her to keep doing. However, it was enough of a sign for a different warrior.
Sagebear growled at Blanchard’s feet, distracting him enough to loosen his hold enough to set one of Annette’s arms free. The dog was relentless, baring her teeth at the strange man.
“What the hell do you want?” he asked the dog.
CHOMP. She leaped up to bite the arm that still held Annette, and it could hold her owner no longer. Annette would have run, without the spectacle of Blanchard on the floor and hollering in pain. Blood ran down his arm and seeped into Sagebear’s sharp teeth until the dog had enough of him.
“Run,” she whispered to Sagebear. “After her. We’ll meet up.” Brenda was halfway out the door by then.
Annette commanded Sagebear on, but stayed in the building. She had one more thing to oversee, as soon as a black pickup truck pulled into the parking lot.
She met Sinbad in the parking lot, sure that Blanchard was still on the floor. “Did you find where the gas line is?” he asked her.
“Dressing room, right near the stage. Just make sure to carry that weird man out of the building,” she said. “We’re not here for murder, but I think the dog might have heard different.”
“Just get him out, release the gas, call the firemen. Scram.”
From what she was later told, Sinbad made one natural-looking tear in the line and fled the scene. Lots of wild animals and stray dogs wandered the streets of Twinbrook anyways, so Blanchard’s bite could be attributed to a wild bobcat instead. But that was his job. Annette ran after her dog and the bartender, hoping that no one bad tried to follow a woman in a bra and booty shorts.
They stopped at a hill, near an abandoned barn. Annette knew it as a place she stayed back when she was homeless in Twinbrook. One of Harwood’s only friends lived there, but he was long gone. All that remained were the automatic outdoor lights, and a place for two women and a dog to catch their breaths.
Annette sat on the ground and sulked, while the other two watched the city from the hill. “I don’t live here, so this is my first time seeing the town like this,” said Brenda. “And I thought it’d be as ugly as the swamp.”
“It’s home,” Annette said.
“So what’s got you down?” Brenda asked. “You did some good today.”
“What, you think so?”
Brenda took a seat on the muddy grass next to Annette. “It’s easy to forget a lot of the bad things when you’re just at the bar and doing a few dances. And a lot of places are just that. Drinks and dances. But the guy who used to manage a lot of the place…he reveled in that illegal stuff. And when I started, the advice was always the same: steer clear of Max. He ruled the place and so many of the girl there were fucking petrified whenever he walked in. And damn, did he find a worthy successor.”
“I didn’t even know it was that bad,” Annette said. “But I guess I shoulda known. He was a menace in the family too. At first, I thought I was the only one.”
“He got you?”
“Missed by only a bit. But sometimes it still haunts me, just in a different way. The more I think about it, the deeper it seems to go. I couldn’t have been the only one. He had a whole arsenal of you guys.”
“I escaped,” said Brenda. “But I know a lot of others didn’t. I was just lucky, because sometimes they could bring themselves to tell me, and it was horrifying. He’d even bring his wife around to try and lure some of them into safety. She could seem like an average old lady, but no. Snatched them into their van. Laughed as she listened to what her husband did.”
“Kind of the same but less. I was old enough to be my own woman by the time he took over fully, and he seemed a lot less threatening. But watching your dog bite him was pretty satisfying, not gonna lie.”
Annette smiled, looking at her dog ahead of them. “She’s pretty great that way. And it’s those like her that keep me here in the ‘Brook.”
“You know a lot of dogs?” Brenda asked.
“That too, but it’s about loyalty. It’s those you’d die defending, and those who’d die defending you. And that’s what I look forward to. The people, and precious doggies, who do just that. And you?”
“What to look forward to now?” Brenda said. “Listen to my older brother for once and make somethin’ for myself. You can see my skin. The past is a bunch of permanent tattoos, but it’s cool that I can make it my future too.”
A/N: Renaissance City is apparently a nickname for a lot of places, but the place Shark was referring to was Providence, Rhode Island. The namedrop stuck before I could refresh my memory and remember that Rhode Island was actually one of the last states in New England to enact marriage equality. Still got there before the South did. 😛
Muskana Point is not a real place, but a fictional mashup of a few Massachusetts cities and towns. Probably pretty close to the more urban parts of Greater Boston (like Cambridge, Somerville, etc.) with the salt marshes of Cape Cod and the beaches/gay culture of Provincetown. “Muskana” is taken from the Wampanoag word for “bone.” Will you see Muskana Point at some point? Duh. I need a vacation to my home state too!
As I noted in the chapter notes for Duped, being in the police does not guarantee good morality at all. And boy do I want to avoid playing Goodwin’s good nature straight as much as possible! At best, I can see him as a holier-than-thou asshole as he progresses in his career. Though I can imagine that Sinbad probably found enough ways to piss him off to justify Goodwin saying such things about him.