Whores 1.5 Epilogue

.09 Epilogue

“Hey boss,” Jezebel said, finding Anna alone in the kitchen, staring into a beer before taking a swig.

“I refuse to lead any organization that would have me for a leader,” she replied dryly.

“And yet we follow you. Except when we don’t.” She winced. “I’m still undecided, if I should be bracing for this, worried you’ll drum me out for good, or see this as a right of passage. But I’ve been anxious all day.”

“You should be. Mimi ratted you out.”

“I’ll believe that when I have details.

“About driving past her hotel, blasting Springsteen.”

Balls. That’s going to cost me, isn’t it?”

Anna laughed, the bite of her half-drunk beer wafting on her breath. “I went out with Lisa.”

“Does Ellen know? Is this like a unicorn situation? Because Mae would be devastated.”

“Accompanied her on her mission, wiseass.”

“Oh. Mae will still probably be jealous.”

“She’ll survive. My point is, if we had better options, you and I would be insulated by layers of security and protocol. But we aren’t- we can’t be. We’re improvising, and oftentimes making shit up as we go. That means that, yes, we need to be as prepared and professional as we can be. But it isn’t because- or at least not strictly because- I’m a control freak. It’s because we can’t control everything. We can’t even control most things. But for the sake of the women depending on us, we have a responsibility to control as many things as we reasonably can- and not to bullshit or push the envelope on that measure, either.”

Anna polished off her beer before continuing. “What I’m saying is maybe this is a rite of passage. There was a time Mimi was a mentor to me, when I thought she was never going to run out of things to teach me. And… one day I realized I was teaching her, more and more. Part of doing what we do is evolving, growing. There’s going to come a day when you and I shoudn’t work together anymore, because we’re redundant. When one of us should set up shop someplace else- or maybe by then I can find some less crummy place in Canada to retire.”

“Oh?”

“I love Ellen. But here? I barely get to. And a part of me… a part of me will always  want to have kids with her. A family- and I don’t just mean you misfits.”  

“I really expected this to go differently. I expected you to stomp me much harder, and probably in stiletto heels.”

“If discipline is becoming a kink for you, I can have Mae do it. She doesn’t have entanglements, and she’d have fun with it. You two could go nuts.”

“The idea of her swinging a riding crop is frightening… but also hot.”

“So it is becoming a kink.”

“Only because we’re talking about it out loud. But for one… I didn’t expect you to disobey your own orders at the same time I was.”

“Well… you and I are a different breed, I think. Certainly, I trust the others, as far as it goes. They’d stall, evade, play stupid for as long as possible. But interrogators always break you, in the end.”

Right. But that’s also not the whole story,” Jezebel said. “Torture- and interrogation is just torture with pretensions- doesn’t work- not if by ‘work’ you mean getting accurate information. And the reason it doesn’t work, is that it takes time to break someone. And anyone who knows anything of any real value knows that, knows that all they have to do is stall and lie, obfuscate, give them bad intel to chase down and otherwise be a brat, to give your friends a chance to change up the organization. It’s why it’s especially ineffective against cells like ours, with relatively little infrastructure, light on personnel, already mobile by nature and used to setting up and breaking down at the drop of a hat. So if the cops had swept me up, maybe because I was an unescorted woman driving by a hotel frequented by sex workers, I would have stalled. Hours protesting my innocence. A woman suspected of gender crimes doesn’t automatically get access to a lawyer or a phone call, so I’d have to tap dance a bit more, but you make up stories. I was an informant for that GC detective who was killed, Harmon. Spin a tale of half-truths, anything to buy time, with the bonus that any lies you tell when you’re still pretty fresh and hydrated make it harder for them to believe the truth once you become delirious from a lack of sleep, water or food.”

“But all of that only works if we know you got picked up,” Anna said.

“I told Ellen before I left. Her stink eye is almost as strong as yours.” Anna didn’t smile. “God, this is so much worse. I honestly wish you had yelled at me. Because then I could focus on the ‘You’re not my mom’ of it all, and how unfair it was you were targeting me. But instead… I’m forced to face the enormity of what happened. Almost everyone I care about could have been killed today. And for what? It’s supplies to keep that little pop-up clinic going for two weeks, max- that’s if it’s a light two weeks. And that’s why they’re winning, isn’t it? Because we have to run the table, every time. We won today. But every time we screw up, every time one of ours gets caught, at best they get beat up, traumatized. As often as not they get killed. How can it be worth it? How is that not a slow, depressing slide into death or powerlessness?”

“I-“ Anna’s phone rang.

“Please, be rude and pick it up,” Jezebel said, taking a swig from her own bottle, “unless you’ve got a rousing speech to pull me out of my tailspin.”

Anna put it on speaker. “Oh, good, I was worried I’d end up in your voicemail.” For a second, they couldn’t place the voice. “Oh. Duh. You don’t have this number. It’s Ofelia. I’m in Canada.”

“You made it!” Jezebel said, practically snatching the phone from Anna.

“I did. I’ve actually been here a few days, and it’s been overwhelming. But I wanted to call and tell you I made it, and I’m safe. There’s a lot of people who settled around here who know you. I’d met a few, people we helped travel North, or get drugs, procedures, whatever. But most of them stay locally, because they’re all like-minded people, who escaped just awfulness to make it here. And I think the reason it’s taken me this long to call is… it’s home.

“And I want be careful how I say that. Because for forever home was down there, with all of you, and I will never stop missing all of you. But up here… it’s the world you’ve been working so hard to build, the people you’ve risked so much to save. This is the home you all deserve, and my heart is so full and at the same time so heavy because you’re not all here with me…”

She sniffled, then continued. “But you can’t be. Because not everyone can just up and leave; when I first met you, I wouldn’t have been able to, and I know there are so many men and women trapped down there who rely on you. And I am so sad and angry that right now those people need you there more than I do, but so proud and grateful to have known you, to have had a chance to help, even for just a little bit. Every single one of you down there is my hero, and every one of you better figure out a way to join me up here, because I am lonely and horny and miss you. Share my love with everyone. I’ll want to call, and talk, as I can, with all of them, but in the meantime hug the hell out of them for me. Crap. People have noticed my weeping, so I should probably go explain that it’s more because I’m happy even though I’m also sad. It’s been good to talk. Next time I might even try listening for a minute. I love you two. Bye.”

“Bye,” Anna said, as the line went quiet.

“It was a dense question, wasn’t it.” Jezebel said thoughtfully. “Of course it’s worth it.”

“No, it wasn’t a dense question,” Anna said. “Each of us has to ask it. Because it is a deeply personal question. We have a right to ask it, and to decide the answer every day. This might be a war, but we aren’t going to win it by treating ourselves or each other like wheat to feed into the thresher. We win by remembering our humanity, valuing each other as people first and foremost, including respecting the choice to stop if or when we need to. Or else what’s all of this even for?”

End

Afterword: I’d like to stop writing Whores. It’s an alarmist, panicked cry about a world we shouldn’t want to live in- a semi-pocalypse we can absolutely avoid if we just make better choices. But until then, here’s the novel this short follows immediately after:

https://amzn.to/3lc3KOQ

Whores 1.5 Chapter8

.08 Lisa

Anna adjusted the rearview mirror as the sun set behind them. “Something up?” Lisa asked, sitting up.

“Mae’s here,” Anna said. “She flashed a signal with a mirror. She’s posted up on the hill behind us.”

“That does make me feel better,” Lisa said, sighing heavily, “as much for her as for us.”

A buzzing noise in Anna’s jacket made Lisa jump. Anna removed an older phone from a pocket, and checked it. “Mitchell’s clear.”

“His team had a phone?”

“A burner, like this one. They were at the highest risk. Multiple stops, any one of them potentially compromised…”

“And if they didn’t make it away clear?”

“From the sounds of it they were nearly made, at the bolt-hole. But to directly answer what I think you’re asking… I’m not going anywhere. Aside from Jezebel’s source telling us BH was blown, it’s been a beautiful day in the neighborhood. So I’m going to give her until midnight to show.”

“And what about me?”

“Hypothetically?” Anna asked, eyeing her.

“Sure.”

“Generally, I’d say if you want off the mission, you can make it out of here on foot with relative ease. Pretty much as soon as you clear the lot, you can pretend to just be a lost little girl.”

“But less generally…”

“Less generally, the more traffic there is in or out of this place, the more likely some concerned citizen calls a cop. You’re probably safer staying put.”

“But I still have a choice?” Lisa asked uneasily.

“You do.”

“Just checking. I’m not going anywhere… but I get twitchy being told I can’t go anywhere.”

“I get it. Even after what happened to me- even though I can’t get pregnant- it still pisses me off to be told that I couldn’t choose to terminate if I did. And barring pretty egregious examples of internalized and self-destructive misogyny, the name of our game largely is choice.”

“Do you… think we’re going to be okay?”

“I think we’re past the worst of it. Even if the cops found us here, it’s trespassing, at worst.”

“I don’t mean tonight,” Lisa said.

“I know. But tonight is all I can answer with any real certainty. All romanticism aside, we are criminals resisting a violent, fascist regime that is buoyed by the largely silent complicity of the world around us. It’s possible the police will develop another mole in our ranks; they may have already. Tonight, I think we get to go home with our family; tomorrow we could all conceivably be lined up against a wall.”

“You probably could have lied to me,” Lisa said wryly.

“No, I couldn’t, not after the conversation we just had about choice. Hold up.”

“What’s going on?”

“Mae just flashed. Someone’s approaching, on foot.”

“She flashing in morse code?”

“God, no. Nothing so complex- or interceptible. Two flashes was for her arrival, three if she has to leave. Four is a person approaching on foot, five in a car. One single, solitary flash is get the hell out of there. That’s the approach of more than one vehicle, or a car that obviously belongs to the police. In that case, I’d wait, until they stopped and parked, so she could put a few shots into their tires.”

“What’s the phrase, you can’t outrun a radio?”

“That’s true, as it goes. But that’s why disabling the vehicle’s so important. If there’s a cop car disabled in a field with a sniper, the cops will go there. They likely won’t even bother calling us in- and even if they do, we’ll be a much lower priority. In the meantime, Mae can put another round or two into the car, maybe into the radio, if we’re lucky and she can get an angle on it, then drive off. It’s not a perfect set up, but it’s solid. Jezebel put together a solid extraction plan.”

“Unless this is a cop approaching our car,” Lisa said, as they watched a figure cloaked in shadow walking along the tree line at the edge of the property.

“It’s not,” Anna said, smiling. “Because a beat cop wouldn’t be carrying their weight in a duffle bag. Help her get it into the trunk, would you?”

Lisa hopped out as Anna started the engine. She jogged towards the woman moving towards them with increasing speed. “Let me help with that,” she said, and they shared the weight as they walked through gravel and pock-marked earth. Anna popped the trunk as they approached, and the two women lifted the duffle inside. Lisa closed it. “You take the front,” she said. “I insist.”

Lisa hopped in the back, and buckled up. The older woman wasn’t exactly what Lisa expected. Her clothes were pretty, but conservative, and likely expensive. Her hair and makeup were flawless, and aside from the strain of hefting the duffle around town, she was very well put-together.

“That your supply run?” Anna asked. She didn’t wait for confirmation. “You should have left them. That is contraband up the ass, probably life in prison, if they caught you with it on the street.”

“That is lives, period,” the other woman replied, still fighting to catch her breathe. “That is autonomy, and freedom. From abusive boyfriends. From bosses who will dislodge a woman’s career the second she gets knocked up. It was worth the risk to me, because I know what that freedom is worth to those who need it.”

“God, you’re stubborn,” Anna said, and threw her arm around her as she pulled the car onto the street. “It’s good to see you made it. Lisa- uh, by the way, this is Lisa-“ she stuck a thumb in the direction of the back seat, “and this is our Black Hoe.” The older woman grinned broadly. “You know that callsigns are supposed to obscure your identity, right?”

“I think if the other side could see past their pecker envy I might have taken them more seriously. But I have never met a man who wanted to shackle a woman didn’t have something to prove.” She turned back to Lisa, and waved. “It’s a pleasure. And I appreciate the risk you both took to come and find me.”

“Wasn’t just us,” Anna said. “We had half the Shelter crawling all over town trying to intercept you, and get warning to the clinic.”

“I checked the dead drop this morning, before a client meeting; I thought I was clear, until Jezebel drove by my hotel, blasting ‘Born to Run.’ So instead I booked another couple of regulars, and took my time, pretending it was just another ordinary day.”

“That was clever of her.”

“She’s a clever girl; would remind me of you, if she were more ornery.”

“She’ll get there,” Anna said with a smile, “likely when she finds her own Jezebel.” But her smile faded. “You know you’re going to have to move on.”

“Yeah, you said that last time.”

“Things are worse, now. And because of last time, you’re even more of a liability, this time. We have to assume you’re blown, maybe even twice over. That puts any job we put you on at risk. Any supplies we entrust with you. Any associates. I can’t let you keep working for us. And you shouldn’t freelance anymore- not around here. You want, I know people who do similar work to us a few counties in either direction. The other alternative is you retire from your day job, and you work with us full time.”

“I’ll think about it,” she paused. “I meant what I said. I know what you risked coming to get me. I don’t want to keep putting you at risk like that.”

“It’s good to see you. It’s good you’re still in the world.”

“Try as they might, they ain’t killed me yet.”  

“So,” Lisa said, from the back seat. “Maybe it’s because you’re old friends, and that has me feeling like a third wheel, or maybe it’s just because Anna brought it up earlier, and it’s been effectively driving me up the wall since. Why should I be glad it isn’t Friday?”

“You been talking out of school?” the older woman asked, eyeing Anna. “I expect she’s mentioned that my code phrases are all old vices. Fridays happen to be John’s johnson. Uncircumsized, amongst other descriptors.”

Lisa frowned. “And that was a vice because…”

“Because we had great chemistry, sexually. But personally? We had a different kind of chemistry- a combustive kind.”

“Oh,” Lisa said. “But why vices as code words at all?”

“I’m not so spry a chicken as I used to be, and it helps me remember. But the deeper answer… there’s two ways to quit something. The one way is to carry its loss, and hurt when you remember it. The other is to remember the parts of it that soothed you, to remember the good with fondness. That doesn’t mean you can’t keep perspective about why you quit it, but you can remember the things you had, too. Me and John, we had some good times. Too few, but they were good.” She sighed, long, and heavy. “You got me reminiscing about an old lover. Makes our introduction inadequate. You should call me Mimi.”

“That your given name, or a…”

“Nom de foutre?” Mimi asked, and laughed lightly, delicately. She extended a hand somewhat awkwardly over the back seat. “It’s what my friends call me. And I got an inkling you and me are going to be fast friends.”

Lisa shook the hand warmly. “I’d like that.”

“She’s more polite than Mayday, course, I’ve known bulls more polite than Mayday. Sweet girl, but before I met her I didn’t know a soul who could make me blush…” she laughed, but it turned heavy. “I was sorry, to hear about Maria. She deserved better. Hell, we all deserve better.”

“We do,” Anna said, and nodded.

Whores 1.5 Chapter 7

.07 Mae

Mae wiped the man’s blood on an old, oily rag she found sitting on the floorboards of the stolen truck. It made her miss Clint all the more, and not just because he was the only one who seemed to flirt the way she did. He was her brother in arms, and understood better than most what they did for the cause- what it cost them, every time they pulled a trigger, or pushed a knife under someone’s ribs.

Right now, without him backing her up, she felt more alone, and naked, than before. Her friends counted on her- which wasn’t new, but after what happened… she didn’t have Clint to share that load with, or make en tendres about load-sharing with. She wanted to be angry about that, to channel the anger into wanting to hurt people… but more and more she just wanted to crawl back into the bottle where Anna first found her, and never come back out.

She checked her rearview, both to make certain Sabina was still with her, and see if they were being followed. Sabina was far enough back to make it look less like they were in a convoy, and as they turned, no one mirrored. Mae tapped her breaks three times; Sabina responded with three flashes of her headlights- they both believed they were clear to run.

Mae parked beside the alley behind the police station, then pulled a black ski mask over her head. Jezebel’s intel told her where she knew there were cameras, but that didn’t guarantee there weren’t cameras she couldn’t see, or her contacts might not have divulged. Finally, she checked her gloves for tears or signs of wear.

She dropped down the tailgate, and Sabina was already there, wearing her own mask. She climbed into the back of the truck. “Assembly line,” she said, and held out her pliers.

“Right,” Mae said. She managed to insert the wires on the first bomb with her hands, then she cinched a garbage back up around it. She laid it down by the corner of the building, besides bags of overflow trash piling up next to a dumpster.

By the time she was back to the truck, Sabina already had the next barrel cinched up and ready. Mae put three of the barrels together, and two more at the corner of the building, by the sidewalk.

The last they didn’t bother putting into a bag. An ‘accidentally’ frayed wire rendered it inert. “No prints on this one?” Mae asked.

“Been wearing the gloves, like Jez asked,” she said, holding up her gloved hands. Mae nodded. She set the final barrel by the back door to the police station, so much in the way they’d practically trip on it when they came out to investigate. When they were done, Sabina jogged back to the van, parked across the street, while Mae got behind the wheel of the truck. She pulled around to the corner of the block where the entrance was, where she was certain she was on camera.

Between the two of them, they could see the approach to all of the explosives, either from the alleyway, or from either direction down the sidewalk. Sabina gave two quick honks of her horn- they were clear from her end.

Mae dialed a burner to the number wired to the first cluster of bombs and waited. Sabina, since she could see down the alley still, was the final go/no-go. Their eyes met, and Sabina glanced one last time to ensure the coast was clear, before hitting a button on her own phone. The explosion shook the air, and car alarms and screams followed immediately. Mae hit ‘send’ on her own phone, and a second explosion followed, this one at the corner of the building and the alley, where Mae could see it.

Mae jammed on the gas, so hard that her tires squealed and the truck fishtailed a moment, climbing the curb onto the sidewalk before she could muscle the vehicle back into the road. Mae took an indirect route, so that Sabina could beat her back to the compound. Mae didn’t want to add risk to her, so she didn’t circle to make sure she was in position before she made her approach.

The driveway was largely a straight shot, so she lined the truck up at the entrance from the street, wedged the peddle down and kicked the truck into drive. It lurched forward as she leapt off, slapping the door shut. She had her canvas bag and the plastic case; she had left the burner in the rear of the truck.

Mae knew the truck would be caught on camera, and if the angles were right, would either clip an old tractor in the field, or possibly hit the edge of the farm house; either way, it would be arrested by the collision and eventually flood.

She ducked into a row of corn opposite the brush she made her way through earlier. These were proper crops, and provided less cover, but Sabina was with her within thirty seconds. “Want the stick?” Sabina asked.

“You drive. I imagine you’re a better driver than you are a shot,” she hefted her canvas bag for emphasis.

“Oh, right.” They drove for several miles before they hit the suburbs, and skirted them all the way across town. The sky was turning a golden orange as Sabina guided the van up a hill. “And we’re overwatch, right?” she asked. Mae nodded. “And that means…”

“To watch over,” Mae said.

“Oh.”

“In practical terms, it means you and I climb someplace high, and offer fire support, in which case I’m sniping, you’re spotting.”

“And that means…”

“That means you use the binoculars to keep an eye out for threats. Watching the world through a scope you can get tunnel vision. A sniper without a spotter is a sitting duck, more often than not, because it’s all but impossible to watch your own back while looking for targets. But it also means we can watch a larger area.” Sabina pulled to a stop at the top of the hill, overlooking a partially cleared area; it wasn’t until she saw the screen at the far end that she realized it had been a drive-in theater. “I can mostly scope the road from here, but you can watch for a foot approach.”

Mae hopped out of the van, and opened her bag. She handed a pair of binoculars to Sabina. She spotted Anna’s car, and could make out Lisa sitting inside. “At least we know they’re all right,” Sabina said.

“Unless the cops are waiting for our girl to arrive, so they can sweep all of us up at the same time without spooking any late arrivals.”

“And you couldn’t have lied to me?”

“Nah, I respect you too much,” Mae said with a smirk.

“Do you think this will all work?”

Mae considered her answer. At least parts of the day had felt… less than optimal. But they had made it this far, and while there was always a possibility the cops were waiting, she couldn’t see a real reason why. If they were setting a trap, grabbing any girls on the way made more sense than letting them all gather, because capturing one or two people at a time was less difficult than catching two or three cars, each containing multiple people that could scatter on foot any moment. A competent response would focus on arrests early and often; you could always try to flip a prisoner for information after the fact. But if they managed to lose everyone because their eyes got too big, that was riskier- there was no way to turn around an empty interrogation room. “I think we should be happy we made it this far, and otherwise keep our eyes open; we’re not safe until we’re all at home., and we have a better chance of getting there if we keep alert.”

At the thought of that, Sabina yawned. “You didn’t have the foresight to…” “Coffee’s in a thermos in my black bag. Sip it. We don’t have any more, and we could be here until midnight. We also want to avoid any bathroom breaks if possible.”

Whores 1.5 Chapter 6

.06 The Janes

A truck pulled up to the curb as the Janes arrived at the sidewalk that hemmed the park. Jane averted her gaze and diverted down the street, with Janey on her heels. She heard the sound of a car door open, and a man’s footsteps, and tensed. “It’s okay,” Janey whispered into her ear, “just keep walking.”

“Excuse me!” she heard a man yell not ten feet behind them. Janey pulled her along like they were a team of sled dogs. “Just what the hell do think you’re doing?” this time she recognized the voice, their ‘dad,’ Mitchell. She had never heard him so angry, belligerent, menacing. She knew him as the sweet man who held her as she cried when she first came to the clinic, not because she was ashamed to be there, but because of how terrifying the thought of being discovered either coming or going was.

Even as they gained distance his voice seemed to grow; his words were nearly unintelligible, almost the snarling bark of an angry dog. “I watched you, stalking two nice young ladies through the park. At your age? You should be ashamed of yourself. This is a family park. We don’t appreciate perverts following girls around. Yeah, creep away. Pervert!”

Jane heard the truck door slam, and heard the engine gun as the vehicle roared away. They didn’t stop walking until they rounded a corner, with a building between them and the park. Jane collapsed against the red brick of the building, gasping for air. “He wasn’t supposed to do that,” she wheezed.

“It worked,” Janey said. “If he was a creep, he’s creeping elsewhere. If he was a cop, the attention made him worry more about his cover than what we were up to.”

“And what if he goes and checks the drop? Then we’re blown and so is Mitchell.”

Fuck,” Janey said. “What do we do?”

Jane exhaled out angrily, pushed off the wall, and yanked them by the hand. “First off, we keep moving. Mitch should circle to make sure no one touches the drop. But… she’s already been there. The coin… it was there, like it was supposed to be. Whenever she checks the drop, she flips the coin. It was tails up, so she’s already been there today. I left the message anyway, just in case some kid or parent happened to turn it over, but… I’m pretty sure we missed our chance to head her off.“

“Maybe,” Janey said. “But from what they said about her… she’s bound to be savvy. When I was just a baby, still, you know, figuring things out, I met an elder. I mean, she wasn’t much older than me, now, but… she was a sex worker, because she lost her office job when hormones got harder to come by, and she couldn’t pass as easily. But she was smart. People hate us, people hate sex workers, she told me once the world was always looking for a place to stick the knife, so she had to be five steps ahead of everyone. Sex workers are survivors, is what I’m saying, in a way most people can’t even start to understand.”

“What are you saying?”

Janey laughed lightly. “I’m saying I’m terrified of the cops, but I’m going to that bolt-hole. If we can get her out, I’m going to. But… if you want, you can get back in Mitch’s truck.”

“Hey,” Jane spun around, and cupped their cheek, “I appreciate the pep talk, and you wanting to protect me, but there is no way I’m letting you go in there alone. Besides, we’re here.”

The apartment building was painted a creamy blue. Jane led them to the last corner apartment on the ground floor. She found the key where Jezebel said it would be, on top of the doorframe. The key fit, and the door opened with barely a jostle of the knob.

“Hello?” Janey called through the still apartment. They bolted the door, noting that it was a different color to the knob. They parted, Janey stopping in the bathroom, while Jane proceeded deeper inside. The bed wasn’t touched. The living space seemed only partly lived-in, like a hotel room minutes after check in. “No sign of her, not in the kitchen, either,” Janey said, rejoining her.

“No signs of struggle, at least. She just hasn’t been here. Got the message?”

Janey reached into their shirt, and produced a piece of paper, folded four times. “And this will mean something to her?”

“Yeah. It’s not in code. It’s just protocol. She’ll recognize the letter, and know that it means to proceed to the extraction point.”

“Yeah… I think I was freaked out enough when they were talking I lost several minutes.”

“I figured,” Jane said. “Your heartbeat hammering through your palm felt like I was being jabbed with a nail.”

“Maybe my hand was just happy to see you,” Janey said, before tensing. There was a soft knock at the door. “Shit. Whatever happens, stay behind me, okay?” Janey squared to the door, raising their fists.

“Suddenly you’re a spinached-up Popeye?”

“I’m butchbidextrous,” they said, but their usual lightness and humor was drained from their voice.

“Hey!” they heard, a whisper, but somehow yelled, from the opposite side of the apartment as the front door. It was Mitchell, speaking to them through a window cracked open enough to let in a breeze. “Come on.”

The knocking at the front door became louder, more urgent. Jane helped Mitch open the window. “Come on,” he said, and supported her as Janey boosted her through. “You, too,” Mitch said, as Janey slid over the door frame.

Mitch’s truck was parked a few feet away, the engine still running. He got in the driver’s side, and gently slid the door closed, giving it one final, firm tug to engage the lock. “Like that,” he said, “to cut down the noise.” Jane slid across the bench, and Janey in after her, then they closed the door as Mitch had shown them.

“This was my fault,” Mitch said as he pulled away. “I screwed it up yelling at the creep in the park.”

“Or maybe it bought us time to make it here,” Jane said. “And we don’t know it was the cops at the door. Neither of us look like an older Black woman. Could have been the super checking in, or a nosy neighbor.”

Janey frowned. “Are we that suspicious?” they asked.

“Could be,” Mitch said. “There’s an older woman, from a distance she looks like BH, who lives a few blocks away. Periodically, she’d go in or out, make the place look lived in. But she’d sneak out the back window; neighbors saw her come with groceries once a week, and just assumed she was otherwise a shut-in.”

“The point,” Jane began, “is the only way we can get the details is to go back and talk to whoever was banging on that door, which was either the cops or could quickly lead to them getting called… I think I’m willing to live with the mystery, if it means avoiding that.”

“Me, too,” Mitch said.

Whores 1.5, Chapter 5

.05 Lisa

“Are you coming inside with me?” Lisa asked, realizing that one whole side of her clothes was soaked through with the man’s blood.

“Anna asked me to check in, if I could, on my way,” Mae said, smiling sheepishly. “But I’ve got a distraction to make- and sitting around with a stolen truck full of explosives seems like a bad idea.”

“To the door?” Lisa asked. Mae bit her lip, hesitating pensively.

“Sure,” Mae said. “But if you think it might be anyone other than the clinic staff, you bolt with me, you hear?”

Lisa reached out her hand, and Mae took it. They walked together down the path.

The woman behind the desk didn’t look up before beginning to say, “Crisis Pregnancy Center, we know what you’re going through is tough, but you don’t have to do it without- Jesus,” she gasped, “Is that blood?”

“I think you’ll be okay,” Mae said with a grin. “I’ll see you back home.”

Lisa sighed. It was home. Which was screwed up. But, in order, her two previous homes had been burned down by the police, and violently raided by them. So the new Shelter did feel like home.

“Do you need help?” The woman behind the counter stammered out. “Because we’re more of an advisory clinic than a full-fledged hospital. I can- I can call you an ambulance.”

“It’s not my blood,” Lisa said confidently. “And you don’t need to worry about me at all. Though, if you have it, I’d take a box of frosted cupcakes.”

“Cupcakes?” the woman asked, the increasing surreality clearly threatening her sanity.

“Orange ones.”

“Oh, God,” she said, deflating. “God, god, god, god, god god, god.”

“I’m sorry,” Lisa said, leaning onto the counter. “I know this is scary. I know drilling, practicing, trying to prepare… it doesn’t prepare you. It can’t. Because the moment… the moment is awful. Your body turns against you and your mind feels in no way up to the task. But what you need to do is tell the others. You’ve been compromised, and you need to get out of here.”

“God, we have an appointment, in an hour, and she was too scared to leave a name or number.”

“I almost forgot,” Lisa said. “Could I borrow some gauze, bandages?”

“I thought it wasn’t your blood.”

“It’s not.”

“Right,” the woman nodded, and opened a drawer, and handed Lisa a first-aid kit, then snapped her fingers. “The patient’s neighbor is the one driving her in. We’ve got his number.” She picked up the phone and dialed, and while it rang through, she called, “Shirley? A woman just asked for orange cupcakes.”

Lisa heard excited movement as she turned on her heels and left.

Her attacker was still laying where Mae had dragged him, moaning. “Still with us?” Lisa asked. He didn’t respond until she nudged his stab wound with her foot. “Whatever advantages you thought you had, size, muscle mass, privilege- a stab-wound is a hell of an equalizer. I’m going to try and stabilize you enough that you don’t die, but I’m not losing sight of the fact that, roles reversed, we both know you’d leave me bleeding out in the street- so don’t try me.”

He groaned as she peeled back his shirt. The wound was clean. She managed to get a gauze pad taped in place, wrapped to hold at least some pressure onto the wound. “If you can, keep your hand on the bandage and push. It’ll hurt, but it’ll improve your chances of surviving. And I think we both know you deserve at least this much pain.”

Lisa stood, brushed herself off, and saw that Anna was waiting at the end of the long walkway with her car. She jogged to it, and slid into the passenger’s seat.

“Mae’s doing?” Anna asked. Lisa nodded. “I thought that was her in the truck. Take off your top.”

“I don’t think Ellen would approve.”

“I only take that kind of cheek off Mae.”

“And Ellen.”

“Fair, and Ellen.”

“And often Jezebel.”

“Don’t push it. Now take it off. We can’t drive you around looking like Carrie coming home from the prom.” Lisa peeled away the shirt; where it was wet with blood, it stuck to her skin like a bathing suit. “There’s garbage bags under your seat. There’s some wet wipes on the floorboards in the back, and an extra sweater back there.”

“You came prepared.”

“Sadly not the first time one of us ended up hosed down with blood.”

“So do we get to go home and get drunk now?” Lisa asked.

“Not quite. We’re the extraction team,” Anna said, pulling into an overgrown lot with periodic mounds of Earth that Lisa recognized as an abandoned drive-in theater. “Protocol says she has til midnight to show; after that, she’s on her own.”

“But realistically, if she hasn’t shown by then it’s because it wasn’t safe to… which may well mean we’re sitting in a cell.”

“If it makes you feel better, Mae- assuming she can get here safely, is our overwatch.”

“It actually kind of does; she’s like Batman, if he stabbed people and gave surprisingly warm hugs.”

“I know what you mean… she seems almost superhuman, sometimes. But she’s also a person. When I found her, she was so drunk she could hardly stand, just barricaded in her place, waiting for the cops. She killed the men who murdered her husband, and after, she was content to take down as many of the men who protected them as she could. What I mean is… she bleeds, like the rest of us. And this fight has cut her, deeply. She is the sweetest person I know, and also possibly the most hurt. I trust her, with my life, with all of our lives… but it’s important not to let her carry more weight than she can. Because she’ll try. It’s who she is. And those of us who love her have to make sure she’s got the help she needs.”

“You’re uh, speaking from a different kind of experience, aren’t you?” Lisa prodded gently.

“No. God. She’s… not my type. And I’ve known Ellen since before I met her. And-”

“Not what I meant, and you’re not deflecting me.” Lisa touched Anna’s shoulder. “You carry too much. Sometimes you buckle, and if you’re not careful, some day you’ll break. So listen to your own advice: let the rest of us carry more.”

“That was really sweet,” Anna started, and Lisa felt the turn in her tone even before she added, “until you wiped blood on me.”

Shit.”

“I hope not. Blood would be bad enough.”

Stop deflecting,” Lisa said; “I’ve still got plenty more blood I could wipe on you.”

“You’re right,” Anna said with a sigh, leaning back in her seat. “I know you’re right. Most of the time I’m,” she shook her head, “an out-of-control control-freak who is impossible for anyone but Ellen to put up with, and even then, she doesn’t, always… but then, in a crisis, all of that bossiness and bitchiness becomes actually helpful, and I feel, fleetingly, like instead of being a burden to everyone around me emotionally I’m finally useful, maybe even enough to justify everything I hate about myself…”

“You’re useful all the time,” Lisa said. “And maybe you’re extra useful in a crunch- but that’s why we need you over the long term. You give yourself a heart attack or a stroke or an aneurism, who takes over? The Janes?”

“They would definitely solve internal conflicts with pillow fights…”

“You and Mae, both, w’[;pe need you. But that means we need you taking care of yourselves, too. This gender war is a marathon, not a sprint. We have to be ready to go the distance.”

“I think I’m beginning to see why Ofelia liked you. And Mae.”

“For the longest time I felt like an adopted puppy. Pitiful, maybe adorable, but…” she stopped, uncertain if she wanted to press ahead, “Clint changed that. He saw me. Me me. And on the one level he sold us out… but on the other, he was protecting me. It’s…”

“It’s tragic,” Anna interrupted. “He would have died for the rest of us- I guess, in the end, he did. But when push came to shove, he chose you over us, and it really is tragic that he was ever asked to. No one should be forced to choose between people they love.”

“A man and his mistresses?” Lisa asked.

“There’s a difference between love and who you want to fuck, though so long as everyone’s on board for polyamory, even that shouldn’t be a deal-breaker. And now you’re the one deflecting…”

“I still… it’s hard for me. Because half of me still loves him, the man who would have forsaken everything for me, who gave up everything to protect us… but he’s also the same man who betrayed us. I know that’s not… fair doesn’t even feel like a word that could apply, here. He was coerced-”

“Violated, even?”

“I guess… though I’m not sure how comfortable I am with that metaphor.”

“Well, it’s my metaphor, and as a survivor, I was comfortable enough with it to draw the parallel- not that it necessarily means any other survivor would agree with me. But what was done to him was a violation. He deserved better. You deserved better. We all deserve better than this- that’s why we fight.”

“I wish I were like Mae. It would all feel less… terrifying if I felt I could fight in anything other than a metaphorical sense.”  

“I know what you mean,” Anna said, taking her hand. “But I’ve been at this long enough to know that most battles aren’t won or lost at the end of a gun- they’re won by people like you, doing the right thing, again and again, knowing the risks and facing them. Violence is easy- but its ability to craft lasting change is small. The future is built, one brick at a time, through tiny, often even passive, acts of resistance, and all of us have a role to play.”

“You mind if I turn on the stereo?” Lisa asked, and Anna shrugged. For a few minutes, they listened. It reminded Lisa of going out on dates back in high school, lots of pressure and tension- would they kiss her, would she like it if they did? But also no real idea of what was going to happen; most of the time they’d chat nervously, listen to music and then drive home.

Her nostalgia for the relative safety of her youth was cut off by the sound of sirens passing on the nearest road, the police cars near enough they could see their lights flashing through the trees. Both women tensed, and glanced from one another to the entrance to the lot. No lights refracted off the small ticket booth in the entryyway, and the sirens began to fade into the distance.

“Mae’s distraction?” Lisa asked. “Let’s hope so,” Anna replied.

Whores 1.5 Chapter 4

Sorry about the lateness; domestic bliss.

This is a longer one, and I weighed chopping it into two parts, but because it’s late already, I figured, what the hell, you call could use the treat. I think posting will resume Monday, and will from here continue weekdays, lasting about another week. But thanks for dropping in, and have a pleasant weekend.

.04 Mayday

“And your fourth team?” Anna asked, her patience clearly waning.

“I was thinking Shock and Awe,” Jezebel said as coyly as she could.

“Oh, Lord. I’m not going to like this, am I?”

“You haven’t liked anything anyone but your girlfriend has done in the entire time I’ve known you- and even then, you’re very selective.”

“If you’re going to piss me off, you should just skip to that part, rather than pissing me off as an appetizer for a meal of even more fury.”

“We don’t want the cops focused on tracking down the underground abortion clinic. We also don’t want them focused on our girl supplying said clinic. So, we decide what they’re going to focus on- we give them a much bigger fire to put out.”

“I assume you have a worthy target to draw fire.”

“This is an awful lot of cowboy talk today,” Mae said with a grin. “Not that I’m complaining, it just feels like I should have worn my spurs.”

“You have spurs?” Lisa asked.

“Keep asking, and I’ll put ‘em to you to prove it,” she replied, throwing an arm over Lisa.

“Down girl,” Lisa said, but leaned into Mae’s arm anyway.

“She may have fallen asleep to a Western marathon…” Ellen said, her eyes flicking fiendishly from her nurse back to Anna.

“That’s private,” Anna protested.

“No. Private would be telling them you get the John Wayne toots.”

“I… have questions,” Mae said.

“If she sleeps through a John Wayne movie, and I swear this is true, she will toot whenever the old bigot speaks. It is… uncanny, like ninth wonder of the world. I am a doctor, and a good one, and I have no explanation for it.”

“Your patsy?” Anna asked, redirecting.

“I’m actually a little proud of this,” Jezebel started. “There’s a men’s rights militia operating outside of town. They’re… bad people. I found out they were buying… just way more fertilizer than you could ever need if you weren’t a straight-up industrial farmer. So I bought some from the same lot, which will have the same chemical signature. We’ll plant some fertilizer bombs outside of the police station- not enough to cause any serious damage to people, but more than enough to get their attention… and leave enough breadcrumbs to lead back to the militia.”

“I assume you got this from your federal contact?”

“He’s what’s going to link the two, yeah.”

“And doesn’t that kind of investigation usually take months, or at least weeks?”

“You sound just like him,” Jezebel said with a smile. “One of the bombs won’t go off- but that is minor. They’ll come to the conclusion a lot quicker, because we’re going to steal one of their trucks, use it to transport said explosives, and then peel away, being sure to get the truck noticed. And of course, there’s only one person I know of capable of that level of both shock and awe…

“Mayday,” Anna groaned.

“Me?” Mae asked, exaggeratedly batting her eyes. “Awe, you guys…”

“We don’t have time for you to dance around the Mae Pole,” Anna said.

“That’s okay; I still haven’t installed the hook for my stripper pole.”

“Or any of your other antics or shenanigans,” Anna said.

“But what do I have without antics or shenanigans.”

“A mission,” Jezebel said. “A dangerous one. Without which everyone else is at so much extra risk I can feel ulcers developing just thinking about it.”

“Yup, you’re right, time to focus up,” Mae said, straightening to attention the way her father taught her, emphasizing the words “Talk Loud” printed in white on her black shirt. It reminded her of her time in the Marines. Mae loved her time in the Marines, but she had loved Marine husband, Frank, even more. A part of her died the day he did- the way he did. The only way for her to cope was to indulge the silly little girl who first met him, the one who had fun in basic training. Her life with Frank taught her about love, honor, and duty- and her life without him she could only really handle at the end of a bottle or a barrel. Today, her friends needed the latter. “What do you need?”

She listened to her objectives, breaking down the ‘simple’ tasks into the realistic steps needed to achieve them. It was hard, sometimes, not being annoyed working with civilians like this. They didn’t really appreciate everything that went into her work; most of them treated her like a wizard who would just accomplish whatever they needed. “Explosives?” Mae asked when they were finished.

“In the shed at the edge of the property,” Jezebel said. “Not hooked up, but otherwise assembled. When the day came, I knew we were going to need to deploy in a hurry.”

“I’ll inspect them, make sure they’re what we need before we go. But I’m going to need a second driver.”

“Oh?” Anna asked.

“Even if I can lift and place your explosives myself, we can’t leave your transport within walking distance of the compound where I steal a truck. They come snooping, find the van-”

“It could lead right back to us…” Anna said.

“And that’s assuming they weren’t lying in wait for Mae when she tried to swap back,” Jezebel added.

“Second driver can shadow me in the van,” Mae said. “That way I’m exposed for the least amount of time. Suggestions?”

Jezebel started to raise her hand, “Volunteer and I’m keeping the hand and locking you in time out in your shed,” Anna said. “We need someone comfortable driving a big vehicle. The panel van… if the biggest vehicle you’ve driven is a sedan, now isn’t the time to learn.”

“I used to have a Bronco,” Sabina said. “Stick, too, if that matters.”

“It’s automatic,” Jezebel replied.

“Should be easier, then.”

“And you’re okay driving with explosives?” Anna asked.

“Not remotely,” Sabina said. “But I’ll take a lot of deep breaths.”

“Do it, then. Quickly. The more time we talk, the likelier this all ends in tragedy.”

Mae followed Jezebel to the shed. She pushed past the smaller woman inside. The explosives were carefully assembled, but inert, and Mae felt a pang, because she recognized the work. “Clint put these together?”

“Yeah,” Jezebel said.

“Why are all the good men dead?” Mae asked with a sigh. She tested the weight of one of the barrels, and was confident she could lift them on her own. She started assembling the detonators. “Sabina?” she asked. The other woman poked her head inside, and watched as Mae held up two components. “This wire, into the blasting cap? It stays disconnected until we get to the police station. When we do, your job is to shove them in, while I place them.”

“Do I need any tools?”

“Take two pairs of needle-nosed pliers with cutters and strippers, just in case you do.”

The three of them loaded a half-dozen small barrels of fertilizer and their accompanying detonators into the back of an off-white panel van. “The registration’s good?” Mae asked.

“Yep. Registered to a friend out of state, who sold it for cash- even has a copy of the bill of sale and a driver’s license- I edited in a photo of Pablo Escobar onto the license. Even if the feds get involved, it’s a dead end.”

“That is… very elaborate,” Sabina said.

“I’m good at what I do,” Jezebel said.

“Yeah, remind me not to cross you,” Mae added. “Anything else we need to know?”

“Steering pulls a little to the right. Tires are almost new. Wipers squeak obnoxiously, so hope for clear skies.”

Mae took the keys, and loaded a long, black canvas bag and a gray, plastic case into the back. Then she got in on the driver’s side. “Figured we’d both be more at ease with me driving around the explosives,” she told Sabina, who nodded.

They drove mostly in silence, until Mae asked, “Got that map?”

“Yeah,” Sabina said, holding up Jezebel’s hand-drawn map in her hand. “We’re going the right way. Another ten mile markers in this direction.” She sighed.

“You okay?” Mae asked.

“This is all still… new to me. I lived in Lisa’s building, before it was torched. At first, I was pissed off. How dare some woman operate an underground abortion clinic in my building? I blamed her for us nearly getting killed. That’s how they get you, right? They turn you against the people trying to help, instead of the ones who are actually causing the pain and devastation. Because it wasn’t Deb who started the fire; she wasn’t even trying to fight it, really, she just set up a burn ward, and they killed her for it. And I might never have seen it, if I hadn’t run into Lisa at the store… But it was the cops who tried to kill me. It was the cops who shot Deb, and that poor girl… how the hell does ‘pro-life’ mean that? But it’s hard. My brother was a cop for a while. And I was raised to respect them, to appreciate their service. Putting a bomb at a police station…”

“If it’s any consolation, the goal isn’t to hurt cops. These things are the explosive equivalent to a dummy round. It’ll cause some noise, scare the people inside the building. But cop shops have pretty strict construction standards, same as buildings on bases. They expect to someday have to withstand an explosion, even if they hope that day never comes. It’s really more a provocation than an attack.”

“Oh,” Sabina said. “That actually does help… though I’m not sure it should.”

“It’s complicated. For me, too. Even though it was cops who killed,” she swallowed, his name catching in her throat, “my husband, a lot of military guys end up in the police, Marines included, some guys I knew included, ones I trusted. And honestly, that’s part of the problem. If police were still about ‘serve and protect,’ things would be different, but their militarization means it’s more ‘control and subjugate’- military goals that make sense in some contexts, but are completely out of place in domestic affairs. It means even the good ones get bad lessons, and the few who remain truly good usually get isolated, drummed out or worse. But it isn’t about them being bad people. It’s a bad culture, executed through poorly considered means, and often empowering the worst impulses.”

“But no one’s going to get hurt?”

Mae considered lying, but she’d been lied to in the field; it was better to know the lay of the land than be surprised when you didn’t. “I don’t want to hurt anyone. But my goal is protecting our friends, protecting our rights. I will do the least harm I can in pursuit of those goals- but I’m not willing to trade the safety of oppressors for that of the oppressed.”

“Hmm,” Sabina said. “You kind of scare me, I hope, it’s okay to say that.”

“It is,” Mae said. “I kind of scare me, too.”

“Fudge.”

“What?” Mae asked, her muscles tensing.

“We just missed the driveway.”

“That’s fine,” Mae said. “We’re not driving up.” She pulled off on a side road, then over to a turn-around and parked. “I’m going on foot. You’ll wait here. You hear gunfire, you take off. If I can, I’ll rendezvous with you at the gas station we passed three miles back. But if  can’t- head home.”

“What about the bombs?” Sabina asked, anxiety lifting her voice an extra octave.

“I don’t think you could lift them alone.”

“I could park the truck by the corner of the building. Kick the ‘broken’ one out the back to make sure there’s a trail to follow, leave on foot then blow them remotely.”

“I’m… not going to tell you what to do. But take care of yourself. Okay? And if I’m not back within thirty minutes, don’t wait. Understand? Being brave and being smart aren’t mutually exclusive.”

Mae took the plastic case from the back and walked tall as she left. She waited until she disappeared into the brush to breathe out raggedly. Sabina was already scared; none of them were prepared for what was happening. Jezebel had tried, but there were always contingencies that couldn’t be planned around- especially not on a tight, relatively improvisational time frame.

But Mae was the strong one; she had to be strong. She crept through the brush and grass towards the compound. If farming was a part of their cover, they weren’t even pretending that the area nearest the home held crops.

Her first bit of luck was a flattened field of what had been corn. Rather than properly clear it, they just drove over it enough to use as a parking lot. All their vehicles were there, removed enough from the farmhouse to give her at least some privacy.

Before breaking cover, she spotted a pair of cameras hanging off the home. From the angle, they seemed positioned to cover the approach of the driveway, and then the walk from the cars. Still, between the two of them, there was potential cover for some 70% of the lot.

Mae weighed her options. What remained was mostly cars, with a handful of trucks, really only two that felt suitable to her purpose, parked side by side. One was new, its chrome bumper catching the sun’s light and throwing it into her eyes. The other was older, its paint peeling, windows yellowing. As she approached the older truck, she saw a sticker in the windshield for a car alarm company, old, faded, coming up at the edges. She heard noise, and rolled under the newer truck.

She heard a man talking loudly on a phone, and caught the scent of his cigarettes. From beneath the truck she could see the after-market alarm wired to the battery. It, too, was new, which meant sensors for if it was jostled. The man closed towards her as he paced, talking excitedly about his ex-wife and how badly she screwed him. Her hand settled on the knife in its sheath on her thigh as a black combat boot stopped inches from her head.

Then the man laughed, a laugh so deep it unsettled the tar in his lungs and gave way to a hacking cough that continued until he’d made his way back inside. May crawled under the older truck. The battery looked clear, no additional wires snaking off to an alarm, and it was an old enough model it wasn’t likely to have come standard. So either the sticker was a ruse, or vestigial, from some previous owner who felt it worth their effort to remove the alarm when they sold the truck. She knew the model well enough to know which tools she needed, a plastic blade, and a long, circular hook that looked almost like a corkscrew on the end of an unwound coat hanger.

The lock was old and worn, so it didn’t take much convincing for it to give, and she slid into the driver’s seat, tossing the plastic case onto the bench seat next to her. The wires were held together with duct and electrical tape; it clearly wasn’t the first time someone had hot-wired it. She cut through the tape, exposing the correct wires, and tapped them together while giving it pumps of gas. The engine purred to life.

Mae put the truck in reverse and let it idle out of the spot until she was angled towards the driveway, then dropped into drive, and again, let it idle down the road. She cringed at every crunch of gravel, or creak of the suspension, one eye glued to her rearview. But there didn’t seem to be activity. She reasoned if she made it away with the truck, she was probably clear; the cameras were a warning system. The last thing violent extremists were likely to do was keep a record of who came and went to their compound.

She made it to the side road where she left Sabina, and found the other woman nervously tapping on the steering wheel. “Almost left,” she said.

“Good girl,” Mae said. “You stay where you are, and keep the engine running. Anyone looks like they’re going to stop, you lean on the horn, and as soon as I get the back closed you gun it out of here.”

Mae pulled the truck so their rear bumpers were facing, then got out, careful to leave the truck idling. She unloaded her black canvas bag from the van, and unzipped it, before putting it on the tailgate. Then she moved the barrels, one at a time, into the back of the truck. When she was done, she called, “We’re good,” and closed the van’s doors.

Mae got in the truck and led Sabina back into town. They went by a different route- no reason to drive right by the place they’d stolen the truck. They stopped at an older office-building with an overly long walkway and ostentatious lawn. Sabina stopped beside her, and rolled down her window. “What are we doing here?”

“Logistical support,” Mae said. “Anna asked if I could drop in, if we made it this far without getting spotted.”

“What kind of-”

“Shit,” Mae said. “Park. We’ll need to leave in a hurry after this.”

Mae exited her truck, and started across the street. She glanced up and down; it looked empty, no one sitting in their vehicles, no one walking down the street. Either it was bad luck, or the world’s most professional set up, in which case they were likely all going to jail.

One of the things being a Marine had taught Mae was to spot a fight before it happened. Civilians, and even plenty of soldiers, would say violence came out of nowhere. But usually, there were signs, angry body language, even the way someone was shifting their weight to throw a punch, or to put their body weight into a tackle.

She was almost certain the woman walking towards the clinic doors was Lisa, but regardless, the man moving towards her definitely meant her arm. Whatever hateful sign he’d been holding he’d practically thrown when he noticed her approach, and was moving fast enough Mae wouldn’t be able to intercept him.

Mae knew Anna expected her ‘support’ to involve the rifle in her black canvas bag. But the rifle would bring attention quickly, and if Lisa was only making her approach, that attention would mean the women staffing the clinic would be more exposed, more likely to be caught out. It meant they’d have to abandon their supplies, hard-won, and all the lives those shortages would harm, potentially even end.

Mae opened the strap on her sheath that kept her knife from moving as she walked. She managed to pull it loose as the man impacted Lisa, knocking the wind out of her, sending her sprawling, and pinned her almost immediately. It was fluid enough he had some training- medium-level martial arts, maybe. But he wasn’t a professional, because he was laser-focused on his victim, still hadn’t even clocked Mae as he raised a fist in the air.

Mae caught it, and used his arm for leverage to bury the knife in his side. She thought of every woman whose path he crossed, all the fear and anger and sadness, and wanted desperately to twist it, to all but guarantee he’d bleed out.

But he was already going limp; if not for her holding his arm, he’d have fallen. The fight was over, and it was going to do more than enough extra damage taking the knife back out of him. She pulled him to the sidewalk and dropped him, then extracted her knife out of his side, and wiped his blood off it on the hideous Hawaiian shirt he was wearing.

“Mae?” Lisa asked, her breathing ragged.

“You’re okay,” Mae said, and slid the knife back in its sheath. She helped Lisa to her feet. “Nobody fucks with my girl.”

Whores 1.5 Chapter 3

Author’s Note: Janey’s pronouns are they/them/their. It is possible I’ll screw that up; in the writing sometimes pronouns get squirrely in my head, becoming something of a pronoun superposition of every applicable pronoun over a characters’ entire existence. This being a rough and rushed first draft, I might screw it up. It’s not through malice, and I apologize in advance if it causes anyone discomfort (or even if this disclaimer does). But for whoever needs to hear this (and I think I do, as much as anyone else, these days): I love you for exactly who you are; this world we built does not deserve you, but I hope, through effort and empathy, it one day will.

.03 The Janes

“We’re going to need a team to pass a message at a dead drop,” Jezebel continued. Lisa’s eyes were already glazing over, but it seemed at least she knew what she needed to do. “We’re going to need to check our bolt-hole and possibly the extraction site. I’d like to use two teams for this- that way they can take turns watching to see if the other team picks up a tail. We’re not worried about losing locations- anything we touch with this operation is burned, but we don’t want anyone tracking home fleas. We need at least two people.”

“Agreed.” Anna cast her gaze across the room, stopping on the youngest two women in the room. Both had short, curly brown hair, and every time conversation stopped, they’d turn to one another, a grin slowly forming on one of their faces before being mirrored on the other’s. You’d be forgiven for assuming them siblings, until they kissed. “How about the Janes?”

At the mention of their names, a coincidence, they both insisted, they stood to attention, the slightly shorter Jane snapping off a crisp salute that was sincere enough no one knew if she meant it. “We need two volunteers. So naturally I thought of you.”

“They’re too young,” Mitchell said gruffly, running his fingers through his beard, before smoothing down his blue scrubs. “Alone they’ll fit the profile. Young women alone get extra scrutiny from gender crimes. Together they can giggle and bubble and flirt safely- that will get most police off their backs. I’ll be the second team, and if anybody asks, I’m just a filthy old sex-pest following around a pair of ingenues- which is somehow much more legal than the truth.“

“Yeah, I’m not letting that happen,” Ellen said, adjusting her glasses so they caught the light, hiding her eyes. She milked the moment, cracking her neck from side to side, sliding her fingers down her white lab coat. “Not only do I refuse to lose my nurse, but inside his head is knowledge on virtually every one of the patients we’ve seen since he got here.”

“Maybe,” he said with an impish grin, “but I’m a man. They won’t bat an eye at me. Happens all the time. Other men just assume their attitudes come with the tackle; they don’t even question whether or not I agree- and that assumption is inversely proportional to how medieval their ideas are- the more misogynist the guy, the more certain he is that you’re on board.”

“As much amusement as I garner watching mommy and daddy fight,” Anna said; Ellen immediately flipped her off, and Anna pretended it was a kiss she caught on her lips before depositing in the breast pocket of her shirt, “I think we need him. Male privilege can cover for a lot of sins and fuck-ups, and it’s possible we’re walking into a morass here. If things go wrong, he’s got the best chance of extracting the Janes- and let me say, top priority for everyone is getting out. Helping who we can help along the way is a close second, but if we can’t do that, throwing more bodies into the thresher only makes our job harder going forward. But I think Mitch should play ‘daddy,’ instead, wrangling his precocious but willful daughters.”

“Pervert will play better,” Mitch insisted. “On the one hand, they’ll get it. And on the other, they’ll have to retrain their focus on me, rather than admit to themselves where their real loyalties lie. Which keeps the girls safe.”

“Plus he has experience in the role,” Ellen said, her lips pursed into an angry smile.

“Now you’re just being a sore loser,” Anna said. “Mitch is valuable enough to the op to take the risk- I’ll agree to that much. But play the fucking ‘daddy’ card. You can protect them better without a truncheon up your ass. You’ll nurse better, too; we can’t spare you, so don’t be a hero- be a dad. And start thinking that way now- give them a ride to the bus stop. And take Hyde, so we aren’t a rolling convoy leaving.”

Jezebel finished detailing assignments, and the two Janes followed Mitch out to his truck. He held the door for both of them. “Daughters,” he said. “Don’t think I’m old enough to be their father,” he grumbled, walking around to the driver’s side.

“What was that about bulletholes?” Janey, the broader, taller of the two asked nervously.

“Bolt-hole,” Mitch said, starting the engine. “Comes from a hole in a den an animal can bolt through to escape danger. Safe-house, might be a more general term. I think some of us shy away from it, because calling any place ‘safe’ feels like tempting the gods. Kids want some music?” He switched on his stereo, and they drove through a few old country-inflected pop songs before reaching the bus stop. Mitch checked his watch. “Right on time. You girls have bus fare?”

“Uh,” Janey said, patting their pockets. “They told us anyone not driving should leave anything identifying behind. I didn’t even think…”

“S’okay,” Mitch said. “I’m playing poppa.” He pulled out his wallet, and handed them some small bills. “This should do it.” He handed the cash to the slighter Jane.

“Thanks,” she kissed his cheek, “dad.”

“It’s going to be okay,” Mitch said. “We’re all getting through today. I’ll be with you every step.”

There was enough wind that Jane tucked herself under Janey’s arm for warmth as they waited for the bus. “I haven’t ridden a bus like this in years,” Janey said.

“Not even a school bus?” Jane asked.

“Not since elementary school. We lived close enough to walk to middle and high school. I could leave later, and pick up a donut on the way- and it was enough of a walk I burned through it without getting doughy myself.” Jane smiled at them.

The bus pulled up, and Jane led Janey by the hand inside. She paid their fare, and escorted them to the rear of the bus. Janey shifted uncomfortably a moment, staring at the trees they passed. “You think,” they swallowed, “this will be enough to earn my wings?” Their voice was trembling. “I mean, I appreciate the hormones…”

“It’s really not like that- it’s not transactional. If Ellen were that kind of doctor, she’d operate in a heartbeat. But she’s not going to half-ass your surgery. And I know what it means to you, but that’s why it’s worth waiting to get it done right. And if Ellen and Anna say they think they can swing a favor, they’re working on it, not just stringing you along. But in the meantime,” Jane rested her head on their shoulder, “I think you’re perfect the way you are.” She kissed Janey sweetly on the lips.

“But what if I want to be more perfect?” they asked.

“Then you’ll be even more perfect,” she said, and stroked their cheek.

“And you’ll still want me?”

“How was it I heard it? I’m in love with the taste of the wine; it doesn’t matter the label or the shape of the bottle. Those change. But who you are,” she pressed her palm flat against their chest, “that’s who I love. And hormones or no hormones, different wrapper, different shape, none of that changes the person you are.”

“Wait,” Janey said with wide eyes, “are you saying I can get fat? No more hours jazzercising?”

Jane chortled. “I’m not encouraging it; you’re hot and I love that you’re hot… but some day I would cherish the chance to get old and fat with you.”

“Wait,” Janey said, with a teasing smile, “you’re going to get old and fat, too? I don’t think I agreed to you being able to age.” They nuzzled her nose, and she nuzzled back.

“Time makes fools of us all, then. And I think we’d be cute old and chubby- a couple of gray pill bugs.”

Janey sighed heavily. “I’m just so scared of everything. A part of me needs change; I’m closer to who I’ve always felt like I was than I’ve ever been… and at the same time, I’ve never felt so loved, so supported. And I’ve seen what previous changes cost me. My dad…” they stopped themselves, and thought better of it. “I’m happier than I’ve ever been. But it also means that I’ve got so much more to lose.”

“You’re not losing me,” Jane said, and nuzzled into their neck.

The bus made several stops, before the automated voice over the speak announced their destination. Jane rose first, and Janey followed. On the sidewalk, Janey looked from left to right, trying to get their bearings. “It’s this way,” Jane said, taking their hand and leading them down the street. She turned right, and they walked several more blocks, before finding the park.

She led them on a looping path through the grass and trees. “My Bubbe lived in this neighborhood when I was little, and she used to take me to this park.”

“Oh,” Janey say, their shoulders relaxing, “I thought I was just crap at following directions. Wait, used to?”

“Oh, she’s still alive,” Jane said. “She just moved to a senior community. Still feisty as ever.”

“Cool. You think,” they gasped shallowly, “not to push…”

“I think she’d adore you. I just don’t get to see her often. Even before we went into hiding, it’s not like I’ve got a car. But I’d love for her to meet you. You’re my two favorite women.”

“You’re going to make me blush, or cry, or… I should be watching for someone following.”

“No you shouldn’t,” Jane said. “Just act naturally.”

“You mean like we aren’t breaking discriminatory laws trying to rescue another gender-criminal who we know for a fact is being hunted as we speak?”

“Exactly. Like we’re two normal, lovestruck girls enjoying the park. This is it.” Jane sat down on the far end of a bench made of curling wrought iron and faded wooden planks.

“Okay, so this is lousy timing,” Janey said, as they planted themselves on the bench next to her, “but I’ve just realized that ‘dead drop’ is just ‘drop dead’ reversed.”

“God, that is lousy timing, as is you sharing it right now,” Jane deadpanned. She nudged one of the bricks at the base of the bench with her foot, and it gave. “Throw an arm around me and keep an eye out.” Janey did, and Jane doubled over, pantomiming tying her shoe. She pulled a small, folded piece of paper out of it, and slid it under a coin under the brick.

She brushed a few crumbs of Earth from her fingers, and pushed off the bench. “Ready to go?”

“More than,” Janey said, rising. “You’ve got an admirer, and since he noticed you he’s been moving this way.”

“Trouble?” she asked, taking their hand and pulling them in the opposite direction.

“I’m not sure. Not to defend leering, but you are very eye-catching today, and he could just be, uh, smelling the roses.” Janey winced, uncomfortable with their own metaphor.

“No, that’s completely the right reaction,” Jane said with a smirk.

Janey glanced over their shoulder, and started; the man in the gray trench coat was closer. “He’s still coming. Should we run?”

“Our cover is we’re innocent, walking through the park. We hide behind that until we can’t anymore. But we can walk a little faster,” she said, speeding her pace.

Whores 1.5 Chapter 2

.02 Lisa

“Fair,” Jezebel said. “We’ve got three main objectives, and I’d propose 3 teams, 4 if we’re being cautious. We need to notify the clinic; they’ll need to shut down and relocate. That’s… probably the most dangerous leg- because they’re the most likely compromised. And it’s my mess, so I’m taking it.”

“You’re not compromising security on all your operatives just because you helped this one shit the bed,” Anna said sternly. “You’re non-operational, and that’s non-negotiable. Volunteers for the extra dangerous leg?” She fixed Mae with a stare. “Priority goes to the newest girls- the less you know, the less you can give up under interrogation.”

“You ever heard you get more flies with honey than with shit?” Mae asked.

“Quiet.”

“I’ll do it,” Lisa said.

“That’s my girl,” Mae said, and slapped her too hard on the back, doubling her over.

“Stop marking territory,” Anna said.

“Nothing like that,” Mae said. “I could be so lucky.”

Lisa could barely focus through the rest of the briefing, because she was filled with nervous energy. She was eager to prove she belonged, and at the same time, horrified at the prospect of proving that she didn’t. She lingered, even as others started to filter away, and was scarcely aware of Anna’s approach until she said, “She’s a big personality, Mae.”

“I know, she’s like two of me broad.”

“You know what I mean. She loves big. Enjoys life big. But sometimes she’s got a big mouth, and I don’t want it to be making you uncomfortable. I can talk to her…”

“Oh,” Lisa said with a light laugh, “nothing like that. She’s a big goofball. And I get the sense that she’s probably intensely sexual, but there’s no pressure. First boyfriend I had in high school made me feel the exact same way. He told me the first time we made out that he didn’t want anything that wasn’t on offer, and he meant it. He was probably more faithful to my boundaries than I was.”

“And you’re sure he wasn’t just… interested in a different sort of person?”

“I wondered. And then… all I will say, because I am a lady, is I know for a fact he was just very respectful. I don’t know, I guess I just feel safe with her.”

“Okay. But if that ever changes; I know we’re not a conventional workplace in any sense of the word-”

“Including because we don’t get paid.”

“Including that, yes,” Anna said with a smile. “But unconventional though our workplace is, I don’t want it to be a hostile.”

“Maybe don’t glare so much,” Lisa offered.

“Yeah. I walked right into that. And you’re not wrong. I feel… responsible, for all of it. All of you. And I don’t trust Jezebel.”

“You don’t trust her?” Lisa asked.

“Not like that. I mean her judgment. BH, she’s done a lot of favors for us over the years. And she always took risks. And on one level, I love her for it. On another… well, days like today happen. But what I mean, is… I don’t know what she knows. Understand? Her being compromised… it could expose hundreds of people who worked with us, helped us, turned a blind eye- just in the city and the suburbs, and each one of those… put it this way, if any one of the nurses or doctors who’ve performed care just in our clinic alone were swooped up by the police, they could, potentially, implicate hundreds of women across multiple states. I’m terrified of how many people get hurt if those dominos start falling. I don’t even know if Jez knows what this could mean… and maybe that’s on me. Maybe I compartmentalized too much.”

“We can’t do that right now,” Lisa said. “Right now, we have to try to mitigate the damage. We focus on that. Because if we’re caught flat-footed navel-gazing…”

“Yeah,” Anna said. “I know better. Sorry.”

“Don’t be,” Lisa said. “If I’ve learned one thing being here, it’s that no one can be strong all that time- and no one should try to be. We have to be strong for each other, because, we all need moments to exhale. I still… Clint’s an ache,” she clasped her hands to her chest. “He was the first man I felt safe with after what happened.”

“I know. And… I don’t judge him too harshly. I ask what would happen to any of us. If the cops picked me and Ellen up, and they threatened her… it’s hard to do the right thing when it’s going to cost the people you care the most about. Or maybe it’s that I knew him a while. He helped a lot of us. What he did after, the way he died… that was the real Clint. What he did before- that’s what happens when you terrify someone enough to do something they normally know better than to do.”

“Shoot. We’re right back to maudlin navel-gazing,” Lisa said with a laugh that came out part sniffle.

“We’ve been through a lot; we’ve still got a lot to process.”

“But no time to do it,” Lisa said. “I’m your ride.”

Lisa followed her out to her car, a faded red and sporty without feeling out of place for Anna. She waited until they were both buckled inside the car. “I thought Jezebel had too much operational knowledge for field work.”

Anna started the car, and pulled out of the driveway, and onto one of the forest roads surrounding the property. They’d chosen the location because it was remote enough to provide some safety, and also some advanced warning in the event that the authorities were closing in.

“I just picked up a hitchhiker,” Anna said, flipping her blonde hair self-consciously, her voice at least two octaves higher, and almost flirty. “I’d never seen her before in my life, but she wouldn’t shut up about how sacred the lives of babies are, She sounded like she either was on her way home from church or her way to an abortion clinic to burn it down- either way, she felt like a kindred spirit.”

The persona melted away, and Anna’s usual demeanor returned, though with a self-satisfied smirk. “My point is I’m faster on my feet. And I will be shocked, and maybe even a little disappointed, if she doesn’t find some way to provide logistical support at least. But don’t worry about me. You’re going to walk in, and tell the woman behind the counter that you ‘Want to buy a box of frosted cupcakes.’ It doesn’t honestly matter how they respond. You’ll tell them, “Orange.” If there’s an organic way, at that point, to leave, by all means do so. Otherwise, act confused and stumble away. Anyone asks, you thought they were a convenience store. Got that?”

“Yeah. Any particular reason that’s the code phrase?”

“Apparently they were BH’s favorite treat, before she had to quit them- troublesome blood sugar. She likes to keep her vices alive in her code phrases. Just be glad it isn’t Friday.”

“Why, what happens Friday?”

“She’ll tell you when we get her back home safe.”

Lisa hadn’t noticed the trees receding, and suburbs creeping back in, but Anna paused the car at the curb. The building was a single story, with a long walkway that took up half the block, and a large, well-manicured lawn cut in half by a paved walkway.

“I’ll circle the block,” Anna said. “See any police, act turned around and walk away, otherwise pass the message, and I’ll stop for you the minute it’s safe. If for whatever reason I can’t, hope the F bus. Now get out. We’re drawing attention.”

Lisa got out of the car and froze. Her body felt new and strange; it took a moment to remember how to make her legs move in a way that didn’t draw extra attention to her. The distance to the clinic seemed unending, that paradoxically it got further from her with her every awkward step.

She saw what was perhaps movement inside, a dark head move behind the kind of posters she recognized from Crisis Centers. Were the police there already? Was she about to be taken into custody all over again?

She was so preoccupied she didn’t hear the man’s approach until she felt his shoulder in her ribs. The slur he yelled before tackling her into the grass seemed to hang in the air, echoing still. He was on top of her, raising a fist, and Lisa curled into a ball, waiting for the blow to fall.

(to be continued…)

Whores 1.5 Chapter 1

Look… the last day and the next few are going to be rough. I can’t help that. But I’m going to try and provide a little catharsis, by doing literary violence. Updates (which I’m going to call ‘chapters’ so I can be more pretentious) are going to be daily as long as they can be given the other obligations I have. I will keep at it as much as I can and as long as I can, and I will finish this story. And I will never stop being angry that I have to write Whores 2- and neither should any of you. (This story, by the way, takes place directly after the first Whores, the semi-apocalyptic novel where birth control and abortion aren’t just illegal, but are often met with an extrajudicial death sentence- but I’ll try and keep it as new-reader friendly as I can).

.01 Black Hoe Down

“Jez,” Anna said, rubbing her temple, “I’m in no mood, and it wouldn’t be funny even if I remembered how to have a sense of humor after the last few days.” Losing Clint would have been bad enough on its own, but they lost him and Jeanine to betrayal, first. And Ofelia was already on her way North; her injuries made her too recognizable for the kind of underground work they did. And poor, sweet Maria…

They had barely settled into their new location. Mae insisted on calling it their hideout, in a voice like a cartoon gangster. But it was impossible for it to feel like home, and Anna worried no place ever would again, after their last shelter was raided so violently by the police.

“It’s not a joke,” the woman most of them knew only as Jezebel said. “I meant what I said: Black Hoe down.”

“What’s a Black hoedown?” Lisa asked. “Is that like a southern thing?”

Jezebel smiled at her, because she was once the new girl, too. “There’s a sex worker who freelances for us. Her job lets her travel locally without too much scrutiny- the cops care about girls working the corner, but when there’s a chance you’ll catch a councilman in a hotel… your incentives start pointing in the other direction. She’s used that blind eye to smuggle our kinds of contraband- mostly birth control and supplies to run an underground abortion clinic. Nothing like what we have, here, but it’s a smaller town- something like we run,” she stopped herself and winced, “ran, it would get found out in a second.”

“Black Hoe down,” Anna groaned. “I knew letting people choose their own callsigns was a mistake; a callsign should not include any identifying information, let alone race and occupation.”

“The price of freedom is sometimes dealing with other people’s sense of humor,” Mae shrugged her broad shoulders.  

“Don’t you have someplace else to be?” Anna asked, glaring. Mae held up her finger to signal needing a moment, and the timer on the microwave dinged.

Mae opened the microwave, removed a plate, and took a comedically large bite of burrito. “Sowwy, buweego.”

“How was she compromised?” Anna asked.

“No specifics, yet. But a sympathetic deputy passed the information to me, and it doesn’t sound like we’ve got a lot of time to act.”

“Do we know if she made her drop?”

“I don’t even have contact information for the pop-up clinic she was supplying. Compartmentalization- her idea.”

“You tell her she’s been made?”

“Can’t. She operates in the cold. She always said that there was too much risk doing what she did of getting found out, so carrying anything that could trace back to us wasn’t an option.”

“And I’m hearing about this now because…”

“Because she’s a stubborn bitty and you weren’t going to convince her. I chose to accept the risk our asset herself proposed.”

“And do you now understand why it wasn’t your risk to accept?” Anna asked, raising her voice enough that the other women in the home poked their heads in from all corners. Jezebel’s eyes tightened into a glare. “Then I will spell it out for all of you: you aren’t in this alone. If you get in trouble, the rest of us here will move Heaven and Earth to help you. You’re never just risking yourself. So no cowboy bullshit.” Jezebel sighed. Anna softened, from her eyes to her jaw, and it echoed in her voice. “I’m not doing this for the sake of meanness. We live and die through our fidelity to one another. And sometimes, yes, we have to compartmentalize, and keep things from one another. But it’s to keep each other safe- not to sneak one over. So what do we know?”

“We have rotating contingencies in place: dead drops, bolt holes, and an extraction point in the event it becomes necessary.”

“So all we have to go on is your love of spycraft?”

“She’ll check the drops before delivery. If she’s told, she’ll go to our bolt hole, and if she’s found out, she’ll proceed to the extraction point.”

“Okay. Do you have an extraction plan?”

“I… have some thoughts.”

“But let me guess, you’re being cagey because you’re not sure how many bodies I’ll give you- and you don’t want to sell your plan short- because a full-court press is more likely to work than an anemic response- but you also don’t want to be so greedy with it I take over. Okay. Everybody listen up. We’re riding to the rescue, only it’s possible we’re riding straight in an ambush. So I’m not asking anyone to come along. Strictly volunteers. But I know from experience we’ll reenact whole scenes from The Fellowship of the Rings if I let you, and time is of the essence. Anyone not interested, whether it’s because you’ve got a tummy ache or a dentist’s appointment or just because you really don’t want to die on a Tuesday, leave the room. No one’s going to look at you sideways, because I will kick them sideways if they do. I mean it. No one makes life or death choices for other people- and that includes any bullshit peer pressure.”

The room was quiet, for a moment, before a creak echoed through, and all eyes turned in the direction of Mae, who was standing still. “Sorry, burrito.”

Anna’s eye twitched, before she continued. “Some of you need to learn to be more selfish; someone has to survive after the idealists get themselves all killed.”

“Would you ever leave the room?” Lisa asked.

 “Fine. Everyone’s in. But that doesn’t mean this turns into an episode of the Little Rascals. You can have anyone you’ve got a compelling reason to use. But everybody you add is another person who can get caught- and one of us gets caught we’re all at much greater risk…”

(to be continued…)

(I hope you read those dots like I do, as a dramatic sting, “Dun dun dun!”)