The Dark Side of Chicago (Pt. 1/3)

by Jenna Malin about a year ago in fiction

Chapter 1—The Cover Story

The Dark Side of Chicago (Pt. 1/3)

I sat on the wooden bench in the park, staring out at the water pushed into a spontaneous wave of rhythm by the relentless wind. The early morning sun reflected off its surface, making it shine like it was made of diamonds. The glare from the light burned my tired eyes, but I didn’t look away. For some strange reason, I couldn’t. Every time I tried, something held me back from doing so, like my mind was trying to protect me from seeing something. I flicked the zippers of my black leather jacket in thought. What was it? A sudden burst of bitter wind blew my bangs into my eyes. I pushed them away with a polished finger and kept staring out at the water.

My mind swam. I felt the vague vibration of my phone ringing in my right jacket pocket, but I didn’t reach to answer it. I felt like it should mean something important to me. Maybe I was supposed to answer it— something inside of me told me it was important—but I didn’t. Instead, I wrung my dry, cracked hands together in my lap and watched the barren trees around the lake dance in the winter breeze, scratching each other as they fought to reach the uncertain sky first. The sky, fleeting and indecisive, was clear and bright one moment, then thick with neutral, swirling grey storm clouds the next. The clouds slowly made their way across the sun, stealing the water’s shine and replacing it with a cold blanket, sending a chill down my spine as darkness fell.

“Ms. Manitoba?”

The sudden deep voice broke me out of my catatonia and I stared at the man the voice belonged to on my right. He wore a dark and heavy calf-length trench coat, no doubt hiding a very business-like suit underneath. His leather-gloved hands were massive as he shoved them deep into his pockets. His face was kind enough, with deep brown eyes that could warm a cold soul and a youthful yet carefully styled head of black gelled hair. His lips made a thin line as he seemed to effortlessly plaster a sympathetic look on his face (if it was genuine, I couldn’t really tell).

Wait. That was me. Shiloh Manitoba. He was talking to me.

I swallowed the lump of anxiety in my throat before speaking. “Yeah?” My voice came out weak and hoarse and I mentally slapped myself.

“I’m Detective Dean Peterson,” he introduced himself with a pitiful half-smile and a raised brow line. “Are you okay to answer some questions?”

I raised my eyebrow for a moment before I remembered what I was actually doing at Marquette Park that morning. I turned my pounding head around to face the path a few yards up the hill from where I was sitting, where two uniformed men were wheeling an occupied body bag into an ambulance.

I finally found my voice—my real voice—and asked, “Is anyone ever okay?”

xXxXx

We walked down the sidewalk of the park. The detective walked on my right, his broad shoulders blocking my view of the crime scene. He was easily a foot taller than I was and most definitely played football or some kind of stereotypical sport in high school—maybe even college. I looked straight ahead and kicked a rock that got in the way of my feet farther in front of me.

“I can’t imagine what must be going through your head right now, Ms. Manitoba,” the detective said, breaking the silence.

“Shiloh,” I blurted, looking down at my scuffed combat boots as I approached the rock once more and kicked it again. My brown hair fell into my face and I tossed my head to the side to clear my vision as I looked back up. “I prefer Shiloh.”

“Of course, my apologies,” he replied, shoving his hands in his trench coat pockets. He looked down at me. “How’s your head?” he asked, nodding towards the small bandage on my temple. I winced as I remembered its existence and lightly brushed over the large bump with my fingers.

“Hurts,” I admitted reluctantly as the throbbing returned to that particular spot. Don’t play it too cool, I reminded myself. Don’t raise suspicion. I drew in a deep breath to try to calm my nerves. Nerves are normal. Be normal.

“Are you sure you don’t want to get it checked out at the hospital?” he asked as he observed my discomfort. “We can make it happen.” I shook my head—which I instantly regretted as the throbbing increased—and changed the subject.

“You said you had questions,” I deflected and shoved my hands back into my jacket pockets. My shaking fingers found my Shadow patch that I’d had to rip from my jacket before the cops arrived and I squeezed it tightly. Maybe I could drain some courage from it. Or, even a little badassery would do. “I already told the police what happened.”

Detective Peterson shrugged. “With all due respect to the Chicago PD,” he started with a nod, “they’re generally more muscle than brains, if that.” He shot me a cocky smirk. “Luckily for me, I was blessed with both.” I rolled my eyes, but didn’t repress a pity-chuckle. “I’d like to hear what happened directly from you, if you don’t mind,” he continued, his professional demeanor swooping back in almost as quickly as it had left.

Deep breath. Just like you rehearsed, Shiloh.

“Well, I couldn’t sleep,” I started. Not necessarily a lie. I hadn’t even been to sleep, but obviously he didn’t need to know that. I squeezed the patch tighter in my hand. Detective Peterson nodded, urging me to continue. “So, I decided to take a walk before I had to open the store.”

“And what store is that?” he asked and pulled out a tiny notebook and pen from the breast pocket of his trench coat.

“The record store off Cicero and 64th. I’m the store manager.” My nails were digging into my palms, so I loosened my hands. He jotted it down quickly before nodding at me to continue. Deep breath. My phone buzzed again in my pocket, but I ignored it. I’ll talk to him soon enough. “I’ve never run into problems when I walk around here this early, so I wasn’t really paying attention.”

The detective raised his eyebrow. “You walk around here by yourself often?” he asked, his tone tinted with surprise.

I shrugged. “I don’t sleep much,” I admitted. That was safe to fess up to, right? “I had my headphones in when he came up from behind me and hit me.”

“Did you see what with?”

“No,” I told him, “but from the way it felt, saying that it might’ve been Thor’s hammer wouldn’t be too far out for a guess.”

He chuckled and flashed a smile. “Well, then it must feel worse than it looks,” he joked. “Is that when the second man intervened?” My heart lurched. Relax, I reminded myself. Just stick to your story and everything is gonna be just fine.

“I think so,” I said and brought my fingers up to my eyes. “Everything really blurred together after that.”

“What’s the next definitive thing you remember?” he prodded.

“Sitting next to a dead guy,” I responded. I hated the way I let my voice shake. Let yourself be nervous, he told me. The Pigs are suckers for the weak ones. I took in another deep breath as we neared the entrance to the park, where a small crowd of curious passersby flocked in front of the yellow tape in hopes to catch a glimpse of the dark side of Chicago. I cracked my knuckles nervously.

“Are you sure the deceased was the one who attacked you?” he asked.

Insert shaky breath here. “I’m not really sure of anything,” I admitted and ran a hand through my tangled hair. “But, I’m pretty sure a guy who was trying to kill me wouldn’t bolt before he got the chance to finish me off.”

His eyebrows knitted together and he looked away from his notebook to meet my eyes. “What makes you think he was trying to kill you?” he asked. For a moment, my pace faltered. I swore to myself. The moment I realized what was happening, my thoughts instantly jumped to the conclusion that whatever dumbass picked me out of anyone to pull a weapon on didn’t intend to leave me alive.

At least, that’s the kind of impression you get when the barrel of a gun is pressed to the back of your head.

Except you’re not supposed to reveal that detail, dipshit. Think fast.

I shrugged, trying to buy myself an extra second to spin a quick lie. “I don’t know,” I lied and rubbed the sore spot on my head. “It all happened so fast and I just… I don’t know.” Pigs are saps for weakness. Be weak. “It just scared the hell out of me. My brain just went straight to the worst-case scenario, I guess.” There. That works. Some of the spectators pointed in our direction as Peterson guided me to the sidewalk.

“That’s a pretty normal reaction when something like this happens,” he reassured me as one of the officers standing guard lifted the yellow tape and motioned for us to walk under it. Nice save. Peterson held the hand clutching his notebook out in front of us to warn the surrounding busybodies to back off. “Now going back to this mystery savior of yours. Did you notice anything about him that could help us track him down? Did he have any tattoos or scars that you could see?”

Yes and yes. I shook my head. “It was still kinda dark at that point,” I lied. I squeezed the patch tighter in my hand as camera flashes threatened to blind me. “And, after getting nailed with whatever-it-was, it wasn’t like I could see straight anyway.” The street was so much louder than the park; a cacophony of car horns, squealing brakes, and street vendors bargaining with people who couldn’t understand their foreign dialect and kept walking as if they weren’t there. Such an increase in volume cranked the pressure in my head up from a five to a nine, and it wasn’t even eight in the morning. Peterson pushed our way through a small crowd who were trying to force their way to the front. If these assholes want to see the dark side of Chicago so badly, why don’t they just hit up the nearest alley?

“Who do you hate dealing with more?” I asked Peterson, who looked back at me curiously as we finally reached the edge of the growing crowd. “Reporters or nosy tourists?”

He scoffed and led me towards the bus stop. “I have to choose?”

I shrugged. “Unless there’s another kind of person you hate more.”

“Defense attorneys,” he responded immediately, “hands down.” I scoffed. Typical. “But we’re getting off topic.” My heart rate instantly spiked again and I inwardly swore. That was kind of the point. “Is there anything else you can tell me about this guy? Was he tall, short, black, white?” I thought for a moment. I can throw him a bone… can’t I? My phone buzzed in my pocket again. I ignored it. Again.

“He was definitely strong,” I started as we approached the bus stop on the corner. Always be specific when you lie. “I remember he tried to pick me up and he could’ve easily, but I was half out of it and I freaked out. I think I thought he was the guy who hit me. The next thing I remember, he was gone.” Peterson scribbled furiously into his little notebook. “Whether he’d gone to get help or left to avoid the cops, I’m not sure.”

“What happened next?”

“I blacked out.” I spotted the bus approaching slowly from down the street. “When I came back to, the paramedics were standing over me.”

“They said you’d been there for a while. You were freezing,” he added. “Any idea how long?”

I shook my head and my brain rattled around in my skull like a pinball. “Your guess is as good as mine. The last time I remember looking at the clock it was just as I left my apartment. That was just past four in the morning.” The bus honked obnoxiously as it approached.

Peterson couldn’t hide his disappointment at my lack of specific detail; however, he scribbled down the last bit of information I offered and safely tucked his notebook back into his breast pocket. “Are you sure you don’t want to get checked at the hospital?” he asked me again as he watched me cringe with discomfort. I nodded as the bus came to a stop and opened its door, begging more passengers to board it. I reached into my back pocket for spare change.

“I’ll be fine,” I reassured him as people weaved past the two of us and onto the bus. “I’m shaken up, I’ll admit, but it’s nothing some down time and coffee can’t fix.”

He nodded. “Yeah, take it easy today, and,” he reached into his other breast pocket—how many of those things did he have?—and pulled out a business card, “if you remember anything that could be helpful, give me a call. Any time.” With a still-trembling hand, I took it and nodded.

“I will.” Before he could question me further, I turned and ascended the stairs into the bus, quickly depositing the change as it moved forward, and not once looking back. The bus driver nodded at me as he pulled away from the corner and I made my way further into the bus, avoiding all eye contact with the other passengers. I scurried to the vacant seat in the back corner and collapsed into it, acutely aware of familiar dark eyes silently observing me from my left as I settled into the torn up cushion.

Relief flooded over me. I did it. I pressed my fingers gingerly against my pulsing forehead to counteract the pressure that was constantly increasing as time crawled by. I silently willed my heart rate to slow down—the faster it beat, the harder my head pounded. My nerves settled heavily into my stomach, like silt at the bottom of Lake Michigan, and it lurched. I groaned.

“You haven’t been answering your phone,” a deep, bitter voice muttered to me from my left.

I sent Blaze the sharpest glare I could manage. “Maybe if I hadn’t been too busy covering our asses from the damn cops, I would’ve considered it. Maybe,” I grumbled. He matched my sneer with his own, his hardened face glowering down at me. If he wasn’t one of the few people I felt safe around, I would’ve been unnerved.

Blaze shook his head and scanned the bus for any sign of suspicious activity from the passengers. “A quick text or something, so I knew you'd actually woken up, would’ve been nice, Tobi.” My stomach lurched at that nickname.

“Don’t call me that, Jason,” I shot back mercilessly.

He glared at the use of his real name. “I didn’t enjoy knocking you out the first time, but I won’t hesitate to do it again, you little shit.”

“I dare you, bitch.”

We shared a long, equally menacing scowl. If any of the passengers were paying attention, they might’ve thought we hated each other, until his burly arm reached over and, with a calloused finger, gently tilted my face to my left. He brushed my hair out of my eyes to get a better look at the knot he put on my forehead. “How’re you holding up?” he asked softly.

I let out a breath I didn’t realize I was holding. “Honestly, I’m probably gonna be sick when we get to the shop,” I admitted as I peeled the bandage off of my forehead, agonizingly slow. The butterflies in my aching stomach fluttered faster. Blaze nodded and turned his massive body to face me, placed his elbows on his knees, and ran his hands through his dark hair, which already looked like he’d done that too many times in the last hour. “Blaze, what the hell was that all about?" I asked in a hushed tone as I leaned closer to him. "Was it the Diamondbacks?”

He shook his head and looked back up at me. His dark brown eyes were confused and worried; two emotions I’d rarely seen cross his features. That made the butterflies in my stomach angrier and they bounced off the walls of my stomach even more forcefully. My mouth watered as another wave of nausea washed over me. “No, they wouldn’t be stupid enough to go after you," he reassured me despite the uncertainty in his eyes. He must’ve noticed my discomfort; he rubbed my knee in an effort to soothe me. "Not after last time, anyway.”

I gulped, forcing down the bile that was rolling up my throat. "Then who the hell was it? That couldn't have been a random, bloodthirsty psycho, right? Am I gonna have to pack up and leave again? I haven't noticed anybody hanging around outside the store or the shop lately, and no one's been tailing me, I don't think..." My heart was pounding in my head again, making my hands tremble. Blaze grabbed them and squeezed them tightly.

"Shiloh, it's okay," he comforted, his rough thumbs brushing my knuckles. "I've got Keys digging up everything he can find..." His voice faded from my ears and I stared right through him at the passing cars and buildings, all blurs of color, and panic took over. The barrel of the gun pressed into the back of my head, cold and alienating, the click of the hammer echoing in my hollow skull, the bullet crashing through my teeth, splinters spraying the concrete below me, blood spattering the pavement like Jackson Pollock on a canvas, I was left to bleed, to empty, to decay—

"Shiloh." I crashed back down to the dismal, cold Earth. Blaze held my face in his hands, forcing me to look at him through burning, watery eyes. He knitted his eyebrows together, confused by my tears.

"I-I could've died," I stuttered through the lump in my throat. His face softened and he wiped the moisture away with his fingers, all the while shaking his head.

"I wouldn't have let that happen, kiddo." He brushed the bangs from my eyes, careful to avoid the sore spot. “I’d never let anything happen to you.”

I shook my head repeatedly, despite the pain, as he dropped his hands from my face to rest them on my knees. “I mean, I know I’ve seen a lot and I’ve been through worse, but I’ve never been so close—”

“Shiloh.” He grabbed my hands and squeezed them tightly as the bus squealed to a stop and passengers stood up all around. Blaze and I were among the few to remain seated. The air between us grew heavy and frigid as our eyes remained locked and I watched him struggle to find the right words to say. His dark eyes spun as fast as the thoughts in my own head before his lips straightened into a fine line—he had nothing.

A sob forced its way out of the depths of my chest and my hand flew to my mouth. The dam behind my eyes broke and the tears fell free and uninterrupted. Passengers eyed the two of us curiously but kept whatever comments or judgments they had to themselves. I squeezed my eyes shut—a futile attempt at keeping it together—and Blaze immediately pulled me into him and held me tight as the bus started moving again. His leather jacket was cold against the feverish skin of my forehead, but the sensation was welcome and comforting. The stale scent of leather mixed with cigarettes and motor oil instantly began its work of soothing my nerves and creating a sense of safety, no matter how false it may have been. For as long as I could remember, that was the smell of home.

“You know you’re safe with me,” Blaze reminded me softly. The bus rocked us back and forth, unintentionally providing a small modicum of comfort to us both, and I nodded into the crook of his neck. “I know we don’t know anything right now, but we’re gonna keep an extra eye on you until we do, okay?” He pulled away from me and looked into my aching eyes as I wiped the smeared makeup from them and nodded silently. Talking was becoming exhausting. Blaze let out a tired sigh and brushed his finger lightly over the bump on my forehead. “We’re gonna keep an eye on that, too.”

I forced back a cringe as his fingertip brushed over the sore spot. “Out of everything, I have no control over at the moment—” I sniffled and wiped my nose on the shoulder of my worn-out t-shirt, “—I’m pretty sure I can take care of a bump on the head.”

Blaze raised a condescending eyebrow. “I knocked the shit out of you, kid.”

I shrugged him off and scooted back into my own seat, my back throbbing in protest. “You know I’ve had worse,” I reasoned.

Blaze shook his head. “Not to the head, you haven’t,” he argued. I rolled my eyes, but didn’t push the issue further. Honestly, it hurt too much, and I just wanted to sleep. “You can forget about opening the store today,” he continued with a crack of his neck. “Diesel is gonna take care of that.”

My heart skipped a beat. “No way,” I said, shaking my head vigorously to recompose myself despite the pain. If there was anything I needed right now, it was a distraction from whatever it was that happened this morning. Moreover, if there was anything I really didn’t want, it was for Diesel, of all people, to think of me as weak for not being able to handle a little headache. “You guys have better things to worry about,” I refuted, fighting the blush burning my cheeks. Blaze eyed me curiously; I must have been failing. “Besides, me lying low at the shop wouldn’t accomplish anything. If we keep business running as usual, we avoid suspicion from the cops, anyway.”

“It’s not the pigs I’m worried about, Shiloh!” he spat. His outburst took me by surprise. I flinched as he pointed an accusing, grease-stained finger out the window behind me. “We can’t just say that whoever got the jump on us this morning was acting alone and move on ‘business as usual’—” he mocked me with the air quotes “—cause no one travels that route at night on purpose—”

“Because of us.”

Blaze nodded furiously in agreement, struggling to keep his voice down. “You’re damn right because of us. Everyone knows to stay the hell away from there. The only reason anyone wouldn’t know that is if they’re new around here, and the only reason they’d know that and do it anyway is if they were looking for us.”

My heart plummeted to my toes and my breath caught in my chest. “You don’t think it was a coincidence.”

He scoffed and sat back in his seat, scowling at me. “No such thing, Sunshine. Have the last nine years taught you nothing?” I shifted uncomfortably under his gaze, but I didn’t back down. He’d never deliberately been condescending towards me before and I wasn’t about to let him. I knew that this sudden display of ridicule was only coming from his being worried for my safety, but it didn’t give him the right to treat me like new blood.

“They’ve taught me not to run and hide like a little bitch at the first sign of trouble,” I spat back at him. It was his turn to be shocked at my outburst; a wave of shock flashed across his eyes a split second before he replaced it with indignation as I continued. “The second I back off out of fear is the second I sign my death warrant.” I crossed my arms and leaned into the seat. “At least, I’m pretty sure that’s what some asshole biker used to tell me.” His dark eyes narrowed as we shared a moment of silence.

“That asshole ever tell you that you’re a smartass?”

I shrugged. “He’s mentioned it.”

Another moment of silence passed. The clouds uncovered the sun and lifted some of the darkness and tension that had made a home for themselves on the bus. Blaze chuckled and shook his head, rubbing his eyes.

“You’re gonna give me a stroke, kid.”

“What else do I have to live for?” His shoulders shook in silent laughter. “I can run the store today, honestly,” I continued. He looked up at me skeptically. “I just need a shot of whiskey and I’ll be good as new.” Blaze sighed and I watched his eyes grow weary. A small ounce of pride warmed the hollow hole in my chest where my panic kept pouring from—he was giving up.

“I’m gonna put guys across the street to keep an eye on you,” he started and pointed a finger in my face. “You keep your eyes open and, if anything—and I mean anything—looks suspicious, just haul ass outta there, store be damned. Got it?” I nodded eagerly as the bus came to a stop and Blaze stood up, signaling me to follow him. I stood up and looked out the window and faltered. We weren’t anywhere near the store or the garage.

“What are we getting off here for?” I asked him.

He looked over his shoulder at me, mischief gleaming from the corner of his eye. “We’re getting you that whiskey.”

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Jenna Malin

Marvel's Defenders reject. Superpower: self-destruction. Special skills: writing, shower karaoke, and folding clothes. Check out my fanfiction here: https://www.fanfiction.net/u/1064463/ellameno

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