Chapter 22

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I tried the polite approach before. Now you'll get this one.

Some might feel nervous walking like an undertaker down the sidewalk toward a house of ill refute a minute before midnight with a knife hidden up their sleeve.

Zandra, on the other hand, turned off her emotions 20 steps ago. She's set on a singular purpose, and not even the squabble between degenerates on the dimly lit porch can dissuade her.

They don't look tough. They seem stoned. Arguing about something that makes them feel enlightened. That's why stoners get philosophical. It's not because weed makes them insightful. It's to distract themselves from the fact they're not. If they were so smart, so tuned into the universe, they wouldn't drugs in the first place. Self-deception is built into the human psyche. People want to be lied to, and they want reasons to make that OK. Works for me. Good for business.

Zandra doesn't stop at the porch. She marches right on by as if she's nothing more than a meter reader. It works. Not looking out of place means, in an odd way, that she doesn't look out of place.

The core of deception is manipulation of perception. Just ask a politician.

Having tried the front door before, Zandra opts for the back. It's an old enough house. In this neighborhood, most houses have small yet self-respecting yards, which means a back door.

After making her way past a dilapidated chain link fence gate, Zandra spots it. Sure enough, it's unlocked. The inch-wide crack of light along the seams of the doorway tell as much.

Not only that, but there's no one around. The yard is empty except for a dug out fire pit overflowing with cigarette butts.

Zandra had hoped a house like this would blast loud music all night long. It'd cover her approach. However, standing in the yard now, her hand ready to draw the knife at any moment, a quiet house plays better to her advantage. Better to not give the police a reason to stop by.

Zandra breathes in deeply low in her stomach and exhales slowly, a relaxation technique she uses whenever the black dog of depression and anxiety visits. Keeps her pulse down and charges her blood with plenty of oxygen. It might get intense inside, which means lots of adrenaline and short, sharp breathing.

Zandra starts a slow walk toward light creeping out into yard.

This is for you, David.

Drawing the knife, she kicks in the door, something she couldn't do before the surgery on ankle. The surgery that her newfound success paid for. The surgery that won't happen again if all of this is taken away.

Inside, she's met by an overwhelming smell of weed. It accosts her eyes as much as her nose. She feels it settle on her skin as a sticky dampness.

That's not all she meets. Zandra finds herself in the entryway of a filthy kitchen. Too many years of not giving a fuck hang from the open cupboards, fill the sink and grow from the floor.

Leaning against a crumbling counter are two young men, looking as if they can't tell whether Zandra is real or merely an apparition. Zandra points the lawnmower knife at the closest one and delivers a line that might have them believing the latter.

"Which one of you sons of bitches knows where they keep the typewriter around here?" she says.

Before Zandra gets a reply, someone familiar shoots up from a couch in the adjacent living room, lit cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth.

"You again? Bitch, you made a big mistake coming back here," he says and jolts to the kitchen.

Zandra recognizes him as the man who pushed her to the ground earlier that day. He holds a beer in one hand, pistol in the other. Both look like they could fall to the floor at any minute.

"Shut your mouth and listen to me. All of you are going to make it out alive tonight if you cooperate," Zandra says, tightening her grip on the lawnmower knife.

The man with the pistol laughs. "Dumbass. I'm the one with the gun," he says and aims it at Zandra.

"You think I came here and didn't know you'd have a gun? You're more stupid than you look," Zandra says, her voice growling like a cornered bear. It's all about presentation, whether it's at Sneak Peek or a dope house. "I came here for one thing and one thing only. You interested in hearing me out? Or do one of you feel like dying tonight?"

The two men at the counter exchange uneasy looks. They're the closest to the tip of Zandra's blade. They start to inch away, one shuffling half-step at a time. Zandra spots the movement out of the corner of her eye.

Good. The audience is primed. That's always step one.

"No one here owes you any money, if that's what you mean," the man with the gun says.

"That's not what I mean. Put the gun down and I'll explain," Zandra says.

"Nah, bitch," the man says. He slips a finger over the trigger. Little by little it pulls back. The gun will go off at any moment. "Not tonight. Not for you."

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