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“And how do we knowyou’renot the threat?” I asked, coming around the corner, gun drawn and pointed at the thorn May had unwittingly let into her home. I had to give it to her – he looked very non-threatening in his cheesy khakis and polo shirt, with the sleeves covering the tattoos high on his arms.

Iknew better though.

“Get away from him, May,” I demanded, and she listened, scrambling backward as he drew a weapon of his own.

“Tamra, what thehellare you doing with a gun?!” May asked, but I had no choice except to ignore her.

He wasn’t pointing the gun at her.

He was pointing it atme.

“How do I knowyouaren’t the threat?” he asked, raising an eyebrow. “Put that down, Ms. Lewis – the police cannot help you.”

I glanced away from him long enough to see May with her cell phone in her hands. I locked my eyes on the thorn again before I shook my head. “Don’t do it, May. Please trust me. Just go upstairs, and check on Amelia. And put together a bag. It’s time to go.”

The thorn took a few steps toward me, his eyebrows furrowed, face pulled into a scowl. “She’s not going anywhere with you. And youstillhaven’t answered my question.”

“If I wanted her dead, I’d have done it a year ago, when I moved in,” I declared, as May bounded up the stairs to get to her daughter. “And I’mnotfor hire. Can you say the same?”

He shook his head. “Nope. But I’m not here to hurt her – I’m here to protect her.”

“Why the fuck should I believe that?”

“Because I didn’t put a bullet in her head as soon as she opened the door,” he answered. “And because I haven’t put a bullet in yours.”

“We can see which one of us has the faster trigger finger if you want,” I offered, raising my gun to refine my aim, just as the doorbell rang again.

This time, itwasa delivery – I could see the package through the glass panels at the side of the front door, and watched the delivery-person jog back down the steps.

“No. My boss wants to see you.”

I scoffed. “Fuck your boss. And fuckyou.Why on earth would I want to meet him?”

“Her,” the thorn corrected. “And you’ve probably already met. I feel like you would’ve looked up to Alicia.”

My eyes went wide. “Alicia? Therose, Alicia?”

“Yes.” He lowered his weapon. “I’m sure you already know this – probably why you attacked me – but… I’m a thorn. I found Alicia, and I work for her now… helping people. Saving people, in situations where the police… the law… may not be an ideal avenue.”

“What?” I sucked my teeth. “So you’re what… a goddamn superhero or something?”

He shook his head, taking a few steps closer to me, with his hand extended. “No. Just a man in need of purpose. I’m Wilder. What’s your name?”

I swallowed, hard, looking at his hand.

He seemed sincere enough, but we were, specifically, trained to fake that. And even ifhewasn’t faking… Alicia Pelletier, some sort of hero now? He was right – Ihadlooked up to her. Admired the fear she incited in people, the reports of her viciousness, wanted to surpass her number of kills.

Being in theGardenhad our value systems completely fucked, but yeah… I’d wanted tobeher.

Now… not so much.

And I would have told this “Wilder” character exactly that… if it wasn’t for the explosion.