Fun fact: Vanish and Hard Place are characters from Common Grounds, which will eventually be a collection of short stories about a bunch of mutant teenagers and twenty-somethings squatting in an abandoned mall.


I stopped near the end of the alleyway, just in case. The playground was empty, like it always was. No one came here ‘cept me.

The one swing, my swing, was still there. That was good.

Old graffiti still covered the walls, each one with a purple ‘V’ painted over it. No one had been stupid enough to try to tag the place in a while now.

The artist had been here, though. Another one of the V’s now sat on a black hole, the graffiti behind it altered to look like it was being sucked in. No clue what he was on about with this stuff, but since he wasn’t trying to tag the place for himself, I wasn’t gonna bother.

I lit up a cigarette, leaning casually against the corner. Nothing else had changed. Hell, there wasn’t much left to change. Anything that could be easily removed or destroyed had been. The basketball hoop was gone. The backboard, too, for that matter. The smaller playground toys had all been smashed. Only monkey bars and the metal frame of the swing-set remained. The fact that my swing was untouched proved how much I was feared around here.

“Do you see anything?” Hard Touch asked.

“Yeah,” I said, rolling my eyes, “the kid we’re after is getting beat up by Hunters even as we speak, I just decided to have a cigarette first.”

Never doing a run with this kid again unless Vanish is with us. Not that we had much choice. Inbox told me to grab whatever Runners I could find and get here ASAP. When that dead-eyed kid is panicking, you don’t stop to ask questions.

The kid was the only one I spotted on my way out, so I grabbed him. Now I was starting to regret it. I mean, I get that it sucks that he has to be hiding behind a dumpster. The world’s full of bastards, but at least I can go “buy” a pack of cigarettes without people raising hell.

Funny, really. The kid would never hurt any of them, but he’s the one they’d all run from.

I flicked the remnants of my cigarette and pulled out another. Wasn’t expecting to have to wait, not with the panic Inbox had been in. Something was gonna happen soon, and it was gonna be bad.

The muffled sounds of a tranq gun echoed off the walls, followed by a pitiful cry.

I grinned, tossing away the second cigarette. The Hunters were going to learn not to mess around my turf.

“Let’s go, Tough Case.”

“It’s Hard Place!” But I was already moving.

Hard Place

When Vanish slowed to a casual walk, I had to duck behind a dumpster. I wished Veil was here. I hated having to hide, but Vanish said there wasn’t time.

Minutes crawled by, and nothing happened.

“Do you see anything?” I asked.

“Yeah, the kid we’re after is getting beat up by Hunters even as we speak, I just decided to have a cigarette first.” I didn’t let her get to me. She talked to just about everyone like that.

I risked a peak over the dumpster. We were at the ghost of a playground. Or maybe “skeleton” was a better word. Bits of it remained behind. There was an old post that used to have a basketball net. A solitary swing remained on a set that used to have three. A small, broken pipe stuck out of the ground, probably where a merry-go-round used to spin.

It probably had never been a terribly great playground, penned in by old apartment buildings. I didn’t think this neighborhood had ever been a great one. I liked to think that it might have been loved for a while, though, before all the fear chased everyone away.

Someone cried out, her voice filled with fear.

Vanish started running, tossing aside her cigarette. “Let’s go, Tough Case.”

“It’s Hard Place!” I growled at her, even as I followed.