Young, Gifted, and Black @applesnpb
First Deception

Eleven - First Deception

The next few days were a blur. The first night Billy had gotten them a motel room, but Karen was no less anxious sleeping in a bed than she was in a trunk. Plus, she reasoned to Billy, what was the point of interacting with more people than they needed to? They could keep themselves safe sleeping in the car. It amused her, how this boy listened to her, adhered to her guidance. She would have felt safer if someone older and wiser were with her, but someone more skilled could easily take advantage of her. Better to hang with someone easygoing.

She glanced at Billy, who was warbling about country roads and West Virginia in a whiny singsong voice. He kept taking his hands off the wheel to dance until she glared.

Yeah, better to have a laidback partner. Except, Billy wasn't really a partner. More of a temporary associate. As soon as she could figure out a plan and fully decide Billy wouldn't cause problems, she'd have Paola or one of her father's men retrieve her.

"Hey! Girl!"

Her head snapped towards him. "What?" she scowled.

Billy laughed, turning down the radio. "Don't get sour. it's pretty hard to get your attention without a name."

"What do you want?"

"You should really get that checked out." He didn't even have to point.

She rolled her shoulders back. Showering at the motel had helped some and BIlly had bought her bandages and painkillers. Still, it hurt more than it should have. She'd been stabbed before in fights, but this laceration on her back was her worst injury in a long time. "I'm fine."

"I hope so. Don't want it on my hands if you get an infection and die." He cackled again like he was the funniest person in the world.

"Thank you for the optimism." Macabre humor didn't disturb her. It was knowing that Yasmin would have said something similar.

It was early in the morning when they pulled into a gas station. The attendant was a slouching man with long grey hair in a ponytail. He eyed them skeptically as he spoke to BIlly. Like all nosy old folks, he had to linger. "Where you kids headed?"

Billy flashed a smile. "A concert."

"Date?"

Karen gagged. She should have just hid in the backseat.

"Date? Me and this tag-along?" Billy punched her in the arm and it looked playful but kind of hurt. "No, just some sibling bonding time."

The attendant's eyebrows raised higher with each word. As soon as he left, Karen socked Billy in the arm. "You are so lucky we're not siblings. If I had to live with you, you'd be dead."

He remained unfazed, his eyes on the convenience store. "Sure, sure. Tell you what, I need gum. My mouth feels weird." He handed her a five-dollar bill. "Bring back breakfast."

"WIth five bucks?"

"You want more, steal it."

"I need to use the pay phone."

Billy sighed, but said nothing. It was the one thing he wasn't a jerk about. He handed her a few coins. "You're killing me, Smalls."

Karen wished she had a purse to make her look less like a babe in the woods. At least her smart skirt and crisp button down conveyed some security. The Snackies Go Store was empty except for a trucker buying lottery tickets. Both he and the cashier nodded in greeting. She forced a nod in return. Okay. Real food (or something resembling it) would be best after so many potato chips. Juice, beef jerky, cheese sticks, and cinnamon gum for the stupid addict. Ugh, but they had corn nuts. She slipped the bag into her skirt pocket before paying for the rest of the items.

The pay phone was by the door. She had enough change for four calls, but it'd be a waste to use them all here. Just because Billy was generous now didn't mean he would be later. She decided on two calls and hid the rest of the change.

Paola's cell phone? No answer.

Her father's office? No answer.

Was her uncle calling her right now? What did Charlie know?

Asking questions was becoming a chore for her brain to slog through. So she hypothesized. Over three days had passed. Her dad's body would be found. It was time to add Paola's and Yasmin's to that list. Roaming Enterprises would have been notified. The police would inform her uncle of what happened and that Karen was missing. Perhaps they would search for her. These answers were far from perfect, but their likelihood satisfied her.

The car had been parked across the street from the gas station by a cliff. From a distance it looked like nothing but a hunk of scrap metal. Billy was gone, but panic didn't set in. There were a few stores down the street and he could get antsy. Maybe that's how you felt when (at least) three people were trapped inside of you.

She stretched out on the rusting hood and popped corn nuts into her mouth, savoring them. It'd be a while before she stole something small like this again. If you did it too often it became a habit, reflexive. And sometimes that meant you got real good, but for most people, you got greedy and you got sloppy and you got caught.

Decision time. The police could search all they wanted, but she wouldn't turn back, not without Paola or some protection. They'd be asking people like Yolanda about her. No doubt, any information they were scraping up on her ranged from suspicious to code red bad. And Uncle Drew wouldn't be able to protect her from it. He might not even want to.

She was cleaning her nails with her knife when Billy returned. He put a plastic bag on the roof. "What's up, kid?"

"Where'd you go?"

"I'm trying to trade the car."

"You're kidding me. How are we supposed to go if we don't have a car to go in?"

"Relax. It's a shit deal. Jessabelle isn't worth the gas." He gave her a conspiratorial wink. "I'm getting us bus passes and new IDs."

"You're joking. Where to?"

"West coast, man. I have an aunt near there. You could stay with us and wait for your mom."

"Really?" For half a second she was ecstatic. Then her glee fizzled out. She lost her nerve. "I don't know, Billy. I'm thinking we should stay where we are. I don't want to get too far from home."

Billy rolled his eyes, kicking up dust. "Ok, kid, look. I've told you everything I've seen on the news, haven't I?"

"Yes. Three mansions in Skylight Hills were set on fire last weekend. Twenty-five dead. forty-six injured. But that doesn't mean -"

"Yes it does mean something. You told me you think your folks are dead. So I called my cousin RJ, the dude that found you passed-out at the gates. He did some digging. These are the people that died that night." He reached into his pocket and pulled out a slip of paper with boxy handwriting on it.

Mr. Flores, the man who did her father's taxes. Constance Wentforth, her mother's close friend. Other people she didn't recognize - Sierra Lambs, Juanita Heartly, George van Bruntik. Montgomery Matthews, Sr. She froze after that one, thinking of Monty Junior, but pressed on.

There, near the bottom. Apollo Marks.

"Anyone on that list?" Billy asked quietly.

Karen nodded, forcing the words out. "My daddy." She had known, how could she not, but seeing it on paper...

Billy scratched his head. "And your mama? Is she on it? You said you think she survived, with your sister. Any idea where they could have gone? I could put you on a bus -"

"I don't know anything!" she burst out, hitting the hood. "I don't know where to go or what to do!" She buried her face in her hands, shame warring with fear.

All was quiet for a minute. Then she heard Billy sitting down next to her. "You don't have to know. You have to make things up as you go along."

She laughed dryly. "You're awful at cheering people up."

"It could be worse. You could be a metahuman."

"Shoot, Billy," she said, now fully ashamed. "You're right. I'm pitying myself over nothing."

"Not over nothing. You gotta be a little scared to survive. It keeps your guard up." He clapped her on the back. "You know, it'd make my job easier if you told me your name."

"What's the point when we're getting new identities?"

"Touche, my friend." He became serious. "You should really think about staying with me until you get yourself sorted-out. You're just a -"

"Don't say 'kid'."

"I was gonna say you're just a -"

"Or 'girl'." Then her shoulders sagged. "I know. You're right, I'm wrong." She didn't want to think of this anyway. She didn't like getting attached when they were on unstable ground. And she didn't fully trust Billy to look after her the way she looked after Charlie or the way she and Yasmina looked after each other. He was still a stranger, and strangers were nice when it was convenient for them.

Billy glanced around, and then a second Billy popped out of nowhere. The clone stood in front of Karen waving. "Well, well, well, what do we have here?" he ran past her to the car where he pulled out the plastic bag. "For you!"

Karen tentatively grabbed the bag. Inside was a pale yellow t-shirt and a pair of jeans. "Uh, thanks?"

"Figured we might as well change our clothes." He sniffed his armpit. "Showers can only do so much."

"Yes, but," she pinched the bridge of her nose, "Billy, the whole point of changing clothes is to be less conspicuous. If I was wearing a yellow shirt and then I put on another yellow shirt, it makes it easier for the police to identify me. Get it?"

He frowned, head tilted. Then he grinned. "Ah, well, nice color on you anyways, squirt."

Sometimes she seriously wondered if his brain was empty. She kicked him in the leg. "Let's go meet your grease monkeys."

"Lovely. Got a plan, missy?" His hand brushed against the gun at his hip, hidden under his jacket. He was getting low on bullets. They'd have to think about that.

She patted her pocket, the one with the knife. "I most certainly do. Let's cut our deal, score something the next town over, sell, change, then catch our bus. That way no one will recognize us."

"What you got your eye on?"

She tapped her chin in a showy fashion. "We ain't gonna make it with something big. Let's try a superstore. Electronics. What gangs out around here?"

He was well-versed in this kind of thing, especially for a loner. "You've got your Mustachios. The Grey Men. The Demon Hogs. The Thunderkill."

"You made that last one up, didn't you?"

"Yep. Anyway, who's your guy?"

"I don't want to take my chance with a Demon Hog. And the Mustachios and I don't get -" She cut herself off.

Billy sent her a sideways glance. "You got gang ties, kid?"

"Doesn't everybody?" Naming her father's syndicate now could put her in the worst trouble.

"I hope you know I'm on your side." He lowered his voice. "Besides, I heard most of the people at that shindig inferno were part of the Olympians."

That was the one. She drew herself up. "Lots of rich folks are mixed up in something. What's that got to do with me?"

"I'm just saying." Billy shrugged. "So you wanna trade with them or not?"

"I just happen to know that the Mustachios and the Demon Hogs aren't trustworthy, at least in my neck of the woods. So if I met a Grey Man, I'd take my chances. But we should try a pawn shop first. Stay behind me."

"Yes, ma'am."


"Nice of them to give us a final ride," Karen said as they walked through the streets. They'd each purchased new backpacks and looked much more like tourists now that they'd entered a busy city.

"They just wanted to test out Jessabelle," Billy disagreed. "But all's well that ends well."

"First stop, the cafe."

After some debate, Karen agreed to let Billy ask for directions. (Apollo always said, it wasn't good to hold a map in an unfamiliar city. You ended up crashing into things and people would try to swindle you.) The young man pointed them towards an internet cafe which was hot and crowded but a needed stop nonetheless.

Karen snatched up the only available computer, elbowing a couple of kids en route. She smiled up at Billy. "Get us some water at the counter."

He left and she went to work. There was only so much information she could enter on a public computer. The head honchos wanted you to think you had more freedom than you really did. Besides, Apollo hadn't allowed much opportunity for her to even use one. As his assistant, she'd kept written records. It was hard to tell if her father was - had been - old-school or paranoid. Likely both.

Billy's info needed confirmation. She searched her father's name first. There were stories on business magazine sites, articles from southern news channels - all mentions of his charity donations, his big-time deals with other business moguls, public speeches. But there were a few recent results relating to the fire.

Karen read silently to herself. "Last weekend, twenty-five perished in a fire in Kindle CIty, NC. First responders arrived late to the scene due to a rising supervillain, Neco, destroying roads leading in and out of the gated community, Skylight Hills. The homes of Apollo Marks, Daffy Tristein, and Igor Hays were targeted. These men were part of the upper-crust society of Kindle City and all three sadly perished."

She skipped the rest and scanned for the rest of her family's names. When she typed "Paola Marks" into the search engine, lesser stories appeared. Mostly pictures of Paola standing next to her husband, a radiant smile on her face, a jewel by Apollo's side. Yasmina's name produced less fruit, only an article on extracurriculars from their school district's website. Photography club, posed against a wall. At a far end, Yasmina was leaning against the wall, one chunky boot crossed over the other, her expression too pensive for the occasion.

Bad things were going to happen, Yasmin had said. And Karen had laughed at her. But they did happen. They were happening. If any good was yet to come, Karen didn't know where she was supposed to look for it.

Next, she looked up information on The Seven, on gang activity in Kindle. No matter how carefully she worded her searches, nothing came up. She wanted to break the screen. It was clear who had been going after her family. How was she supposed to protect herself now? If Paola could reach her, she would say to hide. Maybe she could get to Canada, to Uncle Drew? No, that would be dangerous, she reminded herself. All of this was giving her a headache.

Billy came back with the water and two soft pretzels. At her inquisitive look, he shrugged. "Complimentary. The cashier was sweet on me."

"Uh-huh." He was about as charming as a meerkat.

"What'd you find?"

"Nothing more than you've told me." She was no farther than where she'd started. "And I've decided. I'll come with you," she said, pulling her new ID out of her pocket. "As Beatrice Madden."

"Good. I need someone who can help me hustle more fools."

"What do you know about The Seven? You said you were going to cut a deal with them."

He sat on a chair next to her. "Ah. The Seven. RJ lives in your city. He says they're slimy. Sometimes they hurt people for the heck of it, no money, no deals. People think they're in a cult. Why, is that your gang?"

She wanted to hit him. "You said you were thinking about selling me to them, when you kidnapped me."

"Not seriously. I think. RJ says they have a southern base. They were looking for a girl from Kindle City, but no one knows why. But I hear they're always looking for young kids."

"Trafficking?"

"No, something evil, but more...bizarre. My uncle says experimentation. I think they're building an army." Then he looked up above her head to the television screen. "Huh. Like those guys."

A commercial was on. Infamous villains were shown, from the Penguin to the Electrocutioner, all of them laughing wickedly as they shot out banks or unleashed poison on crowds or leveled skyscrapers. Triumphant music played and a woman spoke in a smooth voice. "Are you sick and tired of petty theft and street fights? Are you stronger and smarter than the others? Do you possess an ability like no other? Reach your full potential at HIVE Academy."

"Hey, turn that off!" a man yelled.

"How'd this even get on?" a woman criticized.

The station was switched to the news by a frantic worker.

They were done here. Karen rolled her eyes as they went back outside. "Those groups are all fake."

"I don't think so." Billy bit into his pretzel. "My friend told me about one in Canada."

"Was he like you?"

"No, no special abilities. But he was skilled, like you. Before we lost touch, he would talk about the training programs, the structure, the help. Gave you a real sense of purpose."

"Being a crook?" The words were out before she thought about them.

"Look in the mirror, kid. It'd be nice, doing what we do and actually having a home base. Someone to look after us."

"That's what families are for."

"Families get hurt."

She looked away, thinking too much of what was unimportant. "So what? We have work to do."

Billy sighed and trotted after her.

Snagging the cell phone out of the superstore was the easy part. Finding a buyer was harder. After four rejections, Karen began to wonder if fate was plotting against them. Downtown, uptown, around town, they just could not sell the phone for a good price. It was near dark when they shuffled out of the fifth place, the shadiest, must run-down pawn shop yet.

"How much money do we have?" she said, wiping sweat off of her neck.

"You know, it doesn't multiply the more times you ask," Billy mumbled. "You can't turn forty dollars into four hundred. Let's go to a hostel."

"I'm not sleeping in…" she leaned against the wall of a Chinese food restaurant, ignoring the stares from passersby. "Screw it."

Billy tugged her by the arm and they walked as briskly as she could manage. The streets stayed as busy as they had in daylight, like they did in Kindle City.

Karen scratched her neck. "We stole this for nothing."

"Don't worry. I've been living on my own for a year, most of it on the road. Have a little faith in me."

He was right about that. He was kind of her hero, for that reason alone.

They turned the corner, into a more deserted area of town. A few kids played with a soccer ball in the street. A man had a whispered conversation on his phone outside a bar. They passed a couple of motels, but both would wipe them out clean.

Karen shivered, not from the air, but the sudden chill as they walked down a deserted street. "Billy, let's turn back."

"Please, I've been here before, years back. I know Saint Occo. Preschoolers walk home here."

"God help the preschoolers."

In the distance, a figure ahead of them caught their eyes. Three men appeared. At first they laughed and joked, but as they got closer, they fell into silence. Karen nearly raised a hand to wave when the three stopped walking and just stared, waiting for them. Intimidation. It was the same swaggering threat the Jacks carried.

Billy grabbed Karen's arm. "Get ready to run."

The two of them crossed the street to the other side. A second later, so did the three figures. Great. Now they were being followed. And it seemed they were heading deeper and deeper into the deserted neighborhood.

"Hey, Cowboy!" one of the guys called.

"Ignore them," Billy urged.

"We're talking to you, bitches. Turn the hell around!" His voice was clear. He wasn't drunk, just a bully. So he might not miss in a fight, but he might give up sooner.

Karen found her feet cementing to the ground. She swiveled. "What?!"

The men, boys really, judging by their lean bodies, were only amused. The leader spoke. "Ah, you get your whore to answer for you."

Billy glared. "Leave us alone. She's a kid, you sick fuck."

The men hooted with laughter, but the leader sobered first. "If you're such a big man, then why are you standing all the way over there?"

"Because I'm not stupid enough to pick a fight. Now let us be." Billy squeezed Karen's arm. Without a word, she turned on her heel and sprinted. Everything erupted.

"Hey, nobody's going anywhere!" one of the men shouted. "Diego, get her!"

One of the men screamed. She slowed and turned to see not Billy, but four Billys kicking the crap out of the thugs. She wanted to scream, to help, to do something.

Someone tackled her to the ground.

She hit her head hard and - not again - the cut on her back ached. Blinking, she met eyes with the offender, a foul-smelling boy with too much facial hair for his age.

"He told you not to run," he hissed, a maniacal laugh escaping from his throat.

She spat in his eyes and kneed him in the crotch. Once again, she was up, running. Screw the plan. Screw the hostel. Screw it all. She wasn't going to die here.

As she ran, the pavement gave way to greenery. Much like the last town, they were surrounded by rock, by mountains and cliffs. The view almost pulled her from reality until she noticed the footsteps behind her. She turned. Not one, but all three boys were after her. Where was Billy?

They were reaching the edge of a cliff. It was too close to turn now and run along the edge. In her terror, she made a last-ditch effort.

She skipped to a stop like a baseball player sliding into home plate, as she pulled her knife out of her pocket. Turning on them, she crouched low. They all backed up a step, seeing the look in her eye. Good. She had killed before, and she'd kill again. Maybe.

"Boys," she sneered, mustering the little poise she had left, "it's not polite to chase a lady."

They froze at her incongruous tone.

She laughed politely like she did with her father's colleagues or teachers she wanted to impress. "Not without buying her dinner first."

The ringleader, the ugliest one, gave what he must have thought to be a charming smile. He just looked concussed. "We'll get you food, baby girl."

"Good," she intoned, coming closer. "Because I'm hungry."

Karen kicked out a leg and connected with his stomach. She punched him in the temple. A lackey reached for her and she twirled away so that he fell into the first guy. The third did the same, even slower, so she swept his legs out from under them. It was almost pathetically easy.

So easy that she got sloppy. So sloppy that she didn't see the switchblade. In between hits, it flicked out, catching her shirt. She stumbled backwards, still holding her own spotless knife.

She was too close.

Karen lost her footing and fell over the edge of the cliff.


"My sweet little K," Mom soothed, stroking her hair.

"Happy birthday, Karen!" Nana placed a present on her lap.

Uncle Drew picked her up. "Kare-Bear, wanna go to the park?"

Dad kissed her forehead. "Have a great day, princess."

"Alright, KB!" Brian and Emily high-fived her.

Yasmina turned to her with worried eyes. "Be careful, Kare."

Paola stood in the backyard, her eyes shadowed by her hand. "Where are you, Little Bee?"

Where was she?

Where was she?

Where was she?


Her eyes opened. It was still dark outside but much cooler. She woke up to cold plastic against her cheek. She sat up. Instead of a bed or backseat, an outdoor bench. What a downgrade.

Billy came over to her. "That old guy was wrong! I knew you were alive!"

"Huh?" It was hard to see his face. The only light came from a street lamp above their heads.

"You didn't have a scratch on you. Still, you didn't wake up for…" He checked his watch. "A while. Got worried."

She looked around. The streets were much cleaner and the buildings were nicer. It reminded her of Peachtree. Her heart raced. Were they? "Where are we?"

"Out west. I think the guy who gave us a ride called it Jump City." He shrugged. "Had to give everything we had to get here."

"Billy, you've lost it."

"You need medical attention, Beatrice. Would you rather me have gone to the hospital?"

No, she wouldn't. "Why here?"

He ran a hand through his hair. "I just thought, maybe we ought to get a fresh start. We're stuck."

He spent at least ten minutes begging her not to sleep on the bench. This plan was mad. It was his worst idea yet, and still…it gave her something like hope. She didn't want to be let down, so she begrudgingly stomped behind Billy as he led the way.

It was just down the street, a crumbling apartment building that screamed roaches. The lobby held nothing but dusty rugs and wilting plants. A motel would be better than this.

Karen held onto her knife, amazed she still had it. "At least the elevator works."

When they reached the top floor, a young brunette receptionist was at the circular desk. "Do you have an appointment?" she asked, her voice fresh and bright despite the late hour.

Karen looked around. Everything was immaculate, like a museum. Here there were no dying flowers or dust, but metallic honey-gold walls and shiny black floors. They could see their reflections in both. Vaguely, it reminded Karen of her father's house.

Billy leaned against the counter. "Yes, I called an hour ago. I'm Billy and this is Beatrice. She needs a doctor."

"That can be arranged. Thank you for coming. We were very impressed with both of your applications."

Karen shot Billy a look. She hadn't asked for that. She'd only gone along with this for the free room and board. How deep were they in this?

"Thank you, ma'am," Billy said, tipping his hat. "So when will our tests be prepared?"

"There are still some documents to fill out. Are you both at least fifteen years of age?"

"I…"

"You need to be at least fifteen to apply to this school. It's a vigorous program that children would have a difficult time keeping up with."

"Yes," Karen declared. "We are." It wasn't true for Karen, but for Beatrice? Definitely. If they were going to go along with this lie, they needed to commit. You don't walk into the kitchen and put yourself in the oven.

The woman typed something into her computer. "Great. The headmistress will see you now. Welcome to the HIVE Academy."

1. Firsts 339 0 0 2. First Loss 535 0 0 3. First Fight 858 0 0 4. First Revelation 1030 0 0 5. First Ally 1706 0 0 6. First Mentor 2787 0 0 7. First Job 2385 0 0 8. First No 4003 0 0 9. First Kill 4855 0 0 10. First Road Trip 4478 0 0 11. First Deception 4452 0 0 12. First Flight 3345 0 0 13. First Competition 3393 0 0 14. First Betrayal 3788 0 0 15. First Rescue 5674 0 0