Seven - First Job
Karen cleared her throat. "So, in conclusion, intervention was absolutely necessary in the war. If isolationists had their way, a Nazi-controlled Europe would be across the Atlantic from us. Millions of people lost their lives, but even more would have died. We must remember that danger is unavoidable in life, but how we approach it is in our hands."
A sneering boy in the back row fake-snored.
"Enough, Michael," Ms. Anderson chided. "Excellent work, Karen."
The mostly bored class joined their English teacher in a round of sleepy applause. On her way to her desk, Karen fistbumped a spiky-haired boy rocking back on the legs of his chair.
"Almost eighteen minutes. You beat your record," he laughed. "Nice one, KB."
"Thanks, Brian." She put her index cards back in their bag. Her speech was over, but she could study her notes for the upcoming essay.
"You're so going to win a spot on the debate team next week," said Emily, a girl with long, black braids.
Karen smiled a little ruefully to herself. "Maybe."
"Maybe?" Brian gasped exaggeratedly. "The smartest freshman in the school isn't going to help Skylight Academy take home the regional cup for the first time in ten years?!"
"It's cruel," Emily sighed.
Karen tried to suppress her grin. It was a little gratifying to hear their support. Okay, extremely flattering. She'd been worried she wouldn't fit in at the prep school her father had put her in for junior high, once he deemed his girls too smart for a public school education. And then she'd been terrified when they told her she'd be skipping eighth grade to go to high school. But while she'd met quite a few snobs, there were nice kids, too.
"I wish I could," she told them. "I just have a lot of chores. My family travels too much for me to commit anyway."
"That sucks. But we can all study together for try-outs, in case you change your mind. Right, Brian?" Emily asked. "We'll meet Saturday morning."
Brian groaned, dropping his head to his desk. "I didn't say I wanted to waste my weekend," he mumbled.
"I'll be there at ten," Karen blurted out before Emily could offer to pick her up. It was best to keep as many people from the household as possible.
As soon as she got in the house, Karen shrugged off her stiff blazer, tossing it by the door. The boring grey and black often put her in a bad mood. "I'm home!" she called.
"Keep it down, Karen!" her father shouted back. "I have a headache!"
"Then why are you yelling?" she muttered to herself. If she'd known he'd been home early, she would have crept up the stairs. As it was, she'd have to put off finishing her homework.
Karen slipped past the living room where she saw her father having his afternoon drink on the sofa. The television wasn't on. He was in contemplation mode. Not always a bad sign. Often when he was mulling over a problem, he was inclined to make the safer choice. It was the rage she had to watch out for.
Across from the wide drawing room, where they hosted parties, was her father's office. The door was rather short and inconspicuous, as compared to the vaulted ceilings and eye-catching decor of the rest of the house. You would almost walk past it.
She held the doorknob for ten seconds, and then the lock clicked open. Karen took a deep breath as she walked in. This place made her feel cold, but she was told to always do her work here at the desk. To take nothing out and leave nothing in.
The room was all tan and cream, like those caramel cream candies your grandma gives you. At first glance, it seemed pretty and fancy, something a housewife would add on to increase the impressive luxury of the house. But Karen noticed the floors were vinyl to remove blood stains easier. And the only decorations (if you didn't count the bookshelves and furniture) were an antique firearm in a glass case behind the desk and two jagged swords criss-crossed on the back wall.. Pretty atypical for a simple business executive, as her father claimed to be.
She wasn't lying. She really did have chores. They just weren't the usual kind.
On the west wall, Karen lifted The Count of Monte Cristo off the bookshelf. A thick leather-bound notebook slid into its place. At her father's oak desk, she looked over her latest additions. Just this week, forty crates of alcohol had been stolen (or "lifted" as her father often corrected) from all the liquor stores in their county. Thirty crates from the local mall. She penciled in the newest addition - last night's bank robbery.
Apollo Marks liked to keep his fingers in many pies.
She totaled their additions and calculated the price they'd fetch for each. Then she wrote down the interested clients and made a note to email each one about their order. The budget was readjusted. They were doing well. No police trails had followed them closely the past year. Karen wondered if that had something to do with her father paying them off rather than luck.
As she was finishing up, her dad walked in. His robe had been replaced by his suit jacket. He wordlessly poured himself a gin and tonic, an endcap to his merlot. The thinking had done no good.
"I'm finished, Dad."
She gave a thumbs-up. "You're good for the fall. But if you're going to hit Seacrest Bank, you're going to have to hire a new flunky."
"We're not taking on any more Jacks." That's what he called his lowest-ranking men, the ones who had yet to prove themselves indispensable. "Demi Greyheart's got enough."
Of all her father's underbosses, or Demigods as he called him, Greyheart was the worst - a real brute. His gravelly voice made her stomach turn, reminding her of night she listened to him and her father torture a teenage boy. Karen shook her head. "Greyheart can't do it."
Apollo's dark eyes turned cold.
She rushed on. "Romeo, his Jack, died last night. Betty told me this morning. I thought you knew."
After the robbery, he'd been shot outside the bank, by rival gang members. He didn't even make it to the hospital.
"Of course I knew," he hissed. "It was not Betty's place to run her mouth. I should get rid of her. You girls are thirteen, too old for a nanny."
Maybe they were. But Yasmin needed someone to keep an out for her when Paola was busy. The quiet girl was lost in her own head most of the time. Karen held her tongue on this subject.
"It's a shame about Romeo, though," Apollo said. "I know you liked him."
She shrugged indifferently. It was best to hide any vulnerabilities that her father could later exploit. In truth, Romeo had been a sweet, funny guy, only three years older than her. He was one of the few Jacks who didn't either shake in their boots in front of the boss or puff up his chest trying to seem hard. And his last few months of his teenage life had been wasted thieving and fighting..
She should be used to death and murder by now. She should try to get used to it. After all, it was going to be the backdrop of her life.
"Will you replace him?" Karen asked.
"No, not until the funeral," her father said, to her relief. "He was a good worker. Been with us a while. He deserves more respect."
She nodded, waiting for dismissal.
"Still," her father continued, sinking into the loveseat. "We're going to need something."
"We can't get off schedule, Karen. We're going to lose thousands if nothing major happens this month. I haven't been in debt in years, and with a family I can't afford the risk."
His typical approach was to spin things around to make it seem like they were for the good of the family. She fought against an oncoming scowl.
"We'll start up with the supermarkets," Apollo announced, clapping his hands together.
"The markets?" she gasped. The last time they had started stealing food, about a year ago, people hadn't been able to find groceries, and the stores had put a limit on buying rarer items. Prices had inflated. People were desperate. Two weeks of chaos had gone on before Apollo slowly started selling back items on the black market. They had made a killing in days.
"Dad," Karen squeaked. "Money and guns are one thing. Food's another."
"Which is why it's about time we get back to stealing it."
"Kindle City may be wealthy enough to take the blow, but the other towns are full of regular people. Poor people." A few years ago, she would've been one of them. "We shouldn't."
Her father looked at her a long time, his long, angular face shifting into something unrecognizable - beyond anger. "Look who's found her voice."
She scratched her arm, looking down. "It was just a suggestion."
"I asked you to be my assistant, Kare-bear, not my advisor. Channel that genius into your job." His tone was stern and decisive. She'd have to be insane to challenge it.
She grabbed her backpack and made to scurry off to her room.
But her father held up a hand and gestured for her to sit. "However, you brought up a good point. The chief can pretend to fumble with finding out who's robbing the liquor stores, but people will demand answers when it comes to their food."
"What will you do?"
"At the last grand meeting, you took notes?"
She moved to run for the record books.
"No, no. It's fine. The Obsidian Dragon, do you remember?"
He was referring to a beautiful brooch, worn by First Lady Edith Roosevelt in her older years. "It was stolen three times throughout the sixties when it was on display at the New York Expression Museum. They moved it to a less popular museum in South Carolina and then it kind of faded out of notice."
"Exactly. You don't let your enemies know where you're aiming. Always keep them guessing." He chuckled to himself as he sipped his drink.
Her eyes widened. Their men were used to stealing cargo. Jewelry was tricky - too many eyes and cameras and alarms. And unlike with banks, there was inevitable competition for a single item. "Dad, we can't lose any more Jacks." That would appeal to him, the budget.
He looked at her like she was dumb. "That's why you're going."
Her heart stopped for a minute. The clink of her father's glass, the smell of alcohol, and the yellow lighting of the room, it all disappeared as she replayed the conversation, checking for a mistake in her comprehension. "You want me to steal the Obsidian Dragon?!"
"The Jacks will cover you. I need someone skinny and quick who can get in and out of that safe room easily."
"I'm not that fast," she tried, but lying wasn't her strong suit.
"But you've got great aim."
She wondered whether Paola had told him. More likely he spied on their backyard archery lessons.
"Dad, are you really going to risk your heir dying in a jewelry store run?"
He swirled his drink. "I guess we'll find out."
The answer shouldn't have surprised her, but a bit of hurt pricked her heart.
"Don't look so sad," he soothed. His eyes were kind again, and she saw his good side shining through. "I have to test you, so you'll be safe. It's no different from the life I lived to get where I am. How do you expect to run this business if you're not willing to understand every aspect of it?"
She looked up sharply. "I won't run things like this. Everything will be legal. I'm not going to have kids die stealing for me. I won't have people tortured as punishment. And I am not giving orders to kill people."
For once, he kept his temper. Apollo shrugged. "It's easy to judge when you're on the other side of the desk. Everything comes at a price and every employee knows their life is at risk."
He had her there. She stood up. "Then as soon as I'm in power, I'll ruin everything from the inside out."
Apollo got up and set his glass on the table. "Your power is your protection. Get rid of that, and dozens of thugs and cops will be gunning to kill you."
"Then - then...I'll pass it to Yasmina," she declared.
His expression was too amused for the topic. "It's an idea. She's no chicken, but she's got no drive. Little Yasmin wouldn't last a week in charge. You'd throw her to the dogs like that?"
Karen wanted to stomp her foot like a toddler. Her hands curled into fists at her side. She didn't like that she had stood up to her father for nothing, chancing a punishment. Her shoulders drooped. If she didn't have her father looking out for her, she would be as good as dead. If she tried to move in with one of her aunts or uncles, her father would probably have his lackeys fetch her. All the horrible things she knew made her valuable.
Her father strode over to his desk. "You'll leave Monday and return Tuesday morning," her father told her. For a long moment, he stared down at the records she'd written in, ignoring her.
Great. She'd miss try-outs for the debate team. Karen slung on her backpack. Once you're in trouble, who cares if you storm out?
"And, Karen?" her father called.
Her legs protested the stop, but she couldn't ignore a direct address. "Yes, Dad?"
"Don't wear your hair in pigtails like that. No one will respect you if you look like a kid."
"I am a kid."
"And their future boss. Keep your face covered, too. I'll have a Jack uniform sent to your room." He laughed to himself. "It's a good thing Romeo was scrawny. I'd hire women, but I don't want no vengeful mommy and daddy coming to me when their girl is hurt. You know how people are with their daughters."
She thought she did, but she didn't.