Eight - First No
The hospital corridor was brightly lit, but that didn't deter Karen. Reflexively, she stole a glance at the cameras. There was no need. The wires had been cut ten minutes ago and the surveillance had been taken care of.
She slipped into a nearby closet. It was full of cleaning supplies, some mops and buckets and the like. In a cramped corner, she pulled from her backpack the costume she'd been given.
"You've gotta be kidding me," she muttered, but slipped it on anyway. Damn. Why did she have to wear a freakin' hospital gown? She was fourteen, but tall enough to pass for a young EMT. People had trouble guessing even her father's age. She could fool them, too.
This plan wasn't worth the paper they'd written it on.
A buzz in her ear. "You're stalling," the muffled voice nagged.
"I've just got here."
"Any guy on my crew would have been out three minutes ago."
"Yet they're all blockheads."
She could picture the steam coming from Tobias's oversize ears. "Watch it, girl. You're under my watch."
This had to be some sick joke that after three months she was still working under Greyheart's asshole underboss, Tobias. It was the punishment she'd earned for skipping a grand meeting to hang out with her friends. Excuse her for trying to have a social life.
"Lazy ass," she spat back, before muting her earpiece. To hell with all of them.
Karen ambled out the closet and down the corridor, shuffling in her plastic-like slippers. Out the corner of her eye, she spotted a nurse coming her way. Letting her head droop, she scratched her neck.
"Hey, what room are you in?" the woman called. She had pink scrubs and big curly hair which practically swallowed her head.
"I need juice. Where is the pantry?" Karen asked. When she widened her eyes and slouched, she could pass for a hard-looking twelve-year-old.
"Let's get you back to your room," the woman insisted.
"No, I need to pee," she mumbled. "I'm in 312."
The nurse nodded absentmindedly, looking at her beeper. "Someone will drop it off in a minute."
It was a good thing they had chosen the day of a catastrophe. Apollo was good at organizing things like that. In the evening, some wannabe supervillain in a Halloween costume (pea green so did not go with lavender) had started an earthquake that caused a car pile-up in the middle of the city. He was still on the loose, wreaking havoc in the subway tunnels.
A little part of Karen fretted over the lunatic the police had yet to catch, but she had bigger fish to fry.
She turned a left corner, then another, then another. Finally. 312. She was careful to stumble into the room with an air of confusion. It didn't matter. It was unoccupied. Flipping on the light, she ducked behind the door. She reached under her gown and retrieved her mask from the utility belt around her shorts.
Nearly all Jacks in the organization wore masks when on mission. It was midnight blue with a silver sun in the left corner, Apollo's symbol. Karen felt safer with it on. With the top half of her face hidden, she could pretend the thief was someone else. The real Karen was in her room studying late at night, not robbing a hospital.
Her phone vibrated. She flipped it open, expecting another text from Brian, asking when the heck she'd show up to his house. She'd been stupid, booking a movie marathon on the same day as a heist. Criminals really were the worst friends.
But it wasn't Brian or Emily or anyone from school. It was Charlie.
Are you okay?
Karen typed back quickly. Late-night run. Got cross-country in the fall!
Sorry 2 interrupt. Saw the news. R u ok?
Karen laughed a little. Her sister often forgot it was Karen's job to worry about her, not the other way around. I'm good, she wrote. He's in the CBD. Poor ppl tho.
Yeah, I'm worried. Thugs r 1 thing but this guy seems nuz. Thinks he's evil Batman.
At least, if Charlie found out what a low-life thug Karen had become, Karen would be able to say, 'Hey, I'm not running around in a costume! Then I'd be nuts!'
More like Aquaman. His costume sucks.
LOL Uncle Drew says hi. He'll call u tmrw
Karen snapped her phone shut and smacked her forehead with it. The last thing she wanted to do was hear her uncle's upbeat, kind voice calling her Kare-Bear like she was still a good kid and going on and on about Marta, the soon-to-be prima ballerina, and Cara, the future Nobel Prize winner. Maybe she'd sleep in tomorrow, so she could miss the call guilt-free.
The door opened. A nurse, a tall redhead holding a juicebox, stared at the bed as he walked in, clearly confused. Karen leaned against the door, closing it.
He spun around just as she flicked the light off.
"This won't hurt much," she promised.
With a kick to the back of the knee and a chop to the neck, he was out. She did him a kindness and tossed him onto the hospital bed. These floors were kinda gross and it was good to build her strength.
There were scrubs in the cabinet, as she knew from her last lift here. This hospital made a big deal of their attention to care and detail. Fat lot of good it did them today. Karen changed quickly, then snagged the name tag and ID cards from the nurse.
The hallways were empty, but she could hear the hustle and bustle not far from her room. She avoided the busy elevators and practically skipped down a stairwell.
When she arrived on the ground floor, she had to walk with her head high, looking every bit the professional adult. She kept her shoulders back as she moved through the crowds in the waiting room - the injured coming from the earthquake and accidents flooded the area. People were holding scraps of clothing against deep cuts and little children were wailing. The automatic doors stayed open as stretcher after stretcher entered, holding mangled bodies, their faces twisted in pain. Karen bumped into a man and a stain of blood streaked across her sleeve.
When she passed the reception area, she didn't even realize she'd been holding her breath. She shook her head. No time to waste.
After an elevator trip underground, Karen arrived on the supply floor. She shuddered as she pinned on her nametag. Just below her was the morgue. Ick.
At a desk, a wavy-haired man was typing on a computer. He looked up at her with flat blue eyes. "Name?"
He tapped something into his computer. That one piece of information seemed to require a lot of typing on his part. It seemed to go on forever. Karen shifted from foot to foot, mentally preparing ten ways to knock him out if he tried to call the police.
Then he clicked frantically and tapped a few keys. "System's down," he finally explained. "I'll write your name down. You may go in."
Karen grabbed the cart awaiting her by the entrance and dragged it back on the elevator. She hated being below ground. There was something suffocating about the atmosphere.
At a discreet side exit of the ground floor, a muscular, brown-skinned young man in scrubs was pacing and texting. Karen rolled her eyes at how obvious he was.
"Hello, Nurse Douglas," she smiled, dragging the cart to him.
Tobias's nostrils flared so hard she thought his ring would pop out. "Look who decided to complete the mission!"
"Look who decided to put his hoagie down and get out the van!"
He grumbled because she was right and instead muttered curses as they swept everything into a bin and he hefted it onto his shoulder. They waited shivering in the rain outside, until the other Jack, Adrien, pulled up in the van at the last second.
"C'mon, guys, I'm tired of circling the block," he complained.
"Am I the only person here who expects to work at work?" Karen nearly shouted. She piled into the back with their haul and barked at Adrien to pull off. The others were busy distracting (or silencing) the right people and would join them at her father's house at midnight for a report.
That gave her about an hour and a half to relax. She leaned her head against the wall. All she wanted was a big bowl of popcorn and a stupid buddy-cop comedy. Cops were easier to like in movies. In real life...well, their philosophies didn't really mesh.
A thud against the back doors startled her. "What was that?"
Adrien frowned, pushing his dreadlocks from his face. "I don't know. We're not anywhere near the business district."
Karen looked out the windows. Indeed, they were on a country road, at least ten minutes from the heart of the city.
"Aw man," Tobias sighed, punching his armrest. "Don't tell me that fool on the TV is heading towards our neighborhood."
"He better not head towards mine," Karen fumed.
"Yeah, yeah, princess. God forbid he tears up Skylight Hills. What will you do if your twenty-thousand-dollar dining room set is destroyed?"
She turned away. "I care about all of Kindle City," she huffed.
Another hit against the back door. Stronger this time.
"Guys!" she yelled.
"Wait until we get to a stop, Karen," Adrien soothed.
"Leave it alone," said Tobias. "It's just debris with this storm kicking up and all."
"Scaredy-cats," she muttered, just a second before the doors flew off.
The three of them screamed as Karen went flying out the back of the van. Resisting the urge to catch herself, she curled into a little ball just as she hit the road and rolled, rolled, rolled away. The thin scrubs did little to protect against the gravel road. When she stopped, she realized she was laying in a pile of broken glass. Not just debris. Coughing, she turned onto her back as torrents of rain choked her.
"Guys!" she called, glancing around for the tail lights.
Hands tightened around her arms, dragging her up. Her feet lifted from the ground and she was suddenly locked in an iron grip against someone's chest, worsening her scrapes and cuts. Karen clawed at the arms around her waist and neck, but they were covered in thick black sleeves. The stranger's body was extremely cold to the touch, even with his hefty layers. The confusion stalled her for a second. How was this possible?
"If it isn't Apollo's little princess," mocked a deep voice by her ear.
"Let go of me!" she warned.
"Or what?" the voice laughed. More men surrounded him, first one, then four, then six total, each in long black coats and hoods. In the rain and fog, they were ominous shadows against the backdrop of a night sky. Karen blinked several times, unsure if she was imagining them. This wasn't a gang she recognized.
"Who the hell are you?" she spat, still wriggling away from the man and his freezing temperature.
"I'm not as interesting as you, Karen Marks. Fourteen years old and a rising star in your father's syndicate."
"You've got the wrong girl," she protested.
"No one's so quick. No one's so clever," he continued. "I'd have you join my ranks, if we weren't full."
"Your uniform is a don't for me," she quipped.
"Your attitude, though, leaves much to be desired. Just as my informant said."
"Who?" She stopped fighting. These creeps had an inside man? What the hell! The only people who knew anything major, especially concerning her, had been with her father for years. A Demi would be too loyal. A Jack would be too terrified. Of course, there were dozens of clients, of assistants, and associates, some who would spill for the right price.
"I'm not sure that's pertinent information."
"Sounds like some dumbass fed you some crap to make a quick buck. You're all pathetic."
The grip around her tightened until she could barely breathe, slips of wind shakily snaking through her lungs as she fought to stay calm.
"I'd tell you just how wrong you are," the man boasted. "But it'll be more rewarding if you and your father have to figure it out yourselves. You're very welcome."
"So you're not gonna kill me, jackass?"
"Would you like us to?"
He dropped her then, and she hit the ground hard. Some bones seemed to have been crushed in that short period of time. Karen looked over her shoulder at her captor. The hood obscured most of his face and the rain and dark did the rest.
"Still," he said. "I'd like to know what I'm sparing." He looked up toward the treeline. "Neco?"
And then the worst possible scenario happened. The clown, the crash-causer, appeared above them, about fifty feet in the air. Karen began to crawl away. Why couldn't they have just shot her?
"If she lasts sixty seconds, spare her. If not, she's all yours. Good luck, Miss Marks."
The shadowed men fanned out, disappearing into the fog like a dream.
"No, no, please, please," she begged. It was no use. She should've tried that earlier. Neco dove for her, his purple and green bodysuit blurring. She raised her arms to protect herself.
BOOM! He landed a few yards away, splitting a crack in the earth. She could see nothing but his sharp jaw under his mask. "Get up and fight, girl." His voice was emotionless and held an accent she couldn't place. "Now."
This had to be a trick. He was going to kill her. If not on purpose, then accidentally. Karen leaped up and ran down the road, sprinting like an Olympian.
Something solid hit her side. She heard a crunch, her own bone. For the third time that night, she hit the ground.
Neco's flashy lavender boots crunched down on her left wrist. She screamed and rolled away, then threw her weight into his legs. He tripped a bit, and she took advantage of his poor balance to punch him in the crotch.
The costumed villain roared in pain and anger, while Karen shook out her hand (more out of disgust than pain). He recovered quick enough to lift her up and toss her to the edge of the road.
Karen screamed, but shifted to her feet automatically, ignoring the millions of mini injuries she'd acquired in the last five minutes.
He didn't hold back. He came at her with wild punches that she had to merely sidestep and duck or else her brains would end up splattered on the road. At one hit, Karen grabbed his fist and flipped over his head, kicking him in the back as she landed behind him. As he turned to her, she chopped at his meaty neck, but he didn't go down like the nurse had. Instead, he grabbed her already broken wrist and tried to throw her again, but she kicked his exposed chin. He dropped her and swung again, but she spun away, landing another kick to his mouth.
"Mmph!" Neco growled, holding his bleeding lip.
She needed to end this and quit poking at the bear. "Easy," she trembled, holding up her hands.
Neco stomped on the ground and it began to shake. Karen swayed, both from the quake and her weakness. Her eyes looked for something to hold onto, but nothing but grass and far-off trees were in sight.
In a panic, she ran and leaped towards Neco, clinging to his gigantic arm.
"Hey!" he yelled.
She maneuvered herself so she was on his broad back and clinging to his head.
He stomped again and the ground shook even harder. With the rain and shaking, he was going to fall eventually.
"Cut that out!" she screamed.
For the third time, he stomped and cracks began to form in the earth.
Karen was the one who slipped.
She bounced and rolled, landing near a split. A burst of pain rippled through her skull. Scratches ripped across her face and blood dripped into her eye. She could sense the dropoff next to her, the space, the many, many feet she'd have to fall before she hit the bottom.
Her time was up.
In the corner of her eye, she could see her opponent marching towards her. The sound of his heavy footfalls echoed in her ears. She tried to tell her body to get up, but she couldn't move. Too much damage.
Neco's big hands reached for her, probably to toss her into the earth. She lifted her leg to kick him.
BAM! A gunshot rang out. For a second, Karen believed it hit her. Then she heard many more follow and saw the black blood staining Neco's bodysuit.
She barely managed to move out the way before the giant man collapsed onto her.
Was he really dead? He didn't flinch or struggle. How? Where...
Disoriented, she tried to find unbroken ground, but blood and rain swirled together as she crawled in circles. Finally, she seemed to find a safe direction. She crawled off the road, onto the grass, panting. Mud caked onto her hands and knees, but she was too exhausted to care. When she was certain she was safe, she laid down on her side, waiting for a car to come.
Beyond the pitter-patter of rain, she heard a familiar clicking noise. Footsteps. A few seconds later, a pair of blue oxfords appeared inches from her head.
"Get up," her father said. It was an order.
Karen ignored him, only laid there staring at his shoes.
Her father sighed and picked her up like she was a child. She barely moved as he walked over to his black Lexus and deposited her in the backseat. Dimly, she noted that plastic had been laid over the seats. She wondered how he could have anticipated the mud, until she remembered she was also covered in blood.
Her father was silent as he turned on the blues station and hummed along.
Karen stared out the window, watching as they left the countryside, heading back to the busier area. They were on the outskirts still, away from the wreckage of the evening. Slowly, shops and offices appeared in her view. Outside, businessmen dined in upscale restaurants. College students herded into bars and clubs. Buskers filled the streets with music.
Her father turned the radio higher, as if to drown out the sounds and sights around them.
He continued humming as if she hadn't spoken.
"Dad, back there -"
"We won't speak of this, Karen," he said, his voice hard. He looked at her in the rearview mirror, and she saw brown eyes, so like her own, now full of cool anger. "Believe me, you don't want me to."
Like an idiot, she continued. "You need to know, before that guy -"
"There is nothing new you could tell me," he interrupted. "Tobias and Adrien were right to go get me. If it's any solace, they were more concerned for your safety then the thousands of dollars in merchandise we lost."
The broken glass! Some, if not all, of the drugs had been lost in her fall. Great.
"They were right to leave you," he remarked. "You were no match for The Seven. You wouldn't even be able to bluff your way out, with all that Greyheart's told them."
"So you knew Greyheart was going to spill something?"
"I predicted it, but I couldn't be sure until he disappeared an hour ago with my cut of his money for this month. Completely gone from the state."
Karen froze. She couldn't believe that someone so loyal (though irritating) would easily leave her father's side. If not your best friend, then who could you trust? "So you knew The Seven were coming for me?"
"I knew they had a bone to pick with me, I didn't think they'd go looking for my daughter. But what I didn't expect was for you to be crawling away from your opponent like a dying bug."
She bristled. "I wasn't up against some thug. They sicced that supervillain on me, Necro or something. The one who tore up center city today."
"Is that your excuse?" His tone was scornful. "Weak. I don't care who you're up against. You should be able to find your way out of it."
"I'm new to this, Dad." She tried to infuse her voice with some strength. "I'll get better."
"When? When will you get better?"
Her hands curled into fists and she turned to her window.
"Hand me your utility belt," he suddenly commanded.
For a second she was confused, but when she understood, she refused. "I lost it in the fall."
"Hand it to me." He stretched his hand behind him.
Karen hesitated, then reached under her shirt, unclipped the belt, and handed it to him.
Apollo somehow managed to keep the car straight even as he pulled the pistol from the holster and unloaded it. Not a single bullet came out.
His voice was deceptively calm, like he was mentioning the traffic. "Karen. Do you have a good reason for why you've never loaded your gun?"
She refused to look at him.
"I didn't think so. You see, I'm impressed that you are willing to risk your life like this, and that dozens of times, you've made it out clean. Your hand-to-hand combat skills are marvelous. Paola taught you well. But the other side of me is thinking how you could've had that guy if you only loaded your gun for once. I'm a little offended that you're risking my only child's life like this."
Her head snapped to him. "You're risking my life, not me!" she shouted. "You're ruining my life! I don't want to shoot people. I'm not a killer."
"Your vague sense of morality is charming, but a complication."
"I may not be much of a saint, but I know where the line is and I won't go moving it."
Her dad rested his head on his fist as they waited at a stop light. A red glow washed over his dark skin. If she didn't know him, she'd think he was in a car commercial, the kind with rich, classy men driving late at night.
"You are the heiress to the Marks throne," he told her. In that simple sentence, there was an order, as clear as his "get up" or "go to your room" or "steal this diamond" or "chat with this guest". Orders were the custom for every interaction with her father. She was being given the gift of money and power, but for a long, long time, possibly until his death, she was going to be his pawn and his mini-me.
And if twenty years from now, she was going to be betrayed by her best friend and have a creepy group of bulky hooded men chasing her, then that wasn't the life for her. Especially if she had to kill people to live it.
"I may be the heiress to the Marks throne, but I never stopped being Karen Beecher."
He shook his head. "You're mother's name. And when she decided to leave my protection, all she found was struggling and drugging."
Her teeth ground together at the open disrespect. "Oh, so I should sell drugs instead of using them," she sneered. "That's so much better."
"I can only take this defiance for so long. You're going to get a worse punishment than Greyheart's crew if you don't start using your weapon." He cracked the knuckles of his right hand. "I think a little target practice tonight might help."
Karen gaped in horror at him. "Are you insane?"
"Watch your tongue." A thin smile crossed his face. "I think Emili's gang are just sitting down to dinner at their club."
"No. Never. I'm done. I'm so freaking done. I'm not going to kill for you. Kick me out when I'm eighteen, leave me dirt in your will, I don't care."
Karen opened the door and slid out before the light changed. She darted across the street, letting her feet carry her far from her father. She didn't look back once but she couldn't shake the overwhelming feeling he was right there behind her.