Nine - First Kill
The early evening sun beat down on her neck with surprising fury. Sweat dripped into her eyes, but she was too determined to stop now.
Karen reached for her axe and slugged it over her head. It sunk into the wood with a satisfying thud. So did her second and third and fourth.
She didn't turn. If only she'd thought to bring her headphones.
"Karen!" Paola called. "I'm not going to call you again."
Karen walked over to the boards to collect her weapons when she heard a rush of air. She twirled out the way. A knife sunk into the board, a foot above the bullseye.
It would've got her neck. She knew it.
She turned to Paola, who stood on the steps of the wide deck, red sunglasses on and a hand on her hip.
"My rib is all healed," Karen grumbled, heading for the house. "You said I could practice today."
"This isn't about the fracture." Paola barred her with an arm. "You know what time it is."
Paola pinched the bridge of her nose. "Little Bee, if you don't get changed out of those funky running shoes this instant, I won't intervene this time."
"I don't need you to stand up for me." Karen tried to brush past her, but Paola was quicker, sharper.
Paola lifted her sunglasses to her head. "How long are you going to keep this up? Your father misses you."
"No, he misses my skills." Two totally different things. Her father didn't give a crap about her, he just liked having free labor and a protege enemies respected.
"More than anyone, I'm glad to have you safe at home, but to walk away completely from the organization? You've had a two-month break. You can't turn your back on your future like this."
Karen backflipped onto the rail of the deck and vaulted to the backdoor. She turned to look at her stepmother. "Paola, I'm not even cut out for my so-called future. For the torture, the murder, everything. I've hit my ceiling."
Paola pursed her lips. "Maybe it doesn't have to come to that, mija."
"It will. If not this week, then the next. Any day, any year. I won't wait around for it."
Karen flung the door open and raced through the kitchen. As she ran upstairs, she could hear laughter and chatter from the drawing room. A few guests were milling about downstairs and coming through the front door, but she kept her head low so they wouldn't talk to her.
She tied a silk headband on her head to make up for how her curls had frizzed in the humid air. Her dress was hanging on the back door of her closet - blush pink, with a sweetheart neckline and poofy skirt like a longer tutu. Paola had likely approved it, but some assistant of Dad's had chosen it. Karen silently vowed to find out who picked out her formalwear and get her revenge.
Karen took her time walking down the steps in her slippery ballet flats. She was still awkwardly ambling like her legs were broken when Yasmin appeared at the bottom.
A thin smile appeared on the girl's narrow face.
"Don't laugh at me," Karen scowled.
Yasmin's grin widened.
"You got to choose your outfit," Karen pointed out.
"Yeah, I did," Yasmin gloated. She twirled in her red-orange dress, her blue-black curtain of hair fanning out around her. "C'mon, we're going to miss Dad's speech."
Karen rolled her eyes. "Who cares?"
"Mr. Jeffries is drunk as a skunk. I think he's going to cut in again." Their neighbor had made a fool of himself at the Marks' Christmas party last year.
"We care!" Karen walked faster.
The sparse furniture of the drawing room was replaced by round dining tables and high-backed chairs. The neutral shades of brown were now accented by soft gold and white. The room could easily hold a couple hundred guests and tonight is packed to the brim. As people glanced in their direction or said hello, the girls smiled just like Paola taught them. No one messed with you if you looked confident and aloof, like you were perfectly content. It was vulnerability that made you prey.
Out the corner of her eye, Karen could see her sister's feet dragging. "It's not a grand meeting," she said through her teeth. "Just business partners."
"Not all of them," Yasmin whispered, but she upped her pace. A truth Karen was trying to ignore. There was a huge overlap between Apollo's two groups of associates - the safe and the dangerous.
Yasmin didn't live the life Karen did. All the honor of working for their father went to Karen, his biological daughter and heir. But now that Karen had quit, the girls silently wondered if Yasmin would be called up. Apollo had deemed his stepdaughter too gentle. There could be a day when he decided nurture could beat out nature. After all, Apollo was full of surprises. Guilt hit Karen like a migraine whenever she thought about it.
In the center of the room, Paola was already waiting, chatting quietly with the lucky few seated at the king's table. She looked up as her daughters approached. "Ah, here they are. Yasmina. Karen. Come meet, Ms. Nguyen."
A bespectacled woman in her thirties with a tight chignon and a tighter smile nodded at them. "It's nice to meet you, ladies. Karen, you look so much like your father."
Karen's hands clutched her skirt. Was this her father's assistant? "Okay," she said stiffly.
A few of her father's friends chuckled.
Ms. Nguyen looked puzzled, but recovered, turning to the quiet Marks girl. "Yasmina, I hear you are musical?"
Paola gestured for Karen to take a seat next to her. Her red lips barely moved as she spoke, taking a sip of her wine. "That was crass, Karen."
"Then I've succeeded."
"That woman is Greyheart's replacement. Don't get on her bad side."
Yasmin had been right. Her father was always looking to cross things off his to-do list. Why not throw a celebratory dinner for his gang buddies while schmoozing up to business partners? And meanwhile, he could hunt for those that would be willing to cross over to either side. Genius.
"I'm so sick of this," Karen muttered. "I don't want to be a puppet or a prop for him." She grabbed a roll from the basket just to have something to do besides speak to her neighbors.
After a long moment, Paola spoke quietly into her wine glass again. "When you're eighteen, you can go wherever you want. I'll see to it."
Karen faltered. "A - Are you serious?" she intoned, though the rest of their table was listening to a detailed story from Yasmin.
"Yes." It was 'my word is final' tone. A voice Karen believed in.
"I -" A thought hit her. No. Who knew what her father would be able to accomplish in the next three-and-a-half years? How deep would he implicate her in his crimes? Might he even reveal hers just to keep the princess in the castle? "Eighteen is too far from now."
Paola laughed. "Oh to be young and have three years seem far."
"I need to leave now. I need to stay with Uncle Drew again. I could go this summer." It was her best option to avoid getting sucked in again. She would even endure her aunt Miranda.
"Not this again," Paola sighed.
"Dad's not so angry with me anymore. And besides, even if he sent for me, he wouldn't hurt my family." She silently added that Uncle Drew was a policeman and could protect them all just fine.
Paola glanced around at their table. Some people had left to mingle with the other guests and the rest were in deep conversation with Yasmin. "Karen…" Paola started.
"Mama, please. Yasmin will understand. You should, too." This was the most selfish thing she'd ever asked of her family, to endure their father alone. But after all, they'd been doing it before she came along.
Paola fiddled with the pendant of her necklace. Her face emptied of all mirth. "I wasn't supposed to tell you until school ended, because you didn't need the stress. We wanted you to focus on healing from your injuries after Neco, but...your family moved. Last week, someone fired at Drew as he was walking in the house after a late-night patrol."
The words hung in the air, thick and heavy. Karen felt like they were sitting on her chest, and dragging her out of her chair. Her hand covered her mouth. "Is he -?"
"No, nina, he wasn't shot, bless God. But they're staying with his wife's family in Canada."
Karen exhaled. "This is Peachtree we're talking about. I mean, that didn't even go down in my hometown." At least, not a lot. And what she did remember, she tried not to.
"Look what happens here." Paola gestured to the room of upper-class citizens decked out in formalwear, drinking expensive wine and discussing charity donations. She licked her lips. "Drew is worried it might be tied to a recent case. The details led the police department to believe it was personal. The family is safe, but that could change. You should stay away for a while."
Karen shook her head. "Still -"
Her father's voice interrupted. "Can I have everyone's attention?" Apollo Marks, dressed in a smart blue suit, stood at the front and center of the gold-and-beige room, leaning against a podium and holding a microphone. The noise died down and people found their seats.
"Friends, family...reluctant allies," Apollo drawled, to light laughter. "I just have one question for you."
The whole room seemed to lean forward.
"How'd we get such a good-looking party together tonight?"
The crowd roared. Karen exchanged a look with Yasmina across the table, who mimed picking her nose and flicking it across the room.
"It's my honor," Apollo continued, "to welcome you to the celebration of my lovely co-workers at Roaming Enterprises. These past ten years have…"
Karen slowly began to tear apart her napkin until she saw Ms. Nguyen staring at her with a frown. Karen crumbled the mess into a ball and tossed it onto her plate. Weird lady.
When her father was finished, he cued the music and sauntered to his seat, accompanying a thunderous applause. The jazz would've been soothing if she were anywhere else.
"How was that?" He greeted Paola with a kiss.
"Inspiring, my love," she trilled. "You might have left out the details of this past quarter's failings, though."
He tucked into his soup with gusto. "It's a light check, dear. It pushes them to grow."
"It keeps spirits down, with the more fragile ones," Paola disagreed with a smile.
"Well there's no place for fragile within my company," Apollo declared. "Wouldn't you agree, Ms. Nguyen?"
"Certainly, sir," the woman nodded readily.
"And I, too, Apollo," commented the balding bigshot next to her.
Karen dropped her spoon, sending it clattering to the ground. Her family glanced her way.
She ignored their curious looks, instead looking to the floral jacquard tablecloth. "I'd like to be excused. I don't feel so well."
Paola shook her head. "Sit down and finish your soup before you go."
"I'm not hungry."
Her father wiped his face with a napkin. "Listen to your mother, Kare." His voice was Splenda-sweet. "You'll feel better with a little food. All that running and no eating is going to wear you down." He announced to the others, "My girl is gonna be an Olympian one of these days."
As her father answered questions for her about her own life, Karen set to work finishing her first course before her parents changed their minds. She wanted to go to her room and think about Charlie and Uncle Drew being too far away for her to run to them. She wanted to be sad for a while, then brainstorm for her next move. Staying at this damn party was only going to cloud her reasoning.
She was practically done when her father called her name.
"Yes, Father?" she exaggerated her words, playing the role of dutiful daughter as falsely as he played that of the benevolent parent. There was only so much she could get away with saying in front of his friends.
Apollo's smile didn't shift but she could see the flicker of annoyance. "Why don't you dance with Monty?"
No one was dancing yet, but the music had switched to something lighter and quicker, promoting a friendly, post-meal vibe in the room. Karen was graceful enough to get by, but she didn't dance unless it was to avoid someone (like her father) or sheer boredom got to her.
Paola got her husband's hint. "Oh, yes. He's on the debate team, isn't he?"
Karen glanced across the room, to where the lanky blond boy was seated beside his father Monty Matthews, Sr. The kid was a year ahead of her and the biggest loudmouth she'd ever met. "Not my type," she blurted out.
"It's a good thing it's a dance and not a date," her father laughed. "Fifteen minutes until the seafood arrives," he noted with a glance at his watch. He offered his arm to Paola. "Shall we?"
Couple after couple trailed onto the dance floor. As the table emptied, Karen took her father's seat next to Yasmin. "What's on your mind, shortie?"
Yasmin shrugged, her expression clouding over. While Karen favored her father, Yasmin was becoming more and more like Paola every day. It was odd to see Paola's features without a constant megawatt smile.
"It's nothing," Yasmin said. "At least, for me."
"This again?" Karen tried in vain to keep the jeering out of her voice, but Yasmin had been freaking her out lately. Sometimes the girl acted like a psychic. Predictions and 'bad feelings' were out of line with how Karen saw the world. And it didn't fit the little bookworm Yasmin Karen grew up with.
"I'm serious, Kare." Yasmin frowned. "Of course, it could've been what Mama was saying."
"You heard that?" Karen squawked. She had seemed pretty immersed in her conversation with dad's friends.
"I found out yesterday when I was eavesdropping." She looked down. "I'm sorry your real family left."
Karen laughed, disbelieving. "My real family? There's no 'real' or 'not real' with family."
"You say that, but I know how sad you are." Yasmin's eyes turned dreamy again. "My papa is real family. I know Mama couldn't stay with him, but I wish I could see him."
"Well, look at his crappy stand-in, of course you do," Karen remarked. "But it's different with sisters. Charlie is just as much a sister to me as you are."
Yasmin smiled gently, probably only to appease Karen. "For what it's worth, I think Mama should send you to Canada, anyway."
"Maybe we could convince her it's not so dangerous."
"That won't work," Yasmin stressed. "We have to convince her of the danger here."
"Your premonition," Karen murmured. Paola didn't give weight to Yasmina's sixth sense, but she didn't discredit either, not like Karen did. Perhaps that could be useful. "Maybe."
Yasmin glanced out the corner of her eye. Karen followed her gaze to where Monty was glancing their way. They watched him lean in to whisper something to his father.
"Danger!" Karen and Yasmin said in unison and then ducked under the table.
Karen giggled, trying not to drop the dinner roll she was eating. "Do you think he saw us?"
"Why do you care if he does? He's just a stupid nerd."
Karen sucked her teeth, a bad habit Paola had given up on trying to erase. "Like you aren't?"
"No, I'm a weirdo. A damn smart one."
Karen peeked out the bottom of the table, but couldn't find a good angle. Her poofy pink skirt seemed to balloon into her line of sight, no matter what. "Crap. I can't face him."
Yasmin smirked. "Because he's got a big fat crush on you and you're scared of boys?"
Karen punched her shoulder. "No. I don't want to see the doofus who got my spot on the debate team." It would've been hers if her father had let her try out. As it was, she had no one to blame but Monty.
"He's kind of cute," Yasmin pointed out. "In a goofy, floppy-looking way. I wouldn't mind dancing with him."
"Careful. Don't creep him out," Karen warned. Her sister had a penchant for bringing up disturbing topics at random moments.
An evil smile. "Two birds, one stone."
"Oh, thank you, Yasmin!" Karen cheered.
"Don't mention it. But if he's an a-hole, you owe me one."
The hem of Yasmin's vermillion dress left, her matching kitten heels quickly walking off.
Karen wiped the bread crumbs from her skirt and started to collect herself. This was the center of the room, but closer to the back wall than the dance floor. Everyone was socializing, moving about. There'd be time to get out without her father seeing. She knew how to make an escape, no matter where she was.
Her foot kicked something small and round. She picked up Yasmin's red crossbody purse. What a forgetful oracle. At least it provided the perfect excuse to stay seated at the table waiting for the next course. Hugging the purse, Karen climbed out.
The lights flicked off. Karen froze in place. People chattered around her, some amused, a few exasperated.
Her father's voice came on the microphone. "Well this is embarrassing, look who forgot to pay the light bill!" her father joked. "Stay where you are and we'll get back to the fun!"
The moon wasn't out, but the enormous windows of the western wall provided enough lights from outside to see shadows. Karen flinched away from those nearest her, glancing around like a caged animal.
On missions, she'd traveled at night, walked down alleyways, creeped into empty buildings. More often than not, she was alone. She didn't have a gun or a partner, but she'd had herself, a strong body and sharp mind that stayed on the defensive, for jobs big and small. That same feeling came to mind as she stood in the dark waiting, holding her sister's purse.
In the distance, she could make out a waiter by the storage closet, flicking on something. They were probably trying the fuse box.
Someone leaned against the double doors, leading to the foyer. "Hey," a man shouted. "These are stuck!"
Her father spoke again. "Everyone, please, wait patiently."
Someone jiggled the doorknob to her father's office. People crowded at the main doors or at the back ones, the waitstaff's entrance from the kitchens. A slight panic was forming.
A cry broke out. "Call 911!"
It was hard to see much of anything, as the windows faced a high hedge wall. But in the darkness, the flicker of light was strong. Fire.
It was close, but the flames were growing by the second. Soon they'd be in the house.
A shrill voice cried, "My phone's not working!"
"Me too!" another voice boomed.
Shadows shifted quickly, frantically. Karen crawled onto the table and crouched. She watched people knock into each other and fall and trip. They cried and searched and worried and begged for help.
A hand grabbed hers. Karen looked down at Paola's worried face. "Let's go."
Karen climbed down. She hung on tight as she was dragged around through the dark. "Where's Yasmina?"
Paola's voice was hard to hear in the commotion. "Looking."
They knocked into people aimlessly. A group of men pounded on the doors. "Let us out!"
"People, settle, the firemen are arriving soon," her father's voice warned. Was it true? If anyone could get help her father could.
"Step aside," Paola barked, coming to the entrance. A few dozen men shifted to give her room. Paola backed up a step, then kicked a stilettoed foot into the entryway. The doors didn't budge.
"Paola, careful!" Karen said.
Paola grunted and readjusted her form. She kicked again, channeling her full strength. The doors broke apart and she nearly fell to the floor.
The foyer was on fire.
Smoke choked them all. It was hard to see any surface that wasn't burning. People screamed in shock and fear. Some ran for the outside, chancing the inferno. Others kicked at the glass wall, but it was too strong and the drawing room was already catching fire in one corner.
Paola took a quick look at her daughter. "Go."
"But, Paola -"
"Listen to me. I will find Yasmin and I will meet you outside in three minutes."
Paola grabbed Karen's shoulders. "Now. Before it's too late."
Karen raced out the foyer. A sprinting man nearly knocked her into the flames. She grabbed a fallen dinner napkin and pressed it to her face. She navigated a route, stepping here, stumbling there. This was like a sick game.
She heard it before she saw it and threw herself to the side. A chunk of the ceiling had fallen where she stood. Glancing up through the smoke, she could see the blazes dancing across the high vaulting.
Who had the time to be so thorough? Someone didn't want anyone to escape this house.
A cry startled her. She squinted. Over by the front door, a man was trapped under a fallen pillar. People continued to crawl or creep by, mapping their own exit.
Karen glanced around her. In this corner of the house, she could reach the main living room. The glass was too strong for her to break, but she could throw something.
A wave of dark orange caught her eye. Something artificial and flowy, a fabric. It was moving up the steps, weaving between the flames. It was something she knew. Someone.
"Yasmin!" Karen tried to shout, but had to cover her mouth again. Her eyes stung. She'd faced much worse than the hazy pain and irritation of being trapped in a fire.
She crawled, afraid of being knocked down. The chaos of the partygoers was a dark symphony to accompany her ascent up the stairs. Like a child, she clung to the bar, never knowing when she'd have to jump, but she moved quickly, methodically.
"Hey, you! Get down!" someone called. Through the bars she saw a middle-aged woman in black was waving to her. Not her mother, not a friend… Her help was not wanted.
Karen swayed. Fire licked her arm. She screamed. She lost her footing and turned, rolling into a splintered plank of wood. Another fallen pillar. Her skin sliced open.
All her fight to stay out of missions and here she was, right back in one.
Grunting, Karen turned over. Her back bore a fresh, deep cut between the shoulder blades and her stupid dress was all bloodied. Still, she pushed and pushed until she was on the second floor, staring at the grey runner rugs. The smoke wasn't as strong up here, and though she heard it crackling in the distance, no fire was in sight.
"Yasmina! Get down here!" Karen croaked, climbing to shaking feet. She clung to the wall, peering into room after room. Why were there so many rooms for four people? Curse this house. Not small and cozy like her last home. Or Grandma's little house facing the park.
Focus, brain. She gained strength and quickened the pace, turning into the next hall, hers. She touched the doorknob to her bedroom and jerked back. Hot.
Yasmina's was a few doors down. "Mina!" she called. "Please!" She pushed open the door, using her dress to alleviate the heat…
And nearly fell into flames. The entire room, from the bed to the floor had become Little Hell.
Karen turned and ran for her life. What was she doing? Why was she here? For all she knew, Yasmin had not gone upstairs at all. Her brain was overworked and thinking fuzzy.
A faint shadow, far up ahead, caught her eye, turning into a room.
Yasmina! Karen raced through the darkness, her heart thumping in her ears and her lungs losing power. She crossed a long hall and followed into her and Yasmina's old playroom. This room was worse off than the halls, just like their bedrooms. The cheery red and blue curtains were engulfed in flames, casting a furious glow to the safari-themed wallpaper. A glass balcony door hung off the hinges and beyond, the balcony itself was smashed to pieces like a shipwreck. Worst of all, her father was leaning against a wall, huffing and puffing.
"What you following me for?" he complained, as if they both weren't at death's door.
"I'm trying to -" She waved her hand. "Yasmina? Paola?"
"Should be outside." His concern quickly gave way to anger. "Why aren't you with them?"
She took a breath. The fresh air was a relief to her brain and body, but the fire would destroy that soon. "Paola's looking for her. Why are you here?"
He pressed the heel of his hand into his heart, collapsing into a little pink chair. "Karen, I need…" He gestured to the corner of the room. "In that chest."
"You need a doctor, let's go." She tugged his sleeve.
He gave her a sharp look. "Not leaving without it."
Karen sighed and pushed the wooden toy chest away. A foot above the floor, an old-school metal door, big as a shoebox, stared back at her. "Key?"
Apollo cursed and stumbled through the flames. He reached into his suit jacket and produced a necklace with a diamond-shaped pendant. "This."
Karen unlocked the door and eased out a black case, weighing fifty pounds at least. She hefted it up. "Don't tell me you came back for money."
"No," her father coughed. "Not money. Secrets."
"Even Yasmin knows the worst."
"Not the worst," he coughed harder. "Carry it," he ordered, his eyes unfocused.
"Too heavy! I'm tired." The fire was spreading to the toys and desks and furniture. "We have a minute, tops, to leave this room." She didn't even want to consider how they'd get downstairs.
"I know a way," he breathed, leaning against the wall. "Carry."
"I can't!" She pushed it into his arms.
Furious, her father held the box to his chest. He staggered, then collapsed. His wiry frame hit the glass door hard and pieces shattered. He was tumbling outside.
"Dad!" Karen lunged. Her hand caught Apollo's. She pressed one foot against the wall, anchoring herself.
Half of her body was hanging outside, upside down, staring at what used to be the deck. The backyard was so engulfed in fire she couldn't make sense of what was where. Glass cut into her freshly-healed rib cage. She sensed the curtains' flames coming in close, making their way to her legs against the wall.
Apollo seemed to wake up a little. His right hand still clung to the handle of the box, but he looked up at her, realization dawning in his eyes. Karen recognized this as the first time her father had looked truly terrified.
He'd never had everything taken away from him. He'd never been this close to losing. "Kare, hurry," he pleaded.
"I'm trying!" she yelled. She pulled. A shockwave of pain coursed through her body. The wound on her back protested. "I can't. Drop the case."
Pull she did, but her body was already fighting to live, even with fresh air coming to her lungs. They were past the red zone now. Something had to give.
"Help!" Apollo screamed. "Someone! Help!"
Beads of sweat formed between their hands. Karen' hand tightened around her father's.
"No one's down there," she hissed. "No one that will help."
"You think we should just wait here to die?" her father snarled.
Something in her snapped. "You're the reason we're going to die! You have no one to blame but yourself for tonight. The Seven promised to come after you, and look, they have."
"How dare you," he seethed. "You ungrateful child. Don't blame me for your cowardice."
"I'm no coward," she declared. "But I'm looking at one."
He spat. "If I'd gotten to you earlier…"
"I still would walk away! No one can stop me! Not even you!"
"So eager to play hero," he muttered. "Even now."
Karen closed her eyes, trying to block out the screams from below. "I'm not ashamed of saving you, Apollo."
"Really?" he taunted, his voice cutting to the bone. "Even though I've made your life a living hell? Even though you don't have a single friend anymore and you're going to serve this gang until you die? Even though you hate me?" He laughed madly, swinging as he did so.
She dug her nails into his sleeve. "Stop it!"
He cackled, throwing his head back. "You could have saved your sister, but all you saved was the man you despise."
"Stop!" she shrieked.
"Poor hero. Too good for her own good."
"No!" With all her might, she held on, digging her toes into the floorboards, fighting, fighting, fighting.
Then she let go.
Her father didn't even scream, but she did.