For those who missed the first of the NO PEACE FOR THE DAMNED prequel chapters, click here to get brought up to speed. This next chapter picks up right where the first left off: Magnolia, wide-eyed and free, experiencing the world outside of her family’s estate for the first time. But what happens when a Network agent other than Thirteen discovers her presence? Let’s find out, shall we? 🙂
***By the way, as you read this, please keep in mind that these chapters have only been partially edited. There is a fairly good chance that you may come across an inconsistency or content error. If you don’t mind, just ignore those little things and move on. Thanks! ****
Living on the estate, one day ran into the next. The sun would rise and set, guests would come and go, but for me every day was the same. Fear, hiding, pain, healing – a stagnant existence where moments stood out only because of the severity of my punishment or fear.
Now, though, time flew as I eagerly soaked in every new experience. Grocery stores, banks, gas stations, restaurants – God, there was just so much. Thirteen became my constant companion, walking me through the normal, everyday things I needed to know to exist in society. I stayed in his mind constantly, waiting for that open kindness to slip and reveal the manipulative intentions underneath.
It never happened.
Instead, he kept my presence secret, even from the rest of his Network. Since my family believed I was dead, it was his way of protecting me until I was ready to go out on my own.
The days stretched into weeks and before I realized it, two months had passed. I plopped down on the sofa beside Thirteen. He’d stopped by for his daily visit and was reviewing the game plan for one of his teams’ mission on his laptop.
“You need to teach me how to drive,” I said.
Thirteen stopped typing and angled the screen away from me. Whatever. If he wanted to pretend I didn’t know everything about the Network after being in his mind all this time, fine. He could keep his little delusions.
“You think you’re ready for that?” he asked.
“Totally. I’m doing great going out in public now.”
Okay, so maybe great was an overstatement. But I hadn’t hurt anyone in weeks. There were just too many people around here who worked for my father. I’d always known Kelch, Inc. was enormous what with its pharmaceuticals and consumer products and weapons contracts, but who knew that a trip to the grocery store would mean running into a dozen people stressing about their jobs. I heard a hateful thought and the name Kelch and I attacked. So sue me. At least I always remembered to erase the experience from my victim’s mind before we returned to the safe house.
“What about the telepathy? Are you still feeling overwhelmed?”
I sipped at my Jim Beam. The stuff was nasty compared to the stock of Four Flowers that Uncle Max always kept on hand, but it did the job. “It’s better,” I lied thinking of all the voices that swam in my head whenever I went someplace crowded. “I’m getting used to it.”
He pressed his lips together. “Still, driving, going out alone, it’s dangerous.”
I looked at my drink. Screw it. “Okay, look. Truth is I’ve been going out alone ever since you brought me here. I mean, come on. You didn’t really expect me to just sit here forever and wait around for you to show up and take me out? Granted, I’ve been invisible a lot of the time – people falling into lust-comas whenever I walk through the door kind of gets old – but just the other day I walked to the mini-mart and got a bag of cookies and I was visible and everything.” I lifted my chin. “I’m not your prisoner, Thirteen. I can do what I want.” I had to keep reminding myself of that, though.
“Of course you can, Magnolia.” His overly patient voice made me grind my teeth. “And I agree, your acclimation to the world outside of your family’s estate has been impressive. Most especially these last couple weeks.” He studied me for a moment then sighed. Yes! I tried to temper my ear-to-ear grin as he said, “All right. We can take the SUV out this afternoon. Just let me finish…”
The front door flew open, slamming against the back wall with a bang. A lumbering, train wreck of a man pounded his way into the foyer. Nearly as big as Thirteen, the man’s barrel chest spread into his gut, sagging over his waistband. Long reddish hair frazzled on top of his head. He stood at an angle, his wide frame barely held upright by an out-of-date metal prosthetic leg. And his face was scarred like he’d been mauled by some animal. In fact, his one eye was covered by a shiny metal eye patch sewn directly into his face. Was he trying to look like a cyborg? Didn’t matter. Only thing that mattered was that he was here. And he was pissed.
“Thirteen, you lying bastard!” the man bellowed. “Who the hell do you think you are keeping someone….” That was all he got out.
I moved faster than they could track. One moment I sat on the couch beside Thirteen, the next I was across the room, slamming into the unwieldy man. With one hand wrapped around his throat, I held him against the foyer wall, his feet dangling off the ground.
“Magnolia, don’t!” Thirteen’s voice stopped me.
I glanced over my shoulder. “This a friend of yours? I thought no one was supposed to come here.”
“Please,” Thirteen said slowly. He stepped carefully around the sofa to stand in front of the open door. “This is Banks. He is my second in command at the Network. I’ve never told him or anyone else about your staying here. My guess is he figured out the house was being used and assumed correctly that I was keeping things from him.”
I turned back to the man I still held against the wall. His one eye bulged from lack of oxygen. I moved right up into to his face, our noses almost touching. “If you think for a moment that being friends with Thirteen will keep you safe if you try anything against me, it will be a moment you regret.” With a quick push, I peeked at his thoughts. Wow, he was really on the verge of unconsciousness. And he hadn’t figured out who I was yet. Not very impressive for a second in command. I released him and he fell to the floor with a thud. Whatever. I went back to my drink as Thirteen scanned the street outside and closed the front door.
Damn it! I couldn’t believe he’d surprised me like that. I needed to sharpen up. Fast. Back at the estate, I’d always known the warning signs. Father’s frustration meant I was about to play whipping post. His excitement: time to be guinea pig for one of his experiments. And if Father or Uncle Max had been pissed off about something – well, that just meant I needed to run, hide and pray for unconsciousness before the real pain kicked in. Here, I didn’t know the tells.
Well, screw that.
The big man, Banks, was bent at the waist, coughing in gasps of air. Thirteen knelt beside him, attentive-like. Why his concern pissed me off, I had no idea. I threw back the rest of my drink and waited.
When Banks finally lifted his head, he glared at me. “Who is she, Thirteen?” he wheezed. Thirteen steadied him. I rolled my eyes.
“Are you alright?” Thirteen asked.
Banks snarled, “Answer the question, damn it! Who is she?”
Thirteen looked my way. My skin turned to shrink wrap. This was the moment I’d been waiting for. Thirteen had to choose – keep my confidence, or reveal my identity to the rest of his Network. I hated how desperately I wanted him to choose me.
Magnolia – can you hear me?
His words were as clear as if he’d really spoken. Thirteen wasn’t telepathic – he was just focusing his thoughts.
Yeah, I hear you. I replied back into his mind.
His expression turned grim. My stomach rolled. I knew what he was going to say even before he thought it. Damn it, I should have known all along. No one ever chose me. Never. It’s just, his illusion had been so perfect. That whole kindness thing, in his thoughts, in his actions – he must have been sweating bullets to keep up the pretense so completely. My humiliation grew dark as I felt power chill beneath my skin.
I froze. What?
Now, Magnolia. Run. Disappear. If you want to contact me again, you’ll figure out how, but for now, go. Before he realizes who you truly are.
My mind blanked out. The rising power inside me slunk away. He chose me. Over his Network, his second-in-command, over everyone. I searched his face, looking for the trick. When all I saw was sincerity, I rifled through his mind, skimming deeper than ever before. There were holes, thoughts and images he refused to explore, but nothing vengeful or selfish. He truly wanted to protect me.
When I felt a trail of wetness on my cheek, I reached up automatically. Tears? But I wasn’t in any pain. In fact, there was a warmth growing inside me that I’d never felt before.
Banks pulled away from Thirteen, stood to his full height as he looked back and forth between us. Suddenly, the entire paradigm of my situation shifted. Thirteen would keep his word. It didn’t matter who my family was or what supernatural evil flowed through my veins. He would protect me because he really cared about me. This moment wasn’t about the choice he had to make. It was about the choice I had to make.
“This is your last chance, Thirteen,” Banks snarled, staring at me as he spoke. “Either you tell me who you’ve been harboring against Network protocol or I call for back up.”
Thirteen rose to stand beside his second. And kept rising. As big as Banks was, Thirteen was still a full head taller. When he looked down on the mangled man, it was very clear which of the two was used to receiving ultimatums, and which was used to giving them.
“It would be in your best interest to remember who the superior officer is here, Banks.” Thirteen’s deep voice was eerily low.
Banks pointed a hard finger my way. “That usurps ranking and you know it!”
Thirteen’s chest puffed up. He was about to overstep his own rules. He hated doing it, but he would break any rule he needed to to keep his word to me.
“Tell him.” My voice came out in a shaky squeak. “Tell him, Thirteen.” I reached down for my glass, my hand shaking so badly I sloshed the whiskey on my fingers. After a long drink I lifted my chin. “I’m free now. No one here can hurt me. Not you, or him, or any of your other Network agents. You don’t need to compromise yourself to protect me. I can take care of myself.”
And I could. I mean, I had escaped, hadn’t I? I’d been learning how to live out here in the real world. Hell, pretty soon I’d even be able to drive. So what if Thirteen’s Network knew about me. It was like he said, I hadn’t done anything wrong. Other than being born a Kelch.
As Thirteen finally nodded and began explaining my situation to Banks, his words became a buzz in my ears.
I never imagined there could be an emotional tie to someone where you stayed because you wanted to, not because they scared the crap of you. Thirteen looked back at me, smiled, and I felt that warm thing inside me spread. Wonder what else I’d find myself capable of now that I’d chosen to stay?