It had been two weeks since my experience with Laurence. When I realised I couldn't go through with stealing the Dragon Fang, I'd packed up in the night and shot through. Just turned and ran away. I spent the weeks on the road, constantly looking over my shoulder for Darius and his people but I heard nothing of him.
No hit man. No ambush in the middle of the night.
For a while I just lived off what funds I had including what I'd earned from selling the dress Laurence had bought me. Sometimes my phone pinged with messages from him. I'd entertained them for a while. Explaining that I had to cut my 'business trip' short. Then, as the days passed into weeks I came to realise how different our worlds were. I still felt for Laurence. Strongly. But I knew that in time those feelings would fade. He would move on. I was just a momentary fascination, no doubt. Maybe Tia had a shot with him after all. Then eventually, as my savings started to dwindle, I found myself heading to the one place I'd always felt safe. Where I was always welcome. I went home.
As usual Matron had a list of jobs for me when I arrived. She was fine with me crashing on her couch just so long as I pulled my weight around the house. The girls weren't going to rear themselves. And as usual she asked no questions. I spent most of my time either running errands for Matron or repairing things around the house. The back door was sticking and the kitchen tap was leaking. So making the most of Youtube tutorials and relying on my skills of improvisation I became the resident 'jack of all trades'.
I had my head buried under the kitchen sink when I heard the front doorbell. I didn't think anything of it. Matron had been pulling adoption appointments all afternoon while the kids were at school. Minutes later I felt her presence standing at my feet. I glanced up to see Matron, white in the face and whispering my name. She didn't need to say anything. Her expression said it all.
Running from the cops is one thing. You always know you have rights regardless of what you'd done. You have the right to an attorney. You have the right to remain silent. Running from the mob however, well that's a whole new ball game. The only rights you have with them is the right to wind up dead. I bolted from the house like a bat out of hell. Taking a flying leap at the fence, I scaled it in half a second and took off through an alleyway behind the house. Darius' car was parked on the curb, partially blocking my escape. His driver gawked at me as I bounced off the bonnet and hit the ground running. It took about three seconds for Darius' goons to jump on my tail. Three more seconds for them to start really catching up.
I tore across an intersection, breaks screeching and car horns blaring and took refuge in a tight laneway running between two houses. Heart pounding, I scaled a backyard fence, barely missing a pool and struggled my way through a minefield of kid's toys and dog poop. I heard the splash of one of Darius' goons landing in the pool behind me and scaled the back of the garage before bolting across the roof. Then jumping down on a car in the drive way, I hit the street again, lungs heaving and legs burning. I heard the screech of tyres and the flash of black in my peripherals. Darius' car was racing up to meet me. It barely slowed down to let out one of his goons. He took off in an intercept run.
That was cheating!
The goon's giant form barrelled to meet me and rammed me in the side. Arms windmilling, I staggered into a wall and he landed on top of me, pinning me between two arms, his ugly mug looming in my face broken nose and all. I hoisted a knee and snapped him in the nuts before ramming my fist into his windpipe. He hit the ground mewing and I took off into another stagger-run, already feeling my muscles seizing. Darius' car appeared out of nowhere. Jumping the footpath ahead of me, it stopped centimetres from hitting the wall. I skidded on my heels but couldn't stop in time. I landed straight into the arms of Darius' other goon as he stepped from the car. His grin flashed in my vision before he head-butted me in the face.
I was barely conscious when the goon threw me before Darius. I hit the floorboards with a thud, face throbbing and head spinning. He occupied Matron's office, leaning on the end of her desk, curiously browsing through my old school reports like a doting father. One bent on grounding me. Six feet under.
When I hit the floor he glanced up, mobster glare bouncing between me and his thug. "What part of unharmed didn't make it through your thick skull?"
His goon backed off me as though to deny all responsibility for my messed up face. "She put up a fight. You should'a seen what she did to Tyson." I think thug-boy realised the stupidity of his words the moment they left his mouth. His shoulders slumped and he let himself out, leaving me to face the wrath of the mob alone.
Darius Giovanni was livid.
"Well this is disappointing," he said quietly. Calm before the storm.
He reached for his holster and pulled the gun from under his arm, taking every care to gently screw on its silencer. My still-spinning-head took a moment to register it. When it did, I felt my heart freeze in my chest.
"You're an intelligent woman, Kaida. You've made a name for yourself, which for a thief so young is impressive." He heaved a sigh, as though it was actually going to pain him to kill me. "So you can imagine just how disappointed I was when I realised you haven't yet figured out I'm not a very forgiving man."
I licked my lips. My mouth was bone dry. I had to fight the urge to check and see if I still had all of my teeth. Not that that was going to matter for much longer.
"Guess I'm a slow learner," I said with far more confidence than I felt. "Regardless, I can't in good conscience let you have that fang. So you're just going to have to do without it."
The crime lord's head fell into a nod and I watched the knuckles that gripped the handle of his gun turn white. "Do you honestly believe that I am not capable of getting someone else to steal that artefact?" He rose from his position on the desk, all six-feet-something of angry Italian. "Do you honestly believe that I am not capable of tearing down the entire Dragon Clan in order to get what I want?"
He was suddenly on top of me. The force of a freight train grabbing me by the hair and dragging me the length of Matron's office. I let out a cry, struggling to keep up with brute strength as he threw me into an armchair. His body towered over me, watching in silence my heaving chest and my heart that threatened to burst from my ribcage.
"I'm very disappointed in you."
He circled behind me, ring laden fingers curling around locks of my hair before he yanked my head back into the headrest. I felt the cold kiss of the gun under my chin and I closed my eyes tight, unable to stop the wimpier that gurgled up from the back of my throat. This was it. He was going to kill me in Matron's own office. His face was so close to my ear that I could feel his breath on my cheek. "It's lucky for you that we're friends, Kaida."
He pulled the trigger.
I heard the click. And then I heard nothing. No pop in my skull. No brains exploding over the office. Nothing. I sensed Darius' movement as he pulled away from me and headed back to the desk. I dared open my eyes one at a time, my hand immediately going to my head. It was still there. I was still here. Alive.
The gun... it wasn't loaded.
Darius was sitting on the edge of Matron's desk again, casually unscrewing the silencer and slipping the gun back into its holster.
"I'm willing to forgive you your ignorance, child."
He had the audacity to take a sip from Matron's mangled mug, his message hitting home one hundred percent. He not only had the power to do away with me, but my entire adopted family too. No one would bat an eye at a burned down orphanage or a handful of executed orphans. What had I done?
He noted the sinking in my expression. "This is your final and only warning. Cross me again and there will be consequences far more severe than a messed up face." He handed me Matron's mug and headed for the door, his Italian leather shoes squeaking on the floorboards. "Midnight in two days. You will have that fang for me."
I squinted as the icepack touched my head but the cool brought relief to the constant throbbing. My head felt like it had been used as a rattle. According to the giant egg on my skull, the thug had head-butted me right in the middle of my forehead. I felt it in my whole face. Even my teeth ached. Before, my body had been pumped so full of adrenaline that I could've run a marathon. Now, I was a quivering wreck. Every part of me shook. Every part of me felt so cold. So numb. Never in my life had I been so terrified. Even facing off with that angry dragon paled in comparison to experiencing the wrath of Darius Giovanni. Somehow. Somewhere along the lines I had become his. And I'd let it happen.
Matron was silent as she dabbed my bleeding knees. I didn't remember scraping them. Probably somewhere in the chase. Darius and his goons had not touched her, thank the Guardians, but her hands still shook as she cleaned the gravel from my wounds.
"We should probably get you to a hospital," her voice wavered when she spoke.
"I'll be alright. I'm not throwing up so the concussion shouldn't be that bad, right?" This wasn't my first concussion.
Matron's lips pursed in disapproval. "We won't know how bad it is until you get it checked."
"You were a nurse once, why can't you-"
"Because you need to start taking responsibility for your actions, Kaida!" Matron's outburst was so unexpected that I found myself shocked by it. The woman never shouted. Ever. She was red in the face and shaking. Fuming. "Do you have any idea at all how badly this could have gone, child?"
I slunk in my seat, my eyes darting to the kitchen table. Oh I knew how badly it could've gone. It was only by Darius' forgiveness that I'd escaped death.
"What if this wasn't a school day, Kaida? What then?" Matron continued. "The girls, they could have been badly hurt or even..." She bit down on her lip, unable to finish her sentence. When she looked at me, she had tears in her eyes. "Kaida, what you're doing. The people you've gotten yourself involved with. I thought I'd taught you better. You need to stop this."
I swallowed a lump in my throat, my heart sinking into my knees. Guardians, what had I done coming back here? I'd endangered everyone. "I can't."
Matron rose from her crouch to face me. She towered over me like an old tree in wintertime. Nothing but skin and bones.
"Why? Kaida? Why can you just-"
"Because Darius threatened to hurt you if I stopped." I tried to face her. Tried to show her how much I wanted to fix things. To just go back in time and change everything I'd done. Maybe it would have been better if I'd just died in that crash with my parents. "If I stop. I won't be able to protect you from him."
Tears stung my eyes, feeling so hot on my cheeks. I don't know when I'd started crying but I realised that I couldn't stop. I watched Matron recoil. The horror in her eyes... it was something I will never forget. Realities collided in her expression. I was a monster.
"Perhaps it is best that you not return here," she said, her eyes going dull.
The closest thing I had to a mother turned away from me and left.
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