Alpha, p.2
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       Alpha, p.2
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         Part #1 of Alpha series by Jasinda Wilder  
“So I cash it. ”

  We spent the evening drinking. I got blitzed on about eight beers and passed out on the couch, since I didn’t have to be up in the morning. Layla and I both had an afternoon class, so we slept in until almost eleven, which was nice. After breakfast and a shower, Layla and I went together to the bank. I stood in front of the teller, two checks in my hand, shaking like a leaf. Eventually, I managed to hand them to the teller. I asked her to deposit them, and give me back a thousand dollars in cash.

  When that was done, the teller handed me a receipt and an envelope full of the cash she’d counted out to me. I put two hundred dollars in twenties in my purse, and left the other eight hundred in the envelope. I stared at the bank balance on the receipt: $9,658. 67. We left the bank, got into my car, and drove to the university. True to form, Layla made no mention of the money, no hints at how many bills she had due, how much she could use even a couple hundred bucks. Couple hundred? Shit, to girls in our situation, even twenty bucks would be a godsend. She wouldn’t ask, not ever, no matter how much money I had. Just like I wouldn’t ask her if the situation were reversed. She’d never ask for anything unless she was in dire straits like I was now. Before we got out and went to class, I put the envelope of cash into Layla’s hand.

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  “Here. ” I folded her fingers over the edge. “I know you need it. ”

  Layla stared at me. “Um. No. ”

  I nodded. “Um, yes. You didn’t think I wouldn’t share with my best friend, did you?”

  “Kyrie. You can’t give this to me. You need it. ”

  I smiled at her. “You do, too. I have enough now. You’re not just my bestie, Layla. You’re…you’re like family. So just take it and say thank you. ”

  She sniffled. “You’re gonna make me smear my mascara, hookerface. ” Layla took a deep breath, blinked, and visibly forced away the tears. “Thank you, Kyrie. You know I love you, right?”

  It was a big deal for her to say that. She’d grown up in a tough household. No abuse, just cold and closed off, not the kind of family that exchanged declarations of love on a regular basis. I knew she loved Eric, but I’d never heard her say it. I was very much the same, growing up in a stable and happy home, but not one where everyone was given to frequent hugs or I-love-you’s. Layla and I had been best friends for more than three years. We’d gone through thick and thin together, faced near-starvation, faced ass**le boyfriends and dickhole professors and betraying ex-friends, bar fights and cat fights and apartment break-ins. I’d been there for her when she had been sexually assaulted by a jealous ex-boyfriend, and she’d been there for me when Mom had her breakdown, necessitating long-term hospitalization. Yet, for all that, despite the fact that we’d both take a bullet for each other, we didn’t tell each other we loved one another.

  My turn to blink back tears. “I love you, too. ”

  “Now shut up with the girly bullshit. I’ve gotta get to class. ” She leaned over and hugged me, and then left my car, clicking across the parking lot in her three-inch heels.

  I sat for a few more minutes. My class was a lecture, so I could easily slip in the back and catch up on what I missed if I needed to. I pulled the bank receipt out of my purse and stared at it, wondering if I’d just made the biggest mistake of my life, taking that money. I mean, I needed it so, so bad. No question about that. I was at the point where I’d have to resort to stripping or hooking pretty soon, and that wasn’t much of an exaggeration. And that’d be just to feed myself, let alone keep a roof over my head. This money was literally a lifesaver.

  But the one lesson in life I’d learned was that nothing was ever free. Someday, someone would come looking for what I owed them. I’d just have to accept that, keep it in mind, and try to not be too surprised when my debtor came knocking.

  I tucked the receipt away and went off to class. Afterward, I popped into the tuition office to pay my bill, and then stopped by the rental office on the way home and paid up what I owed, plus next month’s rent. It was an incredible feeling knowing I was caught up through the entire next month. I sent out checks and spent the evening on the phone with utility companies, getting caught up. By the time all my bills were paid, my checkbook ledger said I had a little less than two grand left, including my final paycheck. My brakes would cost a few hundred to replace, which would leave me with a tiny little cushion to live on.

  Thank you, whoever sent me that money. I pushed the thought out into the ether, wondering, not for the first time, and certainly not for the last, who was behind the mysterious check. And what he, or she, or they would want in return.

  * * *

  In the middle of the following month, I was collecting the mail on the way home from work. I’d finally, after weeks of filling out applications for hours every day, found a job. As a hostess at Outback. Yuck. But it paid. Not much, but something. I’d stretched the cushion from that big anonymous check as long as possible, but it was gone already. I was caught up on my bills, and didn’t have to pay rent for another few weeks, but the panic was still there.

  So imagine my shock when, tucked between a utility bill and a coupon circular, was The Envelope. Same script, no return address. And inside? Another check for ten grand.

  On the notes line, another single word: belong.

  You belong.

  Shit. Not good. Not good. Not good at all. I called Layla, and she agreed that the meaning could be ominous, but she also agreed that since I’d cashed the first one, I might as well cash the second one. I was in deep; I already owed whoever it was more money than I’d ever be able to pay back, so why not dig myself in that much deeper? If they came collecting I’d be just as f**ked, so I might as well enjoy it while it lasted, right?

  So I cashed it. Paid bills. Fixed the AC on my car, and replaced the long-dead radio. I went behind Layla’s back and paid her rent. Attended class, went to work, begged for extra shifts, begged to be trained as a server. And, eventually, I got the server position, which helped a lot. The month passed, and soon it was the middle of the month again. As the days folded one into the other, I tried to ignore the hope that I’d get another Envelope.

  And I did.

  My hands shook, as they always did, when I opened it. This time, there were two words on the notes line: to me.

  Ohshit. Shitohshitohfuckohshit.

  You belong to me.

  Layla was justifiably freaked out, as was I.

  But still, there was no hint as to whom I belonged.

  So, with nothing else to do, I kept on living. Paid my bills, tucked away some extra, helped out Layla.

  I had a free day—a canceled class, and I wasn’t scheduled to work. So I visited Mom. Which I hated. It was my duty as her daughter to visit her every once in a while, but I didn’t see the point most of the time.

  I parked outside the nursing home, made my way past the elderly residents as they listlessly watched TV in the rec room, passed open doors with sick, frail humans in mechanical beds, passed closed doors. I stopped outside Mom’s door, which was always closed. I took a deep breath, girded myself with as much strength as I could summon, and pushed in.

  Mom was sitting on her bed, knees drawn up to her chest, hair lank against her skull, unwashed and greasy. She hated showers. They could get to you through the showerhead, Mom claimed. Getting her clean usually took several orderlies and a sedative.

  “Hi, Mama. ” I took a hesitant step closer, waiting to see how she’d be today before trying to hug her.

  Some days, the paranoia made it dangerous to get too close to her.

  “They’re laughing at me. They’re closer today. Closer. Coming in through the windows. CLOSE THE BLINDS!” she shrieked suddenly, lunging off the bed and tearing at the window with her fingernails, scrabbling for the nonexistent cord.

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  I grabbed her wrists and pulled her away. “I’ll close them for you, Mama. It
s okay. Ssshhh. It’s okay. ”

  She hesitated, peering at me. “Kyrie? Is that you?”

  I felt my breath catch. “Yeah—yeah, Mama. It’s me. ”

  Her eyes narrowed. “How do I know it’s really you? They try to trick me sometimes, you know. They send agents. Lookalikes. Sometimes the nurses in this awful prison you’ve got me in pretend to be you. They dress up like you, and they talk like you. Tell me something only my daughter would know. Tell me!” she hissed, baring her teeth at me.

  I tried to stay calm. “I fell off my bike when I was nine, Mama. Remember? I cut my knee open and had to walk four blocks back home. My sock was so full of blood I had to dump my shoe out. You gave me a Popsicle. Grape. Only, I was crying so hard, I dropped the Popsicle into the tub. You made me rinse it off and eat it anyway. Remember that?”

  “Maybe it is you. What do you want? Here to cut my rations? Take my privileges?”

  I felt my heart crack a little. “I’m just here to see you, Mama. You know this isn’t a prison. It’s a nursing home. They take care of you. ”

  “They beat me!” She pulled up her sleeve, showed me fingerprint bruises on her arms.

  I’d freaked the f**k out the first time she’d showed me those. She did it to herself, the nurses said. I didn’t believe them at first, but then I’d seen Mom gouging her fingers into her own arm, had seen her hitting herself so hard she had to be sedated.

  “Mama, I know you did that to yourself. They don’t you hurt you here. I promise. ”

  “You would promise, wouldn’t you? They make me hurt myself. Mind control. It’s in the medicine they give me. Mind control, to make me hurt myself. You’d say anything to get rid of me. You hate me. That’s why you’ve got me in prison. You hate me. You’ve always hated me. ” Her lip curled, and her eyes took on a frantic gleam I knew all too well.

  I braced myself for the inevitable.

  I feel a tear prick my eye. “No, Mama. I love you. You know I love you. ”

  “You love me. My daughter would never say that. You’re an impostor! A fake! You’re their agent! Get out! Get away from me!” Mama rushed at me, and I had to back away quickly to avoid her flailing hand.

  I jerked open the door and fell backward through it, felt myself caught by a nurse.

  “We’ve got her, sweetie. She’ll be okay—she’s just having a hard day. She didn’t sleep well last night. She hasn’t had her meds yet, and we’ve got to give her a shower today. ” The nurse patted me on the shoulder. “She knows you love her. She was asking for you the other day, you know. Asked if you’d come to visit her soon. ”

  “She—she did?” I heard my voice break.

  “She did. ”

  “Well, if she asks again, tell her I love her. Tell her—tell her I’ll visit again soon. ”

  Inside the room, another nurse was talking Mom down. I watched for a moment and then turned away, waving at the nurse.

  I cried on the way home, as I always did after visiting Mama. After Daddy’s murder, she’d gone from bad to worse, and then from worse to impossible. She’d always had mood swings and bouts of paranoia, but it had been manageable, especially as long as she stayed on her meds. But then Daddy was killed, and the schizophrenia had taken over, and no amount of medication could keep her level. Daddy’s life insurance policy had paid the bills for several years, but eventually it ran out, and that left me in a really bad place. I couldn’t bring myself to apply for welfare, and my applications for student loans and grants and scholarships were still processing. And, all the while, Mom got worse and worse.

  My brother Cal had his head in the sand about it all. He went to school in Chicago, never came home, never visited Mama, never called me. He had his life, and as long as I helped him pay for his tuition, he’d be fine. He worked, too, paying for his own room and board, but I’d always promised myself I’d take care of him, no matter what. Growing up, I’d cooked and cleaned for him, gotten him to school, packed his lunches and helped him apply to Columbia College, helped him find an apartment and a job and taught him how to budget. So it wasn’t that he wasn’t thankful to me and for all I had done for him—he just couldn’t handle Mom. I didn’t blame him.

  I sent him some extra money when I got home from visiting Mom, and then dashed off a quick email to him, asking how he was. He’d respond after a day or two, probably.

  Meantime, the checks kept coming. One a month, ten grand every time. The notes ended, though, after that short, cryptic, and frightening message. I kept cashing them, kept tucking away as much as I could afford to save. I never stopped wondering who was sending them, but there was never any clue. I tried looking online again, but never made any headway.

  Months turned into a year, and I was a semester away from finishing my bachelor’s in social work. I needed a master’s for what I wanted to do, so I still had a lot of school left.

  And now I owed my mysterious benefactor $120,000. 00.

  And then, on the one-year anniversary of the first check arriving in the mail, there was a knock on my apartment door. I’d just gotten out of the shower, so I wrapped a towel around my torso and another around my hair, then slid the security chain in place and cracked open the door.

  “Yes? Can I help you?” I asked.

  There was a tall, slender man of indeterminate age standing on the other side. He was dressed in a black suit with a white shirt and a black tie. He was holding the kind of hat that limo drivers wore. He also had on a pair of black leather driving gloves, and, if I wasn’t mistaken, there was a bulge at his chest that indicated he was carrying a pistol.

  His eyes were pale green, hard, cold, and scarily intelligent.

  “Kyrie St. Claire. ” It wasn’t a question. His voice was low, smooth, and as cold as wind-scoured steel.

  “Yes?”

  “Get dressed, please. Wear your nicest clothes. ”

  “Excuse me?”

  “If you own any lingerie, put it on. An evening dress. The blue one. ”

  I stared at the man through the crack in the door. “What? What are you talking about?”

  His face remained impassive. “My name is Harris. I’m here to collect you. ”

  “Collect me?” I spat the word. “What am I, a piece of jewelry?”

  “Did you or did you not cash twelve checks, ten thousand dollars each, for a total amount of one hundred and twenty thousand dollars?”

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  I swallowed hard. “Yes, I did. ”

  “Do you have the funds available to repay it?”

  I shook my head. “I don’t. Not all of it. ”

  “Then you will comply. Now. Please, dress. Your finest lingerie, the blue evening dress, jewelry. Style your hair. Apply makeup. ”

  “Why?”

  “I am unable to answer any questions. ” He stepped closer to the door. “May I come in, please?”

  “I’m—I’m not dressed. ”

  “I am aware of this. I will pack your belongings while you dress. ”

  “Pack my belongings? Where am I going?”

  He lifted an eyebrow. “Away. ”

  I swallowed again. “For how long?”

  “Indefinitely. Now, no more questions. Will you let me in, please. ” It was phrased as a question, but it wasn’t. He could easily break down the door—of that I was certain. And he had a pistol. His eyes pierced mine. “Please, Miss St. Claire. I know this is an unusual situation. But you must understand. I am here not only to collect you, but to protect you. I will not harm you, I swear. I will not attempt to watch you change. I will pack your clothes and other belongings, and I will accompany you on your journey. I cannot answer any more questions. ”

  “I just—I don’t understand what’s going on. ”

  Harris blinked at me, and then let out a short breath. “I’m sure you remember the message from the first three checks. ”

  I couldn’t breathe, couldn’
t swallow past the lump of fear in my throat. “‘You belong to me,’” I whispered.

  “Yes. That is what’s going on. My employer has sent me to collect what is his. ”

  “Me. ”

  “Precisely. ”

  “What does he want with me? Who is he?”

  Harris’s eyes narrowed in irritation. “I told you, Miss St. Claire, I cannot and will not answer any further questions. Now, let me in. That chain is a nuisance, and my job includes removing nuisances. Do not make this difficult, please. ”

  I closed my eyes, counted to five, and then realized I had no choice. I knew he was armed, and I knew I had no way out of this. He’d promised he wouldn’t hurt me, but that was little consolation. He was a scary-as-fuck man, and I was a girl alone, in a not-so-great apartment in a pretty shady neighborhood. No one but Layla would even miss me if I disappeared.

  “Can I call my friend to tell her I’m—going away?”

  “After we’re en route. ”

  “What will you do if refuse to cooperate?” I asked.

  Harris lifted a corner of his mouth in a smirk that chilled my blood. “That would be…unwise. ”

  I held my ground. “What would you do?”

  “I could open the door, overpower you, sedate you, and bring you along regardless. ”

  “What if I called the police?”

  Harris sighed. “Miss St. Claire. That is entirely unnecessary. This is not a bad thing that is happening to you. I am not a Mafia enforcer. I’m not going to break your legs. I’m here to bring you to meet my employer, who has so graciously provided for you this past year. He only wishes to arrange…repayment. ”

  “I don’t have the money to pay him back. I never will. ”

  “He isn’t interested in money. ”

  “He. You said he. So he wants…me?”

  Harris licked his lips, as if he’d erred. “You will comply willingly. Nothing will be forced on you. ”

  “But I don’t want to go with you. ”

  “No?” He lifted an eyebrow. “Surely you must be curious. ”

  “Not enough to go with you. You scare me. ”

  “Good. That’s part of my job. But I promise you, I will not harm you, and I will not allow any harm to come to you. You are safe with me. But time is short. If you’re going to refuse, I’ll be forced to go back to my employer and report your recalcitrance. The next step would likely involve forcible methods of retrieval. Just come with me. It will be easier for us all. ”

  I sighed. “Fine. ” I closed the door, unlatched the chain, and let Harris in.

  He eyed my apartment with open amusement. “I must say, I would have expected you to find yourself a nicer place with the money you’ve received. ”

  “Nothing lasts forever. I had no guarantee the checks would keep coming. I can afford this place on my own. Sort of. ”

  “Wise of you. ”

  Trying to delay things, I asked. “Can I get you anything to drink?”

  Harris blinked at me. “No. Thank you. We don’t have much time. Get dressed, please. ”

  I went into my bedroom, rifled through my closet until I found the blue dress I’d worn to a fundraiser gala with my last boyfriend. Harris knew I had a blue dress, and that in itself was terrifying. It wasn’t an expensive dress, but it fit me like a glove, showed off my curves and accentuated my skin and hair. I glanced at Harris, who had my two suitcases—Mom and Dad’s old luggage—on my bed and was packing all of my jeans, yoga pants, skirts, blazers, dresses, and blouses with military efficiency.

 
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