Umbra

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Chapter 4

When I was seven years old, I had my first experience with a bully. He wasn't big, fat and smelly like your stereotypical bad childhood memory. He was a she. And she was tall, skinny, and Asian. But she was an asshole, no matter what packaging you placed her in.

Her dad was a sensei at one of the local karate studios in LA and she was a brown belted ten-year-old who apparently never had enough lunch money.

Since my mom always packed my lunch for me (she was a good mom once upon a time), I never had lunch money to give, and that really angered the Karate Kid. I got extra bullying because of it and she got a lot of PB&J sandwiches.

I was a passive little girl who never fought with anyone. But when someone keeps pushing you, you only have two choices. Either you let them eventually push you off a cliff, or you push them back.

One day, she went for my lunch. I went for her face. I got in a punch that probably hurt as much as being hit by a cotton ball, then she beat the living shit out of me.

I was placed in a new school before my black eye was even healed, and that was the last time I tried to physically defend myself. It was the last time I felt I had to.

Until now.

The only difference between Ryker and the little shit of my youth is that he has a gun and probably wants more from me than my lunch money.

As soon as I get home from meeting Sebastian and Ambry, I power up the desktop computer sitting across from Libby's bed and wait for it to load before typing “self-defense Seattle,” into Google.

My dad always told me, never depend on other people if you can help it. The last thing anyone needs is debts to pay.

Sebastian told me straight up that I shouldn't expect him to protect me. And he's right. I shouldn't expect anyone to protect me. That's no one's responsibility but my own.

Especially now that I'm 85% orphan (And that's being generous to my mother, giving her that 15% of parenthood).

My eyes travel to the middle of the computer screen, where amongst a page full of women's self-defense links, one link advertises Krav Maga. I've never heard of it, but following the name is, “Contact Combat – Israeli Self Defense System”. Sounds promising.

After clicking the link, The Krav Maga Seattle page pops up and the first thing I notice is a picture of one guy elbowing another guy in the nose. Toward the bottom of the page is a picture of a woman putting a shoe print on another man's face.

That's what I'm talking about.

According to the website, Krav Maga is Hebrew for “contact combat” and was developed for soldiers by the chief hand-to-hand combat instructor of the Israeli Defense Forces.

Sold! To the girl in the purple hoodie.

It takes three days after I've ran out of everything but top ramen to gather the courage to go grocery shopping again. And as the cashiers and patrons stare at me trying to guess what my problem is, I play a game with myself to calm my nerves between anxious glances over my shoulder as I shop. I guess what their guessing about me. (Meth addict? On the run from the law? Sleep deprived, running on two pots of coffee? Victim of spontaneous time travel, confused by modern technology?)

But hey. Making a spectacle of myself or not, I did it. I left my apartment and didn't have any life-threatening incidences. This is progress.

I try to focus on getting my homework submitted to the online database in time, but for a recluse with no friends or interests, it's way too easy for me to find distractions. The internet is the devil. And I worship it as such.

Most everyone in my Krav Maga class is young, though the age limit is 16 years old, so no one can be much younger than I am. The women are outnumbered by men, 1 to 3. I exchange a few greetings with my classmates but otherwise don't socialize much, too busy focusing on the session.

The first class is a cake walk, but the instructor - who tells us to call him Malcolm and boasts ten years studying Krav Maga in Israel - promises us it'll pick up in difficulty soon. He also tells us to start working out regularly if we don't already.

He says the least we can do is cardio. Ew. But as my taxi drives me back home from my class in Bellevue, I resolve to go running or down to the gym in my apartment building three times a week on the days I don't have Krav Maga.

My phone rings while I'm riding the elevator up to the 6th floor. I'm still rummaging through my bag in search of it when the doors open.

I walk toward my apartment, head down, the muffled music from Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho haunting me from the depths of my bag. I find the phone and simultaneously catch a pair of shiny black wingtip shoes out of the corner of my eye. My own feet stick to the floor as my eyes slowly rise from the shoes in front of my apartment door, up the black slacks, the navy blue shirt and blazer, and to the face of Sebastian. My phone has stopped ringing in my hand.

He doesn't smile at me when I stare at him in disturbed silence. The phone rings again, snapping me out of my paralysis.

“Where's the fashion shoot, GQ?” I make sure my voice oozes mockery so my dig isn't mistaken for a complement. I slide my thumb across my phone screen and put it up to my ear before he can respond.

“Hi, Mom,” I nod for Sebastian to follow me inside.

“You were supposed to call me weeks ago,” she says pointedly, but doesn't allow any time for excuses before asking, “How are things in Seattle?”

“Fine. How's a-Mario?” I ask in a horrible Italian accent as I look to the clock. It's almost 7:30 PM. It's gotta be sometime in the early morning in Italy.

“His name isn't Mario,” my mother says in annoyance.

“Luigi?” I guess.

“Noelle,” she scolds me.

“Princess Peach?”

Federico,” she says, “is doing very well, thank you for asking. Anyway,” she says airily, “I called to check in on you.”

“I'm fine.”

“How are you dealing with your father's death?” she asks bluntly.

A pin pricks through my chest. “I'm dealing.”

“Have you made any friends?”

“No. But I bought a fake ID and now I go to all the dive bars around town looking for strange men to give all of my personal information to.” I glance at Sebastian, who raises his eyebrows at me. “One of them found Libby's apartment and he waits outside my door for me to come home. Sometimes I throw scraps of food out for him.”
“That's nice,” my mother says, unamused. “Well, I better get going. I just woke up and we have a long drive to Federico's aunt's house on the countryside for a family reunion.”
“Right. I know how family is such a priority to you,” I say snidely. “Have fun with Yoshi,” I disconnect and toss the phone into my gym bag, then toss the bag on the couch.

Sebastian says, “If you feed the strays, they'll just keep coming back.”

I give him the side eye, not sure if he's being serious or not. I climb the staircase to get myself some food. “Well, I was going to offer you something to eat,” I say when he follows, “but I’d hate to encourage you to return.” I rummage through the fridge and cabinets, pulling out ingredients to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

“You really think I'm an idiot, don't you?” I say when I turn back to him. “Like, literally brain damaged or something,” I sprawl the ingredients onto the counter as he leans against it across from me. “You must be wondering how I'm allowed to run around without a helmet on.”

“I thought maybe you escaped your handler.”

I give him a dagger-filled glare before spreading my peanut butter onto the bread. When I look back up, he's smiling. The sight of it is more unsettling than coming home to him waiting outside my door.

Nodding to the half pot of coffee left over from this morning, he says, “I know it contradicts my previous wisdom against feeding strays, but do you mind if I stole some of that?”

“I don't know if I'd call it wisdom,” I clutch my butter knife tightly in my fist.

He reaches in slow-mo for the coffee pot, watching the weapon as if I might actually strike. I cock an eyebrow before rolling my eyes and dropping the knife.

“Sorry,” I say reluctantly as I reach for a mug dangling from the hanging rack above my head. “You're being less douchey than before and it's...discombobulating.”

Moving in normal-mo again, he nods and pours the coffee into the mug I set it in front of him. “My overall douche level hasn't changed since the last time we met,” he assures me. “Do not be alarmed.”

I transfer the cold mug to the microwave and say, “That's comforting. Thanks.” I punch in a heating time. “Is there anything I should be worried about?” He doesn't answer when I turn back to face him, so I ask, “Has Ryker developed an evil plan to abduct me and cut off my fingers and toes one by one?”

“No,” he says. “Ryker hasn't developed any plans, evil or otherwise.”

“Good,” I say. When the timer goes off, I transfer the coffee back to him. “Want anything in it?”

He shakes his head and he takes a sip. I scrunch up my nose in disgust. He breathes a laugh through his nose and asks, “Not a fan of black coffee?”

“Give me a hundred years and still wouldn't be able to build up a tolerance,” I say. He only smiles and places the mug back on the counter.

My comment piques my own curiosity and I ask, “How old are you?”

“Why are you asking?”

“You said you worked with my dad,” I say, slapping the two halves of my sandwich together. “But you're way too young.”

“I'm older than I look.”

I lean in slightly and whisper with two quick sarcastic eyebrow raises, “Are you a vampire?”

He whispers back, “If I told you, I'd have to eat you.”

I stare at him before asking in annoyance, “What reason could you possibly have not to tell me?”

He takes a large gulp of his coffee before saying, “If you needed to know what year I was born, I would tell you.”

I raise my eyebrows and wait for him to say more. When he doesn't give in to my stare down, I say, “You irritate me.”

“I noticed.”

“You're sketchy,” I add.

“Maybe a little.”

I take a bite of my sandwich, glaring at him as I chew. “Why are you here?” I ask, “if Ryker isn't about to come after me with a windowless van?”

“I told you I'd check in on you occasionally.”

“You're here to make sure I haven't been dragged off by one of Ryker's goons?” I ask. He nods. “Well, I haven't been.”

“I see that.”

I watch him expectantly. He doesn't react. “So...” I say, feeling awkward in the silence, “You can go now.”

He smiles, nods and stands up straight.

“Wait,” I say before he can turn to leave. “What exactly is your job?”

“We do a lot of things,” he says.

“Right,” I roll my eyes. “By 'we' do you mean you and Ambry? Or,” I pause, “do you really mean just you, but pluralize it to make yourself seem more powerful an omnipresent?”

“Or I could have Multiple Personality Disorder,” he offers.

I give him an unamused look but he doesn't respond. “You worked with my dad,” I say. “What did you do with him?”

“I'm a consultant,” Sebastian says. “I've never worked for the CIA, but since we have a few common goals, we often work together.”

“What kind of a consultant?” I ask. “Who do you work for if not the CIA? The FBI? NSA?”

“No acronyms.”

“You're intentionally ignoring all of my questions.”

“Yes.”

I press my lips into a straight line and can literally feel my blood pressure spiking.

But my dad used to dodge questions about his work all the time...so if Sebastian is who he says he is, he should be avoiding questions he's not allowed to answer.

I finish off my dinner and search for a question he might actually answer. “What does Ryker do?”

“He runs an underground smuggling business.”

“And you don't arrest him because...?”

“I have an agreement with him that prevents me from it.”

I furrow my brows. “You make deals with assholes who beat old women and try to abduct teenage girls?”

He pulls his wide mouth into an unamused grin. “I did what I had to do to keep him under my control,” his tone is calm, but the authoritative look warns me not to push the subject further.

I stare him down before deciding, “I have homework to do, and I'm sure you have important stuff to get back to,” I walk around the counter, shooing him down the stairs. I open the door for him and say, “Can't have dear Aunt Libby coming home to see some creeper in her apartment.”

My aunt's name passes my lips before I remember I'm supposed to be withholding that information from him. He doesn't react. Figures. He probably found her name at the same time he dug up my address.

“Where were you earlier?” He nods toward my gym bag on the couch.

I put a hand on my hip and say, “Why don't you use your other resources to figure that one out, too.”

He raises his eyebrows. I stare up at him in defiance. “I might,” he says and leaves.


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