Being Red: Chapter Eight

A gentle touch on the back of my head wakes me. I sit up, stiff from sitting in a chair all night, to see Henley awake with one hand outstretched. The arm with the IV she keeps tucked up against her body.

“You’re okay,” I say mostly to make myself believe what I see before me.

“It will take more than that to kill me,” Henley says with a forced laugh.

“Do you remember what happened?”

“I think so?” She squints. “Davies threw me.”

I almost ask who but stop myself right in time.

Jordan Davies, not Trenton Hayes.

Kellen and his insane plan are going to be the death of me if I can’t keep it together and play my part to perfection in this high-stakes double life I’m leading.

Luckily, Henley is still too out of it to analyze my pause too deeply.

“Damn,” I finally say, playing it off like surprise just in case. “The doctor said you probably wouldn’t be able to remember anything from yesterday. But, yeah. He threw you. Right up against a brick wall. You have a pretty good bump to prove it, but the doctor said you should recover and have very few if any lasting effects. But if any of the hospital staff ask, it was your abusive ex.”

“Of course.” Her smile is weak. “Where’s Hayden?” she asks.

“He went home to shower and eat some real food this morning,” I say. I stand, stretching my arms above my head and slowly twisting my back to relieve my stiff muscles, and take her phone from the bedside table. I pass it to her. “I told him I’d have you call as soon as you woke up. I’ll give you a minute.”

I slip out of the room as Henley holds the phone away from her ear and insists, “I’m fine.”

On my way out, I almost run into a full bouquet of peonies interspersed with lupine and an assortment of other flowers and greens I cannot name.

“Oh!” the nurse behind the flowers exclaims.

“Sorry,” I say, weaving around her. I am sure I know whose little joke this is from the lupine threaded through the arrangement, but I ask, “Who are those from?”

“The card doesn’t say, but I figured Miss Henley would like them when she wakes up.”

“I’m sure she will. In fact, I was just coming to get you. She’s awake now.” I hold the door for the nurse to enter and then hurry down the hall.

With no way to contact Kellan without incriminating myself or at the very least attracting suspicion if I use his phone number too many times, I figure I’ll make rounds of the hospital until I find him, or until I work off some of these nerves. Yet somehow, I know he’s here. And not just from the calling card brought to Henley’s room by a hapless nurse.

To be fair, the hospital isn’t the worst place to meet. There are so many people constantly coming and going, they become difficult to track. Once inside, there are hundreds of places any one person can be. I might think it brilliant if I weren’t still so pissed.

In the cafeteria, I palm an apple from a fruit bowl at the end of the salad bar and, when I don’t spot Kellan, continue my wandering. I eat my pilfered snack as I pass the oncology unit, the cardiology unit, the office of an ENT on the hospital’s premises, and the audiology lab. When I pass signs for the maternity ward, something urges me to turn down the hallway. I toss the core of my apple into the trash and wipe my palms on my thighs, hating the sticky residue which I can’t remove without water.

Kellan stands outside the nursery, looking through the window at the babies sleeping in neat rows. I sidle up next to him and rest my shoulder on the glass. I wait for him to break the silence. For a while, he says nothing, simply gazing at the infants.

“You got my gift, I see,” he says finally.

“We have to be more careful,” I say, turning towards the row of bassinets on the other side of the glass.

“We were careful, Dearg.”

“Quit calling me that!” I snarl, trying to keep my voice down.

He doesn’t reply. I can practically feel him smiling beside me.

“You think this is funny? I am risking my life out there in more ways than one.” I struggle to be quiet and maintain at least the semblance of calm. I feel like we’ve had this exact same conversation before, perhaps because we have. “I know you think what we are doing will make the world a better place, and you are willing to risk your life for it. Hell, maybe I’m even willing to at this point, but I do not have the right to hand over the lives of my teammates without their knowledge or consent.”

Kellan steps closer to me and I let him, unwilling to make a scene. When a nurse I did not hear coming enters the nursery to tuck another baby into the array of cribs, I relax my posture, and Kellan speaks close to my ear, “Dearg, your team executed dangerous missions before we ever made this deal. They would be putting themselves in compromising situations with or without this plan. They are in no more danger than they were before, objectively less now that you have our intel and backup on your side.”

“But Henley didn’t,” I argue, my face a neutral mask

“She made the choice to join the mission,” Kellan reasons. “She is a big girl and can make those choices for herself. Just like you and I.” When I don’t respond, Kellan chuckles. “You hate that I’m right.”

I want to tell him where he can shove it, but I won’t give him the satisfaction even as the nurse leaves the room beyond the window. Instead, I inspect the babies more closely, their eyes all closed save for the newest arrival swaddled in a pink blanket. She yawns yet fights sleep. Somehow, she reminds me of Emma. I smile and lean a little closer.

Kellan fills the silence, “Still, I want to apologize. I want the world to be safer for everyone, not just my kind.”

“Well it certainly isn’t very safe for me when you insist on being so damn obvious,” I say, turning away from the babies to look at him. “Lupine? I swear.”

“Where’s your sense of humor?”

“It’s tacky,” I say.

“The woman at the front desk liked them.”

“She’d probably like a pile of shit if you were handing it to her.”

Kellen grins. “You sure know how to flatter a man.”

“It’s one of my lesser-known talents.” I shrug and turn back to the infants, wondering if their parents miss them or can bear to be parted from them. “Regardless, we need to be more careful,” I repeat.

This time, he doesn’t argue. He is silent for a moment, then he asks, “What do you suggest?”

“This would go a helluva lot more smoothly if there were a way to expose the wolves on your list rather than swap out your good-guys with an ‘approved’ bad-guy every time I get a new assignment. There’s too much risk in it. I can hardly keep them all straight in my head. We at least have to use consistent names or this whole scheme will come crashing down before we build any momentum.” Or we’ll end up dead, I think.

“Valid,” Kellan says, thoughtful. “Let me talk with Loren. It won’t be possible every time, like with Jordan, but we can come up with some ideas to expose our biggest threats. And we will standardize names when switching marks is unavoidable, which it likely will be at first. I’m sure the Callahan Corporation has eyes and ears in places we can’t imagine as a private security company. They probably have a longer list of targets than even you are privy to.”

I can’t deny that. Gregor’s security company is an ingenious front for the syndicate within. I press my lips together.  “This is so screwed up.”

“We’re working through the difficulties. I never claimed the plan wouldn’t evolve as we went along. You’re right that replacing your assigned marks after the fact is much more difficult than slowly ensuring our lists merge until they are essentially one and the same, but in our defense, we had no idea how this was going to turn out when we first thought of it, let alone once we approached you with it. You should be happy I’m so agreeable,” he jokes. “Now you very likely won’t have to mutilate any faces.”

“On second thought, maybe don’t ask Loren for ideas.” I scowl. His suggestion about matching up body types and leaving the faces unrecognizable is still gross.

“He was kidding, Dearg.”

“If you say so. He sounded pretty pleased with the suggestion to me.” Changing the subject, I say, “When Gregor gives me my next mark, I’ll buy a prepaid phone and text you the name and a location. Meet me there, and we can discuss our next moves. I don’t want you to use my personal phone number too much because Gregor is probably tracking it even though it’s my phone and I pay for service myself.”

“Better safe than sorry,” he agrees. “See you when I see you.”

I nod once then head back to Henley’s room without another word. Hayden is probably there with her by now and I don’t want them wondering where I’ve been.

I’ll reach out to Kellen when I am good and ready. Maybe I’ll even make him stew a little.

My smile turns to a grimace when I realize waiting to inform him of my next mark will only make it harder for me to maintain Gregor’s rigorous timeline, and I spend the rest of the walk back to Henley’s room contemplating ways I can inconvenience the alpha equally as much as he irritates me.

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