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Day 16: Chapter One

The new year is always about new beginnings, and new beginnings start with the first chapter. I first wrote Impulse almost a decade ago. It's gone through so many iterations and rewrites. But what stayed true to the story is RC and her love for cars, specifically her GT500 Mustang. She's a racer in a world ruled by the Mob. And a mob-ruled world is a cruel, often chaotic world. So, without further ado, I present to you, Chapter One:

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The steel tips of my boots click against the white marble. The surface gleams from light given by a massive wrought iron chandelier hanging above. Nothing occupies the cavernous space I stride across except for an ornately carved screen and an oxblood leather chair beyond—where the Bitterblade Mob Boss sits. Five people in Terra One know of his true identity, and I am not one of them. Maybe this is a good thing. Those who know the boss intimately have the tendency to die brutal deaths. Such is the consequence of being within the inner circle of power. I’m content with an outer orbit, as far removed from the center as possible. I race. That is my value to this family. My mentor, Brody, on the other hand, by virtue of being Head of Security, is as close to the boss as it gets. I don’t envy him. He stands to one side of the screen. My gaze scans the rest of the receiving area. As far as I can tell, we three are the only ones in the room. I note the cameras on each corner of the ceiling. And if I’m not mistaken, there are at least a dozen armed men on standby behind doors that blend into the embossed wallpaper walls. One nod from Brody is all it takes to have this room overflowing with the best killers in our region. Knowing how he operates, they are probably the best killers in the entire continent. That being said, they don’t bother me. I drive the line between life and death nightly. On the asphalt, my life is in no one else’s hands but my own.

A couple of yards away from the screen and the silhouette of the man seated behind it, I drop to one knee. My fists rest on the floor, the burnt caramel color of my skin a stark contrast to the white stone. Bowing my head, my long hair as black as a predawn sky spills over my shoulders to pool beside my fists. I take comfort in the tactical knives inside my leather jacket pressing against my ribcage. Their serrated edge can saw through bone in three seconds. I serve the Mob, of course. I have to protect myself. Not that I’m saying I need to in this instance. At least I hope I don’t have to. A meeting with the boss can mean a myriad of things. A majority of them death related.

I steady my breathing by tracing the gray veins on the stone beneath me. In a matter of hours I will be driving up Mount Giga. The exhibition race that will kick off the Impulse Cup is tonight. My palms sweat in anticipation. I’d been in the garage with Screw, my chief mechanic, adjusting the settings on my GT500 all morning. Her compressors have been acting up lately. I can’t have the most important part my life in less than top shape before the Cup. She needs to be ready. Screw said to trust him when I got the call from Brody that the boss wanted a word. Took the words “on penalty of death” to get me to part with my baby.

My eyebrow twitches. I’m here, and no one is speaking. I can’t speak unless spoken to, so… I barely hold in the snort as I await the pleasure of the man I serve. Don’t get me wrong. I’d give my life for the sake of the boss. Everyone in the Bitterblade Mob would. I just have more important things to do than play “guess what the boss wants.”

“RC,” comes the sigh from the man behind the screen. I tense. Whenever he speaks, it’s always with a relaxed tone. He can order your execution sounding like he’s bored out of his mind. I’ve witnessed it. No one rises to the top of the Mob without at the very least having a bloodthirsty nature. In fact, the higher you are the more psychotic you have to be. So, let this be lesson one: to underestimate the boss’s casual tone can literally mean your death. It must get lonely when only five people know what you look like.

I continue to wait. Saying my name doesn’t equate to being given the leave to speak. For all I know he’s merely tasting my name on his tongue. He’s been known to do that. Another sigh then the creak of chair springs. I don’t have to look to know he’s shifting his position. Can we please move this along? I have better things to do.

Despite the impertinent question polluting my head, I know I’d wait all day if it pleased the boss. As Brody once taught me, thoughts can only be dangerous once spoken. I’ve learned to hold my tongue years ago. Speak when necessary. This is lesson number two.

“How are preparations for the Impulse Cup going?” he finally asks—his tone breathy, as if stifling a yawn.

“As to be expected, sir,” I say to the floor. “Screw is currently adjusting the GT’s compression system.”

“I trust you have everything you need?”

“More than I could ask for, sir.” The truth. As the boss’s lead driver, I can ask for the moon in the name of winning a race, and the Mob will move heaven and earth to pull the celestial body down to earth for me. Yet, there is one slight problem. I flinch at the boss’s next words.

“And yet you remain third in the rankings.”

I bite the inside of my cheek until I taste a distinct metallic tang. My rank is not from the lack of trying. The guys ranked first and second are beasts on the road. I swallow and formulate my response.

“This year I will take down Ace and Bedlam for your pleasure, sir.”

Chuckles reach my ears. “As is expected of my driver. I have credits riding on you.”

I’m tempted to say he has credits riding on all the drivers. Hedging his bets. It just so happens he has more riding on me. Betting is encouraged during the races. I’ve heard rumors the credits generated from nights at The Gathering actually fund Mob operations more than the protection credits taken from the citizens of Terra One monthly. Plus, the races are the chief source of entertainment around here. Televised and commentated. All the top families of the Bitterblade Mob have a stable of racers. For some, the races are their main source of income.

I suffer through another round of silence until the boss says, “As you well know, Zamara has reached her majority.”

I grimace, understanding where this meeting is actually going. The boss’s daughter is finally old enough to make her own decisions. This thought scares the motor oil out of me. “My sincerest congratulations, sir. Please extend my deepest regret at not having been able to attend her eighteenth birthday.”

Another chuckle. “You were busy winning that downhill at Mt. Giga against Star. What a grand race. You two fought like feral cats.” I imagine him licking his front teeth. The memory of the race ignited my insides like a spark plug. I still haven’t forgiven Star for scratching my baby in her attempt to pass me at Suicide Curve. If she wasn’t the Underboss’s daughter, I would have slit her throat already. The boss’s second-in-command would not approve of the murder of his child, no matter how much she tests his patience. “That victory paid for the entire overpriced party. I cannot complain.”

Still I continue to wait for the inevitable. Knowing Zamara, there’s one thing she’d ask dear ol’ dad for on her birthday. I grit my teeth until the enamel squeaks. Unfortunately for me, the boss doesn’t stretch out my torment longer than he has to.

“As you know,” he begins as if it pains him to even bring up the topic. “Zamara has been following your career closely. That girl has an unhealthy attachment to you.” I hear the head shake that usually accompanies conversations involving the Mob’s precious first daughter. “She wants to join you as navigator for this year’s Impulse Cup.” My mouth opens to respond, but I quickly close it again when the boss continues. “I’ve told her that she is an adult now. She has the right to make this decision for herself. I know how dangerous the Impulse Cup can be. If the body count from last year is any indication.” What he leaves out is most of the driver fatalities came from Ace and Bedlam battling it out on the road. The most we could do was get out of their way. I still chafed at that. This year will be different. I plan on joining the fray. “So I leave the choice up to you.”

A lump forms in my throat. This is worse than I thought. It’s a classic “doomed if you do, doomed if you don’t” situation. Denying the boss’s daughter is like spitting on the boss’s face. I might as well sign my death certificate now to save the coroner the effort later. Saying yes means I’m putting Zamara’s safety in my hands. I have enough to worry about during the Impulse Cup, adding babysitting to the list is like sugar in the gas tank. Basically, everything goes boom.

“I guess I don’t have to remind you how much I love my daughter….”

I swallow said lump, thorns and all, and make my decision. “Sir, the Impulse Cup is no place for a novice. If I want to win against Ace and Bedlam, I need a navigator who will survive let alone help during key portions of the race. For me to do my job to the best of my abilities, I must respectfully decline having Zamara on my team.”

The atmosphere in the room shifts. The calm dissipates, replaced by a heavy tension thick enough to cut through. I hold my breath. My heart stops. I don’t fear death. I stare the bastard in the face every time I get into my GT. At least, at the speeds I drive, I die quick. In the hands of the boss and his expert torturers is a different story. They can keep me alive indefinitely. And in massive amounts of pain. Then, like streaks of lightning across the sky, booming laughter bounces of the walls. I hold in the instant relief. Laughter is no indication of my survival. I endure until the boss is reduced to huffing chuckles.

“One thing I continue to admire about you, RC, is your balls,” he says between gasps. “You have a set that rivals Brody’s.”

I let the grin slip at the compliment. My mentor sports a wicked scar down the length of his neck for his so-called “balls.” In my mind’s eye, I know the corner of Brody’s lips curl upward a fraction. With all traces of his mirth gone, the boss dismisses me with the reminder of winning this year’s Cup. On my feet, I thump the center of my chest with a fist then turn on my heels for the door, which also blends into the walls. It slides open when I near it.

A scowl forms on my features when I spot the girl standing at the end of the hallway I enter. Her brown hair falls in lush curls down her back and over her shoulders. The strands stop just above the swell of her breasts. The pink of her sweater matches the hue of her cheeks and lips. She studies me with keen eyes the shade of expensive jade. I rake my gaze over the entire length of her body, taking in the tightness of her jeans and the leather boots she stuffed them into. When my eyes return to her face, the pink has turned several shades darker.

My initial intention is to pass by without acknowledging her presence. I’ve been successful at it for years. Sadly, when I reach her, my temper snaps and I slap the wall beside her head. She gasps, leaning against the wall for support, as she looks up at me. I loom over her, inhaling the tantalizing scent of jasmine wafting from her skin. I close my eyes a moment, collecting my thoughts.

When I’m sure I won’t flay her alive, I stare into her eyes and ask, “How dare you put me in that position with your father?” Venom drips from my question. The way her shoulders jerk upward tells me she feels the sting.

She’s trembling as she says, “You wouldn’t have said yes otherwise.”

A savage grin stretches my mouth. I gesture toward the room I left with a tilt of my head. “Who says I said ‘yes’ in there.”

The tip of her tongue darts over her lower lip while sweat dots the upper. “You refused?”

“Zamara….” I exhale all my anger, weak against the wide-eyed disappointment she treats me to. No wonder she has her father, the most powerful man in Terra One, wrapped around her pinky. I won’t deny the beauty of the boss’s daughter. She’s grown into a magnificent woman. For an insane second, I imagine bridging the gap between us for a taste of those plump lips. The image of my head on a spike for “defiling” the first daughter forces me to focus. “The Impulse Cup is the most grueling race of the year. You know all races lead up to the marathon. What makes you think you’d make a worthy navigator?”

Determination enters her eyes. I’m suddenly aware of her body heat and the curves inches from touching mine. She wouldn’t be the boss’s daughter if she didn’t have backbone, I’ll give her that much.

“I’ve studied all your races, RC. I know how you drive better than Mac,” she says, still trembling like the last leaf clinging to a branch against the autumn wind.

The mention of my garage manager/race analysis reminds me of my responsibilities. I step back, creating the space needed to think clearly. I flip my hair over one shoulder and sigh. “Watching my races is different from actually being in the car with me. I’m sorry, Zamara, I can’t be held responsible for your life during the Cup.” I pin her with a withering glare the second her lips part. “I mean it. This year I plan on taking Ace and Bedlam down. I can’t do that with someone like you.”

“Someone like me?”

“Inexperienced.” I throw the word over my shoulder as I head for the bank of elevators at the end of the hall. It’s better this way.

For the entire ride down to the lobby, I convince myself of the merits of my decision. Zamara is better off staying away from the races. Considering her station, the most she can do is watch. The cab doors part with their distinctive ding. I step out into the bare lobby but for the front desk and a round table with a single stem of orchids curling out of a clay pot. I pause to rub the white velvet petals. Yes, I made the right decision. The boss wouldn’t have let me leave if he’d really been adamant about Zamara tagging along.

Across the street, over at Punishment Square, a gathered group catches my attention. The wide space the boss uses to teach those who have wronged him a lesson was empty when I stepped into Bitterblade HQ. I glance at the austere woman manning the front desk. She seems just as curious, but her duty to her post keeps her behind the desk.

My own curiosity begging cessation, I head for the revolving door. Once outside, a gust of wind whips my hair into my face. I pause, flicking the strands into place behind me. Then, looking right and left, I cross Main Street into Punishment Square. In my mind, I sift through the announcements I read this morning. No mention of a public punishment. The boss always makes a spectacle of those displayed in the square. Since I don’t recall any such news, the crowd gathered baffles me. The group stands unmoving and staring at the ground. I push my way to the front and immediately cover my nose and mouth. The air is putrid. The fetid stench of decay clogs my nostrils, hot as it enters the lungs. Without thinking twice, I take out my phone and press on the first name in my contacts list. The person at the other end picks up on the first ring.

“Brody,” I say, my voice muffled by my arm, “send a cleanup team to Punishment Square.”

On the tiled floor lies a naked guy, spread out. His mocha skin pale, lips blue, a fog in his once hazel eyes. Someone pulled out his entrails from a gaping hole on his stomach. No blood pooled around him despite the carnage. What catches my attention the most is the word carved across his chest.

“Hubris,” I say into my phone.

The line immediately goes dead.

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