See DISCLAIMERS. Another out of sequence piece, this one from long before Katja became the Falcon.
Years ago, back in the day
Katja zipped her windbreaker all the way to her neck and then tucked her fists under her arms, but it did nothing to ward off the bone-chilling cold of a New York February. Complaining accomplished nothing, though, so she kept walking along the snow-covered streets until she came to a familiar corner, and its regular occupant.
“How’s the street, Pen?” Katja said in greeting.
“Fucking lean. I hate picking pockets in the winter.” Penelope took one last drag of her illegal cigarette and stomped the butt on the ground under a booted heel. “Everyone’s all bundled up, making my life harder.”
Katja couldn’t help but chuckle. “You oughtta get back to the books. JFK’s heated, you know.” The old high school in the Bronx had finally finished its renovations and reopened after years of slow development. Katja had finagled an enrollment the previous fall, and was determined to graduate later this year.
Penelope rolled her eyes. “I’d rather freeze to death than sit in a fucking chair all day listening to old white guys drone on about shit they don’t know.”
Katja gave up on the tucked-arms-against-chest warming method, and raised her fists to her face to blow some warm air on them. “I think that’s college, Pen.”
“Whatever.” Penelope muttered low enough for Katja to hear, but kept her eyes on flow of people up and down the street, looking for marks. “How’s the hustle, Kat?”
Katja was running a few street games with her brother, trying to hustle a few hundred out of a couple of low-level Wall Street guys who thought they could make money off the masses. So far it hadn’t netted much, but Katja was playing the long game.
“I’m off today. Gregor’s meeting with his contact over in Manhattan. He should have some news tonight at the house.”
The house was really a large rundown brownstone where several street kids like Katja, Gregor and Penelope crashed every night. Overseen by a guy named Theo, and infested by roaches and mice, it was still a safe place for street kids like them. Theo wasn’t a creep, and didn’t force the kids into giving him a cut of whatever games they were hustling on the street.
The only expectations were that everyone chip in to keep the heat on and to make sure there was food on the table. They worried about being discovered by the cops or the real crime bosses on the streets, but other than that, it was the safest place Katja and Gregor had ever been.
Katja had never told anyone how she and her brother, Gregor, had ended up on the streets. That life was behind them, and she never wanted to think or talk about it again.
“Listen, you need to talk to Greg, Kat. He’s not listening to me.” Penelope lit another cigarette. “He’s got it into his thick skull that he can make better money with Renault’s crew.”
Katja shifted her weight from side to side, trying to get warm. “He’s an idiot, and he’s not going to listen to me, either.”
“Will you talk to him anyway? Please?”
Katja realized that Penelope was really afraid.
Penelope leaned closer.
“Word is that Renault’s guys don’t fuck around. Once you’re in with them, you can’t get out. And those guys are into some serious shit.” She sighed. “Greg’s a good guy. Sooner or later, they’re gonna ask him to do something he doesn’t want to do.”
Katja walked up the back stairs of the brownstone and headed straight for the room she shared with Penelope. She could feel the tension in the house, the conversations that stopped when she came within earshot, the feeling that something serious was about to happen – something definitely not good.
Penelope was in her bunk, her laptop propped up on her lap as always, old school headphones over her ears. She looked up as Katja walked in.
“What’s going on?” Katja asked. Penelope would know. She always knew.
Penelope shifted back an ear of the headphones, and spoke in a low voice that wouldn’t carry outside the room.
“Theo’s in the hospital.”
Penelope slapped the lid of laptop down and scooted to the end of her twin-sized bed. “Renault’s goons caught up with him outside that Indian place where he’s working right now. Beat the shit out of him in the alley and left him there. One of the dishwashers found him when she went out to smoke on her break.”
Katja fell on her own bed. If anything happened to Theo, they’d all end up out in the cold again. She felt bad about that, thinking only of herself, but it was true.
“How bad is it?”
Penelope shrugged. “Don’t know, but word is he’ll be out in a couple of days, so it can’t be that bad.”
“That’s good, right?”
“I don’t think so,” Penelope said, shaking her head. “Now he’s on Renault’s radar, which means the Frenchman will want a cut of any take he thinks is passing through this house. Even though there isn’t any.” She looked more afraid of Renault than she was worried about Theo. “Which means we’re all under his microscope right now.”
This was bad. This was how people like them ended up indebted to people like Renault. He’d keep tabs on the place, and insist on keeping books of how much everyone hustled. Then he’d tally that against what was considered fair rate for room and board, and sooner rather than later, they’d all end up owing Renault money.
And the deeper the debt, the more likely that some kind of trade would be requested instead of cash. Katja and Penelope were young, attractive girls with no family attachments. The kind of girls who could go missing and no one would know.
The kind of girls that could be farmed out for any number of uses, all in the interest of paying off some debt that they wouldn’t have had in the first place if they’d been left alone.
Katja had done a lot of things to keep food on the table, but selling her body to keep food on the table wasn’t one of those things. Penelope had, but Katja knew her roommate didn’t want to go back to that life.
“What are we going to do?” Penelope asked.
Katja didn’t have any answers, not yet, but she knew that it’d be a cold day in hell before she’d end up owing someone like Renault.
“Leave me alone!” Katja swung a fist at Penelope, but missed her mark. Her arms weren’t working the way she wanted.
“Kat, we can’t stay up here. They’re already looking for you.” Penelope tugged at Katja’s arm, and tried to pull her closer towards the rooftop door.
“I don’t care,” Katja said, spitting the words. “I’m not scared of them.” It was lie, and she knew it.
Penelope grabbed her by her jacket and pulled her close, Katja’s face inches from Penelope’s.
“Yes, you are. You’re fucking terrified, and I know because I am, too.”
Katja stumbled over to the wall near the door, the vodka twisting her legs until she crashed into the wall, and sank to the floor of the roof. “What am I gonna do, Pen? They killed him. They killed my stupid shithead of a brother, and now I’m-“
She bit her cheek until the urge to cry faded. Drunk was preferable to crying. She didn’t cry in front of anybody, not even Penelope. Not anymore, and she swore to herself that she’d never do it again. [FIX: IF I tease this, then I better back it up by having her cry in front of Lopez later.]
“Now it’s just me.” She tipped the jug of cheap vodka, ignoring the sting of the liquor against her cheek.
Penelope sat down beside her, and snaked the jug from her hands. “It’s not just you, Kat.” She took a deep swig of the vodka herself, wincing at the taste. She let her head fall against the wall behind her, and Katja could see the shine of tears of Penelope’s eyes. “It’s not just you. We’re in this together, and we’re going to find a way to get that bastard.”
“How?” That’s why Katja was drunk – because she couldn’t think of a realistic way to avenge her brother. After Renault’s minions had put Theo in a coma, Gregor had taken it upon himself to exact revenge, and in doing so, had put himself in a dangerous position.
Renault had ordered Gregor killed. Katja didn’t know who had performed the actual deed, but Gregor had been pushed in front of a train and though everyone on the platform saw that he’d been pushed, no one saw who had done the actual pushing.
Or at least, no one had admitted it to the cops.
It didn’t matter. As far as Katja was concerned, Renault was the guilty party, even though he didn’t get his hands dirty.
Yet Katja knew that going after Renault in the open was stupid. Even if she did manage to kill him, one of his goons would only retaliate by killing her and probably Penelope as well.
It was hopeless. There was no way to get him back. And Gregor and Theo would remain unavenged.
Katja snapped awake when the van door slammed shut. Penelope was off work, and they were hoping to quit this town tonight.
Penelope started the van, and eased out of the parking lot of the city library. Katja didn’t even remember what city they were in.
“How’d it go?” Katja rubbed the sleep from her eyes, and sat up. She could feel the grooves of the cargo compartment beneath the thin futon they’d tossed on the floor of the van. It had been both living and sleeping space for the two of them for the better part of a year.
Penelope yawned. “Fine. Not great, but alright. I got us another two hundred bucks.”
Katja nodded. Added to the several thousand they’d already hustled, stolen and earned at shitty jobs up and down the eastern seaboard, it was enough for them stop somewhere and put down some roots.
“Heard some news on the feeds,” Penelope said.
The last vestiges of sleep dissipated as Katja processed what Penelope really meant. She’d heard something about Renault.
Penelope kept driving without looking back at Katja. “Word is Renault’s looking for new blood to handle his wetwork. His last couple of guys were too sloppy. He wants someone more professional.”
Katja considered this. Someone in Renault’s inner circle, by nature of doing the work that he himself would not do, would be a trusted ally.
A trusted ally could get close enough to kill him.
Katja lay back in the bed, her arms crossed behind her head, considering the possibilities.
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