1.1: Need A Hand

Green lines rotate around a charred, severed hand on a small pedestal. The lines spring from a central point and form a grid-like pattern around the hand. After a couple of minutes of illuminating the charred flesh, the green lights cut off and the room lights are activated.

     Reflections of two individuals appear on the glass separating them from the hand. The silver uniform and red hair reveal that Stark is in attendance. Beside her is the reflection of an older gentleman with salt and pepper hair, dressed in crisp all black attire. He has on a hat that casts shadows over his grey eyes. He regards the evidence before him with a mask of impassivity.

     “Doesn’t appear there are any signs of a tattoo on her skin,” he says calmly.

     “Meaning our assassin was hired outside of The Pure,” Stark explains. “Never heard of them outsourcing that particular task before.”

     “Maybe they haven’t,” the man says. “I know I sent word to you of the imminent attack, but I meant it as a precaution only. I didn’t expect the intel to be credible.”

     Stark turns a distressed look his direction. “Since when do you trust unvetted tips?”

     “It wasn’t entirely unvetted. I heard the news from my usual informants in the Jupiter Slums, but they say the source originated here in downtown Jupiter City; from a man who runs an armory. I think the news was meant to remain within certain circles, but information has an unpredictable nature,” the man elucidates. “I’m more surprised at how the situation unfolded. You’re honestly telling me two school children killed this woman?”

     “It’s no easy thing for me to believe, either,” Stark says. “Then again, one of them isn’t even aware of her own complicity.”

     “You believe that?”

     Stark nods. “I can’t think of any reason for them to lie. Even if they did kill her, it was out of self-defense. If this had come to trial, nobody would give it a second thought.”

     “And why isn’t it going to trial? You’re going to let that young lady determine the outcome of this investigation?” The man lifts his hands to his lips as he chuckles lightly. “Then again, I remember being bullied by an idealistic young woman not too long ago.”

     Stark smirks and rolls her eyes. “I’m not blindly following her suggestions. Which is why I brought the hand to you. We need to learn of this woman’s identity. That’ll potentially lead us to her employer.”

     “You believe the employer will send another assassin.”

     “Makes sense. The target- which we never truly learned if there was a specific one in mind- is still alive. I don’t expect anyone willing to hire an assassin won’t hire more until the job is done. They might even make an appearance themselves if push came to shove.”

     “Well, I will work on identification swiftly as I can. Not many avenues I can take with only a hand to work with, so it shouldn’t take longer than a week. The minute I have results, you’ll be the first to know.”

     “Thank you, Warden Crata,” Stark says. She turns to leave, but just as she grabs the knob…

     “You know that if The Pure is involved, it’s only a matter of time before hell breaks loose at Four Hearts Academy,” the warden says. “You better make certain Headmaster Neth is prepared for what he’s going to face.”

     Stark turns her head and she and Warden Crata exchange an entire unspoken conversation. The nerves running wild in their normally steely gazes speak volumes, but there is something mutually evident within them. They harbor deep within a negative connection to The Pure.

     Before they end their ocular chat, Warden Crata changes the look in his eyes to deliver a soft scolding, a warning. She retreats from his incoming speech by blinking.

     “I don’t think it’ll be an issue, sir.”

     Warden Crata opens his mouth to protest, but the door to the room opens and shuts swiftly.


     Stark stands outside of a one-story office building and converses with a woman dressed in a beige cardigan and blue skirt. The short, portly woman speaks in a rush of words, but Stark absorbs them without difficulty. In fact, Stark asks a number of penetrating questions in response. When they finish, Stark bids the woman farewell and heads back to her jeep.

     When she shuts her door, she blows out a heavy breath and turns to her right. “You’re not holding up your end of the deal. In exchange for not contacting your mother, you agreed to see a trauma counselor on a weekly basis. That doesn’t mean you get to just sit silently in her office for an hour. Do you understand me?”

     Nuria gathers her legs into the seat with her, folding into herself, seeking shelter from Stark’s words as if they were physical blows. “I never agreed to talk to her.”

     “Well, you better start. If I get a report next week that you’re still refusing to cooperate, I will have to summon your mother to campus. This is your final warning.”

     “I don’t need a trauma counselor,” Nuria argues. “I didn’t suffer anything. My wounds don’t exist. The woman is gone. There’s nothing to fret over.”

     “You were almost killed, Nuria. You’re trying to tell me you didn’t have any conflicts with dying, at your age? I don’t buy it. You’re going to have to deal with that, one way or another.”

     Stark puts the jeep in drive and starts them on the route back to the school. Nuria tries to turn on the radio, but Stark shuts down her enthusiasm with a terse expression. Nuria huffs and sinks back into her seat. After a moment, she turns to Stark with an apologetic countenance.

     “I don’t know what to say when I’m there,” Nuria admits.

     “How you felt is a good place to start,” Stark says.

     “But…I’m just supposed to…bear all that to a stranger?”

     “What you say to her stays between the three of us. Normally, it would stay between the two of you, but I have to be involved in this particular case.”

     “What if I don’t want her to know?”

     Stark gives Nuria a swift look of curiosity before turning her attention back to the road. “Meaning?”

     “I mean, we made the deal in the first place. So, can’t I just talk to you about this?” Nuria asks softly.

     “I’m not qualified to take on that role, Nuria.”

     “You’re the head of security for Four Hearts Academy, aren’t you? Taking responsibility for the mental health of students is part of that job, isn’t it?”

     Stark finds herself smirking despite her attitude.

     “We can even start right now,” Nuria declares somberly. She turns and looks out the window, watching the buildings zip by in a constant blur. The further they travel, the less enticing the structures appear, going from clothing stores to small corner taverns. Nuria exhales slowly in an effort to control the tears trying to fall down her cheeks. “I ran away on impulse. I ran away, like a coward.”

     “I heard you threw a punch before you fled. Seems like you’re a fighter before a flight risk,” Stark comments.

     “That was to help me get away. I know Professor Zathony accepted my apology, and Headmaster Neth is using our tuition payment to restore the Vanusi dorm, but I still feel responsible for what happened. Tyra could’ve died trying to save me. And worst of all, I didn’t even think of my brother until after I’d left campus. That’s how I was caught in the first place. I turned back to plan to grab him. The woman found me near the top of a tree.”

     Stark shakes her head. “You’re beating yourself up by having the wrong perspective of those details. You apologized multiple times. In fact, Zathony complained to me that he was getting sick of your guilt. You took responsibility for the fire you caused and are paying for the renovations. The fire was put out relatively fast, so they shouldn’t last longer than this month. You turned back to get your brother the moment you thought of him. And if you were planning how to get to him instead of wildly dashing back in, it shows how much you care for him. You didn’t blindly rush in and put both of you in the danger you perceived there to be at the time.”

     “But Tyra still could’ve died trying to save me,” Nuria repeats. “I don’t want anyone’s life to be forfeited for my own.”

     “Good thing no lives were forfeited then.”


     “There’s one thing you need to understand, Nuria. Nobody considers the events of that night your fault. A number of obstacles were placed before you, and in your effort to bypass them all so quickly, you overexerted yourself and burned out. I believe the weeklong coma you were in was to give your mind and body the rest it needed. Now, you need to go at things at a slower pace. Find a rhythm you’re comfortable with and stick with it.”

     “Easier said than done,” Nuria grumbles. “Professor Zathony’s schedule is relentless. Each week I’m falling further and further behind.”

“You leave Professor Zathony to me,” Stark says.

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