Page 1


This book is a work of fiction. Any references to real people, historical events, businesses, companies, products, or real locales are used fictitiously. Other names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination, and any resemblance to actual events, locales, persons living or deceased, is entirely coincidental. Copyright © 2015 Jessica Ann Redmerski All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole, or in part, and in any form. In accordance with the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, the scanning, uploading, and electronic sharing of any part of this book without prior written permission is unlawful piracy and theft of the author’s intellectual property. --Cover by Michelle Monique Photography | www.michellemoniquephoto.com Cover Model | Kyle Naylor - http://kylenaylor.com/ Hair | Shiree Collier - http://www.shireecollier.com/ ---

J.A. Redmerski | THE BLACK WOLF | 1st Edition Fiction – Crime – Suspense


-PRAISE FOR IN THE COMPANY OF KILLERS"5 Holy Mother of WTF Stars." - The Book Enthusiast on KILLING SARAI --"This series is Spectacular!" - SMI BOOK CLUB --"Mind-f*ck at its finest and I loved every single minute of it." - Amazon Customer on THE SWAN & THE JACKAL --"Say goodbye to your nails..." - Amazon Customer on KILLING SARAI --"Dark, compelling, deathly violent and just fan-bloody-tastic!" - Goodreads Reviewer on REVIVING IZABEL --"There is no going back for me, this series has me completely and utterly addicted..." - Books She Reads --"5+ Crushing, Amazing & Shocking STARS" - The Book Enthusiast on The Swan & the Jackal --"These books are genius!!!" - Amazon Customer on SEEDS OF INIQUITY


-ABOUT THE BLACK WOLF-

Since devastating secrets were uncovered by Nora Kessler, Niklas Fleischer and Victor Faust have been divided as business partners and brothers. But ultimately Niklas is persuaded to lead a mission to Italy, and he sees it as an opportunity to set in motion forgiveness— or retribution—for his brother’s betrayal. The mission: play the role of a wealthy German investor and kidnap a beautiful, notorious madam named Francesca Moretti. No stranger to these types of roles, Niklas is the best man for the job, but this time the risks will be much greater as he will not be doing it alone. Izabel Seyfried, still fresh out of a life of imprisonment and sex slavery, could be negatively affected by the things she will see in Moretti’s mansion, and Niklas must keep her in line so she does not blow their cover and get them killed. But Niklas isn’t the only one who must play a role—Nora takes on the humiliating task of playing Niklas’s slave, and Izabel must play the role of his lover. On one hand, Niklas couldn’t be enjoying himself more. On the other hand, the emotions that continue to rage inside of him may be too much for him to control, and it may be Niklas—not Izabel—who needs to be kept in line. He cannot forget what Victor has done, and this mission may just be the beginning of his downward spiral. Can the blood bond that Niklas and Victor share as brothers be stronger than resentment? Or will vengeance dig the blade so deep that their bond be eternally severed?


Table of Contents PRAISE FOR IN THE COMPANY OF KILLERS ABOUT THE BLACK WOLF PROLOGUE CHAPTER ONE CHAPTER TWO CHAPTER THREE CHAPTER FOUR CHAPTER FIVE CHAPTER SIX CHAPTER SEVEN CHAPTER EIGHT CHAPTER NINE CHAPTER TEN CHAPTER ELEVEN CHAPTER TWELVE CHAPTER THIRTEEN CHAPTER FOURTEEN CHAPTER FIFTEEN CHAPTER SIXTEEN CHAPTER SEVENTEEN CHAPTER EIGHTEEN CHAPTER NINETEEN CHAPTER TWENTY CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE CHAPTER THIRTY CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE OTHER BOOKS BY J.A. REDMERSKI ABOUT THE AUTHOR


Prologue

Niklas

June 2, 1988 – Portugal We were kept in a building with tall ceilings and ceramic tile floors and white paint-chipped walls that towered all around us like a prison. A prison with no locked doors or barred windows because no one was ever brazen enough to try escaping. No one but me, of course. I wanted out, and I wanted my brother out with me. No one in The Order but our father, and my mother, knew that Victor and I were half-brothers. Our father warned us never to tell anyone, never to talk even in private about our relation. And we never did. When we were just boys we were taken away from our homes, from our normal childhood, from our mothers and our meals and our fantastical imaginations and everything we had ever known, except for each other. From our games in the field with our friends, and apparently a half-sister I don’t think I ever knew. Was she the girl with wispy blond hair and big doll-like eyes who played with us in the field behind my house in Germany? The girl who clung to Victor when she skinned her knee and ripped her dress? I didn’t know. And I never asked. I didn’t give a shit about any sister who I never knew—all I cared about was my brother and my father and my mother and the secret we shared and was vital that we kept. Four years of brutal training had passed in The Order. I was eleven-years-old. Victor and I didn’t grow apart in our time there, we simply grew up very different. Victor may have been The Order’s favorite, the rising star, the boy who would one day be Vonnegut’s Number One, but just as I did, Victor kept our father’s secret, never questioning why our father—an equally skilled assassin just as my brother is today—would lie about such a thing to The Order that he served with such allegiance. Despite the secret he kept, Victor was the most disciplined, the one with the most promise. We were so different by then that even I began to wonder if the secret we kept was true. At eleven-years-old, I wanted to be…eleven-years-old. My older brother, who slept soundly in the room next to me, wanted to be everything that our father expected of him. I wanted to go home —Victor was home. Every day I thought about my mother and talked about her as though I was never going to see her again—Victor never spoke of his mother. I wasn’t cut out for this life, whatever it was destined to be, even though I tried hard to show my worth—Victor was a natural, a machine, he took to everything as innately as an infant learning to crawl. On this night, I ached in my bed from the cracked ribs I’d sustained the day before; the broken thumb; the swollen bottom lip—my punishment for not hitting my target on the first shot from two hundred feet away in near darkness was to walk a ‘gauntlet’ and be beaten by twenty other boys, most


of them bigger than me. I knew I would never be as good as Victor, no matter how hard I tried. And finally, after four years of grueling training, I had had enough and decided to make a run for it. The floor was cold underneath my bare feet as I made my way quietly to the opened door of my room, the fabric of my pajama pants swishing about my ankles the only noise. My ribs hurt so badly that I struggled in a slumped position down the dark hall, barely lit by the moonlight pouring in through the windows that lined the high ceilings. A guard sat in a chair at the far end of the hall, the back of his head pressed against the wall, his eyes closed. I didn’t know it at the time, but the guards that watched over us were never really sleeping on the job, it’s just what we were led to believe, in case one of us ever tried to escape. I crept into Victor’s room and woke him. “Victor, I’m going to leave this fucking place,” I whispered as his eyes crept open, “and I want you to come with me.” Victor sat upright in the center of his small bed wearing the same stark white pajamas that I was wearing. “What are you talking about, Niklas?” he said in a quiet voice laced with concern. His eyes darted from me to the opened door, then fell on me again. “You can’t leave The Order; this is our home, our life.” Straining from the pain, I carefully sat down on the edge of his bed. “You can barely walk,” Victor added, making note of my condition as if it would end the discussion. “Now go back to your room and go to bed. Never speak of this to anyone. I would never tell, but the others here, they will and you know it.” “No, Brother,” I said as if to remind him of our blood, hoping it alone would change his mind. “I want out of here, and I know you do, too.” I wasn’t confident in that belief, I just wanted it to be true. Victor shook his head. Then he reached out his hand to me, laying it on my shoulder. He peered in at me through the darkness of the small bare room equipped with only a bed, a metal desk and a three-drawer side-table where he kept his clothes and toiletries. “If you run,” he warned, “they will catch you”—I felt his bony, boyish fingers gently dig into my shoulder—“and I can’t bear to see you suffer the punishment they will inflict on you.” Even at such a young age, Victor always spoke with sophistication and elegance, unlike normal children. Most of the boys in The Order did—even in that aspect I often fell short. My favorite word was fuck. Still fucking is. I shrugged his hand away from my shoulder, biting back the pain that simple action caused my ribs. “I don’t care what they do to me,” I snapped. “I’m not afraid of them!” Victor pushed air through his teeth to hush me, his eyes widening in the blue-gray darkness. “They will hear you,” he whispered harshly, grabbing my shoulder again. “Why are you so afraid, Victor?” I asked, feeling my heart sink into the soles of my feet. “Why won’t you come with me?” Victor sighed. He looked at me and I could see in his face something that I already knew, but never wanted to believe: he wasn’t afraid and never had been; he was willing, utterly accepting, and wanted nothing other than to succeed and excel in The Order, to make our father proud, no matter the cost. “I want to be here,” he said. “Niklas…in time you will feel the same way; you will


understand that everything we are put through is going to make us stronger, it will make us men. It will give our lives purpose.” He didn’t sound like my brother anymore, the boy I played roughly with in the field in Germany—the words coming out of his thirteen-year-old mouth were the words of our trainers and his mentor. And our father. Victor paused, looking once more at the doorway. “You are my brother,” he said with devotion, but then with a sigh he added, “and that makes you my only weakness. It is why it is forbidden to have ties like ours, why we can never tell our secret—because ties make us weak, and weakness gets us killed.” I shoved away from him and rose into a stand, straining under my own wounded weight. “Then why don’t you just tell them that I’m your brother? Or turn me in as a traitor—tell them whatever you want!” I lashed out, though I kept my voice to a whisper. “They favor you…Brother”— I couldn’t hide the resentment, the pain, from my voice—“they would believe you, and I love you enough that I’d go along with whatever you told them, and they’d kill me, and then you wouldn’t have to worry about me anymore.” Victor shot up from the bed, the sheet that had covered him stirred by the brisk movement, falling slowly against the mattress. He stood in front of me, glaring into my eyes. I had never seen him so angry, so controlled by emotion—I thought I was looking into the eyes of a stranger. It frightened me. But mostly it made my stomach swim with guilt. “I would never, Niklas, in my short or long life, do anything that would cause you harm.” He stepped up closer, his toes touching mine, the warmth of his breath on my face coming from his nostrils. “If you think I could, then perhaps you are not my blood, after all.” And I knew he meant what he said, I knew that my brother’s loyalty to me would be unwavering for years to come, that he would do everything in his power to protect me, even if it meant risking his position in The Order. And risking his life. But at eleven-years-old I was stubborn and chose not to listen. I left his room without anything but my white pajamas. I crept down the hallway, past the guard pretending to be asleep, and walked right out a side door and exited the building into the warm night air. I got as far as the fence. No one came. I slipped through a section in the fence where it met the brick wall of the front gate of the property—I was skinny enough I could push my body through it. No one came. I walked as quickly as I could down the street made of broken asphalt. Still no one came. I thought I was free. Every step I took, the closer I got to the lights that reflected off the surface of the lake from the small town nearby, I felt like I was going to finally live the way I wanted. Images of when I was boy, playing in the field behind my house with Victor and our friends and our maybesister, Naeva, I began to feel like I was reclaiming the life that was taken from me. But it was the guilt of leaving my brother behind that stopped me in my tracks. I was a boy, dressed in stark white pajamas, standing barefoot in the center of a moonlightshrouded street in Portugal, a calm breeze blowing the thin material of my pants against my bony legs; I was hunched over slightly with my arms crossed over my midsection. I was an out-of-place smudge on a painting, the one thing in the picture that did not belong—I didn’t belong anywhere, really. But as I stood there, seeing Victor’s face in my mind, that guilt he’d planted there before when he was so hurt


by the things I’d said to him, it grew so much that I suddenly felt suffocated by it. I couldn’t leave my brother in that place. I couldn’t leave him anywhere. I turned around and went back the way I came. The guard pretending to be asleep before, stood in the doorway of the building, waiting for me, dressed in a black T-shirt and black military pants tucked into black military boots; a police baton hung from his fist. “You could have kept on going,” the guard said. “Why did you come back?” A loud clunk and click and then a constant mechanical hum sounded from high above me and bright lights spilled out over the rooftop, pooling around me in two brilliant circles that made the grass beneath my feet look white. The spotlights, as if shackling me to the ground by chains, held me still in that spot in front of the building. Two more guards came toward me from somewhere that I didn’t care to look, and stopped in arm’s reach. I kept my eyes trained on the guard in the doorway with the police baton. He had asked me a question and I didn’t know how to answer it, so I didn’t at first. A white-hot pain stung me in the back and my knees buckled beneath me, sending me to the ground. I wanted to cry out in pain, but I knew it would only make them hit me harder, longer. I bit down on in the inside of my cheek so hard that the metallic taste of blood pooled inside my mouth. “I will ask you again, Fleischer,” the guard with the police baton said—though according to my back, the ones standing beside me also had batons. “What made you return?” I could hear his voice, but my eyes were clenched so tightly because of the pain, that I couldn’t tell where he was standing anymore. He was closer though, that much I knew. Slowly, my eyes crept open, my vision was blurred for many long seconds. He was standing directly over me. I raised my head and looked at him and finally answered, “I belong here, sir. I pledged my life to The Order and I will die in its service.” “Stand up.” His voice was calm, but stern. I did what I was told, pushing through the pain and forcing myself to my feet. I raised my chin to appear strong and obedient; my legs were shaking only because of the pain, but I maintained my firm posture. “Take him for punishment,” the guard demanded the others, “and then begin his transfer.” They thought I would cry when I was stripped of my clothes and flogged with a whip. They thought I would beg them to stop, choke on my own vomit. But I didn’t cry. Fuck them. I took it until I passed out. A second longer and I would’ve cried I’m sure, but I was spared the humiliation of a weak, sobbing boy, by the bitter sweet visitation of unconsciousness. That was the last time I saw my brother, Victor, for several long years. But I never forgot about him, and I never stopped loving him, and I always kept our secret. But I vowed to one day be more like him, to live up to his skill and his dedication to The Order, because not only did I respect him, but I never again wanted to see that hurtful anger in his eyes. Everything I did from that point on I did for my brother. By the time I saw him again, Victor already had nine kills under his belt—the first at the age of thirteen, carried out one week after I was transferred. And when he turned seventeen, one year after we were under the same roof again, he was given the full rank of Assassin, the youngest assassin ever appointed by The Order. I was still a failure, with a disappointed mentor that knew I’d never be sent out into the field.


A wave of jealousy swept over me, but I’d hoped I’d hidden it well. No matter what I did, or how hard I tried, I only seemed to fall further behind him, and I knew I’d never live up to him. But he was my brother, and not even a jealous heart would ever make me betray him. I believed him when he told me that night that he’d never do anything to cause me harm. I believed him with my whole life and my whole heart and my whole goddamned soul. I believed him…


Niklas

Present Day The whore with big brown eyes and perfect tits, raises her blond head from my chest. “Did you hear anything I just said?” she asks, her eyes slanted. Fuck no I didn’t. “Yeah,” I answer, “you were telling me about your sister, or some shit.” She huffs and sits up the rest of the way on the bed, her breasts bouncing, her ass jiggling—I haven’t fucked her yet, but I’m getting around to it. She had just given me a massage minutes earlier. I reach over to the nightstand and take a cigarette from the pack, placing it between my lips. The whore snarls at me. What the hell is she waiting for? An apology for not giving a shit? “What?” I argue as I drag my thumb over the lighter and a flame appears. She shakes her head and leans her naked body over me, reaching for another cigarette from my pack and then lighting it on the end of mine. “Nothing,” she says with offense. “You just said that you wanted to talk first, so that’s what I was doing—pouring out my heart about my rich bitch sister. And you weren’t even listening.” I puff on the filter slowly, taking a long drag. “What do you want me to say?” “Nothing,” she repeats bitterly, dropping it. But I’ve never known a woman who said “Nothing” and really wanted to drop it. Bitches and their mind games—if it wasn’t for the pussy I’d stay the hell away from them all. “Maybe I should start charging you for my time,” she says with smoke streaming from her plump lips. She scoots toward the headboard and sits slumped against it, one long naked leg bent, the other lying flat against the mattress. I laugh lightly. “I’ve never paid for sex in my life,” I say, flicking my ashes in the ashtray on the nightstand. “And I never will.” “I said for my time,” she corrects me. “This talking bullshit, for example.” Her blond head falls to one side and she looks over at me with a spreading grin. “I’d never charge you for the sex, Niklas.” I smile faintly. After I’ve smoked the cigarette down, I crush the filter in the ashtray. The room I’ve been


staying in since I left our Order is a shithole, but I’ve always preferred shitholes to luxury; old boots to shiny dress shoes; worn jeans to posh suits; rot-gut whiskey to expensive wine. Only thing I can think of clean and pure and not stained by moral perversion that I like, are women. Not necessarily this particular woman—I like her not because she’s a whore, but because she’s proud to be a whore —but women…like Claire. The only woman I ever loved more than my mother. The woman that my brother killed. “What’s up with you, anyway?” the whore asks. “Maybe it’s none of my business, but you’ve been all brooding and shit the past couple of weeks.” I sit with both legs stretched out before me, crossed at the ankles, the bed sheet draped over my midsection, my arms crossed over my chest. On the other side of the small, dingy room with green wallpaper, a round table sits in front of the only window covered by thick navy curtains that have been pulled together, shutting out what’s left of the daylight. Another hour and it’ll be dark. The flatscreen television—like the telephone and the broken hair dryer and stained mini coffee pot—has been mounted to the room to deter theft; it hangs from a moveable arm bracket affixed high on the wall. Old ‘Seinfeld’ reruns play on the screen with the volume low. The muffled sound of music from the bar on the ground floor beneath me funnels through the thin walls and floor. The bed moves as the whore—OK, her name is Jackie—shifts around next to me. I look over just as she’s standing up with her back to me, her naked ass shaped like a cherry. I like that. “Where are you going?” I ask, mildly interested. She steps into her skimpy black panties and walks around to my side of the bed, crushing her cigarette out next to mine; a thin sliver of leftover smoke rises from the ashes. “I’ve gotta be somewhere in an hour,” she says indifferently. I reach out and clamp my hand around her wrist, stopping her. Jackie never really has to ‘be somewhere’—I’ve known her for two months—and all of a sudden I feel like an asshole. Well, I admit I am a fucking asshole twenty-four-seven, but I don’t like it when I actually feel like one. She looks down at me irritably, waiting for me to get on with it, blinking her light brown eyes. “I’m a dick,” I say and let go of her wrist. “Sorry. Please, just sit back down.” Unconvinced, Jackie manipulates the inside of her mouth with her teeth, staring at me indecisively, and then reaches for her bra anyway lying on the stained carpet. Not wanting her to go— because I actually enjoy her company even when we’re not fucking—I swallow my admittedly ridiculous ego and say, “Tell me more about what happened with that rich bitch sister of yours. Did she ever apologize for shutting you out like that, for keeping you from spending time with your niece —Katie? That’s your niece’s name, right?” I really had heard everything Jackie was going on about before, when I was lost in thought thinking about my own issues with my own flesh and blood. I’ve just never been the type to talk about my shit, or to listen to anyone else’s. When I’d told her before that I wanted to ‘talk first’, I meant something more along the lines of everyday mundane bullshit: about the hair I found in my goddamn omelet this morning; the cab I rode in for three miles stuffed in the backseat with two steroid-addicted assholes whose arms were so big they couldn’t reach their armpits to apply deodorant—I’ve been taking a cab lately so Victor and Izabel won’t know I’m still in town, though if I know my brother, he knows where I’m at by now. But somehow, while talking about why I was taking a cab, Jackie started talking about her sister. Oh yeah, I guess it was because I mentioned that I had been avoiding my brother. I still don’t care much about her sister—from what I’ve heard, they could be the stars of their very own reality TV show—but to make her stay a little longer, I’ll listen if that’s what she wants.


Jackie’s fed-up expression finally turns forgiving, and she drops her bra back onto the carpet and sits down on the bed beside me, her feet on the floor. And for the next thirty minutes I listen to her tell me everything. “So what do you think I should do?” she asks, and I realize she really does want my advice. What the fuck do I look like, a shrink? “You want my honest opinion?” I ask, at least warning her beforehand because I never sugarcoat anything. “Yeah,” she says. “I want honesty.” I shrug and then bring my arms up, locking my hands behind my head. “She may be your sister,” I say, “but that doesn’t make her off-limits. You do what you gotta do; beat the shit out of her if that’s what’ll make you feel better”—my eyes meet hers with warning and purpose—“but that shit you were saying about calling Child Protective Services just to get back at her—that’s fucked up. Do what you gotta do, but only bitches betray their families like that.” Jackie nods several times in deep contemplation of my ‘advice’, and then she smiles, letting out a breath, her petite shoulders rising and falling underneath her disheveled blond hair. “You should take out an advice column in the newspaper,” she says with a grin. I laugh. “Yeah, I can see it now”—I swipe a hand in front of me in demonstration—“I’ll call it: Dear Niklas, Should I Kill Myself? Sure, If You Feel Like You Should.” Jackie chuckles, shaking her head and gently rolling her eyes. Then she crawls over my body and takes her place next to me on the other side of the bed again. She lays against the pillow on her side, facing me. The tip of her index finger, her fingernail painted with some weird glittery shit, begins to trace the outline of my chest muscles. “What about this stuff with avoiding your brother?” she asks. “Wanna talk about it?” Absently, and with bitterness, I chew on the inside of my cheek. “No,” I answer after a moment, staring at the lime green door out ahead. “I’d rather not.” “Oh come on,” Jackie says lightheartedly, patting my chest with the palm of her hand, “it can’t be that bad—mine was pretty messed up; can’t be much worse than mine. What did he do?” After a pause, I say without looking at her, “My brother murdered my fiancé,” and in half a second Jackie’s almost-fully-naked body becomes a rock next to mine. “Oh…” “Why don’t you take those panties back off?” I suggest. It takes her moment to hear my question, and then, still with quite a shock on her face, her eyebrows drawn inward, she slips her panties off and tosses them on the floor. Tearing open a condom wrapper, I put the condom on and then gesture with one hand toward my lap. “Get on,” I say, and she does. And in under thirty seconds, neither one of us are thinking anymore about our fucked up families.


Izabel

New York City I’ve begun to master it, the art of moving without making a sound, how to blend in with the shadows, to control what I hear and see and taste and feel and smell. As my flat-heeled boots move silently over the asphalt rooftop in the dead of night, I see everything. My vision is sharp, taking in the way the moonlight lays across the building in a cloak of gray. I see a tiny glint of silver illuminated by that light on the doorknob just up ahead. I feel the mild air on my face, the calm thrumming of my heartbeat. Cool and collected yet eager to get this done. I should hear the movement of light traffic on the streets of the city below, the lapping of the waves against the shore, the wind moving through the tops of the trees, but I’ve blocked it all out so I can stay focused, so that I can hear what matters: the enemy’s footsteps, the cocking of a gun, a whisper intended to be unknown to me. Nora taught me these things. “Stay focused,” she had said a hundred times before she caught me off-guard and hit me in the face. “See and hear and know your enemy’s movements before they act on them.” And then she’d hit me again, and again, until the last time when I caught her off-guard and nearly broke her nose. Fucking bitch. She smiled proudly and wiped the blood away with the back of her hand. Nothing fazes that woman. Nothing. Nora turns her blond head done up in a tight bun, to look back at me on the rooftop. Her brown eyes appear black in the dark. Piercing. Beautiful. Malicious—strange how the night can reveal a person’s inner-workings. She smiles so slimly that it barely touches her lips, but I see it there, in those dark pools looking back at me with excitement and a sort of sweet murderous rage—she couldn’t have joined up with a more fitting group of people. We slip our face masks on and she gestures at me with her gloved index and middle fingers. I nod and prepare to follow. We’ve been hiding on this rooftop since seven p.m. when Randolf Pinceri’s men locked the building up for the day. It was the easiest way inside: walk in among the employees and guests by day and then slip back in through a rooftop door by night, rather than trying to break in from any of the bottom floor entrances, which are heavily guarded in the overnight hours. Like two stealthy black cats stalking prey, Nora and I move alongside the building, remaining hidden in the cover of its shadow. Our black bodysuits conceal every inch of our skin. Our heads are covered by masks, pulled down tight over our faces, leaving only our eyes untouched. Black boots


cover our feet. Black gloves fit tight over our hands and wrists. A camera moves in a slow horizontal motion, drinking in the quiet undisturbed scene of the rooftop. We stop at just the right moment, pressing our backs against the wall and remaining perfectly still until the camera passes. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. We move quickly toward the rooftop door, having only fifteen more seconds to get that door open and slip inside undetected before the camera makes another round. With my lock-pick already wedged between my leather-clad fingers, I get to work on the door while Nora stands off to the side with her gun in-hand. “Ten seconds,” I hear her whisper. I say nothing and continue to work vigorously, crouched in front of the door. My heart begins to pound more erratically, pushing adrenaline hotly through my veins. “Five seconds.” Sweat begins to bead in my hairline underneath the tight fabric. I bite down hard on the inside of my mouth, trying not to fumble the lock-pick. “Three.” I can feel the camera making its way back, slowly and methodically, like a pair of eyes on me in the darkness that I can’t see but I know are there, and it sends a shiver up the back of my neck. “Two.” There’s a click and the door comes open when I grip the knob and turn. We slip inside and shut the door with not a second to spare. I stop to catch my breath. The timing had to be perfect. Not necessarily the dodging of the camera, but everything from here on out. At precisely ten-thirty p.m. the alarm system on the building will automatically activate. But between the hours of seven p.m. and ten p.m. we had to wait for all three of our targets to arrive before we could act. Getting in was the easy part. Getting out will be a different story—we have to fulfill this mission without drawing attention, without setting off alarms, without one of Pinceri’s men alerting the dozens of others of our intrusion. We have to move through this building undetected, make it to the eighth floor, get information from one target, kill him and two others quietly, and then make it out of the building before the alarm is set. I’m getting a headache just thinking about it. Pulling back my glove, I glance down at my watch. “We have less than fifteen minutes to pull this off,” I whisper to Nora while she adjusts the tiny speaker fixed inside her ear. I hear Victor’s voice inside mine as well: “One man is stationed just outside the tenth floor door,” he says. “But there are three at the far end of the hall.” Nora and I nod to each other, knowing what we have to do. After tucking my lock-pick back behind the tight fabric at my wrist, I pull my gun from the holster on my thigh and follow behind Nora as she descends the concrete steps of the stairwell. The air is warm and moist in here where the air conditioning doesn’t reach, making my bodysuit adhere to my skin uncomfortably. The sound of our boots moving down the steps is faint, practically unnoticeable, but slightly enhanced by the echo of the small space. Dull fluorescent lights lay out a path for us as we make our way to the bottom and reach the tall metal door that leads out onto the tenth floor. “Left or right?” Nora asks Victor. “Right side of the door,” Victor responds, his deep but soothing voice always a comfort to me


on these missions. “He is armed, but his gun is holstered.” We spent two weeks scoping this building out: sent others in before us, blending in with the day visitors, who planted hidden cameras of our own, feeding real-time images to Victor and James Woodard back at our Boston headquarters. “There is only one surveillance camera in the hall,” Victor says. “It’s stationary. Wait for my word.” Keeping eyes on the one man sitting in the surveillance room of this building, without Victor as our eyes on the outside, we’d be completely blind to everything around us. A full minute passes, then another, and all I can think about is how many minutes Nora and I have left to get this done. “Now,” Victor says urgently into our ears—he was waiting for the man in the surveillance room to leave the multiple screens in front of him to take his nightly piss and make a coffee pot run, practically right on schedule. Nora carefully swings open the door into the tenth floor hallway so as not to let it hit the wall, and she grabs the man standing guard on the other side, snapping his neck before he can reach for his gun. His heavy body slumps over into her arms and together we carry him into the stairwell and let the door close quietly, hiding him from view of the camera. Wasting no time, Nora and I move quickly down the hall where just around the corner at the end, three more men stand guard at the elevator. With our silenced guns drawn, we round the corner to see them staring back at us with wild rounded eyes and quick hands. “STOP!” one man shouts just before Nora’s bullet zips through the air and drops him like a slab of meat. Squeezing my trigger without even thinking about it, I put a bullet in another man’s head and he drops onto the white tiled floor in a heap of dead weight and black fabric. The third man raises his gun, but Nora takes him out before he can get a shot off. His gun hits the floor and slides several inches as he falls. “Are we still clear?” I ask Victor as Nora and I drag two bodies by their ankles across the floor toward another door, the sound of their suits moving over the tile like a snake slithering through a bed of leaves. “Yes,” Victor says, “you’re still clear, but move with haste; he won’t stay away from his post long.” Pushing open the door with my back, I drag the body inside; the long, heavy legs hit the carpeted floor of what looks like an office, with a thump-thump. Nora comes in right after me, dropping the second body. “Clean the scene,” she tells me as she grabs the last body by the ankles and hurriedly drags him away in the same direction. I grab the man’s gun that had fallen, shoving it into my boot, and then I pull a square of cloth tucked away inside my other boot and mop up the small droplets of blood and one noticeable smear, that had stained the floor. “You’re still clear,” Victor says. Nora comes out of the office just as I’m setting the magazine that had fallen onto the floor neatly back onto the chair. Without a word, Nora and I move fast past the elevator and down the hall to another stairwell. The sound of our boots hitting the concrete steps as we make our way down is now more audible. Our


breathing less controlled, but only a surprise, or a gunshot wound can break our concentration. Halfway down the ninth floor, Victor says, “He’s making his way back. There are two men outside the door on the ninth floor—” “But we’re not going to the ninth floor,” I cut in. That wasn’t in the plan. Why are we straying from the plan: use the stairwell straight to the eighth floor, bypassing anymore men in the halls? The only reason we came out on the tenth floor and took out those men was because they were stationed too close to the stairwell, our safest getaway route. “I got it,” Nora says and rushes right out the ninth floor door, this time letting it smash against the wall, not caring, or not having time to control it. “Who the fuck—” She drops the man at the other end of the hall with a single muffled shot. “Don’t move,” she says to the other just as he’s reaching for his gun in the back of his slacks. His arms shoot up beside him, his tanned, lined face twists with trepidation. “Move the body,” Nora tells me and I do as she says without question or hesitation. “Hurry.” The man in the suit stares back at Nora with bright blue eyes framed by dark, messy hair. “What do you want?” he asks with a shaky voice, and shaky hands. I hide the body in another nearby office. “He’s about fifteen feet from the surveillance room door,” Victor tells us about the guard downstairs just as I’m stepping back out into the hall. There’s a single camera right on us, but I hold back the involuntary reaction to look up at it. It may not pick up our faces covered by the masks, but it can still see my eyes and that instinctively makes me cautious. Having the same idea, Nora and I step out of view of the camera around the short corner next to the office, but her gun remains trained on the man. A knot slips down the center of his throat, moving his Adam’s apple. Her fierce brown eyes never seem to blink as she stares coldly into his blue ones just a few feet away. “Drop your hands and look natural,” Nora demands, knowing that if the man in the surveillance room sees him like that, he’ll know right away something is wrong. “I said drop them!” The man drops his hands immediately. “Don’t look at us,” she says. “I said look natural.” He does as he’s told, averting his eyes. He steps over and presses his back to the wall and then crosses his arms over his chest to look natural. “He’s back in the surveillance room,” Victor warns us. “Now,” Nora says to the man, “when you get that contact from surveillance downstairs, you better make it believable. And send him out of the room.” The man’s eyes crease with confusion as he continues to stare out ahead of him rather than at us. His rough-edged jaw and disheveled dark hair moves side to side in a bewildered fashion. “W-What do you mean?” he asks, now looking vaguely in our direction, but in a casual, unsuspicious manner. “If you’re smart,” Nora says icily, “you’ll figure it out. If not, you’ll be dead in under thirty seconds.” Suddenly his eyes shift from Nora’s as if his concentration on her has just been broken. Instinctively he goes to raise his fingers to his earpiece, but stops just short when from the corner of his eye he notices Nora’s finger moving in a threatening manner against the trigger: Don’t do anything


stupid, it says. I’ll kill you on the spot. Another knot moves down the man’s throat. Very slowly he presses his fingers against the earpiece. Then he smiles and looks upward at the camera positioned near the ceiling. “They’re probably giving each other blowjobs in the stairwell,” he tells the man in the surveillance room; a tiny speaker is affixed to the front of his black tie. “Vance and me have had a bet goin’ on for a while now: how many men on floor ten can Carmen convert—looks like I’m gonna win.” He nods, looking up at the camera and then glances in our direction to indicate the office just beyond us. “Yeah, Vance is in the office talking to that girl again—I know, I know, I’ve told him about that shit, but seems the teenagers aren’t the only part of the population who can’t seem to unplug. Ha! Ha!” He throws his head back with laughter (I roll my eyes). “Yeah no shit.” The man glances at us briefly; we glare back at him coldly. Hurry it up, our faces, and the barrel of Nora’s gun tells him. The man clears his throat and looks back up at the camera. “Hey, since I’m the only one on guard on my floor right now,” he says, “would you mind bringing up something from vending?” He pauses, listening to the other man’s response. “Hey man don’t worry about it; shit’s been quiet as hell in this place for months. Pinceri should pay us more just to stay awake.” He laughs to something the man says into his earpiece. Then he nods. “Yeah, anything’ll do. I’m starving. Thanks.” A few quiet and intense seconds pass where no one says anything. The man continues to act casual even though from this angle he looks on the verge of pissing himself. “He’s leaving the surveillance room,” Victor says into our earpieces. With that, Nora immediately steps from the corner with her gun trained on the man. A second later another bullet zips through the air and the man falls to the floor, dead. “He’s getting into the north elevator,” Victor tells us as we’re dragging the man—me with his feet, Nora with his arms—into the office with the other dead man. After hiding the body, Nora and I rush down the hall toward the north elevator and we stand in front of the silver sliding doors, watching the floor numbers light up above it as the elevator makes its way up slowly. Clock is ticking. Time is seeping through our fingers like water. Floor six. Nora rolls her eyes and sighs miserably as if the boredom from waiting is killing her. “So, tell me what Victor’s like in bed,” she says so casually it catches me off-guard—and puts a territorial knot in my stomach. “Huh?” It’s all I can manage, I’m so blindsided by her question. Floor seven. She laughs lightly, glancing over at me, but keeping most of her attention on the elevator doors. “Hey,” she says, gesturing the hand without a gun as if to calm a storm before it stirs, “I’m only curious because he’s Niklas’s brother. Can’t very well ask you how Niklas fucks seeing as how I doubt you’ve ever treaded those waters.” I shake my head with amazement. “You are one strange woman,” I say, trying not to laugh myself. “Nah,” she says, “I just have better communication skills.” I do laugh this time. “Really?” I say with disbelief and sarcasm. “I’d say your communication skills need some work—you’re too blunt in my opinion. For all the shit you are good at”—I point at her briefly


—“communication isn’t one of them.” Floor eight. Nora shrugs. “I think so,” she disagrees. “I tell it like it is. Why—forgive the cliché—beat around the fucking bush? I say just get on with it.” “Get on with it meaning you want to know what Niklas is like in bed?” I can hear the elevator moving closer now, the sound of metal moving against metal. “Well if you’re so pro-getting on with it, I’d assume you’d bypass asking me and just ask Niklas if he’d show you how he fucks.” Floor nine. The elevator doors slide open very slowly, revealing the man from the surveillance room a piece at a time. “Yeah well that’s hard to do when we can’t find him,” Nora says. “Think of this as you and me bonding.” The plump man in an ill-fitting sloppy suit looks back at us from the elevator with rounded eyes. He reaches for his gun. With my eyes still on Nora, I raise my gun at him and squeeze the trigger. “Bonding?” I say as the heavy weight of the man’s body hits the elevator floor with a thud. A bag of chips and some other vending machine food falls from his hand. I holster my gun in my boot, and Nora and I both each take an ankle and start to drag his body out. “Well yeah,” she says, struggling with his dead weight as we slide him across the tile floor. The elevator dings and the doors close. “We spend all our time training and taking everything so seriously, I thought it’d be nice to get to know you—what the hell did this guy eat, a Buick?” “By asking me how Victor is in bed?” I say as if making a statement. “Sure,” she says with another shrug, drops the leg in the empty office and stands upright. “Why not?” “Because it’s private,” I say, drop the leg and stand upright too. We leave the room and make our way to the stairwell. “And why the interest in Niklas all of a sudden?” The stairwell door closes behind us with hardly a noise. “Oh, the interest has been there for a while,” she admits. “I was curious to know when my sister was fucking him—she screamed a lot.” I raise a brow. “Like I said, you’re one strange woman.” We take the stairs quickly to the eighth floor, seeing the tall metal door out ahead. “There are two men in the hall guarding the entrance to the room,” I hear Victor’s voice in my ear. It stuns me a little this time considering the nature of my and Nora’s conversation, and the fact that for a moment I had forgotten he was listening to everything we were saying. My face flushes with heat. “And by the way,” Victor adds, “how I fuck Izabel is none of your goddamned business.” Nora grins at me. I grin back. We burst through the stairwell door with guns drawn and take out both men standing guard before waltzing into the room with our targets as if we own the place. Because at this point, we kinda do.


Izabel

The room is rife with silence as the targets look back at us from a long table positioned horizontally across the back of the room. Suits. Rolex watches. Clean-shaven. Hair slicked back in a sort of chocolate wave on Pinceri, the man in the center, like some gangster crime boss. Though he’s no gangster anything—he’s a professional thief. I move right as Nora moves left, both of us heading straight for the table with our guns pointed at the two men on either side of Pinceri. Pinceri stands slowly, moving his hands, palms up, out to his sides in a surrendering fashion, though calmer than I expected. “Now let’s talk about this,” he says in a charming, relaxed voice, the kind of voice that has mastered the art of seducing women. “No need for violence. How about you put the guns down and let’s have a civil conversation.” A muffled shot sounds. Then an eerie thud and crack as the bullet from Nora’s gun buries in the man’s skull on Pinceri’s right. He falls over in a slump against the table, one arm dangling over the arm of the chair, swaying side to side like a pendulum for a brief moment before it goes still. “This one’s all yours 53642.70 ¸” Nora prompts me, keeping her gun trained on Pinceri, who seems unaffected by the dead man next to him. Nora nods to me in Pinceri’s direction. I move my gun from the man on his left and train it on Pinceri instead, while Nora walks around and past me and toward the table. Pointing her gun at the other target’s face she demands, “Get up,” and he does without hesitation, the apprehensive look on his heavily lined face covered by age and sun damage. Pinceri remains smooth and undaunted. There’s not much time, I keep telling myself. I get right to the point. “How you answer my question,” I say to a smiling Pinceri, “will determine whether you live or die.” His smile appears more like a grin now, and he turns his head at an angle, looking at me in a sidelong manner. Then he opens his arms wide out in front of him, palms up, and says, “Well, by all means, grace me with your question.” The man to Pinceri’s left looks between the three of us, moving only his eyes—he’s terrified, unlike his confident boss whose cool attitude is, I admit, throwing me off a bit. I’m used to fear and bumbling, begging on hands and knees, telling me they’ll give me anything I want, do for me anything I want.


“What name is the Levington Daws account secured under in Sweden?” I ask, watching Pinceri closely over the barrel of my gun pointed at his face. “And who, other than you, has access to it?” Pinceri’s smile thickens. “That’s what you’re here for?” he asks, cocking his well-groomed head to the other side. Thuddup! The man to Pinceri’s left falls dead onto the floor. Pinceri is unfazed. Nora takes a new magazine from her belt and reloads her gun. “Carry on,” she says as she presses her bottom against the massive table, locking the magazine into place. Pinceri and I lock eyes. “Yes,” I go on, “that’s what we’re here for.” “And you think that by killing my two most trusted men,” Pinceri says with poise, “that I’ll just give up that information to you—I can always hire more men.” He smiles. “And you won’t kill me because I’m the only one who can give you what you came here for.” He reaches up with both hands and casually tugs on the lapel of his suit jacket as if to straighten it. “But are you willing to gamble the same on your wife?” I ask with confidence, holding all the cards. He doesn’t flinch—maybe just a little, but then again, that could’ve just been me thinking that he should. “What does my wife have to do with this?” I grin, even though he can’t see anything of my face other than my eyes, and I take another step toward him. “Oh, you know how these things work,” I provoke—he may not see the grin on my face, but surely he can hear it in my voice. “You know that if we could make it into this room without setting off any alarms, that we wouldn’t have come here if we weren’t prepared.” “So, you’re saying you have my wife.” He sighs, not with surrender or concern, but as if he were bored. Then he reaches up and rubs the smoothness of his chin with his fingertips. “Is that the trade: the information for the life of my wife?” Sensing that maybe he doesn’t believe us, Nora pushes herself from the table and walks down the length of it toward him. Producing a photograph from her boot, she tosses it on the table in front of Pinceri. He glances down at it, then back up at us, before taking it into his fingers. He studies it for a short moment to confirm that the woman, beaten and bloody and tied to the water pipes in the basement of an abandoned building, is in fact, his wife. He sets the photograph back down, still unflinching, and the more I stand here with this piece of shit who seems like he doesn’t care about what we’ve done to his wife, the more I want to shoot him on principle. But I have to remind myself that he’s probably just trying to keep his cool, avoiding showing his true concern. Pinceri smirks gently and clasps his hands together on his backside. “Now I’ll ask you again,” I say. “What name is the Levington Daws account secured under in Sweden and who has access to it?” Pinceri smiles. I grit my teeth. Nora looks at me from the short distance across the room, but doesn’t say anything—this is my


mission, my contract, my hit, and therefore my decisions. Not to mention part of my training, and I know that everything I do and say will not only have consequences, but will be judged. By Nora. By Victor. By everyone. I put a bullet in Pinceri’s right thigh. He falls against the tall leather chair behind him, one hand involuntarily grabbing the table for balance; the photograph of his wife sliding away underneath his fingers as he sinks deeper into the leather. “Fuuuck!” he moans through gritted teeth. And then he laughs. I keep my gun trained on him, never breaking my resolute disposition. “Go ahead,” he challenges, grimacing under the strain of his wound. “I can buy new legs too if I have to—you’re not getting the information, no matter whose life you threaten me with.” Somehow he never loses his smile, even though it’s heavily manipulated by pain. “Not even your wife?” I press him, shoving the gun in the air toward him in emphasis. “Money is more important to you than your wife?” The anger inside of me is growing, bubbling to the surface. He laughs lightly, grimacing as he tries to adjust himself within the chair, both hands gripping his thigh underneath the table. The second I notice that I can no longer see his hands, I leap onto the table in front of him, jutting out my leg and planting the sole of my boot into his chest, knocking him away. The chair skids backward just inches, and wobbles precariously on its two back legs before settling evenly on the floor. With my gun still pointed at his head, I reach down with my free hand and feel around for the gun I instinctively knew was affixed to the underside of the table. Still crouched on the tabletop, I slide Pinceri’s gun down the length of the table where Nora stops it with her hand. Pinceri just looks at me from the chair, still smiling, shaking his head. Blood soaks his pant leg and drips into a small puddle beneath it on the expensive marble. “Answer my fucking question,” I demand, glaring down at him from my crouched position on the table, my finger on the trigger. “Two billion dollars is more important to me than anyone,” he says without hesitation, without regret. “Even my wife.” I grit my teeth. “Victor?” I wait for his response.

Victor Turning away from the computer screen set up in Mrs. Pinceri’s home, I look at the woman standing in the room with an angry pinched mouth. Her gray-blond hair is fixed in curls above her shoulders. She wears a long cream-colored dress with a copper-colored scarf around her neck. In her tired, aged blue eyes is a look of vengeance. And pain. I’ve seen that look before, on women whose husbands have replaced them with younger, more vibrant companionship. “What will it be, Mrs. Pinceri?”


She swallows, standing with her arms crossed as she stares only at the screen with the live image of her husband being fed through the camera hidden in Izabel’s face mask. “Kill the bastard,” she sentences him with acid in her voice. I nod and turn back to the screen.

Izabel “Take him out,” I hear Victor say. I smile and push myself into a stand before jumping down from the table. Pinceri’s eyes follow my every move. Clock is ticking away, I remind myself. “Sure you don’t want to reconsider your answer?” I ask, though I know he won’t. “You can go fuck yourself,” he spits out the words. “And tell whoever your client is, they can do the same.” My smile gets broader and I wish that he could see it. Pressing the barrel of my silencer to his forehead, I say with satisfaction, “Your wife is our client,” and witness his smile drop before I pull the trigger and splatter his brains against the wall. “Let’s go,” Nora says behind me with urgency. We dash into the hallway and head for the stairwell near the elevator. “Two minutes,” I say as she swings open the door. “I don’t think we’re gonna make it.” “We’ll make it.” I hope she’s right because if we don’t, if we can’t get through the rooftop door before the automatic alarm is activated, we’ll set it off and Pinceri’s men stationed on the bottom floor will likely be waiting for us outside by the time we make our way down the side of the building. “Maybe we should’ve taken the elevator,” I say between strained breaths as we make our way quickly up the concrete steps. “No, the elevators are too slow,” Nora says; the sound of our boots hitting the concrete echoes down the stairwell behind us, much louder this time. “I counted the time it took for the elevator to make it to the ninth floor when the guard from the surveillance room made his way up, as well as the time it took us on the stairs on the way down—we’re faster.” She never ceases to amaze me. And make me feel like an amateur. Just a few more steps. Not knowing how many seconds we have to spare, when we make it to the top, I shove both hands on the door knob and grit my teeth, pushing it open with all my strength, wincing as I brace myself for the sound of the alarm. It doesn’t trigger. We made it. Nora shuts the door quickly and instantly it locks from the inside. A tiny red light shows up on the door panel, a light that had not been there before when it was locked, which can only mean that the alarm has just set. Even though we’ve certainly bought ourselves some time by not triggering the alarm, we don’t stop for even a second to rest—there is a trail of dead bodies left in the building and it’s only a matter


of time before someone stumbles upon one and calls it in. I would like to rest, more than anything, because this stupid mask sticking to my head like a thick pair of pantyhose is making my head itch like crazy, just like it did when I had lice in the compound in Mexico—I’ll have to endure the itch for a little while longer. Nora and I retrieve our black backpacks hidden in a dark corner on the roof. “I’ve never done this before,” I say as I swing mine onto my back and latch it in place by the straps crossing my chest. “You said you weren’t afraid of heights.” Nora’s backpack was secured to her back before mine even was. She grabs the metal contraption from the rope cable I’m to descend from and attaches it to my harness, locking it securely into place. “I’m not afraid of heights,” I tell her and swallow nervously. “It’s just that it’s a long fucking way down.” She grins at me as she jerks one last time on my harness to make sure it’s secure. “Then don’t fucking fall,” she says with a smile. I smirk and follow her to the edge of the roof. And without time to give it any second thoughts, I grab my rope cable tight in my gloved hands and step over the roof wall and begin to propel myself down. By the fifth floor, down the side of the building, that tiny ounce of fear I had has drained completely from my body. We keep to the building face, staying out of view of any windows as we scale carefully the rest of the way down, coming to a safe stop on the ground at the back of the building where there is no traffic and there are no people; just a row of stinking dumpsters and a dark alley that will lead us back to our car parked on the side of the road. After unlocking myself from the rope cable, the first thing I do is peel off that damn face mask and shove it into the front of my bodysuit, between my breasts. Instantly I feel relief as the air washes over my itching, sweating skin. Nora leaves hers on. We make it to the car in under three minutes and are on our way back to Boston without a hitch.


Izabel

During the drive back to Boston, Nora talks a lot as usual, but she refuses to talk about the mission. “I think it went well,” I say as we ride down the dark, nearly empty highway. “No one alive saw us; the timing was cutting it close, but it was perfect, and—” “Come on Izabel,” she cuts in, glancing over at me briefly from the driver’s seat; long, disheveled hair draping her shoulders. “Let’s not get into this right now. I want to relax, enjoy the drive back.” She looks over again and grins suggestively before putting her eyes back on the road. “So, about Niklas.” I sigh and shake my head, slouching farther down against the passenger’s seat to get more comfortable. “He’s a dick, Nora,” I say. “That’s about as much as I know, and it’s shit you already knew yourself—why don’t you try getting to know Fredrik instead? He needs a woman. Niklas…well, I think all you’ll ever get out of him is a good fuck or two.” That didn’t come out right; I didn’t mean to insinuate that I think he must be ‘good’ in bed. Thankfully we turned the mics off a long time ago and Victor isn’t listening in anymore—talk about awkward. Nora catches my eye, and when I look back over there’s a grin dancing on her lips. “A good fuck or two is all I want.” That doesn’t surprise me much, really, but it does spark a whole new topic. Uncrossing my arms, I sit up straighter and look right at her with interest. “Just out of curiosity,” I say, “have you ever had feelings for a man before?” I raise my back from the seat, turning at an angle so she has my full attention. “I mean, something a little more than sex?” Nora pooches out her unpainted lips and shakes her head. “Nope,” she says. “I have no interest in anything more than sex.” I laugh lightly and fall against the seat again. “Well, you never know,” I say with confidence. “That dirty little L-word has a tendency to sneak up on you, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it when it does.” “I’d kill a man before I fell in love with him,” she says and I look over, quietly stung by her words. “I never get too close.” For a moment I’m not sure what to say to that. “Well then I take back what I said about Fredrik—Niklas is a better option for you. Besides, Fredrik might have something with that waitress.” Nora chuckles. “If you believe that, you’re lying to yourself.” “Why? He seems to like her. It’s been two weeks and he hasn’t lost her or gotten rid of her yet


—I think she’s sweet. He needs someone like her.” “Oh, Izabel,” Nora says in a pitying manner, “that man cannot be with a sweet, innocent girl like her. Trust me on this: no one can ever replace Seraphina except a woman who is practically her equal—mark my words.” I don’t want to believe that. I want Fredrik to be happy, and so far Emily, a kindhearted waitress who knows nothing about any of us, seems like she might be someone to give Fredrik that happiness. I choose not to believe Nora. Of course, in the back of my mind, I can’t help but wonder if she’s right. Because she usually is. “What about you?” she asks. “What about me?” “Don’t you think your life would be easier if you didn’t let attachments get in the way?” I think on it. “Sometimes,” I answer, looking out the windshield, watching the double yellow lines get swallowed up by the hood of the car, because sometimes Nora tends to drive down the center of the road for some reason. “I know that attachments to people are a hindrance in this line of work, but I also think it’s a disadvantage not to be able to love and feel love.” “Why?” I pause, thinking about Victor, about Dina. “Because I believe love makes a person stronger,” I answer. I see Nora shake her head from the corner of my eye. “Stronger?” she says. “No, Izabel, it’s exactly the opposite. To love someone is to take on the responsibility of keeping them safe, of worrying about them. It’s just a burden.” “Well, I think you’re wrong,” I say. “To love someone means you have something in life to fight for, something to live for—I guess you wouldn’t know, you’ve never felt love, so you can’t possibly understand.” I decide to leave it alone, concluding that there really is nothing more I can say to someone like Nora because she’s, in a sense, not as human as the rest of us. But then she says, “I loved my sister,” and I swallow my thoughts. “In fact,” she goes on, “I loved her for a long time before I knew that I was going to have to kill her because of my feelings for her. Live and learn—I’ll never make that mistake again.” I smile over at her with a trace of sarcasm. “You say that, Nora, but one day, you’ll see that I’m right—you mark my words.” She shrugs and then flips on her blinker. “So then you don’t regret being in love with Javier?” That catches me off-guard; it takes me a moment to gather my thoughts. I’ve said on more than one occasion that I’m ashamed to have ever loved a man as cold and brutal as my captor, Javier Ruiz. And I am. The part of me that knows it’s not acceptable in society, is ashamed. But the rest of me is grateful to have loved him. “No,” I say, “I don’t regret loving Javier. Because that love I felt for him was the only thing that kept me alive the nine years I spent in that compound. It gave me strength—it kept me alive. It wasn’t the same kind of love I feel for Victor, but it was love, nonetheless, and it saved me.” For the first time ever, since Nora and I met, she seems to have no worthy response. ~~~


Victor is not in the bed when I wake up the next day. He’s always up early, sometimes before dawn. But usually he wakes me with him—says he functions better throughout the day if he can fuck me first thing in the morning. Certainly no arguments here. I’m disappointed that’s not the case on this day. The only thing left of him is his delicious scent on the pillow next to me, and all over the sheets, and the welcome ache between my legs from the sex we had last night. I crawl out of bed naked and hop in the shower to get ready for my meeting with everyone eight a.m. sharp about the mission last night. I get dressed in a black pants suit and a pair of black heels. Doing my hair up in a ponytail high at the back of my head, I pull it tight, staring at myself in the mirror for a long, drawn-out moment. I don’t know why I’m so nervous this time; maybe it’s because neither Nora nor Victor would talk about the mission when I was alone with them. Usually they say something, even if only small comments here and there—they’ve never called a meeting to discuss my missions before. Everyone will be there—minus Niklas—even Dorian Flynn; it’ll be his first time joining us at the table again since Victor let him out of the cell, since finding out that Dorian’s loyalties not only lie with Victor Faust, but also with U.S. Intelligence. Maybe that’s what this is all about, why a meeting has been called: Dorian is being reintroduced into our circle. Yeah, that’s got to be it, I try to tell myself as I take a deep breath and step away from the mirror. But it doesn’t quell the nervous feeling in my gut. The large double-doors to the meeting room are closed when I come upon them carrying a bottle of water in one hand and my cell phone in the other. “Thank you,” I tell the guard standing outside the doors as he opens one for me. I inhale a deep breath as I step into the large room and five sets of eyes are on me, following my every move as I make my way down the length of the table to my seat on Nora’s right. She sits to Victor’s right now, which bothers me on so many levels, but I know better than to say anything aloud about it. To break my own tension, I look at Dorian first, and smile. “It’s good to see you back,” I say as I sit down in my chair. “It’s good to be back,” he says with a smile even bigger than mine. His bruises, inflicted by his interrogation by Fredrik, have disappeared. But I notice there are two matching cuts that are still healing, running along both sides of his neck, starting just behind his ears and moving down toward the center of his throat to create an almost perfect upside-down triangle. I shudder and swallow nervously when the image of Fredrik drawing his blade across Dorian’s flesh passes through my mind. But Dorian, so far, seems to be the same as he ever was, sporting that short, spiky blond hair framing a handsome face equipped with a devilish smile and multi-faceted blue eyes he’s famous for. I turn to Fredrik now, setting my water bottle and cell phone on the table, and I offer him a slim smile, more in my eyes than on my lips. He nods at me in return, which doesn’t seem like much, but is a good sign, considering. I’ll take what I can get, because I love and miss my brother, Fredrik, even if he’s a sick, demented bastard with a bloodlust unmatched by any killer I’ve ever seen. “Let’s get this underway,” Victor speaks up, raising his back from the chair; he folds his hands


together on the table in front of him. Every one of us turns to look at him simultaneously. “If it isn’t already obvious,” Victor begins, “I have come to an agreement with Flynn”—all eyes glance at Dorian briefly—“I let him live…at least long enough to see what his employers have to say regarding this deal that Flynn spoke of. I will be meeting with them in two days to discuss an arrangement.” This isn’t the first I’m hearing of this; Victor has talked with me privately about his decisions concerning Dorian, but as always, I’m sure he didn’t tell me everything, and so I hang on every one of his words just like everybody else at the table. “In any other case,” he continues, “Flynn would be dead by now, but this is a delicate matter. I do not trust him”—Dorian eyes me regretfully across the table—“but I do not believe he is deceptive in his reasons for being here, either.” “So you’re going to make a deal with his employers?” Nora speaks up with suspicion in her voice. “That is still in question,” Victor answers. “As I said, I will be meeting with them first. What decisions are made during and after that meeting will depend on many factors.” “I think it’s signing a deal with the Devil,” Nora warns. “If you agree to work for them, we’ll all pretty much be under their control—” “No,” Victor cuts in, and then looks right at Dorian with a sort of quiet threat. “My Order will remain my Order, as Dorian and I have discussed. Nothing will ever be carried out that I do not fully agree to. No changes in my organization will take place unless I am the one to make them. I will owe them nothing and they will abide by my terms, or they will get nothing.” Victor’s eyes fall on each of us in turns as he explains with stiff assurance. “If a deal is made, nothing will change other than the addition of a new client. I will not be intimidated by the government; I will not be threatened; I will not be controlled.” He turns to Dorian again and holds his unwavering gaze. “Flynn knows that because his employers are seeking me for help that they are incapable of protecting those he loves from me—including Tessa.” I swallow hard, knowing that Victor never makes a threat he won’t carry out. But Tessa? She’s an innocent woman—would he really kill her if Dorian or these men he works for, betrays him? I have to believe that he wouldn’t, that this is just for show so that he can keep Dorian in line. “For the most part, I think Dorian is trustworthy,” I speak up. “I don’t know about his employers—they, probably not so much—but I believe in Dorian.” He smiles gently at me, thanking me with his eyes. “Even so,” Victor says, “you, nor anyone else in my Order is ever to give Flynn any information that I do not authorize. From here on out, Flynn will take orders only from me; there will be no passing of orders or information of any kind to Flynn unless I specifically command it. Flynn will not go on missions alone, nor will he lead any missions. He must be accompanied by one of you, Niklas, or an agent from the First Division, at all times.” Dorian says nothing. I can’t even tell if these new stipulations bother him or not. But I suppose they’re better than being dead. “Wait—” Nora presses her back against the chair and crosses her bare arms over her chest. She purses her dark red painted lips, eyeing Dorian suspiciously. “So, you’re saying he’s still going to be working for you, while at the same time working for U.S. Intelligence?” She shakes her head with rejection, chewing on the inside of her mouth. “You cannot serve two masters—masters vie for


power, they don’t share it.” She leans forward against the table, her dark eyes like burning embers piercing through Dorian. “What master do you serve, Dorian Flynn? The ones who brought you into this dark world, or the one who will take you out of it?” Now there’s the intelligent, cold and calculating Nora Kessler I have come to envy, the same dangerous woman she was when she waltzed into our lives and shook us all to our bitter cores. I notice Fredrik quietly watching Nora with a little more interest than I’m used to seeing him show, and I’m not sure I like it or not. I’m not sure I even understand it. Dorian cocks his head to one side, studying the beautiful, cunning blond that not so long ago shot him in both shoulders, made a fool out of him, manipulated him with a skill he could never match, and forced him to confess to all of us who he really is. It’s because of her that he’s in this situation with Victor. I wonder how much of him would love nothing more than to wrap his hands around her throat and choke the life out of her. “You’re very beautiful,” he says in a soft playful voice; his bright blue eyes glistening under the fluorescent light above the table. “But you’re a mouthy fucking bitch.” He grins, leaning forward, pressing his chest against the edge of the table just like Nora. “I serve no fucking master,” he says, “but if I have to choose, I will always make the choice that suits the circumstance.” My head snaps back to Dorian—that’s definitely not the kind of answer I would’ve given considering the predicament he’s in. Victor turns his head slowly to face Dorian, but his expression is unreadable. Fredrik has also turned all of his brooding attention on Dorian. James Woodard, who has been awfully quiet the entire time, looks over at Dorian with wide eyes veiled by a thin layer of panic. Nora’s red smile lengthens maliciously. “Those are bold words,” she says. “Maybe you should just kill him, Victor.” She never takes her eyes off Dorian’s. “Izabel trusts me,” Dorian says, challenging her. “Fredrik apparently trusted me enough after torturing me for days, to release me. And Victor, your leader”—his words have become ice—“freed me from that goddamned cell, and here I am, sitting with the rest of you.” He stands from his chair, leaning over the table, and points a finger at her; his jaw moving as he grinds his teeth together. “I don’t need to prove shit to you—fucking cunt.” That’s all his ‘bold words’ had been: just words to get underneath Nora’s skin. I sense that Victor must’ve gathered as much, knowing Dorian’s confrontational personality. Nora just grins. “And you should take into consideration that you’re no longer in any position to be making threats,” Dorian adds. “You’ve got jack-shit to hold over my head anymore.” Dorian’s hand, still pointing a finger at her, slowly falls back down, but his hard gaze never falters. “Not that I’m taking sides,” Fredrik speaks up for the first time, “but it should be noted, Nora, that you aren’t exactly trusted here fully, either.” “And I should never be trusted fully,” she shoots back. “Nor should anyone in this room”— she looks at each of us in turns—“Any one of us, no matter who we love, or where our loyalties lie, have more potential than the average person to turn and chew off the fucking hand that feeds us.” “What are you saying then?” Dorian asks with accusation. “Are you admitting something, or just warning us in advance about how you’re likely to turn out?” “I’m simply stating a fact,” Nora growls. “I just say aloud what everybody’s thinking.”


I stand from my chair and put up my hands. “Come on now, let’s not do this right now,” I say, trying to defuse the situation. Slowly Dorian finds his seat again, and he and Nora have a hate-filled stare-down for several long moments. I turn to Victor. “So, who’s going with you and Dorian to meet with these people?” I ask. “I volunteer.” Victor shakes his head. “No—Fredrik will be the only one joining me for the meeting. And I have something else in mind for you.” “Oh?” “Yes,” he says, “but first we need to discuss your mission with Nora last night.” That nervous feeling in my gut has returned. I nod and listen. “Although your mission went smoothly,” Victor says, “it wasn’t without error.” “OK,” I say, both as a statement and a question. I place both hands on the table and take my seat again; I feel Nora’s eyes on me from the side, but I focus only on Victor. “As smoothly as it went, I can’t imagine you’d have much negative to say about my performance.” “The mission was smoothly orchestrated,” Victor says, “but your performance left little to be commended”—I swallow hard—“Gustavsson, you and Woodard may leave; take Flynn with you.” James Woodard lifts his large weight from the chair and gathers his briefcase and cup of coffee from the table. “I’m not feeling well anyway,” he says, looking a little pale and sweaty now that I think about it. That’s probably why he’s been so quiet all this time. “Report back to me this evening,” Victor says to Fredrik as the three of them make their way to the tall double doors. “I’ll let you know then more about when we’ll be leaving.” “Wait,” I call out and get up from my chair. I dig in my pocket for the key to Dorian’s safety deposit box—he gave it to me during his interrogation with Fredrik because he thought he was going to die. Stepping up to him, I place it into his hand. “This belongs to you.” I smile warmly. “Looks like you’ll get to live long enough to give it to Tessa yourself.” “Thanks,” he says. We share a smile and Dorian follows Fredrik out the door. Once the doors close, Victor stands and looks right at me; he folds his hands together down in front of him. He begins to pace.


Izabel

A little bitter about his choice of words before, I finally ask, “So, what exactly did I do, Victor, that left ‘little to be commended’?” He stops and says without looking at me, “Nora, why don’t you begin?” “All right.” Nora gets up from the chair in her tall black heels. Her slender, hourglass frame is hugged by a skin-tight black dress that extends to her knees. In typical Nora style, it has a plunging neckline made of crimson fabric dropping between her uplifted breasts in a ruffled, wave-like pattern. Her long blond hair cascades down the center of her back, kept away from her face made up by her trademark dark red lipstick, darkly-painted eyes and creamy porcelain skin. I remain seated, instantly feeling intimidated by both of them—I feel like I’m about to be scolded for getting an F on my report card. I turn to see Nora on the other side of me. She stops, her fingers clasped on her backside, missing pinky finger on one hand obvious as always. “Pinceri could’ve easily killed you,” she says. “I was watching him just in case—and he knew I was; he saw me—but it took you too damn long to notice.” Confused, it takes me a moment, thinking back on the details of the mission, before I realize. “But I did notice,” I say. “Within seconds of him putting his hands underneath the table, I stopped him before he could go for the hidden gun.” “But it took you too long,” Victor reiterates, underlining the point. My gaze moves to his at the head of the table. He’s standing beside his chair, looking at me with quiet, disappointed eyes. I sigh. “He never should have gotten his hands underneath the table to begin with,” he adds. “If Nora had not been there, watching, you would not be sitting here right now.” Anger growing inside of me, I take a deep breath to keep it at bay. Because I know they’re right, and as embarrassed as I feel right now, I’m angrier with myself than with them. Reluctantly I nod, accepting what I did wrong. “But that’s not all,” Nora says as she begins to walk down the length of the table again; my eyes follow her all the way around. “You’re too emotional,” she goes on. “You can’t let your target know your weaknesses.” “Too emotional?” I echo with disbelief, my gaze moving between the two of them. “How the hell did you come to that conclusion?” Truly, I’m baffled. Deciding I don’t want to hear Nora’s opinions anymore, I turn to Victor instead and wait for him to answer.


“You wanted to throttle Pinceri for choosing money over his wife,” Victor says. “And Pinceri knew that he hit a nerve. Nora is right: you should never let your target know your weaknesses, because the smart ones will know how to use them against you.” “What could he have possibly done to use that against me, Victor?” Surely he must detect the offense and sarcasm in my voice because I’m not trying to hide it. “He could have told you that, yes, he did want to change his mind when you gave him that last chance to do so,” Victor answers instantly. “He could have played on your emotions long enough to buy himself more time, to distract you.” “And while you were going back and forth in your mind,” Nora puts in, “about why you think it’s not right to kill him because he changed his mind, the alarm on the building would’ve set and getting out of that building alive would’ve been a lot harder to pull off.” “But that’s what we went there for,” I say, looking between both of them, trying to justify my actions, “to get him to give up the information. If he chose to do that, why not let him?” “Because that is not why you went there, Izabel,” Victor corrects me. “Your mission was to give him a chance to give up the information for the life of Mrs. Pinceri, but the moment he chose not to do that, and I gave you the order to kill him, he should have been dead a second later.” I look down at the table, letting out a long deep breath. “And that’s the other thing you did wrong,” Nora says. “When you’re given an order, you carry it out—no questions, no hesitations. Not after you give the target ‘another chance’, not after you taunt him a little to satisfy your anger, but right then, you kill the target.” “OK,” I say with surrender. “Yes, I see what I did wrong and you’re right. I’ll do better next time.” I think that’s the end of it until Victor says, “But that is not all.” “Oh great,” I scoff, shaking my head. “You never remove your mask until you are away from the scene, Love,” Victor says. “Preferably not until you are inside your getaway vehicle—there are cameras everywhere, not just in and around the target’s location, but everywhere: streetlights and intersections, businesses, cell phones—you removed your mask the moment your feet touched the ground.” “OK,” I say with another series of nods. “That was stupid, I admit.” Victor moves toward me. He sits on the table next to me with his hands folded loosely between his opened legs. “But despite the things you did wrong,” he says in a softer, forgiving voice, “you did well.” I look up at him, nodding once, thanking him with my eyes. I can’t smile, I’m too disappointed in myself to go that far. “I will get better,” I tell Victor, peering up into his forgiving eyes. “Whatever it takes, I’ll master this.” “I believe in you,” he says and offers me a private smile very softly on his delicious lips— momentarily, it reminds me of the ache between my legs. Then he pushes himself away from the table and begins to walk back toward his chair at the head, but doesn’t sit down. Nora sits on the table now, just as he was, across from me on the other side. She crosses her long legs. “But now to address the next mission,” Victor says and he has my and Nora’s full attention. “While I am away with Gustavsson and Flynn, the two of you will be heading to Italy.” “Who’s the target?” Nora asks. “That,” Victor begins, putting emphasis on the word, “is not going to be as easy as your


previous missions have been. In fact, the nature of the mission will be a bit different from what you are used to.” He looks only at me when he says that. I listen intently. Finally Victor takes his seat again. A manila envelope is on the table; he takes it into his large fingers and breaks apart the little metal clasp, producing a series of photographs. “The target is a woman,” he says, gently pushing the photos outward across the table so that we can reach for them. “Her name is Francesca Moretti; she will not be as easy to find because the client is not sure which woman in the Moretti estate is Francesca. And apparently, most outsiders do not know who the real Francesca is, either.” I look down into one photograph while Nora sifts through a few others. The photograph was taken inside what looks like an elaborate mansion. I count six women at the forefront of the photo, all of which resemble one another in many ways: light brown hair just past their shoulders; light caramel-colored skin; outfitted lavishly in revealing dresses of different shades of ivory and red and blue; jeweled sandals and high-heels. Each of them are holding a glass of champagne; they’re smiling, mingling with guests. “They look like sisters,” I say, not looking up from the photo. “Decoys,” Victor says. I look up then. “And there are more than six of them,” he goes on, nodding toward the other photos in front of Nora; she pushes them across the table to me. “According to these photos, taken just weeks ago, there are at least twelve decoys—you’ll need to figure out which one of them is the real Francesca Moretti, and that is not even the most difficult part of the mission.” “Oooh, a challenge,” Nora says with a smirk. “I’m lovin’ this already.” “I thought you might,” Victor says. He turns back to me; he appears indecisive all of a sudden. “I’ve had reservations about sending you on this mission, Izabel—I want that to be clear.” “Why?” I’m used to this, Victor being worried about me, so I don’t make a big deal out of it, even though it bothers me a little—I still understand, and I love him more for it. “The…nature of the mission might be too much for you considering your past in Ruiz’s compound. It just concerns me, not only if you will be able to set your feelings aside about what you might see long enough to see the mission through, but also I do not want you to feel—” “I’m not afraid, Victor,” I cut in softly, reassuringly. “I told you before, about being involved with the future mission to Mexico with Nora, that I can handle it.” He nods slowly, but I get the feeling he’s not fully onboard with my willingness. “So once we find the real Francesca Moretti, what are we supposed to get from her?” Nora asks. She pulls out the chair Fredrik usually sits in and makes herself comfortable. “I’m assuming we’re not to kill her right away if finding her isn’t even the hard part.” “Killing Moretti is not part of the mission at all,” Victor reveals. “The client would very much like the honors.” “An abduction,” I say. “Yes,” Victor confirms. “But it will not be easy. The security Moretti has around her at all times is topnotch. Moretti is very wealthy, and it is believed that she has the loyalty of the police as well as some government officials—it is how she and her mother before her, have been able to run their business without being taken down by authorities—Moretti has many influential, prominent clients, from all over the world.”


“What kind of business does she run?” I ask, already knowing it’s sexual in nature. “Francesca Moretti is a madam,” Victor says. “The most successful madam in Italy, maybe even the world. Clients come from all over to buy sex from her workers—she calls them cyprians— and she only employs the best.” My eyebrows wrinkle in my forehead. “OK, so I don’t understand why you were concerned that a mission like this I might not be able to handle.” Nora, surprisingly, seems as curious as me. “The women—and men—employed by Moretti did not seek out their lives as sex workers,” Victor says. “Those employed under her iron foot were once like you were, Izabel”—he retrieves another photograph from the envelope and slides it toward me—“just like the client’s daughter; they were sold to Moretti after being abducted.” The anger is growing inside of me, but I keep it to myself and look down into the photograph. A bright, innocent smiling face with pretty white teeth and vibrant brown eyes, is looking back at me. There’s a birthmark underneath her left eye the size and shape of an almond sliver. She’s wearing a red and white cheerleading uniform. Her honey-brown hair is pulled into a ponytail, wrapped by red and white ribbons. Slowly I look back up at Victor. And I swallow. “How old was she?” I ask in a low, saddened voice. “Olivia Bram was fifteen-years-old when she was abducted while on vacation with her parents. Her mother committed suicide shortly afterward. That was seven years ago. Her father has been searching for her since—it took him that long to come to this possibility.” “So the client isn’t even sure Francesca Moretti is the one who bought his daughter?” Nora asks. “And why go after the buyer and not the abductor?” Absently I slide the photo of Olivia Bram across the table to Nora. “The client believes Moretti is the one,” Victor says. “And I’ve seen his evidence, everything that led him to Moretti, and I admit it looks promising. But whether he is right or wrong, Moretti is still a job—a three million dollar job—and it is ours to carry out. As far as the one responsible for her abduction, that trail ran cold after three years, so the client began focusing on the buyer instead.” I watch Olivia Bram’s smiling face as she’s slid back across the table toward Victor. She was once me, I think to myself, getting lost in her bright, happy brown eyes. This photo could just as easily be of me. Flashes of the girls I shared a horrific past with in the compound move through my mind: Cordelia, Carmen, Marisol…Lydia. I remember Lydia the most; she was my closest friend, like a sister to me; she was murdered in front of my eyes—she died in my arms. “Izabel?” Snapping out of my thoughts, I look up at Victor. “Is something wrong?” he asks suspiciously, knowing. I shake my head slowly, still trying to shake Lydia’s face from my mind, her dead eyes staring back at me from my memory. “So, Francesca Moretti,” I speak up to further it along, “is basically like the wealthy men who did business with Javier, those I saw when Javier would take me to parties.” “Basically,” Victor confirms, “yes, she is the same.” I grit my teeth. “You cannot kill Moretti,” I hear Victor say, but his voice sounds far off because I’m in such deep thought. “Under no circumstances can you allow your emotions, your anger, or your need for vengeance, to get in the way of this mission. If Moretti is not taken to the drop-off location where she can be transported to the client, there will be no payday and the entire mission will be a wasted effort


—she cannot be killed.” I feel Nora’s eyes on me, but I don’t look at her. “Is that why you told me the personal story about the client and his daughter?” I ask, already knowing that I’m right about this. “I remember what you told me on the plane to L.A. when you took me on my first mission to kill Arthur Hamburg’s wife locked in that secret room: ‘The less you know about their personal lives, the less of a risk there is for you to become emotionally involved’—did you tell me about Olivia Bram and her mother’s suicide and her father’s vendetta, because you want to see if I can get through this mission without being clouded by my emotions?” Victor nods. “The best way to learn to overcome is to face your weakness head-on,” he says, and then his gaze hooks mine. He leans forward a little in his chair and with silent determination and devotion he adds, “Izabel, you becoming a great operative is not the only reason I want you to overcome your weaknesses—I also want you to overcome them so they cannot haunt you anymore.” His words fill my heart with warmth, but still I’m incapable of smiling. I just nod, slow and subtle, and I know that he understands how much I appreciate his concern for me. If anything, it has only intensified my need to prove myself, to myself. I can do this. Then something suddenly occurs to me. “I guess it’s obvious how much I despise people like Francesca Moretti, people like Javier and Izel and anyone who had anything to do with them—I can’t hide it, can I?” Victor never answers my question, but he doesn’t need to. “Think of this mission as preparation for Mexico,” Nora finally comments. “You may not be on the inside with me when we get there, but I imagine it’ll still be quite the emotional rape just being there in Mexico where the worst things that ever happened to you occurred.” Her eyes hold mine, and for a brief moment I sense something pass between us—a secret that only she and I share about the child I had with Javier. I look away from her and back at Victor. But Nora’s right: being in that place is an emotional rape—there’s no other way of putting it. When I went back to Mexico with Victor, Dorian, Niklas and Fredrik, after Victor promised me he would help me have my revenge and we killed all of those men, I was a different person. I was a rage-filled killer, controlled by vengeance. When I slid my blade across the throats of Javier’s brothers, Diego and Luis, I did so with a sick mind. I enjoyed it; I all but got off on the sticky, warm blood as it flowed through my fingers; I smiled—I enjoyed it. That’s not being in control of my vengeance, that’s being controlled by it. I can’t be that person on this mission to Italy—I won’t. “You may not get to kill Moretti yourself,” Victor adds, knowing I’d love to, “but I can assure you, she will be dead before you leave there.” “I will do whatever I have to, Victor”—I look at them both, but then only at Victor—“even if it’s something I don’t want to do, I’ll do it. Whatever it takes.” Nora nods at me when my eyes pass over hers. “Good,” he says. “Because there may come a time when you have to do something you’d never do otherwise—nothing about this profession is easy.” The table gets quiet. I ponder: the mission to Italy, Mexico; I wonder how this meeting turned out to be mostly about me and my ‘weakness’, but then I brush it all aside and get back to what’s important.


“OK, so what are we supposed to do when we get to Italy, exactly?” I ask. “Are we pretending to be buyers, or what?” Victor pauses and says, “No, actually you will be undercover as another man’s property.” All the color drains from my face.


Izabel

“Victor, wait a second,” I speak up after the stun wears off. “If this woman is just a madam and we’re going to some kind of high-class…brothel, or whatever you want to call it, then why do we need to go as some man’s property? Why can’t we just go as buyers?” “Because Francesca Moretti hates women,” Victor answers. “And it is rumored that she’s killed women she felt threatened her beauty.” I laugh. “Mirror, mirror on the wall. Seriously?” I laugh again, shaking my head. But Victor doesn’t find the humor in it. Instead he says, “And because the brothel isn’t the only business that Moretti runs. She’s also a seller in the sex slave trade.” My blood is on fire, but I keep it to myself. “She will not do business with either of you,” he goes on. “If you see any women there they will either be slaves, cyprians, members of her family, or I can almost guarantee you that if they are buyers, they will be much older and far less beautiful than Moretti herself.” Victor stands and straightens his suit jacket. He begins to pace with his hands clasped together on his backside. He doesn’t appear at all nervous—I’m not sure if Victor is capable of being nervous —but he seems…uncertain, perhaps? Nora and I watch him walk back and forth behind his chair for a few seconds until he comes to a stop. His hands break apart and slide down casually into the pockets of his suit pants. “You will need Niklas for this mission,” he announces. “You will have to convince him to join you in Italy.” My and Nora’s eyes draw together like two magnets across the table from one another. She’s clearly as stunned as I am. “So, I take it,” Nora says, turning her attention to Victor, “that this other man whose property we’re to be on this mission, is Niklas?” “Yes,” Victor says. I frown just thinking about being Niklas’s ‘property’. But it is what it is, and a job is a job, and I’ll do what I have to. “Um, Victor,” I say, “we don’t even know where he is.” “I’ve known where he is since last Thursday,” he says. Surprised, and a little bitter about not being told this news sooner, I just stare at him. “He has been sleeping in an upstairs apartment,” Victor says, “on Gaither Street just ten minutes from this building. Every night since last Thursday, he has spent in the bar on the bottom floor beneath his room.”


“Great,” Nora says eagerly, as if she doesn’t care about not being told sooner, “then that makes it easier. We’ll go there tonight and bring him back.” “It’s not gonna be that simple,” I speak up, knowing Niklas a lot better than she does. “I doubt Niklas is going to be enthusiastic about doing a job, or any favors, for Victor.” “Izabel is right,” Victor tells Nora. “My brother has not forgiven me for what I did, and he may never forgive me.” Nora rests her back against the chair and then pushes her blond hair away from one shoulder. She crosses her arms and tilts her head to one side, preparing to make a point, it appears. “Well then, if that’s the case,” she says, “then why not just send someone in Niklas’s place? Why waste time with Niklas when you can just send someone else?” “Niklas won’t agree to it, Victor,” I add. Victor looks at both of us in turns and then says, “If you tell Niklas the details of this mission, and that you”—he looks right at me—“will be going, he will agree to it.” I feel the spot between my eyes stiffen. Nora looks almost as confused as I know I do. Victor begins to pace again, very slowly, his hands still buried in his pockets. “My brother is the only man I trust to go on this mission with you,” he says. “If you cannot convince him to go, I will be sending a woman from the First Division to go in your stead.” My mouth opens slightly in shock and argument. “What? Why?” His eyes lock on mine, full of knowledge and resolve and power. “Because as much as my brother despises me right now,” he says, “he is still loyal to me and he will always be loyal to me. He, more than anyone, knows my feelings for you Izabel, and he will die protecting you.” Finally he looks away from me, taking the gravity of his statement with him, which leaves me with so many unanswered questions, so many feelings of uncertainty: What does Victor expect to happen to me on this mission that he only trusts Niklas to be at my side? Why in the hell would Victor think that Niklas would actually die to protect me, the only person who has ever managed to stand between them as brothers (well, aside from Claire, anyway)? What makes Victor so sure that Niklas won’t just kill me, like Victor killed Claire, and make things even between them? And why does that knowing look on Nora’s face give me the feeling that she knows the answers to every single one of my questions already? Ugh! I hate her sometimes! “And the other reason I want Niklas on this mission,” Victor goes on, “is because the nature of the mission requires someone like him. Knowing my brother, he is the best operative in my Order for the job.” “Then what are we waiting for?” Nora speaks up impatiently. “What time do we leave for this bar?” I still haven’t managed to get past the questions swirling around in my head. “Niklas should be at the bar by nine o’clock tonight,” Victor answers. He slides both hands from his pockets and leans over, pressing them against the table; I can see something in his right hand, pressed between his curled fingers: small, plastic, black. “You leave for Italy in the morning,” he says and then slides a tiny flash drive across the table to Nora. “Everything the three of you will need to know about the mission is here. The password to access the files I will give to Izabel tonight.” He looks right me. “It would be wise not to go to that bar tonight with any hopes of mending this thing between my brother and me; it is a waste of time at this point; focus only on the mission.”


Even though I get the distinct—and unwelcome—feeling that Victor thinks I might waste what little time we have by trying to talk some sense into Niklas where he and Victor are concerned, I say nothing about my suspicion and just nod in acknowledgment. The truth is, I probably would have if he hadn’t brought it up. Nora stands up in her tall, beautiful, deadly glory and sashays her hips down the length of the table toward the exit doors. “I’m excited,” she says, her expression bright and dark at the same time, her white teeth stark between the deep crimson of her lips. “And I don’t think I’ve ever played the submissive before— well once, but it was short-lived.” I shake my head and glance at Victor momentarily. “Looks like you might get to sleep with him, after all,” I say, rolling my eyes. Victor raises a brow, but says nothing—he doesn’t care about things like that, but surely, somewhere inside that methodical head of his, he finds it amusing. Nora places her full palm on the door. “Oh, Izabel,” she says dramatically, “that’s not what excites me.” “Oh?” Now I’m the one raising a brow. Her crimson smile lengthens and she says, “It’s just been a really long time since I’ve been on a serious mission. I was getting bored with these insignificant woman-scorned revenge hits and monotonous stakeouts—this mission in Italy, this…Francesca Moretti, is like candy to me.” She looks at Victor as if to say “Are we done here? Because I’m anxious to get started.” Victor nods, and with the gesture of one hand he waves her out. “That will be all,” he says. Nora pushes open the door, the room flooding with more light from the fluorescents in the ceiling out in the hall, and she disappears from sight. I turn to Victor, the extra light in the room dimming as the door slowly closes. “What makes you think your brother’s loyalty to you will always be unwavering, Victor?” I stand up to meet his gaze, waiting for his answer. “Because he is Niklas,” he says, “and I know no other man with more loyalty and heart, than my brother.” It was the last thing I expected to hear. So much so that I’m dumbfounded by such simple, yet deeply profound words. “Are we…”—I’m confused by my own question—“…Victor, are we talking about the same person here?” Heart? Niklas Fleischer? The rage-filled lunatic who shot me and wanted to kill me? A man who is unmatched in hatred and coldness and disdain? Heart? Really? The only heart I’ve ever seen in that man is one disfigured by decay. Victor leans in and touches his warm lips to the corner of my mouth. Then the other side. “You should start getting ready,” he says and then pulls away, leaving only the taste of him on my lips. “I’ll see you tonight.” He leaves me standing here; the sound of his dress shoes echoing down the hall is cut off when the door finally closes behind him. This is going to be interesting.


Niklas

The bartender pours me another shot and I drink it down, setting the glass on the bar afterward. My cigarette burns in the ashtray next to me, a dozen more all around me at tables, filling the place with smoke. A football game runs on two televisions set in the walls, one behind the bar. Rock music plays low from the speakers in the ceiling, but no one in this place is dancing or shouting over the music in a drunken stupor. This isn’t that kind of bar. Things here have been pretty relaxed in the weeks I’ve been coming here; regulars mostly: men having a drink and playing a game of pool to get away from home; women—like my temporary fuck-buddy, Jackie—who have nothing much better to do with their time than to hang out with people as pathetic as they are. Even me—I admit that right now I’m pretty fucking pathetic, but we’re all entitled to it every once in a while. But I haven’t been coming here to drown my sorrows in whiskey. I just like the atmosphere, the normal everyday faces, the casual conversations about petty bullshit that’s sometimes interesting to me considering most of my life consists of talking about how I killed someone, who I killed, who I need to kill next, what I’m going to kill them with; how much money I’m going to make when the job is done. I spend too much of my time with a small group of people who each have their own set of fucked up issues that the normal people in this bar could never fathom, much less match. But whether I ever go back there again, to our Order, is still up in the air. I’m afraid of what I might do if I see my brother again—I only left because I wanted to kill him. “Another shot?” Jay, the bartender asks; he stands in front of me behind the bar with the whiskey bottle ready to pour. “Sure,” I say, sliding the shot glass toward him and he pours the drink. Behind me, I hear the bell above the door ring as someone walks in, but I don’t look back. Jay normally doesn’t either—usually just a quick glance—but I notice his dark eyes veer off in that direction, full of interest and intrigue, a sure sign that whoever just walked in isn’t a regular, and probably has a nice pair of tits. A little more interested now because of the possibility of a nice pair of tits, I casually wedge my cigarette between my fingers and take a quick drag before turning at an angle to see behind me. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” I say under my breath. I turn back around, facing Jay and the glowing television and the shelves of glasses and whiskey bottles. Raising the glass to my lips, I swig down the shot, just as Izabel, dressed like she should be in the kind of bar with loud music and dancing and drunken shouting, steps up beside me. Nora—I’ve got too much shit on my mind to even begin to understand what’s she’s doing here, what she’s still doing alive—sits down on the empty bar stool on my other side. Looks like a lot has happened in my short absence, a lot of really unexpected shit—hell, maybe Victor’s dead and James


Woodard is in charge now; maybe Izabel is sleeping with Fredrik—at this point it seems like anything is possible. “What do you want, Izzy?” I don’t look at either of them; I puff on my cigarette, staring at the television. Jay asks them if they’d like something to drink, but they decline and he leaves us to our privacy. “We need you for a job,” Izzy says, hopping onto the bar stool on my left, her tall black boots propped on the metal spindle. I laugh lightly, shaking my head, and then gesture at Jay. He comes over and refills my glass. “Yeah well,” I say with a smirk, “count me out of this one.” I look over at her. “Might want to count me out of the next, oh I dunno, all of them?” I set the burning cigarette in the ashtray, swig down my shot, and go back to staring at the television. “What’s Psycho Bitch Barbie doing here?” Nora laughs lightly, unfazed by the insult. “That’s a long story,” she says. “Come with us to Italy and we’ll tell you all about it.” “Not interested,” I come back quickly. Then I turn and look directly at Nora. “You’re still one of my least favorite people in the world after what you did, so you might wanna stay the fuck away from me.” I turn back at the television. Izabel sighs and rests both arms on the bar, loosely knitting her long, slender fingers together. I kind of want to look at her, because as much as she pisses me off, she’s the only person in our Order who…I feel sorry for. She doesn’t belong there. She’s a naïve girl with ridiculous ambitions that are going to be the death of her one day. A couple years ago that wouldn’t have bothered me at all—I even tried to kill her myself—but things have changed since then and now she feels more like a responsibility than a threat. I think somewhere along the line I started seeing myself in my brother’s woman: forced into a life she didn’t want at a young age, abused in unimaginable ways, but a fighter and a survivor, and who, because of what she went through, isn’t afraid to kill. I still can only tolerate her so much, but out of us all, Izzy is the closest thing to a human being, and I guess I respect that. Admittedly, she’s even more human than I am. “Niklas,” Izabel says with surrender, “this is an important mission, and—” We lock eyes. “Important to my brother,” I point out icily. “I’m kind of not in the mood to make his life easier. He can do the job himself. What, is this his way of trying to bring me back into the fold? Your way maybe?” My eyes find the television again; my cigarette finds my lips. “I’m not interested in making amends, either, so spare me the fucking runaround and either have a drink in this fine establishment”—I wave my hand about the room—“run by this gentleman named Jay”—and then at the bartender—“or find someone else to buzzkill.” “Stubborn to a fault,” I hear Nora say, and I turn around fast and find myself in her face so close I can smell her toothpaste and that crimson lipstick she wears and the perfume she dabbed between her tits. “Don’t think I won’t kill you in front of all these people,” I growl under my breath, daring her to say one more fucking word to me. Nora casually slides off the stool in her black high heels and tight black dress that hugs her hourglass curves. “I’ll leave this one to you,” she tells Izabel indifferently, and then walks away toward the restrooms. Fuck that bitch. I look back in front of me again, curling my fingers around the tiny shot glass, absently grinding my teeth together.


The only thing I find odd about any of this now is that Izabel hasn’t started running her mouth; normally she’d be butting heads with me by now, telling me how much of an asshole I am; her face would be red-hot with anger; she’d want to claw my eyes out of my head—so what’s her problem? She must really be desperate. “Look,” she finally speaks up, “I’m not here to try getting you and Victor to talk. I would be— I’ve wanted to do that since the day you left—but I know that’s not going to happen overnight, and overnight is all the time we have to get everything together before we leave for Italy in the morning.” “My brother can get someone else,” I say, steadfast. “It doesn’t have to be me—that’s bullshit.” “No,” she says, leaning toward me so that I’ll look at her, but I don’t, “it’s not bullshit.” She sighs deeply, preparing her attempt to change my mind, because she knows with me that it better be good. “I know you don’t owe me any favors, Niklas, and I know you’d rather it burn when you piss than to help me with anything, but I’m asking you…please come with us on this mission.” “Why?” I crush the cigarette in the ashtray. “Because…” Her words trail, and that alone makes me finally look at her face. What’s she searching for in that impetuous head of hers? Whatever it is, she seems sullen, frustrated by the answer. “I’m not going,” I cut in, resolved to get this over with so I can go back to watching a football game I don’t care about, drinking whiskey that’ll probably give me the shits later, and eventually going upstairs to my room to pass out on a bed that hurts more than any bullet ever has. Finally Izabel answers, “If you don’t go, Victor won’t let me go.” That certainly gets my attention, but I’m careful not to let Izabel notice the extent of it. I have my suspicions about what could be the reasoning behind Victor’s stipulation, but I need more information. Suddenly I’m lighting up another cigarette. “Still in need of a chaperone?” I taunt her, smoke streaming from my lips. “Is my brother afraid you might end up in the closet with a boy more your age? Or out of the closet with that bimbo?” “Don’t be a jerk,” she says defensively, and I feel better now that I’ve finally gotten under her skin a little—I was beginning to think I’d lost my touch. “Just let me explain everything before you say no,” she adds. Giving in so this can’t be dragged out any more than it’s going to, I turn fully on the bar stool and give Izabel my full attention, careful not to give her any impression that I might change my mind. “Explain away,” I say with a straight face, motioning my hand. “But the answer will still be no.” Izabel swallows nervously, and looks around the room for a moment. Then down at her hands still resting atop the bar. Then eventually making her way back up to me. I wish she’d just get on with it, but for some reason, I can’t help but wish she’d just sit there like that, too: quiet and calm and in need; I guess I just find a strange comfort in her complicated innocence. Her green eyes meet my blue ones. “He’s sending us to Italy to find and kidnap a madam named Francesca Moretti…” the rest of her words fade into the darkest folds of my mind. Francesca Moretti was all she had to say—I knew the basic details of this mission before she told me. And, in turn, I realized why my brother will only allow me to escort Izzy there. I don’t know whether to be relieved by the stipulation, or to think of my brother even less than I already do because he’s letting her go on a mission like this at all, with or without me.


Izabel tells me everything, mostly in a quiet voice and choppy sentences that stop and start up again after Jay and nearby customers move in and out of earshot. Then she reaches into her boot and slides a flash drive across the bar to me, in which I pocket immediately. “The password is MX37A,” she says in a soft voice, leaning toward me. “Nora and I got a chance to look over everything before we came here.” “Izzy,” I say, not looking at her, “why in the hell do you want to do something like this? After what you went through in Mexico—I just don’t get it. There’s something fundamentally wrong with you, woman.” Izabel snarls and shakes her head, leaning away from the bar and dropping her hands in her lap. “It really pisses me off enough that Victor still thinks I’m some messed up girl traumatized by her past—I’m sick of that being thrown up in my face, Niklas.” Her expression hardens, her jaw tightens. “I’m not afraid of it. I don’t flinch and recoil when Victor touches me because I was raped. I don’t have debilitating flashbacks of my old life when someone says a trigger word around me— maybe I should but I don’t. I’m over it, so why can’t everybody else just get over it?” It was more a heated statement than a question. The light smell of Nora’s perfume wraps around my head again as she walks back up. “I’m going to wait in the car,” she says and Izabel passes a set of keys to her. Before she leaves, she steps up beside me and says against my ear, “I look forward to working with you, Niklas. Let’s learn to get along—I’m not the one who betrayed you. Try to remember that.” She walks away through the small crowded bar and clouds of cigarette smoke like a goddess making her way through a crowd of peasants. “So she’s working for my brother now?” I’m at a loss. “Like Nora said, it’s a long story, but yes. Niklas, just like with this thing between you and Victor, that’s not what I came here for—I need you on this.” “You were right,” I say, “I’d rather it burn when I piss.” Jay walks over to re-fill my shot glass, but Izabel stops him, placing her palm over the top of it. With an uneasy look, Jay walks away. She leans in closer to me, her darkly painted eyes boring into mine indignantly, her nostrils flaring; she’s fed up with my shit—now that’s the Izzy I’m used to. I smile to myself. “Get over yourself, asshole,” she growls and slides the shot glass beneath her palm, away from me. “We’ve all lost people we love. We’ve all done things we regret, things we wish we could take back—every one of us, Niklas.” She leans in even more, closing the space between us so that only I can hear, or probably more-so so that I fully understand the intensity of her words. “But Victor has only ever had his love for you in mind—he killed his father to protect you. And if I remember correctly, before you ever knew about what really happened to Claire, you tried to kill me to protect him.” She pulls away, but her eyes never leave mine. Izabel speaks the truth, and I’m not above admitting it, but there’s one thing she fails to understand. I lean in toward her now, my jaw tightening, my eyes as hard and as cold as hers are. “My brother wasn’t in love with you yet when I tried to kill you,” I whisper into the small space between our faces, and I see her frown, just a little, enough to show that I’ve already won. “But he knew…he knew I loved Claire when he killed her. He may not admit that to you, or even to


himself, but my brother knew and that’s why he killed her—not because she was a job. And nothing he can ever say to me will make me believe otherwise.” Izabel’s gaze veers from mine and she stares off toward the television behind the bar. “I’m sorry,” she says. “For what? For something he did? You’re sorry that she died?” I shake my head and look out ahead of me, having nothing more to say—I’ve said more than I wanted to already. “I’m sorry that the woman you loved died, and that I didn’t.” My head snaps around. At first, I think she’s looking for me to pity her in some fucked up way, but when I look at her and see the gravity of her words all over her face, I can’t help but believe she meant what she said, that her guilt runs so much deeper than I could ever know. “Niklas,” she continues in a low, angry, pain-filled voice, “I live with the guilt of being alive every single day. So many people have died in my place. And when I think about Claire, I feel guilty that I’m here and she’s not, because you loved her and you deserve to be loved the same way that I love your brother, no matter how much of a dick you are.” She pauses, her small shoulders rising and falling with a breath. “I don’t blame you for hating me. But it is what it is, Niklas, and all I can do is at least try to make myself useful. You could do the same, instead of hanging around here with your whiskey and what’s left of your pathetic life.” She slides off the bar stool, indignation in her movements. The urge to tell her off, maybe even squeeze her little throat in my hand, is there, somewhere deep inside of me, but instead, I do and say nothing. My silence bothers me more than anything she said—I don’t think any woman has ever managed to shut me up like she just did. “I’m going to Italy,” she says with resolve, sliding the shot glass back within my reach. “Y’know, you’re wrong when you tell me I’m not cut out for this life, that I shouldn’t be here, that I’m weak and delusional—you’re wrong.” She steps up closer, seizing my gaze. “I can do this job as good as you can.” She slams the side of her hand on the bar top. “Jet leaves at eight-forty-five in the morning; please don’t be late.” Then she steps away and begins to slip between two tables. “What the hell makes you think I’m going?” I call out to her over the music. She keeps on walking, but looks back once long enough to answer, “Because you took the flash drive!” Her tall, slender form dressed in black weaves its way through the bar, past six more full tables and then out the front door. I turn back to Jay just as he’s walking up. “Another shot?” he asks, one bushy brow raised higher than the other. “Keep em’ comin’.” Damn that woman.


Fredrik

Dante Furlong, my trusty former heroin addict turned personal assistant, stands in my dimly lit living room. His heavily lined face beams with giddy excitement; his eyes wide and bright underneath curly black hair; his brand new teeth—because I pulled out the originals when I tortured him—on display as his lips spread broadly in his smiling face. “I told you I’d have you one tonight,” he says eagerly. “I mean, I did worry at first, having only a day to pull it off, but I did it.” “Where is he?” I ask casually as I walk past him and set my briefcase on the floor beside the sofa. “In my trunk right now,” he answers and points at the front door just steps away. “Want me to drag him into the basement?” “Yes,” I say, fishing my car keys from my pocket. “I’m going to shower first.” Dante’s laugh sticks in his throat. He shakes his head¸ smiling. “Shit, I’d think you’d wanna shower after the bloodbath.” He puts up his hands in surrender when he sees the look of disapproval on my face—he knows I don’t like him to question the details of my…obsession. “But hey,” he defends, “I’m sure you have your reasons.” I look away and drop my keys on the coffee table. “I’ll be away for a few days after tomorrow,” I tell him as I break apart the buttons of my dress shirt. “I want you to clean my house and not be here when I return.” “Oh sure, sure,” Dante agrees, nodding quickly. “Whatever you say, boss. Are ya’ bringin’ a woman back?” A wicked grin deepens in his face; his thick eyebrows dance in his forehead. “That last one I saw you with at the hotel, the black-haired one”—he stops to wet his lips—“goddamn she was beautiful. I don’t know how you do it, hook up with women like that. I’m lucky to bring a skank home to my apartment. You’re a lucky guy, Gustavsson. Lucky, lucky, lucky!” Uninterested in talking about my sexual encounters, which have only been with one women as of late, I don’t respond. Dante isn’t my conversational type—he’s disgusting and unprofessional and has never said anything I can recall that came close to being profound or intelligent. I only keep him around because he can get me the criminals I need to put in my chair. He knows where to find them at a moment’s notice, how to lure them into dark alleys and abandoned buildings to knock them out and bring them to me. Of course, I’m perfectly capable of doing these things myself, but I haven’t the time. And I pay him well to do it for me. Dante starts for the front door, and stops in front of it, looking back at me. “Maybe you could…you know, find me a woman like that.” He smiles squeamishly, unsure if he should be suggesting such a thing.


“I pay you enough that you can buy your own woman, Dante.” I wave a hand, palm up, in front of me. “Every city has its high-dollar whores.” “Oh, but I don’t want to pay for one,” he says. “I want one who wants to sleep with me, y’know? Just like they do you.” I shake my head and drop my dress shirt on the arm of the sofa. “I’m sorry, but that’s not really something I can help you with.” He sighs with disappointment and then reaches for the door knob. “Yeah, I guess you’re right,” he says. “But maybe you could at least tell me how you do it— give me a few pointers sometime.” “I’ll think about it.” This is a ridiculous conversation, but it won’t do any good to tell him that. When he opens the front door, which I realize far too late had never been closed all the way, I’m surprised to see Emily standing on the other side of it, clothed in her dress uniform from the diner she works at. I close my eyes momentarily and inhale a breath laced with regret—because I know she must’ve heard everything. Dante looks back and forth between us, as surprised as I am to see this young woman standing there. I never bring women to my home—always to hotels—but I have been bringing Emily here. Because I was beginning to like her. I’d never told Dante about her. Emily, with long, golden-brown hair draping her shoulders, folds her hands down in front of her; her face is downcast, wounded. “I-I’m sorry…” she says, pausing, searching, but instead of continuing, she turns on her heels and goes to leave. “Emily, wait a second.” I move past Dante, shutting him off inside the house and following Emily down the rocks steps. “I don’t know what all you heard”—suddenly I feel panicky inside, hoping, more than anything that she didn’t hear the parts about the man in the trunk—that’s a much larger problem to fix. Emily stops on the sidewalk and turns around to me. “Look, you’re a wonderful guy—at least, I thought you were—but I’m just…sorry Fredrik, but I’m not going to be one of your whores.” Her long hair swishes behind her as she whips back around and heads for her car parked on the street. I don’t go after her. I never should’ve perused her to begin with. She’s a sweet, innocent, beautiful girl who wants to be a nurse to help save lives—I’m a dark, wicked monster that feels great pleasure in bringing bastards to the brink of the end of their lives. And that darkness grows inside of me more every day. Sometimes the torture isn’t enough anymore. And that scares me. A little. The red glow of her brake lights light up the darkness as Emily drives away. “You think she heard anything about the guy in my trunk?” I hear Dante say nervously when I step back inside the house. I shake my head. “No, she didn’t hear anything about that.” Dante makes a breathy noise with his lips. “That’s a relief,” he says. “But are you sure?” “Yes, I’m sure,” I tell him, confident in my ability to read a person; it is, after all, part of my job. “She wasn’t afraid,” I go on. “Just disappointed.”


“Hey, I’m sorry, boss—she seemed like a nice girl.” “She was.” “Well hey, you can do better,” Dante says, and I really wish he would just stop talking and bring the man in from the trunk. “You don’t need a nice girl anyway—shit boss, you need someone like you.” Perhaps I wasn’t giving the guy enough credit—that’s the first intelligent thing I’ve ever heard him say. I head for the shower with bloodshed heavy on my mind.


Izabel

“Do you think he’ll show?” Nora asks, sitting next to me on the private jet. Ten minutes before we’re to leave, and still no sign of Niklas. I glance over at a tool of a woman named Blythe who stands near the entrance of the plane wearing military boots and dark mauve lipstick and eye shadow; long dark hair tumbles over both shoulders; a scowl is etched on her mouth. Blythe looks about as much the submissive type as Nora looks weak and vulnerable. But Victor believes in her ability to pull off a Jekyll and Hyde act, so I guess I should have more trust in his judgment—I just don’t want her taking my place on this mission. “He’ll be here,” I answer Nora, feeling only about forty percent confident anymore. Anxiously I glance at the time on my phone in my hand. Another operative from the First Division stands outside the plane, waiting; some guy named Elric, who’s supposed to be the fill-in for Niklas if he doesn’t show up. I look over at Nora sitting by the window. She doesn’t look convinced. “He’ll be here,” I repeat. I glance down at the time again and my confidence begins to plummet. Nora shrugs with an if-you-say-so expression. Minutes later Blythe’s statuesque form finally moves when something outside garners her attention. She moves down the stairs and out of the plane. I get up immediately and cross the aisle to see out the window on the other side, my heart beating two hundred beats per minute. Relief washes over me when I see Niklas, dressed in a black suit, striped tie, and dress shoes, walking toward the plane with two briefcases, one clutched in each hand and a garment bag tossed over a shoulder—definitely not used to seeing him in a suit. “He’s here,” I tell Nora quickly as I’m leaving the seats and make my way to the plane’s entrance. I head down the stairs and onto the tarmac. “You’re late,” I say, stepping up. Niklas looks at the thick, expensive Rolex on his wrist. He says nothing in return, turns away from me and gives Blythe and Elric all of his attention. It pisses me off for about two seconds, but I’m just glad he’s here. After Niklas sees Blythe and Elric off, he steps up to me, his bluish-green eyes sweeping over me from top to bottom in a scrutinizing manner. “What?” I ask, puzzled and uncomfortable. “You’ll need to change on the plane,” he says. “I hope you brought something more suitable to wear—can’t be dressing in shit like that.”


I give my tight black bodysuit and tall boots a quick once-over. “I didn’t plan on it,” I say with offense. “I brought a whole wardrobe practically. But we’re not there yet, so it doesn’t matter what I wear.” Niklas walks out ahead of me and I follow. “From the second you step off that plane in Italy,” he says, “you’ll need to look and act the part.” He stops on the bottom step of the little staircase and turns back to look at me. His eyes are dark, rapt with insistence. “As far as I’m concerned, this plane will be one of few places where the truth about us is safe. You’ll need to remember that, Izabel—forget it once, even for a second, and it could be the death of us all.” He starts to ascend the steps, but stops and adds, “And if you get me killed, Izzy, there’ll be hell to pay in your afterlife.” He goes up the steps. “Well, it’s a good thing I don’t believe in an afterlife,” I call out bitterly from behind. Nora smiles at Niklas cunningly as he walks down the aisle to find a seat. He takes the roomy section with a table and plenty of space to stretch his long legs. He sets his briefcases down, one on the seat, the other on the table and then takes off his suit jacket, laying it over the neighboring chair. “Strange seeing you in a suit,” Nora says. “Not to say that I don’t like it.” A carnal gleam is evident in her brown eyes. Niklas doesn’t reply. Instead, he reaches up and loosens his tie around his neck, afterward breaking apart the top two buttons of his dress shirt. I take a seat across from Niklas. “Thank you for doing this,” I say. Niklas’s eyes meet mine briefly, then he looks away and flips open the latches on the briefcase on the table. “So…” I pause, trying to find the words, and hoping to stir the awkward silence, “…Victor says you’re the best man for this job. Care to tell us why?” His attention stays on the briefcase in front of him; he retrieves a tablet computer and flips open its leather cover like a book. I glance over my seat at Nora. She sits quietly reading a magazine, her legs crossed, her long blond hair pulled into a ponytail at the top of her head, falling down one side of her bare neck. I can’t imagine why she hasn’t said much. Maybe she’s staying out of it to let me do my thing. After all, she agrees that I know Niklas better than she does, and that between the two of us, I’m the only one he trusts—or likes, even if only on tolerating levels. Niklas closes the briefcase. The plane takes off. “When we were in The Order,” he begins, “I was never sent out on missions like my brother. He was the ghost in the shadows you never saw before he killed you. I was the one sent to play the roles, to get information from the inside.” I notice his eyes veer off in Nora’s direction momentarily. “I played a lot of roles,” he goes on, looking back at me, “just like the one I played in the beginning with Claire. Fun fuckin’ times those were.” That last part was riddled with bitter sarcasm. Niklas leans back in his chair, propping his right ankle on top of his left knee. He sets the tablet computer in his lap. “So then you’ve played these types of roles before,” I assume. “With women like Francesca Moretti? And what’s in the other briefcase?” “No,” he says without having to think about it. “Not like Francesca Moretti. I’ve played


master to women before; I’ve been the buyer of girls”—I flinch inwardly with his admission—“I’ve even played the seller. But with Francesca Moretti, the stakes are higher, the risk greater, and the game deadlier. I don’t know why Victor would let you do this. And a million in cash is in the other briefcase.” He peers down into his tablet, running his index finger over the screen. “Because he knows I can,” I say, trying to hide the ice in my voice. I suck it up and stay on the subject. “OK so then what’s the plan?” “You mean you don’t already have one?” he asks, though it came out more like a mildly surprised comment. He doesn’t look up from the glowing screen. “Thought Victor and his new playtoy back there would have everything figured out by now.” Nora and I glance briefly at each other. His comment stung me. Victor’s play-toy? But I was the one who brought her into our Order. I was the one who wanted her here—not Victor. But then why did Niklas’s comment sting so damn much? The subject—stay on it, Izabel, I scold myself. I refuse to let Niklas get to me because I know that’s what he’s trying to do. Niklas swipes the screen a few times before putting the tablet down on the seat next to him. Then he drops his foot back on the floor, leans forward and props his elbows on the tops of his legs. “Look at me, Izabel,” he says, and I do, immediately attentive to his coming words, and that serious look on his stubbly, hardened face. “I don’t take these missions lightly,” he begins. “I may joke around and lose my shit sometimes when we’re on some kill-and-be-done-with-it job, but this”—he points absently at the floor; his eyes grow fiercer—“this is my area of expertise, and you’ll see a side of me you’ve never seen before. I just hope you’re capable of playing your role without fucking it up, because I won’t break character. You need to remember that. I never break character.” His piercing eyes never leave mine until many long seconds later when he feels like he’s gotten his point across. He presses his back against the seat again. A nervous knot sits deep in the pit of my stomach; another one stays lodged in my throat. “Well, I for one,” Nora finally speaks up, “am glad to hear that.” She walks over to us and sits in the seat directly behind me. Niklas finally looks at her for longer than a few seconds; aversion seethes beneath the surface of his otherwise uninterested expression. “Personally I prefer the role to be as real as it can be,” she adds. “And I never break character, either.” A smirk, almost too faint to be seen, tugs one corner of Niklas’s mouth. He smiles and says coldly, “How did you get in, anyway? I’m sure your pussy isn’t made of gold, so how’d you convince my brother to let you in?” “What the hell is that supposed to mean?” I snap. I’m not even sure what my question really is, I just know I didn’t like Niklas insinuating that Victor would ever consider letting Nora in because she fucked him. “I’m the reason Nora got in,” I cut in coldly before Nora has a chance to answer. “If you want to know the truth—Victor let her in because it’s what I wanted.” Niklas smiles—why is he smiling?—and then manipulates the inside of his mouth with his teeth. I wait, suffocated by the tense silence, for him to make some sarcastic comment about what I told him, to be the mouthy asshole that only Niklas can be. But instead, he just shakes his head with some kind of knowing expression that leaves me perplexed. And uncomfortable. And I don’t even know why. Oh right—because Niklas’s real expertise is knowing how to get under my skin with very little effort. This is going to be a mission to remember. Or rather, one I’m pretty sure I’ll want more


than anything to forget. Nora and I spend the next twenty minutes telling Niklas everything that happened after he left our Boston headquarters that night. From how I recruited Nora, to Victor’s acceptance of my decision, to Fredrik’s torture of Dorian, and to Victor’s decision to meet with Dorian’s employers and see what they have to offer. We fill him in on every detail, small and large, but I refrain from telling him anything about the conversation Victor and I had about why he killed Claire. Not only does Niklas make it clear beforehand that he doesn’t want to talk about it, but I know it’s not my place to, either. I know I have to let Victor and Niklas work this thing out between them. And I know that we don’t have the time to spare discussing it, or arguing about it. It is a waste of time at this point; focus only on the mission. Victor was right. And even Niklas feels this mission is too important, too dangerous, to waste time arguing about Nora’s recruitment, or expressing too extensively his dislike for her. For the time being, he’s tolerating her. After this mission is over, granted we’re all still alive then, I can only wonder what kind of retribution he might serve. “Nora,” Niklas says, “what experience do you have with the slave trade?” The plane hits a bit of turbulence, but settles quickly. Nora, sitting next to Niklas now in his roomy section of the plane, crosses her long legs and makes herself more comfortable. Without looking at him she answers resolutely, free of smiles or seduction, “Not much. When I was nineteen, I was sent on a mission to Dubai where I was sold as a sex slave to a wealthy sheik. My job was to kill his son. Needless to say, that’s exactly what I did.” She brings up an arm and rests it across the back of the seat, propping the side of her face on her fingertips. “It was my only mission of that nature,” she goes on, “and my owners were also undercover and I endured little abuse by the sheik before I got the job done, but I can assure you that I can pull this off, play whatever role I need to play. I learn fast.” Niklas smiles, thinking to himself it seems. “But how far will you go?” he asks, the question laced with challenge. Nora’s smile is cunning and confident; never an ounce of fear. “The lengths that I will go to for a mission, Niklas, are more than you would ever do yourself.” She tilts her head to one side gently, her long fingers sliding away from her face as she brings her arm back down, dangling it over the back of the chair. “You will learn that about me soon enough.” Nothing about Nora suggests now that she’s still trying to seduce him—she’s all Nora Kessler, the dangerous banshee not to be trifled with. “I’m sure I will.” Niklas’s face remains unexpressive. “It’s good to know you have no limits.” He turns to me. “You on the other hand,” he says, “will just have to be careful and keep your mouth shut. I’ll take care of the rest. But keeping your mouth shut is more important on this mission than it’ll ever be. Think you can do that?” I smirk at him and cross my arms. “Just tell me what I need to do, Niklas,” I say coolly. “Drop the parental bully act with me for once and let’s do our job with a little more professionalism.” He smirks right back at me, but without disagreement. Then he passes the tablet over to me and I take it into my hand, peering down into the screen. “You may have personal experience in the sex slave trade,” he says, “but this will be a bit different. The girls in establishments like the one owned by Moretti, are, shall I say, classier.” I look up from the screen, a scowl on my face. “Francesca Moretti’s girls—her cyprians and those sold in her showings—are of the highest


quality,” Niklas goes on. “They’re cared for like prized race horses—treated the same way, too. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are shelled out to make these girls—and guys—perfect: plastic surgery, medical procedures, special diets; they even have their own personal dieticians and speech and etiquette coaches. Their masters expect nothing less than perfection; and like a race horse, if they lose too many races or break a leg, they’re often put down.” “Yeah, that’s not exactly how things were done in Mexico,” I say. “The plastic surgery and etiquette coaches stuff, anyway. The ‘often put down’ part, unfortunately, was the way things were done. Sounds like classier is a much better deal.” “No,” Niklas says, “it’s not. Don’t mistake classier for safer. You need to remember that you’re never safe while you’re in the presence of these people—especially Francesca. I’m assuming Victor warned you about her reputation?” I nod. “Yeah,” I say, waving my hand dramatically in the air, “she thinks she’s the fairest in all the land.” “Good. Don’t give her any reason to want to kill you.” Niklas points at the tablet in my hand. “Nora should familiarize herself with those terms and rules; make damn sure you know them like the back of your hand by the time we land.” I peer down into the screen again; Nora moves to sit next to me so she can read the text. “You’ll need to be consistent. But we’ll keep it basic. Remember everything you see there and we’ll be believable. Fuck up once and we’ll either cast suspicion and have more eyes on us than we want, or they’ll kill us on the spot.” I read through the few rules quickly, absorbing each one as if I’m about to take an exam. When I get to number six, I swallow hard. Keep a straight, unemotional expression on your face at all times, unless you’re being pleasured, or hurt.

I look up from the screen. “Pleasured or hurt?” I inquire nervously. “We’re not going to have to actually—” Niklas shakes his head with disappointment. “Is that what you thought?” he asks. “That you’d be sent on a mission like this and not have to play your role fully just because you’re the boss-man’s girl?” I bite down on the inside of my mouth. “No, I just thought that because Victor wanted you to go with us that…” Niklas laughs under his breath. “No Izzy,” he finally says, and I raise my eyes to his again, “no one’s going to touch you. And yes, that’s why Victor wanted me on this mission with you, because he knows that I won’t let anything happen to you”—he pauses, and a hint of a smirk appears on his mouth—“well, at least nothing that would be considered…unforgivable.” I nod slowly, and with relief, despite the uncomfortable chill the last part left me with. Niklas looks to Nora. “Now you, on the other hand,” he says, “I can’t make any promises.” He smiles. I get the feeling that he wouldn’t make promises where Nora is concerned, even if he could. “It’s just sex,” Nora says with a shrug. “Not that I’m in the habit of giving it away freely, but I do what needs to be done for the sake of a job.” Niklas nods. “But you’re playing our master,” I point out. “No one’s going to touch either one of us if you own us. Right?” I hope so.


“Not without my permission, no,” he says. “But depending on the circumstances, it may be in our best interest that I give permission.” He looks at Nora again briefly, and a sly smile passes over his features. “Now about your names,” he says. “I’m adopting an old Italian tradition—a Moretti tradition, anyway: my girls can only bear names with three letters. More than three implies that a girl has earned a higher place beside her master than slave.” He points to Nora. “You’ll be Aya.” Then he looks at me and says, “And you’ll be Naomi.” That’s my real middle name. Only a little surprised, I think about the five-letter name for a second, knowing right away why he gave it to me: so he doesn’t have to treat me the same way Nora will likely be treated. As much as I appreciate the special treatment, I can’t help but feel bad about it, too. I want to be as good as Nora in all things; I want to live up to her skill and be taken as seriously in this line of work as everyone takes her. “OK,” I say, “so what exactly will be the difference between Aya and Naomi?” Niklas looks me straight in the face. “Aya will be my slave,” he says, “but you, Naomi, will unfortunately have to suffer the role of being my girlfriend.” My brows draw inward. “But I thought I was going to play the slave role, too?” It dawns on me now that earlier he said Nora should familiarize herself with the terms and rules. He leans forward, his elbows on the tops of his legs. “You’ll play the role that I tell you to play, Izzy,” he says firmly, “or I don’t go. That’s the condition. Take it or leave it. I can take another plane right back to Boston when we land if I need to.” Furious, I let my breath out long and hard, crossing my arms over my chest and pressing my back to the seat. “This is bullshit.” “Call it what you want,” he says, leaning back up, “but it’s the way it’s gonna be.” “How am I ever going to learn if everybody keeps treating me like a child? I can play the role of a slave, Niklas—” “No you can’t,” he says calmly, not looking at me. “Dammit, Niklas, I was a slave for nine years!” “And that’s exactly why you’re not going to do it!” he snaps, his eyes hard, full of authority and resolve—his sudden shift of temperament stuns me. I clench my fists against the seat beneath me. Niklas leans forward again, seizing my gaze. “It’s bad enough you’re doing this at all,” he says. “The things you’ll see; the environment; the shit that neither you nor I will be able to stop, that we’ll have to pretend we’re used to, that I enjoy, that you’re indifferent to—it’s a big enough risk having someone like you, who was a slave for nine years”—he reiterates my own argument—“but going as far as turning you into a slave again—it’s not gonna happen; might as well throw the gas on the fire .” I’m experiencing the conversation with Victor about me going back to Mexico, all over again. And it infuriates me. I know I can do this. I know I can play the role of a slave without breaking character, without dark memories of my old life interfering with my performance. Why don’t they trust me? Why won’t they give me a chance to prove myself? I wonder if Victor knows about this. Since he and Niklas aren’t talking, I’m guessing he doesn’t. And he didn’t have a problem with it at our


meeting; he didn’t demand I play Niklas’s ‘girlfriend’—this is all Niklas’s doing, and I wonder if it’s not some game he’s playing to get back at Victor. “What’s it gonna be?” Niklas says. For a long time I just look at him, and then I glance at Nora. She shrugs casually, but says nothing on the matter. There’s not much she can say, really, because she knows as well as I do that Niklas is not the type to cave—what he says goes, and that’s that. I turn to look at Niklas again, who sits in his polished suit, waiting for my answer. Figuratively biting my tongue, I lick the dryness from my lips and say with a nod, “OK. I’ll play whatever role you give me.” Niklas nods in return. “So I take it I get to be a snobbish, wealthy bitch again like I was on my first mission with Victor?” I rest my back against the seat and cross my legs. I kind of miss playing that role, the first time I ever became Izabel Seyfried—as a character, anyway—being her was exciting. “No,” Niklas answers. “You definitely won’t be a snobby bitch. You may not be my slave, but you’re still submissive to me, would never raise your voice or show defiance. Besides, a mouthy bitch is more likely to put a target on your back, give Francesca more reason to want to slit your pretty little throat. I want you to be kind and pleasant, Izzy—hope that’s not too hard for you.” He smirks. I smirk right back at him. “But like I said before,” he goes on, “just keep your mouth shut—your normal mouth anyway.” He pauses and looks me right in the eyes. “And I apologize in advance—for the record.” I don’t like the sound of that. “For what?” I ask, wary. Niklas keeps a straight face. “For anything I might have to do,” he says. I just nod back at him, accepting everything, including his apology. “Now about those clothes,” Niklas speaks up. We spend the rest of the flight going over the terminology and the rules and how Nora and I should act and dress and carry ourselves at all times. Maybe I’m feeling a false sense of safety knowing why Victor sent Niklas with us, because I’m not as nervous as I probably should be. But I do feel safe. More than that, I’m overwhelmed with determination, excitement. Because I know I can do this. I know I can prove to them that I can be in this ‘environment’ and not be affected by it. Even though I’m not going to get to actually play the slave role on this mission, maybe I can still show Victor that I can handle it and he may change his mind later and let me play the slave role on the mission to Mexico. I will do whatever it takes to make that happen.


Niklas

Izabel isn’t anywhere near as nervous as she should be, but she’ll come around. Once she’s inside that place, feeling dozens of eyes combing every inch of her, she’ll start to feel the repercussions of her decision to go through with this. She’ll do exactly what she said she doesn’t do: flinch and recoil when someone touches her; she’ll have debilitating flashbacks of her old life when someone says a trigger word—she thinks she’s over what happened to her in Mexico, but no one gets over something like that, that easily. No one. But I’ll be there to catch her when she falls—I’ll have to be, so she doesn’t get us killed. And she already despises me, so whatever I have to resort to doing to her while on this mission, at least it won’t change the already tumultuous relationship between us much. As far as her relationship with Victor though—my brother…my dear, murderous brother, what have you done? What were you thinking sending Izabel, of all people, into an underground world like this one in Italy? I know. Oh, I know all right. It’s no surprise, really, what Victor is doing. I’ve known him all my life, and deep down, despite his love for her, he’s the same man he’s always been. And he always will be. ~~~ We arrive in Naples, and it’s like setting foot on a memory when I step out of the plane. I was here years ago, on a mission for The Order. But it was my short time with Claire that brings back the memory—not the mission. Claire told me once that she’d always wanted to go to Italy. I even went as far as promising I’d take her someday, though I knew it’d probably never happen. I’ll never forgive my brother for what he did. Never. Izabel, Nora and myself set up in the most extravagant hotel in the city center. I check in as the wealthy and cruel bastard, Niklas Augustin. From here on out until we finish this mission, I’ll have to let my nuts suffocate in these suits and feel more like my brother than I want to feel. I swore to myself I’d never wear another suit again, but kind of like that promise I made to Claire, I should’ve known better. A bellboy, dressed in a black pinstripe suit and bowtie, leads the way to our suite on the top floor of the hotel overlooking the sprawling city below. Nora keeps her eyes down until I tip the bellboy and he leaves us alone in the room. I go toward the balcony doors and push them open with the palms of my hands into the mild


autumn air. Izabel and Nora do a sweep of the room to check for audio or video devices. It’s unlikely there’d be anything in here now since no one knew we were coming, but it never hurts to be sure. This is precisely why we left so quickly, instead of giving Moretti’s people time to contemplate and plan for the arrival of a new customer. “It’s clean,” Nora announces as she puts the bug detector away in a bag. “Only wireless signal it picked up was the internet.” “Same here,” Izabel says, stepping up. “So what’s our first move?” I turn from the double glass doors and look at them both. Izabel is dressed in a thin creamcolored dress that hangs just above her knees, pulled tight around her small waist by a thin black ribbon belt. She wears a pair of high-heeled cream shoes with a delicate strap over the top of her feet. Nora, needing to appear more my property than Izabel does, wears a simple slate gray dress, but is longer, stopping two inches below the knees and left to hang freely about her body; she wears flatsoled white shoes cut below her ankles. Their hair is pulled into tight ponytails at the back of their heads. Only Izabel wears jewelry and carries a small black purse. They’re both really fucking beautiful. It’s roles like these that make this job so worth it. Pinching my mouth on one side as I look them up and down, I contemplate our next move. “I say we dive right in,” I answer. “I think I’ve told you enough on the plane.” “Then let’s do this,” Nora says. I look to Izabel. “I’ve been ready since yesterday,” she says with determination, confidence. I just hope she’s not overconfident. We spent a great deal of time on the flight going over every detail of the mission, every plan in case one plan goes to shit. I’m not worried about these people believing I am who I claim to be; my identity as Niklas Augustin was set firmly in place a year ago, ready and waiting for any given mission where the particular role would be needed. Having James Woodard, and other experts like him at our disposal, and having many ties outside of Victor’s Order, allows us to create believable identities with bogus lives dating as far back as we need them to. I have about thirty other firmly rooted identities at my disposal. But that doesn’t mean Francesca Moretti, or whoever she sends in her stead, will trust me by any means. I perfectly expect to have the distrust of everyone I might encounter involved with Moretti’s business. Several hours later, I’m meeting with a woman known only as Miz Ghita, in a restaurant on the outskirts of the city center. It took some phone calls after getting the proper numbers from one of our few contacts inside Naples, but those calls led me to Miz Ghita, who, hopefully, will lead me to Francesca Moretti. We only have one shot at this. I’m confident in my ability to pull this off, but I don’t take for granted the rumors and warnings I’ve been given about getting past Miz Ghita, apparently a pit bull of woman, tough as nails. Izabel and Nora accompany me, and it’s the part of this meeting that threatens my confidence the most—here comes Miz Ghita—I just hope Izabel can keep her mouth shut as promised. I stand as any gentleman would as Miz Ghita approaches: my hands folded neatly down in front of me, my expensive Rolex on display, a single thick gold and diamond ring on my opposite ring finger; I raise my chin in a cultured fashion. Izabel and Nora stand from their chairs. Miz Ghita, a sixty-something woman of average height and build, with graying brown hair cut short underneath her ears decorated by gaudy earrings, nods at me as the waiter pulls out her chair for her. I sit down only after she does; Izabel and Nora, in that order, take their seats last.


“I appreciate you meeting with me,” I say. “My time is valuable, Mr. Augustin—keep that in mind before you choose to waste any of it.” She brushes off the waiter’s attempt to take her drink order, and he bows and walks away. “Do you have a number?” She looks across the small table at me. I nod. “I do,” I say, reach into the pocket on the inside of my suit jacket and retrieve an envelope. I place it on the table and slide it across the short distance to her. She takes it into her long knobby fingers covered by rings, and then she opens the flap, peering inside briefly at the money. Miz Ghita’s thoughts remain hidden, but the fact she doesn’t turn the offer down right away is enough proof of her approval. Twenty thousand American dollars just to meet with her is more than enough to show my financial worth. But proving I’m wealthy, and can afford the luxury of Moretti’s cyprians, is the easy part. Proving I’m not an undercover officer or government agent, or someone sent to kidnap or kill Francesca Moretti for, I don’t know, say, to appease an angry father, will be the challenging part. It’s been a while since I’ve been on a mission like this—I hope like fuck I’m not too rusty. “An investor,” Miz Ghita begins. “Apparently a man who takes risks—that’s all investing is, really: high stakes gambling.” I smile. “Oh, come on now, Miz Ghita,” I say, tilting my head, “you and I both know that what I do for a living has absolutely no bearing on whether or not we can come to an agreement—only my ability to pay for my purchase.” She smirks, tilting her head to the side as well. “I can think of a few professions that would certainly make a difference,” she says, referring to anyone who could potentially threaten their operations. But she and I both know that everyone from police officers to government officials and even men of a religious nature come to them for sex— she’s only testing me; she wants to see if I feel the need to defend myself; if my eyes stray as I try to explain that I’m perfectly trustworthy, because the eyes always stray when one is lying. Unless of course you’re someone whose mastered the art of lying, as I have. I never lie in everyday life—I’m as straightforward as they come—but when playing a role, I’m one lying bastard, and I’m damn good at it. The dark confident smile never leaves my face. I lean forward and drop my voice. “I thought your time was valuable, Miz Ghita? As much as I respect yours, you should take into account that I find mine just as valuable and would rather not waste it.” I raise back up, pressing my back against the chair. “Now if we could get on with important matters—I need to make a purchase before the week is over.” “That may not be possible, even if I approve you.” “It will need to be,” I say right away as if there will be no argument. “If not…” And then I turn on the other side of Niklas Augustin, the man who doesn’t have time for bullshit, and most of all, who isn’t at all desperate and will gladly go elsewhere—I rise into a stand, preparing to leave and take my millions of dollars with me. Izabel and Nora stand seconds after; Nora keeps her head low and her hands folded delicately down in front of her; Izabel, able to show a little more personality, looks Miz Ghita in the eyes, but appears demure, submissive, just the same. Miz Ghita notices this right away, but doesn’t ask about it yet. The money I’m about to take with me is the more important matter. “Why don’t you sit down, Mr. Augustin?” She holds out her ring-decorated hand, gesturing


toward my chair. “I’m sure we can make arrangements to hasten your purchase—if, of course, I can approve you.” I stand next to the table for a moment longer, pretending to debate the offer, and then gradually take my seat again. Izabel and Nora, as always, follow suit. I notice when Izabel sits down, Miz Ghita’s gaze lingers on her for a moment. She looks back at me. “I understand you’re not here for our services,” Miz Ghita says, “that you’re looking to purchase outright. We don’t normally do that, Mr. Augustin.” She’s lying, but that’s OK. I nod. “I am aware; but just the same, an outright purchase is what I need. I’m certain you can make an exception.” She nods, not as if to agree that she can, but that she will consider it. It’s true—the cyprians owned by Francesca Moretti are not usually sold outright to buyers; only their services are on the market. But the Moretti family is also in the sex slave trade—I’ve heard the stories; back when I worked as a buyer on a mission for The Order. Masters. Sellers. Buyers. Living, breathing merchandise. But I’m not looking for a girl on the market—I’m looking for a cyprian who would not be considered marketable anymore. That is our mission: find Olivia Bram, purchase her and send her back to the United States, and then apprehend Francesca Moretti for Olivia Bram’s father to deal with her in his own way. “Perhaps,” Miz Ghita says, “but that would require a meeting with Madam Francesca herself”—she grins suddenly, as if the likelihood of that not happening somehow pleases her—“and to get a meeting with the Madam is not an easy thing to do.” “I can assure you,” I say with confidence, “that I can provide whatever the Madam needs, to gain her audience.” Miz Ghita gestures the waiter over. “I’ll have water,” she tells him, and then he turns to me. “I’ll have the same.” The waiter goes off to fulfill the request right away. Miz Ghita turns back to me, obviously feeling that she’s regained the control—Miz Ghita is a woman who doesn’t like to lose, and the moment I called her out by standing from the table, intending to leave, she was forced to drop her power over me down a notch just to make me stay. It pissed her off. Now she feels like she’s getting back at me for it by knowing there’s no way Francesca Moretti will agree to a meeting with me. Only I can bet my left nut that she will. “I will need to know,” Miz Ghita says, “what you intend to do with the merchandise before I can go any further. And you must know that we spend a great deal of money to prepare them, so your purchase offer must be double what was put into the merchandise, otherwise we cannot make a profit.” “Money is in no way an obstacle,” I say matter-of-factly. “And what does it matter what I plan to do with the merchandise?” The waiter walks over with four glasses and a tall glass bottle of sparkling water. He sets a glass in front of Miz Ghita, then in front of me, but when he goes to give Izabel and Nora one, I put up my hand to stop him. “That won’t be necessary,” I say, holding my solid gaze on his shrinking one. He nods once and sets the remaining two glasses on the table, away from Izabel and Nora, and then fills my and Miz Ghita’s glasses. Then he takes up the empty glasses again and leaves with them clasped between his fingers, the glasses clinking.


“We do not allow transactions with the masters out of Dubai,” Miz Ghita says in a low voice. “For business and personal reasons I am not at liberty to discuss with you, we do not deal with them under any circumstances, nor for any amount of money.” Her harsh brown eyes move left and right to examine our surroundings, making sure no one is in earshot. “If you have any dealings with them, Mr. Augustin, then we cannot do business.” Raising my glass to my lips, I take a small sip. “My purchase is to add to my own private collection,” I say, setting the glass down casually. I tilt my head slightly toward Nora on my left. “As you can see, I have a blond”—then to Izabel on my right—“and a redhead. I’m interested in…a horse of a different color.” Izabel looks over at me sadly; I rest my hand on her thigh. Miz Ghita takes a drink from her glass, her eyes watching me over the rim, skirting Izabel. “I see,” she says, setting the glass in front of her. “Why, if you’re in such a hurry that you need one by the end of the week, would you go to the time-consuming trouble of opening another…account with an establishment you’ve not dealt with before? Why not just purchase one from wherever you purchased”—she waves her hand at Nora, and then Izabel—“these two? They are both very beautiful. And they seem very…tame”—she looks at Izabel, raising her thin brows—“except for this one; she is different.” “We’re not here to discuss my girls,” I say calmly, but with an air of authority. “But to answer your other inquiry—why would I not want to go to the trouble? Was I wrong to believe that your merchandise is among the most elite in the world?” She pauses and then says, “Absolutely not. But just the same, four days is a very short time. Even if everything checks out—your identity, your business claims, etcetera (she already checked these things out or she wouldn’t be meeting with me now)—and even if by some miracle Madam Francesca agrees to meet with you, she has so many other engagements ahead of you that it could be weeks, months, before your turn.” She takes another sip from her glass and then changes the mood. “I think this is all just a waste of your time, Mr. Augustin,” she says, brushing it all off as if I should just go ahead and leave like I’d intended before—she’s trying to play me at my own game. “Perhaps we can do business on another day, when you have more time to spare. After all, I’ve never heard of you, and quite frankly, Madam Moretti isn’t one to waste time with a man who has never been heard of before”—she pretends to be getting ready to leave, pushing the envelope I gave her back across the table to me, and then taking her purse from the table. “Some other time,” she says and rises into a stand. “Sit down, Miz Ghita Moretti,” I say, and her whole face freezes in a stunned display, which she tries quickly to hide and regain her composure. Propping my elbows on the table, I raise my arms, folding my hands in front of me, right covering the left. I nod toward her chair. “Investing, Miz Moretti, isn’t so much a gamble when you have something the wealthiest men —and women—in the world will pay top dollar to possess.” Izabel’s gaze passes over me vaguely from the side; Nora never looks up from her lap. Slowly Miz Ghita takes her seat again, and I go on, playing my unbeatable hand and taking all the spoils. “My investments involve a little more than stock markets and real estate.” “Who are you?” Miz Ghita eyes me suspiciously, coldly. “You know who I am—bestow me the same courtesy.”


I couldn’t be absolutely sure before, that she’s Francesca Moretti’s mother, but I had an itching gut instinct and went with it. I did my homework on the Moretti family all night after Izabel left me in the bar, and I found out that it’s tradition the daughter take over the reins of the operation when the mother is no longer considered ‘desirable’. But the mother remains involved in the most important aspects of the business—clients and money and security—until she dies. I smile darkly, confidently, at Miz Ghita. “The particulars of my identity,” I say, “are for the eyes and ears of the Madam only. But I will give you a message to relay to her, in which I’m confident will be the deciding factor in the decision to grant me a meeting”—I pause and take a sip of water, taking my time—“and approval for a purchase, of course.” I set the glass down. Miz Ghita swallows nervously, irritably, but retains her firm, unshakable demeanor. She straightens her back and shoulders underneath her dark blouse, to stay on the same level as me. “And what might that message be?” She raises her chin importantly. Placing my fingers on the envelope again, I slide it back across the table to her. “Tell the Madam that before I leave this city, either she and I will be”—I gesture my hand gently with the twirl of my wrist—“new business associates, or I will help put her out of business by giving my money to Madam Carlotta over in Milan instead. I hear Madam Carlotta has tripled her revenue in the past year.” I smirk. But just a little bit. Miz Ghita, with her sourpuss mouth, contemplates my offer, and my threats for a moment. Then she stands—I stand with her as any gentleman would for a woman—and she takes the envelope from the table and tucks it down into her big black purse. “I will be in touch, Mr. Augustin.” I nod. “I look forward to hearing from you.”


Niklas

On the drive back to the hotel, Izabel and Nora want so badly to be able to speak freely. And after I tip the driver, when we head back to our room, all the way there Izabel is practically bursting at the seams. But she does well to stay in character, at least until we enter the room, shut the door behind us and do another sweep. “How’d you know?” Izabel asks, setting her little black purse down on a table and stepping out of her heels. “And who was she exactly?” “She’s Francesca’s mother,” I answer, loosening my tie. I explain to Izabel and Nora how I came to the conclusion. “I’m impressed,” Nora speaks up. “Honestly I had my doubts that you could play such a role.” “Why’s that?” I toss my tie on the end of the king-size bed and start to break apart the buttons of my dress shirt. “I just took you as more the stubborn¸ complicated type, I guess.” I look away from her and strip off my shirt. “Well, we haven’t gotten in yet,” I point out. “Do you think she bought it?” Izabel asks. “Yes, she bought it,” I say simply. “Although,” Nora speaks up, “the route you took might backfire. Threats don’t always yield results.” “No, they don’t,” I agree, “but this one will.” I step out of my dress pants and walk toward the spacious bathroom in my boxers—Izabel makes it a point to look at anything but me, which I find amusing. “A woman like Francesca isn’t stupid; she isn’t delusional in thinking nothing can take her down—she’ll take any threat to her business seriously, especially a rival.” “Well it worked,” Izabel says. “I thought she was going to walk out and that be the end of it.” “Once we’re in, the gears will shift,” I say. “After I figure out which of the decoys is Francesca Moretti, I’ll meet with her, feed her some bullshit about my business if I have to, but then shift to the real reason I came here: to purchase a new girl. I’ll show her that I’m not trying to be a threat to her operation—unless she wants me to be, and that’s not likely, so it’s more likely she’ll just drop it.” “You’re making this sound too easy, Niklas,” Nora speaks up from the sofa in the center of the spacious room. I glance between them and say, “If I was doing this by myself, it would be a lot easier—it’s not me that I’m worried about.” My eyes fall on Izabel last, but before she has a chance to argue, I shut myself off inside the bathroom and hop in the shower.


My cell phone rings—Izabel’s and Nora’s heads turn simultaneously to look at me when they hear it, because it could only be someone from the Moretti mansion calling this particular number. I answer on the third ring. “Yes, this is Niklas Augustin,” I say into the phone to Ghita Moretti. “It’s good to hear from you so soon. Yes”—I nod here and there, listening to Miz Ghita’s pitch, telling me the rules and being her typical authoritarian self so she feels like the one in control. “Yes—No the time is perfect. I will be there. Yes, my girls will be joining me”—(does this bitch ever shut up?)—“I will see you then—of course I’ll be bringing cash. Good day, Miz Ghita.” I run my thumb over the phone screen to end the call. Nora and Izabel look surprised—I admit, even I’m a little surprised. “I didn’t expect to hear from her this soon,” I say, setting the phone on the coffee table in front of me. “They want to meet with us tonight at ten—money talks.” “And so do threats,” Nora chimes in. “But that’s in three hours,” Izabel says, looking slightly concerned. “What’s the matter? Starting to feel like you should?” I taunt, grinning at her. She shakes her head, sighing, annoyed with me. “Will you ever grow up, Niklas? You’re impossibly…you’re a jack-ass.” I get up from the sofa so I can get ready. “Get it all out here,” I tell her as I pass, heading toward the closet where ‘Mr. Augustin’s’ suit hangs. “Remember, play your role, Izzy, and play it well or we don’t make it out of this alive.” “You should have more confidence in her,” Nora speaks up. “I agree with Izabel—you should grow up; stop treating her like—” “Like a girl who needs some sense knocked into her?” I cut in. “I’ll never accept Izzy as an operative—and you know as well as I do that she has no business doing this shit.” I point my index finger at Nora and then myself, back and forth. “You and me, we’ve been doing this for how long? Oh, that’s right—since we were children. She should be living with that woman in Arizona, going to the fucking bars on Friday nights, getting the shit fucked out of her by lazy twenty-four-year-old wannabe rock stars; hanging out with her girlfriends, feeling each other’s tits in their exploratory phase—not working for a billion dollar assassination organization, with little to no experience, going on missions like this one that’ll only open old wounds and cut new ones—she’s not ready, and she never will be, so shut your fucking mouth before I shut it for you.” “I’m standing right here, you fucking asshole!” Izabel steps right up into my face; her eyes are blazing with indignation; her jaw moves as she grinds her teeth. She starts to say something, surely in argument to the things I just said, but she calms herself, and it surprises me, confuses me even—I’d never expect anything less from her than a fight. Instead she takes a deep breath and says cool and composed, “Let’s get ready—this is a multi-million dollar job,” and then she walks away, disappearing around the corner as she heads into the room adjacent to the main room where her wardrobe is. Nora and I just stand here for a moment. She looks at me. I look at her. “What are you doing, Niklas?” she asks suspiciously, in a quiet voice so Izabel doesn’t hear. “What do you mean?” My hard gaze never wavers.


Instead of elaborating, Nora shakes her head as if she knows something I don’t and then moves toward the bathroom, walking past me. I reach out and grab her wrist, stopping her. “I asked you a fucking question.” In a flash, Nora’s hands are around my throat and a ringing bounces around inside my skull as she shoves my back and head against the wall. “And I’m not Aya yet,” she growls, pressing her body against mine—(I’m loving the shit out of this, so I let her)—“so you should probably mind that tongue of yours, or I will cut it out for you.” I smile, trying to ignore that my breath is being cut off by her hand. She releases me slowly and takes a step back, but her dark eyes never leave mine, challenging me to piss her off some more, which I certainly intend to do later. The game is on, you crazy, beautiful bitch—and here I thought this game I’ll be playing with Francesca Moretti was going to be the most interesting thing about this mission. Two hours later, the three of us are dressed and ready to head out. Miz Ghita insisted that a car pick us up at the hotel, which means that Miz Ghita can kill three birds with one stone: know the location of where we’re staying, control how and when we arrive and leave the Moretti estate, and leave us without our privacy to and from the estate because the car we’ll be chauffeured in will absolutely be bugged, and everything we say and do in it will be watched and recorded. We slip into our roles the moment the door to our suite opens. A black car picks us up in front of the hotel. I sit next to the window with Izabel next to me and Nora on the other side of her. There is only one other man in the car with us—the driver, who is probably more than just a driver. Nora sits with her back straight, her eyes lowered, her hands folded delicately in her lap, her long, graceful fingers—minus the missing one I already have the perfect excuse for—partially hidden in the folds of the smooth fabric of her little dress. All of her makeup is gone—no crimson red lips or dark eyes—but she is quite stunning still. That’s what a buyer would want: a woman who is more beautiful without makeup, who is disciplined and frail and small. It kind of blows my mind, Nora’s transformation from manipulative, murderous banshee to a delicate, submissive little doe. She is good. I may not like her, but I have to admit she is good at what she does. And she was right—she’s a fast learner. I also have to admit that Izabel seems more comfortable in her Naomi skin than I would’ve expected of her. She sits very close to me, her right thigh pressed against my left, and when she looks at me, with those glistening green eyes of hers, I don’t see a trace of Izabel in them. She is Naomi, my sweet and willing companion who would not hesitate to let me have my way with her even if I chose to do it in front of a dozen people—of course, I’d never do something like that to her, and she knows it. I could; oh, the things I could do to get back at my brother. I could take advantage of this situation in so many ways… “Do I get to name her?” Izabel asks as Naomi in a sweet voice that takes me aback for a moment; she lays her head on my shoulder. “I’ll think about it,” I say with no emotion, no expression on my face; I’m in my Niklas Augustin skin now. I lay my hand on her thigh, pulling up her dress just a little, to see how she reacts. I expect to feel her tense beneath my palm. She surprises me when instead she smiles with a blush in her cheeks, and then touches the corner of my mouth with her lips once. It takes me a moment longer than it should to shake off the stun—Izzy’s more into character


than I am, I realize, and remedy it quickly first by erasing the emotionally confused look I know is on my face, and replacing it with the indifferent one. I swallow, gathering my composure, and say, “What would you name her if I let you?” She pretends to think about it for a moment, looking up in thought—I notice the driver’s eyes skirting us from the rearview mirror every few seconds. “I like Lia, or perhaps Sia or Nai.” She turns to Nora. “Aya, what do you think?” she asks. Nora doesn’t raise her head, doesn’t acknowledge Izabel’s question. “Answer her,” I demand in a calm voice, giving her permission to speak. Nora raises her eyes and looks at Izabel but never holds eye contact with her. “Lia is very pretty,” Nora says, and looks back down into her lap. Izabel turns back to me, bright-eyed and devastatingly believable. “I said I’ll think about it,” I tell her, and then look down into my phone, pretending to be distracted by its contents.


Niklas

We pull up to the guarded front gates of Moretti’s mansion and another man steps out of a glass-andstone booth to sign us in. There’s a gun at his hip; four other armed men stand in front of it. The man from the booth and the driver exchange words in Italian, and then signatures on a digital device. The man outside the car peers in at us in the backseat. I nod. He nods in return. And then he and the other men step out of the way of the car and the gates break apart soundlessly. The Moretti estate is pretty much like I expected it to be, with rolling green grass and immaculate landscaping, stone and marble fountains on either side of the smooth driveway that extends in a perfectly straight line right up to the front of the five-story mansion many yards out ahead. Water, lit by golden lights, sprays from the top of the fountains. More golden lights are positioned along the driveway on either side, matching electric lanterns jutting from the grass every ten feet. The mansion itself is enormous, with six towering white pillars greeting us at the entrance, so tall and wide that I actually feel quite small walking beneath them. Izabel’s arm is looped through mine on my right; Nora on my left, eyes down as always. I hear the car pull away behind us, and then the calming sound of a piano playing when the tall double doors are opened by two more armed men in front of us. We’re frisked for weapons and I’m forced to check mine in before going inside—they check the contents of my briefcase too, but all they find in it is cash. After we’re frisked, stripped of my gun, and swept for wires, Miz Ghita meets us at the door, dressed in a long black dress that hangs to her ankles, and enough jewelry on her hands and wrists and ears and around her turkey neck to feed two third-world countries. Around her head she wears a black knit hat of sorts with two black feathers affixed to one side. “Right this way, Mr. Augustin,” Miz Ghita gets right to it, which I appreciate. We follow her through the grand vestibule, past a towering statue of Venus of Arles and then another of Neptune with his trident and dolphin, and are led into the great hall where dozens of people are mingling, sipping glasses of wine and nibbling hors d'oeuvres—it’s exactly the kind of atmosphere I’d never go out of my way to suffer; all of the noses in the air, the smell of money and plastic tits and narcissism—I’m gonna need a carton of cigarettes, a fifth of whiskey and a Jackie when this mission is over. “Mr. Augustin,” Miz Ghita says in her rigid old woman voice, “this is Trevor Chamberlain; Trevor—Niklas Agustin.” I shake the short man’s hand. “He is CEO of The Chamberlain Corporation,” she goes on. “You may be familiar with it.” She’s testing me. I nod and say in German, “I’m quite familiar with The Chamberlain Corporation,” and look only at the company’s CEO when speaking. “It was the highest grossing in Munich last year— regardless of the scandal with the secretaries.” I offer Trevor Chamberlain a faint smile. “You’ll have


to share with me your secrets sometime.” Trevor smiles at me likewise and says, also in German, “The secret, as you probably already know, is simply to have enough money to get one’s self out of anything.” We laugh lightly. Trevor sips his wine. I notice his eyes skirt Izabel. And then Nora. A seemingly young woman, middle twenties, walks up carrying a tray of wine glasses. She, like the other servants making their rounds, is dressed in a simple black dress that drops just above her knees. A piece of black fabric is tied around her tiny waist, lending shape to her hourglass form and lavish breasts. She wears no jewelry, no makeup; her little black shoes are flat-soled; she never looks me in the eyes, even when serving me. I take a glass of wine from the tray; she bows her head and turns to Izabel, offering her the same. Izabel looks at me first, smiles, bats her eyes. I nod and then she helps herself to a glass. But the servant girl doesn’t offer Nora the same luxury, and this confirms two things: she is the same as ‘Aya’, and the servant girl knows it, because a slave knows another slave just as sheep knows another sheep. I feel Miz Ghita’s eyes on the three of us, watching, waiting for one of us to fuck up. Just as the servant girl begins to walk away, I stop her. I hand my briefcase to Nora; she holds it with both hands down in front of her. “Girl,” I say, and she halts, turns slowly but stops to face Miz Ghita without looking directly at her. “Do as he says,” Miz Ghita consents, and then the girl turns to me, keeping her eyes to the floor. Miz Ghita listens; Trevor Chamberlain sips his wine—he looks at Izabel again, and then Nora. “Turn around,” I tell the girl. She turns around. Slowly, so I can examine her; carefully so she doesn’t drop the tray balanced on one hand. She has long dark hair, almost black, that dips past her waist; creamy light caramel skin; deep brown eyes, and full, plump lips that alone could set even the most insensible or calloused man on the brink of sexual beggary. “Lift one of the glasses,” I tell her. The girl does exactly as I say, curling the slender fingers of her left hand around the stem of one glass and lifting it. She holds it there, unmoving. “This one is not on the market, Mr. Augustin,” Miz Ghita speaks up. I take a casual sip from my glass and say without taking my eyes off the girl, “Anyone can be bought, Miz Ghita; ask Mr. Chamberlain here.” I take another sip. “Don’t you agree?” Trevor smiles a crooked smile and then joins me in checking out the girl. It’s important to bond with the buyers, especially in front of the sellers—the sellers don’t like it when the buyers bond because they tend to have words about the merchandise behind the sellers backs—or in front of them—point out the things they don’t like, confer and weigh the pros and cons, shed light on flaws that the other buyer might not have noticed otherwise. But this, too, is all part of the game; buyers are never really friends, they want to point out flaws, over exaggerate them, make them up even, all to dissuade another buyer from bidding too high—or at all—on his merchandise. I really don’t care about the game, or any of this shit; I just want to make Miz Ghita nervous, put her in her place, intimidate her properly by showing her how difficult I can make it for her business if I don’t get what I want in the end. The servant girl stands before me in all of her extensively learned obedience, never showing


an ounce of discomfort even though that tray on her hand, and the other holding the glass in the same position for so long, has got to be taking its toll by now. Bringing my glass to my lips, I take my time, watching the girl. “I’m not in the market for a brunette, anyway,” I finally say. “I’m looking for something a little lighter, maybe in a honey. And besides, I don’t like left-handed girls; there’s something…” I wave my free hand in gesture, “…unnatural about them.” I laugh lightly and wave the servant girl away. “Call me superstitious.” Trevor Chamberlain cocks a brow as his mouth touches the rim of his glass; he appears to be considering my comment—seed planted, score one for me. This particular buyer will now be checking any girls he’s interested in for ‘lefties’, and either offering less than he would have had she been a right-handed girl, or offering nothing at all—what a gullible idiot. Miz Ghita, clearly perturbed by my pointing out the imperfection, wrinkles her mouth with displeasure, but says nothing, because after all, it would be bad business to argue with the clients in front of other clients. The servant girl walks away quietly, disappearing into the small crowds of mingling guests. “Your superstitions,” Miz Ghita puts in, “are just that, Mr. Augustin.” She turns to Trevor Chamberlain; a serene smile setting her face. “It’s all in what you choose to believe; left-handed people are unique, not to mention the more creative sort; it would be regrettable to pass up the opportunity to own one”—her cold eyes pass over me, telling me she can fix anything, and then she looks at Trevor—“Madam Francesca will be here shortly; please enjoy your wait by helping yourself to whatever you need.” Translation: Please converse with anyone here other than this man. Trevor Chamberlain nods his appreciation, and then turns to me. “Mr. Augustin,” he says with another nod. “Mr. Chamberlain,” I offer the same, and he walks away. “Tell me, Mr. Augustin,” Miz Ghita says in a suspicious manner, “why a man who has such intolerance for imperfections would have a girl with only nine fingers.” She glances at Nora’s hands. I sip my wine casually, always taking my time, and then answer, “I get the sense you’re assuming that when I bought her, all ten digits were in-tact.” I offer her a subtle smile, lifting one corner of my mouth; a gleam in my eye. “Madam Francesca is unlikely to do business with anyone who disfigures his property—we spend far too much money, time and resources molding our merchandise to perfection.” “Why would any of you care what I do with my property after it is mine?” I ask. “Oh, I don’t give a damn,” she bites back; her wrinkled mouth tightening on one side. “But Madam Francesca is, shall I say, particular about her pieces—do you think a great painter would appreciate a man destroying what he put his heart and soul into creating after he takes it home from auction? Would an architect want the skyscraper he spent years designing and building, demolished to put a parking lot in its place?” Her beady brown eyes grow colder and she cocks her head to one side. “Madam Francesca takes pride in her work—this is yet another reason we are particular, and careful, about who we sell to outright.” Now to test Nora’s ability to improvise. “Aya,” I say without looking at Nora, “look at Madam Ghita and tell her why you were relieved of your finger, and how you came to be in my possession.” Nora, still holding the briefcase, raises her head, and she looks right at Miz Ghita but never holds eye contact for longer than a second—she knows that to hold it would suggest they’re equals. “Aya’s finger was removed by her former master for being disobedient, Madam,” Nora says


in a soft, meek voice. “Master Niklas purchased Aya because of her imperfection.” She lowers her head again immediately after. Well played, Nora Kessler, well played. Miz Ghita’s cold eyes shift to look at me, and I can actually see a small spark of belief—and surprise—hidden within them. “I see,” she says with a narrowed gaze. “So I take it you’re in the market for a left-handed girl then.” A faint grin flashes across her eyes. My mouth lifts on one side and I take one last sip of my wine, setting the glass down on a tray as it passes in the hand of another servant girl. “You play dirty, Mr. Augustin,” she says, referring to my manipulating Trevor Chamberlain. “I like that—but don’t make the mistake of thinking I like you; you won’t be leaving this place with any special deals or arrangements—if you leave with anything at all.” “I would expect nothing less than a hard bargain, Miz Ghita.” “Well just the same,” she says, “that particular left-handed girl is not for sale.” “To be honest,” I state, “it’s not only left-handed girls I’m interested in. I look for flaws; flaws make a woman unique, give her personality. But out of curiosity, why is that particular girl not for sale?” Miz Ghita looks back at the dark-haired servant girl twenty feet away, weaving her way through crowds with her tray on her hand. “She is one of Madam Francesca’s favorites,” Miz Ghita says, and instantly I sense a change in Izabel. Maybe it was just instinct that I look at her in that moment, knowing her history with Javier Ruiz, how she was his favorite—I don’t know, but I noticed when her jaw tightened. It was only a split second, but I saw it; thankfully no one else did. Izabel’s soft, smiling, obedient face never falters, and she raises her own glass of wine and puts it to her lips. “I understand about favorites all too well, I admit,” I say to Miz Ghita, glancing at Izabel with hidden meaning that Miz Ghita catches onto right away. She looks briefly at Izabel, too, and then nods at me, understanding. “I wonder what flaw this one has then,” she says, expecting me to answer. “Naomi’s flaw is not so visible, but I can assure you she has one,” I say, and leave it at that. Miz Ghita looks Izabel over with the calculated sweep of hard beady eyes—I just hope she doesn’t ask me to prove it, because unlike my brother, I haven’t seen any other part of Izabel’s body to know if there’s anything wrong with it. Maybe I should remedy that later when we go back to the hotel, make Izzy squirm a little, make her regret ever wanting to be a part of this mission—that’ll teach her stubborn ass. But Miz Ghita is relentless. “I’m very curious to know what it is,” she says, looking Izabel over once more before her vulture eyes, full of expectation, fall on me—it’s such a petty thing, but for some reason she wants to know and she wants to know now. And I can’t refuse her. It would look suspicious to keep it from her because it’s so petty; and after I just paraded Nora’s missing finger, and admitted to Miz Ghita that I look for flaws in my girls, it would seem as though I’m proud of them, and not to show off the flaw of my ‘favorite’ girl, would seem suspicious. Fuck—what do I say? “May I show her?” Izabel speaks up, snapping me out of my sudden panicked mind. I look at Izabel, and she’s looking back at me, sweet-tempered, confident, fearless—more in control of this situation than I clearly am.


Finally I nod and answer, “Yes, Naomi, show Madam Ghita your flaw,” having no idea what it is, and hoping like hell I’m not exhibiting that in my face. Izabel hands her wine glass to Nora, turns her back to me and says, “If you would unzip me?” Reluctant for only a moment, I fit my thumb and index finger around the zipper tab and slide it down the center of her back; smooth, tanned skin appears, replacing the white lace fabric of her dress. She’s wearing no bra, no panties—you’ve got to be fucking kidding me; Izzy what are you doing? Izabel steps out of her dress and turns around to face us, standing stark naked in the middle of the room for all of forty or fifty people to see, and every single pair of eyes, minus the eyes of the servants, turn in attention. Goddamn she’s beautiful. More stunning than the naked statue of Venus of Arles on our way in, with a waist and hips like an hourglass, average-sized breasts but full and perfect—I can see what my brother sees in her now, I guess. Still doesn’t make Izzy any less of a mouthy bitch though. Izabel smooths her fingertips over the gunshot scar on her stomach and then meets my eyes before turning her attention to Miz Ghita—my heart sinks, and I swallow a thick dose of guilt and regret because I’m the one who gave her that scar. “May I explain to Madam Ghita how I came to be scarred?” Izabel asks me in a gentle voice, though hidden within it is a quiet conflict between the two of us: You shot me and you’re a bastard, Niklas. I know, and I’m sorry, Sarai; I’ll always be sorry and I’ll always be a bastard. Miz Ghita looks right at me, waiting. “Yes, Naomi,” I say quickly. “Tell her how you got that scar.” Izabel steps back into her dress and pulls it up, sliding her arms into the thin strap sleeves— everyone watches. “I was shot,” she says, turning her back to me so I can zip her up, “in Los Angeles, California, by a very sick man.” Only I can hear the distaste in her voice, and only I can feel the sting. Once the zipper is up, I drop my hands from her and she turns back around. “I see,” says Miz Ghita, looking only at Izabel, wanting to know more. “And what happened to this sick man? Was he…dealt with?” Without meeting my eyes, Izabel answers, “No, Madam, he is still running free out there somewhere as far as I know. But…I don’t fear him so much anymore”—(I feel her eyes on me, but I don’t look back at her)—“because I have Niklas to protect me.” Miz Ghita looks between us curiously. “I suppose it was a good thing,” she tells Izabel, but is looking only at me, “that Mr. Augustin found you.” I say nothing, and neither does Izabel. The three of us—minus Nora—turn our heads in attention as a group of women and men emerge from an arched entrance to our left.


Niklas

Three. Five. Six. Eight. Nine women who resemble one another so closely that they look like blood sisters, walk out among a smaller group of men in suits; their escorts for the evening, I’m guessing. The group spreads out, six of them with a man on their arm, and they begin to mingle with the guests. Some wear skimpy cocktail dresses; jewelry decorates their wrists and fingers; they all look very much alike, but one woman in particular stands out from the others. There’s something about her that sets her apart from the rest: her chin raised higher, the gleam in her eyes more dramatic, even the way her escort walks alongside her—dark hair, sharp brown eyes—he appears proud, as if he has been given the most important assignment of his career. He keeps his head high when he walks with her on his arm, never looking anyone in the eyes, not because he’s a slave, but because he’s too pompous to spare the effort. Miz Ghita makes her way over to the two, the ends of her black dress swishing about her legs, her flashy jewelry jangling. “Not yet,” I tell Izabel without looking at her, pushing the words through my teeth like a ventriloquist. I tighten my arm around hers, stopping her. You’re too eager, Izzy, just be patient, I want to say but don’t. I can’t—Miz Ghita is looking in our direction. I nod at her from across the twenty-five foot space, and the woman with the flaunting male escort locks eyes with me briefly, just long enough to get my attention. The three converse; first about us, I’m sure, and then the same amount of discreet attention is given to a few other guests standing about the room. I didn’t expect to be the only man in question here tonight, and I’m glad for that; not all of the suspicion will be on me. Finally Miz Ghita, and the proudest woman among the nine with her even prouder escort, make their way over to us. “Madam Francesca Moretti,” Miz Ghita introduces us, “meet Mr. Niklas Augustin. Mr. Augustin, this is Madam Francesca.” ‘Francesca’ looks at me with a powerful, self-important grace. She presents me her hand at the same moment I reach for it, and I bow slightly and graze the top of it with my lips. “I appreciate the invitation to be here this evening, Miz Moretti,” I tell her, addressing her properly. “And on such short notice.” “It is my pleasure,” Francesca, who I know is not the real Francesca, says and then adds, “Madam Ghita tells me that you are looking for something in particular, that you have special needs?” She tilts her head gently to one side, inquiringly. I nod. “Yes,” I say, “but I would prefer to speak about it in private.” I glance around the room


briefly and add, “When time permits, of course.” “Of course,” she responds. Miz Ghita cuts in, “After the Madam visits with the other guests, and after the showing, she will accommodate you the private meeting you paid for. Why don’t you introduce her to your companion.” A small smile manipulates one corner of my mouth—they may be fooling every other guest in this mansion, but I’m not every other guest. They’re just oblivious men—and a few women—who are here for sex, and none of them have any clue about this woman being a decoy for the real madam. They probably couldn’t give a shit less anyway, because unlike me, they’re not technically here for Francesca Moretti. I look to Izabel, and then back at the decoy. “This is my girl, Naomi,” I answer, and Izabel bows her head slightly, offering the decoy a smile. “Kind of like your left-handed servant girl, Naomi is my favorite; no longer a slave, however. What about your favorites draws you to choose them?” It’s simple conversation, really, but an unanticipated enough question that only the real Francesca would be able to answer without hesitation. The decoy’s eyes shift to look at Miz Ghita. She appears puzzled, as if she doesn’t know what to say, but this time it’s the male escort who cuts in, which surprises me. “I am Emilio Moretti,” he introduces himself proudly in a thick Italian accent. “Francesca’s brother. What business did you say you were in, Mister…Augustin is it?” He cocks his head to one side, scrutinizing me under hard, dark eyebrows. Ah, so that explains his untouchable character—he’s almost as high up on the food chain here as Miz Ghita. And although I don’t for a fucking second believe that this particular woman is Francesca Moretti, I do get the feeling that Emilio is who he says he is. After all, the decoy, who can only pretend to be Francesca so much, needs the aid of the real Francesca’s closest and most trusted advisors. And in the case of a prominent Italian family such as this one, there is no one closer and more trusted than other members of the family. “I’m an investor,” I say. “Stock market, real estate—” “So you flip houses,” Emilio cuts me off, pissing on his turf; a snide grin follows, suggesting that flipping houses is for paupers and peasants. The left-handed servant girl from before makes another round with a tray of wine, and I take a glass; my cool attention never leaves Emilio. Smiling lightly, I bring the glass to my lips, take a small sip and then say afterward, “Actually, Emilio”—I take another sip just to draw out the moment—“there’s a lot of money to be made in, as you call it, flipping houses, if one knows what he’s buying. But to be honest, that’s not exactly what I do.” “Then what is it, Mr. Augustin, that you do…exactly?” He takes a glass from the tray and brings it to his lips; his eyes remain on me, unblinking, over the rim as he drinks slowly. “That,” I say with confidence, “is also better discussed in private”—I smile at the decoy standing next to him—“with the Madam. No offense, Mr. Moretti, but I don’t discuss my business ventures with anyone other than the one who sits at the head of the table. Clearly, you’re not that person.” Emilio’s dark eyes flash, and he looks over at Miz Ghita standing next to the quiet servant girl holding the wine tray. “I don’t think I like your tone,” he tells me.


I smile faintly, and then take another sip of wine. “Yes, but your family’s establishment I suspect doesn’t give a shit about your opinion of my tone; my bank account is all that matters—isn’t it, Miz Moretti?” I glance at the decoy. She takes a glass from the wine tray just as another one of the women who resembles her walks up without an escort. Finally the decoy pretending to be Francesca steps up her game—now that she’s had time to figure out what to say. She looks over at Emilio, just as he’s about to say something in retaliation to me, and she holds up a finger to shut him up. “That will be enough, dear Brother—I certainly don’t need you, or Mother, speaking for me.” Her dark eyes pass over Miz Ghita and then find mine. “To answer your question, Mr. Augustin: dark hair and the lightest brown skin, like Bianca’s here”—she reaches out to the servant girl and brushes the back of her fingers across the bare flesh of her shoulder—“is what makes me choose them; all of my most beloved pets possess these essential qualities.” She looks at Izabel. “What qualities must your favorites possess?” “Well I only have one favorite girl,” I say without pause. “But what I look for in them are flaws. Particular flaws, however; I’m definitely not the kind of man who could put his cock in a woman who has the face of a horse.” The decoy, the silent lookalike now standing beside her, and Emilio, all seem quietly stunned by my vulgarity. Even Izabel’s eyes meet mine for a brief second and I know she’s asking, “What the hell are you doing?” Miz Ghita is unfazed. What I’m doing, Izabel, is being myself—what did you expect, that I’d put on a suit and pretend that I’m Victor? You should know me better than that by now. The fake Francesca smiles craftily. “That is certainly understandable, Mr. Augustin,” she says. “And I can assure you that you will find no women—or men—here who are not of the highest standards.” “But he’ll also not find,” Emilio interjects coolly, “any flawed merchandise, so perhaps he should take his deformed strays and go elsewhere, rather than wasting your time, Sister.” Turning my attention to Emilio, I say with a smirk, “Your attempts to get under my skin, Mr. Moretti, are infantile.” Then I lean toward him, lower my voice and say, “You really should keep your mouth shut; you’re making your family look bad in front of all these people.” I click my tongue and his brown face reddens; I look at the fake Francesca and add casually, “Looks like you could use an upgrade in the help around here—I’d be willing to offer a few pointers. Later, when we have our private meeting.” “That’s enough!” the fake Francesca shouts at Emilio, putting up her hand to him again, just as he was about to lay into me. “I hate to say it, Emilio, but Mr. Augustin is right—you need to control yourself.” Emilio’s head snaps around at the woman who is not Francesca, and his widened dark eyes bore into her with fury—looks like she’ll be paying the price later for her act being too convincing. Emilio looks at me one last time, then his mother, and then turns on his expensive black shoes and walks away, trying to take as much dignity with him as he can. “I must apologize for my brother,” says the fake Francesca. “However, it seems the two of you have something in common.” One of my eyebrows hitches up higher than the other. “Is that so?” I ask, quietly offended.


“Yes,” she comes back. “You’re both have a very low tolerance for other men.” OK, I guess I can’t argue with that. “But you should not count Emilio out,” Miz Ghita warns. “My son will not go down easily. To make your stay run smoothly, I would suggest calling this one your win, and not provoking him any further.” “I’ll stay out of his way,” I say with the casual shrug of my shoulders, “as long as he stays out of mine.” I notice the silent lookalike standing next to the fake Francesca, eyeing me. There’s something about her that I can’t quite shake; all this time she’s stood here and not uttered a word, and she’s clearly not a slave girl. “I don’t believe we’ve been introduced.” I reach out a hand. “My name is Niklas Augustin.” She places her hand into mine. “Valentina Moretti,” she says, and I kiss the top of it, letting my lips linger longer than they did on the hand of the fake Francesca. “A pleasure,” I say, and come out of my bow. “I apologize, Mr. Augustin,” Miz Ghita says suddenly, “but Madam Moretti has other guests to speak with, and a showing in thirty minutes; we really must be on our way.” I nod with respect. “Don’t let me keep you,” I say, looking first at the fake Francesca, and lastly at Valentina. When they’re no longer in earshot, Izabel pushes up on her toes and pretends to be kissing my ear—she may as well be… “What are you thinking?” she inquires and then pulls away, a soft smile remains on her face, not indicative of the serious words we’re exchanging. I lean toward her and slide my finger through her hair, tucking it behind her ear to free a space for my mouth. “Well, I think we both know that woman isn’t Francesca,” I whisper onto her ear. “But I have a feeling I already know which one of them is.” “So do I,” Izabel says, blushing, pretending. “Who are you thinking?” “I’ll tell you when I’m one hundred percent sure of her myself.” “Fair enough, but in the meantime,” Izabel says in a quiet voice, always smiling as if we’re simply enjoying one another, “you should try not to piss anyone off—Emilio seems like a real piece of work; he could probably mess this up for us. Heed Miz Ghita’s warning; don’t make this any more difficult than it’s already going to be.” “I know what I’m doing, Izzy.” I stand with my hands folded down in front of me, nodding at guests as they stroll by. “Yeah—you’re being Niklas Fleischer,” she comes back, as if that’s a bad thing. Unclasping my hands, I hook my right on her slim waist and nod at another buyer as he passes with a girl on his arm—he glances at Izabel, probably still seeing her naked from her bold little display earlier. “There’s not much difference between the two,” I say about the real me and the pretend one. “Besides, the worst thing I can do is show weakness, and letting another man belittle me in public is a weakness no matter what face I’m wearing. The real Francesca Moretti is a strong, vicious woman, or she wouldn’t be in the business or the position that she’s in. My guess is that she won’t give me the time of fucking day if I’m the type who’ll get on my knees and lick the shit from her boots.” “Maybe so,” Izabel says, “but proving yourself at the expense of her brother probably isn’t the safest way to go about it.”


I look right at her. “Nothing about this is safe, Izzy. Not a damn thing. And you really shouldn’t have taken your fucking clothes off. What the hell were you thinking?” Izabel smirks at me—Izzy, not Naomi—and then she leans toward me and says in a low, derisive voice, “It looked to me like taking off my clothes in that moment saved our asses. I guess some good came out of you shooting me, after all.” Then she adds bitingly, “But what bothers me the most was that you didn’t even remember.” Grinding my teeth behind tightly-closed lips, I glare at her. “It wasn’t that I didn’t remember,” I bite back, “but that I’m always trying to forget.” There’s a loud crash and the shattering of glass as another servant girl carrying wine who had walked past Nora falls to the marble floor; she and Nora tangled in a sloppy mass of bare legs and long hair; the servant’s dress covered in red wine. Every pair of eyes in the room dart our way, and the many conversations that had been going on all around us cease in an instant. “Forgive Aya, Master,” Nora says as she goes to push herself to her feet, stepping around the wine. “A-Aya didn’t see the girl.” Jumping back into my role—and that’s exactly what Nora was trying to achieve by tripping the servant with the wine tray—I reach down and collapse my hand around the back of Nora’s neck, yanking her to her feet. Afterward I take up my briefcase from the floor. Miz Ghita is next to us, pulling the servant girl from the floor, but with a little less roughness. “Go to your quarters,” she demands, “and get out of your soiled clothes. Stay there until Emilio grants you permission to leave.” “Yes, Madam,” the girl responds, bows her head and leaves quickly. Two women, who look more like housekeepers than slaves, come in behind her with a mop and broom and a dustpan and begin cleaning up the mess. The rest of us step out of the way. Already most of the guests have grown bored with the display and are returning to their conversations—seems the fake Francesca has disappeared from the room entirely, though I don’t recall seeing when that happened. I guess my little spat with Izabel threw me off worse than I thought. What the fuck is wrong with me? I’ve never broken character before, or been distracted enough that it could blow my cover. “Apologize to Madam Ghita,” I tell Nora. She turns toward Miz Ghita, who is looking down on her with those fierce vulture eyes, and Nora says, “Aya apologizes, Madam, for being so clumsy.” Miz Ghita looks only at me now, saying nothing to Nora. “I’m beginning to think, Mr. Augustin, that we do not have a girl suited to your needs, after all. Missing fingers, scars, the grace of a fawn learning to stand”—she glances at Nora with disgust, then looks back at me—“I hope this one will be punished accordingly.” “I’ve only been Aya’s master for a couple of months,” I explain. “This is her first public showing, so I’m sure you can understand her incompetence. But yes, she’ll be punished accordingly later, that I can assure you.” Believing me, and granting us some slack now that there’s an acceptable reason for the display, Miz Ghita nods at me slowly, glancing at Nora in a sidelong manner. “The showing will be held in the ballroom in ten minutes,” Miz Ghita says. “It is expected to last one hour; after that I’ll take you to meet privately with the Madam.” She starts to walk away, but turns around and adds in a low voice so only the three of us can hear, “So far it seems you check out, Mr. Augustin, but you should know that if you’re a fraud, here for any reason other than what you claim, we will find out.” I smile slimly, my eyebrows crumpling in my forehead. “Well, thank you for the warning,” I


say. I laugh, brushing the whole thing off as ridiculous. “Does this kind of stuff happen around here a lot? You seem paranoid, Miz Ghita—no offense.” Her weathered mouth remains tight; her harsh eyes never blink. “The Madam’s time is more precious than my own,” she says, ignoring my question. “You’ll have thirty minutes to speak with her, so make them count.” “I intend to do just that,” I say, and tip my head to her. Ten minutes later we follow a large group of buyers down one expansive stretch of brightly lit hallway toward the ballroom; flanked by towering pillars on either side made of white marble trimmed in silver. White. There’s so much of it; any other time I’d find it too sterile, but the color suits the mansion, and the classic, sophisticated look the designer was going for: white-and-gray marble floors, white ceiling, white paint on the walls; even the flower arrangements in the arch windows lining the hallway have white petals. And when we enter the sizeable ballroom, the white still goes on forever, across the shiny marble floor, up the steps of a stage at one end of the room; the long flowing curtains on the windows are white and gray—OK, maybe it is too sterile; I’m starting to feel like I could go snow blind in this place. Out ahead, placed in a half-circle, are dozens of white-and-silver chairs facing the stage; three rows of them. We’re all ushered toward the chairs by men in black suits and bow ties, urged to make ourselves comfortable. I and Trevor Chamberlain are asked to sit in the front row; I take a seat, putting my briefcase on the floor; Izabel sits on a chair of her own next to me; Nora sits on the floor at my feet, her knees bent and her legs tucked underneath her ass, her hands in her lap, her head lowered, her posture straight. No one sits with Mr. Chamberlain, but that’s why he’s here: to buy himself a girl. Just like myself and every other buyer here, men and women alike, a few others with their property also sitting at their feet just like Nora. Izabel sits quietly at my side, also with her back straight and her hands folded on her lap, but she’s looking straight at the stage. This will be her first test—when the merchandise is brought out. I hope like hell she can hold it together. We’ll be watched by unseen eyes—we’re being watched right now—because we’re new and no one trusts us yet. Don’t recoil, Izzy; keep that composed face throughout the next hour and give them no reason to question you.


Izabel

I know I can handle it. I just need to focus on two things: the identity of Francesca Moretti, and finding Olivia Bram. But something doesn’t add up about this whole situation where Olivia Bram is concerned. I know how these things work, I’ve been there, sitting at the master’s feet, sitting next to Javier in a chair of my own just as I’m sitting now next to Niklas. I know what’s going to walk out on that stage in a few minutes, because I’ve seen it. I witnessed hundreds of purchases just like I’ll witness tonight, in elaborate mansions just like this one, surrounded by wealthy deviants who are, in their own way, above the law. They’re here for slaves who haven’t been spoiled, young beautiful men and women so subservient, so well-trained that nothing can break them…because they’ve already been broken. But what doesn’t add up is that if Olivia Bram was fifteen when she was abducted, she would be twenty-two now; seven years in captivity is a long time not to be deflowered, raped repeatedly—I know this from experience. There’s no way Olivia Bram would still be considered fit for purchase in a showing like this one—especially like this one. You don’t have to actually see the slaves to know that they’re of the highest quality, which includes few to no sexual partners—virgins would go for three times more than any other girl—exquisite beauty, complete obedience, and most of all youth. Olivia Bram, at twenty-two, already on the market for seven years wouldn’t meet the criteria of being up for bid in a place like this. Even myself and Nora wouldn’t be good enough to be sold on that stage. So where the hell would Olivia Bram be in this place? It kills me to think it, but my gut tells me that she’s not here at all, and that for as long as she’s been missing, there’s a good chance she’s already dead. She was likely sold years ago, on that very stage—there’s no telling where in the world she is now, if she’s anywhere. Positive. Think positive, Izabel. You were held captive for two years longer than Olivia Bram has been missing; if you were strong enough to stay alive, then Olivia could be, too. Yes, she could still be alive…but nothing much can convince me that she’s anywhere in this mansion. And I get the feeling Niklas already knows this; he’s probably known it all along. The only reason we’re here right now is for Francesca Moretti. Only after we find her can we find Olivia Bram. Alive, or at least a trace of what was once her when she was alive.

Niklas


Valentina Moretti steps out onto the stage and makes her way to stand in front of a tall glass podium with a microphone affixed to the top. I knew that particular lookalike played a bigger role than the one she played in the great hall. And I knew there was something more important about her, something different that sets her apart from the other decoys. This particular woman definitely has some kind of power around here; she wears it in the way she walks, the way her dark eyes pass over the guests as if they’re her prey—she wears power and confidence like a coat, and that is reason enough for her to be my prime suspect. When the voices of the guests fade and Valentina has everyone’s full attention, she speaks into the microphone. “Good evening. As always we are delighted to have you join us for the weekly showing; and as always, we have quite a collection for you to bid on tonight—we think you’ll be thoroughly pleased.” Thankfully she’s speaking English; there may be a diverse group of buyers here from many different countries, but English is one the most vital languages in the world to learn, especially for those who want to thrive in business and academia—this is where I actually envy my backstabbing brother: he’s fluent in many languages, and took to learning them like a shark learning to swim; I was never so good at that shit. “To those of you who have been here before, please keep in mind the rules. To those of you who are new”—Valentina looks right at me, first and foremost, and then at a few other guests—“the rules are as follows.” She places both hands on the sides of the glass podium; there’s nothing on top of it that she’d be reading from because she knows the rules by heart. “You do not have permission to approach the merchandise for further inspection unless you are willing to pay for it. All of you will be able to see the merchandise undressed from where you are, but to get a closer look, you must raise your red paddle, which is your way of agreeing to the examination price—you bid only with the black paddle. Secondly,” she goes on, “you are not to speak directly to the merchandise; if you would like it to stand a certain way, to bend, or to speak so you may hear the voice, you request it of the seller and he or she will give the order. The same goes for touching: you are not to touch, skin on skin, what you do not own. If you require a more thorough examination of the merchandise, latex gloves will be provided, but that too must be paid for. Lastly, your opinion of the merchandise is just that: your opinion. You are not permitted to speak to other buyers about any conclusions, positive or negative, you have drawn after closer examination”— Valentina glances at me once more; she must’ve been informed of my little show with Trevor Chamberlain and the left-handed servant girl—“If other buyers want to know more about the merchandise, they must pay the examination price as well—not be given complimentary information —so that they may draw their own conclusions.” She looks at me again. I smile vaguely. “And as always”—Valentina looks back out at the crowd—“if you have any questions about the merchandise, please raise your hand—not your paddles; you raise a paddle and you pay; accidents must always be met with punishment, ladies and gentlemen.” A low wave of laughter moves through the crowd. “With that said,” she adds, “let us begin.” A flurry of whispering voices and the shuffling of bodies against the seats spills out over the vast space as each buyer reaches underneath their chairs to retrieve two paddles, one red one black,


affixed to the underside. I do the same once I realize that’s what they’re doing. Valentina remains standing at the podium in all her mysterious grace, looking out at the crowd, waiting for everyone to get situated. She’s dressed in a pinkish-gold dress—like a conch seashell— that hangs to the top of her knees, decorated in strips of cream-colored lace; thin straps hang about her shoulders; mile-long tanned legs; eyes painted dark; lips the color of a pink rose. She doesn’t look at me again, which intrigues me. I can’t tell if the bitch has an interest in me and she’s playing hard to get, or if all of her surreptitious glances are just her keeping her suspicious eye on a potential rival— I’m beginning to think it’s more the latter. But where the hell is the so-called Francesca Moretti? Just as that thought enters my head, she walks out onto the stage escorted by my favorite cocksucker, Emilio. And behind them, Miz Ghita comes out with two servant girls: the left-handed one named Bianca, and another dark-haired girl with striking similarities, clearly two of Francesca’s favorite pets. Three men in suits and bowties come out afterward, each carrying a chair, and place them side by side behind and to the right of Valentina at the podium. The men leave as ‘Francesca’, Emilio and Miz Ghita sit down; the servant girls remain standing next to Miz Ghita, their hands folded down in front of them, their eyes lowered. Valentina prepares to speak again, licking the dryness from her lips, swallowing, looking out into the crowd of onlookers. Then from behind, a man walks out onto the stage, dressed in a suit and tie; his hair is blond, short, neat, and he’s young, in his middle twenties maybe—he kind of reminds me of Dorian Flynn, minus the impish smiles, wisecracking mouth, and sexually whipped personality of a man in love. Nah, this guy has probably never smiled in his fucking life; has more important things to do than to act a fool like Dorian; and as far as being in love, or being ‘sexually whipped’— he knows how that feels about as much as a wealthy man knows what it’s like to live on the streets, eating out of dumpsters. This particular man is a master, as will be all of the escorts who bring out the ‘merchandise’ onto the stage. And the young blond-haired girl walking in front of him has probably spent the last several months of her life being trained for this very moment. She could’ve been fresh out of high school; a college girl just starting out, working as a waitress somewhere; or maybe even still in high school when she was abducted. She’s still young; can’t be older than nineteen. I wonder how long it took for him to break her. “Our first piece up for bid tonight,” Valentina announces, speaking into the microphone, “is a Class B girl from France”—(Class B, denotes non-virgin; nineteen years of age or younger)—“She was fully trained and obedient in under three months; is fluent in French and English; she can play the violin, and has a pleasant singing voice. Yes, what is your question?” Valentina points at Trevor Chamberlain sitting two seats down from me. “Does the girl have any freckles on her chest area?” Trevor speaks up, his smooth voice rolling over the audience as if he were also speaking into a mic. Valentina looks to the girl’s master. The master, with his hands clasped behind his back, answers clearly, confidently, “There are six freckles on her chest area, light in color.” He gently grasps the hem of her little white dress and pulls it over her head, afterward dropping it on the floor. The girl stands naked in front of the crowd, her slender arms down at her sides; she doesn’t tremble; nothing about her posture suggests that’s she’s tense or afraid or angry—she’s whatever her master wants her to be, inside and out. The master points out each freckle; I can see a few darker freckles on her arms, but the master


is smart not to draw attention to anything that’s not in question. I glance over at Trevor Chamberlain—he likes the girl; freckles on the chest must be something he has a particular fondness for. Trevor raises his hand again, almost eagerly. Valentina nods, giving him the go-ahead. “Being fluent in two languages,” he begins, “as well as playing an instrument suggests that the girl might’ve come from a wealthy family—is she still being searched for?” His question translates: I’m not interested in buying a girl whose family has enough means and wealth to eventually find her. “You are correct,” the master says, “the girl was from a wealthy French family, but I can assure you no one is looking for her; she will be a fully secure purchase.” “But how can you be so sure?” Trevor asks, this time without raising his hand; Valentina doesn’t seem overly annoyed by this, but she does make note of it. “Because it was her family who sold her to me,” the master says. Interesting—a family that doesn’t need money because they’re already wealthy, yet they sell one of their own to a slave master? Interesting, but not unbelievable. And strangely enough, not uncommon. This is a fucked up world, after all. Trevor has no other questions. I glance at Izabel sitting next to me, and she’s as unaffected as she was when she walked in here: she watches and listens quietly; her expression is calm and composed, not so much as a frown readable on her face—but it’s only a matter of time. A few more questions come from other buyers in the crowd, and then one buyer raises his red paddle so that he can go onto the stage and examine the girl further. The girl never flinches. Neither does Izabel. And when the price is paid for the buyer to touch the girl, and he stretches a pair of latex gloves over his hands, still, neither the girl nor Izabel show any signs of discomfort. Not even when the girl is bent over and forced to put her head between her legs and grasp her ankles. And lastly, when the potential buyer puts his covered fingers inside the girl to feel how tight she is, she and Izabel remain unaffected. I still say it’s only a matter of time, Izzy. Two buyers—Trevor Chamberlain is not one of them—bid back and forth until one purchases her for half a million dollars. Shit, I can’t imagine how much a virgin will fetch in this place. Finally after forty-five minutes and six Class B girls—and one guy—later, a Class A is brought out onto the stage. Class A denotes a virgin and can be any age, but usually they’re under twenty years. I’m fucking relieved, and kind of surprised, that there have been no underage girls or boys here. This particular girl, with waist-length strawberry-blond hair, pale pink skin with hundreds of freckles, can’t be older than twenty. She, like every other broken soul brought out before her, stands naked, obediently and beautifully in front of the vultures waiting to pick her apart. “What work has the virgin had done?” one buyer asks from the crowd. “Dental was provided,” the master answers. “All of her teeth have been replaced with implants. She has also had her birthmark removed.” The master points out the area on her hip where the birthmark had once been. I glance over at Izabel sitting unchanged next to me—maybe I didn’t give her enough credit. Nah, there’s still plenty she has yet to see.


Izabel

What does this mean? Why am I not fuming beneath the surface? How can it be that I can sit here on this chair and watch these helpless girls—oh, and that one poor guy—be prodded and gawked at, treated like cattle at an auction, and not want to fly out of this chair and kill all of these fucking people? It’s not because I don’t care, or that I’m like these evil pieces of shit. Jesus—can a person be so desensitized to something that it no longer affects them at all? I believed in myself enough to know that I could at least get through the mission without blowing our cover—I know I can pull that off no matter what Niklas thinks—but I didn’t expect for a second that I’d be this calm underneath. But I haven’t seen everything yet, I’m sure. No…I haven’t seen everything yet.

Nora

I’m going out of my fucking mind; can’t raise my head, can’t speak. This is extraordinarily boring; I forgot just how mind-numbing a role like this can be at times. I can’t believe I ever looked forward to it. But I’m a professional; even more-so than Niklas and Izabel with their ridiculous bickering— they should just fuck and get it over with already—and I won’t break character, despite how badly I want to point out the real Francesca Moretti to Niklas and get this show on the road. Because I know who she is. I’ve known from the moment we walked into this place. And she’s as good at playing her role as I am—oh, she’s good all right.


Niklas

Trevor Chamberlain buys the virgin for one-and-a-half million dollars. That’s a lot of money, and it would seem like Mr. Chamberlain would be the man of the hour, getting all of the attention from the Moretti family on the stage, but they appear more interested in me. It’s been over an hour and the showing is coming to a close; there’s nothing else to bid on, and I didn’t raise a paddle or a hand once. They want to know why, I’m sure. Because it was clear they made every effort to point out— subtly, of course, so no one but me knew what they were doing—the flaws of each girl who walked out on stage: the brown-haired German girl with a scar on her knee; another brown-haired girl from France with a strange birthmark left in-tact in the center of her back; there was a brown-haired American girl who had thin lips—all of these things were made aware to me so that I could bid on them, or pay to get a closer look, but I did neither. “The Madam will see you now,” Miz Ghita says after descending the steps of the stage in front of me. The fake Francesca and Emilio Moretti leave through the exit on the stage, taking the two servant girls with them. Valentina Moretti stays behind to say goodbye to the guests, flanked by servant girls of her own. “Nothing you saw suited your needs?” Miz Ghita inquires; her voice is laced with tamed censure. With my briefcase in-hand, I walk alongside her down another brightly lit hallway; Izabel and Nora follow behind us. “The girls were stunning,” I say. “But none of them had what I was looking for, unfortunately.” “And what exactly is it that you’re looking for, Mr. Augustin?” I glance over at her. “I’ll talk about that with the Madam.” Miz Ghita’s aging face sours, but she doesn’t respond. In under a minute later, we’re entering an enormous room that looks like three offices in one. Books line the tall walls from floor to ceiling, surrounding a massive desk with an arc-shaped window situated behind it. A matching leather sofa and loveseat and oversized chair is placed strategically out ahead of the desk; expensive Italian rugs cover the marble floor underneath the furniture, giving some red and brown and blue color to the otherwise blinding white floors. “Have a seat.” Miz Ghita gestures toward the furniture. I sit in the oversized chair; Izabel sits next to me; Nora on the floor at my feet with my briefcase. Miz Ghita leaves the room. Knowing there are cameras and equipment watching and recording our every move and sound, I use the time alone to make our act even more believable. I reach down and grab a fistful of Nora’s hair in my hand, jerking her head back forcefully on her neck—it’s the first time since her little


‘accident’ in the great hall that Niklas Augustin has really had the opportunity to scold her in private for what she did. “You’ve embarrassed me, Aya,” I tell her, literally breathing down her neck. “And I don’t like to be embarrassed.” I pull on her hair harder; her brown eyes look up at me with regret and apology —fake, but believable. I grind my jaw and lean in closer, my mouth mere inches from hers. “If I didn’t have important business with these people, I’d ask to use one of their rooms and I’d take the fucking time to punish you here. But when we get back to the hotel—don’t look away from my eyes, girl”—I wrench her hair so hard the corners of her eyes stretch—“when we get back to the hotel, you’re to remove your clothes immediately, stand in the room and wait for me to get out of the shower. Is that understood?” “Yes, Master,” comes her small voice. I hear people entering the room from behind me, but I hold onto Nora’s hair a moment longer, glaring into her eyes, not thinking about any of this shit with Moretti or Olivia Bram, but instead about that night Nora sat across the table from me, when I relived the worst moment of my life: Claire’s death. I’ve hated this bitch since that night. I didn’t hate her before, when she clocked me in the face in the auditorium; I didn’t even hate her when I first sat down at the table with her when it was my turn to confess—honestly, the bitch gave me one helluva hard-on. She had the whole fucking show and quite frankly I was impressed with her. But then she had to succeed in getting under my skin; she had to go and break the seal on my emotions—she made me crack; she made me want to crack, and that pisses me off almost more than anything. The only thing worse is that she altered my relationship with my brother; she pulled the veil from my goddamn eyes and changed everything—and for that I’ll never forgive her. I would’ve rather gone on living the lie, believing that Victor had never and would never betray me. Because he’s the only family I got, the only family I’ve ever had since my mother was murdered. And now I have no one; no one I can trust. And Nora will pay for what she did. One way or another she’ll pay. Releasing her hair harshly, Nora’s head sways on her neck for a brief second before she gains control of it, and then she looks at the floor. I stand to properly acknowledge ‘Francesca’ entering the room, as always with her escorts, Emilio, and two of her favorite servant girls. I glance at the entrance, waiting for Valentina to come walking in behind them, but am surprised to see another one of the decoys, instead. Miz Ghita enters afterward, closing the double doors behind her. The nameless decoy sits down on the loveseat, says nothing, and no one feels any need to introduce her. She looks at me, a faint but noticeable smile at her lips. She crosses her long legs, straightens her back and drapes her dainty hands over the top of her knee. I offer her a slow nod, in which she returns, and then I look away. Emilio takes a seat on the sofa directly across from me; his cold dark gaze never falters; he rests his back comfortably against the sofa, props his right leg on his left knee at the ankle, revealing black dress socks between the hem of his pants and the shiny black of his dress shoes. His fingers interlock casually over his stomach. I turn to the fake Francesca as she’s making her way around the desk. “I prefer to do business only with you,” I tell her. “We’re sure you do,” Emilio says icily, and with an expression to match, “but the Madam isn’t going to be left alone in a room with you, Mr. Augustin.” He gestures a hand, palm up, at the fake Francesca. “There she is—take it or leave it.”


I lick the dryness from my lips slowly; I may have to change things up a bit, reveal parts of Mr. Augustin in front of these people that I’ve been reserving for Francesca, just to get my time alone with her. The fake Francesca takes a seat in the leather rolling chair behind the desk. “I can assure you,” she says, “that my brother will not interfere in our business transaction.” She looks over at Emilio and adds without taking her eyes off him, “If he does, I’ll deal with him personally.” She smiles at me and says, “He does have a tendency to be a bastard; hasn’t learned yet when it’s best not to be himself.” Wow, you’re really treading dangerous waters playing your role, Whoever You Are—Emilio seethes beneath the surface; his eyes wide, his hard-pressed mouth tightening, his interlocked fingers practically turning purple on his lap. And I can’t tell if the fake Francesca is enjoying the opportunity to ruffle Emilio’s feathers, or if she’s worried about what he might do to her later to get her back, because she seems to be playing her role as flawlessly now as any one of us. I smile faintly at Emilio, just for good measure, and of course he wants to kill me for it. “Bianca,” the fake Francesca says to the left-handed servant girl, “be a good girl and offer our guests a drink.” Bianca bows her head and then steps away from the other servant, moving toward the bar on the far side of the room to do as she was told. Miz Ghita finally sits down on the loveseat to join the rest of us. “So, Mr. Augustin,” the fake Francesca begins, “why don’t we start with the particulars of the kind of girl you’re looking to purchase? I must say, we were all a bit surprised that you saw nothing you liked in the showing.” She glances briefly at Izabel and Nora. “We’re just having a difficult time understanding your preferences.” Someone like Francesca Moretti would never say ‘we’ when referring to her business or her guests; she would never have to scold her brother in front of guests because her brother would never give her reason to; the real Francesca Moretti would not only insist she deal with me privately, but she’d demand it, because she wouldn’t fear me. And Emilio would never look at the real Francesca the way he has looked at the fake one twice tonight, as if he were imagining his hands around her throat—it’s kind of disappointing that this feared family is so utterly fucking stupid when it comes to trying to hide the identity of their leader. I couldn’t be one hundred percent sure before, but now I know exactly who the real Francesca is. “Actually,” Emilio cuts in, pointing upward, “before we go any further, I think Mr. Augustin should prove he is who he says he is.” He looks right at me, challenging me. “I thought that had already been established,” I say, giving all of my attention to the fake Francesca just to spite Emilio more. “You’ve done your background check on my name, my business; you’ve made your phone calls; looked into my earnings and tax information I know for the past ten years at least—what more is there to prove?” “Anyone with the means,” Emilio says, “can make up an identity as secure as yours appears to be—but that doesn’t mean shit.” Funny how the most irritating one of the Moretti bunch also seems to be the smartest. Except for the real Francesca, who I believe will be the one of them all who’ll inevitably make my role a lot harder to play. “You could be a police officer,” Emilio accuses. He pauses and adds, “Or an undercover agent from any number of organizations searching for a missing person who your client believes we’re in possession of—that is why you’re looking for a particular girl, is it not?” You’re really onto something, Emilio, and I give you credit for being too close to the truth for


your own good, but I’m sorry it’s not gonna work out for you tonight. I smile and reach for a glass of whiskey from the tray offered by the servant girl. She offers Izabel the same. “No thank you,” Izabel declines. The servant moves across the short space toward Miz Ghita and the nameless decoy on the loveseat, offering them a drink; only the nameless decoy takes a glass; she brings it to her painted lips and watches me over the rim as she takes a small sip. “That’s an interesting observation, Mr. Moretti,” I say casually, take a sip and then add, “but if you really did your research on me—and I’m sure that you did—then you’d know about my brush with American law ten years ago when I was among five other buyers busted in a sex-slave raid in Los Angeles.” I set the glass on the table beside me. “Busted,” Emilio points out, “but later released from prison—undercover agents always get busted with the real criminals and then are later released.” He thinks he has me. The servant girl goes over to Emilio next; he looks up at her, nods, and takes a glass from the tray, and then she moves toward the fake Francesca sitting behind the desk. “Yes,” I say with another confident smile, “but I was busted with my cock inside one of the girls on sale that night—come on now, Emilio, you and I both know that if I was undercover, and I wasn’t one of the criminals, I never would’ve gone as far in the role as to actually fuck the merchandise. Cops, agents, they’ll go as far as harming themselves undercover; snorting shit up their noses, pumping their veins full of drugs, even takin’ a beating, but they won’t hurt or violate anyone innocent.” Emilio bites down on the inside of his mouth. I smile a little more—I like fucking with this guy; have to admit he’s put a little sunshine in my bad mood as of late. “Well let’s just see you prove it,” Emilio states, drinks back all the whiskey from his glass and then slams it down on the table beside him. Raising his back from the sofa, he leans forward and props his elbows on the top of his legs, interlocking his fingers between them. He looks at Nora first, but then his dark eyes fall on Izabel, and I don’t like what he’s thinking—don’t need to be able to read minds to get a general idea of what’s going on inside his head. He turns his attention to the second servant girl who has been standing in the room quietly, waiting to be given any number of orders. “Come here, girl,” Emilio tells her with the gesture of his fingers, curling them toward him. The girl walks over to Emilio without hesitation. “Emilio, I do not think that is—” Miz Ghita says but is cut off; Emilio’s hand shoots up, quieting her. “Not now, Mother,” he snaps, but never takes his hooded eyes off me. “If the rest of you were doing your job, I wouldn’t have to do it for you.” He looks up at the girl. “Take off your dress.” The girl takes off her dress and stands naked before him; creamy light brown skin; soft, supple, with a slender waist and curvy hips; dark hair tumbles down the center of her back. “Your turn,” he says to me and his eyes fall on Izabel. I don’t like where this is going. “Naomi is off limits,” I tell Emilio. “I don’t care what you’re trying to prove, but it won’t be with her.” Without looking at Nora I tell her, “Aya, stand and take off your dress.” Nora stands without hesitation and removes her dress.


Miz Ghita and the fake Francesca make a strange breathy noise that sounds like a suppressed gasp when Nora’s heavily scarred back is revealed—the nameless decoy remains undisturbed. Streaks of raw skin, pink and gray and ropy, crisscross her back in a pattern of chaos and brutality, from the top of her shoulders to the top of her ass. Some scars—put there by Fredrik Gustavsson—are still fresh, not yet smooth but are rigid and scabbed with areas red, inflamed. And just like Nora’s missing pinky finger, this too will work to my advantage, otherwise I never would’ve agreed to bring Nora on this mission. She’s too physically damaged to be considered suitable property; especially the kind of property a master would take with him to social gatherings. Seems even Emilio is taken aback by Nora’s appearance; he gawks at her, even looks a bit aghast. And Bianca, the left-handed servant girl, can’t help but look right at Nora, though thankfully for her I’m the only one in the room who seems to notice her disobedience. The Moretti family may have both feet planted firmly in the sex slave trade, but they, like many high-class sellers—even the masters—would never beat a girl as severely as Nora clearly has been beaten. Her scars are vibrant evidence of torture, and torture is not the same thing as punishment. A master can’t sell a girl who looks like Nora—except to a sick bastard like Niklas Augustin. And this is where I will undoubtedly gain the interest of the real Francesca and finally get her alone. Because the notorious Madam Francesca Moretti, I believe, is just like Niklas Augustin. At least I fucking hope so, because what I’m about to do next will either secure my private meeting, or get me tossed out of this place on my ass. After a long moment with no one saying anything, I look to Emilio and say casually, “You were saying, Mr. Moretti?” I cock my head gently to one side. He pauses, looks at Nora’s back, then looks at me again. “Some of those wounds are new,” he points out the obvious. I nod. Emilio’s eyes dart from one person to the next. “Oh, don’t tell me,” I say, “you’ve never had to beat one of your girls almost to the brink of death, Mr. Moretti.” My gaze is calm and collected, sadistic. Emilio rests his back against the sofa again, straightens his suit jacket, props his right ankle atop the left knee. “I haven’t personally, no,” he answers. “I like my girls…unblemished, Mr. Augustin.” Maybe you do, Emilio, but your big bad murderous sister, I think takes pleasure in beating girls to the edges of their lives. Miz Ghita stands from the leather loveseat. “Mr. Augustin,” she says, rounding her chin, “I’ve already had a discussion with you about how—” “Yes, I remember,” I cut in without looking at her, “you told me Madam Francesca won’t do business with someone who disfigures a piece she has spent far too much money, time and resources molding to perfection—your warning remains perfectly clear in my memory.” Finally I look right at Miz Ghita, and add with uncompromising eyes, “But I’m not looking to buy a piece, as I’ve told you; I’m in the market to buy a cyprian.” “Well just the same—“ “No,” I interrupt again, displaying for the real Francesca the one of us—me or her mother— who’s in control here. “I’m confident that Madam Francesca will do business with me, no matter what I intend to do with my property after I’ve paid for it.” My gaze roves about the room, drinking in almost every set of eyes. I reach into my suit jacket pocket and pull out a pack of cigarettes, pop one


between my lips and light it. And while Miz Ghita stares at me, appalled by my rude, disgusting gesture, I continue with the upper-hand, puffing happily on my cigarette. “But spare me the selfrighteous spiel about how the Madam cares about the safety and health of her cyprians, or the pieces she sells in her showings—I’m not here to report her to some fucking underground Health Board, or write her establishment up on code violations. I don’t give a shit about the way Madam Francesca chooses to treat her slaves—I don’t give two fucks if she kills them, slowly, or if she feeds the leftovers to her dogs. I’m here, as I’ve said before, to do business with the Madam, and only the Madam.” Silence falls over the room like a stifling blanket. I take a long drag from my cigarette and then drop it in my whiskey glass.


Niklas

“Now,” I say to a snarling Emilio, “I’d like to get this business meeting underway, unless…you have anything else you’d like to add to further waste my and Madam Francesca’s time?” I motion my hand toward Nora and the other naked servant girl. “Shall we move this along?” Without moving his head, Emilio looks to the fake Francesca. She nods at him, and then he turns back to me. Seconds later, he’s breaking apart the button on his dress pants. Ah, OK so he wants to play dirty—literally. Too bad for Nora. “I take it,” Emilio says, provoking me, sliding down his zipper, “you’re not the modest type.” His cock is in his hand, I can tell without having to look directly at it. I start to break apart the button on my dress pants, go as far as fitting my fingers around it, but then I stop. I look around the room at each and every person slowly, and then find Emilio’s eyes again. “No,” I answer, “I’m not the modest type—but I have to warn you”—I look at his cock inquisitively, purse my mouth on one side and raise a brow, then look back up at his darkening expression—“you might regret it afterward.” His face tightens and his Adam’s apple bounces in his throat. I leave my cock in my pants and say, “But you’re not the one in this room I need to prove myself to. When I have Francesca Moretti’s full attention, when she and I are standing face to face, only then, and only for her will I play these fucking games to prove I am who I say I am.” Emilio and Miz Ghita simultaneously look over at the fake Francesca sitting behind the desk —the nameless decoy still doesn’t take her eyes off me. The fake Francesca’s dainty shoulders rise and fall with a heavy breath. She stands from the chair and walks around the desk toward me. I remain seated as she approaches—a sign of disrespect that doesn’t go unnoticed. “Aren’t you going to stand, Mr. Augustin,” Miz Ghita says from the loveseat, “so you can be face to face with the Madam?” I smile darkly. “I will when the real Madam is the one standing in front of me.” Three pairs of eyes—Emilio, Miz Ghita and the fake Francesca—bounce to and from one another in a nervous, stunned motion. The fake Francesca tries to regain control of the moment; she tosses her head back elegantly and says with light laughter, “What an absurd accusation. You come here to my home, drink my whiskey, take up space in one of my showings by not bidding on anything, and I still agree to meet with you afterward, and now you call me an imposter?” She snarls and twirls her hand in front of her at the wrist. “I think your time is up here, Mr. Augustin. Mother, show him and his…companions to the door.” She starts to walk away, but stops when I say, “I’ll only leave if the real Francesca tells me


to.” Emilio stands up, tucks himself back inside his pants, and moves toward me. “It’s time you leave,” he insists, looking me in the eyes, unblinking, daring me to piss him off, which I hope I fucking do. “Madam Francesca,” I call out, “if you want me to leave, all you have to do is say so and I’ll go quietly.” Miz Ghita comes toward me now; her long black dress swishing about her hurried legs. “You have worn out your welcome, Mr. Augustin,” she says with acid in her voice. Then she points at the fake Francesca standing beside Emilio. “You’ve disrespected the Madam, and that will not be tolerated.” “Oh, but I haven’t disrespected the Madam,” I correct her smugly. “In fact, I’ve hardly said a single word to her since I stepped into this mansion.” I walk slowly away and begin to pace the floor, moving around Nora’s naked body, my hands clasped behind me, resting on my backside. “There is only one person in this room who can be the real Francesca Moretti, and although I have to say you did a decent job concealing her identity with all of the lookalikes running around”—I stop pacing and motion to the fake Francesca, afterwards the nameless decoy—“but the truth is that Francesca Moretti is far too beautiful to resemble any of them.” Both of the decoys’ mouths tighten; their faces rife with insult, staring me down, but saying nothing. “Then tell us,” Miz Ghita challenges, “since you think you’re so smart, who in this room are you implying?” Both sides of my mouth turn up slightly; I bring my hands around from my backside and fold them down in front of me. My eyes slowly sweep the room, and at last fall on the left-handed servant girl they call Bianca. “She is the real Francesca Moretti,” I announce, locking eyes with the so-called favorite slave —she does the same to me, further proving that I’m right. “She has been with either you, Miz Ghita, or the fake Francesca since I arrived; she was the first and only servant girl to approach me in the great hall to serve me wine; she has been in earshot of just about every conversation I’ve had, allowing her to study me; and when she served Emilio a glass of whiskey just moments ago he actually looked her in the eyes and nodded as if to thank her—he wouldn’t have spared the effort if she were a mere slave girl.” Emilio, realizing his error, inhales deeply and glances at the floor. “And when Aya’s scars were put on display,” I continue, “Bianca raised her eyes, afraid of no one in this room reprimanding her for it, just to take in what the rest of us were seeing.” I pause and smile, and then look only at the real Francesca, undoubtedly—almost—the most beautiful woman in this room: dressed like a slave; no makeup; perfect in every way with flowing dark chocolate hair that falls past her waist; creamy skin the color of light caramel; bewitching brown eyes that are black in the right light; and full lips that are plump and shaped like a Cupid’s bow. I grin, looking her over. “You and I, Miz Moretti,” I go on, staring into Francesca’s eyes, and I feel them drinking me in, “have a lot in common, and I trust that you’ll find our…business relationship”—I pause, smile faintly—“to be, shall I say, more than just…lucrative.” “Get him out of here,” I hear Miz Ghita bark from behind, and then four men in suits rush quickly into the room, guns raised at me. Francesca Moretti, formerly known as Bianca, raises her left hand in front of her and without saying a word the men stop cold in their tracks, shrinking backward a few steps with their tails


between their legs. Emilio doesn’t move or speak; he continues to look at the floor—is that fear crippling Francesca’s brother? Yeah, that’s definitely fear, unbecoming of someone like Emilio. In fact, he’s not the only person in the room who reeks of it: Miz Ghita stands with her chin held high, but her aged hands are shaking inconspicuously down at her sides; the nameless decoy sits quietly on the loveseat, body hunched over, hands tucked between her knees—not the same strong woman who walked in here earlier; the servant girl, standing naked in the center of the room the entire time seemingly without breathing, her shoulders rise and fall more rapidly as though she’s trying to quell an anxiety attack; and the fake Francesca—well, she looks like she’s about to piss herself. I wasn’t entirely sure before, but now, judging by most of the faces in the room, it is without a doubt that every single one of them are terrified of Francesca Moretti: the bitter mother, the devoted brother—though to a lesser degree for some reason; the decoys who I believe are Francesca’s and Emilio’s sisters or cousins. None of them are innocent by any means, they’re just as guilty of buying and selling and a variety of cruel punishments they dish out to the slaves, but none of them are as vicious and murderous as I believe Francesca Moretti to be.

Izabel

Is it just me, or are these people afraid to breathe? Wow…OK, I didn’t expect this. At all. I thought for sure the lookalike sitting on the loveseat was the real Francesca. Earlier at the showing, I was convinced it was Valentina. But I never would’ve imagined it was her. I want to look over at Nora just to see if there’s anything on her face, but…even I’m a little afraid to move, or draw attention to myself. I knew going into this that Francesca Moretti was an evil bitch, but there’s more to this than I imagined, there’s so much more to her—she sets my teeth on edge and she hasn’t even spoken yet. I wonder what Nora’s thinking.

Nora

Now we’re getting somewhere! Oh God, I was starting to go out of my mind playing this pathetic obedient doormat. But now things are looking up. And it’s about damn time Niklas called her out. I’m just glad he picked the right woman. I was beginning to wonder. Now I only wonder if Niklas and Izabel know what they’ve gotten themselves into. That woman may look frail in that pretty little slave dress; her unpainted features may appear gentle and flawless and kind even, but she’s anything but kind—a demon lives underneath that flesh. I’ve seen people like her, faced and killed people like her, and they excite me; they make my job that much


more interesting, more dangerous, and I live for these types of jobs. Well…in a different role, of course.

Niklas

Francesca slowly lowers her arm back at her side. Quietly she takes a few steps forward—Emilio, the fake Francesca and Miz Ghita move backward to clear her way, and undoubtedly to stay out of arm’s reach. The four men with guns bow low at the waist and hold the position. I stay right where I’m at, bold and undaunted in her authoritarian presence. Neither Augustin nor Fleischer would lower himself to that shit; I don’t care if she’s a murderous nutcase—but I have to keep playing the Augustin role, pretending she and I are one in the same: two sadistic peas in a pod. Francesca looks right at me; she never blinks; she’s so fucking calm and calculated that I find myself stumbling through my thoughts, but I easily retain confidence and power on my face. “You intrigue me, Mr. Augustin.” Her voice is red wine laced with arsenic; her dark eyes are endless pools of malevolence and beauty—you want to look away, but you can’t. “Call me Niklas,” I say smoothly; I reach out and take her hand, bending to kiss the top of it. “It would please me, Niklas, to have a private meeting with you.” She turns only her head to look at the fake Francesca and she says, “Give me your dress, Bianca.” “Yes, Sister,” the one whose name is actually Bianca says. Bianca scurries over to Francesca quickly, strips off her cream-white lacy dress and rests it over her forearm until Francesca is ready to take it from her. She waits, naked, with only a string of pearls around her neck, dipping between her tits. Francesca hasn’t for a second taken her eyes off me. She clasps her fingers around the hem of her servant’s dress and lifts the fabric over her head, dropping it on the floor afterward. Francesca is without a doubt, unlike any woman I’ve ever seen. Maybe it’s the power she possesses, I don’t know, but she’s goddamn beautiful. It’s just too bad she’s likely a homicidal waste of air who needs to be put down.


Niklas

After sliding the dress over her naked form, Francesca says, “I want everyone to leave except for Niklas and his girls.” “But Francesca—” Miz Ghita tries to say, stepping up. “I said leave.” “Very well.” Miz Ghita turns on her heels. As she and the nameless decoy make their way out behind the four gunmen, the real Bianca starts to follow with the servant girl behind her. Emilio steps in front of Bianca and speaks angrily to her in Italian. I may not be able to understand the language, but I don’t need to to gather they’re arguing about Bianca humiliating Emilio in her role. Then Bianca hits the floor—Emilio’s hand had shot out so fast I hardly saw it before it made contact with the side of her face. Sitting on the floor with her legs bent beneath her, Bianca holds a hand over her cheek; there’s murder in her eyes. Bianca scrambles to get to her feet, her tits bouncing all over the place, and she rushes Emilio from behind. He turns at the last moment and stops her cold, his hand wrapped about her throat. “Dear Brother,” Francesca calls out, and Emilio turns around to face her. “Prepare my room.” Emilio shoves Bianca backward, releasing her. Bianca leaves shortly afterward, naked and wearing only a pearl necklace and a pair of high heels. The sound of the doors closing behind her echoes throughout the spacious room. “Before we go any further,” Francesca says; her cold eyes sweep over Izabel, “there is a bit of a problem that will be remedied, or there will be no meeting.” “What problem?” I ask. Francesca slithers over to the desk and opens one of the drawers. No sound is heard as she moves her hand through its contents and then retrieves a long silver knife. She moves toward Izabel. Oh shit… I look between Francesca and Izabel, having no idea of Francesca’s intentions, but I know they’re dark and I know they have everything to do with Izabel and it makes me fucking nervous. Instinctively I move—calmly, not in a rush—toward them and take Izabel by the arm, pulling her from the chair. Izzy stands immediately even without my help; she keeps her hands linked together down in front of her. I expect to be able to feel her heart hammering through the vein in her arm, but I don’t. Francesca stands in front of Izabel. “Look at me, girl,” she commands. Izabel does. “But Madam, I’m not a slave,” she says in a soft, timid voice. Francesca grabs Izabel’s chin in her free hand and turns her head left and right, at an angle,


side to side, up and down, inspecting her—and no doubt testing her, testing me. “I can see why she’s your favorite,” Francesca says, looking at me briefly. “She is very beautiful, despite the scar on her stomach.” She glances in Nora’s direction, but never actually looks at her. “The blond is also stunning, but the scars and the missing finger are too much.” I guess that means she doesn’t feel inadequate next to Nora because of Nora’s many ‘imperfections’—but what does that mean for Izzy? Francesca already knows I have a soft spot for ‘Naomi’, but I think she wants to know just how soft; how far I’m willing to let her go. If too far, Izzy could be in trouble, but if not far enough I’ll look weak, pussy whipped like Dorian Flynn, and that’s the same as licking the shit from Francesca’s boots, and she’ll lose any respect for me she might have. “Niklas,” Izabel says, her face still wrenched in Francesca’s hand, “I’m afraid.” You’re also a good liar. A flash of silver sends panic through me as Francesca raises the knife. “What are you doing?” I demand; my arm is suddenly between Francesca and Izabel. “I don’t care who you are; I won’t allow you to disfigure my property—that’s my privilege.” Francesca smiles, and although it feels slippery and dangerous, I hold my fixed expression on her, and my arm in front of her, daring her to hurt Izabel. I start to reach for my gun until I remember I had to check it in at the door. “Niklas…please,” Izabel cries softly. “I will not break skin,” Francesca promises, still with that slippery smile. “It’s only temporary, I assure you.” Reluctantly I lower my arm and rest it back at my side. I look at Izabel, softening my eyes on her, my way of telling Naomi that everything will be OK, and then look back at Francesca. I nod, giving her the go-ahead, and hoping like hell I don’t regret it. Francesca’s grinning eyes fall away from me and she grabs Izzy’s hair and starts cutting; the sharp shearing sound of metal on hair, hacking away chunks of Izabel’s auburn locks. In seconds the floor is covered in dark red hair, scattered in heaps around Izzy’s feet atop the Italian rug. I look up at her, taking in the sight of her botched haircut as unevenly as a five-year-old with a pair of scissors. At least it wasn’t cut too short near the scalp anywhere that Izzy would have to shave the rest off later. Strangely, Izabel looks relieved—better hair than flesh. “Now go sit down,” Francesca tells her and moves back toward the desk. With her head lowered in shame, Izabel maintains her scared act and walks back to the oversized chair. “I have never heard of you…Niklas,” Francesca says, sashaying her hips as she walks toward Nora slowly, knife in hand. “And I must tell you, that even though your story checks out and I have found nothing on you to indicate you’re not who you claim to be, I am still not convinced.” She stops feet from Nora and turns to look back at me. “Surely you understand my…hesitations.” “I understand more than you know.” I walk toward her. “And if you weren’t so…thorough, Miz Moretti—” “Francesca.” “Francesca,” I say with a slow nod. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing business with you at all.” “Is that why you chose to come to me rather than”—she gestures her fingers outward in a dismissing fashion; her nose is wrinkled on one side with contempt—“that incompetent woman who does not know the first thing about this business?” “Madam Carlotta?” I smile, to further hit a nerve.


“Tell me, Niklas,” she begins, perturbed, “why did you choose to come here? The truth, of course.” She glances at a naked and heavily scarred Nora briefly and then turns back to me. “The better question would be how you knew I was more than a Madam? I will pay you for the name or names of those who”—she drags the blunt edge of the blade across the top of her hand—“spoke without thinking.” I edge my way closer, maintaining my composed performance so she doesn’t feel like I’m worried about Nora the way I was with Izabel. I’m not really—I know Nora can handle herself, though I hope it doesn’t come to that. “No one told me anything.” I stop two feet to her left and slide my hands into my pants pockets casually. “At least nothing about your on-the-side business in the sex trade. I figured that out on my own.” “And how did you do that, exactly?” I smile, close-lipped. “Are we really here to talk about how resourceful I can be, or shouldn’t we get on with why I came?” After a few silent seconds Francesca moves the rest of the way over to Nora, circling her in slow, small steps, knife still in her left hand. “No, Mr. Augustin—” “Niklas.” “Niklas”—she smiles darkly—“I think I’ll have you tell me how you knew; like I said, I still do not trust you, and you will answer my questions.” Her eyes narrow. “Resourceful you certainly are, but also very observant. You knew who my mother was; you knew who I was—no one has ever done that, or cared to do it. Frankly, Niklas, I don’t know whether to admire your skill, or to be even more suspicious of it. The men who come here only ever have one thing on their minds and it rarely has anything to do with me. You’ve done well to put a red flag on your back. So tell me—how did you know?” She puts the blade to Nora’s throat casually as if she were about to spread butter on her toast, and she looks across the short space at me, waiting with an eerie patience. Retaining my undaunted smile, I give in with an impassive sigh. “If that’s what you want, then I’ll tell you.” I turn my back to her, my way of showing her that I’m not at all concerned about what she might do to Nora, and then I make my way back over to Izabel. I sit down on the oversized chair and lean back comfortably; Izabel remains seated on the edge. “First you should know why I’m so observant,” I begin. “Just like you, I don’t trust anybody— for all I know you could be undercover. Call me paranoid if you want, but I’ve been busted before, I’ve been in prison before, and I don’t plan on going back to that fucking place, so I make it a point to know who I’m dealing with. In fact, I’ve been this way for a long time, always looking over my shoulder—my own brother betrayed me, so surely you can understand why I’m more…perceptive than the rest of the buyers who come here. And I don’t like to be lied to. I knew Bianca wasn’t really you the second she hesitated to tell me what she liked most about her favorite girls.” I smirk. “You wouldn’t have hesitated, or looked at your mother for the answer; your brother wouldn’t have had to jump in and try to distract me.” “Yes, Emilio is a devoted brother,” Francesca says with an exasperated sigh. “Overprotective of me to a fault, I admit. But he is a good brother. I trust him more than anyone in my family—I only trust him. But go on and tell me how you knew.” She’s thrown me off my game a bit, but she’s oblivious to it. Emilio a devoted brother? Emilio overprotective of his superior sister to a fault? Maybe he and I have more in common than I thought. That’s unfortunate.


“It’s simple really,” I say, snapping back into the moment. “I didn’t know anything about the showings until I came here tonight. I’d always known you employed the most prized whores that money can buy. And I wanted one for myself. Not just for a night or a few days. I wanted one and I was confident you’d sell one to me.” “I see.” Francesca takes the knife away from Nora’s throat and then leaves her standing there as she paces the floor, sliding the flat sides of the tip of the blade between her fingers absently. “Only I never sell my cyprians. They are, in a sense, free women and men. They work for me and are paid generously. I sell their services, not their freedom.” “You don’t sell them,” I point out, “because they’re whores, and buyers aren’t looking for tainted whores, unless the buyer is like me. Tell me they’d still be free to live their lives if they were still worth selling.” She smiles darkly right back at me, and it’s the only answer we both know she needs to give. “Every man,” I go on, “has a preference—mine happens to be whores—and physical flaws, of course.” I look at Nora, indicating her. “Aya worked for an escort service before she became mine.” I glance at Izabel. “Naomi here,” I say, reaching out to touch her butchered hair, combing my fingers through the back, “started selling herself at a young age; I was her last customer; I took her from the streets and then she was nobody’s whore but mine.” I pause and then add as an afterthought, “Of course she grew on me more than I expected or wanted.” “You love that one.” Stunned, my hand stops moving in Izabel’s hair; for a second I’m not sure what to say in response. “No,” I finally answer, confused by my hesitation, and drop my hand from her hair. I look at Francesca. “I don’t love anyone. But I’m fond of her. Haven’t you ever been fond of someone—aside from your brother, I mean.” I grin. And I hope my attempt to take the spotlight off me works because this shit with Izabel is making me uncomfortable. “No,” Francesca answers. “I’ve only ever been fond of my brother. I’ve only ever loved him.” She leaves it at that. “So you’re what they call a hero,” Francesca says with a mock smile. “Rescuing whores from the streets, turning them into respectable whores?” She laughs lightly under her breath. “Hardly.” I pat Izabel’s head and then rest my hand in my lap. “My girls didn’t want to be taken, they didn’t want to be controlled, or…punished when they disobeyed”—I lick the dryness from my lips—“I didn’t do it to rescue them, I did it because I liked it.” Francesca glances at Nora. “And what of that one?” “Aya,” I call out, “tell the Madam why you like being my whore.” Nora doesn’t raise her eyes when she answers, “Aya’s master made her whole, Madam; her master protects her and provides for her; she is happy to be his whore.” After a moment, Francesca says, “But why whores?” She moves toward us, setting the knife down on the arm of the sofa on her way. “And I thought you looked for flaws?” “Because they fight longer, and harder,” I tell her. “Their lifestyle toughens them up long before I get to them; they’re not afraid to fight back, they’re defiant, vulgar—they’re strong and I respect that. But most of all, training them is a challenge. I happen to like a challenge. And there is no challenge in training a girl too afraid to fight for her life and her freedom; nor is there any satisfaction in owning a girl who has already been trained. And is being a whore not a flaw in and of itself?” Francesca purses her lips thoughtfully. “Well aren’t you afraid one of them might slit your throat in the night?” Francesca sits down


on the arm of the chair next to me; I can smell the faint scent of her shampoo she’s so close. “It’s women like you described who would be the most likely.” “I’m not afraid at all,” I tell her, looking up at her. “Not because I don’t think they’re capable, but because I don’t fear death.” “I would never hurt Niklas; I love him,” Izabel says, looking up briefly. Izzy, what happened to you keeping your mouth shut? Francesca smiles, regarding ‘Naomi’s’ innocence, but there’s nothing kind about that smile. I feel like she wants to kill Izabel, and her speaking up just then has little to do with why—she wants to kill her because she’s special, beautiful even with her butchered hair; she wants to kill her because I’m fond of her. But she won’t because Izabel isn’t hers to kill. A chill moves up my spine, and that never happens. It takes a helluva lot to set me on edge like I’ve suddenly become. This woman is insane, no doubt about it, she is as twisted as Seraphina Bragado was, maybe even more-so. What is she going to do? It’s what I keep asking myself. What the fuck is she gonna do? Because I know she’s going to do something. Before we leave this mansion, Francesca Moretti is going to unveil the monster that wears her skin. She stands up slowly, gracefully even. “So tell me,” she says with her back to me, “what particular kind of flawed whore are you looking to purchase?” She goes toward the massive desk, her movements like liquid over the floor. “Preferably hair the color of honey, maybe black hair—I haven’t decided. Twenty-one, twenty-two years of age”—I touch Izabel’s hair again—“same age range as my other girls. Oh, and I don’t expect even your cyprians to have many physical flaws, but if you have one with any scars or birthmarks, the more interested I’ll be in doing business with you.” “That’s quite a specific list,” she points out suspiciously. “I have to wonder if you’re not looking for a certain kind of girl, so much as a girl in particular who already has a name, who may have once been loved by someone who’s still looking for her.” Yes, that’s exactly what Olivia Bram is—you’re a smart woman, but not smarter than me. “When you order food at a restaurant,” I say with no expression, “don’t you expect it to look exactly as it does on the menu when they serve it to you?” I wave my hand at Izabel and Nora. “As with all of my girls, it’s just a preference.” She ponders my words for a moment. “You are a very interesting man, Niklas,” she says. The doors open to the right of us and in walks Emilio as sour-faced and distrusting of me as ever. “Your room is ready, Sister.” He looks only at me when speaking; cold, threatening…jealous? Hmm. “Good.” Francesca gestures at me with her hand. “Come with me,” she says. I stand and Izabel follows suit. Francesca stops, looks back and says, “Oh, and if you don’t mind, have your girl remain undressed. You can punish her in my room for her display in my great hall earlier.” She turns and proceeds toward Emilio waiting for her at the door. I look at Nora, still standing in the same spot, in the same obedient position all this time, and I smile even though she’s not looking at me. “Come, Aya,” I tell her, and she does exactly as I say. I’m gonna love the shit out of this.


Niklas

We take an elevator to the top floor, five floors up, and step out into a room unlike I’ve ever seen— because I’ve never been to a crazy narcissist’s house before. The entire floor that could hold a dozen large rooms is one massive space overlooking the four floors beneath it from a circular balcony in the center. Twelve great arched windows are positioned in the wall, bare of curtains, the glass filled up with the night sky; the wall rises up many feet seamlessly to form the ceiling shaped like a dome above us. More life-sized Greek and Roman statues stand tall on their marble and white stone bases. White. This woman loves the color white; everything is saturated in it: the walls and floor and even the furniture; the only colors that offset the blinding shit are the swirling grays in the white marble, and the black in the fringes on the sofa pillows, and the black and grays in the Italian rugs. At least twenty slaves stand waiting in various spots within the room, all dressed in sheer white cotton dresses with nothing on underneath; no shoes on their feet. As if the room wasn’t proof enough of how powerful and spoiled this woman is, there’s a throne, an actual throne sitting impressively at the far end of the room atop an enormous marble dais five steps high. The throne is even white, made of wood, with intricate carvings along the legs and arms, and plush white cushions on the seat and back, which is at least two feet taller than her head if she were sitting in it. Long sheer white pieces of expensive silk and lace fabric drape the throne: over both arms, across the seat, over the tall back, and flow out into the floor. Francesca leaves us and makes her way through the room as if she were a queen, moving effortlessly over the cool marble floor. Slave girls approach her immediately, knowing what to do; one takes the dress from her hand at the exact moment Francesca places it there, while two other girls slip a long white silk robe onto Francesca’s outstretched arms. Everything is precise and fluid, like a well-rehearsed ballet: the way the girls move around to Francesca’s front at the same time and enclose her naked body inside the fabric, to the way they step away from her at the same moment, bow their heads low and then turn to face each other as Francesca walks between them. Two girls await her at the throne, one on each side; the one on the left stands beside a silver tray that appears to hold all sorts of makeup and tools to apply the makeup; the one on the right stands with a comb in one hand and something in the other I’m assuming might be hair decorations of some sort—I’m surprised no one has come in and put a crown on the bitch’s head. Emilio walks past the three of us and goes toward his sister. I notice that although he does whatever she tells him to do, he’s not afraid—for the most part—to approach her when he wants, to speak to her freely when he wants, or to touch her when he wants. No one else would be able to do that. Francesca would probably kill them swiftly. Or, at least in the case of her sisters and her mother, they might just get the shit knocked out of them—they are Francesca’s blood after all.


Emilio leans in and touches his lips to the edge of Francesca’s mouth, and as he pulls away slowly, his eyes move to look at me in a sidelong stare; a grin dances on his lips. “Please,” Francesca says, unfolding her hand toward me, “make yourself comfortable.” She gestures toward the furniture placed not far from the bottom step of the dais. Emilio descends the steps just as we make our way to the sofa, and the moment Emilio moves out of the way of his sister, the two slave girls who had been waiting on the left and right of her, get to work on her hair and makeup; another comes up and sprays perfume in her direction. I take a seat on the sofa; Izabel sits next to me; as always Nora sits at my feet on the floor next to my briefcase. “Emilio,” Francesca says, “bring Niklas my whip.” “Of course,” he says with a sly grin. I want to glance at Nora, see if she looks nervous, but I don’t. Besides, I know she’s not afraid of me—she let Fredrik torture her. Emilio moves somewhere on the other side of the vast room; I keep my eyes on Francesca. “I have a few cyprians for you in mind,” Francesca speaks up. “I will have someone bring them here soon for you to look at. But as they do not reside here in my mansion; it may be an hour or so before they arrive. I trust an hour isn’t too long to wait?” The girl putting on her makeup always pauses when Francesca speaks, and then starts back up again when she’s done. “I can wait two hours if I need to.” Emilio appears in front of me, leather whip dangling from his hand. With a crooked smile he holds it out to me. “Unless you’d like me to do the honors,” he suggests, glancing at Nora. I think on it. “You know what,” I say, “I’d like that very much. Be my guest.” They didn’t expect that; Francesca and Emilio lock eyes momentarily. Then Emilio turns his attention back to me and says, “Well if you insist,” and he reaches down and grabs a hold of Nora’s elbow, yanking her to her feet. “You would let another man punish your girls?” Francesca inquires suspiciously. “Sure, why not?” I answer indifferently, with the shrug of my shoulders. “I wouldn’t let another man touch Naomi, but Aya might benefit being whipped by someone other than me. It’ll make her envy Naomi more than she does already, and maybe she’ll work harder to earn the same respect. Besides, I came here to do business and I don’t really want to waste time dealing with other issues.” “Naomi, she’s still very…obedient for someone who isn’t a slave,” Francesca says. “Yes, she is.” I look at Izabel next to me. “Naomi is however she wants to be; just so happens she chooses to be what I adore most about her.” Izabel as Naomi smiles bashfully, her green eyes skirting mine. “And what do you adore most about her?” The more Francesca talks about Izabel the more I feel like she’s working her way toward something. Reaching out and cupping Izabel’s chin within my fingers, I turn her head to face me. “Her kindness,” I answer Francesca, looking into Izabel’s eyes. “There’s a dangerous fire inside this girl, but she covers it up with compassion and love—things I’m incapable of possessing—she’s greatly flawed; sometimes she acts too quickly, is too impatient for her own good; she speaks before thinking; and I admit sometimes she maddens me. But most of all, Naomi is very…human. And I admire that about her.” I stop long enough to give Izabel a thin grin that only she can see, and something flickers in her eyes. Then I shake it off, whatever the fuck that was, and look away from Izabel, dropping my hand from her face.


“She’s still obedient to me, sure,” I tell Francesca, “but despite her obedience, she can still get herself into trouble with me sometimes.” “I want you to kiss her,” Francesca says, and it feels like a dare without being obvious. My heart stops beating all of a sudden. I turn to look at Francesca sitting up there on her throne; the slave girls working furiously on her hair and makeup. Francesca gazes down at me through gleaming eyes, growing darker as they’re painted in black and gray eyeshadows. Something as simple as a kiss shouldn’t be a reason for pause, much less question—I’ve already paused, so I know I can’t question it or Francesca will know I’m full of shit and that ‘Naomi’ is no more my girl than Claire is anymore. But kissing Izabel is anything but simple, and although I never expected to finish this mission without having to violate Izabel in some way, a kiss is the last thing I wanted. Of all the unspeakable things I could’ve been forced to do, kissing her is the worst. It’s too intimate of an act—fucking her senseless would’ve easier. I dip my head toward her and slowly touch my lips to hers; my hand carefully wrapped about the side of her neck. I want to squeeze it, like I would any common whore like Jackie who I can fuck my aggressions out on, but I can’t. I can’t and I don’t know why. Instead, I slip my tongue into her mouth and find hers. And I can’t take it; I feel my lips slowly crushing against mouth as we drink in each other’s breath. I want—need—to pull away, but I can’t do that either. I kiss her long and deep and hard until I feel like I’m running on the fringes of my emotions; they’re tearing away at me like hands in Hell reaching out for me as I leap over the flames, trying to pull me down with them into sin, and as hard as I try to get away, a part of me wants them to take me. I want to sin. I want to kiss her. And so I do. And I don’t stop.

Izabel

I…I can’t think straight.

Niklas

The searing crack! of the leather striking Nora’s back breaks the kiss, and when it does, Izabel is looking at me, unblinking, her moist lips parted slightly just as mine are, close enough I can still feel her breath on my mouth. “You’re a liar, Niklas Augustin.”


My gaze breaks away from Izabel—thankfully—to find Francesca on her throne; I look up at her quizzically. Francesca smiles, knowing. Knowing something. My heart is in my throat—has our cover been blown somehow? I need my gun. Fuck! I need someone’s gun. Panic chokes me from the inside and I feel my eyes searching the vicinity for a weapon though without actually moving my eyes; but on the surface I’m as cool and confident as I ever was. “You told me you loved no one,” Francesca says and relief washes over me in a wave. She smiles, glancing at Izabel only briefly. “Your feelings for that one run deep—the kiss betrayed you.” I smirk at her. “Believe what you want,” I say casually, straightening the lapel of my suit jacket. “I believe you’re a good liar,” she points out, “but your ability to hide your feelings is atrocious.” Her smile stretches; her dark eyes sweep over me deviously, as if she’s picking me apart, trying to figure me out and knowing she’s doing a fine fucking job at it. Well she’s crazy—I don’t have feelings for Izabel; I’d rather…(I swallow hard and round my chin)…in Izzy’s words: I’d rather it burn when I piss. Another crack! zips through the air. I get up from the sofa. “Emilio,” I call out, approaching him from behind, “why don’t you let me show you how it’s done.” It was an insistence, not a question; I reach out my hand to him for the whip and he stares at me with a deadly combination of humiliation and rage. It was my plan all along, telling him he could punish Nora for me; I wanted another opportunity to show Emilio up in front of his sister. And it couldn’t have come at a better time: I need to reverse the weakness Francesca thinks she found in me —feelings for Izabel—and I need to get the hell away from Izabel. More importantly, the heavier I step on her brother’s toes, the less inclined she’ll be to listen to his opinions; and since Emilio is closest to her and the one who distrusts me the most, it’s vital I continuously prove I’m the alpha in the room. Nora stands facing the wall, her arms raised high above her head, her palms pressed flat against the white paint. Two angry stripes, red and swollen, lay across her back, the newest ones amid a myriad of old wounds and still-healing ones. Her long white-blond hair covers most of them. I take the whip from Emilio’s hand, ignoring the looks of hatred he’s shooting me with, and step behind Nora, the whip in my hand pressing between her naked thighs. I reach up with my free hand and move her hair away from her back, gently draping it over her right shoulder. “Remember that day,” I whisper against her ear from behind, my chest pressing against her back, “in that room surrounded by walls, just you and me and an old scar that you dug your fingernail under, twisting and moving, until the scar peeled away from the skin and blood ran down my chest?” I shove the whip upward between her legs so she can feel the rigid leather between her nether lips. Then in a voice that Emilio can actually hear, I say to Nora, “Answer me,” and then pull away from her ear. “Yes, Master, Aya remembers her mistake with the girl. Aya shouldn’t have humiliated you.” I step away from her. Farther. Farther. And then I crack the whip against Nora’s back. Again. And again. And again. Nora never moves, never makes a sound, and I have to wonder if beating her has affected her at all. I stop at five lashes because, like I said earlier, I’m here on business and don’t want to waste time with other issues. Placing the whip in Emilio’s hand as if he were like any other slave girl in the room, I approach Nora again, just like before, my mouth against her ear. “I should sell your ass to these crazy


people—you’d fit right in,” I whisper so no one can hear but her. “I don’t know what my brother wants with you, or why he brought you into our Order—don’t fucking tell me it was Izzy’s decision, because I know that’s bullshit; even if she wanted you here I know you wouldn’t be here if my brother didn’t want you to be. I know him better than anyone.” Fitting my hand around the back of Nora’s neck, I squeeze with aggression, shoving the side of her face against the wall—she doesn’t flinch. “I may hate him for what he did to Claire, your sister, but he’s still my brother and I still watch his back.” I trace my tongue down the shell of her ear, move my hand from the back of her neck and to her throat, squeezing. “And nobody fucks my brother over but me. Nobody will have their vengeance on my brother for any wrong he’s ever done, but me.” I release her harshly. I have to wonder if that’s why Nora is really here—to get back at Victor for killing her sister. She could’ve killed him and even Izabel by now already, but who’s to say that’s her way? Revenge can be dealt in many forms; and the easiest, less satisfying way of exacting it is to just get it over quickly. Nora Kessler doesn’t strike me as the getting-it-over-quickly type. “Naomi,” I say, “bring Aya her dress.” Izabel gets up from the sofa with the dress in her hand, and as we pass each other moving in opposite directions we lock eyes briefly, accidentally, and then look away just as fast. Miz Ghita enters the room; I had been watching the elevator rise to the top floor on my way back to the sofa. She looks at me coldly, says nothing, and heads straight for Francesca. She stops at the bottom of the dais steps, her decorated fingers interlocked down in front of her. “The girls will be here soon,” Miz Ghita announces to Francesca. “I have to warn you, Daughter, the one from House Five, the one we believe will be the most suitable for Mr. Augustin, wasn’t very cooperative. She had three of her high-paying customers today that she was forced to cancel to come here.” “Oh yes, House Five.” Francesca smiles thoughtfully. “She is a feisty one.” Her darklypainted eyes fall on me. “But Mr. Augustin revels in that sort of thing, so the more she fights, the better.” “Mother,” Emilio speaks up, walking past me, purposely invading my space, “why don’t you bring Ela up to join us; I think she’s waited in her room long enough; she’ll be punished here”—he glances back at me—“in front of our guests, just like her clumsy counterpart was.” Miz Ghita looks at Francesca for her approval. Francesca nods. “Very well,” Miz Ghita says, but nothing about her demeanor, all tensed up, suggests she agrees with the idea. Then without another word she makes her way back to the elevator. “Let’s talk money, Niklas,” Francesca says. The girl doing her makeup adds a few finishing touches and then steps away from her to stand by the other girl who finished her hair seconds ago. Francesca looks at my briefcase on the floor. Izabel and Nora finally take their seats again; Izzy on the sofa; Nora at my feet, no longer naked. Lifting the briefcase, I place it evenly on the top of my thighs. I move my thumb over the little gold mechanisms, up and down, to set the numbered code in place and then flip the locks open on each side. Emilio steps over and looms in front of me, looking down into the case at nearly one million dollars packed neatly inside. “Go ahead,” I offer, waving my hand over the cash and raising the briefcase toward him, “check it out if you want; I assure you it’s real.” I lean casually against the sofa, stretch my arms across the back. Emilio takes the briefcase, supporting it on the palm of one hand. “Could’ve fit a little more in here,” he says, his unimpressed


gaze moving over the bills. “Yeah, and it did,” I say. “That’s one million minus the twenty thousand I paid to meet with your mother, and the fifty thousand I paid to meet with your sister.” I smile at him and add smartly, “I bet you hate it that having your audience is free.” “Niklas,” Francesca interrupts—she saw the same fed-up look of murder in her brother that I just saw and is trying to thwart a retaliation, “you do realize that my girls are not cheap, not even my cyprians. I hope you don’t think that because they are considered damaged goods, that you’re going to get off with some kind of”—she twirls her hand at the wrist—“discounted price. And since you made the mistake of letting me know how much you want a damaged girl, I get to charge you more for her than I might otherwise.” “It wasn’t a mistake,” I tell her. “I wanted you to know exactly what I need, and that my preference is important to me so that I get what I want. Just like I told Miz Ghita at the restaurant: money is no issue.” “Then perhaps we’ll charge you more than you have,” Emilio speaks up, setting the briefcase harshly back onto my legs. I look only at Francesca. “You could,” I tell her. “But then if you fuck me like that, I’ll most certainly be taking my money to that ‘incompetent woman who doesn’t know the first thing about this business’ the next time I’m looking to buy.” Emilio sits on the sofa across from me, smirking, still hopeful that something he does or says will eventually mean more than shit to me. And then just when that thought crosses my mind, he manages to find something after all. He looks at Izabel with intent in his eyes—and he holds it, making sure that I make note of it. All right, Emilio, you have my attention now; be really fucking careful because if you touch her I’ll beat you to death.


Niklas

“I will give you a fair price,” Francesca assures me. Moments later the elevator is climbing the metal again, almost soundlessly; the top comes into view and then the faces of Miz Ghita and the servant girl from earlier who Nora tripped. The glass doors slide open and Miz Ghita, holding onto the girl’s elbow, walks her forward and toward Emilio. Emilio stands from the sofa, straightens his jacket, a devilish grin twists his mouth. He reaches for ‘Ela’, but his hand stops midair when he hears Francesca’s voice behind him. “I will punish her,” she says, and for the briefest of moments even Emilio appears uncomfortable. He drops his arm back at his side and then steps to the left, gesturing with his hand out, palm up, so Ela will approach Francesca on the dais. I think Emilio had something else in mind for punishment, maybe another beating like Nora had, and that he be the one to carry it out, but the turn of events even has him tense; there’s something unfamiliar hidden in his eyes, something I didn’t expect Emilio would possess: uneasiness. But he hides it well. Unlike their mother who stands behind the sofa across from me, looking at no one, but instead at anything inanimate. I get the distinct feeling that she doesn’t want to be here. Then she looks up at her daughter sitting on her throne and says with as much courage as she can muster, “I’ll go wait downstairs for the girls,” and she starts to walk away. “No, Mother, I’d like for you to stay here a moment.” Miz Ghita inhales a breath, mouth open slightly; she clasps her hands on her backside and goes back to staring at anything without eyes. Izabel is sitting upright now; I can feel her body tense next to mine—she knows as much as anyone that something fucked up is about to happen. Nora is…still the emotionless, unmoving, most unaffected-by-anything person I’ve ever seen. I think maybe she’s better at my job than I am. “Come here, Ela,” Francesca says, curling her finger toward her. The girl doesn’t hesitate, but she walks with rapid breath and tight shoulders, and she ascends the marble steps on legs so shaky I’m surprised she can walk on them at all. Izabel’s leg presses against mine, but I don’t think she notices. No Izzy…don’t break character. Please don’t fucking break character. The girl named Ela; soft, innocent, scared, gets on her knees in front of Francesca’s throne and bows her head low, all the way to the floor where she presses her forehead, her arms stretched out above her head, palms flat against the marble. My stomach flip-flops when the girl standing beside the makeup tray places a small pair of garden shears into Francesca’s hand. No Niklas…don’t fucking break character.


Emilio watches from below the dais, his hands also folded on his backside; his shoulders are tight, drawn up slightly; I see his jaw flexing as if he’s nervously grinding his teeth. Every other servant girl in the room stands perfectly still; no one is breathing, no one is blinking, but everyone including me wishes we were somewhere else. “Sit up and give me your hand, Ela.” Francesca reaches out for it, and she waits. Ela raises herself up and moves closer, offers her hand to the fiend on the white throne. “Since the two of them are so much alike,” Francesca says about Ela and Nora, taking Ela’s hand, “then they will share deformities as well.” Ela’s bloodcurdling scream sets my teeth on edge and every muscle in my body stiffens when the razor-sharp garden shears slice through flesh and tendon and bone. I can hear the metal on bone in my head, crunching, grating, cutting through to my subconscious where Augustin is trying his damndest to tame Fleischer, keep him under control in this pivotal moment. Dark red liquid sprays Francesca’s elegant white robe, pours from the detaching finger as she works the shears in her hand, cutting and cutting until the pinky finger is completely detached. Izabel’s fingers are digging into my thigh, and if it weren’t for my pants, her fingernails would be in my skin. She looks only at the floor. How did my hand get on her waist? I squeeze her gently, hoping to soothe her, and though I know it won’t, I do it anyway. Nora, you’re one soulless bitch.


Izabel

Flashes of Mexico blind me; all the blood…all the blood, all those girls, drowning in it; Lydia bleeding on the desert floor. Izel and the scissors. Izel and the knives and the guns and the chain she used to beat a girl to death in front of my eyes. That’s what this woman is—Izel four-point-oh. I want to kill her. She doesn’t deserve to live and I want her to die. If the client doesn’t kill this maniacal bitch, I’m coming back for her myself. And the rest of her family too, whether or not they’re just like her. They allow it; they stand by and let it happen and that makes them just as guilty. But…then all of us are guilty, every single person in this room, including us—goddammit! Why can’t we do something? I close my eyes and try to calm my breathing, to slow my racing heart one beat at a time, like everyone else seems to be doing. Except for Nora. How can she stand it? How can she sit there on the floor without so much as a tensed muscle, or a clenched jaw, or a vein twitching in her neck, or a few white knuckles? The girl’s finger is being cut off—just like yours was, Nora; the girl is being tortured because of something you did! But she feels nothing. I look down—I don’t think I ever looked back up—and see Niklas’s long fingers clutching my waist; at least he feels something. But he’s still guilty. We’re all guilty. Fear (and some kind of sick, sadistic love) of this woman is what keeps most of them quiet. But not for us; not for me or Niklas or Nora. The sake of a job and of another girl’s life is what binds us. Keep quiet and still—don’t break character!—or a lot more than a finger will be lost here today, I keep telling myself. Over and over again. The girl crumples to her knees on the dais floor; blood stains her clothes, the crimson bright against the stark white of her dress. Blood glistens on the white marble beneath her, on Francesca Moretti’s lavish white robe. I don’t even recall when I lifted my head to see these things—now I can’t turn away. The girl’s cries carry through the room and for a long time it’s the only thing I hear; whimpers ominously amplified by the violent pumping of blood through my head. “Now, Mother, you can leave. Take Ela with you and have the doctor tend to her wound.” Tend to her wound? She makes it sound like the poor girl fell and skinned her goddamned knee. “Is something wrong with your girl?” I hear Francesca say, but her voice sounds so far off; I’m not thinking straight. All I see is red, red, red, red. Blood and rage, blood and rage. Wait—is she talking to Niklas? “Naomi?” comes Niklas’s far-off voice. I blink once, like flipping on a light switch, and the reality of the moment comes rushing back into my eyes like a flood of blinding light. I realize I’m barely sitting on the edge of the cushion now; my teeth are pressed together abrasively, visibly as though I’d been baring them the whole time like a rabid dog. I glance down at my hands, one digging into Niklas’s thigh, the other into the leather couch cushion. Slowly my fingers loosen and I pull my hands away, placing them into my lap. My face and my posture eases and melts back into calm. I swallow and lick my dry, chapped lips desperate for


moisture. “I-I apologize, Madam,” I say with the shaky, timid voice of Naomi. “I’m fine. The sight of blood has always made me uncomfortable.” Niklas smooths the palm of his hand over the back of my head and down what’s left of the length of my botched hair, pretending to soothe his little pet. Or is he trying to soothe Izzy? After that…kiss, one that felt like something so much more than a role, after that I’m not sure I can tell the difference anymore. I’m unsure of a lot of things… “She gets a little squeamish sometimes,” Niklas tells Francesca, still smoothing my hair, and oddly enough it does comfort me somewhat. Emilio is looking at me again with that unnerving grin of his—he’s planning something. Bring it on, asshole. Whatever it is, I’m ready for you. I look away from Emilio just as Miz Ghita is walking past with the girl on her arm. Tears stream down her face; she walks hunched over with her mutilated hand pressed to her chest by the other one; the front of her dress is drenched in blood. The elevator closes them off inside its glass walls and takes them down and out of our sight. How the hell are we going to find Olivia Bram in all this? I bet Niklas never anticipated that Francesca would have ‘a few’ of her cyprians brought here for him to look at; it’s doubtful Olivia Bram will be one of them. This could take forever—literally. We’re not going to find that girl the way things are going. Something tells me—or reminds me—that bringing Olivia Bram home to her father was never going to happen. I hate more than anyone here to think that giving up on her is the only option, and that we should focus on kidnapping Francesca. But that’s what I’m beginning to feel. She’s no longer here. Or maybe she was never here. Olivia Bram is dead. No—I refuse to give up on her. I won’t do it. No one cared about me enough to look for me when I went missing. Dina didn’t even know I was missing, thought I just moved away with my mother. But I was alone for years. I had no one looking for me. Olivia Bram deserves better. What would be Victor’s next move? It feels strange being on a mission and not hearing his voice in an earpiece; not having him here to tell me what to do, which pieces to move across the chess board. I miss him. I wonder what he’s doing right now.


Victor

Somewhere in Virginia “You’ve been on our radar for eight years, Mr. Faust,” Dan Barrett, one of Flynn’s superiors, says across the elongated table from me, dressed in his finest cheap suit. “If we wanted to take you down —” “Do not make it sound easier than it is, Mr. Barrett,” I tell him. “Do you think I would be sitting here in front of you like this if it were that simple?” Dan Barrett’s mouth pinches on one side; his nostrils flare kind of how Izabel’s do when she doesn’t get her way—only it’s sexy when she does it; this man I’d very much like to punch in the face. He’s been nothing but mouthy since we arrived here: trying relentlessly to intimidate me; pointing out the things he knows, some of the people I’ve killed (though not even a fraction of the actual number) —his way of holding something over my head to get me to cooperate. That will get you nowhere, Mr. Barrett, except your own personal plot in the cemetery we passed on the way here. I look to the man on his left, Barry Connors, the only one out of the six men at this table with Fredrik Gustavsson, Dorian Flynn, and me, with a cool, reasonable head. The other four men haven’t said much yet; mostly I believe they’ve been taking mental notes, sizing us up, picking apart our brains so they can better piece together their professional versions of my and Gustavsson’s profiles later; add to our M.O.s they created on an Excel spreadsheet somewhere, or posted on a whiteboard with words scrawled in Sharpie like ‘dental obsession’ and ‘expert marksman’; more an FBI thing, I suppose, but they seem the type. “Let me repeat myself,” I say, looking to Barry Connors. “If I choose to offer my services to you, I would work for you and with you, but not under you—there is a difference. Any surveillance still on me or anyone in my Order would be terminated immediately, including any other undercover operatives who might still be implanted in my ranks.” I glance at Flynn to my left, for only a moment. Unless you want them dead. They would never completely terminate their surveillance, I know, but they would some of it to make it seem they are holding up their end of the deal, and some is better than none. “We do understand your terms,” Barry Connors agrees. He starts to say more, but I interrupt. “I want to see the files—everything—that Flynn gave you on us.” I feel Flynn’s eyes skirting me nervously; he inhales a deep breath; I never take my eyes off


Barry Connors. “What does that matter?” Dan Barrett asks smartly. “If you’re worried about how much we know, Mr. Faust—we know what you do; it’s enough to put you on death row.” Barry Connors puts up his hand. “Not that we’re threatening you, of course,” he assures me. “But just the same,” I say, “I am curious about the kind of information Flynn gave you.” “But it’s beside any point,” Barrett says with a grunt. “Just give him the files,” Connors says with the dismissive gesture of his hand. “We have copies.” Barrett thinks on it a moment and then agrees. “OK, Mr. Faust,” he says, nodding, “we’ll get the files to you in—” “Now,” I cut in as kindly as possible, “would be preferable.” Barrett’s upper lip crinkles into a snarl. He reaches into his suit jacket pocket and pulls out his cell phone, touches the screen and then puts it to his ear. “Print off the files on I.D. 44160742-A and bring them to me.” He ends the call and slides the phone back into his pocket. “Do you mind if, while we wait,” Connors begins, folding his hands on the table in front of him, “we tell you what we know about Vonnegut, at least, so we can collaborate when the time comes? Get a head start?” “If you would like,” I say, opening my hands to him. “But I’ll offer you nothing in the way of information, or even my opinion on the information you have on my former employer, until I’ve agreed I’m going to work with you.” “Fair enough,” Connors says. “I’d like to know,” Mark Masters, sitting on the other side of Connors, speaks up, “how you feel about working for a man who sells weapons to terrorists, innocent girls to men who violate and murder them, and drugs to children?” He would spit in my face if it would not instantly end our meeting and possibly his life. I say nothing. Because I haven’t agreed to a deal yet and this man is apparently slow to understand that. Or just stubborn. Probably more the latter. “I apologize, Mr. Faust,” Connors says, doing damage control. “Mr. Masters tends to speak without thinking; you have to understand we’re usually working on the other side of the fence, not with the…criminals, so to speak. I admit, even for me it’s a little difficult to be sitting at this table, having a seemingly civil conversation with a hitman and…” He pauses and glances grimly at Gustavsson; a lump moves down the center of his throat. “…And a man like him.” I smile faintly and fold my hands together on the top of the table too. “Oh, I’m sure that’s not entirely true, Mr. Connors; I’m not the first ‘hitman’ you have done business with, nor is Gustavsson the first…specialist you’ve been in the same room with without chains on his wrists and ankles.” “No, you’re not the first,” says Connors, “and you won’t be the last, but it’s still not a common occurrence, so please bear with us.” “Mr. Gustavsson,” a man named Kenneth Ware cuts in, “I’m just curious about why you do the things you do?” His thick, dark eyebrows stiffen inquisitively in his forehead. “How does one get into the interrogation business?” Gustavsson chokes on a small laugh—even I almost laughed at that one. “Did you really just ask me,” Fredrik begins, “you, a man involved in covert government operations, how one gets into the interrogation business?” He shakes his head with surprise and disbelief. “That’s humorous to me, Mr. Ware. Truly it is.” Kenneth Ware smiles to combat the red in his face. “Well what I mean, Mr. Gustavsson, is


why you are…the way you are. There’s a pretty big difference between what you do and what I do.” At least he’s not trying to be argumentative like Dan Barrett who must have been born with that everpresent scowl. Fredrik sighs and crosses his legs, afterward interlocking his fingers and resting his hands over his midsection. “Why don’t you tell me?” he says with a mock smile. “Is there not enough about me in those files of yours already?” “Actually no,” Kenneth Ware answers. “I’ve just taken a special interest in you is all, and would like to know more. About your background anyway; I already know what you do, I’m just fascinated by why you do it.” “Mr. Ware is a fan,” Connors says, suppressing a grin. “I seem to have quite a few of those.” Fredrik purses his lips. “It’s kind of disturbing, actually.” “I have to agree,” I say with the shrug of my shoulders. “Me too,” Dorian Flynn speaks up; his eyes veer when he notices me looking at him. “Can we get on with this?” Barrett snaps; he chews on the inside of his mouth. “Your files’ll be here momentarily—” The tiny door to the meeting room opens and in walks a man with a file folder, much thinner than I expected, the folder, not the man. “Ah, there they are now,” Barrett says. The man gives the folder to Barrett and Barrett slides it across the table toward me. “Where’s the rest of it?” I ask, looking down into a stack of about sixty freshly printed sheets of paper. I begin sifting through them, scanning the text in search of keywords—I’ll read it all more thoroughly later. “That’s all of it,” Dan Barrett insists. I look up with only my eyes; my hand in pause holding a sheet of paper over the stack. “He’s telling the truth,” Barry Connors says with a nod. “Mr. Flynn claimed it was difficult for him to get access to any files.” He points at the folder. “Everything we have on your Order is there.” He’s lying, but I’ll let it slide for now. “But you said you’ve been following me for eight years.” “Yes,” Connors says, “we have a small file on you from when you worked under Vonnegut, but nothing as extensive as what’s there”—he points at the folder again—“just some of your hits; information on who you worked closely with: your brother Niklas Fleischer, your Safe House contacts, and of course”—he glances at Fredrik—“Mr. Gustavsson.” I drop the sheet on top of the others. “I thought the CIA did more…outside work, if you will?” I say. “Why follow me here? I thought chasing killers around the U.S. was more in the interest of the FBI?” “Yes, but you worked for Vonnegut, and Vonnegut is by every account an outside threat to the United States. You were his highest ranking assassin—we can’t find him, so we go where you go.” “And besides,” Kenneth Ware says, “we’re not technically CIA—we’re an entirely different division.” “And what division would that be exactly?” I inquire. “The Special Special Activities Division,” says Ware, mysteriously. Interesting. Something as underground as we are, that I’ve never heard of. I know what SAD is, but according to Mr. Ware and his clandestine emphasis on the extra ‘special’, I’m guessing SSAD does not stand for Social Security Advocates for the Disabled.


“We were surprised,” Barrett speaks up, “when Mr. Flynn just happened to end up under your command after you took over the Black Market operation he was planted in—felt like we hit the jackpot when Flynn found out who you were, Mr. Faust.” I am sure it did. I continue to scan the papers as they talk. Flynn sits uncomfortably next to me. “You were a ghost,” Connors says. “Even with some files on you when you were in The Order, we could never find you.” “How did you get any information on me at all then?” I ask, looking up so I can see their eyes when they answer. Connors and Barrett look at one another. Then they glance at Kenneth Ware. “Let me rephrase the question,” I say. “Who was your mole in Vonnegut’s Order?” He or she couldn’t have been very good since they’re still searching for Vonnegut. “We don’t have an agreement yet, Mr. Faust,” Barrett says, smirking. “We’re not at liberty to give you that information. Not even with an agreement.” I look to Connors, the most accommodating of the six. “I’m sorry, Mr. Faust,” Connors says with regret, “but we can’t reveal that operative’s identity. I’m sure you can understand. And he or she is still in The Order, so you have nothing to worry about anymore.” I look at Mark Masters. “And do you have anything to say about this?” I ask him. “You’ve been awfully quiet; though not as quiet as those two.” I nod toward the two men who haven’t said a word other than their names since they sat down: Ryan Miller is the balding one; David Darros is the one with the German accent. “I agree with them,” Mark Masters says, eyeing me intensely. “I don’t care who you are, or what you want as part of the deal—we’re not giving up the identity of our mole.” Without a word, I look back down into the files and then I begin to read to myself. Everything. And as I’m filing it all away in my memory, I also file away my own profiles of the men who wish to partner with me: Dan Barrett – He’s playing the ‘bad cop’; intimidation is his tool; he wants to make me feel like I should agree to work with them, that if I don’t they’ll bring me down, all without resorting to outright threats. But Dan Barrett, just like almost every other man on his side of the table, desperately wants my cooperation and is not likely to ‘turn me in’ if I refuse their offer; he needs me and would just send in another mole to replace Flynn to watch me. He believes I am the key to bringing down one of the most wanted men in the world; me being behind bars, or on death row would do nothing to help him. Barry Connors – He’s playing the ‘good cop’; pretending to bond with me so that I feel like I can trust him. But I trust him no more or less than I do the others sitting next to him. He wants what Dan Barrett wants, and he is willing to do whatever he has to in order to get it. Kenneth Ware – He’s one of the most transparent men in the room; his fascination with Gustavsson easily gives him away. I guarantee he has a Ph.D. in Psychology and probably has a favorite serial killer. Ware is the least of my concerns—he’s got blood in his eyes, and though he might not be a killer himself, blood is an addictive and seductive color to people like Ware and Gustavsson, and he is not likely to turn away from it. Mark Masters – He’s the other transparent one, only he does give me reason for concern. Masters is a just man dedicated to his job, wants nothing more than to put every kind of criminal away for life and get them off the streets. But he’s a high stakes player, dealing with worldwide criminals;


he might have been a cop or even an FBI agent at some point in his life, but it wasn’t enough; might have pushed pencils for the CIA for years working his way up to this position. He wants justice— perhaps a family member was murdered and everyone needs to atone—and I believe he’s willing to tolerate me long enough to bring Vonnegut down, but after that, I have no doubt he will come after me and everyone in my Order. But men like Masters are often too blinded by revenge, too impatient for their own good, and they tend to get themselves killed in the line of duty. I hope that is what happens so I don’t have to be the one to kill him later—he probably is a good man, and while I don’t particularly care to kill good people, I will if I have to. Ryan Miller and David Darros, not having said anything to give me as much insight on them, still fit into a profile. Miller is new to all of this; he lacks confidence, doesn’t look as in control as the other men; swallows a lot; can’t sit still and constantly touches his suit as if it will distract him from his own discomfort provoked by a lack of experience; he can’t look me in the eye, and the one time he did, he actually smiled as though he were new to the class and hoped to make a friend. David Darros, on the other hand, is looking me in the eyes right now and he doesn’t want any friends; he’s calm and collected, is very confident in his suit, knows his way around and has far too much experience to be uncomfortable. In ways, Darros is a lot like me. I just wonder how much. In all, I will agree to work with them, but what they will not know is that as far as Vonnegut is concerned, I’ll only be working with them to help myself. I will be the one to bring Vonnegut down, and the information they have on him could help me do that. I will take over The Order after I’ve eliminated Vonnegut; and by being on the inside, working behind the scenes with organizations that have dedicated many of their years in service to finding Vonnegut, I’ll already know who all I have to kill later, picking them off one by one and pulling their claws from The Order that I will one day control. I place both hands on the table and announce, “I will agree to your deal: I will help you bring down Vonnegut, and in exchange, your organization will turn a blind eye to my operations and terminate your surveillance indefinitely. No member of my Order is to be approached by any member of yours without first going through me. And if at any time I find that you have not upheld your end of our agreement, I will have no choice but to terminate our relationship immediately and deal with you…in my own way.” “Is that a threat, Mr. Faust?” Barrett speaks up, narrowing his eyes. “Yes. It is, Mr. Barrett. And I am not in the habit of making threats I am unable to carry out.” I straighten my suit jacket and then fold my hands loosely on the table. Barrett smirks. “We have you, Mr. Faust,” he cautions. “Both of you, two men who may not be on a wanted list yet, but keep in mind that’s only because we’ve kept you off them.” He leans toward the table, eyeing me as if he has something over me. “We could take you right now—we could kill you right now.” “Please Mr. Barrett”—I open a hand, palm up, and casually gesture toward his jacket pocket —“why don’t you give your son—the one in Maine—a call, before you say anything more.” His skin pales, and the smirk vanishes from his mouth. He glances at Connors nervously, then back in my direction. Masters breathes in heavily; his jaw grinds behind his stubbled cheeks. Miller, the novice, looks a bit scared; Darros, the expert, continues to watch me the same way I’ve been watching him. Connors’ eyes shut softly and he shakes his head like a man wishing his mouthy counterpart would drop the threats already. Kenneth Ware looks impressed. Barrett’s son answers the phone. “Are you all right, Danny?”


“Why don’t you put him on speakerphone?” I suggest. Hesitantly, Barrett sets his phone on the table and runs his finger over the screen. “I’m fine, Dad,” comes his son’s voice, “he hasn’t hurt me.” The two of them go on about the man sitting in Daniel Barrett’s living room, my man from the First Division: how he was sitting there like that, in the dark, when Daniel came home from work hours ago; how my man told Daniel that he would not hurt him and that all he wanted Daniel to do was wait for this phone call. And then Connors calls his wife in New York and they go through the same conversation about the woman sitting with her in her kitchen. “She even let me cook dinner,” comes the wife’s voice through the speakerphone. “Not that I’m hungry after coming home to find a strange woman in our house with a gun on her hip, but I was so scared I wanted to…do what I normally do, I guess; make me feel like you’re coming home. Are you coming home, Barry?” Her voice is shaky. Connors looks to me for the answer. “Yes, I’m coming home, Abbs,” he tells her; the hope that she is still alive when he gets there is written all over his face. “I’ll be late for that dinner, but I’ll be there.” Barrett looks right at Dorian Flynn. “Hey,” Flynn says, putting up his hands in his defense, “I only gave him the information you authorized me to give: your names and titles and where we’d be meeting.” That’s more than what you can say you gave to them on us. “You’re threatening my family?” Barrett’s hands become fists on the table, and he starts to get up, but Connors stops him. “Mr. Faust is threatening us,” Connors says, “the same way you’re threatening him, so calm down, and sit down; no one’s going to get hurt.” He looks at me across from him with more of that hope in his features. “What did you expect, Dan, that he’d just waltz into this meeting without being thoroughly prepared? You do remember why we set up this meeting to begin with, right? Victor Faust knows what he’s doing, and”—he looks right at me—“I’m not ashamed to admit that he’s better at it than we are.” He turns back to an angry Barrett. “But that’s why he’s here, Dan, so let’s get this partnership underway, toss the distrust and the threats aside and let’s start over. Smoothly. All right?” Connors looks to me. “He is right, Mr. Barrett,” I say. “No one will hurt your family.” The card I played is my way of letting them all know that if they ever betray me, or even manage to kill me, that there will be the gravest of consequences. I may not have information on Kenneth Ware, Mark Masters, Ryan Miller or David Darros yet, but I will after this meeting is over, now that I know who they are and I’ve seen their faces. Barrett very slowly slides back into his chair. Once he has calmed himself he looks to me and nods. “OK,” he says. “A fresh start; I’d very much like that.”


Victor

The nine of us talk for an hour about what each of us knows on Vonnegut—I and Gustavsson only give them the information we agreed on before coming here, as I am sure they did the same. We discuss at length what each of us proposes we do first to go about catching Vonnegut, but in the end we all come to the agreement that it will take time, a lot of resources, possibly several undercover missions to gain more information, and that nothing will happen overnight. Before we can take a man down, we have to know who he is exactly, what he looks like—Connors’ and Barrett’s team do not even know where to begin. I pretend to have an inkling, that I have a little more on Vonnegut’s true identity than they have, just to keep them baited. But what I really have is someone who I believe has actually seen my former employer in the flesh—Izabel is the key, and no one turns that key but me. Fortunately Dorian Flynn knows nothing of what Nora told me in the room that day about Izabel. Five other people in my Order do know, however, but I trust them to keep it to themselves. For the most part. “In the meantime,” Connors speaks up, “we have another job we hope you’re interested in assisting us with.” Kenneth Ware, Gustavsson’s fan, smiles suddenly as if he is delighted to finally be getting to this point. “Is that so?” I say to Connors, admittedly curious. Connors nods and then looks to Ware, giving him the floor. Ware’s close-lipped smile stretches as he eagerly opens his laptop on the table, bends over in his chair and sifts through his leather satchel on the floor, and then produces a file folder much thicker than the one they had on me, at least two inches thick, stuffed with what appears to be a stack of eight-and-a-half-by-eleven sized photographs; a few of them slide off the top and halfway out of the folder when he sets it on the table. He shuffles them back into a neat stack, but not before I glimpse the blood and dead flesh; bodies in haphazard positions, strapped to furniture—photographs of crime scenes, no doubt. “I take a special interest in serial killers, Mr. Faust,” says Ware—(and there it is: his not-sohidden obsession with blood and those who crave it enough to kill for it on a regular basis). He opens the file folder. He’s still smiling, and I find it quite entertaining how he looks at Gustavsson more than me as he explains. “I’ve been tracking one for ten years and I’m very interested in your insight.” He looks only at me now and adds carefully, “Though, if possible of course”—he glances at Fredrik—“I would like it if Mr. Gustavsson could work with me on this case personally.” “We do not do cases, Mr. Ware,” I point out. “We work jobs, missions. And we work alone. Vonnegut is different because we all want the same thing and need each other’s resources to get it, but as far as anyone else, you give us the information you have on a target, pay us to carry out the hit and


we will do just that. It is about money, Mr. Ware, not justice, or the fundamental need to take out bad guys.” Mark Masters glares at me across the table, but says nothing. “Yes, I understand that,” Mr. Ware rambles on, fumbling through the stack of crime scene photos, “but this particular case is a lot like finding Vonnegut; we don’t have an identity on this serial killer—just an M.O.—and I think we have a much better shot unravelling the identity with your insights. And there’s something about the M.O. that Mr. Gustavsson”—he looks at Fredrik again, this time with an excited gleam in his eyes—“might find…familiar, for a lack of a less invasive word.” “Familiar?” Fredrik speaks up—clearly Mr. Ware has gained Gustavsson’s attention. Ware nods three times, his smile ever-growing, but before Ware can answer, Fredrik adds, “Whatever it is, I’m sure it’s interesting, but I get the feeling you’re putting me on the same level as the one you’re hunting—I’m no serial killer, Mr. Ware; now a serial torturer, I don’t like the way it sounds, but I admit it’s safe to say at least that much is true, but there’s a big difference between me and a serial killer.” “Yes,” Ware agrees, excitedly, “there’s a difference between you and serial killers, but this particular serial killer, Mr. Gustavsson, forgive me for saying it like this, has enough in common with you that…well…” Ware swallows and glances at Connors and Barrett, clearly apprehensive about spitting the rest of his words out. Fredrik folds his hands on the table and leans forward, cocking his dark head to one side inquisitively, intimidatingly, as only Gustavsson can do—he is quite good at making a man speak with just a look, sometimes even without his tools of the trade sitting on a tray next to him. Kenneth Ware swallows again and his eyes stray toward the crime scene photos. “In common with me that what, Mr. Ware?” Ware looks up, smiles squeamishly and says, “Well…that for a while I was sure you were the serial killer I was hunting. When Mr. Flynn came back with his information on Mr. Faust’s newly organized Order, and I read the file on you, it was like a goddamned light from the sky opened up above my head—I was sure you were my killer, convinced of it because your M.O. and the killer’s M.O. are so similar that I thought it couldn’t be disputed.” I look over at Fredrik; his left eyebrow shifts upward. Then he smiles darkly and leans back in his chair again, his hands unfolding and sliding away from the table. “I’m the one who got him off your back,” Dorian Flynn reveals, proudly. “You may do some sick shit, but I knew you weren’t a damn serial killer.” Are you still trying to save yourself, Flynn? “So then what is this similarity, then?” Fredrik asks; he crosses his arms over his chest. “And how can you be so sure that I’m not the one you’re hunting—just because Dorian says I’m not the one, doesn’t make it true.” Shedding the uneasiness, Ware smiles animatedly again, and plucks a few of the photographs from the stack, sliding them across the table into my and Fredrik’s view. “The victims,” Ware says, “are missing all of their teeth, though they’re not pulled from the victim’s mouths, they’re cut out; the gums are always gaping and butchered, not indicative of a clean extraction.” He holds up his index finger to indicate that he has more. “And as if the missing teeth weren’t similar enough, all of the victims are found strapped to chairs—all different kinds of chairs, unlike your…well that chair you often use to do interrogations, but chairs nonetheless.” “And you thought,” Fredrik says, preparing to make a point, “that I and this serial killer were


the same person?” He shakes his head with disbelief. “For someone who’s studied serial killers for most of his life—I’m assuming—and hunted this one in particular for a good deal of it, it disappoints me that you seem to have forgotten—or overlooked?—the number one similarity that all serial killers have: they tend to stick to their M.O.. I never cut out the teeth”—he glances over at me and purses his lips—“though that’s not a bad idea, Faust; maybe I’ll use that during my next interrogation.” I shrug, and he turns back to Ware. “And I always use the same chair, when I use a chair, which isn’t always the case. Yeah, I see the similarities, but clearly we are not the same person.” Ware is red in the face, but he manages to defend himself quickly enough. “Yes, I realize that,” he says, “but I thought you had evolved, as most serial killers do. The last victim—before the most recent one—was found three years ago; I thought for sure you had evolved since then, opting for clean extractions, and possibly forming a bond with a particular chair and decided to stick with that one.” Fredrik laughs—until he realizes that he can’t very well make fun of Ware for the bonding chair comment when Fredrik does, in fact, have a special bond with his dentist chair. Of course, I can’t read his mind, but I’m confident that is what he was thinking—it is what I was thinking, too. “And what about the most recent victim?” Fredrik asks. Ware sifts through the top section of photographs until he finds the one he is looking for. He places it on the table toward us; the other men in the room continue to watch and listen, absorbing it all. “He was found three months ago,” Ware begins, “here in the United States—Atlanta, Georgia. Still the same M.O.; nothing about the killer’s technique had evolved.” He nods in Flynn’s direction. “And according to Mr. Flynn, you had an alibi for the time of the murder; you weren’t even in the country.” “So this serial killer crosses borders,” I say. “Yes,” David Darros, the calm, experienced one speaks up for the first time; his voice is smooth, with confident undertones, and heavily accented. “And dat ees vy I am here.” He is definitely German; though his accent is much thicker than my brother’s. “I am liaison for Interpol. Dees serial killer ees vanted in five countries: France, Sveden, England, Germany and United States.” “And those are just the countries where bodies found have been linked to this serial killer, so far,” Barrett says, finally playing the ‘good cop’ for a change. “We believe there are more.” “And how many are there at present?” I ask. “Thirteen,” Connors answers. “All of them men.” Fredrik sits up straight, growing more interested. “And how much,” I ask, “is catching this serial killer worth to you? And I’m assuming it will not be a hit?” “Twenty million dollars,” Connors says. “And definitely not a hit,” Ware interjects—it would probably crush his little black heart to see this serial killer go the way of the grave; he would much rather spend the rest of his years interviewing and studying and wetting his dick in the cold, dark mind of the killer he has longed to capture. “Just find him and lead us to him and we’ll take care of the rest.” “We will, of course”—Connors clears his throat—“be the ones taking all the credit for the capture, since we can’t very well tell anyone about you.” I smile slimly. “Of course,” I say with a mock smile. “We are not in this business for the publicity, or the fame, Mr. Connors—by all means, revel in it all you like.” “So then do we have a deal?” Connors asks.


I think on it a moment, and then turn to Gustavsson. “Does working this case with Mr. Ware interest you?” I ask him, knowing that it does. A killer with his M.O. is too appealing to pass up—I know a little about that. Fredrik contemplates, rubbing his clean-shaven cheeks with his fingertips. Then he nods. “Yeah, sure sign me up, I suppose.


Izabel

Francesca’s sister, Valentina, comes up the elevator shortly after Miz Ghita leaves with the girl, and there’s suppressed panic in her face. “Sister,” Valentina says walking up, her short dress swishing around her knees, “I didn’t want to bother you but…it’s”—she looks at the three of us briefly—“it’s Sian.” I notice from the corner of my eye that Emilio stiffens. Francesca stands from her throne; servant girls move toward her immediately; a little flurry of hands reaching out to adjust her hair, her bloodied robe; two kneel down in front of her with a shoe in each hand and wait for Francesca to step into them, but she passes them up, remaining barefooted; another girl gets on her hands and knees and furiously wipes up the trail of blood left by Ela, clearing it from Francesca’s path. “Is there a problem with Sian?” Francesca’s voice is cold, unforgiving, and the darkness shadowing her features sends a chill up my back. Valentina nods. “Yes,” she says, and then she glances at us again, clearly not comfortable talking about this ‘Sian’ in front of us. So she starts speaking in Italian. Great—more reason I wish Victor was here, or at least talking to me into my ear. Francesca and Valentina go back and forth in their native language for half a minute, and all I take from the conversation is that whoever Sian is, Francesca must really hate her, and that whatever she’s done, or said, is worse than being tripped by a guest slave and spilling wine on the floor, or even forgetting to address a master properly, maybe even worse than a slave looking Francesca straight in her eyes and telling her to fuck off—I fear for this Sian, I really do. And by that look of dread on Emilio’s face, maybe he does too. The second Sian’s name was mentioned to Francesca, Emilio became someone different; his personality shifted so drastically that I feel like I have whiplash. His brown eyes churn with apprehension; his shoulders are stiff; his hands open and close into fists at his sides; he looks trapped, his only way out blocked by a terrifying sister he loves and yet…hates at the same time? I never would’ve imagined that of Emilio, but it’s there, as plain as day on his face. What a confusing, fucked up family the Morettis are—and I thought our little family of killers had issues. “I will deal with Sian myself,” Francesca tells Valentina in English so we clearly understand. That can only mean she wants us to know what’s going on, and that worries me immensely. Francesca smiles at us. “Come,” she says, gesturing. “Since you are here, Niklas, and you are a generous paying guest, I would like to show you my way of dealing with a whore—a true whore.”


Niklas stands from the sofa, taking me with him. Nora follows suit. “Since we’re waiting on the cyprians,” Niklas says casually, straightening his tie, “a little side entertainment sounds good to me.” “Brother?” Francesca calls out, looking over her shoulder at Emilio. “Join us won’t you?” It wasn’t a request. Emilio looks at the floor, unable to look his sister in the eyes. I would normally think him a coward; I’d probably laugh at him inside, glad to see the asshole knocked from his pedestal, but for some stupid reason I can’t even fathom, I feel…bad for him. “You don’t have to do this, Sister,” Emilio says. “Oh, but I do.” She smiles wickedly. Then she walks out ahead of Valentina, and everyone except the slave girls follow behind her. We file into the glass elevator and Valentina presses the button for floor three, and down we go, into the unknown and it terrifies me. It’s not a long way down a few floors, and the elevator isn’t particularly slow, but it feels like it’s taking forever—and I wish that it would. I catch myself looking at Emilio from behind, watching him struggle in his copper skin; the outline of his jaw rigid; his Adam’s apple bobbing in his throat. And I look at Francesca standing next to him, and she’s his opposite: calm and powerful, tall and dangerous, excited and vengeful, a woman who thrives on unjust punishment, who seems to have her poor brother’s nuts crushed figuratively in her hand so that if he ever opposes her, she’ll make sure he never forgets it. But their relationship is still a mystery to me, now more than ever—I don’t think I’ve ever been so confused. Moving down one long stretch of white hallway, I see a small group of women out ahead— housekeepers, servants—standing outside a room, all huddled around it, waiting, for what I don’t know. A dozen faces all look up simultaneously when they see us—Francesca, particularly—coming toward them. They scatter, moving quickly away from the door and lining up single file along the wall on the other side of the hallway; I see one woman dressed in a white and baby-blue maid’s uniform, cross herself, mouthing a prayer. My eyes dart from the women to the opened door still several feet out ahead when a scream pierces the air. Shouting. Angry shouting. Two, three different voices; one louder and more belligerent than the others. And amid all the shouts and screams, I hear the tiny wailing of a baby and my heart dies a little more every inch I walk further into that unknown. “Please! Don’t take her!” the young woman’s voice roars, traveling down the hallway and into my ears uninvited—I feel like I’m being punished. Francesca steps into the room and we follow. Like the rest of the mansion, the space is vast. And white. So much white. But this room, with a giant four-poster bed situated between two grand windows filtering in the night through the curtain-less glass, has been stained by blood; the crimson color has soiled the bed sheets; a small pile of bloody linen lies on the floor beside the bed. The doctor, presumably, walks out of a side room; the sound of latex snapping as he removes the bloodied gloves from his hands. No words are spoken by or to the doctor; apparently he’s done here, and so he takes up his bag of tools and his brown leather long-coat hanging over the back of a chair, and he exits the room, moving past the wide-eyed women now all crossing their chests and mouthing prayers. “Madam, I’m begging you,” the young woman in the bed who I’m sure is Sian, pleads. “Don’t take her from me. I’ll do anything…” Tears stream down her face; her long black hair is drenched in sweat; someone hit her in the left eye; it’s turning yellow and brown and black, swelling above her cheekbone.


I glance at Emilio—he’s shaking; he’s holding back the true measure of it, but it’s no mistake he’s shaking. “GIVE ME MY BABY!” Sian tries to fly out of the bed when a nurse hands the crying newborn to Francesca, but she’s held back by the brute force of three other nurses. “DON’T TOUCH HER!” She thrashes against her captors; her screams I don’t doubt fill the entire third floor of the mansion; and Emilio isn’t the only one in the room shaking—I have to clench my fists tight to steady my hands. Sian tries once more to come out of the bed fighting for her child, but Valentina moves toward her like a snake striking and slaps her so hard across the face that she’s momentarily shocked into submission; she falls against the headboard, the back of her head banging against the thick, detailed wood. For a fleeting moment, so quick I’m surprised I saw it at all, I notice Emilio’s and Sian’s eyes lock on one another from across the short space, but they avert them quickly, I’m guessing so Francesca doesn’t make note of it. Francesca takes the crying baby, still wet and covered in blood and slime having just been born moments ago, and she eerily begins to cradle it. Its little hands and feet kick and strain and move about mechanically; the tiny pink legs all curled up. She holds the baby against her chest. “Shh, shh,” she whispers and carefully rocks it in her arms until the crying eases. There’s nothing motherly about her comforting the baby; everything she’s doing is a demonstration of her power, a preparation for cruelty. I try not to look anymore, at any of them, but I find it hard not to look at Sian, lying in the bed like that, soiled by her own blood, tears glistening on her face as she watches helplessly as some other woman holds her child, who threatens her child. And I’m reminded all over again about the child that was taken from me in such a similar way that for a second I feel like I’m still in Mexico. I nearly lose it. I feel myself just a breath from blowing our cover; the blood rising up into the top of my head; I feel my hands aching for Pearl, or a gun, or anything I could potentially use to bash this bitch’s head in and kill her dead, dead, dead. But I don’t. I stay calm, emotionless, seemingly unaffected by what I’m seeing and what I’ve yet to see. “Dear Brother,” Francesca says, stroking the baby’s soft dark hair, “come and look at her; she’s absolutely beautiful.” “I have no reason to look at her, Francesca,” Emilio says, and refuses to budge. Francesca looks over her shoulder at him. “I said come and look at her.” Emilio’s jaw clenches, but he gives in and approaches them. When he’s standing over the child in his tall height, looking down into its little pudgy face, another knot moves down the center of his throat as if he’s suppressing tears. And anger. He looks at the baby only seconds before his eyes stray. “She looks just like you,” Francesca tells him; accusation ripe in her voice, but soft and cunning. “It’s not my child, Sister. I’ve told you before and I’ll tell you every day until you believe me —it’s not my fucking child. I never touched that whore.” Sian looks off at the wall, wiping tears from her cheeks; there’s no anger in her face spurred by Emilio’s harsh words; it’s as if she accepts them, she understands them. “I swear to you, Madam,” Sian speaks up, “he has never laid a finger on me.” “Oh, but he has,” Francesca comes back, her voice laced with sweet death. “My brother has


laid a finger on you and in you; he has fucked you right there in that bed, and he’s fucked you in the servant’s quarters, and as soon as your cunt heals from giving birth to his little girl, he’ll fuck you again and again—unless I stop it.” “It’s not my baby, Francesca. You’re just being paranoid.” Francesca’s hand darts out and strikes Emilio across the face; the quick motion scaring the baby, causing it to cry again. “You lie, Emilio!” Francesca lashes out. “I’m telling you the truth!” Then they start arguing in Italian, screaming at one another; veins visible in Emilio’s head; Francesca’s eyes wide and feral; the baby wails in her loosening arms. And then Emilio reaches in and takes the baby from her, holding it carefully so as not to crush or drop the little girl, while at the same time he and Francesca continue to scream into one another’s faces in a language I don’t understand. But just like before, when Francesca and Valentina were talking, it doesn’t take much to get a general idea of what they’re saying: Francesca refuses to relent in her accusation of Emilio and Sian having slept together, and that the baby is his. Emilio continues to tell her she’s paranoid, maybe he’s even telling her she’s crazy, I could never really know, but I’m shocked at the display, seeing a once very devoted brother who wouldn’t dare do anything to anger his sister, now in her face as if he’s her equal. And Francesca doesn’t kill him for it. She just continues to rage at him, to rage with him. “Let me take the child,” Valentina speaks up from behind. She steps up to Emilio. He stops screaming, looking down at the baby with conflicted eyes. Then he places the baby in Valentina’s arms. “Sell the goddamned kid,” he snaps. “It’s not mine; I don’t fucking care what you do with it.” “I intend to sell it,” Francesca says, voice booming. “No! No! Don’t take her! Let me go with her!” Sian cries. Francesca pushes her way past her brother and storms over to the bed, wrenching both hands in Sian’s hair and dragging her off the bed and onto the hard floor; she lands with a thud! Then Sian is dragged across the floor by her hair, kicking violently, crying out curses and words of plea at the same time. “You evil fucking bitch! No-No Please…I’m begging you, Madam!” She can’t decide which face to wear—the obedient or the retaliatory one—knowing that neither one will help her. Next to me, Niklas hasn’t moved. He has stood there, as calmly as I think I’ve ever seen him, and watched this scene unfold with little more than an interest. At one point I saw him smile darkly, one corner of his mouth had lifted at a precise moment when Francesca looked at him, and it’s unnerving how believable it was to me. That’s why Francesca brought us here, why she wanted Niklas to see this: his earlier act had convinced her that they are just alike, and now she wants to show him up, or perhaps show off for him. Francesca, with Sian’s hair still wrenched in one hand, makes a gesture with the other at Valentina now standing at the foot of the bed holding the baby. “Give it to me,” she tells her, and I think she’s talking about the child until I see a flash of silver as Valentina pulls a knife from underneath her dress, attached to a sheath at her thigh. My breath catches—so does Emilio’s. But neither of us can move to do anything. Think, Izabel, think! What the fuck do I do? Maybe Francesca’s only going to hurt her; I can’t break character for that—I can’t break character at all, but I won’t let her kill that girl. I have to do something! I glance at Emilio, his eyes scarcely hiding


trepidation, and I feel like his thoughts aren’t too very different from mine. Francesca takes the knife from her sister. “Then if the girl means nothing to you, Brother,” she says as she drags Sian, kicking and crying across the floor toward Emilio, “you can watch me slit her throat.” No. No, no, no, no…Emilio, do something! And then he does. “I can do you one even better, Sister,” he says, holding out his hand. “I’ll slit her throat myself.” That seems to have pleased Francesca; a dark smile slips up on her face. Emilio steps up to her; his right hand moves down the length of her arm, over the silk of her robe to find the bare skin of her wrist. His long manly fingers touch her slender ones softly, tenderly and with forbidden affection. And then his mouth finds hers; his tongue slips between her lips and he kisses her as passionately as any man would who loves a woman with his last dying breath. I gasp quietly—at the knife in his hand, the exchange of power; at the forbidden kiss that both moves me and makes me uncomfortable at the same time. Emilio won’t kill Sian; I feel it in my heart. But then what—I gasp again, this time so sharply I know that if anyone were paying attention to me that they surely heard it, but I’m the least of anyone’s interest right now. I watch the knife in Emilio’s hand like an inevitable car accident in slow motion—he’s going to kill Francesca; he’s going to kill Victor’s payday… “You know,” Niklas speaks up coolly, and every pair of eyes in the room turn to him, “I’d really hate to spoil the demonstration of loyalty between you two…as disturbing as it is”—he clears his throat facetiously—“but I’d hate even more to pass up possessing a girl like that one.” Sian, still on her knees with her hair in Francesca’s hand looks to and from Niklas and Emilio’s black dress shoes, not daring to look up at him, her eyes darting back and forth, her breath quick and heavy. The baby in Valentina’s arms makes a suckling sound as it feeds from Valentina’s breast. Emilio, slow to move any part of his body, stunned by the turn of events, stares at Niklas with a blank, unreadable face. Francesca observes Niklas with heavy suspicion. She steps away from Emilio, leaving him with the knife, and pulls Sian’s hair, tightening her one-handed grip. Then she drags her across the floor again, this time toward us. Sian’s arms shoot up, hooking around Francesca’s wrist, but she’s too weak to break free—Francesca is as strong as she looks. “I’d rather you kill me!” Sian screams. “Don’t take me away from my baby!” Francesca releases Sian’s hair and stands tall over her, daring her to move. Sian, knowing there’s nothing she can do, that no matter how hard she fights there’s no way she’s getting out of this room. “You want to buy her?” Francesca says, as if she doesn’t believe it. She smiles. “She’s not even one of my cyprians; she’s been one of Emilio’s favorite girls, hasn’t seen the outside of my estate in ten years to have been fucked by anyone other than my brother.” She steps into Niklas’s space, sizing him up; I take a step back to stand next to Nora. “She doesn’t fit your criteria, Mr. Augustin.” Formalities again? That’s not a good sign. “I’m beginning to think you want to save her.” Instinctively I go to reach for Pearl, only to stop myself, realizing I’m weaponless.


Izabel

Niklas smiles slimly, unaffected by her taunts, her accusations. “Paranoia, Madam Moretti,” Niklas says, offering her the same formalities, “it really is a blemish you could do without. But you’re right in a sense: I do want to save her, but not necessarily from your blade; I’d like to save her for mine.” Niklas’s gaze falls on Sian. Then he steps around Francesca and begins to pace slowly around Sian on the floor; his hands clasped on his backside. “You said yourself that she was a whore,” Niklas points out. “A true whore—were those not your words?” He stops pacing for a second, long enough to look back at Francesca with a perceptive smile alight in his face. “I think anyone who has been spreading her legs for someone like your brother for ten years, has probably been doing the same for any man who works in this place. She’s a survivor, Miz Moretti”—Sian lowers her forehead to the floor—“I knew a girl like her once, forced into a life of bondage, raped by men who she knew would kill her if she ever told her master; forced to feel certain…feelings for a man who showed her affection because it was the only way she knew how to stay alive.” I swallow. Hard. And I hate him for those words I know were about me. And yet, I care for him in ways I don’t understand. He stops pacing in front of the girl’s head; her long black hair lies disheveled against the bright white floor; the toes of his shiny dress shoes touch the tips of her fingers. He looks down at her as he speaks. “And now, after giving birth to a baby she’ll never hold, or feed, or touch, or name, or sing lullabies to because I have absolutely no interest in buying a goddamned child, she’ll fight more than ever when I take her away. And she’ll hate me immensely for it.” His head turns to Francesca. There’s a dark smile playing discreetly in his features. “This one, Miz Moretti, is precisely the kind of flawed whore I’m looking for.” Sian draws her hands toward her face and she sobs into her palms; her back, covered by a white gown, bounces as she trembles; she curls into a fetal position and wails, stirring the attention of her newborn child suckling the breast of another woman just feet from her. Again, I notice the women in the hall crossing their chests and mouthing prayers. And again, I witness more of the real Emilio as he stands feet away with a knife in his hand and a gaping hole in his heart, unable to make use of either. He knows that if he speaks out against any of this, if he refuses to let Niklas take Sian, that his wicked sister will kill her. And maybe he knows too that if he kills Francesca, that Sian will die anyway because neither of them will get out of the mansion alive. Letting Niklas buy her, probably nowhere on Emilio’s list of options, is the only option he has. But he doesn’t like it—rage lies beneath the surface of his face, seething, growing, harder and harder to contain, but like me, he continues to play his role. Francesca appears to contemplate Niklas’s offer. She looks to her sister. Valentina shrugs lightly, patting the baby carefully against its exposed back. Then Francesca turns to Niklas again,


glances briefly at the briefcase in his hand. “I will sell the girl to you,” she says, “for everything you have left in that case of yours.” Everything? But then what will we use to buy or bargain with for Olivia Bram? Victor’s money? He will be pissed. Niklas holds the briefcase out to Francesca and she takes it. Sian scrambles to her knees; she reaches up with both hands and grasps the legs of Niklas’s dress pants, pulling and fingering the fabric into her fists. “Please, if you buy me, buy my baby! I’m begging you, Master, please!” Her voice is hoarse from crying and screaming so much. “PLEASE!” she roars up at Niklas and her voice cracks. Niklas crouches down in front of her, slowly, with such ease and power. He cocks his head to one side, studying her; then to the other side. He reaches out and brushes her cheek with the back of his fingers. Then the other cheek. Then he moves away a few strands of hair that lay across her forehead, tucking them behind her ear, taking his time. Her dark blue eyes are rimmed with red; the whites of her eyes streaked and mapped by little inflamed veins; tears track down her cheeks, drip from her chin. Niklas touches the bruised skin under her left eye with the pad of his thumb, gently and with as much disingenuous comfort as Francesca had meant to give the baby when trying to calm it. “From now on,” Niklas says in a calm, frightening voice, “you will be known as Lia.” His thumb moves to her mouth, tracing her bottom lip and stopping in the center, pulling the lip gently away from her teeth. Sian swallows desperately; she stares directly into his eyes, knowing that her new master compels it. “You will speak only when spoken to; you will do anything and everything I tell you to do, and you will do it to my satisfaction or you will be”—he licks the dryness from his lips —“punished in ways that will make you wish I had let the Madam kill you.” He leans in and touches his lips to hers ever so gently, as if he’s savoring the taste of her on his mouth, his new toy that he can’t wait to take home and open. Every part of her. Physically and emotionally. For a moment I forget who he is; I’m so quietly shocked by his act that I’m beginning to wonder if it’s still an act at all; my heart is pounding violently in my chest. “W-What about my baby? Please buy my baby!” Niklas’s big hand crushes the girl’s throat. He rises into a towering stand, lifting her from the floor and off her feet. My hand is over my mouth before I can stop it. Sian kicks her feet back and forth; blood trickles down the insides of her thighs; her hands grip Niklas’s wrists, trying desperately to pry his vise-grip fingers from her throat; her pale face begins to turn colors; her blue eyes bulge in her face. She gasps for air to fill her lungs with, but no matter how wide she opens her mouth, the air can’t get past Niklas’s hand. Emilio starts to move forward, just a small step that Francesca doesn’t see because her back is to him, but then he stops when Niklas releases Sian and she falls against the floor, choking, gasping; the natural white color of her face coming back to the surface to replace the red and purple. She lies down on her side, helpless, hopeless, crying into her hands. “Sister,” Francesca says to Valentina, “take the child away.” “NO! DON’T TAKE HER—” Niklas knocks Sian out cold, cutting her off. Emilio turns and leaves the room promptly, when —and because—I know that all he wants to do is kill Niklas. But he can’t unless he wants to give himself away and give Francesca reason to kill Sian. “I’ve no clue what you see in such uncivilized behavior,” Francesca tells Niklas. Her robe has come apart; impossible not to be aware of it, though she doesn’t care and goes on talking with her naked body on display. “Challenge or not.”


Niklas grins. “I just like it when they fight,” he says. Francesca grins right back at him, understanding, and then she gets back to business. “One of the conditions of your purchase,” she says, “is that you get her out of this country no later than tomorrow afternoon.” Translation: I want her away from my brother whom I have an unhealthy obsession with on so many levels of crazy. Tomorrow? We’re never going to find Olivia Bram—hell, I’m beginning to doubt we’re going to pull off kidnapping this insane woman. “That’s when we planned to leave anyway,” Niklas says. Francesca switches the briefcase to the opposite hand. “Are you sure you’re not interested in buying the child?” she asks, suspiciously. I think she’s still testing him. “Oh, I’m sure,” Niklas answers right away. Then he takes a cigarette from his jacket and lights it up in his mouth. “But I am still interested in viewing your cyprians.” Francesca’s left eyebrow hitches up. “You want to buy more than one girl? That can certainly be arranged.” Without looking away from Niklas, she calls out to the women in the hall, “I suggest you get in here and get this room cleaned.” The women scurry into the room and start cleaning at once: stripping the bed of its bloody sheets, dusting, sweeping; they look terrified. I wonder if the housekeepers live here too. I wonder how many times they’ve all huddled together somewhere like they were doing in the hall as this spectacle with Sian went on, and plotted to escape; or plotted to kill Francesca—too afraid to do either. “Maybe,” Niklas says. “And if not this time around, I’d still like to see the merchandise, for a future purchase.” Yeah, not this time around because you’ve spent all of the client’s money on the wrong girl.

The cyprians are brought to the mansion minutes later; Miz Ghita comes in to alert Francesca of their arrival downstairs. “Why don’t you follow me,” Francesca tells Niklas. “No, please leave your girls here. I would like a chance to speak with you privately.” Niklas nods and then looks to me. “Stay here with Aya and Lia while I talk with the Madam.” I nod reluctantly, timidly, making sure my Naomi mask is still securely in place. When he starts to walk away, I step up behind him and grab his hand for added effect. He stops and turns to face me. “Please don’t leave me alone…long,” I whisper, but not so low that Francesca can’t hear me. Niklas leans in and presses his lips to mine. He pulls away and I open my eyes, looking up at him, pretending to be afraid. “No one will hurt her here,” I hear Francesca say, but I never take my eyes off Niklas’s. “Shelia,” she calls out, and one of the housekeepers stops dusting and stands attentive. “Fetch two guards and have them stand outside this room. No one leaves or enters it other than your crew.” “Yes, Madam,” the housekeeper says, and then hurries out the door. Moments later, Niklas is leaving with Francesca. I look at Sian still lying unconscious on the floor. And then I look at Nora, still the most obedient slave girl I’ve ever seen in my life. I don’t


know how she does it; she just stands there with her hands folded down in front of her; her head lowered, always looking at the floor; never showing fear, uneasiness, even discomfort. After everything that has happened, Nora Kessler has played her role seemingly without coming close to breaking character for even a second. It fascinates me and disturbs me at the same time. Could I ever really be just like her? Would I want to? She would’ve let that girl die for the sake of her role—I believe that. But that’s what makes her so good. Nora Kessler is a machine. Do I want to be that good? A machine? With no remorse, no conscience? Unable to feel pain because I refuse to let it in by way of emotions? Do I really want to be like her? I want to say no, because it’s the human thing to do. I want to say no…but why can’t I?


Niklas

I refuse all four of the cyprians brought in for my private showing—none of them were Olivia Bram. Didn’t expect otherwise. Miz Ghita escorts them out of the small room, leaving Francesca and me alone for the first time. Just me and her, sitting together in a room that’s surprisingly devoid of the typical white everything. Two walls; the one behind and in front of me are filled from floor to ceiling with books. The floors are hardwood; the furniture black. I take a seat on the sofa offered me and make myself comfortable. I’m worried about leaving Izzy alone in this place. I know she can handle herself to an extent, and—I can’t believe I’m going to say this—I know she’ll stay in character, but it’s Emilio who worries me. I just bought—and hit—the woman who I think he might be in love with, and who just gave birth to his kid—aside from his sister, I’m his least favorite person in this mansion. ‘Naomi’, as everyone here already knows, is my weak spot. And Emilio is the type to go straight for the weak spot. This meeting can’t last long—it’s been too long already. “Now that we are alone,” Francesca says, sitting on the sofa next to me; she hands me a glass of whiskey, “I’ve been dying to have you elaborate on some things.” “What things?” I take a sip and set the glass down on the end table. Francesca scoots closer. “You said something earlier tonight,” she begins, “about a family betrayal”—she twirls her hand at the wrist—“that your brother betrayed you? I cannot help but feel empathetic.” You don’t know the meaning of the word. “We have much in common,” she adds. “Yes, we seem to,” I say. No, we have nothing in common—you’re a fruitcake. “I can’t help but want to dig deeper inside that head of yours,” she goes on. “We are both dominant souls who thrive on power; we both revel in punishment; we have both been betrayed by our brothers, and it seems we both have a weakness we cannot hide.” “Emilio and Naomi,” I say, knowing. She nods; her hand rests on my inner thigh. She wears a lot of perfume—I fucking hate that stinking shit; give me a woman’s natural scent any day. “When it comes to love,” she says, “we cannot change who our hearts want.” “No, we can’t,” I say, and then I feel my mind drifting, slipping away into a recent memory. A forbidden memory. “Niklas?” I blink back into the moment. Then I reach for the whiskey glass and gulp the contents of it down in one drink. “Let’s talk about something else, shall we?” she suggests. “I gather that love is a sensitive topic for you—it is for me as well; I like to avoid it as you do. Tell me about your brother, then.” I snort, shaking my head and wishing I didn’t just drink down the last of my whiskey. “Unfortunately,” I say with a mock smile, “the topic of my brother’s betrayal and the one about


love are pretty much the same fucking thing.” I put up my hand quickly, ending an accusation before it begins. “Of course, I didn’t have the same…problem that you have with your brother.” Francesca smiles slimly. “Well what did your brother do?” she asks. “He killed the woman I loved.” Why am I telling her this shit so freely? So easily? It took Jackie longer than this to get anything out of me and I had been fucking her for weeks. Maybe it’s because Francesca is a complete stranger, and I’ll never see her again after all of this is over. Because she’ll be dead. Maybe I just need to get it all out. Oh nice—I choose a lunatic as a psychologist. “Ah, I see.” Francesca crosses her legs; her hand remains on my inner thigh. “But why would he do such a thing? Were you not close as brothers?” “We were always close,” I tell her, thinking of Victor, mourning our severed relationship, knowing that I can never truly forgive him and that nothing between us will ever be the same. “And he killed her because he thought he was protecting me.” “The older brother?” I nod. “And do you still have a relationship with this older, protective brother?” I hesitate before answering, “A working one, it seems.” “You work for him?” “I work with him,” I establish quickly. “Or, at least that’s the way things are supposed to be”—I shake my head—“but I’ve always felt more…beneath him than beside him.” I look off at the wall—I need to leave. Soon. “Ah, yes,” she says. “The leader of the wolf pack, your brother. The alpha male. Getting all the respect and glory.” She smiles. “He should be careful; wolves are protective, territorial—but also cannibalistic. Should your brother show weakness, step into a snare trap, he will be torn apart by the other wolves. And then you will become the alpha.” Francesca’s hand slides away from my thigh and she stands from the sofa. She ties her bloody white robe closed in front of me, but I take nothing from the gesture other than an involuntary action. “Family bonds,” she says, pacing slowly, “can be a tricky thing. I have eight sisters and only one brother; my mother hates every one of us—except for Valentina; Valentina is her favorite. She is the eldest; she was supposed to be in my place as Madam, but I was chosen over her by our father.” She smiles, looking off at the wall, appearing briefly lost in a memory, or maybe a face. She grins. “But I am my father’s favorite, and what my father wants trumps my wretched mother’s wishes.” She pauses as if to savor that truth and then says, “But I have learned in my time living with my sisters, all of whom want what I have, that to be my own person so I’m not forced to live in their shadow, I have to play dirty, and let nothing nor anyone get in the way or I could end up kissing my mother’s ass like Valentina does. I could end up kissing my older sister’s ass.” I smile darkly. “So you’re this beautiful terrible creature who disfigures her property because it keeps your family under your control?” I know that’s not it. Entirely. She smiles. “No,” she says. “I do that because I enjoy it.” The smile stretches; so does mine. She paces some more, arms crossed loosely under her breasts. “We are unique, you and I, the black wolves of our families, mutations; we are special. The only difference I see is that I lead my pack, and you, being the loyal, devoted brother that you are, choose to live in an older sibling’s shadow.” I sneer, look away. “You don’t know anything about me or my brother,” I say. “How would


you know if I was loyal and devoted to him?” Francesca, unfazed by my gall, answers with a clever grin, “Because your brother is still alive. If one of my sisters had killed the man I love, my revenge would be merciless and swift. Loyalty is not so unlike love: you do things for it that you would not otherwise do; you feel a terrible, all-consuming sense of responsibility to uphold it; you go the extra mile to prove it; and most of all, you accept the pain it creates because to deny it would be to deny the loyalty itself. The only difference between loyalty and love is that for love you do all of these things because you want to, and you would do them again, and again, and again. Loyalty is learned; love is organic.” I glance down at my lap—she’s right and I want to kill her for it. “You may be right,” I say, looking back up at her, “but you still don’t know enough about me for us to be having this conversation.” I stand from the sofa. “My apologies, but I really need to go. Thank you for the evening. I will be in touch.” “Niklas,” she says, stopping me in my casual stroll toward the closed door. “I did not mean to hit a nerve.” She moves up behind me, places a hand on my shoulder and walks around my body to face me; her fingers leaving a trail across my chest. The bitch wants to kiss me, the way she keeps looking at my lips; her closeness; the seductive sweep of her eyelashes; the parting of her mouth. “Few men have ever intrigued me the way you do. From the moment I saw you, I knew there was something about you, a mystery I needed to unravel. It wasn’t your money that bought your private meeting; it was my curiosity. I would have given you the meeting for free.” She walks around me slowly, her fingers falling away from my back. “I can tell you are very strong, destined for great things,” she continues, “just like I was before I did something about it, before I seized the moment and took what was mine. But for all the power that keeps your mask in place, behind it I feel like there is a wounded soul, dying to break free. And I would love to be more acquainted with him.” She stands in front of me, pressing her body to mine. “And what do you think,” I begin, “this wounded soul, dying to break free, is destined to do?” She touches my bottom lip with the tip of her finger; her dark eyes sweeping over my mouth. “Kill your brother,” she whispers onto my lips, brushing hers against mine. “Take your revenge, and then take what is rightfully yours.” She slips her tongue into my mouth; my body, not my rational mind, reacts to her warm flesh. My hands quickly find her hips, gripping the flesh in my rigid fingers; I push her body against the door, tearing away at her robe and it comes apart in front of me; her tits spilling out into my hands. I kiss her hard, hungrily. “I want to feel you,” she whispers when the kiss breaks. “Let me feel how much of the black wolf you really are.” Her mouth collapses around mine again, and her hand finds its way into my pants. I growl, low and guttural, against the side of her neck when I feel her hand gripping my cock with painful abandon—the rougher the better, you crazy bitch. If I don’t stop myself I’m gonna fuck her. I don’t give a shit about who she is, what she is, or what she does—I’m gonna have to fuck her. Izzy’s face framed by her butchered auburn hair pops into my mind, and I stumble back a few steps—I can’t leave her alone any longer. Francesca, looking disappointed, but not slighted, tilts her head to one side. I straighten my suit. “I’d love to stay longer,” I say, “but I’m going to be honest with you—I don’t feel good about leaving my girls alone with your pissed off brother roaming around without his leash.” Francesca smiles, and then closes her robe about her, loosely so that her tits are still easily seen.


“I understand perfectly,” she says. She steps up to me, reaches out and smooths her fingers down the length of my tie. She appears to be thinking about something and then says, “Why don’t you join me again tomorrow before you leave; just you and me; leave your girls at your hotel. That will also give me more time to think about which of my cyprians I can show you next. Tomorrow I can have six or seven of them for you to look at.” And that’ll give me enough time to figure out how I’m going to get you out of this mansion, bound and gagged so I can collect a payday. I lean in and kiss her lightly on the mouth. “I will be here.” The girl, Sian, is awake when I go back into the room to find Izabel and Nora the same way I left them. “I won’t go with you!” “I’m sorry, Niklas,” Izabel, as Naomi, says as I come into the room without Francesca. “I tried to talk to her, told her you wouldn’t hurt her if she cooperated, but she won’t listen to me.” Miz Ghita—ordered by Francesca to give me whatever I need before escorting us out of the mansion—stands at the open door, waiting. “I will get her some clothes,” she says and walks into the room with us and opens a closet. I move past Izzy and stop in front of Sian, looking down at her still sitting on the floor in her bloody gown. “Take off your gown,” I demand, looming over her. When she doesn’t act fast enough, I repeat, “I said take off your gown.” Finally she obeys; she trembles as she raises her arms above her head, struggling to get the fabric past her shoulders. I crouch in front of her and help her with it, dropping it on the floor afterward. She sits with her legs pressed together over to one side; her arms covering her naked breasts. “Did the doctor sew you up?” I ask. She nods, tears streaming down her cheeks. “Show me.” She doesn’t move; her eyes grow wider. “Spread your legs and show me,” I repeat, this time with an air of warning. Her body shaking, her arms come uncrossed and her knees break apart apprehensively. I help her with that too, speeding up the process so we can get the hell out of here. She spreads her legs before me and I examine her carefully so I don’t hurt her—I’m not leaving this place before I’m sure she’s been properly cared for after giving birth. I can’t take her to a hospital and I sure as hell won’t be sewing her up myself. Fuck that. “Good,” I say, push her legs closed and then reach into my pocket. “I want you to swallow this.” She looks down into my hand at the pill, then back up at me, shaking her head no. Grabbing her by the back of the head with one hand, I shove the pill down her throat with the other, pushing my finger deep so I know she swallows it. She gags; thrashes in my grasp, her eyes watering from the sting. Then I close her mouth with my hand and hold it there firmly. “Swallow it.” Her throat moves, and then I pry her mouth open again and check to make sure the pill is gone. Izzy helps Miz Ghita get Sian dressed in a flashy cocktail dress, afterward slipping on a pair


of glittery high heels with straps around the ankles—an outfit I chose so that when I carry her, passed out, into the hotel, she’ll just look like she’s been out on the town parting all night and no one’s likely to think anything about it too suspicious. Sian is unconscious in the car before we even make it to the hotel. I wrap her in my suit jacket and carry her in my arms through the elaborate lobby and into the elevator, her legs over one arm and her head nestled against my chest. “Too much wine,” I tell the old woman next to me as we ride up; I smile, and then wink at her for good measure. The old woman’s face flushes with heat, and she looks the other way. When she steps out onto her floor, she looks back at me, holding her gaze until the shutting doors cut her off. “Better be careful,” Izzy whispers in my ear, “or you’ll be eating cougar meat tonight.” “Have I told you yet that your hair looks like shit?” Izzy’s nose wrinkles on one side. She smirks. “No, but you must be mistaking me for a woman who feels like she’s defined by her looks rather than her strength. What, Niklas, did you expect me to cry in a fucking corner over it?” In a way, yeah. On the other hand, this particular reaction to her hair being hacked off, doesn’t surprise me, either. The elevator doors break apart and we head straight for our suite. I set Sian down on the bed in the private room opposite the main living area, and I do a sweep of the room for any electronic devices, in case we had any unwanted visitors while we were in the mansion. Izabel and Nora wait in the main room without breaking character. “It’s clean,” I announce, coming out of the kitchen area. Like a blinding flash of light, Nora’s fist comes soaring toward my face, knocking me against the wall. She’s on me like a cat on its prey before I know what the fuck just happened; her brown eyes swirling, blazing with—what the hell is that? Ha! This bitch is fuming pissed, but I swear to God she looks like she wants to fuck me.


Niklas

With my back against the wall, Nora’s hand tightens around my throat. I don’t fight her; I put my hands up beside me against the wall too, and I grin. “Damn, woman,” I say, laughing, choking out the words. She bangs my head on the wall and presses her body against mine to hold me in place; I feel her fingers digging into my throat just underneath my jawbone. “What the fuck did I do?” I still can’t help but laugh. Her fingers tighten; her nostrils flare; her eyes swirl. “You know what you did,” she growls. “Was it the whipping?” Laughter. I can’t help it! Bang! Little black dots spring before my eyes when my head hits the wall. The laughter dies around me; so does my smile. “Screw this,” I hear Izabel say. “I’m going to bed.” And I hear the door to the private room close. I grab Nora by her throat and we reverse places; I shove her as hard as I can against the wall, glaring into her face, our noses almost touching; my fingers splayed around her throat and her jaw. I’ve wanted to do this for so long—paybacks, bitch. “Thought you could handle it?” I growl right back at her. “I did what I had to do—it could’ve been much worse.” “It wasn’t what you did,” she says through strained words; my hand hindering airflow. “It was that you enjoyed it too much.” The grin slips back onto my face. She tries to knee me in the nuts, but I move enough to avoid it and she catches me in the gut instead. It takes the breath out of me; I recover quickly, but the second of distraction is all Nora needs to reverse our roles again and she pounces on me. I don’t even know how, or what part of her body is on me where, all I know is that I’m falling backward with her on top of me, and I feel flesh against flesh, and the silk of her hair on my face and my neck and my arms. When she’s done hitting me in the face—because I finally get ahold of her wrists to stop her—I open my eyes to find her straddling my chest; my head pressed between her powerful thighs, squeezing it like a goddamn grape. I let go of her wrists and take her by the elbows, easily tossing her off and onto the floor on her back. She slaps me once, twice when I’m on top of her, but I like that shit so I don’t hold her arms. “What the fuck is wrong with you?” she hisses, glaring up at me. “I thought you never break character? I have to say, I’m disappointed.” “I got the job done,” I tell her, hovering over her, straddling her waist. “So far.” “Could’ve been done more smoothly.”


“How so?” “If you hadn’t been arguing with your girlfriend in front of everybody, I wouldn’t have had to make a scene, and you wouldn’t have had to enjoy beating me with a whip.” She snarls and then slaps me again; I feel the hot sting on the side of my face and it just makes my dick harder. “I think you liked it,” I say, grinning. “And I think you like slapping me. You’re getting off on it.” “Bullshit.” Her fist soars toward my head and I stop it with my hand; the grin deepens in my face. I lean toward her, pushing myself against her even though she’s struggling to push me off; it’s all a show—she has me right where she wants me. I’m as hard as a fucking rock. And she knows it; she can feel it between her legs—that look on her face is priceless. Restraining her left hand against the floor, I grab her bottom lip with my teeth and bite down, hard enough to hurt, but not hard enough that she won’t like it; her other hand is wound in the back of my hair, pulling. “I’ll tell you what, Nora Kessler,” I say, releasing her lip from my teeth, “I’ll put my cock in you and we can call it even.” She laughs. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” she snaps back, trying to free her other wrist from my hand. “You’re really full of yourself, aren’t you?” “Not really, no.” I press myself against her, letting her feel it, and I tug on her bottom lip with my teeth again. She tries to slap me away, but I just smile and grind against her harder. “But I really just want to put my cock in you—I’ve had a really stressful day, and it’s how I like to wind down. You’ll like it, I promise.” Then I reach down with my free hand and open my dress pants, sliding them over my ass just enough so I can…work. Nora tries to kick me off her—(come on, babe, I know you’re stronger than that)—but I hold her down without difficulty. “Get off me, or I’ll fucking kill you, Niklas.” “You can kill me after,” I tell her casually, stroking myself. “If you’ll still want to by then.” I shove my cock deep inside of her, and feisty badass Nora Kessler becomes putty in my hands; she gasps, forcing her head back against the floor; the whites of her eyes rolling into view before her eyelids slam shut over them, and she lets out a small cry; her tits heaving; her back arched. “All right,” I whisper onto her mouth, and start to pull out of her, “maybe I am going about making it up to you the wrong way.” Her thighs crush me, forcing me to stop. She looks up into my eyes, gritting her teeth. “I’ll kill you,” she says, “if you don’t fuck me.” I grin. And get to work.


Izabel

I lie on the bed next to Sian, and for a long time I watch her, thinking about what she went through, what she’ll still be going through tomorrow. We’re the same people lying in this bed together, two women whose lives were stripped from them, whose babies were taken from our arms at the moment of birth. “I’m sorry this happened to you,” I whisper, though I know she can’t hear me. I’m trying hard to block out the whimpers and moans and the sound of the bed in the main room slamming against the wall, but it’s not so easy to do. At least Nora got what she wanted. I’m not sure why it bothers me; maybe it’s because I know Nora isn’t good for Niklas. Or Fredrik. Or anyone I care about, really. I like her, but she’s dangerous, and I just hope Niklas is careful. We may not get along but…well, I’ll kill Nora before she kills him. I don’t remember falling asleep, and I have no idea how long I’ve been asleep, but when I open my eyes I feel like it’s morning even though I’m in a room with no windows and the door is shut. And I’m pissed. We were supposed to go over a plan to kidnap Francesca today, but it seems Niklas and Nora spent the night fucking each other instead. Crawling out of the bed carefully so I don’t wake Sian—what the hell did Niklas give her?—I leave the room and head into the main room to find Nora sitting on the bed with her back pressed against the headboard; the television remote is in her hand and she’s flipping through channels. She’s wearing nothing but a tank-top and a pair of panties. “Finally up,” she says when she sees me. “You were dead to the world last night.” “That’s not a reason not to wake me up when you two were done…being really loud.” Nora smiles and goes back to flipping channels. “Where’s Niklas?” “He’s taking a piss.” She looks at the bathroom door, then at me, as if making sure Niklas can’t hear what she’s about to say. A grin slips up on her mouth. “He—” “I really don’t want to know,” I interrupt, putting up my hand. Nora smiles and goes back to flipping channels. I go outside on the balcony.

Niklas

Izabel is sitting on the balcony when I come out of the restroom in my boxers. I pass Nora up, going


through the main room with the giant bed—she was a good fuck; not sure if I’ll ever do it again, but never say never. I join Izzy outside. “Niklas,” she says once I sit down in the wrought iron chair across from her; a matching table separates us. “I know you’re not one for talk, but I wanted to ask you something personal.” I slide my elbows back on the chair arms, hook my fingers over my lap and stretch my legs out comfortably. I feel a pang of guilt all of a sudden, but I ignore it. “No, I’m not one for talk,” I say, “but what do you want to know? Unless it’s about”—I point with my thumb toward the suite, indicating Nora—“anything that happened with her last night.” She shakes her head. “No, it’s not about that,” she says, and that pang of guilt from before turns into disappointment—why, I have no clue, but I don’t like it. I feel her eyes want to look at me, but she keeps facing forward, looking out at the hundreds of rooftops dotting the city below. I get the sense that this is serious. “Have you…well, I was just wondering if you, or anyone else in our Order—even anyone you knew when you and Victor were under Vonnegut—has ever had to worry about…pregnancies…or dealing with children?” I find myself stunned—where the fuck did this come from? “Don’t tell me you’re pregnant, Izzy, that would be the same thing as pissing in my Cheerios.” Izabel looks over sharply. “No!” she says quickly, as if the longer I believe that the more chance it might be true. “No, I’m definitely not pregnant”—she looks offended; I laugh inside—“I was thinking about it because…of Sian. When I was in the compound, girls got pregnant all the time.” “What’s that got to do with me or anyone else in our Order? Victor is who you’re really asking about though, right?” The glare in her eyes answers the question before her words do. She swallows nervously and looks back out at the city. “Don’t make this something it’s not,” she scolds me. “It’s a legitimate concern, considering our line of work—what happens if someone gets pregnant? How would Victor—or even you—deal with pregnancies?” I can’t shake the feeling that Izabel asking about this sort of thing, has more significance than what she’s letting on. But whatever—I don’t care to probe further into that head of hers. OK, maybe I care to probe a little—all right, all right, I care to probe a lot. But I’m not going to. Not my fucking business. “You and James Woodard,” I begin, “are two of few who haven’t been…fixed.” I can’t help but laugh when Izzy looks over at me with disgust, her eyebrows tight in her forehead—she looks offended, which is what I was shooting for. “We’re not animals,” she says. “We don’t get fixed—are you calling me a dog?” No, Izzy, you’re certainly no dog… I laugh again, letting my head fall back. Then I look at her and say, “We’re all fucking animals, especially that adopted brother of yours you have such a soft spot for.” “Fredrik’s not an animal, Niklas,” she defends, disappointment in her voice. “But you shouldn’t judge—you’re not so human yourself.” “I admit I’m an animal,” I say. “And if you were ever to ask Gustavsson yourself, he’d admit the same thing—anyway, to answer your strange question: selling babies isn’t our style; Victor may be a cold-blooded, murdering bastard”—I couldn’t resist—“but he’d never resort to something like that.”


“Then what would he do?” She looks right at me—what is that in her eyes? Fear? Hope? A little bit of both? Damn, it’s killing me not to probe. She’s hiding something—but what? “For starters,” I say, pointing my index finger up briefly, “Victor, as you know, is all about prevention, first and foremost. Most in our Order who haven’t already been sterilized, it’s mandatory that they become sterilized. The exceptions being people like Woodard who already have families, or members who might benefit the Order in some way by getting knocked up.” By that shocked look on Izabel’s face, it’s obvious my dear brother hadn’t gotten around to telling her this part yet. I smile thinking to myself, rubbing my hands together metaphorically in my mind, excited about being the one to break the news—any little thing I can do to make my brother’s life more difficult, I’m going to take it. “Benefit our Order by getting knocked up?” She appears confused, maybe wanting to have heard me wrong. I nod, smiling, and then light up a cigarette. “Sometimes operatives who work on the inside,” I begin, “as you know already, have to play their roles one hundred percent, that includes starting families and blending in with white-picketfence societies. An operative I worked with under Vonnegut has been married to a woman undercover for fifteen years, had six kids with her before I left The Order.” Izabel shakes her head with disbelief. “How is that an undercover mission?” she asks. “After fifteen years and a family, how is it still a mission? I’d think by then it was something very different.” “To some, sure,” I say, nodding, puffing on my cigarette. “And that operative I’m sure loves the kids he made with his wife—maybe he even loves his wife—but a good operative, like Victor for example, can still draw the line even after fifteen years of marriage; he’ll still be able to do what has to be done when and if that time comes.” “What are you trying to say, Niklas?” She glares at me. I’m trying to tell you, Izzy, without outright telling you, that my brother may love you, but he will always be Victor Faust, that sometime now or later, he’s going to realize that you’re just another Claire. “I’m trying to tell you,” I say out loud, “that there is no place for children in our world. Never has been and never will be. And if an operative gets knocked up, or knocks a woman up, that operative will have to be dealt with in whatever way Victor sees fit; in some cases, he might cut the operative loose, give him a free pass to live his life, but you can bet your ass he or she’d be watched until the day they die.” “And in other cases?” she asks. I shrug, pause, and then answer, “Let’s just say that just about everyone gets fixed, Izzy.” She looks right at me. “Except for me,” she says, searching my face for the answers, some kind of understanding that maybe only I can give her. “Why do you think Victor hasn’t pressured me about sterilization?” “Well, for one thing,” I say, “he’s not worried about you getting pregnant because he can’t get you pregnant.” “And for another thing?” She waits. But I find myself at a loss for words—I never expected to be slapped in the face by this, of all things. Why hasn’t my brother not only pressured but ordered her to be sterilized? It’s very out of character for him, so unlike Victor that I don’t think I’ve ever been as confused as I am right now.


“Niklas?” I snap out of it and look over at Izzy. “Like I said, he can’t knock you up so there’s no reason to worry about it.” Setting my cigarette in the ashtray on the table between us, I lean toward her. “Why are you asking me this stuff, anyway? And don’t say you were just curious. There’s more to it than that; it’s all over your face.”

Izabel

I didn’t ask Niklas about pregnancies and children because I was worried about getting knocked up on a mission, not even the Mexico mission. I will never be raped again, that is a fucking certainty; I will kill any man who ever tries to have his way with me. But that’s not what my question was about —I was only thinking about my child with Javier; thinking about it now more than I ever have since I’m not the only person in our Order anymore who knows about him or her. And I never would’ve asked Niklas, of all people, about any of this stuff if it weren’t for the fact that he’s Victor’s brother and knows him better than anyone. But it doesn’t come without guilt—it should be Victor I’m asking these kinds of questions, not his brother. But I can never tell Victor the truth. I don’t know why, and that bothers me immensely…I just know that I can’t.

Niklas

Izabel looks away from my eyes, shrugs her shoulders; just like me, she’s covering up the true weight of her answer. “But that is the only reason”—(liar)—“I guess going on missions like these, and the one I’ll be going on in Mexico with Nora in a few months, they make me think about stuff like this.” Ah, so therein lies the truth—Izzy worries, probably thinks about it all the time, what would happen to her if she managed to get herself raped on one of these missions, especially these missions. I would never let that happen… “No one’s going to fucking touch you, Izzy,” I say, looking right at her; she keeps her gaze fixed out ahead at the rooftops. “That’s why Victor sent me here with you, because he knows nothing like that will happen to you with me at your side.” I pause, searching her face for something still hidden and then add, “But it’s not this mission you’re worried about, is it?” She doesn’t answer. “Y’know,” I say, looking out at the rooftops with her, “if I had any say in it, you wouldn’t be allowed to go to Mexico.” She looks over quickly, defensively, her lips taut. “Then it’s a good thing you have no say in it,” she snaps.


“Hey, I understand why you want to be a part of it, but it’s the last place in the world you should be going.” “We’ve already had this argument,” she points out. “Why do you care, anyway, what I do or where I go?” “I don’t,” I tell her instantly, crush my cigarette out in the ashtray. “I’m just sayin’.” “Sounds to me like,” Nora speaks up from behind, “we just need to get Izabel fixed and get it over with.” I really hate that woman—just because I fucked her doesn’t change that. I look over my shoulder to see Nora standing underneath the balcony entrance, her arms crossed. She smirks at me. “Hey, that’s up to Izzy,” I say, indifferent. There’s a crash! inside the suite, and the three of us take off running through the balcony doors. Sian is picking herself up off the floor next to a toppled lamp when we find her. “Get away from me!” she cries, putting up one hand to us while trying to steady her weight on the floor with the other. “Get away! HELP! SOMEBODY HELP!” Izzy rushes to Sian’s side and embraces her, covering her mouth with her hand. Sian tries to fight her off, but she’s still too weak to do anything more than struggle; the drug I gave her last night still working its way out of her system. “No one’s going to hurt you,” Izzy says, rocking her, trying to soothe her. “I promise—we’re here to help you. If I take my hand away from your mouth, please don’t scream.” After a moment, Sian nods, but the look in her red-rimmed eyes conveys anything but trust. Izabel slowly removes her hand, but she keeps her other arm around Sian’s waist from behind. “Where’s my baby?” she cries softly. “Please, you have to let me go.” “Niklas,” Izzy says, looking up at me, needing me to step in. With a sigh, I move toward them, and the closer I get, the more Sian recoils away from me and into Izabel’s arms. I crouch in front of her, but keep a one-foot distance so she doesn’t feel anymore threatened by me than she is. “I’m sorry,” I tell her, “but there’s nothing I can do to help you get your kid back; it would’ve been too suspicious and none of us would’ve made it out of that place alive.” “That bitch is crazy! You have to go back for my baby! And Emilio!” Shaking my head with disbelief I say, “Emilio? You still want him even though you’re free? Are you sick?” “I love him,” she says, resentment rising up in her voice. “He loves me. And who are you? Why are you saying these things to me? Why do you have me here?” Then she starts to cry and struggle against Izabel again. “She sent you to test me, didn’t she?”—She’s hysterical—“She’ll kill Emilio! No, what I said was a lie! He doesn’t love me! I swear it!” “Calm down, Sian,” Izabel tells her, squeezing her, holding down her arms. “We’re not here to trick you; we’re gonna set you free, but you can’t go back to that mansion for your baby. Or for Emilio. If you go back—if you stay in Italy—they’ll find you and Francesca will definitely kill you.” “Who are you?” she cries. Pushing myself into a stand, I grab the back of a nearby chair and pull it over in front of them, sitting down. “I can’t tell you who we are,” I say, “but you’re going to tell me something.” “W-What do you want to know?”


I lean forward, resting my arms on my legs. “I’m looking for a girl,” I begin, “a particular girl who I know isn’t anywhere in the mansion —she’s probably one of Madam Moretti’s cyprians. Where are her cyprians?” Sian’s eyes dart between me and Nora standing behind me. She’s unsure about saying anything, but she’s beginning to trust us. “The cyprians live all over the city,” she says. “They have their own homes; the Morettis don’t even have to watch them much, not like the girls in the mansion. They’re loyal to that insane woman; they’re set up with everything they need: clothes, medical care, food—who would want to run away or report the Morettis to the police? They live better than most people. And they’re protected.” She shakes her head, looks at the floor. “I wanted to be a cyprian”—her head shoots back up—“not because of the sex or the money, but because it was my way out. It was my and Emilio’s plan: he would work on his sister to get her to release me into service—to be a cyprian—sooner than normal, and then after I was in my own house, we would make a run for it.” “And you believed he’d do that?” Izabel says from behind her. “He was playing you, using you. A man like Emilio doesn’t know the first thing about love. He’s a cold-hearted bastard—look what he’s done to those girls around you.” “No,” Sian defends him, turning her head at an angle so she can see Izabel’s eyes. “Emilio would never hurt those girls—not like the Madam does. He whips them, I know, and he’s roughed them up many times, but only because he has to.” Sian’s eyes fall on me. “I’m assuming, like you had to last night when you punched me?” There’s no shortage of condemnation in her voice. I nod. “Sorry about that. I was playing a role and you needed to shut up.” Apparently I’m forgiven because she doesn’t argue with me about it. “But Emilio couldn’t get the Madam to release me,” she goes on. “She became suspicious; maybe he talked to her about releasing me one too many times, I don’t know, but the plan backfired and the Madam decided to keep me in the mansion indefinitely. I should’ve been released two years ago—no one would buy me anymore; I’m twenty-four years old—but she knew, she knew Emilio loved me, and she wasn’t about to set me free. She couldn’t prove it, but she wanted to prove it. She could’ve just killed me on the suspicion alone, but she didn’t. I don’t know why.” “Because of Emilio,” Izzy says. “She loves him and wants him to love her back, but by killing Sian”—Izabel looks at me—“she knew that would push him over the edge; he’d never forgive her. But the baby, that changed everything; the ultimate betrayal, and then it was Francesca who could never forgive. She would do anything to get back at her brother: killing Sian, or selling her to someone—a man—who’d not only hurt her, but violate her on a daily basis—it was the ultimate revenge against her brother.” I agree with Izzy’s hypothesis. “Enough about that,” Nora speaks up, walking around my chair in her panties and tank, her arms crossed. “Tell us about the cyprians: how do we find them?” “I-I don’t know. All I know is what I told you. I’m sorry. What are you going to do with me?” That is the burning question—what the hell am I going to do with this girl? The whole plan has gone to shit now that I’ve spent all of the client’s budget on Sian; now that I have her here and not Olivia Bram. “Where are you from?” I ask. Sian’s gaze strays; there’s a sadness in her eyes. “My family lived in Miami when I was taken,” she says. “But that was so long ago. I don’t know if I have a family anymore. But you don’t understand—I can’t leave here without Emilio and


our daughter. I won’t.” I get up from the chair. “Izzy,” I say, walking over to the closet in only my boxers, “I’m going to meet with Francesca in half an hour. You and Nora are going to stay with the girl; Nora will fill you in—and don’t argue with me about it; Francesca specifically requested I meet with her alone.” “I wasn’t going to say anything.” “Good.” I step out of my boxers and into a fresh pair, then take a clean suit from the closet. I need a fucking shower, but it’ll have to wait. “Have you ever heard of doing that shit in private, Niklas?” “No, Izzy,” I tell her, buttoning my pants. “You should take your clothes off more often in front of people—it’s nice under there.” She snarls at me. “I’m assuming,” Nora says, “you need one of us to contact the client and let him know we’ll have Francesca for him? What time should we tell him to meet you at the drop-off?” “Don’t worry about calling him,” I say, fitting my arms into my dress shirt. “I’ll contact him myself when I have a better idea.” “What are you going to do?” Izabel asks. “What I came here to do.” “And does your plan,” Izabel says, “involve Olivia Bram in any way?” She looks up at me with accusation. “It was never gonna happen, Izzy. You knew it wasn’t going into this. I know you had hope —you survived, after all—but your situation was one in a million. Sorry, but there’s nothing we can do for Olivia Bram.” I turn on my heels and leave, feeling stung by that wounded look on Izzy’s face when I shut the door.


Niklas

I drive a rental to the mansion so I have a way back—can’t very well pull any of this off with one of Francesca’s men as my getaway driver. Already things will be difficult because it’s broad daylight, and because I still get frisked for weapons at the front door and will be without my gun. But I have a plan. Some of it I went over with Nora last night. I feel bad about not waking Izzy up to let her in on the discussion, but it is what it is. Nora and Izabel’s job is to watch over Sian—mainly so she doesn’t try to run and end up causing us any trouble—and to get everything packed; leave the hotel and be waiting for me on our private plane. I’m going to drug Francesca and use Emilio to help me get her out of the mansion—Sian is the trade. It has to work. It’s the only plan I have.

Izabel

“Please—I’m grateful that you people are helping me,” Sian says, “but I can’t leave Italy without Emilio and our daughter. I just can’t!” “Listen to me,” I say, grabbing her face carefully, forcing her gaze. “If you don’t leave with us now, you’ll end up dead. Emilio will end up dead. This is the way it has to be done. You go with us to the United States and”—I shouldn’t say this but I’m going to anyway—“and after you’re safe where no one can find you, I’ll do what I can to find your baby. And Emilio.” “Izabel,” Nora says with caution. I turn to see her standing beside me; You can’t help that girl, her eyes tell me. I’m saying what needs to be said to get her to trust us, my eyes tell her. Nora nods. I look back into Sian’s hopeful face. “Leave with us,” I say, “and when you walk out that door, just be calm and act normal—savor your first real taste of freedom; think of your daughter and of Emilio and of being reunited with them soon, and I promise you that you will be if you just trust me.” It takes her a moment, but finally Sian nods; she reaches up and wipes tears from her cheeks


with the back of her hand. “OK,” she says. “We need to go,” Nora urges. “Are you ready?” I ask Sian. “Yes.” With bags and suitcases in tow, we leave the hotel and head for the plane.

Niklas

“Unfortunately,” I tell Francesca, “none of these girls will do, either.” Francesca walks around a line of nine cyprians all standing in a confused row: two of them keep asking what’s going on; two more are giving me go-to-hell looks; one is crying because she thinks she did something wrong and was brought here to be killed; the other four think I’m just looking to buy their services and were happy to oblige until I just rejected them. Now they’re also telling me with their eyes to go to hell. “That is a shame,” Francesca says. She waves them off and they follow Miz Ghita out of the room. “Mother,” Francesca calls out, and Miz Ghita stops at the door. “I do not want to be disturbed by anyone for the next hour at least.” Hopefully Emilio is still brazen enough to defy her orders—I need him. “Very well.” Miz Ghita glares hatefully at me and leaves, closing the door. Francesca strolls over in that sultry walk of hers and fits her fingers around the tiny lock in the door knob, turning it. She’s dressed in another robe today—white, of course—but devoid of innocent girls’ blood. And I bet there’s nothing on underneath it. “Last night,” she says, coming toward me, “after you’d gone, I thought a lot about our meeting.” “And?” I take a drag from my cigarette; I’m kicked back on the sofa, both feet on the floor, my legs apart. She smiles faintly. “And I like you, Niklas,” she says. “I’ve never met anyone like you before, and I think we could learn a lot from one another.” She stops in front of me; long dark hair drapes her shoulders. I set the cigarette in the ashtray on the end table. “Learn from one another?” I ask, suspiciously, smiling up at her. “That’s not what really interests you, is it?” She grins. Then she breaks apart the belt that holds her robe closed and stands naked before me. The robe falls to the floor. “Well, Niklas, there are many things we can learn.” “And what exactly do you want to know?” I ask, already having a good idea. She steps between my splayed legs, in arm’s reach, and I place my hands on her bare thighs, brushing my fingers across her soft skin.


“I want to know,” she says, “what you feel like.” Slipping my hands from her outer thighs to the inner, I run them up and down the sensitive flesh, feeling it warm beneath my palms. “Is that all?” I say, and move my fingers between her wet lips without entering her—she closes her eyes, savoring it. “Is there anything else?” “Yes,” she says, “but we can talk about that later.” “I would like to talk about it now, if you don’t mind.” She pauses. “All right,” she says, and sits down next to me. “I will get right to it then—I have a proposition for you.” “What kind of proposition?” I take another drag. She twirls my hair in her fingers, her arm around the back of my neck. “I need a master here in my mansion to train my new arrivals, get them ready for the showings. Emilio has always done it, but my brother went astray, betrayed me and fell for one of the very girls he was supposed to be priming. He has made me look bad, to the other masters who sell their merchandise in my showings, and to my family. It is unacceptable. He always did have a soft spot for the girls, never quite disciplined them to my liking.” With her other hand she turns my head to face her fully. “But you, Niklas, I know can get things done the way they should be. You not only seem willing to punish without mercy, but you enjoy it. It was you who cut off your girl’s finger, wasn’t it?” She grins. I nod and kiss her fingers, and then move her hand from my face. “You know me too well already,” I say and touch my lips to one corner of her mouth. “And here with me,” she goes on in that silky voice, “you will have the respect you deserve; you will never live in someone else’s shadow; you will never have to concern yourself with money because you will be paid more than you have ever seen in your life”—she gazes deep into my eyes —“and you will do as you please, fuck who you want to fuck, disfigure who you want to disfigure, and I would never dream of taking anything from you that is rightfully yours.” “Sounds promising,” I say, and then kill the cigarette in the ashtray. I look beyond Francesca, at the wall, and I think of my brother. I think of everything that I’ve done for him since we were kids: the beatings I took for him, the life I could’ve had if I didn’t love him so much I chose to stay with him in a life that robbed me of who I was meant to be; I think of the lies I told The Order to cover for him the many times he disobeyed Vonnegut and chose to do things his own way—Victor always did have rebellious blood, leader’s blood; it doesn’t surprise me that he eventually went rogue from The Order and started his own. And I think of the worst thing I ever did, the one thing in my life I can never forgive myself for. Shooting Sarai. Shooting her for my brother. It was my fault; no one can be blamed for my actions but me, but I still hate Victor for it as much as I hate myself. And I did all of this for what? For a brother who, as much I know loves me in his own fucked up way, was still going to kill me because he thought I betrayed him. He was going to kill me…after everything I’d done for him, my brother was going to kill me. And the girl he was falling in love with, the girl I tried to kill, had more mercy for me than he did. I’m only alive today because of her. And I’m a different person today because of her. I will not live in my brother’s shadow anymore. “You know,” I say, slipping a hand between Francesca’s thighs and squeezing the flesh, “I have to admit, your offer is tempting.” She moves in front of me and straddles my lap, and without even thinking about it I put a nipple in my mouth, squeezing her tit firmly in one hand; the other hand still between her legs. I push two fingers inside of her.


“What about Emilio?” I ask, and then pull her nipple with my teeth. Her hands are in the back of my hair; she’s slowly starting to ride my fingers. “Emilio will accept my decision,” she says, her eyes still closed, her bottom lip wedged between her teeth. “I wasn’t talking about that,” I say, and then I kiss her throat. “I’m talking about now—I thought you loved him?” She drags the tip of her tongue down one side of my neck, and then bites me; the motion of her hips like a small wave on my lap. “I do love him,” she says, gasping, “but that does not mean I have to save myself for him; he was not saving himself for me, was he?” She’s so bitter—this, to her, is another way she thinks she’s getting back at Emilio. She opens her eyes and gazes into mine. Then she kisses me, deep; her hands grip my hair, pulling me toward her. I hook my fingers inside of her and she moans, pushing her hips against them. “And what about that girl of yours?” she says breathily onto my mouth. “I take it that you understand the line between love and loyalty?” My mouth covers hers, our tongues tangled. “I don’t love her,” I say, breaking the kiss briefly. “I’m just fond of her. I fuck who I want.” I kiss her again, ravenously, forcing Izabel’s face out of my mind, and quietly damning this bitch for putting it there. With Francesca’s legs wrapped around me, her ass in my hands, I rise into a stand with her straddling my waist, and carry her over to the large wooden desk between two tall windows letting in an abundance of daylight. And I throw her down on it, pushing the contents of it out of the way, scattering items. I spread her legs before me with my hands. But when I see her face, gazing up at me with those dark bottomless eyes, I flip her over onto her stomach instead, pulling her body down so her feet touch the floor. I want to hurt her; I want to take my frustrations out on her—and I’m fucking going to. She cries out when I enter her roughly; her hands grasping for the edge of the desk but it’s too far out of her reach so she presses her fingertips against the flat wood for grip. Wrapping the back of her long hair around my hand twice, I pull her neck back as far as it’ll go, and I fuck her from behind with violent abandon. “That’s it, Niklas,” I hear her breathy voice somewhere amid the rage that my mind has become. “That’s it…take it out on me. All of your anger, your hatred—this is how I like it, violent and cruel.” I thrust harder—I didn’t know it was possible—and she calls out my name, over and over; her voice choked by pleasure and pain and the breath slowly being cut off the farther back I pull her head toward me. “Fuck me like you want to kill me, Niklas.” I grip the back of her head and force the side of her face down against the desk; pressing my full weight on top of her, my back against hers. I can’t see straight; all I see is red. And Victor’s face. And Claire’s face. A tear tracks down my cheek. I grit my goddamned teeth and thrust harder. Francesca cries out, and I don’t stop until I come. And when I’m done, I pull out and lay on top of her; her back rising and falling with heavy breaths; she pushes her ass toward me, wanting more.


But I have better plans. “You were right,” I whisper against her ear, lying on top of her, my chest sweating against her back. “Revenge on my brother is the only way I’m going to able to get past what he did.” “Yesss, Niklas,” she whispers silkily, pushing her ass toward me harder, as if my talk of revenge and punishment and death gets her off. “You should kill him.” I kiss the back of her neck, drag my tongue across her sweating flesh, bite the skin. “I’m going to destroy him,” I say, and bite the other side of her neck. “Starting with where it’ll hurt him the most. But I’ll never kill him because he’s my brother and I love him.” “So loyal,” Francesca says as if mocking me. “What will you do then?” she asks. “Where will it hurt him the most?” I think of Izabel and say with honesty, “His Order,” before pushing a letter opener into the back of Francesca’s neck. Her body stiffens beneath mine; she chokes and I shove the metal in deeper until I hear a pop. Blood pours from the corner of her mouth into a small pool on the desk; a stream of crimson runs down the back and sides of her neck, soaking her dark hair. A few more laboring breaths and the life leaves her eyes. I get dressed and leave her like that, lying naked across the desk on her stomach with a letter opener jutting from the back of her neck. And on my way out, I flip the lock closed before shutting the door, hoping like hell that’ll buy me at least a few minutes to get out of this place before anyone realizes what I’ve done. But I’m stopped cold when I see one of Francesca’s sisters, the nameless one who had her eyes on me during the first meeting right before I called out the real Francesca. There’s a gun in her hand. Fuck… “I’ll show you the safest way out of here,” she says, and then places the gun in my hand—it’s my gun, I realize. What the fuck…? “Come on.” She grabs my elbow and pulls me along. “There’s not much time.” She releases me when I start following her, and we take a back elevator, probably used only by the employees of the mansion, down to the ground floor. We walk briskly through the kitchen, past a dozen workers who, by the worried looks on their faces, know that whatever we’re up to isn’t anything they want to be a part of. The sister leads me down a set of steps into a dark basement, pushing our way past industrial kitchen equipment and boxes piled to the ceiling, until we make it to a door. “Go around the left side of the mansion,” she says with urgency in her voice. “You’ll see your car parked. I’m going back upstairs to buy you more time. If Mother goes into that room, you won’t get off the property.” I want to ask her why she’s helping me—ask her her name even—but there’s no time for that shit. Only stupid people do that in the movies. “Thanks. I think.” “It’s me who should be thanking you,” she says. She smiles, pushes open the door and I leave without another word. Only when I get inside my car, drive off the property without being shot at the gate, and get two miles from the mansion do I let out my breath. My fingers are white-knuckling the steering wheel; a vein throbs in the left side of my head—thumpthumpthumpthump in fast succession.


Niklas

“You did what?” Izabel’s eyes are blazing. Nora is laughing, shaking her head. “Oh wow, Niklas, what a way to piss your brother off.” “Nobody asked you,” I snap. She laughs again and looks down into a magazine. Sian sits quietly in a window seat with her legs drawn up, knees pressed to her chest. “I can’t believe you did this,” Izabel says 53642.70 ¸ exasperated. “This whole mission was for nothing—nothing except your revenge. Victor will—.” She stops herself. “He’ll what?” I challenge, feeling like I know exactly what she was going to say. “What’ll he do, Izzy, kill me? Go ahead and say it; you know you want to.” She swallows her words, crosses her arms and rounds her chin. “I was going to say that he’ll be furious.” I throw my head back and laugh out loud. “Cut the shit, Izzy—I know what you were going to say, and I know why. But don’t worry,” I go on, “he won’t kill me; not this time anyway. He’ll be pissed that I fucked up his payday, but he’ll let it go”—I point at her quickly—“I have you to thank for that.” “Me?” “Yeah—you. He didn’t kill me before because you stopped him. And he won’t kill me now, because he knows you won’t forgive him for it.” “That’s bullshit—he’s your brother, Niklas, that’s why he won’t kill you. I have nothing to do with it.” “Keep telling yourself that.” Izabel shoots into a stand, her hands clenched into fists at her sides. “Is that why you came on this mission? That’s it, isn’t it?” She steps up into my face. “Your plan all along was to go so you could screw everything up to get back at Victor—for something he shouldn’t be blamed for!” Trying not to let her screaming get too me, I shake my head and look away; take a deep breath. “Believe what you want, Iz; you’re going to no matter what I say.” “Oh, it’s pretty damn obvious to me, Niklas”—she points her finger in my face—“everything you’ve done was for yourself—selfish, childish fucking asshole! You made Nora play the slave role so you could beat her”—she jabs the tip of her index finger into my chest angrily; her eyes swirling —“and then you fucked her to shame her—” “Hey, nobody shames me,” Nora cuts in. “It’s all either of us wanted, Izabel.” We ignore her; Izabel glares at me, I glare back. I want to grab that finger of hers poking me in


the chest and shove her into the seat behind her, but I can’t bring myself to do it. “And the only reason you made me play your girlfriend was so you could use me to get back at Victor”—her palm lays across the side of my face hard and a slap rings out; stunned by the hit, I just stand here, looking back at her, wide-eyed—“that kiss…” She can’t go on. Instead of retaliation for hitting me, I want to know what she was going to say, even more. “What about the kiss?” I ask; my cheek is stinging. Izabel’s hand drops to her side. She looks wounded…wounded. She shakes her head and readjusts her rage-filled expression, quickly covering up the one that made her vulnerable, the one that hurt me inside. “Then the money,” she goes on, looking away, disappointment twisting her features. “I thought you helped Sian because…” Her eyes lock on mine again, and in them is the same disgust and hatred for me that I always saw when I looked at her after we first started working together. And that shit hurts more than anything—I know now I’m the one of us who must look wounded. “The only reason you saved her life was to—you’re just an opportunist; you spent every bit of that money because you knew it would piss Victor off. And you had no intention of ever looking for Olivia Bram!” “That’s enough, Izzy.” A long deep breath rattles in my chest; my hands collapse into fists; I grit my teeth. She steps into my face again, puts her finger in my face again, boldly, accusingly, unforgivingly. “You’re the person I knew you always were, Niklas—a lowlife piece of shit who thinks of nobody but himself—” “I said that’s enough…” Breathe, Niklas, just fucking breathe. “You’re nothing; you’re just a—” My hands shoot up of their own accord and fall heavily on Izabel’s shoulders and I shove her into the chair; the adjustable back bouncing against the weight and coming to an abrupt stop. Izabel’s eyes are round; her hands grip the plastic arms of the seat; her head is pressed into the back as if she can’t push herself far enough away from me. With my hands still on her shoulders I lean in closer, inches from her stunned face. “You’re wrong!” I bark, putting pressure on her shoulders, shaking her. “I came on this mission because you wanted me here—I came here for you! Not for Victor; not even to take revenge on him! I came to protect you!” I point in her face, right between her eyes. “Everything that happened, with the exception of killing Francesca—.” I can’t even say it; I can’t because…I don’t know. Why do I care to defend myself to her? Fuck her! She doesn’t know me! Releasing her shoulder harshly, I step back and away from her. I can’t look at her. Fuck her…

Izabel

What have I done? Why do I feel so…like the worst person in the world? Niklas turns his back to me and grabs his briefcase from the seat across the aisle; he takes it three seats up and sits down so I can see nothing of him but the back of his head.


I feel a guilty tear burning my eye, tracking down my cheek; I wipe it away quickly with the edge of my thumb. “Niklas…” I try to say, but I realize the sound of my voice dies before I can get his name out. “Emilio!” All three of our heads shoot up, turning in Sian’s direction just as she’s practically flying out of the seat by the window. Niklas jumps up, grabbing her around the waist before she can get past him and out of the plane. He grabs his gun from his pants. Nora grabs her gun from the empty seat next to her and rushes past me toward the door of the plane with Niklas. “Let me go! EMILIO! EMILIO!” I run up behind them, taking Sian into my arms, trying to hold her back, but she’s proving stronger now that the drugs have left her system. “Sit down,” I tell her, shoving her into a seat almost as harshly as Niklas had shoved me. “SIAN!” Emilio’s angry voice rings out. Two gun barrels are pointed at Emilio’s head when he comes rushing up the steps to get into the plane. I can just barely keep Sian restrained in the seat; sobbing, she digs her fingertips into my arm. “Please! Let me go!” When Emilio sees her, relief and heartache wash over his features; he can’t move toward her unless he wants to get shot, but he…oh my God, he does love her. I can see it in his eyes. “How’d you know where to find us?” Niklas demands. “I followed you when you left the mansion,” Emilio says, but he can’t take his eyes off Sian. “Now let her go; let her go or I’ll kill you.” “She’s mine.” Niklas pushes the gun toward Emilio, daring him to move any closer. It suddenly dawns on Emilio—we aren’t who we claimed to be. He tears his gaze away from Sian long enough to see Nora pointing a gun at him, standing beside Niklas as his equal and not his slave; Emilio is confused. “Who are you people? I knew it! You’re a fraud. Sian, did they hurt you? Did he touch you?” His voice begins to rise; he starts to move forward anyway, wanting to get to Sian, until Niklas and Nora remind him who’s in charge, and he stops. “They helped me,” Sian calls out over the few rows of seats. “No one hurt me, Emilio.” Emilio’s eyes dart to and from Sian and Niklas; he’s in clear need of answers. “Step out of the plane,” Niklas warns Emilio, walking forward to force Emilio backward. “Sit down,” I tell Sian, and I shoot up from the seat. I look down into her tortured face, seizing her gaze, hoping to make her trust me. “Please just wait here; let me talk to them.” She nods, tears slipping down her cheeks. “Niklas,” I say, moving toward them, “let him inside.” “Get back, Izabel.” “Niklas, please—they love each other, that much is obvious to me; let him in the plane.” “Bullshit.” Niklas keeps his eyes and his gun trained on Emilio. “This motherfucker is sick; the whole family is demented; he fucks his sister for Christ’s sake!” “I’ve never fucked her!” Emilio roars. He moves back up the steps despite the guns pointed at his face. (Please don’t shoot him, Niklas, please don’t shoot him.) “Francesca and I were close all our lives, closer than any of our sisters; we were all each other had—and you’re right, our family is demented! But Francesca, as she got older, her love for me evolved into something…different. I never gave into it fully, but I did what I had to do—and I never fucked her! She needs help; she always has. But I’m not going to be the one to help her; I’ve wanted out for years.”


“Then why are you still there?” Niklas asks, and I can tell he doesn’t believe a thing Emilio is saying—or he doesn’t want to. “Why give in to Francesca at all?” Emilio sighs and looks briefly at the floor. “Because she’s my sister,” he answers, raising his eyes, filled with shame and conflict. “For a long time I just pretended; I hoped she’d change, but she didn’t—she got worse.” He glances at Sian. “Then Sian came along and I changed, too. I vowed to her I’d help her get out, that we’d leave together.” “Then why haven’t you?” Nora asks. “I was waiting for the right time,” Emilio says. “It’s not as easy as it may seem; things had to be done…carefully.” “Looks like it was pretty easy for us,” Nora adds. “No”—Emilio shakes his head gravely; a knot moves down the center of his throat—“you don’t understand: we couldn’t just leave.” “Francesca was an evil bitch,” Niklas speaks up. “I give her that much, but aside from the shit she did behind closed doors, she didn’t seem like much else—her security was even a joke to me. If you were afraid she’d follow you, I doubt she would’ve gone far.” Niklas is right: the security at the mansion wasn’t as top-notch as Victor warned us it would be. I felt more in danger in Arthur Hamburg’s mansion in Los Angeles than I did here in Italy. It doesn’t make sense. “It’s not Francesca who’d find us and kill us,” Emilio says. “It’s not my sister who everyone is afraid of, believe it or not—it’s our father, Vincent Moretti. Francesca was his favorite, his Little Girl.” He looks across at Sian again and says, “We’ll be running forever, Love; my father, when he finds out from Francesca that I abandoned her, abandoned the family, he’ll hunt me down and kill us both.” “Then we’ll die together,” Sian vows, now standing behind me; she reaches out her hand to Emilio. I move to the side to let her pass. “Niklas, let her go,” I say, just as he begins to make a move toward her. Reluctantly Niklas steps to the side as Sian rushes past him and falls into the open arms of Emilio. Sobs wrack her body; he wraps her up in his embrace. “Our daughter,” Sian says, weeping, probing Emilio’s face with her hands, “where is she?” “Look,” Niklas speaks up, finally lowering his gun, “we don’t have time for this shit. Take her if that’s what you want to do, but we’re leaving.” I thought for a second Niklas might tell Emilio the news of his sister’s death, but he keeps it to himself, which is probably better. “I have a plan, Love.” Emilio kisses her lips, her nose, her eyes, the bruise underneath one eye. “I’m just glad you’re OK.” He looks at Niklas. “Thank you—not sure who the hell you are, and I still don’t like you, but thank you for helping Sian.” “I didn’t help her,” Niklas says, bitingly. “I don’t give a shit what happens to that girl.” He shoves his gun into the back of his pants, then he walks past Nora and goes back to his seat. You’re such a liar, Niklas…you care, you care. He doesn’t look at me when he sits down. “Can you help them?” Sian says to Emilio. “They came here looking for one of the cyprians; can you tell them how to find her?” Emilio looks at the three of us in turns, uncertain, reluctant, but appreciative and ultimately willing.


“Because you helped Sian,” Emilio says and reaches into his pocket, “I’ll do what I can.” He produces a small keychain with three silver keys; dangling from it is a typical flash drive. He unclasps it from the keys and holds it out to me in the palm of his hand. “I kept up with the books,” he says. “On this drive you’ll find the photos and address of all the girls who work for my family.” This can’t be real! A solid, unexpected break into finding Olivia Bram! I thought for sure that hope was lost, that we’d never come close to bringing her home. I look down into Emilio’s hand, almost afraid to take the device for fear it might just vanish and all just be a dream. “It’s yours,” Emilio says, urging me to take it. “Thank you.” “We need to leave,” Emilio tells Sian. “We don’t have much time.” Just before Emilio takes Sian down the steps, she breaks her hand from his and she throws her arms around me. “Thank you, Izabel,” she says, and then she looks back at Niklas, who doesn’t bother to look at her even when she says, “You’re a good man; I’ll never forget what you did for me.” He doesn’t even acknowledge her. Emilio and Sian nod at Nora lastly, just before descending the steps and vanishing from sight. “Niklas?” I say. “What?” I walk over to him. “I know you think it’s a waste of time—” “Give me the flash drive,” he says, reaches out and takes it from my hand. The three of us look through the profiles of the girls on the drive for twenty minutes, over a hundred of them, until finally a miracle happens and we see Olivia Bram’s face staring back at us, same birthmark underneath her left eye the size and shape of an almond sliver; brown hair and tired brown eyes—life has taken a toll on her, but she’s alive. I can’t believe she’s alive… “Maybe we can finish this mission with something to show for it,” Nora says. “Bringing his daughter back might be enough to satisfy him; Victor can tell the client that Francesca Moretti was killed in self-defense, that it couldn’t be avoided.” “We’ll figure all that out later,” I say. “Let’s just find Olivia Bram and go from there.” I turn to Niklas, who still won’t look at me, and it crushes me but I deserve it. “Niklas?” I say carefully, hoping to spark a glance at least. “Nora and I can go, if you want.” He closes the laptop and stands. “I’m ready when you are,” he says. “Nora, stay here; if anybody comes looking for us, give me a heads-up. I don’t want to walk into any ambushes when we come back.” “What about me?” Nora asks, grinning. “You can handle yourself,” he says. “I hope you don’t expect me to hold your fucking hand now because we slept together.” Nora laughs. How can she not be offended? I’d punch him in the face for a remark like that. “Honey,” she says, smirking, batting her eyes, “you weren’t that good.” “I wasn’t?” Niklas is being facetious—he knows she’s full of shit—I know she’s full of shit. “So then when I get back, you won’t mind I try again.” Nora shrugs. “Sure, I’ll let you try again.” “Wait a damn minute,” I say, putting up my hand. “Nobody’s fucking on this plane with me on it.” I grab Pearl and then my gun and shove past them toward the exit. “I’m surrounded by crazy people.” Niklas meets me in the rental car not even a full minute later; he jumps in the driver’s seat,


starts the engine. Before he puts the car in gear, he looks over at me. I think he’s going to say something about our argument, about me being the biggest bitch on the planet—I want him to—but the hope fizzles out of me when he says instead, “I’m going to make this clear—if Olivia Bram isn’t there, we can’t wait for her, and we can’t stay here another night; I know you want to save her but—” “But you’re right,” I cut in. “When they find Francesca, it won’t be long before they find us. I know we have to get out of here, and soon—we probably shouldn’t even be going for her now. Do you think he’s a mob boss or something; Vincent Moretti?” Niklas puts the car in drive and we speed away. “Whatever or whoever he is,” he says, keeping his eyes on the road, “he’s going to be pissed, and he’s going to be looking for all three of us. There were cameras in every room of that mansion— I’m sure I’m on camera…killing Francesca, among other things.” And our DNA: on the wine glasses; Nora’s fingerprints on the wall where Niklas whipped her; my hair all over the floor. It was all unavoidable really; if things had gone as planned and we pulled off kidnapping Francesca we still would’ve been hunted down to a degree, but if there’s a Papa Bear out there more terrifying than Francesca, that changes things a lot. The only thing that gives me comfort is that no matter what traces of our identities we had to leave behind, we’re all still very hard to find, having no real lives outside of Victor’s Order, no paper trails, not much of anything. But all it takes is one break, one tiny thing, and we could end up as dead and forgotten as the people we’re commissioned to kill. Wait…what did Niklas mean by ‘among other things’? I’m not even going to ask. My vision blurs into the colors on the GPS screen.


Fredrik Atlantic Ocean – 3:15 a.m.

I think Dorian Flynn knew something wasn’t right the second he got the call, when Victor told him to meet us on an old fishing boat named Valerie Lou. But the guy came anyway, and I have to respect him for that. The three of us have been coasting over the water, moving farther out to sea for an hour now, but I feel the boat slowing, hear the engines shifting as our driver—Mack works for Victor, too— finally brings us to a stop in the desolate Atlantic. The boat stinks of fish, but I’m used to it living on the coast; and it’s filthy, with rusted hooks and dry rotted nets and…well, it’s a shithole of a boat and I’m going to need a shower after this. For a few minutes all I can hear is the water gently slapping the side of Valerie Lou as she bobs on the surface. No one speaks. No one clears a throat. No one moves so not even the shifting of fabric interrupts the sound of the water. But in spite of the almost perfect silence, the thoughts going through all of our minds—mostly Dorian’s, I’m sure—are loud enough to be felt. Then Dorian leans over and takes off his boot, just one boot, which I find odd. “Can’t say I didn’t expect this,” he says. He stands up. “I’m not gonna try talking you out of it,” he goes on, looking only at Victor. He smiles, and a sort of peace passes over his eyes under the moonlight. “A part of me wanted to; but the truth is that I was always afraid to do it myself, so you’re doing me a favor.” Victor nods respectfully. “Will you at least—?” “I will make sure Tessa gets the safety deposit key,” Victor says. “Thanks.” More silence. I admit, I feel kind of bad for the guy. Not necessarily for what’s about to happen, but because he was a tortured soul and I naturally have empathy for people who I can relate to. I know about Dorian’s demons because he told me many times when we were partnered; he’d ramble on and on about how ‘unhappy’ he was—he always downplayed the severity of it, using words like ‘unhappy’ when ‘dying inside’ would’ve been more fitting—how he put a gun in his mouth dozens of times but was too afraid to pull the trigger, about how the only woman he ever loved wanted nothing to do with him. But he always talked about these things as if they were a joke; he’d make wise-ass comments and laugh and then later he’d be in bed with some random girl because sex was how he made it all better —typical Dorian Flynn; can’t say I’m too much different in that aspect, really. I often wondered if he wasn’t the way he was, guns blazing and reckless and mouthy, because he wanted to die in the field. But I didn’t care much—empathy or not—Dorian is his own man, and I was never his keeper. I had— and still have—enough of my own demons to contend with, and mine are enough to weigh all four of


us down into the Atlantic with Valerie Lou. The only difference between me and Dorian in this moment is that he wants to die and I’m not ready. Yet. “And tell Izabel that I’m sorry,” Dorian says. Victor’s gun appears, but for the moment he keeps it down at his side. “I should tell you,” Victor speaks up, “I contemplated giving you a pass. For Izabel’s sake, of course, because I know that by killing you it will hurt her deeply and I am not in the habit of hurting the woman I love.” “What changed your mind?” Dorian asks. Victor sighs, almost unnoticeably; seems like something’s troubling him, which I find odder than Dorian only removing one boot. “As I read through the files Dan Barrett gave me,” Victor begins, “the very files that you, Flynn, betrayed me by giving to them, I ran across something quite interesting.” Oh? This is news to me, even. I cock an eyebrow, listening intently. “What was it?” Dorian asks. Victor pauses and then answers, “There was some information in particular included in those files that you could not have known prior to the date Nora Kessler had us in that room with her, forcing each of us to confess our secrets. Which can only mean that even after you were exposed as a traitor to my Order, after you vowed in your cell to be loyal to me, that you continued to betray me by passing along that information later the first chance you got.” Dorian’s head lowers. “I know,” he says, and then raises his eyes. “I know…though I guess the only thing I’m sorry for, Victor, is that you had to read it.” Victor nods once more. Then Dorian turns around, putting his back to Victor, and his eyes to the vastness of the ocean before him. I have to wonder what he’s thinking, because I always wonder about what a man is thinking when he knows he’s about to die. I find more and more that I’m so intrigued by that very thought: What is he thinking?, that it alone is evolving me as a killer. But that’s another story. Victor raises his gun to the back of Dorian’s head, and then a shot rings out over the ocean, stirring the sound of water. Dorian goes down, his body slumping into a heap against the debrislittered floor of the boat. Mack comes out of the cabin afterward and prepares the body to sink overboard. I follow Victor to the stern, sit down next to him on a fiberglass bench. We sit quietly for a long time, taking in the grim truth of the moment. “So he told his superiors about what all went on with Nora?” I ask. “Everything that was said?” “Yes.” It’s the only answer he gives, and I get the distinct feeling there’s more to it than it seems. But I know Victor well enough to know that if it’s something he wants to tell me, that he would’ve by now. “I could not allow Flynn’s betrayal to slip through the cracks.” He stares out at the water. “It troubles me immensely that I ever gave it a second thought, even for Izabel’s sake. But I did what had to be done. And I will continue to do what must be done. Izabel will have to understand.” “And if she doesn’t?” “She will have to.” I nod and say, “Well if it means anything, I do think she’ll understand. She’s strong, Victor; she may be too emotional at times, but I think she’s into this for the long haul.” I pause, glance over and


add, “And I could never be sure before, but I really believe she’s not only committed to this life because of you. She wants it for herself as well.” “Yes. She does.” A splash breaks the sudden silence as Mack pushes Dorian’s body over the side of the boat. “What will you tell Dan Barrett and his men?” I ask. “The truth,” he says without pause. “Flynn’s death will be a warning to them.” The silence grows again, and then Victor turns to look at me, making eye contact for the first time. “This job with Kenneth Ware in finding this serial killer,” he says, “I am leaving entirely up to you. You do with it what you will, work as closely with Ware as you see fit, carry out the mission yourself and reap the rewards in-full.” He looks back out ahead of him. “I have too much on my plate where Vonnegut and The Order is concerned, to be concerning myself with other, less important matters—no matter how much money is at stake.” “I understand.” “Vonnegut is my number one priority,” he goes on. “And I know that before I can even begin to weed him out and take him down, things in my own Order need to be resolved: I need to know just how much Nora Kessler can be trusted; I need to be confident in Izabel’s ability to be a part of the Mexico mission; I either need to know that my brother is with me, or cut him loose and move on— there are too many broken threads, Fredrik. I do not need anymore.” That last comment, it felt like a warning—directed at me. I reach behind me and rub my hand against the back of my neck, smiling. “Well don’t worry about me; I know I went off the deep end for a while after Seraphina, but I think I’m going to be OK—I’m OK now.” I’m not OK. Just different. He doesn’t say anything. And I leave it alone. Victor always did know me more than I wanted him to; he’s a lot like me in that way: can tell what a man’s thinking, can see inside of a person, know what to expect long before it happens. He was trained to know these things—mine was self-taught through life experience. And I would be a fool to think that he can’t see what lies behind my mask now, or at least a glimpse of it: that I’m changing, that what used to keep me grounded isn’t working so much for me anymore. It’s like heroin: I’ve been doing it for years stacked on years; I’ve tapped out all of my veins, and even though the high is diminished, and each time I shoot up I feel the effects that once sustained me less and less, my body still needs the drug; it not only craves it anymore—it needs it even though the high no longer accompanies it. It needs something stronger. Valerie Lou carries us back to Boston, and admittedly the whole way there I think about Dorian lying in the bottom of the sea.


Niklas

Going after this girl right now is probably a mistake; it won’t do Olivia Bram any good if we get killed in the process of trying to save her. A part of me feels like we should just go back, get on that plane and leave before the Morettis find us; take the information Emilio gave us on the cyprians and plan something new to bring her home. The other part of me—the part that usually wins out—is saying fuck it, let’s get this over with. Izabel and I find the residence, which is an old apartment building nestled in the city center. People of the community ride up and down the streets on bicycles and scooters. We park the car on a side street and walk the rest of the way toward the building down an alley. “I think this is it,” Izabel says when we come upon a doorway just off the street. “Second floor.” We both take a deep breath and go inside. When we come to the door, Izabel’s the one who knocks. And then we wait. Anxiously I keep looking over my shoulder, expecting to see men with guns drawn coming for us. Izabel knocks again—still no answer. She looks over at me nervously. I knock the third time, rapping my knuckles hard on the green painted wood. Movement can be heard inside; a light underneath the crack of the door blinks off and on as someone walks through it. I hold my breath when I hear the sound of metal on metal, a lock sliding open, and then a click before the door cracks away from the frame. “Who are you?” comes a soft, but aggravated voice through the crack. “I’m Izabel.” She motions toward me. “And this is Niklas.” All we can see of the girl is a one-inch strip of her face, part of an eye, but not the one that would show the distinct birthmark; and the rest of her is shrouded by darkness; a lamp burns off an orange glow somewhere in the background. “What do you want?” the girl asks. Izabel glances at me, not sure what to say, but then turns back and answers, “We’ve got something for you; if you’ll let us in I can explain. It’ll only take a minute.” “I’m sorry,” the girl says and goes to close the door, “but whatever it is I’m not interested.” Izabel puts her hand on the door, stopping it from shutting all the way. “Are you Olivia Bram?” The girl freezes with a sharp but quiet gasp; her eye darts back and forth between me and Izabel. It takes her a moment, but she tries to shut the door again. “No. I’m not. My name is Alana. And I’m busy, so you’ll have to excuse me—”


Izabel pushes the door open fully; the girl, startled, stumbles a few steps backward into the dimly lit living room. “I don’t know who the fuck you are,” she says, almost stuttering, “but you better get out of my apartment or I’m calling security.” “Your name is Olivia Bram,” Izabel says, moving carefully toward her. “You were kidnapped when you were fifteen years old while on vacation with your parents and you’ve been missing for seven years. We’ve come to take you home.” Izabel reaches out a hand, I guess to calm Olivia because she looks panicked, but Olivia takes another step back. “Your father is here in Italy waiting for you,” Izzy adds. “My name is Alana,” the girl, who is unmistakably Olivia Bram, says and then reaches for a tiny drawer in the table behind her that holds the lamp. “Don’t go for the weapon,” I warn her, tapping my index finger on the side of my gun pressed against my thigh. “We’re not here to hurt you, just to take you home.” “This is my home,” Olivia says, and there’s a bite in her words as she trades fear for defiance. “I’m not going anywhere.” She crosses her arms over her black blouse; the top three buttons have been left undone, revealing her cleavage. She wears a loose-fitting long black skirt that drops to her knees. Her feet are bare. She lights up a cigarette from the lamp table and moves into the kitchen. “Your father has been searching for you for years, Olivia,” Izabel says, following behind her. I do the same, putting my gun away in my pants; I keep my eyes and ears open, especially conscious of the sounds outside of the apartment. “Well he didn’t look hard enough,” Olivia snaps. She takes a long drag from her cigarette and then adds with smoke streaming from her lips, “I remember the day it happened; I was in the backseat of that goddamned car for ten minutes before they drove off with me, and I watched my mom and dad spend that entire ten minutes looking at shit-tourist-jewelry underneath a vendor’s tent—they didn’t even know. The men who took me knew, as if it happens all the time, that no one would see them sitting there in the open; they knew no one would notice when they snatched me and threw me into the backseat of that car. Because tourists are fucking stupid; they’re so caught up in everything around them they don’t realize the second they step off that plane into a foreign country that they’re being watched, targeted by men just like the ones who took me.” Olivia takes another drag and then she laughs, her bony shoulders moving up and down. She shakes her head. “Those men were so good they had enough time to take another girl from the crowd and shove her into the car with me. Ten minutes. Two girls. Broad daylight. And no one saw a thing. I wondered for a long time how long it took my parents to realize I was missing.” She sets the cigarette in an ashtray, then crosses her arms, smirking at us. “You said my dad has been looking for me all this time? What about my mom?” She snorts. “I guess she gave up? Doesn’t surprise me; she was an emotionally unstable train wreck of a woman anyway.” “Your mother committed suicide not long after your abduction,” Izabel says. The smirk disappears from Olivia’s face, and for a second she doesn’t move anything but her eyes. And then she laughs under her breath, trying to hide the pain of such news by covering it up with humor and a what-do-I-fucking-care attitude. “Probably better off,” she says, shaking her head. She takes the cigarette up again and smokes it down before crushing what’s left of it in the ashtray. “Like I said,” she begins, “this is my home, and I’m not going anywhere. I have everything I


need here; people who protect me and care about me—” “These people don’t give a shit about you,” Izabel cuts her off. “And they only protect you because you’re one of their moneymakers. What do you think is going to happen to you when you get older, and the high-paying customers want someone younger to fulfill their sick fetishes? You think the Morettis are just going to keep paying your housing and putting food on your table when you stop bringing in profits?” “I don’t expect to live that long,” Olivia comes back; a little smile slips up on her lips. “Fuck growing old—my tits won’t be sagging to my knees when I die. I’m going to die beautiful and strong and sexual—I’m going to go out the same way I lived. And I still have plenty of time.” She sashays her hips as she approaches Izabel, stopping in front of her and reaching out to touch Izabel’s face. Izzy lets her. “Don’t know what the fuck happened to your hair,” Olivia says, smoothing her fingers down Izabel’s cheek. “But you’re beautiful. I could fix it for you; I could do a lot of things for you”—she glances at me and smiles—“for both of you, if you’ll let me.” “We’re here to help you,” Izabel says, desperation in her voice drowning in fading hope. Olivia’s fingers slide down Izzy’s neck, her shoulder. “He could fuck me while you sit on my face,” she says, leans in and tries to kiss Izzy, but Izzy pushes her away carefully. Olivia throws her head back and laughs, then walks away, past me and back into the living room toward the front door. “I think you two should leave,” she says, placing her hand on the doorknob. “I have a client in twenty minutes.” I move past Izzy and step right up to Olivia, grinding my teeth. “You’re coming with us,” I demand. “If I have to throw you over my shoulder—” “Niklas,” I hear Izzy’s voice from behind; her hand falls on my shoulder, “we need to go.” “Yeah, we will,” I say, “as soon as this girl puts some fucking shoes on—” “No,” Izzy says gently, and my stiff shoulders soften into a disheartened slump. “She’s broken and there’s nothing we can do to help her.” “She’s right,” Olivia says, smirking; she turns the knob and opens the door. “You should be on your way; go play the hero to someone who wants to be saved. I don’t. I enjoy my life. And I’ll slit my wrists the right way before I let anybody ever take me away from my life ever again.” I glance at her wrist, the one holding the door open, and see that she’s no stranger to attempted suicide: one scar stretches horizontally from one side to the other, and all I can think about is how these people went to the trouble to save her life just so they could make money off of her. She must’ve done it long before she was placed into service—maybe the scar was what got her thrown into service. How long did it take her to accept what her life had become, and to stop wanting to end it? How long was it before her strength left her and she gave herself over fully to these people, forgetting who she was? And then I imagine Izabel…no, I imagine Sarai, imprisoned in Mexico for most of her young life. But she’s still here. She fought and she won—she truly is the strongest person I’ve ever known. Izabel and I step out into the hall. “Don’t tell my dad that you found me,” Olivia says. “If he comes here, he’ll only end up getting himself killed. And besides, I don’t want to see him. I never want to see him again. That life is over.” And then she shuts the door in our faces; the metal lock on the other side slides back into place. I don’t say anything on the drive back to the plane, but my silence isn’t only because we couldn’t help Olivia Bram. All kinds of shit is going through my head, from the few people I care about, to the many I don’t. And even on the plane, soaring over the ocean, I keep to myself. Nora asks


me once about that ‘trying again’ suggestion, but I brush her off and she doesn’t seem to care. Izabel wants to talk to me, but she’s afraid to say anything. And it’s better that way. I can’t talk to her right now; least of all people Izzy. When I set out on this mission, I thought maybe I could find it in me to somehow forgive my brother. I wanted to. Because he’s the only thing I have in the world. But I just couldn’t do it. And I know I never will—some things just can’t be forgiven. Will he kill me for what I’ve done? Nah. It’s not like I ratted him out to outsiders—I just kicked over his fucking sandcastle is all. He’ll build a new one. And I might just kick that one over too.


Izabel

Home has never felt so good; gone just a few days, it felt more like weeks and if I never see that place again, I won’t complain. James Woodard is the first person I see when the three of us—including Niklas, which makes me nervous—walk into the building at our Boston headquarters. He looks better than when I saw him last, not as sickly. “Everything all right?” I ask. He steps up to me with a laptop tucked underneath his arm. “Much better,” he answers. “Thought I was having a heart attack shortly after you left; rushed to the hospital and found out I’m just stressed out.” He laughs. “The doctor asked me what I did for a living and I said ‘I work for an underground assassination organization; I’m their information guy’, and the doctor laughed and said, ‘Well my suggestion is that you tell your boss to give you a few days off or he’s gonna kill you too.’” I chuckle. “Victor’s upstairs in his office,” he tells me. “He’s waiting for you.” I swallow hard, steady my breath, try to calm my nerves. James and I look at Niklas at the same time, probably both thinking the same thing: Is one of them going to kill the other? So much for steady breath and calm nerves. “What happened to your hair?” James says. I touch my hair and pose as if showing it off. “I got a haircut; don’t you like it?” I just smile. Niklas pushes past us and heads straight for the elevator; Nora and I follow. “Niklas, please don’t do anything you’ll regret,” I plead as the elevator takes us up. “It’s probably best if you leave me alone with my brother.” “No, it’s not,” I say. “I’m going in there with you.” “Afraid he’s going to kill me?” Niklas smirks. Yes…a small part of me is afraid, but I don’t know why. “No,” I say, because the larger part believes he won’t. “I just want to be there.” When we step off the elevator, the hallway feels shorter than usual; in no time at all we’re coming upon the meeting room double doors and my heart is pounding violently against my ribs. Niklas wastes no time, pushes one door open and goes right in, either unafraid of Victor’s retribution, or fully prepared to counter it—I think it’s both. Niklas is the only person Victor acknowledges when we enter the room. He stands from the elongated meeting table, leaves his hands on the top of it, his back arched. “Niklas.” Victor nods. “Victor.” Niklas nods.


The tension in the room is already suffocating me. “Izabel, Nora, I need you to step outside.” Victor’s voice is calm, but it feels ominous. He still doesn’t look at either one of us. Great. I knew this was going to happen. “Victor—” “Now.” Finally his eyes meet mine from across the long table, and in them is something I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. A chill slithers up the back of my neck. No more words are needed; Nora and I turn on our heels and leave immediately.

Niklas

Victor’s hands slide away from the table as he straightens his back and stands upright. For a long time he doesn’t say anything; and for a long time neither do I. Oh, I have plenty to say to my brother—I want to punch him in the face—but he’s going to be the one to start, the one who sets the tone. Because I know if left up to me, only one of us will walk out of this room alive. And since I love my brother too much to ever kill him, it’ll probably be Victor. He sits back down at the head of the table. I sit on the table and light up a cigarette. He hates it when I smoke inside. Do I give a fuck? “I suspected when you agreed to go on this mission,” he begins, “that you had every intention in wrecking it; it is the only reason you went.” I smirk. Take a drag. Nod. Listen. Let him get it all out. Smirk some more. “But I wanted to give you a chance,” he says. “I had hoped you would come to your senses. Instead, you managed to not only kill the target and cost us three million dollars, but you used the client’s money on a girl who was not even his daughter, and since there clearly is no Olivia Bram to show for it, that money has to be replaced by me.” He rests his back against the seat and sighs lightly. “I have to say, Brother, I expected more from you, and all I got was a tantrum.” Smirk. Take a drag. Nod. Listen. “Is that the way things are going to be between us?” he asks. “Things changed between us….Brother, when I found out that you’re not who I thought you were.” “Believe what you want about what happened that night,” he says. “But I did not know you were in love with Claire—” “Don’t you say her name!” I roar, pointing two fingers at him, the cigarette wedged between them. I come off the table and move forward. “Don’t you ever say her name to me again.” “Sit down, Niklas.” His voice is calm. Mine is anything but. “You killed her; you killed her and you knew I loved her”—I motion my hands—“I don’t care what your excuse is, Victor; I don’t care what you want me to believe, or want Izabel to believe, but you should know me better; you insult my intelligence by expecting me to believe you didn’t know—you’re trained to know!”


“I said sit down.” I throw my cigarette on the floor and crush it underneath my boot. But I don’t relent; I don’t sit down. I can’t. I won’t. “But you’re good at that,” I say, icily. “You’re real good at making people believe you’re someone you’re not—Izabel will be the next one to die because of you—” Black spots spring before my eyes, accompanied by a white-hot flash and the brutal sting of Victor’s knuckles underneath my eye. I feel my body falling backward; the back of my legs hitting the chair as I start to go down. But I snap back quickly and grab the chair instead, keeping on my feet, and I whirl around at him, catching him under the jaw with my fist. We fight hard, exchanging blow after blow, taking out our buried rages on one another. He buries his fist in my gut, knocking the wind out of me; I kick him in the chest, sending him across the table; he clocks me in the face with his elbow; I grab him from behind, locking his throat beneath my arm; he manages somehow to toss my body over his head and slam my back against the table; I manage somehow to get out from underneath him after two blows to the face and hit him so hard he stumbles back against the wall. One minute. Two. It feels like forever the fight goes on. And then he has me in a chokehold, more secured than the one I had him in moments ago. “Go ahead! Fucking kill me!” I say, choking; his arm tight across my windpipe. “I’m not gonna…live in your shadow…anymore, Brother”—he puts more pressure on my throat—“I’m not gonna…be what you expect me to be…I know who I am now…and…as long as I live, I’ll be that person. So kill me now because…that person is not, never has been, and never fucking will be… Victor Faust!” He releases me violently and air rushes into my lungs; I stumble backward, stopped by the table; gasping, holding my throat. Pulling back my fist faster than he can react, I send it soaring against the side of his face, knocking his head back on his neck. When it comes back down, blood is dripping from one corner of his mouth; he wipes it away with his hand. But he doesn’t retaliate. He just looks at me—we look at each other, both of us knowing that this fight is over, that neither of us have won, but the battle between us will rage on. “Aside from Claire,” I speak up, calmly, “do you want to know what hurts me the most?” He doesn’t answer, but I know he wants to know, and I’m sure as hell gonna tell him. “That you really thought I went on that mission to destroy you.” I shake my head; my heart is heavy. “I mean sure the thought crossed my mind, but I never thought I’d actually do it; it was never a real intention. I went, Victor”—my words are becoming ice—“because I didn’t feel right about Izabel being there. And you know what?” I step toward him—he stands his ground—and I look him in the eyes. I start to say one thing, about Izabel, but decide against it and say another. “As far as killing Francesca Moretti, yeah, there at the end I admit—and I don’t regret it—that I killed her because I wanted to; I did it for the sole purpose of making life more difficult for you.” I spit blood on the floor and walk away from him. “But it wasn’t until that moment,” I say, looking back, “not any time before it, that I did anything out of spite.” I reach into my pants pocket to retrieve the flash drive given to us by Emilio. I toss it to Victor and he catches it. “Your client,” I say, “can find his daughter easily. We went back for the girl at the last minute and tried to bring her home, but she…in Izabel’s words, was already too broken. Not my problem.” I round my chin and then add, “I’ll pay the client back the money owed, myself. I have plenty of money, and I don’t really give a shit about any of it. I have more important things to care about.” I start to leave the room when Victor’s voice stops me.


“I am sorry about Claire.” Every muscle in my body tenses hearing him say her name; not because I want to kill him for it, but because I feel like his apology is sincere. I shut my eyes softly; my back to my brother. I say nothing, push open the door and leave. Izabel and Nora are standing in the hallway; I know they heard everything; the looks on their faces: Izabel is heartbroken; Nora doesn’t have much of a heart to break, but even she seems to feel some kind of remorse. “Where are you going?” Izabel calls out after me. “To the bar,” I answer. She runs up behind me, fitting her hand partway around my wrist, stopping me. I stop but I don’t look at her. “I…I wanted to tell you on the plane that…I didn’t mean what I said, that you were a selfish opportunist—Niklas, I know you saved Sian because you didn’t want to see her die. And I’m sorry.” I start to walk away. “Are you going to disappear again?” she asks. “If you or my brother needs me you know where to find me.” She nods, thanking me with her eyes, and then she lets me go.


Izabel

Devastated doesn’t even begin to cover how I feel about the news of Dorian. “Izabel, I am sorry.” He says, standing behind his chair at the head of the table. “His betrayal ran too deep; I could not let it go.” “Because you were afraid of what everyone else might think?” I accuse. “Make an example of him so no one will even think of opposing you? That’s very tyrant, Victor.” I regret my words immediately after saying them. I turn to face him, dropping my crossed arms to my sides, letting the anger deflate out of me. “I’m angry; I won’t tell you that I’m not, or pretend that it doesn’t hurt, but…” I sigh heavily, “…I know you had to do it; it’s just hard for me to accept it as easily as you can. Or Nora. Or Fredrik. I guess I just have a long way to go before I’m like you.” Victor walks over to me; he touches my botched hair in both of his hands—he was a little surprised when he first saw it, but he never said a word about it. “Izabel,” he says softly, “I have come to realize that being exactly like me—or Nora, or Fredrik—is the last thing I want for you.” I start to argue, to question what that means exactly, but he stops me. “Like my brother,” he says, “you are your own person; like Fredrik and Nora and even James Woodard. I do not want you to spend the rest of your life trying to be somebody else—I just want you to be you, use your own strengths and skills to pave your way in this life; it has worked well for you so far.” His hands find my face and he cups my cheeks; I sense that what he’s about to say is painful for him. “And the last thing that I want…is for you to be like me.” What is he saying? Where is this coming from? “Victor, what does that mean?” He presses his lips to my forehead. Then he looks into my eyes. “It simply means that you are better at being human than any of us, that you have not fully given your life over to this life, and I do not think you ever should—just hear me out. Please.” My mouth closes. “I have few regrets in life,” he says, “and one of them—the one that will always haunt me—is allowing my brother to follow me into a life that he never wanted. I knew when we were just boys that Niklas wanted freedom; he has always wanted to be his own person, play by his own rules, live by his own standards, and not in the shoes or the shadow or beneath the gavel or the whip of anyone else. But he gave all that up to stay by my side, because my brother’s love for me knew no bounds. I loved him the same, but I was blinded by my own wants and needs, and by the time I realized my mistakes, it was too late. He was what he was, became what he became, and then I found myself


fighting to keep him alive: killing our father; lying to The Order about his abilities, and his… emotional faults. I did what I had to do to protect him, from others and from himself.” He pauses, looks at the floor, then back into my eyes. “And when I look at you, I see Niklas as that boy all over again, and I will not let you follow me into misery the way I let my brother. When I look at you I see someone I care for and love so deeply that I would do anything—anything, Izabel—to protect, not just your physical life, but your humanity and your freedom to choose your life.” “But I choose you,” I cut in, making myself perfectly clear. “And I choose this life, Victor. And I’m not doing any of this because of you. It’s what I want.” “I know,” he says; his hands slide from my cheeks to my shoulders, down the length of my arms. “I no longer question or doubt your reasons anymore—I know this is your choice, and it does make me feel better about letting you go through with it. But there is one part of you, Izabel, that you are trying so hard to change, and I will not let you change it.” “What am I trying to change?” “Your humanity,” he says. “You feel like you must be as calculating and insensitive as Kessler; you want to be able to stomach torture, to be able to face Gustavsson’s demons as if they were your own; and you want to be as disciplined as I am, even if it means having to set aside your compassion and your ethics the way I do without guilt. You want to be all of these things because you think they will make you a better operative”—he places his hand on my heart—“but deep down you know it is wrong; you are beginning to fight an internal war, your mind wanting one thing, but your heart wanting another…and to be human means to always go with your heart. The moment you betray your heart is the moment you lose everything.” My gaze finds the wall. I don’t know what to say—that he’s right? I feel like I’m screaming inside of my head and my face is doing too good a job concealing it. I want Victor to be wrong. “You did well on the mission,” he says, bringing me out of my thoughts. “You have proven you can handle whatever is thrown at you. I was concerned. I will not lie to you; I did not think you would be able to get through it. Tell me,” he says, “what would you have done if Niklas did not step in and save that girl from being killed in front of you?” “I…don’t know,” I say, “but I wouldn’t have let them kill her. I feel like…I would’ve thought of something—a distraction, maybe—to try and stop it. I wouldn’t have blown our cover, but I know I would’ve thought of something if Niklas hadn’t.” “You would have put yourself at risk to save her life.” “Yes. Myself—not Niklas or Nora or our cover.” He reaches up his hand and brushes my bangs from my face, regarding me, and I can only wonder anxiously what he’s thinking right now. But he doesn’t say anything. “What is it?” I ask. “Why are you looking at me that way?” He smiles faintly and then kisses my lips. “I have something for you,” he says, but I can tell it has nothing to do with the way he was looking at me. He reaches into his pants pocket and then places his hand over mine, dropping something small and cold into my palm. It’s Dorian’s safety deposit box key. A tear nearly slips down my face, but I fight it back, swallow, and look up to meet Victor’s eyes again. “I thought you might want to be the one who takes it to Tessa.” He moves over to the table. An extra briefcase is sitting next to Victor’s. “This also belongs to her,” he says. “It is what was owed to Flynn on his last job just before he found himself in one of my cells.” “Thank you, Victor. I’ll take it to her.”


He passes the briefcase to me, kisses my lips once more and then says, “Tomorrow…if you are up for it, I would like to take you on a small vacation. Our plane leaves at nine.” I blink, stunned. “A vacation?” The word itself sounds strange to me. “Like an actual vacation? I don’t get it— what for?” Victor smiles, cocks a brow. “Well what do people normally do on actual vacations?” “Well I uh…well I don’t know; I’ve never been on one.” “I guess then we are both vacation virgins,” he says. I chuckle. “OK, I would love to go…on a vacation with you, but”—I look around the meeting room, imagining everyone sitting around the table—“can we just leave like that? I mean, who will be in charge of things while we’re gone?” He places his hands on my shoulders. “Yes,” he says, “I can leave whenever I want”—(I blush; I guess that was a stupid question)—“and I’ll still be in charge, just from very far away.” “Well, from what I understand,” I say, playfully, “it’s not much of a vacation if you don’t leave your work at home.” “True,” he says, “but that rule generally applies to normal, everyday people. I think it is safe to say that we do not fall into that category.” “Ah, I see.” I grin. “Yeah, it’s definitely safe to say that. So where are we going?” “Somewhere tropical, so be sure to pack appropriately.” I step up to him, standing on the tops of his dress shoes, pushing myself up toward his mouth. I kiss his chin. “Another thing I hear about vacations is that you have to let loose”—then his lips —“stop being so damn serious all the time; no words like ‘appropriately’ or ‘eliminate’.” He leans toward my ear and says, “Be sure to bring that black bikini of yours, the one with the ties on the sides; makes it easier for me to take it off.” The tip of his tongue moves along the shell of my ear; every tiny hair on my body stands on end. Then he kisses me deeply, his hands fitted around my arms, holding me in place, stealing my breath away. “OK…black bikini is practically already in the suitcase,” I say, nearly stuttering. He smacks my ass when I turn around. I look back to see him grinning at me; I blush hard and exit the room with haste so I can hurry back and get ready to leave.

Victor

The moment the door closes behind her the grin disappears from my face. I stare at the door for a long time, thinking. There is so much to think about, so much to consider. I turn back to the table and flip the latches on my briefcase. Inside is a file folder staring back at me, the one I recently acquired from Dan Barrett. I remove it from the briefcase and set it on the table, sliding my fingers into the photocopied sheets of paper sandwiched inside. I open it to the top page. And then I read Dorian Flynn’s handwriting again for the fifth or sixth time:


I hid the voice recorder underneath the table. I didn’t really expect Victor Faust to order me to kill the audio at any time during our confessions with that bitch, but I’m damn sure glad I had my backup recorder in place when he did. According to Izabel Seyfried, she gave birth to a baby in Mexico, and the father, Javier Ruiz, sold it. Pretty fuckin’ harsh; poor Izabel doesn’t even know if it was a boy or a girl. I know it’s a long-shot finding a random baby sold seven years ago, but if it could be found, it’s just another weapon against them if we ever need it. Seyfried’s adoptive mother, Dina Gregory, is all we really have on her, and I don’t expect her to live much longer, so this baby is an alternative. I’m very fond of Izabel and I’d never want to hurt her, but she’s Faust’s only weakness. I thought his brother was a weakness too, and maybe he still is to a degree, but Izabel, she’s the one who will almost definitely cause Faust to fall. But I think Faust will cooperate with us; as long as we pay him and hold up our end of the deal, which I think is wise because having Faust on our side is better than having him as an enemy. And I happen to like them all—except for Fredrik—so I hope things go as planned.

There is a knock at the door. “Come in,” I call out, and close the folder. “You wanted me to report my findings,” Nora says, coming into the room. I take a seat. “Yes,” I say, and gesture at an empty chair where Nora sits down. “What do you have for me?” “Niklas did what you thought he would,” she says, crossing her legs. “There was no way he was going to make Izabel play the role of a slave; he probably knew she’d fuck up at some point and he’d be forced to beat her like he did me. Making her his girlfriend, or whatever, gave her just enough leeway to make the mistakes he knew she’d make, and not have to punish her for them.” I nod; reach out and absently touch the edge of the file folder in my fingers; a nervous gesture I suppose. “Niklas could’ve used her against you,” she says. “He had every opportunity to take it farther than a kiss.” “He would not have done that,” I say. “Because of his loyalty to you?” “No,” I say, “not because of his loyalty to me.” Silence passes. “You know,” Nora speaks up, “I would ask you what you’re doing, but I have a feeling I already know.” “I thought you might.” “And I’m not sure if you want to hear this or not,” she goes on, “but I have to say that it looks like it might already be working.” “I thought it might.” “But you love her,” she says. “Don’t you?” She seems unsure. “Yes. I do love her.” “Then why are you doing this?” I place my full palm on the folder and slide it away from me. “I’m doing it,” I say, “because I love her.” “But you’re going to make her hate you, Victor.” “That is the last thing I want,” I say, staring off at nothing, thinking of Izabel—my only weakness. “But just like I told her, I would do anything to protect her.” “Is that—protecting her—the only thing this is about? I’m telling you, Victor, my way is much easier.” I look at Nora coldly. “Your way, Kessler, is not an option. We may be looking into the same mirror, you and me, but we are not the same person.”


“Maybe not,” she says, “but if you really love her the way you say you do, then your way of dealing with things is only going to cause you a lot of unnecessary pain. And it’ll never go away, because it’ll always be there, staring you in the face. Are you strong enough to handle that?” I do not answer, not only because this is not a conversation I feel comfortable having with Kessler, but because I simply do not know the answer. She stands from the chair. “Unless there’s anything else you need,” she says, “I’d like to go to my apartment and get some sleep.” “No, that will be all for now.” She starts to walk away, stops and then says, “Dorian’s dead, isn’t he?” “Yes.” She pauses, chewing on the inside of her mouth—a nervous gesture much like mine with the folder moments ago. But then she shrugs it off, smiles and says, “Better him than me,” and leaves quickly. I lock the file folder away inside my briefcase, along with its secrets.


Niklas

Jackie plops her half-naked ass down beside me on the bed. She’d started to strip the second she walked into the room—the woman is almost as horny as I usually am. “Not sure what you brought me here for, if not to get laid, but I’m glad you called.” I get up from the bed, burning cigarette wedged between my lips, and I open my duffle bag on the table by the window. “Holy shit! Is that—?” I toss a stack of one hundred dollar bills to her, and then a second. And then a third. “Fifty thousand dollars,” I say. “Give or take a little.” Jackie stares at the money in her hands, wide-eyed, high on the color green; someone like her has probably never seen a thousand dollars all at one time, much less held fifty. “What the fuck?”—she looks up at me—“where’d you get this?” “I worked for it.” I plop back down beside her on the bed, crossing my ankles. “It’s yours.” She blinks, stunned. “What do you mean? You can’t be serious.” And then she surprises me when she starts to shove the money into my lap, shaking her head. “No, I-I, Niklas I can’t take this.” “Sure you can,” I insist, pushing her hands away, the money still in them. “And you will. Because you deserve it.” “Hey, now that’s not…Niklas, I thought you never paid for sex.” She grins. And blushes like a fucking kewpie doll—I really have no idea what a kewpie doll is, if it blushes, or where that reference came from. I laugh and then reach over to set the cigarette in the ashtray. “Damn woman, you think so highly of yourself that I’d pay you fifty thousand dollars for, what, ten or so nights with you?” She slaps me on the arm. “Asshole!” she laughs. “Well I just meant—” “I’m not giving you the money for the sex,” I tell her. “I just want you to get yourself out of that shithole of an apartment of yours; buy yourself something nice; maybe take that niece of yours to Disneyland, or whatever little kids like to do—that Harry Potter fuckin’ wonderland, I don’t know— just go out and have a good time.” She’s not smiling anymore, just looking at me like she doesn’t know what to do or say. “I don’t understand.” She wipes a tear from her face. “Hey, none of that emotional shit,” I tell her. “It makes me uncomfortable.” She smiles and I reach out and wipe another tear from her face, and then I smile too. “I just think you’re a good friend, Jackie, and those are kind of hard to find.” She lays her head on my thigh.


“Who knew?” she says, a playful gleam in her eye. “Who knew what?” She grins. “That a man whore and asshole like you could be so…sweet.” I wrap my hand in her hair, pulling her head from my leg. “You ever fucking call me sweet again—” “What are you gonna do?” she taunts. “Sweet, sweet, sweet Niklas.” I crawl on top of her, pull off her panties. “I do whatever I want,” I say and kiss her hard and then go down between her legs. I do whatever I want…because I’m my own person. And I’ll fight for whatever I need to make me whole. Whoever I need to make me whole.


-OTHER BOOKS BY J.A. REDMERSKISpeculative Fiction/Contemporary Fantasy DIRTY EDEN Crime & Suspense KILLING SARAI (#1 – In the Company of Killers) REVIVING IZABEL (#2 – In the Company of Killers) THE SWAN & THE JACKAL (#3 – In the Company of Killers) SEEDS OF INIQUITY (#4 – In the Company of Killers) THE BLACK WOLF (#5 – In the Company of Killers) More to come… New Adult Contemporary Romance THE EDGE OF NEVER (#1 – The Edge Duology) THE EDGE OF ALWAYS (#2 – The Edge Duology) SONG OF THE FIREFLIES THE MOMENT OF LETTING GO Young Adult Paranormal Romance THE MAYFAIR MOON (#1 – The Darkwoods Trilogy) KINDRED (#2 – The Darkwoods Trilogy) THE BALLAD OF ARAMEI (#3 – The Darkwoods Trilogy)


-ABOUT THE AUTHORJ.A. (Jessica Ann) Redmerski is a New York Times, USA Today and Wall Street Journal bestselling author and award winner. She is a lover of film, television and books that push boundaries and a sucker for long, sweeping, epic love stories. Things on Jessica’s wish-list are to conquer her long list of ridiculous fears, find a shirt that she actually likes, and travel the world with a backpack and a partner-incrime. To learn more about Jessica, visit her here: www.jessicaredmerski.com www.inthecompanyofkillers.com www.facebook.com/J.A.Redmerski www.pinterest.com/jredmerski Twitter - @JRedmerski

The Black Wolf - JA Redmerski (In The Company Of Killers #5)  

Fifth book from the series in the company of killers by the author JA Redmerski

The Black Wolf - JA Redmerski (In The Company Of Killers #5)  

Fifth book from the series in the company of killers by the author JA Redmerski

Advertisement