I plop down on the end of my bed and turn the television on, searching for the local news. When I find it, I can’t do anything but stare at the black-haired woman as she stands outside the area where ‘ten bodies were found shot to death earlier this morning’, and the rest of what she says fades into the back of my mind. It hurts to think about Lydia, the horrible way that she died. It hurts knowing that I couldn’t help her like I promised and that her grandparents will soon know about her death and that they will be heartbroken.

The only good that I get out of this newscast is knowing that Lydia’s body was found, that it wasn’t left out there to decay and turn to dust never to be identified.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Victor

The girl is asleep when I get out of the shower. I turn off the lights in the room and double-check the door before stopping at the side of her bed. She’s curled in the fetal position with one pillow crushed against her chest. She’s filthy and could’ve used a shower herself, but was exhausted by all that has happened.

I study the way her long, auburn hair, although disheveled, outlines the contours of her face. She appears peaceful lying there, innocent. Despite exhaustion, after all that she has been through I find it interesting that she can sleep at all.

I’m going to need to get her some new clothes and shoes soon.

Carefully, I pull the bedspread over her body and leave her to her deep sleep, sitting down at the table on the other side of the room.

I’m breaking my own rules keeping her around like this. I know that I should have left her at the trailer park and waited for Javier to come for her—because surely that is one of the first places he’ll look—make it easier on myself to eliminate him. But I feel like I owe it to her to keep her alive. At least for now. At least until Javier Ruiz is dead. She has seen too much, experienced too much. She shows all the signs of having lost the ability to react to fear and danger appropriately. She is numb to danger and that in itself is a death sentence.

Once this is over with, I will set her out on her own again. Perhaps she will find her way, though her chances are slim. But it is a risk that I must take. She cannot be with me for much longer; the life I lead will only get her killed.

I make contact with Niklas through a live video feed on my iPad, putting only one ear bud in my ear so that I can control the volume of my voice while speaking with him.

“She is still with you?” Niklas asks, incredulous.

I did not expect anything less of him.

“I will get rid of her once I eliminate Javier Ruiz,” I say. “For now, I need her close-by. I cannot chase Javier if he’s moving from place to place chasing her.”

“So you’re using her as bait?” He appears more accepting of the prospect.

I glance over at Sarai to make sure she isn’t awake.

“Yes,” I answer looking back, but instantly feel as though I am deceiving my brother and in-turn, our employer.

Taking matters into my own hands and breaking protocol for the sake of a successful mission, I am known for. Over time my decisions based purely on instinct have been accepted and respected by Vonnegut. Because I have never been wrong. But breaking protocol by outright deceiving the Order is new territory for me.

And I don’t yet fully understand why I’m doing it.

“Good,” Niklas says. “Onto matters. Last known whereabouts of Ruiz was just outside of Nogales. He had trouble crossing the border into Arizona, but was finally granted permission once his insiders planted in border patrol arrived to see him through. We believe he is on his way to Tucson, if he isn’t there already.”

Niklas adds, “What is your next move? Vonnegut has all but passed off the reins of this mission completely onto you. All that he asks for are updates. And as you can understand I’m sure, he believes it is taking far too long to conclude. Javier should have been eliminated yesterday and you should be on a plane to your next mission by now.”

“I am aware,” I point out. “Forty-eight more hours at the most is all that I need.”

Niklas accepts, nodding in answer.

“I will take the girl with me to Houston in the morning,” I go on. “Inform Safe House Twelve of my arrival.”

“Why Twelve?” Niklas looks at me warily. “You always choose Safe House Nine. Twelve is not your…shall I say type?”

“I am not going there for that,” I tell him.

He believes that, but I can sense that he doesn’t particularly agree with it.

Something is different about my brother as my liaison and my brother and I intend to find out what.

“Why go to Houston at all?” he asks, seemingly irritated with my decisions entirely. “You could wait for him to come to you and be done with this. Why, Victor, are you dragging this out?” Anger and frustration rises up in his voice.

“I’m taking the girl there to keep her safe,” I say and there’s more than enough question in his face to show that he is beside himself over my reasoning. So, for the sake of my relationship with my brother, I add, “Niklas, it is only temporary, I assure you. You must trust me.”

“Very well,” Niklas agrees with suppressed suspicion. “I will alert Safe House Twelve of your arrival. She will be waiting for you.”

And then the video feed goes dead.

I run my finger over a series of touch keys, breaking into the system through the backdoor. I choose a long series of commands, wiping the device clean of all evidence of correspondence and then crashing the system afterwards. I walk quietly past Sarai and take the iPad into the bathroom, cleaning my fingerprints from every square inch of it using what’s left of the alcohol from before. And then I drop the device into the back of the toilet.

I crawl into the bed by the window and lay on my back, looking up at the ceiling in the darkness.

“He doesn’t like me much. Does he?”

I’m quietly stunned that she managed to pretend to be sleeping without my knowing.

Was she pretending? Or am I becoming too unfocused because of her?

“No, he does not,” I answer without looking at her.

“But you do?”

The question stumps me.

She gets up from the bed and my head falls to the side to see her as she approaches. Not knowing what to do, unable to read her because I’m confused by her actions, I don’t speak. She lies down beside me. Her knees are drawn up and pressed together, her hands hidden between them, and she looks at me.

“You should get back into your own bed,” I say.

“I just want to sleep here. It’s not what you think. I’m just afraid.”

“You fear nothing,” I say, looking back up at the ceiling.

“You’re wrong,” she counters. “I fear everything. What tomorrow will bring and if I’ll be alive to see the end of it. I’m afraid of Javier or anyone else coming through that door and killing me in my sleep. I’m afraid of never being able to live a normal life. I don’t even know what normal feels like anymore.”

“There is a stark difference between fear and uncertainty, Sarai. You fear nothing but are uncertain of everything.”

“How can you believe that?” She seems truly confounded by my assessment of her.

I look at her and answer, “Because you didn’t go to the police. Because you made no effort to contact anyone else that you knew and you have had dozens of chances to do so. Because you got back in the car. With me. A killer. Because you know that I will kill you without thinking twice about it and I would not be remorseful, yet you’re lying next to me. Here in this bed. Alone and willingly.”

I reach over and pull the gun from the floor beside the bed and before she knows what’s happening, the barrel of it is pressed underneath her chin, forcing her head backward. I push my body against hers, our shoulders touching, the weight of my gun hand held up by her chest. My eyes study hers, the question and surprise within them, although faint. I look at her mouth, her soft and innocent lips pressed together gently.

I lean over and whisper onto the side of her mouth, “Because you’re not shaking, Sarai.” And then slowly, I pull the gun away, never removing my eyes from hers.

“I am not Javier,” I say. “You are mistaken if you believe you can manipulate me as you did him.”

She appears offended, though it’s very faint in her eyes, I see it. It is exactly the reaction that I wanted. That I needed, to know that the accusation is untrue.

Without argument, she looks away from me and rolls over onto her other side. She doesn’t get up and move back to her bed.

And I don’t force her.

“I wasn’t with Javier willingly,” she says with her back to me. “I don’t have any reason to manipulate you.”

A minute of quiet passes; only the shuffling of feet moving down the carpeted hallway outside the door disrupting it.

“I’m glad you came back,” she says softly. “And Victor…I should tell you, I’ve been a liar for the past nine years of my life. Everything I said and did and expressed was a lie. I like to think I’ve mastered it by now.” She pauses and I don’t have to wonder long where she’s going with this. “I’ve noticed that every time you talk to that man, Niklas, about me, that you’re lying to him.” She cranes her head backward to see me behind her. “Thank you for helping me.”

And then she turns away again and says nothing to me for the rest of the night.

Sarai

I wake up the next morning tangled in the sheet in the center of Victor’s bed.

I wonder if he slept here last night.

“Let’s go,” he says from somewhere behind me. “We have two hours before our plane leaves and you need some new clothes.”

I roll over to see him standing in the room, fully dressed in his suit and bloody white shirt, waiting for me.

I glance at the shirt tucked into his slacks, seeing a bloodstain.

“I’m not the only one that needs new clothes.”

I walk over to him and reach out to lift his shirt, but he closes his suit jacket buttoning only one button, to conceal the obvious red against the white of the fabric.

“How are you feeling?” I ask, only a little hurt that he refused me the chance to inspect his wound.

“I’m fine.”

“But you need to at least change that gauze.”

“I know,” he says lightly. “And it will be taken care of when we get to Houston.”

We drive to a nearby department store where he parks near the front and gets out. I remain seated, not expecting him to make me go in without shoes and looking the way I do.

Before he shuts the door I say, “I should probably tell you what size I wear.”

He closes the door without letting me finish and walks around to my side, opening my door and waiting for me.

“You’re a size six,” he says, surprising me. “Now get out. You can’t stay out here by yourself.”

“I can’t go inside, either.” I point at my bare feet, which are now black on the bottom from walking around without shoes since yesterday. “I’m barefooted. No shirt, no shoes, no service.”


Tags: J.A. Redmerski In the Company of Killers Book Series
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