“I will do that,” he says.
Ophelia turns to me with a big close-lipped smile.
“You keep him in line,” she says. “And just try the heels. You’d look fabulous in them.”
I smile back. “I’ll think about it.”
She pats me on the arm as she walks past, taking up her purse from the floor on her way to the front door.
Long after Ophelia leaves, I’m still looking at the door, not with her on my mind, but I can’t bring myself to look at Victor.
He walks around in front of me and fits my elbows in his hands. I stand with my arms crossed loosely over my stomach.
“Sarai,” he says.
I raise my eyes to look at him and before he can say whatever it was he had planned to say, I blurt out softly, “I’m so sorry for…Victor, I’m not crazy or…well, I’m really sorry.”
“Don’t be,” he says.
I just look at him.
“You play beautifully,” he goes on. “Have you ever considered playing professionally?”
Many long seconds go by before I manage an answer.
“I did think about being up on a stage somewhere,” I say and his hands fall away from my elbows. “But I really have no interest in anything like that anymore. I just like to play for myself.”
To avoid eye contact again, I walk over to the couch and start arranging the clothes in a neat pile on the cushion.
With my back to him, I go on:
“I don’t have any idea what I’ll do when I get to my aunt’s, but I’ll figure something out. An education of sorts and then after that maybe I’ll go into…,” I can’t finish because I don’t know what to say. I dodge it, fidgeting the fabric anxiously in my hands now. “At least I’ll look nice when I see her. Maybe she’ll accept me now that I’m wearing clothes that didn’t come from the half-off rack at the dollar store.”
“Can you promise one thing?” Victor asks.
I turn to look at him.
“I guess I owe you that much,” I say. “What?”
“Just that you’ll play for me from time to time.”
“What do you mean?”
He leans over beside a bookshelf and takes another suitcase into his hand. Then he walks toward me and sets it down on the couch, flipping the two latches on the sides.
When he opens it, it’s empty. He points briefly at my pile of clothes.
“Our plane leaves in an hour,” he says. “From here on out until I tell you otherwise, you are Izabel Seyfried and you are confident in your skin. You are strong-minded and sharp-tongued but you let me do all of the talking except when you feel the need to state your opinion on whatever matter you choose, even when it’s not asked for. You fear nothing, yet you exude a sense of vulnerability that you know, privately of course, will drive a powerful man’s need to know what it’s like to be the one to break you. You are wealthy, though no one needs to know where your money comes from, only that you have enough of it to wipe your ass with one hundred dollar bills every time you take a shit. And the only man in any room that can tame you is me, which we will, almost certainly, have to demonstrate at least once during this mission. So, keep in mind that whatever I do to you, play along accordingly. And whatever I tell you to do, do it without question because it could be the difference between life and death. Do you understand?”
I stare at him blankly.
“You’re taking me with you?” There are about fifty questions swirling around inside my head, but that’s the only one I could pluck from the disarray.
He steps up to me. “Yes,” he answers. “I’ll take you with me on one mission because I want you to see what it’s like. You need to understand that the life I lead is not the life for you.” He takes my hands into his and sits down with me on the couch, pushing the suitcase aside. “Hopefully, this will help you to be more accepting of a life out there instead; one with college and a job and friends and boyfriends.”
He encloses his fingers around my hands more firmly and I begin to gaze beyond him, thinking about what he said, about his reasons for doing this. Momentarily, I wonder which one of us he’s trying to convince.
“Sarai, listen to me carefully,” he says. “If you choose to go with me you need to know that you could be killed. I will do everything in my power to keep you safe, but it’s not a guarantee because no matter how much you trust me, you should never, under any circumstances trust anyone fully. In the end, you can only trust yourself. I am not your hero. I am not the other half of your soul who could never let anything bad ever happen to you. Trust your instincts first always, and me, if you choose, last.”
I nod apprehensively.
“So what will it be?” he asks. “France or Los Angeles?”
I don’t really have to think about it because I know what I want, but I pretend to think about it to make me appear less irrational.
“Los Angeles,” I say letting out a breath.
Victor gazes into my eyes for a moment, a look of contemplation and even a bit of wavering settles on his expression.
He stands up and straightens his suit.
“Then pack your things,” he says as he walks away. “We leave in ten minutes.”
I had hoped she would choose France, but I knew she would choose to go with me. I could still very well take her to France and set her up with everything she needs and my conscience would be clear. But I bypassed the meaning of rational where Sarai is concerned a long time ago. She may very well die in Los Angeles, but I gave her a choice. I all but spelled out the potential consequences of her decision. I didn’t exactly tell her everything, but there is a method to my madness. I can’t allow her time to contemplate what she might do because in this business sometimes a life or death decision comes when you least expect it. And that is the kind of scenario she needs to experience.
Perhaps a part of me hopes she doesn’t make it through the mission because then I will be free of my…shortcomings when it comes to her. But the other part of me, the part that I’m still struggling with that brought her with me as far as I have…
That’s an entirely different issue.
If she lives then I’ll find it necessary to confront it.
If she dies…If she dies then I will go back to my normal life and never find myself in a situation like this again.
“His name is Arthur Hamburg,” I say, laying a manila envelope on Sarai’s lap next to me on the private jet. “He owns Hamburg & Sthilz, the most successful real estate agency on the west coast. But his most lucrative business is more underground.”
Attracted by my silence, she looks up from the photo she removed from the envelope.
“What is his other business?” she asks, as I knew she would.
“It doesn’t matter,” I say. “The information that I choose to give you is all that you need.”
She cocks her head to one side. “But you know more,” she accuses.
“Yes, I do,” I admit. “But as your employer, you never ask questions about the personal nature of any mark unless you’re unclear as to how you’re going to eliminate him. What he does for a living, who his wife is, his children, if he has any, his crimes, if he has any of those, they don’t matter. The less you know about his personal life, the less of a risk there is for you to become emotionally involved. I give you a photo, tell you his frequent whereabouts and habits, designate a manner in which I prefer the hit to be carried out: messy and in public to send a message, or discreet and accidental to avoid an investigation, and then you take care of the rest.”
She thinks about it a moment, the photo of Arthur Hamburg clutched in her fingertips.
“Wait,” she says, “so you’re saying that you don’t only kill bad people. You also kill innocent people?”
A small smile, I admit unbecoming of me, lifts the edges of my mouth. “No one is innocent, Sarai,” I repeat something she said to me once. “Children, yes, but everyone else, they are as innocent as you or I. Think of it this way if it makes you feel any better: to have a hit placed on you, you must’ve done something or be involved in something illegal or ‘bad’ as you call it.”
“I thought you said that I was innocent,” she reminds me. “And that’s why you didn’t kill me.”
“You were,” I say. “And I wasn’t ordered to kill you by my employer. Javier’s offer was considered a private hit, it didn’t go through my employer first. Private hits are the ones that get innocent people killed. Wives wanting their husbands deaths to look accidental so they can collect their inheritance. Scorned lovers pay private parties to kill their girlfriends out of jealousy and vengeance. I don’t take jobs like those and my employer has never given me one. My Order deals only in crime, government corruption and a host of other things that make bad people bad. And sometimes we eliminate people who might be considered innocent, but who are a threat to a large number of innocent people, or an idea.”
Her eyebrows crease gently as she looks to me to elaborate further.
“Would you have killed Robert Oppenheimer if you knew he was going to head the invention of the Atomic Bomb? Or, eliminate a scientist before she completes her lifelong quest to create a deadly virus in her lab that is intended only to be used against an enemy country in a time of war?”
“Yes, I guess I would,” she says. “Though something like that is sort of like playing God with people’s lives. You’re convicting someone of a crime before it happens.”
I don’t respond to that because that’s exactly what it is.
“Then if they all deserve to die,” she goes on, “what does it matter what I know about their personal lives? What does it matter what I know about this Arthur Hamburg?” She glances at the photo.
“Because for some, the means do not justify the end.”
“You mean that I might feel bad for someone because their crimes don’t constitute a death sentence?”
“Exactly,” I say. “And it’s not for you to make that call.”
“And what makes you think I’d be that soft?” she asks, her eyes full of intent and curiosity.
“I don’t,” I say. “Not for sure. But for someone who wasn’t raised like this, who hasn’t been killing people since she was thirteen-years-old, it would be a very difficult thing to get used to.”
Sarai looks down at the photo one more time and then back up at me. “You’ve been doing it that long?” she asks sympathetically. “I can’t imagine….”
“I endured several years of training as a boy before I was sent on a mission with my mentor. At that age, it’s easy to be molded into whatever they want. My first kill was clean. And I slept soundly that night.”
She looks away, staring off at nothing, lost in thought.
Just when I think she might start second-guessing this whole mission, she surprises me.
“OK, so what am I supposed to do?”