I swipe my hand over the mirror in the bathroom, clearing a path through the humidity fogging up the glass. And I smile in at my reflection. For the first time since I met Victor, I’m starting to feel content, relieved by the outlook of my future. Because before, all I could see of it was blackness, a void that had no beginning or end, everything hanging there in uncertainty. But now I have something to look forward to. I have a purpose. And I’m not going to waste a second of it.
I squeeze the water from my hair with a towel and then pin it up sloppily at the back of my head. After drying off and getting dressed, I head into the main room and start to turn the television on when there is a knock at the room door. I glance at the clock beside the bed.
It hasn’t been an hour already.
Setting the remote control back on the bed, I walk toward the door to answer it, but just as I set my hand on the lever, the voice on the other side freezes me in place.
“It’s Niklas. Victor sent me to get you.”
My fingers fall away from the lever very slowly. I take one step away from the door.
He knocks lightly again.
“Are you in there? Sarai? Come on and let me in. I know you despise me, and quite honestly I’d rather be having a beer in a quaint little bar somewhere, but Victor needed my help.”
He’s lying. Victor would’ve told me if he had sent Niklas here. He would’ve told me before he left, or he would’ve called.
I glance at the phone by the bed. Maybe he did call while I was in the shower.
I take another step away from the door, my instincts pulling me backward like a dozen reaching hands. There’s one more series of knocks and then it’s silent. I stand in the center of the room, perfectly still, perfectly quiet. The only sound I hear is a faint, buzzing coming from a light bulb. Moving quickly across the room I press my face near the door and try to peer out through the peephole. What I can see of the hallway is empty. He’s gone. But then if he’s really gone, why am I still so afraid that he’s right outside the door somewhere, waiting for me to stick my head out and look? I press my eye at an angle against the peephole, trying to get a better visual to the left and the right. Then I hear voices and see a shadow moving along the wall. My heartbeat speeds up and I hold my breath until two men walk past. I let the breath out long and heavily.
But the relief is short-lived when I see Niklas again.
I jump back and away from the door fast and rush over to Victor’s duffle bag, rummaging through it to find Arthur Hamburg’s gun. Victor left it for me. Just in case. But I get the feeling he left it in case of Arthur Hamburg. Not his brother.
There’s nowhere to hide in this place. Absolutely nowhere that Niklas couldn’t easily find me in under a minute.
I inhale a quick, sharp breath when I hear the tiny clicking sound of a card key being slid through the door and unlocking it. He must’ve taken the housekeeper’s master key. In half a second, and too late for me to realize and remedy my mistake, I see the chain on the door is still unlocked. I make a run for it, knowing in my heart that I won’t make it to the door in time to slide the chain lock in place before Niklas is inside the room. And just as the door opens, I’m falling against the wall behind it, gripping the gun in both hands up against my chest, my heart pumping blood so fast through my veins that my eyes twitch near the corners and I feel my jugular throbbing.
The door shuts and locks automatically and Niklas and I stand face to face, each with a gun pointed at the other.
“Ah, there you are,” he says with that glaring look in his eyes that shows just how much he hates me.
I keep my finger pressed against the trigger and although I’m shaking, I manage to hold the gun steady and pointed right at his head.
“I will kill you,” I warn.
“Yes, I know,” he says, exuding more confidence than me by far. “You were the one who shot Javier Ruiz, after all.” He sighs dramatically and shakes his head. “Sarai, I want you to know that I don’t get off on this, on killing innocent women. I never wanted to kill you or hurt you for that matter, but what you’ve done to my brother…well, I can’t have that.”
Keeping the gun trained on him and my finger firmly on the trigger, I start to back away from the door. He moves with my movements.
“Why do you care what Victor does with his personal life?”
He cocks his head to one side. “Victor doesn’t have a personal life. None of us can have that. It’s like oil and water. Surely you know that by now.”
“He’s taking me somewhere today,” I say quickly, losing any confidence I had, which wasn’t much to begin with. “He’s getting rid of me. He already told me that I can’t stay with him. Why can’t you just leave it at that? He’s doing what you want.”
“It’s not what I want, Sarai.” We’ve managed to steer far away from the door and are in the center of the room now. “I’m only trying to protect him. He’s my f**king brother!” His sudden anger makes me tremble. I notice his trigger finger twitch.
“Niklas, please just let me go. You’re right and I know it. I’ve known it for a while, that I’m only making things harder for Victor.”
“You’re going to get him killed!” he cries out, pushing the words through his teeth and the barrel of his gun toward me. “Even if he leaves you alone today, even if he never sees you again—fuck, even if he kills you—what has already happened is enough for the Order to kill him! Don’t you see?” His face is red hot with anger, his expression distorted by pain. “They will kill him! If he goes to Germany he’s dead, Sarai. Did he tell you that? I bet he didn’t tell you that.”
I don’t want to believe it. I shake my head and almost lose focus, gripping my gun tighter.
“You don’t know that,” I say, but deep down I believe him. “If that’s true then why would he even go?”
A sneer crinkles the edge of Niklas’ mouth. His teeth grind together behind his closed lips.
“Because Victor is stubborn,” he says. “And a little too trusting when it comes to Vonnegut. Victor has always been his Number One, he’s always been the best. He’s better at what he does than all of the ones under Vonnegut who came before him and he’s still the best. But being the best doesn’t make him immune to the Code. He has f**ked up far too much since he’s been involved with you that there will be no exoneration.”
“Then let me talk to him—”
“You’ve done enough!” he roars.
The client is late. Five minutes late, but even one minute by someone who Niklas described as ‘meticulous’ doesn’t sit well with me. Two more minutes and I’m leaving.
I watch people walk by on the street and I study them from the clothes they wear to the way they hold their heads when they talk to those walking alongside them. Are they really just tourists and residents? Or, are they decoys? Spies? I can never be too careful. This could be a setup, like any mission, but ones like this that put a knot of uncertainty in the pit of my stomach—
I recall my phone conversation with Niklas earlier:
“Meet with her outside at 639 South Spring Street. She will be wearing a white blouse with a silver butterfly broach on the left breast. She’ll be there at one-thirty.”
“That’s in less than an hour,” I say.
“You have plenty of time to get there from the hotel.”
I had plenty of time to get here from the hotel…
I grip the steering wheel with both hands, my mind running a hundred miles per second. How would Niklas have known that? He had no idea where in Los Angeles Sarai and I were staying. He couldn’t have known that I could make it to that address from where I was in that amount of time.
Unless he knew exactly where we were all along.
“Niklas…if you kill me, you’ll make an enemy of your brother.” My throat is dry like sandpaper, my lungs heavy. “If everything you’re saying is true, if Victor’s fate is already sealed then what would killing me accomplish?” I raise my voice out of desperation and fear. “It won’t solve anything!”
He doesn’t want to kill me. I don’t know whether it’s because of what I said, about making Victor his enemy, or if he’s just conflicted, but whatever it is it’s the only thing keeping me alive right now.
“Look what you’ve done!” He shoves the gun in the air toward me, his hand gripping the handle so tight his knuckles are white.
He moves forward. I move backward.
“Niklas…please,” I beg him. I don’t want to shoot him. I know he’s more likely to kill me, but I don’t want to shoot him.
Anger flickers through his eyes in an instant and he rounds his chin defiantly, his jaw clenching, his eyes narrow and his nostrils flaring.
Yes, he does want to kill me after all.
The door swings open and I hear a shot just as Niklas turns his head to see Victor storming through the room. And then another suppressed shot zips through the room, but Niklas, already running toward Victor too, manages to keep from getting hit and I hear the bullet move through the air just feet from me and embed inside the wall.
My gun falls from my hand and I fall to my knees. It takes a few seconds for me to realize that I’ve been hit, and once I do, I feel the burning hot pain in my stomach. Warm blood soaks the fabric of my dress. I lay on my side, both hands pressed firmly over the wound.
The table out ahead of me wobbles on its wooden base as Victor and Niklas crash against it. My little jewelry box falls from it and hits the floor, breaking apart the latch and scattering the jewelry about. Victor, on top of Niklas, rains his fists down on him, blow after blow until the table can no longer hold their weight and tumbles over onto its side, sending them both crashing onto the floor with it. The tall lamp that stood over the back of the chair hits the table, the cord ripped from the wall and the light bulb shattering into pieces.
Niklas is on top of Victor now, hitting him repeatedly in the face, but Victor reaches up and grabs Niklas’ throat and lifts him off of him, slamming his back hard against the floor. Victor stands up and kicks Niklas in the face before forcing his way through the room to get his gun.
In seconds, he’s standing over his brother’s surrendering body with the barrel pointed at his face.
“Victor, don’t kill him!” I manage to shout through the pain.
He blinks back into focus having been momentarily lost in a blind rage, and he glances at me.
“Please, don’t kill him,” I repeat in a soft, desperate voice.
“He tried to kill you,” he says, looking at me with a confused expression as though he can’t believe what I’m saying. “He shot you.”
I press my right hand harder over the wound, blood moves in-between all of my fingers. I’m starting to feel faint.
“Victor, he’s your brother. He’s only here because he was trying to protect you.”
He looks back and forth between me and Niklas, both of us lying bloody and helpless on the floor on opposite sides of the room. His face is consumed by conflict and pain and things that I can’t possibly understand because I’ve never had a brother or sister, I don’t know what it feels like to be loved in that way. Maybe Victor never knew either, until now.