“You’re not so different from me. You know that, right?” Fredrik asks.
Finally, my head falls to the right and I look at him. I look at his tall brooding form, his calm demeanor that I know is only a disguise which perfectly hides away the dangerous man who truly lives in there, not so far from the surface. I see a man who although I haven’t the slightest clue as to why or how he turned out the way he did, other than what Seraphina did to him, I know that he went through something much worse than she could ever inflict. I feel it. I sense it. And disturbingly enough, I feel like I can somehow relate to it.
“Maybe so,” I say and look away. “Though, when it comes to how we…deal with people…you and I are nothing alike.”
“Oh, I’m not so sure that’s true,” he says with a smile in his voice.
Perhaps the fact that I don’t argue with him about it right away is proof that he might be right.
Thankfully, Fredrik changes the subject. “Have you had breakfast?” he asks.
“I’m not really hungry.”
He leans away from the wall, dropping his hands to his sides and then steps around in front of me. Jerking his head back once he says, “Come on, I’m starving. There’s a bakery down the street. I haven’t had a decent pastry in a long time.”
I start to decline the invitation, but then decide to join him anyway. I poke my head inside the studio, standing halfway outside at the front door and yell across the room to Spencer and Jacquelyn, telling them where I’m going and that I’ll be back later. Spencer, with that untrusting look in his eye, argues with me for a second, saying I shouldn’t skip out on anymore training. He’s right about that, but I know really what he’s worried about is me leaving the studio with Fredrik.
Moments later, I hop in Fredrik’s car and we’re driving toward the bakery a few miles from the studio.
“Fredrik, why do you think Niklas would betray Victor the way he has?”
Fredrik merges onto the freeway.
“I don’t know,” he says. “Jealous, I suppose. Niklas always did live in Victor’s shadow in the Order. For as long as I’ve known them.”
“Yeah but…,” I sigh and glance over and then keep my eyes trained out ahead, “…I just don’t understand why he’d do that, I mean…,” I look right at him now, finally figuring out what I had wanted to say. “Niklas tried to kill me to protect Victor. He shot me. I guess I’m just having a hard time understanding what could make him do what he’s done after everything he did before to protect his brother. How any person can change like that.”
We turn right onto Paseo De Peralta and before long I see the big red oval sign on the bakery building out ahead as we get closer.
“I’ve worked with both of them for many years,” Fredrik says watching the traffic. “Niklas was always on the unhinged side. He would do anything for his brother, but I just felt like he was a disaster waiting to happen.” He glances over at me, and our eyes meet for a brief moment. “Honestly, I think you had a lot to do with why Niklas betrayed Victor.”
I swallow hard and look down into my lap momentarily, coiling my nervous fingers around one another. I have often wondered about this, a part of me almost convinced that this was all my fault, but not only did I not want to believe it, I also felt stupid thinking that I could cause such a rift between two people. I’m not that important of a person. I don’t have that much power, not even over Victor.
“Why do you think that?” I ask, hoping that whatever answer he gives me, isn’t believable. Ridiculous, even.
“Because in a sense, Victor chose you over his brother.”
All of my hopes and dreams of the moment come crashing down around me. His answer isn’t ridiculous at all, it makes perfect sense. And I hate myself for it.
“Victor decided to leave the Order after he met you,” Fredrik begins. “He may have had his qualms with Vonnegut before, but ultimately you were the turning of the key. And even before Victor went rogue, he was risking his position in the Order, and his life, by helping you. Niklas was trying to keep Victor from destroying himself. Killing you, he thought, was the only way to do that because reasoning with Victor regarding you didn’t work. Victor even lied to Niklas about you.” He looks over at me again. “In Niklas’ eyes, Victor chose, replaced, him with you.”
We come upon the parking lot of the bakery but instead of pulling in, I catch Fredrik staring toward the rearview mirror, his eyes focused on it and the road out ahead at the same time.
Getting the distinct feeling that he’s looking at something behind us, I start to turn around.
“Don’t,” he says quickly. Everything in that word shakes me to my bitter core. But his expression, his demeanor and the way he continues to casually steer with both hands on the bottom of the wheel, is as if nothing is wrong.
“What is it?” I ask, unable to mask the concern in my voice as he could.
“We’re being followed.”
My chest hardens and I stop breathing for a moment. I want so desperately to look behind us, but I opt for peering through my side mirror instead, and making no obvious movements. There’s a black SUV, looks like a Navigator, tailing us.
My hands clench stiffly onto the corners of the red leather seats beneath me. I don’t take my eyes off the side mirror, or my mind off the possibility that it could be who I think it is and what I know is about to happen. I can’t see the passenger or the driver through the Navigator’s tinted windows.
“Are you sure?” I ask.
Fredrik turns his blinker on and we turn left at the next street. He maintains the speed limit and doesn’t appear to let those in the vehicle know that he’s on to them. I just hope he’s wrong.
“They’ve been following us since we pulled out of the studio,” he says and my heart sinks. “They were watching us, parked in the lot across the street.”
“So, they’re why you decided to get breakfast,” I assume.
Fredrik nods and turns right at the next stop light.
I’m kicking myself, feeling so goddamned small and inexperienced that I wasn’t smart enough to notice these things. I wasn’t observant enough of my surroundings to know that we were being watched the whole time. But this isn’t the time or place to be frustrated with myself. I just hope there’s time for that later.
“What are we going to do?” I ask nervously.
Fredrik presses on the gas pedal and suddenly we’re doing fifty in a thirty-five, and heading straight for the on-ramp to the freeway. The Navigator is close behind, staying on our tail. I grab my seatbelt strap and pull it tighter and then I grip onto the seats again.
“We’re going to lose them,” Fredrik answers as we go from fifty to seventy in a couple short seconds as we get onto the freeway.
I’m holding on for dear life, my heart in my throat, as the car weaves recklessly in and out of traffic, cutting people off and even going around vehicles by way of the shoulder. But the Navigator stays right on us, weaving its way through the same path that we take. Horns honk noisily, angrily at us as we speed by.
“HOLD ON!” Fredrik shouts.
In that second, my shoulder is crushed against the side window as Fredrik makes a sharp turn from the center lane into the right, just mere inches from the front bumper of a little white car. I hear the squealing of the tires, ours and the white car’s, and then I’m shoved to the other side of my seat when he abruptly steadies the vehicle.
I turn awkwardly at the waist in the front seat, the seatbelt still wrapped around my body, holding me in place, to see the Navigator coming at us from behind a blue car. The car swerves left, trying to get out of the way and clips the front of the white car we just passed. Both cars spin violently in the middle of the freeway, the white one squealing to a stop in the far left lane, narrowly missing the concrete wall barrier separating this freeway from the other side. Smoke billows from underneath the tires. The blue car rolls over onto its side, crashing. I gasp, my hand comes up over my mouth.
The freeway from the wreck backward comes to a halt, everyone except for us and the Navigator following closely behind. Out ahead, people aware of what’s going on, already parting the way for us. We rocket past at ninety miles per hour, forcing a line of cars to pull over on the side of the freeway.
The farther we get from the wreck, the more numerous the cars ahead of us thicken and we’re right back in the same situation as moments ago, weaving in and out, horns honking, my body hitting the door and the window with every other sharp turn.
Fredrik moves quickly over into the far left lane, the fast lane.
“We need to get off the freeway!”
“We have to lose them first!”
“How the hell are we going to do that?” I look back again. They are still behind us, their front bumper just feet from ours.
Fredrik doesn’t answer. He’s watching everything, keeping his eyes on the road in front, the vehicles on all sides of us, the Navigator in the back. After a few moments of this, I’m beginning to feel like he’s putting together a plan in his head.
Suddenly, at the very last second, Fredrik races from the fast lane, across three lanes of traffic, and hits the exit at ninety, mere inches from the concrete wall and orange barrels separating the exit from the freeway. There wasn’t enough time for the Navigator to figure out what Fredrik was doing and to make the exit with us. My head hits the side window. There’s a stop light at the end of the road, but Fredrik is going too fast to stop and he zips right through it. Thankfully it appears to be a less-traveled road and no vehicles are there to meet us.
“What the hell was that?!” I scream at him from the side, my hand pressed against my chest, trying to steady my heartbeat.
He doesn’t answer until we’re far away from the exit and driving down a series of streets. Both of us keep looking around in all directions searching for the Navigator.
“If I had stayed in the right lane,” he says, “he would’ve expected me to get off at any exit.”
As much as it scared the shit out of me, I can’t deny that his crazy plan worked.
“You could’ve killed us!”
“You act like that’s something new to you,” he says.
I laugh out loud.
Fredrik gets back on the freeway going in the opposite direction, back toward the Krav Maga studio. But before we get anywhere near the studio, he turns down an unfamiliar street and bypasses it altogether.
“Where are we going?”
“Back to Albuquerque,” he answers. “The long way around. Just in case.”
Six hours of vigilantly watching through the windows of the house and Victor finally pulls into the driveway. Fredrik and I are both on our feet the second we hear the tiny rocks popping and grinding underneath the tires.
Victor drops his keys on the kitchen counter first and comes into the living room, setting his briefcase on the coffee table.
“Any sign of them?” he asks Fredrik right then.