We are alone in the vast space. Just the three of us. Me, the Devil and one of the Devil’s henchmen, though truly I don’t know which one of them is which.
I raise my head.
I smile weakly up at them, fixating my attention mostly on Niklas.
“This is your last opportunity,” Niklas announces standing next to Stephens with a gun in his right hand, held down at his side. “I won’t bother with sending my brother another video of you being interrogated. It’s apparent that seeing you in such pain isn’t enough to stir him out of hiding.”
“Kill me,” I say, still with a smile. “It’s what you’re gonna have to do.”
Niklas’ chest rises and falls, but his eyes never leave mine. I gaze into them, searching for whatever I can find left in him that might still be like his brother, the man…I think I’m falling in love with.
The man that I thought, for a brief moment in time, might have felt the same way.
Time seems to stop. There is no sound or movement or air on my face, just an infinite silence suspended in the last moment of my life.
And as I feel my eyes begin to close, in the same frame of motion, Niklas raises the gun out beside him and pulls the trigger. The shot rings out and blood spatters from the other side of Stephens’ head. The chair beneath him falls over onto its side as the weight of his massive body slumps against it.
Stephens falls to the floor. Dead.
I feel the softness of my lashes finally sweep my face as my eyes close and my own body, overwhelmed by relief and exhausted by everything, begins to fall over, too.
Niklas fits his arms underneath mine, catching me before I hit the floor.
“I’ve got you,” I hear him say. “I’ve got you.” His voice seems farther away now, though I can feel myself pressed against his chest and the wind on my face as I’m being carried through the warehouse.
“Give her to me,” I hear Victor say from outside, and it’s the last thing I hear.
The Plot – Three weeks ago…
Niklas sits across from me at the elongated table covered in scattered paperwork and coffee stains and photographs of future hits. His brown hair is disheveled, and the edges of his eyes are red as he had far too much to drink last night. He moves his hands across the stack of various photos of Edgar Velazco, a notorious Venezuelan gang leader who we’ve been commissioned to kill.
He shakes his head with aggravation and leans his back against the chair, bringing up both hands and running them over the entirety of his face.
“We can’t put this on hold,” Niklas says, looking across the table at me. “We have a location on Andre Costa. We need to deal with it now.”
I don’t look up from scanning the text in front of me.
“Things have changed,” I say evenly. I move a sheet of paper on top of another. “Sarai is my priority. It was unexpected, I know, but I can’t change what she did.” I look directly at him, hoping that he will understand and not argue with me on this. “Niklas, I won’t abandon or compromise what we’re achieving here. The contract on Edgar Velazco will be fulfilled. Before the deadline.”
He sighs again and lowers his eyes for a brief moment. Then he reaches out and removes a cigarette from the pack lying on the table in front of him. Putting it between his lips, he sets the end aflame with a flick of his lighter.
He knows I dislike it when he smokes inside, but I suppose I need to cut my brother some slack, seeing as how he has done so much for me, and for Sarai, in the past several months.
“No disrespect, brother,” Niklas says as smoke streams from his lips, “but what are you going to do about her? You can’t juggle both lives, and you know it. And we can’t use our resources forever for babysitting, not when it’s someone like her who isn’t so easy to keep up with. She’s as reckless as I was at twenty-three.”
I nod. “Yes, you’re right about that,” I say. “She is more like you than I care to admit.”
Niklas grins and flicks his ashes in the little plastic ashtray.
“Oh come on, brother, I’m not so bad, am I?”
I don’t need to answer that question and he knows it.
He takes another short pull from the cigarette and sets it down on the edge of the ashtray.
“So then what are you going to do?” he asks.
He leans his back against the chair again and interlocks his fingers fitted behind his head.
“Are you sure you want to know the answer to that?” I ask.
That seems to have piqued his curiosity.
“Hell yes, I want to know.” His hands come away from the back of his head and he leans over forward, resting the length of his arms across the tabletop. He looks worried. “What have you done?”
I pause and answer, “While at Fredrik’s house, after a lot of pleading, and Sarai threatening me with her safety, I agreed to help train her.”
“Yes,” I confirm it for him because he seems to need the confirmation. “She’s adamant about killing Hamburg and Stephens herself. I could do it but—”
“You should do it, Victor.”
“No,” I say, shaking my head, “I gave her my word—”
“So f**king what,” Niklas argues. “Victor, it’s suicide. What the hell were you thinking?” He seizes the cigarette back into his fingers and takes a longer pull as if needing the nicotine to calm his nerves. Craning his neck, thick smoke streams from his lips into the air above him.
“It isn’t something I haven’t thought of before,” I admit, “long before she pulled this stunt with Hamburg, long before she gave me the ultimatum. I want her with me, Niklas. I want to teach her. I believe she is capable of succeeding. And she refuses to be babysat. By anyone. Particularly me.”
“And what if she doesn’t succeed?” Niklas looks upon me, sincerity and concern hardening his features. Concern for me and not necessarily for Sarai. “Victor, you’re setting yourself up for a lifetime of pain. Falling for a woman.” He laughs derisively, though more at himself, I know. “I fell for a woman once—you remember—and you see what it got me. What it got her. She ended up dead and I ended up destroyed because of it.” He shakes his head. “And do I need to remind you what happened when Fredrik fell in love? No, I didn’t think so.”
He stands up, snuffing the cigarette out in the ashtray.
“I’m sorry, Victor, but I think this is a really bad f**king idea.”
“But it’s the only idea,” I say calmly. “And I hope that you will respect it enough that we don’t have a repeat of Los Angeles.”
I knew my words would sting him, using the incident when he shot Sarai in a hotel, an incident that he thought we had gotten past. Niklas looks down at me, resentment and pain in his eyes.
“Really, brother?” he asks with disbelief, propping his hands on the edge of the table and leaning forward. “After everything I’ve done all these months to help protect her? After I gave you my word, as your brother, as your blood, that I’d never do anything to harm her again? If I wanted her dead, I could’ve killed her a thousand times over. You know this, Victor. I thought we were over this.”
I lower my eyes, letting the guilt of my accusation do what it wants with me. Niklas is loyal to me. He always has been. When he shot Sarai in Los Angeles and tried to kill her, it was only because of his love and loyalty to me. Because he knew that the way she had compromised me was going to be my undoing, that it was going to get me killed. And while although I don’t excuse what he did and I will never forgive him for it—and he knows this—I understand why he did it, just the same.
In our kind of life sometimes terrible things must be done to those we love to clear a path for new beginnings. My brother, as intolerable as he may be, is no exception. In fact, he is a prime example of that rule.
And today things are different. He will not kill her, but he will not hesitate to kill for her.
“I do trust you, Niklas,” I say. “I hope you believe that.”
He nods slowly, forgiving me, appearing absorbed in deep thought.
“I’m not asking you to prove it, Victor,” he says, “but there’s something that needs to be done. For the sake of our business. For the sake of our lives.” He begins to pace, back and forth near the length of the table.
“What is it?” I ask, looking up at him from my chair.
He stops at the center of the table, crosses his arms and looks down at me with a look of uneasiness on his face.
“If Sarai is going to be involved in our operations in any way whatsoever,” he begins cautiously, “you know she must be put through the same level of tests that anyone else working for us would be put through. Because you have feelings for her doesn’t make that rule any different.”
“What are you saying?” I ask.
I know precisely what he’s saying, but what I really want to know is how far he wants to take this. Niklas has never been known to half-ass anything.
“I’m saying,” he goes on, “that I know you don’t want to go through what Fredrik went through with Seraphina. And I know you don’t want a repeat of Samantha. Sarai’s loyalty to you must be tested. I’m not saying this because I have some kind of underlying vendetta against her, or because I want her to betray you so that I can prove a point.” He puts up his hands. “I only want to know that she can be trusted, that if she’s ever compromised, that she can’t be broken and compromise the rest of us.”
“I trust her,” I say. “I know she wouldn’t betray me. I trust her.”
It doesn’t matter how many times I say those words aloud or in my head. I trust her. I trust Sarai. I trust her. I know that Niklas is right. There is too much at stake. Our black market business, our lives and the lives of the many people who work under us. And with Vonnegut and the Order incessantly in search of me, I cannot take any chances.
“What do you propose?” I ask, accepting the truth.
Niklas nods, relieved by my cooperation and understanding.
He takes a breath and prepares to explain.
“I will approach Hamburg,” he begins. “I will gain his trust by falsely selling you out to him. He’ll believe that I’m just an unforgiving brother who has been commissioned by my own Order to kill you since you went rogue and betrayed us all. All for the sake of one girl. A girl who, it is no secret to people like me, Hamburg wants dead now more than ever.”
I’m already nodding in agreement before he’s done explaining, a vivid image of the scenario playing out in my mind.
“When the time is right,” he continues, “I’ll lead Hamburg’s men straight to Sarai…”
Niklas goes on about the plot to initiate Sarai and at the same time, get Hamburg and Stephens where we want them.
“But I don’t want her hurt,” I say. “If we do this, you have to give me your word that you will not let anyone go too far. That you will not go too far.” I narrow my gaze on him.