“How much can she take?” he inquires.

“She can take a lot,” I say. “She is strong. But before it goes down, I want her to train as much as she can. I can take her to Spencer and Jacquelyn in Santa Fe. The experience will toughen her up some more. Let me prepare her as much as I can in the little time we have before we do this.”

“OK,” Niklas agrees.

“You know she’s going to hate you even more when this is all over,” I point out.

Niklas nods. “Yeah, I imagine she will. But I don’t care how much she hates me. I’m not the one who has to sleep with her.” He laughs lightly. “It’s a risk I’m willing to take for the sake of everything. The real concern is, how much will she hate you once it’s all over?”

I look away, staring off toward the wall. “It’s a risk I’m also willing to take,” I say distantly.

“Maybe she’ll understand,” he says, trying to ease the worried thoughts written all over my face. “If she’s going to be a part of us, to be a part of you, she’ll need to know how and when to separate your working relationship from your emotional relationship.”

“Yes,” I say, “she will need to learn that.”

He slaps his hands gently against the table.

“And if she’s as strong as you say she is, then she’ll understand and be able to get past it.”

I say nothing more.

“So then it’s settled. I’ll head to Los Angeles tonight. I have a meeting with Fredrik, anyway.”

“I take it he still hasn’t mentioned anything about me to you?” I ask.

“Nope,” Niklas says. “The guy is as solid as a Catholic behind a confession booth. He’s not going to betray you, Victor. Why do you still worry that he will?” Niklas grabs his cigarettes and car keys from the table. “He passed your test months ago. How long did they have him in that room for? Six days? Fredrik is loyal. He can’t be broken.”

“I’m not so sure,” I say, staring down at the wood grain in the table. “You seem to forget what Fredrik’s specialty is. He brutally tortures people and quite enjoys it. I think if anyone can get through an interrogation without breaking, it’s Fredrik Gustavsson.”

Niklas looks at me in a sidelong manner.

“What are you thinking?” he asks, intrigued by my train of thought.

I look up at him.

“I have one more test to put Fredrik through,” I say. “If I leave him alone with Sarai, he will believe that I trust him fully. It will seem as though I’ve let my guard down.” I stand up and walk toward the bookshelf, thinking long and hard about this new plan that I’ve only just devised. “If he contacts you and tells you that he has Sarai, then we’ll know that his loyalties truly lie with the Order. Sarai is the perfect bait. What better way to allow Vonnegut to lure me than to use the girl I…,”

Silence ensues. I feel Niklas’ inquisitive eyes on me from behind.

“The girl you’re falling in love with?” he says.

I pause. “Yes…,” I whisper.

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

Sarai

I haven’t spoken to Victor in hours. Three at least. I’ve let him undress and bathe me and tend to my wounds. I’ve listened to him ‘explain himself’, though in a manner only someone as relationship-challenged as Victor Faust can be. He didn’t resort to pleading with me to speak to him, to stop giving him the silent treatment. He just talked. As calmly as any conversation he’s ever had with me, though this time it was very one-sided. But I did detect the worry in his voice, although he masked it well. I did sense when he touched me, brushing my hair, cleaning the debris from the wounds on my back, that he had wanted to touch me more affectionately. He wanted to pull me close and hold me there in his arms. But I knew he didn’t want to cross his bounds.

And he was smart not to, because I would’ve punched him in the face.

By nightfall, although exhausted and still in pain from my head to my feet, I’m well enough that I can walk about the house on my own, though carefully because my back is pretty messed up. Victor had left me to be alone in the bedroom of his Albuquerque house. I needed time to myself, to think about everything that happened, about what he and Niklas put me through. I needed time to take into consideration Victor’s reasons. I could give a shit less what Niklas’ reasons were or what part he played in it. Niklas isn’t worth my time much less my thoughts. Victor, on the other hand…A part of me wants to feel betrayed, as if it’s the normal thing to do. I feel like I should curl up on the floor and cry, to beat the walls with my fists, to dwell in my own self-pity, also only because it seems the normal thing to do. But that’s not me. And I’m not normal. And nothing about my life or Victor’s life even comes close to normal.

I know Victor wonders what I’m thinking. He worries about how deeply my anger towards him runs, if it’s so deep that I’ll never be able to pull myself to the surface long enough to forgive him. I know he’s probably convinced that my silence is the only answer I’m ever going to give.

But he’s wrong.

I stop him before he leaves the bedroom after coming in to get something from his briefcase.

“Was it Niklas’ idea?” I ask from the bed.

I hope like hell that it was.

Victor stops in front of the door with his back to me, and instead of opening it the rest of the way, he shuts it. He sets the black file folder he took from the briefcase down on the tall chest of drawers near the door, and comes over to me. His black dress shirt hangs untucked over the top of his pants. His long sleeves are pushed up against his elbows, exposing the masculinity of his forearms and the strength of his hands.

I raise my shoulder from the headboard and sit on the edge of the bed, dropping my feet onto the floor. I’m dressed in a thin, loose red top that doesn’t rub against my back too much, and a pair of jogging shorts.

“Yes, technically it was,” he answers.

“Technically?” I ask with a scowl.

He sits down beside me, his arms resting atop his dress pants, his hands touching his knees.

“No one is exempt from the trials,” he says. “Niklas simply had to remind me of that when it came to you. It’s all about trust—”

“You didn’t trust me already?” I counter.

“Yes, I trusted you,” he says evenly, looking ahead. “But what we put you through was necessary, Sarai. You wanted in. I wanted you in. If that was going to happen it had to be done by the book or there would always be conflict among the rest of us. My judgment would constantly be questioned. You would always be held in suspicion. No one is exempt. Fredrik wasn’t. That man at the back of Hamburg’s restaurant who helped you get away. The man who carts Mrs. Gregory around to safe-house locations.”

“Amelia?” I ask. “She didn’t know anything about what you and Fredrik do, according to what you told me. Or, was that a lie, too? Was she beaten like I was beaten?”

“No,” he answers and looks over at me. “It wasn’t a lie. And no, she didn’t go through anything like you did. Amelia and others like her, those who know nothing about what we do, we test their reliability in other ways. But for those of us on the inside, who know as much as you know about any of us, the trials are more…extensive.”

I look away.

“Did you send Stephens to Amelia’s house?” I ask quietly.

“No,” he answers and I turn to look at him on my left, distrust in my eyes.

“Then how did they know about her? How’d they know Dina had been staying with her?” Anger rises in my voice. “Did you put Dina at risk? Please tell me the truth!”

He’s shaking his head before I even finish the question. “It is the truth. We may never know exactly how Stephens found out about Amelia or that Mrs. Gregory had been hiding out there. The one who could answer that question is now dead. But I can assure you neither I nor Niklas, or even Fredrik had anything to do with it. It could’ve been a number of things, Sarai. Mrs. Gregory might’ve contacted a family member at some point while staying there.” He gestures his hands now as he speaks. “She could’ve accessed her bank account and it triggered her general location.”

“Stephens could’ve killed me,” I say bitterly, jumping back and forth between topics. “He wanted to kill me bad enough that he’d have done it if Niklas hadn’t shot him first. What if he’d have killed me days before? What if Stephens had beaten me to death?” My chest rises and falls heavily as I try to contain my anger.

Victor sighs and looks down at his hands as he uneasily brushes the fingers of his right hand over the knuckles of the left.

“I’m sorry for that,” he says regretfully and then slowly raises his eyes. “Yes, it was possible that Stephens could’ve killed you, I won’t deny it, but I knew Niklas would do everything to make sure that didn’t happen.”

I laugh with contemptuous disbelief. “Niklas?” I say incredulously. “The same man who shot me? You’re telling me that you put your faith in someone who has wanted me dead from pretty much the moment he set eyes on me?” My voice is beginning to rise and Victor is beginning to show signs of discomfort.

“I may never be able to make you understand,” he says, still composed, “but I know that Niklas will never hurt you. He and I have been through a lot since I left the Order. We have come to an understanding. He accepts you—”

“I don’t need to be accepted by him!” I shoot upright from the bed and stare down into his face, my hands clenched into fists at my sides. “Niklas is the last person on this Earth who I need any kind of approval from! He tried to kill me!”

Fraught with resentment, my body stiffens as I bring my fisted hands up in front of me and hold my breath, gritting my teeth.

Victor stands up, placing his hands on my shoulders. Hesitantly, I let the breath out and calm myself, but I can’t look him in the eyes. Just like before, when I wanted to feel betrayed because it’s the normal thing to do, right now I want to hate him because of the same reason. But I don’t. I may not understand why he trusted Niklas, of all people, with my life, but I think the only reason I don’t understand is because I don’t want to. I want to be angry. I want to be unforgiving. Because it’s easier than accepting the unthinkable truth, that Niklas deserves a chance. Because if I were him, and I were trying to protect my brother from the Order, I probably would’ve shot me, too.

Victor brushes my hair away from my face, tucking it behind my ears. He looks at me for a moment as if he’s recalling a memory that I’m sure includes me in some way. How could it not? That thoughtful, admiring look in his green-blue eyes, the way he made sure to brush along the sides of my face with his fingertips when he moved my hair behind my ears. I want to scream at the top of my lungs at him, but all I can do is stand here and watch his darkly beautiful gaze sweep over me.


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