I choke back my own tears because they’re f**king ridiculous and they don’t belong in my eyes. I don’t have that right. I don’t want that right. Then I slide my hands into my coat pockets and straighten my face to look only like Fredrik Gustavsson, the Specialist, the Jackal—anything but the wounded man with the wounded heart who lost his right to weep or to care or to love, a very long time ago.
“I need your help, Izabel.”
She nods several times.
“Tell me everything,” she says.
Getting out of the cold and the small space inside the car—Izabel said she needed more room to breathe after what I just told her—we found a quiet place to sit together inside the Desert House of the conservatory. The bench is tucked away between rocks and yucca plants and cacti. It’s very warm in here, a stark difference from the frigid temperature outside. Izabel and I removed our coats and draped them over our laps before we sat down. And I pulled my black beanie off and shoved it inside my coat pocket with my keys.
“Why do you keep looking at me like that?” I ask her about those sad green eyes filled with heartbreak and pity.
I won’t accept pity. Surely she knows that.
“I just…well, I just know how much you loved Seraphina,” she says with soft, pain-filled words. “I mean, I never knew the whole story, but I knew—I know—enough to know that this can’t be easy for you. I-I just can’t imagine—how is this even possible?”
I look down at my hands.
“Honestly, I don’t know,” I say with defeat. “I didn’t know the extent of any of this until last night.” I look over at Izabel to my left. “She finally remembered her past, or what she believes is her past. Izabel, I had no idea—I don’t even know what I’m saying. I’m as confused about all of this as much as you are.” My gaze falls to my hands again, draped between my opened legs, my elbows propped on the tops of my thighs. I fondle my thick, dark textured ring under my fingertips uneasily, briefly remembering the engraving I had placed on the inside that reads: The Jackal. To always remind me what the darkness inside of me was born from. In case I ever want to forget.
“What do you mean that she remembered?”
Hesitating, I look out at the desert flora, searching for signs of visitors who might be on their way inside to tour the room.
“Cassia—Seraphina—has had amnesia since I took her from the shelter after the fire…
One Year Ago –New York City
I had been tracking Seraphina for two weeks after seeing her on a news broadcast in Times Square, walking behind the reporter in a small crowd. I knocked a steaming hot cup of coffee onto my laptop when I saw her face flash across the screen. Six years I had been searching for her. Six years—since the night she killed the last of three innocent women because of me—I thought—, injected me with drugs, set my house on fire and dragged my body into the large field behind it so that I wouldn’t burn to death. I never saw her again after that night until a year ago. I thought she was long gone by then. Dead, even. Because it wasn’t like Seraphina to simply vanish. She liked the game. She lived for it. I expected her to leave me a trail of bodies—all women with blonde hair—to hunt her down. So, when I saw her that night after all that time, something dark and predatory triggered inside of me. Anticipation. Vengeance. Lust. Love…
I left Baltimore that day and went to New York City.
Two weeks later, I found her where I should’ve thought to look all along, working as a singer in an upscale Jazz and Blues bar and restaurant. There were no traces of a ‘Seraphina Bragado’ anywhere that I could gather in New York, or anywhere else, for that matter. I had been using The Order’s resources to run her name against everything for six years. She didn’t even have a birth certificate or a credit card under that name. But that didn’t really surprise me much because she was employed by another order, and like all of us, we never use real identification. But I had no idea that the reason I couldn’t find anything on Seraphina was because she was living under ‘Cassia Carrington’. She had an apartment in New York. She paid bills. She had a close friend who lived across the hall from her. And she was employed. Living a normal life out in the open and seemed to have been for a very long time.
Finally, after years of searching, I thought I had her.
I went to the bar that night, dressed in my finest suit, the way she always loved to see me dressed, and I had a plan.
The bar smelled of sweet cigars and bourbon and women’s perfume. I was intoxicated by the atmosphere. I had always loved places like this where the finest wines are served and the entertainment is classy and sophisticated. Seraphina, despite her profession as a killer, or her dark sexual needs that only matched my own, was quite a classy and sophisticated woman—when she wasn’t killing people, or sharing blood with me during sex, of course.
I chose a table, small and round and darkly-lit, just off to the left of the stage so that I’d be in sight, but not the first face she saw when she stepped up to the mic. A small handful of instruments occupied the stage behind where she would be standing, and two more tall microphones were positioned behind and to one side of hers where the backup singers would be.
Already it was bringing back so many memories of when we were madly in love for two short years.
I had never been so anxious—my stomach had collapsed into a rock-solid ball of hot muscle burning through my insides. My throat was painfully dry no matter how many times I sipped from my whiskey glass just to wet it. But I kept my composure flawlessly, not letting on to anyone sitting at the tables around me that deep inside I was ready to explode with anticipation and need that only Seraphina would understand.
The band came out on stage quietly and took their positions, and then the backup singers, dressed in matching lacy black dresses that hugged their bodies down to their knees.
Seraphina came out last.
She was beautiful. The most beautiful thing I had ever seen, just as she had always been since the day we met. Only this time long, flowing blonde hair draped her shoulders, fixed perfectly so that each side fell in a silky blonde wave and ended in a half-curl just below each breast. Not a strand of hair was out of place. She wore a short cream-colored dress adorned with feathers and diamond-like flower sequins laid out in an intricate pattern about her hips and thighs. And tall high-heeled cream-colored shoes with sparkling silver glitter around the heels and the soles.