“None of that mattered though.

“All that mattered to The Order was that I was spending too much time with the decoy and not producing any results. Bastards.

“I started to worry that they’d take me out of the mission and send in someone else to get the information. I didn’t know what was going to happen, but I knew that I needed to keep Claire safe. And I knew that for both of our sakes, I couldn’t give The Order the suspicion that I was in love with her. If Vonnegut ever thought that to be true, he would’ve had us both killed.”

I pause, signing heavily.

“Eleven months after I met Claire, things came to a brutal fucking end.

“It turned out that The Order wasn’t the only organization looking for Solis. And I wasn’t the only operative who had Claire as an assignment. Somebody else was looking for her too, but to them Claire was more than a decoy. She was a hit.”

I stare off at the wall, letting the white brick blur out of focus. I’m reliving it all now for myself, not for Nora. I barely even see Nora in front of me anymore.

“My cell phone chimed next to me on the passenger’s seat of my car. I glanced over and saw that it was Claire and answered immediately.

“ ‘Hey love,’ I said into the phone, a smile etched on my face. ‘I’m almost there to pick you up.’

“A gunshot sounded in my ear; the voices of men, the shuffling of shoes, a scuffle—things breaking and Claire screaming.

“I shouted her name into the phone as my boot pressed the gas pedal all the way to the floor.

“The phone went dead.

“I dropped it on the seat and the tires on my car tore their way recklessly down the highway, weaving through back streets and blazing through stop signs in the late evening.

“She was dead when I got there, her body lying on the floor between the sofa and the coffee table. Two other men had also been shot. Victor met me at the door.

“ ‘I couldn’t get here in time,’ he said, but I hardly heard a word. I couldn’t take my eyes or my mind off Claire.

I rounded my chin defiantly and tried so fucking hard to contain my anger and pain, hoping not to let my brother on to my feelings for Claire.

“ ‘Niklas,’ he said almost apologetically, but then he stopped and he led me outside because he knew the house was bugged. ‘Did you have…feelings for her?’

“I laughed. ‘That’s ridiculous,’ I said, but I couldn’t look him in the eyes. ‘Just call a fuckin’ cleaner and get rid of her. Are those men from the other organization?’

“It stung me to say the words ‘get rid of her’, and made it that much harder to hold it together.

“Victor nodded. ‘Yes. Claire received a phone call after you left the house. From a man. We did not catch his name and they weren’t on the line long enough to get a trace.’

“ ‘What did they say?’ I was getting nervous; I was afraid that Victor would tell me something I didn’t want to hear: maybe Claire had something going on with this man, maybe she wasn’t who I believed her to be—it would’ve killed me that much more to know something like that about the woman I loved more than anything.

“ ‘They barely spoke,’ Victor said. ‘Claire answered. There was a pause and the man simply asked who he was speaking to. Claire replied by asking him who he was trying to reach. And then the call ended.’

“ ‘Sounds like it was just a wrong number,’ I said.

“ ‘It is possible,’ Victor said with a nod, ‘but it was also suspicious. We were not taking any chances and I was ordered to come here right away.’

“ ‘Why didn’t you call me?’

“ ‘You were still over an hour away,’ Victor said. ‘I was just fifteen minutes out.’

“That may have been true, but he was keeping something from me and it didn’t take long for me to figure it out.

“ ‘Victor, tell me the fucking truth,’ I said. ‘Why didn’t you call me?’ I already knew the answer.

“He sighed. ‘You were being removed from the mission, Niklas. Joran Carver received his orders last evening to take over.’

“ ‘Take over?’ I said with anger and disbelief. ‘And how the hell was he gonna do that?’ My voice began to rise. ‘I had a relationship with Claire. She…loved me, Victor’—I had started to say that I also loved her, but my wall of denial was still up and had to stay that way—‘How could Joran possibly just take over?’ I was enraged—the thought of another man, operative or not, taking over for me, did things to me that I couldn’t control—I almost punched my brother.

“Blue and red lights bounced against the surrounding trees in the darkness as a police car and an unmarked came up the long gravel driveway. The house I lived in with Claire was on six acres of tree-engulfed land; the closest neighbor was half a mile away.

“Joran Carver stepped out of the unmarked vehicle dressed in a suit.

“I beat the shit out of him because he was there, why he was there. And I didn’t talk to my brother for a month after that. Because he kept the truth from me until the last minute when The Order’s plan to replace me with Joran, died with Claire that night.”

“Why was Joran Carver there?” Nora asks.

Letting the memory fade, I look back at Nora sitting on the other side of the table.

“I thought you knew everything?” I say sarcastically.

“This I don’t know,” she says. “And I want you to tell me.”

I shake my head with a sneer. “That wasn’t part of the deal.”

“It is now,” she says. “I’m curious to know.”

I want to be my pissed off, defiant self with Nora right now, but at this point I don’t even care anymore. I feel so goddamned defeated, not by Nora, but by myself.

“Joran’s role was to play the kind and caring homicide investigator who was going to show up at Claire’s house to question her about the last time she saw me. To rule her out as having anything to do with my murder.”

“They were going to kill you?”

“No.” I shake my head. “They were just going to take me out of the mission. Tell her I had been found murdered. She would’ve been devastated. And Joran, handsome, slick fucker that he was, was going to be the one to console her, and her only hope of getting the charges dropped against her for being the one who killed me.”

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