“Aftereffects,” he answers himself. “I guess Claire left me with a conscience. It’s like a scar. Once it’s there it’s there forever. Unless you try to cut it out. But that only makes it deeper, so you leave it the fuck alone.”
Niklas lets out a heavy breath and stands up. He brings his cup of coffee to his lips and takes a small drink.
“Well, you don’t have to feel responsible for me,” I shoot back, “and I sure as hell don’t want you to be. So wipe your hands clean of me, Niklas, and do us both a favor. Besides, it’s not me you have a weakness for; it’s your brother. And we both know the only reason you put up with me, the only reason you told Nora about Claire to help Dina, was because of Victor.”
He takes the cigarette from behind his ear and pops it between his lips with a slim smile.
“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” he says.
I look back at the screen, intent on dropping this.
Then something he said before suddenly catches my attention out of nowhere—‘but you’ll never be on my brother’s level, or on mine, no matter how much you train because you weren’t born into this life.’
“Nora was born into this,” I say, staring down at her. “There’s no way she’s that good as young as she is unless she was born into it.”
I look over at Niklas.
He shrugs; the unlit cigarette dangling from his lips.
“Yeah, I guess that’s logical,” he says, “but that still doesn’t tell us much.”
“Not much, but something,” I say. “I’m going back in to talk to her.”
Niklas shakes his head and pulls the cigarette out of his mouth, wedging it between his fingers.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Iz.”
I stand up and go over to the area where the coffee pot and microwave and mini-fridge is kept, popping open the door of the fridge and retrieving a bottle of water.
“Well, I’m doing it anyway,” I tell him. I stop before I get to the door and look right at Niklas with an intent gaze. “I may never be as good as Victor, or you, or as technologically smart as James Woodard, or as frightening as Fredrik, but there is one thing I know I’m good at because I’ve been doing it practically all my life, even since before my mother took me to Mexico—adapting. I learned to read my enemies, anyone who could do me harm, whether it was one of my mother’s drunk boyfriends or drug dealers, I learned how to survive without turning out like her.” I point my finger at him. “And when I was in Mexico, I survived by turning my enemies against each other. I wasn’t Javier’s favorite when I first went there”—I shake my head and drop my hand back at my side—“no, I was like all of the other girls, beat to near death by Izel on a daily basis, raped by the men—yeah, I was raped by them, I admit it. But I adapted to survive. I made Javier trust me. Trust became protectiveness. Protectiveness became love. Love became obsession. It was because of me that Javier turned on his sister.”
I step right up into Niklas’ face, looking up the few inches I need to see his eyes as he looms over me in his tall height.
“I was born into this,” I say to him sternly; my finger pressing into the center of his chest, “to adapt to my enemy—that is my weapon.”
And then I storm out and head downstairs to prove to him and to myself—maybe more to myself—that I’m just as valuable to this organization as any of them are.
Walking straight over to Nora at the table, I crack the seal on the water bottle and twist off the cap.
“Are you thirsty?” I ask with no emotion on my face.
Nora smiles slimly and just looks up at me from her ropes and chains and cuffs.
“Are you playing the good cop?” she asks with mock humor. “Is this one of your last resort cards, coming in here with a kind gesture to get me to trust you so I’ll take pity on your loved ones and tell you where they are?”
“No,” I say straightaway, unflinching, “I’m facing reality. Dina and Tessa and Woodard’s daughters are as good as dead as far as I’m concerned because my gut tells me that Fredrik’s not going to get here in time. Or at all.”
“The pleading card then?” Nora presumes.
I shake my head.
“I’m not here for them at all,” I say straight-faced and then gently wave the water bottle side to side in my hand. “Do you want it or not?”
Nora looks to and from me and the bottle suspiciously, but then she gives in.
“Yeah, a drink would be nice.”
I place the opening to her lips and tilt it up carefully so too much doesn’t pour out all at once. When she’s had her fill, I set the bottle on the table and then take the seat across from her.
“What makes you think he won’t come?” she asks.
“Because Fredrik is a different man,” I say, “a very different kind of beast than he used to be. And he doesn’t play games anymore. Trust me; Seraphina Bragado was much better at them than you are.”
Nora smiles close-lipped.
“I guess she was,” she admits. “But she was also out of her mind—quite literally, in fact—so she certainly had an advantage.” She pauses, sighing in a lamenting manner. “It is a real shame what happened to her, to Fredrik. Even I was a little brokenhearted when I found out, and it’s not an easy thing to do, to break my heart.”
My brows crease with confusion.
“How did you know about Seraphina and Fredrik, anyway?”
Nora’s lips turn up at the corners, and a look of conjecture appears in her enigmatic brown eyes.
“So it’s information that you want,” she accuses.
I sigh and shake my head, looking downward at my lap briefly before raising my eyes again.
“Look, Victor doesn’t even know I’m in here,” I say, “Niklas knows because I told him I was coming. He was against it, but I didn’t give a shit. I’m here for reasons of my own. They have nothing to do with Dina or with this whole situation, all right? Believe me or don’t, I don’t care either way.”
She looks at me in a subtle sidelong glance, observing me; my expression, my body language and my mood, searching for the smallest shred of deceit which she won’t find because, in a sense, everything I’m saying is true.
In a sense…
There’s a long moment of silence and then she says, “How I know things really has no bearing on any of this, so I’ll tell you how I knew about Fredrik and Seraphina—just for the conversation.” She smiles. “I followed you just like I did Dorian Flynn—following someone really isn’t all that difficult, unless it’s Victor Faust; I found that out the hard way. But you were easy, especially whenever you’d go off on your own.” She pauses and looks up in thought. Then her eyes fall on mine again. “Think back to the meeting you had with Fredrik in Baltimore. The conservatory, particularly the Desert House where you sat with him and talked about Seraphina and Cassia.”