The anger is growing inside of me, but I keep it to myself and look down into the photograph. A bright, innocent smiling face with pretty white teeth and vibrant brown eyes, is looking back at me. There’s a birthmark underneath her left eye the size and shape of an almond sliver. She’s wearing a red and white cheerleading uniform. Her honey-brown hair is pulled into a ponytail, wrapped by red and white ribbons.

Slowly I look back up at Victor. And I swallow.

“How old was she?” I ask in a low, saddened voice.

“Olivia Bram was fifteen-years-old when she was abducted while on vacation with her parents. Her mother committed suicide shortly afterward. That was seven years ago. Her father has been searching for her since—it took him that long to come to this possibility.”

“So the client isn’t even sure Francesca Moretti is the one who bought his daughter?” Nora asks. “And why go after the buyer and not the abductor?”

Absently I slide the photo of Olivia Bram across the table to Nora.

“The client believes Moretti is the one,” Victor says. “And I’ve seen his evidence, everything that led him to Moretti, and I admit it looks promising. But whether he is right or wrong, Moretti is still a job—a three million dollar job—and it is ours to carry out. As far as the one responsible for her abduction, that trail ran cold after three years, so the client began focusing on the buyer instead.”

I watch Olivia Bram’s smiling face as she’s slid back across the table toward Victor. She was once me, I think to myself, getting lost in her bright, happy brown eyes. This photo could just as easily be of me. Flashes of the girls I shared a horrific past with in the compound move through my mind: Cordelia, Carmen, Marisol…Lydia. I remember Lydia the most; she was my closest friend, like a sister to me; she was murdered in front of my eyes—she died in my arms.

“Izabel?”

Snapping out of my thoughts, I look up at Victor.

“Is something wrong?” he asks suspiciously, knowing.

I shake my head slowly, still trying to shake Lydia’s face from my mind, her dead eyes staring back at me from my memory. “So, Francesca Moretti,” I speak up to further it along, “is basically like the wealthy men who did business with Javier, those I saw when Javier would take me to parties.”

“Basically,” Victor confirms, “yes, she is the same.”

I grit my teeth.

“You cannot kill Moretti,” I hear Victor say, but his voice sounds far off because I’m in such deep thought. “Under no circumstances can you allow your emotions, your anger, or your need for vengeance, to get in the way of this mission. If Moretti is not taken to the drop-off location where she can be transported to the client, there will be no payday and the entire mission will be a wasted effort—she cannot be killed.”

I feel Nora’s eyes on me, but I don’t look at her.

“Is that why you told me the personal story about the client and his daughter?” I ask, already knowing that I’m right about this. “I remember what you told me on the plane to L.A. when you took me on my first mission to kill Arthur Hamburg’s wife locked in that secret room: ‘The less you know about their personal lives, the less of a risk there is for you to become emotionally involved’—did you tell me about Olivia Bram and her mother’s suicide and her father’s vendetta, because you want to see if I can get through this mission without being clouded by my emotions?”

Victor nods.

“The best way to learn to overcome is to face your weakness head-on,” he says, and then his gaze hooks mine. He leans forward a little in his chair and with silent determination and devotion he adds, “Izabel, you becoming a great operative is not the only reason I want you to overcome your weaknesses—I also want you to overcome them so they cannot haunt you anymore.”

His words fill my heart with warmth, but still I’m incapable of smiling. I just nod, slow and subtle, and I know that he understands how much I appreciate his concern for me. If anything, it has only intensified my need to prove myself, to myself.

I can do this.

Then something suddenly occurs to me.

“I guess it’s obvious how much I despise people like Francesca Moretti, people like Javier and Izel and anyone who had anything to do with them—I can’t hide it, can I?”

Victor never answers my question, but he doesn’t need to.

“Think of this mission as preparation for Mexico,” Nora finally comments. “You may not be on the inside with me when we get there, but I imagine it’ll still be quite the emotional rape just being there in Mexico where the worst things that ever happened to you occurred.” Her eyes hold mine, and for a brief moment I sense something pass between us—a secret that only she and I share about the child I had with Javier.

I look away from her and back at Victor.

But Nora’s right: being in that place is an emotional rape—there’s no other way of putting it. When I went back to Mexico with Victor, Dorian, Niklas and Fredrik, after Victor promised me he would help me have my revenge and we killed all of those men, I was a different person. I was a rage-filled killer, controlled by vengeance. When I slid my blade across the throats of Javier’s brothers, Diego and Luis, I did so with a sick mind. I enjoyed it; I all but got off on the sticky, warm blood as it flowed through my fingers; I smiled—I enjoyed it. That’s not being in control of my vengeance, that’s being controlled by it.

I can’t be that person on this mission to Italy—I won’t.

“You may not get to kill Moretti yourself,” Victor adds, knowing I’d love to, “but I can assure you, she will be dead before you leave there.”

“I will do whatever I have to, Victor”—I look at them both, but then only at Victor—“even if it’s something I don’t want to do, I’ll do it. Whatever it takes.”

Nora nods at me when my eyes pass over hers.

“Good,” he says. “Because there may come a time when you have to do something you’d never do otherwise—nothing about this profession is easy.”

The table gets quiet. I ponder: the mission to Italy, Mexico; I wonder how this meeting turned out to be mostly about me and my ‘weakness’, but then I brush it all aside and get back to what’s important.

“OK, so what are we supposed to do when we get to Italy, exactly?” I ask. “Are we pretending to be buyers, or what?”

Victor pauses and says, “No, actually you will be undercover as another man’s property.”

All the color drains from my face.

Izabel

“Victor, wait a second,” I speak up after the stun wears off. “If this woman is just a madam and we’re going to some kind of high-class…brothel, or whatever you want to call it, then why do we need to go as some man’s property? Why can’t we just go as buyers?”

“Because Francesca Moretti hates women,” Victor answers. “And it is rumored that she’s killed women she felt threatened her beauty.”

I laugh. “Mirror, mirror on the wall. Seriously?” I laugh again, shaking my head.

But Victor doesn’t find the humor in it.

Instead he says, “And because the brothel isn’t the only business that Moretti runs. She’s also a seller in the sex slave trade.”

My blood is on fire, but I keep it to myself.

“She will not do business with either of you,” he goes on. “If you see any women there they will either be slaves, cyprians, members of her family, or I can almost guarantee you that if they are buyers, they will be much older and far less beautiful than Moretti herself.”

Victor stands and straightens his suit jacket. He begins to pace with his hands clasped together on his backside. He doesn’t appear at all nervous—I’m not sure if Victor is capable of being nervous—but he seems…uncertain, perhaps?

Nora and I watch him walk back and forth behind his chair for a few seconds until he comes to a stop. His hands break apart and slide down casually into the pockets of his suit pants.

“You will need Niklas for this mission,” he announces. “You will have to convince him to join you in Italy.”

My and Nora’s eyes draw together like two magnets across the table from one another. She’s clearly as stunned as I am.

“So, I take it,” Nora says, turning her attention to Victor, “that this other man whose property we’re to be on this mission, is Niklas?”

“Yes,” Victor says.

I frown just thinking about being Niklas’s ‘property’. But it is what it is, and a job is a job, and I’ll do what I have to.

“Um, Victor,” I say, “we don’t even know where he is.”

“I’ve known where he is since last Thursday,” he says.

Surprised, and a little bitter about not being told this news sooner, I just stare at him.

“He has been sleeping in an upstairs apartment,” Victor says, “on Gaither Street just ten minutes from this building. Every night since last Thursday, he has spent in the bar on the bottom floor beneath his room.”

“Great,” Nora says eagerly, as if she doesn’t care about not being told sooner, “then that makes it easier. We’ll go there tonight and bring him back.”


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