“It’s not gonna be that simple,” I speak up, knowing Niklas a lot better than she does. “I doubt Niklas is going to be enthusiastic about doing a job, or any favors, for Victor.”

“Izabel is right,” Victor tells Nora. “My brother has not forgiven me for what I did, and he may never forgive me.”

Nora rests her back against the chair and then pushes her blond hair away from one shoulder. She crosses her arms and tilts her head to one side, preparing to make a point, it appears.

“Well then, if that’s the case,” she says, “then why not just send someone in Niklas’s place? Why waste time with Niklas when you can just send someone else?”

“Niklas won’t agree to it, Victor,” I add.

Victor looks at both of us in turns and then says, “If you tell Niklas the details of this mission, and that you”—he looks right at me—“will be going, he will agree to it.”

I feel the spot between my eyes stiffen.

Nora looks almost as confused as I know I do.

Victor begins to pace again, very slowly, his hands still buried in his pockets.

“My brother is the only man I trust to go on this mission with you,” he says. “If you cannot convince him to go, I will be sending a woman from the First Division to go in your stead.”

My mouth opens slightly in shock and argument.

“What? Why?”

His eyes lock on mine, full of knowledge and resolve and power. “Because as much as my brother despises me right now,” he says, “he is still loyal to me and he will always be loyal to me. He, more than anyone, knows my feelings for you Izabel, and he will die protecting you.” Finally he looks away from me, taking the gravity of his statement with him, which leaves me with so many unanswered questions, so many feelings of uncertainty: What does Victor expect to happen to me on this mission that he only trusts Niklas to be at my side? Why in the hell would Victor think that Niklas would actually die to protect me, the only person who has ever managed to stand between them as brothers (well, aside from Claire, anyway)? What makes Victor so sure that Niklas won’t just kill me, like Victor killed Claire, and make things even between them? And why does that knowing look on Nora’s face give me the feeling that she knows the answers to every single one of my questions already? Ugh! I hate her sometimes!

“And the other reason I want Niklas on this mission,” Victor goes on, “is because the nature of the mission requires someone like him. Knowing my brother, he is the best operative in my Order for the job.”

“Then what are we waiting for?” Nora speaks up impatiently. “What time do we leave for this bar?”

I still haven’t managed to get past the questions swirling around in my head.

“Niklas should be at the bar by nine o’clock tonight,” Victor answers.

He slides both hands from his pockets and leans over, pressing them against the table; I can see something in his right hand, pressed between his curled fingers: small, plastic, black.

“You leave for Italy in the morning,” he says and then slides a tiny flash drive across the table to Nora. “Everything the three of you will need to know about the mission is here. The password to access the files I will give to Izabel tonight.” He looks right me. “It would be wise not to go to that bar tonight with any hopes of mending this thing between my brother and me; it is a waste of time at this point; focus only on the mission.”

Even though I get the distinct—and unwelcome—feeling that Victor thinks I might waste what little time we have by trying to talk some sense into Niklas where he and Victor are concerned, I say nothing about my suspicion and just nod in acknowledgment. The truth is, I probably would have if he hadn’t brought it up.

Nora stands up in her tall, beautiful, deadly glory and sashays her hips down the length of the table toward the exit doors.

“I’m excited,” she says, her expression bright and dark at the same time, her white teeth stark between the deep crimson of her lips. “And I don’t think I’ve ever played the submissive before—well once, but it was short-lived.”

I shake my head and glance at Victor momentarily.

“Looks like you might get to sleep with him, after all,” I say, rolling my eyes.

Victor raises a brow, but says nothing—he doesn’t care about things like that, but surely, somewhere inside that methodical head of his, he finds it amusing.

Nora places her full palm on the door.

“Oh, Izabel,” she says dramatically, “that’s not what excites me.”

“Oh?” Now I’m the one raising a brow.

Her crimson smile lengthens and she says, “It’s just been a really long time since I’ve been on a serious mission. I was getting bored with these insignificant woman-scorned revenge hits and monotonous stakeouts—this mission in Italy, this…Francesca Moretti, is like candy to me.”

She looks at Victor as if to say “Are we done here? Because I’m anxious to get started.”

Victor nods, and with the gesture of one hand he waves her out. “That will be all,” he says.

Nora pushes open the door, the room flooding with more light from the fluorescents in the ceiling out in the hall, and she disappears from sight.

I turn to Victor, the extra light in the room dimming as the door slowly closes.

“What makes you think your brother’s loyalty to you will always be unwavering, Victor?”

I stand up to meet his gaze, waiting for his answer.

“Because he is Niklas,” he says, “and I know no other man with more loyalty and heart, than my brother.”

It was the last thing I expected to hear. So much so that I’m dumbfounded by such simple, yet deeply profound words.

“Are we…”—I’m confused by my own question—“…Victor, are we talking about the same person here?”

Heart? Niklas Fleischer? The rage-filled lunatic who shot me and wanted to kill me? A man who is unmatched in hatred and coldness and disdain?

Heart? Really?

The only heart I’ve ever seen in that man is one disfigured by decay.

Victor leans in and touches his warm lips to the corner of my mouth. Then the other side.

“You should start getting ready,” he says and then pulls away, leaving only the taste of him on my lips. “I’ll see you tonight.”

He leaves me standing here; the sound of his dress shoes echoing down the hall is cut off when the door finally closes behind him.

This is going to be interesting.

Niklas

The bartender pours me another shot and I drink it down, setting the glass on the bar afterward. My cigarette burns in the ashtray next to me, a dozen more all around me at tables, filling the place with smoke. A football game runs on two televisions set in the walls, one behind the bar. Rock music plays low from the speakers in the ceiling, but no one in this place is dancing or shouting over the music in a drunken stupor. This isn’t that kind of bar. Things here have been pretty relaxed in the weeks I’ve been coming here; regulars mostly: men having a drink and playing a game of pool to get away from home; women—like my temporary fuck-buddy, Jackie—who have nothing much better to do with their time than to hang out with people as pathetic as they are. Even me—I admit that right now I’m pretty fucking pathetic, but we’re all entitled to it every once in a while. But I haven’t been coming here to drown my sorrows in whiskey. I just like the atmosphere, the normal everyday faces, the casual conversations about petty bullshit that’s sometimes interesting to me considering most of my life consists of talking about how I killed someone, who I killed, who I need to kill next, what I’m going to kill them with; how much money I’m going to make when the job is done.

I spend too much of my time with a small group of people who each have their own set of fucked up issues that the normal people in this bar could never fathom, much less match. But whether I ever go back there again, to our Order, is still up in the air. I’m afraid of what I might do if I see my brother again—I only left because I wanted to kill him.

“Another shot?” Jay, the bartender asks; he stands in front of me behind the bar with the whiskey bottle ready to pour.

“Sure,” I say, sliding the shot glass toward him and he pours the drink.

Behind me, I hear the bell above the door ring as someone walks in, but I don’t look back. Jay normally doesn’t either—usually just a quick glance—but I notice his dark eyes veer off in that direction, full of interest and intrigue, a sure sign that whoever just walked in isn’t a regular, and probably has a nice pair of tits.

A little more interested now because of the possibility of a nice pair of tits, I casually wedge my cigarette between my fingers and take a quick drag before turning at an angle to see behind me.

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” I say under my breath.

I turn back around, facing Jay and the glowing television and the shelves of glasses and whiskey bottles. Raising the glass to my lips, I swig down the shot, just as Izabel, dressed like she should be in the kind of bar with loud music and dancing and drunken shouting, steps up beside me. Nora—I’ve got too much shit on my mind to even begin to understand what’s she’s doing here, what she’s still doing alive—sits down on the empty bar stool on my other side. Looks like a lot has happened in my short absence, a lot of really unexpected shit—hell, maybe Victor’s dead and James Woodard is in charge now; maybe Izabel is sleeping with Fredrik—at this point it seems like anything is possible.


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