“And so do threats,” Nora chimes in.

“But that’s in three hours,” Izabel says, looking slightly concerned.

“What’s the matter? Starting to feel like you should?” I taunt, grinning at her.

She shakes her head, sighing, annoyed with me. “Will you ever grow up, Niklas? You’re impossibly…you’re a jack-ass.”

I get up from the sofa so I can get ready.

“Get it all out here,” I tell her as I pass, heading toward the closet where ‘Mr. Augustin’s’ suit hangs. “Remember, play your role, Izzy, and play it well or we don’t make it out of this alive.”

“You should have more confidence in her,” Nora speaks up. “I agree with Izabel—you should grow up; stop treating her like—”

“Like a girl who needs some sense knocked into her?” I cut in. “I’ll never accept Izzy as an operative—and you know as well as I do that she has no business doing this shit.” I point my index finger at Nora and then myself, back and forth. “You and me, we’ve been doing this for how long? Oh, that’s right—since we were children. She should be living with that woman in Arizona, going to the fucking bars on Friday nights, getting the shit fucked out of her by lazy twenty-four-year-old wannabe rock stars; hanging out with her girlfriends, feeling each other’s tits in their exploratory phase—not working for a billion dollar assassination organization, with little to no experience, going on missions like this one that’ll only open old wounds and cut new ones—she’s not ready, and she never will be, so shut your fucking mouth before I shut it for you.”

“I’m standing right here, you fucking asshole!” Izabel steps right up into my face; her eyes are blazing with indignation; her jaw moves as she grinds her teeth.

She starts to say something, surely in argument to the things I just said, but she calms herself, and it surprises me, confuses me even—I’d never expect anything less from her than a fight. Instead she takes a deep breath and says cool and composed, “Let’s get ready—this is a multi-million dollar job,” and then she walks away, disappearing around the corner as she heads into the room adjacent to the main room where her wardrobe is.

Nora and I just stand here for a moment.

She looks at me. I look at her.

“What are you doing, Niklas?” she asks suspiciously, in a quiet voice so Izabel doesn’t hear.

“What do you mean?” My hard gaze never wavers.

Instead of elaborating, Nora shakes her head as if she knows something I don’t and then moves toward the bathroom, walking past me.

I reach out and grab her wrist, stopping her.

“I asked you a fucking question.”

In a flash, Nora’s hands are around my throat and a ringing bounces around inside my skull as she shoves my back and head against the wall.

“And I’m not Aya yet,” she growls, pressing her body against mine—(I’m loving the shit out of this, so I let her)—“so you should probably mind that tongue of yours, or I will cut it out for you.”

I smile, trying to ignore that my breath is being cut off by her hand. She releases me slowly and takes a step back, but her dark eyes never leave mine, challenging me to piss her off some more, which I certainly intend to do later. The game is on, you crazy, beautiful bitch—and here I thought this game I’ll be playing with Francesca Moretti was going to be the most interesting thing about this mission.

Two hours later, the three of us are dressed and ready to head out. Miz Ghita insisted that a car pick us up at the hotel, which means that Miz Ghita can kill three birds with one stone: know the location of where we’re staying, control how and when we arrive and leave the Moretti estate, and leave us without our privacy to and from the estate because the car we’ll be chauffeured in will absolutely be bugged, and everything we say and do in it will be watched and recorded.

We slip into our roles the moment the door to our suite opens.

A black car picks us up in front of the hotel. I sit next to the window with Izabel next to me and Nora on the other side of her. There is only one other man in the car with us—the driver, who is probably more than just a driver.

Nora sits with her back straight, her eyes lowered, her hands folded delicately in her lap, her long, graceful fingers—minus the missing one I already have the perfect excuse for—partially hidden in the folds of the smooth fabric of her little dress. All of her makeup is gone—no crimson red lips or dark eyes—but she is quite stunning still. That’s what a buyer would want: a woman who is more beautiful without makeup, who is disciplined and frail and small. It kind of blows my mind, Nora’s transformation from manipulative, murderous banshee to a delicate, submissive little doe. She is good. I may not like her, but I have to admit she is good at what she does. And she was right—she’s a fast learner.

I also have to admit that Izabel seems more comfortable in her Naomi skin than I would’ve expected of her. She sits very close to me, her right thigh pressed against my left, and when she looks at me, with those glistening green eyes of hers, I don’t see a trace of Izabel in them. She is Naomi, my sweet and willing companion who would not hesitate to let me have my way with her even if I chose to do it in front of a dozen people—of course, I’d never do something like that to her, and she knows it. I could; oh, the things I could do to get back at my brother. I could take advantage of this situation in so many ways…

“Do I get to name her?” Izabel asks as Naomi in a sweet voice that takes me aback for a moment; she lays her head on my shoulder.

“I’ll think about it,” I say with no emotion, no expression on my face; I’m in my Niklas Augustin skin now.

I lay my hand on her thigh, pulling up her dress just a little, to see how she reacts. I expect to feel her tense beneath my palm. She surprises me when instead she smiles with a blush in her cheeks, and then touches the corner of my mouth with her lips once.

It takes me a moment longer than it should to shake off the stun—Izzy’s more into character than I am, I realize, and remedy it quickly first by erasing the emotionally confused look I know is on my face, and replacing it with the indifferent one.

I swallow, gathering my composure, and say, “What would you name her if I let you?”

She pretends to think about it for a moment, looking up in thought—I notice the driver’s eyes skirting us from the rearview mirror every few seconds.

“I like Lia, or perhaps Sia or Nai.”

She turns to Nora.

“Aya, what do you think?” she asks.

Nora doesn’t raise her head, doesn’t acknowledge Izabel’s question.

“Answer her,” I demand in a calm voice, giving her permission to speak.

Nora raises her eyes and looks at Izabel but never holds eye contact with her.

“Lia is very pretty,” Nora says, and looks back down into her lap.

Izabel turns back to me, bright-eyed and devastatingly believable.

“I said I’ll think about it,” I tell her, and then look down into my phone, pretending to be distracted by its contents.

Niklas

We pull up to the guarded front gates of Moretti’s mansion and another man steps out of a glass-and-stone booth to sign us in. There’s a gun at his hip; four other armed men stand in front of it. The man from the booth and the driver exchange words in Italian, and then signatures on a digital device. The man outside the car peers in at us in the backseat. I nod. He nods in return. And then he and the other men step out of the way of the car and the gates break apart soundlessly.

The Moretti estate is pretty much like I expected it to be, with rolling green grass and immaculate landscaping, stone and marble fountains on either side of the smooth driveway that extends in a perfectly straight line right up to the front of the five-story mansion many yards out ahead. Water, lit by golden lights, sprays from the top of the fountains. More golden lights are positioned along the driveway on either side, matching electric lanterns jutting from the grass every ten feet. The mansion itself is enormous, with six towering white pillars greeting us at the entrance, so tall and wide that I actually feel quite small walking beneath them. Izabel’s arm is looped through mine on my right; Nora on my left, eyes down as always.

I hear the car pull away behind us, and then the calming sound of a piano playing when the tall double doors are opened by two more armed men in front of us. We’re frisked for weapons and I’m forced to check mine in before going inside—they check the contents of my briefcase too, but all they find in it is cash.

After we’re frisked, stripped of my gun, and swept for wires, Miz Ghita meets us at the door, dressed in a long black dress that hangs to her ankles, and enough jewelry on her hands and wrists and ears and around her turkey neck to feed two third-world countries. Around her head she wears a black knit hat of sorts with two black feathers affixed to one side.

“Right this way, Mr. Augustin,” Miz Ghita gets right to it, which I appreciate.

We follow her through the grand vestibule, past a towering statue of Venus of Arles and then another of Neptune with his trident and dolphin, and are led into the great hall where dozens of people are mingling, sipping glasses of wine and nibbling hors d'oeuvres—it’s exactly the kind of atmosphere I’d never go out of my way to suffer; all of the noses in the air, the smell of money and plastic tits and narcissism—I’m gonna need a carton of cigarettes, a fifth of whiskey and a Jackie when this mission is over.


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