“Well just the same—“

“No,” I interrupt again, displaying for the real Francesca the one of us—me or her mother—who’s in control here. “I’m confident that Madam Francesca will do business with me, no matter what I intend to do with my property after I’ve paid for it.” My gaze roves about the room, drinking in almost every set of eyes. I reach into my suit jacket pocket and pull out a pack of cigarettes, pop one between my lips and light it. And while Miz Ghita stares at me, appalled by my rude, disgusting gesture, I continue with the upper-hand, puffing happily on my cigarette. “But spare me the self-righteous spiel about how the Madam cares about the safety and health of her cyprians, or the pieces she sells in her showings—I’m not here to report her to some fucking underground Health Board, or write her establishment up on code violations. I don’t give a shit about the way Madam Francesca chooses to treat her slaves—I don’t give two fucks if she kills them, slowly, or if she feeds the leftovers to her dogs. I’m here, as I’ve said before, to do business with the Madam, and only the Madam.”

Silence falls over the room like a stifling blanket.

I take a long drag from my cigarette and then drop it in my whiskey glass.

Niklas

“Now,” I say to a snarling Emilio, “I’d like to get this business meeting underway, unless…you have anything else you’d like to add to further waste my and Madam Francesca’s time?” I motion my hand toward Nora and the other naked servant girl. “Shall we move this along?”

Without moving his head, Emilio looks to the fake Francesca. She nods at him, and then he turns back to me. Seconds later, he’s breaking apart the button on his dress pants.

Ah, OK so he wants to play dirty—literally. Too bad for Nora.

“I take it,” Emilio says, provoking me, sliding down his zipper, “you’re not the modest type.”

His cock is in his hand, I can tell without having to look directly at it.

I start to break apart the button on my dress pants, go as far as fitting my fingers around it, but then I stop. I look around the room at each and every person slowly, and then find Emilio’s eyes again.

“No,” I answer, “I’m not the modest type—but I have to warn you”—I look at his cock inquisitively, purse my mouth on one side and raise a brow, then look back up at his darkening expression—“you might regret it afterward.”

His face tightens and his Adam’s apple bounces in his throat.

I leave my cock in my pants and say, “But you’re not the one in this room I need to prove myself to. When I have Francesca Moretti’s full attention, when she and I are standing face to face, only then, and only for her will I play these fucking games to prove I am who I say I am.”

Emilio and Miz Ghita simultaneously look over at the fake Francesca sitting behind the desk—the nameless decoy still doesn’t take her eyes off me. The fake Francesca’s dainty shoulders rise and fall with a heavy breath. She stands from the chair and walks around the desk toward me. I remain seated as she approaches—a sign of disrespect that doesn’t go unnoticed.

“Aren’t you going to stand, Mr. Augustin,” Miz Ghita says from the loveseat, “so you can be face to face with the Madam?”

I smile darkly. “I will when the real Madam is the one standing in front of me.”

Three pairs of eyes—Emilio, Miz Ghita and the fake Francesca—bounce to and from one another in a nervous, stunned motion.

The fake Francesca tries to regain control of the moment; she tosses her head back elegantly and says with light laughter, “What an absurd accusation. You come here to my home, drink my whiskey, take up space in one of my showings by not bidding on anything, and I still agree to meet with you afterward, and now you call me an imposter?” She snarls and twirls her hand in front of her at the wrist. “I think your time is up here, Mr. Augustin. Mother, show him and his…companions to the door.”

She starts to walk away, but stops when I say, “I’ll only leave if the real Francesca tells me to.”

Emilio stands up, tucks himself back inside his pants, and moves toward me.

“It’s time you leave,” he insists, looking me in the eyes, unblinking, daring me to piss him off, which I hope I fucking do.

“Madam Francesca,” I call out, “if you want me to leave, all you have to do is say so and I’ll go quietly.”

Miz Ghita comes toward me now; her long black dress swishing about her hurried legs.

“You have worn out your welcome, Mr. Augustin,” she says with acid in her voice. Then she points at the fake Francesca standing beside Emilio. “You’ve disrespected the Madam, and that will not be tolerated.”

“Oh, but I haven’t disrespected the Madam,” I correct her smugly. “In fact, I’ve hardly said a single word to her since I stepped into this mansion.” I walk slowly away and begin to pace the floor, moving around Nora’s naked body, my hands clasped behind me, resting on my backside. “There is only one person in this room who can be the real Francesca Moretti, and although I have to say you did a decent job concealing her identity with all of the lookalikes running around”—I stop pacing and motion to the fake Francesca, afterwards the nameless decoy—“but the truth is that Francesca Moretti is far too beautiful to resemble any of them.” Both of the decoys’ mouths tighten; their faces rife with insult, staring me down, but saying nothing.

“Then tell us,” Miz Ghita challenges, “since you think you’re so smart, who in this room are you implying?”

Both sides of my mouth turn up slightly; I bring my hands around from my backside and fold them down in front of me.

My eyes slowly sweep the room, and at last fall on the left-handed servant girl they call Bianca.

“She is the real Francesca Moretti,” I announce, locking eyes with the so-called favorite slave—she does the same to me, further proving that I’m right. “She has been with either you, Miz Ghita, or the fake Francesca since I arrived; she was the first and only servant girl to approach me in the great hall to serve me wine; she has been in earshot of just about every conversation I’ve had, allowing her to study me; and when she served Emilio a glass of whiskey just moments ago he actually looked her in the eyes and nodded as if to thank her—he wouldn’t have spared the effort if she were a mere slave girl.” Emilio, realizing his error, inhales deeply and glances at the floor. “And when Aya’s scars were put on display,” I continue, “Bianca raised her eyes, afraid of no one in this room reprimanding her for it, just to take in what the rest of us were seeing.” I pause and smile, and then look only at the real Francesca, undoubtedly—almost—the most beautiful woman in this room: dressed like a slave; no makeup; perfect in every way with flowing dark chocolate hair that falls past her waist; creamy skin the color of light caramel; bewitching brown eyes that are black in the right light; and full lips that are plump and shaped like a Cupid’s bow.

I grin, looking her over.

“You and I, Miz Moretti,” I go on, staring into Francesca’s eyes, and I feel them drinking me in, “have a lot in common, and I trust that you’ll find our…business relationship”—I pause, smile faintly—“to be, shall I say, more than just…lucrative.”

“Get him out of here,” I hear Miz Ghita bark from behind, and then four men in suits rush quickly into the room, guns raised at me.

Francesca Moretti, formerly known as Bianca, raises her left hand in front of her and without saying a word the men stop cold in their tracks, shrinking backward a few steps with their tails between their legs. Emilio doesn’t move or speak; he continues to look at the floor—is that fear crippling Francesca’s brother? Yeah, that’s definitely fear, unbecoming of someone like Emilio. In fact, he’s not the only person in the room who reeks of it: Miz Ghita stands with her chin held high, but her aged hands are shaking inconspicuously down at her sides; the nameless decoy sits quietly on the loveseat, body hunched over, hands tucked between her knees—not the same strong woman who walked in here earlier; the servant girl, standing naked in the center of the room the entire time seemingly without breathing, her shoulders rise and fall more rapidly as though she’s trying to quell an anxiety attack; and the fake Francesca—well, she looks like she’s about to piss herself.

I wasn’t entirely sure before, but now, judging by most of the faces in the room, it is without a doubt that every single one of them are terrified of Francesca Moretti: the bitter mother, the devoted brother—though to a lesser degree for some reason; the decoys who I believe are Francesca’s and Emilio’s sisters or cousins. None of them are innocent by any means, they’re just as guilty of buying and selling and a variety of cruel punishments they dish out to the slaves, but none of them are as vicious and murderous as I believe Francesca Moretti to be.

Izabel

Is it just me, or are these people afraid to breathe? Wow…OK, I didn’t expect this. At all. I thought for sure the lookalike sitting on the loveseat was the real Francesca. Earlier at the showing, I was convinced it was Valentina. But I never would’ve imagined it was her. I want to look over at Nora just to see if there’s anything on her face, but…even I’m a little afraid to move, or draw attention to myself. I knew going into this that Francesca Moretti was an evil bitch, but there’s more to this than I imagined, there’s so much more to her—she sets my teeth on edge and she hasn’t even spoken yet.


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