Smirk. Take a drag. Nod. Listen.

“Is that the way things are going to be between us?” he asks.

“Things changed between us….Brother, when I found out that you’re not who I thought you were.”

“Believe what you want about what happened that night,” he says. “But I did not know you were in love with Claire—”

“Don’t you say her name!” I roar, pointing two fingers at him, the cigarette wedged between them. I come off the table and move forward. “Don’t you ever say her name to me again.”

“Sit down, Niklas.” His voice is calm.

Mine is anything but. “You killed her; you killed her and you knew I loved her”—I motion my hands—“I don’t care what your excuse is, Victor; I don’t care what you want me to believe, or want Izabel to believe, but you should know me better; you insult my intelligence by expecting me to believe you didn’t know—you’re trained to know!”

“I said sit down.”

I throw my cigarette on the floor and crush it underneath my boot. But I don’t relent; I don’t sit down. I can’t. I won’t.

“But you’re good at that,” I say, icily. “You’re real good at making people believe you’re someone you’re not—Izabel will be the next one to die because of you—”

Black spots spring before my eyes, accompanied by a white-hot flash and the brutal sting of Victor’s knuckles underneath my eye. I feel my body falling backward; the back of my legs hitting the chair as I start to go down. But I snap back quickly and grab the chair instead, keeping on my feet, and I whirl around at him, catching him under the jaw with my fist. We fight hard, exchanging blow after blow, taking out our buried rages on one another. He buries his fist in my gut, knocking the wind out of me; I kick him in the chest, sending him across the table; he clocks me in the face with his elbow; I grab him from behind, locking his throat beneath my arm; he manages somehow to toss my body over his head and slam my back against the table; I manage somehow to get out from underneath him after two blows to the face and hit him so hard he stumbles back against the wall. One minute. Two. It feels like forever the fight goes on. And then he has me in a chokehold, more secured than the one I had him in moments ago. “Go ahead! Fucking kill me!” I say, choking; his arm tight across my windpipe. “I’m not gonna…live in your shadow…anymore, Brother”—he puts more pressure on my throat—“I’m not gonna…be what you expect me to be…I know who I am now…and…as long as I live, I’ll be that person. So kill me now because…that person is not, never has been, and never fucking will be…Victor Faust!”

He releases me violently and air rushes into my lungs; I stumble backward, stopped by the table; gasping, holding my throat. Pulling back my fist faster than he can react, I send it soaring against the side of his face, knocking his head back on his neck. When it comes back down, blood is dripping from one corner of his mouth; he wipes it away with his hand.

But he doesn’t retaliate. He just looks at me—we look at each other, both of us knowing that this fight is over, that neither of us have won, but the battle between us will rage on.

“Aside from Claire,” I speak up, calmly, “do you want to know what hurts me the most?”

He doesn’t answer, but I know he wants to know, and I’m sure as hell gonna tell him.

“That you really thought I went on that mission to destroy you.” I shake my head; my heart is heavy. “I mean sure the thought crossed my mind, but I never thought I’d actually do it; it was never a real intention. I went, Victor”—my words are becoming ice—“because I didn’t feel right about Izabel being there. And you know what?” I step toward him—he stands his ground—and I look him in the eyes. I start to say one thing, about Izabel, but decide against it and say another. “As far as killing Francesca Moretti, yeah, there at the end I admit—and I don’t regret it—that I killed her because I wanted to; I did it for the sole purpose of making life more difficult for you.”

I spit blood on the floor and walk away from him.

“But it wasn’t until that moment,” I say, looking back, “not any time before it, that I did anything out of spite.”

I reach into my pants pocket to retrieve the flash drive given to us by Emilio. I toss it to Victor and he catches it.

“Your client,” I say, “can find his daughter easily. We went back for the girl at the last minute and tried to bring her home, but she…in Izabel’s words, was already too broken. Not my problem.” I round my chin and then add, “I’ll pay the client back the money owed, myself. I have plenty of money, and I don’t really give a shit about any of it. I have more important things to care about.”

I start to leave the room when Victor’s voice stops me.

“I am sorry about Claire.”

Every muscle in my body tenses hearing him say her name; not because I want to kill him for it, but because I feel like his apology is sincere.

I shut my eyes softly; my back to my brother.

I say nothing, push open the door and leave.

Izabel and Nora are standing in the hallway; I know they heard everything; the looks on their faces: Izabel is heartbroken; Nora doesn’t have much of a heart to break, but even she seems to feel some kind of remorse.

“Where are you going?” Izabel calls out after me.

“To the bar,” I answer.

She runs up behind me, fitting her hand partway around my wrist, stopping me. I stop but I don’t look at her.

“I…I wanted to tell you on the plane that…I didn’t mean what I said, that you were a selfish opportunist—Niklas, I know you saved Sian because you didn’t want to see her die. And I’m sorry.”

I start to walk away.

“Are you going to disappear again?” she asks.

“If you or my brother needs me you know where to find me.”

She nods, thanking me with her eyes, and then she lets me go.

Izabel

Devastated doesn’t even begin to cover how I feel about the news of Dorian.

“Izabel, I am sorry.” He says, standing behind his chair at the head of the table. “His betrayal ran too deep; I could not let it go.”

“Because you were afraid of what everyone else might think?” I accuse. “Make an example of him so no one will even think of opposing you? That’s very tyrant, Victor.” I regret my words immediately after saying them.

I turn to face him, dropping my crossed arms to my sides, letting the anger deflate out of me. “I’m angry; I won’t tell you that I’m not, or pretend that it doesn’t hurt, but…” I sigh heavily, “…I know you had to do it; it’s just hard for me to accept it as easily as you can. Or Nora. Or Fredrik. I guess I just have a long way to go before I’m like you.”

Victor walks over to me; he touches my botched hair in both of his hands—he was a little surprised when he first saw it, but he never said a word about it. “Izabel,” he says softly, “I have come to realize that being exactly like me—or Nora, or Fredrik—is the last thing I want for you.”

I start to argue, to question what that means exactly, but he stops me.

“Like my brother,” he says, “you are your own person; like Fredrik and Nora and even James Woodard. I do not want you to spend the rest of your life trying to be somebody else—I just want you to be you, use your own strengths and skills to pave your way in this life; it has worked well for you so far.” His hands find my face and he cups my cheeks; I sense that what he’s about to say is painful for him. “And the last thing that I want…is for you to be like me.”

What is he saying? Where is this coming from?

“Victor, what does that mean?”

He presses his lips to my forehead. Then he looks into my eyes. “It simply means that you are better at being human than any of us, that you have not fully given your life over to this life, and I do not think you ever should—just hear me out. Please.”

My mouth closes.

“I have few regrets in life,” he says, “and one of them—the one that will always haunt me—is allowing my brother to follow me into a life that he never wanted. I knew when we were just boys that Niklas wanted freedom; he has always wanted to be his own person, play by his own rules, live by his own standards, and not in the shoes or the shadow or beneath the gavel or the whip of anyone else. But he gave all that up to stay by my side, because my brother’s love for me knew no bounds. I loved him the same, but I was blinded by my own wants and needs, and by the time I realized my mistakes, it was too late. He was what he was, became what he became, and then I found myself fighting to keep him alive: killing our father; lying to The Order about his abilities, and his…emotional faults. I did what I had to do to protect him, from others and from himself.” He pauses, looks at the floor, then back into my eyes. “And when I look at you, I see Niklas as that boy all over again, and I will not let you follow me into misery the way I let my brother. When I look at you I see someone I care for and love so deeply that I would do anything—anything, Izabel—to protect, not just your physical life, but your humanity and your freedom to choose your life.”


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