* * *
Six years ago…
I SIT IN the metal chair feeling uncomfortable. I do better on my feet. I wish I could at least have my back to a wall, but this isn’t my place, so I do as I’m told. I sit calmly and keep my breathing even, glancing around the room casually, making sure I show nothing. I have one goal here today and it’s to get as close as possible to the man I’m about to meet. Going deeper underground than I ever have before—something I’m not sure I want. This might take me a further down than I’m prepared to go.
We’re in a back room of a restaurant in uptown Manhattan, and it’s clearly used for privacy. There are two men at the far wall, standing next to an exit, and two men behind me guarding the way I came in. They both look like muscle; they’d be easy to handle. Too dumb to see what’s coming. Directly in front of me is a small metal table and chair. I hear a click behind me. The door opens, and someone walks through. I wish for the hundredth time that I had my gun on me. I feel naked without it. I know I can defend myself without it, but I like feeling the weight of it against me. And often, someone seeing the hint of it can deescalate a situation. But they took it from me when I walked through the door, so now I have to deal with it.
The man who walked in takes a seat at the table and leans forward. He’s in an expensive suit that looks custom-made. The men around him are dressed similarly, myself included. When you’re in this line of work, looks are everything. Even more so for a man like this. Money means everything to him. Money and power.
He sets a large manila envelope on the table between us and places his hand on top of it. He holds it there as he looks at me, his sapphire-blue eyes boring into mine as if trying to read me. Good luck, asshole.
“I’ve been told good things about you, Ryan. That you’re one to keep cool and one we can trust. Is that true?”
The first rule in business is keeping your mouth shut. The second rule is when you talk, say as little as possible. I’ve mastered both of these, and it’s the reason I’m here today.
“You’ve worked for me for some time now, and I’d like to give you something of a—” He stops as if to consider what word to use. His smile is wide as he lands on it. “?promotion.”
I sit and wait, breathing evenly and staying calm. It’s what I do best. I’m rewarded when he takes his hand off the envelope and pushes it toward me, then leans back in his chair, watching my movements. I don’t flinch, just wait for instructions like a loyal dog.
“I need information, and I need you to get it for me. You’re a face that’s not known around here, not associated with me directly. According to what I’ve been able to dig up, you were born in Ukraine and brought to America as a baby. You were raised in Chicago, but ended up in New York a few years ago and made your way into my employment. Is that close enough?”
“Yes, sir.” Rule number three, always speak with respect. It’s close but not all of it. Just the parts I want him to know. The most important thing to remember about lying is to keep your lies as close to the truth as possible, only blurring some things. That way, you never forget.
He looks me over again, eyes assessing and reassessing. I relax and wait like he wants me to. Just like I know I need to in order to get on his good side. As if getting what he wants, he nods down to the envelope, and I finally reach out, taking it. I hold it in my hands but don’t make a move to open it. I know him. He wants people to follow his every word, and if he wants me to open it, he’ll tell me.
“Once this meeting is over, we won’t meet face-to-face again. You’ll have my direct number and communicate with me weekly, giving me any information you can. All that you need to know is in there.”
He stands, buttoning his suit jacket, and I stand with him, holding the envelope. He stretches out his hand, and as much as I don’t want to take it, I remember rule number three. When he grips my palm, he pulls me forward a slight inch, but it’s a power play. He wants to be the one in control, and though I’m much larger than him and far more skilled at killing a man, I allow him this move. Men like him need to keep the ego. It’s all they have.