When I took Cassia from the shelter the night of the fire—she refused to be taken to the hospital—I never in my wildest imagination thought that what happened, could.

And here I am today, nearly a year later, and not only have I not found Seraphina, but I’ve developed feelings of remorse and sympathy for the very woman I need to help me draw Seraphina out of hiding.

I can’t do this.

I’ve never felt so conflicted about anything in my life before this. I’ve ruined this woman, Cassia, this sweet and innocent and almost child-like woman who wouldn’t kill a spider if it was crawling across her leg. All for the sake of finding my beloved Seraphina. I’ve been using this poor girl to draw Seraphina out like drawing venom from a snake bite. And I hate myself for it.

But it’s the only way.

Cassia is the only way.

Opening my eyes, I see that I’m white-knuckling the counter, all of my fingers clamped down hard against it.

I raise my eyes to the small oval mirror in front of me.

Tiny flecks of blood are sprinkled about my unshaven face. Disgusted, I fill my hands with water and splash myself, two, three, four times before I’m satisfied. I reach out and pull the hand towel from the rod hanging on the wall and dry off. There’s blood on my shirt, I notice, and I strip it off quickly.

How could I have been so careless?

When I finally shut the faucets off, I can hear Cassia crying again without the water to drown it out. And it sears through me.

Goddammit, I was never cut out for this. Not this. Feeling pain and sorrow for someone, anyone, and letting it control me. With Seraphina, I never had to feel it. Not like this. So goddamn unpleasant. We were alike, she and I, like two damaged souls cut from the same sadistic cloth. We thrived on pain. We got off on it. Whether it was our own pain, or the pain of someone willing to let us enjoy theirs.

“What do I do?” I ask myself aloud, looking into the mirror. “Fight it like I have been the past year? Or, do I give in to it?”

I shake my head no. No. No. And pull my fist back and slam it into the mirror. Shards crack and fall into the sink, breaking into even smaller pieces, but leaving my skin unbroken. And when I look back into the mirror, all I see are pieces of myself that are missing. Not the glass, but of myself.

I’ve never been whole, not since the day I was born to a mother who left me wrapped in a shirt beside a public toilet.

I step out of the restroom and look first at the television screen mounted behind the Plexi-glass. Dante is still struggling in the chair. He seems more alert now that I’m not in there with him. He’s scanning the dark, dank room—the only part of this old house I never restored—for a way out, or something to use in which he can free himself. He has no idea that I’m watching. But he’s not going anywhere. Houdini couldn’t get out of those restraints.

“Please, Fredrik, please turn it off,” Cassia says with a whimper.

I don’t hesitate, despite something in the back of my mind—the dark, malevolent part—telling me to leave it alone. That she needs to see it, to hear it, to smell his pungent blood through the cracks in the wooden door that separates the rooms.

I walk over to the television and take the remote down from a shelf on the wall next to it, pressing my finger on the Power button. Cassia winds her frail fingers through the top of her hair, her face buried behind her knees.

“I’m sorry,” I say standing over her. “I—.”

“Lemme out’o ‘ere! Omeone ‘elp!” Dante cries out in garbled, choppy words.

Glancing back down at Cassia, her fingers begin to tighten in her hair as if she’s trying to pull it out, inflicting pain on herself to block out Dante’s cries.

“Fuck!” I march back across the room toward the wooden door and swing it open, slamming it against the wall.

The whites of Dante’s eyes grow stark underneath the floodlight. Blood, more black than red, covers his face, pouring down his chin and soaking into his T-shirt. His face is swelling; his lips red and purple and puffy.

“Be quiet,” I snap.

“M’beggin’ oou! On’t hurz me ‘ny’ore!”

One of three syringes ready and waiting on the tall silver tray behind the chair is within my fingers in seconds. Holding it up to the light, I gently push on the silver plunger, releasing some of the heroin from the tip of the needle.

“W-What are ‘ou ‘oing?” His head struggles to see me behind him; fear of the unknown saturating every syllable.

“I. Said. Be. Quiet.” I push the words through my teeth.

After quickly checking the placement and tension of the thin blue tourniquet wrapped around his upper arm, I jab the needle into his vein and pump the contents into him.

Scrubbing my hands all over again in Cassia’s restroom, I find myself drifting off in deep thought as I stare at the broken mirror. Dante is no longer screaming, but Cassia is still crying, albeit not as loudly as before. But her cries, no matter how hard or soft, make me ache just the same.

“Let me see your face,” I say to Cassia gently, crouching beside her on the floor.

I reach out and fit my fingers underneath her chin, carefully raising her face from the confines of her legs.

“I won’t hurt you,” I say. “You know that. You should know that by now.”

She shakes her blonde head as her soft brown eyes look up into my blue ones. “You’ve hurt me before,” she says, tears straining her voice. “You put me in that chair when you first brought me here. Who’s to say you won’t do it again?”

“I’m to say I won’t do it again.”

I sit down fully on the floor in front of her, my knees bent, my arms resting atop them at the wrists.

“I will never hurt you,” I say, though I’ve told her this many times since that night. “Things were different then. I thought you…,” I stop myself. I have to be careful the way I talk to her and with the things I say. “Cassia, I thought you knew more than you were telling me. But I know the truth now.”

My heart utterly melts when she scoots across the short distance and moves to sit between my legs. My body instinctively allows her in, conforming to hers as my bare arms wrap around her small form. Her long, delicate fingers curl about my bicep and she presses her head in the warm hollow where my shoulder and chest muscles meet. My eyes shut softly and a small breath emits from my parted lips as I feel her body against mine. I cup her head in my large hand and savor the softness of her hair pushing between my fingers and brushing my chest like a blanket of silk. My heart thrums inside of me, the first sign of an inevitable betrayal, the one where I become a man that I despise. A man who is weak and defenseless at the mercy of emotions that I learned long ago to reject.

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