“Seraphina…,” I call out, my voice hoarse with pain, every kind of pain, “…Sera…”
I wake up the next morning lying in a cold field with the sun on my face. The thin layer of white snow around my body is stained black by soot from my clothes. I look up at the sky, so clear and so blue, and I see a sliver of gray smoke rising into the air in my peripheral vision.
With difficulty, I try to get up, but can only go as far as rolling over onto my side. Dead grass pricks my cheek. Snow melts in a little indention near my face as my hot breath expels from my lips and nostrils against it. I’m freezing, yet I’m warm and it doesn’t make sense.
The thin layer of smoke rising over the tops of the trees in the short distance is coming from what was left of my house.
She didn’t leave me there to burn.
Why did she drag me out?
Upon realizing, finally I feel the pain in the back of my head and I reach up weakly to massage the area with my fingertips. She had to have dragged my body up the concrete steps.
I’m aching all over. But I’m alive. And I wouldn’t be if Seraphina didn’t want me to be.
I will find her.
I’ll never stop looking for her.
It’s a dangerous game that she and I play, that we’ve always played. Only this time, she has upped the ante.
And I’m all in.
Five men, two on each side of me and another seated at the head of the dinner table my opposite, watch me with guarded eyes.
My gun was taken at the door.
“It is a peaceful dinner, monsieur,” the door man had said. “No weapons allowed.”
“Very well,” I had said and removed my gun from the back of my pants, placing it on the table.
I knew not to wear more than one as I’d surely be patted down before they allowed me inside. And I was correct.
But I need no gun.
Unarmed, I walked past a dozen guards carrying a bottle of wine and stepped into the belly of the beast surrounded by four of François Moreau’s most experienced men.
I knew in advance also that the wine I brought would be whisked away by one of the waiters and placed in the center of the table. François thanked me for the gift. It was an expensive French wine, after all, and it would have been quite rude of him not to thank me, even knowing that I came here to kill him.
“Is it true?” François asks casually, looking over the length of the table at me seated on the other end. “Vonnegut has a bounty on three of his former men? Including you?”
I nod. “I suppose the rumors are true for once.”
A slim, confident smile pulls the edges of François’ hard, weathered mouth. He has short graying hair, cut smoothly at the back of his neck and combed over to one side in the front, plastered to his small head by thick amounts of hair gel.
“And I suppose tis’ good that I have no interest in filling bounties for a man like Vonnegut.” His smile becomes more arrogant, as if I have him to thank for being alive in this moment.
I nod again and bring my lips to my wine glass, which isn’t the wine from the bottle that I brought.
The dark-haired man sitting to my left with a scar above his left eyebrow removes his white cloth napkin from the table in front of him. He unrolls it from its neat little arrangement and places it within his lap. The other three men sitting on the outsides of the table follow suit when they notice the waiters entering from a side door balancing full plates on their hands. François remains in the same position, not looking away from my eyes even when the waiter places his plate in front of him.
François steeples his hands, his elbows propped on the table.
“So, Monsieur Gustavsson,” he begins, “it is my understanding that you were sent here to get information from me on my employer, correct?”
“Yes,” I answer, but offer him nothing else. I prefer to make him work for the details I know he wants before he has me killed.
“And what makes you think that I am at liberty to give you such information?” He appears amused by the very prospect of it.
My expression remains standard. Cool. Calm. Unruffled. And he grows more nervous by the second by my absence of tension. I’m only one man. Weaponless. Sitting at a table amongst five other men who, most assuredly, are packing heat despite the doorman’s claims. I’m but one man in a mansion on a private land just outside of Nice, France, where at least nine other men armed with guns patrol the outside.
He must know that I am not just one man, after all.
I steeple my hands the same as his.
“Before this,”—I wave one hand at the wrist briefly—“lovely evening is over, I can assure you that I’ll have the information I came for.” I point my index finger upward gently. “But not only that, you’ll give it to me freely.”
He looks surprised. And amused.
François shakes his head and lifts his wine glass to his lips, afterwards setting it gently back on the table. He takes his time, the same as I have, by making me wait for more of a response. The blond-haired man sitting to my right eyes me from over the rim of his wine glass. All four of the men are dressed like François and myself. Tailored black suits and ties. Though I definitely look better in mine. And as if they were a collective, they pick up their forks and begin eating at the same time. François finally joins them, though I’m confident it has nothing to do with being hungry. He’s simply wanting to drag out his moment of pause longer than it needs to.
He chews and then swallows.
“Is that so?” François finally says with an air of authority and a smile. His shiny silver fork clinks against the glass plate as he sets it down.
“As a matter of fact, it is,” I say with confidence, as if I were simply telling him that, yes, it is raining outside, and welcoming him to step over to the window and see for himself. “I know your Order to be run by a man named Monsieur Sébastien Fournier. He took over last year after Monsieur Julien Gerard was killed in Marseille.”— François wipes his mouth with his cloth napkin and continues to listen—“I also know that your Order is strictly black market and that many of the men under Fournier are American, running American hits on innocent American women.”
François tilts his graying head to one side, thoughtfully.
“Oh come now, monsieur, you cannot make me believe that you, of all people, care what happens to a few innocent women,” he taunts me.