She gasps and chokes, scrambling to fill her lungs with air again, her legs hanging precariously over the side of the table.
I pace the floor, back and forth in an enraged march, my eyes looking downward at the scuffmarks on the tile, up at the bare walls—anything but Nora, or the hidden cameras in the room with eyes on the other side of them looking back at me with their judgments and assumptions.
But the only face I see, the only person I can think about is Claire. I’ve tried for six years to put her out of my mind; six fucking years, only to have this girl dangle Claire’s face, and her death, in front of me, torturing me.
“Niklas,” I hear Nora say softly from behind, but the rest of what she might have been about to say fades into the quiet of the room.
I spin around on my heels and march back over to her. She flinches, but just slightly, not enough to make her look afraid. I grab the back of the chair I had been sitting in and slide it out roughly before dropping all of my weight into it.
Nora just looks at me for a moment, still laying partially on the table, but finally her body slides off and she stands upright, adjusting her silk blouse.
I point at her chair.
She does without argument, and it’s a good thing because at this point I could go either way at the drop of a hat—tell her about Claire, or blow her brains against the wall.
I pull a pack of cigarettes from my back pocket and toss them on the table.
I don’t look directly into any cameras—fuck that—I’m gonna tell her what she wants to know, but I’m doing it my way. If she doesn’t like it, she can go fuck herself. And so can Dina Gregory. And Dorian’s ex-bitch. And Woodard’s daughters. And Izabel. And my brother.
“I was thirty when I met Claire. I was thirty when I fell in love with her. And I was thirty when she was killed…”
Six years ago…
“Claire was an assignment. Not a hit, just an assignment. It wasn’t like I had never done these kinds of jobs before: get close to a woman, date her for a while, pretend that I was normal, that I was just like any other man looking to find some nice girl to settle down with. Most of them were hits. Murderous bitches, women who liked to dip their tongues in too much green sugar, who did what they had to do to get their husbands inheritances. Whatever. Back then I never worked in the field like Victor did—I wasn’t as skilled as my brother—and I wasn’t anyone’s liaison, either. I worked on the inside, charming women to get information, and then sometimes, if the job called for it, taking them out afterwards.” I pause, letting the truth gut me. And then I say, “But Claire wasn’t a target. She was a decoy. My mission was to get to know her, get her to trust me so I could find out about a man named Solis. He had been the target for a year, and the only lead we had on him was Claire. We didn’t even know what kind of relationship Solis and Claire had—lovers, partners in crime, brother and sister—anything was possible at that point.”
I point sternly at Nora. “But one thing I knew for sure once I got to know her was that Claire was a good woman, and whatever her involvement with Solis, she didn’t know shit about his double-life. She wasn’t part of it and didn’t deserve to be—Claire was bait.”
I stop abruptly.
“Go on,” Nora tells me. “I want all of the details. I want to know everything.”
I sneer and grit my teeth, but I give in.
“I met her at a department store,” I say. “She was a cashier. At first I thought it was me charming her, but within a couple weeks I realized it was the other way around—though it wasn’t intentional or malicious on her part. Like it was supposed to be on mine. I was crazy about her. It scared the shit out of me, but for the first time in my life I let it. We dated. Like a real couple. Went to the movies and ate popcorn. We had dinner in nice restaurants and went random places together. I did shit with Claire I never could see myself doing. Weird, normal shit. But I liked spending time with her even if I felt like I was turning into goddamned Mr. Smith.
“I moved in with her three months after we met, and although my mission was always looming in the back of my mind and I knew that whatever was happening between us couldn’t last, I was falling in love with her. And she was falling in love with me.
“Claire came out of the shower wrapped in a towel, her hair was wet, pinned up at the back of her head. She blushed as I watched her walk half-naked across the room, a crooked smile on my lips as I lay on the bed with my hands fitted behind my head and my feet crossed below.
“ ‘You’re too much,’ she said with a smile in her voice, glancing over her bare shoulder, shy about letting the towel drop the rest of the way.
“ ‘How so?’ I asked with a grin. ‘Because I like to look at you naked?’
“She blushed again and turned to face the closet, pulling down a blue dress from a hanger.
“ ‘You shouldn’t be afraid to show off what you’ve got, love,’ I told her. ‘Especially not in front of me. Go on, drop the towel.’ My smile deepened as her blush reddened.
“Claire didn’t drop the towel. And I knew she wouldn’t. She was self-conscious though she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen, and I liked to let her know it every second of every day I spent with her.
“The little blue dress fell just above her knees. It drove me crazy. Everything about her drove me crazy.
“As I lay in bed, she walked toward me with a familiar dazed look on her face—and then she hit the floor and seized for several minutes.
“I had gotten used to it after eight months. Claire had seizures at least every other day, sometimes every day. It interfered with her life. She couldn’t drive. She couldn’t do a lot of things, or rather she was afraid to. When she met me, she started to come out of her shell. I drove us everywhere. And if she had a seizure in public I took care of it.”
“How long had she had seizures?” Nora asks.
“Why do you care?”
“It’s just a question.”
I shrug, making a face as if I don’t know, but then answer, “Said she’d had them since she was a little girl.”
Nora nods. And I continue.
“But after eight months of being in love and taking care of Claire, it didn’t go unnoticed that I wasn’t taking care of my mission. Ten months later, I still hadn’t found a shred of information on Solis. Claire never spoke his name, not even when I tried to get her to talk about her family, her past lovers, about anyone in her life—she told me a lot, but never mentioned anyone named Solis. I started to think she didn’t really know him at all, and that maybe this was all a mistake.