“What do you want, Izzy?”
I don’t look at either of them; I puff on my cigarette, staring at the television. Jay asks them if they’d like something to drink, but they decline and he leaves us to our privacy.
“We need you for a job,” Izzy says, hopping onto the bar stool on my left, her tall black boots propped on the metal spindle.
I laugh lightly, shaking my head, and then gesture at Jay. He comes over and refills my glass.
“Yeah well,” I say with a smirk, “count me out of this one.” I look over at her. “Might want to count me out of the next, oh I dunno, all of them?” I set the burning cigarette in the ashtray, swig down my shot, and go back to staring at the television. “What’s Psycho Bitch Barbie doing here?”
Nora laughs lightly, unfazed by the insult.
“That’s a long story,” she says. “Come with us to Italy and we’ll tell you all about it.”
“Not interested,” I come back quickly. Then I turn and look directly at Nora. “You’re still one of my least favorite people in the world after what you did, so you might wanna stay the fuck away from me.” I turn back at the television.
Izabel sighs and rests both arms on the bar, loosely knitting her long, slender fingers together. I kind of want to look at her, because as much as she pisses me off, she’s the only person in our Order who…I feel sorry for. She doesn’t belong there. She’s a naïve girl with ridiculous ambitions that are going to be the death of her one day. A couple years ago that wouldn’t have bothered me at all—I even tried to kill her myself—but things have changed since then and now she feels more like a responsibility than a threat. I think somewhere along the line I started seeing myself in my brother’s woman: forced into a life she didn’t want at a young age, abused in unimaginable ways, but a fighter and a survivor, and who, because of what she went through, isn’t afraid to kill. I still can only tolerate her so much, but out of us all, Izzy is the closest thing to a human being, and I guess I respect that. Admittedly, she’s even more human than I am.
“Niklas,” Izabel says with surrender, “this is an important mission, and—”
We lock eyes. “Important to my brother,” I point out icily. “I’m kind of not in the mood to make his life easier. He can do the job himself. What, is this his way of trying to bring me back into the fold? Your way maybe?” My eyes find the television again; my cigarette finds my lips. “I’m not interested in making amends, either, so spare me the fucking runaround and either have a drink in this fine establishment”—I wave my hand about the room—“run by this gentleman named Jay”—and then at the bartender—“or find someone else to buzzkill.”
“Stubborn to a fault,” I hear Nora say, and I turn around fast and find myself in her face so close I can smell her toothpaste and that crimson lipstick she wears and the perfume she dabbed between her tits.
“Don’t think I won’t kill you in front of all these people,” I growl under my breath, daring her to say one more fucking word to me.
Nora casually slides off the stool in her black high heels and tight black dress that hugs her hourglass curves.
“I’ll leave this one to you,” she tells Izabel indifferently, and then walks away toward the restrooms.
Fuck that bitch.
I look back in front of me again, curling my fingers around the tiny shot glass, absently grinding my teeth together.
The only thing I find odd about any of this now is that Izabel hasn’t started running her mouth; normally she’d be butting heads with me by now, telling me how much of an asshole I am; her face would be red-hot with anger; she’d want to claw my eyes out of my head—so what’s her problem? She must really be desperate.
“Look,” she finally speaks up, “I’m not here to try getting you and Victor to talk. I would be—I’ve wanted to do that since the day you left—but I know that’s not going to happen overnight, and overnight is all the time we have to get everything together before we leave for Italy in the morning.”
“My brother can get someone else,” I say, steadfast. “It doesn’t have to be me—that’s bullshit.”
“No,” she says, leaning toward me so that I’ll look at her, but I don’t, “it’s not bullshit.” She sighs deeply, preparing her attempt to change my mind, because she knows with me that it better be good. “I know you don’t owe me any favors, Niklas, and I know you’d rather it burn when you piss than to help me with anything, but I’m asking you…please come with us on this mission.”
“Why?” I crush the cigarette in the ashtray.
“Because…” Her words trail, and that alone makes me finally look at her face. What’s she searching for in that impetuous head of hers? Whatever it is, she seems sullen, frustrated by the answer.
“I’m not going,” I cut in, resolved to get this over with so I can go back to watching a football game I don’t care about, drinking whiskey that’ll probably give me the shits later, and eventually going upstairs to my room to pass out on a bed that hurts more than any bullet ever has.
Finally Izabel answers, “If you don’t go, Victor won’t let me go.”
That certainly gets my attention, but I’m careful not to let Izabel notice the extent of it. I have my suspicions about what could be the reasoning behind Victor’s stipulation, but I need more information.
Suddenly I’m lighting up another cigarette.
“Still in need of a chaperone?” I taunt her, smoke streaming from my lips. “Is my brother afraid you might end up in the closet with a boy more your age? Or out of the closet with that bimbo?”
“Don’t be a jerk,” she says defensively, and I feel better now that I’ve finally gotten under her skin a little—I was beginning to think I’d lost my touch. “Just let me explain everything before you say no,” she adds.
Giving in so this can’t be dragged out any more than it’s going to, I turn fully on the bar stool and give Izabel my full attention, careful not to give her any impression that I might change my mind.
“Explain away,” I say with a straight face, motioning my hand. “But the answer will still be no.”
Izabel swallows nervously, and looks around the room for a moment. Then down at her hands still resting atop the bar. Then eventually making her way back up to me. I wish she’d just get on with it, but for some reason, I can’t help but wish she’d just sit there like that, too: quiet and calm and in need; I guess I just find a strange comfort in her complicated innocence.
Her green eyes meet my blue ones.
“He’s sending us to Italy to find and kidnap a madam named Francesca Moretti…” the rest of her words fade into the darkest folds of my mind.
Francesca Moretti was all she had to say—I knew the basic details of this mission before she told me. And, in turn, I realized why my brother will only allow me to escort Izzy there. I don’t know whether to be relieved by the stipulation, or to think of my brother even less than I already do because he’s letting her go on a mission like this at all, with or without me.
Izabel tells me everything, mostly in a quiet voice and choppy sentences that stop and start up again after Jay and nearby customers move in and out of earshot. Then she reaches into her boot and slides a flash drive across the bar to me, in which I pocket immediately.
“The password is MX37A,” she says in a soft voice, leaning toward me. “Nora and I got a chance to look over everything before we came here.”
“Izzy,” I say, not looking at her, “why in the hell do you want to do something like this? After what you went through in Mexico—I just don’t get it. There’s something fundamentally wrong with you, woman.”
Izabel snarls and shakes her head, leaning away from the bar and dropping her hands in her lap.
“It really pisses me off enough that Victor still thinks I’m some messed up girl traumatized by her past—I’m sick of that being thrown up in my face, Niklas.” Her expression hardens, her jaw tightens. “I’m not afraid of it. I don’t flinch and recoil when Victor touches me because I was raped. I don’t have debilitating flashbacks of my old life when someone says a trigger word around me—maybe I should but I don’t. I’m over it, so why can’t everybody else just get over it?” It was more a heated statement than a question.
The light smell of Nora’s perfume wraps around my head again as she walks back up.
“I’m going to wait in the car,” she says and Izabel passes a set of keys to her. Before she leaves, she steps up beside me and says against my ear, “I look forward to working with you, Niklas. Let’s learn to get along—I’m not the one who betrayed you. Try to remember that.” She walks away through the small crowded bar and clouds of cigarette smoke like a goddess making her way through a crowd of peasants.
“So she’s working for my brother now?” I’m at a loss.
“Like Nora said, it’s a long story, but yes. Niklas, just like with this thing between you and Victor, that’s not what I came here for—I need you on this.”