“You were right,” I say, “I’d rather it burn when I piss.”
Jay walks over to re-fill my shot glass, but Izabel stops him, placing her palm over the top of it. With an uneasy look, Jay walks away.
She leans in closer to me, her darkly painted eyes boring into mine indignantly, her nostrils flaring; she’s fed up with my shit—now that’s the Izzy I’m used to.
I smile to myself.
“Get over yourself, asshole,” she growls and slides the shot glass beneath her palm, away from me. “We’ve all lost people we love. We’ve all done things we regret, things we wish we could take back—every one of us, Niklas.” She leans in even more, closing the space between us so that only I can hear, or probably more-so so that I fully understand the intensity of her words. “But Victor has only ever had his love for you in mind—he killed his father to protect you. And if I remember correctly, before you ever knew about what really happened to Claire, you tried to kill me to protect him.”
She pulls away, but her eyes never leave mine.
Izabel speaks the truth, and I’m not above admitting it, but there’s one thing she fails to understand.
I lean in toward her now, my jaw tightening, my eyes as hard and as cold as hers are.
“My brother wasn’t in love with you yet when I tried to kill you,” I whisper into the small space between our faces, and I see her frown, just a little, enough to show that I’ve already won. “But he knew…he knew I loved Claire when he killed her. He may not admit that to you, or even to himself, but my brother knew and that’s why he killed her—not because she was a job. And nothing he can ever say to me will make me believe otherwise.”
Izabel’s gaze veers from mine and she stares off toward the television behind the bar.
“I’m sorry,” she says.
“For what? For something he did? You’re sorry that she died?” I shake my head and look out ahead of me, having nothing more to say—I’ve said more than I wanted to already.
“I’m sorry that the woman you loved died, and that I didn’t.”
My head snaps around.
At first, I think she’s looking for me to pity her in some fucked up way, but when I look at her and see the gravity of her words all over her face, I can’t help but believe she meant what she said, that her guilt runs so much deeper than I could ever know.
“Niklas,” she continues in a low, angry, pain-filled voice, “I live with the guilt of being alive every single day. So many people have died in my place. And when I think about Claire, I feel guilty that I’m here and she’s not, because you loved her and you deserve to be loved the same way that I love your brother, no matter how much of a dick you are.” She pauses, her small shoulders rising and falling with a breath. “I don’t blame you for hating me. But it is what it is, Niklas, and all I can do is at least try to make myself useful. You could do the same, instead of hanging around here with your whiskey and what’s left of your pathetic life.”
She slides off the bar stool, indignation in her movements.
The urge to tell her off, maybe even squeeze her little throat in my hand, is there, somewhere deep inside of me, but instead, I do and say nothing. My silence bothers me more than anything she said—I don’t think any woman has ever managed to shut me up like she just did.
“I’m going to Italy,” she says with resolve, sliding the shot glass back within my reach. “Y’know, you’re wrong when you tell me I’m not cut out for this life, that I shouldn’t be here, that I’m weak and delusional—you’re wrong.” She steps up closer, seizing my gaze. “I can do this job as good as you can.” She slams the side of her hand on the bar top. “Jet leaves at eight-forty-five in the morning; please don’t be late.”
Then she steps away and begins to slip between two tables.
“What the hell makes you think I’m going?” I call out to her over the music.
She keeps on walking, but looks back once long enough to answer, “Because you took the flash drive!” Her tall, slender form dressed in black weaves its way through the bar, past six more full tables and then out the front door.
I turn back to Jay just as he’s walking up.
“Another shot?” he asks, one bushy brow raised higher than the other.
“Keep em’ comin’.”
Damn that woman.
Dante Furlong, my trusty former heroin addict turned personal assistant, stands in my dimly lit living room. His heavily lined face beams with giddy excitement; his eyes wide and bright underneath curly black hair; his brand new teeth—because I pulled out the originals when I tortured him—on display as his lips spread broadly in his smiling face.
“I told you I’d have you one tonight,” he says eagerly. “I mean, I did worry at first, having only a day to pull it off, but I did it.”
“Where is he?” I ask casually as I walk past him and set my briefcase on the floor beside the sofa.
“In my trunk right now,” he answers and points at the front door just steps away. “Want me to drag him into the basement?”
“Yes,” I say, fishing my car keys from my pocket. “I’m going to shower first.”
Dante’s laugh sticks in his throat. He shakes his head¸ smiling.
“Shit, I’d think you’d wanna shower after the bloodbath.” He puts up his hands in surrender when he sees the look of disapproval on my face—he knows I don’t like him to question the details of my…obsession. “But hey,” he defends, “I’m sure you have your reasons.”
I look away and drop my keys on the coffee table.
“I’ll be away for a few days after tomorrow,” I tell him as I break apart the buttons of my dress shirt. “I want you to clean my house and not be here when I return.”
“Oh sure, sure,” Dante agrees, nodding quickly. “Whatever you say, boss. Are ya’ bringin’ a woman back?” A wicked grin deepens in his face; his thick eyebrows dance in his forehead. “That last one I saw you with at the hotel, the black-haired one”—he stops to wet his lips—“goddamn she was beautiful. I don’t know how you do it, hook up with women like that. I’m lucky to bring a skank home to my apartment. You’re a lucky guy, Gustavsson. Lucky, lucky, lucky!”
Uninterested in talking about my sexual encounters, which have only been with one women as of late, I don’t respond. Dante isn’t my conversational type—he’s disgusting and unprofessional and has never said anything I can recall that came close to being profound or intelligent. I only keep him around because he can get me the criminals I need to put in my chair. He knows where to find them at a moment’s notice, how to lure them into dark alleys and abandoned buildings to knock them out and bring them to me. Of course, I’m perfectly capable of doing these things myself, but I haven’t the time. And I pay him well to do it for me.
Dante starts for the front door, and stops in front of it, looking back at me.
“Maybe you could…you know, find me a woman like that.” He smiles squeamishly, unsure if he should be suggesting such a thing.
“I pay you enough that you can buy your own woman, Dante.” I wave a hand, palm up, in front of me. “Every city has its high-dollar whores.”
“Oh, but I don’t want to pay for one,” he says. “I want one who wants to sleep with me, y’know? Just like they do you.”
I shake my head and drop my dress shirt on the arm of the sofa.
“I’m sorry, but that’s not really something I can help you with.”
He sighs with disappointment and then reaches for the door knob.
“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” he says. “But maybe you could at least tell me how you do it—give me a few pointers sometime.”
“I’ll think about it.” This is a ridiculous conversation, but it won’t do any good to tell him that.
When he opens the front door, which I realize far too late had never been closed all the way, I’m surprised to see Emily standing on the other side of it, clothed in her dress uniform from the diner she works at.
I close my eyes momentarily and inhale a breath laced with regret—because I know she must’ve heard everything.
Dante looks back and forth between us, as surprised as I am to see this young woman standing there. I never bring women to my home—always to hotels—but I have been bringing Emily here. Because I was beginning to like her. I’d never told Dante about her.
Emily, with long, golden-brown hair draping her shoulders, folds her hands down in front of her; her face is downcast, wounded.
“I-I’m sorry…” she says, pausing, searching, but instead of continuing, she turns on her heels and goes to leave.
“Emily, wait a second.” I move past Dante, shutting him off inside the house and following Emily down the rocks steps. “I don’t know what all you heard”—suddenly I feel panicky inside, hoping, more than anything that she didn’t hear the parts about the man in the trunk—that’s a much larger problem to fix.
Emily stops on the sidewalk and turns around to me.