A nervous knot sits deep in the pit of my stomach; another one stays lodged in my throat.
“Well, I for one,” Nora finally speaks up, “am glad to hear that.” She walks over to us and sits in the seat directly behind me.
Niklas finally looks at her for longer than a few seconds; aversion seethes beneath the surface of his otherwise uninterested expression.
“Personally I prefer the role to be as real as it can be,” she adds. “And I never break character, either.”
A smirk, almost too faint to be seen, tugs one corner of Niklas’s mouth.
He smiles and says coldly, “How did you get in, anyway? I’m sure your pussy isn’t made of gold, so how’d you convince my brother to let you in?”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” I snap. I’m not even sure what my question really is, I just know I didn’t like Niklas insinuating that Victor would ever consider letting Nora in because she fucked him.
“I’m the reason Nora got in,” I cut in coldly before Nora has a chance to answer. “If you want to know the truth—Victor let her in because it’s what I wanted.”
Niklas smiles—why is he smiling?—and then manipulates the inside of his mouth with his teeth. I wait, suffocated by the tense silence, for him to make some sarcastic comment about what I told him, to be the mouthy asshole that only Niklas can be. But instead, he just shakes his head with some kind of knowing expression that leaves me perplexed. And uncomfortable. And I don’t even know why. Oh right—because Niklas’s real expertise is knowing how to get under my skin with very little effort. This is going to be a mission to remember. Or rather, one I’m pretty sure I’ll want more than anything to forget.
Nora and I spend the next twenty minutes telling Niklas everything that happened after he left our Boston headquarters that night. From how I recruited Nora, to Victor’s acceptance of my decision, to Fredrik’s torture of Dorian, and to Victor’s decision to meet with Dorian’s employers and see what they have to offer. We fill him in on every detail, small and large, but I refrain from telling him anything about the conversation Victor and I had about why he killed Claire. Not only does Niklas make it clear beforehand that he doesn’t want to talk about it, but I know it’s not my place to, either. I know I have to let Victor and Niklas work this thing out between them. And I know that we don’t have the time to spare discussing it, or arguing about it. It is a waste of time at this point; focus only on the mission. Victor was right. And even Niklas feels this mission is too important, too dangerous, to waste time arguing about Nora’s recruitment, or expressing too extensively his dislike for her.
For the time being, he’s tolerating her. After this mission is over, granted we’re all still alive then, I can only wonder what kind of retribution he might serve.
“Nora,” Niklas says, “what experience do you have with the slave trade?”
The plane hits a bit of turbulence, but settles quickly.
Nora, sitting next to Niklas now in his roomy section of the plane, crosses her long legs and makes herself more comfortable. Without looking at him she answers resolutely, free of smiles or seduction, “Not much. When I was nineteen, I was sent on a mission to Dubai where I was sold as a sex slave to a wealthy sheik. My job was to kill his son. Needless to say, that’s exactly what I did.” She brings up an arm and rests it across the back of the seat, propping the side of her face on her fingertips. “It was my only mission of that nature,” she goes on, “and my owners were also undercover and I endured little abuse by the sheik before I got the job done, but I can assure you that I can pull this off, play whatever role I need to play. I learn fast.”
Niklas smiles, thinking to himself it seems.
“But how far will you go?” he asks, the question laced with challenge.
Nora’s smile is cunning and confident; never an ounce of fear.
“The lengths that I will go to for a mission, Niklas, are more than you would ever do yourself.” She tilts her head to one side gently, her long fingers sliding away from her face as she brings her arm back down, dangling it over the back of the chair. “You will learn that about me soon enough.” Nothing about Nora suggests now that she’s still trying to seduce him—she’s all Nora Kessler, the dangerous banshee not to be trifled with.
“I’m sure I will.” Niklas’s face remains unexpressive. “It’s good to know you have no limits.”
He turns to me.
“You on the other hand,” he says, “will just have to be careful and keep your mouth shut. I’ll take care of the rest. But keeping your mouth shut is more important on this mission than it’ll ever be. Think you can do that?”
I smirk at him and cross my arms.
“Just tell me what I need to do, Niklas,” I say coolly. “Drop the parental bully act with me for once and let’s do our job with a little more professionalism.”
He smirks right back at me, but without disagreement.
Then he passes the tablet over to me and I take it into my hand, peering down into the screen.
“You may have personal experience in the sex slave trade,” he says, “but this will be a bit different. The girls in establishments like the one owned by Moretti, are, shall I say, classier.”
I look up from the screen, a scowl on my face.
“Francesca Moretti’s girls—her cyprians and those sold in her showings—are of the highest quality,” Niklas goes on. “They’re cared for like prized race horses—treated the same way, too. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are shelled out to make these girls—and guys—perfect: plastic surgery, medical procedures, special diets; they even have their own personal dieticians and speech and etiquette coaches. Their masters expect nothing less than perfection; and like a race horse, if they lose too many races or break a leg, they’re often put down.”
“Yeah, that’s not exactly how things were done in Mexico,” I say. “The plastic surgery and etiquette coaches stuff, anyway. The ‘often put down’ part, unfortunately, was the way things were done. Sounds like classier is a much better deal.”
“No,” Niklas says, “it’s not. Don’t mistake classier for safer. You need to remember that you’re never safe while you’re in the presence of these people—especially Francesca. I’m assuming Victor warned you about her reputation?”
I nod. “Yeah,” I say, waving my hand dramatically in the air, “she thinks she’s the fairest in all the land.”
“Good. Don’t give her any reason to want to kill you.”
Niklas points at the tablet in my hand. “Nora should familiarize herself with those terms and rules; make damn sure you know them like the back of your hand by the time we land.”
I peer down into the screen again; Nora moves to sit next to me so she can read the text.
“You’ll need to be consistent. But we’ll keep it basic. Remember everything you see there and we’ll be believable. Fuck up once and we’ll either cast suspicion and have more eyes on us than we want, or they’ll kill us on the spot.”
I read through the few rules quickly, absorbing each one as if I’m about to take an exam. When I get to number six, I swallow hard.
Keep a straight, unemotional expression on your face at all times, unless you’re being pleasured, or hurt.
I look up from the screen.
“Pleasured or hurt?” I inquire nervously. “We’re not going to have to actually—”
Niklas shakes his head with disappointment.
“Is that what you thought?” he asks. “That you’d be sent on a mission like this and not have to play your role fully just because you’re the boss-man’s girl?”
I bite down on the inside of my mouth.
“No, I just thought that because Victor wanted you to go with us that…”
Niklas laughs under his breath.
“No Izzy,” he finally says, and I raise my eyes to his again, “no one’s going to touch you. And yes, that’s why Victor wanted me on this mission with you, because he knows that I won’t let anything happen to you”—he pauses, and a hint of a smirk appears on his mouth—“well, at least nothing that would be considered…unforgivable.”
I nod slowly, and with relief, despite the uncomfortable chill the last part left me with.
Niklas looks to Nora.
“Now you, on the other hand,” he says, “I can’t make any promises.” He smiles.
I get the feeling that he wouldn’t make promises where Nora is concerned, even if he could.
“It’s just sex,” Nora says with a shrug. “Not that I’m in the habit of giving it away freely, but I do what needs to be done for the sake of a job.”
“But you’re playing our master,” I point out. “No one’s going to touch either one of us if you own us. Right?” I hope so.
“Not without my permission, no,” he says. “But depending on the circumstances, it may be in our best interest that I give permission.”
He looks at Nora again briefly, and a sly smile passes over his features.