Pinching my mouth on one side as I look them up and down, I contemplate our next move.

“I say we dive right in,” I answer. “I think I’ve told you enough on the plane.”

“Then let’s do this,” Nora says.

I look to Izabel.

“I’ve been ready since yesterday,” she says with determination, confidence.

I just hope she’s not overconfident.

We spent a great deal of time on the flight going over every detail of the mission, every plan in case one plan goes to shit. I’m not worried about these people believing I am who I claim to be; my identity as Niklas Augustin was set firmly in place a year ago, ready and waiting for any given mission where the particular role would be needed. Having James Woodard, and other experts like him at our disposal, and having many ties outside of Victor’s Order, allows us to create believable identities with bogus lives dating as far back as we need them to. I have about thirty other firmly rooted identities at my disposal. But that doesn’t mean Francesca Moretti, or whoever she sends in her stead, will trust me by any means. I perfectly expect to have the distrust of everyone I might encounter involved with Moretti’s business.

Several hours later, I’m meeting with a woman known only as Miz Ghita, in a restaurant on the outskirts of the city center. It took some phone calls after getting the proper numbers from one of our few contacts inside Naples, but those calls led me to Miz Ghita, who, hopefully, will lead me to Francesca Moretti. We only have one shot at this. I’m confident in my ability to pull this off, but I don’t take for granted the rumors and warnings I’ve been given about getting past Miz Ghita, apparently a pit bull of woman, tough as nails.

Izabel and Nora accompany me, and it’s the part of this meeting that threatens my confidence the most—here comes Miz Ghita—I just hope Izabel can keep her mouth shut as promised.

I stand as any gentleman would as Miz Ghita approaches: my hands folded neatly down in front of me, my expensive Rolex on display, a single thick gold and diamond ring on my opposite ring finger; I raise my chin in a cultured fashion.

Izabel and Nora stand from their chairs.

Miz Ghita, a sixty-something woman of average height and build, with graying brown hair cut short underneath her ears decorated by gaudy earrings, nods at me as the waiter pulls out her chair for her. I sit down only after she does; Izabel and Nora, in that order, take their seats last.

“I appreciate you meeting with me,” I say.

“My time is valuable, Mr. Augustin—keep that in mind before you choose to waste any of it.” She brushes off the waiter’s attempt to take her drink order, and he bows and walks away. “Do you have a number?” She looks across the small table at me.

I nod.

“I do,” I say, reach into the pocket on the inside of my suit jacket and retrieve an envelope.

I place it on the table and slide it across the short distance to her. She takes it into her long knobby fingers covered by rings, and then she opens the flap, peering inside briefly at the money. Miz Ghita’s thoughts remain hidden, but the fact she doesn’t turn the offer down right away is enough proof of her approval. Twenty thousand American dollars just to meet with her is more than enough to show my financial worth. But proving I’m wealthy, and can afford the luxury of Moretti’s cyprians, is the easy part. Proving I’m not an undercover officer or government agent, or someone sent to kidnap or kill Francesca Moretti for, I don’t know, say, to appease an angry father, will be the challenging part.

It’s been a while since I’ve been on a mission like this—I hope like fuck I’m not too rusty.

“An investor,” Miz Ghita begins. “Apparently a man who takes risks—that’s all investing is, really: high stakes gambling.”

I smile.

“Oh, come on now, Miz Ghita,” I say, tilting my head, “you and I both know that what I do for a living has absolutely no bearing on whether or not we can come to an agreement—only my ability to pay for my purchase.”

She smirks, tilting her head to the side as well.

“I can think of a few professions that would certainly make a difference,” she says, referring to anyone who could potentially threaten their operations. But she and I both know that everyone from police officers to government officials and even men of a religious nature come to them for sex—she’s only testing me; she wants to see if I feel the need to defend myself; if my eyes stray as I try to explain that I’m perfectly trustworthy, because the eyes always stray when one is lying. Unless of course you’re someone whose mastered the art of lying, as I have. I never lie in everyday life—I’m as straightforward as they come—but when playing a role, I’m one lying bastard, and I’m damn good at it.

The dark confident smile never leaves my face.

I lean forward and drop my voice.

“I thought your time was valuable, Miz Ghita? As much as I respect yours, you should take into account that I find mine just as valuable and would rather not waste it.” I raise back up, pressing my back against the chair. “Now if we could get on with important matters—I need to make a purchase before the week is over.”

“That may not be possible, even if I approve you.”

“It will need to be,” I say right away as if there will be no argument. “If not…” And then I turn on the other side of Niklas Augustin, the man who doesn’t have time for bullshit, and most of all, who isn’t at all desperate and will gladly go elsewhere—I rise into a stand, preparing to leave and take my millions of dollars with me.

Izabel and Nora stand seconds after; Nora keeps her head low and her hands folded delicately down in front of her; Izabel, able to show a little more personality, looks Miz Ghita in the eyes, but appears demure, submissive, just the same. Miz Ghita notices this right away, but doesn’t ask about it yet. The money I’m about to take with me is the more important matter.

“Why don’t you sit down, Mr. Augustin?” She holds out her ring-decorated hand, gesturing toward my chair. “I’m sure we can make arrangements to hasten your purchase—if, of course, I can approve you.”

I stand next to the table for a moment longer, pretending to debate the offer, and then gradually take my seat again. Izabel and Nora, as always, follow suit. I notice when Izabel sits down, Miz Ghita’s gaze lingers on her for a moment.

She looks back at me.

“I understand you’re not here for our services,” Miz Ghita says, “that you’re looking to purchase outright. We don’t normally do that, Mr. Augustin.”

She’s lying, but that’s OK.

I nod. “I am aware; but just the same, an outright purchase is what I need. I’m certain you can make an exception.”

She nods, not as if to agree that she can, but that she will consider it. It’s true—the cyprians owned by Francesca Moretti are not usually sold outright to buyers; only their services are on the market. But the Moretti family is also in the sex slave trade—I’ve heard the stories; back when I worked as a buyer on a mission for The Order. Masters. Sellers. Buyers. Living, breathing merchandise. But I’m not looking for a girl on the market—I’m looking for a cyprian who would not be considered marketable anymore. That is our mission: find Olivia Bram, purchase her and send her back to the United States, and then apprehend Francesca Moretti for Olivia Bram’s father to deal with her in his own way.

“Perhaps,” Miz Ghita says, “but that would require a meeting with Madam Francesca herself”—she grins suddenly, as if the likelihood of that not happening somehow pleases her—“and to get a meeting with the Madam is not an easy thing to do.”

“I can assure you,” I say with confidence, “that I can provide whatever the Madam needs, to gain her audience.”

Miz Ghita gestures the waiter over.

“I’ll have water,” she tells him, and then he turns to me.

“I’ll have the same.”

The waiter goes off to fulfill the request right away. Miz Ghita turns back to me, obviously feeling that she’s regained the control—Miz Ghita is a woman who doesn’t like to lose, and the moment I called her out by standing from the table, intending to leave, she was forced to drop her power over me down a notch just to make me stay. It pissed her off. Now she feels like she’s getting back at me for it by knowing there’s no way Francesca Moretti will agree to a meeting with me.

Only I can bet my left nut that she will.

“I will need to know,” Miz Ghita says, “what you intend to do with the merchandise before I can go any further. And you must know that we spend a great deal of money to prepare them, so your purchase offer must be double what was put into the merchandise, otherwise we cannot make a profit.”

“Money is in no way an obstacle,” I say matter-of-factly. “And what does it matter what I plan to do with the merchandise?”

The waiter walks over with four glasses and a tall glass bottle of sparkling water. He sets a glass in front of Miz Ghita, then in front of me, but when he goes to give Izabel and Nora one, I put up my hand to stop him. “That won’t be necessary,” I say, holding my solid gaze on his shrinking one. He nods once and sets the remaining two glasses on the table, away from Izabel and Nora, and then fills my and Miz Ghita’s glasses. Then he takes up the empty glasses again and leaves with them clasped between his fingers, the glasses clinking.

Tags: J.A. Redmerski In the Company of Killers Book Series
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