And all of it, every last bit, had been a lie.
I didn’t know him from Adam, but he clearly knew me.
He’d studied me well enough to break me with one short sentence.
“I have little Raffi,” said the stranger.
“Please,” I gasped. “Don’t hurt him. Don’t harm my child. Please.”
“That’s all up to you, Lourdes.”
“What do you want me to do? Whatever you want, Kevin. Just don’t hurt him. Please.” I was begging.
“First of all, I want you to be fast. Drop everything you’re doing, leave your phone behind, and go outside. Use the back door. Now. If your bodyguard stops you, your son will pay. Do you understand?”
It wasn’t even a decision. Decisions require thought and choice.
I didn’t think, and I didn’t have a choice. He had my baby. He won. I’d do anything he asked, if there were even a chance it would keep him from harming my son.
I’m a fast runner, faster in a panic, and I was through my house and out the back in under ten seconds.
It was dark out, and the stranger on the phone had given me no instructions for when I was out.
I had one brief moment to wonder what I should do next when something cracked sharply against the back of my head.
I crumbled with a whimper.
An acrid wet cloth covered my nose and mouth.
The world went black.
I came to with a world-class headache.
I was trussed up, gagged, and in the trunk of a lurching vehicle.
It was pitch-black, but I could feel what was around my ankles and wrists.
Fucking zip ties, the psychopath.
I knew it was futile, with no way to maneuver properly, and no sharp objects to aid, but I couldn’t seem to help myself. It was instinct. I struggled. Hard and long, until my wrists were bruised and raw, then bloody and torn. Fear kept goading me on, and so I kept struggling.
I wanted out of that damn trunk. I felt that anything would have been better.
But then I was out, moved from the car to a house, and it was not an improvement.
Kevin, or whatever the hell his name was, carried me in through a dark garage, slung over his shoulder like baggage.
He set me on the ground, propped upright against a wall. He wasn’t rough about it, was in fact careful, but even that didn’t make me feel better, not when I looked at his face.
When he wasn’t in character, it inspired the kind of horror that made your hair stand on end, bile rising in your throat.
It wasn’t even that he was sinister. It was the lack of anything at all that frightened me. The blankness of him now that he didn’t have to act for me.
I didn’t know how to deal with him, what to try to get out of this.
Reasoning with him seemed out of the question. Nothing could touch someone so clean of any feeling.
He left the room briefly.
The lights weren’t on, but it wasn’t completely dark. I could make out a few shapes in the space, enough to see that it was some sort of a den with a TV, a sofa, and a recliner.
I didn’t realize I wasn’t the only occupant in the room until I heard a low groan several feet in front of me.
I whimpered through my gag.
Rafael. And he was in pain.
The light switched on, and I saw him, a crumbled, beaten mess on the floor.
My glaring, wet gaze flew to the stranger formerly known as Kevin.
He smiled at me.
I wanted to murder him with my bare hands.
“If you scream, your boy will pay,” Kevin said, then bent down and tore off my gag.
“You said you wouldn’t hurt him,” left my mouth the second the cloth was ripped free.
He waved a negligent hand at Raf’s limp form. “That was from before. He didn’t come with me easily. Your kid’s a fighter.”
I shut my eyes and whispered dejectedly, “Why? Why are you doing this?”
“I’m sure you’ve guessed. This is about Heath. I’m flushing him out.”
“For one, I was hired. He has some very powerful enemies. But that’s a new development, and this is an old beef. I’ve wanted him for a very long time. You can’t imagine how pleased I was to find out that he finally had a weakness, one that he wasn’t keeping particularly well protected.”
He studied me like he was looking for a response, but I didn’t give him one.
“Do you ever look around and think you’re the only one who’s really there?” he asked me. “Everyone else is a shell. Just empty. So many people, a sea of bodies, full of nothing but organs and guts and blood. They’re all shapeless and colorless. The only time I see them is when I make them bleed, when I slice them up and feel their entrails with my bare hands. Did you know most people’s insides have more depth than their so called souls?”
I shook my head that I did not, eyes wide on his dead ones, wondering if I was going to throw up all over him.
“And even then,” he continued, “the color only lasts for a short bit of time, gone before a body even cools, and then I’m alone in the world again, the only one that’s really here, it seems. That’s how I feel almost all of the time. Alone.
But every so often, I see somebody else. For one reason or another, they stand out to me. They aren’t empty. Heath is one of those. We used to work together, did I tell you? Co-oped some jobs for the government a few years back. He’s a rare talent. I’ve always respected his work, but on a personal note, we don’t get along. We don’t see eye to eye on the particulars, if that makes any sense. I won’t bore you with the details, but the last time we worked together, it ended badly. Would you believe he tried to kill me? He nearly did. Needless to say, I couldn’t forget a thing like that. He took a shot at me and missed. It’s time I got a chance to shoot back. I’ll almost be sad when I kill him. It’s a pity to kill one of the real people, but in his case, it has to be done.
And there’s a silver lining here.”
I shuddered at the thought. It boggled the mind what he’d consider as an upside.
“Do you want to know what it is?” he asked.
I nodded, because when the crazy man asks you a question, you damn well try to play along.
He smiled his sick smile. “I found you. And you know, you aren’t empty, either, Lourdes.”
Just my fucking luck.
What was I, like, psychopath catnip?
But as I thought about it, I realized that it might be something I could work with.
My eyes darted to Raf. He hadn’t moved or made a noise since psycho-Kevin had turned on the light.
“Call me Earl.”
“Please, Earl, let me check on my son. I need to make sure he’s okay and tend to him.”
Earl straightened and moved away, leaving the room. I thought he was just ignoring my request, but he was back a few minutes later, a black leather bag in his hand.
I tensed when he got near Raf, but he didn’t hurt him, at least not more than he was already hurt.
Instead, he began to tend to him.
“I used to be a doctor, you know,” he told me.
His back was to me, and I couldn’t see what exactly he was doing. Both of their faces were hidden from me, but I could vaguely make out his movements.
“Is he okay?” I asked, holding my breath as I waited for the answer.
“He’s fine. Bruises and superficial cuts, nothing more. And, Lourdes, he’ll stay fine, just as long as you cooperate with me.”
“I’ll cooperate,” I assured him, meaning it. “Just don’t hurt him again.”
He was silent for a long time, and I barely blinked as I watched him. If he’d tried to further harm Raf, there was nothing I could have done about it, but he didn’t. Instead, he cleaned and bandaged his cuts, even going so far as to hold an icepack to his head.
When he finished, he came and crouched in front of me again, studying my face with detached curiosity.
“We need to travel again,” he told me, like we were discussing it, and I had some kind of say in the matter.
I just stared at him.
“Do you have any more questions for me before I put this back on?” he asked, holding up the cloth he’d used to gag me.
He was using just a touch of his Kevin persona to coax me, I thought, though I didn’t see the point. He could obviously do whatever the hell he wanted, whether I agreed or not.
“You killed Eduard, didn’t you?” I asked.
“Yes. For you. He was bothersome, wasn’t he? And now he won’t bother you. And besides that, I didn’t like his attitude.”
“You didn’t have to do that,” I said, voice trembling with rage. It was just so senseless.
“No, I didn’t, but I wanted to. And he wasn’t the only one I killed for you.”
My life had turned into a nightmare, and so when he said that, my mind flew to the most horrifying possibility.