A visceral tightrope of deceit, abuse, and murder.Aran’s a researcher—for a killer. Not a profession of her choice. With her keeper’s death and the end of her servitude she may never have to plan another assassination, but she will kill to survive. Those who contracted her mentor’s hits will come for her. She knows too many secrets accumulated the past decade analyzing the routine of those tagged for death.
Chapter 1~Her open-handed blow didn’t land with its usual ferocity. I didn’t even have to re-set my feet. Keeping my eyes locked on a spot in the Persian carpet inches in front of Cheska’s Ferragamo slippers, I waited for the inevitable diatribe listing the mistakes I made. She abhorred me as a child. As the years passed she seemingly grew to hate me even more. My education was her design, to improve my analysis, so I could lead her safely through her hits. Yet the less wretched I grew the more she resented me. What did I ever do to her?A question I’ve asked myself a million times.I live like a slave in the basement. Don’t have a second of privacy inside or outside this house. Machado, my shadow, had been instructed many times in front of me to kill me if I ever neared a phone or spoke to anyone in a whisper.Cheska is so stupid. She provides me with the best computers, access to the most expensive databases for my research. Has no clue the Internet affords me access to the world. I behave because of one threat. One I know Cheska is capable of following through with. The torture and murder of my only friend.A new barrage of coughing struck Cheska and her stiff posture wilted, face flushed. She swiveled around like a drunk and escaped behind the security of her massive, all-for-show desk.Vonda said the kurve must have bronchitis. I looked up the condition. Wouldn’t likely kill her, unfortunately. Supposedly easily treatable. Should have eased by now. God is too cruel to rush the evil womaninto an early coffin.Cheska wiped her lips with one of her delicate, silk hankies and checked the mucus. A twinge of new anger stretched across her face but quickly dulled and the everyday hate returned. She drew one of the ochre-hued envelopes from her desk drawer.Already? She’d just returned from a hit. I hadn’t hardly caught my own breath.The envelope slid smoothly across the surface of the desk and I lurched to catch it as it sailed off the edge.“They want him dead by the weekend,” she said.My jaw must have fallen slack, but I knew better than to question her. That kind of turnaround was insane. Already Tuesday. What was she thinking, accepting this contract? I drew the single datasheet and photo out of the envelope. My god. It wasn’t even a local job. Detroit. I darted a look at Cheska before reclaiming my wits, and ripped my eyes down to the black and white laser print of an obese man, maybe in his fifties. The epitome of Cheska’s normal target.I jerked as metal clanged across her desktop, slicing my chest with pain. God, tell me I didn’t wet my panties. Anything surprising from Cheska meant something bad for me. One of her trade tools tumbled to a stop an inch from the edge of the desk. Her signature.One of the specially blacksmithed, she called them brass-picks, engineered for her hand. Hilt fit her palm perfectly, blade more like an ice pick, only shorter and stouter. A perfect stabbing implement. Depending upon the nature of her mark’s sins, he or she could take dozens of thrusts for punishment, or a single deadly blow from behind, at the base of the skull. “You won’t have the benefit of your usual pussyfooting around,” Cheska hissed. “So in case you have to protect yourself.”My mouth hung open. Protect myself? She was confessing to the danger I would be in this time. I’d prefer to have a gun.But that’s something I would have turned on her.This ended our unspoken covenant. I never got that close to the target. My face might be noticed during my research, but from a distance. She arrived after I was gone, always, and finished the job, leaving me out of the actual murder. The split duty protected both of us.I scanned the target’s habits and routine listed on the single sheet, struggled to swallow, pressing my lips together hard. Vomit burned the back of my throat. “You’ll take the twelve-fifty,” she said.She always preferred the train. Didn’t have to burn one of her expensive sets of identification. “Machado will be waiting for you downstairs.” Her pale, sinewy hand reached out. The business envelope that would contain my travel necessities, my Morgan ID, emergency credit card, and minimal cash. God forbid I ate a decent meal during a job. She set a charged burner phone on the envelope. I’m not trusted with a charger.As though I have tons of friends to call and chat for hours.I nodded and rushed a peek at my watch. She wasn’t giving me much time to prepare.“That’s all,” she hissed.I repeated my nod-bow, stepped forward to retrieve my ID and phone, and rushed out of the room, my steps not falling properly with the vertigo that flowed over me. Dread drew tears I hadn’t shed since my last beating, two hundred forty-three days ago.The tears wouldn’t blink away, nor would my lungs fill. Cheska hated change. Why the variation in our routine? Two contracts so close together? I stopped at the top of the stairs and wiped my eyes, grasped the banister hard. I had to make my feet move, though I was usually very happy about getting away from Cheska, and this house.At the first floor I prepared myself for the chill and opened the door to the basement, trotted down the shadowed steps. I needed to get a grip, or scare Vonda to death.My one-time nanny rose as I entered our room, a hint of her own dread masking her face. Hands clenched together, her eyes scanned me for evidence of blood or a new bruise. My eyes surely gave away I had cried but she sucked in a relieved breath. Maybe the handprint had even faded.“What?” she asked softly, but her eyes shifted downward. I didn’t hide the envelope or phone. They answered her question. I did hide the brass-pick behind my leg though.“Already?” she whispered.“Help me put together my bag,” I said. “I have to leave in minutes.”Vonda gasped. “Minutes?”“Off for Detroit,” I said. “Train.”Vonda was already at our shared bureau rolling a pair of jeans up for my duffle. I entered our little bathroom to gather my toiletries. The biting chill in the room made me shiver. I set my road necessities on the water closet one item at a time mentally repeating my travel list. My period wasn’t near, but I grabbed tampons, just in case. Stress plays hell with my cycle.Returning with my hands full, I smiled at my friend’s efficiency. Camera, binoculars, tool kit, tablet, and laptop, spaced out on my bed for my examination, left for me to pack. My down parka, scarf, hikers, hat, and gloves lined her bed ready for me to don.I arranged my bag with stern concentration, slipping the special stiletto in first before Vonda could see it. Nothing could be forgotten. Everything had to be perfect, just like every step I made once I neared Cheska’s mark.A shallow gasp from Vonda made me turn to her. She had opened the envelope, held the cash fanned out in her hand.“What?” I asked.“There’s only eighty dollars here.”“What?”She nodded. That wouldn’t even pay for my train ticket, much less several days in a flophouse. Not like I could stay anywhere that had cameras in their lobby or hallways. What about taxis, bribes, tips for monopolizing a waitress’ table? I never knew what to expect. I needed contingencies. Cash accommodated the unforeseen. “You can’t use the credit card so much, can you?”I didn’t talk a lot about what I did for Cheska, but Vonda is no idiot. She had accepted her life as a basement prisoner to keep me safe. To survive.“Maybe you should ask?” she whispered.A snake slithered down my colon with that suggestion. I was not expected to open my mouth in this house, to ask questions of Cheska. The only time I spoke to the woman, was to check in at the end of my part of the project, to deliver the step-by-step plan, before I destroyed the burner phone and disappeared.Another departure from routine. Routine ensures there are no mistakes. Cheska used a leather strap across my back to ensure I understood that lesson, early on.“I’ll make do,” I said without air behind the words. Chapter Two~The thirty-dollar-a-night digs looked about like every other sty I’d stayed at in the past decade and a half. Hopefully one day I’d get a gig with a mark who spent his time in the high rent district. Thugs rarely did. There was the one economist we hit in London. The engineer in Stuttgart. I got to stay in real hotels. It was nice.Why would a heads-down German engineer ever require the renowned justice of an international hit madam? Require a message be sent?Getting out of the taxi, I shrugged deeper into my parka. One day I’d have to kill Cheska and move Vonda to Florida like we whispered. But neither of us were likely to outlive Cheska. We served a purpose now. There would no doubt be a day we became unnecessary overhead. Hopefully she’d take pity on us, put one of her spikes into the base of our brains without us expecting anything.But the definition of insanity is turning your back on Cheska Papadakis and not expecting to die.Checking in, I told the clerk a full week, to ensure no snoopy super ever checked on me. Not good to give anyone a reason to look me square in the face. One thing about flophouses, rarely did the guy behind the counter ever look me in the eye. It was all about the green I slid across the counter.Unfortunately I didn’t have the $249.79 in cash this time. I pushed the credit card at the ugly, old fart. If he wasn’t a thrice-incarcerated pedophile I’m an evangelist healer. He glared between us for five seconds. Did the place even take plastic? If not I’d be in bad shape. A real motel raises the risk of leaving behind a trail. Amazing. He had a slider under the counter.Nine o’clock. Too late to take care of task-one, thrift store clothes I’d wear during the project, which I could dispose of last thing, miles away.So dinner was in order. I could afford a slice of pie. Wouldn’t be as good as Chicago pizza but on a gig beggars take what we can get. I only had to walk half a block before I reached a bodega with an oven on the side. I used some of my precious cash for a single slice and a carton of whole milk. I walked out of the place munching. Important to keep moving. Eyes settle on still objects. Only glance at the moving.The crust was about frozen before I finished the slice but milk tastes amazingly delish really cold. Winter in Detroit. Sucks even worse than winter in Chicago. I strode down the sidewalk considering the detail I’d memorized from my packet, which I had torn into shreds and deposited in three different trash bins at the train station. The photo would go the same way soon. But even my mind can’t hold the face of a stranger that long. I’d need to refresh my memory before I got a personal view of him.One good thing about winter. Not many miscreants loitering about the street. I’d been hassled more times than I could count over the years. I rarely worried. The martial arts classes Cheska made me endure maybe gave me enough confidence to be stupid.Still. I stopped long enough to pull the pick out of my duffle, slid it into the pocket of my jacket. If I had it I might as well keep it close.I only managed the cold for an hour but I walked the perimeter of the mark’s workplace three times. Repetition versus slow study. Don’t be noticed. Hopefully I’d never have to go near his condo. I didn’t have the time to explore that broadly. On the train I’d decided this had to be either a morning or afternoon hit, arriving or departing. People ignore strangers in a business environment. They pay attention to those near their home, especially if we don’t look like we belong. Besides, I didn’t have the time to sit and evaluate two locales.Storing away in my brain the location of alleys, basement stairs, business names, docks, fire escapes, and trash bins, I trudged toward my waiting bed, probably manufactured in the Eisenhower administration and bursting with bed bugs. I’d sleep in the arm chair. Safer. Not much, but a smidgen. My whole life has been about degrees of risk.The nearby thrift store didn’t open until ten AM. That meant I’d have to explore first thing in my own clothes. Why didn’t I wear a hoodie?This gig spelled catastrophe. Chapter Three~The mark’s Mercedes drew to the curb and I pushed away from the wall with my stack of newspapers I’d bought from the corner-guy at five AM. I’d opted to go bold. Hell, this gig was maybe going to slap me either dead or in the joint anyway.A gopher clearly packing a cannon exited the front passenger side and gave me a glance before studying the street north and south, strolled to the curb side, and opened the back door.My fat pig wallowed out. They are always fat. Except for the German engineer. He was young and athletically built. Shame he had to buy it. Had a wife and two kids.“Get your Detroit News,” I shouted. “Paper. Get your paper.” I strode right toward the muscle and of course he slid a hand inside his coat.“Get out of here,” he grumbled.I ignored him and stepped between the mark and his destination. “Hey mister. Buy a paper would you? A girl has to—”I didn’t get to finish my spiel. Fists gripped both shoulders and flung my skinny butt ten feet through the air. Papers flew everywhere, like my arms and legs. I slid a few feet on ice and ended up plowing into a bank of snow as hard as granite.Foul language from the bodyguard suggested I was less than bright. A cackle about as degenerate-sounding as I expected followed the mark up the walk. In less than three seconds he had card keyed the entrance and was safe inside the hundred year old building’s atrium.That was less than fun, but gave me a ton of information. To stay in character I flipped the bodyguard off before he got back into the Mercedes. It skidded a bit and crossed traffic. I stood and watched it disappear into a parking garage seventy-five yards away. I rushed to pick up my papers, again to stay in character, and got out of there. The two would be joining their boss in minutes and the last thing I wanted was them to see my face a second time.Striding down the street my mind raced with adrenaline. Should I reconsider his home? His datasheet said his lunches were delivered. Picked up in the lobby. His exit at the end of the day would be as mechanically replayed. Cheska would not want to put down a bodyguard on the open street and have to scurry after a warned target, and then have to take out a second tagalong. She’d kill me if I suggested that. A half-block away I stopped and leaned against a street post to get small, studied the six-floor building our mark evaporated in. This guy might as well be in prison. He was locked away from the world already. Two men crossed through the sparse traffic from the parking garage. Had to be the mark’s guys. They didn’t head for the main entrance. Interesting they went for a side door. It would be at least as secure as the front. Not worth my time checking out. It’s about the mark’s ingress and egress in a building with security watching monitors in the lobby.Why couldn’t the place have a delivery dock? Those are gold. The busier the better.The stupid papers. Needed to get rid of them. I cringed against the Arctic breeze and headed for the corner, to an alley, for a convenient trash bin, mind already clicking I needed to check out the guy’s condo.Crap.First I’d do due diligence and drop by early evening. The sheet claimed he left to eat around seven PM, the majority of the time. No routine in his restaurant choices. Why couldn’t he be a family man, head for dinner with the little lady every night like clockwork?Restaurants would be a bust. Too much variation, which meant risk. Too many people. Cops spend too much time in restaurants. I didn’t have time to find a reliable access point into his day-time digs. Cheska hated dressing up like a cleaning lady. Even though that plan worked like a Russian whore that one time, she’d come home and beat the crap out of me.Practicing some of Vonda’s Armenian expressions, I strode for the diner I’d picked out earlier. A warm place to pass an hour until the thrift store opened. I’d spent enough time looking like myself.Chapter Four~Shrugging deeply into the men’s extra-large Army field jacket against the breeze swirling around the corner, I kept as casual a glare on the front of the building as I could. That morning it only took him three seconds between his Mercedes and the building. If I dawdled, I’d miss him completely, and would have wasted an entire day.Two familiar forms appeared on the side street. Finally. I hunched deeper into the jacket’s hood and watched them stride for the parking garage, into the deepening shadows, and an idea struck. What if Cheska took the muscle out inthe garage, allowed the mark to enter his Mercedes with her behind the wheel? She could twist around and take him out.She wouldn’t be able to apply her signature justice. My glove-covered fingers stroked the smooth steel of the pick in my right jacket pocket. The thing penetrating an eye socket was pretty much instant death. The datasheet didn’t note any special requirements, no guts or gore. But they hired Cheska for her signature.Cheska wasn’t completely above using a handgun. She just likes to spread her renown with her face-to-face, visceral executions. A .45 cal would be necessary with this first scenario. He probably doesn’t wear Kevlar. No. He’d never make it into the backseat. Would notice right away his two guys weren’t in the Mercedes. She’d have to lower her window and shoot him as he strode toward the car.With a sigh I struck that off my list. Too much could go wrong. Took six and a half minutes for the Mercedes to appear down the block. The exit of course was in the back. Convenient, since they had to do the block to approach on the one-way street.Fifteen seconds after the car stopped, the toad appeared. Three seconds to reach the already opened back door. Took that long for the guy riding shotgun to make it back around the car, and inside.How would Cheska feel about a missile?I shouldn’t joke. If I didn’t come up with something, she would have Machado breaking a bone somewhere in my body. She wasn’t particular, as long as I paid for my incompetence.The Mercedes whooshed through the intersection and continued up the street.Tomorrow I had to have a plan. The hit had to be by Friday, end of day. Why the rush? Not that it mattered. Maybe the bodyguards weren’t goons, but marshals, and the mark was testifying. Would a marshal treat a citizen like a washrag? Testify on the weekend? That didn’t fit. I mumbled a couple Armenian slights, threw a German one in for no particularly good reason. Being fluent in five languages wasn’t going to help me on this contract.I turned and trudged toward the corner three blocks down with all the taxis. Chapter Five~Brownstones littered the area for at least two square miles. Mind numbing ubiquity. By seven PM every curb coddled a domestic vehicle. It was Detroit, after all. The Mercedes and Porsches nestled inside garages that made up the majority of the homes’ first-floor footprints.The dark, dreary sky depressed me early that evening. The clock ticked. The lifeless limbs of the occasional trees splitting the sidewalk and cold breeze made the neighborhood feel as though I dawdled in a cemetery, each three-story brownstone the face of an indistinct gravestone.Two hours passed with me traipsing from point to point. No advantage or opportunity came to me. At least not anything Cheska would like. Returning from a trip around the long block with the depression beginning to strangle me, a new sensation ticked at my stomach.Someone was nearby smoking the most disgusting cigar ever rolled. The air in Detroit isn’t great to begin with. The heavy reek attacked the sinuses, but as I neared our mark’s residence, I smiled despite the odor. The plan settled in my mind. There was no need to put off the call.Drawing the burner out of my inside jacket, I found a tree trunk to lean up against as I watched the pig puff away at his stogie from his door step. If Cheska was willing, she could have Thursday night to wait for this opportunity, delay for the next night and go with my backup scenario worst case.Sucking in a deep breath and fighting the tightening in my solar plexus, I dialed this gig’s other burner.“So quickly?” Cheska hissed, and immediately coughed.“This job is problematic,” I said.After a wheeze she said, “I was told the fucker lives in a god damned shell like a fucking crab.”“He smokes a cigar on his stoop at night before turning in,” I said.Cheska coughed for a moment and I waited.“But that’s up several steps, twenty feet from the curb. Flat building faces with nowhere to disappear.”“You’re calling me with no plan?” The ire wheezed through a clamped jaw.“You have two nights to pop him while he smokes his cigar. If that doesn’t work you’ll have to use brute force, bust in with the help of a couple muscle-heads, take him out without a lot of grace.”“That’s no plan. I’ve spent a lot of money—” A cough interrupted her for almost a full minute.While I waited I filled in her prattle. She’d spent a mint raising me, educating me, training me. Put up with a worthless whore of a one-time nanny to keep me on my leash. Employed a servant to jump at my every whim. All for what? I couldn’t come up with a simple plan to execute one worthless hood?There were the mob doctors she had to call in the middle of the night, I could add for her. The time my appendix exploded, my broken collar bone, wrist, shin from Machado’s corrections. When Vonda caught pneumonia from a basement never above sixty degrees. Five years later she’s never recovered from that. Scarred the hell out of her lungs.I had sworn if she died I’d kill Cheska with my bare hands.But evil won’t die. She would have chained me and had Machado beat on me until I took my last breath.“I can’t come to Detroit,” she finally said in a harsh whisper.I waited.She cleared her throat three times. “You have to do this one.”“What?”“You dare question me?” she hissed, which started a new spate of coughing. “Please,” I begged when she quieted enough maybe she could hear me.“I’ll have Machado skin your bitch friend alive.”My head expanded, a balloon filled with feces and worse filth. My stomach cramped bending me double. “No,” I mixed with a sob that emptied my lungs.Between more sobs I begged, only to realize she’d already hung up. I gripped the burner with every ounce of strength I had but the thing refused to crumple into bits. Both fists ached with the muscle I put into my trembling fit.Still in a half-squat, a force thrust me sideways. I didn’t react fast enough to keep my feet and my shoulder slammed into the salted concrete.“Who are you and why are you in my neighborhood?” a raspy voice boomed.I rolled to my left to look up. The pig rushed to reset his feet from kicking me over.“We don’t put up with you homeless shit here.” He drew an automatic from inside his coat.In my head all I heard was the Armenian slur as I stared at the gun leveling upon my face.“I’m going to teach you to stay in your hole and away from good folk. And then you tell all your friends to stay the hell away too.” He walked atop of me, straddling me.His fist ratcheted back. The grip of the automatic fell as he leaned into me. A Machado-like pain connected with my cheek and temple and the blips of the street lamps eclipsed. Another agony brought me out of my stupor and I managed to raise my arms to cover my face.The steel grip of the automatic blasted into my forearms, four, five, six times. I tried to roll away but was nailed into the sidewalk. I opened my eyes as the pig huffed to catch a breath. I was pinned between his legs. His gasps continued. He stumbled away a step, but he wasn’t done. He kicked me in the ribs. I rolled into the second impact, taking it full in the stomach. Vomit expelled as another kick caught me in the groin.“You fucking bitch,” the pig screamed. He staggered toward me. “I’ll teach you to vomit on me.”The automatic pressed into my cheek, hard. He was going to pull the trigger. Cheska would kill Vonda. I wouldn’t be there to promise the world, if she just left my Vonda alone.A bloody scream, a banshee shriek resonated through my bones.The pig laughed. Laughed again.“You better get the hell out of here before the police come.” The pig stood erect. Glared down at me for a good five-count. He twitched the automatic as though he fired it. “You piece of shit. Damn you look like hell.” He laughed.“Ah. A job well done,” he said, as he turned slowly around, digging into his coat to put away the automatic. I shifted to rise to my knees. Something sharp caught me in the thigh. The pick. I worked to get my gloved hand into the pocket to pull it out. I don’t know if it was the pain shooting up my arms, nerves, or the pocket had frozen closed, but I couldn’t manage it.“Better get going,” the pig muttered from another step away.If he came back, I needed to be able to protect myself. Hell. My hand still gripped the stupid burner phone. I shifted it into my left hand, finally grappled inside the field jacket.The pig took another step away, tilted his head back and sighed deeply, as though he’d just accomplished a noteworthy task. I made it to my feet as I fit my hand around the pick’s grip. It fit bulky in my palm, sized for Cheska’s almost-masculine hand.The pig turned half to face me. “I said get, you piece of shit.”I staggered a step, stars blinding me, Earth tilting a few degrees left then right. I blinked as rage exploded in my chest, thinking about the fear moments before, the years I’d kissed that woman’s ass to keep Vonda alive.I ran at him and thrust the pick into the side of his head. The jolt running from my hand up my arm made me stumble backward, but the pig was still on his feet, though he staggered, hand raised to his temple. The pig’s colon emptied, the smell instantaneous with the flutter of flatulence that came with it.His stomach emptied a second later.I was dead.This couldn’t go any worse.My DNA was everywhere. Blood. Vomit. I had no way to get away. I couldn’t call a taxi. Cheska had never allowed me to learn to drive, so even if I knew how to steal a car, I couldn’t drive it away.The pig continued to stumble but rising erect, his hand reached inside his coat again.If this was my last gig, at least I was going to complete the contract. I lurched the two steps to reach him and drew the pick into his throat. Didn’t stop. I jabbed, and jabbed, and continued to hit him until his back flattened out on the sidewalk.Gurgling noises mixed with the city’s hum. His eyes, huge orbs, glared up at me. The bastard was still breathing, even with the black pool of his blood spreading out around him. I stood over him as he had stood over me, concentrated on the right spot in the chest, and plunged for his heart. The second thrust might have done it.I jabbed another dozen times to be sure.I didn’t know if the four-inch-long prong would clear all that fat.Chapter Six~My ears rang drowning out the city’s constant mumble. Nothing moved up or down the street. I spit to clear the taste of vomit, worked at my saliva to swallow down what I couldn’t spit out. I gasped. Heaved for air.No blinds pulled back from windows. No lookie-loos stood on front steps. With no police cars careening down the block I studied the nearer scene. Shit. This was bad.There wasn’t much blood. I expected a lot of blood. I’d gone pretty wacko on the son of a bitch. Shit.Think, Aran.Think.I couldn’t do much about my DNA. Hell. The trick was not to be picked up, so they had nothing to compare it to. I had to get the hell out of there. I wiped the pick on the guys pants before stashing it into my right pocket, the burner in my left, took a step toward downtown and stopped. I had to have stepped in blood. I’d track it for who knows how far. I couldn’t give them a direction to search for me.Turning around I headed west. How far to downtown? Didn’t take more than twenty minutes to get here by taxi. Average maybe a quarter-mile per minute in stop-and-go, day traffic. I could easily walk four miles an hour. Take me a little over an hour to get to the flophouse if I traveled directly.I had all night.Think. Not the time to rush, Aran.Go west a mile, south a mile. I pictured the map I had studied on the way here. I’d worked a half-dozen contracts in Detroit. It’s like my second home. The river and all the stinking expressways between here and downtown would have me wandering around like a rat in a maze though. Rail. The rails. I had to cross the tracks going south. I could follow them nearly to downtown, make my way along the River Walk.I crossed under a street light and the blood coating the field jacket vibrated, screamed, Look at me. Look at me. Maybe it was my entire body reacting. My gloves glowed burgundy, not leather-brown any longer. Holy crap. The blood hadn’t splattered the sidewalk but it certainly covered me. My face had to be smeared with it. I removed my scarf and scrubbed my face and throat. Even in the come-and-go light of the street lights the scarf turned ever redder. I had better not be seen by anyone or it was over. What, eleven o’clock, on a weeknight. Pray I just never passed a popular bar pasted with bright neon.The neighborhood street teed at a four-lane boulevard. There was no choice but to follow it. Occasional cars passed. I kept my head down, hood dangling, practically cutting off my view. Nearing a cross avenue the lights of a strip mall turned night a dull-day. I studied my hikers. Red dotted them, but nothing more. It could be mistaken for paint splatter. The baggy corduroy pants I wore over my jeans weren’t bad either, half covered by the bulky men’s field jacket, but it didn’t matter anyway. Be chillier, but I could lose them without a problem. The field jacket too. They were always destined for the trash. Was it time though? Was I far enough away from— Shit. I killed someone.Ah. Aran. Cheska turned you into her.How long had I been walking? Thirty minutes, forty-five? Didn’t matter. Every minute I wore those clothes I risked someone seeing me. I angled for the alley behind the eighty yards of storefront. Minor traffic at a bodega seventy feet away, but no one looked my way. Once in the shadows I peeled out of the field jacket leaving the bloody side on the inside, laid it over the first dumpster I came to, leaned against it and carefully slipped out of the corduroys, which I rolled up and placed inside the jacket, followed by my scarf and gloves.The breeze immediately penetrated my jeans sending me into a shudder.Crap. My hat. I’d freeze without it. It had to be in the twenties. I removed it and my hair fell over my shoulders. I turned the knitted hat wrong-side out and pulled it down low, leaving my hair loose. It would distinguish me from the figure the police might be searching for. Night. No one would notice me. Right? I rolled up the jacket tightly, tossed it into the far corner of the dumpster, and strode away with a silent prayer of Vonda’s. More a dare to the gods than a plea to a god.I was a block away when I realized the phone and pick were still in the deep pockets of the jacket. Shit.The pick wasn’t an issue. But the phone could lead the police to Chicago. It’s a big city. Better to risk that than returning and getting caught dumpster-diving. Chapter Seven~Itook twice the number of taxis home than normal, completely skirting the inner-city twice. I walked the last mile. As I strode up the short walk from the street the ache of the long day settled in my neck. By the side light I checked my watch. It was after 2:30 in the morning. No, Amtrak couldn’t have more than one train between Detroit and Chicago. I had to put the ticket on plastic. I might as well have flown.Twenty-six hours ago I killed a man.I gave the front door a try. Of course it was locked. Why did Machado and the cook get a key, but I didn’t? If I rang the door and woke Cheska, it would give her another reason to have Machado beat the living hell out of me.Damned. I am damned. I slumped and sat on the stoop. The cold concrete burned through my jeans. I couldn’t sit here until Machado retrieved the paper in the morning. I’d die. My nose was already running like an open tap.Would Vonda venture upstairs to let me in if I tapped on the side glass, her tiny peek at the world the last thirty years? She’d more likely die of a heart attack over the mere suggestion she set one foot on the stairs.My mind vibrated with the memory of that beating. The younger Machado hadn’t learned to love the brutality yet, but he was strong, and used that horse crop with a viciousness that left Vonda unconscious for hours, in bed for days.How old was I?Maybe five. Yet I remember well the blood she coughed up for a month. That settled the fact in my young brain that all we had was each other. She was the nanny, but her only purpose was to keep me in the basement and quiet, and to get my education started, early. She might have been my teacher, but we kept each other sane.No. I couldn’t put Vonda through the fear. I could survive anything Machado could dish out now. The man had to be nearing seventy. But my eighty year old friend couldn’t take five minutes of his crop now. I stood and stared at the door, unable to pull my freezing hand out of my pocket. There was no choice. Knock or freeze. My eyes welled.There had to be a 24-hour diner somewhere. I closed my eyes to think. Nothing on Clybourn I could recall. Had to be something on North Avenue. But that was a hike. Exhaustion reverberated through my bones. Friday morning. When had I last slept? Only an occasional snatch before jolting awake in fear. A bit Tuesday morning, before Cheska beckoned. A new fear struck. I had been out of contact for so long, Cheska might have already assumed I escaped, and—My sob rang out in the quiet chill. I managed to strangle it silent after a half-dozen gasps. I had to get inside. Now. I drew back my hand, which trembled violently. I couldn’t make myself take the risk of waking Cheska. I’d never been to the back of the house on the first floor, had no clue what window might lead to Machado’s room, or even if there were windows on the first floor. Nonsense. There had to be. I stumbled down the three steps, crossed the gravel to the side and made my way to the narrow gap between the buildings. The dark deepened. I drew my hands out of my pockets and felt my way forward. Eyes adjusting, the city glow outlined the sills above me. I passed one window, paused under a larger one, rose on my toes but couldn’t reach glass.Now what? A stick. What?I knelt and pressed my fingers into the snow, dug until I reached gravel and withdrew a handful. The bastard better hear this. I stood and arced a pebble at the window. The impact sounded like a gun going off in the close space, drawing a gasp that nearly emptied my lungs. Shit.Seconds passed. Nothing. I whipped another. And another. Still nothing. I stumbled through the dark for another window and tried it again. I emptied my cache and dug for more, my fingers aching from the cold. The whole neighborhood should be awake by now. Just then a light flicked on next door on the third floor. I held my breath, motionless. The light finally extinguished two minutes later. I moved to the last window, flung my remaining pebbles.“Pakharakel.” My voice bounced off the brick a bit like the gravel.A loud clunk sucked a lung into my throat, before I recognized the garage door opening around the corner. I had managed to wake the old goat. Odd he didn’t turn on a light, or come to the front door. I stumbled across the snow for the back alley. The pale light from the door opener sliced the alley making me blink. I would soon be warm, but what compensation would Machado demand?No one met me in the garage. The old black Lincoln sat alone, winter’s dust glistening. But at least it was twenty degrees warmer inside the garage already. I strode to the stairs and tried the door into the house. Unlocked. I eased in, pulled the door toward me, reaching through a crack to flip the switch for the garage door. As the motor roared and wheels rattled, I rushed to shut the door behind me.And listened to the dark house.What trick did Machado have saved for me? Torture by suspense? “Vordi arraj.” I so loved to insult the man to his face. He didn’t let me get very many syllables out before he threatened to backhand me though.I remained frozen until the last snap of the garage door, allowing my eyes to adjust. The apush wasn’t waiting for me up the hall, even to threaten a beating once Cheska woke. I walked silently, feeling my way, unzipped my parka to allow the wondrous warmth to caress my body. I had been cold for so many hours I had forgotten what warm felt like. The floor creaked as I crossed in front of the main stairs. I froze. The hacking cough that had become Cheska’s signature lately rattled. Behind her closed door. That was all that was important.Crossing the dining room where no one ever ate, I fumbled past the pantry to the door leading to the basement. The cold wafted past me as I opened the door. The slaves in the basement weren’t allowed any comfort.In our bedroom, Vonda’s nightlight graced me with a sense of joy, finding the old woman bundled under her five quilts, snoring lightly. I wanted to do nothing more than crawl under my own blankets. I wouldn’t even undress.But who opened the garage door?Chapter Eight~Jerking awake, I looked into Vonda’s terrified face.“She’s calling you.”Pakharakel. How did I sleep through the beckoning monitor?I lurched to dig out of my blankets.“I missed you,” Vonda said in Armenian. Every year she’s embraced her native language more. Rarely tries English any longer, as though she had lost the last fifty years of her life. Maybe it was a bit of comfort to her.“Me too,” I said, lurching for the door.The cold in the hall brought me totally awake. I closed the door behind me quickly to keep the warm air in our room and jogged up the dark stairs. Once I reached the main house I checked my watch. Not even eight AM. The kurve wasn’t an early riser.Not a sound. No conversation from Machado and what’s her name from the kitchen. I’m so unimportant the woman’s name was never shared with me. No pans or dishes rattled. No soft radio.I strode up the stairs. Cheska’s office door hung open and I slowed to show the proper deference before I knocked on the jamb. She didn’t speak. In my peripheral vision, head bowed, I sensed her motion to enter. I walked to within five feet of her desk and waited to be spoken to.The seconds dragged. I needed to wipe my nose, clear my throat, but I dared not move or make a sound.“You look like shit,” she finally said.That didn’t sound like a question, so I kept my head down and my mouth shut.“Client called. Very happy with the thirty-three stab wounds. Profusely complimentary. Not bad for your first hit.”He said that over the phone? Thirty-three? First? An ache stretched from my gut across my chest, then my shoulders. Our pact was I scouted, created the plan. That was all. She never even hinted she’d make me become her surrogate. How could my life have possibly turned for the worse? I didn’t know that was possible. Tears streamed down my face. Mucus dripped from the tip of my nose, falling upon the toe of my sock-covered foot.“I compliment you and you cry?”Aran. Keep your trap shut.That was easy because a coughing spell rocked her hard. She covered her face in her dainty hanky for a full minute before she wiped her mouth one last time, reached into a drawer for a fresh handkerchief.In a soft voice, perhaps not to irritate her lungs, Cheska finally continued.“Despite the mess you made of it, you may have gotten away without leaving a trail a blind man could follow. Perhaps you’ll survive after all.”After all? That sounded open-ended. I reminded myself not to look at her.Her hand moved forward. I turned my eyes up just enough to catch the business card she left face up on the desk, the automatic that rested immediately in front of her. A gun? Why a gun? If I might survive, why did she greet me with a gun?“Call him now. Immediately.”Cheska picked up the handgun and that burn radiated across my chest with an intensity I hadn’t felt since the last time Machado beat Vonda. Why was she going to kill me? Had I done that badly?The explosion rocked me. I know I wet my pants, stumbled several steps back, my sight spearing upward in time to see blood and shit fluttering across the room, from the side of Cheska’s head, which lurched right over her shoulder, her entire body following the motion a moment later, slumping over the arm of her chair. Blood continued to gush from the exit wound. The sound of it pouring over the floor fluttered lightly over the sound of the furnace’s air handler.The next thought struck even odder. That was no nine millimeter. It was a cannon with a magnum load, not an assassin’s weapon who preferred the pop of a wimpy .22. Just enough power to stop a heart, or bring brain death with minimum noise. My ears still rang from this explosion.The kurve blew her own brains out. I had to be smiling like a buffoon.Why? Not why was I smiling, of course I was smiling, but why did she—Hisus. The shot would have scared Vonda to death. I spun and ran.Chapter Nine~Vonda stood in the middle of the room when I barged in. Gnarled hands gripped in a ball at her breast, she closed her eyes but her sigh was clear on her face. “P’arrk’ Asttso,” thank God, she said with her eyes still closed. But they lurched open. “You must run. Machado will be coming.”I didn’t budge. Not on purpose. My mind was just a vacuum. Something big just happened in our lives, but it wasn’t registering. Were we freed, or was our death imminent? And what did Vonda believe the shot meant? “How are you alive?” she asked.“She killed herself.”Shock that my news didn’t surprise her struck me. “So she hurried it,” she said.What?“The cancer.”Ah. Why did that surprise me? Maybe because I saw her as a devil, and immortal. “I’m surprised she didn’t kill us first,” Vonda said softly.True. Her hatred for us was obvious. To have treated us this way for three decades. Even though she sent me to the university and demanded perfection. Never made sense. Nothing in this house ever made sense. What good was a slave with a master’s degree in international studies, who was never allowed out of a basement? Except to scout a to-be dead man.Vonda backed away and slumped onto her bed. “Machado,” she hissed.If he was coming I would have already heard his steps on the stairs. But where was he? I needed a weapon. Yes he always carried a gun. But there was a chance. I turned to run upstairs. A knife. A fire poker. I needed something. But I looked down. I needed to take a moment to put on shoes. All I needed to do was take a swing at Machado and have my socks slide on the hardwood floor.Vonda rocked, fists clenched, praying, as I laced my hikers.“I’ll be back.”She didn’t open her eyes. I crossed the small room and kissed her knitted cap, which whiffed with the hint of old buttermilk, patted her shoulder, and hurried for upstairs.The house tolled deathly silent. I had once gotten a glimpse in the front room. It had a fireplace. I ran there first, but found none of the implements I had seen in photos on-line. Maybe the fireplace had been closed up years ago. I ran for the kitchen.The bedroom doors were still closed to the hall. I ignored them for the moment.The kitchen was empty. It didn’t look like what’s her name had stepped into the room yet. A wood block on the counter held knives. I grabbed the biggest, and as silently as possible, checked drawers for something a little more deadly, but found nothing more threatening than an odd, shiny hammer with ridges. I’d never heard of such a thing, but I used my imagination. Used to tenderize tough cuts of meat. I stuck with the knife. The handle of the hammer didn’t appear strong enough to survive a good swing.I checked the rooms of the first floor. One by one, two, ten by twelve, each a dark abys, no lights on, shutters pressed tightly closed. One had to be what’s her name’s. The other Machado’s, but few personal items implied one or the other. Creeping up the stairs, mid-flight I decided I could forgo the stealth. If that cannon going off didn’t raise the dead there was no one else in the house. What drove me on was more curiosity. I had lived in the house my entire thirty-two years, as far as I know, and had already seen much more of the house this morning than I ever had.My known path was garage door to basement door, the occasional use of the front door if Machado waited for me in the car at the curb. Cheska’s office, no farther. So what else was up here?To the right of the office, a private dining room. A bathroom next to that. A hall linen closet. Down the other way, I had to check out the office a little more thoroughly. I wasn’t allowed to raise my eyes in there.Never missed much. The walls were covered in a paper that may have been there since the forties, dark, stained, ugly as Cheska’s heart. No photos or art on the walls. No knickknacks. Nothing on the filing cabinet. Setting the knife on top, I creaked a drawer open. Empty. So were the other three. What did I expect? Documentation of all of her hits? Tax records? Maybe assassins don’t file taxes. But why did Cheska have a filing cabinet only to leave it empty?She removed whatever was there. Before.What could have been so interesting she didn’t want to leave it behind?I stepped around the desk to avoid her body but realized I had tracked through the fallen mist of blood. Being raised with the mantra, no trace left behind, a shudder grew at the base of my spine and worked upward and through my shoulders.At this point it surely made no difference.My eyes shifted to the woman. When had I last leveled my eyes on her? Not since I was just a bit more than a toddler, and she’d beat the hell out of me for the indiscretion. She wore no jewelry. Pale, dry skin, puffy, unhealthy, which had nothing to do with the missing half of her skull. Not that I’ve had a lot of experience interacting with people, but I guessed her age as mid-fortyish. Maybe even younger. Counting backward, vomit erupted in the back of my throat and electricity ratcheted through my entire body. The woman—had been in her teens, when I was brought here to serve her. How long had she been killing people?Vonda claimed she changed my diapers. That was before her grasp of reality became less reliable. My oldest memories had me in this house. Could distinctly remember celebrating my sixth birthday in our frozen little bedroom in the basement. There was no cake, like I read others celebrated with. Christmas day. Vonda arbitrarily selected that date as my birthday. Not as if she dared ask when my real birthday was. It took little to bring Machado downstairs with his riding crop.We never got a Christmas tree, either.Our celebrations were nothing more than rocking together singing the folk songs she sang as a child. We sang softly. Being heard from upstairs brought Machado too.There was little in Cheska’s desk drawers. Staples and pens, note pads and binder clips. Dozens of city maps and a dozen atlases.I crossed the room and wrenched open the sticky closet door. I had to flip on the light, a dangling bare bulb with a white shoestring for a switch. Perhaps four feet deep with bare wood shelves three feet deep. A shotgun and four different varieties of rifles leaned against the lowest shelf. Boxes lined the floor. Might be interesting to go through later.Each shelf was littered with various handguns, knives, a dozen of her personally smithed picks. Binoculars. Rifle scopes. A dozen different kinds of cameras. Books with the images of guns on their covers. Set of dumb bells. A rolled up yoga mat. How quaint. She kept herself in shape.While she left Vonda and me to rot in that basement. Not completely. She allowed me out to scout her hits, attend classes with Machado watching my every move. She installed a treadmill for me to use an hour a day. Wasn’t optional. A healthy planner is important, maybe. I didn’t feel like using it one day when I was studying for exams. Machado appeared that evening to use his crop on my back.I blinked at tears that welled.Enough. There was one more room to check out on this floor.I strode for the witch’s bedroom. Shutters closed tight, a shriek escaped when I flipped on the light switch to the right of the door.What’s her name lay across the room, crumpled in what maybe started as a fetal position. Cheska knew how to kill instantly. She had played with the woman, who fell to the floor trying to protect herself. There were more puncture wounds than I could count, all over her, especially her face, practically obliterating her features. I thought about the tenderizing hammer I found in the kitchen.There had been rage. Why? She had been a cook, a servant.Had she been a spy for Cheska’s benefactor? Why did that even pop into my head? I only had educated guesses where she got her contracts. But they came from someone. For Cheska to live in this old house, a hermit as far as I know. Alone. Unloved. All these years. Never ending her—She didn’t deserve any peace.Machado lay on the floor to my left. He went easier, which pissed me off. If there was anyone in the world I would have liked to see die slowly it was him. The pick remained in his chest. It looked like a single thrust into his heart. His opal-hued eyes remained open. But not in surprise. Certainly not agony.Why couldn’t the bastard have suffered just a little?Why am I still alive?No questioning that she despised me. And what of Vonda? Had she served her sentence? What was her crime?I didn’t need to step into the room. Nothing in there I wanted, cared to see. I closed the door without even turning out the light. Let the reaper have no trouble finding them. What’s her name went along, so she deserved to burn in hell too. Machado. Deserved a very special place. Hell was too good for him.As I walked for the stairs I remembered the business card Cheska slid toward me and froze in step. Cheska offered me no, Good riddance. No, Fuck you bitch. Just a business card.Did I want any kind of last blast from her? I looked at the stairs leading to the third floor, my curiosity waning.All I wanted to do was get away from this horrible, horrible place. The second floor was about as empty as Cheska’s heart. Likely not anything on the third floor I’d care to see. I needed to collect Vonda and go. But how? With what money? I patted my back pocket. I still had my Morgan credit card. But it may have already been tied back to that, that—Using it would bring the police directly to me.What about the future?I had never allowed myself to think about tomorrow much less next week. My mind had always been centered on keeping Cheska happy, Machado from traipsing down the stairs to our basement. His visits were hell.The calling card. Good or bad? Not a single explanation twisted inside my head. She left it as an option. Perhaps it wouldn’t be a bad thing. If she’d wanted me dead she would have done it herself. I turned around and reentered the office, picked up the simple white card from her desk. Esquire? That was a cutesy name for attorney. Why would she leave me an attorney’s card?I sucked in a deep breath, picked up Cheska’s desk phone, and dialed. It rang five times before someone finally answered in a hushed, “Yes.”“My name is Aran. Cheska Papadakis gave me your card.”The intake of breath over the line rang clear and visceral. In a whisper the male voice asked, “She’s dead?”“Yes.”There was silence for a good thirty seconds. I imagined him stepping away from whomever he