R .  Mac Wheeler Multi - Genre Author Urban Fantasy Fantasy Dystopian
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 ~ H er   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 woman   into 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 ~ T he   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 ~ T he   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 ~ S hrugging    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   in    the   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 ~ B rownstones   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 ~ M y   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 ~ I    took   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 ~ J erking 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 ~ V onda   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