It’s time for Oscar to meet Gina’s ex. That should go well. 🙂
Laura McShea asked me if I would consider writing a short for Matt and Charlie from Runner, where Matt bottoms for Charlie, as he said he would at some point. I did. 🙂
“So this is a gilded cage?”
Max’s voice grated on my nerves when he got like this. I’d explained to him several times over the last two weeks why he couldn’t leave the property. I very carefully let him know that he could go to the beach. I showed him where and how to dig for the clams he seemed to enjoy for dinner, how he could catch fish, and shit like that. Each time he had to be reminded he couldn’t leave, he bristled and it started an argument between us.
Admittedly, angry Max was better than the bouts of sadness that followed him around. He could go from sixty to zero in point two seconds if he saw something that reminded him of his family. Having been there myself, I got it. Not that I was going to explain that to him.
He crossed his arms, blew out a breath, and glared at me.
It was cute, really.
“I want to go to town. I’d like to get some art supplies, if that’s okay with you.”
I scratched my head. “Art supplies?” I’d already ordered him clothes so he had something beyond my oversized workout gear to wear. And now he wanted more?
He grumbled, got up from the couch and stepped out onto the porch that wrapped around three-fourths of the house. I followed, because I wanted to hear more about why he wanted art supplies.
The days following his coming here with me, I found he wasn’t so bad to have around. At least when he wasn’t in one of his ‘moods’. I came in from my workout one morning and found him in the kitchen. He had the coffee brewed and was in the process of making pancakes and sausage. It smelled amazing.
“I didn’t even know I had the stuff to make pancakes.”
His cheeks pinked. “I may have had to work some magic. Not sure you’re going to like them, but with what you’ve got on hand, it’s the best I could do.” He waved the spatula toward the table. “Sit, I’ll bring it over.”
The cakes were light and fluffy, drizzled with butter, and covered in raspberry jam. After the first mouthful, I was sure I’d died and gone to heaven. Or wherever people like me were going to go.
After that, he started making breakfast most mornings. I didn’t complain, because my idea of a morning meal was some toast to go with my coffee. I’d come in from my morning exercise, sit at the table and wait until he’d put a plate in front of me. He’d given me a list of things he’d like to have in the kitchen, and I contacted a few stores in the area that I did business with. While Max was out on the deck one day watching the waves of the sea as they lapped up onto the beach, Peter Cox, the son of a friend from town, delivered a huge batch of groceries. When he left, Max came in and his eyes went wide.
Funny thing… After spending time together, I’d gotten accustomed to seeing his eyes and found them to be his best feature. Weird, huh? He explained to me about heterochromia, how he’d worn contacts so people would stop staring at him. He’d been teased about them since he was a kid, and I couldn’t understand it, because they made him unique, not the freak they’d told him he was.
“Are you even listening to me?”
His voice went up an octave, which meant that the argument I’d been hoping to avoid was about to kick into high gear.
“Honestly? No. Look, I told you and I told you, going outside of the property is dangerous to you. I get you hate being cooped up, and I wish things were different, but right now they’re not. And if you want to stay safe, you’re going to do what you’re told.”
He narrowed his gaze and his lower lip jutted out a bit. “Fine.”
In an attempt to smooth his ruffled feathers, I grabbed the laptop. “Tell you what. You sit down, make a list of everything you want, and I’ll get it for you.”
He reared back, a look of absolute horror on his face. “Oh my God, you don’t get it at all, do you? Are you really that clueless?”
His cheeks were stained scarlet, and I had a knot in my stomach that whatever I thought I was avoiding was about to bite me in the ass big time. He stood there pouting, and I had to keep myself from throwing him over my knee and treating him like the spoiled brat he had been acting like. But none of this had been his fault, and as Lilah said, I needed to dial it back.
“I don’t order stuff online. I go to the shop.” His expression reminded me of an adult who was trying to explain something to a child. “I need to get a feel for the paper to see if it will hold the paint. I check the brushes. I look through their new stuff to see if any of it would be useful.” He sighed. “I need the world, Citadel. It gives me inspiration.”
I grabbed his wrist and dragged him out into the yard. I swept my hand around the property. “That little bridge that crosses the creek? The birds hovering over the sea? That lone gull snatching food from the shore? That airplane silhouetted against the clouds? Every tree, shrub, bush, droplet of water here is an inspiration. You say you’re an ‘artist’, then let the world around you be your fucking muse.”
He had the decency to appear sheepish at least. “I’m sorry. I’m tired of being cooped up.”
I rubbed the bridge of my nose. “I know. I really wish I could take you out, show you around town, introduce you to some of the people I know. But like I said, right now it’s dangerous. I’ve reached out to some people I know, but so far I haven’t learned anything. I—”
The phone rang. When I looked at the screen, my curiosity was piqued. I didn’t recognize the number, and that had me wondering who would be calling. I pushed the accept button.
“Good morning, is this Mr. Oscar Goodwin?”
“My name is Margaret, I’m one of the sisters at St. Cecilia’s Convent.”
Aw, shit. Gina. I’d totally forgotten I was supposed to meet her. “Yes, of course. I assume you work with Gina—I mean Sister Mary Catherine?”
Her breath hitched.
“Is something wrong? My throat tightened.
There’s been… The police said she was mugged, but whoever did it…” She whimpered and my gut clenched. “Gina’s been hurt. I found your name in her calendar, and was hoping you might be able to shed some light on what happened to her. When I mentioned you to her, she simply said you were a friend.”
Max stepped into my space and put a hand on my arm. He slid the fingers of his left hand over my straining arm muscles. He may have thought I was nervous or anxious, but that wasn’t the case. I was pissed beyond belief.
I glanced over at Max. He’d been calling me ‘Citadel’ since he’d come to the house. He hadn’t asked me any details and seemed content calling me that. I had already dragged him into something, so maybe a little bone on my part would help.
“Oscar, please.” Max’s eyes went wide. “Yes, I was supposed to meet Gina for…” I didn’t want to say drinks, because I had no idea what they’d say to that. “Pizza. We got talking while we were on the plane, and I thought she was funny. Can you tell me what happened?”
She hesitated a moment. “Someone found her in an alley. She’d been beaten and…and…” She sobbed. “Someone set her on fire.”
My blood boiled. “They what?”
“She’s been burned pretty badly. Her legs, stomach, and chest all received third degree burns. We were grateful that someone found her and was able to put the flames out. She was released into our care a few days ago. She’s upset and angry, but she won’t talk to us. We were hoping you might know something.”
My tone so cold, even Max stepped back. “I don’t, but I will find out. Tell me where she is.”
This event put a new wrinkle in things. I couldn’t very well take Max with me, but I also couldn’t leave him unprotected. I reached out to the only person I could think of.
“It’ll just be a few days, Lilah. I need to go check on Gina.”
“It’s fine. I’ll be there tomorrow.”
I hated asking for favors. “Is there any way you can be here today? I need to go, but I can’t leave Max by himself. Maybe Kelly might know someone if you’re not available. Do you think Haven is trustworthy?” I knew he was. I’d run one mission with him, and the man was a beast. And he looked fucking edible in the shower.
“I said I’d be there. I have to take a commercial flight if you don’t want anyone knowing, but I’ll see what I can do to expedite it.”
“Whatever you need. I’ll pay for it, of course.”
“Oh, you know you will.” Her teasing put me at ease.
Max sat on the deck, staring out at the sea. He’d been pensive since I got off the phone with Knight. I hated that I needed his help on this, but he had resources I didn’t. He got me the information, and when I told him what was going on, he promised he’d have my back. There may have been a twinge of guilt on my part, but I pushed it away.
After I hung up, I went to my room and packed my bag. Damn, it was times like this I wished I had a major domo to make these things a little easier. Maybe I shouldn’t have scared off my last one…four. I packed quickly, my flight to Milwaukee booked for tomorrow afternoon. When I finished, I put the bag back in the case, checked my weapons, then went out to see what was up with Max.
He still sat, staring out at the water. The wind had picked up, creating small whitecaps that sloshed on the shore.
“How’s it going?”
He didn’t even turn. “Can I go with you?”
I bit back a sigh. “No. I wouldn’t be leaving if it wasn’t important, I need you to know that. Gina is… a friend.”
I didn’t want to tell him that I was supposed to meet her after I completed my assignment. As it stood, Max knew more than he should about me—where I lived, and my name—all things that I’d rarely shared. Plus, I’d broken a cardinal rule by telling him about the organization. I hadn’t mentioned names so if things went south, I’d be the one who was out a life. I’d have to give up my house and the connections I’d made, which would suck, because I liked where I was. Then there’s the fact that Knight would have to get me another new identity. And but the risks were a small price to pay for Max’s cooperation.
“I’m sorry. I know I promised I’d be here for you, but—” Fuck. How could I even explain this to him?
“Will you kill him?”
I reared back. We hadn’t talked about… my job since I admitted why I’d been at his house. “Who?”
“The man who hurt your friend. Will you kill him?”
“Why would you ask me that?”
He rolled his eyes. “You told me you were there to kill me and what your job is. So I’m asking now, is that where you’re going?”
Though I had no proof, I suspected it had been Gina’s ex-husband. I had no solid evidence, but when I talked with her, I would get the information I needed. When we spoke, Knight seemed surprised to hear from me, but when I explained what I needed, he got to work. I’d thumbed through the file that Knight had sent me. As expected, he tried to give me shit about being friends with a nun, but he stopped as soon as he realized how angry I was. When I asked how he knew about her, he told me the police had run down the name on the phone, which led them to him. He gave them an ironclad alibi, which meant they wouldn’t be looking at me as a suspect. This news had me doubting what I’d learned about him. Still, right now, it wasn’t something I could think about.
Kevin Gardner had a history of hurting people. Like Gina had said, when he’d been drunk, common sense went out the window. There were a few brawls, and another report of domestic violence filed by a woman he had been seeing after Gina dumped his stupid ass.
Max bit his lower lip and his breathing hitched as he asked the question.
“I don’t know.” It was the truth. Until I spoke with Gina, nothing would be decided.
Nashville was known for more than country and western music. Over the last few years, they had a large uptick in the number of people joining the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia convent, which went against the national trend. I couldn’t imagine people voluntarily going into a dark, musty place and actually giving their lives over to it. Of course, when the cab pulled up, I found what I’d pictured in my head wasn’t quite the truth.
The convent looked more like the place I went to school as a kid. The only difference being the building had several statues outside the building of men, hands clasped in prayer. I got out, paid the driver, and strode to the door of the place. Opening it was like a step back in time. I found myself in similar hallways, with the sounds of laughing children coming from one of the rooms. To be honest, it was a little surreal. I found the office and stepped inside.
“Good morning, sir. May I help you?”
“I’m here to see Sister Margaret. My name is Oscar Goodwin.”
She smiled at me. “ If you’d like to take a seat, I’ll let Sister Margaret know you’re here, Mr. Goodwin.”
It took only a few minutes before a tall, frail woman of about fifty stepped over to me. She had on a white habit with a black head covering. She gave me a toothy smile, but it seemed to me that there was a sadness behind her eyes. She held out her hand, and I took it in mine.
She kept hold of my hand as I stood. “Oscar, please.”
She beckoned me to follow her. We left the school and approached another building. I figured they must be the living quarters. “Thank you for coming. When I called, I wasn’t sure who you were when I called. I went through her phone, hoping to find someone who might talk to her. Mary Catherine has… Well, to be honest, she’s shut down. She refuses to take meals with us, barely speaks with the spiritual advisor, nothing. She’s already told him she’s planning to leave the order as soon as she’s able.”
None of it came as a surprise, really. She’d told me as much she wasn’t sure if this was her true calling anymore. Though I figured it would be longer than a few weeks. Then again, I didn’t expect she would have been attacked either.
“The police have questioned her, but she won’t talk with them, either. They’re frustrated, and so am I to be honest. Mary Catherine is a bright, bubbly girl. We’ve gotten many letters about her lectures and how engaging she is. It hurts us to see her like this.”
We entered the building, which looked like an apartment, with a lobby and several doors with different numbers on them. Sister Margaret escorted me to the elevator which took us to the third floor, then to a room at the end of a long corridor. She knocked, but no one answered. This went on for the next four days. Each time I showed up, they ended up apologizing for me wasting my time. As far as I was concerned, this wasn’t over.
On the fifth day, I was a man on a mission. Today Gina would talk to me, no matter what.
The pattern repeated itself. We got to the room, knocked on the door, and were met with silence. The sister turned to me, a frown on her face. “Perhaps she’s taking a nap.”
Enough was enough. I stepped forward and pounded on the door. “Gina, it’s Oscar!”
I waited two seconds before I flung it open and stepped inside. The room smelled of antiseptic and flowers. Gina lay on the bed, staring out the small window in her room. The room, filled to bursting with blooms of different colors, was bright and airy. Not at all what I expected. And yes, I realize I was saying that a lot where nuns were concerned. I’m not a man who likes to admit when he’s wrong, but I was.
“Sister Mary? Oscar came to see you.”
I heard the catch of her breath. “I’ll take it from here, Sister.”
“Oh, I’m not sure—”
I closed the door, then strode over to the bed. A small, black chair was tucked under the desk. I pulled it out, spun it around, and sat backward on it.
“Mind telling me what happened?”
Finally she faced me, and I could see the anger simmering beneath the surface. Her cheeks were mottled red and her eyes were filled with fire.
“You were supposed to meet me.”
The accusatory tone I totally deserved. I had known since the phone call that this was on me. In trying to protect Max, I had failed Gina.
“I won’t make excuses. I should have been there. Sorry isn’t enough, I know.”
“Why weren’t you there?”
Tears spilled over the lids of her eyes, rushing to join those that had already stained her pillows.
“Remember when I told you that I had gone to Milwaukee on business? Things went—please forgive the expression—to hell. Nothing was like I’d been told, and a young man ended up in deep trouble.”
He features softened. “Is he okay?”
This was the Gina I expected to see. The one who was more concerned for the wellbeing of another before herself.
“Honestly? Right now I’m not sure.”
She reached out and put a hand over mine. “I’m sorry.”
I made a face. “Sorry for what? That mess was my fault and this… I’m so sorry. I should have been there for you.”
She turned away and went back to looking out the window. “If you have been there, you may have ended up dead.” Her breathing hitched. “Just like I almost did.”
“It’s been weeks. Why didn’t you call me? Or why not have someone let me know?”
Her expression morphed again. This time into disbelief. “For what? It was a one-time thing. We met at the airport. I mean it’s not like we were friends or anything, right?”
We weren’t, she was right. And I knew good and well that she had every right to be angry with me.
“I thought we were building on that. You’re not like I expected. I figured, you know, a nun would be all snooty and carrying around a ruler to whack kids on the hands for not listening.”
It was a slow change, she grinned, and a weight lifted from my chest.
“How are you feeling?”
She rubbed a hand over her stomach. “If I move wrong, it hurts. If I stay still, it hurts. If I get up to poop, it hurts.”
I couldn’t help the snort. Really. Okay, I didn’t even try. “You can still make me laugh.”
She winced. “I’m not joking.”
That familiar anger surged again. Someone had done this to Gina, a woman who I considered a friend. I needed to know who, because it was time for them to pay for what they’d done.
Gina was the only person who held the details I needed, and it was time to get some answers.
Making the decision was the easy part. How to go about achieving my goal was something totally different. Max was fragile, and what I had to tell him wasn’t going to be easy on him. There wasn’t a choice, though. I needed him ready to move.
I stood up, walked over to the tiny desk, turned the chair around, and plunked down.
“Okay, so we seem to have a situation here. I’ve got something I need to tell you, and I know you’re not going to want to hear it, but I don’t have the time to break it to you gently.”
His gaze narrowed as though he were assessing me. Seeing those eyes of his, darting up and down, still freaked me the fuck out. I needed my curiosity sated before I could continue.
“First off, what’s up with your eyes?”
He lifted a hand and touched right below one of them. “What do you mean?”
“They’re… One’s blue and one’s brown.”
“Shit. He turned his gaze to the table. “I… I must have lost a contact. They’re both supposed to be blue.”
He scrubbed a hand over his face. There was a sadness there, and it wanted to be acknowledged, but we needed to push on. And Max was about to learn, I don’t do subtle very well.
“Fine, whatever. Listen, this isn’t going to be pleasant, and I’m sorry about that, but we need to get out of here. Tonight your family was murdered. They were stabbed to death by someone who, I believe, wants me to think you did it.”
That got his attention. He practically flew out of his seat, his fists clenched at his side. “You’re lying!”
It was wrong of me, but time wasn’t on our side. I pulled the bag I’d stuffed his clothes into and tossed it to him. He pulled it open and for a second, I thought he was going to break down or, worse, puke again. Instead he fisted the bag in his hand and turned that freaky gaze of his on me.
The kid had a set on him, I won’t deny it. He was a solid foot shorter than me, slender, and judging by how soft his hands looked, he definitely was not a scrapper. But he stood there and stared me down. If he thought I was going to blink first, he was mistaken.
“I found you in the room, passed out behind the couch. There were seven other people there. All of them were dead, stabbed multiple times by a butcher knife that you had in your hand. So either you did it and you’re lying to me, or someone is trying to set you up. Now, Max, tell me which one it is.”
He deflated like a pricked balloon. His body went slack, and he turned away from me, his breathing hitched.
“Look, I’m sorry to be an asshole. But if they’re after you, I need to know why. Is it about the money?”
That got his attention. He turned back toward me, his face set into a stony mask. “What money?”
“The information I got was that you were going to kill your family for the money.”
His expression turned to one of rage. “That’s bullshit! I would never hurt them. I loved my family, and I know they loved me. As for the money? There was no money. Not a goddamned dime.”
Now I knew he was lying to me. “I was in your house. I saw everything.”
“What you saw was the house I grew up in. The one that my father had leveraged so much, he lost it all when the housing market collapsed. He and my mother were trying to come up with a way to save the place, but there was no way.” He sighed. “He had deep pockets, but there wasn’t enough to pull him out from under the mountain of debt that was crushing him. The bank had sent them a letter saying that they’d defaulted on their loan, and they were going to lose it all.”
Shit. None of my information had said anything about that. Had Knight known? He had to. Knight always knew. The thought he hadn’t given me all the information made my stomach twist. And, what made it worse, the idea Max was now in danger because of us? Hell no.
Max began brooding, and I couldn’t blame him. I had been pretty blunt when I told him about this family, but I didn’t regret it. With what he told me, so many things added up and others began to paint a picture I didn’t like. There was no way Knight didn’t know about this. He was the man who had several sources he gathered his information from. He was so fucking anal about it, he refused to send me on a mission until I had the most minute details about my target.
The why of it escaped me. What reason did he have to lie? And how was Max involved? One thing I was certain of, I couldn’t leave Max on his own. If Knight—or whoever was doing this—got wind of the fact Max wasn’t dead, they’d sure as shit come after him. I sighed.
“We’ve found ourselves in a bit of a pickle here.”
Max chuckled. “My mom says…said that, too.”
His expression returned to the sad one and it bugged me that I didn’t like seeing it.
“I am sorry about your family. I know it doesn’t help, and I wish I could have prevented it.”
I knew his reaction times were off because of the drugs, but when his eyes went wide and his fear became so overpowering, I could practically smell it, I knew the reality had finally hit home.
“Why were you at my house?”
Not one to mince words, I decided to go with the truth. If I wanted Max to trust me, I had to be aboveboard with him. Not that what I was about to say would help cement a trust. “I went there to… kill you.”
He scrambled toward the door, but I was on him immediately.
“Get off me! Help!”
I clamped a hand over his mouth. He continued to struggle beneath me. “Listen to me. I am not here to hurt you now. I work for an organization whose job it is to take out people who are after others. I was told you were there to murder your family, and it was my job to stop you. I don’t think you did it, but someone is trying awfully hard to make me think it was. Do you have any idea who would do something like that?”
Max gave a small shake of his head.
“If I take my hand away, will you listen and promise not to yell?”
This time a small nod. I didn’t even have my hand away from his mouth before he started crying out again and trying to buck me off him. I slapped my hand back where it had been. I’d never been in a situation like this before. Max should have been dead, and I was supposed to be on my way home.
“Listen to me. I’m not going to hurt you. Yes, you have no reason to believe me, I get it. But right now, I’m the only person who has a chance at keeping you alive. Do you understand me? If I wanted to hurt you, I would have done it already.”
His struggles lessened, but the mistrust in his eyes didn’t. When I pulled my hand away this time, he didn’t make a sound.
“This is so screwed up.”
Wasn’t that the understatement of the decade?
“What’s going to happen to me?”
Shit. I hadn’t even considered what to do with him. Sure as hell couldn’t call Bishop and say I needed a safe house for him. When I realized there was only one place I could take him I knew he’d be safe, I groaned.
“You ever been to Sequim, Washington?”
Sequim was often referred to as the lavender capital of North America. They grew the shit everywhere. Admittedly, it smelled nice, but sometimes it could be a little overpowering. I owned a tract of land there, five amazing acres right on the beach of the Salish sea. We’d driven twenty-six hours, then jumped on the ferry. Most of the trip, Max slept. He awoke just as the gated entry to the house—interlocking hearts, believe it or not—swung open. He blinked when he saw the gates.
I shrugged. “Thought about changing them when I got the place, but figured people were already comfortable seeing it, and I didn’t want anyone nosing around. Easier to leave them be.”
We continued along the drive, and the house came into view.
“You live here?” Max’s voice was filled with awe. He hadn’t said much since I rented a car to bring us here. It sucked for him, having lost his family, to be dragged into something he didn’t understand. I honestly wished there could be another way, because right now everything in him had to be in turmoil.
“I do.” I held out a hand and turned slowly, showing off the stunning views of the place. What do you think?”
He blinked a few times. “It’s beautiful.”
And it was. When I found the place, I knew it was going to be my home. I paid a local company to do the landscaping, which was right out of an arboretum—trees and shrubs I didn’t know the names of, blended in a sea of color with flowers of every hue. As we walked toward the house, Max’s gaze was drawn to the small wooden bridge that covered a creek that filled the air with a cacophony of frogs in the summertime.
The stream led to a manmade pond, which had concrete benches sitting near the waterside. It was a great place to go and think about nothing at all.
I ushered him toward the house. When the door swung open, his breath caught as we stepped into the living room. Tiered wooden hutches surrounded a marble and glass fireplace, which was lit when the breeze came off the ocean, where you could sit and gaze out the large panes of glass.
His voice was soft, reverent, when he stood at the windows. “Oh, damn.”
If he thought that was impressive… I showed him to the bedroom he would be using while he stayed here.
“You’re kidding, right?”
That was the first thing I said to myself every time I walked into the room. It was the smallest bedroom in the house, but it had a spectacular view of the sea.
“The beach is private, so you’re welcome to go down there to sit. I’m going to ask that you not venture off the property until I can get this sorted out. I need to ensure you’re safe.”
He shook his head. “This is all too much. Yesterday I was an artist, learning to paint in different mediums. Today I’m running from someone who apparently wants me dead.” He barked out a harsh laughed. “And don’t even get me started on why I’m trusting the man who came out and told me he had come to kill me.”
Max dropped to the bed like a rock, and buried his face in his hands.
“I can’t believe they’re gone. And my nieces and nephew.” He looked up at me, and tears filled his eyes. “Why would someone do this to them?”
I had no answer that I could give him. He cried for hours over their loss, and I could do nothing but watch. It wasn’t the performance that proved to me that Max hadn’t done it. It was the fact that his grief was as raw and genuine as anything I’d ever seen. I’d seen that haunted look every time I looked in the mirror after my brothers were wiped out.
I sat down on the bed and took his hand. “I’m not sure, but I swear to you I’ll find out.” It was a promise I wouldn’t take lightly.
After Max fell asleep, I trudged into my office. My options were limited now. The only sure thing was that Max needed to be protected. I considered contacting an outside security firm to send a bodyguard, but that wouldn’t work. Knight had his fingers in a lot of pies, and I couldn’t chance him finding out Max was with me.
I pulled my phone out and sent him a text. I’m back. Decided to take the scenic route home.
The reply was immediate. Glad to have you home. Cleaning crew took care of situation. No cases pending, enjoy some time off.
I put my phone away without replying. I grabbed my laptop and went to the website of the Milwaukee newspaper. There on the Metro section was the story about Max’s house being torched. The bodies that were found inside, and how they’d been brutally murdered. The details of the pending bankruptcy. Yet another thing that didn’t add up. Normally, Knight would send someone in to spin a story. The bodies of the victims never should have been found.
I wanted to slam my computer down, but didn’t want to disturb Max. I put it on the table, went to the window and opened it wide. The cool breeze and the relaxing scent of the ocean always calmed me. Not tonight, though. If I had any doubts about whether something was rotten, this blew them away. I wasn’t sure how or why, but Knight had been in on the murders of Max’s family. My boss—no, my friend—wasn’t the man I thought he was. He was as bad as the people who I got paid to take out.
I went to the sofa that sat near the window. It allowed me to look out at the sea and focus my thoughts. Tonight that wasn’t happening. Memories and facts collided in my head. The many times that Knight had my back, the knowledge he’d even accepted someone like me in the first place, and the laughs we’d shared during my time with the agency. But Max was asleep in his room. He was living, breathing proof that something was seriously wrong. I needed to figure out what it was and, if it turned out that Knight was involved, how I would deal with it.
The sigh from the hallway had me turning to find Max standing there, hands fidgeting.
“Can’t sleep. I keep thinking about my family. Heather would have been eight in a few weeks. Josiah lost his front tooth, and he was so proud of it. And Lou—” His voice broke and the tears were back again. “Can I sit with you?”
I gestured to the nearby chair. “Yeah, of course.”
I expected him to go sit where I indicated. Instead he gingerly sat next to me.
He wasn’t telling me something I didn’t know. “Anyone in these circumstances would be.”
“It’s just… I don’t have anyone I can talk to now. My family is gone. My parents. My brothers. My sister. Now it’s just me.”
Brothers? There were only two adult males in that room. I knew one of them had to be his father, and based on the resemblance I could only assume the other was his brother. Did I miss a body in the house? I never checked the whole thing. I didn’t want to give Max false hope, so I said nothing.
“Why don’t you try and get some rest?”
He nodded and stood up. He turned to face me, nibbling on his lower lip. “You won’t… You won’t leave, will you?”
“No, I won’t be going anywhere.” Though I knew Lilah would be pissed if she found out, especially since someone had already drugged Max, I had to ask. “Do you want me to see if I have something to help you sleep?”
He shook his head. “Would you believe I never used a drug since I was like thirteen? The guys at school were talking about pot, and they wanted me to get high with them. I said no. No aspirin, no cold medication. Nothing. And now, someone puts it into my body without my knowledge. Guess being good only gets you so far in life.”
He turned and shuffled back to his room, went inside, and closed the door behind him. I lay my head back against the couch and closed my eyes, waiting for sleep to take me. I sat there for hours, watching as the curtains billowed out, the breeze from the sea getting stronger. We were probably due for a storm. As close as we were to the water, flooding was a possibility. It hadn’t happened yet, but I figured one day it would.
I closed the window, not wanting the rain to get in. Maybe it was time I should get to sleep, too. I yawned and stretched, groaning when the muscles protested. I hadn’t gotten a workout done in a couple days, so I was due one tomorrow. Maybe that—
A peal of thunder rattled the house. The lightning flash that followed had been so bright, it illuminated the house as if it were midday. When I heard Max scream, I took off for his room and threw the door open. He lay wound up in the sheets, struggling to get free. I hurried over to him and put a hand on his chest to keep him still, while I unwrapped him. He slept through it, thank goodness.
Tomorrow would be another day for him to recall what he lost, and wonder if it was best he couldn’t remember. I glanced at the clock. Almost eleven. I slipped the phone from my pocket. I knew I shouldn’t, but I dialed Lilah’s number.
“Hey, Oscar.” She yawned. “What can I do for you? Is everything all right?”
“He’s having nightmares. His world is shattered, and there isn’t anyone he knows who can pick up the pieces.”
“Well, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you brought him home with you, so his physical and mental wellbeing has to be your responsibility.”
Me? “Oh, fuck no.”
“Then who else is he going to go to? Did you tell Knight about him?”
“No! And you better not say a fucking word.”
She huffed a breath. “I gave you a promise, and you know I never say anything I don’t mean.”
Lilah was an amazing woman. I trusted her to care for me on many occasions. A knife wound in the thigh, a gunshot through my side. Each of them had seen Lilah’s tender mercies. To say she was the devil was selling her short. I think she had a lot higher aspirations. But she was loyal and true. Her first priority had always been to her patients rather than the organization.
I filled her in on every scrap of information I had put together, which, I reminded her, was a lot of speculation on my part. “I’m going to have tread carefully if I’m going to do this at all.” No one could know what I was up to.
“You know you’re stepping onto a fire ant hill, right?”
Yeah, I knew. “What choice do I have? Knight might have had a hand in several murders. I can’t let that slide, and I sure as hell won’t let Max be hurt.”
“I get that. Really. But you better make damn certain that Knight is who you think. Because you’re running the risk of losing a friend if it goes south.”
Yeah, another thing I was fully aware of.
***** For those interested in seeing the home*****
Knight’s information said that Maximillian would be at his family’s River Hills home between seven and eight in the evening. A niggle in the back of my brain made me wonder where he got such specific information, but I pushed it aside. Knight was in charge for a reason, and I trusted him with my life. And had many times.
My plan was simple. Kill Maximillian before he could do his family harm, call Knight to dispose of the body, then head off to meet Gina for beer and a pie. I hoped to hell she didn’t like anchovies on her pizza, because that could be a deal breaker.
When the cab dropped me off a little after four, I gaped. This place wasn’t a house, it was a fucking mansion. Three stories of masonry, glass, and steel, and what appeared to be a dormer at the top. The property covered about an acre and a half with a meticulously sculpted lawn, coupled with the prancing pony topiary, the front of the place screamed ostentation and power. I didn’t know the people, but I already wasn’t a fan. As I reconnoitered the place, nothing I saw changed my opinion. Everywhere I looked, there were disgusting displays of wealth. A pool wasn’t good enough for the Kearny’s. No, they needed a fucking waterpark. Slides that were taller than the house opened up into a pool that was just a bit smaller than some lakes, there were fountains that burst jets of water into the air, where they caught the last rays of the sun, turning into a misty rainbow, a gazebo that appeared as though it could seat thirty or more people, with a huge grill tucked away to one side. They even had a goddamned putting green. They were all things that screamed, ‘look at me, see how rich I am?’ It made me wonder if Maximillian had a reason for wanting them dead. Without stepping foot inside, it wasn’t difficult to tell that there was a lot of money riding on the outcome.
I shook my head and went back to assessing the property. My job wasn’t to critique, it was to eliminate a threat. I had to keep that in mind. No matter how gaudy I thought the whole place looked, no one deserved to die, especially over something as stupid as money.
Seven came and went with no sign of anyone approaching the house. By eight, I began to think maybe Knight had it wrong. There were lights on in the place, but no movement. That niggle returned. Something wasn’t right. When I tried to text Knight, I got no reply, which left the ball firmly in my court.
As I approached the house, another light went on at the top. I saw a silhouette sway, then drop to the ground. Every instinct I’d developed told me this wasn’t right. I rushed to the door, surprised to find it opened. I went inside, straining to hear any sound at all. Nothing reached my ears, but then again, with a house this size, there were so many places people could be. I decided to go to the dormer. I knew I’d seen something up there, so it seemed like a logical choice. I checked my phone again. Still nothing from Knight. This was unlike him.
I found a spiral staircase that led to the upper floors. I bet if I had time, I would probably have found an elevator. As I went up, I still heard nothing. It was surreal, because the family was supposed to be here. Yet there wasn’t so much as a peep.
As I got to the third floor, I found another set of stairs leading to the dormer. Gun in hand, I crept up the stairs. Now I heard it. Faint sounds, like moaning. No matter what my plan had been initially, now everything changed. I tried the knob, but it was locked. Shooting the lock really only worked in television, so that was out. I threw myself against the door, knowing I’d pay for it later. When it burst open, I was stunned at what I saw.
Blood spattered the walls and floor. So much spilled out of the corpses that were spread around the room that the royal blue carpeting had taken on a purplish hue. I took in the scene in a matter of seconds. An older man and woman lay on the floor, theirs mouths open, and their eyes glassy. In the corner the bodies of a young boy and girl. Their bodies were covered by that of a woman, and a man lay atop them. It took me a moment to notice the baby curled in the woman’s arms. All of them were dead from multiple stab wounds. My blood boiled. When I heard the moan again, I scoured the room. Behind a sofa, I found my target. Maximillian Kearney lay hidden, his clothes covered by patches of blood. In his hand was a butcher knife, the blade snapped off somewhere, probably in one of the bodies, but the six inches that remained were caked with viscous red liquid.
I grabbed him by the hair and dragged him to the middle of the room where I threw him to the floor.
“What the fuck did you do?”
His eyes kept rolling back into his head. He couldn’t fix his gaze on me. I could tell he tried, but his head lolled back, his mouth open wide, his breaths coming in short pants. White hot anger coursed through me. I wanted to beat this bastard until my hands were numb. It wouldn’t bring back his family, but it would give me an outlet for—
No. This was my failure. I’d missed it. No idea how, but he’d gotten in and killed these people. Those fucking babies, who could never have done him harm, were dead now because this fucker wanted money. I dropped next to him and shoved my gun under his chin.
“All this because you wanted cash? What kind of sick fuck are you?”
“Nooooooo…” He tried to lift his head, but it kept drooping back. Whatever the fuck he took must have been pretty potent. “Noooo….”
Max struggled to sit up, but I pushed him back down.
“You know, my friend Haven has this thing where he likes to tell bastards like you why they’re about to die. Looking around this room, I’ve got no doubt whatsoever you already know.”
I shoved the gun into his mouth, the barrel clacking against his teeth. His eyes were wide and red, the pupils blown so much, it practically drowned the… Holy shit, this kid had one brown and one blue iris. Freaky fucker.
I began to squeeze then trigger when I saw the tears. I hesitated. I never hesitated. But that niggle in the back of my mind kicked up to high. I’d never gotten a message back from Knight. If Max had come in here with the intent of killing his family, how could he have done it? He couldn’t even stand. I doubted they stood there and let him stab them to death. Things weren’t adding up. I drew my gun back and holstered it. I needed to figure this out before I killed anyone.
I stood up and went over to the older couple. I reached out and touched one of the wounds on her body. The blood was cold and sticky, so it wasn’t fresh. Rigidity on the eyelids, neck, and jaw also added to the puzzle. It took between two and fours after death before that set in. These people had been killed hours ago. Had Max gotten stoned after he killed them? It was possible.
I went through the room, looking for proof one way or another. I’d never killed an innocent person intentionally, and I wouldn’t do it now when there were so many questions unanswered. After fifteen minutes, I’d given up. Max had nothing on him, but I found fresh track marks in the crook of his elbow. The thing of it was, there were no needles, no scars from other injections, and it all made me more and more certain.
The text from Knight came three hours later.
Mission not complete?
I stared at the screen. Nothing about my previous texts, just him wanting to know if Max was dead. I glanced over to the bed where he lay, sweating profusely. He’d barely stirred and did a lot of moaning since I’d lugged him into the motel room. Whatever he was on, it was fucking him up. I’d stripped off the bloody clothes, washed him down as best I could, then wrapped him in what the motel laughably referred to as a bathrobe.
Mission complete. After not hearing from you, I had to make judgment calls.
There were no messages for several minutes, then my phone pinged. Was tied up with another agent. Any problems?
Time and again, Knight had gone to the wall for me. He pulled me in after my platoon had been ambushed and killed. He’d given me a home in the organization. Now I was betraying his confidence by not telling him things had gone south.
No problems. Have flight out tomorrow. Will be back home soon.
Great. Will have cleanup crew go take care of the place.
Which effectively meant that all evidence of my involvement would be erased. Of course, they wouldn’t find Max’s body, and that presented a new problem. I’d deal with that as it came up, though.
I thumbed through my contacts until I found the one I was looking for. My finger hovered over it briefly, then I pushed it.
“This is Lilah.”
Her tone was clipped and as efficient as always. I was about to put an inordinate amount of trust in her.
“Hey, Lilah. This is Citadel.” I cringed. I hated codenames. “Need to know something here. Anything I say to you now is covered by doctor patient confidentiality, right?”
She sighed. “Who did you kill this time?”
Lilah was good people. Normally I would have played with her for a while. This was not that time.
I growled. “Is this confidential?”
She grumbled something, but I chose to ignore it. “Yes. No one will know what we talked about. What’s going on?”
“I’ve got this kid here, his eyes are glassy, his speech is slurred, and he can barely walk. He’s got what appears to be a single needle mark on his arm. He’s been sweating like a pig, and moaning like he’s in pain. What do you think he might be on?”
She expelled a sharp breath. “I can’t diagnose something without seeing it firsthand. If I had to make an educated guess, I would say maybe ketamine or Methoxetamine. How long has he been this way?”
“I wish I knew. I was on a mission and he was in the house. It could have been hours before I left, but it’s definitely been at least two since I brought him back.”
She hummed. “It can’t be either one of those, then. They’ve got a short half-life. Off the top of my head, I’m going to say maybe Ativan. There could be other drugs mixed with it, but without doing blood tests I can’t say for sure.”
“So how do I bring him out of it?” Then I could determine whether or not to kill him.
“Without knowing what happened, I can only say time. If he doesn’t have track marks, then it’s likely he hasn’t been doing this for long, so it’s going to hit him harder than if he were taking it constantly and built up an immunity to it.”
She was quiet for a moment.
“Oscar? Was he your target?”
A million things bounced around that I could say, but Lilah wasn’t a resource I could afford to lose. “Let’s just say it’s better off if you don’t know.”
“Oh, Oscar.” Her tone dripped with pity. If there was one thing I hated, it was having someone look at me with the expression I imagined her having.
“Do you want me to come to you? I can check him out.”
“No, but thank you for offering. Wisconsin is a pretty far distance to travel from Arizona. Plus, I can’t take the risk they’ll track you. I was serious when I said it was better that you not know.”
Max moaned again and he ran a hand over his stomach. When he sat up, his freaky eyes wide, and he projectile vomited, I nearly lost my shit. Blood? Yeah, I can deal with that. Stabbing someone through the eye? No problem. Puke? Fuck, that’s disgusting.
“What’s going on?”
I’d almost forgotten Lilah was on the phone as I make sure Max didn’t collapse back and choke to death. “He’s puking. And that shit’s getting everywhere.”
“You need to watch him closely. If he passes out and throws up, he could aspirate. Don’t leave him alone.”
“Thanks, but I hadn’t intended to.” Max heaved again. “Need to get him cleaned up.”
“Okay, I’ll let you go. And, Oscar? Be careful.”
She hung up and I put the phone back in my pocket. She’d said be careful, but I’m pretty sure that ship had already sailed. When Max had expelled everything it seemed he was going to, I lay him back down and he closed his eyes. I went into the bathroom and came back with several bath towels, which I proceeded to use to clean Max and the bed up. Looked like I’d be sleeping on the floor.
As I mopped around the smelly mess, I peered down at him. Sweat beaded on his brow, and he trembled. I’d seen pictures of him, and clicking through them in my memory, I pulled up details. His face had never been this pale in any of them. I reached out and brushed his chestnut hair away from his brow, then swept across it with a washcloth. In my mind, the questions kept coming rapid-fire. If Max hadn’t done the murders, who had? Why did I suspect that Rook knew more than he was letting on? And what the hell was I going to do with Max if he was innocent?
Everything in me said to off him and get the hell out, but if he was innocent, it would piss me off.
I didn’t end up sleeping that night. I sat in the armchair, waiting to see if Max would wake up. The more I thought about it, the more I doubted he had killed anyone. This, of course, sent me off on new tangents, trying to connect the dots to form a picture that right now, I just couldn’t see.
At about one-thirty, Max opened his eyes again. He levered himself off the bed, and when he found me sitting in the chair, he let out a sharp cry, tumbled over the edge, and scrambled back as far as he could.
“Relax. I’m not going to hurt you.” At least not yet. “What’s your name?”
He continued shouting, and I sure as hell couldn’t have someone calling the cops. I stalked toward him and knelt down. He whimpered and drew into the corner, his arms wrapped around himself. There was no way this kid was a cold blooded killer. In the heat of the moment, anyone was capable of murder, but this act had been too brutal. Thinking back on the scene, it almost seemed to me that it had been setup to appear as though Max had done it in a drug induced frenzy.
“Look, your name is Maximillian, right?”
His eyes watered and his lips wobbled as he dipped his chin once. “I hate that name. Can you just call me Max?”
I gave him a smile. “Yeah, I can do that. You can call me…” Aw, fuck. “You can call me Citadel.” I understood what Max meant, because I really hated codenames.
“What are you going to do to me?” His voice, barely a whisper, was filled with fear. And it was a good question, but one I didn’t have an answer to. I chose to ignore it for the moment.
“What can you tell me about tonight?”
He cocked his head slightly to the right. His eyes were somewhat more focused, but his pupils were still huge. “What?”
“Where were you tonight?
His eyes drifted shut as he dropped his head against the wall. “My parents called and said… They told me…” He opened and eyes and huffed. “I can’t remember.”
I didn’t want him to be afraid of me, but he had information I needed. There wasn’t an urge to growl at him, demand that he tell me the truth, but . . Funny thing was, I knew he had been. Against my better judgment, I whipped out my phone and called Lilah again. “He says he doesn’t remember.”
“It’s possible. Ativan, and the class of drugs like it, can really mess you up. It’s why it’s so strictly controlled.”
This job was going right down the shitter. “So now what?”
She sighed. I noticed she seemed to do that a lot when we talked. “He’s just coming out from under the influence.” She paused for a breath. “It’s very possible he may never remember what happened. Some of these drugs cause memory loss. It’s short term, but while under the influence, he likely won’t recall anything that happened. You’ve got to be patient. I know it’s nearly impossible for you, but you need to dial it back and let him get back up to speed.”
Lilah wasn’t wrong. I took a deep breath. I needed answers, but badgering Max wasn’t going to get them for me. “Thank you.”
“No problem. Again, if you need me to come out and see him, I will. It doesn’t have to be anywhere in particular.”
My gaze darted back to Max. He had his arms wrapped around his knees, and sat rocking gently. There was a twinge in my stomach I couldn’t identify, but I pushed away the thoughts it brought up.
“I’ll let you know.” I hung up before she responded. My choices were limited now. I could kill Max, thus completing my contract. It seemed like that should be my only option. I had a signed kill order, and this was what I do. But…
And the but was the problem. This whole mess had me screwed up in the head. My instincts told me Max wasn’t responsible, but Knight had shown me the files.
Until I figured it out, Max was going to stay alive and I was going to protect him.