Shadows in the Light: Oscar’s Story – Chapter Ten
I watched Knight like a hawk. For six days, I dogged his every step. He didn’t go many places, but when he left the house, I was on him. Trips to the store, to a restaurant, and once to see a play at the local community theater. It was all so normal, but… Something about it still set my teeth on edge.
Finally, I decided that the only way I’d get the information I wanted was to go in and look for it myself. And there was only one course of action I could take.
I went to his door and knocked.
When he opened, Knight’s smile was wide, genuine. It was the look of someone who hadn’t seen you in a long time. Not the expression someone who’d stabbed you in the back should have on their face. “I didn’t expect to see you.”
A knife twisted in my gut. He held out a hand, and I took it. I had fallen for this nice guy routine since I knew him, but this time I wasn’t about to let myself be sucked in again. If I was wrong, I would do whatever I had to in order to make it right. In my heart, I knew I wasn’t wrong. “Well, you haven’t been giving me any assignments, so thought I should check in on you.”
He laughed and went back to his desk, then gestured for me to sit. I dropped my bag beside the chair, and slumped into it. Knight tapped a key on his computer, and started typing. “Believe it or not, it’s been pretty slow. I’ve had two that were well below your pay grade. Both were easy in and out. No need to go undercover since the people in question weren’t exactly hiding.” He tapped his fingers on top of the desk. “Are you hurting for money or something?”
He knew better. Knight had access to my bank accounts. I’m sure it was meant as a joke, but for some reason I no longer found him funny.
“Nah, I’m good. So, who does a guy gotta blow to get some coffee around here?”
Knight stood. “Coffee is easy. I don’t have any made, but give me a few minutes and I’ll brew us a pot.”
“Sounds good. Then, after, we can get back to that conversation about your lips and my dick.”
He shook his head as he walked out the door. As soon as he was gone, I closed it and hurried to his computer. I did a quick search for Max’s name, not overly surprised when the file popped up. I opened it, my heart thudding like mad, and scanned it. It only took a few moments to find what I was looking for.
“Motherfucker.” Knight had noted a payment from he’d gotten from Mitchell Kearney. It didn’t say what it was for, but we didn’t take money for our assignments. Ever. There wasn’t much beyond it, but Knight had some explaining to do. Before I closed the search box, I noticed dozens of other files, some with names I remembered. Though I wasn’t religious by any means, I found myself tossing out wishes to anyone who might be listening that this wasn’t going to be as bad as I’d hoped.
I was wrong.
Anthony Degruddy—a payment of $75,000 was made to take him out. No reason given, but the kill order had been signed by Knight. Emma Plathos—a payment of $40,000. James David—$25,000. Then the one that gut-punched me and had me gasping for air. Scott DeVries—a payment of $10,000. DeVries had been my target. He was at the center of a child custody case, where, according to Knight, DeVries had been ordered to keep his distance because he’d abused the child. He hadn’t stayed away, and the the child was beaten nearly to death. He swore he hadn’t done it, but the jury didn’t believe the prosecutor’s story. They ended up deadlocked several times, before DeVries had been set free. This time someone finished the job on the little kid, but it couldn’t be pinned on DeVries. Knight had sent me after him. One bullet through the head made a big mess, but DeVries would never harm another child.
Only…he hadn’t. In black and white, with Knight’s authorization, I read that I’d terminated him with extreme prejudice and that payment had been made. Had I murdered someone for money?
The door opened and Knight stepped back into the room, carrying two coffee cups. When he saw what I was doing, his eyes went wide and his gaze began to dart around the room.
“You have one chance to explain this to me.”
“It’s not what you’re thinking.” He put the cups on the desk and stood up. “They were all legitimate kills.”
I shrugged a shoulder. “Sure. Even the ones where you took money to have them executed.”
Knight took a step toward the door. I unzipped the nylon bag and pulled out my gun. Standard, run of the mill gun you could buy in most alleys.
“Don’t bother. You’re not going to run far enough or fast enough for me to not catch you.”
Dots of perspiration trickled down his brow. I thought I would feel at least a bit of guilt, but after seeing what I had, all I felt was the cool rage that flooded my body.
“What you read isn’t what you think.”
I stood, calm as I could be. “Then you need to explain it to me. Make me understand how you’re selling our services.” He glanced toward the gun. “Tell me!”
“They’re going to die anyway. Someone contacts me, they arrange the payment, and I do the investigation. If I think there’s enough evidence, I’ll sign a kill order.”
My hand trembled. “And what about Max? Who the hell is Mitchell Kearney?”
Now I could see the panic in Knight’s eyes. “His brother.”
“You took money from someone who was going to frame the kid for murder?”
Knight paled, and everything slotted into place.
“Fuck. You had a hand in killing those people.”
“No! I didn’t know he was going to do that. The deal was that Max Kearney would never make it to them. The timetable I gave you should have been followed to the letter. Something went wrong.”
“That’s it? That’s the excuse you’re going with? Seven people are dead, Knight. Three of them were children who are never going to have another birthday.”
“It was a mistake!” He threw his hands in the air. “Fuck, you more than anyone should understand mistakes happening.”
“And what’s that supposed to mean?”
He glared at me. Those brown eyes that I’d always though were kind, now seemed like a snake’s. They held no warmth at all. “Your team. Those men who went in to take out a warlord. Friendly fire. They died because of a logistical fuckup. The military collaborated to hush it up.”
If Knight hoped to rattle me or throw me off my game, he was wrong. I’d come to terms with my team’s deaths—mostly—because they were warriors who died fighting the good fight. No matter what, each of them had gone out a hero. “Thanks. Good to know the truth. Now back to Max.”
Knight’s voice took on a nasally quality. “His family’s death was a mistake. It was only supposed to be Max.”
I splayed my hands out on the desktop, being sure to keep my gun within easy reach. Hearing Knight talk like this, to say it was ‘only’ Max pissed me off. “And why did his brother want him dead? It’s not like there was any money. The family was broke, about to declare bankruptcy, so I fail to see the payout here.”
“The insurance money. The parents had a huge policy that would pay out to all of the kids.”
Money. It always fucking came down to money. Only I’d put that blame on Max, thinking he’d be the one who would benefit.
“What did he offer you?” I jumped up and slammed my hand on the desk. “What the fuck is the going price to have those of us who protect people assassinate them?”
He shrank back, but I wasn’t in the mood anymore. I rushed around the desk, grabbed him by his throat, and shoved him back until he slammed into the door.
“How much, Knight?”
“T-t-two million dollars.”
“So the deaths of one young man and seven others is a paltry two million dollars. Good to know.” He backed up and I leapt over the desk, pushing him against the wall. I shoved the gun in his mouth, and his eyes went wide. I could see him begging me not to do this. “This is what I was going to do to Max. I was beyond angry, and wanted to make him pay for what I thought he’d done. The thing is, he was innocent. So was Scott DeVries. He never did a fucking thing, but you had me kill him. You made a murderer out of me.”
He hung limply in my grip, and in the space of a few seconds, all manner of potential outcomes flashed through my mind. I dismissed most of them, because there was only one way this was going to end.
I pulled the trigger. Knight’s body jolted back and slammed into the wall, then toppled over onto the carpet, the pool of blood spreading out from the fatal wound in his head. I waited for the shock or the guilt, but none came. Knight hadn’t been the person he pretended to be. He profited from the misery of others. And now he wouldn’t ever again.
Of course, this left me in a pretty shitty situation. Once it was determined that I’d killed him, the organization would be after me. They probably wouldn’t look kindly on people who murdered their bosses.
I took my phone from my pocket and typed in the number I’d hoped to never use.
His voice sounded not unlike Darth Vader. It was pretty cool, actually. I would have been impressed if the stain of blood wasn’t growing wider.
“This is Oscar. I need you to do me a favor.”
I heard a deep sigh from the other end of the line. “What have you done?”
“I killed Knight.”
“Care to tell me why?”
Rook was calm and grace under pressure, which I appreciated. I went down the list of Knight’s sins, and Rook listened. I understood why Haven had such respect for his handler. When I finished telling him what happened, I explained what I needed from him. “Max has to be kept safe at all costs. He can’t be mixed up in this. I’m happy to tell them what I’ve done, but they have to keep their hands off Max.”
A tapping sound came over the line. I imagined it was Rook’s finger on his desktop. I thought maybe he’d tell me to get stuffed and that my problems were just that.
“Here’s what I need you to do. You’ve got to listen to me and follow my instructions to the letter. Do you understand?”
I swallowed hard. “Yes, sir.”
“Go to his computer, bring up his screen if it’s still active.”
I did as he’d told me. “Yes, it’s still up.”
“Good. I want you to search for these files. Alpha One, Omega Blue, Cyan Six, Ellipsis Nine. When you find them, I want you to offload them to either a thumb drive, or a virtual server. You must get hard copies of these and put them somewhere that no one but you is aware of.”
I followed his directions, finding the files and putting them on my virtual drive where I could retrieve them later. “Finished.”
“Now comes the part where you confess to what you’ve done. This is going to be dicey, you need to know that. The higher ups don’t take kindly to dissension in the ranks. They will be angry and will try to issue a kill order with your name on it.”
“I figured. I’m okay with dying, as long as Max is kept safe.”
Rook grumbled. “I’m trying to keep you both safe. Now open up his mail client.”
I knew that Rook was taking a huge risk by helping me. “Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me. You’re going to owe me, and one day I’ll collect on that debt. Now here’s what I want you to do. In the To: field, I want you to type AK7173@chessboardx.com and enter the subject as ‘My resignation’.”
After I’d finished doing that, Rook dictated the letter. He had me tell them that Knight was corrupt, that he’d been sending agents out to kill for money that he then claimed as his own. How I’d found out about it and decided it was necessary to end the threat to our organization who prided itself on the rules. After, he had me add that I’d taken information as a means of protecting myself from reprisal, and that any attempt or action taken against me would result in those files being distributed.
“This sounds like I’m burning a lot of bridges.”
“Because you are. Once you’ve done this, you can never undo it. You need to think carefully about whether this is—”
I signed my name and hit send. “Done.”
“Okay.” He sighed. “I’m going to wish you luck, Oscar. I hope this is worth it for you.”
“It is. I won’t allow an innocent to be hurt if I can help it. Plus, knowing that Knight had me kill someone for money? That kind of taints what we’re here to do.”
“I won’t bother to argue as it’s a moot point now. Now, get out of there, and don’t look back. Godspeed, Oscar.”
He hung up. It hit me that I was now well and truly screwed. I’d have to give up everything that belonged to the agency. My house, my property. Man, that sucked. I had to give myself a mental shake. The fact that my life had become a shambles didn’t matter. What needed to be focused on was the fact Max would be safe.
At least after I dealt with that other problem.
Finding Max’s brother wasn’t difficult. Turned out the son of a bitch had moved into their parents’ home. He’d gotten a lawyer who had found someone sympathetic and had the will expedited so that his family house wouldn’t be lost. He claimed emotional distress, and his lawyer had argued about the toll this whole ordeal took on him. To lose not only his parents, but his beloved sibling? The judge pushed everything through quickly, and Mitchell inherited millions. Though I no longer had the resources I used to, I wouldn’t let this go. That was Max’s house, and he deserved it.
I could wax lyrical about how I tracked Mitchell Kearney. How he begged and pleaded for his life, and how I sneered at him and told him he wasn’t worth half the man his brother was before I pulled the trigger. But, no. None of that happened.
The truth of it is that I rang the bell and when he answered it, a wide smile on his smug face, I shot him in the chest. He toppled over, eyes open, wheezed once or twice, then died. No muss, no fuss, and no guilt. I gave thought to someone finding his body, especially now that there wouldn’t be a cleanup crew, but I figured there were enough murders in the Milwaukee area that one more wouldn’t be that big of a deal.
The one thing I wasn’t looking forward to was telling Max the truth. He’d already thought he lost everything, only to find out that there’s always something else you can lose.
When I got home—after being gone two weeks—Max came flying out of the house and into my arms. I would have sworn he was part octopus the way he clung to me and had his hands everywhere.
“You’re okay. Tell me you’re okay.”
I peeled him off me. “I’m fine.”
“What happened? Did you…”
“Yeah, I did. And we need to talk.”
There wasn’t any sense in prolonging this anymore. Max followed me into the house, clutching my arm. When we got to the living room, I indicated that he should take a seat. I called Lilah in, so she could be there for him when he got pissed and demanded to leave. She sat next to him and took his hand. I could see the two of them had become close in my absence.
I told them the story, from beginning to end. Everything I’d discovered, all the things I’d done. I left out the graphic details about shooting Knight, but left no doubt that he was dead. Then I told Max about his brother. I could see the moment the news hit home. His face scrunched up and his fist clenched. He squeezed Lilah’s tighter than before.
“He’s… He’s dead?”
“Yes.” I waited for the explosion. And, again, Max surprised me.
“Mitch always loved having money. He thought it made him important. I had no idea about the insurance policies, because I didn’t really care. Money caused me more problems than it solved. It was always hard to tell if someone liked you for who you were, or if they wanted to be your friend because you could buy them things.”
“I’m sorry.” I hadn’t meant to say it, but it seemed appropriate.
He gave a sad smile. “Thanks. It should hurt more. Maybe after I think about it the pain will come. But right now, I find it hard to care like I should.”
“Probably. But you’re free now. You can go back to your life without worrying about whether someone is going to come after you. And you’ll have the money to do whatever you want.”
Max nodded, stood up, and turned to Lilah. “Can you take me back to the bus station?”
“Sure, if that’s what you want.”
He glanced over at me. “I guess.”
Max trudged off toward his room. Lilah stood up and glared at me. “If I had a towel, I’d snap you again.”
“For fuck’s sake, woman. Why now?”
“Max just lost everything, and I mean everything and you’re going to toss him out.”
Toss him out? I never said he had to go. “I’m not forcing him out.”
She held up a hand and made like her fingers were talking. “Oh, you can go back to your life.”
The way she mimicked me was pretty damn eerie.
“Did you ask Max what he wanted? Or are you so concerned with him leaving that it doesn’t matter?”
I held up a hand. “Okay, can I do anything that’s not going to piss you off?”
She pursed her lips. “Knowing you? Probably not.”
“What do you want me to do? What will make you happy?”
“Give him a chance to decide. These last few months he’s had no say in his life. Let him have one now.”
“Fine.” I huffed. “If nothing else, I’ll do it to shut you up.”
I trailed after Max and knocked on the door to his room. “Come in.” I opened it and found him throwing some clothes into a paper bag.
“I’ve got a suitcase if you want that.”
He shook his head. “This is fine. Unless you don’t want me to take the clothes. I can leave them, since you paid for them and all.”
His words were soft, but they had quite the edge to them. “What? No, those are yours to do with whatever you want.” I walked over to the bed and sat at the edge. “Listen, I was thinking that maybe I should ask you what you wanted to do. I mean, I know this is all a lot to take in, and if you need some time—”
“No, it’s fine.”
It didn’t sound fine. I reached out and put a hand on his arm. His skin pebbled. “Max? Will you look at me?”
He turned in my direction. His expression was that of someone on the verge of a breakdown. “I’m getting out. What more do you want from me?”
“The truth. Remember how we deal with lies? Do you want to be over my lap again?”
His cheeks pinked, and he fluttered his eyes a bit. “Yes.”
The answer confused me for a few moments. “Yes?”
“I want to be over your lap. I don’t want to go. I like it here. I like… I like taking care of you.”
Well, fuck me. “You know what I did.”
“Yeah, I do. You protected me. You’ve been doing it for months. And I… I like it. I’ve never had anyone care about what I want. I was supposed to be the dutiful son, do what my parents wanted. Then I met you and that changed. You cared that I was safe, you needed to be sure I wasn’t hurt. You cared about me. I don’t want to leave.”
I held out my arms and he threw himself into them.
“Don’t make me go. Please. At least not yet. Give me some time.”
I stroked his back until he calmed down. “You don’t have to go anywhere until you’re ready. I’m happy to have you stay.”
His eyes lit up. “Really?”
“Yeah. To be honest, I like having you here. Come on, we should probably talk to Lilah.”
Max followed behind me, his hand on my arm. When we told Lilah, I swear she was happier than Max. She beamed a smile so radiant that it seemed pretty freaky, given the way she normally scowled at me.
Over the next few weeks, Max made himself at home. He was no longer afraid he had to go, so he stopped walking on eggshells and things went back to normal. Or, at least, our version of it. He still made breakfast, still took care of the house, and now he’d added taking care of me to his list of things to do. He still found time to paint incredible pictures that we hung in the house with pride.
The biggest change came to our relationship over the next few weeks. Somehow Max had gone from having his own room to being in my bed full-time. What had been his room had been turned into a studio. A easel, drop cloths, all manner of brushes, paints in every color of the rainbow, and a stereo system that Max enjoyed listening to when he worked. Fortunately, he played it loud enough that it drowned out him singing. He still hadn’t gotten any better at that.
My life underwent some incredible changes in rapid succession. The first shock was when I got a call from an unknown number. The person on the other end identified himself as King, and told me that I had a brass set on me. He said he liked that in a person, but that I ought to not push beyond my reach. He told me that I was free and clear of the agency, that there would be no repercussions, as long as the information I’d taken never saw the light of day. I had no idea if my word was good enough, but it was all he was going to get.
We talked about my relationship with Max. I admit, I was shocked as hell that he knew about it, but he let me know that very little happened he wasn’t aware of. Turns out that Max had become the sole beneficiary of his parent’s will. Max shocked the hell out of me when he said he didn’t want the money. In fact, he didn’t want anything to do with that life, and wished he could have a do-over. Somehow King made that happen, as well as making sure the money from the will went to the Wisconsin Humane Society. Max went from being Maximillian Kearney to being Max Dobson, local artist. I didn’t dare ask how the hell King had arranged it.
The second big surprise came a month later when I decided that I couldn’t handle the lifestyle of the idle rich. I needed to be in the action. While returning to the agency was no longer an option, that didn’t mean I couldn’t become a freelancer. It started out small. Mostly bodyguard assignments, which weren’t bad. Then, as time went by and I gained a reputation, I got bigger cases that involved gunplay. Those were awesome. Eventually, though, I got the ones that people wanted kept off the books. They were more like the work I’d done for the organization. Covert, at best. And some of them got pretty damn bloody. The problem came in when I realized I needed help.
The decision made, I needed to put a team together to take care of the things that Knight used to, I tentatively reached out to Rook for his suggestions. Imagine the shock that came when my first candidate showed up at my door.
She threw her arms around me and hugged me, before stepping back and smacking my arm. “Where the hell have you been? I’ve tried calling, I looked you up online. It’s like you disappeared. If I hadn’t gotten a call from some guy telling me he knew where you were, I probably wouldn’t have found you at all.”
Fuck if I had a clue what was going on. She handed me a letter.
“This should explain everything.”
I opened it and took out a single sheet of paper.
You wanted a crew. Here she is. You already know her, so it should be pretty easy to get her up to speed on what you’re doing. Good luck. ~R
“How did you… I mean why are… Shit.” I scrubbed a hand over my head. “What are you doing here?”
She laughed and let herself into my house. Max came in from the other room, saw Gina, and turned around.
He stopped when she said his name. “Yes.” His voice had gone soft. Max wasn’t keen on people. Since I’d talked him into not wearing the colored contacts, he worried that the teasing he’d endured as a child would make a reappearance. Thus far, it hadn’t, which I was grateful for. I’d hate to have to kill someone.
She held out a hand. “I’m Gina. I’m going to be working with Oscar.”
“What the what now?”
When Gina laughed, I noticed that the lightness I’d heard in her tone when we first met wasn’t there anymore. The chuckle had been forced and I regretted its loss.
“I want to help you.”
“Okay, how does one go from being a former nun to wanting to help someone who does the work I do?”
She shrugged. “I thought about it a lot. After what you did to Kevin, I prayed. I asked God to tell me that the feelings I harbored were wrong, and to help me get over them. I read the bible. I talked with my spiritual advisor—not mentioning I knew who killed Kevin. And you know what each of them told me? That God had a plan for me, and I realized that while it may not seem right or moral or ethical, sometimes the hardest decisions in life were to do the wrong things for the right reasons.
“You know I give talks to people about how to avoid domestic violence. You’re actually out there doing something. Do I agree with your methods? No. I truly wish there were a better way.” She stroked a hand over her ribs. “I know what’s involved, though. Better now than I think I ever did.”
“Okay, so how do you think you can help me?”
Her face lit up. “The guy who recruited me? He has been giving me training. I get to blow shit up, but also be in charge of my own crew. I’ve got people who know how to…” She turned a little green. “…dispose of a body, people who can spin a tale so fantastic, you’re going to want to give them your firstborn, a woman who’s former military and excels at reading people.”
“I don’t get it. How can you justify giving up on your core beliefs like that?”
She tapped her fingers on her leg. “I don’t think I am. I’m still going to be helping people. I mean, I’m not going to go out and kill them, but me—and my team—can be there to back you up. We can divert, disseminate, and destroy stuff if necessary.”
That sounded a lot like what the team that worked for Knight had done. “These people… Are they former associates?”
She nodded. “Rook contacted them and got them together. He put me in charge of them.” A deep sigh. “Look, I’m not saying this is going to be easy, and I’m sure as heck not saying I’ll be able to do it once we get down to the nitty gritty, but you saved me. I owe you more than I can ever repay.”
“You don’t owe me a damn thing.”
“Fine, maybe I owe it to myself then. A chance to build a life where I call my own shots. Where I’m making a difference. When Rook called and we talked, he told me about some of the things you’ve done. It’s horrifying, and I know that God is all about vengeance being his, but sometimes a weapon is needed. Maybe you’re his sword.”
“If that’s what it takes to help you to be comfortable with my job.”
She laughed. “It doesn’t. None of this makes any sense to me, but Rook explained it was important work, and I get it. I want to be part of helping to save a person, mind, body, and soul, instead of just the aftermath. Plus I can go out for pizza and beer now.”
I laughed at her, and even Max snickered. “Gina, you need to be—”
She didn’t hesitate or waver in the least. “I’m sure, Oscar. I want to help you help other people. Let me do that.”
And with those words, my team was ready.