James the Assassin : James Chartrand
The limousine pulled over at the curb and I tipped down my sun rays for a quick search of the location. I was in the danger zone – a gunslinger with no armour on.
It didn’t matter. This wasn’t astronaut science. This wasn’t for a journalism piece. This was retaliation, revenge in its purest.
And as I stepped from the idling limo, I whispered three words to my as-yet-unseen and very unsuspecting victim.
“Bang,” I said softly. “You’re dead.”
(Shane’s note: James forgot the word “poodle” but claims he killed it prior. I won’t argue with an assassin.)
“One thing leads to another…” I sang softly to the car’s radio, enjoying the blare of music over the usual tranquility of the hum of tires on road. Yeah, that felt right. Unlimited access to rockin’ music, perfect for an extrovert like me, and the high beams of my lights shining like a lantern in the darkness.
Then I slowed the car. There it was. The hit – and a bad one, too. Just over the barrier to the graveyard and between the lines of men, there was my hit. Unmistakable. Impossible.
It was a coffin. “Mom always said being a dishwasher was better than being a ruffian,” I groaned. And she was right. Hit man for a dead man?
“What a daydreamer. You really think silkworms are the solution?”
James winced at the tone that carried through the phone lines. “It’s worth a shot, isn’t it?”
“You got lucky that last hit,” muttered the voice. “It won’t last.”
James wrapped a closed fist around the chunk of iron ore. His tendons pulled, reminding him of his healing injury, but he’d take painkillers later on. This wasn’t the time to get phobias about a little boo-boo.
“Yeah, I know,” he offered. “But we were on the same wavelength. Kelly and I get alon-… Hang on,” he told the voice and leaned out the window to say something to the passerby below.
“A catcall. Really, James, isn’t that beneath you? One would think you’d desire more of a… distinguished air.”
“Nah.” James settled back in his chair with a cocky grin. “I’d say it’s just my style. So back to those silkworms…”
“You sick fucker!” The culmination of my rage had hit the breaking point, and I tried to stuff the bubble wrap in the victim’s mouth. “Try to use me as a scapegoat for your problems, eh? EH?!”
Alright, so that was a little irregular for one of my usual hits, but the instructions did say “subdue, wrap up tightly and stick victim in birdcage.” No problemo.
I stuffed the bubble-wrapped body into the cage, little by little, ignoring the muffled shouts for mercy. “Take that, you rat bastard… Hope the stink of ammonia makes your eyes melt!” I even gave her a good swift kick in the ass before slamming closed the door. I set the bomb – cleverly hidden in a gumdrop on the side of a brick – nearby and let it tick away the seconds.
And then I left. On horseback. What better way to say goodbye to this ghost town?
This was a deathtrap. That was his only thought as he scratched the fake goatee while observing the asylum from the alleyway. She would clobber him. All he had was a switchblade in his pocket and some gunpowder to create a diversion.
Brains, though. He had brains. More than she did.
Stupidity, really. Hits like these weren’t even worth his time. The victim was playing the “I’m innocent!” card, like some child from kindgergarten, putting on a face full of sorrow and claiming it had all been done in the name of love.
James knew better. It had been in the name of greed. And now she had to be stopped.
“This is a deathtrap,” he muttered, then crossed the street to begin his hit.
“Aw, come on. Would I lie to you?” James grinned into the phone.
“Do you really want me to answer that?” The voice held a touch of amusement. “You may be a real beauty on a hit, Jamie, but every rose has a thorn.”
“And I suppose you’re as sweet as the scent of vanilla,” he quipped back.
“Like I just said, we all have a skeleton in our closet. Listen, are you going to schmooze me all day or get on with the hit? We have to take this one down.” All business, all the time. “Just remember to follow the plan. Cross the freeway, make sure no one sees the dagger and keep your hyperactive little brain in check, would you?”
“Yeah, yeah. No problem.” She was no fun at all, and James rolled his eyes. “Hey, when I get back from the hit, you and I are going to celebrate. I’ll take you out on the town.”
“I dare you,” she shot back, knowing there was no way James could resist.
He grinned. “You’re on, toots. See you in an hour.”
And he hung up the phone.
The sting had gone badly. He pressed his back to the cold bricks of the alleyway wall, clinging to the cesspool of shadows that would hide him. He slid down the alley a bit more, but only managed to bang his head on a windowsill that stuck out like a tablet. The dumpster nearby smelled rancid.
“My paycheck isn’t big enough for this shit,” James muttered.
The hostage he’d dragged with him as a human shield gave a muffled response from behind James’ hand.
James rolled his eyes. “Shut up. This is your fault, you know. Dressing up like me… what were you thinking? I should leave you on a glacier in Nunavut with just a Coke can to piss in,” he hissed in the imposter’s ear.
The hostage struggled slightly then fell silent, eyes wide and watching the streets.
He watched too, and it wasn’t long before he could hear footsteps. They sounded close – very close – but that was just an illusion of echoes. Soon… soon he’d be able to make a break for it. He’d push the body in front of him, knock the hunter down and run for his life.
Not a very prestigious escape for a womanizer like him. But then again, every dog had its day. This was his.
“Slow and easy… slow and easy…” James murmured to himself as he brought the gun to eye level, sighting his victim across the park. 100 feet. She’d be like an innocent deer going down.
From the corner of his eye, he noticed the shadow slipping behind a tree. Good. They were both in position now – the hit couldn’t leave the park’s fragrant warmth alive. That was the reason headquarters sent him out with a veritable doppelganger.
The victim sat on a park bench and James swore under his breath. Nearby, a couple embraced as if cupid had struck them, ignorant of the near-luminescent glow of attraction they threw off. But that wasn’t what bothered him. What bothered James was that there was a potential butterfly effect of fear if he took his shot. The whole park would go wild.
He tilted his head and lifted a hand to the radio on his shoulder. “I’m calling it off,” he muttered into it. “It’s a trespass situation.” The velvet voice of his simpatico hit partner confirmed his order, and James noticed the man turning away from the tree to blend into the park’s walkers as if he’d never been aiming a gun.
James did the same, walking out of the park and passing two feet near his victim. She was lucky today.
She might not be tomorrow.
In which James gets some…
“Fall on me.” She tugged at his head, giving him a sultry smile from where she lay, arching a touch when he traced a lazy finger down her nude body.
James gave her a slow smile back. “I already did.” He would never have guessed how easy it was to become captivated by the eyes of a stranger. And yet, here he was in bed, smoking contraband pot with the woman he’d met on the street, a sidestep to protocol for sure.
He’d catch hell from central headquarters if they found out.
“Time to get back to work.” James sat up and scrubbed his hair. “If I stay here any longer, it’ll be the death of me.” He glanced back at the woman over his shoulder, noticing how the glow from the fishtank in the room gave her skin a faint shimmer.
God, he wanted her. Again.
He stood abruptly, snatching up his shirt from the chair. “I have to go.” It was the one with a bright blue dolphin emblazoned on the front. “If I’m not at the meadow at five…” Shit. It was 4.30 already.
But damn she was tempting. “You wanna hook up later? Get a bowl of gumbo or something… ”
“How about a helping of what we had for lunch?” She arched an eyebrow in invitation.
“You’re on.” James grinned. “Maybe I’ll even have extras.”
“This was the best idea ever. Ever.” James took another bite of pizza, closing his eyes in happiness. The club was packed, the music was good, and people looked like they’d dance all night.
The aroma in the air was one of party time.
He deserved that. It had been a hard damned week. The outlook was good, but dealing with the carnage of a hit gone bad because of some berserk asshole who wouldn’t shut up until James pulled the trigger had gotten to him.
This kind of life wasn’t easy – not easy at all.
But he could handle it. He could handle anything. He could even get up on stage, grab the microphone and sing karaoke to AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” if he wanted.
Oh yeah. That song was his anthem.
“You know, this is almost better than reading porn in my pyjamas,” he told Kelly as he polished off the last slice of pizza. “Not that I do that, but if I did, I’d say this night tops it off. It’s good to relax and get out.” Kelly had dropped by his place earlier and found him cursing over a broken Wii joystick. She’d made him put it down, told him he needed a break, and then hauled him to the club. “We should do this more often.”
“Don’t count on it,” Kelly smirked. “I hear Headquarters has something big planned for you this week. A major hit. You’ll be busy. But well-rested ,” she added, patting his arm. “All work and no play makes Jamie a dull boy.”
And then she grinned. “Go get ‘em, tiger.”
The setup was perfect. A glass of red wine sat on the tablecloth near a lit candle, its flame flickering romantically. The room was warm and comfortable. The photograph on the wall was soothing.
There was no drama here. No scary monsters. No stain of death, no morgue.
Perfect. Just perfect.
The plan was that she would arrive, hopeful and nervous, excited at being invited to his home for dinner. She’d have made sure her makeup was perfect, her hair just right, her clothes revealing just enough to make him want more. Her face would be flushed with a hurricane of anticipation – a date with James.
He didn’t care.
The dinner invitation was just a prophylactic cover up. No accidents here. He’d wine her, dine her and then as he fed her the last strawberry from desert, he’d suggest a walk. Down by the pier, perhaps, where the water and stars would be romantic.
Then he’d shoot her. What an unfortunate accident – the young, lovely couple attacked, and the thugs ran away. He’d plead the police, the ambulance drivers for a wheelchair, begging them as if he was in denial, hysterical with grief.
Yes, it was perfect. Like a lamb to a slaughter.
“You’re going to die.” James’ voice was calm and almost pleasant as he pressed the muzzle of his Luger to the man’s forehead and whispered in his ear. He felt no remorse. None at all.
“Do you hear me? I can feel how evil you are in my gut, and you’re going to die.” The man could barely gibber out frightened sounds. “Felony doesn’t even come close to what you’ve done. You’ve created the revolution of Lucifer himself – and I thought that guy was unbeatable.”
James took the gun away from the man’s head and slowly, slowly walked around him, almost lost in thought as he talked away. “You have no idea of the riptide you’ve caused for people. Do you?” The victim shook his head violently.
“That’s too bad,” James sighed sadly. “It’s hard to kill you knowing that you don’t even acknowledge what a vagrant bastard you are. I nearly prayed for some lightning bold of understanding to hit you, but I guess my dreams were too lush.”
He stopped in front of the sweating man again, idly checking his gun. “Ah well. You always did disappoint me, didn’t you. I guess that was your thing. Well, goodbye,” James smiled.
And then he lifted the gun to the man’s head and blew out his brains.
“If I could turn back time…” James’ falsetto rendition of Cher’s song crackled over the tiny microphone in her ear.
“That’s not really an appropriate anthem for a sniper slaughter,” Kelly hissed, trying not to move her lips. “And be quiet. Someone’ll hear you and they’ll think I’m some poor foreigner struggling with lunacy.”
“It’s a luxury liner,” James’ voice came back to her, thankfully speaking more quietly. “They won’t care. You spot him yet?”
“No.” She’d stepped on the cruise hours ago and as soon as the passengers were allowed to do so, had begun wandering the deck looking for the hit. “You’d think a tyrant like him would be easier to spot.”
“Just follow the cocaine breadcrumbs, baby,” James shot back. He was in position high up where no one could see him and he could quickly move to get a shot in. The rifle in his hands was built for that kind of long-distance precision. “Sniff the wind for the residue.”
Kelly rolled her eyes again. “I’m beginning to wonder if you’re the one that’s been sniffing too much residue lately.” She knew James was just relaxed and enjoying himself, though. “Hang on, I think I… There.” The hit was standing at the bar, laughing, head thrown back while women clung to his rich, fat paunch.
And then she realized the microphone had gone silent. “James? Jamie?” Kelly lifted a hand and tried to tap the bud without anyone noticing where it was clipped to her collar.
But there was no answer. The connection was broken.
“Butternet… honeybee… cupcake…I promise… anything, please…” The victim panted the words out, grabbing at anything she thought might free her from this nightmare. Hours she’d spent already, begging and pleading for mercy until she thought she’d go insane.
But there was no mercy. There was only James, sitting comfortably in a plush armchair on the other side of the room, casually admiring his gun while the woman babbled out attempts to find the magic words that would have him walk across the room and untie her instead of kill her.
A nice woman actually. Businessperson, aged 42, no kids at all and her childbearing years almost over. But the trail of her devastation was all over the place. She used people. Abused them. Manipulated them. And someone had finally had enough of her head games.
They called James.
“You know, I really thought I’d possibly find your human side,” he smiled coolly to the woman, lowering his gun to gaze at her. She looked like a gibbering fanatic – weak, not invincible. “But there is none, is there. Ah, well.”
If he lifted the gun and pulled the trigger, the hammer would fall and she’d be gone, forever. Done. Over. But his instructions were very clear. Just 22 hours and 18 minutes to go.
James winced. It was going to be a long, long night.
“Perfect. You look totally 80s,” Kelly patted James shoulders happily. “It’ll be a miracle if anyone thinks different.”
James plucked hopelessly at hair that felt like it had epoxy glue holding it up. “I suppose… Thank god I drew the line at the tattoo.”
“Oh come off it. You know you want one,” Kelly rolled her eyes. “You’re just chicken. Old dinosaur,” she stuck out her tongue.
“Look, they’re not reversible,” James pointed out, squinting down at the elephant-ear pants. “Do you blame me?”
“You’ll be every girl’s poison. Just think about it,” Kelly smirked. “They’ll be in dreamland.”
“I’d pass out. They’d have to cart me out of the shop in a wheelbarrow.” He hated this outfit. But at least it would get him in the club for the hit. “Alright, am I ready?” James spread his arms and twirled.
“Beautiful.” Kelly kissed his cheek and slapped his gun in his palm. “Go get ‘em, tiger.”
Something hard and cold stuck to his temple at the very same moment he felt a body press up behind his.
“Don’t turn around,” the smooth, male voice whispered in his ear, and the man felt his heart freeze, ice running through his veins.
“You’re a fucking crackpot, you know that?” James’ mouth was very close to the victim’s ear, his words as soothing as a lover’s. “You have a lot of people upset with you. A lot of rage going on. Show’s over, though,” he smiled evilly. “Your face is going to be in the tabloids – only there won’t be much left of it.”
“Who the fuck are you, you bastard?” The victim’s voice aimed for cold but sounded thick with fear.
James switched sides, bringing his mouth to the other man’s ear and giving him a shove from behind. “None of your business. You’re not very good at this, are you. It’s like taking candy from a baby. Not much fun, that,” he pouted. “I like to play.”
“Don’t tell me what you like to do, you… you…”
“Motherfucker?” James suggested the word lovingly. “Mm. But let’s not harp on what I am. It’s all been said before. No, let’s talk about you.”
The muzzle of the gun pressed harder against the man’s head, and the victim went ramrod straight, sucking in his breath sharply, which only made James smile more.
“Let’s recap, shall we? I’m going to blow your brains out. Right here. Right now.” There was the sound of water dribbling on the asphalt, and an acrid smell wafted up. James pursed his lips coolly.
“Ah, now look at that mischief. You’ve gone and pissed your pants.” James sighed, stepping back a touch. “Oh well. I suppose you had to leave something behind.”
And he pulled the trigger with all the cold grace of a one-night stand walking out the door.
“Relax,” he whispered. “This won’t hurt a bit.”
Faint whispers of fear were all he received in return, as James slid the needle of the tranquilizer shot into the victim’s skin. He smiled into panic-widened eyes, completely ignoring the terror that made the individual tied tightly into the chair tremble.
“Now then. We’re halfway there.” James dropped the hypodermic to the floor and walked casually over to a chair facing the victim, turning it around to sit on it backwards. “A little primitive as far as methods go, I know, but very effective, I assure you. Oh, I nearly forgot.”
He got up and came over to rip the duct tape off the victim’s mouth, balling it up to toss it away as he sauntered back to his chair. The whimpers didn’t turn to screams, and James was pleased with the relative solitude of the dark room.
“Very good. Now, we can do this all night long, or you can tell me exactly what happened with that waitress and the medallion. And just in case you’ve forgotten what I’m talking about,” he added, “I mean this one.”
A hand reached back to the steel metal table and picked up a silver chain and disc, holding it up to swing like a pendulum before the victim.
“I know you thought you could get away with this,” James went on as the victim’s eyes began to droop sleepily from the drugs. “But the truth is that you’re an uneducated dropout without even enough brains to know what you’ve gotten yourself into. Lucky you – my instructions aren’t to kill you.”
He smiled gently – viciously – at the victim. “But by the time I’m done with the spacesuit I was given and what I was told to do with you…”
He leaned forward and whispered. “You’ll wish you were dead.”
“They’re called ‘unstressed syllables‘,” James pointed to the page. Then he smirked. “Knucklehead.”
“Are you takin’ the piss?” The Brit frowned at the mild teasing.
“Absolutely not,” James crossed his arms casually. “Just putting the crowbar to your skills to see what’s underneath.”
“Lots of Demarol.” A wry look crossed the Brit’s face. “I’m a freak of nature, y’know. Just for the sake of some sizzle.”
“Ahh, no, you’re a beast of nature,” James grinned. “A real lady’s man.”
The Brit’s eyebrows raised, and grinned back. “If I’m a real lady’s man, what does that make you then, a pansy?”
“Here I am!” James called out as he stuck his head in the door, obviously waiting for someone to cheer his presence with pleasure.
Nothing. No gold trumpets, no cheers, no glad smiles. Just an empty home on a sunny afternoon, the staircase to the second floor the only thing to greet him.
So much for the innocence of adulthood, expecting fanfare.
“Well, you’d think they would make a fuss,” he muttered as he walked in, loosely ambling towards the kitchen for some food like a hungry sixteen-year-old…
“There seems to be a misunderstanding.” James pursed his lips, calm and thoughtful. “You see, this isn’t a negotiation. This is me, setting down the terms and conditions. And it’s vital – essential, even – that you abide by them if I’m to get out of here by 9pm.”
He held up an electric cattle prod. “Which is why I’ll have to use this if you show any resistance. I’m not about to miss that date for you, or for anyone. Your prerogative, of course.” He smiled.
“Look, fuckhead, nobody told me anything!” The victim’s eyes were wide, staring at the tool in James’ hand. “It’s some misunderstanding! Alright? Just a misunderstanding!”
“No, I’m afraid it’s not,” James replied, tilting the cattle prod to observe it, examine it smoothly. “This is a tug of war in a power struggle that is absolutely all about pride and that really has nothing to do with you in the first place. But there you have it.” His gaze flicked to the victim’s face and James smiled again.
“Fuck you, asshole,” the man spat at James, missing by just inches.
“Ah, now that wasn’t very nice.” James looked down at the floor and shook his head. “And we were getting along so well…” He sighed and set down the tool in his hand, replacing it with a gun that he pointed straight between the victim’s eyes. “Well, then. That settles it. In a moment, oblivion.”
“Unless you behave, of course,” James added, his smile turning cruel. “As I said earlier. Your prerogative.”
The woman’s flesh was dead white and cold as ice. Even in death, there was love on her face. He could see it clearly, crouched as he was down by her body. The bullet he’d shot into her, taking her life, didn’t destroy that beauty.
Love. Even in death. Loud and clear, unmistakable.
Sometimes he hated his job.
He rose swiftly, tucking his gun away and pushing guilty thoughts out of his mind. They were like bedbugs, crawling around, and if he let one of them skitter too much into the light, then he’d be useless at his job. A killer who couldn’t destroy. No, he couldn’t let himself fall into that trap.
So casually, coolly, he cricked his neck as if it had a kink, and rolled his head once to relax his tight muscles. The plastic idol he’d been given, the one he was to leave behind as a mark, got dropped onto the woman’s body. It made a soft, thunking sound as it hit her chest.
He wouldn’t cry over it. James simply left, strides swift as he walked away from the scene of the crime.
The smack of palm hitting skin sounded sharply in the empty underground garage. “You’re holding back on me,” Jacob hissed at the sobbing victim. He yanked her head back to grimace in her face, the cheek he’d hit bright red with color. “My patience is hanging by a thread! But you’ll learn,” he leered.And then a hand clamped down on Jacob’s forearm. He jerked his head up.
“Please.” There was steel in James’s voice. “This isn’t how we do things around here. At least, not on my shift. If you want to keep your head on your shoulders, then you follow my rules. It’s that simple.”
For a few seconds, they stared at each other in challenge. Jacob with vicious intent and James with that calm, firm gaze. And then Jacob ripped himself away from the victim, going to stand in between two distant cement columns with a sneer on his face.
“Now then.” James turned to the woman, placing a cool hand on her head to smooth her hair back. “I’m sorry about this. Really. But, I really need your help, okay?”
She whimpered, but she nodded.
“Good. Thank you.” He patted her cheek and gave her a smile. “We’ll take it slow. Let’s start with the channel…”
And so it began.
“When I grow up, I want just one thing.” James casually lowered the gun in his hand, sighted and aimed at the faraway target, then lifted it again.
“What’s that, handsome?” Kelly barely glanced up from where she sat against the wall. She’d been writing in her notepad and knew that James was just in one of those musing moods, talking out loud.
He grinned at her. She hadn’t bothered to tell him he was already grown up, and somehow, that was always a good sign.
Kelly rolled her eyes. “Flirt.”
“Alright, alright.” James’ grin was even wider, but the joking had helped his slippery mood settle into something better, and when he lowered the gun again, sighting down its barrel, his aim was perfect and true. “I want to know that this isn’t the end. That… Well, I guess that this wasn’t wrong. That… there’s something better.”
He pulled the trigger. The empty click of an unloaded revolver suddenly gave James’ mood a hollow feeling. He didn’t like it. It sounded like fear.
“Never mind me,” he turned away, tossing the gun on a nearby table and turning his back on Kelly. “It was just a thought.”
“James.” Kelly set her notebook down and looked up at him. “That thought is so far away that it’s not even worth thinking about.” She cocked her head. “Are you thinking of getting out?”
The look he shot her over his shoulder was irritated. “No, of course not. I was just thinking. It was silly. Forget it.”
“Good.” Always pragmatic, always firm. Always moving on. “Now that you know it was silly, you can come over here to sit and keep me company while I write. You smell good today. Like cinnamon spice.”
“Flirt,” he muttered… and then he grinned.
His whisper was soft. “Just a little closer… a little closer…”
The woman’s eyes were full of terror, her face wet with tears, but she shuffled a fraction of an inch closer to the line. Closer to James. She whimpered, and he soothed her gently.
“Shhh… ” He put a finger under her chin and lifted it to look into her eyes. “It won’t last forever.” The small clock ticked nearby, counting down the seconds. “Two minutes and 4 seconds, that’s all. You can handle that, right? Then it’ll be over.”
He tried to smile, but he couldn’t. Two minutes and 4 seconds, then her body would explode. Blessed release for them both.
She bit her lip to stave its quivering and squeezed her eyes shut, trying to nod, but James’ finger held firm.
“Look at me.” He tried to make his voice casual, and the woman opened her eyes to meet his. “There’s still the alternative. It’s no problem. I can stop the clock now.” They both knew what he meant.
She didn’t respond. She hadn’t accepted then, and she wouldn’t change her mind now. That’s just who she was. Never a doubt.
One minute, 41 seconds.
But he could do something. James whirled, snatching up something from the table, turning swiftly to jab it down into the woman’s skin. She shouted, the bark of fear ripping from her, but then he was done, the plunger of the needle pushed down, the liquid inside already working to help her mind float away.
One minute, 9 seconds. He dropped the hypo and it clattered on the floor.
“I’m sorry,” James whispered, and ducked his head. He kissed her – and then his feet were pounding for the door. When the explosion came, he couldn’t even hear it over his sobs.
He could recognize that life was different now. The spectacular explosion that threw heat on his back propelled him forward, making his feet pound the asphalt in rugged, desperate slams that tried to escape the echo of its boom.
That’s why you never get attached, Jamie. Never. The voice in his head whispered at him, dragging another ripped sob from his chest. You do your job. You kill and you don’t reflect on it.
His lungs gasped for breath, and James slowed his headlong pace despite the bizarre need to keep running. He stopped, leaning over, trying not to throw up, trying to breathe, trying to forget.
He wanted to forget her. To leave her behind in the strange suicide mission that got another hit done – and that left him alone.
The voice in his head whispered again. Don’t you think it’s time to quit?
He refused to answer.
“Impossible!” James whirled on his heel and threw up his hands in irritation. “Do you know what you’re asking me? This isn’t even responsible! I’m not fucking doing it,” he snapped, eyes blazing at the man who sat placidly in the armchair nearby.
“James, this is all very odd.” The man steepled his fingers and tapped them against his chin in calm deliberation. “It’s like you don’t even want to try. You are replaceable, you know. If the job’s become too much for you, I mean.”
“It’s not the job and you know it.” James bit the words short as he stalked across the room, pacing with pent-up energy that had nowhere to go. “You think this is some festive celebration for me? A party? Good times? That it’s easy for me?” He threw out a hand, one finger jabbing at the desk. “You try it if you think it’s so easy.”
The man had spoken the two words with ultra-calm, and the effect they had on James was like he’d been shot. He sucked in his breath sharply, turned white, and then flushed red with anger.
“Fuck you. I am not.” The pacing took on a new level of agressiveness, the internal conflict clearly present. “You have no idea what I am and what I’m not. You got that? No idea!”
The man’s expression softened, almost holding a look of tenderness. “No, I may not know what you are.” A killer. A hired gun. A man who could tamper his emotions to slaughter those marked with the X of a hit.
“But I know a small piece of you,” he added quietly. “The part that’s scared. I’m not stupid, James.” The man’s head tilted and he smiled. “After all, I have you working for me, don’t I?”
James glanced the man’s way, his eyes no less angry than earlier and his pacing no less stressed than before. “Probably the only smart thing you’ve ever done,” he muttered. “I’m not going to write it.” And there it was again, bringing them back full circle.
“You will.” The man nodded, almost to himself. “One day. You will. And I will be here waiting when you do.”
“I know you all too well.” James’ lips tickled the victim’s ear, stirring the tiny hairs and causing a shiver down the man’s skin as he breathed the words from behind the man’s shoulder. “Look at you react. It makes you ache, doesn’t it?”
James drew the razor-sharp blade down the man’s arm, smoothing the goosebump flesh, and the victim jumped like a jolt of electricity had hit him. “Like a curse… or a blessing.”
“Fuck you,” the victim growled, angry and scared and panting hard. “Fuck you, alright?” He hauled at the duct tape bindings that strapped him to the chair, twisting in it, but all he managed was to nearly tip it over. “Fucking get me out of here, you asshole…”
James smiled to himself, and he slid the knife off the man’s arm, leaving a sliver of blood. He walked slowly around to face the victim, to lean down and place his hands firmly on the arms of the chair.
Face to face, James’ smooth smile widened sleepily. Just another hit. Frightened, agressive… Oh yeah. “Embrace it. You know you want to. Join the club. Just let your mind fill up and divert itself from all the hell in the world.”
His smile faded. “And then it’ll be over,” James whispered. “Forever. And I’ll cheer.”
“Who is it?” James glanced at the man across the desk.
“It doesn’t matter who. When is more important.” The man’s face was bland as he steepled his fingers. “The question is, what will you do about it?”
Ah, questions. James nearly rolled his eyes. How had he gotten himself into this in the first place? “Tuesday. 2am. Where am I going?”
And answers were still lacking. “Why do you want to know? You’ll receive your instructions in due time.”
Now James’ eyes narrowed. “Whose instructions?” He leaned forward with a sharp look. “Is this in their best interest?”
The woman had frozen at the first sound of the dreamy voice, breath catching in her throat. Being caught now, in the dark, in this room, would bring astronomical consequences.
But she relaxed, slowly, willing the tremble in her hand to still itself and telling her heart to come down from her larynx. She slid a foot on the floor, eased her weight onto it and slid another step closer to the man on the bed.
“No!” James’ protest was sharp, and the woman froze again, the knife in her outstretched hand gleaming in the faint light.
But he hadn’t woken. “S’like magic, yrr honor.” James’ voice sounded young, full of wonder. “S’just… jus like magic.”
Her hand was damp and she forced herself to breath again, to take one more silent, sliding step closer to the bed. She was out of her league. Out of her skill level and way beyond her experience.
Mentally, as she got close enough to touch Jamie’s skin, the woman prepared a plan should this attempt fail. Scream to distract him and then run? Stay and try to finish him that way? It would be violent and probably not end well – he was stronger than her, after all.
He’d grab her hand, make her drop the knife, and those hazel-gold eyes would pierce her where she stood, viciously fierce as he demanded answers. And she’d be caught in terror, wishing for a portal to open up and swallow her whole – before he did.
Not much of a plan. But it was all she had. And if she did this right… he’d never wake up again.
The adrenaline in her mouth tasted like metal. She had no idea how James could sit so casually across the table from her, sipping coffee and forking up breakfast as if they’d known each other forever.
His friendliness after what had gone down in the darkness of his room made her want to scream.
Breathe, she reminded herself, and she closed her eyes carefully. It’s just paranoia. He’s not going to kill you.
“You’re creepy, you know that?” The words were out of his mouth before she could stop them, and her eyes flew open, only to face James’ grin.
“What, because I’m hungry?” James waved his fork at her untouched plate of eggs. “Eat. S’always good to eat after bloodshed. Or near-bloodshed,” he added, his mouth twitching. “You going to tell me what you were up to?”
“No.” Her mouth went dry and ice-cold blood ran through her veins at her own blunt reply. Ominous seconds ticked away in silence as she watched James’ face for any signal she’d just signed her own death warrant.
Then he shrugged a negligent shoulder. “Alright. Cool.” And he tapped her plate with his fork. “Eat up. We have a long day ahead of us.”
She poked at her plate of eggs with the fork, feeling squeamish. It kept her eyes down, though, away from his. For all James was acting like he wasn’t a threat, she knew better.
He was razor deadly.
Fool. Her mind was quick to point out her mistakes. What were you thinking, that you could attack him that easily? That this would be some nimble cakewalk? You’re an amateur.
She tried to ignore the scathing voice and reached for coffee.
“Mm.” James voice froze her hand. He swallowed his mouthful and then reached to tap his fork against the rim of her mug. “Not too much of that. You’ll be wired.”
Her eyes came up against her will, and they met his. Friendly, awake, warm. She could still remember the tone he’d had as his hand had snaked up to grip her wrist – the shift from cold ice to this current casual attitude wasn’t sitting well with her.
So she did what she always did. Got defensive. “Pretty fancy place to take a girl like me,” she tossed out, turning her head to look around the restaurant. “Or did you neglect to remember that not long ago, I was-…”
The metal fork was touching her skin. She turned to look at it. It rested there. Not a utensil, a weapon. And her eyes lifted slowly to James’ face.
His eyes weren’t warm or friendly anymore.
“I remember everything.” He tapped the fork on the back of her hand, just once. “And I never forget.”
The sound of their shoes on the sidewalk made her feel sick and weak. James’ pace was loose and easy, and his hands were in his pockets, his eyes clear, as if a walk at this hour of dawn was perfectly normal.Only it wasn’t normal.
She squashed the twist inside her stomach and tried to school her own face into just as casual an expression as he wore, matching her steps to his own long, purposeful strides. She even shoved her own hands in her pockets, mimicking him.
The footsteps they took sounded so loud. And yet… they were both silent.
“So what now?” Her voice sounded just as loud as their footsteps. “I hope this isn’t your idea of a first date.” The joke she’d chosen to break the tension inside her came out sounding awkward but she couldn’t erase it now, so she forced a goofy grin on her face.
He glanced sidelong at her. And then his mouth curved. “Maybe it is.”
Well, that didn’t work out. Try again, smarty pants. The voice in her head was as full of dry sarcasm as her mouth.
“It’s a wonder you get any dates at all,” she tried again. Just a walk. Just two normal people in a crazy world.
And then the unthinkable happened. She laughed.
It was a short bark full of nerves, and once it started, she couldn’t stop it. Her feet had frozen, the laughter sank its claws in her and she couldn’t hold it in. Too high-pitched, a little insane and out of control.
Then suddenly she was crying and laughing and shaking all at the same time, her hands clapped over her face to hide it. And all James did was stand there waiting for her to stop.
“Don’t watch me.” She managed to get that much sanity out between the crazy sounds coming out of her. “Just… don’t, okay?”
And then James said the worst words she could ever have chosen for the moment.
“Are you okay?” He sounded concerned, genuinely concerned and somehow – damn him – she knew his face would have that look on it, the one that said he might actually care if she wasn’t alright. “Here, let’s…”
She felt fingers on the skin of her arm, gently tugging her, guiding her towards a bench just beyond the sidewalk. That nearly broke her for good.
“Shh. It’s alright,” he soothed, and now he was rubbing a shoulder. She shouldn’t stop sobbing. “We’ll just take a break. I have some Kleenex…”
And then a hand with white tissue in it was just in front of her, paired with a hopeful, boyish face peeking up into hers.
“It’s alright, you know,” he offered, almost cheerily. “I’m not going to kill you.”
And reality came crashing back. She’d tried to kill a killer.
Pragmatic. She had to stay pragmatic and keep a steady head on her shoulders. So she snatched the Kleenex from James fingers and snuffled heavily into it, eyes blazing over the wad at his friendly face.
“What are you going to do, then? Keep me captive? Abduct me? Let me go?” The last one was almost too much to hope for. She knew damned well he had a motive in the back of his head. The expression on his face confirmed it.
James’ eyes had changed back to that sleepy gaze, the observing look that she was sure girls found very addictive. He just watched her blow her nose, watched her angrily wipe her wet cheeks dry and waited for her to stop crying.
Which she did. The rising anger in her felt good, and she used it to mimic his cool, observant expression. Well, as much as she could with red eyes and ire shining through them.
“You missed a little detail.” She couldn’t help the smirk. “They’ll be looking for me. And when I don’t return on time? They’ll come after you.” Feeling suddenly sturdy and bold, she poked James in the chest.
“Who are they?” An idle question, and those gazing eyes. He had the art of making someone feel very scrutinized down to a science.
“None of your business,” she snapped, wanting to hit him.
“Oh, but it is.” He leaned forward towards her. Too close. Too dangerous. And his warm breath tickled her ear. “Lesson number one: The game’s a pattern. I know what they’ll do. And they know what I’ll do. It just saves me time if you tell me – but even if you don’t, it’s all written in stone anyways.”
Her heart pounded. And then his mouth was gone.
“Or at least,” James stood, “As much as it can be. I bet they didn’t know I’d take you for a walk.” He grinned and hitched his head towards the sidewalk. “Come on. We’ll talk on the way.”
“So are you in or are you out?”
She wondered how he could be so calm, so friendly. James had leaned on the rail of the ferry and put his face to the sun, his hair ruffling in the wind as he talked. And then he’d turned to her, smiled, and asked the question.
“I’m thinking,” she snapped back, annoyed in an instant at his casual friendliness, sick of the boat’s motion, frozen from the damned wind. She should’ve been afraid. But she wasn’t. Wasn’t even sorry.
He chuckled and turned back to gaze at the approaching shore, which only made her furious. A burst of brief rage made her want to hurt him. She wanted to push her thumb fiercely into the oval of his eye. Seeing his face twist in agony would feel good.
Or at least, it would make her feel more in control.
“Here, let me help you.” He turned and set his back against the rail, resting his elbows along its length. “The answer is yes. Because frankly, you don’t have a choice. Better you go to them now before they track you down. You know the rule they live by; they’re probably already hunting you down now.”
He checked his watch. She fantasized gutting him.
But she broke first. “Fine.” The word came out through gritted teeth. “Double fine. You happy?”
And James shrugged. “Not really. You’re a royal pain in the ass. But you have spunk,” he added, examining his nails nonchalantly. “And you have 24 hours. Better get busy.”