Nikolai: I have been a contract killer since I was a boy. For years I savored the fear caused by my name, the trembling at the sight of my tattoos. The stars on my knees, the marks on my fingers, the dagger in my neck, all spoke of danger. If you saw my eyes, it was the last vision you’d have. I have ever been the hunter, never the prey. With her, I am the mark and I am ready to lie down and let her capture me. Opening my small, scarred heart to her brings out my enemies. I will carry out one last hit, but if they hurt her, I will bring the world down around their ears.
Daisy: I’ve been sheltered from the outside world all my life. Home-schooled and farm-raised, I’m so naive that my best friend calls me Pollyanna. I like to believe the best about people. Nikolai is part of this new life, and he’s terrifying to me. Not because his eyes are cold or my friend warns me away from him, but because he’s the only man who has ever seen the real me beneath the awkwardness. With him, my heart is at risk . . . and also, my life.
About the Author
Jen Frederick is the USA Today bestselling author of the Woodlands series as well as the Hitman series. She lives with her husband, child, and one rambunctious dog. She's been reading stories all her life but never imagined writing one of her own.
Read an Excerpt
I have been a contract killer since I was a boy. For years I savored the fear caused by my name, the trembling at the sight of my tattoos. The stars on my knees, the marks on my fingers, the dagger in my neck, all bespoke of danger. If you saw my eyes, it was the last vision you’d have. I have ever been the hunter, never the prey. With her, I am the mark and I am ready to lie down and let her capture me. Opening my small scarred heart to her brings out my enemies. I will carry out one last hit, but if they hurt her, I will bring the world down around their ears.
I’ve been sheltered from the outside world all my life. Homeschooled and farm-raised, I’m so naïve that my best friend calls me Pollyanna. I like to believe the best in people. Nikolai is part of this new life, and he’s terrifying to me. Not because his eyes are cold or my friend warns me away from him, but because he’s the only man that has ever seen the real me beneath the awkwardness. With him, my heart is at risk and also, my life.
I have planned for this day in secret for six long years, I think as I wake up and stretch, a giddy burn in my stomach that might be nerves.
Today, I will escape.
The day starts as any other. It’s like the world can’t see how excited I am inside, but I’m practically vibrating with anticipation. Freedom is so close I can taste it. I get out of bed and dress in a dark, floor-length skirt and matching blouse. I throw a sweater on over it, so every inch of my body is covered. Then I go to my mattress and pull out the disposable cellphone and the small wad of cash I have saved up.
Seven hundred dollars from six years of saving. It has to be enough. I tuck them both into my bra to hide them.
I go to the bathroom and pull my dark hair into a ponytail and then splash water on my face to cleanse it. I stare at my reflection. My face is bleach pale, but there’s a flush on my cheeks that betrays me. I don’t like it, and I wet a cloth and press it to my cheeks, hoping the color will fade. When I can’t delay any longer, I leave the safety of my bathroom.
My father is seated in the living room. The room is a dark cave. No light comes in. There’s a chair and a sofa, and a TV. The TV is off, and I know it’s only programmed to broadcast happy, chaste channels like religious TV or children’s shows. If I’m lucky, I get to watch PBS. I long for something edgier, but my father has removed everything else from the channel list, and I’m not allowed the remote.
As usual, the only light in the room is a small lamp beside his chair. It halos his recliner, and my father is seated in an island of light in the oppressive darkness. He reads a thick hardback—Dickens—and closes it when I enter the room. He’s dressed in a button-up shirt and slacks, his hair neatly combed. It is ironic that my father dresses so well, considering he doesn’t leave the house and no one will see him but me. If I ask, he will simply say that appearances are important.
Our entire house is like the living room: dark, oppressive, thick with shadow. It’s sucking the life out of me, day by day, which is why I must do what I can to escape.
“Sir.” I greet my father, and wait. My hands are clasped behind my back, and I’m the picture of a dutiful daughter.
He eyes my clothing, my sweater. “Are you going out today?”
“If the weather is nice today.” I don’t look at the windows in the living room. Not a shred of light comes through them. It’s not possible. Despite my father’s pristine appearance, the house looks like a construction zone. The arching windows that once filled the living room with light are boarded up with plywood, the edges smoothed down with yards of duct tape. Father has made the living room into a fortress to protect himself, but I have grown to hate the oppressive feel of it. I feel like a bat trapped in a cave, never to see sunlight.
I can’t wait to escape.
He grunts at my words and hands over a small key. I take it from him with a whispered thank-you and go to the computer desk. It has a roll-down top that my father locks every night. He doesn’t trust the Internet, of course. It’s full of bad things that can corrupt young minds. He has a filter set up on the browsers so I can’t browse explicit websites, not that I would. Not when the only computer in the house is ten feet from his chair.
I calmly go to the computer and type in the address for the weather website. Today’s forecast? Perfect. Of course it is. “The weather looks good.”
“Then you will run errands today.” He pulls on a pair of glasses and picks up a notepad, flipping through it. After a moment, he rips off a piece of paper and hands it to me. “This is the grocery list. Go to the post office and get stamps as well.”
I take the list with trembling fingers. Two places today. “Can I go to the library, too?”
He frowns at my request.
I hold my breath. I need to go to the library. But I can’t look too anxious.
“I’m already sending you to two places, Daisy.”
“I know,” I tell him. “But I’d like a new book to read.”
“Astronomy,” I blurt. I’m only allowed to read nonfiction around my father. It’s a harmless topic, outer space. And if he presses, I can say I’m continuing my education despite finishing my homeschooling years ago. Father won’t relax his grip enough for me to go to college, so I have to continue my learning as best I can.
He stares at me for a long moment, and I worry he can see right through me, into my plans. “Fine,” he says after an eternity. He checks his watch. “It’s eight thirty now. You’ll be back by ten thirty?”
It’s not much time to go to the grocery store, the post office, and the library. I frown. “Can I have until eleven?”
His eyes narrow. “You can have until ten thirty, Daisy. You are to go to those places and nowhere else. It’s not safe. Do you understand me?”
“Yes, sir.” I close the computer, lock the desk, and hand the key back to him.
As I do, he grabs my arm and frowns. “Daisy, look at me.”
Oh no. I force my guilty eyes to his gaze. He knows what I’m doing, doesn’t he? Even though I’ve been so careful, he’s figured it out.
“Are you wearing makeup?”
Is that all? “No, Father—”
His hand slaps my cheek in reproach.
We both stare at each other in shock. He’s never hit me before. Never.
My father recovers first. “No, sir,” he says, to correct me. I stare at him for so long that my eyes feel dry with the need to blink. Resentment burns inside of me, and for a long moment, I wonder what my father would do if I slapped back. Or if I marched down to the basement and shot off a few rounds into the wall of phonebooks that acted as the backstop for father’s makeshift (and probably illegal) indoor shooting range.
But I can’t think like that. Not right now. I’m not yet strong enough. So I swallow my anger.
“No, sir,” I echo. Calling him “sir” is a new rule. Now that I’m twenty-one, I’m not allowed to call him “Father” anymore. Just “sir.” My heart aches at how much he’s changed—as if every year the terror in him grows stronger and if I stay here, it will overtake me, too.
He grabs my face with his other hand and examines it closely, though I know it’s dark enough that he can’t see me all that well. The festering resentment continues to bubble in my stomach, but I permit this. It won’t be much longer. After today, I won’t have to deal with this ever again.
After a moment, he licks his thumb and rubs it on my flushed cheek, inspecting it under the light. No makeup. He makes a hmmph sound. “Fine. You can go.”
“Thank you, sir,” I tell him. I take the list he hands me, and the cash, and rush to the front door.
There are six locks and four deadbolts on the door, and it takes a moment for my trembling fingers to undo all of them. I get to go out.
I get to leave.
I’m never entering this house again.
Once the door is unbolted, I carefully shut it again and then wait a moment. The sound of my father locking and turning all the bolts again reaches my ears. Good. I stand on the covered porch for a moment and stare out at our yard. Our small house has a rickety fence in the front that is falling down, but we don’t repair it. The grass is knee high because Father won’t let me mow it but once a month. Surrounding our house are acres and acres of farmland that we let out to neighboring farmers. We don’t grow anything ourselves, since that would entail being outside.
And the Millers don’t go outside unless they can’t help it. I know that when I was eight, he witnessed my mother’s murder while shopping. I was too young to remember much about her, just a smiling, happy face with warm brown hair and even warmer eyes that disappeared one day. And I know that my father reported her murder to the police but that the killer was underage. A fluke, a random shooting at a grocery store, and my mother had been the victim. Two years later, the murderer was back out on the streets, and he’d commented in court that he was coming after my father for locking him away.
I think it was bravado, nothing but the bragging of a young boy full of rage. My father took it to heart. He refuses to go outside, believing himself safe and protected in his home.
I can’t hate him for it. I want to, but I can’t. I know what it’s like to live every day in fear.
I head down the road, practically running to the bus stop so I’ll have time to do everything. The bus arrives a few minutes later, and I go to the local grocery store. I get my cart as if it’s just another day. I shop for the items on the list, taking great care with my selections. When I get to the checkout, they frown at me. They recognize my face. They hate me at this grocery store, but I don’t care.
As soon as I have my purchases bagged, I immediately head to the customer service counter. I place two of the items I’ve bought—vitamins and ibuprofen—on the counter. “I need to exchange these.”
The clerk there knows my routine. I’m sure she thinks I’m crazy, but she simply waves a hand. “Get what you need and bring it back.”
I do, and five minutes later I have exchanged the expensive, pricey brands for two cheap generics. After years of receipt scanning, I know which ones don’t print brand names on the receipt and I always, always switch them out and pocket the change. It’s the only way I can save money and not have Father notice it missing.
Now I have seven hundred and fifteen dollars.
I take the groceries with me to the post office, get the stamps, and then head to the library. I should have gone to the library first so the groceries would stay colder, but today, I don’t care.
I head to the romance shelf, looking for the book I was reading. It’s there, tucked safely behind other books so no one will borrow it until I’m done reading it. I fish it out and read chapter seven while standing up. I wish I could take the book home with me, but Father would never let me keep it. I’m only allowed to read classics. So I come to the library as often as I can and read a chapter at a time.
I close my book with a dreamy sigh a few minutes later. The hero has just kissed the heroine and is sliding his hand into her panties. I want to read on, but I mustn’t. There’s still so much to do. I will dream about how he touches her, I’m sure. I want to be touched, too.
I want a hero. A big, strong, handsome prince to come rescue me from my miserable life. But since one has not arrived, I must rescue myself.
I soar through the nonfiction and grab a book on astronomy. Then I pause, and I put the book back. I don’t know why I’m keeping up the pretense. I’m not going home to Father. Not today. I head back to the romance section and grab my novel.
Then, I move to the computers and pull up the Gmail address I have created for myself. If Father only knew that the library had computers to use that could access the Internet, he’d never let me come here.
There’s a response in my email. I dance in my chair, so excited I can barely stand it.
I’m so glad you found my ad! You sure you don’t want to see the place before you come here? It’s not the greatest, but it’s a roof over the head, and the rent is cheap enough. Come by and say hello before you decide anything. We’ll have lunch.
There’s a phone number at the bottom of the email. I print it out, along with the original Craigslist listing for the apartment in Minneapolis. Will she get upset if I meet her for lunch and then just never leave? I hope not.
There is a second email as well. This one is a confirmation of an appointment. Today, at ten thirty. The timing is perfect.
I also print out the bus schedule. I check out my book and head home. The bus drops me off on the road fifteen minutes before the person I’ve scheduled will arrive. Nerves begin to gnaw at me. I walk exceedingly slowly, watching for a car to pull up in front of my father’s boarded-up farmhouse.
It shows up right on time, and I rush to meet the man that emerges from the car. He’s big, middle-aged, balding. No-nonsense looking. He wears dark scrubs and frowns when I come running out of the bushes, grocery bags in hand.
“I’m Daisy Miller,” I say breathlessly and extend my hand to him.
“John Eton,” he says, and glances at our house, taking in the boarded up windows, the overgrown lawn. “Someone lives here?”
“My father.” At his skeptical look, I say, “He’s agoraphobic. He won’t leave the house. That’s why the windows are boarded up.” I want to tell him so much more about my father’s craziness and his controlling nature, which has gotten worse over the years, but I can’t. I need to leave.
A look of sympathy crosses the man’s face. “I see.”
“He’s going to need an assistant twice a week,” I tell him. “That’s why I’ve hired the service—you.” I sound so calm, even though I’m dancing inside. “I need you to come by and see what errands he needs to be completed. Check in on him when he needs it. He doesn’t use email and won’t answer his phone unless you ring once, hang up, and then ring again. That’s how he knows who is calling.”
John Eton stares at me like I’m the crazy one. “I see.”
“When you knock at the door, you have to knock four times,” I tell him. “Same reason.”
“All right,” he says. “Shall we go in and say hello?”
I hold the two grocery bags out to him. “I’m not going in.”
“I’m leaving,” I say, and I offer him the grocery bags again. To my relief, he takes them. “Father . . . wants me to stay. And I can’t. I can’t stay any longer.” Tears well up in my eyes, but I blink them away. I love my father, I do. I just can’t live with him for one more moment. The entire world is out here, waiting. “I hired you to take care of him. His disability check is direct deposited on the first. I’ve set up the service to be auto-debited on the fifth of every month. I just need someone to come out and take care of him, since he won’t leave the house.”
“I see.” John doesn’t look happy, but he glances at the house and then back to me. “Are you running away?”
I’m twenty-one. Can adults truly run away? But I nod. “I can’t take it any longer.”
Sympathy crosses his face again. “I understand. Is there a number I can reach you at in case there are any questions? Or if something goes wrong?”
I’m startled at his words, guilt coursing through me. Something . . . goes wrong? I’m leaving my father in the care of this man. A stranger. A service I’ve hired that won’t care that he has a panic attack if he hears a car backfire, who won’t care that my father weeps when he goes to bed every night, who won’t care that even a hint of sunlight in the living room will send him into hysterics.
But I can’t think about that, because if I do, I’ll end up staying. I give him the number of my disposable phone, knowing I won’t answer it. There’s too much guilt involved. My father will be heartbroken and angry that I have left without so much as a good-bye. But I know my father. I know that if I go in and confront him, he’ll overpower me. Not physically, but with guilt.
And I have to leave. I just have to.
So when John steps toward the house, I clutch my wallet close and then run. Tears stream down my face as I go, but they’re not tears of sadness.
The sun is bearing down on me, the birds are singing in the trees, and for the first time, the world is wide open.
Clutching the printout close, I head up the dirty stairs to the fifth floor of the apartment building.
I have just gotten off of a six-hour bus ride to Minneapolis, and it feels good to stretch my legs. I should be tired, but I feel invigorated instead. I’m free. I’m free. I’m free.
Earlier, I texted Regan to let her know I was on my way. We set up a meet up at the apartment, and then we’re going to go to dinner afterward to hang out and get to know each other and see if we mesh and I want to move in. I don’t care if she’s the most obnoxious person in the world. I’ve lived with a difficult, demanding person for twenty-one years. Nothing she says or does can be that bad. I will still want to move in.
The building is dirty, but it’s buzzing with life. There are people hanging out in the hallways, chatting, and people out on the streets. I smile at everyone. I can’t stop smiling. I’m so excited to be out living a real life. A normal life, like everyone else my age.
I find Regan’s apartment—224. It’s at the end of the hall. I knock, and a moment later it’s answered.
A cheerful blonde opens the door. She’s tall, statuesque, and gorgeous. She’s wearing tight-fitting clothing and her hair is curled into loose waves. Regan is beautiful. She lights up at the sight of me. “Are you Daisy Miller?”
I smooth a stray lock of brown hair into my ponytail, feeling very plain next to her. “That’s me. You must be Regan Porter.”
“You’re so cute! Not what I imagined at all.” She examines me with an excited look on her face. “But . . . I hate to ask. You sure you’re not pulling my leg about how old you are?”
“I’m twenty-one,” I say, pulling out my identification card. It’s not a driver’s license; that would have involved Father letting me leave the house for longer than an hour at a time. I make a mental note that I need to learn how to drive in this new life.
She takes the card from me and nods. “Sorry. I just had to ask. You have this . . . I don’t know. You look younger than I thought.” She squints at me. “Or just sweeter, I guess. Anyhow, how’s it going?” Her enthusiasm is back, and she waves a hand at me. “Don’t just stand there. Come on in!”
I enter the apartment, clutching my wallet to my chest, and look around. It’s a tiny apartment, easily a quarter the size of my father’s house. The walls are grimy and there are cracks in the corners, but the back wall has three enormous windows that give a view of the city, and I’m pleased to see that they’re wide open. Sunlight pours in, shining on scuffed wooden floors. There are posters of horror movies up on the walls, and a futon for a couch. There’s a folding chair off to one side and an ugly coffee table.
I love it.
“I know it’s not much to look at, but I’m slowly furnishing by hitting estate sales,” Regan says to me with a grin. “It’ll get there.”
“It’s just fine,” I say enthusiastically. “I love it.”
She laughs. “Well, you’re not hard to convince. So Pollyanna of you. I like that. Come on. I’ll show you the rest of the place.”
The bathroom is little more than a closet with an ancient tub and a toilet. My room isn’t much bigger, but there is a bed, an old dresser—courtesy of Regan’s last roomie who’d moved out—and a nightstand with a lamp on it. There is also a window. I move to the window and glance out. It faces the street and a building across the way. I don’t care what the view is as long as it has one.
“So, what do you think? Like I said, your share of the rent is four hundred, due on the first, and that includes all utilities paid. It’s not a great place, but it’s pretty central to everything, which is good if you don’t have a car. Do you?”
I shake my head. “I don’t.”
“Like I said in the ad, my boyfriend stays here a lot. If that bothers you, this might not be the apartment for you. My last roomie couldn’t handle it, so she left.” She shrugs her shoulders, unapologetic. “Just putting that out there up front so there’s no misunderstandings.”
“I don’t mind.” I don’t care if she has three boyfriends.
“There’s a laundry room down in the basement if you want to wash clothes.” She eyes me curiously. “If you don’t mind me asking, where are your clothes?”
I don’t have any bags with me. “I . . . left them at the farm.” I know I must seem weird to her.
“Fresh start, huh?” She pats me on the shoulder and then rubs my arm. “I know how that goes.”
I nod, feeling a lump in my throat. Fresh start, indeed.
I move in with Regan and hand over four hundred dollars of my precious cash. Regan seems to accept my story and me, and she’s fun to be around. She wants to introduce me to her friends. “You need to come hang out with us, Pollyanna.”
She’s started to call me Pollyanna, because she’s already noticed that I’m a bit naïve. I don’t mind. I’ve seen that movie, and I liked Pollyanna. She’s going out for drinks that night with some friends, but I can only take so much stimuli at once. It has been an exhausting day, and I crash into bed, too exhausted to even put sheets on the dirty mattress.
For the next week, I explore the city on my own. It’s terrifying and exhilarating all at once. I scour thrift shops, secondhand stores, and a yard sale for clothing. When I pass by a window filled with pretty, lacy under-things, I want to go inside and buy a few pairs for myself. I head immediately for the clearance racks, but everything there is far too expensive. I go to the clearance bins at the shopping center instead and purchase the cheapest items. They’re in odd sizes and probably won’t fit right, but I don’t care. They’re clean and they’re mine, and if they’re not pretty, they’ll do.
It doesn’t take long to realize that money goes faster than I’d anticipated. After a few days, I count out what I have left. I’ve spent seventy dollars for clothing. Sixty for bus tickets around town. Ten for dinner with Regan the other night. Four hundred on rent. I have enough for groceries, and then I must find a job.
I want to go to college, too. Just the local community college will do, but I need to save up some money first. There are several in the city, and I take a bus to one of the campuses, just to see what it’s like. My heart fills with longing as I walk the grounds. There are people my age everywhere, laughing and talking as they head to class or pause to chat. I want to be one of them.
I just need the money first.
I’m still feeling out of sorts after a week of freedom. I feel restless and uneasy. This is a new place, and I’m not used to new places and new things. For twenty-one years, I’ve been in the same small room at home, with the same four walls. The new apartment is different. My new room is small but pleasant; the view outside the apartment window allows me to see the sky above the buildings.
My room is stuffy, so I use this as an excuse to open the window again and let the cool night air brush against my skin. Now that I can, I sleep with the window open every night. I want to keep it open forever. It feels like defiance and freedom, and I love it.
I return to bed, pleased with the breeze and the night view. Maybe that will take some of the edge off of my nerves. I flick the lights off and strip out of my new jeans and ill-fitting new bra and then climb into bed in nothing but an old T-shirt borrowed from Regan and a pair of panties. After a moment of indecision, I kick the blankets off. Still too warm.
I press a hand to my forehead and sigh.
As if in response to my sigh, I hear a moan come from the other room followed by a loud, “Oh God, almost!”
My hands slide over my face in embarrassment despite the darkness of my room. Regan is having sex with Mike, who stays over quite often, as Regan had said. He’s here more nights than he’s not, and they have loud, noisy sex every time they get a chance. It’s embarrassing and a bit startling for me.
I’ve been incredibly sheltered, my only exposure to sex what I’ve read in romance novels. Somehow, I never pictured it sounding so very . . . carnal.
A moment later, music turns on, and it drowns out Regan’s cries for more, which is a welcome relief. Now I just hear strains of heavy metal. Not that this is easier to sleep to, but it’s less disturbing to hear. The whole interlude makes me more on edge, though.
I know I’m uneasy and out of sorts because of more than just the view outside my window. I think other people would adjust to the change in lifestyle quite well, but I’m just timid Daisy, afraid of her own shadow. This new place is completely foreign, and it feels like I’m in a different country instead of just a different city and state.
It’s weird, but I feel lonely despite my happiness.
There are so many people around me now. More than ever. I smile at everyone—the postman, the bus driver, the people at the grocery store. I can’t stop smiling. There is a giddy happiness to me, and I think I will never be able to frown again. I love life too much. The world feels so open and full of opportunity.
But at the same time, I think of my father. Does he feel betrayed? Guilt gnaws at me, and I push the thought away. I left him behind because I wanted to be someone new. Someone different and vibrant.
Yet I still feel like the same, scared little Daisy. Despite being here a week, I feel like I’m adrift. I know only Regan and her boyfriend. I haven’t gone out with Regan’s friends yet, mindful of my money.
I’m changing, but it’s not enough. I need more.
I think of the duo in the other room, having sex. And I think of my romance novel. For some reason, this combination makes my body flush, and the tension I feel takes on a whole new aspect.
My hand slides down my belly, to my new, pink lacy panties. Fingers dip into the sweet warmth between my legs, and I gasp at the sensation. My fingertips brush over my clitoris, and I think of a man doing this to me. I rub teasing circles around my clitoris, imagining him. His hands on my body. His fingers where mine are. Him kissing me sweetly on the brow and pressing my body against his. I rub harder, arching with need.
My dreamy hero leans in and I can almost see his face . . .
My fingers stop. Burgeoning desire dissipates like a soap bubble.
I lay back, utterly still.
All this freedom, and yet I’m still no different than I was before. I can’t visualize a man touching me when I haven’t even been kissed. My guilt for leaving my father turns into a momentary flash of hatred. He’s made me this sheltered freak. Who will date a twenty-one-year-old woman who has never kissed a man? Never seen sex, not even on TV? Only read about it?
For a moment, I want to sneak into Regan’s room and watch her and Mike, just so I know, just so I understand.
If I can’t experience it myself, the next best thing is watching, right?
I want to clutch at my new life with tight hands, but I don’t even know where to begin.
So I sigh, slide my fingers to my panties, and try again.
I watch her through my bathroom window. I’ve placed one of my four rented chairs in here for that express purpose. I tell myself it is not creepy, as the American girls would say, because I watch everyone. But really I watch only her.
I cannot see everything. I’ve never seen her nude. I’ve never seen inside her shower. Smartly there is no window there. But I can see her bedroom and her living room and beyond that, with my scope, her kitchen. I know her schedule. When she gets up in the morning, when she returns to her apartment. If she were a mark, I could’ve killed her a dozen times over by now and been in the wind.
She throws her bag onto her bed and then lies down next to it. It takes many muscles to smile, more to frown, but only a few to pull the trigger. I peer down the scope and place my crosshairs over her forehead. Puff, dead.
She has a roommate. Tall, blond, who brings home one man regularly. He is bad in bed. I can see the roommate masturbating after the man falls asleep. I place the crosshairs over his heart. It would be a mercy killing. A man who goes to sleep without satisfying his woman deserves punishment. He sleeps through her self-pleasure? Death is too kind.
The roommate is not my business, though, and I swing my scope back to my girl’s room. She is still lying on her back. Through my magnified glass, I can see furrows on her brow. I had toyed with the idea of planting listening devices in her apartment but I stopped myself because, stupidly, I thought it would be too invasive. She is not the mark, I remind myself but scowl at my lack of audio.
I should know what is causing her to frown so that I can make the cause go away. I watch her until she gets up and leaves the room. She does not reappear in either the living room or her roommate’s bedroom. I assume she is using the bathroom. I flip open the foam case at my feet and survey the contents. There are several different devices that I could use. No, Nikolai, I tell myself. This is wrong.
Then I let out a humorless laugh. Why am I preaching morality, even to myself? I gave up that right many years ago. Before I was a grown man. Perhaps it happened in the womb. I was born a killer, my teeth bared, and I claimed my first victim almost before I had taken my first breath. But that is Ukraine. A boy on the streets without a gun is prey. I have never been prey. Always the hunter.
This girl in room 224 is unprotected, but she is innocent and sweet. I envy her. When she first walked into her apartment, she did not notice the cracked and peeling paint, the cheapness of the mattress on the floor, or the chipped countertops. It all looked wonderful to her. I could see her wide-eyed amazement even through my scope. She is so unaware and so . . . joyful. There is no other word for it. Her every expression is one of anticipation, as if life is just an ongoing present.
I wonder what she would think of me—I am not unlike her apartment. I am cracked and peeling inside. She treats this slum of hers like a palace and every activity within it is a delight, from cooking her own meals to sleeping in her ratty bedroom.
I would like to lie down in her bedroom, pull down her long brown hair around me, and caress my hands over her very adultlike curves. My eyes drift shut as I think about what kind of look she’d give me. The wide-eyed innocent stare? The newly awakened one? The satisfied one? I want them all. My hand strays downward toward the ache that has developed between my legs.
A sharp piercing note fills the room. The phone. A distinct ring tone tells me it is business. Walking out of the bathroom, I move into the second bedroom. It is completely empty except for one table, also rented. I flick a switch and a light hum sounds in the room. No listening devices will be useful here; the frequency released by my sound machine will kill it. I smile grimly, thinking of the painful reverb that anyone who is listening in might suffer.
“Allo.” I answer. A series of clicks sound off as my caller attempts to make his call untraceable. No matter, I record the trail anyway. No one is untraceable. Not today.
“Bonjour, monsieur. I call on behalf of Neuchâtel.”
“Oui.” I switch from Russian to French to match my caller. Neuchâtel is a town in Switzerland. This call is on behalf of the Watchmakers. Hence the reference to Neuchâtel, a town renowned for its custom, hand-assembled watches, which take months to complete and sell for six figures. I received one as a gift in addition to payment after a job well done. Either the Watchmakers had no respect for me or were trying to trap me. I threw it into the River Doubs, a waterway that marked the border between Switzerland and France.
“Neuchâtel requires your services. Information will be placed on the Emperor’s Palace at 2100.”
“Convenu,” I say. Agreed. The Emperor’s Palace is a marketplace on the deep web, buried so far down that no ordinary search engine can find it. These transactions are said to be not allowed but, couched right, everything from flesh to drugs are traded anonymously.
“You will do the job then?” the voice asks. He is either testing me or is new. Either way, my response is the same.
“Je ne sais pas.” I do not know. I always research my targets first. Although killing has been my life since I was old enough to form memories, when I left the Petrovich Bratva at age fifteen, I found I could not kill without reasons. Even if they were bad reasons. Each job left its own mark, and while I knew my time here on Earth was short, I bargained with myself. This man, I would say, needs killing. The inscription on my chest aches. I bring mercy to those around the targets. This is the lie I use so that I can sleep at night and be able to look at myself in the mirror. I must convince myself that the world is a better place with the target dead.
Only the heaving breath of my caller can be heard as he digests my conditions. I wait. The assassin’s most powerful weapon is patience. The second, improvisation.
“D’accord, ça me va.” Okay, fine, he agrees.
I hang up and set an alarm on my watch for 2095. As I exit the second bedroom, a motion through the bathroom window catches my eye. She has returned. I place my eye against the scope. Her bed is cleared of her bag, and her back is resting against the headboard.
Her lithe body is clothed in a thin T-shirt. I can see the faint, dark outline of nipple beneath the cloth. My eyes dip lower. The shadow of her pubic hair is also visible. I can feel my heart rate pick up as I map her body with my eyes.
I feel restless and think perhaps I should review the information I have compiled for the mark or perhaps look at the routing pattern left by the caller from Neuchâtel. I do neither. As I begin to draw back from the scope, her motions arrest me. Her small hand, with the pink-tipped nails, is moving over her belly. One finger traces the tiny lace adorning the top band of her panties. My breath is suspended. Time is suspended.
I have never seen this before. She has never touched herself. Never brought a man home with her. I’d have shot him, maybe. No, I would’ve caused some disturbance. Something. I thought her maybe an innocent and fantasized about awakening her. But now her small fingers are delving beneath the cotton. I can see the bumps of her knuckles as they press against the pale pink fabric. She is moving her fingers in circles.
I imagine my own fingers, much larger, dark and rough, pressing down upon hers. My fingers flex involuntarily at the thought of her pussy beneath my touch. I’d stroke her lightly and in circles as that is what she appears to like. I’d move my fingers lower, beyond her clit to her hot cunt. It would be wet, dripping wet. My fingers would be soaked, and I would pause so that I could lick her sweet honey off each digit.
My cock is so hard I fear that it will break against the denim of my jeans. I draw a hand over my chest and pinch my own nipple hard, imagining it is her tiny white teeth tugging on it. I’ve broken out in a light sweat.
Her legs tense, and her hand motions become more frantic. I can see her chest rise and fall rapidly. Her whole body is strained, but when her release comes it is truncated. The look on her face is one of frustration rather than satisfaction. She wets her plump lips and closes her eyes. She begins again, but again she is unfulfilled.
My emotions war against each other. I am unhappy that she cannot find her own fulfillment, but there is also fierce possessiveness that arises from an idea I’ve tried to suppress. In my mind, only I can bring her to orgasm and release. I can teach her to touch herself in a way that will be pleasurable and satisfying.
I would not start with her pussy. No, the skin is the largest sex organ. I would stroke my hands over every inch, starting from her forehead. My lips and fingers would smooth away any furrows. My hands would encircle her neck and sweep down over her shoulders to her fine wrists.
I’d rub my body over hers so that she smelled of me. When she walked this city, other men would stay away, recognizing she was marked as my own. Belonging to Nikolai. Maybe I would tattoo it around her neck like a collar.
I stroke the homemade tattoo over my chest. The words inscribed there still burn, years after they were applied. I scowl at myself. She would run in fear if she saw me—the stars on my knees, the dagger through my neck, the spiderweb on my shoulder. The epaulets on the other. The inscription. I am tempted to throw my scope at the wall. I would never be allowed to touch her pristine skin, not with my dirty fingers or my tongue. I would defile her.
I do not hurl my weapon. An assassin’s tools are his friends; perhaps the only things he owns. But I do leave my seat. She has gone into the kitchen anyway, to eat. We have one thing in common right now. We are both dissatisfied.
The thought of food alerts me to the fact I have not eaten since the morning. This is not good. I must carefully attend to my body as seriously as I treat my SAKO rifle or my HK knife. I slap together a peanut butter sandwich. The protein in the peanut butter and the grain of the wheat bread will provide me enough sustenance to last through a light workout.
I head for the arm bar that I’ve hung in the doorway to my bedroom. Staring at the stark space, I realize that I could not even bring her here in the dark. I curl up and down repeatedly, but my attention is wholly on the blank walls and nearly empty space of the apartment.
Nothing of value is here other than my tools. I could pack up everything in about two minutes and be gone. This is the life I’m trying to put behind me, but old habits still control me. Tomorrow I will buy a real bed to replace the foam cushion I have on the floor. A solid, wooden bed that will not move, even if an elephant fell upon it.
I do eight sets of ten and stop. My biceps and the muscles in my upper back ache pleasantly. I drop to the floor and begin my routine of one-handed push-ups. Four sets of twenty-five, and then triangle pushups until the sweat is dripping down my forehead and my deltoids, biceps, triceps, and pectoralis muscles are too weak to hold me.
Lying against the wooden floor, I think of her again. Tomorrow, perhaps I will talk to her. I will tell her that she smells of fresh air and wide spaces. That her blue eyes remind me of the sky above the Ural Mountains. I want to drown in them.
The phone rings again, and this time the tone tells me it is Daniel. Daniel is another killer whom I’ve run into now and again. I’ve had only a few communications with him because he is a dangerous man. I do not need to bring myself to the attention of people.
I remind myself to call him Daniel, short vowel sound instead of the long e sound as we would say it in Russian. Once I called him Danyeel, and he cautioned me that my mispronunciation revealed too much if we were enemies and not enough if we should be friends. I was unsure whether that was a warning or an opening. No one in this business has friends, so I never called him Danyeel again. Only Danyil.
“Hello,” I say, adopting my most American accent.
“Nick,” Daniel says. We both use voice modulators. It is possible that Danyeel and I could stand next to each other on the street corner and not recognize the other. I would know he was a soldier, perhaps, by the watchfulness in his eyes and the careful way he held his body.
“Daniel,” I answer. “What is happening?”
Daniel coughs into the phone, as if he is covering a laugh. I wonder what mistake I have made.
“It’s what’s happening. You’re too formal.”
This is why I do not socialize with others. Accents are fairly easy for me to adopt, but my language is too stilted to pass as native. It is a major flaw, and one Alexsandr said would be my downfall. I have learned to reduce risk by remaining silent. It is this tool I employ now. I wait for Daniel to continue. He is the one, after all, who has contacted me. The quiet between us stretches out as we wait for the other to give in. I look at my watch. I will give Daniel only sixty more seconds before I hang up.
Daniel gives in first. “I have information on the death of Alexsandr.”
I shut my eyes. I am relieved but anxious. This is what I’ve been waiting for. It is why the man I have dubbed Mr. Brown still lives.
“You?” I ask. Why should Daniel be offering information regarding Alexsandr? I try to be casual and am grateful that Daniel cannot see me. The tenseness of my muscles would give me away. I try to not drum my fingers or pace, worried that Daniel will pick up on my motions even over the telephone.
“You are not the only one who cared about Alexsandr.” Daniel’s curtness surprises me. He’s never exhibited anything but a laconic attitude, even when carrying out a hit. I once overheard him tell a target that he’d have killed him earlier but that he’d had to stop for his morning coffee. Sip. Bang.
“I apologize, Daniel. My selfishness is unbecoming,” I say. “How much?”
Daniel sighs. The hiss of breath is irritating with the voice modulator; I pull the phone away from my ear and wait again for Daniel to speak. “This is a freebie, buddy, because I didn’t like what happened, either.”
“I do not accept.” Never owe anyone anything. Lesson number one from Alexsandr.
“Fine, then I’ll accept your SAKO rifle,” Daniel tells me.
“You are gathering my bullets?” The only way Daniel could know of my kill piece is through examination of the bullet casings and extensive knowledge of barrel markings. Once again, Daniel has shown himself to be a formidable opponent. I clench the phone tighter. If Daniel becomes a problem, then I will use the knowledge I have acquired about him to eliminate the threat. I know that Daniel uses a Barrett M98 bolt-action rifle, and his bullets—.388 Lapua Magnum—contain gunpowder primarily manufactured in the southern United States, likely Texas or Arizona.
It would not take long to listen to all the taped conversations I have of Daniel, examine the trace routes of the phone calls, and track down the manufacturer of the gunpowder. But I have done none of these things because Daniel has been no threat to me in the past. I feel an affinity for him. Perhaps he is a terrible person who has killed thousands of innocents. Perhaps, like me, he was groomed to this career because no other options were available to him. Perhaps his earlier statement was not a warning but an open hand of greeting that I turned away.
“Only a few, man. I didn’t want to leave them for the Rambaudis to find.” He’s returned to his easy manner and now he taunts me.
“Understood. So now I owe you for more than one thing,” I say grimly.
“I’ll just mark it in my ledger.”
I think he is making a joke, but my plan is fixed. I will pinpoint Daniel’s location just in case. Insurance, nothing else.
“Thanks, man,” I say, trying to adopt a more American slang. I should study some of my neighbors. Many are very young, like puppies, but if I spoke like them, I could be less noticeable. Likely, people would assume I was dumb simply by my usage of their common vernacular.
“Nice try.” There is humor in Daniel’s voice. Again the thought niggles that perhaps Daniel’s overtures are invitations to a shared confidence, but I push it away.
“The revolution can’t go forward without an army’s backing.”
Chills seize me. Alexsandr was the weapon of the Petrovich Bratva, one of the most powerful organizations in Russia. He trained many boys to ensure that the Bratva’s business was carried out all over the world without interference. Some boys, like me, he pushed out of the nest to stand on our own. Our blood wasn’t pure enough for him, unlike Vasily, who stood at his right hand; or our skills weren’t sharp enough, unlike Yury, who stood at his left.
Even though I could take Yury when I was fourteen, and even though I carried out every task asked of me—even ones I did not like—it was not enough in the end. One time I deviate from the orders by allowing the little ones to wreak their vengeance on the art curator. The end was messy but, for those boys, necessary so that they could finally rest, knowing that the monster that haunted them during the day and night was gone and would never return.
For that, Alexsandr dismissed me from the ranks and sent me off on my own. At fifteen, all I knew how to do was kill. And so that is what I do. I am a man who kills for money. “Alexsandr would never betray the Bratva.”
“Maybe not betray. But withdraw support? Make known his disappointment?” Daniel countered. I envisioned him sitting on a chair, leaning back on only two wooden legs, at ease and unconcerned. For a moment, I considered Daniel’s words. They weren’t what I’d expected. I didn’t know what had led to Sergei’s actions—but sedition? Alexsandr believed the brotherhood to be more important than anything, which is why I, his brightest protégé, was let go. I had placed my own feelings above the needs of the Bratva.
I tell none of this to Daniel. “That’s all?” I ask.
“That’s it for now,” Daniel replies and hangs up.
I wonder why Daniel offers this. His motives are mysterious to me, and it makes him a danger. Did Daniel feel some tender emotion for a master killer? A man who took boys off the street and turned them into machines for hire deserved respect, perhaps, but tender emotion? Love? I did not love Alexsandr. Respect, yes; love, no. But then, I do not know what love is. I know lust and anger. Despair and satisfaction. But love? No. That is not for me.
At 2095 I log in and wait for the private chat room to be created. At 2100, I type the information in, and my contact from the Watchmakers is there. The mark is revealed along with several other details. I copy and paste it into a text document without reading. Before I log out, I see one last message after the cursor.
If you complete this task, the information you seek regarding your compatriot, Alexsandr Krinkov, will be revealed as a bonus.
Gotcha, I reply as if I were Daniel rather than Nikolai. The offer of extra information seems like a trap, as do all the little bonuses these people offer in order to bind you into their families or organizations. But a house hit man has no power, and I’ve worked only for myself since I left the Petrovich Bratva at the age of fifteen.
I was raised by the Bratva. Outside of Russia, maybe only a few know what it is although the name still has power. Inside, everyone fears it. The drug lords on the street, they answer to the Bratva. The men and women who peddle their flesh, the grifters, the thieves, the politicians, they all answer to the Bratva. No one takes a piss in the criminal underworld without the Petrovich Bratva knowing and granting approval.
You want something illegal, dangerous, illicit? The Bratva will deliver it to your door, but then they own you. It is the same for all these people who hire me. They want to own me, but I belong to no one now. Only myself. Alexsandr, the man who’d picked me up off the street and trained me to be a killer, decided that I had lost my love for the Petrovich family and kicked me out. To Alexsandr, loyalty to the Petrovich Bratva came first. It was a good trait for the general of the Petrovich army to have. Admirable even. For Sergei to decide Alexsandr should die was inconceivable. And as no one in the Bratva would avenge Alexsandr and cross Sergei, the task fell to me.
And since everyone on the outside seems to be aware that I’m seeking redress for Alexsandr’s death, then so does everyone inside, including Sergei, the new head of the Petrovich family. The new king of the Bratva. His silence on this issue is telling. Sergei is as much a threat to me as I am to him. But for now, I pretend I am undisturbed that Sergei has killed my mentor.
The information provided to me by the Watchmakers about the new mark seems innocuous. One man, a doctor, living in Seattle. His name, social security number, and date of birth are given, along with the type of death requested. No need for discretion. The means of delivery are simple, then, and on my terms. It’s just the way I prefer it, but something about this makes me anxious.
A quick Internet search reveals that the doctor in Seattle is a transplant surgeon. I wonder if he deals with black market organs, selling them or facilitating the purchase for rich patrons. The Internet only reveals that he has a toothsome smile, a full head of hair, and a plastic-looking wife. Perfect, pretty, but empty. The idea of running up to Seattle to research the mark displeases me. I don’t want to be away from the girl in 224.
I return to the bathroom and look at the video tape of Mr. John Brown, my current mark. Sergei contracted me three months ago to find Mr. Brown and return him to Moscow. Mr. Brown’s real name is George Franklin; he is an accountant from Chicago. He was caught skimming money from the Bratva transactions, and instead of running to Mexico or Singapore or somewhere else, he’s trying to hide in plain sight. It is a rather inspired idea, but he’s only tried to hide once.
I’ve hunted people all my life. Everyone leaves a trail. Mr. Brown’s mistake was his dog, a tiny yippy thing. Rather than leaving it behind, Mr. Brown has carted that dog with him everywhere, zigzagging from Chicago up to small towns in Wisconsin. Now he’s back in Minneapolis, Minnesota, not a few hundred kilometers from his home city. He’s been buying the dog specialty food wherever he went.
I can fairly predict where he’d go next based on the availability of the food. I’m not to kill Mr. Brown. Simply find him and return him. But plans change. I haven’t killed Mr. Brown yet because he has information. The video feed shows Mr. Brown spreading peanut butter on himself for his dog to lap up. Disgusting. I’ll be doing everyone a favor by getting rid of Mr. Brown.
Swinging my scope over to room 224, I flip on my night-vision goggles. I can only see the outline of her body. She is leaving the apartment, and she appears to have a basket with her. I track her down to the basement laundry. When I first walked the building, I noted the basement laundry facility. It was dank and musty, with only a few lights and disgusting floor.
The girl from 224 should not have to clean her clothes down there. Someone should clean her clothes for her, but I know she could not afford that. Her refrigerator holds few items, and when she does eat, which seems far too seldom for my own peace of mind, she eats noodles and other cheap food. Her roommate does not make any more money, either. The two of them are poor and so obviously prey that it is a miracle they’ve survived on their own to make it to adulthood. The one male in their lives is worthless.
I watch again as her outlined form leans over the washing machine. She places her clothes inside and then leaves. She returns to her apartment and heads to her bedroom. It is too dark for me to tell what she is doing in there. Is she touching herself again? Can she bring herself off? I think she may be reading a book. I watch her, and the time that passes is meaningless. Nothing is more interesting to me that watching her, even if it is just the outline of her form. I should be doing so many other things. Researching my potential mark in Seattle. Pinpointing Daniel’s position. Searching for the weaknesses in Sergei’s coterie of advisors. Instead, I am mesmerized by her.
As I watch, I notice that her breathing has evened out and her head has flopped to the side. It appears that she has fallen asleep. Her laundry is sitting wet in that dank basement. Before I can give it another thought, I head out of my apartment, down the one flight of stairs and across the street to the back door of her apartment building. This door has no outside handle, but the lock is so simple that all it takes is a plastic wedge and few jerks of a keycard to get the lock to give way. I jog down to the basement and open the door.
Inside, a man is leaning over a pile of laundry. He jerks around at my entrance and fists something pink and lacy in his hand. Looking around, I take in a quick inventory. The washing machine he is leaning over is the one that my girl used. My nostrils flare and blood zings into my eyes. The mudak is fondling her panties.
With a roar, I charge. He shrinks back and raises his hands to defend himself. I grab the wrist of his fisted hand and crush the bones. His cries of pain are music to me, and my rage lessens. The pale pink cotton falls to the ground and, as he tries to wrest away, his sneakered foot nearly crushes it. I hold on to his wrist with one hand and reach down and pluck the panties off the ground and stuff them into my jeans pocket.
“What the fuck do you think you are doing?” I ask him through gritted teeth.
His teeth chatter and he responds with barely legible words. “Laundry. Doing laundry.”
He is a lecher and a liar. I squeeze his broken wrist tighter and he cries out again. Using my other hand on the collar of his T-shirt, I twist and pull him close. “These are not your clothes, you filthy motherfucker.” I am tired of my girl being surrounded by the dregs of humanity. Mr. Brown living next door with his perversions. This little man trying to steal her panties. How many other women has he done this to? I should kill him right now. My hand releases his T-shirt to grasp his throat. I could squeeze the life out of him.
But before I can say another word, I hear footsteps. It’s her. Somehow I know it is her. The thief and I exchange glances. I push the dolboeb, the fuckhead, away and shove her clothing back into the washing machine. I see a dark corner and a bulb. I bat the hot bulb with my hand and break it, feeling the burn immediately. This side of the laundry room is plunged into darkness. It is the perfect place to stash this man. I push him into the corner. “You make noise, you so much as breathe too loudly, and it will be the last sound you make.”
He nods his comprehension, cradling his broken wrist. Grabbing the one chair in the laundry room, I pull it in front of him and situate it so that I am partially lit but that he would have to push past me to get out.
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