Authors: Julia Sykes
By Julia Sykes
I was calm, detached, reflecting the nothingness that I felt inside. It wasn’t peaceful, exactly. I was just… empty. The raging inferno that was my desire for vengeance had burned everything away, leaving me unencumbered by feelings of guilt or self-doubt. There was just the stark, cold clarity of my new purpose in life: killing Ronan Reynolds.
I had thought that it was some cruel higher power torturing me, but now I realized that all of the blame for everything bad that had ever happened to me could be laid at Ronan’s feet. I could rail against Sean for hiding his involvement with the Westies from me. I could hate Bradley for abducting me. I could rage against my foster family for everything that they had put me through. But the truth was that none of it would have happened if not for what Ronan had done to my parents on that night fourteen years ago, callously snuffing out their lives in the space of a few seconds, and in the process ruining my entire life.
Was he even aware of who I was? Did he know what he had done to me? I realized that it was unlikely that he did. Why would he connect his son’s supposed girlfriend with a murder that he had committed so many years ago? In what kind of fucked up world did that even happen?
Okay, so maybe there was some greater force that had thrown Sean and me together, but I didn’t set much store in such things. Besides, thinking about it made my head hurt, made the anguish pulse back to life at the edges of my mind. I could ponder it all I wanted, but it would never make sense. It had happened, and that was all that mattered.
And maybe it wasn’t some devil torturing me; maybe it was some sort of vengeful angel that had answered my childhood prayers to find my parents’ killer. But it hadn’t taken me long to give up on prayers. No one was answering them.
And yet here I was, suddenly bequeathed with the knowledge of the identity of their murderer. I wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity that some twisted sort of serendipity had brought before me.
“I won’t be spying on Sean anymore,” I told Clayton over the phone. It had taken me little more than twenty-four hours to sort things out in my mind, to make a plan. And getting rid of the FBI tailing me was my first course of action. Getting them off of Ronan’s case was a close second. I had to ensure his safety so that I had a clear path to kill him. So long as I didn’t tell Clayton that Bradley’s gun used to belong to Ronan, then the FBI would have no idea that he had killed my parents.
“What?” Clayton was clearly taken aback. “Why? Claudia, what happened to you yesterday? We know that you went to Sean’s apartment after I told you about the bullets we recovered from your parents’ bodies. You weren’t there long. What did he say to you? What did you say to him?” Clayton fired questions at me, but I was ready for every one of them.
“I ended the relationship,” I explained. “It just hit too close to home, learning that the gun he gave me was the same one that killed my parents. I know that it’s random as hell and not his fault, but I just can’t be around him anymore. I feel… sick knowing that he’s a part of that world.”
The truthfulness to my last words made a trace of that sickness stir in my belly, but I tamped it down before the nausea could rise up and overwhelm me. I had to stay focused.
“Claudia,” Clayton – no, Agent Vaughn – said my name gently, “I can understand why you feel that way. Really I do. But you do realize that making this choice means that we can’t go any further in our investigation against Ronan, don’t you? I thought that you wanted to help Sean.”
Yep, I was definitely talking to Agent Vaughn, the mercenary FBI agent who would do anything to keep an asset.
“I can’t help him,” I said coldly. “If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t have had to kill a man. I can’t forgive him for putting me in that situation.”
But now that I am a murderer, I might as well embrace it.
“Please, Claudia, come to my office and we can talk about this. You’re being rash. We’re so close now. If you could just hold out a little longer -”
“No,” I cut him off firmly. “I’m done with all of this. Find a way to do it without me.”
Agent Vaughn made a frustrated sound. “There isn’t a way to do it without you. You’re all we have, Claudia. Can’t you see how important you are?”
“Yes,” I said coolly. “I can see that my own survival is more important than taking down some mobsters.”
There was a pause. “That doesn’t sound like you, Claudia. What’s going on? What about finding the person who killed your parents?”
Oh, he was a ruthless bastard.
“I’ve gone this long without knowing. I know how to live this way.”
“You’re scared,” he said accusatorily. “You’re scared of what your life will be like if you do know. I can understand how hard something that life-altering might be, but the Claudia Ellers I know isn’t a coward.”
“And the Clayton Vaughn I thought I knew wasn’t such an asshole. Turns out it’s easy to misjudge people.”
There was a moment of silence.
“I could subpoena you to testify against Ronan, you know,” he said matter-of-factly.
So we were threatening now, were we? My eyes narrowed. Two could play at that game.
“I could tell the FBI that you sexually harassed me, you know,” I shot right back at him.
His shocked gasp was audible through the phone.
“Fine,” he snapped. “You clearly don’t know me at all if you thought that I really would subpoena you.”
“You clearly don’t know me at all if you think I would bend when you use dirty, under-handed tactics. I don’t take it well when people tell me what to do, but what I take even worse is when people try to back me into a corner and force me to do it anyway.”
“Claudia, listen to me,” this time, his voice was contrite. “I’m really sorry about what I did. About kissing you. That was completely unprofessional, and if that’s what this is all about, I’ll assign you to another handler.”
“I don’t need anyone to
me,” I retorted. “I’m done with this shit. My life has been one catastrophe after another since I agreed to work with you, and I’m sick of it. I’m not doing it anymore.”
“Alright, then.” Agent Vaughn sounded suddenly exhausted. “I understand. And I’m sorry for trying to manipulate you into staying. That was wrong of me.”
My heart tugged for a moment as I recognized Clayton speaking to me. But I had come this far. Going back was no longer an option. And I didn’t want to anyway.
“Good,” I said. “And I want this security detail gone. I’m returning to my normal life, with everything that entails. No mobsters and no FBI agents.”
“I won’t agree to that, Claudia,” he said, his voice hard again. “They might come after you again.”
“Oh? And what good did the FBI do me when they came after me last time? Oh, wait. They didn’t. I took care of myself. And that’s what I’m going to keep on doing. So unless you’re going to pull some Homeland Security bullshit and keep me under surveillance then back off.”
“I could easily do that,” he said quietly, a dangerous edge to his voice now. “Your refusal to cooperate and your closeness with Sean Reynolds would be all the grounds that I need to argue that you are in collusion with the Westies. I could have eyes on you everywhere you go.”
So we were back to threats again, were we? Well, I still had the ace up my sleeve.
“And there’s also this thing called sexual assault. You know, when a man touches an unwilling woman? I don’t think the FBI would take too kindly to you taking advantage of a distraught asset in the privacy of your office.”
There was a moment of heavy silence, and I could practically feel him seething through the phone.
“I don’t know why you’re doing this, Claudia, but you’re going to get yourself killed,” he said, his voice tight.
“Well, if you’re right, then I won’t be able to hear you say ‘I told you so’ when everything goes to shit. So at least there’s that. Tell me that you’ll take the security detail off me and leave me the fuck alone,” I demanded.
“You don’t seem to have given me any other choice,” he said angrily.
“Goodbye, then, Agent Vaughn.”
I hung up the phone before he could say anything else. A little nagging part of my brain told me that I was being a bitch and should feel guilty for hurting Clayton, but I firmly told it to shut the fuck up. I didn’t have any room inside me for guilt anymore. It was a useless, painful, distracting emotion. And it certainly wasn’t going to help me kill Ronan.
I waited until I was sure that Agent Vaughn had honored my wishes and gotten rid of my FBI tail. Two days had passed, and I hadn’t spotted the telltale black sedan in my rearview. I hadn’t gone in to work; I had been stalking Ronan. If I kept not showing up like this people were probably going to start asking serious questions, but I didn’t really care anymore. Everything in my life was meaningless. Everything but my task.
It had been shockingly easy to acquire a handgun. If I had wanted to buy one legitimately, I would have had to register the weapon with the police, and then it wouldn’t have been too hard for them to figure out that I was the one who owned the gun that was going to kill Ronan. But thanks to Craigslist, I had been able to drive across Yonkers and pay cash for the weapon only hours after finding it listed online. And since the FBI was no longer following me, it was a long shot that they would ever link the gun back to me.
Now I was waiting in my car in the parking garage near Ronan’s apartment. I had found where he worked the day before, and I followed him home. He parked in this garage, and I was going to wait for him. I had scoped out the security cameras and positioned myself in a blind spot. Although I had only seen Ronan once before, the face of the man who had threatened Sean and called me a stupid whore was burned clearly into my brain. I knew I had the right man.
I glanced at the clock in my dashboard. Only 3:42. It would be a while yet before Ronan went home for the day. But I was willing to wait a few more hours. I had already waited fourteen years.
I reached over to the passenger seat and idly traced the shape of the gun through the supple leather of my purse. The feel of its unmistakable outline was reassuring. I was so close…
Something buzzed against my thigh, and I jumped slightly. It was just my phone. I guess I was more tightly wound than I would have liked to admit to myself.
The caller ID told me that it was Agent Vaughn. I pursed my lips, hesitating. Why would he call me if not to try to convince me to come back into the fold? Whatever he had to say on that count, I didn’t want to hear it. On the other hand, it was possible that he had more information on my parents’ murder. If he was closer to identifying Ronan as the culprit, then I needed to know. I was ready to act, was only hours away from exacting my revenge, but it would be safer if I knew what he knew. I pressed “Answer.”
“What?” I asked without preamble.
“Hello to you too,” Agent Vaughn said coldly, affronted.
I said nothing, waiting for him to get to his point so that I could end the call. I heard him sigh.
“I thought that you should know that Bradley Smith was released from holding this morning. We arrested him and Sean Reynolds for shooting Santiago on the grounds that the gun you used against Garcia belonged to one of them. Everything happened very quickly that day, and Santiago has said that he isn’t sure who shot at him. Although Bradley didn’t say anything, Sean admitted that the gun was his, so we were forced to cut Bradley loose.” Up until this point, Agent Vaughn had sounded detached and professional, but now there was a barely-suppressed note of concern and… guilt?
“We didn’t tell him that you had been giving us evidence against the Westies,” he continued. “But Bradley knew that we had the gun in our possession because you had used it against Garcia. We thought that if we brought him in we would get some charges to stick, but right now we don’t have enough to hold him. I’m sorry, Claudia, but he could pose a very serious threat to you now.”
I knew that I should feel fear, but all I could focus on was one fact: they had arrested Sean.
“And what about Sean? Is he out too?” I asked. I tried to keep my voice causal and disinterested, but the words were strained as my tongue tripped over his name.
All of the wind knocked out of me like I had been punched in the gut. Sean was in jail? And Bradley and Ronan were free? How was this possible? I was saved from having to find the air to ask my questions when Agent Vaughn continued on.
“Sean admitted to the gun being his, Claudia. That pretty firmly identifies him as the shooter. He fired on a federal agent, and…” He hesitated, as though he didn’t want to tell me the worst. Oh, god, there was something worse? “And we have your taped testimony and the blood evidence from the parking lot outside your office. Without your continued cooperation, we have been forced to charge Sean with the assault and attempted murder of Hector Garcia.”