Authors: Caitlin Reid
Copyright © 2015 Caitin Reid.
All rights reserved.
This is a work of fiction. Any similarities to real people, places or events are entirely coincidental.
Max walked out from behind a disused shipping container, shielding his eyes from the low winter sun. With his sleek tailored suit and blond hair, he could have been mistaken for a wholesome Hollywood hero. If you didn’t know him like I did, that is. What can I say? Looks can be deceptive.
“You called?” I said, stepping closer.
I stopped and watched him approach me, assessing him. He’d sounded so agitated on the phone earlier that part of me wanted to turn and walk away. A panicked Max was an even more dangerous prospect than usual. Not that many people had ever seen this guy rattled.
I’d know him longer than anyone; he was the closest thing I had to a brother, since my own brother wouldn’t talk to me anymore. And even I hadn’t often seen past his calm exterior.
He stopped five feet away from me. It was just the two of us—well, the two of us and four or five guys waiting in his Escalades around the corner. I didn’t need to see them—I knew how he operated. I, on the other hand, had always preferred to work alone.
“What’s up?” I said it casually, but my stomach churned with dread.
I paused. That wasn’t right. Max wasn’t the only one known for his ruthless calm. I never got nervous; never. Now, though, the feeling was unmistakable. I bit back the feeling of nausea.
“You alright there bud?” He reached across and placed a hand on my shoulder.
I shrugged him away. “I’m fine. What do you want?”
“I told you. This is the big one,” he drawled, smiling the smile that made women weak at the knees, but had always made me wary. It had an edge to it that most people didn’t notice.
I looked away. An arctic breeze rustled through the lot and set my teeth on edge. This was all wrong. All of it.
“Spit it out, Maxi.”
He shuddered. I knew he hated it when I used his childhood nickname. But I couldn’t resist—he’d dragged me out of a warm apartment and away from
. I felt my pulse speed up even thinking about her.
“My client was very pleased with your last job.”
I shrugged. “He didn’t need to hire me. He could have gotten the job done for a quarter of what he paid me.”
He rubbed his clean-shaven jaw. “He’s got another matter he’d like to take care of.”
Max’s lip twitched.
“What is it?”
“What’s what?” he said dismissively.
I shook my head. “Nothing.”
He kicked at the loose gravel. “Hey, you hear about old Mikey?”
My heart sank. I didn’t care. And besides, I had this unfamiliar tug in my gut. All I wanted to do was get back to Amy.
Max watched me. “Did ya?”
“Well, the crazy old bastard’s done it—”
“We haven’t lived there since we were kids, Max,” I interrupted. “Tell me about the job.”
He shook his head with distaste. “I don’t get you, Ryan. You’ve got no interest in
. I’ve never met anyone so cut off from the world. Have you thought about what I said last time?”
I rolled my eyes. We may have been close as brothers, but that didn’t mean I had any tolerance for standing around, shooting the breeze.
“I told you; I have no interest in coming to your McMansion and being set up with a braindead friend of your trophy wife.”
“Jeez, you jerkoff. Why don’t you tell me what you really think?” He scratched his cheek. “We’re divorcing. Did you know that?”
I hadn’t known. It must have happened since the last time I saw him. It was hardly surprising: Bambi was a twenty-two-year-old college kid whose parents no doubt couldn’t believe their luck when she showed them that fuck-off diamond ring. I could only imagine their reaction when they met their new son-in-law. Max was discreet, but anyone with half a brain could figure out what he was. He tried to keep a low profile, but extravagance was his weakness.
“Sorry to hear that.”
“Oh come on. You met her at a girls gone wild party.”
“So? Who gives a fuck? I’ve met all of my wives at social events.”
I snorted. “Did your divorce attorney tell you that was a good way to meet nice girls?”
He flew at me then, moving so fast he almost caught me off guard. Almost. I blocked his headlock and caught his flailing arm, pinning it behind his back.
“You gotta be quicker than that,” I grinned.
He shook his head, panting from the exertion. I could twist his arm halfway up his back, but he wouldn’t show the slightest hint of pain. I wouldn’t—partly because he was kidding around, but mainly because I knew he had eyes on us. I let him go.
“Goddamn it, Ryan. If you weren’t such a difficult prick you’d have your own private island by now.”
“That’s not what I want.”
His eyes widened and he shook his head. “Enough. Why can’t you find a nice broad? Don’t be such a miserable asshole for once in your damn life.”
I opened my mouth. “I…”
He glanced up at me.
I shook my head, rattled. What had gotten into me? I’d been this close—
—to contradicting him; to blurting out that I had met someone. Jesus. Christ. Had I learned nothing from the past ten miserable years of my life? And anyway. It wasn’t like I’d met someone, was it? I’d fucked some chick who just happened to have gotten stuck under my skin. It wasn’t the same.
Except that it was and I knew it.
“Nothing. What’s the job?”
The same look of unease crossed his face. “So you’re in?”
I shrugged. “Sure,” I said, against my better judgment. “On one condition. You tell me why this is worrying you.”
He paused. “I don’t know.” He glanced around, checking there was no one behind him. “I shouldn’t say anything.”
“You will if you want me to consider taking this on.”
He rolled his eyes. “You’ll take it on. It’s an addiction for you, isn’t it? Sometimes I think it’s your only outlet.”
I scowled. “Just tell me, wouldya? Jesus. I should charge you by the word.”
He grinned; it faded quickly off his face. “He’s…”
“I dunno. Fucked up?”
“Most of them are, in one way or another. Fuck, man. You are too.”
“No,” he shook his head vigorously. “No. It’s different.”
I shrugged. “What does your gut say? Do the job or not?”
Max took a step closer to me. “He’s an important client. No mistakes, okay?”
“I’m not a fucking amateur, Max.”
His lips twisted into a smile. “No, bud. You’re not. That’s why I need you on this.”
I shook off my misgivings again. So what if the guy made Max uneasy. Hell, maybe that was a sign that he was of good character. Max wouldn’t have taken the job if he thought there was a serious risk to our security.
“Gimme the file.” All of a sudden I ached for her body. It has been a long day.
He reached into his cashmere coat and then paused.
“What is it?” I asked, wondering if he’d heard something I hadn’t. Unlikely: I was trained to notice the slightest change in my surroundings. If there had been a threat to us under that bridge, then I would have been the first to know about it.
“He wants to meet you.”
“What?” I muttered. “Why?”
Max shrugged. “Wants to give you a few pointers before you do it I guess. I don’t know. I arrange the deals, Ryan. I don’t try to get into the innermost thoughts of my clients.”
“What the fuck? Who is this guy? No wait, I don’t care. As long as he’s not a first-timer.”
His eyes darted around. “He’s no amateur, Ryan. He’s…”
I spared him the explanation. “I don’t care. I’ll meet him. Whatever.”
He pulled out a brown envelope; bent and wrinkled I noticed.
“You’ve had this for a while.”
“At the client’s insistence.”
I frowned. Something wasn’t right about this. “Wait. Why? Why go to you and then wait?”
He glanced down at the envelope he still hadn’t handed to me. “I forgot how observant you were. I always wondered—hangover from your military days?”
I set my jaw. I hated being reminded of my past. “I think you know exactly why I pay attention to the little things.”
“Alright, alright.” He leaned forward. “He didn’t exactly say it out loud, but the impression I got was there’s already been a failed attempt.”
I stared at him. That explained the hesitation on the client’s part. But it raised a number of other issues. I didn’t like surprises.
“Who did it? Why’d they fail?”
He shrugged. “Sounds like some of his own guys botched it up.”
“Is there anything else I should know?”
He shook his head and held out the envelope. “You’re in?”
I paused. I had a strange pang; a feeling I hadn’t experienced in a long time.
How would she react if she knew?
I couldn’t even imagine that conversation. She was a goddamn accountant. Why had I been worried about growing attached to her when our lives were so different there was no way it could possibly work? I shook my head, brushing it off. This was business, and I didn’t want to lose my reputation as the best. Max may have been my best friend, but he’d cut me off in a second if I started to get sloppy. Hell, I’d do the same to him.
I took the envelope.
He let go and I tore off the top of the crumpled brown paper. He took a step back and turned away as I reached inside. My fingers landed on a piece of paper. Ordinary printer paper, like they used in ordinary boring offices all around the country, every day. I felt another flicker of doubt.
“What you waiting for?” he asked, glancing up at me as he smoothed down the front of his coat.
“Nothing.” I pulled the paper out impassively, just like I had done hundreds of times before. Who was the latest fool I was sending to the grave? I knew it was screwed up, but for me it had become as commonplace as opening the newspaper and checking the teams for that night’s game. I was slightly more interested this time, though, after what Max had told me about the client. I glanced down, my mind wandering back to my warm apartment.
It was as if all of the heat left my body in those couple seconds. I knew that face. I stared down at the paper. The printing was low-quality black and white, but there was no mistaking that face.
My body felt heavy all of a sudden. Exhausted. My brain swam wildly. I could only be dreaming; that was the only way this could possibly make sense.
My head snapped up. “Is this some kind of joke?”
Max’s face wore its usual nonchalant smile. It was obvious that he had no idea. “No. Why would you say that?”
“It’s… it’s…” I stared down at the picture, my vision swimming. I still couldn’t believe it. It just couldn’t be. She didn’t belong in my world. But that wasn’t what the sheet of paper in my hand said.
Pull it together.
If it wasn’t a mistake or a joke, then… I thought desperately for some way out. I’d know Max for almost thirty years. But that didn’t mean I could just back out of a job. A lucrative job, at that.
I narrowed my eyes. “I don’t do domestics. You know that.”
He snorted. “Her? She’s not his wife. A dealer, I bet. Or a snitch. Who cares? Is that why you’re acting weird? Because it’s a broad?”
I shook my head, half listening. Even if I could have persuaded him to turn it down, how many others would jump to take my place? This client of Max’s was paying more money than most people earned in a year.
“Nah,” I said as calmly as possible. “I’m just not gonna disappear some guy’s wife.” I held up the page. “If it’s business? No problem.”
Max nodded, satisfied. “Good.”
And I decided then. If anyone was going to do this, it was going to be me.
“His contact details on here?”
He shook his head. “No. Of course not. Here.” He took a post-it note from his pocket and handed it to me. There was a phone number scrawled on it.
As he turned and walked away, leather soles slapping against the gravel, I forced myself to stay upright. All I wanted to do was collapse in the dirt.
He stopped and turned around. My pulse was racing in my ears and my vision was spotted. On the outside, though, I knew I seemed calm and unruffled.
“Who is this guy, Max? You trust him?”
He tilted his head to one side. “I thought you didn’t care.”
I shrugged. “I don’t like it, man. He wants to meet me first… He calls you up and then sits on it…”
He walked back toward me, his expression more serious than I’d ever seen it. “You keep this to yourself, okay?”
I rolled my eyes. “Do I seem like the chatty type to you?”
If I was—if I’d told you about her—we’d likely both be dead now. But at least then I wouldn’t have this goddamn choice to make.