The moment he laid eyes on her, he knew he was a goner. It wasn’t just that she was beautiful, with all that dark, wavy hair, haloing a perfect face of translucent skin and rosebud lips; but also that she was so young. Hell, she couldn’t be older than his sister. But he had orders and if he didn’t do it, someone else would. At least he would give her a painless way out, a rule some of his colleagues did not follow. He would make it quick. She would never know a thing.
But even so, as the girl emerged from the homeless shelter, he lowered the gun. How could he put an end to that beauty? What had she done to deserve such a fate? Surely someone who had just spent her Christmas morning feeding the homeless couldn’t be a bad person? The usual marks were drug barons and murdering psychopaths. He cleaned up other people’s messes and prided himself on making the world a better place for it. But now, well, he couldn’t see how killing this girl would improve anyone’s world.
She was an innocent, she had to be. Maybe The Agency was wrong. They must have given him the wrong name. He clung to this thought with relief. It had to be a mistake. He picked up his phone and dialled the latest number he had memorized.
“It’s Agent Winfrey, I’m coming in,” he said, his voice gruff from misuse. He eased his body out of the crouch he’d been frozen in for the past hour. That was one thing he wouldn’t miss; staying outside all night in the cold to keep a watch on his mark. When he was free, he was going for an office job, where there would be heating and coffee-machines and pleasant people to befriend. Oh, for a normal life.
When Winfrey arrived at The Agency’s headquarters an hour later, the boss himself met him in the foyer.
“Adam,” said Agent Leroy, using Winfrey’s Christian name for the first time in five years. “I trust it is done? Congratulations are in order, champagne?”
Winfrey shook his head. “There’s a problem, sir. I think I’ve been given the wrong mark.”
Agent Leroy’s jaw hardened and he motioned for Winfrey to follow him into his office. Winfrey went cold as Leroy closed the door. He was going to die, right here in this office.
“I beg your pardon?”
“I didn’t kill her. I think I was given the wrong name.”
Leroy’s eyebrows didn’t even twitch, a sure sign that he had known this truth all along. Of course he knew; his spies were everywhere. Winfrey had sensed at least five guns trained on him back at the homeless shelter, waiting for him to fail. And he had failed, so why wasn’t he dead already?
“You didn’t kill her? But you were given orders. Do you want your freedom, Winfrey?”
Winfrey had to force himself to remain composed. “You know I want it. It was the thought of freedom that got me through the last ten marks. But they all deserved it. You can’t tell me this one is the same as them? I find it hard to believe she would harm anyone.”
Leroy’s teeth bared. “It is not for you to question the rules. She is a threat and needs to be eliminated. That is all you need to know. Now get out there and finish the job.”
Winfrey looked away.
“It doesn’t sit right with me, is all.”
“Fallen for a pretty face, have you?”
Winfrey shrugged, “It’s not that she’s pretty, it’s that she’s good. I watched her all morning feeding the homeless and giving out blankets and clothes. Something doesn’t feel right.”
“True, something isn’t right. In fact, it’s very, very wrong. And the only way for it to be fixed is if she is dead.”
Winfrey looked at his employer, schooling his face not to reveal his shock. How could Leroy be so cold? Granted, it was his job to be cold and show no emotion. If his enemies smelled a whiff of weakness they’d be on him. But still, how could he show no empathy towards this girl?
“I can’t do it, sir.”
“Then you won’t get your freedom.”
“Give me another mark, someone who deserves it.”
“They all deserve it, Winfrey,” said Leroy through gritted teeth. “The terms of your contract state that you serve my orders until you have killed your one-hundredth mark. I have given you orders and the mark, so do it and walk away. You’ll never have to think about it again, just like I taught you.”
Winfrey forced his face to remain passive, hiding the emotional battle within. This was one thing he’d learned in his time with The Agency; don’t let them see the real you, or they’ll break it.
“Understood, sir,” he said, nodding sharply. “I’ll finish it now and be back for that champagne.”
Leroy surveyed him for a moment and then slowly smiled. It was a smile of teeth, none of that crinkling around the eyes, with all the botox he had drummed in. “I’m giving you one more chance. You know what will happen if you breach your contract again.”
Winfrey nodded again and let himself out of the office. He knew what would happen if he failed; the same thing that would happen if he succeeded.
On the other side of the door, he exhaled once and continued on his way before any of his colleagues had a chance to see his distress.
Now what was he going to do? He couldn’t very well get away with not killing the girl, for that would only make things worse. One of his colleagues would finish her off in a very nasty way and he would meet the same fate. And he’d already established that he didn’t want the girl dead. Isabella Cartwright. Just repeating her name in his head got his temperature up. What was wrong with him? She couldn’t be that special. She was only human. Maybe it was because he’d been alone for so long. Five years was a long time for any man. But then, he couldn’t have a family or friends while he was working for The Agency. That would all come when he earned his freedom. And that meant killing the girl.
Still arguing with himself, Winfrey drove back to the alleyway opposite the girl’s apartment and sat there for a moment, staring up at the tall, imposing building. There was no point going inside, as, despite it being Christmas day, it was busy enough that someone would notice him picking the lock. He would just wait for the girl to come to the door and then he’d do it. His freedom depended on it.
For hours he waited in his car and as day turned into night, he became aware of another presence. Someone else was waiting for the girl. When he recognised who it was, he swore and banged his fist on the steering wheel. Why did they have to come along? He got up and walked over to their car, making every footstep of his approach resonate on the frosty ground. There was no point in being stealthy about it; they already knew he was here. They barely glanced his way when he tapped the barrel of his gun on the passenger window. It slid down and a nose poked out.
“Barrow, Humphrey. Fancy seeing you here,” said Winfrey to the husband and wife team in the car. Humphrey glared at him, but her husband lifted an eyebrow.
“Not exactly what we hoped to be doing on Christmas day, Winfrey,” he said wryly.
“We had to leave the whole family around the dinner table because of you,” Humphrey said through gritted teeth. “Thanks very much.”
Winfrey gave a small mock-bow. “Not a problem. Think of it as my Christmas gift to you.”
He laughed as Humphrey told him where he could put his unwanted gift. He loved winding her up, which wasn’t difficult. “Not to sully the mood or anything,” he gave Humphrey a pointed look, who had the grace to blush, “but why are you here?”
“Just following procedure,” said Barrow smoothly.
Winfrey cocked his head to one side and put a hand to his chin, as if in thought. “That’s funny. I didn’t notice you guys on my turf when I was taking out my other marks.”
“That’s because the boss didn’t think you would mess up those ones,” said Humphrey vehemently. Beside her, Barrow sighed at his wife’s lack of tact.
Winfrey feigned surprise. “Oh I see. So you’re here to make sure it gets done?”
Barrow nodded curtly, “That’s right.”
Winfrey noticed that Humphrey seemed about to say something cutting, but her husband put a silencing hand on her knee. Winfrey grinned at them both and pretended not to notice.
“Well, I’d best crack on then so you can get back to your dinner,”
“If all goes well, you should join us,” said Barrow.
Winfrey hid a smile. So Barrow was going to act like nothing was wrong, was he? As if it was as simple as Winfrey finishing the job so they could all go back home for a jolly Christmas celebration? Hardly likely, when their orders were to kill him, whether he finished the job or not. He could read Humphrey like a book. She was no good at lying, especially when she knew she was about to kill someone. Too bad, he had thought them friends.
“Well then,” Winfrey smiled, “I shall see you around the dinner table.”
He headed back to his car and collected everything he thought he would need. He had prepared for this moment. Despite his fanciful daydreams, he had not believed for one minute that Leroy would allow him to drive off into the sunset with knowledge of The Agency spinning around in his brain. No, the plan had always been to kill him. This facade of freedom on the horizon had been a ploy of Leroy’s to lull Winfrey into a false sense of security. Ah, the thought of freedom had been nice, but not enough to build a life on.
His rucksack of emergency supplies was on the backseat. He did a quick double-check. Did he have everything? Well, it was too late to make changes now. It would have to do. As long as his getaway car hadn’t been discovered, he’d be fine. But before he could escape, he had to create a diversion and why not kill two birds with one stone and rescue the girl while he was at it? She was only going to meet a sticky end if he didn’t take action.
Usually he was as silent as a whisper and proceeded unnoticed as he went about his business. This time, he allowed his colleagues to catch a glimpse of him scaling the wall of the tall building. They had to know he was in there and they had to be suspicious enough to investigate.
Isabella Cartwright. She was in the apartment, she had to be. Winfrey had seen no movement at the windows all day, but that wasn’t to say she was not at home. She had to be. She called to him, her presence so magnetic that he couldn’t help but answer.
When he reached the top floor of the building, he went from window to window, searching for one that wasn’t locked. He found one that overlooked the hallway. Perfect. He slid it open, hardly making a sound in the stillness of the night. Then, feeling the watchful eyes of Humphrey and Barrow upon him, he slid his body slowly through the small opening. There was a rustle and a knock. Damn! He’d forgotten he was wearing his rucksack. It was caught on the latch and now his body was bent into a strange position as he attempted to free himself.
“Hello?” A woman’s voice came from within the dark apartment. “Is someone at the door?” There was movement in another room and the click of a light being switched on. Light spilled out from below the gap of a door, illuminating him. Sweat rolled down Winfrey’s forehead as he slipped his knife out, slashed at the cord attached to the window, pulled it shut and leapt into a cupboard. And not a second too soon, for the light of the hallway snapped on as Isabella Cartwright came to investigate.
“Who would have buzzed anyone in when everyone’s away for the holidays?” she muttered to herself. Winfrey’s heart beat frantically at her words. Her voice was like honey and the finest wine. And then, there were her words. They were alone in the building. This was too perfect.
Isabella opened her front door and peered out into the darkness. Then she sighed and came back into the apartment. Watching her through a crack in the door, Winfrey’s heart pounded as she came closer to his hiding place, as if she could sense him. She was frowning at something he couldn’t see. Then she bent down and picked it up. Winfrey gulped. It was the cord he’d cut off his rucksack. Isabella turned around and faced the empty hallway, fear written across her face.
“Hello?” She balled her fists and squared her shoulders, ready for attack. Despite all of the other emotions powering through Winfrey’s brain, he couldn’t help but admire her spunk. But she was no match for him.
Isabella seemed to decide that there was nothing wrong, for her shoulders relaxed and she sauntered over to a small sideboard to open a draw. Winfrey strained his eyes to see what she was doing. Was she getting her purse? Her cigarettes? No, he already knew she didn’t smoke. Suddenly she whipped around and pointed something in his direction. Holy crap; that was a gun! Winfrey nearly gave himself away by jumping back on instinct. But he was trained and hardened for moments like these – not that a delicate little flower like her had ever pointed a gun at him before – and so stood his ground. Isabella walked slowly towards his cupboard, her gun trained on the spot where Winfrey’s head was. He wanted to move, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t take his eyes off her beautiful face.
“Drop your weapons and come out with your hands above your head,” she ordered, coming to a halt before him. All that separated them was a flimsy sheet of wood, through which he was sure she could hear his pulse racing. Well, it was the make or break moment and he didn’t have long, with Humphrey and Barrow prowling around outside. Still, this was never going to be an easy thing to pull off; he would just have to rethink his strategy. He could still disarm her and knock her out in time to escape. He just had to get her to lower that damn gun.
“Promise you won’t shoot me and I’ll come out unarmed,” said Winfrey, using a voice of authority.
Isabella flinched at his voice, but her voice was firm and steady when she replied, “I’ll decide that when I see what I’m dealing with.”
Winfrey raised his eyebrows. Maybe she was more dangerous than he had realised. Appearances were definitely deceiving. He wanted to kick himself for disobeying orders. But still, he had to believe that The Agency was wrong about her.
Moving slowly, he pushed the cupboard door open with his foot. His hands were above his head, holding the knife he had used to free himself from the window. He felt rather than heard Isabella catch her breath as his face came into view. His heart stilled. She did not lower the gun.
“Drop it.” Her eyes flicked towards the knife.
He opened his hand and the knife dropped to the floor. Isabella kicked it towards the front door.
“Keep them up,” Isabella bit her lip, drawing Winfrey’s eyes straight to them. Now all he could think about were her lips, so rosy and perfect. “Where are the others?”
“What others?” Surprise slashed through him. How did she know about Humphrey and Barrow?
“The other weapons, where are they?”
Oh. He shrugged. “Everywhere. It might take you some time to dig them all out.”
Isabella grinned. “I’ve got time.”
Winfrey’s thoughts returned to Humphrey and Barrow, his imagination on fire. Even now, they could be making their way into the building, hoping to catch him unawares. He had to get this over with.
“No you don’t.”
Isabella’s grin slipped and the finger on the trigger twitched. Winfrey held his ground.
“Because as we speak, assassins are on their way to kill you. We have to leave.”
“Yes. I’m here to rescue you.”
“Have you escaped from a loony bin?”
“That’s not the kind of thing I’d expect from you,” Winfrey was disappointed. “I thought you had more respect for those worse off than yourself.”
Isabella fidgeted, the gun lowering slightly. “I do. Look, this is a high-pressured situation and I’m not exactly watching my words right now.”
“Shut up and tell me why assassins are trying to kill me.”
“Woah. You don’t even seem surprised.”
“Of course I’m bloody surprised. I’m just used to hiding my emotions. It wouldn’t do me any good if every Tom, Dick and Harry knew how I was feeling, would it?”
“No, I suppose not.”
Suddenly the barrel of the gun was pressed against his chest. Winfrey held his breath to hide his shock. He hadn’t even seen it coming.
“We don’t have time for this.” And besides, he couldn’t explain even if he wanted to. His brain was turning to mush. She was standing too close. He just wanted to reach out and touch her. His fingers were aching to run through all that silky brown hair. Her rosy lips were begging for his tongue to caress them.
“Who’s the one with the gun?”
“Believe me, your enemies have got a lot more than guns up their sleeves.”
“Tell me what’s happening.” For the first time, a pleading note entered her voice, pulling at Winfrey’s heart-strings. That was strange, he thought he had left his heart behind five years ago.
He sighed. “Look, I don’t really understand. All I know is that you’ve caught the attention of some people you really don’t want to notice you. You’re supposed to be my job…”
“I’ve been ordered to kill you.” Winfrey waited for Isabella to jump back in horror, or to pull the trigger and be done with it. But neither happened; she just narrowed her eyes. He took a deep breath and continued with his confession; his first proper confession for five years. “But I decided I couldn’t go through with it, so I’m rescuing you instead. There are at least two more Agents outside, waiting for me to execute my orders…”
“You mean, to execute me?” Isabella’s voice was sharp.
Winfrey nodded, shame washing over him. “When they realise I’m not going through with it, they’ll move in and take us both out.”
Isabella smiled. “The way you talk, it’s like you think you’re in a movie.”
“It’s just the lingo of the business.”
“And so you continue,” Isabella laughed.
“You’re too calm,” said Winfrey, raising an eyebrow.
“Yeah, I tend to get like this during emergency situations. It’s like everything slows down around me.”
“I get that too.” Winfrey was almost excited; this was something they had in common.
Isabella raised an eyebrow at him. “What I don’t understand is why you don’t go through with the job. Why don’t you kill me, then the other Agents won’t have to bother.”
“Because I don’t want to.”
“Why? I’m assuming you’ve killed others.”
“True. But I don’t want to kill you.” His words rang out into the silence of the apartment. No one spoke for a moment.
“I still don’t understand.”
“Neither do I. Look, the only thing you need to know right now is that I’m dead, whether I kill you or not, so I may as well stick two fingers up at them, while escaping with you.”
“You make it sound like you’re a prisoner on death row.”
“Sometimes, that’s what it feels like.”
Isabella nodded, as if she had made a decision. “So, rather than escape by yourself and leave me to the dogs, you’re taking me with you?”
Winfrey stopped in his tracks. To be honest, he hadn’t really thought about what he would do with her after tonight. Where would she go, once he had gone into hiding on his little island? “I thought that if we were both facing the same doom, we were in it together. You can go wherever you want after tonight.”
“What if I want to go with you?”
Winfrey’s heart leapt in his chest, surprising him again. It had been absent these past five years and now tonight of all nights, it was getting involved with his decision making. Tonight truly was the beginning of his freedom. “Why would you want to come with me?”
“I don’t know,” Isabella shrugged, a look of innocence on her face. But Winfrey knew she was up to something. She wasn’t as innocent as she looked.
“Look, whatever your decision is, hurry up and make it before they get here. They’ll be suspicious by now. Usually I’d be in and out quicker than this.”
“You make it sound so cold.”
“It is cold.”
“You’re not cold though.” She leaned forwards and rubbed a soft finger against his cheek. All the blood-vessels in his head awoke at her touch, sending a rush of dizziness over him. The hairs on his body stood on end and he tensed, fighting every instinct which was telling him to kiss her. She still held a gun to his chest.
“Decision time,” his voice was a growl. “Can the weapon and run with me, or shoot me and run alone.” He held her gaze. Her eyes never left his.
She stepped back and slipped the gun into her belt and pulled her shirt over to cover it. “I’m better with company,” she said.
Winfrey flashed her a grin and picked up his knife, sliding it into his back pocket. “Excellent decision. Now, help me. Where’s the kitchen?”
“What? Now is not the time to be making a sandwich.” Isabella said as she followed Winfrey through the apartment.
Winfrey ignored her and busied himself with turning the gas on at the stove.
“Are you being serious? You’re going to blow up my home? You really are mental, aren’t you?”
“Look, we need to fake our own deaths or they’ll chase us until they kill us.” He pushed her out into the hallway and proceeded to rig up the kitchen door with some string and a lighter, so that when the door was opened, Humphrey and Barrow would get a nasty shock.
“Yeah, but still.”
“Either way, you’ll never be able to come back. I suggest you grab some things and I’ll meet you in the bedroom.”
Winfrey grinned, knowing how that had sounded. “Pack some essentials and even sentimental rubbish if you want, then meet me in the bedroom so we can jump out the window.”
“This is crazy.”
“Not your average Christmas, I’m guessing?”
“I certainly won’t forget it.”
Winfrey closed the kitchen door and paused in the hallway. He stared into her dark eyes, almost losing himself in their depths. “I won’t forget it either.” He smiled. It was his first real smile in a long time. It came from somewhere deep inside. Somewhere he thought had been broken beyond repair. “Now quickly, go.”
Isabella blinked, as if awoken from a spell. She sprung into action, pulling a bag from the cupboard and filling it with inanimate objects.
Winfrey watched her, amused. “I don’t think you’ll need that vase where we’re going, sweetheart.”
“Firstly, I’m not your sweetheart. And secondly, you said I could take sentimental rubbish. Well, this is sentimental.” She hugged the vase to her chest, her eyes daring him to argue. He rolled his eyes and waved her on. She disappeared into her bedroom and he could hear drawers opening and closing. Damn, he should have just knocked her out. Now he’d be carrying her and enough bloody luggage for a fortnight’s holiday. Women.
Winfrey stared through the peephole in the front door. Where were Humphrey and Barrow? They should have come to investigate by now. He bet Humphrey was dying to give him his curtain call. Although there was a domed glass roof above the central staircase, the moon was hidden behind a cloud. He couldn’t see much in the darkness, but he was sure he could see movement on the staircase. Was that them? His finger flexed on the trigger of his gun. He’d teach them to ambush him. The surprise would be on them.
A muffled thud distracted him. What was that girl doing? Probably trying to fit a giant mirror or something into her bag. Well, he wasn’t having any of that. It was time to go, now that the assassins were nearly at the door. He could hear their footsteps now. Funny how they weren’t trying to be quiet. He opened the bedroom door…
And was deafened by a gunshot. A bullet whizzed past his ear, burning his flesh. He raised an eyebrow. “Not your best shot, Humphrey.”
“Shut up,” Humphrey snapped. “I missed on purpose.”
Winfrey bit back the scathing reply. Now was not the time to be winding her up. Not when Barrow was holding Isabella in a death grip, a gun digging into her forehead.
Winfrey didn’t need to be told to drop his own gun. He released it like it burned. It clattered across the wooden floorboards, towards the wrought iron bed.
“What was the plan, eh, Winfrey?” said Humphrey scathingly. “Rescue the girl, escape and live happily ever after?”
Winfrey nodded apologetically. “I’m afraid so.”
“And you thought we didn’t see it coming? Did you think we’re stupid?”
Winfrey shrugged, biting his lip, a guilty look on his face. “It’s starting to look that way, isn’t it?”
“Stop talking to the boy and shoot him, dear,” instructed Barrow. Isabella was white, her eyes wide with terror. But she was watching Winfrey intently. She was an intelligent girl, she must know he wasn’t planning on getting them killed. He decided to take a chance. He winked a tiny wink and saw understanding in her eyes. She still had her gun. And he still had his knife.
“Don’t tell me what to do,” Humphrey snapped, taking her eyes off Winfrey so she could glare at her husband.
It was just the chance he had been waiting for. As quick as a bullet, he pulled his knife out of his back pocket and threw it towards Barrow. It struck the hand holding the gun. With a howl of pain, Barrow dropped the weapon and fell to the floor. Taken by surprise, Humphrey shot wildly in Winfrey’s direction, missing him by centimetres. Winfrey leapt for his gun, while Isabella pulled her own out and held it to Barrow’s chest. Barrow froze and Humphrey faltered. Winfrey smiled as he raised his weapon so it was level with Humphrey’s face. He ignored the two black-clad assassins who had just entered silently through the front door. So they had been the distraction, had they?
“Now, I’m not a bad guy. I’m willing to let you go, to live, if you promise not to double-cross me again. Let me take my freedom – freedom I have earned, and I won’t kill you. Yes?”
Behind him, Isabella coughed.
“And let me take the girl, she’s nothing to you. Then you can get back to your Christmas meal and I can get back to escaping. Sound like a deal?”
Humphrey’s lip curled. “I wouldn’t make a deal with you if you were the last man on earth. For goodness sake, you murdered your own wife!”
There was silence as Winfrey registered what she had just said. Behind him, he knew Isabella was doing the same. She was probably feeling pretty betrayed right now. As for him, he was shocked. How did Humphrey know that? He thought only Leroy was privy to that information, it was how he’d lured him into The Agency, after all.
“Give it a rest, Humphrey. You should know not to listen to malicious rumours.” Winfrey tried to laugh it off, but the damage was done.
“It was bad enough when you were just an assassin, but now you’re a murderer?” Isabella shrieked. Winfrey didn’t have to turn around to know that her gun was now pointed at him. Humphrey’s delighted grin said it all.
“Your logic is flawed, sweetheart.” Winfrey spoke through gritted teeth.
“Don’t. Call me. Sweetheart,” she said loudly.
Winfrey’s heart sank. He knew he was about to die. She was going to pull the trigger.
Humphrey’s grin widened; clearly she was thinking the same thing. Winfrey turned to face Isabella. He smiled sadly at her.
“Together in our doom, I suppose.”
To his surprise, she winked. Then she altered the direction of her gun so it was pointing at the kitchen door. Humphrey and Barrow watched, frowning. Then her finger squeezed the trigger and everything slowed down. Winfrey ran towards Isabella and threw her over his shoulder. He whipped his grapple and hook from his pocket and flung it at the open window. It caught neatly on the windowsill, just as his feet cleared it.
Behind him, the sound of an explosion made his world go silent. He couldn’t hear the screams he was leaving behind. He couldn’t see the bullet hit the door handle, forcing the door open. He couldn’t see the lighter on the string light itself, igniting the gas-filled kitchen. He couldn’t see the assassins being blasted across the apartment, shock barely registering on their features.
All he could see was his freedom… and Isabella.
- By Amy Lisa Holmes at Alisah Creative
<- This is the second chapter in the ‘Revenge of a Borborn’ series. Read the first chapter here. Copyright to Amy Lisa Holmes at Alisah Creative ->