Dear readers, how about a belated Christmas gift? Here’s a short chapter taking place between SPOTLESS and BEATING RUBY, from March’s point of view. 🙂
Good grief, he’s been hard since page five, and it’s not going away anytime soon. This is one of the things I don’t understand about her books: the constant, maddening, life-threatening, soul-sucking erections. For Christ’s sake, he grew a joystick two paragraphs after meeting her, and now they’re eating fried shrimp at Sonic. And. He’s. Hard. Who gets hard at Sonic? Who eats there in the first place, when there’re so many healthy alternatives?
He must be seventeen. He’s a seventeen-year-old SEAL, that’s the explanation. No, wait, it’s mentioned in the beginning. There it is. He’s thirty-six.
And I’m turning thirty-three tomorrow.
I know—I feel it in my very bones—that I’m losing a crucial battle between a man’s rational mind and his teenage demons, but I can’t help peering over the tablet and at my legs as they rest on the bed covers. Alright, what I’m staring at is my crotch, faintly outlined in the dark by the device’s dim glow—and more specifically, the part of me that sits safely tucked in a pair of well-ironed boxer shorts.
This is ridiculous. Of course, no flag stays at full mast for an entire night. It’s basic physiology, and I have nothing to worry about: that SEAL quite simply suffers from a severe case of priapism, which should logically degenerate into penile gangrene by the end of this story. Note to self: never Google that again. In any case, that persisting state of arousal will be Kayden Storm’s downfall—if he doesn’t get killed in action first.
My eyebrows slowly rise to meet my hairline as our hero pulls out a Smith & Wesson Sigma on page 217. That boy is going to die: the trigger design is dreadful, and they didn’t nickname that one the “Smegma” for nothing. Oh no. He’s certainly not taking out an ambushed sniper with a Sigma. He can’t possibly—Fok me, he just did.
Who wrote this? Have they ever killed anyone? Nevermind, he saved Chanterelle and killed that corrupt FBI agent after all. Oh, for the love of Conway Twitty, he’s hard again. Oh well, I suppose that a fellow male can relate to the feeling of battling untimely and inappropriate urges, and I’ll concede that the author is doing a fine job describing that particular brand of frustration. Yes, it is not unlike a pressure cooker full of pork tenderloin on the verge of exploding. Not quite sure about the tenderloin, or why it has to be pork. It could be anything, really. Or just water. That’s how pressure cookers work.
But the ache is nonetheless real.
I set the tablet aside on my nightstand with a weary sigh, but not before making sure it lies parallel to the edge of the tabletop. Odd angles tend to make my skin crawl. It’s almost three a.m. I know Kayden is going to sleep with Chanterelle, and I’m alone in bed, reading about it, on the twenty-fifth floor of a hotel in Moscow. I have no penchant for the dramatic, but I fear this is very close to rock bottom. I run a hand across my face, hating the sandpaper-like feeling of newly-grown stubble on my chin. I need to shave. I hate being unshaven. It feels messy, as if a part of me were out of control . . . dirty.
The very idea raises my hackles and coils my insides, so I jump out of bed. I like to shave, even at night. It’s like trimming my nails or cleaning my guns: it helps me sleep. It dulls the unbearable pins and needles sensation that starts in my knuckles and spreads through my whole body until I wish I could rip my skin off. So, I make my way to the bathroom and brace my hands on the edge of the sink, avoiding my reflection in the mirror. I know that man well enough, his anxious blue eyes, and the many weaknesses he tries to hide under a gentleman’s mask. I don’t like him much, but we’re stuck together, so I try to make the most of the time we have, the body we share.
There’s the soap, sitting in its wooden bowl—always clear of any dried suds; dried suds make me physically ill—then the comforting glint of my chrome safety razor, the practiced glide of its sharp blade. Every slow scrape, every inch of clean-shaven skin settles my pulse and dulls the restless prickling in my hands and chest until I’m clean.
The result in itself brings me no genuine pleasure: I never indulge in more than a quick swipe of my palm over my chin to ascertain that the skin there is perfectly shaved. It’s the process that matters; I know that. I understand the method to my madness, even though I’m powerless to stop the urge when my knuckles start tingling again. This time it’s the soap, covered in suds. It’s the sickening sight of tainted foam and stubble shavings marring the sink’s smooth porcelain. Water stains on the faucet, on the backsplash, infuriating traces of lint gathering on the glossy surfaces I just wiped over and over.
According to my watch, it’s another seventeen minutes before I’m able to leave the bathroom, but not without a lingering sense of nausea.
When I return to bed, I feel clean at last—or at least for now. I check under the pillow for my gun. Still here. Good. The sheets are cool and crisp; I like that. I rarely indulge in a full night’s sleep. Instead, I doze, close my eyes, and allow my body to relax for three, sometimes even four hours. The bare minimum I need to stay sane. I don’t expect to dream tonight. I never dream when I’m working: I don’t allow myself to drift far and deep and enough for that. Yet, the moment the room goes entirely black under my eyelids, I pick up a faint scent of vanilla. A light and sweet effluve that compels me to savor each slow breath.
There’s silky skin under my fingertips, pale as milk and studded with moles, like dots on a map or stars in the sky. Uneven surfaces often drive me insane, but not this time. I want to linger on each freckle, chart every landmark of this lovely chaos. I run my fingers in her hair, combing soft, rebellious curls. She’s in my arms, her body molded against mine. She fits there, small enough for me to cradle. Warm and infinitely soft. So pure I’m afraid a single touch from me will stain her, leave a visible smear. Her full lips seek mine. Clumsy, hungry. Desperate to hold on to my fantasy, I grip the sheets in vain and shift my hips to relieve an all-too-familiar ache. My eyelids snap open in a moment of shameful clarity, and I realize that second-rate SEAL Kayden and I have something in common after all.
But he gets the girl. I don’t. I left her in a bed months ago, in another hotel, at the other end of the world, after she begged me to make love to her. Then again, she had no idea I need to get up at night to shave, to close doors that are already closed, to set a book straight on a shelf or dust my kitchen cupboards—because dust always sets between the plates, and just thinking about it makes my skin itch.
It’s better this way. I was drunk anyway—literally staggered into our hotel room reeking of scotch. I’m not sure what she saw in me—especially then—but she came to me, slipped out of her bed to climb into mine without a word. She huddled against me and caressed my back in that tentative way that’s uniquely hers. She brought her lips to my lion, and at the feel of her lovely mouth against my shoulder blade, the nastiest, grimiest part of me hesitated. I wanted this, her, under me, kissing me as if I were the last saint left in hell.
So I rolled over and pinned her under me. And she begged me.
Please . . . I don’t want to spend the rest of my life wondering—
How it would have felt?
She gazed up at me with her big golden eyes, as if we could love each other, as if I wasn’t legally drunk and mentally debating whether her blood would stain the sheets if I fucked her. And I couldn’t take what she offered. I pictured her, wincing with each thrust, waking up a few hours later, feeling sore and slightly nauseated. With dawn’s light, she’d recognize the extent of her loss and loathe us both.
I can’t think of a worse scenario for a first time.
I couldn’t do that to her. So, I choked her out instead.
Come to think of it, that was rock bottom.
Two in Moscow.
One in Geneva.
And, finally, six in Palma Roja—a smatter of dilapidated houses tossed haphazardly in the northern Ecuadorian jungle, less than ten miles away from the Colombian border. Nine men in total, who came remarkably close to pulling off the heist of the decade: the hijacking of a cargo plane transporting over two-hundred million dollars in eight sealed, armored crates. Regrettably for them, the cash belonged to Angel Juan Sebastián Somoza, a well-connected arms dealer with a limited sense of humor.
Angel employs hundreds of competent guns who ensure the safety of his business and family, but when he wants to make a point—a two-hundred million dollars point—he hires me. And my work here is done: the sun is setting over the jungle, and Angel’s men are almost done digging the sixth grave.
Standing side by side near his latest toy—a heavily armored Rezvani tank SUV—he and I watch the sixth and final body bag being tossed in a shallow hole.
“Next time, you bring them to me alive,” Angel clips, the words coated in his gravelly Spanish drawl. Reflected in his aviators, one of his employees starts shoveling mud over the body.
“You know I don’t take that sort of job.”
I kill to solve problems, not to satisfy any kind of personal craving, or, in the case of a few of my colleagues, make an artistic or philosophical statement. As a consequence, I do not torture unless the necessity arises, and nothing goes in my trunk that isn’t already dead and packaged in a sanitary manner. I don’t question, I don’t abduct, and I don’t play with my clients.
I can easily imagine that Angel—who’s, in fact, the artistic type—would have wanted an opportunity to turn those six executions into gruesome and memorable visual tableaux, as a warning to future criminal masterminds intent on helping themselves to his earnings. He’ll have to hire someone else for that.
“You’ll take the job if I tell you to. Name your price.” Angel knows he’s wasting his time, but he never backs down from what he perceives to be a challenge.
Arms crossed, I study the muddy edge of the shovel as it bites into the damp, fragrant soil. Night has fallen. Angel’s men are now working under the headlights. “I’m actually considering retirement.”
That prompts Angel to lower his aviators and turn to better stare at me—a rare display of emotion for the man. Tucked in the open collar of his shirt, his gold cross pendant catches the glare of the headlights. “Have you received a sign?”
From God—or rather, Jesus. Despite his morally ambivalent career choices, Angel has always been and remains a devout catholic. As such, he firmly believes that any man willing to stop and listen may hear the Lord’s call and heed it.
“I don’t believe so,” I reply. “I’ve simply been . . . thinking.”
“Doubting,” Angel corrects. He can be irritatingly insightful at times.
A long sigh, a slow nod. Angel Somoza is about to provide me with spiritual guidance. “He has a plan, a place for all of us. And if at times you feel you’ve lost your way, remember that this world needs monsters, too. Men like you, like me: we serve a purpose. We cleanse this world’s filth. We’re His instruments.” He places a solemn hand on my shoulder—an unexpectedly familiar gesture coming from a man who generally glares everyone at bay.
I consider his hand on my shoulder. “I’ll remember it.”
“You do that. I’ll call you.”
Angel’s employee is done. He flattens the earth over the newly-dug grave with the back of the shovel while his boss climbs in the back of the Rezvani. A concert of slamming doors and roaring engines follows, before I find myself facing the six graves alone in the dark.
My purpose . . . What, exactly, will be my purpose in this life if I’m no longer ‘cleansing’ the underworld, as Angel puts it? A low buzz rises from the inside of my jacket and cuts through my pondering. I take out my phone and glance at the nameless caller on the screen, whose profile picture is a lovely ostrich I personally selected.
“Good evening Phyllis.”
As usual, the low-pitched velvet of her voice bears a seductive quality some might misinterpret—yet, our relationship is strictly professional. Phyllis used to be the personal assistant of a casino owner in Macau until I shot him. Finding herself unemployed, Phyllis accepted my offer to work for me instead. I conducted her job interview while dissolving her former employer in acid, which says all one needs to know about her level of professionalism and sang-froid. “I gather you’re done?” she inquires.
“I am. Did you have any time to work on that side-project of mine?”
“That’s why I’m calling. Good or bad news first?”
Stifling a sigh, I jump behind the wheel of the Jeep that drove me here. I need a full night’s sleep, but that’ll have to wait until I land in New York. “Let’s hear the good news.”
“111 Central Park West is a wrap. I got a call back from the agent. The fourteenth and fifteenth floors are yours.”
“Excellent. And the bad news?”
“You might want to take a look at the file I just sent you. Call me back when you’re done.”
The file in question is a quick read. Twenty-eight-year-old American male, posing as an international health insurance contract coordinator—a cover for the CIA’s infamous Directorate of Foreign Operations. No notable achievements. No living relatives. It’s not until I scroll down to the picture Phyllis attached to the file that my knuckles start to itch. Then it’s my nape, my chest, and before I know it, my jaw is clenched so tight that I can hear my teeth grinding together. I need to either take a shower or shoot someone, now.
Because it’s her in that picture, standing in front of her building, and kissing him.
I fish inside my jacket for the tube of mints that never leaves me and pop half-a-dozen in my mouth. The satisfying crunch of sugar between my molars and the icy explosion in my sinuses seem to instantly clear my mind.
That’s it. I know exactly what I’m going to do after I retire.