Being Red: Chapter Seven

When I slip into bed beside Hayden, he rolls over to face me. I manufacture a smile, wishing he were asleep.

“Feeling better, babe?” he asks, sweeping my unruly hair off my forehead.

“Mmmm,” I sigh, noncommittal. I close my eyes, lean into his touch, and silence him with a kiss. He pulls me in closer, and I glide my leg over his, glad I don’t have to say anything more.

Normally, I would confide in him, my partner and teammate, but I can’t. Not with this. Telling him anything would be to invite my own demise. By definition, the only way to keep a secret is to do exactly that: keep it a secret, tell not a soul. This may seem rudimentary, but the simple rules are always the easiest to break. Even now, I long to disclose everything, beg his help in escaping this mess in which I am hopelessly enmired. But I can’t.

So I hold on to him tighter than I have in ages and let him love my worries away.

Later, when Hayden’s breathing turns heavy with sleep, I lie awake. Every time my eyes drift closed, my nightmare haunts me, except this time it is different.

I hide as always, but when Gregor finds me, he stares me in the eyes and says simply, “I know, Red.”

The next time I succumb, he asks, “Did you think you could keep secrets from me?”

After that, he just laughs, the sound chilling me to the bone.

I awaken on my back, cold sweat coating my skin, and try to keep my eyes open, knowing my success will be short-lived.

In the final version, it is not Gregor who finds me at all, but Kellan. I don’t even hear him approach, and my heart beats wildly in my chest, sensing a new presence before I can see anything from my limited vantage point inside the clothes hamper. When he appears, the alpha is covered in blood, his fingers tipped in black claws, eyes lupine and lacking any vestiges of humanity.

“I did it,” he proclaims, a savage smile baring bloody canines.

By midmorning, I am exhausted, and my worry has evolved into full-blown apprehension.

Get. It. Together, I command myself, unloading a full magazine into my paper target, the shots ripping a clean hole through the center.

Smoke and sooty grease fly into my face as the chamber empties in quick succession. I breathe in the scent of spent gunpowder and reflexively reload. The next magazine leaves a scattered pattern of bullet holes all over the target.

Terminated, I think, shoving a fresh magazine home using the meaty flesh of my palm. I try not to think of the target as me, but it’s a real struggle. I am so dead.

 I try to convince myself I am wrong. Despite my dreams, I tell myself there is no way Gregor knows what is going on. Yet a small kernel of doubt festers in the back of my mind.

I set my handgun on the bench and draw the small pistol I sometimes carry concealed in the small of my back. I hear the soundproof door to the range slam closed behind me. I rattle off several shots before reholstering my gun, shucking off my earmuffs, and popping the spongy orange plug out of my right ear.

“You can’t hide in here all day, babe,” Hayden says, handing me a breakfast burrito in a paper wrapper. “The team wants to know how you plan to handle the hit today. They’re on edge. You’re exuding more aggression and taking more time than usual, and they need direction.”

I sigh and take a bite of the burrito. “All right. I have a plan,” I admit around a mouthful of eggs, sausage, potatoes, and cheese.

“You’ve certainly burned through enough ammo to have come up with something brilliant this time,” he says, surveying the floor littered with brass shells. Hayden wipes a smudge from my cheek and kisses my forehead. “Everyone is waiting in the briefing room. I think Casey’s already had six cups of coffee.”

“Point taken,” I say. “I won’t keep them waiting.” I pull out my other earplug, tossing it on the bench, and holster my gun on my thigh to prove my good intentions.

The team sits around a conference table when we arrive, Casey and Glenn on one side with Henley alone on the other. Casey gulps yet another cup of coffee, Glenn picks his fingernails with a knife, and Henley looks anywhere but at me. I see why Hayden intruded on my solitude, and I know I am responsible for my team’s uncertainty; as their leader, it is my job to appear strong and decisive no matter the circumstances, and as their friend, I owe it to them to share my burdens so they do not worry needlessly on my behalf. I plant my feet and square my shoulders.

“Casey, put the mug down; you’ve had enough. Glenn, knives are for fighting, not manicures. And Henley, chin up; you’re coming with me tonight,” I say, establishing my willingness to lead despite having hidden from them all morning.

Relieved smiles overtake their features as they all do as ordered, Casey relinquishing his coffee, Glen tucking his knife away into whichever hidden pocket it belongs, and Henley straightening her posture and proudly meeting my gaze. Hayden claps me on the back and takes his seat next to Henley.

“Glad to have you back, Red,” Casey says. “So what’s the plan?”

“As noted, Henley will come with me,” I say, launching into the plan. I describe every logistical detail Kellan and I coordinated last night. At the time, I argued to go alone as I do on most of my assignments, with my team on stand-by as backup should I call on their aid, or free to fulfill duties of their own, but Kellan insisted. Now, I have to admit, I see his point. Sure, bringing Henley along adds a pair of eyes and ears that could potentially report my indiscretions, but taking her with me also means I have a witness privy to my side of the story who will corroborate my rendition of events. Moreover, Henley’s presence will substantiate my transparency, proving I have nothing to hide from the syndicate, which will allow me more freedom during solo missions in the future. Plus, the girl could use the training. “Easy, and no more Jordan Davies,” I say in conclusion, forcing the name from my lips even as it tries to lodge itself in my throat.

I force a smile I hope looks excited, threatening, villainous, or maybe a little of all three, and wonder when being Red stopped coming as easily as breathing.

I’ve run through the plan a hundred times in my mind, but I replay the order of events again anyway.

One. Go to Jordan’s place of work, an auto glass repair shop on the east side of town.

Two. Settle in at the burger joint across the street and wait for Trenton Hayes to leave.

That last part involves a hefty dose of trusting Kellan to get him there in the first place, but I can do nothing more than go along with the plan at this point.

Three. Follow Trenton to his favorite hangout, a seedy bar with even seedier clientele.

Initially, I was in favor of heading straight to the bar to do the deed, but we must ensure everyone believes without a shred of doubt  that Jordan Davies is the one who dies tonight, so starting at the repair shop adds evidence to support our charade. Plus, there might be an opportune moment to take out Trenton before he reaches the bar. I won’t keep my fingers crossed, but the dagger in my boot says I’m prepared for anything.

Four. Convince Trenton to come outside.

That will be the easy part. I’m dressed to entice, all my best assets on display: my ass squeezed into a pair of black leather pants, my breasts practically spilling from a red v-neck, my hair a wild tangle around my shoulders. I wear a black leather jacket at the moment, the zipper pulled up tight to my throat, so my attire isn’t quite so eye-catching. Still, I’m glad my mother isn’t here to see me, for no self-respecting parent wants to see her daughter dressed like a street walker, even if she rivals Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. The ensemble does, however, lend me the stereotypical appearance of a biker, which is not at all out of place in this part of town, and with Henley in matching leathers, we look prepared to take on the city.

I bring my mind back to the task at hand, although the diversion is welcome.

Now for the final step.

Five. Kill Trenton Hayes.

The litany of steps and reflexive commentary keeps me grounded and prevents me from considering instead that this plan might not work, and Gregor might find out the victim tonight is Trenton Hayes rather than Jordan Davies. Once finished, my mind returns to wondering how the hell I’m going to pull this off.

Although Jordan’s file did not contain pictures, there was an accurate description, so I hope for my sake that Trenton could pass for his twin. A lost-at-birth where-have-you-been-all-my-life identical twin.

My boots crunch on gravelly bits of cement littering the deteriorating sidewalk, the scrape of Henley’s boots close behind. Up ahead, the red neon from the burger place casts a glow on the sidewalk and out into the street.

“I checked the place out online, and I think I’d stick with a shake,” Hayden’s voice says in my ear. I know Henley hears too because she grimaces. “Can’t really mess that up, can they?” he asks, his tone belying his words.

“Chocolate shake it is,” says Henley. “It’s not like I could stand to eat much of anything right now anyway.”

Inside, we order two malted chocolate shakes and then choose a table facing the street.

I suck hard on my staw, my shake still too frozen to make much progress towards my mouth, and wink at the older man obviously staring at my puckered lips. Caught, he does not have the dignity to look away.

Henley grabs a plastic spork and tosses one to me. “This just validates my low opinion of this place. Offering two-in-one utensils to save a few bucks,” she scoffs. “How tacky.”

I abandon my straw and dig in, discreetly watching the doorway directly across the street. A man exits, but I instantly see he’s not our guy; there’s no way Trenton has a ponytail and a nose ring. I give Henley a slight frown, which she mirrors, adding a look that screams “why doesn’t he just come out already?” as she stabs at her shake without eating. I sense her anticipation, feel her leg jiggling to a phantom beat beneath the table.

I toe her leg with my boot and she quits fidgeting. “Buckle up, buttercup, I spy our man.”

Henley’s eyes widen with alertness, and Hayden hums into the comm, already zeroing in on our mark.

I assess Trenton’s appearance with relief; he looks remarkably like Jordan Davies, so much so that if I had not met Jordan himself just yesterday, I would think they were one and the same. Unfortunately, he is with another man.

“Tail him at a distance. There’s a parking lot up the street that will make for a good cover if he notices,” Hayden says, ever vigilant.

We slip out of the restaurant, shakes in hand, and trail the pair, heading to the lot Hayden tagged, but Trenton does not bother to look back at us, two women who are hardly worth his notice. Apex predators are all the same, never sparing attention for those that qualify as prey. A smile tugs at my lips as I eye his back, all the while keeping up a meaningless conversation with Henley.

Trenton’s companion leaves him as we pass the parking lot. I give Henley half a smile, and we trail him the rest of the way to the bar, which upon arrival I decide is a generous term for the dump.

“What a shithole,” Henley mutters.

I eye her with reproach. “We want to be here,” I remind her, pushing past the men smoking along the filthy curb outside and into the establishment. Inside, I ditch my shake, unzip my jacket to better display the low neckline of my blouse beneath, and scan the crowd. Trenton stands at the bar, and I pull Henley along behind me as I make my way towards him.

Halfway there, I feel a hand on my rear end. I snatch the offending appendage, twisting until I feel a satisfying pop before slowly turning towards the body to which it is attached. I lean towards the man as he tries to jerk from my grip. “I’m in a good mood tonight, so I’ll let that slide,” I say. “Next time, I break your fingers.”

“Bitch,” he sneers.

I apply more pressure to his index finger, stopping just short of dislocation, since that would cause a scene. “Care to try again?”

“Sorry,” he grits out, belligerent despite the pain.

I scan his face; he looks away first. I release his hand and turn my back, leaving him to nurse his sprained fingers. A quick glance to the bar confirms I lost Trenton Hayes.

Henley nudges my elbow with her own and nods towards the pool tables. At least one of us was paying attention. “Thanks,” I offer with a tight smile.

“We want to be here,” she mocks.

I reward her with a genuine smile that bares teeth. “What we want are some drinks,” I counter, resuming our progress towards the bar. “Two gin and tonics,” I tell the bartender when he singles us out from the crowd around his dingy bar.

“Allow me,” says a familiar voice above my left ear.

I spin, sipping my newly acquired drink, and sidle up to Casey, tucking myself tight against his muscular side and looking up into his face with hooded eyes. “Right on time,” I murmur as he tosses a few bills on the bartop.

Taking his cue, Casey backs into another man at the bar, whirling on him and yelling, “Watch it, asshole.” I have to applaud his selection; the bearded man is not much smaller than Casey himself, a worthy opponent.

The bearded man does not mince words, instead taking a swipe at Casey, who catches his fist mid-swing. Once we have the attention of almost everyone in the place, I make a show of trying to stop Casey as he clocks the man in the face. Nose bloodied, the other man lunges for Casey, and I jump in front of him, laying it on thick as I break up the fight and buy the poor guy a drink. I order another for myself while I’m at it since the first was spilled in the scuffle, taking a large pull from the glass to ensure I smell as good as drunk despite my sobriety.

When I glance towards the pool tables, I catch Trenton watching me. I hide my smile, and lead Casey to the back of the bar, heading for the restrooms. Before entering the men’s room, I duck my head out the back door, confirming that it leads to a narrow alley as suspected.

“The creep can hardly keep his eyes off you,” Casey says as soon as we are alone, putting his back to the door since this place is a dump and it is missing a functioning lock.

I take a large swig of my drink, a double shot of tequila this time, and swish the vile liquid in my mouth before spitting it in the sink. I wipe my mouth with the back of my hand, and say, “Careful, Casey. You sound as possessive as one of them.”

He just shrugs, ignoring the jibe. “You know we all care about you, Red. Now get over here so this is believable. That thing’s got a nose like a police dog, or one of those dogs that can smell cancer or a seizure coming on.”

Casey rubs his fingers in my hair, and I can’t deny that I love it. He massages my scalp, and I relax a little, tension easing from my shoulders. When he stops, I swish another mouthful of my drink, watching the clear liquid disappear down the drain in the dirty sink. Then he grabs me in a ridiculous embrace and rubs himself all over me, and I can’t help laughing at the absurdity. Finally, I push him away, trying to school my features into a more womanly expression than abject mirth. Besides, I can’t finish the last of my drink while laughing; I could choke, and that would be downright asinine at this point.

We emerge from the bathroom to Henley standing with her back to us on the other side of the door.

“You’re lucky I stood out here playing lookout because there is no way anyone would believe two people were getting it on in there with all that laughing.”

“Maybe you just haven’t done it with the right person,” Casey suggests, and it’s a wonder he can say it with any semblance of a straight face.

“Or maybe you weren’t drunk enough, Hen” Hayden adds in our ears, and I sway convincingly on my feet and give a little giggle to demonstrate.

Henley just rolls her eyes at all of us. I know she is an unbridled romantic, and it’s adorable, so I feel a little guilty for teasing and bursting her heart-shaped bubble. For her benefit, I set everyone back on track, “Let’s get this done.”

Henley and I make our way back to the bar alone, and I order another gin and tonic for something to do with my hands.

“We need to stop Jordan from settling in at the pool tables all night,” I whisper, struggling not to call him Trenton and ruin the whole setup, and wishing I had decided to call him Jordan in my head from the onset of this mission so my brain would currently be in fewer knots.

Henley chuckles, “I don’t think that will be a problem. He just took a shot, and now he’s leaning on his pool stick watching you again.”

“Perfect,” I purr.

Regardless of my misgivings, I stride through the crowd, stumbling slightly to my right before overcorrecting to my left, until I reach Trenton. I set my drink on the pool table and remove the cue from his fingers before he realizes my intent. “I can think of a much better use for your time,” I say, running my fingers along the narrow stick as I watch him inhale deeply to capture my scent.

Trenton’s smile is charming, all white teeth and charisma. His posturing is that of a predator used to getting his way as his prey begs him to do so. “What did you have in mind?” he asks, his smoldering gaze broadcasting to anyone with eyes and a head turned even slightly in our direction that he already knows what I suggest.

“You needn’t be coy with me,” I assure him, leaning into his chest. I smile up at him, eyelids lowered such that I know my eyelashes fan against my cheeks. For a moment I watch him watching me, then I say, “Meet me in the alley out back.”

“Maybe I will,” he says, noncommittal.

“Don’t be like that. It wouldn’t be fair to either of us not to see where this goes,” I say, flipping my hair over my shoulder and hooking my arm in Henley’s in passing as I walk towards the back of the establishment and the door I know leads to the alley outside.

“Who’s this?” Trenton asks, catching up to me in a few long strides.

“A friend,” I provide, my turn to be evasive.

A not entirely human growl rumbles from his throat as he follows us to the back door and pulls it open, holding it wide for us to exit in front of him like a gentleman. The notion requires me to suppress a growl of my own.

“On second thought, I think I need another drink first,” I say, testing the situation.

“I thought we were exploring the potential between us,” Trenton says, moving to stand in front of our primary means of escape and blocking the door with one muscled arm propped on the frame.

Henley emits a nervous laugh, not needing to act to play her part perfectly. 

I saunter to the brick wall on the far side of the alley and lean against it. “I had to make sure you were interested,” I say as Henley moves to mirror my stance. “I like a man who knows what he wants.”

Trenton stands in the doorway a moment longer, watching me intently. I beckon him forward with a wave of my fingers, and he obliges, the door slipping shut behind him as he closes the distance between us.

Together, Henley and I remove our leather jackets, but where Henley tosses hers over her shoulder, I throw mine in Trenton’s face.

The distraction provides the time I need to get the black, partially serrated blade into my right hand and shift my position so Trenton cannot blindly attack me where I last stood. As a were, he recovers with preternatural speed and lunges for me as I drive my knife between his ribs. Our simultaneous movement means I miss puncturing his lung, and his liver is on the other side of his body, so although bloody, the wound is not debilitating. Trenton snarls as I draw the blade out and swipe at his arm. With the amount of adrenaline surely rushing through his body as a result of his injury, he endures the slashed skin and muscles, pressing closer and wrapping his fingers around my throat.

I get in one good breath before my airway closes, but Trenton releases me an instant later when Henley leaps onto his back with a screech. He twists to throw her off and her knife drives into his shoulder blade rather than the base of his skull. He grabs her by the arm, and wrenches her off him. Her body flies through the air as if she weighs nothing at all and slams into the brick wall behind me, but I cannot afford to check to see if she will get up or not.

Trenton reaches for the dagger in his back, puffing up his chest as he stalks towards me, intent on eliminating his final threat.

I do not give him the chance, shifting the dagger to my left hand and stabbing him in his exposed armpit with all my strength.

The werewolf falls to his knees, still in his human form after all this time, and I drive my dagger into his spine. Once to kill him. Twice to be certain.

I look over my shoulder to Henley lying motionless on the ground, and now that the fight is over, I am losing the adrenaline masking my feelings. Emotion wells. What if she’s dead? I can’t lose a team member. I just can’t.

I look away from her prone form.

“It’s done” I say for everyone listening. Then, swallowing back tears, “Hayden, get medical back here. Henley’s down.”

I hardly register the urgent replies as I switch the frequency of my transponder.

“It’s done.” My voice is cold and emotionless, giving nothing away.

“Good work, Red.”

This time, the words I’ve heard a hundred times leave me feeling empty. Good work is standing with our teammates. Good work is doing the right thing.

Good work is not killing a person I know almost nothing about at the expense of my friend.

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