The harsh light of the single light-bulb in her interrogation chamber stabbed Kellesk in the eyes as she regained consciousness again. She had lost count of how many times she had awoken to cinder-block walls, a concrete floor, and a ceiling of wooden bars supporting the floor above her, but it was worse each time she did. Her head ached, as if her brain was swollen and swelling, trying to explode from her skull. Her vision was cloudy, and had had been cloudy for the past couple of days, or at least she thought it had been a couple of days, because there was no window or clock in her room to show the passing of time. Nausea gnawed at her ribs. She couldn't feel her arms; when she slept, they would always fall asleep with her because of how she was bound to the chair, both hands behind her back and legs spread apart to discomfort, held in place with chain instead of rope, a position designed to maximize the sense of vulnerability, a vulnerability which her interrogator would frequently accent by placing her foot on the edge of the chair between her outstretched thighs.
Her interrogator should be here soon, or “soon” if one meant a few hours. Kellesk could not tell if she was waking in the middle of the day or the middle of the night, at dawn or at dusk, or even if her interrogator was deliberately making Kellesk wait for her as a head-game. Her interrogator, Lucia Traveyne, seemed to like head-games, and she was pretty good at them. She seemed to know how to exploit primal fears. Traveyne liked the foot between the legs gesture, an unspoken threat to shove that foot into the place that Kellesk had been evolutionarily conditioned to protect, but she also sometimes took her knife, a strange knife curved inwards and serrated on the inside to look like a nightmarish claw, and trace the contours of her abdominal muscles, not pressed hard enough to draw blood, but just hard enough to make Kellesk feel that she might “accidentally.” Sometimes, Traveyne would deliberately crowd her, leaning in until their bodies were almost pressing against each other. She would grab a handful of Kellesk's hair and wrench her head violently to the side, exposing the side of her neck, and open her mouth to flash two rows of sharp teeth in the corner of Kellesk's eye, and whispering the gory details of what would happen if those teeth closed down on Kellesk's neck. Rarely but every time without warning, Traveyne would use practical violence. The first time, when she was leaning in for the vampire routine, she had struck Kellesk in the stomach. Kellesk had been punched in the stomach before, but not like Lucia had done. Where most strike at the abdomen from directly the front, Lucia had attacked from an angle, her fist making contact in the outside of the inside columns of the muscles. The pain was well beyond what Kellesk had felt from a gut-punch, almost as if Lucia had ripped apart the sinews. The second time, Traveyne had walked behind her, and then Kellesk felt two cold knobs in her back. She didn't have the time to realize it was a stun-gun before it was turned on, causing her to scream herself hoarse and pull against her restraints. Several times after that, Lucia would make the stun-gun crackle in her ear, or randomly poke her with it but not turn it on, but, sometimes, she did turn it on. Kellesk began to remember that her last memory of her last bout of consciousness was the stun-gun blowing electrons through her neck. Sometimes, only sometimes, would Traveyne ask her only one question:
“Who ordered the hit?”
Kellesk never yielded. She was in pain, thirsty, hungry, jonesing for a cigarette, and wondering if this dreadful room was going to be her tomb, but she never yielded. This seemed to anger Traveyne. She never threw her temper, but Kellesk could see in Lucia's eyes the frustration at her prisoner's resilience. Sometimes, during interrogation sessions Kellesk would imagine that Lucia was torturing her for a sexual thrill. After all, Traveyne did had a pretty young girl wearing a skimpy top chained to a chair with her legs spread open and her chest thrust out in her basement, didn't she? It comforted Kellesk to think that her tormentor was just a pervert looking to get off, but then Traveyne would always spoil that illusion by concluding the sessions the same way every time, plopping against the way next to the door, looking long at Kellesk with weary and a slightly sad eyes, then leaving the room looking defeated, closing the door to the sound of several padlocks being forced shut, leaving Kellesk alone until fatigue claimed her mind again.
There was a clatter at the door; the torture was due to begin again. Kellesk steeled herself, trying to sit upright as best she could so her arms could get blood back in them, and waited. She noticed that it seemed to take too long. Traveyne would normally fly through the locks with practiced fingers, but this time the locks appeared to be handled by someone who was not used to them, several seconds of jimmying until the satisfying click of release. Finally, the door began to crawl open with a dull creak of protest. Instead of Traveyne pushing the door open and slamming it shut, a large pointed ear appeared in the crack, followed by an eye. Kellesk began to recognize that it was the small kangaroo boy that Traveyne lived with.
“What do you want?” Kellesk groaned, her voice crackling with stress.
The joey pushed the door open and entered, carrying a tray filled with the most precious thing in the universe to Kellesk right now: food. Scrambled eggs, tender bacon, sausages and pancakes, flanked glasses of milk and water. The smell of it (oh, it was so good) invaded Kellesk's nostrils, causing her stomach to come alive and crawl up her gullet to get to the food before she could. She made a noise that might have supposed to have been a sob, but she was so dehydrated that tears wouldn't have come anyway. The joy she felt, however, quickly faded as a realization entered her mind. “This is a trick, isn't it?” she asked. “That bitch sent you in here to eat that in front of me, didn't she?”
The boy balked at the challenge. His eyes darted between Kellesk and the open door, face full of apprehension and second-guessing. His head hung, and he confessed in a quiet voice, “She doesn't know. You don't want it?”
“Of course I want it!” Kellesk snapped, then stopped herself. She breathed a deep sigh, and said again more softly, “Yeah, I want it.”
The joey sheepishly set the tray on Kellesk's lap. She instinctively tried to bring her hands around and snatch up handfuls of the red meat and the yellow eggs, but then was reminded of their imprisonment. “You know,” she said, “this will be a lot easier if you let me loose.”
The joey shook his head violently. “Lucy will be mad.”
“I imagine she is going to be mad anyway.”
He pondered the pondered the point, then shook his head again. “No, no!” he insisted.
Kellesk smirked. “Smart kid.”
The joey took the water in his hand and brought the glass to Kellesk's mouth. Despite his good intentions, the joey clumsily dumped the water into her throat, causing it to seize. Kellesk coughed, spraying the fluid out and dousing the kid with a good portion of it. The kid flinched, then looked down at his oversized feet. “Sorry,” he apologized.
“Nevermind, just do it slowly next time. What's your name?”
Levi brought the glass to Kellesk's lips again. It was still rather quick, but it was enough. Drying tissues in her throat awoke with fresh pain as the water slid over them, but she didn't care. She didn't stop drinking until the glass had been emptied. “Thanks a million, kid” she said. “I needed that.”
Levi took a fork and began excavating the scrambled eggs, delicately dropping the savory fluff in Kellesk's mouth, which closed and swallowed the concoction eagerly. “Why are you doing this?” Kellesk asked between mouthfuls.
“I...just thought you needed it.”
Kellesk murmured gratefully as another batch of eggs was pushed past her teeth. She began to figure that the dragon was probably domineering with Levi too, and so conditioned him to attend to the needs of any “alpha female” around him. A through tickled Kellesk's cerebellum about whether Traveyne was grooming or even has groomed Levi, and she discarded it when it began to creep her out.
The eggs were gone, and Levi began to cut up the pancakes into manageable bites. “She's been sad ever since you've been here,” Levi explained as his hands fumbled with the utensils. Kellesk noted that they were large hands, large even for a kangaroo, and they had the effect of making his arms look like twigs on a young tree.
“Traveyne has?” she asked
“Yeah. She's having one of those days today,” Levi replied, dipping the breading into a bowl of syrup before delivering it to Kellesk. “She just sits in bed and stares out the window. Sometimes she does it for hours. One time, she did it all day. Whenever I try to get her to move, she gets really angry, then says she's sorry, then goes back to looking out the window.”
“She sounds a little messed up in the head.”
Levi shrugged. “I guess. She does weird stuff sometimes. She sometimes opens the front door just a bit and looks around before going in or out. Also, when we are out, she might see someone coming towards us and get nervous and try to avoid him. You shouldn't try to sneak up on her, either.”
“Don't I know that now...”
“I hear people say she's crazy.”
Not crazy, Kellesk thought, hyper-vigilant. Kellesk had known insane people, and Lucia was not insane. Paranoid, perhaps, but her paranoia was justified, at least it had been this once. She was a contract-killer's worse nightmare, someone who knew how assassinations worked.
“Why do you want to kill Lucy?” Levi asked after a long silence.
Kellesk paused. This was a messed-up conversation to have, trying to explain to a kid why the most important person in his life has to die. She pondered for a lie, but her brain was so eroded by the abuse she had been suffering. She tried to evade. “Probably because she's locked me in a basement and has been wailing on me for god knows how long.”
Levi thought. His muzzle briefly split open into a grin, and a chuckle slipped out of his mouth before it closed again as he apparently felt bad for laughing. Kellesk smiled at him, but guilt, the same guilt that she had felt when she saw that moment of affection Traveyne had shown to this boy the moment Kellesk tried to put a bullet in her back, crept up on her. “Someone's paying me to do it,” she confessed.
Kellesk shrugged as best she could with her restraints. “Donno. Just someone who is willing to pay a lot to see her dead.”
Levi looked at the floor. Kellesk imagined that there was a handful of marbles rolling around in Levi's head, and he was desperately trying to get his fingers around just one of them. “I don't suppose...” he said, then hesitated. “I don't suppose that you could...leave her alone?”
It was incredible. Here he was, talking with the would-be murderer of his beloved guardian, and he didn't even have the gall to demand reprieve, but instead ask for it like he was asking for a candy bar. “Kid, it's three million dollars. I can't turn that down. Look, you're a cute kid. I'm sure you can find some other nice people to take care of you.”
Kellesk thought she heard a noise, something like a bird tweeting, but it was so quiet that she thought it was a fatigue-induced hallucination. She couldn't think about it, because Levi spoke up again. “But Lucy won't be there.”
It was really heartbreaking how he said it. He seemed to accept the inevitability of his loss, and he began to breathe heavily and quickly. His bony shoulders began to heave, and Kellesk could hear a whimper develop in his lungs. “Oh, please don't start crying,” Kellesk said. “Look, look, don't cry. I promise...to think about it. No, no, no, don't cry, please don't cry. Look, let's cut a deal. We can work something out. I promise not to kill Lucy if you just loosen the chains a bit.”
Levi looked up at Kellesk, one of his big hands brushing across his cheek. He shook his head again, “No, I can't.”
“I'm not asking you take them off. I'm just asking you to loosen them a bit. They're really tight and they're biting into my arms. See for yourself.”
Levi looked over. The chains were indeed so tight that they pressed into the flesh of Kellesk's arms, causing the skin under her scales to become red and inflamed. Levi made a shuddering sigh as he approached the chain and began to reach for it. As his fingers began to find their way under the metal, Kellesk prepared herself. She just needed a little room, just the thinnest of paces, to get free, and when she did, she would grab Levi and take him hostage. He was such a sweet thing that not even someone as tough as Traveyne could bare to see harm come to him. But, before Levi could begin to pull on the chain, there was a bang. The door had flung open and there was a blur of color that flew into the room, snatching Levi up and pinning him against the wall. Kellesk looked over and say that the blur had been Lucia Traveyne, currently only half-dressed in terry-cloth pants and a bra, who had tackled Levi. Levi put up his hand defensively, and he began to rattle off an apology at a breathless pace. “LucyI'msorryIwasjusttryingtohelpand...”
Lucia, who looked very much like a predator who had gotten its claws on its squealing prey, leveled her finger at the open door. “Out!” she ordered. “Now!”
Levi began to leave, helped unceremoniously by Lucia clamping her hand around Levi's arm at the shoulder. Kellesk, annoyed that her escape attempt had been foiled, commented as a parting shot, “Nice kid, Traveyne.”
Lucia froze. Her head swiveled towards Kellesk, beaming a hateful glare that seemed to come from Hell itself. Her hand grabbing Levi's arm uncurled slowly, and she began to approach Kellesk. “Yes, he's a darling. Not a drop of badness in him,” she said calmly, a humorless smile opening her ridged snout. Suddenly, Lucia's foot smashed against Kellesk's face, knocking her over and exploding the food in her lap across the room. Kellesk cried out as she hit the floor, her arms squashed beneath the chair and causing her right shoulder, which had had ached for the whole time, to ignite with fresh fury. The heel of Lucia's foot came down on Kellesk's face, turning her head against the floor and pinning it. Lucia continued, “which is why I will cut you open and strangle you to death with your own intestines if you dare lay a finger on him. Do I make myself clear?”
Kellesk spit out some blood on the floor, her jaws aching to respond under restrained movement. “Perfectly,” she managed to mumble.
Lucia got off of Kellesk's face and walked away. The only indication that Kellesk was alone again was the sound of the slamming door.
* * *
“Do you mind telling me what the hell you thought you were doing?”
Lucia had crowded Levi against a wall, her hands wrapped around Levi's shoulders. Levi looked down his left side, then down his right, too ashamed to make eye-contact. “I'm sorry,” he whined, “it's just that she's in there alone and you keep hurting her and I just thought if would I would be nice then--”
“She is a trained killer, Levi! Her every thought is how to finish her job. She was trying to get you in a position to catch you and use you as a shield. She would have made you watch her kill me, Levi. She did try to make you watch her kill me. It's what they do. Those damn freelancers hurt people for money; you're not going to show them the error of their ways with a nice breakfast and a pleasant conversation, Levi.”
Levi sobbed. “I'm sorry, I'm so sorry. I'm...I'm...I'm...I'm just so scared.”
Lucia sighed. Her hands loosened and slid behind his back, pulling him into a hug and letting him nuzzle her between her breasts. She bent down, and planted a kiss on his head. “I know you are, Levi, but you need to trust me. I know what I am doing. I've done this for years.”
They held each other for a long time. There were no words between them, only shared heartache. Finally, Levi said softly, “How much did you hear?”
“I watched you unlock the door. I knew something was up when you didn't eat breakfast with me while I was zoned-out like you always do.”
Silence again, then Lucia reached into the embrace, cupped Levi's chin with her finger, then pulled his face up to make eye-contact. “Levi, that was a very good thing you did. Just...don't do good things for bad people without telling me first, okay?”
“Okay,” Levi echoed.
“Good. Go upstairs and get me a shirt. I need to decide what to do with our guest.”
* * *
Kellesk had pitched over on her side while she had been left by herself, if only to get the pressure off of her arms. Her shoulder hurt terribly. It had hurt ever since she had first woken up in Traveyne's basement, causing her to wonder what the hell her captor had done to her on catching her. Now she was staring at a folded pancake, its syrup seeping away from it like blood from a wound. She could help but feel how picturesque it was, at least until Lucia's boot appeared in front of it. Kellesk looked up and saw a Desert Eagle, her gun, the one she used to tried to kill Traveyne, sitting in Lucia's hand, ready to be fired.
“I guess this is it,” she said.
“Yes,” Lucia concurred.
Kellesk sighed. “I didn't expect to die here, with a hot sausage poking me in the leg.”
“Funny, I figured that's how a girl like you would want to go out.”
“Oh, fuck you.”
Lucia grabbed Kellesk's chair and pulled up, setting it upright. She had brought her own chair, setting it down opposite Kellesk and taking a seat. The barrel of the gun dangled between Lucia's legs, gleaming in the harsh light. “Don't feel too down,” she said assuredly. “You're just ending up where most high-end assassins end up: an early grave. We back in the service used to call them DMWs, Dead Men Walking. Assassins who get big contracts tend not to live very long, and die very violently. I know, because I killed a lot of them. Never as the target before, so that's new.”
“Glad to oblige.”
“So, where do you want it, heart or head?”
Kellesk sighed, eying the engine of her life and now demise. Why are you betraying me, old pal? She thought wistfully. “Head.”
“Good choice. Most people tend to choose the heart, because it is a bit more dignified, a bit less humiliating, but of course, there's the chance that it won't kill you right away, and then they spend their last few minutes in agony. Speaking of hearts, one last question: whose am I breaking?”
“Whose heart am I breaking? See, I've learned that no matter how bad someone is, they have somebody who loves them or looks up to them, and miss them after they are gone. Lovers, kids, parents, siblings, friends, a partner...everybody's death is a tragedy for someone. When I was doing a wetwork mission way back when on a high-level member of a cartel, I remember stalking him while he was wandering around a mall. He always stopped at toy sections. It took me a while to realize that he was Christmas shopping for his kids. I went through with the mission, because he was a bad person who hurt a lot of people, and the world is better off without him, but I can't help but know that, because of what I did, there were kids somewhere who were wondering why Daddy wasn't home, and I never could quite live that down. So, whose heart am I breaking today?”
Kellesk looked at the gun again. That thing was looking more and more horrible. A bunch of faces ran through her thoughts, but she realized with a twinge of dread that most of them were people she had dispatched. “You know, I really don't want to know,” Lucia said, waving her hand. “I have enough ghosts on my conscience. Any last words?”
Kellesk shook her head.
“Have a god you want to make peace with?”
Kellesk shook her head again. Lucia solemnly grabbed Kellesk's jaw and pulled her mouth open, inserting the muzzle of the Eagle between her lips. The barrel of the gun was so huge that it caused her cheeks to ache, “I apologize for this,” Lucia said, “but it really is the best way to avoid an accidental lobotomization.”
Kellesk looked down the barrel, watching the hammer of the weapon as it prepared to execute her sentence. A tear ran down her face. She could feel her heart thudding in her ears as the hammer leaned back, picking up speed as the metal drift away from her. Any second, the hammer would snap back, and then it was the end, and she knew exactly how far at would be. Time slowed down as the hammer approached the fatal position, and in the last nanosecond before her death, she knew who would miss her. The hammer jerked forward, and then all was darkness.
Fuck. That was the first word that entered her mind when she realized she was still conscious. She had always believed that death was the end of consciousness, and it was very inconvenient to know that she was still aware of herself. It was still all black, though, and she wondered if her entire afterlife was going to be sitting in this dark hole forever. Then she slowly began to realize that she could hear her heart, beating furiously in panic, and she grew aware of the pain in her cheeks, and the touch of cold steel in her mouth. Is this death, living her last moment forever? Then came a crack of light in space, opening up to show the glistening barrel of the Desert Eagle, and Lucia Traveyne's yellow, slitted eyes behind it. It took a while, longer than she felt it should have, to realize that the gun had been empty, and she was still very much alive. As Lucia pulled the gun from her mouth, she found herself saying one word: “Why?”
“Honestly?” Lucia said, wiping the drool off of the gun, “I like you. You showed tremendous guts over the past week, right up to the bitter end, and it would make me very unhappy to have to kill someone of that nobility. You're really too good of a person for assassin work.”
“But...what's to stop me from just killing you after you let me go?”
“Because I am going to tell you something, and I'm speaking from decades of experience so you owe it to yourself to listen. Someone who has three million to blow on a hit is the kind of person who is very rich, and if there is one thing that is universally true about any group of people, it is that very rich people are all the worst people on the planet. It's how they got rich. Never, ever trust them. They will always backstab you if it is cheaper. Tell me, Kellesk, would it be cheaper to pay you three mil for killing me, or pay another hitman a few thousand to kill you?”
“The other guy.”
“Exactly. I guarantee you that, assuming for the sake of argument, you did somehow kill me and went back to your broker to deliver the news, you would not have left that room alive. Besides, killing someone who was deep in the intelligence structure of the US government, even if they were retired, would have made you too much of a liability if he would honor the agreement, and assuming you somehow got away from him, you would have the entire weight of Uncle Sam on your back, and then there would be my old team would be very upset to hear of my passing and would want to even the score. Trust me, if you kill me, you will be dead or in a CIA prison overseas forever, suffering a lot worse than this, before the year was out. I've saved your life.”
“Well, excuse me for not jumping up and down in excitement. I'm like of tied up at the moment.”
Lucia made a matronly smile, stooping down to unfasten and unwrap the chains from Kellesk's arms and legs. As she did so, Kellesk groaned and held her shoulder, wincing in pain. “Does your shoulder still hurt?” Lucia asked
“Yeah, what did you do to it?”
“I pulled out of socket when I took you down,” Lucia said, getting up to prod the flesh diagnostically, “I thought I popped it in right, but you were unconscious at the time. We might have to take you to a doctor. Just tell them that you were a client and we had an accident.”
“Do you frequently injure your partners during sex?”
“Those people I saw coming and going from your house. They always looked, well, satisfied.”
“Oh, no, I wasn't having sex with them.”
“Then what were you doing?”
“Look up 'session wrestling' sometime.”
Lucia slung Kellesk's other arm over her shoulders to help her up. “Let's get you fixed up properly. If you need a place to crash, I'll let you stay here, but I want you gone by tomorrow. Oh, and Kellesk?”
“I've given you a second chance. Come after me again, and you won't get a third. And you tell that broker to tell his client that their days are numbered.”
* * *
It was a quiet evening. Kellesk was long gone, leaving Lucia and Levi to themselves. Lucia was stretched out on the couch, grateful for a chance to relax and not worry about a professional killer tied up in her basement, while Levi laid on the couch next to her and with his head in her lap, playing a videogame on the television. When he had come to a loading screen, he rolled on his back and looked up at Lucia. “Lucy,” he said, “Is Kellesk still going to be...you know?”
Lucia smiled. Her hand brushed through Levi's tussled hair. “If you mean me, I think we've reached an understanding. If you mean contact killing, probably. I would like to think that she wouldn't, because that is no life, but I know her type. She just loves the job too much. I hope that she will think about what happened and eventually reform, but walking away from a multi-million dollar contract is a big enough first step for today. Also, learn to wear a decent shirt. My god, the way some girls show off. God help the man who mistakes her for a prostitute.”
“I liked it.”
“Of course you did, you horny little brat,” Lucia chided, playfully tapping Levi on the head. “Now, go to bed. I'll tuck you in in a bit, but I need to make some calls and find out who Kellesk was working for. You have school tomorrow, and you have so much catching up to do from this little 'family emergency.'”