Paris, France; June 29th, 2012
Thinking back on their adventure to “help” James, Claire thought that there were a lot of things they should’ve done differently before they ran off to follow him. One of those things was to tie up Kierlan before they left.
When the four of them had run from the hotel room, shoving past the others in the hallway that screamed back in French, they’d been unable to find James or the man he’d been following. And, as they left the hotel room for the second time in the previous half hour, they realized how careless they’d been.
Alex led them through the lobby, Claire following with Kierlan’s gun, shaking but hidden, in her shirt. Scottie looked around the room for any sign of the escaped man, but, so far, they’d been unsuccessful.
“He can’t have gotten far, we were only gone for ten minutes!” Alex complained, pushing open the glass doors.
Scottie shielded his eyes to block out the intense sun streaming through the sudden cover of clouds closing in. “That doesn’t matter, if he’s not in the hotel than he could be anywhere in Paris by now.”
Alex grunted in frustration. “How the hell are we gonna find him?”
“Well,” Hayden noted, “your boyfriend fried his cell phone, Claire has his gun, and he’s gotta be a little slow since he was just electrocuted. He’s gotta know that no one on the street would believe him, so who would he have gone to?”
Claire readjusted her hold on the gun, clutching it away from her body. “W…wait a minute, before…” she pointed up to the third floor, “When James t…took care of him, Kierlan said he was calling his office. He probably w…went there.”
“But where is there?” Hayden demanded.
“His accent wasn’t French,” Alex growled. “That office could be anywhere in Europe, maybe the world. There’s no way we’ll find it, Claire.”
“And we’re right back where we started,” Hayden grumbled.
Scottie rubbed the back of his neck anxiously. “This is too weird. Why do you guys care? If this guy tells, all it means is he’s going away to the nuthouse for the rest of his life, it doesn’t affect us. We should just go home!”
Alex shoved him. “We are not leaving without James, Scottie! So stop being an asshole and help us! James didn’t want this guy exposing him so we gotta find him before he tells. If you can’t pretend to be helpful, then shut up. Any advice?”
Scottie narrowed his eyes. “Maybe we should split up.”
Alex scowled back. “That would probably be best.”
“Good. Me and Hayden’ll take this way,” he gestured behind him with his thumb. “You guys go that way. We’ll meet back here in an hour. Maybe he’ll be back by then.”
“Fine,” she grumbled, pulling Claire down the sidewalk by her arm. “C’mon, Claire.”
They went their separate ways for a long time, Claire and Alex keeping completely silent while their eyes scanned the crowds for a man in a holey, black t-shirt. Claire was the first to break the silence with her recurrent stammer. “I feel like I’m dreaming.”
Alex shrugged, “Maybe you are. Maybe we both are.”
“I just…I can’t believe that all t…this time…” she began.
“I know. But…you need to think about his reasons for lying,” Alex murmured. “His kind obviously has rules about human exposure, and, I’ll be the first to admit it, we never would have believed him.”
Claire stopped walking, forcing Alex to halt as well. “You…You’re taking this awfully well, Alex.”
“I’m just trying to understand this from James’s perspective before I judge him,” she explained. “And…I love him. I don’t want to make him the bad guy. There are too many real bad guys around for us to turn on him.”
Claire nodded, though she didn’t know if she could be as forgiving. “I h…hope you’re right about him.” She took a step, eyes raised for their search once more.
Then, she found him.
Kierlan stood against the wall of a building across the street, arms crossed leisurely over his chest while he watched them smugly. Claire tried to say something, anything, while she pointed uselessly in his direction, but her stutter held her back while he disappeared behind the flash of a moving car. Blinking feverishly, as if it would make him reappear, she finally managed to yell. “Over there!”
Startled by her outburst, Alex jumped, following Claire’s gesture with her eyes. “What? I don’t see anything!”
“I…It was him. He’s across the s…street!”
Alex squinted in the hope that she would see what Claire did, but she had no such luck. “Claire, I don’t…” she trailed off, watching her friend take off running through the traffic, gun held threateningly over her head. “Claire!” she shrieked.
The sound of her voice was drowned out by the blare of a horn and the screech of tires as the cars nearing Claire came to a screeching halt. Waving apologetically at the people exiting their cars, Alex went tearing after her, screaming her name.
It wasn’t difficult for Alex to catch up when Claire’s asthma started acting up, but by then they’d already gathered a significant amount of attention. Women screamed when they saw the gun in Claire’s hand and everyone parted like the red sea when she came close. Alex made a grab for her shoulder, spinning her around to meet her eyes while they both breathed heavily. “What are you doing?” Alex demanded through deep gasps.
“I—” Claire shouted.
“You could’ve been killed! You could’ve killed someone else with that thing!” Alex interjected.
“Do you even know how to use that gun? If he’s here, he definitely knows we’re close, now!”
“Can I talk, please—?” the blonde demanded.
“You can’t attract so much attention, Claire! It’ll lead Natalia straight to us, or worse!”
Claire felt tears pricking at her eyes, recognizing that her friend would never take her seriously while she was still the innocent one…the baby…the liability. Her speech impediment only made it worse when she wanted to voice her concerns. After all, everyone always felt the need to protect the poor, stuttering Claire Not-So-Strong. And she was through with being protected now that James had admitted to his true place in their lives.
To protect the defenseless Claire Strong.
Just like everyone else.
“I…If we wanna find him, we’re gonna have to s…split up,” she deadpanned. “I’m going this way. You go that way…”
“No, Claire,” Alex replied. “We have to stay together. What if we run into—?”
“I don’t need you to baby sit me, Alex!” she growled, jerking away from Alex’s grip on her shoulders.
Alex’s eyes widened. She’d never seen her friend like that. “I’m not here to baby sit you, Claire. But if we find that guy, he’s gonna go after you—”
“Then I can take care of myself. Y…you’re not my mom and you’re not my protector. I…I’m sick of people treating me like the baby!” she shrieked. “Now take that side of the sidewalk. I…I s…saw him over here and we’re not helping a…anything by standing around.”
Alex’s jaw gaped. She backed away slowly. “Are you okay? Is something the matter?”
“I’m fine,” she snapped. “James’s l…little confession today was j…just the last straw. I don’t n…need to be protected.”
“You do, Claire. He’s a god! If he finds you, he’ll take you!” Alex protested.
“A…And what difference is it gonna make i…if you’re with me? ‘Cuz you found out that you’re a witch ten minutes ago? I…I don’t wanna be your sidekick anymore, Alex!”
Alex’s eyes narrowed. “Fine. Meet us back at the hotel in an hour. I mean, if that’s alright with you, your highness.”
Claire watched her stomp away before she turned in the other direction, storming off in a huff with the gun clutched in her hands. The civilians continued to dive out of her way while she searched uselessly for Kierlan.
He watched from the shadows.
He couldn’t help but be amused by what she said, having told her friend that she could protect herself when she most certainly couldn’t. And he would prove it.
Even more entertaining was that she was looking for him. Ever since he’d woken on the floor with a massive headache and a pain in his chest, he’d had one objective: to do the job. Now, she was not only close enough to touch, she was away from any potential witnesses. Easy pickings.
Claire had a very bad feeling in the pit of her stomach as she walked further and further away from the crowded street. She passed it off as ire, especially since the thought of her friends in that moment made her sick to her stomach. She wanted to turn back toward the hotel, but she didn’t dare return empty-handed. After the breakdown she’d had in front of Alex, she needed to be right. She needed to prove she could be a valuable asset like everyone else.
A noise up ahead caught her attention.
Keeping her forefinger poised over the trigger, Claire ran headlong toward the disturbance. She passed an alleyway in her haste.
Then, she realized there was something in there, doubled over in pain.
She let her weapon hang against her leg, her arm going limp. With her head cocked to the side, she watched the shadow fall to its knees. He groaned loudly, releasing her from her trance as she waited for any hint of its identity. She jumped. She didn’t dare take a step.
“K…Kierlan?” she called, trying to sound confident. She failed…miserably.
He groaned again, clawing at the place in his chest where she knew Kierlan had been electrocuted. She held the gun out again when she started walking toward him, knowing it could all be a trick. “P…put your hands on the ground! I’m t…taking you with m…me!” she faltered, biting the inside of her mouth.
He didn’t answer, or do as she’d asked. He groaned again.
“I…I said, put your hands on the ground!” she repeated, barely two steps away now.
He gave a pained moan, like a wounded animal.
“O…Oh God, are y…you okay?” she inquired, ducking closer as she reached for him, hoping to help. “L…let me see—”
She missed the quick movement of the foot that connected with her hand.
She gave a piercing shriek when the gun flew away from her. She fell back on her behind, feverishly pushing herself away from him with her heels while she probed the ground for the gun. She wasn’t helpless, she told herself. She could protect herself. She could take care of this and get him back to the hotel with her.
Something grasped her ankle, viciously yanking her in the direction of the shadow. Kicking and clawing to get away, she repeated her newest mantra in her head. She was not helpless. She was not helpless. But when a bag closed over her head, obstructing her view of the alley, and the shadow, she knew that she’d made a huge mistake when she’d yelled at Alex.
She was helpless.
Her body was swept up and off the floor, still thrashing against her captor, in vain. It wasn’t a moment later, however, that she felt a new floor rush up to meet her. She grunted, prepared to jump back up and run, but when her fingers stretched outward, they met cold metal in every direction.
The whir of an engine under her sent her falling back to the floor.
Without a plan and without help, she could only cling to the hope that when she didn’t meet them at the hotel in an hour, they would go looking for her. James would find her, it was his job. And she could only hope that Alex would disregard her earlier complaints and come looking for her as well.
But Paris was a big city, and they wouldn’t have any idea where to start.
She comforted herself with the knowledge that the man from the catacombs would want her alive, but when the car stopped again and she was removed from the trunk, the first thing she heard through the bag’s thin barrier was a hoarse, female voice, screaming for help. She couldn’t see the room, but she knew that the other captive was far away, through walls. Nevertheless, her words shook Claire’s outward composure and made her think: they wouldn’t kill her, but there were so many other things they could do.
“Don’t put me back in the tub!” the invisible girl screamed.
The force of the sack being torn from Claire’s head made her chair rock back on its legs; her arms, bound behind her, were useless in steadying herself. When she feared the precarious swing would finally land her on her back, it stopped and she was set to rights. She feverishly blinked her eyes against the brightness overhead from a swinging, bulb until a shadow fell over her, the owner’s face hidden by the glow framing it from behind. She squinted up, the demands she’d been prepared to spit dying on her lips when her eyes met the steel-gray orbs above her. As usual, caught like a mouse in the eyes of a snake, she froze, incapable of thought.
“K…Kierlan?” she breathed, her stammer due more to his presence than her speech impediment.
He smirked at her, easily catching on to her attraction to him. A twinge of guilt nagged at the back of his mind, though, and he desperately wanted it to go away. He didn’t want to hear the proclamation she’d made to her friend running through his head, begging to be recognized as someone they could take seriously. He didn’t want to feel the full scathing regret burning through his chest when her wide, innocent eyes fell on him. He didn’t want to recall her unnatural beauty and feel the unmistakable need to free her from her bindings. And, more than any of that, he didn’t want to want her.
He shook away his traitor remorse, recalling the fat check that had been left on his doorstep months earlier, with the promise of another after he finished the job. In comparison to the other tasks his employer had demanded of him, keeping this weak girl in his sight and in ropes was nothing. Despite his reservations, he let a menacing smirk materialize on his face. “Claire,” he purred, rounding the chair with his hand planted firmly on the back, holding it in place.
So close, she couldn’t help but muse, luxuriating in the touch of his breath fanning across her face. Seeing the corner of his lip twitch ever higher, she snapped out of her girlish fantasies and managed to plaster a scowl on her face, searching the bare, crumbling, cement walls around her for any hint of her location.
As she’d dreaded since her abduction, there was nothing.
The rage she’d painted on her face fell momentarily only when she caught the stain of blood on the floor out of her peripheral vision.
“God,” she gasped, her head whipping forward to face him again. “W…what’s going on?”
He knelt before her legs so that her eyes were in line with his. “Don’t worry,” he murmured, stroking her face with the back of his hand. “You’re just here to answer some questions.”
She winced when sparks tingled through her cheek. Determined to realize that the object of her recent attraction had kidnapped her, she jerked away from his touch, openly glaring daggers at him. “You’re not r…really a PI, a…are you?” she growled, snapping her gaze from him with disgust.
He, wisely, refused to answer. “You don’t need to worry, Claire—”
“Oh n…no? Why not, Kierlan? You kidnapped me and brought m…me to this place! Is that blood on the f…floor?! It’s blood on the floor, isn’t it?!”
Kierlan didn’t look to the floor, cursing the men who’d used this room last for their carelessness. The water in the concrete hole behind him was left as well, filled with unmentionable bodily fluids. He, calmly, let his rejected hand fall, bracing himself on his knees instead. “You can still believe me when I say that my intention isn’t to hurt you,” he vowed with, what appeared to be, a genuine smile.
Claire relaxed back into the chair, but she didn’t believe him. The hidden meaning behind his words wasn’t lost by her, either. Her mind unwillingly went back to her arrival, wondering where the other girl was being kept. What had they done to her? Was she even still alive?
He chuckled. “Does that mean you’ll be cooperating now?”
She narrowed her eyes, visibly pursing her lips.
He hummed in distaste. “Right. Either way, you’re stuck here, Claire. You may as well answer my questions.”
She remained unresponsive.
“I want you to answer me honestly,” he ordered, returning to a standing position so he could tower ominously over her. “What happened in the catacombs today? Why’d you make up such a ridiculous story?”
Meeting his eyes indignantly, she crowed, “I didn’t m…make it up! Everything I said about M…Mainyu in the catacombs was the truth!”
“Mainyu?” he demanded.
She hissed in a breath through her clenched teeth, testing the bindings around her wrists.
She’d played straight into his hands.
Her ropes were too tight to slip out of, but she realized then that she wasn’t held to the chair at all. When he turned away, she resolved, she would stand and run for the wooden door across the room. How she would get it open when she got there, however, was a work in progress.
Kierlan was patient when he spoke again. After all, he had all the time in the world to spare while he waited for his team to come for her. “Who’s Mainyu, Claire?”
She tasted blood as she bit harshly down on her tongue. “Why s…should I tell you?” she grumbled, pulling vainly against the ropes cutting into her wrists, imagining the doorknob between her palms.
“What?” he snapped, leaning closer.
“You didn’t b…believe me the first time I told you!” she reminded him. “Why should I t…tell you now?”
He quirked an eyebrow at her. “Claire, what you said today was completely impossible. Tell me who Mainyu is. Truthfully.”
She bit the inside of her mouth. “He’s a God.”
He laughed darkly, balancing her on the back legs of her chair again while he held her face in suspense before his own, her cheeks pressed together between his fingers. “Are you doing this to spite me, or are you just…insane?”
She kicked him weakly, unsurprised when he didn’t wince. Rather than repeat his question, he stared expectantly down at her.
He sighed heavily. “Let’s try another one, then.”
Claire thought she could predict what that question would be.
“What happened at the hotel?” he demanded. “James did something, I know he did. What happened?”
She chuckled, though it sounded strange while he forcibly pursed her lips. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
He scowled down at her, eyes trailing from her crystal eyes to her puckered lips, then to her more desirable attributes. The look on her face hinted she wasn’t fooled, but he took his time in wrenching his gaze upward. “Try me,” he grunted.
She said nothing. She didn’t move for a while.
Fiercely shaking his hand away from her mouth, she said “So, if you’re not a r…real private instigator, w…what are you?”
He was taken aback, but, outwardly, showed no sign of shock. “It doesn’t matter what I am, Ms. Strong. Answer the question.”
“I….I have a few questions of m…my own,” she countered. “Like why I’m h…here. What do y…you care if I’m insane?”
He groaned, stepping around her chair to lean over her. “I don’t, you see. If it were up to me, personally, I’d let you go home right now, but it’s not. I’m just here to ask the questions and keep you from running away.”
She frowned, letting her gaze fall again. “W…who’s it up to, then?”
He chuckled, leaning into her face. “You ask a lot of questions, Claire.”
“You a…avoid a lot of questions,” she challenged. “W…why is that?”
He knelt closer, his forehead practically touching hers. “I’m just biding my time. I only have to watch the others come to pick you up. And you’re stuck with me until then. You’ll answer my questions…eventually,” he added, his mouth a mere breath away from her ear.
Something in the back of her mind finally clicked and she exhale sharply, like she’d had the breath knocked out of her. “H…How did you know my last name?”
She never got an answer.
The wooden door flung open, crashing against the wall and sending the pair flying away from each other.
Kierlan’s hand reached for the gun in his waistband but felt nothing but the material of his shirt and jeans. Cursing Claire and her shameless theft, he waited for the new arrival to show his face. Before he saw that, however, he felt the cold barrel of a gun hit his face between the eyes.
His back met the floor quickly after that, eyes finding the bare ceiling and the rat responsible standing over him.
Claire screamed. Seeing the man in the doorway, she sighed in relief. “Russell! T…thank God!”
Kierlan tensed to spring at the intruder, knowing Russell was about to ruin everything, but the gun in his face kept him frozen on the floor. He slowly raised his hands, palms forward. “What are you doing?” he whispered, eyes flickering to girl a few feet away.
“You’re not taking the credit for this,” Russell hissed, pushing Kierlan’s head to the floor with the gun. “I’ll use her to get all of them. The boss is going to want all of them.”
“You’re gonna screw it up!” Kierlan enthused.
“Shut up!” Russell stomped, getting off his knees. “You’re both coming with me! And I’m not gonna screw it up!”
Claire floundered for words, unaware of what had transpired between the men. Her mind entertained the thought that, maybe, he’d had nothing to do with what Natalia had done that morning. Obviously, if he was saving her from Kierlan, he couldn’t have been in on it, right? “R…Russell—?”
“Shut up, Claire, your freaking stutter is driving me crazy!” he ordered.
Her eyes bugged. “W…wha—?”
“Getting close to you these last few months was a nightmare. Oh,” he shrieked in a whiny voice, “I’m freaking Claire Strong and everything in the freaking world revolves around me, just shut up!”
The girl could do nothing else but obey, appalled by his confession and terrified by the gun he thoughtlessly swung around. Well, she thought to herself, whatever his reason for being there, it definitely wasn’t to save her.
Russell looked between the two of them for a moment before he finally yelled, “Get the hell up, both of you!”
With his free hand, he hauled Claire to her feet, keeping her arms tied tightly behind her back. Roughly, he shoved her forward and gestured for Kierlan to follow, striking his face when he didn’t immediately comply. “Move!”
Kierlan flexed his jaw, testing the ache from the punch he’d just received. “Where’s Natalia?” he growled under his breath, grunting when he felt Russell’s shoe hit him between the shoulder blades. “Does she know that—?”
“She’s busy,” he mumbled, leading them to the stairs out of the basement. Claire hung her head, inconspicuously tuning into their conversation.
“With what? The real work?” Kierlan countered before he felt cold metal bash the back of his skull again. He didn’t fall, but, while he was doubled over, his murderous gaze fell back on Russell. He resolved there and then that he was going to kill Russell, and he wouldn’t feel bad about it in the least.
“You don’t know anything, Cole!” the rat snarled. In a softer voice, he said, “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
After another shove from the dumbass trailing them, Kierlan stepped faster up the stairs toward Claire, steadying her by the small of her back.
The venom in the look she gave him turned the air cold.
For the first time that day, when she jerked herself away from his touch, she meant it.
“Don’t t…touch me!” she growled under her breath.
He stepped away, dejected but ready to catch her if her bound arms threw her off balance.
“No talking,” Russell ordered.