During the final week of October, on a clear but moonless night, the last train from Manhattan pulled into Bridgehampton, a solitary female passenger disembarking and heading straight for the nondescript black Ford sedan waiting at the far end of the station parking lot.
She was tall—this much her long overcoat could not conceal—but beneath the coat was the body of an athlete, lean and strong, which was something of a miracle, considering where she had come from, the childhood she’d endured and, at last, escaped. A head of curly black hair, the dark skin of her South American mother, all of twenty-six years old now but confident—something else her overcoat could not hide. She walked steadily, without once looking around, and reached finally the sedan. The glove compartment was to contain directions to her final destination, and under the passenger seat she was to find a two-foot-long Maglite flashlight. Once inside the vehicle, she retrieved both items and laid them beside her, then waited behind the wheel till the train began to pull away from the empty platform. When it was gone, she surveyed the lot, particularly its several shadows, looking for anything that might indicate she wasn’t alone. Seeing nothing suspicious, she removed the key from over the visor and turned the ignition, beginning the last—and, hopefully, the briefest—leg of her night’s journey.
The directions looked simple enough, only a handful of turns, and in the end it took her less than ten minutes, which pleased her; a long late-night train ride meant she wasn’t in the mood for difficulties. The building sat on the edge of a two-lane road called, according to the paper beside her, Montauk Highway. Hardly a highway at all, she thought, at least not as she understood the meaning of the word, but that was English, wasn’t it? Of all the things she’d learned in these past few years—all the things she’d been taught to make her what she was now—it was the English language that had given her the most trouble.
Her instructions tonight were to pull around to the back of this building, and as she did, following the curve of the gravel path, she caught sight of the unlit neon sign hanging above the darkened front door. HOTEL ST. JAMES. Maybe once, she thought, long ago; now, though, it was just a two-story building with all its windows boarded over, little more than a dark shape standing silent and still beneath the dark night. Her home for the next few days, but she’d known worse places than this, suffered through hardships greater by far than a few nights in some abandoned hotel at the end of the known world.
She parked the sedan at the rear driveway’s edge, out of sight of the main road. No need to worry about leaving tire tracks or footprints, or so she’d been told; still, she kept to the gravel as she approached the back door.
Using the flashlight to find the key that had been placed for her under the second of three stone steps, she entered the building through its kitchen, instantly sensing all around her an absolute stillness. This was a dormant and forgotten place, cold to the point of being raw—that kind of chill that is only found inside, never outside. Stagnant, like a cave. As always, she carried with her only what she needed, deriving for herself a deep joy from limited possessions. Maybe it was simply a matter of her enjoying the fact that it was by choice, her choice, as opposed to the times in her life—the first twenty years of it, trapped in the slums of São Paulo—when having nothing was not a choice at all.
Her few possessions—clothes for a handful of days and various tools of her trade—were packed into a small canvas shoulder bag, a tank mechanic’s bag, according to the man at the army surplus store. Though compact, it held all that would be required to live till it came time for her to act.
The room in which she was to wait for the call—in the only part of the building with running water and electricity—was on the second floor, at the far end of the hall. Looking for the stairs, her flashlight the only source of illumination, she left the kitchen and entered a dining room, stepping from there into a large and echoing foyer beyond which stood the main stairway. Wide, curving, its ornate banister all but lost to rot. She made her way to it and started up, testing each plank before she dared to place her full weight upon it.
The room at the end of the hall was as cold as the rest of the hotel. She found a light switch on the wall just inside the door, flipped it on, and looked around for a thermostat but found none. Beside the bed, which had been made up for her with fresh linens and several heavy blankets, was a small electric heater. She plugged it in, her face already numbing, and switched the power on, watching as the inner coils went from black to orange.
As the dry heat began finally to rise, she placed the mechanic’s bag on the foot of the strange bed. Still in her overcoat, she looked around this bare and indifferent room, studying each wall and corner, bracing herself for the long days of solitude, and the even longer nights, ahead.
Inside her still, despite what she was now, what she had become, was that child he had found, the slum-flower, he had called her, who lived in fear every day of sunset.
The call came three nights later, on a Friday, at half past seven.
She sat up fast, answering before the cell phone had the chance to buzz a second time. Only Janssen had this number, so there was no reason for her to consider that it might be someone else on the other end.
“Hey,” she whispered. Her voice was soft, groggy. She wished instantly that she had sounded different—anything other than this sleepy girl.
“I woke you,” Janssen said.
She moved to the edge of the mattress, looked toward the one window that wasn’t boarded over. It offered a view of the rear driveway and a backyard of overgrown grass, but all she could see now was the top of the line of half-bare trees that bordered the property.
She nodded. “Yeah.”
“Good things, I hope.”
“Yes,” she said. It was a lie. To cover it up, she said quickly, “Are you home?”
She closed her eyes, thought of his place—their place, he insisted.
“If all goes well tonight,” he said, “you’ll be back in time for breakfast.”
Hearing that pleased her. The sooner she was out of there—too much time to lie around and remember the past— the better.
“I can be out the door in a half hour.”
“We have time, so no need to rush. Do what you need to do first. According to our man on the inside, he should be in place some time after ten. It shouldn’t be difficult at all for you to get next to him. I’ll text you the details.”
“If for some reason he doesn’t show tonight, we’ll try again tomorrow night.”
She closed her eyes at the thought of another day spent sleeping till she could sleep no more, then lying still on that worn and musty mattress, waiting for the night to come. She decided to focus on him instead. Significantly older than she, his hair already gray, he was nonetheless a vital man. Tall, strong, kind, patient. The touch of his hand all but paralyzed her, brought her joy instead of torment. His was the only hand to ever do so. Of course, all she had of him at this moment was the sound of his voice—deep and resonant like a cello. It, too, had an effect on her, but it wasn’t enough, not now.
“We’ll go away after this,” he offered. “Once it’s done we’ll be free to go anywhere we want.”
“I’d like that.” She paused a moment, then said, “I miss you.”
There was no hesitation from Janssen. “I miss you, too, Evie. Get this done and come back to me. Okay?”
Before she could say anything more, the line went dead.
The transformation didn’t take long at all; she was good at making this change, so much so that the woman who made her way down the dark hallway a half hour later was, for all intents and purposes, not the woman who had entered it three days before.
A wig of thick auburn hair—straight, with long bangs—masked her dark curls, and her eyes, which were green—covetous eyes, he called them—were sharp blue now, made so by the contact lenses he had provided. High heels and a padded bra changed not only her overall shape but the way she carried herself—no longer simply tall, she was now statuesque; no longer athletic, she was now curvy. Eye-catching, provocative, she—not she, not Evangeline Amendora, Evie to him, but rather this woman—would no doubt stand out in a crowd, which was a necessity. Have them looking for this auburn-haired woman while a woman with dark curly hair was slipping out of town.
A black evening dress that hugged her curves—natural and otherwise—completed the transformation from who and what she was to who and what she needed to be. Even her overcoat, held closed against the stagnant chill of the dark hallway, couldn’t hide the woman below, not this woman.
The text he had sent her was thorough, as always. Directions to the location, a restaurant in the nearby town of Southampton. He had also sent several photos of the target and her best route of escape, should it come to that. In that case, she was to make it to a train station a mile to the north—directions to it and the times of the last few trains for the night were, of course, included. Though she expected nothing less, she was grateful for his attention to detail; as good as she was, a number of things could still go wrong. She had to always keep that in mind.
Reaching the end of the hallway, she climbed down the rotting stairs, needed to move with more caution than before now because of the heels. Making her way to the empty kitchen, she exited through the back door and started toward the sedan. Cold out tonight, windy, dead leaves scuffling across the gravel driveway. That, and the sound of her footsteps, was all there was for her to hear.
Heading westward, into strong winds, it felt at times as if she were driving against the current of a rushing river, but the glass and steel of the sedan protected her, and the heater, set on high, blew an endless supply of warmth that was nothing less than exquisite.
Twenty minutes later she was in the town of Southampton, found the restaurant easily enough—in the heart of that village on Main Street—its facade a long row of tall glass doors, its interior lit by soft yellow light. She rode past it, slowly, studying the place, then turned around at the end of the block and passed it once more before driving north, through a residential neighborhood to the train station. From there she could catch the train west, take it back to the city, leaving the sedan to be picked up by whoever had left it for her.
On her way back to the heart of town she took note of the storm drains, where she would ditch her various elements of disguise as she made her escape. Again, only if things went wrong.
She passed the restaurant one last time, then parked a half block down from it but remained behind the wheel, taking a good look at her surroundings. She saw shops and boutiques and a number of other restaurants—upper-scale places, every last one of them. The shops were all closed, so the restaurants were the only signs of life tonight. A street somehow both lit and dark. A wealthy town, no doubt about that. She sat still, felt nothing but a steady calm now. Poised to strike. No one better at that than she.
At ten she took one more look at herself in the rearview mirror—cold blue eyes all but obscured by long auburn bangs—then got out and walked toward the restaurant. Her heels sounded hollow on the old brick sidewalk, the echo somehow both following her and out in front. Steps from the restaurant, she felt her stomach suddenly tighten. Not nerves or fear, simply an anticipatory response, as deep and raw as a sexual urge.
He lived only a few blocks away, on a street called Meeting House Lane; she, of course, knew this, knew, too, that he walked home from this restaurant, more than likely to avoid having to drive his brand-new car while drunk. It was a walk that would take them, at best, ten minutes, and as she sat next to him at the bar and drank, holding her own with him, she counted on those moments in the cold night air to clear her head, knew that she could drag the walk out longer if she needed more time.
Control was crucial, always.
Her mark was a big man, but she wasn’t at all intimidated. In his midthirties, handsome enough, in that polished but rugged way—short dark hair, perfectly tousled, a square jaw shadowed with a few days’ stubble, a midlength leather jacket, wornout but still shiny, well-fitting jeans and motorcycle boots. Militich was his name, though he was known by another here, had used it, as she knew he would, when, after several drinks, it came time finally for them to exchange names.
She added time to their walk to his place—arm in arm, so obvious, to him and those who had seen them leave together, where exactly this seemingly chance meeting was leading—by stopping at shops to look in their windows at things that were on display, things she otherwise had no interest in. She giggled and laughed, pretended to almost fall over now and then—an exaggeration of her inebriated state that was for him and anyone who might be watching them. Each time she almost fell, he’d pull her to him, hold her close. There was a youthfulness to his power, but she had no interest in that, either.
His apartment, three small rooms on the top floor of a two-story house, looked exactly like the hideaway it was. Sparsely furnished, bare walls, little that couldn’t be taken quickly or, if needed, left behind. He kept the lights off; the streetlamps outside were more than enough. Plus, she knew, a woman was more likely to be uninhibited in dim light.
She stood by his front window, still wearing her overcoat, looked down at the narrow side street, lined with modest homes, and asked if he had something for them to drink. It was, at last, time for her to act. He went into his kitchen and came out with a bottle of cheap tequila and two tumblers—thick glass with heavy bottoms, square shaped, the words SOUTHAMPTON PUBLICK HOUSE stenciled on three sides. She sent him back into the kitchen for some ice, then added, once he was gone from sight, a clear liquid to his glass, expertly pouring it from a mini flask that she then returned to her overcoat. Back from the kitchen, he dropped a handful of ice into her glass, and she handed his to him. They drank, the contents of both glasses gone in single gulps. This alcohol wouldn’t hit her system for a while, wouldn’t negate her efforts to keep in control, at least not immediately. The effects of what she had added to his drink, however, wouldn’t take long at all to manifest.
He stayed with her by the window, facing her, standing close and touching her shoulder with his right hand. He was, it seemed, in no rush, was maybe even waiting for her to make the move, be the one to initiate their inevitable shift from strangers to lovers.
She told him she needed to use the bathroom first, made the point of softly emphasizing the word “first.” Let him believe he was just moments away.
In the tiny room off the kitchen she ran the cold water, splashing her face with it. She would need every possible scrap of clarity now. Drying her face and hands, she looked at her reflection in the mirror above the sink, told herself what she always told herself in the moments prior to a kill.
Men were now the prey, and she was the one with the power.
She returned to the living room, saw that he was seated on the couch, slouching, his eyes closing and opening sluggishly. When he realized that she was standing in the doorway, he looked at her, said softly, “Hey,” and got up, or at least tried to. He managed to stand, but it took him a moment to do so, and even when he was at last upright, facing her, he swayed just a little.
She felt no sadness for him.
He took a step toward her, stumbled, caught himself, then stood perfectly still, as if he were afraid suddenly of moving at all, in any manner or direction. She remained where she was, watching him. There was nothing left for her to do now but wait. Just moments left.
“I don’t feel so hot all of a sudden,” he muttered. He took another step, staggering now, bumped the coffee table with his shin, wavered a moment, then slumped down to one knee. She immediately thought of his downstairs neighbors—the street-level apartment, she had noted as they entered his place, had been dark, but it was late, its occupants could have been asleep. If that were the case, would they still be now?
He started to get to his feet again, and knowing he would certainly fall once more and make even more noise, she quickly moved to his side and grabbed hold of his arm. It took all of her considerable strength to keep him up.
“What the hell?” he muttered.
“It’s okay,” she whispered.
Steering him back to the couch, she eased him down onto the cushions. The knife was in her overcoat pocket. A Spyderco Scorpius, three inches of Japanese steel, the single-edged blade serrated, each tiny ridge and valley razor sharp. She reached for the weapon, but before she could remove it, something happened that hadn’t ever happened before. Her victim was looking up at her—his eyes fluttering, his breathing growing labored—with nothing shy of a clear understanding of what was going on.
He grasped her wrist with his right hand. Despite his condition, there was power in his grip.
“What did you do?” he demanded.
She didn’t answer, just looked at him.
“What did you do?”
“Just relax,” she told him. “It’ll be better if you just let it happen.”
“He sent you.”
“You should just relax.”
“He sent you, right?”
She pulled her hand from his grip—it was easier than she had expected it would be; his strength, too, was fading as the drug tranquilized him. Free of him, she took a step back—just in case, this one was full of surprises—and reached again into the pocket of her overcoat. In its deep bottom was the knife. She grabbed it, took hold of it, but didn’t yet remove it.
“Listen to me,” he said. “He doesn’t want me dead.” It was a struggle for him to speak. “It won’t go well for him if I’m dead.”
He tried again to stand but made it only as far as moving to the end of the cushion, then slipped off the couch entirely and slumped to the floor. Enough noise already, she thought. Removing the knife from her coat pocket, she held it behind her back, out of his sight. He was attempting yet again to stand, but it wouldn’t come to anything, she knew, not now. The drug was doing its work, was well into his blood at this point.
“You should call him right now . . . tell him that he doesn’t want this.” He removed his cell phone from his leather jacket and offered it to her.
She refused to take it. Shaking her head, she said only, “Quiet now.” Any second he would succumb, and she’d walk to him, ease him down to the floor and roll him onto his stomach, then pull his head back, exposing his throat. One long slashing motion—from the left to the right, the serrated blade cutting through arteries and tendons and muscle, slicing down to the bone—and it would be done.
Like those before him.
She waited for that complete surrender. A dangerous man, she had been warned, so take care. Now wasn’t the time to forget that. Instead of surrendering, he struggled once more to stand, made it to his knees, then to one foot, then the other. Rising but not yet upright, he was nonetheless close enough to it. He dropped the cell phone, had both hands firmly on the arm of the couch now, wouldn’t have been able to come this far without it there to support him. He was looking straight at her, his eyes no longer sluggish but wild, grimly determined.
He was the first to move, lunging for her clumsily, lumbering like a drunk. Still, he was much faster than she had expected would have been possible. He had grabbed his empty glass, the tumbler with the heavy bottom, was cocking his arm back, ready to bring the solid, inch-thick base down upon her skull, had the presence of mind for that much at least. She opened the knife with one hand, felt the solid jolt of the blade clicking into place, gripped the perfectly shaped handle tight. She had already begun to move the instant he had—to intercept his charge, her movements nothing less than swift and precise.
Muscles coiled but relaxed, center of gravity low, feet directly beneath her, where they belonged, her stance never wider than her shoulders. Years to make her like this, so little chance of her forgetting any of it.
All she needed was one good swing of the razor-sharp blade, strike at him with one good killing sting.
Once that was done, there’d be no one left to come between her and the life she’d been promised.
Back at the hotel, in her room, she removed the bloodstained overcoat, placed it into a plastic garbage bag, did the same with the wig, the torn black dress, the high-heel shoes, padded bra, and panties—everything, even the contact lenses, had to go. She had shut off the heater before leaving, and the cold air against her bare skin was unpleasant. It was, she knew, nothing compared to what awaited her.
In the bathroom, she paused to look at her face in the mirror, saw the bruise beneath her left eye and the long scratch along her cheek. Deep, it oozed blood. With a trembling hand she started the shower. She knew not to expect anything close to warm water; still, she wasn’t prepared for the utter cold that hit her as she stepped under the drizzling stream.
She washed away the blood, her own and his, and whatever traces the dress she had worn might have been left upon her waxed skin, was shuddering by the time she was done, barely able to breathe. Drying herself off in all-out convulsions, her core temperature dangerously low, she quickly redressed—jeans and a heavy knit turtleneck sweater, socks and leather boots—then grabbed the garbage bag and flashlight and left the room, hurrying down the long hallway and rotting stairs to the lobby, through that to the kitchen and out again into the windy night.
Her still-wet hair froze instantly, but there was nothing she could do about that. In the trunk of the sedan the only thing that passed for a digging tool was the tire iron. Through the bordering trees, at the edge of a field, where the dirt was softer, she scraped out a hole deep enough to take the garbage bag, then covered it over. The effort had begun to warm her up, but only barely—she knew she had a long way to go yet before the cold within her would be gone.
Back in the room, she stood by the electric heater, removed a first aid kit from her mechanic’s bag, and tended to her wound. She worked without a mirror, didn’t want to see her reflection again. When she was done, her hands still shaking, she removed the cell phone she had taken before leaving Militich’s apartment, flipped open its lid, and saw by the digits at the bottom of the screen that it was after one o’clock.
She didn’t care about that, though, and began right away to scroll through the list of recent calls. She had managed to cut her mark before he got away, a deep enough cut, she knew, even in all the confusion, that it would be necessary for him to get somewhere and have it taken care of as soon as possible. Where else would a wounded and drugged man—a man who was on the run to begin with, living in hiding—go except to a lover, if he had one, or, if he didn’t, a friend? Hospitals were of course out of the question. So were the police. He had left on foot, but close to an hour had passed, so if he hadn’t bled out first, he must have gotten somewhere by now.
He was out there, then, possibly dead or dying, or maybe being put back together. Whatever the case, she needed to find him, had to know.
It didn’t take long for her to determine the number he called most often because there was only one number in any of the phone’s contact lists. Odd, perhaps, but this made her job easier. She knew his names—his real name and the name he went by now—but she would ask for his fake name; there was no reason for her to think anyone here would know him as Militich.
From her mechanic’s bag, Evangeline Amendora removed a prepaid cell phone and turned it on. As she waited for it to power up, she took out the snub-nosed Smith and Wesson .357, studied it for a moment, felt its weight, the solidness of its walnut grip—so assuring, so powerful—then returned it to the bag. She preferred a revolver to a semiautomatic. Revolvers didn’t eject bullet casings; semiautomatics did. The marks left by a gun’s hammer on the shell’s primer were nowadays as good as a fingerprint.
Leave no trace.
When the phone was powered up, she punched in the number. Pressing the button marked TALK, she brought the phone to her face.
Her ear ached from the cold—it felt as if someone had smashed it with something hard—but she ignored that. She wondered how Janssen would react to the bad news, which of his many sides this would bring out. She had never failed him before, was, at this moment, in unknown territory. Without him, what would become of her?
She needed to ignore this, too. It was chatter, born of fear, spoken in the voice of that little girl lost to terror.
Trying to focus, she counted the rings as she waited for her call to be answered.
One, two, three, four . . .
Copyright © 2009 by Daniel Judson. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.