Chapter Two: Note from a Stranger
"Did you get it?"
I rolled my eyes, throwing my keys at Dom. He caught them, raising a brow. "Luc, did you get the King? Or am I preparing my ass so that it can be put on a platter for our sponsor's amusement?"
"So, the first thing that pops into your head isn't: 'Why is your head covered in gauze, Luc?' or 'How was the drive in those horrific thunderstorms?' but rather 'Did you get my expensive trinket?'" I murmured, plopping down into the leather chair beside his desk and tossing the crumpled piece of paper with Ryder's information on it onto its laminated surface.
"Speaking of storms, is the car okay?"
I glared at him. "You're impossible."
He snorted and picked up the wrinkled paper, smoothing it out on his thick binder. "You wouldn't have it any other way."
I sighed, rubbing my temples and wincing at the dull, throbbing headache that was wedged deep inside my skull. "I got the thing, but you're not going to believe how. I don't even think you want to know how, to be honest."
Dom stared down at Ryder's black and white photograph, shoving his thin finger against the image. "Did it involve him?"
I bit the edge of my lip. "In a way…" I hesitated, but thought it better to say what was on my mind. Dom might know something about Ryder that I didn't. "Dom, he gave it to me."
Dom, the picture of controlled surprise, turned his gaze onto me, his mouth open very slightly. "What do you mean he gave it to you, Luc?"
"I mean, I was incapacitated, and he left me with bandages and the statue. Dom, I don't understand what's happening. Are you sure he's not on our side? Any other member of Venom would've just killed me right then and there." The more I thought on it, the less sense it made. What angle was Ryder playing?
Dom shrugged. He didn't like asking questions. He was more interested in results. "Maybe he's not one for killing. Though that's strange to say the least, I would've thought with his parents being…"
Before Dom could finish his sentence, the door was flung open by an enraged woman in an apron, holding my cell phone and swinging her hands about. "Lucian Neil Boileau, you get your skinny ass home right this instant. Dinner has been on the table for an hour, and I haven't heard from you in days."
Dom sniggered and I flushed, pushing myself up using the edge of his desk. "Jesus, mom, I'm not a little kid. I'm going to be an adult in a few weeks. How did you even know I was home?"
She approached, her thin, dark brows furrowed. Her mind was working to steadfastly ignore my question.
I looked a lot like my mother, and it was probably better that I did. She was thin and pale, with eyes like almonds and thick, pouty lips. But she was short, I was tall—her face curved like a heart and my jaw was more pronounced. I'd gotten a few things from my father, but it would be easier to tell what those things were if I'd known exactly who he was.
All I knew were his eyes.
"I don't care if you're seventeen or forty; you tell your mother when you get home from a violent outing. Dear, what happened to your head?"
I shook her and her distressingly abrupt mood swings from my arm. "I'm fine, mom. Let's just go home." I put my hand on her shoulder, leading her towards the door. "The statue's in the Lexus, Dom!" I shouted, slamming his heavy office door behind me.
"Seriously Luc," my mother said quietly, slipping my cell phone into the pocket of my tight jeans. "What happened?"
"Nothing happened." I told her sternly, "it was an accident." I slung my arm around her, pulling her close. "Don't worry about me, okay? I can handle myself. This mission was a fluke. I was tired. It won't happen again."
"If you promise," she whispered. Our house wasn't far from Dom's office, just a block or two, a tiny condo on the corner with white shutters and heavily locked doors. I helped my mother up the steps, slipping through the door and guiding her to her room. Dinner sat uneaten on the table, a cold plate of chicken and potato in the spot where I would have sat.
She fell asleep almost instantly, tired after being such a tight ball of stress for the duration of my trip. I closed her door quietly, stripping my clothes off and gauze before turning on a hot shower. There was still blood caked in the ends of my white hair, but my skin was suspiciously clean. I hadn't trusted Ryder enough to shower back at the hotel; I'd just gotten dressed as quickly as I could and taken off. Half of the blood had been wiped away by the bipolar Italian man anyway, but it seemed he got a bit splotchy when he was in a hurry.
I peered in the mirror while the water warmed, staring blankly at my nonthreatening reflection. There really was nothing to be afraid of in a face like mine. The only dangerous thing about me was my knives, my guns…without my weapons; the best I could do was escape. I'd been trained of course, all of us had, but staring at my bruised and battered skin in the mirror, ears half lowered in distress, eyes wide and dilated, I knew that it was only a matter of time before I got myself into trouble.
I sighed and gripped the edge of the counter, walking slowly towards the shower, suddenly dizzy. That had always been my problem. That had always been the reason why I was delegated to crime that needed finesse, not crime that needed brawn.
I had been okay with it then, but this…this was embarrassing. For as much as Dom teased me, it was times like this that I felt like I truly deserved it. I was reckless. I was too young to be anything but cautious, yet here I was, falling unconscious into the waiting hands of our enemies.
I took a breath and stepped into the tub. The shower was hot, just the way I liked it. I loved the way the water trickled down my body, washing away the dirt and the shame. I pushed back my ears, breathing deeply. I could feel pain radiating as the shower pounded down on my head wound, but I endured. Slow swirls of blood swam down the drain, and I shivered. A soft pattering of footsteps reached my ears.
There was someone here.
I could feel it. I could hear it.
My gaze shifted imperceptibly to the now open bathroom door, barely seeing shadows through the black shower curtain.
"Come in, Ami." I grumbled, and she giggled. I heard her hop up on the counter, pushing my clothes about the floor with her painted toes.
"Luc," she whined, "get out of the shower. I want to talk to you."
"I'm washing away the blood. Leave me alone," I muttered.
"And why are you bleeding?" She sang. I let out a chuckle, then winced as I rubbed soap lightly over the split skin of my head.
"Head wound." I stated matter-of-factly, quickly rinsing away the shampoo and switching off the shower. Leave it to Ami to interrupt the only good thing to happen to me in a week. "I'll be fine, thanks for asking."
I reached my damp fingers out and snagged my towel from the floor, shaking the water from my ears and wrapping it around my waist before Ami could be treated to an R-rated view of my scrawny body. I pushed the curtain open, and a pink haired girl with wide brown eyes stared back at me from next to the sink.
"Dom told me what happened with the other agent," she said, fiddling with my comb. Suddenly, her lack of concern made sense.
I rolled my eyes, pushing her off to the side so I could get the first aid kit from beneath the sink. I probably needed ointment at least. Even if we hybrids healed faster than usual, split heads usually took a while to go away. "Great. I'll be the laughingstock of the sect. What kind of leader is rescued by the enemy?"
Ami smiled. "You're leader of our sect because you're smart, not because you're strong. One mistake, albeit a huge one, doesn't render you useless."
I murmured my discontent, but she seemed unfazed, gently brushing strands of hair away from my wound while I dug around beneath the sink. "Luc, relax. You should be happy. Obviously you were too charming to kill. Most people would just enjoy the fact that they aren't dead."
"But that's what gets at me!" I cried, lowering my voice so I wouldn't wake my mother. I finally found the damned kit and cradled it in my hands. "Why didn't he kill me, Ami? Why not? I know he could have. He looked like my father. He had that look."
"You don't know your father," Ami said quietly, planting a kiss on top of my head. She was sweet, too sweet for me, at the very least.
"I remember his eyes." I answered, almost breathlessly.
Ami's sharp intake of breath told me that she'd heard me. "We all do." She took a moment to collect herself, then took the first aid kit from my hands and deftly undid a package of cream. Her gentle fingers rubbed it into my skin, and I bit back any expression of pain. "Lucian, you're like a brother to me, and that's why I want you to let it go. I'm not going to watch you drive yourself mad with trying to figure out why he did what he did. It's not important."
"Shh, little brother," she sang softly, wrapping my head with a soft piece of gauze. "Now go to bed. You need some sleep."
"Dom," I said, and then sneezed. "I can't go there today. I think I'm dying."
"You're not dying. You have a cold," Dom answered with annoyance. "And I need you to steal those jewels. I don't feel like having to wait another month for this heist. If we don't get them now, we're going to have to wait until the next Gala for a chance. Seriously, Lucian, it's Halloween. You won't even have to cover your ears."
"You're an asshole."
Dom handed me a simple black mask. "And you're half cat. Any other obvious things you would like pointed out?"
I wiped my nose. "I seriously wish I still had a head wound."
Dominic flicked a piece of his sandy brown hair from his cold, blue eyes. His jaw was set. "I'm going to give you one if you don't get a move on it, Luc. Go get dressed and get me those emeralds."
"Yes, master." I replied with a raised brow, sending him a look on my way out.
What crawled up his ass?
I walked slowly back to my house, twirling the mask between my fingers. Dom wanted me to rob the Calliere in central London, where three large emeralds were on display, the second most expensive set there. They were having a Gala to benefit some charity. I wasn't one to complain of loose morals, but isn't it a bit questionable to rob an event for less fortunate children?
This is what happens when your boss is an inconsiderate asshole.
My mother was frantically scrubbing the kitchen when I got back home, mauling our dingy silverware with steel wool and a furrowed brow. I sneezed again thanks to a myriad of harsh chemical cleaners and wiped my nose on my sleeve.
"I'm leaving in a few, mom." I said quietly, hoping she would play along.
"Where are you going?" She asked, suddenly stopping her furious cleaning of our utensils.
I sniffed and ground my toe into the carpet. Sure, I could hold a gun to a person's head, I could cut their skin like butter, but talking to my mother was completely impossible. "I'm going to the Gala down at the Calliere."
She wiped her hands on her jeans, stepping towards me with a look of worry. "By go…you mean you're stealing something, don't you?"
I met her eyes, brown and pleading. "Yeah."
She pursed her lips, and tugged me into a tight embrace. Her voice was broken. "Please be careful, sweetie. I don't want you to get hurt."
I tentatively put my hand over her hair, loosely holding her small frame against my own. "I'm coming home, mom." I answered softly. She pulled away, and wiped her eyes. "I mean, who would you cook for if I left?"
She laughed; though I could tell her heart wasn't in it. "Just…be careful."
She walked slowly back to the kitchen, cleaning the silverware slowly and without the same enthusiasm now. I sighed before shuffling off to my room. I snagged a few vital things and put on my tux, custom tailored, cinched in all the right places, black and smooth, the color of midnight. I let my tail and ears roam free, smiling a little despite myself. I loved Halloween for that very reason. It was the one night I didn't have to hide, the one night the things that made me unique were celebrated and accepted.
And the night I was asked five dozen questions about my animatronic tail.
I put the mask on my delicate nose, peering in the mirror one last time. My gun was carefully hidden beneath my jacket, my knives strapped to my dainty ankle. After I approved my reflection for the final time, I strode from my room, planting a kiss on my mother's cheek before I took my ticket and the keys to the Lexus.
The Calliere was a decent distance from our house, Dom always made sure of that. Nothing too close or we could be followed relatively simply. I put on some airy music, tapping my fingers slowly along the leather steering wheel, running my tongue over the sharp points of my teeth. I was sick, that much was true, but I wasn't ready to throw in the towel. Now that I didn't have a choice, this was as much about sticking one to Dom as it was getting it over with.
The Gala was held in a large ballroom, full of the rich and the pretentious. I couldn't fathom why anyone would voluntarily attend something where people's egos were so grossly inflated, but when I handed my ticket to the man at the front door, I decided it wasn't the time to wonder, it was the time to work.
I would have to mingle first, establish a relationship with some of the guests, or I would garner curious stares and suspicion. I snagged a glass of champagne from a passing waiter and held it to my lips, quietly contemplating who I should speak with first.
"Are you really old enough to be drinking?"
I smirked, turning on my heels to face the deep voiced man behind me. I could recognize him anywhere, the thick black hair, the dauntingly perfect tan, the strong jaw beneath the mask. "Don't tell," I answered, winking. "Don't want to cause a scene."
Ryder snatched a similar glass of champagne from another one of the wait staff, tipping the glass to his lips. "Of course not."
My fingers lightly grazed the thick crystal of the Gala's fine stemware, but I didn't take another sip. I wasn't stupid; I wouldn't be drinking the alcohol too fast, lest I get messy. "For someone your age, you spend quite a lot of time with children." I mocked, sending a taunting little smile and a flick of my tail in his direction.
"You haven't the slightest how old I am," Ryder replied, fixing the collar of his suit.
I raised a brow, my neon eyes narrow with the thrill of the chase. I lived for these clever sorts of things. I lived to be challenged in a way that left the knives and guns tucked safely away. "You seem to have forgotten that I've read your file, Mr. Ryder Loccino, age twenty four, from Newburgh, New Hampshire."
Ryder approached me, gently placing his crystalline glass in my hand, his lips near my ear. His hot breath made my nose twitch.
"And you seem to have forgotten that I'm rather clever," Ryder replied, pulling away from me. "Mr. Lucian Boileau, age seventeen, from Jenson Laboratories in Northern Sweden."
My blood ran cold as I watched him walk away, sauntering towards a circle of pretty women in his dutifully tailored suit, navy blue, with gold buttons and pockets full of my secrets. He knew. He knew where I was from, he knew what I'd been through—what I still went through. He knew, and he could tell.
I couldn't let that happen. If anyone found out the entire operation would crumble like a house of cards, and my family would tumble along with it. I didn't agree with it, but I endured. I endured for the sake of my Mother and Ami…for the sake of Dom and the others. But that was all being threatened by a handsome man in a nice suit with witty banter and a half full glass of champagne.
I was done playing nicely.
I handed off the glasses, my ears lowered, my throat caught halfway in a hiss. Don't give yourself away, Luc. Don't be an idiot. Get him alone. See what he knows. Best not to raise too much suspicion, I did still have to grab the emeralds.
"Excuse me, ladies." I interrupted smoothly, sending a soft smile in their directions. "I'm so very sorry to interrupt, but I need to talk to my friend here. Is that alright with you?"
They looked me over a bit skeptically, but shrugged off the encounter and headed towards a lacey table boasting a selection of food. I waited a moment, then turned to Ryder, my shoulders back and braced. "What do you know?" I snarled.
The ballroom was abuzz with soft chatter, but all I could hear was Ryder's steady breathing, the crinkle of fabric where his hand had been shoved into his suit pocket, the slight sigh that began at the back of his throat before he cut it off. "I know enough."
I glared at him, pressing closer. "What do you know, Ryder?" I asked once again, voice filled with venom.
His silken mask crinkled along with his forehead, and he stared at me for a moment before fixing a half undone button at the top of my jacket. I swatted him away. "Enough. The experiments, the blackmail, the scientist…what I don't know is why he's so invested in you."
He didn't know everything.
Maybe I still had a chance.
"That's no concern of yours," I sniped, pursing my lips. "What I need to know is what you plan to do with this. I need to know what you're planning to do before I go down in flames."
Ryder's eyes met mine, still a cold shell hiding a softer center. "We want to help you out."
My eyes went wide.
"We want to get you out of there."
Stealing emeralds was easier with a slave.
Ryder wanted to talk somewhere more private and less crowded with spoiled rich kids and their playthings. I dutifully informed him that I needed emeralds, or it was no deal. He then proceeded to helpfully fetch me the emeralds and another glass of champagne while he was at it.
"I could have done it myself," I told him irritably, sipping slowly, stiff in the smooth leather seat of Ryder's off white Lamborghini. "I'm not entirely incapable."
"It's faster if I do it," he said offhandedly, and I glared. He rolled his eyes. "Don't take everything so personally. I'm older and more experienced. It's just a fact."
I sullenly stared at my stemware. The small bubbles rose from the bottom of my drink, slowly ascending the short distance and popping at the top. "Would you care to tell me exactly what it is that you're saying? Because I'm not sure that I understand."
"I want to help you."
"What happened to 'we'? Are you flying solo on this now?"
Ryder stared out his windshield, steepling his fingers. "You're going to drive me insane, kid. If you must know, this was mostly my idea. I found out the situation, and felt it was my responsibility to help you out."
I sent him a sideways glance, one hand on the door handle. "I appreciate your concern, but I can take care of myself. I'm not helpless."
I stiffened, the glass cracking in my hand as my grip tightened. Damn, those things were fragile. "I'm not scared," I answered tersely, throwing the glass onto the floor of his fancy car. "I've taken care of myself since I was a child. I think I can handle it from here on out."
"You've taken care of yourself for seventeen years," he repeated quietly. "Isn't it time to let someone else help you out?"
My fingers danced along the shiny silver of the handle, but I couldn't bring myself to pull it. "Why would you want to help me?" I retorted quietly.
"You could help us, of course. You know things. You know operations within Poinsettia, agents, plans, bases. Your knowledge is invaluable. We wouldn't be asking anything beyond the basics. I could hide you myself. Your family is welcome wherever there is space. We're the only ones who stand a chance of keeping you safe against him."
I bit my lip. He had said it, everything I'd wanted to hear. I wanted to trust him. I wanted to run off into the sunset, no longer a pawn in this huge scheme that had been my entire life. My mother wouldn't have to watch me leave with sadness in her eyes, Ami could live peacefully alongside me, Dom…well Dom would do what he always did, just with two fewer agents.
I felt Ryder's fingers brush mine, and a piece of paper exchanged hands. His eyes were solemn and sad, boring down on me with a hurricane of emotion and consequences, desires and dreams. His motivations made sense now. He wanted me on his side. They wanted me alive.
I wanted to live, too. Not this horrible existence I'd carved out for myself, but a peaceful one, with quiet afternoons of painting and books, art and conversation. Here was a man offering all of that to me on a silver platter, no more threatening than what I carried on my shoulders each and every day anyway.
"Okay." I said quietly, and Ryder didn't need to say another word. I slipped from the car, a simple brown bag weighing heavily in my jacket pocket, a piece of paper stuck to my fingers with the residue of sweat and weight of strong secrets. The cold air sent my respiratory system into a tizzy, and before long I was sneezing again.
I didn't work up the nerve to read the paper until I'd reached my Lexus, breathing deeply, heart pounding so quickly I'd have said I was having a heart attack if I didn't know better. My fingers danced along the edge of the parchment, pausing for a second longer before flipping it open.
On the center of the page was a single address.
And it was at that moment I knew I had a chance.
I had a chance to live the life I'd never gotten to, and all it had taken was a note from a stranger.
Please let me know what you guys think! :) I know that this is different than the original, but I feel like it's a bit less insane, so there's that. Thank you for reading!