It was one of those things you say in the heat of the moment that, if you're lucky, you get chance to regret. She looked at me with what I'd normally call bedroom eyes, sultry and dark with black lining and thick lashes. Realistically she was the type of woman you took home for one night and spent the rest of your life dreaming about; not the type you took home to present to your mother. Not that this had anything to do with me, mind you. I wasn't going to be taking her home for the night and I was most certainly never going to introduce her to my mother, god rest her soul.
She gracefully rose from the chair when I entered the office, unfurling long limbs in all her dark glory. Her hair tumbled down to her shoulders, dark chocolate coloured tresses framing her face perfectly. She curled those full lips in an ironic smile and the expression fit her. She extended her hand to me and I shook it – her grip was surprisingly firm.
As I sat down I could feel my shirt sticking to the back of my neck. The chair was comfortable and provided her with a slightly elevated position in relation to me, no doubt to ensure that she held a position of superiority during our discussion. She was definitely not to be underestimated under the circumstances.
"Don't forget to breath Mr Waltham," her voice was smooth and a tad deeper than I expected, yet it was almost intoxicating. "I don't want you passing out on me in my office." She was right – I'd been holding my breath, partly out of anticipation but mostly due to nerves.
"Thanks…I…" I struggled for the words. She smiled at me and gestured towards the clear jug of water on her desk.
"Would you like a drink Mr Waltham?" she asked. I nodded; taking advantage of the opportunity it presented me. She poured me a glass of water and I took a deep drink from it. "Then just take a deep breath – I can appreciate that this is an uncomfortable situation for you and I don't want you to feel any more nervous than necessary." Her smile was disarmingly comforting in a strange manner. "However, before we begin I'm curious to know how you found out about me?"
"Do you know a guy by the name of Kirk Rasmussen?" My question was met with a nod. "Well, his brother Joey and I go way back. Joey's gambling habits had gotten him into trouble with some Russian's lately and I helped him out. I got talking to Kirk over a couple of beers the night I paid them off and things just went from there." Her facial expression told me all I needed to know. If I knew the Rasmussen's to that degree then I knew the sort of circle of friends they kept – clearly that spoke volumes to her.
"So Joey's been getting himself into trouble again then?" She mused, running her index finger across the edge of her desk. "I'm not surprised – for all Kirk's attempts to keep him on the straight and narrow it never lasts for long. So to business Mr Waltham; just what is it that you think I can help you with?"
"I…" I was starting to feel like a fool. I closed my eyes and tried again. "I…I want you to do away with my business partner." I opened my eyes. She was looking at me with a gleam in her eyes, like a cat when it toys with the mouse.
"Do away with? Who on earth uses that phrase?" She mocked. "Say it again Mr Waltham," her tone was firm. "Only this time with your eyes open." I looked into them, those steely-grey orbs that were locked with mine. They seemed to draw the words out of me, coaxing them from my lips.
"I want you to kill my business partner, Trent Edwards." I said, trying to match her tone and demeanour with my own. She tilted her head slightly and the edge of her lips curled upward.
"I'm impressed," she answered. "Normally it takes someone four to five attempts to get to that stage." She looked down at a notepad on her desk. "Okay, what's he been doing? Embezzling funds? Selling corporate secrets? Planning to kick you off the board?"
"No," I growled. "He's screwing my wife." She looked up at me and nodded. I looked down at the floor for a moment, recalling the moment I saw my wife in our bed with him – the slightly younger, slightly fitter business partner. Didn't she vow to forsake all others, to be with me in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer? She liked the richer part – the company had been set up using several bank loans and a modest amount of venture capital we'd been able to secure and she'd enjoyed the perks that had come with that, yet she'd also taken advantage of the time I'd spent building up the company from scratch. They both had – Trent always dealt with the PR side of things better than I did and in turn I managed the product development. While he was away attending business lunches with prospective investors I was building the system from the ground up.
"Interesting." She didn't seem surprised. "Would you like me to take care of your wife too? A double costs extra, and as you already know, I'm not cheap." I could feel the anger boiling up inside me.
"No, I love my wife," I shot back, not fearing the consequences of this reaction to her question. "However, she loves him now. You have no idea how much that realisation hurts – it feels like someone has reached into my chest and crushed my heart with their bare hands. I couldn't live without her, so I figure it's going to tear her apart knowing she can't be with him." It slipped out, my anger and my hatred at the situation; her betrayal and my own stupidity for allowing myself to feel like this, for allowing someone else to have this control over me. I looked at her – her face was alive as she carefully placed the pen down on the pad.
"How deliciously evil," the words dripped from her mouth – her voice was having a disturbing effect on me. I shuffled in my seat, hoping she hadn't noticed. She held my gaze for a few precious seconds before she was all-business again. "So, how would you like it done?"
"I…I don't know," I stuttered again. "I thought something that looked like natural causes." She shook her head.
"Natural is difficult," she answered as she leaned back in her chair. "That usually involves some exotic poison and in this day and age with the advances in forensic science you can never be too sure." She twirled the pen between her fingers. "Suicide?"
"No, no one would buy that." I answered – my mind swirling at the ease of my response. "He's too…vibrant."
"Let me guess, young, rich and handsome? Pretty girls dotted around the place, all at his beck and call, even if they are with someone else?" the air of disdain was clear in her voice.
"Something like that." I answered. She gave me a wicked grin.
"I might be doing the world a favour then," she said. "No one likes someone who has it all and still isn't satisfied." I realised that I could get to like this woman – from a safe distance of course. She looked at the notepad. "Is there anything else you'd like to tell me?"
"Well…if…if possible it needs to be done before the end of the month." I said, involuntarily wringing my hands. "The company is going public on the 30th…"
"…And his death will affect your share price?" She presumed. I shook my head.
"No – his death will produce a minor fluctuation in the share price, nothing more than four to six percent for a couple of days," I said. "There's a clause in the company constitution that if one or the other of us dies before the company moves out of joint ownership then others sole holdings in the company pass to them." I took another drink of water. "The bastard might have taken my wife, but I want his part of the company." She nodded once more.
"I understand that your company is doing a series of press junkets across Europe in the run up to a software launch at the end of this quarter," I struggled to contain my surprise. She had done her homework. "Might I suggest that Mr Edwards is the victim of a random act of violence, an unfortunately fatal robbery maybe, in his hotel room one night?"
"That…that's brilliant." I answered. "And…and none of this can be traced back to me?"
"Mr Waltham, I'm a professional," She said as she stood up. "If this gets traced back to you then I'm at risk of exposing myself." I stood up a moment later. She extended her hand to me again. "Once we go down this route, there's no turning back, you understand that? No refunds, no cancelling the contract. Are you sure you want me to do this?"
"Yes, yes," I answered emphatically. "I want you to do this."
"That's all I needed to hear." She said.
"I've paid the first half of the money as directed," I said as she walked me to the plain and unassuming door of her office. "When do you…?"
"I will be in touch once the work is completed." She replied. "Then we will make further arrangements Mr Waltham."
"Thank you." It felt strange to use those words in connection with the conversation we had just completed. "Thanks for your time…?"
"Miss Vincent," She answered. "However, under the circumstances, you can call me Cassandra." She patted me on the back as I left the office. "Don't worry Mr Waltham; the deed is as good as done."
It was the waiting that she had always disliked. As she sat in the comfortable hotel suite and looked down at the time on her mobile phone, Cassandra found herself drumming her fingers against the arm of the chair she occupied. The set up was one she'd used before countless times - something that was tried and trusted in her opinion and had yet to let her down. Finally her patience began to wear thin, prompting her to get up from the chair. Taking a moment to brush off several flecks of fluff from the left leg of her trouser suit, she approached the overnight bag she had placed on the bed upon first arriving in the room just over an hour ago.
Opening it, she carefully unpacked the evening dress and hung it up in the wardrobe. As far as anyone was aware she was attending a function at the hotel for representatives of the International Monetary Fund at the five-star hotel and the faux invitation made it clear that evening wear was mandatory. After admiring the deep red creation on the hanger for a moment Cassandra returned to the bag, removing a small black box. Prying the security catch free, her hand reached into the container and pulled out the sleek, deadly form of a TALO P345. Cassandra took a moment to admire the pistol, one of only 500 ever produced – a gift to her from her mentor over a decade ago. The moment of indulgence engulfed her as Cassandra allowed her fingers to glide across the barrel. The grip was adorned with a small 24 carat gold embellishment in the shape of a phoenix, producing a brief smile on Cassandra's lips. The mythological bird had been something of a private joke between the pair of them.
The buzzing tone of her Blackberry message service drew Cassandra's attention away from the pistol. Looking at it, she could see that she'd received a text message. On our way up it read. Cassandra shook her mind free of her memories and focused on what was about to happen. She picked up the suppressor from the box and began to meticulously attach it to the compact barrel of the sidearm, carefully lining it up the screw threads before slowly twisting it into place.
Cassandra glanced down at the phone again. It was nearly ten past. She smiled as she put the pistol down on the bed and pulled out a pair of black leather gloves from the bag. Pulling them on her mind registered that she had nearly finished her preparations for the evening's activities – and that her target had less than twenty minutes to live.
Trent Edwards couldn't believe his luck.
Despite his healthy reputation when it came to securing the company of attractive women, rarely did he find himself confronted with one quite so forward. When the young woman introduced herself to him as Alessia, who was the living embodiment of the stereotypical blonde bombshell, in the bar just over thirty minutes ago, he was initially dismissive of her advances. Trent viewed himself as a hunter; he was always the one who liked to do the chasing. Upon meeting someone who – on the surface of it all – seemed to be equally as enticed by the prospect of the thrill of the hunt, he gradually found himself captivated by her.
Encouraged by her advances, he eagerly lapped them up as they made their way up to Alessia's suite. Once inside she pounced on him – it was clear that in this situation he was the lamb and she was the slaughter – and a myriad of fantasy scenarios filled Trent's mind.
Almost exactly twenty minutes later, Cassandra exited her own room and moved swiftly to the door of the suite next to hers, inserting the duplicate room key card into the door and carefully opening it. Dressed in a long coat that covered her slate grey business suit, Cassandra was the very vision of confidence and professional detachment as she followed the moans to the bedroom. She pushed the door open and saw Alessia on top of Trent. Cassandra smiled and looked at the two of them going at it. Of course, Alessia was a professional, someone that Cassandra had hired for just this one job. Cassandra could tell she was faking it. Normally she would have thought it amusing, but right now Cassandra was in the mood for killing.
Cassandra walked to the foot of the bed grabbed Alessia by her long blonde hair and snatched her sharply backwards. She screamed crashed to the floor, barely registering what was happening as Cassandra dropped down to a knee and banged Alessia's head into the mock wooden panelling hard twice. Trent – clearly panicked – tried to roll off the bed, landing awkwardly on the carpet. Cassandra moved quickly, stepping around the bed and driving a strong kick to the side of his head. His muscular arms and gym-sculpted body fell to the floor. Trent managed to push himself up to his knees and held out his hands, pleading with her.
"Please, look, I didn't know…" Cassandra wasn't in the mood for a discussion – suddenly she felt tired.
"Don't make this harder than it has to be." She said swiftly drew the pistol from the inside of her coat and took aim. Trent looked down, and then back up at Cassandra's beautiful face, being met by the steely cold glare in her eyes.
"No! No! Don't kill…!"
Cassandra frowned and pulled the trigger twice, both bullets striking Trent in his designer chest. The body slumped forward. Her aim adjusted accordingly before a third shot to the back of his head echoed around the room. Turning to leave, Cassandra stepped over Alessia's naked body. She looked down at her, noting the areas on her body that had gone under the surgeon's knife. Cassandra stood over her for a second before making a decision.
The single shot to Alessia's head was enough to finish the job. Cassandra took a few minutes to scoop up various items from the room – a laptop, iPhone, wallet – before knocking over the bedside table and smashing the ornate lamp to make sure that the scene would look like a simple case of a botched robbery. She had already identified a dumpster in a less salubrious area of the city where she could ditch the items later that evening. Taking a final look around the scene to ensure she had achieved the desired effect, Cassandra left the hotel suite without looking back. After all, she still had to get dressed for a party to attend.
It's easy to turn a blind eye to things when you're sleepwalking through your life. All I had to do was maintain the façade for another few weeks and it would be over. The news came through at about 5 am on the 25th. The phone rang and I answered it. Speaking through bleary eyes to the manager of the promotional tour the details became clear. While in the Serbian leg of the tour, Trent and his female companion for the evening had been the victims of a tragic accident – a simple case of a burglar breaking into the wrong suite at the wrong time.
There were no witnesses to the crime and the local police had struggled to make any progress in the investigation – which I had expected. No one suspected me of any involvement in his death, after all why should they? I was the best part of fifteen hundred miles away ironing out bugs in our new office suite that we'd discovered during the final phase of our beta testing. Naturally everyone in the company was upset and rallied around me as the de-facto figurehead of the organisation. The public launch of the company happened in a blaze of publicity as a result of Trent's death – the memorial service was particularly touching. The share offering was heavily over-subscribed; I could have sold three times the stock we had and still not met the demand.
Liz took his death badly – her behaviour became increasingly erratic. Mood swings, increased alcohol consumption and prolonged periods of isolation within the house. I tried as best as I could to help her through this, however it was only prolonging the inevitable.
The benefit was a high profile affair. The donations the company made were always good for the community, and since the death of Trent our public profile had soared. After the public speaking had finished the group moved to the more informal aspect of the night – drink and dancing. I watched as people began to pair up as the alcohol flowed and inhibitions waned.
"What a surprise to see you here Mr Waltham." The voice stunned me for a moment then I turned my head to see her standing there in a full length, dark green evening dress,
"Cassandra," I said as I stood up and politely shook her hand. "What a surprise."
"A pleasant one I do hope," her demeanour seemed warmer than before. "I see your company has flourished somewhat since our last meeting."
"You might say that," I answered, eyeing her suspiciously. "How did you know about this thing?"
"Oh, I have my sources," Cassandra replied. "You look good in that suit." Her complement caught me off-guard somewhat.
"Thank you. Would…would you care to dance?"
I didn't care who saw us, within a few weeks the divorce would be finalised and it wouldn't matter. A myriad of questions flew around my mind as I held her close to me.
"I understand that your divorce isn't going well." Cassandra whispered into my ear. I pulled back slightly – there was that same wicked grin on her face that I had seen once before.
"Is there anything you don't know?"
"I find it pays to stay abreast of current events." She answered as she rested her head on my shoulder. The song was slow and our movements matched it. "I also believe you owe me some money."
"I was wondering when you'd get around to mentioning that." I answered. "How and when?"
"After your divorce is finalised," she said. "Although, it would be a shame if your soon-to-be-ex wife had an accident, all alone in that large house, drinking heavily…" I looked at Cassandra. Those stormy grey eyes looked into mine. "I'm sure we can come to some sort of arrangement, although I think we should continue this discussion in private...don't you?"
I don't know why I followed her up to her room - it could have been any one of a number of things; guilty conscience; innate desire to put myself in danger; simple animal magnetism. Whatever it was, I was finding myself being drawn to Cassandra like a moth to a flame. The room itself was one of the hotel's more exclusive suites - opulent and reeking of old-world decadence. Once we were inside, I felt a strange sense of calm, possibly a sense of resignation to my fate - that I was literally putting my life into her hands.
"Would you like a drink?" Her question drew me out of the dream-like state I had entered into. Suddenly everything felt real again.
"Yes..." I murmured as I moved into the main room. Cassandra was pouring two drinks, her back towards me. "Yes please."
"You're so well-mannered James," Cassandra said as she turned around, the light in the room projecting forwards around her. "And you're so trusting too. I mean, for all you know I could have done anything to the drinks while you weren't watching." I could tell that both glasses appeared to contain some sort of whiskey or similar looking derivative.
"Well, as I still owe you a considerable amount of money," I replied, suddenly feeling emboldened in her presence. "I figure you'll want to keep me around for a while yet." She gave me that faint smile, the slightest curl of her lips, as she approached me. As she handed me the drink her fingers brushed against mine. The sensation was electric. She lingered close to me for a moment before stepping back, leaning back against the small sofa as she continued to hold my gaze.
"Ah yes, the remainder of my fee..." She mused as she knocked back her drink in one quick motion. The glass was discarded casually as she licked her lips again, savouring the taste once more. "I meant what I said you know." My eyebrows must have twitched slightly, giving away my momentary confusion. "Regarding your wife and her current…predicament." She took a slow step towards me, her hands reaching behind her back. "Lots of people find themselves behind the wheel of a car when they are inebriated - their senses are dulled and they just don't react in time to something small, something innocuous."
I could hear the sound of a zipper being undone as she moved towards me, the shoulders of her dress suddenly became loose with each passing step. I took a swig from the glass - my taste buds registering the fact that it was bourbon. "She might take one too many tablets to help her sleep, resulting in a fatal overdose when combined with the level of alcohol in her blood stream - that's always a personal favourite of mine," Cassandra was less than ten feet from me now as the dress fell away from her body. I swallowed hard - the alcohol burned my throat.
Her figure was encased in a smooth black body; her legs were sheathed in thigh-high hold up stockings; the heels of her shoes seemed to provide a punctuation point to everything she said to me as she moved up close to me, holding herself against my body. I desperately wanted to reach out and touch her, to take her in all her glory there and then against the back of that sofa, yet the fear of overstepping my mark held me in check.
"She could take a nasty fall in that house of yours, tumble down those stairs and break her neck when drunk," Cassandra was whispering now, her hands moving across the shirt that covered my chest. "Of course, the fall itself won't actually break her neck - I'll do that before hand. I'll wrap my arms around her head and slowly twist it around. Did you know it only takes just over ten pounds of pressure to dislocate cervical vertebrae? I'll even let you watch if you like, I don't know if you're partial to a little girl on girl action..."
I couldn't hold myself back any longer, grabbing her and kissing her passionately. I don't know how long I kissed her for but I never felt so intoxicated by a woman before in my life.
"Why James," she whispered as she momentarily broke the kiss. "I think we just sealed the deal..."
The stage of the recently refurbished theatre was lit up by a complex series of stage lighting arrays that dangled from the ceiling of the grand old building. All the eyes of those in attendance were focused on the solitary female figure taking centre-stage, standing in front of the microphone and holding an ornate golden statue. Tears were running down her cheeks as she held the statue up and spoke.
"All my life I have dreamed of this moment, standing here and accepting a Molière award…" She said in her soft, lilting voice in-between taking huge gulps of air to try and recover from the shock of wining. The young blonde woman was looking around at the full auditorium, basking in the applause. "I just want to take this opportunity…"
In the dark recess of one of the small private boxes two men sat and watched the awards show. As they watched the young woman complete her speech, the older of the two leaned towards his younger companion somewhat. The sound of the applause in the auditorium easily drowned out his words to all but the most perceptive ears.
"I'm glad you could make it." His American accent was a stark contrast to the French-speaking voices around them. "We were concerned that you wouldn't show."
"Well considering what it is that you want doing I could hardly pass up the opportunity to talk to you could I?" The younger man replied; his voice held a clearly British accent. The older man nodded before handing him an envelope. "Have you approached anyone else regarding this…endeavour?"
"No – we evaluated all the suitable candidates and decided to contact you first." The older man paused for a moment. "Those are the details that we've managed to glean from our source." He said. "I trust you'll be able to make the necessary arrangements to complete the contract?"
"Relax Mr Henderson – I'm a professional." His British counterpart tried to assure him, his tone coming across as condescending.
"Well, Mr Alexander, I'm sure you can appreciate that my associates and I are somewhat nervous about this, after all it's not every day that…" The American began to bite back at him, only to find his barbed comment sternly cut off in mid sentence.
"I said relax!" The British man hissed, his face twisting into a scowl. A moment passed between the pair of them and then his demeanour suddenly changed – his facial expression now a placid mask of calm. "I'm just as invested in this little enterprise as your group is – after all it's not often that someone in my line of work gets the opportunity to make history like this." He sat back in his chair. As he did so, the American got up.
"I have an early flight to catch so I will be in touch with you as soon as I get more information." He said as he left. "Enjoy the rest of your evening."
"Oh, I will do Mr Henderson." The British man said as he looked at the envelope in his hand. "I will do."