Sarah Kay Moll © 2018
All Rights Reserved
1: Jack of Spades
Around me, the hallway is silent. No soft brushes of footsteps on the dark green carpet, no huff of breath, no rustle of clothing. But a fragment of a second before he strikes, I know he’s there.
I raise my hand, grazing my fingers over a thin metal wire but failing to stop it from circling my neck. My attacker jerks my head toward him with the noose, the cold wire digging into my skin. Like any trained Special Forces soldier, he’s turned his back to mine, intending to yank me over his shoulder like a duffel bag and strangle me with my own weight. I have only a single second before my feet leave the ground, and I use it well, launching myself into the air. I backflip over him, turning through the still, stale air to land on cat feet facing him. The wire, made long to give better leverage, loosens enough for me to pull it over my head.
I throw a kick, a downward thrust toward his knee. Graceful as always, he steps easily aside. He answers it with a quick punch, fist flying toward my jaw, but my arm is already there, deflecting the blow harmlessly away.
I barely dodge another jab, a decoy strike before he grabs my arm, twisting it behind me and pushing me up against the wall. A picturesque landscape in a gilt frame crashes to the floor by my feet.
He jerks the captive limb once and pain shoots up and down my arm like sharp splinters of bamboo. He’s always believed pain to be an excellent teacher, so it’s become a frequent companion.
When he releases me, I turn to face him, shrugging my right arm a few times to work the pins and needles out.
“You heard me,” he says, approval softening his stern features, the crooked nose—broken three times over his forty-five years—the steely line of his mouth, the sharp angle to his jaw.
“It wasn’t exactly that, sir,” I say. “It was more like I sensed you. I didn’t hear much but I knew you were there.”
“Even better. Go get something to eat. I’ll be there in a few.”
I continue down a hallway lined with dim lights encased in stained-glass sconces. Narrow latticed windows let the deep blue of twilight fall over me.
The kitchen I step into at the end of the long hall is brighter, cheery white-yellow light over dark wooden counters. My mother stands at the stove. Beside her, sausages in a cast iron skillet hiss and spit.
“It smells good,” I say. On rare nights, Mom lets the housekeeper go home early and cooks something herself—the rich, salty flavors of her homeland.
“Hello, Jude,” she says in her faint voice, delicate as a flower’s petal and rarely louder than a murmur. Her soft smile fades as she walks toward me and runs a gentle finger across my neck where there must be a red line from the garrote. “Your father needs to be more careful.”
“My father knows what he’s doing.” I trust him, and I don’t want her to talk like that when he might overhear.
She sighs, turning back to the stove as my brother Eli walks in. He’s wearing his date-night clothes, groomed and stylish as someone on a magazine. He hates to hear how alike we look, but we do both have thick black hair, a striking contrast to our pale skin, and the same high cheekbones.
We take after our mother, who looks a little like Snow White, gazing wistfully out into the dark gardens. They’re January-dead right now, brown and crumbling, but flourish in the summers; rows and rows of blushing rosebushes, a pale cobblestone path laced between.
“Mom.” Eli puts his hands on her shoulders and says something in Russian.
She turns to face him with a smile, responding in kind. I listen to their murmured words, but only understand a few. I wasn’t allowed to speak Mom’s native language since we came to the city, and somehow I’ve managed to forget almost everything I knew. It means Mom is close to Eli in a way she can’t be with me. She reaches up to pat him gently on the cheek, affectionate as always.
While they talk, I get a beer out of the fridge for him so he’ll have to look at me for at least a few seconds. His hostile green-eyed gaze doesn’t linger as he takes the cold bottle from me.
“I thought we could take the horses out tomorrow,” I say.
“But you haven’t ridden Sun in months.”
He glances at the stove, but Mom has stepped out of the kitchen. “Fuck off, Jude. I’m busy.” He turns and walks to the table. I follow and he sighs, setting his beer on the wooden surface with a clunk.
“Do you always have to look at me like that?” he says.
“Like so sad. You look like a fucking puppy I kicked into the bay.”
I cross my arms, as though I could block his stinging words and hide the part of me that feels just like a puppy he kicked into cold water.
“You’re an asshole,” I say. “I just wanted to spend time with you.”
“You want to step into the gym and say that?” He walks toward me, an intimidating frown on his face, taking full advantage of the six inches he has on me, his bulky frame. By now, I’ve given up the hope I’ll ever be as big or as strong as he is. But I’m faster, darting like quicksilver, elusive as water when we spar. As we’ve grown up, I’ve become his equal.
I hold my ground, looking up at him. “Yes. Let’s do that.”
“Fucking waste of my time.” He steps away and turns back to the table. It’s my victory, but I don’t feel any triumph, just the usual weary guilt.
Mom sighs, standing in the doorway. She doesn’t say a word, so used to our fighting she only tries to stop us if we’re actually hitting each other. I should be more careful to keep it from her.
Dad comes in. He catches my eye with a warm, proud smile that makes me feel a little better. My mother turns her face up toward him, and he kisses her on the cheek. Her features are angular but beautiful, her slender neck clad in a gray turtleneck that doesn’t quite cover the bruise at the base of her jaw. Dad must have been drinking last night. He doesn’t mean to hurt her, but he can’t always help himself. I should have been here to stop him.
“Smells good, Nadya,” he says.
She gives him a timid smile. “For you, Vance. Mama used to make it when you visited us. You remember?”
“Of course I do, honey,” he says.
Mom puts plates on the table in the breakfast nook, a small alcove surrounded by tall windows edged with lacy curtains. They let the darkness encroach on us, stars absent in the overcast sky.
“Do you have plans for tonight?” Dad asks. Eli and I both know he’s talking only to me, Eli beneath his notice as always.
“Brienne’s throwing a party,” I say.
“Oh, Jude,” Mom murmurs. “Shouldn’t you stay and study? Have you studied one time since you were suspended?”
“That’s right,” Dad says. “You’re back to school on Monday. Fucking shame. I had something pretty interesting planned.”
“I don’t have to go.” I’d much rather work with Dad, like I’ve been doing since I was thirteen. Now that I’m eighteen, I’m an expert in everything from smuggling illegal drugs to running protection rackets.
“You do have to go,” Dad says. “I had to pull a lot of strings to get them to take you back, so don’t fuck it up again, hear me?” A cold, steely wire is threaded through his words, and I know I’ll have to be careful.
“I don’t know why you care,” Eli says. “Jude doesn’t learn anything. He doesn’t even try. When I was—”
“He’s learning plenty,” Dad says, talking over Eli as usual. “You’re not there to learn calculus or some shit. You’re there because that’s where the mayor and city councilmen and CEOs of major corporations send their kids. When they run this city, you’ll be glad you know their names.”
“They’re not going to run this city,” I say, grinning. “We are.”
Dad chuckles. “Don’t get cocky. But I do have the feeling that someday soon, we’ll be able to do a lot of expanding.” He stands. “You can’t go to the party tonight. I need you boys with me. We have work to do.”
Dad, Eli, and I walk along a concrete path beside the dirty shore. The bay’s gently lapping waters wash up pale plastic bags and soda cans that glint in the darkness. To our other side, solid squat warehouses in dull grays and browns. Dad’s carrying a briefcase full of cash, a bribe for an important witness in a case we’d rather not lose.
Dad hands the money to me. “You take point, Jude.”
I smile, though, out of the corner of my eye, I catch Eli’s angry glare.
The woman we’re bribing stands in the distance, in front of a car still running, casting a flood of light so all we can see is her silhouette.
I approach her, Dad and Eli flanking me.
“It’s good to see you, Ms. Linders,” I say. “I take it this means we have an agreement.”
She nods, eyes downcast, the long straight line of her nose pointing to the ground. “My kid is really sick. I just…”
“I understand,” I say gently, holding out the briefcase. “The syndicate looks out for its own. Remember that.”
She looks up at me, startled, then takes the briefcase. “Thank you.” She hurries back to her car.
As we watch her drive away, my father’s phone buzzes. He answers it with his usual gruff hello.
“You’re fucking kidding me,” he says into the phone. He listens for a moment, scowling intently. “Jude did what?”
I take a cautious step back, his face darkening while the person on the other end of the line talks. I meant to tell him about this, I really did. I was just waiting for the right moment, and I didn’t think he would find out so soon.
Dad lets out an exasperated sigh as he says goodbye, then turns to glare at me.
“I can explain, sir,” I say.
“You’d better,” he growls.
“What?” Eli asks, looking from Dad to me. “What did Jude do this time?”
“He killed his fucking boss,” Dad says.
It’s mostly true. Ras was the one who actually broke Kevin’s hand and cut his throat, but only because I let him do it.
“You’re the boss, sir,” I remind him, though Kevin was my immediate superior, the man who oversaw all the crime in the Warrens, the ancient labyrinthine slums west of the river. I’ve been working for him for a year. While I’m technically a contractor, little more than hired muscle, Kevin saw my ambition as an opportunity to sit back and let me take care of everything from prostitution to protection rackets.
“Seriously?” Eli says. “I know you can be a sick little sadist, Jude, but you can’t just kill because you feel like it.”
“I’m not a fucking sadist,” I snap, though it will do me no good to argue the point because Ras is, and I take credit for every one of his bloody kills. Still, I hate that Eli thinks of me that way. I know it’s part of why he doesn’t respect me. He thinks that violence for the sake of violence is childish and irresponsible. I agree, of course, but Ras doesn’t, and it’s not like Eli can see much of a difference between us.
“Then why did you do it?” Eli asks. “Did he piss you off?”
“He raped a woman. One of the whores. She wanted out so he beat her and raped her.”
“And you thought this was a good enough reason to go behind my back, break one of my most important rules, and kill your direct superior?” Dad’s shouting now, shoulders set and fists clenched. I hate the way that he and Eli can draw themselves up to their full height when they’re angry so it feels like they’re towering over me.
“Yes, sir,” I say, holding his gaze. “I’d do it again.”
“And not only did you kill one of my people, one of my fucking supervisors,” Dad bellows, “but you broke his fingers and put a note on him telling people why he was killed. You know what Jenny just told me about? A fucking news story. This is going to be all over the fucking city, Jude.”
“What Kevin did isn’t unusual. I wanted to make an example of him.”
“Jesus fucking Christ,” Dad mutters. “I’m going to have to put out so many fucking fires.” He turns to me, raising his voice again. “You know if you were anyone else, I’d have you killed. No trial, just shot in the head. Do you realize that?”
“If you think you can take me down, sir, you’re welcome to try.” I hold my breath through a long tense silence, until he makes a small noise that might be a chuckle and then starts to laugh.
“What am I going to do with you, Jude?” he asks, his anger fading. “You probably think you’re going to get his job now, don’t you?”
I look past a single dock, jutting like a lone wooden tooth into the bay, and imagine the black waters rising and rising, a dark tide to drown the city.
“Yes, sir.” It’s another rung on the ladder for me, another step closer to his office on the top floor of the skyscraper downtown, where he runs his empire and someday I’ll be his consul, his right-hand man.
“I’ll take it under consideration,” he says, but I know from his tone he’s already decided.
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” Eli says, scowling. “He kills someone without permission and you’re giving him a fucking promotion?”
The fondness disappears from Dad’s face, and he casts a harsh glance at Eli. “I said I’d think about it.”
Dad starts walking with me by his side and Eli lagging a few feet behind us. I tell Dad about all the work I’ve been doing for Kevin, the contacts I’ve made, the secrets I’ve learned, the seedy underworld I’ve gained entry to.
“You like what you do,” he says. “I’m glad. It’s going to be more of the same, just on a bigger scale, when you’re my consul.”
I smile, though some small lonely part of me wishes he wouldn’t so much as say that word in front of my brother. We spent our childhood in vicious competition for that opportunity, but now that I’ve won, it’s easier for me to see the damage it’s done to Eli—the oldest but the second son, the spare. He’s Dad’s most effective hitman, but that’s all he does, and probably all he’ll ever do. He gets all the money he wants—Dad has more than enough—while I have to earn my own way, but I don’t envy him that. It’s more than worth it to stand by Dad’s side, to look out over the city and know that every back alley, every seedy bar, every dangerous dark place belongs to us.
“It’s a long drive out to the Warrens, sir,” I say. From our mansion in the Rise, I have to cross the river and drive through Ghost Town, which in bad traffic can take more than two hours, and I need to be there almost every day.
Dad glances at me. “You having second thoughts?”
“No, sir. I was just thinking maybe I should get an apartment of my own out there.” The Victorian mansion, dark and stuffy and oppressive, has never felt like home, and when I think of my room—forest green, shadowy corners, door to the balcony boarded up—I’m eager to find somewhere else.
Dad’s quiet for a few moments, then, to my surprise, he nods. “I think that’s a good idea. I’ll miss you, but it’ll be good for you to get away from your mother’s apron strings. You’re young, but not too young to get started on your life.”
“Will you—” I hesitate. “Will you look out for her when I’m not there?” I know that Dad doesn’t mean to hurt her, and I know that deep down he doesn’t want to, but I’m still afraid of leaving her alone with him. Eli will be there sometimes, but…
“Your mother will be fine.” Dad’s voice, flat and annoyed, cuts through my anxious thoughts. “So quit worrying. You’ve always been such a fucking momma’s boy. It’s time for you to grow up.”
I clench my jaw and look away. Sometimes, I can’t tell if I’m angry at him for the things he says, or at myself for deserving them.
Dad sighs. “You know I love your mother. And I love you. Nothing means more to me than our family. I just hate to see her hold you back.”
“You really think she holds me back, sir?”
“Your mother can’t deal with the real world. That’s why she never leaves the house. If it were up to her, you’d spend the rest of your life in the kitchen with her like a fucking sissy. I know you’re strong enough and smart enough to do better than that.”
I turn the words over in my head and wonder if there’s truth to them. If she is making me weak.
“Do you have enough money to get started on your own?” Dad asks.
I force a smile, a playful tone. “No. You should give me some.”
He laughs. “Nice try. Do you have enough?”
“Yes, sir. I should be fine.”
“That’s my boy.” The pride in his voice makes me feel a little better. “I got you a little something.” He pulls a black switchblade out of his pocket and hands it to me.
I press the little button on the side and a shining blade clicks into place. I turn it to let the steel glint the cold white of the moon.
“Thank you, sir,” I say, folding the blade back in so I can watch it jump into place again. Ras is going to love this.
When we get back to the car, Dad puts a hand on my shoulder. “Okay. The gig’s yours. For a trial period. We’ll see if you’re ready for it.”
I grin. “Yes, sir.”
Behind him, Eli says nothing but gives me a cold, flat, snakelike stare. At times like this, I can’t shake the idea, so strong it feels like a premonition, that someday we’re going to fight and only one of us will walk away.