Divine Deception — Collateral Damage

Sometimes when the guilty get hurt, the price for shame removal exceeds anything one may have in their pockets. But there is one thing that has and always will be cheap. It’s the fact that the guilty will always pay. One by one, like a long line of dominoes and I’m the one to give the first block a little push, starting a line of destruction that’s been paved out by fate. Yet there is always a drawback. Nothing ever really goes according to plan, especially when dealing with the outcome of many people’s lives. And when things don’t go as expected, collateral damage is a must.

I still hear his sobs. I still see his face when I close my eyes. Sean Barread. It’s been less than ten hours since I picked him up, even less now since I watched him fall from my grasp and plummet down how many floors into the pavement with a thud. He didn’t even scream. What was it that he said? That he was done for anyway? I listen to his voice repeat the same words over and over and over again. I didn’t think the moment I met him face to face that his droning voice would repeat in my mind like a bad habit that refuses to die off.

I push open the door to my house and spot Whitman typing to his heart’s content on the computer in the far corner. I bolt straight for him. My footfall is a silent one and the reason why I’m not surprised he jumps when I finally speak right next to him.

“These names,” I say, dropping a piece of paper next to him on the desk. “Find them.”

Whitman turns and looks down at the paper. “You got them from Sean? It was that easy?”

“It wasn’t easy,” I snap. I close my eyes and take a deep breath. “Just find me those names, please.”

Whitman doesn’t question me about them, he just gives me a look and goes about typing them into his database, scanning what he can while I stand right beside him in silence. I know he’s wondering what happened to Sean. “Has he joined us?” or “Is he playing on the fence?” Or something to that level. I don’t know. But his every movement, his every possible thought ignites a spark at the pit of my stomach that I struggle to extinguish.

“Is everything okay?”

I tense just at the sound of Nathan’s voice, his calm and soft voice. I don’t know what to tell him. How do I say that our latest target fell to his death? This after Nathan warned me how we’d get burned if we continued to poke fate.

“It didn’t go as smooth as I’d hoped,” I mumble, and know, deep down, that it’s understatement of the year. When Nathan asks me how it did go, I walk over to the fireplace and motion to the chair next to me. I take a seat. He allows me to take a deep breath, try to figure out the right words, and then asks me again what happened and I tell him.

I tell him everything from the moment I met Sean all the way to how he took me back to my place and how we fought until he tried to escape. I tell him how everything became a blur after that. Sean falling over the railing, his hand slipping from mine, even the amount of time it took to hit the ground. Everything smears together like a child finger painting. Even my escape. I don’t even know how I got where I am now other than grappling down the side of the building and hightailing it across the city. Little things have come back to me as the day’s progressed: moisture from the sodden ground wetting my shoes, the sharp wind that whipped between the buildings, the thought of not being able to stop running because of the possibility that somebody was looking for me. It took until five o’clock this morning to realize where I needed to go and that was here, right here, with those names. They were the only things that left an imprint in my mind.

Nathan raises his eyebrows, and deep behind his dark eyes I can see the beginning of fear, or maybe it’s astonishment. He clears his throat before I can come to my own defense and then says, “Did anybody see you leave? Surveillance?”

I shake my head. “I had Whitman disable everything before I left here yesterday. Everybody who was around was looking at Sean’s body.” Just hearing it makes my stomach twist. I don’t know what else to say so I look gloomily into the fire.

Nathan takes a deep breath finally breaking the silence, and then he places a hand on mine. “I’m just glad that you’re all right.”

“Okay, guys,” Whitman calls from behind us. Both Nathan and I turn in our seats to face him. “I have profiles for these names, but what’s more is that they’ve all been contacted for a meeting to discuss Paragon’s financials. Tonight at eight.”

“How do you know?” I ask.

“They’ve all been sent emails. Sean as well.”

I bite my lip. “I guess that’s where I’m going.”

In the corner of my eye I can see Nathan glare at me. “What?” he gasps. “Deli, that’s madness. Why don’t we just let the dust settle for a bit? You’ve been through a lot and surely they’ll hold another meeting.”

“But what are they going to think when Sean doesn’t show up?” I counter. “That’s of course if they haven’t learned of his fate already, and discussing financials? It’s obviously a cover for something more.” I swallow hard. “No, this is my only chance to get in and hit with a surprise attack and get out with whoever is on that top tier.”

I’m already stepping into the bedroom before Nathan can call my name. William is playing with a set of building blocks until he sees me. Then he reaches out his hands.

“Up!”

I scoop him into my arms and tickle his belly before kissing him on the forehead. Right after, Nathan rushes in.

“There you are,” he says. My back is to him while I hold William tight. My child blows raspberries while he plays with my hair. “Are you really sure you want to do this?”

I make a face that I know he can’t see. Do I want to do this? My heart feels like it is bouncing higher and higher with every beat to the point where it might get lodged in my throat. Do I want to feel this way? Do I enjoy it? Hell no! But it’s not like I have much of a choice. Sean gave me those names I so desperately wanted and to not take this next step, it would have all been for nothing.

“Honey?”

I take a deep breath and turn to look at Nathan finally. “I need to do this, Nathan, and I need you to understand that.”

I put William into his arms and walk over to the dresser, pulling out the clothing that I will need: my mission attire. Just the sight of them twists my stomach into a mixed bag of emotions including anxiety, guilt and fear. I rarely wear these clothes. Lately I’ve been wearing dresses and sunglasses that distract people from the person behind them. These clothes in front of me are that of a destroyer.

“You would give up everything we have and done for this man?” Nathan asks me through almost a whisper, unable to hold my gaze. Like he doesn’t really want to know the answer.

I tie my hair up and smile cheerlessly at him. “Yes,” I breathe. “But I’m also doing it for us. All of us.” Nathan doesn’t seem convinced. I kiss him on the cheek. “Everything is going to be fine. You’ll see.”

***

I make it to the meeting by nightfall. Whitman texts me the coordinates and getting into the building is almost as easy as inputting the coordinates into my phone. Outlook took it upon themselves to rent a room from one of the big hotels in the middle of the city so entering didn’t cause much of a problem. I was able to take the stairs to the floor just below the top and had to use the ventilation system to finish off my route. I literally drop into the foyer outside of the room where the meeting is taking place.

An aquarium is built into the wall and I can hear the half a dozen people on the other side chatting away. The whips of cigarette smoke gather at the ceiling while the bitter scent threatens to make me cough. I do accidentally, forcing myself to smother it inside my sweater. I tense at the possibility of the others hearing me. They don’t, though. They keep talking, their voices flowing through the doorway a few strides away from my position with ease.

I’m able to sneak a peek inside. There are six members inside. Three are men, three are women. The first person I spot is a man. He’s sucking back a cigarette, gazing over the fish. He’s a young man, can’t be any older than I am. A woman behind him with sandy blond hair is speaking with him, though from the look on his face, he cares very little. I struggle to see the rest of the room without moving any more than I already have and without risking being seen.

“I’m getting impatient,” somebody says out of sight.

When the man smoking turns to the voices source, I risk craning my neck and getting a glimpse of the woman. She sits on a lounge in the back. Maybe sits is too much of a relaxed term. From what I can see she’s the most uncomfortable person in the whole room, perched as if she’s on a bed of nails.

“Relax, Ana, would you?” the smoking man says, sauntering over to the table putting his cigarette out. “He’ll be here.”

“Sean’s rarely late,” Ana reminds him, pulling her arms closer to her chest.

A man in the back chuckles and turns around from the wet bar holding a drink. “I’ve known Sean for a long time. It’s Thursday evening. He’s probably still rinsing last night’s hooker spit outta’ his mouth.”

I see both Ana and the Sandy blonde cringe. I mirror the expression, my hand lowering to my side where I feel my gun. I check that it’s loaded. I’ve heard enough. I get up from my position and walk inside.

There’s a brief moment where confusion clouds everybody’s faces and then the panic begins once the small glass in one men’s hands slips and crashes into tiny pieces. The smoking man jolts and hops back, his hands shooting for the roof once he realizes I aim my gun at him. The chair the sandy blonde was sitting in hits the floor with a loud thwack! as she spins so that she can face me. Two people, a man and a woman and the oldest of the group, stand at the back of the room , holding each other’s hands. The woman’s fallen to the floor and the man has crouched to her side.

In the corner of my eye I spot Ana lunging for the nearest telephone.

“Shh,” I coo her calmly, my gun still aimed at the smoking man. She comes to a halt almost immediately, her hand still stretched out to grab the phone before she walks backwards slowly back to her place. “Smart girl,” I tell her before glancing at the others. “Sean just wanted me to inform you that he’s not going to be able to make it.”

“What?” the man in the back sputters. He’d been the one to drop his glass. “Where is he?”

I shrug. “He did tell me that you six could lead me to Paragon’s top tier, though.”

“Bloody hell!” Ana sobs, collapsing onto the lounge and dropping her head into her hands. “I can’t believe this is happening!”

“Ana, stop panicking!” the sandy blonde demands, even though I hear a quaver in her voice. “She just wants some type of path to the top tier personnel. If we do that, she’ll leave us alone. Isn’t that right?”

My eyebrow lifts on its own. “I want names, not just a path.”

The sandy blonde’s jaw drops as if what I’ve asked is complete lunacy. She pulls herself together, swallows hard. “O-Okay—”

“You can’t do that, Susan,” the old man in the back tells her. “If you tell her, we’re as good as dead!”

Susan looks over her shoulder at him, a grimace of fear and disgust on her face. “You think I want to? I don’t have much of a fucking choice, Thom! She has a fucking gun!”

“You can’t!” he insists.

“Just shut your face!” She turns back to face me in one rapid movement. “You want names? The two you’re looking for are—”

The window at the back implodes and I hear a woman gasp. The woman Thom had been holding watches as he drops to the floor. We’ve all gone tense and look at the man, a bullet hole in the side of his head. The woman glares up at me, but I haven’t pulled the trigger of my gun. The old woman goes to say something and she’s tossed to the ground too.

My heart lurches, taunting me to pull away and find cover. But I can’t. Before I know it, Ana is shot, followed by Susan and the man with the drink. It’s only me and the smoking man left. It feels like hours have passed since the last shot, and for a second I think it’s all over. That’s when the smoking man’s forehead explodes and his blood slaps me in the face. It hits my lips. I taste his blood.

I stand there in terror. My legs refuse to move, my knees knocking and my body just waits, like I have an X on my forehead, ready for the next shot. This is Paragon. This is the top tier. They knew I was here. They were waiting for me and to make sure everything stays on the down low, they’ve taken us all out. I swallow hard, the taste of iron irritating my gag reflexes. Still waiting. Paragon must have me in their sights now. My breathing quickens—faster, faster, faster! I picture Nathan and William in my mind. I love them both. I tell them through my thoughts. I’m never going to see them again. I love you, I love you, I love you.

The elevator to the floor dings and the sound of footsteps charge towards me. Footsteps? They’re coming in for a close kill. And I’m not going down without a fight.

I spin around, gun aimed. I can see them. There are five of them. Four of them are armed with assault rifles. One pull of a trigger and I am filled with lead. I won’t get many shots of my own in before then, but I have to at least try. My hand’s shaking, but I fight it, trying to straighten my aim.

My finger is about to pull the trigger when somebody yells out, “Hold your fire!”

The fifth member steps into the light. She’s a middle aged woman with sparkling blue eyes and hair the colour of snow. She holds a hand out, back towards the armed guards to keep them from firing. I don’t understand what’s going on so I back up, my aim still on them.

The newcomer glances away from me and takes in the six dead Outlook members. “One, two, three, four, five, six,” she mumbles as she counts them. “She’s not one of them.” She gives me a friendly smile that I struggle to return. Actually, I can’t bring myself to move any muscle from my defensive position other than to release the safety of my gun.

The newcomer throws her hands into the air. “Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait!” she says backing up. “I’m not your enemy.”

You’re in a suite that’s filled with Paragon members, Deli, I remind myself. “That still remains to be proven.”

“If I wanted you dead, you would be,” the woman insists. I spot fear, real fear in her eyes as she stares down the barrel of my gun. “My name is Jackie Collins. I am no threat to you, I promise.”

“Why should I believe you?”

“Because there are six people dead here and you’re not one of them. Those six people were a part of a horrible and powerful organization. You have no idea.”

“Why did you kill them?”

“They rarely step out into the open. This was the only time I could get to them, when they weren’t in hiding. These six people are the top of the organization. Without them, their workplace with shatter—”

“No,” I cut across her, “They’re middle tier. Paragon still has another level above them.”

“Paragon?” Jackie says with a look of surprise in her eyes. “You know of the organization that they worked for?” She doesn’t let me answer before she adds, “Who are you?”

I take a deep breath. “Delilah Lawrence.”

“Delilah Lawrence. Lawrence…” Jackie’s eyebrows knit together as if the cogs of her mind have begun to put things together. “Not Sadie Lawrence.” My expression doesn’t change. “My goodness… You’re Sadie Lawrence’s daughter. You’re Delilah Alto.”

Jackie beams at me, like she’s just found the Dynamited Treasure of Victorio Peak. I can’t hold her eye contact anymore and lower my gaze. My gun instinctively goes with it.

“This is magnificent,” Jackie gasps with excitement. “I worked with your mother. She was a good woman. I’m so sorry to hear about her death.”

I disregard the woman’s sympathy. I don’t completely trust her, but at least I am no longer seen as a threat. “You were a part of Paragon too?”

Jackie nods slowly. “When I heard that they were searching you and your mother out, I decided that I would try and stall them. I decided that I would go against them, have been for a couple years now.” When I ask what she means, she says, “Paragon cleans up their messes, but if you know what to look for, they’re easy to spot. It’s like a game. You just need to be smart enough to get a few steps ahead of them.”

“Look, if you wouldn’t mind, I would absolutely love to talk to you more about this. Now is not the time, however.” She motions for me to leave with her, between the four mercenaries and towards the elevator. I don’t know what to think. Do I trust this woman or do I still keep her at arms length? She worked with my mother just like Whitman. I’ll have to talk with him about and to see what he knows. As for now, I guess splitting ways is for the best. I holster my gun and walked cautiously towards Jackie, following where she leads me.

I thought coming here was going to be the end of everything. The end of this mission, this battle. Heck, I thought it would be the end of me too, both mentally and physically. Yet here I am, being led into an elevator with a woman my mother worked with. A woman who took out Outlook and the woman who wants to aid in my mission to destroy the destroyer. Paragon will come to and end and while Sean’s death may have made me question things, if Jackie is everything I hope she is, maybe there is still a small spark of optimism left in me.

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