When she’d expressed an interest in retiring, Mack had laughed at first. At least until he realized she was serious. Then he’d peered at her through narrowed eyes and shook his head.
“People in our business don’t retire. You know that.”
“I don’t want to be someone else’s loose end, Mack,” she’d told him. “I want to live long enough to have silver hair and grandchildren.”
“Then you’re in the wrong business, Dante. You know that.” As if they’d not even had the conversation, he sent her out on another job.
Six months and two jobs later she began to wonder if death really was the only way out of this business. But she knew she was the best, just as certainly as she knew they’d never let her retire. Her exit would have to be convincing and public, and there was only one person she could trust to help her. She reached out late one night, and he answered on the second ring.
“Good evening, Major.” His sharp intake of breath told her he’d recognised her voice. “You might recall a favour you owe.”
“I do, and I intend to honour it,” he replied.
“I’m glad to hear that because I need you to shoot me.”
When she disconnected the call a short time later, she was confident Connelly would do his part. He owed her his very life, and he knew it.
Connelly had been her target a few years prior, before he’d enlisted, marked for extinction because he had a habit of helping his brother-in-law get out of trouble. Her job was to eliminate both of them. In exchange, she would be well paid and have the gratitude of the head of the powerful Leonida family.
Dante did her research and planned her strike to coincide with Connelly’s annual fishing trip with his brother-in-law, Edmond. She installed a wiretap, listened in on all the calls, even his wife’s and eavesdropped on their plans until she knew exactly when and where they would pitch their tent. She was hidden in the trees long before they had finished hammering in the last tent peg.
When the darkness grew thick and the only light was the silver of stars overhead, Dante eased down from her hiding place and took up a new position. Eventually, Edmond emerged from the tent and stretched before heading over to a nearby tree. Dante waited until she heard the stream of urine stop before she slipped up behind him and slapped the chloroform-soaked cloth over his mouth and nose. The struggle was brief and his death quick. She disposed of his body, ensuring no one would ever find him again, before she made her way back to the bushes beside the tent.
When Connelly appeared well after sunrise, he called out for his brother-in-law. Getting no response, he turned to go back inside the tent, muttering. At least until he felt the muzzle of a gun jammed into his right kidney and a cold voice at his back.
“Make any noise at all and I’ll decorate this tent with your insides.”
Connelly wisely said nothing.
“On your knees, fingers laced behind your head.”
He did as he was told.
“Edmond will never again steal from the Leonida family, and unless you want to join him you will do exactly as I say. You’re going to change your name, and your wife’s, and you’re going to move somewhere far away. You won’t tell anyone where you’re going, not even family. You will become a new man. Shave, lose weight, get plastic surgery. Do whatever it takes to escape the notice of the Leonida family.”
“Why are you sparing my life?”
“Because you’re going to be a father, and a child should have a daddy,” she’d replied with a twist of heartache she’d never quite recovered from. “Do not make me regret this decision, or I swear to you, I will find you and finish the job. Do you understand?”
He had nodded silently.
“Start counting to one hundred, slowly, and when you hit one hundred, pack up and leave this place. Tell your wife whatever you have to, but make sure you follow my instructions.”
“Thank you…” he began.
“Someday, I’ll come to call this favor in. Don’t make me regret this. Now start counting.”
By the time Connelly had reached one hundred Dante was long gone.
Now, years later, Dante shook her head at the memory. She’d been crazy to spare his life perhaps. But today, she’d know for sure one way or the other if she’d made the right decision. She brought the car to a stop at the red light at the intersection of Pim & McNabb streets and tightened her grip on the wheel.
The driver’s door was jerked open and a large hand reached inside. “Outta the car!”
Dante barely had time to release the seatbelt before she was pulled roughly out of her seat. Her attacker was huge, she knew that much, but his face was hidden by a black balaclava. She struggled with him, crying out for help from the bystanders on the street.
No one came to her aid.
She fought a little harder, until her assailant shoved her back against the car and pulled a snub-nosed gun from his waistband. He pointed it at her and pulled the trigger without hesitation. She felt the bullet punch her chest, drive the air from her lungs and she slid to the pavement below. Her attacker shoved her away from the wheels, jumped into her seat and sped off in her car. Dante lay on her side, gasping and clutching at her chest. When she reached out in the direction of the people on the street, they could see her hand was red with blood.
No one came to her aid, but she could hear someone asking for an ambulance.
She let her eyes flutter shut and prayed the right one came.
She tried not to breathe too deeply, even after she heard the siren, and after she felt herself loaded onto a gurney and after she heard slamming doors shut out the noise of the street.
“It’s safe, you can open your eyes now.” A familiar voice said.
She cracked an eyelid and saw a familiar pair of eyes looking back at her. “Connelly,” she rasped.
“Major Jordan, now,” He replied. “Are you okay?”
“I will be once this is all over. Thank goodness for bulletproof vests and stunt blood-packs.”
“Good thing none of those fine citizens tried to help you,” he replied with a shake of his head. “Once we get to the hospital, we’ll go in the standard underground tunnel that all the ambulances use, but after that is where it gets interesting.” He glanced out the small windows in the rear doors. “We’re about five minutes out. You got a new name picked yet?”
She nodded. “Emma Clarke.”
The Major squirmed on the small seat across from her gurney. “Should I even know that?”
“You might need it, one day.” she replied. “I have a new life waiting for me.”
“I’m going to paint by a winding river, drink all the wine I want and raise my own food.”
Dante only smiled in anticipation.
A year later, with her easel and paintbox set up beside the winding Root River, Emma Clarke watched a boat make its way down the middle of the river. She lifted binoculars to her eyes and smiled slightly when she recognised the man at the wheel.
As Major Jordan’s boat crossed in front of her, he saluted.
She raised her wineglass in return, finally happy on a winding river with Dante long behind her.