I used the shadows of night for several reasons, including protecting my identity. I also used the night sky in order to handle certain aspects of my business. While I wasn’t concerned about what others might attempt to do, including law enforcement, I simply preferred handling my acts of revenge on my terms.
I also adored the element of surprise.
Tonight was no exception. This was also something that I’d wanted to handle myself, instead of allowing any of my men to take care of the situation for me. This was personal. This was ugly. This was a minor step in reclaiming what rightfully belonged to my family.
The night air was cooler than normal, the recent storms eradicating a portion of the usual humidity. I’d been in the city long enough to know I was eager to get the hell out. Only two things left on my agenda and that could happen.
This was one of those final steps.
I stood outside the modest home, gazing at the perimeter. There were no cameras or other means of security. The man actually thought he was safe, returning to his country after an extended stay in Spain. Little did he know a predator never gave up on finding its prey. I’d waited long enough. Now the bastard would face my wrath.
While I was prepared to pick the back lock, when I realized there was no need, that angered me more than it should. The man actually believed that he could get away with being a part of destroying my entire family. Interesting. After walking inside the kitchen, I pulled the weapon from my jacket as well as the silencer. There was no sense in alarming any of the neighbors.
I took a deep breath as my eyes adjusted to the low lighting of the light above the stove. The fat bastard had consumed something fried. He’d always disgusted me, but tonight I was appalled. It was time to get this over with. I’d need a long, hot shower to rid myself of the stench. I moved up the carpeted steps two at a time. I knew the layout of the house, the bedroom the man used. I’d learned all about his schedule and his friends, his business partners and his usual tee time for golf.
Another stupid American game.
But I knew exactly how much the man loved his games, including high stakes poker. I doubted he’d remember that I’d stood in the shadows one fateful night, watching and learning from my father, who’d become a masterful player.
Then my brilliant and powerful father had made a single mistake, the tide turning against him. I’d never seen Antonio De Leon lose his cool before, but on that stormy night, he’d shown his single weakness.
And that had ultimately cost him his life as well as that of my brother.
Now I would repay the fact the other members of the game had been instructed to cheat with my personal brand of punishment. The thought gave me a smile. This had been a long time coming. Every one of them had betrayed my father, something each one of them had come to regret. After erasing Walter Jones from this earth, there was only one man left, but that would necessitate returning to Barcelona.
I moved forward, determined to finish the job quickly.
The only issue was the creaking sound the floorboards made under the cheap carpet as I approached. Still, I was able to do so quietly enough, locating the master bedroom at the end of the hall. The door was partially closed. I listened for several seconds, my instinct kicking in. Using a single finger, I pushed it open.
The thought of being fired upon brought an actual smile to my face. Maybe the asshole had balls after all. I remained just outside the door and out of the line of sight.
The shots he fired slammed into the wall several feet away from me. I had an advantage of being used to working in the dark. When I heard a single curse under his breath, I slipped my arm inside, taking aim without bothering to look.
I never missed.
This time my intended hit was into his chest.
Even with minimal noise made by my weapon, I heard the man tumbling backward, smashing into a piece of furniture. I walked inside, turning on the single light on his dresser. Then I stood over him, peering down at the face I would never forget.
The man was gasping for air, doing his best to reach for his gun. I easily kicked it away, shaking my head then turning my full attention to him. I crouched down, studying the shot I’d executed. Eventually, it would lead to his death, but not before I had a chance to have a nice chat with him.
“What… Who… are you?” he managed, wheezing after muttering the words.
“Come now, Walter. You couldn’t have forgotten so quickly. Take a good look at my face. Tell me what you see?” I lowered my head, allowing him a closer look. Even with the shadows, I knew the second he recognized me by the soulless look in my eyes. Hell, yes, I’d changed over the last few years; growing by several inches, bulking up by a solid thirty pounds.
His body began to shake, his breath becoming more labored. Of course the man was terrified of me. He should be. After all, I was the Grim Reaper coming to return the favor.
“Yes,” I whispered hoarsely. “Did you honestly think you could go without being punished?” I grinned as I glanced around his room. He lived alone, his wife having left him years before. Even his own daughter refused to talk to him. While he still held political clout in Atlanta, his influence had been dying off in recent years. The man was simply no longer an individual to fear.
“I just wanted to make certain you had a chance to look me in the eyes after all these years, Walter. I’ve been like your shadow, waiting and watching. At least now the wait is over. Do you have any last words?”
I pressed the barrel of the silencer against his forehead, enjoying the fear in his eyes. What I wouldn’t give to be able to take significant time with his demise.
Said with gusto. I was almost proud of the man for maintaining his surly attitude right up to the end. “Fair enough.”
I stared at the man sitting across the desk, my agitation increasing. I’d never had any patience, even less so as I’d gotten older. I pressed the tips of my fingers together, flexing them open, my elbows remaining firmly planted on the arms of his luxurious leather chair.
A man who believed himself to be larger than life.
Little did he know who he was talking to.
With a single phone call, I could end his life. Given my lack of patience or guilt for that matter, my anger often went off the rails. However, Daniel’s skills were highly sought after, including by me.
Daniel remained standing, shifting screens on his iPad. When he finally deemed it worthy to look in my direction, I noticed a twinkle in his eyes. “To answer your question, I have what I believe is the perfect candidate. She’s within ten percent of everything that you’ve been looking for.”
“The other ten percent?”
“Let’s just say she may be extremely reluctant to accept your offer.”
I laughed and rose to a standing position, moving toward one of his impressive, oversized windows. He had a gorgeous view of Atlanta, his posh office with leather furniture and expensive art rivaling my own. I’d learned about his firm through a buddy of mine. Dark Overture, where for a price a wealthy man could have the perfect woman located no matter where in the world.
I’d realized when I’d approached the man that my needs were complex, likely entirely different than any request he’d received so far. For that, I’d paid a premium finder’s fee, which didn’t bother me in the least.
As long as the woman was perfect.
As far as her possible reluctancy, that could be handled with coercion. Then if necessary, discipline, which was another one of my fortes.
“I’ve spent the last year in search of the right woman, Daniel. I assure you that I can handle her concerns.”
He took his time answering me. “As I told you from our initial meeting, there are rules that must be followed, Mr. Romero. Or would you prefer me to call you by your real name?”
Nothing the man said could surprise me, except in finding my real identity, he’d done a deep dive into my records. That had taken not just time to research, but a level of expertise the majority of people simply didn’t have, including law enforcement. I laughed softly as I shoved my hands into my pockets. “Santiago De Leon no longer exists, Daniel. He hasn’t for almost a decade.”
“Yes, well, I haven’t become renowned without finding out exactly who I’m dealing with. I’m not comfortable with the fact you lied to me, Santiago. As you might imagine, I pride myself on providing opportunities to women who would otherwise continue to maintain less than an average lifestyle. The candidate I’ve selected is no exception. We protect our own and if she agrees to the contract, she becomes an employee of Dark Overture. That means that I can’t and won’t allow anything to happen to her.”
I rose to my feet, moving toward his desk and staring him in the eyes. They were just as black as mine, his personality just as formidable, but he truly had no idea what kind of person he was dealing with. “I suggest you be very careful who you threaten, Mr. Darke. I don’t take kindly to being challenged for who and what I’ve become.”
“And I refuse to be threatened on any level. I think it’s best if you take your business elsewhere, although you will be unable to find another service of this nature.”
I snorted, planting my hands on his desk. I could see my behavior irritated the hell out of him. I couldn’t give a shit. This was my last opportunity to find the woman I required. “Perhaps we got off on the wrong foot.”
He studied me intently for a full ten seconds. “Perhaps, Mr. Romero. However, the rules still apply. I will consider sending the invitation to her and allowing you to meet with her, but there is one condition that will not be altered.”
“And what’s that?” Mr. Darke and I would never get along, but I appreciated his candor. That was something rare these days.
“If she doesn’t agree, you will not try under any circumstances to convince her.” He stood to his full height, a smirk crossing his face. He was playing hardball. Sadly, I was in no position to object at this point.
“Agreed. I assure you that I don’t need to convince women to spend time with me.”
He laughed as he took another look at the woman’s file. “You might have met your match, Mr. Romero. Just something for you to keep in the back of your mind.”
“Duly noted. Call me when she accepts the invitation for our initial meeting.” As I strode out of the room, my temper flared. If this were any other situation, the man would have a bullet between his eyes.
Only this was America; infractions and disloyalty handled entirely differently. Perhaps that’s what I needed to keep in mind.
I hated being late. Damn it.
But that seemed to be happening more and more. My life was a jumbled mess, the long hours working at the club digging into my day job, although the work translating novels into Spanish seemed to be waning over the last few weeks. Maybe my work just wasn’t good enough. Or maybe I was too much of a stickler.
I flew into the restaurant, getting the same nasty look from my boss before he tapped on his watch.
“Yeah. Yeah. I know. I won’t do it again,” I barked as I rushed into the small employee area to drop my backpack into the locker.
“That’s what you said last time, Devon. No more excuses,” Mark called after me.
I couldn’t blame him. I hadn’t been on my game for at least a couple of months. I needed a long vacation but unless money started to grow on trees, I didn’t see that happening for a long time.
“Girl. You look flustered.”
I gave my bestie a fleeting glance before rolling up my sleeves and tying the short apron around my waist. At least I knew Jodie was halfway kidding. “Yeah, well, I was trying to finish a book. It was longer than the author told me originally. And she’s chomping at the bit to have it finished. I need the income.”
“You’re still doing those romance novels?”
“Yes, nosy woman. It’s good money, at least when an offer comes my way.” She followed behind me as I headed for the bar, stopping just inside the doorway. The crowd already appeared rowdy, and it was barely seven o’clock in the evening. Great. Why did I have to choose to work in a rowdy honkytonk bar? I hated the music, remained disgusted with the raunchy customers who took grabbing a handful to a new level, and the hours were killing me. Something had to give.
Or I might turn into a serial killer.
I chuckled and shook my head. Right. As if that was ever going to happen. I moved behind the bar, nodding to the second bartender. At least the tips were usually good. Usually. That depended on the kind of crowd. The more unruly they got, the less they remembered any kind of manners.
Jodie sighed as she crowded closer to the bar. “Maybe our dream dates will come in through that door right there next, ready to sweep us off our feet.”
I actually followed her gaze as I pulled out some items I needed.
“Wait for it. Wait for it…” she said, laughing.
When the door opened, I think we both sucked in our breaths. We’d talked about our fantasy men together over cocktails and Cheez Whiz, one of the few luxuries I’d allowed in my life over the past few years. Living in Atlanta was expensive as hell, but I loved the vibrancy of the city. Eventually, I’d figure out how to really make it my home.
When two cowboys strutted in, I heard Jodie meowing. As soon as they removed their real cowboy hats, we both cringed. They were regulars with bad attitudes and thin wallets.
“Oh, well. We can keep on dreaming,” I said absently.
“Don’t let it get you down, precious little angel.” Jodie winked, only daring to call me that when she was on the other side of the huge neon-infused bar.
“Don’t make me come across this surface and whoop your ass.”
She fluffed her hair, now cursing under her breath as the two assholes took up residence in her station, where they would likely remain her entire shift, only tipping her maybe five dollars on a good night. Why Mark continued to allow them to remain as customers was beyond me.
“Go get ‘em, tiger. Let me know if I need to knock some sense into one or both. I’m in that mood tonight,” I snarled then gave Mark a surly glance. Yep. Tonight was going to be a doozy.
Fortunately, everything went smoothly for the next hour and a half, but I knew that was subject to change as soon as the band returned to the stage for their final night. It didn’t matter who was belting out a country song, it was like an instant jolt of caffeine to the customers.
I even found myself humming slightly to the jambox music blasting over the speakers. At least I could pretend to be in a better mood. Maybe that would help garner me more money. Damn, I needed it. Rent was due in three days.
You can do it, girl.
I rolled my eyes from hearing my inner voice. The customers started to pile in, and I rushed into the back to start getting several cases of beer. At least Mark had listened to my idea about filling two of the unused sinks with ice, having cold brews ready to pop the lids. That had helped with productivity.
When I returned with the third case, trying to slam the bottles into the frigid ice, I realized beads of perspiration were already dripping off my forehead and into the sink. Great.
The voice wasn’t one I recognized, and nobody called me by my last name. It was usually either ‘hey, babe’ or ‘sugar’ in order to get my attention. “I’ll be right there. What can I get you?”
“Um… I’m not here to partake in any beverages.”
My God, the man was formal. I finally lifted my head. The person staring back at me couldn’t have shocked me any more than Mr. Blue Eyes wearing a dark suit and a red tie did. His attire was unusual as hell. “O-kay. Then what are you here for? If you’re looking for food, there’s a bar menu right over there.”
“No food either.” He slid his fingers across the surface of the bar, taking a second before removing his hand.
The neon glow coming from the lights under the plexiglass surface highlighted the fact the envelope was black with gold calligraphy writing, my name embossed on the front. “What’s this?”
I eyed him carefully. I’d never seen him before and I started to get the heebie-jeebies. “Um, I don’t know who you are, but I don’t accept invitations from strangers.”
“Allow me to introduce myself.”
Just then, I heard a huge crashing sound. When I looked over, I almost crawled across the bar. “Damn it. I’m sorry, but I gotta handle this.” The two assholes were hassling Jodie. That wasn’t going to happen on my watch, and especially since Mark was not only a chicken shit but cheap as shit as well. His refusal to hire bouncers in order to save money had cost us two good waitresses over the course of three months.
“Of course,” he said.
I didn’t wait to hear if the mysterious visitor had something else to say. I simply grabbed the baseball bat we kept behind the bar, moving onto the floor and in the direction of the assholes. Fuck. They were already drunk, and I’d only served them two beers. That mean they’d come into the place loaded and they were likely carrying a flask or two.
“All right, boys. I think it’s time you paid your tab and left,” I snapped, keeping my hold on the bat firm, although I allowed it to drag along the floor. There was no sense inciting violence, even though I wanted to take a piece out of both of them.
“Hey, sugar, why don’t you come party with us like your friend is gonna do.” The taller of the two was already slurring his words.
“Like hell I will,” Jodie growled, able to push herself off the asshole.
“Sweetness, I need to taste your nectar.” The second dude outweighed the first by a solid fifty pounds, but that didn’t bother me in the least. What did was when he lunged for Jodie.
“That’s it. Get the hell out. If you don’t, I’m calling the police.” I took a step away, pushing Jodie then glaring from one to the other as I snapped the bat against my hand.
“Look, she’s threatening us.” The taller asshole made the mistake of swaggering in my direction. By this point, there were a few nice customers surrounding us.
“Leave her alone, jerk,” one of the good guys yelled.
“Don’t worry, Jimmy. I can handle him.” I sidestepped the creep the first time, but there was something about the look in his eyes that let me know he wasn’t going to stop. The second long stride he took yanked the last of my patience away. I stuck out my foot, the man going down with a hard thud. Then I wrenched his arm behind his back, pressing the end of the bat against his kidney. “Here’s how we’re going to play this, dude. I’m going to let you up but in doing so, you’re going to be a very good boy. After that, you and your buddy are going to dip into your wallet where both of you will pull out every single bill you have. You owe this lady a tip. In fact, you owe everyone working the place a hefty wad of cash given your atrocious behavior. Today, just consider me in collections. You understand or do I need to help you do so?”
Even as the second guy tried to intervene, the first cowboy knew it was in his best interest to do what I asked. That was, unless he wanted his arm snapped in two.
“I got it. Fine. We’ll leave,” he muttered just as the crowd started clapping.
“Way to go, Devon.”
“You go, girl.”
“Teach those assholes a lesson.”
I took a step back, cocking my head. “I’m waiting.”
They both grumbled but did as I asked, yanking out their wallets and to my surprise, several twenties. I waited until they were no longer in sight before snagging the money and taking a deep breath.
The clapping continued.
“You’re my hero,” Jodie said as she grinned.
“Someone had to intervene.” I noticed Mark standing near the door and gave him a look. At this point, I dared him to chastise my behavior. I returned to my place behind the bar, trying to calm my nerves.
“That was… impressive.”
I eased the bat into position before returning my attention to the businessman. “Look, I’m not trying to be rude, but my patience was just sapped for the remainder of this night. What is this invitation?”
He looked behind me, studying the liquor bottles stored on the shelves in front of the huge mirror. “Let’s just say something that might change your life, but only if you have the courage to follow through.”
“I beg your pardon?” Courage? What was he talking about?
The mystery guest simply turned around and faded into the crowd. What the hell? I slowly gazed down at the envelope, uncertain I wanted to bother opening it.
“Who was that?” Jodie asked as she followed my gaze.
“I have no idea. It’s some kind of invitation.”
“I’m not certain I want to find out.”
“Maybe it’s an inheritance.”
Huffing, I took one last look at the man before he faded out of sight. Courage. I had that in spades. “And you know that isn’t going to happen.”
“You never know until you take a chance,” Jodie said in a singsong tone.
Yeah, whatever. My luck wasn’t that good.
Even though I’d shoved the invitation into my back pocket and continued to serve up drinks the rest of the night, the lure of looking at what might change my life kept rushing to the surface. When the last customer had been served for the night, I dragged the invitation back onto the bar, staring at the thick black envelope as if it was going to explode.
“Open it, chicken,” Jodie taunted.
“I don’t know if I should.”
“What’s it going to hurt?”
“Maybe everything.” I tapped the invitation with my fingers, pushing it forward and backward several times. What the hell. I could just toss it into the trash if it was another hokey scheme of some kind.
I realized my hands were shaking as I peeled away the envelope flap, even swallowing hard as I pulled the thick notecard into the light, the damn thing also black as night. I read the invitation at least three times, uncertain what to think.
“Come on. Don’t keep a girl in suspense.” Jodie leaned over the bar, an eager look on her face. “What does it say?”
“Read it yourself.”
She jerked it out of my hand, opening her eyes wide after a few seconds. “You’re cordially invited…” I could tell her eyes were scanning the lines several times like I’d done. “You’re kidding me. They’re asking you to come for a job interview?”
“That’s what it says.”
“That’s the issue, who the hell knows?”
“I think it’s exciting as hell.”
“I think it’s weird. And it’s not going to happen.” Just as I started to tear it up, she placed her hand on mine.
After giving me a stern look, she shook her head. “Don’t do that. There’s no harm in finding out what the request is all about.”
“Request? It looks like a summons. What if it’s some kind of lure to kidnap me or something?”
“And you really think they’d drop into a bar and hand deliver the notice to you?”
I bit my inner cheek, trying to rationalize the offer as well as the crazy thought I had to find out what the bizarre invitation was all about. “Maybe.”
She laughed. “Come on. At least sleep on it. You never know. The opportunity just might change your life.”
Sighing, I grabbed the note, once again shoving it into my pocket. “Fine. I’ll think about it.”
That’s exactly what I did.
All. Night. Long.
As I glared at the invitation in the morning light, I yanked out my laptop, googling the company. There was little about Dark Overture on the internet, but at least the address of the corporate headquarters was listed. The building was in the hottest business district in Atlanta where all the up-and-coming businesses and top corporate moguls had offices. While there was a website, the slick and colorful location was more of a landing page than anything.
My hackles remained raised, but my curiosity was growing. I slid my cell phone closer, tapping the screen several times. This had to be a scam. I was much smarter than that. I pushed the phone away, determined to ignore it.
Then I couldn’t stand not knowing.
“Oh, what the hell.” I dialed the number, almost hanging up. When a receptionist answered, I found it difficult to speak. “Um, hi. This is Devon Rapshire.”
“Yes, Ms. Rapshire. Mr. Darke mentioned you might call. We have an appointment for you this morning if that is suitable.”
Jesus. They weren’t pushy or anything. “I guess that would be all right.”
“An hour from now?”
An hour. My God, I wasn’t even certain I could find anything suitable to wear.
“I know it’s short notice, but Mr. Darke has a busy schedule today. Don’t worry, there is parking under the building.”
“I guess that would be fine.”
“Excellent. Mr. Darke is looking forward to meeting with you. We’ll see you then.”
When the call was ended, I slapped my forehead. “What the hell did you just get yourself into?”
Whatever the case, I definitely needed a change. Maybe karma was finally coming to my rescue.
Or maybe this was the devil ready to drag me straight to hell.