17. Come To Terms
Michael hesitated, then took the envelope from White. It was unmarked. He turned it over, looked at both sides, weighed it in his hand, frowned thoughtfully. “This is sealed,” he said. His glasses flashed briefly, the sign of a sidelong glance in my direction. “I don’t have anything to open it with.”
I pounced. “I do!” I called, proud that I kept the quaver out of my voice. Parker’s eyebrows went up. White paused with his hand inside his jacket. I pulled my little folding knife from my pocket and waved it above my head. “See! Just like Ben taught me.”
Parker and White exchanged a look. Ben looked almost amused -- or maybe proud? Or bored. I could never really tell with him.
“Great!” Michael practically leapt away from the others and was at my side in a second. “Thanks!” Then, in my ear as he took the knife from me: “He knows.”
“No shit,” I whispered back. I wanted to grab the front of his jacket, to hold on, to climb up onto his back like a cramped swimmer drowning a lifeguard. “Get me out of here.”
“I’m working on it.” He opened the envelope without looking, scanning the back of the store while he slashed and tore at the thick paper. “I don’t really have a lot of good options right now.”
“Make some, then. That’s your job.”
“That’s your job.”
“You will need to read your instructions once they’re open,” Parker reminded him. “The light is much better by the windows.”
“It’s fine over here,” Michael called over his shoulder. That was a lie; we were inches apart and we could barely see each other’s faces. He folded the knife shut in his palm and slipped it into my front pocket. “You’re probably going to need this before we’re done today.”
I snuck a peek over his shoulder. “Ben looks antsy,” I told him. “You’d better go back before things get stupid. Stupider.” A tremor started in my legs and climbed through my stomach and up into my throat before I could squelch it. I felt very small. “Just get me out of h-here. I wanna go home.”
“I know.” Michael closed his eyes and rested his forehead against mine. The metal frames of his glasses made little indents just above my eyebrows. Behind them, he was solid and warm and alive. “Me too.”
“Enough.” Parker motioned to White, who drew a pistol. “Michael, you will step away from her. Now.”
This was getting tiresome, like a dream that waits until you’re nearly at your destination before putting you back where you started. Michael tensed and turned slowly around, hands at shoulder height. “Parker, you are making a mistake -- ”
“My only mistake is that I didn’t deal with this sooner, but your father insisted on a thorough investigation before he would allow me to act.” Parker pivoted on his heel, turning in sync to follow Michael as he crossed the room. “Your sister and the polyglot were easy enough, but for Houston -- ”
“Stop calling me that! ”
“Given her knowledge and your behavior, we decided to err on the side of caution.”
I started to cry. I couldn’t help it.
Michael threw away the envelope and reached into his jacket pocket. “If you think I’m going to stand here and let your proxies kill another one of my team, you’re dead wrong,” he promised, drawing his own weapon and pointing it at White. “Now tell him to stand down!”
Ben rolled his eyes and stepped outside, letting in a brief flash of grey sunlight behind him. The closing door pushed a slice of cold air through the room, making the hanging wires sway gently and raising goosebumps under my collar and inside my sleeves.
White stayed where he was, eyeing Michael up and down, smirking as he compared his heavy, .45-caliber brick to Michael’s palm-sized .380. They seemed to circle each other without moving, sizing each other up like wolves in the wild, looking for weak spots. “Try it, boy,” White said, talking through his teeth. “You’ve made my job a lot harder than it has to be over the past year.”
“I could say the same.”
“Quiet, both of you,” Parker said. “Michael, listen very carefully: Mr. White is here to serve as my protection in the field. That is his only function.”
Michael kept his eyes on White. “So?”
“So,” Parker said. “Unlike you, he does not step outside the parameters of his specific assignment. He will only take action against immediate threats to my person. Your colleague does not currently present such a threat.”
Michael adjusted his footing so he could watch Parker and White at the same time. “Why are you telling me this?” he asked, his arms beginning to shake. He’d been rigidly holding his stance for close to a minute. White was still rock steady. “I don’t understand.”
“If you’d done what I told you and read what was in that envelope, you would.”
“The -- ” Michael looked down at the envelope, then up at Parker.
Then over at me.
His face went slack, and his hands dropped to his sides.
“And the penny drops,” Parker said softly. Somehow, in that cluttered space, it echoed. “White’s not the only one here with a gun.”
Not like this. I found myself on my knees, ragged sobs half-swallowed, half-smothered by my hands pressed tight across my mouth.
“Was this... ” Michael pulled off his glasses with his free hand and pressed the heel of his palm between his eyes. “Tell me that this was your idea, Parker.”
“I -- ” For half a second, the first time I’d ever seen it happen, Parker hesitated.
“Tell me. Please.” Michael’s naked blue eyes gleamed unusually bright in the half-light. “Tell me this wasn’t his idea.” His voice was strangled and rough. “Please.”
Parker clasped his hands behind his back and rocked forward slightly on his toes. “I’m sorry,” he said, looking out the papered-over window. “I can’t.”
Ben chose that moment to walk back in, a five-gallon can of gasoline in each hand. He set them down beside the door, adjusted his sleeves, and resumed his earlier position. Damn him, he knew.
Michael stared at the hateful cubes of red plastic, his jaw working, his index finger perfectly straight along the short barrel of the .380.
“For when you’ve finished the assignment,” Parker said, returning his attention to his employer’s son. “This location is a typical haunt for junkies and bored adolescents with a penchant for setting things on fire. There will be little inquiry.”
Michael slowly tapped the muzzle of the pistol against his leg, then shook his head and put his glasses back. “No.”
The rounded lines of Parker’s unsmiling face hardened into sharp angles. “You will not be given another chance, Michael. I strongly urge you to reconsider.”
Michael moved the pistol from his side, still pointed at the floor, and wrapped his left hand around his right to steady his grip. “I said no.”
White advanced, aiming at the center of Michael’s chest. Parker took a step to the side to make way for him. “There is no coming back from this decision. This is your last chance.”
“I heard you the first time,” Michael replied, facing Parker but watching me. In quick, short motions he ejected the magazine, cleared the chamber and threw the little gun away. It skipped across the concrete like a stone on water. “And I said no.”
Parker pursed his lips. He looked more exasperated than anything. “Very well,” he sighed, and made a small gesture. “Two bodies, then.”
Ben reached for something in the small of his back and barked, “Parker!”
The glowsticks had spent themselves and faded into the dark. In that crowded, lonely space, beneath the sudden roar of gunfire, I curled up on the floor with my arms around my head and utterly failed to stop myself from screaming.