I spot Michael as he’s heading to his office. He spots me as well, changing his direction to head toward me.
“Good job today. How do you feel?”
“I’m okay. We got our man and the weapon. I assume everything went well. Is the General pleased?” I ask.
“As pleased as he’s able to get about any one particular thing.”
His answer is convoluted, and my face twists in confusion at his cryptic response, but that isn’t a surprise. He’s always cryptic. What I’m really curious about is what happened with Laci out there.
“What was that about with Laci today? Why was she so adamant about being in second position?” I ask.
“She felt she was being replaced. It’s not her place to question an op, ever.”
“But the gun. Did you really have to point a gun at her?”
“This is my team. I’m responsible for the lives of every member on it. If anyone, I don’t care who it is, challenges the profile mid-op, it’s cause for expiration,” he states matter a fact.
“Is it really that easy for you, to kill, I mean?”
It concerns me. I trained with this man for a year and a half, so yes, I know he’s lethal, but knowing and seeing it are two very different things. Even knowing he killed my ex-partner, I never allowed myself to see the reality of it. I don’t know if I can do what they expect of me. I’m okay with killing terrorists. I get that part of the job, but the execution of a team member is out of the question.
“It’s the job,” he states, simply.
“You always say that, Michael. It’s the job.” I mimic in the best Michael impersonation I can manage. “That’s not good enough. I want to know how you feel.”
Michael looks me in the eyes when he answers. “In here you learn not to want things. You’ll only end up being disappointed,” he answers, walking away from me.
“I guess this conversation is over,” I yell after him.
I’m certainly glad to be pulling up to my apartment. I survived my very first mission, and my dream didn’t come true. Michael is alive, and well. I think that’s cause to celebrate. Maybe pop some bubbly and relax with a good book.
As I head down the hall, looking forward to my private celebration, I notice a tall, good looking gentleman trying to open the door of the vacant apartment three doors down from mine. I look at him through the corner of my eye as I walk by. Pulling the keys out of my pocket, I stick them in the door. As soon as I open it I hear him curse. I watch him for a minute longer before deciding to speak. I’ve always been cautious by nature, now even more so since being inducted into the Collective. The man inhales deeply as he pads himself down, seemingly looking for his keys.
“Excuse me . . . sir?” I call to him. The man turns and looks at me. “Are you okay?”
“Oh . . . yeah,” he says, “I’m in the process of moving in, and I seemed to have locked myself out of my apartment.”
Desperately trying to hide my laughter at the normalcy of the situation, I fail miserably. He notices and speaks again.
“No, it’s okay, go ahead and laugh. It was a bonehead move, I know.”
“Would you like to come in and use my phone to call the landlord?” I offer.
“Yes, that would be great. Thank you,” he replies.
His timbre is warm and deep. He starts toward me, oozing with sex appeal. His walk is much like Michael’s. A man with complete confidence in everything he does, except Michael has that X-factor that makes him a little bit . . . more.
The stranger is tall, and athletic. It isn’t until he’s standing next to me that I see the word tall is an understatement. His hair is a golden brown. It’s cut low, and tapered on the sides. The top is a little longer with natural curls. His lips are full and kissable. I’m embarrassed that I’m thinking about kissing a total stranger, but it has been quite some time since I’ve been intimate with someone. He has a light, faint spray of freckles across his nose and cheekbones. I can tell he and I are the same in our mixed heritage. He comes to a stop in front of me, sticking out his hand.
“Hello, I’m Griffin, your new neighbor,” he says as his big brown eyes look me over. I accept his hand graciously.
“I’m Shyira,” I reply. “It’s nice to meet you.”
Holding my door open for him, he walks in and I follow. I close the door behind us, offering Griffin a seat before grabbing the phone for him. I stay within reaching distance of my Bersa until I know he means me no harm.
“I’m going to warm myself up some spaghetti and have a glass of wine. There’s enough if you would like to join me,” I offer.
“Oh, no thank you. I don’t want to be a bother,” he replies.
I give him a look that says, don’t be silly, and fix him a plate anyway. Griffin finishes his phone call then hands me the phone.
“It’ll be at least an hour before he can get here, so I’ll just wait outside,” he says, heading for the door. Just then the microwave beeps.
“You will do no such thing. Sit and eat. You’ll hurt my feelings if you don’t,” I say, while placing the plate on the bar. I grab two glasses and a bottle of Riesling as Griffin takes a seat at the counter.
“How can I refuse? I would never hurt you,” he says.
I don’t respond, or look at him. I’m sure he doesn’t mean anything by it, but for a split second my horny mind sees him in a different light. Now I know I’ve been out of the game too long. Not wanting to continue the flirtation, I take this opportunity to find out more about my new neighbor.
“So, Griffin, I can’t help but notice you’re not from around here. What brings you to London?” I ask, casually.
If I’m being paranoid I don’t care. I learned through working for the Collective . . . trust no one. As soon as I get back to the cave, I plan on doing a thorough background check.
“My job,” he answers, immediately. “I’m a recruiter for the NBA. I have a few prospects here in Europe. One in Spain and one in France. I don’t want to stay in either of those places for any long period of time, and I like London, so here I am.”
“But won’t you have to travel a lot more?” I probe.
“Yes, but a lot of it I can do over the phone.”
“That’s very interesting. You look more like a player than a recruiter, though. How tall are you?” I ask.
“6’8”, and I did play for a while until I injured my knee, effectively ending my basketball career.”
“Were you really good?” I question, empathetically.
“Other recruiters seemed to think so. I was the number one seed for that summer’s draft out of UCLA.”
I look up abruptly. He’s about the same age as me, which means we were on campus at the same time. The campus is huge, so the fact that we don’t know each other isn’t that weird. But he can never know I went there, or he might decide to do some poking around of his own, and I’m supposed to be dead.
“Basketball is my one true love, so when this happened I couldn’t imagine not being involved with it somehow. I figured I could use my experience to help others bring their dreams into reality.”
In the middle of his sentence I hear a knock at my door, sending my heart into my throat. I don’t move right away because I’m not expecting company. No one, except the Collective knows where to find me. The person knocks again, causing Griffin to look at me.
“Aren’t you going to get that?” he asks.
Not wanting to seem crazy, I push myself away from the counter and walk tentatively to the door. I feel uneasy not being able to grab my gun before looking through the peephole. My face feels flushed when I see him. Holy hell. I close my eyes, putting my hand flush against the door for a brief moment, trying to get the butterflies under control. Opening the door slowly, I speak his name.
I swallow hard as my throat dries up instantly. “What are you doing here?” I ask, not opening the door all the way.
“I came to see how you were doing. I haven’t been here since you moved in. Thought I’d make sure you were all settled in.”
“You could’ve called.” My tone is a little sharp.
“Is everything okay, Shyira?” Griffin asks from the stool.
Michael tilts his head slightly. “Company?” He asks, pushing the door open. I don’t try to stop him from entering, not that I really think I can. Griffin stands when he sees Michael come through the door.
“Michael, this is Griffin. Griffin, this is Michael-” I say, starting the introduction.
“Shy’s cousin,” Michael finishes for me.
Normally, I would’ve been upset the way he took over the conversation like that. In this case, I’m grateful. I didn’t have a clue as to who I was going to say he was.
“Nice to meet you, Michael, I stupidly locked myself out of my apartment. Your cousin was nice enough to let me use her phone,” Griffin explains.
The two men shake hands, and Michael notices the meal set before us.
“Naw, man, I’m sure your cousin doesn’t mind you joining us,” Griffin offers, looking at me for confirmation. How badly I want to say, yes, you are interrupting!
“Oh, he can’t stay,” I say, quickly. “I’m sure he has other things to do.”
I’m very nonchalant when I say it. Almost before I’m done speaking Michael responds.
“No, I don’t actually. I would love to join you.”
My heart is pounding again. I look at Michael for a brief moment, trying to figure out his angle, but once again, Michael gives away nothing. Slowly, turning toward the fridge, I take out the rest of the spaghetti. As the food is warming, I lean against the counter, watching as Michael plays the part of the friendly guy next door. He has Griffin talking about his job and sports. Knowing nothing about Michael, I find myself wondering if any of the stuff he’s saying is true. It’s nice to see him interact with someone in a normal fashion. The microwave beeps, snapping me back into reality. Michael isn’t that person. Why is he here? Maybe Griffin’s a threat, and this is another test to see if I can recognize the enemy. Maybe Michael’s here to make sure the job gets done in case I fail. Too many things are running through my mind as I stare at Griffin. Will I be able to kill him at a moment’s notice if Michael gives the order? He seems so nice, but then again, so did Michael in the beginning. Has my intuition gotten that bad? Michael breaks my inner battle when he calls my name.
“Shy, are you alright?”
I look at him, then back at Griffin. Both men stare back at me. Realizing I still have Michael’s plate, I hand it to him, wondering how long I’ve been holding it.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I answer.
As Michael accepts his plate, we hear a phone ring. I look at Michael, and he shakes his head. Griffin reaches into his pocket, pulling out his cell phone. He stands to take the call over by the French doors. This is the perfect opportunity to quell my suspicions, and question Michael about Griffin.
“Michael what are you doing here, really?” I ask in a hushed voice.
“I told you. I wanted to see how you were faring in your new home.”
“I don’t believe you. Is this a test? Is Griffin a terrorist?”
Michael gives me an unpleasant look. “I don’t know, is he?”
I continue to stare at him. Is he being serious? Michael leans forward in his seat, resting his elbows on the table. He clasps his hands together in front of him.
“I hope for your sake, he isn’t,” his voice becomes low and serious. “You invited him into your home, Shyira. It’s a little late to be asking those sorts of questions, don’t you think? I mean, your judge of character should be better than that. After all, I trained you. What does that say about me?”
He leans back in his seat, watching me. He’s very calm, which is never a good sign, and he called me Shyira. The look he’s giving me scares the shit out of me. I continue to study him, hoping he will give me some sort of clue I’m on the right path. Finally, after about a minute of seeing me sweat bullets over my lack of being able to read people, he laughs.
“No, Shy. Griffin is not a terrorist.”
Relief fills me as I exhale before narrowing my eyes at him. “You’re a jerk,” I whisper, angrily as Griffin makes his way back to the table.
Coming to stand next to me he speaks, “That was the landlord. He’s here,” he turns toward Michael. “Michael, it was very nice to meet you,” shaking his hand again.
“I’ll walk you out,” I say.
As we make our way to the door, I glance over my shoulder. I notice Michael looks uneasy, almost angry. What the hell is his problem now? That concern will hold until I came back. It hasn’t escaped me that Griffin had a cell phone when accepting my invitation to use mine. As soon as we are on the other side of the door I ask, “Why didn’t you tell me you had a cell phone when I asked if you wanted to use mine?”
“Because I’m not an idiot, and I would have to be to decline an invitation from a beautiful woman.” I can’t believe he’s making me blush.
“Let me pay you back for your kindness. Can I take you to dinner on Friday?” He offers.
“I would like that. Thank you.” The words come out before I know what I’m saying.
“Good, it’s a date,” he says, smiling as he walks away, not giving me time to protest.
I stand there watching him as he walks down the hall. I find my eyes lingering on his ASSets. Damn, he looks good in those jeans. My naughty mind is up to no good. I turn slowly, heading back into my apartment with a goofy grin plastered on my face. Michael’s already standing, putting on his jacket. I can’t believe it, but for a moment I actually forgot he was here.
“You’re leaving,” I ask, and even I notice the sound of disappointment. I curse myself for showing my feelings like that. It’s one thing to admit it to myself, but they aren’t for him to know. Already knowing he doesn’t feel the same, makes it worse I showed my hand. Michael doesn’t react to the way I asked the question. However, I know it didn’t escape him. Nothing does.
“Yes. I came to see how you were acclimating, and now I have.”
He reaches up, brushing back a strand of hair from my face. My stomach instantly knots up at his touch. I swear he’s messing with my mind. He can be so tender at times. Then in the next breath threaten to kill me. I wonder if he’s bipolar. I want desperately not to have that reaction to him, but it’s there and I can’t stop it. He watches me intently. Probably because my face tends to show when I’m in deep thought, and at the moment I’m thinking: he’s mentally ill.
“You like him, don’t you?” he asks, coolly.
That confirms it. He’s definitely a head case.
“What, I don’t even know him,” I protest.
Why do I always feel the need to justify myself to him? He never feels the need to explain his actions. I decided to take a page out of his book for once. He steps back from me, and that pisses me off. It’s obvious he doesn’t believe me.
“So, what if I did?”
“It’s not a good idea, Shy. Be careful,” he advises as he walks out the door.
I plop down on the chair, trying to figure out why he always has to have the last word. Why do I need to be careful? What is he not telling me? I stand, clearing the dishes as I contemplate whether or not it’s a good idea for me to go out with Griffin. It isn’t that I don’t want to go. I do. It’s the vague threat from Michael for me to be careful that has me second guessing my decision. Would Michael actually try and hurt him? No. I don’t believe that. Griffin is an innocent. One of the ones we’re supposed to protect. My minds made up; I’m going for it. I just hope I’ll be in town on Friday so I can take Griffin up on his offer.