CHRONICLES OF MICHAEL: DENIABLE ASSET

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CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

*SHYIRA CHANDLER*

There’s a knock at my door. Looking at the clock, I see it reads 7:45. Prompt, I like that. Giving one last glance in the mirror at my black silk Asian-styled dress with slits up both sides, I feel content. The dress has dark green buttons that slant to the right from my waist to my cleavage. A thin ribbon, the same color as the buttons, hugs my waist. My hair has a small part in the center where a few strands fall loosely, framing my face. The rest is pulled in a tight bun with black chopsticks crisscrossed underneath. I don’t mind tooting my own horn, especially when the majority of my attire of late has been monochrome combat wear. Not very flattering to the figure, or the old ego. I slip on my dark green patent leather peep-toe pumps and head toward the door. Checking the peephole before opening the door, with my Bersa .380 tucked tightly at my back is automatic. Recognizing it is Griffin, I safely place the gun back in the top cabinet of my kitchen cupboard closest to the door. Opening the door, I see Griffin standing there holding a single red rose. That isn’t the only thing I notice. He’s wearing a charcoal grey suit with a navy-blue collarless shirt. He’s downright gorgeous. Even as good as he looks, I can’t help but think how much better Michael would look in that suit. How the navy-blue shirt would make his--already unbelievably blue eyes--even more unbelievably blue. Plus, the deep grey of the suit would bring out the richness of his naturally bronze skin and raven black hair. I often wonder what his ethnicity is. His skin is too dark, and features too ethnic for him to be Caucasian. I’ll have to ask him one day. Michael always looks great in dark colors. Maybe, that’s why he always wears them. This is ridiculous. If I’m going to give Griffin a real chance then I need to change my thought process. I need to get Michael out of my head.

“Wow, you are so beautiful, Shyira,” Griffin’s deep voice says at the right time, breaking my reverie. “Here, this is for you.”

He hands me the rose. Feeling extremely guilty for giving the first five seconds of thought to Michael when I have this gorgeous man in front of me, angers me. I open the door wider, allowing him access to my apartment.

“Thank you. Please, come in, and may I say, you clean up very well,” I compliment, refocusing. “Have a seat. I’ll be just one minute. I just have to grab my coat and purse. Would you like something to drink?” I ask, heading up the short staircase to my bedroom.

“No, thank you. I’m okay,” he replies.

I grab my black pea coat out of my closet, along with a clutch that matches the green of my outfit off the bed. I reach the bottom of the stairs, gesturing toward the door.

“Shall we?”

Griffin rises and walks over, opening the door for me. As he passes I catch his scent, and he smells incredible. Oh yeah, I can do this. Why the hell not?

“So, where are we going?”

“A little spot called The Light Bar. Have you heard of it?”

I blanch and almost stumble. Oh yeah, I remember that bar all too well. I caused a shootout there about six months ago. This has to be some huge cosmic joke. The universe is laughing at my expense. Of all the places in London, and he chooses this one!

“Yeah, I think I’ve heard of it,” I reply, nonchalantly.

I must say, my face gives away nothing. I’ve been practicing. Griffin pulls up to the front of The Light Bar. The valet attendant comes around, opening our doors. I wait on the sidewalk as Griffin retrieves his sport coat from the back seat of his sleek, black Mercedes CLS550. He comes up next to me, slipping his hand into mine.

“Are you ready?” he asks.

It feels a little silly holding his hand, but I don’t pull away. Maybe this is normal, and I’m the one being silly. I nod as Griffin holds the door open for me. There’s a couple ahead of us when we arrive at the host stand. Our turn comes, and Griffin walks to the stand announcing, “Party of two for Michaelson.”

Are you fucking shitting me? Now I know the universe is playing a joke, and I’m the punchline. All these events, from the restaurant he picked, to his last name. I mean, Michaelson, really? It has me thinking it’s a sign. This relationship is doomed before it ever has a chance to get started. It’s too eerie to be a coincidence that this is the place he picked for our first date. Walking into the restaurant, I’m stunned to see how normal this place looks after what happened six months ago. Our booth isn’t too far from where Michael and I sat that horrible night. I can’t stop glancing at the booth I shared with Michael the night I became the latest member of his team.

“Shyira, are you okay?” Griffin asks, concerned. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

He has no idea.

“I’m just nervous, I guess. It’s been years since I’ve been on a date,” I speak the truth.

“I find that very hard to believe,” Griffin replies. “You’re gorgeous. You probably have guys beating down your door.”

I smile at the compliment. Guys were never interested in the smart girl when I was in high school, and the Bureau kept me way too busy for any real relationship.

“Thank you, but no.”

The server comes to get our drink order, and I sigh in relief. If it had been the same server from my last encounter, I was going to have to walk out. No. Make that run out.

“I’ll have a glass of your house Riesling,” I say.

“And, I’ll take a Martini, dirty,” Griffin orders.

He doesn’t continue down the path of the last conversation. Maybe he can tell it makes me uncomfortable. He changes the topic to something he thinks is safer.

“Did you know this place just reopened a couple of weeks ago? Apparently, there was a shootout here. The news said it was drug related, involving some sort of cartel,” he leans in. “They said the person the cartel was after was a woman. What she could’ve done that was so bad to have them open fire on her in a crowded room is beyond me. Whatever it was, it must have been pretty bad.”

Heat flushes my face, and my stomach feels like it’s been kicked by a mule.

“Yeah, must have been. Umm . . . Griffin, will you excuse me for a moment?” I ask, getting up from the booth to head to the bathroom.

Passing the bar, I remember how scared I was and how badly my hand shook as I held my gun. As I pass the kitchen, the door opens and I can see the back door I limped out to safety. It flashes across my mind with such ferocity, I feel lightheaded. As I enter the bathroom, I nearly knock a woman over in my haste. I quickly apologize, making my way to the sink. I splash cold water on my face being careful not to get my hair wet because how would I explain that to Griffin?

“Get yourself together, Shy. You’re going to ruin any chance you have with a great guy.” I say, staring at my damp face in the mirror. I take a deep breath and relax. “Just think of this as a mission. Life or death.”

If I acted like this on a real mission, Michael would shoot me in the head himself for my epic fail. I grab a wad of paper towels to dry my hands and face. Reapply my makeup, and leave the bathroom. Focused on getting back to Griffin, I’m not prepared for the noise I hear as I walk past one of the tables. A server pops the cork on a champagne bottle, and I immediately drop to the floor. Luckily for me, I only drop to the balls of my feet and not flat on my stomach like they do in the movies. I would’ve felt incredibly stupid. However, I do, unapologetically, have my hand in my clutch grasping my .38. Slowly, I look around getting a grasp on my surroundings. I notice the stares the other patrons are giving me. Heat creeps into my face. I’m so glad I didn’t actually pull the gun out. That’s the only silver lining in a room full of thunder clouds.

“I . . . umm, dropped my lipstick,” I lie, pulling it out of my clutch.

Standing quickly, I walk back to my seat sending up a silent prayer of thanks that Griffin is too far, and the restaurant is too crowded for him to see what a fool I just made of myself.

“Are you okay?” Griffin asks again as I swiftly take my seat.

“I’m fine,” I say, hastily. “You feel like recanting your statement now about men beating down my door?” I ask, nervously.

He looks at me for a moment with a look that reminds me of the way Michael sometimes looks at me. I can’t decipher it on Griffin either.

“No, not at all,” he says, sweetly with a smile.

The server comes to take our order, and not a moment too soon. After my petite panic attack, I no longer have an appetite. Normally I’m a good hearty eater. With all the training, I crave the protein, but being in this place again shakes me to my core. I order a salad. Griffin gives me a look that asks if I’m sure before he orders his food. I nod and he accepts it, or at least I think he does.

“When I asked you to dinner I thought you were going to actually order real food,” he says, jokingly.

I frown at him. “What are you talking about? A salad is real food. How do you think I maintain my girlish figure?” He doesn’t need to know the real of it.

“Well, I can’t argue with that. Whatever you’re doing, it’s working,” he states, staring at me.

I look down, feeling my cheeks go hot. I want to be mad at myself for showing my emotions, yet again, but why? This isn’t a job, and Griffin isn’t a target. This is real, and a little humility is always nice in a relationship. My mind also goes to where I promised myself it wouldn’t. Michael. Yeah, well you can thank my personal trainer, Michael, for that. I inwardly sigh, wondering what he and Brianna are doing at this moment.

Griffin and I approach the door of my apartment. Strangely enough, I find myself not wanting the night to end. Despite his choice of restaurants, I really enjoyed his company. My heart is pounding in my chest. Is he going to kiss me? Ugh, I’m being so childish. This is the part of dates I’ve always hated. It’s so uncomfortable. He stands behind me as I fish my keys out, sticking them in the door. Slowly I turn the handle and as the door opens, I find the confidence to face him.

“I had a really great time tonight, Griffin. Thank you.” I smile up at him. “And, if I’m being honest . . .”

I can’t believe I’m about to say this.

“. . . I’m not ready for it to end.”

A look of surprise crosses his face. “What do you have in mind?”

“Why don’t you go change into something more comfortable? I’ll do the same, and meet me back here in a few minutes?”

“Okay,” Griffin agrees, smiling broadly as he backs away toward his apartment.

I close my door, leaning against it, smiling to myself. This night made me feel normal for the first time in a really long time. I want to hold on to that feeling for as long as I can. With my mind made up, I kick off my shoes and carry them up the few short steps to my bedroom, dropping them as I enter the room. Without hesitation, I head straight to the bathroom. My head is screaming at me to release the bun and massage my sore scalp. Relieving the pressure on my scalp, I stand staring at myself in the mirror. What are you doing, Shy? A voice silently chastises. Ignoring the question, I brush the tangles out of my hair. I finish with that and grab my toothbrush. Quickly, I brush my teeth before heading to my bedroom. Perched on the edge of my bed, I contemplate what to wear. I want to be comfortable, but not look like a slob. I also don’t want to give off the impression I’m trying too hard. Opening the drawer of the nightstand closest to me, the one that houses all my lingerie, I reach for a more comfortable bra. I feel my Bersa resting snugly between them. Shy, think this through some more. Oh great! There’s that voice again, which is incredibly annoying. Hmm . . . it’s kind of like my inner annoyance. I like it.

My inner annoyance has me second guessing myself, again. She has some valid points, though. Am I putting this man’s life in danger? Am I being selfish because he made me feel normal for one night? This doesn’t mean I am normal. What happens when the Collective finds out about him? And yes, she reminds me, it is a matter of when and not if. Will they kill him?

Michael did tell me to do normal things until they call, so that’s what I’m doing. Screw it, they don’t own me.

I grab the sexy black lace bra, you know just in case, before slamming the drawer shut. I’m pissed because I’m arguing with myself. I feel downright shitty because I know very well they own my ass. I stand up, slipping out of my Asian-style dress and into some light blue soft cotton sweatpants with a white t-shirt. I start to make my way downstairs when I hear a knock at the door. I grab my gun before checking the peephole. I see it’s Griffin, and promptly put my gun away before opening the door. He holds up a plastic container of marble pound cake.

“I come bearing gifts,” he says, handing me the container.

His eyes are bright, and his smile is expectant. I’ll hate letting him down. But I will hate myself even more if I get him killed. Accepting the package, I step to the side, letting him in. As he passes me, he gives me that look again. The one I can’t quite discern, and the one he and Michael share.

“You really have to stop looking at me like that,” I say, closing the door.

“You’re beautiful. Even when you’re not trying.” He shrugs his shoulders. “I’m just saying.”

I smile. Flattery never hurt a girl’s feelings. I show him to the living room.

“Make yourself at home. The cake looks really good.”

“I took a chance, hoping you would like it.” He takes a seat on the couch.

“Well, you’re in luck because I love it,” I say, smiling again. “I’m going to put on some coffee, if you want to pick out a movie?”

I point to the entertainment center. Grabbing two coffee mugs, I hear him get up and walk over to the movies.

“You’re quite the supernatural fan,” he teases, holding up three vampire movies.

“What can I say? I like to be entertained. I’m not a chick-flick kind of girl. I’d rather have action and fantasy any day. Save the tears and mushy stuff for real life.”

I shrug my shoulders. Yeah right, you wish. It’s the complete opposite in your real life. You can’t afford the tears and mushy stuff, not in your line of work. It’s all action and adventure for you. That’s why you welcome the supernatural and fantasy world. My inner annoyance chastises.

“I can respect that,” Griffin admits. “Most girls like to watch how men and women unrealistically fall in love, making it very hard for us as men to live up to.”

I laugh. “Well, you’re safe here.”

“Oh, thank God,” Griffin laughs, too. “But just so you know, I was fully prepared to watch one with you.”

“Well, thank you. I appreciate it. So, which one will it be?” I ask, nodding to the three movies he still holds in his hand.

“I always get a kick out of this one,” Griffin says, holding up Van Helsing.

“Van Helsing it is, then.”

I walk over with two cups of coffee, placing them on the table before heading over to put the movie in. I sit down on the couch, snuggling close to Griffin. I could get used to this. No sooner do I think it, I hear an even louder protest from my inner annoyance crash through my subconscious. Don’t! Remember what Michael said. It’s not a good idea. God, I hate her.

I’m going to enjoy myself, eating pound cake, drinking coffee, and watching Van Helsing. I’ll deal with her relentless badgering tomorrow. For tonight, I’m going to ignore her. We laugh as we pick apart the movie. I never thought I’d be doing this again, laughing in another man’s arms, and just being normal. I don’t want to lose this part of myself. This is what having a soul is all about, and I fully intend on keeping mine intact. Being a highly trained killer doesn’t mean I can’t stop and smell the roses every now and then. I lean my head against Griffin’s shoulder as he wraps his arm securely around me. It feels good. Feels . . . safe. Even with the coffee, I battle to keep my eyes open. Unknowingly, I lose the battle and fall asleep.

***

The warehouse is dark and dank. It smells of mold, mildew, and decaying wood. It must have rained recently. I can hear water dripping from the leaky roof. The warehouse is old, rundown, and has been abandoned for years. The windows are tinged a yellowish-brown, so there still wouldn’t have been much light even if it were daytime. I’m dressed in all black with my Beretta strapped to my right thigh, and my Bersa as back up in my left ankle holster. My left thigh houses my nine inch bayonet. I crouch on the balls of my feet on the second floor of the warehouse, looking down through the rotting slats of the banister. I can feel the danger I’m in, and I have no weapon in my hand. I quickly rectify that by pulling out my Beretta from its holster, and quietly check the magazine. I hear Michael’s voice. I know exactly where I am and what’s about to happen next. My hands shake uncontrollably. I take a deep breath, trying to steady myself before raising the gun to fire when I notice it’s no longer in my hand. In fact, I have no weapons at all. The bayonet and both guns are gone. I can’t see the man arguing with Michael, but I know his voice all too well. It’s my ex-partner, John Randolph.

“You’re a murderer, Michael. I have to put you down before you hurt Shy,” John says as he places the muzzle of the gun flush against Michael’s head.

Michael doesn’t say anything in defense of himself, but I can’t stand to watch him die again. I stand trying to yell to John, except when I open my mouth nothing comes out. My voice is gone, just like my weapons. In my head I yell, no! Not again, but it’s too late. The gun goes off, Michael is falling, and I’m screaming.

***

My eyes open lazily. Griffin is staring at me intently. His watchful gaze prompts me to sit up a little straighter.

“Sorry, I didn’t realize how tired I was.” I give an impulsive explanation.

“I don’t mind. I rather enjoy watching you sleep,” he replies.

That makes me smile.

“Well, I should get going so you can get some real sleep,” Griffin offers, standing. “But, before I go, I have one quick question. Michael, he’s your cousin, right?”

My heart speeds up slightly at the mention of Michael’s name. “Yes. Why?” I ask, tentatively.

“You kept calling out his name in your sleep,” he explains.

Shit!

“I did? I don’t even remember dreaming,” I lie.

My face is completely neutral. If the Collective has taught me anything, it’s how to lie with the best of them. Walking Griffin to the door, I can almost see my inner annoyance smirking at me. I can’t believe I said his name in my sleep. No one’s ever told me I talk in my sleep, and of all the times to start. Not wanting to think about that, or Michael, I focus on the wonderful evening I had with Griffin.

“Thank you so much for spending your evening with me,” I tell him. “Sorry I couldn’t stay awake long enough to actually entertain you. I’m a horrible host.”

“No, you’re not. The evening was perfect,” he says, kissing me on the cheek.

Griffin walks out the door, turning to face me after crossing the threshold.

“I hope we can do this again soon.”

“I would love that,” I admit, smiling at my inner annoyance.

Griffin smiles before turning and walking away. Closing the door, I lean against it while still a little shaky from the dream. I’m glad he didn’t try to kiss me. I wouldn’t have denied him, but after that nightmare I wouldn’t have enjoyed it the way I’d want to. I turn the T.V. off, cleaning up the coffee and cake from the table. Heading upstairs the bathroom is my first stop. All the coffee I drank is wreaking havoc on my bladder. I also need to take off my makeup.

I turn off the light, curling up under the covers. I’m almost asleep when my cell phone rings, scaring the crap out of me. All I can think as I answer the phone, hearing Michael’s voice on the other end, is how glad I am Griffin left. I don’t want to start off our relationship with a lie about where I’m going at such a late hour, or what I’m about to do. The lie about who I am is enough to level us forever. God, what am I doing?

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