Desert Fire

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Seventeen

Payton

I follow behind Janet, loathing her, trying to burn through her skin with my hate. She glances over her shoulder to make sure I’m following and I look away, because I can’t stomach her gaze on me. I know where we’re going and I’m sure she knows I know, because she’s leading me back to her apartment. Even though my gun is back in my backpack, I’m glad I was smart enough to keep the Pentothal laced with the neurotoxin in my jacket pocket. I will get my answers at whatever cost. She made me leave Conner; I deserve them.

After the time we’ve spent together, the day we had today, his absence is a constant ache in my chest. Every fiber of my being misses him. We’ve spent almost every second of the last week together; we’ve been through hell together. And now I told him to leave me with this…this awful woman. After breaking his heart, of course. He must despise me for dragging him into this and then telling him to take a hike. All for answers from psycho here.

She may think she’ll have the advantage in her own apartment, but I will do whatever I have to in order to stick her with this needle. She looks back at me again when we’re only a block from her building. I sense she’s nervous, which seems odd since she was so sure and pushy in the shop. I wonder whether it’s because she’s afraid I’ll run again or if something else is going on. Which, in turn, makes me nervous, wondering what could have her spooked.

When we get to her building, I follow her inside, neither of us saying anything, the feeling I’m walking into the lion’s den looming over me. She doesn’t say anything to the security guard; they only nod at each other, as if he knew she would come back with me. When we get on the elevator, I loop my fingers through my backpack straps so I have something to do with my hands rather than strangling her. I wish I knew what time it is. Conner should already be in the air, making his way back to the base, back to Cadmar. I hope he listened to me and I hope Cadmar protects him, since I couldn’t.

Janet clears her throat, reminding me where I am, making my chest squeeze with anxiety. “You obviously know where I’m taking you, as if you’ve been here before?” I hate the sound of her smoker’s voice and I hope to God mine sounds nothing like it. If I ever see Conner again, I’ll have to ask him.

“Don’t treat me like I’m stupid,” I say in an even tone. “You know we came here earlier today. What I would like to know is how you tracked me down.”

She smirks as if she’s amused and, again, I want to deck her. “I have a way of finding people.”

Before I can prod further, the elevator dings, the doors sliding open at her floor. She leads the way to her apartment door, unlocks it, and then leads me into the clean, spacey living room. She closes the door while I walk inside, taking a look around. The apartment is almost bare, with only a few pieces of furniture and no TV in the living room. No decorations or paintings adorn the walls. A small kitchen is off to the right and a hallway stretches beyond the wall, separating the kitchen from the sitting room with one door on one side and two on the other.

The place is barely lived in, which tells me she either travels a lot or this isn’t her main home…or she really is a psycho who doesn’t need any color in her life. I turn to see her still standing by the door, watching me. She seems apprehensive again, making something niggle at the back of my mind, but I can’t put my finger on it. Instead of thinking too hard on it, I shrug my backpack off, setting it on the kitchen counter before moving further into the living room. Walking to the wall of windows, I look out at the city through the drizzling rain, which must have started on our way up here.

“Why did you bring me here?” I ask, turning back to her.

She stands behind the couch now with a hand resting on the back of it. “We needed a place to talk,” she states, her face blank.

“Then let’s talk.” I shrug, keeping myself from biting my lip or wrapping my arms around myself, from showing any emotion.

She moves around the couch, coming closer and I slide my hand in my coat pocket. This may be the dumbest plan ever, but if I can get the needle in her, she’ll be paralyzed and forced to tell me the truth. When I have my answers, she’ll still be unable to move, so I can get out of here. Of course, this is the most ideal outcome, but with my recent track record, my hopes are not very high.

She stops only feet away from me while I figure out the best way to go about this. But then her gaze lands on my hand in my pocket, making her smirk. “There’s no need for that.” She gestures toward me, shaking her head with a smile, making my palms sweat. How the hell does she know what I’m going to do? She tilts her head, raising her eyebrows. “I’ve followed you on most of your assignments. I always thought your killing preference was…interesting. So clean, so efficient, yet cowardly in a way, don’t you think?”

“I am not a coward,” I retort. You’re supposed to keep your game face on, Payton! I chide myself, but apparently my rebellious side doesn’t want to listen. “I like things clean, which makes me smart. Ninety-nine kills and I’ve never been caught, never had any trouble.”

“Either way.” She shrugs it off. “I know the way you work and you don’t need to stick me with a needle to get your answers.”

“Well then.” I pull my hand from my pocket, holding my arms out as an invitation. “Let’s have the answers.”

“Why don’t we get more comfortable?” She gestures toward the couch, but I don’t move. I would rather stand barefoot on broken glass than get comfortable around her. She tilts her head again with another of those smiles that make me cringe. “Okay, then we can talk like this. What would be your first question? I may be perceptive, but I’m no mind reader.” She taps a finger on her temple.

Her invitation for honesty should comfort me, but it only makes me uneasy. “I want to know how you’re able to find me.”

“Ah. We’re going to dive right in then?” She smirks, making my fists clench; her games are infuriating. “I put a chip in the inside of your right ankle after I had you.”

Her blasé explanation has bile clawing at my throat, my entire body itching. I have a scar there. I always thought it was from a childhood accident or something of the sort. But no, my biological mother put a tracking device in me when I was an infant. The image of a screaming baby in my head makes me want to pull a dagger out to cut it out. I take a deep breath, trying to ground myself while she watches me closely.

“You gave me up,” I point out, my hands still fisted at my sides. “Why would you put a tracking device on me if you didn’t want me?”

“I wanted to keep tabs on you, wanted to make sure you were taken care of. That hope went to hell, of course, when I found out who had you.” Crossing her arms over her chest, her lips become a thin line.

“Why did it go to hell?” I ask in a condescending tone, smirking. The chance to prod at her is irresistible. “You probably would have done the same with me if you kept me, but it would have been worse with you. At least with them, I have Cadmar, who actually cares.”

She makes a choking noise, causing a smile to tug at my lips. “Cadmar,” she spits. “That idiot has no idea what he’s doing. I could have trained you a thousand times better than he has. You would never be in the trouble you are right now if I had trained you.”

What the hell is she smoking?

“That’s not true.” I shake my head. “I would have hated life just as much, if not more, with you. I would still be as strong willed and I would have rebelled against you, as well.” I laugh inwardly at the irony. I actually prefer the life I’ve had with Scarlet and Cadmar to any thoughts of the life I would have had with her. “But I still don’t get it. If you were so worried, why give me up at all?”

“I couldn’t continue my work and take care of a child,” she points out as if it’s the obvious answer. “That doesn’t mean I wanted you to end up on the streets.”

“Your sentimentality is wasted on me,” I ground out through grit teeth, my nails digging into my palms, drawing blood. I hope it stains her white carpet. “If you cared at all, you would have kept me and given up your work. Since you knew where I was all along, why didn’t you come see me in person, rather than sneaking around, following me on assignments?”

“Like they would have let me waltz onto the property to talk to you?” she asks, an eyebrow hitched up. “They would have killed me if I came anywhere near you. Which is why I followed you on assignments; they weren’t there. I kept following you because I was fascinated by how well you did, how successful you were. It made me realize how well we could work together.”

“Is that supposed to flatter me?” I demand, hating this. I have the one answer I needed, which means I can leave. I can have Cadmar remove the chip and never worry about her screwing with my life again. I can see Conner again. My hope is renewed, making the urge to leave overwhelming. “I’m not going to work with you. I don’t want this life.”

“You know life isn’t that simple, Payton.” Her gaze becomes dark, emotionless, sending chills up my spine. “You see, I knew if I showed up enough, you were bound to see me at some point. I knew something would slip and you would end up coming to find me. It was only a matter of time. It started out as me wanting someone to work with…” She trails off, giving me a pointed look.

My stomach clenches into a fist, but I take a deep breath to remain in control. “What do you mean, ‘started’?”

“You know, the agency you work for is very strict.” It sounds as if she’s changing the subject, but I feel like we’re finally getting closer to her point. The mention of the Elites has my body tingling with dread.

“I’m sure you know by now, if you kill one of their agents, they want you terminated?”

My eyes bug out. How does she know about that? My stomach heaves as it always does now, at the mention of that awful day. Even still, I try to play dumb. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I keep my tone flat.

“Don’t you? A few months ago, I had a run-in with one of their personal agents. There was no way I would let him kill me, so I had to kill him.” She blinks slowly, while fear settles in my stomach. “The Elites demanded I be terminated, of course. I was forced into hiding, but when I caught wind of your hundredth assignment, I couldn’t keep myself from going. Proud mom and all.” She smiles and I swallow a mouthful of bile. “But then I watched everything unravel for you and the answer was so clear. If I gave them something they couldn’t resist, they would forgive me.”

“You knew where I was,” I whisper, my entire body trembling. I force my knees to remain steady beneath me when the truth sets in. “You told them where to find me.”

“Well, yes, but they weren’t sending an agent to kill you. They were sending him to test you.”

“To test me?” That doesn’t make sense. The guy was shooting at me; he obviously wanted me dead.

“Don’t you see?” she asks, but I can only shake my head. None of this makes sense. Or maybe it does, but my mind doesn’t want to believe it. “Hmm, I guess you’re a little slower than I thought.” This snaps me out of my shock, making red cloud my vision. “Cadmar is always dictating your life, controlling how much you do and when you do it. He created a killing machine that only he controls. They want the control.”

What she’s saying sinks in, clicking a lot slower than it should have. “You knew we were in Texas,” I yell, my control bubble popping. “You told them.”

I shake my head, wrapping my arms around my middle. I don’t want to cower, draw in on myself, but I can’t stop with the realization of almost everyone being against me. It would be great if I could have a mother figure who would want things to work out for me.

“You’re catching on,” she says in a condescending tone, which flips my ’don’t piss me off’ switch. “If you ask me, the Elites are holding you on a pedestal.”

She told them where I was in Chile and an agent tried to kill me as a test, also almost getting Conner killed. Then she did it again, threatening my family and Conner’s lives. And now, she stands here chatting lightly about it, about having a tracking device in me. Shoving all my emotions to the back of my mind, I drop my arms to my sides. She smiles as if she knows what’s coming and it excites her. She doesn’t know me at all.

I charge her and when she swings a fist at my face, I duck down, jabbing her in the stomach. She grunts, but is quick to backhand me. I stumble a little while blood fills my mouth, but I steady my feet. We continue this, going back and forth, swinging, dodging, and kicking. We break multiple pieces of her living room furniture while crashing around, but the sounds of wood splintering and glass breaking doesn’t faze either of us.

I become the killing machine I was trained to be. I’m mindless while I take my anger out on her, smashing my elbows into her ribs and face. She gets in a few good hits, but she’s not as skilled as me, even with my injured shoulder. The power this realization brings me is intoxicating.

I realize, not only is she enjoying this with a huge grin on her face, but I’m enjoying it, as well. I’m relishing in bringing her pain, in taking my anger out on her. This isn’t me; I’m not a cold, heartless bitch like her. We’re both bruised, with blood dripping from different places, but there’s no pain. I’m completely numb.

I have to end this.

When I pause for only a second, she takes the advantage. Grabbing my wrist on my injured arm, she swings behind me, wrapping her arm around my neck, pulling my arm up behind me. I yell out when the stitches pull tight, pain shooting through my arm.

“This is how you did it, isn’t it?” she snarls in my ear. “How you killed that agent?”

“How. Do. You. Know?” I wheeze out each word. I grip her wrist with my free hand when she squeezes tighter, trying not to panic. Closing my eyes, I suck in all the air I can.

“The Elites found the body. They gave me the details on what my lovely daughter is capable of.” She squeezes again. I grit my teeth against the pain of my trachea crunching. “I could kill you right now, just like you did that agent. But they need you alive.”

Stars spark in my eyes when her statement settles in my mind. I want to smack myself for not realizing earlier. The reason she told me the truth, the reason she’s been taking her sweet-ass time…they’re coming for me. I have to get out of this, out of here. I pull another breath through my teeth then elbow her in the ribs with all the force I can muster with my free arm. Her grip loosens enough for me to gulp in a huge breath before I grab her hand, digging my fingers into the muscle between her thumb and index.

She yells out when I whip her arm away from my throat. I move around her, bending her wrist, pulling her arm up behind her, as she did to me, then kick her knees out. She yells again when I pull up on her arm, almost forcing her shoulder out of its socket.

“This is over,” I croak out. My throat burns while all the pain in my body makes itself known. Everything hurts. My chest most of all. It shouldn’t, it seems so lame, but this betrayal is the worst of them all. “If you try to find me, ever again, I will kill you.”

She laughs, but doesn’t struggle. “I won’t need to find you.” She shakes her head.

I use my free hand to take the syringe out of my jacket pocket and stab her in the neck with it. She gasps in surprise when her whole body tenses up. Dropping her arm, I move away from her, letting her fall to the side with a loud thud. I look down on her and she smiles up at me with bloodstained teeth. I want so bad to do more damage, cause more pain, but I need to get out of here.

Now you can’t follow me.”

She starts laughing again when I spin on my heel, going for my pack. “I said I wouldn’t need to.” She continues laughing, causing chills to cover my skin.

This was the absolute worst idea I’ve ever had in my life…and I may pay dearly for it. Ignoring her, I grab my backpack off the counter, slinging it over my shoulder. I get out the door, leaving her laughter behind, heading straight for the elevator. I push the down-button, waiting while the numbers of each floor light up, wondering where I’ll go next. I need to find a phone. I should never have tossed mine, but it wasn’t safe to keep. At least, it didn’t seem to be at the time. If I can get ahold of Cadmar, he’ll help me get out of here.

When the number ‘5’ lights up, I breathe deep, trying to calm down. The elevator dings, the doors slide open, and I choke on my next breath. Three suited men stare at me with emotionless gazes. It’s almost as if time stops while we all stare at each other and I take a second to glance at their coats, which all have the Elite’s symbol on the breast pockets.

A small whimper escapes me, my whole body seizing up when they move off the elevator toward me. Running may be useless, but I spin on my heel and bolt down the hallway anyway. I use all my strength to push my legs with everything I’ve got, ignoring my sore muscles. I don’t hear them behind me, which makes me panic, because it’s as if they’re enjoying watching me try to escape. They know I can’t get away.

Only feet from the door to the stairs, something pierces my back, sending electricity through my body. I cry out, collapsing to the ground, falling flat on my face. Shocking, horrible pain courses through me. My body jerks involuntarily while one of them pulls my backpack off before turning me over.

This one has his hair buzzed to his scalp, a tattoo I can’t make out peeks out from his collar and he studies me with crystal, blue eyes for a long second. He bares his teeth at me in what could be considered a smile, but it terrifies me. If I weren’t already convulsing, I would be trembling. I don’t know where the other two are, but apparently they decided they weren’t needed to help with puny, stupid me.

A sob escapes me when the gravity of this settles over me. They have me. I don’t know what they want with me, but they have me. There isn’t anything I can do about it. My body continues to jerk while he reaches in his coat pocket and pulls a syringe out.

My eyes bug out of my head when he bites the lid off. “Please. Don’t,” I beg through a sob, shaking my head. It’s useless. Why would he listen to me?

He doesn’t. He smiles for real now, and I gasp when the needle pierces my arm. His smile is the last thing I see before everything goes black.

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