It was days like these that frightened her, and days like these that she dreaded, but when Nova got that text, she had no choice but to respond. Vicious hadn't come back, despite telling her he was going to be late. There was a chance she would have to see him tomorrow.
When she got that text, a little part of her was relieved she got it at the right time so she wouldn't have to sneak out or come up with a reason to Vicious for getting a text after midnight or that she had to leave because of it.
However, she wanted to be safe, so she dressed up in dark clothes and covered her head with a hoodie, then snuck out from the back door, leaving her phone behind. The location was different this time like he had said. An abandoned auto repair shop. It was the perfect place for a secret meet-up.
Nova waited until she had walked a few blocks before she called an Uber. She was dropped off two blocks away from where she was supposed to go, then started to walk from there. She wrapped her arms around herself in the chilly night, occasionally looking behind her to check if someone was following her. No one was.
When she reached the repair shop, she entered through the door. It smelled of piled-up dust and oil. The ground had oil stains and meandering cracks and the windows were half broken with cobwebs and dust on them. Dead flies and wasps were lying on the windowsill. The place was packed with so much clutter, but the only thing shining in it was the black tinted car inside. Movements caught her eye behind the car, and when she reached over, she pulled down her hood.
"You're fifteen minutes late," the man seated on the chair stated without looking up at her. Three of his men were either seated or standing a few distances away from them.
Nova stood a few paces from the man she looked down on, dressed in all leather. "It's either being late or being caught, whichever you think is reasonable to get mad at," she answered tightly.
The man lifted his head and squinted, glaring at her with those dark eyes of his before he leaped up with a grin on his face, his hands stuffed inside his pockets. "Sorry for calling you out so late." He stood tall, a lean man with a mean look. Dark-haired and blue-eyed.
"What do you want, Keenan? Why did you take the risk to drag me out here?"
"No, don't tell me you've gone soft for the guy. Has the time in his presence made you forget what you're meant to do?"
Nova felt like a volcano erupted right in her chest as she stared at Keenan before she closed the distance between them. "Is that why you called me out here? To make sure I haven't diverted from the plan? For fucks sake." She pushed his chest and he staggered back, angry sparks in her eyes. "I haven't forgotten. I'm not going to forget that my brother is lying in the hospital with probably no chances of ever waking up because of Vicious, so if you're here to check whether my loyalty still lies with my brother, then you're an asshole for that."
She dragged her nails through her scalp and blew out another angry breath. Vicious. The man she had set out to destroy for ruining the life of her brother. Vicious. The gang leader who set his boys to beat up her brother and left him for dead. If Keenan hadn't found him, he would have been dead. He could still die.
A few months ago, Keenan had approached her with the truth about her brother, Grayson. He was his best friend and he made it his mission to find out who had done that to her brother, and when she did, she wanted to kill Vicious. She wanted him tortured and dead. She wanted his kingdom to crumble, but she had known to do that, she had to get closer to him. She had to be with him to know his weaknesses. What he treasured the most.
"I don't know, you two looked a little intimate. One might mistake it as a real thing. You're either a good actress or a bad liar." Keenan's eyebrow lifted in such a cocky way it made her want to hit him.
"You have eyes on me? Are you kidding me?"
"No, I'm not." The amusement cleared on his face. "I needed to know your head is still in the game, Nova. I need to remind you that Graham is lying in the hospital on life support. I don't care if you're pissed about that, but I'm going to keep making sure I still haven't lost you. Have I?"
She looked away briefly, drawing another breath in. He blinked a few times, silently judging her. Nova brought her gaze back to him, and the look in her eyes was cold and controlling.
"I still plan to take down Vicious," she announced, even as her heart jolted in her chest, betraying her goals and focus. She put a mask on her face so Keenan wouldn't see any doubt or even a tiny bit of it because she knew if he did, he would pull her out.
He nodded when he thought he saw nothing suspicious, satisfied with her answer and the determination.
She glared at him. "I thought we said no contact unless it's a matter of life and death. Vicious isn't stupid, and you're lucky he's busy at the moment so I don't have to give him any excuse. Now please, Keenan, don't make me repeat myself."
He sighed and then snapped his fingers. His boys started to move, going around the trunk of the car. A few seconds later, they were dragging out a body from the trunk. Nova's eyes were on them as they approached and dumped the body in front of her. Correction: a dead body.
When they turned the body to her, she sucked in a gasp. With wide eyes, she stared at the dead body of Grant. His eyes were closed, but she could detect that he had been dead for more than twenty-four hours. There was so much dried blood on his body that she guessed he was either shot or stabbed.
She looked up at Keenan. "Who did this?"
Keenan gestured for the body to be taken away before he focused his attention on her. "I know what you will say, but whatever I did was for our own good."
Nova blanched. "You killed him? Why?" Despite Grant not being her real brother but a show she had put on, she still felt uneasy seeing his dead body, but Keenan had told her if she wanted revenge, she had to endure seeing the pile of dead bodies that would fly her way. Either way, she didn't think she would get tired of seeing it.
"He was going to expose you, Nova," he told her. "He called me a few days ago and demanded more money, but I didn't want to give it to him. How much more would he take?" He gritted his teeth. "I warned him to stay away but he threatened to go to Vicious and tell him everything about you. I tried to cool him down, but Grant said he was going to come to meet you first."
"So you killed him? You thought that was the easiest thing to do?"
"Yes. If I hadn't put him down, he would have exposed us both. He came to meet you that night and you were with Vicious. What do you think would have happened?"
"I wouldn't have suggested killing him," she retorted tightly.
"Get over it," Keenan said, his breathing as grating as his voice. "But when you decided to play the good sister and sought revenge, you knew what you were getting yourself into." He approached her and held her by the shoulders, looking down at her. "When you decided to become Batman, there was no going back. This is your life now, Nova. It is messy and bloody, and it's going to continue like that."
Batman. The person she had decided to be. The person Vicious was looking for. She had spent months creating this persona to ruin him. Paid a few men who needed cash to prove the existence of her gang. There was no gang. There was only her. She, who controlled everything. It was easy. Vipers had existed long before she came into the picture, but they weren't what they were now before. She used the name of their gang and pretended to be their boss, even though she had no contact with the real gang.
"I'm not having any regrets, Keenan." She clenched her jaw with so much force she could hear it popping. And she didn't. She told herself she didn't. Everything she was doing was for her brother. For Grayson. If it wasn't for Vicious, he would be here. He would be safe. Her only family.
Grayson took care of her when their father abandoned them when they were kids, and when their mother passed away a few years after that, they only had each other. He took care of her. Gave her a good life. Now he was on his death bed because he had been at the wrong place at the wrong time. Grayson was a good person, and bad people like Vicious were the ones who took precious lives away as though they meant nothing. As though they didn't have people who loved them, people who depended on them.
"There's something else," Keenan started to say, and a strange feeling bloomed in her chest when she saw the look on his face. He started to back away from her, scratching his head. "You should absolutely not freak out over this. We can calmly solve this matter."
"What did you do again?" She started to follow his steps. When he paused and turned on the knob to a door, he let the door fly open to an empty room that could have been an office before. But it was not what had her eyes widening. It was the man seated on the chair with ropes tied around his body and duct tape over his mouth.
When their eyes met, his eyes opened when he saw her before disbelief crossed over his face. Nova quickly backed into a corner and pressed her back against it, hearing the sound of her heart increasing its beats.
Keenan stared at her with a sheepish look on his face. When her shock finally settled and the reality of what Keenan had done rotated on her mind, another set of fury built up inside her.
"What the hell is wrong with you?" she whisper-yelled as if she was scared that the man Keenan had kidnapped and gotten tied up would hear her voice even though it was already too late. Screw had seen her and he knew who she was.
"It's not my fault the guy has a few tricks up his sleeves. Somehow, he followed a trail that led him straight to our hideout."
"And you thought kidnapping Vicious' right-hand man would solve everything?" she hissed, on the verge of screaming her lungs out from the frustration and panic holding her in captivity. Keenan had kidnapped Screw. It may not seem like a big deal to him, but it was a big deal to her. It was a big deal to Vicious. This was not planned. This was not how she saw things working out.
"What would you have us do? Let the man go? He found us, Nova."
"He found you and then what? Was my identity in danger?"
"Well, of course not, but still—"
"Then you should have packed up and changed location!" Nova interrupted. Her face was heating up, and she was positive it stemmed in equal parts from anger and fright. "You brought trouble to our doorstep, Keenan. Do you know how important he is to Vicious? He would go out of his way to find him!"
"Isn't that good? That we have someone he cherishes. Isn't the whole point of this operation to hurt him?"
He was making sense. What he said was true. To ruin Vicious, they take everything that made him feel invisible. They hit every weak point he had and anything they thought might cripple him, but then, even as she thought it was a great idea, she felt irked with the idea of using Screw to hurt Vicious. There was a nerve in her body bothering her.
"Not at the expense of hurting others," she finally made a response. "Not him."
Keenan's brow was arched and his mouth was a little tight at the corners. "Why? Because he's your friend?"
She was hit with the truth that she tried to deny. "That's not—"
"You know I was against the idea of putting yourself near them because I knew your mind would get fucked over and you would hesitate. This is what I was afraid of. What happens when that time comes? Will you choose to take revenge for your brother, or will your feelings for Vicious stand in the way? Will you be able to take that step we have both dreamt of?"
Nova looked away from him. "My feelings don't matter. What matters is my brother and you should not make this statement again." Her head swiveled toward him. "You're making me seem weak."
"Then, what are you so worried about? We got one of his important guys. We should be celebrating and figuring out a way to use this opportunity, but you're hesitating, and dare I say using your emotions that are hindering our plan."
"What does it matter? I'm not going to ask you to let him go because he saw my face. Now we can't let him go, not until we have achieved our goal on Vicious."
Keenan seemed satisfied with that answer, but Nova didn't care. He could question her loyalty and commitment to their cause all the time, but she knew what she had to do. She had taken a vow and she would see it through. But another remained. Her eyes narrowed in his direction as she crossed her arms, jutting her hip.
"Do not lay a finger on him, I mean it. Don't hurt him in any way."
"You care for him." His response was light but heavy. "Have you really spent that much time with them to grow feelings for them?"
"My enmity is with Vicious and Vicious alone. It has nothing to do with his boys, Keenan. The man you're holding hostage is my friend, and yes, I care whether he lives or not because he did not harm me or Grayson."
Keenan finally relented and smiled. "Whatever you think you're doing is right, then I'm going to let you, but it doesn't mean I'm stepping back to let you ruin what we have worked so hard on. When it gets to the hardest point, I will take control, and when you think you've reached your limit, you're stepping out and I will take over."
Now he lets his threat known, passing it along with honesty and she knew it was what he wanted to do all along. He was just giving her the benefit of the doubt, letting her ruin everything so he could remind her what a failure she was to her brother and then destroy whatever feelings she had for Vicious.
Nova swallowed past the dryness in her throat. "Fine," she accepted his condition.
"Are you going to talk to him?"
She chanced another glance to the room Screw was being kept in and dragged her fingers through her hair. "Are you crazy? I can't talk to him." What she meant was that she was a coward. She didn't have the heart to approach him because Nova didn't think she could hide anything from someone who considered her a friend and earned himself a betrayal.
"I'm sorry that your new friendship got all fucked up."
Now that she believed he was actually sorry. "It's fine. It wouldn't have lasted anyway. Better earlier than later." It was heartbreaking, to say the least, and it was something she had failed to consider in the beginning. Had she done that, she wouldn't have gotten attached to either one of them.
"What are you going to do now? Tonight was fucked up."
Nova turned and bit her nails, but she realized what she was doing and frustratingly put her hand down. "I thought you had it covered. I thought you said you were going to hire professionals, Keenan." She whirled around to face him. "That was our only shot to take Elon. I gave you a chance but you failed."
"They're professionals, but I guess I underestimated the skills of Vicious' gang," he bit out in his own frustration. "We can still take another shot—"
"No!" she cut in. "We have to think of something else. Vicious is taking him to another safe house."
"But he will tell you where it is."
"Exactly. He will tell me, but when you kidnap Elon, who do you think he will suspect? Me." She was staring into space now. "I don't care what Elon holds, but as long as we grab him, we can use him against Vicious. We can use Elon to take him down."
They had two plans.
Plan A was to set up Vicious for the murder of Elon. A fake murder. She and Keenan would get Elon a new identity, then whisk him off to another country where no one would find him. Already declared deceased, she would find a way to let it slip to the Russian mafia that Vicious had been the one to kill the man to obtain the files containing the secrets Elon held. Then she would sit back and let the mafia take care of it.
Plan B was to let the FBI do what they have been doing. Find a piece of good evidence on Vicious to keep him in prison, but that was a risky plan. Vicious knew people in the FBI. If she came to them with a plan, it would be like revealing everything to Vicious. There was no doubt that he would know what she was trying to do and he would end up killing her and Keenan. Nova couldn't take that risk with the FBI, at least not approaching them as herself. She needed to gather more evidence, then send in an anonymous tip. Keenan had attempted to send in their first anonymous tip with the location of Vicious warehouse, but then the warehouse got burned down. Neither she nor Vicious had done that, which had made her wonder who had done it.
"I need to find a way to talk to Elon alone."
"How are you going to do that? I'm sure after what happened tonight, Vicious won't let you anywhere near him to keep you safe." Then he snorted and scoffed. "The bastard cares for who he wants to care for."
"I don't know...." Nova said absently. "Something tells me he's going to be too busy looking for Screw."
"And you thought it wasn't a good idea to take him."
"It still isn't." She whacked him on the arm. Keenan jumped, rubbing his arm. "But it's the card we should play right now. While Vicious gets busy, I will find a way to talk to Elon and beg him to betray him."
"And how are you going to do that? I doubt he's going to betray the man who has been helping him. If not for that, he fears for himself."
"He doesn't fear for himself as much as he fears Vicious." A smirk graced her lips as she leveled her gaze to Keenan. "We just have to make him think he has something to lose the longer he stays under the protection of Vicious."
Keenan chuckled, throwing his head back in wonder. "What is the weakness of a man who has nothing to lose?"
"Everyone has a weakness, even the ones who have nothing to lose."
He brought his head down to give her an interesting look. "Which is?"
A large grin took over Nova's face as her index finger traced her neck before she muttered, "No one wants to die."
His brow rose. "Meaning?"
"I'm going to have to make Elon think he's not safe with Vicious. I'd have to prove that to him."
"You're going to try killing him?" He didn't sound surprised but more like he was on the verge of letting out another chuckle. He knew her. He knew she had blood in her hands. Ben and Danny, who got killed by Vicious with his own hand because he thought the mole was him. Keenan knew she wouldn't have another blood on her hands. Their intention wasn't to kill Elon.
"Just to scare him."
"And if he tells Vicious?"
"He won't," she said firmly.
"You're sure of this because?"
"Because, Keenan, a cornered animal would do anything to survive." Her gaze slid to the door again and she could hear the sounds of fidgeting coming from the room inside. When at last she looked back to him, she added, "On second thought, I don't have to make him think it's only Vicious after him. I'm also going to make him think the mafia had found him. When he becomes scared and confused, he wouldn't know who to trust. Not even the man helping him." She chuckled softly. "Then, who do you think he's going to trust next?"
Keenan's eyes gleamed, an amused smile on his face. "Why, of course, the woman who is trying to save his life," he mused, and then laughed like it was funny as hell.
A devious smile appeared on Nova's face. "I told you, I won't let you down."
"I believe you." He walked over and put his hand on her shoulder, looking down at her. "When all of this is over, you and I are going to sit beside Grayson. We would tell him together, how we avenged what they did to him. If he ends up speaking, he would tell you how proud of you he is, and if he doesn't, his soul would Rest In Peace."
Tears pricked her eyes. "He's going to survive," she choked the words out.
Keenan pulled her into a tight embrace. "I hope so," he muttered. "I really hope so."
Nova shut her eyes, but the tears still continued to fall.