It was a lovely spring day on the streets below, and the sun was shining brightly. But Lily wasn’t interested in experiencing this day to the fullest. She had much more important things to do – like getting the hell out of her apartment as quickly as possible. A loud banging sound reverberated against her door, so pushing aside piles of papers, she lunged for her green backpack with x’s on it. She began shoving her laptop, a few changes of clothes, and some cash inside. She zipped it shut and hurried to the window, pushing aside the old curtains to reveal the worn metal of the fire escape. As she threw open the window and felt the cool morning air on her face, the breeze ruffled her hair as she heard a chain lift clanking in the alley below. Down there, two men were loading a crate into a delivery truck. She stood at the edge of the window, her fear of heights and the possibility of slipping and plunging to her death temporarily suspending her breath. The urgent, frightening sound of fists banging on her door made her jump out of her trance, and she knew she had to shake off her fear and make her way down.
She needed to leave this place as fast as she could. She had been hiding from him in one spot for too long, and she knew it was only a matter of time before he found her. She feverishly climbed the rungs of the fire escape, her hands trembling and slipping against the metallic ladder. She cast a panicked look up high, afraid that her pursuer was right above her. With a final leap, her feet hit the pavement below with a loud thud, and a flock of pigeons cooed off into the sky in surprise at the disturbance. As she spun around, thick arms looped around her body, pinning her against a muscular chest. She let out a strangled cry and clawed at her captor’s skin, but it was no use; his grip was like iron. A musty rag clamped down over her mouth, muffling any other screams, and before she could react, she felt herself being lifted into the air. Panic rising in her chest, the darkness began to swallow her as she slipped deeper and deeper into unconsciousness.
As her vision slowly cleared, she blinked her blurry eyes and focused on her surroundings. The darkness was oppressive, and the only light came from a single overhead bulb that cast an eerie glow. Through the murkiness, she made out a deep, gruff voice that gradually became clearer. She felt cold metal against her wrists and realized she was tied to a chair with a thick rope that dug into her skin. She squinted her eyes, and as they adjusted to the bright light, she made out two figures. The man in front of her wore a tailored navy suit, but the man to his right had a more casual look. His black T-shirt clung to his muscular frame and showcased the intricate artwork of his tattooed arms. Dragons and colorful swirls intertwined with vines and flowers to create a mesmerizing display.
The man in the crisp navy suit crouched down, his polished shoes squeaking on the tile floor. He snapped his fingers in front of her face, forcing her bleary eyes to focus. “Look who’s finally awake,” he said. “Where is Amy?” His voice was stern and demanding.
Her brow furrowed as she struggled to make sense of the words coming from his mouth. “What did you say?” She asked, blinking to focus on his rapidly moving lips.
His face became a dark storm cloud, and his voice boomed as he shouted, “Where. Is. Amy!?” sending a shudder through the room.
“Amy?” She squinted, barely recognizing the name, “I don’t know.” The man standing before her pulled a gun from his waistband, and her breath caught as she felt its cold metal against her temples. “Put that away!” she gasped, “I’m the only one that can help you find her.”
The man’s eyes widened with surprise, and a thin smile stretched across his face. “Cocky,” he murmured in admiration. He turned back to the tatted man who still had his arms folded across his chest. “I like that.” He pulled back and quickly brought the butt of his pistol down hard on the side of her head, sending a blinding pain through her skull, and the room reeled sickeningly before her eyes.
“Antonio,” The man in the back of the room finally spoke up, breaking the tense silence, “She can’t tell us anything if she’s unconscious.”
“Stefan, I’m running out of patience.” Antonio’s voice grew tense as he spoke. He paced back and forth, his well-crafted Italian loafers barely making a sound against the polished tile floor, “Amy betrayed us by stealing millions of dollars’ worth of artwork and vanishing into the night.” He ran a hand through his dark, wavy hair in frustration, a nervous habit he had picked up in recent weeks. “The other families will be breathing down our necks if we don’t find her.”
Stefan pushed himself off the wall with a sigh. He kneeled down to Lily’s eye level, and his dark eyes flickered with amusement. His lips curled into a malicious smirk as he reached around and grabbed her hands. “I noticed a computer in your bag. It looked very high-tech,” he said softly as his hands tightened around her fingers. “How about I start breaking your fingers one by one until you tell me,” He whispered, their faces so close that she could feel his breath on her skin. She felt her heart racing and her stomach sinking as fear flashed in her eyes. His smirk widened as if satisfied by her acknowledgment, “There’s the response I want.” he said with a smile.
She gritted her teeth and shook her head, spraying red droplets from the wound on her forehead. Her hair was a clumped, matted mess— another reminder of the pistol that had struck her. She breathed heavily, her chest heaving with determination as she thrust aside her unease. “Alright. Enough of this foreplay— I’ll tell you what you want.”
“Amy started encrypting files which worked. Anonymous and, most importantly, secure. We had a transference of art and money with zero contact. All we need to know is who was her encryptor?” Antonio asked.
Stefan’s eyes lit up as he remembered the cutting-edge computer in her bag. He smiled as he realized her role in this situation, “She’s the encryptor,” he chuckled.
“How very Perceptive of you. Stefan, was it?” Lily smiled weakly up at the stranger. She shifted in the uncomfortable metal chair in an attempt to get comfortable and winced in pain. “I’ve only been doing it for a few weeks, though. I needed somewhere to stay, and encryption for a free room didn’t seem like a bad deal. Although,” she paused, grimacing, “now I’m starting to regret it.”
Stefan dropped to one knee and gently untied the rope binding her wrists. Her hands were swollen, and the skin rubbed raw and tender from the tight knots. She carefully stood, using his shoulder as a crutch, her legs weak and unsteady from being bound for what felt like hours. “Be careful,” He steadied her with a firm grip on her upper arm, his presence encouraging her to keep her balance. Painful pins and needles flooded her hands as blood slowly returned to her stiff fingers.
She yanked her arm away, her face a mask of stubborn pride. “I’m fine,” she spat back.
Antonio watched, transfixed by the look in her eyes; it was a mixture of fear, defiance, and undeniable attraction. He cleared his throat nervously and held out his robin egg blue handkerchief, “It’s just a little cut. I didn’t hit you too hard.”
Her gaze darted from the cloth he held in his hands and then to his face. She exhaled sharply, snatched the fabric from his hand, and hastily placed it against her head. Her voice wavered as she spoke, “Thank you?” she said, trying to mask the fear in her tone with sarcasm.
Antonio spun around and grabbed the doorknob. He yanked the door open and glanced briefly over his shoulder. His voice was gruff and steady as he uttered, “Follow me.”
Stefan trailed Antonio, Lily stumbling behind him, her wrists red and sore from being bound together. She shook her head in disbelief as they exited the tiny, windowless room. “A secret torture room within your office. How cliche of you.”
Antonio tightly grasped her arm, forcefully guiding her to the desk chair. He leaned in close and hissed, “Just figure it out.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me.” She frowned as she saw the dusty computer with the bright blue Windows 7 logo on the monitor. She jiggled the mouse, and a pop-up window filled the screen, announcing that twenty-three updates were necessary for it to run correctly. She sighed heavily, “It’ll be better if I had my own computer,” she said, shaking her head.
Antonio lifted his chin, his eyebrows inching closer together as he gave her a long, calculating stare. “Do you really think we’ll just hand it back to you?” His voice was cold and condescending.
She looked him dead in the eye, her voice grave. “Do you want to find Amy or not?”
Antonio hesitated for a moment before nodding at Stefan. His tall frame quickly crossed the office, and he gently but firmly took the laptop from its resting place on the table. He moved to hand it to her but paused, his face stern and his voice low as he warned her, “You try anything. I will have to kill you.” His tone was deadly serious as he finally handed her the machine.
Lily looked at Stefan; his face was unyielding, yet his eyes were gentler than before. He didn’t want to hurt her but would if needed to. Without words, she could feel his power and the gravity of the situation. She felt a lump forming in her throat as she realized she had no choice but to obey. “Understood,” she mumbled, her voice barely audible.
For half an hour, Lily tapped away at her laptop, her hands barely able to keep up with the flurry of thoughts in her head. She didn’t hear Antonio approach and jumped in her seat when he spoke. “Well?” he asked, his voice expectant.
“It would take at least four months to decrypt.” She furrowed her brow and bit her lip, squinting at the small text on the glowing monitor. Antonio drew the gun out again and shifted his weight, impatience written across his face. “For anyone else, it’s impossible,” she added, her voice shaking as she spoke, hoping to persuade him to lower the weapon.
Antonio’s jaw twitched, and his trigger finger trembled as he glared. He slowly lowered the gun and shook his head in disbelief. “You mean to tell me it’s going to take you four months to crack your own encryption?” he said in a voice dripping with sarcasm.
Lily’s eyes shifted to the side, her brow furrowed, “If I left open back doors for myself, I wouldn’t be the most sought after, would I?” She answered her own question with a half-smile.
“Fine,” Antonio sighed heavily, resigned to the fact that he’d be hosting an extra guest for a while. He ran a hand through his hair and said, “You can stay in Stefan’s room until you’re done.”
Lily’s face drained of color as if she had seen a ghost. She straightened her back, her knuckles whitening on the armrests of her chair. Her heart raced as fear rose in her chest. “You can’t be serious? I can’t stay here.” She glanced around the room, trying to count the days since she’d arrived in the city, and every moment she stayed here increased the chance of him discovering her whereabouts. She couldn’t risk him finding her again.
Antonio glared at her as he stuffed her laptop in her backpack and tossed it to her. “You’re not going anywhere until I get what I asked for,” he growled.
Lily adopted a determined stance as she placed the bookbag on her back, her fingers tightly curling around the straps, “Listen,” she said firmly. “I promise I’ll email you the files as soon as I finish.”
Antonio stalked forward, his steel-gray eyes glittering like a frozen sea. He reached out and grabbed Lily’s arm, and she flinched at his icy touch. “Your promise means nothing,” he growled, his voice low and menacing. “You will stay here until further notice.”
Her face flushed with anger as she felt his hand close around her wrist, “Fine,” She hissed out her reply and wrenched her arm free. Her backpack thudded against the back of her butt as she stormed out the door, a trail of muttered curses following in her wake.
Antonio’s voice was serious, and his gaze was fixed on Stefan. “Don’t take your eyes off her. She’s our only lead.”
“Of course.” Stefan raised his eyebrows and quirked his mouth to one side. He looked incredulous at Antonio and shook his head before issuing a disbelieving, “But really? My room?”
Antonio’s deep laughter echoed off the room walls as he looked at his friend and said, “Just don’t let her leave, okay?”