Leyla’s voice was warm and sultry. It lilted on the breeze as she said, “Connor.”
“You ran a helluva game, sweetheart. Clearly I’ve got nothing left to teach you.”
She took a step towards him. “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”
“You can save the innocent damsel routine, girlie. Anything I don’t know by now I’ve at least guessed at, and my guesses are pretty good.”
She came closer to him. She was only a couple feet away from him now. Close enough to shake hands, but not enough to kiss. Connor continued, “Just tell me one thing: what was in that building that was so important?”
“Securities, Ltd. Don’t try to tell me you didn’t go back there while I was dangling on a hook for buggy boy and the Brit. I know you did.”
“How do you know that?” She was looking into his eyes now, her irises wet and blue as a tropical sea.
Connor smiled like a shark. “Because you wouldn’t have given Chauncey the name ‘Lana’ unless you were scamming him. Now you wouldn’t have a reason to do that if you were just stealing what he wanted. So clearly you had something else on your mind.”
She bit her lip playfully. “But how would I have stolen something? We were attacked, after all.”
“Yeah, and I figure you wouldn’t want anyone knowing you’d stolen this particular item. So you needed a misdirect, which is where I came in. I bet watching me dance around with that curse was great entertainment.”
She took a tentative half-step towards him, but Connor moved backwards to keep the distance. She looked pleadingly at him as she spoke, “That seems unlikely. How would I know you would be cursed? After all, what do I even know of curses?”
“More than you’d be willing to cop to, I’d wager. But, no, I don’t think the Om de Daunatori showing up figured into your plan. You were either going to plant the gem on me and have Chauncey play follow the leader or you were going to find out how the curse worked and then put it on Chauncey himself, telling him that I was the one who could undo it. The monster was the only thing you hadn’t counted on, which is why you were so scared. You ran, passed me off the item so I’d take the curse, and then rammed me and Mick so that you’d have time to get clear of the Daunatori.”
“That sounds pretty unkind of me.” She looked offended at his insinuations.
“It was damned unkind of you, sweetheart. Mick’s still in the hospital because of you. So do you wanna tell me why that thing had you so scared, or do I need to keep guessing?”
She looked at him questioningly for a moment, then her eyes lowered in thought. They came back up after a moment, resolute as they stared at him. “Do you know what Hell is like?”
“After the past few days, I got a pretty good concept.”
“You really don’t. One of the drawbacks of being Hell Bound is that you get a sneak preview any time you’re near death. When the Om de Daunatori touched me, I got to see what my future holds.” She looked away, suppressing a shudder. “You’d run too if you saw it.”
“Maybe yes and maybe no, but that doesn’t answer the real question: What was in that room that was worth breaking in twice and using your partner as a patsy for?”
“Everything. Everything in that room was worth breaking in twice. You were right the first time. Everything in there has value to the right people. I took all of it.”
“Smart play, dollface, but there’s something more, something you’re not telling me. You could have had plenty of whatever you wanted just doing the job for the gem. What were you really after?”
She turned away, clearly thinking over whether she should reveal something so secret. Connor thought that the scene would be better shot with rain and the pair of them in hats and trench coats rather than the thinning, evening light of a cloudless day, but life seldom waited for the perfect set pieces. “There was an item inside that belongs to the Traveller, the one I sold my soul to.”
“He kept it at Securities, Ltd? What, is that place like a bank for weirdos?”
“No. It’s a collection. There are people, I use that term loosely, who collect objects of supernatural origin.”
“People like Chauncey.”
“People like who Donald works for.”
Connor didn’t feel like correcting the tense. “So this Collector, whoever they are, got ahold of a memento from your demonic, bosom buddy. How does that help you?”
“Having an item of his, there are ways I can turn that into power over him. If I can get enough leverage I …”
“Can get your soul back. It’s blackmail. How did you find all this out?”
“It’s easy to know the places that are supernatural once you’re used to it. I pegged the building awhile back, so I watched it. It took some doing, but I followed the money paying for the building to a P.O. Box, which a manifest of the contents were mailed to regularly. I intercepted that list and found what I was looking for.”
“Not really. This is the fourth building I’ve gone through in the last decade.”
“Pretty good work for a lady who can barely pick a pocket.”
“Normally I don’t need to break into places. People will let me into almost anywhere.”
“Because of your wish.”
“Yeah. But this one had a catalogue of the safety measures on it as well. Some of the things I removed slowly over the two and a half years. I started picking pockets to become good enough at sleight of hand to work past the first safety measure. Then I met you and I started picking up more and more tricks, but I didn’t have the juice to take out the curse. I called this company that collects supernatural artifacts, Oroboros Incorporated, and fed them the whereabouts of the gem.”
“So your plan was to give the curse to Chauncey. Maybe he could get it off, maybe he couldn’t, but you get your opening either way.”
Leyla nodded, taking a step forward. She was very close to him now. “I didn’t know the curse would activate so fast. I had planned to get the gem with you, give it to Donald Chance, then come back right after. I was going to sell the rest of the inventory in the vault and claim that I had managed to pocket something valuable and sold it. I never intended for any of this to blow back onto you, Connor.”
Something bitter as bile was rising up in his throat. “That didn’t stop you from using me anyway when it became convenient.”
“I did what I had to: I trusted that my partner was smart enough to get out of any shade that might be coming his way and I got the job done. You would have done the same.”
She was reaching a hand slowly out towards his chest. He took it angrily, “No, I wouldn’t have, doll. That’s what you never understood about me, I guess. I never would have left you swinging.”
“If it’s worth anything, I’m sorry. I’ll never do it again.”
“Again?” He almost laughed in her face. “What, are you crazy? There ain’t gonna be an opportunity for an again, dollface.”
She looked at him warmly, “But I can get my soul back now. As soon as I have it, don’t you see that we can be together?”
“What you mean is you need me to help you grift the fuckin’ Devil himself, and afterwards maybe you’ll give me five minutes of your time before you get bored and run off to wherever you please.”
She put her hands on his chest, “Don’t be like that, Connor. I’ve been very good to you, haven’t I?”
“No! You really haven’t. I don’t know why it took me so long to realize it, but all you’ve done is use me this whole time. That’s who you are; it’s what you do. I can’t blame you for that, doll, but I ain’t gonna play the sap no more.”
She put a hand on his cheek, her eyes glowing in the evening light. “I know you don’t really feel that way. You love me, Connor. I’ve always known that. Now I want you to kiss me and take me to your bed. I want to lay in your arms while we celebrate us both getting what we want.”
She leaned in to kiss him, and he could feel his insides turning to mush again. It took a measure of his will, but he smiled and took a step back from her. “That’s not gonna work this time, girlie. You tipped too much of your hand in this little game of yours. I know about your past, about Laura. I know about people having little tricks like Chauncey, and that they have limits. I know your limit: you only have power on people who are willing to give it to you. Maybe most men see a pretty face and are willing to give you unlimited chances. Well I’m not, sweetheart. I’m not willing to give you anything anymore. So take your cheap parlor trick and your baby blues and scram.”
“Connor, you know you don’t mean it. You need me. I’m the best partner you ever had.”
“Then why am I living in the same shitty studio that I always have? You’ve been stealing from me for years. Maybe I knew and ignored it; maybe you put the whammy on me and made me forget. Either way it’s a done deal. I ain’t your partner anymore. I ain’t your lover. And I definitely ain’t your puppet. So go find another joe to schmaltz with.”
He walked away. She ran after him, keeping pace beside him. “Connor! What am I supposed to do about getting my soul back? I need you on this!”
“Not my problem, kid. How about you go pick more pockets until another petty thief comes along to woo you? I’m sure it will be a magical journey of self-discovery and all that.”
“You’re not just a petty thief. You never have been. I believe in you. You’re the one I want.”
“Save your song and dance for a fellow who’ll pay a nickel for it.”
Her tone was growing increasingly desperate. “But I’ll go to Hell, Connor. Surely you don’t wish that on me?”
“I don’t wish nothin’ for you either way.”
“But …” She paused to think. “You need me! You do! You’re on their radar now. People like Oroboros, the owner of Securities, Ltd, even the Traveller, they’re going to come gunning for you. You’re going to need my help if you want to dodge them.”
“If they want me, best of luck finding me. Even if they do, darling, I can think of a million people I’d want watching my back over you. Goodnight, Laura.”
This stopped her in her tracks. Connor just kept on walking, a smile on his face. He had finally gotten away from a relationship so toxic that it was killing him inside. He was out, well and truly out. He boarded the bus with an immense feeling of lightness in his chest and shoulders. The future was suddenly bright and full of possibility, and even his bus connections seemed to be right on time as he made his way to the airport where he was going to buy a first class ticket to anywhere.
It was dark by the time he was one stop away from his destination. It was a bit of a walk to the bus that ran straight to the terminal, so he set an easy gait. Along the way, he found a trash can, so he dumped all of his extra burners into it save the one he had left Lizzie the number to. He regretted not being able to say goodbye to Mickey, but he couldn’t risk it. Very bad people were probably watching the olive-skinned man already, and Connor couldn’t afford the slip up. He’d find a way to get a letter out later. It wasn’t until after the last phone had been deposited in the trash that Connor noticed something was wrong.
It felt like a cliché to Connor, but it actually was too quiet. Looking in front of and behind him, there were no people walking the street or vehicles on the road. None of the lights were on in any of the buildings around him. He tried to keep walking in his casual way, but there was something about the silence that made his hair stand on end. He picked up his pace, unsure of what he was feeling so nervous about.
He was less than a block away from the bus stop now, but still no sound. He was trotting now, just a step away from breaking out into a run. He wanted there to be a bus at this stop and he wanted to get on it and never have to worry about noises or lack of noises or blondes or Brits or curses again.
There wasn’t a bus at the stop. Instead a man was standing there. He wore a long, black duster and a broad-brimmed hat. A cigarette smoldered on his lips, but Connor wasn’t close enough to really make out his face. Connor knew, somewhere in the monkey part of his brain, that he didn’t want anything to do with this guy, so he ran.
He turned around and sprinted down and around a corner. He looked back and didn’t so much see the man in the black duster as feel his presence. He knew the man was following him, that he would have eyes on Connor any second. Connor dashed into an alleyway, hoping to hide from the stranger hunting him. He felt relieved when the world popped back into existence. He was halfway down the alley, and a great burst of sound erupted behind him. He turned and saw buses and cars and people back on the street, all going about their daily lives. He took a deep breath, glad to have gotten away from his pursuer.
He was so elated he almost didn’t notice the knife going into his back.
Connor fell in a heap to the ground. It had been two quick stabs, he realized, to his kidneys. He was lying there, feeling a wet, warm pool slowly collecting beneath him. He was bleeding out, and he didn’t have much time. Reaching into his pocket, he took the last burner out and called the only number on it.
“Liz … help …”
“Connor? Connor, is that you?! Connor?! CONNOR?!”
He could hear the voice, but didn’t have the strength to respond. He just hoped that she would trace the phone and come save him in time. Admittedly that was starting to feel like the 100:1 horse. He was getting so cold. He could feel it in the edges of his fingers and toes. Cold and sleepy. He felt like he could close his eyes and just sleep for a thousand years. Something in the back of his mind told him that he shouldn’t, that sleeping now would be bad. But right then he couldn’t really figure out why. He was so tired and he didn’t have anything better to do. Maybe a brief rest would make him feel better; maybe it would make the cold working its way up his arms go away. Just a little snooze and everything will be better, he thought.
Connor Donnelly closed his eyes.
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