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The arrangement 23, p.7

The Arrangement 23, page 7

 part  #23 of  The Arrangement Series

 

The Arrangement 23
 


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  Surviving tonight would give my child the worst mother imaginable. Without emotion, without feeling, how would I love her? She’d grow up with me broken and half mad. That’s no life to offer anyone. The least cruel thing to do is make sure I don’t survive the explosion and take her away from here. That should sound awful, but it doesn’t. She’d end up like me, deranged and running for her life with no sense of safety, security, or self. Her dreams would shatter and die when her heart breaks, when she realizes the world she’s been born into, and the sins she has to repay aren’t her own.

  The slide of claws across wood abruptly stops, and silence falls around me. I’m snapped out of my internal debate on whether or not I’m cruel for wanting my child to never experience this nightmare. I’m utterly still, pressing my back to the banister, hidden by the thick post. I don’t dare glance around the balustrade now.

  He’s there—I sense him. I tighten my grip on the pair of pliers. I have one shot at this. The way I figure it, I need to be airborne before the bear sees me coming. I have no gun, and if I throw my pliers and miss, I’m screwed. I can’t hesitate, or he’ll drag me back to Vic, half eaten. I’m not going back. I won’t die like that, by Vic, or deranged bear. Tonight, I call the shots, and there’s no way I’m fucking this up. The beast on the staircase won’t know what hit him.

  I shift my balance, still squatting close to the carpet, and prepare to spring forward. Everything clicks into slow motion. The pressure on the ball of my foot, my slick palm against the railing for support, and the tightness fading from my muscles as I uncoil. The crouch becomes the perfect assault. When I’m mid-launch a dark figure dressed in black comes into my line of sight. No white bear. This is a person.

  Two problems instantly materialize. The first issue, I was counting on that massive bear body being substantial enough to break my momentum and keep me from crashing head first into the wall. The second issue, this guy isn’t big enough to slow me down either. He’s short. And curvy. The figure doesn’t have broad shoulders, and his waist is trim, narrow. His hips flare into tight black pants with dark skin. I’ve got my tool held high, ready to strike when there’s a flash of gold in a perfect circle by the dude’s ear.

  My brain put the thoughts into flashcard form, rapidly flipping through big hair, golden eyes, and a foul mouth that expresses displeasure by growling at me. “Awh, shit!”

  I slam into Mel with full force. Her knife is thrown from her hand when we collide into the wall. There’s a tangle of hair, limbs, and curses as she comes to a stop. Rolling, I hit the wall and flop backward like a rag doll with my neck hanging over the top step. I stare at the ceiling for a moment and suspect that my femur broke through my skin. My leg isn’t at the best angle, but I can move it. I swing it under me and roll over quickly, making sure it’s her.

  Mel is sitting up, feet in front of her, dazed. The wall behind her head is cracked, and white plaster dusts her dark hair. She blinks rapidly and presses her hand to her forehead, swearing softly. When she manages to focus on me, her frown turns into a repressed smile.

  Then Mel snorts and cackles, “What the fuck are you doing? You flew through the air like a deranged primate on crack!” She laughs so hard that it makes her wince. She presses two fingers to her temple and then feels around to the back of her head. When she pulls her hand away, she inspects the pads of her fingers for blood. There is a small amount, like she ran her finger over a red magic marker.

  I crawl over to her and put my back to the wall. I’m doing a mental inventory to determine what broke, if anything, when I blurt out, “I thought you were Vic’s bear.”

  Mel makes a nasally noise, affirming that she’s not a bear and I was wrong. “Who says I sound like a two-ton bear? What kinda statement is that to make?”

  I snort. “Yeah, as if screaming about getting hit by a primate is normal. Who says that?”

  Mel closes her eyes and holds up a finger. “Goddamn it. Don’t tell me. Don’t say it—”

  “You’ve been hanging out with Henry too much.” I touch a finger to my temple because it feels wet and warm. When I pull my hand away, there’s a red streak. I frown at the injury. “We shoulda ‘shipped you two.”

  Mel shoots me a nasty look. “Don’t you dare.”

  “Melry? Henel?” I snort and grin at her, “Oh, I’ve got it. Melry. Where’s your better half anyway?” I stand and quickly remember exactly where Henry is—next to Sean, lifeless in the pool. Damn it, why did I ask that? He’s dead. I knew that, and I forgot. My mind is so fucked up right now.

  Mel gets up next to me with no expression of remorse, other than sounding like Henry. She doesn’t comment on his location or whether or not she knows he’s dead. She wasn’t in the room at the end, so she probably doesn’t know.

  The earpiece became dislodged when I collided with the wall. I walk over and pick it up. It got trampled a bit but is still making noise. “I guess this thing is finally back online.”

  Mel smirks and stands. “Yeah, should be by now.”

  After putting the small electronic back in place, I listen. Most of the reports are static, but I can make out a few words. I swear and let out a rush of air, smearing the blood away from my eyes and wishing I had a way to make it stop dripping. “Head wounds bleed too much.”

  “No shit.” Mel approaches, looking me over. “It’ll be okay. A few stitches and you’ll be good as new.”

  Not that it matters. I tug at the hem of my dress, pulling at the seam until it rips. With a firm tug, I rip off the bottom of the skirt and tie it around my head to slow the blood. It’s not very absorbent, but it’s enough to keep the wound from pouring into my eyes.

  Mel watches me for a second and asks, “And don’t think I didn’t hear you. And it’s not like we shouldn’t talk about him. I mean, you see what you saw. So, tell me truly—you really think he’s my better half?”

  Her question shocks me. So she honestly doesn’t know that Henry is dead. I make a garbled response, “I, ahhh—”

  She cocks her head and makes an incredulous expression. Pressing her hand to her chest, she repeats, “Really? That sick, twisted man is better than all this?” She gestures to herself, hips to head, and offers an ‘I didn’t think so’ smirk.

  I snap my fingers in front of her face. “Focus.” Then I flinch. Who does that? I hate it when someone does that to me.

  Mel blinks like I’ve grown an extra face on my ass. “You did not just copy Black’s insolent dog move on me. I swear to God, Avery, if you ever do that to me again I’ll bite your goddamned finger off.”

  I look her full on, our eyes meeting and holding. “I hear you.”

  Those three words say it all: I understand. I’m sorry. I’m not going to be able to finish this conversation. There is no tomorrow for me.

  Mel’s movement is so swift and unexpected that I don’t see it coming. All of a sudden her palm collides with my cheek. The sting sinks in, the pain is far too light, feeling more like a butterfly kiss than a slap.

  She narrows her tiger eyes and is all predator as she gets in my face. “No, you don’t hear a goddamned thing. Why do you think I’m here? Avery, you’re not doing this.”

  I look her in the eye and feel nothing, not regret, pain, or grief. Numbness consumes me. My brain is firing off different plans, running down different possibilities to get her out of here. She’s going to insist on staying, but she shouldn’t. She has a future. She’ll fight to see the sunrise, but I’m done.

  Mel sees the thoughts in my eyes and places her hands on my shoulders. I expect her to shake me and yell, but she doesn’t. “Listen, I don’t know fuck about anything, but I know what I see. A woman with no future who’s ready to wipe out her past.” She starts the walk down the final corridor, the long hallway that leads to the master suite in the middle of the mansion. “But why not try to get out? You gotta at least try, Avery.”

  My decision was calculated. I answer plainly, without an ounce of regret. “The only way to make sure it
lights is to be in the room. The balcony window is too high to jump. A fireball will melt the skin off my back, and I’ll break my neck in the fall. Besides, if I’m close enough to light it, then I’m close enough to die. I don’t want to be far enough to live, but close enough to burn.” I glance over at her.

  Mel nods slowly. “My wing is done. They’re going to smell it soon. Black headed out, last I saw. Even if she don’t get the main line ready, this motherfucker is going to burn along with everyone in it. You won, Avery.”

  “It doesn’t feel like it.”

  Mel nods in agreement. “So, let’s go all Thelma and Louise on Vic’s ass and end this. He’s in the control room. I saw him. It’s over as soon as you light the match.”

  I stop abruptly and take her hands tightly, pressing them beneath both of my palms. “I can’t make you do anything, but I know you. You’re a fighter. Even if you get torched in a backdraft, you won’t die. Do you seriously want to live through this? Third degree burns, skin grafts, and deformity coupled with lifelong pain?”

  She snorts and tries to pull her hands away, but I don’t let her. “Mel, I’m serious. You’ve defied the odds since you were a kid. I just smashed a pair of pliers into your head and slammed you into the wall. I’m the one who’s worse for wear, not you. I only scratched you.”

  “I’ve got a hard head. We both know that.” She tries to lighten things, but I don’t smile back at her.

  “I’m serious. This won’t kill you. Somehow you’ll make it, but you sure as hell are going to wish you were dead if you’re anywhere near me when I light this thing. Getting your entire body covered in third-degree burns isn’t in your future.” She doesn’t argue. “Besides, someone needs to tell Henry’s next of kin that he was a hero at the end. You can do that in a way no one else can. I wouldn’t have believed it.”

  “Me neither. So Henry’s gone, then? Dead?” she asks somberly, completely serious for once.

  Nodding, I reply, “I’m afraid so.”

  She inhales sharply through her nose, eyes full, and presses her lips together before admitting, “Goes to show people aren’t always as bad as you think. But I am. I never thought Black was up to her neck in this kinda shit. I wouldn’t have done this to you. It’s my fault.”

  “No, it’s not.” I catch her eyes. “I was already gone before this started. Even when I thought I had a chance, it’s just not going to happen. Eventually, some people bleed out, Mel. There’s nothing left to save.”

  She doesn’t meet my gaze, doesn’t nod, doesn’t verbally tell me she agrees, but I know she does. I see it in the downward cast of her eyes, and the way certainty flickers across her features. It’s a small ripple of acknowledgment across the vast lake of life.

  She rounds on me and throws her arms around my shoulders, hugging me so tight she could crack a rib. “If you can get out, if there’s any chance at all, take it.” When she pulls away, her eyes are glassy, but those tears will never fall.

  I nod and step back. “I will.”

  “Seriously, I can’t leave you. How the fuck am I supposed to just walk away?”

  There’s a scrape of a floor board below followed by a deep grunt. Mel stiffens and backs away from the edge of the step. I do the same. We wait a moment and when the sound repeats Mel puts a finger to her lips. She edges toward the railing, peering straight down the center of the stairwell. Her amber eyes widen as her jaw drops. She jerks back, her finger still pointing below, unable to speak.

  “What is it?” I whisper, but she just shakes her head. I carefully slink forward and look for the sight that rendered Mel silent. A great white bear is meandering up the flight below us. His haunches move, shifting his massive weight, as he takes one step at a time. The once white fur is matted with crimson along the side of his muzzle and down his side as if he’s recently had someone in his maw.

  I tip my head toward the upper landing, indicating we should move. Now. Mel follows in silence, hurrying down the long corridor that connects to the central staircase. It’s out in the open and completely stupid to descend at this location, but there’s a bear in the other direction, and from the look of him, that beast already ate someone tonight.

  Mel finally speaks once there are a few hallways between us and the animal. Her voice raspy, as she points in the direction, we came. “That fucker has a bear? For real? I heard he had it, but who the hell has a pet bear? And his fur. Avery…” The shocked expression on her face doesn’t fade as she puts her hand over her mouth.

  “I know. Marty told me it was here. When I saw it earlier, that thing wasn’t covered in blood.”

  “Great” Mel’s voice cracks, “he ate someone.”

  “Take this way out. Avoid the damned bear.”

  Mel nods, still shocked. “Shit, Avery, I thought I’d seen everything. But now,” she shakes her head, “shit. A bear.” She smiles at me tentatively, through the fingers of the hand splayed across her face. She takes it away and looks me in the eyes. “I don’t know if I can do this.”

  I speak with more confidence than I have. Saying goodbye sucks. “Just turn around and don’t look back. You better go now before he sniffs us out.” I turn away from her, so she doesn’t have to, and walk away.

  “Shit, girl.” Mel’s voice hitches. “Promise me. Say it. This wasn’t for nothing.”

  “Psh,” I smile at her over my shoulder, “none of this was for nothing. It works out in a master plan where the seriously evil dude gets his ass kicked by the naïve doe-eyed co-ed.”

  “The dumbass that pegged you as that chick is going to be sorry. I’ve always seen what you really are…”

  I say over my shoulder, “I’ll give you two minutes to get out. Hurry.”

  Mel nods tersely and rushes down the hall with the gracefulness of a feline. She glances back at me one last time. Then I’m alone.

  CHAPTER 12

  The massive double door entry to Vic’s master suite stands directly in front of me. The doors are covered in black lacquer and gleaming as if they’ve never been touched. This location is in the central corridor that connects the entire house on the upmost floor. This is where everything ends. Once I step over the threshold, my life ends. Black warned me that there is no way down and no way out. Since Henry is gone, there is no fancy tech or drones to ignite this hellhole. It has to be me.

  I square my shoulders and pull out the gold key. I slip it into the lock and twist. The copper keypad to the right illuminates and prompts me for a code. I copy it from the head of the key, pressing one digit at a time. If this is the wrong number, an alarm will go off. I won’t get to stop Vic. This is the moment where I find out if Black was full of shit. After touching my finger to the pad for the final digit, I wait and stare at the terminal. The illumination on the box turns green and a second lock on the door clicks open. Black was telling the truth.

  I put my palms to the smooth ebony door and push into the room. There’s a small corridor directly inside the door that spills out into a vast cream room covered in slick marble. Gold leaf covers the barrel ceiling in tiny squares leading to the opulent picture window at the far end of the suite. There’s a set of French doors standing partially opened. White gauzy curtains billow as the night breeze blows inside. The scent of vanilla fills my head as I flick my gaze around at the flickering gas fixtures. To my right is a bathroom with long marble counters. Tiny soaps in the shapes of enormous creamy pearls fill oversized vases that stretch from floor to ceiling, flanking the entry to the bathing area and creating the warm, sugary scent. To the right is a cavern of a room devoid of light. Murky carpet lines the floor and swallows the space in blackness. That must be the bedchamber. I walk the walls of the foyer once, gliding along the glossy floor, listening for Vic—making sure I’m alone.

  There’s not a soul here, but hairs on the back of my neck prickle as if I’m being watched. No sounds, no footfalls. I take another step into the space, silently padding into the middle of the grand bathroom. Multiple stalls are at one end wi
th too many sinks at the other. I twist my wrist so I can see my watch. Mel needs another minute to haul her ass to safety.

  The sensation of eyes on me doesn’t fade. There are no cameras in here, unlike the lined hallways. I dodged Vic’s men thanks to Mel. She randomly disabled cameras throughout the mansion, so no one saw me coming. Or maybe she took out the entire team in the security room; I don’t know exactly how she did it. I didn’t have time to ask, but there are no cameras in here so why do I feel like I’m being watched?

  The breeze billows the hem of the curtains again, and I resist the urge to walk outside and look down at the pool below. Occasionally, Vic’s voice crackles over my headset, angry. I only get bits and pieces of garbled ranting as more checkpoints respond. If he’s in the security room, then he’s reviewing footage and trying to determine what happened to his pool. Vic is paranoid and thinks enemies are everywhere.

  Sean had told me that he was a monster, that he poisoned everything he touched. That truth is vivid now. With a freshly fractured spirit, I can see him for what he was—broken. People can still function if they retreat into themselves and never examine anything. But Sean wasn’t like that. Amanda’s death put him on a crash course with cruelty. He thought it turned him into a twisted excuse for human life, but it didn’t. Sean went through the fire and survived. In those rare moments where he dropped his guard and didn’t shut me out, I could see pure kindness behind his eyes. In a world that treated him so unkindly, any scrap of humanity should have died a long time ago. When I met Sean, he was giving into it, becoming the creature people accused him of being. I’ll remember the man who sacrificed everything to save the ones he loves most—his brothers, his parents, and me. I know a monster when I see one, and my brother has learned to fill every aspect and play the part to walk with mortals, but he belongs in Hell.

 
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