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Fourteen

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X_art: John Wick, 'Fourteen' cover art

 

 

2000

 

“No.”

John didn’t move, didn’t speak.

“By your silence, I’m assuming you either didn’t hear me or don’t accept my very plain response.”

John’s gaze flickered down at the crossword in Winston’s hand.

“If this is to be a one-way conversation, Jonathan, can you please—”

“Why not?” John asked.

Winston set the newspaper down. He set his pen on top of the newspaper. “Do you really need me to answer that question?”

Movement drew John’s eye. It was the new bartender, the girl with the small tattoo on her left shoulder. She was serving a drink but also watching them. When his gaze met hers, she flinched and then hurried away. “Yes. I think I do.”

“Because I don’t sleep with the help.”

Winston’s comment slid in, not sleek or silky, but rough, its edges jagged and painful. “I don’t work for you, Winston.”

“That’s true. As many times as I’ve asked, you always say no.” Winston folded his hands together, tipping his chin to give John a long look. “ Was this why? Were you preparing your way even then?”

John clenched his jaw. “Of course not.”

“That’s a relief though I thought as much.” Winston picked up the newspaper. He frowned. “My puzzles are getting harder and harder to read. I’ll need glasses soon.”

“Winston.”

“I said no, Jonathan, and I meant it. A liaison of the type you propose will only foster distrust and distraction. I suggest you look elsewhere.” Winston raised an eyebrow. “I’m sure Marcus would accommodate you. He’s more than a little fond of you, in case you hadn’t noticed.”

John had. He’d also ignored Marcus’s measuring looks and veiled suggestions. He liked Marcus and trusted him but had no interest in fucking him. The same could be said for Winston. At least with the first two items. “Is it the age difference?”

Winston actually smiled. “My dear. I am quite sure if we ever did pursue even the most brief of associations, you’d find that I would never be so simpleminded as to be concerned about the difference in our age. Besides…” He held the paper up, squinting, and then wrote a letter in one of the boxes. “You’re not that young.”

The weighty black thing that had taken up residence beneath John’s ribs ever since he’d met Winston uncoiled and hissed. But he was accustomed to it by now and he silently ordered it back to its hiding place, using sheer will and stubborn necessity. “And that’s your final word?”

“It is.”

He stood up and buttoned his jacket. “I’m sorry I bothered you.”

Winston lowered the paper. “Jonathan,” he said, his voice now soft and kind. He started to say something and then hesitated. When he spoke again his voice was business-like and even, “Viggo Tarasov was asking about you. Apparently, he has a job that might suit you.” When John didn’t respond, Winston added, “Be careful. Though he’s new to our little world, he’s very dangerous. Getting into bed with him will mean certain sacrifices.”

Whether Winston realized it or not, the metaphor was particularly galling and John turned and left. As he walked by the bar, he nodded to the girl. She nodded back.

***

By the time he got outside, he wasn’t quite sure what bothered him the most—that Winston had turned him down or that he’d turned him down so quickly and so casually, as if they had been discussing the weather. Deciding it was the latter, John got out his cell. He’d talk to Tarasov and see what was on the table. If the offer was good, he’d take it gladly. A measure of mayhem always made this kind of pain disappear.

 

2000

It had been his approach, John decided as he made his way through The Continental’s lobby towards the dining room. ‘I like you. I trust you. Let’s fuck,’ probably hadn’t been the most graceful way to achieve his goals. His only excuse had been that he’d just finished a job and was in a raw mood. And that he’d never been very good at seduction, anyway. Now, showered, shaved, and wearing a new black suit, he planned his attack, the words he’d use to convince Winston that this wasn’t an offhand request, or a way to get in good with the most powerful man in New York.

But, when he got to the dining room, he found that though Winston was at his usual table and he wasn’t alone. DeWitt of the London branch was with him. All around sat DeWitt’s men. John stepped back in sullen retreat just as Winston looked up. They shared a silent exchange and then Winston looked away, as clear a dismissal as John had ever seen.

So much for that.

 

2002

He arrived at the Continental, bruised and bleeding. His plan was to get cleaned up and stitched up, and then he’d visit the lounge. He had no intention of repeating his offer—he just want to say hello to Winston. But the wound was worse than he thought and he ended up in the doctor’s suite with a tube stuck in a vein and orders that if he got out of bed, he’d lose his spleen.

When he’d recovered two days later, Winston had left for Italy.

With no real plans and feeling restless, John got a new tattoo and then called Viggo.

 

2005

He heard the whispers from the bellhops as he climbed The Continental’s steps: “I’m telling you, it was just a pencil. A fucking pencil. Anatoly was there. He saw the whole thing.”

John ignored the stares and the in-drawn breath from one of the bellboys when he accidentally brushed the man’s sleeve.

Inside, the lobby was full of the usual guests doing the usual things. A woman with dark hair, beautiful eyes and black nail polish gave him the once over. John ignored her, focusing on the sudden presence at his back. He turned to find a man standing too close. “Yes?”

“My name is Cassian," the man said. "My employer, Miss D’Antonio, would like to speak to you.”

“I’m busy.” He turned but Cassian reached out and grabbed his arm. John looked down at Cassian’s hand and then up at the man himself.

Cassian’s expression changed. He swallowed and let go. “Some other time?”

John didn’t answer.

“I’ll be in the downstairs bar having a gin,” Cassian said. “If you change your mind.”

John smirked. “I won’t.”

***

Winston was neither in the lounge nor in the dining room. John had only this one night but he could wait. He went to the bar and sat on a stool. Without a word, the barman reached for the bourbon.

“I hear you’ve been frightening the locals in Brighton Beach.”

John turned as Marcus sat on the stool next to him. “What do they say about news traveling fast?”

“That it travels fast,” Marcus murmured as he raised his finger. “I’ll have what he’s having.”

John waited until the bartender had served the drinks and had retreated before saying, “I thought you were in Italy.”

“Just got back.”

“Which is why Gianna’s man is upstairs?”

Marcus nodded. “Which is why.” He sipped his drink and murmured, “That hits the spot,” and then added, “So, a pencil—was it a number two?”

John smiled into his drink. “I didn’t look.”

“I imagine it’s too late to find out.”

“Right now it’s a part of a man’s occipital lobe.”

Marcus grinned. “You are a class unto yourself, John.”

“I’m not the only one in that room, Marcus.”

Marcus tipped his glass towards John, acknowledging the compliment. After a moment, he murmured, “Winston isn’t here.”

John stilled and then turned his head, his neck stiff as if it were made of wood or steel. “And?” He set his drink on the countertop.

“Calm down,” Marcus answered easily. “No, no one told me but I know him. And I know you, a little.”

He put his hands on his thighs. “And?”

Marcus shrugged. “And, nothing, I suppose. Other than it would be dangerous.”

John gazed at the glass and then at the bar. The wooden surface was glossy and unblemished as if it had been installed that day, not decades before. “I don’t know what I’m doing,” he finally muttered.

“Yes, you do.”

He glanced up. “Enlighten me.”

“You’re trying to find footing in all this insanity. You’re trying to find a semblance of a normal life.” Marcus finished his drink with a quick toss. “You’re trying to find yourself again.”

“I’m not sure I ever knew.”

“You did, once. You will again,” Marcus said, placing the glass very precisely on the bar. “Now, come on. Aurelio called—he’s got a car he wants me to see. I have a feeling it will be more to your liking.”

John hesitated.

“He’s not here, John. Not for you.”

Marcus’s voice was too understanding and John could only nod. “Okay, but if it’s an SUV, you’re wasting my time.”

“It’s not an SUV and your time won’t be wasted.”

John followed Marcus up the stairs, knowing that somewhere, somehow, Winston was watching them.

 

2006

Fifth time was a charm. That’s what he was thinking as he waited in the lounge, absently listening to Jenny sing about heartache as he watched the office door. Five times and it would happen, though he didn’t believe in charms or luck. Maybe determination, speed and strength, but not charms. Or luck.

“Jonathan?”

John glanced up. Winston hadn’t been in his office, he’d been upstairs. He was alone and carrying a book, The Taming of the Shrew. John nodded to the chair opposite. With a hesitation he didn’t miss, Winston sat down. “Catching up?”

Winston touched the book. “It’s always good to revisit the classics.” He nodded a thank you as a waiter set a drink down in front of him. “It’s one of my favorites.”

“I’m partial to The Tempest.”

Winston sat back. “A man forced by society to live alone on a island with savage beasts.” He gave it a beat. “Is that how you feel? As if you’re alone, surrounded all the time by things that want to eat you?”

“It’s how we all feel, Winston.”

“Hmm,” Winston murmured with a nod. “That’s possibly quite true.” He took a sip of his martini, then said, “I heard you were in the Ukraine.”

“Just got back.”

“And you made a beeline for New York?”

John leaned forward and put his hands on the table. “I made a beeline for you.”

Winston closed his eyes. “Jonath—”

“No,” John said. He glanced around; no one was watching them, but he didn’t make the mistake that no one was, well, watching them. “I’ve been thinking about it and I want a better answer than you don’t fuck the help.”

Winston examined his book, running his thumb along the edge of the binding, and then said without looking up, “Have you ever visited the penthouse?”

“You know I haven’t.”

“The view is quiet spectacular, as is the stonework. Charon can show you the way. I’ll be up shortly.”

Heart pounding thick in his throat, John got to his feet.

***

The view was indeed spectacular. John rested his elbows on a cement gargoyle and gazed out at the dark city.

“You prefer bourbon, yes?”

John jerked. He turned, hoping Winston hadn’t noticed.

Winston had, of course, because he was smiling softly as he poured two drinks. He handed a glass to John and then raised his own in a shallow salute.

“You were right,” John said.

“You mean about the view?” Winston strolled to the high balustrade. “It is, very.”

Following, John took position a distance away but still close enough to catch the faintest trace of Winston’s aftershave. Lust curled in his belly, sluggish and sweet. He leaned on the cement again; this time it was a crest of a fleur-de-lis.

“And, yes,” Winston murmured, “I suppose I do owe you an explanation.” He glanced at John. “You startled me, you see.”

“I’m sorry.”

“No, you’re not.”

John grinned out at the night. The combination of the drink, the crisp evening air, and the man beside him were powerful narcotics; he felt relaxed for the first time in a long time. “No, I’m not.”

Winston sipped his drink, then said, “The problem, Jonathan, is that it would be dangerous.”

“Have you been talking to Marcus?”

Winston raised an eyebrow. “I haven’t seen him in months. I believe he’s in the Bahamas.”

“Oh.” John sat his tumbler near the edge of the parapet, imagining it falling and breaking into thousands of sharp shards. “And I don’t care about the danger. I can take care of myself.”

“Yes, I know. I have firsthand knowledge of how thoroughly adept you are at survival. But this is different.” Winston turned and faced John. “If we were to undertake…” He made a gesture. “It would change things. You are the rising star of stars, which means you are making enemies as well as friends. On top of that, people have noticed how fond I am of you.”

“But doesn’t that—”

Winston shook his head. “No, it does not. It makes things worse.” He shifted his weight, edging a bit closer. “Jonathan, if they were to find out I acted on this fondness, they would use it against me. Through you. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“You’re saying you’re afraid they’ll come after you?”

Winston leaned forward and wrapped his hand around John’s wrist. “I’m saying that Viggo would kill you on the spot. I’m saying that it would be a conflict of interest of the most extreme magnitude.” He pressed hard and then let go. “I like you, Jonathan, but not enough to bring about my own downfall and certainly not enough to be the cause of your death.”

As much as John hated to admit it, Winston’s rationale made perfect sense. “And if I wasn’t working for Viggo?”

“My answer would be the same.” And then Winston smiled and gave John a sideways glance. “Maybe.”

“Jesus, Winston,” John groaned as he ran his fingers through his hair. “You’re killing me.”

Winston smiled again, this time sadly. “That was not my intention.”

“I know.”

Neither of them spoke for a moment, and then Winston said, “I have an appointment in a few minutes. Would you like to stay up here for a while? No one will bother you.”

“No,” John said, smoothing his tie. “My schedule just opened up. There’s a job waiting.”

He turned to go only to be stopped by Winston’s, “I like the new look, by the way.”

John frowned.

“The beard,” Winston said. “Very appropriate for a castaway.”

Giving Winston a sour smile, John left, cell out, already dialing.

 

2006

It was enough, John thought as he sat in the corner booth, watching the crowd. Winston wasn’t around but it was enough, the low sounds of conversation and the glow from the candles on the tables. When his dinner arrived, he was almost content.

 

2007

John pulled back just in time, the goon’s six-inch blade missing him by the same. With the flat of his hand, he struck, hitting the man’s temple. One more blow, this to the throat. With a gurgle and a wheeze, the man crumpled to the ground, his windpipe crushed. John turned.

The other man was still slumped against the alley wall, his right arm dangling at an odd angle. Clasping his neck with blood seeping through his fingers, he was panting with rage and fear.

“Your common carotid has been nicked,” John said, straightening up. “You can shoot me in the back with your last remaining bullet but you’ll have to let go and then you will die. Or, you can get to the clinic on Front Street and live.” He tugged on his jacket. “It’s up to you.”

The man growled.

John nodded. “Good choice.”

***

John showered as soon as got to his room. It felt good, the water coursing over his head, shoulders, and back. He rubbed his hip—he strained something during the fight. After dinner, he’d see if the masseuse was free.

When he got out of the bathroom, towel around his hips, a new suit was hanging by the door. Compliments of the management, said the foil-printed note. Wondering if he had Winston or Charon to thank, he got dressed. The suit, of course, fit perfectly.

He went downstairs. Winston was at his table by the fireplace but John just nodded and then took a table by the window. He ate, his mind on nothing much. Afterwards, he skipped the massage and went straight to bed.

 

2008

Planning on a quiet evening, John was heading towards hotel, intent on getting away from Viggo’s crew for just a few hours, when fate stepped in. He heard a cry and then a shout. A kid came running towards him with a woman’s purse in his fist. John stretched out a leg and the kid went flying. By the time the kid was put in the back of a squad car, still gripping his knee in pain, John had a phone number and a name—Helen.

 

2009

Stinking of sweat and blood, the air mirrored the carnage all around. John stepped free of one of the bodies. He wiped his hands on his jacket and got out his cell. His call was picked up on the first ring.

“Hello, John.”

“Charlie.”

“Do you need a dinner reservation?”

“I do.”

“How many?”

John looked around. “I have no idea. You better bring your entire crew.”

“And all three vans?”

“And all three vans.” He hung up and then looked at his cell. Feeling an immense pleasure, he dropped it and crushed it with his heel.

It was done.

 

2009- 2014

He lived. He found himself again. When he got lost, Helen was there to bring him gently back. It was more than he could have ever hoped for, after the life he’d led. And he was happy.

Until a thief hiding away in Helen’s DNA stole it all away.

After that it was days of grey and nights of black, each interspersed with a grief that seemed unending. And then another chance meeting, this one at the gas station down the road, set his life on a new course.

 

2014

The world narrowed to a single point of pain, John didn’t hear the doorbell at first.

The dog did and he sat up with a soft woof, his ears raised.

The doorbell rang again, this time a note longer. John pushed upright. “All right,” he muttered. “I’m coming.”

Descending the stairs was a test of his endurance and he was sweating by the time he got to the door. The doorbell rang a third time, just as he was turning the handle. He pulled the door open too fast, growling, “What—”

Winston and the hotel doctor were standing on the porch.

John nodded. “Winston.”

“Knowing your sewing skills or lack thereof, I thought you might have need of a professional,” Winston said pleasantly.

Not in the mood, John was closing the door again when exhaustion and good sense made him hesitate. He nodded and let the men in.

He led them to the bathroom.

“Wise choice,” Winston said, “considering you’re bleeding on your magnificent floors.”

John twisted his lips.

The doctor set his gear on the side table and said, “Let’s see what you’ve done to yourself this time.”

With the doctor’s help, John removed his stained t-shirt and relatively clean sweats. He leaned back against the sink. He’d forgotten about the thigh wound and he touched it—the edges were puffy, bruised and yellow.

“Good lord,” the doctor said, hands on hips. “I see you didn’t listen to my advice.”

“I did,” John said. Winston was examining him, too, his gaze moving over the wounds and the tattoos. “And I didn’t.”

“So, I see,” the doctor replied. “Well, the staples look like they’re holding but I’ll clean up what I can.” He gently touched the wound. “No oozing or infection. Yet. You’re lucky.”

“I am,” John said, his gaze locked on Winston’s.

“I’ll get to work.” The doctor turned to Winston. “I’ll be thirty or forty minutes.”

“I’ll wait outside.”

“There’s tea,” John said. “In the cupboard next to the stove.”

Winston nodded. “Thank you.”

“Now,” the doctor huffed. “Stand up straight and let me see what else you did or didn’t do to yourself.”

***

It took over an hour for the doctor to clean the stomach wound and stitch all the others. By the time he was done, peering at John’s bicep as he hummed a show tune under his breath, John was feeling better and wondering if Winston had gone to wait in his car.

“There,” the doctor muttered. “Just two more days, please, or I can’t answer for the integrity of the sutures.”

“I’ll make it three,” John said.

“That’s what you say now.” The doctor turned on the tap and began washing his hands “Do you know how to remove the staples?”

“I’ve had some experience.” John pulled on his sweats.

The doctor snorted. “Of course, you have.”

John smiled at that, and then picked up his shirt and left the room.

Winston wasn’t in the kitchen drinking tea or waiting in the car. He was standing in the living room, holding the picture of Helen.

“She was very beautiful,” Winston said without turning around.

“She was.”

“And you were lucky.”

“I was.” John shifted from side to side—the doctor was good; he barely felt the stitches pull. “She knew about you.”

Winston put the frame down and turned around. “She did, did she?” He clasped his hands together. “And what did she know?”

“That it wasn’t all bad. That I had friends. That I—” John shrugged. “You know.”

“I imagine I do.”

“Are you going to Marcus’s funeral?”

Winston looked down. “It was yesterday. I didn’t attend, of course, but I heard it was lovely.”

“Oh.” It was on the tip of John’s tongue to add, ‘Can you stay, even just a few hours?’ but held off. It would be wrong and he was fairly certain he didn’t really want company, even Winston’s.

“Are we all done?” The doctor said, coming into the room. He glanced at Winston and then John.

“Yes,” John answered. “You’re done.”

“For now,” Winston amended, an odd look in his eye.

***

Days later, John was thinking of nothing much, a self-imposed exercise that wasn’t quite working, when the doorbell rang. Assuming it was Winston, he foolishly answered it.

After that, he didn’t have time to think of anything other than survival.

           

2014

One hour wasn’t much but given the circumstances, more than enough.

John stole a car and dropped the dog off at Aurelio’s. He left with a bag of weapons, all Aurelio could gather at such short notice. Holed up in a house near Oyster Bay, he let them come to him. By the end of the first day, he’d killed at least twenty-one, the twenty-second being a wash because the women stumbled and then accidentally shot herself in the throat.

He moved bases that night, slipping by a group of five that had apparently decided his assassination was the perfect time for a party. As they drove by, headlights off and the radio blaring, he launched a grenade into their midst. He got into his car and drove away, the burning van lighting the night sky.

***

John’s next base was a cabin in the north, one of several that he’d purchased years before on the off chance that he’d need a bolthole. He managed all of two days before he ran out of ammunition. Using his knives, he put down the last two and took their car, then hightailed it back to the city.

So, at least sixty with a possible twenty or thirty more to go if the lightweights did the smart thing and sat it out. The problem was firepower—he simply didn’t have enough. Of his several options, the only viable one was to return home and see if he could move a half-ton of rubble to get to the basement.

But when he got there, going the last half-mile on foot in case anyone had managed to connect the deed in Helen’s name to John Wick, assassin for hire, he found a big, black Kevlar trunk in what used to be his garage. Wondering if it held explosives, he opened it up.

The trunk did hold explosives, but not the ‘boom, you’re gonna die now’ kind. Explosives, rifles, handguns, knives—everything one might need in order to live another day. There was even a suit, a new phone, and a small grocery bag filled with energy bars and water. No note accompanied the gift, but John didn’t need one. Saying a silent thank you to Winston, he began porting it all to the car.

***

Reenergized by the gift, John decided that waiting for the fight to come to him had been a start but it was time for new tactics. So he readied his trap and then drove back to the city. He cruised down Central Park West, finally catching the eye of the homeless man on the corner. The man grinned and cocked his finger at John. Hiding his own grin, John drove back towards Oyster Bay, his entourage following. This time, however, he headed towards the abandoned flour factory, speeding up as soon as he got within three miles, pushing the needle to ninety on the last mile.

He slid to a stop near the entrance and, dodging the light shower of bullets, ran into the building.

Most of his hunters were smart and well versed in tactics and strategy, but he knew their kind, knew their greed would make them dumb to everything but the hunt. As soon as he had ran into the building, he ran out through a back door he’d made that morning. Sprinting to the narrow spit of trees that separated the factory from the service road, he tapped in the code and pressed enter. The detonation shook the ground, shaking him, too. He tripped and landed on his good side. He rolled to his back and lay there a long moment, looking up at the pale blue sky. It peaceful out here, he decided as he listened to the screams and watched the ash and detritus fly all about. Maybe he should see if the land was for sale once this was all over.

Just to be sure, he got up and returned to the factory, or what was left of it. There was no one to be seen. Or rather, there was, but they were no longer people, just limbs and blistered corpses. A crow landed near one, then hopped closer.

John watched the bird for a while, then, borrowing the least burned car, left nature to finish what he’d started.

***

Ditching the car outside the city, John walked in on foot. Not fond of disguises, he decided it was best for him and casual bystanders to go incognito, so he traded his jacket for a filthy hoodie from a homeless women. He made his way to The Continental and took point behind a dumpster in a nearby alley. He waited.

By midnight, he’d counted eleven men and women, almost all dressed in black. They went into the hotel, they came out of the hotel. At four in the morning when the traffic, both foot and car, had died down, John got up and strolled across the street.

The doorman, trained in protocol, automatically reached for the door and then recognized him. He hesitated.

“Open the door, Samuel,” came a voice from the street.

John turned. Charon was standing behind him, hands in his pockets.

“I can’t go in there,” John said. “I just want to talk to Winston.”

“Please, Mr. Wick,” Charon murmured, nodding to the door. “While there are no bullets flying.”

John followed Charon into the hotel and glanced around. The lobby, generally filled no matter the time of day, was completely empty. “Where is everyone?”

“I imagine they feel the safety of the hotel has been compromised because the owner has gone missing.”

John turned. “Winston’s gone?”

“Since this morning. He went out for a walk and never came back.”

He wanted to hit something. Or kill someone. “They took him.”

Charon nodded sedately. “Thereby breaking a number of our rules, the absence of which we cannot survive and the only reason I am allowing you inside.”

Charon’s tone was even but John could hear the worry underneath the calm. He wondered if his own voice betrayed any of his rage. Probably—he wasn’t a subtle man. “It’s either the mafia or the Camorras.”

“That was my assessment.”

There were only a handful of places secure enough to hold someone as notorious as Winston. John dismissed all but one.

“Mr. Wick?”

“Yes?”

“I realize this might be impertinent, but if you give me the marker, I must by honor help you.”

“The marker? It’s just a confirmation. It holds no value.”

Charon sighed. “You might want to examine it more closely.”

Frowning, he pulled the marker from his trouser pocket and opened it. Inside was a single bloody thumbprint. He looked up.

Charon nodded. “Exactly. The owner wanted there to exist some legitimate way of helping you. May I have it in his stead?”

John closed the marker and gripped it tight. He’d thought… He sighed and opened his hand. The embellishments had transferred to his fingers and he watched as the delicate pattern faded. “No,” he said slowly. “Not yet.”

“What is your plan, and is there anyway I can be of service?”

“My plan is to get Winston back, something I can only do if I end this quickly.” He pocketed the marker. He’d had three precious things taken away—four, if he counted Marcus. He had no intention of making it five. “As for service…” He cracked a smile. “I don’t suppose you have a cell phone I can borrow and the keys to Winston’s ride?”

Charon raised an eyebrow and went to the front desk. “I do, in theory, though it may take me a half hour or so to make the arrangements.” He stopped and looked back at John. “What are you going to do?”

“End this. Quickly.”

***

It was easy enough to set everything up. John showered and changed his clothes. Then, he borrowed Winston’s favorite Jag and drove out of the city. He’d only visited the airfield once but as usual, his memory didn’t fail him. When he pulled up in front of the hanger, the pilot hurried to meet him.

“Mr. Wick,” she said, wiping her hands on a cloth.

“Olivia.”

“She’s all fueled up.”

“Good.”

“You’re gonna fix this fucking mess?”

“I am.”

“Good.”

***

John waited until the engines had started before getting out the cell. He dialed, then crossed his legs and waited.

The call was picked up immediately. “Winston?”

“Hello, Julius.”

There was a long pause and then Julius answered, “Mr. Wick.”

“I suppose you know why I’m calling.”

“I do, but I must tell—”

“No. This is how it will be, Julius. I’ll talk, you’ll listen, yes?”

There was another silence and Julius muttered, “Yes.”

“When I hang up, you’ll contact the Camorras or the D’Antonios—either will do. You’ll have them pull the contract, effective immediately. At the same time, you’ll instruct them to inform whoever is holding Win—”

“That was not my doing, Mr. Wi—”

“Julius.”

“Yes,” Julius said with an unhappy sigh, “go on.”

“As I was saying, you’re going to obtain Winston’s release, also effective immediately.” He held the cell up to make sure Julius heard the engines. “If you do neither of those things, I’m going to instruct the pilot to take off. I should be there in eight hours. As soon as I land, I’m heading straight for the Vatican.”

“Mr. Wi—”

“Short of blowing me out of the sky, it won’t matter what you do, where you put him, or how many men you call up. I will kill him.”

“But our laws exp—”

“You fucked your laws when you allowed Winston to be taken.”

“It was his own fault. He should never ha—”

John sighed. “Julius. I’m tired, I’m sore, and nothing would please me more than an eight hour flight where I had nothing to do but sleep.”

“John. It would mean eternal damnation; you know this.”

“I’m already damned. A little more death on my conscience won’t make any difference, even his.”

This time the silence was heavy but short. “And the families?”

“Santino was a psychotic wannabe. I did them a favor. You as well—he would have come for you next.”

“That is quite possible,” Julius murmured. “Very well, Mr. Wick. I’ll see that it’s done.”

“And I’ll wait here until then. You have five minutes.”

Without another word, Julius hung up. John did as well.

“Are we staying or going?” Olivia asked from the cockpit door.

John waited, watching the cell’s screen. Within minutes, a text came through: ‘John Wick: excommunication revoked, all rights and privileges restored, effective immediately. “Staying,” John said as he got up. “We’re staying.”

***

The drive to Fairview was pleasant and he thought he might actually enjoy himself if he wasn’t so furious and so worried. He had no doubt that Julius had followed his orders but there was always that slight chance that the news hadn’t been received. Cell towers down, landlines cut—anything was possible. When he pulled up in front of the gates of Schiavone property, he was on edge and itching for a fight. He got out of the car and just stood before the camera.

Slowly and silently, the wide gate opened.

Calling it either a good sign or bad, John got back in the car and drove up the road. As he was pulling to a stop in front of the mansion, the big white doors opened and a figure came out. It was Winston. He strolled down the steps and got in the front seat.

“Jonathan,” Winston murmured.

“Winston.” Carlo Schiavone had come to the door and was watching, using the door as a shield. “How many are in there?”

“A small army.’

“Are we worried about them?”

“When they saw it was you at the gate, Carlo almost had a heart attack, so no, we’re not worried.”

John turned to look at Winston. Winston’s face was drawn but he seemed well, otherwise. “You don’t want to sit in the back?”

Winston folded his hands on his lap and stared out the windshield. “You’re not the help, Jonathan.”

“Oh.”

“Will you do me a favor?”

“Yes.”

“As soon as we get back to the hotel, will you please visit the clinic? That thigh wound must be very painful.”

John touched his leg and nodded. “I will.”

“Thank you.”

And that’s all they said, all the way back to the city.

***

When they exited the elevator, John found that the hotel was still suspiciously empty, except for Charon. He was standing behind the desk as if he’d never vacated it.

“They’ll be back as soon as the word goes out of my return,” Winston said as he removed his overcoat. “Now, go upstairs. The doctor is waiting. I hope.”

***

The doctor was indeed still there and he did the usual—he ordered John onto a hospital bed and then hemmed and hawed and muttered the occasional sarcastic remark. Like all the other times, it hurt like shit but John felt better when it was all over.

“I know you won’t listen to me,” the doctor said as he gathered up the bloody bandages and put them in a bag. “But could you please just lay there and let the antibiotic do its thing. Lord knows you’ve had enough that it probably won’t make a difference but we might as well give it a shot.”

John touched his arm. “I can lay here.”

“Good.”

“For a while.”

The doctor shook his head and took off his gloves.

“Everything all right?” came a voice from the door.

It was Winston. At his feet was the dog.

John smiled and then leaned over the bed and held out his hand—the dog came running.

“I suppose you expect me not to object,” the doctor said, nodding to the dog.

“I would prefer it,” Winston replied.

“Hmph.”

Winston waited until the doctor had left, then brought a chair to the bed. He sat down with a sigh. “I hope you don’t mind that I took the liberty of retrieving your dog.”

John scratched the dog under the chin. “I don’t mind.”

“Good.”

John glanced up. Winton’s expression was unusually blank. “What is it?”

“I’ve been thinking.”

“Of what?”

Winston crossed his legs. “The benefit of having one’s routine upended, I’ve recently discovered,” he mused, “is that it gives one the opportunity to examine one’s life thus far.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning, as I sat in Carlo’s pathetic excuse of a sitting room all night, wondering if you’d manage to find me in time, I thought about you.” Winston looked down at his hands. “And your offer of many years ago.”

Like Pavlov’s fucking dog, John’s heart began to thud. He gave the dog one last pat and then lay back. “And?”

“And, do you still have my marker?”

“It’s in my pant’s pocket.” Winston handed him his trousers and John got the marker out. He handed it over without a word.

Winston tucked the marker away in his breast pocket. “I’m giving you a month, Jonathan. Find a nice quiet hotel or leave the country. Recover from your wounds, take your nameless dog for a walk, eat healthy meals.”

“And then?”

“And then, if you still desire it, find me and we’ll see what we will see. Keep the car as my thanks.” Winston touched the back of John’s hand. “But that’s the last one you’re getting—you’re far to hard on your automobiles.”

And then Winston got up and left, leaving John and the dog staring after.

***

A month, Winston had said. Thirty days, give or take, to decide.

John left the hotel that afternoon and went to the house. He examined the torched remains, searching for anything that wasn’t burned to a crisp. He found a coffee mug and a gardening spade. He left both behind and got back in the car and just drove. He eventually ended up at a lakeside hotel in upstate New York that accepted pets.

He rested, he healed. He took the dog for long walks around the lake and pondered a good dog name, unable to make up his mind. He purchased a cell phone but texted the number to only one person. He read, he watched TV, he chatted with the hotel guests and enjoyed their conversation and then forgot them as soon as they checked out.

Mostly, he thought.

He wrestled with his conscience, the idea that it was wrong, that to allow himself to forget would be a betrayal of the worst kind. His third week in, a couple arrived at the hotel—they had an elderly beagle that walked on stiff legs and bayed at everyone who approached. That night after dinner, John left his dog in the hotel room and went for a walk around the lake. He hurried, eventually finding a place on the far side. He fell to his knees in the mud and screamed into his fists. When he was done, he stayed there, hunched over and panting, feeling like he was going to throw up. After a few minutes, he got to his feet and went back to the hotel.

The next morning he woke up and didn’t immediately touch the pillow next to him. He went downstairs for breakfast and smiled at the beagle couple and even let his dog greet theirs.

It was a turning point, of sorts, though he received no divine answers, no real help from above. He also had no true personal insights other than the acknowledgment that he wanted Winston and had for a very long time, and maybe that was okay.

In the end, John didn’t manage the thirty days. On the morning of the twenty-fifth, as if he’d planned in advance, he went into town and purchased a new suit that was a poor fit but good material. He returned to the hotel and told the manager he was checking out. Then he went upstairs and showered and shaved very carefully, and got dressed. He left with the dog at his heels, feeling better than he had in months. As he drove south, he tried to keep his mind on the road, not succeeding at all.

***

John was a mile from The Continental when the sky opened up. It was somehow fitting, he thought, as he drove down the rain-slick streets. The torrent had pushed the passersby indoors and with the closed shops and businesses, it was almost like he was alone. Well, not alone, and he stroked the dog’s ears, receiving a happy whine in return.

Deciding the underground parking lot was his driest option, he took the ramp slowly. The lot was small, meant for the manager, the concierge, and certain guests. John was looking for a no parking space when he passed Winston’s spot. Instead of being flanked by yellow-striped safety zones as it always was, there was now an open space to the right. On the cement wall hung a placard announcing: ‘Guest of the Owner. Unauthorized vehicles will be towed.’

Huh.

Ignoring the bloom of warmth in his chest and belly, John parked the car and said, “Come on,” to the dog.

He rode the elevator up to the first floor, not surprised to find Charon waiting as the doors opened.

Without a word, Charon gestured to the dog. “I will see that he has a nice dinner.”

John jerked his thumb. “The parking space—I’m assuming…?”

Charon nodded. “You assume correctly.” He leaned inside and tapped the code. “9, 3, 1, 0, 5.” He looked up. “I was told to inform you of the numbers.”

“Thank you.”

“It is I who should be thanking you. I have a job—and a friend who is not dead—thanks to you.”

Before John could reply, the doors closed.

When the doors opened again, he stepped out and looked around. The living room was dark and quiet. He went to the terrace.

Winston was sitting near a heat lamp under the vine-covered arbor. John stopped a yard away.

“Did you relax?” Winston asked.

“I did,” John said.

“Did you heal?”

The foliage above was too thick to allow the rain access and the water dripped off the edges in a staccato pattern. “I did.”

“I’m told the lake is quite beautiful.”

John smiled—of course Winston had known where he’d stayed. “It was.” He sat in the only other chair. There was a bottle of cognac on the cafe table but just a single tumbler. So Winston hadn’t been expecting him, after all. “I saw deer and foxes and what I think was an otter.”

Winston raised an eyebrow. “An otter? That must have been an interesting sight.”

“Well,” John conceded as he crossed his legs. The lust was still there but it was tempered by an odd contentment. He wouldn’t have thought that twenty-five days was long enough to miss Winston but apparently he was wrong. “It might have been a really large rat. I couldn’t be sure.”

Winston grinned. “Would you like a drink? I’m afraid you’ll have to get your own glass.”

“No, thank you.”

“So, a rat.” Winston picked up his glass. “That would have been far less interesting than an otter.”

“Because?”

“Because rats, my dear Jonathan, are far more common. And they tend to be rather dirty creatures.”

“That’s because they live with us.”

In the middle of sipping his drink, Winston paused. “That seems exceedingly bleak, even for you. Are you feeling bleak, Jonathan?”

“No, Winston, I’m not feeling bleak. Quiet the opposite, in fact.”

Winston said, “Ah,” and set his glass back down. He got to his feet and picked up his newspaper and the book. “The switch on the heater is on the far side—could you turn it off, please?”

“I’ll get the rest,” John said, looking over his shoulder as he crouched to find the switch.

“You’re not my employee, remember?”

“I just want to.”

Winston smiled. “Very well.”

***

John followed Winston into the apartment. He left the tumbler and the decanter on the table and then waited patiently while Winston set the alarm.

“This way,” Winston said.

As they walked up the long flight of stone steps, John wanted to ask how many guests had been invited up, but of course couldn’t. When they reached the door at the end of a long corridor, Winston paused.

“Jonathan?”

“Yes?”

“I can’t quite believe I’m saying this, but I’m unaccountably nervous.”

John stepped close. Winston’s aftershave was rich and heady and he took a shallow breath. “I am, too.”

Winston turned. It was dark, probably too dark to see much and John wondered what Winston saw when he reached up and cupped his cheek. “We can’t have that, after all you’ve been through.” He took John’s arm and escorted him into the room.

The lamp by the bed turned on as soon as they crossed the threshold. John wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting—maybe something in the way of a bordello or a seraglio, but it was a simple bedroom with clean lines and a large balcony. Above the bed was a painting. John walked closer. “Titian?”

“Hm, mm,” said Winston, coming to stand next to John.

John examined the colors, the expression on the woman’s face as she gazed at her baby. “If I say that I thought this was hanging in the Louvre, will you laugh?”

“I would not.” Winston took John’s hand. “I’d simply compliment you on your knowledge of art.” He stepped nearer, holding John in a loose embrace. “It’s a very admirable, attractive quality.”

At Winston’s touch, John had closed his eyes. “Winston?”

“Yes?”

“I don’t want to talk about art.”

Winston raised John’s hand and kissed the inside of his wrist. “Neither do I.” He pulled John around. “Now, come—I want to see those tattoos.”

John stripped quickly, shedding his clothes until he was nude, shivering only slightly, wearing nothing but the weight of fourteen very long years.

“Let me see,” Winston said.

John turned slowly.

Winston sighed. “Once upon a time you asked me why not—do you remember?”

“Of course, I do.”

“It was because of this…” Winston gestured. “Because you’re entirely too beautiful.”

John shook his head. “No.”

Winston frowned. “No?”

“No, you’re not getting away with that shit.” Helen had always seen him for the man he truly was. He thought Winston had, too, so maybe he just needed a reminder. “Here…” And with no ceremony, John began to remove Winston’s clothes, dropping them to the floor.

Winston was mostly silent, only saying at one point, “That was a very expensive shirt, Jonathan.”

“I know your tailor. I’ll buy you another.” And then he pulled down the bedcovers and pushed Winston gently, toppling him to the bed. He got to work on the rest until Winston was as naked as he. With a rough, “Move over,” he knelt on the bed and reached for the light.

“No,” Winston said. “I want to see you.”

John nodded and got in. With the cool sheets burning his skin, he leaned over. A first kiss that was little more than a brush of lips and he frowned, diving deeper. Winston opened to him with a soft sound, a sound that sent a streak of cold fire up John’s back. He pressed closer and kissed harder. Better and better, and he stroked Winston’s side, inching until he was half on top, his leg between Winston’s.

“Jonathan.”

He ignored the question. There was a harsh thrum in his ears, like the rumble of rolling thunder or the concussive, rhythmic beat of bullets passing through a barrel, one by one. Or maybe it was like that time in Rio when he’d taken a knife to the gut. He’d lain on that table, weak and dazed, listening as his blood leaked out of his body, splashing onto the floor in a steady drip, drip, dr—

Winston gripped his shoulders. “Jonathan?”

“What?”

“We have all night; there’s no need to rush.”

“I’m not—” But he was, panting and shaking, rubbing mindlessly as if Winston was a fucking blow-up doll. He told his hands to uncurl and his shoulders to relax. After a moment, his body obeyed. “I’m sorry.”

Winston stroked John’s hair back, combing it behind his ears. “I would be insulted if I wasn’t so flattered.”

“It’s not flattery,” John said into Winston’s chest. “I’ve just wanted you for so long.”

“Hence the flattery.” And then, on a different note, Winston added, “Which means we’ll do this right, yes?”

“Yes, Winston. We’ll do this right.”

***

They did it right, they did it slow, Winston taking command, telling John when to move, where to kiss. Towards the end, on his back and held from coming by sheer will and Winston’s, “Not yet,” John felt a wash of deliverance, as if he’d been drowning for months and was only now able to breathe. When he came, he came the same way, almost grim, clutching Winston, legs spread wide as he waited for the final crush of the dark wave.

***

“I suppose I should have remembered.”

Feeling as if his muscles had turned to lead, John muttered, “You should have remembered what?”

“That you’ve got very strong fingers.”

John raised head. Winston was holding his arm up to the light. There were faint bruises along his forearm.

John turned on his side and then gently, as if Winston were made of glass, he kissed the bruises and then the heel of Winston’s palm. “I’m not sorry.”

“Of course you’re not.” Winston pulled away, then tugged the sheets and blanket up higher. “Marcus once told me after the two of you got into a scuffle that your grip was like iron.”

“Lisbon,” John said, settling back down. “After that run-in with Hector Valdez. I miss him.” He rubbed his cheek against the pillow. “Marcus, I mean. I’m glad Hector is dead.”

“He loved you.”

John slanted Winston a look.

“Not like that.”

“That’s not what you said before.”

Winston cocked his head. “Oh, yes, that.” He reached for John’s hand and began stroking his palm. “I was making it up as I went along.”

Eyes half closed under Winston’s touch, John murmured, “Because I startled you.”

Winston smiled. “You remember that? Yes. That was in…” He laced their fingers together. “In ‘04?”

“No. In 2000. Right after—”

“Yes. Fourteen years ago. Where has the time gone?”

John hummed under his breath.

“You were persistent, I’ll give you that.”

John smiled. “You gave me a lot more.”

Winston’s smile was slightly crooked. “Jonathan.”

“I never asked—may I stay the night?”

“If you feel it’s proper, yes, of course.”

John wanted to laugh. They’d just fucked and probably would again once he caught his breath. “Yes, I feel it’s proper.” He waited for Winston to say something about Helen but Winston just pulled the covers higher.

“The bathroom is to the right,” Winston said. “If you get hungry in the night, you know where the kitchen is.”

John closed his eyes. “I won’t be hungry.”

“Then…”

Winston turned off the lamp.

As if the light had been a fetter, John loosened the chained tenderness and curled closer around Winston. “Is this all right?”

“You wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t.”

Smiling, John kissed Winston’s chest and then closed his eyes and fell asleep.

***

He woke with a gasp, jolted from a confusing dream of standing barefoot at the edge of a lake while bullets rained down.

During the night, he’d separated from Winston, leaving an arm’s length of cold sheets between.

It wasn’t quite midnight. There was still plenty of time for more sleep and more sex, but he rolled to his back and stared up at the high ceiling, trying to recapture the essence of the dream. He hadn’t been afraid. He’d been anxious, though, sinking in the mud as he struggled to reach the—

John’s eyes narrowed as he remembered a crucial part of the dream. He sat up. He didn’t want to leave but he had one more task to complete, something he should have done twenty-five days ago.

He got up and then swore under his breath as he stepped on something sharp. He picked it up. It was one of Winston’s gold cufflinks. Setting it gently on the nightstand, he gathered up his clothes and then padded downstairs. He got dressed, pulling on just the essentials. His shirt, he found as he held it up to the light from the streetlamps, had somehow lost two buttons. Oh well, he thought as he tossed it on the sofa—he didn’t need buttons or a shirt where he was—

“Going somewhere?”

He turned. Winston was on the stairs. He was wearing a dark red robe and no slippers. “I forgot something. Something I need to do.”

Winston came slowly down the stairs. “Is this something going to get you killed?”

“No,” he answered, then amended because he didn’t want to lie, “at least, I’m fairly certain it won’t.” He pulled his jacket on.

Winston stopped on the last step. “And this something can’t wait.”

It wasn’t a question, but John answered, “No,” anyway.

Winston said nothing for a long moment and John could almost see the question written on the air between them, the thing Winston wouldn’t ask.

He went to the stairs. He was wearing shoes; Winston wasn’t, and they were almost the same height. “I’ll be back,” he said. “I promise, I’ll be back.”

Winston reached out and slid a hand under John’s jacket and palmed the healed wound. “See that you do.” He pulled.

They kissed once and then John left.

***

He was heading towards the car when he heard a whine and a jingle. He turned. Charon was strolling down the ramp. The dog was with him. When the dog saw John, he yipped, a loud sound that echoed in the enclosed space.

Charon let go of the leash and the dog scurried over.

John crouched, saying over the dog’s anxious whines and snuffles, “I could have taken him.”

“I don’t mind. I was up, anyway.” Charon glanced at John’s clothing. “Going somewhere?”

John grinned. “That’s what Winston asked. No…” He pushed to his feet. “I’ve an errand to run.”

“Would your destination lie anywhere near Fairview?”

“It would.”

“I’d like to come.” Charon folded his hands together. “It is my right.”

John weighed the pros and cons. Except for those few times with Marcus, he preferred to work alone. But this was different and Charon had a point. “Very well,” he said, “But the dog stays here.”

Charon nodded. “Of course.”

“And I’ll need a shovel and some explosives.”

“Of course.”

***

They got to Fairview while it was still dark. John had been to the house only the once—well, twice—but houses were mostly the same and after a few minutes of searching, he found the utility cap by the gate.

Charon watched him work, asking a very few questions. “Is there anyone in the house?”

“You mean, are there any children in there?”

“Yes.”

“The house is empty.” He finished setting the charge near the exposed pipe. “The Schiavone’s use this for a summer home and right now they’re in Florida. That said, if I had my way, they’d all be in there, like rats in a cage.” He sat back on his heels. “You better go to the car.”

“I am fine here.”

“Suit yourself.” He cut the line and then fell back as the gas began to seep out. He grabbed the shovel and the leftover C4. “Come on.”

He really wanted to be up close and personal for this one, but didn’t want to risk Charon’s life—Winston would never forgive him. So, he waited until they’d driven a half-mile, then triggered the bomb. The resulting explosion was sweet and he was smiling at the rearview mirror’s gold reflection when he pulled away.

***

Neither spoke until they got out of the car.

“Thank you, Mr. Wick,” Charon said. “That was most satisfying.”

John nodded. “It was.”

***

He had planned on showering before getting back in bed but he didn’t get the chance. As soon as the elevator doors slid open, he found himself face-to-face with Winston, leaning against the back of the sofa with a cup of coffee in his hand. The dog was at his feet.

Winston looked down at the dog and then said, “Well, go on.”

The dog jumped up and ran to John. John didn’t kneel but he reached down and stroked the dog’s head. “I can take him back downstairs.”

“You will do no such thing. He and I have been having a discussion in regards to manners. He’s better behaved than some of my guests.” Winston looked John up and down. “You’re filthy. What have you been doing?”

“This and that.” John gave the dog a final scratch behind his ears and straightened up.

“And the other?”

“And the other.” He jerked his chin towards the stairs. “I need to shower.”

“No, you don’t.” Winston said, leaning over to set his coffee cup on the side table. “I like you filthy.”

***

They had sex again but this time they switched it up. When John came, flush up against Winston’s back and doing what he could to keep from biting too hard and holding too tight, he was gritting his teeth and smiling.

***

John woke. It was broad daylight and the dog was warm at his side. “You shouldn’t be up here.”

The dog just looked at him and then yawned.

John sat up. There was a robe lying on the end of the bed. It was a heavy black silk with a subtle pattern woven into it. He went to the bathroom and showered, then dried off and pulled the robe on.

Shadowed by the dog, he went downstairs. Winston was on the terrace in the sheltered corner, sitting at the small marble table. He was reading the paper. When John sat down, he folded the paper and then poured a cup of coffee. He pushed it towards John.

“I’ve been catching up on the news,” Winston said, nodding to his iPad.

John picked up the coffee cup and watched as the dog ranged all about, taking in the new scents. “You have?”

“Hm, mm. Apparently the Schiavone summer estate experienced a utility malfunction during the night. There was an explosion. Much of the house was destroyed.”

John sipped his coffee; it tasted good. “Not all of it?”

“Well…” Winston pursed his lips. “Enough that it’s a write off. They’ll have to rebuild, if they decide a summer home in the country is important.” He closed his eyes and tilted his head to the sun. “I believe they won’t. I believe they’ll see the futility of such a gesture.”

“Utility malfunctions can happen anytime,” John agreed.

Winston turned his head. “Jonathan.”

He shrugged. “It was necessary, Winston. They had to know—” He squinted, remembering the moment he’d arrived at the hotel and found that Winston had been kidnapped.

Winston didn’t say anything for a moment and then he murmured, “Very well.” He turned back to the sun. “What are your plans?”

John thought about that, about the answers he wanted to give and those he couldn’t. But it was too soon and he wasn’t ready, so he just answered, “Nothing, today.”

“Good,” Winston replied. “Me, too.”

***

2014

Feeling as if he had a target on his back, wanting only to be on the plane back to New York, John was almost to the door when someone said, “Mr. Wick? A moment?”

He turned to find a women walking toward him. He knew her by name, but that was it—Allegra D’Antonio. During the entire meet, she’d been quiet, sitting at the high table, making no comments save those of the silent variety: a nod here, a flick of the fingers there.

“Miss,” he said as soon as she got closer. She was very beautiful but younger than she appeared, probably not yet forty. Her clothes were stiff and staid, as if she were a little girl playing dress up. “Can I help you?”

She nodded to an antechamber and its ornate glass door. “I was hoping for a private word?”

John didn’t budge. The committee was still trickling out of the large room but no one looked at them.

She smiled. “You have no fears, Mr. Wick,” she said in stilted English. “There are no hidden cameras or microphones. You will be perfectly safe.”

“I wasn’t worried about my safety.”

This time she just laughed and gestured once again.

A little sourly, he followed.

Her men followed, too, but she waved them away and then closed the door. “My reason for asking you here is that the hall is filled with listening…” She hesitated, frowning. “I believe the word is, ‘devices?’”

From John’s position he could see most of the outer room. The council members were all gone but Allegra’s men were circling like sharks. “That’s as good as any.”

“And I don’t want you to be concerned.”

“I’m not concerned.” And he wasn’t—he was tired and missing home, but not concerned.

Allegra tipped her chin, giving him a charming smile. “My mother spoke many times of you. She liked you. No matter what anyone said out there, I know you did not desire to undertake my uncle’s request. I know you had no choice.” She took a step closer and put her hand on his arm. “I know my uncle destroyed your house. For that, I am sorry.”

“Yes.”

She smiled again. “You are as…” She searched for the word, coming up with, “‘Brief,’ as everyone says.”

She hadn’t removed her hand and John had to keep from stepping back. Such an insult would nullify the entire week’s work and the new agreements. But if she came on to him after everything her family had done to him… “That will do. In a pinch.”

“‘In a pinch,’” she said. “I like that.”

“Miss? My plane is leaving in thirty minutes.” It was a lie—Olivia wouldn’t care if they left at three in the afternoon or three in the morning.

“Yes, well…” Allegra finally let go and retreated, smoothing down her skirt. “I have a question to ask of you. Or perhaps it is more of a request.”

Here it came and he clasped his hands together. “Yes?”

“It concerns Mr. Winston, you see.”

Surprised, John could only say, “Yes?”

“My mother trusted him more than any other and now that I find myself in the same position…” She crossed her arms over her breasts, a childish gesture that betrayed her age. “My uncle left many loose ends. I have asked Mr. Winston several times if he would consider living here as my advisor. He always say no. I have assured him that his safety would be as my own and that it is not just advice I am interested in. He is a very attractive man.” She looked up at John. “Are there any words you can use to convince him that I am serious?”

Around a tiny amount of humor and a hell of a lot of outrage, John’s tone was placid when he answered, “Winston does as he pleases. He always has. My encouragement or opinion will not change that.”

“But surely that is no longer the case, now that you and he are—” She broke off, her eyes suddenly unsure. “I understood that you and he are…” She trailed off again.

The men outside were no longer circling but standing en masse, as if waiting the word to charge forward. “My answer is still the same, Miss D’Antonio—I can’t help you.” Protocol or not, he turned to leave but she stopped him with a light hand and a, “Mr. Wick?”

“Yes?”

“Tell me, is he as…” She glanced down and then back up. “Bravi in letto, as it seems would be the case?”

This time the rage offset the humor but John held his tongue. Growing up in this nest of vipers, it was no wonder she thought that Winston was a commodity to be passed around. Still…

“You’ll excuse me. I have a plane to catch.” He looked down at her, his voice as stiff as his neck, unable to keep from adding, “And you should keep your interests to yourself. You’ll live longer.”

He left Allegra there, her mouth open in shock. Because he could, because it felt good, he pushed through her men, answering snarl for snarl.

***

John’s rage kept him company all the way to the airfield. As soon as he saw the plane, he began to relax.

He’d parked the rental and was almost to the plane when a tall figure stepped through the hatch. John stopped in his tracks as the man descended the steps.

“Cassian,” John said.

“John.”

“How’s your heart?” Cassian was wearing a beautiful grey suit with a black vest.

“Fine.” Cassian gave John the once over. “How’s the leg?”

“Fine.” He had a gun and two knives in his ankle holster. Cassian was probably carrying the same.

There was a long, tense silence. John used the moment to calculate distance, speed and targets—eye, throat, testicles, femoral artery.

“I imagine you want to know why I’m here,” Cassian said, finally breaking the stalemate.

“I imagine I would.”

Cassian opened his jacket, and then grinned when John crouched, reaching for his gun. “Take it easy. It’s just my billfold.”

John straightened up but watched Cassian like a hawk.

“See, I’ve been waiting for this moment for days, picturing your reaction.” Cassian got out his wallet and opened it up. “You didn’t disappoint.” He held up the wallet, showing an ID.

John squinted, then cocked his head. The familiar logo on the ID was hard to miss. “What the fuck?”

Cassian laughed. “See? No disappointment here.”

“You’re working for Winston?”

“I am. He called me up out of the blue last week and offered me a job.”

“In what capacity?”

“Guess?”

“Cassian,” John growled.

Cassian put his wallet away and waved a dismissive hand, “All right, all right. Calm down.” And then he lost his smile and clasped his hands together. “I’m your new bodyguard and you are my new ward. You didn’t even know I was at the meet today, did you?”

The words didn’t make sense at first. “Come again?”

“Apparently Winston decided that your last close call was a little too close. He’s hired me to back you up on your overseas trips.”

John was grinding his teeth by the time Cassian had finished talking.

Cassian raised an eyebrow. “And by your expression, you’re not too happy with his decision.”

“You think?”

Cassian shook his head and rested his hip against the ramp’s railing. “Look, I didn’t want the job. He made his offer. I argued until I was blue in the face.”

“And then?”

“And then he said something to me, and man, he was very persuasive.”

Too familiar with Winston’s ways, John muttered, this time with less anger, “Which was?”

“That he appreciated my dedication to Miss D’Antonio but you had a blood oath to fulfill. That acceptance wasn’t synonymous with weakness.” Cassian shifted his weight. “And that revenge, no matter what one called it, was fine for the short term but not the long. In the end, he said, it would bring me down and my life was worth more than that.” Cassian shrugged. “He was right. I don’t like you and I’m still angry, but I need to work through that shit in a way that’s not going to get me killed.”

John stood there, silent as he listened to the purr of the engine and felt the heat radiate from the tarmac.

Winston might have said those words to Cassian, but they were really for meant for him. Without a doubt, he knew this. And though they were just words, they struck deep and he squinted down at the ground. “How much?”

“How much what?”

“How much is he paying you to babysit me?”

Cassian grinned and then turned and went back up the steps.

“Hey!” John said, following. “How much?”

***

John took the back section. Cassian smirked and sat in the front.

Stewing for a while, John’s bad mood was effectively diminished by forced inactivity due to the long flight. A meal he didn’t really taste completed the job, putting him a better, if more reflective mood.

He wondered if he’d ruined the accords by insulting Allegra and leaving so abruptly. He wondered how much Winston had paid Cassian. Mostly, he wondered what Winston’s relationship with Gianni had entailed and if he’d been the least bit interested in Allegra’s proposal.

It was that last item that kept John awake, all the way back to New York.

***

Telling Cassian to get his own ride, John drove home at a breakneck speed, ignoring the posted limits whenever possible. He didn’t bother using the garage, but parked in front and took the stairs two at a time. Sam opened the door for him with a low, “Good to have you back, Mr. Wick.”

John nodded and held out the keys. “Sam. Can you get one of the guys to take my suitcase upstairs?”

Sam took keys. “Of course.”

“Thanks.”

Charon was at the desk. When he saw John, he smiled. John just nodded and then continued on towards the service entrance. Down one flight of steps and then another, ending up at the locked door. Only now, he needed no coin—the door opened as if by magic.

The place was packed and noisy, but not noisy enough to mask the whispers as he made his way to the bar. No one quite met his gaze, though, and that was okay—it was how it should be. Addy, however, greeted him with a broad smile and a happy, “Jonathan! You’re back.”

He accepted her over-the-counter hug, for once giving a little back. “Just landed.” He looked around. Winston almost always was down here during the early evening but he wasn’t at his booth and the office door was open. “Where is he?”

“Upstairs, I think.” She turned to get a bottle down from the top shelf, saying over her shoulder, “How was Rome?”

“Educational.” Addy had a new tattoo, this one on her right bicep.

She poured his drink with a grin. “For them or for you?”

“For us both.” As much as he hated to admit it, it truly had been. Instead of razing the place to the ground as he’d first planned, he managed to stay calm and work with them. He hadn’t liked it, but he’d done it. He picked up his glass with a nod. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.” Addy capped the bottle, her smile fading. She looked down before saying, “He missed you.”

The glass held to his lips, John paused. Even a year ago, he would have hated that Addy knew him so well. But things had changed and he nodded, then downed the drink in one go.

“Too forward?” Addy asked.

“No,” he said with a strained smile. “It’s all right.”

“Oh!” she said, her expression changing. “I almost forgot—I have something for you.” She looked under the counter, and then gave him a padded envelope. “It’s from the boss. Guess he figured you’d come down here first.”

John gave Addy another smile, this one just as strained. “I guess.”

***

He waited until the elevator was ascending before opening the envelope. Inside was a cell phone and a note. In Winston’s elegant hand, he read:

Jonathan,

When I had the crew go through the detritus that once was your house, they found more than just the chest under your basement floor. They found several mobiles, all crushed. I asked a very clever man look at them. It took time to extract the data. Much of it was irretrievable, but he found a single file. The sound is gone, I’m afraid, but there is some video left.

W.

John frowned and turned the cell on. Why hadn’t Winston just given it himself? It didn’t make sense. And then his breath caught in his throat as the cell’s screen dissolved into a picture of Helen. He pressed play.

It was the one he’d taken on the beach, the week before Helen had died. There wasn’t much of it left, just a few seconds of Helen turning towards him, then away, her smile soft and sunny. Stunned, he played it again as the elevator doors opened.

He was watching it for the third time when the elevator doors began to close. He caught them just in time.

Confused and almost angry, John searched, not finding Winston in the study or on the terrace. There was only one other place he could be and he hurried upstairs. He was striding through the bedroom when he stopped. He looked down at the cell again. As if he’d been there, he knew why Winston had given it to him secondhand, as it were. He sat on the bed with a thump.

“I just got off the phone with Miss D’Antonio.”

John looked up. Winston was standing in the balcony doors. His expression was blank, removed. “Am I a dead man?”

“No, quite the contrary. She was very apologetic, saying that she didn’t mean to offend you.” Winston raised an eyebrow. “What on earth did she say to you and you to her?”

“Nothing.”

Winston started to speak, then nodded to the cell in John’s hands. “I see you got my note.”

“I did.”

“Well?”

“You thought I’d leave as soon as I saw it. That’s why you didn’t give it to me yourself.”

“The thought did cross my mind.”

He could say so many things right now. The angry words were practically choking his throat—accusation, denial, insistence—they were abundant and it would be glorious.

“If this is to be a one-way conversation, Jonathan, could you please—”

But Winston didn’t finish his sentence and John frowned.

He looked down at the cell and pressed play once more, remembering, ‘…revenge, no matter what one called it, was fine for the short term but not the long,and, ‘my life was worth more than that.”

So, yes, he could accuse and deny and then he could leave, returning to the life he had thought he needed even though he’d long since realized that everyone had been so—

“Wrong. You were all so wrong.” He shook his head at Helen’s still image; she of all people, would understand what he was about to do. “You all thought my life with Helen was so different, so perfect. Like I was another man.” He rubbed the screen, adding softly, “I did, too, but I wasn’t. It wasn’t.” He looked up. “My life is a continuum, Winston, a single thing. There was never a before and after. It just was. And I suppose that’s the way it always will be, whether I want it or not.”

“And now?”

John set the cell on the bed. And then he leaned back on his arms and said, “You asked me something last year. Right after Helen’s death when I came to you. Do you remember?”

Winston frowned at the change of subject. “I said a great deal, I believe, mostly cautioning against the step you were about to take, and then I asked you—”

Winston stopped talking, his mouth firming in a thin line, his eyes blade sharp and John was reminded of how deadly Winston could be. Cassian and the, ‘He missed you,’ none withstanding, there was a reason why Winston was still running the New York office after all these years. The reminder sent a sweet, vicarious thrill up John’s spine and he spread his legs, just slightly. “Ask me again, Winston,” he murmured.

“Jonathan.” Winston stepped into the room, closed the French doors, and then set his glasses and book down on the dresser. “Are you back?”

“Yes,” John replied, picturing the evening to come—dinner, drinks, conversation that engaged the mind, and then bed. He clenched his fingers, curling them around the soft comforter, saying again for good measure, “Yes, Winston, I’m back.”

 

fin