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Quentin Covington (No. -2)

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Liz lay awake in bed, staring at the ceiling. Tonight was the same as every night since the harbormaster’s death: the inability to sleep, her mind replaying that moment over and over every time she was close to slumber. She sighed, rolling over for what felt like the thousandth time that night.

A knock sounded at the door. Liz picked her head up to see a shadow on her curtains. With cautious feet, she rose from bed, wrapping herself in her robe. A glance through the peephole revealed Raymond Reddington.

Liz slid the deadbolt open, cracking the door so that only her face was revealed. “What are you doing here?” she asked without preamble.

Reddington’s face looked drawn. The orange glow from the hotel lamps hit his face from the side, increasing his aged look. Though he gave her an easy smile upon laying eyes on her, there was an ill-concealed tension behind it. With an uncharacteristic amount of uncertainty, he said, “Lizzie, I…may I come in?”

Liz gave him a look, but stood back and allowed him to push the door open. Without turning to observe him further, Liz walked to her bedside and collapsed onto it.  “What do you want?” she asked.

Red took a seat in the threadbare armchair beside the door and removed his hat. As was customary, he took his time answering, fiddling with his hat as he paused. When he did, his speech was careful and he refused to meet her eye. “I came to say goodbye.”

Liz sat up, perched on the edge of her bed. “What?”

Liz watched as Red breathed in a quick breath, a tell that she had come to associate with him composing himself. When he met her eye next, he looked perfectly at ease.

“I have some business tomorrow that will require me to step away from the taskforce, at least for the day. I would hope that the FBI would be able to entertain themselves for a day without my assistance.”

Liz gave Reddington a measured look. “Nice try. You wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t important.”

Reddington cocked his head. “What do you mean, Lizzie?”

“You come to my hotel late at night, just to tell me you won’t be in touch tomorrow? You could have called for that. What’s really going on?”

Red’s brows knit together. The darkness of the hotel room made his face difficult to decipher, the only light filtering in from beyond the sheer curtains. He held the tip of his tongue between his teeth, the way he usually did when he was thinking. Then, at last, he answered.

“This business I have tomorrow; it isn’t…pleasant. I’d like to pretend that I know what the outcome will be, but the truth is I don’t have a clue. It could be fatal.”

“You came to say goodbye. Just in case.” Liz exhaled. It wasn’t a question.

Reddington didn’t answer. Instead, he smiled slightly, a far-off look in his eye. “I had an associate once, a friend really, by the name of Oscar. Oscar was something of a mastermind at thievery, but he chose to steal mainly from criminals, which, as you can imagine, is quite a dangerous business. He was good enough at it that he seemed to believe that he was invincible, despite the fact that he was reaching into the pockets of some of the most dangerous men and women in the world. Made a fortune, of course. A criminal isn’t going to the police for help when his valuables go missing. However, Oscar made some powerful enemies. And yet, each time he left for a heist, he was as confident as any man I’ve ever seen. He would swagger out the front door without a word to his wife or children, and be back in time for dinner. I knew him to be a man who cared deeply for his family, so once I asked him why he never said goodbye when he left. He told me that by not saying goodbye, he was ensuring that he would survive. He said ‘I could never leave this world knowing that I hadn’t gotten to say goodbye to my wife and children.’ At the time, I thought it was a beautiful statement.

One day, Oscar walked out the front door and never returned. I was with his wife when she received the news of his death. She was absolutely stricken at the sudden severance of communication with her husband. Twenty-two years of marriage, and he died without a parting word. And I thought, at the time, that if there was someone I cared for, I would never do them the disservice of denying them a goodbye when I knew there was a chance they might need one.”

Liz felt her eyes welling up, and she glanced away, swiping at her cheek with the sleeve of her robe. “Let me come with you tomorrow,” she said thickly.

There was a pause. “No, Lizzie. I didn’t come here to put you in further danger.” Red rose from his armchair and walked to Liz’s side, placing a hand on her shoulder. Liz kept her eyes averted, embarrassed at the tears there.

“I came to say goodbye.” Reddington squeezed her shoulder. Liz blinked away the wells in her eyes, then looked up to meet Red’s gaze.

Red smiled. “Goodbye, Lizzie.” With a parting squeeze, Red placed his hat on his head, gave her a final look, and walked out the door. It clicked shut. Liz watched as Red’s shadow traversed the curtains and disappeared.

***

Liz had resigned herself to a night of fitful sleep when the second knock sounded at her door. With bleary eyes, she swung her legs out of bed and stumbled to the door, opening it with the expectation of seeing Reddington’s weathered face looking back at her. She was surprised.

Instead of Reddington, a woman stood on her doorstep. Despite the lateness of the hour, the woman looked crisp and alert. She was young, blond, and dressed professionally in a gray suit. Despite her crisp attire, there was something about her that looked pale, washed-out. Her hair and skin were similar in color, and her eyes held no spark.

“May I come in?” She asked, her voice as monotonous as her appearance.

Liz eyed her suspiciously. “Who are you?”

“My name is Vanessa. I’m here with an invitation,” she said, with little expression and no inflection. “Please invite me in. The weather is chilly.”

Liz deliberated for a moment, safety or curiosity. There was simply no competition. With a sigh, she held the door open and stepped back, allowing the gray woman to pass through and take a seat in the motel’s lone armchair.

Liz flipped on the overhead light and leaned her back against the wall adjacent to the door, wrapping her robed arms around herself. “Who are you and what do you want?” She asked, keeping her expression flat so as not to betray her curiosity.

Vanessa pasted a smile on. The look did not suit. “I am here on behalf of a man called Quentin Covington. You are to be congratulated.” She pulled from within her suit jacket a gold envelope and tossed it on the bed. “This is your official invitation to Quentin’s ball tomorrow.”

Vanessa stared at Liz in silence for a moment, apparently expecting a response. “Why?” Liz offered.

“Guests aren’t allowed to know why they have been chosen. Mr. Covington says it spoils the fun. What I can tell you about the ball is this: you may not tell anyone that you have been invited. If you release any information about the ball, if anyone follows you to the ball, if the time, date, or location are compromised, all invitation recipients and their families will be killed. This is for our security, you understand. Mr. Covington would like to stress that the threat shouldn’t spoil the event, if you’re willing to be a good sport.” Coming from such a monotonous mouth, the phrase sounded strange.

“If Mr. Covington wants to foster fun, perhaps he should just deliver the invitations and leave the threats out.” Liz suggested.

“That is not possible. I see that you have not heard of Mr. Covington’s events. I can assure you that the guests would not attend without the threat of violence. You see, Mr. Covington’s events are extravagant, but there is a price. At this ball, someone will die. One person among the guest list has been chosen to be the victim. At some point during the night, they will be publicly murdered. Mr. Covington does not disclose who the victim will be. He wants the aura of mystery to pervade the evening. You and the other guests will spend the night being entertained by their demise.” Vanessa arose stiffly, her face an impeccable mask. “We look forward to your attendance. Please be punctual. If you are not punctual, we will assume that you have decided to flee, and you, your family and the entire guest list will be slaughtered. Good night.”

Vanessa pulled the door open, but Liz threw out a hand and slammed it shut. “Wait, that’s it? You’re just going to leave? What if I run, or tell someone? Shouldn’t you stay here to monitor me?”

Vanessa turned her bland gaze on Liz’s face. “That will not be necessary. You will not disclose any information, or you will die. It is that simple. Goodnight.”

With that, Vanessa sidestepped Liz’s arm, opened the door and departed.

Liz stood in the silence of her motel room, attempting to process the information she had just received. Surely this Mr. Covington, whoever he was, couldn’t expect her to sit idly back until the time of the ball, could he? And yet…something in Vanessa’s delivery of the speech unnerved Liz. It wasn’t that the whole premise of this party wasn’t completely ridiculous. It was. No, the part that worried Liz the most was the complete confidence with which Vanessa had stated the terms of the invitation. Something about this woman left Liz with little doubt that she had no choice but to attend this sinister ball.

Liz snapped into action. Crossing the room to her bed she opened her invitation. It certainly looked official if a little flamboyant. Curling golden cursive letters spelled out the date, time and location. Tomorrow at eight o’clock. With a shaky sigh, Liz placed the invitation back on the bureau, retrieved her laptop and resigned herself to a night of researching formal wear. Under the circumstances, there was no way she’d be able to sleep now.

***

Mr. Covington’s mansion was tucked away in the middle of nowhere, nestled in a deep valley. As she pulled into the gravel parking lot, Liz had no doubt that she had found the correct location. Sculpted shrubbery, fountains and statues betrayed the same taste for extravagance that Liz’s invitation did.

As Liz removed her car key and placed it in her clutch she took a deep breath, shutting her eyes to steady herself. Remember your training, she recited. In keeping with said training, Liz had donned a knee-length black formal dress that fanned out at the waist. The skirt was full enough to conceal her gun which was strapped to her thigh. Her hair was piled securely on top of her head and she had donned sensible flats with the outfit.

The entrance hall of Quentin Covington’s mansion was stunning. Arched ceilings, black marble columns and floors inlaid with golden tiles and patterns. Huge chandeliers decorated the ceiling. Liz handed her invitation and clutch to a tuxedoed worker and entered.

The ballroom was huge, and full to bursting. Tables laden with food lined the walls, waiters toting trays of drinks wove in and out of guests. Despite the festive aura, Liz had only to look to the cavernous ceiling to see numerous snipers positioned in what looked like tree houses. At the north end of the room, opposite where Liz had entered, a large stage was built into the wall with a bright gold curtain surrounding it. As Liz moved to take refuge in the southeast corner, a man entered the stage clad in a golden tuxedo.

The man had an aquiline face with black hair slicked back over his head. From a distance Liz couldn’t ascertain more than this. However, she wasn’t surprised when he stepped up to the microphone and began speaking.

“Hello! Some of you know me. For those of you that do not, I am Quentin Covington, and I will be your host this evening. For some guests this will be your fist time, so let me explain the night to you. You are here for a night of entertainment. Sounds exciting, doesn’t it?” As he spoke, Covington fiddled with his hands in anticipation. He was practically salivating, Liz noted with disgust. “I have chosen one of you as the murder victim this evening. I am the only one aware of our victim. It could be any of you!” Covington laughed, and it was genuine. Liz’s face curled in distaste.

“For now, dance, eat, and have fun! In half an hour I will reveal our victim. I will put on a little show. At the end, you will all be free to go and are not required to attend my next ball—that is, unless you should choose to, as many do!” In the background of the stage, tuxedoed performers carrying instruments began setting up a mock-symphony. “Well, I won’t keep you any longer,” Covington said. “Again, welcome, and feel free to enjoy yourselves!” With a parting wave and a smile, Covington exited the stage and the symphony struck its fist chord.

Liz felt a hand at her elbow. She jumped and turned to look at her guest, to be met with the easily smiling face of Raymond Reddington.

“Lizzie,” he said happily, leading her by the elbow toward the southeast door, “how lovely to see you. Let me show you this deserted corridor.” Red pushed the door open, gently herded Liz through it, and shut it behind them with a quick cautionary glace.

Liz turned to face Reddington, who dropped his pleased act as soon as he was certain they were alone. His expression took on a deadly serious quality.

“Lizzie, you shouldn’t have come here. I know you have a taste for adventure, but this is simply too dangerous.”

Liz raised her eyebrows. “It isn’t like I had much of a choice. I was invited.”

Red blinked. “Invited?”

“After you left last night, a woman came to my room. She gave me an invitation and told me I’d be killed if I didn’t attend.”

Red stood frozen for a second. Liz could tell he was thinking hard. At last, he spoke, stepping toward Liz to grasp her by the elbow again. “Lizzie, listen to me. I want you to find the nearest restroom and hide for five minutes. One of these waiters is sure to give in to bribery, and if not, I’ll find some other way. Quentin will be monitoring most exits to ensure that his guests don’t leave without his permission, but we can find a way around that. I’ll come and collect you when it’s safe for you to leave.” Red began pulling her in the direction of the ballroom, but Liz halted him.

“If you think I’m going to hide or run away, you don’t know me at all.” She said, pulling out of his grasp.

Red shook his head. The corners of his eyes crinkled as he looked at her earnestly. “Lizzie, this is not the time to let your curiosity get the best of you,” he said, turning to lead the way back into the ballroom. Liz was having none of it. She caught him by the arm, forcing him to turn and look at her.

“I’m not curious. I care about you,” she said fiercely.

Silence fell between them, Red holding Liz’s gaze. Liz became aware of her pounding heartbeat. She wasn’t willing to walk away until she had made her point: she wasn’t going anywhere.

Reddington bit the end of his tongue. He broke the silence, his voice heavy. “I can’t protect you here.”

“I don’t need your protection,” she countered.

“Oh, how I wish that were true.”

Tense silence fell between them for again, a battle of wills. Liz refused to break Reddington’s gaze. She met his pained expression with a determined look.

Reddington spoke. “I can see that I’m not going to talk you out of this, Lizzie. However, if you choose to stay tonight, there are rules.” Liz released his arm, satisfied. “We know that someone is going to die tonight. However, we don’t know how, and without that information, nothing and no one is safe. Don’t eat the food, don’t drink the champagne, don’t get too friendly with anyone. Above all, and this is very important, Lizzie,” Red offered his arm to her, “Never leave my side.”

Liz shot him a look as she slipped her hand around the crook of his elbow. “I thought you said you couldn’t protect me.”

Red laughed. “You think that’s going to stop me from trying? Honestly, Lizzie. It’s like you don’t know me at all.”

***

Reddington and Liz gazed out over the dancing crowd from their position in the southeast corner of the room, though Liz wasn’t exactly sure what she was looking for.

“So, what can you tell me about Quentin Covington? What number is he on the blacklist?” She asked, her hand hooked around his arm.

Red bared his teeth slightly. “Quentin…isn’t on the blacklist.”

“That’s a relief,” Liz said.

Reddington laughed. “Hardly. I said he wasn’t on the blacklist, not that he wasn’t dangerous. Lizzie, Quentin perhaps meets the criteria for inclusion on the blacklist, but I would never endeavor to kill or capture him, and I certainly wouldn’t ask anyone else to do so.”

“And why is that?” Liz asked.

“Quentin made his fortune in kidnapping. He is an abductor-for-hire. If a criminal wishes to capture a target but lacks the means, know-how or time to do so themselves, they come to Quentin. Quentin has something of a taste for trap setting. He loves to lure his victims in. By all accounts, he should be brought to justice. However, Quentin is…how can I put this…completely insane. Tonight’s frivolity should give you a taste for his sense of entertainment. He loves his twisted games, to the point that I believe he would be willing to die if he thought it would make for a good time. He kills indiscriminately, to hell with consequences. For that reason, I have never endeavored to dispose of him or encouraged you to do so.”

A dancing couple whirled past the two of them, and they fell silent for a moment. Liz took in the woman’s flowing red dress and easy laughter. She grimaced. “Some of these people are here by choice, aren’t they?”

“Don’t be so judgmental, Lizzie. Everyone enjoys a good show.”

Liz heard someone clearing their voice over the microphone and turned her gaze to the stage. There stood Mr. Quentin Covington, his gold suit glimmering under the light from the chandeliers overhead.

“What a lovely time some of you appear to be having! The rest of you, I’m terribly disappointed. I asked you here to dance, to laugh, to enjoy yourselves! My staff has worked tirelessly to prepare our refreshments tonight, and yet no one is eating. How terribly rude.”

Around the ballroom, doors flew open and in poured tuxedoed waiters bearing golden trays of chocolate-dipped strawberries. Behind these, there followed waiters carrying what appeared to be small golden trash cans.

“A waiter will bring you a refreshment. Please, eat.” His voice turned sinister. “I insist.”

Liz shuddered against her will. Reddington placed his free hand on hers briefly, squeezing in comfort.

A blond waiter approached, bearing his tray above the heads of the guests. He carefully removed two strawberries on lacey napkins, handing one each to Reddington and Liz. With a gracious bow, he whirled away.

It was then that the purpose of the trash cans became clear. Once they had eaten their strawberry, the guests needed somewhere to dispose of the leaves. It was a way to ensure that everyone ate their refreshment; they had to prove it by disposing of their waste.

“Don’t eat that,” Red said, biting into his own strawberry with apparent relish. “Excellent,” he said, smacking his lips.

“What else am I supposed to do with it?” Liz asked sarcastically, removing her strawberry from its napkin.

Reddington reached over and plucked the strawberry from her grasp, biting off the majority of it in one. With a full mouth, he smiled clumsily, placing the head of the strawberry back onto Liz’s napkin.

“Red!” Liz hissed.

Red gazed at the ceiling for a moment, looking pleased with himself. “The good news is it doesn’t appear to have been poisoned.”

Liz paused. “You have to stop this,” she said seriously. “I can take care of myself. I won’t be…alright if you die trying to protect me.”

“You’ll be alive,” Red met her eye all traces of his congenial act gone.

They were interrupted at that moment by a waiter with a garbage can. They each disposed of their napkins without so much as meeting his eye. As he walked away, Liz grasped Red’s bicep.

“My safety is my own decision. I chose to stay, but not so you could get yourself killed. Red,” she said, pausing until he met her eye. “Don’t make me live with that.”

Reddington’s face betrayed nothing as he turned to look away. “Fine.”

Quentin Covington smiled into the microphone. “You see? That wasn’t so difficult. Now, dance! I see too many melancholy faces sitting out. Join in the festivities.” With a smile and a bow, Quentin bounded off the stage.

A young man with dark eyes and hair approached Liz. He was rather handsome, with an easy smile and the hint of a beard growing. He offered his hand with a small bow and asked, “May I have this dance?”

Liz raised her eyebrows. She didn’t like the idea of being whisked off to dance with a stranger in the midst of such a dangerous gathering.

“I’m sorry, no,” she said. With an apologetic smile, she took Reddington’s hand and pulled him onto the dance floor.

Reddington acquiesced graciously, deftly moving her through the steps of a waltz. Liz caught a glimpse of the disappointed young man’s expression and felt a hint of regret.

“Do you think he was really interested?” She asked.

“I’m sure he was, but I doubt it was his only motivation,” Red said. Liz watched as his eyes scanned the faces of their fellow dancers. Her brows knit.

“What are you looking for?” She asked.

“Familiar faces,” Red answered.

“Do you recognize any?”

“An unfortunate amount,” he replied. “I’m becoming concerned, Lizzie. Many of Quentin’s guests have a connection not only to me, but to you. The signs of your invitation point toward either you or I being Quentin’s intended target.”

Liz’s heart skipped a beat. “Okay,” she said, keeping her expression even.

Red studied her. “It’s perfectly rational to be frightened. I would stress that my offer to attempt your escape is still wide open.”

“I’m not going anywhere.”

Liz caught sight of the stage as she and Reddington whirled past it. The stringed instruments continued to play toward the back, but the front of the stage had been reset. There stood a fashionable set of canvas furniture, with microphones placed at the arms of each of these. Off to the side of the stage, a band was being set up.

“Looks like Covington is setting up for his next performance,” she observed.

Two dances later, and Reddington seemed to be tiring. Liz suggested they take a break, citing her own exhaustion as the reason, and Red complied, leading her to the southwest corner of the dance floor. As they moved into the shadows, the lights on the dance floor dimmed and the music ceased. Liz and Reddington shared a puzzled look before turning their attention to the stage. A single spotlight illuminated the eccentric countenance of Quentin Covington. Liz had to admit that she was growing sick of him already.

“Well, ladies and gentlemen,” Covington began, “the time has come. I’m sorry to cut your dancing short, but I simply couldn’t wait to introduce our guest of honor.”

Liz felt Reddington’s hand slide into hers, and she grasped it tight.

“As I stated before, many of you know our guest of honor. I myself am incredibly excited to meet them. Please welcome to the stage Mr. Raymond Reddington!”

Liz clenched her jaw at the same time Reddington let out a soft sigh next to her. He released her hand and began unbuttoning his jacket.

“We can run,” Liz said in a whisper. In the background, she saw a spotlight searching for Reddington’s face among the crowd. Covington was saying something, but neither Red nor Liz listened.

Reddington slipped out of his jacket, handing it to Liz with a blank expression. He undid his cufflinks and began rolling up his sleeves. “You should do that, Lizzie.” He paused, his gaze searching her face, as though memorizing it. With a small breath, he wrapped a hand around the nape of her neck, pulling her close to him for a brief moment. Liz felt tears pricking the corners of her eyes as she took in the smell of his collar, the warmth of his touch. Reddington set his lips to her forehead, placing a hard, desperate kiss there. Liz knew; this is what goodbye felt like.

A bright light interrupted them; they had been spotted. Reddington turned from Liz without as much as a backward glance. Before she could move to pull him back, he disappeared into the crowd. With him went the spotlight, leaving Liz in darkness.

Liz set her jaw. With a cursory glance around to make sure she wasn’t being watched, she removed her gun from its holster on her thigh. She used Reddington’s jacket to hide the firearm, slipping in between guests as she made her way to the stage.

The band played as Reddington bounded onstage with the enthusiasm of a much younger man. Covington gave him a wide smile, approaching him with arms extended. Liz watched as Red mimicked Covington’s jovial nature. Red embraced him openly, though Liz saw his gaze dart to the snipers in the rafters. Covington led Reddington to the canvas sofa, where Red sat, crossed his legs and leaned back. He looked the picture of ease. Covington took a seat in the armchair, laughing at nothing. It was then that Liz realized what the whole setup reminded her of. It seemed that Quentin Covington was attempting to mimic a talk show. Liz rolled her eyes.

“Raymond Reddington,” Quentin said into the microphone on the arm of his armchair. “It’s so nice to finally have you here!”

“Thank you, Quentin. I don’t echo your sentiment,” Reddington smiled.

Covington laughed. “They rarely do. You know, Ray, you’re one of my most highly-requested guests? People just go crazy when you mention Raymond Reddington. I know of a few who have killed to make your appearance tonight possible.”

“I’m aware of that, Quentin. I see that you aspire to join their ranks.”

“Oh, Raymond, don’t be silly. I’m already among them.” Quentin addressed his next question to the crowd, “how do we feel about seeing Raymond Reddington up here tonight, folks?”

Around Liz, the audience applauded enthusiastically. She was close to the stage now, but she remained twenty feet back in order to blend in.

Covington smiled at Reddington, showing most of his teeth. “Your demise is welcome entertainment.”

Reddington dropped his own smile. “Make it worth their while, then.”

Covington shook his head, “all in good time, my friend. Before we get to the main event, I’d like to interview someone close to you. And let me tell you, it was hard to find someone who fit the description. You really don’t keep many people close, do you Red?”

Liz clenched her jaw. She had a feeling she knew what was coming. Onstage, Reddington didn’t reply. His gaze bored into Covington. He looked positively deadly.

“Aww, come now, Raymond. Don’t look at me like that! You must understand I’m only trying to entertain our guests. Anyway, as I was saying, it was difficult to find someone you’re really close to, someone who would light up our stage. I searched high and low for a second guest for our show tonight, and I wasn’t sure that a good candidate existed. Then, just last night, you went to visit someone. I had a feeling you might spend last night saying goodbye to anyone you cared about, just in case. People think you’re a stone cold killer, Raymond, but I see some softness in you.”

The audience laughed. Liz took a breath, her hands sweating as she clutched her gun under Reddington’s jacket. Liz knew the only way out of this was to kill Covington. If she shot now, the shot would look like it came from the audience. Reddington might be able to escape into the wings. However, there was a good chance that the snipers would open fire on the audience. Liz wasn’t sure she could escape herself, never mind the fact that she would be responsible for the deaths of everyone present.

“You know,” Covington observed when Reddington didn’t respond. “You’re no fun at all when you’re under threat of imminent death. Tell me, Raymond, who was that girl you were dancing with earlier this evening? The one you went to see last night?”

Liz’s heart thudded. Reddington bared his teeth ever so slightly.

“Come now, Raymond. Do share with the class.” Badum tss, the drum player in the band added. Covington turned to the audience. “Alright, Raymond appears to have lost his vocal chords, but I’m sure the young lady is watching. Do join us onstage, dear.”

Liz stayed where she was. She sidled behind a large man, at least partially concealing herself from the stage. Around her, heads began to turn, and Liz felt a surge of frustration. She was stuck. She couldn’t run, she couldn’t shoot, and she couldn’t hide.

Covington rolled his eyes, his gold suit glittering under the stage lights. “Alright, then. I didn’t want it to come to this.” Covington reached under his chair and pulled out a pistol. Pointing it directly at Reddington, he pulled the slide back and released. “If Reddington’s dashing guest hasn’t joined us onstage in the next thirty seconds, I’m going to shoot him.”

On cue, a projected timer appeared in red, just above the valance of the stage. It read 00:30 for a second, before beginning its countdown.

“Stay where you are, Lizzy,” Reddington said into his microphone. His voice was low and gravelly.

“Oh, I wouldn’t ask her to do that, Reddington. She might take your advice, and then where will you be? I mean, it’s possible she doesn’t care for you at all.”

“I sincerely hope that’s the case,” Reddington answered.

Liz took a deep breath and pushed her way forward. The clock ticked to 00:12 as she pushed her way through the last row of spectators. She stopped in the no-man’s-land between the audience and the stage, which was partially illuminated by the stage lights. She saw Reddington’s chest fall as she met his gaze. He shook his head ever so slightly.

“Put the gun away,” Liz told Covington, her eyes glued to Reddington. “I’m here.”

Covington dropped the gun, springing out of his chair immediately. “Here she is! Come on, come on, join us!”

Liz glared at him for a moment. The band struck up, and Liz moved to the left-hand staircase. She mounted it, feeling as though she were moving in slow motion. Everything looked more vivid than normal. The light reflecting off of the wooden stage stairs looked brighter, the contrast between colors heightened.

Covington began to approach her in his golden suit. Liz’s heart leapt. If she could get close enough…

Reddington stood to block Covington. He walked up to Liz with a smile on his face, leaning in for a hug. Liz was puzzled at his reasoning, until his low voice whispered in her ear.

“What are you doing?”

She pressed the barrel of the gun into his stomach. “Trying to get close to Covington,” she whispered back. 

Reddington pulled away, nodding ever so slightly. He led her to the couch, his arm circling her back.

Covington smiled and shook his head as the three of them took a seat. “Well, well, well. Look at you.” Light rippled over his slicked-back hair with each shake. His nose stood out up close. It was long and straight and oily. “Reddington’s pet, I presume?”

“Hardly,” Liz said, Reddington’s arm around her shoulders. She glared at Covington across Reddington.

“Very well. My apologies,” said Covington. “Your name is Lizzie, then?”

“Elizabeth, actually,” she replied.

“Beautiful name. So, Lizzie—”

“Elizabeth,” she corrected.

“How did you come to know Raymond Reddington?”

She smiled ever so slightly. “We met through work.”

Reddington laughed, caught unawares.

Covington narrowed his eyes cheekily. “You’re coy, aren’t you? Give us some details. Tell us your story!”

“I don’t think so,” she said with a straight face.

“Aww, come now. We’re all curious, aren’t we, folks?” The audience erupted in cheers. Covington clapped along with them. “You see?”

Liz refused to entertain him. She didn’t break his gaze, but she didn’t rise to it either. Covington let out a dramatic sigh.

“I can see we’re not going to get much out of you. Alright, then, who’s the girl, Raymond?”

Reddington chuckled. “Like she said, we're coworkers.”

“A coworker you’ve got your arm around. Don’t be a tease, Raymond. Give us the scoop.” Covington shuffled in his seat.

Reddington smiled. “Very well. Elizabeth specializes in finding and…disposing of my enemies. I have employed her several times, and she never fails to impress. She and I have something of a close relationship. She is, truly, one of the best.”

Covington nodded. “And what did you say to her when you went to her hotel room last night? Or,” he added mischievously, “Was there any talking involved at all?”

“You mistake me,” Reddington replied. “I went to Elizabeth’s room last night because I had a new assignment for her. This invitation had absolutely no bearing on our meeting.  I’m afraid you aren’t as feared as you’d like to be, Quentin.”

Covington grimaced. “Play nicely, Raymond,” he warned.

“Quentin, I’m surprised at you. You say I’m one of your most highly requested guests, and yet you obviously haven’t done your research. You expect me to bend to your will because this is your house and you have guns trained on my head and you think you’re in power here. You’re wrong. If you’ve learned anything about me, you would know that I’m not intimidated by bullies, and I don’t play nicely.”

Covington was clearly angry now. His show-host demeanor had dropped, his expression sour.

“Raymond Reddington. He loves to talk,” he said, in a lame attempt to regain control of the conversation. “You say the girl’s an assassin? I don’t believe you, Raymond. I think you love her.”

Liz could feel them approaching dangerous waters now. She wished Reddington had held his monologue off.

“I don’t think I can get to know her from this far away, though,” Covington said. “Lizzie, dear, why don’t you join me here?” He uncrossed his legs, gesturing to his lap.

Reddington squeezed Liz’s shoulder. “We’re comfortable here, I think.”

“I didn’t ask you Raymond. Come on, sweetheart.” When Liz stayed put, he rolled his eyes. “Don’t make me get the gun out again.”

Liz stood, Reddington’s hand falling away. Her heart sped up as she resituated Reddington’s jacket around the firearm. She prayed it wasn’t at all visible. With sweaty palms, she placed herself in Covington’s gold-covered lap.

Covington smiled triumphantly, but he wasn’t looking at Liz. Instead, his gaze focused on Reddington. Whatever was passing between the two men, Liz ignored it, keeping focused.

“Thank you for joining me, dear,” Covington said. He wrapped an arm around Liz’s shoulders, planting a kiss on her cheek, and then glancing back in Reddington’s direction. “Oh dear,” he said. “Ray doesn’t like that.”

The audience laughed. Liz glanced at Reddington’s livid face and tried to give him a reassuring look, but she wasn’t sure he saw it.

“Now, Lizzie,” Covington said.

“Elizabeth.”

“I think we’re beyond that. You and I are friends, right?”

Liz rolled her eyes.

“Good, good,” he responded. “Now, tell me: who are you really?”

The woman that’s going to put a bullet through you, Liz thought. She smiled widely.

“What’s that smile for? Come on. You don’t have to tell everyone, just me. Here, lean in and whisper it in my ear.”

Liz’s grin widened. Covington tilted his ear toward her face, and she leaned in until her lips were almost touching the cartilage. She exhaled, letting her breath run over his face seductively before whispering, “If you move an inch, I’ll shoot.”

Liz jammed the barrel of the gun, still hidden beneath the jacket, into his stomach. His sharp intake of breath told her that she’d made her point. To the audience, it looked as though nothing more than words had passed between them. Liz dropped her grin.

“Listen to me closely. I have various reasons for waiting this long to kill you. If you disobey any of my orders from this point on, I will disregard them and empty this magazine into your vital organs. Got that? Laugh if you understand.”

Covington laughed.

“Good. Now, order your snipers to drop their weapons. Make it convincing, or you die.” She said, adding an extra jab with her weapon to add motivation.

Covington chuckled. Despite the fact that she had him at gunpoint, Liz got the feeling that the man was somehow enjoying this.

“Elizabeth, you surprise me! She really is a scream folks. Alright, now we’ll shake things up a little. I want my snipers to drop their weapons. Yes, all of you. You folks on the floor might want to move out of the way.”

There were screams as machine guns rained from the rafters. Liz couldn’t spare them a second look. She resituated herself on Covington’s lap.

“Now tell everyone to exit the building.”

“For this next act, we’ll be moving outdoors. If all guests could please exit the premises, that would be marvelous. Reddington, Elizabeth and I will join you shortly. My staff should exit as well.”

Liz heard the band shifting behind her. This clearly had not been in the plan for the evening. She took a shaky breath. There was a good chance someone was going to catch on soon. Liz knew there was only a slim chance she’s get Covington alone.

The guests had no problem obeying orders. They began to file out the doors as one. The staff looked less at ease. Waiters were casting each other questioning looks, shifting uncomfortably.

“Your staff doesn’t believe you. You have ten seconds to make them. Ten,”

“I see that some of my staff—

“Nine,”

--are concerned for my safety.”

“Eight,”

“There is no need.”

“Seven,”

“I have changed the plan.”

“Six,

Five,

Four,”

“Alright. Anyone who doesn’t get out of this room immediately is fired.”

There was a sudden scrambling of well-dressed staff members as each rushed for the door. Behind them, the band abandoned their instruments as they rushed across the stage. Within ten seconds, the room had cleared.

Liz glanced around the golden ballroom, squinting into the shadows to make sure that they were really alone. At last, she stood, removing Reddington’s jacket from the gun and pointing it directly at Quentin Covington’s head.

“How did I do?” He asked.

“That was good,” she replied tonelessly. She squeezed the trigger with a straight face.

The shot echoed around the room as blood colored Covington’s golden suit. Liz felt a hand grasp her wrist, and she jumped, only to turn and see Reddington’s tense face inches from hers.

“We have to go,” he said, pulling her into the right wing of the stage, and not a second too late. The moment they were out of sight, the doors to the ballroom banged open. Someone must have heard the shot.

Reddington gestured to a door ahead of them. The two ran as quietly as possible toward it, their footsteps betraying an ever so slight pitter-patter.

Reddington put his hand on the handle of the door, but Liz stopped him. She gestured to the gun in her hand Let me go first. Reddington gave her a pained expression but stood back, allowing her to crack the door and check that the coast was clear. The stairway leading down from the stage was completely deserted. She started down them, trusting that Reddington would follow. At the bottom of the stairs, a set of double doors concealed the corridor beyond. Liz moved to push them open, but Reddington stopped her.

“Do you have your phone?”

Liz shook her head.

Reddington examined her face for a moment. “Okay, we have to move quickly. Dembe is waiting in the parking lot. If we can get hold of a phone, we can have him meet us around the back entrance. If not…we have to somehow make it past the crowd in front to the parking lot.”

Liz nodded. “Get hold of a phone it is,” she responded.

Liz heard footsteps beyond the doorway at the top of the stairwell. Liz and Reddington pushed through the doors blindly. They burst into a deserted long marble corridor, lined with golden doors. The footsteps were on the staircase behind them now; there was no time to run. Liz dashed for the nearest door and pushed, with Reddington close behind. They tumbled into a small room and shut the door behind them.

They were met with a strange sight. It appeared that a waiter had seduced a tightly-laced woman into this service closet and was attempting to…unlace her. Liz raised her gun.

“Make any noise and I’ll shoot,” she whispered as the two jumped and turned to look at her with wide eyes.

Footsteps thundered past the service closet, but none paused to look inside. Liz let out a breath as the noise faded.

Reddington stepped past Liz, his demeanor congenial.

“Raymond Reddington,” he introduced himself. “Our apologies for interrupting what promises to be a bad decision—or perhaps a series of them. If you wouldn’t mind, we’ll be needing to borrow a phone and your”—he gestured to the waiter—“firearm. Don’t pretend you don’t have one. If I know Quentin, he’ll have armed all of his staff to the teeth. Thank you.”

The couple blinked in unison.

“Now,” Reddington said in a low voice. The two sprang into action, handing over both items in under ten seconds. Reddington let Liz step in front of him while he dialed Dembe, giving him instructions for where to meet them. Liz kept her gun trained on the bewildered pair.

Reddington slipped the phone into his pocket. “Dembe is on his way. We should go now if we want to meet him in time.”

Liz nodded. “Check the hallway,” she said, and waited, still poised while he did so.

“Clear,” he said.

Liz turned to go, glancing back at the couple, “you’re free to pick up where you left off,” she said, and then she and Reddington disappeared through the door.

Reddington took the lead as they sprinted down the corridor. Liz didn’t bother to ask how he knew the layout of the building. He lead her through a maze of hallways and staircases, darting out of sight whenever footprints could be heard, until finally they burst into a room that mirrored the setup of the entrance hall: columns, black marble and gold, a series of enormous chandeliers overhead. There was a huge doorway at one end of it, just like the entrance hall.

Unfortunately, they were not alone. A trio of male waiters stood, all of them with their firearms drawn. “Freeze!” they shouted, almost in unison.

“Not likely,” said Reddington. Several things then happened in quick succession.

Two shots were fired; one from Reddington, one from one of the waiters. Liz’s arm suddenly felt as though it were on fire. She let out a pained shout, blind to her surroundings. She felt Reddington’s arms around her as he crushed her to a column, shielding her. There was a shout, a loud crash, and Liz felt some sort of debris raining down. Pieces continued to roll with a rasping sound over the marble floor. At last, there was silence.

Reddington pulled away from Liz. “Did he get you?” He asked, turning her to face him.

Liz leaned back against the marble, grimacing. “Just my arm. What happened?”

“Our waiter friends have terminated. I dropped a chandelier on them,” he said as he examined her arm. “Can you run, Lizzie?” He looked earnestly into her eyes. She nodded.

“Alright, then, let’s go.” Reddington put a hand on the small of her back as she clutched her right arm with her left. She felt exposed with her shooting hand out of commission. Together, the two of them worked around the fallen waiters, slipping out the enormous double back doors to find Dembe waiting in the driver’s seat of a silver car, engine running.

Reddington opened the door for Liz, who slid into the middle seat. Reddington himself slipped in behind her, shutting the door and rolling down the window in quick succession. He pulled the stolen phone from his pocket and chucked it out the window, then turned to Dembe and said, “Drive.”

Dembe complied. With a roar, the vehicle took off, tearing around the side of the enormous house. As they drove, Reddington pulled a first aid kit from under the passenger’s seat.

“Let me see your arm, Lizzie,” he said. His hands worked deftly as he wrapped gauze around the injured section. One hand holding the gauze in place, he pulled a roll of medical tape from the kit and used his teeth to tear a section off, securing her bandage in place.

As they rounded the front of the house, they were met with the entire guest list, who had retreated out front and were apparently awaiting further instruction. Dembe slowed only slightly, laying on the horn as he pressed forward. The guests screamed, diving out of the way as Dembe cut a path through them. A moment later, they had left the guests behind and were coming to the gate of Quentin’s estate. Liz’s heart skipped a beat as she saw the golden bars beginning to close. The gap narrowed, and Liz knew that if the car couldn’t make it through, the impact would likely kill them. As the car approached, she shut her eyes and curled herself against Reddington.

There was a screech and a scrabbling sound. Liz opened her eyes a crack to see that the gates had closed a second too late; they had caught just the very back of the car. Dembe laughed once in triumph, and they raced away.

Liz twisted in her seat to look out the back window, taking in the enormous house from a distance. It looked much less impressive upon exiting, smaller somehow. The mutilated golden gates only added to the effect.

Liz’s arm twinged, and she sucked in a breath. She slumped against Reddington, who wrapped an arm around her shoulders. Liz fit herself next to him, closing her eyes.

“Thank God,” she whispered.

“On the contrary, Lizzie,” Reddington said, his voice rough, “It’s you I have to thank.” He paused. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Liz sighed, nuzzling her face into his vest.

The car rounded a bend, and the three of them left Quentin Covington’s mansion behind for good.