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Viper

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From: Tracey Prine

To: epiales@epiales.com

Subject: article attached

 

Thought you might want to see this. You’ve made the papers for your real job for once, although your name still isn’t mentioned—but I expect you enjoy that. It’s all over the news stations, and NPR is currently airing the story. Congratulations. There’s a nice quotation from Polson near the bottom that you’ll get a kick out of.

 

Additionally, I’m going to need your piece on the refugee crisis within twelve hours if it’s going to be published this week.

 

Thanks,

t.

 

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FALSELY ACCUSED, JULIA LAURENS ACQUITTED

 

In the late afternoon of October 17, the protracted trial of Julia Laurens came to a sudden end in light of new evidence. Laurens, on trial for the murder of Moira Herrington, daughter of celebrated actors Jay and Melissa Herrington, walks as an innocent woman this morning.

 

As Moira’s violin teacher, Laurens would have had access to the Herrington residence during lessons on Mondays, but, it turns out, she was not the only one. It seemed like an open-and-shut case when Moira’s body, dismembered, was found in various black bags in Laurens’s garbage bins, along with the ice pick used to gouge out Moira’s eyes under the seat in Laurens’s vehicle on the day Laurens was stopped on the route from the Herrington residence. Laurens had said that she had driven to the lesson without being able to find Moira and was returning home, but the body had already been discovered.

 

However, as the defence exposed, all supposed evidence was a plant by perpetrator Johnson Mays, a colleague of Laurens who had a secret, unhealthy obsession with the underage Moira. Mays, a mechanic, had attended the weekly game night at Laurens’s apartment on Sunday and had sabotaged Laurens’s car and planted an ice pick similar to the one used. With this setup, Mays would have time to commit the murder during the scheduled violin lesson, while Laurens would have to attend to her car.

 

You kicked your feet up on the coffee table and flicked through the article. Fucking yes. You’d made national news for being a lawyer, for once. You were the one who’d done the intricate research to discover Mays’s connections, and when Dr. Prine gave you leave, you had driven upstate to investigate Mays’s house under warrant, posing as a general lackey. You had felt the need to see his place with your own eyes, and you had struck gold: not only had you found the real ice pick in his wood pile, but you had found one of Moira’s contacts stuck to the back of his freezer. Her fucking contact. When the lab reports came back, complete with the drop of blood on the ice pick matching Moira’s, you forwarded everything to Dr. Prine, and she sent it to her attorney acting defence in the trial. Mays wasn’t even a player in the game before you, and now the rightful murderer was going to jail. An innocent woman walks free because of you.

 

Justice felt fantastic. Your work being in the national headlines felt a little better.

 

You scanned the rest of the article until you reached the quotation Dr. Prine had told you about.

 

…Out of the clamouring press following the trial, only this was squeezed from a fuming Prosecutor James Polson: “I [redacted] had them. Whoever dug up the dirt on Mays, they’re a [redacted] viper, sinking their fangs into the status quo and letting their venom spread.”

 

Grinning, you took another bite of Ben and Jerry’s, straight out of the carton. Dr. Prine was right. You were going to have to find a hard copy of the Times so that you could post this on your bedroom wall. You had to bite your lip you were smiling so hard.

 

You set your ice cream on the coffee table and lay back on the couch to compose a response to Dr. Prine, but you called her instead. As your phone rang, you kicked back and stared at the ceiling fan, its pull making small circles as the blades spun.

 

“Dr. Prine,” you said when she picked up, “Holy fuck! Holy fuck!”

 

“Congratulations,” she said, her smile coming through over the phone, “I’m proud of you. You did some really solid work.”

 

“I didn’t think this would happen! I saved someone’s life! Julia Laurens can go to fucking Hobby Lobby, and no one will accost her. It’s my fault, and she doesn’t even know me,” you said, sitting up to grab your ice cream again.

 

“Isn’t that what you wanted?”

 

“Well, yeah,” you said thickly through a chunk of frozen brownie, “It is. I wish I could tell my mother, though, but it’s not that big of a deal.”

 

“Is she still doing all right?”

 

You swallowed, choking a bit to get it down. “Yeah. How’s work for you?”

 

“The freshman students write the worst papers I’ve ever seen,” said Dr. Prine with a clattering in the background, “Damn, I just—hold on. Dropped the binders.” A door creaked shut on her end, and Dr. Prine spoke more loudly after. “I miss your work. It was nice grading it, since I didn’t have to mark it up much. These kids can’t even handle a mock trial yet. I worry for your generation.”

 

“Don’t worry. We’re all just tired,” you said, “Speaking of my work, I’ve almost finished the refugee piece. Once I get a solid closing statement, I’ll send it your way.”

 

“Well, don’t procrastinate. Your deadline’s soon. You got anything lined up this evening?”

 

Scrunching your eyes shut, you winced. “Don’t remind me. Polson’s got me doing menial work again. Something totally useless with spreadsheets and the expenses of the fucking break room and secretarial offices. If he knew what I was capable of—”

 

“If he knew you worked against him in the Laurens trial? I know,” said Dr. Prine, her voice softening, “I’ve been meaning to tell you something. It’s your ticket out of Polson’s firm. I’ve found a place where your talents would be…much more appreciated. You could start within the week.”

 

“Say more right now.”

 

***

 

2,132.

 

2,132 rejections via mass email, starting in your second year of law school. All from different firms that didn’t want you. Rounds upon rounds of interviews, competing with your friends and total strangers who held themselves like they were Croesus, reaching the final interview, only to get rejection emails three days later from firms you would have quite literally killed people to work for. Years of working for and studying under Dr. Prine, editing her national law journal, diligently dotting the is of her excruciating cases late into the night. Getting a taste of the allure of wealth and entrenched power, and never having it want you outside of the knowledge that you were her student. All of it—from the cases you and she never could crack and stood outside in the rain pulling your hair out over, to the parts of your life you missed out on, like your best friend’s wedding and your mother’s last birthday before you started growing apart—leading up to this: walking into a high-rise building with mirror-like windows in the middle of Manhattan and staring up at an embossed, brass nameplate on a door that read Harrison Osterfield.

 

The next chapter in your life, and it sank like a stone in your stomach. You raised your fist to knock, but before you could, someone snatched it away.

 

“Ripley,” said the bony man maybe a decade older than you, pulling on his collar and dropping your hand, “and you’re not getting my first name. We’ve got to get upstairs before they see you. No time to lose. I’m the lawyer you’re replacing.”

 

Glancing back at Osterfield’s door, you followed behind Ripley up a few floors (the elevator was too risky, he told you.) and into a crusty, windowless office with water damage dripping in a back corner. After closing the door, he sat in one of the two chairs in front of the desk (one leg was propped up by a book) and gestured for you to do the same.

 

“You’re Dr. Prine’s student, aren’t you?”

 

“I am,” you said, sinking into the leather, “She also told me that you’d be waiting for me, but considering this business belongs to a Mr. Thomas Holland, one would think I’d be meeting him on my first day.”

 

Ripley pulled a leg into his lap, resting one ankle on the opposite knee. “With any luck, you won’t have any direct interactions with him. Nasty man in a nasty business.”

 

“Being in an IT consulting company can’t be that bad,” you said, head snapping towards a bucket against the wall once water dripped into it from the ceiling. “What’s with the, uh…?” You nodded your head towards the leak.

 

“They shoved me down here while the real office is getting renovated, or so they say. Doesn’t matter,” said Ripley, “You and I have a lot of work to do. You’re one of Dr. Prine’s. So am I. They’re working me to death here, and apparently you’re a masochistic workaholic. I need to get out, and this is—well, what we’re about to do is going to be easiest for everyone in this room.”

 

You tapped your fingers against the split leather, each landing with a dull thum. “Why do I get the feeling this is going to be needlessly complicated?”

 

“Please, trust me, or at least trust Dr. Prine,” he said, untwisting the cap of a nalgene from his desk, “It was her idea. I can call her up, if you want.” He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

 

Shaking your head, you said, “I’ve already seen your credentials. Dr. Prine gave me more information on you than I need to know, Jerome Ripley. I know you’re trustworthy. What’s the plan?”

 

“I hear you’re into anonymity.”

 

You always were a dramatic little bitch, so you agreed to the plan: you and Ripley would collaborate on the job until you knew much more of the rope of Osseous Enterprises, and Ripley would fade out as you took on the job by yourself. The plan was sketchy, and everything reeked of ulterior motives. You found yourself addressing stranger and stranger things sent to you in the emails (a lousy lawyer@osseous, how lame) right up until you opened an email from Holland before Ripley could get to it.

 

Inside were photographs of a human skeleton with the flesh freshly ripped off of it, and that lay to the side of the bones. Boss shot him through the neck, it was labelled, Had me skin it. Wants you to send it along to H. Jones in Queens and cover the death. Victim lived in… And then addresses, social security, et al.

 

You were supposed to cover up a murder. A murder committed by—oh, um. Hm. You didn’t sign up for this.

 

Ripley walked into the office right as Dr. Prine picked up on your phone call, and he slapped the phone out of your hands.

 

Both of them talked you through. The mafia. You were working for the mafia. Not the whole thing, obviously, but you were working for the most prestigious mob family in—fuck, they covered multiple countries, but their base was right here in New York, in the very fucking building you’d been working in for a month—oh, fuck. Were you in the mob? No, you had to be inducted, and to be inducted, you had to be trusted, or at least, even fucking noticed. Osseous Enterprises was a front corporation for Holland’s dealings in the mob, even though it made a lot of money—but significantly less than what was officially recorded. No wonder Ripley was taking certain tasks. He was easing you into it, letting you deal with the surface level shit before you really knew what you were getting into (an aside: this explained why Dr. Prine seemingly sent you to work in business when you specialised in criminal law).

 

It took hours and hours of skype calls with Dr. Prine and talking with Ripley outside of work to convince you to stay. Dr. Prine appealed to your better nature, damn it, and talked about how even though Holland worked selfishly, he confronted people and solved problems the government was too scared to commit to. All she had to do was talk up your innate sense of justice, and you started changing your mind, albeit with extreme reluctance, especially with the threat of returning to Polson’s firm. Not to mention your first paycheque had your head spinning, and that didn’t hurt your cause.

 

So, you worked for the mob, and no one knew you did, not even the mob. If Holland knew Ripley were leaving, Ripley would have a knife in his back within the next minute. It was safer for Ripley to phase out, with you proving your worth secretly, until you deemed it time to reveal yourself, after Ripley left.

 

“It’d be odd if all areas of your life were perfect in tandem,” Dr. Prine would remind you, and you’d affectionately flip her off and get back to writing your next Epiales piece. Deadlines were always too soon.

 

***

 

The Epiales project was the only thing going for you right now, aside from the sudden income from Holland. It began your final semester of law school, when you shouldn’t have been taking on anything new at all. You had written, quite frankly, a fucking astonishing article on modern feminism as it functions in the government and in law, and Dr. Prine had featured it in her law journal. You hadn’t wanted recognition, because your views differed drastically from your family’s, and you didn’t want your peers making fun of you, either. You’d decided on Epiales as your penname, because, even though you wanted to follow in the footsteps of political authors throughout history, you couldn’t find a Greek philosopher whose views you agreed with. So, you went with the personification of nightmares, just because it’d be your family’s worst nightmare if they knew you were this politically different from them.

 

Just as a joke.

 

But then, the New York Times had bought your article from Dr. Prine and published it on the front page. Eventually, through repetitions of this and an endless string of emails, you had a monthly feature in the fucking New York Times, so long as the article was original to their newspaper and not a republished one from the law journal. They conceded to your continued posting to the Epiales website on the basis that you posted online after they began selling that day’s edition. You didn’t care. You were in the New York Times, for Christ’s sake.

 

And no one knew it was you. You were completely safe, from hecklers, from your family, from disgusting men threatening to ruin your life and/or end it. You had taken too many precautions. Hell, if someone tried to trace your IP address, it’d relocate to the middle of a sulphur pit in Yellowstone.

 

Through a series of accidents, you garnered respect.

 

***

 

The day you should have been waiting for comments to roll in for your latest instalment on the refugee crisis, Tom Holland needed his lawyer present at a tennis match in the Hamptons. Holland intended to ensure political ties with Senator Hernandez, whose daughter was playing in the tennis tournament. A sizable crowd at a public outing, all distracted and getting steadily drunk? Holland could make his move easily.

 

Thus there you stood under the scant shade of a pine tree in the ninety-seven-degree heat, sweating through your jet-black blazer, sucking on a piece of ice, and damning Tom Holland to his grave. You glared daggers into the back of his pretty head as he leant against the railing of the pavilion, laughing with the crowd and swirling an old fashioned in his palm against the muted sounds of rackets hitting the ball in the background. When Harrison bent in to whisper to Holland, Tom took off his amber-tinted sunglasses and cleaned them on the inside of his suit jacket, and once finished, he nodded and started weaving his way through the spectators.

 

Holland wanted his lawyer here yet wasn’t doing anything worthwhile, you thought bitterly. You were too good for him, really, because you’d planted yourself near Senator Hernandez’s bench as he watched his daughter. While Holland flirted, you were eavesdropping and sweating your fucking skin off.

 

Near the end of the second set, you caved and shrugged off your blazer when you caught the latter half of something Hernandez was saying: “—read it? It’s brilliant. Next time Congress is in session, I’m bringing in that Epiales article.”

 

Your jaw dropped, and so did the ice from your mouth. Your blazer hung limp from one hand, and you steadied yourself against the tree, your high heels sinking into the earth. Fumbling around for your phone, you barely had time to get to Dr. Prine’s contact entry before someone gently nudged your arm from behind with a glass tumbler, condensation sticking to your skin.

 

“You look like you’d rather be anywhere else but here,” said Tom Holland, his voice hot in your ear, while he’s standing a little too close for comfort and holding out an old fashioned identical to his, “I can offer a distraction, at the least.”

 

You don’t drink, but you took what was offered. “Am I that transparent?”

 

“Like glass, sweetheart. What’s bothering you?” He leant against the tree trunk, slumping a little, and tapped his index finger against his tumbler.

 

“Afraid I’ve been dragged here for work.”

 

“On a Saturday?”

 

You met his gaze, completely fixated on you through the amber sunglasses. “My boss is a bit of an ass.”

 

“Sounds like it,” Tom said, cracking a grin, “Forcing you to come to some silly tennis match on the hottest day of the month and flat-out ignoring you.”

 

“It’s better than putting me in a sundress and having me on his arm.” Like Polson did once that summer. You had kicked his ass, verbally, about it, but since he threatened to smear your name through the mud for the rest of your life, which he was capable of doing, it had to be done. “At least I’m here for a reason, supposedly.”

 

“Who treats his employees like that? Wouldn’t dream of it.” Tom brought his glass to his mouth as his eyes flicked up and down your body, taking his time about it. “Though I’d put you in a green sundress. Something that shows off your shoulders.”

 

“And I’d put you in navy, in something with a high neckline. Anything to accentuate those pretty-boy cheekbones you’ve got,” you said.

 

At this, he ran his tongue over his lower lip, pushed off the tree, and took a step closer to you. He may be enjoying it now, but this motherfucker would regret this conversation in about five minutes. To be honest, you were enjoying it a little too much. To have someone as powerful, confident, and attractive (the grey tweed suit buttoned over a tight, white button-down was doing things to you) as Tom was having his complete, unadulterated attention on you? It was a taste of something you denied yourself. But no matter how fast his charisma held you, it was time to wrap it up. You planned to work for this man a long time.

 

“Listen,” said Tom, “Why don’t I give you a tour of the country club?” He trailed two fingers from your wrist over the back of your hand to take your drink. “It’s not much, but we’ll get you into some air conditioning. We could find a place to talk without anyone overhearing, if you like.”

 

You rolled your shoulders back, and for the first time, you began to smile. “Hardly professional, Holland. To think I expected better of you.”

 

He blinked. “Excuse me?”

 

“Shouldn’t you be giving this attention to Senator Hernandez’s daughter? It’ll be easier to get to him through her.”

 

And there it was: his face hardened, his eyebrows furrowing and lips puckering very slightly, the brief clenching of his jaw and the flush around the tops of his ears—the face your opponents got in court when your research that would pack the case into a tight box was brought to the stand. “Who are you?” Tom asked flatly.

 

“You’re going to have to work for that information, Holland,” you said, “Be careful about how you respond. As much as you should like to, you can’t make a scene with so many witnesses.”

 

“I own all of these people,” he said through his teeth.

 

“Go ahead, then,” you said, and you clasped your hand behind your back, waiting.

 

After a beat, Tom sighed exasperatedly and grabbed you by the wrist to pull you somewhere, but before he could take two steps, you yanked yourself out of his grasp. He didn’t even bother looking over his shoulder. “Are you going to follow me?”

 

“Are you going to hurt me?”

 

He turned his head enough to look you in the eye. “You’re going to talk.”

 

“And if I don’t?”

 

“You appear to know who I am. Use your imagination.” He jerked his head towards the country club’s restaurant, not far from the tennis courts. “C’mon.”

 

Death sounded good at all occasions for you, but since someone needed to feed your cat this evening, now wouldn’t be the best time to die. Not to mention you still had half a croissant left over from that morning, and you couldn’t let that go to waste. You followed behind Tom at a couple of paces, checking to ensure no one was watching you leave, because it sure looked like you were sneaking off to give him a blowjob behind the ice machine.

 

He made you go first once you reached the stairs to the upper storey restaurant, and he cornered you at the far end of the balcony, trapping you against the iron railing with the metal pressing into your back and his hands planted on either side of you. Tom stood close enough that you had to lean backwards a little over the railing, and you had to grip the railing just inside of his hands to stay upright.

 

His mouth twitched. “Why are you here?”

 

Your gaze flashed from his lips to his eyes. “I’m here to supervise the contract you’re making with Senator Hernandez, and I’m ensuring that he does sign it.”

 

“And why’s that?” When he jerked forward in an attempt to make you lose your balance, you stifled a cough at the wave of the oversaturated cologne that hit you.

 

“Like I said, my boss is a bit of an ass.”

 

Damn it,” Tom said, breaking eye contact for the first time. Freshly determined, he moved closer, his hipbones poking into you with one hand gripping your waist. “Who’d be stupid enough to provoke me? Who do you work for? Fletcher? The Fratellis?”

 

“You,” you said, and you left your lips pursed as he flinched away from you and bent over the back of a wrought-iron chair, pressing his fist to his mouth.

 

“I’m your lawyer,” you said, stifling a smile, “I wrote the Hernandez contract. I’ve also been managing your affairs for some time now, specifically covering your tracks for fucking murder—”

 

“What’d you do to Ripley?” Tom straightened up and removed his sunglasses. He tucked them over his collar.

 

“Ripley’s gone,” you said, “of his own free will. Or of his will, at least, since he wasn’t free to leave under your—”

 

“Where is he now?”

 

“Sorry. Privileged information. What matters is that Ripley’s gone completely off-grid so that you can’t find him. Even I’m not able to reach him.” You tentatively slid from your corner along the railing nearer to the chair he had propped a foot on. “I’ve been working for you for over a month now. You really should keep better tabs on your employees—though, I suspect, that’ll be part of my job soon.”

 

Tom snapped his fingers twice. “Name.”

 

“Paul McCartney.”

 

He narrowed his eyes, his nose wrinkling in the process, and said, “Your name.”

 

You didn’t hesitate in saying it, a first for you, and as he mouthed the syllables slowly, you said, “And don’t bother looking me up. I don’t have any social media, nor do I have an online presence at all.” Under your real name, that is. “You can find me in a list of interns for a certain renown professor, but I’m about to give you that information, anyway.”

 

Tom stared up at you, a curl dangling in front of his eyes. “A freely given piece of personal information?” His fingertips pressed above his left lapel. “I’m touched,” he said, his voice dark.

 

“My mentor for the better part of my life now,” you said, stepping closer to drag the back of your hand over the iron pattern in Tom’s chair (he jolted backwards, just barely, but you caught it), “has been Tracey Prine.”

 

He tilted his head, and his jaw hung open slightly, his tongue lingering on the edge of his top incisors before clicking it against the roof of his mouth. “No, she hasn’t.”

 

“Want me to call her?” You dug your phone out of your pocket and unlocked it to her contact entry, just where it had been before Tom started talking to you. Your thumb waited above the call button for his decision, but whatever. Fuck with him. You pressed it anyway and put it on speaker.

 

It rang twice before she picked up, and at the sound of her voice stating your name and telling you she’s got a class in two minutes and to check on the Times (you didn’t react to that part), Tom inhaled sharply and straightened his shoulders.

 

“Not much, Dr. Prine, but I’m here with my employer,” you say, the phone lying flat in your palm between you and Tom, whose gaze flickered from it to you.

 

“Tell Mr. Holland I appreciate his work ethic and that he should value yours to no end,” she said, “I’ve got to go. Tonight?”

 

“Tonight,” you said, and you hung up on her.

 

“What’s…?” When you shook your head, he held out his hand. “Let me see your texts.” He swore under his breath as he scrolled through them, going through months and months of casework for notable trials, and he read the attachments you had sent recently. “Lab work, blood results. An ice pi—holy shit,” Tom said, the hand with the phone falling limply to his lap, “The Laurens trial. You.” The corner of his mouth twitched before breaking into a smirk. “You’re the one that solved everything. You’re that viper.”

 

Oh, my fuck; he’s heard of you. Tom Holland has heard about you. He’s familiar with your work. Oh, holy fuck. You held it all in for the moment, but if you made it home alive, you were going to marathon Star Wars and call in for takeaway. “That I am,” you said coolly, accepting your phone when he offered it, “and what does that mean for you, Mr. Holland?”

 

Any evidence of doubt about him evaporated, and his charisma returned almost instantly. He was smiling now, his teeth on display, and he leant towards you. “I want you at my side, Viper,” he said, his hands dangerously close to yours on the back of the iron chair, “I want you to do for me what you did for Laurens. Exclusively. I’ll be your only client. I want you to tear apart my enemies and pick their bones clean. I want you to be merciless, and I want you to be mine.

 

That’s a lot of subtext you’ll be thinking about in the shower later. But show nothing; be nothing. “You want an awful lot.”

 

Tom took a deep breath and moved to sit on the wrought-iron table. “That’s why I’m giving you an out,” he said, crossing his arms loosely, “before you’re in. Because once you’re in, you can’t leave. I’ll make sure of that.”

 

You took a moment before clasping your hands behind your back and taking a step around the chair towards him. “I want my privacy.”

 

“I can’t guarantee that. I’ve got to keep a close eye on you, since Ripley slithered away,” he said, “You’re a shot in the dark despite your accomplishments.”

 

“You will guarantee it,” you said, leaning against the table with the iron pattern pressing into your palm, “Addresses, bank accounts, social security, everything that I don’t give you.”

 

Tom shook his head. “I can’t—”

 

“You will. It’s all I’m asking. I’ll be covering your dirty work from the world, so why can’t I hide mine?” It was your turn to be too close, for your breath to be hot against his skin as you said softly into his ear, “Tell me, Holland: are you afraid of the dark?”