Antony Danic let the slide of his Glock .357 slam home. The sound echoed against the sterile surfaces of the industrial kitchen where he waited. Rows of stainless-steel appliances and stark white counters filled the room that was half the size of his whole apartment. Elite would love this kitchen. A machine-like calm settled over his body as his thoughts turned from his wife to the hit.
“HQ, this is Viper,” he said as he double-checked the blade strapped to his calf and adjusted his blue-lensed Lanzen sunglasses.
“Viper acknowledged,” a female Corporate operator said over his silver and red earpiece.
“Viper in recon position.”
“Roger that, Viper. Radio silence commenced.”
The earpiece went silent. There would be no more contact until he initiated it.
Mr. Bennett held to a strict schedule when he was in town. He would arrive at exactly eleven to do a final walk-through of his restaurant before locking up for the night. Somehow, after chasing the man for three weeks, through the United States and the Middle East, Antony was now less than twenty minutes from home.
“Thank you,” a voice echoed through the kitchen, coming from the direction of the dining room. “I’ll talk to you later.”
A phone snapped shut and Antony heard heels clicking on the tile floor. He slid his finger from the side of his Glock to the trigger well. A wide man entered the kitchen, checking the small refrigerator by the door and wiping his finger on the counter.
Meticulous and well-fed, Antony thought as he stepped from the shadows, training his pistol on the man. Pretty oblivious, too. They now stood a mere ten feet from each other.
Antony cleared his throat—he refused to shoot a man in the back—and pulled the trigger. He grimaced at the splatter of blood on his pant leg and made a mental note to stand farther back next time. I should know better—the larger targets always bleed more. Especially that third signature shot to the femoral artery. At least it wasn’t obvious on his black cargo pants, although Antony could feel the blood growing cold and sticky on his skin. The door of the restaurant hissed closed behind him, and the smells and sounds of the city drew his attention from his last hour of work. He stood on the corner of Bonython and Gale for a moment, then headed for the nearest train station.
A siren echoed and a lone car rolled past him, the tires crunching on the blacktop. There were still a few of them around. Older cars were a luxury, too expensive for the common man, or a major expense for the “old-timers” who didn’t like or trust newer technology.
“Time,” he said into his earpiece.
“It is 11:56 PM, April 26, 2087,” answered a woman from headquarters.
“When does the next train leave the Phillip Avenue Station?”
“At 12:06, sir.”
Phillip Avenue was still a city block away. Ahead of Antony, a community shuttle hovered at the curb of a stone apartment building. A young woman stumbled down the steps toward the shuttle. Behind her, a man followed.
“Inform Catelyn that the package is delivered and Viper is going home,” Antony said. Then he ran, his titanium sniper-rifle case bouncing against his back in a calming cadence. Above him, a few shuttles flew along the appointed routes. The city was unusually quiet tonight.
“Yes, sir,” said the voice in his ear.
“Viper out.” He nudged the earpiece with his shoulder. The station was just ahead of him.
He swiped his access card at the turnstile and rushed up the stairs. He reached the platform just as a large shuttle rose in the distance. Trans-World Flight, he thought, a cruise ship in orbit. He intended to take Elite on one someday.
“Welcome to Canberra ACT, the national capital of Australia,” the automated voice said.
Antony turned the corner and walked into the station. A maze of tracks crossed through the large room, and metal stairs and ramps led to each of the bays. Bright florescent lights bleached the color from everything in the station. The digital sign projected on the wall indicated that Antony’s train would stop at a bay to his left in 3.32 minutes.
“God loves those that come to him and confess their sins,” a man said. He stood next to the access card dispenser, with a metal can on the ground at his feet. He held a book in his hand, and his frayed clothes reminded Antony of the homeless he’d seen around the city. “What about you, young man—have you given him your sins?” he asked, grabbing at the sleeve of Antony’s jacket.
Antony felt strong fingers pinching at his muscles. Sighing, he closed his eyes for a prolonged second; all he wanted to do was get home to his wife and bed. He pulled his arm up, the fabric sliding out of the preacher’s grip, and sneered at the him. “Hardly,” Antony said, then continued to the left.
“The path you choose leads to darkness—your heart yearns to be free from sin.” The man maneuvered himself in front of Antony.
Antony stopped to avoid running into the man. “Religion is placation for the weak-minded,” he growled. “It’s slavery in itself.”
The man met Antony’s gaze, and he noticed that in spite of the man’s speed and strength, he was older. The lines around his dark, almond-shaped eyes were evident at this distance. When the man reached for his arm again, Antony grasped the front of his coat.
“Get your hands off me, old man.” Antony pushed the preacher away from him. The man stumbled back a few feet before he stopped his own fall. “There is no God. It’s all in your head.”
Antony stepped back as the train pulled into the station. If there was a God, my mother would still be alive. Clenching his teeth, he shoved the thought into the back of his head where it belonged.
“Everything all right here?” asked a police officer dressed in traditional khakis. He stepped between the two men and reached out his hands, placing one on Antony’s chest and one on the preacher’s.
“Tell that freak to leave me alone.” Antony pushed the officer’s hand away and stormed past him to the open train doors.
“Simply a difference of opinion,” he heard the preacher say from behind him.
Two people stepped off the train before Antony got on. He found a place to sit against the wall in the rear of the train car. He leaned back in his seat, the bloody fabric on his leg feeling coarse against his skin.
An old woman turned on her bench to stare at him with watery eyes. He groaned and looked back at her, raising his eyebrows.
“What?” he snapped. She turned away and looked down. He punched the volume up on his earpiece. “Music,” he said, and closed his eyes.
Antony watched the station disappear out the train window, the lights fading behind him, the stars appearing as the train picked up speed. Above him, the track stretched ahead until it vanished in the distance.
His foot bounced as adrenalin rushed through his veins. With his assignment finished, he’d be getting a large bonus. There was no such thing as a promotion with his job. As far as he knew, he was the only company soldier in the corporation. His reality revolved around his handler, Catelyn, who gave him his assignments. He reported either to her or headquarters, and the monthly paychecks and bonuses were electronically deposited in his account from some foreign bank. Years ago, the in-house accountant had the devil of a time deciding what accounts payable his salary went under. Antony laughed long and hard when his first check listed him as an employee of human resources.
He did his job, and he did it well. This hit was done just in time for his vacation. He couldn’t wait to take Elite to Tahiti. When they came home, she would draw a thick black line through the words “Stand on the beach of Riangora,” written on the textured watercolor paper tacked to the corkboard in their walk-in closet. Every time she crossed an adventure off the list, she added a new one.
He imagined her face as he gave her the tickets. Her excitement wouldn’t be containable. Visiting the beaches of Tahiti was one of the first on her list of things to do. The islands, closed to tourists starting with the island Riangora in early 2000, only allowed a few people a year to visit now, the ecology too fragile to return to the days of constant tourism. Antony had placed his and Elite’s names on the waiting list over five years ago, and they’d notified him in January of the visitor passes.
His smile widened as he thought of his wife standing in the surf. She would thrill at the feeling of sugar-white sand between her toes and would want to go skinny-dipping at midnight just because. No doubt she would drag him, swim trunks still on, into the water.
The train entered the station just before reaching Antony’s building. He stood and moved to the back door. A quick trip up the stairs, into the building, up the lift, and he would be in her arms.
It was dark when he entered the apartment. Elite must be asleep for once, he thought. Never in his life had he met someone with so much energy. It was her love of life that had attracted him to her in the first place. They had met when they were volunteer coaches for the Special Olympics. Antony had started years before when his best friend, Gage, invited him to help. Gage’s younger sister was born with a birth defect, and his family volunteered regularly. When Antony overheard Elite say she spent the weekend skydiving, he knew he had to introduce himself. He learned she was an adventure/adrenaline junkie like him, and it gave them something to talk about, and do, as they became friends and fell in love.
Antony unlocked the door to his office and pulled the large corkboard out from the wall. After punching in the code, he opened the metal door located in the wall, then placed both his pistol and his rifle in the gun safe and locked it. He pushed the corkboard back into position, then locked the office and quietly entered the master suite.
He dropped his shirt and pants in the metal basket in the closet, then stepped into the shower and let the water rinse the dirt of the last few days from his skin. He hated the filth of his work—not the blood, but the vile lives of some of the people he met. The blood was just part of his job. What bothered him were the people who thought they could do whatever they wanted without paying for it, like the men who attacked and killed Antony’s mother when he was young—too young to do anything to save her. They had never been punished. They deserved to die.
Bright light spilled across the dark wood of the closet and bathroom. Antony could see through the glass of the shower stall that everything was immaculate, as usual. Soon, dressed in flannel pajama pants, he opened the door from the bathroom to their bedroom. It was good to be home.
Tacked to the corkboard in the closet, next to the list, was an application for volcanic geology summer camp. Typical Elite, finding adventures to occupy her time, he thought as he imagined her with a rock hammer in hand. His brow furrowed when he saw the camp was actually four weeks long. It would be a good time to immerse himself in a supplemental intensive training regimen to keep in shape. He would spend the day working out, meditating, and training at the dojang where he practiced tang soo do twice a week. His master instructor, Sa Bo Nim Rick, would be happy to see him focus on his training. It would be the perfect time to reset his mind and body.
Elite’s head lay on her pillow in the shaft of light from the bathroom. Her dark brown hair had streaks of blue in it today and curled softly around her face. The short style she loved made her look younger than her thirty years. Her tan shoulder peeked from under the blankets. There was an open book on the floor by her side of the bed; she must have fallen asleep while reading. Antony turned off the light, stepping from the rougher rock floor of the bathroom onto the smooth wood floor of their bedroom.
He walked to his side of the bed, touching the knobby wooden post, then pulled the denim comforter down and slipped in next to her. She shifted as he laid his arm across her stomach. He hadn’t seen her in over three weeks. Pulling her close, he breathed in the familiar smell of her shampoo and closed his eyes, the exhaustion of a finished assignment making his eyelids heavy. Soon, he felt his body surrender to sleep.
“It’s almost time to go. Are you ready?” Elite asked as she came out of the bathroom, fastening a long, dangling earring in her ear. She wore a bright azure sweater that matched the blue in her hair, and a long, dark gray suede skirt. The richly embroidered hem of the skirt covered the tops of her black leather boots. Antony had spent the last hour watching her get ready through half-closed eyes.
“Antony?” she said. He stretched his arms over his head, yawning. He had forgotten how comfortable his own bed felt.
“You’re not even out of bed, and the ceremony starts in just over an hour. It takes forty minutes to get there by train.”
“Yes.” She walked back into the closet and grabbed a shawl from a hook. They sometimes laughed at how his almost all brown, black, and blue clothing contrasted with her multi-colored wardrobe. “Sara and Michael’s bonding is this afternoon.”
“Ugh, Elite, that’s church stuff.”
She stopped at the doorway of the closet and blinked, her lip quivering.
He cursed inwardly. He didn’t like that face.
“You promised.” Her voice was small and timid.
Antony groaned and rolled over. He wondered sometimes at the hardened soldier he was that became mush the instant his wife started blinking, trying not to cry. Her power over him was confusing, as if she had woven herself around his black heart and infused his lack of love with her abundance of it.
She left the room, and he heard her searching for the keys. She never put them in the same place, no matter what he told her.
He had gone to church with her before, but he hated the way being there made him feel, as if he were being burned alive right there on the bench for his lifestyle and occupation. He didn’t believe in a higher being, but after an hour of Elite’s church, he was apt to believe there was a hell and he was going there.
“Fine,” Antony said loudly and sat up. I want her to be happy, even if it’s not where I want to be.
“What?” She entered the room, her bag over her shoulder.
“Fine, I promised you and Michael. I’ll go. Just give me a minute.”
She smiled and reached for his black suit, still draped in the dry cleaner’s plastic.
“Not that,” he said. “I’ll wear my khakis and a button-down shirt. I’m not going more dressed up than you are.” He saw her hang up his suit and pull out a pair of pants, a shirt, and sweater as he turned on the shower. Great, he would be hot and stuffy and feel like he was burning from the inside out all at the same time.
This is going to be a pain in the . . . But it was the least he could do in their current circumstances. In fact, the first item on Elite’s list was to be bound in her religion. Just being married wasn’t enough. Her religion believed they could not only marry flesh to flesh, but soul could be bound to soul.
“We’re going to be late,” she said as he rinsed off.
“We’ll take a taxi.”
“It’s almost noon.”
“But it’s Saturday. We’ll be fine.” He stepped out and grabbed the thick Egyptian-cotton towel hanging on a hook by the shower. His feet felt cool on the rock floor as he gave himself a rigorous once-over.
“Did you get them a gift?” he called out.
“I ordered it weeks ago. It should have been delivered on Thursday,” Elite said from the kitchen, her mouth full of something.
Antony pulled the sweater on and filled his pocket with his wallet, knife, and keys. Then he checked his pistol. It was loaded. He grabbed his phone in case things got boring.
“Let’s go.” He found his shoes in the basket by the door and dropped them on the floor to slip them on.
Elite came out of the kitchen, several crackers in her hand. “I called the taxi. It should be here by now,” she said.
He looked at the crackers and smiled.
“What?” she asked. “I was hungry.”
He shook his head, opened the door, and escorted her out by the elbow.
Antony didn’t pay attention to the address she gave the driver as they stepped into the taxi, but he soon realized they were in the opposite part of town from her church.
“I thought this was a bonding,” he said as he turned his gaze toward Elite. She sat with a book in her lap, silently reading.
“Then why are we going this direction?” he asked.
She looked up at him. “They’re having the bonding at her parents’ house.”
“But I thought bondings were performed at the church.”
“It’s not where they’re performed, but by whom,” she said and shut her book. “Sara got someone high up to do it, but I think she’s being a little vain. Her own father is an elder, and he could have bonded them with permission.”
“Elders run the local churches. There are people higher in the chain of command who oversee the elders.” She grimaced, suddenly looking pale.
“Honey, are you okay?” Antony asked.
She shook her head. “I’ll be fine, just a little car sick. You know how I get.” He nodded. They usually took the train because it was easier on her stomach. Planes and trains were okay, but cars were a completely different story, which was why he hesitated to buy a car or a shuttle. Why own either if Elite couldn’t ride in them?
“I’m sorry, I forgot I told you I’d go,” he said. “It’s my fault we were too late to take the train. We’ll take one on the way home, okay?”
She nodded. She was extremely claustrophobic when she was sick like this. Antony longed to calm her, but she wouldn’t let him near.
He opened his window a little and watched as she sat back and closed her eyes. How he wished for a little boy or girl with chocolate eyes just like hers. He frowned. He hadn’t thought about a baby for a long time. He and Elite were going to be surrounded by members of her congregation, and he knew many of them would ask when he and Elite planned to have children. She would be in a bad mood after the celebration because it wasn’t them being bonded, or having a baby.
She had mentioned adoption again just before his assignment to Pakistan. The fight had been mean, she’d gone to bed silent, and he’d left early the next morning. Was it so wrong to want a child of his blood? They could take home a baby anytime from the orphanage Elite owned, but it wasn’t the same.
Abandoned as an infant on the steps of a church in Dunedin, New Zealand, Antony wanted a child of his own, a blood relative in a world where he had none. Yet, he wanted more than anything in the world to erase the sorrow in Elite’s eyes.
He vividly remembered the day she was diagnosed with infertility. She locked herself in their bedroom and wept for hours, insisting she had ruined his chances to be a father. To get to her, he had to unhinge the door and climb over the dresser she had somehow moved to bar the way. He made it across the floor, which was cluttered with anything she could throw, and held her in his arms, promising her it didn’t matter, that he still loved her, that she was the most important thing in the world to him.
The sound of the taxi’s air jets on gravel drew him out of his thoughts. They were pulling up to a grand house set on top of a small incline. He stepped out and paid the driver two international credit notes before Elite could open her bag. Then Antony walked around to her door, opened it, and held out his hand.
“Allow me,” he whispered. She reached out a thin hand and he pulled her up. The book had disappeared into the bag, no longer needed—if she concentrated on something else besides riding passenger, she didn’t get as sick. “I love you, Elite Danic.”
She blushed. “I love you too,” she said as the taxi flew off.
Antony stopped her as she took a step forward. “Elite,” he said. She paused and looked into his eyes. “Let’s turn in the papers and take a baby home. I hate seeing you alone. I want you to be happy. It doesn’t matter to me anymore whether our child is of our blood or adopted.” He hoped she couldn’t see through his façade. His chest hurt at the thought of lying to her. It was the reason he had confessed to her what he was even before he proposed.
“I’m an assassin,” he remembered saying.
“You kill people?” she asked, backing away from him. Her eyes were wide, the skin around her mouth tight. Antony regretted the decision to be honest as soon as he saw her face. “Do you just go up and shoot anyone you feel like killing?”
“No,” he hurried to explain. “Only those who pose a threat to our country and the citizens’ safety.”
“So you’re in the military?”
“Actually, I’m retired. I work for a military contractor as a corporate soldier.”
She paused, her arms folded across her stomach, her lower lip between her teeth. “It’s like that National Security thing. You go after terrorists,” she said after several seconds.
“Yes. If they pose a threat to the people I work for, they send me to take care of it.”
“Is that all you do?” she asked.
“I’m also a courier. I transport documents or objects too valuable to ship through normal channels. I act as a bodyguard if needed, too.”
Elite was quiet a moment longer. “You protect the innocent like I do,” she said at length. “I work at the orphanage my mom owns. Some of the children who live there have been removed from abusive parents. We go to court all the time, and sadly, sometimes the parents lie and they get their kids back in spite of the evidence against them.”
“Sometimes, even with the most terrible evidence or solid eyewitness, the accused still gets off,” Antony said. “The justice system is an imperfect machine with human people running it and working for it. When that happens in my realm, I’m called to take care of it.”
He looked at Elite, trying to read her face. It was obvious she was thinking about it. As her eyebrows lowered and her face relaxed into something calm compared to the alarmed look when he first told her, she reached out for his hand.
“I think I prefer the word ‘soldier’ instead of ‘assassin,’” she said.
He refused to live a lie with her. No one else mattered.
“You’re ready to apply for adoption?” she asked now. Her eyes searched his face, intensely flitting from feature to feature. He still felt wrong about it, but secretly hoped the idea would grow on him.
“I think so. I want to see you sitting in the nursery, rocking a baby to sleep in the antique chair I bought,” he said. That part wasn’t a lie. Her eyes reflected less sorrow and more joy, and he smiled.
“It’s time, isn’t it?” she asked.
He pulled her close to him. “It’s time someone called us Mom and Dad.”