Detective Brayden O’Leary ran a finger along the thin, brass-buttoned border inside the soft black leather menu in his hands. He supposed this ornate trim along the stiff white paper embossed with black cursive writing was meant to evoke a refined and elegant atmosphere, but all he could think of was the brass cartridges loaded inside his department-issue Glock-22. They had their own purpose, one that he couldn’t forget as the gun pressed hard against his side.
Hangar One; Karlsson’s; Bombay Sapphire; Hendricks; Montecristo Spiced; El Dorado 15-year; Corzo Silver, Reposado, or Anejo; I Bourbon; Jameson 12-year; Crown Royal; Sazerac; Rittenhouse Rye; Oban 14-year; Laphroaig 10-year; I 12-year; several mari, grappas, and cordials. An impressive list, he admitted to himself. He expected no less. Adesso was one of the most powerful drug lord/arms dealer in New York City, but when this man spared no expense on his restaurant Brayden knew it wasn’t for gaudy pretense or to hide the stench of blood money. No, Brayden knew him too well. It was done to taunt. His arrogance allowed to grow to preposterous heights. Years of countless stakeouts, dead leads, and endless nights of reviewing files and surveillance footage told him Adesso’s heart was as black as they came and his attention to detail could rival even Brayden’s. Despicable nature aside, and his maddening habit of slipping through Brayden’s grasp, Brayden and his partner Ronan Kane could take nothing away from this five-star front.
“Gotta hand it to the guy,” Ronan gushed. “Every time we come here it smells insane. Like he kidnapped everyone’s grandmother in an eight block radius and has them slaving away in the kitchen. Like a sweat shop from the ol’ country,” he added with a raspy attempt at an old Italian man’s accent. His grin widened and his eyes brightened. “And the scenery…”
Ronan’s gaze slowly circled the room. He did not focus on the ornate chandeliers with amber bulbs nestled inside the triple tiers of frosted glass bowls that resembled glowing snowmen strung upside-down. His gaze skipped over the chairs crisply wrapped in white linen and the black and brown marbled countertops speckled with what looked like thin flakes of gold. But Brayden noticed them. He noticed everything. Even the infinity waterfalls silently cascading down the tiled halls. Infused with bubbles, the golden lights made the water resemble champagne raining down from the ceiling painted to look like heaven. The Creation of Adam: a little cliché, Brayden judged to his own amusement. Although it would be the closest Adesso would ever get to such an afterlife. Heaven’s doors don’t open for arrogant thieves and casual murderers. I’ll let him dream Brayden laughed to himself.
It wasn’t just the crimes Adesso committed that bothered Brayden as much as the way he did them. There was nothing he wouldn’t do. Human-trafficking, lethal school drug rings, and arms-deals with ISIS was the way he made it to the top. And the worst of it all, was the line that stretched around the block to get in his place.
“Fetching, wouldn’t you say?” Ronan asked smiling. He was addressing his partner, but his voice was loud enough to be heard by a group of young brunettes striding by in short tight cocktail dresses. Their giggles and blushing cheeks were all Ronan needed to feed his dreams of tonight’s possibilities.
They had been waiting for months for the opportunity to nail Adesso, and to nail him for good this time. Get him with enough dirt that not even his league of crooked lawyers could scour it away. The Ucs had been working him for months, and tonight they would make their final move. They’d gotten a tip on a ship coming in smuggling kidnapped refugees Adesso was selling. The men to work as indentured servants working off about fifty grand a head, and the women were sold into much worse for even more.
“Would you mind focusing and checking in with dispatch to see how much longer we have to wait for the signal?”
“Happy to.” Ronan picked up his cell and dialed. “Hey honey, I might be out late tonight. Do you need me to pick up anything?” Brayden smirked as he watched his partner actually wait until he received a favorable response from his loving wife—or at least, that’s what any eavesdroppers would assume. Brayden knew who must be on dispatch tonight. “All right then, I’ll see you soon. Light the candles my love. Where something sexy for me tonight. Bye.” He hung up smiling.
“What’s the story Romeo?”
“We need milk.” Ronan said sarcastically with a straight face, before breaking into a smothered laugh underneath the stern stare of his partner. “The UC’s last check in said that they were in and waiting to get into Adesso’s loft. Once they are with him, and have the shipment manifests in sight, they’ll send the final signal and we can go in and clean house.”
“They need to hurry up. Something’s not right, and I swear if he slips through again….” Brayden’s voice trailed off in a huff as a busty blonde came to the table.
“Hey looker,” she said with a wink at Ronan. “Whaddaya say we get this stiff something to ease those rippling shoulders?” She motioned towards Brayden with a thumb poking out of her closed fist.
“Oh, if only it were that easy, beautiful,” Ronan responded with a devilish smile, all traces of nerves from his previous call gone. “But he doesn’t….”
“I’ll have a glass of the I Bourbon, doll,” Brayden interrupted with a tone that killed the conversation and sent her scurrying to fulfill his request. “Didn’t want to arouse suspicion. I suppose a drink on the night we finally get this bastard….”
“Is long overdue,” Ronan finished. He raised his glass of ice water with a respectful tip towards his partner who had been working on this case even before he had joined the force. He knew how much it meant to Brayden to personally collar Adesso and take him in.
“Sorry,” Brayden responded with a respectful head dip towards his partner. “How are things going with you two?” He knew his partner acted like a hound, but was a hopeless romantic at heart. And dispatch had cupid’s arrow lodged deep lately.
“She’s giving me another shot, not without a little begging on my part, I’m not embarrassed to say. I don’t blame her. The job always gets in the way. But we’re supposed to go out tonight, if all this goes down without a hitch.”
“I’ll drink to that.” Brayden’s voice held a trace of hope.
Before the blonde waitress could return with the drink, Brayden saw the two Ucs make their way down the spiral staircase and hasten past. Without a go-ahead for him and Ronan he became quickly irritated. Brayden glared at their faces, as if willing them to find him and his partner amongst the crowd. His anger was on the brink of eruption. Something that Ronan didn’t fail to notice. Ronan turned in his chair and took note that all of Adesso’s men were still milling about and giving no hint to his partner’s agitation. Brayden couldn’t even wait to meet the Ucs outside for an explanation. His eyes met with the male UC, a pimp for all intents and purposes, whose facial expression told Brayden’s seasoned instincts that their quick steps were not ones of fear or retreat but of frustrated defeat. Only seconds passed, and they were already at Brayden’s table. Breaking protocol, Brayden reached out and grabbed the female UC’s wrist. She hissed at him.
“Hands off. You can’t afford me.” She whipped her hand from his grasp to preserve her cover.
“Where the hell are you two going?” Brayden demanded.
The pimp knew better than to quote the rulebook to Brayden. Blowing his cover underneath the cartel’s roof would be nothing compared to the wrath of making Brayden O’Leary wait for an answer.
“Adesso already has entertainment for the night. She arrived a few moments before we did. He’s locked away in his room with strict instructions not to be disturbed.”
“And you couldn’t manage to make your way in?” Brayden whispered through gritted teeth. The bartenders gaze lingered on the odd scene that was playing out in front of him.
Before Ronan could begin to deescalate the situation, there was a scatter of unmistakable popping sounds coming from the loft. Gunshots, screams, and a split second of hesitation before the crowd became a mob stampeding towards the exit.
“ISIS!” some idiot yelled. His voice cracked a whip behind the mangled diners scurrying for the door.
Plates crashed, drinks shattered and pooled along the floor. Tables overturned as people mindlessly pushed their way through the restaurant.
The once elegantly-dressed diners were reduced to a herd of crazed animals desperately trying to escape the imminent threat that remained unseen. Larger pieces of furniture were strewn about like a madman’s attempt to chop kindling. The panicked mob made their way atop a smaller layer of debris that became a path they could stumble across. Women were pinned between the larger men as the crowd funneled through the narrowing pathway. Chairs were thrown aside to make another path to the exit. Some chandeliers swayed from the commotion happening above, their rocking light adding to the chaos, giving the impression that the room had caught fire. Some fixtures crashed to the marbled floor, sending shards of glass in all directions. More screams.
Ronan’s thin frame allowed him to squeeze through the crowd and run parallel alongside the remainder of Adesso’s men who were also heading for the stairs. Brayden was having less luck pressing through the mass; each gap he made with his arms closed in and collapsed with more bodies before he could take another step. Waves of frustration crashed over him with every step he was forced to take back. He climbed onto an intact table and leaped onto the bar’s countertop. The slippery surface made Brayden pause to regain his footing. Before he could leap back down and sprint towards the stairs, he slipped and fell, kicking a drink onto an old man in a trench coat. The old man remained seated at the bar, his own drink steady in his hand. The smell of bourbon filled the old man’s nose as the drink dribbled down his forehead, nose, and cheeks onto his coat.
Brayden paid him no more mind, other than a muttered “Sorry” as he leaped from the bar. He was already ascending the stairs, his eyes fixed upward and spotting the back of Ronan’s sports jacket as his partner rounded the corner into Adesso’s loft.
“Ronan, wait!” Brayden shouted. He feared his partner was running in blind and couldn’t hear him. His eyes remained fixed upward, but not even his will could make him go faster. Two more flights stood between him and Adesso. He thought, He’d better not slip from me again!
The landing in sight, Brayden grabbed a handrail to slow his momentum and make the turn in one smooth motion. A bulb exploded on a corner table as he passed it and entered the doorway to the loft. He dove to the floor and rolled behind an overturned leather couch. What the hell? Peering around the armrest, he realized it didn’t matter, none of it did. Ronan was the only person still standing in the room. As Brayden surveyed the loft, he saw it was filled with bodies, all sprawled out as if thrown by an explosion. The sliding glass doors to the balcony were open, the summer night’s breeze blowing the sheer curtains into the room like flags of surrender that were either raised too late or brutally disregarded. It was a massacre. Adesso’s body was in the center of it all, sitting against the headboard of his king sized bed. As Brayden neared the bed he saw that Adesso’s throat had been slit wide open. He must have bled out within minutes. His shirt was saturated. His eyes frozen in an expression of surprise. Not the entertainment you’d intended on? Brayden speculated.
“All their throats are cut.” Ronan spoke from a crouched position next to one of the men that had run up from downstairs. His stomach turned at the oozing slits in each of the bodies strewn on the floor. His tours in Afghanistan kept him from retching at the sight of it but for a moment sent his mind overseas. “How the hell did this happen?” he asked bringing his focus back.
“Someone’s missing from the party,” Brayden said, thinking out loud while wincing, not as unaffected as his partner. He moved away from the bodies toward the balcony. He ran to the open doors to look for signs of movement. The only thing he saw was the silhouette of a woman looking back up at the window, from down in the alleyway leading to the street. From his vantage point three stories up, all he could make out was her red coat, whose hood only partly hid her long dark hair. How the hell did she get down there so quickly? Brayden looked, but no obvious explanation presented itself.
Looking up at the third floor balcony she’d just leapt from, Sephina couldn’t make out the face of the man that was gazing down at her. It didn’t matter. It wasn’t like he could’ve stopped her. No one could. It had only been a few hours ago when she’d hopped no one would try and stop her from killing Adesso, for once luck had been on her side.
About an hour before…
It wasn’t often Sephina stopped to appreciate a sunset—certainly not in the way it was intended to be appreciated. The radiance and playfulness of color, the unique and calming whimsical clouds. She didn’t think of it as seemingly brush-stroked skies or lavender-topped mountainsides, nor seaports filled with dark silhouettes of ships with tall masts outlined in amber. No, not anymore. That was another life. She saw the sunset as the final line drawn in the sand, a fool’s hope against the night’s advance. She couldn’t stop it from coming or what happened to her when it did.
Dusk poured in, seeming to smother the delicate dance of color in the sky. And yet the light could not be truly banished here, no matter how hard darkness tried. Maybe that’s why Sephina chose this city, maybe that’s why she’d chose Tokyo, Paris, London, and even Sydney. But even now as the bed seemed to float above the floor, borne on the rising tide of Manhattan’s lights, she was filled with envy and a deep longing to sleep.
She hadn’t been allowed to sleep in ages. The last night she had, she’d fallen asleep beside a bonfire beneath the watchful eyes of her father, the Chief of the Second Tribe’s. She couldn’t tell if the memories she had of such a time were real, or a trick agelessness played on her aching heart. But that night…that one beneath the stars so long ago with her father…she’d never forget it.
The harvests produced fewer and fewer crops and the animals were turned loose or killed to feed the tribe. Something had taken hold of their people. Hunger and sorrow had swallowed all hope. Some began to worry the enemy their ancestors had fought, the day their stories told evil was born, had come again.
The chief and his wife were at a loss. Sephina, their only daughter and child watched her people fall ill, die, and lose all hope. The chief’s worry etched lines of anguish and defeat on his strong face. Meetings he’d had with the tribe’s elders, their medicine men, and the allied chiefs of distant tribes that would dare get close, had no words of wisdom to fight the one that betrayed their ancestors. The Fallen Brother. Sephina’s master.
Her fingers played at the seam between the wall’s tiles. They felt the rough and gritty grout that held them together. My people never stood a chance. But, after they offered me to him to save themselves, no one has stood a chance since. Searching, as it had done countless times her hand slid along the thin path of grout. Looking for the one large clump in the bead that was most likely left in a moment of carelessness: one man’s mistake, but her peace of mind. The clumsy clump stood in defiance against all of the cold lines of precision around it. Lines…. Life is made of them she mused. If her life were stretched out on a line of time, it would span almost all of history.
She smiled. Her fingers felt the sudden rise beneath them, ever so slight, as they traced the vertical line between the tiles, leaving her arm fully extended down at her side. She knew it well: the swell of the tiny mass, the imperfection in an otherwise perfect line. Imperfections show character, she reassured herself, or at least that’s one way to look at them. They’re not intended, but they happen. Quick chills began to creep through her body as darkness fully consumed the light in the sky outside her window. Her smile faded. He had come for her. And why shouldn’t he? She was his to use…his to control.
Sharp pains ripped at her insides as her heart slowed and blood was kept from her muscles. First her arms and then her legs. She fell to the ground clenching her teeth against the torment. They twitched out of control until they fell limp. She crawled to the window with the last of her limbs’ strength. She stretched out her arm and placed her palm on the cool pane of glass. Her stomach cramped and she curled into a ball and cried out, powerless against her master. The Fallen Brother’s grinning face filled her mind. His eyes, barely visible beneath a black ragged hood. Teeth bared in a grayish sharp grin, he waited to give his commands. He still took pleasure after all this time watching her writhe in pain.
In a moment of weakness and desperation and while her father had gone to seek guidance from a Seer Sephina’s mother struck a deal and offered her to The Fallen Brother in exchange for the tribe’s survival. A sacrifice willingly given by the tribes of his brothers that defeated him long ago was exactly what he needed. He created her to carry out his will on earth.
Raised in fear and trained in pain Sephina learned to just obey and forget her past. For ages she did her master’s bidding and gave up on being rescued. As a child she lived in horror with his demon sorcerers watching them pluck and prod at man’s minds planting seeds of fear, doubt, and rage. She learned their dark magic and incantations from endless times hearing them and the blood curdling screams that always accompanied them.
Her immortal body was an indestructible fortress that made combat training unnecessary. But, Sephina learned how to fight. It was not from the forces of darkness that she learned, but from man. Mounting offensives against each other for millennia, often under her master’s persuasion, they created fencing, guerilla warfare, siege weaponry, archery, martial arts, and eventually firearms. She learned it all. Dark magic, unlimited strength, and technique. She was lethal. Exactly what he wanted her to be.
The phone beside the bed rang. It was her doorman calling to let her know her limousine had arrived.
“Yes. Thank you.” She spoke clearly into the receiver. Then she hung it up. Her pains had all gone. They didn’t last long anymore. Not like they used to. She was a moving statue now. She felt nothing. Glancing up at the mirror on the wall beside her she saw her lifeless eyes void of warmth looking back at her.
He coursed his way through her now, staking his claim, her blood had become a frozen river. Each night he needed to reclaim her this way after he lost control over her with each dawn. Her will’s return was something when he plotted and created her, he hadn’t foreseen. He couldn’t control her or even see where she was during the day. He couldn’t command her then.
With time he had learned he didn’t need to know where she had gone because he found her at night wherever she was, even when she had tried to hide. That didn’t stop him from punishing her for trying. He knew her human heart was weak. Just like his brothers’, her ancestors. He would make her hurt the innocent. And every morning he knew she would wallow in it. And not disappear again. Her conscious was the only cell he ever needed to keep her obedient. It incapacitated her. In the beginning he would use her night after night and she wouldn’t move an inch on her breaks from him during the day. It took centuries for her to begin to live again during the day time. It was then she began to imagine how she could use her time during the day to atone for what she was made to do at night. Her will set fire to her purpose.
She clung to it. Her will. Each time it came back. She clung to it the times she had tried to fight against him and he’d punished her with waves of gut-wrenching pain. She had clung to it while she was forced to torture and break people with her own hands. When she destroyed homes and families. Slaughtered thousands on fields of battle. In anguish when she prayed for forgiveness afterwards and heard nothing, she held on. When she agonized over her past, memories of her people, she sobbed and hung on to the strength from the stories of her ancestors that had defeated her master once before. Maybe she could defeat him once again. Somehow. Hope returned for her each morning, but as daybreak broke it carried with it all that she’d done the night before.
She opened the door of her penthouse suite in the Ty Warner Hotel, stepped through the doorway and closed it behind her. She wouldn’t need to run across mountains, or glide over oceans tonight. Her target was very close by. They often were here in New York City.
Tonight was no different than any other. Except nights like tonight her guilt would be lesser in the morning. She didn’t pity those she’d been made to kill that were willing servants to her master. These were the people that struck bargains with him, promising their service in return for whatever he would give them, whatever they craved. It never got easier for her to take a life, it stripped bits of her soul away each time she did. But, when it was men like Adesso, she felt it didn’t tip the scale of judgement against her as heavily. A servant of her master for years, he’d amounted masses of wealth, status, and power. But he’d let his human trafficking circles be sniffed out by the NYPD and this would cost her master many servants. When people are stolen away from their homes and families, and made to do unspeakable things under pain of death, it doesn’t take much for them to be willing to strike bargains. They who bargained were hollow vessels for The Fallen Brother to use as an army of slaves in his conquest against humanity.
Lines… her mind had wandered back. Brilliance or insanity, black or white, beauty or chaos, passion or rage: few had stark differences, while others possessed only a tiny and fragile distinction. But it is there on the borders of a line where distinction blurs. Daylight, like the bump beneath her fingers, was too far away now from her hand of stone to hold. Her will lost, leaving Sephina on the other side, in twilight and soldiering on in her damned immortality.