By the time Peter arrived, Corinna had moved on to eating olives straight out of the jar with a toothpick. She was lying across the couch, sunning herself by using Javier as a pillow. Javier himself was dangerously close to falling asleep, fresh out of the shower and reduced to passing Corinna tissues every few minutes.
He would have preferred to be in bed, but had dressed himself in comfortable slacks and a shirt so he could be dignified in his irritation.
Peter swept into the apartment in a cloud of impatience and the smell of fresh bread.
“Shoes,” said Javier automatically.
Peter ignored him, making a beeline for their couch. The last time Javier saw him, he had brown hair. Today, it was black. His shitty manners remained consistent.
“Where is she?” he demanded, even though he’d just spoken to her over the phone.
Corinna sat up, still holding her jar of olives.
The relief from Peter, as Corinna’s head appeared above the back of the couch, was palpable. His shoulders slumped almost imperceptibly under his leather jacket. Javier supposed that might have been the ten kilos of French bread.
The man was frozen at the sight of her, face blank.
“Shoes,” said Corinna.
Peter took his shoes off.
“You look better,” he said, quietly.
“No thanks to you,” snapped Javier, standing up.
He felt cold suddenly, the anger knotting in his stomach at the sight of Peter, looking tired but without a scratch on him.
“What the hell did you get her into? And then just leaving her in the street —”
“I was making sure the sniper wouldn’t be coming back for seconds,” said Peter acidly, eyes still on Corinna, “and getting rid of a few dead bodies. As instructed.”
Peter held up his left wrist, shaking back his sleeve. Javier could see a wet burn mark; the shape and width of Corinna’s hand.
His sister blinked, once.
“I’m not apologising for that,” she said, “you were getting emotional. You called the police to the scene like a bloody amateur —”
Peter’s expression didn’t change but something violent lurched under Javier’s ribs, swelling uncomfortably up his throat. Peter glanced at him, as if he was able to tell.
“I called an ambulance because you were going to die without EMTs,” said Peter, words clipped with the effort of calm.
“You should have taken her straight to St Ophie’s,” Javier cut in, “anything else could have waited!”
“Does barbie have to be here for this?” asked Peter, not bothering to even glance in Javier’s direction.
Corinna sighed and got off the couch.
“Watch it,” she said.
She stepped around the furniture and walked until she was chest to chest with Peter.
He was a good head taller than she was, and Corinna leaned up on her toes to press a kiss at the edge of Peter’s mouth. His neck bowed like a flower towards the sun, and reached to hold her by the shoulder; chasing another kiss. Peter tucked a strand of hair behind her ear with his injured hand, eyes darting all over her features like a blind man’s touch.
Javier looked away.
“I’m sorry,” said Peter, almost inaudible, “you don’t know how bad you looked. I had no choice.”
“No,” she said, ruthless, “you just panicked. But I understand.”
She kissed him again, and Javier felt like breaking the entire jar of olives against the metal frame of the coffee table. He did not, because it would have made a mess on the rug.
“Thanks for these,” Corinna said, and she returned to the couch holding the paper bag.
She pulled out a wrapped croissant and looked genuinely happy for the first time since she woke up. Corinna bit into the bread with an indecent groan and thrust the rest at Javier. He took it grudgingly. The paper was still warm.
“You’re welcome,” said Peter, taking the adjacent sofa chair and leaning back into it.
“So?” said Corinna, with her mouth full, “who was it?”
Peter glanced at Javier who glared right back.
Corinna raised both eyebrows.
“We need to double check,” he said, “but right now, looks ex-military. Went into Yellowstone using a janitor’s access swipe. I’m looking into it.”
“Into what?” asked Corinna.
“Well, you blew half his face off,” replied Peter, “so my mate can’t be certain we have the right person. But we’re pretty sure.”
“You…blew someone’s face off,” repeated Javier, trying not to react, “is that what the fire was about?”
Peter laughed, short and ugly.
Javier forced down the instinctive urge to leave the room — if anything, last night’s events were a dangerous lesson about not being in the loop with whatever Corinna got up to. He wouldn’t make the same mistake twice. But it didn’t mean he liked the crawling shiver dripping down his spine.
“He was shooting at me,” said Corinna, patting Javier’s hand and smearing it with butter, “I was self defence-ing.”
“Impressive, by the way,” Peter added, “it must have been, what, at least ninety meters?”
“Serves them right for being stupid enough to use a firearm against a firestarter,” said Corinna.
“They almost succeeded, didn’t they?” said Javier, biting into a croissant angrily.
“There’s no such thing as ‘almost succeed’ in this business, Javier,” Peter said, voice dripping with disdain, “someone’s either dead or they’re not.”
Javier threw up his hands.
“Oh great, so someone hired an incompetent hitman to kill my sister. I feel so much better now.”
“Or hitwoman,” said Corinna, reaching for a second croissant.
“No, it was a man,” said Peter, “cheap gun for hire.”
Corinna’s lips thinned.
“How dare they,” she said, “I’m expensive.”
“I think it rules out Langley, at any rate,” said Peter, “unless the goal was to just to scare—”
“Did I look scared to you?” snapped Corinna, “no! I was fucking furious. If it was Robbie, I will gut him with my Louboutins, and then I will slowly pour CM15 down his throat until he drowns.”
Her mood had flipped like a coin, and acidic and forceful. Peter’s choice of adjectives had clearly struck her where it hurt most: in the ego.
Javier re-crossed his legs, and made no move to touch his sister. Let her be angry at Peter, he thought selfishly, maybe then she would think twice about getting involved in this sort of thing.
“Langley just makes no sense,” Peter continued, after a pause.
He furrowed his brows.
“He could have just as easily gotten to you a million other ways. Also he wouldn’t be as stupid. He knows you’re a firestarter. I’d go after you with a laser rifle at least.”
“Everyone knows I’m a firestarter,” said Corinna, conjuring a flame at the tip of her index, then blew it out like a kiss.
“He needs you as a supplier. You haven’t had any disagreements lately, have you?”
Corinna glanced at Javier — and this, more than anything, made his heart stop. She never hesitated with secrets, not with him. She either told him outright or kept Javier ignorant completely; but she never lied.
A little voice in his head, which sounded a lot like Giulia, said: but how would you know?
“Not about current supplies. Could still be upset about the tender. He’s asking me for the bloody moon! It’s not like Arden Pharma is a direct bidder. No one is gonna be happy if he won’t lower his expectations.”
“Fuck,” said Peter, “fine, we keep on our toes. I need to speak to a few people. Langley does complicate things.”
“He wanted me to meet up for a chat, actually,” Corinna mused, calm again, “me and Javier.”
“Absolutely not,” said Peter and Javier at the same time.
They shared a look of mutual disgust.
“Maybe he’ll be able to figure out who hired this idiot,” said Corinna, “and if it was Langley himself, well. I’ll think of something.”
“Could it have been an activist?” asked Javier, “like the paper said? Something to do with that guy who overdosed on glass—”
Corinna snapped her fingers, abruptly shooting up from her reclined position on the couch.
“That reminds me,” she said, turning to Peter and brandishing the end of a croissant at him, “you! Why the bloody hell didn’t you change Hersch’s uniform like I told you to? I even reminded you — god! — and now half the big headlines are all ‘blah blah blah Arden Employee stole CM15 blah blah died in a cab’, and now Giulia will be on my arse about it for weeks.”
Peter’s eyes bulged.
“Oh pardon me, because you were bleeding out on the fucking street and I had a sniper to handle and a fire alarm to disable—”
“The sniper was dead already. I have to do everything myself—”
“I was stashing his corpse before emergency services arrived.”
“Because you called them!” shouted Corinna, falling back onto the couch cushions, “fucking hell Peter, now the police has your voice on a 999 call and you probably got my blood all over that stupid cab—”
“No I didn’t,” said Peter testily.
“Wait, hold up,” said Javier, looking from Corinna to Peter, “did you…why would you stash his body?”
Peter rolled his eyes.
“So I can identify him later, obviously,” he said, “what, you want the police to do it? How do you expect the cops to write off a homicide as an accidental overdose when there’s an assassination at the same time, huh?”
Javier took a slow, deep breath.
“You killed him. T-that employee…did you…?”
Peter narrowed his eyes at him.
“I know you just went to ballet school your whole life,” he said, “but are you slow?”
“Hey,” snapped Corinna.
Peter raised both palms.
“Don’t ask questions you don’t want the answers to.”
Neither of them were projecting any kind of apprehension or anxiety, but Corinna was watching Javier with a considering tilt to her head.
Javier put down the last bite of food, appetite gone.
“Langley wasn’t the only one who knew we were going to be there,” said Corinna after a long pause, “if Hersch had any buddies waiting for him…”
“It would have come up in recon,” Peter said, shaking his head.
“Maybe you missed something.”
“If it was a Sixty-Fourther, wouldn’t they be shouting it from the rooftops?” Peter insisted, “however counterproductive, it’s a political score for them.”
“Not if they aren’t sure if I’m dead or alive,” said Corinna, “…or if their friend is dead or not.”
“I’ll run checks for any affiliations with the Sixty-Fourthers for our shooter.”
His sister’s face had settled into its usual expressionless default. It meant she was thinking hard.
“Pity he died,” said Corinna, “could have answered a few questions.”
“You want me to dump the body somewhere public?” asked Peter, “make a point?”
Javier buried his face in his hands.
It wasn’t as if this was…surprising, given Peter’s track record. But this was the first time things had gone so spectacularly wrong. They had never had cause to discuss corpses so casually in the living room before, and Javier felt like he was going to wake up any minute now, hungover but in a world he still knew. He was queasy with every new piece of information, and his eyes hurt.
Javier felt Corinna’s hand close around his wrist, her thumb rubbing the back of his arm in comforting circles.
It helped, a little.
“Not until we find out who hired them,” said Corinna at last, “let’s keep them nervous for now. And if the police draw their own conclusions about the shooter working with Hersch…well, that’s helpful for us at the moment. No need to give Scotland Yard anymore help.”
“I’ll handle it.”
Corinna tugged Javier’s hands away from his face.
“Any loose ends at St Ophie’s that we should deal with while we’re…cleaning up?”
Javier stared at her. There was something stuck in the back of his throat: he didn’t know whether it was a question or an answer.
“The police already know it was me,” Corinna went on, eyeing Peter, “so I suppose the cat’s out of the bag. That’s why I didn’t want to go to a public hospital, Peter.”
“You must have met her doctor,” said Peter, leaning towards Jav, “what did you tell them?”
“Nothing,” said Javier, trying to tamp down on the panic rising inexorably through his veins, “nothing, just names.”
“Did you meet her ER doctor? Trauma surgeon?” asked Peter. He looked to Corinna, “maybe I should go have a chat with them.”
Unbidden, Javier recalled Dr Faulkner as he knelt to pick up Javier’s watch from the ground; the sympathetic expression on his face as Javier dissolved into a wreck at his sister’s bedside. The Healer had been so steadily calm, Javier could still remember the relief of his presence temporarily blocking out the background churn of stress, anxiety and misery that was everyone else in the waiting room. It had been such a balm; blindsiding.
Javier felt sick at the thought of Peter, with his black gloved hands and not-quite-there shadow, just…
Corinna’s fingers tightened around his wrist, and when Javier met her gaze, she didn’t look away. It was like being scoured with the back of a blade, all his emotions scraped clean from his bones.
“Mmm, no,” she said to Peter, “you need to lay low. I don’t want anyone linking that ambulance call.”
She turned back to Javier.
“Perhaps you could talk to them,” she said, words smoothed by the edges of her teeth, “say thank you. Invite them to dinner, whatever. Just…keep tabs.”
“You sure that’s wise?” said Peter, eyebrows high.
“Keep enemies close, keep all other variables closer,” Corinna replied, “I don’t know how high up this goes.”
“You’re worried some ER doc is in Langley’s pocket?”
“He’s a Healer, actually,” said Javier, before he could stop himself.
They both looked at him. Corinna and Javier were meant to be twins, but even they had never quite managed to match in that flat-eyed gaze. It was uncanny.
Javier swallowed hard.
“Not that he had anything to do with Langley, I just meant — he wasn’t just some doctor… he saved your life, Rina.”
“…and if he was to be in someone’s pocket, I’d rather it be mine,” Corinna replied, slowly.
“I’m more concerned with how this would look to the police.”
“Oh, but we have nothing to hide,” Corinna sing-songed, propping her ankles on the arm of the sofa. She wiggled her toes. “I got mugged and now we are so very grateful to the good doctor.”
She blinked, lazy and slow, like the curl of a rhetorical question.
“Jav is a great actor, aren’t you Jav?”
Javier hadn’t noticed when his nausea had been replaced with blank absence, but he realised Corinna was still holding onto him. She must have felt his panic.
Gently, he pulled away.
Corinna held on for a beat more before letting her hand drop.
“Sleep?” she asked.
“We’re almost done. Run me a bath?”
Javier breathed out.
“Sure,” he said.
“Before you do, I need your phone,” said Peter, holding out a hand, “you haven’t spoken to police yet, I assume.”
Javier frowned, shaking his head.
“They went to Giulia,” said Corinna, “but she knows nothing important.”
“Good. I need to erase our calls and fix something in.”
There was a thrum of impatience from Peter, like asphalt in the heat, and it made Javier hesitate. The other man sighed, and lifted the other bag he had been carrying; black heavy and solemn.
Having no choice, Javier pulled his phone from his pocket and gave it to Corinna.
“Speaking of the police…”
Javier stood up.
He rubbed his eyes. He could no longer tell if the migraine was thanks to exhaustion or the knowledge that two people had died; one by design, one in substitution. He didn’t want to know more, not when both Peter and Corinna were so calm in the aftermath of the unthinkable: that she might have been the third dead body.
Even a bare glance at that thought made Javier want to throw up.
He knew Peter loved Corinna.
It was impossible to fake relief like that, or the steadiness through time. Javier knew what love and fondness felt like, both first and second hand. This was something very close to it: devotion, maybe. And yet, Peter had left Corinna bleeding to death simply because she had asked.
Javier had foolishly thought they had some unspoken understanding: that his sister came first.
But perhaps love and loyalty were not the same thing after all, not when he had trusted Peter to act in his sister’s best interest — and he had made the alternative choice with such little remorse.
As Javier left the room, he heard Corinna’s voice floating like grey smoke, low and soft against the ground.
“…that journalist we tipped at The Sentinel…”
“What about him?”
“Too clever by half. Go with someone else next time.”
© Frances Wren 2019, all rights reserved.
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