His reddened knuckles throbbed, smarting soundly from their contact with human bone. Thomas flexed his fingers slowly, then curled them back into his palm. His stomach churned as his legs carried him swiftly, urgently through the garbage-strewn ally. He was ashamed at his violence, but he’d had no choice. He still carried the image of the man’s frightened face in his mind’s eye.
“I know what you’re looking for.”
Thomas had held the bedraggled man against the wall, both hands tightly clutching at his shirt. He’d tracked him, cornering him in an empty garage. As Thomas pushed his face in close, their eyes not six inches apart, he smelled nothing but cigarettes on the man’s breath. He reeked of bourbon, but none had been poured down his throat. His shirt, however, was a different story. This man was meant to appear as he was not. Thomas had hit pay dirt: Corinthos’s scout.
Thomas stared hard into his face, the strength of his hands threatening to lift the man’s feet from the floor. He turned away from Thomas’s eyes, feigning incoherence. Thomas would have none of it, pulling his handful away from the wall, then shoving it back again with as much force as he could muster. The fear in the man’s eyes told Thomas that he was ready to listen.
“I HAVE what you’re looking for…and I will give it to you. But I have no intention of getting myself killed in the process, do you understand?” The man searched Thomas’s face in silence, confessing no knowledge of his own.
“In one hour, I’ll be back here. If I’m not here, you wait. Two hours, you still wait. I will be back.” Thomas was suddenly aware of the sound of his own voice echoing in the empty garage. He lowered his tone, but raised his intensity.
“You keep your mouth shut until I come back. You turn me in to the man paying you, she could die. That would NOT make him happy. Understand?”
The man swallowed hard, a slight nod of his head giving way.
“Good.” Thomas took a step back, releasing his grip on the grubby shirt. The man hesitated, then moved toward the door. Thomas grabbed his arm.
“Not so fast. I apologize for this, but I can’t have you trying to follow me.”
With one well-placed right hook to the jaw, the man was on the ground. By the time he’d come out of his considerable daze, Thomas was long gone.
As his tired feet reached their destination, Thomas gave a final glance over his shoulder, eyes on keen alert, before quickly slipping through the doorway. He leaned against the wall, stealing a steadying breath. He rubbed his aching fist with his good hand, pulling his explanation together in his head before heading down the short hall.
The hollow tapping of his shoes reverberated in the narrow stairwell, metal steps quaking under the heavy weight of him. As he reached the basement floor and slipped his key into the lock, Thomas said a prayer that Sorel would finally tell him what he needed to know, that this would be it. Pushing his weight against the heavy door, he made his way toward the man standing at the end of the corridor.
Sorel saw the giant figure approaching and looked at his watch in a show of disapproval.
“I apologize, Mr. Sorel. I was dealing with that matter of Corinthos’s men sniffing around the area, as we discussed earlier.” Thomas made his own show of flexing his red, swelling fingers. Sorel took note.
“I can see you could use a little ice there. Was it him?”
“Truthfully, I’m not sure. Corinthos has had scouts out on the streets, absolutely. And he’s had money flying all over the place for information. But it seems you’ve been quite successful in frustrating his efforts, keeping the upper hand.”
Sorel smiled with satisfaction. Thomas’s words were music to his ears, and Thomas played him for all he was worth.
“This one guy, in particular, gave me quite a bit of grief when I questioned his purpose in skulking around the neighborhood. If he IS on Corinthos’s payroll, as I suspect, I’m confident I made it clear how unhealthy it would be for him to REMAIN in the neighborhood.”
Thomas wanted Sorel to know that the danger of discovery was still out there, hoping to speed up the timetable. He rubbed his fist again, bruises now beginning to form.
”I may take you up on that ice.”
“You’re becoming quite a take-charge kind of man!” Sorel smiled approvingly, slapping Thomas on the shoulder in what had become an annoying habit.
“I like your style.” Sorel leaned back against the door that kept Alexis hidden away.
“I’m pleased that you’re happy with my work, sir.” Thomas couldn’t help it, as his eyes involuntarily glanced at the door behind Sorel’s head. He needed reassurance that Sorel hadn’t been up to anything while he’d been gone. And he wondered if she needed to see him. The calm she seemed to allow herself when she looked at his face made him feel somehow forgiven.
Sorel’s eyes followed Thomas’s, as he turned his head. He smiled at the thought of the woman who waited for him behind that door - the woman who needed him. His last few hours of total control would not be wasted.
Thomas felt a jolt of adrenaline surge through his body, a visceral response to the look on Sorel’s face. He knew Sorel was still drunk with power, and his mind continued to go places that Thomas could never imagine. Sorel turned back, noting the anxiety that Thomas tried to hide.
“Don’t look so worried Thomas. Tonight, things will go exactly as I want them to. Corinthos has requested one more communication with Miss Davis before the exchange takes place.” Sorel’s smile was pure malice.
“Given what he’s about to hear, I think the last thing he’s going to want to do is pull some stunt.”
Thomas’s jaw tightened, the tensed muscles sending a sharp pain down his neck. He braced himself. “Are you planning to, um…to take care of her?”
Sorel shook his head with a hearty chuckle. “Thomas, Thomas, Thomas. You watch too many movies.”
He pulled the end of the syringe out of his pocket for Thomas to see, then dropped it back down again.
“Yes, I plan to take very GOOD care of her. I’m going to give her exactly what she needs…for now.”
“And – later? Tonight?”
Sorel sighed. “You show a great deal of promise. You’re strong, loyal, eager and your instincts are impeccable. But you’re green. Your experience is limited, your shell not as tough as it needs to be.” He turned to the door once again.
“A beautiful, vulnerable woman…it’s natural for you to get a little soft, to let her get to you. I understand.”
Thomas shifted uneasily. “Mr. Sorel, I have no…”
Sorel stopped him with a raised hand. “All I’m saying is it’s natural for someone green. But this is business – and all that matters here IS business. You focus on the goal, you don’t dwell on the steps taken to reach it.”
“Absolutely, sir.” The blood pounded in Thomas’s ears.
“All you need to know for now is that it will go down at eight o’ clock. Where it will go down, you’ll know when you get there. Corinthos will be called with instructions at seven thirty, at which time a car will be waiting back in the ally. Miss Davis will be tucked away in the trunk and taken to the site of the transaction. Her condition upon delivery will be whatever it is. We’ll see what frame of mind Corinthos’s attitude will put me in. For her sake, I hope he remembers who’s calling the shots. And likewise, I expect all my orders to be followed without question and without hesitation, by everyone I employ.”
“I expect you to watch and learn Thomas.”
“If I may, Mr. Sorel, I’ve watched your whole handling of this Corinthos situation.” He took a deep breath, assuming a solemn, earnest demeanor.
“I can honestly say that what I’ve already learned from you will last me a lifetime.”
A direct hit. The smug smile bloomed wide across Sorel’s face. Corinthos was right: Sorel was an idiot. It was all Thomas could do to maintain himself when all he wanted to do was wipe that smile away. But Sorel had too many friends, too wide a reach. Just one mistake could cost her…and him.
“You make me blush, my friend! And you do me proud.” Again, the shoulder slap.
Sorel looked at his watch. “It seems I’ve kept the lady waiting a bit too long. Well, they say patience is a virtue. And the lady is nothing if not virtuous. Maybe this time I WILL see a smile on her face when I walk through the door?” Sorel laughed to himself as he flipped the light switch and opened the door.
Alexis lay face down on the ground, shaking. Her left arm was curved up over her head, the other arm bent at the elbow and pulled tightly into her body. Her breathing was rapid and shallow – she was whispering something unintelligible. Sorel stood in the doorway, staring with an unpleased expression. Thomas waited briefly for a cue, then finally went to her.
“Thomas, I thought I told you I wanted her under control. I will NOT have any trouble with her tonight.” He began loosening his tie.
Thomas’s hands were moving carefully over her body, checking for any damage she may have done. It was clear she had fallen from the blanket half pulled off the cot. Finding nothing broken, he gently turned her over as she seemed to struggle to stay where she was, still mumbling quietly. As he began to push the hair off her face, something soft hit his arm. He looked down to see Sorel’s tie crumpled on the ground.
“That’ll have to do. I don’t want her moving from that cot until we put her in the car, understand?”
Alexis groaned, moving her arm off her stomach and onto the floor. It was then that Thomas saw the angry scratches, the blood glaring up at him from her bruised arm. His eyes moved to her face, damp and flushed. Her arm was likely infected from so many un-sterile hits and the work of her fingernails on the marks.
“What?” Sorel was not amused by this unexpected distraction.
“I think she’s sick. She’s scratched her arm up pretty bad – she drew blood. I think it’s infected…and she’s got a fever.”
Sorel sighed heavily. “Get her up.”
Thomas pulled her into his arms as she wriggled against him, pushing away the warmth of human contact. He laid her down and pulled the blanket back up over her. Sorel moved toward the cot, retrieving his tie from the floor. He looked down on her as she squirmed, pushing at the blanket. He placed his palm on Alexis’s forehead. Her head arched slightly in response, eyes trying to open.
“It’s…cold. Your hands…” She stammered.
Sorel was pleased at her return to a coherent state. He leaned down closer to her.
“Well, you know what they say about cold hands?”
He moved his palm to her cheek and she turned her face into it, eyes finally opening as best they could against the harsh lights.
“Warm heart.” Alexis gazed up at her tormenter, seemingly content and unafraid. “The cold is nice.”
Sorel eyes took in hers, as she pressed her face into his touch, accepting. The corners of his hard mouth softened, just so, as if he was experiencing something fleeting and transitory that he didn’t understand. Thomas watched, transfixed, wondering if he had just seen a glimpse of the man Joseph Sorel might have been.
“It’s…it’s hot – inside.” Alexis whispered, eyes closing. A muscle cramp suddenly attacked her side, evaporating the perversely peaceful tableau as quickly as it appeared.
“Ow…” Alexis grabbed her side, turning away from Sorel and curling her body up into itself.
“Mr. Sorel, I think there may be some aspirin in the supply room. It should help with the fever. I could use some for my hand as well, truth be told.”
Sorel stood, her eyes still on her. “Yeah, okay.”
Thomas got halfway to the door.
He stopped and turned to see Sorel slipping his tie back around his collar. “If there’s any rubbing alcohol, some kind of antiseptic like that. And some cloth or bandages to wrap around her arm so she won’t do any more damage.”
As Thomas rounded the doorframe, he paused. What the hell had just happened? He took a deep breath, shaking himself out as he headed down the hall. No matter. Two minutes of human decency from Sorel was the exception, hardly the rule. Thomas would follow through with his plan. A few more hours, then both Sorel and Alexis would be in the proper hands. And maybe Thomas could once again look at himself in the mirror.
Yes, what he’d learned from Joseph Sorel would last him a lifetime. He prayed the same wouldn’t be true for her.
He knew better.