The job was done secretly, in the darkest part of a snow - covered forest. There was no blood. There were no witnesses to our crime. Only the moon, cold and silent and unforgiving, saw what we did that night.
I stood back and watched as the girl held him down, determined to keep him on his knees in spite of his relentless struggling. He'd already lost this fight. The reward for his head was as good as ours. He had to have known that as well as I did, but our target didn't seem to care. He strained against the silver chains that bound his wrists, but realized that he could not break them. He tilted his head back and screamed so loudly the girl's ears started bleeding, but there was no one around to hear him. I tried to tell him to give up, that there was no use fighting the inevitable, but he laughed in my face. "Do you really expect me to make this easy for you?" He spat the words out like poison. "I'm not going anywhere. Not without a fight." That was the last thing he said before I pulled out my knife and carved a death rune into his forehead.
The girl stared through wide eyes at his body as it collapsed onto the clean white snow. "How can you be sure that he's dead?" she asked, as if she wasn't staring at his corpse. As if the color hadn't already drained from his face. "Is it possible that the spell didn't work for some reason? I think we should at least double check. Better safe than sorry. That's what the boss always says."
I let a low, almost growl - like chuckle escape through my gritted teeth. "You're just being paranoid. That's perfectly normal for a first - timer. You've got nothing to worry about, though. My bounties never escape alive, and I've never been caught. But if you seriously need me to prove to you that he's dead, here. Watch this." My trusty battle axe made a harsh, satisfying scraping noise as I pulled it from its sheath. I swung it against the snow and the wind, at the now lifeless corpse that lay freezing at my feet. The head came off in one fell swoop.
"There," I said, shoving his head into my satchel. "Dead as a doornail. Now let's burn the body. I'll hold on to the head, though. The boss wants us to bring it to him."
Our fire was dim and small, so as not to catch the attention of wandering campers. Not that there were many campers awake at that time of night, or in that part of the forest. But the girl kept glancing around, half expecting someone to emerge from the trees.
"Somebody's watching us." Her feet sunk into the snow with every step she took towards whatever it was she thought she saw. "I can sense them hiding out there. Oh, God. They must have seen everything. We've got to catch them before they go to the police!" But before she could go any further, I hissed out an incantation that pulled her back towards the roaring flames.
"Listen to me." My words came out more harshly than I had intended them to. "It's midnight and we're in the middle of nowhere. The nearest hiking trail is miles away. Who could possibly have seen us? I don't know why you're so nervous tonight, but
you've got to stop acting like this. It's unprofessional. The boss would expel you from the program if he found out about your cowardice. Do you understand?"
A moment's hesitation, a deep lion's breath, and then the girl raised her head to look me in the eyes. "Yes." Her voice was soft, but laced with the unhinged fury of a killer. "I understand." But when I released her from my grasp and she turned back towards the fire, I noticed her posture. Her shoulders were hunched, her hands tucked into the pockets of her coat. She looked scared. Mortified, even.
"You're going to have to get used to this." I placed a hand on her cold shoulder. "You can't turn back now. The boss will never let you leave. But if you serve him, you'll be rewarded. Just think of the future this job can provide for you. Think of how happy the boss will be when you tell him about your first kill."
"It is right to make him happy" she said, watching transfixed as the flames engulfed what was left of our target. "Maybe in another life, this man could have been a loyal follower. It's almost a pity that we had to do this to him."
Such talk would have gotten her killed, if anyone else had heard it. But she was young, and I was grateful for her help, and our boss spoke so highly of this girl. "If you don't want to suffer a similar fate, then don't upset our boss. The rules are as simple as that. Serve him well and you should be fine. But if you upset him, well - you already know what would happen then."
The girl nodded. "So, what now?" She was still staring at the fire, at the pile of ash that was once our target.
"First," I told her, "we put out the fire and clear our footprints before getting out of here. We can't risk leaving any evidence behind. Then, we take the head back to the boss before it starts to rot. If our target's family holds a funeral for him, we'll go to that."
The girl raised a skeptical eyebrow. "You want to attend the funeral of a man you killed?" She scoffed. "That's a little messed up, even by our standards."
"You're right," I said. "But you know what? It'll help you find answers. I can tell you feel curious. Maybe you want to learn more about him. Getting the chance to talk to his family, listening to what people have to say about him, should tell you all you need to know."
The girl pondered my words, taking them in and tasting them in her mouth. "I guess you're right."
The day of the funeral was cold, wet, and miserable.
Dark grey clouds covered the sun and a thick, eerie fog hung over the cemetery like a veil. The girl stood beside me, lips blue, body shivering from the freezing cold. In front of me, the mourners huddled together beside the newly dug grave, cursing their decision to have the ceremony on this of all days. But I didn't mind the gloomy weather. In fact, I thought it was oddly appropriate. It felt as if Mother Nature was mourning the loss of a life along with his relatives.
"Your father isn't dead. He couldn't possibly be."
That's what they must have told his grandchildren when they asked, voices small and hoarse from crying, why Daddy hadn't been home in two days. Maybe someone had wiped the tears away as they fell down their faces and told them they had nothing to worry about. Their father was strong, healthy, full of life. How could they possibly be orphans? The thought alone was ridiculous. If his children were foolish, they might have believed that. But then three weeks went by, and another three weeks, and the local authorities moved on to other things. Our target was as good as dead as far as anyone was concerned.
His killers were never caught. No one ever even knew that he'd been murdered.
"Fancy seeing you here."
Startled out of my reverie, I looked behind me to face the speaker, a boy around the girl's age wearing a crooked tie and unbuttoned jacket. He stood out amongst the mourners who were gathered with us around the edge of the grave. Most of the guests there that day were our target's friends and neighbors, strangers I had never so much as made eye contact with. But this boy was different. I'd recognize that crooked smirk anywhere. He was no friend of the target's.
My eyes nearly rolled into the back of my head. Boys like Nash Landon had bad reputations to maintain. Going to a funeral for strangers more than twice his age would make him seem mysterious, like a brooding rebel with something to hide. I could think of no other reason for him to be there.
The girl turned to look at the boy who had spoken. "I've seen him before," she said. "His dad works for our boss, right? Did he ask him to come?"
I shook my head. "No, I would assume not. The boss doesn't really like his father. That's the one who always talks back to him. I'm sure you're familiar with the annoying little man who won't leave our boss alone."
"Oh." The girl wrinkled her nose. "What's he doing here, then?"
"Beats me," I said. "He probably doesn't even know what our target's name was, so there's no way they would've put him on the guest list. I guess he's a funeral crasher as well as the son of an idiot."
The girl chuckled, a sound I hadn't heard since the night of the murder.
"I can hear you, you know," Nash snaps. "And for the record, I'm not sorry for your loss. I'm sure whoever killed him had their reasons."
A hush fell over the crowd of mourners. Heads turned like clockwork to see the face of the boy who had spoken. The child standing beside him clenched their fist and pulled it back, and would have punched him if someone hadn't grabbed her arm before she could deliver the blow. "Let me do it, Henley." The speaker was a younger girl with ribbons in her red hair, presumably Henley's sister.
"Actually, it would probably be best if you didn't make a scene here. We'll deal with him later, all right?" Henley's sister opened her mouth to protest, but then they pointed to where the casket was being lowered six feet into the ground, and she understood. Another place, another time, but not now.
"Does the boy know who his father really works for," the girl whispered, "or is his dad keeping it a secret from him?"
I glanced behind me to make sure the boy wasn't listening. He wasn't, so I knelt down and whispered in the girl's ear, "He's got no idea. From what I've heard, he's interested in fake magic, the kind mortals see in Las Vegas and at birthday parties. But he doesn't know about real magic. Daddy Dearest is too scared to tell him anything."
If looks could kill, the death glare the girl was shooting my way would have murdered me on the spot. "The way you're talking about him is kind of rude. Can you tell me what you have against him?"
I let a long, deep sigh escape my lips. "Listen, um - what's your name? I don't think you ever told me."
"Well, Meredith, there are things about that kid you don't know. He's dangerous."
Meredith scoffed. "I thought you liked dangerous."
"Not when it comes to him." I checked again to make sure Nash's ice blue eyes were turned away from me. "The kid doesn't know it, at least not yet, but he has the power to destroy everything we've been working for. If he wanted to, he could bring down our entire organization. I could make sure that doesn't happen. I could get to know Nash, coax him onto our side. But his father has other ideas. I suppose he's worried about his son getting involved with the likes of you and I. He wants him to have a normal childhood, away from the world of magic. Somehow, he convinced the boss not to do anything to him. But it's only a matter of time before he finds out about- "
Suddenly, a trembling Meredith clamped a cold hand over my mouth. "Be very quiet. We need to get out of here without drawing any attention to ourselves."
"Why? What's going on?" I ask when she takes her hand off of my mouth. My eyes followed Meredith's pointed finger to where the mother and child were standing, and my heart nearly dropped into my stomach.
Nash had been paying no mind to our whispers. But Henley's bright, curious hazel
eyes were trained on us. They must have heard everything. The shock of the realization wore out quickly, and as my muscles began to relax a wide grin spread its way across my face.
"Well, then," I said. "Time to initiate Operation Lookout."
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