Another sneak peek of my upcoming novel, The Girl in the Fountain. Coming 7/15!
She comes in with her shoulders thrown back, her head held high, the black straps of her backpack cutting over her left shoulder. Two barrels stare out at him, peaking out from beneath the flap as she turns casually to hang her coat on the hook by his door. The shotgun looks haphazardly packed. Like she’s just forgotten to zip the bag all the way up. Like she just dumped everything in and shoved the thing closed, as probably very many other teenagers might.
But not Finch.
Niko knows everything Finch does is deliberate.
She puffs herself up like a toad every time she comes to see him.
She’s scared of him.
His granddaughter only comes to see him when she’s facing something that scares her even more than him. Usually it’s a question. A looming question. The one monster Finch hasn’t learned to face.
She looks so much like her mother, he hears his own mind, wistfully musing.
Her mother who looks so much like her mother.
The latter thought brings him back, the bite of pain familiar after so many years, but it stings no less for it.
“He’s one of yours,” Finch opens. It’s not a question. Niko doesn’t even understand the point of the statement. He doesn’t need to confirm it. She already knows. But he does anyway, stalling really, waiting to hear what this is really about.
“You traded him for something,” Finch muses. “That’s how we got ‘lucky’ with his location after so many years.”
Another familiar bite.
“Yes.” Niko has betrayed a man he’s known since diapers, since Amand used to toddle over with that ridiculous, drooling grin. An old man now, Niko reminds himself. Amand has lived far longer than he would have without Niko’s help all these years. This day was bound to come eventually. If not Niko, someone else. Chance. Fate. Pure statistical probability building up after so many years of searching.
We all die.
“You want to help us get even luckier?”
“No,” Niko answers mildly. He goes back behind his desk now, understands that this is just Finch’s insatiable need to understand. Nothing dire. Nothing noteworthy.
Finch is still staring, considering, when he looks back up from the papers he’d abandoned on the mahogany surface when she first walked in.
“As you say,” Niko murmurs, “I traded him. I traded his location for something I considered of greater value to me. That does not imply I have any desire to provide any further information for free.”
“And I have nothing you want,” Finch finishes for him.
He can’t stop the flinch at the words, the harshly exhaled breath. Because it really does feel quite like she’s hit him in the chest. Run at him and rammed into him with one of those bony little shoulders of hers.
She has something he wants very much.
And he wishes he could say, so simply: “I want your forgiveness.”
He’d be willing to give her nearly anything for her forgiveness.
The words rush through him, so vehement is his remorse that he’s scared for a moment he really might have spoken them aloud. He must not have though because she’s still just standing there, looking at him, waiting. Still, he hears the words echoing where they’ve never been spoken. They tear into him like a ricochet: I traded you once.
Luckily, he didn’t say those damning words either. And Finch only shrugs after a long moment of silence.
With any of the other Barracks men, Niko would know that this, this was the critical moment to say nothing. With any of the other Barracks men, this would be a trap. The more concern Niko showed for their target, the more brutal they would be. They all know Niko and their Mad Mother live in a marriage always at odds. They know their marriage is something like the legally binding embodiment of the oh-so-popular “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” The more Niko cares, the more the Mad Mother might enjoy a particularly bloody kill.
But somehow, and oh how he longs to understand how, and yet how he cringes back from even the slightest understanding... Finch has survived nearly a decade and a half with Elana with some tiny sliver of her heart intact. Her mother’s heart. Her mother’s mother’s heart. A heart so big and pure and beautiful that even knowing all the death and destruction that would come from it, knowing he’d spend the rest of his life in misery, Niko still hadn’t been able to resist falling in love. And in the midst even of that misery, thirty-five years and counting, he still can’t bring himself to regret it. As a youth, he’d had an affair with a beautiful, kind woman, who gave birth to a beautiful, kind girl, who grew up to give birth to another beautiful child. Even Elana has not managed to ruin his last lingering memories of happiness and love, or the final sparks of that beauty and that kindness, lingering now in Finch’s eyes.
Finch is sincere in her question. She takes no joy in the kill. If he makes a request, she will honor it. Niko has just yet to determine if it’s from fear or because that tiny sliver of her heart, her mother’s heart, her mother’s mother’s heart, loves her grandfather through sheer genetics. A beating echo of what he so briefly had.
Regardless. “I know it has to look like an accident” Niko hears his own voice, weak, hoarse…
“But you’d still like one shot to do it,” Finch finishes for him. “Clean.” Her eyes are filled with a dark understanding. She nods even as she asks, “You really care about him, don’t you?”
Niko can’t find his voice to accompany his head bobbing up and down.
“I hope whatever you traded him for is worth it,” Finch mutters.
He doesn’t find his voice again until she’s at the door, one arm already into her coat, the other sliding back, pulling the thick fabric over her shoulders and starting to cinch the belt.
“It is,” Niko whispers. It is.
It’s only when the backpack has joined Finch’s ensemble, the shotgun stowed carefully within, zipped entirely now, that Niko finds the courage for a second request.
It’s not her name, but she wouldn’t answer to her name even if he called it.
She turns, however, to the taunt a schoolyard bully called out when she was five years old.
“Amand has a daughter. Her mother was no one.”
She has no claim to the throne. Not for another hundred or so victims down the list.
Finch’s eyes turn contemplative. She inclines her head. Always honest to a fault: “I can’t promise anything. But I’ll do everything in my power to see that the daughter is left alive.”
Carefully chosen words. Careful truth.
Not that the daughter will be unharmed. Because how could she be unharmed by her father’s sudden death? But alive. Perhaps the slightest chance, to rebuild a life worth living.
It’s the best Niko can hope for. More really than any other Barracks man would give him.
“Thank you, Finch.”
She only inclines her head again, meets his eyes only through the sliver left as she closes the door behind her.
“Of course, Grandfather.”
As it always does, that single word… It leaves Niko grimacing in his chair.
Guilt is a… gnawing emotion, he finally puts a word to it.
Like rats in your intestines.