“He's cute," I said.
"Uh-huh," the gray man agreed, "and so's dynamite.”
— from Red Harvest, by Dashiel Hammett
The dog had gotten into the habit of chasing squirrels in the yard, round and round until he was worn out. Then, tongue lolling out, he’d come in to flop at my feet, huffing gently, where he’d stay until dinner. After four days, we had our routine down: he was a quick study, and I had no other plans.
Tonight, when I opened the door to let the dog in, someone else came in with him.
“Ciao, John,” said Gianna D’Antonio. “May we come in?”
“Gianna,” I said, to forestall having to say anything else. I looked at her. She was dressed in a trim fur jacket and a pair of gold kitten heels. From experience, I could tell you that the fur was the only soft thing about her. Her shadow was large and well-armed, and he was surveying my front lawn with the practiced efficiency of a special forces operative.
Letting manners overrule sense, I took a step back from the door. The dog slipped past, and Gianna came in. She left her shadow outside; I would have preferred she’d stayed outside with him.
“I was sorry to hear about your wife,” Gianna said. She did not sound particularly sorry. Her eyes were flicking from the curtains to the rug to the couch. Her mouth was pursed. “And the dog.”
I eschewed small talk at the best of times, and this wasn’t the best of times. “Why are you here?”
The look she gave me could have chilled a man — or laid him out on a morgue slab. “My father died three weeks ago; he left the clan and his seat on the High Table to me. With that seat comes certain responsibilities.”
“I’m retired,” I said.
“You were retired,” she said. “And while you were content to play house, or to drink yourself to death, or to drive around in your car wasting away — you were not my concern. But you chose to return to the board.”
“Get out of my house,” I said.
Gianna ignored me. “I do not want to be here, John. I came to call in a favor.” She tossed something my way, and instincts won out over self-preservation: I caught it.
It took me a moment to speak, or several. “I didn't give you this,” I said, running a thumb over the whorled vines. The silver hadn’t tarnished in the past six years; someone had kept the marker in good polish. I figured I should stop looking at it, and looked at Gianna instead.
She was still watching me, eyes narrowed. “No, but I am calling it in none-the-less.” She paused, and when I managed nothing, continued: “My brother was content to keep it as a token. To leave the offer on the table, never to be cashed in.”
“Please don’t do this,” I said.
“Always the romantic, my brother.” Her mouth twisted. “You told him you were leaving the business, and like a fool, he believed you. He burned favors: put our American operations back six months. He elevated a rival syndicate — a Russian syndicate — with nothing to show for his efforts but a marker he never intended to use.”
I didn’t want to have this conversation. I was out of practice of thinking about Santino. I had managed to carefully not-think about him for years, like a patch of scar tissue long since healed over. At first, it was a novelty. After a while, you stopped noticing it.
There wasn't much point to noticing things that wouldn't change.
“My brother is the family weakness,” Gianna said. “He was my father’s weakness, and now, he is mine.” Her eyes had gone from cold to glacial: she didn’t look like a woman with a weakness. She didn’t look like she was acquainted with the concept.
Then again, I had known her brother once. The knowing made it easier to believe her.
“Two days ago, Santino was poisoned at the Continental in Rome. He went into cardiac arrest. It is a matter of luck that he did not die.” Gianna scowled. “The Continental hesitates in enforcing the law; they suspect a member of the High Table is responsible.”
Sometimes, laws didn’t apply to people in power — but I was not going to point that out. I was still stuck on poisoned and cardiac arrest and not die.
Some people seem immortal; then you’re surprised to realize they can bleed like the rest of us. I thought I’d known better. After nine combat tours and ten years of wet work, I’d learned better. If the lesson hadn’t sunk in then, it should have been carved into my bones after Helen.
Gianna’s voice pulled me out of my thoughts. “I need an independent operator; no records, no contracts. I need a ghost.”
“I’m retired,” I repeated.
“You live in a mausoleum to your dead wife,” Gianna scoffed. “You killed eighty-four people to avenge a pet.”
“Going after a member of the High Table is impossible. It can’t be done.” And even if it could be done, I wasn’t that man anymore.
“Your vendetta created a power vacuum in New York,” she snapped. “Abram Tarasov cannot hold the city alone. The High Table is convening — they are coming here. They will be in unfamiliar territory: their security will be vulnerable. It is the perfect opportunity.”
“If Santino is still alive,” I said, “that marker is his to call in. Not yours.”
Gianna hesitated, then said deliberately: “He is calling it in. As his blood, I am his emissary.”
I closed my eyes for a moment. “I’m sorry, Gianna. I can’t help you. You need to find someone else.”
Some women are not used to being told no — and neither is a capofamiglia. I was surprised that she did not claw my eyes out on the spot. Instead, her face twisted in rage, and she stalked to the door.
On the doorstep, she hesitated. Two emotions warred on her face, and the uglier one won. She turned back to look at me as her shadow fell in behind her. “He was a fool to help you,” she spat, hitting the palm of her hand against the jamb. “A gun is useful; some might call it beautiful. At the end of the day, it is a tool. It will not hesitate to put a bullet in your head.”
As the door slammed behind her, I realized I’d probably handled the conversation poorly.
The explosion that threw me fifteen feet through a glass window confirmed it.
I showed up at the Continental with glass still embedded in my jacket. The shell-shock had faded and I’d worked myself into a hell of a temper.
It was just like Santino D’Antonio to send his sister across the Atlantic to pull me into his mess. I could imagine it: the twist of his mouth, the way his eyes would glitter, the shape of his lips forming the request.
Like I was some sort of servant. Like I hadn’t my own life to attend to. Like I had nothing better to do —
Santino had always been temperamental. He could go from calm and courteous to spurned and raging in the time it took you to blink — then back to playful, once he’d gotten his way. He didn’t like the word no. Hearing no was always going to be a bother to him.
We’d hadn’t been close. We’d been — I don’t know what we’d been. I don’t know how I ended up entwined with the D’Antonios. I don’t know how it had come to this moment.
Some of my mood must have shown on my face, because Winston waved away his companion and offered me the man’s seat.
“Jonathan. What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“I didn’t do anything,” I replied, which was not entirely truthful, and probably pointless. It’s no use trying to spin Winston. In my experience, he learns everything almost immediately after it happens, and in some cases, before. “She burned my house down, Winston.”
Winston looked unimpressed. “You know the rules, John. Every marker must be honored.” He tapped a finger against the table. “You should never have given a marker to that man.”
“I needed to get out. He offered to help.” It had been the only offer. As Marcus might have said, ‘it was crooked — but it was the only game in town.’ Helen had been worth the risk. Helen would have been worth any risk.
Besides, it had always been so easy to say yes to Santino: all the tension in his shoulders reverting to languorous pleasure, the slow smile. When he quirked an eyebrow at you, you were supposed to roll over.
“You call this out?” Winston chuckled, though there was no humor in it. “Seven years ago, I told you not to get involved with the D’Antonios. Long before you got your task.”
I remembered. It was the year before I met Helen; the year before she rearranged my life. Santino had been all of twenty-two. I’d met him in passing. I hadn’t expected it to go any further.
“I told you then and I’ll tell you now: the Camorra don’t have the structure of other organizations. They are a loose grouping of clans. There is no central leader. Yet they respect the D’Antonio leadership. They follow them.”
“I don’t see how this is relevant.”
“The D’Antonios maintain their power through manipulation, favors, and fear.” Winston ticked off the list on his fingers. “The right place, the right time, the right offer. Sound familiar? Santino learned that at his father’s knee. Once you went down that road, there was always going to be a catch. This day was always going to come.”
I wasn’t in the mood to rehash history, so I went on the offensive.
“I know the rules,” I said. “There are two of them, and the first one has been broken.” Feeling petulant, I added, “If the rules cannot be enforced, the Continental’s guarantee is worthless.”
Winston sighed. “What do you want, John?”
To be left alone, I thought, but that wasn’t what he was asking. And at some point, I’d made a decision — or accepted the only path available. “I can fix both of our problems,” I said. “But I need dispensation for a hit in the Continental.”
Winston gave a long, slow exhale. “So that’s what she's asked of you,” he mused. “You know that going after a member of the High Table is suicide.” He frowned. “It is not, however, forbidden.”
We sat in silence for a moment. I could see he was thinking it over. I could see he wasn’t happy about it. I’d stuck him between two unpleasant choices, and he was trying to navigate an out.
I wasn’t particularly sympathetic. My scylla was likely enjoying afternoon tea at the moment, to wash down the aftertaste of burning my goddamn house down. I didn’t know who charybdis was, but Winston was correct: getting through the personal security of any member of the High Table, even out of their home territory, was suicide.
However, I was betting that the High Table would only convene on neutral ground — which, in New York, meant the Continental. Which meant I had a chance.
“One bullet,” Winston decided. “One death inside the Continental: that is all I will grant you.” His eyes narrowed. “And the evidence must be incontrovertible. Our integrity — our neutrality — cannot be compromised.”
I opened my mouth to bargain, but Winston wasn’t finished.
“If you succeed, you will be free of your marker — and you will have done the Continental a favor,” said Winston. “In exchange, I will help you retire — this time, for good. You will not be bothered again. You will be out.” He looked at me sharply. “But if you compromise the Continental, you will be excommunicado. We will put a bounty on your head and we will raise it every day until you are dead.”
It was as good an offer as I was going to get, and a better offer than I had expected. “Done,” I said, and stood up.
“Jonathan,” Winston called out, as I was halfway out the door. “You have gained a reputation for doing the impossible. If anyone can do this…”
“Sure,” I said. “Thanks.”
On that note, I went out the door.
The D’Antonios had laid claim to the top two floors of a quiet building on overlooking the Park — about two blocks south of the Met Breuer, and convenient to the Continental. The ritzy address was a far cry from the Tarasov’s brownstone in Sheepshead Bay, even if the same work paid both bills. I wondered idly if the family owned the building outright, or just a hundred million dollars in penthouse real estate.
I’d picked up a suit and some money from my lockbox, so I looked less haggard. The suit didn’t fit properly anymore, but it was an improvement; people stopped swerving to avoid me on the sidewalk.
The doorman didn’t bat an eye when I stated my business. He summoned a slim redhead who escorted me to the elevator. We did our best to ignore each other until she cheerlessly abandoned me in the penthouse foyer.
I found my new boss in the sitting room, deep in discussion with a compact, sturdy man who looked to be in his early fifties.
“I see you have reconsidered,” observed Gianna. “Good.”
I would have cheerfully strangled her on the spot, and from the look in her eyes, she knew it. “Just tell me who you want dead,” I said.
The man next to her chuckled. “That is the question,” he said. “We are hoping that you can help us answer it.”
“You don’t know?” I was an assassin — a retired assassin — not a detective.
Gianna looked thunderous. “We will discuss this tomorrow. Luca and I have business at present.” She glanced to the side, where her shadow was standing. “Cassian, please show Mr. Wick to his bedroom.”
“I’ll give you the tour,” said the shadow. I was being dismissed, and I went quietly.
Cassian must have taken mercy on me, because the tour started with the liquor cabinet.
“So,” Cassian said, “it’s been a long time.”
“I’d have preferred if it had been longer,” I said, dryly.
He shrugged, unperturbed. “Well, it’s good to see you, anyway.”
Cassian was ex-Army, if I remembered correctly. Seven years ago, he’d been fresh to this world, and he’d been freelancing out of New York. We’d shared a drink once or twice. I’d liked him pretty well. I wondered how he’d ended up here.
“Gianna doesn’t like being told no.” Cassian looked a bit sheepish. “For what it’s worth, John — I’m sorry about your house.”
I let that sit, but I accepted the tumbler of bourbon peaceably. “I’m still not sure what I’m doing here.”
“Gianna mentioned that the High Table was convening?” Cassian prodded.
“She was unclear on the details.”
“To prevent an all-out war over the city,” Cassian said. “Abram can’t hold the territory, not with the losses he’s taken.”
He took a sip of his drink, and I ruminated. I hadn’t bothered to consider what would happen to the Tarasov operations, after. I’d made my peace with Abram, and put paid to any further concern for their affairs. More fool me, to think it would be that easy.
“The High Table will decide who steps in, which families take over the gaps. The Bratva are making a play, obviously, claiming they have kinship with the Tarasovs — and the right to replace them. Vasily Ivanov is courting whichever of Viggo’s suppliers you left alive.” He grinned. “Might be promising them your head on a platter, actually.”
I didn’t laugh. “Who else is making a play?”
“The Irish, the Sicilians, and both Triad seats,” Cassian counted off. “Yakuza and ‘Ndràngheta aren’t interested; Undzer Shtik are spread thin; Serbians don’t have the local manpower. The Colombians don’t need it, and the Gulf Cartel is having problems with power consolidation at home.” He looked thoughtful. “There might be a second Mexican seat soon enough; I’m not sure Cohen can hold onto his seat. We’ll see.”
“And the Camorra?” I asked. I wasn’t interested in the High Table realpolitik; it might be the D’Antonio's world, but it was no longer mine. I wasn’t an investigator. I wasn’t an operator. I wasn’t part of this. I just wanted a name so I could get out.
I was hoping third time out was the charm.
Cassian showed all his teeth. “You know we leave this country to La Cosa Nostra.”
“Uh huh,” I said, and left it at that.
The rest of the tour was uneventful: six bedrooms on the top floor, dining room, kitchen, library, sitting room, foyer. The floor below had a second kitchen, two home offices, an armory, and another half dozen bedrooms. The two connected by private elevator and staircase. VIPs and their bodyguards were staying on the top floor, with live-in staff and guests below — which now included me. The rest of their security were housed elsewhere, and worked in shifts.
Gianna and the man she’d been speaking with were both in residence for the High Table’s council. I guessed that he was her sottocapo, pretty much the number two — though I was no expert on Camorra structure. The bratva used a different system.
When I asked Cassian, he confirmed my hunch. “Luca is an old friend of the family. He was Severino’s consigliere before his death, but Gianna made him sottocapo and her brother, consigliere.”
“Why the change?”
“Luca enjoys the day-to-day operations, and Santino excels at arguing with his sister.” Of course. “He was supposed to come to New York for the council instead — these negotiations are his wheelhouse — but under the circumstances…”
“What happened, exactly?”
“Santino was meeting Alessandro Cavallero’s nephew for dinner.” My eyebrows jumped. Cavallero was the head of the Sicilian Mafia: La Cosa Nostra. Perhaps the most famous criminal organization in the world, though the Camorra had them beat on revenue.
Unsurprisingly, Cavallero held a seat on the High Table, and had for decades. I wasn’t familiar with the nephew.
“Socially,” Cassian corrected. “Santino and Nico Cavallero were at SNS Pisa together. It’s a useful friendship to foster.”
“Is the nephew a suspect?”
“Unlikely. Anything’s possible, but I wouldn’t have pegged him for it.”
Cassian’s instincts were good, but that didn’t mean much. I’d known Iosef Tarasov at thirteen. He’d been a nice kid: not someone you expected to grow up to be the man I’d put down.
“Of course, people will do unusual things for family.” He eyed me. “Or love.”
I kept my voice bland: “You didn’t see that coming?”
“John, no one saw that coming. No one ever sees you coming.” Cassian huffed. “It’s what makes you so terrifying.”
I acknowledged the compliment, and changed the subject before he could ask any more questions. “How do you know a Camorra clan isn’t responsible? Another capo looking to establish dominance?”
“In other circumstances, that would be our first suspicion,” Cassian admitted. “Now, with New York’s fate uncertain, it’s in all the clans’ interests to have a strong negotiator at the table representing the Camorra — evidence of internal instability weakens our position. Afterwards, yes, there are other clans that would like to make a play for the seat.”
I accepted the explanation. This was his expertise, not mine. I just wanted a name, a target, so I could do my job and get out of here.
It didn’t matter who came after the D’Antonios afterwards. It wasn’t my problem.
thank you to everyone who commented and gave kudos on the first chapter :) it was very encouraging. here is chapter two; hopefully it does not disappoint.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Say what you will about Italian crime lords, but they know their caffè. The next morning, feeling better rested, I followed my nose to the kitchen.
Gianna was seated at the head of a small breakfast table, along with three men and one woman. I recognized Cassian to her left and Luca to her right, but not the other two.
Cassian stood. “John. Let me get you a cup.”
“Thanks,” I said. I could handle a Nespresso, but the manual La Pavoni was out of my league.
“Welcome to the war table,” Cassian said, fiddling with the lever. “We’re discussing your target.”
“You have a name yet?”
“We have some ideas.” He handed me the cup. “Please, have a seat.”
Luca and Gianna were speaking in quick, sharp Italian. I was fluent in the language, but the Neapolitan dialect is a different story.
They switched to English when I sat down, but I started the conversation in the middle.
“Alessandro would love to vassalize us.” Gianna bared her teeth. “To bring all of Italy under his wing.”
“As would the ‘Ndràngheta,” Luca said, “if only to strengthen their bargaining position against the Sicilians.”
“Cannistrà doesn’t have the balls,” Gianna scoffed. “He’s cautious. He doesn’t have the ambition.”
It was jarring to hear the head of the ‘Ndràngheta referred to as cautious. The man had killed his own father for the seat forty-six years ago, at the age of nineteen, and ruled the organization with an iron fist ever since.
“The motive is not convincing,” Cassian agreed. “The Camorra would avenge your deaths tenfold.”
“If you didn’t beat them to it?” Luca smiled at Cassian. “Very well, not the ‘Ndràngheta — but Cavallero might take that risk.”
I was skeptical. The Italians held three seats on the High Table. If the Gianna lost hers, it wasn't a sure bet that the seat would stay Italian. While the three tussled, keeping the voting bloc was valuable.
Then again, I didn't know the intricacies of the Italian System, or what was going on at home. Possibly Gianna was right, and Alessandro Cavallero was putting ambition over patriotism.
“You have no heir,” prompted the other woman in the room. She was swathed in a diaphanous caftan and looked rather waifish, but she returned Gianna's murderous glare with a soft smile. Unbowed, she continued, “And apart from your brother, no immediate family. Santino’s poisoner may mean to provoke a succession crisis.”
Luca looked amused. Cassian’s face could have been carved from stone. The third man looked contemplative.
After a moment Gianna said, grudgingly, “Your point is taken, Oriana.”
“Who benefits?” I asked.
“Anyone who wants the Camorra distracted,” Luca replied. “But is it a play for territory or for higher stakes?”
“The Sinaloa want a seat at the High Table,” Cassian said. “They’ve been striving for it for years. If they thought this would get them closer…”
“A possibility,” Gianna said. “Who else?”
“Do not forget the Serbians,” said the man whose name I hadn't caught. “They were unhappy to be cut out of the agreements in Albania.”
“Lečić isn't stupid enough to escalate that far over counterfeit cigarettes,” Luca objected. “Unless he's more desperate than we thought.”
“Or stupider,” Gianna agreed. She paused. “Stupidity knows few bounds. Francesco, please liaise with our friends in the Balkans; see if you can dig up anything.”
The man — Francesco — nodded. “With pleasure.”
“Maybe Santino was the target,” Oriana said, thoughtfully. “Recent events may have agitated old wounds. After all, Nathan Tse was Carlton Lài's nephew by marriage.”
The name was familiar. Tse had been a big player in New York before I’d killed him; his death had cleared the way for the Tarasovs to corner the imports market in designer counterfeits.
“Nathan Tse’s cousin tried to put a bullet in my brother's skull five years ago,” Gianna said, dismissively. I started abruptly, and Cassian gave me a flat look, and I quieted. “The situation was resolved.”
I hadn't known. I thought, for an irrational moment, why I hadn’t heard about it. Then, I wondered how many of my actions were going to have consequences that got wrapped up with Santino D’Antonio.
Things wound down after that, and the discussion didn’t get much further. Francesco went out to follow up a lead. Oriana breezed out to liase with the head of an illegal gambling den. I had a second coffee.
I was planning out the day when a voice cut into my thoughts: “Don’t you have anything else to wear?”
Gianna was eyeing me with distaste. I looked back at her, incredulous. “Well, sure, Gianna,” I said. “I did up until yesterday.”
Cassian covered his face with a hand.
“I will take Mr. Wick to be outfitted,” Luca offered, standing up. He smiled. “No doubt he could also use a shower.”
The clan had given me three names to focus on. Three was more manageable than eleven.
Alessandro Cavallero was a name I knew well. He was the head of La Cosa Nostra and, incidentally, the liege lord of the American Mafia as well. LCN had allies among the ‘Ndràngheta, the Camorra, the Serbians, Undzer Shtik, most of the major American cartels, and dozens of smaller ops. I had to hope he wasn’t the culprit, because I didn’t have a shot in hell at taking him down.
The second suspect was the head of the Sinaloa Cartel, Ricardo Morales. I didn’t know much about Morales. He wasn’t a young man, but he hadn’t been in power six years ago. Cassian had pegged him as ambitious: someone who took big risks for big payoffs. I couldn’t see how killing off Santino benefitted him.
Finally, there was the leader of the Serbian Mafia. Gavrila Lečić was cunning. He’d narrowly escaped trial for war crimes after the Yugoslav Wars. I’d heard the stories.
Francesco, who I’d learned was the caporegime in charge of Gianna’s interests in Eastern Europe, was investigating Lečić. That meant, for now, I only had to worry about Cavallero and Morales. Unless, of course, the clan had chosen wrong. And either way, I still needed proof.
After I showered, I found Luca in one of the offices. He was frowning over spreadsheets in a little pair of horn-rimmed eyeglasses.
“I’d like to visit the sommelier.”
Luca wrinkled his nose. “There is a better selection in Rome, and we’ve brought our own stock. We can easily outfit you.”
He wasn’t wrong, but: “I’d prefer to buy my own kit.”
His eyebrows knit for a moment. Then he nodded. “Very well, but I will accompany you.” When I said nothing, he spread his hands: “You wouldn’t want to hurt my feelings.”
“Of course not,” I said flatly. He caught my tone, and grinned.
Three hours later I was in possession of two new suits (armored lining, Italian cut), two handguns (Glock, Beretta), a machine gun (Heckler & Koch), and a rifle (Benelli). You’d have thought Luca had shares in every Italian arms manufacturer for the way he’d been pushing them — though for all I knew, maybe he did.
I changed into one of my new suits and holstered the Beretta and a set of knives. Luca directed the tailor’s assistant to deliver the rest, and then he looked at me.
“Shall we?” he said.
I frowned. “What’s next?”
“I had thought we might meet Mr. Morales for lunch.”
I didn’t see the logic in it, but I got into the car.
Ten minutes later, we went into Daniel and found the dining room. All the tables were empty except for one. A man with a cleft chin and a receding hairline was seated there, nursing a drink. He didn’t get up when we approached.
“Signor Barone,” Morales said, “I see you’ve brought an associate.”
Luca took a seat. “No need to be coy, Ricardo.”
The lines around Morales’s eyes crinkled. “Everyone has heard of Mr. Wick’s return.”
“It’s temporary,” I said. “One show, no encores.”
Morales considered us. “It’s not like you, Luca, to be so brazen — parading him around this way.”
Luca shrugged. “John isn’t subtle.” He smiled at Morales, as if at a private joke: “He picked up bad habits from the bratva.”
I snorted. “I can be subtle,” I said.
We spent the next two hours drinking and talking while near-invisible waitstaff whisked plates on and off the table. I expected the upcoming council to dominate the conversation. Instead, the discussion centered around narcotics.
The gist of it was simple: Morales wanted the Camorra to increase transatlantic imports, at the expense of their Middle Eastern trade routes. The Camorra already sourced cocaine from the Colombians, and so, Morales argued, much of the infrastructure was already in place. Mexico was a growing producer of opiates, and the Sinaloa were willing to offer competitive prices. Luca was unconvinced, but open to being persuaded.
I had little to contribute, and mostly listened in silence. It wasn’t until we’d finished dessert that the conversation took an interesting turn.
“I hope your family is well,” Luca said, tossing his napkin on the table. The conversation had shifted from business to pleasantries. I was getting restless.
“My wife was sorry to miss New York,” Morales confessed, “but with recent events, I thought it prudent.”
Luca hummed. “Santino is expected to make a full recovery.”
My ears perked up.
“To poison a man in the Continental — it is audacious. It sends a message.”
“A bold choice,” Luca agreed, “to act so soon after a woman was executed for violating Continental rules.” He winked at me. “Few would chance it.”
“Markers are a matter of public record,” Morales said. “To remove the man holding John Wick’s marker — that would be quite the coup for an ambitious man. Especially a man who feared the ambition of the D’Antonios.”
“We are ambitious men,” Luca said. His voice didn’t change, but I heard the question all the same.
“My ambitions lie elsewhere,” Morales replied. We sat in silence for a beat, and then he added: “I hear a seat may soon be vacant.”
And Luca said: “It might.”
For the first time that afternoon, Morales smiled. “If I were looking for information, I’d go looking for a little bird,” he said. “They hear so much, you know.”
I smiled then, too. “It was a pleasure to meet you, Señor Morales.”
He stood to shake our hands. “The pleasure was mine.”
We walked out into the afternoon sun.
When I returned to the penthouse, there was a commotion in the library and an assassin in the living room.
We sized each other up as two predators, circling. She could have been anywhere between nineteen and thirty-five, in an asymmetrical bob and a fitted navy suit. Her expression was bland. Her eyes were alert. She stood at ease, but she was too still. And there was a tension in her stillness.
The moment passed, and she gave a companionable nod.
“Trouble?” I asked.
She tilted her hand so-so, and then smirked and tapped her ear. I took the hint, and shut up, and listened.
Cassian didn’t yell, but he had a voice that carried: “You are supposed to be in Naples.”
He emerged from the library. In his wake came Santino, and my thoughts ground to a halt.
He was older, of course. Hints of lines were creeping in at the corners of his eyes. At twenty-three, he’d been lanky. Sometime in the past six years, he’d put on some muscle, and some weight. But his smirk was much the same as I remembered it.
Santino said, wryly: “And miss the excitement?”
“Your sister will not be pleased.”
“My sister seldom is.”
Gianna entered then. She had donned a floor-length burgundy silk robe over slim-cut black trousers, and she swept in like a soprano returning to the stage for her encore. I turned to look at her, and I noticed that the assassin was watching me.
“You should be at home,” Gianna scolded, “in bed.”
“Lovely to see you, Gianna.” Santino stepped in to buss her cheeks.
The gesture seemed about as advisable as sticking one’s head in the lion’s mouth, but Gianna allowed it. Her face, however, was thunderous.
“You should have stayed in Italy.”
“Cesare has the situation under control. This council is important—”
“Che cazzo!” Gianna cursed. “I am not worried about the clans; I am worried about your health.”
“I am feeling much better — and I thought we might draw the assassin out.”
“I’ve already made arrangements.”
“Yes,” Santino drawled. “I’ve heard.”
Gianna looked cross. “Oriana should mind her own business.”
“Her business is our business.” Santino turned from his sister to look, for the first time, at me. He was smiling, but his eyes were hard. “And how could I miss the return of lo Spettro?”
Behind him, Gianna was cursing in Italian. “John,” she said. A warning: “Leave us.”
“No, do stay,” Santino said. His face took on a sneer. “After all, our business is now your business, too, eh?”
I looked at him, and thought about it. Then I left the room.
Twenty minutes later, I was still cooling down. And I was thinking. I was tracing the lines that had brought me here.
Eight years ago, Severino D’Antonio had been alive and in control of the Camorra seat. His daughter had been administering the family’s operations in the United Kingdom.
I’d accompanied Viggo to London on bratva business: negotiating imports, not wetwork. Not something, strictly-speaking, he needed me for, but Viggo liked to show off, sometimes. He said it was good for business.
I’d gotten bored with the negotiations, and taken some freelance work on the side: two jobs in London, one in Paris, and one in Aberdeen. Viggo encouraged it. As long as I was on the Tarasov leash, our reputations rose and fell together.
One of those contracts was for the Camorra. When I completed it, a woman approached me at the Continental bar. She offered me a glass of grappa and three more contracts. That was how I met Gianna D’Antonio.
Santino had come later. Santino was another story entirely.
Cassian found me in the staff kitchen. I’d liberated a bottle of single malt from the shelf and was nursing my frustrations.
He leaned against the counter, and sighed. “So.”
“He’s staying?” I asked. The floors were sound-proofed, but I could guess at what I’d missed.
Cassian nodded. “At least he brought Ares.”
“Santino’s bodyguard. You met upstairs.”
“Ah.” I didn’t care, but I found myself asking: “Is she any good?”
“She’s cocky, and she needs more experience. ” He frowned. “But she’s talented — and she’s loyal. Right now, that's more important.”
I hummed agreement, and didn’t think about where that left me.
“I’ll feel better when this is over,” Cassian said.
“I have what I need. I know where to start.”
He looked at me, and at the bottle, and said: “Don’t let him get you too —“
He stopped, and I said: “What?”
Cassian’s mouth made a funny shape. “Just — it’s a job, alright?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Alright.”
It was getting on towards evening, and I had a King to meet. I went out of the apartment building and down into the subway.
so, this is the end of what i'm personally thinking of act one of the story aka setting up the plot. and finally, enter santino, albeit briefly -- thank god, b/c i'm very excited to write john and santino. i am also really happy to have finished plotting out the whodunnit, which is a good deal less fun. agatha christie i am not.
EDIT: (5/15/19) it was pointed out to me that it may be helpful to some readers to have the High Table listed out earlier in the story. This was mostly formulated off of Wikipedia research, and then I invented a bunch of names.
Alessandro Cavallero, representing the Mafia / La Cosa Nostra (Sicilian)
Gianna D’Antonio, representing the Camorra (Campanian)
Lorenzo Cannistrà, representing the ‘Ndrangheta (Calabrian)
Tadashi Harada, representing the Yamaguchi Gumi (Yakuza)
James Cheung, representing the Sun Yee On (Triads)
Carlton Lài, representing the 14K (Triads)
Oscar Rodriguez, representing the Cali Cartel (Colombian)
Sebastian Gutierrez, representing the Gulf Cartel (Mexican)
Seth Brennan, representing the Irish Mob
Eliot Cohen, representing the Israeli Mafia
Vasily Ivanov, representing the Russian Bratva
Gavrila Lečić, representing the Serbian Mafia
+ Ricardo Morales, representing the Sinaloa Cartel (Mexican)
The Bowery King was the best information broker in New York — maybe the best information broker on the East Coast. He’d built his reputation on the backs of a network of informers: the kind of people you ignored, the kind of people who faded into the background, the kind of people you didn’t expect. Maybe it was the homeless man sleeping on the subway platform while you chatted on the phone. Maybe it was the stripper giving you a lap dance while your buddies talked business. Maybe it was the coked-up socialite you’d dismissed as too high to notice your liaisons.
You couldn’t guess them all; you’d never know who they were. But the Bowery King did: he and his network and his carrier pigeons, sending out missives all over the city. He gathered his intel and spun it into gold.
He was wily, sharp, paranoid — and he had a flair for the dramatic.
“John Wick,” the King boomed. “The man — the myth — the legend! You’ve done a very poor job of retiring.”
“I’m working on it,” I said. I would have liked to say something ruder; I was getting pretty tired of people pointing it out. But I was there because I needed something, and so I played nice.
He spiraled into a small monologue about the last time we’d met. I let the song-and-dance go on for a bit, then I interrupted.
“Do you know why I’m here?”
“You’re here because you need something. That’s always the reason people come here — voluntarily, anyway.” He laughed.
“Then you should know that I’m looking for someone,” I said.
“I can put two and two together, John. Santino D’Antonio was poisoned; Santino D’Antonio holds your marker. John Wick comes back out of retirement — again. How does it feel to be on the leash?”
I grit my teeth. “I want to know who wants him dead.”
“That’s quite the list, Mr. Wick.” The King grinned, bright and fierce and mocking. “And I think your name is on it.”
I was being bated, but I kept my cool. “Do you know who had him poisoned?”
“Rome is very far away, John. I’m afraid that my ears don’t reach quite that far.”
“I’m sure you’ve heard something.” I tried to play to his ego: “You’ve got ears on every street corner in this town. If anyone’s been talking, you’d know.”
“There are a lot of new faces in town this week — the High Table convening in my city, bringing every bodyguard, assassin, fixer, and sycophant in their wake. Sharks in the water, circling for blood.” He tapped his chest. “Keeping track of them all is no easy feat, John. No easy feat! But that’s why I’m the King.” He paused, then said: “There was one name that caught my eye.”
“Oh?” I asked.
“A name I did not expect to see: not in New York.” His smile was sly. “You assassins — you don’t like it when your prey escapes. It hurts your pride. It makes you give chase. Makes you take risks. But pride is a sin, John.”
“I need you to give me that name,” I said, and let the rest of his sermon lie.
The Beggar King looked delighted. “I never thought I’d see the day,” he crowed. “John Wick! Begging me for help.”
“Sure,” I agreed. “So will you help me?”
“John, John,” he shook his head. “Don’t be unreasonable, John. Why the fuck would I help you? Do you think I care if Santino D’Antonio dies?”
“Maybe, maybe not,” I said, “but the instability can’t be good for business.”
“Ha!” he barked. “The instability you caused — the instability you’ll cause more of, no doubt. It’s an open secret that Santino wants the Camorra to take a more active role in New York. Now that you’ve cleared the way, the Camorra gets their shot. Gianna, she doesn’t care so much about this city. She’ll trade her claim away for other favors.”
“She’s in control of the seat. It’s her decision either way.”
“Unless her brother whispers in her ear. That man does not respect tradition. He takes what he thinks he can get — and then he reaches for more.”
“He’s not the only one.” I gave a pointed glance at my surroundings.
The King scowled. “I know what happens in Naples. I know how that city is run. The D’Antonios were born to a throne. They want to rule. They expect it.”
I blinked. “You think they’ll come after you if they get the city.”
“Those two — they don’t want any other operations undermining their control. They move in here, my little empire goes kaput.” He snapped his fingers.
“You’d prefer that another organization takes over New York,” I said slowly.
“Someone who respects our traditions,” the King agreed. “Someone who will leave me my slice of the pie.”
“I can’t control that. My word doesn’t mean shit to the High Table. But,” a thought came to me, “if I find out who’s responsible — if I take them down — then a seat opens. More territory goes up for grabs. Maybe Gianna goes after that territory. Maybe it’s a more attractive target than New York.”
“You want me to bet on you against the High Table.” He chuckled. “Oh, you’re good, Mr. Wick, you’re good — but no one’s that good.”
“I am.” I put all my force into the words. I had to sell this like I believed it. And right then I did believe it. “If you’re as all-knowing as you say, you should know that.” The King didn’t say anything, so I kept going: “If I don’t find the poisoner, the marker is incomplete. Maybe Santino dies, maybe he doesn’t. Maybe he sends me to take New York for him.” I smiled. “Maybe he sends me after you.”
The Bowery King and I watched each other for a long moment. I kept the smile glued to my face. His face was stony.
Finally, he laughed. Not like he'd laughed before; this laugh was long and harsh and raw. “John fucking Wick. Threatening me in my own house.” He shook his head. “Fine, fine, you win. I’ll give you your name and you’ll get out of my hair.”
That sounded good to me, and I said so.
“Though, I will confess, John: I didn’t expect to see you so passionate about this. And it’s my job to expect everything.” The grin was back on his face. It looked almost ghoulish. “It makes a man wonder why you’re so ready to play the loyal dog.”
“It’s a job,” I said. “When the marker is complete, you’ll never see me again.”
“I can only hope,” the Bowery King said.
I gave him most of the coins I had on me, and I left the Soup Kitchen with a name.
When I returned to the penthouse, it was nearly midnight. I was hoping everyone was asleep, so I could go to bed and lie a while with my thoughts. With everything I’d learned that day, I needed to get my mind in order. I needed to start putting this puzzle together.
It was in line with the way my luck was going that Santino was parked on a couch in direct line of the elevators. He was hunched over a bit, reading a book. I couldn’t see the title.
I could pretend I hadn’t seen him and sneak past, maybe. I didn’t want to talk to him.
“You’re still up,” I said instead, and cursed myself.
He startled, then gave a half-shrug: “Jet lag.” His eyes flicked up to me.
Looking at him was uncomfortable. The nausea in the back of my throat, the slow roil of emotion. It would be easy to step forward, to wrap a hand around his throat and squeeze. I wouldn’t need a gun to do it. I wouldn’t even need a garrote.
With everyone else, I was angry. When I looked at him, the punch of rage felt physical.
And I’d forgotten how green his eyes were.
I didn’t say anything more. He seemed to be waiting for something. When he didn’t get it, he said: “Did you have a good night?”
“It was illuminating,” I said. “I heard you’re going to try for New York.”
His brows knit. “You don’t approve.”
Helen had loved this city. I didn’t love it, but I thought it deserved better, maybe, than Santino D’Antonio. It deserved better than what he would make of it. Even if I was leaving, even if Winston found a place for me far away from this mess — I didn’t want to think of him here.
I could imagine it: the prince ascendant, inhabiting the spaces I’d lived, taking ownership of every block and brick, transforming the city into something new.
And I would be gone. I would be remaking myself again, alone: pretending to know nothing about what was happening here. The idea made me sick.
“I don’t want you in this city, no. I know how you operate.”
Santino grimaced. “Of course, and your bratva were so much better.”
“They had lines,” I said evenly. “You don’t.”
He looked like he was going to get fired up about it. His mouth twisted and his eyes flashed. Then he got himself under control.
“As I recall, it was my lack of lines that got you what you wanted, once. It didn’t seem to bother you then.”
His eyes were hard. “People don’t.”
“I changed,” I said. “I put this behind me.” And I succeeded, I didn’t say, until you dragged me back.
We stayed there: him sitting, hands still curled around the pages of his book. Me standing, arms tense at my sides, unable to move. Each of us watching the other, warily.
After a moment, he said: “Where’s your dog?”
The question took me by surprise, and I was answering before I’d thought better of it. “He’s at the Continental.”
“Ah.” He looked disappointed. I wasn’t sure why. “Didn’t trust us?”
“Not really, no.” I’d lost one dog to a mobster scion, and I had no intention of losing another.
Santino wasn’t the type to kill a dog for sport. He wasn’t cruel that way; he didn’t revel in the kill. If it was in his way, though — if it was between him and something he wanted. I wouldn’t take those odds.
“I didn’t expect—“ he stopped, and huffed. “I didn’t think you’d come back.”
“I didn’t want to,” I said truthfully. “Your sister persuaded me.” Santino blinked at me, and I elaborated: “She took a grenade launcher to my house.”
His mouth opened, and then it closed. I got the impression he was trying not to laugh. I didn’t appreciate it, and said so.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s — uncharacteristic of her.” He glanced at me, sly. “Perhaps we’re more alike than I thought.”
I was angry again. “You’re both selfish and destructive.” I needed to leave before I did something I’d regret. “You’ll cheerfully damn the rest of us so long as you get what you want.”
Santino lifted his chin. His face was pale, but his gaze was intent. “I’ve always been on your side, John. You were the one who didn’t want to be on mine.”
“You keep telling yourself that,” I bit out, “and we’ll see where it gets you.”
“Will you put me down, John?” Santino hissed. “Is that your plan? You don’t want to let someone else finish the job, is that it?”
“Don’t tempt me,” I snapped.
I left him there still clutching his book, and raged myself to sleep.
idk i had a productive writing day so here is another chapter. mostly it was productive because i love the bowery king. it's nice to write people who speak and emote as opposed to john who does basically neither. x_x johhhhn. anyway, this brings us to the end of day two.
in which we begin to get a little more into john's thoughts.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
I woke up the next morning still feeling out of sorts. I got dressed and went out before anyone had a chance to talk to me. I was up to my ears in the D’Antonios and I didn’t like it. There was a prickling energy under my skin. I needed to burn it off somehow, and I had a few ideas about how to do that.
New York was shaking itself awake. It was a little before six am, but the city was on the move. I bought myself a coffee and placed a call to the Continental switchboard.
The first contact I tried was dead. The second had retired. The third picked up the phone, and I explained my problem. The Bowery King had given me a name. After a few pleasantries and a small wire transfer, I had a history and a local address to go along with it.
Nikita Kapoor. Thirty-one years old, native of Copenhagen, currently residing in Amsterdam. Five years ago, she’d been nobody, but she’d climbed the lists quickly. Kapoor wasn’t top of the pile, but she was talented, ambitious. She worked almost exclusively in Europe and the Middle East, sometimes dipping into Northern Africa or India. She had no family in the States, and had never traveled here before. She was a freelancer. She wasn’t associated with any particular member of the High Table. She worked on contract only, and there were no contracts on record tying her to the attack on Santino. In fact, there were no contracts tying her to any ongoing jobs at all.
Put together, it raised the question: why was she in New York, and why now? The inconsistency had brought her to the King’s attention, and so to mine.
Sure, it wasn’t a guarantee, but the M.O. fit. Kapoor wasn’t a bruiser: she could fight, but most of her kills were hands-off. I wasn’t a toxicologist. I didn’t have time to figure out where the poison had been sourced, and who’d sold it, and to whom. I had a gut feeling and a gun and that had to be good enough.
I was feeling my age this morning. I’d woken up with a few new aches, and a familiar stiffness in my shoulders. Fifty might be the new forty, but the body moved differently at forty-seven than at forty-one. Even at forty-one, I’d been nearing the end of my career by any reasonable standards. Another five years of active work, and I’d have been looking at transitioning into a different role.
Experience, training, willpower — they take you a long way. But reflexes slow down with age, and the body doesn’t heal as fast as it used to.
Most fights happen quickly. You get the drop, or you don’t. You get your shot in first, or you don’t. Your shot hits, or it goes wide — and so on.
A bullet — even a bullet to the head — won’t always take someone out. Sometimes they’ve got enough juice left in them to still be a threat. It only takes seconds for a reciprocal bullet to give you a very bad day.
I needed Nikita Kapoor alive for long enough to find out who sent her. Keeping people alive was not my forte. It ran counter to every instinct I had.
I didn’t have a plan. Or rather, my plan was to check out the address, shoot anyone who got in my way, and not get shot myself. Admittedly, it was a shit plan. I had no time to come up with a better one.
The apartment was a third floor walk-up. I finished the last dregs of my coffee and made short work of the lock. Inside, I took the steps two at a time.
I ran into Kapoor on the third floor landing, on her way out. She saw me and her eyes widened in recognition. She dropped her keys, and we both reached for our guns.
I took advantage of her surprise, and closed the distance between us in a run. I knocked the gun from her hand, and put a bullet in her left knee. She went down hard with a rough cry, half a curse.
She was on the ball, though — she whacked me in the arm and I lost my grip. My gun went skidding away. Her elbow made a play towards my balls.
I hopped back to evade the blow. She took the opening, and pulled a knife.
Shit, I thought, and grabbed for my own.
Kapoor slashed forward and I blocked. The screech of metal against metal echoed in the stairwell. I got in a hit to her jaw with my other hand, and retreated before she could retaliate. Her next slice left a tear in my sleeve and a shallow cut in my arm.
I parried her moves and picked up more scrapes. She kept a space between us, wielding her weapon with savage grace — but her moves were growing clumsier. Her leg was a shattered mess of bone and flesh. The blood was slick beneath my shoes. Adrenaline was a hell of a drug, but the pain had to be overwhelming.
Finally, I found an opening. The edge of my knife caught her wrist and cut deep. Her grip loosened and I wrestled her blade away.
She still had one working hand, and I wasn’t about to take my chances. I pushed her knife into the space between her shoulder and her sternum, and left it there.
Her fingers went to the hilt and spasmed around the wound. Blood leaked sluggishly around it.
I started to say: “You leave it in, you live—“
She looked at me with derision. Her fingers tightened on the hilt and she yanked out the blade. She whipped it towards my belly before I could counter. Then she went still.
I looked down at the corpse of the woman I’d killed, and said: “Shit.”
The tactical weave had saved my stomach. I pulled the knife out of the fabric and ran a hand over the cut. I was lucky not to be looking at my intestines.
Less luckily, I’d just killed my best and only lead. I had to hope she’d left some clue behind. I wiped off my own knife and found my gun. Then I picked up her keys and let myself into the apartment.
It was a tiny shoebox of a studio. Not hers — a rental? Her cosmetics were heaped in the bathroom and there was leftover pad thai in the fridge, but there wasn’t much to tell me what she was doing here. No papers, no laptop. A cell phone was on the bedside table, charging. I grabbed it.
The lock screen glared up at me. I was mediocre with electronics, but I figured the D’Antonios would know someone who could crack it. Maybe the texts would hold a clue.
The phone made me think of my own phone. I pulled it out of my pocket. I’d been carrying it with me since I’d lost the house. It was a flip phone, practically indestructible, but it had taken a beating and it wasn’t working. The screen was shattered and I wasn’t sure if the buttons still worked. After two days, the battery would be long dead.
I’d lost almost everything in the explosion. What I had left was a phone that didn’t work and a bracelet I couldn’t let go of. I kept them both close. I didn’t want to lose what little I had left.
I walked back out to where Nikita Kapoor had died and crouched down to the body. A quick search later and I had my prize. A silver marker with a bloody thumbprint pressed to one side — a print I bet would match hers down to the last whorl.
Nikita Kapoor had also been closing a marker. I wondered if she’d been any more enthusiastic about it than me, or if there was a burnt-out husk of a house waiting for her back in Amsterdam.
I put those thoughts aside, and I tried to concentrate on the problem.
Markers were a matter of record, as Morales had said. Most were unremarkable and unknown — each Continental branch kept their own records, analog, in a great big book of names. Some of the books went back centuries. They recorded markers that had been completed and markers where one or the other had died before the favor had been called in.
My retirement had been a big enough deal that the community had taken notice. Enough for Morales to know about it, probably others as well. The perks of rearranging the balance of power in a major city, and I’d had a reputation before that.
It was unlikely that Kapoor’s marker would be as infamous — most were not. Maybe the D’Antonios could narrow down which Continental held the records, and who had called in the favor.
I had a whole lot of maybes and no concrete leads. The phone, the marker — I’d have preferred to hear from Kapoor. I slowly picked my way back down the stairs.
I returned to the D’Antonio’s building oddly at ease. The feeling took me by surprise. By rights, I should have been spitting mad. I was frustrated with the morning’s work: I’d been sloppy. Incompetent, even. In retrospect, I could catalogue the missteps. The result was plain: I’d failed to keep my target alive.
Despite that monumental fuck-up, I felt limber — even serene. It was the afterglow of the fight. There was something sedative in the rhythm of the movements, the knowledge that each breath drawn might be my last.
I had walked away in one piece, more or less. I had new cuts and they stung, but the damage was minimal and the pain, manageable. The same couldn’t be said for my suit, which needed a cold soak and a tailor.
It was the same doorman on duty. His eyes flicked down to the dried red-brown splattered across my trouser cuffs. He frowned, but he sent me up without a word.
I went up to the penthouse instead of going directly to my room. I thought I’d report my findings before getting cleaned up. Instead, I almost walked into another conversation.
This time, I was the only one eavesdropping. There was no Ares to watch me with her luminous, light green eyes. I don’t know when I had become the sort of person to listen at doors. It was uncharacteristic. But I was off-kilter. I had to grasp at every opportunity I had and every scrap of information that came my way.
I very carefully moved towards the library, and settled in to listen.
“—no one holds the leash.” Gianna’s voice was low but clear. “He’s feral. A man with nothing to lose is a liability.”
There was a pause, then Cassian asked: “Once the marker is complete, do you think he’ll come after you?”
“I’m not the one that the marker protects,” Gianna said. She quieted further; I had to strain to hear her words. “Santino should have stayed away.”
“Your brother is very good at pissing people off.”
“He has an eye for soft spots,” Gianna said darkly, “and too little sense to leave them be.”
Another gap in the conversation, longer this time. Cassian took two, weighty steps — the parquet creaked. When he spoke again, he said: “You know I’m with you.”
There was a soft noise. A short gasp of breath. “Yes.” The rustle of fabric. “I know.”
I put two and two together and gave up on eavesdropping. The information could wait. In the meantime, I could get cleaned up.
As I made my way downstairs, I found my calm retreating. Since this affair had started, I’d been off my game. Oh, I’d been slow — old, out of practice, however you called it — with the Tarasovs. This was something else. This was a failure to think. If I’d been thinking, I would have gone to the Bowery King first. I wouldn’t have needed to be pointed the way. If I’d been thinking, I’d be minimizing my time with the D’Antonio family. Not staying in their house — eating their food.
I could walk into a room and tell you every exit, every potential weapon, every blind spot. Even years out from the business, it was an ingrained behavior. My little party trick. I noticed everything — I had to. I didn’t miss things.
I’d been missing things left, right, and center.
And now, here was another thing I’d missed. I cared little if Cassian was fucking his ward. Stupid of him, to get attached to someone who would marry for position, not affection, if it even was affection, but — ignoring that, which I didn’t care about — it was an important detail. Part of the weave. Important to notice, if I intended to move against the D’Antonios afterwards. An attachment like that could make a bodyguard sloppy, distract him, ruin his concentration. It could leave his ward too concerned with his safety to prioritize her own. It could also make him fight harder, or turn the two at odds.
It was a potential weakness and a potential danger. And I should have noticed.
i got through writing a fight scene and it only took me, uh, [mutters to self] two months. on the bright side, only two more fight scenes to go. x_x on the brighter side, the next chapter involves no fighting! well, some verbal fighting. no guns are involved.
also, rip nikita kapoor, who i wrote an entire backstory worth of notes for and am rather annoyed at myself for killing off. this is going to be a recurring theme, unfortunately, because, well. john.
thank you so, so much to everyone who has been so marvelously patient with me on this story. your comments and kudos really do mean the world!! i'm a very slow writer but i promise that this wip is not going to be abandoned because (a) i have already done the hard work of plotting it and (b) i would die of shame. anyway, i hope you enjoy this chapter.
I returned to my room, intending to change and shower. To my surprise, I found Santino waiting there.
He was wearing a crisp white shirt and slim-cut navy suit, no tie. The collar gaped open at his throat: three freckles stamped the skin. I dragged my gaze up, but he didn’t meet my eyes. He was holding a bottle in his hands, and frowning down at it.
I watched him, wary. I was in an odd mood already, and Santino’s presence was unlikely to clarify matters. Historically, it never had.
Nevertheless, I shut the door behind me with a click. “Santino.”
His eyes rocked up from the label to me, and then skittered back down over the state of my clothing. His eyebrows raised. “Rough morning?”
I must have made a face, because he gave half a smile.
“Perhaps a drink?” He offered.
He poured me a heavy dose, and we clinked glasses. It wasn’t yet three. I took a long sip.
I didn’t ask why he had been waiting for me. I wasn’t ready to hear the answer. Instead I said: “I heard your sister talking about me.”
“Spying, John?” Santino looked amused, not angry, at the idea.
“I don’t have to spy,” I said, “when you have all your conversations out in the open.” It was foolish. They might trust the staff, the bodyguards. They didn’t — shouldn’t — trust me.
“In the home, there should be no secrets. At least, that is the ideal.” He tipped his head to study me. “Though I suppose you kept yours.”
My grip on the glass tightened. He’d turned the conversation against me, prodding at an unhealed wound.
“It was better that way.”
Santino said, softly: “It is better, I think, to share.”
He was wrong. Helen hadn’t needed to know. She hadn’t needed to be exposed to the slice of shadow underlying the world. I’d kept her safe, and separate. The two of us, together, had built something apart. Something precious and worth protecting, even if I was protecting it from myself.
I didn’t like hearing him talk about that part of my life. I didn’t want to explain myself, not here, and not to him. I was trying to put words together when he spoke again.
“You’re angry with me.”
“Yeah,” I said. I was.
I thought of Gianna’s words: ‘an eye for soft spots’. I didn’t look at him. I needed to do something with my hands. I drained my glass, then refilled it.
“I was angry with you — before.” I wondered at that before: last night or two nights ago. Or earlier. “Then I realized, there is no point. You are what you are, John. Some things cannot be controlled. Much as I would wish.”
“You’re still trying,” I pointed out. I was sure of that.
He’d been raised to pull strings, to move people like chess pieces around a global board. I’d known him at twenty-three: manipulative, feline. Smug when he got his way and sullen when he didn’t. Cut from the same cloth as Gianna, as Iosef. I didn’t think he’d changed.
Santino sighed. “You’re too valuable to waste. You know that.” His lip curled. “The whole world knows that.”
“Your world.” The words came out bitter. I was a weapon. I’d tried to beat myself into a plowshare, but to men like him, there was only one use for any blade that cut.
“My world,” he agreed.
I felt disoriented. It was hard to stay angry when he wasn’t rising to meet it. “Your sister thinks I’m feral.”
I didn’t mention her fear that I’d kill him. The last time we’d spoken, I’d practically said so myself. I wasn’t sure if it was true. Sometimes it felt true. Sometimes I thought they’d abandon a blade if it cut both ways.
Santino quirked an eyebrow. “You were always a little wild after a fight.”
I scowled. “I don’t think that’s what she meant.”
"My sister prefers when things go to plan.”
“I’m following the plan,” I said. It came out petulant. I considered him. “Do you think I’m feral?”
He looked at me for a long moment. “John… when I met you, you were an ideal asset. You did what you were told, and only what you were told. You were creative, but never emotional. There was no anger. No collateral damage. No second thoughts.” He paused, looked away. “Then you began to go off-script.”
“Things change. I retired.” How many times would I be damned to have this conversation?
“Before you retired.” His voice was sharp. “You changed. Your retirement was a symptom.”
“Does it matter?”
“Nothing bothers Gianna so much as the things she cannot predict.” He ran a hand through his hair. “You should know that; you were friends once.”
“We were friendly.”
Santino glanced at me. “We were friends once, I thought, as well.”
It wasn’t something I liked to think about; it was another memory slotted away in the forgotten histories of before. But there was no point to lying. “It was a long time ago.”
His eyes dimmed, and he said: “Six years.”
“Almost seven, now.” The problem with remembering was that you kept remembering. When you opened the door, things kept coming out: the past, refusing to stay buried.
When I’d retired, I’d left business between us unfinished. First and foremost, there was the marker. It was a physical reminder, enforceable by law, sealed with my blood. It was a tie I couldn’t ignore, even as I was content to ignore the rest of it. But perhaps the only way out was through. A final gauntlet to run, one last test to stand. The Tarasovs had been decimated. The closest person I’d had to a mentor was dead. Maybe I had to deal with Santino D’Antonio so I could finally be free.
I steeled myself, and gentled my voice, and asked: “Do you remember the first time we met?”
“Ah, yes,” he said, briefly off-kilter. Then he closed his eyes and chuckled. “I do. It was my first time in New York, you know.”
I’d known. I’d looked at him and thought: I’ve never seen him here before.
It hadn’t been that he was young, or so obviously European — the cut of the jeans, the camel overcoat — or clothed in the best money could buy. A lot of people passed through the Continental: some were young, some were visiting, many were wealthy. It had been something in the eyes, the set of the jaw. There had been ambition there, of course, but there had also been something else.
“You bought me a drink.”
“You were the most interesting person in the bar.” Santino flashed his teeth. “And I was interested.”
I was curious if he regretted it. If he’d guessed how things would end — a man who wanted him dead hired to catch a man who wanted him dead — would he still have done it? He’d always been brash: ready to toss the dice with death. It was part of the reason we’d ended up here. Perhaps it was the bulletproof hubris of the young, but he’d never feared me. He’d never seemed to fear anything.
“You surprised me.”
“I’d heard the stories about you. I wanted to see for myself.” He smiled at his glass. “Everyone told me, you’re wasting your time. He won’t be interested. I said: every man has needs, and they said, not this one. He’s barely human.”
“They were right,” I said. Before I’d met Santino, I’d spent a decade living like a machine. Few friends, fewer indulgences. A spartan apartment that no one ever saw.
“And yet,” he said, “you took the drink.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I did.”
He’d barely looked at me until now. Maybe that had been better. But he was looking at me now, and I felt off-kilter. Even so, I didn’t look away.
He placed his glass on the console table, and said: “You let me do this.” He took a step closer. He was almost in arms reach, then within arms reach, then within the space of my breath. I could see the soft rise and fall of his chest.
“Once and then again and again and again.” He placed a hand on my arm, thumb brushing down the soft skin inside the elbow. “Would you let me do it again?” he asked. His voice lowered: “I think you would.”
“You talk too much,” I said, and shrugged him off.
I took two steps to the left, finishing my drink and setting it down. He was still looking at me: those green eyes always felt mocking.
“I killed your poisoner,” I said. “I don’t know her employer yet. I have some leads to follow up.”
Santino blinked. “Ah. Good.” He palmed his phone, looking down at it. “Luca is — out on business at the moment. When he returns, he can assist you in your research.”
“I — yeah. Alright.”
“I’ll let you get cleaned up, John.” He straightened his jacket, and moved to go. Then at the door, he paused: “I’m sorry I never met your Helen.”
I startled. It was the last thing I’d expected him to say.
He was smiling again, a little smaller, a little softer. “She must have been a remarkable woman, to turn your head so.”
“She was,” I said, and watched him go.
I took my dinner alone that night. The D’Antonios had gone out. I hadn’t seen Santino since our chat. I hadn’t seen Gianna at all.
Whoever was responsible for food in this place — cook or caterer — had stocked the refrigerator. I made myself a plate of caponata, bitter greens, and some sort of baked white fish. I found some good, crusty bread in the pantry and tucked in.
It was easy to reminisce. I turned over memories that I hadn’t touched in years.
I remembered the night of my retirement. I remembered it in perfect detail: the whites of Viggo’s eyes when he’d called me to his office, the recoil of the SIG-Sauer P226 in my hands, the moment the last breath had gone out of Anton Sokolov and I’d realized I was free.
I remembered the slow, sour turn in my stomach as Viggo had laid his conditions out. The iron-clad certainty that no man could succeed in this task, not alone, not even a man such as me. And on the heels of that realization, the equal certainty that I was going to try anyway.
I’d accepted my death many years before. I’d carried it with me since the Marines, a constant companion.
Dying for this — it didn’t compare to taking an unlucky shot, or triggering an IED, or getting caught in the middle of a firefight. It was a purpose.
In my bones, I’d known, she was worth it. I remembered that feeling because I still felt it. Even knowing what I knew now, how it all turned out. She was worth it. She had always been worth it.
And I remembered the moment that had sealed my fate.
I hadn’t gone looking for help that night. I hadn’t told anyone what I was planning, apart from Marcus. Somehow, Santino had found out anyway, and then he’d found me.
“I heard you made a deal.”
“Yeah. I made a deal.” Sokolov, Tse, and Cabrera, for me. For Helen.
“These three men, they are not associates. They do not work together. They do not speak to one another. They do not go to the same places. They do not travel without security, and Cabrera rarely leaves his buildings at all.”
“Odds aren’t great,” I’d agreed. He’d been frustrated with me. Pacing. I’d said: “Santino — I need to do this.”
He’d closed his eyes. “Unity of time, unity of place, unity of action. As the poets require.” He’d bitten his lip, then said: “Let me even the odds, John. Three men, one room, tonight. Manageable security, for io spettro.”
The offer had been too good to be true, but for the first time, I’d felt something like hope. Back then, I’d looked at him and seen — a friend, or something like one.
Santino had shaken his head. “I will worry about that. I can help you, if you let me.”
And I had let him.
That was the last time I’d spoken to Santino D’Antonio for seven years: the last time I'd seen him, until yesterday.
I was washing up dishes when Luca found me, still caught up in my thoughts. I put the memories aside, and offered him a nod.
“There is a dishwasher,” he observed.
I shrugged. “I prefer to do it by hand.”
“I hear you found our poisoner.”
“Nikita Kapoor.” I pulled the silver medallion from my pocket. “I think she was closing a marker.”
Luca took it carefully, eyes intent. “This isn’t an American design,” he said, “or European.”
“Can you track it?”
“It will take a day or two.” He frowned. “Identifying the origin will be easy enough — but getting the records will take longer. I’ll see what I can do.”
It was in line with what I’d expected, but it was still time we didn’t have.
“The High Table convenes in two days,” Luca said, echoing my thoughts. “Were there any other leads?”
“Her cell phone.” I’d left it in my room.
“We’ll get someone to take a look at it, first thing tomorrow.” He frowned. “The woman I would recommend is still in Rome. Santino may know someone locally.”
“You don’t come to New York often,” I observed.
“No,” Luca said. “Santino and Oriana handle most of our business in this hemisphere — what little there is. I prefer to stay in Italy.”
“You’ve known them long?” I asked. “The D’Antonios.”
“Sì. Since they were children. I was in their father’s service then, of course.”
“I never met the father.”
“Severino D’Antonio,” Luca said. “No; you wouldn’t have. He didn’t visit the United States often. Not like his children.”
“He passed away recently?”
“Four months ago. We knew it was coming. He had time to settle his affairs, confirm the succession.”
“You mean Gianna.”
Luca smiled. “She may have her mother’s looks, but she is her father’s daughter. The same ambitions.”
I thought about it for a moment. “And Santino?”
“Gianna likes to think the best of her brother,” Luca said. “Sometimes she misses the claws.”
I snorted. “I made that mistake,” I said. “I don’t intend to make it twice.”
“You think it was a mistake?”
“I needed his help. I didn’t think about what it would cost me, or what he’d want in return.”
Luca looked contemplative. “Before I met my wife, I loved another woman for a very long time. She was a musician with the Orchestra dell'Accademia — very talented. Beautiful. Not a part of our world.”
It was a familiar story. “What happened?”
“Sometimes, I thought about marrying her. Leaving the Camorra, or marrying her, regardless.”
“But you didn’t.”
“No,” Luca agreed. “I did not. Severino convinced me otherwise. He was of the opinion that I would come to regret my choice. That I would never be happy outside our world, and that she could never be happy in it.”
I thought, or maybe you didn’t love her as much as you thought.
Perhaps guessing my train of thought, Luca added: “It worked out well enough. I love my wife.” He considered me. “Do you know why Santino helped you?”
It was the question I’d been trying to untangle — unsuccessfully. “You know him better than I do. What do you think?”
Luca mused: “Gianna would not have taken the risk. She was incredulous when she found out, as I remember.” He rubbed his beard. “If I were to guess? Perhaps he thought you'd come back a little older, a little wiser. No more ties to the Tarasovs. Grateful to someone who had helped you: open to a new arrangement, a new hand on the leash.” Luca shrugged. “And if not, he had the marker.”
“Maybe that was it,” I said, and took my leave.
The next morning, I found myself caught in the middle of a small council. Gianna held court over the table, accepting papers from Luca as he passed them over for inspection, quarreling lightly with Santino in Italian. Cassian and Ares stood close, a pair of silent watchdogs. I kept half an ear out while I drank my coffee.
“You imagine this will be over quickly,” Santino said, switching to English.
“No one wants more blood in the streets,” Gianna retorted. “It’s bad for business.”
Santino looked unconvinced, but privately I agreed with Gianna. After a point, law enforcement and local politicians couldn’t ignore the rising body count. Bribery was effective, but it was also expensive. I wondered who had cleaned up my mess — Abram, perhaps. It wasn’t like I’d left him much choice.
“What happens at the council, exactly?” I asked. Despite the long shadow of the High Table’s influence, I had never concerned myself with its inner workings.
“It is much like any other board meeting,” Gianna said. “Men posturing over spreadsheets, each one vying for a piece of the pie. Tedious, but necessary.”
I read between the lines: despite the diversity of its constituents — every nation has its organized crime, and criminals represent every race and gender — the High Table was slow to change. The legacy of imperialism meant that many of the consolidated power-bases rested in the hands of European families, even if they operated in international markets. The Triads and the Yakuza held three seats, but no African or South Asian enterprises were currently seated. No United States-based organization sat at the Table, and the gains made by Central and South American cartels had only elevated them to the Table in the past forty years.
Gianna D’Antonio was the only woman seated at the High Table. The Camorra were one of the few organizations to regularly recognize women as clan leaders; I wasn’t an expert on the history, but I believe her grandmother had also been seated in the 1980s. The Triads and the Irish Mob had also sent women to the Table in the past, but it remained the exception, not the rule.
Gianna had always disliked being underestimated — and Santino had always disliked kowtowing to tradition. I had no doubt that there were other conversations happening outside the council — conversations that would have repercussions for New York.
Not your problem, I reminded myself. “You’ll carve up the city to keep the peace.”
“You were a great loss to the diplomatic corps,” Santino said, wry, “but yes, that is the general idea.”
“One of those men tried to kill you,” I pointed out. “You don’t seem very concerned.”
He tilted his head, eyes bright, and looked at me. I waited for him to say something, but it was Gianna who broke the silence with a dark look: “Whatever they want, they won’t get it.”
“If Santino’s attacker meant to intimidate you,” Luca said, “they will reveal themselves. Otherwise, the threat is pointless.”
“Will that be before or after they kill me, I wonder,” Santino mused.
“Attacking you in the Continental was about the spectacle,” Cassian said, not moving from his position against the wall. “There’s no reason to do it otherwise; the risk is too great.”
I’d heard that before — from Ricardo Morales. I said: “They wanted to send a message. You weren’t safe there — or anywhere.”
Gianna and Luca shared a long look, then Gianna nodded. Luca turned to me. “We believe you should concentrate on Alessandro Cavallero.”
Slowly, I said: “You want to rule out Lečić.”
“To succeed in our business, you must know two things,” Gianna replied.
Santino smiled at his sister, a tight, private thing. He answered: “What a man wants, and what he is willing to do to get it."
“Francesco found no evidence that Lečić might be involved,” Gianna said, “and the motive is unconvincing. If he wanted Santino dead, he wouldn’t send a poisoner. It isn’t his way. Cavallero has more to gain from putting us on the defensive.” She frowned. “And — Oriana made inquiries.”
Cassian took over. He spoke directly to Santino: “Cavallero’s people have been asking questions — where you go, who you meet with.” He hesitated. “It’s not definitive, but it’s damning.”
Santino seemed surprised, then pensive — and I caught sight of the tight twist of rage that flashed across Ares’s face.
“Well, I need proof,” I said. “Questions aren’t enough.”
Luca nodded. “I have explained to Santino about the phone.”
“I know someone who can look at it,” Santino said. “She’s in Staten Island — we’ll take the car.”
He was looking at me again. A low, easy look. Like he had some sort of — of claim.
“Fine,” I said. It came out harder than I’d intended, so I added: “I’ll get my kit.”
I hesitated outside the door, and caught the low snatches of whispered Italian: “Remember, he’s here to do a job. Then, he’ll be gone again — and good riddance.”
The driver brought up the car: it was one of those top-of-the line Range Rovers, black paint, black-tinted windows, Italian leather seats. A quarter-of-a-million dollar car with all the personality of a brick.
I heard Santino muttering something about missing the Pagani, and watched the small, tight grin on Ares’s face in answer. She hopped into the shotgun seat before I could, so I grudgingly got into the back next to Santino.
It wasn’t a short drive, and after a while, the silence wore on me. There were many things I wanted to know, but few questions I was willing to ask.
I picked one that seemed safe: “How do you think the High Table is going to react?”
Santino blinked. “React to..?”
“One member taking out another — even if it is retaliatory.”
“Ah,” he said, “I imagine that most will be glad that the matter is dealt with. Once a man gets the taste for blood, he does not stop at one. The second kill is easier — no one wants to be next.”
“I just want to make sure there won’t be ten more people coming after us at the end of this.”
“You are an addict,” Santino said, but he was smiling. “No, I wouldn’t worry about that.”
“Good,” I said, but I'll admit I felt a little odd.
We considered each other in silence.
Santino wet his bottom lip with his tongue, and pinned it between his teeth. He said, “John, do you—“
That was when the Escalade swerved into the side of our vehicle.
My reflexes engaged: one arm bracing against the seat back, head curled under the other, legs tensing as they clattered against the door, seat, floor.
Our car skidded off the road, pulling along part of a chain-link fence before it swiped up against the side of a warehouse and stopped.
One moment of silence. Then, the bullets.
The reinforced windows held out long enough for me to grab Santino and pull him to the floor. Glass shattered and rained down on my back, tiny shards lodging in my jacket.
I sensed more than saw Ares toss something out the front window. I closed my eyes and felt the vibrations.
When I opened my eyes again, the bullets had paused. I didn’t trust it to last. I took a quick inventory: the side of the car was crumpled, but whatever special modifications the D’Antonios favored had protected us from the worst of it. I’d curved to shield Santino, and apart from a few small cuts and contusions, he was fine.
In the front of the car, the driver was slumped over the wheel. Ares checked his pulse, then shook her head. A gun was already in her hand, and she glanced back at me and opened her door. I’ll take left, she signed. Give me cover.
The window was shattered, and there was a rifle under my seat. I couldn't see much, but I stuck the barrel over the rim to provide suppressive fire. As I started shooting, she slipped out, keeping low and close to the wall. I didn’t keep eyes on her; I trusted her to handle herself.
When the chamber was empty, I didn’t bother to reload. We couldn’t stay here. It wasn’t a defensible position, and we’d be sitting ducks if they’d brought heavier artillery. I had no intention of waiting to be picked off.
I discarded the rifle and grabbed the Glock from its holster. “Stay down,” I told Santino, and opened my door.
Once I was out of the car, it was easier to see. I counted four men and the Escalade, matte black and sporting a huge dent in the front corner. I didn’t see Ares but I heard gunfire from the next alley.
A bullet shattered one of the remaining car windows, a foot from my face. I put my head down. I kept moving.
I took the first man down with a shot to the head, and the next with two shots to the chest.
My fourth shot went wide, then a third man went down with my fifth bullet in his knee and the sixth in his stomach.
I closed fast on the fourth man and knocked his gun to the side with my left hand. He rammed his shoulder into my chest and grabbed for my neck. My seventh bullet missed his side. I jabbed his solar plexus, knocking him for a moment, and my eighth bullet went between his ribs.
I had two more clips on my belt, but I didn’t have time to reload. I grabbed the fourth man’s gun and went to help Ares.
When I turned the corner, there were two dead men on the ground. She was trading blows with a third, neither able to get the advantage of the other. I whipped the butt of my gun against the back of his skull, and Ares took the opportunity to shove a short knife into his left eye. He went down.
Ares nodded to me, then turned to survey the field. I took the chance to reload, and counted two more cars abandoned in the street. At a guess, I’d wager at least twelve men — and we’d taken out only seven. The others weren’t in sight, but I bet they hadn’t gone far.
Santino joined us in the alley. He’d followed close behind me, once the coast was clear. I approved: it wasn’t a good idea for him to stay behind alone. Too easy for someone to isolate him and then strike.
For a long, terrible moment, he looked at me like he didn’t recognize me, and I realized — he’d never seen me working before. He’d heard the stories, of course, but he’d never seen me when my blood was up, with a gun in my hand, surrounded by my own handiwork.
In that moment, I looked at him and thought: it would be so easy to end it right now. To put a bullet in his head, or to let them do it for me. It was just the three of us, and I bet I could dispatch his bodyguard. No one would have to know, and even if they did — what did it matter?
Then the look disappeared, and my thoughts evaporated with it.
“Any idea who they are?” he asked, nudging one of the bodies with a foot.
Ares signed: Professionals.
A look passed between Ares and Santino. He nodded, and she gave him half a smile.
Ares turned to me. Get him out, she signed. Keep him safe.
“Yes,” I said. I put a hand on his shoulder, gently steered him around. “Get in the car.”
I shoved myself into the drivers seat, reached for the keys — still in the lock, and got us out of there.
As we turned the corner, the sound of gunfire rose and faded behind us. I made for the main road, hoping to get back to the safety of the house before we could be ambushed again.
We weren’t out of it yet: three blocks later, we had company. Two cars swerved out of a side alley and made to chase us down.
“We’ve got company,” I said. I gunned the ignition and shifted into higher gear.
Santino, who had turned his head to watch them, now turned to look at me. “Thought you didn’t race anymore.”
“I don’t.” But I hadn’t forgotten what it was to have the car sing beneath me.
I weaved through the backstreets, heading for the bridge approach. I had a couple of tricks to lose these guys, and I employed every one of them.
One of our pursuers didn’t make it: there was a screech of crumpling metal gritting against concrete as their car collided with a barrier at high speed.
I didn’t stop to investigate: we still had one more to lose.
“If you could see yourself when you’re like this,” Santino said, softly.
I didn’t want to think about it: I knew what I was like — when that guy came out, when my blood was up, when the cold came in and my mind went quiet. It wasn’t good.
The turn wasn’t legal— wasn’t built for a car approaching from this direction— but the rhythm was familiar as the recoil of my gun.
I gunned the engine on the approach, flicked the wheel, pulsed the footbrake and jerked the handbrake.
The car drifted through the turn with a slide of burning rubber, then we were back on a straight and speeding towards Manhattan, alone once more.
“They shouldn’t have been able to find us,” I said. “This whole interception— either they followed us from the house, your contact squealed, or you’ve got a leak.”
Santino frowned, and ticked the possibilities off on his fingers. “Our drivers are trained to notice tails— and to take unpredictable routes. My contact didn’t know when we were coming, and no one knew we were going who wasn’t at breakfast this morning.”
“They knew where we were going to be,” I insisted. “Either there was a tracker on the car, or someone told.”
“The cars are checked,” he snapped. He froze. “The phone.”
I pulled it out of my pocket and flipped it to him. Stupid of me not to think of it. I’d left us wide open for the assault.
“We’ve got to get rid of it,” he said.
“I can take the phone, you can take the car—“
“Like hell,” he growled.
“It’s our best lead. We need it.”
“I need you alive.” Santino reached for his window’s controls. “This, we can live without.”
I made an abortive half-grab for his arm, but before I could reach to stop him, he’d whipped the phone out of the car and into the murky waters of the East River.
I returned my hand to the wheel and swallowed what I wanted to say. What was done was done.
I needed a drink. More reasonably, I needed five or six. I found myself a bottle and started in on my scrapes. By the time I was done, the bottle was closer to empty, and I was feeling a hell of a lot better — or, at least, more numb.
I’d made myself scarce when we’d returned, leaving Santino to handle the explanations. I was the muscle and I had nothing to add. He hadn’t spoken to me, either, lips tight at the edges.
I was restless. I needed to move. I’d been in two fights in as many days but it wasn’t enough.
I prowled the penthouse and I found Gianna sitting in the library. She was wrapped in a cashmere throw. She had a glass in her hand, and the glass was empty.
“Thank you for keeping my brother alive,” she said. “He should never have left this house— he should never have left Italy.”
“He made his choice,” I said. “He wanted to be here.”
“My brother doesn't like to think,” Gianna scoffed. “I expect you to do better.”
“You wanted a weapon,” I growled. “Weapons don’t think.”
“I wanted a professional,” she said. “These days, you hardly qualify.”
I’d walked into a trap. I cast around for a lifeline. “We were friends once, Gianna.”
Her eyes glittered. “Once, John, perhaps we were.”
“You don’t trust me,” I observed.
“No,” she said. “No, I do not.”
“Because I’m unpredictable,” I tried, echoing Santino.
Gianna grimaced. “You are eminently predictable. You are an addict — and addicts are always easy to predict.”
Santino had called me that earlier. In Gianna’s mouth, it was a different word: the edges sharpened to cut.
“'What a man wants, and what he is willing to do to get it’ — do you know what you want, John? Of course not.”
I wanted to argue, but she was right. For so long, I’d wanted so badly to lay down and die. Then the dog, and I’d decided to live. I hadn’t managed more: more felt like too much.
“My brother calls to a part of you— a part you would prefer did not exist. You belong here, in this world. You thrive here.” She laughed. “But you refuse to accept it.”
“The coins you spend because you won’t take our money,” Gianna hissed. “Where are they from, I wonder?”
“I don’t need your money,” I snapped. I didn’t want any more debts to this family, no matter how minor.
“When people leave this life, they don’t leave lockboxes behind. They don’t bury weapons in the basement. They don’t keep our coins. They don’t give out markers.”
“I didn’t want to come back. You brought me back.” My hands curled into fists. “You all keep dragging me back.”
“John Wick,” she mocked. “The weapon of the bratva. The boogeyman. Until the day he fell into denial — until he began to dream of something else.” She tilted her head to the side, considering: “You say we were friends once, but I remember a man who did not have friends. I remember a man who stood apart.”
I grit my teeth. “It was no way to live.”
“I respected you, John. You were a man who could get the job done. A man I could rely on.” She ran a manicured finger around the rim of her glass. “I didn’t notice when you changed.”
“Sorry to disappoint,” I said.
“In hindsight, it’s obvious.” Her lip curled. “Do you remember when my brother first approached you? My god, what a brat he was. Young, spoilt, barely out of school— blindingly arrogant, so sure of himself— and you were a challenge. A legend. How could he resist?”
I remembered the flash of his smile, the twist of his wrist as he’d slid the glass along the bar. I had known better. I had known better, and I had taken it anyway.
“I didn’t pay attention then. I was certain it would end soon enough. Santino bored so easily at that age: the string of playmates, the constant travel. You were an interesting vice — a way to pass the time. And then something changed.”
We’d found a mutual respect. I’d discovered the bright intelligence beneath the arrogance: the careful manners, the fierce love of the arts. His sly comments on other Continental patrons, and how pleased he was to startle me into laughter. The way he would launch into tirades without notice, holding forth on every topic from museum curation to money laundering.
No one spoke to me like he did. No one looked at me, expectant, until I offered my opinions. He’d never offered me a contract. I had colleagues; I had mentors; I had employers: Santino stood apart.
“We were friends,” I said.
Gianna snorted. “The flights across the Atlantic, the apartment in New York—”
“I don’t think—“
“Always the romantic, my brother— but he sees what others don’t. I didn’t see it then. I see it now.” She leaned forward. “You liked it. You liked the way he treated you. You realized what it was to be a man and not a beast. After that, it all falls into place. You found a woman you could love, and the rest is history. The bratva never stood a chance.”
I said, slowly: “It was a long time ago.”
“It was,” she agreed. She tipped her head back, gazing at the ceiling. “Santino was angry when my father named me his heir. He might have considered having me killed; I would have done so in his place.”
I thought of Santino, ambitious and petulant. I thought of the way his eyes flashed, when he spoke about the Council. I thought that perhaps Gianna was right.
“After he was poisoned, I did not expect to feel grief. I was so, so angry when I heard— hah.” She exhaled: “Angry and afraid. I drew on the man who told me. I had a gun pointed at his head. I could have shot him.” Gianna pointed to me, fingers curling to form a gun. “Just like that. Bang.”
When I said nothing, she rolled her head forward, eyes slanting to me. “Cassian talked me down, of course.” Her voice hardened. “Misdirected anger is a dangerous vice.”
The words hung in the air, pointed neatly at me.
To kill three men with a pencil is not intrinsically difficult. Any assassin worth their membership can do it: the problem is not a lack of skill. It is a lack of will.
To become a weapon, you must commit to every movement, and you must be precise. This is as much a matter of training your mind as it is of training your body. Every movement has a purpose, and no moment is wasted. In a fight, it’s all about who makes the first mistake. You hesitate, you die.
Everyone takes their willpower from a different place. When I left the Marines, I was angry. I was lost. I was good at exactly one thing, and I was proud of being good at that thing. The bloodlust sang in me, and I found a new code, a new home, and became a legend.
When I was working, rage flowed clean and hot though my veins. It gave me strength; it pushed me forwards when my body might otherwise falter. The source of that rage changed, but never its presence.
Abram had asked me: Can a man like you know peace? I’d said yes. I had wanted the answer to be yes. I was still trying to figure out if it was the truth.
I’d killed Iosef Tarasov — and his father, and every person who’d been in my way — because I was angry about Helen. I was angry about Helen and about Daisy and about my car, but above all, I was angry that I’d lost Helen. I seemed destined to keep losing her, over and over again: losing her dog, losing our car, losing our house. It was as though every trace of our life together was being wiped away.
I was afraid because I didn’t know how to live my life without her in it.
When I left the bratva, I’d built my new life around her. I’d buried every trace of what I’d been before and committed to her. Now she was gone and I had nothing.
I’m familiar with the stages of grief. I knew where my anger came from. I recognized my rage as a coping mechanism, and I knew what Helen would have thought about it. But I couldn’t change who I was, and Helen was dead, and I was still alive.
I’d killed four people today. I’d been angry with Santino, angry with him for calling in the marker, angry for the way he looked at me. I was angry that he still expected something from me. I was angry because he still expected me to be human.
And then I’d been angry people were shooting at him.
I didn’t feel angry anymore. The adrenaline from earlier had fled, and I just felt tired: tired and old.
Gianna was eyeing me over the rim of her wine glass. I wondered what she saw on my face, or if — like Cassian — she saw nothing: if all she saw when she looked at me was a gun.
“Rome is two hours from Naples by car. One hour by train. I could barely stand to see him, but I couldn’t stay away. Santino was in a hospital bed, and he was incoherent. He was speaking Italian. He thought I was our mother.”
“Gianna—“ I began.
“And he was asking for you.” Her knuckles were white where she gripped the glass stem. “The doctor thought he was saying my name, but I knew better. Six years since he’d seen you. Six years!” her voice cracked: “were you so good a fuck—“ she broke off, clawing her way to stand.
I didn’t move. I couldn’t look away. “I don’t understand,” I said.
“My brother was young and foolish and infatuated,” Gianna snarled, “and when you needed the impossible, he made it happen. I am telling you this so that you know: if you mean to kill him, you had better plan on killing this entire house.”
There was nothing left for us to say to one another. I retreated, grasping for the door.
“I have known people like you,” she said to my back. “You want to leave. You don’t care who you leave behind.”
I didn’t go back to my room. It would have been the smart decision, but it wasn’t the decision I made.
I hadn’t seen his room before: it was neat, only the sheets rumpled on the bed and a book left out on the side table.
Santino was looking out at the skyline, the lights of the city illuminating his face.
I hadn’t seen him out of a suit before — well, apart from the obvious. I hadn’t seen him like this, in a washed-out SNS shirt and stretch-jersey trousers.
“May I come in?” I asked, though I’d already entered.
He nodded, and said: “Ares is alive. She made it back two hours ago.”
“Is she here?”
He shook his head. “Resting.”
I looked at him. I let myself look: I’d been avoiding it.
Once upon a time, I’d curled my fingers around his jaw, and put my thumb on his lip like it belonged there. Under my thumb, his lips had curved up. Things had progressed.
The pattern had repeated, once and then a few times. I hadn’t thought about it too much; I hadn’t had to think about it.
In the beginning, I’d worried about putting my hands on Helen. I’d considered every touch, measured every word and gesture with deliberate care. I’d worried I was going to hurt her — not on purpose, but none-the-less. My body is a weapon; I am not made to gentle.
I’d never worried about Santino. I hadn’t thought of him as someone I could hurt. Perhaps, in retrospect, I should have.
He must have felt the weight of my gaze. He turned to me.
“You know, when I heard you had gone after the Tarasov boy, I was glad,” he said. “Angry — furious, even. But glad.”
“You didn’t like him?”
“I didn’t know him,” Santino sneered. “I don’t keep tabs on every bratva brat.”
“You swore to me you would retire — you were getting out, and getting out for good. And then you came back.” He crossed his arms. “You were back, and reveling in your vengeance. Incandescent. Magnificent.”
“You were angry that I’d lied.”
Santino shook his head. “I was angry that you didn’t come to me for help.” His mouth twisted. “Foolishness, of course.”
“Why did you help me retire?” I asked. “You knew I wasn’t planning on coming back. You knew that.”
“I knew you once as a deliberate man. You never acted without intention. When you said you wanted out, I believed you.” He turned back to the window. “My father married for love, you know. My mother was the daughter of two university professors. She didn’t come from our world. She didn’t know how it worked. My father thought love would be enough, and for a while it was.”
Santino leaned one arm on the glass, and his forehead against it. He closed his eyes.
“When I was nine, my mother tried to cut a deal with Europol. One of our sources caught it early. She wanted out. In exchange for protection, for a new life, she was ready to give up everything she knew. She had planned to take me with her. Even at that age, she knew Gianna would never leave my father, but me, well. She hoped I might forget.”
“My father did what was necessary. It was a hard lesson for all of us.” He pushed away from the window. “Cosa è disposta a fare… I helped you because you wanted out. Either you would be happier on the outside, or you’d realize you weren’t capable of a normal life — but if you wanted to leave, there was no point in trying to keep you.”
I took a step forward. I found that I was feeling something, after all.
He raised his eyes to meet mine. “After six years, I had not expected to see you again: your vengeance gave me hope.”
It was not dissimilar from picking up a gun: I told myself I was out of practice, but my hands remembered where to go. I fit my mouth against his and pressed him back against the glass. His hand came up to grip my arm and one of my hands was slipping under the hem of his shirt to rub circles into his hip and then I stepped back.
“Once this is over,” I said, “we’ll go our separate ways.” I palmed his jaw. “I won’t come after you. You have my word.”
He swallowed. His eyes were glazed. I pulled my hand away.
He tipped his head against the glass. “Good night, John.”
“Good night,” I said, and fled.
two chapters left to go. this chapter should (i hope) clear up any lingering questions about what happened pre-canon... now it's time to deal with the problems of the present.
I slept poorly, and woke as tense as I’d been when I lay down. Without the phone, I had no proof. Without proof, I could not kill Cavallero on neutral ground.
There was only one option left: I would go to him, and find my proof, and kill him before he stepped foot in the Continental.
It was a suicide mission. It was incredibly unlikely that I would make it to my target. It was unthinkable that I might make it out alive.
I felt inexorably pulled towards my fate. My path had been set long ago, when Gianna had appeared on my doorstep — no, earlier. In similar straits, I’d struck the deal with her brother. One suicide mission for another; a death deferred. A debt unpaid. And now, I had a job to do.
It wasn’t difficult to guess where the Cavallero stronghold lay. Unlike the D’Antonio, with their preference for modern art and modern convenience, the Cavallero valued history. I expected them to be in the same pile they’d always kept, when business called a family member stateside.
It was a long ride up to the Bronx. It gave me plenty of time to think.
I'd been to the house once — years ago, now, as the dog at Viggo's side. As was my habit, I'd catalogued the exits and noted corners the cameras didn't capture. In a decade, they'd probably changed patrol routes, improved the tech. I hoped, at least, the servant's entrance hadn't changed.
Luck was in my favor. I didn't have to wait long before I found my chance. I'd taken up a post down the street, waiting for the right moment to move. A truck pulled up with a large grocery delivery, distracting the guards as they checked the cargo for bombs. While their attention was diverted, I slipped around.
I took a set of keys off a gardener. I didn't kill him: a needle full of sedatives did its fast work, and I hid the body between the ornamental flowerbeds.
The servants' entrance was where I remembered it. The second key I tried fit neatly in the lock.
Inside the house, I made it only a few feet before I heard footsteps. I ducked into a side room, unholstering my gun. Even with a silencer, I'd prefer not to shoot: the sound would be too loud inside the house. My strategy was to get in fast before anyone had a chance to raise the alarm.
There was a home office on the ground floor, assuming the family hadn't remodeled. If there was proof of their involvement, I hoped to find it there. As the steps approached, I closed my eyes and visualized the route. No more than forty feet, I guessed: a left at the end of the hallway, then through the second door on my right.
After a moment, the footsteps receded, and I moved. Down the hallway, left, and I counted one door, then opened the second. I raised my gun and stepped inside.
Alessandro Cavallero sat at the grand desk, fingers steepled. His hooded eyes glinted in the half-light like two hard diamond chips. We considered each other for a moment, and then he spoke. “Mr. Wick, do put the gun down, and let us speak like civilized men.”
I didn’t lower the barrel, but I didn’t shoot — not yet. “You know why I’m here?”
“I can guess,” he said, and one eyebrow arched.
I grit my teeth. “Did you have Santino D’Antonio poisoned?”
The easy finality of the word rankled. My shoulders tensed for a single moment. The animal in my head thought, why should I believe you?
No reason to lie to a dead man walking. It had been easy to get to Cavallero. Too easy, perhaps.
I flicked the safety back on, lowering my gun. “You were gathering information on him.”
“I had hoped to broker an alliance.” He stood, with an artful casualness that belied the predator underneath: “My nephew was two years ahead of Santino at Pisa. They were friendly; there is some foundation. The train between Naples and Rome runs every half-hour. It is not traditional, but, eh,” he shrugged, “in this new millennium, we must modernize.” Something must have shown on my face, because Alessandro chuckled and added: “I see now that it will not be possible. Ah, well! Perhaps instead of marriage, we can find another agreement.”
“Gianna thought you wanted to vassalize the Camorra,” I said.
“Gianna is intelligent, and well-practiced at keeping her clans in line,” said Alessandro, “but at the High Table, she lacks experience. She is used to the local view: Naples, Italy, Europe. I have no interest in absorbing the Camorra — or the ‘Ndràngheta, for that matter. More Italian voices at the table outweigh any potential benefit.” He smiled. “In time, she will learn to think globally.”
“You wouldn’t take an Italian off the Table, but there is someone else — another organization you’ve been considering. Someone less secure.”
“Trade routes are shifting,” he said, “and with them the balance of power. What trade once flowed through the Mediterranean now comes through the Balkans or from over the Atlantic. Certain links in the chain are no longer necessary.”
I ran down my mental list of the High Table members. If it wasn’t an Italian, that left only one option: “Cohen.”
“Eliot Cohen is not his father,” Alessandro said. “He is too dependent on the bratva and on us. He needs to grow his base, or risk losing control.”
“His family used to have a foothold in New York,” I realized. “He wants to reestablish it.”
“He has been campaigning for control over the Tarasov operations,” he agreed, “though not half so eloquently as Santino D’Antonio.”
I startled. “His sister—“
“I doubt she knows. At least, not yet — no reason to tell her unless it was done. You see, Gianna is better with power; her brother is better with people.”
That— “He’s a brat.”
He grinned. “A brat on whose behalf you were ready to kill a member of the High Table. You are very good at what you do, Mr. Wick — but you would not have gotten out of this room alive.”
I had to acknowledge his point. I couldn’t claim to make rational decisions as a matter of course, but when Santino was involved, I made less rational decisions than usual.
“There is more than one kind of power,” he said. “When I met my wife, I found her quiet, plain, a bit naive.” He sighed. “Over the past thirty years, I have killed more people on that woman’s advice than I can count — and rarely regretted it.”
I digested that, and asked: “How many people think I killed Viggo Tarasov for the Camorra?”
“For the Camorra?” Alessandro smiled. “None. But for the D’Antonios?”
It was all the answer I needed. It hadn’t happened like that — but, I supposed, it could have.
“When you retired, you became a legend. Viggo Tarasov would have rather we all forgot the story — but New York was too visible a prize for anyone to forget.” He tapped a finger against his thigh. “The young Camorra prince who stole away the bratva’s monster — very theatrical. It caught the imagination. Severino D’Antonio was uncharacteristically silent on the matter, which of course only fanned the flames of speculation.”
“I didn’t know.” He’d always been my blind spot. I’d known that our acquaintance was odd, but I’d been too wrapped up in the oddness myself. I hadn’t had the distance to look at it critically — to notice when others took notice.
“No one offers aid like that without expecting something in return,” Alessandro said, his voice mocking, “so the world took note, and watched, and waited. Until the day your new life ran out, and you returned to give the Camorra the city on a silver platter. Your debt, finally repaid.”
I felt hollowed out. “That isn’t what happened.” It didn’t really matter what this man thought, but the words came out anyway: “I don’t think Santino intended to call in that marker.”
“Well,” Alessandro mused, looking at me, “he was in love.”
I flinched away from that. “Cohen must be desperate,” I said. “He’s made two failed plays, and he’s running out of time.”
“Then, Mr. Wick, I believe we should be on our way.”
The drive to the Continental wasn’t long, but it was long enough. In my position, another man might have worried that we were going to be too late.
I didn’t worry; I’d fallen into the space where failure wasn’t an option. You kept moving until the job was done.
“There is a roadblock ahead,” the driver said.
“Mmm,” Alessandro mused. “I believe this is where our paths part, Mr. Wick.”
He was right. This was my battle to fight.
I reached for the door, fingers resting on the handle. Six blocks, I thought, and then: I can make it six blocks.
“Auguri, ” said Alessandro, and I opened the door.
The block was too-quiet, empty of pedestrians and traffic alike. Behind me, the car turned left to find another street, slipping quickly out of range. Thirty feet ahead, three men stood guard in front of a steel barricade, dressed in construction workers’ kit. We eyed each other, and then I moved.
One breath, forward. Second breath, twisting beneath the first pistol, punching up with a knife between two ribs. Third breath: the arc of blood when my blade withdrew. I ducked to the side. Fourth breath, and I caught the wrist holding the second gun, let loose two bullets into the meat of the third man. I neatly dislocated the shoulder my borrowed gun was attached to, then slammed my head back. Second man went down.
I had no time to lose, so I kept moving. I heard shouting, the skid of tires somewhere close by. I zigged. A splatter of asphalt bounced off the back of my legs as gunfire tore up the street behind me.
I made it two more blocks before the second group showed up. There were five of them this time.
I un-holstered my gun.
I took two men down before they could fire, then ducked and rolled behind a row of hulking trash bins. For the moment, the bins held up, and I fired off a few well-angled volleys around the edge. One more of my assailants dropped with a shout.
The shooting paused as the remaining man scrambled for cover, and at that moment, I moved.
I only had moments before he reloaded. I crossed the street at a run, but I was out of time. His head popped up over the edge of a parked car, muzzle pointed my direction. I lined up my shot and I sunk a bullet in his eye before he could fire.
Last bullet out. I reached for a new cartridge, and stopped half-way. I turned and my eyes met the barrel of a modified Sig Sauer.
“Got you,” the fifth man said, and his finger pulsed on the trigger.
A bullet split the back of his skull, and a familiar face stepped out from behind a parked car.
“Thanks,” I said, and reloaded.
Ares spared me a smile as she scanned the buildings above us. I wasn’t going to let you have all the fun.
She eyed me. Safe. Safer than you.
Sharply, I said, “I’m handling it.”
There’s a contract on your head, Ares signed. She grinned, then tapped the back of her hand to my arm, fingers splayed, followed by her middle finger.
“Six hundred grand?” I interpreted. She shook her head and jerked her chin up. “Six million? —Christ.” Couldn’t think about that now. “Look — you need to get back, you need to warn them. It isn’t Cavallero, it’s Cohen.”
Her eyes narrowed. I’ll kill him.
“You can’t— the laws won’t allow it. Winston will have your head. I have to be— it has to be me.”
Her eyebrows knitted, and she considered me. Finally, she signed: Don’t fail.
“I won’t,” I said, then signed it: I won’t.
I’ll warn him.
She didn’t bother saying goodbye. She just turned and loped off to the right. I kept walking straight into whatever was waiting for me.
Two blocks away, now. Then it was one. I turned the corner, the door in my sights.
Of course, it wasn’t going to be that easy.
He was sitting on the stoop waiting for me. He stood up, lazy, when I approached. In his navy pinstriped suit, he flicked off the safety of his handgun.
“John Wick,” the man said, aimed, and fired.
I didn’t have time to dodge. The bullet took me above the collar bone, and I went down to one knee, my vision going white with pain. My luck, it seems, had run out.
so, this one took longer than expected. sorry about that.
The burning trail radiating through my shoulder stole my breath and my attention. It was an age before I regained the sense of my surroundings. The grit of the pavement against my knees; the realization that the bullet had missed the artery, and I wasn't dead; the voice speaking urgently, the hands tugging at my arm. “Up, you need to get up.” I thought, perhaps, I knew that voice, but the tone was wrong, and this wasn't the place, and I couldn't focus— I wasn't sure—
His voice hardened to the steely timbre of command. “John. Get up.”
I got up. Santino's hands were still on me, one curved below my bicep, the other pressed near my shoulder. Blood was leaking sluggishly past his fingers. His suit was covered in no small amount of my blood; some had smeared over his cheek and, improbably, his hair. I realized that the look in his eyes was fear. I’d never seen it there before.
My brain stuttered again. He wasn't supposed to be here. He wasn't supposed to be here because—
I steadied myself, tapped a palm over his, and then pushed his hands away. “Get inside,” I said. It came out a growl.
His eyes blazed, but he said nothing. I turned away, and didn’t look back.
At the end of the block, Cassian was fighting my shooter like a man possessed. He was an eel of a man, slipping out of reach before darting in to land a cut: slate-grey eyes and the cruel line of his mouth, the clench of his teeth as he reached for his blade—
I couldn't manage a run, but I took the length at a jog. At five paces, my eyes caught on a gun abandoned in the scuffle. I reached down, my fingers closed around my prize and I glanced up to see him knock Cassian to the side, the knife arcing down to slash a vent across his thigh.
Cassian stumbled. Before I could fire, the other man tackled me to the sidewalk. The gun skittered out of reach as my shoulder howled in protest. My brain stuttered and—
I recovered. I couldn't stop. If I stopped, I was dead. I knocked an elbow up, blind towards his face, and hit half my target. He reared back. It bought me a second: I saw Cassian, struggling to his feet, take a step towards us. "Get him inside," someone barked—
No, I'd barked it: it had been me. There wasn't time. The assassin aimed that cunning blade at my ribs, and I rolled us. My collarbone twisted, the pain swift and demanding, but I slammed his wrist into the ground. My nerves lit up, a wash of white-hot light—
I saw Cassian's face, awash with indecision. I pushed the pain back. I opened my mouth. Before I could speak, he nodded, and turned—
He'll handle it, I thought, and I let the ice freeze over my mind. The burn cooled, the world sharpened, and then.
First breath: I pushed my weight back onto my knees and rolled back onto my feet. His eyes widened; his left hand moved to grab— a second too late. His knee came up— a second too late.
Second breath, and I was standing, and turning. He scrambled upright, but I was out of reach, scooping up, at last, the gun.
Third breath. I pulled the trigger, and it happened the way it always happens.
I took a step back, and holstered the gun. The street was empty, apart from me and the corpse. I couldn't trust it would stay that way for long.
I was still, mostly, in one piece; the pain was present and demanding, but I was doing my best to ignore it. The suit was a lost cause, but the job wasn't over yet.
I opened the door, and walked into the Continental.
I stepped through those doors as a man emerging from the wilderness, my footfalls light against the foyer floor. Bach's Goldberg Variations were playing softly over the lobby sound system, while I tracked in blood across the marble. Behind the concierge's desk, Charon nodded but did not speak. The patrons sat and stood, frozen in their places. Only their eyes tracked my movements, like deer in the headlights of an oncoming semi.
I walked the halls a revenant, passing doors and hallways, and no one bade me stop. I walked until I found the one I sought.
The boardroom doors were closed, but not locked. With an easy push, this last door opened, and I entered to confront my fate.
It was an opulent stage: a long table and twelve chairs for twelve kings. The High Table was silent: every member in their seat, watching. This was the epicenter of the stillness in the building. This was its beating heart, slowed to a crawl. I counted off the faces: Brennan, Ivanov, Lečić, Harada, Rodriguez, Cannistrà, Gutierrez, Cheung, Lài, Cavallero, D'Antonio, Cohen. Behind each stood their bodyguard, those silent shadows— behind every one except Cohen. His bodyguard was lying where I'd left him.
For his part, Cohen didn't flinch. He sat and waited: still as a statue, eyes forward, chin up. Perhaps he knew there was no quarter to be found. He waited and I closed those final steps. He waited and I unholstered the Beretta, bringing the muzzle level with his head.
I had cornered my prey. The game was over.
My finger didn’t move from the trigger, but my eyes found Santino. His hands were clasped around his sister’s shoulders. His expression was grim, eyes fixed on Cohen.
“Dead or alive?” I said.
For a microsecond, his eyes widened. It was there and gone: easily missed, if I hadn't been watching. Even so, he didn’t hesitate. With a voice like butter, he said: “Kill him.”
I kept looking at him as I took the shot. I kept looking at him as the corpse crumpled to the floor, as I lowered the gun, and as the room exploded into motion.
Someone had patched me up. Local anesthesia was a hell of a thing. I was moving slowly, but I was still moving.
I reentered the boardroom rather less dramatically than my first entrance, and was greeted almost immediately by Luca Barone.
"John," he said, clasping my uninjured arm. "It's good to see you on your feet." I nodded, unsure of what to say, and he continued: “They found records of Nikita Kapoor’s marker. Istanbul. Opened four years ago. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you who held it.”
“So there’s the proof,” I said.
“On top of everything else,” he agreed. “Cohen’s son has agreed to divulge any information the High Table requires in exchange for clemency for the rest of the family. They will be stripped of their seat, of course, but no further blood will be paid.”
Winston would be happy: motive and evidence, bloodshed at a minimum, no loose ends. Though for my money, it had not been Cohen's son who had stared at Morales in the aftermath, her eyes narrowed almost to slits. It had not been his son who gave me a perfunctory nod as her father's corpse was cleared away. No further bloodshed was, I thought, perhaps an optimistic forecast.
In any case, it was no longer my business. My part in the matter was done.
“Don’t go anywhere,” Luca warned. “They’ll want to speak with you.” He glanced at his phone, and cursed. “I’m late. We’ll speak later.”
As he took his leave, I took a moment to look around the room. The members of the High Table had vacated it, probably in favor of a room without blood staining the paneling. No doubt there were many conversations happening elsewhere in the building, as to who would take over the High Table seat, and who would take over the bratva operations in New York, and who would deal with the fallout of the death of Eliot Cohen. Once again, my actions had reshuffled the balance of power in this world. At the moment, I couldn’t bring myself to care.
There was still quite a crowd left. Advisors, bodyguards, seconds, trusted relatives.
Santino was standing near the council table. He was speaking quietly with a man with dark, expressive brows and a nose hacked off a Roman marble.
From the family resemblance, I guessed that the man was Nico Cavallero. He was in his mid-thirties, maybe: broad-shouldered but not brawny, managing to pull off the cow-licked hair and the prog-rock t-shirt under his blazer as fashion-forward instead of sloppy. He was looking at Santino with friendly concern, but I was looking at his hand on Santino’s shoulder.
I realized at that moment that I didn’t want his hand on Santino’s shoulder. It was irrational, how the feeling flooded through me like the rush of adrenaline.
There was no reason I should care. In twenty-four hours I would be gone. I reminded myself. I fixed it in my mind.
I was moving before I thought better of it.
I didn't have to interrupt. At my approach, Santino waved his conversation partner politely off. Left alone, we considered each other in silence.
I broke first: “Sorry about New York."
He blinked at me and leaned back against the table. His arms came up to cross. “No, you’re not.”
“No. I’m not,” I agreed. “I don’t think New York is ready for you.”
“Hmm.” Santino looked pensive. Then I saw the twinkle enter his eye: "I suppose I will prefer to be nearby when my nephew arrives."
I choked. "Nephew," I repeated, a little strangled.
He was grinning outright now, soft and amused at my expense. "With all the recent dramatics, the wedding should barely raise an eyebrow."
I was still processing the first bombshell. Even so, I caught that one: "Somehow, I doubt your sister will be looking to avoid raising eyebrows."
His eyes danced. "It is not, perhaps, the family style."
I indicated the room with a wave of my hand. "You don't say." We lapsed into silence once again. He'd washed his face, changed his suit, scrubbed my blood out of his hair. I could still see it on him, an afterimage beginning to fade. I said: "Is this what you imagined when you sent me that marker? Things turned out neatly in your favor."
He shook his head. His smile faded. “I have a confession to make: I did not give Gianna the marker." His gaze dropped. "I bought my ticket to New York when Oriana told me she had called you in.”
At his back, his shadow tensed. She stepped forward. I failed to protect you, signed Ares. I gave your sister the token to find someone who would succeed where I had failed.
He stared at her, then grasped her shoulder with a hand and pulled her into a rough embrace. “I’m alive,” he growled into her hair, “and so are you.”
Her hands tentatively came up to his back, then tensed firmly into his suit.
He released her and she stepped back. Alive, she agreed, and smiled.
“Why didn’t you say anything?” I asked, when she had stepped away.
“If I had said something, you would have left.” He shrugged. “Besides, it was as good a reason as any: I did not want to be assassinated.”
"I heard.." I trailed off. "I heard that wasn't the first time. Stephen Tse?"
"The costs of doing business," he scoffed, but he didn't meet my eyes. His gaze dropped; his fingers hovered tentatively over the hole at my suit where the bullet had torn through. The wound was bandaged now, but the blood stains remained.
Santino dropped his hand to his side. “I think it is good, that you will retire,” he said. “I thought it last night, too.”
I said, “Oh?”
He nodded. “A house, a dog. A quiet life in the sunlit world." His eyes hadn't left the hole. "You should have what you want."
"Yeah," I said. "Uh. Thanks."
It wasn't what I wanted to say. Before I could figure out just what that was, he was speaking again: “You asked me once if I thought you were feral. You are.. aggravating. Untamed. But I don’t think you’re feral, John. I never did.”
“You barely knew me,” I said.
He flinched. “I knew you. ” It was half a growl. Santino caught himself, and the next words came out smooth as silk. “If you'll excuse me. I have—" he paused, the echo of a smile: "business to conclude."
He left me alone with my thoughts, but I didn't stay that way for long. Cassian entered the room, and seeing me alone, made his approach.
I turned, and greeted him. "So the doctors are done with you?"
He tilted his head, a halfway nod. "And with you."
I shrugged, and felt the twinge. "Thanks for the assist."
One side of his mouth twitched up. "Sometimes it's good to have a team."
I knew where his allegiances lay; if Gianna had taken the marker, no doubt Cassian had known about it. Yet, it had been Cassian in the street, Cassian who had bought me the minutes I had so needed. I knew at whose pleasure he served; I knew who had sent him out to help me.
"I hear congratulations are in order," I said, and found that it was all I wanted to say.
He couldn't quite contain the smile. "It won't be easy."
It never was. Before we could continue, Luca rejoined us. "The matter has been adjudicated," he said. "You are free to go."
“La Cosa Nostra will assume control of their operations,” Cassian murmured. “Slice off the top, leave the rest in place. Alessandro must be pleased.”
“And a seat opens,” Luca agreed. “The Sinaloa will get their chance; Ricardo Morales has been angling for that seat for months.”
He had been there tonight, waiting for the kill. As whose guest, I couldn't say, though I had my suspicions.
“Another favor owed,” I noted. Even without picking up any new territory, the Camorra were gathering good-will across the board.
Luca smiled. “The System comes out of this council in a strong position.”
Cassian nodded to me. “Gianna’s gamble has paid dividends.”
“Gianna’s,” Luca remarked, “or Santino’s?” He shrugged. “Nevertheless: we are grateful for your service, Mr. Wick. I have taken the liberty of crediting your account; you will not find us ungenerous.”
Shaking his head, Cassian turned to me. “Winston sent word. He wants to speak to you.”
Of course. “Where is he?”
I found Winston in the bar speaking with Santino in low voices. He had a thick book with him, and I watched, transfixed, as Santino pressed his bloodied thumb to the other half of my marker, and handed it over.
“And so, it is over,” Winston said.
And so, I was free.
He stood and turned to me. “John," Winston said. "Join me in my office.”
Three months later, Nikita’s younger sister Driti, a strait-laced lawyer in Copenhagen, goes looking for information on how her sister ended up dead in an apartment in New York. The trail leads her to Talia Cohen, who is furious at Morales and plotting her revenge, as she sees him as responsible for her father’s death and her clan’s loss of their seat. The two embark on a mission to destabilize the cartel, in a plan Talia terms ‘audacious’ and Driti calls ‘idiotically suicidal’ … ;) Hashtag someone give me the lesbian John Wick spinoff of my dreams.
And yes, I realize that John should have been in a hospital by now, but I'm going by movie-logic, where he shrugs off worse injuries, and also where it's magically possible to have shoot-outs in midtown Manhattan without any bystanders. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ Rule of cool.
For those of you who are visual people, my entire fan cast is here, though I doubt it is particularly relevant to anyone but me.
Anyway, final chapter will be up tomorrow. I'm getting this done before the third movie drops.
I stepped into the office, and took my seat as my host took his own. It was hard to believe it had been less than a week since we last sat here, appraising each other across the same desk. The leather under my hands was familiar, as was the way Winston peered at me over the hardwood desk, eyes inscrutable as ever.
Men didn't change in a week, only their circumstances.
There was a folder on his desk. He flipped it open. I scanned the sheaf of papers: a birth certificate, two passports, a bank statement, a diploma. My face with a name I didn’t recognize attached to it — a new life laid out in ink and laminated paper.
Winston was speaking. Explaining, perhaps. I wasn't listening. There was a dull roaring in my ears, like waves against the rocks. It drowned out everything but this.
For a long time, I had thought of my life in three acts. Before, During, After.
I was beginning to realize that my play had a fourth act.
“I appreciate what you’re giving me,” I said. “But, with all due respect, I’ve decided I don’t need it.”
Winston pinned me with a look. “Are you sure?” he asked. “A week ago, you were adamant.”
I thought about the way Santino had looked last night, and the things he had said and not-said this afternoon. I thought about the spaces in between, the carved out places betwixt what we said and what we had done, and the parts of my life I had never quite managed to forget. I thought about how I had felt these past few days, the fervor I had not believed myself still capable of feeling. I thought about Helen, and what she would have said, and all the things I'd never told her and now would never have the chance. I thought about the drink I'd taken, so many years ago, and I thought: I never regretted it, not once. Bits and pieces of what came after, mistakes I'd made willingly and not, but never that.
“I’m sure,” I said.
Winston sighed, putting the papers down. “You don’t make things easy,” he said, but he didn’t sound too upset about it.
I watched as he closed the folder holding my new life, and moved it to the side. He pulled open a drawer and took another file from his desk. This one was grander: instead of being fashioned out of card stock, the folder was leather-bound, and the leather had taken on the patina of age. He placed the folder on the desk, but didn’t open it.
“As it happens, there is an opening for a new manager in the Continental in Rome.”
I looked up sharply.
“After the recent unpleasantness,” Winston said, his mouth twisting wryly, “Julius thought it prudent to step down. There were concerns about his ability to manage the property.”
“Gianna,” I supplied.
“Gianna,” Winston agreed, “and Alessandro Cavallero and Lorenzo Cannistrà, as well as a quorum of managers worldwide.” He smiled at my expression. “A poisoning on Continental grounds is bad for the Italian reputation, and bad for our reputation. The guarantee of hospitium must be upheld.”
I was hearing the words, but the words weren’t connecting. My pulse had jumped up and the blood was rushing in my ears.
“It was decided that new management was necessary.” He eyed me over the rim of his spectacles. “New blood.”
Reflexively, I said, “I’m not the hospitality type.”
Winston’s mouth twitched. “And I am?” He leaned forward, voice intent. “Jonathan. The Continental is no mere hotel. It is a promise: the guarantor of civilization among uncivilized men. That promise must be backed up with power, or it is worth nothing.”
“So I’ll be a warning.”
“You will be a reminder.” Winston smiled, terrible and cold. “Today, you showed that no one— not even those who sit at the High Table— can live above our laws. The High Table respects your strength, and where they lead, the rest will fall in line.”
I felt unmoored. “I don’t know anything about running a—“ I waved a hand at the walls. “This.”
“You will have a full staff dedicated to the daily operation of the Continental.” Winston paused. “Well. With the exception of one very foolish sous chef who has been dealt with. You will have a global network of peers to call on. And, of course, you will have this.” He spun the folder around, and slid it across to me.
My hands were grasping for it before I thought about it, opening up the folio, revealing the delicate vellum pages. As I took in the careful ink-black script, I understood what Winston was offering me — a future.
Oh, it was another move in the game to be sure: a way to shore up his own interests and strengthen his own faction. Nevertheless, this was an offering— a gift.
A fourth act.
I closed the folder and said: “When do I start?”
Winston leaned back, steepled his fingers. Something in his eyes gleamed. “As soon as you’re able, I should think.”
At that moment, I felt ready to go another six rounds in the ring— I felt gloriously alive. I smiled. “How’s the health insurance?”
He gave me a long look, then stood, offering me his hand to shake. “Despite your penchant for destruction, we will miss you here, I think.”
“Thanks for everything, Winston,” I replied. It was a paltry thanks, but I meant every word. I gathered up the folio and headed for the door.
I looked back. Winston was rubbing his forehead with one hand, absently.
“Try not to let that family walk all over you. The Continental has a reputation to maintain.”
Winston had given me the use of a room, gratis, while I figured out what came next — and it made it easier for him to keep an eye on me. Probably, the High Table also wanted me within easy reach while they finished sorting out the wreckage I’d left in my wake. I'm sure the scrutiny would increase once word got out I wasn't retiring. I'd accidentally become a flashpoint. It wasn't a safe thing to be, but I'd never been safe. Now, at least, I had a team. Even, perhaps, more than one.
Indeed, someone was pleased with me. I’d been given a proper suite instead of the tiny boltholes I’d reserved in the past. The dog bounded up to greet me when I opened the door. He'd been groomed and his coat brushed until it shined. He looked clean and healthy, and I realized I should probably give him a name.
We weren’t alone in the room.
He was standing across the room, well out of reach. The sun was going down; the last rays of the day slanted off the neighboring buildings and lit his edges with red-gold light. He had been immaculate downstairs: not so, here. His shirt was wrinkled, his shirt-sleeves pushed up to his elbows. His jacket was thrown over the back of my couch like it belonged there.
He was difficult to look at. Difficult for me to look at. It wasn't because of the light. It wasn't even because of him, not really, apart from all of the ways in which, of course, it was.
"I came to say goodbye," Santino said, when I'd straightened from patting the dog. He was holding something I couldn't see, turning it over in his hands. "And, indeed, to give you this."
He tossed it over, and it skimmed a low arc into my waiting hands.
It was my phone. I had tossed it into the trash last night, before I fell asleep. A dead man had no need of a dead phone. Except the phone was no longer dead. The screen was in one piece. When I thumbed it open, the background photo winked out at me. Helen, happy. Helen, alive.
I looked at her until I'd looked my fill. Then I drew the bracelet from my pocket and placed them both gently on the side table, and turned to look at him instead.
When he saw me looking, he said: “Thank you for your service."
My mouth was dry. “I was repaying a debt.”
“The debt is paid.” He turned to look at the window, fiddling with the curtains. There are no interesting views out of hotel rooms in Midtown Manhattan, only streets, skyscrapers, sky. He was looking out as though it held the secrets of the world.
I could see the tension in his back. “I have a plane ticket,” I said. One way, first class, non-stop. It had been in the folder.
“I see.” His voice was formal. Formless. I took a step closer.
“Julius is stepping down as manager of the Continental in Rome,” I said. “I’ve been offered a job.”
He didn't move. He didn't turn. I said nothing else, and at last he asked, voice husky: “And?”
“Two hours by car,” I said, “one hour by train.”
He spun to stare. His jaw worked wordlessly, then snapped shut. I watched the ripple go through his body, the settling: the tension running out. His eyes darkened, lids coming to half-mast. I was acquainted with that look. It was a slow-release dose, and I took a step forward before I caught myself.
When I remembered I didn't have to stop myself, the force of it punched through me like a second bullet.
I took a seat on the couch to stop myself from running. Forward or backward, I wasn't sure. I wasn't sure what to do with my hands; I wasn't sure if I could touch. I wasn't sure what I wanted to touch; it didn't seem right, quite, that we were here. That this might, once more, be mine to have.
"You're serious," he said, when he had found his voice again.
I looked down at my hands and nodded. In an instant, he had closed the gap, stepping into my space, crowding closer into the open spread of my legs. He bent over, bracing one hand on my thigh and the other on my shoulder. I could feel the warmth of his skin through the fabric, the familiar weight of his hands. I could see the dog hair on his knees.
“John,” he said, marveling. Awed.
He breathed, and kissed the corner of my mouth. His lips were soft; his teeth, less so. I tangled one hand in his belt loops, and hauled him closer. He came, obliging, pliant, moving both hands up to rest on my shoulders. I put my other hand on the back of his neck and pulled him into my lap. I caught the gasp that hitched in his throat, moving my hand from where it sat to palm his jaw, thumb tracing his swallow. I leaned in to kiss him again.
When I pulled away he followed, hips jerking, one hand pressing on my good collarbone to push me back into the couch, the other hand tangling in my hair. “You really want to try this,” he said.
I was a banked fire, low and sweet, but alive. I'd been shot; he was only a few days out of the hospital. Neither of us were up to much, but I didn't need much. Only this.
I palmed the back of his neck and kissed him again, low and sweet, because I could.
One kiss turned to two, then three, then many. I finally pulled away and looked at him.
“That's what I want," I said. "What do you want?”
For a moment, I thought he might not answer. He bent close, dark head bowing against my shoulder.
“Take me to bed, John,” Santino muttered into my neck. “Take me to bed, and be here in the morning.”
“Okay,” I said. I could do that. The room was in my name, and all the things I cared about were here.
And so, it is done. Thank you for being so patient with me; my life went off the rails somewhere in the middle, but luckily all is good now so I can finally bring this to a close. Just in time for the third movie to destroy us all, eh? All jokes aside, thank you very much to everyone who commented and left kudos. I appreciate each and every one of you, and while I can't claim to be one hundred percent content with it, I hope this final chapter does not disappoint. <3