The Devil You Know
Tom used to be a lot of things: assassin, interrogator, sadist. But for the past decade he's worked on being a better person, a good father to his loving daughter. But for a man with his past, a bullet is the only end he can expect—he just hopes his daughter will survive the inevitable fallout.
Doro has no illusions about himself: provocateur, infiltrator, killer. Even though he's one of the youngest assets the Vaylen Crime Family puts in the field, he's skilled and eager to prove himself.
After years of civil war, the Family has finally settled, and their leader wants to tie up loose ends. That includes sending Doro to get rid of the only man to ever walk away from the Family, the man once known as The Devil.
For ages, he knows only the darkness, the cold, his pain. Were it not for the weighty shackles on his wrists and ankles, he might just float away.
Then, ice water sloshes over him, head and torso. He gasps. His feet slide out from under him. Arms wrench back. Knees slam into the stone floor. His spine twinges, sensing someone's eyes following his every move. He hears a laugh, a knife scraping over a whetstone, his chains clattering.
Sputtering, he rights himself.
"Beautiful," says the faceless man. The refined English accent makes his skin crawl. "Then again, the Family's investments are rarely less than perfect."
A smooth hand jerks him toward the light; when he winces, the hand strokes his hair. Tries to soothe him. It takes everything he has not to squirm.
The faceless man looks down on him, the single exposed light bulb glinting off the lenses of his glasses, turning them into broad panes of white. The man's hand trails over his cheeks, his chest, his groin, examining him like a show horse at auction. Nope, he's no one's prize. He grits his teeth, head-butts the faceless man, scrambles to his feet.
The faceless man groans. He does not stay down long.
The knife is silent. It glimmers for just a moment in the dimness before it strikes. The cuts are quick, painless. Warm blood ekes down his cheek. He grimaces.
"You're not a part of Vaylen's operation anymore. Not a pretty plaything to be kept at arm's length." The faceless man traces the wound with his fingertips. Smiles. Digs his nails in.
Pain lights up behind his eyes. The dark places in his mind rebel.
The faceless man gasps. "Gorgeous. I'll enjoy breaking you."
Tom jolts awake. His bones ache. Jesus, why's it so fuckin' cold? For half a minute, he doesn't move another muscle, just watches his breath fog in the darkness until he comes back to himself. Dublin's long passed, that mission where everything went sideways. He's not trapped in that tiny little room, hasn't been for more than twenty years now. He's home.
He props himself up on the mattress, closes his eyes, and listens. The house is quiet, save for Jessie snoring across the hall. Radiator must be acting up. Tom glances at his bedside alarm clock. 4:47 a.m. Sunrise still a ways off. No wonder the house is so still.
Too still, the Devil whispers from his cage. Tom bares his teeth, shoving his fist against his thigh, but he has to agree. Loath as he is to admit it, life's been too still this past decade, since he got out of the business. Laying low always made him restless.
No use lazing about. In the dark, he pumps out his usual workout: push-ups, crunches, lunges. He would go jogging, but the last time he ran the property in the dark, he twisted his ankle on some scrub brush, and Jessie never let him live it down.
He pulls on jeans and a T-shirt over his long underwear. Laces up his work boots. Clips his utility knife to his belt. His gaze lingers on his nightstand and the holstered Ruger atop it. It's early and cold. Odds of running into a snake are low, excuses to carry, paper-thin. Still, he won't deny that his heartbeat settles when he buckles the revolver to his hip. Some habits never die.
On his way downstairs, he detours to check on Jessie. Despite the glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling and the Disney princess night-light they've never bothered to unplug, he trips over dirty clothes and textbooks. He catches himself silently and presses on to his daughter's bedside.
Jessie's shivering in her sleep, her head barely poking out of the blankets. Tom spreads an extra quilt over her and pushes a stray dark curl out of her face. In a few hours, she'll drag herself and her strange mix of hormones, trouble, and fourteen-year-old snark out of bed. For now, she looks angelic: dark locks, rosy cheeks, a delicate nose. She's the spitting image of her mother, and doesn't that just twist up his guts. In a few years, he'll have his hands full beating away teenage boys with a baseball bat. That is, if his guilt doesn't smother him first.
He creeps downstairs, shaking away those thoughts. He scans the living room's corners, tenses at the heavy shadow of the Christmas tree beside the front door. Continuing through the house, he checks the study, kitchen, bathroom, and cellar to make sure his home is still secure.
Since he purchased their farm ten years ago, he's focused on defensive updates. Reinforced walls, motion sensors in the surrounding woods, even a tunnel off the cellar that leads to the edge of the property and a pair of reclaimed corpses roughly matching him and Jessie. Wouldn't be good enough to fool a big city medical examiner, but for their podunk town's part-time coroner, a rough match will do. Never hurts to have an exit strategy.
Inside, the house is bare. The floors are original pine. The only art on the walls are pictures Jessie made in nine years of art classes. The couch is secondhand and worn just right. The bookshelves are filled with bargain bin mysteries and reprinted classics. The decor has drawn strange looks from Jessie's friends, but she's never made a stink about it. To her, this is home.
That's enough for Tom, though truth be told, the real reason he picked this farmhouse is the enormous fireplace with twin hearths opening in both the living room and kitchen. Given how often the radiator likes crapping out on him, the fireplace is a godsend.
Once he starts the coffee percolating, he lights a fire, then goes to scrub his face in the bathroom. Lukewarm water belches out of the tap, warms his hands. He cleans the sleep grit from his eyes, forgets to avoid the mirror, and gets an eyeful of his scars. Twenty years, and the red lines crisscrossing his sun-worn face still get him. He snaps off the bathroom light, does his business in the dark. Better than catching another unwanted glimpse. He shakes himself, and the vestiges of the nightmare drift away like loosened cobwebs. He left the Family—the Vaylen Crime Network to everyone not under the Matron's thumb—for good the day Jessie came into his life. No matter his scars, he won't let that life swallow him again. He can only move forward and keep the Devil in its chains.