Dan Parsons lay beside Annika and by the light of his bedside lamp, he watched her sleep. In truth, he saw little more than the top of her head because she liked to roll over to the edge of the bed, wrapped in the comforter. He resisted the urge to stroke the tuft of dark hair that stuck out over the top of the blanket, knowing that, at his touch, she would violently wake from sleep, pushing him away as though his touch were an electric shock. The first time he'd done it, they'd frightened each other almost to death. Since then, he'd taken her advice and approached her with caution when she was asleep.
It was one of her little quirks. In actual fact, there were other things he found odd about her but she always laughed them off when he mentioned them. Like her ability to pick a lock, for example. One night they'd been stuck outside his door in pouring rain when he realised he'd probably left his keys at work. He'd already been on the phone, trying to call his sister, his ex-wife, someone with a spare set of keys that was still awake after midnight. But even as he was scrolling through his contacts, she'd extracted a bit of bent wire from her jacket pocket and had poked around at the lock till there was a small click and the door had opened. She'd tried to put the wire back in her pocket without him seeing it, but he'd gently wrestled it out of her small hands and turned it over in his large ones. It had been a big paper clip and, based on the scratches on the metal, it was not the first time it had been used for this purpose.
"Where did you learn to do that?" he asked, astonished.
She'd laughed and taken the twisted paper clip back, slipping it into her pocket.
"My criminal past," she intoned solemnly. "Way back when I was a cat burglar."
And she'd tugged his sleeve, pulling him inside so she could slip her cold hands under his jacket, stroking and teasing him till that little niggling thought – the snagged nail, the unravelling stitch – was forgotten.
Dan leaned over and opened the drawer of his bedside table and silently extracted the ring box. Making sure she was still asleep, he opened the lid carefully and looked at the ring inside. It was simple, a white gold band with three square-cut diamonds no wider than the band itself. Very plain, very discreet. He hadn't really meant to buy it: he'd been stuck in traffic outside Finch's Jewelry Store and he'd looked over at their engagement ring display. Something inside him moved, like a cog sliding into gear, and he suddenly knew that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. He'd parked the car and ran inside before his courage deserted him, spotted the right ring in the first tray and paid for it on the spot. And then he hid the ring box for nearly a month.
He'd spoken to a few people about it, unable to make a decision without wondering whether he was being crazy. Stupid. He'd only known Annika for eleven months, they'd only dated for three of them. But what did they say? If you know, you know, said his sister, delighted to see him happy again for the first time since his divorce. And his ex-wife Amanda said much the same thing: leaning over the garden fence to admire the ring, she called over her new husband for a look. The burden of their well-wishing had lain heavily on his shoulders: his ex-wife would finally be able to be unmitigatedly happy in his presence, not embarrassed by how much more content she was with her new husband, feeling sorry for him for not having found the same.
"It's not too soon, hon," she said. She'd started calling him hon since they divorced, a kind of pitying term of endearment. "If she's the right girl for you, you'll know. And then what does it matter whether you get married now or next year or in two years? Do it. Be happy!"
Only his friend Mike had reservations.
"How well do you know her, man?" he'd asked over a beer.
"I feel like we're ..." Dan searched for the words. He wasn't good with all that mushy crap. "We're like ... soulmates. It's like she's my perfect partner. We like so much of the same stuff, it's unreal."
"Don't you think we make a good couple?" Dan asked.
"Sure you do," Mike said and he drank deep. "It's just that ..."
He thought about it for a second.
"It's like you're too perfect, know what I mean? Like she's trying to be who you want her to be all the time but I dunno if that's who she really is. I can't explain it, man, but sometimes I think she's just ..."
Mike trailed off, unable or unwilling to finish his train of thought.
He thinks she's just faking it, Dan thought. And he quickly quashed the thought because if he poked at it too long, he was afraid he might uncover something he didn't want to know. He bought Mike another beer to show there were no hard feelings, brushing against the ring box in his inner pocket as he reached for his wallet.
Annika – Anna, Eileen, Annie – watched him from beneath the blanket, saw the little red box returned to the drawer and the lamp switched off. She waited till she heard the deep, steady breathing that indicated he was asleep before she rolled over and stretched. She'd known about the little red box for a couple of weeks. Dan wasn't very good at deceit or subterfuge. He was also pretty useless when it came to hiding crap. On one of her pretend trips to the bathroom she'd sneaked into the bedroom, avoiding the floorboards that would creak and let him know downstairs that she was prowling around in his room, and had searched his bureau till she found what she'd feared he'd been hiding. Stomach sinking, she'd realised that the end of her relationship with Dan – nice, placid, uncomplicated Dan – had already been set in motion, as though someone had turned an hourglass upside-down, the sand slipping through the glass rapidly, counting the hours, the minutes, the seconds till she would have to disappear.
It had saddened her more than it should have: she hadn't intended to like him as much as she did. She'd waited for John for nearly a year – a year without any contact, without a phone call, a text or an email. Mr Charon at the Continental reluctantly agreed to call her on the fifteenth of every month. Three minutes, no more, he said at the beginning of each call and then in a whisper updated her with what he knew: the Chinese. The Russians. John had been seen, he had been injured. Some months he had nothing to tell her; once he had barely said hello before he hung up immediately, presumably because Winston had been nearby. She'd hoped he would call back. He hadn't. That had been a long month.
Then, five months ago, Charon called her early one morning – not on the fifteenth, nowhere near the fifteenth, in fact, - and whispered down the phone, "It is done! He is free!"
"What – ?" Anna managed to say before he hung up.
She stood beside her bed in her tiny one-bedroom apartment and her heart swelled with elation. She pulled on her jogging shoes and went for a run, her mind pounding out a "Yes! Yes! Yes!" in rhythm with her feet on the pavement. Should she quit her job immediately? She had to give one month's notice, but maybe Muriel would waive that. Or maybe she should wait. Wait till John showed up at her door, called her up, turned up in the book store. Anna couldn't wait, but she had to. John would turn up, she just had to be patient till he sorted his shit out. But she still wanted to swing out of a lamp-post like that corny old scene in Singin' in the Rain. Too bad that was one of the few days in Seattle when it wasn't actually raining. Oh, well, she'd thought, never mind!
And then she waited. And waited. And waited. When she phoned Charon he was cagey at first – he didn't know anything, he hadn't heard from John - but when she phoned him a month later, he sounded genuinely perplexed. No, he still hadn't heard from him. The third month, Charon used his three minutes to clear his throat discreetly and tell her that he would now cease to call her unless so requested by Mr Wick. John Wick had disappeared again and until he chose to reappear, their conversations were futile.
That was it. Anna/Annika was left in her Seattle limbo, waiting for a man to turn up, one who didn't seem to be in any particular hurry to do so. And the months passed without this changing, causing her initial elation to turn to impatience. Then to disappointment. Then to anger. And when she got to anger, she'd finally given in and gone on a date with Dan Parsons. Just one. Just a coffee. That was all.
He was a carpenter, a friend of her boss, and his patient, old-fashioned wooing as well as her unswerving deflection of his attentions had garnered her far more attention than she had wanted. Her boss, Muriel, and a couple of the other women who worked in the book store had been so enchanted by Dan's steadfast dedication – bringing her the cupcakes she'd mentioned she liked, buying up every cook book in her section, leaving a rose by her cash desk – that they had formed a little cheer-leading group behind him, nagging Anna to go on a date with him till, through a smile that was little more than a baring of clenched teeth, she agreed.
To her surprise, she had enjoyed herself. Dan was a bear of a man, tall and blond, with blunt, calloused hands. He was surprisingly gentle and sappily romantic, something he would never have admitted to. He called himself "just a regular guy," as though this explained everything there was to know about him. He liked a quiet life, he enjoyed watching football, he drank beer with his friends – he had a lot of friends with names like Mike, Dave, Bill, Tom – and most of all he liked to hang out with his very large family which, bizarrely (Anna found), also included his ex-wife and her new husband. He was, quite simply, the most amiable man she'd ever met. Even his ex-wife thought so.
"Annika, hon, Dave's just the best," she'd told Anna at one of the Parsons' large barbecues and she delivered the pronouncement without a trace of irony. "Seriously, the best."
Anna was inclined to agree. He was a really nice guy.
On reflection, what Anna really fell in love with was his family, the easy dinners with his parents that ended up with a full house, as his brothers and cousins and friends dropped by, delighted to have an excuse for a gathering, a beer, a chat. Dan's mother thought she was darling, so pretty, so smart, and she told her so often. Mrs Parsons had his colouring, the same reddish-blond hair and pink cheeks that flushed with excitement when a story was being recounted and the entire family became caught up in epic arguments about trivial details. Was the guy who sold Dad the Camino in 1979 from Tacoma or Olympia? They took sides with far more enthusiasm than necessary, fighting with spirited shouting and good-natured jibes as though establishing his hometown was somehow pivotal to the anecdote, rather than a side-note. Anna had never known a family like this; actually Ann Finnerty had never really known much of a family at all. And it had sucked her in, it was like a drug – the warmth, the acceptance, the hugs from his mom. She was expected to be a loving girlfriend to the besotted Dan, because in his world everyone was loving and sweet to one another, and before she properly realised what she was doing, she found herself sitting through football games and making fruit pies. Her ability to act - and to Google - had never been put to the test as vigorously as they were in her time with Dan: she learned overnight the rules of football. She watched YouTube videos to learn how to make an apple pie, a peach cobbler. She turned herself into the kind of girlfriend Dan wanted, the kind of girlfriend his family expected: sweet little Annika, a little ray of sunshine. Farewell Anna Quinn, contract killer.
Dan stirred in his sleep, kicking the comforter off. Solicitously, she pulled it back up. Anna glanced over at her watch on the bedside table. Since she'd left the business, she'd gotten back into the habit of taking her watch off at night. When you were working, you never took your watch off because you mightn't have time to put it back on. Just thinking about it, she reached over and strapped the worn leather around her wrist.
And that's when she heard it, the sound. She sat up in bed, straining her ears. With Dan gently snoring beside her, she slid out of the bed and pressed to the wall so the floorboards wouldn't creak, she slipped out of the room.
There it was again. It was coming from the kitchen. It could be a mouse, she thought. Or a... or a... Another little creak.
Shitshitshitshitshit, she thought. She didn't have a gun. There was nothing in the hall that she could use as a weapon, except a battered umbrella, which she was afraid to pick up in case its rustling would alert the person in the kitchen to her presence. She crept to the door. It was open a crack, a centimetre or two. Anna pressed her eye against it and saw a figure in the kitchen. Small, probably a woman.
As she watched, the woman turned and she almost shrank back, then she saw that the other woman was illuminated by the light of her phone. She was smiling as she flipped her finger against the screen, scrolling rapidly up. Anna pushed the door open and hit the light switch.
"Are you fucking serious?" she snapped, her voice a low snarl.
The other woman scrambled to put her phone on the counter and pull out her gun.
"Are you fucking serious?" Anna repeated. "What the fuck? Are you Facebooking on a job? Sending fucking text messages? Don't tell me you're supposed to be fucking Agency-trained?"
The woman was young, in her early twenties. As young as I was when I started, Anna thought. It's probably one of her first jobs.
She was black, a little bit heavy-set, muscular. She looked familiar and it took Anna a couple of minutes to remember who she reminded her of.
"So - are you Agency-trained? What's your name?" Anna repeated in her best teacher voice: sharp, no-nonsense. It seemed to do the trick, rattling the girl back to her senses.
"I'm Kenya Washington," she said a touch cheekily. "Not that that matters. And yes, I am Agency-trained," and she swept a hand downwards to indicate her clothing. Black pants, black top, smart black blazer. The unofficial Agency uniform.
"You related to Kesha Washington?" Anna asked through narrowed eyes.
"Yeah, I am," the woman said. "I'm her niece, Kenya. You trained with her, right?"
Anna moved slowly into the kitchen, deliberately not going near the knife block by the sink. She watched Kenya's eyes flicker towards the knives and back to her.
"You should know you never take your phone out on the job," Anna continued in the same stern tone. "Until the job is finished. You never get distracted on the job, you never take your eyes off the target."
"Yes, ma'am," Kenya answered sarcastically. "Now the lesson is over, it's time for me to finish the job so I can get back to my WhatsApp. That's what people are using nowadays," she added sarcastically. "Facebook is so yesterday, bitch."
Anna inched along the countertop. Kenya's gun followed her.
"Where's your silencer?" she asked. "You forgot the silencer, bitch."
Kenya looked at her gun and up at Anna, who didn't pause: "You are so dumb, woman. How did you pass training? What are you going to do? Shoot me? You'll wake everyone in the house. And what will you do then? Shoot them all? Who's going to clean up? You think you can get a reservation for dinner in the Seattle suburbs?"
Anna watched the young woman mentally flick through her options.
"I'm gonna shoot you and get out of here," Kenya said sullenly. "So shut your piehole."
"Yeah," Anna said. "Good luck with that. You're not wearing gloves, you dumbass. Your prints are everywhere."
Anna saw a thin sheen of sweat on Kenya's forehead. Her hands were no longer that steady on the holster. Seriously, she thought, had standards slipped so much since she finished her training?
"Who sent you?" Anna demanded.
Kenya sneered, her mouth twisting into a thin smile as she realised the trump card she held.
"Your boyfrien', that's who. That's right, bitch, I got sent here by no other than John Wick."
Anna felt a sensation like a blow to her ribcage. Temporarily winded, she looked at the other woman, who sensed she'd once again regained the upper hand. Kenya cocked the gun with more than a trace of arrogance.
"Liar," Anna hissed.
"You wanna see the contract?" Kenya said. "I was just goin' to come in and kill you quietly, girl, but you are such a bitch, I think you deserve to die knowing your precious John Wick wants you dead."
Wordlessly, she picked up her phone and, watching Anna with one eye, scrolled till she found what she wanted and tapped the screen. "Look at that, if you please."
She slid the phone over the kitchen island.
Anna picked it up and looked at the PDF on the screen. It was a copy of a telefax – the Agency still used fax machines, for crying out loud.
Status: Closed contract, she read. Agent: Washington, Kenya. Subject: Quinn, Anna. Denomination: $150,000.
I've gone down in value, Anna thought wryly. I used to be worth more than a million.
Aloud she said, "Nothing here that indicates John Wick has anything to do with it."
Kenya rolled her eyes. "Scroll down, bitch," she said in a tone of weary exasperation.
Anna scrolled down.
Assigner: Wick, John.
She scrolled to the bottom of the fax, looking for his ID, the number only he could use.
001-01 – USA, New York, she translated in her head. 333 – payment in advance. 145 – closed contract. And then her heart caught as she read the final digits in the list of numbers at the bottom of the page:
130-91, his agent number. Hers was 130-97. Five others graduated before her, those five were now all dead.
Anna slowly placed the phone on the island and gave it a little push. The other woman watched her as she leaned on the island, her two hands gripping the sides as though to steady herself, her head bowed. Kenya stretched out a hand to take back her phone.
"You gonna come outside with me," she said and "I'm gonna – "
Suddenly Anna looked up, her eyes dark with fury. She thrust a hand under the kitchen island and extracted a heavy metal hammer. Before Kenya could react, Anna whacked the meat tenderizer off her fingers, breaking the screen of her phone and smashing the bones with a sickening crack. Kenya shrieked, dropping her gun to nurse her fingers. Anna snatched it up and aimed it at the other woman.
"You have about two minutes to get out of here before this kitchen is full of people," she said. "Go, now. And you tell John Fucking Wick that he'd better crawl back into that hole he's been hiding in because Anna Quinn is coming to kick his ass."
Nursing her fingers, tears streaming down her face, Kenya slipped out the back door, even as Anna heard Dan's heavy footsteps on the stairs.
She shoved the phone and the gun in the bread bin and quickly picked up the heavy metal hammer.
"Annika!" Dan shouted from the hallway. "You all right?"
She winced as she prepared to do what she had to do.
"Fine!" she called brightly. "Just brushed against the meat tenderizer-thingie in the darkness and it fell on my toes."
She dropped it and swore silently as it bounced off her foot. When Dan opened the door, she was gripping her toes, her face blanched in pain. That it hurt like hell was the only thing she didn't have to lie about that night.