Paul Elliot opened the door to the conference room and bobbed his head for me to enter. A young man, blond and very pale, sat at the head of the table, scrutinizing me over steepled fingers. He was in a fashionably conservative black suit, his youth an odd contrast with the professional attire. He didn't stand or offer to shake my hand.
Paul turned to him deferentially. "This is the candidate we were discussing, Mr. Jasper."
Wordlessly, the stranger gestured for us to sit. His startlingly light-brown eyes watched my every move as I crossed the room. I pulled out a chair beside Paul, putting him between me and the mysterious Mr. Jasper.
As a lawyer, I had a sense about authority. Knowing the style an individual judge used to rule his courtroom was an important element of presenting a case. This Mr. Jasper had the air of someone who was supremely confident. In a judge, I would consider it overconfidence. Here, with Paul's reaction to him, I guessed the confidence was well-founded. Mr. Jasper knew this room belonged to him, and he knew exactly how to work the situation to achieve his ends.
"Mr. Jasper represents a family I've been pleased to work with for more than a decade now," Paul began, "and you have been discreet in some of my lesser unofficial concerns."
Kubarev was a lesser concern? Because of that case, I had to fake my own death. Mr. Jasper was bigger than him?!
"Mr. Jasper and his family members require the utmost skill and wisdom of their business associates. Because he is a priority client, he has requested to meet with you before I offer you a partnership in my practice. I trust his judgment and welcome his opinion on the matter."
Partnership. The thought should have been thrilling. Had anyone else been sitting at the head of the table, it would have been. But with Mr. Jasper's almost cat-yellow eyes pinning me to my seat, I was more stunned than thrilled. Paul wasn't the one calling the shots. If I became his partner, Mr. Jasper would own me. I could feel it, the cold knowledge creeping into my bones. All the money, afll the pleasure of outwitting the opposition so thoroughly that they didn't even realize they'd been duped, it would be mine only if Mr. Jasper permitted it.
What the hell was Paul getting me into?
"I've seen your résumé, and it's rather impressive." Mr. Jasper's voice was low but almost... melodious. He'd be a musician. I'd bet money on it.
"Academic accolades," he continued, "several significant cases won, arguments and personal conduct that display alacrity and wit." He sat up straighter, his eyes narrowing slightly. "Useless, really, when you get right down to it. Character is what matters – to me and to mine. Tell me, would you kill to protect a client's secrets?"
I floundered. What kind of interview question was that? He meant it seriously, though. I realized my mouth was hanging open, and I straightened my spine. "I cannot imagine myself ever being in such a situation. I would hope that I would never be so stupid as to find myself needing to take lethal action. I cannot tell you for certain that I would."
Mr. Jasper nodded, his lips turning up slightly with approval. He paused, his lion-eyes searching mine, and asked, "Would you die to protect a client's secrets?"
"For the right client," I blurted out, "I would."
His expression was stone still. "Who would be the right client?"
I flushed but answered truthfully. "The one who would make my death much slower and more painful than the man standing in front of me at the time."
Mr. Jasper barked out a laugh, and it seemed like the air itself sparkled. Or maybe it was just my relief. His wide smile, however, made him look positively leonine. Hungrily leonine. "We understand one another, then."
"I believe so, Mr. Jasper."
"Excellent!" He turned the disturbing smile on Paul. "He's your man."
He rose then and extended his hand. I accepted it numbly, and his touch was as cold as death.