The Perfect Answer
She didn’t want to open her eyes and extinguish it.
It took Madeline only moments to realize she wasn’t in her own bed. The plush pillow-top cradled her body, and its king size allowing her to sprawl out endlessly compared to the small twin bed she was used to at home. Soft sheets draped between her and the thick, but lightweight, duvet. Truth be told, she felt like a child who’d been tucked into bed, back in the days when everything was right with the world.
But that wasn’t reality.
Body bolting upright, her eyes adjusted to the light and she began to take in her surroundings. At first, she couldn’t tell if it was a bedroom or a hotel room, everything was all so clean, and the decor was perfectly coordinated in a warm palette of wood browns and wine reds. She glanced at the door. It was a simple, white wooden door with a conventional brushed nickel interior knob. Definitely a bedroom door. The soft light filtering in through the gauzy beige curtain announced it was daytime, perhaps midday.
Startled by the sudden noise, Madeline yanked the covers up to her neck with both hands. It was at that point she realized she was naked under the sheets.
Gone was the dirt and grease from the floor of the shipping container, and her whole body smelled of floral soap. Her long, paprika-red hair had been carefully brushed, and there were even a few meticulously placed band-aids on her sore feet.
Did he do this?
She began to feel very violated, and very angry. Cheeks burning red, she wondered how she’d managed to remain unconscious throughout the whole thing, blaming it on her exhaustion. What kind of a man does something like that?
Instinctively, she reached up and wrapped her fingers around the oval pendant that hung from a silver chain around her neck. Given to her by her late grandmother, it used to belong to her mother. Madeline didn’t remember too much about her mother, who passed away when she was only four years old, but the pendant was her only memento. It was a harlequin black opal, and she only took it off to shower. She let out a sigh of relief. She would have been devastated had it gone missing. After a few moments of silent reflection, Madeline drew the courage to find out if she was alone or not.
“Hello..?” Madeline called out timidly.
The only response was the purring of the cat curled up next to her, and the sound of a shower running in the distance.
“Hello…?!” She repeated, this time a bit louder and more confident.
The cat stood, its paws sinking into the duvet, and leaned its body against her waist, eyes closed as it pushed its head demandingly against her to be stroked.
“You’re a friendly one,” she responded, raking her fingertips through the soft, black fur.
Suddenly, Madeline’s stomach growled. So hungry. She glanced around the room again and noticed a simple, yet pretty, floral-patterned sundress draped over a clothes valet in the corner near the window.
From her apartment.
Apprehensively at first, she slipped off the king-size bed and then rushed towards the dress. Folded neatly underneath it were a bra and panties. Also taken from her apartment.
She wasn’t sure whether or not she should be grateful or furious at this point.
Getting dressed as quickly as possible, she walked to the bedroom door and placed her ear against it. The carpet was fluffy and thick, but even that didn’t ease the tenderness of her feet as she stood silently. Listening, she could still only hear the sound of running water. Hand lightly on the doorknob, she looked down at the cat who was now seated on the floor to her left, flicking its tail and looking up at her as if she was crazy. Holding her breath, she cautiously turned the knob and opened the door toward her. Outside the bedroom, as to be expected, was a hallway. With every mindful step she took forward, she could feel the dull pain on the bottoms of her feet. Between the floor of the shipping container, and running over who knows what on the asphalt last night, she couldn’t say she was surprised.
The black cat darted past her down the hallway, taking a sharp right. Following it, Madeline ended up in the kitchen.
It was modern and spotless, with lavish oak cabinets and stainless steel appliances. The hardwood floor further reminded Madeline of her aching feet, but she bared with it and pressed on. It felt a bit intrusive opening the refrigerator to look for something to eat, but she was starving. Besides, whoever lived here must realize she would be famished. To her surprise, she found the refrigerator just about barren. There was a half a dozen eggs, a carton of orange juice, some ham, and a quart of half-and-half. Going through the cabinets and drawers, she found those pretty much empty as well. Luckily, she found some white dinnerware, a trio of glasses, a skillet, and some flatware. She managed to crack a few eggs into the skillet and cooked them along with some of ham she diced up.
She was so focused on frying, stirring, and the delicious aroma rising from the pan, that she didn’t notice the figure that had sat himself down casually atop the onyx countertop at the other end of the kitchen.
“You cook? Nice.”
She nearly knocked the pan off the stovetop with her startled convulsion.
The man who had rescued her last night sat with one leg propped up on the counter as he leaned against the backsplash, sipping from a nearly empty bottled water. He was wearing grey sweatpants and a white sleeveless t-shirt, and his black hair was still wet from being freshly shampooed. Madeline was surprised that his eyes were still the same shade of green as the night before. As odd as it seemed, perhaps they weren’t contact lenses after all. He appeared to be in his late 20’s, although there was something sitting on the counter that made him less mature.
“I’m sorry,” she managed to form the words after gathering her composure, “I'm famished. I didn’t mean to…”
“Don’t worry about it. I’m sure you weren't fed well,” he said taking a final gulp from the plastic bottle. “And you’ve been out for almost two days.”
Two days? She thought it was just last night. Which meant that over the past week or so she’d been given maybe a dozen cold cheeseburgers? And some of those had been partially eaten.
She looked down at the pan once more, making a few final stirs before guiding it out onto the plate she had set on the counter next to the stove. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see him hop off the countertop, toss the empty bottle into a recycling bin in the corner, and then slink over to the drawer right next to her. He had this very fluid way of moving that was both agile and a touch feminine. Her heart began pounding as he pulled the drawer open and took out a couple of forks. Handing one to her, he helped himself to a few bites of what she had just prepared.
“You’re pretty good at whipping up stuff up, huh?” He asked after savoring the warm flavor of the eggs.
“You don’t cook?” Madeline responded, trying to make conversation to steady her nerves.
“Not at all.”
“But you have food in the fridge. Things that can spoil.”
“Sometimes I have guests over,” he said, lowering his voice seductively, “They cook.”
She began to tremble and found herself suddenly backing away. She knew she was still emotionally fragile from her captivity, and this was...
A deep chuckle rumbled in his throat.
“Sorry, I’ve started this off all wrong, haven’t I?” He apologized with a disarming smile as he set his fork down on the counter and offered a simple bow. “My name is Leviticus, but you can call me Levi. I was generously hired to rescue you, Miss Madeline McCaffrey, from those fae.”
“Fae?” She asked, narrowing her eyes suspiciously. He couldn’t be serious. “As in fairies?”
“Exactly that,” he replied, measuring her reaction. “Surely you noticed they couldn’t have possibly been normal people?”
She nodded slowly. So that confirmed it. It wasn’t hallucinogens or anything of that nature. What she saw was real.
He took a step forward, putting himself back into her immediate proximity, and brushed his fingertips through her long red hair as if assessing it. “Normally I don’t retrieve living things, but in this case, I’ve made an exception.”
He could feel her pulse quicken at his unwanted contact, but it was not wholly driven by fear. There was a considerable amount of desire interwoven with it, and he was quite surprised at its richness, despite the fact she was fighting to hold it back. It was like a dense, nectarous syrup, and he could only imagine how satisfying it would be at full fruition.
Madeline backed away even further this time, feeling her hair tug from his grasp. He was too close. Who was this person and why was he so forward? She took another small step backward, stuttering through her next sentence.
“Did you..? When I was asleep, did you…?”
“Do anything inappropriate?” He responded calmly, finishing her sentence and letting his hand fall to rest casually on his hip. “No. I sponged the dirt off of you, took care of your cuts, and brushed out the knots in your hair. Couldn’t have you getting my guest bed all filthy. I also managed to bring over some of your things from your apartment, so you’d feel more at home.”
She exhaled softly, relieved.
“It takes a lot more than handling an unconscious, nude human body to get me excited.”
The last remark did not go over well. He watched Madeline’s expression sour, returning it with the same amused smirk he had given her at the warehouse.
Before responding to him with a smart-ass comment of her own, she reminded herself once again that she was still mentally and physically exhausted. She had just been told fairies were real, and there was still psychological damage undoubtedly making her vulnerable right now, as well as keeping her from thinking clearly.
“So you… you retrieve things?” she said, desperately trying to change the subject.
He walked over to one of the sleek, stainless steel canisters which sat on the counter and popped it open. The aroma of roasted coffee beans drifted through the kitchen.
“Yes, and there are some things I need to explain to you, so do you mind if I make us some coffee? I know it’s the middle of the day and all, but I can’t seem to have scrambled eggs without having coffee.”
“Sure,” Madeline replied. To be honest, coffee sounded perfect at the moment.
He scooped the roasted beans directly into the grinder on the coffee maker, pressed a few buttons, and the small appliance whirred into action. Taking her lightly by the elbow, he guided her out of the kitchen in the direction opposite from which she entered, past the living room and out a sliding glass door to a balcony. It was a high-rise residential building in the city, and from her best guess, they were about six floors up.
“We’re seven floors up,” Levi replied. “I could see you mentally counting them.”
Fearlessly, he leaned back against the railing and noticed her apprehension.
“Are you afraid of heights?” he asked her curiously, tilting his head a bit to the side.
“Nope, just gravity” she replied.
Her response brought a bright, gorgeous smile to his face.
“Well, have a seat,” he grinned, motioning with a sweep of his hand to a small teakwood cafe table and matching chairs. “I’ll go get us that coffee.”
He went back inside through the open glass door leaving Madeline alone on the balcony. As she took a seat at the table, she gazed out at the city below and wondered just how many people out there were not what they appeared to be. And of those, how many have hurt people? How many had killed? How much of it was hidden, and for how long? Within a few minutes, Leviticus returned with two cups of hot coffee and the rest of the plated breakfast she had made. Cupping the warm mug in both hands, she took one sip. It was delicious. She could tell it had something to do with the chocolate. It didn’t taste like the typical chocolate syrup used at all the corner coffee shops. It was smoother and more decadent.
“This is really good.”
Did she actually see a blush there for a moment on his cheeks?
He raised a hand to the back of his head and ruffled his hair. “Thanks.”
Taking a deep breath, he weighed in his mind just how much to divulge. He had specific instructions on what to tell her but knew that if she was the curious type, she wouldn't be satisfied with just that.
“As I was saying earlier,” he began, “I was hired to get you to safety. But before you ask, I can’t tell you by whom. It was part of the agreement, and I don’t break contracts. I retrieve property and return it to its rightful owner, working through a broker. If whoever hires me wants me to know who they are, I’m told through the broker. If not, I get the details of the job and make my own choice whether to accept it or not. I take on other types of jobs as well, as long as they don’t conflict with my personal interests, and I rarely, RARELY, work for humans.”
“I take it you’re not human then?”
“No. I’m not.”
She suspected as much. A typical guy off the street wouldn't have been able to give modern-day fae such an ass-kicking. She was tempted to ask him what he was but figured that might be an insulting question to ask, especially of someone she hardly knew.
“So if you can’t tell me who hired you, can you tell me why I was taken in the first place? I keep going over it in my head, and I can’t think of one single thing that would make me important enough to kidnap.”
“Well, you’re definitely important enough to somebody that was affluent enough to hire me,” Leviticus responded casually. “I was told to get you to safety and make sure you had that necklace on you. I can tell you that if they went to the trouble of hiring me, this is probably just the beginning of your problems.”
“Great” she grumbled, removing one of her hands from the mug of coffee and absentmindedly reaching up to touch her pendant. Rolling it in her fingers, it glittered like a kaleidoscope in the afternoon sunlight.
“Those were my explicit instructions. Anything I should know about the necklace?”
“It was my mom’s,” her voice became solemn, “She passed away when I was four.”
“It’s okay,” she replied, looking down at the mug of coffee.
She thought back to her mother. She remembered her long red hair and her bright smile, but little else. At times she wondered if those were actually her own memories or those from a photograph she had. She did remember bits and pieces of the afternoon grandma came to pick her up from daycare instead of mom. This lady she had never met before drove her to a small house that seemed so far away at the time. All her toys were already there, and she was told something awful - mom wasn’t coming home again. Something bad had happened. All Madeline had left were family pictures of mom and a necklace. Grandma had told her that her mother would have wanted her to have it and that it would bring her close to mom’s spirit when she wore it. It was a gorgeous, sparkling opal, and Madeline would stare at it for hours as a child, watching the light dance off the rainbow of colors set in the black stone. She had hardly removed it since.
Growing up with grandma had been wonderful. She was kind, helped Madeline through school, taught her to cook and to appreciate music. She also taught Madeline how to be independent and the importance of being strong, both in mind and body. She was a bit eccentric, talking to herself from time to time, or acting like she was talking to a grandpa Madeline never knew, but never anything that made Madeline feel uncomfortable. Then about five years ago, grandma passed away too. Madeline was able to sell her house for enough to pay off the rest of the mortgage and had enough money left over to get herself into an apartment.
Levi had done his own research into her family background before accepting the job to rescue her. He didn’t ask Madeline about her dad because there wasn’t a father listed on the birth certificate. Her mom, Elizabeth McCaffery, had been a single mother. The rest of the story pretty much went as Madeline told it. After her mother’s death, her grandmother, Dorothy McCaffery, was granted full custody and raised her granddaughter on her modest pension. Her grandfather, Albert McCaffery, had passed on some twenty years earlier. Levi had searched even deeper into Madeline’s family background hoping to find something that would directly, or indirectly, tie her to the fae, but came up empty. For all intensive purposes, she was a normal, lower-class human girl. However, it was very possible someone had covered up her or her family’s tracks. There had to be something, he just hadn’t found it yet, and that intrigued him. No simple, lower-class human was worth that much money.
“I guess you can say the necklace is important to me, but I can’t imagine why it would be important to anyone else unless they wanted to sell it.”
Reflecting back on the night she was kidnapped, she remembered how they shoved her down on her bed when she tried to run out of the room. When they grabbed at her necklace, she thought they were going to rape her. A paralyzing chill ran down her spine as she dwelled on that single moment.
“They only tried to take it off me once, now that I think about it,” she said, her voice a bit shaky from memory, “When they first broke into my apartment. Then they started to go through my jewelry box. Maybe it’s not this necklace they were looking for. Do you think they will try again?”
“Probably. Without knowing why they were so interested in the first place, I can’t even guess if it will be the fae that comes back looking or others.”
“Vampires, shapeshifters, phantoms... basically if you’ve heard of some sort of monster, they exist in one form or another. Myths always have a basis in truth.”
He could tell she was considering all the possible fiction vs. reality situations deeply now, as her gaze was a dozen fables away, and rightfully shaken. His voice softened, hoping to cushion the blow of the reality she was going to have to deal with from this point forward.
“Think of it this way - most of the world is dead to what’s going on, draped in blindness, like there's a shroud of gossamer keeping them from seeing what's really there. Everyday things reinforce that blindness. Take the news for example. Or social media. All the trending stories are just distractions. They keep the public fighting and arguing differences of opinions, and redirect any focus from things that are actually important. And the few people who rip away the gossamer, be it by chance or by choice, realize that to survive they have to support the deceit and the distractions. If they don't... well, you know what happens to people spouting nonsense about monsters and conspiracies...”
He leaned forward, green eyes locked curiously on the pendant.
“May I?” he asked politely.
Madeline nodded and set her coffee mug down on the polished, wooden table.
He took a seat, dragging it right up to Madeline. He was so close she could once again smell the exotic, woodsy scent she first encountered the night she clung to his back on the motorcycle. Carefully, with his index finger and thumb, he lifted the pendant so expertly off her skin that she didn’t even feel his touch. He stared at it intensely and rubbed it between his fingers to catch the light at different angles, completely ignoring the increased rate of Madeline’s heartbeat. It warmed to the friction of his touch, which he expected, but he couldn’t detect anything unusual about it from this rudimentary inspection. It appeared to be a genuine black opal, with a multi-colored, diamond pattern blazing with depth and clarity. It had none of the characteristics he was specifically looking for, which would have flagged it as something more than just a precious stone. He could mess with it further, but that would require her to remove it and give it to him for a bit of undisturbed study, which he wasn’t in much of a mood to do.
“Sorry, but I don’t see anything other than a fine quality black opal.”
He let it slip from his fingers and fall back against her skin a few inches under the base of her throat. It felt very warm when it landed, but it soon cooled back down to her own body temperature to the point that she could no longer feel its presence.
“Do you remember anything else while they had you?” Levi continued. “Anything they might have said, or anyone that came to see them?”
Levi already knew they were petty thugs as far as fae went, so it was obvious they were working for someone higher up on the food chain.
Madeline thought earnestly, trying to remember their conversations. They talked about beer, and they argued over their card game and if someone had been cheating. And then there was that one phone call.
“They did take a few phone calls while I was there. That one guy did. The one I strangled,” she said, smiling briefly in between bites of egg. “I think it was the second day I was there. He made a call to someone and then told the other guys that there was going to be a delay because something happened in court. Maybe someone got arrested or something?”
Levi knew what that meant. Whoever arranged her kidnapping couldn’t move her because of some unexpected activities in the fae court, which confirmed the person behind this was probably an actual courtier. Beneficial to them was the fact that it was against court policy to kidnap humans, so whoever was behind this was going to lay low for a while.
Picking up the coffee cup once again, Madeline took a couple more sips, trying to appear calm on the outside even though she felt she was shaking to pieces on the inside. There was a gentle, late afternoon breeze reminding her how good it felt to be free from her captives, but was her future going to be spent running? And how long could she run? Realistically? If Leviticus hadn’t been there to save her, it’s possible she could be dead right now. She was positively no match for fighting off something like the fae if they wanted to outright kill her. Sensing her troubled mind, Levi rose from his chair and walked around to where she sat. Placing his hands lightly on her shoulders from behind, he tried to reassure her.
“Not all the monsters are bad,” he said calmly. “For instance, not all fae are like the ones that kidnapped you. Just like with humans, there are the good and the evil. And someone cared enough to hire me to rescue you. That in itself is a sign that you are not as alone and defenseless as you feel right now.”
His hands felt warm and relaxing, and despite the path that lay before her now, she felt a little better about it. Then again, she didn’t know if she was trusting of him because she was still in a fragile state of mind, or if he really was a kind person.
“What do I do now? I am afraid of going back to my apartment. They know I live there, so it would be stupid of me to go back. I have to disappear, don’t I?”
She sounded so sad, and yet so resolved in her decision that Levi wasn’t sure how to respond. She definitely couldn’t go back. It would be too dangerous for her.
“Normally, I would have been sent a drop-off location for the objective,” Levi began, “Which is you, in this case. The odd thing is, I haven’t heard a peep from my broker in nearly two days, and that’s unusual.”
The last communication with his broker, Syriem, was the night he brought Madeline to his condo. He figured once she was safe, he would get instructions on what to do with her, who to take her to, etc. But there had been no response. That made things troublesome. He couldn’t just kick her out.
Stepping away from her, he slowly walked over to the balcony railing and looked out over the city. The caliber of her desire, which was well above her species’ average grade, would be an asset to keep close by. It would be like having his own rechargeable battery if he played his cards right. Not knowing why her emotions were so potent both bothered and fascinated him, and he’d never had a live-in pet before. It might work out, and it might not. Either way, it would only be for as long as it took for the client to claim her.
“We can head over to your apartment tomorrow and start the process of getting you off the grid. You can store your stuff here for now,” he said still overlooking the city, with his back to her.
“I don’t have my keys though,” she replied, “But I can call the leasing office and have them let us in.”
“That’s not going to be necessary,” Levi replied, turning around to face her. “We need the whole process to appear so normal that it’s boring, so we don’t even want your leasing office to know anything other than you’re moving out. Getting into your locked apartment is going to be the easiest part.”
Madeline’s blue eyes widened as she put two and two together.
“So that’s what you meant by retrieving stuff,” she realized. “You’re a thief.”
“Don’t make it sound so degrading,” he responded, put off by what the word implied. “There are a lot of precious things that get stolen from good people. And more often than not, those good people don’t have any way to get things back on their own without risking their lives. I steal from the greedy and manipulative and return the items to their rightful owners. I don’t steal to fence stuff. Unless someone pisses me off.”
Guilt spread across Madeline’s face.
“I’m sorry, that was rude of me,” she apologized, looking away. “I didn’t realize.” She paused a moment in thought as she took another long sip of the rich coffee he had made. “That does sound like a rewarding way to live though,” she continued rather quietly. “To be able to give people back what they had stolen from them. To give them back hope. I bet you make a lot of people extremely happy.”
“The people I steal from aren’t too happy about it.”
“But you can take care of yourself. The way you fought was amazing.”
“It’s rarely that heroic.”
Madeline gnawed her lower lip, apprehensive about what she was about to ask next.
“Could you teach me how to fight? I’m not expecting to be able to be anywhere near as good as you, but I have taken some karate classes, so I know some basics at least, and I’ve been told I’m very good at it. It will increase my chances of survival.” Madeline began to raise her voice nervously. “And in return, I’ll owe you a bunch of favors… I don’t know… maybe help with trivial jobs or be a lookout or something? Please… at least it will give me a better chance to live through this.”
There was a very long pause as Levi considered it. In fact, he was surprised at himself for actually even thinking about it at all. He’d never taught anything to anyone before, let alone a human. Still, she was impressive in the warehouse. She didn’t hesitate for a second when it came time to try to get herself out of that cage, even though it meant exposing herself. And she handled the fae pretty fearlessly given the fact she had just found out that whole world even existed. She definitely wasn’t timid, and it might be amusing. To see how far he could push her. To see at what point she would break. He was quite sure she would get discouraged after a few weeks or so and that would be that. Not to mention she was a pretty little thing he would get to play with.
“Sure. Why not,” he replied. “It isn’t going to be easy though. And you will owe me many favors.”
She brightened up. At least she had something to focus on besides the possible dangers she faced.
“You can continue to stay here for now in the guest bedroom,” he began. “Not sure if you noticed, but it has its own full bath. And for the time being, I don’t want you going out on your own. The reason I mention that is because there will be times I am gone, often for weeks at a time, so I wouldn’t be around to keep an eye on you. Let’s go back inside.”
As Madeline stood with her coffee cup in hand, Levi grabbed his and the empty plate and stepped through the opened sliding glass door. Motioning for her to have a seat on the couch, he walked into the kitchen to put the tableware in the sink before walking back out to the living room to close the sliding door to the balcony. As he took a seat in the adjacent armchair and propped his bare feet up on the oak coffee table, she couldn’t help but feel his proximity within the walls of the apartment. She internally scolded herself for checking him out at a time like this. Before meeting her gaze, he smiled as if he knew what she was thinking.
“I will try to focus my work around this location, so I will be here more often than usual. I’ll leave you some numbers you can call if you need groceries delivered, or something needs to be fixed in the condo while I am out. I’ll cover all costs upfront, so you don’t need to worry about money, but I do expect you to cook for me when I am here.”
“When I’m here, we’ll be training. When I’m not here, you’ll be studying languages and cultures. The first language you are going to learn is Japanese because it’s my native language. I’ll make some calls to prepare us for tomorrow, and we’ll need to go over the details and develop a scenario.”
Suddenly, the cell phone that had been sitting on the coffee table began to ring. Levi could feel Madeline's gaze on his body as he looked down at it and even allowed himself a bite of her desire.
“Moshi moshi,” Levi said as he picked up the phone. “Well for the moment, I have her staying here since I don’t have any further instructions. Uh huh. Is that so? It would have been nice to know that going into this one. I guess that all works out in the end since I agreed to take her in…”
There was some scolding from the other end of the call, along with something that sounded like a stern warning.
Levi just chuckled.
“You don’t like the idea of me having an assistant? Don’t get all worked up about it. I think she’ll probably give up early into the process. Or she’ll sleep with me and get her heart broken…”
Madeline’s eyes flared.
There was a very threatening tone on the other end of the line this time. One that cut Levi out of his joking spirit immediately. All pleasantries left his face, and his voice was now cold and sharp.
“And why not?”
He listened patiently to the poor lack-of-a-good-excuse but was clearly not a fan of being told what he could and couldn’t do.
“If she’s that important to the client, then they need to take responsibility for her. As long as she’s with me, I’m doing things my way. I am not making any promises about anything. Do I make myself clear?”
Intimidated, the voice on the other end was quieter.
“Yeah, you tell them that.”
With a tap to his screen, Levi ended the call and slid his phone back across the table, obviously irritated by the conversation.
Madeline sat in shocked silence. Did he just say he expected her to either sleep with him or just give up? Unbelievable! Feeling the sting of anger, she clenched her fists and blurted out a much-censored version of what she was really thinking.
She picked up the nearest thing she could get her hands on, which thankfully was not the coffee mug, and hurled a throw pillow as hard as she could towards Levi’s head. He could have easily caught it but instead chose to let it hit him square in the face so she could feel satisfied. She then stormed off into the room he gave her, not seeing the way he smiled at her from behind.
That fire, he thought, You need to hold onto that.
He got up slowly, realizing he was going to have to make an attempt at apologizing now. He ruffled the hair on the back of his head as he thought about what he was going to say. Walking towards the guest room, he was surprised that she hadn’t slammed the door shut, so he stood in the doorway, leaning against the frame.
“Sorry,” he smiled arrogantly, “I had to say those things. My broker was getting on my ass.”
Madeline sat on her bed, arms crossed, looking unimpressed at his excuse.
“It seems that whoever hired me decided I'm supposed to keep tabs on you now. They have indicated that they won’t be making any contact with you at this time. Which is bullshit in my opinion.”
“Why would they send someone to rescue me and then not even let me know why?!” Madeline rose from the bed, throwing her hands up in the air, frustrated. “That IS bullshit!”
Levi felt relieved that the other part of the conversation might have blown over quicker than he expected.
“But I am still mad about what you said,” she said as she walked up to him, glaring.
Okay, maybe not, he thought.
“I am NOT going to give up. I PROMISE you that.”
“So you’ll sleep with me then?” he asked with a playful grin.
It was too easy. Levi couldn’t help himself.
She stopped right in front of him so that she was inches from his body. Looking up into his green eyes, she spoke clearly and confidently.
“You’ll be begging me.”
For a moment Levi was speechless. He definitely wasn’t prepared for that kind of a response. And Madeline found that her actions had deflated her anger, and with it, her resolution.
Sometimes she hated her fiery, strong will.
This was one of those times.
For a few seconds, the two of them stood in uncomfortable silence.
Then the door buzzer rang.
Neither of them budged or broke eye contact.
It rang a second time.
“I need to get that,” Levi said matter-of-factly. “I made a dinner order earlier in the day.”
Madeline nodded in acceptance, and they both stepped apart at the same time. As she watched him walk down the hall, she couldn’t bring herself to follow him right away. Feeling embarrassed and awkward, she wanted to go hide somewhere. In the distance, she could hear a door opening and a muffled conversation. After the door closed, there was a rustling of paper and the scent of Chinese food drifted toward her room.
“You want to eat now, or can I show you the rest of the place first?” Levi yelled from the kitchen.
Madeline stepped out from her room, thankful their conversation was traveling in an entirely different direction now.
“I guess I could put off eating for a bit,” she responded entering the kitchen just as Levi set the paper bag on the counter. “I didn’t realize there was more to see, but is that food going to be safe out on the counter with your cat around?”
“My cat?” Levi responded a bit puzzled.
“Oh, you mean the cat that was in here earlier,” Levi continued. “It went out the door when the food came.”
Shouldn’t they go looking for it?
Seeing her reaction, Levi laughed.
“It’s fine. The cat lives on this floor and knows his way around.”
As he spoke, Levi headed towards a door that Madeline thought might be a pantry.
She was not prepared for what was on the other side.
Instead of a simple two bedroom apartment, Levi’s place was a loft apartment. Behind the door from the kitchen was a large open space with hardwood floors and minimal natural window lighting. There was a multi-station gym, some balance beams, a punching bag, rock climbing wall, and a Wing Chun wooden practice dummy. At the end of the room was a freight elevator, and parked next to that was the motorcycle they had ridden in on the other night.
“This is where we’ll be training,” Levi stated. “You’ll need to raise your stamina, dexterity, and bring your self-defense skills up a lot. I’m not going to be training you in a traditional program, because there are specific ways you need to fight specific attackers. The whole situation boils down to this… the more of my teaching you can absorb, the more your chances of survival increase.”
Madeline nodded, still trying to take it all in.
“And there will be other types of training as well,” he continued. “I’ll have to teach you to ride, for one. But don’t concern yourself with that right now. First things first, and you’ve already been hit with enough today. How about we eat?”
“Sounds good,” she replied as she followed him out and back into the kitchen.
They took the bags out to the coffee table, and Madeline took a seat on the floor. Levi indicated he was going to make them some tea and disappeared back into the kitchen for a while. Trying to quell her internal thoughts, she began to remove the take-out cartons from the paper bags as casually as if she had been visiting a friend on a Saturday night. Sitting cross-legged, she rested her elbows on the table and cracked a pair of chopsticks apart. She wasn’t sure what he had ordered but could identify one of the cartons as broccoli and beef. The second one was some kind of chicken, and it had a bit of a citrus smell to it.
“Help yourself to whichever,” Levi shouted from the kitchen. “Or if you want, we can eat half and then switch. I don’t really care.”
She decided to play it safe and go with what she was familiar with, the broccoli and beef. After taking a couple of bites in the silence of the living room, she heard Levi coming out of the kitchen with a couple of cups of tea. It was green tea served in two beautiful white and blue traditional teacups, each one covered in kanji. He took a seat across from her, also sitting down cross-legged. It became pretty obvious that he took all his meals here at the coffee table. Clasping his hands together, he bowed his head slightly and gave a low whisper.
From the manner of his gestures, it was clear to Madeline this was something private, and not meant for her to respond to or try to involve herself with. She’d seen Japanese people say the same thing before eating, happily, but had no idea what it meant. However, his expression of it seemed very sad.
“So about tomorrow…,” Levi said raising the chopsticks to his lips and taking a bite of the lemon chicken, “I want you to think of this as your first job. You will be playing a role. How much is left on your lease?”
“About two months,” Madeline replied.
“Here is the plan - We’ll head over in the morning and tidy the place up so it doesn’t look like someone broke in, and get your ID, assuming it’s still there.”
“Keep in mind we’ll need to contact anyone you have an account with. Utility companies, cell phone provider, whatever… so if you need to get account numbers and customer service numbers on that stuff, get it before the movers get there. Then we’ll head to the office to pay off the rest of your lease and arrange for them to do a final walk-through after the movers are done. The story goes, you and I were dating and have gotten serious, so you’re going to move in with me. Your forwarding address will be one of my P.O. boxes. I’ll have the movers scheduled for 10 a.m. We’ll supervise them as they pack and load your stuff onto their truck. After the walk-through is done and signed off on, we’ll follow the movers back here and have them load your stuff onto the service elevator. Then we’ll take it from there.”
He calmly went back to eating, as if he does stuff like this every day, leaving Madeline to go over the plan in her head. Was he able to get movers scheduled on such short notice? That wasn’t normal. After a moment of silence, he looked up at her.
“Don’t worry. I’ll be there with you. You don’t have to remember any of that on your own. I am, however, expecting you to remember the details of our relationship. We’ve been dating for five months and two weeks, your age, only backward. We met in a coffee shop. Barista got our orders mixed up. You’re moving ‘downtown’. And the bonus answer is ‘the rooftop patio at the Hard Rock last night’.”
She was about to ask him how he knew her age, but the bonus thing threw her off.
“The bonus what?” Madeline asked. That made no sense.
“Just remember all that, and play your part,” he said and then paused to take a few more bites. “I assume you’ve dated before?”
Madeline glared in response to Levi's snarky question.
“I guess so,” he grinned. “I just want to make it perfectly clear that you are going to have to act like we’re a couple for this. If you can’t pull that off, you might as well give up now. It doesn’t get any easier than this.”
He was right. They were going to her place, a location she was extremely familiar with, to move her out. And moving in with a new boyfriend was completely believable. And he was easy on the eyes, so it wasn’t like she had to try hard to pretend they were dating. Not to mention she had something to prove to him. That she was serious about the decision she made. That she wasn’t going to give up, or back down, or give in. She was going to handle this, and handle it well.
Suddenly, the doorbell rang.
“Excuse me,” Levi said as he stood and went down the hall, out of sight, to the front door.
She could hear some friendly banter, so being curious, she stood and went to the door as well. Standing just inside the now closed front door was a very tall, elegant man with wavy, short brown hair and a very chiseled jawline. His golden-brown eyes sparkled inquisitively as Madeline approached, and he removed one hand away from the short-haired calico cat he was holding to offer it to her in a greeting. His clothes were nicely tailored and expensive, which was on par with anyone who could afford to live in the same nice building downtown, but he gave off the impression of being a bit too friendly.
“Madeline, this is my neighbor, Caslon,” Levi introduced. “He’s the one with the cat.”
“Oh,” Madeline replied, shaking Caslon’s hand politely. Looking down, she noticed the cat he was holding wasn’t the same one as earlier.
“How many cats do you have?” she asked, letting out a small laugh.
“More than I would like to,” Caslon replied with a French accent and a regretful sort of smile. “Would you like one?”
“Um, no,” she said, taking back her hand, “I’m okay without any pets right now.”
“So, what’s up?” Levi asked, offering him a seat on the couch.
“Oh, nothing. I heard some noise over here and was just making sure it was you, that’s all.” Caslon assessed Madeline with his eyes, all the while scratching the cat behind the ears. “So, new roommate?”
“Something like that,” Levi responded, eyes suddenly narrowing. “She’ll be here for a while and has the run of the place. We are moving her in tomorrow.”
“Wow!” Caslon smiled wide-eyed, a bit surprised by the situation.
“Wow, what?” Levi asked. Caslon was always sniffing around whenever there was a girl over at Levi’s place, hoping for leftovers, but he was even more annoying this time. probably because this girl was moving in, rather than just staying the night.
“So, is this a serious thing then?” He smiled as he prodded.
“No,” Levi responded flatly.
Caslon then began to undress Madeline with his eyes, with an even bigger grin on his lips this time. “So, um, Madeline,” Caslon continued, “If you need anything, just come over. I’m right next door.”
“Elle n’est pas une souris,” Levi interjected before Caslon could pursue with further amorous invitations.
“Seriously?” Caslon pouted. “Okay, whatever. You’re no fun.”
Madeline was pretty sure that was French, but before she could commit it to memory so that she could look it up later on the internet, Caslon took her hand again.
“Well, it was a pleasure meeting you,” he said politely as his thumb lightly caressed her fingers. “I’m sure we’ll see each other around.”
“Just go already,” Levi ordered, crossing his arms.
Caslon smiled once more at Madeline and then left Levi’s apartment gracefully.
“He seems nice, a little too forward though,” Madeline observed out loud. “Is he… ?”
Levi purposely ignored her question and just swaggered back to the coffee table. She thought about apologizing, but then figured it would just bring more attention to the awkwardness of the situation. But she got the point, it was rude to ask what someone was when she barely knew them, and that included Levi.
The rest of the evening went by uneventfully. They made small-talk while finishing up the Chinese delivery, and then Levi made Madeline another cup of green tea before he went off somewhere to make a few private phone calls. When he came back into the living room, he briefly went over the schedule for tomorrow, and when they would wake up and head out.
When she was just about done with her second cup, Levi told her he wanted her to go to her room for the rest of the evening so that she could decompress. He explained that he could tell she was bottling up all the emotions from the past week and it was only going to get worse if she didn’t release them.
“Just lock the door, pretend I’m not here, and do what you need to do. I can guarantee you I won’t be eavesdropping. I may sound like I don’t know what I am talking about, and you may think you’re fine, but you’re not. I can smell it all over you.”
Madeline was taken aback by his words, a look of shock on her face. She thought she had been doing pretty good and was honestly feeling a bit better until he said that. And he could smell it? Smell what exactly? What was he, a dog?
“Fine,” she responded sharply.
She stood up and walked to the guest room somewhat defiantly. After locking the door behind her, she leaned her back against it. It would be nice to take a hot bath and get back to a normal sleeping schedule, and she would show him she was just fine. He hadn’t a clue.
She set the radio alarm clock to wake her up with plenty of time to get ready for tomorrow, and left her favorite station on loud enough to be heard in the adjoining bathroom. After brushing her hair, she sat on the edge of the tub and turned the faucet on to get the water running. Carefully peeling the bandages off the bottoms of her feet, she began slipping out of her clothes, leaving them in a pile on the white ceramic floor tiles. The cuts on the soles and heels of her feet stung when she first stepped into the hot water, and she quickly sank the rest of her tired body in to relieve the pressure on them. As she stretched out, she noticed two sets of shampoos and conditioners in the recessed shelf within arm’s reach. One was her own cheap brand that Levi must have brought over from her apartment, but the other set? It was in stunning, candy apple red pump bottles, with instructions and ingredients all listed in Japanese on the back. Curious, she unscrewed the top and took a sniff. It didn’t have the same earthy scent that lingered around Levi. In fact, it had a very floral scent, and it was less than half full.
Frustrated, she twisted the top back on and set the shampoo bottle down with a thud, sinking a bit deeper into the steamy water. What was she expecting? That someone like him was some sort of white knight?
Someone like him.
She didn’t even know what he was.
So many things she didn’t know, and for being self-sufficient, she now depended on a stranger for a roof over her head, clothes on her back, and her next meal. She wasn’t even certain how long that was going to last. From his phone conversation earlier, the whole arrangement seemed to be temporary. And then what? Was it going to boil down to her bending to his whims to keep from being kicked out on the street, and figuratively to her death? She had basically moved from one prison to another; only this was one she couldn’t escape from. It was going to be hers forever. And she had nothing anymore. Sure, she couldn’t afford much to begin with, but now she truly had nothing but a few toiletries and a couple of changes of clothes that could literally fit in a large shoebox.
Grabbing onto her necklace, she slid backward, putting her head underwater. She stayed under for as long as she could hold her breath hoping it would stop the tears she could feel coming. Without his distraction, her mind became busy with an overwhelming amount of doom. Her thoughts suddenly felt like a derailing bullet-train. Screw him for being right. Screw him.
Coming up for air, she started sobbing. She splashed the warm water on her face, but it wouldn’t stop the crying. She didn’t want to think about everything she lost, but she couldn't stop. She didn’t even have a reason she could assign the blame to, nothing to look back on and point “there’s what screwed me over”. She’d been on her own for years, but right now she felt the need to be held. She missed grandma. She knew she had to suck it up, but it was easier said than done right now. She would get through this. She would get stronger. She would survive.
At the far end of the condo, in the area that was still an open loft, Levi was blasting some rock music while he did chin-ups on a steel bar. The music was so loud he could feel it reverberate in his chest as he repeated his sets over and over again. Even from this far away, her hopelessness was thick in the air. He had a feeling that since the desire she emanated earlier was strong, her raging misery would be unbearably heavy.
And he was right.
It was salty and sour, and he didn’t want to be anywhere near her right now. He figured he’d do a hard workout to force his focus on getting through double his reps, burning the atmosphere out of his mind. It also cleared his head, allowing him to concentrate on some questions he had been dwelling on in her presence. For a human, the strength of her emotions were well above par. Most of his kind could gain some sustenance on the emotions of others, absorbing them like taking a drag off a cigarette. They could pick which one they wanted, unaffected by the other less desirable ones, with the only drawback being that they couldn't survive off that alone.
But not Levi.
He absorbed emotion much more efficiently, could heal severe wounds from it, but he couldn’t tune out undesirable ones. His specific kind had emotions they strongly preferred, and therefore had emotions which they strongly detested. They were born that way, and it wasn't something they could develop a taste for later on. The preferences were permanent.
After working out for a few more hours, long after hearing the water drain from the guest bathtub, he felt Madeline’s negative emotions finally dissipate. He took a long shower, letting the day’s events sink in and be filed away in the back of his mind. It was this way that he lived with no regrets and nothing shackling him to the past. Afterward, he headed to Madeline’s room with a blanket from the linen closet draped over his arm. Unlocking her door, he silently stepped over to the bed and laid the blanket out over her sleeping body, knowing its extra weight would calm and relax her while she slept. He knew first hand how it felt to lose everything in an instant, but he also knew it was possible to survive and become stronger because of it. From her will and drive, he knew she’d survive it too.
Edited by Sinajfae