All thoughts of sex fled from my mind the second we walked through my door. There was no way Jakob could have fucked me on the floor because it was covered in glass. I lifted my head and stared in horror at the wreck of my apartment. I was only gone a couple of hours. That didn’t seem like enough time for someone to do this amount of damage.
My coat hanger had been ripped off the entryway wall with so much force that the anchors I’d used to secure it had torn out a chunk of drywall. The picture of Gran and me that once hung opposite it was shattered beneath our feet. Someone had taken a knife to my couch and yanked half the stuffing out of it. The apartment was too small for a dining table, but I had a pair of barstools tucked beneath the overhang of the kitchen counter. All that was left of them now were two piles of sticks that would better serve as kindling.
I turned to take in the rest of the carnage. My mattress had been dragged off the bed frame and given the same stab and rip treatment as the couch. Papers littered the floor. Books had their pages torn out of them. Someone had yanked my pretty curtains off the windows, rod and all, creating still more holes in the drywall. Most of the kitchen cabinets were missing their doors, but a few hung by a single bracket, swaying in the breeze that blew in through the busted windows. I leaned forward and craned my head to the right. Remnants of my dinnerware lay in shards across the kitchen floor.
“Guess I’m not getting the deposit back on this place,” I said, because if I didn’t make a joke, I would start screaming.
Jakob shut the door behind me. “Stay here.”
My apartment was a studio. The only places someone could hide were in the bathroom or the closets. Jakob’s boots crunched over glass as he strode past me. I watched him check the closets first. No one there. He pushed open the bathroom door and recoiled, covering his nose.
“Jesus fucking Christ,” he said, reaching out with his leg.
I had no idea what he was doing until I heard the sound of the toilet flush. Whatever was in there was so bad that he’d used the toe of his boot to touch the handle. Yes, I would stay right here, thank you. I had no desire to see anything that could make a man like Jakob Larson dry heave.
He shut the door behind him and came back to me. I must have looked truly freaked out because he put his hands on my shoulders and bent down to look me in the eye. “No one’s here. You’re okay. It’s just stuff.”
I nodded over and over again. Yes, I was okay. Yes, it was just stuff. But it was my stuff. And now it was all gone. The pretty curtains I picked out with Gran at Home Goods. Those handcrafted stoneware plates and mugs I bought from a local pottery studio. That frigging Ikea couch I saved up for, with the fold-out mattress so Nina could crash here if we got too tipsy down at the pool during our day off. Gone. All of it. Just like that. Someone had broken into my home, violated my safe space, and ruined everything I owned.
It made me feel untethered.
I sniffed, a lump forming in my throat.
Jakob slid his arms around me and pulled me in tight. “I’m sorry, Krista,” he said, voice low. “It’s my fault for dragging you into this.”
I shook my head and sniffled again. “It’s not your fault. I agreed to help.”
Three years ago, I wouldn’t have given in to the threat of tears. I would have shoved them down, buried my pain deep, and let it eat me from the inside out. Tough girls don’t cry. Soldiers don’t cry. But that nice army shrink who taught me about tricking my brain into enjoying a small amount of pain during sex had also shown me the consequences of bottling up emotions, so I stood there within Jakob’s arms and allowed myself to break down for a few minutes.
The past two days had been awful, minus the brief moments of bliss this man had given me. It could have been worse. So much worse. Someone could have gotten to Gran. My knee could have given out during that fight in the elevator. If I’d been stubborn instead of listening to the sense in Jakob’s words, Gran and I could have been in this apartment when someone broke in. Those thoughts, more than anything else, drove my tears. It was the what-ifs that always scared me the most. It had been this way since the plane crash. What if my crewmates hadn’t gotten to me in time? What if I’d been trapped there and burned to death?
That psychologist had taught me not to repress these thoughts but to follow them all the way down the rabbit hole to the bitter, ugly end. Because doing so freed me from the torment of those thoughts and lessened the residual anxiety.
Jakob rubbed my back while I let myself think of every worst-case scenario that could have happened. He didn’t once try to calm me down or tell me not to be upset. He didn’t get awkward or make a joke about the fact that my tears had soaked through his shirt, and that, more than anything else, made me want to stick around and find out if there really could be something more than just sex between us.
By the time my tears started to dry, I felt better. Everything was still awful, my apartment was still trashed, but Gran and I were alive and safe.
As the sadness and fear drained away, anger rose to fill the gap.
I shifted within Jakob’s grip. He leaned back and looked at me. My face was probably puffy and red; I’d never been a pretty crier. Jakob didn’t seem to mind. He reached out and rubbed the last bit of wetness from the corner of my eye.
“I want in on whatever the payback is for this,” I said.
His expression blanked. “What payback?”
“Don’t bullshit me, Jakob,” I said. “The Jokers or someone working for them came into the heart of Kearny and trashed the place of a woman they think is dating the son of Liam Larson. I know The Kings won’t let this stand.”
“You’re not a King,” he said. “You don’t get to be in on the payback unless you wear the leathers.”
“No one else beside you will even know I’m there.”
“I was an aerial gunner with one of the best records in the history of my unit,” I said. “Put me somewhere up high with a rifle, and if shit goes sideways, I’ll make sure The Kings get out of there alive.”
He gave me a flat look. “So you’re going to what? Take up position in some building and put bullets through their brains if they come at us?”
Yikes. Why was everything always so extreme with him?
“I was more thinking of through-and-throughs in non-lethal spots that would take them out of a fight,” I said. “I was top of my class in sniper school. I can do it.”
His scowl deepened. “What if you miss? What if they move and end up dying from the wounds? You’re not in the military anymore. These aren’t foreign enemy combatants; they’re American civilians. There’s no government oversight here authorizing the kill. You take one of them out, and you’ll be a murderer.”
There it was, the reason I didn’t judge anyone in The Kings for what they did. Most of them were combat vets. Like me, they’d had their humanity stripped away during war. They’d gazed into the dark core of human nature and learned what brutal, ugly creatures we really were. “Thou shalt not kill,” turned into, “Actually, it’s okay to kill who we tell you to.”
Authorized slaughter. What a batshit crazy concept.
When the war was over, we were dumped back into civilian life with laughably inadequate training on how to readjust. Was it any wonder that instead of reacclimating, members of The Kings had found another cause to fight for? Another unit to join? One filled with people just like them, who saw this world with eyes wide open? Anarchy reigned supreme on the battlefield, and even if you left it, it never really left you. Civilization didn’t make much sense after that. We saw it for the thin veneer it was. We knew how little it took to strip it away, and so we’d stopped buying into the bullshit and started living our lives according to our own fucked up moral compasses.
“I’ve been a murderer since I was twenty,” I told Jakob. “Government authorization never made my kills any easier, and it sure as shit didn’t stop the nightmares. I fought the Russians beside the Ukrainians to keep their country from being dragged back into the new USSR, and you’d damn well better believe that I’ll gladly take out a couple of Jokers if it means I’ll be protecting Kearny.”
He held my gaze for a long moment, and then finally, he nodded. “You can be in on it.”
I let out a heavy breath. “Thank you.”
A knock sounded from behind us, followed by a creak as the door swung open. “Krista?”
Jakob and I whipped around. An attractive Latino man in his late twenties stood framed within my doorway. His dark hair was cropped short, and a pair of black-framed glasses perched on his nose. It was my neighbor from across the hall, Raúl. He was a graphic designer who worked from home. Judging by the unsurprised look on his face as he stared at my apartment, he’d been home when someone trashed it.
Jakob stepped beside me. To the untrained eye, he might look relaxed. His posture was loose, hands hanging free by his sides. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him rise onto the balls of his feet, ready to spring. I put a restraining hand on his forearm.
“Hey, Raúl,” I said. “This is Jakob. Jakob, my neighbor, Raúl.”
Jakob eased back to the flats of his feet.
Raúl, unaware of the danger he’d just been in, nodded at Jakob. “Nice to meet you, man.”
Jakob nodded back. “You too.”
“I’m guessing you saw something?” I asked Raúl.
He shook his head. “I heard something. It sounded like you were having a wall knocked out, so I called down to Brad.”
“Brad’s our super,” I told Jakob. I looked back at Raúl. “What’d he say?”
Raúl’s expression darkened. “He said management was finally letting you remodel your kitchen.”
“He was in on it?” Jakob asked, taking a step toward the door.
I tightened my grip on his arm. Running downstairs to murder my super real quick would not help this situation.
“Doubtful,” I said. “Brad’s a run-of-the-mill lowlife, but he wouldn’t be stupid enough to work for The Jokers in King territory. They probably just paid him off.”
Raúl’s eyes flashed wide. “The Jokers did this?” He looked to Jakob, took in the patch on the front of his leather jacket, and lifted his hands. “I don’t want anything to do with a turf war.”
“Don’t worry. We won’t drag you into it,” I said. “Right?” I squeezed Jakob’s arm, and he grunted in a way that might have been ascent.
Raúl backed out of my apartment and kept going, all the way across the hall. I saw his boyfriend poke his head out of their doorway, eyes wide. Great. He’d heard that whole exchange.
“Thank you for the heads up,” I said.
Raúl nodded and disappeared into his apartment. I heard hushed whispers and what sounded like ten locks slamming into place.
“I guess we know why no one called the cops,” I said, turning back toward the wreckage of my life.
Jakob frowned in question.
“Our apartment complex encourages residents to vet any complaints we have through each building’s super,” I told him. “It keeps the police from coming out here every time someone’s dog barks too loud.”
Understanding and frustration swept over his features as he realized that anyone who called downstairs concerned about the noise would have been reassured by Brad, which meant that there was a real possibility no one even caught a look at the people who did this.
On second thought, maybe we could go murder Brad real quick.
My phone rang from inside my purse. I fished it out and saw an unknown number. Just like with Dr. Perez, it was local. I swiped right to answer. “Hello?”
“Is this Krista Evans?” a deep male voice asked.
I hit the speakerphone button. “It is.”
“This is Officer Sanders with Kearny P.D. We’d like you to come down to the station and answer some questions if you have time.”
“Lawyer,” Jakob said, not bothering to lower his voice.
“What was that?” Officer Sanders asked.
“I can come down,” I told him. “I just need to set up a time with my attorney. I’ll have them call you.”
“Who’s your lawyer?” he asked. “I want to make sure the call is put through to me when it comes.”
“Katherine Jenkins,” Jakob answered.
Officer Sanders sighed. He sounded tired. “You’re a King. I should have known.”
“I’m not a King,” I said. “Just a friend of them.”
“Fine. But Ms. Evans?”
“The sooner you get down to the station, the better. We have a rep here from Magnolia Hills saying you assaulted one of their security guards.”
I bit back the f-bomb that threatened. “Thank you, officer. We’ll be there as soon as we can.”
We said goodbye and hung up.
I turned to Jakob, furious. “That piece of shit is saying that I assaulted him? He was the one who followed me into the elevator and tried to attack me.”
Jakob wore a contemplative expression.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Sanders shouldn’t have told you that,” he said. “It’s against P.D. policy. They like to bring people in and then tell them what they’re being accused of so they can get something out of the reaction.” He sounded like he was speaking from experience.
“So why did he?” I asked.
“He’s not a bad man,” Jakob said. “For a cop. He doesn’t like The Kings, but he’s fair, even with us. He probably told you because he smells bullshit. Be grateful. This will give Katherine a chance to work up a defense in advance.”
I mulled that over while Jakob called his father to let him know what had happened since we’d left his house. After he hung up, he called Daniel King, repeated the story, and then called Katherine Jenkins, my new lawyer. We spent forty minutes replaying the day’s events to her. When we finished, she gave us a long list of instructions and told us to meet her outside the police station in an hour.
Copyright © 2020 by Navessa Allen
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.