Lev’s neck ticked. A pulse shifted somewhere far inside him. He inhaled deeply through his angular nose where the subtle scent of hundreds-year-old timber wafted through his nostrils, settling into his hippocampus and unearthing years of emotional imbalances. It was maddening. One more thing he had to take care of. One more thing in his way. He checked his watch and huffed. She would pay for wasting his morning.
The school’s old wooden floors were bloated and seeping with prejudices built up from over two centuries. Lev’s brown monk shoes tapped methodically over them through the empty hall. He turned a corner into the English department wing. The light fixtures had recently been replaced here. Unfortunately, the original style had been discontinued long ago. In the end they were forced to compromise with a more modern, hourglass version of the lanterns that used to line the halls. Now the whole floor had the ambiance of a desperate hotel.
Lev stopped. His thin fingers moved fluidly from his side to the door to Ms. Callahan’s AP Propaganda in American Literature class. The historical door swung open - no squeaking, no visible flaws. Fifteen pairs of eyes turned on him. An entire room full of future master’s degrees who would crumble under a sense of worthlessness. They were doomed to wind up as alcoholics, wandering, or dead before turning 30.
Already, five bodies had been sent home this year, due mostly to sleeping pills. Although Billie Earnst went a more dramatic way. There was blood all over her duvet cover. It was a shame; Lev had particularly liked her performance in the original school play the drama department had written and produced over Christmas, Blueberry Brandy. It was the story of a poor, young married couple who could never seem to make ends meet no matter how hard they tried. Out of desperation, they started exploiting one another on online social sites. Eventually, they began to believe in their warped, delusional lives. As most plays do, it ended with little resolve and the couple had lost any real love they might have had for each other.
Perhaps love was a foreign word in any boarding school. But here it was also painful, traumatic. We love you but you can’t come home. We love you but you’d be in the way here. We love you but we will be spending Christmas with our real children.
Natalie’s eyes were already lowered when Lev honed in on her. Like him, she was a senior and was set to graduate with impressive honors in a few months. Of course, she had earned hers while his had been bought with threats, blackmail, and, when necessary, money. Lev had money - plenty of money. He considered it to be his own, though he wasn’t sure anyone could really put a claim to money. Economics was all a grab-and-go game as far as he was concerned.
Ms. Callahan was already shuffling out of the classroom. The heavy scent of her lavender perfume, hailing from 1995, caught not only in his nose but also clawed at him under his eyelids. It wrapped itself around his throat as she moved past him. He coughed but said nothing while he held the door open for her to escape. What she didn’t see she couldn’t testify against. She didn’t make eye contact with him. Why would she? She was a gambling addict, using cash from stolen credit cards. Lev took a fixed income from her every month, whether she won anything or not, in exchange for discretion. He had pictures; he had numbers; he had footage.
The room was silent with an air of mounting apprehension. As long as they stayed uncertain Lev controlled everything. He slowly walked to Natalie. He bent forward, placing his hands over the sides of the cool desktop. He pulled his face close to hers until he could see every line of her tiny, frail countenance. She smelled of powdered makeup and almond lotion. Very vivid and slow memories of kissing those lips - lips that were now pulled down into a frown - overcame him.
Natalie looked up at him. Those eyes. He wanted to crush them. He wanted to maim and destroy this insignificant person who had awakened a new and disturbing weakness in him. She was common. She was nothing. Yet here he was: blood rushing to his cheeks and his heart pounding away like a timer ready to detonate a bomb. Lev felt that tick in his neck again. He had to look away from those eyes. He straightened up, twisting the cufflinks at his wrists. “Do you know why we are here, Natalie?”
She was silent. It was the same every single time with these timid types. Not a word. Lev was irrationally furious with her predictability.
“I didn’t finish the project.” Her voice was as tiny as she was.
Lev chuckled. He would have screamed if he didn’t. “Natalie. You didn’t even start the project. What is it you asked me to do, Natalie?”
“I know. You did.” She was crying now.
Lev wanted to eat her whole right there. His jaw clenched. Why were her tears cutting him? He had never seen her cry before. He shook his head, trying to focus, trying to hate her. “I got you into Harvard. You are going to Harvard for free.” His hand slammed into her desk where she sat, shaking. If Lev’s fingers were stinging, he couldn’t feel them. “In return, you were meant to bring me files from your daddy’s office. That’s all, Natalie.”
Lev’s entire enterprise was dependent on information. He craved it like a vampire searching for blood. One of the country’s top lawyers was stupid enough to have a daughter and Lev wasn’t going to let her out of his claws until he had those files. He looked down at her as she trembled, despising her weakness, despising her outright. Lev grabbed Natalie by her uniformed lapels, pulling her out of her chair. It scraped across the floor then tipped over. The crash drowned out any gasps that might have come from any of the naiver students watching them. Natalie’s eyes were wide, and her lips were tight. Oddly enough she had instantly stopped crying.
She was infuriatingly light like an empty tin can. “This is not how this ends. You don’t just walk away,” Lev said, dropping her where she crumpled into the ground. The thud of her body colliding with the floor reverberated in his head. “Consider your acceptance revoked and keep an eye over your shoulder because I don’t take being ignored lightly.” He moved to leave her, but her hand reached out and gripped around his ankle.
“Wait,” she said. She was looking at him again. Her eyes were cold and defeated. It was worse than watching her cry. “Give me another chance. I can get them to you. Please. I have to go to Harvard.”
Lev kicked his foot out of her weak grip. Her parents had made her miserable long before he had. “Tomorrow night then. And get a job because I’m taking away that scholarship.” He turned away from her as quickly as possible and left the classroom.
Ms. Callahan moved to re-enter her room, but Lev grabbed her arm. The flesh pressed through his fingers like playdough. “Change your perfume,” he said between clenched teeth. She remained silent but submissive. He let her go. Usually, Lev waited outside of the classrooms after a shakedown. He liked to watch the faces of the students through the door windows. He liked to watch the teachers squirm, all frazzled, trying to ramble on as if nothing had happened. It made the students snicker. He liked to think it made them feel slightly more powerful, watching an authoritarian shiver. Everyone wanted to be in power and heaven knew Lev had enough power to loan about from time to time. This time, though, Lev just walked away.