I always imagined hiring an assassin would go differently.
There would be at least one dark alley, a furtive phone call, an exchange in cash—of course it’s cash—and the curse of waiting afterward, whether for the police to arrive or finding out my money went to a fraud.
Instead, I’m sitting in Ortolana, one of the nicest restaurants in Chicago, trying to decide if ordering a rare steak is too on the nose. The server eyes me with refined impatience since my dining companion made their choice in a few brisk words: black coffee, the yellowtail collar, no appetizer.
If this is one of the last meals I ever eat because I had my husband killed, I’m indulging in the steak.
“Anything else for you, ma’am?” the server asks, mouth tight.
I smile. Better to be remembered as polite, if I’m remembered at all. “No, thank you.”
When he disappears with our order, they—Campbell—give a minute shake of their head, amusement a glint in gray eyes. “Not gunning for a tip, is he?”
“Maybe I don’t look like I have money.” To be fair, the fifty thousand dollars I’d spent a decade saving was about to go to the person across from me. “Or he thinks you’re the one who’s paying the check.”
From the outside, it must seem like a date. I’d delved to the back of my closet for a slinky black dress that’s been kissing mothballs since Richard and I attended his holiday office party. My makeup is just this side of sultry, but that isn’t for Campbell’s sake. Painting confidence on my skin with a nice red lipstick and dark eyeshadow is what I needed before I could walk out of the house: a sharp, composed mask.
Their suit is a breath away from black, but in any shift of light, the true cobalt of the linen shines through. Campbell eschews a tie, leaving the top two buttons of a crisp white dress shirt open without any adornment. It bares a triangle of sun-touched skin and the sharp edge of their collarbones.
I deal in paintings, but Campbell is more of a classic statue: sculpted jaw, full mouth, and cheekbones that could blunt a chisel. An aquiline nose adds to the effect, and Campbell’s chestnut hair is tamed in a professional cut. It’s an older style, with an understated elegance.
If we passed on the street, I would have let my gaze linger, but nothing about Campbell says “killer.” Maybe my assumptions are lost in that fictional back alley, chasing black leather gloves and silenced pistols.
“I’m not what you expected, am I, Justine?”
The question snaps me back to the present, and I’m not sure how long I’ve been staring at Campbell—or exactly when they caught me. “Sorry. I’m not doubting your…qualifications.”
A tease of blue plays across each shoulder when Campbell laces their fingers together. “What surprises you the most?”
I cut my teeth on a hundred answers, starting with the locale and ending with the fact that they look more like an executive than an assassin, but the devil is in the details. “The coffee, I think. It’s almost seven at night.”
Campbell’s smile is a half-inch flash of teeth. “I tend to operate at night, but I can rarely indulge in caffeine.”
Nights, of course. This dance around the obvious is practically a farce, but it’s not like I want to announce my true intentions to the Friday night crowd. Our booth is in the corner, but it’s not soundproofed. “Why not?”
“It can make your hands shake.” They gesture to punctuate the point. “Which is a problem when I’m working. For a business dinner, not so much.”
Our server returns with the drink in question, setting an elegant cup on a saucer in front of Campbell. Despite a kneejerk longing for wine, I’m glad I stuck to water. I need to keep my wits about me.
When Campbell brings the coffee to their lips, it’s a fluid movement, surgical in its precision. I wonder what those hands can do—will do—to Richard. A gun would be easiest, I guess, but that’s far beyond the only way to kill someone.
He’ll never hit me again. He’ll never cheat on me again. He’ll never treat me like an ignorant girl, oblivious to nights at the university getting longer and our bed getting colder. I won’t be trotted out like a trophy in front of his fellow professors, who chuckle at his brilliance without having the first clue that I funded both of his degrees. I might even have friends in the future, ones he won’t drive away inch by humiliating inch.
“You really are sure about this,” Campbell says softly, setting their cup back down. Porcelain touches porcelain without a sound.
“Of course I am.”
Acid clings to my tongue, eating at the accusation, but they take it in stride with another fleeting smile. “That’s part of the reasons I take my clients out to dinner, Justine. To make sure there are no doubts. Once I accept a contract, I don’t stop until it’s done.”
A wave of embarrassment douses me, tightening my throat. “Right. I’m sorry. It feels like I’ve been taking everything personally lately.”
At least, according to Richard.
“You keep apologizing, but you don’t have to.” The shine in their eyes isn’t amusement this time; it’s something else, unreadable. “At this point, I’m beyond being offended. And you’re paying me a considerable amount of money.”
“That doesn’t mean I want to offend you, no matter how impossible it might be,” I say.
What I want to say is that I can’t remember the last time I had a night out like this, or the last time someone looked at me as more than an accessory. Campbell is watching my every move, but what should be terrifying is only leaving me hungry for the attention.
They kill people for a living. Why doesn’t that scare me?
“I do appreciate good manners,” Campbell comments, but their gaze flickers over my shoulder. “Tuck your elbow in.”
“Why?” The question is instinctive, but I listen anyway, bringing my arm in against my side.
Out of the corner of my eye, the server reappears with a covered silver platter, swiftly delivering it to our table. He removes the polished lid, announcing our entrees with theatrical detail, but my eyes aren’t on the food. They’re on Campbell, waiting for an answer.
I don’t get one until the server is out of sight.
Campbell smooths a silken napkin across their lap, then takes the provided pair of chopsticks in hand with the ease of long practice. “Considering the angle he took from the kitchen, he wouldn’t have been able to see you there with the tray in the way. It’s a design flaw in an otherwise lovely restaurant.”
I raise an eyebrow, picturing a comedy of errors that ends with eighty dollars of wagyu beef in my lap. “He would have knocked into me?”
They hum in agreement, then turn their chopsticks to sharper purpose, peeling a portion of crispy fish clean from the bone. It gleams, white and bare. “I thought I’d save you the trouble.”
Unease coils in the pit of my stomach. Meeting Campbell hadn’t set me on edge, but something about them reading the server’s approach in a blink and warning me with casual detachment does. That kind of reflex hangs the word “danger” in my mind like a neon sign. They’re a predator, surrounded by unknowing prey.
I glance down at my steak, then summon the will to pick up my fork as if I eat with professional killers every night of the week.
“It’s normal to be nervous.” Campbell tucks a bite of yellowtail between their teeth. It vanishes quietly. “As long as you’re set on what you want to do, you can be as nervous as you like.”
I must be radiating anxiety, but it still feels like they read my mind. “Details would help me relax.”
Even on a twisting stomach, the steak is the perfect amount of decadence, butter, and salt. I cut into another piece, juices spilling free under the serrated edge.
“What kind of details would you like?” they ask.
“When is this happening?” My eyes fall on their near-empty cup of coffee. “Not tonight, I know, but when?”
“Depending on the complexity of his schedule, my window is three weeks.” Their chopsticks dart around a fragile fin, seeking a thread of meat hidden underneath. “That includes scouting, alibi, and execution.”
I pause with my next bite halfway to my mouth. Execution bleeds with meaning, visceral and full, but it’s not inaccurate. “Your alibi or mine?”
“Yours,” Campbell confirms. “It wouldn’t do for you to be too close to any accidents.”
An accident. That’s probably what they’ll put in the paper. Richard is well known enough to earn an article, if not a front-page one.
I nod. “Do you need anything from me?”
“Once payment is settled, a copy of any of his keys that you can get ahold of. The same with his schedule.” Their gaze pierces me through. My blood turns to ice, but my heart beats faster. “Is your husband predictable, Justine?”
What I hear is will it be easy?
A smile rises to my lips unbidden. “Very.”
The rest of dinner passes in silence, save for an occasional comment on the food. It’s nice enough that I almost forget why we’re here, snapping to reality as our plates are cleared and the check arrives. Campbell does pay, using a couple of large bills. Once our server is gone again, they retrieve an envelope from inside their jacket. It’s already open when they offer it to me, revealing a packet of papers.
“What’s this?” I frown, prying out what’s inside.
They keep the envelope.
“The contract for the painting you’re about to purchase, of course.” Campbell’s expression is open but empty, like a door leading to an elevator shaft. “Your money has to be invested properly.”
I unfold the packet revealing an agreement of sale contract, the same sort I see ten times a week at the gallery. As I scan each page, lines of familiar legalese jump out. It’s legitimate, or would be if Campbell actually had a painting that I wanted to buy.
“Don’t tell me you’re a lawyer too,” I say.
Campbell shakes their head. “No, but I have a very competent one. She keeps a lot in order for me.”
It’s perfect. There are a dozen other contracts like it in my desk drawer, and the number for an offshore account jumps off the page, waiting for my transfer to put it out of reach and otherwise untraceable.
“But how did you know I…” When we spoke on the phone, Campbell never asked what I did for a living. “This is too fitting.”
“I don’t show in person before looking someone up.” They produce a pen, handing it to me. “And I had to make sure you could actually pay me.”
If I had my way, I’d be making art and not selling it, but only the latter had made enough money to fund Richard’s master’s. His current salary isn’t enough for us to trade places, even with a shot at tenure approaching. My paints are stored in a cool, dry place, but I haven’t touched them in years. Almost ten.
My weekends might be free enough for a canvas or two soon.
“You’ll have twenty-four hours to deposit the money in the account listed there,” Campbell says. Did they take my quiet, bitter musing as hesitation? “If you don’t, I’ll assume you’re calling things off.”
My signature ends with a flourish, and I wait for the ink to dry before folding the contract again. “I’ll send it as soon as I’m home.”
“Excellent.” They rise to their feet, a signal to do the same. “It was a pleasure, Justine. Once everything clears, I’ll be in touch.”
Campbell extends their hand, and I offer mine, surprised they want to shake on it. Instead, they bring my fingers to their lips, kissing the top of them. Shock ripples through me, heat lingering on my skin when Campbell lets go.
“Thanks,” I answer, breathless.
With a step back, they establish a professional distance again. Campbell brushes a nigh-invisible wrinkle from one suit cuff. “Fortin is an interesting last name. Are you going to keep it?”
That’s a question I hadn’t considered. Instinct tells me I should, to play the part of the grieving widow. Fortin has gotten me a lot farther than Zhang ever did in the art world, even with how popular Chinese art is.
Anger spits out a thousand spikes and snarls. He’s already taken so much from me. The idea that I might stay beholden to Richard, even after he dies, throws a red veil across my vision. Then I breathe, and it’s gone.
“I’ll let you know when I figure that out,” I say.
Campbell holds my gaze, then nods before turning away. I check my purse for a split second to make sure I have everything, but when I look up again, they’re already gone.
I better send that money before they think I’ve lost my nerve.