“Vittoria. Fuck. Stop fighting. I can’t get these off if you keep moving.”
I force a breath in.What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.They didn’t kill me. I killed them. I’m strong, right?
“Where’s Emma, Vittoria?” he asks for the hundredth time.
“Emma.” I think as he works on the second ankle. “Hiding. She’s hiding. She’s safe.” I remember.
“She’s not safe,” he says, and I see how his hair which is usually so well maintained has thinned, how a bald spot is forming. Does he even know he’s going bald? I look down at his hands as he unlocks the cuff around my ankle, and I’m hit with a flash of memory. But this one is different than the others. This one isn’t gone in an instant like the blinking of those lights. This one, it sticks. The image of hands, mine and his. But last time, they weren’t taking the cuffs off. They were putting them on. The ring was there, on the same finger, looking out of place then. Looking out of place now.
I watch his hands work. Clipped nails. Manicured fingers. But I see the dirt under his fingernails.
He moves to the back of the chair to unlock my wrists. “Move,” he says, sounding irritated. “We need to go.” When I don’t move, he pulls me to my feet. My legs feel too wobbly, and my arm is dead weight. I cradle it and follow Lucien to the stairs.
“Where are the soldiers?” I ask, hesitating at the bottom of the staircase as I look up into the room above. We won’t get past them. My brother is no fighter, and I don’t have a gun.
He glances back. “My men are waiting for us.”
I’m confused. We don’t have men like those soldiers who took me.
I stand there and watch him ascend, his hand on the railing. The ring with the insignia like Dad’s. It’s for the men in our family. A memory takes hold of me, and I have to grab the banister to steady myself as I see that same hand with its ring ascending another set of stairs in another basement in another world leaving me behind. I hear my voice. I’m calling out to him, but he’s walking away.
I’m going to be sick. I bring my hands to my head and press the heels of my palms into my eyes. What is happening to me? Am I truly losing my mind?
“Vittoria. What the fuck? We need to move, for fuck’s sake. Wait to lose your shit until after this is done, okay?” he says, anxious. His cell phone rings, and he’s gone from the basement so I’m alone.
I drop my hands to my sides and open my eyes. The clock ticks, and I make myself look around the room. The single chair. Some paint cans in a corner. Innocuous things.
My heart races as I move my gaze to the walls. I make myself look.
It’s the same picture over and over and over again. A dead man. Brains blown out lying facedown on an empty bed. I walk back into the room and right up to the wall. I stare straight at the one in front of me. I reach out a hand and touch it. The photo doesn’t vanish into thin air. I rip it from the wall. It’s real. It’s real. It’s in my hands. I fold it into a small square and push it into my pocket.
I walk up the stairs to find my brother talking to one of three men standing outside. I hear one of the strangers speak. He has an accent that’s not Italian. Russian, I think.
It must be late afternoon. The light is waning, their shadows growing long. No one else is here, and these men don’t look like the ones who took me. They’re not dressed the same at least. They all turn to me. Lucien opens the car door and makes a sweeping gesture.
“Ready, princess?” He’s irritated.
I walk out of the house, glancing back at it. Just a normal house in a normal neighborhood.
“How did you find me?” I ask.
“I told you I’d get you out. I did. Get in. We have an appointment.”
“Whom. With whom.”
I stare up at him.
He shakes his head, scratches it. I look at the ring, and I see it on that banister again. Not the one in this house. A different house with a broken banister. Broken stairs.
“With the man who got you out of your prison. Let’s fucking go.” Out of patience, he takes my arm and shoves me into the car.