The Problem

Martin was also the one that convinced Char that she should back out as A Hire five years ago. Now she just did the drops whenever Bud needed it, but she was strictly the go-between. It chapped her that Bud continued to refer to her as one of the henchmen.

And now Paulie was getting sucked into it. If he wasn't so helpless, Char might've tried to convince him it wasn't worth it. But Bud had managed to draw all six of his grandkids into this life. My parents would be so proud. Char crossed the empty street to the jeep, wrenched the door open and got in.

Not a day went by that she didn't regret that first contract she'd taken. She'd been eighteen. And so in love with the 'glamour' of being hard core. God, teenagers are stupid.

Before Martin had pulled her aside for a serious talk, she hadn't realized she had a choice. This was the business. This was what Papa Bud did, it's what all the kids he raised did. With the exclusion of their now-deceased father, but he was 'the embarrassment'. Now Char wondered what her life would be like had her parents lived.

Char did a U-turn and set out for Rufus' Steakhouse. That was the only place she and Martin went. He'd leave notes for her with a date and a time without signing them. The FBI was still looking for him, so he had to be extra careful whenever he came to the old stomping grounds.

Five blocks later her back started to itch from the Glock sweat-pressed against it. She had to remember to buy a new holster next time she drove by the gun store. Having the old one floating around out there with blood on it made her nervous, too, but there was nothing she could do about that.

Rufus' was located on one of the busiest streets downtown, so parking was a pain in the neck. Char bullied her way into a tight parallel park and hoofed it two blocks to her destination. Tourists everywhere - most of them dressed too skimpily for the temperamental northwest weather. All of them so happy. So oblivious.

Five minutes later Char slid into her usual booth, only slightly surprised that Martin wasn't waiting for her. Sometimes the heat was just too much and he had to assess the scene first.

When another half an hour went by and she was stuffed on house french bread and diet soda, the worry set in. Martin was never this late. His scene assessments lasted three minutes, tops.  And, if it was too hot, he would send her a note saying he had to bale.

Her gut clenched every time someone walked by. The chatter around her table seemed too loud, and why were steakhouses always so dark? She couldn't tell anyone apart until they were right up on her table.

A waiter appeared at her elbow. Char credited herself for keeping her hands on the table and not using her butter knife to dispatch a sudden assault.

"Miss Templeton?" The waiter leaned forward when he said it. He was far too chipper.

"Yeah." She studied his face and made quick notes. You never knew who was really who they said they were. Sometimes remembering even the most insignificant people saved you when they later proved to be operatives on your tail.

Blond, average height, average build. Distinctive feature - slight lisp. File that under Rufus Steakhouse waiter.

He didn't offer a refill or to take her order, but handed her a manila envelope. "Our host was asked to give you this and your guest will unfortunately not be able to meet with you this afternoon."

"Great. Um, thank you. How much do I owe you for the soda?"

After the waiter went off to get the bill, Char pulled out her pocket knife and used it to slice open the envelope. About freaking time Martin sent a message. She was starting to think he'd run into some serious trouble.

She expected a note to slide out of the envelope, or maybe another sort of clue to tell her where to go. But this wasn't a message from Martin.

A severed finger slid out onto the white tablecloth, followed by a glossy photo. Char swallowed a gag and snapped her head around to take inventory of anyone who might be watching. No one seemed interested in her booth. And thank God no one had seen the finger.

The waiter deposited the check, cheerfully telling her to take her time paying. Char shielded the macabre scene with the envelope, keeping her eye on him until he faded back into doing his work.

She flipped the photo over. Moira. Bound to a chair, red hair yanked back in an unseen captor's hand. But they hadn't broken her yet. Not by this photo. Her brown eyes remained calm even though surrounded by a myriad of shades of bruising. And the cuts...they looked deliberate. Those eyes also told the photographer where he could stick his photo.

She felt tears prick at her own eyes. Oh, God, Moira. She'd just been a go-between. A scared street kid who needed money. Guilt shuddered through Char. She'd been the one to convince Moira this business had its ethics. They only took hits on bad people. Five years ago, with Martin's help, Char had learned otherwise. But, by then, it was too late. For all of them.

Worst of all was that each of them had given up their lives to do this work, and the favor would never be returned. Bud had written Moira off as good as dead. He didn't negotiate for anyone. Ever. But whoever was doing this knew Char would.

Something in the picture caught her attention. Moira's hands. All her fingers were there.

Char forced herself to look directly at the finger on the table. A silver band rested on it near the base. The ring winked in the candlelight, looking just as shiny and ornate as the day Char had bought it. Just as new as the day she'd given it to Martin.

The End

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