Everyone had a breaking point. Everyone. Kir “Master” Vasiliev was well aware he had been well passed that point when he agreed to take the assignment. He never should have done it. Burning out when behind bars with no back-up was a bad idea, especially if he didn’t give a fuck whether he lived or died—which he didn’t.
The only reason he didn’t kill the two guards and the four prisoners right then and there was because he had a job to do, and he never let a job go unfinished. That was drilled into him. His club, Torpedo Ink, needed the intelligence, and he had been given the assignment to get the information and then kill the four men who had threatened their president and his family. That meant the two dirty guards who were involved with them had to die as well.
The eighteen charter members of Torpedo Ink had grown up together in a place loosely called a “school” in Russia. Their parents had been murdered by a powerful man named Kostya Sorbacov. He took the children of his political enemies and placed them in one of four schools supposedly to become assets for their country. That was true of three of the four schools, although all of them were brutal.
The fourth school was located far from the city where the prison for the criminally insane—the ones the government refused to acknowledge existed—were housed. Pedophiles. Rapists. Serial Killers. These were men and women Sorbacov utilized as the instructors for the children in the fourth school. Supposedly the children were to become assassins—assets for their country. What they really were—were playthings—toys for Sorbacov and his friends. Over twenty years, two hundred and eighty-nine children entered that school. Only nineteen survived.
Destroyer, the nineteenth survivor had recently found his way to them and joined Torpedo Ink. Like Master, Destroyer knew his way around prisons, but Master had been trained to take these missions from a young age, and Torpedo Ink relied on him. Of all the members, he was the only one with a record in their new country. They all had impeccable paperwork, thanks to Code. Even Master’s prison records were mostly manufactured. Still, the fact that he was officially dirty, when the rest of his club was officially clean, set him apart. Only Destroyer would understand that concept.
Torpedo Ink now spent a good deal of their time hunting pedophiles and those running human trafficking rings. None of them could ever live normal lives after what had been done to them as children, teens and young men and women. To survive, they had turned their bodies into weapons and developed what others might refer to as psychic talents. Czar had explained that he believed everyone had talents, they just didn’t have to use them so they never worked at making them strong. The members of Torpedo Ink had started as young children to practice in those long endless days and nights in the basement of their hideous torture school.
Master was positive the cameras in the laundry room where the guards had brought him had been turned off. After all, the guards wouldn’t want to be caught on film if the four prisoners about to beat the shit out of him accidently killed him. Still, that didn’t stop him from making certain the cameras weren’t working. He wasn’t about to take any chances. He never did. That was what kept him from ever getting caught.
Master had been sure to offend these specific prisoners several times in the yard that afternoon, even after he’d been warned. He’d done it out of anyone’s hearing so that when the prisoners and the guards were found dead in the morning, and he was back in his cell, no one would think to connect him with the bodies. That was always key in this kind of mission. As the primary assassin, you were never caught with the target, not by anyone. There was nothing to connect you to the death. If you had to draw attention to yourself to get put into solitary, you picked a fight with some other prisoner, not the target.
It had taken time and expert maneuvering to get locked up near these four men so they would share the same yard and floor. Torpedo Ink had to be certain the intelligence was right about them. Once they’d locked onto them, Master had been put in place. Then it was a matter of finding out who was aiding them—passing on messages to them and allowing them out into the world when they were needed.
Master had grown up in Russia. He knew every classic way to hide an assassination team. Master had been placed in several prisons, hidden there, to be used when Sorbacov deemed it necessary. These four men were protected in that prison. They came and went, and they had special perks. Women were brought to them when they asked for them. They had whatever kinds of meals they wanted. Cush rooms. Master recognized it all, because he’d lived that life from the time he was a teen and could pass for an adult. It was a shit life to live. He spent a lot of time fighting, killing, getting beat by guards, pacing in small cages, trying to stay sane.
Master stood against the wall, where the guards had thrown him. Just waiting. This was such a common scenario. He couldn’t count the times he’d been in it, the new prisoner, stupid enough to cross those older ones who ran the prison and bribed the guards. It was always the laundry room or some smaller, concrete room with a hose to wash down the blood. Sometimes there were small windows where guards watched and bet on the action. He knew this wasn’t going to be one of those times because it was probable the intention was to kill him. As if he gave a fuck. He didn’t. And that was bad. For him. For them. Mostly for them.
The guards hadn’t bothered with cuffs. Why would they? Four big Russians about to beat the fuck out of him for his “indiscretion”. The guards locked the laundry room doors and sat back to watch the show. They parked themselves on the long table that prisoners used to fold the laundry, grinning from ear to ear. This certainly wasn’t the first time they’d brought someone for the four Russian assassins to teach a lesson to.
“He’s a big fucker, Boris,” Shorty, one of the guards said. “Strong as an ox.”
Boris didn’t bother to answer the guard or even look at him. “You got something to say to me now, freak?” He hissed.
Master raised an eyebrow. Answering in Russian, he called him several names including degenerate, a brainless obnoxious pig who could only hang with monkeys. He indicated the other three men with him. He was fluent in several languages, but like Boris and the other four prisoners, he was born and raised in Russia.
He might look all brawn, but he had a brain. He was born with the odd talent of seeing in numbers. He could compute numbers almost faster than any computer. His brain just worked out any problem and spit out the answer. He had instincts for investments and when Code, their resident genius hacker stole money from criminals, he knew how to utilize that money to the fullest. As treasurer of the club, he oversaw the money and made the investments. He also played several instruments, and his main job was construction. He had an affinity for wood. Now, looking passively at Boris, he taunted him in his bored voice, getting creative with his insults, because he was a creative kind of man.
Boris roared and came at Master, his arms spread wide. Master stayed with his back against the wall, on the balls of his feet, shoulders loose and as the other man came in, he snapped out his hand like a knife, driving it straight into the exposed throat. Boris choked, coughed. His eyes rolled back in his head and he went down to his knees, both hands going up to wrap around his throat. Master followed up with a strike to the back of his skull, driving him hard toward the cement floor. Boris face-planted so hard the sound seemed to reverberate through the entire laundry room.
“Damn!” Shorty laughed. “That was fast. Should have been taking bets on the new guy.”
“Too late now,” Longfellow, the other guard said mournfully. He moved a little closer to survey the damage Master had done to Boris.
The Russian assassin was vomiting, but not lifting his head, so he was by turns choking and getting the mess all over his face. He lay gasping for breath, desperate to breathe around the endless retching.
The three other Russians fanned out, coming at Master from three sides. They were silent as they tried to surround him, their faces masks they’d learned from their teachers in the schools they’d attended, but they couldn’t hide the fury—or slight trepidation—in their eyes. In their experience, no one had ever bested Boris in the prison. Most likely they had never dealt with anyone as fast or as calm as Master.
Master didn’t move, keeping the wall at his back and Boris on his left. That meant he only had to deal with two of them immediately and the guards. The third had to get around the body of his fallen friend before he could actually be of some help to his friends.
Kir “Master” Vasiliev had been in this scenario too many times. He knew their moves before they made them. They might be faster than any who had come before, but Sorbacov’s sick trainers had forced him to learn these tactics in very brutal ways. That fourth school, the one he’d attended, had been right there with its own prison on the grounds. The instructors had plenty of opportunities to teach a young boy how the prison system worked. How corrupt the guards could be. How complicit. How the inmates could be beaten, raped or killed by other stronger, more powerful prisoners in just such setups as this one. He’d learned all of the various setups because he’d lived through them all.
His training hadn’t been simulated. Unlike other children who had been sent into the prison to be “trained”, he hadn’t died. He’d survived. He’d become a warped, scarred, dead soul of a man with a hefty criminal record. He was the only member of Torpedo Ink that still had that record, and it was ongoing. Absinthe could get rid of the charges eventually, but they were still out there, looking as if he had been freed on technicalities.
He waited, knowing what was coming and there it was, without warning, the familiar adrenaline rushing through his veins like a drug. The need for violence. The only time he felt alive. He wasn’t like Reaper and Savage, or even Maestro. He didn’t need or want to take an opponent apart. That wasn’t his thing and never would be. No, he needed the actual war, the fight, the pounding of fists, the slash of the knife, the precise blow of the foot sending so much power and energy through a human body that the shock shattered internal organs.
He had spent a good portion of his life behind the walls of some kind of prison. That had been his specialty, what Sorbacov had him trained for. He was the chameleon, able to, even as a teen, get into the right block, assassinate the right prisoner and never have an ounce of suspicion directed his way.
In order to gain those skills and accomplish the mission, again and again, he’d been beaten and raped repeatedly from the time he was a toddler. He’d learned to kill. To make weapons out of nothing. To make himself into a weapon. To endure pain and put it to use. Pain kept him sharp when he was completely on his own in those hellholes. Pain fed the anger and craving for violence so that it raged in him and made him stronger mentally and physically. Now that his companion was here, racing through his veins, he moved with blurring speed.
Master kicked Avgust, the largest of the four assassins hiding in prison, so hard in the kneecap they all heard the sickening crunch. Adrenaline-laced joy rushed through his veins. These were the only moments left to him now to actually feel, as disgusting as it might be. The edge of his boot caught the assassin in the side of the head deliberately as he swung around in a flowing motion toward Edik, one of Avgust’s partners. The blow snapped Avgust’s neck, killing him. He wasn’t important to the interrogation anyway.
Master spun away from Edik’s homemade knife, catching his wrist as he did so, completely controlling his arm with his superior strength and the momentum of both their bodies. He plunged the razor-sharp blade into Edik’s throat dropping him, and then going straight for Longfellow who stood just one scant foot away, his mouth gaping open. Slashing the blade across the guard’s throat, Master kept moving with blurring speed, having gone over and over the moves in his mind, knowing what he had to do to survive. He slammed his fist into Shorty’s throat, putting his body weight behind the blow, going in for the kill.
There was one prisoner left standing, and two alive. Boris was still on the floor, unable to stand. Still coughing. Master had killed four men in under a minute.
The remaining assassin, Ludis, faced him with disbelieving eyes. “Who the fuck are you?” He demanded. He was the acknowledged leader of the group, the one Master needed to answer the questions he’d been sent in to ask.
Master calmly walked over to Boris and snapped a front kick to his left temple with the toe of his boot, again putting his body weight behind it. The angle allowed him to slam Boris’ head into the concrete wall so hard they heard the fracturing, as if the skull was an eggshell. Boris tipped over, his breath coming in ragged pants, his eyes wide open in shock.
“Need you to answer a couple of questions for me,” Master stated calmly. “You had a nice setup. Hiding in plain sight. Must have been paid a great deal of money to sit in prison though. Fuckin’ hate these places.”
Ludis was calm. He lit a cigarette and leaned a hip against the long table where the guards had been sitting. “You’re the one we’ve heard rumors about all our lives. You slip in and out of prisons, no matter how high the security. You assassinate your target right under the noses of the guards and no one ever figures out who you are or how you do it. You’ve been at it for years. Makes sense that you’re Russian. One of us.”
Master nodded. Ludis was thinking hard, speculating, trying to figure out how he was going to kill Master and get out of the situation alive. That wasn’t happening.
“The four of you were sent out by your little mistress to wipe out a man’s family in Sea Haven. Viktor Prakenskii’s family. She wanted all of them dead.”
Ludis’ face went very still. Master walked over to Boris and slammed his boot into his ribs, deliberately crushing them, right over his left lung. Ludis straightened but when Master turned toward him, he put his hands up and once again rested his hip on the table.
“We couldn’t get near them. We were lucky to get out of there with our lives. Our intel wasn’t good. You taking over the job?”
Master shrugged. “Did she pull you back or did you make the call?”
“I made the call. We don’t take suicide missions. She was pissed as hell.”
Ludis shook his head. “I can’t tell you that. You know the code.”
Master turned and stomped Boris’ left lung. Boris gurgled and little red bubbles appeared around his mouth.
“What the fuck?” Ludis shouted, losing his feigned cool.
“Isn’t that what you had in mind for me?” Master asked.
Ludis settled with obvious effort. “I still have it in mind.”
“Her name. I’ve got all night, remember. The guards arranged to have the room so you could take your time with me.”
Ludis swore in Russian.
Master delivered another kick, this time to Boris’ groin, smashing through his balls and crushing his penis. “You know when he’s gone, I’m going to have to start on you. You aren’t giving me much choice.”
“She goes by Helena now. She wasn’t Helena when she was a child, but that’s what she calls herself now.”
“Helena what? Where is she?” Master asked patiently.
“Helena Smirnov. No one ever knows where she is. When she wants to see you, she comes to you.”
“How many teams does she run?”
“Ours and at least one other. She has access to more, but we were hers exclusively and so is the other team. She does all the recruiting.”
“For the Russian and his Ghost assassins.”
“If you know everything already, why the fuck did you come here to kill everyone?” Ludis demanded.
Master could see the man was working himself up to make his play. Ludis shifted to the balls of his feet and then sudden comprehension slid into his eyes. He swore again in his native language.
“You’re one of them. From the fourth school. Sorbacov’s killers. You’re one of them. No one has ever seen one of you. No one believed any of you actually survived, but you’re one of them, aren’t you? I was just making shit up when I implied you were the chameleon, no one ever believed there was such a person. But there is. You’re from that school. You are the chameleon.”
Master didn’t react. Didn’t blink. Just stared at him with a blank expression.
“Damn you, at least give me that much. You’re going to kill me. You killed my team.”
“You didn’t recognize the name? Viktor Prakenskii? Think about that name. Where have you heard it before?”
Ludis shook his head. “She wouldn’t. Not after him. I never connected the name with him. Not once, because he had to be dead. He was a legend. Not real. Not real, like you’re not real. And she wouldn’t send us after him.”
“She sent you after him,” Master confirmed. “Viktor sent me after you. And she’s going to die for what she did. He’ll wipe out every one of the Ghosts if they come after his family. No one fucks with him.” Master shrugged again, watching Ludis carefully.
Master rarely talked. He saw no point in conversation once he was through with them, once he was going to kill his opponents, but it was possible Ludis would give him more information simply because he was shaken or angry. Master had come to this prison to get as much information as possible and to kill the assassination team sent after Czar’s family. No one tried to kill the president of Torpedo Ink’s family and got away with it. No one. Master wouldn’t have considered going back to prison for any other reason than this one.
Czar’s wife, Blythe, was the heart of their club. Without her, none of them would have a clue about humanity. Czar had been their moral compass growing up. He’d given them a code to live by, but they were killers, they had to be in order to survive. He’d brought them home with him to Blythe. She’d taken the club members in and taught them what unconditional love was. Not a single one of them had believed Czar when he’d told them about her—what she was like. Now they believed she could walk on water.
Nothing, no one, would have ever persuaded Master to enter a prison willingly again, with this one exception. Blythe. Czar’s children. All of them were adopted. Blythe had taken in the three girls they’d rescued from a trafficking ring. At least two of the girls, the third, their little sister, they’d gotten from the foster home so they could all be together. Then Kenny, a teenage boy the club had rescued on one of their missions. Lastly, little Jimmy, a boy being auctioned off to the highest bidder. She’d welcomed all of the children. Every last one of them.
“I was part of the second school.” Ludis gestured toward the others. “We all were. We didn’t want to be part of the Ghosts. We stuck together and went out on our own. Helena approached us and ended up hiring us for a few of her own jobs separate from what the Russian wanted. She works for him, but she wanted her own teams loyal only to her.”
“Who is the Russian?”
Ludis shook his head. “Only Helena knows. At least she’s the only one who talks directly to him. Seriously, I never thought it was possible to meet one of you. I never would have gone after Prakenskii’s family had I known it was him. You have to believe me.”
Master waited for the attack. It was coming. Ludis was definitely working up his courage. “Why would Helena send you after them?”
“I have no idea. She started acting strange a few weeks ago. Secretive. She always talked to us. All of us sudden, she went very closed mouth. She began going to a kink club in San Francisco regularly and wanted a couple of us with her to have her back. It isn’t all that easy disappearing out of here weekend after weekend like she wanted us to.”
Ludis made his play, coming at Master with a smooth number of fast snapping front kicks to drive him back and into the position he wanted him. Master simply stood still, on the balls of his feet, legs shoulder width apart, blocking every kick with a smooth bat of his palm. He moved with blurring speed, suddenly gliding on the floor with his body, catching his legs between his opponent’s and rolling, taking him down in a scissor move.
Ludis hit the cement floor belly first, Master coming down hard on top of him, his fist hammering hard several times in his kidneys. He planted his knee on Ludis’ spine and trapped his head in his hands, snapping the neck with a hard jerk.
Kir Vasiliev would leave this prison very soon. The charges against him would be dropped. All evidence would be proved false. He would go back to his club and be their numbers man, bury himself in his music and working with wood, in the things that kept him sane—he hoped. Absinthe would come for him.
It wasn’t like he had the information the club had hoped for, but they were a step closer—and he’d gotten this assassination team. Helena might think twice before she sent her second team after Czar’s family. Could she afford to lose more of her men? She’d have to weigh that price tag. Consider what it would mean to pit her people against Torpedo Ink. She’d lose her teams, one man after another. She had to know who they were and where they came from.
Master made certain there wasn’t a trace of blood on him. He’d been careful of his clothes and boots. He hadn’t wanted to use a knife. Often, when one stabbed or sliced into flesh, you cut your own skin, leaving behind traces. He hadn’t. He was too professional for that shit. Still, he was meticulous, going over every inch of what would become a crime scene in the morning when the bodies were discovered.
He had to make certain the guards’ phones didn’t contain any evidence that he had been the prisoner they were bringing to Ludis and his crew. He took his time, not hurrying, not letting nerves get to him. When he made his way back to his cell, he was just as careful, not touching anything, not allowing a camera to pick him up. He also made doubly certain he followed the exact route the guards had taken him, back through the narrow hallway only the privileged used, so no prisoner spotted him as he let himself once again into his solitary confinement cell.
It was only a matter of allowing time to pass without losing his mind or letting anything get to him before Absinthe came to get him out. Absinthe was their club attorney, and he could work magic on paper or off, get anyone to do what he wanted. He could compel truth from just about anyone. They wanted Absinthe to get his hands on the Russian woman and find out just why she was after Czar. No one knew, not even Czar.
Master paced back and forth like an animal for the next few days in that small cell. Push-ups. Pull-ups. Sit-ups. Pacing again. Anything physical to keep his body as exhausted as possible. He didn’t sleep much. He hadn’t for years, that left time for a lot of physical activity as well as reading, music and his investments.
Just as expected, all hell had broken lose in the morning when the guards and four long-time prisoners were found dead in the laundry room. The laundry room appeared to be locked from the inside by the guards. It was a mystery that the detectives and prison authorities were frantic to solve. The public—and the politicians tended to demand answers when murders happened inside a prison.
The glitches in the security cameras were later attributed to the guards. There was money in their accounts going back several years that seemed to be unaccounted for. The rumors were rampant in the prison—as they always were. Evidence was piling up that something shady had been going on with those prisoners and the guards. Who had killed them and why?
It was a classic assassination meant to rock the system and be very public. Evidence was fed to the investigators in just the right places. Bank accounts. Tips. Other prisoners coming forward to tell of the privileges given to the dead men—how everyone feared crossing them because they were protected. It was even rumored from prisoners that women were brought in for them or they were taken out often when those four prisoners wanted to leave to party.
Master wasn’t even part of the investigation. He had no interaction that anyone really saw with the prisoners or guards in question. He hadn’t been in that prison for very long. He simply waited, counting the days and nights, sliding back into that well of darkness that had been his home for far too much of his life.
He was quiet and he functioned, giving the club what they needed. He played in the band, practiced with the other band members often. He worked with his hands with the wood, building whatever was needed. He was good at it, the wood revealed so much of history to him. And there were always the numbers. He lost himself in numbers and that was what kept him sane—if he was sane. He questioned that often. Too often lately. Especially when he did pull-ups in that small little cell.
What was he going back to? A life where no one saw him. He really was what others had whispered about him—the chameleon. He became what Sorbacov needed. And then his country. And now the club. It didn’t matter that no one saw him because if they did, they would see the killer in him. The man who couldn’t feel anything but that hot rage flowing through his veins. Or hot need.
The others didn’t understand that either. What happened to him when he came out of the small little cell. What Sorbacov and his friends had programed his body to need. He could already feel that building inside. That dark lust. One more terrible difference to set him apart from the others in his chosen family.
As he paced and did pushups and sit-ups and endless math problems in his head, he realized he was angry with Czar. He shouldn’t be. Czar couldn’t help seeing into people. Seeing into their souls—if one had a soul. He could pierce through your armor and get right to the core of you. He always had that talent, even as a boy. He would look at a child and know who would stand and fight, be loyal to the bitter end, or lie and cheat and betray. He knew the heart of you. While every other member of Torpedo Ink had been given a clean slate when they came to Sea Haven and Caspar, he hadn’t. Czar had looked at him with those eyes and said no, they would need his skills. That had been a sentence worse than if Czar had condemned him to death.
Master had known he was a lost cause the moment Czar decreed that not only should they keep his prison record, but that Absinthe and Code needed to make certain he looked very scary, and yet the convictions were overturned so he wasn’t in danger of the three-strike law in effect. He had known there was little humanity left in him, if any, but to have Czar see into him and then expose him to the others—that was a blow beyond comprehension.
He had learned to use silence as a child to keep from giving his “instructors” more joy. He had used that silence in prison to keep from killing. He was used to it now. He lost himself in his music or working with his hands, but he had withdrawn from the human race as much as possible. He let the others handle any of the niceties. No one questioned his silence. Sometimes he wondered if they even noticed. He learned not to care.
On the fifth day after the discovery of the bodies, Master heard the guards outside his cell and knew Absinthe had come for him. The two men were talking in low tones, not at all happy that he was being released.
“Vasiliev, your fucking lawyer is here. Get your ass up and collect your things.”
Barry Adams wasn’t a bad guard. Surly most of the time, but he did his job, and he didn’t push the prisoners around. He didn’t like Kir Vasiliev and he made that plain. He thought Master was guilty as sin of every crime he’d been thrown in prison for and somehow his brilliant lawyer would find a technicality, or a witness, something to overturn the conviction.
“Seems like this is a hotel for you, a revolving door,” John Sippo added, gesturing for Master to walk out of his cell. “Why are you always in solitary?”
Master just looked at him. There was no point in conversing. None.
“He’s a troublemaker, can’t get along with anyone,” Barry said. “Get moving, Vasiliev, you know the way by now.”
Yeah, he did. He walked straight to the front desk where Absinthe waited while they handed over his personal items, all of which were in an envelope. The two fell into step without a word, the guards walking with them to let them out.
“We’ll be seeing you soon,” John said.
Master didn’t turn around or even bother flipping him off. He wasn’t coming back. Not even if Czar commanded him to. He was done with prison. He was never going back, not for anyone. Not for any reason. They could kill him first.
He took a deep breath of freedom and then slid into the car with Absinthe.
“You okay?” Absinthe asked.
“Yeah. Just fine. Need to head to the club.”
“Czar wants you to come straight home. He’s anxious for any information you have and there’s a situation developing we need to take care of.” Absinthe eased the car into traffic.
“Take me to the club, Absinthe, or fucking drop me off at the corner and I’ll get a ride.” Master pulled open the glove box and took out the wallet with his own ID, credit cards and the fat wad of cash he liked to carry. He shoved the one he’d been arrested with inside. It had his driver license and little else personal. Prison already had taken too much of him, he wasn’t giving anything else of himself if he could help it.
Absinthe glanced at him, a quick shrewd once over. Absinthe had a gift. He could hear the truth, even compel it. He knew Master meant exactly what he said. He shouldn’t be surprised or even alarmed. After every prison stay, Master did as he was programmed to do. He found a woman and he used her hard. That was what the club was for. The women there were looking for men like Master, or at least thought they were.
“The club it is,” Absinthe said. “I’m sorry it took so long for me to get you out of there.”
Master shrugged his shoulders and stared out at the cars and trucks on the highway. Absinthe handled the Audi with ease, moving through traffic without calling attention to them. They did everything that way, as if they were still in the shadows. They probably always would.
“Talk to me, Master,” Absinthe said.
“Don’t have a fucking thing to say,” Master murmured, not turning his head. He knew better than to say a word around Absinthe. He could see inside a man’s head, hear truth in a voice, and it wouldn’t be a good thing.
Master was feeling…murderous. It wasn’t an unfamiliar feeling when he was first out of prison. There was always that transition he had to make. From prison survival of the fittest to the latest edition of whatever self he was going to be. He’d been an animal in a cage with too much time to remember every single thing done to him when he was a child and teen. The moment he entered a prison, the memories were there, threatening to swallow him whole.
Master didn’t just have to fight physically to stay alive, it was a mental process as well. Each time he was alone in his cell, the memories swamped him. It was impossible to push them away. He couldn’t close those doors on the nightmare of his childhood and every time Czar sent him back, it felt as if he were being abandoned to his past, to those monsters.
Master sighed and turned his head to look at his Torpedo Ink brother. He’d known Absinthe since they were practically toddlers. They’d gone through hell together and survived. Absinthe was one of the best of them, whether the man knew it or not. He was genuine in his concern. It was the only reason Master didn’t slam his fist into his face and the hell with what happened after that, because he didn’t give a damn if they crashed right there on the freeway.
“Probably.” He thought about it. “Yeah. Mostly, I want to kill someone. I need to fuck someone hard. And then I want to kill someone. I’m a little psycho. So suicidal, need to fuck, and psycho. The usual.”
Absinthe drove in silence, easing the car smoothly through traffic, the speed always steady as he took the exit that would take them to San Francisco and the underground club where Master took care of his immediate need.
“That bad.” It was a statement.
“I’m not going back, Absinthe. Not for anyone.” Master made his own statement.
“I’ll talk to Czar.”
“You already talked to him. It didn’t do any good. The only way I’m going to ensure I don’t go back is to walk away.” He kept his voice low. He always did. He’d learned it was better to speak softly or not at all. “Sooner or later, he’ll need something. It will be important enough in his mind that he’ll decide I have to go back.”
“I’ll make it clear if we need someone to go in, Destroyer will have to go.”
Master shook his head. “That would be worse than asking me, Absinthe, and you know it. He can’t ever go back without killing someone. He may be quiet, but he’s ruthless. You ought to know that. He spent years in prison. I went in and out and I barely can make it through. You can’t keep asking a man to relive his worst nightmares over and over without consequences.”
The moment the words were out of his mouth, he realized he’d said too much. Absinthe was very good at manipulating others into telling him what he wanted to know. Master had never actually come out and told anyone what it was like for him going back to prison again and again.
Absinthe continued to drive in his smooth, easy way, eyes on the highway with the lanes filled with cars, making his way to San Francisco without further protest. They were close to the club and the adrenaline and hot blood were mixing, already pulsing through his body, a dark streaming ribbon of venomous heat that couldn’t be denied.
“You should have told me what happens when you go there, Master,” Absinthe said.
Master frowned at the quiet guilt in his tone. “Don’t do that. Don’t try to take responsibility for something you have no control over. What happened to me, happened to everyone, just in different ways. You couldn’t have stopped it then and you can’t now. Czar decides he needs something, getting in and out of jail or prison for someone like me makes sense to him, and he sends me.”
“Someone like you?” Absinthe echoed. “What does that mean?”
“Don’t be obtuse. If he thought I was worth shit, he would have had Code set me up clean, given me a start I might actually succeed with here, but he didn’t. He made sure I had a record no decent woman would ever tolerate. If I found someone and we had kids, I couldn’t do half the things with them at school because of my record. You tell me how that equates to a fresh start for me, Absinthe.”
Absinthe took the exit that would take them to the club. It wasn’t far and he was silent until they were in the parking lot. “You’ve got this wrong, Master. No one is left behind. We stick together, that’s how we made it through. Every single one of us is invaluable to the others.”
Master stepped out of the car, taking another lungful of freedom—of that fresh air he could never find in prison, not even outside in the yard. Absinthe locked the car and fell into step with him as they approached the archway to De Sade.
“I’m invoking the confessional, Absinthe. This conversation is strictly between us. There’s no need to take it to anyone else.” There was satisfaction in being able to turn the tables on Absinthe.
“No way. You’re tying my hands. I can get to the bottom of this, Master.”
“The confessional,” Master reiterated and opened the door to De Sade.