Chapter 1: Unwanted visitors

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When the local crime lord who happened to be my beloved boss showed up at my door, I knew my monday morning was going to suck. And it wouldn't just suck a little bit: it would suck big time.

Isla Faulkner could've been somebody's dream girl, given that that somebody liked their women with muscles for days and hair as red as the blood of her enemies. She wasn't exactly my type. Especially not when she smiled at me the way she did that morning: with a foreboding kind of fake innocence, sharp enough to cut me to shreds.

"Good morning, Jack." She sing-songed those words. Actually sing-songed them. "How are you on this fine day?"

When Isla began to act polite, I always knew what time it was. Time to turn on my heels and get myself far away from her, preferably putting a few countries worth of distance between us. Or continents. I took an instinctive step back from the door, hoping the shadows in my hallway would swallow me. Anything but being here.

"Good, good, uh… Good to see you, Isla," I stuttered, lying through my teeth. "Who's your friend?"

Isla's presence at my house was worrying enough already, but the guy standing next to her made me feel downright alarmed. He was the size of a small mountain and looked like what I imagined the Germanic warlord who pummeled Julius Caesar himself would have looked like. The blond bush of hair plastered on his chin put my own scruffy brown beard to shame, and there was a dangerous glint in his blue eyes. He struck me as the type of man who thought 'survival of the fittest' meant 'survival of the guy who cracks the most skulls'. I hated that type of man.

Isla was kind enough to introduce her terrifying escort to me. "This here is Charlie." Her smile only grew wider. "He's going to make you regret ever being born."

That was my cue to leave.

I stumbled backwards when Charlie stepped inside, hoping I could still escape against all odds. But it was no use, was it? In the time it would take me to unlock my back door, Charlie could break at least sixteen of my bones. And even if I made it outside, what would I do? Roam the wilderness in nothing but black boxer shorts and a grey shirt? It was madness, and also beneath me.

In the end, I wasn't fast enough, anyway. Before I even reached my living room, Charlie's strong hand already grabbed my collar and yanked me back to him and the devil he worked for. I hacked and spluttered, and a deep feeling of dread filled me when I heard Isla close the door to my house behind me. No way out.

"So when do you think you'll be paying me back, Jack?" she asked while Charlie kept me firmly in place. "It's a large sum you owe me at this point, and I could use some money right now."

If those diamond earrings she wore were anything to go by, Isla Faulkner was far from being in pressing financial trouble. Unlike me. "You don't even know how much I've been aching to pay you back," I told her. Was that overdoing it? God, I was overdoing it. "I'm a little broke right now, though, but if you're up for it, we could arrange something for next month? Or even better, give me more time! I can give you anything you want by, by… June?"

June was more than half a year away. Isla looked at me as if I was clinically insane before turning to examine a small vase decorating my hallway. Real Delft blue. I held my breath.

"Has it occurred to you that I'm sick of your pathetic attempts at smooth talk? That you're starting to outlive your usefulness?" She picked the vase up, turned it over in her hands. "I hired you because you had an impressive CV for a thief. Surely a man capable of stealing Caravaggio paintings and royal wedding rings could be a valuable asset, right?"

Damn right. I was many things, and 'talented' was one of those. I had a job and I did it well. Or at least… I'd done it well in the past. It was possible I'd gotten sloppy in more recent times, too secure in my own skills and too used to everything coming easy to me. Perhaps I should've stepped up my game a long time ago. But who was Isla to complain? How I did my job was my business.

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