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There’s nothing like a death sentence to make someone appreciate the finer things in life, and Gianna D’Antonio is fine. She’s not even holding a gun; right now, that makes her twice as attractive.

“That is quite the story you have told me,” Gianna says. There’s a glass of red in her hand and a second on the coffee table at her side; she poured two a while ago and left the second to sit. It felt like a good sign at first. Now it’s starting to feel like a taunt. “Ms.…Perkins, is it? Not your full name, I assume.”

“It’s the only one I use.”

“Is it? Well, why not. I have heard much stranger in my time.” Gianna has a face like a fox; the smile says stroke me, and the eyes say rabies. There are rumours about her. Though there are rumours about everyone on her rung of the ladder, many of them disappointingly false. People in power are a lot less interesting than they’d like others to think.

“So anyway,” Perkins says, sitting back on her heels. She’s been kneeling for well over half an hour. It’s getting uncomfortable. “Winston’s overreacting and I need to lie low for a while. Or for someone higher up to tell him to get over himself. So I made a mess, it happens. I’ll pay for the dinner reservation.”

“You broke the rules,” Gianna points out. The idea doesn’t seem to bother her. “Management is…sensitive about those who seek to erode its power base. Or reveal it as illusory. You stepped on toes, Ms. Perkins.”

“I just took a contract. We all have to eat.”

“Your failure will not feed you, though, will it? And so you find yourself begging.”

She says it like she can’t imagine anything worse than having to beg for her life. Like it’s so distasteful it crosses the line into taboo. For her, maybe it does. But she’s the one who made Perkins get on her knees in the first place.

There are worse things to be asked for. The carpet’s pretty comfortable. And pride is worth fuck all if it kills you.

“I’m not begging,” Perkins says for the sake of it. “Yet. Right now I’m just asking for a favour.”

“But we have never spoken before. Why come to me, when surely there are others who know you better?”

She has a point; Perkins avoids the Italians on principle. Camorra, ‘Ndrangheta, Mafia, doesn’t matter. They’re a volatile nest of well-dressed spiders, sharing a web, eating each other. The Russians are a lot more straight-forward; take the job, take the money, take your leave without strings attached. But Viggo’s the big fish in New York these days, and if he isn’t dead yet, he will be soon. And if he isn’t dead at all, he’ll want to know who tipped off John Wick about his bank vaults under the church. There are only so many options. Viggo’s going to know it was her. It’s not like she’d bother to deny it.

The problem with being something of a treacherous bitch is running into moments like this. No friends worth speaking to. No allies strong enough to bother with. Just her choice of piranha in a sea of the things. Pick a crime lord; any crime lord. Hope you picked them on a day they’re feeling full.

“I don’t have a patron,” Perkins says. “Unless Viggo survives John Wick-”

“He won’t,” Gianna says, with the simplicity of someone who knows.

Perkins doesn’t argue. “I’ve pissed off the triads…recently. Long story. And there was a misunderstanding with the Bowery King a couple of years back. Most others want payment in advance, or you have to be friends of theirs. I don’t do friends.”

“I can’t imagine why,” Gianna says. “And so you decided to try your luck with me.”

“I heard you were in town. It seemed worth a shot.”

Gianna laughs. She makes it sound indulgent, like an owner cooing over the antics of her new kitten. Look, she knows a trick! How precious. “I appreciate your…honesty,” she says. “It’s quite refreshing. Though I suppose you’re in no position for anything else. Tell me; when you decided to throw yourself on the mercy of the Camorra, why did you not go to my brother?” She sips her wine; her eyes are too blue to hold warmth.

The underworld has stories about Gianna and her brother. Rumour says they like pain. Rumour says they’re two sides of a blood-encrusted coin. And with the sharp toes of Gianna’s high heels very close to her eyes, Perkins starts wondering if she should have gone for tails instead of heads.

She could try and claim she chose Gianna specifically. Flatter her a little, suck up like she means it and not like she’s desperate. But Gianna has hungry, cunning eyes. And Perkins isn’t that good of a liar.

“Honestly?” she says. “I flipped a coin. Word on the street says you’re both assholes. But so am I.”

“We’re not quite the same, Ms. Perkins,” Gianna says mildly. “There is no axe hanging over my head. No death sentence. You are doomed, and I am not. If you want empathy from me, perhaps an insult is not the place to start.” She doesn’t mind it, though; she’s having fun, and she’s not hiding it. Perkins is the evening’s entertainment. An amusing diversion, bloody black denim and leather on the floor of her beautiful living room.

“I’m sorry,” Perkins says. “You want me to lie? Miss D’Antonio, it’s such a pleasure to meet you. I’ve been crushing on you for, like, ever. You’re so much more beautiful in person. Pretty please, won’t you stop the mean old manager from blowing my brains out the next time he sees me? I’d really appreciate it. Did I mention how hot you are?”

She shifts on her knees as Gianna laughs at her; as comfortable as the carpet is, soft gold-threaded crimson, her feet are sprouting pins and needles. The kneeling thing is getting old. But she knows better than to stand without permission.

“So brazen,” Gianna says. “I suppose you think it gives you charm.”

“It kind of does.”

“No,” Gianna says, gently condescending. “It doesn’t.”

She uncrosses her legs, the toe of one high heel just barely missing a kick to Perkins’ temple. She’s still not holding a gun; the movement rides her skirt up past her knees before she smooths it down, but she’s not wearing knives under that either. She wouldn’t be. There’s a humourless man standing by the door with enough firepower under his Italian suit jacket to turn Perkins into paste on the carpet. Gianna’s no fool. She plays the game, but stacks the odds.

And Perkins isn’t here to kill her. Not today.

“Listen,” she says. She’s keenly aware that Gianna’s wine glass is almost empty. It’s like watching an hourglass drain. Tick tock, Ms. Perkins. Tick fucking tock. “I’m kind of desperate here. Which means I’m prepared to offer you a way better deal than Viggo ever got. I’m a professional; I have skills. Just give me a chance to impress you, and I swear you won’t be disappointed. A year of work is what I’m offering. One full year, all the kills you want. Only thing it’ll cost you is a word in Winston’s ear.”

She watches Gianna mull it over. There’s no way of knowing if she’s interested; the only thing Gianna lets slip is how much she enjoys considering it.

There are so many stories about Gianna D’Antonio. Some of them spread by Gianna herself; some made up by her jealous little brother. Some might even be true. They say she’s been running most of the family businesses alone for years now, ever since daddy started going senile. They say she’s never shed a drop of blood herself in her life, though her enemies keep gifting her territories seemingly out of the goodness of their hearts. But they also say she kills children when people refuse her. Cuts their throats while the parents watch and beg for a level of mercy she doesn’t possess.

That last one will suck if it’s true; it doesn’t bode well for Perkins.

“It is interesting that you came to me now,” Gianna says. She twists her glass; the wine moves gently. “Only a few days ago I was thinking about hiring a new…professional. Cassian is wonderful, of course; there is nothing he does not do for me. I make no secret of how much I value him.”

She’s going somewhere with it. Perkins follows her lead, and finds an answer. “Which means any work he does has your name stamped all over it.”

“It does,” Gianna agrees. “And good work it is, but there are times when secrecy is to my advantage. Forgive me, Cassian. I am not looking to replace you.” She smiles over Perkin’s head at the tall, dour man standing by the door. Perkins doesn’t turn to look, but she files the name away all the same.

She knows the Russians; knows their staff, their elites. Knows most of the Albanians too, and others. But the Italian side of things is something of a mystery, and Cassian doesn’t ring bells. That could be a problem.

“Okay,” Perkins says. “I’m not saying I’m better than he is. I mean, I probably am.” She waits for a response from the storm cloud by the door. There’s nothing. She wasn’t expecting much, but it was worth a shot. “You give me a job, no one’ll know I came from you. I’m sure as fuck not going to tell them. It’s my ass on the line here. You can trust me to stay quiet.” There’s no need to mention Viggo’s vaults beneath a church in Little Russia, or the dig of John Wick’s fingers in the soft flesh under Perkins’ chin. She still has bruises. She caved like an ill-built scaffold in the wind; nothing has ever scared her as much in her life. Nothing like looking into John’s eyes and seeing a blank, black pit where the soul should be.

The memory would make her shiver if Gianna wasn’t watching as closely as she is. Gianna would like it, Perkins realises. Gianna enjoys fear. The rumours got that one right.

“I can beg if you want me to,” Perkins says. “I’ll even sound convincing. Fuck dying for Winston’s little rules. You want me to beg for my life, I can start any time.”

Gianna responds by draining her wine glass. She’s classy about it, but the light clink of the glass being set down on the side table sounds not unlike the slide of a bullet into a chamber. Perkins grits her teeth. She glances from the empty glass to Gianna’s face and tries to work out just how fucked she is. But there’s no way to tell.

And then Gianna beckons with one long finger. “Come,” she says.

Perkins scrambles to her feet, too careful to stagger though her legs are numb. She makes her way to the couch. There’s room at Gianna’s side; maybe they’re going to sit together and share secrets like little girls. Or maybe Gianna’s bored with the couch and wants an excuse to replace it. A corpse would do the trick. Hard to scrub blood out of white suede.

“No,” Gianna says as Perkins goes to sit next to her. “Come here.” It takes a moment to work out what she wants. When it clicks, Perkins almost laughs.

So that’s what the deal is.

She settles down into Gianna’s lap, a knee on either side of her thighs, black denim crushing black silk. Her leather jacket is still streaked with blood; she must stink of it, the blood and the sweat, the smell of a job gone sour. Some people like that kind of thing. It gets them hot. Makes them predictable.

Gianna reaches over to the second wine glass at her elbow. It’s full, untouched. She makes to pick it up, then hesitates; her fingers dip past the rim of the glass, and she sinks them into the wine. They come back red, dripping. Perkins plays the obedient pet and opens her mouth. Sucks wine from the fingers Gianna offers her, and holds the cool blue gaze the whole time. This is a game she knows. These are rules she can play by.

“Not bad,” she says, nodding towards the wine glass. “I’m more of a tequila girl myself, but I can be flexible. That’s pretty good. But I bet you taste even better.”

It’s not a subtle offer; she takes it over the line into brazen, squeezing Gianna’s hips with her knees, grinding down a little.

Gianna just smiles. She’s not surprised; she’s right where she wants to be, making the calls, choosing her next move. She lowers her hand back to the glass of wine, soaking her fingers again. “Perhaps,” she says. “You may think about it, if you want to; I have no objection. But it is not a mystery you will solve today. Maybe another day, if you please me very much. For the moment…” She brings her fingers back to Perkins’ mouth, smearing wine all over whatever brave remnants of lipstick have managed to survive the day from hell.

Perkins licks her lips. And when Gianna’s fingers slip playfully into her mouth, she licks those clean too. Gianna’s expression doesn’t change; it’s like this isn’t doing anything for her. The way she touches Perkins’ teeth with her fingertips feels a little like an inspection. Like she’s sizing up a race horse at an auction.

“Yes,” Gianna says. Finally, she takes her fingers out of Perkins’ mouth. “I think you’d do very well. You have no subtlety, and no manners; no one would look at you and believe that you worked for me. I like that.”

Perkins shrugs off the no manners thing. She has manners when she fucking feels like it, and the rest of the time she has guns. “I’m a likeable person.”

“No,” Gianna says. “You’re a desperate fuck-up with no friends and no options left. And that is exactly what I need. Luck is with you, Ms. Perkins. I think that I will take you up on your generous offer. A year of service, in exchange for my intervention with the Manager of New York’s Continental.”

Bitch, Perkins thinks, but not too viciously. She pastes an insincere smile on her face to cover the relief flooding through her. “Sounds like the start of a beautiful relationship.”

Gianna’s smile takes on a coy edge. It’s more unnerving than it should be. “Assuming, of course, that you are capable of obeying orders.”

“If it keeps me alive, yeah. Sure. What do you want me to do?”

There’s no change to Gianna’s expression. She drops one hand, still wet with Perkin’s saliva and pink-stained from the wine, down to the zipper of Perkins’ jeans. The button is popped open one-handed, the zip tugged down. If the sheer silk G-string underneath impresses her, there’s no sign of it. She slips her fingertips beneath the hem, letting the elastic stretch before releasing it to snap back in place.

Perkins sits still, waiting. She’d make most people buy her fucking dinner first at least, but desperate times, desperate measures. And Gianna’s a beautiful woman. Fucking a beautiful woman isn’t exactly an imposition; she could stand to ask a bit more nicely, but women of Gianna’s rank don’t have to ask. Gianna gets what Gianna wants, and Perkins gets to live another year.

She feels her skin tingle slightly as Gianna plays with the hem of her G-string, not quite committing to slipping underneath. Maybe she won’t; she doesn’t seem to have decided yet. There’s a sense that any moment now she could go either way. She might change her mind and pull the zip back up. Or get a hand between Perkins’ legs and go knuckle deep without warmup. She seems like the type. The thought alone has Perkins spreading her knees a little wider.

“Go for it,” she says. “You want me to be good? I can be good. Anything you want, it’s yours.”

“I know.” Gianna makes no move to take what’s on offer. Instead, she reaches for the glass of wine, this time lifting it, watching the candlelight catch. “But I think,” she says, “I should not have to do all the work. Make it quick, Ms. Perkins. As you are no doubt aware, I have many people waiting for me. My time is precious. Yours is not. Go on.”

Yeah, you’re smug now, Perkins thinks, fighting to keep the smile on her own face. You get whatever you want. That’s fine. See how long it stays that way. Everyone dies to a bullet.

She doesn’t bother to drag things out, or to show off at all; Gianna’s leaning back into the couch, sipping wine and watching with an amused expression that makes Perkins want to bite. She doesn’t. She yanks one of her black leather gloves off with her teeth and shoves a hand under the hem of her G-string.

“This how you audition all your staff?” she asks. It’s just typical that she’s wet already; she eases a finger inside herself, hand curled awkwardly inside jeans that are too tight for it.

“Oh no,” Gianna says. “I would never dream of showing them such disrespect. But then, my staff all came to me seeking to serve. Seeking to honour me with their work. None of them flipped a coin to choose between my brother and me. You get the respect you earn, Ms. Perkins.”

It’s very tempting to punch her. But the temptation doesn’t outweigh the prospect of a longer life. Perkins winces around the strain in her wrist, working a second finger inside herself. She moves them shallowly; she can’t do much else. It wouldn’t be enough on most days. But there’s something to doing it under the weight of Gianna’s eyes. Heavy enough to make her breath come short. Sweat prickles in the roots of her hair.

And then Gianna reaches out with her free hand and takes Perkins by the wrist. She doesn’t dig her nails in. Doesn’t grip hard. She doesn’t have to; Perkins goes still.

“You mind?” she snaps.

“Not at all.” Gianna tugs pointedly on her wrist, until Perkins gives in. She pulls her hand free of the crush of her jeans; her fingers are slick, wet, smeared past the second knuckle. She wonders if she’ll be asked to lick them clean. If Gianna wants to do it for her.

“I thought you wanted it fast,” she says, watching Gianna sip the wine.

“I want what I want,” Gianna tells her. “And I always get it. In my own way, and in my own time. This is your first lesson.” She dips a couple of fingers back into the wine glass. Her nails are painted a deep, dark plum; they disappear into the wine. Perkins doesn’t roll her eyes. She does shift pointedly in Gianna’s lap. Patience isn’t her strong suit. Delayed gratification is for people who settle for a single orgasm a night.

Gianna lifts her fingers from the wine. Playing at obedience, Perkins opens her mouth for them. And discovers that she’s misjudged Gianna’s intentions again, like she’s been doing the whole evening; the fingers drop between her legs, rubbing briefly over her clit before two of them push inside her. She makes a choked sound. Gianna’s smile is very sharp. She flexes her fingers, rubbing them up against Perkins’ insides, and again it feels like an inspection. A test. Or just a game.

Who fucking cares, Perkins thinks viciously. She moves with the flex of Gianna’s fingers, riding her hand. She’s sweating, her skin growing hot. Play your games, just get me out of this alive. She hates the curve of Gianna’s smile, as if nothing impresses her, as if she’s mildly amused at best. She presses a perfunctory thumb over Perkins’ clit, rubbing lazily. It’s enough. Perkins comes hard, tightening around Gianna’s fingers, hoping it hurts. She swears coarsely into Gianna’s unimpressed expression.

“You’re welcome,” Gianna says, pulling her fingers free of Perkins. They glisten; she wipes them dry on Perkin’s jeans. “You may stand now.”

Perkins slides off her lap and stands, wincing. She’s furious. But she’s also alive, and everything else is a detail she’ll work out in her own time.

“Get her a room, Cassian,” Gianna says to the silent man by the door. Perkins doesn’t look at him. She’s really not interested in whatever he’s thinking right now. She doesn’t want to know if this is something he’s seen before. What the outcome was. “She’s staying. I imagine there will be some small teething problems to begin with, but I am confident that she will learn. Unless she dies on the job.”

“Never have before,” Perkins says. She zips her jeans, popping the button back into place; she still has the shakes, her fingers trembling slightly. The aftermath of an irritatingly good orgasm. It’ll pass. “Who’s my first mark?”

Gianna smiles. The wine has stained her lips; the candles stain them worse. She looks like she’s smiling through a mouthful of blood. “No one, for the moment. The timing is not right. First I must be crowned and take my place at the High Table. There will be celebrations, parties. I intend to enjoy myself very much. If you’re lucky, I might enjoy you too.”

“And after that?”

“I am considering,” Gianna says. “I suspect that I will ask you to kill my brother. But then again…maybe not. Who can say what destiny holds? Good night, Ms. Perkins. It is a pleasure to have you in my service.” She flicks her fingers idly; the dismissal is implicit, and Perkins decides not to try her luck any further.

She’s alive, for now. That’s a start. And as she puts on a swagger to leave the room, her skin stinking of blood and sex and good red wine, she knows better than to look back over her shoulder.

But she feels Gianna’s gaze all the same.