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Blood Beneath Your Fingernails

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Andrew decided long ago that if he was going to take on this kind of career, he would at least be classy about it. Stylish. Discreet. While his rivals enjoyed the screaming and the thrashing, delighted in seeing how much blood they could extract from a man before he succumbed to the blood loss, Andrew took no interest in such theatrics. He was practical, smooth, delicate. Artistic, even.

He therefore had little time for Nathan Wesninski. His most troublesome rival was everything that Andrew wasn’t in his work; boorish, bloodthirsty, dramatic… messy. The man was giving the profession a bad name.

No, Andrew was no fan of bloodshed. He assigned the most violent tasks to himself simply because he would rather the blood was on his hands than anyone else’s, and the only way of ensuring a job would be well done was to do it himself.

Lola put up more of a fight than her brother, but she died just the same, scratching and scrabbling at Andrew’s forearm as he neatly retrieved his blade from her chest. Henchmen, Andrew decided with a curl of his lip, were not worth the trouble. Too uppity, too unpredictable, too likely to get certain ideas in their heads. No, it was always best to keep it within the family.

There was a pop from the next room as another bottle of champagne was uncorked, a scattering of laughter as the party continued in full swing, nobody having noticed the conspicuous absence of a few key guests. The hum of music and conversation was the perfect cover for Andrew’s footsteps as he padded up the thickly carpeted staircase.

Nathan’s house was a gaudy, unpleasant place, filled with bright reds and golds that hurt the eye. Framed paintings no doubt obtained under dubious circumstances cluttered the walls, not displayed out of any appreciation for the art but from a simple to boast. Why a man from such a long line of affluence should feel the need to flaunt his wealth was a mystery to Andrew, especially considering the target that it undoubtedly painted on Nathan’s back. For Andrew, who had clawed his way up from the gutter, his expensive lifestyle was not born of spectacle. He had spent the best part of two decades in squalor; his every expense was cushioning against the life that nearly killed him. Perhaps no healthier an explanation for his indulgences, but certainly less gauche. Andrew contemplated smearing a bloody handprint over an undoubtedly original Monet out of pure spite, but no, not his style, unnecessary and exhibitory.

He wiped Lola’s blood from his blade with a handkerchief as he slipped down the endless corridor before sliding it into place in one of the many sheathes built into his suit. It was a good blade, one of his favourites. Nathan was not worthy of it. He slipped another from his left lapel, slimmer, a little blunt from disuse. Perhaps he would sharpen it on Nathan’s ribcage. He flicked it over in his palm, enjoying the weight and balance.

There was only one closed door on the upper floor of the Wesninski mansion. Andrew caught sight of his reflection in the brass doorknob. His suit was unruffled, even after disposing of Nathan’s men, but his jawline was flecked with blood. He smeared a thumb across it, the sticky, familiar scent catching in his nose.

He straightened his tie and pushed the door open.

“I told you, I don’t want to be disturbed-!” Nathan said, and then stopped, likely because of the knife Andrew had plunged through his neck. He made a wet, gargling noise as he dropped to the floor, clawing uselessly at his throat.

Andrew crouched over him. “Ill be having that back, now.” He pulled his knife from Nathan’s throat, leaning back to avoid the spurt of blood. Nathan’s arms twitched, his chest heaving as he stared up at Andrew. His expression moved through all the stages Andrew had grown accustomed to seeing from the soon-to-be-deceased; outrage, horror, panic, and then fear, bone-deep, endless, fear. It took a great deal to elicit that sort of emotion from Andrew, and for a moment, he was almost envious. He watched, bored, as Nathan’s movements twitched to a standstill and his wordless gurgling gave way to silence. It was a quicker, more peaceful end than Nathan Wesninski deserved. As his killer, Andrew would take the dubious honour of his title - butcher - if he was foolish enough to come forward and claim it. Honorifics were of little interest to Andrew. He didn't care how people refereed to him as long as it was done with the appropriate amount of fear.

His blood seeped into the fluffy cream carpet, pooling around Andrew’s oxfords. They were expensive shoes, as was everything Andrew wore. The staining was of little concern – he had another seven pairs at home – but the red marks he left in his wake would be. He would blame them on spilled wine; the stains were nothing alike, but people were so wonderfully stupid when it came to such matters.

He found the ballroom much as he left it. He passed the string quartet (mediocre) to pick at the teetering profiterole tower (less so). Just because he had killed the host didn’t mean Andrew couldn’t benefit from his hospitality. Baltimore’s elite giggled and gossiped around him, and Andrew caught more than a few appreciative eyes roaming his tailored suit. Andrew couldn’t deny the idea of a hook-up appealed to him; leaving the party early would be suspicious, but slipping out to find a secluded spot with one of these trust-fund pricks on his arm… less so. Besides which, adrenaline was still hammering hot and heavy in Andrew’s veins, and there were worse ways of dealing with it.

He cast his gaze around the room. Some guests he recognised from one shady dealing or another, members or associates of the Wesninski clan, while others were simply tag-alongs, swept up in the glitz of the revelry and oblivious to the sharks they swam amongst. The latter would be less troublesome, but the former more interesting. Andrew was a cautious man where work was concerned, but on his own time, he allowed himself to indulge in riskier ventures.

His gaze caught on a figure in the corner of the room, standing out for all that he was trying to blend in. About Andrew’s age, he showed no interest in the figures swirling around him, still like the eye of the storm. His eyes may as well have been glued to the floor.

Then, as though feeling Andrew’s gaze, the man’s gaze snapped up, and Andrew’s breath caught in his throat.

Despite his ill-fitting suit, the man was attractive –undeniably so – but that wasn’t all he was. Andrew knew those eyes. He had watched the life drain from a near-identical pair mere minutes ago.

Andrew didn’t believe in ghosts, but this was the closest he had ever come to doing so. No, despite his uneasy pallor, this man was not a ghost. He was younger than Nathan by far, his features slimmer, sharper. His lips, pressed together in an unreadable expression, were curled, chapped as though the man had been worrying at them.

Andrew met his gaze with a steady, blank stare. Nathan’s son was not what Andrew would have expected of him, shoulders curled in, devoid of his father’s self-assured bluster. He looked like he wanted to melt into the gilded wallpaper, or better still, dissolve into nothing. Nathan’s features, which had so offended Andrew on the man himself, did nothing to aide his son in his mission to disappear, attracting many interested glances that he made no effort to return. The striking eyes suited him better than they had Nathan, and for a moment Andrew’s world narrowed to the silver-blue gaze which pierced through the auburn mop of his hair.

Nathan’s death, along with the death of his most significant aids, was strategically planned to yank the legs out from beneath his empire. Andrew had not planned for an heir to the family business. As far as he had been aware, there wasn’t one; Nathaniel Wesninski had not been heard from in years, presumed to have met the kind of end that was common in Nathan’s line of work.

If Andrew had any sense, he would kill Nathaniel there and then. Instead, he took a glass of champagne from a passing waiter and threw it back. The sweet fizzle as the drink hit the back of his throat did little to distract from the warm, bubbling sensation in Andrew’s gut.

Partygoers parted before him as he crossed the ballroom, stepping sharply from his path like gazelles backing away from a lion. He came to a stop before the new, if unknowing, head of the Wesninski family. He was barely taller than Andrew, leaving them almost eye-to-eye.

“I heard you were dead.” Andrew offered him his hand. “Minyard.”

“Andrew or Aaron?” Nathaniel took it. “Either way, your reputation precedes you.” Andrew’s hand was still cool from the champagne glass; Nathaniel’s skin felt like fire in comparison. His hands were marked, Andrew noted, with a mish-mash of cuts and burns, still pink and healing, stark against his tan skin. Lola’s work, if Andrew had to guess. He wondered what act of insubordination could have drawn her ire; perhaps it was related to Nathaniel’s decade-long disappearance.

“Andrew.” Andrew squeezed Nathaniel’s hand. His fingers slid and caught on the callouses of Nathaniel’s wrist as he dropped his grip. “You have quite the pulse for a dead man.”

“So I’m told.” Nathaniel smiled. Andrew realised, with a shiver, that it was his father’s smile. Oh, he did not like that at all. “You can call me Neil.”

“Neil.” Andrew rolled the syllable around his mouth, testing it out. “An improvement.”

“It wasn’t a difficult name to improve upon.” Neil’s gaze flicked across the crowd, a crease appearing between his eyebrows. Andrew wondered if he was looking for his missing father; it wouldn’t be much longer before Nathan’s disappearance was noticed. Andrew was running out of time. “I always hated Nathaniel.”

“Not a fan of your father’s name?”

Neil’s expression closed like window shutters in preparation for a storm. “Is there something I help you with, Minyard?”

Andrew took the opening. He cast a calculated look over his shoulder before returning his attention to Neil. “Not here,” he said quietly. “Is there somewhere we can…?”

Andrew left the sentence dangling between them like a hook, left it to Neil to decide where he wanted to go with it. Neil’s suspicion was heavy in his gaze, but beneath it, a spark of curiosity that sent heat straight to Andrew’s gut.

Neil led the way while Andrew followed, leaving the kind of distance between them that gave the barest appearance of propriety without fooling anyone. A maze of corridors took them up onto a quiet balcony that overlooked the lush green of the Wesninski’s estate below. The height would be enough to leave Andrew’s heart tipping around in his chest, were the man before him not already doing the job quite effectively. It was more exposed than Andrew would have preferred, but at this time of night it would be dark enough to provide the minimum cover he required. If not, Andrew was more than equipped to deal with the consequences.

His knives were a heavy weight in their hidden sheathes. Andrew wondered, if he pressed Neil up against the balcony wall, whether the man would feel his blades through the layers of his suit.

Kiss the boy or kill the boy; Andrew could not have both. He wasn’t needlessly cruel.

Against expectation, Neil turned away from Andrew to rest his elbows on the balcony partition. “So? What do you want?”

Andrew quirked an eyebrow. Neil genuinely believed that Andrew was here for business, not pleasure. Interesting. Oh, why did he have to be interesting? Interesting was troublesome. No, interesting was dangerous.  

Nathaniel Wesninski was a problem. A loose end. Left to his own devices, he could unravel everything Andrew had fought and bled and killed to build for himself. Painted silver by the moonlight, Neil leaned over the balcony with no concern for the drop beneath him, eyes on the horizon, unaware of the terrible power Andrew had dropped on his shoulders. Power that, if Andrew had any sense, he would destroy before it had the chance to be turned on him.

Andrew couldn't look away. It would be easy, now. A hand on his shoulder, the slightest push, and Neil would tumble to his death. It wasn’t Andrew’s style, but it would be effective.

He stepped forward, and in an instant, Andrew was flipped and slammed to the floor, a blade glinting at his neck. He gasped, the air knocked from his lungs, as Neil smirked down at him.

“You really think I’m that stupid?” He leaned forward to whisper in Andrew’s ear, breath tickling his neck. “You have blood beneath your fingernails.”

Andrew flinched. Stupid, stupid, stupid. His mind whirred; the key was to keep Neil talking, because talking was better than dead. “It didn’t come from anyone that will be missed.”

“I don’t doubt it. I’ll ask one more time: what do you want?” Neil twisted the blade, and a hot dribble of blood slid down Andrew’s neck. Andrew was impressed; he barely felt the skin break. Of course the butcher’s son would know his way around a knife.

Andrew glanced at the scars winding their way up Neil’s wrists, remembered the tense set of his shoulders as he scanned the ballroom, the way Neil’s expression shuttered at the mention of his father, and made an educated guess. “The same thing as you.” His voice came out low, hoarse from the weight of Neil’s knee on his chest. “Your father in a coffin.”

Neil laughed. “It isn’t a particularly exclusive club.”

“I’m not joking.”

Neil went still. “If you think you can kill my father, you’re either stupid or suicidal.”

Andrew’s face split into a painful smile. The movement pressed his neck to the biting metal of Neil’s blade, but he couldn’t hold it back. “Is that so?”

“The life expectancy of people who anger my father is not a long one.”

“What are you? The exception?”

Neil’s gaze flattened into something painfully black. In the moment of distraction, Andrew lunged, flicking a blade from his sleeve to press into Neil’s abdomen. Neil’s eyes widened, but Andrew only held it there, teasing at the hem of Neil’s shirt with the tip.

“Don’t make me kill you,” Andrew hissed. “This suit costs more than your life is worth. It would be a shame to get your blood on it.”

For a moment, they stared at each other, hands veined with the strain of weilding their respective blades, chests rising and falling in time. Neil was the first to give ground.

“Now what?”

“Do you want to be head of the Wesninski household?” Andrew asked. The question seemed to surprise Neil. He flinched.

“God, no.”

“Correct answer.” Slowly, Andrew withdrew his blade. It clattered as it hit the floor, startlingly loud in the quiet night air. “A lot of people are about to be pointing a lot of fingers, and you’re going to be suspect number one.”

“For what?”

“The murder of your father.” Andrew wrapped his hand around Neil’s wrist and pulled it back. Neil moved bonelessly with him, his features slackened. “Come with me, forsake your family name, and I can offer you protection from all of them.”

“The murder of my-” Neil’s mouth moved wordlessly for a moment. “You didn’t.”

“Go look, if you like. I’m sure being found at the crime scene will do your case a world of good.”

Neil’s eyes flashed, bright with a vicious, violent hope. His gaze snapped back to Andrew. “Why should I trust you?”

Andrew shrugged. “Trust is irrelevant. I’m more interested in your compliance.”

“And if you don’t get it?”

Andrew pressed Neil’s wrist to the floor and squeezed it, hard. “Then I’m sure we can work out another way of settling the issue.”

The windows on the ground floor were thrown open to let the cool night air seep in. The sounds of the party were so faint that Andrew didn’t notice them until they stopped. There was a clash of glass, a faint scream.

“Tick tock, Neil. Join me, or become your father and risk paying the price for his death.” Andrew pushed himself up until their faces were a hair’s breadth apart. Neil’s eyes were wide, his pupils blown, his breath shallow. The sight sent aftershocks of adrenaline shooting through Andrew’s bloodstream, making him wonder if the offer wasn’t better rescinded with a knife to the chest. It was a terrible risk to take simply to neutralise a threat. But, if Andrew was being truthful with himself, it wasn’t entirely about finding a bloodless resolution; he thought he knew better than to mix business with pleasure, but Nathan’s son was teaching him all sorts of new things about himself.

What the hell; Andrew had earned a little indulgence.

This time, it was Andrew who leaned in to whisper in Neil’s ear. He noted the way the hairs on the back of Neil’s neck rose as he spoke. “Come with me. Join my family. Live under my protection.” Sirens screamed in the distance, the horizon flashing blue and red. They didn’t worry Andrew, who knew a car would be waiting for him at a strategic getaway point, nondescript, fast, expensive. Neil, on the other hand, did not look so comfortable with the approaching sirens. Perhaps he had some sense, after all.

The silver flecks in Neil’s eyes looked like shattered glass as he stared towards the source of the sound. “You can’t keep me safe. Nobody can.”

“Only one way to find out.” Andrew nudged Neil out of the way as he climbed to his feet. He noticed, with a stab of irritation, that his suit was rumpled. He paused to smooth out the creases.

Neil looked up at Andrew like it was his turn to see a ghost. Andrew had imagined the head of the Wesninskis kneeling before him more times than he cared to admit. The reality was more appealing than the fantasy ever had been, and for entirely different reasons.

“Neil.” Andrew offered him his hand. “Yes or no?”

Neil took it, and it was answer enough.