Bulletproof

Sloane

Sloane took the long way home, the way she’d planned in case she ever had to lose a tail. When she reached her street, she walked around the block once and then sat at a table in the cafe across from her apartment building.

No sign of Cade.

She’d left as soon as she’d ensured the thief at the corner store had been neutralized, slipping out the exit once Cade’s back was turned. If he knew where she was, it was a safe bet that Blackstone did as well, which wasn’t good. It meant all her efforts to remain under the radar had failed. A set back, but one she would deal with as swiftly as possible.

Ten minutes later, Sloane crossed the street and entered her building, climbing the narrow staircase that smelled of urine and mold. When she reached her floor, she peeked around the corner and down the hallway. Empty.

Breathing a sigh of relief, she pulled her keys out of her back pocket. The door to the apartment down the hall opened just as she made it to her door and an elderly woman in a blue mumu and pink slippers emerged. Sloane froze at the uncharacteristic smile on her neighbor’s face. And then, the object of her obvious pleasure stepped out from behind her.

Damn.

“These are delicious, Mrs. Sanofsky,” Cade said. “What are they again?”

“Lemon Drop cookies. My mother’s recipe.”

“Outstanding. Mind if I take one more for the road?”

“Not at all, dear,” Mrs. Sanofsky said, shoving the silver platter into Cade’s chest. “I don’t get many visitors and I certainly can’t eat all these myself.” She glanced demurely down at her wide frame. “Have to keep my girlish figure.”

Sloane thought she caught a smudge of pink lipstick on the woman’s teeth before Mrs. Sanofsky’s smile disappeared at the sight of her standing in the hall.  Her neighbor’s gaze drifted down to her ripped jeans and back up, her frown growing exponentially as she took in Sloane’s disheveled appearance, no doubt worse as a result of her earlier activities than when she’d first left that afternoon. 

“If you’ll excuse me, ma’am, I need to have a few words with my friend,” Cade said, sending a smile her way that was anything but friendly.

Mrs. Sanofsky turned to him, her lip curling in disgust. “You came to see her?” She leaned into Cade, conspiratorally. “I’d watch out for that one if I were you. I don’t think she’s quite right, you know, in the head.” She circled her index finger in the air next to her temple and Sloane rolled her eyes.

“Don’t worry about me,” Cade said. “I’m packin’.” He winked at Mrs. Sanofsky and she held onto his forearm as she cackled. 

Sloane had seen enough. She forced her way inside, just as Cade slipped in behind her.

“Your neighbors are scared of you,” he said, popping another cookie into his mouth.

“Mrs. Sanofsky is scared of the doorbell.”

“She didn’t seem to have a problem with me.”

“She’s also half blind.”

On autopilot, Sloane moved to the only window leading to the fire escape and slid it closed, slapping her laptop shut on the way. Without the window open, the apartment would be stifling, but she was used to it. Besides, the more uncomfortable she made Cade, the sooner he’d leave. She turned to her impromptu visitor who was still standing by the door, watching her.

“What do you want, Cade?”

“Got any milk?”

“What?”

He pointed at his still working jaw and Sloane stalked to the kitchen and pulled open the fridge. She removed a carton with a questionable expiration date and marched back into the tiny living space, slamming it down on the blue crate that was currently serving as her coffee table. Her mother would have been appalled, but Sloane had long since accepted the fact that the hostess gene had skipped a generation.

Cade didn’t reach for the carton. Instead, he pulled out a semi-automatic that was tucked into the back of his jeans and placed it on the crate next to the milk. Sloane narrowed her eyes at the weapon, becoming simultaneously aware of two things: one, that Cade hadn’t been lying when he’d told Mrs. Sanofsky he was armed. And two…

“Is that mine?”

Cade smirked. “Still hiding your piece next to the peanut butter, Bullet?”

Panic and rage welled inside of Sloane, but she tamped it down as she fought to keep her expression neutral. Her gaze darted to the closed window, but she caught herself before she glanced around the room, instead taking a mental tally of her surroundings as they’d been when she’d first walked in. Cade had been there. Not just in her building but in her space. His presence in New York already had Sloane on alert, but he’d just raised the bar to DEFCON status. 

“Apparently I need a new hiding place,” she said, keeping her voice intentionally cool. 

“Or I’m just that good.”

Cade winked, actually winked, at her before dropping to the old futon Sloane had bought and covered with a sheet. He put both feet up on the crate and crossed his ankles.

“Nice place.”

“I’m keeping a low profile.”

That was an understatement. If graffiti had been splayed over the walls her place could have doubled as a crack den. To Sloane, that was just part of its charm. She’d also assumed it was the kind of place where Blackstone would never think to look for her. Apparently, she’d been wrong.

“If that’s true,” Cade said, “you might want to rethink your approach.”

“The guy was a deadbeat, not an international terrorist. And anyway, I had him. I just…”

“Choked?” The slight tick of his jaw, paired with the bitter edge in his tone told her Cade hadn’t meant it as a joke.

“You can tell Blackstone I’m fine.”

“Blackstone didn’t send me.”

Sloane hesitated for only a second. “I don’t believe you.”

“You’re not exactly his favorite person right now.”

That, at least, was true. Neglecting to follow her handler’s protocol didn’t earn her any brownie points, but she’d known what she was getting herself into. Sloane didn’t deserve Blackstone’s discretion but it didn’t sit well with her that he’d told Cade what she’d done and then sent him after her.

“Did you come to tell me I’m off Blackstone’s Christmas card list?”

“I told you, I’m not here because of Blackstone.”

He looked at her then, just like Mrs. Sanofsky had done. His dark eyes traveled the length of her except, unlike her neighbor’s merely disapproving glare, Cade’s scrutiny was like a thousand tiny sharp laser beams cutting through her clothes to singe her insides. He took his time, his stare first resting on her mis-matched flip flops, then on her torn shirt. When his gaze landed on the skin at the base of her neck that was more than likely starting to purple with bruises, Sloane knew she’d had enough.

“Then, what? Did you come for a thank you? To make sure I knew that you saved my ass? Is that what you want? Ok,” she said, aware that her tone was venturing into hysterical territory, but unable to stop it. “Sure, why not?” She flung her arms wide and took an exaggerated bow. “Thank you, Golden Boy, for your annoyingly perfect timing. Happy? You can go now. Go run to Blackstone and tell him I’m alive. I survived. All thanks to you.”

It was the exact wrong thing to say.

Sloane flinched at her own words and squeezed her eyes shut, tipping her head to the ceiling. “I meant t–”

“I know what you meant,” Cade snapped. When Sloane opened her eyes again, Cade was already making his way to the door. “I’ll be back.”

“I wasn’t asking,” she blurted.

He looked back at her, his hand on the knob. “Neither was I.”

Instead of the slam she expected, the door clicked shut behind him, leaving Sloane alone in her suffocating apartment, with the curdling milk.

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