Victory's Secret: Chapter Nine

Rachael Tamayo
Cynthia Austin

We arrive home and find William is still gone, but traces of him linger in the form of dirty laundry thrown on the bathroom floor and dishes in the sink. The sound of smashing wood coming from the backyard causes me to jump. Liam quickly goes to investigate.
Following him, I see the door to his work shed blowing in the wind, unhinged in the upper left corner, the plywood hanging at an odd angle and banging against the structure. “I thought that was locked?” I ask.
Liam’s jaw flexes as he stares at the broken door. “It was.”
He enters the shed, but I wait outside. I know this is his private sanctuary, and even though he produces beautiful woodwork behind the closed door, I’m afraid of what else he might do in there.
He exits moments later, with a battered toolbox that has seen better days.
“Are you going to fix the door to the shed?” I ask. “I thought we were going to see my mother.”
He angrily tosses the metal toolbox to the ground, pieces of tin exploding in all directions. “He’s taken my computer.”
“Your computer?” I’m flabbergasted by what he’s just admitted. “That’s... contraband. Only top-ranking government officials have access to personal computers.”
He looks at me as he puts his hands in his pockets. Those steady eyes hold mine. A tremble starts in my bones as the cold truth of it hits me. Fear wraps around my heart like a fist.
This is how he knows.
How he found out about me.
He’s been lying to me from the start.
I take a step back. “Y-y-you work for The Brotherhood.”
Deny it. Please say there’s another reason. There must be. It simply can’t be the truth.
He reaches for me, but I jerk back.
“Victory, calm down.”
I shake my head, tears brimming. “How can you? How can you be one of them?”
“You need to…”
I shake my head. “Leave me alone.”
I turn and race into the house, defeated by the truth of the one husband I thought I could trust.
I barrel up the stairs and shut myself into my sanctuary. I sink into the chair, grabbing a tissue for my eyes. My chest aches from the loss of something I thought I had, something I had wanted him to be. The way he looked at me, his touch, his gentle and kind manner, it made me feel things I’d never felt before. I had let my foolishness get the better of me. In my imagination, Liam was… he was… not this.
Not one of their lackeys.
Not a part of the reason I feared for my life.
I bury my face into my hands at the sound of my door opening.
I don’t like how my name sounds in his rough voice. I don’t like him. But mostly I hate how I can no longer trust him. For my entire life, it’s always been us - the community - following their rules, struggling to survive, watching our loved ones being carried away. For my entire existence, it’s been us against The Brotherhood.
Now it’s me against him.
I curl up into a ball and hold my knees to my chest. He had told me he would protect me. I would have never thought I needed protection against him.
“I understand you’re angry with me, but now isn’t the time.”
Before I can object, he storms into my room and opens my closet. Taking a duffle bag from the top shelf, he begins packing my belongings.
“What are you doing?”
A chill creeps up my spine. Oh, God. It’s time. He works for The Brotherhood and he knows of my infertility.
He’s going to get rid of me.
I spring to my feet but I can’t move further. I’m frozen as I watch him stuff the last of my wardrobe into the small bag. If he was going to terminate me, why would I need clothes? He looks at me with fierce eyes.
“If you want to survive this, you’ll come with me now.”
“That’s a lie,” I protest. “You’re the person who’ll lead me to my death. You’re part of The Brotherhood. You’re… you’re a shadow man.”
The accusation echoes in the silence. He drops my bag and takes ahold of my shoulders. Tears hit my cheeks.
“Please, Victory, listen to me very carefully. I meant everything I said to you earlier. My career changes nothing.”
He didn’t deny it. Oh God, he didn’t deny it.
“Please focus,” he continues. “My shed has been broken into and my government-issued laptop has been stolen - the same laptop that has all of your medical records on it, and Dr. Matka’s records.”
That name causes my blood to still. How can he know about the black-market doctor my mother took me to all those years ago? How could he possibly have that information? He wipes his forehead with his large hand and releases a loud breath.
“Dr. Matka was captured not long after your emergency surgery. His home was raided, and all files were seized. For the past few years, I’ve been working with The Brotherhood to locate each woman listed in his records.”
I cover my mouth with a trembling hand. Was I actually hearing him correctly? The room spins. I can’t believe it. It’s all too much. Too much, too fast.
“What? But how—”
He holds my face in both hands and I am steadied. His gaze holds me up. Eyes of stone, yet full of fire.
“Victory, I’m the reason you’re still alive. I’m your protector. I always have been. Your name has been on that list for a long time, I alone had the power to do something about it. Me. Do you understand what I am telling you?”
“Why? How long have you known?”
He blinks slowly. “Since you showed up on my list,” he whispers.
The Shadowman’s list. The Shadowman’s victims.
He releases my face and paces, casting me a sideways glances at me. “I’m a paid assassin for The Brotherhood.”
He pauses and a million emotions pass over his expression. The room spins again and I grip the armrests of my chair as if my life depends on it. The look on his face has stolen my voice.
He’s the one. The Shadowman. The one we all speak of but don’t want to believe is real. The dark monster that pulls barren women from their beds and makes them vanish, never to be seen again.
My chest constricts and I can’t breathe. My mind cannot process that the man who I married, my kind, gentle husband, is a ruthless killer.
 “What I’m telling you will get us both killed if anyone finds out. Do you understand?”
I nod. It’s all I can do.
“You showed up on my list.”
My heart stops. Surely, I am already dead, trapped in hell… sent there by the Shadowman that stands before me.
“I went to Mr. Barrister’s house that day to retrieve you, to... take care of you. But the moment I saw you, I... I can’t explain it, but I fell in love. I knew there was no way I’d ever be able to follow through with what I had to do, so I followed you. For years I was a shadow protecting you, without ever having known you. And I know this sounds crazy and obsessive, but I did the only thing I knew how to do to protect you. I deleted your name. But now someone has my computer, and whoever that is will find out what I did and they’ll come for us both.”
“What happened to the doctor?”
 “He’s dead.”
I swallow, recalling his old, cold hands, and his warm smile reassuring me I’d be okay.
But I’m not okay. Far from it.
“So where do we go?”
He turns to face me. “There is only one place I know that will keep you safe.”
The old truck plows down my dirt driveway, but as the cottage comes into view, I notice a dark figure standing on my porch. I pull the multicolored serape off of the leather bench seat and toss it at Victory. “Get down on the floor and cover yourself with this blanket.”
One word is all it takes to pull her to the floor of my truck. The blanket slides over her beautiful head and Duke lets out a mournful howl as she disappears. I park the truck and exit the cab, Duke flanking my heels.
“I thought I might find you here.”
Dante removes his top hat and takes a step off the porch to meet me. I let out a breath as I realize they sent the weakest member of the council to question me.
Dante is the reason I am a member of The Brotherhood. A close friend to my parents, he took it upon himself to look out for me after their death - if teaching combat skills qualifies as looking out for someone.
First, he taught me archery, which quickly graduated to knife throwing, and eventually target shooting. At the time, I had no idea he was testing my abilities.
Apparently, I passed.
“A High Council member showing up at my humble abode. To what do I owe the pleasure?”
Dante’s thin lips snake into a smile. “I wanted to apologize for missing your wedding.” Reaching into his trench coat, he pulls out a golden pocket watch. I recognize it from my past; it was my father’s. The same one that was clutched in his hand when they found his body. “I promised your father I would be sure to pass it down when the time was right.”
My chest constricts as he holds the piece of jewelry out to me. He was the last person to speak to my father.
“How could you have this?”
Slowly, I reach forward and allow the watch to drop into my palm. It feels much heavier than it should.
“Your father gave it to me to hold for you. On his deathbed.”
 I turn the watch over and open it. I wasn’t aware Dante was with my parents the night they died, but now isn’t the time for this conversation, or for my questions, so I smile up at him.
“Thank you. I wish you both could have been at the wedding.”
“I was hoping I might meet the Missus today.”
I tense at the suggestion. Dante raises a grey eyebrow as he reads my body language.
“Already protective, I see.”
“I’m her husband; isn’t that my duty?”
“How is the procreation going? I can’t imagine someone as strong and powerful as you might allow your weaker competitor to take what is yours.”  
He knows that I called in a favor to secure her as my bride, not daring to hope they would keep their end of the bargain. This man is my friend, my father’s friend, but I can’t bet my life, or Victory’s, on the knowledge that he might be more loyal to The Brotherhood than to me.
“She’s at home now. My work has always come first, you know that.”
A pat on my shoulder shows me he approves.
“Let’s just hope one of you produce a child soon. You do know The Brotherhood has shortened the timeline. If a child is not produced by the first anniversary, the wife is to be removed. I would hate to see that happen. I would hate to see you pushed into an unwanted union.”
Of course I know about the timeline. He knows I know. I wonder what the point of this reminder might be. Letting on that I’m suspicious might be a fatal mistake, so I broaden my smile and shade my eyes from the sunlight with a hand and give him a tight smile.
“Keeping me busy, I like it.”
A dark sedan pulls into my driveway and parks behind my truck. The windows are blacked out and I cannot make out the driver. Dante shuffles forward.
“Well, that’s my ride. Congratulations again on your matrimony. Your parents would be so proud.”
It’s getting hot under this blanket, but I don’t move. I stay perfectly still on the floor under the itchy thing, sweat beading on my skin. I hear muffled voices, two of them. Male. Unable to make out the words, I sit helplessly, my mind unable to focus on one thought.
I hear the door open to my left and I hold my breath.
“It’s me.” Liam’s voice relaxes me and I exhale.
I feel him reach over, the cloth rustling under his weight as it shifts. Grasping the covering, he pulls it off my head and I breathe in the rush of cool air that hits me, wiping sweat from my face.
 “Who was that?”
He sits, but doesn’t start the truck.
“I thought this might be a safe place for you, but now I don’t know.”
My silence causes him to turn his head to me. “That was Dante. He was my father’s right hand. I’m not sure it’s safe to go back home in case we’re being watched.”
My heart sinks. “I don’t understand.”
“I know, let me think.”
“Well maybe if you told me everything, I could help.” Irritation laces my tone. “What does it matter now? You’ve already told me this much.”
“I haven’t told you the half of it,” se says under his breath. “I have to find out what William knows.”
 The broken workshop door and the missing laptop flash through my mind. “You really think this is him?”
No answer. He seems lost in thought. Afraid to sit up, I stay low in the truck, unsure of what to do. Eventually, he starts the vehicle and drives away. I sit up, my body cracking after being in such an odd position for so long. I absently gaze out the window. What is happening? Where we are going? Will Liam really be able to save me?
Please God, don’t let him betray me.
The world speeds by, secluded back roads with no city in sight. The silence is heavy; not even the radio can fill the space.
“They aren’t dead.”
It’s been quiet so long that his voice startles me.
He quickly glances at me before turning his eyes back on the road. “You know I’m a Shadowman which means you know there’s a hit-list from The Brotherhood.” He takes a deep breath. “The women on the list. They aren’t dead.”
I swallow, my heart thumping an odd rhythm against my ribs. “The ones you were supposed to—”
“Kill,” he finishes for me. “Yes. They aren’t dead.”
 “Then where are they?”
Driving on Interstate 30 all night, I take my exit and finally see the half-n-half post office sign for Texarkana. Parking the truck in the employee parking lot, I hang my government issued parking pass on my rearview mirror and look back at Victory.
“Where are we? Why are we stopping?”
She’s full of questions tonight, but I don’t give her an answer.
“I know I’m asking the impossible and I don’t deserve it at all, but please trust me, just for a little while longer.”
I crank down on the metal handle and open the door. Stepping out, I cross the street and head toward the white, two-story farmhouse. I don’t turn to make sure she’s following. I’ve asked her time and again to trust me, and now it’s time for me to trust she’ll make the right decision and allow me to lead her to safety.
Walking up the narrow cement steps, I feel her soft fingers slide into my hand. I grip her fingers tight and my chest swells. With her by my side, I know they can’t defeat me. I have too much to lose.
“Liam,” she whispers. “This is a whorehouse.”
I turn to look at her and notice her gaze hanging on the red sign secured to the balcony. It reads, “The Farmer’s Daughters” with silhouettes of busty females in cut-off shorts.
“You said you could help me, but I’d rather die than prostitute myself for the rest of my years.”
I stop abruptly and spin around to face her. “Do you think I would willingly share you? I took you away from William so I would be your only husband. No man, besides me, will ever touch you.”
The opening of the door draws both our attention.
“Liam, did you bring us another?”
I turn and smile at the woman at the door.
“Maryanne Haverford, I’d like you to meet my wife, Victory Atherton.”
Inside, I let the women fill in my wife in as to what this place really is.
The outdoor sign allows the cover the women need to remain safe. The Farmer’s Daughters is a legal and registered brothel. At least that’s what the public believes. But the truth of the matter is this place hasn’t exchanged money for sex in many years. I’m able to keep it off the council’s radar because with every victim I delete from society, a portion of my service fee is handed over to the brothels I use as halfway houses.
In turn, they use a portion of the money I funnel to them to pay the business taxes on their “earnings.” This is one of many that I use to hide the women from the list. They are scattered across the nation. They supplement the money in different ways on their own - offering farm fresh produce, crafts, or many other assorted side hustles to keep themselves off the radar of The Brotherhood.
I chose to take Victory to this one as it is on the Arkansas border and very often forgotten about. I’m not sure what these women do when men try to procure their services, but I’ve been told they handle it, and I leave it at that. The men are turned away and no questions are asked.
Victory sits on the edge of an old wooden dining chair, her face pale and her eyes wide as Maryanne tries to hand her a cup of tea with a chipped handle. Duke saunters in behind us, flopping down at Victory’s feet.
“This is a safe place.” Maryanne looks up at me for help.
I kneel on the floor in front of her, her frightened eyes drifting to my face. “Yes. It’s safe. I’ve never killed anyone, Victory. I use a portion of my pay to fund these houses and keep these women off the grid. They, in turn, funnel the money back to The Brotherhood and pay the ten percent tax on their ‘earnings’. No one is the wiser. This isn’t a whorehouse, it’s a safe house.”
She turns to the women that have gathered in the room, all with compassion on their faces for her. “What do you do when men try to…”
Elizabeth March breaks through the crowd in the room. An older woman now, in her fifties, she’s one of my father’s rescues before I took over the family business. She is the head of the house here. “We have illness, that is what we tell them. We are in quarantine, as the virus is spreading through the house. No one wants to be sick, so the men depart fairly quickly.”
I take Victory’s face in my hands, willing her to believe me. My chest is tight with regret. I had never intended to frighten her, and thankfully, she doesn’t pull away.
“Victory, speak to me.”
She pulls in a breath, and then another, her gaze bouncing off every face in the room.
“I believe you.”
Relief sweeps over me. “These women were all killed on paper, in the system. Their families think they’re dead. They may be lost, but they’re still alive.”
“And Liam alone saved us,” Maryanne says. “He is paid very, very well to kill us, yet here we are. He risks his very life to save ours, one by one.”
“Why?” The question is directed at me.
“Because I can’t do it. I can’t be the man my father was.”
A silence patters throughout the room like raindrops.
“He was one of the first Shadowmen, and one day, my sister’s name appeared on his list. It was too late when he found out. I remember being dragged with my mother to my sister’s doctor, Dr. Matka, and left in the hallway. I was sixteen. My mother made me swear to never to tell anyone where we had gone, including my father. They never told me what was going on, but I wasn’t a child, I had my suspicions.
“Then the doctor was arrested, and never seen again. Soon after, my sister’s name appeared on the list. My father found out too late and wasn’t able to protect her. It took her death to make him realize what he had been doing was wrong. Evil. He vowed to change things. He began saving women in her name, a way to atone for what had been done.
“The other Shadowmen were done away with, and even now, there remains only one. Me. I don’t know all the details or how he managed to get rid of them, but I do know I won’t be the man he was. I would die to protect you, Victory. I love you.”
“You love me?” The words are a whisper, and they shock me. I let my hands fall from her face, rocking back a little to stand up.
“With all that I am, yes.”
Elizabeth pats my arm in a motherly fashion. “It’s time.”
I steel myself. “I have to find the last Shadowman, Victory, and you have to stay here.”
“No, I’m coming with you.”
“You can’t come with me. It’s not safe.”
She leaps to her feet. “You can’t leave me here. I… you…”
 “Listen to me, hear my words. I will be back for you.” I step into her. “You are mine, and I’ll never let them take you from me.”
“You’ll come back for me?”
I nod. “Always. But I have to find my computer and I have to find William. If I don’t, it won’t be only you on The Brotherhood’s radar. All women on that list will be in danger.”  
“Is there anything in that computer that might compromise our location?” Elizabeth asks as she turns to me.
“No. The safe-houses are untraceable.”
A gentle hand placed on my chest stops my heart. How can I so fully adore a woman I’ve only known for weeks? I ache to take her with me, but to keep her by my side, not knowing what might happen or where I might end up is too dangerous.
“I’ll be here waiting for you. Please hurry.”
I turn to leave, but she pulls me back. She reaches up and kisses me. Emotion erupts from her lips, raw and powerful, and it can only mean one thing. She loves me. I know it. Her kiss tells me everything.
She believes in me.
“Go, then. Find him and return to me. Quickly.” Her eyes flash, and at that moment, I know she’s fully mine. “Hurry,”  she adds, reaching for my hand.
I watch her lift my knuckles to her lips and press them gently to her mouth. Our eyes meet for a moment, then I turn and walk out the door.