Miguel stood, knees slightly shaking, shoulders drooped, Adam’s apple bobbing in his scrawny neck, his resolution wavering even as he repeated his demand, jabbing a finger towards Naomi for emphasis: “She stays.”
Feigned sympathy fought its way back into Francis’s facial expression, but failed to win complete control of her vocal cords: “Why?” she half-growled.
The tone of the demand seemed to catch Miguel off-guard. “She… has to stay,” he repeated. “She has to. Because… He wants her.”
“Who does? Innis?” Francis took two steps in Miguel’s direction. “Why does he want her? What does that mean?”
Miguel hung his head, refusing to answer, lips trembling.
“Are you trying to make us give him to her? Is that what this is about? I thought you wanted to help us, Miguel!”
“No!” protested Miguel, eyes opening wide. “Yes, I’ll help! But not without her.” He pointed at Naomi again. “It won’t work without her…”
“What won’t work, Miguel?” All pretense of compassion gone, Francis loomed over Miguel, staring him down as if she could pierce into his brain and see the answers to her questions hidden inside.
“It… It’s…” he mumbled.
Naomi came up behind Francis and put a hand on her shoulder. The cop flinched violently at the touch, inadvertently elbowing Naomi in the neck. Naomi yelped. Francis deflated a little.
“I…” Francis sighed. “Sorry.”
Waving her off and gulping a breath, Naomi wheezed, “Let me talk to him.” She cleared her throat and swallowed a feeling that was more shock than actual pain.
“Yeah,” said Francis, grudgingly. “Fine. Talk to him. Maybe you can get him to make sense.” She stomped back to the sidewalk, brushing off another officer who approached her and tried to calm her down.
“Okay,” said Naomi, looking into Miguel’s eyes, “are you going to tell me what you want with me? What has this whole thing been about?”
“He wants you,” said Miguel, simply, as if this statement explained everything.
“You mean he wants to recruit me?” asked Naomi. “He tried that; I said no. And I already helped him break into that safe house. Wasn’t that what he wanted me for?”
“No, not… Not that.”
“There’s more? He wants me for something else? He’s got a funny way of showing it… He burned my house down, with me inside it! Well, I guess you did that…”
A pained expression broke over Miguel’s face. He cast his eyes aimlessly upwards, as if searching for the right words to say somewhere up there. “He wants you… dead.”
The words sent a tingle up Naomi’s spine. The concept wasn’t really surprising, considering the fire she’d just escaped from, but hearing it said out loud really brought it home. Why would Innis want to kill her? Had she seen too much? And if he really wanted her dead, why hadn’t he done something about it out on that road in the middle of nowhere instead of sending her home with Candace first? And most importantly, why was Miguel telling her this? What was he trying to accomplish? “I… don’t understand.”
Miguel took a couple of deep breaths through his nose, chewing on his bottom lip. “He wants you to die,” said the skinny Latino, “but… he has to die.”
“Are you saying…”
Miguel avoided eye contact.
“You want me to kill Innis?” continued Naomi.
With the slightest of nods, Miguel confirmed Naomi’s interpretation. He held up a hand between them: it was shaking violently. “I can’t… I can’t do it. They can’t”—he indicated the police with his eyes—”they won’t. He wants you dead. You can do it.”
“I’m not going to kill anyone!” said Naomi, but somewhere behind the words she realized: Oh, but I want to!
“You can do it,” insisted Miguel.
“I don’t know,” admitted Miguel. “I can show you where, I can send you. You’ll find out how. You’re a special. You can do it.”
“If you tell us where to find him,” said Naomi, “I’ll try. I’ll… I’ll do it.”
“I… promise,” said Naomi, her mind screaming, You WHAT?!
Miguel’s lips twitched into a grim grin. “I have to watch. Here.” He reached inside his jacket, retrieving something from an inner pocket. Naomi recoiled half a step, raising her hands to defend herself. It had all been a trick! He was going to kill her! The blue car, the burning house… Third time’s the charm?
He gingerly withdrew his hand, turning his body to hide what he was holding from the audience watching them from the street, standing around the police cars.
Cupped in his palm was a tiny, fuzzy bird. It cocked its head to the side and stared intelligently up at Naomi.
“Take him,” said Miguel. “Take me with you.”