Emmett slammed the bookstore’s door behind him just as the grey clouds let loose on the busy New York streets. His pear-green flannel stuck out like a cactus in this wasteland of a bookstore, with its peeling wallpaper, flickering light fixtures, and carpet that had seen better days. He strolled the lines of bookcases until he came upon both the photography books and the only other person in the store. The other man—burly, with large biceps and tattoos creeping out from under his collar—perused an illustrated handbook of camera lenses.
Emmett released a long breath and rolled his neck.
“Are you in position?” barked the voice in his ear. Emmett didn’t respond, just pushed the earpiece in a little farther to ensure it couldn’t be seen. Alpha could wait. He ran his fingers over the multicolored spines and situated his equipment bag more comfortably on his shoulder. The rustling of pages and some daytime soap mumbling from a TV in the corner of the cramped shop were the only sounds in the place. The other man flashed steel-grey eyes in his direction, and Emmett darted his gaze away. Something about the large man’s eyes made him shift where he stood. He grabbed a book at random and flipped through its pages haphazardly. Squinting through the bookcases to catch a glimpse of the gushing rain outside, he sighed and slumped against a shelf.
“Tough day at work?” The voice startled Emmett. It was low and gravelly, and it took him a moment to realize that the large man was speaking to him.
“That’s one way to put it,” Emmett said, and the other grunted in response, turning back to his book.
“Well, let me know if I can help you find anything,” the man said. Emmett picked at the price sticker on the book in his hands.
“Remember the three objectives, Delta,” Alpha said in his ear. Emmett’s face didn’t register a thing as the objectives flashed through his mind. Engage target, gain trust, retrieve package.
“You know what kills me?” Emmett asked, even though it was obvious the other man had said his piece. Engage target. “I’m there for the days that are supposed to be a new start for these people’s lives, you know? It’s their special day. It only comes around once in a lifetime, and I’m the man who turns their dreams into memories.” He plopped the book on the shelf as the large man regarded him coolly. “But what do these people do?” he went on. “They blame me for everything, tell me I made them look bad, when we know that it wasn’t me that made them look that way.” Emmett sighed and looked back down at the books. “It’s just kind of hard sometimes, you know?”
Not expecting an answer, he fell silent and shook his head. He was surprised by how his words rang true; he was fed up with everything. No matter what he did, the client was never satisfied, and he was sick of it.
A book slid into the empty place on the shelf near his head. Emmett looked up to see the burly man beside him, staring at him.
“I do understand,” the man said. A fire burned in the man’s eyes, and Emmett resisted the urge to put a few more steps between them. Gain trust, he thought.
“You have to get there early,” the man said, “before anyone else, to set up all your equipment, and you can’t get in anybody’s way.”
“Yes!” Emmett said, leaning in. “You basically have to be invisible, you know?”
“I understand more than you know,” the man replied in a growl, and Emmett grinned.
“It sounds to me like we’re in the same profession,” he said, and stuck out a hand. “I’m Emmett.”
The other man eyed his outstretched hand for a second before shaking it. His hands were calloused and strong. “Maverick,” he said, and snatched another book from the shelf.
“What kind of work do you do?” Emmett asked.
Maverick shrugged. “Other than this?” He gestured to the store. “Not much. I do weddings mostly, but that’s just for now. I’m going for the big time, you know? I want my work to really mean something to people,” he said. “I’ve always been a loner, ever since I was kid.” Then, he smiled. “But there’s gonna be a day pretty soon when everyone’s going to know my name. I’ll have my own studio. I’ll be surrounded by people all the time, have real friends. I mean, nobody wants to die alone, right?” He chuckled and looked off at nothing, like he could already see the ring of friends he’d have someday. And then he snapped out of it and looked back at Emmett. “What about you? What kind of work do you do?” he asked.
“Oh, you know, I take jobs here and there, whatever I can get.”
Maverick nodded, and there was something about his eyes that made Emmett think of his younger brother. So wide, so innocent. They pulled Emmett in, made him feel like Maverick really saw him, just like his brother had been able to. Had been able to before, that was.
“Focus, Delta.” The words in his ear snapped Emmett back to reality. He pictured Alpha sitting in front of a screen right now, watching the whole exchange, and he straightened.
Eyes still bright, Maverick leaned in. “So how do you do it?” he asked, his voice earnest. “How do you take the perfect shot?”
Emmett’s eyes widened. “Really?” Maverick quirked an eyebrow, and Emmett leaned in with a conspiratorial smile. He watched Maverick’s eyes glint like gunmetal in the dim light as he spoke. “First, I do my research,” Emmett said. “Ask questions when meeting with clients, find out what their interests are, what they’d really like to get in the end, all that sort of stuff.” Maverick nodded along with every word. “And then, when I’m looking through the lens,” Emmett continued, “I just look at their faces. When you see the expressions on their faces, it just becomes a gut feeling. When I feel it, bam,”—he slammed his palm against the bookcase—“I take it. When it’s just right, it’s exhilarating.” He smiled and leaned back, crossing his arms over his chest. “What about you? How do you take the perfect shot?”
Maverick grunted. “I do it different.” He bent the pages of a paperback and watched them flip as if there was a cartoon frame on every page. “I don’t look at their faces at all.” The pages sent a wisp of air in Emmett’s direction. “I just look, point, and take the shot. I never miss, and I only look at the faces after it’s done. Otherwise, I’ll get distracted and may miss it.”
Maverick cleared his throat, almost like he was embarrassed. “I know you do it different, but my way gets results.”
Maverick smiled, revealing a flash of gold in his grin. “Yeah,” he said. “I got some pictures recently, and I’m telling you, they’re my ticket to the big time. Something that the whole world’s gonna go nuts over when it gets out. Just you wait.”
“Do you have a visual on the package?” Alpha asked in Emmett’s ear.
“Could I see them?” Emmett asked Maverick.
Maverick’s mouth quirked up into a smirk. “You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” He chuckled and fished a sleek black flash drive from his pocket, flipping it between his fingers like a magician would twirl a coin. He seemed to think about it for a moment and then shrugged. “Yeah, I guess it wouldn’t hurt.” And he led the way through the stacks of books to the checkout station.
Maverick plugged the flash drive into the computer and opened the file. Emmett leaned over the counter to see the screen, and his eyes tore over it as he took in image after image. He swallowed.
“Yeah,” he said, reeling, “they’re good alright.”
Maverick closed the folder on the screen and pulled out the flash drive. “Told you.” His chest swelled with pride as Emmett tried to process what he had just seen.
But there was only one step left—Retrieve package. Emmett cleared his throat.
“You know,” he said, “I think we can help each other out. I want to buy those photos from you.”
Maverick’s eyes swept down Emmett’s body. “I’m not interested in whatever you have to offer.”
Emmett folded his arms over his chest. “Fifty thousand dollars,” he said. Maverick’s eyes shot open wide for a moment, but then he set his mouth in a thin line.
Emmett quipped, “A hundred thousand.”
Maverick narrowed his eyes as he regarded Emmett. He folded his arms and inclined his head. “You’re not a photographer at all, are you?” he asked. “Who are you?”
“I never lied to you,” Emmett said.
“There’s no way some photographer doing odd jobs is making that kind of bank,” Maverick said. “But if you’re for real, then there’s no way I won’t find a better offer down the road somewhere.”
Emmett was surprised by Maverick’s reasoning. He scrutinized the man’s face. Maverick obviously had a hard life, and his photography and part-time job at a failing bookstore just weren’t cutting it these days. The fact that he’d stumbled on what he had was a pure miracle. Emmett sighed and raised a hand to his ear, switching off the earpiece and mic. Alpha didn’t need to hear what he was going to say.
“Listen,” he said, voice low, “my next offer will be the last, okay? The last from me, from anyone. Take my advice and take my next offer.” He switched his earpiece on again and gave Maverick a hard stare, ignoring the expletives pouring in his ear from Alpha.
“Five hundred thousand dollars,” Emmett said.
Maverick’s mouth fell open, and Emmett could see the gears turning in his mind. The man didn’t even know what he had, Emmett thought. He could basically see Maverick wondering what it was in those pictures that could possibly be worth half a million dollars.
Maverick cleared his throat, trying to gather himself. “No.” His biceps bulged, like he was bracing himself for whatever came next.
Emmett sighed. “Come on, man,” he pleaded, “you seem like a nice guy. Half a million dollars could change your life. You could leave this dump,”—he gestured around him—“and you could start your own studio. Buy a better camera, get everything you’ve ever wanted.”
But Maverick was already shaking his head. “I want my name out there,” he said. “And come on, everyone knows that a final offer is never really a final offer.”
“This one is.” Emmett made his voice firm.
“How do I know that I can’t just take these down to Time or National Geographic or whoever, and make twice as much?” His voice rose.
“You won’t. Trust me, no one will appreciate your work like I do. No one.”
Maverick hesitated. “Can you at least give me your number and let me think about it for a couple days?” he asked. His eyes were wide and confused, and so like Emmett’s little brother that it made his breath catch.
“Finish it,” Alpha barked in Emmett’s ear. He sounded impatient.
Emmett ran a hand over his face and looked at Maverick dead in the eye. “I’m going to leave now, and as soon as I step out that door, there’s going to be no deal. You can stop me any time, but once I’m gone, I’m gone.”
He hefted his equipment bag to his shoulder and turned to walk towards the door. Tell me to stop, he begged in his mind. Don’t make me do this. The door loomed closer and closer, and every movement of Maverick behind him made Emmett want to stop this, just stop. He took another step, heart pounding. The door was close enough to touch now.
Emmett spun around. “Do we have a deal?” he asked too quickly.
Maverick bit his lip and looked between Emmett and the flash drive in his hand, clearly torn. He shoved his fingers through his hair. “Couldn’t—couldn’t you just leave your number so I can think about it?”
Emmett’s heart sank, and he couldn’t look at Maverick’s eyes. “I can’t,” he said in a strangled whisper. But for the first time in his life, he wished he could. He took a step backward towards the door, feeling the cold metal handle press into his back. “This is your last chance.” He raised his eyes to meet Maverick’s, and the desperation and confusion he’d feared to see in them were there, magnified. “Please, take it,” he begged.
Maverick wavered. He looked down at the flash drive, and his hand shook. But then he wrapped his fingers around it, squared his shoulders, and shook his head. “No,” he said with a resoluteness that Emmett knew he couldn’t break. Without looking in the man’s eyes again, Emmett pushed through the door.
Only when he was cloaked by anonymity on the busy and damp New York streets did Emmett take a breath. Maverick’s eyes had pierced through Emmett to his very core, and he couldn’t shake the feeling they left as he walked. Sounds of construction nearby assaulted his ears as his eyes fixed on a skyscraper under renovation. Emmett was sorry for what had to come next, he thought. For a moment back there, Maverick had been the closest thing to a companion, a friend, that he had known in years. But at the end of the day, he thought, the lone wolf had to choose what he valued more, and Emmett knew that his loneliness was a small price to pay for his life. He grabbed a hardhat that an unsuspecting worker had left behind and slipped it on his head as he entered the gutted hotel, blending in seamlessly with the workers milling about. No one stopped him, just as he’d known they wouldn’t.
He climbed a staircase and ducked into a room with nothing but drywall, a freshly hung door, and two south-facing windows. He shut the door, twisted the lock in place, and pulled out his equipment. He had to push Maverick from his mind, he thought. He set up his tripod and looked out the window. The view was incredible, with high rises as far as the eye could see. The building opposite him was an architectural oddity, squat and crooked and nearly disappearing amongst the modern steel-and-glass structures. Emmett looked through his lens and zeroed in through the glass on the hulking figure in the building across. He took a breath to steady himself. The man turned towards the glass door, leather jacket gleaming. He would die alone.
“Do it,” Alpha ordered.
Emmett didn’t look at Maverick’s face as he squeezed the trigger and took the perfect shot.