It’s Valentine’s Day, and grad student–and male escort–Levi Barron expects to spend his evening with a client who’s paying him for his services in bed… not an assassin who needs to borrow the view from his hotel room in the morning.
With nothing to do but endure the company of his unwanted guest, Levi and the assassin, Sinjin, spend some time bonding over HGTV, minibar beverages, Flannery O’Connor short stories, terrible Valentine’s candy, and the necessity of lying about their jobs.
Their evening takes an unexpected turn when they decide to indulge in their mutual attraction, and in the morning Levi doesn’t know if he’s spent the night with a hired killer or a hydraulic engineer with a very specific fantasy. Either way, the two have enough chemistry–in and out of bed–that Levi isn’t sure one night with Sinjin will be enough.
And a message left in candy suggests the feeling is mutual.
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IF GIVEN a choice, Levi Barron would definitely prefer to have been stood up, rather than have a gun pointed at his head.
His client for the evening was already two hours late, and just when it looked like Levi would be spending Valentine’s Day reading some poorly articulated thoughts of college freshmen about Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, he heard the unmistakable sound of a door opening. Levi put a bit more Southern in his Georgia accent as he went to meet his client—only to find himself greeting the business end of a gun.
“Well,” the guy said, sighing. “This is awkward.”
Levi couldn’t seem to breathe. He’d heard stories about this kind of thing happening (and he’d maybe, once or twice, watched a few similar-yet-sexy versions of this exact scenario on RedTube), but the reason Levi’s agency rented a room in a luxury hotel in downtown Nashville wasn’t just for client comfort.
It was also so that Levi and his colleagues didn’t end up robbed or sold into sex slavery.
“I don’t have any money,” Levi said immediately, raising his hands even though the man hadn’t told him to do anything with them. “The agency handles all of the financial transactions. Even, uh, gratuity.”
That Levi was a poor graduate student in American Literature being robbed at gunpoint was sort of hilariously depressing.
The guy lowered the gun. “What? I’m not here to rob you, for fuck’s sake.”
Oh God. Suddenly being a sex slave didn’t sound as appealing as those videos implied it would be. “Are you going to kidnap me and sell me to a sex dungeon?”
Worst. Valentine’s. Day. Ever.
“Are those actually real? I thought they just existed on RedTube.” The gunman, dressed in black with equally dark hair and eyes, looked kind of like Edgar Allan Poe. Only without the creepy mustache.
Levi couldn’t believe this was really happening. At some point he expected cameras and a television reveal, followed in a few days by an uncomfortable meeting with the English department about his choice in part-time jobs.
“Are you going to kill me?”
The man grimaced. “I’d rather not. Look, I just need to borrow the window for a few minutes in the morning. No reason anyone has to die.” The man paused. “Anyone other than the… never mind.” He set something down on the ground. Either the guy was going to pull a violin out of there and serenade Levi, or it was a rifle case.
Rifle case. Windows. Gun. Shady guy dressed in black, skulking around and breaking into hotel rooms.
Levi’s uninvited guest was an assassin.
“You’re going to kill someone on Valentine’s Day?” Levi made a face, even as he backed away and glanced anxiously toward the window. “That’s awful. What are you, evil Cupid?”
“Technically I’m not going to kill anyone until tomorrow,” quoth the raven. His voice went flat and cold. “But if you keep asking me questions, I might change my mind. Now sit down and let me think.”
The Lady, or the Tiger?
When I was younger, we read a short story in school called “The Lady, or the Tiger?” by Frank R. Stockton. I think I was in junior high school at the time, and this story has stuck with me since I read it.
The story takes place in a fictionalized kingdom, where a man of lower station has been accused of seducing the daughter of a king. According to the custom, the man is given a trial by ordeal to determine his guilt or innocence — he is brought to an arena in front of the kingdom, and given a choice of two doors to open. Behind one is a tiger, and the other is a beautiful maiden. If the prisoner chooses the tiger, he must be guilty and is therefore mauled to death. If he chooses the maiden, he’s innocent and is promptly married before the kingdom. But the princess has found out which of the two doors is which, and while her lover stands in the arena, looks for her to tell him which door to choose. She doesn’t want him to be mauled by a tiger…but she also knows that if he lives, he’ll be given a beautiful woman that isn’t her to marry. She gestures to the door on the right…
And the story ends with the line: “And so I leave it with all of you: Which came out of the opened door – the lady, or the tiger?”
Now, this was written in 1882 so it’s a bit dated, but I will never forget that story for as long as I live. It was one of the first times my perception of narrative was altered, and the idea of an ambiguous ending with two plausible scenarios was so interesting to me.
(I like to think the best of people, so I’m going with the Lady coming out of the door instead of a tiger. Also you think you’d be able to hear the tiger roaring from behind a door, but now I’m overthinking things.)
Don’t worry, no one gets mauled by a tiger in Conversation Hearts. But there is an element to the ending in which the reader can decide between two plausible scenarios when it comes to one of the characters. I don’t want to spoil the ending (which I promise is happy, it is a Valentine’s Day story) but if you read it and feel like sharing your opinion of who came to Levi’s door — the assassin or the hydraulic engineer? — I would love to know what you think!
You can also read The Lady, or the Tiger? online for free if you like.
Avon Gale wrote her first story at the age of seven, about a “Space Hat” hanging on a rack and waiting for that special person to come along and purchase it — even if it was a bit weirder than the other, more normal hats. Like all of Avon’s characters, the space hat did get its happily ever after — though she’s pretty sure it was with a unicorn. She likes to think her vocabulary has improved since then, but the theme of quirky people waiting for their perfect match is still one of her favorites.
Avon grew up in the southern United States, and now lives with her very patient husband in a liberal midwestern college town. When she’s not writing, she’s either doing some kind of craft project that makes a huge mess, reading, watching horror movies, listening to music or yelling at her favorite hockey team to get it together, already. Avon is always up for a road trip, adores Kentucky bourbon, thinks nothing is as stress relieving as a good rock concert and will never say no to candy.
At one point, Avon was the mayor of both Jazzercise and Lollicup on Foursquare. This tells you basically all you need to know about her as a person.
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