Authors: Jennifer Harlow
I'm very pissed is what I am. "You went through my files?"
"Some. We knew generally who the major criminals in the city were, but we'll review the complete files. I, or one of the others, will come every day to view the day's footage."
"So, in other words, you're cutting me out of the loop," I spit out.
"We may need you in emergency situations, but…we're here now. This isn't your burden anymore."
? Helping my city and keeping people safe isn't a burden. Is that what you consider it?"
The hero hangs his head, I hope from shame. "I-I didn't mean it like that. Of course it isn't. I-I-I just assumed after what transpired last year, and all your sacrifices then and since, you'd desire to be as far from this sort of thing as possible."
"Violence. Danger. Supers."
"Well, you're being in my house every day kind of makes that hard, huh?" I point out.
"We will go out of our way to make sure nobody links us together. Measures have already been taken. Perhaps it would be best if you frequented this room as little as possible so as to limit our interactions."
I fold my arms across my chest. "Now you're telling me where I can and can't go in my own house?"
"No! No, of course not," he backpedals. "I'm-I'm sorry. I'm articulating this incorrectly."
"Yeah, now I see why you stick to monosyllables."
"I just, I," he says, flustered. He takes a second, lips pursed as he tries to find the correct words. "I--
aware of how close you and Justice were. It is only logical, that due to the circumstances of his death, you would feel partially responsible." My back straightens. "And due to your feelings of culpability, you would locate an avenue to compensate for his loss, i.e. spending hours down here attempting to forestall crimes he would if he were alive."
"So?" I ask, voice hard.
"So, we're here to lift that burden. You don't have to carry this city anymore. You can go out with friends, take trips, even…date. Live your life. As Justin would want it." He turns back to the computer screen. "That's simply what I meant."
"And how the hell would you know what Justin would want for me?"
Once again he's silent, trying to find the words before saying, "He loved you. He'd want you to be happy. And you're not. This could be the first step toward it. Let us do that for you."
I'm speechless. Shame has silenced me. He's trying to help me, and I'm giving him shit for it. "You don't get it. The only times this year I've been even close to happy have all been down in this room. Finding the right footage to take someone down. Helping the police piece together evidence. I almost felt like I was my old self again, for all that's worth," I say with a scoff. "Out there, all that bullshit, it's what makes me nuts. My friends treat me like a China doll, I'm not exactly corporate material, and as for men, hell there's nobody I would inflict myself upon." Nightingale glances at me, and I half smile. "Too broken. Think I always will be. But in here that doesn't matter. Hell, it might actually be a good thing. So you're not cutting me out of this. I'm helping you whether you like it or not. I know this city. I know the players. I have the connections. Nobody but us will know. I want to help. I need to help. Don't freeze me out. Besides, it's my house. My computer. I can always just call the cops on you for trespassing. The press would love that, huh? You have no choice."
He sits as still as a statue for seconds, the wheels in his head turning. I wish I could see his eyes under the goggles. Wish I could read his face. Seems unfair he can read mine because I feel him studying it now. Then he turns away. "Fine."
"The others won't mind?"
"They won't care."
"Good," I say with a smile. I scoot the chair over so our arms touch. He doesn't pull away. "So. Show me how to hack into the Defense Department then I'll make us some sandwiches. Sound good?"
"Sounds great," he says after a pause.
"Then let's get started."
And for a brief second, he smiles too.
I get nightmares. A lot. Once a week on the good weeks and three on the bad. I wake up tangled in sweat stained sheets, panting like a dog. It's not always James Ryder tormenting me either, though he makes his fair share of appearances. No, sometimes it's Harry pressing a gun to my head or my mother shoving me off the Falls. Those I can handle. Some deep breaths, few minutes of television, and I'm back to my old self. No, it's the good dreams that ruin my day. The ones where I know it's a dream, that it's going to end, but I don't care because Justin's there and we're walking along the beach, or sailing, or just sitting on the couch talking like we used to. I always sense it coming to an end though. I beg and beg and cry and cry, and he just holds me, caressing and kissing my hair as I cling to him. Then he whispers, "I love you," kisses my lips and vanishes into thin air. It takes me a moment to realize he's gone, that he was never really there, and that I have to wake up now. When the veil of sleep lifts, it's as if the world has dropped out from under me again, and I can't stop crying because I still feel that kiss on my lips.
I can barely get out of bed on those days. My AA sponsor Marlene, a mother of three with her own troubles, has spent many an hour talking the bottle out of my hand after one of those. Hard to reach her when I'm in Tokyo though. Improvising, I woke poor Shannon to watch TV with me. She had to literally push me into the meeting with the telecom executives. Thank God Lane, our CFO, was there because I sure as hell couldn't concentrate. The Justin dreams are growing more frequent, not the once a month like usual, but twice a week for the past two weeks. I don't know if it's because the anniversaries are coming up or because of my new acquaintances. Both judging from the conversations Justin and I have in my dreams. It almost makes me want to sever ties. Almost.
effective. Been in town two weeks and not only have they arrested Gigantor, stopped Carrion from raising an undead army, and rescued another shipment of sex trafficked children, thus ensuring Oleg Casanov will spend the rest of his life in prison. Nightingale and I cracked that last one just a few hours before I had to leave for Tokyo. I got an anonymous e-mail with the news story and picture of the Triumvirate carrying teenage girls out of a ship container, then another the next day as Feds arrested several key members of the trafficking ring as I stepped off my jet. They also closed down several brothels and a kiddie porn ring. Wished I was there to celebrate with them, that is if they ever celebrate.
They are a serious bunch, especially Nightingale. It takes a lot to get him to talk, let alone smile. He grew friendlier as the days went on, even laughing when I smeared mustard on my nose and didn't know it. The other two only popped by once each and barely acknowledged me. At least they weren't hostile. I can't tell if they dislike me or think I'm inconsequential. Not that I give a shit but for the sake of being comfortable I hope those trafficking busts upgrades me from nuisance to ally in their eyes.
I arrive home from the Galilee airfield at seven in the morning after an eighteen hour flight, fall into my bed, and get to sleep five whole hours before Dobbs wakes me. I'm so exhausted I didn't even dream. I have a luncheon for the Restoration Society at one, and I would cancel but it's my friend Bitsy's event, and she takes it personally when I don't show. She's been surprisingly helpful since I "re-entered society" after Justin's death. She was pretty great, not leaving my side for the first few events and politely telling assholes to shove their comments as they came. I'd known most of the people for twenty years, but was considered an outsider, there solely because Justin needed an escort. Once Ward trash, always Ward trash. Not that it stops them from inviting me so their charity/party/event gets press coverage.
I put on my silk black/white/yellow swirl dress and huge floppy straw hat Isolde selected for this occasion. I'd look pretty damn good if not for the dark circles under my blue eyes. I'm too pale, close to sick looking even which makes my true black hair appear fake. Since it's a luncheon and I'll be sitting the whole time, I put on heels which adds a few inches to my 5"2' frame. I still look and feel like a kid playing dress-up.
Dobbs fills me in on all I've missed in the three days I've been away on the drive to the Historical Society building. I tune out the story about the repairmen in the west wing as we cross over Pendergast Bridge. I drive over this testament to modern ingenuity twice a day but each time the memories flood back. Understandable though. I did try to kill myself on this bridge twenty-one years ago after my father was murdered. If that wasn't enough, that same night I met Justin and fell head over heels in love with him. He saved my life in so many ways. It's actually good to drive over this thing. Reminds me of why I go to these charity luncheons with those vapid women who thumb their surgically altered noses at me. It's what he'd do. It's hard, I hate it, but if I can help even one person, then it's all worth it. Just wish I didn't have to wear a damn dress and heels to do it.
I'm late as usual, so most of the women are already in the banquet hall for cocktails. Another problem with these things is the alcohol. My mouth waters at the sight of those Bloody Mary's and Mimosas. I move to one of the waiters carrying food. No wonder I've gotten so plump. Okay, quick appearance then leave. There are about twenty to thirty women here, all with ornate hats every color of the rainbow and enough diamonds to fill a conflict mine, which they all probably did at one time. A literal ray of light shines through the skylight onto Brittney "Bitsy" Armstrong's rose colored hat. Like almost every other woman here she's thin, tan, with straight brown hair and tucked everything. She holds court with a few women, only one of whom I don't know. Bitsy spots me scarfing down two cucumber sandwiches in the corner. Damn. She excuses herself and walks over, double kissing my cheeks. "You came!"
"Of course," I say.
Bitsy links her arm through mine and starts leading me back to her friends. "There is someone here you
have to meet. She's a riot."
Lorna, Samantha, Rachel and Helena surround a tall woman dressed in a low-cut, bright red dress with cherries on it and matching pillbox hat. Edgy for this crowd. She's gorgeous with perfect tan skin, glossy dark brown hair cut in a pageboy, high cheekbones, and big brown doe eyes. I know her from somewhere I can't place. The other women paste fake smiles on, but the stranger's seems genuine. "Hello, all," I say.
"Joanna," Lorna says, "good to see you."
"Joanna, this is Alexia," Bitsy says of the stranger. "You know Alexia, the model. She's married to Brendan Darby, the new Galilee Angel's running back. Lexie, this is my good friend Joanna Fallon. She's head of Pendergast Industries."
"Delighted to meet you," Lexie says with a nod.
"Likewise. I love your dress."
"Thanks. Calvin made it especially with me in mind," she says, preening.
"He is such a sweet man," Samantha says as if she bore his children.
All the women are practically salivating having a real celebrity in their midst not just the usual socialites and business types like me. A supermodel is one step away from a movie star. This poor woman will be inundated with invitations to every event in town and a million calls for lunch. Good luck to her. "How do you like our fair city so far?" I ask.
"It's certainly friendly," she says with smiles all around.
"Friendliest city in the world," Lorna says, beaming.
My eyes roll involuntarily, and Lexie smirks. "Seems that way," she says.
"So you moved here because of your husband?" I ask.
She sips her mimosa. "Among other reasons."
"Brendan was with the Independence Eagles," Bitsy says to me before turning back to Lexie. "Joanna here doesn't follow football."
"Well, I won't hold that against her. I barely follow it too. I'm not big on violence."
"Amen to that," I say. The women tense up. They do that a lot around me.
Bitsy was trained from the womb for just this situation. Ever the hostess, she says, "You two have something else in common. Lexie, didn't you move into Grady Levine's house? She's your neighbor, Joanna."
She's one of the lovebirds then. "Really?"
"You know I think I've seen you running the shore," Lexie says. "You always look so determined when you run."
"And you always look very cozy with your husband," I say.
"You know how it is when you can't keep your hands off someone," she says, blushing. Me and the other women don't say a word. She smiles again. "Or not." Lexie clears her throat. "Will you all please excuse me? I have to powder my nose."
"I'll show you where it is," I say, eager to leave.
I lead the model away from the girls. "I don't really have to go," Lexie says.
"I figured. They can be a bit much all together like that."
"Are they better individually?"
"Not really," I say with a smile.
"I was just afraid I was going to fall asleep. I hate inane talk about Botox and boarding schools. I get enough of that at photo shoots." We make our way to the hallway where the bathrooms are and socialites are not. Lexie sighs in relief as she leans against the wall and closes her eyes. "This is soooo much better. I hate these things. You need a lobotomy to get through them."
"Then why'd you come?"
"Same as you, probably. Support a good cause, network, meet new people, blah blah blah. I'm setting up a charity for battered women, building new shelters. Can't invite people to events and get their cash if I don't know them. Such is the price of being a decent human being."
"Well, count me in. I've seen firsthand how important shelters are."
She pulls out gum from her cherry purse and offers me a stick, which I take. "Yeah, you were a cop, right? Do you miss it?"
"When I have time. You miss Independence?"
"When I have time," she says with a smug smile. "I threw a hissy fit when Bren told me he wanted to move here. I was born and raised in Independence. All my friends, my family, my haunts, they're all there. I knew that city inside and out. And, I mean no offense by this, then to move to a war zone without a decent fashion scene…it's been an adjustment."