Authors: Jennifer Harlow
"The crime's not really as bad as the news would have you believe. Most ordinary citizens never come across a villain in their lives."
"Yeah," I say with a reassuring smile. "You're perfectly safe."
The sound of shattering glass and screaming women jolts me so bad I swallow my gum. Oh shit. Not good. The women continue wailing as if set on fire as Lexie and I round the corner of the hallway. Double shit. Four men in black tactical suits toting automatic weapons and one familiar woman rappel through the broken skylight while a helicopter hovers above. Triple shit.
Fucking KitKat. Wonderful. She's low on the villain food chain with no real powers to speak of. Mostly a thief but a damn good one, breaking into jewelry stores and museums. $500,000 this year alone. Her real claim to fame is being voted sexiest villain three years in a row. Easy to see why with a brown bustier and tight pants with claw marks across them encasing a curvy figure. Her orange hair hangs loose, obstructing the harlequin mask. The guests shriek and run around almost in circles out of blind terror. I'm so shocked I can barely process the whole scene. One of the henchmen lands a foot from Bitsy. She takes one look at the huge gun and faints dead away, head thumping hard on the floor.
Without thinking, and let's face it I rarely do, I dash over to my friend, just one of the many scurrying around in panic. The men move to the doors to block people from escaping as KitKat circles the room with a smile on her ruby red lips. I reach Bitsy and fall to my knees beside her. There's blood spewing from where she hit her head. I put pressure on it.
"Good afternoon, ladies," KitKat shouts over the mayhem. "Sorry to crash in. I know it's bad manners, but so is screaming, so
!" The henchmen at the main door points his gun at the ceiling and lets loose a barrage of bullets overhead. Everyone covers their ears and cowers, myself included. For a flash, I'm back on the hospital roof, bullets whizzing by my head as Alkaline's goons try to blow my brains out. The room falls silent except for a few whimpers. I'm trying my damnedest to stop trembling and calm my ragged breath. Not now. Don't you dare fall apart now, Jo. "Good! Now, if you'd all be so kind as to hand your jewelry and purses to my friends here, I'd be much obliged."
Dear God I hope Lexie is calling the police. As we all remove our trinkets with quaking hands, the men and KitKat quickly circle the room collecting them. Helena has trouble getting her five-carat emerald ring off, sobbing as she tugs on it. When the man reaches her, she's near hysterics. "It won't come off!" she cries.
He points the gun right at her forehead. "Get it off now!"
"I-I can't," she whimpers.
The man presses the barrel to her flesh. "Now!" he roars.
"Leave her alone!" someone with my voice shouts. My mouth closes, and I realize it was me. Oh, fuck.
All eyes, including KitKat's, swivel toward me. She smiles and saunters over to me, pistol in hand. "Well, well, well, look what the Kat's caught. Joanna fucking Fallon. This is my lucky day."
I can't take my eyes off the gun pointed a foot from my heart. "Just take the jewels and go. There's no need to scare or hurt anyone," I manage to say with authority. Inside I'm about to join Bitsy on the floor.
"Gee, thanks for the advice," she says before studying me for a second. "You know the pictures on the news didn't do you any justice." She giggles. "Get it? Justice? Anyway, I just wanted to say thanks for getting him killed. I've made more money in the past few months than the whole two years before. It was real swell of you."
"Go to hell."
She clucks her tongue. "Boys, guess who just volunteered to be our hostage? This woman just keeps on giving."
"Done ma'am," says one of the henchmen. He hikes his pouch over his shoulder. Larceny completed, the others return to the rappel ropes.
KitKat tilts her head to grin down at me. "Ready to go, JoJo? Get up." She grabs my arm, but I yank it away with a sneer. I can stand by myself. "Hope you're not afraid of heights."
"I'm not," a woman says above.
All eyes move up to the source. Hovering in what's left of the jagged skylight is Lady Liberty with a huge smirk, blonde hair and cape flapping from the nearby helicopter. I will never say another bad word about her again. The bad guys, including KitKat, all gape at her for a second. I don't waste the opportunity. As I was trained at the academy, with one fluid movement, I grab the barrel of her gun, step to the side, yank it toward me so hard it breaks her finger, tilt her wrist down, and commandeer the gun. She yelps in pain and surprise. Still got it.
At the same time, Liberty swoops down like a hawk toward the now frightened mice. The henchmen raise their guns as she rockets toward them. By the time I have the gun, the men open fire. All the ladies scream in panic, some ducking down, but I tune this out. I point the gun at the villain while sweeping her legs out from underneath her. In shock, she remains on the floor, staring up at me as spent slugs rain down on us. The bullets hit Liberty's force-field and cascade down like copper hail. Oblivious, the hero glides around the room punching, kicking, and generally beating the shit out of four hulking motherfuckers with guns. Two pounce at the same time but with a swift kick backwards and glittering energy blast forward, both topple like dominoes. Without missing a beat, she dispatches the last one with a roundhouse to the jaw. He crumples to the floor unconscious like the others. It's all over in about ten seconds. Girl power.
Panting from the effort and still in battle stance with fists raised, she surveys the room for more threats. She stops on me, meeting my eyes. "That all of them?"
"Guy in the helicopter," I say.
"I'll get him. Police are on the way." She glances down at KitKat. "Looks like you can handle the rest." She smiles at me. "Good job." And as fast as she came, she's gone.
A few seconds later the ropes fall and the helicopter flies away so we can hear the sirens in the distance. The other women rise, all but KitKat who glares up at me. I grin. "Bitch, you crashed the wrong fucking party."
I insisted on riding to the hospital with the still sobbing Bitsy. The paramedics revived her with smelling salts but advised she should go get checked for a concussion. All in all it could have been a hell of a lot worse. A few other guests were treated for minor cuts and bruises. When the ambulance was pulling away I saw a medic splinting KitKat's finger in the back of a police cruiser. That brought a small smile to my face.
The emergency room at Our Lady is quiet when we arrive, so we're brought right into an exam room. "Get Dr. Ambrose," I order the intern who begins looking my friend over. Only the best for my friend. Bitsy threw up twice in the ambulance, so I'm certain she has a concussion. Last year made me quite the expert. About ten minutes later, and a million assurances nobody will hold the robbery against her since it was her party, the good doctor with nurse in tow arrives. I'm embarrassed to admit my stomach flutters when he steps in. He glances up from Bitsy's chart, glasses perched on the end of his nose, and his mouth opens a little in surprise when he sees me. It takes a second for him to remember himself. His mouth sets into a firm, straight line. "Mrs. Armstrong?" he asks, all business.
I pat her hand. "I'll let Dr. Ambrose examine you." I stand. "I'll be just outside."
With a smile her way, I walk to the door. Jem doesn't glimpse up as I pass. My cell has been buzzing non-stop since we left, so I go to the waiting area and plop down in one of the chairs. On the TV above a reporter recaps the "hostage situation at the Restoration Society luncheon just minutes ago." I give it half an hour before my name crops up and I'm inundated with phone calls from reporters. My cousin Veronica, one of said bottom feeders though I never hold that against her, has already tried per my call history. Dobbs, Gene Tully my press guy, my old partner Cam, and Harry have all left voice messages. As I'm texting Dobbs to come get me, Thayer Armstrong, Bitsy's husband, rushes into the lounge. He spots me and hurries over. "I got your message. How is she? Is she okay?"
"Fine. They're examining her now." As if on cue, Jem strides into the waiting area with his head up for once. "Thayer Armstrong, this is Je--I mean, Dr. Ambrose. Thayer is Bitsy's husband."
"Your wife is resting at the moment. I suspect she has a concussion, but we'll need a CAT scan to confirm. She's coherent, up and talking, and that's a very good sign, but a head wound can be tricky. Should the scan show swelling, we'll want to keep her for a few days to monitor her. Regardless, she'll need to stay overnight for observation."
"Can I see her?" Thayer asks.
"Of course. She's in exam two. We'll collect her for the scan shortly."
"Thank you, doctor," Thayer says before walking away to find his wife. If I didn't know the man went through mistresses like socks, I'd almost believe he loved her.
"So, she'll be okay?" I ask.
"Yes, I believe so." He glances down at the blood on my dress. "Were you injured?"
"Oh, no, it's Bitsy's blood. I'm fine."
"And are you, I mean, you just experienced another trauma. Do you need, are you," he stammers, "would you like me to recommend--"
"I'm fine," I assure him. "No psychiatrists. I'll be fine. Just another day in Galilee Falls. It's--"
The sound of a gunshot stops my words and my breath. My whole body locks up like Ft. Knox. For an instant, the hospital vanishes. I'm stuck in a black subway tunnel running for my life as two men shoot at me. The bullets whizzing past me, my sore body pushed to the limit, and even the gravel under my bare, bleeding feet overwhelm me. A man says my name, but his touch pulls me from hell. I'm back at the hospital, shaking uncontrollably as Jem's concerned eyes study me. I can't breathe. No matter how hard I try, no air will enter. This makes me panic even more. I'm gonna die. I don't want to die. Without a word, the doctor grasps my hand and leads me past the nurse picking up the metal tray with instruments she dropped. We enter an exam room. Jem shuts the door before positioning me in a chair in the corner.
He kneels in front of me, dark blue eyes meeting my tear-filled ones. "Joanna, listen to me. Listen to my voice. Listen to my voice. You are safe. This is a safe place. You are safe. No one is going to hurt you here, I swear it to you, but you need to breathe." Jem places my hand on his chest, then covers mine with his. "Breathe. Follow my lead." His chest moves up and down as he takes a deep breath. Then again. I'm beginning to see spots now. "Stay with me, Joanna. I am right here with you. I'm not going anywhere. Breathe. You can do it, Joanna. Just breathe. Breathe," he orders through gritted teeth. I gasp as I expel the air I was holding. Tears trickle onto my cheeks. Jem smiles, making his eyes almost twinkle. He curls his fingers in mine to make a fist. "Good. Excellent. See? It's easy. You're doing brilliantly. Keep going." For about thirty seconds I match him breath for breath, my eyes never leaving his. The trembling lessens with each pant. I can even wipe the tears away. "You're doing great," he says with another smile. Those smiles calm me more than the deep breaths.
A minute later I can breathe without having to force it. I can even talk. "I'm okay," I whisper. I don't really want to but I pull my hand away from his chest. "Thank you."
"How often do you have panic attacks?"
"Whenever some psychopath points a gun at me," I chuckle as I wipe more falling tears away. "Um, they used to be more frequent. Loud noises, a man who resembled Alkaline, looking down from a height would trigger one, but it's been four months since the last one. My old therapist wanted to put me on meds, but I'm an alcoholic." I chuckle again, "Pills are a gateway. I'm not even supposed to have aspirin." I gaze down. "I was on Prozac years ago but it made my thinking fuzzy. God, this is so embarrassing."
"Don't be embarrassed," he says. "It happens to the best of us."
I look up again to his sympathetic smile. "You have panic attacks too?"
He nods. "Not for years now, but I did."
"Why? What happened?" His face falls a little, and I regret the question. I look away. "Sorry. Sorry. It's none of my business."
"No, it's…my fiancée was murdered. I was the one who found her." I glance up at him in shock. "And the guilt, the…unfairness of it all, swallowed me into the abyss. I know how difficult it is to come back from something like that. For a year I could barely eat, I couldn't sleep. I felt so…empty. Alone. Everyone tried to help, but…" He shrugs. "They just couldn't know what it felt like. They couldn't understand. So whatever you feel, whatever you do to cope, it's normal. Never be embarrassed about being human. Especially around me."
"When does it start getting better?"
"When you allow yourself to really feel it. To accept it."
"That…the life you had before is over. That things will never be the same. That for better or for worse,
not the same. Where you choose to go from there is entirely up to you. You can either let the pain, the guilt, become your only friend. Your prison. Or you can let it teach you, perhaps even make you stronger in some ways." He shakes his head. "But I won't lie to you, it's always there under the surface. The darkness. It's a part of you. Forever."
Before I can stop myself, I tentatively reach across and squeeze his hand. "I'm sorry."
He squeezes back. "
I meet his eyes, searching deep to confirm my suspicion. I find it. That same haunted look I always see in mine. Eyes that have gazed into that abyss and seen it staring back. He's as broken as I am. Kindred spirits. We gaze at each other for a few seconds, not blinking or even breathing. This is a rare find, and we both know it. "Jem--"
The door opens, and I yank my hand away. A nurse pokes her head in. "Mrs. Armstrong is ready to go to radiology."
Jem leaps up like a jack-in-the-box, running his hand through his unruly hair. "Good, um, yes, um, thank you." The nurse glances at me, then at him, and shuts the door. "Um, I-I-I had best get back in there. Ar-Are you alright? Would-Would you like me to page a psychiatrist or write you a scrip for Valium or, no you can't take pills. Forgot that. I-I suppose I could--"