The characters in this story may bear some resemblance to certain bards, warriors and other RenPic creations. This resemblance is not coincidental.
Violence/Language/Sex/Drugs/Adult Themes/Gourmet Coffee? Yes.
"Is Aphrodite carrying a Swiss Army Knife these days?" - Vivian Darkbloom
I could see her now, walking slowly, calmly, through the car park. She was laughing, deep in conversation with someone on her cellphone.
My hands were steady, my finger light upon the trigger. I let the smoothness of my muscles guide the rifle, keeping the blonde woman in the crosshairs.
Everything simplified down the barrel of a gun.
She snapped the phone shut with a flick of her wrist, and her laughter broke off with the taut line of her mouth.
One target. One shot.
I squeezed the trigger, watched the bullet scream six hundred metres to its destination. My hand soft as butter, gentle, perfect control.
And yet - she did not fall. She had heard the 'crack' of the slug as it passed by, singeing a path through the fine gold of her hair. The window of the car behind her shattered into spiderwebs.
I glanced down at my hands. Rock steady. I checked the scope: the reticle blacked a point between her brows.
And yet the impossible had happened.
I had missed.
I could take a second shot. Just a millimetre's nudge to the left would compensate for the drift.
She had turned towards the sound of the shattering window, and there was no need for compensation. This would be a kill shot.
Breathe. Relax. Aim. Squeeze.
My finger would not close on the trigger. Pain. I had cut it to the bone on the edge of the trigger guard. I touched the ball of my thumb to the tip of my index finger, and felt prickling numbness. But I still had a job to do. I tilted my hand, brought my third finger to rest on the trigger. Blood was flowing freely from the slice in my finger.
Just the target. Just the shot.
Not the slow trickle of blood towards my palm.
The blonde woman was staring directly at me.
An impossibility, of course. From six hundred metres away, the direction of her gaze could only be coincidence. And yet, those eyes were so blue, I forgot to breathe, forgot to fire.
I unwound my injured hand from its awkward grip of the rifle. Kept the sight pointed at her, as she fumbled her car keys from her bag, as she unlocked the door, as she clambered into the driver's seat. Her hands were shaking - it took her three tries for the ignition to catch.
Six hundred and seven metres to the target from my eyrie atop the supermarket. Six hundred and eight. Six hundred and nine.
I watched her drive away.
I began to disassemble the rifle, a pattern of pieces and movements that had long ago become instinct. I paused to wipe the blood from the grip, to twist gauze around my wounded finger. The edge of the trigger guard was smooth; I ran my thumb across the sleek metal, found no sharpness.
The gun packed neatly, I adjusted the collar of my shirt, slipped cheap sunglasses from my top pocket. Shrugging into my backpack, I made my way downstairs, through a fire door, and into the supermarket to begin my grocery shopping.
Robert, when I called him on my cellphone, did not sound angry.
"It didn't go through," I said, and listened to his hoarse breathing as he absorbed the news.
"You missed it, Corey?"
"Must be a blue moon, Robert." I manoeuvred the trolley around a pallet of tins, grabbed a six pack of ramen noodles. "When can I see you?" We need to talk.
"How about dinner tonight?" No shit we need to talk. "My place, seven o'clock." Now.
"Sure, baby. See you there." Shit.
I made it as far as the car park before I was violently and unceremoniously sick.
Found the bullet embedded in the back seat. Glass everywhere. And my hands wouldn't stop shaking. First realisation I had that I was in shock was that my hands were shaking.
Couldn't start the car. I was so anxious to get out of there, I couldn't start the bloody car.
Someone had tried to shoot me. I couldn't believe it. I kept trying to tell myself not to be ridiculous. Couldn't have been. But a bullet had gone straight by my ear. I wasn't dreaming it. I was on my way home from work, just about to get in my car, and next thing I know - someone's shooting at me.
What'd I do to be shot at? Put a book out wrong? I'm assistant manager at a bookshop - I'm hardly public enemy number one.
I don't know how I made it to the service station. Had to stop somewhere. Get myself together. Had to comb my hair out. Have to get a haircut, come to that. Bullet left a ragged bit where it went through. Damn lucky I don't wear dangly earrings, really. It was that close.
Someone had shot at me. It's not something I can even understand. Missed my head by not even a couple of inches. Someone had been trying to kill me. I couldn't - I didn't - it just didn't make sense.
I just wanted to run home and cry on my boyfriend's shoulder. Have him tell me everything was going to be all right. Remembered I didn't have a boyfriend anymore, cried anyway and felt stupid for it. Locked in a bathroom at a garage, bawling like a baby. Felt like a right bloody idiot.
Washed my face, fixed up my eyeliner. My roots were showing - you could see the brown grown out past the blonde. Was going to have to make a visit to the hairdresser, looked like. Might do me good. Might calm me down; stop my hands shaking, at least. I'd made a crisis of my eyeliner.
Kicked the bathroom door open and ran back to the car before I could start crying again.
Robert was sitting on the front deck when I arrived. He folded the newspaper he had been reading, and looked me up and down. "That'll need stitches."
I'd been expecting some kind of reprimand, but his dark eyes were calm.
"Come inside." He padded up the stairs and keyed the door open. I knew he didn't live here - the house had that stale air of vacancy most weekenders possessed - but still he kept up the pretence.
A framed Marilyn Monroe print. A bookshelf with far too many texts on Baudrillard and Derrida. As if Robert would recognise postmodernism if it came up and bit him on the ass.
While I'd been smirking at the library, Robert had collected his medical kit from some other part of the house. I took a seat on the couch and let him fuss. The gauze was hardened to my skin.
"What went wrong?" His hands were gentle. Another thing which didn't fool me; Robert could handle a knife with all the delicacy of a surgeon, much like Jack the Ripper. Now, though, he was daubing the cut with antiseptic.
"I missed. The shot went wide and she drove off."
He dabbed, soaking off congealed blood. I couldn't read his expression. The black bag took the focus of his concentration for some time.
Finally, "She drove off?" I sucked in a breath as the suturing needle sank in. "That's unusual for you, Corey."
"I don't miss, you mean?" I gritted my teeth. "Why aren't you using any fucking anaesthetic?"
"Why don't you shut the fuck up and let me work?" He punctuated his sentence with another neat stitch. "You always hit, Corey. Always. You're Little Miss Perfect. So, I ask again: what went wrong?"
What did I do? My mind kept ticking over, replaying the moment like some god-awful TV show, and I couldn't escape the thought that I must've done something. Some terrible crime I didn't remember. Something hideous thing that would make someone want to shoot me.
But I'm not a terrible person. Everyone's always saying, "Oh, Jill, you're such a sweetie." Is that the kind of person that gets shot at?
Then, of course, I got to wondering: how come they missed? I wouldn't have known to duck. By the time I felt the bullet go through my hair, it would already have been too late. No warning at all.
Sat in my apartment and stared at the fishbowl. Arthur looked a lot like I felt. Blue fins all rumpled, him gasping for air. Can't hug a fish. Stared at him a while. He stared back. Thanks, fish.
But I just felt far too alone in my apartment. Far too vulnerable. There could be a gun pointing at the back of my neck and I wouldn't know it.
Got up, started pacing. A moving target's harder to hit. Soon as I realised that was why I was pacing, I froze dead in my tracks.
Wondered if I was going insane. Wondered if this was how agoraphobia started.
If I didn't get out of the house then and there, I would never have got out. Called glass repair, had an excuse to walk down the driveway to meet them.
"Kids throwing rocks, you know how it is." He didn't want to strike up a conversation, just fixed the window, nodded, and left.
My neck was crawling - I could feel eyes, like someone watching me, training the barrel of a gun on me. Getting ready to fire. Not going to miss this time.
Nerves, bloody nerves. Couldn't stop shaking.
Went inside and put the TV on. Loud.
The woman from the bar knew what to do with her tongue, no mistake, but I felt strangely detached from my body.
I lay on my back, knees bent, hips lifted, staring down the flat muscle of my belly. She seemed to be enjoying what she was doing. I let my head fall back against the pillow, light with vodka and clouded with the aftermath of the joints we'd shared earlier in the evening.
My finger throbbed against the stitches, a dull ache which drew my attention from the movement between my legs. I curled my hand against the bandage, felt the sutures pulling at tender flesh.
My legs were numb. I shifted the weight from my hips, pressed my palm to the woman's forehead. "This isn't working. I'm sorry."
Her eyes reflected her bewilderment - not hurt, not quite yet - as she sank back onto her haunches. Her chin was wet.
I rolled aside, planted my feet on the thick carpet, already reaching for my discarded boxers. "I can't do this."
"Did I do something wrong?" She wiped her mouth, still staring at me as I shrugged into my t-shirt. There was a tremendous hickey, almost black, at the point of her shoulder. I'd come close to leaving toothmarks. So how had the surge of lust evaporated to this emptiness in the time it took us to shed our clothes?
My head felt only incidentally connected to my shoulders; only the weight of my braids down my neck to my back provided some line of continuity.
My damaged hand, though, communicated every beat of my heart with a throbbing that travelled the distance from fingertip to elbow. Despite the numbness, my pulse was racing.
I gave the woman - fuck, I didn't even know her name - another look as I finished lacing my boots. She was holding my leather jacket out to me, and her expression was already closed.
"I assume I won't be seeing you around, then?" Her nostrils flared. She was still definitely cute, in that loose-limbed tomboyish kind of way, but the way her jaw was tightening stated quite clearly that I was a shit.
My hand pulsed as though my heart had taken up residence somewhere between the first and second joints of my index finger.
Robert, if you've screwed up my hand ... But it had been up to me. It had been a cut, nothing more. Nothing that signposted "hired killer"; it could as easily have been a slip with a kitchen knife. I could have gone to a hospital.
But I'd reported to Robert. I always reported to Robert. He'd patched the knee I grazed sliding down the rockface after the Einfeld shooting with all the care of a proud father. David Einfeld - politician, liberal, corpse - with his chest blown away on the evening news, and me with red smears of mercurochrome on my left knee.
He'd stitched up my hand today. Stitched it up like a fucking amateur, and I'd been stupid enough to let him...
I'd reached the bottom of the stairs before I even realised I'd left the woman's apartment. I didn't even remember saying goodbye. When I looked up, the front door was shut and the light was off.
She'd said goodbye, then. Or, get lost.
I couldn't blame her.
I was digging through my wallet for the phone number of the taxi company, when my eye fell on the writing across my driver's licence. JENNIFER LEIGH CORLISS, said the card.
Aw, fuck - had I taken the woman's wallet by accident?
But the photo was mine, so the name was the latest in a series of lies ... still, if they weren't telling, neither was I.
I began to laugh, with a kind of desperate hilarity. I was not only drunk and stoned, I was also feverish. The clammy chill of sweat dripping down my temples, soaking my shirt beneath my arms and at the small of my back, suddenly made much more sense.
Phone number in hand, I began dialling - and stopped when I noticed the blood seeping through the gauze on my finger.
Fuck the taxi, I thought, in a moment of gloriously drugged-out clarity. I need an ambulance.
Couldn't believe I slept that night.
But when I opened my eyes it was ten past five, and the blankets had been kicked halfway across the room. Hadn't been a peaceful night, then. But no nightmares.
I took my life in my hands everyday driving to work. Took risks enough ordering Thai food from the local takeout.
But I hadn't, till now, spent half my time looking over my shoulder. Hadn't seen the shooter the first time, of course. Wouldn't know him if I saw him. But knew I was going to keep a lookout anyway. Just in case.
Got out of bed, tiptoed to the window. Streetlights still on. Sun still dozing. Lucky sun. I couldn't sleep now.
Fed Arthur. He was looking bloated, got me wondering if I'd overfed him. You can kill a fish that way.
Thought about my plans for the day. Work, of course. Go to the hairdresser's in my lunchbreak. Go to the police...
Tell them what, exactly? Walking back to my car and someone shot at me? In the middle of a car park. Hardly downtown Baghdad, was it?
Wondered again if I might be dreaming, but the slug I'd picked out of the back seat was still on my night table. Dreams with artefacts? I didn't think so.
"My name," I said to the bathroom mirror, "is Jill Tennant. And yesterday someone tried to kill me."
Do they have a twelve-step program for that?
I lay in my cocoon of pain.
My hand, my wrist, my arm was on fire. Heat, agony, throbbed where my hand was supposed to be, while the rest of my body sweated ice.
They caught it in time to prevent infection, but not before shock had set in, not before the damage had been done. I spent hours in surgery, while a microsurgeon tried to bring cohesion to the turgid ruin of flesh that had, only the day before, been my trigger finger.
Through the fevered haze of my thoughts, I couldn't be sure that I'd heard the word "amputate" but I railed against it anyway.
They had found me in the gutter, head in my hands, still with the phone at my side. Barely conscious, and barely coherent. I held my hand out to the paramedic like a supplicant before the Messiah. Heal me, O Lord. Save me.
But the nerves had been severed. The injury was permanent.
There was no doubt about it: I was beautiful.
Having my hair dark gave me some kind of intensity. The contrast against my cheekbones - sharp, sleek, almost cat-like.
Blonde for six years. God, why?
My eyes couldn't get bluer than this. Something to be said for contrasts. Had to move a couple of times, be sure the reflection in the mirror was following, before I was quite sure it was me.
"D'you like it?" Tara looked anxious.
"I love it..."
"Had to cut bangs, I'm afraid, to get rid of where you'd burned your hair-"
Straight line across my brows. Part gone forever. Who'd have thought the cut and colour of my hair could make such a difference? Looked like someone else now, someone powerful.
Hell, maybe I'd start wearing suits to work.
I woke on the morning of the sixth day, flat on my back, every muscle aching, staring at the swathe of bandages that had enveloped my right hand.
"You're awake." The nurse seemed pleased, something I could not account for. She was checking the contents of the IV.
"Evidently," I croaked. My throat was raw, and I gulped eagerly at the contents of the glass she offered me. Hospital, water, bandages ... my brain was still a little clouded. I sucked the chill from my teeth; the water had been icy. "How long was I out?"
"They admitted you Sunday morning."
I wrinkled my forehead at her.
"Six days," she clarified.
My stomach roiled, and she was there with a basin, kindly but useless. I lost all the water I'd just swallowed then dry-retched, painfully, for some minutes, too caught up in physical misery for any manner of conscious thought.
Finally I was able to lift my head without succumbing to nausea, and the nurse settled me back against a stack of pillows.
"What happened to my hand?" Within their gauze swaddling, my fingers were an indistinct numbness. The drainage tube protruding from within was stained colours I refused to contemplate.
"They've done their best, dear." My hopes that she was not the condescending type shattered at the word 'dear'. "They operated to reattach the tendons in your hand, and hopefully the nerve damage isn't too severe."
Nerve damage. Christ.
I'm angry. You failed me, Robert. You hurt me. You butchered me. My gift - and yes, Robert, it is a gift - is in my steady hand, my perfect aim. And that's gone.
They spent hours on my hand, working to knit together damaged nerves, severed tendons. They were painstaking in their care, and futile in their efforts. My hand's been left half-crippled, index finger numb, all my fingers trembling.
I am useless. I am broken. And I am angry, Robert. If I could pull a trigger, my next bullet would be in your brain.
"Your fiance should be by soon, though, dear." Her voice cut through the stunned stillness in my head, and I turned to look at her.
"Huh?" My voice had failed.
"He's been coming in every afternoon, without fail. An utter gentleman."
My left hand crept to the nape of my neck, wrapping my fingers through the sticky masses of my braids. My skin was slick. Abruptly aware of my own filth, I lifted my head and met the nurse's eyes. "Do I have time for a shower before he gets here?"
Anything to loosen the rancid knotting of my muscles. I wanted to be ready when he arrived. I was going to kill him.
Well, thank you for your help. They looked at the bullet, but said they couldn't do anything. Gives you a little less faith in the power of the police. People shooting at your head and they can't do a bloody thing about it.
Stared into my coffee, and considered switching to decaf. Hadn't been sleeping well. Last thing I needed was caffeine adding to the problem.
"My God. Jill? Woman, I almost didn't recognise you!" Anna, bursting into the cafe like the human tornado. Taking a seat without asking. She never did. "You look incredible!"
"Ever thought about becoming a disgruntled postal worker?"
At this choice non sequitur, Anna gave me a look like I was off my rocker. "It's been that kind of a day?"
"No, I was just thinking..." Looked across to the car park, to the spot my car should have been parked, but wasn't. Never mind I had an employee's parking permit; I wasn't going to make myself a target again. Walking two blocks across the mall every morning was a small price to pay to keep my head intact. "If there was a sniper ... where would he be?"
"Tallest building, I expect." She made a show of looking around. "No clock towers about?"
Smirked at her, then noticed what she was at. "Anna-"
"D'you realise you're drinking my coffee?"
Even so, took me another half-hour to get rid of her. Wasn't enough that she was a friend of my ex, she was a friend who'd been introduced to me by my ex. Finally she went - without paying for the coffee she drank - and I walked out into the car park.
Almost sunset by now. Long shadows. Most cars gone. Cafe behind me closing up, tables being dragged inside.
Walked to the spot I'd been standing, felt the hairs on my neck rise like some sort of premonition. Bit bloody late for that. The shot had come without warning.
From there. Knew it like gospel truth as my eyes caught sight of a window - hardly that, even - up top of the supermarket complex. Half expected the sting of a bullet, the shatter of glass. The sudden chill of perspiration on the back of my neck.
This must be what fainting feels like...
"What happens now, Robert?"
He was reading the chart at the foot of my bed, his brow furrowed, looking nothing like a doctor in a leather jacket worth less than his Armani jeans.
"What happens now," he replied, "is you get better, you get out of here, and you finish the job."
"I'm not going to get better. Not the way it counts."
I couldn't even move my hand in the bandages shrouding it. There was no point trying to demonstrate.
"Doctors can be wrong." He reeked such sublime, disgusting confidence that I wanted to slug him.
"At least they're doctors!"
No reaction, no dent in his assuredness.
Calm, Corey. Calm. "You can't expect me just to-"
"You owe me," he said quietly. "You'll do it."
I was weaker than I thought. I had to look away. He tousled my shower-damp hair affectionately, then put his hand beneath my chin.
His fingers tilted my head back, and my mask, my anger, my strength broke. "Hey, kid."
I locked my jaw, but I could not trap the hot droplet that slipped down my cheek. "You're a condescending bastard, Robert" I growled, and my voice was harsh as gravel.
But inside I was sixteen years old.
"I'm keeping you safe, Corey." Robert's fingers tightened. I shrugged him off.
"And just when did you buy me?"
He straightened from leaning across the bed, and smiled at me. His teeth were faintly yellowed from his cigarettes, the cigarettes he had never let me smoke. "Who do you think is paying your medical bills?"
I wanted to lunge at him, smack his smiling face into blood and shattered bone, but my arms and legs were jelly. I leaned my head back against the pillows and closed my eyes. "Go away, Robert. I don't want to have this conversation."
After some minutes, I heard his footsteps click across the linoleum floor and fade into the background hum of the hospital.
I lifted my hands to my face, felt the rough texture of the bandages. No pain, just the feathered trembling of my fingers.
Fingers that still knew the shape and action of a sniper's rifle. Eyes still closed, I went through the motions of assembling the weapon. Each movement was ingrained like the steps in a dance. A dance Robert had taught me.
I opened my eyes and stared down at the imaginary rifle I cradled in my arms.
Woke up alone. Still not used to that. Sometimes find myself reaching for a man who's no longer my lover. Wouldn't want him in my bed if he was. Sometimes I think I can smell him.
Went over the afternoon in my head. Fainting. Hardly the fainting type, no swooning Scarlett O'Hara me. And yet, down I'd gone, all floppy like a rag doll.
So much for not making a target of myself. Maybe that's where I'd've fallen, if he'd hit me. Some kind of symmetry to it all.
Got up, padded to the living room, put a CD on. Slow, smoky blues. God's own music for 4 am. Seeing that time on the clock far too often these days.
"It's the friends you can call at 4 am that matter." Read that somewhere, think it was Marlene Dietrich. Found myself picking up the phone, calling the only person I knew to call.
"Dad? It's Jill."
"Jill?" His voice cleared quickly from a sleepy blur. "What is it, pet?"
"I couldn't sleep. I've been having bad dreams."
"Bad dreams?" I heard the catch in his voice, knew what he was thinking. Being Dad, though, he made light of it. "You haven't been eating cheese before you go to bed, then, have you?"
Wrapped myself around one of the throw pillows from the sofa. "No, Dad. Nothing like that. It's just ... I'm scared, is all. Sometimes I feel like this city's too big for me."
"Too big for you?" Dads don't change. He sounded like this when I was fifteen, he's going to sound like this when I'm fifty - if he's still alive. "I'm surprised you've not already conquered the world, Squid."
"Squid?" Laughing at him for that one, and it felt so good to be laughing. "Dad, you haven't called me that for years."
"I save it for special occasions, you should know that." He cleared his throat a couple of times; I could hear his lungs wheezing.
"You don't sound well, Dad."
"I'm not usually up this time of morning." More coughing. "Not like you young things. How's that man of yours?"
"Dad, we split up months ago."
"Well now, you never tell me these things, Squid. I'm only your dad, I don't know everything."
The CD whooshed to a halt in the background. Hum of speakers, street sounds of the early morning.
"You used to."
"No, I was just better at bluffing you then. You're going to be okay, Jilly. Don't be scared. Someone will come and take care of you one day."
"Dad!" That's what I'm afraid of.
"Don't go getting indignant at me, pet. I'm working at becoming an old man, see?"
"I love you, Dad."
"Love you too, Squidly."
Didn't sleep what was left of the night.
Drank tea, Earl Grey with honey like my dad would make when I had a cold. Used to be my dad could help with anything.
Used to be I felt safe.
It was her.
For a moment I thought I was mistaken. Her hair was dark, cut in a hard line above her brows - but the instant I saw the vivid blue of her eyes, there was no doubt.
My fingers closed unthinkingly on the back of the bench at the bus stop. I swore. It still hurt.
She was standing across the road, contemplating crossing against the lights. Seeing her in the flesh, on the street, rather than through the dispassionate eye of the riflescope, she seemed different. Still tall and leggy, slightly graceless in heels - but the nervous flicker of her eyes at the squeal of brakes further down the block, that was something new.
She hurried across at a break in the traffic, trailing her purse from one shoulder. I watched her pass by, wanting to turn my head and follow, but stilled by ingrained caution.
I looked down at my hands where they rested against the bench. My fingers trembled. I willed them to curl, and they closed into a fist, obedient as puppets.
Sixth sense jangled a warning, and she was sitting on the bench an arm's length away. She was tying her shoelace, long fingers deft as they twisted cord over cord. Close enough to touch, if I had wanted to touch her. This woman I had trained a gun on an eternity of fever ago.
I had never seen a target up close. I could smell the faint chamomile of her shampoo, there was that little distance between us.
She lived and breathed, despite me. She cut her hair, she tied her shoes, she drove a red hatchback. She had a life, despite me.
"Are you okay?"
My eyes snapped into focus. She was staring at me.
"You looked like you were about to faint."
Staring at me. Talking to me. I drew the mask over my face, found calm, found nothingness. "I'm fine."
Never get your hands dirty if you can help it, Robert had said, right from the beginning. When the weight of a rifle was still alien to my hands.
There were shadows under her eyes, as though she hadn't been sleeping. That was no surprise.
"I've been sick. I was just discharged from hospital," I ventured, offering something to keep her talking. "I'm not quite used to this walking thing yet."
"Too many days on your backside, then?" She took the bait, relaxing into the seat where she had just been tensing to stand.
"Definitely that." My eyes traced the line of her jaw, the hollow of her throat, the slight flicker of her carotid pulse beneath the skin. She lived, and I knew just where to place the bullet that would end her life.
His hand on my shoulder brings me awake, and I jolt from bed to feet. The blankets tangle my puppyfat limbs and down I go. A rude awakening.
Robert applauds politely. "Quite a show," he says. He's a blue shadow against the sky before dawn. He smells of fresh tobacco, and I'm craving cigarettes. Can he see the addict in my eyes?
"Now get dressed. Come with me."
I slide my feet into canvas sneakers, push my hair under a hat. My jeans have left creases in my legs. My tongue tastes like Kentucky Fried Sock.
The rifle clatters to my grasping hands. Steel and oil. I grunt at the weight.
"You can see the road from here."
Window seat. Morning fog. The road is damp; I can see the gleam off the asphalt with the streetlights still on.
"He jogs past each morning. Black tracksuit, fluorescent stripes."
I rub my eyes. Robert is holding out a bullet. It gleams. It fits in the chamber of the rifle, and makes it complete. I set the stock of the gun in the pocket of my shoulder, find my balance. One hand cupping the trigger guard, one beneath the stock against the sill. My thumb on the small of the stock, firm against my cheek. Muscles relaxing into steadiness, the weapon supported by the rigidity of bone.
The lessons come back, Robert's voice in my head. This is as easy as breathing. This is the moment of truth.
Steam rushes off the jogger like a cloud as he sweats in the chill of pre-dawn. He wears Reeboks - the scope brings him lover-close. The broken capillaries under his eyes.
His heart must be pounding beneath his damp t-shirt. I relieve him of his burden.
"Good girl," says Robert, his hand brushing the back of my neck. He is proud.
From that first shot I had never let Robert down. But here she was, my only failure, staring me in the face with those bright blue eyes.
"Did you want," I began, and was astounded that my voice didn't catch on the words, "to come for coffee with me?"
She sat there with her cup of coffee between her hands. Black, decaf, no sugar. Couldn't help wondering why she bothered.
"You asked me to go for coffee." Trying to break the silence. "Generally when people do that, it means they want to talk."
"Or drink coffee."
"You're not doing that either," I pointed out.
"No," she agreed. Still had to try to prove me wrong: she picked up her cup, took a gulp, and yelped. The coffee was still scalding hot.
I waited for her to swear, but it was like she'd bitten back the pain. Little lines at the corners of her eyes, that was it.
I took some of the foam off the top of my cappuccino, licked my upper lip, sat watching her.
Red hair growing out blonde, braids gone dreadlocked past her well-muscled shoulders. She was staring at her fingers, and her bandaged right hand was shaking.
"Do I make you that nervous?"
She spread her hand out, palm upwards, on the table. "It's not nerves." Her fingers jerked and trembled like a caffeine addict with the DTs.
"You shouldn't have ordered decaf?"
She smiled - a genuine smile - for the first time since we'd sat down, and she had dimples. Took ten years off her age, made her look almost like a schoolkid. Found myself wanting to like her just from that smile.
"Did you want me to talk? Or to drink my coffee?" The smile had taken some of the edge off her. Hadn't changed the fact that her black t-shirt clung to solid muscle, but she wasn't so intimidating now.
Felt a little more comfortable about sitting at a cafe with a woman I barely knew. "You can't do both?"
She held up the coffee mug in her right hand, demonstrating how it shook. "I can barely do the one." This tight little smile wasn't quite so disarming. Coffee was splashing over the rim of the cup.
"What happened?" Watching as she braced her hand against her other wrist to steady it.
She sipped - more carefully this time. Swallowed. Blinked.
"A stupid little accident. I was doing a favour for a friend." Sounding bitter. She shook herself, gulped coffee, put the thought - whatever it was - aside, and smiled at me again.
"I don't do this, usually." I confessed. Her smile was making me honest. And a little dizzy.
"What is 'this', exactly?" Teasing me to speak.
"I don't know."
"Good. I was worried it was just me."
Just me staring at someone I was never supposed to speak to, let alone touch. But I was restraining the hand that wanted to creep across the table and cover her fingers with my own.
"Do you know him?"
Robert throws the photograph onto the table. It's grainy, as though it has been enlarged one too many times. It shows a dark-haired man in a beige polo shirt. He wears oversized sunglasses, tinted, silver rims. His chest hair forms a tuft at the 'v' of his collar. His skin is tanned caramel, except for a line of pink where his watch has slipped down his thick wrist. His broad features are too blunt to be handsome. He is a stranger.
I shake my head. "Who is he?"
That's all I want to know. I bend to studying the photo again, noting details of appearance as Robert has taught me. "Where do I find him?"
"Nothing further?" He prompts, ignoring my question. "His name? What he does for a living? Why someone wants him killed?"
"If I was supposed to know, wouldn't you have told me?"
Robert smiles at that. "You're a smart kid." He paces to the end of this room that is not his room, in this house that is not his house, and turns to look at me again. "The less you know, the safer you are."
"Ignorance is bliss?" I shoot back.
Something disturbingly shark-like settles over his features. The width of the table has become a buffer zone to the mouth of hell. "You're not ignorant, Corey."
I can see the jogger in my mind's eye, crumpling as the bullet enters his chest. He falls in slow-motion, an autumn leaf caught in the breeze, bright with the impossible colours of the season.
From the look in Robert's eyes, my thoughts are plain on my face.
"If you have no motive, you are no suspect. If there is nothing to connect you to the target, there will be no one coming after you. Nothing to hide from."
The jogger is falling. He looks faintly surprised; death is an unexpected addition to his day's schedule.
"For your own safety, Corey." Robert says.
Safe? What did it mean?
Her hand had found mine across the breadth of the table, her fingertips light against my palm. She hadn't expected this any more than I had; the expression in her blue eyes was one of faint disbelief. But her hand relaxed against mine, her fingers sliding in slow, irresistible velvet to encircle my wrist.
I'd forgotten how to breathe.
"I don't even know your name," she said, and her voice was the purr of some indolent jungle cat.
"Cor-" The first syllable escaped before I could form the lie. But by the second the mask was firmly in place. "-liss. Jennifer Corliss."
I sat back in my chair, calm. Breathing again.
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